Back | Next

Chapter 21

Maria waited for them in the kitchen of the apartment. It was . . . homelike having them living here. The boys tried to keep quiet, but they were, in the manner of boys, not much good at it. Maria found the noises comforting. She hadn't been aware of Caesare's catlike quietness until she'd had the contrast. The occasional clatter and slip from whisper into a laugh or hastily stifled yell was pleasant, almost comforting. Maria had never had a real family, the way most people did. It had been just her and her mother, as she was growing up. Since then, her huge pack of cousins had offered to provide her with a home—well, until she took up with Caesare—but Maria had always declined the offers. She valued her independence too much. But the boys didn't really impinge on that independence. They just made her home . . . warmer.

Of course, she'd never tell them that. They obviously found the apartment pleasing too. They hadn't moved out although Caesare was getting up for part of each day now. There was not much wrong with him any more that Maria could see, except he tired quickly. She wanted a word with Marco about that. And she'd better sort Benito out before he got into real trouble. She felt a little awkward at the thought of trying to discipline Benito. He wasn't more than two years younger than she was, after all. But somebody had to do it. And Marco, for all that he was a good soul and gentle as a dove, wasn't up to dealing with his little brother.

She grabbed him by the ear when he came in. "Benito. You listen to me."

"Ow! Leggooo! How do I listen when you're pulling my ear off?"

Maria snorted. "You listen with the other one, and if I pull this one off maybe things won't just go straight in one ear and out of the other."

"I'm listening. I'm listening. Just let go," said Benito on tiptoes.

She did. "Now if this doesn't go in, next time I will pull it off. I hear from Giaccomo you're still hanging out with that Laivetti boy. Mercutio."

"Yeah," said Benito, defensively. "He's a friend of mine, see." His tone was surly.

Maria didn't like that tone. "He's trouble!" she snapped. "If you're going to stay with Caesare and me—you keep your nose clean. Caesare doesn't need extra troubles."

Benito was silent for a few moments. He bit his lip. "It's not as simple as all that, Maria," he said quietly.

"And why not?"

Benito shrugged. "You know, when you're living on the canals . . .  um . . . some of the bigger boys they use the little 'uns like girls. Some of them are real fond of little boys."

Maria's eyes narrowed. "This Mercutio . . ."

"No! Mercutio, he's a ladies' man. But he looked out for me. Kind of let it be known that he'd deal with anyone who tried anything. Helped me out with food and—and a bit of coin a time or two. Showed me a few things that Claudia and Valentina left me to find out the hard way. And—he made me laugh when I needed a few laughs." Stubbornly: "I can't just turn my back on him. I can't, Maria."

Maria nodded. She understood this level of loyalty. It made her think better of Benito, actually.

"Si. I can see that, 'Nito. But there's a difference between being a friend, maybe sitting at Giaccomo's, talking, and doing the kind of crazy thievery and stunts that he likes to pull. You'll get killed. So will he."

Benito shrugged again. "That's what Claudia always says. But Mercutio—he's lucky."

Maria shook her head. She hadn't really gotten through to him. "Luck runs out. You stay away from his stunts, Benito."

Some of the grimness in that must have gotten to Benito. "He's out of town anyway, Maria. From what I can work out, no one's seen him since two-three days after Caesare took sick."

Maria smiled. "I know he's your friend, but I hope he stays away."

Benito's brother walked in, looking preoccupied. "Morning, Marco. You been to see the patient? Hope you not lookin' like that 'cause he's going downhill."

Marco smiled. "Sorry. I was just . . . thinking about something. Si, I've been to see Caesare. He's fine, Maria. It'll take him a little while to get his strength back. His endurance, rather—his strength's pretty much back to normal. If he rests, well, another few weeks and he'll be like this never happened."

Maria snorted. "I can't make him rest—he'll be out and about again today. He just won't accept it that he can't run around for very long. That's a nasty sickness."

Marco looked embarrassed. "Um. That's the treatment, not the disease. If you live through the disease without the herbs, you're better in a week or so."

Maria gawped at him. "What?"

Marco held up his hands. "Without the herbs, a lot of people just die. But the herbs are poison too. You can kill someone with them if they have too much. Old Sophia reckons the herbs make the body too poisonous for the sickness to live. It takes the body a while to rid it itself of the toxin. It won't do Caesare any harm to be up and about. He'll get tired quick, that's all."

