Venom, page 31part #1 of Secrets of the Eternal Rose Series
“No,” Cass whispered. It was no longer Madalena in the blue wedding gown. It was Mariabella. Drops of blood fell from her smile.
Cass’s mind started blinking like someone was lighting and extinguishing a candle behind her eyes. She wobbled in her chopines. She reached out, toward the wall of the church. Her fingers closed on air. The candle behind her eyes blew out and everything went dark.
“After death, the body cools,
then stiffens, then grows limber
again as putrefaction begins to
dissolve the tissues until the flesh
becomes foul, black slime.”
—THE BOOK OF THE ETERNAL ROSE
Cass’s eyelids fluttered open. Sharp stone pressed into her back and shoulders. A white blur moved in front of her face. Cass reached toward the blur and it stopped moving. It was a handkerchief. Siena was fanning her. She knelt beside Cass, her face wrinkled with concern.
“Signorina. Are you all right?” Siena wiped beads of sweat from Cass’s forehead.
Cass rubbed her eyes. The air smelled sharp, salty. She sat up slowly. “What happened?”
“I saw you run off as the procession started to move inside. You looked like you’d seen a ghost.”
“Where’s Aunt Agnese?” she asked. Her thoughts felt thick, as though her mind were muffled in a wet blanket.
“Your aunt got swept up in the rest of the crowd. She’s inside with everyone else.”
Then it came back to her: Madalena. The church doors. The white fire. “Is everyone okay?” she asked.
Siena nodded. “Everyone’s fine,” she said. “Are you sure you’re all right?”
“I’m fine.” Cass struggled to her feet, although in reality, she felt dizzy. “I just need a bit of air.” Why had she seen the murdered courtesan in Mada’s place? It was as if she’d drunk Tommaso’s liquor again. She wondered if the combination of stress and sleep deprivation was causing her to lose her mind.
A seagull cawed as it passed overhead. Siena blotted her own face with her handkerchief. A bit of green embroidery in the corner of it caught Cass’s eye. It looked vaguely familiar. Cass reached out and snatched the handkerchief away from Siena, who gave a startled yelp.
Just as Cass suspected, the initials stitched in green were LdP. Luca da Peraga.
“Where did you get this?” Cass asked, struggling to keep her voice level.
Siena paled. “I found it in the portego and kept it. It probably fell out of one of his pockets.” She inched backward as if she thought Cass might strike her. “He doesn’t even know I have it. He—he doesn’t know anything,” she finished lamely.
Cass remembered the wax on the parchment she had opened at the dressmaker’s shop, how it had appeared to have been resealed. Siena. She read the letter, before Cass did.
Cass didn’t know what to say. Was Siena in love with Luca? The thought was almost too absurd to believe, but as Siena’s blush darkened to almost a plum color, Cass felt certain that it was true.
Cass knew she should be angry, should demand an explanation immediately. But for some reason, the only thought that came into her head was How can God be so cruel to grow love in such hopeless places?
Cass glanced up at the Frari’s closed doors. She was surprised Agnese hadn’t sent Narissa to find her. “It’s okay, Siena,” she said. She closed her eyes, and then opened them again.
Siena’s mouth fell open. She shook her head. “I’m sorry—I shouldn’t have—”
“Forget it.” Cass cut her off. She tucked Luca’s handkerchief into the bodice of her dress. “Listen, I need a favor.”
“Anything,” Siena said fervently, and Cass knew she meant it. Cass couldn’t believe she had been so wrong about everyone, about Mada’s simplicity, about Siena’s loyalty, about Luca’s predictability. He still had not returned from his errand; he was going to miss the whole ceremony. He must be meeting with the local town guard, or perhaps the rettori. Would they recognize Paolo from his description? Would they put Falco’s roommate in jail?
Cass couldn’t—wouldn’t—let that happen. Not when he had placed himself in danger to a deliver a message on her account.
She needed to warn Falco.
