Venom, page 32part #1 of Secrets of the Eternal Rose Series
“What is it?” Cass asked breathlessly, trying her best to ignore the fetid stench. The last few wedding guests blurred by them. Behind them, a trio of children in ragged clothing dodged their way through the crowd, pretending to be part of the wedding procession.
Luca licked his lips but didn’t speak. Cass suddenly felt uneasy. Her fiancé’s grasp was strong. He had pressed her up against the rough stone wall of a neighboring palazzo. Cass tried to pull her hand away. “What?” she repeated, her voice rising slightly in pitch.
The peasant girl disappeared inside the house, slamming the door shut behind her. Luca reached toward Cass’s face and she flinched. But he didn’t seem to notice. He was in his own world, in the grip of emotions Cass didn’t understand. Pain and fear and regret—all of it swirled behind his eyes.
His warm fingers brushed the side of her face. Cass felt hot all over.
“If anything happened to you, I’d never forgive myself,” he said, tracing his hand from her cheekbone to her chin.
“Luca,” she croaked out, trying to swim up through the haziness of her own confused feelings. “What—”
“Just please stay in the crowd,” Luca said. He bent close to her, and for a second Cass thought he was going to kiss her. Instead, he pulled a curling tendril of hair from the corner of her mouth. “Stay with your aunt. Don’t go anywhere alone.”
“But I don’t—”
“Just promise me.”
His urgency frightened Cass. She didn’t know what he was talking about; had he seen something at the exhibition? “I promise,” she said.
“Thank you.” Luca brushed his lips across her forehead. Then he took her hand and the two of them headed back to the main street. Cass sucked in a deep breath, and felt the tight whalebone ribbing of her stays press into her skin.
The main doors to Palazzo Rambaldo stood open. A pair of men wearing the distinctive Rambaldo green and gold livery stood guard, making sure that only invited guests were granted access to the inner party and feast.
Servants wandered the piano nobile with trays of wine and tartine. Guests milled around the spacious portego, eating and drinking and laughing. Luca towed Cass through the vast room until he found Agnese, Narissa, and Siena all lingering near a large window.
“I have to talk to a few people,” he said abruptly. “Please remember what I said.” He vanished into the crowd. Still shaken by Luca’s urgent command to her—don’t go anywhere alone—Cass huddled close to her lady’s maid.
Siena pressed her hand to Cass’s back just for a second. “I’m glad you’re all right,” the blonde girl whispered.
Agnese sat on a plush divan, her back to the festivities, looking out over the Grand Canal. Narissa hovered protectively behind her. As Cass stared at her aunt, she wondered if Agnese ever missed her own childhood home.
Cass sank down next to her aunt and the old woman turned blazing eyes on her. Agnese’s face was as deeply wrinkled as the purple silk of her dress. “Where have you been?” she demanded.
Cass knew that she had been foolish to hope her aunt would be in a forgiving mood. Agnese hated crowds; she hated being jostled by strangers. “Didn’t Siena tell you?” Cass asked breezily, while shooting a meaningful look at Siena. She had no idea what story the girl had told her aunt.
“I told her how you came here to the palazzo early to make sure everything was ready,” Siena answered smoothly, with just the slightest flicker in her eyes. “How you wanted everything to be perfect for Signorina Rambaldo.”
“Right,” Cass said. Guilt pricked at her insides. That was exactly what she should have done, but Mada’s wedding celebration was the furthest thing from her mind. She had solved the mystery of Liviana’s disappearing body, but a killer was still lurking in Venice.
Agnese pursed her lips together but didn’t respond. Cass knew her aunt wasn’t fooled; then again, she had no proof of Cass’s wrongdoing.
Joseph Dubois sauntered into the room with a young girl on his arm—a courtesan, judging by the looks of her. The man brushed a handful of blonde ringlets out of the way to whisper in the girl’s ear, and she winked in response. Cass’s blood turned to ice. Was this pretty fair-haired girl going to wind up strangled and mutilated, her bloodless body dumped somewhere for an innocent passerby to discover?
