Serafina found it very hard to be the youngest. Everyone was always telling her how fortunate she was to be a Gavi, one of the oldest families of Venice. Most left unsaid that her mother was lucky to have become Alessandro Gavi's second wife. Serafina's father was one of Venice's leading doges, the merchant families who had ruled the water-bound kingdom for more than a thousand years. Her mother's family was far less grand. They were mere landholders from the Dolomites. But the year after Alessandro's first wife had died, he had met the lovely Bettina and married her. Serafina's father was sixteen years older than her mother. Two of Serafina's half sisters were already married and had children of their own. They treated Serafina with utter indifference, almost like an unwanted houseguest. But the youngest half sister, Gabriella, was another thing entirely. Gabriella, a few years older than Serafina's seventeen years, took every opportunity to make life miserable for her.
But Serafina would not have described her life as unhappy. She loved her parents and willingly sought to obey and please them. She loved their villa fronting Venice's Grand Canal. She could spend hours hanging over her bedroom's balcony railing, watching the water and the boats and the birds. She particularly loved the sunsets. For she had an artist's heart, like Luca. And because of Luca she yearned for this sunset most of all.
Serafina sat on the iron bench attached to the wall behind her balcony. Her view was over the Rialto Bridge and the promenade on the canal's other side. She could hear the crowds and observe the gondoliers setting down their passengers. But she was invisible to those below. Her father was very proud of this protected balcony, sometimes called a widow's ledge. He claimed it was of Arab design, originally brought west by the first crusaders. When Serafina had been a child, she had imagined being a damsel trapped in an evil lord's tower, waiting for her prince to come and rescue her. And now her childish dream was becoming a wondrous reality. She shivered with delicious anticipation.
She leaned over to the balcony's railing and observed the bolder ladies walking arm in arm with their paramours. The setting sun cast a gemstone glow over all the buildings. Truly she could imagine herself captured within a mythic realm, one from which only a great hero could rescue her. Or a handsome army officer with an artist's heart. Someone just like Luca.
From the bedroom next to her own, Serafina could hear Gabriella quarreling with her mother. Gabriella was engaged and close enough to her wedding day to challenge her stepmother. Gabriella's shrill voice carried through her open window. "I won't do it, do you hear?"
Serafina's mother sounded almost as sharp. "The whole city hears you! But this changes nothing!"
Gabriella's laugh was not a pleasant sound. "Why should I spend time with the little child?"
"Serafina is a child no longer, as you well know. She is seventeen and soon to become engaged herself!"
Serafina winced at that shrill reminder. She was indeed just days from becoming betrothed. Roberto was the son of another wealthy merchant, but he was thirty-two! An old man, in her estimation. Serafina had heard other merchant princes comment that the marriage was a union worthy of Venice's consiglière, the title her father carried.
The single issue over which Serafina quarreled with her parents was men. Her parents had grown weary of the constant train of suitors. Serafina felt as though she had been courted by every bachelor from Venice to Milan. But none had proven the least bit interesting to her.
Serafina's parents had grown increasingly impatient. She was seventeen, and it was time she was wed. Roberto was not unattractive. He was well presented and spoke with the languid musicality of Venice's elite. And his family's holdings stretched all the way to Vienna and Berlin. This suitor would do splendidly, they told her in no uncertain terms.
In truth, Serafina had not so much accepted the engagement as stopped paying much attention. The day before Roberto had presented himself, Serafina had met Luca. A fact Serafina kept most secret. Though her parents indulged many of their youngest daughter's whims, Serafina was well aware that Luca was not a man of whom they would approve.
Her mother demanded, "I want you to take your sister with you!"
"First of all, she is not my sister. And second, who are you to be insisting on anything?"
"I am your mother."
"You have never been my mother! You are my father's wife. You ..."
Serafina heard the hurt in her mother's voice. "Please do finish your thought."
"Why, so you can fly off to Father and tell him what I've said and done?"
"Why shouldn't I? You are behaving in an utterly improper manner."
"Oh, I can hardly wait until I am out of this house and free of you and your wretched daughter."
"Why do you speak like this? What have I or Serafina ever done to hurt you?"
Gabriella did not reply. But Serafina knew too well what the girl was thinking. She had heard Gabriella speak with her sisters of how Bettina had usurped their mother's position. One of Gabriella's favorite topics was how infatuated their father had grown with Serafina, the daughter of his winter years. How dangerous Serafina was to their position. Especially because of her beauty.
As long as Serafina could remember, people had commented upon her loveliness. Venice's young dandies had followed her in packs since she turned twelve. But such words as they flung her way had meant nothing. Until they had been spoken by Luca.
Serafina heard her mother continue, "I have tried my very best to make this a happy home, a place where you and your sisters would feel welcome--"
Gabriella's voice echoed as she raced down the central stairs. "Why shouldn't we be welcome here? It was our home long before you ever came." The slamming front door boomed through the entire house.
