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Chapter 15

The church door had been slightly ajar. The rain and wind had sent more than just Kat scurrying for shelter. Two bridge-brats, a boy and a girl, had decided it would be warmer than huddling under a bridge. They were engaged in bridge-brat mischief, down at the altar, playing with one of the candles that burned there. Doubtless a sacristan would emerge in a minute or two and give them both a thick ear. In the meanwhile they were having fun.

Kat shivered slightly. She pulled out a dry scarf and covered her hair. She was cold and wet. If she'd been close to a tavern she might have broken her own rules and slipped into the warmth. Instead she took a seat on a pew at the back. The brats hadn't even noticed her.

They noticed the next incursion, however. Kat was so startled she almost leapt from the pew.

The door swung open forcefully, slamming noise through the church. Kat spun her head in time to see a party of knights and monks pushing into the church. They'd obviously been to some function, or off on some official business, because the knights were in full armor, sheened and dripping with rain. Seeing the triple red crosses of the famous twin orders of the Pauline creed, Kat felt a sharp rush of fear.

In times past, the Servants and Knights of the Holy Trinity had not held much sway in Venice, since the city was traditionally a stronghold of the Petrine creed. The more so since the Servants and Knights were closely associated with the Holy Roman Empire—as was, in a different way, the Montagnard faction in Italian politics. The Montagnards had their adherents in Venice, of course. But Venice was traditionally a neutral in the bitter Montagnard-Metropolitan conflict. If anything, the city's populace was inclined to the Metropolitans. So the Servants and the Knights were double-damned in the eyes of most Venetians—by religious and political creed alike.

But . . . since the current Doge began favoring the two orders, they had begun throwing their weight around—and the Servants, especially, were notorious for their heavy hand.

Katerina's mouth dried up. Surely they couldn't be looking for her?

They couldn't be. Anyway, she reminded herself, the cargo had been delivered. All she had now was the money. Quite a lot of it, true, but still just money. Probably they'd just come to get out of the rain.

This was confirmed by one knight's comment. "Off that God-forsaken water!" he snarled. "I thought we'd drown there, when that tub started to take water. Abbot Sachs, when do we leave this cursed city? A knight should ride. This boatwork is not for nobles."

The abbot was the same stooped man that Kat had seen perform the rite of enclosure on the Imperial embassy. "We leave this place of sin when God's work is done!" he snapped in reply.

The abbot's eyes left the knight and quickly ranged through the church. He did not spot Kat, sitting all the way in the back, since his gaze became fixed almost instantly on the two bridge-brats at the altar.

"And look!" he cried triumphantly, pointing an accusing finger at the children. "God has guided us to his work! The Devil cannot triumph against the workings of the Lord!"

Katerina was astonished to see the abbot striding down to the altar, for all the world as if he were marching on the forces of the Antichrist at Armageddon. Was he insane? The two terrified children who were the subject of his wrath stared at him, guilt written all over their small, hungry faces.

The abbot grabbed one of the children successfully. The other, the girl, ran screaming for the door. One of the knights slammed the door closed. He tried to catch the girl. The child squirmed clear, to find herself in the steel gauntlets of another knight.

In the meantime Sachs, the struggling little boy held in one hand, was peering at the candle. "See!" he shouted triumphantly. "See the Devil's work! They make waxen mammets from this consecrated candle to work their evil. Here, within the very nave of the Church. Venice, the corrupt and rotten! They will burn for this! You shall not suffer a witch to live!"

Several things happened with all the outcry. First the sacristan, bleary eyed and none too steady on his feet, appeared through a side door with a branch of candles, demanding querulously to know what all the noise in the house of God was about. The second was that two of the knights finally spotted Katerina, before she could decide whether to slide under the pew or run for the door.

Moving much faster than she would have imagined an armored man could do, one of the knights grabbed her shoulders with rough steel hands. The same one who had complained about the weather. Then, even more roughly, dragged her out to face the abbot.

"Got another one, Abbot Sachs!"

