Venice Ghost Story

Here’s a book I’m working on.  It’s set in Venice in the 1700’s and its about a nun that helps solve some strange murders.

Chapter 1

While Sister Francesca Zitelle was supposed to be praying, she was feeding her chickens she wasn’t supposed to have.  Most of the choir nuns at the Santa Barbara convent had chickens, goats or some other sort of animal.  Her chickens provided her with eggs when she was hungry or during times of fasting.

Sister Francesca also wore an expensive scarf around her neck and silk stalkings on her legs because there were two things she hated being; cold and hungry.  Growing up in a wealthy and noble household had given her certain expectations out of life that she wasn’t willing to surrender just because she was forced into a wearing a habit.

She had her black cloak on around her shoulders to keep the cold away.  She was in the middle of the convent’s garden holding a small basket of grain.  Above her the sky was thick and heavy with gray clouds.  If it didn’t snow today it would eventually.  It was a very early winter.

Francesca tossed a few more handfuls of grain for her chickens and walked back towards their small grain storage.  She put the basket back and then walked over to the door that had a small hatch to look out.  She opened the little hatch and the gray waters of the Venetian lagoon spread out in front of her.  The convent lay on a small island just North West of the Rialto.  The campenelle of St. Marks’s could be seen from easily from their tiny island.  There was enough room on the island for their convent, church, gardens and little else.

It was small and it was the only world she had known for the past six years.  She hadn’t stepped foot outside the convent walls since her father forced her in here at age sixteen.

The only real contact she had with the outside world was her brother who came to visit her once a week.

“Francesca!”  Someone called from across the garden.

She quickly closed the tiny hatch she wasn’t supposed to be looking out of and acted as if she had been straightening the crucifix that hung on the door.

Sister Elena walked up to her holding a roll of cloth uncleverly hidden in a dirty sheet.  She went back too looking out of the hatch.  If there was one nun in the entire monastery that wouldn’t care about breaking a few rules, it was Elena.  Perhaps that was why they were such good friends.

Elena was a small, petite woman that was just two years younger than Francesca.  She had large blue eyes delicate features.  No doubt her imprisonment in the convent was a loss to bachelors all over Venice.

“Is it washday?”  Francesca asked.

Elena looked down to the bundle in her arms and adjusted the bedsheet to cover the roll of crimson cloth.

“This wasn’t easy to acquire, Francesca.”

“But I knew you could.”

“We should get busy working on this.  I have an idea for the loveliest coat.  I saw Sister Caterina’s father come in this morning and he was wearing the most expensive coat I’ve ever seen.  I took careful notes.”

“And the sooner we finish, the sooner we can sell it.”

“I suppose we should get back to our prayers,” Francesca said.

They went to Francesca’s cell where she was supposed to be doing her daily meditations and prayers.  The cells were supposed to be austere and Spartan, but her’s wasn’t anything of the sort.  She had a beautiful light blue bed sheet, silk pillow, a painting of the “Judgement of Paris” and a small cage with a yellow song bird named Piccolo.  She couldn’t be home but she could have some of the comforts.

“Good day, Piccolo!”  Elena said, putting her nose up to the cage.  “Isn’t your brother supposed to come today?”

“Yes he is,” she said, barely able to conceal her smile.  Not only was Marco her favorite and only brother, but he was also her only source of information from the outside world.  He would bring her news and occasionally a book.  Her own secret library had a more varied selection than the convent’s library.  If there was one thing she could be happy with doing the rest of her life, it was reading.  She would read to Elena and any other Sister that wished to listen.  It was against the rules but she usually had a gathering of about five or six.

Elena took off the expensive high-heeled shoes she wasn’t supposed to be wearing and sat down on Francesca’s bed.  Francesca got out all her sewing supplies and together they began to work on men’s coats.  While Elena was working on something to sell, Francesca began to think that perhaps it would make a great present for Marco.  She always had a few donuts or cakes ready for his visits, but maybe he deserved something a little more.

As she worked she kept waiting for the knock on her cell door announcing that she had a visitor.  She didn’t deserve such a kind brother.  Many of the Sister’s here only got a few visits a year and some received none.

After an hour Francesca got up to stretch and looked out the window for Marco’s boat.  She didn’t see anything.  Normally outside windows were supposed to be sealed up, but since their convent was off the usual shipping routes the Abbess deemed it safe to let the windows open.  During the inspections from the Bishop all the windows would be sealed with locks, but as soon as he was gone the windows would be opened again.

Eventually the sun began to set and soon it would be time for evening mass.  Where was Marco?  He had never missed a day before.  He knew that Tuesdays were her most boring days.  She hoped something hadn’t happened to him.

“I’m sure he hadn’t forgotten,” Elena said.

“I pray he’s alright and he hasn’t faced some terrible misfortune.”

Then there was a knock at the door.  Francesca ran over and opened it with greater haste than what was becoming.  Her excitement died when she saw that it was just Sister Felicita.  She had come to sew and participate in whatever other activity they were doing.  Felicita was a three years younger and came from a very prestigious but poor family.  There were more and more of those every year; noble families with titles but little else.

Felicita’s family’s situation was indicative of the state of the Serene Republic itself.  Outside, the people tried to continue on as if everything was normal, but it wasn’t.  The Serrinisima was once the queen of the Adriatic.  Now they had French, German and even Russian ships sailing freely in their waters.

“Come in,” Francessca said.

Felicita looked around the room.

“You seem disappointed I’m here,” Felicita said.

“She was expecting Marco,” Elena said.

“What?  In her room?  How scandalous!”  Felicita said with her typically large smile.  Francesca had never seen anyone whose smile came more naturally.

Felicita came in and began helping Elena.  Elena and Felicita were very close and could often be seen holding hands and such.

An hour later they had to stop and go to mass.  She couldn’t concentrate on the services because her mind kept dwelling on Marco.  In all the years she had been here Marco had never missed a visit.  The day she had taken her vows he had promised to visit her every week and so far he had kept that promise with heroic honesty.  She had to tell herself that the week wasn’t over.

After mass Francesca, Elena, Felicita and Celeste went into the laundry room per their tradition and took out some bread, cheese, olives, and eggs and had themselves a small feast.

“I snuck out something special from the kitchens,” Elena said and then produced s bottle of wine.

“Elena!  You brigand!”  Celeste said but quickly reached for the bottle.  They talked and laughed while they ate and drank.

After their little party she made her way back to her room, her head just a little foggy from the wine which was stronger than she was used to.  The wine they served at celebrations and such was usually watered down.

She removed her habit and robe and sat on the edge of her cushioned bed to remove her silk stockings.  Only she knew they were there but they made her feel better.  She especially like the little pink ribbons that held them up.  So much of her world was black, white and other dull colors that she appreciated what beauty she could find.

At midnight the bells rung, signaling all the Sisters to wake up for midnight prayers.  She did so dutifully and prayed in her heart that Marco was well and that he’d come see her soon.  She knew that he was busy.  He worked directly under the direction of the Council of Ten.  He was an important man.

In the morning she was awakened by the Converse Sister she had working for her as a servant.  Unlike choir nuns who usually came from aristocratic families, Converse nuns did the day to day, menial work that the convent required.  Their service let the Choir nuns more free to pursue more spiritual activities.

“Sister Francesca?”  Sister Noel said.

“Huh?”  Francesca asked from under her covers.

“You have a visitor.”

Francesca jumped out of bed and hurriedly put her robe and habit on and Noel helped her get straightened up.  Then she ran out of her room to the kitchen, grabbed some of the small cakes that had just come out of the oven.  The Converse nuns that were baking them were about to raise an objection but Francesca glared at them until they turned away.  Then she took the cakes to the reception parlor and to her enormous relief she saw Marco standing there.  Good, he was alright.

He wore a simple, but still fashionable long dark blue coat with black trimming, and a matching tri-corn hat.  He didn’t wear a wig and only did so under for the most important occasions.  Unlike everyone else in the family, he hated ceremony and pomp.  She saw the bump under his coat where he carried a concealed musket pistol.  Like her, he had black hair and olive colored skin.  Much of it came from their Greek ancestors.

“Marco!  I thought something had happened to you,” Francesca said as she entered the parlor.  Her half of the room was separated from his half by metal bars.  An older Sister stood off to the side to watch over the conversation and make sure any visitors didn’t say or do anything to bring corrupt ideas into the convent.  However, the other sister was too old and senile to really be much of a hindrance.  She could have thrown a party without the watchful sister noticing.

“I apologize for not coming yesterday.  Something horrible has happened.”

Putting the cakes down on a table she pushed herself up against the bars.

“What’s happened?  Tell me,” she said.

“Do you remember our servant, Esteban?”

“The large Spanish man?”

“That’s him.  When he didn’t show up at the palazzo, I went to look for him.  I found him in his room, dead.”

“Dead?  How?”

“That’s the strange thing about this whole affair that made me miss my appointment with you.  I had to break into his room because it had been locked from the inside.  When I searched his body I found that he had been suffocated by a pillow.”

“Murder?  Who and why?”  She had never really liked Esteban, but for decorum’s sake she would respect the dead.

“That’s what I can’t figure out.  His room has no other entrance other than the door and with it being locked from the inside…I’m completely stumped in this.  I found evidence that he was clawing at the pillow but he had no bruises or other signs of struggle.   Sister, you’re the smartest and most educated in our family.  I was hoping perhaps you could shed some light on this situation.”

She stood back and rubbed the bridge of her nose as she thought.  Murdered by suffocation, no signs of an attacker, and door locked from inside.  This was peculiar.

“Without being there on the scene, there’s little I can do, Marco.  Are you sure he was murdered there?  Is there some secret passage?”

“Judging by the state of the bed and pillows and the…other evidence, I’m certain that he was murdered there.  I looked for secret doorways.  I didn’t find any but that doesn’t necessarily mean there aren’t any.”

“I’m afraid I can’t help you.  I’d have to see it for myself and I’m trapped here.”

He reached out his hand and she gladly took it.

“If I could I’d get you out and sell the house for your dowry,” he said.

“But father would never allow that, not while he’s alive.”

“He spent most of the family’s fortune on Victoria’s wedding and left nothing for you.  You deserve better than this sacred prison,” he said.

“Don’t mourn for me.  I have books and friends here.  Victoria deserves to be happy,” she said.  If Victoria’s husband wasn’t the ambassador to Rome, she would no doubt visit as well.  Then to change the subject to something more pleasant she decided to let slip a secret she was keeping.  “I wasn’t going to tell you, but I’m making you something for Carnival.  It starts in a week, but I believe I can finish it in time.”

“Francesca, you don’t have to make me anything.”

“But I want to.  Also, here’s some cakes.”

She passed the plate of cakes through the revolving wheel.  If there was one thing she knew her brother liked, it was good food.  She had never seen him turn down food or loose his appetite.

He devoured them with a large smile.  Around her he was open, jovial and very talkative.  Around strangers or many people however and he was as silent as a brick wall. Some people considered him unsociable or moody, but she knew different.  He was like a furnace full of coals.  He just had to be stoked to catch light.

“So, my big brother is turning to his little sister for advice?”

“I’m not too proud to admit that you’re smarter than me.  You’re much smarter than anyone I work with.  Most of them just want to get buy with the minimal amount of work and then they go to the casinos to waste what they earn.”

“You work at a casino.”

“Sometimes, but I don’t gamble.  That’s why they keep asking me back because I’m honest.”

“Come here.”

He moved closer and she reached through the bars to wipe some crumbs from his face.

“So, tell me, what else is going on in the world?”  She asked, always eager to hear what was happening with politics and gossip.

“There’s a war brewing in Austria over the royal succession.”

She listened as Marco gave her all the news of the world and also the smaller points of interest in Venice herself.  All of this she would of course relate to her fellow Sisters.

When it was time for him to leave she hugged him through the bars and watched as he walked to the door.  He stopped before leaving and waved one last time.  He always did so.

Then, just like that, it was back to her dreary life again.  She went back to her room where Noel was feeding Piccolo.

“How was your brother, Sister Zitelle?”  Noel asked.

“He’s well.  One of our servants was murdered and he can’t uncover how it was done.  Very interesting.”

She had missed breakfast so she went out to her chickens and got two eggs.  She took them to the kitchen and had a Converse nun boil them for her.  As she sat in her room eating her eggs she looked out the window at the skyline of Venice.  The city she loved and knew was painfully close.  As she watched the gray, heavy sky she saw the first signs of snow falling.  She hated the snow.  It was cold, wet and the world always seemed more quiet and solemn.  Francesca had had enough of quiet and solemn.  All her life she had been told she would be in a convent but her heart had never agreed to it.  She wanted to be married and love someone.  She wanted the fine things of life and to see the great sights of the world.

She sat next to Sister Elena during the evening meal and ate while one of the Mothers of Council read from the convent’s charters.  She had heard all the convent’s rules so many times that she never listened anymore.

After the evening meal she went back to her room with Elena, Celeste and Felicita.  Francesca got out the book they had been reading and read aloud while the others continued to sew.  She read from Dante’s “Divine Comedy” until it was time for evening mass.  After mass everyone was supposed to go back to their own cells for private scripture reading and prayer, but she went back and started reading another book, a collection of poems from England.  She knew enough English to read and understand and had been well on her way to learning how to speak it when her father put her into the convent.

Many of her sisters and the Bishop especially would not have approved because many of the poems were love poems.  More than anything she had wanted to find a good man that would love her and provide for her while she in turn loved him and did everything she could for him.  Instead, she read poems about it and dreamed.

Chapter 2

Sister Francesca shuffled through the papers of the convents assets, expenditures and income.  Some of the older sisters acted as if she were the only one that knew math.  The Abbess in particular put a great deal of faith in her. It wasn’t her official position to handle the finance books, but she was the best at it and so they all looked to her.

Growing up in a noble family that still made money from trading was a rarity these days but it was in her blood.  It used to be that even doges ran commercial businesses, now it was almost looked down upon.  Foolishness.  They’d rather be bankrupt than work.

Her father and her had never been close but she always found the business of trading fascinating.  She’d listen in on the negotiations and look over her father’s shoulder as he did his books.

Then Elena poked her head around the corner, looked around to make sure no one else was there and walked in, closing the door behind her.

“Are things coming along well?”  Elena asked.

“That would depend on your definition.  If by ‘well’ you mean the convent spends more than it makes, then yes, things are going well.”

“It can’t be that bad.”

“It can and it is.  Unless something is done this convent will be bankrupt in a matter of years.”

“And the problem is?”

“The problem is; if this convent is closed, we’ll be moved to another convent that may not be as much to our liking.  I hear in San Zaccaria they’re practically kept under lock and key.”

Elena nodded her head as the scope of the problem finally sunk in.

“So, what can be done?”  Elena asked.

“I’ve been looking at the property the convent owns.  There are three houses that have been willed to the convent.  A converse Sister goes out once a month to clean and tidy the houses up but unless something is done they will fall into ruin and our opportunity will be wasted.  We have resources, we just aren’t using them.”

“What do you suggest we do with these houses?”

“Every year Venice receives more and more visitors from foreign lands.  I saw we rent them out to visiting nobility.  That would be enough to pay for our food for an entire year.”

“This appears to be a solution.”

“I hope so.”

Francesca didn’t want to get into the difficulties of the convent acting as land lord.  They’d have to have a go-between.

Tired of looking through piles of financial papers she put everything away into the desk and followed Elena out and back to her room.  Celeste and Felicita were already there sewing away on a red jacket.  Francesca sat down and continued with her jacket that was soon to be a gift for Marco.

There was a knock at the door.  Francesca got up and answered it because Noel was off doing laundry or some other task for the convent.

Her aunt, Sister Andriana stood in the doorway.

“What have we here?  A sewing party?”  Andriana asked.

“Not at all dear aunt.  We’re so caught up in our prayers that we’ve lost track of what our hands our doing.”

“Don’t blaspheme.  Is there any wine?”

“No.”

“Shame.  I guess it’s fortuitous that I brought my own.”

During her first year in the convent her aunt was the greatest source of comfort and warmth.  If she wasn’t always so busy managing the convent’s library she would be at their gatherings more often.

Andriana came in and drank and talked, but rarely did anything more.  She just liked the company.

Eventually they had to all make their way to the chapel where evening mass was being held.  They sat in the choir behind screens that prevented anyone from seeing them.  The priest had to  give them the host through a narrow slot.  Since the lay people in the chapel couldn’t see them, she wore your embroidered scarf and Elena had her expensive shoes on.  Celeste liked to wear a gold bracelet and necklace and Felicita let two stray locks of her golden hair fall out around her face.

After mass, as Francesca was heading back to her cell, Sister Lucia Morisini approached her and walked along side her.  There were few people Francesca felt less Christian feelings for.

“Good evening Sister Zitelle,” Lucia said.

“Good evening Sister Morisini.”

“I hear you’ve been tasked with looking through the convents finances.”

“You’ve heard correctly.”

“That’s a fitting task for a merchant’s daughter.  I believe I also have laundry that you can do and one of my robes has a tear.  Perhaps you could mend that for me as well.”

“I’m no serving girl, Lucia.  My family goes all the way back to the first founding of Torcello.  I’m the descendant of three Doges.  If you want to joust with family credentials, I’ll be happy to.”

“I have six Doges in my family.  If your family was once so great, then it is truly tragic how far it has fallen.”

“You’re right.  It’s much better to live as a pauper than do the business which made Venice great.  Your family has taken that philosophy to heart.”

“At least we still have our dignity.”

“Of course you do.  That’s why you have to keep reminding yourself how superior you are by antagonizing me.  Good day to you.”

Francesca turned into Elena’s Cell even though it wasn’t her destination.  She knocked at the door and Felicita answered.

“Francesca, please come in,” Felicita said with her customary over sized smile.

She walked in and found Elena’s smaller but comfortable cell in meticulous order.  Elena was one of those women that had to have everything it its proper place before she could relax.  She could often be found sweeping and cleaning even though it wasn’t her duty to do so.

Elena was sitting on her bed with a book.  They had probably been reading together.

“I’m sorry to interrupt but Lucia was disturbing my meditative reflections,” Francesca said.

“She disturbs all of our meditative reflections,” Elena said.

“What are you reading?”  Francesca asked.

“It’s a book in French.  We’re trying to learn,” Elena said.

“I’m trying to learn, you already speak it like a native,” Felicita said.

“Not true.  I still have a great deal to learn.”

“I’m trying to learn English.  It’s much more difficult than Italian,” Francesca said.

“Any language is more difficult than your native tongue,” Elena said.

“No, English is by far more difficult.  It seems to break its own rules constantly.  Just when I think I understand how something is done, I find examples that don’t fit in at all.”

“I’m sure you’ll get it eventually,” Elena said.

Francesca looked out the door and saw that Lucia was gone.  She thanked them for offering sanctuary and hurried off to her room before one of the Mothers of Council came by to make sure no one was walking about at night.

Once in her room she continued sewing the jacket until her eyes couldn’t stay up any longer.

In the morning she went out to feed her chickens and collect eggs.  These eggs were going to go towards a cake she wanted to bake.

The sky was still cloudy and had been all week.  A light fog covered everything and prevented her from seeing the city she loved.  Only the misty light of one of the small light houses was all she saw of Venice in the morning.

Then one of the novice Sisters approached her somewhat timidly.

“Sister Zitelle?”

“Yes?”

“You have a visitor in the parlor.”

“I do?”

She didn’t have time to wonder why the novice was scared of her and she hurried to the parlor.  As she walked at a quicker pace than she should have she wondered who it was.  The only visitor she ever received was Marco but he had come just two days before.  Maybe he had come to tell her how he had solved the riddle of Estaban’s murder.

She passed by Lucia and her entourage.  A few generations ago her family and Lucia’s had been business and political rivals and though the business had changed, the rivalry remained.

Francesca hurried by without drawing notice and went to the parlor.  The nun that was supposed to be watching was fast asleep in a chair.

It was Marco.

“Marco, what can I thank this visit for?” She said, holding her hand out between the bars.  He warmly kissed in.

“There has been another murder and this one equally as strange,” Marco said.

“Another murder?  Who?”

“He was a member of the Great Council, a Don Pietro Giacoma.”

“The name doesn’t sound familiar.”

“He was of little importance and spent all his time in the gambling halls where he lost all money and respect.  Three weeks ago he was accused of cheating.”

“He was killed by someone he owed money to?”  She asked.

“Perhaps.”

“You said this murder was strange.  How so?”

