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Chapter 12

A piece of plaster bounced off Marco's nose, accompanied by a series of rhythmic thuds from overhead. By that sure token he knew, despite the utter darkness of his "bedroom," that dawn was just beginning.


He reached over his head and knocked twice on the wall. He was answered by a muffled curse and the pounding of Benito's answer. He grinned to himself, and began groping after his clothing.


Thudathudathudathuda—pause—(Marco braced himself)—thud. A series of plaster flakes rained down. A professional dance-troupe had the studio above their "apartment" from dawn to the noon bells. From noon till dusk it was given over to classes—noisier, but less inclined to great leaps that brought the ceiling down. From dark to midnight the thuds were less frequent. The groans muffled.


Nobody around the Campo dell'Anconeta talked about what went on then, and nobody watched to see who went in and out. Marco knew, though; at least what they looked like. Thanks to Benito's irrepressible curiosity, they'd both done some balcony climbing and window-peering one night. A dozen or so hard-faced men and women had been there; and it wasn't dancing they were doing. It was some kind of battle training, and all of them were very, very good. Who they were, why they were there, why they were practicing in secret, was still a mystery. Marco smelled "fanatic" on them, of whatever ilk, and kept clear of them.


Then, from the midnight bell until dawn, Claudia's old acting troupe had the run of the place. That meant less ceiling-thumping—but a lot of shouting. ("Elena deary, do you think you might pay less attention to Kristo's legs and a little more to your lines? All right children, one more time, from the top . . .")


Marco had learned to sleep through it all, though noise generally made him nervous. It was friendly shouting, for all the mock-hysterics.


Being directly below the studio was one reason why this place, technically a three-room apartment—a room and two closets, more like—was cheap enough for two kids to afford. Now Marco hurried to pull on his pants and shirt in the black of his cubbyhole bedroom, wanting to be out of it before the other reason evidenced itself. Because the other reason was due to start up any minute now—


Right on time, a hideous clanking and banging shook the far wall. Marco pulled open his door and crossed the "living room," the worn boards soft and warm under his bare feet. He stood blinking for a moment in the light from their lamp; after pitchy dark it was painfully bright even turned down to almost nothing. He reached and turned the wick key, and the odor of cheap last-press olive oil assaulted his nose until it flared up. Then he unlocked the outer door and slipped down the hall to the big ewers and garderobe shared by most of the apartments on this level. That incredible ruckus was the Rio San Marcoula boatyard. It started about dawn, and kept it up till the late afternoon, and sometimes later. There was another apartment between them and the repair shop, but it didn't provide much in the way of sound-baffling. Fortunately for him, the tenant of that place was deaf.


Benito still hadn't turned out by the time Marco got back, so he pulled open the door to the other "bedroom" (just big enough for a wall-hung bunk and a couple of hooks for clothes, identical to Marco's) and hauled him out by the foot. There was a brief, laughing tussle, which Marco won by virtue of his age and size, and Benito betook himself off to get clean.


There weren't any windows in their home, so there was always the oil lamp burning up on the wall. The lamp was a curious blend of cast-off and makeshift; the brass container had once been good, and still could be polished to a soft golden gleam. The multiple round wicks were scrounged. The lamp came with the place. So did the cast-iron grate in the fireplace. The fireplace smoked, but provided some heat in winter—when they could find fuel—and something to cook on. The "main" room was small, but it was still bigger than both the "bedrooms" put together. All of it was bare wooden-floored and sooty-walled, but warm and without drafts; and it was too many floors beneath the roof to get leaks when it rained. On the wall opposite the oil lamp and next to the stove was a tiny fired-clay basin and an ewer of safe water from the rainwater cisterns. Everything else was theirs, and compared to the little Marco had owned in the swamp or what Benito had had in the attic he'd been hiding in, it was paradisiacal.


They now boasted a couple of cushions to sit on, a vermin-proof cupboard for food—and even a second cupboard for storage, which currently held two tin plates, two mugs, two spoons, a skillet and a battered saucepan, and assorted odds and ends. They also owned their bedding and three changes of clothing each, as well as a precious box of half a dozen or so battered, dirty, and mostly coverless books. The last were Marco's property. Some he had bought at secondhand stores, like the precious anatomy book, much in demand with medical students. Some were gifts from Claudia, a few from Benito. He knew the ones that Benito gave him had been stolen, and he suspected the same of Claudia's. But a book was a book, and he wasn't going to argue about its source.