"Hold her there!" commanded Sachs. Almost violently, he thrust the boy into the hands of a monk who had come to join him. Then, stalked back up the aisle to stand before Kat.

The abbot gripped her jaw and lifted her chin, examining her as he might a vial of poison. With his left hand, roughly, he pulled off her scarf.

"The witch mistress," he pronounced solemnly. "Overseeing her children and their demonic work. We have made a fine haul tonight! Truly, the hand of God must have guided that storm."

Panic surged through Kat. "I'm not a witch! I'm not! I just came to get out of the rai—"

The abbot slapped her, hard and with obvious satisfaction. "Silence, witch! You will be put to the question and you will answer when we tell you."

Kat's cheek burned. The blow had been savage enough to leave her dazed, for a moment. Her mouth tasted of blood, and her head was cloudy with fear and fury. The moment was so—insane—that she couldn't seem to bring her mind into focus. The only clear thought she had was: Why hadn't she stayed outside and gotten wet?

* * *

A new voice spoke. One of the knights, Kat dimly realized. A very cold voice.


The abbot turned on him. "Go and ready our boat, Erik. We must take these prisoners back and put them to the question."

The knight shook his head. The gesture was abbreviated, quick; and very firm. "No, My Lord Abbot. We cannot do that."

"Why?" demanded Sachs angrily. "The weather is not so bad! Not for pious men."

The implied slur did no more than cause the knight to square his already very square shoulders. And harden a face that, to Kat, already looked as hard as an axe-blade. She was almost shocked to see that the knight was not much older than she was.

"Because we cannot remove these people from the sanctuary of the Church," said the knight. Calmly, even though Kat could sense the effort the knight was making to keep his teeth from clenching. "It is my solemnly sworn oath," he continued, almost grinding out the words, "as a Knight of the Holy Trinity, to defend the Sanctuary of the Holy Church. I will not break my oath."

* * *

Sanctuary! For a moment, Kat simply gawped at the young knight. Of all the scary-looking armed and armored men who surrounded her, he was the scariest. The last one she would have expected to come to her assistance!

Thunder pealed, and she could hear a fresh squall of rain sheeting down outside in the sudden silence. Even the two terrified children seemed to realize their survival hung on this rigid man with the harshly Nordic appearance.

The young knight seemed made entirely of sharp angles and icy ridges—as if his body and face had been shaped by the same glaciers that created the Norse landscape from which he so obviously came. His hair, long enough to peek below the rim of his helmet, was so blond it was almost white. His eyes were a shade of blue so pale they were almost gray. His chin was a shield, his nose a sword—even his lips looked as if they had been shaped by a chisel. And . . .

Scariest of all: lurking beneath that superficial calm, she could sense an eruption building. Kat had been told once, by her tutor Marina, that Iceland had been forged in the earth's furnace. Not knowing why, she was suddenly certain that this man was an Icelander himself—a land as famous for its clan feuds as its volcanoes. And that he possessed the full measure of the berserk fury that slept—fretfully—just beneath an outwardly still and chilly surface.

She noticed, finally, the peculiar weapon attached to his belt. A hatchet of some kind, an oddly plain thing compared to the aristocratic sword hanging from his baldric.

* * *

Then her wits finally returned, and Kat seized the opening as a drowning man might an entire haystack.

"I claim sanctuary, in the name of—"

The knight holding her clamped a gauntleted hand across her mouth. Kat tasted blood inside her lips.

"Remove your hand, Pappenheim!"

The blond knight's command was not a shout so much as a curse—or a sneer, driven into words. A challenge so cold, so full of contempt, that an angel facing hellspawn would have envied it.

Except Kat could imagine no angel looking as purely murderous as this man. The young knight was on his toes now, as light on his feet as if he were wearing nightclothes instead of armor. He seemed to prance, almost, his whole body as springy and coiled as a lion about to pounce. And his thin lips were peeled back in a smile that was no smile at all. Teeth showing like fangs.

