/ Language: English / Genre:sf_fantasy / Series: Heirs of Alexandria

The Shadow of the Lion

Eric Flint


Eric Flint

The Shadow of the Lion

Dave Freer

Mercedes Lackey

Prologue

April, 1537 A.D.

MAINZ

The yellow lantern-lights of Mainz's dockside inns reached out across the dark Rhine. Standing on the prow of the riverboat, Erik Hakkonsen stared at them, thinking of little more than food and a bed. He'd left his home in Iceland three weeks earlier, to answer the Emperor's summons. They'd had a stormy crossing. Then the late spring thaw had ensured that the roads of the Holy Roman Empire were fetlock deep in glutinous mud. And, finally, the river had been full and the rain steady. Tomorrow he would have to go to the Imperial palace, and find out how to seek an interview with Emperor Charles Fredrik.

But tonight he could sleep.

The riverboat nudged into the quay. A wet figure stepped out from under the eaves of the inn. "Is there one Erik Hakkonsen on this vessel?" he demanded, half-angrily. The rain hadn't been kind to the skinny courtier's bright cloak. The satin clung to him, and he was shivering.

Erik pushed back his oilskin-hood. "I'm Hakkonsen."

"Thank God for that! I'm soaked to the skin. I've been here for hours," complained the man. "Come. I've got horses in the stable. The Emperor awaits you."

Erik made no move. "Who are you?"

The fellow shivered. "Baron Trolliger. The Emperor's privy secretary." He held out his hand to show a heavy signet. It was incised with the Roman Eagle.

That was not a seal anyone would dare to forge. Erik nodded. "I'll get my kit."

The shivering baron shook his head. "Leave it." He pointed to the sailor who had paused in his mooring to stare. "You. Watch over this man's gear. Someone will be sent for it."

As much as anything else, the alacrity with which the sailor obeyed the order drove home the truth to Erik. He was in the heart of the Holy Roman Empire, for a certainty. In his native Iceland?or Vinland, or anywhere else in the League of Armagh?that peremptory order would have been ignored, if not met with outright profanity.

"Come," the baron repeated. "The Emperor is waiting."

***

Passing from the narrow dark streets and sharp-angled tall houses into the brightness of the imperial palace, Erik had little time to marvel and gawk at the heavy gothic splendor of it all. Instead, Baron Trolliger rushed him through?still trailing mud?into a large austere room. As soon as Erik entered, the baron closed the door behind him, not entering himself.

In the center of the room, staring at Erik, stood the most powerful man in all of Europe. He was a large man, though now a bit stooped from age. His eyebrows seemed as thick and heavy as the purple cloak he was wearing; his eyes, a shade of blue so dark they almost matched the cloak.

Charles Fredrik. The latest in a long line of Hohenstauffens.

Guardian of the Church, Bulwark of the Faith. Lord of lands from northern Italy to the pagan marches in the Baltic. Ruler over millions of people throughout central Europe.

The Holy Roman Emperor, himself. In direct line of descent from the great Fredrick Barbarossa.

All of that mattered little to Erik. His tie to the Emperor was a clan tie, not a dynastic one. He was there to become the Emperor's servant, not his subject. So, Erik simply bowed to the old man, rather than kneeling, and spoke no words of fealty. Simply the old oath: "Linn gu linn."

The words were Gaelic, but the oath that bound him came from the cold fjells of pagan Norway. An oath that went back generations, to the time when a Hohenstauffen prince had rescued a pagan clan from demons set loose by their own foolishness.

Charles Fredrik spoke like an old man?despite being no older than Erik's father. But he voiced the ritual words strongly. "From generation to generation."

He held out the dagger that Erik had heard described with infinite care all his life. The dagger was iron. Old iron. Sky iron. Hammered with stone in the pagan Northlands, from a fallen thunderbolt. The hilt was shaped into a dragon head?the detail lost in the blurring of hundreds of years of use.

It still drew blood for the blood-oath like new steel did. "Blood for blood. Clan for clan." Erik renewed the oath calmly.

After binding their wounds himself, Charles Fredrik took Erik by the elbow and led him across to a window. The window was a mere arrow-slit, testimony to the palace's ancient origins. Against modern cannon, such fortifications were almost useless. But… there was a certain undeniable, massive dignity to the huge edifice.

There they stood, silent for some time, looking out at the scattered shawl of lights which was the great sleeping city of Mainz. Erik was quite sure that those lights represented more people than lived in all Iceland. Their lives, and those of many more, rested in the hands of the old man standing next to him.

The Emperor seemed to have read his thoughts. "It is a great load, at times," he said softly.

His heavy jaws tightened. The next words were spoken almost harshly. "I have called for the Clann Harald because my heirs have need. My son is… very sickly. And I do not expect my only surviving brother to outlive me. Not with his wounds. So I must take special care to watch over my two nephews, for it is quite likely that one of them will succeed to the throne after I am gone."

The Emperor sighed. "Your older brother Olaf watched over my nephew Conrad for his bond-time, as your father Hakkon watched over me." A slight smile came to his face. "To my surprise, I find I miss him. He used to beat me, you know."

"He has told me about it, Godar of the Hohenstauffen." Erik did not add: Often.

Charles Fredrik's smile broadened. "According to your brother Olaf?'often.' " He chuckled. "It did me the world of good, I eventually came to realize. Nobody had dared punish me before that. Do you know that your family are the only people in the world who don't call me 'Emperor,' or 'Your Imperial Highness?' I think it is why we trust you."

"Our loyalty is to the Godar of the Hohenstauffen. Not to the Empire." That too his father had said. Often.

"You must sit and tell me the news of them once I have given you your task. I warn you, it will be a more onerous chore than Olaf's. Manfred, my younger nephew, reminds me of myself at that age. You will have to?as your father did with me?serve as confrere in the monastic order of the Knights of the Holy Trinity. Of course?as then?your identity and purpose must remain secret. Manfred's also."

Erik nodded. "My father has told me about the Knights."

The Emperor's eyes narrowed. "Yes. But things have changed, Hakkonsen. It is one of the things that worries me. The Knights have always been?nominally, at least?independent of the Empire. Servants of God, not of any earthly power. In practice they have served as the Empire's bulwarks to the North and East. In your father's day the nobility from all the corners of the Holy Roman Empire came to serve as the Knights of Christ, in the pious war against the pagan. And many brave souls came from the League of Armagh, not just the handful of Icelanders sworn by clan loyalty to the service of the Emperor."

Erik nodded again. "My grandfather says that in his day, Aquitaines made up as many as a quarter of the order's ranks."

The Emperor clenched his fist, slowly. "Exactly. Today, no knight from that realm would dream of wearing the famous tabard of the Knights of the Holy Trinity. Once the brotherhood Knights were truly the binding threads in the cloak of Christianity. Today… the Knights of the Holy Trinity come almost entirely from the Holy Roman Empire. Not even that. Only from some of its provinces. They're Prussians and Saxons, in the main, with a small sprinkling of Swabians. A few others."

He paused. Then he looked Erik in the eyes. "They're beginning to take an interest in politics. Far too much for my liking. And they're also?I like this even less?getting too close to the Servants of the Holy Trinity. Damn bunch of religious fanatics, that lot of monks."

Charles Fredrik snorted. "All of it, mind you, supposedly in my interests. Some of them probably even believe it. But I have no desire to get embroiled in the endless squabbling of Italian city-states, much less a feud with the Petrine branch of the church. The Grand Duke of Lithuania and King Emeric of Hungary give me quite enough to worry about, leaving aside the outright pagans of Norseland and Russia."

Again, he sighed. "And they're not a binding force any more. Today, the common people call the church's arm militant 'The Knots,' more often than not. And, what's worse, the Knights themselves seem to relish the term."

"The Clann Harald do not mix in Empire politics," stated Erik firmly. His father had warned him that this might happen.

The Emperor gave a wry smile. "So your father always said. Just as I'm sure he warned you before you left Iceland. But, Erik Hakkonsen, because you guard Manfred… do not think you will be able to avoid it. Any more than your father could."

The old man turned and faced Erik squarely. "Politics will mix with you, lad, whether you like it or not. You can be as sure of that as the sunrise. Especially in Venice."

Erik's eyes widened. The Emperor chuckled.

"Oh, yes. I forgot to mention that, didn't I?"

He took Erik by the arm again and began to lead him toward the door. "But we can discuss Venice tomorrow. Venice, and the expedition of the Knights to that city, which you will be joining. An expedition which I find rather… peculiar."

They were at the door. By some unknown means, a servant appeared to open it for them. "But that's for tomorrow," said the Emperor. "What's left for tonight, before you get some well-deserved rest, is to meet the cross you must bear. I suspect the thought of Venice will be less burdensome thereafter."

About halfway down the long corridor leading to the great staircase at the center of the palace, he added: "Anything will seem less burdensome, after Manfred."

***

It took the Emperor, and quite a few servants, some time to track down Manfred. Eventually the royal scion was discovered. In the servants' quarters, half-drunk and half-naked, sprawled on a grimy bed. Judging from the half-sob and half-laugh coming from under the bed, Manfred and the servant girl had been interrupted in a pastime which boded ill for the prince's hope of attaining heaven without spending some time in purgatory.

Erik studied the young royal, now sitting up on the edge of the bed. Manfred was so big he was almost a giant, despite being only eighteen years old. Erik was pleased by the breadth of shoulders, and the thick muscle so obvious on the half-clad body. He was not pleased with the roll of fat around the waist. The hands were very good also. Thick and immensely strong, clearly enough, but Erik did not miss the suggestion of nimbleness as the embarrassed royal scion hastily buttoned on a cotte.

He was pleased, also, by the evident humor in the prince's eyes. Bleary from drink, true, but… they had a sparkle to them. And Erik decided the square, block-toothed grin had promise also. Whatever else Prince Manfred might be, he was clearly not a sullen boy.

It remained to be seen how intelligent he was. There, Erik's hopes were much lower.

The Emperor, standing in the doorway of the servant's little room, cleared his throat. "This is your Clann Harald guardian, you young lout. You'll have to mind your manners from now on."

The prince's huge shoulders seemed to ripple a bit, as if he were suppressing a laugh.

"This?willow? Uncle! The way you always described these Icelandic sheep farmers, I got the impression?"

Manfred gasped, clutching his belly. Erik's boot had left a nice muddy imprint. The prince choked, struggling for breath.

"You stinking?" he hissed. A moment later the prince was hurling himself off the bed, great arms stretched wide. Erik was pleased by the rapid recovery. Just as he had been when his driving foot hit the thick muscle beneath the belly fat.

Manfred's charge would have driven down an ogre. Unfortunately, ogres don't know how to wrestle. Erik had learned the art from an old Huron thrall on the Hakkonsen steading, and polished it during his three years in Vinland?much of which time he had spent among his family's Iroquois relatives.

Manfred flattened nicely against the stone wall, like a griddle cake. The palace almost seemed to shake. The prince himself was certainly shaking, when he staggered back from the impact.

Not for long. Erik's hip roll brought him to the floor with a crash, flat on his back. The knee drop in the gut half-paralyzed the prince; the Algonquian war hatchet held against the royal nose did paralyze him. Manfred was almost cross-eyed, staring at the cruel razor-sharp blade two inches from his eyes.

"You'll learn," grunted the Emperor. "Give him a scar. He's overdue."

Erik's pale blue eyes met Manfred's brown ones. He lifted an eyebrow.

"Which cheek, Prince?" he asked.

Manfred raised a thick finger. "One moment, please," he gasped. "I need some advice."

The prince rolled his head on the floor, peering under the bed. "You'd better decide, sweetling. Right or left?"

A moment later, a girlish voice issued from under the bed. "Left."

The prince rolled his head back. "The left, then."

Erik grinned; the hatchet blurred; blood gushed from an inch-long gash. He was still grinning when he arose and began wiping off the blade.

"I think the prince and I will get along fine, Emperor."

The most powerful man in Europe nodded heavily. "Thank God for that." He began to turn away. "Tomorrow, we will speak about Venice."

"No politics," insisted Erik.

There was no response except a harsh laugh, and the sight of a broad purple back receding into the darkness.

ROME

"Come, brothers," said the slightly-built priest who limped into the small chapel where his two companions awaited him. "The Grand Metropolitan has made his decision."

One of the other priests cocked his head quizzically. "Is it the Holy Land, then, as we hoped?"

"No. Not yet, at least. He has asked us?me, I should say?to go to Venice."

The third priest sighed. "I begin to wonder if we will ever make our pilgrimage, Eneko." The Italian words were slurred, as always, with Pierre's heavy Savoyard accent.

The small priest shrugged. "As I said, the Grand Metropolitan only requires me to go to Venice. You?you and Diego both?are free to carry out the pilgrimage we planned."

"Don't be a typical Basque fool," growled Pierre. "Of course we will accompany you."

"What would you do without us?" demanded Diego cheerfully. Again, he cocked his head. "Yes, yes?granted you are superb in the use of holy magic. But if it's Venice, I assume that's because of the Grand Metropolitan's scryers."

"Do those men ever have good news to report?" snorted Pierre.

The Basque priest named Eneko smiled thinly. "Not often. Not since Jagiellon took the throne in Vilna, that's certain."

Pierre scowled. "Why else would we be going to that miserable city?"

Eneko gazed at him mildly. "I wasn't aware you had visited the place."

Pierre's scowl deepened. "Not likely! A pit of corruption and intrigue?the worst in Italy, which is bad enough as it is."

The Basque shrugged. "I dislike the city myself?and, unlike you, I've been there. But I don't know that it's any more corrupt than anywhere else." Then, smiling: "More complicated, yes."

Diego's head was still cocked to one side. The mannerism was characteristic of the Castilian. "Eneko, why?exactly?are we going there? It can't be simply because of the scryers. Those gloomy fellows detect Lithuanian and Hungarian schemes everywhere. I'm sure they'd find Chernobog rooting in the ashes of my mother's kitchen fire, if they looked long enough."

"True enough," agreed Eneko, smiling. "But in this instance, the matter is more specific. Apparently rumors have begun to surface that the Strega Grand Master was not murdered after all. He may still be alive. The Grand Metropolitan wants me to investigate."

The last sentence caused both Diego and Pierre to frown. The first, with puzzlement; the second, with disapproval.

"Why is it our business what happens to a pagan mage?" demanded Pierre.

Again, Eneko bestowed that mild gaze upon the Savoyard. "The Church does not consider the Strega to be 'pagans,' I would remind you. Outside our faith, yes. Pagans, no. The distinction was implicit already in the writings of Saint Hypatia?I refer you especially to her second debate with Theophilus?although the Church's final ruling did not come until?"

"I know that!" grumbled Pierre. "Still…"

Diego laughed. "Leave off trying to teach this stubborn Savoyard the fine points of theology, Eneko. He knows what he knows, and there's an end to it."

Eneko chuckled; and so, after a moment, did Pierre himself. "I suppose I still retain the prejudices of my little village in the Alps," he said grudgingly. "But I still don't understand why the Holy Father is making such an issue out of it."

"Pierre," sighed Diego, "we are not talking about some obscure witch-doctor. Dottore Marina was considered by every theologian in the world, Christian or not?especially those versed in the use of magic?to be the most knowledgeable Strega scholar in centuries. He was not simply a Magus, you know. He was a Grimas, a master of all three of the stregheria canons: Fanarra, Janarra and Tanarra. The first Grimas since Vitold, in fact."

"And we all know how that Lithuanian swine wound up," growled Pierre. His Savoyard accent was even heavier than usual.

Eneko's eyebrows, a solid bar across his forehead, lowered. "Pierre! I remind you?again?that the Church does not extend its condemnation of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania onto their subjects."

The Savoyard priest looked away. Then, nodded acknowledgement of the justice of the reproof.

"Besides," continued the Basque, "the criticism is unfair in any event. Vitold's fate derived from his boldness, not from sin. Rashness, if you prefer. But I remind you?"

Eneko's stern gaze swept back and forth between his two companions. "I remind you, brothers, that we have set ourselves the same purpose as that of doomed Vitold?to stand firmly against Chernobog and all manner of evil."

For a moment, his eyes roamed the austere interior of the chapel. Finding comfort there, perhaps, but not forgetting how long it had taken them to find such a chapel in Rome.

"To challenge it on the field of holy battle," he continued softly, "instead of lolling in comfort while our Pauline brethren wage the struggle alone."

Hearing the Paulines referred to as "brethren" brought a momentary tightness to Pierre's lips, but the Savoyard did not challenge the term. As often as Eneko Lopez's odd views grated on the Savoyard's upbringing and attitudes, he had long since made the decision to follow the man anywhere he chose to lead them.

As had Diego. "Well enough, Eneko. Venice it is. And we should send for Francis in Toulouse as well. He would be invaluable in Venice, dealing with Strega."

Lopez shook his head. "No," he said firmly. "I want Francis to go to Mainz and try to get an audience, if he can, with the Emperor. I'm not certain yet, but I think he will be far more useful there than he would be in Venice with us."

The Basque priest's words caused his two companions to stiffen. Again, Diego made that cocked-head quizzical gesture. "Am I to take it that the Grand Metropolitan is looking more favorably on our proposal?"

Lopez shrugged. "He keeps his own counsel. And he is a cautious man, as you know. But… yes, I think so. I suspect he views this expedition to Venice as something in the way of a test. So do I, brothers. And if I'm right as to what we will find there, we will need a private conduit with Charles Fredrik."

Those words cheered Pierre immediately. "Well, then! By all means, let's to Venice!"

***

The next morning, as they led their mules through the streets of Rome, the Savoyard finally unbent enough to ask the question again. This time, seeking an answer rather than registering a protest.

He did it a bit pugnaciously, of course.

"I still don't understand why we're looking for a Strega scholar."

"We are not," came Eneko's firm reply. "We are soldiers of God, Pierre, not students. Battle is looming, with Venice as the cockpit?on that every holy scryer in the Vatican is agreed. We are not looking for what the scholar can explain, we are looking for what the mage can summon. Perhaps."

Pierre's eyes widened. Even as a boy in a small village in the Alps, he had heard that legend.

"You're joking!" he protested.

Eneko gazed at him mildly, and said nothing. It was left to Diego to state the obvious.

"He most certainly is not."

VILNA

Not for the first time, the shaman thought longingly of the relative safety of the lakes and forests of Karelen from which he had come. It required all his self-control to keep from trembling. That would be disastrous. His master tolerated fear; he did not tolerate a display of it.

As always in his private chambers, Jagiellon was not wearing the mask which the Grand Duke wore in his public appearances. Jagiellon was officially blind?due to the injuries he had suffered in his desperate attempt to save his father from the assassins who murdered him. Such, at least, was Jagiellon's claim. The shaman doubted if very many people in Lithuania believed that tale; none at all, in the capital city of Vilna. Most of the populace of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and Poland were quite certain that Jagiellon had organized his father's murder in order to usurp the throne.

Few of them cared, in truth. Succession in Lithuania was often a bloody affair, to begin with, and in the four years since he ascended to the throne Jagiellon had made it quite clear that he was even more ruthless than his father had been.

But, if they doubted his other claim, few Lithuanians doubted Jagiellon's claim of blindness. Indeed, they took a certain grim satisfaction in the knowledge. Jagiellon was more savage than his father, true?but at least the father had managed to blind the son before succumbing to the usurpation. Not surprising, really. Jagiellon's father had been as famous with a blade as Jagiellon himself.

The shaman suffered from no such delusion. In the time since he entered the grand duke's service, the shaman had realized the truth. Jagiellon had made his way to the throne by delving into magic even blacker than his father had been willing to meddle with. And…

Had delved too deeply. The demon Jagiellon had thought to shackle to his service had been too powerful for the rash and ambitious young prince. And so, while Jagiellon had indeed lost his eyes, that loss had been the least of it.

Eyes were still there, after all. Easily seen?naked and visible?with the mask removed. But they were no longer Jagiellon's eyes, for all that they rested in Jagiellon's face.

The eyes were black, covered with eyelids so fat and heavy they turned the orbs into mere slits. But the shaman could see them well enough. Far too well. Those eyes had neither pupils nor irises, nor any trace of white eyeball. Ebony-colored and opaque; uniform throughout; appearing, at first, like two agates?until, deep within, the emptiness could be sensed. As if stones were really passageways into some place darker than any night.

"Do it," commanded Grand Duke Jagiellon, and his huge hand swept across the floor, re-opening the passage.

Stifling a whimper of protest, the shaman underwent the shape-change again. As always, the transition was accompanied by agony?and even more so the passage through which his master sent him. But those agonies were familiar things. The source of the shaman's terror lay elsewhere.

***

Nor did the terror stem from the lagoon itself, as much as the shaman despised the stink of the waters?in his new form even more than he would have in his human one. His fishlike body swam through the murky shallows, nosing the scents drifting through the mud swirls and reeds.

He detected the mage soon enough, as familiar as he now was with that scent. Again, as before, the odor was very faint. The mage remained near water at all times, but rarely ventured into it. To do otherwise would have been dangerous.

More dangerous to leave the water's vicinity than to enter it, in truth. The shaman's jaws gaped wide, displaying teeth that could rend human flesh easily. But the display was more for the purpose of driving away the shaman's own fear than any prospect of savaging the mage. The mage had protectors in these waters. The shaman was not the only thing swimming there which possessed sharp teeth.

And there were worse perils than teeth, anyway. Much worse. It was to detect the greatest of those perils that Jagiellon had sent the shaman back?again and again?to scour the waters of Venice and the Jesolo.

Keeping a wary eye out for undines, the shaman swam for two hours before turning away from the marshes. He made no attempt to cut short his investigation. Jagiellon would be watching him. The grand duke could see through that magic passageway as well as send the shaman through it?or return the shaman to the palace in Vilna, in the event of disobedience. Once given to Jagiellon's service, escape was impossible for the servant.

For the same reason, the shaman did not stint in his ensuing search through the canals of the city. That search also lasted a full two hours, despite the fact that the shaman hated the canals even more than the marsh waters. True, the canals were not as dangerous. Undines rarely ventured into the city. But the stench of human effluvia sickened the shaman. He was, in the end, a creature born and bred in the wilderness of Finland. Civilization nauseated him.

Enough. Even for Jagiellon?even for the thing which Jagiellon truly was?this was enough. The shaman swam back into the open sea and waited for his master's summons.

The summons came soon enough, and the shaman underwent the agony. Almost gaily, now that he knew he had escaped once again from the peril which lurked in Venice. The Lion still slumbered.

***

Fear returned quickly, however. Great fear, once the grand duke explained his new plan.

"You would do better to use the broken god," the shaman said softly, trying his best to keep the whine out of his voice. Simply a counselor, offering sage advice.

***

In the end, his master took the advice. But not before flaying the shaman. Jagiellon's conclusion rested on the frailty of shamans as compared to simple monsters. He accepted the fact; punished the frailty.

***

The next day, the new shaman was summoned to an audience in the grand duke's private quarters. The shaman, just arrived in Vilna, was also from the lakes and forests of Karelen. The grand duke was partial to that breed of Finns, especially for water work.

"Sit," commanded Jagiellon, pointing a huge finger at the heavy table in the center of the kitchen.

The shaman stared. Whatever else he had expected, the shaman had never thought to see the ruler of Lithuania cooking his own meal over a stove. The sight was incongruous. Erect, in his heavy robes of office, Grand Duke Jagiellon seemed as enormous as a bear. The ease and agility with which those great thick hands stirred food frying in a pan was equally incongruous.

Despite his astonishment, the shaman obeyed instantly. Jagiellon was… famous.

Grunting softly, the grand duke removed the pan from the stove and shoveled a portion of its contents onto a wooden platter. Then, as if he were a servant himself, laid the plate before the shaman.

"Eat. All of it. If your predecessor poisoned himself, I will need to discard the rest. Which would be a pity. It's one of my favorites dishes."

The shaman recognized the… food. Fortunately, he managed not to gag. More fortunately still, he managed to choke it all down. As he ate, he was aware of Jagiellon moving to the door and opening it, but did not dare to watch. Jagiellon was… famous.

When the shaman was done with the meal, Jagiellon's huge form loomed beside him again. "Take the platter with you to your quarters," commanded the grand duke, his heavy voice sliding out the words like ingots from a mold. "Do not clean it. Display it prominently. It will help you to remember the consequences of failure."

The shaman bobbed his head in nervous obedience.

"My project in Venice will require subtlety, shaman, lest the spirit that guards the city be roused from its slumber. That is why I summoned you here. My last shaman was subtle enough, but he lacked sufficient courage. See to it that you have both."

The shaman was confused. He had heard of Venice, but knew nothing about the city. Somewhere in Italy, he thought.

"I will explain later. Go now. You may take this with you also. It will remind you of the consequences of success."

As he rose from the table, clutching the platter, the shaman beheld a woman standing next to the grand duke. She was very beautiful.

"You will not have the use of it for long," warned the grand duke. "Soon enough, the thing must be sent off to Venice."

The shaman bobbed his head again; more with eagerness, now, than anxiety. The shaman was not given to lingering over such pleasures, in any event. In that, too, he was a creature of the wilderness.

***

By the time he reached his chambers, the woman following obediently in his wake, the shaman had come to realize that she was no woman at all. Simply the form of one, which his master had long since turned into his vessel.

The shaman did not care in the least. A vessel would serve his purpose well enough; and did so. But the time came, his lust satisfied, when the shaman rolled over in his bed and found himself staring into an empty platter instead of empty eyes. And he wondered whether he had made such a wise decision, answering the summons of the Grand Duke of Lithuania.

Not that he had had much choice, of course. Jagiellon was… famous.

FERRARA

Each hammer blow was a neat, precise exercise of applied force. Enrico Dell'este loved this process, this shaping of raw metal into the folded and refolded blade-steel. His mind and spirit found surcease from trouble in the labor. At the moment, as for the past several years, he needed that surcease. Needed it badly.

Besides, a duke who worked steel was intensely popular among his steelworking commons. Duke Dell'este, Lord of Ferrara, Modena, Este, and Reggio nell'Emilia, needed that also. Ferrara stood between too many enemies in the shifting morass of Italian politics in the year of our Lord 1537. Ferrara had no natural defenses like Venice, and no great allies. All it had was the Duke Enrico Dell'este?the Old Fox, as his populace called him?and the support of that populace.

A page entered the forge-room. Shouted above the steady hammering. "Milord. Signor Bartelozzi is here to see you. He awaits you in the sword salon."

The duke nodded, without stopping or even looking up from his work. "Antimo will wait a few moments. Steel won't." He forced himself to remain calm, to finish the task properly. If Antimo Bartelozzi had bad news he would have sent a messenger, or simply sent a letter. The fact that he needed to talk to the duke…

That could only mean good news about his grandchildren. Or news which was at least hopeful.

Dell'este lifted the bar of hammered metal with the tongs and lowered it into the quenching tank. He nodded at the blacksmith standing nearby, who stepped forward to continue the work. The duke hung his tools neatly and took the towel from the waiting factotum. "The Old Fox," he murmured, as he dried the sweat. "Tonight I just feel old."

***

The room the duke entered was spartan. Stone-flagged, cool. Its only furnishings a wooden table which leaned more to sturdiness and functionality than elegance; and a single chair, simple and not upholstered. Hardly what one would expect the lair of the Lord of the cities of Ferrara, Este, Modena, and Reggio nell' Emilia to look like. On the wall above the fireplace was a solitary piece of adornment. And that was absolutely typical of Dell'este. It was a sword, hung with crimson tassels. The pommel showed faint signs of generations of careful polishing. The wall opposite the fireplace contained an entire rack of such weapons.

The Old Fox sat at the table and looked at the colorless man standing quietly in the corner. Antimo Bartelozzi had the gift of being the last person in a crowd of two that you'd ever notice. He was also utterly loyal, as the duke well knew. Bartelozzi had had ample opportunity to betray the Dell'este in times past.

The duke used other spies and agents for various other tasks. Antimo Bartelozzi was for family affairs. To the duke that was the only thing more precious than good sword-steel.

"Greetings, Antimo. Tell me the worst."

The lean gray-haired man smiled. "Always the same. The worst first. The 'worst' is that I did not find them, milord. Either one. Nor do I have knowledge of their whereabouts."

The Old Fox shuddered, trying to control the relief which poured through him. "My grandsons are alive."

Bartelozzi paused. "It's… not certain. To be honest, milord, all I've established is that Marco Valdosta was last seen the night your daughter Lorendana was killed. And I had established that much two years ago. But I did find this."

The duke's agent reached into a small pouch. He handed over a small, sheathed knife, whose pommel was chased and set with an onyx. "This dagger is a signed Ferrara blade that turned up in the thieves market at Mestre. The seller was… questioned. He admitted to having bought it from one of the Jesolo marsh-bandits."

The duke hissed between his teeth. He took the blade and unscrewed the pommel. Looked at the tiny marks on the tang. "This was Marco Valdosta's blade." He looked at the wall. At the empty space next to one of the hereditary blades on its rack. The space for a small dagger given to a boy, next to the sword?still in its place?destined for the man. His grandson Marco's blades.

"And you don't take this as another bad sign? Perhaps whoever stole the dagger from him killed the boy." The Old Fox eyed Bartelozzi under lowered eyebrows. "You found one of the bandits. Questioned him."

Antimo nodded. "They robbed the boy, yes. Beat him badly. Badly enough that the bandits assumed he would not survive. But… there are rumors."

"The Jesolo is full of rumors," snorted Dell'este. "Still, it's something."

He moved toward the blade-rack. "Tell me that I can return it to its place, Antimo. You know the tradition."

Behind him, he heard a little noise. As if Bartelozzi was choking down a sarcastic reply. The duke smiled grimly.

" 'No Ferrara blade, once given to a Dell'este scion, may be returned until it is blooded.' You may hang it in the rack, milord. That blade is well and truly blooded. I slid the bandit into the water myself. The thief-vendor also. There was barely enough blood left in them to draw the fish."

Dell'este hung the dagger and turned back. "And the younger boy? Sforza's bastard?"

Antimo Bartelozzi looked decidedly uncomfortable. "Milord. We don't know that the condottiere was his father."

"Spare me," growled the duke. "My younger grandson was the spitting image of Sforza by the time he was ten. You knew my slut daughter, as well as I did. She was enamored of all things Milanese, and Sforza was already then the greatest captain in Visconti's service."

Antimo studied Dell'este for a moment, as if gauging the limits of his master's forbearance. It was a brief study. For Bartelozzi, the Old Fox's limits were… almost nonexistent.

"That is a disservice to her memory, milord, and you know it perfectly well. To begin with, her devotion was to the Montagnard cause, not to Milan. Your daughter was a fanatic, yes; a traitor… not really."

The duke's jaws tightened, but he did not argue the point. Bartelozzi continued:

"Nor was she a slut. Somewhat promiscuous, yes; a slut, no. She rebuffed Duke Visconti himself, you know, shortly after she arrived in Milan. Quite firmly, by all accounts?even derisively. A bold thing for a woman to do, who had cast herself into Milan's coils. That may well have been the final factor which led Visconti to have her murdered, once she had fallen out of favor with her lover Sforza. Not even Visconti would have been bold enough to risk his chief military captain's anger."

Dell'este restrained his own anger. It was directed at the daughter, anyway, not the agent. Besides, it was an old thing, now. A dull ember, not a hot flame. And… that core of honesty which had always lain at the center of the Old Fox's legendary wiliness accepted the truth of Bartelozzi's words. The duke's daughter Lorendana had been headstrong, willful, given to wild enthusiasms, reckless?yes, all those. In which, the duke admitted privately, she was not really so different from the duke himself at an early age. Except that Enrico Dell'este had possessed, even as a stripling prince, more than his share of acumen. And… he had been lucky.

Bartelozzi was continuing. "All we know about the younger boy is what we learned two years ago. He was thrown out of Theodoro Mantesta's care once the true story of Lorendana's death leaked out. Mantesta, not surprisingly, was terrified of Milanese assassins himself. Your youngest grandson seems to have then joined the canal-brats."

"Damn Mantesta, anyway?I would have seen to his safety." For a moment, he glowered, remembering a night when he had slipped into Venice incognito. The Duke of Ferrara was no mean bladesman himself. Theodoro Mantesta had been almost as terrified of him as he had been of Milanese assassins. Almost, but… not quite. And for good reason. In the end, Dell'este had let him live.

The Old Fox waved his hand irritably. "I know all this, Antimo! Shortly thereafter, you discovered that a child very like him, from the poor description we had, was killed about three weeks later. And while it wasn't certain?hundreds of poor children live under the bridges and pilings of Venice?it seemed logical enough that the victim was my youngest grandson. So tell me what you have learned since, if you please."

Antimo smiled. "What I have learned since, milord, is that the boy whose throat was slit had actually died of disease the day before."

The duke's eyes widened. "Who would be that cunning? Not my grandson! He was only twelve at the time."

"Two ladies by the name of Claudia and Valentina would be that cunning, milord." Bartelozzi shook his head. "You would not know them. But in their own circles they are quite famous. Notorious, it might be better to say. Tavern musicians, officially?excellent ones, by all account?but also thieves. Excellent thieves, by reputation. And according to rumor, shortly thereafter the two women gained an accomplice. A young boy, about twelve. I've not laid eyes on him myself, mind you?neither have any of my agents. The boy seems to have been well trained in stealth. But I have gotten a description, quite a good one. In fact, the description came from a former mercenary in Sforza's service. 'Could be one of the Wolf's by-blows,' as he put it. 'Lord knows he's scattered them across Italy.' "

The Duke of Ferrara closed his eyes, allowing the relief to wash over him again. It made sense, yes?it all made sense. His youngest grandson had been a wily boy?quite unlike the older. As if all of the legendary cunning of Dell'este had been concentrated in the one, at the expense of the other. Combined, alas, with the amorality of the father Sforza. Even when the boy had been a toddler, the duke had found his youngest grandson… troubling.

His musings were interrupted by Bartelozzi. Antimo's next words brought the duke's eyes wide open again.

"The two women who may have succored your grandson are also reputed to be Strega. Genuine Strega, too, not peddlers and hucksters. The reputation seems well founded, from what I could determine."

"Strega? Why would they care what happened to the bloodline of Valdosta and Dell'este?"

Bartelozzi stared at him. After a moment, Dell'este looked away. Away, and down. "Because Venice is the best refuge of the Strega," he answered his own question. "Has been for centuries. If Venice falls…"

A brief shudder went through his slender but still muscular body. "I have been… not myself, Antimo. These past two years. All my offspring dead… it was too much."

His most trusted agent's nod was one of understanding. But pitiless for all that.

"You have other offspring, milord. Of position if not of blood. All of Ferrara depends upon you. Venice too, I suspect, in the end. There is no leadership in that city that can compare to yours. If you begin leading again, like a duke and not a grieving old man."

Dell'este tightened his lips, but accepted the reproof. It was a just one, after all.

"True," he said curtly. Then, after a moment, his lips began to curve into a smile. Hearing Bartelozzi's sigh of relief, he allowed his smile to broaden.

"You think it is time the Old Fox returned, eh?"

"Past time," murmured Bartelozzi. "The storm clouds are gathering, milord. Have been for some time, as you well know. If Venice is destroyed, Ferrara will go down with it."

The Duke of Ferrara began pacing about. For all his age, there was a spryness to his steps. "Venice first, I think. That will be the cockpit."

He did not even bother to glance at Bartelozzi to see his agent's nod of agreement. So much was obvious to them both. "Which means we must find an anchor of support in the city. A great house which can serve to rally the populace of Venice. The current quality of Venetian leadership is dismal, but the population will respond well?as they have for a thousand years?if a firm hand takes control." He sighed regretfully. "Doge Foscari was capable once, and still has his moments. But?he is too old, now."

"If either of your grandsons is alive…"

The Old Fox shook his head firmly. "Not yet, Antimo. Let our enemies think the ancient house of Valdosta is well and truly destroyed. That will be our secret weapon, when the time comes. For the moment?assuming they are still alive?my grandsons are far safer hidden amongst the poor and outcast of Venice."

"We could bring them here, milord."

The duke hesitated, his head warring with his heart. But only for an instant, before the head began shaking firmly. Not for nothing did that head?that triangular, sharp-jawed face?resemble the animal he had been named after.

"No," he said firmly. "As you said yourself, Antimo, I have a responsibility to all of my offspring. Those of position as well as those of blood." For a moment, he paused in his pacing; stood very erect. "Dell'este honor has always been as famous as its cunning. Without the one, the other is meaningless."

Bartelozzi nodded. In obeisance as much as in agreement. He shared, in full measure, that loyalty for which the retainers of Dell'este were also famous.

"Valdosta cannot serve, for the moment." The Old Fox resumed his pacing. "Of the others… Brunelli is foul, as you well know, however cleverly that house has managed to disguise it. Dorma has potential, but the head of the house is still too young, unsure of himself."

"Petro Dorma may surprise you, milord."

The duke glanced at him. "You know something I don't?"

Bartelozzi shrugged. "Simply an estimate, nothing more."

Dell'este stared out the window which opened on to the little city of Ferrara. Looked past the city itself to the lush countryside beyond. "Perhaps, Antimo. I'm not sure I agree. Petro Dorma is a judicious man, true enough. And, I think, quite an honorable one. But that's not enough. A sword must have an edge also."

The duke sighed. "If only Montescue… There's the man with the right edge. And, for all his age, the tested blade to hold it."

Hearing Bartelozzi's little choke, the duke smiled wryly. "Don't tell me. He's still trying to have my grandsons assassinated."

"It seems so, milord. Apparently the same rumors have reached him as well."

The Old Fox turned his head and gazed squarely upon his most trusted agent and adviser. "Instruct me, Antimo. In this matter, I do not entirely trust myself."

Bartelozzi hesitated. Then: "Do nothing, milord. Casa Montescue has fallen on such bad times that old Lodovico Montescue will not be able to afford better than middling murderers. And"?again, he hesitated?"we may as well discover now, at the beginning of the contest, how sharp a blade your grandsons will make."

The Duke of Ferrara pondered the advice, for a moment. Then, nodded. "Spoken like a Dell'este. See to it then, Antimo. Pass the word in Venice?very quietly?that if either of my grandsons come to the surface, we will pay well for whoever takes them under his wing. Until then… they will have to survive on their own. Blades, as you say, must be tempered."

His lips tightened, became a thin line. Those of a craftsman, gauging his material. "No doubt iron would scream also, if it could feel the pain of the forge and the hammer and the quenching tank. No matter. So is steel made."

Chapter 1

The silhouette of the Basilica of St. Mark was black against the paling predawn sky. The pillar and the winged lion in the Piazza San Marco could just be made out.

In the bow of the gondola Benito shifted uneasily, looking at it. "Figlio di una puttana, woman," he said, trying to sound older than fourteen. "Can't you get a move on? It'll be sunup before I'm home." He wished his voice would stop cracking like that. Marco said it was just part of growing up. He wished that that would stop too. Being bigger was no advantage for climbing or running. And if he stopped growing, he might stop being so hungry all of the time.

Up on the stern the hooded oarsman ignored him, moving slowly and steadily.

"You want me to row this thing for you?" he demanded.

"Shut up," she hissed. "You want to attract attention? At this time of the morning, only people in trouble are rushing."

Benito had to acknowledge that it was true enough. Even now there were three other vessels moving on the Grand Canal. All of them slowly. He sighed. "I just need to get back home. I'm supposed to see my brother."

She snorted. "If you hadn't held us up, we'd be the other side of Campo San Polo by now. And you can't be in any more of a hurry to get back to whatever rat-hole you sleep in, than I am to see the back of you. I should never have agreed to take you."

Benito huddled down in the bow. This woman's tongue was even sharper-edged than Maria Garavelli's. The wind between the ornately facaded buildings was cold. He was cold and, as usual, he was hungry. It had been a fruitless night. Mercutio had let him down. Again.

He liked working jobs with Mercutio. His ideas were exciting, daring and, well, crazy. You always knew with any job he organized it was going to be nip-and-tuck. Skin of your teeth stuff and needing lots of luck. But somehow Mercutio always seemed to have that luck.

Benito sighed. Mercutio also had the habit of not turning up for a job. Benito had sat waiting for four cold hours for him tonight, and not a copper's profit to show for it. He could have used some more coin. All he had in the attic was a half crock of elderly fagioli stufata. It was definitely past its best. The beans were producing gas before they even hit his stomach.

***

His eye was caught by the body. It bobbed in the dark water under the pilings as the tiny fish plucked at it. That was a fine cloak… A few knife slashes could be dealt with. His jaw dropped. The rich soft swollen white hand still had rings on it.

He turned to speak.

"Don't even look," she hissed between clenched teeth.

"But…" he started to point.

She hit his hand with the oar. "Shut it!" There was such intensity in that quiet command that Benito didn't even dare to glance at the corpse again.

They poled on in silence, the bow of the shabby gondola cutting the oily, still water, here where it was sheltered from the predawn breeze. Most of Venice was still sleeping.

When she spoke, they were a good hundred yards past the corpse. "Despini." Her voice shook slightly. She was plainly shocked.

Benito looked warily at her. "What?" A stray strand of long, wavy, copper-colored hair had found its way out from under her hooded cloak. She pushed it back. Whatever this girl moved must be valuable. That was a well-fed wrist.

"Gino Despini. He was one of my customers. He had a booth down on the Calle Farnese. Sold love philters, charms and amulets of protection against the French Pox."

Benito nodded sagely. That was the sort of cargo she moved. The frauds, hedge magicians, tricksters and petty Strega around the Campo Ghetto didn't always want to declare their imports to the state or the church. Dangerous, tricky cargoes. But valuable. "So why didn't you want to stop? Get those rings, or take him to his family…"

She raised her eyes to heaven. "You're a fool. Whoever killed him could have sunk him if they just wanted him dead. They didn't even rob him. What does that mean?" she demanded.

Benito knew he was out of his league here. He was a good enough sneak thief. But this… "He was wounded but escaped, died and fell in the canal," he ventured warily.

She shook her head. "You don't know anything, do you, boy? If they left his body to float, they're not scared of the Schiopettieri."

Benito swallowed hard. The Schiopettieri were professional soldiers under the official command of Venice's Signori di Notte… The Lords of the Nightwatch, answerable to the Senate of the Great Republic. In effect, they were the city's police force. You didn't mess with them.

"That spells someone with influence and power," she continued. "Whoever killed him obviously doesn't need money." She pursed her lips. "There was a rumor about that he was more than what he seemed. A Strega Mage proper, not a charlatan. He was left to float either as message, or more likely, as bait."

Bait. "Who did it?" he asked, huskily. This was deep, dark water.

The woman shrugged. "Maybe the Servants of the Holy Trinity. They've been pretty active lately. So have the agents of the Council of Ten. Maybe other Strega. But I don't think so. They favor magic or poison. He'd been stabbed."

"Bait…"

"They'll take whoever comes to go on with their questioning. If it's the Servants, you know how they question people. With knives. And fire. And prayers for your soul." She raised an eyebrow and said sardonically, "You were thinking of sneaking back there, weren't you?"

"I didn't understand." The boy answered humbly. "But Katerina…"

"Who told you my name?" she demanded fiercely.

"Captain Della Tomasso… Look!"

While they'd been talking, a flotilla of rowing boats had appeared and were coming along the Grand Canal. Rowing steadily in measured strokes. The leading ones were definitely Schiopettieri oarships.

"Merda!" Katerina spat. "It must be a sweep. We've got to get out of here." She began to scull frantically, pushing the gondola towards the mouth of a narrow canal.

Benito got up hastily. He was getting off the unfamiliar water and onto the buildings. Quickly. "They'll have blocked off the side canals, Kat."

"Right." She pushed the boat into a group of tied up gondolas and small craft moored to poles at the water-door of the marble-faced mansion. She dropped a loop over the bollard. "Lie down… little brother. We're poor boatkids who've lost our parents and have to sleep on the water."

Benito looked askance at her. But he lay down on the gondola ribs next to her. She pulled a grubby piece of sailcloth over them. She also tied a piece of cord to a knobbly yellow oilcloth parcel from the bow. She dropped the parcel gently over the side, down into the still water. Hastily she tied it off.

Benito wondered what the hell cadging a ride across from Guidecca had gotten him into. He liked a bit of excitement, but messing with people who knew people who were being killed by the Servants was too much.

***

It was too much, thought Katerina, lying on the ribs of the gondola. Here she was with a cargo that could get her burned at the stake. Even if they never picked it up… well, if it came to hard questioning they might get her name. Under that sort of questioning, especially if they used magic, they could find out everything. Unless, like Despini, you had defenses that would kill first. Holy Mother. She must not be caught. The dishonor to the family if she were! It would kill the old man. Every time she'd gone out she'd known it was a risk. But they could simply not afford to lose another cargo. And who else could they trust? Somehow the Casa Montescue, secure for all these years, had been infiltrated. There was no other explanation.

She looked up. They were tied up beside the Imperial embassy. Across the canal was the pretentious Casa Brunelli. Pah. Nouveau riche. Curti. They had glass windows instead of the varnished silk that real Longi Case Vecchie used. The kind of neighborhood that the Schiopettieri would not take kindly to finding loiterers in, even if they didn't pick up the parcel dangling from the bow.

She looked across, not without a certain envy, at the ornate marble-faced building. She was startled to realize there was someone on the third-floor balcony of the Casa Brunelli.

"Lie still," Kat said between clenched teeth to the wrigglesome urchin next to her. "There is someone on the balcony up there."

To give him credit, the boy didn't peer. He froze. "Who?"

"How would I know? You… you canal-brat. It's hard to make out anything in this light. A man, by the way he stands."

"He must have seen us come in," whispered the boy. Kat could feel him tense next to her. Getting ready to run.

"Stay still!" She hissed.

Benito's dark eyes flickered nervously. Then she felt him tense again. "They're stopping. They're coming here!"

Kat reached for the slipknot on the cord. "How do you know?"

The boy's eyes darted. "You can see the reflection in the window," he mumbled.

It was true enough. The two Schiopettieri oarships were slowing. Backing water. The vessels behind them… weren't Venice-built. She'd swear to that. Whoever made them needed lessons in shipbuilding. Tubs. But tubs bright with steel. So much so that it was a miracle they didn't tip over. That would've emptied all the armored men, in bright triple-cross-enameled breastplates and their gilt-trimmed helmets, into the canal.

Benito and Katerina gaped, forgetting the watcher on the balcony. The Teutonic Knights of the Holy Trinity. The fabled Arm Militant of the Pauline Orders. The soldiers of God who beat back the Huns, the Norse, and the various Slavic and Magyar pagans and heretics on the northern and eastern frontiers of Christendom. The borders of Emperor Charles Fredrik's Holy Roman Empire rested squarely on their steel shoulders. Those breastplates were unmistakable, a legend across the Christian world. And they were half feared, as well as admired and respected, by the southern and Mediterranean folk who generally followed the Petrine currents in the Church.

"What the hell are they doing here?" Benito got it out seconds before Kat. His voice had more admiration in it than Katerina Montescue would have voiced.

"Going to the Imperial embassy, by the looks of it," said Katerina with relief.

Benito too sounded more relaxed. "I always wanted to be a knight."

Katerina shook her head. "Fighting trolls and hellspawn in the frozen northlands? Dealing with pagan Russian and Tatar princes and their demons? And?even worse?the heretic Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Kingdom of Hungary and their sorcerers and shamans? Ha! It's dark half the year up there. And they look silly in that armor. It's no good anyway. One of the new pistols from Spain will put a ball right through it. Besides, they take the sons of the nobility of the Empire, not canal-brats."

The boy looked militant. "I'm more than just a 'canal-brat.' My father…"

"Was the Holy Grand Metropolitan of Rome himself," snapped Katerina. "And your mother was the Duchess of Milan, and just a canal-side puttana in her spare time. Now shut up. They still wouldn't be pleased to find us here. The Schiopettieri would run us in and beat us up just for being in this part of town."

The boy bit his lip. His dark eyes fumed at her. But he lay still. Katerina turned her attention back to the pageant reflected in the windows of the Casa Brunelli. With shock she recognized the file of gray-cassocked and hooded men filing out of the embassy onto the stone-faced landing. Even in the poor light there was no mistaking the white triple crosses on the backs of those cassocks. The monastic Servants of the Holy Trinity did not inspire the same awe as their sibling Paulines, the Knights, did. They simply inspired fear and distrust. Especially for Katerina Montescue. And they weren't an unfamiliar sight in Venice. Their war on the Jews and the Strega was not officially sanctioned by the Doge. On the other hand, Doge Giorgio Foscari was turning a very blind eye. Well, at his age your thoughts started turning more to Heaven than earth anyway. And the Servants claimed to be the custodians of the keys to Heaven. Kat suppressed a chuckle. That had gotten Metropolitan Michael very steamed up in the pulpit last Mass. Rome and the Holy Grand Metropolitan did not approve of the strident claims of the Paulines.

A querulous, elderly whiny voice sounded across the canal. It rose above the soft sonorous sound of the plainsong that the Servants of the Holy Trinity were beginning to chant. "My best cassock. I wanted to wear it for this occasion…" Someone hastily hushed the old monk as the boatloads of knights drew up to the quay.

A trumpet sounded, sharp and bright. Steel-clad figures disembarked from the boat and came up the steps. They were in military array, formed up around a palanquinlike structure which was borne by several of the hefty knights. It was plainly heavy, but too small to hold a person.

"What are they carrying?" whispered Benito.

"How in the names of all the Saints do you expect me to know?" Katerina hissed savagely. "Do you want me to go over and ask them?"

Benito sniffed. "There's no need to bite my head off. It's just that it looked like a chest. There were big locks. Maybe it is treasure."

There was a thoughtfulness in that young voice that made Katerina catch her breath and shake her head. This boy was going to die young. "Are you crazy? Don't even think of stealing from them. Don't even think of it."

Two figures now left the tail of the procession. One was a gray-cassocked and stooped monk. The other was a woman. True, she wore a nun's habit. But she walked like a duchess. Her head held up with an arrogant tilt that revealed a silhouetted prow of an aristocratic nose.

"Sister Humility," whispered the incorrigible canal-brat next to her.

Katerina had to bite back a snort of laughter. Then, when she realized what the reflected-in-glass figures were doing, it made her forget all about laughing. They were getting into a small gondola with a single arquebus-armed Schiopettieri. A knight carried a small brazier over to the vessel. Another brought a box from their ship. Katerina knew enough of magical practice to guess that they were about to conduct a rite of enclosure. They could hardly fail to pass her gondola. Heaven alone knew what was inside the parcel from Ascalon that she was supposed to deliver. But having it inside a magical circle of enclosure was not a good idea. She pulled the cord, and the slipknotted parcel went down to the mud.

Benito had plainly also seen what was happening. "Over the side. Quick!"

Katerina shook her head. "I can't swim."

"You don't have to," Benito snapped impatiently. "You can hold on to the boat. Come on. Be quick and quiet about it. They'll be here any minute." He slipped over the side and into the water between the boats like an oiled rat.

Nervously, hastily, Katerina followed. Icy cold canal water slid up her legs, soaking into her petticoats. Her heavy twilled bombazine dress was more resistant to water. It bulged up around her like some clumsy bubble. She clung to the gunwale.

"Here," he whispered hoarsely, pulling her hand. "Take the bow-rope."

She had to give up her precious hold on the gondola and flounder. Her head went under but she managed to grab the rope. The bow came forward, cracking into her head, nearly stunning her.

"Quiet!"

They waited in the water. Through the narrow gap between the canalboats she could see the windows of the Casa Brunelli. They still provided a mirror-view. The two watchers in the water could see the gondola with the monk, nun and a slowly rowing Schiopettieri come down the side canal. The nun was chanting prayers, waving the censer. The monk had a pole with something on the end which he ran along the wall. If it made a line, it didn't show up in reflections.

Benito pressed his mouth against her ear. "When they get to the edge of the boats, you take a deep breath and hold it. I'll take you under. Start breathing deeply now."

When he did pull her under it was all she could do not to struggle frantically for the surface. And they seemed to stay down forever. Then she felt Benito tug?upwards. She bumped her head against the gondola again.

"What was that sound?" The voice was male, but high and cool. The diction was faintly stilted, as if this was a second language.

"Perhaps a fish, Monsignor Sachs. They shelter among the boats." The voice of the Schiopettieri was frightened, respectful. Katerina, trying to breathe quietly, was not surprised. The Servants of Holy Trinity were terrifying enough without magic.

"Who do those boats belong to? Why are they here?" the man asked. The nun continued her low melodious chanting as if the man had not spoken.

Katerina could imagine the soldier's shrug even if she could not see it. This was Venice. There were gondolas and skiffs everywhere. "They are for the staff of the embassy, Monsignor."

The foreign monk was plainly unimpressed. "They will no longer be able to use this door. The embassy can only be entered by the portal. Have them moved," he commanded. "And I am Abbot Sachs. I will be addressed as such. Not by southern titles." It didn't sound as if he approved of those either. But at least their voices were getting farther away.

"I will see to it, Abbot," said the Schiopettieri.

"Merda," whispered Benito. "We have to get out of here." He started to pull on the gondola.

Katerina shook her head. "Wait," she said quietly. "Give it another minute. They're not far enough away yet." So they waited in the water. It seemed an eternity before they decided it was safe. Benito took a deep breath and ducked under the water; then, thrust up and hauled himself over the gunwale. Katerina tried to pull herself in. Her petticoats, dress and sodden hooded cloak all impeded her. Even Benito's hauling was not sufficient. He let go and she fell back. Little bastardo! Then she realized he'd let go in order to take the oar and push the gondola closer to the water-door. He was quick-thinking, if inexpert with an oar. There were slimy steps under the water. Dripping, Katerina was able to get back into her boat and flip the bow-rope free. She seized the oar from the inept Benito and sent them out into the canal. He could swim but not handle a boat.

As she turned the vessel with quick, skilled movements of her feet and oar, a movement caught the periphery of her vision. Someone up there… She'd forgotten about the watcher on the balcony of the Casa Brunelli.

He was watching, impassive. It was much lighter now, and she could see him as clearly as he could doubtless see her dripping self. The man was slight. Reddish haired, with dark eyebrows that met to form a forbidding line. A gaze like an eagle. It was not a face that you could forget. And it looked… implacable.

She sculled hard. It was not something which could be done too hastily, without ending up in the water. She nearly did that again.

"Why didn't he call out?" asked the wet Benito, once again huddled in the bow.

"One of life's little mysteries," snapped Katerina, trying to keep her teeth from chattering. Sculling was an exercise which could leave you pretty warm, but she still hadn't recovered from either the cold water or the fear. However, by the expression on the man's face, she was sure that the only reason he hadn't called out was that he didn't want to be seen himself.

The largest of San Marco's bells began to peal the dawn. When it was still, the Arsenal's Marangona bell began to sound. It would ring for some time, calling the shipwrights, carpenters, and caulkers to work. Venice was stirring. And Kat was a long way from home. She could hardly help being seen, wet. Well, at least she could get dry, and she had other clothes. She was probably better off than the boy. But her cargo was somewhere in the canal mud outside the Imperial embassy.

Bad.

She couldn't come back that evening, or the next. The Solstice Feast with its celebrations, ridottos, and balls would go on for two more days. She would just have to pray that the heavy parcel would not wash with the tide, and that the boy would keep his mouth shut.

Worse.

And because she had never learned to swim, she'd have to ask this shivering canal-brat to get it back for her.

Worst. Damnation!

Chapter 2

It was a racasse. A scorpion-fish. The only catch of the day, and it had to be a Godforsaken racasse.

Marco Valdosta stared at the reed-woven fish trap. It was the best and newest one he owned. He stared at the contents, which flopped around getting its long, poisonous spines nicely wedged, then cursed a curse which was long, literate, and alliterative.