All that hadn't come out of nowhere. Word had gone quietly upriver with a Ventuccio barge that Marco and Benito still lived—and a special verbal message had gone to Duke Dell'este from Marco as to why they weren't coming home again. Back down again, just as quietly, had come a bit of real coin—not so much as to call attention to the recipient, but enough to set them up comfortably.


With the coin had come another verbal message to Marco from his grandfather. "You salvage our Honor," was all it had said—and Marco nearly cried.


Grandfather had clearly felt that his mother Lorendana had befouled the Family honor by her activities with the Milanese. He had said as much when he sent them into exile. There was honor, and there was Dell'este and Valdosta honor, which had been something special for many hundreds of years. Dell'este honor was famous throughout Italy. And the Valdosta were not just Case Vecchie. They were Case Vecchie Longi. One of the old families; one of the oldest families. One that claimed to have already been living here in the marshes when Holy Saint Mark was greeted by an angel in the form of the winged lion. All Venice knew how dearly the Valdosta Casa held their honor.


That upright stiff old man of Marco's earliest memories had sent those few words and that parcel of coin. To do even that, he must have felt Marco had redeemed what Lorendana had besmirched—at least as far as the Dell'este were concerned.


That . . . that had been worth more to Marco than all the money.


Marco hoped that the rest of what he was doing was worthy of that Honor—although he was fairly certain in his own mind that it would be. Honor required that debts be paid, and he owed a mighty debt to Caesare Aldanto. So hidden under the books was his secret, beneath a false bottom in the box. Pen, ink, and paper; and the current "chapter" of Mama's doings, back in the Milanese days. When he had five or six pages, they went off to Caesare Aldanto, usually via Maria. He had written up to when he'd turned ten, now. How much of what he remembered was useful, he had no idea, but surely there was something in all that stuff that Aldanto could turn to a purpose. Something to even up the scales of debt between them.


Marco watered some wine, and got breakfast out—bread and cold grilled sarde, bought on the way home last night. Benito bounced back in the door, fighting his way into a too-tight liveried shirt.


No one would ever have guessed, to see them side by side, that they were brothers. Marco clearly showed his Ferrarese-Dell'este ancestry, taking after his mother, Lorendana. Straight black hair, sun-browned skin fading now into ivory, and almond-shaped eyes in a thin, angular face; making him look both older and younger than his sixteen years. Had he been back in Ferrara, nobody would have had any trouble identifying which family he belonged to, for Lorendana had been a softened, feminized image of the old duke. Whereas Benito, round-faced and round-eyed, with an olive complexion and wavy brown hair, looked like a getting-to-be-handsome version of the Venice "type"—and not a minute older than his true age of fourteen.


"Need to get our clothes washed tonight," Benito said, gingerly reaching for his watered wine. "Or tomorrow."


"Spares clean?" Marco asked around a mouthful of bread, inwardly marveling at the fate that had brought him full circle to the point where he and Benito actually had spare clothing. Of course things had been a great deal better back in Ferrara—but no point in harkening back to that. To go back home would put the entire Dell'este house in danger, and with the worst kind of enemy—the Visconti. They were like the vipers of their crest. Deadly, unforgiving, and prone to use poison. There was no way Marco was ever going to take that grudge home.


"Yes. I'm wearing 'em, dummy."


"So'm I. Tomorrow then. That's my day off; besides, I got to see Caesare tonight." Washing clothes meant getting the washroom after everyone else had gone to work; clearing it with the landlord and paying the extra three pennies for a tub full of hot water besides what they were allowed as tenants. There was an incentive to Marco to volunteer for laundry duty. Benito was still kid enough to tend to avoid unnecessary baths, but Marco used laundry day as an excuse to soak in hot, soppy, soapy water when the clothing was done until all the heat was gone from it before rinsing the clean clothing (and himself) out in cold. After two years of alternately freezing and broiling in the mud of the swamp, a hot bath was a luxury that came very close to being a religious experience for Marco. Hence, Marco usually did the laundry.


Benito sighed. "All right. I'll clean the damn fireplace."


"And the lamp."


"Slaver. And the lamp. What are you seeing Caesare about?"


"Dunno. Got a note from him at work yesterday. Just asked me to meet him at Giaccomo's, because he was calling in favors and had something for me to do."


"Hey, can I come along?" Benito never missed the opportunity to go to Giaccomo's or Barducci's if he could manage it. Unlike Marco, he loved crowds and noise.


Marco thought about it; then, shrugged. "Don't see why not. Caesare didn't say 'alone,' and he usually does if that's the way he wants it. Why?"


"Gotta keep you safe from Maria, don't I?"


