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Chapter 16

Marco was out on his feet by the time he got to Caesare Aldanto's apartment near the Campo San Polo. Even if he could have found a gondolier at this hour, he had nothing to pay with—all his money and Maria's had gone into trade goods for Sophia. He had stopped at his apartment long enough to drink some watered wine and get into dry if dirty clothing; figuring that a half-hour more or less would make little difference in Aldanto's condition. Once dry and warm, he slipped on a waterproof cloak—the rain had begun again—cast a longing look at his bed, and went out again into the night.


He was ready to drop and staggering like a drunk by the time he got to Aldanto's door. It was a process that was not aided by the fact that he had had to walk a few miles through the winding dark alleys, because he didn't have a single lira for the canal traghetto. He'd had to go the long way over bridges walking, then wet footed along the tile rail to the water-door, before actually reaching it. But there was no other choice for him to make; he was not up to an argument with the guard on the gated street doorway. The stair seemed to go on forever, and the door looked like the portal to Heaven when he finally reached it. He leaned wearily against the lintel and let his fist fall on it.


The door opened the barest crack. "Who's out there?" said a muffled voice.


" 'S me, Maria, Marco. Lemme in before I fall down."


The door opened so quickly he almost did fall in. "Ye get th' stuff?"


"Uh huh. How is he?"


"Sleepin'. Don't seem no worse, but I had to pour a helluva lotta brandy in him t' get 'im t' sleep. Got him upstairs."


Marco slogged the few steps into the sitting room, let his pack fall to the floor, peeled his cloak over his head and dropped it beside the pack. "Where's Benito?"


"Sleeping too, upstairs. I figured if I needed him I could wake him up. And it's not a bad idea having him bedded down across the door up there, no? The least, somebody forces it, he c'n scream his lungs out. May kill a boarding party by scarin' 'em to death!"


Marco made his way lead-footed to Aldanto's bedside—you don't try to walk silently around an ex-assassin!—and stood in the dark listening to the sound of his breathing. A little wheezy, a little hot, but not bad. He'd gotten back well in time. There would be no need for a "real" doctor.


Satisfied, he dragged himself back out. "Boil me some water, would you, Maria? I got to get this stuff measured right—"


As she trotted back to the kitchen, he sat down on the soft warm carpet beside the pack and began taking out parcels of herbs wrapped in rags, identifying them by smell, eye, and sometimes taste. Sophia had literally given him her entire stock. The artemisia could be tricky to use—too much and you got even more horrible side effects.


"Maria," he called softly, "think you can find me a couple of big jars or bowls or something? I need something to put this stuff in besides a rag."


"Lemme look." She clattered down the stairs and returned a moment later. "These do?" She brought him a pair of canisters, the kind spices came in, with vermin-proof lids.


"Perfect."


Sophia had gone by "handful" measurement—but it was a very precise handful. Although it was a little awkward to work one-handed, Marco weighed the herbs in his palm, adding or subtracting a few leaves at a time until he was satisfied; then, carefully crushed what he'd selected into the tin, trying to get it as fine as possible.


He crushed the resulting canisterful yet again, until he had a mixture as fine as possible, then crushed a second bunch of artemisia into the second canister.


"Maria, that water ready?"


"Aye." She must have seen how tired he was, and brought the pan of hot water and spoon and cup to him. "Show me—"


"I intend to—you're going to have to do this from now on. Look, exactly two flat spoonfuls of this for every cup of water—you can put it in the cup or the pan, don't matter which." He measured two spoonfuls into the cup and poured the still-bubbling water on it. "Right, so I'm taking another flat spoonful of this stuff from the other canister and adding it. You want to keep him alive, you do the same. Now you let it steep for as long as it takes to count to a hundred."


He concentrated on the dull throbbing of his hand while the mixture seeped. He noticed with a tired little chuckle Maria's lips moving silently as she marked the time. She could count if not read. He resolved, quietly, to teach her at least to cipher her own name. His own good fortune demanded that he pass it on.


"It ready now?"


"It's ready. We strain off the leaves. If you leave them, it'll get stronger and can kill a man." He suited action to his words. "Here—" He handed the cup to her while he got himself slowly and painfully to his feet. "Let's wake him up."


Maria brought a candle with her, and lit the oil lamp beside the door across from Aldanto's bed. Some of his instincts, at least, were still holding. Caesare was awake and wary as soon as the light touched his eyes.


"Got som'thin' for ye, layabout," Maria said cheerfully—real cheer. Marco was touched at her implied trust. "Marco here says it'll fix ye right up."


"Oh—" Aldanto blinked, but before he could continue, he began shaking, great tremors that shook his entire body.


"Caesare—" Marco had never used Aldanto's first name to his face before, but it slipped out. "I mean, Milord Aldanto—"


"Caesare is fine," Aldanto said wearily, when the coughing fit was over.