His hand flashed to his belt, so quick she could not follow the movement. The next she saw, the hatchet was held in his fist, in a loose and easy grasp that even Kat—no expert on such matters—could recognize as that of an expert. And she realized now that this was not really a hatchet at all. No utilitarian woodsman's tool, this—it was a cruel and savage weapon, from a cruel and savage forest. What was sometimes called a tomahawk, she remembered.

"Remove your hand, Pappenheim," the knight repeated, as coldly if not as forcefully. "As well as the hand on her shoulder."

His hand flickered, the war hatchet blurring back and forth. The lion lashing his tail. "Or I will remove them for you."

The sheer, sudden violence of the young knight's words and actions—all the more violent for that they had not yet erupted in the blood and mayhem they promised—had momentarily paralyzed everyone else in the church. Now, finally, the other knights began to react.

Kat felt the knight holding her flinch, his fingers almost trembling. She understood then that her own impression of the blond Norseman was no figment of her imagination. The knight, too, found him just as frightening. And presumably, in his case, from past experience.

The other knights shifted their feet, their hands fumbling uncertainly at their own weapons. It was clear as day that they had no idea how to handle the situation.

Suddenly, one of the knights who had been standing in the background moved forward. A very large knight, this one, built so squarely he resembled a block of granite on thick legs. Very young, also. Kat thought he was perhaps her own age.

"For God's sake, Erik!" he exclaimed. "Why are you—?"

The blond knight held out his other hand, staying the youngster with a commanding gesture.

"Be silent, Manfred. Do you think the world is nothing but a toy for your pleasure? You are nothing but an oaf. A spoiled child. Begone! This is a man's business."

The words caused the young knight's face to flush a sudden bright pink. Then, grow pale with rage. Then—

Grow paler still; and paler still. Shock, now, Kat realized. The young knight's jaw sagged loose. He stared at the one named Erik as if he were seeing him for the first time.

Then, as suddenly as everything else was happening, his face seemed to snap shut. He shouted something Kat did not understand—words in Gaelic, she thought—and strode forward to the knight holding her.

An instant later, Manfred's huge hands closed upon her captor's own shoulders and wrenched him loose as easily as a man wrestles a boy. Suddenly released, Kat staggered on her feet for a moment. By the time she regained her balance, the knight who had seized her was crashing down onto one of the pews, turning the cheaply made wooden bench into so much kindling. She found herself marveling at the strength that could send an armored knight flying through the air like a toy; almost giggling at the sheer absurdity of the sight.

But she had no real difficulty suppressing the giggle. The situation was now on the brink of utter carnage, almost a dozen knights ready to hack each other into pieces—with herself right in the middle of them.

The young knight named Manfred whipped out his own great sword and brandished it. "Dia a coir!" he shouted. Then, took two steps toward the abbot and commanded him: "Unhand the child, Sachs!"

The abbot, through all this, had been paralyzed. Kat realized, now, that he was a man whose authority had always come from his position—not respect gained from his subordinates in action. It was obvious that Sachs had absolutely no idea what to do, now that he was faced with open rebellion.

Neither did any of the other knights, for that matter. But it was also obvious, even to Kat, that they were about to react the way fighting men will when faced with such a naked challenge. These men were cut from the same cloth as the bravos of any great house of Venice—but were far better trained, and more deadly. In open combat, at least, if not in the subtler skill of the assassin.

The hands on swords were clenched now, not loose. And two or three of those swords were beginning to come out of their scabbards. Frightened they might be, at Erik's savagery and Manfred's incredible strength—but they were not going to crumple under it. Not men like these.

Suddenly, one of the other knights thrust out his hands, his arms spread wide in a gesture commanding peace. A somewhat older knight, this one. Most of them were men in their early twenties. His face, though not creased with middle age, was that of a man in his thirties. A man accustomed to command.

"Enough!" he shouted. "Enough! No weapons!"

His voice seemed to calm the situation instantly. Kat thought he must be the knight in command of the party. The hands on sword hilts loosened; some were removed entirely. Even Erik and Manfred seemed to settle back a little.