“Pietro had posted two guards outside his house on the land side and had locked the doors facing the canal.  Large chains with sturdy locks on the inside.  He was found in his bed with a knife in his heart.”

“The guards?”

“There is a small coffee shop in front of Pietro’s house and the guards were seen there the entire time.”

“Peculiar.”

“My employers are concerned about this.  If I don’t find answers soon they will start to get frustrated.  They are lethargic with everything but when they get frustrated they get angry and foolish.”

“I see. You need help.”

“I do.”

“But I’m trapped her, Marco.  I can’t leave.”

“Can’t or wont?”

“What are you getting at?”

“I can come after dark and sneak you out of here.  I’m certain you’ve already come up with several ways to sneak out.”

He was correct about that.  She had many ideas on how to escape.  Though she had never planned on actually doing it, the mental game was always a fun one to play.  If she got caught she would be in trouble with the Abbess but Marco would be in trouble with the inquisitors.  He could be exiled or worse.  However, if he didn’t solve these murders, he would be punished by the Council of Ten.  She’d do anything to help Marco.

“After dark, meet me outside by the landing on the Eastern side of the island.  There’s a little dock there that’s seldom used.  I’ll be waiting.”

Francesca had to admit that the mere idea of this all was the most exciting thing to happen to her in her six years of being at Santa Barbara’s.  Once again she would be able to see the most beautiful city in the world.

“Excellent!  At ten o’clock I will be there waiting for you.”

“You might want to bring a disguise for me.”

“Carnival starts in two days.  I’m sure some people will start celebrating early.”

“A carnival costume?  I haven’t worn one since I was fifteen.”  She loved carnival.  Of course, carnival was a time of revelry and few morals and she wasn’t used to such things.

She had never wanted to be one but the fact was, she had taken vows.  However, Marco needed help and Christ would never have hesitated to help someone in need.  She would have to watch herself and keep away from temptation.  She could do it.

“I’ll see you tonight then,” Marco said and then left.

Already her heart was pounding with the anticipation of actually leaving the convent’s grounds.  This was something she could not tell anyone, not even Elena.

She knew she wouldn’t be able to concentrate the rest of the day.  However, one thing she needed to concentrate for was how to get the key to the rear courtyard door that led out to the small loading dock.  One of the older, more respected nuns was charged with the keys.  She always kept the keys with her but Francesca wondered if there was a spare set.  There was a tree close to the wall, but she didn’t know if she could climb it and get over safely.  All of her plans had just been theories.  The actual application of the plans was a different matter entirely.

Francesca waited for evening devotional.  Sister Gabriela always went to mass.  She was devout and constantly complained of the lax rules of the convent.  She watched as Sister Gabriela closed her cell door and walked off toward evening mass.  The rules had long ago stated that no cell doors could have locks.  The Patriarch at that time thought that only sinful things could happen behind locked doors and that a unified community had no need for privacy.  For once the rules were in her favor.

She hurried inside and closed the door.  Gabriela’s room was sparse and austere.  Aside from her bed, a small trunk and cupboard, there was a tiny wooden writing desk.  This had no lock either and Francesca hurried over and opened it.  There were stacks of letters to different monks, abbots and priests, blank papers and underneath everything was  a key ring with a dozen large keys on it.  Francesca grabbed the keys and left.

As she ran to the chapel she wrapped the keys in a strip of cloth to keep from jingling.  She didn’t want anyone to suspect her if by misfortune Gabriela checked for her extra set of keys.

Technically it was stealing but she had every intention of returning the keys so really it was only borrowing.

She sat through devotional with the only thing on her mind being her escape from the convent.  She was barely able to sit still.  She thought about all the sights of Venice she wanted to see once again, the food, the people and of course her friends and family.

However, she had to be realistic.  She was going out at night, she had to inspect a murder and then return before anyone noticed.  It was going to be exciting to be sure, but she had to keep her expectations realistic.

She practically ran back to her cell after mass and waited for the sound of the chapel’s bell tower to ring ten o’clock.  She was unable to concentrate on reading or anything else.

When the bell struck 9:30 she put on her cloak, scarf and snuck out to the garden.  There was a corner of the garden that was covered in bushes and an unpruned tree.  She hide there until the ten bell rang and then, after making sure no one was watching, she went to the door and inserted one of the keys.  It didn’t fit so she tried another and another until she found the right one.  The large key squeaked and took a lot of effort to get to even move.  The lock was rusted on the inside.  It did move however and as soon as it clicked, she pushed the door open and went through, carful to close the door silently behind her.

Marco was there with a small gondola.  She couldn’t stop from smiling but she stayed silent as she jumped into the boat and Marco quickly oared them away into the mist.

Chapter 3

Francesca looked back at the walls of the convent that she hadn’t left since she was sixteen.  Even if she were caught, it was worth it just to have something to break up the monotony of her life.

She knew they had to be quiet because sound traveled in the mist.  Marco silently rowed their little boat back toward Venice.

“I think we’re far enough away.  It’s safe to speak,” Marco said.

Francesca threw her arms around his neck and kissed him on the cheek.

“We did it!”  She said.

“I have your disguise.  Change into it quickly,” he said.

She looked at the large bundle of fine clothes and the mask and tricorne that sat on top of it.  She picked up the dress and saw that it was the type with a low cut bosom and large skirt.  She had worn such clothing before entering the convent but now it just seemed so scandalous.  It was a good thing she had her scarf to cover herself with.

“Don’t look,” she warned and she took off her shoes and began to slip out of her underclothes, careful to keep her robe on.  It took a great deal of time and effort, but she managed to slip the dress on up under her robe and then took off her habit and robe.

Her hair was longer than it should be, going down to her shoulder, but it was still much too short to be proper for a lady.  Fortunately Marco had thought of everything and her disguise had a large white wig.

“I need you to button me up,” she said and turned around.  He stopped rowing long enough to fasten the clasps up her back.

“You look almost how I remember you,” he said.

“I little older and with shorter hair,” she said.

“You haven’t filled out though.  In fact, I think you’re thinner.”

“You can’t imagine how strange this feels to be back in clothing like this.”

“I probably can’t.  I’ve never worn a dress before.”

She laughed and put on the wig.

“You don’t have makeup but it doesn’t matter because you won’t be taking off the mask,” he said.  Then he handed her a fan.

She remembered the fan.  When she was fifteen and still hopeful that there would be a way to avoid the monastery she had begun practicing the secret language of the fan.  Letting the fan rest on the left cheek meant ‘no’ and right cheek meant ‘yes.’  The fan language was necessary because the mask she wore was held in place by her teeth.  She didn’t remember enough to be useful in society, but she could do enough with the fan to get out of a bad situation.

Just the simple pleasure of dressing in nice things was making this adventure well worth the risk.

Francesca put her new, high clogged shoes back on and then the large feathered tricorne hat.

Their gondola entered the mouth of the Grand Canal and they rowed past the Doge’s palace and St. Mark’s square.  She listened to the gentle lapping of the canal and felt the beauty of the night time city.  They passed by water fronts where people talked and laughed.  It was already after ten and people were still out and about enjoying themselves.  Back at Santa Barbara’s it would be time for prayer and quiet contemplation.

“You should probably put your mask on,” he said.

She did so and now looked out at Venice through the eyes of her Carnival mask.

Marco rowed passed the Rialto bridge and finally docked at the waterside front of a large Palazzo.  The posts out front were green and yellow, indicating the family.  This was the member of the Great Council, Pietro.  She hoped that they’d be able to go to Esteban’s crime scene as well.

There was a brand new lock on the palazzo’s doors which Marco quickly unlocked with his own key.  They entered into the dark first floor of the palazzo which was little more than an empty warehouse.  Marco lit an oil lamp and led the way up the spiral staircase to the second floor.

The second floor was once richly decorated but now was shoddy and falling apart.  Cracks were in the walls, paint was peeling and there were holes in the carpet.  Instead of gambling, Pietro should have fixed up his house.  It was dark, even with the light of the lantern and the place had a strange feeling to it, as if they shouldn’t be there.

Marco led her into a bedroom where there was a small bed with bloody sheets.  She took the lantern from Marco and walked up close to the bed to get a better look.  The stains were now dark brown and indicated where Pietro had been lying when he was killed.

“Tell me exactly how you found him,” she said after taking off her mask.

He explained that he had been lying on his back with his arms outstretched.

“He was stabbed while he was lying on his side,” she said.

“How do you figure that?”  He asked.

“Look at the blood stains.  See how there’s this long spray along the wall?  That’s the first stab.”  At the convent she had seen enough pigs and chickens being slaughtered to know how blood acted.

She traced her finger along the long, thin line of dried blood.

“See how it curves?  He rolled over to his back.  Do you have the knife?”

“Not here.”

“Can you send for it or retrieve it?”

“Of course.  I’ll be right back.”

“I know this sounds improper at a time like this, but is there any way you could also bring back some decent food?”

He smiled.

“I think I can manage something.”

He left and she stayed there looking over the entire scene.  Francesca imagined as if she were the murderer.  She crept up to the sleeping Pietro and stabbed him in the front.  However, when she looked, she saw blood spray behind her that indicated no one was standing there.  She tried to crawl on the bed and stab him from behind.  To get the right angle she had to practically be on top of the victim.  That would have woken him up and brought the murderer in close with Pietro.  He died quickly but he had to have had time to struggle with his attacker considering how close they were.  That seemed a very irrational way to go about the whole ordeal.

Next she took the lantern and began searching around for a way in that avoided the guards and the locked door.  Whenever she lost something she would start with the top and work her way down.  She did the same here.  Francesca went up to the roof to see if there was any way someone could have gotten in that way.  The door to the roof was locked on the inside.  She tried it several times but couldn’t budge it.

Then she searched every window for any way in.  The houses on each side touched the palazzo so perhaps he broke through a wall.  She was in the middle of searching all the walls and windows of the second story when Marco came back.  She rushed down and met him on the stairwell.

“I have accomplished both your wished,” he said.  In one hand he had a wooden case that presumably held the dagger and another hand held a sack.  He brought them upstairs to a dinning room and took out several boxes that held sausage, bread, cheese pork and even some sweet rolls.

She dug in as greedily as he usually did.  The difference in the quality of the food was markedly noticeable and she sat there savoring the many delicious flavors.  If there was a little wine it would be a perfect meal.  However she needed her mind as clear as it could be.

“You’ve outdone yourself brother.  Not only do you steal me away from my convent, you provide beautiful clothes and even better food.”

“I work hard,” he said.  “So, have you found anything?”

“The murderer attacked Pietro from behind.  By the blood spray he couldn’t have been standing anywhere near his front.  However the problem is, to stab him from behind, the killer would have to climb on the bed and over Pietro.  That would wake him up unless he was very drunk.”

“He was at the Ca D’Obriego that night and had very little to drink.  We found no opened or empty bottles that would suggest he had been drinking.  He didn’t smell of wine,” he said.

“That complicates things.”

She took a bite of sausage and opened the wooden dagger case.  The dagger was still covered in dry blood.  She picked it up and turned it over and over.

“Strange,” she said.

“What?”

“I’d expect bloody hand prints or at least the impression of a hand.  All I see is blood splatter as if no one was holding it.  I suppose it could have been thrown but that seems an unlikely way to do things.  Was there just the one stab wound?”

“Two.  The first one hit a lung and the second one hit above the heart and severed a major artery.  I don’t think he would have lasted more than a minute.”

“So, let’s say he had half a minute.  Why didn’t he try to fight back or go get help?  It seemed as if he simply laid there and died.  I checked the house and couldn’t find any way inside.  Unless he was inside the house already.  How thoroughly did your men search the house when they came in?”

“Very.  However, there was the time span when the guards, during their shift change found the body and sent someone to fetch the police.  It is possible the killer slipped out then.”

“Maybe.  It could be the closest thing to the truth we’ll find,” she said.

“I’ll put that in my report.”

She took a bite of mozzarella cheese and thought about the whole situation from beginning to end.

“Should we go see Esteban’s murder scene?”  She asked.

“Please.  I’ll walk you there.”

She would love to once again walk through the streets of Venice and she readily agreed.  They left the sealed off house and walked down the paved street and over a small bridge.  She stopped at the top of the bridge and looked down into the black water of the canal and listened to its rhythmic lapping of the water against the stones.

“I love this city,” she said.

“I know you never wanted to leave it.”

“Not quite.  I’d would like to have left it long enough to see the other great cities of the world.  Paris, London, Rome.  I can’t wait for Victoria to come back.  I’ll like to hear everything about the Eternal City.”

“Well, I was going to leave it as a surprise but I can’t hold it in any longer.  Victoria is coming back sometime near the beginning of January.

“You aren’t lying?”

“Not at all.  I got the letter from her yesterday.  She was going to keep it as a surprise as well, but she couldn’t hold it in.  Right now she’s in Ravenna on her way back.”

“Wonderful!”

“She said she can’t wait to see you again.”

This was turning out to be the best night of her life.

As they walked through the quiet streets and bridges of Venice she reached out and took his hand.  It was because of him that she was able to have this amazing night.  Two strangers had died but she honestly cared nothing for them.  That was a terrible thing to think but she couldn’t help it.

“Careful, people may think I have an admirer,” he said.

“Don’t you?”

“Not exactly.  There’s a woman I spend some time with but I don’t think she shares the same feelings.”

“Who is she?”

“Her name is Maria.  It doesn’t matter though.”

“Of course it matters.  Why wouldn’t this Maria want you?  You’re smart, handsome, comparatively wealthy and you hold an honorable position in the Republic’s service.  She’d have to be insane or moronic not to want you.”

“That’s kind of you to say but I’ve found that in matters of love the heart seldom follows such logical paths.”

She wouldn’t know.  She had never been in love and didn’t know anything about it beyond what she had read in poems.

They came to Esteban’s house and went in with a key that Marco had.  He lit another lantern for her and the two of them went to the fourth floor where Esteban’s apartment was.  He had been renting the top floor of this house but since no one else was there he had had the house practically to himself.

“I understand that Pietro had enemies but why Esteban?  He was a commoner with nothing anyone would want.  Was this another vendetta perhaps?”  She said.

“Perhaps.”

“Do you think this is the same killer?”

“I’ve never heard of a murder like these before and now suddenly there are two of them within a week of each other?  No, I don’t think its coincidence.”

They made their way to the bedroom and she found the bed there in a similar way; strewn about with dried blood.

“This one obviously took more than a minute to die.  There had to be a struggle but there was no blood or torn skin on Esteban’s fingernails, no sign of foot prints or anything else that would point to the attacker,” Marco said.

“This one was found with the bedroom door locked on the inside and no other way out of the room,” she said.

“Correct.”

She looked up to the ceiling to make sure there wasn’t any way in through there but she found nothing.  She checked under the rugs and along the walls but there were no hidden entrances.

“We’ve asked around and couldn’t find anyone that would have motivation to kill him,” Marco said.

“And nothing stolen?”

“Nothing stolen.  What money he had was still in his wallet.”

She imagined where Esteban had been lying and crawled up on the bed as if to smother him with a pillow.  She imagined him fighting back.  Without being able to hold his arms down he would be free to pry her arms away, gouge her or knock her loose somehow.

It just didn’t make sense.

“I must admit that I’m at a loss,” Francesca said.

“You did help me with the other one so I thank you for that and for our effort here.”

“Let’s not fool ourselves here.  I should thank you for letting me out of my cage for one night.  This has been an amazing night.”

“And I suppose I should take you back eventually.”

“Eventually, but not just yet.  I have plenty of time and I want to enjoy every minute of it.”

They left Esteban’s house and began to walk the streets and talk of everything and nothing.  She held her mask in her hand in case they came across someone.  She couldn’t risk anyone recognizing her.  It felt so good to walk about with freedom and feel the air on her face.

“Don Zitelle!”  They heard a voice call out.

She turned around behind her and saw a man running up to them.  He was a young man, maybe twenty five years or so.  He was wearing a long black overcoat and black tricorn.  He was also very handsome.  Maybe he was handsome because all she saw of men were old priests, but even judging by her memories he was still handsome.

“Lorenzo, what are you doing up so late?”  Marco asked.

“I was going to ask you the same thing but perhaps this lovely lady by your side is answer enough.  Is this the Maria I’ve heard so much about?”

“No.  This is a friend of the family,” Marco said.

Francesca curtsied but remained silent because of her mask.

“I was heading to the crime scenes to see if the killer might return.  I figured if he did try, he’d try late at night.”

“I just came from there but you’re welcome to try,” Marco said.

“I’ll talk to you tomorrow then,” Lorenzo said with a smile.

“Tomorrow, but not too early,” he said.

She waited until Lorenzo was long gone before she removed her mask to talk again.

“Who was that?” She asked.

“We work together at times.  He’s a good man.”

“So, not even he knows who this Maria is.”

“He believes that the victims knew their killer, but he says its more of a hunch,” Marco said, obviously changing the subject.

“Very well, keep your secret.  I’ll learn it from you sooner or later.”

“By the way, I’m not just saying idle flattery.  You really have helped me.  You’ve shown me the methods of the killing and so I have at least that to put in my report.  It’s much more than I had.”

“You’re welcome, brother.  I’ll be happy to help any time.”

Chapter 4

Francesca got out of Marco’s gondola and stepped onto the old pier.  The sun was going to rise in another hour or so and she knew she was very tired.  She could feel it behind her eyes and in her limbs.  She hadn’t felt how tired she was until they had gotten into the boat to go back to the monastery.

“I’ll talk to you later, Francesca,” he said.

“I’ll look forward to it,” she said and waved as he sailed away.

She opened the door, locked it and crept back to her cell.  No one was up and about and everything was completely quiet.  She closed the door of her cell behind her and let out a long sigh of relief.  Somehow it had all worked out.  She had snuck out for one night in Venice and managed to not get caught.

She still held Sister Gabriela’s keys.  When she looked down at the key that had given her freedom to the outside world, she realized that she didn’t want to give it up.  How often did Gabriela actually think about these keys?  They were under piles of paper.  She would perhaps only glance to make sure the keys were still there.

Francesca removed the outer gate key and hit it in her trunk.  The rest would go back to Gabriella’s room, but that would have to wait until she got some sleep.  She was dead on her feet.

Hastily she removed her clothes and crawled into bed.  It felt so good to just lay down and close her eyes.

She was awakened by knocking on her door.  Her eyes hurt from the tiredness but she cracked them open and saw that it was bright daylight outside.

“Huh?”  She asked.

“It’s me, Elena.”

“I’m sleeping.”

“It’s almost lunch time,” Elena said.

“I’ll talk to you later.  Let me sleep.”

“I can’t do that.  You’ve missed the morning devotion and its time for you to work on the finances, remember?”

She saw Elena poke her head in.

“Must I?”  Francesca asked.

“What’s wrong with you?  Are you feeling well?”

“I’m just tired.”

Elena hurried in and sat down on the edge of her bed.  She felt Francesca’s forehead.

“I told you I’m well.  I’m just tired.”

“But why are you so tired?”

“I stayed up too late reading Lives of Saints.”

“Of course you did.  Now its time to get up.”

Elena helped her out of bed and too her feet.  Then she helped her get dressed and escorted her to the office where all the financial papers where.

“Now tell me why you were up so late,” Elena asked once the door was closed.”

“I couldn’t sleep.  I tossed and turned all night.”

She hated lying to Elena like that but she had no choice.  She couldn’t let anyone know.  One little slip up and Marco would be exiled or worse.

Elena narrowed her eyes but didn’t ask any more questions.

She went through the whole day feeling only half awake.  When it came time for evening mass, she slipped into Gabrielle’s room and replaced the key ring minus the outer rear gate key.  She didn’t bother going to mass though because she knew she couldn’t sit that long without falling asleep.  So she went back to her room and collapsed on her bed.

The next day was the day before the carnival season started and the other nuns were busy making preparations such as cooking cakes, donuts and practicing religious plays they were to perform to visitors.  Such things were against the rules but carnival had a way of bending rules and making others disappear for a time.  Every year the convent would welcome visitors to the chapel where the nuns would have a rare opportunity to show their hospitality.  Even her own Sister Elena was to be in one of the plays.  She was going to play the Good Samaritan.  It was strange to watch Elena dress as a man, complete with fake beard.  Elena seemed to draw some strange entertainment from the whole experience.

