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Chapter 64

Light flickered up ahead as a door opened and closed. A figure entered the corridor. "Who is it?" snapped an elderly female voice in irritation.


"Your pardon, milady," Marco said humbly, "I'm afraid I took a wrong turn somewhere."


He paused in the unfamiliar stuffy, darkened corridor. Marco realized that, with his mind preoccupied with the conversation just finished with Petro, he'd gotten lost. This area of Casa Dorma was part of the Family's living quarters—and, apparently, an old and poorly maintained one. The perfume in the single lamp along this stretch of hallway could not mask the faint odor of mildew, nor the olive origin of the oil it burned.


Marco's night sight had always been good; he had no difficulty seeing who it was that had accosted him. Milady Rosanna Dorma—Petro's mother—and she didn't look well. Her skin was grayish, a vein throbbed in her temple, and her eyes seemed to be all pupil. She was pressing her right hand to her temple, and supporting herself against the corridor wall with her left. Prudence said that he should go back and leave her alone. Concern and the healing instinct said she was in no shape to be left alone. He moved quickly to her side, footsteps sounding hollow in the uncarpeted corridor, intending to ask if he could be of service to her, since he'd inadvertently intruded on her privacy.


But she began trembling the moment he came into view, staring at him as if he was a thing out of nightmare. She crowded back against the corridor wall—and when he held out his hand to steady her, she shrieked, spasmed, and fell to the floor.


Prudence dictated that he find help: Doctor Rigannio, or Petro Dorma.


And by the time I find help she may be dead—


He was on his knees beside her in an eye-blink, then cradling her in his arms to protect her from injuring herself with the convulsions she was suffering. He held her head against his shoulder, and pinioned her wrists in one long hand. She was so frail, it took next to nothing to restrain her.


"Ernesto!" she cried shrilly. "Ernesto, no! Not again! Dear God, not again!" She writhed in his arms, trying to free her hands, trying to reach for something.


Dilated eyes, racing pulse, clammy skin. Sweat beading the brow, and hallucinations. By that throbbing vein in the temple, probably a blinding headache. Symptoms tumbled together in his mind and formed an answer.


Lotos dreams. He'd seen it in the Jesolo with blue-lotos addicts. Either induced, or flashback; it didn't matter which. And in a patient as obviously weakened as this one was, if someone didn't do something, now—she was in very real danger of never coming out again.


And if he left her alone to get help—she was in very real danger of hurting, or even killing herself.


There was only one choice; try and talk her though it. He'd done it more than once, with Luciano. If he could just get her attention fixed on him—


"Rosanna—" Now was not the time for "Milady Dorma"; she wouldn't respond to that. He slipped her farther down so that she was lying against his upright knee and slapped her cheek, lightly. "Rosanna, say something. Tell me you hear me." He slapped her other cheek. "Tell me! Talk to me!"


Her eyes wandered, seeing things he couldn't; tears poured down her ashen cheeks.


"Rosanna! Talk to me!" He shook her, and dredged up her few, hysterical words, looking for a clue to get into her dream. "Rosanna, if you don't talk to me, Ernesto will get very angry with you!"


Her eyes focused on him for a moment. "L-Lorendana? Lorendana Valdosta?" She faltered, her face twisted, her mouth a slash of pain. "Lorendana, stop them! They're your friends—they're killing Ernesto—"


God and Saints—she thought he was his mother. That must have been what threw her into this in the first place! Ernesto—that must have been Ernesto Dorma, Petro's father. He'd wondered about the portrait in the study, so like Petro, but plainly older; Petro had identified it, then said something about his father dying from an accidental fall.


Gods—could she have seen something no one else did? Is that why—never mind. Whatever it was, it couldn't have involved my mother. She was murdered months before Ernesto Dorma died. I'll get her out of this first, then worry about Dorma secrets.


There were only two ways of dealing with lotos dreams—direct the dream, or break it—


And somehow Marco knew if he directed the dream from the nightmare she was in into something pleasant, she'd never leave it again.


"Ernesto is dead, Rosanna," he said savagely. "He's been dead more than a year. You know he's dead. And you can't change the past. You think you can, but the past you create is a lie. And Ernesto doesn't like lies, Rosanna."