"Erik is right," the older knight said forcefully. "Quite right! And every true Knight here knows it!"

He turned to Sachs and glared at him. "You have completely exceeded your authority here, Abbot. Abused it grossly, in fact."

The abbot gaped at him. "But—Von Gherens . . ."

"Shut up," growled the older knight. "You disgust me, Sachs." Seeing the abbot's hand still on the child's shoulder, the knight reached out his own hand and flicked it off as he might flick off an insect.

"My family has held the frontier in Livonia for six generations. Unlike you, Sachs, I have faced real demons—not figments of your fevered imagination."

Stolidly, the knight examined the still-trembling boy. "Had you ever seen a child's body on a pagan altar, Abbot"—the term was a pure sneer—"you would understand the difference."

Von Gherens. Erik. Manfred. As always, Kat found northern names harsh and peculiar. But for the first time in her life, she began to understand them better also. Harsh, yes; rigid and intolerant, yes. Yet . . . sometimes, at least, names which rang clear. Clearer, perhaps, than any of the soft names in fog-shrouded Venice.

Oddly, for a moment her mind flitted to old lessons of her tutor Marina. Lessons in theology she had not understood at the time. There was a reason, child, that Hypatia compromised with Augustine, if not Theophilus. And treasured Chrysostom, for all his rigidity and intolerance. There is such a thing as evil in the world, which cannot be persuaded, but only defeated. And for that—harshness is needed in the ranks of Christ also. Neither Shaitan nor his monsters will listen to mere words. She remembered his lips crinkling. Even a Strega, you know, does not doubt the existence of either Christ or the Dark One.

The gray-cassocked abbot looked as if he was about to have a stroke—or faint. Even in the candlelight Kat could see his face was suffused, simultaneously, with rage and—fear. His lips trembled as he groped for words; words which, apparently, he was unable to find.

Yet another knight had no such difficulty. With a slight clashing noise, he thrust his sword firmly back in the scabbard and removed his hand from the weapon.

"Von Gherens is right—Hakkonsen and Manfred also. We cannot take them out of here, by Church law. The law which, as Knights of the Holy Trinity, we are sworn to uphold."

The knight's eyes glanced at Kat, then at the children. His lips peeled back in a half-snarl. "And my name is Falkenberg—also a name of the frontier. And also one who can tell the difference between brats and devils."

Now there were nods and murmurs of agreement all around the circle of Knights. The tension was draining out of the scene as rapidly as water through a broken dam. All danger of physical violence was past. Whatever might be left would only take the form of words.

Words which Sachs was still quite incapable of uttering, it seemed. Only one of the two monks who accompanied him seemed disposed to argue the matter any further.

"We cannot let witches go free," he protested, almost squeakily. "God has guided us to this evil. We must root it out!"

"Didn' do no evil," whimpered one child. "Just came to get outa the rain."

Finally, Abbot Sachs tried to salvage something from the situation. He cleared his throat noisily.

"If we cannot take them away, we will put them to the question here." He essayed a sneer of his own; a feeble one. "Or do you deny my ecclesiastical authority for that also, Ritters Hakkonsen and Von Gherens?"

The blond knight's cold eyes did not waver for an instant. "Yes, Abbot Sachs, I do deny you the authority."

Von Gherens's words rolled right after: "The right to afford sanctuary, without arrest or violence, is inviolate. And by Church law, they may only be expelled by the priest of the parish."

Flushing furiously, Sachs turned on the terrified-looking old sacristan. "Fetch me your priest, then! I'll have these hell-spawn. So help me God—I will have them."

The sacristan left with as near to a run as the old man could muster, and never mind the rain.

Sachs turned on Von Gherens. "As for you—I'm going to make an example of you!"

Von Gherens barked a laugh. "For obeying the oath of the Order? I think not!"

"And who will enforce your 'example,' Abbot?" asked the blond knight. The question was posed quietly, but grimly. The war hatchet was back in the scabbard, but his hand was still perched on it.