Marco blushed hotly. He'd had a brief crush on Maria Garavelli; very brief. It hadn't lasted past her dumping him headfirst in the canal. Benito still wasn't letting him live it down.


The memory of that embarrassing episode led Marco to thoughts of his current "romantic predicament." He rose abruptly, turning away from Benito enough to hide the deepening flush on his cheeks.


He hoped profoundly that Benito never found out about Angelina—he'd rather die than have Benito rib him about her. He much preferred to worship her quietly, from afar—without having half the urchins Benito ran with knowing about it, too. He still didn't know too much about his idol—the only reason he even knew her name was because he had overheard one of her companions using it.


Oh, Angelina . . .


Enough of daydreaming. "Get a move on, we're going to be late," he replied, while Benito was still chuckling evilly.


* * *

There had been plenty of gossip among the other clerks today, and because of it Marco made a detour down to the Calle del Vin on the way home—to the Casa Dorma. He felt drawn there as if by some overwhelming force. What was really at work was the powerful, almost frantic, "romantic urges" that come suddenly upon any sixteen-year-old boy—which they are incapable of analyzing clearly. And Marco's years in the marsh had made him even less capable of understanding himself, at least in this respect, than almost any other boy his age. There had been no girls his age in the marsh with whom to gain any experience at all.


So there he was at Dorma's gatehouse, facing the ancient doorkeeper through its grate. Half of him feeling he was in a state of sublime bliss; the other half feeling like a complete idiot. He was glad it was nearly dusk; glad his dark cotte and breeches were so anonymous, glad beyond telling that the shortsighted doorkeeper of House of Dorma couldn't see his face. It took all his courage to pretend to be a runner with a message to be left "for Milady Angelina." He moved off as fast as was prudent, eager to get himself deep into the shadows, once the folded and sealed paper was in the doorman's hands. His heart was pounding with combined anxiety, embarrassment, and excitement. Maybe—well, probably—Angelina would get it, if only when the head of the household demanded to know "what this is all about."


And—Jesu!—they'd want to know what it was about, all right. Because it was a love poem. The first love poem Marco had ever written.


Anonymous, of course, so Angelina would be able to protest honestly that she had no idea where it had come from, and why. And Marco's identity was safe. He'd written and erased it twenty or thirty times before it seemed right. Then with a carefully new-cut quill and some of the fine ink from Master Ambrosino Ventuccio's desk, he had copied it out on the best vellum. And the only reason he'd found the courage to deliver it was because today he'd finally found out who she was.


Milady Angelina of Dorma. The daughter of the house. Not above Marco Valdosta, even though she was at least two years older than he—but definitely above the touch of Marco Felluci. If Casa Dorma discovered some ragamuffin like Felluci had dared to send a love poem to Milady Angelina . . .


The best he could hope for was a beating at the hands of Dorma retainers. If young noblemen of the family got involved, "Marco Felluci" might very well find himself run through by a rapier—and these great old families usually had a baker's dozen of brawling young cousins lounging around, all of them ready at an instant to defend their family's honor.


Marco sighed. He had buried Marco Valdosta quite thoroughly, and not even for the sweet eyes of Angelina Dorma was he going to resurrect the name he'd been born to. "Marco Felluci" he was, and Marco Felluci he would remain—even though it meant abandoning all hope of ever winning the girl he was quite certain was the love of his life. But even if he couldn't touch, he could dream—and, perversely, even if she were never to learn who her unknown admirer was, he wanted her to know how he felt. So he'd spent three hours struggling over that poem.


Just two weeks ago it was, that he'd first seen her. At Giaccomo's, with a couple of companions. Until then his daydreams had been confined to something just as impossible, but hardly romantic.


The Accademia! Lord and Saints, what he wouldn't give to get in there to study medicine! But—he had no money, and no sponsor, and the wrong political history. Not that he gave a fat damn about the Montagnards anymore, and their fanatical determination to bring northern Italy into the Holy Roman Empire. But there was no way he was ever going to pass for one of the young nobles of Venice or even a son of one of the Casa curti.


Still . . . Marco was young enough that sometimes, sometimes when the day had really gone well, it almost seemed possible. Because a long-buried dream had surfaced with this new life.


Marco wanted to be a healer. A doctor.


He'd had that ambition as far back as he could remember. Mama had owned a drug-shop for a while, which she'd set up with what money she had after her family cut her off. Marco had been just old enough to help her with it, and he'd found the work fascinating. The patrons of the shop had teased him about it—but right along with the teasing, they'd asked his advice, and had taken it too. That perfect memory of his, again. He remembered symptoms, treatments, alternatives, everything. He'd helped old Sophia out in the marshes, later, with her herbs and "weeds," dispensing what passed for medicine among the marsh-folk and locos.


