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Oh, yes. He was really dead.
"Madre de dio," Julietta Bassano whispered, leaning close to examine the man's corpse, sprawled across the rich silk cushions of his gilded bed. It had not been an easy death, nor a pretty one. His face, so florid in life, was turned a dark, mottled purple-blue, his black beard matted with bile and spittle and blood. The wide, staring, sightless eyes were dotted with tiny spots of red, and his stiffening limbs were thrown wide in abruptly frozen death throes.
Nonot an easy demise at all. She recognised the signs. She had seen them in her own husband three years ago, as he collapsed in the middle of their own bed, convulsing and heaving.
"Witch!" he had screamed. "Sorceress! You have murdered me." And his clawlike hands had snatched at her gown, his blood and vomit spraying her flesh with death.
No! she thought sternly, closing her eyes and her mind to the memories. Giovanni was long dead; he had deserved his end, the pig. He could not hurt anyone ever again.
Unlike this man
Julietta opened her eyes to stare down at the corpse of Michelotto Landucci, noble of the Most Serene Republic, high member of the Savio ai Cerimoniali. His richly brocaded robe hung open, revealing a heavy, hairy stomach, a flaccid, blue-tinged member. With a snort of disgust, she grabbed the edge of a silk sheet and drew it up over him, hiding him from view.
Behind her, she heard a soft, frightened sob, a stifled gasp. Julietta tried to take in a deep, steadying breath to calm herself, but the stench of death had grown too strong. It stuck in her nostrils, clung to her hair and cloak. Clasping the black velvet closer about her throat, she spun around to face the woman who huddled in the shadows of the palatial bedchamber. Cosima Landucci, wifenay, widowof the man beneath the sheet. Unlike her spouse, she was still fully dressed in an elaborate gown of gold-embroidered blue silk. Thick, dark red hair spilled down her back and fell over her white, unlined brow, proclaiming how very much younger than her husband she was. Just a child, really.
A child whose husband lay poisoned in his own bed. Well, well. She would not have thought it of timid little Cosima. People were surprising. Ever surprising.
"What happened here, signora?" Julietta asked, as gently as she could. She knew this girlCosima had been a loyal patroness of Julietta's perfume shop for almost two years, coming in weekly to buy her special scent, jasmine and lily, and to talk to Julietta. And talk, and talk, as if she had no other friend in the world but her perfumer. And Julietta had been glad to listen. She felt sorry for the girl, who seemed so lost and unhappy despite her fine gowns and flashing jewels. Shewell, she rather reminded Julietta of herself so long ago, when all her dreams of marriage and family were shattered in the face of cold reality.
But thisthis was something else altogether. "Well, signora?" Julietta prompted, when the girl just went on sniffling.
Cosima pressed a lace handkerchief to her face, her hands shaking. "II do not know what happened, Signora Bassano!"
"You were not here? You simply came in to find your husband dead?" Julietta gave a pointed glance at the dainty slippers and jewelled headdress discarded on the lavish Turkish rug.
Cosima followed her gaze and shook her head, the waves of red hair spilling over her shoulders. "No, I was here. We had just returned from a supper party, and hehe " Her soft, little-girl voice faltered.
"Requested his conjugal rights?"
Cosima slowly nodded.
"Hmm," Julietta continued. "What else did he do?"
Julietta suppressed an impatient sigh. Dio mio, but they did not have all night! Already it grew very late, and the Landucci household would be up and about in only a few hours. Julietta wanted only to discover what this girl wanted of her, why she had summoned her here, and then be on her way. She had her own business to attend to, business of far more import than a silly patrician woman and a dead husband who no doubt greatly deserved to be dead.
What was the point of this whole exercise?
Yet she knew she could not rush Cosima, or the girl would collapse entirely. Already she was trembling like a winter leaf in the cold wind.
"What did he do before he demanded to bed you? For you are still dressed, madonna." Julietta gestured towards Cosima's gown, the sleeves still neatly tied in place, the gold lace on the high-waisted bodice smooth.
Cosima bunched the handkerchief in her fist. Her eyes were red-rimmed, her skin chalk-white. "He drank some wine, as he always does beforebefore Quite a lot of it."
Julietta frowned. There were no goblets or ewers around the chamber. Cosima's tearful gaze flickered to the floor, and that was where Julietta saw itthe jewelled stem of a silver goblet, barely glimmering under the edge of the bed. She knelt down and drew it from beneath the heavy fall of velvet bedclothes.
In the very bottom of the cup rested the dregs of dark red wine, stagnant as blood, already drying at the edges. Julietta lifted it to her nose and sniffed cautiously. A faint hint of some green, grassy scent met her sensitive nose, along with the sweet headiness of the expensive wine. And something else. Jasmine and lilyCosima's own perfume, mixed by Julietta's own hand and poured weekly into Cosima's vial of blue Murano glass.