Francesca stayed in the office, searching through every paper that documented a transaction.  She kept notes of everything and looked back to them frequently.  She wasn’t a prodigy with math but she had a way of finding the stories hidden in the numbers.  She found that while the previous abbess was alive, their expenditures for flour had been considerably higher.  After asking the older nuns she learned that the previous abbes like freshly baked bread and so she made sure the convent always had fresh bread.

She had to propose the idea of renting the three houses out but there was no chance that they’d listen to her.  Perhaps they would listen to her aunt?  Andriana held much more sway than Francesca.

She also thought back to Marco’s murder investigations.  She thought and thought and tried to go through every scrap of evidence they had found but no solutions were forthcoming.  Some of it just seemed impossible.

Her mind drifted away to the wonderful night spent in Venice.  For a short time she was free and who she used to be.  She went to bed that night with dreams of a life she would never have.

The next day was the beginning of the carnival season.  They got their first visitors around noon.  It was a group of noble men and women who were making a tour of all the convents.  They showered their guests with sweets and a comedic play.  It was a religious play but it was also somewhat irreverently funny.  Even the Abbess was laughing and clapping along.

Francesca had to kick some of the lower class converse nuns out of their chairs so Felicita and she would have a place to sit.  She had to remind the converse nuns of their place in the social hierarchy once in a while.

As Francesca sat there and enjoyed the scene, the same frightened novice approached her.

“Sister Francesca, you have a visitor,” the little novice said.

Another visit from Marco either meant very good news or very bad news.  Hopefully it meant he had solved the murders because she was dying to know how they were done.

When she saw Marco’s worried face she knew she was to be disappointed.  She passed him a tray of donuts and sat down on her side of the bars.

“There’s been another murder,” he said.

“As strange as the last two?”

“A man was thrown out of a fourth story window while a group of revilers danced in the street below.  Ten witnesses say that no one left the house before the police arrived.  Again, no one was found.”

“Are we sure he didn’t commit suicide?”

“He was screaming ‘no’ as he crashed through the window backwards.”

“Who was it?”

“Don Andrea Giacoma.”

“Giacoma?  Related to the last victim.  Definitely not coincidence.”

“Certainly not.  They were brothers.  Andrea was more respected than his brother and was next in line to take over the family once their uncle died.  He was very active in politics and had enemies but nothing that would make someone kill him.  He voted against modernizing the fleet and for that I don’t mourn his loss as well as I should.”

“So now we have to figure out who’s doing all of this.  Someone, probably the same person is killing these men.  I think you may need more help on this.”

“That’s exactly what I was thinking.”

“Tonight, same plan as before.”

“I’ll be there.”

Then he left and she went back to the play with thoughts of another adventurous night outside the convent.

“Any news?”  Felicita asked.

“There was another murder.”

“How horrible!”

“Yes, very horrible.”

After the play she and Felicita walked back to her cell.  On the way they passed a group of nuns that were diving too deeply into a barrel of wine.  The atmosphere of the convent was different during carnival.  Clearly it was less hedonistic than the celebrations in Venice, but it was still one of gaiety and looser morals.

She seldom got to spend time alone with Felicita because her and Elena were inseparable.

“Where is Elena?”  Francesca asked.

“Rehearsing her play.”

“I know your family name, Benedetto, but where does that come from?”

“Mostly we’re from Burano, but I have a few relatives in Venice.  They have a lovely house just north of St. Mark’s.  I got to visit there once before I was moved here.”

“My family came to Torcello when it was first settled.  Gradually they moved to the Rialto.  Fortunate for them because the business died on Torcello and then the people did.  Most of them anyway.”

“Malaria.  How horrible.”

Like Elena, Felicita was a loss to bachelors all over Venice.  She was the only blonde within her group of friends.  She had a somewhat large nose, wide mouth and large teeth, but not to the point where it was unattractive.  She somehow made it look beautiful.  She was also a person that Francesca wanted to get to know better.

They chatted while they sewed and eventually Celeste came in with a smuggled bottle of wine.  Francesca only drank a little.  Again she was going to have to have her mind clear and sharp.

One thing she learned about Felicita was that her sense of humor came out when she drank.  It was as if the alcohol was lubrication for her wit.  She could see why Elena liked to spend so much time with her.  It wasn’t just her wit, but she was also surprisingly intelligent.  Even when inebriated she was still able to discuss the latest philosophical debates and the current events through Europe and the colonies.

Sister Elena didn’t show up till much later and by the time they went to evening devotion, the others were a bit tipsy from the wine.  During devotion she kept touching the key in her pocket.  Right now it was her most valued and dangerous possession.

At ten she crept out to the garden and unlocked the door.  She was going to have to get some oil for the lock because it made a terrible screeching sound when she turned the key.  Marco was there waiting for her.  She had to stifle a shout for joy and jumped in the boat.

As Marco rowed the boat away she changed into her carnival costume with some difficulty.

“I’m going to have to make some way to fasten this mask on so I can wear it and talk at the same time,” she said as she fastened the buckle of her shoe.  Her dress was a dark crimson and she wore her own black silk stockings with the pink ribbons.

“That might be useful.”

“Any way we can get food first?”

“I see your priorities are in order.  We’ll get something and take it to the scene.”

“Is it strange that I don’t loose my appetite around a murder scene?”

“Yes, but I’m the same way.”

“Runs in the blood.”

“I’ll take you to the scene and while you’re looking around I’ll go fetch you something to eat.  This is compensation for all the cakes you’ve given me over the years.”

“Sneaking me out of the convent makes us even I think.”

They were not close to being even.  He had been her only contact with the outside world and her family for six years and now he was giving her a taste of freedom.  No, they weren’t anything close to resembling even.

He rowed up to the piazzeta in front of the Doge’s palace and tied his gondola to one of the poles.  He helped her out of the small boat and she saw that the entire piazza of St. Mark’s was full of revelers.  There were musicians, jugglers, human pyramids, masked people everywhere.  As they walked through the crowd she saw men groping women, women groping men, people kissing and all manner of hedonism.

She kept her eyes on the ground and did her best to follow Marco.  They made their way through the piazza and into the narrow streets beyond.  Streets away they still heard the noise from St.Mark’s.

“Here it is,” he said. This palazzo was ancient but very well taken care of.  Two police stood guard in front of the gates that led to a small garden.

“Don Vitelle,” one of the guards said.

“Good evening gentlemen.  This is a specialist I’m taking in to get her opinion.”

The guards nodded and she followed Marco inside.

“There are seven others that live here but we can’t let them in until we’re finished with the crime scene,” he said.

It was a shame because it was a nice house full of beautiful things.  She stopped and examined the art.  Most of it had pagan motifs which she loved.  Many of which she would liked to had put up in her cell.  She had always had a love of the ancient classics, even since a young girl.

“This house is beautiful,” she said.

“It is.  However, like Pietro, Andrea is deep in debt.  He keeps up his facade better, but he is as broke as his brother.”

He took her upstairs to a bedroom where the glass window was broken out.  She looked around and didn’t see anything.”

“Once again, no one saw anyone come in or out.  He was obviously pushed out,” he said.

“Was the door open or closed?”

“Closed.”

“Alright.  I’ll stay here while you go get something to eat.  When you get back I want to hear about who this man’s enemies were.”

“Will do.”

He left the house and she began looking around the room.  She closed the door and imagined the murder how it might have happened.  She stood by the window and judged how close the victim might have been.  Did he stumble backwards first or was he pushed directly out the window?  She tested the glass.  Very high quality and wouldn’t be broken by a light shove.  This was intentional and violent.  She didn’t know if she would have the force to do it to a grown man.

One possibility was that the entire group that witnessed the murder was apart of it.  Hard to imagine but not impossible.

Then she heard a creaking sound coming from the hallway, as if someone was walking toward the room.  Francesca quickly put her mask on and went to the door to peek out.  She raised the lantern but didn’t see anyone.

“Hello?”  She called out while holding her mask.  She was definitely going to have to make some kind of ribbon to keep it on.

There was no answer.  She walked out into the hall but no one was there.  It was an old house and it made noises.  Her father’s house was like that.  She went back in the room and closed the door.

Francesca bent down to look at the way the broken glass fell in order to perceive some kind of pattern.  Very little glass remained on the inside but some of it was thrown far into the room.  That required a great deal of force.

Then there was another noise in the hallway and this time it definitely sounded like footsteps.  She ran to the door and threw it open.

No one was there.  She bit down on the bit of the mask and swallowed. The house was empty and dark and her lantern cast hundreds of shadows from the railings of the banister.

“Hello?  Is someone there?”  She called out.

She closed the door and listened carefully.  She hadn’t really been alone before.  When she was at the other murder scene she had been so preoccupied with the investigation that she hadn’t noticed she was alone.  Now she felt every second of it.  The house was painfully silent but the noise would be worse.

Then she thought about the murderer.  Somehow he had slipped in and out of the scenes unseen.

What if he was here?

She quickly looked around for some kind of weapon.  She searched the drawers and a chest and found a small knife.  She gripped it with both hands and listened again.

Francesca heard a door opening somewhere in the house.  That was a definite door opening.  Someone was inside the house.  She wasn’t just imagining it and it wasn’t just the house.

She heard footsteps again.  She looked for a place to hide but all she saw was the bed.  She crouched down behind it still clutching the knife.  If this man could kill three people with no resistance then he would have no problem with her.  Images of her being stabbed and thrown out a window flashed through her overly imaginative mind.

Then the door opened and Marco walked in carrying a sack of food.

“Marco, this is the last time you leave me without a weapon,” she said with a mixture of anger, fear, relief and some embarrassment.

Chapter 5

Francesca sliced the salami onto some bread as she listened to Marco tell her the list of Andrea’s enemies.  As he listed them off she recognized some of the names as being important political figures.  One of them was rumored to want to be the next Doge.

“The problem is, he isn’t involved in anything that would warrant someone killing him…at least not publicly,” Marco said.

“Then we need to find out what he is involved with that isn’t public.  If he is as poor as you say then we should start there.  We find the motive, then we find the killer and then we can figure out how he managed this.”

“Sounds logical.  I’m fairly certain where we can find some of them.  They’ll be in the gambling parlors.  It would look far less official if I showed up with a woman.”

“Will they think I’m Maria?”  She said, hoping to get more information out of him.

“Only my friends know about Maria.”

“I don’t know about Maria.”

“You know as much if not more than anyone else.  What say you about going to talk to these men?”

“I’m breaking far more rules than I ever should already.  A gambling den?”

She honestly did feel a little guilty about what she was doing but not enough to overcome her joy in it all.

“Don’t worry.  I’ll protect you from sin and vice,” he said.

It would be a chance to see more of the city.  She would be in a great deal of trouble already, but this wouldn’t add too much to it.

“Very well, but I’ll need a few reminders on how to use the fan.”

“I know a few things.  Remember, I earn extra money working the tables at such dens of iniquity.”

“This is serious, Marco. If we’re caught then…”

“Yes, yes.  I know.  I already think I’ve gone mad.  I don’t need to be reminded.”

“Perhaps we’ve both gone mad.”

She would have kept the dagger but she had no where to put it.  Until she thought of something she’d have to rely on Marco for protection.

They made their way through the narrow dark streets toward the area of the Rialto bridge.  The gambling house they were going to was on the Grand Canal and was one of the more prestigious ones, if prestigious could be applied to a place specifically designed to fleece its patrons.  All the money robbed from the patrons went to the government.  Aristocrats’ fortunes were being lost every day and the government profited from their stupidity.  Even sadder was that the rich from all over Europe came to waste money here.

She saw more revelers laughing and kissing in the streets they passed.  Carnival was a time where everyone was equal.  It didn’t matter who a person was because at this time everyone hid their identities behind masks.  A baker could mingle with a noble and a noble could fall in love with a merchant’s daughter.  She wasn’t fond of the idea of mingling with commoners.

Eventually they found themselves at the entrance of the Ca’ Ridotto.  The four story mansion once belonged to the Canova family but ten years ago was bought by the state and now was a gambling house.   She had never been to a gambling house before and she knew her manners were most likely out of practice.  There was also the danger of being found out.

He took her, arm in arm and led her inside.  The guard greeted him on sight.  This must be the place Marco worked at.  Inside was more richly decorated than any place she had ever visited.  Gilded designs covered the walls and crystal chandeliers hung from the ceilings.  Mirrors lined the walls and the furniture was all colored gold.  Men and women in masks filled the rooms and through the open doors she could see all the way to the far end of the building where it opened up to the Grand Canal.

Masked servants went around serving coffee or wine to the patrons while nobles worked at the gambling tables.  Everywhere she looked she saw decadence and loose morals.

“Why do you work in such a place?”  She asked.

“Because it’s a very useful place for opening one’s ears.  I gain more information here than any other place.  It’s not just what I’m told or happen to over hear, but also what I see.”  He pointed to a masked woman with a tall, white wig.  “See her, how she’s just fanning herself?  Well, she’s actually sending a message to that young gentleman over there.  She’s telling him that she’s married but then she touches the tip of the fan with her finger.  That says she desires to speak with him.”

As she watched the gentleman got up and walked over to her and he began to introduce himself.

“She’s married and probably here without her husband.  I wouldn’t be surprised if the two of them decided to carry on their conversation in a more private place.”

“You mean…but she’s married!”

“The gambling houses are a place for decadence at the best of times but now its Carnival and its even more so.”

So far, she didn’t like the gambling houses at all.  Francesca didn’t desire the life of a monastic, but even she had some morals.  She wondered how many of these ‘noble’ women were actually courtesans.  High priced prostitutes mingling with the cream of Venetian society was a disgrace.

Marco took a chair at a cards table and soon he had four players.  She stood just behind and to the side of him like she saw other women do.  She fanned herself while trying not to accidentally send someone a message.   Marco wore a Bauta mask that was white and covered his entire face.

He sat there and chatted with people, seemingly about meaningless gossip and news.  However, the more she paid attention the more she understood what he was doing.  He would ask many questions but she could recognize the questions that held meaning to what they were investigating.  He was testing the waters and trying to find any hint of something out of place.  She noticed through the next two hours that the ones that gave him the most information he would let win.  She saw his cards and knew when he was loosing on purpose.  He was bribing the people.

It was surprisingly hard to pay attention to Marco’s questions because all around her were countless dramas being played out.  Because of the constant murmuring of the assembled patrons, the fan language was the easiest to understand at a distance.  She eavesdropped on many half conversations and was amazed at how much amorous adventures were taking place all around her.  She had had heard that amorality was commonplace in gambling houses but she had been truly ignorant of the real situation.

Then Lorenzo came in without a mask.  He walked up to them and gave a polite but hurried nod to her.

“Marco, I thought I’d find you here,” Lorenzo said.  He looked in her direction.  “Is there somewhere we can speak in private?”

“If you’d excuse us,” Marco said to her.

The two men left to go into a small side room.  They were there for a while.  Francesca did not like being there alone at all.

As she stood there, fanning herself she saw that a nobleman was looking in her direction.  She tried to ignore him by looking the other way but after a while the man got up and walked over to her.

“Good evening my lady,” he said with a slight French accent.

She then did the only sign she knew of that could get rid of him, though it wasn’t as polite as she would have liked.  She should definitely not be in a position where she had to ward off potential lovers.  Francesca folded her fan and touched it to her left ear which meant she wanted to be rid of him.

He scowled but stayed.

“I’m afraid that perhaps you have not had time to adequately present my case,” the man said.

She didn’t know what else to do but repeat the sign.  He only laughed.

“I’ve traveled far and as of yet I’ve never met women more charming than the ones found in Venice.  What say we go someplace more private where we can speak at leisure?”

She touched the fan to her left cheek as a sign for ‘no.’   What was keeping Marco?”

“Please, my lady.  If you’re worried about me being a vagabond, please don’t.  I’m not anything of the sort.”

Then Marco came back and quickly put himself between her and the man.

“Excuse me sir, I don’t believe my fiancé is interested in what you have to say,” Marco said.

“Apparently not,” the Frenchman said and walked away.

She rested her hand on Marco’s shoulder as a sign of thanks.

“Sorry about leaving you alone like that,” he said.

“Fiance?”  Lorenzo asked.

“Not really,” Marco quickly said.

“Marco, you would tell me if you were engaged, right?”

“I would.”

“Well, I’ll be taking my leave.  It was a pleasure to see you again, mysterious lady.”

After a long night of listening in on Marco’s conversations she was almost glad to go back to the convent.  Things were so much simpler there and far less hedonistic.

“I got some interesting information tonight that I’ll have to follow up on,” Marco said as he rowed the boat back to Santa Barbara’s.

“What did you learn?”

“I learned that our friend Andrea and Pietro were involved in politics much more than what was publicly known.  It seems that they have many friends in high positions that they visited frequently.  Now I have to find out who and why.”

“You learned all that from those simplistic conversations?”

“I have certain people I can rely upon to help me in my work.  We have a unique manner for of asking and giving information.”

“So people overhearing won’t be suspicious,” she said.

“Precisely.  I’m sorry if tonight wasn’t as fun as last time.  Next time will be better.  I promise.”

“Next time?”

“Well, our investigation isn’t complete.  I’ll still need your help.”

“Need or want?”

“Both.”

“This is all too dangerous.  I can’t leave the convent again without some kind of compensation.”

“Such as?”

“I want to attend the opera or some other musical concert.”

“That can be arranged.”

“If you can do that, then you’ll have your faithful assistant.”

“Deal.”

“We come from generations of merchantmen.  I would have thought you would have at least tried to cut a harsher deal.”

“No need to.  If I get what I want for an inconsequential payment,”  he said.

“Maybe I should have asked information on this Maria woman.”

“I love her but I don’t know if she loves me.  Unless something more substantial occurs there is no reason to discuss it.  If it comes to nothing then it would be better to pretend it never existed.”

“Very well.  Have it your way.”

She bid her brother farewell as she opened the door to the convent.  Inside all was dark and quiet.  She crept to her cell and went to sleep as quickly as she could.

Again, she was awakened much too early.  Elena stood above her bed with her hands on her hips.

“Sister Francesca, I demand to know why you’re so tired that you sleep in almost till noon!”  Elena said.

“Go away,” Francesca mumbled.

“Not until you tell me.  I’m going to start checking up on you in here every night.  That jacket you’re making hasn’t progressed much so I know its not that keeping you up.”

“I’ll tell you later.  Promise.”

“Tell me now.”

“No.”

“Fine.  But either way you must get up.”

Elena pulled her out of bed and helped her get dressed.  During lunch while the gospel of St Luke was being read aloud she had to struggle to keep her eyes open.  These late nights on the city were worth it but the price was high.  After lunch she went back to her cell and fell asleep again.  She woke up to find Elena and Felicita sewing and chatting.  Felicita was sitting on the edge of the bed and Elena was sitting in her one chair she wasn’t supposed to have.

“Back among the living?”  Felicita asked without looking up from her sewing.

“I think so,” Francesca said, sitting up.

“Are you going to tell us your late night secret?  Is it with a lover perhaps?”  Felicita asked.

“I can promise you that it isn’t a lover.”

“How boring then.”

“Don’t tease her, Felicita,” Elena said. “Apparently we can’t be trusted with this secret.”

“It’s not that,” Francesca said.  “Its just that I can’t risk even the slightest chance of being over heard or word slipping out.  It’s not just myself I’m worried about, but someone else.”

“So, it is a lover!”  Felicita said.

“No, but it is someone I hold dear.”

That night after her final prayers she slipped into bed, thinking of the opera she was soon to enjoy.  For the first time she had seriously begun to consider leaving permanently.  She could go to Rome or Milan. The problem was that she wouldn’t want to go alone and she doubted that she could convince Marco to go with her.  He had a very important job here and was set to inherit most of the family fortune.

Then she heard something.  It sounded almost like breathing.  Francesca opened her eyes and looked around but didn’t see anything other than her normal dark cell.

She lay back down and closed her eyes again.  Her body wanted to rest but her mind wanted to wander the streets of Venice again.

As she lay there she heard what sounded like her door opening.  She quickly sat up and looked around.  Her door wasn’t opened and no one was there.  It must have been sound carrying from down the hall.

She closed her eyes and tried to go to sleep.

In the middle of the night she was awakened by something.  It wasn’t a noise though.  She didn’t know exactly what it was.

Francesca sat up and looked around.  However this time, she thought she saw something.  She couldn’t be sure because it was late and night and her cell was full of shadows.

For a second it almost looked like someone was standing by the foot of her bed.  She rubbed her eyes and looked again.  It looked even more like someone standing there.