Dubois’s gaze seared straight through the crowd of wedding guests until it found Cass, as if she’d spoken her thoughts aloud. Cass flinched and looked away.
“Let’s go find our spots at the table,” Cass said with fake cheerfulness, eager to put distance between herself and the Frenchman. “The servants tell me the feast looks stunning.”
Narissa helped Agnese to her feet and the four women headed across the portego. Servants were just beginning to bring out the food: platters of braised peacock and roasted badger stuffed with pears, plates of soft bread, bowls of every type of fruit and cheese imaginable. Cass wondered where Cristian’s magical cheese from France had ended up.
Cass and Agnese found their names on pieces of vellum in front of chairs at the far end of the largest table in the portego. Narissa and Siena helped them get settled and then left for the kitchen to go eat with the rest of the servants. At the head of the table, Madalena’s father’s business associates were admiring the boiled head of veal and making toasts about how they never thought this day would come.
Cass tried to join in the merriment, but she kept thinking back to Luca’s words. Stay with your aunt. Why was he so worried something might happen to her? Did Luca suspect the murderer was among the guests? And where had he gone? Cass shivered. She scanned the crowded banquet hall, looking for anyone who seemed out of place.
Surprisingly, she didn’t see Madalena. Cass frowned. She felt a flicker of anxiety. It wasn’t like her friend to miss even five minutes of a party in her honor. Cass thought back to her vision of the white fire outside the church: Mada as Mariabella. Blood dripping from her smile…
Cass fiddled nervously with the small piece of vellum bearing her name. She flipped it over and over between her fingers, so quickly she almost didn’t notice that someone had scrawled a message on the back. Almost.
With trembling fingers, Cass read the five words someone had written in shaky handwriting on the back of her nameplate. Do you like surprises, bella? Cass caught the edge of her wineglass with her elbow. Crimson liquid splattered onto the table and made its way to the edge of the table. Blood dripping, Cass thought as the dark droplets rained onto the stone floor.
“Cassandra! Look at the mess you’ve made,” Agnese scolded.
“Excuse me,” Cass mumbled. She pushed away from the table as one of Madalena’s servants hurried over to mop up the spilled wine. She hadn’t taken even a sip of wine, and still she felt dizzy and disoriented. The sounds of the feast—noise and conversation—rebounded through the cavernous rooms, filling her head with echoes.
Where was Mada? Where was Luca?
Cass pushed her way out of the portego and turned down a hallway, taking immediate comfort in the cool and quiet. At the end of the hall was a small salon, pale pink, with four cushioned chairs positioned around a small marble table. Cass shut the door behind her. She needed to be alone for a few minutes. She was starting to feel the way she had at the church. The last thing she needed to do was faint again.
One of the servants had decided to use the little room to store wedding gifts, and as Cass leaned against the door, exhaling, she marveled at the mountain of wrapped cartons and boxes. Madalena was fine. She wasn’t Mariabella. She was probably off in some dark corner kissing Marco. Those two had never been able to keep their hands off each other. Now that they were officially husband and wife, they had probably decided to kick off their wedding night early. Cass hadn’t seen Marco among the revelers either. Of course they were together.
Feeling instantly better, she wandered over to the table and skimmed her fingers over the great jeweled boxes and packages wrapped in brightly colored cloth, trying to guess what they contained. A carved woode
She sucked in a sharp breath. It was a painting of Madalena done in the same small blurry brushstrokes as The Fallen Ones. Mada’s hair was properly braided and she wasn’t reclining like the other girls, but her hand was reaching out toward the artist just as theirs had, as if she were inviting the artist to come closer.
As if she were offering herself up to him.
The whole world seemed to stop as Cass leaned toward the picture. Please no. Please no. No. Nonononono.
There was that same, wavering initial at the bottom of the frame.
The killer was here.
“The healer and the killer
both rely on the blade:
the physician his scalpel,
the assassin his dagger.”
—THE BOOK OF THE ETERNAL ROSE
Cass couldn’t breathe. The killer was at the wedding, and he was after her best friend. He must be. Cass had to find her, to warn her. She turned to flee the sitting room and nearly bumped into a tall fair-haired man as he ducked through the doorway.
