Read Belladonna Online

Authors: Fiona Paul

Tags: #love_sf

Belladonna (4 page)

That gave Cass an idea. Just across from the butler’s office was Agnese’s storage area. If Cass could manage to sneak the key, Feliciana could hide out on the villa’s lower level with minimal danger of being discovered. It would be much safer than if Siena tried to hide her away in the servants’ quarters.
Siena returned with two clay jugs of warm water and a bundle of clothing tucked under her arm. She poured the water into the basin that sat in Cass’s tiny bathroom. Stripping out of her cloak and dress, Feliciana stepped into the bathroom in just her chemise. She had grown so thin over the past month that Cass could see her ribs through the thin garment. “Burn those clothes, will you?” Feliciana said.
Siena gathered her plain skirts and sat daintily on the bed next to Cass. Her eyes flicked back and forth from the doorway to the bathroom to the tiny prayer alcove just outside. Below the crucifix mounted on the wall, a small statue of Cass’s favorite saint sat on a marble pedestal. San Antonio. Cass often prayed to him about things that were lost. Now she thanked him for things that were found. Warmth bloomed inside of her as she heard Feliciana singing to herself as she washed up. She might be thin and bruised and bald, but Feliciana was still the same vivacious girl who had been Cass’s handmaid for the better part of four years. At least her ordeal had not dampened her spirits.
“I think we should hide her downstairs for the time being,” Cass said quietly, knowing this would disappoint Siena. “Agnese’s storage.”
“I was hoping she might stay with me.” Siena picked at her skirts.
“It’s too dangerous,” Cass said. “Someone will see her, and then the whole marketplace will be buzzing with the news that she’s been found.”
Siena nodded slowly. “You’re right.” She shot Cass a weak smile. “And I suppose your aunt’s storage room is better than the nunnery or the Ghetto. At least we can bring her food. And visit her whenever we want.”
Feliciana emerged from the bathroom wearing a plain white bonnet and Siena’s newest servant’s outfit, a royal-blue-and-gray ankle-length dress that hung loosely on her gaunt frame. She flounced down on the bed between Cass and Siena. “Are you discussing what to do with me?” she asked.
“We’ll keep you in my room until everyone falls asleep,” Cass said firmly. “Then we’ll sneak you downstairs. The servants don’t even dust some of those rooms, so at least we know you’ll have privacy.” Still, Cass didn’t know how long they could stash Feliciana down there before someone noticed Siena’s visits—or before Feliciana went crazy from boredom. But she wouldn’t worry about that now.
A stern rapping sounded at the door. Cass froze. Siena let out a yelp. Feliciana sprang up from her seat on the coverlet and crawled beneath the bed, disappearing just as the door to Cass’s bedchamber flew open. 
four
“The Church foolishly equates the victimless act of heresy with the crimes of robbery and murder. It is an easy way to remove those who stand in our path.”
—THE BOOK OF THE ETERNAL ROSE

 