Her eyes widened, and she whimpered in the back of her throat. He continued on, as stern and unyielding as Saint Chrysostom, his morning's religion lesson giving him another weapon to break her out of her hallucination. "He's very angry with you, Rosanna. You're muddying his trip through purgatory, trying to hold on to him like this. He sent me to tell you that if you really loved him, you'd let him go!"


She cried out in denial, freed her hands from his, and tried to push him away. At the end of the corridor another door opened and closed, and there was the sound of a footstep—two. Marco didn't dare look up—he had Rosanna's attention now, and if he broke eye contact with her, he'd lose it.


"No—" she moaned, as a gasp from the direction of the door reached him; he heard running footsteps. "No, Ernesto would never say that! Ernesto wouldn't—"


"He would, and he did—you're hurting him, Rosanna, you're holding him back."


Angelina's voice, sharp and shrill. "What are you doing with my—"


"Shut up, Angelina," he hissed, regaining Rosanna's wandering attention by shaking her again. "Get the doctor—"


She at least had enough sense not to argue with him. Running feet retreated, and the door slammed against the wall as witness to her hasty passage.


Rosanna beat at his face and chest with hard, bony fists; her blows were wild, but she got him a good one in the nose and just under the left eye. Marco tried not to wince; ghosts feel no pain.


"I don't believe it!" She was crying. "I don't believe you! Ernesto would never believe such—"


"Ernesto is in purgatory. Do you want to be responsible for dragging him down?" The religion lesson having given him the barb to use on her, and forced to be cruel by desperation, he dug it in. "Do you want to be the one who forces him to stay there longer? If you die, if you lose yourself in opium dreams, Rosanna, that's what will happen, and it will all be your fault."


"NO!" She shoved him away, hard enough that he lost his hold on her, and he lost his balance as well. He hit his head on the wall with a sickening crack, and saw stars.


He struggled against the darkness, still not able to see but fighting off the dazzle, and more footsteps pounded up the corridor. As his eyes cleared he was shoved summarily out of the way by Doctor Rigannio, and a wiry woman he recognized as Rosanna's maid. A hand grabbing his elbow helped him to stand; when he turned to render thanks, he found himself staring into Angelina Dorma's profoundly unhappy, dark-circled eyes.


He froze, unsure of what to say, as behind him he could hear her mother's muffled sobs, and the comforting murmur of her maid.


He stood that way for an eternity. Angelina reached out toward his face, as if to touch his swelling nose, then stopped herself. She seemed at as much of a loss as he was.


"Marco—"


He turned, grateful for a chance to look away.


"Marco, whatever you did, it was right," Doctor Rigannio said, getting painfully to his feet, while the maid held Rosanna against her shoulder, letting her cry herself into calmness. "You broke her out of her hallucination—"


"She thought I was someone she knew," Marco said carefully, not sure how much of his background the House had been told. "My mother, I guess, and she knew that my mother is dead. I guess she never got a good look at me before this. I think I might have thrown her into the hallucination in the first place. I—I'm sorry. I certainly didn't mean it."


"Of course you didn't," the doctor said smoothly, one eye on Rosanna as her maid helped her to rise. Rosanna turned a tear-streaked face toward the sound of their voices, and blinked.


"Who are you? she asked, voice hoarse with strain.


"This is Marco Valdosta, Rosanna," Doctor Rigannio interposed smoothly. "You remember; Petro told you. He's going to the Accademia under Dorma sponsorship. He is a grandson of Duke Dell'este of Ferrara. The duke has made some trade agreements with us in return."


She turned away from her maid and looked at him with wondering eyes. "Marco Valdosta—you must be Lorendana's boy. She had two, I heard."


He bowed to her. "Yes, milady." The mention of Benito made him nervous.


"It's uncanny," she said, "you look just like her."


"So I've been told, milady."


"I—" Her eyes clouded for a moment, then cleared and she drew herself up, taking on a dignity and poise that reminded him sharply of his grandfather, and a beauty that had nothing to do with tear-swollen eyes, blanched cheeks and trembling hands. "I believe I owe you a debt of gratitude."


