Venom, page 2part #1 of Secrets of the Eternal Rose Series
Cass stared at him, speechless. Without another word, he turned away and followed the group of laughing artists into a crowded campo, his muscular form disappearing among merchants’ sacks of cabbages and potatoes. The scene blurred a little, like a painting, and for a second Cass wondered if maybe she had hit her head and had imagined the whole exchange.
Liviana’s uncle Pietro materialized suddenly by her side, followed by Madalena. “What were you thinking, running off by yourself?” Pietro frowned severely. “And that common street thug put his hands on you! Do you want me to go after him?”
“No, no,” Cass said quickly. “It was just an accident.” Still, the nerve of the boy to tell her to be careful. He, clearly, was the one who needed to watch where he was going.
“Your dress!” Madalena reached toward Cass, but stopped short of touching the soiled fabric. “You must be furious.”
Cass looked down at her soggy gown. Even the rosary hanging from her belt had gotten dirty. Cass wiped the coral and rosewood crucifix clean in the folds of her skirt. The dress was obviously ruined, but she had always found it a bit uncomfortable, and she had plenty of others.
“You’re lucky you weren’t hurt,” Liviana’s uncle said sternly. “I hope that teaches you not to wander the streets unaccompanied again.”
“Who was he?” Madalena asked in a whisper as Cass allowed her to take her arm and lead her back to the church.
“No idea.” Cass realized she was trembling. Her heart thudded against the walls of her rib cage. The sting in her palm was already fading to a dull throb, but she couldn’t stop thinking about the boy’s devilish smile, or the feeling of his hands on her. Mostly, she couldn’t shake the image of those bright blue eyes that just for a second had gazed at her so intensely, in a way no one had ever looked at her before.
“At the instant of death,
the workings of the body
grind to a halt.
The gates of the vessels fall open,
flooding the tissues with
bile and other humors.
The eyes glaze.
The flesh turns a ghastly hue.”
—THE BOOK OF THE ETERNAL ROSE
The gondola moved slowly through the murky water of the canal. A warm rain began to fall, clouding the air with a pale white fog. Cass, Siena, and Agnese huddled together in the felze, the three-sided enclosure in the middle of the boat. With a vigorous tug, Cass flipped open the slats on the felze and peered out across the canal. She followed the path of the rain, watching the drops form tiny circles on the surface of the water. A cluster of grand reddish-brown stone buildings floated by, their black shutters pulled tight like closed eyes. Agnese leaned over and snapped the blinds closed.
Cass sighed. “I still don’t see why we had to disturb everyone by leaving in the middle of the service.” Her face burned as she remembered the way her aunt had grabbed hold of her and Siena and dragged them through the group of mourners, coasting from the church on a wave of concerned whispers.
“You should have thought about that before you went tramping through mud puddles.” Agnese clucked her tongue. “At a funeral one must always respect the dead and one’s attire. Today you showed respect for neither.”
Cass frowned at the way Agnese emphasized the word tramping, as though it were her fault, but she kept her mouth shut. Her aunt had spent the first half of the canal ride huffing about the ruined dress, and Cass knew that further misbehavior would earn her a punishment. Maybe Agnese would force her to spend hours embroidering pillowcases for the divans or sewing shirts for the poor. Cass hated to sew, but the skill was expected—no, demanded—of her. Her aunt had also been fond of assigning extra hours with the tutors when Cass misbehaved, but since Cass had turned fifteen, her lessons had dwindled to just a couple of sessions per month. The subject matter seemed to be increasingly geared toward the skills required to run a household—more about basic math and inventory, less about the more interesting subjects like architecture and literature.
Aunt Agnese reached over and fingered a bit of the torn lace on Cass’s dress before releasing it with an expression of disgust. “Really, Cass. What would Matteo think?”
Cass knew better than to answer this question. Matteo was Agnese’s nephew by marriage, whom Cass had never met. When he came of age, he would inherit her aunt’s estate. Agnese fretted constantly about what Matteo would think about this or that, even though the boy lived on the mainland nearly a hundred miles away. Privately, Cass believed he probably didn’t think much about anything besides women and wine, just like every other boy his age.
