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Chapter 17

Francesca waited on the walkway outside the Red Cat for Kat to arrive with the last package. Madame was not going to object if any of her girls chose to take a little sun on the walkway while she waited for a delivery; it served as good advertisement. And when that girl was Francesca . . . it guaranteed a full house.

The Sots, though they might harass women they suspected of being whores in and around their own stronghold or inside churches, had not yet become brave enough to go after the Scarlet Women at their own doorsteps. For that much, Francesca was grateful. From Kat's own lips she'd heard the story of the incident with the Sots at the church two weeks before. It had sent chills down her spine. It wasn't so much that they'd dared—a fanatic would dare anything, any time, any place—as it was that their leader had so instantly seen heresy and witchcraft where there was none.

Small wonder the Strega she knew were digging holes in the water to hide in. She wanted her talisman, and she wanted it badly.

As if the mere thought of Kat had conjured the girl, the next gondola to make the turn and negotiate its way into the Rio dei Mendicanti was hers. Francesca waved cheerfully to her; with both hands on her pole, Kat could hardly wave back, but she nodded.

There was no need to hide anything. Kat's usual costume, with the hood that covered her distinctive hair, disguised her well enough from anyone except people who knew her well. Which meant, Francesca was now certain, anyone from the Case Vecchie circles. As a young woman of the Case Vecchie, Kat would not be known to anyone in Venice's lower classes except the few people with whom the girl had set up commercial arrangements—which, for their reasons as well as her own, would be kept highly secret. So there was no danger of Kat being recognized here, so long as she kept her face shadowed and her hair covered by a hood—not in the vicinity of this bordello. The House of the Red Cat did not have a low-class custom, true, but it was still several cuts below the kind of establishment that the city's elite would frequent.

Nor did Francesca have any reason to hide the transaction from the watchful eyes of the Madame of the Red Cat. Prostitutes received frequent parcels from boat girls; not even a suspicious brothel keeper would wonder about this parcel. In fact, the very openness of the delivery was the surest protection. Besides, Francesca was too impatient for the pose of the languid lady. She caught the rope that Kat tossed to her and tied up the boat with her own hands. Kat threw her the package she had been waiting for, then balanced up and over the deck and onto the walkway, jumping across the water to land beside Francesca.

"Do you want to check it and make sure it's all right?" Kat asked.

The gown within the outer wrapping—a very special gown—had been an extra, ordered after the successful interview with the Madame of Casa Louise. Madame wanted her to make an entrance and a stir when she first arrived (officially) at the House. Kat had promised she could come up with something spectacular. Tonight, or tomorrow, depending on what Fate presented in the way of opportunity, saucy and inventive Francesca of the Red Cat would vanish, and Francesca de Chevreuse, gracious and educated courtesan from Aquitaine, would appear at Casa Louise—with no way of connecting the two. Certainly her potential customers would never guess. The social strata that patronized Casa Louise wouldn't even glance down the Rio dei Mendicanti as they passed by on their way to some important social or business function.

All the rest of the new gowns, including the interview gown, were in her new apartment at Casa Louise, conveyed there by the ever-resourceful Katerina. Francesca was taking no chances on the Madame of the Red Cat sniffing out her imminent defection. A bruised and broken-boned courtesan was not an object of desire, and the doorman had heavy fists.

Kat had cleverly managed to squeeze everything into a rather small package that looked exactly like a parcel from a food-stall. "I don't suppose you'd care to come in, would you?" Francesca asked doubtfully. She was surprised by the answer.

"I would love to. I'd like—to ask your advice."

On what, I wonder? Kat knew Donatella, the same Strega herbalist who provided Francesca with the means of preventing pregnancy, so it couldn't be that, could it? Unless Kat wasn't aware that there were such things—

Ridiculous. She couldn't be making deliveries on these waters without finding out within a fortnight.

"Then by all means, please come in." Francesca gestured that Kat should follow her.

It was too early for the doorman to be on duty, and plenty of the other girls had female friends or relatives from outside the House, so Fernando paid no attention to Kat whatsoever. They reached Francesca's room in short order, and Francesca dropped the latch into place when Kat was inside.