Of course, since seeing Angelina for the first time, she'd crowded out that particular daydream more often than not. But it was still there, rooted so deeply he knew it would never go away.


And so, as he made his way from Casa Dorma, Marco's thoughts were brooding and melancholy. Two heartbreaks at the same time seemed a bit much, at the age of sixteen! He consoled himself by beginning to compose, in his mind, another love poem. A brooding and melancholy one, of course.


His feet were chilled as he padded along the damp wooden walkways. He couldn't get used to shoes again after two years without them in the marshes, so he generally went as bare of foot as a bargee. The temperature was dropping; fog was coming off the water. The lines of the railings near him blurred; farther on, they were reduced to silhouettes. Farther than that, across the canal, there was nothing to see but vague, hulking shapes. Without the clatter of boot soles or clogs, he moved as silently in the fog as a spirit—silent out of habit. If the marsh-gangs didn't hear you, they couldn't harass you. Breathing the fog was like breathing wet, smoky wool; it was tainted with any number of strange smells. It held them all: fishy smell of canal, smell of rotting wood, woodsmoke, stink of nameless somethings poured into the dark, cold waters below him. He hardly noticed. His thoughts were elsewhere—back with the inspiration for his poem.


Oh, Angelina . . .


He wondered if he'd see her tonight at Giaccomo's. Half-hoping; half-dreading. She tended to show up at Giaccomo's pretty frequently. Marco was under no illusions as to why. Caesare Aldanto, of course—the most handsome and glamorous man there. Hell, Caesare even had Claudia and Valentina exchanging jokes and comments about him. Marco wondered hopelessly if he'd ever have—whatever it was that Caesare had. Probably not.


* * *

His feet had taken him all unaware down the cobbled walkways and the long, black sotoportego through to his own alleyway, to his very own door, almost before he realized it. He started to use his key, but Benito had beaten him home, and must have heard the rattle in the lock.


"About time!" he caroled in Marco's face, pulling the door open while Marco stood there stupidly, key still held out. "You fall in the canal?"


"They kept us late," Marco said, trying not to feel irritated that his daydream had been cut short. "There any supper? It was your turn."


"There will be. Got eggs, and a bit of pancetta. Frittata do?" He returned to the fireside, and the long-handled blackened, battered pan. He began frying garlic, a chopped onion, a handful of parsley—stolen, no doubt, from someone's rooftop garden—and the cubes of pancetta. Marco sniffed appreciatively. Benito was a fairly appalling cook, but always got the best of ingredients. And, as long as he didn't burn it, there wasn't much he could do wrong with frittata.


Benito tossed the fried mixture into the beaten egg in the cracked copper bowl. Then, after giving it a swirl, and putting in a lump of lard, he tossed the whole mixture back in the pan and back on the heat. "They gave me tomorrow off too, like you—something about a merchant ship all the way from the Black Sea. You got anything you want to do? After chores, I mean."


"Not really," Marco replied absently, going straight over to the wall and trying to get a good look at himself in the little bit of cracked mirror that hung there. Benito noticed, cocking a quizzical eye at him as he brought over an elderly wooden platter holding Marco's half of the omelet and a slice of bread.


"Something doing?"


"I just don't see any reason to show up at Giaccomo's looking like a drowned rat," Marco replied waspishly, accepting the plate and beginning to eat.


"Huh." Benito took the hint and combed his hair with his fingers, then inhaled his own dinner.


"Hey, big brother—y'know somethin' funny?" Benito actually sounded thoughtful, and Marco swiveled to look at him with surprise. "Since you started eating regular, you're getting to look a lot like Mama. And that ain't bad—she may'a been crazy, but she was a looker."


Marco was touched by the implied compliment. "Not so funny," he returned, "I gotta look like somebody. You know, the older you get, the more you look like Carlo Sforza. In the right light, nobody'd ever have to guess who your daddy was."


Benito started preening at that—he was just old enough to remember that the great condottiere had been a fair match for Caesare Aldanto at attracting the ladies.


Then Marco grinned wickedly and deflated him. "It's just too bad you inherited Mama's lunatic tendencies also."


"Hey!"


"Now don't start something you can't finish—" Marco warned, as his brother dropped his empty plate, seized a pillow and advanced on him.


Benito gave a disgusted snort, remembering how things had turned out only that morning, and threw the pillow, back into its corner. "No fair."


