Authors: Fornasier Kylie
is Kylie Fornasier’s first novel for young adults. She has travelled to Italy to walk the streets of Venice and immerse herself in the world of
. She works as a teacher librarian in south-west Sydney and is passionate about helping kids enjoy their reading experience. She is also involved in writers groups with the NSW Writers’ Centre and another in Penrith.
Find out more at the
or at Kylie’s website:
Orelia Rossetti –
newcomer to Venice, niece of Giovanni Contarini
Angelique Contarini –
daughter of Giovanni Contarini
Veronica Contarini –
daughter of Giovanni Contarini
Giovanni Contarini –
Portia Morosini –
aunt of Giovanni Contarini
Isabella Contarini/Rossetti –
mother of Orelia (deceased)
Anna Pisani –
servant at Ca’ Contarini
Emilia Pisani –
twin sister of Anna
servant at Ca’ Contarini
Claudia D’Este –
daughter of Lodovica D’Este
Marco D’Este –
son of Lodovica D’Este
Lodovica D’Este –
a gondolier serving the D’Este family
servant at Ca’ D’Este
Bastian Donato –
son of the Doge
Luca Boccassio –
suitor of Veronica
For my best friend, Alison Sek
In a city shrouded in secrets, it was only fitting that Orelia’s first view of Venice was shrouded in fog.
Standing pressed against the boat’s railing, Orelia narrowed her eyes in an attempt to peer beyond the grey haze. If she looked hard enough, she could just make out the faint outlines of domes and columns, or perhaps her mind, drunk on sea air, was playing tricks on her. A bell tolled, making her jump.
‘Are you waiting for someone?’ asked the young English poet, whose attention she had not welcomed but had nonetheless endured throughout the journey.
Orelia looked around and realised they were the only passengers who hadn’t disembarked. Her other travelling companions had seemed as displaced as she was and yet they had stepped ashore onto the floating city without hesitation.
Aside from the English poet on his Grand Tour, there had been a dethroned prince from the East and a young girl who had escaped from a convent in the Dolomites. What made them so brave? And so open?
When questioned, Orelia had told them that she was coming to Venice for Carnevale. She had felt guilty for lying, but then suspected she wasn’t the only one. There was nothing poetic about the Englishman.
Pushing a lock of hair away from her face, Orelia looked over her shoulder at the dense fog behind the boat, reassuring herself that there was nothing to go back to.
‘If you need somewhere to stay, my friend owns a hostelry in San Marco,’ said the Englishman in his rather stilted Italian. ‘It is quite clean and comfortable. He charges three lire a day but I am sure I can persuade him to offer you a room for less.’
‘Grazie,’ said Orelia softly, ‘but I have arrangements.’ Another lie.
He nodded. ‘I hope you enjoy Carnevale. With a final smile over his shoulder, he disappeared down the gangplank.
Orelia took in a deep breath, picked up her bag, and then followed. The moment her foot touched land, the fog appeared to lift like a curtain, revealing the famous Piazza San Marco and the equally famous Piazzetta.
Disturbing a group of pigeons, Orelia walked forward, her eyes trying to see everything at once: the great height of the campanile, the gold domes of the basilica, the merchant stalls, the crowds of people in colourful clothing, the gondolas. There was one building that captured her attention more than any other: the Palazzo Ducale. Its two storeys of rose-coloured marble were a carnival of arches, colonnades and balconies. There was an incredible lightness to the enormous rectangular building that made it seem as if it might float away with the slightest gust of wind, like dandelion seeds.
‘Are you lost, Signorina?’ called a voice.
A grey-haired man stepped off a gondola and walked down a short jetty towards her. He was wearing a loose, white shirt and a red cap, identical to those worn by the men commanding other gondolas that were coming and going.
‘I suppose I am,’ she said.
The gondolier looked at her face quizzically, as if he saw something familiar. Orelia bit her lip, waiting, wondering. After a moment, the man shook his head. ‘What is your destination?’
Taking an envelope out of her pocket, Orelia re-read the name and address written on the front. It was one of her few possessions that hadn’t burnt in the fire, kept safe from the flames within a silver box alongside a glass flower that had been a gift from her mother.