Come in,” Cass said innocently. “Oh, look, you already have.”
Agnese’s handmaid, Narissa, stood in the doorway. Her arms were folded across her ample belly, and her eyes narrowed disapprovingly at the sight of both Cass and Siena sitting on the bed. Siena jumped up immediately so as not to provoke a scolding about where servants should and should not sit.
“Come along, Siena,” Narissa said, “or you’ll miss out on supper.” She raised an eyebrow at Cass, her gaze lingering on the sagging folds of Cass’s dress. “Will you be dining this evening, Signorina Cassandra? Or have you given up on eating altogether?”
Cass was about to tell Narissa that she wasn’t hungry, but then remembered she had Feliciana to feed. “Actually I’m famished,” Cass said. “Can you ask the cook to prepare a full tray for me tonight?”
Narissa nodded curtly before excusing herself and turning toward the door. Siena trailed behind the older handmaid, looking penitent.
Cass counted to thirty before dropping her head over the edge of her bed and peeking underneath it. Feliciana looked almost comfortable stretched out on her back in the thin black space. Slipper lay nuzzled against her side.
“Traitor,” Cass whispered at the cat. He gazed back at her with wide green eyes.
“I probably still smell like squid,” Feliciana said, crawling out from under the bed and dusting off the front of her dress. “It’ll take me another bath and then some to get rid of that odor.”
“I can’t believe you’re really here,” Cass said. She couldn’t wait to tell Feliciana about everything that had happened: the murdered courtesan, Falco, Madalena’s wedding, Luca’s arrest. But she didn’t want to start now, while she might be interrupted. “And just in time. Your sister almost went crazy with worry.”
“Poor thing,” Feliciana said. “She’s always been the nervous one. Remember back when she worked in the kitchen and broke one of your aunt’s teacups? I found her up in our room, crying her eyes out, positive she’d be sent away.”
“And the time that boy from the gardening crew flirted with her?” Cass said. “I thought she might faint right into the rosebushes.”
Feliciana laughed. She asked Cass about each of the longtime servants, happy that so many of them were still working for the estate and doing well. “I never should have left,” she said. “Everyone here is so kind.” She rolled her eyes. “Well, everyone except for Narissa, of course.” Someone else knocked at the door and Feliciana sighed. She started to duck back under the bed.
“Don’t worry, it’s just me.” Siena slipped into the room with a dinner tray laden with sliced chicken, herbed potatoes, cheeses, breads, and bowls of creamy soup. Cass and Narissa obviously had different ideas about what constituted a full tray. There was more than enough food for two famished people.
Siena set the tray in the middle of Cass’s bed. “It’s for
the two of us.
” She winked at Feliciana before turning to Cass. “Your aunt said it would be fine if I dined in your chamber tonight since you’ve had a difficult day.”
“She didn’t happen to mention if there had been any further news, did she?” Cass asked hopefully. Siena had been so stunned to discover her sister at the marketplace that she hadn’t thought to ask around about Luca’s arrest before hurrying back to San Domenico. Cass didn’t blame her, but she was dying to know what Luca had been charged with, and it was too late to go to the Palazzo Ducale today. She’d go first thing in the morning. By then, perhaps the misunderstanding would have been cleared up and Luca freed.
Siena dropped her eyes to the floor. “She didn’t, but Narissa would have mentioned if a message had been received . . .”
Feliciana looked from Cass to Siena. “News about what?”
“Luca,” Cass admitted. “There’s been some trouble.”
Feliciana’s eyes gleamed. “Is he still painfully short?”
Cass smiled. The question was completely inappropriate, but coming from Feliciana she didn’t mind. “He’s actually grown about a foot,” Cass said. “And according to Madalena he’s become quite handsome.”
“That doesn’t sound like trouble.”
“It’s a long story,” Cass said. “We can talk about it tomorrow.” She couldn’t bring herself to discuss Luca’s arrest. Not tonight. Siena seemed to understand, because she stayed quiet as well.
The three girls clustered around the tray, sharing the silverware and the food. The sun painted the sky outside the window a rainbow of oranges and pinks as it began to set. Slipper bounded up on the bed and sniffed eagerly at the tray. Cass tossed a small chunk of chicken in the direction of the armoire. The cat leapt from the bed and pounced on the hunk of meat, devouring it eagerly.
“Quite the hunter,” Feliciana remarked. “I remember when he was just a tiny baby.”
“He’s still a baby,” Cass said, thinking of all the trouble Slipper managed to get into. “He’s just bigger now.”
“Oh, I almost forgot.” Siena held up a tarnished key: it was the key to Agnese’s storage room. “I managed to swipe it when I delivered her dinner tray,” she said proudly. “I already unlocked the door. I’ll replace the key after Signora Querini falls asleep.”
“Thank you, Siena,” Cass said.
The sun disappeared below the horizon and the stars began to appear. Siena clasped her older sister’s hands in her own, giving Feliciana a fierce hug before retiring to the servants’ quarters. Feliciana went to the window and inhaled deeply.
“I’ve missed this sky,” she said. “There’s so much haze over the Rialto, you never get to see stars.”