"Life's like that," Marco replied. "So let's get going, huh?"


* * *

Giaccomo's was full, but subdued. No clogging, not tonight; no music, even. Nobody seemed much in the mood for it. The main room was hot and smoky; not just from Giaccomo's lanterns, either. There was smoke and fog drifting in every time somebody opened a door, which wasn't often, as it was getting cold outside.


Lamps tonight were few, and wicks in them were fewer. Customers bent over their tables, their talk hardly more than muttering. Dark heads under darker caps, or bare of covering; no one here tonight but boatmen and bargees. Marco looked around for the only blond head in the room, but had a fair notion of where to find him. When he had a choice, Aldanto preferred to sit where he could keep an eye on everything going on.


Pretty paranoid—but normal, if you were an ex-Montagnard. Especially an ex-Montagnard from Milan. Even by the standards of Italy, intrigue in Milan was complex and deadly. Milan was the stronghold of the Montagnard cause, to which the Duke of Milan paid faithful homage. But Filippo Visconti had his own axes to grind and his own double-dealings with respect to the Montagnards. The "imperial cause" was a marvelous thing for the ruler of Milan—so long as it did not actually triumph. If it did . . . the essentially independent realm of Milan would become just another province within the Holy Roman Empire. And Duke Visconti was not the man to take kindly to the thought of being a mere satrap—any more than his condottiere Carlo Sforza's bastard son Benito took kindly to his older brother Marco's attempts to rein in his less-than-legal activities.


Politics in Milan, in short, was like a nest of vipers. Marco's own mother had been destroyed by that nest—and Caesare Aldanto, who hadn't, made sure he always sat where no one could get behind him.


Marco had been known to choose his seats that way too. Whether he liked it or not, and despite the fact that he no longer cared about such things, his heritage had entwined him hopelessly in the coils of Italian politics.


* * *

There he was—black cotte, dark cap, golden blond hair that curled the way the carved angel's hair curled. As Marco had expected, Caesare was ensconced in his usual corner table. But as Marco and Benito wormed their way closer, Marco could see that he was looking—not quite hungover, but not terribly good. Limp-looking, like it was an effort to keep his head up and his attention on the room and the people in it. Minor mental alarms began jangling.


Still, if the man wanted to binge once in a while, who could blame him? Ventuccio had plenty to say about him, not much of it good. Marco picked up a lot by just keeping his mouth shut and his ears open, doing the accounts they set him and staying invisible. What he heard didn't seem to match the Caesare Aldanto who had given two dumb kids a way out of trouble. Especially when it was more logical for him to have knifed them both and dumped them in the canal. He had a feeling that someday he'd like to hear Caesare's side of things. He also had a feeling that if that day ever came, it would be when Aldanto was on a binge. If he ever lowered his guard enough.


Aldanto's table had a candle over it, not a lamp—candlelight was even dimmer than lamplight. The two boys moved up to the side of the table like two thin shadows. Marco had brought his week's worth of recollections, neatly folded into a packet. Maybe it was the dim light—but they stood by the side of the table for nearly a minute before Aldanto noticed them. Marco bit his lip, wondering if he'd offended Aldanto in some way, and the man was paying back in arrogance—but, no; it was almost as if he was having such trouble focusing that he could only attend to one thing at a time. As if he really wasn't seeing them, until he could get his attention around to the piece of floor they were standing on.


When Aldanto finally saw them, and invited them to sit with a weary wave of his head, Marco pushed the sealed packet across the table towards his hand. Aldanto accepted it silently, put into a pocket, then stared off into space, like he'd forgotten they were there.


Marco sat there long enough to start feeling like a fool, then ventured to get his attention: "Milord—"


Now Aldanto finally looked at them again, his eyes slowly focusing. He did not look hungover after all; he looked tired to death and ready to drop. "You asked me to come here, remember? There is something you want us to do?"


"I—" Aldanto rubbed one temple, slowly, as if his head was hurting him; his eyes were swollen and bruised looking, and there were little lines of pain between his eyebrows. "There was—I know there was a reason—"


This was nothing like the canny Caesare Aldanto that Marco was used to dealing with! Alarmed now, Marco took a really hard look at him, eyes alert for things Sophia had taught him to take note of.