"Well, that's good to know," said Maria with relief. "Although I wouldn't tell him you poisoned him!" The relief went away. Quietly, anxiously: "He's organizing something. I can tell by the way his eyes go thoughtful."

* * *

Out on the water carrying a cargo of copper nails to the Arsenal, Maria had time to think about what Marco had said. She just hoped the poison didn't make Caesare slower. He kept most of what he was involved in from her. He always said what she didn't know couldn't be tortured out of her. But on at least one occasion it had been a duel, which was strictly illegal. The young nobleman Caesare had pushed into it had been a thorn in the side of Ricardo Brunelli.

"Hey, Maria."

She looked up. It was Antonio, plying his usual load of fresh crabs for the fishmarket. It was a good line, that. Housewives wanted their crabs still alive. And they paid extra for it. But it meant Antonio was often ferrying a load in before Lauds. "Ciao, 'Tonio. How's trade?"

"Bit slow. Always is at this time. Look, I know you work nights a bit. I'm just passing a warning out. They found what was left of one of those young Ponto di Reggio brats dead in the water, stuck in some piles."

Maria thought of Benito. Maybe he owed his friend Mercutio more than he realized. "What killed him?"

Tonio shrugged. "Somethin' bad. Real bad. The body was pretty much missing, and what there was the eels and fish had eaten most of it. But the head, they say, was bitten in half. What kinda fish can bite right through a skull, eh? No natural one, that's sure and certain. Like nothin' anyone ever saw. They reckon it must be some of this witchery that's going on. The kid disappeared months ago, and they say it was the same night that rich banker got torn apart in his own bed. Does that sound like happenstance to you?"

He glanced around, searching the water, uneasy even in broad daylight. "Just thought I'd tell you to keep a weather eye out."

Maria clutched at the amulets she wore. Two were from the Calle Farnese, supposedly protection against demons of the night. The other, side-by-side with pagan charms, was a little leather bag containing—well, supposed to contain—a fragment of St. Ursula's skull. She hoped they'd protect her because she didn't have a whole lot of choice about working nights, moving stuff for Giaccomo sometimes.

* * *

Marco felt very uneasy here. This was the last place, the very last place, where a Pauline belonged. This was, if not the headquarters of the enemy, at least a bastion—a chapel of Saint Raphaella, one of Saint Hypatia's fervent followers, martyred, not by fire, sword, or persecution, but by accident. Saint Raphaella had allegedly stood firm in the face of a tide of dreadful injuries all over Alexandria in the wake of the terrible earthquake of 735, had used herb and skill and yes, magic, to hold off the scythe of grim death from thousands who were dying. She cured them of injury or illness or both, and perished only when an aftershock toppled a broken column down on her as she was trying to help more who were trapped in the rubble and still alive. And even then, she did not cease her work, apparently; for all those who prayed to her recovered, and there were many who dreamed of her laying gentle hands on them in the night and woke healed. In the wake of so many miracles, it would have taken a stronger man than the then-Grand Metropolitan to deny the voices on all sides who called for sanctification.

Marco remembered his mother denouncing the saint, once, when he was a small boy. He only remembered because of his phenomenal memory. Lorendana Valdosta had denounced a lot of things.

She was headstrong, disobedient, not modest and self-effacing as Saint Paul told women to be. She defied her own priest, even, when he ordered her to stay out of the city. Told him to take his orders to the Devil!

If she hadn't, how many would have died? Marco could remember himself wondering that, after his mother finished her little peroration. And today, much older, he could look back on the episode and realize how absurd it was for his mother—the notorious Montagnard agent Lorendana Valdosta—to be denouncing other women for being headstrong and disobedient. As if she herself had not been! And for a far less worthy a cause than Saint Raphaella.

Still . . . Marco was unsettled. Whatever doubts he might have begun developing about all the tenets of the Pauline creed, it was the one he had been raised in, after all. And this was a tiny, dark little place, squeezed in between two warehouses, on a waterway so narrow a boy could jump across it. The reason Marco had come was that Brother Mascoli, who presided here, had sent a message that he wanted to speak to Marco about his herbs.

