"My lord, I scarcely expected to see you here." Bianca looked up at the well-built man filling the doorframe and sneezed.
Ian Foscari, Conte d'Aosto, was uncharacteristically stunned.
"I should say not," he responded finally, focusing on the bloody dagger she had pointed toward him. Even as a trained observer, he was having trouble making sense of the scene that confronted him. The room was richly appointed; peach silk curtains embroidered with golden flowers flanked the tall windows, and Turkish carpets in luscious pastels covered the floors. The center of the room was taken up by an enormous bed, covered with the same silk that framed the window. Stretched out on the bed was the scantily clad figure of the courtesan Isabella Bellocchio, who would have appeared to be sleeping peacefully except for the large red gash in her chest. Above her, covered in blood and brandishing a dagger, stood the woman who had just addressed him.
Their gazes locked, and complete silence fell over the room as each contemplated the countenance of the other. The moment ended abruptly as she sneezed again, twice.
"What are you doing here?" she demanded, finally moving her gaze away from his face. Murderers, Bianca thought to herself, should really be harder on the eyes.
"I could ask the same of you."
"I should say it is obvious." Bianca sneezed, returning his glance with what she hoped was a scowl.
He scowled back at her, shocked by her forthrightness. "Yes, I suppose it is. But whatever possessed you to murder her?"
For the first time, Bianca realized how she must look. In her right hand she held the bloody dagger she had pulled from Isabella's heart, and her dress was covered with blood from her attempts to save the girl. The situation seemed almost comic, she thought, wiping her running nose with the corner of her sleeve, until abruptly, she remembered the insignia on the hilt of the dagger. Boldly she met Ian's eyes, holding the handle of the weapon up between them. "Should not I be asking you that, my honorable lord?"
It was undoubtedly his coat of arms emblazoned garishly on the hilt of the dagger in rubies and emeralds. He shrugged, moving his eyes from the gaudy re-creation of his heraldry back to Bianca's small oval face. "That certainly is not mine. Of course, it is my coat of arms, but I would never commission anything that ostentatious."
"I am afraid, my lord," Bianca sneezed, "that good taste is not an adequate defense," she sneezed again, "against a charge of murder." Bianca tried to keep her gaze level with his as she sneezed five times in quick succession. "Perhaps if you could tell me what you are doing here...?"
"It is certainly not any of your concern, signorina, but I received an urgent summons from Isabella."
Undaunted by Ian's frigid tone, designed to send her cowering into a corner, Bianca plunged ahead with questions. "What was it like? What exactly did it say?"
Ian was mad at himself. He had answered her first question without even thinking about it, instinctively responding to some sort of authority that oozed from her like vile jelly, and now he was doing it again. He knew it had to be another person who extracted the note from his tunic, unfolded it, and said to his unidentified interrogator, "Here, you can see it." The mutinous part of him extended the letter for Bianca's perusal.
Bianca's brow wrinkled as she sneezed again. The letter was written in a clear cursive hand on lightly perfumed parchment and signed by Isabella, begging the presence of the Conte d'Aosto immediately at her house. Bianca held the paper up to the light, studied it, and handed it back to the impossibly handsome blond man facing her.
"Was it delivered directly to you?" Ian nodded. Bianca scowled. And sneezed. "Then you are certainly not guilty." Her eyes moved from the note still dangling in his hand to the dagger she was holding. "And yet it really does appear that someone is trying to frame you. But who? Or is it me they are trying to frame?" She sneezed. "Perhaps if we tried..."
Ian put down the mutiny in his head and returned to his laconic, unhelpful self, striving to be even icier than usual in recompense for his earlier softness. "I cannot tell you how relieved I am to learn that I am not guilty," he rudely interrupted, "but I am curious about your reasoning and slightly alarmed by your use of the pronoun 'we.' I have no idea who you think you are, or even who you are, and I certainly have no use for some young signorina fresh from the schoolroom. I assure you, we will be doing nothing."
His words, designed to sting, hit their mark. Bianca cringed, not because his tone was as cold as the northern wind, but because of the patronizing way he had called her "signorina," as if daring her to disobey his impressive and sophisticated person. By the fingertips of Santa Barbara, he was arrogant! Bianca had no doubt that he used exactly the same tone when scaring available young women away from marriage. For herself, she had no interest in marriage, in being yoked to some idiotic lout who would waste her fortune betting on the ebb and flow of the tides and condemn her to childbed. But she resented that her desire to preserve her independence gave the high and mighty Conte d'Aosto the right to speak to her in that infuriating, condescending tone, reminding her with every word that she was only an inexperienced woman.