He didn't like what he saw. A thin film of sweat stood out on Caesare's forehead; his blue eyes were dull and dark-circled. Aldanto was fair, but he'd never been this white before. His hair was damp and lank; and not from the fog, Marco would bet on it. And his shoulders were shivering a little as if from cold—yet Giaccomo's was so warm with closely crowded bodies that Marco was regretting he'd worn his thick cotte. And now Marco was remembering something from this morning and the gossip among the other clerks at Ventuccio—a rumor of plague in the town. Maybe brought in on that Black Sea ship. Maybe not. Marco's bones said that whatever was wrong with Caesare had its roots here—because Marco's bones had once shaken with a chill that he'd bet Caesare was feeling now.


"Milord, are you feeling all right?" he whispered, under cover of a burst of loud conversation from three tables over.


Aldanto smiled thinly. "To tell you the truth, boy—no. Afraid I've got a bit of a cold, or something. Felt like death two days ago and now it seems to be coming back. A bit worse if anything."


He broke into a fit of coughing, and his shoulders shook again; and although he was plainly trying, not all of his iron will could keep the tremor invisible. Marco made up his mind on the instant.


Marco turned to his brother. "Benito—go find Maria. Get!"


Benito got. Aldanto looked at Marco with a kind of dazed puzzlement. "She's probably on her way. What—"


"You're drunk—act like it!" Marco whispered harshly. "Unless you want Giaccomo to throw you in the canal for bringing plague in here! I don't much imagine he'd be real happy about that."


He rose, shoved his chair back, and seized Aldanto's arm to haul him to his feet before the other could protest or react. And that was another bad sign; Aldanto had the reactions of any trained assassin, quick and deadly. Only tonight those reactions didn't seem to be working.


Marco had always been a lot stronger than he looked—with a month of regular meals he was more than a match for the fevered Caesare Aldanto.


"Now, Milord Caesare," he said aloud—not too loudly, he hoped, but loud enough. "I think a breath of air would be a proper notion, no? I'm afraid Milord Giaccomo's drink is a bit too good tonight."


There were mild chuckles at that, and no one looked at them twice as Marco half-carried, half-manhandled Aldanto towards the door. Which was fortunate, for they both discovered when Aldanto tried to pull away that his legs were not up to holding him.


They staggered between the tables, weaving back and forth, Marco sagging under the nearly deadweight Aldanto had become. Out of the double doors they wove, narrowly avoiding a collision with an incoming customer, and down onto the lantern-lit front porch. Down a set of stairs were the tie-ups for small boats, only half of them taken tonight. And pulling up to those tie-ups was a gondola sculled by a dusky girl in a dark cap. Maria Garavelli and no mistaking her.


Marco eyed her uncertainly, not sure whether he was actually relieved that Benito had found her. . . .


Maria was notorious along the canals. Her mother, kin to half of the families in the Caulkers' guild, had done the unthinkable—she'd gotten pregnant by some unknown father, refused to name him, refused to marry in haste some scraped-up suitor, and had been summarily thrown out on her ear by her enraged father. The woman had outfaced them all, bearing her child openly, raising her openly, and taking the gondola her grandfather had left her and making a place and a reputation for hard honest work right up until the day she died.


Maria had continued that reputation, though she had been only just big and strong enough to pole the boat over difficult passages when her mother went to the angels (or the Devil, depending on who was doing the telling). With her skirts tied up between her legs for ease in movement, that dark cap pulled over her ears and all of her hair tucked up into it, she was as androgynous a creature as any castrati. Working a boat from the time she could walk had given her wide, strong shoulders and well-muscled arms. Her pointed chin and high cheekbones looked female, but the square jaw hinges and deep-set brown eyes, usually narrowed with suspicion, would have been more at home in a man's face. There wasn't anything about their expression that looked soft or female, nor was there in the thin lips, generally frowning. She hadn't a woman's complexion, that was for sure; she was as brown as any bargeman. If there were breasts under that shapeless shirt, it wouldn't be easy to tell. But there was more than a hint of womanly shape in the curve of her hips—and her legs were the best on the canal.


Of course, if you dared to tell her so, she'd probably punch you in the jaw so hard it would be three days before you woke up.


They were just in time to see Benito catching the line Maria was throwing him. Light from Giaccomo's porch lantern caught her eyes as she stared at them. There was something of a mixture of surprise and shock—yes, and a touch of fear—in the look she gave them.


"I think we need to get this fellow home," Marco said loudly, praying Maria would keep her wits about her. She might not know him well, but she knew that Aldanto had trusted them to spy for him, and guard his back, more than once. He just prayed she'd trust him too, and follow his lead.


She did; playing along with him except for one startled glance. "Fool's been celebratin'?" She snorted, legs braced against the roll of her boat, hands on hips, looking theatrically disgusted. She pushed her cap back on her hair with a flamboyant and exaggerated shove. "Ought to let him walk home, that I should. Ah, hell, hand him over."


