Cristiano del Valle climbed into the gondola and cast a glance across the foggy lagoon of Venezia. Barges and galleys crowded the misty waters, though the quays had fallen lifeless for the night. Beyond the lagoon lay La Serenissima, its palaces aglow beneath flickering torchlights.
For months Cristiano had debated returning to Venezia to claim his inheritance, battling over whether such action would be the height of foolishness and determining it was indeed. The city held nothing but a ghost life he could never have, yet he’d still found it impossible to stay away. He’d sailed from port to port, from Madrid to Giudecca, guided by an ever-wishful heart.
The gondolier, an old Slav, nodded toward the felze where shelter and woolen blankets went unused. “You should move inside, signore. The wind—she is biting. It will take a while to reach Signore Galvano’s casa.”
Cristiano waved dismissively, hardening himself to the cold though he cursed the frigid gust that met them head-on. He’d spent his life on rivers and seas, yet the chilly gales of northern winters never proved any less harsh. He belonged to the sun-scorched deserts of his early years, not to countries so cold their waters turned to ice.
The gondolier shrugged and expertly guided the vessel into the Canal Grande. Cristiano leaned against the felze and closed his eyes, ignoring the pulse of stregheria radiating from the countryside. He summoned an image of Mali’s sunny coast where he once played with his own mysterious magick, turning sand and earth with the wave of his hand. He possessed little memory of that childhood, but he did remember the name his parents had given him, the name he answered to until the day the good Captain found him, an orphan lost on the docks at Tangier.
Akpan. First-born son. Only son.
Would he ever return to Mali? Would he ever seek answers about the power within his blood? After twenty-three years with the Captain, and after finally gaining his freedom, why hadn’t he made the journey home?
The truth pounded through his soul like a tribal chant of his birth land. Home is not always a place.
Cristiano drifted to dreams of the woman he so longed to see, the Captain’s niece, Elisabetta. A year after leaving Venezia, a letter reached Cristiano and the Captain in Portugal. Elisabetta’s father had died. Her older brother, Cristiano’s closest friend, planned to honor their father’s wishes by arranging his sister’s marriage to a wealthy Cittadino from San Marco.
The news rent Cristiano’s heart in two. Marriage to such a man was the only way for Elisabetta, for what could a young Moor like himself, no more than a sailor and traveler, have offered her or her family? Not a luxurious life. Not connections with Venezia’s patricians. He could’ve only offered his heart, and in Venezia, that wasn’t enough.
Cristiano envisioned Elisabetta as he’d last seen her, waving from Chioggia’s quayside a decade earlier. In a time when he’d struggled to hide his adoration, it hadn’t helped that she and her mother were strega. Finally, he’d found others at the mercy of magick, too. While Cristiano’s hands held sway over earth, roots, and rock, Elisabetta’s hands tamed the sea or stirred the canal. He loved her hands.
Hands that now belonged to another man.
His eyes shot open, pulse racing. With the image of Elisabetta still floating in his mind, he whispered the words that had anchored him to reality in their time apart: She’s lost to you, Akpan. Stop your dreaming.
The gondolier’s rows eventually slowed. Cristiano sat up and rubbed his eyes, taking in the San Polo sestiere. The Rialto Bridge spanned the canal ahead, busy for such a late hour on such a cold night. People laughed, danced, and kissed as they strolled, warm in their cloaks beneath the silver light of a full moon.
And masks. They wore masks.
Ah, he remembered. Natale was two weeks away. The debauchery of Carnevale loomed over the Republic and its citizens, as it would until Shrove Tuesday. Cristiano had spent his last Carnevale chasing Elisabetta through raucous crowds, hiding behind his bauta mask. One night, she tricked him and dragged him into the shadows where she kissed him until he could not breathe.
Cristiano leaned forward and held his face to the wind, hoping to wipe away the memory of Elisabetta’s lips against his. “The revelers are out early,” he said to the gondolier, an effort at self-distraction.
“Every year they come earlier, signore. And this year? Too much danger.” The old man spat into the canal. “Fools.”
Cristiano studied the sleepy markets lining the canal, then cast a glance over his shoulder, even though he knew no one was there. “Of what danger do you speak?”
“Three dead in the last week, signore.” The old man glanced from side to side of the waterway and lowered his voice as though he might be heard. “No blood in their veins. Is an evil being done. Evil, I say.”
A shiver ghosted down Cristiano’s spine. He knew of beings who killed in such a way; he’d encountered a small band in Brittany two winters ago. Four men and a woman. They boarded the Captain’s ship and drained the men while they lay sleeping, all before Cristiano and the Captain could lead a defense.
The creatures had been strong as iron and fought swift as the wind, their startling white stares constantly seeking Cristiano amongst the chaos. It felt as though they were hunting.
By the slice of a blade, each of their heads toppled—except one. The woman fought like a Trojan and escaped.
Nightmares haunted Cristiano for weeks after. The Captain assured him such monsters only lived in the snowy mountains of France, and soon enough, peaceful months at sea stilled his worries.