"Of course, you are right. I prefer to work alone anyway." Furious, Bianca had put down the knife and was cleaning her hands in a porcelain basin. Even worse than his arrogance was the rebellion going on in her head. How could she let herself be so easily convinced of the man's innocence and, what was worse, why was she so relieved? What difference could it possibly make to her if the glacially cruel Conte d'Aosto was innocent or guilty, or wealthy or extremely handsome, with those strong hands and long graceful fingers...
Her reverie was cut short by his voice. "You haven't told me exactly what convinced you of my innocence. The obvious answer would be that you yourself, whoever you may be, are the guilty party." He looked pointedly at her.
Bianca tried to sound incredulous as she sneezed. "My lord, you must be joking." She sneezed. "I, a murderess?"
Was that the hint of a smile he saw on her lips? Ian was damned if he would let her stand there looking so, well, innocent. "I never joke."
Even without the sharp tone in his voice, Bianca would have accepted this as true. She knew that Ian Foscari, Conte d'Aosto, was one of the wealthiest, most handsome, most aristocratic -- and least sought after -- bachelors in Venice. He was known as the man of stone, cold, distant, emotionless. Only his closest friends, the other Arboretti, knew of the vital being beneath the cold exterior, and even they could hardly remember what it was like. For the past two years, Ian had been a different person. He was as brilliant and efficient as ever, perhaps more so, but not previously prone to mirth, he now never laughed or smiled. Not even his brother, Crispin, could thaw the cold that gripped him, though he had tried for every day of the two years since the incident. Ian seemed to rejoice in keeping everyone at an emotional distance, routinely terrifying the young women whose mothers were vain enough to attempt a match with him.
But Bianca was no young signorina to be terrified, she assured herself, even when a stone block accused her of murder for no good reason. She squared her shoulders and summoned up all the courage of her twenty-four years to meet his eyes. "My lord," she said, "like so many other women today who are considered unworthy of education, Isabella was illiterate. She was no more capable of writing to you, than I am of using this knife to take someone's life -- " she picked up the weapon again, sneezed twice, and pointed it at him " -- or, for that matter, than you are of feeling anything through that thick, superior skin of yours." She sneezed three times like a rapid-firing cannon. "By Santa Lucia's eyes," Bianca demanded finally in exasperation, "what is the cause of this infernal sneezing?"
She dropped the knife and turned from him to face the window, sneezing ten times without stopping. As she wiped her runny nose and eyes on her sleeve, she studied the raindrops rolling off the glass panes, working to suppress the rising tide of her anger and frustration. Between the shock of discovering a corpse instead of her friend, the audacity of the semipetrified man to accuse her of murder, and the cruelty of her own traitorous tickling nose in making her appear a spectacle in front of him, Bianca felt her emotional control ebbing rapidly. She would not cry, she warned herself; she would not allow that golden-haired human stone the pleasure of seeing her cry, no, no, no, she would not!
Ian watched her face reflected in the glass of the window, watched her battle with her sneezing and her emotions, and felt nothing like superior. It had been so long since he had been impressed by anyone or anything that at first he could not identify the emotion, but he was soon able to label it: grudgingly he was forced to admit he felt admiration for her. Her deduction of his innocence had been so simple and so elegant, something obvious that he himself would have seen only after hours of thought. He realized that he did not even know the name of this woman who was as uncommonly intelligent as she was uncommonly beautiful, although she seemed to know him. Even as he was thinking that she might be a tremendous help in solving the mystery of Isabella's death, he caught himself appreciating the graceful curve of her body as she stood with her back to him, the way that a wisp of hair wound its way down around her neck and...
Was he going mad? This woman was probably a murderess. "Probably" -- even his mind was in cahoots with her, injecting that seed of doubt into an otherwise obvious situation. For if a smart woman were planning a murder, wouldn't she think of everything, including those petty little details about writing and such that would never occur to a man? Women's minds were so utterly devious that they could be trusted to think of anything that would contribute to the illusion of their innocence, to remove the burden of culpability from their narrow shoulders. He had learned that lesson well and would not -- would not -- be duped again, not even by someone with shoulders as interesting as those of the woman before him.
First "Admiration"? Then "Probably"? And now "Interesting shoulders"? This could not continue. He was superior and thickskinned, she had said so herself, and he would show it. "Now it is my turn to ask the questions, simple questions, which even a signorina like you should have no trouble answering. Let us start with, who are you?"
He had addressed her back, and she did not turn from the window as she answered. "My name," Bianca sneezed, haughtily she hoped, "is Bianca Salva, the daughter of..."
She sneezed again, and Ian seized the moment to interrupt. "Do not go on, I have heard of your family." If he was surprised to find a woman of noble birth covered in blood at the house of a courtesan in the middle of the day, he was true to his reputation as a stone and did not show it. His tone when he resumed his questioning was indifferent if slightly menacing. "Would you be so kind, Signorina Salva, as to tell me what you are doing here?"