He interrupted her gently. "Milady, you owe me nothing. You were ill, I simply stayed with you until Angelina could bring the doctor. That is, or will be, my duty—I'm studying medicine after all." He was amazed at himself; he sounded years older and he wondered where the words were coming from.


They were evidently the right ones. She flushed a little and lowered her gaze.


"Rosanna, you should go rest," the doctor prompted.


"Yes," she replied vaguely. "Yes, I should. Forgive me."


As the corridor door opened and closed behind them, Doctor Rigannio cursed savagely. "Angelina, where is she getting it?" He stopped then, as if only now realizing that there was an outsider not of Dorma standing awkwardly at his elbow, privy to every word he said.


Marco cleared his throat. "It's none of my business, Doctor Rigannio, but—that looked like a lotos flashback to me."


The doctor pivoted, face blank with surprise. "Lotos flashback? What in the name of God is that?"


Marco flushed and stammered: "If y-you take enough lotos, it changes your head. Even if you never t-take it again, you can get thrown into hallucinations by any strong stimulus." He shrugged. "That's why a lot of Jesolo-marsh folk are crazy. Stuck in lotos dreams."


Doctor Rigannio closed his eyes and cursed again. "So that's why—thank you, Marco. Again. I trust we can rely on your discretion?"


Marco managed a feeble smile. "What discretion, milord? Milady Rosanna had a dizzy spell and I just stayed with her until you came. Nothing terrible and she certainly didn't say anything except to thank me."


"Good boy." The doctor clapped him on the shoulder and he staggered a little. "I'll go see what needs to be done."


That left him alone in the corridor with Angelina.


Now she wouldn't look at him.


"You've heard enough that you might as well know all of it," she said bitterly, staring at the polished wooden floor, twisting the hem of her shawl in white hands. "When Father died she took it badly—she'd been in love with him, really in love, and she couldn't bear to be without him. She started taking lotos so she could see him." Angelina looked up finally and gestured her helplessness.


"Where was she getting it?" Marco asked.


Angelina's eyes blazed. "Caesare Aldanto," she spat—and burst into tears.


* * *

Once again Marco wound up sitting on the floor of the corridor with a lady of Dorma in his arms—this one crying into his shoulder all the things she did not dare tell mother or brother. About how she still loved Aldanto—and hated him. About how her mother's manservant, Paulo, had been the go-between. About how she'd put two and two together when she realized that Paulo had known exactly where to take her the first time she'd met with Caesare—which could only mean he'd been there many times before.


And that she was pregnant with Caesare's baby.


None of this—except for the business with Rosanna and the lotos—was any surprise to Marco. It was pretty obvious from her intermittent hysterics that Angelina was "not herself" and adding those frequent visits to Caesare gave anybody good cause.


But that she thought the man was the source of the drug—


Lord and Saints.


He didn't know quite what to say or do, so he just let her cry herself out—something she evidently needed—then helped her to tidy herself and helped her to her feet.


"Thank you, Marco," she said, shyly, a little ashamed. "I didn't mean—"


"That's what friends are for," he told her. "We are friends, aren't we?"


"I'd hoped so—but after—"


He shrugged. "I learned things from that whole mess—and it got me here, didn't it?" He delicately declined to mention how much that fiasco had placed him in Aldanto's debt.


"Then we are friends." She offered him her hand with a sweet smile that could still make his heart jump a little, even if he wasn't in love with her anymore. He took it, squeezed it—and they parted.


* * *

The dancing lessons were worse than ever. Even if his mind hadn't been elsewhere, Marco would have found the intricate precision of the steps hard to remember and follow. It was odd, in a way, given that his memory was normally so perfect. Why should he have so much difficulty with this, when he didn't with herbal remedies and cargo lists?


In the end, listening to the dance master's shrill and humorless criticisms, Marco decided his memory was being sabotaged by itself. He and Chiano used to dance little jigs sometimes, in the marshes, without ever worrying about whether the "steps" were proper and correct. Remembering the cheerful and raucous jibes of Sophia which accompanied those moments of gaiety, he smiled.


"Marco!" shrilled the dance-master. "You're not supposed to smile during this dance! This dance is a very solemn—"


Marco sighed. There are ways in which my old life was a lot easier . . . 


 


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