Agnese grimaced as she adjusted her body on the cushioned seat, and Cass thought, as she often did, of how fragile her aunt was becoming. Agnese’s face softened. “Perhaps I should cancel my trip to Abano. Maybe now isn’t the best time to leave you alone. You’re obviously distressed about poor, dear Liviana. And when you’re distressed, you’re simply impossible.”
“No,” Cass said quickly. Twice a year her aunt traveled to the mainland to the therapeutic salt baths at Abano. She always came back refreshed, talking about how the warm water healed her aching bones. Cass didn’t want to deny her this. Plus, she always looked forward to a little time away from her aunt’s watchful eye. “I won’t get into any trouble. I promise.”
Agnese snorted, as if everyone in the gondola knew this was highly unlikely, but she didn’t argue.
Across from Agnese, Siena studied her palms, trying to appear as if she hadn’t been eavesdropping, though there was really no way for her to avoid it. Her fingers were tiny, half the size of Cass’s. Doll-like. Cass felt gigantic next to her. She couldn’t help wishing Siena’s older sister, Feliciana, was still working for her aunt. The girl had recently accepted a position with a wealthy foreigner living in the most glamorous district on the Rialto, not far from where Madalena lived. Siena was then promoted from kitchen servant to lady’s maid, but Feliciana was everything Siena was not: vibrant, funny, curious. She had kept Cass entertained during endless lonely dinners and always brought in gossip from the Rialto.
Cass leaned forward. “You should have seen the boy who ran into me, Siena,” she whispered. “He had eyes like yours. So blue!”
Siena nibbled on one of her impossibly tiny fingernails. “I’m just relieved that only your dress was harmed.”
Cass shot a glance in her aunt’s direction. “And my social standing, apparently,” she whispered, just loud enough for Siena to hear.
Her lady’s maid smothered a smile. Cass pressed her eyes to the slats of the felze, watching the outskirts of the city pass her by. The canals ran like veins through the body of the Rialto and then bled into a vast lagoon that separated the city from the southern islands of the republic.
Cass and her parents had lived in a popular district of the Rialto, and moving in with her aunt after her parents’ death had meant relocating to San Domenico, an islet just south of the sandbar island of the Giudecca. On the Rialto, Cass had always been in the thick of things, with the glitz and glamour of Venice proper right outside her door. On San Domenico, the “town” was more a wide spot in the road, and the only things right outside her door were corpses.
Even though Cass longed for the excitement of the city, she had actually grown fond of the church graveyard that flanked Agnese’s villa. It served as a refuge from her aunt’s watchful eye. The place was rarely used, and the tall iron gates were shut tight most of the time. That would change today when men laid the contessa’s body inside her ancient family crypt. She and Livi would be neighbors now.
Once again the lump appeared in Cass’s throat, unmovable. She blinked, trying not to think of how her life would be different now that Liviana was gone. At least Cass still had Mada and her wedding to distract her. Once that was over, the only thing to occupy Cass’s time would be preparations for her own wedding. And that was one thing she didn’t want to think about.
Aunt Agnese’s aging gardener, Giuseppe, steered
The Isle of Giudecca rose out of the lagoon like a sea monster that protected the southern border of Venice. Giuseppe followed the shoreline, steering the boat between the Giudecca and the island of San Giorgio Maggiore. San Giorgio’s giant church had been under construction since before Cass was born. Clusters of stonemasons huddled together on wooden scaffolding, chiseling away at the façade, the only aspect that was not yet completed.
Southwest of San Giorgio Maggiore, San Domenico peeped out of the lagoon waters like a green teardrop. Only about twenty families lived on the tiny island that was named for the church that abutted her aunt’s property. A thin strip of golden sand ringed the island’s northern side. The rest of the place was overgrown with moss and wild grass.