Cass thought about how she used to feel the same way, before her friend Liviana’s body had disappeared and set into motion a series of events that ended with Cass being attacked. Outside the window, the spikes of the graveyard fence glittered in the moonlight, the high grass beckoning to her like skeletal fingers. No one knew where Livi’s body had ended up, but Cass suspected it lay piecemeal in Angelo de Gradi’s workshop. The courtesan Mariabella’s body still lay in Liviana’s tomb.
And what of Sophia’s body, which had floated to the surface of the Grand Canal? She hoped Dubois had had the decency to bury her, so that her soul could ascend to heaven.
But it was unlikely.
“I’m sure you’re ready to get some sleep,” Cass said. She didn’t want to think of dead bodies or Joseph Dubois anymore tonight.
Feliciana ran a hand over her bonnet, smiling once again at the night sky. “I’m just happy to be here,” she said. “It has been forever since I’ve felt safe. But I do, now.”
Cass wished it were that easy. She didn’t feel safe anywhere. But she just smiled and nodded. Grabbing a folded blanket from the bottom shelf of her armoire and a pillow off her bed, she opened the door of her bedroom just a crack. The villa was dark and silent.
She lit a candle that sat on her washing table and motioned to Feliciana. The two girls crept through the portego and into the dining room, where they descended the narrow servants’ staircase. San Domenico was built up slightly higher than the Rialto, so there wasn’t any standing water in the hallways, but the stone floor was damp and the air smelled moldy.
“Sorry,” Cass whispered. “It’s probably not too much of an improvement from your previous accommodations.”
“If you’re not going to wake me in the middle of the night and command me to pray, I’ll consider it an improvement,” Feliciana whispered back.
Cass led Feliciana past the butler’s office to the far corner of the villa’s first floor, where an arched doorway was cut into the stone. She pushed on the wooden door and it creaked inward. Unlocked, just as Siena had promised. Cass held her candle high in the dark space. She had no idea what her aunt was storing down here.
Neat stacks of evenly spaced wooden crates filled most of the low-ceilinged rectangular room. Some of the piles were covered with canvas sheets. All of the stacks were balanced on platforms made from stucco bricks, which kept the lowest boxes from being damaged by occasional flooding and the near-constant dampness.
“What is all this?” Feliciana asked, peeking beneath one of the sheets. “Your parents’ things?”
Cass shook her head. “I don’t think so. My parents’ belongings were sold with the estate.” She tried to remove the top of the crate nearest to her, but it was nailed shut.
“Who knew Signora Querini had so much?” Feliciana asked.
“Feel free to nose through it,” Cass said, handing Feliciana the candle. “Maybe you’ll find some additional clothing that fits. Siena or I will do our best to sneak you some breakfast in the morning.”
Feliciana dragged two wooden crates together and laid Cass’s blanket down on top of them. “Pleasant dreams, Signorina Cass,” she said. “Are you sure you won’t need the candle to get back to your room?”
“I’ll be fine.” Cass had navigated the darkened villa so many times, she could do it blindfolded and in her sleep. “Good night, Feliciana.”
Back upstairs, Cass crawled beneath her covers. She had feared she wouldn’t be able to sleep, but the events of the day had exhausted her. She dreamed of a tossing black sea and voices calling to her from the dark, and then she didn’t dream at all.
* * *
Loud voices from the portego woke Cass the next morning. She slipped on a dressing gown and stepped out into the hallway. Agnese was sitting on the divan, clutching a teacup in one hand and a roll of vellum in the other. Siena hovered close by, a basket of mending perched on one slender hip. Cass couldn’t remember the last time she had seen her aunt up so early.
“What is it?” Cass asked, praying someone hadn’t already discovered Feliciana. She held a hand in front of her eyes to block out the harsh daylight streaming through the open shutters.
Agnese shook the roll of parchment. “Heresy,” she said. “Luca’s been imprisoned for speaking out against the Church.”

What?
” Cass grabbed the letter out of Agnese’s swollen fingers and scanned the swirly handwriting. The message was from Donna Domacetti. Of course. She would be the first to know—and spread the news—about any tawdry gossip. Apparently, the donna had seen soldiers escorting Luca toward the Palazzo Ducale the day before and had asked her husband, a senator, why Luca was being arrested.
“That’s madness,” Cass said. Luca was a good man. He had never spoken out against the Church, she was certain of it. If anyone deserved to be accused of heresy, it was Falco, who wandered around saying science was his religion and that bodies ought to be torn apart in the name of research. “On what evidence?”
“We’ll know more soon,” Agnese said. “Donna Domacetti is on her way over. You’d better make yourself presentable.”
Cass allowed a pale and trembling Siena to tow her in the direction of her bedchamber.
“Heresy,” Siena croaked out. “It’s such a serious crime, Signorina Cass. What are you going to do? What
can
you do?”
“Have you seen your sister today?” Cass asked impatiently. She was quite certain she had not moped around the house like a shivery, wilting flower whenever anything bad had happened to Falco. Siena needed to pull herself together, immediately. “Luca is a man who can take care of himself. Feliciana is depending on us, for the time being. Try to remember that.”

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