She sucked in a deep breath. She felt steadier on her feet. “There’s something I must do. You’ll have to make my excuses to Madalena and my aunt and Luca, in case they come looking for me.”
“What should I tell them?” Siena asked, her eyes widening.
“I don’t know,” Cass said. “Figure it out.”
Cass scanned the canal. The water was crowded with boats; a gondolier turned toward her the instant she reached out her hand.
Without a word, Siena curtsied and headed toward the church doors.
The gondolier took his time navigating the traffic in the crowded water. Slow-moving flat-bottomed peàtas, laden with burlap sacks of fruits and vegetables, caused bottlenecks in the narrow canals. Cass tapped the heel of her chopine against the base of the boat repeatedly. She watched enviously as fishermen in small crafts easily made their way around the larger peàtas. The sun glinted off piles of shining fish that they would try to sell again the following day.
Cass poked her head out from behind the felze just long enough to ask the gondolier to hurry. On both sides of the canal, barefoot children ran past her boat, laughing, swatting with sticks at the air. Cass swore under her breath. At this rate, the exhibition would be over before she even got there. She asked the gondolier to pull over.
Cass had the payment ready before the boat even reached the canal edge. She dropped a few coins into the man’s palm and then leapt from the gondola. Her dress snagged on a crack in the wood. Cass gave it a sharp tug, leaving behind a scrap of pale yellow silk.
Pulling off her chopines, Cass hurried along the water’s edge. She edged past groups of peasants, glassblowers, and street performers juggling oranges. She could feel their stares burning into her back. She must look absolutely ridiculous, gasping for breath, pushing her way through the soggy streets in one of her best gowns. Cass didn’t care. Her heavy dress dragged along the ground, and pebbles and sticks poked through the thin bottom of her shoes, causing her to wince, but she didn’t stop moving until she made it to Don Loredan’s palazzo, where the art exhibit was being held.
She slowed down to catch her breath as she ascended the steps leading up to Palazzo Loredan’s piano nobile. As she passed into a spacious portego with a vaulted ceiling, she tried to smooth the wrinkles from her skirts, and quickly swiped at her hair to reorder the stray bits. A boy about her own age handed her a quill and asked her to sign a guest book that sat on a marble pedestal. She hesitated a moment and then scribbled her name on the first blank line.
She scanned the crowded room for Falco but didn’t see him. Clusters of paintings adorned the vast walls. Artists lingered nearby their work, dressed in their best church clothes, eager to answer questions for potential patrons. Cass quickly passed by the usual cathedrals and portraits and landscapes. They were beautiful in their own way, but there was an idealism about them that didn’t resonate with her. The paintings had a false feeling, as if their artists had painted the world the way it should be instead of the way it really was.
Cass picked out Falco’s work easily. He had submitted the nude of Andriana with the title Broken. For a minute, Cass was transfixed: forgetting that she was supposed to be looking for Falco, she stood in front of his paintings, trying to absorb every tiny detail.
Falco’s second painting, Unfinished, was of a male body being prepared for burial. Beneath the wisps of white burial shrouds, the man’s muscles were clearly defined, the outline of bones apparent in his hands. His skin was speckled with age spots and bruises, the deep purple blemishes reminding Cass of the circles around Mariabella and Sophia’s necks.
On the next wall, a painting of a young bride wearing a jeweled tiara made Cass think of Madalena in her gorgeous blue dress. Why had Cass seen the diamonds as fi
Cass paused, frustrated, and looked again for Falco. But the whole room was crawling with artists in black pants and leather vests. Her feet throbbed. In fact, her body ached from head to toe. She felt as though she had aged a hundred years in the past two weeks. For a moment, she wished she could just go back to the way things were—her quiet life on San Domenico.
But she couldn’t go back.
Cass pushed past a group of chattering women and stifled a gasp.
She was staring straight at Mariabella.
