Livia can’t stay in Verona. Even with her sister married to the Montague and King, even with Paris dead, she can’t stay. She’ll never be more than a traitor’s widow here, every other look accusing. Or worse: a should-be crowned princess to rally behind, to shed blood over. Rosaline isn’t happy with her decision to travel, but she doesn’t bar her either- makes her promise to return within a year. (Livia almost wishes she had tried, has yet to make use of her sister running away with an unmarried man.)
Rosaline expects her to vacation in France, to still be entranced with tales of the romantic cities as she was as a child. Livia tells herself she has given up on such a love, on a quiet life and marriage, is far more curious about a woman in Venice. One who’s whispered to be many things: a courtesan, the power behind the Doge, a traitor, a spy, and a dozen other less complimentary titles.
She’s easily the most powerful unmarried woman in the world, and if anyone can teach Livia to escape her past’s shadow it is her.
The Capulet name grants her a nice small room to wait in while Valentina is busy. An actual guest bedroom- not a sitting room. There’s even a serving girl sent with tea and pastries, and perhaps it’s more sister of a new Queen than the name. Being royalty is still an odd thought, echoing with bitter promises Paris once made her. Shaking her head to free such notions, she sips the green tea and walks over to the small window. There’s a lovely view of the gardens below, pink and white flowers spiraling around the twisted paths.
“Princess Livia!” a voice exclaims, and she tries to conceal a wince, turning. There’s a striking woman in an autumn orange gown, shining heavy topazes in her hair pieces, necklace, bracelets, corset, and earrings. Her skin itself seems to glow, the very image of the harvest goddess. Her reputation precedes her, in looks and influence, and still Livia is overwhelmed by her beauty.
“I do hope you haven’t been waiting long, I wasn’t aware you were gracing our palace?” Valentina says.
“If possible, I’d rather prefer it that way. To have a quiet stay.”
Valentina’s eyebrows raise delicately, “Of course. In that case, I can make time in the Doge’s schedule tomorrow for a private meeting?”
“No!” Livia exclaims quickly, face burning hot. “I mean, I’m happy to dine with him if he wishes, but I’m not here to speak for Verona.”
“Oh? Why have you come then?”
“I- for you,” she stammers, blush somehow burning warmer still. “I wish to learn from you.”
The answering laugh is that of a hyena, an animal she only saw once at a menagerie, cruel and enchanting. “Oh my sweet gentle dove, did your fellow Princess not warn you about me?”
Livia bristles, “I am a woman once married, there is no need for such mockery.”
Valentina smiles, gently takes the teacup from her hands- she hadn’t even noticed they begun to shake- and sets it on the table. “A tumble or two should hardly prepare you for this court. Unless that is the knowledge you seek?” she asks, eyes dragging over her form slowly.
Her neck burns, and Livia curses the dress she’s wearing- clearly too heavy for this weather.
“I’ve heard many stories of you-”
“And you believed them?” Valentina interrupts with a teasing smile.
“No. But any woman that can inspire so many tales must be fascinating.”
Valentina steps closer, only an arm’s length away, “And what should you like to do with such a fascinating woman?”
Livia swallows, her first thought coming to her lips, “Perhaps a tour around the gardens to start?”
Valentina’s gaze softens, but whatever her response would have been is cut off by a loud bell outside, her expression closing off at the sound. “Tomorrow. The evening meal will start soon, but I imagine you are tired from travel and wish to bathe before resting?”
Livia’s mouth dries, and she nods her head.
“A bath will be drawn for you and food brought. After the gardens tomorrow, you will join the Doge and his guests for supper, yes?”
“Yes, thank you.”
Valentina reaches out, Livia’s breath catching as she pinches the thick velvet of her dress, warmth flickering on her arm for the barest moment. “Seasonal clothes will be sent as well, we can’t have you swooning in the gardens.”
Livia nods again, dumbstruck and fairly certain swooning will occur regardless of how she dresses.
Mary- with last night’s bath she learns the name of the girl assigned to her room- brings a whole dresser full of clothes in the morning. She assures her they are all surplus for the Doge’s guests, and the first three being entirely transparent supports that.
There’s a pretty indigo dress in the back that covers everything with wispy fabric, and Mary helps with the ivory corset. It’s by far the most daring thing she’s ever worn, even if it covers more than her day gowns. The way the corset so bluntly outlines part of her figure, how the fabric invites one to imagine what is beneath- it feels like playing dress up as another person, as another life.
Mary brings her to the garden, to Valentina.
Livia is convinced Valentina could wear a potato sack and still be more beautiful than all of court; today she looks even better than yesterday. (Or perhaps, it is simply because Valentina is wearing this dress now.) She wears a simpler silver gown, with ripples and dark strands of gray that make the skirts appear as a stormy sky.
“Good morning, did you rest well?” Valentina asks, extending an arm.
Livia takes it, clasping with both hands, and they walk into the garden. “Yes, thank you. Did you?”