Inside the envelope was a brief letter dated the year of her birth. It was addressed to her mother’s brother, a man called Giovanni Contarini. The letter described their home in Montepulciano and Orelia’s difficult arrival into the world; all things Orelia knew. There were three things in the letter she had not known: her mother had lived in Venice up until nineteen years ago, she had left Venice abruptly, and she would never return.
Orelia had first found the letter inside an old book when she was ten. There was something sad about a letter that had never been sent. If she had been asked at the time, she would have said she was rescuing it, but Orelia had not told anyone about her discovery. Even at such a young age, she had known that some things were not to be discussed. Her mother’s past was one of those things. If it were not for the letter, Orelia would never have been aware that her mother was Venetian. Which begged the question, why had her mother left Venice? And why had she never returned? Who was her father? Was he Venetian too?
Without the answers to these questions, without knowing who her parents really were, Orelia had no sense of who she was.
‘Do you have a destination?’ asked the gondolier.
Orelia blinked several times, then nodded. ‘Ca’ Contarini, the Canal Grande,’ she answered, her voice betraying her uncertainty.
The gondolier nodded. ‘Are you a guest of Signor Contarini?’
‘Si.’ Why start telling strangers the truth now? As easy as it was to lie to others, she herself could not ignore the truth; her uncle did not know she was coming. It had occurred to Orelia during her journey that her uncle was most probably unaware of her existence. What if he did not believe she was his niece? What if he would not take her in? Where would she go? Perhaps she should have taken the poet up on his offer.
It was too late now.
Orelia tried to fight the familiar sensation of panic that rippled through her. It was much harder to control her anxiety and fight away tears in this unfamiliar city than it had been in the fresh mountain air of her home town, Montepulciano. And she thought she had shed every tear within her when her mother had died.
‘How much?’ asked Orelia, withdrawing her pitifully light coin purse.
The gondolier waved his hand. ‘No charge. It’s not far and you remind me of someone who once showed me kindness.’
In normal circumstances, Orelia would have insisted on paying, but this wasn’t a normal circumstance. It wasn’t even her money. Before leaving Montepulciano, Orelia’s neighbour had given her a small amount of money for her journey. Signora Rasa was the only person in the village who had not turned Orelia away.
The villagers had never been particularly warm to her mother and Orelia, disapproving as they were of an unwed mother and her child. Over the years, Orelia’s mother had softened their prejudices with her unfailing kindness, but the moment she was gone, Orelia found herself shut out.
Even Signora Rasa could not offer Orelia a permanent home; her husband was returning from doing trade in Florence and would not have allowed Orelia to stay with them. But Signora Rasa had insisted on giving Orelia the money and some clothing. ‘Take it and find your destiny,’ Signora Rasa had said, hugging Orelia tight. ‘There is nothing here for you any more. Follow your heart.’
Orelia’s heart had led her to this watery city.
She smiled thankfully at the gondolier and followed him down the short jetty. He extended his elbow to help her into the gondola. She noticed that, unlike many of the other gondolas, this one did not have a felze, the black wooden cabin that served to protect passengers from the weather or onlookers. Orelia had nowhere to hide.
She felt the gondola begin to move and gripped the edge of the seat even though the rocking was slight. When she was sure she would not be tipped into the Canal Grande, she hazarded a glance over her shoulder. A winged lion atop a tall granite column in the Piazzetta caught her eye and she imagined herself drawing courage from the majestic stone creature.
Turning around, Orelia felt somewhat calmer. Remnants of fog floated on the canal. Through it, Orelia could see tall, colourful palazzi standing shoulder to shoulder along both sides of the wide waterway.
Just as the gondola rounded the bend, it began to move towards the right-hand bank, before pulling up alongside a large five-storey palazzo.
Tilting her head back, Orelia took in the sight of the colourful frescoed facade, the numerous gothic windows framed with marble, the ornate balconies overflowing with white flowers, and finally, the two arched doorways in front of her. Orelia’s heart beat quickly. This had to be a mistake. This couldn’t be where her uncle lived. It was too magnificent. She was too simple. It had to be a mistake.
‘Ca’ Contarini,’ said the gondolier, drawing the vessel impossibly close to the water steps until the only thing left to do was to disembark. Orelia stood up slowly, reluctantly, and somehow still lost her footing. A moment before meeting a watery end to her journey, the gondolier caught her arm and steadied her.