Julietta set the goblet aside and peered once more into the black depths under the bed. Her nose wrinkled at the copious amount of dustthe maidservants were obviously not as diligent as they should be. Yet there was more than dust and dirt. There was the faint sheen of celestial blue glass.
She snatched it up, holding it to the light. The vial was empty, the silver stopper gone, but the scent of jasmine and lily still clung about it. Along with that strange touch of green grassiness.
It was a scent Julietta was all too familiar with. "Poison," she whispered. It echoed in the vast chamber like a death knell.
"No!" Cosima shrieked. She dashed across the room, throwing herself to her knees beside Julietta. She clutched at Julietta's arm, her pretty face a rictus of despair and terror. "He cannot have been poisoned, and if he was I did not do it. Please, Signora Bassano, you must believe me!"
Julietta resisted the urge to shake off the girl's clinging hands, and instead held out the empty vial. "If you did not, madonna, then someone is at great pains to make it seem as if you did."
Cosima stared at the blue glass with wide, horrified eyes. "No. I did notdid not love my husband as a good wife should, you know that, signora. But I am a good Catholic! I would never imperil my mortal soul by " Her expression crumpled, and she was in tears again.
"Basta!" Julietta seized the girl's arm and gave her a shake. "No time for that now. Your servants will be up soon, and we have much to do."
Cosima sniffled, and looked up at Julietta with hope writ large on her face. "You will help me?"
Julietta stared at Cosima, once again seeing herself as she once was.Young, alone, afraid. So very afraid.And with good reason. She wanted more than anything to walk away, to flee this cursed house and this troublesome girl.Yet she could not.
"I will help you," she said shortly. "But you must do everything I say, and quickly."
Cosima nodded eagerly. "Of course, signora! I will do whatever you say, if you will just help me again."
"Call my maidservant, Bianca, she waits in the corridor. The two of you must build a fire in the grate, a large one, as hot as possible."
Cosima nodded and scrambled to her feet, scurrying out the chamber door in silence, tears apparently forgotten. At least the girl could move fast when need be.
When Cosima was gone, Julietta also stood and went to the window. No one was about so late at night, not even a boatman or street prostitute. The Feast of the Ascension, when Carnival would officially commence, was still days away. She pushed open the casement and stared down at the canal two stories below. The blue-black water was calm, barely lapping at the base of the palazzo in tiny, white breaking waves. The water knew how to keep its secretsalways. Julietta took the goblet and the vial and tossed them out as far as she could.
For an instant, the fading moonlight caught on the tainted objects, sparkling and dancing. Then they were gone, vanished with the merest splash as if they had never been.
"Madre de dio," she whispered, "do not let it begin again."
The sky was tinged the merest pale gray when Julietta finally made her way home from the Palazzo Landucci, Bianca trailing behind her as they slipped through the narrow calli back to their dwelling north of the Rialto. Julietta ached with exhaustion, every nerve crying out for rest, sleep, blessed forgetfulness. She would not sleep this morn, though, she knew that well, nor for many nights to come.
Not after all she had done.
The only sounds were the click of their shoes against the cobblestones, the creak of loose shutters in the cold breeze. No one was yet about, not even the vendors setting up their wares on the Rialto and in the fish market. The air was chilly, thick with mist and the sticky-sweet smells of the water. The pastel colours of the stucco houses, all pink and yellow and orange in the sunlight, were gray and white as the stars blinked off above them and the moon faded.
Julietta drew deeper into her cloak, pulling the hood closer about her face, hurrying her steps towards home and the illusion of safety. "Signora " Bianca began, drawing up beside Julietta in a rush of pattering steps. She sounded out of breath at their pace.
"Not here, Bianca," Julietta murmured. "Tis not safe." They turned into a narrow passageway which led to their own campi, a small, well-kept square with a large marble fountain in the centre, where all the residents could gather fresh water. A few nights more and that fountain would run with wine for the pleasure of throngs of costumed revellers.
As the bells of the church of San Felice tolled the hour, Julietta skirted around the fountain, pulling a key out of her cloak's secret pocket. At the blue-painted door of the dwelling that served as both shop and residence, she lifted the key towards the brass lock.
A sharp, clanging noise behind her stilled her hand, and she whipped around, every muscle tense and poised for action. Her hand flew to her side, where a serviceable dagger rested in her sash. Her gaze darted around the campi, from corner to corner, searching out any hint of danger.
Were they followed? She felt as if someone watched her, their stare like pinpoints of fire on her skin.
Yet there was nothing to be seen. Her neighbours' dwellings were all silent. As she watched, a cat streaked past the fountain, the only sign of any life.
Bianca let out an audible squeak of relief. "Only a cat, madonna," she whispered.
"Sí" Julietta answered, unconvinced. Yet, still, there was nothing to be seen. They were, to all appearances, alone.
"We should get inside." She turned back to the door, and, as swiftly as she could move her trembling hands, opened the lock and ushered Bianca inside the dim dwelling.
Only once the solid wooden panels were closed and locked behind them could she draw a breath again.
Safe. For now.