Venom, page 15part #1 of Secrets of the Eternal Rose Series
Suddenly, Cass felt unmoored, like she was floating in a boat that had been left to drift out into the rough waves of the lagoon, oarless and alone. Everything familiar fading farther and farther away.
And then Falco’s hand was on her arm. “Come on.” He steered Cass toward the other end of the room. “Look. There’s our illustrious host now.” He pointed toward a tiered marble fountain with sculptures of golden birds perched on each level. Giant silken banners featuring the Dubois family crest—a golden griffin brandishing a flaming sword—flanked both sides of the fountain. Sure enough, a tall, dark-haired man in a warrior mask leaned against the fountain, surveying the scene with a look of approval. The whole room seemed to orbit around him. Signor Dubois. Cass would have recognized him anywhere, mask or no mask.
“I’m going to go and have a chat with him,” Falco said. “I’d love to know more about his taste in the fairer sex.”
“But you can’t just—”
Falco melted into the crowd before she could finish her sentence. He sidled up to the man in the golden robes and warrior mask. Dubois extended his hand to Falco without hesitation. Jeweled rings glimmered on several of the Frenchman’s fingers. She watched with amusement while the man’s brow furrowed and relaxed as he pretended to know Falco.
Around her, throngs of masked dancers in brightly colored cloaks and dresses twirled across the checkered floor. It was hot, and the air was heavy with the smell of food, sweat, and perfume. Cass began to feel dizzy. Sweat beaded up on her forehead and trickled down toward her eyes. She lifted the feathered headpiece from her face, waving her hand below her chin to get some air moving. If she could just take her mask off for a few moments, let her face breathe.
She looked around for Feliciana and Mada, but didn’t see either one of them in the swirling masses. Just as she contemplated removing her mask completely, a man in a painted tribal mask approached Dubois from behind. Cass blinked hard. She had seen the man’s shock of white hair before.
It was the long-faced man from the building in Castello, the place with the organs. And bodies.
Cass froze. If she knew what he looked like, there was a good chance he could also identify her. She fumbled to retie her mask, but her shaking fingers could make only part of the knot. The man slowed to a stop a few feet from Dubois when he saw Falco. He finished his approach slowly. Falco quickly nodded and excused himself, but Cass could have sworn he and the long-faced man exchanged a glance of recognition.
Falco returned to Cass and pulled her to the corner of the room where things were a little quieter. “Seems our Signor Dubois hasn’t seen Mariabella in over a week,” he said in a hushed voice. “How low has a man fallen when even his hired women begin to ignore him?”
Cass only half heard what Falco was saying. “That man,” she said. “Who is he?”
“What man?” Falco looked around.
Cass frowned behind her mask. “The man in the painted mask who spoke to you and Dubois. You—you know him.”
Both Cass and Falco turned back to Dubois. The long-faced man rested an arm on the host’s shoulder. The two seemed to be sharing a hidden joke.
“I don’t know him,” Falco said. “He must be a friend of Dubois.”
“Well, I know him. It’s the man who almost grabbed me. From the Castello district.” Her voice trembled. “Dead bodies in tin basins. Does that stir your memory?”
Falco’s expression was concealed beneath the lion mask, but his tone was airy. “You must be mistaken. That place was black as pitch. You couldn’t have seen anyone clearly.”
“I am not mistaken.” She pulled away from Falco. The moments just after her dress had snagged on the broken window came back to her in a series of fragmented images. Falco pulling. Looking back at the long-faced man. The white hair. The furrowed lines in his tall forehead. His arms reaching out for her, fingers just inches away from closing around her legs. Cass would never forget him. His image had been imprinted permanently on her mind.
“But you admit yourself you’ve been jumping at shadows,” Falco pointed out, with a half smile that made Cass want to reach out and strangle him. “And even if it is the same man, it’s not like he got a good look at us either. There’s no way he would recognize us in our masks.”