The words did not match the speaker. Benito's older brother was a painfully thin, ragged sixteen-year-old, dressed only in tattered breeches, balanced on his haunches on a scrap of raft cobbled together from waterlogged flotsam. A marsh-dweller?one of the mixture of destitutes, refugees, and criminals who scratched out a living among the islands, and the mosquito-singing Jesolo marshes to the northeast. The coastal lagoon that sheltered Venice was pleasant enough around the city but closer to the mainland, away from the cleansing ebb and flow, the marshes that fringed the lagoon were an ooze of thick stinking muds and stagnant, brackish waters. The townsfolk of Venice called the people who lived there "loco."

Marco looked it. His dark hair was nearly waist length, indifferently clean, and held back in a tail with a twist of marsh-grass; his lean tanned face was smudged with mud above the almond eyes and along the cheekbones. This was not the sort of creature from which one expected anything intelligible, much less intelligent.

Marco was flat out of patience, with the day (which was hot and stank), with his luck (which smelled almost as bad as the day), and with the world (which smelled worse than his luck). For anyone else on this muddy lagoon, for anyone else fishing between the quays of this sinking, stinking city, a racasse would be cause for rejoicing. They were fine eating. And you could sell the spines. There was always a market for poison. All you needed was a 'priest' to club the fish with, and some care. And?if it was stuck in a fish trap?a good long harpoon.

But Marco didn't have a harpoon. There was no way to kill the fish in that trap, short of clubbing the painstakingly woven structure to reed-splinters. He had a knife… of sorts. But it was no more than a splinter of stolen Murano glass, with one end dipped in a caulker's tar-bucket, and wrapped with string.

All he could do was to stare at the three-times-damned thing wedging itself more and more tightly in the depths of his fish trap and try not to cry. The only catch of the whole day, useless, and he hadn't eaten since yesterday morning. Damn the Saints and damn the trap. His only hope was the chance that the fish might relax when it died, enough to let him slide it out. Or if he could find a fisherman with a harpoon. He would lose half the value of his catch, but he might get something.

He poled the raft toward the wharves in hopes of finding a fisherman; there was just the barest possibility there would be someone there with a bit of a coin or something edible to trade?he'd willingly swap fish, trap and all for a little bread. He hadn't had any real bread in months.

Real bread?the smell of bread baking?used to drive him nearly out of his head. Mama would laugh at him?tell him he'd never be a fighter, he wasn't carnivore enough. Marco wanted to be a healer, not a fighter.

Mama had been a fighter; but meaner people had killed her.

***

He almost missed the shadow under the wharf pilings that moved wrong. Almost. But living with the marsh-folk gave you paranoia, if nothing else, and when the shadow lunged down from its perch on a crossbeam he already had in hand the only thing on the raft that could count in a fight.

The trap that was full of scorpion-fish.

The trap wasn't much more substantial than a marsh-dweller's promise; it shattered as it hit the man (all dressed in dark colors he was; real clothes and not rags, and his face covered). The man got a spine in one eye and the rest in the hand that came up to fend it off. The dagger in his other hand flew into the water.

He was already insane with pain when he hit the raft; which promptly capsized, but Marco had been ready for that. He dove with the push of the raft behind him, took off into deep water and shoved off the mucky bottom; then, came up with a rush that got him halfway back onto the raft before his attacker finished his death agony. The man floated, a dark bundle that twitched and rolled, being slowly pulled back under the wharf by the current. No more danger from him, for sure.

Marco got himself back onto his raft?and started to shake.

A man?waiting there, like he knew it was part of Marco's regular circuit. Man dressed all dark, with his face covered, and a knife in his hand. Man that came down on him like he knew exactly what he was doing, who he was going for. Assassin. Had to be!

They were hunting him?after two years, They were hunting him! Now, They'd found him again and They'd get him like They'd got Mama… Oh, God.

Marco poled back towards the Jesolo marshes in a fog of panic, hunger forgotten, casting glances back at the wharf to see if anyone had found the body, if there were any more of Them after him. But all he could see was the normal working small craft and a few of the other marsh-dwellers out bobbing on the lagoon?most of them too busy fishing or dozing in the sun to take any notice, the rest not wanting to notice trouble lest it fall on them, too.

Got to hide. That was all he knew, his pulse pounding in his ears and his knees wobbling with weariness. He pushed the scrap of the raft into the marsh, where the high, yellow reeds made a maze you could easily get lost in. He brought it in up against a particular reed-islet?which he and Chiano knew wasn't an islet at all. He looked around again; then crouched and listened.

Nothing out of the ordinary. Sea birds mewling, reeds whispering, nothing else. He jumped off the raft?water was just a bit more than waist deep here, though the bottom sucked at his feet?and picked up an edge of the islet. It was a kind of basket made to look like a hummock with reeds sticking out of it, resting on a much larger raft. Marco heaved his little raft atop the big one, climbed onto them, and lowered the basket down to cover himself and his "home" again.

There was just enough room under the "roof" to sit hunched over, with his chin on his knees?but it was safer than anywhere else in the swamp, especially with Them out after him. Only he, and old Sophia and Chiano, had these hideaways that he knew of. Chiano taught the two of them how to make the hideouts. The half-crazy old man swore they were called "blinds" in the Camarque and that you used them to shoot birds from. Marco's hide was the reason he was still alive; he'd waited out many a loco-gang hunt in his, and no end of searches by Big Gianni.

But would it hold against Them?

Whoever They were. Mama had had plenty of safeguards, but none of them had helped her…

Ends of reeds tickled his back and arms as he pushed the thought of discovery resolutely away. No. He wouldn't think about it, he needed to think about something else. But songs weren't any good?the only ones he could remember right now were all grim. Think. Get calm. Keep your mind occupied, or you'll panic.

He began breathing deeply and quietly, willing his pulse to slow, making himself a bit calmer, telling himself he had nothing to worry about. The raft bobbed a little; if anyone came by Marco would know it by the disturbance of the water. There was no way anyone could get near him without him knowing.

As usual when he wanted to relax and calm down, Marco relied on mathematics. He loved figures and calculations. Now?if you started with a load of salted fish; say forty barrels, say two hundred thirty-seven fish to a barrel, and you transported up the Po, with your costs going up but the worth of those fish going up, the farther you went…

The heat under the basket, the bobbing of the raft, the close air and exhaustion, all conspired to put him to sleep.

***

It began again.

Benito tugged at his elbow. "Si?" Marco responded absently; he was doing Mama's accounts, and there'd been a lot of business today.

"Mama said I should stay with Theodoro overnight?Marco, can he be on the ship up to Milan? Please?"

Dream-skip again; stumbling around in water and mud up to his waist, lost in the dark and crying?that was how the marsh-dwellers had found him. And beat him up, and robbed him of everything but his breeches and the paper he kept clutched in one hand. He lay in shallow mud and water; freezing, dazed, hurting and crying…

***

He woke crying?but silently, silently. He'd learned since then never to make a noise. He wiped the tears from his face with the tail of his hair, and listened. Nothing. And it was getting on towards sunset, judging by the red that filtered through the basket and the go-to-bed sounds the marshbirds were making.

Oh, God?he was supposed to meet his younger brother Benito at dawn. He had to warn him that They were on the hunt again. Benito could be in as much danger as Marco. But first he had to find Chiano and Sophia.

They would probably be out on their usual squat?the bit of dry sand bar off the end of the Lido. It had formed during the last really big storm, and likely the next one would take it away again, but for now it provided a good spot for clams and driftwood.

Old Sophia and Chiano. As unlikely a couple as ever decorated the face of the lagoon?Sophia maybe forty and looking four hundred, Chiano ten years older and looking thirty. She had been a bargee's wife, until a fifteen-hundred-ton roccaforte with a following wind behind it ran down their small barge and sent her man and kids to the bottom. Chiano claimed to be everything from a stranded Sicilian seaman to the Prince of Damascus.

She was the closest thing to a chirurgeon and healer the marshes boasted, and so was inviolate from most of the mayhem that raged among the marsh-dwellers. He proclaimed himself to be the One True Prophet of the Great Mother herself. He was treated with superstitious care, although Marco was sure that if Chiano hadn't lived with Sophia the marsh-dwellers would have burned him out.

The two of them had found Marco, in pain and half delirious?and for some reason known only to themselves picked him up and carted him back to Sophia's hovel, and nursed him back to a semblance of health. They'd taught him how to survive, during that vague six-month period during which shock had kept him pliant enough to adapt. He'd paid them back for their care by sharing the scroungings that Benito gave him and writing down Chiano's "prophecies." Chiano induced visions with fly agaric and was obviously then in no condition to record his prophecies himself. Why he wasn't dead twenty times over?well…

It was a mystery, like where Chiano came from in the first place, or got the paper, or what he did with the pages after Marco filled them with the "holy words" in his careful, clear hand. Chiano kept him safe too. Chiano wasn't big, but the fear that he really might be a witch helped Chiano keep the swamp-dwellers, who wanted a boy, at bay. The swamp gangs wanted runaway boys as their slaves; Big Gianni wanted them for?other things. All of them were crazy, mostly from chewing blue lotos, and no telling what they would do to someone who got between them and what they wanted. But Chiano stood by him until Marco was big enough to fight back and canny enough to hide from what he could not fight.

***

Chiano and Sophia were where he expected to find them. They had lit a small fire of driftwood and were grilling fish spitted on reeds over it. They looked like images out of hell; red lit, weather-and-age-twisted faces, avidly watching their cooking dinner.

Marco didn't make much noise, but they heard him anyway. "That you boy?" Chiano called into the dark.

"Si. Chiano, I got trouble."

"Boy, the world got trouble," replied Chiano easily. "Neveryoumind. What's the matter this time? Big Gianni? One of the gangs?"

"Wish it was just that! Somebody jumped me, out at the wharf?a man dressed all in dark clothes, with his face covered, and waiting like he knew I was coming. He had a knife. I think They've found me."

"Damn! That be trouble and more'n ye need!" Sophia coughed. "You got any notion who They be?"

"No more than I ever did. Could be anybody: slave-takers, Schiopettieri, even…"

"Milanese," Chiano growled.

"Damn it all, no! Not Milanese; never Milanese. Milanese would be trying to help me, not kill me!"

"I'll believe that when I believe…" Sophia hushed Chiano before he could say any more.

"Fine," Marco said, "But whose mama was a Montagnard agent, huh? Who saw Duke Visconti's agents coming and going? So who should know?" It was an old argument.

"And whose mama was probably killed by the order of the Duke Visconti she served, hmm? Marco, leave it, boy. I know more politics than you do. Still, I notice you may have thought Strega. But you didn't say it. You off to give Benito a warning?"

"Got to. He's in danger too."

"Boy?" This was another old argument.

Sophia chimed in forcefully. "No buts! Ye're young; this ain't no life for th' young. We'll be all right."

"She's got the right of it, boy." There was a suspicion of mist in Chiano's slightly crazed eyes. "The Words of the Goddess are complete now, thanks to you. You go?"

Chiano claimed the Words were complete about once a month.

"Look, I'll be back, same as always. Benito won't have any safe place for me, and I won't put danger on those as is keeping him."

For the first time in this weekly litany Chiano looked unaccountably solemn. "Somehow?I don't think so?not this time. Well, time's wasting, boy, be off?or They might find Benito before you do."

Sophia's face twisted comically then, as she glanced between Marco and their dinner; she plainly felt obliged to offer him some, and just as plainly didn't really want to have to share the little they had.

"You eaten?" she asked reluctantly.

Marco's stomach churned. The fear and its aftermath made the very thought of food revolting.

"Grazie; but no. I'm fine."

She smiled, relieved. "Off wi'ye, then, ye'd best hurry."

Marco went, finding the way back to his raft, and poling it out into the black, open water of the lagoon. In the distance were the lights of Venice. But the tide was out. He would have to pole the channels. At least coming back he would be able to run with the turn of the tide at dawn.

***

Lots of lights in the city tonight?lots of noise. Marco blessed it all, for it covered his approach. Then remembered?and shame on himself for not remembering before?that it was Solstice Feast. What night of the Feast it was, he couldn't remember; his only calendars were the moon and stars these days, and the seasons. By the noise, probably well into the festival. But that meant Benito would be delayed by the crowds on the bridges and walkways. That might prove a blessing; it gave him a chance to check all around their meeting place under the wharf for more of Them.

He poled all over beneath the wharf, between the maze of pilings, keeping all his senses alert for anything out of the norm. There wasn't anyone lying in ambush that he could find, not by eye nor ear nor scent, so he made the raft fast and climbed up into their meeting place among the crossbeams out near the end of the wharf.

The first time they'd met here?after Marco had slipped into the town with his heart pounding like an overworked drum, and passed Theodoro a note to give to Benito?they hadn't said much. Benito had just wrapped his arms around his brother like he'd never let go, and cried his eyes sore and his voice hoarse. Marco had wanted to cry too?but hadn't dared; Benito would have been shattered. That was the way the first few meetings had gone.

But boys are resilient creatures. Before too long, Benito was begging for Marco's stories again, and the tears only came at parting?and then not at all. But now the stories included another set?how they would find the agents of Duke Visconti; get Mama's message to them. The original paper was long gone, but the contents resided intact in Marco's head?and what Marco memorized was there for good and all. That was why Mama had taken him everywhere with her?when she'd ask later, he'd recite what had been said and done. And just as a precaution, Marco had made plenty of copies of that paper over the last two years. He made a new one as soon as the previous copy began deteriorating, and kept it with him at all times, mostly hidden on his raft. One day, they'd get that message back to Milan?and the Visconti would rescue them, take them home to Milan, and train them to be noblemen. Benito hadn't liked that story as much as the tales about the steelworks in Ferrara, and the doings of their grandfather the famous Old Fox, but it had comforted Marco.

When had Benito started scrounging for him? Marco wrinkled his brow in thought, and picked at the splintery beams under him, staring at the stars reflected in the wavelets in the harbor. Must have been that winter?that was it; when he'd showed up, as usual, in nothing but his trousers, shivering, and pretending he wasn't cold. Benito had looked at him sharply, then cuddled up real close, and not just for his own comfort; he'd put his little body between Marco and the wind. Next meeting, Benito'd brought a woolen cloak?old, faded, snagged, and torn, but better than anything Marco could get in the Jesolo. After that he'd never come to a meeting empty-handed, though Marco refused to ask him for anything.

Lord knew he needed those meetings himself; needed the comfort, needed to hold someone, to talk to somebody sane. Chiano and Sophia were only sane sometimes. He'd needed company even more than the material comforts Benito brought, and he needed those desperately.

***

He waited. And waited. But before the largest bell at San Marco pealed, he had to leave to cross the lagoon. The uncertainty and fear it brought gnawed at him.

As he always did at times like this, he thought about magic. Chiano was a magician?a master of his craft, if one believed the stories he told when he was around Marco and felt no need to be cautious, or the cheap rotgut he brewed went to his head. Perhaps no one but Marco and Sophia did, though, because he never used magic much anymore. "Too dangerous," he said, and it went without saying that he was probably right. Someone had certainly tried to kill Chiano, leaving him wandering senseless in the marshes, and his magic hadn't protected him any. Of course, if the people who'd beaten him had been wearing steel armor, his magic wouldn't have been much use against them.

Chiano claimed that people?other magicians?could tell when magicians were casting a spell, what kind it was, where the magician was, and even who was doing the casting. That was why it was too dangerous for him to use magic unless there was no other choice. But then, there was Marco.

Marco could be a magician; that's what Chiano said. He was perfectly willing to teach Marco everything he knew. There was just one little problem with that: Chiano was Strega, and Marco was Christian?and not just any Christian, but one who had been indoctrinated by his mother in the Pauline creed. It was a sin for any Pauline who was not an ordained priest to dabble in magic, for only a priest was sufficiently armored in holiness to withstand the blandishments of the Evil One, who was always on the watch for magicians to tempt them into using their powers for selfish purposes. It was, according to everything Marco had been taught, a short step from selfishness into real, black sin. And it was doubly, triply, impossible for a true Christian to even think of using Strega magic. Marco was already deep enough in sin as it was, associating with the pagans.

But life would have been so much easier with the help of a little magic… a little magic to tease the fish into his traps, a little magic to keep him warm in the winter, a little magic to protect him?

No, he told himself. That was temptation, and behind temptation was the Evil One. Surely God was watching him?well, maybe not God, but an angel, anyway?watching and waiting to see if he fell; and if he fell, washing His hands of Marco, who was not strong enough to resist so minor a temptation.

But oh, it was hard, hard to resist at times like these.

The sounds of Solstice Feast drifted over the water; over there, people thronged the waterways, the streets, the plazas, everyone wearing some sort of mask, even if they couldn't afford a costume. People who had saved all year for this time were stuffing themselves with fatty sausages, bread, rich bean soup, Salame, Mortadella, Cotechino, still-steaming loaves of ciabbata, thick fragrant zuppa di fagioli?

Don't think of food!

With Lent on the horizon, they were throwing themselves into pleasure.

Pleasure leads to temptation, and temptation to sin, he reminded himself. But even Mama's stern Dell'este family had enjoyed Solstice Feast. And when Mama had come here to Venice, she had made certain that at Solstice Feast there had been masks and costumes for all three of them, and that at least once during the three days of the festival they had all gone out together, to see the stilt-walkers, the jugglers, the musicians, even a puppet-show or a play. She always seemed to know what great house was giving away food after a feast, too?wonderful food, bread as white as could be, soaked with the juice of the meat the great folks had eaten, piecrust heavy with gravy with bits of mushroom and venison clinging to it, the broken sweetmeats of marchpane and sweet cake?

Don't think of food!!

Faintly the sound of singing floated over the marsh, and Marco bit his lip, overwhelmed for a moment by loneliness. Don't think of Mama either.

There were thousands of people over there, across the lagoon, and somewhere among them was Benito, probably enjoying himself as only Benito could, with or without money.

With never a thought for the death that might be, even now, stalking his path.

Chapter 3

"You are afraid, old man."

The undine called Etheria stared at Chiano with her flat golden eyes, and challenged him to deny his fear. He couldn't. He could only hang his head and nod.

"I am afraid," he admitted. It was always better to admit the truth to the elemental creatures, at least the ones that he had regular congress with. Some of them were damnably good at ferreting out lies. He stared at his dirty, bare feet, at the grasses and reeds of the hummock on which he perched, and heard the undine sigh.

"You should be afraid," she said, grudgingly, and he looked up. She settled her arms and upper back against the hummock across from him, looking like some odd and exotic courtesan relaxing upon the divan in her salon. Her hair was just beginning to dry along her hairline, and it frizzed out in little filamentous green kinked strands.

"Tell me, please?" he asked, humbly. Humility; it was a new emotion to him, or rather, new to the person he had begun to reassemble from the bits and pieces of his past. He remembered the confidence, bordering on arrogance. What do the Christians say? Pride goeth before a fall.

Etheria didn't show emotions in the way that a human would, for the undine's face was less mobile, more fishlike?but she was clearly as afraid as he was. "First?there are things, evil things that can change their shape, in the lagoon, snooping about the Jesolo, and in the canals. There have always been such things, but more often now; and much, much more evil. At first, we think, they looked for you, but you worked little magic, very little, and they may believe you are no more. Now they prowl more freely?when we do not find them first." She bared her sharklike teeth. "They are no match for us. But we think that one day, perhaps soon, something stronger will come."

Chiano shuddered. "Why?"

The undine studied him. "There is more blood in the water, of late. More bodies. There is more fear on the water; we can taste it, hear it in the voices of the fishermen, the boatmen. The world of you humans is fragmenting, and we do not know why." She licked her lips, but not in anticipation. "When you mortals are at war, we suffer too, for your world affects ours. As below, so above."

"As above, so below," Chiano sighed. He knew. Whatever happened in the spirit world was reflected in the material world, and vice versa. If there was trouble here below, there would be trouble in their world as well. If something evil came to prey upon humans, evil that preyed upon those who were not human would be attracted. Unnatural death brought unnatural destruction.

"The Silvani?can they tell me anything more?" he asked at last, when it was clear that Etheria had nothing more to give him.

"Perhaps. I know of one who will come if I do call her. And you might be wise not to call one yourself." At last the undine's expression softened. "It is little enough for all that you have done for me and mine."

He reached for the taloned hand she offered. "There will be no talk of debts between us, sister-of-the-waters. Perhaps?"

"When you have found yourself again," the undine said firmly. "You must find yourself again."

She took her cool hand from his, patted him on the head as if he was a child, and slipped beneath the water. Left to await the Silvani, Chiano shook like a reed in the wind. Again. Again that call to "find myself." His memories were still clouded; there were still key fragments missing, things that might protect him so that he could work magics safely again. He had known so much?and now it was all in pieces, shattered, and somehow he had to put the pieces together again. Someone had feared him enough to want him dead, and the self-confident and?yes, arrogant?person he remembered being was the sort who could attract such enemies. He who was Grimas of stregheria, the master of the three magics of stars, moon and earth?yes, evil would come looking for him, and he was bound to combat it. But he was a warrior whose sword lay shattered, his shield broken in two, and his courage beaten to the ground.

But he could pray; he could still pray.

Carmina, Agenoria, help me find my skills again! Fortuna, guard me! Nortia, give me back my memories! Fana and Fanus, Tana and Tanus, Jana and Janus, restore what I once had, and oh Aradia, help me protect this place again!

He hugged his knees to his chest and rocked back and forth in an agony of fear and longing?the longing to be himself again, and the fear of what must surely follow if he ever regained what he had lost. He didn't notice the Silvani until she brushed against his hair and blew into his face to attract his attention.

Then he looked up. If he had not had such an affinity with water-creatures, the Silvani surely would have been his favorites; they appeared as lovely girls, not more than two feet tall, dressed all in red and winged. This one hovered just barely above the water, wings blurring to keep her there, and regarded him with wide eyes.

"What would you, old man?" she whispered. "I think I know you."

"I wish that I remembered," he replied sadly. "Just?of your courtesy, what do you know of the evil our friend tells me is abroad in the city?"

"More than I wish to," she replied in a breath. "Something terrible has come, bound in a strong box of iron and guarded by men in steel, hedged about with spell and sword. We dare draw no nearer to it than the island on which it dwells."

For once, he felt a stirring of hope. There were enough Christian mages in the city, surely there was no need for one broken old man! "If it is hedged about?" he began.

"The hedges are… peculiar," the Silvani said, frowning severely. "And among the guardians at least one is unclean. Perhaps more." The Silvani looked so human it was easy to read their expressions, and this one assumed an air of pleading. "Let me speak for those of the air, the Silvani, the Laura, the Folletti and Folletto?you must come again into your powers! The path of the future is shrouded, and the one who veils it from us is?" She shivered, and clearly was not willing to say more.

Well, he could hardly blame her. He suspected he knew the name she would not speak, even though he could not remember it himself. Did not, indeed, want to remember it. But he had a momentary image of something huge and monstrous, squatting in a dark forest littered with rotting tree stumps and shattered bones, devouring…

The image fled. Or, perhaps, he fled from it.

"Thank you," he said, his spirits sinking. There was no choice then; it would be more of the rue and the fennel and the fly agaric; more of the visions to sort through looking for what was memory and what was hallucination…

The Silvani took his thanks as a farewell, and vanished, leaving him once more alone.

***

Chiano remained on the hummock for some time thereafter, thinking through his course of action. By sunset, he had come to one definite conclusion.

He would have to take steps to protect Marco. He could sense that the boy would not remain in the Jesolo for much longer. In the marshes, Chiano had been able to shield the boy as well as shelter him. The marsh locos were afraid of Chiano?Chiano, and his undine friends. The undines would not voluntarily leave the water, true. And so what? No dweller in the Jesolo could avoid approaching the water, within easy reach of a lurking undine. Not even crazed and vicious Big Gianni was willing to risk their anger.

But if Marco returned to the city, the undines would be of no use. The elemental creatures rarely even entered the canals, for they found the city's waters very unpleasant. And they would not be able to protect the boy, anyway, from the perils he would encounter there.

Not now, for a certainty. Venice would have been dangerous for Marco under any circumstances. But now, with a new assassination attempt having been launched against him, the city was ten times more dangerous than ever. Chiano's memory was still too fragmented to understand the exact nature of that danger. But, in truth, that hardly mattered. Chiano had long ago understood Marco's true identity. For that boy, with that lineage, deadly threats could come from any direction.

No, the undines would no longer make suitable guardians. City assassins were not marsh locos. They did not have to perch by the water every day for their sustenance.

And… Chiano was not ready yet?if he would ever be?to return himself.

So. Practical steps. If necessary, bloody steps. And he had the perfect instrument for the task, right here at hand in the marshes. In that, too, he understood, the Goddess was giving him a sign. And a gentle warning: no more softness.

He even understood, to a degree, the Goddess's insistent and unusual hardness. Marco had to be protected. Not so much for his own sake, but for that of Venice. Chiano wasn't sure exactly why?yet?but he knew it was so. From the very first moment he had laid eyes on Marco, he had seen the great shadow which the slender boy cast in the spirit world. Venice would need that shadow, some day, of that he was certain. And he was certain of it because Chiano himself cast a similar shadow?or had once, at least. But never as wide, never as broad, never as deep.

Chiano sighed. He knew what to do, and how to do it. Even though that doing was… distasteful. Even, in the end, perhaps wicked.

No more softness, old man!

***

Oh yes, and he'd gotten his little tail well scorched, had the former Swiss mercenary turned fanatic assassin. Fortunato Bespi had been dying when the undines had fished him out and brought him to Chiano. It would have made a pretty wager, whether shock or drowning would have gotten him first.

Neither did. Chiano and Sophia had patched him up and kept him dosed against fever. He had been bleeding from blade wounds, and burned all over. From what Chiano and Sophia had been able to piece together from the man's semi-incoherent ravings, he had fought off his assailants until they set fire to the house he had barricaded himself in. Even then, apparently, the man had been able to escape and try to find shelter in the marshes, which were the traditional refuge for Venice's outcasts and outlaws.

Eventually, Chiano had been able to glean his identity from the ravings. And, when he did, had come very close to killing the man himself.

Fortunato Bespi! Of all men! If Sophia hadn't restrained him, Chiano would probably have rolled the man back into the waters. This time, with his throat slit and a weight around his ankles.

Fortunato Bespi! Even with his broken memory, Chiano had recognized the name immediately.

Bespi was notorious. Perhaps the best?certainly the most ruthless?Montagnard assassin in all of northern Italy. A fanatic, by all accounts. A true believer, not simply a sellsword. A man so dangerous that, apparently, the Montagnards themselves had decided to kill him. Such, at least, was the explanation Chiano had eventually deduced from the words Bespi muttered in the days of his slow healing.

But… Sophia had been firm. So she and Chiano had hidden the badly injured man on one of the firmer reed-islands, under a basket made to look like a reed-hummock. Sophia, with her own eccentric "theology," had insisted that the spirits had brought Bespi to them for a purpose. And, over time, Chiano had come to half-believe it himself.

And was glad he had, for it was now clear that Sophia had been right all along. Who better to guard Marco from assassins than Fortunato Bespi?

It remained only to… begin the transformation. And he needed to begin immediately, because the transformation would take many weeks to complete.

***

Chiano found Bespi where he expected to find him?squatting on his little island in the reeds, staring at an insect. Bespi did very little else, since he'd finally begun recovering from his injuries. He stared at everything; studied the most insignificant things for hours on end. A man betrayed by the cause he had devoted his life to was trying, Chiano understood, to find meaning in something. Even if it was only the reason that an insect climbed a stalk of grass.

Chiano made no attempt to approach silently. It would have been pointless, anyway. Whatever else Bespi had lost, he had certainly not lost his assassin's reflexes and senses. By the time Chiano appeared in the little clearing where Bespi squatted, the former assassin was awaiting his arrival. Staring at him with the same intentness he stared at everything.

Bespi wanted reasons. Chiano would give them to him.

He held out his hand. "You must begin to eat these also now. With the other food we bring you."

Bespi's burn-scarred face held no expression. He simply stared at the fly agaric and belladonna in Chiano's outstretched palm. He said nothing.

"You are not who you think you are," continued Chiano softly. "I have discovered your true name and your true purpose, in my visions. Now you must discover them also. These will help."

He said nothing further. Simply allowed Bespi the time to examine the possibility of reasons.

Eventually, as Chiano had known he would, Bespi reached out and took the substances. He did not ingest them, simply held them in a loose fist. But Chiano knew that Bespi would begin eating them with his next meal.

There was no expression on the assassin's face. Chiano had not expected to see one. Bespi was an empty man; Chiano would fill him.

He felt some qualms in so doing, but not many. It was, after all, mostly a change in orientation, not in nature. This, without a doubt, was what the Goddess had intended when She'd caused Bespi to be stranded out here. Chiano was sure of it. He rose, and began to turn away. He would return later that night, once Bespi was well into the trance, and begin the transformation.

Bespi's first and only words that day stopped him. "What is my true name, then?" he asked, in a whisper. "They told me it was Fortunato Bespi."

Chiano hesitated. Then, squared his shoulders and turned back to meet the hollow eyes. "They lied. Your true name is Harrow."

"A hard name," murmured Bespi. His lips seemed to tighten. But not with distaste so much as?anticipation.

Chapter 4

Kat closed the door of the Church of St. Hypatia di Hagia Sophia behind her. It shut off the riot of the Feast quite as effectively as one of her old tutor Dottore Marina's silence-spells would have done. The thought, as always, brought melancholy. She missed the dottore terribly. Still, after all these years.

This was a church designed to be full of light and space; the floor was of cream-colored stone, the timbers and woodwork of light ash. Even the wall frescos were painted so that the background colors recalled the white buildings and brilliant blue skies of ancient Alexandria, and the windows held clear, not colored, glass. There was discreet gilding everywhere so that the light of sun or candles was multiplied. The moment she entered the place, her spirits lifted.

With her footsteps echoing on the pale marble of the floor, she walked slowly around the walls until she came to the choir stalls. The whole church was empty except for herself and a few of the members of the Hypatian Order. By their white linen robes, they were all full siblings, sworn to chastity and celibacy, and very probably magicians. Somehow that made her feel safer than she had felt in days, as if, no matter what horrible magics were running loose along the canals and the back streets, nothing could come in here.

She eased into the choir stalls and knelt with her hands clasped before her on the rail, the familiar frescos of the life of Saint Hypatia glowing on the wall opposite her. They weren't the most beautiful frescos in Venice; they'd been painted by a mere pupil of Bellini, not the master himself. They had heart, though; that was what Kat loved about them. Lucia Astolanza must have felt a special kinship for Saint Hypatia of Alexandria to have infused so much life into them.

In a procession around the walls were the important events of Hypatia's life. Nearest the door at the back of the church, in the first panel, she lectured on Neoplatonic philosophy to her pupils. Not yet a Christian, Hypatia was shown garbed in Grecian robes with a laurel wreath crowning her close-braided hair to represent her great learning. Her pupils at her feet. Unlike many painters, Lucia had given this part of Hypatia's life as much importance as the incidents after her conversion.

Next, of course, the Unknown Shepherd Boy appeared for one of her lectures, debating her in front of her amazed pupils, and ultimately convincing her and all of her pupils as well that Christianity was a logical extension of her own beliefs. Lucia had, interestingly enough, portrayed the Unknown Shepherd with a faint beard, the halo of Sanctity, and the Dove of the Holy Spirit above his head, hinting that the Shepherd was actually a visitation of Christ. Very daring; rather an interpretation that Kat herself favored.

The next panel was more complicated, showing, on the right side, Hypatia lecturing to her pupils on the melding of Christianity with Neoplatonism into a new and inspiring philosophy. On the left, their faces scowling, were the Archbishop of Alexandria and his followers. Lucia had painted them in colors and shadows that suggested prejudice, close-mindedness, and treachery as they plotted Hypatia's murder. Their bitterness at her pulling more and more of their own congregation into her new flock and undermining their views was masterfully portrayed.

The next panel, the last on that wall, showed the Miracle. Hypatia being surrounded on the steps of the Great Library of which she was the Librarian by the followers of the Archbishop. They carried razor-sharp shards of clam and oyster shells in their hands, which they intended to use to slice her to ribbons. Hypatia stood facing them calmly, lips parted, presumably in prayer. She was not praying for herself; she prayed for them. She prayed that they should receive Hagia Sophia, Holy Wisdom?the Truth, as only a Neoplatonist would mean it.

The first panel on the altar wall showed the moment of the Miracle itself, the moment when Hypatia's prayer was answered, and God (shown in the form of hundreds of rays of painstakingly applied gold leaf emanating from a cloud above Hypatia's head) touched the minds of the would-be murderers. They saw the Truth, only too surely; all the Truth, about everything in the world, all at once, shoved into their narrow little minds until their skulls practically cracked with it. Lucia showed this with the shards of shell falling from their hands, the bulging eyes, the slackened mouths, the knees bent in a way that suggested they were losing physical as well as mental balance. Hypatia was in the same pose still as in the panel before, but the Dove of the Holy Spirit hovered over her, now. Kat had more than once thought that Lucia had painted just the faintest of smiles on her lips, and a knowing glint in her eyes.

Kat wondered, as she had before, how much of the scene depicted was truly accurate. From things which she remembered Dottore Marina telling her, she suspected that the defeat of Hypatia's enemies had probably been a lot messier and more complicated than the artist's portrayal of it. And involved more in the way of intrigue and maneuver?perhaps even violence?than the purely spiritual portrayal of the victory which was depicted on the wall of the church.

Farther down the wall, behind Kat, were the John Chrysostom panels. The first showed Hypatia in her study, writing to her fellow Christian philosopher. The two had formed an alliance, a meeting of minds that would steer the course of the Christian Church from that moment.

Again, Kat suspected that the portrayals were… sanctified quite a bit, with all the rough edges smoothed away. She knew, for one thing?her former teacher had told her once?that Chrysostom's bigotry against Jews had been the cause of frequent clashes between him and Hypatia. The famous alliance between the two theologians had not been as harmonious and trouble-free as the frescoes made it seem. The fact that the figure of the prophet Muhammad was included in the panel alongside the Jews and pagans made it obvious to Kat that the artist had given scant heed to picayune historical accuracy. Muhammad had not even been born until a century after Hypatia's death.

She smiled, for a moment. She thought that most historical accounts were probably like that: "cleaned up," as it were.

She leaned back and studied the ceiling. In the fresco above, Lucia showed Hypatia, silver-haired but still beautiful, being welcomed into Heaven by the Dove, surrounded by the ancient Prophets, Christ and the Madonna?and Muhammad, again!?along with a host of angels, peris, and figures that bore more than a passing resemblance to Plato, Socrates, and other pagan philosophers. She held in her hands the Library that she had guarded all her life, the Library that would have been burned to the ground if not for the Miracle, presenting it to God as representative of her life's work. If the Library had burned, all of the knowledge of the workings of magic that brought people from all over the world to study in Alexandria would have been lost forever. There would be no shining Order of Hypatia and the Siblings who studied magic and used it to defeat the powers of darkness.

Given the current situation, Kat found herself wondering if that would have been so bad, after all… for if there was no Order of Hypatia, there would also be no Servants of the Holy Trinity.

Don't be an idiot. If that knowledge had been lost, we'd all be worshipping Chernobog right this very minute.

Without the knowledge of the Library, the evil magicians of the barbaric North and East would have had it all their own way, and their warriors, disorganized as they were, would still have conquered everything now ruled by Emperor Charles Fredrik. They'd probably be storming the gates of Venice at this moment.

Still, Hypatia and Chrysostom hadn't prevailed, not completely. They weren't as ruthless as their foes within the Church, the followers of Saint Paul. If they had been, there wouldn't be the fanatical Order of Saint Paul, nor its offshoots, the Servants of the Holy Trinity and the Knights of the Holy Trinity, with their Inquisitions and their purgings.

What were you thinking? Kat asked the image of Hypatia silently. Why did you have to be so?so diplomatic and conciliatory? They wouldn't have been if they'd gotten the upper hand! You and Chrysostom would have been walled up in hermit's cells in the desert "for the good of your souls"! And why were you so compromising with Augustine? Without him, there never would have been a Pauline creed at all.

Hypatia's painted image didn't answer, and Kat sighed. She was no theologian, and this was getting her nowhere. She needed to talk to someone older and wiser. If she could have turned the clock back, her first choice would have been Dottore Marina. For all that he'd only come twice a week, in the evenings, Dottore Marina had been the one among her her tutors who had always seemed to understand. She still remembered the fight between her mother and her grandfather about his teaching her at all.

Her grandfather had insisted. For all that it was many years ago, she could still remember what he'd bellowed. "He is one of the Doge's own librarians! Yes, he is Magister Magi, and a Strega to boot. Saint Hypatia, woman! The child needs a bit of broadness in her education. And no one in all Venice has more broadness than Dottore Marina! Even Metropolitan Michael says he is a great scholar of Christian philosophy."

At first she'd been a little afraid of this "pagan" her mother had muttered about. But he'd been a good tutor, kindly and patient. He stuck out from all the rest like a beacon. He listened, for one thing. And, for another, she could use?today, in a way she hadn't needed then?the dottore's understanding of the dangerous complexities of Venetian politics.

But… he was gone; had been for several years. So one of the Hypatian counselors would have to do. At least she knew she could trust them to keep what she said under the Seal of Counsel. That was more than could be said of the counselors of some of the other orders.

Especially the Servants of the Holy Trinity.

She got up and left the choir stalls, returning to the rear of the church to the line of three enclosed closets where someone in need of counsel could speak with one of the siblings anonymously. She dropped the curtain across the doorway and sat down on the thin cushion over the bench inside, waiting for someone to speak to her on the other side of the scrim-covered window. Compared to the brightness outside in the church it was dim in here. Dim and cool.

She didn't have to wait for very long. A male voice, one she didn't recognize, the intonation slightly foreign, coughed, then said: "Peace be with you, my child. How may I counsel you?"

A very good question, that. "I'm not sure how to start, Brother," she said, in frustration. "It's all gone so horribly wrong!"

"You might start with what has gone wrong," the voice replied helpfully. "Although from the sound of your voice, I fear that you are going to tell me that it is everything."

"It very nearly is." She tried to keep the bitterness out of her voice, but it was still there. "But most of it is nothing I had any control over?and it's the situation now that I need advice with."

"If it has any bearing on the present, I should like to hear it anyway." The voice sounded patient, but Kat wondered about her own patience level. I'll sound self-pitying and whiny, I know I will. Despite that a sibling wasn't supposed to let such things color his counsel, she couldn't help feeling that it would make her look?well, unpleasantly petty.

But the counselor had asked, and you weren't supposed to hold back. Kat took a deep breath and started. She did her level best to keep the nasal complaint out of her own voice that she heard so often in her sister-in-law's.

She tried keeping things as brief as possible, but the voice interrupted gently from time to time, asking more questions about her father, her grandfather, and her own studies as a girl with a private tutor, dwelling on Dottore Marina for reasons she couldn't fathom.

Still, that segued very nicely into the current situation. "That was why?I remembered Dottore Marina seeming so good you see?that when we needed money, we began delivering things for the Strega, and not just the Jewish community. My… family has always brought in some cargo that the Doge's Capi di Contrada never saw. You know, Counselor: every trader in Venetia does a little. At first it was just because of the duties I think. Then, when the Sots?I mean, the Servants of the Trinity?began to have more influence on the Doge it was to avoid possible persecution. Then Dottore Marina just vanished…" She paused.

"Then?" prompted her counselor, gently.

Kat took a deep breath. "Then the Strega I knew became very frightened and needed me to get things for them more than ever. We made more money from them. And we became more reliant on it."

"Did they ever ask you to obtain things of a"?the voice paused delicately?"dubious nature?"

"No, I don't think so. I don't know, of course, what some of the things were… still, even the best of things can be put to evil use, Counselor. But I always wear the Saint Hypatia medallion that my father gave me?it's supposed to warn me when there's evil magic around?or that's what the sibling who bespelled it for him told him?"

She paused; was that too superstitious for this counselor? What if the medal was bogus?

But? "Quite right," the voice replied. "If there had been evil in what you handled, you would have felt the medallion grow warm, even hot, depending upon the strength of it. You should be certain to continue to wear it at all times."

Kat bit her lip; should she tell him about the warning it had given her when the Knots and the Sots brought that shrouded box into the embassy? It had been so hot even when she'd gone under water that she'd been surprised the water hadn't boiled, and equally surprised that there wasn't a burn on her chest.

"So, the Strega have not asked you to convey anything for an evil purpose?"

"No. Well, I don't think so. It's because of the persecution. The preaching outside their houses and shops. But?we don't dare take their commissions any more and I don't know what to do!" she cried. "If they aren't asking me to help them in dark magics, then why are the Servants saying that dark magic is all they do? And if the Servants are wrong, why is the Doge going along with what they tell him to do? The next package I carry might get me arrested. If that happens grandfather will go mad, and the House will be ruined. Why is everyone letting the Servants do what they want, anyway? They aren't Venetian, they aren't even Petrine! Why are they doing this to Venice? Why has everyone gone crazy? How am I going to keep my family from getting destroyed by all of this insanity?"

The last came out in a wail, and she clapped her hands over her mouth, only belatedly realizing that she had blurted out far more than she should have.

But the voice only asked, curiously, "Before Dottore Marina disappeared… Had he said anything to you that makes you think now that he was warning you he was intending to leave?"

The Counselor seemed entirely fixated on Dottore Marina?which caused Kat to reply in a flash of irritation: "No. If he did, it was years ago when I was only fourteen and I don't remember. And even if I did, what has that to do with my difficulties today? You remember?the ones you're counseling me with?"

There was a faint sound from the other side of the scrim; something like a muffled snort of amusement, and it didn't sound male, it sounded female.

Well, maybe this counselor was new to the task, and was being overseen by an Elder Sister. If that was the case?Kat felt some of her annoyance fade. He must have gotten distracted. Maybe he even knew Dottore Marina and was trying to find out what had happened to him.

"I beg your pardon, my child," said the voice apologetically.

"All anyone knows is that Dottore Marina just disappeared one night," she told him earnestly. "I know; I've asked all over in the years that have gone by since, and no one knows what happened to him. He wasn't even?" she gulped "?found?floating."

"Ah." Just that one syllable, but it held a world of disappointment.

"But what am I supposed to do?" she continued stubbornly. "My House depends on me; how am I going to help them when I can't even tell from moment to moment what next piece of insanity is going to threaten us?"

Silence. "If I told you to trust in God, I suspect you would be tempted to throttle me through the scrim," the voice said dryly, which surprised a tense and strangled giggle out of her. "Nevertheless, that is all you can do for now. But child, believe me when I tell you that God and his angels are not far from us, that they move to protect us at those moments when we have given the last of ourselves and have no more to give. I know. I have seen it."

There was something in his tone that sobered her; she couldn't doubt him, not for a second. He had seen such interventions.

Not that the Archangel Raphael is likely to drop out of the clouds bearing one of our lost ships in his hands…

"You and yours are in the exceedingly uncomfortable position of being sardines in a sea in which great sharks are maneuvering," the voice went on. "I cannot at this moment give you any counsel that will make you any safer."

Her heart sank into her shoes, but the counselor wasn't done, yet.

"I can advise you that regular counseling?here?will not only be of aid to your soul, but might also be of benefit to your secular self. While I may not have any advice other than what I have given you today, there is no saying whether something the order learns might not be of benefit to you on the morrow, or next week." He uttered a dry little laugh. "After all, our blessed Hypatia herself was no mean politician; it will certainly be in the tradition of the order."

Her spirits lifted a little. At least this brother?whoever he was?had a firm grasp not only on sacred matters, but on secular, and he wasn't afraid to give advice on both sides of life. "All right, Brother," she said, feeling as if she was making some kind of a bargain. "I'll make a point of being?more regular in my devotions."

"Go in peace, my child," came the standard response, signaling the end of a session.

***

Once the sound of the girl's footsteps on the marble had ended with the opening and closing of the door, the priest emerged, moving with a pronounced limp. Sister Evangelina followed, her lips compressed over the laugh that threatened to burst through them.

"I don't know that I've ever seen anyone put you so firmly in your place, Eneko," she finally said, eyes twinkling merrily.

"I'm overjoyed that you found it all so amusing, Gina," he said dryly. "If I have brought a little humor into your humdrum existence, my life has not been lived in vain."

He stared at the heavy doors through which the girl had left the church, his face tight with calculation. After a moment, the sister at his side cleared her throat.

"She spoke under the anonymity of counseling, Eneko." The woman's tone was half-admonitory, half… almost fearful.

The priest twitched his shoulders irritably. "I am well aware of that."

Apparently, the answer did not satisfy Evangelina. "You may not?"

He waved her silent with an abrupt motion. "Please! I have no intention of violating the sanctity of counseling. I just wish I knew who she was. If we could find out anything about what happened to Dottore Marina…"

For a moment, Evangelina seemed to shrink away from his intent gaze. The priest recognized the expression which lurked half-hidden in her face. He had seen that same expression many times now, in the years since he received what he thought of as his "calling." Respect for his well-known learning and piety, combined with uneasiness?almost fear?at the intensity of his convictions.

He suppressed a sigh. Then, managed a smile. Whatever else he was, Eneko Lopez de Onez y Guip?zcoa was also a superb politician. He needed to maintain good relations with the Petrine clergy in Venice, whatever his misgivings concerning the laxity of their faith.

"Please relax, Gina. I assure you?again?that I have no intention of violating the sanctity of counseling. I neither asked the girl's name nor did I make any attempt to see her face. I have no idea who she is?I wouldn't even recognize her on the street if she walked past me."

Evangelina's lips quirked. "You'd recognize her voice readily enough, if you heard it again. Don't deny it, Eneko!" A soft laugh emerged from her throat. "Your acuity is already a byword in Venice, even in the short time since the Grand Metropolitan sent you here."

Lopez returned her words with a rueful little smile of his own. "True enough," he admitted. "It's odd, really. As a young man, before that cannonball ruined my leg, I was rather notorious for being hard of hearing. But since I gave up a soldier's life?"

He broke off, twitching his shoulders with exasperation. "I'm hardly likely to encounter her again in casual conversation, Gina! So I think you may set your fears to rest. I am simply, as always, frustrated by the lack of clarity which seems to surround everything in this city. I can't tell you how much I wish the Grand Metropolitan had allowed me to go on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, instead of sending me here."

He stared at the door through which the girl?whoever she was?had left the church, his lips pursing. "And that young lady was quite right. The things her family transports may not in themselves be evil. Tomb-dust is not evil. But it can be put to evil use, and I do not share her na?ve belief that all Strega are simply harmless healers. It is good that she has her medallion, but?as you well know?magic can be shielded from detection by other magic."

He rubbed his crippled leg, in an old and absentminded manner. "I just wish it were all less… murk and shadows."

The sister laughed, a bit ruefully. "It is a foggy city, after all, as often as not."

Eneko shared in the laughter and then produced still more laughter by recounting several amusing anecdotes concerning the ways in which a rural Basque priest had often found the metropolis of Venice a most confusing place. By the end, whatever doubts Sister Evangelina might have had concerning his own intentions seemed dispelled.

***

She departed, thereafter, leaving Eneko alone. He drifted over to the wall where the frescoes depicted John Chrysostom, the Golden Preacher, and stared up at the panels. A few minutes later, he heard the footsteps of two other men coming into the church.

He did not turn around. Eneko Lopez knew those footsteps as well as he knew the arhythmic sound which his own limp produced.

He gestured with his chin toward the frescoes above him. "He was a false man, you know, in many ways. Intemperate, harsh, often arrogant, full of error and wrong-headedness. Still, they made him a saint. And do you know why?"

He swiveled his head to bring his companions under his gaze. Diego and Pierre said nothing. After a moment, Eneko looked away.

"They made him a saint," Eneko said harshly, "because whatever his faults the Golden Preacher understood one thing clearly. There is such a thing in this world as evil. Not simply?"

The next words came out almost like a curse: "?error and misunderstanding."

Brother Pierre spoke, in his heavy Savoyard accent. "True enough. And what is your point, Eneko?"

The Basque priest's lips twisted wryly. Then, he turned his head again and looked at the other priest.

"Brother Diego, I need you to begin an investigation. I have been led to believe that the Strega Grand Master was once the tutor for a girl in this city. Fourteen years old, she was, when he disappeared. Find out who that girl is. It should not be too difficult. Only a very wealthy and prominent family could have afforded his services as a private tutor?and would have dared employ him, for that matter."

Brother Diego nodded. "What was the source of your information? That might help me in my search."

"I have no doubt that it would. I also have no doubt that you don't wish to know."

Diego looked at the counseling booths. Sighed. "Can you offer me any other clues?"

"And how do we know she is not a witch herself?" asked Pierre.

Eneko smiled faintly. "Oh, I think not. Whatever that girl might be, I rather doubt you will find a witch."

"You never know," countered Diego. "We are surrounded by evil here."

The Basque nodded, his eyes returning to the frescoes. "No, you don't; and yes, we are. Still?"

The hawk eyes of John Chrysostom gazed down upon him. He did not seem to find the weight of them hard to bear. Not in the least. "Still, I doubt you will find a witch there."

***

Casa Montescue looked?from the outside?as if it belonged to one of the wealthiest families in all Venice. It was only once you got inside, thought Katerina bleakly, that you realized what a hollow front that was. She walked the long corridor moodily. It was a case of too much grandeur… and too little upkeep. Show was very important in Venice, but more than one Case Vecchie family had found that keeping up appearances could be ruinous. This place needed an army of servants just to keep it clean. Without them it deteriorated fast. There had been six upstairs maids when she was a child. Her father had once told her there'd been ten when he was young.

Her musing was cut by the sound of her grandfather's voice.

"?nothing to do with us! It was Fortunato Bespi who killed her. He was a Montagnard assassin. She must have fallen out with her masters."

Another voice, higher pitched. "Nonetheless you spent a great deal of money pursuing her sons, Milord Montescue. Money long outstanding with our house."

The first voice, again: "And now we discover that you just recently hired yet another assassin! Such men do not come cheaply, even incompetents like the ones you apparently employ." There came a snort of derision. "The man's body was found just this morning, you know. Imagine?a blade man poisoned by his target. What kind of assassin?"

Kat winced. Grandpapa's obsession with taking his revenge on the Valdosta family disturbed her deeply. More for its unhealthy effects on the old man's state of mind than the Montescue purse. But she hadn't realized he'd started hiring assassins again. And, wincing again, she could just imagine what kind of fumble-fingered dimwits the old man could find with the few coins he had available.

The second voice continued: "We were promised a payment within this month, and that is very nearly at an end. We really don't want to inconvenience such old and valued clients, milord, but the truth is you're far behind."

"We've had a delay," growled Lodovico Montescue. "Not a reverse?a delay." He said the words with a confidence which was far from what his granddaughter was feeling about the matter. Grandpapa was talking about the money they'd get from the parcel she'd had to drop into the water outside the Imperial embassy. What if that urchin Benito had stolen it? What if water ruined the contents? What if they couldn't find it?

"Milord. We can't give you endless time…" said the unfamiliar voice.

"Damn your eyes, man!" snapped Lodovico. "We've always paid at least the interest. We should have a tranche of cash in the next three days."

"I really hope so, milord. We'd hate to even think of foreclosure."

Katerina turned away. If she went in now she'd tear that moneylender's head off. He was being polite?which, she'd gathered, wasn't normally the case. The trade they were in did make some powerful people beholden to them, people she was sure had protected them in the past. Things must be dire now.

***

She came back some time later, intent on at least trying to cool her grandfather down. He was sitting at his desk, staring at a piece of paper. Not looking angry, just morose. His craggy face seemed more lined than Kat could ever remember it; his hair, thinner and whiter. Even his dark eyes?almost coal black, normally?seemed muddy-colored.

"What sort of mess are we in, Katerina?" he said grimly. "First that damned moneylender. Now this. They want their 'supplies'?but they're too scared to even sign their names." He waved the letter. "Your great-grandfather always told me 'stay out of politics and stay out of religion. Make money.' But he got involved in politics, because he had no choice. And we are involved, against our will, in religion. Still, I think my father's backing of Rome was the start of the rot. He granted the first mortgages."

Kat groped for his meaning. She understood the general point. The principalities of Italy were a maze of shifting alliances. But there were always two poles. Rome?and Milan. The Milanese under the Visconti were, officially at least, Montagnards?believers in one united Christian realm, under the aegis of the Holy Roman Emperor. Not without reason, their neighbors viewed this lofty and always-distant goal as little more than an excuse for the Visconti dynasty's insatiable lust for immediate conquests of territory in northern Italy.

Rome's priorities?which was to say, the priorities of the Grand Metropolitan of Rome?were more nebulous, beyond opposition to having northern Italy absorbed into the Empire. But those priorities had more than once involved taking occasional territory; always for the good of the people, of course. Grandpapa had said before that his father's politics?the Montescues were traditionally allied with the "Metropolitans," as the anti-Montagnard faction was called?had gotten Casa Montescue into trouble. But she hadn't realized the trouble had extended to their relations with the family's financial supporters.

"It can't be that bad, surely, Grandpapa?"

He sighed. "I'm afraid it can, dearest Kat. Floriano's?and we've borrowed money from Floriano's since I was a boy?have actually started talking about foreclosure."

Kat put an arm around him. The feel of her grandfather's still-broad but bony shoulders brought sadness. She could remember, as a girl, thinking that her grandfather must be the strongest man in the world. "Can't we sell off the farm? Or this place, for that matter? We can't keep it up, anyway."

He shook his head, sadly. "No. The truth to tell, we dare not sell anything. We haven't just borrowed from Floriano's. Much of what we have is double mortgaged. If we show any signs of failing… the gull-gropers will be onto the flesh of Montescue and rip it to shreds. There will literally be nothing left. We've been in difficulties for twenty years…"

He leaned back from the desk, pushing himself away with arms that had once been heavy with muscle. Only the size of his hands reflected any longer the strength which had once been a legend in Venice. One of those hands reached around Kat's waist, drawing her close.

"The worst of it, of course, has only been in the last three years, since your father left. Vanished at sea. He borrowed heavily for that venture."

She felt the hand squeezing her. The slight tremble in the fingers was heartbreaking. "I don't know what I would do without you, Kat," the old man said softly. "You have been the mainstay of this family since your father…" Sadly, and for the first time, he whispered the word: "Died."

Kat didn't know what to say. Her thoughts were fixed entirely on a parcel at the bottom of a canal. Hoping desperately that it was still there; and hoping, just as desperately, that a street urchin named Benito could be relied upon to save the fortune of one of Venice's four oldest and?once?wealthiest and most powerful families.

Chapter 5

When Marco returned, there was no Benito at the dock?just a scrap of dirty paper wedged beneath it. Got a job. Come tamarra. Which left Marco to go back to his hide again, wondering if the "job" was a real task, or something Benito made up so he could enjoy another night of the festival.

Or… a ruse to lure Benito into the clutches of Them. Surely not. Surely They wouldn't go to all that trouble. Surely Benito would smell a rat if they tried.

By this time, Marco felt faint with hunger, and on his way back to shelter spotted a lone marsh-mallow just at the edge of what he knew to be dangerous mire. He took a chance, and worked his way out to it?but he had to stop just out of reach, when the hungry mud beneath the water sucked at his foot and nearly pulled him down. He stared at it in despair. He hadn't eaten in two days now…

There was no way to reach it.

Choking on tears of frustration, he turned his back on the tantalizing plant, and headed for the hide again.

He crawled inside, too cold to shiver, wrapped a scrap of blanket around himself, and waited for the sun to warm the hide a little. There was just enough room under the lumpy dome for him and a few precious belongings. Sunlight filtered through the mass of enmeshed weeds at the entrance as he got feeling back into his toes and feet. Finally, for lack of anything else to do, he picked through his packets of herbs and oddments to see if he might have left a scrap of food in there.

Nothing. Except a single fishhook and a bit of line, left from the times he had something to bait the hook with.