He had used that word again, saying "signorina" as if it described the lowest of the Deity's creatures. Bianca knew then that she couldn't, or rather, wouldn't tell him the truth, which left her with only two choices: she could either refuse to answer him or tell a lie. She had never lied in her life, not even as a child when -- against her father's strict orders -- she had taken herbs from his workbox to mix a medicine for a poor girl her own age, or later when she had stolen anatomy textbooks from their lodger to learn the parts of the body. Those times and the hundreds of others like them that formed her education, Bianca had always admitted the crime and been forgiven by her saintly, understanding papa. But Papa was gone now, and the Conte d'Aosto seemed about as yielding as a stone pillar.
She turned away from the window, to face him. The sneezes were coming fast and furious now, and Bianca tried to speak quickly to avoid being interrupted. "I would prefer not to answer that question, my lord d'Aosto." She sneezed twice, as if she were allergic to his title, then went on. "I can't see that it has any bearing on the death of this poor girl," she sneezed, "for which I have already told you I am not," she sneezed, "responsible." Upon hearing this brilliant defense so airily punctuated by sneezes, Ian found himself closer to laughing than he had been for months. "Is something wrong, my lord? You appear to be in pain."
The urge to laugh left as abruptly as it had come. His eyes turned from crystal blue to gray, the only outward sign of his change in mood. "I am afraid, signorina -- " Ian paused to watch the effect the word had on her; revenge was indeed sweet, " -- that I cannot accept your failure to answer, despite your winning protestation of innocence. I ask you, why should I believe you?"
Bianca answered his question with one of her own. "What motive could I possibly have to murder this woman?"
"'Women need no motives, only means,'" Ian quoted the odious Venetian proverb. "You would do better to answer questions than to ask them."
Without realizing it, Ian had begun to count her sneezes. He was up to twelve when she resumed speaking.
"Then you," she sneezed, making it thirteen, "would do better," fourteen, "my most irreproachable and honorable Count," fifteen, "to ask questions worthy," sixteen, "of answers." Bianca sniffled, trying hard to make his title sound as despicable as possible. As she spoke, she began to gather up her belongings, using any excuse to keep her seditious eyes from straying to the contours of his face. "Indeed," seventeen, "your time would be better spent," eighteen, "as I intend," nineteen, "to spend mine -- finding out who killed Isabella Bellocchio and why," twenty, "they," twenty-one, "wanted," twenty-two, "to frame you for the crime."
Ian shook himself from his calculations just enough to retort icily, "Besides questioning the prime suspect, the person found drenched in the victim's blood clutching the murder weapon over the body, what would you propose I do?"
"You might try looking for the actual murder weapon, which certainly was not this gaudy toy." Bianca concentrated on repressing a sneeze in order to resist the urge to see the effect this news had on him. "Or you could devise a plan to uncover," she sneezed, "the person willing to go to such expense," Bianca gestured with the gem-encrusted hilt of the dagger as she sneezed again, "to label you a murderer."
Ian, whose total was now up to twenty-five, refused to play into her hands by asking her to elaborate her wild claim about the weapon. He also had no doubt that she had a plan ready to implement if he seemed willing. She was cunning and clever, his little sneezing murderess. And even if she was not herself responsible for the murder, the odds were very good that she could lead him to whoever was. With his customary acumen, Ian assessed the situation and saw that Bianca could be very useful to him.
Very useful indeed. In a flash he realized that the murder was only part of it, even the smallest part. He completely lost track of enumerating Bianca's sneezes as the full force of his brilliant inspiration struck him. Staring at the defiant beauty in front of him, Ian saw the perfect way to put an end to Francesco's and Roberto's ceaseless urgings toward matrimony. Indeed, it was in order to escape another such a harangue from his uncles that he had so promptly replied to Isabella's -- or the Salva girl's or whoever's -- summons that very morning. And now, as if by destiny, he was being offered an opportunity to escape from them for all time. The plan he contrived in those few seconds was, he congratulated himself, gloriously simple and flawless. If he betrothed himself to the dangerous-looking Salva specimen and moved her into his house, he was sure that within three days -- four at the most -- Francesco and Roberto and the other Arboretti would be begging him to break the engagement and return to his bachelor ways forever. He was already savoring the taste of victory when he spoke.
"As it happens, signorina, I do have a plan." The corner of Ian's lip quivered, his version of a smile, as he watched Bianca struggle not to flinch at his intentionally condescending tone. He knew she would agree to his terms only if she were goaded into it, and he was surprised at how much he enjoyed the prospect of this goading. Plus, the madder she was, the worse she would behave and the faster his plan would come to fruition.