‘Grazie,’ said Orelia breathlessly, when she was safely on land, ‘you are very kind and generous.’
‘Prego,’ said the gondolier. ‘It was my pleasure.’
Orelia waited until the gondola moved off before stepping up to the imposing wooden doors. She reached for the bell cord and curled her fingers around the rope. What would she say when the door was opened? Would she even be able to get past the servant to see Signor Contarini and state her case?
‘Wait,’ she called, turning around only to see that the gondola had already disappeared among the traffic on the Canal Grande.
It was too late to turn back.
She closed her eyes and pulled the cord. A few minutes later, or maybe it was less, one of the doors opened to reveal an older woman in a plain grey dress. ‘Can I help you?’ she said in a voice that was sharper than the screech of the seagulls overhead.
‘Buongiorno, Signorina. I wish to speak to Signor Contarini,’ said Orelia, attempting to sound confident.
The woman looked down at Orelia’s bag. ‘Concerning?’
‘My name is Orelia Rossetti. I am his . . . niece.’
The woman gripped the edge of the door. ‘That’s impossible.’
‘Please, can I talk to him?’
The woman did not answer but stepped aside to let Orelia pass, glancing out to the canal as if to check if anyone had seen her enter. Orelia followed the woman through a wide passageway, flanked by storage rooms, out to a courtyard. She expected to see some greenery, a tree even, but there was just stone and more stone. The woman began to climb a staircase that wrapped around the courtyard. Orelia hurried after her, finding it difficult to keep up. They stopped beneath a covered landing outside a door. ‘If this is a trick or a plot of blackmail, you will regret it,’ said the woman.
Orelia clasped her hands together tightly to stop them from shaking. ‘It is not,’ she said.
The woman gave her a sceptical look before opening the door. ‘Wait here in the portego while I speak with Signor Contarini.’ She crossed the long hall and then disappeared through another door at the other end.
Only when she was gone did Orelia feel comfortable enough to look around her. If she had thought the exterior of the palazzo was magnificent, it was nothing compared to the interior.
Every piece of furniture was gilded (whether with real gold, she could not guess) and appeared as if it had descended from the heavens. These imaginings seemed brought to life when Orelia looked up at the ceiling, elaborately painted with biblical scenes amongst clouds. Glass chandeliers hung from the ceiling and the walls were rich with stucco decoration. Most dazzling of all was the effect of the sunlight that spilled in through a row of tall, narrow windows and sparkled upon the glass-smooth terrazzo floor embedded with mother-of-pearl.
Orelia tried to smooth the front of her olive-green dress, but it made little improvement. She had never paid much attention to her appearance, but in this palazzo where the upholstered furniture made her dress look like rags, she wished she had. What was she doing here? This was no place for her, a lowly mountain girl.
‘Signor Contarini will see you,’ said the woman, appearing at the end of the portego.
With uncertain steps, Orelia crossed the hall and stopped outside the doorway framed in red marble. The woman gave Orelia one last disapproving look before leading her into the room.
Signor Contarini was sitting behind a desk but stood up immediately when Orelia entered the room. He wore a purple brocade dress-coat and matching breeches. A white periwig covered his head and cascaded over his shoulders. Orelia could only guess at the real colour of his hair, though she had wondered if it would be red like her mother’s, and her own.
His eyes fixed upon Orelia, as if he could not look away. ‘Grazie, Maria. That will be all,’ he said.
For a number of seconds, Maria did not move. Then, with an exasperated sigh, she walked to the door. ‘Do not let your eyes fool you, Signor,’ she said, before finally leaving.
When the door closed, silence settled over the room. Signor Contarini continued to stare at Orelia, his gaze shocked and disbelieving. She dropped her eyes to the floor, searching for the words she had practised. Those words now seemed as far away as her home town. Remembering the envelope in her pocket, she stepped forward and handed Signor Contarini the letter that had led her to him.
For several agonising minutes, he examined the paper and then laid it down on his desk
‘Please take a seat,’ he said, leading Orelia over to a cluster of red armchairs with gilt legs shaped like lion’s feet. As tired as she was, Orelia resisted the urge to relax into the soft cushions and instead perched herself on the edge of the chair.