“I could have sworn you two exchanged a look,” Cass persisted. She refused to allow Falco to dodge the subject. “Almost as though you had met before.”
“Now I know you’re seeing things that aren’t there,” he said, sighing. “Let me get you a drink. It’ll soothe your nerves.” Without waiting for a response, Falco strode off toward a circular table with a rainbow of blown-glass goblets arranged in a pyramid. He grabbed one hastily, nearly knocking over the glass next to it. Apparently Cass wasn’t the only one whose nerves needed soothing.
She turned back to the man in the painted tribal mask. He looked harmless enough in the lamplight, but she knew it was the same man. And she knew, too, that Falco was lying about knowing him.
Cass had to know why.
Falco was heading back toward her with a pair of wineglasses, so Cass acted quickly. As a brunette in a sequined mask pulled Dubois away for a dance, Cass sucked in a deep breath and worked her way through the crowd until she reached the long-faced man’s side.
“You look familiar,” she said, struggling to keep her voice level. “Have we met before?”
“Angelo de Gradi,” the man said, raising Cass’s right hand to his lips. “The Dubois family physician. And you?”
Cass paused, trying to think up a plausible identity. She cursed at herself for not having planned what to say. Her cheeks reddened as she struggled to reply.
“Ah,” Angelo said. “Another of Joseph’s ladies. You will forgive me. I thought his tastes ran a little darker, more raven than starling.” He reached out to stroke the plum feathers around her eyes, and his heavy hand loosened the half-knotted string. Cass felt the mask start to slip. She pressed her hand against her face to keep it from falling.
“I can’t help but think you look familiar too, Signorina…” Angelo trailed off, waiting for Cass to offer her name. The lines in his forehead deepened. He twisted his wineglass back and forth in his thick fingers.
The room seemed to be revolving slowly around her. Every insignificant movement the man made further convinced Cass of his identity. She took a deep breath. It wasn’t like Angelo was going to attack her in a room full of Venice’s most influential citizens.
“Perhaps you don’t have a name?” he asked, in a tone of amusement.
“I do,” Cass said, in what she hoped was a flirtatious tone. “But to give it now would spoil the mystery.”
Angelo seemed about to reply when a tall man in a black and brown feathered mask with gold-rimmed eyes—a falcon, maybe—shouldered between them.
“Pardon,” he said, extending a hand to her. “Would the signorina care to dance?”
“Yes, thank you.” Cass held the beak of her mask to her nose as she allowed herself to be pulled away from the physician. The half-dissected dog and bins full of organs flashed in front of her eyes. Cass now knew the long-faced man’s identity. But what she didn’t know was whether he was involved in Mariabella’s murder.
“Enjoying the ball?” the falcon man asked as the two of them moved awkwardly across the tiled floor and attempted to blend in with the rest of the dancers. Cass tied her mask tightly, and felt better once she had double-knotted it at the back of her head. Unlike most of the guests, who had chosen their brightest apparel for the evening, this man wore only black. Even his hair was obscured by a black velvet hat, pulled low.
“Yes.” Cass glanced back over her shoulder. Angelo was heading toward the pair of glass doors that led to the courtyard. Falco had disappeared.
“Your heart is pounding,” the man commented as he linked arms with Cass and spun her around in a gentle circle. “I can feel the blood rushing beneath your skin.”
“I’ve been doing a lot of dancing,” Cass said absen
“Sorry,” he said. “I have trouble with my hand. War injury.”
Cass looked up at him and tried to visualize the face behind the onyx beak. She detected a hint of a foreign accent. “You have seen war with the Turks, then? What was it like?”
“Difficult. Uncomfortable. Brutal.” The man’s hand continued to tremble against her side. “But there was a certain beauty to it.”
Cass shivered. “How can war be beautiful?”
The man didn’t answer. He stopped dancing. “Who is it that you’re hiding from, Cassandra?”
Cass felt, suddenly, as though she’d been encased in ice. “How—how do you know my name?”
