Shadow of the Lion
Mercedes Lackey, Eric Flint, David Freer
April, 1537 A.D.
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.
"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."
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.
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."
PART I June, 1537 A.D. ================================
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.
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.
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.
And because she had never learned to swim, she'd have to ask this shivering canal-brat to get it back for her.
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 Guipuzcoa 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 naive 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.
"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."
"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.
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."
"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.
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 Smalanders--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. . . .
* * *
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--!
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.
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."
"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.
* * *
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.
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.
PART II September, 1537 A.D. ======================================
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.
"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."
"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--"