"Yes—who?" demanded the big one called Manfred. Quite a bit more loudly, if not as grimly. The tone was almost mocking.

Kat saw the Knights clustering together a bit more closely. One order closing ranks against another, she realized—and realized, as well, that the identity she had always assumed existed between the Knights and the Servants of the Holy Trinity was not as solid as she'd thought. Which, she remembered vaguely, was something else Dottore Marina had once told her.

* * *

Silence followed, for some time, while they waited for the sacristan to return with the priest.

The silence was so thick with hostility between the knights and the monks that it could almost have been cut with a knife. The only movement during that time was the slow and painful return of Pappenheim to consciousness, stumbling back onto his feet from the splintered pew where Manfred had sent him. He seemed too dazed to really comprehend what was happening; simply collapsed on another pew, leaning over with his head in his hands. His helmet had apparently come loose in the force of the impact. Kat was a bit amazed that he had no broken bones. Manfred's strength was genuinely incredible. He had not so much tossed the knight into the pew as he had hurled him down upon it.

Finally, the sacristan returned, the priest close on his heels. The priest was a young man; who, like the two bridge-brats, looked as if he could have used a few more meals himself. It was a small church.

He looked in puzzlement at the scene, and then bowed to the abbot. "I am Father Ugo, and this is my parish. Why have I been called here?"

"We have called you to throw these evil miscreants out. They were defiling your church with satanic practices."

The little priest blinked, taking in the steel, and the "miscreants."

With a start, Kat realized she knew the little man. Of course, he'd been smaller and plumper then.

"Ugo Boldoni?" she said, incredulously.

The priest peered shortsightedly at her; then, gasped. There were some advantages to her distinctive carroty-colored hair, even if it was not fashionable.

"Kat—Milady Katerina! What are you doing here?"

Kat shrugged. "I was caught in the rain and came in to take shelter."

"She was practicing satanic rites!" shouted one the monks, waving a threatening finger at her.

"I was sitting on a pew!" she snapped back at him. "Quietly sitting, getting some shelter from the rain—when you came in—like demons yourselves!—and grabbed those children who were playing up there. They were fooling around with one of the candles. I assumed the sacristan would come out and give them both a clout. Instead this—"

She glared at Sachs. "This foul man who calls himself an abbot came in and behaved as if they were having a black mass, instead of just fiddling with the candle wax."

The priest looked puzzled. "But . . . but where was old Giovanni?"

"They bewitched me into sleep!" said the old man hastily. "Demonspawn they are. I'm allus chasing them out of the church. Allus up to mischief."

The big young knight named Manfred snorted. "Smell his breath! Unless the children magicked him a bottle of wine—and if they could do that, they'd have magicked themselves some food. They don't need questioning. They need a square meal and a place in a household."

The priest nodded. "Alas, sir knight. This is a poor parish. There are many such souls."

Sachs, glaring back at Kat, attempted a commanding sneer. The expression failed of its purpose; seemed more childish than anything else.

"These are mere lies! And the poor you have with you always. It is their souls, not their bodies we must deal with. Now, as your senior in the church I order you to put them out of here, Father—ah—"

The priest's name had obviously escaped him. "Priest. I will have a word with Bishop Pietro Capuletti, and see you are moved to a more worthy station. We'll have the truth out of them. The Servants of the Trinity have ways of dealing with the most hardened servants of Satan."

A look of pleasure came into the abbot's hooded eyes. The kind of pleasure that comes to a man when he finds himself back on his own ground after stumbling into a marsh.

Kat shivered. The knights, she suspected, would obey the abbot—however reluctantly—if the priest who had actual authority here denied sanctuary to her and the children. And how could once-fat, timid little Ugo Boldoni stand up to this?

"Yes, servants of Satan have no place demanding sanctuary," put in one of the two monks unctuously. "Such rights should be denied the likes of them. And the abbot is your superior!"

That was apparently the wrong thing to say to Ugo Boldoni. His spine straightened. "You attempted to remove them from the sanctuary of the Church? You? You had no right!" He glared at the abbot. "Nor is he my 'superior.' In this see, that is the Metropolitan Michael—no other! In this church I am the final arbiter."