“Who’s there?”  She asked.

The shadow didn’t move and the more she looked at it the more she was certain someone was there.

She reached out for her table and grabbed the first thing she could.  It was her copy of the Divine Comedy.  She threw it at the shadow.  The book sailed through the shadow and landed on the floor.

However, the shadow was gone.  There was no longer anything there that could be mistaken for a person.

Someone had definitely been there.

She hadn’t realized it but her heart was pounding.  She waited until she could calm down and then got up to check around her cell and hallway.  No one was up and about.

She went back to bed but didn’t get much sleep that night.

Chapter 6

Francesca kneeled down in the soil of her small, private plot of garden.  It was a communal garden but many Sisters head their own little garden.  Somehow a weed had gotten in and she was digging it out.  Come spring she would be planting tomatoes.

“Francesca, you must tell us what you’ve been doing,” Elena said.  Felicita and she were sitting down on a stone bench, rubbing their hands from the cold.

“I can’t.  You must trust me.  Eventually I will but right now I can’t,” Francesca said.

“Did any of you come into my room last night?”  Francesca asked.

Elena and Felicita looked at each other and then shook their heads.

“I had wanted to. I wanted to see what you did that was so mysterious, but I fell asleep and didn’t,” Elena said.

“No.  Why?”  Felicita asked.

“I thought I saw someone in my room last night,” Francesca said.

“Someone?  Who?”  Felicita asked.

“I don’t know.  I only saw a dark shape, like a shadow.”

“It’s probably your tired mind fooling you because you won’t get proper sleep,” Elena said.

“I do get proper sleep, just not at the proper time.”

“We’ll find out, one way or another,” Elena said.

“Have you heard that the Abbess is sick?”  Felicita asked, thankfully changing the subject.

“No, I haven’t heard that,” Francesca said.

“Not surprising.  The convent could have burnt down without you knowing,” Elena said.

That was more accurate than Elena could have guessed.

“I hate keeping secrets from you, but that’s simply how it is.  Everyone has secrets.  Don’t tell me you two tell me everything about yourselves.  I apologize, but it can’t be helped.”

Elena and Felicita gave each other a strange look. Francesca was about to ask about that look but Sister Noel came up.

“Sister Francesca, you have a visitor,” Noel said.

“Your brother has been visiting more than usual,” Elena said.

“It’s not Marco,” Noel said.

“Not Marco?  Who is it?”  Francesca asked, now thoroughly confused.

“I don’t know.  It’s a noblewoman,” Noel said.

It was too early for Victoria to be back but perhaps she wanted to make her arrival a surprise.  That was the only person it could possibly.  As she walked to the salon she tried to think of anyone else but absolutely no one else came to mind.

When she walked into the salon she saw a woman standing there wearing an elaborate and very expensive dress that came out wide from her hips, pushed her bosoms up and flared out at the elbows.  She wore a tall white wig and had a white painted face with a beauty dot on the cheek.  Francesca had never seen this woman before in her life.  She was pretty but not overpoweringly pretty like other young noblewomen.  Yet she was definitely striking in her appearance.  She was unique with sharp features and a tall, straight posture.  The woman hadn’t noticed her entrance.  She was standing in front of a painting of the annunciation with both her hands on her hips.

“Greetings.  I’m Sister Francesca Zitelle.  How may I help you?”

The woman wheeled about and narrowed her blue eyes at her.

“You are Marco Zitelle’s sister, yes?”  The woman asked with a hint of an accent Francesca didn’t recognize.

“That is correct.  It’s usually polite to introduce yourself as well.”

“Not until I get some answers,” the woman said.  The tone of her voice left little in doubt that she was angry about something.  Francesca couldn’t imagine what this woman had against her.  They had never met.

“I’m afraid I don’t talk to people that choose not to follow common courtesy,” Francesca said.

“Were you or were you not with Marco Zitelle two nights ago at a gambling house?”

“Where would you have heard something as ridiculous as that?  You can see that I am a nun and thus secured from the outside world.”

The woman took three brisk step up to the bars where Francesca was and looked down at her.  The woman was a bit taller and had a long thin neck.

“Do not play games with me, Sister Francesca.  I don’t care that you break a few meaningless rules.  I don’t care about you sneaking out of the convent or doing whatever it is you do.  What I do care about is whether you were the mysterious woman seen with Marco three nights ago.”

Then Francesca began to wonder if this was the elusive Maria that Marco had spoken of.

She looked at the woman and tried to discern what Marco saw in her.  She was pretty and Marco always had a liking for unique looking women.  Marco was also tall so her height wouldn’t be a problem for him.  She was strong willed, whoever she was.  But when she looked at the woman, she could tell that being so forceful was not her usual modus operandi.  She was fidgeting and behind her aggressiveness she actually seemed nervous.

“You do realize that if I were to answer ‘yes,’ that I would be endangering not only my own position here but Marco’s life as well?”  Francesca said.

“I don’t care about telling others.  I promise not to tell anyone for any reason.  You have my word.  Now please tell me if you were in fact the woman seen with Marco.”

This had to be Maria.  That also meant that she was jealous and worried that Marco had found another woman.  That meant she did in fact have feelings for him.  Interesting indeed.

“I have your solemn oath that no matter what is said here, it will not be mentioned outside these walls?”  Francesca asked.

“Yes!  Please tell me the truth.”

“Yes. I was with Marco three nights ago.  He needed help with an investigation.  He believes me to be the smartest one in the family and wanted my advice.  I couldn’t help him unless I saw the crime scenes for myself.  So he snuck me out and disguised me.”

The woman let out a long sigh and actually smiled, revealing straight, white teeth.  She had a very pretty smile that made her whole appearance much more inviting.

“Oh, thank God.  You have no idea how much this has been eating away at me.  I heard he was seen around town with another woman.  I asked and he told me this ridiculous story about how it was his sister he had snuck out of a convent.  I thought he was too much of a law abiding man to even consider something like that.”

“You didn’t believe him and had to come find out the truth for yourself.”

“Yes.  I’m sorry to have bothered you.”

“You must be Maria.”

“Yes,” the woman said with a larger smile.  “He’s mentioned me?”

“He has, but hasn’t told me anything about you.”

“He hasn’t?  But why is that?”  Her mood had changed subtly to one of despair.

“I’m not sure I should tell you this.  It’s probably for him to say, not me.”

“Please!  Tell me.  I’ll make a donation to your convent.  I’ll make a donation to you personally, but please tell me.”

“The reason he hasn’t told me anything was because he didn’t want to get my hopes up.  He says why make something out of what might possibly be nothing?”

“Nothing?  What does he mean by nothing?  I don’t understand.  How could he call it nothing?”

“I said, what might possibly be nothing.  The problem is, he loves you but he doesn’t know if his feelings are returned.”

“What?  He said that?”

“He did.”

“He said he loved me?”

“In no uncertain terms.”

“Wonderful!”  Maria grabbed Francesca’s hands, taking Francesca by surprise.  “He said he loved me.  I had no idea.  But what does he mean that he didn’t know if his love was returned?”

“I honestly have no idea.  He keeps his private life very private, even from me.”

“I see.  You must think I’m a mad woman.  I apologize for my behavior.”

“I understand that love makes people do unusual things.  Do you really love my brother?”

Maria could only nod.

She envied this Maria.  Maria had everything Francesca had ever wanted.  She was free to live her life and free to love.  She loved a wonderful man and was loved in return.

“I understand that you love to read and that you are a very intelligent woman,” Maria said.

“He’s told you that?”

“Marco has told me a great deal about you.  You’re the only family he really talks about.  Has he said anything more to you about me?”

“No.  He has always been very reserved when it came to romance.  He has never been much of a talker, especially about feelings.  The more he feels, the less he talks.”

That seemed to bring a smile on Maria’s face.

“What family are you from?”  Francesca asked.

“I am Maria De Canali.”

That was one of the most common names in Venice and told her very little.  She was dressed very well so she was either a noble or a wealthy merchant’s daughter.  If it was the latter then her prospects of marrying Marco were significantly reduced.  The price of a dowry these days was enormously high.  Some families had come to ruin over the price of dowries.  It wasn’t just the money because many merchants were significantly more wealthy than many nobles.

What really had Francesca concerned was if Maria’s family was found in the Libro D’ Oro.  If the Golden Book that held the names of every noble didn’t have her name, then their children would be barred from holding public offices and the benefits that the patrician class offered.  Marco would, in effect, be downgrading the family’s status.

“I must be going and I’m sure I’ve kept you long enough.  I will return with a gift.  I’ll bring you my copy of John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government.  Do you know how to read English?”

Francesca’s heart almost stopped.  She had long heard of this book but had never had a chance to see it, let alone read it.

“Y…yes.  Yes, I can read it.  You have this book?”

“Of course.  I’ve read it numerous times.  Your brother said you loved philosophy and politics.  I thought you would enjoy it.”

“Yes, very much so!”

“Wonderful!  Then I shall bring it to you within the week.”

“Thank you.”

“No, thank you.  You’ve opened my eyes to more than I had thought possible.  You’ve also trusted me with a dangerous secret.  Your trust will not go unrewarded.  Farewell until we speak again.”

Maria then left in a flourish of jewels and perfume.

Slightly confused as to what to make of the whole incident, Francesca went back to the garden and related everything, minus her confession of leaving the convent, to Elena and Felicita.

“Ah, John Locke.  I read his book before entering the convent,” Felicita said.  “Education begins the gentleman, but reading, good company and reflection must finish him.  That’s one of my favorite quotes from him.”

“I would say I certainly have good company,” Francesca said.

“And soon, we’ll have more reading.  I can’t wait to see this book,” Elena said.

“But you don’t speak English, only Italian, German and French,” Felicita reminded her.

“Yes, but you can translate for me.  Besides, I can read you Charles-Louis de Secondat, Montesquieu.”

“The French have a talent for speaking much and saying little.  I prefer the English and Scottish writers,” Francesca said.

This began a debate over Italian, German, French and English literature that lasted through dinner, evening devotion and well into the night.  When it was finally time to turn in, she bid her friends goodbye and settled into her bed.

She blew out her lantern and pulled the covers up over her shoulders.  She thought about Marco and if he would indeed find happiness with Maria.  She also wondered about Maria.  It was hard to get an accurate measure of the woman from their brief meeting.  Still, she had read John Locke so that was a favorable impression.  She had a Venetian family name but an unknown accent.  She was a unique person indeed.

She closed her eyes and tried to get comfortable.

As she lay there, she heard a creaking sound, as if someone was walking on her floor.  She knew that sound well.  It was clearly the sound of footsteps approaching her bed.

Francesca wanted nothing more than to sit up and see who it was, but there was a feeling in the air that made her cringe instead.  Something felt cold and inhuman about this noise.  She wanted to look up and confront this person, but she was just too scared.  The hairs on her arms raised and something like a cold finger ran down her spine.

Instead she closed her eyes tighter and prayed for whatever it was to go away.

The creaking stopped and for a moment Francesca thought her prayers had been answered but instead the footsteps began again, this time walking towards the head of her bed until whatever it was, was standing directly over her.

Then She felt what must have been a hand touch her blanket near her shoulder.  It was a gentle press.

With that, Francesca screamed and jumped out of bed.  In the darkness she didn’t see anyone there and she didn’t dare look too hard in fear that she would actually see it.

She ran out of her cell and to Elena’s room.  Elena and Felicita were both in the bed and Francesca burst into their room, waking them up.  She jumped into the bed beside Elena and covered herself up.

“What in the circles of hell is this about?”  Elena asked in a sleepy, irritated and worried voice.

“There was something in my room,” Francesca managed to get out.

“What was it?”  Felicita asked.

“I don’t know.  I heard it walk up to my bed and then it touched me on the shoulder.”

“It was a person?”  Elena asked.

“I don’t know.”

“If it walked and touched you, then clearly it was a person!”  Elena said.

“It walked and touched me, but it didn’t feel like a person.  It felt…inhuman somehow.  It felt cold and hollow.”

“But you didn’t see them?”  Felicita asked.

“No, but I think it was the shadow that stood at the foot of my bed the other night.  It had to be the same.”

“I think your mind’s is imagining things that aren’t there,” Elena said.

“Maybe, but can I sleep here tonight?”

She looked up from the covers and saw Elena shrug.

“Very well.  You can sleep here tonight, but tomorrow night you must learn to overcome these childish fears.  I’ve never known you to act childish before,” Elena said.

“Maybe she really did see something,” Felicita said.

“I swear I did!”  Francesca said.

“Never mind now.  Just go to sleep,” Elena said, and laid back down.

In the morning Francesca had a clearer mind and the more she thought of it, the more she was convinced that she had seen, heard and felt something.  Elena and Felicita were still asleep.  It wasn’t unusual for nuns to share a bed.  She knew Elena and Felicita were close and it came as no surprise.  Several nuns held hands, slept in each other’s beds and even embraced.  It was strictly against the rules, but that rarely stopped anyone.  It gave some semblance of family and the warmth it once brought them.  She couldn’t begrudge anyone that tried to reclaim a piece of the world they had lost.  She had to admit that it was very comforting to sleep with them right beside her.

Eventually, the thought of reading a new book and not the same few over and over again overpowered her fear of the unknown walker.  She couldn’t wait for the next visit from her brother.  She wanted to hear everything about this Maria and what had happened since Maria’s visit.  With luck it would be good news.  She could use good news.

Chapter 7

When Francesca heard that she had a visitor that day, she honestly didn’t know who to expect.  It was either Marco, Maria with her book, or Victoria with a surprise visit.

It turned out to be Marco.

“Maria told me that she came to see you,” Marco said somewhat nervously.

“Yes she did.  We had a pleasant chat and all confusion was laid to rest.  She’s a very intelligent woman though she seems to be driven by emotion more than reason.”

“What did you talk about?”

“I told her that it was me that you were seen with.  This seemed to have calmed her down.  What has she told you?”

“She was as evasive as you are being now.”

“Evasive?  Why I would never purposely hold the truth from you, dear brother,” she said, holding back her laughter.

“Very well.  Keep your secrets and use me as an object of comedy.  What else did Maria say to you?”

“She stayed only for a little while.  Her family name is De Canali?  I’m not familiar with that name.  Is she a merchant’s daughter?”

“Not exactly.  It doesn’t matter right now.  I have very little time.  Are you free tonight?”

“I’m always free.”

“Alright.  Same place and time.  I’ll talk to you later.”

He then kissed her hand and hurried out the door.

He was acting very strangely.  He had certainly avoided her question, but to literally run from the room like that?  Perhaps he really was in such a hurry.  It was hard to tell with him.  Either way she would get the answers tonight.

Francesca was getting used to the waiting before a night out of the convent.  She had fixed her mask with a ribbon and removed the bit so she could talk.  She had found a large scrap of leather that she used to make a loop holder for the knife and used a silk ribbon to wrap it around her thigh.  With the huge dress she would be wearing no one would notice it.

As always, Marco was punctual.  She slipped into his boat and they rowed away from the convent’s island.  She was used to getting dressed on the cramped boat and with some degree of modesty.

Before she had entered the convent many of the things that bothered her now would not have.  She had been around pious nuns for too long.  She had never wanted to take vows.  Did vows spoken only with the lips hold the same meaning?  How beholden to the order was she?  For the past six years she had been told that she was a bride of Christ, but she didn’t feel it.  She felt more like a prisoner that pretended to enjoy their prison in order to stay sane.

As she slipped on the black shoes with the pretty bows she wondered what she was.  As hard as she had tried, she had never had the vocation in her heart.  She had wanted love, a husband and a family.

But when has this life ever been about what a person wanted?  She hadn’t chosen this life; it was chosen for her, but it was still her life.  She believed the gospel and when she said her prayers she meant them.  She just didn’t understand why she couldn’t live a pious, respectable life outside the convent.

She secured the thigh high stalkings in place and then put the wig on.  Except for the mask and tricorne, her costume was complete.

“Where are we going tonight?”  She asked.

“Teatro San Cassiano and we’ll be viewing Le nozze d’Enea con Lavinia by Monteverdi.”

“Sounds wonderful.”

“It will be.  Maria will be joining us.  I hope you don’t mind.”

“Not at all.”

“I’ll have two beautiful women at my side.  People may talk,” he said.

“Tell me more about this Maria.  What’s her family like?”

“Yes, well…”

“Why the hesitation?  Come out with it.”

“She’s not a noblewoman.”

“A merchant’s daughter then.”

“She was a Russian merchant’s daughter.  He brought her when he moved here and soon after he died.  She used what money was left to her and set herself up as…”

“As what, Marco?”  Francesca asked, knowing she wouldn’t like the answer.

“As a courtesan.”

Francesca froze in place, still gripping the sides of the boat.

“My brother is seeing a courtesan?  A bejewled whore?”

“She’s not a whore.  She’s an ‘honest courtesan.’  She doesn’t seduce men for money.”

“I suppose she told you that herself.”

“She did at one time but that life is behind her.  She writes poems, plays, music, and she paints.  You should see her paintings.  She’s educated and intelligent.”

“But she uses her gifts to deceive men out of their money!  She lies and pretends for a living.  You really believe that she could earn a living from being a great conversationalist?  She still has to sleep with men as rewards for their patronage.”

“She doesn’t do that.”

“Of course not.  She put on such a great performance when she visited me that I actually believed her.  She’s very good at what she does.”

“She’s been nothing but truthful with me.”

“There’s nothing truthful about her.  She’s a snake.  My dear, foolish brother, how could you have fallen for a viper like this?”

“I met her during the course of an investigation.  From the moment I met her she has never told me anything but the truth.  Her past isn’t pristine and spotless.  I understand and accept that.  However, in a city of people that no longer care about anything other than their own entertainment, she has a mind for helping others.  She’s adopted a girl she found on the streets as her own daughter.  She pays for street walkers that want to quit the life to enter convents specifically set up for them.  She’s a patriot and loves her country.  She can talk about politics all over Europe with any of the senators that visit her.  Maria’s everything I’ve always wanted and what you’ve always respected.”

“Except the part where she sells her virtue for money.”

“And if you were starving, you wouldn’t do something similar?  Besides, who am I to judge.  She did what she had to in order to survive.  I’ve killed men simply because it was my job.  Which of us has a more righteous life?”

“You do what you have to in order to secure the security of our great Republic.  She sells herself for personal gain.”

“Francesca, she is coming with us to the opera.  She will keep our secret and I expect you to treat her politely and with civility.  Accept her because I love her.”

Francesca sat back in the boat and folded her arms while she thought.  She had always trusted and respected Marco’s opinions and judgment.  He had always been an excellent judge of character, a trait that helped him secure his position.  Also, he loved this woman.  All that together meant that she should trust his judgment on this.  At least for now.

“But what can possibly come of this?”  Francesca asked.  “You can’t marry her.”

“Why not?”

“Because our family is looking to you to continue the bloodline.  A child with an parent who isn’t a noble has no claims to the patrician class.  Your son would never be able to carry on our noble blood line.”

“We have more than enough cousins to carry on the family name.  Also, our eldest brother, John has three sons of his own.”

“But he spends too much time in the gambling halls and at his villa on the mainland.”

“Only because he refuses to be in the same building as father.  Give him responsibility and I know he would more than live up to it.  It must be hard to be the eldest son, yet ignored by your own father.”

“Why couldn’t you have fallen in love with a doge’s daughter?”  She asked, throwing her hands up.

“Because all the noblewomen I’ve met are coddled, vaporous, spoiled dolls that know nothing of real life.  I want a woman that understands the world and herself.  I think I’ve found that woman.”

Francesca looked down at herself and her dark blue and yellow dress, fine shoes and silk stalkings.  If she were caught she would ruin the reputation of her family.  Maybe as a courtesan, Maria was indeed being honest about herself.  Maria didn’t hide behind secrecy and hypocrisy.  She had little room to judge from.

Still, she worried about Marco’s reputation and the future of their great house.

“I’ll behave and treat Maria as a friend,” Francesca finally said as they entered the Grand Canal.

“Thank you.”

The city was now even more lit up and full of people than last time she saw.  After several days of constant partying, the city was just getting started.

She put on her mask when the approached one of the docks.  He tied the boat up and helped her out of it.

Then he took her to a small but beautiful palazzo in the heart of the Desedoro district where all the streets were narrow, winding and interlaced with small canals.  The palazzo was brightly lit.

A servant answered the door.  She was an old woman with black and gray hair.  She smiled upon seeing Marco but didn’t smile at Francesca.