“There was a situation with one of our chefs before sunrise, it’s dealt with now.”
Livia’s eyes widen, “Do you need to retire? Surely I can entertain myself for a morning.”
Valentina smiles, shaking her head. “I’ve been looking forward to this walk all morning.”
Her cheeks warm, and ah, she should have brought a parasol for this hot morning sun. “Truly?”
“And not only for the indelicate question that’s been on my mind since I received news of your short war.”
Livia sighs, “I didn’t kill him.”
It’s a technical truth, one her mind rebels against. She set up the circumstances for her husband’s demise, feels more guilty over her lack of guilt than anything else. Horrible person he may have been, he was still a person. And their mother, god rest her soul, raised them to be pacifists- hated the fighting between their families even before it took their father.
“Oh, I don’t care about that,” Valentina says nonchalantly.
Livia nearly trips, that’s always the question they want to know. “What then?”
“You could have become the most powerful woman in our world. You could have had two great cities, and grown an empire from them. Why didn’t you?”
Livia could laugh with relief at how simple the question is, a question that no one at home had ever asked. Her sister knew why not, and the rest didn’t care- either because they were glad it didn’t happen, or convinced she was a damsel silenced by the new leaders.
“When I was young, I dreamt of falling in love. Living a simple and happy life,” she laughs, can’t quite keep the bitterness out. “Paris deceived me, and I could not stay with such a man.”
“Then I do not regret his passing,” Valentina says, almost playfully, and they round a corner to the rosebushes. “Do you still wish for a quaint married life?”
Livia hesitates, “Does it matter? No one will wed me now.”
Valentina pats her hands, and leaves it on top of hers, a steady comfort. “You are a princess, there will always be men who wish to wed you.”
Livia’s nose crinkles, and she supposes that is true.
“Moreover you are a kind and gentle person, beautiful as a young goddess. If you wish to find a lover, I am sure you will.”
Livia’s heartbeat races, and she prays her palms don’t get sweaty on Valentina’s arm. “I-” she swallows, “thank you.”
Valentina smiles, walking her towards the tulips next. “There is no need to thank me for stating the obvious.”
The sun must be toiling harder today, her entire face burning.
Supper with the Doge and his friends goes surprisingly well. It certainly helps that a buxom countess from the north monopolizes his attention, and there are a few other guests acting as a buffer zone. She’s seated in the baron section, a gift that she does not correct, allowing the others to talk at her rather than to her. While it’s a shade rude, it’s far better than the questioning she’d likely receive if they knew who she was.
Another thing to thank Valentina for.
She isn’t the naive girl she once was, is sure there’s an angle the other woman is playing. Perhaps it is just increasing relations with Verona, or perhaps something more sinister. Nothing comes to mind, but there is plenty of time to think on it. Unless she is to return home wed, there is likely at least three seasons of travel ahead of her for any would-be supporters to fall apart and gossips to tire of her story.
The Doge takes Valentina away with the Countess at the end of the meal, and for the briefest moment she allows herself the fantasy of asking for Valentina to show her the city. A silly, jealous notion, and Livia goes back to her room, trying to forget such thoughts. (One stubborn notion stays: how much leverage does she truly have as a princess here? Doubtless she could take Mary home, but what of- no, better not to even dream of that.)
Mary shows her to the library, and Livia spends the rest of her evening there. The nearest books are all erotic enough to make her blush, but there’s a large history section in the back. It’s been ages since she had the time to truly indulge in reading, her fingers running along the old bindings.
In the end, she picks a book on the founding of Venice, reading about the very first Doge, Ursus. She reads until the sun and her candle have gone down, until she is so tired that she will fall asleep immediately upon reaching her pillow. Livia stands with a yawn and stretch, nearly giggling at the delirious thought that Rosaline would chide her for reading so much before bed.
She should send word back home that she’s arrived safely, she thinks heading back to her room. It’s a lucky thing this palace is simple, and tomorrow she decides, tomorrow she’ll write her sister a letter. As predicted, the moment her head touches the pillow- she sleeps.
As her sister would have predicted, strange dreams come from reading late at night. Of Mary rushing her to a masquerade on the water, stunning dancers moving fluidly upon the sea as if it were a stage. She knows Valentina is under the silver mask, and she tries to join her. But when she steps upon the water, she steps through, her gown soaking and tearing off. And all the guests, Valentina, look to her, pointing and laughing. She tries to cover herself and realizes she has no mask, they all know exactly who she is. Mary tugs on her arm, ‘You can’t stay-’
And then Livia wakes up with a gasp, thunder clapping outside. The sound of rain calms her, washes away the remnants of the dream. Once she’s fully awake, all she can recall is something about an odd dance and silver masks.
She selects a pale pink dress this morning, the only lacing slim and in the front such that she can dress herself. Mary comes in as she finishes, looking relieved.
“Good morning Princess Livia, breakfast awaits you in the gardens.”
Livia exhales a small laugh, looking towards the rainy window. “In this weather?”
