Tiago had gone to bed. It was very late and I could not sleep. In the library still, I ignored the stack of books at my elbow and focused my attention on the past. Each memory led to another, another, another and I wasn’t sure how to make them stop, or if I even wanted to. So much of my time had been spent focused on what waited for me, the trials I had to overcome, and now that I’d had a momentary reminder of my past, it all felt like too much.

“If you’d be raised by anyone but Tiziano, I’d expect you to have a drink in your hand with that expression.” The Contessa sat at my table. “He never was one to drink; couldn’t stand what it did to people.” She started to unwrap the bundle Viola had brought to me and I didn’t stop her. “Someone packed you a snack.” She slid the small bundle to me and I saw a dozen of Davide’s favorite biscuits. Most were broken from the journey, but the sight of them made my mouth water.

I turned to face the table and laid my chin on my arms, eye on the biscuits.

“You’re allowed, you know,” she said. “Or do you just want to mope?”

“I want to mope,” I answered.

“Acknowledged.” She tossed aside the rest of the wrapping and revealed a cheap shipping crate that had been cut down and rejoined, packed with grasses that poked out the sides.

She was disappointed. “Eh, nailed shut. What is it?”

“My father’s knife.”

“Whose?”

I sighed heavily. “Tiziano’s.”

“Right.”

“Why didn’t you bring it with you?” she asked curiously.

“Because it was taken to evidence after they pulled it from a body.”

Her eyebrows rose and she smirked. “Good man.”

“They stabbed him and threw him in the canal.” I rubbed my face on my arms. “I found him in my net and Viola told me it was him. They thought I’d be home.”

“Why weren’t you?” she asked softly.

I felt a small gleam of sick triumph to see her sadness. I was sad; why shouldn’t she be? “Because they posed as merchants and he was going to offer my room for their stay.”

“Merchants, huh?” She turned the crate over in her hands. “How often did he make you leave to offer his home to visiting merchants?”

I shrugged. “A couple of times.” I frowned and looked up at her. “Why?”

She made a face. “Oh, it just seems careless of him. I never would have thought of Tano as careless. If he knew them, perhaps. Established a relationship, built trust…” Her eyes met mine. “New contacts? Hm.”

I sat up slowly. “You think he knew. You think he knew they were coming to kill him and he sent me away.”

She shrugged again and I realized this was the first night I’d seen her do that. “I expect he couldn’t have known. Suspected, perhaps.”

An ugly anger started to boil in my stomach and I felt the heat rise in my face.

“You’ll want to breathe soon,” the Contessa said casually.

“I must beg your pardon,” I forced through my teeth. “I need to step away.”

“No.”

I rocked to a halt and turned to stare at her, stunned and fuming.

“Sit down.” Her eyes narrowed at my unmoving form. “Sit down, Principe.”

I sat hard and crossed my arms impertinently. I hadn’t thrown a tamper since I was a young child, but I felt like throwing one now.

“How long did you think it was going to last?” she asked. “Tiziano told you who you were when you were five years old and trained you every day. Did you think he would be welcomed to court with open arms? Did you think he would die of old age, you at his bedside with the crown on your head?” She scoffed and the flames of my rage burned hotter.

“He knew he would never leave that island, Pietro. He never wanted to. If your father had written to welcome you home and claimed your enemies were dead and you could take your rightful place at his side, hail and glory, do you think he would enjoy the presence of Tiziano?”

“They were friends,” I snapped.

“Your father and Tiziano were not friends,” she laughed. “At best they tolerated one another. Tano knew your father was a good ruler and he was close friends with your mother, always had been. Your father trusted Tano to do the right thing, no matter how difficult, and he knew Tano was smarter than just about anyone else alive but they were certainly not friends.” She let out a laugh that cut through me and leaned forward over the table.

“As well as he did to raise you to be kind and patient, you’re still a boy who thinks he knows everything. I’ve seen it a thousand times, trained it from my own children and their children and their children because I will not tolerate a person refusing to know themselves. Lies can be pretty things, sparkling in the sun and catching the eye but the truth digs in. It works to get the job done, no matter how hard and no matter how stony the path.”

She leaned back in her chair. “Friends,” She scoffed again. “I was his friend,” she stated. “Since we were children, I was Tiziano’s friend, and your mother’s. You think he wanted to leave everything he knew, all the comforts and advantages he’d enjoyed, the freedom he’d worked to achieve so that he could disappear without a word and raise a child, alone?” She shook her head in disbelief and the rage drained from me, leaving a cold emptiness behind.

“He loved me,” I all-but-whispered.

“Of that I have no doubt,” she agreed. “He loved you more than life itself. I try to imagine the fear he lived with every single day, allowing you as normal a childhood as you managed, wondering what he needed to teach you, what you had left to learn, when the day would come… I can’t. Yes, Pietro, he loved you. Do him a favor and do the same. See in yourself the potential that he saw. Make manifest the man you have yet to become because I assure you, you have a long road to that.”

She stood and left.

I stared at the biscuits Davide sent with Viola as my lips twisted in thought. I took a broken piece from the simple wrapping and let it soften and break apart in my mouth.

Then I got back to work.

April 22, 2021

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