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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.


 


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