Hurriedly Serafina reentered her bedroom, seated herself, and picked up some handwork. She had to distract attention from her balcony. Her mother knocked and opened the door. "May I come in?"
Bettina Gavi was from the alpine village of Campobello. Bettina was not an Italian name at all, but Austrian. Venice had become a principality of the Austro-Hungarian empire less than a hundred years earlier. But the Dolomite region had been held and lost a dozen times and more over the past thousand years. Though they claimed to be Italian, Bettina's family spoke German at home. She had insisted that Serafina learn the language as well. Serafina's sisters had complained bitterly and refused to sit with the tutor. But Serafina had loved the challenge and the way the lessons brought the world beyond Venice closer. Her mother had taken note of Serafina's gift with languages and hired additional tutors. Serafina soon became fluent in English and spoke passable French.
But it was not merely a gift for languages that mother and daughter shared. Bettina Gavi was a fairly tall woman and full figured. Both mother and daughter had hair the color of flax, a shade beyond blond. When the sea winds blew hard, her father claimed to see woven threads of sunlight in Serafina's tresses. Just as he had when he fell in love with her mother.
Serafina's sisters were all olive-complexioned like their father and his first wife, with sharp Venetian features and hair so dark it turned indigo in the sunlight. They were handsome women, all of them. But they also bore the mark of their heritage, eighteen generations of traders and merchants and holders of princely power. Their appearance only made Serafina appear even more feminine.
"I had thought perhaps you might like to take a turn with me," Serafina's mother said.
"No thank you, Mama."
"But it's going to be such a lovely sunset. Why should we not take a promenade together?"
Mother and this daughter had always enjoyed a special bond. Serafina found a unique delight in the closeness between herself and her parents. The fact that her plans for the evening went directly against this caused her great turmoil. No matter how often she told herself it was right to do as she intended. The closer the hour approached, the more excited she became. Yet her sense of guilt and dread increased as well, until she felt almost torn in two.
Bettina, as usual, was attentive enough to observe the shadow pass over her daughter's features. "What is it, Serafina?"
"Nothing, Mama. I'm fine." Oh, how she hated lying to her mother.
"You look flushed. Are you feverish?" She laid a hand upon her daughter's forehead. "You seem all right."
Serafina resisted the urge to tell her mother not to treat her like a child. Which of course was part of the problem. Night after night, Serafina had mentally argued through a dispute that in truth would never happen. Just one look at her mother's face was enough to convince her that Luca would never be accepted in this house.
Yet not even her love for her parents, or her parents' love for her, could turn Serafina away from her course. Or from the future this course held.
"You heard us quarreling, I suppose." Bettina Gavi seated herself on the cushioned window bench beside her daughter. "You know why Gabriella treats you as she does. Her fiancé has a roving eye. He watches you like a hawk whenever you cross his vision."
Serafina was well aware of the impact her beauty had on young men. "But Gabriella has treated me badly since I was a baby."
"Because you, my darling daughter, have always shone as though the mountain light were captured in your face." Serafina's mother had a northerner's complexion, fine as stone-milled flour, and every emotion shone clear for all to see. "When you were still an infant I carried you into the market, and people would be drawn to you as if I offered them free honeycombs. You smiled, and grown men cried out with astonishment and delight. Nothing made your sister angrier than hearing people discuss your beauty."
"You have never spoken to me about Gabriella before."
"And I hope never to speak of it again. There is nothing to be gained from dwelling on the weaknesses of kin. Even so, it is true. She envied you from your birth." Bettina hesitated, then added almost in spite of herself, "It used to break my heart to see how cruel she was to you."
The bells of Saint Mark's Cathedral struck the hour before sunset, when the afternoon light angled tightly above the church and shadows over the canal waters were strongest. Serafina started. She had become so involved in her mother's words she had entirely forgotten the time.
"What is the matter, my daughter?"
"It is nothing, Mama." The repeated lie tore at her. She was a good daughter. She had never before knowingly gone against her parents' wishes. Though her heart fluttered tight in her chest, she managed to keep her voice steady. "I'm fine."
Bettina took on a girlish tone. "Come, let us buy ices from the vendor and stroll across the square and cherish all that is good in this world."
Serafina felt her heart tugged mightily by her mother's invitation. But the day was set upon another course. One to which Serafina would hold.
"Thank you, Mama. But I really would like to be alone with my thoughts just now." She picked up her embroidery and pretended to concentrate upon the design. But her mind was far, far removed from her family's home and the safety it offered.
Serafina watched her mother cross the room and depart without looking back. The sound of the door clicking shut seemed to drive a nail into her heart. Never had she felt so ashamed. So guilty.
Or so excited.
Truth be told, Serafina loved the evening promenade more than almost anything in her water-circled city. Here in Venice time was a guest, the locals liked to say, and not a ruler. Walking the streets at evening, it was possible to believe this was indeed true.