Then a young girl, maybe about thirteen years old came down some stairs and hurried to the door.  She was the prettiest little girl Francesca had ever seen.  She had large, bright brown eyes, black hair done in ringed locks and the largest smile.

“Marco!  When are you going to take me to the opera?”  The little girl asked.

“I’ll take you next time, I promise.  How does next week sound?”  Marco said.

“Sounds wonderful.”

Francesca marveled at the brightness and energy this girl had.  She was precious and Francesca wished that she were her daughter or at least a little sister.

Then Maria came down the stairs.  She was dressed in an elaborate red and black dress.  The curly locks of her white wig came down past her shoulders and her large tricorne hat with feathers topped it all off.  She held her mask in her hands.

Maria walked over to Marco with a smile that was barely contained.  Everything about her told Francesca that her feelings were true.  She really did look pleased to see Marco.

“Marco,” Maria said as she held out her hand for Marco to kiss.  The way she said it dripped with care and admiration.  At least she had good taste in men.  Then she walked over to Francesca.

“It is a pleasure to see you again, though it is in considerably different circumstances.  What should I call you?”  Maria asked.

Francesca hadn’t even thought of that.

“Call me Teressa for now,” Francesca said.

“Beautiful name.”

“It’s a necessity.”

“Are you going to investigate some more tonight?”

“I doubt it.  I only came to see the opera and meet with you.”

“Shall we be off?” Marco asked.

“Always one for punctuality,” Maria said.  Then she turned towards the little girl.

“Now behave while we are gone and do as you’re told.  Work on your French grammar or violin.  I don’t want to hear about you being idle.”

“Yes, mother,” the girl said and ran upstairs while waving goodbye.

“She’s the sweetest thing I’ve ever seen,” Francesca said.

“She’s the one thing in my life that keeps me going.  She’s my motivation, muse and Athena,” Maria said.

Francesca saw how Maria’s eyes had followed the child up the stairs and how they practically beamed with pride.  That simple, honest look wasn’t something that could be faked.  Whatever her faults, Maria loved her adopted child more than anything.

Then they headed out into the streets toward the opera.  Carnival was always a time for operas, plays and concerts.  She loved operas the most however because it combined all of it into one gloriously poetic work of art.

The opera house was full of wealthy Venetians in all their best clothing and all of them wearing masks.  Even Marco had to put on a mask.  She was on Marco’s left side and Maria was on his right side, arm in arm.

She fanned herself while looking out over the crowd.

“The show is about to start.  We should take our seats,” Marco said.

Their family had a box that their father never used.  He was never one for art, music or theater.  Marco and Victoria had used it a great deal however and Francesca definitely would have.

She watched the small banter and chit chat Marco and Maria spoke as they took their seats.  They had an ease and familiarity about them almost like an old married couple.

Several people came up to greet Marco and introduce themselves to his two female companions.  She did her best to ignore them and get by with only saying her alias, “Teressa.”

Maria pointed out important politicians and told Marco who had been talking to whom.  She was able to tell Marco things that weren’t publicly known.  She was a wealth of information about all the back dealings and secrets of the elite Venetian nobles.

The opera itself was amazing.  Some nobles came to the theater only to mingle, gossip and to be seen.  She came because she loved opera.

After the performance they stayed around a while talking to people she didn’t recognize at all due to their masks and she prayed that they didn’t recognize her.

Then someone she did recognize approached them.  It was Lorenzo.  He only wore a half mask and wore his typical, simple clothing.

“I see you now have two mysterious ladies with you,” Lorenzo said.

“This is Maria,” Marco said.

“So finally I meet the enigmatic Maria that has captured Marco’s heart.  It is a pleasure to meet you.”  Then Lorenzo turned to her.  “And what shall I call you tonight?”

“Teressa.”

“A most beautiful false name as I’ve ever heard.”

“Unless I’m using my real name to throw you off of the truth.”

“I would bet my bank account that that’s not your real name.  I can tell such things.  Teressa didn’t roll off your tongue with the ease your real name would have.”

“Very observant.”

“I must be.  The safety of the Republic is at stake.  When will I ever get to meet the real you?”

“I assume never.”

“Such finality.  Is there no chance whatsoever?”

“None.”

“Lorenzo,” Marco said, interrupting their verbal jousting match.  “Would you care to join us?  Our party is an odd number and even numbers are always better luck.”

“I’d would be honored.”

They began to walk back through the narrow streets to Maria’s house.  Maria and Marco talked while she hung to the rear.  She noticed when Lorenzo fell back and began walking beside her.

“What did you think of the performance?”  Lorenzo asked.

“I thought it was brilliant.  I don’t get to see too man operas but I love them with all my heart.”

“Spoken like a true Venetian.  What else do you love?”

“Books and music.  Are these questions going to grow more complex in order for you to decipher my identity?”

“That was the idea, yes.  But also, I’m just curious as to what manner of person you are.  The way Marco doesn’t look at you would suggest to me that you’re a family member.  Distant or close?”

“Close in matters of the heart which are the only matters that are truly important.”

Francesca heard something behind them and turned to look.  Three men in white masks, long black cloaks and tricornes were walking behind them, following two houses down.

“Don’t look,” Lorenzo said.  “Keep talking like you don’t pay them any heed.  So, you’re family, Venetian and you want your identity hidden.  Sneaking out against the wishes of your husband?”

“Something similar to that I suppose.”  Then she said in a soft whisper, “what are we going to do?”

“If trouble starts, get down and run to safety.”

Lorenzo’s hand crept inside his jacket to where she knew he kept a hidden pistol.

“Hey, Marco, you should look at what your mysterious lady friend is doing,” Lorenzo said in an overly jovial voice.

Marco turned and she saw that he saw the three men following them.  Then Marco nodded.

“She has always been a clown.  When she was younger I told her she should be a jester,” Marco said.

“Around the next corner,” Lorenzo whispered to Marco.

“Right,” Marco whispered back.

When they rounded the corner, Marco and Lorenzo pushed Maria and herself into a narrow ally while they drew their pistols.

Her heart was pounding almost through her chest.  She had never been in a situation like this before.  Did those three men intend to kill them?  Why would they do such a thing?

Maria took her hand and squeezed it hard.  Francesca put an arm around Maria and reached up under her dress to grab her knife.  It wasn’t much against a musket pistol but it was better than nothing.

As she held the knife out in front of her she noticed that her hand was perfectly still.  She wasn’t shaking and she wasn’t panicking.  She was frightened, but still under control.  She looked over to Marco and Lorenzo and noticed that the didn’t look the least bit scared.

She had time to say a quick prayer before the three men came into view.

Chapter 8

Francesca held her knife while she watched as Marco fired first.  There were two flashes of smoke as the hammer came down and struck the pan and the second flash was the gun firing.  There was a small cloud of gray smoke and one of the cloaked men fell backwards.

Lorenzo aimed his pistol with a look of concentration she had usually only seen with painters or craftsmen.  He fired as his target was reaching for his hidden pistol.  The cloaked man’s head jerked back and then he fell to the ground.

The third man however pulled out his pistol and fired.  There was the flash of smoke and Marco yelled and fell to the ground.  Maria screamed.

Without hesitation, Francesca ran out from her hiding place and bolted towards where Marco was.  The man who had shot him was pulling out a saber and also started running towards him.  She wasn’t going to let her brother be killed by this bastard.  She would die first.

Francesca changed course and ran to intercept the man.  The cloaked man with the white mask didn’t notice her as she ran up to him.  He was faster than she was and she knew she’d only get one chance.

He turned his head and saw her but she was already on top of him.  She thrust out her knife and he tried to dodge but it was difficult while running full speed.  Her knife sunk into the man’s side and he grunted but then raised his own knife.

Francesca fell backwards as the man swung his long curved sword.  Her accidental fall saved her life as the saber barely passed over her head.  However, the man’s sword was up again, ready to slash downwards.

At that moment she knew she had failed.  Her small knife would wasn’t going to stop this man.  She tried to scramble backwards, away from the assassin, but she knew it was a futile gesture.

Then something silver flashed and there was the sound of a wet impact mixed with a crunch sound.   A knife had shot like an arrow into the assassin’s left temple.  She looked over and saw that Lorenzo had thrown it.

Lorenzo ran over to them and kneeled down between her and Marco.

“Are you injured my lady?”  Lorenzo asked.

Francesca could only nod.  It was hard breathing, let alone talking.

“Marco, where were you hit?”  Lorenzo asked.

“In the leg,” Marco grunted.

Lorenzo tore the pant leg open.  It was horrible to look at.  There was blood everywhere but she forced herself to look.  If there was anything she could do to help, she would do it.

“It missed the bone and passed through,” Lorenzo said.

“I suppose I was just born lucky then,” Marco said with clinched teeth.

Then Maria ran up and kneeled down behind Marco, taking his head in both her hands.

“Marco!  My dear, sweet, beloved!  Are you alright?”

“I’ll live, though it hurts like hell’s furnace right now.”

“Let’s get you inside, quickly,” Lorenzo said.

“My house is only a block away,” Maria said with a shaky voice.

“Does anyone have anything to stop the blood?”  Lorenzo asked.

Francesca quickly looked around and realized that her scarf would be perfect.  She instantly removed her scarf and offered it to Lorenzo.

“You bind the wound.  I’m going to search the bodies,” Lorenzo said.

Francesca didn’t know much about binding wounds but she wrapped it around Marco’s leg and put the knot above the wound where it could add the most pressure.  Once she was done with that she looked down at her hands and saw that they were covered in blood.

“Dear Lord,” she whispered and said a quick prayer for Marco to live.

Then she helped Lorenzo get Marco to his feet and they slowly made their way to Maria’s house.  Maria ran ahead to prepare everything.  Marco grunted in pain with every step and each time it made her wince as well.  She hated seeing her brother in so much pain.

They came through the door and Maria ushered them into the dinning room where the table had been covered in a black cloth.  She had an assortment of knives, needles and thread.

“I didn’t know exactly what we needed.  I hope I have everything,” Maria said.

Lorenzo took one quick glance around.

“Looks great,” he said.

They helped Marco up onto the table and Lorenzo took off the scarf, added some bandages underneath and held it there with his hands.

Francesca saw her lovely scarf, now lying on the floor and completely soaked in blood.  For a second she mourned the loss of her ruined scarf, but then her attention snapped back to the situation at hand.

Maria came in with a bottle of wind and Marco gladly drank from it.  He had never been much of a drinker but she knew the pain had to be unbearable.

She wiped her hands on the black cloth and took off her mask so she could see better.

“I think the bleeding has stopped,” Lorenzo said.  “I don’t know how to do stitches.”

“I can sew,” Francesca said.

Maria handed her the needle and thread.

Then the little girl came in the room.  Her mouth fell open and her eyes went wide.

“Colleta!  You’re supposed to be asleep!”  Maria said, quickly rushing over to her.

“I heard all the noise,” Colleta said.  “What happened to Marco?”

“There was an accident,” Maria said as she rushed Colleta out of the room.

Francesca then began sewing Marco’s let up.  She was a decent enough sewer, but now she was working on her own brother and blood was covering everything, making it slippery.  Still, she concentrated and made sure she did it right.  Her fingers knew what to do.

Once Marco was sewed up, Maria stayed with him, helping him with the bottle of wine while Lorenzo and she went to the other room.

“Signor Lorenzo, who were those men and why did they attack us?”

“I don’t know.  They were dressed too well to be thieves and their pistols and knives were high quality.”

He handed her a pistol he took from one of the bodies. It had silver designs along the hammer and pommel.  The loading rod also had a silver end piece.  On the barrel was a design of three arrows on top of three circles.

“What’s this?”  She asked, pointing to the symbol.

“It’s the manufacturing mark.”

“Do you think those men were trying to kill us because of the investigation?”

“I believe so.  We still don’t have any answers but judging by this I’d say we’re on the right path.”

Francesca paced around the room as she thought.

“Marco does that as well.  He paces while he thinks,” Lorenzo said.

“We need to find out who sent these men.  If that doesn’t work then we need to find out which of the questions we asked perked someone’s interest.  Someone has to know these men.  Make their death’s public and see who shows up.  Maybe they’re not involved but we could start asking questions from there,” Francesca said.

“You even think like Marco.  I need to go report this and have a crew come and clean up the mess.  I’ll let you know what I find out.  Marco’s going to be alright.  He won’t be walking right for a while, but he’ll be well in no time.”

“Thank you, Lorenzo.”

“You’re welcome, mysterious lady.”

Then Lorenzo left with a tip of his hat.

Francesca went back to her brother.  Maria walked up to her and whispered in her ear.

“Will he be alright?”

“Lorenzo says he will be.”

“Thank God.  I can’t believe this.  I’ve lived here for ten years and have never seen anything of this sort.”

“It wasn’t accidental or random.  They were after us because of our investigation.”

“Your investigation?  But I thought you hadn’t found anything yet.”

“Merely looking was enough to get them upset.  That or they think we know more than we actually do.”

“How terrible this all is,” Maria said, looking back to where Marco was lying on the table, drinking from the bottle.”

“I suppose he won’t be going anywhere for a while,” Francesca said.  Then she suddenly realized something.  “Without him I can’t get back to my convent!”

“Don’t worry.  I can have someone take you.”

“But I can’t risk anyone finding out who I am.”

“I see.  I can have Colleta watch over Marco and I’ll take you back.”

“Thank you.”

Francesca went back in with the now inebriated Marco.

“Marco, I’m leaving now.  Colleta will stay with you while Maria takes me back home.  You’ll be okay and Lorenzo says you’ll be up and walking in no time.  Thank you for the opera.  I really enjoyed it.”

“Very well.  I’ll see you later,” Marco slurred.

Maria fetched Colleta and Coletta came down and tended to Marco better than any nurse ever could.  Colleta talked sweetly to Marco and told him funny little stories.

Francesca wished this sweet girl had a more worthy mother.

“Here, let me load that pistol for you,” Marco said.

“Are you sure you’re capable of handling a firearm?”  Francesca asked.

“Probably not.”

“Then talk me through it.”

He talked her through the process and by the end she had a fully loaded pistol.  She didn’t know how to really fight with it, but it would be better than a knife.

Then Francesca put her mask back on and Maria took her to the dock where Marco’s boat was.  Maria then began rowing them down the Gran Canal.

“I can’t believe that happened,” Maria said.  “Poor Marco.  I need to hurry back to him.”

“You’re worried about him.”

“Of course!  I love him.”

“I can see that you do.  I must admit that when I heard you were a courtesan, I immediately mistrusted your intentions.  Now I see that you do truly care about my brother.  And as you do, you should realize that you cannot marry him.”

“I know why you think so and I know that you must be thinking of your family.  But what use is money and reputation if you’re miserable?”

“We can’t afford to be selfish.  We must think of larger ideals than ourselves.  If it means we sacrifice love, then so be it.”

“Like your freedom was sacrificed for the good of the family?  You honestly believe it was right what they did?”

“It was necessary.”

“Was it?  Look me in the eyes and tell me that you believe that.”

Francesca knew she couldn’t.  She hated what happened to her and knew it was an injustice.  She also knew she was a terrible liar.

Marco had been right about one thing.  Maria had the freedom to do what she pleased.  She was free to write for the public, to paint, and to read what she wanted.  Maria was smart, educated and was able to put her education to use.  She was everything Francesca wanted to be.  She hated her life in the convent and wanted more.

“What was done to me was wrong.  However, it is better than selling my virtue for money.”

“I don’t do that anymore.  When my father died I had to do what I could in order to survive.  Now that I don’t have to, I don’t.  I use my money to help women who are in the position I once was.  How do you help people being locked away in the convent?  I’m no harlot and I don’t bed men for money.”

“But my brother will surrender control of the family if he marries you.  He’ll give up his right to rule the family.”

“Is that such a worthy prize to sacrifice joy for?  Others cannot carry on the family?”

Francesca sat back and tapped her beautiful shoes on the side of the boat.  Maria was right but she didn’t want to admit defeat.

“I need to get changed now.”

She hated changing in the cold.

When the boat reached the small dock at her island she climbed out and turned back to Maria.

“Thank you for everything you’ve done, Maria.  I will think on what you have said.”

“That is all I ask.  Oh!  I forgot your book!  I was going to give it to you after the opera.”

“It’s alright.  We were a little occupied.”

“I’ll bring it to you then.”

“Thank you Maria.  You better take this in case someone unwanted appears.”

Francesca handed her the pistol.

Maria then waved and rowed away.  Francesca snuck back to her cell.  Her cell didn’t feel as warm and inviting as it once had.  Something unnatural was there in the convent.  She knew she wasn’t crazy.

With everything that happened that night she was too exhausted to care.  She undressed and got into bed.

Nothing bothered her that night and she slept until two hours before noon.

“You’re sleepy again,” Elena said.

They were in the laundry room, not to do laundry because they had the converse nuns for that, but to pretend to do laundry so they could chat in privacy.

“So I am.”

“We’re going to post guards at your door,” Felicita said.

“Good.  Maybe then you’ll see who ever it is sneaking into my room,” Francesca said.

“This again?  No one’s sneaking into your room,” Elena said.

“Then some thing is.”

Elena groaned and took out a wheel of cheese she had snuck out of the kitchen.

She thought about the great food Marco and Maria were able to eat.  She used to eat such fine foods but now she was reduced to stealing food from a convent.  The more she thought about it, the more she realized she wasn’t meant for the vocation of a monastic.

“I hate having the scramble and steal whatever scraps we can find.  I used to have servants that would bring me fresh grapes and olives,” Elena said.

“I understand, Elena.  I was thinking the same thing,” Francesca said.

Perhaps it was wrong of her to keep her nocturnal activities a secret.  She leaned forward and motioned for them to do as well.  Once they were huddled up she began to whisper to them.

“I’ll tell you what I’ve been up to,” Francesca said.

Elena and Felicita’s eyes went wide and the looked at each other with mischievous grins.

“Do tell,” Elena said.

“But, you must promise to never tell anyone or even mention it again.  You cannot whisper about it, allude to it or even think about it.  If anyone finds out it isn’t only my head by my brother’s as well.  Do you swear?”

“We swear,” Elena said.

“We do,” Felicita said.

Francesca relayed the entire series of events starting with her brother’s visit and the murder.  They were wide eyed and silent the entire time.

“I can’t believe it!”  Elena said.

“I thought you just had a nightly lover, but this is amazing,” Felicita said.

“You’ve actually been going out to Venice all those nights?”

“You promise you won’t tell,” Francesca said.

“Yes, we swear!  I’d never do anything to hurt you or Marco,” Elena said.

“Can you take us with you next time?”  Felicita asked.

“I’ll see what they can do.  I don’t know when the next time will be.  Marco’s injured after all,” Francesca said.

“Well now he needs your help more than ever.  You can investigate while he’s recuperating,” Elena said.

“With the three of us, we’re bound to find something Marco can use,” Felicita said.

“I will ask.  In the meantime we must act as if everything was normal.”

“Everything is normal.  Or at least it will be once we get a taste of our freedom back,” Elena said.

Chapter 9

Francesca was in her room praying when Noel came in and told her that she had a visitor.  Francesca nodded and finished her prayer.  She was praying for Marco’s health and safety.  When she finished she got up off of her knees and went to the parlor where Maria was waiting.

“I brought your book,” Maria said.

She handed a brown cloth wrapped package over.

“Thank you very much.  How’s Marco doing?”

“He’s well.  He sleeps a lot and doesn’t move much, but the doctor says he’s getting better.”

“And the investigation?”

“That’s what concerns me.  The government still wants Marco to lead the investigation and find out what is happening.  He doesn’t know who to trust.  Lorenzo is working on another investigation but he said that he’d help with what he can.”

This was ridiculous.  How could the Republic expect him to continue with the investigation when he couldn’t even walk?  If he didn’t solve this, they would hold him accountable.  She also wanted an excuse to sneak back to the city.

“That’s not good enough.  If Marco can’t get out there on the streets, he can’t solve this.”

“He’ll find a way.  I’m sure of it,” Maria said but didn’t sound very convinced herself.

“I’m not going to leave it to chance.  I’m going to go back out there and find this assassin.”

“You?  But how?  You won’t have Marco’s help.”

“I know the murders better than he does.  No one will recognize us.  We can make contacts and find out who’s responsible.”

“Wait…us?  You want me to come along?”

“I don’t know people like you do.  With your connections you can find out anything.  I don’t know people or places.”