Aldanto was in no shape, now, to protest the hash they were making of his reputation. He was shaking like a reed in a winter storm. His skin was tight and hot to the touch, as Maria evidently learned when she reached up to help him down the ladder onto her halfdeck. "Look—you—" was all he managed before another coughing fit took him and Maria got him safely planted. She gave no real outward sign that she was alarmed, though—just a slight tightening of her lips and a frightened widening of her eyes.


"Think we'd better come along, Maria," Marco continued, in what he hoped was a bantering tone of voice—for though they seemed to be alone, there was no telling who had eyes and ears in the shadows or above the canal. "Afraid milord is likely to be a handful. Won't like being told what to do." That last was for Aldanto's benefit. While he talked, he stared hard into Maria's eyes, hoping she'd read the message there.


Go along with this, he tried fiercely to project. I can help.


"You think so?" The tone was equally bantering, but the expression seemed to say that she understood that silent message. "Well, guess it can't hurt—"


"Right enough, then. Benito, give Maria a hand with that line." Marco climbed gingerly down into the boat where Aldanto sat huddled in misery, as Benito slid aboard, the bowline in his hand.


"What the hell—" Maria hissed, as soon as they were out of earshot of the bank.


"He's got fever. Looking at him, I think it is just the marsh-fever, what they call 'mal-aria,' not the plague. You got something to keep him warm?"


Without the need to guard her expression, Marco could read her nearly as well as one of his books. First there was relief—Thank God, it could have been worse, he could have been hurt—and that was quickly followed by anger and resentment. He couldn't guess at the reasons for those emotions, but that expression was chased almost immediately by stark, naked fear. Then she shuttered her face down again, and became as opaque as canal water. At her mute nod toward the bulkhead, Marco ducked under it, and out again, and wrapped the blanket he'd found around Aldanto's shaking shoulders.


Aldanto looked up, eyes full of bleary resentment. "I—" cough "—can take care of—" cough "—myself, thanks."


Marco ignored him. "First thing, we got to get him back home and in bed. But we gotta make out like's he's drunk, not sick."


Maria nodded slowly; Marco was grateful for her quick grasp of the situation. "Because if the people figure he's sick—they figure he's an easy target. Damn!"


"Will you two leave me alone?" muttered the sick man.


This time Marco looked him right in the eyes.


"No," he said simply.


Aldanto stared and stared, like one of the piers had up and answered him back; then groaned, sagged his head onto his knees, and buried his face in his hands.


"Right." Marco turned back to Maria, swiveling to follow her movements as she rowed the gondola into the sparse traffic on the Grand Canal. She wasn't sparing herself—Marco could tell that much from what he'd learned from poling his raft. Which meant she was trying to make time. Which meant she was worried, too.


"Second thing is, we need money. I got some, but not too much. How about you? Or him?"


"Some. What for?" Suspicion shadowed the glance she gave him as she shoved the pole home against the bottom, suspicion and more of that smoldering anger and fear. Touchy about money, are we, Maria?


"Medicine," he said quickly. "Some we send Benito for; people are always sending runners after medicine, especially in fever season. Nothing to connect Caesare with that." Marco fell silent for a moment.


"You said, 'some.' "


"I'll decide the rest after we get him back," Marco said slowly, "and I know how bad it is."


Campo San Polo at last. Up the stairs at water level they went, stairs that led almost directly to Aldanto's door. Aldanto tried to push them off, to get them to leave him at that door. But when his hands shook so that he couldn't even get his key in the lock, Marco and Maria exchanged a look—and Maria took the key deftly away from him.


Caesare complained, bitterly but weakly, all through the process of getting him into his apartment and into the bed in the downstairs bedroom. Not even with three of them were they going to try and manhandle him up the stairs to the room he usually used.


Ominously, though—at least as far as Marco was concerned—Aldanto stopped complaining as soon as he was installed in bed; just closed his eyes against the light, and huddled in his blanket, shivering and coughing. Marco sent Benito out with orders for willow bark and corn-poppy flowers, also for red and white clover blossoms for the cough, not that he expected any of them to do any good. This wasn't that kind of fever. He knew it now; knew it beyond any doubting.


"I hope you can afford to lose a night's trade, Maria," he said, pulling her out of the bedroom by main force. "Maybe more. I'll tell you the truth of it: Caesare's in bad shape, and it could get worse."


"It's just a cold or somethin', ain't it?" Her look said she knew damned well that it was worse than that, but was hoping for better news than she feared.


