Our arrival to the Galli estate was both a relief and filled me with dread. I realized that the outdoors now filled me with dread; every unknown sound was a threat and every shadow brought me a shaking, sweating sensation that would have put the hairs on my neck on alert if they ever managed to lay down.

The lines of the estate were rounder than I’d seen with De Santis and Greco, but Galli was a younger family by noble standards, and their property showed its youth in various ways. As we arrived, we saw two dozen children of various ages running about the lawns, trailed by a team of minders and servants. The older ones made note of our arrival with a shrewdness I envied. Born to this world, they had every advantage I lacked with only Tiziano’s teaching.

I saw Tiago watching the children longingly, but he made no move to join them. His injured arm was in a sling now and he shifted the cloth on his neck uncomfortably; it was humid today.

A branch in the road of approach directed my wagons toward the back of the estate to unload and only those without immediate duties, or whose duties involved me directly, continued to the front where Galli himself waited with a man bearing a vaguely familiar face.

Prevot leaned over to mean and said, “Remember the grouchy Visconte from the tea house?”

The memory surfaced and I stifled a caustic smirk. Visconte Oscuro was here visiting, it seemed, and already owed me a boon for my suffrage. This might be the cloud break I needed.

We dismounted and servants appeared and vanished with our horses. I approached the two men and gave a shallow bow, my eyes holding anchor on their faces; no reason they should think even at the start they might outrank me.

“Don Gentillini, is it not?” the Visconte Oscuro asked, returning a slightly deeper bow. I smiled, but did not answer. Conte Galli eyed the exchange and neither bowed nor weighed his words against my silence.

I waited patiently until the Visconte, shifting his feet and pursing his lips, said, “It’s warm. Should we not adjourn to the eshoù?”

Conte Galli’s eyes narrowed at me but he gave a curt nod and turned away. Oscuro scurried in his wake and I followed a moment later. Tiago and Prevot followed me and I was eternally grateful they’d had the sense to hold their silence as long as they had.

“How many uncles do you have here?” Prevot asked softly.

“Only two,” Tiago answered before I could. “The Regina was the middle child to Conte Galli.”

“When did the old Conte die?” she asked the boy.

Tiago stared blankly for a moment, locating the memory, and said, “Six years past. He never stopped mourning, and his son came out of mourning for his father only two years ago.”

“You’re a gem, Tiago,” Prevot said, gently pinching his ear. The boy grinned at her.

The eshoù was beautiful, of course. I missed the bright colors of my island but the rich saturation the mainland preferred was deeply satisfying. There were plenty of places to sit, low and narrow places to set drinks or handwork, a few instruments. Conte Galli had his back to one of the tall, glass window, hands unseen. Oscuro gestured to a velvety couch, his discomfort showing him as a servant. I smiled politely and motioned that Prevot and Tiago should take their seats, and I joined them.

I noticed I was not offered refreshment, but the sting of that was gentled somewhat when Conte Galli was the first to break our battle of silence, “I hear you claim to be my nephew.”

“Do I?” I answered.

He raised an eyebrow and glanced to Oscuro.

“Tiago, do you want to give the lineage of House Galli?” Prevot asked. She spoke in the same voice I’d first heard her use; that of nobility and breeding.

Tiago stood carefully and adjusted his sling. He gave a slight bow to Prevot and another to me and to the Conte. His young, high voice carefully answered, “The House of Galli is most recently notable for its rise of Regina Benedetta Camilla Cecilia Marchetti, second born to Conte Mauro and Contessa Noemi. To them were born three children: Edoardo, Benedetta, and Vito. Of three, only Benedetta bore a child, a son and, through marriage to Re Lorenzo Fabrizio Alessio Edoardo Marco Ricci, king-to-be Pietro Leonardo Ambrogio Giuseppe Dario Ricci. The House was originated by Re Alessio Nic-“

“I know my family origins,” the Conte interrupted softly. Tiago bowed again and returned to his seat.

“And you are Pietro Leonardo Ambrogio Giuseppe Dario Ricci.”

I inclined my chin. “I am.”

“You return to claim the throne?”

“I return to claim my birthright,” I agreed.

The Conte glanced at my company. “What have you brought me?” he asked with a gentle lift of his chin.

I stood to answer, “The lady Emeline and Don Tiago.”

Calculation behind his eyes suggested years of training I’d lost and I envied again the shrewd children we’d passed.

“Are you injured?” he asked Tiago.

The boy nodded, but turned to Prevot to answer. “He has urgent need of a surgeon.”

Tiago’s eyes widened slightly, but he didn’t otherwise move.

My uncle looked to Oscuro and nodded. The Visconte rose and left the room, likely to fetch a servant and relay the request; he wouldn’t be gone long.

“What killed my sister?” Conte Edoardo asked.

My eyes snapped to his. “Poison.”

“She did not die well, then?”

My hand shuddered with horrible sensation and I could almost hear the buzzing and boiling of seeds. “No one dies well, Conte.”

“Who raised you?”

Barone Tiziano Moretti.”

“It would have been him.”

“You trust that I am Principe, then?”

“Our family blood is strong.” He glanced at Prevot and Tiago again. “You look like my father,” he told me. “And your mother.”

I bowed my thanks to him, suddenly emotional.

“But you cannot stay.”

I raised my eyes slowly. “No?”

“Oscuro is not the only visitor to my estate, and what I know and believe is lesser to the resources and position I hold.”

“When will House Renaud arrive?” Prevot asked.

My uncle let a thin smile slip as he answered, “Soon. Within days.”

“We have time, I hope, to speak. And none outside this room, save the Visconte, need know of our true nature and intentions. Until such as time as that is most convenient.” She smiled charmingly.

The Conte didn’t move, but wavered all the same. “I’ll have a setìne prepared. We won’t go far, but we can speak more openly.”

“Will Vito join us?” I asked.

“No. Vito has duties to see through before the estate is further populated.”

The Visconte Oscuro returned with a servant and gestured for Tiago. Prevot rose and hugged the boy close. “I’ll see him settled before I join your setìne.” Her hand brushed down my arm as she passed and while I relished the familiarity we’d developed, I wondered if it was the best choice here and now. I gave Tiago a comforting smile and was soon alone with my uncle.

I recalled the calculating look from before and knew it was unlikely he’d missed Prevot’s action. Perhaps we could turn it to our advantage.

“What injured the boy?” my uncle Edoardo asked.

“We came through the swamp and he was stung by an insect of the untu’ik trees.”

He winced. “I’m sorry.”

“As am I.” My chest ached and I felt my hand shaking again, so I stilled it with the other, my pose mimicking that of my uncle’s.

“I heard descriptions of my family home, but words cannot do justice.”

Edoardo gave a wry smile. “Take in what you can. I expect you won’t be here long, one way or the other.”Venice

September 10, 2021

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