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Chapter 13

"You're not going out again!"


Not for the first time, or even the thousandth time, Katerina Montescue wondered what had possessed her brother Alfredo to marry Alessandra. And why he had to die and leave Kat to cope with the silly shrewish bitch, who never thought beyond her clothes or belladona-widened eyes. Except for finding new ways to snipe at everyone and boast about her high-born family connections.


Kat took a deep breath. "Yes." She volunteered not one word more.


Alessandra looked at the dowdy rough-spun woolen hooded cloak Katerina put on over her plain gray twill. She sniffed disapprovingly. "I'm surprised your lover will let you wear things like that! It's not even clean."


It was! And this from an idle cow who never did a damn thing in a house that had ten servants too few to maintain it. Who pestered money they could ill afford out of Grandpapa to buy more frippery clothes to add to the cupboards-full she already owned.


Kat was too angry to keep her tongue. "Unlike you, I don't have to chase everything that wears breeches, Sandi." Alessandra hated having her name shortened. "I've got better things to do."


Battle was now fairly joined. "I hope so," said Alessandra loftily. "The way you are ruining your hands with that rough oar! It's commoners' work and you'll never get a man." Then, forgetting that she'd just said there was no chance of Kat getting a man, she went on. "Maybe he is a commoner. But even you couldn't sink that low, surely?"


Kat ground her teeth. "What I'm doing has nothing to do with men. Or with you either. I wish you'd stay out of my room. I never invited you in."


"I'm your sister-in-law," Alessandra said righteously. "As the married woman of the house I have a duty and responsibility to see to your welfare. I don't think I should let you go out to tryst with your lover, as if you were some common whore. What if news of this got back to the Brunellis?"


"Try stopping me, sister. Just try. I've got Grandpapa's permission." She walked purposefully towards the water-door.


"He's senile. You'll bring the plague back with you. It's rife out there."


Kat stopped. "He's not senile! He's just old . . . and, and hurt. Alfredo's death, Mariana's death, the baby and Papa . . . not coming back. And Mama and then Grandmama, too. It's just been a bit too much for him." Even thinking about it left her with a catch in her voice. And guilt. Alessandra's baby son had died too, after all.


But Alessandra dealt with the guilt with her next silly statement. "So you've got his permission to turn yourself into a courtesan, because of that?"


Kat looked at herself in the mottled full-length mirror. Like many things in the Casa Montescue it was past its prime. The reflection that looked back at her was, at best, merely pretty. She had too wide a mouth and too pert a nose. Carroty-colored slightly curly hair, that Alessandra was always at her to bleach a bit, so that she'd look—at least from behind—more like the glamorous Lucrezia Brunelli. Unlike Alessandra, Katerina didn't claim cousinship and intimate knowledge of the doings of Venice's most famous beauty. And after Alessandra's endless stories, she didn't want to.


She looked away from the mirror, knowing that its mottled surface was not disguising the truth. Her face, unlike Lucrezia's, would certainly never garner her any love poems. Neither would a nonexistent dowry. And she'd never have Alessandra's statuesque figure, either; or Alessandra's perfect rosebud mouth with the tiny mole accentuating it; or her white skin and raven-black hair.


She sighed. "Sandi, be reasonable. I'm not a beauty, never will be, and that's all there is to it. Now, excuse me. I've got things to do." She pushed past, heading for the water-door up the passage.


As often happened, Alessandra's mood underwent an abrupt change. "Oh, Katerina!" she cried, clutching at Kat's cloak. "Take me with you! I'm dying cooped up in here in this mausoleum. We could go to Barducci's. I hear it's all the rage to go . . . slumming there. A lot of the younger crowd are going."


Kat snorted, and shook off the soft slim white hand. "Saints, Sandi! One minute I'm going to my lover, the next I'm bringing plague. And the next you want to go off looking for thrills with the commoners you despise. Well, sorry. I've got other things to deal with. Practical things. Anyway, you go out more often than I do. You go over to Murano at least once a week."


Curiosity—a source for gossip, a vital feature of Alessandra's shallow life—took over. "Tell me what things?"


"Can't." Somewhere, Montescue was leaking secrets. Telling Alessandra anything that the spying cat didn't already know would add another leak.


"Mean, horrible, little bitch!" The water-door slammed behind her, leaving Katerina to get into the shabby gondola tied to the post.


* * *

Out on the water, in the darkness, Katerina felt her temper begin to subside. By the way the wind was blowing off the lagoon, there would be a storm soon.


Great. All she needed was to get wet again!


Still, that would be better than when the previous cargo had come in. The one she'd nearly lost. Rain, even a thunderstorm, took a while to wet you to the skin. Jumping or falling into the canal didn't. She sculled a little faster. This delivery was to the far side of the Grand Canal, too, not that that meant anything. She never delivered anything to Calle Farnese anymore. It was just too risky. There were more prowling agents of the Signori di Notte and those creepy Servants around there than there were Strega nowadays.


She sighed. Never mind the way that it was weighing on her grandfather, this pressure was making her snappy and shrewish. After all the difficulty of getting the last parcel from Ascalon, she'd hoped their fortunes would revive. Alas, it had only just staved off the creditors. So they'd gambled on going into a Colleganza on a cargo of silver on the galley fleet bound for the Black Sea. After all, there was so little risk in a galley cargo that they didn't even need to insure it.