"I hope you'll forgive me, but there's really no place to sit but the bed," Francesca said apologetically. Kat shrugged, and took a seat at the foot, looking around with curiosity.

"Ease my mind and have a look through there. I think you'll like what I found, and I want to make sure that the goldsmith gave me the right thing."

Thing. That would be the talisman. Francesca smiled; she wouldn't wonder that Kat was suspicious—it didn't look like something a goldsmith should have held in his keeping. She cut the string holding the parcel together and unfolded the dark, tabby-weave cloth.

Ah, the cloak. Kat had used the cloak she'd asked for as the wrapping, lining-side out. Inside were the dress, the undergown, the shifts, the hose, with one of the undergowns wrapped around another bundle.

"These are perfect," Francesca assured the girl. "Especially the choice of colors. Every other courtesan is going to be in blue or red; not only are these good colors for me, but they'll make me stand out immediately." She untied the shift and shook out the ornaments. "These are even better, if that's possible," she pronounced. "Whoever taught you about jewelry was a wise woman. Never choose fake anything, when for the same price you can have something genuine." She held up the sparkling strands of Murano glass beads that she would weave through her hair, then the three-tiered necklace with carved amber pendants and the matching earrings. "Can you see how much richer and substantial these look than gilt chains and faux pearls?"

"I didn't like the look of the other things I was offered," replied Kat. "I can't explain it, and no one taught me."

"Then you have very good instincts," Francesca told her, taking out the last piece, her precious amulet. It had been her mother's, and had come all the way from Aquitaine with Francesca. It was very crude—a wooden heart encased in a plain silver cage. It was also very old, and would probably get her burned on sight if one of the Sots ever got wind of it. It held a luck-spirit: not a terribly powerful one, but powerful enough to keep Francesca safe so long as she didn't do anything monumentally stupid . . . and quite powerful enough to keep her safe from prowling canal monsters by making her invisible to the eyes of evil creatures and black spirits.

It was also indisputably pagan. Which was why Francesca had chosen her Jewish goldsmith to hold it for her while she was in the Red Cat.

"Instincts good enough for me to do what you're doing?" came the bitter question.

Francesca clutched the amulet to her breast quite unconsciously and stared at the girl. "You can't possibly be saying you want to become a whore!" she blurted.

Kat flushed, but persisted. "You seem to be doing well enough. And if . . . my grandfather dies, I may have no choice."

Francesca had known from the first day she met Kat that the girl's family was in dire straits. She was fairly certain she even knew, from the rumors that swirled through Venice along with the tides, which of the old houses it was—Montescue—even though she had never made any attempt to find out. But this . . .

She sat down on the head of the bed, put her talisman aside, and seized Kat's hands in both of hers. "I am the exception to the general fate of women in this profession," she said bluntly. "Or, at least, I intend to be. I've had to fight and scheme my way with every step I took since I came to Venice, and if I had not had the training from early childhood, and exceptional looks, I would not be going where I am." She was not going to speak the name of Casa Louise aloud, not here. Until the moment she went out of the door in this dress, there was still danger.

"Listen to me—I'm not going to give you my life's story, but I'm going to tell you enough. My family was the equivalent of Case Vecchie—elsewhere. My father was ruined by another old house when I was fifteen; then excommunicated and executed for supposed 'treason.' My older brother was murdered within a month. My mother fled with me and a single mule-load of her belongings. She set herself up as a courtesan in another city by appearing at a very exclusive House in one of her fine gowns and letting the Madame know that she—and her daughter—were available. The Madame tested her—and myself as well. A courtesan is not a whore; if she were, no man of wealth and taste would bother with what he could have cheaper, elsewhere. Simple rutting, however luxurious the setting, is not sufficient for the price that a man pays for a cortegiana."