He paused, with his hand over the packet.

It wouldn't be much of a sin. Maybe not any sin. Even in Milan?

Even in Pauline-dominated Milan, fishermen got blessings on their nets to increase their catch.

But he wasn't a priest, to give such a blessing.

On the other hand, if he passed out from hunger, he wouldn't be able to warn Benito.

Saint Peter?you were a fisherman! Blessed Saint Peter, send me a sign!

There was an angry squawk and a commotion just outside and above his hide?a thump, a splash?

He shoved his head and arm outside, just in time to wave frantically at the gull about to recapture its dinner from the water at his door?lost in a fight with the other two gulls circling overhead. He snatched the hand-sized gray mullet out of the water and withdrew back into his protection as the gull stabbed at him with its beak.

Thank you, Saint Peter!

He took his knife and worried slivers of flesh from the bony fish, eating them raw, and thankful that once again he had been saved from committing a sin.

***

He spent a terrible, anxious, miserable day in the hide, not even prepared to go and share his fear with Chiano and Sophia. With the dusk he was off to wait again.

***

This time he was rewarded. There was a pad of bare feet overhead?then tiny sounds that marked someone who knew what he was doing and where he was going, climbing down among the crossbeams.

"Hi, brother?" Benito's whisper.

"Right here."

"Be right with you." A bit of scratching, a rasp of wood on cloth and skin, and someone slipped in beside him with a quick hug, and then pulled away.

"Riot out there tonight. Sorry about yesterday. I couldn't get here in time. I tried but I got held up."

"Benito?I've got to go under cover again. One of Them nearly got me yesterday. Assassin. He was waiting for me, Benito. He knew who I was and where I was going. It has to be Them."

Swift intake of breath. "God?no! Not after all this time! How'd you get away?"

"I just?outran him." Don't let him know what really happened. He'll think he has to share the danger. Marco had been careful never to let his brother even guess that he'd had to kill?and more than once.

"All right." The voice in the dark took on a new firmness. "That's it. You're not gonna run any more, big brother. Running don't cut it. You need a protector, somebody with weight."

"Get serious!" Marco answered bitterly. "Where am I going to find somebody willing to stand up for me?"

Benito chuckled. "Been thinking about that. New man in town?got contacts, got weight?everywhere, seems like. Been watching him."

"Big fat deal?what reason is he going to have to help me?"

"Name's Aldanto. Caesare Aldanto. Familiar?"

Marco sucked in his breath. "Lord and Saints…"

"Thought I 'membered," Benito replied with satisfaction.

Marco did indeed remember that name?it went all the way back to their being exiled to Venice, an exile that Grandfather Dell'este thought would take them out of the reach of Mama's pro-Milanese friends and of her lover. Caesare Aldanto had been one of the Milanese agents in Ferrara?a friend of Mama's lover Carlo Sforza. Carlo was (presumably) Benito's father?that was probably why the name 'Aldanto' had stuck so fortuitously in Benito's memory.

"You can never forget anything, brother. What's the Aldanto you saw look like?"

Marco closed his eyes and rocked back and forth a little, letting his mind drift back?Lord and Saints, he'd been a seven, maybe, eight-year-old boy?

"Blond. Pretty guy. Moved like a cat, or a dancer. Blue eyes?tall, dressed really well."

"Dunno about the eyes, but the rest is him. It's the same man. Appears to me he'd have reason to help us. Appears to me you'd want to get Mama's message to him, no?"

"Lord?" Marco said, not quite believing this turn of events. "It's?"

"Like that story you used to tell me? Yeah, well, maybe. I'm more interested in seeing you safe, and I think this Caesare Aldanto can do that. Right then, we'll go find him. Now. Tonight."

Marco started to scramble up, but Benito forestalled him. "No way you're going to pass in the town, brother. Not dressed like that."

"Oh. Yes."

"You wait here?I won't be long."

***

Benito thought he'd managed that rather cleverly; he thought he'd remembered Caesare Aldanto's name when he'd first heard it, and he had just been biding his time, waiting for the opportunity to get Marco to take the bait he was going to offer. The marshes were no place for Marco?sooner or later someone or something would get him. Venice was safer, by far. Besides, since he'd been thrown out from Theodoro's family, Benito had been getting lonelier and lonelier. He had friends?Lola, for instance. Well, she was sort of a friend. Mercutio, he was fun, and he looked out for Benito. But it wasn't the same as having Marco around. He wanted his big brother back!

Well, now?first things first; a set of clothing that wouldn't stand out in the Solstice crowds. Benito took to the rooftops and thought while he climbed. Nearest secondhand clothing store was close to the Palazzo Mastelli. That was the area he was hanging out in at present?no go. Off limits. He could hear Valentina now, cracking him over the ear for even thinking about it. "Never soil your own nest, boy. Rule one."

The air up here was fresher, the breeze carrying away a lot of the stink. Benito slipped around chimneypots and skylights as easily as if he'd been on a level walkway. So: the next closest was over toward the Ca' d'Oro. Old man Mirko was a stingy bastardo, too cheap to put good shutters in his windows. And the Dalmatian wouldn't miss the loss. Mirko's place it was.

He crossed the bridges on the support beams below, keeping a sharp eye out for watchers, finally getting himself up on the supports of the high-level bridge that crossed the Rio Malpaga. Mirko had a second-story window just below and to one side of it. Benito unwound the light rope and grapnel from his waist, spied a sturdy cornice, and made his cast.

Solid. He pulled three times. ("Always three times, no matter how rushed you are," came Claudia's voice from memory.) Then he swung himself over, in the shadows all the way.

Within a few minutes Mirko's shop was lighter by a pair of breeches, a shirt, and a cotte, all sized for someone thin and not over-tall, along with some other small items. And Benito was most of the way back to the wharf, dancing across the rooftops and bridge-beams like a half-grown cat.

***

"Huh-uh," Benito said, keeping his grip tight on the bundle he carried and handing something small to Marco instead. It shone white in the starlight. "I sto?found some soap, too. Down, brother; in the harbor. Get clean first, or they'll know you, by the smell, for marsh scum."

Marco flushed with embarrassment?living in the swamp was changing him, and in ways he didn't like. He used to be so fastidious…

He grabbed the proffered soap and dropped straight down into the water next to the wharf?trying not to remember the twitching thing that had so lately floated there. He was so used to being chilled that the cold water wasn't much of a shock to his system. He soaped and rinsed and scrubbed until he thought his skin would peel off, then washed his hair three times for good measure. Benito had shinnied down to his raft and handed him back up onto it with a sniff that held approval. "Better. You smell better than a lot of canal-dwellers now. Here?"

A piece of sacking to use for a towel, and a comb. Getting the tangles out of his hair was a job?Marco had to be content with just getting most of the major knots out, and smoothing down the rest, tying it back with the piece of ribbon (Lord?ribbon!) Benito handed him. Then into the clothing?oh, heaven, clean, and warm, and not ripped in a dozen places?and even the right size. The precious Message went into his shirt pocket.

Marco stood up straight with one hand steadying himself on the piling, and felt like a human being again for the first time in years.

Benito grinned at him, teeth flashing white in his shadowed face. "Know what, brother? You clean up really pretty. I can think of a couple of girls just might like to share a blanket with you."

Marco blushed hotly, and was glad the dark hid it.

"Thought I'd warn you?because that's who we're going to go see first."

They took to the rooftops, much to Marco's bewilderment; oh, he still remembered how to climb, he was fast and agile enough to keep up?but why not take the walkways openly? And?where had Benito gotten this kind of expertise in roof-scrambling?

It was more of a maze in Venice-above than it was in Venice-below. If there was a level space up here on the roofs that was more than three feet square, it was a rarity. "Up here" was a work of towers, cupolas, skylights, and spires. Benito danced along the spines of peaked roofs and jumped from structure to structure as if he were half cat. Marco followed as best he could. He was just lucky that "above" also sported rain gutters and collection pipes on every surface, for without these aids he'd never have been able to emulate Benito. From time to time Benito would half-start toward something Marco knew was unclimbable?then glance back as if suddenly remembering his brother's presence and choose some easier path. Marco couldn't help but wonder what he'd have done if Marco hadn't been there.

Benito paused on the roof edge overlooking the bridge across the Rio della Misericordia. Balancing carefully, he scrutinized the bridge and its attendant walkways.

"Looks good," he said finally, in a whisper. "If anybody followed, they've lost us. Come on." And he shinnied down a drainpipe to the walk below them. Marco followed suit. Shielded torches on the bridge danced and smoked; they were placed so far apart they did more harm than good. There seemed to be no one about in this area, and their bare feet made no sound on the bridge, which contributed to the gloomy atmosphere.

"From here we go to Rio Del Servi, then down by the Maddalena?just in case we get separated," Benito said in an undertone, moving uncomfortably fast for Marco, who was accustomed to poling a raft rather than walking. "The ladies I want to talk to should be in a tavern called Barducci's on the Rio di San Marina?it's down on the water. There'll be a lot of canalers tied up at it. Got that?"

Marco nodded, saving his breath.

"Good, because once we get to the Maddalena, we'll be going up again."

They didn't get separated, but Marco was weary and aching by the time they stood at the tavern door. And confused, and lost. Only rarely had they crossed bridges by the normal paths?more often they'd scrambled underneath on the cross beams, or worse, inched along the support cables overhead. It made good sense in a way?for surely no one would ever have been able to follow them?but Marco was thoroughly exhausted by the time they reached their goal.

They descended to the walkway, cold and wet under their bare feet, and walked decorously enough to the wooden porch that marked Barducci's front entrance. There were boats tied up here, and lanterns everywhere; light and noise and confusion that dazzled Marco's eyes and made him more than a little nervous. The water of the canal looked very black and cold compared with all that light and warmth, and Marco found himself hoping they weren't going to find out just how cold it was.

There was a food-smell; waves of garlic from the bruschetta toasting over the charcoal, grilling Sarde, and the heady bouquet of young red wine. There was smoke, little wisps of it, from the lanterns. There was more smoke from the charcoal grill. There was sound?people laughing, talking, arguing, and singing. Most of all, singing. Just as they got to the wooden porch a great roar of a chorus bounced out of the open door and off the brick of the wall opposite.

"Hoo?they're rabble-rousing tonight, for sure!" Benito grinned. "They best hope there ain't no Schiopettieri around!" Somewhat to Marco's surprise, he was talking just like the canalers, chameleonlike acquiring the coloration of his surroundings.

Marco began to make out some of the lyrics. Benito had the right of it. The song skirted just the high side of treason?but oddly enough, he couldn't identify what faction the song was in favor of.

"Valentina and Claudia and they ain't on anybody's side." Benito elbowed his way in through front door, with Marco trailing warily behind. "They just like to rile people up, I guess."

The tavern room was hot and redolent with the bouquet of food, drink and humanity; crammed full, every table and chair occupied and people jammed in against the walls. The objects of their attention were perched on the bar, grinning insolently and singing for all they were worth. Their voices were amazingly strong and clear; Marco could hear them long before he could see them.

Benito finally wormed a place for them in beside the bar, and Marco managed to get a good view under someone's elbow. They were something to stare at, were Valentina and Claudia, though which was which he couldn't guess. One was playing a lute, her hands moving on the strings so fast Marco could hardly credit his eyes. She seemed the older of the two by five, maybe ten years. The other was setting up a complicated pattern on a couple of hand drums, but Marco could see a mandola leaning up against the bar next to her. Both had dark, nearly black, straight hair, tied around with red scarves. The older one wore hers long, past her shoulders, the younger, shorter than Benito's. Both had sharp features and ironic grins. Both were wearing flounced red-patterned skirts. Both had pale, pale skin?as if they didn't see the sun much.

And both of them were wearing at least three knives that Marco could see.

"Hope they get the crowd calmed down before they finish up," Benito muttered, "or with this lot, half-drunk as they are, no tellin' what they might do."

To Marco's relief they did just that, finishing up at last with something melancholy enough that one or two of the more sodden customers began sniffling into their wine. Then, ignoring demands for more, they picked up their instruments and hopped off the bar. Benito waved at them. The older one spotted him and motioned him over. Seeing that he'd been summoned by one of their darlings, the crowd parted politely so that the two boys could make their way to the singers' tiny table, crowded into a cramped nook to one side of the bar itself. There was barely room for both women, the boys and the instruments.

The older one reached over the table and tweaked Benito's nose. "Where've y' been, cull? Y' haven't been here since the Feast started?we was beginnin' t' think y' didn't love us no more."

"Out an' about, earnin' a wedge or two. You tryin' t' get yourselves invited down to the Doge's torture chambers? What'f there'd been Schiopettieri around?"

"Huh, Schiopettieri are all dead drunk by now. Besides there's a crow on the door. That's the latest ballad out of Syracuse."

"With additions by you, Valentina, I got no doubt," Benito snorted. "The Servants don't hold with Moorish music, y'know, and they say the Doge is favoring 'em these days. God rot th' senile old fool. Ye're gonna find yourself at nubbing cheat, an' not because of what y' do outside the walls."

"Listen to the kitten, telling the old cats how to prowl!" the younger woman crowed. "Who taught you, hmm? Ins and outs, ups and downs?"

Benito cleared his throat with a sideways glance toward Marco?and only then did the women seem to see him.

"Well! Who's this? Can't be related to you, kid?he's too pretty."

Marco felt his ears burning.

"This, Valentina, is my brother… Marco. You know."

"Oh-ho. Brought him out of hiding, hmm? And y' need something, I don't doubt. Make him someone's cousin?" Claudia?the older woman?caught Marco's chin in one long, sharp-nailed hand, and turned his face from side to side, examining it closely. "Just feeding him'd do. I'd think a little flesh on him, and no one'd tumble to 'im."

Benito shook his head. "No go. He needs more; needs protection, needs somebody with weight backing 'im. So I'm askin'?you seen that pretty blond?the one that ain't from these parts?in here lately?"

Claudia shook her head, letting go of Marco's chin. "Not me. Valentina-love?"

She too shook her head. "No. Know who would, though?that canal-rat that used't work for Antonio. Maria Garavelli. She's living with him, people say."

"Oh, no?" It was Benito's turn to shake his head. "Ain't messin' with that one. That Maria keeps an eye on 'im; push him, she'll know?I damn sure don't want her knowin' I'm trying to touch her man. She's got a nasty way with folks as bothers 'im."

"Point," Valentina agreed. "All right. Best I can say is try that runner-girl of yours, Lola. She's been doin' runs down along where he mostly seems t' hang out?'specially lately."

***

A fistfight broke out across the room, interrupting them. For a few seconds it remained confined to the original two combatants?but a foot in the wrong place tripped one up and sent him into a table and its occupants?and things began to spread from there.

Valentina and Claudia exchanged glances filled with unholy glee.

"Shall we?"

"Let's?"

With reverent care, they handed their instruments to the bartender, who placed them safely behind the wooden bulwark. They divested themselves of knives?this was a fistfight, after all?then charged into the fray with joyful and total abandon.

"Women," Benito said, shaking his head ruefully. "Well, at least they'll come out of that with full pockets. Back way, brother." Marco followed him outside with no regret.

Benito led the way again, back over the rooftops, climbing towers and balconies, inching over drainpipes and across the support beams of bridges until Marco was well and truly lost yet again. Fatigue was beginning to haze everything, and he hadn't the least notion where in Venice he could be?except that by the general run of the buildings, they were still in the lower-class section of town. When Benito finally stopped and peered over a roof edge, Marco just sat, closing his eyes and breathing slowly, trying to get his wind back, with a gutter biting into his bony haunches.

"Hi!" he heard Benito call softly, "Lola!"

There was the sound of feet padding over to stand beneath where Benito leaned over the edge. "Benito?" answered a young female voice. "You in trouble?"

"No. Just need to find someone."

By now Marco had recovered enough to join Benito in peering over the roof edge. On the walkway just below him was a child?certainly younger than Benito, pretty in the way that an alley-kitten is pretty.

"I'm waiting," she said, and "Oh!" when she saw Marco.

Benito shook his head at the question in her glance. "Not now. Later, promise. Gotta find that blond you're droolin' after."

She looked incensed. "I ain't drooling after him! I just think he's?nice."

"Yeah, and Valentina just sings cute little ballads. You know where he is?"

She sniffed. "I shouldn't tell you…"

"Oh c'mon! Look?I promise I'll give you that blue scarf of mine?just tell."

"Well, all right. He's in Antonio's over on the Rio della Frescada. I just run a message over there and I saw him. I think he's going to be there awhile."

"Hot damn!" Benito jumped to his feet, and skipped a little along the edge of the coppo tiles while Marco held his breath, expecting him to fall. "Bright-eyes, you just made my day!"

***

Benito had traded on the fact that he was a known runner in order to get into Antonio's. It wasn't a place Marco would have walked into by choice. The few faces he could see looked full of secrets, and unfriendly. They approached the table that Aldanto had taken, off in the darkest corner of the room, Benito with all the aplomb of someone who had every right to be there, even if he was only fourteen years old. Marco just trailed along behind, invisible for all the attention anyone paid him. The place was as dark as Barducci's had been well lit; talk was murmurous, and there was no one entertaining. Marco was not at all sure he wanted to be here.

"Milord?" Benito had reached Aldanto's table, and the man looked up when he spoke. Marco had no difficulty in recognizing the Caesare Aldanto from Ferrara. Older, harder?but the same man. "Milord, I got a message for you?but?it ain't public."

Aldanto looked at him. Startled at first, then appraisingly. He signaled a waiter, and spoke softly into the man's ear; the man murmured something in reply, picked up the dishes that had been on Aldanto's table, and motioned them to follow.

The waiter led them all to a tiny room, with barely room for more than a table and a few chairs in it?but it had a door and the door shut softly behind them. Aldanto seated himself at the table and put down his wine glass. The way he positioned himself, the boys had to stand with him seated between them and the door. The lantern that lit the room was on the wall behind Aldanto's head and made a sunblaze out of his hair.

"I'm waiting," was all he said.

"Milord, my brother's got information that you might be able to use?it might be you and him know the same people. We want to sell it."

He poked Marco with his elbow. Marco shook himself into awareness.

"Information?" Aldanto did not look amused. "What on earth could you two have that would be of any use to me?"

"Milord, somebody thinks it's important. My brother has been having to hide out in the marshes because somebody thought it was important enough to kill my mother, but she passed it on to Marco here. See, we know who you are. We know where you're from. We reckoned you would be the right man to know what he's got. And we figured you'd be the best man to pay our price?and that's to keep him safe after he's told you."

The blond man began to look angry. "If this is some kind of a scam?"

"Brother," Marco said clearly and distinctly, "the viper strikes." It was the password of those in the service of the Milanese Duke Visconti.

Aldanto, who had just taken a mouthful of wine, coughed and practically choked.

Marco took the most recent of his precious copies of The Message from his shirt pocket and handed it to him.

***

Hazed with fatigue, Marco was blind to Aldanto's reactions?but Benito wasn't.

Within a few moments, Benito had figured Aldanto was not pleased with their recognition of him as a Milanese agent. Moments after that he knew by the worried look that Aldanto wasn't working for Duke Visconti anymore.

This required recalculation.

Then Aldanto's mouth began to twitch as he read the paper Marco had given him.

"Where did you come by this?"

"I told you," Benito said, stalling for time. "Our mama was something with the Milanese?passed their messages and whatall. Except somebody figured that out an' came for her, and Marco ran for the marshes to hide out with the last thing she got. Figured things were fine until he got jumped out there a day or so ago, and it weren't just any nightbird, it was an assassin. We are Valdosta; you might know the name?you might know people Mama knew?Ventuccio. You going help us out?"

"Valdosta. Well… well…" Aldanto pointed at the paper. "Nothing here for me," he said. His mouth was amused but his eyes were hard. "What you've got is an out-of-date infiltration schedule. Useless. And worthless."

***

Marco's mind went blank. All the hope?the plans?all in ruins; and the man Aldanto didn't seem the least bit interested in helping, much less being the shining rescuer Marco had prayed for.

"But?somebody must think I know something," he said desperately, "or why try to kill me? And why send an assassin? They could have hired one of the marsh-gangs, easy." Now all he wanted was to be able to think of something useful to Aldanto; something worth the cost of protecting both himself and Benito. It was far too late now to go back to the Jesolo marsh. "Maybe?maybe I know something someone doesn't want out?like a name, or a face?can't you use that?"

"Absolutely?Marco never forgets anything," Benito chimed in. "That's why Mama took him everywhere with her. He knows all kinds of things?things maybe still worth knowing."

"Like I remember you, milord. You were with Mama's man, Carlo Sforza?it was?around the beginning of October, I think, about nine years ago. You were wearing brown velvet, and you and Carlo talked about the bribes your father'd been paying…" Marco trailed off at the grim set of Aldanto's mouth.

"Besides?damned Milanese are out after us along with you," Benito interrupted, stepping hard on Marco's foot. "Mama would have sold us to slavers if they'd told her to. Duke Visconti never got us anything but trouble, and I bet it's him as sent the assassin. You need something, well, I can get it, or I know who can; I can get things done, too?get people disappeared?get you disappeared too, only less permanent. We've got connections you can't get from the Case Vecchie or the boatpeople. You need us, milord?about as much as we need you."

"Interesting. Valdosta…" Aldanto said, then said nothing more, obviously thinking hard. Marco turned on Benito, and tugged him into a corner of the little room.

"What the hell?"

"Truth, damn it!" Benito whispered harshly. "It's all true and you know it! Mama used you?why do you think she never paid me any attention? Theodoro's folks knew what was going on; told me too. Told me it was probably Duke Visconti's people that got Mama."

"Uh?"

"That's why they turned me out, couple of years ago. They were afraid, and I don't blame 'em. Lucky I ran into Claudia and Valentina."

"They're thieves! I know thieves cant when I hear it!"

" 'Course they're thieves! How d'you think I came by all that stuff for you? Where'd you think it came from? The Moon? I've been living in bloody attics for two years now! Look, brother?I've mostly given up thieving?the odds aren't in it. I'm a messenger now. But I couldn't get stuff for you, and feed me, on what I make running, and I wouldn't leave you without. So I stole. And I still steal. And I'll keep doin' it. 'Cause you're worth it?like Mama wasn't. Tell you what else. This Aldanto may have been Montagnard before, but he damn sure ain't now! Or didn't you notice him have a fit when you hit him with the password? Our best bet is to figure something he needs bad."

The fog began to clear from Marco's head, as Benito's words and his memory started to come together. Certain things were becoming a lot clearer than they'd ever been before.

Item: Chiano and Sophia had been trying to tell him?in gentler terms?exactly what Benito was telling him now. If three so very different people?one of them his own flesh and blood?were saying the same things about Duke Visconti and the Montagnard cause, and Mama's involvement with it, well it followed that he had probably been dead wrong and dreaming all these years.

Item: stripped of the fairy-tale glamour Mama had decked them in, Montagnards were not in the least attractive. Take the rhetoric of united Christian Empire away, and they became little more than highly trained, professional killers.

Item: they were now alone with this unhappy professional assassin, who was probably thinking that no one would miss them.

Marco looked over Benito's shoulder at Aldanto, who was contemplating them with a face of stone. Marco's blood ran colder than the spring-melt water that the Brenta carried down from the Alps.

Item: they were a liability. And Aldanto was looking at them like someone who couldn't afford liabilities.

***

Benito suddenly broke off, seeing Marco's face turn pale and still. "Brother?you all right?" he whispered, unable to fathom why Marco should suddenly look as if the great Lion of San Marco had come to life and confronted him. He knew that some of what he'd said was bound to come as a shock to Marco, but he hadn't thought any of it was enough to turn him white to the ears!

He shook Marco a little, beginning to feel worried. The way Marco was staring at Aldanto, sort of glassy-eyed?it wasn't like him. Marco was always the quick one, the alert one?except?

Benito went cold all over. Except when Marco had been sick…

***

Marco was watching Aldanto's eyes, the only things in his face that were showing any change. They were growing harder; and Marco's blood acquired ice crystals.

Item: they were quite likely to be dead very soon. Benito, with the panache of a fourteen-year-old unable to believe in his own mortality, had led them into dangerous and unfriendly hands?and with no way to escape. Aldanto was between them and the door, in a room barely big enough to hold all of them and the table and chairs.

Looking at those calculating eyes, Marco knew exactly what their fate was going to be. They had, at most, a few more minutes.

He forced himself to smile at his brother; he couldn't protect him from what was coming. "Nothing?just?you're right. About all of it. I've been plain stupid."

Benito shrugged. "No big deal. Everybody makes mistakes, and hell, I probably wouldn't believe anything bad anybody said about you, either."

"And I never told you how much I missed you, half." The old nickname made Benito grin. "That was even stupider. We're the team, right? So, from now on it's going be you and me?aye? All the way."

Benito dropped his pretense of adulthood and threw both arms around his brother in an affection-starved hug. Marco tightened his own arms around Benito's shoulder and stared at Aldanto, trying to beg with his eyes, and figuring that it was a lost cause before he started.

But to Marco's surprise, Caesare suddenly cleared his throat. A little sound, but the older boy started as violently as if a gun had gone off in his ear.

"You say your mother had connections with Ventuccio?"

Marco stared, unable to get his mouth to work. It was too much to comprehend?he'd expected the knife, and he'd only hoped Aldanto was good enough to make it fast and relatively painless. And then?this?

His ears roared, and little black spots danced in the air between his eyes and Aldanto's face.

"Ventuccio?" he heard himself say stupidly, as his knees suddenly liquefied on him.

***

Benito felt Marco start to collapse, and held him up by main force. Oh, God, please?no!

The last time Marco had done this, he'd missed the meetings for the next month; and when he finally showed up, he was pounds thinner, with eyes gone all hollow, and a rasping cough that lasted for weeks. Please, God?he begged, struggling to keep Marco on his feet long enough to pull a chair under him, don't let it be fever, he might not make it this time?and we're almost home free?

***

"Milord, just let me get him sat?milord, he's all right!" Marco heard Benito over the roaring in his ears, over the scrape of a chair on the floor "You don't?milord, you don't need?"

Something shoved up against the back of his legs; hands were under his armpits letting him down easy, the same strong hands then pushing his head down between his legs.

"Stay that way for a bit?" Aldanto's voice. And the roaring went away, his eyes cleared. When his head stopped spinning he looked up. Aldanto sat on his heels beside him, Benito looking frantic, trying to get between them without touching the man. "Better?"

"I?" Marco managed. "I?"

Aldanto took his chin in one hand, tilted his eyes into the light, scrutinizing them closely.

"I'm sorry, milord, I'm all right," Marco whispered, thinking, Daren't, daren't show weakness in front of this man! "Honest, I'm all right."

"You're not?but you will be."

Ignoring Benito's worried protests (Great, thought Marco dizzily, now he realizes we could be in trouble), Aldanto went to the table and brought his glass of wine to Marco, who took it with hands that shook so hard the wine slopped. Poison? No?not likely. Not when he'd had the chance to kill them easily and hadn't. An assassin as physically capable as Aldanto so obviously was, wouldn't bother with anything other than a blade. Not, at least, dealing with two poor boys in a place like this.

"Get yourself on the outside of that."

Marco sipped, the alcoholic warmth spreading from his stomach to the rest of his body. His hands stopped shaking, slowly.

"When did you last eat?"

"Eat?" Marco was taken totally by surprise by the question and the funny half smile on Aldanto's face. "Uh?I don't remember."

"Then it's been too long. Small wonder you're falling at my feet. They're reserved for women, you know."

As Marco tried to adjust to the fact that Aldanto had just made a joke, the blond man turned to Benito. He held out a piece of silver. "Go out there and get some bread and risi e bisi."

Benito scampered, and returned with a steaming bowl moments later. Some customer was going to have to wait a little longer for his dinner. The thick green rice-and-pea soup was set down, and Benito scampered off to fetch bread and a bowl of shaved Parmesan. Aldanto held out the spoon to Marco.

Marco stared at it as though it was alive, not taking it.

"Go on, eat." Aldanto pried one of Marco's hands off the glass and pressed the spoon into it. "Marco?"

God and Saints, they were saved. Marco's head spun?this time with relief.

"About the Ventuccio?"

Marco took the bread which Benito had now brought. He dipped it into the soup and took a tiny bite. He swallowed around a lump in his throat, and began.

***

When Marco had finished telling Aldanto all he knew and most of what he guessed, and when his knees could hold him upright again, Aldanto considered them both carefully for several long moments. Marco took advantage of his preoccupation to finish every drop of soup and every crumb of bread.

"Something must be done with you two," Aldanto said at last. "The safest you can be is in plain sight. And Ventuccio can do that better than anyone."

Marco didn't argue with him?after all, he'd just proved how poor his own judgment was. Aldanto pondered something silently for a very long time, while a young riot of shouting youths passed by outside and moved on.

"I think it's not too late to get speech of Ventuccio," Aldanto said abruptly. "It's Solstice, after all. Come along."

Before Marco could protest, before Benito could do anything more than look stunned, Aldanto had chivvied them out of the door and onto the walkway. Benito, for once, looked appropriately apprehensive, but that could easily have been because he'd run errands for Ventuccio and reckoned on being recognized there.

Aldanto had not been speaking rhetorically, for a brisk walk brought them straight to Casa Ventuccio proper.

At least he didn't take them to the main door of the great house. Instead, he led them down to a water-door, where he tapped out a sequence of knocks, and was answered.

The man who opened the door frowned ferociously when he saw who it was, but at least he listened to Aldanto's whispered words and, after a moment, nodded.

"I'll see about it," the man growled, and allowed them, grudgingly, past the door to stand waiting in the damp entry while he went away somewhere. Presently, he came back, still looking displeased, but jerked his head as a sign that they should follow. He led them down long, unlit halls of wood and stone, and finally into a room piled with ledgers that was so brightly lit Marco was blinking tears back.

Now they fronted a man Aldanto called by name, and that man was coldly angry. "You have a lot of balls, coming here, Caesare," the man spat. "And for calling me away from my guests on a night of the Feast?"

"Granted," Aldanto said coldly. "However, I think you happen to take your honor and your pledged word fairly seriously, and I have just learned that you happen to have an unpaid debt and a broken promise you might want to discharge. These boys are Valdosta. Marco and Benito Valdosta."

Marco had rarely seen words act so powerfully on someone. The man's anger faded into guilt.

"I've brought them here," Aldanto continued deliberately, "so that we can even some scales. You made a promise to Duke Dell'este, and didn't keep it. I?lost you some people. Both these kids are useful."

Now the man looked skeptical, as if he doubted Aldanto's ability to judge much of anything.

"Milord," Benito piped up, "you've used me, I know. Ask your people. I'm a messenger?a good one. I don't take bribes, I'm fast?"

"You could take him on as a staff runner and train him for bargework as he grows into it. And the older boy clerks," Aldanto continued.

"You don't expect me to take that on faith!"

Marco took a deep breath and interrupted. "Set me a problem, milord. Nothing easy. You'll see."

The man sniffed derisively, then rattled off something fast; a complicated calculation involving glass bottles?cost, expected breakage, transportation and storage, ending with the question of how much to ask for each in order to receive a twenty-percent profit margin.

Marco closed his eyes, went into his calculating-trance, and presented the answer quickly enough to leave the man with a look of surprise on his face.

"Well!" said the man. "For once… I don't suppose he can write, too?"

Aldanto had a funny little smile. "Give him something to write with." He seemed to be enjoying the man's discomfiture.

Marco was presented with a quill pen and an old bill of lading. He appropriated a ledger to press on, and promptly copied the front onto the back, and in a much neater hand.

"You win," the man said with resignation. "Why don't you tell me exactly what's been going on?and how you managed to resurrect these two?"

Aldanto just smiled.

The man took Aldanto off somewhere, returning after a bit with a troubled look and a bundle, which he handed to Benito.

"You, boy?I want you here at opening time sharp, and in this uniform. And you're not Valdosta anymore, forget that name. You're Oro; you're close enough to the look of that family. Got that?"

Benito took the bundle soberly. "Yes. Milord."

"As for you?" Marco tried not to sway with fatigue, but the man saw it anyway, "?you're out on your feet. No good to anyone until you get some rest. Besides, two new kids in one day?hard to explain. You get fed and clean, real clean. We've got a reputation to maintain. And get that hair taken care of. I want you here in two days. 'Oro' is no good for you. Make it?uh?Felluci. I don't suppose you'd rather be sent back to your family?"

"No, milord," Marco replied adamantly. "I won't put danger on them. Bad enough that it's on me."

The man shook his head. "Saints preserve?you're a fool, boy, but a brave one. Dell'este honor, is it? Well, Dell'este can usually deal with most things, too. Anyway… Right enough?now get out of here. Before I remember that I'm not a fool. Ventuccio honor's real enough, but it isn't that hammered steel version the Old Fox insists on."

Aldanto escorted them to the door, stopping them just inside it.

"This wasn't free?" he told Marco quietly.

"Milord. I know that, milord."

"Just so we both know, I'm going to be calling in this debt?calling in all those things you promised me. I may call it in so often that you'd wish you'd never thought of coming to me."

"Milord Aldanto," Marco replied, looking him full in the eyes, "I owe you. And I can't ever pay it all."

"Well…" Aldanto seemed slightly embarrassed. "They say the one who wins is the one who is left standing, so by all counts you came out of this a winner. Be grateful?and remember to keep your mouth shut."

Marco figured that that was the best advice he'd had in a long time.

***

Benito hauled Marco back to Valentina and Claudia before taking him "home." The Marco that came from their hands was much shorter of hair by a foot or two; and a bit darker of complexion?not to mention a lot cleaner and with a good hot breakfast in his stomach. It wasn't quite dawn when he and his brother climbed up to the garret where Benito had made his home. Benito gave him a pair of blankets to roll up in, and he was sleeping the sleep of the exhausted before Benito had gotten into his store clothes. Benito smiled to himself, a smile warm and content with the world, and set to one last task before heading back to Ventuccio.

He pried up a particular board in the attic, felt around until he located the little bag he had hung there, and pulled it out. Caesare's woman Maria Garavelli was bound to hear of this?and he reckoned he'd better have a peace offering. And there was that scarf he'd taken off that duelist to prove to Claudia that he was able.

***

After the Ventuccio let him go for the day, he waited under the Ponto di Rialto knowing she'd be by. When he spotted her, he swung down to hang from the support by his knees.

He whistled. She looked up.

"Maria?" he called. "Peace, huh? Truce? Okay? Here's something for sorrys." He'd knotted a pebble into one corner of the scarf?and it was a nice one; silk, bright red. He dropped it neatly at her feet, and scrambled back up before she could get over her surprise. With Maria Garavelli it was a good idea to get out of the line-of-sight and find out about reactions later.

Besides?he warmed to the thought?he had to get back home. His family was waiting. And once they'd eaten there was a bit of swimming he'd promised to do for that smuggler-girl.

Chapter 6

What was that about? wondered Maria. She stared after Benito's rapidly receding form, pausing for a moment in her rowing of the gondola.

"Peace?" "Truce?" I didn't know there was a fight between me and Benito in the first place. If there is… we'll see whether there's a truce or not!

Maria Garavelli looked at the bright rectangle of silk lying on her duckboards and bent down and rescued the precious scrap before it got wet. It was the expensive color that dyers called golden flame or oriflamme. It was just the color of the evening sun-trail on the water of the lagoon. She shook her head clear of these impractical thoughts. Honestly! Sometimes she behaved as she was some Case Vecchie lady, instead of a canal-girl.

That bridge-brat Benito… He hung about with young Mercutio Laivetti. Mercutio was Trouble if she'd ever met trouble, and you didn't get to be sixteen as an orphaned girl on the canals of Venice without being good at spotting it. She'd fended for herself for three years since Mama died, leaving her nothing but the gondola. Cousin Antonio had offered to let her move in with them, but heaven knew there were enough mouths to feed there. Saint Hypatia! And his wife was the worst shrew and gossip in all Venice. Maria pulled a wry face and tucked the silk scarf into the top of her blouse. She went back to sculling.

Some of that gossip was about her in the last few months, she was sure. The cousins didn't approve of Caesare. They really, really didn't approve of her living with him. It wasn't just that they weren't married. A fair number of Caulker-guild brides, those of the Garavelli cousins among them, had tried for the reputation of having been the most pregnant at the altar. Cousin Rosina had looked as if she might just have to get the priest to help with the delivery! But Caesare came from above the salt. The Garavelli were artisans. Mostly caulkers, cladding Venice's great ships. They had a pride in working with their hands and not much liking or trust for a man who didn't.

She worked the oar just a bit faster. The only reason that bridge-brat Benito could have been giving her a silk scarf?a stolen silk scarf, she'd bet?was something to do with her Caesare. She set her mouth in a grim line. Scarf or no scarf, she'd sort that Benito out if he'd brought trouble onto her!

All the same… it was a gorgeous red, that scarf. It would set off her thick dark hair beautifully. She craved for lovely things like that?not for themselves but because they'd make her look a little less like a canal-girl. Caesare was so fine. Everything about him said Case Vecchie, from the smooth, curved golden hair that looked as if it were cast in bronze, to the long white hands. Her hands were work-hardened and brown. She'd kill young Benito if he'd brought trouble.

Without even realizing it, her fists were clenched tightly on the oars. Maria Garavelli was not one to back away from a fight. She'd been fighting for most of her young life; she could say it had even begun before she was born, when her mama's own people had thrown her out for getting pregnant without the benefit of a husband. Like she'd have starved, except that she had a small boat, inherited from her grandfather, and a regular list of customers she made deliveries for, gotten on her own initiative. So Mama had worked right up through the first labor pains (so she'd said) and then headed for the canalside midwife she'd already made arrangements with, and the next day she was up and working again with Maria wrapped up in swaddling in a cradle made of half a cask.

Maria had grown up, like every other canal-brat, knowing that it was only fight and hard work that kept you that bare nail-paring away from starvation and disaster. She'd worked at Mama's side from the time she could stand, and when Mama took the fever and died, she kept right on working.

And fighting. She had to fight with the toughs who saw her as an easy mark and tried to take her cargo or her pay. She had to fight with the other canal-boat owners who tried to steal her customers with implications that a "little girl on her own" couldn't do what she'd pledged. She even had to fight Mama's family who wanted her to come work at some miserable pittance of a dead-end job for them. She had to fight the boys?relatives and canalers and toughs?who figured since her mama had been "loose," the daughter's skirts were there for lifting. They finally let her be when one of their number had to join a castrati choir when she'd finished with him.

So it was no wonder that she'd never exchanged so much as a single solitary flirtatious glance with a boy, much less had anything like a romance. Oh, she'd certainly thought enough about it. She wasn't made of wood, after all. When a good-looking tough sauntered by, flaunting himself for the admiration of the puttanas, or she'd see a wedding coming out of a church with the bride beaming?when she'd hear a snatch of song and see some love-sick student balanced precariously in a gondola, serenading a window she couldn't help thinking… Even, on the rare occasions that she went to Mass at Saint Lucia's and spent the entire time contemplating, not God, but the pale and beautiful face of Father Raphael?how could she not think about the ways of man-with-maid?

But she'd had no illusions, either. She knew she was hard and rough, not smooth and silky. She knew only too well that her skin was brown and weathered, not soft and pink like rose petals.

She'd had no illusions about her looks, but still?she'd had dreams she never told anyone, just cherished to herself, and played over in the theater in her head when she was halfway between waking and sleeping. Someday, some handsome fellow would drop into her life?she'd rescue him from a flood, or from footpads, or he'd hire her boat to visit some worthless, heartless bitch who would throw him over. He'd look at her, and see something in her that no one else ever had?he'd take off her cap, pull all her hair down around her face, and say, "Maria?you're beautiful!" in tones of moonstruck surprise. And he'd love her forever, and it would turn out that he was the long-lost heir to one of the Old Houses?

Oh, stupid dreams, and she would never, ever have admitted to anyone that she had them. She would never, ever have believed them, either.

Except that… one night they came true.

She'd been tied up for the night under a bridge to get out of the rain, when she heard the sounds that no Venetian?boater, canalside dweller, or high-and-mighty?ever wanted to hear. A scuffle. The sounds of a blow. Then the sound of two men carrying something heavy up to the top of the bridge.

It was a dark night on top of the miserable rain, what with the moon hidden by the clouds, but she knew she didn't dare move or make a sound. She huddled under the roof of what she grandly called the "cabin" of her little boat, and hoped that the men up there wouldn't notice that she was tied up in the shadows underneath. She might be able to fight off one or even two, but from the sounds there had been more than that.

A grunt, and a heave, and something dark and heavy drooped over the edge of the bridge. It hung up on the railing for a moment, and before it dropped, there were footsteps running away. Then, as she strained her eyes against the dark and the rain in horrified fascination, the thing tore loose from the coping and tumbled down.

Into her boat.

It had been a fairly low bridge; getting hung up had slowed the object's fall. Otherwise it probably would have overset the boat, or even driven a hole right through it. When it?the body, for that was clear what it was?had landed, it had done so on its feet, crumpling, or else it would have bashed in its skull (if it wasn't already bashed) or broken its neck (if it wasn't already broken). Probably the stone tied to its ankles had helped out there.

And all she could think of was?get it off my boat!

She'd scrambled out of the cabin, and Fate or God or something had undone all of her good sense and intentions.

For just as she reached the body, it gave out a groan and turned face-up. And just as it did so, the clouds parted for a moment, and a ray of moonlight shone down on what must have been the most beautiful man she had ever seen apart from Father Raphael, who was in any case a full priest and out of the running so far as romance went.

And that was how Caesare-the-handsome, Caesare-the-dangerous, Caesare-the-all-too-persuasive-damn-him ended up in her shack, in her blankets, and in her care.

And it was just like one of her daydreams, from start to finish. She moved Caesare into her little shack near the canals, where there would be no spying eyes and ears. She nursed him and kept him warm and fed him from a spoon for days?and then, suddenly, one day he looked up at her with sense in his eyes, and said "Who are you? Where am I?" and she answered him. And then, like he'd been watching the same dreams, he reached up, and pulled off her cap and her hair came tumbling down and he said, "My God, you saved my life, and you're beautiful!"

Well, what was any girl to do when a handsome man said that to her, in her own bed, in her own house, on a moonlit night when the lagoon was bright and glassy-smooth?

He didn't tell her a lot about himself, afterwards. Except that he was a danger to her, and he had to leave her?which she expected, really. But what he said then she didn't expect.

"How can I leave you? I love you!" ?and she, fierce as a lion with a cub, swore she could help him, keep him safe from those enemies?she'd known they were enemies all along, no footpad ever bothered tying a rock to someone to sink him. But then he told her who those enemies were?the Milanese?and that he'd been working for them right up until the moment that they betrayed him. Almost, almost she took it all back, almost told him to leave. Almost.

But she hadn't. And she'd hidden him until she was able to get him to someone who could offer him, for a price, a precarious bit of protection. Then a little more. And him, with his sneak's ways and his angel's face, clawed and fought his way up to being very valuable?alive?to enough people that it was no longer more profitable for him to be dead. For now, at least.

And that was why Maria Garavelli found herself rowing her boat along a back-canal in the dead of night, roused by a messenger; going, once again, to pick up her lover from wherever-he-was now; short on sleep, short on temper, and wondering if this time, despite passwords and safeguards, it wasn't him, but an ambush. And lovesick idiot that she was, she'd have been sculling through canals of fire if she had to, to get to him.

The ache in her fists suddenly registered on her brain, and she eased up her grip on the oar. For some reason, that reminded her of Benito and his peculiar "peace offering."

For a moment, Maria's natural combativeness caused her to frown. But, within seconds, the frown cleared away and she uttered a soft little laugh.

That scamp!

Truth be told, she thought she was probably fond of Benito. Maybe.

And it was a lovely red, that scarf.

Chapter 7

Steel. Heavy steel. Angular and Gothic. The spike-shouldered breastplate had curlicues and inlays on the points, for heaven's sake. Not for the first time, Erik Hakkonsen stared in irritation at the heavy plate armor, as he stood sharpening the blade of his Algonquian war hatchet. He was waiting, not with any eagerness, for his squire-orderly to help him into it. He'd drawn the guard-stint for this State banquet. He looked balefully at the closed-pot helmet he'd be sweating in one hour from now. No good German Ritter would consider wearing anything else but full armor.

Only… Erik was not a German Ritter. An Icelander wasn't as stupid and hidebound as these continentals. Any Icelander, much less one who had skirmished on the Vinland frontiers, would turn up his nose at elaborate plate armor. A crossbow bolt would punch through it and a ball from an arquebus or a good pistol would shatter the steel. For that matter, at close quarters Erik could find the joints and cut them apart with his blade-and-pick tomahawk, as easily as shucking clams.

And carrying all those pounds of useless steel without a horse to help…

He heard the creak of the door. "What kept you, Pellmann?" he snapped, putting the whetstone down. "I've been waiting half an hour… Oh."

The visitor had flopped onto the caryatid-pillared bed. The accommodation was a far cry from the cells in the bleak monastery at Greifswald. It wasn't his churlish Pomeranian squire-orderly admiring the caryatides. The bed protested as the large human negligently sprawled on it rolled closer to inspect the finely carved detail. Manfred whistled appreciatively.

His reaction to the carving was predictable. Perhaps even justified, Erik was willing to admit. Erik himself had blushed when he realized that the carved nymph was perfect in every anatomical detail. The bed's reaction was also quite predictable?and justified. Young Manfred was designed by nature to wear armor. To wear armor without noticing it.

It never failed to irritate Erik. The steel would chafe his lean, angular, sinewy body raw. Manfred was better shaped and padded for this sort of thing.

The solid, blocklike Manfred grinned, revealing slightly skew solid blocklike teeth in a jaw whose musculature matched the rest of him. Erik suspected Manfred could crunch clams without even bothering to open them.

"Well, you'll just have to go on waiting." The young knight-squire drew a bottle from under his cotte, and tossed it to Erik. "Here. Try some of this."

Erik drew the cork without thinking, and took a deep pull. He spluttered. "What is it? Armor polish?" Then he remembered himself, and his duty. He was sworn to the order and God for another two years. He rammed the cork home and tossed it back to the laughing knight-squire. "In heaven's name, Manfred! If Abbot Sachs catches you with that stuff, he'll have you pushing guard duties until you turn gray."

"He's with Sister Ursula again. Doing abbotly duties, no doubt," said the worldly-wise scion of the imperial court at Mainz.

Erik felt his face redden. "Jesu! Manfred, don't say things like that! He's a man of God."

In reply the young knight-squire drew the cork from the dull green bottle with his teeth. He took a deep pull. He did not splutter. He set the bottle down on the stone-flagged floor. With beer-brown innocent eyes he looked mournfully at the Icelander. Then, sighed heavily.

"Erik, alas, I am a man of the flesh. And this is Venice! It's supposed to have the best courtesans and the best bordellos in all Europe. We've been here for nearly two days and I haven't sampled them. You're supposed to look after me! What say you we cut this banquet tonight and go whoring? These local girls will go wild over that blond head and that chiseled chin of yours."

Erik felt himself blush, again. He couldn't help liking his young charge. And he couldn't help wishing that Manfred had been placed under someone else's eye. He understood why he'd been singled out for this. It was, he supposed, a great symbol of trust, and a great honor. It was also a great headache.

He tried an appeal to piety and reason. "Manfred. You're a Knight of the Holy Trinity, even if only a confrere. A moral example to these soft, corrupt southerners. Not a mercenary out for the customary three nights of sacking."

The young knight-squire grinned. "That's why I was planning to pay my way. Not being a ladies' delight like you…"

"I've got guard duty, tonight," interrupted Erik, hastily. "And so have you, come to think of it."

Manfred yawned. "I'll swap out. Come on, Erik. I'll go without you, otherwise."

This was a dire threat. It had worked when Manfred had wanted to sample the taverns of Innsbruck. But it was a vain threat this time.

"Abbot Sachs himself put up the list," said Erik, grimly. "And besides, my Breton friend, your court Frankish isn't going to get you anywhere. Without a grasp of the local dialect you couldn't ask your way to the nearest church, never mind anything else."

"That's why I need a linguist like you, Erik," grinned Manfred. "And I sure couldn't get back without my sober, respectable mentor to guide me. Come on, Erik…"

"Not a chance." Erik glanced at the light from the high enchased window. "Now you'd better leg it back to get suited up. I'd better yell for that useless Pellmann."

"You'd do well to shove his surly face up his hinder-end instead," said Manfred, rising and stretching.

Erik had yet to get used to the way these continentals treated their servants. Thralls back home were more like part of the family, and as likely to yell at you as you were at them. But Pellmann's insolent attitude toward serving anyone but a North German Ritter was beginning to rub even the egalitarian Icelander raw. "I think I will, if I don't find him in two minutes," he said grimly.

Pellmann bustled in abruptly. The nasty piece of work had plainly been listening outside.

Manfred snorted. "Ah, well. I'll see you at the banquet. Maybe there'll be some pretty women there." He left, leaving Erik to Pellmann's mercies. The Pomeranian knew by now that the worst Erik would do when a buckle pinched him was curse under his breath. Erik would swear the Pomeranian used this opportunity to make the foreign confrere knight's life a misery.

Pellmann's knuckles dug into his rib cage, harder than was necessary. Erik clenched his jaws, restraining a fierce impulse to use his own knuckles on the surly underling's pudgy face. Instead, he satisfied himself with glaring at the walls of the embassy. Even in this modest suite, the walls were covered with wood paneling, ornately carved in the imperial manner.

The sight of those paneled walls darkened his mood further. The very fact that this ceremony was being held here, in the embassy of the Holy Roman Empire, was a sign of the rot. By rights, it should have been held in the Knights' own hospital. And if the one in Venice was too small for the purpose, a suitably neutral site could have been easily found in a city as large as this one. Holding it here simply reinforced the common perception that the Knights had become nothing more than an extension of the imperial power, pure and simple.

Erik sighed, remembering his father's words as he bade his younger son farewell. Remember, lad, stay out of politics! Church or state, it matters not. Your duty is that of the clan, to the Emperor alone. Nothing less, mind?but also nothing more. Nothing else.

But between the Pomeranian squire and the Prussian knight-commander it was hard. The Prussian, Von Stublau, was irritating him even more than Pellmann.

***

"Prussian son of a bitch," muttered Manfred, as he marched into the banqueting hall. He said it quietly, though. He'd been hoping for duty carrying the Woden-casket from the chapel nave to the banqueting hall. Instead he'd drawn the delightful duty of being one of the door-wardens. To stand for the entire length of the banquet and watch while the church delegations and the imperials wined and dined the oligarchy of Venice.

Not for the first time he wished he could pack this up and go home to Bretagne. Or even back to Mainz. However, his mother and his uncle had made it painfully clear that he was going to do service as confrere knight in a monastic order… or else. And Uncle Charles was quite grimly capable of making the "or else" a long stay in the imperial dungeons. On the whole being a confrere was a better option. Just.

If he had to be strictly honest about it, and he usually was with himself, Manfred had brought it on himself. Going to the Gothic grandeur of Mainz from the impoverishment of Bretagne had been a shock, when he had been sent to the imperial court as a twelve-year-old page. When he went back home to Bretagne, he'd run a little wild.

His mother had hoped the pious, monastic knights would rid him of his taste for low companions and teach him piety, and allow him to mix with people of his own order. Mother was Swabian to the core and regarded her husband's court, and the chiefs and duniwasals of Bretagne, as little more than barbarians.

So far it had made him dislike most Saxons and positively detest most Prussians.

He tried to find solace in what he could. The one advantage of the closed pot, after all, was he could ogle pretty girls at will. Of course he couldn't actually speak to them. As a penance he could watch the chased silver platters of delicacies being carried in. On the plus side he got to watch Abbot Sachs flinch from an array of whole crispy fried baby squid. To make up for it the sound of the rebecs seemed to be trapped in the helmet…

The Venetian musicians were stilled. The great doors at the far side of the chamber were flung open and the party bearing the captured Woden-casket advanced. And there was Erik. Carrying one side of the spear bier the casket was transported on.

Manfred almost laughed. All you could see of the Icelander were those chilly blue eyes. Impossible for most people to read anything in that gaze. But Manfred knew him well enough to sense the Icelander's irritation with the man leading the little party.

Prussian son of a bitch.

***

Von Stublau had the opposite end of the spear that Erik had been assigned to. He was even taller than Erik, which was unusual among the Knights. Needless to say, he had the shaft end of the spear. "Pick it up higher, auslander," grumbled the burly German knight-proctor, as they clanked down the passage toward the hubbub of the embassy's banquet hall.

Erik lifted his side slightly. Von Stublau was right. The thing should be borne on a level. The four knights advanced in step, bearing the crucifix made from four lashed spears. Strapped to the crucifix with bands of steel was the Wodenite casket. To Erik, the weight of souls in that casket was far more than the mere heavy oak, black iron studs and rune-etched bands. Even if each soul it had devoured was lighter than swansdown.

True, the capture of a Svear heathen god?even that of a small tribe of Sm?landers?was a triumph for the forces of Christ. Its public display and the enactment of the Rite of Forbidding greatly enhanced the Knights' prestige. But Erik knew that the creature of darkness had been taken from a temple of bells and bones. The bones of infant sacrifices… The bells made from the skulls.

Like most people from the League of Armagh, even those of Norse descent, Erik was a follower of the Gaelic creed within the Church. That tradition?the more so in Vinland?was not given to theological stringency. Until arriving in the continent, he had paid little attention to the endless doctrinal disputes between the Petrine and Pauline trends within the main body of the Church.

He had known that the Pauline creed was dominant in the Holy Roman Empire; and that the Knights were specifically devoted to it. But the knowledge had been abstract, until he joined the militant order. Since then, the Icelander had come to find some of the practices of the Pauline orders?especially those of the Servants?a bit frightening. His private opinion was that it would be far better to destroy the Woden-godling than to display it.

The banquet hall of the embassy nearly took Erik's breath away. Part of the impact was the smell. Beeswax and alchemistic silver-cleansers clogged the nostrils, even over the smell of perfumes. Part of it was the heat produced by thousands of candles in silver sconces. He was becoming almost inured to the wasteful opulence of the Holy Roman Empire. Still… the banquet hall took that opulence to extremes he had not witnessed even in Mainz. He wasn't as bad as the Orkney islanders who made such a virtue of their unavoidable frugality, but the sheer ostentation still bothered him. The high walls were slit with lancet windows, the intervening spaces hung with tapestry. Underfoot was soft with Turkish carpets, imported from the great realm of the Mongol Ilkhan.

The crowded room was silenced by the entry of the marching Knights. As they moved slowly into the chamber, Eric studied the crowd through the narrow slits of his helmet.

At least in one small way, the Venetian notables packed into the banquet hall reminded Erik of the Icelandic Althing-gatherings and Vinlander volk-meets. Far more, in truth, than the people attending the court functions he'd been to in the cities of the Holy Roman Empire, as the triumphant party of Knights displayed their captured trophy in their progression down to Italy.

Those crowds had been composed almost entirely of the nobility. Whereas some?many, Erik suspected?of the grandees of Venice were plainly just wealthy tradesmen. Something about their posture said it.

Erik examined Giorgio Foscari. The Doge of Venice was an elderly man?an octogenarian, in fact?who looked as if he'd be more at home counting coins on his estate than leading Venice's Signori in the Senate and Grand Council. And the "condottiere" General Aldo Frescata, on the Doge's right, looked as though he'd be more at home leading a fashion parade than a march. The Castillian consul sitting next to him, engaged in quiet conversation with the elderly Father Maggiore, head of the local chapter of the Servants of the Holy Trinity, looked far more like a soldier.

The Venetians, on the whole, were dressed to display the fact that this was still probably the richest independent city in Christendom. A city which was itself the owner of a small empire. Still, there was an underlying hardness?a sort of marine tang?that appealed to Erik.