The little priest's anger was peppery hot. "Get out of this church! Get out right now. Go."

And that was enough—more than enough—to end the whole affair. The knights were entirely in support of the priest, not the abbot. Within a minute, all of them were gone, the abbot and the two monks scurrying ahead of the knights as if afraid that if they didn't move fast enough they would be manhandled out. Which, Kat suspected, was not far from the truth. On the way out, Manfred seized the still-groaning Pappenheim by the scruff of the neck and, using only one hand, dragged him out of the church as easily as he might drag a sack of onions.

* * *

When they'd gone, Father Ugo turned to Katerina. "Just what are you doing here, milady? The Casa Montescue is a long way from here, and it is late."

Kat shrugged. Boldoni's father had been a sailing master. A good one too, apparently. And it showed in the son's manner, she reflected. "About my father's business," she said quietly. She knew that he'd know that Carlo Montescue was long overdue back from sea. Missing; presumed, by nearly all, dead.

Ugo nodded. He knew perfectly well that the Montescue might be Case Vecchie, but they were in financial trouble. All of Venice knew quickly enough whenever one of the famous old houses fell into difficult times. And knew as well, that there were some tasks only family could be relied upon to do.

"You swear that there is no truth in what that abbot said? Your soul is clean?"

"I swear by all the Saints and upon the holy cross that it was a complete lie." Her conscience twinged slightly. "These two children are naughty, but were not practicing any kind of witchcraft."

She took a deep breath and turned around, so that Ugo could not see. She reached into the pouch and took out one of the ducats. The Casa Montescue was in a desperate state, but not that desperate. Not compared to those two children, still wide-eyed and frightened. She returned the bag to its warm nest and turned around.

"Here." She held out the coin.

Father Ugo's eyes bulged slightly. Ducats didn't come his way often. But he was of iron principle. "You cannot pay me to free you of sin, Katerina," he said, sounding extremely doubtful.

"It's not for you. It is for those two children. A small thank you to God for sparing me from the Servants of the Holy Trinity."

His voice was troubled. "They do God's work, Katerina Montescue."

"That one young blond knight did God's work. Had it not been for him, that abbot . . ." She shuddered. "Anyway, forget it. I'm grateful. So is Montescue. So take this for those two children you also saved."

He took the warm ducat. "I'll buy a candle."

Kat shook her head. "Food. They'd only play with the candle!"

It was the ragged little girl's turn to shake her head. So fiercely that it looked as if it would come off her skinny shoulders. "Never play with no candles no more." She looked earnestly up at the priest. "Promise!"

A smile lit Father Ugo's countenance. He patted the children's heads gently. "Do you both promise?"

They both nodded, eyes still wide with fright.

"Good! When the rain is over I will go and check that the Servants have really left. Now, I think we will go to the altar and I will lead you all in some prayers. Tomorrow I will go to speak with Monsignor about this. Be easy, Katerina. He is Venetian, you know."

* * *

As the party of knights and monks trudged through the rain, Erik and Manfred bringing up the rear, Von Gherens paused to allow them to catch up with him. Then, walking alongside, spoke softly.

"I am forever in your debt, Hakkonsen." His square, solemn face was creased with worry. "I fear I have allowed myself . . ." The next words were almost hissed. "Damn the Servants and their witch-hunts, anyway! They're twisting my mind. Sachs sees a witch under every cobblestone in Venice."

Manfred snorted. "Witch-hunts! What witches? So far all we've 'uncovered' are a few quacks selling charms as magical as a brick."

Von Gherens nodded. "Who then took the holy test of faith before Venice's Metropolitan without fear." He sighed heavily. "I miss Father Maggiore. He was often a bit obnoxious, true, but—far better than Sachs. And he was familiar with Venice. He had knowledge of the city, spies who knew something instead of Sachs's absurd gaggle of informers. Since his horrible death, the Servants have blundered about like hogs in a salon."