"Not for him, it isn't," Marco replied, figuring she'd better know the worst. "Same thing happened to me, when I had to hide in the swamp. I caught every damn thing you could think of." Marco shook his head. "Well, he needs something besides what we can get at the drug-shops."


"The Calle Farnese . . ." she said doubtfully.


Marco shook his head firmly. "More than quack-magic, either."


He took a deep breath. "Now listen: I'm going to write down exactly what I need you to do with those herbs when Benito gets back."


"I can't read," she whispered.


Marco swallowed. With Maria's pride, you tended to forget she was just a woman from a large, poor caulker family. Even the menfolk could probably barely manage to cipher their names. "Never mind. Benito will read it for you. It should help him to stop coughing enough to sleep. The coughing is not serious. The fever is the part that is worrying. It should break soon and just leave him weak and tired. Then it'll start up again. Right now he needs sleep more than anything else. You stay with him; don't leave him. That might be enough—he'll feel like he wants to die, but he's not exactly in any danger, so long as he stays warm. But—" Marco paused to think. "All right, worst case. If he gets worse before I get back—if his fever comes again or his temperature goes up more—"


That was an ugly notion, and hit far too close to home. He steadied his nerves with a long breath of air and thought out everything he was going to have to do and say. What he was going to order her to do wasn't going to go down easy. Maria Garavelli didn't like being ordered at the best of times, and this was definitely going to stick in her throat.


"I know maybe more about our friend than you think I do. I'm telling you the best—hell, the only option. If he starts having trouble breathing or hallucinating, you send Benito with a note to Ricardo Brunelli. You tell him if he wants his pet assassin alive, he'd better send his own physician. And fast."


Maria's eyes blazed, and she opened her mouth to protest. Marco cut her short.


"Look, you think I want my brother going up there? You think we're in any better shape than Caesare is in this town? I don't know what you know about us, Maria, but we got as much or more to lose by this. I don't know if Caesare's let on about us, but—"


God, God, the chance! But they owed Caesare more than they could pay.


"Look at me—believe me, Maria. If Brunelli—any of 'em—ever found out about me and Benito, we'd—we'd wish we were dead, that's all. We know things too, and we got nobody but Caesare keeping us from getting gobbled up like sardines. Caesare they got reasons to keep alive—us—well, you can figure out how much anybody'd miss two kids. So trust me, the risk's a lot more on our side; if he gets worse, it's the only way to save him."


"Damn it, Marco—" she started; then sagged, defeated by his earnestness and her own fear and worry. "All right. Yeah, I pretty much know about your situation. Hell, though—what you've been doing—I dunno why we'd need a real doctor. You're as good a doctor as I ever seen—"


"Like bloody hell I am!" he snapped, more harshly than he intended. He saw Maria wince away, her expression chilling, and hastily tried to mend the breach.


"Look—I'm sorry, I didn't mean that the way it sounded. Maria, I'm scared too—for all of us." He managed half a smile, when he saw the hard line of her lips soften. "And you just—stepped on a sore toe, that's all. See, I'd give my arm to be able to go to the Accademia, to learn to be a doctor. And I've got about as much chance of that as your gondola has of flying." He sighed. "That's the problem with having things get better, I guess. When I didn't have anything, I didn't want things, because I knew I'd never get 'em. But now I got a little, seems like I want more. Things I've got no chance for."


He hadn't really expected Maria to understand. But to his surprise, she gave a little wistful glance back toward the bedroom, sighed, and nodded. "I reckon we both got a notion how that feels," she agreed. "But—I dunno, Brunelli—he's a shark—that doctor could just as easy poison Caesare as cure him."


"So I just gave you what to do in the worst case, hey? Worry about that when the time comes. Caesare's luck with skinning through, he'll be all right. But if not—I'll tell you now—you might just as well chance poison, 'cause if you want Caesare alive, you get him a real doctor as soon as he starts getting worse—if he does, before I make it back."


"Back? From where?" She only now seemed to realize that he wasn't planning on staying.


"I told you, I know this fever. I had it once, too. And Caesare needs more'n what we can get from the drug-shop. So I'm going to get the medicine he needs—the one place here I know I can—where I got what saved me. The place I spent the last two years. The marsh." He smiled crookedly at her stunned expression.


"How are you going get there?" She stammered. "I—"


"I said you had to stay here, didn't I? And keep Benito here to help when he gets back. I'll get in the same way I did the last time. Walk. Or swim. The tide is out and I know the channels. I should do. I lived there for long enough."


 


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