Mary nods, handing her a parasol, “Yes, begging your forgiveness it took me a long time to find this.”
Livia tries to recall the proper thing Isabella used to say in situations like this, settling on, “It is of no consequence.”
Mary flashes her a smile, and that must be close enough then.
“Come, I’ll bring you to the gazebo.”
The small building ends up being quite deep into the garden, further than they went yesterday or perhaps she was too preoccupied to notice. They pass lilies and roses and orchids and trees laden with fruit. While the parasol keeps most of her dry, the poor slippers are rather damp once they reach their destination, and then Valentina’s greeting her and uncomfortable footwear is far from her mind.
Today Valentina is a vision in black and gold, curls piled atop her head and weighed down with gold. Her lips are painted gold too, and she pushes away the thought of if they’d stain. There is a small chaise covered in pillows in the gazebo’s center, and a table of breakfast foods before it. Mary departs, and it’s getting harder not to view this in a rosy light- at least it is jasmine surrounding them and not literal roses.
“Sit with me, this is my favorite place to be when it rains,” Valentina says, and Livia does with a smile.
The rain patters on softly, a heavy earthy humidity in the air. “This is magical- like something out of a story.”
Valentina leans along the chaise’s side, looking every inch a temptress. Her lips quirk, and Livia’s cheeks burn- not accidental then. (Then again, she doubts anything Valentina does is accidental.)
“Please eat, I have already.”
Livia nibbles on a few olives, and Valentina continues. “The trick to being a woman without virtue is simple- decide what you want, what you’re willing to compromise, and acquire it.”
“Indeed. And given your station, there is much you can gain without compromising.”
Livia eats a dry bit of bread, “What if I wanted to blend into the background? To cause no more… disruption.”
Such a mild word for an almost war her mind mocks, and Valentina squeezes her hand.
“Then you would marry a merchant. Prominent, but not ostentatious- respectable and neutral in politics.”
“There are only two princesses of Verona, I can’t marry with no political gain,” Livia says.
“Then a foreign royal. You would move to their land and become only popular to their people.”
Livia sighs, “I can’t leave my sister, not for so long.”
Valentina taps her lips, no gold coming away on her fingers and Livia dry swallows. “A foreign dignitary who cannot inherit then.” Valentina smiles, “Unless there’s something else?”
Love comes to mind foolishly, but she already has so many requirements. It’ll be lucky if anyone were to complete them and be willing to take a widow, much less romance. And what has love gotten her, a hasty-
“No, that’s all.”
“Well then, fortune smiles upon you because tomorrow the Doge’s nephew is visiting. I’ll sit you by him, and you can see if he’d work.”
“Okay. Are you happy?”
“With your life here,” Livia says gesturing about. “Is it what you wanted?”
Her lips curl, “It is exactly as my younger self imagined.”
It isn’t until later, much later, tucked beneath her bed sheets as the rain peters off that Livia realizes Valentina never answered if she is happy.
The nephew, Henry, is a nice enough man if entirely uninspiring. She tells Valentina they didn’t harmonize, and the woman laughs. She says it’s ‘a far harder constraint to apply, tell me when you meet one you harmonize with.’
And that’s that.
Most mornings she spends with Valentina in the garden or exploring the marketplace. She gets a pair of pretty blue scarves to send home with the next letter, and a little bronze lion for her bureau. In bits and pieces she learns more about Valentina’s past, a mosaic with some obvious chunks missing. Livia doesn’t press her though, can guess at the more unfortunate details herself.
Supper is always spent with the other guests and the Doge, and Valentina tells her whenever there’s an unmarried renowned person attending. None of them catch her interest, and perhaps she is being too harsh in her judgment. But she has many moons before she must return, and is enjoying Venice still.
Evenings are for reading and bathing and writing home. They are perhaps the most dangerous part of her day, as her mind circles certain questions that won’t go away.
Laundry day means there’s only one dress remaining in her armoire. It’s one she wouldn’t have considered wearing before, and certainly not on a rainy day. It’s all gauzy white fabric, transparent enough that she wears a black shift beneath it for some modicum of modesty. The empty closet feels like an ending, and all the answers are clear- perhaps always have been, were simply clouded over by fear.
Rain patters outside, and Livia doesn’t wait for Mary or the parasol, heading straight to the gardens and lifting her skirts to dash to the gazebo. Every step propelling herself closer, resolution firm in her breast.
She’s breathless when she arrives, joy and adrenaline pumping through her blood. Valentina stands to greet her with a hug and chuckle, “Fancy a light wash this morning?”
“I want you. You’re the one I harmonize with, you’re the one I love and want to take home.”
Livia takes a breath, should ask a question next, but then Valentina’s leaning forward and kissing her. There’s rainwater still on her lips, and Livia hadn’t realized she was cold until Valentina engulfed her in warmth. Her stomach swoops, her whole body sings with joy and magic, and Livia kisses her back until they must part, softly panting for air.
“Yes,” Valentina says. “I want that too.”