The Servants of the Holy Trinity, spiritual and magical guardians of the casket, came forward from where they had been seated. Their leaders, both of the local chapter and of the delegation from the monastery at Hochstublau, left the high table and joined them.

"Sanctus. Sanctus in mirabile dictu…"

The low chant began, as, with swaying censer, blessed salt and the sprinkling of holy water, the monks began their ninefold circle. Sister Ursula began preparing for the evocation of the guardians. Erik was not well versed in magic, other than some of the practices of shamans in Vinland, but he knew it was going to be a long ceremony. The weight of the casket seemed to press down still further.

Out of the corner of his eye Erik caught sight of Manfred, one of the armored door-wardens, as he ripped a browned piece of the whole roasted chamois that had just been carried in by the liveried servants. The supposed door-warden cracked his visor and popped it into his face.

Erik sighed. In the private interview he'd had with the Emperor upon his arrival in Mainz, Charles Fredrik had said that his young nephew Manfred's piety compared well to a Vinlander's city polish. Being more or less half Vinlander, Erik understood the metaphor too well. In another two years he'd have finished his stint as a confrere knight with the Order, and he could go back. Already he'd more or less made up his mind. Vinland. It was such a wide, open place, even compared to Iceland…

***

"Conserva me!"

Erik's idle thoughts were interrupted by that sudden loud cry. His eyes, half-closed behind the heavy armored visor, opened wide. He wasn't certain, but he didn't think that shout was part of the ceremony…

The chanting stuttered to a halt. Father Maggiore, the local chapter head of the Servants of the Holy Trinity, had turned and was now staggering blindly into the orderly procession.

Eric frowned. He had half-suspected that the elderly, whiny-voiced prelate was beginning to lose his wits during his hour-long rambling sermon that morning. Now it looked as if he were having a minor fit. The wispy white-haired monk flailed out wildly, knocking to the floor one of the brothers who had tried to approach him.

Monks scattered like sprats as the elderly man began to shriek. His voice quavered upwards above the panicky babble beginning to break out among the grandees of Venice.

Abbot Sachs put down his censer and stepped forward. His open hand was raised, and he plainly intended to slap the old man. Before he could do so, before he could even touch the man, the abbot was flung away, as if by a giant unseen hand. He landed on his backside, legs flailing above his head.

Then the old man stopped. His voice, as whiny as ever, seemed almost normal as he said, "Conserva me, domin…"

Then he shrieked terribly, briefly. And then, as the flesh on his face itself began to bubble, melt and flow, laughter, black, deep and evil, erupted from lips pulled into a parody of a grin.

Manfred, armor and all, vaulted the table, sending ornate Venetian glassware, wine and silverware flying. He raised his broadsword… and reversed it. Taking it by the guard to form a cross, he advanced on the monk who was tearing aside his robes with frantic bloody fingers.

"Back!" yelled Abbot Sachs, scrambling to his feet. "Back, you fool! Knights! Seal the doorways." Already the nobles and notables of Venice were heading for the great doors in panic-stricken streams.

Knights positioned at intervals around the walls rushed for doors, broadswords at the ready. For a moment it looked as if they would be mobbed down. But steel armor and the fearsome swords quelled the rush, after a part of the crowd had managed to flee the chamber.

Young Manfred, meanwhile, continued to advance on the tortured and still obscenely laughing monk?slowly, as if through thick mud. Sparks leapt from his spiky armor.

"Put this damned thing down," snarled Erik. He had to help the young fool. It was his duty to God and Emperor Charles Fredrik, despite the fact that the hair on the nape of his neck was rising. He had seen combat in Iceland and the magic of pagan shamans on the Vinland frontiers, but nothing like this.

"Stand!" snapped Sister Ursula, advancing with rapid strides on Abbot Sachs, who was pushing his way toward Manfred. The abbot looked as if he was struggling through quicksand.

"Von Stublau!" The nun's eyes singled out the burly Altmark knight. "Protect the casket at all costs. Do not allow it to be set down. This is but a distraction." Then she snatched a basin of holy water from one of the horrified watching monks, and strode?as if it was the easiest thing in the world!?to link arms with Abbot Sachs. Together they held the basin. Together they dipped fingers into it and flicked the water onto Manfred's armor.

The effect was cacophonic. With a discordant jangle like the cracking of bells, Manfred was flung backwards. He landed in a broken-doll sprawl against one of the spindly legged chairs. The delicate piece of furniture splintered under his great weight, fragments flying everywhere.

The nun and the gray-cassocked abbot advanced on the writhing remains of Father Maggiore. Little flames were beginning to dance above the bubbling flesh. The two clerics reached their hands into the basin and…

The silver basin cracked in two as if it were a brittle stick. The two clerics retreated hastily, not quite running. Erik was relieved to see Manfred sitting up, feeling for his broadsword among the smashed splinters of the chair.

"A circle!" commanded the abbot. "Servants of the Trinity, form a circle! Knights?put a ring of steel around that casket. The forces of pagan darkness seek to free the Woden."

Hastily, the monks and knights moved to comply.

But it was too late for the former Venetian chapter-head of the Servants of the Holy Trinity. The old monk would never give another whiny-voiced rambling sermon, or come around demanding to know whether anyone had seen his missing cassock. The naked figure was shriveling and blackening even as the monks chanted.

By the time the monks had closed in on the body and sprinkled holy water, there was little more than ashes left.

Father Sachs stilled the monks. Then he marched up to the high table where he had been seated with Doge Giorgio Foscari. He turned on the Signori of Venice. With a gesture he stilled the rising babble from the crowd.

"Hear now my words, people of Venice!" he shouted into the silence, his voice full of righteous anger. "Is it not written: You shall not suffer a witch to live? Evil flourishes here within the see of Venice. Evil I say! Evil flourishes and you are too lax to tear it out, root and branch. The accursed Strega, Jews, and Mussulmen ply their sinful trades in the open. Mammon and Belial have misled you from the holy path given to us by the apostle Paul. I tell you, he who falters from the Gospel is a heretic and damned to eternal hellfire with torments of white-hot scorpions. Your laxity has meant that the evil servants of the Antichrist dared to attack, even here, in the presence of the Master of your city. What hospitality is this that your own guests can be so abused? What has become of the sanctity of guests?"

Erik raised his eyes to the bacchanalian string-courses near the ceiling in irritation at the waste of precious time. Every moment now was vital. The miscreants must be among the "guests." But some had fled. It was essential that they be pursued. There was little doubt that honest steel would destroy the magic of pagans.

Instead he stood and ground his teeth as Abbot Sachs continued to harangue the Venetians.

Chapter 8

"Party lookin' for you," said Lola, green-eyed suspicion in her voice. The runner-girl wore the scarf he'd given her for telling them where to find Caesare. And a fine silver pin she'd got from someone else. That was Lola for you. You had to be loyal to her…

Benito winked at her from his rooftop. He had to get back to Marco, but it paid to stay on top of the canal-talk. And Lola knew most of it before it even got out. "Who'd that be, Bright-eyes?"

Lola raised a dark eyebrow. "That girl we call 'the Spook.' You never see her in daylight. Always wears a hood. Got connections on the Rio del Ghetto."

Benito started guiltily. Kat! He'd forgotten he was supposed to meet her tonight. Getting Marco to move out of the swamp had driven the whole thing from his mind.

"Where is she?"

Lola sniffed. "You find her."

"Come on, Lola," pleaded Benito. When she was in this sort of mood, which was most of the time, Lola could be very capricious.

Lola just sniffed and shrugged.

Benito tried reason. "C'mon, Lola. It's a job."

The runner shook her head. "With that one you're safer chasing her body than getting into her line of work." And she was off. Benito knew it was useless to chase after her. Even if he could catch up, which was no certainty, because Lola was fast and knew every alley and shortcut in Venice, she wouldn't talk. And pressing her was a bad idea, anyway. Lola had several large and unpleasant friends.

He tried the arranged rendezvous. But Katerina wasn't there. Seeing as it was close to the noise of Barducci's, he slipped in. It was early still and the sailors weren't there in numbers yet. On the spits they were cooking rows of toresani. The juniper and rosemary scented squabs gave Benito's stomach an abrupt, pointed reminder that he hadn't eaten yet. He hastened past to the bar where Valentina was plucking a complex melody. Claudia was counterpointing it, softly, with a treble flute. The audience was still a small one. Which was just as well. This was crying in your wine music…

He waited. When the tune was finished, Claudia tipped him a wink. "Someone casting dabblers about for you. That 'Spook.' I've seen her on the water, but never in here. Wants to meet you at the Campo San Felice about ten. You'd better take care, Benito. Those are bad people you're mixing with."

Coming from Claudia, that was scary. Still. All Katerina wanted him to do was to recover that parcel. She'd offered an entire ducat for the job, too. She'd been pretty pointed in her comments about what would happen to him if the stuff turned up on the market. If you're lucky, the Servants of the Trinity will get you before my… associates do. Yeah. He'd fish that parcel out and leave her well and truly alone. He had responsibilities now. He might even have turned away from that ducat if he hadn't been feeling guilty about not getting to the rendezvous. In the shadowy side of Venice, you were a man of your word or you didn't survive.

***

Katerina Montescue was feeling guilty. Being late had been unavoidable. But you had to be careful here in the gray canal and dockside world. It had its own rules. You could kill someone. No problem, so long as you sank them quietly and didn't get the Doge's Schiopettieri stirred up. You could steal from them. Lie to them. But a deal was a deal. God help you if you broke it. Word got around. Only the marshes would offer refuge then. She, it was true, could go back to the Casa, her identity unknown. But Casa Montescue was in such straits that it could die. It was likely to die, if this cargo was lost.

She moved the gondola quietly along to the Campo San Felice. And the boy detached himself from the shadows and dropped into the boat, almost without rocking it. He moved as lightly as the thief he undoubtedly was. She shuddered. This was a scary world that she was forced to move in.

They did a magnificent duet.

"I'm sorry I was late. Problems."

"You were late…?"

"You were late…?"

"Why are you repeating everything I say?" snapped Katerina.

"I'm not. I was late…" Benito burst out laughing. "So, we were both late, huh?"

"I was delayed," said Katerina, sourly. "Unavoidably."

Benito grinned. "Me too. So, let's get to it."

Tight-lipped, Katerina poled away. The shabby gondola prow cut a silent notch through the still water. After a while, though, she found herself almost smiling. For all his ragamuffin ways, there was undoubtedly something a little charming about young Benito.

***

From the high windows of the Imperial embassy, streamers of light spilled whitely onto the thin mist-shroud clinging to the dark canal-water. Inside the building all might be warmth, light, music, and occasional trills of laughter. Here, in the shadowy darkness of the side canal, it was cold. Katerina shivered. At least she didn't have to get into it.

"So what are you waiting for?" she hissed. "Get on with it and we can get out of here."

The boy did not look eager. The way he was taking off his jacket spelled reluctance. She could understand that. She wouldn't want to get into the smelly cold dark water either. She gritted her teeth. If necessary she would.

***

Benito looked doubtfully at the canal water as he dropped his jacket into the boat. It wasn't so much the swimming part, as the getting into the water that he hated. It was all right when you had the sun on your back, or when things were dire, but just to do it in cold blood on a misty night… The worst part was when the water got to your upper thighs. "Do you want to do it instead?" he asked, crossly. "I'm just wary. It's early in the evening for no one to be around."

Katerina shook her head, irritably. "The Schiopettieri did a clear-out here earlier. They're doing regular patrols. We've got a bit of time before the next one comes through. Get a move on."

He shrugged. No sense in asking her where she got such precise information. She wouldn't tell him, and he wasn't sure he wanted to know. He stripped off, down to his breeches. No sense in getting all his clothes wet.

He slipped into the water. It was cold, even at this time of the year. A couple of deep breaths and he duck-dived under the water. Swimming down for the bottom he forced himself to open his eyes. He might as well have kept them closed. Well, up was dimly lighter. His hands touched ooze. He felt around and realized this was not going to be an easy job after all. The water-door was plainly where the embassy threw out its garbage. He went up, breaking water with relief.

Katerina was a dark figure against the lights. "Did you find it?" she hissed anxiously.

Benito shook his head. "No."

He heard her sharp intake of breath. "It must be there. It must." There was more than a hint of desperation in her voice.

"Yeah, maybe," he agreed hastily. "But look, there is lots of rubbish on the bottom. You got something heavy I can use to keep myself down there?"

She had the rock in a rope bag that did the poor-man's duty for an anchor. It gave him something to pull down on, and a point to feel around. That was a broken pot. That was… eughh. He pulled his hand back from something rotten enough to crumble. It took willpower to feel again. And then he screamed. Underwater. Which is never a good idea. Something slimy and snakelike had slithered up his arm. By the time his conscious mind had worked that out, he was already spluttering and pulling himself up into the boat. He nearly had the gondola over in his haste. "Saint Marco, Saint Theresa…"

"Hush!" snapped Katerina, looking around. "What's wrong?"

"There is something dead down there! And it is full of eels." The Venice lagoon was famous for its eels. You didn't want to think too much about what they ate. Benito didn't even want to say that what he'd touched felt like… cloth.

***

Katerina could see that the encounter with eels had scared this canal-wise urchin nearly witless. Still, they only had a short time left to find the parcel. Inquiries?discreet inquiries, but nonetheless alarming inquiries?had begun to come in about when the consignment would be delivered. They'd had to take money in advance for some of this lot. The inquiries had been… polite. Among that fraternity word had gone around that the Montescue were to be treated with respect. But they'd been insistent, nonetheless.

She shook Benito. Gently, though. "It was only eels. They'll have gone by now."

Benito shuddered. It was all Katerina could do to suppress her own shiver of sympathy. She knew only too well just what eels liked to eat. But for the Family, it must be done. "You gave your word."

"Eels…" Benito whispered.

Katerina shook him hard this time. "Come on! We've only got a little time."

The boy looked at her with big eyes. And took a deep breath. "One last try. Try and work out exactly where you put it in."

Katerina gritted her teeth. She'd been frightened as hell, and lying down too. How would she know? She looked about, trying to gauge things. "A bit further out, I reckon. And maybe a bit more toward the Grand Canal. It's difficult to judge without the other boats here." The noise from the embassy hushed. They both tensed. Then from inside came the familiar sound of voices uplifted in the Latin of a plainsong chant.

"Go," said Katerina roughly, pushing him, hiding her own shrieking nervousness in abrasiveness. As Benito slipped off into the water she decided that she'd try on the other side of the gondola with the boathook she'd brought as a last resort. He wasn't going to find it. The hook might damage the parcel. But even damaged was better than lost completely.

***

He wasn't going to find it. He knew he wasn't going to find it. He was only making this last effort for honor's sake. The bottom had been stirred up by his precipitous flight from the… corpse. Now it was so black down here that only the direction his body wanted to rise told him where up might be. It was claustrophobic, crushingly so, down here. He felt around. Very, very tentatively. And his fingers encountered fiber. He almost repeated his rapid ascent before he worked out it was twine. Coarse, thick twine, the kind merchants use for baling. He was almost out of air, but he couldn't risk losing it. He swam, following the cord. It was a fairly long swim. His hands encountered fabric… oilcloth. He had Katerina's precious parcel. Gripping it with both hands he turned and kicked for the surface.

Something hauled at it. Trying to pull it away from him.

***

Katerina was beginning to realize the boy hadn't lied. Her attempts with the boathook had so far dredged up some scrap metal. It looked like an old bird-cage. And a piece of… cord. Baling-cord. She dropped the boathook in her haste to grab it. And it was plucked neatly out of her grasp. Swearing, forgetting the need for silence she snatched at it, nearly upsetting the gondola. She missed. Her sleeve wet to the shoulder, she hauled the boathook she'd dropped out of the water. Fortunately the cork handle?intended for idiots who drop boathooks?had kept it afloat. Shaking the bird-cage remains clear, she hooked furiously.

"That's me! Stop it! You madwoman!"

To Katerina's horror she saw she'd hooked the something all right. Benito's breeches. He was clinging to the pole with one hand and her oilskin-wrapped parcel with the other. Benito jerked angrily at the boathook pole, and Katerina lost her balance. She landed in the water beside Benito with a shriek and a splash. Benito swam away as she came up.

"I can't swim!" she yelled, spluttering. Fortunately there was quite a lot of air trapped in the thick serge of her dress.

Benito backed off to the stairs at the water-door. "You tried to murder me!" he accused, also forgetting to keep his voice down.

Katerina shook her head. She was getting lower in the water. "You were on the other side of the boat. Now get me out!"

"Oh. Yes. Like I was supposed to stay where I went down." Benito clutched the parcel to his chest, and retreated.

Katerina managed to grab the edge of her gondola and, having learned from last time, hauled herself hand over hand along the boat to the mooring post and thence to the steps.

Benito held the precious parcel in front of himself like a shield. "You come any closer and I'll throw it back into the water."

Katerina found herself trapped between fury and embarrassment. "Look. It was an accident. I told you."

"Accident, my foot!"

By the tone, Katerina knew she was in trouble. She couldn't offer him more money. A ducat was stretching things as it was. "Look. I can offer you more work…"

"Va'funcula!" spat Benito. "Are you crazy? Claudia warned me?"

A terrible shriek, a sound not intended to issue from a human throat, came from the embassy behind them.

It silenced both of them. Briefly.

Benito snapped out of it first. "Holy Saint Mark! What…"

A terrible inhuman laugher erupted. Katerina felt the hair on the nape of her neck rise. She knew she had little magical skill, but she was sensitive to it. This was magic. Something dark. The medallion on her chest felt very hot.

"Never mind what!" Katerina scrambled into the gondola. "Come! Let's get out of here."

Benito looked doubtful, his face white in the reflected light of the unshuttered windows. Then there came more sounds from the windows, as if tables were being overturned and glass breaking.

A man's voice, shouting: "Back! Back, you fool! Knights! Seal the doorways!" Followed immediately by a swelling chorus of many voices screaming in panic.

"Come on!" Katerina barked. "Get in. You can hold the parcel. Just get in! We've got to get away from here!"

The boy jumped into the boat and cast loose hastily.

Katerina pushed off. With skill, she turned the gondola and sent it gliding away from the embassy.

Breathing a prayer she looked back. And nearly dropped the oar. It was hardly surprising really, with all the noise they'd made and the goings-on over at the embassy. But at the Casa Brunelli, the doors leading onto the upper-floor balcony were thrust open, flooding the balcony with light. She saw him clearly. The same slight red-haired man. The same single forbidding line of dark eyebrows. He was staring at them. Katerina would swear the expression on his face was one of triumph.

She shivered. And the shiver had nothing at all to do with her wet clothes.

***

Benito felt for his dry jacket. He was shivering. It was partly the cold and partly the fright. The boathook, bobbing in the canal behind them, had barely scratched his thigh. Hell. He loved thrills. It was the best part of being a roof-climber. But this was deep dark water. She could have her parcel. Then he'd be off. He wanted no part of this woman and her business. Fortunately, they'd part ways in a few hundred yards and he would never have to see her again. She'd never be any part of his world. He could look after himself, but he didn't want Marco involved with someone like this girl.

Chapter 9

The monster was dragged away from its feeding by a shrill of command from its master. The master's servant, rather, through which Chernobog usually spoke and gave commands.

Emerging from the darkness of its feed?snarling, reluctant?the monster's world began to take on a semblance of color. Insofar, at least, as various shades of gray could be called "color." After a time, red streaks began to appear in the mist. Those were not real, however?simply reflections of the monster's own rage.

The sight of those scarlet flashes brought courage. Again the monster snarled, and this time with bellowing fury rather than frustration. The clump of gray that was the form of the master's servant seemed to waver, as if she were cowering in terror.

The monster's moment of pleasure was fleeting. In an instant, the master himself billowed through the mist, an eddy of gray so dark it was almost ebon.

Silence, beast! Do not challenge me.

Again, red streaks came into the mist. But these were like blazing bolts of lightning, overwhelming the monster's own fury as easily as a flooding river flushes aside a child's pond. For just a fleeting instant, the monster thought to catch sight of Chernobog behind the shadows and the mist. The master was terrifying?huge, and tusked, and horned, and taloned. Scaled like a dragon, bestriding a broken earth like a behemoth.

One of the scarlet flashes curled through the mist like a snake, and struck the monster's flank. Agony speared through it. The monster whimpered. Broken words pleading forgiveness tried to issue from lips that had once, long ago, had the semblance of human ones.

But that semblance was too ancient, now, too far gone. The words would not come any longer. Not over lips that were no more than a gash; not shaped by an ox-thick tongue writhing in a mouth that was more like an eel's gullet than a man's palate and throat.

Again, the spearing agony. The monster wailed. Wailing, it could manage?as could any beast.

Some part of the monster retained enough intelligence to think, if not speak, a protest. I was a god once!

"Only the shadow of one," came the sneering voice of Chernobog's servant?as if she were anything but a shadow herself. "And he isn't much of a god anyway, which is why he crouches at Great Chernobog's side. Wearing his master's leash."

The servant drifted forward, now fearless. For a moment, the monster sensed a vaguely female form coalescing, stooping. It felt another flash of rage?but a quickly suppressed one. She dared to inspect its feed!

"Not much left," she purred, jeering. "But then, I imagine the old monk's soul was mostly gristle anyway."

The form straightened and moved back into the mist. The gray of the shadow servant merged at the edges into the gray mist that surrounded the monster everywhere. Only a vague fluttering was left to indicate her shape.

The monster recognized the pattern. Chernobog would now speak himself, using the servant's voice.

"You have done well, beast."

The monster's momentary relief was immediately shredded by another scarlet lash coming through the mist, ripping into its flank like an axe. Gray-black blood spurted from a wound that was insubstantial?healing almost in the instant it was formed?but agonizing for all that. The monster wailed again, and again, crouching in terror.

"Which is why I punish you so lightly for your insolence."

The servant's vague form was replaced by another of those horrifying forward surges in the surrounding mist. The ebony billow that was Chernobog himself, threatening to take full and visible shape.

Do not forget your place, beast. I allow you to be powerful, at my convenience. I could as easily make you a worm, for my dining pleasure.

For a moment, the monster caught another glimpse of Chernobog on that broken landscape. Hunching, this time, over a mound of squirming souls. Much like worms, they looked; especially as they disappeared into the maw that devoured them, a few spilling out of the gigantic jaws onto the charred-black soil.

Another image flashed through the monster's mind. Itself?himself, then?held down by Chernobog's enormous limbs while the master tore out his manhood with that same maw and left the monster a bleeding, neutered ruin. Less than a eunuch, who had once been a god.

The monster was now completely cowed. Its heavy brow was lowered, the muzzle that had once been like a man's pressed into its chest. Oddly enough, perhaps, the chest itself was still hairless?quite unlike the shaggy limbs and the heavy spine that protruded like a ridge, covered with a long and stringy mane of hair.

At another time, the memory of what that hairless chest had once signified might have brought anguish. Now, the monster had no thoughts beyond submission.

"Good." The monster felt relief at hearing the servant's voice instead of Chernobog's own. As much as the monster hated and resented taking orders from one who was even less than it was…

Nothing was a terrifying as Chernobog, unshadowed.

"Good," its master repeated. "Your recent task also. It was well done, beast. The priest burned very nicely. Though I believe you wavered once, before this shadow restored your courage."

The monster whined. The master was unfair! A holy symbol held by such as that one?encased in steel?was a thing of great power. The master knew that. Such a fearsome one should never have been allowed?!

Silence.

The monster's thoughts fled. After a moment, the master spoke again. Thankfully, through his shadow voice.

"No matter. As elsewhere, this servant has her uses. And now the way is cleared for the creature Sachs."

The gray mist swirled and billowed. From experience, the monster knew that Chernobog was retreating into his own counsel. It managed to restrain any overt sign of relief. The master would know its thoughts, of course, since Chernobog had taken its soul. But… so long as the monster maintained all visible signs of docility, it would not be punished.

Not much, at least.

***

How long it was before the master spoke again, the monster knew not. In that mist-shrouded place where it was kept?caged, for all intents and purposes?time had little meaning.

The servant's voice rippled with the master's own amusement. It was an odd sound?as if a torrent in a cavern were being heard through an echoing chamber far distant. Raw and unrestrained male power, channeled through the pleasant modulations of a female throat.

"And now I will reward you, beast. Tonight I will allow you to hunt."

In an instant, the monster's fear and submissiveness vanished, replaced by ravening eagerness.

Hungry!

The servant's voice echoed, faintly, the master's own humor. Not glee so much as simple satisfaction. There was very little left, in the monster, of what had once been a god's mind. But it understood, vaguely, that Chernobog's pleasure was more that of a game master than the monster's own much cruder urges. At another time, had its lust not been so overwhelming, the monster might have felt some grief. It had played games once itself, it remembered, and played them extremely well. Even giants?even gods!?had trembled with fear at that gamesmanship.

"Indeed," chuckled the servant's voice. "And a better soul than the one you just fed upon, I imagine. Younger, at the very least."

The image of a man came to the monster's mind, put there by the master. The man, and his raiment, and the fine house where he lived; and all the byways of the city by which he could be reached. Late at night, in the darkness.

The servant gave him a garment. Something once worn by the victim-to-be. It was full of man-scent, full of tiny fragments of skin. The monster snuffled and mouthed it. He had the scent, the taste of the intended victim. "I constrain you. On this occasion you will abjure from feeding on any other. Or you will face the master's wrath."

Hungry! Hungry!

"Do not feed too quickly," commanded the servant's voice. "The thing must be done in blood and ruin?not quickly."

The monster would have sneered if it still had lips that could do so. As if it would hurry such a feast!

***

The time that came after seemed endless, though the monster had no way of gauging it. But eventually, it came.

"Go now," commanded the servant's voice, and the monster sensed the grayness vanishing.

***

Soon enough, the gray mist was gone altogether. Replaced by the dark?but sharp?shadows of Venice's narrow alleys and streets.

The monster scorned the streets, however. The great tail it had acquired, as if to substitute for its lost manhood, drove it through the waters of the city's canals as quickly and silently as a crocodile. Though no crocodile had such a blunt snout, or had a ridged spine protruding from the water, or a spine that trailed such long and scraggly hair.

It was spotted only once, along the way, by a street urchin searching the canal late at night for useful refuse. But the monster had no difficulty disposing of that nuisance, beyond the fierce struggle to restrain itself from consuming the child's soul. Once they had sacrificed children to him. Their souls had a distinctive taste.

A quick turn in the water, a powerful thrust of the tail; the boy was seized before he could flee and dragged into the dark waters. The rest, once the monster overcame the urge to feed, was quick. By the time sunrise came, the blood would have vanished and the fish would see to all but the largest pieces. And those, once spotted, would be useless to any investigator.

The monster was not concerned with investigation, in any event. In what was left of a once-divine brain, it understood enough to know that its master would be pleased by the deed. The small murder, added to the greater one still to come this night, would increase the city's fear. Among the canalers, at least, even if Venice's mighty never learned of an urchin's disappearance.

The only thing the master cared about was that the monster itself not be seen by any survivor. And so, as the monster drove quietly through the canals, the one eye that remained to it never ceased scanning the banks. Still blue, that eye, and still as piercing as ever?even if the mind behind it was only a remnant of what it had once been. But none of the few people walking alongside the canals ever spotted it.

***

The shaman trailed behind, staying as far back as he could without losing sight of the monster completely. Which?in the murky waters of the Venetian canals?meant following much closer than he liked. He had to force down, time and again, the urge to follow using scent alone. The struggle was fierce, because the temptation was so great. In his fishform, in the water, the shaman's sense of smell?taste, really?was much better than the monster's, for anything except the scent the monster was tracking.

But… in the end, the shaman was more terrified of his master than he was of the monster. His master had made clear that he wanted a full report, and had demonstrated the depth of his desire by feeding the shaman the cooked skin of a retainer who had failed to satisfy him. Spiced with substances which had almost gagged the shaman at the time, and still made him shudder.

So, the shaman stayed within eyesight of the monster, however terrified it was of the creature. If the monster spotted him… it would interpret its master's command to "leave no trace" in the most rigorous manner. The shaman might be able to evade the monster?here in the water, he in his fishform and the monster in the shape it possessed. But he had no doubt at all that if the monster caught him, he would be destroyed?just as easily and quickly as the monster had destroyed the street urchin. A creature it might be today, but… the monster had once been a god, after all.

No longer, however. That once-god had been broken by a greater one. So, however reluctantly, the shaman stayed within eyesight.

Just barely.

***

The final destination loomed into sight, just as the master had planted the image in the monster's brain. One of Venice's great houses, its walls rising sheer from the Grand Canal.

Once it entered the Grand Canal, the monster submerged completely and continued swimming several feet below the surface?much too deep in those murky waters, even in daylight, to be spotted by anyone in a boat. The Grand Canal, at any hour of the day or night, bore a certain amount of traffic. The monster could hold its breath long enough to swim through the great waterway and enter the side canal that flanked the house.

It did so, emerging slowly and carefully to the surface. Unlike a crocodile, the monster could not simply lift its eye above the water. Half the misshapen head had to surface before it could see enough.

Then, for several minutes, it did nothing but study the situation; maintaining its position by slow sweeps of the tail and breathing as silently as it could.

It dismissed the side door without a thought. There was no way to enter through that portal without alerting the house, and the monster was not certain it could slaughter all the inhabitants before someone fled beyond its reach. Not in such a great house, which would be full of servants as well as family members. The one imperative was that it not be seen by anyone who could tell the tale afterward.

Carefully, it studied the wall itself. Then, satisfied, it sculled to the side and, with a great heave, hoisted itself onto the wall. The ugly octopuslike suckers on what had once been a deity's well-formed hands and feet had no difficulty adhering to the rough surface. Moving up the wall like some great half-lizard/half-ape, it worked its way quickly to the balcony three floors above.

***

Had the shaman still been in human form, he would have heaved a great sigh of relief when he saw the shape of the monster lift out of the canal. His task was done, for the moment. In his fishform, he could not follow the monster except in the waters. Not even his master expected that much.

The relief was short-lived, however. The greatest danger would come when the monster re-entered the canal. No longer preoccupied with its prey, the monster would be more alert. And in the meantime…

Hidden in the shadows of the pilings across the canal, the shaman studied his surroundings warily. Then, began to relax. There would be no danger from undines here, he realized. Not now, at any rate; not after the monster's passage. Undines were not very intelligent, true. But they were quite intelligent enough to understand they were no match for the monster, even if they didn't understand what it was. If there had been any undines in any of the canals through which the monster had passed, they were long gone by now.

***

Just before reaching the balcony, the monster paused and scanned the surrounding area. There was no one watching. Another great heave, and it slithered its still-wet bulk onto the balcony.

Again, it paused. Still, no one had spotted it?except a cat, hissing in a corner of the balcony. The monster could move with astonishing speed for such a large and clumsy-looking creature. The hiss was cut short by a yowl, and the yowl cut short even quicker.

The monster had no difficulty restraining itself from devouring the cat. It did not like cats; never had.

Then, it spent five minutes studying the large double-door that opened onto the balcony from the room inside. It was not studying the door itself, so much as it was pondering a problem. The monster could remember?vaguely?a time when it had been superb at pondering problems, and felt a slight anguish at the memory. Today?

It was not good at problems. But, eventually, it decided the risk was too great to simply break through the door and sweep inside with a murderous rush. The master had not told it whether the intended victim rested in whatever room lay immediately beyond. A mere servant might be sleeping there. Granted, the murder of a servant would satisfy the master?in part. Not enough, however, to forestall a certain measure of punishment.

No matter. The monster's ugly and bizarre-looking hands were capable of delicate work as well as other, more congenial tasks. It was the work of less than two minutes, using one of its claws, to open the impressive-looking but crude lock.

One half of the double-door was pulled open; quietly, slowly. The room beyond was a short hallway. Empty, and unlit except for a single taper at the far end. There were two doors at that end of the hallway, one on each side. From their well-made construction and ornate decoration, they were clearly not the doors leading to servants' quarters. The monster was certain that in the rooms beyond the master of the house and his wife were sleeping.

But which one, behind which door?

There was no way to know without looking. Moving slowly, as silently as it could, the monster slouched down the hallway until it reached the end. Then, for no reason other than whimsy, it reached up and tested the latch on the door to its right.

The latch came up easily and silently. The door was unlocked. Slowly, gently, the monster eased open the door and peered through it.

Darkness. The faint sound of breathing. The sounds of sleep. The monster pushed the door open far enough to allow itself to enter?which meant pushing it almost completely aside. It remained on all fours as it crept toward the side of the bed. Then, slowly, raised its head to study the bed's inhabitant. It sniffed softly.

It was the wife.

For a moment, a furious rush of lust almost overcame the monster, driving it to feed. It was an odd sort of lust, with nothing of the sensuality the monster could vaguely remember from its former existence. But if concupiscence had been replaced by something uglier, the lust was?if anything?more powerful still. It could barely restrain itself. Even now, after all that had passed, the monster still preferred female victims.

But?

The master had made his wishes clear. Remembering the nature of Chernobog's discipline… the monster shrank back, almost whimpering.

It turned and slouched away, back to the door. Then, once in the hallway, closed the door behind it. Softly, gently.

Almost, now. The monster could feel the craving rise, and no longer made any attempt to control it. When it opened this door, it made no attempt to remain silent. Just quiet enough not to awaken the woman in the other room. The monster cared not in the least whether the sound of its entrance roused the man in the room from his sleep.

It strode across the room in great steps, almost as erect as it had been in a former life. By the time it reached the side of the bed, the man in it had barely begun to open his eyes.

One great smashing thrust of the monster's left hand closed those eyes forever. Two talons pierced the eyes; the clawed thumb, hooking beneath, kept the jaw from opening; the suckers smothered the face. There was no sound beyond the blow itself and the sudden thrashing of limbs tangled in bed-sheets.

The man's strength was pitiful. Any man's strength would have been, much less that of a middle-aged and corpulent one. The only real difficulty the monster had, in what followed, was keeping its gurgling delight from turning into a howl of triumph.

The thrashing ended quickly. The monster began by breaking and dislocating the major joints. Its huge right hand moved from knees to ankles to elbows, wrenching and tearing and crushing. That done, pausing just an instant to savor the moment, it drove its talons into the man's abdomen and began disemboweling him.

By the time it was done, the man had long since gone into shock. The monster cared not at all. The soul could not hide from it behind the veil of unconsciousness. As much pleasure as the monster took from the physical torment it inflicted on its prey, that was nothing compared to the ecstasy of destroying a soul.

Much like a cat might knead a dying mouse, the monster began slowly shredding its victim's body while it turned its real attention elsewhere. It paid little attention to the work of its hand; just enough to make sure it did not kill the man too quickly.

Mist, again, began to surround the monster, blurring its vision. Not the gray mist of its master's cage, but the savage and exciting colors of its spiritual hunting ground. Dark colors; purplish-reds so thick they shaded quickly into black, as the monster plunged deeper into the hunt. It followed the fleeing soul through that mist, tracking it as surely as a hound tracks a hare. Then, cornering its prey in a place which could not be described outside of a nightmare, it proceeded to feed and feed; until there was nothing left but scraps of pinkish violet, fading away into the billows.

Under other circumstances, the monster would have saved a small portion of the prey's soul, to gnaw on afterward as a dog gnaws a bone. But carrying even a scrap of soul back to its cage ran the risk of alerting some cleric who might by chance be encountered during its return. If that cleric possessed magic ability…

The master wanted no complications. Not yet, at least. So, reluctant but obedient, the monster devoured the soul entire.

Its vision began returning. Under its hands, it could feel the lifelessness of the corpse even before its eye could once again see its surroundings.

The surroundings returned, eventually. The same dark room; darker, now that the bedding was no longer remotely white. The monster had no idea how much time had elapsed, exactly. Not much. Surprisingly little, in fact. What the monster thought of as "feeding time" always seemed much longer than it really was to the world at large.

It straightened and stepped back slowly from the carnage on the bed, all of its senses alert once again.

Nothing. Not a sight, not a sound. Just the quiet and darkness of a great house in sleep.

The monster was not surprised. For all the havoc it wreaked while feeding, the process was actually almost silent. Had it still been capable of the pride that had once been a cherished vice, it would have felt pride at its skill.

But that ancient god was gone. Only animal satisfaction remained.

Before leaving the room, the monster took the time to lick itself carefully and thoroughly. Not because of any fastidiousness, but simply because the master's instructions had been clear. Leave no trace of your passage.

The thick purple tongue removed the blood and gore quickly and expertly. Then, like an animal moving away to sleep after feeding, the monster returned to all fours and slouched its way out of the bedroom; down the hallway and out onto the balcony; taking care to close the doors behind. Leave no trace.

On the balcony, it paused long enough to lick away any large puddles of canal water left by its entry. What remained would evaporate with the sunrise. A lurch and a slither and it was creeping back down the wall, scanning carefully to make sure there was no one to see.

It slid into the water with hardly a sound. The tail began to move again, and the monster glided through the canals.

The master would be pleased. Remembering Chernobog's discipline, the monster felt relief sliding alongside satiation.

Although, somewhere inside the mind that had once been divine, a small rage burned and burned. There had been a time… when the monster had disciplined others; and smiled coldly, seeing relief on the faces of those he spared.

It might have wailed then, with despair. But the master's instructions had been clear. Leave no trace. Make no sound.

***

During the return, the shaman barely managed to obey his master's instructions?and then, only by the sketchiest interpretation. Several times he lost sight of the monster swimming ahead of him through the canals.

But… he had no trouble following the creature. The monster might have cleaned itself well enough to fool human investigators, with their dim and dull senses. But the shaman?even in his human form, much less this one?was not fooled for an instant. The monster left a trail of havoc and horror that reeked worse than anything the shaman had ever encountered.

Except… in the presence of his master.

Chapter 10

Dell'este tapped the sheet of paper. "Well, Antimo? How do you assess this?"

Bartelozzi said nothing. Just looked, unblinking, at the duke. A lesser master might have taken it for insolence. The Old Fox knew better. Antimo Bartelozzi always considered his answers very carefully; that was just his manner.

The duke waited.

Bartelozzi tugged his ear. "Caesare Aldanto overstates his importance in caring for the boys. But basically he is being accurate."

The old duke sighed. "Grandchildren are for spoiling and dandling on your knee, Antimo." For a moment he paused, allowing?once again, as he had time after time since Antimo brought him the news?joy and relief to wash through him.

But the pause was brief. The grandfather was disciplined by the duke. "These two are not grandchildren," he said harshly. "They are Dell'este bloodline. If they survive."

"You could bring them home, my lord," said the agent, quietly. "As I suggested once before."

Duke Dell'este shook his head grimly. "For a first thing, they may well be safer hidden in Venice. For a second, the Dell'este bloodline is like steel. Steel needs to be tempered to both harden it and make it flexible. It must be heated, hammered and quenched." He took a deep breath. "Some steel becomes the stuff of great swords. But if the alloy is not a good one, if it is not tempered between the furnace and ice, then you must throw it away because it is worthless."

Bartelozzi looked at the report on the desk. "By the part about the Jesolo marshes, written in Marco's hand, he's been through the fire. Young Benito has I think also been tested, perhaps not so hard. They're only fourteen and sixteen years old."

The duke shrugged. "Different alloys take heat differently; age has nothing to do with it. And I'm worried more about the younger than the older, anyway. Marco's father was a Valdosta. Benito is Carlo Sforza's son. They don't call Sforza the 'Wolf of the North' for nothing, Antimo. Between that savage blood and his mother's… recklessness, it remains to be seen how Benito will turn out."

The duke's eyes wandered to the sword-rack on the wall, coming to rest on the blades set aside for his youngest grandson. "But… hopefully, Caesare Aldanto will deal with him. Benito will get himself into the furnace, I have no doubt of that. Aldanto must just deal with the quenching."

Antimo Bartelozzi was silent for a time. "And is this Aldanto the right person to handle the quenching, my lord?" he asked at last.

"He is not a good man," said the duke heavily. "But he's a survivor, a great swordsman, and something of a tactician. I would struggle to find a tutor quite as skilled at all those things. Part of the quenching process is for those boys to learn their moral judgment. When they realize Aldanto's nature?and if they still choose to follow after him… then they're not fit to be part of Dell'este bloodline. If they choose honor instead, I will know I have good steel, flexible, ductile, yet sharp and true." He sighed. "They fell into Aldanto's lap by accident, but he was among those you hired to search for them. He is being well paid to care for them, to watch over them. While that income continues and while I am alive they are safe. But if I die, Antimo, Caesare Aldanto is to be killed within the day. He is not to be trusted."

Bartelozzi nodded. "I have arranged it already, my lord. And I will see it is done. Myself."

The Old Fox smiled. He could ask for no better guarantee. But, as usual, he accompanied the smile with a tease. "You always insist on doing my business in Venice personally, Antimo. I suspect you of keeping a woman."

For the first time in the interview, Bartelozzi allowed himself a smile. "We are all subject to weaknesses of the flesh, my lord. In my case, however, it's the food. Venetian courtesans are far too intelligent for my taste. Dangerous, that."

Chapter 11

Midday at the House of the Red Cat, and the house was as silent as a church. There wasn't one of the whores who rose earlier than Francesca, and most didn't ever see daylight. Lazy sluts. They'd never be more than they were now, and most would begin a slow decline to canalside the moment their looks began to fade.

Withered old Fernando poked his head inside Francesca's door. Is it that he never learned to knock, or is it that he's under orders not to?

"You asked me to make sure you were awake, Francesca," he said speciously. She hadn't done anything of the sort, of course. She was always awake and dressed this time of day. Evidently the Madame was checking on her.

"I'm going out," she said, with an ingenuous smile. She didn't say where; she had no intention of saying where. And although Fernando lingered long past the moment of polite withdrawal, she didn't add that information; which was, in all events, neither Fernando's nor their employer's business.

She picked up her cloak and tossed it over her shoulders, then headed purposefully for the door. Fernando prudently withdrew, and when she shut the door behind her, she saw him retreating down the stairs ahead of her. By the time she reached the ground-floor salon?silent, and tawdry with its shabby, rubbed velvet and flaking gilt?he was no longer in sight.

Well, if he intended to follow her, he was going to get a sad disappointment, and he was going to wear out his legs. Francesca always went out for exercise at this hour of the day?if there was one sure way to end up a dockside puttana prematurely it was to get fat?but today she was going to go a bit farther than usual. All the way to the Molo in fact, and entirely on foot. Not only was it good exercise, but Francesca had no intention of spending so much as a single clipped coin on a gondola if she didn't have to. Besides, it was a lovely day: the sun was shining, the sky blue. Even the most fearful of citizens had come out to do a bit of shopping, shaking off their fear of the rumored monsters prowling by night.

Francesca didn't bother with a mask, although even in daylight a great many people did, in or out of Solstice season. She wanted men to look at her and wonder, though she gave no sign of noticing their attention. That wasn't the game. Let them wonder if she was respectable?or other. There was nothing about her dress or her manner to mark her as belonging to either class. If they wondered enough, they might be on the lookout for her, and find out for themselves. A long chase always made the quarry more desirable.

It was a long walk. Francesca allowed the crowd to carry her along for the most part. No point in hurrying, but no point in dawdling either. She was paying close attention to the scraps of conversation she heard, though, and the general mood of people, and she didn't like what she heard. Death prowled the waterways in the shape of something other than fever and footpads; the rumors of a bloodthirsty monster had gained in strength and detail since the last time she went out.

There were other rumors too, of those foreign Servants of the Trinity?Sots, people called them, with sniggers?who came storming into churches, surrounded by armored and armed Knots, making accusations of heresy and witchcraft and dragging perfectly ordinary people off their knees and out of the church. No one had actually seen any of this, of course, but everyone knew someone who knew someone who had. Still, the rumor probably had some foundation, and if you couldn't go to your church to light a candle without facing the possibility of finding yourself up on a charge of heresy, where could you be safe?

There was a great deal of fear in the telling of these tales, but plenty of anger, too. How dared these foreigners come in and start dictating to Venetian citizens how to conduct themselves? How dare a lot of Pauline fanatics lay down religious law to devout Petrines in their own city?

Very, very interesting, if bad for business?at least the business of someone in the mid-level, like Francesca. The courtesans, in whose number Francesca was not as yet included, were immune from the persecutions and difficulties of the working poor and lower half of the middle class. In good times or bad, unless one's fortune was lost entirely, the rich were never troubled in their pleasures by sacred or secular dictates.

All the more reason to make the jump and make it soon.

Francesca did not spend a single lira on dresses, cosmetics, perfumes, sweets, or any of the other indulgences that the other girls at the Red Cat squandered their earnings on. Granted, she didn't need to; her looks and inventive imagination were more than enough to keep the customers coming. She ate lightly, but well; her teeth were her own, her breath always sweet, her skin kept soft as velvet with some very inexpensive unguents purchased from a little Strega herb-seller named Donatella, whose advice she was scrupulous in following. The same herb-seller provided her with some very efficacious little sponges she kept steeping in herbs-and-vinegar when they weren't?well?inside her. It was from this same Strega that Francesca had gotten a name and an appointment. If Francesca was right, the girl she was going to meet might provide her with what she needed?possibly with everything she needed.

Midway between Sext and None, at Fiorella's food-stall, on the Molo.

Francesca knew Fiorella's. They had a pastry made with Asiago cheese and artichoke hearts that qualified as a mortal sin. She could eat it while strolling along the Molo, along with a piece of bruschetta.

I shall have to do something about my breath, after, though, she thought ruefully. Too much garlic…

Knowing she was going to the Molo, she had not lunched and had only eaten lightly of breakfast. That, and the brisk walk to and from the Red Cat should make up for the richness of Fiorella's pastry. Her Strega herbalist had strong ideas about diet that Francesca did not altogether agree with?moderation in all things had been good enough for the ancient Greeks.

She crossed the Piazza San Marco, crowded at this hour just before the close of business with everyone who wished last-minute bargains. Except for her looks, no one would have given her more than a passing glance, so completely did her clothing blend in with that of the others who thronged the plaza. Every possible level of wealth and status passed through here during the day. The poorest of the poor crouched in odd corners and chanted their beggars' cries, while the most wealthy of the Case Vecchie set paraded by in their silks and jewels. Housewives bargained sharply over foodstuffs, and women who might be courtesans, or might be the daughters of the rich, fingered silks and laces.

The stalls continued down on to the Molo, the wide promenade that faced the lagoon. Francesca walked slowly towards the food-stall, eyeing the other customers, looking for someone who fit the description of the girl she was to meet.

Aha. There she is. Looking restless, a young woman paced back and forth before the stall, her head lowered, casting occasional glances at a gondola tied up directly opposite. Her face was almost completely obscured by a hood. Only someone who stood close and looked carefully would be able to discern her features. Beneath her skirt?plain but of good quality?Francesca caught a glimpse of trews. With the Sots on the rampage, liable to take offense at practically anything, such an odd combination of clothing was a prudent move for a woman who might have to tie her skirts up above the knee in order to better handle a boat or cargo.

Francesca's hopes rose. The extreme care the girl was taking in keeping herself from being recognized fit the tentative assessment Francesca had made from the herb-seller's rather vague description of her?deliberately vague, she was convinced. This was a girl from Venice's upper crust, working the "gray trade" in disguise. Possibly for her own profit, but more likely because the family was in dire straits. She might even be from one of the Case Vecchie families, which would be ideal.

Francesca walked directly toward the young woman, making certain to catch and hold her eye the next time the girl's surreptitious glance swept searchingly over the crowd. Relief suffused the woman's shadowed features, and she stepped forward to meet Francesca halfway.

"I'm Kat. Are you Donatella's friend?"

"Yes I am. I'm Francesca." She paused for a moment. "I'm temporarily at the House of the Red Cat…"

She waited to see what Kat's reaction would be, but there was none?or at least, there wasn't one visible, which was all that mattered. Again, that fit Francesca's assessment that the girl or her family was in narrow financial straits. Presumably money was needed badly enough that the source didn't matter. Which also, of course, explained why the girl would be running cargo for the Strega?who were hardly in good odor with the authorities, especially these days.

"I haven't eaten yet?" Francesca began. She wasn't really that hungry, but the girl was so obviously tense that Francesca thought it would be wise to allow her time to settle down. And retreat to a less visible location.

Sure enough: "I have, so why don't you go get something and meet me at my boat? We can talk there while you eat." Kat softened this slightly brusque response with a smile. "I'd… rather not stay out in the open. And your time is probably short anyway."

Francesca nodded and made her way to the stall to purchase the pastry while the girl retreated to her boat.

When Francesca was seated in the gondola, Kat waited politely while she took the edge from her hunger. "I understand there are some things you need?" Kat asked. Hurriedly: "But I have to tell you in advance that I only handle high-priced items. High-priced and low volume. I'm sorry if that's not what you're looking for?Donatella was not clear about it?but that's all I can handle. I need?"

She fell silent, apparently unwilling to elaborate. In her own mind, Francesca filled in the rest: I need to generate a lot of money quickly, with only my own labor and this little gondola. Francesca had to force herself not to show any signs of glee. Perfect! The girl was from the Venetian elite. Probably, in fact, nothing less than Case Vecchie.

"I'm not really looking to buy, Kat," she said easily. "Although there are some items I could use. Mainly, I want to set up a conduit through which I can sell information?"

She hurried on, seeing the frown already gathering on Kat's face. "?not for cash, but for… ah, some assistance in a delicate matter of my own advancement."

The fact that Francesca wasn't asking for cash?which Kat was obviously in desperate shortage of herself?caused a momentary fading of the frown. But, soon enough, it returned.

"What kind of information? And I'm not sure how I might be able to help your 'advancement.' " A bit mulishly: "I don't have any cash to spend."

Francesca understood that she had to edge away from triggering the girl's uneasiness on the subject of her own identity. The easiest way to do that, of course, was to focus Kat's attention on Francesca's. So, bluntly and briefly, Francesca explained the exact nature of her profession?and, most important, her plans for professional advancement.

When she was done, she waited for Kat's reaction. Driving both her fears and her hopes under, and sternly. The girl would do whatever she would do. Whatever else Francesca had learned in her life, a stoic outlook was central to all of it.

For a time, Kat was silent. Her hooded eyes left Francesca and simply stared out over the waters of the canal. Then, to Francesca's relief, the girl's shoulders moved in a little shrugging gesture and she turned back to face her. Francesca was a bit surprised to see that the expression on Kat's face was one of disguised interest?almost fascination?rather than disguised revulsion. For the first time, she felt herself start warming to the girl. Whatever great house she belonged to, it was clear enough that Kat did not possess the typical noblewoman's haughtiness toward her social inferiors. Most girls from Venice's elite?especially from the Case Vecchie, which Francesca was now almost certain was true of Kat?would have been sneering at her. Indeed, would already be ordering her to depart their presence.

"I'd like to help, Francesca. But I'm really not sure the kind of information you could provide me would be enough of a help for me to spend the time at it. It depends, I guess, on what you want in return."

Francesca smiled. "I think you'll be surprised at how useful the information I'll be providing you will be. After I'm situated in Casa Louise, of course. The information I could provide you right now wouldn't be all that useful, I admit. Except…" She gave Kat a level gaze. "Even now, I could provide you with quite extensive information on the movements of the Schiopettieri. Several of their captains are regular customers of mine."

For a moment, Kat's face froze. Then, suddenly, the girl choked out a little laugh. "That'd be something! Ha!" She smiled. "All right. That's enough for me to gamble a little. Whether it goes any further… we'll see. You mentioned a few 'items' you could use. What are they?"

"A gown, perhaps more than one, a cloak, and accessories," replied Francesca. "Something?impressive, but not showy. Not the sort of thing that I would be able to purchase for myself, as I am now."

Kat nodded. "I think I know what you mean. Case Vecchie impressive. Would you object to something old, but newly remade?"

Francesca and Kat exchanged the conspiratorial smiles universal to every pair of Women Discussing Wardrobe. Something about this girl was striking a chord with her, and she could sense that Kat felt the same way. "You have anticipated exactly what I was going to ask for. As I explained, I am about to undertake a change in status, and for that…"

The two of them discussed gowns and undergowns, fabrics and colors for nearly half an hour. Kat, it seemed, knew both a seamstress and someone who was close in size to Francesca?and with the latest mode in laced gowns, a perfect fit was easy to attain provided the size was close.

When they were done, Kat hesitated, her face tightening a bit. Understanding the awkwardness, Francesca immediately said: "I'm quite willing to pay for these items, Kat. In cash."

It was Francesca's turn to hesitate. The kind of clothing she needed was extremely expensive; more than she could possibly afford to buy new. To make the right impression she had to obtain the finest quality silk clothing. That kind of silk cost between two and ten ducats an ell, and it would take roughly ten ells to make a single gown. Even used, she doubted she could find anything for less than twenty ducats?and that, in all likelihood, would be a hand-me-down for poor relations with all of the trimmings, beads, embroidery, and buttons removed. Which would be useless to her. Whatever else, Francesca could not afford to look like a "hand-me-down" of any kind. A courtesan had to seem, in every respect, as if she belonged to the elite herself and was not a street whore with delusions of grandeur. Few of her prospective patrons would really be fooled by the illusion, but the illusion was nevertheless essential?in order for them to maintain face.

And, there was this also… Now that Francesca had made this initial contact with Kat, she realized that maintaining the liaison could of great value to her in the future. Francesca was sure that Kat came from an upper-crust family?curti at the very least. An elite house which had fallen on hard times, but still retained its social glamour. That was the reason, obviously, Kat was so careful to remain incognito. In Venice's complex and sometimes deadly social dance, losing face was as dangerous to such a family as losing money?more so, in many ways.

Which meant, in turn… Francesca managed not to wince openly. What it meant was that Kat's surreptitious "gray labor" required significant financial returns, or it simply wasn't worth the doing. There was no way the girl would agree to help unless Francesca was willing to part with?

This time, she was unable to completely prevent the wince from showing. Everything I've saved up?that's what it'll cost me.

But it was Kat, this time, who bridged the awkwardness. Smiling: "What can you afford, Francesca? As long as it's enough not to, ah, embarrass me…" She chuckled a bit nastily. "The truth is my greedy sister-in-law would eventually grab everything from my mother's wardrobe anyway. I'd just as soon you get some of those items instead of her."

Kat named a price, a better one than Francesca expected. Better enough, in fact, that she could afford a few extras. There was a little bargaining, and the arrangement was concluded. The transaction would still take practically every ducat Francesca had managed to save up, but it was well worth it. With that wardrobe, she could saunter confidently into any salon in Venice, including a soiree at the Doge's palace.

The remaining arrangements were settled quickly. The first gown?the one she would need for her interview with the Madame of Casa Louise?would be ready within a day, and the rest within three. If Casa Louise accepted her, Francesca would have the remaining gowns sent there, to await her arrival. That was fast work, but if this seamstress was as expert as Kat claimed, it would be no great task for her to remake gowns in an older mode?perhaps a matter of new trim, adding the side-lacings, re-dyeing. As earnest, Francesca handed over half the agreed-upon price, and Kat generously offered to pole her to the Red Cat?or near it, anyway.

By the time they reached the Red Cat, Francesca sensed that the younger woman wanted to be friends, not simply business associates. That astonished her even as it warmed her heart. The knowledge was a bit of a treasure, even leaving aside the obvious advantage it would provide Francesca at a later time.

"When we need to meet again, where can I send word?" she asked, as she got gracefully out of the gondola without assistance, which was no mean feat.

Kat hesitated a moment. "Donatella can always find me," she said at last.

Not quite willing to trust me yet. Or else she's afraid her family will find out what she's been doing. If she was the sole support of an Old Family, they would not necessarily want to know what turns she was making to keep them solvent. Having a summons come from a house of whores would certainly change that situation.

"Excellent. And thank you," Francesca replied. "I will be waiting eagerly to see the results of our bargain."

"By Wednesday afternoon," Kat promised, and pushed off. Francesca turned and walked sinuously back to the door of the Red Cat.