At least he's Hypatian. Horrible thought, that. Had they heard it spoken aloud—and had they enough authority—the Servants of the Holy Trinity would probably drag Marco up in front of a tribunal and in less time that it took to say "knife," have him declared a heretic.

The last light of day couldn't penetrate these man-made canyons, and although the sky had just begun to show the colors of sunset, down here it was twilight. Marco pushed open the door to the chapel and eased inside.

There wasn't much in the way of light here, just the few candles that burned in front of the statues of Hypatia and Raphaella, and the Presence-Light on the altar. Someone knelt in front of the altar, someone in a light-colored robe and not ordinary clothing, who got to his feet and turned around as the door creaked closed. Marco cleared his throat awkwardly.

The man who approached him was not terribly prepossessing; balding, with little more than a gray fringe over each ear. Thin, yet round-faced, he blinked mild blue eyes at the newcomer. "Peace be with you, my child," he said in a reedy voice. "How may I help you?"

"I'm looking for Brother Mascoli," Marco replied. "He asked to see me. . . ."

The little man's face lit up with a smile that transformed it. "Then you must be Marco! Please, will you come back to my quarters? I'd like to ask you a few questions, about those herbs you have been giving some of my flock."

Marco would rather not have gone with him, but there didn't seem to be much choice. Reluctantly, he followed the sibling through a door behind the statue of Saint Raphaella and into a tiny closet of a cell that didn't hold anything but a pallet on a wooden platform, a stool and desk, a crucifix on the wall, and a lamp. "Please sit down, Marco," the Sibling said, taking the stool, leaving the only place for Marco to sit being the bed. He sat very gingerly on the edge as Brother Mascoli took out pen, ink, and a roughly bound book, opening it to a blank page.

"Now, if you would be so kind—I wonder if you could tell me—" the words were gentle, the interrogation ruthless. Brother Mascoli extracted every particle of information Marco had about Sophia and Chiano's herbs, even going so far as to take out an enormous herbal from beneath the bed and leaf through all the pages until he had identified the exact plants to his satisfaction. The herbal, Marco noted, was handwritten, the drawings quite accurate, and the script identical to Brother Mascoli's. Had the sibling actually ventured out into the marshes to collect samples of all of those plants himself? If so—his estimation of the rabbitty little man went up several notches.

"Now, what incantation did you use?" Brother Mascoli asked, briskly.

Marco froze. The sibling raised an eyebrow at his silence. "Well?" he prompted.

"None," he said stiffly.

"None?" The other eyebrow rose. "Surely not."

"None," he repeated, his voice cracking with strain.

Brother Mascoli carefully blew on the page to dry it, and closed the book. He regarded Marco for a very long time with a deceptively mild gaze. Marco couldn't move.

"Marco," the sibling said quietly, "Why are you so afraid of your magic?"

Marco began to sweat. "What magic?" he squeaked.

He can tell! How can he tell? How does he know?

Chiano knew. . . .

Brother Mascoli's gaze ceased being mild. After another very long time, he sighed. "Marco—I am one single man, serving people who are the poorest of the poor. I have no help, and very little money, and although I am something of a mage, I am absolutely the least powerful of any in this city. And yet the people I serve number in the thousands and they are the most likely to become ill, to be seriously injured. Now, I continue to serve them because God saw fit to grant me a gift, and it would be a sin—a sin—not to use it to help as best I am able. And not a venial sin, either, but a mortal sin, the sin of pride."

"P-p-pride?" Marco stuttered in confusion.

Brother Mascoli nodded. "Pride. The pride of a man who would believe that he knows better than God. God has seen fit to give me this gift, and gifts are meant to be used for the good of all. To be shared. To refuse to do so is to refuse God's blessings, and to do so out of selfishness. And that," he added, examining his fingertips for a moment, "would be yet another sin. Sloth, perhaps—that one was too lazy to exert oneself? Avarice, that one wished to keep one's energies all for oneself? I suppose that it all would depend on the motive behind the selfishness."

Marco wasn't going to cave in that easily to this facile Petrine. "Use of magic should remain in the hands of anointed priests, who won't be tempted by such power."

"What in heaven's name makes you think that priests can resist the temptations of power?" the Sibling retorted.

"All the more reason then—"

"Marco," Mascoli said sharply. "Give over for a moment! Allow someone who has actually studied magic to speak, will you?"