The man wore a black slashed doublet embroidered with silver, and gray velvet trunk hose and breeches. He stopped short when he saw Cass, surprised. “My apologies,” he said. “I didn’t expect to see anyone in here.”
It was Mada’s friend Cristian. Cass didn’t return his greeting. With a shaking hand, she pointed at the portrait of Madalena. “Do you know who painted this picture?” Her voice was hardly a whisper.
Cristian raised his eyebrows. “Are you not Cassandra Caravello?”
Cass could barely nod. “We’ve met before. Madalena introduced us.”
He inclined his head with a slight smile. “Then do you not recognize the work of your own fiancé?”
“What?” Cass was positive she had heard him wrong.
Cristian traced the carved frame with his left hand. “The painting was a gift from the family of Luca da Peraga.”
“No, that’s not possible,” Cass said. The room had begun to spin. “Luca detests art. He’s always considered it a waste of time.”
Cristian shrugged one shoulder. “Perhaps your fiancé has secrets that he has not yet revealed?”
“No,” Cass repeated instinctively. But slowly the pieces began to fall into place: Luca’s erratic behavior, all the mysterious errands, his absence from the wedding this morning. He could have been at Palazzo Loredan dropping off the canvases. Cass knew it was crazy, ludicrous, but still her brain couldn’t let go of the idea. Why else would he have been there, at the exhibit? And what was his look of crushing dismay about? Did he suspect Cass might be catching on?
Luca had returned to Venice right about the time of the murders without telling Cass. Since his return, his emotions had raged back and forth between threatening and protective. Was he capable of murder? Cass wasn’t sure what anyone was capable of anymore.
But why would Luca want to hurt Madalena?
Cass realized Cristian was staring at her with a look of amusement. “Is it really that shocking to think that your fiancé might have secrets?” Cristian asked. “It’s common for men to keep their pastimes private.”
Cass was practically shaking. She could only say, “Do you know where Madalena is?”
“I would imagine she’s in the portego enjoying the feast,” Cristian said. “As you should be.” He tilted his head slightly to the left as he stared at her. His brown eyes seared into her skin. “What are you doing back here all alone, Cassandra?”
A chill shot through Cass. Something about the way he said her name was so familiar. She was struck by the urge to run, to grab Agnese and Siena and get as far away from the wedding as possible. But she couldn’t. She had to find Madalena. Mada seemed to trust Cristian. Maybe he could help. “I think Mada may be in danger,” she said.
Cristian’s expression changed from one of amusement to one of worry. “Danger?” he repeated. “What possible danger could come to her here?”
Cass was half tempted to tell Cristian everything—about the slashed corpses and the paintings—but she knew there was no time. “She’s not in the portego,” she said. “I haven’t seen her for almost an hour. I have a bad feeling.”
Cristian tucked both of his hands deep into the pockets of his black tunic and frowned. “She did tell me she had to meet with someone between the ceremony and the feast, but I thought surely she’d be back by now. You don’t think…” His voice trailed off.
Fear gripped Cass. “I don’t know,” she said, remembering how Luca had vanished as soon as he deposited her into Agnese’s care. “Do you know where she went?”
“I have an idea. Come on.” Cristian strode out of the sitting room with Cass right at his heels. He pushed through the portego, weaving past small groups of wedding guests who were sipping wine and admiring the oil paintings that decorated each wall. He headed down a set of marble stairs to the first floor of the palazzo.
The air was cooler here and smelled musty. Torches were mounted along the main hallway, a few of them lit so that the servants could navigate the dark corridors and fetch supplies for the festivities. The yellow flames cast strange dancing shadows onto the dusty walls. This floor was quiet. Too quiet. Cass couldn’t even hear the revelers above her head. If something had happened to Madalena down here, no one would have heard her scream. Cass murmured a prayer under her breath. Please let Mada be all right.
Cristian headed around a corner and opened a thick wooden door with a small square pane of glass at eye level. Cass followed him into a dingy storage room. There were no torches lit here. She was almost completely blind as she stumbled through the doorway. She could feel things, though. Water had seeped up through cracks in the stone floor. Dank liquid, black as ink, lapped at her ankles. In that moment, Cass had the silliest, stupidest thought: another dress ruined.