There. That went much better than I'd even hoped, she thought, blithely greeting Fernando on her way to her own room. Next, the interview with the Madame at Casa Louise.

But before that, a full night at the Red Cat. She licked her lips and tasted garlic.

I had better go rinse out my mouth.

Chapter 12

A piece of plaster bounced off Marco's nose, accompanied by a series of rhythmic thuds from overhead. By that sure token he knew, despite the utter darkness of his "bedroom," that dawn was just beginning.

He reached over his head and knocked twice on the wall. He was answered by a muffled curse and the pounding of Benito's answer. He grinned to himself, and began groping after his clothing.

Thudathudathudathuda?pause?(Marco braced himself)?thud. A series of plaster flakes rained down. A professional dance-troupe had the studio above their "apartment" from dawn to the noon bells. From noon till dusk it was given over to classes?noisier, but less inclined to great leaps that brought the ceiling down. From dark to midnight the thuds were less frequent. The groans muffled.

Nobody around the Campo dell'Anconeta talked about what went on then, and nobody watched to see who went in and out. Marco knew, though; at least what they looked like. Thanks to Benito's irrepressible curiosity, they'd both done some balcony climbing and window-peering one night. A dozen or so hard-faced men and women had been there; and it wasn't dancing they were doing. It was some kind of battle training, and all of them were very, very good. Who they were, why they were there, why they were practicing in secret, was still a mystery. Marco smelled "fanatic" on them, of whatever ilk, and kept clear of them.

Then, from the midnight bell until dawn, Claudia's old acting troupe had the run of the place. That meant less ceiling-thumping?but a lot of shouting. ("Elena deary, do you think you might pay less attention to Kristo's legs and a little more to your lines? All right children, one more time, from the top…")

Marco had learned to sleep through it all, though noise generally made him nervous. It was friendly shouting, for all the mock-hysterics.

Being directly below the studio was one reason why this place, technically a three-room apartment?a room and two closets, more like?was cheap enough for two kids to afford. Now Marco hurried to pull on his pants and shirt in the black of his cubbyhole bedroom, wanting to be out of it before the other reason evidenced itself. Because the other reason was due to start up any minute now?

Right on time, a hideous clanking and banging shook the far wall. Marco pulled open his door and crossed the "living room," the worn boards soft and warm under his bare feet. He stood blinking for a moment in the light from their lamp; after pitchy dark it was painfully bright even turned down to almost nothing. He reached and turned the wick key, and the odor of cheap last-press olive oil assaulted his nose until it flared up. Then he unlocked the outer door and slipped down the hall to the big ewers and garderobe shared by most of the apartments on this level. That incredible ruckus was the Rio San Marcoula boatyard. It started about dawn, and kept it up till the late afternoon, and sometimes later. There was another apartment between them and the repair shop, but it didn't provide much in the way of sound-baffling. Fortunately for him, the tenant of that place was deaf.

Benito still hadn't turned out by the time Marco got back, so he pulled open the door to the other "bedroom" (just big enough for a wall-hung bunk and a couple of hooks for clothes, identical to Marco's) and hauled him out by the foot. There was a brief, laughing tussle, which Marco won by virtue of his age and size, and Benito betook himself off to get clean.

There weren't any windows in their home, so there was always the oil lamp burning up on the wall. The lamp was a curious blend of cast-off and makeshift; the brass container had once been good, and still could be polished to a soft golden gleam. The multiple round wicks were scrounged. The lamp came with the place. So did the cast-iron grate in the fireplace. The fireplace smoked, but provided some heat in winter?when they could find fuel?and something to cook on. The "main" room was small, but it was still bigger than both the "bedrooms" put together. All of it was bare wooden-floored and sooty-walled, but warm and without drafts; and it was too many floors beneath the roof to get leaks when it rained. On the wall opposite the oil lamp and next to the stove was a tiny fired-clay basin and an ewer of safe water from the rainwater cisterns. Everything else was theirs, and compared to the little Marco had owned in the swamp or what Benito had had in the attic he'd been hiding in, it was paradisiacal.

They now boasted a couple of cushions to sit on, a vermin-proof cupboard for food?and even a second cupboard for storage, which currently held two tin plates, two mugs, two spoons, a skillet and a battered saucepan, and assorted odds and ends. They also owned their bedding and three changes of clothing each, as well as a precious box of half a dozen or so battered, dirty, and mostly coverless books. The last were Marco's property. Some he had bought at secondhand stores, like the precious anatomy book, much in demand with medical students. Some were gifts from Claudia, a few from Benito. He knew the ones that Benito gave him had been stolen, and he suspected the same of Claudia's. But a book was a book, and he wasn't going to argue about its source.

All that hadn't come out of nowhere. Word had gone quietly upriver with a Ventuccio barge that Marco and Benito still lived?and a special verbal message had gone to Duke Dell'este from Marco as to why they weren't coming home again. Back down again, just as quietly, had come a bit of real coin?not so much as to call attention to the recipient, but enough to set them up comfortably.

With the coin had come another verbal message to Marco from his grandfather. "You salvage our Honor," was all it had said?and Marco nearly cried.

Grandfather had clearly felt that his mother Lorendana had befouled the Family honor by her activities with the Milanese. He had said as much when he sent them into exile. There was honor, and there was Dell'este and Valdosta honor, which had been something special for many hundreds of years. Dell'este honor was famous throughout Italy. And the Valdosta were not just Case Vecchie. They were Case Vecchie Longi. One of the old families; one of the oldest families. One that claimed to have already been living here in the marshes when Holy Saint Mark was greeted by an angel in the form of the winged lion. All Venice knew how dearly the Valdosta Casa held their honor.

That upright stiff old man of Marco's earliest memories had sent those few words and that parcel of coin. To do even that, he must have felt Marco had redeemed what Lorendana had besmirched?at least as far as the Dell'este were concerned.

That… that had been worth more to Marco than all the money.

Marco hoped that the rest of what he was doing was worthy of that Honor?although he was fairly certain in his own mind that it would be. Honor required that debts be paid, and he owed a mighty debt to Caesare Aldanto. So hidden under the books was his secret, beneath a false bottom in the box. Pen, ink, and paper; and the current "chapter" of Mama's doings, back in the Milanese days. When he had five or six pages, they went off to Caesare Aldanto, usually via Maria. He had written up to when he'd turned ten, now. How much of what he remembered was useful, he had no idea, but surely there was something in all that stuff that Aldanto could turn to a purpose. Something to even up the scales of debt between them.

Marco watered some wine, and got breakfast out?bread and cold grilled sarde, bought on the way home last night. Benito bounced back in the door, fighting his way into a too-tight liveried shirt.

No one would ever have guessed, to see them side by side, that they were brothers. Marco clearly showed his Ferrarese-Dell'este ancestry, taking after his mother, Lorendana. Straight black hair, sun-browned skin fading now into ivory, and almond-shaped eyes in a thin, angular face; making him look both older and younger than his sixteen years. Had he been back in Ferrara, nobody would have had any trouble identifying which family he belonged to, for Lorendana had been a softened, feminized image of the old duke. Whereas Benito, round-faced and round-eyed, with an olive complexion and wavy brown hair, looked like a getting-to-be-handsome version of the Venice "type"?and not a minute older than his true age of fourteen.

"Need to get our clothes washed tonight," Benito said, gingerly reaching for his watered wine. "Or tomorrow."

"Spares clean?" Marco asked around a mouthful of bread, inwardly marveling at the fate that had brought him full circle to the point where he and Benito actually had spare clothing. Of course things had been a great deal better back in Ferrara?but no point in harkening back to that. To go back home would put the entire Dell'este house in danger, and with the worst kind of enemy?the Visconti. They were like the vipers of their crest. Deadly, unforgiving, and prone to use poison. There was no way Marco was ever going to take that grudge home.

"Yes. I'm wearing 'em, dummy."

"So'm I. Tomorrow then. That's my day off; besides, I got to see Caesare tonight." Washing clothes meant getting the washroom after everyone else had gone to work; clearing it with the landlord and paying the extra three pennies for a tub full of hot water besides what they were allowed as tenants. There was an incentive to Marco to volunteer for laundry duty. Benito was still kid enough to tend to avoid unnecessary baths, but Marco used laundry day as an excuse to soak in hot, soppy, soapy water when the clothing was done until all the heat was gone from it before rinsing the clean clothing (and himself) out in cold. After two years of alternately freezing and broiling in the mud of the swamp, a hot bath was a luxury that came very close to being a religious experience for Marco. Hence, Marco usually did the laundry.

Benito sighed. "All right. I'll clean the damn fireplace."

"And the lamp."

"Slaver. And the lamp. What are you seeing Caesare about?"

"Dunno. Got a note from him at work yesterday. Just asked me to meet him at Giaccomo's, because he was calling in favors and had something for me to do."

"Hey, can I come along?" Benito never missed the opportunity to go to Giaccomo's or Barducci's if he could manage it. Unlike Marco, he loved crowds and noise.

Marco thought about it; then, shrugged. "Don't see why not. Caesare didn't say 'alone,' and he usually does if that's the way he wants it. Why?"

"Gotta keep you safe from Maria, don't I?"

Marco blushed hotly. He'd had a brief crush on Maria Garavelli; very brief. It hadn't lasted past her dumping him headfirst in the canal. Benito still wasn't letting him live it down.

The memory of that embarrassing episode led Marco to thoughts of his current "romantic predicament." He rose abruptly, turning away from Benito enough to hide the deepening flush on his cheeks.

He hoped profoundly that Benito never found out about Angelina?he'd rather die than have Benito rib him about her. He much preferred to worship her quietly, from afar?without having half the urchins Benito ran with knowing about it, too. He still didn't know too much about his idol?the only reason he even knew her name was because he had overheard one of her companions using it.

Oh, Angelina…

Enough of daydreaming. "Get a move on, we're going to be late," he replied, while Benito was still chuckling evilly.

***

There had been plenty of gossip among the other clerks today, and because of it Marco made a detour down to the Calle del Vin on the way home?to the Casa Dorma. He felt drawn there as if by some overwhelming force. What was really at work was the powerful, almost frantic, "romantic urges" that come suddenly upon any sixteen-year-old boy?which they are incapable of analyzing clearly. And Marco's years in the marsh had made him even less capable of understanding himself, at least in this respect, than almost any other boy his age. There had been no girls his age in the marsh with whom to gain any experience at all.

So there he was at Dorma's gatehouse, facing the ancient doorkeeper through its grate. Half of him feeling he was in a state of sublime bliss; the other half feeling like a complete idiot. He was glad it was nearly dusk; glad his dark cotte and breeches were so anonymous, glad beyond telling that the shortsighted doorkeeper of House of Dorma couldn't see his face. It took all his courage to pretend to be a runner with a message to be left "for Milady Angelina." He moved off as fast as was prudent, eager to get himself deep into the shadows, once the folded and sealed paper was in the doorman's hands. His heart was pounding with combined anxiety, embarrassment, and excitement. Maybe?well, probably?Angelina would get it, if only when the head of the household demanded to know "what this is all about."

And?Jesu!?they'd want to know what it was about, all right. Because it was a love poem. The first love poem Marco had ever written.

Anonymous, of course, so Angelina would be able to protest honestly that she had no idea where it had come from, and why. And Marco's identity was safe. He'd written and erased it twenty or thirty times before it seemed right. Then with a carefully new-cut quill and some of the fine ink from Master Ambrosino Ventuccio's desk, he had copied it out on the best vellum. And the only reason he'd found the courage to deliver it was because today he'd finally found out who she was.

Milady Angelina of Dorma. The daughter of the house. Not above Marco Valdosta, even though she was at least two years older than he?but definitely above the touch of Marco Felluci. If Casa Dorma discovered some ragamuffin like Felluci had dared to send a love poem to Milady Angelina…

The best he could hope for was a beating at the hands of Dorma retainers. If young noblemen of the family got involved, "Marco Felluci" might very well find himself run through by a rapier?and these great old families usually had a baker's dozen of brawling young cousins lounging around, all of them ready at an instant to defend their family's honor.

Marco sighed. He had buried Marco Valdosta quite thoroughly, and not even for the sweet eyes of Angelina Dorma was he going to resurrect the name he'd been born to. "Marco Felluci" he was, and Marco Felluci he would remain?even though it meant abandoning all hope of ever winning the girl he was quite certain was the love of his life. But even if he couldn't touch, he could dream?and, perversely, even if she were never to learn who her unknown admirer was, he wanted her to know how he felt. So he'd spent three hours struggling over that poem.

Just two weeks ago it was, that he'd first seen her. At Giaccomo's, with a couple of companions. Until then his daydreams had been confined to something just as impossible, but hardly romantic.

The Accademia! Lord and Saints, what he wouldn't give to get in there to study medicine! But?he had no money, and no sponsor, and the wrong political history. Not that he gave a fat damn about the Montagnards anymore, and their fanatical determination to bring northern Italy into the Holy Roman Empire. But there was no way he was ever going to pass for one of the young nobles of Venice or even a son of one of the Casa curti.

Still… Marco was young enough that sometimes, sometimes when the day had really gone well, it almost seemed possible. Because a long-buried dream had surfaced with this new life.

Marco wanted to be a healer. A doctor.

He'd had that ambition as far back as he could remember. Mama had owned a drug-shop for a while, which she'd set up with what money she had after her family cut her off. Marco had been just old enough to help her with it, and he'd found the work fascinating. The patrons of the shop had teased him about it?but right along with the teasing, they'd asked his advice, and had taken it too. That perfect memory of his, again. He remembered symptoms, treatments, alternatives, everything. He'd helped old Sophia out in the marshes, later, with her herbs and "weeds," dispensing what passed for medicine among the marsh-folk and locos.

Of course, since seeing Angelina for the first time, she'd crowded out that particular daydream more often than not. But it was still there, rooted so deeply he knew it would never go away.

And so, as he made his way from Casa Dorma, Marco's thoughts were brooding and melancholy. Two heartbreaks at the same time seemed a bit much, at the age of sixteen! He consoled himself by beginning to compose, in his mind, another love poem. A brooding and melancholy one, of course.

His feet were chilled as he padded along the damp wooden walkways. He couldn't get used to shoes again after two years without them in the marshes, so he generally went as bare of foot as a bargee. The temperature was dropping; fog was coming off the water. The lines of the railings near him blurred; farther on, they were reduced to silhouettes. Farther than that, across the canal, there was nothing to see but vague, hulking shapes. Without the clatter of boot soles or clogs, he moved as silently in the fog as a spirit?silent out of habit. If the marsh-gangs didn't hear you, they couldn't harass you. Breathing the fog was like breathing wet, smoky wool; it was tainted with any number of strange smells. It held them all: fishy smell of canal, smell of rotting wood, woodsmoke, stink of nameless somethings poured into the dark, cold waters below him. He hardly noticed. His thoughts were elsewhere?back with the inspiration for his poem.

Oh, Angelina…

He wondered if he'd see her tonight at Giaccomo's. Half-hoping; half-dreading. She tended to show up at Giaccomo's pretty frequently. Marco was under no illusions as to why. Caesare Aldanto, of course?the most handsome and glamorous man there. Hell, Caesare even had Claudia and Valentina exchanging jokes and comments about him. Marco wondered hopelessly if he'd ever have?whatever it was that Caesare had. Probably not.

***

His feet had taken him all unaware down the cobbled walkways and the long, black sotoportego through to his own alleyway, to his very own door, almost before he realized it. He started to use his key, but Benito had beaten him home, and must have heard the rattle in the lock.

"About time!" he caroled in Marco's face, pulling the door open while Marco stood there stupidly, key still held out. "You fall in the canal?"

"They kept us late," Marco said, trying not to feel irritated that his daydream had been cut short. "There any supper? It was your turn."

"There will be. Got eggs, and a bit of pancetta. Frittata do?" He returned to the fireside, and the long-handled blackened, battered pan. He began frying garlic, a chopped onion, a handful of parsley?stolen, no doubt, from someone's rooftop garden?and the cubes of pancetta. Marco sniffed appreciatively. Benito was a fairly appalling cook, but always got the best of ingredients. And, as long as he didn't burn it, there wasn't much he could do wrong with frittata.

Benito tossed the fried mixture into the beaten egg in the cracked copper bowl. Then, after giving it a swirl, and putting in a lump of lard, he tossed the whole mixture back in the pan and back on the heat. "They gave me tomorrow off too, like you?something about a merchant ship all the way from the Black Sea. You got anything you want to do? After chores, I mean."

"Not really," Marco replied absently, going straight over to the wall and trying to get a good look at himself in the little bit of cracked mirror that hung there. Benito noticed, cocking a quizzical eye at him as he brought over an elderly wooden platter holding Marco's half of the omelet and a slice of bread.

"Something doing?"

"I just don't see any reason to show up at Giaccomo's looking like a drowned rat," Marco replied waspishly, accepting the plate and beginning to eat.

"Huh." Benito took the hint and combed his hair with his fingers, then inhaled his own dinner.

"Hey, big brother?y'know somethin' funny?" Benito actually sounded thoughtful, and Marco swiveled to look at him with surprise. "Since you started eating regular, you're getting to look a lot like Mama. And that ain't bad?she may'a been crazy, but she was a looker."

Marco was touched by the implied compliment. "Not so funny," he returned, "I gotta look like somebody. You know, the older you get, the more you look like Carlo Sforza. In the right light, nobody'd ever have to guess who your daddy was."

Benito started preening at that?he was just old enough to remember that the great condottiere had been a fair match for Caesare Aldanto at attracting the ladies.

Then Marco grinned wickedly and deflated him. "It's just too bad you inherited Mama's lunatic tendencies also."

"Hey!"

"Now don't start something you can't finish?" Marco warned, as his brother dropped his empty plate, seized a pillow and advanced on him.

Benito gave a disgusted snort, remembering how things had turned out only that morning, and threw the pillow, back into its corner. "No fair."

"Life's like that," Marco replied. "So let's get going, huh?"

***

Giaccomo's was full, but subdued. No clogging, not tonight; no music, even. Nobody seemed much in the mood for it. The main room was hot and smoky; not just from Giaccomo's lanterns, either. There was smoke and fog drifting in every time somebody opened a door, which wasn't often, as it was getting cold outside.

Lamps tonight were few, and wicks in them were fewer. Customers bent over their tables, their talk hardly more than muttering. Dark heads under darker caps, or bare of covering; no one here tonight but boatmen and bargees. Marco looked around for the only blond head in the room, but had a fair notion of where to find him. When he had a choice, Aldanto preferred to sit where he could keep an eye on everything going on.

Pretty paranoid?but normal, if you were an ex-Montagnard. Especially an ex-Montagnard from Milan. Even by the standards of Italy, intrigue in Milan was complex and deadly. Milan was the stronghold of the Montagnard cause, to which the Duke of Milan paid faithful homage. But Filippo Visconti had his own axes to grind and his own double-dealings with respect to the Montagnards. The "imperial cause" was a marvelous thing for the ruler of Milan?so long as it did not actually triumph. If it did… the essentially independent realm of Milan would become just another province within the Holy Roman Empire. And Duke Visconti was not the man to take kindly to the thought of being a mere satrap?any more than his condottiere Carlo Sforza's bastard son Benito took kindly to his older brother Marco's attempts to rein in his less-than-legal activities.

Politics in Milan, in short, was like a nest of vipers. Marco's own mother had been destroyed by that nest?and Caesare Aldanto, who hadn't, made sure he always sat where no one could get behind him.

Marco had been known to choose his seats that way too. Whether he liked it or not, and despite the fact that he no longer cared about such things, his heritage had entwined him hopelessly in the coils of Italian politics.

***

There he was?black cotte, dark cap, golden blond hair that curled the way the carved angel's hair curled. As Marco had expected, Caesare was ensconced in his usual corner table. But as Marco and Benito wormed their way closer, Marco could see that he was looking?not quite hungover, but not terribly good. Limp-looking, like it was an effort to keep his head up and his attention on the room and the people in it. Minor mental alarms began jangling.

Still, if the man wanted to binge once in a while, who could blame him? Ventuccio had plenty to say about him, not much of it good. Marco picked up a lot by just keeping his mouth shut and his ears open, doing the accounts they set him and staying invisible. What he heard didn't seem to match the Caesare Aldanto who had given two dumb kids a way out of trouble. Especially when it was more logical for him to have knifed them both and dumped them in the canal. He had a feeling that someday he'd like to hear Caesare's side of things. He also had a feeling that if that day ever came, it would be when Aldanto was on a binge. If he ever lowered his guard enough.

Aldanto's table had a candle over it, not a lamp?candlelight was even dimmer than lamplight. The two boys moved up to the side of the table like two thin shadows. Marco had brought his week's worth of recollections, neatly folded into a packet. Maybe it was the dim light?but they stood by the side of the table for nearly a minute before Aldanto noticed them. Marco bit his lip, wondering if he'd offended Aldanto in some way, and the man was paying back in arrogance?but, no; it was almost as if he was having such trouble focusing that he could only attend to one thing at a time. As if he really wasn't seeing them, until he could get his attention around to the piece of floor they were standing on.

When Aldanto finally saw them, and invited them to sit with a weary wave of his head, Marco pushed the sealed packet across the table towards his hand. Aldanto accepted it silently, put into a pocket, then stared off into space, like he'd forgotten they were there.

Marco sat there long enough to start feeling like a fool, then ventured to get his attention: "Milord?"

Now Aldanto finally looked at them again, his eyes slowly focusing. He did not look hungover after all; he looked tired to death and ready to drop. "You asked me to come here, remember? There is something you want us to do?"

"I?" Aldanto rubbed one temple, slowly, as if his head was hurting him; his eyes were swollen and bruised looking, and there were little lines of pain between his eyebrows. "There was?I know there was a reason?"

This was nothing like the canny Caesare Aldanto that Marco was used to dealing with! Alarmed now, Marco took a really hard look at him, eyes alert for things Sophia had taught him to take note of.

He didn't like what he saw. A thin film of sweat stood out on Caesare's forehead; his blue eyes were dull and dark-circled. Aldanto was fair, but he'd never been this white before. His hair was damp and lank; and not from the fog, Marco would bet on it. And his shoulders were shivering a little as if from cold?yet Giaccomo's was so warm with closely crowded bodies that Marco was regretting he'd worn his thick cotte. And now Marco was remembering something from this morning and the gossip among the other clerks at Ventuccio?a rumor of plague in the town. Maybe brought in on that Black Sea ship. Maybe not. Marco's bones said that whatever was wrong with Caesare had its roots here?because Marco's bones had once shaken with a chill that he'd bet Caesare was feeling now.

"Milord, are you feeling all right?" he whispered, under cover of a burst of loud conversation from three tables over.

Aldanto smiled thinly. "To tell you the truth, boy?no. Afraid I've got a bit of a cold, or something. Felt like death two days ago and now it seems to be coming back. A bit worse if anything."

He broke into a fit of coughing, and his shoulders shook again; and although he was plainly trying, not all of his iron will could keep the tremor invisible. Marco made up his mind on the instant.

Marco turned to his brother. "Benito?go find Maria. Get!"

Benito got. Aldanto looked at Marco with a kind of dazed puzzlement. "She's probably on her way. What?"

"You're drunk?act like it!" Marco whispered harshly. "Unless you want Giaccomo to throw you in the canal for bringing plague in here! I don't much imagine he'd be real happy about that."

He rose, shoved his chair back, and seized Aldanto's arm to haul him to his feet before the other could protest or react. And that was another bad sign; Aldanto had the reactions of any trained assassin, quick and deadly. Only tonight those reactions didn't seem to be working.

Marco had always been a lot stronger than he looked?with a month of regular meals he was more than a match for the fevered Caesare Aldanto.

"Now, Milord Caesare," he said aloud?not too loudly, he hoped, but loud enough. "I think a breath of air would be a proper notion, no? I'm afraid Milord Giaccomo's drink is a bit too good tonight."

There were mild chuckles at that, and no one looked at them twice as Marco half-carried, half-manhandled Aldanto towards the door. Which was fortunate, for they both discovered when Aldanto tried to pull away that his legs were not up to holding him.

They staggered between the tables, weaving back and forth, Marco sagging under the nearly deadweight Aldanto had become. Out of the double doors they wove, narrowly avoiding a collision with an incoming customer, and down onto the lantern-lit front porch. Down a set of stairs were the tie-ups for small boats, only half of them taken tonight. And pulling up to those tie-ups was a gondola sculled by a dusky girl in a dark cap. Maria Garavelli and no mistaking her.

Marco eyed her uncertainly, not sure whether he was actually relieved that Benito had found her…

Maria was notorious along the canals. Her mother, kin to half of the families in the Caulkers' guild, had done the unthinkable?she'd gotten pregnant by some unknown father, refused to name him, refused to marry in haste some scraped-up suitor, and had been summarily thrown out on her ear by her enraged father. The woman had outfaced them all, bearing her child openly, raising her openly, and taking the gondola her grandfather had left her and making a place and a reputation for hard honest work right up until the day she died.

Maria had continued that reputation, though she had been only just big and strong enough to pole the boat over difficult passages when her mother went to the angels (or the Devil, depending on who was doing the telling). With her skirts tied up between her legs for ease in movement, that dark cap pulled over her ears and all of her hair tucked up into it, she was as androgynous a creature as any castrati. Working a boat from the time she could walk had given her wide, strong shoulders and well-muscled arms. Her pointed chin and high cheekbones looked female, but the square jaw hinges and deep-set brown eyes, usually narrowed with suspicion, would have been more at home in a man's face. There wasn't anything about their expression that looked soft or female, nor was there in the thin lips, generally frowning. She hadn't a woman's complexion, that was for sure; she was as brown as any bargeman. If there were breasts under that shapeless shirt, it wouldn't be easy to tell. But there was more than a hint of womanly shape in the curve of her hips?and her legs were the best on the canal.

Of course, if you dared to tell her so, she'd probably punch you in the jaw so hard it would be three days before you woke up.

They were just in time to see Benito catching the line Maria was throwing him. Light from Giaccomo's porch lantern caught her eyes as she stared at them. There was something of a mixture of surprise and shock?yes, and a touch of fear?in the look she gave them.

"I think we need to get this fellow home," Marco said loudly, praying Maria would keep her wits about her. She might not know him well, but she knew that Aldanto had trusted them to spy for him, and guard his back, more than once. He just prayed she'd trust him too, and follow his lead.

She did; playing along with him except for one startled glance. "Fool's been celebratin'?" She snorted, legs braced against the roll of her boat, hands on hips, looking theatrically disgusted. She pushed her cap back on her hair with a flamboyant and exaggerated shove. "Ought to let him walk home, that I should. Ah, hell, hand him over."

Aldanto was in no shape, now, to protest the hash they were making of his reputation. He was shaking like a reed in a winter storm. His skin was tight and hot to the touch, as Maria evidently learned when she reached up to help him down the ladder onto her halfdeck. "Look?you?" was all he managed before another coughing fit took him and Maria got him safely planted. She gave no real outward sign that she was alarmed, though?just a slight tightening of her lips and a frightened widening of her eyes.

"Think we'd better come along, Maria," Marco continued, in what he hoped was a bantering tone of voice?for though they seemed to be alone, there was no telling who had eyes and ears in the shadows or above the canal. "Afraid milord is likely to be a handful. Won't like being told what to do." That last was for Aldanto's benefit. While he talked, he stared hard into Maria's eyes, hoping she'd read the message there.

Go along with this, he tried fiercely to project. I can help.

"You think so?" The tone was equally bantering, but the expression seemed to say that she understood that silent message. "Well, guess it can't hurt?"

"Right enough, then. Benito, give Maria a hand with that line." Marco climbed gingerly down into the boat where Aldanto sat huddled in misery, as Benito slid aboard, the bowline in his hand.

"What the hell?" Maria hissed, as soon as they were out of earshot of the bank.

"He's got fever. Looking at him, I think it is just the marsh-fever, what they call 'mal-aria,' not the plague. You got something to keep him warm?"

Without the need to guard her expression, Marco could read her nearly as well as one of his books. First there was relief?Thank God, it could have been worse, he could have been hurt?and that was quickly followed by anger and resentment. He couldn't guess at the reasons for those emotions, but that expression was chased almost immediately by stark, naked fear. Then she shuttered her face down again, and became as opaque as canal water. At her mute nod toward the bulkhead, Marco ducked under it, and out again, and wrapped the blanket he'd found around Aldanto's shaking shoulders.

Aldanto looked up, eyes full of bleary resentment. "I?" cough "?can take care of?" cough "?myself, thanks."

Marco ignored him. "First thing, we got to get him back home and in bed. But we gotta make out like's he's drunk, not sick."

Maria nodded slowly; Marco was grateful for her quick grasp of the situation. "Because if the people figure he's sick?they figure he's an easy target. Damn!"

"Will you two leave me alone?" muttered the sick man.

This time Marco looked him right in the eyes.

"No," he said simply.

Aldanto stared and stared, like one of the piers had up and answered him back; then groaned, sagged his head onto his knees, and buried his face in his hands.

"Right." Marco turned back to Maria, swiveling to follow her movements as she rowed the gondola into the sparse traffic on the Grand Canal. She wasn't sparing herself?Marco could tell that much from what he'd learned from poling his raft. Which meant she was trying to make time. Which meant she was worried, too.

"Second thing is, we need money. I got some, but not too much. How about you? Or him?"

"Some. What for?" Suspicion shadowed the glance she gave him as she shoved the pole home against the bottom, suspicion and more of that smoldering anger and fear. Touchy about money, are we, Maria?

"Medicine," he said quickly. "Some we send Benito for; people are always sending runners after medicine, especially in fever season. Nothing to connect Caesare with that." Marco fell silent for a moment.

"You said, 'some.' "

"I'll decide the rest after we get him back," Marco said slowly, "and I know how bad it is."

Campo San Polo at last. Up the stairs at water level they went, stairs that led almost directly to Aldanto's door. Aldanto tried to push them off, to get them to leave him at that door. But when his hands shook so that he couldn't even get his key in the lock, Marco and Maria exchanged a look?and Maria took the key deftly away from him.

Caesare complained, bitterly but weakly, all through the process of getting him into his apartment and into the bed in the downstairs bedroom. Not even with three of them were they going to try and manhandle him up the stairs to the room he usually used.

Ominously, though?at least as far as Marco was concerned?Aldanto stopped complaining as soon as he was installed in bed; just closed his eyes against the light, and huddled in his blanket, shivering and coughing. Marco sent Benito out with orders for willow bark and corn-poppy flowers, also for red and white clover blossoms for the cough, not that he expected any of them to do any good. This wasn't that kind of fever. He knew it now; knew it beyond any doubting.

"I hope you can afford to lose a night's trade, Maria," he said, pulling her out of the bedroom by main force. "Maybe more. I'll tell you the truth of it: Caesare's in bad shape, and it could get worse."

"It's just a cold or somethin', ain't it?" Her look said she knew damned well that it was worse than that, but was hoping for better news than she feared.

"Not for him, it isn't," Marco replied, figuring she'd better know the worst. "Same thing happened to me, when I had to hide in the swamp. I caught every damn thing you could think of." Marco shook his head. "Well, he needs something besides what we can get at the drug-shops."

"The Calle Farnese…" she said doubtfully.

Marco shook his head firmly. "More than quack-magic, either."

He took a deep breath. "Now listen: I'm going to write down exactly what I need you to do with those herbs when Benito gets back."

"I can't read," she whispered.

Marco swallowed. With Maria's pride, you tended to forget she was just a woman from a large, poor caulker family. Even the menfolk could probably barely manage to cipher their names. "Never mind. Benito will read it for you. It should help him to stop coughing enough to sleep. The coughing is not serious. The fever is the part that is worrying. It should break soon and just leave him weak and tired. Then it'll start up again. Right now he needs sleep more than anything else. You stay with him; don't leave him. That might be enough?he'll feel like he wants to die, but he's not exactly in any danger, so long as he stays warm. But?" Marco paused to think. "All right, worst case. If he gets worse before I get back?if his fever comes again or his temperature goes up more?"

That was an ugly notion, and hit far too close to home. He steadied his nerves with a long breath of air and thought out everything he was going to have to do and say. What he was going to order her to do wasn't going to go down easy. Maria Garavelli didn't like being ordered at the best of times, and this was definitely going to stick in her throat.

"I know maybe more about our friend than you think I do. I'm telling you the best?hell, the only option. If he starts having trouble breathing or hallucinating, you send Benito with a note to Ricardo Brunelli. You tell him if he wants his pet assassin alive, he'd better send his own physician. And fast."

Maria's eyes blazed, and she opened her mouth to protest. Marco cut her short.

"Look, you think I want my brother going up there? You think we're in any better shape than Caesare is in this town? I don't know what you know about us, Maria, but we got as much or more to lose by this. I don't know if Caesare's let on about us, but?"

God, God, the chance! But they owed Caesare more than they could pay.

"Look at me?believe me, Maria. If Brunelli?any of 'em?ever found out about me and Benito, we'd?we'd wish we were dead, that's all. We know things too, and we got nobody but Caesare keeping us from getting gobbled up like sardines. Caesare they got reasons to keep alive?us?well, you can figure out how much anybody'd miss two kids. So trust me, the risk's a lot more on our side; if he gets worse, it's the only way to save him."

"Damn it, Marco?" she started; then sagged, defeated by his earnestness and her own fear and worry. "All right. Yeah, I pretty much know about your situation. Hell, though?what you've been doing?I dunno why we'd need a real doctor. You're as good a doctor as I ever seen?"

"Like bloody hell I am!" he snapped, more harshly than he intended. He saw Maria wince away, her expression chilling, and hastily tried to mend the breach.

"Look?I'm sorry, I didn't mean that the way it sounded. Maria, I'm scared too?for all of us." He managed half a smile, when he saw the hard line of her lips soften. "And you just?stepped on a sore toe, that's all. See, I'd give my arm to be able to go to the Accademia, to learn to be a doctor. And I've got about as much chance of that as your gondola has of flying." He sighed. "That's the problem with having things get better, I guess. When I didn't have anything, I didn't want things, because I knew I'd never get 'em. But now I got a little, seems like I want more. Things I've got no chance for."

He hadn't really expected Maria to understand. But to his surprise, she gave a little wistful glance back toward the bedroom, sighed, and nodded. "I reckon we both got a notion how that feels," she agreed. "But?I dunno, Brunelli?he's a shark?that doctor could just as easy poison Caesare as cure him."

"So I just gave you what to do in the worst case, hey? Worry about that when the time comes. Caesare's luck with skinning through, he'll be all right. But if not?I'll tell you now?you might just as well chance poison, 'cause if you want Caesare alive, you get him a real doctor as soon as he starts getting worse?if he does, before I make it back."

"Back? From where?" She only now seemed to realize that he wasn't planning on staying.

"I told you, I know this fever. I had it once, too. And Caesare needs more'n what we can get from the drug-shop. So I'm going to get the medicine he needs?the one place here I know I can?where I got what saved me. The place I spent the last two years. The marsh." He smiled crookedly at her stunned expression.

"How are you going get there?" She stammered. "I?"

"I said you had to stay here, didn't I? And keep Benito here to help when he gets back. I'll get in the same way I did the last time. Walk. Or swim. The tide is out and I know the channels. I should do. I lived there for long enough."

Chapter 13

"You're not going out again!"

Not for the first time, or even the thousandth time, Katerina Montescue wondered what had possessed her brother Alfredo to marry Alessandra. And why he had to die and leave Kat to cope with the silly shrewish bitch, who never thought beyond her clothes or belladona-widened eyes. Except for finding new ways to snipe at everyone and boast about her high-born family connections.

Kat took a deep breath. "Yes." She volunteered not one word more.

Alessandra looked at the dowdy rough-spun woolen hooded cloak Katerina put on over her plain gray twill. She sniffed disapprovingly. "I'm surprised your lover will let you wear things like that! It's not even clean."

It was! And this from an idle cow who never did a damn thing in a house that had ten servants too few to maintain it. Who pestered money they could ill afford out of Grandpapa to buy more frippery clothes to add to the cupboards-full she already owned.

Kat was too angry to keep her tongue. "Unlike you, I don't have to chase everything that wears breeches, Sandi." Alessandra hated having her name shortened. "I've got better things to do."

Battle was now fairly joined. "I hope so," said Alessandra loftily. "The way you are ruining your hands with that rough oar! It's commoners' work and you'll never get a man." Then, forgetting that she'd just said there was no chance of Kat getting a man, she went on. "Maybe he is a commoner. But even you couldn't sink that low, surely?"

Kat ground her teeth. "What I'm doing has nothing to do with men. Or with you either. I wish you'd stay out of my room. I never invited you in."

"I'm your sister-in-law," Alessandra said righteously. "As the married woman of the house I have a duty and responsibility to see to your welfare. I don't think I should let you go out to tryst with your lover, as if you were some common whore. What if news of this got back to the Brunellis?"

"Try stopping me, sister. Just try. I've got Grandpapa's permission." She walked purposefully towards the water-door.

"He's senile. You'll bring the plague back with you. It's rife out there."

Kat stopped. "He's not senile! He's just old… and, and hurt. Alfredo's death, Mariana's death, the baby and Papa… not coming back. And Mama and then Grandmama, too. It's just been a bit too much for him." Even thinking about it left her with a catch in her voice. And guilt. Alessandra's baby son had died too, after all.

But Alessandra dealt with the guilt with her next silly statement. "So you've got his permission to turn yourself into a courtesan, because of that?"

Kat looked at herself in the mottled full-length mirror. Like many things in the Casa Montescue it was past its prime. The reflection that looked back at her was, at best, merely pretty. She had too wide a mouth and too pert a nose. Carroty-colored slightly curly hair, that Alessandra was always at her to bleach a bit, so that she'd look?at least from behind?more like the glamorous Lucrezia Brunelli. Unlike Alessandra, Katerina didn't claim cousinship and intimate knowledge of the doings of Venice's most famous beauty. And after Alessandra's endless stories, she didn't want to.

She looked away from the mirror, knowing that its mottled surface was not disguising the truth. Her face, unlike Lucrezia's, would certainly never garner her any love poems. Neither would a nonexistent dowry. And she'd never have Alessandra's statuesque figure, either; or Alessandra's perfect rosebud mouth with the tiny mole accentuating it; or her white skin and raven-black hair.

She sighed. "Sandi, be reasonable. I'm not a beauty, never will be, and that's all there is to it. Now, excuse me. I've got things to do." She pushed past, heading for the water-door up the passage.

As often happened, Alessandra's mood underwent an abrupt change. "Oh, Katerina!" she cried, clutching at Kat's cloak. "Take me with you! I'm dying cooped up in here in this mausoleum. We could go to Barducci's. I hear it's all the rage to go… slumming there. A lot of the younger crowd are going."

Kat snorted, and shook off the soft slim white hand. "Saints, Sandi! One minute I'm going to my lover, the next I'm bringing plague. And the next you want to go off looking for thrills with the commoners you despise. Well, sorry. I've got other things to deal with. Practical things. Anyway, you go out more often than I do. You go over to Murano at least once a week."

Curiosity?a source for gossip, a vital feature of Alessandra's shallow life?took over. "Tell me what things?"

"Can't." Somewhere, Montescue was leaking secrets. Telling Alessandra anything that the spying cat didn't already know would add another leak.

"Mean, horrible, little bitch!" The water-door slammed behind her, leaving Katerina to get into the shabby gondola tied to the post.

***

Out on the water, in the darkness, Katerina felt her temper begin to subside. By the way the wind was blowing off the lagoon, there would be a storm soon.

Great. All she needed was to get wet again!

Still, that would be better than when the previous cargo had come in. The one she'd nearly lost. Rain, even a thunderstorm, took a while to wet you to the skin. Jumping or falling into the canal didn't. She sculled a little faster. This delivery was to the far side of the Grand Canal, too, not that that meant anything. She never delivered anything to Calle Farnese anymore. It was just too risky. There were more prowling agents of the Signori di Notte and those creepy Servants around there than there were Strega nowadays.

She sighed. Never mind the way that it was weighing on her grandfather, this pressure was making her snappy and shrewish. After all the difficulty of getting the last parcel from Ascalon, she'd hoped their fortunes would revive. Alas, it had only just staved off the creditors. So they'd gambled on going into a Colleganza on a cargo of silver on the galley fleet bound for the Black Sea. After all, there was so little risk in a galley cargo that they didn't even need to insure it.

And then… the galley had been one of three lost in a storm. Snapped in half by the waves, if the few survivors could be believed.

The ill-fortune that plagued Casa Montescue seemed endless. Now they were bankrupt?almost, anyway. Reduced to the desperate business of organizing high-risk cargos to and from Beyond-the-sea.

Kat tried to find solace somewhere. At least her grandfather couldn't blame this disaster on Casa Valdosta. That ancient house was completely destroyed, all of the family members dead except for?according to rumors gathered by Grandpapa's agents?one or two boys. Who, even if the rumors of their survival were accurate, could hardly pose a threat to Montescue.

Again, she sighed. Not that her grandfather cared about threats. For reasons which had never been very clear to Kat?and she'd been afraid to ask?the old man blamed Casa Valdosta for the misfortunes of the Montescues. He was consumed with a desire for vengeance on anything Valdosta?even boys who could not possibly be held responsible by any rational person. That was what worried Kat the most?her grandfather's obsession with revenge was not… entirely sane. It was dark, and cruel, and evil?for all that Grandpapa was not a cruel and evil man in any other respect.

And it was expensive, too! Spies did not come cheap, and assassins even less so. The old man would still be hiring assassins, if there was anything left to hire them with. Kat didn't doubt that he would do so again, if her efforts brought in some significant money. What a waste!

***

Kat tied the gondola up beside the shabby water-door. Lightning rippled across the eastern sky, showing a waterworn step and an odd, gargoyle-faced doorknocker. The iron eyes seemed almost alive in the sudden sharp light. It gave her something of a shiver, and it took quite some willpower to lift the ring that the gargoyle was devouring and rap out the coded knock. Thunder rumbled in the distance.

The door opened with an oiled silence that belied its decrepit look. A dark, hooded figure loomed behind the candle. She went in. Little was said on these rendezvous. These days, buyers?who used to greet her by name?were trying to pretend they didn't know her, and that she'd never even met them. These were dangerous times.

The hooded man led her to a desk, at which yet another hooded figure sat. Silently Kat handed over the little oilcloth parcel, putting it on the table. The hooded figure reached eagerly for it, a little silver and steel knife appearing suddenly in the long, shapely feminine fingers. The knife hilt, Kat noticed, was fashioned like a dragon's head with little chips of clear red stone for eyes. Eyes seemed everywhere tonight. She hoped none of them had followed her here.

The packet was slit, and the hooded woman gave a little crow of unpleasant glee… before hastily sweeping the vials back into the packet. Not for the first time Kat wondered what they were doing in this business. It had started with letters to and from the Jewish community. After all, her great-grandfather had been a Jew, even if he'd married out of the faith and the family were good Petrine Christians now. Somehow needs had driven things to this. When she'd been a child she'd often gone to meet the Strega with Grandpapa. She suspected that Grandpapa had been halfway to being a convert. But they'd been a different community then. Gentler.

The woman motioned her henchman forward. He reached inside his cloak and produced… money. That was always a relief. Kat knew she could get killed instead. Silently, he counted out ducats.

Kat slipped them into a washleather pouch, and slipped the pouch between her breasts.

Obviously, her pleasure in receiving the cargo had loosed the woman's tongue. "You deliver to many?"

Kat shook her head. "I really don't think I should say."

"Understood. But I will make it worth a great deal, a very great deal indeed, to know of one man. Ten times your fee, if you tell me where I can find him. His name is Marina. Dottore Luciano Marina. This is how he looks."

The woman flicked a handful of powder into the air and an image appeared therein. The man had an arrogant tilt to his head, but a kindly face. There was a wiry youthfulness about the face, which didn't match the eyes. The eyes looked as if they'd seen a lot.

Kat remembered it well. He had been a great figure of learning at the Accademia before he disappeared, Grandpapa had said. And her favorite tutor, as a girl.

Kat shook her head. "He hasn't been around since I was about fourteen."

"He is still around." The woman spoke very firmly, more to herself than Kat. "I can feel him. I just can't pin him to a place."

Kat shrugged, and looked at the desk. She must have lost a strand of hair there?not something you wanted to leave with the Strega. She twitched it off the table and into a pocket while the hooded woman's attention was still distracted.

"Haven't seen him for years," she repeated.

The woman appeared to notice her again. "You may leave," she said imperiously.

***

Outside, with the wind from the storm ripping and yowling between the buildings and the first heavy drops beginning to splat onto the water, Kat shook herself. The money would help. But the hole that the Casa Montescue was in meant that they'd have to continue with this. She flicked the bowline loose and began sculling.

As she came out onto the Grand Canal, she realized that she should have left earlier. Ahead the rain was coming down like a solid dark wall, obliterating all light. The water in the Grand Canal was already chopped into endless dancing myriad-peaked waves. Water slopped over the gunwales as Kat struggled to turn back into the relative shelter of the smaller canal she'd emerged from. There was no going home until this was over. She might as well find somewhere to try to keep dry. Even here angry gusts were rattling and shaking at hastily slammed shutters. This was no time to be outside, never mind in a boat. The nearby church of San Zan Degola was small and poor, but it would be open.

She moored the gondola to a post, hitched up her skirts, and ran for the shelter. The storm wouldn't last.

Chapter 14

Rain. The watcher in the reed bank noticed it without caring too much about it. His name was Harrow, and he was, by nature, a predator. When intent on a target he was not distracted by discomfort. The slim, willowy figure out there in the lightning-torn darkness wasn't his prey, but Harrow stalked him anyway from long habit. This marshland was not Harrow's environment, and the only way he'd learn it was to practice, to hone his inborn skills.

Besides, if it wasn't prey, it could possibly be someone hunting Harrow. Or Fortunato Bespi, as they would still think of him. They had tried to kill Harrow. Burn him, drown him. Somehow news could have leaked out of the swamp that he wasn't dead. Bespi had given his all to the Visconti, for the Montagnard cause. He'd always found peace in obeying orders, pleasure in hunting down his human prey. In repayment, Francesco Aleri had done this to him, and Harrow did not doubt for a moment that the orders had come from the Duke of Milan himself.

Hatred, forge-hot, seared at his gut for a moment. With an effort that was difficult because it came newly to him, Harrow tried to drive it under.

No. That was not the way. The marsh-wizard who had saved him and taught him his true name claimed he should turn his hatred to good cause instead. Harrow, who had cut down lives with no more compunction than most people had killed mosquitoes, had listened to his talk with intense concentration. And had listened to the visions with an even greater one.

Strangely so, perhaps, given his history. But… Harrow believed in reasons. He believed that he had a purpose in life; believed it with a fanatical intensity. As Bespi he'd always assumed that purpose was to serve the Montagnard cause, yet they had been the ones to order his death. And what disturbed Harrow the most was that there had been no reason for it. None good enough, at any rate.

Harrow, as much as Fortunato Bespi, wanted reasons. And so, as lightning lit the sky with white tracery, he watched as the trudging figure came closer. Not much more than a boy he was, Harrow could see now. He could warn him easily that there was a prowling loco on the trail ahead?a bad one, by the pitiful local standards. But Harrow was a hunter and hunted man himself, as well as a man who believed in reasons. So he simply waited, silent and invisible in the recesses of the marsh, as the boy passed by him in the storm. Then, followed. Stalking from habit, partly; and, partly, hoping he might find some logic in a reasonless world.

***

Marco could hardly feel his feet, they were so numb and cold. Still, it wasn't winter. Then he'd have had to worry about losing his toes, instead of just feeling like he'd lost them.

He was halfway out to Chiano's territory, and he was already regretting the decision he'd made, with the kind of remote regret of one who didn't have any real choice. The pack on his back was large, and heavy; the goods he had to trade with old Sophia for her herbs were bulky. Blankets didn't compact well, no more did clothing.

The cold was climbing up his legs, and his breeches were misery to wear: wet and clinging and clammy, and liberally beslimed with mud and unidentifiable swamp-muck. He'd forgotten how much the marsh mud stank; it was far worse than the canals. The reeds rustled, but otherwise there wasn't much sound but for the wind whistling and the water lapping against what few bits of solid stuff poked above the surface of the lagoon.

The wind was bitter, and ate through his clothing. Also there was a storm brewing, which meant that he'd be soaked before the night was out, even if things went well.

He was half-soaked already. Just because it was possible to walk into the swamp, that didn't mean it was easy. He was just grateful that his memory of the "trail" was clear; so clear he could find his way back in pitch dark?so clear he was only mud caked to his thighs instead of to his waist.

Overhead the clouds blocked out the stars and thunder rumbled, cloud-shadows taking the last of the light. But now the swamp itself flickered with an eerie phosphorescence, making it almost like dusk. There seemed to be more of a glow than there had been before?and a kind of odd, sulfurous, bitter smell he didn't remember as being part of the normal odors. The thunder came again, accompanied by flashes of lightning, and the wind off the sea began to pick up, bending the reeds parallel with the water.

Marco had just enough time for his nose to warn him, and then the rain came.

The first fat drops plopped on the back of his neck and trickled icily down his back, adding to his misery. This morning he'd been sure that there was no way he could begin to even up the debt between himself and Aldanto. At this point he was beginning to think that the scale might just be tipping the other way.

***

"Hee hee he-he-he! Well, lookee what th' storm washet ep?"

The voice that brayed out of the dark and the rain was one Marco had hoped never to hear again.

"I heerd ye gone townie on us, Marco?boy." The speaker was little more than a black blot against the phosphorescent water?a large blot. "I heerd ye niver come back t' see yer old friends. I heerd ye figger yer better'n us now."

It was Big Gianni, and he had the next segment of the trail completely blocked. To either side was deep water and dangerous mud?some of it bottomless, sucking mire-pits.

"C'mon, Marco?boy?ain't ye gonna run from Big Gianni? Ain't ye gonna give 'im a race?" Lightening flickered once, twice. The blot shifted restlessly.

Marco fought panic. "Get out of my way, Big Gianni," he shouted over the thunder. "Leave me alone. I never hurt you."

"Ye hurt Big Gianni's feelin's, Marco?boy," the hoarse voice came back. "Ye wouldn't play with Big Gianni. Ye sent that Chiano t' warn Gianni off, ye did. But Chiano, he ain't here now. Now it's jest me an' you."

Marco could run. He could shed that heavy pack and run back along the safe path until he came to one of the branches. Then he could get into an area he knew better than Gianni did, where he could outdistance him and get safely back to town.

But?without what he'd come for. And it was just possible that without Sophia's spell-woven medicine, Caesare Aldanto would die, fighting for breath, choking?literally drowning as his lungs filled. The way that Marco had almost died.

His knife was in his hand without his really thinking about it, and he slipped the straps of the pack off his shoulders, dropping it to the reed hummock he was standing on. With the feel of the hilt in his hand, his breathing steadied. He wasn't fifteen any more?nor was he armed with nothing but a scrap of glass. He had most of his adult growth now, and a good steel blade in his hand.

***

Watching from his hiding place in the reeds, Harrow was impressed. Not by the way the boy held the knife?pitiful, that was?but the mere fact he would do so. And stand his ground, in face of such a threat. Harrow had observed the one called Gianni before. The creature was not dangerous to Harrow himself, of course. But he was a fearsome monster for the marsh-dwellers. Very large, strong, half-crazed, and driven by savage and perverted reasons.

Harrow wondered at the boy's reasons. Powerful they must be, to cause him to stand his ground. Harrow had little doubt the boy could elude Gianni in the marsh if he wished to do so. The one called Gianni was strong, yes; but also clumsy and slow afoot.

Yet… the boy clearly intended to fight. Very powerful reasons he must have. And thus, Harrow suspected, reasons which were also true and clean.

So, a man covered with slime waited silently and invisible in the marshes. Just watching, to see if the reasons he so craved himself might emerge in such an unlikely place.

***

Marco had to swallow before he could speak. Then:

"I'm warning you, Gianni?get out of my way."

"Ye gonna make me?"

"If I have to," Marco replied unsteadily. Big Gianni had sloshed a step or two closer, and now his knife seemed all too small. Gianni stood as tall as Marco?and Marco was still standing on a hummock that rose several inches above the underwater surface of the trail.

And Gianni had a knife, too; Marco could see the lightning flickering on the shiny surface of the steel. It was ribbon-thin, honed almost to invisibility, but Marco would bet it could leave bleeding wounds on the wind.

Gianni cackled again, and there was no sanity in that sound. "Ye try, Marco?boy, ye g'won 'n try! Big Gianni don't care. He c'n play wi' ye live?or he c'n play wi' ye dead."

Marco's nerve almost broke?so before it could give out altogether, he attacked. Before Gianni had a chance to react, he threw himself at the bigger man with an hysterical and suicidal leap. Marco had no chance at all except one which was so desperate that not even a lunatic like Gianni would think to counter it.

He drove the open palm of his left hand frantically down on Gianni's knife?aiming at the blade, not the knife-hand?hoping to impale his hand on that blade and render it useless.

His dive off the hummock had caught the loco marsh-dweller by surprise. Marco had always run before. Gianni's twisted mind wasn't ready for him to attack.

So Marco's half-sketched plan worked better than he hoped.

***

Harrow rose from his crouch, his soul ringing like a cymbal. He understood at once the boy's maneuver?it was a theoretical gambit all assassins had considered?but had never once in his violence-filled life seen anyone actually do it. Such reasons the boy must have!

***

The point of Gianni's knife sliced into Marco's palm as he rammed his hand right up to the hilt. The pain split his arm like the lightning that was splitting the sky. Marco screamed and closed his fist around the crossguard anyway, wresting it out of the bigger man's hand. Gianni's grip was loose, he was so stunned by Marco's unexpected action. Then, as Marco's feet skidded in the mud, he fell forward, throwing all of his weight awkwardly behind an impromptu lunge with his own knife.

Gianni's screams were a hoarse echo of his own as the knife sank up to the hilt in his gut. He beat at Marco's head with both hands; Marco slipped and slid some more, and fell to his knees, but held onto the knife hilt, ripping upward with it.

Gianni howled and tried to pull himself off the blade, pushing at Marco. But Marco slipped more, falling underneath the bigger man. Gianni lost his balance on the slimy rock of the trail, falling forward farther onto the knife blade. As thunder crashed, the big man collapsed on top of Marco, screams cut off, pinning Marco under the muddy water

All the air was driven from his lungs as the crazy man fell atop him. Marco tried to fight free but the slimy mud was as slick as ice under his knees. Then he lost what little purchase he had, and the knee-deep water closed over his head.

The surface was just inches away from his face?but he couldn't reach it!

He clawed at the twitching thing that held him there; tried to shove it off, but could get no leverage. Raw panic took over. He thrashed and struggled, his lungs screaming for air, his chest and throat afire with the need for a breath. He was caught like an otter in a drown-snare. He was going to die, trapped under the body of his enemy.

The mud conspired to hold him down, now sliding under him, sucking at his limbs. Sparks danced before his eyes, and he wriggled and squirmed and struggled for the air that his hands could reach, but not his head. He had a strange crystal-clear vision of himself floating lifelessly beside the trail, touched by the morning sun?

Suddenly, the weight of the corpse on top of him was removed. With a last frantic writhe, Marco freed himself, slipping off the trail into the deep water on the right. His head broke the surface, and he gulped the air, great sobbing heaves of his chest.

A powerful hand seized him by the scruff of the neck and half-hurled him toward firmer ground. Marco reached for and caught a clump of reeds, and pulled himself to the trail. He hauled himself back onto the hummock where he'd left his pack, crying with pain and fear, and gasping for breath, while lightning flashed above him and thunder followed it, almost deafening him. He clung there with only his right hand, for Gianni's knife was still transfixed in his left. His frantic eyes flitted across the landscape, looking for whoever had lifted Gianni off him and dragged him to safety. Marco's rescuer could also be a threat.