Marco snapped his mouth shut, flushing.

"Magic, as even the most rigorous Pauline practices it, is prayer. Nothing less, but certainly nothing more. We hedge it round with ritual, we beg angels to attend us and fence our work off from the outside world and the interference of the Evil One, but when it all comes down to cases, it is nothing but intensely focused prayer. God allows us to use our own strengths to accomplish some tasks, and grants us His strength or that of his angels to accomplish those that are beyond our strength, but we never force, we only ask, for these graces." Mascoli's rabbity face took on a distinctly mulish look. "Now if you can find me, anywhere in Scripture or Holy Writ, a place where the faithful are told that only anointed priests may pray to God, I beg you to show it to me. That will certainly be a revelation to every Christian alive or dead."

Marco had only thought he was flushing before. Now a painful heat crept up his neck and over his face, until it felt sunburned. He couldn't counter the sibling, and he knew it. And Brother Mascoli knew that he had won the point.

At least he was gracious enough not to gloat about it. "Just think about what I've said, will you?" he asked. "You don't have to make any decisions right now, just think about it. And while you're at it, think about all those poor creatures up and down the canals that I can't help because I haven't the strength."

"All right," Marco mumbled, and when he got to his feet and shuffled out the door, Mascoli didn't stop him.

* * *

He had already told Benito and Maria that he was going to be late, so he didn't go straight back; instead he wandered the walkways and bridges trying to poke holes in Brother Mascoli's argument. If you took him at his word that all of the ritual and incantation of magic (at least as a good Christian would practice it, leaving out all the invocations of heathen spirits and elves and whatnot) was nothing but prayer, then what he had been taught was dead wrong.

Now, Mascoli could have lied, of course. He had every reason to lie; he served the poor, he needed help, and here was Marco who could give that help if he chose to. But Mascoli was, if not a full priest, certainly an avowed and oath-bound Sibling of Hypatia. If he lied—which was, after all, a sin—it was a worse thing than if Marco lied. And more especially if he lied about something like magic, tempting Marco into deep, black sin.

Marco twisted and turned the problem every which way, and still came up with the same unpalatable answer, that what he'd been taught was wrong.

Finally, having worn out quite enough shoe leather, he turned his steps back to Caesare's apartment, and walked into yet another mess.

At least this time it was none of his doing.

When he opened the door, Maria all but ran into him, only to choke off a muffled curse and half a sob when she saw that it was him in the doorway.

"What's the matter?" he asked, alarmed.

"He's gone!" she said, and fled up to the room she shared with Caesare. Fortunately, Benito had been right behind her and filled in the rest.

"Caesare decided he was well enough t' get up, an' off he went," Benito said grimly. "Right after Maria got back. She couldn' stop him, no more could I. An' he wouldn' tell us where he was goin', when he was gonna get back, nor what he was gonna do. He just went. It was right after he got some message, just after dark, and he took it with him, so we don't know what it said."

Marco realized immediately their concern. For a man in Caesare's condition to leave the apartment was no source of worry, in itself. Not so long as he was going to a tavern, or taking a walk, or—

Anything except . . . "Caesare's business."

Marco cleared his throat. "Ah. Ah, was he carrying—

"Yeah, he took his sword," said Benito instantly, answering the unfinished question.

"Oh hell," Marco said weakly. Caesare normally didn't carry any weapon but a poignard. "If I'd been here—"

"Oh, you couldn' have done nothing with him, neither," Benito asserted. "He was that set. Said that things was gone to hell with him laid up, an' that if something or other went wrong 'cause he wasn't there, he'd be in deep. An' off he went."


"Was he shaky? Did he stagger? Lose his balance?" he asked desperately.

"Actually—" Benito put in a moment of thought. "Actually he looked pretty good. Kinda pale, maybe, but he moved all right."

We fed him good. He just might get through this, as long as he don't do something stupid. More to the point, something stupid that takes him too long to finish. His strength's okay, it's just—he doesn't really understand, I don't think, that he's got little stamina left.

He took a deep breath; then, sighed. "I'll go talk to Maria," he said, and went resolutely up the stairs to the room where he heard cursing and sobs—

—which might possibly be one of the bravest things he'd ever done in his life.


Back | Next