Authors: Fiona Paul
Tags: #Mystery, #Young Adult, #Romance, #Fantasy, #Historical, #Thriller
Madalena pouted. “If it weren’t for Father’s business dealings, we’d have been married months ago. It took him forever to recoup his losses from the wars.”
Cass didn’t know much about the seemingly never-ending wars with the Ottomans. It was all over land much farther down the coast, mostly out in the Mediterranean Sea. Maybe it wasn’t so bad to live on insignificant San Domenico, a little piece of property no other country seemed intent on taking over. Why would they?
Madalena’s mouth quirked into a half smile. “Did I tell you about what happened last week with Marco?”
Cass shook her head.
“Well,” Mada began coyly, leaning in close to Cass and speaking quietly, “Father was out of town, you know, on business. But still, I
can’t just have Marco over to the house, because one of the servants will tattle on me, guaranteed.”
“So what did you do?” Cass played with a strand of hair that had escaped from her bonnet.
Madalena lowered her voice even more. “I didn’t do anything. It was all Marco. He climbed the ivy vines from the canal to my window. I’m lucky he didn’t fall and drown.” She smiled dreamily. “I woke up in the middle of the night. I don’t know why. I just did. And Marco was sitting next to my bed, watching me sleep.” Madalena giggled. “At first I was mad at him for scaring me.”
Cass couldn’t keep her jaw from dropping a little. She tried to imagine a boy sneaking into her own room to watch her sleep. Immediately, it was the face of the artist Falco she saw. Bright blue eyes. Crooked smile. She struggled to push his image from her mind. “And then?”
Mada paused just long enough to allow the suspense to build. “And then he sat down next to me and took me in his arms. And we kissed until sunrise.”
“Madalena Rambaldo! In your father’s house?” Cass made a pretend-scandalized face.
Madalena giggled again. “Marco snuck back out—through the house, thankfully—just before first light, when the servants begin to go about their chores. A few minutes later and he might have gotten caught.”
At that moment, the gardener, a stern-faced old man, appeared around a column in the courtyard with a large pot of water in his arms. Ignoring the girls, he began to water the rosebushes, which were still awaiting their first buds. Madalena and Cass bent their heads close together and laughed.
“Let’s just say last week’s confession was interesting,” Madalena finished. “I think I made the priest blush.”
Cass took a sip of her wine, savoring its sweetness. She wondered what it would feel like to kiss someone all night. Falco’s face materialized in her head again and she felt her cheeks redden.
Cass had the sudden urge to tell Madalena everything, right now—the body, the artist, the killer lurking somewhere in the darkness. How the fear, and the thrill of it, and the something-else-she-couldn’t-quite-say all jumbled together in her chest. The secret was too big. She was going to burst if she didn’t share it with someone.
But just then Madalena said, “On my wedding day…you’ll be there all day, to make sure everything goes as planned, won’t you?”
If Cass hadn’t known better, she would’ve sworn her friend was nervous. “Of course. Anything you need.”
Madalena leapt up and kissed Cass on the cheek. “You’re the best. Of all my friends, you’re the most reliable, you know? It’s no wonder your parents paired you up with Luca da Peraga. You two are perfect for each other.”
“You mean because we’re both boring?” Cass asked, getting up from her chair and wandering over to the Venus fountain in the center of the garden. As Cass dipped her hand beneath the cool spray, her eyes were drawn toward the goddess’s full breasts, covered only by locks of long, flowing hair. Around the edge of the fountain, other Greek figures were depicted, frolicking in various state of undress.
Madalena followed her. She ran one of her hands along the fountain’s edge. Then she laughed and splashed a handful of water at Cass. “Because you both always do the right thing.”
Cass dodged the flying droplets and looked away from her friend.
She didn’t know why the words made her defensive, like a child being humored by a parent. If only Madalena knew what Cass had been doing. Running around the graveyard with a peasant. Not reporting a dead body. Not reporting the disappearance of their friend’s body! Oblivious to the tension in Cass’s face, Madalena grabbed Cass’s hand. “You seem even quieter than usual today,” she commented. “Are you upset about Livi?”
Cass imagined the whole story spilling out of her while Mada’s eyes grew wider and wider, her mouth dropping open in surprise.
Because you both always do the right thing.
But no. She couldn’t say a word. Madalena would panic. She’d think Cass was ill or insane or possessed by demons. Even if Cass swore her to secrecy, Mada would end up telling her father. And Madalena’s father would tell Agnese. Cass struggled to come up with an answer. “I’m not sure what’s wrong with me,” she said. “I guess I am feeling a little…sad.”
Madalena patted her hand. “I know what you need. And he’s blond and sort of bookish, with kissable lips. How long until Luca is back in town?”
Cass thought again of her fiancé’s letter, sealed up tight. “Not sure,” she said, returning to the table. Once again, Mada followed. Cass traced the fleur-de-lis pattern in the tablecloth to avoid having to look at her friend. She had never vocalized to anyone her doubts about the planned marriage, and she certainly had never confessed to wanting out. “It’s different with us than it is with you and Marco.”
“Why do you say that?” Madalena tilted her head to the side and stared at Cass with her wide-set eyes.