But he saw nothing. His rescuer had vanished.

Why did he do that? Marco wondered. For what reason?

***

"My God, boy?" Chiano's eyes glared out at Marco from the shelter of his basketlike hidey. He and Sophia had anchored their rafts and their hides, side-by-side, on a bit of old wood Chiano had driven into the muck of the bottom to use as a safe tie-up.

"Lemme in, Chiano," Marco said, dully. His hand felt afire. He was shivering so hard that it was only because he was holding his jaw clenched that his teeth weren't rattling. He swayed back and forth, drunk with exhaustion and pain. He could hardly use his arm, much less his wounded hand?it felt like a log of wood. He'd tied up his hand as best he could, but he hadn't been able to do more than stop the bleeding. He knew he was probably falling into shock, but didn't care any more.

"Wait a moment." Chiano propped up the edge of the basket with a stick, reached out and shook Sophia's hide. "Wake up, you old witch?it's Marco and he's hurt."

"What? What?" The edge of Sophia's basket came up and she peered out at Marco. For some reason the sight of her struck him as funny and he began to laugh hysterically?and couldn't stop.

He was still laughing when they propped the baskets together, like two halves of a shell, and helped him up onto their combined rafts. Then, unaccountably, the laughter turned to sobs, and he cried himself nearly sick on Sophia's shoulder.

Sophia held him, wrapping her tattered old shawl about his shoulders and keeping him warm against her. Rain pattered on the baskets and, for the moment, there was no place Marco would rather have been.

In the corner of his eye, he saw a strange expression come into Chiano's face. The kind of expression a man gets when he suddenly, unexpectedly, remembers something long forgotten. Puzzled, despite the pain and weariness, Marco turned his head in time to see Chiano straighten his back and spread his arms wide.

"Luminescence spareze. A Mercurio!"

There was a commanding tone to Chiano's voice; seeming to be as forceful, for the brief time it took to utter those peculiar words, as the storm itself. Maybe it was the pain, or the shock, but in the sudden flare of witchlight the lean, sinewy man seemed somehow taller, his weathered face outlined in stark, sharp shadows.

Marco, his Pauline training coming to the fore, flinched from the sight. An old half-suspicion was now confirmed. Chiano really was a Strega man-witch. His reputation, carefully cultivated in the marshes, was a double front. He really was a pagan?and a magician to boot.

Marco… wasn't at all sure how he felt about that. Still, Sophia's wrinkled face and Chiano's weathered one were a heavenly sight. He decided not to worry about it, for the moment.

"Drink this, boy." When the sobs diminished, and the shivering started again, Chiano thrust a bottle into his good hand. "Let the old girl see to your hand."

He drank, not much caring what it was. It was harsh raw alcohol, and it burned his throat and brought more tears to his eyes. He put the bottle down, gasping; then gasped again as Sophia took it from him and poured its contents liberally over the wound. The clouds were clearing now, and the moon emerged; you could see it from under the edge of the basket. Sophia propped up one side of the basket and held his hand in its light, examining it critically.

He had occasion to stifle a cry and seize the bottle back from Chiano, more than once, before she was through with her probing.

"Should be stitched?but the grappa will stop the flesh-rot. I've a poultice against the swelling. You tied it off right well. I don' reckon ye lost too much blood. What happened?"

"Gianni," Marco coughed. His throat was still raw from screaming and crying. "He must've seen me; followed me in. Ambushed me." Sophia was smearing something onto the wound that first burned, and then numbed the pain. Then she reached back into the darkness behind her, locating rags by feel, and bound his hand tightly.

"I settle that one tomorrow." Chiano's eyes narrowed. "For good 'n ever, this time."

Marco shook his head weakly. "You won't have to."

Once the meaning of the words penetrated, Sophia looked up into his face with stunned awe. Gianni was a legend among the marsh-dwellers for his crazy viciousness. That Marco should have taken him out…

"There was someone else, too," Marco added, half-gasping the sentences. "Never saw him. Helped me at the end. I would have drowned otherwise. Never saw him, not once."

The alcohol had shaken Marco out of his shock and he was beginning to take account of his surroundings again. He noticed Chiano and Sophia exchange a glance.

"Well," Chiano said. Just that one word, but it held a world of approval. In some obscure way, Marco understood the approval encompassed more than just he himself.

"Boy, you needn't hide again? Ye didn't come crawlin' out here in th' dark an' th' rain fer the fun a' it." Sophia came right to the point.

That woke him fully?reminded him of his purpose.

"N-no. I'm fine in town?but Sophia, I need something from you, one of your 'cures.' I got a sick friend in town. He's got a fever?the one with the chills and the sweats every two days. Getting worse. He hardly knows where he is."

"I know it." Sophia nodded, her face becoming even more wrinkled with thought. "Only it don't gen'rally get that bad."

"Except my friend's not from Venice."

"Then that's bad, boy, that's real bad. He'll die, like as not, 'less ye can get 'im t' take my herbs."

"Look, I brought stuff to trade you?here?" He shrugged out of his pack and passed it to her. "Whatever you want. I got two blankets, a couple of good woolen cloaks, fish hooks, a knife?"

"Haw, boy, haw! Ye got enough there t' trade me fer every last dose I got!"

"Then give it all to me, Sophia, I got more friends. This fever is startin' to go through town like a fire?more of 'em may get sick. Strega came into town at Solstice claiming there wouldn't be any plague this year"?Marco noticed Chiano stiffening at that?"but I guess they were wrong. You can get more, can't you?"

Sophia nodded. "Aye, aye; stuff's just wild weeds?know where there's a good bit of it, still good enough t' pick. Ain't no cure though?ye know that?"

"Herbs with Artemis' blessing," said Chiano quietly.

Marco smiled wryly, remembering the nausea and the delirium. "I know; it just keeps you from dying?but makes you feel like you want to! Remember? I got it first winter I was out here."

"An' ye can get it agin?"

"So I'll keep some for myself. Deal, Sophia?"

"Si?oh si si, boy, 'tis a deal." She grinned, a twisted half-toothless grin, as one hand caressed one of the damp blankets. "This stuff'll make livin' right comfy out here, come winter. Tell ye what?I'll pick all I kin find, dry it up nice. Ye figger ye need for more, why just come on out here?by daylight this time, boy!?an' ye bring old Sophia more things to trade."

"You got yourself a bargain." Marco smiled inwardly, at peace with an old debt. Sophia would somehow not keep many, if any, of the "luxuries." They'd all end up with marsh-folk, keeping other people alive. Sophia was the one person in the reed-fringed Jesolo marshes who slept deeply. She could. Not even the most loco would put a hand to her. Her reputation as a healer was more potent even than Chiano's reputation as a worker of magics.

"You've got to go back t'night?" Chiano interrupted.

Marco looked at the swamp and shivered, but nodded reluctantly. "Got no choice, Chiano. My friend's bad sick, and you heard Sophia."

"No, no?not soaked through like that, and it getting up chilly. Sophia, pack your herbs in the boy's sack. This old man knows the harbor day or night. I got a dry blanket here. You wrap up in't. I'll pole you back to the wharf. Say some words over those damned weeds for you too, I will."

Marco accepted the shred of blanket, speechless with gratitude. And, witnessing the witchlight and certain hitherto unexplained mysteries of his time in the swamp, maybe those words held more power than he'd realized previously. Ecclesiastical magic could heal. Perhaps Strega magics were not the fraud the Petrine church claimed they were, nor the unadulterated evil which the Paulines labeled them.

Chapter 15

The church door had been slightly ajar. The rain and wind had sent more than just Kat scurrying for shelter. Two bridge-brats, a boy and a girl, had decided it would be warmer than huddling under a bridge. They were engaged in bridge-brat mischief, down at the altar, playing with one of the candles that burned there. Doubtless a sacristan would emerge in a minute or two and give them both a thick ear. In the meanwhile they were having fun.

Kat shivered slightly. She pulled out a dry scarf and covered her hair. She was cold and wet. If she'd been close to a tavern she might have broken her own rules and slipped into the warmth. Instead she took a seat on a pew at the back. The brats hadn't even noticed her.

They noticed the next incursion, however. Kat was so startled she almost leapt from the pew.

The door swung open forcefully, slamming noise through the church. Kat spun her head in time to see a party of knights and monks pushing into the church. They'd obviously been to some function, or off on some official business, because the knights were in full armor, sheened and dripping with rain. Seeing the triple red crosses of the famous twin orders of the Pauline creed, Kat felt a sharp rush of fear.

In times past, the Servants and Knights of the Holy Trinity had not held much sway in Venice, since the city was traditionally a stronghold of the Petrine creed. The more so since the Servants and Knights were closely associated with the Holy Roman Empire?as was, in a different way, the Montagnard faction in Italian politics. The Montagnards had their adherents in Venice, of course. But Venice was traditionally a neutral in the bitter Montagnard-Metropolitan conflict. If anything, the city's populace was inclined to the Metropolitans. So the Servants and the Knights were double-damned in the eyes of most Venetians?by religious and political creed alike.

But… since the current Doge began favoring the two orders, they had begun throwing their weight around?and the Servants, especially, were notorious for their heavy hand.

Katerina's mouth dried up. Surely they couldn't be looking for her?

They couldn't be. Anyway, she reminded herself, the cargo had been delivered. All she had now was the money. Quite a lot of it, true, but still just money. Probably they'd just come to get out of the rain.

This was confirmed by one knight's comment. "Off that God-forsaken water!" he snarled. "I thought we'd drown there, when that tub started to take water. Abbot Sachs, when do we leave this cursed city? A knight should ride. This boatwork is not for nobles."

The abbot was the same stooped man that Kat had seen perform the rite of enclosure on the Imperial embassy. "We leave this place of sin when God's work is done!" he snapped in reply.

The abbot's eyes left the knight and quickly ranged through the church. He did not spot Kat, sitting all the way in the back, since his gaze became fixed almost instantly on the two bridge-brats at the altar.

"And look!" he cried triumphantly, pointing an accusing finger at the children. "God has guided us to his work! The Devil cannot triumph against the workings of the Lord!"

Katerina was astonished to see the abbot striding down to the altar, for all the world as if he were marching on the forces of the Antichrist at Armageddon. Was he insane? The two terrified children who were the subject of his wrath stared at him, guilt written all over their small, hungry faces.

The abbot grabbed one of the children successfully. The other, the girl, ran screaming for the door. One of the knights slammed the door closed. He tried to catch the girl. The child squirmed clear, to find herself in the steel gauntlets of another knight.

In the meantime Sachs, the struggling little boy held in one hand, was peering at the candle. "See!" he shouted triumphantly. "See the Devil's work! They make waxen mammets from this consecrated candle to work their evil. Here, within the very nave of the Church. Venice, the corrupt and rotten! They will burn for this! You shall not suffer a witch to live!"

Several things happened with all the outcry. First the sacristan, bleary eyed and none too steady on his feet, appeared through a side door with a branch of candles, demanding querulously to know what all the noise in the house of God was about. The second was that two of the knights finally spotted Katerina, before she could decide whether to slide under the pew or run for the door.

Moving much faster than she would have imagined an armored man could do, one of the knights grabbed her shoulders with rough steel hands. The same one who had complained about the weather. Then, even more roughly, dragged her out to face the abbot.

"Got another one, Abbot Sachs!"

"Hold her there!" commanded Sachs. Almost violently, he thrust the boy into the hands of a monk who had come to join him. Then, stalked back up the aisle to stand before Kat.

The abbot gripped her jaw and lifted her chin, examining her as he might a vial of poison. With his left hand, roughly, he pulled off her scarf.

"The witch mistress," he pronounced solemnly. "Overseeing her children and their demonic work. We have made a fine haul tonight! Truly, the hand of God must have guided that storm."

Panic surged through Kat. "I'm not a witch! I'm not! I just came to get out of the rai?"

The abbot slapped her, hard and with obvious satisfaction. "Silence, witch! You will be put to the question and you will answer when we tell you."

Kat's cheek burned. The blow had been savage enough to leave her dazed, for a moment. Her mouth tasted of blood, and her head was cloudy with fear and fury. The moment was so?insane?that she couldn't seem to bring her mind into focus. The only clear thought she had was: Why hadn't she stayed outside and gotten wet?

***

A new voice spoke. One of the knights, Kat dimly realized. A very cold voice.

"Abbot?"

The abbot turned on him. "Go and ready our boat, Erik. We must take these prisoners back and put them to the question."

The knight shook his head. The gesture was abbreviated, quick; and very firm. "No, My Lord Abbot. We cannot do that."

"Why?" demanded Sachs angrily. "The weather is not so bad! Not for pious men."

The implied slur did no more than cause the knight to square his already very square shoulders. And harden a face that, to Kat, already looked as hard as an axe-blade. She was almost shocked to see that the knight was not much older than she was.

"Because we cannot remove these people from the sanctuary of the Church," said the knight. Calmly, even though Kat could sense the effort the knight was making to keep his teeth from clenching. "It is my solemnly sworn oath," he continued, almost grinding out the words, "as a Knight of the Holy Trinity, to defend the Sanctuary of the Holy Church. I will not break my oath."

***

Sanctuary! For a moment, Kat simply gawped at the young knight. Of all the scary-looking armed and armored men who surrounded her, he was the scariest. The last one she would have expected to come to her assistance!

Thunder pealed, and she could hear a fresh squall of rain sheeting down outside in the sudden silence. Even the two terrified children seemed to realize their survival hung on this rigid man with the harshly Nordic appearance.

The young knight seemed made entirely of sharp angles and icy ridges?as if his body and face had been shaped by the same glaciers that created the Norse landscape from which he so obviously came. His hair, long enough to peek below the rim of his helmet, was so blond it was almost white. His eyes were a shade of blue so pale they were almost gray. His chin was a shield, his nose a sword?even his lips looked as if they had been shaped by a chisel. And…

Scariest of all: lurking beneath that superficial calm, she could sense an eruption building. Kat had been told once, by her tutor Marina, that Iceland had been forged in the earth's furnace. Not knowing why, she was suddenly certain that this man was an Icelander himself?a land as famous for its clan feuds as its volcanoes. And that he possessed the full measure of the berserk fury that slept?fretfully?just beneath an outwardly still and chilly surface.

She noticed, finally, the peculiar weapon attached to his belt. A hatchet of some kind, an oddly plain thing compared to the aristocratic sword hanging from his baldric.

***

Then her wits finally returned, and Kat seized the opening as a drowning man might an entire haystack.

"I claim sanctuary, in the name of?"

The knight holding her clamped a gauntleted hand across her mouth. Kat tasted blood inside her lips.

"Remove your hand, Pappenheim!"

The blond knight's command was not a shout so much as a curse?or a sneer, driven into words. A challenge so cold, so full of contempt, that an angel facing hellspawn would have envied it.

Except Kat could imagine no angel looking as purely murderous as this man. The young knight was on his toes now, as light on his feet as if he were wearing nightclothes instead of armor. He seemed to prance, almost, his whole body as springy and coiled as a lion about to pounce. And his thin lips were peeled back in a smile that was no smile at all. Teeth showing like fangs.

His hand flashed to his belt, so quick she could not follow the movement. The next she saw, the hatchet was held in his fist, in a loose and easy grasp that even Kat?no expert on such matters?could recognize as that of an expert. And she realized now that this was not really a hatchet at all. No utilitarian woodsman's tool, this?it was a cruel and savage weapon, from a cruel and savage forest. What was sometimes called a tomahawk, she remembered.

"Remove your hand, Pappenheim," the knight repeated, as coldly if not as forcefully. "As well as the hand on her shoulder."

His hand flickered, the war hatchet blurring back and forth. The lion lashing his tail. "Or I will remove them for you."

The sheer, sudden violence of the young knight's words and actions?all the more violent for that they had not yet erupted in the blood and mayhem they promised?had momentarily paralyzed everyone else in the church. Now, finally, the other knights began to react.

Kat felt the knight holding her flinch, his fingers almost trembling. She understood then that her own impression of the blond Norseman was no figment of her imagination. The knight, too, found him just as frightening. And presumably, in his case, from past experience.

The other knights shifted their feet, their hands fumbling uncertainly at their own weapons. It was clear as day that they had no idea how to handle the situation.

Suddenly, one of the knights who had been standing in the background moved forward. A very large knight, this one, built so squarely he resembled a block of granite on thick legs. Very young, also. Kat thought he was perhaps her own age.

"For God's sake, Erik!" he exclaimed. "Why are you??"

The blond knight held out his other hand, staying the youngster with a commanding gesture.

"Be silent, Manfred. Do you think the world is nothing but a toy for your pleasure? You are nothing but an oaf. A spoiled child. Begone! This is a man's business."

The words caused the young knight's face to flush a sudden bright pink. Then, grow pale with rage. Then?

Grow paler still; and paler still. Shock, now, Kat realized. The young knight's jaw sagged loose. He stared at the one named Erik as if he were seeing him for the first time.

Then, as suddenly as everything else was happening, his face seemed to snap shut. He shouted something Kat did not understand?words in Gaelic, she thought?and strode forward to the knight holding her.

An instant later, Manfred's huge hands closed upon her captor's own shoulders and wrenched him loose as easily as a man wrestles a boy. Suddenly released, Kat staggered on her feet for a moment. By the time she regained her balance, the knight who had seized her was crashing down onto one of the pews, turning the cheaply made wooden bench into so much kindling. She found herself marveling at the strength that could send an armored knight flying through the air like a toy; almost giggling at the sheer absurdity of the sight.

But she had no real difficulty suppressing the giggle. The situation was now on the brink of utter carnage, almost a dozen knights ready to hack each other into pieces?with herself right in the middle of them.

The young knight named Manfred whipped out his own great sword and brandished it. "Dia a coir!" he shouted. Then, took two steps toward the abbot and commanded him: "Unhand the child, Sachs!"

The abbot, through all this, had been paralyzed. Kat realized, now, that he was a man whose authority had always come from his position?not respect gained from his subordinates in action. It was obvious that Sachs had absolutely no idea what to do, now that he was faced with open rebellion.

Neither did any of the other knights, for that matter. But it was also obvious, even to Kat, that they were about to react the way fighting men will when faced with such a naked challenge. These men were cut from the same cloth as the bravos of any great house of Venice?but were far better trained, and more deadly. In open combat, at least, if not in the subtler skill of the assassin.

The hands on swords were clenched now, not loose. And two or three of those swords were beginning to come out of their scabbards. Frightened they might be, at Erik's savagery and Manfred's incredible strength?but they were not going to crumple under it. Not men like these.

Suddenly, one of the other knights thrust out his hands, his arms spread wide in a gesture commanding peace. A somewhat older knight, this one. Most of them were men in their early twenties. His face, though not creased with middle age, was that of a man in his thirties. A man accustomed to command.

"Enough!" he shouted. "Enough! No weapons!"

His voice seemed to calm the situation instantly. Kat thought he must be the knight in command of the party. The hands on sword hilts loosened; some were removed entirely. Even Erik and Manfred seemed to settle back a little.

"Erik is right," the older knight said forcefully. "Quite right! And every true Knight here knows it!"

He turned to Sachs and glared at him. "You have completely exceeded your authority here, Abbot. Abused it grossly, in fact."

The abbot gaped at him. "But?Von Gherens…"

"Shut up," growled the older knight. "You disgust me, Sachs." Seeing the abbot's hand still on the child's shoulder, the knight reached out his own hand and flicked it off as he might flick off an insect.

"My family has held the frontier in Livonia for six generations. Unlike you, Sachs, I have faced real demons?not figments of your fevered imagination."

Stolidly, the knight examined the still-trembling boy. "Had you ever seen a child's body on a pagan altar, Abbot"?the term was a pure sneer?"you would understand the difference."

Von Gherens. Erik. Manfred. As always, Kat found northern names harsh and peculiar. But for the first time in her life, she began to understand them better also. Harsh, yes; rigid and intolerant, yes. Yet… sometimes, at least, names which rang clear. Clearer, perhaps, than any of the soft names in fog-shrouded Venice.

Oddly, for a moment her mind flitted to old lessons of her tutor Marina. Lessons in theology she had not understood at the time. There was a reason, child, that Hypatia compromised with Augustine, if not Theophilus. And treasured Chrysostom, for all his rigidity and intolerance. There is such a thing as evil in the world, which cannot be persuaded, but only defeated. And for that?harshness is needed in the ranks of Christ also. Neither Shaitan nor his monsters will listen to mere words. She remembered his lips crinkling. Even a Strega, you know, does not doubt the existence of either Christ or the Dark One.

The gray-cassocked abbot looked as if he was about to have a stroke?or faint. Even in the candlelight Kat could see his face was suffused, simultaneously, with rage and?fear. His lips trembled as he groped for words; words which, apparently, he was unable to find.

Yet another knight had no such difficulty. With a slight clashing noise, he thrust his sword firmly back in the scabbard and removed his hand from the weapon.

"Von Gherens is right?Hakkonsen and Manfred also. We cannot take them out of here, by Church law. The law which, as Knights of the Holy Trinity, we are sworn to uphold."

The knight's eyes glanced at Kat, then at the children. His lips peeled back in a half-snarl. "And my name is Falkenberg?also a name of the frontier. And also one who can tell the difference between brats and devils."

Now there were nods and murmurs of agreement all around the circle of Knights. The tension was draining out of the scene as rapidly as water through a broken dam. All danger of physical violence was past. Whatever might be left would only take the form of words.

Words which Sachs was still quite incapable of uttering, it seemed. Only one of the two monks who accompanied him seemed disposed to argue the matter any further.

"We cannot let witches go free," he protested, almost squeakily. "God has guided us to this evil. We must root it out!"

"Didn' do no evil," whimpered one child. "Just came to get outa the rain."

Finally, Abbot Sachs tried to salvage something from the situation. He cleared his throat noisily.

"If we cannot take them away, we will put them to the question here." He essayed a sneer of his own; a feeble one. "Or do you deny my ecclesiastical authority for that also, Ritters Hakkonsen and Von Gherens?"

The blond knight's cold eyes did not waver for an instant. "Yes, Abbot Sachs, I do deny you the authority."

Von Gherens's words rolled right after: "The right to afford sanctuary, without arrest or violence, is inviolate. And by Church law, they may only be expelled by the priest of the parish."

Flushing furiously, Sachs turned on the terrified-looking old sacristan. "Fetch me your priest, then! I'll have these hell-spawn. So help me God?I will have them."

The sacristan left with as near to a run as the old man could muster, and never mind the rain.

Sachs turned on Von Gherens. "As for you?I'm going to make an example of you!"

Von Gherens barked a laugh. "For obeying the oath of the Order? I think not!"

"And who will enforce your 'example,' Abbot?" asked the blond knight. The question was posed quietly, but grimly. The war hatchet was back in the scabbard, but his hand was still perched on it.

"Yes?who?" demanded the big one called Manfred. Quite a bit more loudly, if not as grimly. The tone was almost mocking.

Kat saw the Knights clustering together a bit more closely. One order closing ranks against another, she realized?and realized, as well, that the identity she had always assumed existed between the Knights and the Servants of the Holy Trinity was not as solid as she'd thought. Which, she remembered vaguely, was something else Dottore Marina had once told her.

***

Silence followed, for some time, while they waited for the sacristan to return with the priest.

The silence was so thick with hostility between the knights and the monks that it could almost have been cut with a knife. The only movement during that time was the slow and painful return of Pappenheim to consciousness, stumbling back onto his feet from the splintered pew where Manfred had sent him. He seemed too dazed to really comprehend what was happening; simply collapsed on another pew, leaning over with his head in his hands. His helmet had apparently come loose in the force of the impact. Kat was a bit amazed that he had no broken bones. Manfred's strength was genuinely incredible. He had not so much tossed the knight into the pew as he had hurled him down upon it.

Finally, the sacristan returned, the priest close on his heels. The priest was a young man; who, like the two bridge-brats, looked as if he could have used a few more meals himself. It was a small church.

He looked in puzzlement at the scene, and then bowed to the abbot. "I am Father Ugo, and this is my parish. Why have I been called here?"

"We have called you to throw these evil miscreants out. They were defiling your church with satanic practices."

The little priest blinked, taking in the steel, and the "miscreants."

With a start, Kat realized she knew the little man. Of course, he'd been smaller and plumper then.

"Ugo Boldoni?" she said, incredulously.

The priest peered shortsightedly at her; then, gasped. There were some advantages to her distinctive carroty-colored hair, even if it was not fashionable.

"Kat?Milady Katerina! What are you doing here?"

Kat shrugged. "I was caught in the rain and came in to take shelter."

"She was practicing satanic rites!" shouted one the monks, waving a threatening finger at her.

"I was sitting on a pew!" she snapped back at him. "Quietly sitting, getting some shelter from the rain?when you came in?like demons yourselves!?and grabbed those children who were playing up there. They were fooling around with one of the candles. I assumed the sacristan would come out and give them both a clout. Instead this?"

She glared at Sachs. "This foul man who calls himself an abbot came in and behaved as if they were having a black mass, instead of just fiddling with the candle wax."

The priest looked puzzled. "But… but where was old Giovanni?"

"They bewitched me into sleep!" said the old man hastily. "Demonspawn they are. I'm allus chasing them out of the church. Allus up to mischief."

The big young knight named Manfred snorted. "Smell his breath! Unless the children magicked him a bottle of wine?and if they could do that, they'd have magicked themselves some food. They don't need questioning. They need a square meal and a place in a household."

The priest nodded. "Alas, sir knight. This is a poor parish. There are many such souls."

Sachs, glaring back at Kat, attempted a commanding sneer. The expression failed of its purpose; seemed more childish than anything else.

"These are mere lies! And the poor you have with you always. It is their souls, not their bodies we must deal with. Now, as your senior in the church I order you to put them out of here, Father?ah?"

The priest's name had obviously escaped him. "Priest. I will have a word with Bishop Pietro Capuletti, and see you are moved to a more worthy station. We'll have the truth out of them. The Servants of the Trinity have ways of dealing with the most hardened servants of Satan."

A look of pleasure came into the abbot's hooded eyes. The kind of pleasure that comes to a man when he finds himself back on his own ground after stumbling into a marsh.

Kat shivered. The knights, she suspected, would obey the abbot?however reluctantly?if the priest who had actual authority here denied sanctuary to her and the children. And how could once-fat, timid little Ugo Boldoni stand up to this?

"Yes, servants of Satan have no place demanding sanctuary," put in one of the two monks unctuously. "Such rights should be denied the likes of them. And the abbot is your superior!"

That was apparently the wrong thing to say to Ugo Boldoni. His spine straightened. "You attempted to remove them from the sanctuary of the Church? You? You had no right!" He glared at the abbot. "Nor is he my 'superior.' In this see, that is the Metropolitan Michael?no other! In this church I am the final arbiter."

The little priest's anger was peppery hot. "Get out of this church! Get out right now. Go."

And that was enough?more than enough?to end the whole affair. The knights were entirely in support of the priest, not the abbot. Within a minute, all of them were gone, the abbot and the two monks scurrying ahead of the knights as if afraid that if they didn't move fast enough they would be manhandled out. Which, Kat suspected, was not far from the truth. On the way out, Manfred seized the still-groaning Pappenheim by the scruff of the neck and, using only one hand, dragged him out of the church as easily as he might drag a sack of onions.

***

When they'd gone, Father Ugo turned to Katerina. "Just what are you doing here, milady? The Casa Montescue is a long way from here, and it is late."

Kat shrugged. Boldoni's father had been a sailing master. A good one too, apparently. And it showed in the son's manner, she reflected. "About my father's business," she said quietly. She knew that he'd know that Carlo Montescue was long overdue back from sea. Missing; presumed, by nearly all, dead.

Ugo nodded. He knew perfectly well that the Montescue might be Case Vecchie, but they were in financial trouble. All of Venice knew quickly enough whenever one of the famous old houses fell into difficult times. And knew as well, that there were some tasks only family could be relied upon to do.

"You swear that there is no truth in what that abbot said? Your soul is clean?"

"I swear by all the Saints and upon the holy cross that it was a complete lie." Her conscience twinged slightly. "These two children are naughty, but were not practicing any kind of witchcraft."

She took a deep breath and turned around, so that Ugo could not see. She reached into the pouch and took out one of the ducats. The Casa Montescue was in a desperate state, but not that desperate. Not compared to those two children, still wide-eyed and frightened. She returned the bag to its warm nest and turned around.

"Here." She held out the coin.

Father Ugo's eyes bulged slightly. Ducats didn't come his way often. But he was of iron principle. "You cannot pay me to free you of sin, Katerina," he said, sounding extremely doubtful.

"It's not for you. It is for those two children. A small thank you to God for sparing me from the Servants of the Holy Trinity."

His voice was troubled. "They do God's work, Katerina Montescue."

"That one young blond knight did God's work. Had it not been for him, that abbot…" She shuddered. "Anyway, forget it. I'm grateful. So is Montescue. So take this for those two children you also saved."

He took the warm ducat. "I'll buy a candle."

Kat shook her head. "Food. They'd only play with the candle!"

It was the ragged little girl's turn to shake her head. So fiercely that it looked as if it would come off her skinny shoulders. "Never play with no candles no more." She looked earnestly up at the priest. "Promise!"

A smile lit Father Ugo's countenance. He patted the children's heads gently. "Do you both promise?"

They both nodded, eyes still wide with fright.

"Good! When the rain is over I will go and check that the Servants have really left. Now, I think we will go to the altar and I will lead you all in some prayers. Tomorrow I will go to speak with Monsignor about this. Be easy, Katerina. He is Venetian, you know."

***

As the party of knights and monks trudged through the rain, Erik and Manfred bringing up the rear, Von Gherens paused to allow them to catch up with him. Then, walking alongside, spoke softly.

"I am forever in your debt, Hakkonsen." His square, solemn face was creased with worry. "I fear I have allowed myself…" The next words were almost hissed. "Damn the Servants and their witch-hunts, anyway! They're twisting my mind. Sachs sees a witch under every cobblestone in Venice."

Manfred snorted. "Witch-hunts! What witches? So far all we've 'uncovered' are a few quacks selling charms as magical as a brick."

Von Gherens nodded. "Who then took the holy test of faith before Venice's Metropolitan without fear." He sighed heavily. "I miss Father Maggiore. He was often a bit obnoxious, true, but?far better than Sachs. And he was familiar with Venice. He had knowledge of the city, spies who knew something instead of Sachs's absurd gaggle of informers. Since his horrible death, the Servants have blundered about like hogs in a salon."

Erik's words were clipped. "We're doing nothing more than spreading fear and mayhem, Ritter?and for no purpose. If Sachs were trying to, he couldn't damage the reputation of the Knights worse than he has. This is the most gossipy and intrigue-filled place I've ever seen. Everything we do is spread all over the city within a day."

For the first time since they'd entered the church, Von Gherens smiled. "True. But I daresay what you did tonight will spread just as fast?and go a long way to repairing the damage."

"What we did," insisted Erik quietly.

Von Gherens shook his head. Then, placed a thick hand on Erik's shoulder and gave it a little squeeze. "No, Erik. What you did. Had it not been for you, the rest of us would have allowed Sachs to drag us further into the pit. I will not forget it."

The knight raised his eyes and glared at the dim figure of Sachs in the rain ahead. "I will not forget," he repeated. "Von Gherens is a proud name. Respected by all. Feared by none save demon-ridden pagans. My family is in your debt as much as I am."

He said nothing further and, a short time later, quickened his steps in order to resume his rightful place beside the abbot.

Manfred watched him go. "Odd, really. He's also Prussian?yet so unlike Von Stublau."

Erik said nothing. Manfred sighed. "And me too, Erik. I will not forget either."

Finally, a touch of humor came to Erik's face. "Really? No more carousing? No more?"

"Not that!" choked Manfred. "I meant the other stuff." His great hands groped in the fog and the rain, trying to shape the distinction?and failing quite miserably.

***

It was only later, sculling home, playing over the events of the night that it occurred to Kat that whoever her mysterious customer was… she wasn't Strega. Her knife had been steel and silver?both metals the Strega would avoid like the plague.

But Kat was too tired to think too much about it. Getting free had cost her one ducat?and her scarf, which the wretched abbot had apparently kept?but the rest would soon be sitting safe in her grandfather's near-empty strongbox.

***

When she got home, Katerina collapsed into bed and slept the sleep of the infinitely relieved. The gold was safe enough. Good pure unpunched Venetian ducats. The coin valued beyond all others in the world.

It was well into bright morning when she awoke. There was someone in her room, looking through her clothes from the night before. They'd just been dumped in a soggy heap when she came home. Reaction had set in and she'd been just too exhausted.

Her first half-lucid thought was that someone was going to steal the bag of ducats. She sat up and yelled before her groggy mind recalled that she'd taken the gold to the old man the night before.

It was only Alessandra, snooping as usual. "There's no need to shout the house down! Just because you've spent the whole night with your lover and are too lazy get up," she added tartly.

"Oh, go away!" snapped Kat, rubbing her tired eyes. It was certainly bright out there. "Leave me to sleep. There's no lover?as you know perfectly well."

Alessandra cocked her head on one side; raised a perfect eyebrow. "Oh. What's this hair then? I'm going to look for men with honey-auburn hair with just that touch of red. I mean, I know you've got no dowry, but I didn't really think…"

"What are you talking about?"

"This hair from your pocket." She held up something, golden-red in the sunlight.

Kat blinked. Hair?

Oh, yes. She remembered now. One of hers she'd not wanted to leave with that Strega… actually non-Strega she thought, remembering that knife. "It's one of mine."

"Ha! The day you have hair that color?"

She snatched it from Alessandra's hand. True. In daylight, Katerina could see it was thicker and more curled and it certainly didn't match hers.

So?she must have picked up a hair from the woman herself, not one of her own. In the poor light she hadn't realized.

She shrugged. "I was snuggling up to Lucrezia Brunelli last night. In my sleep. Now go away before I throw this ewer at you."

Alessandra turned. "I'm going to tell Grandpapa if you don't tell me," she threatened.

Kat reached for the ewer. Alessandra showed a remarkable turn of speed leaving the room, quite out of keeping with her normal languid progress.

Kat lay back again. But like Alessandra, sleep had left the room.

There was a greater risk of being recognized, but she was going to have to start doing more deliveries in daytime.

Chapter 16

Marco was out on his feet by the time he got to Caesare Aldanto's apartment near the Campo San Polo. Even if he could have found a gondolier at this hour, he had nothing to pay with?all his money and Maria's had gone into trade goods for Sophia. He had stopped at his apartment long enough to drink some watered wine and get into dry if dirty clothing; figuring that a half-hour more or less would make little difference in Aldanto's condition. Once dry and warm, he slipped on a waterproof cloak?the rain had begun again?cast a longing look at his bed, and went out again into the night.

He was ready to drop and staggering like a drunk by the time he got to Aldanto's door. It was a process that was not aided by the fact that he had had to walk a few miles through the winding dark alleys, because he didn't have a single lira for the canal traghetto. He'd had to go the long way over bridges walking, then wet footed along the tile rail to the water-door, before actually reaching it. But there was no other choice for him to make; he was not up to an argument with the guard on the gated street doorway. The stair seemed to go on forever, and the door looked like the portal to Heaven when he finally reached it. He leaned wearily against the lintel and let his fist fall on it.

The door opened the barest crack. "Who's out there?" said a muffled voice.

" 'S me, Maria, Marco. Lemme in before I fall down."

The door opened so quickly he almost did fall in. "Ye get th' stuff?"

"Uh huh. How is he?"

"Sleepin'. Don't seem no worse, but I had to pour a helluva lotta brandy in him t' get 'im t' sleep. Got him upstairs."

Marco slogged the few steps into the sitting room, let his pack fall to the floor, peeled his cloak over his head and dropped it beside the pack. "Where's Benito?"

"Sleeping too, upstairs. I figured if I needed him I could wake him up. And it's not a bad idea having him bedded down across the door up there, no? The least, somebody forces it, he c'n scream his lungs out. May kill a boarding party by scarin' 'em to death!"

Marco made his way lead-footed to Aldanto's bedside?you don't try to walk silently around an ex-assassin!?and stood in the dark listening to the sound of his breathing. A little wheezy, a little hot, but not bad. He'd gotten back well in time. There would be no need for a "real" doctor.

Satisfied, he dragged himself back out. "Boil me some water, would you, Maria? I got to get this stuff measured right?"

As she trotted back to the kitchen, he sat down on the soft warm carpet beside the pack and began taking out parcels of herbs wrapped in rags, identifying them by smell, eye, and sometimes taste. Sophia had literally given him her entire stock. The artemisia could be tricky to use?too much and you got even more horrible side effects.

"Maria," he called softly, "think you can find me a couple of big jars or bowls or something? I need something to put this stuff in besides a rag."

"Lemme look." She clattered down the stairs and returned a moment later. "These do?" She brought him a pair of canisters, the kind spices came in, with vermin-proof lids.

"Perfect."

Sophia had gone by "handful" measurement?but it was a very precise handful. Although it was a little awkward to work one-handed, Marco weighed the herbs in his palm, adding or subtracting a few leaves at a time until he was satisfied; then, carefully crushed what he'd selected into the tin, trying to get it as fine as possible.

He crushed the resulting canisterful yet again, until he had a mixture as fine as possible, then crushed a second bunch of artemisia into the second canister.

"Maria, that water ready?"

"Aye." She must have seen how tired he was, and brought the pan of hot water and spoon and cup to him. "Show me?"

"I intend to?you're going to have to do this from now on. Look, exactly two flat spoonfuls of this for every cup of water?you can put it in the cup or the pan, don't matter which." He measured two spoonfuls into the cup and poured the still-bubbling water on it. "Right, so I'm taking another flat spoonful of this stuff from the other canister and adding it. You want to keep him alive, you do the same. Now you let it steep for as long as it takes to count to a hundred."

He concentrated on the dull throbbing of his hand while the mixture seeped. He noticed with a tired little chuckle Maria's lips moving silently as she marked the time. She could count if not read. He resolved, quietly, to teach her at least to cipher her own name. His own good fortune demanded that he pass it on.

"It ready now?"

"It's ready. We strain off the leaves. If you leave them, it'll get stronger and can kill a man." He suited action to his words. "Here?" He handed the cup to her while he got himself slowly and painfully to his feet. "Let's wake him up."

Maria brought a candle with her, and lit the oil lamp beside the door across from Aldanto's bed. Some of his instincts, at least, were still holding. Caesare was awake and wary as soon as the light touched his eyes.

"Got som'thin' for ye, layabout," Maria said cheerfully?real cheer. Marco was touched at her implied trust. "Marco here says it'll fix ye right up."

"Oh?" Aldanto blinked, but before he could continue, he began shaking, great tremors that shook his entire body.

"Caesare?" Marco had never used Aldanto's first name to his face before, but it slipped out. "I mean, Milord Aldanto?"

"Caesare is fine," Aldanto said wearily, when the coughing fit was over.

"Caesare Aldanto, I've had what you've got?honest, this will help. And if you don't drink it, you could get a lot sicker. Believe me?I almost died. You don't come from Venice. Kids here get it when they're small. Lot of them die. But if they live, then they will live when they get it again. But you could die. Now, this medicine is going to make you feel even sicker, but I swear to you, it'll help. On my family's honor, I swear. But it is going feel like death."

Aldanto gave him a long, appraising look?then wordlessly took the cup from Maria and drank it down in two gulps.

"Feh?that?is?vile!" he choked, face twisted in distaste. "That better work fast, because if it doesn't, I'm not drinking more!"

"That's more words in a row than you've managed yet tonight," Marco pointed out. "We'll sugar it next time." Without being asked, Maria brought the brandy and looked inquiringly at Marco.

"Good notion." He approved, thinking that a bit more brandy wouldn't hurt and might help keep Aldanto in bed. "Caesare?I hate to ask?but is there anything around here I can use as a bandage? I love old Sophia, but I hate to think where her rags have been."

"Spare room," said Aldanto around the brandy.

"I'll get it," said Maria.

Aldanto sagged back against his pillows, eyes going unfocused again. Marco carefully unwrapped his hand. The poultice of coltsfoot and lance-leaf plantain and Heaven knew what else was working quite well?and Sophia had included more bundles of the herbs in his pack to allow him to put fresh dressings on the wound.

Despite the herbal poultice the wound looked bad, red and swollen. But it was sealing shut, and Marco thought by the look of it that it wasn't infected. He was just beginning to realize how lucky he was. His hand ached, but so far as he could tell all the fingers were still working. He could have easily gotten some tendons sliced and wound up with a crippled hand.

"That's a knife wound." Aldanto was staring at the wounded hand, surprised and shocked alert.

"It is, Caesare. I know you think I'm a kid, and you're right sometimes?but you're not right this time. I had to go into the Jesolo for that stuff. Sophia was the only place short of a real doctor where I was going to find what you needed. A man tried to stop me."

Now Aldanto was looking wary, even perhaps a bit alarmed. Marco could have kicked himself for not thinking. Of course, Aldanto would suspect those enemies of his of trying to follow Marco?

"No, no," he hastened to assure him. "Nothing to do with you, he was a marsh-loco. I had to fight him to get through. That's where I got this, and lost my own knife."

"Was?"

"Was. And don't you ever tell Benito I killed a man. He wasn't the first?but I don't want Benito to know about that."

"You have a reason?" Aldanto was staying focused, which rather surprised Marco, given the amount of brandy and the artemisia he had in him, not to mention the fever.

"Because?" Marco looked up from his hand, and he knew his eyes and mouth were bitter. "He'll think he has to be like me. Next thing you know, he'll go out looking. He'll either get himself killed?or he'll kill somebody, and for all the wrong reasons. And that would be worse than getting himself killed. I remember more than just you from home. I remember what some of the younger Montagnards were like when they were my age and Benito's. They started like that?first each one trying to out-risk the other?then it got worse. I don't think he'd ever turn out like them, but I'm not taking any chances on it."

Aldanto nodded slowly, relaxing and letting himself give way to the drugs and the alcohol. "I think maybe I've been underestimating you."

"Only sometimes. You getting sleepy yet?"

Aldanto shivered hard again, then got it under control. "Getting there?and feeling a great deal less like death would be welcome."

"That's the whole idea, Caesare." An idea occurred to him, and he decided he wanted to broach it while Aldanto was in a generous?and intoxicated?mood. "Could you do me a favor? When you feel more like talking?"

"Maybe," Aldanto replied wearily, obviously wishing Marco would leave him alone. "What's the favor?"

Maria came in with clean bandages, salve, and a cheap broach. Marco felt his face flame with embarrassment. He hated to ask in front of Maria, but this might be his only chance. "Could you?could you tell me some time?how to?how to get a girl?to?to like you?" And what do you do with her after that, he thought, but didn't say.

"Oh mercy?" Aldanto shut his eyes and leaned his head back on his pillow, his mouth twitching. Marco had the uncomfortable suspicion that he was trying to keep from laughing. Behind him, he heard Maria choking a little, as if she hadn't quite managed to suppress her own humor.

"If you'd rather not?"

"Later, Marco. We'll see about it later." Aldanto opened his eyes and gave him a not-unsympathetic wink, shivered again, harder this time, and lost his amusement as a shudder of chill shook him. "Surely it can wait?"

"Sure?sure?" Marco hastily backed out of the bedroom, taking the bandages from Maria as he passed her. By the time she joined him, he was sitting on the couch, trying to rebandage his wound one-handed.

"Here, you fool, let me do that." She took the things away from him and undid his clumsy work. He leaned back into the soft upholstery and allowed her to do what she wanted. "How much of this stuff of yours he gonna need?"

"Just what's in the canister."

She looked suspiciously at him. "I looked in your pack. You brung back a lot more'n that?"

He shrugged. "I know. I could catch it again, or Benito, or you. There's likely to be a use for it before a cold snap kills the fever. Sophia says I can come trade her for more, anyway. And I brought other herbs."

Maria looked thoughtful. "You know?this could be worth something. You say this is the same fever that kills the little ones."

"The thought crossed my mind. But I was mostly doing it for Caesare."

"I owe you one, Marco," she said softly, earnestly.

He relaxed and shut his eyes, feeling his tired and bruised muscles go slack. "Don't go talking debts at me. I owed him."

"Damnfool Case Vecchie honor," she jeered back. There was respect in that jeer, however. The scoulo families like hers might be poor, but their honor was as deep and as precious. She worked slowly, gently and precisely, first cleaning the wound with some more of Aldanto's brandy. He could tell it wasn't the first knife wound she'd dealt with.

"Just one of Ventuccio's clerks." Fatigue made irrelevant thoughts swim past and one of them caught what little was left of his attention. A thought and a memory of a couple of days ago.

What the hell, he'd risk her temper. "Maria?it's 'aren't' when you're talking about you or more than one person, and 'isn't' all the rest of the time. Except when you're talking about yourself, then it's 'am not.' Got it? Think that'll help?"

He cracked an eyelid open to see her staring open-mouthed at him.

"How did you??"

"Noticed you fishing for it the other day. Figured nobody'd ever given you the rule. Hard to figure things out if nobody tells you the rules. Claudia could help you better than I could. She was an actress for a while and she knows all the tricks." He yawned. "She could make Brunelli sound like a bargee, or a bargee sound like"?yawn?"Brunelli." His lids sagged and he battled to stay awake.

"Ain't nobody put it quite like that before," she said thoughtfully. "Huh. Damn, this is a bad 'un. Looks like it hurts like hell. What'd you do here, ram your hand down on the point?"

"Had to. He outweighed me by about twice. It was the only way I could think to get the knife away from him." He ran his right hand up to check the lumps on the back of his head and encountered his not-too-nice hair. And remembered.

"Oh hell!"

Maria looked up, startled. "What's the matter? I hurt you?"

"There's no food in the house, I need a bath worse than I ever did in my life, all the clothes are filthy and have to be washed and I don't have a copper for any of it! I spent every last coin I had for trade goods for Sophia! Oh hell!" He squeezed his eyes shut to stop their burning, but a few shameful tears born of exhaustion and frustration escaped to embarrass him. To have gone through this whole night only to have to run against this?

"Oh, don't get upset." Maria still had his hand and he managed to get enough control of himself to open his eyes to look at her. She was smiling broadly and pointedly not looking at his tears. "I reckon Caesare owes you a good bit. We got food here, we have a tub and a fireplace. And good soap. You want, I can row you back to Cannaregio when Benito wakes up, get your things, bring it all back here. Given this hand, I reckon I could help you with the clothes even. You just be damn sure not to waste nothing. That suit you?"

Relief turned his muscles to slush and he sagged back. "More than suits?"

"You've got that thinking look again."

"You get most of your work at night, right?"

She looked more than a little uncomfortable, but nodded.

"We work days. So?if you wanted, we could stay here just long enough for him to get better. Or?hell, half the town's sick. You could take a note to Ventuccio's saying we are, and we could even spell you in the daytime that way. Saints! The way I feel right now it wouldn't even be a lie! I figure Caesare should be getting better in four, five days; a week, tops. We watch for trouble while you're out, whenever. We can feed him too, make sure he takes the medicine. Keep him from going out when he isn't ready to."

The last two sentences came out a little uncertainly. Keeping Caesare from doing whatever he felt like doing was an improbable scenario?sick or not.

"And you get?" asked Maria.

"Food and a hot bath. I know damn sure Caesare can afford to eat better than we can." He grinned wearily, his bruised facial muscles aching. "You'll have to talk him into covering the pay we'll lose, though. Hell, Maria, you know we can't afford to lose pay any more than you can."

"I know he trusts you." She looked back at the hand she was holding and finished pinning the new bandage with the broach. "I expect after tonight ye've proved it out. We got weapons enough here, between the two of us. And if I don't show up for too long, it's gonna look funny. We don't dare let anybody guess he ain't well enough to fight. All right; you do that." She sniffed, her mouth quirking a little contemptuously. "Hell, the way he throws his money around, he'll cover you if I say so."

"We'll cook and clean up after ourselves."

"You'd damn sure better, 'cause I ain't gonna?" She looked up to see he'd fallen asleep, wedged into the corner of the couch. His head was sagging against the couch cushion and he'd gone as limp as a loaf of water-soaked bread. She chuckled and went to find him a blanket.

Chapter 17

Francesca waited on the walkway outside the Red Cat for Kat to arrive with the last package. Madame was not going to object if any of her girls chose to take a little sun on the walkway while she waited for a delivery; it served as good advertisement. And when that girl was Francesca… it guaranteed a full house.

The Sots, though they might harass women they suspected of being whores in and around their own stronghold or inside churches, had not yet become brave enough to go after the Scarlet Women at their own doorsteps. For that much, Francesca was grateful. From Kat's own lips she'd heard the story of the incident with the Sots at the church two weeks before. It had sent chills down her spine. It wasn't so much that they'd dared?a fanatic would dare anything, any time, any place?as it was that their leader had so instantly seen heresy and witchcraft where there was none.

Small wonder the Strega she knew were digging holes in the water to hide in. She wanted her talisman, and she wanted it badly.

As if the mere thought of Kat had conjured the girl, the next gondola to make the turn and negotiate its way into the Rio dei Mendicanti was hers. Francesca waved cheerfully to her; with both hands on her pole, Kat could hardly wave back, but she nodded.

There was no need to hide anything. Kat's usual costume, with the hood that covered her distinctive hair, disguised her well enough from anyone except people who knew her well. Which meant, Francesca was now certain, anyone from the Case Vecchie circles. As a young woman of the Case Vecchie, Kat would not be known to anyone in Venice's lower classes except the few people with whom the girl had set up commercial arrangements?which, for their reasons as well as her own, would be kept highly secret. So there was no danger of Kat being recognized here, so long as she kept her face shadowed and her hair covered by a hood?not in the vicinity of this bordello. The House of the Red Cat did not have a low-class custom, true, but it was still several cuts below the kind of establishment that the city's elite would frequent.

Nor did Francesca have any reason to hide the transaction from the watchful eyes of the Madame of the Red Cat. Prostitutes received frequent parcels from boat girls; not even a suspicious brothel keeper would wonder about this parcel. In fact, the very openness of the delivery was the surest protection. Besides, Francesca was too impatient for the pose of the languid lady. She caught the rope that Kat tossed to her and tied up the boat with her own hands. Kat threw her the package she had been waiting for, then balanced up and over the deck and onto the walkway, jumping across the water to land beside Francesca.

"Do you want to check it and make sure it's all right?" Kat asked.

The gown within the outer wrapping?a very special gown?had been an extra, ordered after the successful interview with the Madame of Casa Louise. Madame wanted her to make an entrance and a stir when she first arrived (officially) at the House. Kat had promised she could come up with something spectacular. Tonight, or tomorrow, depending on what Fate presented in the way of opportunity, saucy and inventive Francesca of the Red Cat would vanish, and Francesca de Chevreuse, gracious and educated courtesan from Aquitaine, would appear at Casa Louise?with no way of connecting the two. Certainly her potential customers would never guess. The social strata that patronized Casa Louise wouldn't even glance down the Rio dei Mendicanti as they passed by on their way to some important social or business function.

All the rest of the new gowns, including the interview gown, were in her new apartment at Casa Louise, conveyed there by the ever-resourceful Katerina. Francesca was taking no chances on the Madame of the Red Cat sniffing out her imminent defection. A bruised and broken-boned courtesan was not an object of desire, and the doorman had heavy fists.

Kat had cleverly managed to squeeze everything into a rather small package that looked exactly like a parcel from a food-stall. "I don't suppose you'd care to come in, would you?" Francesca asked doubtfully. She was surprised by the answer.

"I would love to. I'd like?to ask your advice."

On what, I wonder? Kat knew Donatella, the same Strega herbalist who provided Francesca with the means of preventing pregnancy, so it couldn't be that, could it? Unless Kat wasn't aware that there were such things?

Ridiculous. She couldn't be making deliveries on these waters without finding out within a fortnight.

"Then by all means, please come in." Francesca gestured that Kat should follow her.

It was too early for the doorman to be on duty, and plenty of the other girls had female friends or relatives from outside the House, so Fernando paid no attention to Kat whatsoever. They reached Francesca's room in short order, and Francesca dropped the latch into place when Kat was inside.

"I hope you'll forgive me, but there's really no place to sit but the bed," Francesca said apologetically. Kat shrugged, and took a seat at the foot, looking around with curiosity.

"Ease my mind and have a look through there. I think you'll like what I found, and I want to make sure that the goldsmith gave me the right thing."

Thing. That would be the talisman. Francesca smiled; she wouldn't wonder that Kat was suspicious?it didn't look like something a goldsmith should have held in his keeping. She cut the string holding the parcel together and unfolded the dark, tabby-weave cloth.

Ah, the cloak. Kat had used the cloak she'd asked for as the wrapping, lining-side out. Inside were the dress, the undergown, the shifts, the hose, with one of the undergowns wrapped around another bundle.

"These are perfect," Francesca assured the girl. "Especially the choice of colors. Every other courtesan is going to be in blue or red; not only are these good colors for me, but they'll make me stand out immediately." She untied the shift and shook out the ornaments. "These are even better, if that's possible," she pronounced. "Whoever taught you about jewelry was a wise woman. Never choose fake anything, when for the same price you can have something genuine." She held up the sparkling strands of Murano glass beads that she would weave through her hair, then the three-tiered necklace with carved amber pendants and the matching earrings. "Can you see how much richer and substantial these look than gilt chains and faux pearls?"

"I didn't like the look of the other things I was offered," replied Kat. "I can't explain it, and no one taught me."

"Then you have very good instincts," Francesca told her, taking out the last piece, her precious amulet. It had been her mother's, and had come all the way from Aquitaine with Francesca. It was very crude?a wooden heart encased in a plain silver cage. It was also very old, and would probably get her burned on sight if one of the Sots ever got wind of it. It held a luck-spirit: not a terribly powerful one, but powerful enough to keep Francesca safe so long as she didn't do anything monumentally stupid… and quite powerful enough to keep her safe from prowling canal monsters by making her invisible to the eyes of evil creatures and black spirits.

It was also indisputably pagan. Which was why Francesca had chosen her Jewish goldsmith to hold it for her while she was in the Red Cat.

"Instincts good enough for me to do what you're doing?" came the bitter question.

Francesca clutched the amulet to her breast quite unconsciously and stared at the girl. "You can't possibly be saying you want to become a whore!" she blurted.

Kat flushed, but persisted. "You seem to be doing well enough. And if… my grandfather dies, I may have no choice."

Francesca had known from the first day she met Kat that the girl's family was in dire straits. She was fairly certain she even knew, from the rumors that swirled through Venice along with the tides, which of the old houses it was?Montescue?even though she had never made any attempt to find out. But this…

She sat down on the head of the bed, put her talisman aside, and seized Kat's hands in both of hers. "I am the exception to the general fate of women in this profession," she said bluntly. "Or, at least, I intend to be. I've had to fight and scheme my way with every step I took since I came to Venice, and if I had not had the training from early childhood, and exceptional looks, I would not be going where I am." She was not going to speak the name of Casa Louise aloud, not here. Until the moment she went out of the door in this dress, there was still danger.

"Listen to me?I'm not going to give you my life's story, but I'm going to tell you enough. My family was the equivalent of Case Vecchie?elsewhere. My father was ruined by another old house when I was fifteen; then excommunicated and executed for supposed 'treason.' My older brother was murdered within a month. My mother fled with me and a single mule-load of her belongings. She set herself up as a courtesan in another city by appearing at a very exclusive House in one of her fine gowns and letting the Madame know that she?and her daughter?were available. The Madame tested her?and myself as well. A courtesan is not a whore; if she were, no man of wealth and taste would bother with what he could have cheaper, elsewhere. Simple rutting, however luxurious the setting, is not sufficient for the price that a man pays for a cortegiana."