The painting from the young courtesan’s room hung on the wall of Signor Loredan’s portego. Cass blinked hard, expecting the canvas to morph and change as she inched forward. No, it was the exact same canvas, there was no doubt. Who besides Mariabella’s roommate would have had access to her home after she died? Cass supposed that if she and Falco could break in, so could anyone else.
She whirled around, her eyes grazing each of the nearby patrons, looking for a killer. But no one was paying her any attention. She might as well have been invisible.
Cass turned back to the picture. In the light, she noticed fine details she hadn’t seen the night she and Falco discovered it: the heart-shaped birthmark on Mariabella’s temple, a slight unevenness to the girl’s crimson smile.
There were two other paintings hanging beside it, both obviously by the same artist. One of the subjects was dressed in an elegant gown; the other wore a plain black and gold servant’s uniform. Like Mariabella, both women were painted in a reclined position, their hands reaching out toward the artist as if to offer themselves to him. Thick hair hung back from their shoulders, exposing their swanlike necks. Was one of these women Sophia? Cass stared at the canvas of the girl in the servant’s uniform. She definitely resembled the girl who had floated up in the canal, but was she the missing maid? Cass chewed on her bottom lip. The girl wore black and gold—the livery colors of Palazzo Dubois. Still, Cass had never met Sophia. She couldn’t be sure.
Cass bent close to the small placard that described the artwork. The series was called The Fallen Ones. As Cass read the titles, she had to reach out for the wall beneath the canvases to steady herself. Two of the paintings were named simply M and S. Mariabella. Sophia.
It had to be. Cass felt a momentary flicker of relief that Feliciana’s svelte form wasn’t represented here.
Two men had shouldered up next to Cass, and were examining The Fallen Ones with her. “Do you suppose they’re all sisters?” The taller of the two men stroked his brown beard while waiting for his companion to reply.
“Probably just women he’s bedding,” the shorter man said with a laugh.
The third painting was named R. Who was she? An earlier victim? Or an innocent girl who didn’t even know she was marked to die? Cass cleared her throat. “Scusi,” she said, wondering if the two men could hear her heart thrumming in her chest. “Do you know who painted these?”
The taller man bent close to the canvas. “All I can make out is a squiggle. Looks like an L.”
“Whatever it is, it’s slanting unusually far to the left,” the man next to him said. “Maybe the painter is left-handed?”
Cass wondered how many left-handed artists there were in Venice. Hundreds, at least. Her skin tingled at the idea that the murderer had stood in this very spot earlier in the day. Falco might even have seen him as he arranged his exhibit.
Someone tapped Cass on the shoulder. Her heart leapt into her throat. She spun around, both exhilarated and terrified at the thought of seeing Falco again. But it wasn’t Falco who stood behind her.
It was Luca.
“The human body is a book of secrets,
covered in skin and written in blood.
Those who wish to learn its
mysteries must be unafraid to open
it and study its entrails.”
—THE BOOK OF THE ETERNAL ROSE
For a second, Cass couldn’t speak. Luca was the last person she expected to see. He always spoke of art as if it were a pointless endeavor. Had he followed her there from the Frari? Did he know about Falco? “What—what are you doing here?” she stammered finally.
“I might ask you the same question,” Luca said. His eyes flicked beyond her, to the trio of The Fallen Ones, and for a moment his expression was shot through with…what? Pain? Guilt?
“I wasn’t feeling well,” Cass said, lifting her chin defiantly. If Luca was going to keep secrets, so would she. “I had to get away from Mada’s wedding for a bit.”
“Interesting choice of safe haven,” Luca replied, keeping his gaze locked on the canvases.
“Do you know the artist?” Cass asked, skipping past all the questions she had already asked herself.
“Do you know the artist?” Luca countered. He leaned in close to the nearest canvas—the one called R. His whole face contorted for a moment. Cass had the strangest thought that he was going to cry.
She shook her head. She could feel her hair starting to pull loose beneath the white lace in which Siena had wrapped it. Cass could tell he was waiting for her to say more, to explain what she was doing at an art exhibition on the most important day of her best friend’s life. Cass looked around once more for Falco; this time she was relieved when she didn’t see him. She didn’t want him to see her with Luca. The last thing she wanted was to cause him any more pain.
