Elvira von Brandenburg was born in Venice to a Prussian nobleman and a Venetian whore. She was raised by the courtesans in her early years, but she always knew who her father was. He was a regular patron of the brothel whenever he was in Venice, and indeed, the money that flowed from him helped keep the place in business. Because her mother was their benefactor’s favorite, Elvira’s early childhood was comfortable enough, given the circumstances.
However, when she was around five years old, the brothel was destroyed by a fire. When he heard about it, Elvira’s father declined to provide the funds to rebuild it. As it turned out, he was about to marry and ascend to some higher position, and he did not want the brothel quite so attached to him. So the brothel was not restored, and the prostitutes found work elsewhere. Having children to care for was not part of the lifestyle Elvira’s mother envisioned for herself, so she told Elvira to tell people that she was dead, and she placed the children in an orphanage.
The orphanage was nothing like the brothel. Life was difficult, and Elvira struggled to adapt. She focused on learning. She found she had a prodigious capacity for knowledge, and for experimenting. She picked up on things easily, and it gave her comfort to know that she was good at it. She enjoyed it. So after being taught the fundamentals of reading in Venetian, she taught herself the rest until she was fully literate, an accomplishment not to be underestimated. Then she taught herself Italian… and then French… and more and more.
She kept learning. Eventually she hit upon subjects that truly interested her: the effects of substances upon each other, and upon the human body. She made friends with a nearby apothecary and unofficially studied the medicines and procedures there. While the other children played or, growing older, engaged in thievery and such, Elvira studied, earning herself a reputation for being bookish. The only people she spent much time with were her sisters, Scharlotte and Claire.
While working with the apothecary, she drew the attention of a man named Piero Morosini. He was the son of a wealthy Venetian merchant, and about eight years her elder. But he was quite taken with her; and so when Elvira was sixteen years old, he married her, rescuing her, as he saw it, from a squandered life. He introduced her around society, and she met with people from the merchant guilds, from spice and fish and linen sellers and sailors and captains to nobles and councillors and advisors to the Doge. Her beauty and her wit earned her a bit of fame and renown. But as Elvira Morosini, she found that she was now little more than an adornment for her husband’s arm.
Her studies had branched from the dispensing and creation of medicines into broader applications, as what would today be considered toxicology. She could synthesize potions and poisons quite well. There was one she had heard of that could cause a quiet death with very little trace left behind. One night, she added just the right amount of the potion to her husband’s drink. He complained of a bitter taste, but blamed it on a poor wine and finished it anyway, as was his wont. She heard him suffering a bit through the night, mostly of general discomforts. When the sun rose, he was dead.
His body was examined, and his death was ruled to have been of natural causes, with some speculation about the ill humor he had been in for some time. Most of his fortune and business reverted to his family, but Elvira kept the home she lived in and all of the fine things he had bought her. Some she gave to her sisters, some she sold and made heavy coin. She donated a bit to the orphanage and used the rest to live comfortably, and to ensure her sisters did as well.
She lived as a widow for a while, keeping a finger on the pulse of the merchant society and the ruling class. As Elvira Morosini, she still had some status. Some months after Piero’s death, another man, Lazaro Malatesta, began to show an interest in her. He was very handsome and also very rich, a well-regarded nobleman. She allowed him to court her, albeit in secret, as she was meant to be in mourning for her first husband. A year and two months after Piero’s death, Elvira married Lazaro, becoming Elvira Malatesta.
During their courtship it had been clear that Lazaro had something of a bad temperament, but that had not bothered Elvira; in fact, it had intrigued her, since Piero had been quite sedate. But in marriage, the veils fell away, and Lazaro turned out to be a brute. He harmed her both physically and emotionally, then expected her to behave as the quiet wife among polite society. She was not interested in that and she realized quickly that she did not love him.
But she did like having a test subject.
She was experimenting with toxicology, especially in perfecting formulas, but she did not like the potential for harming animals. Doing harm to someone who was doing the same to her, however… that was more than enough justification for her.
Over the course of their marriage, Lazaro suffered multiple poisonings. He never became aware of what was happening, and most of his friends thought him to be in poor health. A few suspected Elvira of something, given that her interest in medicine was not a secret, but most people thought Elvira was too upstanding a woman to do such a thing. Others thought that such accusations overestimated her skill with toxins.
Elvira perfected her potions. After a while, he stopped vomiting them, and after a longer while he suffered no obvious side effects at all. But in the sluggishness of his motions, in the yellowness of his eyes, Elvira saw him dying, and quietly she exulted in his misery. Her sisters knew only of her experiments and that he did not always treat her well. She hid from them the full extent of his cruelty, fearful of how they might react, especially Scharlotte.
They remained married for five years. Elvira became something of a test subject for herself, her solutions for avoiding pregnancies seeming to prove effective over the course of that time. That work became one of her few regrets, given her reluctance to harm an innocent life; but more than that, she refused to give Lazaro a child. Whether by chance or her own doing, she never gave birth.
Finally, Elvira decided her husband had outlived his usefulness, and she administered a lethal dose of a poison of her own design. She had it served to him during a gala event of Venice’s high society. That was at the beginning of the night. Toward the end, as guests began to leave, he fell dead in front of all the nobility, apropos of nothing. An examination found that his heart had stopped, most likely due to the stress of the exertion at the party.
Again, Elvira left the marriage with very little that had belonged to her husband, but her own possessions netted her the assurance of a comfortable life. She sold the grand palazzo in which she and Lazaro had lived and moved back into the smaller home she had kept with Piero. Her sisters had their own rooms in that house, whether they used them or not. And she maintained some level of visibility among upper society over the four years following her second husband’s passing.
She continued her medicinal experiments and also took up alchemy, determined to find and perfect the Philosopher’s Stone. And she has an additional goal: she would like to tear down the society that had so easily allowed her, and likely women like her, to come to harm. This includes the ruling structure of Venice, from the Council of Ten up to the Doge. she has her enemies among them, including some of Lazaro's friends, who suspect her in his death and refer to her as "La Vipera."
Meanwhile, she lives well, supports her sisters, keeps an eye on the world’s Revolutions, and remains always learning.