"Caesare Aldanto, I've had what you've got—honest, this will help. And if you don't drink it, you could get a lot sicker. Believe me—I almost died. You don't come from Venice. Kids here get it when they're small. Lot of them die. But if they live, then they will live when they get it again. But you could die. Now, this medicine is going to make you feel even sicker, but I swear to you, it'll help. On my family's honor, I swear. But it is going feel like death."


Aldanto gave him a long, appraising look—then wordlessly took the cup from Maria and drank it down in two gulps.


"Feh—that—is—vile!" he choked, face twisted in distaste. "That better work fast, because if it doesn't, I'm not drinking more!"


"That's more words in a row than you've managed yet tonight," Marco pointed out. "We'll sugar it next time." Without being asked, Maria brought the brandy and looked inquiringly at Marco.


"Good notion." He approved, thinking that a bit more brandy wouldn't hurt and might help keep Aldanto in bed. "Caesare—I hate to ask—but is there anything around here I can use as a bandage? I love old Sophia, but I hate to think where her rags have been."


"Spare room," said Aldanto around the brandy.


"I'll get it," said Maria.


Aldanto sagged back against his pillows, eyes going unfocused again. Marco carefully unwrapped his hand. The poultice of coltsfoot and lance-leaf plantain and Heaven knew what else was working quite well—and Sophia had included more bundles of the herbs in his pack to allow him to put fresh dressings on the wound.


Despite the herbal poultice the wound looked bad, red and swollen. But it was sealing shut, and Marco thought by the look of it that it wasn't infected. He was just beginning to realize how lucky he was. His hand ached, but so far as he could tell all the fingers were still working. He could have easily gotten some tendons sliced and wound up with a crippled hand.


"That's a knife wound." Aldanto was staring at the wounded hand, surprised and shocked alert.


"It is, Caesare. I know you think I'm a kid, and you're right sometimes—but you're not right this time. I had to go into the Jesolo for that stuff. Sophia was the only place short of a real doctor where I was going to find what you needed. A man tried to stop me."


Now Aldanto was looking wary, even perhaps a bit alarmed. Marco could have kicked himself for not thinking. Of course, Aldanto would suspect those enemies of his of trying to follow Marco—


"No, no," he hastened to assure him. "Nothing to do with you, he was a marsh-loco. I had to fight him to get through. That's where I got this, and lost my own knife."


"Was?"


"Was. And don't you ever tell Benito I killed a man. He wasn't the first—but I don't want Benito to know about that."


"You have a reason?" Aldanto was staying focused, which rather surprised Marco, given the amount of brandy and the artemisia he had in him, not to mention the fever.


"Because—" Marco looked up from his hand, and he knew his eyes and mouth were bitter. "He'll think he has to be like me. Next thing you know, he'll go out looking. He'll either get himself killed—or he'll kill somebody, and for all the wrong reasons. And that would be worse than getting himself killed. I remember more than just you from home. I remember what some of the younger Montagnards were like when they were my age and Benito's. They started like that—first each one trying to out-risk the other—then it got worse. I don't think he'd ever turn out like them, but I'm not taking any chances on it."


Aldanto nodded slowly, relaxing and letting himself give way to the drugs and the alcohol. "I think maybe I've been underestimating you."


"Only sometimes. You getting sleepy yet?"


Aldanto shivered hard again, then got it under control. "Getting there—and feeling a great deal less like death would be welcome."


"That's the whole idea, Caesare." An idea occurred to him, and he decided he wanted to broach it while Aldanto was in a generous—and intoxicated—mood. "Could you do me a favor? When you feel more like talking?"


"Maybe," Aldanto replied wearily, obviously wishing Marco would leave him alone. "What's the favor?"


Maria came in with clean bandages, salve, and a cheap broach. Marco felt his face flame with embarrassment. He hated to ask in front of Maria, but this might be his only chance. "Could you—could you tell me some time—how to—how to get a girl—to—to like you?" And what do you do with her after that, he thought, but didn't say.


"Oh mercy—" Aldanto shut his eyes and leaned his head back on his pillow, his mouth twitching. Marco had the uncomfortable suspicion that he was trying to keep from laughing. Behind him, he heard Maria choking a little, as if she hadn't quite managed to suppress her own humor.


"If you'd rather not—"


"Later, Marco. We'll see about it later." Aldanto opened his eyes and gave him a not-unsympathetic wink, shivered again, harder this time, and lost his amusement as a shudder of chill shook him. "Surely it can wait?"


"Sure—sure—" Marco hastily backed out of the bedroom, taking the bandages from Maria as he passed her. By the time she joined him, he was sitting on the couch, trying to rebandage his wound one-handed.


"Here, you fool, let me do that." She took the things away from him and undid his clumsy work. He leaned back into the soft upholstery and allowed her to do what she wanted. "How much of this stuff of yours he gonna need?"