“We should go,” Luca said, arranging his face back into a neutral expression. “We have obligations. The wedding party must be heading toward Palazzo Rambaldo by now. If we hurry, we might catch the end of it.”
So Luca wasn’t going to offer any explanation either. Maybe they deserved each other. He must have followed her to the art exhibition. But he couldn’t know about Falco—could he? Surely he would have confronted her.
Cass stood frozen in the exhibit hall for a moment, paralyzed with indecision. She wanted to escape from Luca, to search the exhibit and Palazzo Loredan, not just for Falco, but also for clues to the murderer. After all, he had to be here, somewhere. Or if not, surely there was someone who knew the identity of the artist who had painted The Fallen Ones. Someone had seen him as he arranged his display. Who knew if their paths would intersect again? If she left now, the killer would slip right through her fingers.
And so would Falco. Cass was still desperate to warn him about the guard coming for Paolo. She was desperate to see him. Just one last time, she promised herself. One last time and then I’ll let him go.
But Luca wasn’t budging. And she could hardly tell him about Falco or seeking out the killer. She remembered his outburst at dinner. She would only prove him right about the women of Venice, and herself, if she confessed her recent actions. Cass struggled to think of any plausible reason why she shouldn’t follow her fiancé to Madalena’s wedding. There was nothing.
After one last glance at the trio of paintings, Cass reluctantly allowed Luca to pull her through the exhibition hall. Was the killer there, hiding in plain sight? Was he masquerading behind handshakes and polite smiles while plotting his next murder? And what about Falco? Was he tucked back in a corner somewhere, watching her from a distance? Cass felt hollow, like a tunnel had been opened at the bottom of her stomach.
Luca pulled Cass through the door of the exhibition hall, and she blinked hard as her eyes adjusted to the sunlight. The wedding procession had opted to parade through the city streets rather than go to Mada’s palazzo via gondolas. She could pick out the wedding guests among the normal traffic on the streets by their silken gowns and jubilant expressions. Some of the younger girls were holding hands and laughing as they skipped along the stone streets. The air was still thick with the scent of perfume, and jasmine petals littered the ground. Cass and Luca fell in behind
Cass wondered what Siena had told Agnese. Her aunt was sharp and had no doubt seen through whatever tale the maid had concocted. She hoped that the day’s festivities would put Agnese in a forgiving mood. If not, Cass might find herself married off to Luca before sunrise.
Luca took Cass’s arm as they headed toward Palazzo Rambaldo. She struggled to keep up with him. Her ankles wobbled in her chopines, and she adjusted her stride so that she was taking two small steps for each one of his.
“You missed a lovely ceremony,” she said, even though Cass had missed the ceremony herself. Luca’s intensity was starting to scare her. Cass tried to keep her voice light. “Madalena’s dress is the most amazing blue.”
“I’m sorry I didn’t make it,” Luca said shortly. Then he lapsed back into silence. Cass wondered what he was thinking about. Was his mysterious errand related to his visit to the art exhibition or had he just followed her there? Why had he looked at The Fallen Ones with such dismay? Cass wondered if there was any chance Falco would know who had painted the pictures. Maybe he had seen the artist when he dropped off the canvases.
Just thinking of Falco made a sharp pain knife through her chest.
She pushed the pain away. “You hate art, Luca. Why were you at the exhibition? Did you follow me there?” Cass planted her feet on the stone street. She was tired of being led around by men. She would stand there until she got some answers.
Luca turned to look at her. For a long moment he said nothing, his face a strange mix of hard and soft. “Come with me,” he said, yanking her forcefully from her position. Cass sensed he was finally going to explain things, to share some of his secrets with her. The two ducked into a nearby alley. The back door to a small house stood open. A peasant girl was emptying chamber pots into the street.
FIONA PAUL SERIES:
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