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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."


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