Erik's words were clipped. "We're doing nothing more than spreading fear and mayhem, Ritter—and for no purpose. If Sachs were trying to, he couldn't damage the reputation of the Knights worse than he has. This is the most gossipy and intrigue-filled place I've ever seen. Everything we do is spread all over the city within a day."

For the first time since they'd entered the church, Von Gherens smiled. "True. But I daresay what you did tonight will spread just as fast—and go a long way to repairing the damage."

"What we did," insisted Erik quietly.

Von Gherens shook his head. Then, placed a thick hand on Erik's shoulder and gave it a little squeeze. "No, Erik. What you did. Had it not been for you, the rest of us would have allowed Sachs to drag us further into the pit. I will not forget it."

The knight raised his eyes and glared at the dim figure of Sachs in the rain ahead. "I will not forget," he repeated. "Von Gherens is a proud name. Respected by all. Feared by none save demon-ridden pagans. My family is in your debt as much as I am."

He said nothing further and, a short time later, quickened his steps in order to resume his rightful place beside the abbot.

Manfred watched him go. "Odd, really. He's also Prussian—yet so unlike Von Stublau."

Erik said nothing. Manfred sighed. "And me too, Erik. I will not forget either."

Finally, a touch of humor came to Erik's face. "Really? No more carousing? No more—"

"Not that!" choked Manfred. "I meant the other stuff." His great hands groped in the fog and the rain, trying to shape the distinction—and failing quite miserably.

* * *

It was only later, sculling home, playing over the events of the night that it occurred to Kat that whoever her mysterious customer was . . . she wasn't Strega. Her knife had been steel and silver—both metals the Strega would avoid like the plague.

But Kat was too tired to think too much about it. Getting free had cost her one ducat—and her scarf, which the wretched abbot had apparently kept—but the rest would soon be sitting safe in her grandfather's near-empty strongbox.

* * *

When she got home, Katerina collapsed into bed and slept the sleep of the infinitely relieved. The gold was safe enough. Good pure unpunched Venetian ducats. The coin valued beyond all others in the world.

It was well into bright morning when she awoke. There was someone in her room, looking through her clothes from the night before. They'd just been dumped in a soggy heap when she came home. Reaction had set in and she'd been just too exhausted.

Her first half-lucid thought was that someone was going to steal the bag of ducats. She sat up and yelled before her groggy mind recalled that she'd taken the gold to the old man the night before.

It was only Alessandra, snooping as usual. "There's no need to shout the house down! Just because you've spent the whole night with your lover and are too lazy get up," she added tartly.

"Oh, go away!" snapped Kat, rubbing her tired eyes. It was certainly bright out there. "Leave me to sleep. There's no lover—as you know perfectly well."

Alessandra cocked her head on one side; raised a perfect eyebrow. "Oh. What's this hair then? I'm going to look for men with honey-auburn hair with just that touch of red. I mean, I know you've got no dowry, but I didn't really think . . ."

"What are you talking about?"

"This hair from your pocket." She held up something, golden-red in the sunlight.

Kat blinked. Hair?

Oh, yes. She remembered now. One of hers she'd not wanted to leave with that Strega . . . actually non-Strega she thought, remembering that knife. "It's one of mine."

"Ha! The day you have hair that color—"

She snatched it from Alessandra's hand. True. In daylight, Katerina could see it was thicker and more curled and it certainly didn't match hers.

So—she must have picked up a hair from the woman herself, not one of her own. In the poor light she hadn't realized.

She shrugged. "I was snuggling up to Lucrezia Brunelli last night. In my sleep. Now go away before I throw this ewer at you."

Alessandra turned. "I'm going to tell Grandpapa if you don't tell me," she threatened.

Kat reached for the ewer. Alessandra showed a remarkable turn of speed leaving the room, quite out of keeping with her normal languid progress.

Kat lay back again. But like Alessandra, sleep had left the room.

There was a greater risk of being recognized, but she was going to have to start doing more deliveries in daytime.


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