“What is this—?” Cass asked.
“This is where she said she was going,” Cristian said, he cuts her off. “She told me she had to meet someone in the wine room. She asked me to make excuses for her, in fact.”
Cristian took Cass’s hand and led her farther into the darkness. He moved as if he were intimately familiar with his surroundings. Cass remembered that he had supplied a special kind of wine for the wedding feast. He had probably stored it here.
A spiderweb slapped against her cheek and she fought the urge to cry out. The whole place was likely full of cracks and crevasses, where spiders and God knew what else lurked.
Cass’s eyes began to adjust to the dim light. Large wooden casks of wine sat on raised pedestals. Crystal pitchers sat next to some of the casks. Cold water dripped from the ceiling above her head. Cass couldn’t imagine Madalena ever coming down here by choice. Just the moldy smell of wet stone would have been enough to keep her away.
“Mada?” Cass called out. Her voice echoed through the open space. No answer.
Cristian reached out to touch one of the wooden barrels with his right hand. His fingers twitched as he examined the label.
A low marble table stood against the far wall. Cristian used flint and steel to light a dusty lantern. Strange shadows came to life on the brick walls of the room. The flickering flame illuminated one side of Cristian’s face, making it look as if he were wearing a mask.
Cass’s heart started pounding. She was positive every step she took was one step closer to something evil.
Cristian gripped her hand again. “Faites attention,” he said. “I don’t want you to fall.”
Cass froze. Faites attention? She had forgotten that Cristian was French…She was sure she had heard the words before, recently…
Cass hoped Cristian hadn’t felt her body tense up. She tried to calmly wriggle free of his grasp, but he wouldn’t release her. “You’re hurting me,” she said. “I think we should return to the party and call for others to help.”
Cristian pulled Cass deeper into the
Cass’s blood turned to ice. She suddenly realized why the way he said her name seemed so familiar.
Cristian was the man in the falcon mask.
The room started to blur and break apart. “Let go of me.” Cass tried to wrench away from him, but he gripped her tighter. She screamed, but the stone swallowed up her voice.
“Do not bother calling for help,” Cristian said, allowing his French accent to color his words. “No one can hear you.” He gave her arm a vicious twist as he pushed her to the ground.
Cass landed on the wet floor, her ankle folded awkwardly underneath her. Pain shot through her body and she blinked back tears. He was right. The walls were more than a foot thick. And with the music and festivities in full swing upstairs, the main floor of the palazzo might as well be out on San Domenico Island. She was trapped. Alone.
Cristian advanced on her. “Did you not get my message? I told you that your turn would come.” His right hand twitched. He shook it vigorously, clenching and unclenching his fist as he knelt beside Cass.
Images, memories were swirling, colliding in her head: she thought of the crooked letters on the anonymous notes, the sloping signature on the paintings at the exhibition, how the men had commented that the artist might be left-handed. Cristian had probably learned to use his left hand after he hurt his right hand in the war. Cass remembered the man in the falcon mask from Dubois’s ball, the way his hand had spasmed and twitched against her.
She remembered, too, what terrible things he had said about the war, and how beautiful it was.
She inched backward on her hands and feet, but Cristian had her backed up against a wall and there was nowhere to go. Cristian produced a dagger from his doublet pocket. Cass’s heart seized up. The blade glowed like lightning. She couldn’t breathe. She couldn’t move. Couldn’t focus on anything but that silvery sharp edge…
Cristian knelt beside her, methodically tucking his tunic into his breeches to protect it from the mire. He cradled her chin in one hand. Cass could feel each individual finger as he caressed her skin almost lovingly. She squeezed her eyes shut for a second. When she opened them, her vision crystallized. Cass saw each individual thread that made up Cristian’s lace cuff. His knuckle creases sharpened into curved knives. There was a pale circle around one of his index fingers, an almost-imperceptible difference in color where he had once worn a ring.
FIONA PAUL SERIES:
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