"Just what's in the canister."


She looked suspiciously at him. "I looked in your pack. You brung back a lot more'n that—"


He shrugged. "I know. I could catch it again, or Benito, or you. There's likely to be a use for it before a cold snap kills the fever. Sophia says I can come trade her for more, anyway. And I brought other herbs."


Maria looked thoughtful. "You know—this could be worth something. You say this is the same fever that kills the little ones."


"The thought crossed my mind. But I was mostly doing it for Caesare."


"I owe you one, Marco," she said softly, earnestly.


He relaxed and shut his eyes, feeling his tired and bruised muscles go slack. "Don't go talking debts at me. I owed him."


"Damnfool Case Vecchie honor," she jeered back. There was respect in that jeer, however. The scoulo families like hers might be poor, but their honor was as deep and as precious. She worked slowly, gently and precisely, first cleaning the wound with some more of Aldanto's brandy. He could tell it wasn't the first knife wound she'd dealt with.


"Just one of Ventuccio's clerks." Fatigue made irrelevant thoughts swim past and one of them caught what little was left of his attention. A thought and a memory of a couple of days ago.


What the hell, he'd risk her temper. "Maria—it's 'aren't' when you're talking about you or more than one person, and 'isn't' all the rest of the time. Except when you're talking about yourself, then it's 'am not.' Got it? Think that'll help?"


He cracked an eyelid open to see her staring open-mouthed at him.


"How did you—?"


"Noticed you fishing for it the other day. Figured nobody'd ever given you the rule. Hard to figure things out if nobody tells you the rules. Claudia could help you better than I could. She was an actress for a while and she knows all the tricks." He yawned. "She could make Brunelli sound like a bargee, or a bargee sound like"—yawn—"Brunelli." His lids sagged and he battled to stay awake.


"Ain't nobody put it quite like that before," she said thoughtfully. "Huh. Damn, this is a bad 'un. Looks like it hurts like hell. What'd you do here, ram your hand down on the point?"


"Had to. He outweighed me by about twice. It was the only way I could think to get the knife away from him." He ran his right hand up to check the lumps on the back of his head and encountered his not-too-nice hair. And remembered.


"Oh hell!"


Maria looked up, startled. "What's the matter? I hurt you?"


"There's no food in the house, I need a bath worse than I ever did in my life, all the clothes are filthy and have to be washed and I don't have a copper for any of it! I spent every last coin I had for trade goods for Sophia! Oh hell!" He squeezed his eyes shut to stop their burning, but a few shameful tears born of exhaustion and frustration escaped to embarrass him. To have gone through this whole night only to have to run against this—


"Oh, don't get upset." Maria still had his hand and he managed to get enough control of himself to open his eyes to look at her. She was smiling broadly and pointedly not looking at his tears. "I reckon Caesare owes you a good bit. We got food here, we have a tub and a fireplace. And good soap. You want, I can row you back to Cannaregio when Benito wakes up, get your things, bring it all back here. Given this hand, I reckon I could help you with the clothes even. You just be damn sure not to waste nothing. That suit you?"


Relief turned his muscles to slush and he sagged back. "More than suits—"


"You've got that thinking look again."


"You get most of your work at night, right?"


She looked more than a little uncomfortable, but nodded.


"We work days. So—if you wanted, we could stay here just long enough for him to get better. Or—hell, half the town's sick. You could take a note to Ventuccio's saying we are, and we could even spell you in the daytime that way. Saints! The way I feel right now it wouldn't even be a lie! I figure Caesare should be getting better in four, five days; a week, tops. We watch for trouble while you're out, whenever. We can feed him too, make sure he takes the medicine. Keep him from going out when he isn't ready to."


The last two sentences came out a little uncertainly. Keeping Caesare from doing whatever he felt like doing was an improbable scenario—sick or not.


"And you get?" asked Maria.


"Food and a hot bath. I know damn sure Caesare can afford to eat better than we can." He grinned wearily, his bruised facial muscles aching. "You'll have to talk him into covering the pay we'll lose, though. Hell, Maria, you know we can't afford to lose pay any more than you can."


"I know he trusts you." She looked back at the hand she was holding and finished pinning the new bandage with the broach. "I expect after tonight ye've proved it out. We got weapons enough here, between the two of us. And if I don't show up for too long, it's gonna look funny. We don't dare let anybody guess he ain't well enough to fight. All right; you do that." She sniffed, her mouth quirking a little contemptuously. "Hell, the way he throws his money around, he'll cover you if I say so."


"We'll cook and clean up after ourselves."


"You'd damn sure better, 'cause I ain't gonna—" She looked up to see he'd fallen asleep, wedged into the corner of the couch. His head was sagging against the couch cushion and he'd gone as limp as a loaf of water-soaked bread. She chuckled and went to find him a blanket.


 


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