Everyone say ‘thank you, Marie’. Here’s some more Venice for you. And thank you, Marie.

* * *

I was not afforded much time to view my ancestral home – Edoardo called for a servant to prepare our food and then led me to the stables without pause. He selected a horse for me and we prepared them. By the time we were ready, the servant joined us with a basket of food and supplies for the outing.

Prevot followed behind, a look of distraction and concern on her features. I didn’t ask after Tiago – I knew it wasn’t the time. But she tucked her head under my chin and I instinctively wrapped my arms around her. Edoardo stepped away to prepare a horse for her and grant us privacy for the intimate moment. I was embarrassed by the display, despite the limited audience and my much freer childhood, but I also felt stronger in that moment. I was a guardian, one who could give comfort. I liked the feeling.

Edoardo led the way through his lands and pointed, with rare explanation, at the occasional landmark until we reached a small area, cleared of grass and encircled by trees with a ring of stones to contain a fire in its middle. A cedar storage chest, like a wardrobe, was secured to one of the trees and Edoardo directed me to it. I found a stock of simple perching stools and some clever side-tables that folded flat. There were other things besides, but I didn’t want to look too enthralled at what was clearly, to him, so commonplace.

As I set out the stools and Edoardo arranged the tables, Prevot delved into the basket and distributed the goods she found. Several times, her hand brushed mine, and whenever we were near she smiled at me, and I could not help but return it. My mind returned again and again to the warmth and weight of her in my arms. It seemed a simple thing, but I was latched to it like a child’s first taste of citrus.

Settled and picking delicately at the luscious spread, Edoardo watched me with an unreadable eye. I allowed the silence to spread like melted butter, content to wait for my uncle to break the silence, but Prevot spoke first instead, “You have maintained these lands so well, Conte.”

He inclined his head to her. “They are a treasure without price. I will see to it that my children and grandchildren inherit them and love them as I do.”

“You have many children, then, Conte?”

I felt a flush creep through my neck – I had not asked after my nieces and nephews. Tiziano would have been mortified at the oversight.

Edoardo’s smile lit his eyes from within. “I have four children, and another soon-to-be.”

Prevot’s hands clutched together under her chin and she looked across at me with a bright look I couldn’t interpret. “The most beautiful of blessings.”

My uncle nodded in agreement.

“Will we meet the Contessa, I hope?” Prevot asked.

“She is often resting – she tells me this pregnancy has been as difficult as the first, but if she feels well enough for company, yes.”

“Perhaps I can read to her, or sketch while we speak. She should not feel obligation to hostess for fa- for friends, which I hope we will soon be.”

Edoardo’s smile thinned but did not fade. I’d never seen Prevot blush, but she did so now, and made herself busy chasing a few olives around her setting.

“You ride well,” Edoardo said to me. I was momentarily surprised at his choice of subject, but he continued as I rallied. “I imagine you did not have much opportunity to learn, if you were secluded away in some tiny island?”

“You are correct, Uncle, but Tiziano trained me while on fishing boats. The gait and balance is not too dissimilar.”

Edoardo laughed and the joy in it made me smile widely. “Leave it to him to devise so clever a trick. Tell me more.”

I told my uncle of the time spent learning to fight, to recite and recognize lineage and heraldry; of accounting work and penmanship, dancing and so, so many bows. He quizzed me on nearly every subject and I was pleased with my answers and too soon he stood to clear our empty settings, insisting we return to the manor.

Prevot did not rise with us, however, but said, “Conte, we have yet to discuss the terms of our stay in your home.”

I blinked at her and lowered myself to my seat, feeling, again, much the fool.

Edoardo smiled again. “Lady Emeline, you are correct.”

“May I hope, then, that you believe our presence will not weaken or diminish your House before your other guests?”

Edoardo’s smiling lips twitched and he inclined his head again.

“Very well,” Prevot said as she rose to her feet. I followed suit. “I will look forward to our stay. May I express my concerns over my lost wardrobe, however?”

Edoardo frowned gently. “Do you have nothing for dinner?”

“I do not,” Prevot answered, raising her chin nonetheless.

My uncle gave her a measuring glance and said, “I will be happy to provide for as long as you remain in my home.”

“Before the terms are decided,” Prevot added, “please consult your surgeon on the state of our- of Tiago’s recovery.”

Edoardo was concerned. “I will do so, but I hope you will stay until he is well and recovered. I will have the children, mine and others, provide him entertainment and encouragement.”

Prevot pressed her clenched hands to her mid-section and lowered into a deep curtsey. “You are very gracious,” she all-but-whispered.

We put away the supplies and rode the way we had come. I noted the landmarks Edoardo had pointed out on the journey out, and appreciated the guidance they provided. When we returned, servants swarmed to take our horses and basket and Edoardo had a low conversation with one, who then led us through a series of corridors until they revealed a suite of rooms to us.

When I closed the door after them, Prevot said to me, “I need your attention now, Pietro, and do not interrupt.”

I frowned but took the seat opposite to hers and gestured for her to continue.

She ran a thumb across her palm and then said, “I know how to secure your alliance with Contessa De Santis and Viscontessa Greco, and I can turn your uncle’s favor to you, but if it is to be done before House Renaud arrives, you will have to trust me very deeply.”

“In what manner—”

“Pietro.” She closed her eyes briefly. “You will not like it. You will cry morality. You will claim decency. But you will see, as in all things, that I am right.”

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