Bianca waited for him to continue, sneezing twice in the silence that followed his words. That twitching at the corner of his mouth told her she would find his plan distasteful, whatever it was, but she little expected exactly how bitter it would be. She had decided not to encourage him, yet after what felt like an eternity had passed she heard herself saying, "Ah, I see, my lord, you are indeed as clever as everyone says you are." She sneezed. "You plan to wait for the body to decompose, so that your problem will literally disappear."
Ian ignored her gibe. "My plan is to detain you until you explain exactly what you were doing here and tell me all you know about Isabella. You may do so here, now. Or I will find you quarters, as uncomfortable as possible you can be sure, in the basement prison at the Palace until you are ready to answer. Think of how quickly this sneezing illness of yours will worsen there. Not to mention how your family will react to hearing you have been incarcerated as a murderess."
Bianca blanched. With her brother gone on another of his last-minute journeys, there would be no one to protect her from the wrath of her aunt and uncle if she besmirched the family name yet again. But if they found out what she had actually been doing at Isabella's, it might be even worse than if she were accused of murder. She wondered if he could even guess the full force of what he was proposing.
The girl was genuinely conflicted, Ian noted with surprise. Perhaps, he mused, she really was innocent. What if he were persecuting an innocent woman? He hesitated for a moment, wondering if he should continue and then remembered that "innocence" and "woman" were fundamental opposites. Even if she were innocent of this crime, he decided, she had undoubtedly committed others, and besides, that mouth of hers had earned her some upset.
When he judged his last words had had enough time to make an impression on her, he continued. "There is, however, one other option, but I fear you will find it even less pleasant than the others." Ian then added, apparently as an afterthought, "It's too bad, because it would be very convenient for me. You see, my priority is to get as much information from you as possible. If you were to move into my house, I would be able to question you at my leisure -- whenever or wherever I wanted and using whatever means of persuasion I preferred. I am rumored to have a rather fearsome staff."
There was something decidedly threatening in the way Ian spoke his last words, but Bianca refused to be scared off by him or his reference to the rumors that circulated around him. She was sure that his house contained nothing more terrifying than a morbid butler or a lecherous steward, and impertinent questioning in the home of a count was nothing compared to the horrors of the Venetian prisons. Of course, strictly speaking, it was not proper for a single woman to spend a few days under the same roof as an unmarried nobleman, but it would win her nothing like the infamy she would face having been imprisoned for murder. Her family might even thank her for the valuable social introduction.
Bianca sneezed and then prepared herself to savor the look of surprise on Ian's face when she agreed to his proposal. "Despite your best efforts to scare me away from it, my lord, I should say that this last option is decidedly the best. I accept it," she sneezed, heightening the dramatic effect of her final words, "with one condition."
Ian, disappointingly nonchalant, only managed to raise one eyebrow. "You can scarcely imagine how that surprises me."
Bianca ignored his sarcastic tone. "I would like to bring Isabella's body with me to study it for evidence of how she was killed," she sneezed, "and by whom."
Ian paused for a moment, thinking, and finally nodded. "Actually, that will work quite well. If I keep our possession of the body a secret, I can circulate a notice that Isabella is missing. This will make my inquiries easier and doubtless more fruitful." Ian, still lost in thought, was apparently speaking to himself. Bianca thought he might have forgotten about her until a violent fit of sneezing brought his eyes to where she stood.
"Fine," he said, facing her, "it is settled. I will send my man, Giorgio, with the gondola for you and the body. You will stay here until he arrives." Ian pulled a beautiful gold box out of his pocket, opened the lid, and glanced at the face. Beneath it, Bianca saw what appeared to be a very small version of the huge clock in Piazza San Marco. She was so absorbed by the intricate work and delicate mechanism that she missed the twitching at the corner of Ian's mouth as he resumed speaking.
He tried to keep his tone light, pretending the thought had just occurred to him. "Of course, it will be quite unseemly for you to reside under my roof." Ian leveled his eyes at her.
"My reputation does not concern me," Bianca retaliated haughtily, crushing his obvious ploy to make her shrink away, then sneezed four times.
"I don't doubt that at all, signorina, but mine concerns me. No, having you in my house like that won't do at all." She had walked right into his trap. Ian lowered his eyes to his watch again as if thinking, but actually to conceal the triumph on his face. He spent a moment reestablishing control of his expression, then moved to the threshold. When he turned to deliver his last horrible words, he already had his hand poised over the doorknob, ready for a clean escape.
"I see there is nothing else for it. I will have to announce our betrothal tonight at the meeting of the Senate." The sentence was punctuated by the click of the door shutting smoothly behind him.
As she stood staring at the space Ian had just occupied, too bewildered to protest or even sneeze, Bianca could have sworn she heard someone laughing.
Copyright © 2000 by Michele Jaffe