The man leaned in so close that the black and brown feathers of his mask brushed against her skin. “I know many things,” he said. He drew her to the periphery of the room. There was something theatrical about the way he moved. Cass tried to disentangle her arm from his, but he gripped her more tightly.
Could it be Maximus the Miraculous hiding behind the falcon mask? Had Cass told him her name? She wasn’t certain. The build was about right, and the black hat looked familiar. Cass tried to remember the cadence and timbre of the conjurer’s voice, but she couldn’t. She faltered in her dancing, nearly colliding with the woman in front of her.
“Faites attention,” the falcon man said.
Faites attention? Cass had studied enough French to know the words meant “be careful.” But who was this man and why was he speaking French to her? The only person Cass knew in France was Luca, her fiancé. “I need to get back to my friend now,” Cass said, attempting to sound unconcerned, in control, although her heart was thudding in her ears.
“Your friend,” the man said, in a tone of amusement. “I wonder how your fiancé would feel about him.”
Before Cass could respond, the man brought her hand to his mouth and kissed it once; then he melted seamlessly back into the crowd of dancers. He went spinning to the other side of the circle in the arms of a tall blonde woman wearing a low-cut gray dress and black feline mask. Cass watched him for a second, feeling as though her heart might explode out of her chest. She didn’t understand how the falcon man could possibly know about her engagement.
Then it came to her: Donna Domacetti. Of course.
One thing was clear: she had been recognized. She needed to go, now.
Cass searched the crowd for Falco. She spotted him, standing just beyond the drink table, balancing two glasses of champagne in one hand while chatting with Dubois. As Cass made her way over, Dubois threw his head back and slapped Falco on the back as if the two of them were the oldest of friends. Cass wondered what lies Falco had told to the man.
If Falco was such a skilled manipulator, could Cass trust anything he said?
She slid up behind Falco, careful to stay concealed from Dubois’s view, and rested one hand on his waist. “We need to go,” she said quietly.
“One moment,” he said. “There’s a small salon across the hall. Why don’t I meet you there?”
Cass didn’t want to stay in the ballroom for another second. “Fine,” she said, pulling away from Falco and heading toward the front of Dubois’s palazzo. As soon as she was away from the heat and crush of the crowd, she felt better. Here, it was empty and quiet, and much, much cooler. Her heartbeat began to return to normal.
She wandered through the salon, which resembled a museum more than a living area. Cass stopped in front of a row of Greek sculptures displayed in front of a gorgeous mural of the Acropolis. The Parthenon sat at the crest of the hill, with the lesser temples scattered below. Cass knelt down to read the embossed plaque in front of the sculpture she liked best, a headless female body with a pair of brilliant white wings. Nike of Samothrace.
As Cass reached out to touch one of the intricately carved wings, a shadow darkened part of the goddess’s marble form. The air grew thick. Cass felt another presence in the room with her. She turned, slowly, purposefully, scanning the room, but the salon was empty. Just sculptures, and a balcony above her that served to display Dubois’s collection of Grecian paintings.
“Jumping at shadows again,” Cass murmured to herself.
“There you are, my starling.” Falco sauntered into the salon. “Talking to yourself?” he asked.
Cass smiled tightly, but didn’t answer. She glanced around the room again as she took Falco’s arm. She still had the uncomfortable feeling that she was being watched. For a second, her eyes were drawn toward one of the wall-mounted torches, where a yellow ball of fire split momentarily into two flames, and then came back together.
When she looked away from the torch, she saw spots floating across her vision. But one of the spots wasn’t floating. It was falling. Cass watched as the spot passed through the balustrade of the balcony and fluttered toward the ground. She held out her hand to catch it.
A single black and brown feather lay on her palm.
“Delirium can arise from various causes: imbalance of the humors,
ingestion of poison, hectic fever,
and of course madness.”
—THE BOOK OF THE ETERNAL ROSE
A jagged bolt of lightning slashed across the sky.