“But, it’s dangerous.”

“Marco has no one else he can trust.  If we don’t find out who’s responsible, they might try for Marco again.”

“I don’t like this.”

Maria began pacing around the room.

“Think of it Maria, who else knows the people of this city better than you?  I know how to read evidence.  You know how to read people.”

Maria stopped pacing and looked at her.

“You’re right about that.  If I can’t find information, I know who can,” Maria said.

“Excellent.  Do you wish to help Marco?”

“Yes.”

“Are you going to help me solve these murders?”

“Yes.”

Francesca smiled.

“Excellent!  Then tonight come pick me up.  Marco can tell you all the details.  Also, I need two disguises for my friends.”

“You’re bringing along two more sisters?  Is that wise?”

“Most likely not, but they’re coming.  They won’t be a part of the investigation.  I just couldn’t stand lying to them any longer.  I had to tell them the truth.”

“I understand.”

Francesca told Maria their sizes and made sure she knew everything that they’d need.

“Very well, I’ll be there at the appointed time,” Maria said.

“Good.  And don’t forget to bring firearms.”

“Trust me, I won’t forget about that.”

Maria nodded and left the parlor.

“She seemed like a nice young lady,” the nun on watch said and then promptly went back to sleep.

Francesca ignored her and went to find Elena and Felicita.  She found Felicita sewing in her room.  Together they went to find Elena.  Elena was in the garden reading the gospel of St. Mathew.

Francesca told them the news and that they’d have to prepare themselves.  Again she stressed the importance of secrecy.  She could take whatever punishment they’d serve her, but she knew Marco couldn’t.  Execution or exile was too high of a price to pay.

She trusted the two sisters and knew they wouldn’t cause any problems.  Logically speaking, the more people that knew the greater the chance of being discovered.

Francesca found herself getting nervous.  She was just getting used to sneaking out, but now she was taking Elena and Felicita with her and that complicated things greatly.

At the appointed time she went to Elena’s room where Elena and Felicita were.

“Now, I hope I don’t have to tell you how important it is that you remain absolutely silent until we’re well away from the convent,” Francesca said.

“I think you just told us,” Felicita said.

“Good.  Then there shouldn’t be any misunderstanding,” Francesca said.

“I can’t believe we’re doing this.  If we are caught…I can’t imagine how much trouble we’ll be in,” Elena said.

“But think of what we can gain, a piece of our lives back,” Felicita said.

“Oh, I know.  I can’t wait to hear the sound of music that isn’t a hymn,” Elena said.

“I want real wine and real meat,” Felicita said.

“I think the thing I miss most is watching the people as they pass by,” Elena said.

“Some people more than others,” Felicita said.

Elena didn’t answer but the smile on her face told enough.

The bells of the church tower peeled and told them that it was time.  She nodded to her sisters and they left their room and went quietly down the hall and out to the garden.  Francesca looked around and listened to make sure no one was following them. She was almost as nervous now as the first time she had done this.  She wondered if any of the sleeping sisters would be woken by the pounding of her heart or her heavy breathing.

Elena had large, frightened eyes but Felicita had narrowed eyes, the same look she got when she was concentrating on sewing.  They were actually being very quiet and Francesca was impressed.

It was a clear night with a bright moon; not the circumstances she would have chosen.  When she unlocked the door Maria was there with a large black gondola.

Maria waved them to hurry and they gladly did so.  Maria was wearing a carnival dress and mask and had the but of a pistol sticking from under a scarf.

They quickly got into the boat and Francesca kicked them away from the tiny, rotten dock.  They stayed low in the boat while Maria used the single oar of the gondola to row them away from the island.  Maria’s gondola was a sleek, black and new boat; nothing like Marco’s old row boat.

“I can’t believe we just left the convent,” Elena said once they had reached a safe distance.

“I haven’t left those walls in five years,” Felicita said.

“We’ve crossed our Rubicon,” Elena said.

“Let’s hope we have the same luck as Caesar then…well, in regards to crossing the river and winning the war, not his murder later on,” Felicita said.

“I think we knew what you meant,” Francesca said.

“So you must be Maria, I’m Sister Elena and this is Sister Felicita.”

“A pleasure to meet you.  I assume Francesca has told you how important secrecy is,” Maria said.

“Yes, yes.  We don’t need to be reminded again.  It’s our lives at stake as well.”

“Do you think this is worth the risk?”  Maria asked.

“I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t,” Elena said.  “This isn’t some idle fancy.  This is our freedom and lives we’re dealing with.”

“Good.  I’m glad we understand,” Maria said.  “And with that, I wish you all a very pleasurable night.  Your disguises are in the three separate bags.”

“We have to change in this cold?”  Elena asked.

“We can’t have you walking around Venice in your robe and habit can we?”  Francesca said.

Elena and Felicita talked non stop about the things they wanted to do while they changed.  Francesca sat next to Maria and whispered while the other two nuns talked with little restraint.

“Have you found anything out?”  Francesca asked.

“Pietro Giacoma has been seen visiting the houses of several notable politicians more than usual.  He also was the frequent dinner guest of the Austrian ambassador.”

“I assume we can’t simply show up uninvited.”

“Correct.  I don’t know if any of this is important, but it’s the only information I’ve found so far.”

“It’s a start.  Remember, just asking questions is what got Marco hurt.”

“I’m well aware of the dangers.”

“May I see my brother before we begin?”

“Of course.  He’s probably asleep in my parlor.”

Francesca took her turn at rowing and they made it to the Grand Canal and then on a little side canal that led to the water side door of Maria’s house.

“Meet us back here at three,” Francesca said.

“We’ll be there,” Elena said.

With that, Elena and Felicita ran off into the streets of Venice to rediscover what they had lost.  Francesca watched them go and smiled.  She knew exactly how they felt and if she didn’t have such dreadful work to do she’d be doing the same.

“Do you think they’ll be alright?”  Maria asked.

“I believe so in regards to their secrecy and physical safety.  As to the safety of their souls I offer no promises.”

She knew Elena had a fondness for men and Felicita liked strong drink.

They walked into Maria’s palazzo and as Maria said, Marco was passed out on one of her couches.  Colleta was there sitting in front of an old harpsicorde flipping through sheet music.

“He’s been sleeping the whole time,” Colleta said with a warm smile when she saw them enter.

Maria hurried over and felt Marco’s forehead.

“He’s doing good.  No fever,” Maria said.

Francesca didn’t like how Maria was the first to check up on Marco and she hastened over to see for her self.  Marco was fast asleep with a smile on his face as if nothing were wrong.

“I used to think that given the opportunity, he’d sleep all day,” Francesca said.

“Really?  I always saw him as an early riser.  He shows up here for breakfast every morning before he goes to work.”

“He used to skip breakfast just to sleep longer.”

“He’s so handsome when he sleeps. He doesn’t loose his composure.  Strange, but I’ve never seen him sleep before all this.  His sense of propriety would never allow him to sleep here in my house.”

Francesca stopped herself from asking if they had never slept together.  She had assumed that they had, that Maria had seduced him long before now.

“Let him sleep then.  Come, we have work to do,” Francesca said.

Maria handed her a pistol and she tucked it away in a strap on the outside of her thigh.  With her dress so voluminous, no one would ever notice.  Then she put on her mask and grabbed her fan.  She noticed that Maria’s fan was engraved in elegant letters with her name.  Maria’s pistol also looked far more decorative than her own.

“Where to first?”  Francesca asked.

“I know its not your favorite place, but there’s a gambling house where I know a few people.  Many senators go there to have fun.  Now that its Carnival, it will have many important people.  The trick will be knowing who’s who.”

The streets they walked out into were crowded and full of people.  Jugglers and dancers were everywhere and everyone was in masks.  She could smell cooking fish and hear music from many directions.  She had to take a moment to readjust herself.

Maria led the way through the jostling crowds until they reached the gambling house.  It was a different one than the house she visited with her brother but this one was just as ornate and luxurious.  The clothing the patrons were wearing were the finest that could be bought or made.

“We’ll go to the back rooms where people can talk in private.  Many will recognize me by my fan,” Maria said.

“What do you want me to do?”

“Stand beside me and watch.  If someone tries courting you, brush them off.  I’m going to say that you’re my friend from England.  Hopefully no one will speak English.  I’ll translate for you.”

“So I’m newly arrived in Venice and don’t speak a word.”

“Exactly.”

“I think I can manage that.”

“Hopefully with everyone thinking that you can’t speak Venetian you might be able to eavesdrop on some conversations.  Try to find any Austrians and find out who’s talking to them.  We need to discover whatever business Pietro had with them.”

“Austrians, politicians and rich merchants.  I understand.”

“Don’t get out of sight of me.”

“Same for you.”

“We’re going to find whoever hurt my Marco and we’re going to make them pay.”

“Pay with interest.”

“You’re not going to talk to me about forgiveness and love?”

“I’m not very well rehearsed in either.”

Chapter 10

Maria found a small parlor room off to the side, away from the crowded gambling parlors.  Francesca followed her in and stood just behind her like she had done with Marco.

“No, sit on that couch and relax,” Maria said.

Francesca sat on a white and gold couch and did her best to look like she was relaxed.

“What happens now?”  Francesca asked.

“Now we wait and see who comes to visit.  I made a point of flashing my fan.  People will recognize me by my fan.”

“You do have your name on it in large gold letters.”

“Not subtle but I find it works well enough.”

Then three men came in the room; rich noblemen with gold woven into the cloth of their jackets and white powdered wigs.

“Madam D’Canali!”  One of the gentlemen said raising his hands in the air, each hand holding a glass of wine.

“Fredrico, how good it is to see you.”

“I haven’t seen you in a while.  Where have you been hiding?”

“Hiding?  No where.  I have, however, been most occupied with secretive projects of mine.”

“Secretive?  I rather like the sound of that.”

Two of the men sat down on the third couch but Fredrico, whom Francesca didn’t like one bit already, sat down on the same couch as Maria.

“Tell me, have you written anything else since last time we talked?”  Maria asked.

“I’ve written a few sonatas, but nothing equaling your craft with words.”

While they talked about poetry she did her best to sit there, fan herself and pretend that she didn’t understand a word of any of it.

“Who’s your lovely friend here?”  One of the other men asked.

“This is a friend of mine from England.  Introduce yourself,” Maria said.

“I’m Alberto D’Este.  It is a pleasure to meet you.”

“Elisabeth Harting,” Francesca said in her best fake English accent.

“Do you speak Venetian?”

“Uh…no…I no speak Venetian,” Francesca said in fake and faltering Venetian.

“Well, she is lovely,” the other man said.

“How can you be sure?  She is wearing a mask,” Maria laughed.

“The shape of her form and the way she sits there, so daintily.”

Francesca had never thought of her self as dainty and knew much less how she could ‘sit daintily.’  These were young men looking for the typical, mindless things that young men look for and she wasn’t about to satisfy them.

She sat there and listened to Maria and the three young men talk on and on about meaningless drivel.  They were wasting time and they had more important things to do than to sit here and talk to fools.

Some men came in and others left, it was a constant rotation of people.  She sat there growing more and more impatient with Maria’s inability or lack of desire to do anything useful.

Then she heard Maria ask about the Giacoma family.  Then she realized that all the useless gossip was a lead up to the real questions.  Maria had been testing the water to see how friendly, knowledgeable and gullible these people really were.

“Oh yes, I had dinner with Senor Barozzi just last week.  He and Senor Giacoma were great friends.  Giacoma didn’t want it known, but he was trying to convince Barozzi to invest in a mercantile venture with him.  I suppose his finances were worse off than we had imagined if he was stooping as low as that.”

“Indeed, how curious,” Maria said.

Maria went through more idle banter until she got back around to the topic of economy and quite stealthily asked what sort of venture Giacoma had planned.

“I’m not entirely sure, but I think it was some trade agreement with an Austrian noble.  I honestly don’t know what it is.  Flowers from the Flemish?”

The noblemen thought that was somehow funny but Francesca didn’t understand why.  She had no problem pretending to not understand that joke.

It grew late and eventually Maria bid them a fond farewell and the left the gambling house.

“That was tiresome,” Maria said.

“So the did annoy you as much as they did me.”

“Perhaps more so.  I had to smile and pretend as if I cared.  Even my talents are strained at times.  However, I know his father is well connected and he’s set to be an important man in Venice.  He is privy to important people and information, but he’s foolish enough to brag about it.”

“Fools.”

“Yes they are, but they are a fountain of useful information.  Come.  There’s another parlor we should visit before the night grows old.”

“Another one?”

“Yes.  It’s only one.  We still have two hours and I won’t rest while we can still work.  Remember, this is your brother we’re doing this for.  Don’t worry.  We’ll have refreshments there.”

They began walking down the silent, narrow streets of Venice.  The only sounds were their hard shoes on the cobblestone and the lapping of the canals against the houses.  Occasionally they could hear the distant sound of music and laughter.  It was Carnival and the party never truly ended.

Francesca then got a peculiar feeling on the back of her neck.  She turned around but didn’t see anything.  A few minutes later she felt it again.  She turned around and saw a man in a black cloak that closed around him and only showed his white mask and large tricorne.  He simply stood there, as still as one of the saint’s statues in the chapel.  The figure was standing in an allyway and he didn’t move but he was looking right at her.

“Someone’s back there,” Francesca said.

When they turned around to see the figure was gone.

“Are you sure?”  Maria asked.

“Absolutely.”

“Be ready with your pistol.  It could be nothing.  Let’s be prepared regardless.”

They ducked into an ally so they could pull out their pistols from under their dresses.  They went back out onto the street with their fans covering the weapons.

A few minutes later she turned back and saw the man walking a good distance behind them.  He was close but he was definitely following them.

“He’s behind us, about two blocks,” Francesca whispered.

Maria didn’t look.

“I hate this.  Who are these people?”  Maria asked.

“We just need to get someplace with people.  I think there’s a campo up ahead.  Let’s go there and pray there are people.”

She began to pray silently and she wished she had her rosary with her.

The campo was a trianglular piazza with tall houses surrounding it on all sides.  There were decorations but no one was around.  A statue of a man holding a scroll stood I the middle.

“Which way to St. Mark’s?  That should be close by, right?”  Francesca asked.

“We go south.”

“Which way is south?”

“I don’t know.”

Francesca turned around to look for a way that might lead to some place more occupied but as she did, she glimpsed something out of the corner of her eye.  She turned her head to get a better look.

Standing in the middle of one of the side streets was a woman in Carnival attire.  She wore a large white dress that looked very costly.  She had a white mask, long white wig with curls that cascaded down her shoulders and a white tricorne hat.  Her posture and entire stance was slack and loose as if she were exhausted or inebriated.

The strange woman in white took an awkward step forward and then another as her head slightly rolled to the side.  Her white, platform shoes clicked loudly on the cobblestone street.

Francesca could feel that something was very wrong with the woman.  She felt something, like a sickly air about her.  Not sickly, unclean, cold and hopeless.  Just looking at the strange woman made her feel weak.

She couldn’t see the woman’s eyes from that distance.  Her mask only showed two black holes filled with shadow.  Yet she knew the woman was looking at her.  The woman’s unseen eyes bored into her like bolts form a crossbow filling her with dread and despair.

The woman raised an arm toward her and Francesca couldn’t tell if she was wearing thin gloves or if there was something wrong with her arms.

“What’s that?”  Maria whispered.

“I don’t know.  It’s not natural, whatever it is.”

Maria grabbed her sleeve and pulled her the opposite way of the woman in white.  Even as she was being pulled away shouldn’t stop looking at the frightening woman.

Maria pulled her into another narrow side street and they ran.  Maria ran, slightly turned to the side with her pistol pointing backwards.

They made their way to a small camp where a crowd of people were laughing and dancing while a juggler juggled flaming hoops.  A church’s steps provided the juggler with a stage.   No one noticed their hasty entrance.

Francesca turned around and saw that no one was following.  She reached out and leaned against the wall while she caught her breath.

Maria hid her pistol behind her fan and looked around.

“I think I know where we are,” Maria said.

“Good.  I’m utterly lost.”

“That is why you have me.”

Maria looked down the ally.

“I think they’re gone, whoever they were,” Francesca said.

“I’ve never felt anything so…”

“Terrible.”

“And cold.”

“Let’s get back and see if we can find Elena Felicita.”

Maria nodded and they went to the docks along the Grand Canal and called for a gondola.   Maria impatiently waved the gondolier over and gave him directions on where to go.

Francesca felt much better when they left the narrow streets and got out onto the Grand Canal that was filled with partiers in their boats.

“Where do you think they are?”  Maria asked.

“I don’t know.  We’ll start by your house and look in the direction they went.  They couldn’t have gone too far.”

She noticed that Maria kept looking over her shoulder back the way they came.

When they got to the San Morcola dock, they got out and went to the gate of her house.  From there they went the same direction the two sisters went.  The streets here were filled with people and lanterns.  There was a quartet playing string instruments off to one side and a puppet show was going on elsewhere.

“There’s a smaller gambling house down this way,” Maria said.

She followed Maria down the street until they arrived at a crowded palazzo.  This one wasn’t as exclusive as the houses Maria had taken her.  The strange thing about Carnival was that social standing no longer existed.  For three months out of the year, anyone could be anyone.  Poor merchants paraded around as noblemen and noblemen went as clowns and paupers.  Everyone’s identity was hidden behind a mask and costume.  Even a nun could go around freely, completely unnoticed in the streets.

They went inside and looked around.  They didn’t split up in case more people were looking for them.

Francesca then saw Elena sitting on a couch by her self with a large glass of wine.  She had somehow acquired a half mask that allowed her to drink freely.   She hurried over and sat down beside her.

“Sister Francesca!  How goes your evening?” Elena said.  She had evidently been partaking of too much wine.

“Don’t call me that in public.  Where’s Felicita?”

“She’s over in that room.”

Elena pointed to a room with a closed door.

“What’s she doing in there?”  Francesca asked.

“She went in with a man about an hour ago,” Elena said after taking another drink.

“What?  You let her alone with a man?  Don’t you know what temptation that could be?”

“Oh, there’s no temptation about it.  She went in very willingly.”

She turned to Maria and Maria just shrugged.  Her mask hid her look of anger and shock she knew she had.

“I can go get her,” Maria said.

“I think it’s a little late to save her virtue,” Elena said.

Francesca couldn’t believe what she was hearing.  Because Elena was drunk there was little good that preaching to her would do.  She likely wouldn’t have remembered it.  There were so many problems that could arise from Felicita’s wickedness.

She didn’t want to open the door and see something that could hurt her spiritual self.  Instead, they waited for Felicita to come out.  At least this place was too crowded for anyone to start trouble with them.

An hour later and Felicita still hadn’t come out.  Maria was mingling with a few of the obviously wealthy guests.

Then she saw a familiar, rough looking brown coat come in.  He had a cane and a Buata mask, but she recognized him instantly.

“Lorenzo, a surprise seeing you here,” Francesca said.

“It’s no coincidence.  I’ve been looking for you.  I heard that Maria came through.”

He stood in a relaxed, indifferent way, but the strength in his voice said that he was anything but relaxing.

“Why?  Is something wrong?”  Francesca asked.

“We found a body.  It’s the son of a very important man.”

“Where did you find it?”

“Campo Santo Stefano.”

“Which camp is that?”

“It has a statue in the middle.  Some saint or Doge.”

“The body of a man you said?”

“That’s right.”

“What was he wearing?”

“Black coat, mask.”

“Lorenzo, tonight we were followed by a man.  We also saw a strange woman.  She was wearing all white and there was something very odd about her.”

“Have you two found anything out?”  He asked.

“Maria found that Giacoma was working on a business deal with some Austrians.”

“Austria isn’t very friendly with Venice at the moment.  Maria, do you think you can find out what kind of partnership they were talking about?”

“I’ll see what I can do.  I’m sure I can invite myself over for dinner,” Maria said.

“Thank you.  In the meantime, you two be safe.”

Then he left in a hurry.

“He lacks manners but he does have a noble, gentlemanly way about him,” Maria said.

“He doesn’t have time to deal with frivolous niceties,” Francesca said.

“Are you defending him?  I wonder what your interest is in him.”

“Don’t tease me.  I was only being kind.”

“Were you now?”

“I was.”

Maria laughed and fanned herself.  She had a poised control over herself even while laughing.  Every move she made was deliberate and calculated.

“Are the Austrians a threat to Venice?”  Francesca asked.