As Giuseppe approached the mold-slicked dock in front of Agnese’s villa, Cass stood up, mindless of the rain, and prepared to exit the gondola. She wobbled slightly in her tall chopines. After carefully lifting her soiled skirts over the side of the boat, Cass turned to wait for Siena to assist her aunt from the gondola. Once the old woman was safely on the ground, Siena unfastened a leather umbrella and lifted it above Agnese’s head to help protect her from the weather.
Agnese shooed the umbrella away. “Look at me, girl. Do you really think a few drops of spring rain are going to make much of a difference?”
“Mi dispiace, Signora.” Siena meekly tucked the umbrella under her arm.
It was Cass’s turn to hide a smile as she took one of her aunt’s swollen arms. She found the old woman’s sharp tongue hilarious—when it wasn’t directed at her. Siena moved to Agnese’s other side. Agnese often required assistance walking. The trip to the Rialto had been taxing. She wheezed as she hobbled up the steps, and Cass wondered at the deep bluish circles under her eyes. The skin on her face was practically translucent.
The doctors said her aunt suffered from an imbalance of the four humors. Her body was overloaded with both blood and black bile, so they came often to the villa to perform leeching. Agnese had undergone the procedure just two nights ago, and even though it always helped her condition temporarily, Cass detested it. Seeing those slimy black sluglike monsters attached to her aunt’s skin made her nauseated.
Sometimes a doctor would sniff a chamber pot full of her aunt’s urine and administer foul-smelling syrupy medicines that made Agnese vomit. Cass didn’t know how her aunt could stand being so ill, but she didn’t want to think about what would happen if Agnese didn’t make it through one of her episodes. Aunt Agnese was the only family Cass had left. If something happened to her, Cass would have to choose between joining her fiancé, Luca, in France and asking Matteo’s permission to remain in the villa on San Domenico. Neither seemed an ideal option.
The villa’s façade was a mix of white marble and gray stone. A wide staircase, cracked and chipping in places, led directly up to the piano nobile, the main living floor. Cass, Siena, and Agnese picked their way around the dusting of red clay shards that littered the bottom of the steps. The last storm had blown more tiles off the roof. Cass hoped the old place hadn’t sprung any leaks.
At the top of the stairs was the portego, the long gala salon that ran the full length of the villa. Portegos were often used for parties and receiving rooms, though Agnese’s hadn’t seen much action in years. Currently the room was devoid of furniture except for two white satin divans and a small table sitting in front of a wall-sized mosaic of The Last Supper. A brick fireplace was built into the north wall. Cass couldn’t remember the last time Agnese had ordered it to be lit.
Her aunt’s harp stood in the far corner of the room, flanked by a pair of angel statues. Both angels had their marble arms outstretched, reaching toward the instrument as if they were fighting over who would get to play first. Cass had never seen her aunt go near the harp. She had asked about it once, and the old woman had muttered something about her fingers being too swollen. The look on her face had been heartbreaking, as if Cass had brought up a lost love. Neither Cass nor her aunt had ever mentioned the instrument again.
Bortolo, Agnese’s butler, was seated upright, fast asleep on one of the divans. Cass wondered what aspect of old age made it possible to fall asleep in such strange positions.
The man awoke with a snuffling sound. His fingers explored the fraying cuff of his bright blue cotton doublet. “Signora Querini. Is that you?” According to some of the other servants, Bortolo had been a hardworking employee until he was struck blind by smallpox a few years ago. Now he mostly sat around the house and slept. Cass couldn’t understand why her aunt kept him on. Then again, she seemed to enjoy surrounding herself with broken-down things.
“Good day, Bortolo,” Agnese said crisply. The butler managed to bow without getting up from his seat. Siena and Cass assisted Agnese, a half step at a time, through the portego to her bedchamber at the back of the villa.
Cass had just entered her own room a bit later and flopped down on her velvet canopy bed when Siena knocked timidly. “Signorina, would you like to wash up? Narissa has drawn and heated a basin of water already.”