Kat's face flamed, but Francesca was going to give the girl the whole truth as brutally as possible. "My mother prospered until she did something unbelievably stupid. She had the opportunity to strike back at the man who had destroyed her husband and son, and she took it. She was condemned and hung as a murderess. By then however, I was?in the business. I took my accomplishments and what I could carry and the Madame kindly assisted my flight to Venice. The Madame and my mother saw to it?as the next generation in their profession?that I had every accomplishment. I read and write in four languages, I speak six. I play the lute and sing. I dance. I can converse with a learned dottore of letters on the works of the Greeks and Romans, or on the works of the poets and philosophers of our own age. I even write poetry myself?it's bad poetry, but I can write it. I know as much about politics within Italy and the wider world as most of the gentlemen of the Case Vecchie. Quite a bit more, in fact. And as for the games of the bed?well, let me just assure you that I am a notable athlete. That is what is required to be a courtesan."

She paused thoughtfully. "You may believe the rewards are great, and… they are. Or can be, at least. I will, in the course of a year, earn as much as a good ship's captain, and that is my share?the Madame will earn as much from my labors as I do. But to get to this point, I have had to strip my soul down to the bones, and be more ruthlessly honest with myself than anyone other than a priest should ever be forced to be. I must look in the mirror every day, and rather than admire my own beauty, search ruthlessly for any flaw. I must keep my body in a state of perfection. I must lie gracefully and believably to my customers?I must be able to read them so well that I seem to read their thoughts. Every day I face the possibility that a customer will injure or even kill me, and if he does, no punishment will come to him. Lately there is also the threat that the star of the Servants of the Trinity will be so on the ascendant that they will dictate Venetian morality?they will be looking for women to make into examples, and they will take the ones who stand out. Now?consider what I am, what my accomplishments are, and ask yourself?are you my match? Can you do what I do every day? If not?you'll find yourself here, in a House like this one. The risks are greater, here; the likelihood of a customer committing some outrage higher. The Schoppies are frequent visitors, and demand pleasure as the price of leaving us alone. The servants are spies, and the Madame herself can order her girls beaten as punishment for some infraction, real or imagined. Unless extreme care is taken, the risk of disease as well as injury is very high."

"Oh," Kat said, and gulped.

"I quite understand that from the outside?although my life is ridden with sin?all this looks moderately attractive," Francesca said more gently. "I am also aware that the life of a courtesan looks… well, quite glamorous, in a tarnished sort of fashion. And it is quite possible, for a clever and careful woman, to find herself wedded to the man of her choice. You've heard the whispered gossip, no doubt, perhaps you even know of such a woman. But let me tell you now, that although I fully intend precisely that sort of fate for myself, it will require all the resources I can muster, all my energy, thought, and time, the planning of a great general, and, frankly, a certain amount of luck."

"Ah," said Kat; she looked both disappointed and relieved, and Francesca patted her hands and let them go.

"Such luck as you have been for me," Francesca continued. "A courtesan remembers her friends, Kat. I think you'll soon find that the information I can provide you once I move will be of considerable help in mending your fortunes, as you have done the things that helped me to repair mine."

She smiled. "If worse comes to worst, a Grand House like the one I'm moving to often requires discreet boatmen to ferry messages, as well as clients who need a certain privacy. And, what would be even better…"

Francesca hesitated, not wanting to bruise Kat's already damaged pride any further. But?

"Kat," she said firmly, "within a much shorter time than you might expect, I will be… well, not exactly awash in wealth, but certainly rich enough to afford?even require?my own gondolier. Having one who was herself a pretty girl?or, better still, a pretty girl cleverly disguised as a very pretty boy?would give the thing a certain cachet. Which a courtesan requires more than anything else. So if your fortunes come tumbling down, and you find yourself destitute and alone?please come to me first. Before you think of taking any, ah, desperate measures. All right?"

As she had made her suggestions, the color had faded from Kat's face. But it returned, soon enough. And her expression had become almost hopeful when Francesca came to the part about the private gondola. That gave Francesca a feeling of great relief?Kat did not have the makings of a courtesan, and she didn't want to see the girl in the situation that most of the Red Cat women were in. Kat, she knew, would not survive that life for more than a handful of years.

"Now, I know you must have deliveries, and I have an evening of work ahead of me?" She fished for the pouch of coins she owed Kat, and pressed them into her hand.

"I do," Kat said, springing up from her seat on the bed. She paused at the door, and turned around. "Francesca?thank you. For everything."

"You are most welcome, dear." Francesca gave her a knowing wink that made Kat blush all over again before she whisked out the door and was gone.

Chapter 18

The monster waited until the vessel was completely engrossed. As always, Chernobog's shadow voice aroused the pathetic creature to a frenzy of uncontrolled emotion. Every emotion?anger and fury as well as lust. The vessel was careless. And so, as he combined fury with lust, satiating himself on the servant's body while he imagined an insolent young witch in her place, he gave not a moment's thought to the effect his emotions would have on the monster's shackles.

The monster could sense the coming moment, when the vaporous cage that restrained it would soften, grow tattered. It could escape then, without either the vessel or the servant noticing its passage into the outer world.

The monster's own lust grew rapidly, as the gray mist that surrounded it began to take shape and color. Some small part of its mind urged caution?the master will be angry!?but the monster ignored it. Why should Chernobog care if the monster devoured another soul? And it could always claim that it had been commanded by the master's own servant. Had she not aroused the vessel? Had not the vessel's own fury and lust sent the monster on its way?even selected the prey?

Somewhere in what was left of what had once been a keen mind, the monster knew that Chernobog would see through the deception. But?

It no longer cared. Let the pain come, later. For the moment, the monster could think of nothing beyond the immediate prospect of feeding.

And such a magnificent feed! The monster could barely restrain itself from clawing at the cage.

Too soon, too soon. Wait until…

***

The gray mist faded and faded. Finally?it was enough.

The monster glided through and found itself, once again, in the outer world. The small room was dark; more of a crypt than a room, with the casket at the center. Once it had been a small chapel, but no longer. It was devoted to a different creed now?as the bones and infant skulls and arcane symbols on the walls attested.

The monster ignored its surroundings. It was not really part of any faith, and found the trappings meaningless. Instead, moving slowly, it opened the door that led to the room beyond. The door was neither locked nor bolted. There was no reason for it to be, since the larger room beyond was given over to the privacy of Chernobog's servant. It was a spare and austere room, lit only by a single candle.

The monster crept through the room toward another door on the opposite side. Behind that door was the bedchamber where the master's voice slept. Slept, and, every night, aroused the vessel.

The door to the bedchamber was not only unlocked, it was ajar. The room beyond was dark. Before entering, the monster listened for the sounds it was hoping to hear. Yes. The vessel was grunting his lust atop the master's voice, in the bed against the far wall; the monster could hear the voice responding with soft cries of faked passion.

The sounds meant nothing to the monster. It had a different lust to satisfy.

Silently, stealthily, so as not to disturb the rutters, the monster crept on all fours through the bedchamber. Another austere room, it was, well designed to disguise the servant's true nature. The monster's thin lips peeled back in jeering scorn, seeing the crucifix attached to one of the walls. Normally it would avoid such a holy symbol, but this one was meaningless. The servant had long ago, as she had with all the paraphernalia of her supposed faith, defiled the crucifix in such as way as to make it harmless. Still, the monster did not come any closer than necessary to the holy symbol as it glided toward the pile of discarded clothing on the floor.

The item it sought was there, just as it had sensed it was. Still tucked away, forgotten, in a pocket of the vessel's tunic. Carefully, slowly, the monster teased it out with its long, thick tongue. Savoring the taste, absorbing the scent…

It was enough. It could find the prey, now. Easily.

The monster sidled away, backing toward the crypt where its cage was kept. Again, being careful not to disturb the rutters on the bed; and, again, staying as far away as possible from the crucifix on the wall.

Once back in the crypt, the monster re-entered the cage with an eagerness it did not usually feel for that act. But that was because the cage was a cage no longer. Not with the vessel's mindless lust shredding the vaporous bars. The cage was now… a portal.

***

As soon as the monster felt the waters of the canal, and was finally able to see the outer world again, it flinched. It had not realized the time of day. The vessel and the voice usually rutted at night, but night had not yet arrived. It was only sunset.

With a quick thrust of its tail, the monster drove beneath the surface and hid amidst some pilings shoring the side of the canal. Cursing silently at the frustration, but unable to do otherwise. It would risk Chernobog's anger at an unauthorized feeding, but it would not risk the master's rage if it were seen. On that matter, Chernobog's instructions had been far too clear for the monster to claim an unfortunate misunderstanding.

So it waited, for the sun to disappear and the darkness to come. And, as it waited, felt its frustration mounting to the point of sheer fury.

Especially when it saw the prey herself passing by! Not forty feet distant!

The monster's eye, peeking above the surface of the water in the shadows amidst the pilings, watched the prey row her gondola past. Its eel-throat gaped wide; thick tongue writhing in the water like a giant worm, tasting her scent.

The prey was so?splendid. Fresh, young, innocent. The monster knew that her soul would taste as fine as her hair, shining like copper in the sunset. So much tastier a soul than the wretched things the master had been feeding it.

It would be so easy… The monster could capsize the gondola in an instant. Then, seize the prey once she was in the water and drag her to a hidden feeding ground.

So easy… Now! Now!

But… not even the monster, not even when it was burning with lust, was crazy enough to do it. Not while it was daylight. Not with people in other boats on the water, and walking alongside the canal. No matter how fast it moved, someone would witness the act. Might even catch a glimpse of the monster itself.

Chernobog's rage would not stop at mere punishment, then. Chernobog would feed on the monster itself, and not be satisfied with simply a portion.

Remembering the one time the master had fed upon it, the monster almost whimpered. Its lust receded, replaced by terror. Enough, at least, to enable the monster to bring itself back under control.

Wait. Night is coming, and I can find her anywhere. The scent will be easy to follow.

***

The monster was so intent on its own desires that it never noticed the priest standing on the opposite side. Never noticed that the priest was also watching the prey, as she receded down the canal?and with as much concentrated attention as the monster itself.

Nor did it notice the moment when the priest suddenly started and cast a gaze across the canal. Then, scrutinized everything in the area, as if a hunter had suddenly heard a noise in the forest and was trying to detect its source.

Nor did it notice when the priest spun on his heels and began striding hurriedly away.

***

The shaman, however, did notice. Naturally enough, since the shaman had been sent on this incredibly dangerous expedition for that very purpose. The monster thought it had "escaped." In reality, Chernobog had foreseen this eventuality and had decided to use the monster's lust to test his opponents. The shaman's master did not understand either the purpose of these peculiar priests in Venice, nor their power.

Chernobog also, the shaman understood, wanted to test the depths of the Lion's slumber. Once before the shaman's master had misgauged the Lion, when he tried to murder the Strega Grand Master with too open a hand. That attempt had roused the Lion from his sleep. The ancient spirit had not only slain the assassins before they could finish the work, but had carried the still-living Marina himself into the Jesolo.

Three years ago, that had been. The time had come, Chernobog decided, to see if the Lion had returned to his slumber. The shaman understood the logic?even agreed with it, abstractly. But it was he, not Chernobog, who was forced to lurk in the shadows of the canal and watch, while a monster roamed loose. A monster which would not hesitate for an instant to devour the shaman as readily as it would devour its intended prey.

***

The time finally came. It was dark enough, now, if the monster moved carefully. It eased out of the pilings and began driving up the canal with slow and powerful strokes of its tail. Keeping a wary eye for boats and passersby, and diving below the surface whenever necessary.

The scent was strong. As easy to follow as blood spoor, but far more delicious.

***

When Pierre came into the room, his face was as pale as a sheet. His eyes, open and strained; he looked for an enemy, but not one of this world.

"Something… is out there…"

Eneko Lopez rose from the table where he had been writing a letter, his head cocked. "Yes?"

The Savoyard priest shook his head violently, and shuddered at the same time. "I don't know. I was watching the girl, the one you wanted to find out more about. Then?suddenly?I felt something. Something horrible. Evil more concentrated than anything I can remember in my life."

The Basque at the table turned his head and stared out the window. "Was it she herself, perhaps?"

Pierre shook his head again. Less violently, this time. "I… don't think so, Eneko. It was connected with her somehow, I felt. But I had the sense that it was something watching her, rather than she herself."

Reluctantly, as a priest will speak of such things. "It seemed very… lustful. A horrible sort of lust, and not the sort of thing that anyone would draw willingly unto themselves. And I am not so sure, now, that it wasn't actually hunting her, and not just watching her."

Lopez limped out through the open door near the table and onto the balcony beyond; then, peered down at the canal below. The waters were already dark with the evening. He raised his eyes and studied the massive edifice across the canal that housed the Imperial embassy.

Something watching?perhaps hunting. Something evil. A true innocent might, might be safe from such a thing, but how many people were true innocents, once out of leading-strings?

"Too late…" he murmured. "For anything except prayer."

He turned back, sharply and decisively. "Join me, Pierre. Here. Now. Whatever it was?let us test the thing. If it is what I think it is… Chernobog has made a serious error."

Pierre hesitated. The Basque priest's solid bar of eyebrow lowered. "It is not forbidden, Pierre!" he snapped. "And what is the alternative? To allow a girl who may be guilty of nothing more than venial sins to be devoured by Chernobog?"

The Savoyard's uncertainty vanished. A moment later, he joined Eneko on his knees, crucifix in hand.

"Protections?" Pierre asked. Eneko shook his head.

"No time, but we are not the ones it is hunting?" Eneko cleared his mind of the distracting worry that this might be a trap for him and his own people. "Saint Mark?"

"Ah!" Pierre caught his meaning. "I found a prayer in the Accademia library that might be what we need."

The Savoyard bent his head over his clasped hands and began murmuring the words; Eneko concentrated on them, and on special, sacred magic of a Hypatian priest-mage, that of directed, aimed prayer, with power behind it.

Blessed Saint Mark… patron and protector…

The power flowed, outward and upward, as Eneko concentrated; he felt another power join to his?Pierre's?and their souls sought for that place where prayers were answered.

But then, what he had not dared hope for.

He felt something stir; sensed sleepy eyes opening, somewhere, in that place that was outside space and a time beyond time, in that other where spirits dwelt. Something ancient.

What?

He did not have the means to answer that question; It could not hear him, he lacked a voice It would respond to. But he didn't have to answer it; he sensed It was now… looking. For just an instant, Eneko thought he saw a pair of great eyes, opening.

***

The monster was at the water-door. Not because it sought entry by that means?too risky?but simply because it wanted to be certain. It required only a moment of soft snuffling, licking the door with its tongue.

Yes. So strong! So delicious!

It moved slowly down the canal, searching the walls. A very great house, this was. Still massively impressive, despite the little signs of disrepair.

That disrepair would be of good use to the monster. There was a route up the walls?as easy to climb as a chimney to an experienced mountaineer. The monster almost chortled with glee.

Then… restrained itself again. It was still too early. Night had fallen, yes; but the house would not be asleep. The monster could not risk Chernobog's anger that much.

Wait. Wait.

***

Something else awoke, stirred from long slumber by prayers. Opened golden eyes, and then… understanding the meaning of the prayers…

Great muscles rippled down a tawny back. Huge wings began to unfold.

In my city? You grow too bold, Chernobog!

There was some fury in the thought. Not much. Mostly, the thought was just… amused. Christian priests, no less! They're not usually that smart.

***

From his hiding place in the pilings nearby, the shaman watched. He was awash in fear. The shaman understood what the monster was doing, and he knew that the slightest motion on his part would draw its attention. Should that happen, the shaman was far too close now to even hope to escape. In open water, with enough of a lead, the shaman in his fishform could outswim the monster. But here, in the narrow canals?the shaman had seen how quickly the monster could move in a lunge?

The shaman prayed to his pagan deities. Prayed desperately, hoping that time itself would move faster in its course.

***

It was time!

Still almost silent, for all its eagerness, the monster heaved out of the water and began climbing up the wall. It made swift progress, even stopping from time to time to scan the area in order to be certain there were no observers. The heavy wall's disrepair made climbing easy.

***

The shaman, still almost shuddering with relief after seeing the monster's form lift out of the water, froze with new terror. Something new was stirring! He could sense it! Something… immensely powerful.

He turned and began swimming away. But an iron thought came from his master.

STOP, SLAVE. I MUST SEE THIS. YOUR LIFE IS OF NO CONSEQUENCE.

***

There was no balcony providing ingress to the house. But the monster had seen the roof garden, and it served the purpose just as well.

A quick slither, and the monster was into the garden. Being careful, still, not to crush or disarray the vegetation. Leave no trace. Silently, on all fours, it crept through the lush vegetation. Too lush, really?the garden also showed signs of poor maintenance.

***

Eneko thought he heard a thunder of wings, and felt a shadow pass over him, before he and Pierre fell back into their heavy, mortal selves.

"It is done," he whispered. "Let us pray it will be in time."

A little shudder passed through Pierre's shoulders. "I wouldn't worry about that, Eneko. If the legends are even half true?" He gave his Basque companion a look that was almost baleful. "What have you gotten us into?"

***

When the monster reached the glass-paned double doors that opened onto the garden, it thrust its misshapen head cautiously between two large potted plants. The curtains on the doors were not closed, and the monster could see into the room beyond. Could see everything quite clearly, despite the overcast and the absence of a candle in the room itself. The monster was a creature of darkness, after all. It could see as well at night as in daytime?better, in truth, since the sun was painful to it.

Its great body grew taut as a drum, almost stunned by its good fortune. It had expected a difficult time, creeping through the house in order to find the prey.

Instead?

She was there! Sleeping in the bed!

It made sense, of course. Even the dim mind of the monster could understand that much. A girl with such coppery hair?such a coppery, splendid soul?

Hungry! ?would want to wake to the sunrise. Feel the coppery rays bathing her in a new day.

A new day which would never come again. Soft laughter began to gurgle up in the monster's thick throat. But it forced the sound under. Just a moment more of silence, and it would?feed.

A claw reached up for the latch. The monster knew, for a certainty, that the door would be unlocked. Such an innocent soul… it gathered its haunches.

Hungry!

***

The vise that clamped down on its head struck like a god's hammer. It vaguely remembered such a hammer…

But there was no time to think of ancient weapons. The monster writhed like a lizard, caught by a hawk, its limbs thrashing and flailing.

Thrashing and flailing in?nothing. Talons smote thin air; a tail lashed in emptiness. Everything was dark, a darkness not even the monster's eye could penetrate. Dimly, stunned, it realized that its head was in a giant maw. Realized?dimly, stunned?that it was being carried through the air. Like a lizard, caught by a hawk.

The monster's thrashing grew frenzied. Something smote its back. Almost?not quite?breaking the spine. But the blow was enough to paralyze the monster.

***

Not even his fear of Chernobog could have kept the shaman from fleeing in terror, now. The spirit that had passed over him had seemed like a golden avalanche of fury and destruction.

As it happened, the shaman was quite safe. He was beneath the Lion's contempt. Nor did he have to fear Chernobog's wrath. His master was far too busy?far too frantically busy?forging his own defenses to worry about the doings of a pitiful slave.

***

Some time later?how much, the monster was too dazed to know?it was tumbled to the ground, its head spit out of a maw like a bad seed.

Wildly, scrabbling to get back to its feet, the monster looked around.

It was back in the cage. Except… even as it watched, the tatters in the vapors closed in, barring any exit.

No, not closed in… were driven in, by the flapping of great wings. Seeing the size of those wings, the monster flinched.

Then, flinched again, as it finally looked at its assailant. Flinched, and sidled away. Whining in its throat.

There are rules, creature. The voice hammered into the monster's brain. This is no longer our time?neither yours, nor mine. But there are still rules!

The monster howled as a great paw slammed into its flank, ripping gouges in the flesh. The blow was terrifying in its power. For all its own strength, the monster knew it was no more than a mouse at the mercy of a cat.

A very large and angry cat.

Another blow, which broke the arm the monster raised to fend it off. Another blow, which shredded its snout. Fangs like swords clamped on its haunches. The monster was jerked off its feet, shaken like a mouse in the maw of a cat.

This time, the monster's spine did break. So did its shoulder, when it was hurled to the ground. So did its rib cage, under yet another hammerblow of a paw the size of an anvil.

The monster was shrieking pure terror, now. Another blow shattered its jaw, bringing silence.

That's better. You'll live, of course. Here in this… foul cage. Heal, soon enough. Those too are the rules.

The growling voice turned into a rumbling laugh. But I dare say you'll not try that again.

A giant paw was raised, in question. Frantically, the monster gargled agreement through a broken jaw.

Remember, beast. This is my city?no one else's. Tell that to Chernobog, when you see him next. He may attempt to destroy it, if he can. But he may not do as he pleases. THERE ARE RULES!

Another blow came, crushing the monster's skull.

***

Diego found his two companions in Eneko's room, looking wan and exhausted.

"Did you see a ghost?" he asked cheerfully.

They glared at him. "Near enough," muttered Pierre. He pointed a weary finger at the Basque. "He summoned the Lion. I think."

Diego's eyes widened. Eneko chuckled. "It was Pierre's prayer, you know. How odd that he didn't mention that…"

The Basque priest lurched to his feet and walked out onto the balcony. He leaned on the balcony and studied the Imperial embassy across the canal. The huge edifice was now somber with nightfall. Only a few lights could be seen, tapers and lamps flickering behind curtained windows. Behind him, Eneko could hear Pierre's murmured words, as he explained to their Castillian comrade what had transpired.

His companions joined him on the balcony a short while later.

"Are you certain it was not she herself?" asked Diego quietly. "We must be certain about this, Eneko."

The Basque shrugged. "I'm not certain of anything. But… no. I am now almost sure the girl is an innocent. The more so, since you discovered her identity."

"The name 'Montescue' is an old one, Eneko," said Diego uncertainly. "Evil enough, in that family, over the centuries."

Again, the Basque shrugged. "And of what old family can that not be said?" With a little laugh: "Certainly not mine! Did I ever tell you about my great-grandfather?"

"Several times," growled Pierre. "Just as Diego has bored me endlessly with tales of his own wicked Castillian ancestors. My own progenitors, on the other hand," he added cheerfully, "were virtuous peasants."

His companions bestowed skeptical looks upon him. "Each and every one!" he insisted.

The moment of levity was brief. Diego returned to the subject like a dog chewing a bone. "Still, Eneko. We must be certain."

The Basque was back to his study of the Imperial embassy. His gaze was intent, as if he could penetrate the heavy stone walls and see what transpired within.

"It doesn't make sense, Diego. I've discovered, as you know, that Casa Montescue is in dire financial straits. And the girl Katerina is the only member of the family young enough?and trusted enough?to be working at the 'gray trade.' Her grandfather is too old, her sister-in-law…" His lips tightened with distaste. "Untrustworthy, by all accounts. That's enough?more than enough?to explain her mysterious habits."

Diego began to say something, but Eneko drove over it. "Besides, consider the logic of what just happened." He gestured with his head toward the Savoyard. "Pierre is wrong, incidentally. I'm sure of it. We did not summon the Lion, we simply… woke it up for a time. To actually summon the thing requires knowledge I do not possess, and?if the legends are to be believed?the participation of one of the four ancient families of Venice. Which are: Terrio, Lacosto?both families long vanished; Valdosta?destroyed, presumably by the Montagnards. And?" He paused, giving the next word added emphasis. "Montescue."

Diego stared down the dark canal, in the direction of Casa Montescue. "You think the Evil One was trying…"

"The same legends also specify a son of the families, Eneko," objected Pierre. But his demurral was not spoken with any great force.

Eneko smiled grimly. "Yes, I know. But does Chernobog?"

He sighed. The next words came iron hard, for all the softness of the tone. "Enough, I say. I'm satisfied that the Montescue girl is innocent. We've got few enough resources as it is?just the three of us. We've learned all we can?and need?for the moment, concerning Katerina Montescue. Time to concentrate on two more important matters."

"What really happened to the Strega Grand Master," mused Diego. "That's one. What's the other?"

Eneko's little chuckle was quite absent of humor. "What do you think? What really happened to the children of Lorendana Valdosta? Two sons, I remind you."

"Casa Valdosta was destroyed," protested Pierre. "Everyone says so."

Eneko stared into the darkness. "This is the murkiest city in the world, brothers. We cannot assume anything."

***

Agony led the way, dragging the monster back into consciousness. In the cage, true enough, its bones and flesh would knit and heal. But?not without pain. Immense pain, in this instance.

Worse than the pain, however, was the terror; once the monster's returning mind understood that Chernobog himself was here.

Here… and in a rage.

Another blow destroyed most of the healing. A second broke the monster's spine anew.

You imbecile! You had your orders!

The monster tried to babble its excuse. But it was impossible, with a still-mangled snout.

It would have done no good, in any event. Chernobog was not to be misled, and the monster?now that its mind was no longer clouded with lust?knew how foolish that thought had been.

You awakened the Lion!

Another blow sent gouts of blood flying, along with gobbets of flesh.

Thankfully, it felt Chernobog receding. The fury in the master's voice ebbed, slightly, replaced by a colder and more thoughtful anger.

Nothing for it. I cannot punish the servant, for there is nothing left to punish. Nor the vessel either, for the moment, since I still have use for it. But you…

The broken-bodied, half-paralyzed monster whined, begging forgiveness.

On you I will feed.

The monster howled for some time thereafter, as Chernobog held it down and tore out its innards. Not gobbling the intestines so much as chewing on them, slowly and with apparent relish.

When Chernobog was done, there was not much left of the monster. But, in the recesses of what had once been a mind, the monster knew that there was still… enough.

It would survive. Barely.

The healing would be painful. Agonizing.

I trust you will obey me, henceforth.

The monster tried to whine its abject obedience; but failed, quite miserably. The only sound it made was that of spilling blood. Chernobog had also devoured its tongue.

Chapter 19

Caesare Aldanto leaned back in the dark corner of the tavern where he had taken a table. For a moment, he closed his eyes, scowling inwardly as he felt the continuing effects of the disease he'd contracted. It had been almost two weeks now since Marco had begun medicating him. And while that medication had certainly helped enormously?quite possibly saved his life, in fact?Caesare was still feeling some lingering weakness.

Damn Venice and its miserable swamps anyway!

He sighed. He couldn't afford any weakness. Not at any time in his life, much less now. In Venice, less so than in any city in the world except possibly his home town of Milan itself.

In truth, he detested Venice. Still… it was an excellent place for a man like him to make his fortune. So, suppressing all else, Caesare reopened his eyes and gave the gloomy interior of the tavern another careful examination.

This was not Caesare's usual haunt, but it suited his purpose today. The tavern was dark, the food and wine were inferior enough that it wasn't very popular, and he wasn't known here.

Sensing movement at the door, his eyes flicked in that direction. Caesare had taken a table in the rear, as he had specified to the contact. So when Sachs's man entered, he didn't have to stand in the doorway peering around, which would have made him suspicious and uncomfortable.

As the new arrival made his way past the tables, Caesare realized that this man would have had no difficulty recognizing him anyway. They were old acquaintances, after all.

Relishing the shock he'd give the fellow, Caesare leaned forward, taking his face out of the shadows. "Good evening, Francesco," he said genially.

Francesco Aleri was good; Caesare had to give him that. Except for a momentary start, Aleri's astonishment was quickly covered. Not surprising, of course, for the man who was Duke Visconti's chief agent in Venice?which meant, in practice if not in theory, also the head of the Montagnard faction in the city.

Caesare, by sheer willpower, forced any trace of the weakness produced by the disease from his face. The grin that creased that face was purely savage. He could not afford to let Aleri suspect he might be ill.

And, besides… Caesare was genuinely enjoying himself. This must be a dreadful moment for Francesco, who had thought until now?and with good reason?that Caesare was safely dead. After all, Aleri had been the one responsible for cracking him over the back of the head and dumping him in the Rio dei Mendicanti.

That would have been the end of the matter for Caesare, if Francesco hadn't chosen to dump him off a bridge rather than rolling him over the side of the canal. But as it happened, there had been a small boat tied up under that bridge, and in the boat had been a young girl, alone, and… very susceptible to a handsome young man in obvious danger. Especially one who was as consummate an actor as Caesare Aldanto.

"You look prosperous, Caesare," Aleri said pleasantly, taking a seat across from him. The motion was easy, casual, relaxed?but Francesco's back, needless to say, was prudently to the wall.

Caesare smiled. "I do well enough," he said, in tones as smooth and bland as unflavored cream. "Despite the ungentle fashion in which I was discharged from my previous, ah, position."

"You seem to have landed on your feet," Francesco said, shrugging.

Aleri said nothing else, although Caesare had expected a retort, at least. From Aleri, who had been the one who had discovered that Caesare had been selling his information outside of Montagnard circles. Aleri, who had denounced him as a traitor.

Aleri, who had volunteered as executioner. As he always did, at such times. Aleri prized his position of being Duke Visconti's "enforcer" among the Montagnards. It had been Aleri, also, who saw to the disposal of Bespi. Although, in Bespi's case, the cause had been an excess of enthusiasm rather than cynical peculation. Like many true believers, Bespi had eventually found the contradictions between Montagnard ideals and Milanese realities… too difficult to handle. And had then been stupid enough to send a protest to Duke Visconti.

Caesare toyed with his wineglass. It was only there to give him an excuse for being here; he didn't intend to drink the vile stuff, not on top of lingering illness. He actually had landed on his feet; if he'd gone headfirst into Maria's boat, he probably would have died anyway of a broken neck. As it was, he'd been limp enough to collect nothing worse than a few more bruises. He'd feigned worse, naturally, when he realized where he was. He'd have been a fool not to; he had no money, no resources, and a Montagnard death sentence on his head. Maria had realized as much the moment he landed next to her, and had kept him safely hidden, becoming more and more infatuated with him with every day that passed. For his part, he had seen to it that the infatuation was fed until it spread through her veins like a fever and overcame the tiniest vestige of her common sense. Love was the surest hold a man could have over an inexperienced girl like Maria.

He also made certain that she remained ever-conscious of the difference between their ranks. It made her unsure of her ability to keep him with her, without making her jealous. Jealousy might break the spell he had over her; self-doubt and the uncertainty of being worthy of him kept her eager to please.

"I believe you requested a meeting," Caesare said lazily. "As I informed your contact."

"Not a meeting with you," Aleri snarled softly. "I was supposed to meet?" The Milanese agent broke off abruptly, muttering something under his breath. Caesare wasn't certain, but he thought the phrase had been: that idiot monk!

Assuming he was correct, Caesare pretended to sip from his wine and then added: "What can you do, Francesco? And the German cretins call us 'auslanders.' As if they could find their own assholes here in Venice. But, like it or not, I am the 'idiot monk's' chosen man for the job. Whatever the job might be."

He set the glass of wine down on the table. "So why don't you tell me about it, and save us both the useless recriminations. I don't have any hard feelings, after all, despite being the injured party in the affair."

Aleri's features were not distorted. The only sign of the rage that Caesare had no doubt was filling the Montagnard was the coldness of his gaze. "Your services were always for sale, Caesare." There was ice in Aleri's voice, too. "Just like every other putta in this filthy city."

Caesare did not rise to the bait; he'd been expecting it. Aleri was a true believer himself?which was odd, really, for a Milanese so close to Visconti?and that was his Achilles heel. He would do anything for faith; Caesare would do anything for money. They were two of a kind, and the joke was that Francesco didn't even see it. "The job," he prompted gently. "And my pay."

Aleri, Caesare thought, was very near to throwing his own wineglass in his face. But… the memory of how good a duelist Caesare was prevented him. As good as Francesco was with a blade, Caesare was better?and they both knew it.

Instead, after a moment's tense struggle with himself?for a moment, his face looked like a winter storm?Aleri reached into his cloak and brought out a leather purse. He slapped it down on the tabletop.

"I'd have hired a dog first, myself. But this incident you're to organize and carry out is a fool's business anyway. If the German cretin wants to hire a traitor for it, why not? It matters not to me."

Caesare took the purse and made a little show of pouring the coins into his hand and counting them. Aleri scowled slightly. "Stop being a fool. You always were too clever for your own good. It'll get you killed soon enough, and good riddance."

Caesare didn't rise to the bait. "Tell me about it," he murmured. "The job, Francesco. Save the speeches for your faithful followers."

***

By the time Aleri finished, Caesare was waging a fierce battle to keep from scowling himself.

That idiot monk! Typical German. Head as thick as a hog's.

His mind raced. That the plan would work, on its own terms, Caesare had no reason to doubt. But…

What is the point of it? And the trouble it might stir up! Does that clerical cretin have any idea how??

He broke off the thought. It was none of his business, after all. For whatever reason, Caesare's new employer and protector had given his approval to the abbot's silly schemes. Though why Brunelli, whose fortunes were tied to the Metropolitans, should have done so was a mystery to Caesare. Not for the first time, Caesare wondered if Casa Brunelli always operated with a single mind.

Interesting thought. But he had neither the time nor the inclination to pursue it. Soon enough, Caesare had little doubt, he would have to look for another employer anyway. And, for the moment, the one he had paid well and?

He smiled across the table at Aleri. And keeps this one, and his cohorts, from peeling the hide off my back.

Aleri's chair scraped slightly on the floor as he pushed back from the table and rose to his feet. "You'd better keep one eye open from now on when you sleep," he growled. "Because the moment that your new patron finds you too expensive to support, is the moment when I finish the job I bungled."

Caesare continued to smile. "In that case, I needn't worry," he mocked. "You'll have a long, gray beard before that day comes."

Aleri stared down at him. "And did you tell your new woman your real history, Caesare?"

Caesare must have shown something in his face; he cursed himself silently as Aleri continued: "Of course there's a new woman. There always is, with beautiful golden Caesare. You betray everyone, women even quicker than men. Whoever the girl is?and I'll find out, soon enough?I pity her. But my pity won't keep me from killing her also. An example must be set for what happens to traitors and their whores."

The Milanese turned and stalked out.

Caesare continued to play with his wine, and wait for young Benito to saunter in as a signal that it was safe to leave the place. As he did so, his thoughts drifted over his new… associates.

Maria was invaluable for the moment, leaving aside the pleasure her fiercely enthusiastic lovemaking provided. Very unskilled enthusiasm, to be sure, and Caesare was beginning to get bored with it. But that problem was easy to solve, after all. Caesare gave it no further thought, beyond an idle moment of curiosity as to which of several Case Vecchie girls would be the first to climb into his bed and provide him with more expert entertainment. Alessandra, for one. He was quite certain the Montescue woman was eager to rekindle their old affair.

The boys, on the other hand?Benito in particular?were proving far more useful than he would have guessed. No one ever looked twice at a child, particularly not a canal-brat like Benito. Aleri and his ilk would be looking for a woman. That they'd discover Maria soon enough, Caesare didn't doubt for a moment. Any more than he doubted what would happen to the canal-girl once… the situation changed. But the Montagnards would never suspect Caesare of employing the boys as his aides. Particularly not those boys?given how their mother had died, and by whose hand.

But that, after all, was part of the dance, wasn't it? Caesare flexed his right hand, for a moment, remembering the feel of Lorendana's throat as Bespi slid the knife between her ribs. She had been quite shocked when she died, he remembered. Not so much with the knife as with the hand that kept her from crying out. She had always understood the risk of assassination, moving in the circles she did. What she hadn't expected was that her own lover would set up the killing?and time it for the moment she was most defenseless. Naked, in her own bed, right after they finished making love.

A stupid woman, in the end, for all her quick wits. She should have known that once she lost the favor of Carlo Sforza she was sure to receive the delayed vengeance of Filippo Visconti. Yet she'd been careless enough to accept a Milanese adventurer as a new bedmate.

Stupid. As stupid as Bespi, with his idiot ideals. Caesare's lips twisted in a little smile, remembering the look on Bespi's face as he killed Lorendana. The assassin's eyes had been on Caesare, not his victim. Eyes cold with loathing and disgust. Caesare had never been sure, but he suspected that killing had been the one which finally tipped Fortunato Bespi over the edge.

No matter. Caesare was not stupid. And he enjoyed the irony of having Lorendana's orphans as his new underlings. It was the best proof imaginable that his own view of the world corresponded to reality.

Caesare considered the wine, and sat back into the shadows. The wine was execrable; the shadows?ideal.

Chapter 20

Erik shifted his feet in the antechamber before Abbot Sachs's door. He took a deep breath. Then, reluctantly, knocked on the thick oak.

He waited. He'd just knock again, and go. He could try later. He raised his hand…

"Enter," said a voice from within.

Erik walked in. The room was sybaritically appointed. His eyes were still drawn first to the deep-set glowering stare of the abbot, rather than the furnishings fit for a prince of the blood. Sachs sat behind one of these, an escritoire of dark wood inlaid with ivory.

"You wished to see me, Abbot?" asked Erik evenly. The air in the room was overly warm and full of an acerbic incense. And maybe just a hint of… perfume? Erik found himself wondering if Manfred's frequent witticisms about the relationship between Sachs and Sister Ursula might not have a basis of truth.

Whatever the scent's nature, it was making his nose itch and his eyes water.

The abbot's sour countenance twitched. Then, to Erik's amazement, his face did something the confrere knight had never seen it do before?the thin lips dragged themselves into a smile. "Ah. Hakkonsen. Yes. I have a task for you."

Erik wondered whether it was too late to bolt for the door. It was either bolt?or sneeze soon. If there were two things Erik was certain of, the first was that Abbot Sachs disliked him violently; the second was that this incense was driving him mad. But as a confrere Knight he was, by order of Bishop-Commander Von Schielbar, under the authority of the leader of the Servants of the Holy Trinity in Venice.

That remained true even if Erik had forcefully reminded the abbot, less than a fortnight ago, of the limits of his authority. The months they'd spent here in Venice had made their dislike mutual; the incident in the church over sanctuary had brought it into the open. In the two weeks that had gone by since, the abbot had spoken not a single word to Erik, prior to now.

The only official notice of the clash had been a summons to the quarters of Von Stublau, where the knight-commander began a stern lecture on the proper conduct of knights when dealing with abbots. It had been as brief as it was stern, because Erik had turned on his heel and left before Von Stublau finished his third sentence.

The Prussian had been outraged, no doubt. But not even Von Stublau was prepared to press the matter any further. Erik's conduct in the church had given him a reputation among all the other knights as a man to be dealt with very, very gingerly. The more so when the reaction of official Venice to the incident in the church made it as clear as crystal that Erik's behavior had been the only thing that had saved the Knights from what might very well have been a political disaster.

As Sachs had discovered two days later, not even the usually sympathetic Doge wanted to hear the abbot's side of the story. Canal-brats are canal-brats, you idiot, not "servants of Satan." Such had been the entirety of Foscari's opinion, before Sachs had been summarily dismissed.

And the Doge's reaction had been mild compared to that of Metropolitan Michael, who, by all accounts, had been livid when Father Ugo's story reached him. The prestige of the Pauline orders, always low with the Petrine patriarch, was now as low as it could possibly get. Rumor had it that the patriarch had only been dissuaded with difficulty from demanding the forcible eviction of the Servants and the Knights from Venice. And dissuaded, by his advisers, solely because they reminded the patriarch of his policy of trying to avoid clashes with Foscari.

Nor was there any doubt that if the Pauline orders lost the favor of the Doge, they could be expelled from the city?by force, if necessary. There were only a few hundred Knights in Venice. Leaving aside the actual military forces at the disposal of the Doge, which were much larger, the sixteen thousand workers in the Arsenal where Venice's great fleet was built were famous?or notorious?for their willingness to take up arms readily. They were also famous for their solidly Petrine allegiance in religious matters and for being a hotbed of Metropolitanism. Not even the Servants of the Holy Trinity were rash enough, or arrogant enough, to try to enforce their attitudes in the vicinity of the Arsenal or the quarters of the city where its workers lived.

Being shown to be utterly wrong hadn't, needless to say, made Abbot Sachs any fonder of the Icelandic knight. He had said nothing to Erik in the two weeks afterward. But Erik had not failed to notice that, each and every day since, he had been given nothing but arduous and menial duties.

To Erik's surprise, however, the incident had also caused a number of the knights?especially the younger ones and the confreres?to view him with much greater warmth than they had done previously. Some, bolder than most, had even whispered quick congratulations into his ear when no one was watching. It was clear enough that Sachs's arrogance grated on many others besides himself.

Still?the abbot was his lawfully appointed superior. So long as Sachs made no further attempt to transgress law and honor, Erik's own stiff sense of honor obligated him to obey the man, and pay him at least the outward signs of respect. Even if the wretched creature did use the vilest incense Erik had ever encountered.

So all he said was: "I am yours to command, Abbot."

The abbot blinked. He looked as though he hadn't expected it to be so simple. For a moment, Sachs seem to fumble for words. Then:

"Well, the mission we have for you is not simple or easy. This city is full of corruption and evil. We need to root it out. I, personally, would like to put half of these ungodly ones to the question."

I'll bet you would, thought Erik wearily. Personally. And by the time you'd finished with them they'd confess to anything you pleased.

But he held his tongue, and simply concentrated on not sneezing.

Sachs plainly expected a reply or a comment. "Well?"

"I am yours to command, Abbot," repeated Erik woodenly.

The abbot looked intently at him. Then, laced his fingers. "Very well. I shall command you. Tonight, just before midnight, you will proceed to the Calle Largo di Lorenzo. You will be unarmored, and without your sword, but wearing your surcoat showing yourself to be one of the Knights of the Holy Trinity. Get one of the boatmen to take you, as you'll never find it on your own. You will have wine on your breath, and you will be seen to be unsteady on your feet. Do you have that clearly? You will be seen to be unsteady. You will turn into the third alleyway and proceed down it. Perhaps you should sing. You will go to the last house on the left-hand side and demand entry."

Erik swallowed. Was this some kind of trap? Why in the seven hells was the abbot sending him to visit one of Venice's most notorious brothels? He didn't need a boatman to show him the way. He knew perfectly well where it was, down to which door. He'd hauled Manfred out of there not two nights ago. The Madame was not going to be pleased to see him again.

"Why?" he rasped.

At last, Sachs looked genuinely pleased. "Because I have commanded you."

"Yes, Abbot." And then Erik could contain it no longer. He sneezed. Then he sneezed again.

Sachs had obviously not expected this answer, because he did explain. "It is an ambush. One of our agents has brought us information that a large group of the ungodly pagans will be conducting their evil rites there. When you have gained entry, you will create a disturbance. You will continue to do so for as long as possible, while the Knights force entry at the water-door."

"Haaachoo! Yes, Abbot. Ndow will you excuse me? By dose is streaming."

***

The bed groaned as Manfred did his customary flop onto it. As usual, he gave his attention to the bedpost caryatides before turning to Erik. "What's up? Why are you pacing about, rubbing a thoughtful hand on that pious, sharpcut chin of yours?"

Erik took a deep breath. "I've got to go brothel-creeping!"

Manfred leapt to his feet in a single movement, like a crossbow snapping straight. It was at moments like this that the big knight revealed his true strength and agility. He rubbed his hands gleefully and grinned, revealing those blocky teeth.

"Oh, me too. Me too! But this time just to watch! What's suddenly come over you, my pure Icelandic friend? Besides the need for female company, that is?"

Erik scowled. "I've got orders from Abbot Sachs to go to the House of the Red Cat. You will be staying here. Even if I have to lock you up, you will be staying here. And it's not funny," he snarled, seeing the young knight-squire's expression.

Manfred put his hand in front of his grin, trying to hide it. His shoulders began to shake. Then he gave up. He laughed. He guffawed. Eventually he collapsed onto the bed again, still fighting off paroxysms of chuckles while Erik stared at him in icy irritation.

Eventually he stopped long enough for Erik to start speaking. "It's a direct order!"

This provoked a snort of derision from Manfred. "I'll bet. Tell me another one. Unless Sachs is learning more from Sister Ursula than we realize."

"I'm supposed to be a decoy for a raid, you young fathead! I should take you out into the practice yard and teach you some decorum," snapped Erik.

Manfred sat back and raised his big hands in a pacific gesture. "I'm all decorum, I swear. I haven't forgotten the last time! Neither have my ribs. Has Sachs got wind of your last little visit and the friendly little chat you had with the Madame and her bouncers?"

"Jesu. I hope to God not." Erik crossed himself. "Let me tell you about what he wants me to do."

***

By the time he'd finished, Manfred wasn't laughing. He wasn't even grinning. "I suppose they'll be waiting by the water-door for the ruckus. This smells to the heavens, Erik! That idiot Sachs will get you killed?and I wouldn't doubt that's really what he wants. Why in the hell no sword and no armor?"

Erik pulled a wry face. "I suppose they don't want the bouncers too alarmed and deciding not to interfere. I'm supposed to create a disturbance."

Manfred had the grace to look shamefaced. "I think they're going to be a little alarmed just to see your face."

"Thanks to you, yes," replied Erik grimly.

Manfred stood up slowly. "True enough. Are you going anywhere in the next while?"

Erik shook his head. "Not until I leave smelling of wine, shortly after Compline."

Manfred pursed his lips. "That gives us plenty of time." The knight-squire headed for the door. "Wait here. That Pellmann is nowhere about, is he?"

Erik raised his eyes to heaven and shook his head. "When he doesn't have to be? Not likely."

Manfred nodded, and walked out and away up the passage. He could walk fast and quietly for such a big man.

A short while later he was back, with a bag and an oilcloth roll. He closed the door and bolted it before tossing the bag onto the bed. It clinked. Erik raised an eyebrow.

Manfred unrolled his oilcloth onto to the table and revealed a set of tools that would have done any torturer from Damascus to Vinland proud. "Get out of those clothes. If you've got a close-fitting quilted shirt, put it on. If you don't, we'll have to get you one. We'll need to fit this thing. It's too small for me these days, but likely it'll be still too big for you."

Erik looked doubtful. "What is it?"

Manfred stepped over to the bag on the bed. He hauled out a shirt of tiny chain links. They gleamed with an odd black pearly sheen. "Koboldwerk. My uncle had me wear it at court. Somebody must have washed it because it's shrunk."

Erik snorted. "Particularly across the belly."

It was an unfair observation. Manfred was as square as a foundation block, but he was also solid muscle. He'd been a great deal softer before Erik had started on him. He trained with Manfred from an hour before dawn until Lauds every single day. Then they'd put in at least an hour on the pells. Then they'd join the knights for morning drill.

To give the Breton squire his due, nowadays Manfred gave the training his heart and soul. At first, Erik used to have to haul him out of bed. But lately it was getting to be the other way around, despite the fact that Manfred had managed to explore the wilder aspects of Venice's nights quite successfully. Also, he'd noticed how the squire had put on inches, particularly across the shoulders, in the months they'd been together. The boy was finishing his growing, and it certainly wasn't around the waistline.

Erik suspected that Manfred had been genuinely shocked to discover how much more capable his Icelandic "keeper" was than he, when it came to any kind of extended fighting. Manfred's incredible strength and athletic ability had not been matched by endurance?leaving aside the fact that he had little of Erik's actual combat experience and the brutal skills the Icelander had learned in the island's savage clan feuds as well as frontier skirmishes in Vinland.

One thing Erik had come to realize about his charge. For all of Manfred's roustabout ways, the young scion of the imperial family was quite capable of learning something when he put his mind to it. And, if it accomplished nothing else, the incident in the church seemed to have finally brought a certain amount of seriousness to Manfred's outlook on things. The big young man had brooded for days afterward, obviously ashamed of his initial reaction to Erik's defiance of Sachs.

Erik suppressed a snort. Not that Manfred's new-found solemnity went all that deep. If Abbot Sachs kept the Knights here much longer, he didn't doubt that Manfred would even learn to speak the local dialect. Well enough, at least, to ask directions to any location in Venice. He'd already learned how to find the taverns and brothels.

Manfred slapped his stomach. "It's the wine," he said mournfully. "I need more."

Erik shook his head, and smiled ruefully. "That is the one thing you don't need."

"This is a matter of opinion. Now get out of that cotte and put on a quilted shirt."

Erik did as he was told. The chain-links were heavy and cold, despite the shirt. And while it was loose around the waist and a little tight around the chest, it fit across the shoulders.

Manfred grunted in satisfaction. "Too big I can fix. Too small would have been a problem. Stand still."

He reached for the tools, displaying a familiarity that surprised Erik. The Icelander watched in some amazement. "I thought you were a prince, not a blacksmith."

Manfred twitched a lockring loose with an evil-looking set of long-nosed pliers. "According to my father, the Breton chiefs were once both?blacksmiths as well as princes. This was his idea. I got to run tame in the castle smithy back in Carnac. Beat spending time with the tutors mother inflicted on me, that's for sure."

His thick fingers moved with expert skill. "That's the difference between Mainz and Carnac," he continued. "Too bookish in Mainz. The aristocracy either reads or fights. In Carnac, according to our old seneschal, my father used to do the winter slaughtering before mother got there and 'civilized' him. Now stand still. Old Sachs didn't say anything about that hatchet of yours, did he?"

"The subject never came up," said Erik, standing still as he had been told. Books were a treasure up in Iceland. Especially in winter. But he could see where sitting still with a tutor might aggravate a boy like Manfred.

Erik sighed. He was supposed to watch over him; guard him; teach him. But it seemed to Erik that Manfred's supreme skill was slipping off to have a good time. Taking his watchdog with him, if that was the only choice, but without him if he could manage it. It had been from one of those expeditions that Erik had retrieved him from the House of the Red Cat.

Manfred whistled tunelessly between his teeth. "Stretch your arms out." Erik complied. "Bring them round in front of your chest. Can you move easily?"

Erik nodded. "It's not very comfortable. But I can move."

Manfred snorted. "It's never comfortable. And be grateful. I even had to sleep in it."

Erik looked grimly at Manfred. Sooner or later the boy had to accept the fact that he was in close line of succession to the throne of the Holy Roman Empire, the largest and most powerful realm in Christendom.

"Your uncle wanted to make sure you stayed alive. And that is why I'm supposed to watch over you. No one but the High Abbot at Wurtemburg knows who you are. And that is your best defense. But somebody may just possibly recognize you. Even with that moustache."

Manfred's responding grimace was so like that of a boy denied a day's play that Erik almost laughed. He could sympathize with Manfred's plight, inwardly if not openly. By Manfred's description, life in rather ramshackle, relaxed Celtic Carnac had been a far cry from the stilted imperial court at Mainz. But there was no point in letting his charge see that sympathy. Manfred would only try to take advantage of it.

Chapter 21

Maria waited for them in the kitchen of the apartment. It was… homelike having them living here. The boys tried to keep quiet, but they were, in the manner of boys, not much good at it. Maria found the noises comforting. She hadn't been aware of Caesare's catlike quietness until she'd had the contrast. The occasional clatter and slip from whisper into a laugh or hastily stifled yell was pleasant, almost comforting. Maria had never had a real family, the way most people did. It had been just her and her mother, as she was growing up. Since then, her huge pack of cousins had offered to provide her with a home?well, until she took up with Caesare?but Maria had always declined the offers. She valued her independence too much. But the boys didn't really impinge on that independence. They just made her home… warmer.

Of course, she'd never tell them that. They obviously found the apartment pleasing too. They hadn't moved out although Caesare was getting up for part of each day now. There was not much wrong with him any more that Maria could see, except he tired quickly. She wanted a word with Marco about that. And she'd better sort Benito out before he got into real trouble. She felt a little awkward at the thought of trying to discipline Benito. He wasn't more than two years younger than she was, after all. But somebody had to do it. And Marco, for all that he was a good soul and gentle as a dove, wasn't up to dealing with his little brother.

She grabbed him by the ear when he came in. "Benito. You listen to me."

"Ow! Leggooo! How do I listen when you're pulling my ear off?"

Maria snorted. "You listen with the other one, and if I pull this one off maybe things won't just go straight in one ear and out of the other."

"I'm listening. I'm listening. Just let go," said Benito on tiptoes.

She did. "Now if this doesn't go in, next time I will pull it off. I hear from Giaccomo you're still hanging out with that Laivetti boy. Mercutio."

"Yeah," said Benito, defensively. "He's a friend of mine, see." His tone was surly.

Maria didn't like that tone. "He's trouble!" she snapped. "If you're going to stay with Caesare and me?you keep your nose clean. Caesare doesn't need extra troubles."

Benito was silent for a few moments. He bit his lip. "It's not as simple as all that, Maria," he said quietly.

"And why not?"

Benito shrugged. "You know, when you're living on the canals… um… some of the bigger boys they use the little 'uns like girls. Some of them are real fond of little boys."

Maria's eyes narrowed. "This Mercutio…"

"No! Mercutio, he's a ladies' man. But he looked out for me. Kind of let it be known that he'd deal with anyone who tried anything. Helped me out with food and?and a bit of coin a time or two. Showed me a few things that Claudia and Valentina left me to find out the hard way. And?he made me laugh when I needed a few laughs." Stubbornly: "I can't just turn my back on him. I can't, Maria."

Maria nodded. She understood this level of loyalty. It made her think better of Benito, actually.

"Si. I can see that, 'Nito. But there's a difference between being a friend, maybe sitting at Giaccomo's, talking, and doing the kind of crazy thievery and stunts that he likes to pull. You'll get killed. So will he."

Benito shrugged again. "That's what Claudia always says. But Mercutio?he's lucky."

Maria shook her head. She hadn't really gotten through to him. "Luck runs out. You stay away from his stunts, Benito."

Some of the grimness in that must have gotten to Benito. "He's out of town anyway, Maria. From what I can work out, no one's seen him since two-three days after Caesare took sick."

Maria smiled. "I know he's your friend, but I hope he stays away."

Benito's brother walked in, looking preoccupied. "Morning, Marco. You been to see the patient? Hope you not lookin' like that 'cause he's going downhill."

Marco smiled. "Sorry. I was just… thinking about something. Si, I've been to see Caesare. He's fine, Maria. It'll take him a little while to get his strength back. His endurance, rather?his strength's pretty much back to normal. If he rests, well, another few weeks and he'll be like this never happened."

Maria snorted. "I can't make him rest?he'll be out and about again today. He just won't accept it that he can't run around for very long. That's a nasty sickness."

Marco looked embarrassed. "Um. That's the treatment, not the disease. If you live through the disease without the herbs, you're better in a week or so."

Maria gawped at him. "What?"

Marco held up his hands. "Without the herbs, a lot of people just die. But the herbs are poison too. You can kill someone with them if they have too much. Old Sophia reckons the herbs make the body too poisonous for the sickness to live. It takes the body a while to rid it itself of the toxin. It won't do Caesare any harm to be up and about. He'll get tired quick, that's all."

"Well, that's good to know," said Maria with relief. "Although I wouldn't tell him you poisoned him!" The relief went away. Quietly, anxiously: "He's organizing something. I can tell by the way his eyes go thoughtful."

***

Out on the water carrying a cargo of copper nails to the Arsenal, Maria had time to think about what Marco had said. She just hoped the poison didn't make Caesare slower. He kept most of what he was involved in from her. He always said what she didn't know couldn't be tortured out of her. But on at least one occasion it had been a duel, which was strictly illegal. The young nobleman Caesare had pushed into it had been a thorn in the side of Ricardo Brunelli.

"Hey, Maria."

She looked up. It was Antonio, plying his usual load of fresh crabs for the fishmarket. It was a good line, that. Housewives wanted their crabs still alive. And they paid extra for it. But it meant Antonio was often ferrying a load in before Lauds. "Ciao, 'Tonio. How's trade?"

"Bit slow. Always is at this time. Look, I know you work nights a bit. I'm just passing a warning out. They found what was left of one of those young Ponto di Reggio brats dead in the water, stuck in some piles."

Maria thought of Benito. Maybe he owed his friend Mercutio more than he realized. "What killed him?"