And then . . . the galley had been one of three lost in a storm. Snapped in half by the waves, if the few survivors could be believed.


The ill-fortune that plagued Casa Montescue seemed endless. Now they were bankrupt—almost, anyway. Reduced to the desperate business of organizing high-risk cargos to and from Beyond-the-sea.


Kat tried to find solace somewhere. At least her grandfather couldn't blame this disaster on Casa Valdosta. That ancient house was completely destroyed, all of the family members dead except for—according to rumors gathered by Grandpapa's agents—one or two boys. Who, even if the rumors of their survival were accurate, could hardly pose a threat to Montescue.


Again, she sighed. Not that her grandfather cared about threats. For reasons which had never been very clear to Kat—and she'd been afraid to ask—the old man blamed Casa Valdosta for the misfortunes of the Montescues. He was consumed with a desire for vengeance on anything Valdosta—even boys who could not possibly be held responsible by any rational person. That was what worried Kat the most—her grandfather's obsession with revenge was not . . . entirely sane. It was dark, and cruel, and evil—for all that Grandpapa was not a cruel and evil man in any other respect.


And it was expensive, too! Spies did not come cheap, and assassins even less so. The old man would still be hiring assassins, if there was anything left to hire them with. Kat didn't doubt that he would do so again, if her efforts brought in some significant money. What a waste!


* * *

Kat tied the gondola up beside the shabby water-door. Lightning rippled across the eastern sky, showing a waterworn step and an odd, gargoyle-faced doorknocker. The iron eyes seemed almost alive in the sudden sharp light. It gave her something of a shiver, and it took quite some willpower to lift the ring that the gargoyle was devouring and rap out the coded knock. Thunder rumbled in the distance.


The door opened with an oiled silence that belied its decrepit look. A dark, hooded figure loomed behind the candle. She went in. Little was said on these rendezvous. These days, buyers—who used to greet her by name—were trying to pretend they didn't know her, and that she'd never even met them. These were dangerous times.


The hooded man led her to a desk, at which yet another hooded figure sat. Silently Kat handed over the little oilcloth parcel, putting it on the table. The hooded figure reached eagerly for it, a little silver and steel knife appearing suddenly in the long, shapely feminine fingers. The knife hilt, Kat noticed, was fashioned like a dragon's head with little chips of clear red stone for eyes. Eyes seemed everywhere tonight. She hoped none of them had followed her here.


The packet was slit, and the hooded woman gave a little crow of unpleasant glee . . . before hastily sweeping the vials back into the packet. Not for the first time Kat wondered what they were doing in this business. It had started with letters to and from the Jewish community. After all, her great-grandfather had been a Jew, even if he'd married out of the faith and the family were good Petrine Christians now. Somehow needs had driven things to this. When she'd been a child she'd often gone to meet the Strega with Grandpapa. She suspected that Grandpapa had been halfway to being a convert. But they'd been a different community then. Gentler.


The woman motioned her henchman forward. He reached inside his cloak and produced . . . money. That was always a relief. Kat knew she could get killed instead. Silently, he counted out ducats.


Kat slipped them into a washleather pouch, and slipped the pouch between her breasts.


Obviously, her pleasure in receiving the cargo had loosed the woman's tongue. "You deliver to many?"


Kat shook her head. "I really don't think I should say."


"Understood. But I will make it worth a great deal, a very great deal indeed, to know of one man. Ten times your fee, if you tell me where I can find him. His name is Marina. Dottore Luciano Marina. This is how he looks."


The woman flicked a handful of powder into the air and an image appeared therein. The man had an arrogant tilt to his head, but a kindly face. There was a wiry youthfulness about the face, which didn't match the eyes. The eyes looked as if they'd seen a lot.


Kat remembered it well. He had been a great figure of learning at the Accademia before he disappeared, Grandpapa had said. And her favorite tutor, as a girl.


Kat shook her head. "He hasn't been around since I was about fourteen."


"He is still around." The woman spoke very firmly, more to herself than Kat. "I can feel him. I just can't pin him to a place."


Kat shrugged, and looked at the desk. She must have lost a strand of hair there—not something you wanted to leave with the Strega. She twitched it off the table and into a pocket while the hooded woman's attention was still distracted.


"Haven't seen him for years," she repeated.


The woman appeared to notice her again. "You may leave," she said imperiously.


* * *

Outside, with the wind from the storm ripping and yowling between the buildings and the first heavy drops beginning to splat onto the water, Kat shook herself. The money would help. But the hole that the Casa Montescue was in meant that they'd have to continue with this. She flicked the bowline loose and began sculling.


As she came out onto the Grand Canal, she realized that she should have left earlier. Ahead the rain was coming down like a solid dark wall, obliterating all light. The water in the Grand Canal was already chopped into endless dancing myriad-peaked waves. Water slopped over the gunwales as Kat struggled to turn back into the relative shelter of the smaller canal she'd emerged from. There was no going home until this was over. She might as well find somewhere to try to keep dry. Even here angry gusts were rattling and shaking at hastily slammed shutters. This was no time to be outside, never mind in a boat. The nearby church of San Zan Degola was small and poor, but it would be open.


She moored the gondola to a post, hitched up her skirts, and ran for the shelter. The storm wouldn't last.


 


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