“We’d better hurry,” Falco said. He dropped his lion mask onto the dock in front of Dubois’s palazzo.
He and Cass followed the street that ran alongside the Grand Canal. A handful of other masked revelers were out in the night, stumbling along the water’s edge in various states of intoxication. Lightning struck again, this time followed by a blast of thunder. Cass looked up. Massive clouds twisted and swirled above their heads.
“Angelo de Gradi,” Cass blurted out. “Are you sure the name means nothing to you?”
“Nothing,” Falco said firmly.
Cass let Falco lead her along the uneven stones. She wanted to believe him. She really did. But some tiny dark piece inside of her kept bringing her back to the almost-imperceptible glance Falco had exchanged with the physician. Could she have imagined it? She didn’t think so. But one thing was certain: if Falco knew de Gradi, he wasn’t going to admit it now.
“You vanished there for a while. Did you find out anything of use?” Cass asked.
“Nothing except that Dubois has more friends than anyone I know. And Mariabella could have known any of them.”
She frowned, feeling a quick pulse of anxiety. “Did you see the man in the falcon mask?”
“I wouldn’t know a falcon mask from a hawk or an eagle,” Falco said. “Why?”
“I danced with him. He knew my name. Said strange things to me.”
Falco turned to look at Cass. “What did he say?”
Cass couldn’t tell Falco what the man had said, how he had insinuated that Luca would be displeased with their relationship. She wished she hadn’t mentioned it. “I don’t remember his exact words,” she said quickly. “You didn’t happen to see Maximus there, did you? The conjurer?”
Falco smirked. “I did not. Perhaps he was in the coatroom, making purses disappear.”
Fat raindrops splattered across the front of Cass’s dress as the skies opened up in a sudden downpour. Cass ducked quickly inside a nearby arched doorway, pressing her body tightly to the stone to protect herself from the drizzle. Falco squeezed into the arch next to her, his longish hair damp and sticking to his face.
“You’re wet,” she said, instinctively pushing a strand of brown away from his left eye.
“Very observant,” he remarked. “I see those private tutors are really paying off.”
Cass poked him in the side with her elbow. Even half soaked, Falco seemed to be radiating heat. Cass wished another lo
She reminded herself to be careful. Falco might have lied to her. But maybe she’d only imagined the look between him and Angelo. Falco had been just as scared of that macabre collection of bodies as she had.
“It looks like we’re stuck here for a while,” Cass said, trying not to let her eyes wander down to Falco’s chest. His damp chemise was clinging to his body. The drizzle became a deluge, rain pounding the stone street so hard, it drowned out Falco’s response.
Cass leaned in close. “What?”
“I said I know someplace nearby we can go. Until the rain stops.” Falco’s lips were so close to her ear that she felt a puff of warm air with each p he spoke.
Cass trembled slightly. She told herself it was from the weather, but she turned to face Falco even though it meant putting the right side of her dress out into the storm. His expression was neutral, but his eyes smiled at her.
“What sort of place?”
“Tommaso’s studio. It’s just a couple of streets over.”
Cass watched the rain come down in sheets. “Tommaso?”
“Vecellio. He’s my master.”
Cass sucked in a deep breath. Tommaso Vecellio was descended from the same bloodline as Titian, one of the most famous Venetian artists of all time. Titian had died before Cass was born, but his influence lingered in churches and private homes all across Venice. “You apprentice with Vecellio? How come you never told me?”
Falco slicked his wet hair back from his face. “You never asked.”
“And it’s okay with him if you take me to his studio?”
“He’s in Padua,” Falco said with a grin. “He won’t even know.”
Her aunt wouldn’t approve—she considered artists to be just a bit above common criminals, and it was highly improper for Cass to be anywhere with Falco alone. Luca would be furious. But she could hardly cling to the side of an archway all night, praying that the rain would stop.
FIONA PAUL SERIES:
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