In these final hours of the Venetian day, the ancient palaces of colored stone seemed as delicate as Murano glass. Pillars looked translucent, too fragile to hold up the imposing façades. Normally Serafina would be begging her mother to come outside with her. But this was the hour when her mother was usually the busiest, supervising the evening meal and readying the house for Alessandro Gavi's return. For Serafina to have refused her mother's invitation was very strange indeed.
Serafina gripped her hands in her lap and wished the arguments raging in her mind and heart would end. She stared at the canal beyond her balcony and recalled another time of conflicting emotions. The summer she had turned eight, she had gone into the kitchen in the quiet hour after lunch, when even the servants were slumbering through the worst of the summer heat. Her mother had been seated at the kitchen table with a faraway look to her eyes. Tears had streamed down Bettina's face. They had caught the light streaming through the kitchen window, making her pale complexion shimmer.
Her mother started and breathed a long shaky breath. She spoke not to her daughter but to herself. "God heard me after all."
"What is the matter, Mama?"
"Nothing, now." She opened her arms. "Come here, my child. Let me look at you."
Serafina did as her mother requested. But as she climbed up into her mother's lap, seeing the tears up close caused her to cry as well. "I'm frightened."
"Shah, my dearest one. Calm yourself." Her mother held Serafina in one arm and with the other hand wiped away her tears. She smiled, or tried to. "There, you see? All better."
But Serafina felt pierced by the sorrow that still stained her mother's features. "You're so sad, Mama."
"Yes. It happens sometimes. But it will soon pass."
"But why, Mama?"
"A woman's foolishness, nothing more." Yet saying these words caused fresh tears to course down her cheeks. "I am just being weak. And silly. You mustn't pay me any mind."
But Serafina had been infected by a sorrow far deeper than anything she had ever felt before. Her mother held her for a time, stroking her hair. Serafina wept and would not be consoled. Finally her mother said, "I will tell you a secret, but you must promise not to speak about it to anyone."
She sniffed and smiled. "I love secrets."
"Don't I just know it. You must promise, mind."
"I won't tell anyone. Not even Papa."
"Especially Papa!" Her mother gave a small laugh. "Very well. I was crying because I missed my home."
"But this is your home."
"I mean the home of my childhood. I was missing the hills."
"The place where Grandma and Grandpa live?"
"Just so. Where I lived when I was your age." She turned her face back to the sunlight. "The light is purer there, or so people claim. The summer heat is always spiced with wind blowing across the eternal ice. The water tastes different, as does the bread, the cheese. It is said the mountain folk have hearts and wills carved from their mountain stone."
Serafina listened as much to the dreamy nature of her mother's voice as the words. "That's no secret, Mama. Grandpa tells us this every time we go to visit them. He says I have a mountain woman's will. And when I tell him I can't because I'm still a child, he just laughs."
Again her mother seemed to draw herself back from a far distance. "You are far too perceptive for a child your age."
"I want to know the secret."
"Very well, and I shall tell you, my golden-haired beauty." She stroked Serafina's face, yet it looked as if her vision was once more drawn to what Serafina could not see. "When I was seventeen, I fell in love with a man."
"No, my child. With another. A shepherd. A mountain man."
"But you love Papa."
"Yes. With all my heart. But I was a foolish young girl then. To have wed this other man would have been a terrible mistake."
"So why were you crying?"
"Because, my darling child--" a tremor ran through her mother's frame--"this date was to have been our wedding day. And because I still have a bit of the foolishness in me, I thought of him. For the first time in so many years I cannot even count them, I thought of him."
"Do you miss him very much?"
"I can scarcely remember how he looked. And what does that matter?" She wiped away tears that deepened her voice. "He would be married now, and old. Perhaps even ... No, I shall not dwell upon that."
Her mother turned her solemn gaze toward Serafina. "I sat here and I prayed for God to remind me why I am here and how blessed I am to be in this place and this home. And then in you come, with your dancing spirit and your angel's hair. My darling child, I was brought to this place so that I might love your father. And have you, heart of my heart. And be a part of this wonderful world."
Being eight years old and shunned by her older sister, Serafina found a certain satisfaction in how her mother did not include her sisters in this moment. "I won't tell anybody our secret, Mama. I promise."
Serafina's attention was drawn back to sunset's soft veil drawn over the water and the palaces. She sat very still and listened with all her might. Suddenly her intent was rewarded with a quiet whisper of sound.
She had not yet heard the front door close, signaling that her mother had departed. So she did not do what she wanted, which was to fly to the balcony railing and lean over and watch this new visitor do the utterly impossible. The side of the house fronting the canal was now veiled in shade, while all about it glowed the fiercely setting sun. Unless one was looking very carefully, it would have been impossible to notice a person scaling the smooth wall. Unless one was a young girl on the cusp of womanhood, who knew the visitor came to steal away her heart.