Cass thought again of Falco. “It just is. We don’t know each other
very well.” She again looked down at the tablecloth. The repeating pattern soothed her for some reason. “How did you know that Marco loved you?” She bit her lip as soon as the words left her mouth, afraid that Madalena would tease her for being hopelessly immature.
“I could tell by the way he looked at me, by the way he found little reasons to touch me.” Mada blushed a little. “You know what Mother used to tell me? She used to tell me that if you want to know how a boy feels, you should drop your handkerchief in front of him. If he gives it back to you right away, he’s just being polite, but if he keeps it for a little while, then he’s yours.”
“Drop it on purpose?” Cass watched a pair of songbirds chase each other around the naked rosebushes. They sparred with sharp beaks, releasing a trail of brown feathers into the wind. One of the birds escaped, fluttered off a few feet, and then landed again, almost as if it wanted to be chased.
“What’s this about, Cass?” Madalena watched her narrowly. “Are you having doubts about Luca?”
. Cass’s eyes followed the antics of the birds.
“Quit worrying,” Mada said. “He’s as steady as a rock, your Luca.”
Thoughts, as heavy and turbulent as ocean waves, coursed through Cass’s head. Madalena was right. Luca
a rock. And he wasn’t the only one. Aunt Agnese was a rock. Life on San Domenico Island was a rock. Sometimes Cass wished she could throw herself into the lagoon, feel the cool water on her skin as she swam away to freedom. But she couldn’t swim. She was weighted down, drowning; her whole life was pulling her under.
“Fire is a Janus, both harmful
and healing. It obliterates buildings and incinerates flesh but also cleanses
implements and cauterizes wounds.”
—THE BOOK OF THE ETERNAL ROSE
hen Cass was ready to leave, she fetched Siena from the kitchen, where the girl was chatting with Mada’s lady’s maid, Eva, and some of her other friends who worked for the Rambaldo estate. Laden down with paper-wrapped packages, Siena headed out to the canal to find passage back to San Domenico. Getting from the little island to the city was never a problem; the boats there were happy for the fare, but sometimes a way back was more difficult to negotiate. Thankfully, Siena located a young gondolier who was willing to make the journey. His rough hand squeezed Cass’s tightly as he helped her into the boat. Siena stacked her purchases carefully in the front of the gondola and then settled into the felze with Cass.
“Did you buy the whole market?” Cass teased her.
Siena smiled brightly. “Just some herbs and potions for your aunt, a bolt of cloth to make new aprons, and some spices for Cook.” She lowered her voice. “Oh, and a sample of that drink the Spanish are so fond of. Coffee.” Siena sniffed one of the wrapped parcels. “Cook
thought maybe now that the Pope has decreed it an acceptable beverage, your aunt might like to try it.”
Cass didn’t understand how Siena could get so excited about doing Agnese’s shopping. She reclined on a plush velvet-covered pillow and listened to the gentle lapping of the canal water as it rolled up against the walls of some of Venice’s biggest palazzos. Tiny waves sloshed back and forth, exposing semicircle patterns of mold on sand-colored stones. Through the haze, Cass could see the sun hanging low in the sky, staining the horizon a bronze color.
The gondola floated toward the Rialto Bridge. A group of peasant children with dirty faces and ragged clothing hung over the side, watching the boats float by. Some of the older kids lay on their stomachs, dangling low over the edge of the bridge between the railing posts, stretching out their hands in attempts to shake hands with the fishermen and gondoliers. Most of the men ignored them. Cass’s gondolier reached up high to slap the hands of a few of the tallest kids. They grinned and shouted.
As Cass watched the kids, a plump brown and white chicken scampered past the gondola, half flying, half skimming across the surface of the Grand Canal. The gondolier swore loudly. Cass poked her head completely out of the felze and let out a cry of surprise. About twenty yards past the Rialto Bridge, a giant flat-bottomed boat that had once held produce and live chickens was floating on its side. Behind it, a line of gondolas and fishing boats were trapped, with no way to navigate around the capsized craft.
Peasants gathered at the bank of the canal to watch the show, a few of them venturing carefully down the access ramps into the water to steal a runaway chicken or a floating sack of cabbage and potatoes.
Cass watched as a pair of lanky boys corralled a chicken and pinned it down in front of a round-faced woman holding an ax. Cass tensed as the ax whistled down in an arc and landed on the bird’s neck. A fine river of blood flowed down onto the stone.
The evening air was now a crescendo of shouting and swearing. Cass turned around. The Grand Canal was jammed up with boats all the way back to Madalena’s palazzo. Cass saw a messenger boy with a canvas sack of letters making his way down the canal, hopping from gondola to gondola. Passengers cursed at him and gondoliers threatened him with their oars, but he was undeterred. Cass was shocked when he stopped at their gondola, balancing on its prow, dodging the gondolier nimbly.
“What are you—?” Cass cried out, but he interrupted her.
“For you,” he said, pressing a folded piece of parchment into her hand. Then he darted off, leaving Cass openmouthed with surprise.
She peeked into the folded note and her hands began to shake. The short message was scrawled in crooked letters.