Cristiano muttered a prayer. Surely such death dealers didn’t walk La Serenissima’s cities. Surely Venezia’s murders were of another cause.
The worry slipped to the back of his mind as the gondolier guided the vessel onto the Rio dei Fontico del Todeschi, then onto a smaller canal in the Santa Marina Formosa parish. Casa di Galvano lay in sight, its pale facade lit by swaying lanterns hanging near the canal-side entrance.
The old man steered the gondola through the water gates into the dimly lit cavàna. He made fast work of mooring the boat, then turned to help Cristiano with his heavy traveling satchel.
Cristiano snatched the bag before the frail man could reach for it and stepped from the gondola onto the slick landing.
He bowed in humble appreciation. “Thank you for your guidance on such a cruel night, sir. Your name?”
“Milosh.” A twinkle lit the man’s eyes as he tipped his hat. “A pleasure, signore. I pray you a safe visit.”
The shuffle of slippers in the stairwell caught Cristiano’s ear. He slung his satchel over his shoulder and smiled as illumination grew around his feet like spilled sunlight.
The shuffling stopped, and a deep voice spoke. “Dio mio! You are the size of a bear, del Valle!”
Cristiano smothered a laugh and faced his friend. Lantern in hand, Pietro Galvano wore a beaming smile, but much to Cristiano’s dismay, his friend looked naught of himself. From graying hair to deep lines etching his face, Pietro was the image of his father, the Captain’s beloved brother. He even appeared shorter, or perhaps Cristiano hadn’t realized how much he himself had grown since their last days together.
Pietro embraced Cristiano. “Time,” he said. “The great changer of all things, yes?”
After long moments relishing the feel of family in his grasp, Cristiano held Pietro at arm’s length. “Indeed, my friend. Though time hasn’t changed the fact that I’m still the better swordsman.”
A bellowing laugh left Pietro, the very person who’d taught Cristiano to wield a rapier and sword with skill rather than incompetence.
“That you are, del Valle,” Pietro said. “That you are!” He motioned to the stairwell. “Shall we?”
Cristiano followed Pietro up the winding stairs, the damp stone walls shimmering under amber lantern light. They’d taken five steps before Cristiano could hold the inquiry of his heart no longer. “Forgive me,” he said. “I must know. How is Elisabetta?”
Pietro stopped, and after a moment, turned. “I wanted to tell you face to face. Elisabetta fell gravely ill, Akpan. Four years past.”
The world seemed to tilt. Cristiano clasped a handful of Pietro’s cloak to steady himself. “Is she...” he couldn’t utter the terrible thought.
Pietro placed a comforting hand atop Cristiano’s and squeezed. “She’s well, my friend, but she is not the same. Elisabetta is blind.”
“Blind? Can—can she not be healed? I’ll fetch every physician in La Serenissima.”
Pietro shook his head. “Listen to me. I’ve already sought counsel, from physicians to the strega. None believe healing possible, not without a miracle.”
Cristiano couldn’t stand the thoughts racing through his mind. Elisabetta would never see the beauties of the world again. Not a sunrise. Not a sunset. Not the olive groves she loved when she was young. Not the sea nor the valley—nor him.
She would never again see him.
“Does her husband care for her?” It was all he could think to ask.
“Her husband passed from an accident at his warehouse six months later,” Pietro said. “His family sent Elisabetta back to me shortly after, as I prayed they might. She didn’t wish to remarry, nor did she want life in a convent. She wanted to live with my family, near our children, and I couldn’t deny her.”
Cristiano’s heart stuttered. “She’s here? In your house?”
“She’s been here for nearly three years.”
Cristiano rested his forehead on Pietro’s chest, trying to breathe. Much had been taken from Elisabetta, enough that he wanted to curse the heavens in her name, but glory—she was alive and safe and only steps away.
“What of her children?” he asked.
Heirs remained with their father’s family if a marriage dissolved, even because of death, and he knew Betta. She wouldn’t have left her little ones willingly.
“She never had children.” Pietro held Cristiano close. “She was unable.”
Cristiano’s heart broke even more, but Pietro soothed him. “She manages quite well, Akpan. She is not sullen, nor is she bitter. She’s strong and still the same Elisabetta.” He clasped Cristiano’s shoulder and spoke close to his ear. “She’s a widow now, my brother. Do you understand? Do you see why I asked you to come home?”
Cristiano wiped his eyes. He understood very much. “May I see her?”
A smile tugged the corners of Pietro’s mouth. “She doesn’t know you’re here. I wanted to surprise her, an early gift for Natale. In the morning, I will bring you to her. She’ll smile as I haven’t seen in years, and all will be well.” Pietro moved up the stairwell. “Now come.”
Cristiano hesitated in the remaining darkness. After thousands of miles, his feet suddenly seemed unsure of their intended destination. He’d expected to be haunted by Elisabetta in Venezia, her memory lurking behind every doorway and down every street. Instead, he would have to face her. Smell her. Watch her. Touch her. Could he do any of those things without crumbling at her feet? Without whispering the breathings of his soul against her skin?
He didn’t know, but his heart gave him no other choice than to find out.