Tonio shrugged. "Somethin' bad. Real bad. The body was pretty much missing, and what there was the eels and fish had eaten most of it. But the head, they say, was bitten in half. What kinda fish can bite right through a skull, eh? No natural one, that's sure and certain. Like nothin' anyone ever saw. They reckon it must be some of this witchery that's going on. The kid disappeared months ago, and they say it was the same night that rich banker got torn apart in his own bed. Does that sound like happenstance to you?"

He glanced around, searching the water, uneasy even in broad daylight. "Just thought I'd tell you to keep a weather eye out."

Maria clutched at the amulets she wore. Two were from the Calle Farnese, supposedly protection against demons of the night. The other, side-by-side with pagan charms, was a little leather bag containing?well, supposed to contain?a fragment of St. Ursula's skull. She hoped they'd protect her because she didn't have a whole lot of choice about working nights, moving stuff for Giaccomo sometimes.

***

Marco felt very uneasy here. This was the last place, the very last place, where a Pauline belonged. This was, if not the headquarters of the enemy, at least a bastion?a chapel of Saint Raphaella, one of Saint Hypatia's fervent followers, martyred, not by fire, sword, or persecution, but by accident. Saint Raphaella had allegedly stood firm in the face of a tide of dreadful injuries all over Alexandria in the wake of the terrible earthquake of 735, had used herb and skill and yes, magic, to hold off the scythe of grim death from thousands who were dying. She cured them of injury or illness or both, and perished only when an aftershock toppled a broken column down on her as she was trying to help more who were trapped in the rubble and still alive. And even then, she did not cease her work, apparently; for all those who prayed to her recovered, and there were many who dreamed of her laying gentle hands on them in the night and woke healed. In the wake of so many miracles, it would have taken a stronger man than the then-Grand Metropolitan to deny the voices on all sides who called for sanctification.

Marco remembered his mother denouncing the saint, once, when he was a small boy. He only remembered because of his phenomenal memory. Lorendana Valdosta had denounced a lot of things.

She was headstrong, disobedient, not modest and self-effacing as Saint Paul told women to be. She defied her own priest, even, when he ordered her to stay out of the city. Told him to take his orders to the Devil!

If she hadn't, how many would have died? Marco could remember himself wondering that, after his mother finished her little peroration. And today, much older, he could look back on the episode and realize how absurd it was for his mother?the notorious Montagnard agent Lorendana Valdosta?to be denouncing other women for being headstrong and disobedient. As if she herself had not been! And for a far less worthy a cause than Saint Raphaella.

Still… Marco was unsettled. Whatever doubts he might have begun developing about all the tenets of the Pauline creed, it was the one he had been raised in, after all. And this was a tiny, dark little place, squeezed in between two warehouses, on a waterway so narrow a boy could jump across it. The reason Marco had come was that Brother Mascoli, who presided here, had sent a message that he wanted to speak to Marco about his herbs.

At least he's Hypatian. Horrible thought, that. Had they heard it spoken aloud?and had they enough authority?the Servants of the Holy Trinity would probably drag Marco up in front of a tribunal and in less time that it took to say "knife," have him declared a heretic.

The last light of day couldn't penetrate these man-made canyons, and although the sky had just begun to show the colors of sunset, down here it was twilight. Marco pushed open the door to the chapel and eased inside.

There wasn't much in the way of light here, just the few candles that burned in front of the statues of Hypatia and Raphaella, and the Presence-Light on the altar. Someone knelt in front of the altar, someone in a light-colored robe and not ordinary clothing, who got to his feet and turned around as the door creaked closed. Marco cleared his throat awkwardly.

The man who approached him was not terribly prepossessing; balding, with little more than a gray fringe over each ear. Thin, yet round-faced, he blinked mild blue eyes at the newcomer. "Peace be with you, my child," he said in a reedy voice. "How may I help you?"

"I'm looking for Brother Mascoli," Marco replied. "He asked to see me…"

The little man's face lit up with a smile that transformed it. "Then you must be Marco! Please, will you come back to my quarters? I'd like to ask you a few questions, about those herbs you have been giving some of my flock."

Marco would rather not have gone with him, but there didn't seem to be much choice. Reluctantly, he followed the sibling through a door behind the statue of Saint Raphaella and into a tiny closet of a cell that didn't hold anything but a pallet on a wooden platform, a stool and desk, a crucifix on the wall, and a lamp. "Please sit down, Marco," the Sibling said, taking the stool, leaving the only place for Marco to sit being the bed. He sat very gingerly on the edge as Brother Mascoli took out pen, ink, and a roughly bound book, opening it to a blank page.

"Now, if you would be so kind?I wonder if you could tell me?" the words were gentle, the interrogation ruthless. Brother Mascoli extracted every particle of information Marco had about Sophia and Chiano's herbs, even going so far as to take out an enormous herbal from beneath the bed and leaf through all the pages until he had identified the exact plants to his satisfaction. The herbal, Marco noted, was handwritten, the drawings quite accurate, and the script identical to Brother Mascoli's. Had the sibling actually ventured out into the marshes to collect samples of all of those plants himself? If so?his estimation of the rabbitty little man went up several notches.

"Now, what incantation did you use?" Brother Mascoli asked, briskly.

Marco froze. The sibling raised an eyebrow at his silence. "Well?" he prompted.

"None," he said stiffly.

"None?" The other eyebrow rose. "Surely not."

"None," he repeated, his voice cracking with strain.

Brother Mascoli carefully blew on the page to dry it, and closed the book. He regarded Marco for a very long time with a deceptively mild gaze. Marco couldn't move.

"Marco," the sibling said quietly, "Why are you so afraid of your magic?"

Marco began to sweat. "What magic?" he squeaked.

He can tell! How can he tell? How does he know?

Chiano knew…

Brother Mascoli's gaze ceased being mild. After another very long time, he sighed. "Marco?I am one single man, serving people who are the poorest of the poor. I have no help, and very little money, and although I am something of a mage, I am absolutely the least powerful of any in this city. And yet the people I serve number in the thousands and they are the most likely to become ill, to be seriously injured. Now, I continue to serve them because God saw fit to grant me a gift, and it would be a sin?a sin?not to use it to help as best I am able. And not a venial sin, either, but a mortal sin, the sin of pride."

"P-p-pride?" Marco stuttered in confusion.

Brother Mascoli nodded. "Pride. The pride of a man who would believe that he knows better than God. God has seen fit to give me this gift, and gifts are meant to be used for the good of all. To be shared. To refuse to do so is to refuse God's blessings, and to do so out of selfishness. And that," he added, examining his fingertips for a moment, "would be yet another sin. Sloth, perhaps?that one was too lazy to exert oneself? Avarice, that one wished to keep one's energies all for oneself? I suppose that it all would depend on the motive behind the selfishness."

Marco wasn't going to cave in that easily to this facile Petrine. "Use of magic should remain in the hands of anointed priests, who won't be tempted by such power."

"What in heaven's name makes you think that priests can resist the temptations of power?" the Sibling retorted.

"All the more reason then?"

"Marco," Mascoli said sharply. "Give over for a moment! Allow someone who has actually studied magic to speak, will you?"

Marco snapped his mouth shut, flushing.

"Magic, as even the most rigorous Pauline practices it, is prayer. Nothing less, but certainly nothing more. We hedge it round with ritual, we beg angels to attend us and fence our work off from the outside world and the interference of the Evil One, but when it all comes down to cases, it is nothing but intensely focused prayer. God allows us to use our own strengths to accomplish some tasks, and grants us His strength or that of his angels to accomplish those that are beyond our strength, but we never force, we only ask, for these graces." Mascoli's rabbity face took on a distinctly mulish look. "Now if you can find me, anywhere in Scripture or Holy Writ, a place where the faithful are told that only anointed priests may pray to God, I beg you to show it to me. That will certainly be a revelation to every Christian alive or dead."

Marco had only thought he was flushing before. Now a painful heat crept up his neck and over his face, until it felt sunburned. He couldn't counter the sibling, and he knew it. And Brother Mascoli knew that he had won the point.

At least he was gracious enough not to gloat about it. "Just think about what I've said, will you?" he asked. "You don't have to make any decisions right now, just think about it. And while you're at it, think about all those poor creatures up and down the canals that I can't help because I haven't the strength."

"All right," Marco mumbled, and when he got to his feet and shuffled out the door, Mascoli didn't stop him.

***

He had already told Benito and Maria that he was going to be late, so he didn't go straight back; instead he wandered the walkways and bridges trying to poke holes in Brother Mascoli's argument. If you took him at his word that all of the ritual and incantation of magic (at least as a good Christian would practice it, leaving out all the invocations of heathen spirits and elves and whatnot) was nothing but prayer, then what he had been taught was dead wrong.

Now, Mascoli could have lied, of course. He had every reason to lie; he served the poor, he needed help, and here was Marco who could give that help if he chose to. But Mascoli was, if not a full priest, certainly an avowed and oath-bound Sibling of Hypatia. If he lied?which was, after all, a sin?it was a worse thing than if Marco lied. And more especially if he lied about something like magic, tempting Marco into deep, black sin.

Marco twisted and turned the problem every which way, and still came up with the same unpalatable answer, that what he'd been taught was wrong.

Finally, having worn out quite enough shoe leather, he turned his steps back to Caesare's apartment, and walked into yet another mess.

At least this time it was none of his doing.

When he opened the door, Maria all but ran into him, only to choke off a muffled curse and half a sob when she saw that it was him in the doorway.

"What's the matter?" he asked, alarmed.

"He's gone!" she said, and fled up to the room she shared with Caesare. Fortunately, Benito had been right behind her and filled in the rest.

"Caesare decided he was well enough t' get up, an' off he went," Benito said grimly. "Right after Maria got back. She couldn' stop him, no more could I. An' he wouldn' tell us where he was goin', when he was gonna get back, nor what he was gonna do. He just went. It was right after he got some message, just after dark, and he took it with him, so we don't know what it said."

Marco realized immediately their concern. For a man in Caesare's condition to leave the apartment was no source of worry, in itself. Not so long as he was going to a tavern, or taking a walk, or?

Anything except… "Caesare's business."

Marco cleared his throat. "Ah. Ah, was he carrying?

"Yeah, he took his sword," said Benito instantly, answering the unfinished question.

"Oh hell," Marco said weakly. Caesare normally didn't carry any weapon but a poignard. "If I'd been here?"

"Oh, you couldn' have done nothing with him, neither," Benito asserted. "He was that set. Said that things was gone to hell with him laid up, an' that if something or other went wrong 'cause he wasn't there, he'd be in deep. An' off he went."

Think!

"Was he shaky? Did he stagger? Lose his balance?" he asked desperately.

"Actually?" Benito put in a moment of thought. "Actually he looked pretty good. Kinda pale, maybe, but he moved all right."

We fed him good. He just might get through this, as long as he don't do something stupid. More to the point, something stupid that takes him too long to finish. His strength's okay, it's just?he doesn't really understand, I don't think, that he's got little stamina left.

He took a deep breath; then, sighed. "I'll go talk to Maria," he said, and went resolutely up the stairs to the room where he heard cursing and sobs? ?which might possibly be one of the bravest things he'd ever done in his life.

Chapter 22

Here, away from the occasional smoky oil-brands, in deep shadows where the moonlight did not penetrate, it was pitch dark. Erik wished he had the eyes of the cat he'd almost stumbled over. The only light was the red lantern at the end of the alleyway.

Obedient to his orders, Erik did his best to sing. That would tell the waiting knights he was coming. According to the family skald back home, his singing was good… for frightening seagulls. Well, with any luck the waiting knights were tone-deaf as well as accustomed to repetition. Erik only knew one line of the song he'd heard Manfred caterwauling one evening. It still made him red-faced, even here alone in the darkness.

Making as much raucous noise as he could, within the limits of his straight-laced temperament, Erik staggered to the door. He felt like a complete idiot, certain that his playacting would fool no one who was not another complete idiot.

It was almost with relief that he reached the door of the Red Cat and started pounding upon it. The worst that could happen to him now was an ambush. Which was something he knew how to handle.

The door swung open. Erik saw the back of the man who opened it receding into the darkness of the gloomy salon beyond, and thought he recognized one of the brothel's bouncers. Fortunately, the man didn't seem to have recognized him.

He stepped through the door hastily and closed it behind him, relieved that his ridiculous behavior was no longer subject to public scrutiny. Then he began following the bouncer toward the corridor on the other side of the salon. After taking not more than two or three steps, however, Erik suddenly realized that the red-velvet-and-brocaded salon was much darker than the last time.

He just had time to understand that an ambush was in fact awaiting him?and a far more ferocious one than Sachs had implied?when someone stepped through a side door and flung an entire jug of coarse brandy over him. Momentarily blinded by the harsh liquor, Erik sprang toward the far corner of the salon, avoiding whatever blow might be coming along next. He heard the heavy door to the brothel being bolted, and knew that at least one more man had come into the room.

His eyes cleared. Crouching in the corner?his hatchet was already in hand?he quickly scanned the room. There were four of them, and Erik was not surprised at all to discover that he recognized not a one. These men were not the brothel bouncers with whom he had clashed on his last visit?although he could see the figure of the one bouncer who had let him in the door, huddling in the far hallway. Almost cowering, it seemed.

No, these men were killers, not bouncers. Professional criminals, he suspected, hired for the purpose. They consisted of three swarthy, stevedore-built men, lightly jowled but not exactly fat, and an athletic-looking pale-faced blond. And unlike last time, when a cudgel had been the worst he'd had to deal with, this time three of the four had daggers. The fourth, the blond man, had a sword. Just by the way he held the weapon, Erik knew he was skilled in its use.

The blond swordsman spoke. "Make him scream, boys."

The biggest of the low-browed solid bruisers moved in. Feinted, in the way that an experienced street brawler does, before striking his main blow. He was obviously a bit disconcerted by Erik's left-handedness.

The contest of knife against hatchet was entirely one-sided. Erik ignored the feint entirely and slashed the hatchet across the thug's empty hand, which the man had carelessly extended. A forefinger and half a thumb flipped through the air, streaking blood.

The thug began to howl with pain. The howl turned into a gasp of shock when the hatchet swung back and caught the knife-hand at the wrist. A thick fist still holding a dagger flew through the air and slapped wetly against the wall. The man's gasp of shock, an instant later, gurgled into a death rattle. Erik's hatchet, now held at the base of the blade, had chopped straight through his throat?a short punch, with a razor-edged fist.

Erik seized the dying thug with his free hand, turned and flung him across the room with a hip roll. The man crashed into his two companions and brought all three of them down to the floor.

Erik kept moving?fast?heading for the blond swordsman. He knew full well that was the truly dangerous one, and hoped he'd gained enough time to deal with him before the two surviving bravos could jump him from behind. If not… he had time for a quick prayer that Manfred's mailshirt was as good as the Breton prince claimed. He might well need it to guard his back.

The blond swordsman was caught by surprise, both by the speed with which Erik had killed the first thug and his instant attack on him. Still, he was a cool one. He ducked under the first whistling hatchet blow, and lunged.

Erik managed to parry with the hatchet's wirebound shaft. The swordsman made an excellent recovery, before Erik could riposte. Once again he pressed the attack. This was no amateur swordsman. The blond didn't seem in the least confused by the fact that Erik fought left-handed. His sword skittered on the hatchet handle as he beat back the young knight. With the greater reach afforded by the sword and the blond's obvious level of skill, Erik knew that he was in severe trouble, even if the other two did not intervene. There was certainly no chance he could finish the blond assailant before the other two were back in action. In fact…

He wondered why they weren't back in action.

He risked a quick glance. And immediately saw the reason.

Manfred! You idiot!

Grinning cheerfully, Manfred had both of the remaining thugs in his fists, practically holding them up off the ground. Then, he began slamming them together, like a gleeful boy might pound cymbals. If he was carrying a weapon, Manfred showed no inclination to use it.

Cursing bitterly, Erik parried another sword thrust. The curse was aimed as much at Manfred's recklessness as it was at the damnable expertise of his opponent.

He should have guessed. Of course the young Breton knight-squire had made no mention of his intention of being here! If necessary, Erik would have taken him to Abbot Sachs to prevent it.

Manfred knew that. He also had a habit of getting his own way.

Erik snatched at a curtain?ripping it off its rail. If he could get that wrapped around his left hand…

The blond swordsman chose that moment to close. Erik dropped the curtain and grabbed his opponent's arm, staggering him. The bare arm was… hot. As the man twisted away, Erik's hatchet slashed across fine linen. First blood spilled, but it was anything but over. The swordsman still had the advantage. A feint and a fleche and Erik was on the defensive.

He caught his foot in the carpet as he dodged away. The sword-point hit his side. The Koboldwerk links didn't give; but Erik lost his footing, falling backwards over the body of the first thug.

The blond man rushed forward for the coup de grace. As he did so, Erik saw Manfred lift one thug and, with a huge grunt, fling him at the swordsman. The blond ducked, but was still knocked sideways by a flailing foot. Then was forced to duck again, to avoid the other thug whom Manfred heaved at him. Erik was impressed with the man's agility?the more so since, judging from that one touch, he was suffering from illness.

I'd hate to see what he's like when he's well!

And then there was an outburst of shouts and whistles, and the sound of rattles from outside.

"Schiopettieri!" bellowed someone. "Open up in the name of the Signori di Notte and the Doge of Venice!"

The assault on the heavy door showed they weren't waiting for it to be opened. By the shouting and female shrieks they'd already made entry by the water-door. The blond man stooped quickly, hefted the two thugs onto their feet, and darted down the short hallway toward the door at the other end. With much less agility, almost stumbling, they began to follow him. Then one of them stopped and stared back, his heavy face creased with emotion.

"Alberto!" he cried. "We've got to?"

Erik heard the snarling voice of the blond swordsman roll down the hallway. "He's dead, you fool! Come on!" A moment later all three men were gone. The door slammed shut behind them.

Manfred hauled Erik to his feet.

Erik shook his head. "I should have guessed you'd come here. How am I going to explain your presence here to Abbot Sachs?"

Manfred smiled grimly. "You won't have to. Those are Schiopettieri, not Knights. Since when do Knights sound rattles?"

Erik's eyes narrowed. "Do you know any other way out of here?" He looked at the side door from which one of thugs had emerged to toss the liquor over him, but saw at once that it led only to a closet.

Manfred shook his head. "Get thrown out or leave after paying your shot. Either here or by the water-door."

Erik grimaced. "Let's get out of this room, anyway. The Schiopettieri might want us to explain why we're sharing this salon with a dead body."

"That way." Manfred pointed to the door at the end of the hallway the ambushers had used for their escape. "Leads upstairs. Maybe we can find a balcony or something to jump from."

The staircase began just behind the door, to the left. They began running up it three steps at a time, Erik in the lead. He still had the hatchet in his hand, his eyes scanning ahead to watch for another ambush. He didn't expect one, though, since he was almost certain the blond swordsman and his two surviving companions had no further purpose beyond making their own escape.

They had just made the second landing in the winding staircase when they heard the street door burst open. Erik grabbed Manfred's arm and stopped him, gesturing for silence.

From below came a voice of authority. "?wearing a white surcoat with three red crosses on it. He must be taken. Kill him if you must."

Manfred pulled a wry face. "Some goddamned ambush!" he muttered. "It looks like you were the target."

"He went up the stairs!" cried another voice from below.

"Must be the bouncer," whispered Erik.

Manfred shook his head. "I put the bastard to sleep first. Come on. Give me a hand with this couch."

The couch was a venerable piece of furniture. Either it had been intended for some unusual antics in a higher bedroom, before its carriers had been defeated either by its weight or the angle of the stairs, or it was for elderly patrons who needed to lie down before going on to visit the delights on higher floors. It was solid and heavy, and made of some exotic black wood that Erik did not recognize. This was Venice. Strange things found their way here, even wood. The couch was about six cubits long and must have weighed at least four hundredweight.

Even with Manfred's oxlike strength, lifting it was not easy. They struggled to raise it above the banisters. On the other hand, the bunch of arquebus-armed men who came running up the stairs were unable to resist it as it came hurtling down at them. Neither was the wooden staircase up to this sort of treatment. It splintered. Amid the thunder of gunfire, the shouting?and screaming?of men, and the partial collapse of the staircase, Erik and Manfred fled upwards again.

"There are other stairs," panted Manfred. "Stone ones. They'll cut us off up those."

Erik pointed. "Take that next passage, any room and a window. If need be we'll break our way into the next house."

"Corner room. Give us two sides."

They legged it down the passage. Ripped open the door. And Erik suddenly remembered just where he was: in a notorious Venetian brothel.

The woman on the bed languorously raised herself up. Her very voluptuous self. She tilted her head and twitched full, red, red lips into an easy, provocative smile. "Two of you?" She had an ornately arranged head of auburn-red hair, and pale olive skin. She wore a string of gold-netted millefiori beads. That was all she wore, so the skin was very obvious.

Despite the circumstances, Erik found himself staring at the almond-skin color of the broad areolar rings around her nipples, like a snake-hypnotized rabbit. His eyes were drawn down instinctively until he wrenched them upward and away with a tremendous force of will.

She, in turn, stared thoughtfully at the three red crosses on his surcoat.

Manfred shut the door hastily behind them. He had no trouble looking at her.

"Your friend seems a little shy." There was amusement in her rich contralto voice.

Manfred snorted. "Don't mind him, demoiselle. In fact, don't mind us. We're just passing through."

"Demoiselle!" She chuckled. "Most of my visitors are just 'passing through,' darling." Her accent was a little strange to Erik, despite his skill with languages. Not that he was interested right now in worrying about where she came from.

"Well, we mean really passing through your room," said Manfred, heading for the window. "If you'd oblige us by not screaming about it, I'll come back for a longer and more generous visit when the fuss has died down. Oh."

The "oh" was aimed at the close-set steel bars in the window.

The woman laughed. Her laughter was low and cool, much like her chuckle. "Madame Claudia doesn't like customers leaving?or coming in?without having to pass through her cash box."

In the background they could hear the distant sounds of the pursuit. Getting closer. "We'd better get out there, Manfred," said Erik grimly, heading for the door. "We'll have to try and fight our way out."

"Wait," commanded the woman. "There is another way out. You'll just have to wait until the passage is empty." She had inserted herself between Erik and the door, as effectively?in his case?as a portcullis.

"They're likely to search," said Manfred. Unlike Erik he had no problems looking at her. Or at picking her up and moving her…

Her means of thwarting him was to blow a kiss at him. "I think I can hide you for few minutes. For a…" she broke off, as if she'd reached a sudden decision. "Never mind." She looked appraisingly at Erik, and then turned to Manfred.

"You, and especially your shy friend, present me with something of a challenge." She laughed wickedly. "Come on, big boys. Both of you. Get those clothes off. There must be twenty of them out there."

"I'll go," said Erik hastily. "They're only looking for me."

Manfred grabbed him. "Don't be a fool, Erik. The demoiselle is right. If there are two of us?ah, occupied with her?they're likely to look elsewhere. Come on, Erik. Get them off. Especially that surcoat."

The woman began expertly removing the horrified Erik's trousers. "I have some wigs. Some of my clients like a little masquerade. And you'd better call me Francesca. As charming as 'demoiselle' is, my clients do know my name."

***

Looking up at Manfred's hairy thighs standing over him was, Erik decided, the best view from a moral standpoint. Even if it was not attractive in any other sense. He couldn't just close his eyes when a murderous bunch might burst in on him at any moment?

Not with him trapped in this position. With Francesca's silky thighs straddled over him?muscular thighs, for all the soft smoothness of her skin?if he looked forward his view was of large naked breasts. Better to look at Manfred, even if large hairy…

The situation was grotesque! Especially because Manfred and Francesca didn't share any of his own sense of modesty.

He couldn't quite see just what Francesca was doing with Manfred, but the noise didn't leave much to the imagination. And she didn't have to roll her hips on him like that! It wasn't as if he could do anything.

***

When the Schiopettieri captain wrenched open the door moments later, he was greeted with the sight of three naked people on the bed, indulging in what his wife would have called "unnatural acts" that he himself would fantasize about for weeks thereafter. The slimmer dark-haired fellow who was being straddled was plainly putting in a tremendous effort, to judge by his bright red face.

Francesca removed part of her oxlike client's anatomy from her mouth. "We're busy, Luigi. You'll have to come back later," she said lazily.

The Schiopettieri captain shut the door hastily.

***

"Give it a minute and I think you can leave. Unless you'd like to finish off also," she added coquettishly, tickling the hastily dressing and red-faced Erik in the ribs.

"Nothing Erik'd like more," said Manfred, smothering a guffaw. "But I'm afraid we've got to go. Just how do we get out of here?"

She took a key from the drawer. "I was in a house that caught fire once. Since then I have always made sure I had a way out. There is a door at the end of the passage with a hoist-beam for bringing furniture up from the Canal."

"Ah. Going to be a splashy, wet landing. You don't want to drink this canal water if you can help it, Erik," said Manfred.

Francesca smiled lazily at him. "You'd make an even bigger splash than I would. Wait a moment. I have some rope."

Manfred nodded. "Sounds good. Beats jumping."

Erik wondered why there would be rope in such a room. Then, seeing the paraphernalia in the closet from which Francesca withdrew the rope, found himself blushing more fiercely. He had never seen such things, although he had heard of them.

But by now Erik had finished dressing, and the relief of being no longer unclothed brought back his usual calm. He turned to the still-naked Francesca, carefully looking only at her face. "Will you be all right? Should we take you with us?"

Francesca shuddered. "Three stories? When the building's not burning? No thank you! I'm not planning on staying in this establishment much longer anyway. But when I do leave, I will use more conventional means. I am certainly not built for the climbing of ropes."

Her smile widened to a grin. "My strength is in my legs. I shall use them to walk out of the front door. Quite soon, in fact. This house does not have sufficient cachet for someone of my… talents, shall we say. I have no intention of remaining a mere brothel puttana, although it has taken me a while to gather resources. Now, I shall move to the Casa Louise."

She chucked his chin. "Just remember that you owe me a favor. And now, get out of here before Luigi comes back."

***

They slid down into the darkness. It was just as well they hadn't jumped, thought Erik. When he dropped lightly off the end of the rope, he found not water but the deck of a vessel. The boatman who had been waiting for the Schiopettieri didn't expect the "prisoner" to land on his boat. Not, at least, when that prisoner was armed and unescorted except for an even larger friend. But with Erik's Algonquian war hatchet at his throat, he wasn't going to argue about taking them away from there.

They left him tied up in his own boat, on the edge of the Grand Canal, a hundred yards away from the Imperial embassy.

Manfred looked back with regret. "You know, that Francesca had a certain something."

Erik shuddered. "She had a great deal of everything. But still. I owe her a debt."

"I owe her," said Manfred, shaking his head. "That sort of thing doesn't come for free. That's a mercenary profession if there ever was one."

"Even ladies of that stamp must have kindly impulses," said Erik stiffly.

Manfred pulled a wry face. Despite being five years younger than Erik he knew a great deal more about whores. He remembered the look on Francesca's face when she'd first seen Erik's surcoat. It had been… calculating. The Knights were all at least minor aristocracy. Many were confreres, merely serving a three-year novitiate. He would certainly not put it past that worldly-wise woman to know that. He'd already prepared himself for a hasty argument on price when she'd suggested hiding them, until she suddenly changed her mind or thought of something else. A few moments of Erik's reactions to a naked woman would have convinced the stupidest harlot that this one was a pure young knight. Francesca'd been very speculative, very suddenly. Manfred gave a low chuckle. He could see that perhaps he'd have to protect Erik against predatory female wiles. Well. It might not be unpleasant. "Yep. Maybe she did," was all he said.

"I will have to reward her," said Erik slowly. "Mary Magdalen too…"

"Oh, I think she'll be happy enough with a few ducats," said Manfred calmly, with an ease he didn't feel.

In the moonlight Erik looked doubtful. "Do you really think so? I mean it was an act of great v-v-virtue," he stammered.

Manfred swallowed his amusement. Only Erik could describe a harlot performing fellatio on one man while straddling another as "virtue." And believe it too. For all the Icelander's ferocious skill in combat, he was an innocent country boy in so many other ways.

"I'm sure," he agreed cheerfully. "And I think Abbot Sachs will be surprised to see you back. Unharmed."

Erik shrugged. "Maybe it was just some kind of mix-up."

"That'll be his story," growled Manfred, with court-honed wisdom far beyond his years.

Chapter 23

Well, that was certainly interesting.

Francesca pulled on an open-fronted robe, in case someone came back, tied it around her waist with a tasseled cord, and shook out her hair. Then she turned to the ewer and basin on the top of the table across the room where it wouldn't be knocked over in a moment of passion. She rinsed her mouth with herb-scented water and spat it into the basin.

And why did I do that, anyway?

It was not an idle question. Francesca had reacted to the situation based on reflex, because there had been no time to think things through carefully. But her reflexes had been honed by a perilous life, and she had come to trust them. Now that it was over and she did have a chance to think, she probed her memory to discover what twisted chain of logic had led her, almost without conscious thought, to behave in a way that she would normally have not.

Most certainly not! If men wanted her favors, they could damn well pay for them. She was no silly maiden to rescue a handsome man from danger without good reason?much less two of them, neither of whom was really that handsome anyway.

A pair of Knots, ambushed by the Schoppies. And not just any pair of Knots, either. Whoever arranged this particular episode either had no idea what kind of a mess he would create?or intended to. I wonder which?

She picked up the wooden comb from beside the basin and ran it through her hair, walking back to the bed as she did so. Francesca had not come from the streets. Before her family's ruination, they had been skilled players in the subtle and deadly intrigue which was the principal sport of Aquitaine's aristocracy. Her father had trained her in the political and diplomatic arts as thoroughly as her mother had trained her in other ways. So, a mind far better educated than anyone would have expected to find in that brothel worked at the problem, while she sat on the edge of the bed and combed her hair.

She had known, of course, from the moment she saw the two men, that they were what her mother?as chauvinistic as any Aquitaine?would have called, disdainfully,?trangers. The embarrassed blond was too fair to be Prussian or Austrian; and his companion had called him "Erik." He could only be a Norse of some kind. And that was odd, because there were very few Norse in the Knots. The Christian Norse who belonged to the Holy Roman Empire were Danes; and the Danes were rivals of the Knights of the Holy Trinity in the Baltic. The other Christian branch of Scandinavia were the Icelanders and their various offshoots?but they gave their allegiance to the League of Armagh, not the Holy Roman Emperor.

Except?

Her eyes widened. Like a flash, her mind focused on the other of the two men?the very large and square one. Very large, she remembered with some amusement, and in all respects; but he hadn't been rough at all, so she didn't hold it against him. He had spoken with a pronounced Breton accent?unmistakable, to one born and bred as Francesca had been in the Aquitaine.

And his name was "Manfred." His companion Erik had used it once.

Her eyes widened still further. Manfred of Brittany? The Manfred of Brittany? Is it possible?

Hair-brushing was too sedate. Francesca set down the comb, got to her feet and began pacing slowly about. Her quick mind raced, tracing the connections.

Nephew of the Emperor… probably second in line to the throne… third in line, for a certainty… still a just a youth, he'd be… bit of a rakehell, supposedly… what would Charles Fredrik do with such an imperial scion?

Of course! It's practically a tradition now with the Hohenstauffens!

Back and forth, back and forth. Her bare feet made no sound on the floor. That, too, her mother had taught her. Noise is something you make to please a man, when it suits your purpose. Otherwise?move silently.

Yes, it all made sense. Charles Fredrik would have reached beyond the Empire altogether, called in that ancient clan favor. Brought in someone who could be trusted in such a matter, have no ties or links to the complex web of imperial politics, and also be quite capable of?

She winced, slightly, remembering the noise that had erupted earlier from the entry salon downstairs. Those fools! They might as well have tried trapping a tiger with a fishnet.

She was sure of it, now. The two men she had rescued were an imperial prince?Manfred of Brittany?and his Icelandic bodyguard.

Then, remembering Kat's description of her frightening encounter with the Knights in the church two weeks earlier, Francesca began laughing softly. Kat had not mentioned the name of either of the knights who had come to her defense, on that occasion, but she had described them. Her description, of course, had borne precious little resemblance to the two men Francesca had just finished… entertaining in her room. Granted, Manfred was very big; but he was not a giant. Nor?here Francesca's laugh almost gurgled?had the shy and red-faced Erik seemed quite the Nordic werewolf that Kat depicted.

Still… thinking about it, Francesca could well believe that those two young men?especially Erik?could be utterly terrifying under different circumstances. Judging from the sounds she had heard coming from below earlier that evening, a number of would-be ambushers had certainly found them so.

She had not, however. And, now that she was certain of their identity, Francesca found herself strangely delighted by the entire episode. She had chosen to rescue the two men out of half-conscious calculation, true. But…

Kat's a friend of mine. So I suppose I owed those two boys a favor anyway. Not?again the little gurgling laugh?that Erik seemed to enjoy it much, even if Manfred certainly did.

The laugh died away. Favors were favors, true, but self-interest remained. Where was the benefit to her in this thing?

This called for more leisurely reasoning. Once again, Francesca resumed her seat on the bed and went back to combing her hair.

She began by examining the ambush. She hadn't seen it, of course, but she didn't need to. She had seen the key piece of evidence?Erik's naked body, completely unmarked by any wound. Whoever set that trap had no idea what kind of ferocious "prey" would be walking into it. Which meant they were quite unaware of the true identity of Erik and Manfred. Whatever had been the purpose of the ambush, it had been aimed at two?or perhaps only one?junior members of the militant order. Not an imperial prince and his special companion.

That ruled out any of the Venetian factions immediately. Neither the Metropolitans nor the Montagnards would have any reason to ambush ordinary knights. Not in such an elaborate manner, at any rate, in a well-known brothel where there was bound to be a risk of capture by the Schiopettieri. If either of the factions had a quarrel to settle with a common knight, they would have stabbed him in the streets. A quick thrust from a doorway, followed by easy escape through crooked alleys in the dark.

Then… why had the Schiopettieri shown up so quickly? That was completely atypical. To have gotten here so quickly, the Schiopettieri had to have been forewarned?suborned, in fact. And whoever could wield that much influence would hardly have done it for the petty purpose of killing or injuring a simple knight.

Nor, again, was it something either the Montagnards or the Metropolitans would have done anyway. Not for their own purposes, at any rate. It was conceivable one of them might have done so as a favor to an ally, or for pay.

What ally, or paymaster? Not any of the powers within official Venice, for a certainty. The last thing official Venice wanted was any cause for quarrel with the Holy Roman Emperor. Charles Fredrik was a grim and dangerous man to have ruling the most powerful realm in Europe, especially one which was almost a neighbor of the island Republic. But?unlike some emperors of the past, Charles Fredrik was not given to grandiose ambitions. He was not a conqueror by temperament. Despite occasional frictions, Venice had gotten along quite well with the Empire since Charles Fredrik came to the throne, all things considered. It would be sheer insanity for the Venetian oligarchy to attack the Emperor's nephew.

All of which led Francesca to one inescapable conclusion. She set down the comb, folded her hands in her lap, and stared sightlessly at the far wall of her room.

Whoever was behind that ambush, and whatever the reason, it was someone whose motives were imperial. Or aimed at the Empire. This?whatever it is?goes far beyond petty Venetian squabbling.

She made no attempt to pursue that train of thought any further. She lacked sufficient information. Instead, she considered another question:

So. Was it a blunder, a piece of idiocy, or a calculated attempt to throw a tremendously big boulder into the already roiling pool of Venetian politics at present? For purposes which go quite beyond Venice itself?

After a minute or so, she set that question aside also. Again, she simply lacked the necessary information to make any kind of intelligent assessment. That left her with the final and most important question:

So. What do I do? Pursue this any further, or leave it be?

The answer to that question came almost as fast as the question itself. If she'd had any intention of not pursuing it, her well-trained reflexes wouldn't have led her to assist the two men in the first place. And, as always, Francesca trusted her reflexes.

For a rare moment, Francesca allowed herself a sheer grin. Not a seductive smile, but a true baring of the teeth with unrestrained glee.

What a grand game this would be!

The grin faded quickly enough. She was neither rash by temperament nor, certainly, by training. Patience had been drilled into her as a small girl. For the time being…

Meddling with this immediately or directly would make me a dangerous woman. I think I would rather not be dangerous at the moment, when I have my own pot to stir.

There was still a lot of noise and to-do going on in the rest of the house. Good. She'd intended to leave very soon anyway, now that Katerina had provided her with the last things she needed. Francesca had planned to wait a day or two more, but…

No. Tonight would be ideal. Once everything was sorted out and the appropriate bribes paid?this time, to the Madame of the Red Cat for a wonder, and not from her?things would be very quiet. The other girls would be upset, especially the young and not-so-experienced ones, the servants would be nursing bruised bodies and ill-tempers, and since by now the word had spread all up and down the Grand Canal that the Red Cat had been descended upon by the Schoppies in force, customers would be thin on the ground tonight. Tomorrow, of course, they'd be thick as fleas on a feral cat, wanting to know what happened, but not tonight. Tonight, in a hour or so, she could envelope herself in a cloak and walk out without anyone noticing.

Fernando, the aged servant who usually saw to the needs of the girls on this floor, stuck his head into the room without knocking?as usual. "Francesca?are you all right?" he asked.

She pouted. "I am, but my customers weren't happy. I only finished one off, and I suspect they sneaked out without paying. There were two?a big Circassian and a little Moor." There. Now if anyone thinks to connect me with Manfred and his keeper, they'll be disabused of the notion. I doubt the captain was paying attention to complexions and hair colors, other than mine.

Fernando frowned fiercely. "Half the house sneaked out without paying. I hope Madame soaks those Schoppies good!" He withdrew and shut the door. Francesca laughed softly to herself.

She waited, still as a statue, her hands folded in her lap, while the house settled.

Eventually, except for the murmur of distant talking and the hysterical sobbing of some girl too overset to be comforted, it did. Francesca bound her hair into a net to keep it in order until she could put it up properly, and got out the package that Kat had brought her early this afternoon, putting the latch on the door just in case. If anyone tried it, let them think she was having a case of the vapors herself.

Just as well that she was already naked under the robe, because she was about to go up several steps in the world, sartorially speaking, and the transformation would have to be from the skin outward, staring with perfumed oil. None of this had been cheap, but it was all necessary. Just as the Red Cat would turn away a mere putta who came calling at the door, so Casa Louise would turn away a whore from the Red Cat.

Silk hose; silk knitted hose, which clung to the leg as mere cut-and-sewn hose couldn't. Silk shifts, three of them, as fine as cobweb, and trimmed with lace. Undergown, of silk-satin, once white but re-dyed in ochre?not new, but no one would ever know that unless they got their noses within an inch of the seams. Overgown, also not new, but very, very cleverly put together from two "donor" gowns, one of which was the source of the embroidery, the other of the foundation fabric?silk-and-linen twill in a rich re-dyed brown.

Now, how am I going to use this little entertainment? It's too soon to throw any nets?and too dangerous?but a bit of bait…

Young Manfred was very much attracted to her, of that she was quite certain. But would he remember where she had told him she was going? Probably not. He did not strike her as the kind of young man who would remember such things. So?how to remind him?

It was as she was tying the embroidered girdle just under her breasts that it came to her, and she laughed. Of course! She would send him a short length of perfumed rope, with a card saying only Casa Louise. She would pay a messenger to see that it went only into Manfred's hands. He must go outside of the chapter house and the Imperial embassy sometime.

The sobbing had stopped, the buzz of conversation increased. Good. Time to go.

She gathered all that she wanted to take with her in a very small bag. She hadn't wasted any of her earnings?until now?on cosmetics or clothing as the other girls did. But her savings?except for enough to take her to her new home?weren't here. They were on deposit with a goldsmith. So the cosmetics and hair ornaments and jewelry all fitted into a very small bag. She left her robe lying on the floor with her two dresses; some other girl could have it and welcome. She flung over her splendid gown the cloak that had come wrapped around the dress and the rest?the plain side, a dark tabby-weave linen that no one here would look twice at. She drew the hood over her head, and slipped out the door.

The doorman was gone?nursing a bruised and possibly broken skull, she suspected. There had been no one in the Madame's room, either. Luck smiled upon her tonight.

She did have to walk a little, and this was the most hazardous part of the undertaking?footpads, toughs; she was fair game for anyone who saw her?but they, too, had been frightened out of the area along with the gondoliers. When she finally found one free and flagged him to the side of the canal, she was far enough away from the Red Cat that no one was likely to connect her to the place.

"Casa Louise. Don't hurry," she ordered the gondolier. She drew the curtains around the tiny "cabin," but did not blow out the lamp, for she was going to need it?and every moment it would take to get to Casa Louise.

By the time the boat nosed into the mooring at this most prestigious of Houses, Francesca had completed her transformation. Her hair was now arranged as elegantly as that of any merchant princess, twined with strings of lustrous glass and semiprecious beads, held in place with bejeweled pins. The careful use of cosmetics turned handsome features into something dramatic. And the cloak, now turned right-way around, showed its true face of ochre velvet and gold cording. When she drew back the curtains and the gondolier stooped to offer his hand to help her up, his eyes widened in admiration.

He aided her onto the walkway, and when he withdrew his hand, there was a coin of sufficient worth in it to assure his satisfaction and silence.

Casa Louise, unlike the Red Cat, boasted a landing lit by lanterns, with more lanterns on either side of the door, and two footmen beneath each one. The place was a well-lit stage, for very few of those who arrived here were reluctant to be seen.

Francesca glided up to the footmen with practiced grace and studied aplomb. "Francesca de Chevreuse," she told the right-hand man, taking up her new identity and name for the first time with immense satisfaction. She did not have to add I am expected, because he would already have been informed.

"Madonna," the footman murmured, and opened the door to the next stage of her life.

Chapter 24

As Marco carefully dressed and bandaged the long slash on Caesare's shoulder, he inspected their host. Caesare Aldanto should still be abed. He was definitely still pale, and it wasn't just loss of blood from that cut. Still, this wasn't the right time to ask how the man was feeling. By the grim set of Caesare's jaw, whatever had been going on when he acquired the wound hadn't gone well.

As Caesare's memory-man and scribe, Marco was still only privy to a small amount of Caesare's doings. The former Montagnard agent played things very close to his chest. One of the things Marco had realized quite fast in their relationship with Caesare Aldanto was that it was never wise to pry. The man had an uncertain temper.

"Cornutto!" Caesare swore. "Watch what you're doing!"

Marco handed him the waiting glass of grappa. "Sorry, Caesare. But this is going to hurt. You've got some dirt in there that needs to come out."

Caesare tossed the brandy off. "Make it quick then."

As Marco was working, Maria came in through the front door. As she turned to close it, two heavy-shouldered men bundled their way in behind her. Maria bit at the big hand that was clapped over her mouth and struggled vainly to reach for her knife. Her assailant clouted her, hard. "We want to talk to him, see. Now stop biting and you won't get hurt."

"I told you never to come here." Caesare's voice was icy. There was no sign of fear in it.

Marco felt in the bag for the comforting handle of the small, sharp knife that Caesare kept in with the dressings. He knew full well who these two were. You didn't mess around with the Matteonis. They were enforcers, debt collectors and rent-a-beating boys. He remembered how the crowd had parted around the three of them in Barducci's. He'd asked Valentina about them. Valentina had turned quietly to him, pulling a wry face. "Matteoni. Alberto, Stephano, and Luciano. Descended from a long proud line of barroom thugs and back-alley stabbers."

Claudia had snorted. "And this generation has sunk even lower."

Stephano Matteoni stalked forward. "Alberto's dead, Aldanto, you mincha!"

Marco smiled wryly to himself. Well, of course. Alberto would be dead if he'd attacked Caesare.

"Yeah," Luciano snarled. "You promised us the knight'd be unarmed and unarmored."

Marco swallowed. This wasn't quite what he had envisaged. He was well aware that the former Montagnard agent dealt sometimes in deaths as well as in information. But so far they'd had nothing to do with that part of Caesare's trade.

"You fools," snapped Caesare. "He is a knight. I told you he'd be dangerous."

Stephano had a big, clumsy, badly made hand-cannon in his hand. Calling it an "arquebus" would be stretching the point. "You said you'd deal with any real trouble. And…"

Caesare shook his head. "There were two of them?not one, like I was told. And the first one had that damned hand-axe, instead of being unarmed like he was supposed to be. And he was wearing some kind of armor." He blew out his breath. "Then the Schiopettieri arrived?"

"You promised we'd be out of there before that!" interrupted Luciano furiously.

"Things go wrong." Caesar shrugged. Then, winced as the movement pulled at the cut. "Now get the hell out of here before you're seen."

"We're not going until we've been paid," said Stephano sullenly.

Marco felt his mouth fall open. He'd thought they'd come for revenge because their brother was dead. They hadn't. They'd come for money.

Caesare stood up. His eyes narrowed. "For what? The man was supposed to be maimed in a brothel-fight and apparently drunk when the Schiopettieri arrived. You failed, and the Schiopettieri failed, too. I don't pay for failure," he added dangerously.

Stephano backed off a step. Then he remembered the hand-cannon. He steadied it, aiming straight at Caesare's chest. Of course it might not go off. This was one of the cheap fire-spell scroll ones. They were notoriously unreliable. But it might just work. At this range he could hardly miss. "Alberto's dead," he repeated grimly. "You owe us…"

"I owe you nothing, orrichioni," said Caesare dismissively. "The job's not done. That means I don't get paid and you don't either."

"And if you don't stop pointing that thing at Caesare," said Benito from the stair-landing, "I'm going to have to blow you bastardos in half." He had Caesare's arquebus resting on the handrail, pointed straight at Stephano's swelling belly. The slowmatch, far more reliable than a spell scroll, smoked and fizzed. "I'm giving you to the count of five. One." His voice cracked. But the muzzle of the arquebus was rock steady.

Luciano's grip on Maria must have slackened with the sudden intrusion of firepower. Maria bit savagely and broke away. She didn't go far. Just far enough to pull her knife and hiss like an angry cat at Luciano.

"And if you pull that trigger, Stephano," said Marco, producing the knife, "your surviving brother might have to explain to Brunelli just what you were doing. I think the Schiopettieri would be glad to hang him this time." Luciano looked uneasy at the mention of the Casa Brunelli. Distinctly uneasy.

Stephano sized the situation up. "All right. We're going. But we want money, Aldanto. We want money or we'll go straight to… Aleri."

Aleri. Marco pricked his ears. He knew that name well from his mother's Montagnard days. Francesco Aleri. The Milanese controller. Duke Visconti's spymaster in Venice.

Caesare laughed easily, unpleasantly. "You do that. He won't pay you either. Now get out. Keep out of trouble and there may be work for you again. Open those mouths of yours and you can join Alberto. Now go. Get. Don't ever come back here. I don't know you."

They backed out like whipped curs.

Marco felt the tension drain out of his shoulders.

"You can put that knife away," said Caesare.

Startled, Marco dropped it back into the bag. "Sorry." Then he realized that Caesare had actually been addressing Maria.

Looking at her stormy face, Marco realized that maybe he'd been too hasty about relaxing. The Matteonis had been a minor danger, comparatively. "How could you, Caesare? Matteoni? Figlio di una puttana! They're filth! Slavers. They sell… and make castrati to the east. And they broke my cousin Tonio's fingers! You know how a caulker with broken fingers finds work?"

"Put the knife away, Maria. I work with what I have to work with."

Her response was to put the knife down on the table, snatch a platter off it and fling it at his head. It shattered against the wall behind him. "Testa di cazzo! If my cousins hear you work with the Matteoni, they don't never work for you again!"

Caesare picked a pottery fragment out of his hair. His eyes blazed angrily in his pale face. He snapped right back at her. "They'll damn well do what they're told and you'll keep your damned mouth shut to everyone about it, bitch!"

"Damn you to hell, Aldanto!" she snarled. "I'll talk to who I want to talk to, when I damn well want to!"

Benito, up on the landing, put the arquebus down carefully. He'd already snuffed the slowmatch. He gestured to Marco with his eyes and head. Marco nodded, wide-eyed, and ducked as the next piece of crockery hit the wall. With a quiet that was quite unnecessary above the shouting, he headed to join Benito moving for the door. Even the risk of lurking Matteonis seemed less dangerous than staying.

***

In the relative quiet of Barducci's, Marco turned to Benito. "Does that sort of thing happen often?"

"What? The fights?"

"Yes."

Benito shrugged. "It's happened a couple of times that I know of. Maria's pretty quick to flare up. They always patch it up, after. Caesare needs her and she's crazy about him."

Marco looked across the room. Angelina Dorma and her Case Vecchie friends hadn't come in this evening. Barducci's was only one of the taverns they frequented. Quite frankly that crowd of hers worried him.

"I thought Caesare was too independent to feel like that about Maria."

Benito snorted into his wine. "He plays the field. But carefully. He needs Maria's cousins is rather what I meant."

"Oh." Marco let his curiosity get the better of him. He thought of Maria's extended family of "cousins." Even if she had no parents she had enough of those cousins to start a tribe. A poor tribe, though, and not… well… the sort of people you'd think would be of any value to Caesare in his shadowy world. Most of them were just caulkers, not even thugs like the Matteoni brothers. It was the poorest guild, putting the outer planking and caulking on Venice's ships. Not for the life of him could he see why someone like Caesare?with contacts like Ricardo Brunelli?would need to have anything to do with them. "Why?"

Benito looked around the tavern. "Come on, big brother. Finish up. I'm tired. That girl you've been mooning over isn't in tonight. If we take the long way back we should get back after the kissing and making up, and with any luck after the sweeping up, too."

Marco drained his goblet. He hadn't realized that Benito was aware of his fascination with Angelina Dorma. He felt a little embarrassed about it. On the other hand, he felt he'd better find out what Benito was talking about with Maria's cousins. He owed Caesare. It was only right to take care of his business for him. And he couldn't do that unless he knew what it was. Obviously his eternally curious brother had found out something. Equally obviously he wasn't going to tell Marco here.

He stood up and stretched. "Very well, it must be well the other side of midnight anyway."

They followed Benito's habitual "upper route." Even after all these weeks in town, and his frequent clambers after his brother, Marco would never possess half of Benito's catlike surefootedness across the pan-tiles. He would never have Benito's love for high places, either.

They stopped up against a chimney stack. While Marco caught his breath, Benito explained. "It's a great scam. A couple of Maria's cousins do the outer cladding at the Arsenal. They've been hollowing out a section from the actual keel timber of the galleys. Then it is fitted with a cunningly made cover, that you have to know exactly where to release. The Doge's customs and excise officers will never find it. You can only get to it from underwater."

"Oh." Well, that was relatively innocuous. Everyone tried to evade the Doge's customs to a greater or lesser extent.

Benito yawned. "Come on. Let's get back."

***

They both approached Caesare's apartment rather nervously. But all was quiet. And someone had swept up most of the broken crockery.

Chapter 25

The next day Caesare and Maria were being very careful around each other. But at least the worst of their fight seemed to be over. One of Maria's cheeks was distinctly bruised, but otherwise there was no obvious damage except a shortage of breakfast crockery that no one mentioned.

"I've an errand for you, Marco," said Caesare, carefully slicing a piece of frittata and placing it inside a flap of bread. "This evening before moonrise. You'd better go with him, Benito. Along that 'upper highway' you boast about, because I want this scroll delivered without anyone knowing. But Marco will go inside alone."

It was a sign of increasing trust, Marco knew. Up to now he'd only taken messages to Captain Della Tomasso?Benito's fence and a coast trader who added confidential message carrying to his quiver of expensive services. This was a step up. But he would have preferred it if Benito weren't involved.

***

The rooftops were slippery, curled with mist. The only light was that reflected up from windows and the occasional torches in the street below. Marco wished like hell he was down there. Roof climbing was difficult enough when you could see, although it didn't seem to make much difference to Benito. But for all the inconvenience, Marco understood why they were going along the rooftops. He understood at once, the moment Caesare had told him exactly where he was going: The Casa Brunelli.

Ricardo Brunelli was Caesare's "protector" among Venice's upper crust. He was a power in those elite ranks. Brunelli saw himself as the Doge-in-waiting, and there was no doubt that the information Caesare had been able to furnish him about the Montagnards and their adherents in Venice had been valuable. From a comment that Maria had made, Marco was sure that Caesare performed other services for the head of Casa Brunelli. The whispered knowledge that Caesare lay under the mantle of Brunelli protection was a shield the former Montagnard agent needed. Brunelli was a power in the Metropolitan faction in Venice, even if he kept a public distance from it. And although the Metropolitans did not have quite as savage a reputation as the Montagnards, they had one savage enough?and theirs was the stronger of the two factions in neutral Venice. So long as Caesare enjoyed Brunelli's favor, the Montagnards would steer clear of him. Revenge was not worth the risk of Metropolitan retaliation. Brunelli shielded Caesare just as Caesare's own mantle protected Marco.

It was a precarious way to survive. No wonder that Caesare didn't want to go himself to Casa Brunelli with a scroll destined for someone other than Ricardo. To be kept secret from Ricardo, in fact.

For a guest at the Casa…

"Well, there it is." Benito pointed down at the glass windows of the Casa Brunelli. Across the canal, Marco could see the massive edifice which served the Holy Roman Empire as its embassy in Venice.

"You stay up here," said Marco sternly. "Don't try and peek. I'll be out presently."

Benito shrugged. "Huh. Can't see anything on the south side anyway. Unless I climb up the Imperial embassy, and I hear they've got some of the Knights of the Holy Trinity on watch on the roof."

"Just stay here," repeated Marco, as he dropped off the guttering to a narrow, rickety wooden outside loft-stair. It was only when he was close to the cobbled street that it occurred to him that Benito knew more than was comfortable about watching the Casa Brunelli.

With a boldness he didn't feel, he went up to the arched doorway and raised the heavy knocker. Before the hollow boom of it had even died away, the door opened. The liveried door warden looked disdainfully at Marco. "Yes?" he asked frostily.

"I have a message?" began Marco.

The door-warden snorted. "Messages for those in the Casa Brunelli are carried by the house messengers. Not by scruffy urchins." The door began to swing closed.

"For Senor Eneko Lopez?your master's Castilian guest," said Marco, hastily putting a foot in the way and hoping that the heavy iron-scrolled door would not simply crush it.

The heavy door stopped. "He's Basque, not Castilian!" For some reason, the point seemed important to the door warden. From his slight accent, Marco suspected he was originally from Spain. But Marco found Italian politics confusing enough, without wanting to know the quirks of the Iberian variety.

"I will have it taken to him," the door warden added, grudgingly.

Marco shook his head. "No. My master said I must give it into his very hands, and carry his reply."

The doorman snorted again. But he plainly did not want to anger his master's guest. Reluctantly, he opened the door and allowed Marco to enter. Watching Marco as if he expected this cockroach-in-human-form to instantly begin laying eggs or stealing the silver, he tinkled a small bell. A footman appeared hastily, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. The door warden sniffed. "Louis. Take this… messenger up to Senor Lopez. He says he is to wait for a reply."

The tone said: and watch him like a hawk.

The footman led Marco to the back stairs. Not for the likes of him the front steps. They walked up four flights of ill-lit stairs… And then were nearly knocked down them again by an extremely angry woman, who was so busy looking back up that she failed to see them. Even in poor light she was a truly beautiful lady, clad in a low-cut azure Damask-silk gown, trimmed with a jabot of finest Venetian lace. Her hair was on the red side of auburn; her skin, except for flaming patches on her cheeks, a perfect unblemished cream.

The footman nearly flung himself up the wall to get out of her way, with a hasty terrified "scusi."

Marco pressed himself against the wall too. She didn't say anything to either of them, but her angry look promised retribution later. Marco was glad he wasn't the footman, and that he'd never have to encounter her again. He had a feeling that despite her legendary beauty, Lucrezia Brunelli (and this could only be her) would enjoy making someone else's life a misery. And she looked mad enough about something to be looking for a victim, shortly. But even angry, she was beautiful.

Marco shook himself guiltily. How could he think this