Kat's face flamed, but Francesca was going to give the girl the whole truth as brutally as possible. "My mother prospered until she did something unbelievably stupid. She had the opportunity to strike back at the man who had destroyed her husband and son, and she took it. She was condemned and hung as a murderess. By then however, I was—in the business. I took my accomplishments and what I could carry and the Madame kindly assisted my flight to Venice. The Madame and my mother saw to it—as the next generation in their profession—that I had every accomplishment. I read and write in four languages, I speak six. I play the lute and sing. I dance. I can converse with a learned dottore of letters on the works of the Greeks and Romans, or on the works of the poets and philosophers of our own age. I even write poetry myself—it's bad poetry, but I can write it. I know as much about politics within Italy and the wider world as most of the gentlemen of the Case Vecchie. Quite a bit more, in fact. And as for the games of the bed—well, let me just assure you that I am a notable athlete. That is what is required to be a courtesan."

She paused thoughtfully. "You may believe the rewards are great, and . . . they are. Or can be, at least. I will, in the course of a year, earn as much as a good ship's captain, and that is my share—the Madame will earn as much from my labors as I do. But to get to this point, I have had to strip my soul down to the bones, and be more ruthlessly honest with myself than anyone other than a priest should ever be forced to be. I must look in the mirror every day, and rather than admire my own beauty, search ruthlessly for any flaw. I must keep my body in a state of perfection. I must lie gracefully and believably to my customers—I must be able to read them so well that I seem to read their thoughts. Every day I face the possibility that a customer will injure or even kill me, and if he does, no punishment will come to him. Lately there is also the threat that the star of the Servants of the Trinity will be so on the ascendant that they will dictate Venetian morality—they will be looking for women to make into examples, and they will take the ones who stand out. Now—consider what I am, what my accomplishments are, and ask yourself—are you my match? Can you do what I do every day? If not—you'll find yourself here, in a House like this one. The risks are greater, here; the likelihood of a customer committing some outrage higher. The Schoppies are frequent visitors, and demand pleasure as the price of leaving us alone. The servants are spies, and the Madame herself can order her girls beaten as punishment for some infraction, real or imagined. Unless extreme care is taken, the risk of disease as well as injury is very high."

"Oh," Kat said, and gulped.

"I quite understand that from the outside—although my life is ridden with sin—all this looks moderately attractive," Francesca said more gently. "I am also aware that the life of a courtesan looks . . . well, quite glamorous, in a tarnished sort of fashion. And it is quite possible, for a clever and careful woman, to find herself wedded to the man of her choice. You've heard the whispered gossip, no doubt, perhaps you even know of such a woman. But let me tell you now, that although I fully intend precisely that sort of fate for myself, it will require all the resources I can muster, all my energy, thought, and time, the planning of a great general, and, frankly, a certain amount of luck."

"Ah," said Kat; she looked both disappointed and relieved, and Francesca patted her hands and let them go.

"Such luck as you have been for me," Francesca continued. "A courtesan remembers her friends, Kat. I think you'll soon find that the information I can provide you once I move will be of considerable help in mending your fortunes, as you have done the things that helped me to repair mine."

She smiled. "If worse comes to worst, a Grand House like the one I'm moving to often requires discreet boatmen to ferry messages, as well as clients who need a certain privacy. And, what would be even better . . ."

Francesca hesitated, not wanting to bruise Kat's already damaged pride any further. But—

"Kat," she said firmly, "within a much shorter time than you might expect, I will be . . . well, not exactly awash in wealth, but certainly rich enough to afford—even require—my own gondolier. Having one who was herself a pretty girl—or, better still, a pretty girl cleverly disguised as a very pretty boy—would give the thing a certain cachet. Which a courtesan requires more than anything else. So if your fortunes come tumbling down, and you find yourself destitute and alone—please come to me first. Before you think of taking any, ah, desperate measures. All right?"

As she had made her suggestions, the color had faded from Kat's face. But it returned, soon enough. And her expression had become almost hopeful when Francesca came to the part about the private gondola. That gave Francesca a feeling of great relief—Kat did not have the makings of a courtesan, and she didn't want to see the girl in the situation that most of the Red Cat women were in. Kat, she knew, would not survive that life for more than a handful of years.

"Now, I know you must have deliveries, and I have an evening of work ahead of me—" She fished for the pouch of coins she owed Kat, and pressed them into her hand.

"I do," Kat said, springing up from her seat on the bed. She paused at the door, and turned around. "Francesca—thank you. For everything."

"You are most welcome, dear." Francesca gave her a knowing wink that made Kat blush all over again before she whisked out the door and was gone.


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