Cass did feel a bit grimy from her tumble on the soggy streets. “Yes, thank you,” she said.
Siena helped Cass disrobe in the small square bathroom next to her prayer alcove and then left Cass alone so that she could wash herself in private. The bathroom floor had been beautiful once, white and pink ceramic tiles laid out in the shape of a rose. Now many of the tiles were chipped or broken, becoming gravelly under Cass’s bare feet.
Time and moisture had warped the long mirror in places so that parts of Cass’s reflection bubbled and curled. Cass made a face when she saw the smattering of tiny brown specks across her nose and cheeks. It wasn’t even summer yet, and already her freckles were beginning to emerge with a vengeance. She would have to remind Siena to carry a parasol with her at all times.
Cass dunked a soft cloth in the basin of warm water, then ran it over her arms and legs. As she wrung out the dripping cloth, she tried to clear her mind of everything. The priest’s dark words. Livi’s body, wrapped in white.
Funerals always made her think of her parents. They had died five years ago while away on a journey. Though her father had been a nobleman, he’d become obsessed with the trade of medicine, venturing far from the comfortable role of Venetian politics in the name of research. He’d been off “investigating” an outbreak of plague, and her mother had accompanied him.
They had planned to stay away until the spring. But something—maybe Cass’s letters, begging them to return in time for Christmas—made them change their plans. They’d been on the perilous journey back to Venice, during a fiercely cold December, when they died. Cass never understood exactly what had occurred—whether her parents had contracted the illness they were studying, or something even worse. Aunt Agnese refused to discuss the details. All Cass knew was that their bodies were considered “unfit” to be returned to Venice.
Cass felt the hard pressure of tears at the backs of her eyes. She held her breath for a moment, willing away the pain in her chest. Willing the memories back.
Later that night, lying in her silk sheets, Cass tossed and turned—even with her cat’s furry body nestled against her arm, which usually gave her comfort. She had found Slipper as a tiny kitten, curled up on the family tomb. After receiving word of her parents’ death, Cass had made her way through the overgrown grass to the old stone crypt at the far corner of the cemetery on a regular basis for a while. She had brought roses from Agnese’s garden and clipped the ivy that threatened to overtake the tomb. Even though their bodies weren’t inside, Cass swore she’d been able to sense her mother’s presence nearby.
After she’d discovered Slipper, the feeling faded somewhat. Cass sometimes wondered if her mother had lingered t
She watched the cat’s soft white belly rise and fall. Her head was still spinning with visions of Liviana’s pale, wasted body, with memories of her parents. She heard the priest’s ominous words, felt his gaze searing into her like hot metal.
Just then, a clanking noise from outside made Slipper perk his head up with a start. Cass turned toward the bedroom window, through which she could see the outskirts of the churchyard adjacent to Agnese’s estate.
The clanking sounded again, followed by a long scratching noise, like a knife being dragged across stone. Cass slid out of bed and went to the window. Slipper bounded to the floor beside her.
The rain had let up. The full moon was enshrouded by low clouds, but in its dim light she could see the wrought-iron fence surrounding the graveyard. Behind it, the boxy outlines of crypts protruded from the high grass like crooked teeth.
Cass shivered. The graveyard looked the same as it always did, so why did it give her the chills tonight?
Liviana was there now. That had to be why.
She heard the scraping noise again, like someone trying to push back the lid of a heavy stone coffin. She couldn’t help but imagine tiny Livi writhing inside the marble box that held her, struggling to break free of the burial shrouds.
Cass turned from the window. She’d heard plenty of stories about people being buried alive, of ghosts and vampires rising from graves. But she had lived beside a graveyard for years now and had never seen anything like that. More likely, the noise was caused by stray cats. San Domenico was crawling with them.
Still, her heart was hammering, and she knew she wasn’t going to sleep anytime soon. Maybe she should just go down there. She often wandered the graveyard or her aunt’s property at night when she was having trouble sleeping. And it would give her the chance to say good-bye.
FIONA PAUL SERIES:
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