“Everyone’s a threat to Venice.  We’re not the maritime power we once were.  We’re of little consequence to anyone now.  We’re but a mere destination for rich, young nobles to come to, to sew their wild oats.”

Finally Felicita came out of the room, waving to whoever was inside.  She had a large smile on her face and her wig was a mess.

“Felicita!  What in Heaven’s name do you think you were doing?”  Francesca asked.

“Enjoying myself,” she said as if day dreaming.  “I’ve never felt…”  She trailed off and leaned against a wall.

“We’ll talk about your indiscretion later.  Right now we have to get back.”

“So soon?”

“Yes.”

She dragged them back to Maria’s boat and they all got in.

“Why the rush?”  Elena asked.

“It’s almost three,” was all she said.  She didn’t want to mention the potential for danger.  There was no use worrying about it.

Once they left the Grand Canal they began changing back into their simple robes and habits.

“I can’t believe you would break your vows in such a base manner,” Francesca said.

“It wasn’t my first time, dear.  Also, I don’t remember ever agreeing to take those vows.  I seem to recall being forced to.  I respect no promise that I was forced to make,” Felicita said.  “But he was so handsome and charming.”

“And the wine was very excellent!”  Elena said.

Francesca didn’t want them coming back out, but now that they knew, she wouldn’t be able to stop them.

Chapter 11

Francesca met Elena and Felicita in the laundry room latter the next day.  They both looked as she felt; tired.  They had dark rings under their eyes and drooping eyes but large smiles on their faces.

She checked to make sure no one was near the room and she closed the door.

“That was the best night of my life,” Elena said.

“I have the same thoughts,” Felicita said.

“Felicita?  What did you do?”  Francesca asked.  She had her hands on her hips and was tapping her foot.

“I went out into the city and enjoyed myself like I haven’t in years.”

“Do you have any idea what you’ve done?  You’ve broken your vows!”  Francesca said.

“So?  I didn’t make the vows.  My father forced me to say words I didn’t mean.  That’s not the same,” Felicita said.

“But what you did…”

“I did what I used to do before coming into the convent.”

“I had no idea.”

“The food and wine alone were worth it,” Elena said.

Francesca was angry with Felicita, but at the same time she couldn’t blame her.  The sense of freedom was enough to make her do crazy things as well.

“When are we going out next?”  Felicita asked.

“I have no idea.  It’s completely up to them.  I go out because my brother needs me.  I’d be out every night if I could,” Francesca said.

“As would I,” Felicita said.

“Have you no shame?”  Francesca asked.

“Maybe I would, but I feel like a prisoner that had his first taste of freedom,” Felicita said.

“We are prisoners,” Elena said.

“Let’s be on to our duties.  We can’t draw suspicion,” Francesca said.

They left the laundry room and Francesca went to the study where all the financial papers were.  She picked up the deeds to the property the convent owned.  She had to do something with those.  Next time she was out she promised herself that she would inspect them.

Abbess Foscari walked into the room unannounced.  Instantly Francesca felt like hiding, as if she were doing something forbidden.  She had to stop and remind herself that she was only doing what she was supposed to do.

“Sister Zitelle, how do things go here?”

The Abbess was always formal and called everyone by their family names.

“Abbess.  They’re going well.  Not great or wonderful, but well.  The bad news is that we’re loosing money every year.  The good news is that we have several assets outside the convent that can bring in more than enough money.”

“Assets?”

“Property.  We’ve been left several pieces of property in and around Venice.  They’re just sitting there.  If we can fix them up for sale or rent, we can make enough money to run this convent for many years.”

“I have no desire to be a landlord.”

“Then we sell them outright.”

“But that would require having someone outside the walls that we trust a great deal.”

“That shouldn’t be too hard to find.  Surely you know of a priest that can arrange it?”

“Too much work right now.  We have Cardinal Vitturi coming for an inspection.  I want everything as it should be.  The ledgers here might have to wait.”

“But wouldn’t having our finances in order be…”

“Enough.  That’s the least of our concerns.  We don’t want the Cardinal coming in to find a den of iniquity.  We’ll need to check every room, lock every window and ensure we’re in compliance with every regulation.  I want to show the Cardinal that we take the spiritual welfare of our sisters seriously.  I don’t want to be like San Zaccarias.”

“Of course, Abbess.”

San Zaccarias had one of the best reputations in Venice.  If she thought Zaccarias was too lenient then Francesca knew she had reason to worry.  She instantly thought how this would affect her night time visits to the Rialto.

Then she thought about her room and how many rules she was breaking with just that.  The Cardinal’s yearly inspections were never a good time.  There was always so much work to be done to get everything ready.

Once the Abbess left, she leaned back in her chair and groaned.  She hated this life.  She wish she were free of this place and all its meaningless restrictions.  There were times when she found a peaceful contentment here, but lately, the more she realized what she was missing, the more she wanted to leave.

Maria, though an immoral woman, had everything she had ever wanted.  She was free to discuss art, poetry, music and politics.  She could show off her mind and talents without fear of being punished.  There was so much more she wanted than reading the same spiritual book and hearing the same lessons over and over again.

That night as they gathered in her room to continue their sewing, she told Celeste, Elena and Felicita about the Cardinal’s coming visit.  They were as unhappy about it as she was.

They didn’t sew long because of their lack of sleep.  She soon sent them away and was lying in her bed.

She awoke in the middle of the night.  Something had made a sound in the hall.  She had been asleep and didn’t know what it was, but it had been loud enough to wake her up.

Francesca tossed back the covers and walked to her door.  She opened it and peered out.  The hallway was dark and she didn’t see anything because her eyes hadn’t adjusted yet.  She listened but didn’t hear anything.

Then she saw the pale form of someone’s face peeking out at her from around the corner.  She saw a hand gripping the wall as the white face with sunken eyes slowly peered out at her.  The face wasn’t just pale, it was white.  The white eyes had dark rings around them and its face was gaunt with hollow cheeks.  Long, stringy, thin black hair fell down from the head.

As soon as she saw it, it ducked back behind the corner and was gone.  She stood there, frozen in place.  She couldn’t go chasing after it and she couldn’t hide.

She wasn’t crazy.  She had seen the face.  It had the same cold air that the woman in white had in Venice.  Whatever it was, it was most unnatural.

Eventually she gathered enough strength to go back to her room and lock the door behind her.  The lock on her door was another break of the regulations and would have to be removed before the Cardinal arrived.

She crawled back into bed with shaking hands.  Francesca didn’t sleep much for the rest of the night.  When the sun came up, her eyes hurt from the lack of sleep and her body felt unresponsive.

At breakfast, Elena asked what was wrong but she couldn’t tell her.  They didn’t believe her.  No one would.

The only person that might would be Maria.  She had seen and felt the strange woman in white.

After breakfast she went to the office sat down behind the desk and promptly fell asleep.  She woke up sometime in the afternoon.  Dried drool was on the desk and all her papers were there, untouched.

She opened the window for some fresh air and a cool breeze.  The smell of the lagoon came in from a strong southern wind.  The blue waters of the lagoon were so beautiful in the sun.  The infinite sparkles of the waves reflecting the sun and the patches of dark where the water had more depth were all as familiar to her as Marco or the convent.  It was her home and she loved it.

She could see the distant bell tower of Burano and its slight tilt.  The soft, marshy ground of the islands wasn’t the ideal place to build tall buildings, but the Venetians managed anyway.  They weren’t ones to be told what they could and couldn’t do.  She chuckled to herself as she thought how often the Serene Republic had defied the Pope in Rome.

That night she wasn’t disturbed by any unnatural visitors.  She slept peacefully and felt much better in the morning.

Noel came to her room and reported that she had a visitor.  As she made her way to the parlor, she saw several nuns baking donuts for the visitors they received during Carnival.  Not as many came to visit their island convent as the convents in Venice, but they still received enough to get everyone excited.

Maria was there waiting in full Carnival attire.  She wore all red with silver trimmings and a silver mask.

“Francesca, I’ve been invited to a dinner party at the Austrian Ambassador’s house,” Maria said with a large smile.

“How did you manage that?”

“I convinced one of the young noblemen that I would make an acceptable date.  I also convinced him to allow me to bring a young friend and protégé from England.”

“You mean you’re taking Elisabeth Harting?”  Francesca asked.

“Indeed I am.  Alberto insisted that you come.”

Francesca was at once excited and terrified.  She remembered the festive diners her father through for guests and she remembered how much she enjoyed them.  Yet it had been a while and there was always the chance that she’d be found out.

“Can you handle it?”  Maria asked.

“Of course.  I was born to a noble family, not some fisherman.”

“Good.  I’ll pick you up the night after tomorrow.”

“We’ll be there.”

“Also, Lorenzo insists on escorting us there and back.  After I told him and Marco what happened last time, they don’t want us going anywhere alone.”

“I don’t know if that’s a promise we can keep.”

Maria smiled.

“I’ll see you in two days,” Maria said.

She flicked her fan open and left with a wave.

When she got back to her room she found Celeste there.  She was sewing on her bed and humming.

“Was that Marco?  Is he well yet?”  Celeste asked.

“No, it was my cousin, Maria.”

“Maria?  I’ve never heard you mention a Maria.”

“She’s been off in Ravenna for the past five years.”

She hated lying to Celeste.  Celeste was as much a prisoner as the rest of them.  She deserved better but the more people that knew about their nocturnal activities, the more likely it was that they’d get caught.  It wasn’t fair to Celeste, but she couldn’t risk it.

The next day she watched one of the plays the convent was putting on for a few aristocratic guests.  They had baskets of food but the other nuns were happy to share their hospitality.

There was so much going on that she wondered if anyone would actually notice if she were missing.  It was a tempting thought, but she was taking enough risks as it were.  Still, it was an idea to shelve for later.

Then she saw Sister Lucia Morisini and her entourage walk up to her.

“I’ve noticed that you’ve been receiving many guests lately.  I’ve been thinking about asking the Abbess if one of my friends here could fill in as the observer.  I care about the safety of your soul, Francesca.  I wouldn’t want anything to happen to you,” Lucia said with as much insincerity as she could muster.

“I appreciate your concern but I believe the observers are supposed to be wiser and…older than any of your friends.”

“The Abbess will make an exception.”

“She doesn’t like exceptions, particularly when the Cardinal is coming for an inspection.  Besides, I think the Abbess will take the advice of someone with more noble blood than your recently ennobled family.”

“Recently en…I would have you know that there was a Morissini at the battle of Lepanto and even back to Zara.”

“I’m sure they made fine oarsmen for my ancestors’ galleys.”

“I will be Abbess here one day, Francesca.  When that happens, pray that you’re already dead.”

Lucia stormed off.

“It was a pleasure as always, Sister Lucia!”

The time passed too slowly and she knew Felicita and Elena were also dying to leave the convent.  At the appointed time, they snuck out the unused back door to the crumbling dock.  Maria was pulling up to the dock and they quickly got in.

Their disguises were there and they quickly began changing in the cold.

“How is my brother?”  Francesca asked once they were far enough away from the Convent.

“He’s healing well and will be back on his feet in no time,” Maria said.

“Is he still at your house?”

“I must admit that I’m being selfish in that regard.  He could go back to his house at any time but I paid the doctor to tell him that he couldn’t move yet.”

“You wicked woman!”  Felicita laughed.

“I know.  I hate lying, but if it keeps him close, then I’ll do it,” Maria said.

“Have you heard anything from Lorenzo?  Did they find anything about the murder the other night?”  Francesca asked.

“Murder?”  Elena asked.

“Someone was murdered last time we came out.  We think it has to do with our investigation,” Francesca said.

“Nothing really.  He was a low ranking officer in Venice’s land forces.”

“No connection to the Giacoma’s?”  Francesca asked.

“Nothing and no connection to the Austrians,” Maria said.

“Why was he following us and who killed him?”  Francesca asked.

“I think this is beyond your skills.  You’re not an investigator,” Felicita said.

“We have to do what we can.  Someone tried to kill my brother and the only ones he trusts with this are me, Maria and Lorenzo.”

“Who’s Lorenzo?”  Felicita asked.

“He works with my brother.”

“Do you think perhaps he might have to interrogate me in private?”  Felicita asked.

“Felicita!  You must not talk like that.  Please remember who and what we are,” Francesca said.

“I’m a prisoner, Francesca.  Now that I have my freedom, I plan to use it.  I could be like Maria here, a courtesan.  I could have the life I want.”

“It’s not easy,” Maria said.

“But it would be better than what I have,” Felicita said.

“The food would be better,” Elena said.

They got to the docks and parted ways.  Elena told them where they’d be in case they needed to be found.

A few minutes after Elena and Felicita left, Lorenzo appeared wearing his slightly worn suit and his half mask.  He had his cane and concealed pistol.

“Good evening, ladies,” Lorenzo said.

“Good evening,” they said in unison.

“So, Francesca, you arrive here by boat and it is an hour long round trip for Maria,” Lorenzo said.

“Please don’t try to deduce where I am from.  It will do no one any good,” Francesca said.

“Why is that?”  Lorenzo asked.

“I won’t tell.”

“So I must trust you, but you have no need to trust me?”

“Sometimes ignorance is better.  Don’t you think?”

“No, I don’t.”

He looked at her with eyes that were examining everything about her.  She had no doubt that he would eventually find out who she was.  When that happens she prayed that he would keep her secret.

“Has there been any progress in the case?”  Maria asked.  Francesca was thankful for the interruption.

“We’re watching all activity in the Austrian embassy.  Nothing to report.  The Council is more concerned with the French right now, but I conduct my investigations as I see fit.”

“Are we even on the right trail or are we flailing around in the dark?”  Maria asked.

“Someone thinks we’re close enough to have us killed.  If that isn’t a trail marker, I’m not sure what is,” Lorenzo said.

“Come, let’s go.  We have a late dinner appointment with the Austrian ambassador,” Maria said.

They began walking down the crowded streets of Venice.  Francesca wondered if anyone actually slept during Carnival.  It seemed as if the city and all parts round about were gathered in one spot.  All around were people in costumes and masks.  No one showed their true self here.

“Are you married, Lorenzo?”  Maria asked.

“No, my lady.”

“Why not?”

“My two oldest brothers were married but brides are few.  I and my father have looked, but the price of the dowry has sent too many young ladies to the monasteries,” Lorenzo said.

“That is a problem, indeed,” Francesca said.  Fearfully, she wondered if he already knew who she was.

“And what do you think should be done?”  Francesca asked.

“Done?  What can be done?  I just accept it and move on,” Lorenzo said.

“I don’t believe that,” Maria said.

“And why not?”  He asked.

“You’re not the sort of man that accepts anything he’s given.  You must first examine it and find out everything you can about it,” Maria said.

Lorenzo laughed.

“So, you see through me, my lady.  It is as you say.”

“I know how to read people”

They came to a large, brightly lit palazzo with guards and servants all about.  Butlers in frilled shirts and jackets and large powdered wigs stood at the entrance to greet them.  The number of finely attired partiers that were walking around the gardened entrance immediately made Francesca want to turn about and run.

A reassuring hand on her shoulder and Maria’s smile guided her inside the embassy of the Austrian ambassador.

Chapter 12

Francesca was glad she was wearing a mask because she would be gawking at the luxury that surrounded her.  The Austrian ambassador’s palace was so richly decorated that it made the Doge’s palace seem like a pauper’s house.  Long streamers of bold crimson hung from the walls of the courtyard and also radiated out from the top of a pole in like spokes of a wagon wheel.  The Austrian and Venetian flag were on display everywhere she looked.  The servants were dressed in more finery than most nobles.

“You’re gawking, aren’t you,” Maria whispered.

“Yes.”

“Me too.  I’ve been here before but I’ve never seen the place look like this before.”

“Is this a special occasion of some kind?”

“Not that I know of.  Either they really want to impress everyone this Carnival or something else is going on.  If there is, it’ll be easy to find out.”

“I’m still Elisabeth Harting, correct?”

“Correct.”

“I’m also assuming my Venetian hasn’t improved.”

“No, it hasn’t.  But I’m also worried that there’ll be people here who speak English.  You’re going to have to try not to draw people’s attention.”

“What if I’m working on my Venetian and only wish to converses imperfectly in Venetian so I can practice.”

“Excellent idea.  See?  You’re not so bad at this roguish behavior.”

Maria’s ease with all the shadowy, subtle arts worried her.  If she was so good with lying It was because she had a great deal of practice.  She wondered if she’d lie to her brother.  Would she have affairs and keep them secret?  Would she tell him that she loved him when she didn’t?

The thought of Maria being constantly false upset Francesca.  She had to keep her mind focused so she sent all those misgivings to the back of her mind.

Maria showed their invitations to the doorman and they were waved in.  It was a long room with pillars on the sides that allowed them to stay out of view.  The floors were white and pink marble and the ceiling was gilded.  There weren’t many people there and it looked as if the party was going to be more intimate than she would have preferred.  Everyone there was wearing masks and she prayed that it would stay that way.

Maria took her hand and guided her off to the side of the main gallery.

“Remember, act like you belong here,” Maria said.

“Of course.  I was born into a noble family after all.”

“I wasn’t talking about that.”

“Oh, yes, of course,” Francesca said in her English accented Venetian.

“Excellent.”

Maria led her deeper into the gallery where nobles of all kinds were mingling.  She heard German, French, English and different dialects of mainland Italian.  None of them seemed to pay anyone else any mind.

“That’s the ambassador,” Maria whispered.

Maria flicked her fan in the direction of a tall, lanky man with a beak nose that gave her the impression of a hawk or vulture.  He had a scar running down the left side of his face and his left arm was missing.

“He aquired the ambassadorial position after retiring from the military.  He’s fought against the Crimean Tartars, in Poland and against the Ottoman’s,” Maria said.

“I had no idea there were so many wars going on.”

“There are, just not in the more civilized parts of Europe.  He was something of an adventurer, going wherever battles could be fought.  I believe he just likes fighting.  Think of the message the Austrians are sending us by making that man the ambassador.”

“They want to remind us of their military might.”

“And intimidate us.”

“It’s working.”

“Don’t be intimidated.  He won’t even notice two women like us.  He cares only for hunting, warfare and politics.”

“I think that for once, I like being beneath his notice.”

“Me too.  I suspect he invited me only because I am popular. It’s more about presentation and prestige than my actual company.”

“You’re that well known?”

“Yes I am.  I mingle with council members, admirals and nobles.”

“So, why would you pay attention to my brother who is a mere inspector?”

Maria shot a look to her that was angry and confused.

“What sort of person do you think I am?  You think I’d fall in love with a person’s money?  I wouldn’t care if Marco was a fishmonger. I love him because he is a good, honest, funny and decent man.  That’s far rarer than you must realize.  I love him for who he is, not what his occupation is.”

“I see.”

“You still don’t trust me, do you?”

I haven’t known you that long.”

“It’s not about the time you’ve known me, it’s what I am that you don’t trust.  I break societal rules to do what I must do.  Isn’t that exactly what you’re doing?  According to the laws of the Republic, who is the bigger criminal, me or you?”

“Me,” Francesca muttered.

“Exactly.  Remember that.”

Maria grabbed two wine glasses from a server and handed one to her.

“Pretend like you’re drinking.  Don’t actually drink though, we need clear minds.”

A half hour later the music started.  People began dancing and young noblemen began looking around for dance partners.  A young man approached them and bowed.  He wore a black suit and a white, mouthless Buata mask

“I am Antonio Cappellini,” the young man said.

“I am Maria DeCanali and this is my friend, Elisabeth Harting.”

“An Englishwoman?  Then, our fair guest from England, may I have this dance?”

Francesca knew this song and knew the dance that went with it.  She could do it.

“Very well,” she said in her fake accent.

The man led her out to the floor and took her right into the middle of the dance.

“You must…forgive me.  I not dance very well,” Francesca said.

“It’s quite alright.  I imagine that you have different dances in England.”

“Many things different in England.  More rain and less water.”

The man laughed and she got a glimpse of a clean shaven face under his mask.

“I would imagine so.  You keep famous company.  How did you come to know Lady DeCanali?”

“Through letters.  I like her poems.  I write her, she write me back.”

“Did you come here alone?”

“No, my…um…how do you say…aunt.  My aunt brought me here.”

“Is she here at this party?”

“No.  Lady DeCanali is my escort.”

“You’re a fearless one.”

“I just don’t like being…trapped.”

Those words came out without her even thinking about it.  She didn’t like being trapped.  She hated that Maria got to do all the things that she wanted to do.  She hated being stuck, secluded away from the world.  She wanted to be a part of the world and help shape it.

“Are all Englishwomen as independently minded as you?”

“I think not.”

Francesca made a few missteps in the dance, but for the most part was able to follow along.  Even after all the years in the convent, she was still able to fall back into the role of a noblewoman.

“So, tell me senor Cappellini, you not Venetian?”

“How can you tell?”

“You name doesn’t sound like other Venetian names.  It sounds Northern Italian.”

“Milan, actually.”

“What a man from Milan doing here in Venice?”

“Business.”

“What business?”

“I’m here working on a trade agreement.”

“With Venice?”

“With Venice and Austria.”

“Do you know ambassador?  I hear he is very brave soldier.”

“He’s seen more fighting than everyone in the room combined.”

“Is he an honorable man?”

“Very much so.”

“It sounds that you admire him.”

“Indeed I do.”

She looked over and saw the ambassador talking to a man dressed in the typical Venetian black.  They were talking in hushed tones away from everyone else.  She noticed the pistol he tried to conceal under his cloak.

“Who that man talking to ambassador?”  She asked.

“I don’t know.  I’ve seen him here before but it seems he’s always coming and going.  A page perhaps.”

“Perhaps.”

She didn’t think normal pages carried pistols and talked like equals to their employers.  She was going to have to tell Maria about this.

“What do you think about Venice?”  He asked.

“It a lovely city.  Very beautiful.”

“You don’t find it decadent, corrupt and weak?  Compared to England, I’d imagine most other countries are!”  He laughed at his own joke but she didn’t find mocking Venice to be funny at all.  “look around you.  This city has lost all the glory it once held and now tries to immerse itself in a dream world where the problems of the real world don’t interfere.  I actually find it fairly sad.”

“Well, I love Venice.  It is a wonderful place.”

“Does that mean you are one to care more about diversions and pleasures?”

“Not at all.  Is that why you come to Venice?  You want to make money from dying city?”

“Not to make money…”

She felt that he was about to say more, but never got around to saying it.

He was a young man from Milan, who was close to the Austrian ambassador, didn’t like Venice and came here to organize some kind of agreement, but one that didn’t involve money.  The only other thing people cared about was land.  He was there to work with Austria to gain Venice’s land.  He viewed Venice as week and was here to exploit it.

When the dance was over, she curtsied and thanked senor Cappellini for the dance.  She found Maria returning from a dance as well.

“Did you find out anything?”  Maria asked.

“I did for once.”

Francesca went through their conversation and told Maria her conclusions.

“Very interesting.  I saw that man talking to the ambassador as well.  I didn’t realize that he was armed.”

“Many nobles here are, that’s not unusual, but what was unusual was that he came in, talked in private to the ambassador about something serious and straightway left again.”

“I’ll see what I can find out.”

After another two hours of dancing where Francesca didn’t find out anything useful, they party moved to the dinning hall where there were several long tables laid out with all manner of food.  Servants seated everyone according to predetermined positions.  The place marker by her seat simply said “guest.”  That was for the better.

She sat down beside Maria.  Their table was mostly single women.  It seemed that the men that had business to discuss all sat at the ambassador’s table.  That made it easy for her to see who they needed to keep an eye on.

The women there talked and gossiped about nothing important.  She could tell that Maria was listening and some facts could probably be gleamed from their gossip, but Francesca didn’t have the patience to deal with that.  She kept her eye on Cappellini and who talked to who at the ambassador’s table.

She gathered that there was a core of six men that were either friends, business partners or something else.  They often talked quietly with each other.  There was the ambassador, Cappellini and four gentlemen she didn’t recognize.

“Do you know them?”  Francesca asked.

“There’s Councilman Bernardo Alberti, Giovanni Barbarigo, and I don’t know the other two.  Perhaps I might but I can’t tell with their masks on,” Maria said.

“What do you think they’re talking about?”

“Whatever it is, they don’t look happy about it.”

“We need to find out what kind of connection they have.  I don’t trust that Cappellini.”

“Aside from you, I don’t trust anyone in this room.”

The party didn’t have the gaiety and laughter of the gambling houses.  She did see plenty of people sneaking off to other rooms for romantic liaisons though.  It made her wonder what Felicita and Elena were doing.  She wished she hadn’t told them.  They were endangering their souls.

When they left the party, they found Lorenzo outside waiting for them.

“Have you been waiting here the entire time?”  Francesca asked.

“Not at all.  I went to keep an eye on your two friends.  I don’t know where you found them, but they seem to love parties very much.  One won’t stop drinking and the other…”

“Yes, we know,” Francesca quickly said.

They began walking back toward Maria’s house.

“Did you learn anything useful?”  Lorenzo asked.

“I’m not sure.  We learned that there’s a group of six friends with no obvious connection, yet they were beside each other almost the entire time,” Maria said.

They gave him the list of names and he promised to check on them.  They entered Maria’s house where Colleta was asleep on the couch.

“She insisted on waiting up for you,” the servant said.  Francesca had been told the servant’s name, but she hadn’t bothered to remember it.

Maria sat down beside the sleeping Colleta and gently shook her awake.

“Mother.  I waited up for you,” Colleta said with a bright but sleepy smile.

“So I see.  Now its time for you to go to bed.  Come.”

Maria helped Colleta up and together they went upstairs.

“So, are you ever going to tell me who you are or must I take time out of my busy day to find out myself?”  Lorenzo asked.

“There’s no reason for you to know.  It’s better if you don’t.”

“That just makes me want to know all the more.”

“Please don’t look into it.”

“It’s my job.”

He laughed and then asked the servant to bring some wine.  She had had enough already but didn’t refuse.

They sat down on separate couches with their wine.  Neither of them said anything for several long moments.

“You’re brother is greatly respected.  He’s young but he’s already earned a reputation for his dedication.  I’m sad to say that such dedication is very rare these days.”

“It used to be an honor and privilege to serve the Republic.  Now it’s merely a burden.  I wish there was something I could do, but I’m in no position to stop our decline.”

“Stop our decline?  We’ve already declined as far as we can go.  The only thing left is for a foreign invader to come and claim us.  There’s literally nothing we could do to stop them.”

“You think it’s too late to climb out of the hole we find ourselves in?”

“No, but first we’d need the will to do it and nobody here has the will for it.  All their energies are spent on entertainment and luxuries to allow them to ignore the world around them.”

“Lorenzo, I can tell you love the Republic.  Please tell me you see a way out of this.”

“Madam, there is no way out of this.  Everyone that has any power is trapped in a dream world of apathy and pleasure.  I wonder if they’d even care if the Republic falls.”

“I can’t believe things have gotten this bad.”

“It’s been this bad for quite a while.  Have you recently returned to Venice?”

“That is one way of viewing it.”

“Shall we go retrieve your two friends?”

“I suppose that they’ve had enough entertainment for one night.”

“I’m sure they’ve had enough to last the week.”

They waited until Maria came back down.  They found Elena asleep in a gambling salon and Felicita talking to four men at once.  It seemed she hadn’t lost her knack for keeping men’s attention.

They rowed back to the convent silently.  Each time she returned was more painful.  She loved her freedom.  She loved her city and she loved her brother.  She wanted a way out of the convent permanently.  It was a dream and nothing else though.  If she were to escape, it would reflect poorly on Marco’s career and their family.  She couldn’t have that.  He had a duty to the Republic and she had a duty to the Republic.  Her duty was staying where she was.  It was a duty she was very poor at.

Chapter 13

Francesca awoke too early in the morning by a knock on her door.  Noel came in with a platter of honey cakes and set them down on the table.

“Noel, I don’t with to be disturbed,” she groaned.

“I know, but there’s a visitor for you.  I also brought some cakes from the kitchen.  A bishop is coming to enjoy the convent’s hospitality today so they’ve made plenty of everything.”

“Doesn’t the Abbess know that we can’t afford lavish hospitality?   Of course she doesn’t.  She doesn’t concern herself with the books.  Only I ever look at them.”

“Cardinal Vitturi is coming soon.  I’m not sure when, but we’ll need to have our rooms ready by then.”

“The Abbess is more concerned about our rooms than the ledgers.  If we can’t afford to keep the convent open, we won’t have rooms to inspect.”

She rolled out of bed and quickly dressed, grabbed the plate of cakes and left.  When she got to the separated parlor, she saw Marco there waiting for her.  He was on crutches but looked healthy.

“I was hoping it would be you.  I brought some food,” Francesca said.

“You love to be fed,” she said.

“And you love to feed me.”

She smiled because she knew it was true.

“If I was free of my cage, I’d spoil you as if you were a prince.”

“A prince with a limp.”

“What brings you and your limp out here?”

He continued to smile but she could see that his smile was forced.

“There’s been another murder.”

“Who?”

“An Antonio Cappellini.  Maria says you know the man.”

“Well…yes.  I met him last night at the party.  He’s dead?  What happened?”

“He was murdered in his home last night.”

“And the particulars of the murder?”

“Odd, to say the least.”

“You need me?”

“Yes.”

“Come get me tonight then.”

“Will do.”

He grabbed a cake, smiled and left.

She debated not telling Felicita and Elena, but she knew that they’d be furious if they found out that she had left without them.

Despite their tiredness, they welcomed the opportunity to leave the confines of the convent’s walls.  That evening she took a nap as she listened to the choir.  She sat in the back row so nobody would notice her little rest.

When she awoke, the choir was still singing and nobody had noticed her nap.  She thought back to the opera she had seen with Marco and remembered how stunningly beautiful it had been.  Compared to that, their little choir was nothing at all.  She realized that it was a simple, humble sort of beauty the choir had, but it wasn’t the sort of beauty that moved her soul and stirred her senses.

She wanted more than this quiet, simple and plain life.  She had never wanted it.  For a while she had ignored her thoughts and memories and had convinced herself that this was her vocation.  But the more she remembered the world and her own heart, the more she knew she didn’t want this life.  A holy vocation such as this was supposed to be a calling, a desire deep within one’s heart.  It wasn’t supposed to be forced onto someone.

Maria met them at the ruined dock and they rowed towards Venice.

“What do you know of this murder?”  Francesca asked once she had changed into her disguise.

“I know that due to an intentional accident of paperwork, the body is still there where it was found,” Maria said.

“A body?  You’re going to go look at a body?”  Elena asked.

“Of course.  It’s hard to help with a murder investigation with no bodies,” Francesca said.

“Who cares about that?  You should come with me.  I’ll introduce you to some entertaining young men,” Felicita said.

“No thank you.  You shouldn’t be doing this Felicita.  You’re putting your soul in jeopardy.  Not only that, if you get pregnant, how will you explain that?  I can’t have that coming back on my head.”

“Don’t worry.  I’ll protect our little secret.  But until then, what I do with my time and myself is my business.  I’ve always wanted a different life and I’m catching up on all the things I’ve missed over the years.  My life was stolen from me and I’m getting it back.”

There was nothing Francesca could do.  It was her choice and she couldn’t force Felicita to do what was right.  She certainly couldn’t turn her into the Abbess even if she didn’t want to, which she certainly didn’t.

They met Marco and Lorenzo at Maria’s house.  When they entered, Marco and Lorenzo were laughing about some story Marco had told.

“Ah!  Come in ladies.  Welcome,” Marco said.

“This is your brother?”  Elena asked.

“Yes, this is Marco and this is his partner, Lorenzo,” Francesca said.

Both the men bowed and Felicita and Elena curtsied.  The two sisters introduced themselves but soon left to go find a party.

“Against the law, we’ve had the body kept there until midnight tonight.  We should hurry,” Lorenzo said.

“Lorenzo, take care of her,” Marco said.

“Of course,” Lorenzo said.

“Come.”

Lorenzo opened the door for the two women and then led them to the house.  There weren’t any guards but the door was locked.  He unlocked it and they went inside.

The first floor was small, but open with one staircase that led upward.  Like most houses along the canal, the first floor was their warehouse and business.  Wooden crates and a Greek looking statue filled one side of the room.

“The neighbors heard a gunshot around three in the morning,” Lorenzo said.  He pointed to a spot on the wall where a bullet sized hole was.  “Cappellini fired at his murderer but apparently missed.  Then he ran up the stairs.”

They followed him upstairs to the bedroom.  When he opened the door all she could see was darkness.  Then he brought his lamp up and light filled the room.  At first she thought that the bed had red sheets, but when she saw the mutilated form, she quickly realized that it was blood.

Maria gasped behind her.

“Come in,” he said.

She went in while Lorenzo lit the candelabras that were in the bedroom.  The body looked as if it had been butchered.  The torso was opened up and the head was severed.

Francesca had never seen a body like this before.  She had seen corpses at funerals and such, but never like this.

“You found him like this?”  Francesca asked.

“Nobody’s touched him as far as I know.”

She took a deep breath and approached the body.  It was horrible to look at.  Cappellini’s face was still frozen in a hollow eyed look of pain.

“He was alive when this happened,” she said.

She looked back to the others and saw that Maria had her eyes closed and was holding a handkerchief to her mouth.

“What makes you think this is our murderer?”  Francesca asked.

“Because the house was locked from the inside and look at the blood.  Whoever did this had to have been covered in it, but there’s no so much as a footprint or sign that someone was here.”

Francesca looked and tried to imagine how the murderer performed the act.  Cappellini was sprawled out on the middle of his bed.  The bed was too large for the murderer to have been standing beside the bed.  The killer had to have been on the bed in the same fashion as the first murder.  This felt like the same person.

“If he was kneeling over Cappellini, the blood would splatter against his legs and belly.  He’d either be kneeling or crouched over him or beside him, but look; the blood splatter wasn’t stopped on either side.  Maybe he was at Cappellini’s head?”

“Why would he?  He had the headboard there.  That doesn’t give him much room,” Lorenzo said.

“This isn’t natural,” Maria said.

“Unless he used a halberd and killed him from several paces away, I don’t see how this could have been done,” Francesca said.

“A halberd, eh?  You don’t see a lot of people carrying poleaxes around,” Lorenzo said.

“We have to look at all possibilities, regardless of how ridiculous.  If we can figure out all the ways this couldn’t have happened, we might find the way it actually did happen,” Francesca said.

“Did we find the murder weapon?”  Maria said through her handkerchief.

“No.”

“Maria, can I get some food?”  She asked.

“How can you think of food at a time like this?”

“Because I’m hungry and the food at the convent isn’t nearly as good.”

“I’ll be glad to leave for a while.”

Maria hurried out of the house.

“I’ve seen few people that can maintain their appetites while seeing such horrors,” he said.

“It bothers me, just not in the same way as others.  I’m hungry so I eat.  Let’s look around and see…

She was about to continue speaking, but she noticed a what could be a pattern through all the blood.  She bent closer and looked.

“Lorenzo, I think I see a pattern here.  Get me a cloth or something I can wipe the blood away.  The body was in such an inhuman mess that it was hard to see exactly what had happened.

Lorenzo returned with a wet cloth and she began wiping the dried blood away.  There were indeed what looked like regular cuts, almost like writing.  She pulled the skin of the belly back together and saw what was written.

“Violator,” Francesca said.

“Violator?  What does that mean?  He violated someone?  Something?  Is it metaphorical?”

“I don’t know, but his…groin seems particularly butchered.”

“Not metaphorical then.”

“Unless it’s a metaphorical mutilation.”

Maria came back with some sweet pastries of different kinds.

“No meat?”  Francesca asked.

“I thought pastries were cleaner.  I didn’t want to think about meat right now,” Maria said.

As she had something with apples in it, she thought.  She imagined several ways the killing could have happened and each way was more improbable than the last.

“I still don’t know how the killer did this.  None of it makes sense.  I was hoping to find motivation that would lead to who the killer was, but now we have another body and still no idea,” Francesca said.

“If there’s nothing else to learn here, may we leave?”  Maria asked.

“Let’s go,” Lorenzo said.

They went outside while Lorenzo put out the lights and locked the door.  As she stood there waiting for him she felt something cold along her back.  Something cold and sick.  She knew she had felt it before.

Slowly, so as not to look as if she were looking, she turned to see what it was.  She knew what it was before she ever saw it.

The woman in white was standing in the shadows of a narrow ally.  She had her white dress, mask, wig and hat.  She was standing very straight with her hands to her side.  She was just staring at them.

“Maria, the woman in white,” Francesca whispered.

“Where?”  Maria turned and looked.  She froze in place as she saw the strange figure.

“There.  Locked up nice and tight for the body removal people to come in an hour,” Lorenzo said.

“Lorenzo, look!”  Francesca nodded her head in the direction.

Lorenzo looked around and she saw on his face when he noticed the woman.

“What is…”

She could tell that he felt the strangeness of the woman as well.

As they looked, the woman backed up into the ally and disappeared into the darkness.

“Who was that?”  Lorenzo asked in a whisper.

“We don’t know.  We’ve seen her before, the night you found that body in the street.  I think she was following us.”

“Following?”

Lorenzo pulled out his pistol and ran to the ally with his lantern.

“No one’s here,” he called back.

“She must have ran off,” Maria said.

Francesca wasn’t so sure that the woman ran.  Whoever the woman was, she wasn’t natural.  These murders weren’t natural.  The woman in white knew something about this.

“There are unholy powers about tonight,” Francesca said.

“Let’s not speculate on unnatural causes.  I’ve never seen cruelty or murder that needed a demonic explanation,” Lorenzo said.  “It’s man.  That’s all it ever was.  It’s not God or the devil that do horrible things, its man.  Maybe they’re pushed by both sides, but they’re still free to choose and when a person chooses to do something evil, they do it.”

“Lorenzo, there’s something truly unnatural about that woman,” Maria said.

“Let’s get back to the house.  I’ll see what I can find out about a woman in white.  Someone has to have seen her,” he said.

Francesca wasn’t sure about that.  She had a feeling that if the woman didn’t want to be seen, she wouldn’t be seen.

They began walking through the noisy, laughter and music filled streets.

“Lorenzo, I think you need to find out what the connection is between Cappellini and the Giacomas.  They were murdered by the same person.  There has to be a reason,” Francesca said.

“I have a lot of work to do.  I’ll escort you to the house and leave you ladies to enjoy the rest of the evening.”

When they got to the house, they found the maid holding a sobbing Colleta.

“Colleta!  My darling, what’s wrong?”  Maria asked as she sat down beside her and wrapped her arms around her.

“I’m scared,” Colleta sais through her sobs.

“Scared?  Scared of what?  Nothing’s going to harm you.”

“I saw a ghost.”

“Ghost?  What sort of ghost?  Where?”

“I was in my room and looked out the window.  I saw the woman standing there.  She was looking up at me.”

Maria’s eyes went wide and she instantly looked up to Francesca.

“What sort of woman, Colleta?”  Francesca asked.

“She was all in white.  Everything grew cold.  She began to sway, like there was music and she walked away, but as she was walking, she faded into nothing,” Colleta said.

“It was just the light playing tricks on you darling.  Let’s go to bed.

Francesca was left alone in the parlor as Maria took her daughter up to her room.  She didn’t want to be alone at that moment.

The woman, or whatever it was, knew something, they had to find out.  Perhaps the woman thought they knew more than they did.  If they were supposed to be hunting this woman, then they were woefully ignorant.

It was another hour before Maria came back down.  Together they went to find Elena and Felicita.  Elena was drinking and Felicita was no where to be seen.

“Where’s Felicita?”  Francesca asked.

“In one of the back parlors.  I think she’s with two men.”

Francesca closed her eyes while she struggled to reign in her temper.  There was nothing to do but sit down, enjoy some sliced cheese, sausage and bread and wait.


One Response to “Venice Ghost Story”

  1. Sir, I’ve just finished reading the posted chapters of ‘Venice Ghost Story’ and it’s fantastic. I’ve also read what you have posted here of ‘Witch Queen’ and ‘Gorgon’, and they are quite good as well, but thus far ‘Venice Ghost Story’ is my favorite. Where can I find the rest of this book? I read your blog posting where you question what kind of writer you are, and, in my humble opinion, you are a masterful story teller. Your charcters are likable and your plots gripping. I know that unsolicited criticism from an unkown person is seldom welcome, therefore I will refrain. If, however, you would like to hear my thoughts on your work please feel free to e-mail me. If not, please accept the praise of a fan who is thoroughly enjoying your writing and looks forward to reading your books. Keep up the good work, don’t give up. You’ve got a gift and you should continue to explore and develope it. Best of luck.

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