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Chapter 24

As Marco carefully dressed and bandaged the long slash on Caesare's shoulder, he inspected their host. Caesare Aldanto should still be abed. He was definitely still pale, and it wasn't just loss of blood from that cut. Still, this wasn't the right time to ask how the man was feeling. By the grim set of Caesare's jaw, whatever had been going on when he acquired the wound hadn't gone well.


As Caesare's memory-man and scribe, Marco was still only privy to a small amount of Caesare's doings. The former Montagnard agent played things very close to his chest. One of the things Marco had realized quite fast in their relationship with Caesare Aldanto was that it was never wise to pry. The man had an uncertain temper.


"Cornutto!" Caesare swore. "Watch what you're doing!"


Marco handed him the waiting glass of grappa. "Sorry, Caesare. But this is going to hurt. You've got some dirt in there that needs to come out."


Caesare tossed the brandy off. "Make it quick then."


As Marco was working, Maria came in through the front door. As she turned to close it, two heavy-shouldered men bundled their way in behind her. Maria bit at the big hand that was clapped over her mouth and struggled vainly to reach for her knife. Her assailant clouted her, hard. "We want to talk to him, see. Now stop biting and you won't get hurt."


"I told you never to come here." Caesare's voice was icy. There was no sign of fear in it.


Marco felt in the bag for the comforting handle of the small, sharp knife that Caesare kept in with the dressings. He knew full well who these two were. You didn't mess around with the Matteonis. They were enforcers, debt collectors and rent-a-beating boys. He remembered how the crowd had parted around the three of them in Barducci's. He'd asked Valentina about them. Valentina had turned quietly to him, pulling a wry face. "Matteoni. Alberto, Stephano, and Luciano. Descended from a long proud line of barroom thugs and back-alley stabbers."


Claudia had snorted. "And this generation has sunk even lower."


Stephano Matteoni stalked forward. "Alberto's dead, Aldanto, you mincha!"


Marco smiled wryly to himself. Well, of course. Alberto would be dead if he'd attacked Caesare.


"Yeah," Luciano snarled. "You promised us the knight'd be unarmed and unarmored."


Marco swallowed. This wasn't quite what he had envisaged. He was well aware that the former Montagnard agent dealt sometimes in deaths as well as in information. But so far they'd had nothing to do with that part of Caesare's trade.


"You fools," snapped Caesare. "He is a knight. I told you he'd be dangerous."


Stephano had a big, clumsy, badly made hand-cannon in his hand. Calling it an "arquebus" would be stretching the point. "You said you'd deal with any real trouble. And . . ."


Caesare shook his head. "There were two of them—not one, like I was told. And the first one had that damned hand-axe, instead of being unarmed like he was supposed to be. And he was wearing some kind of armor." He blew out his breath. "Then the Schiopettieri arrived—"


"You promised we'd be out of there before that!" interrupted Luciano furiously.


"Things go wrong." Caesar shrugged. Then, winced as the movement pulled at the cut. "Now get the hell out of here before you're seen."


"We're not going until we've been paid," said Stephano sullenly.


Marco felt his mouth fall open. He'd thought they'd come for revenge because their brother was dead. They hadn't. They'd come for money.


Caesare stood up. His eyes narrowed. "For what? The man was supposed to be maimed in a brothel-fight and apparently drunk when the Schiopettieri arrived. You failed, and the Schiopettieri failed, too. I don't pay for failure," he added dangerously.


Stephano backed off a step. Then he remembered the hand-cannon. He steadied it, aiming straight at Caesare's chest. Of course it might not go off. This was one of the cheap fire-spell scroll ones. They were notoriously unreliable. But it might just work. At this range he could hardly miss. "Alberto's dead," he repeated grimly. "You owe us . . ."


"I owe you nothing, orrichioni," said Caesare dismissively. "The job's not done. That means I don't get paid and you don't either."


"And if you don't stop pointing that thing at Caesare," said Benito from the stair-landing, "I'm going to have to blow you bastardos in half." He had Caesare's arquebus resting on the handrail, pointed straight at Stephano's swelling belly. The slowmatch, far more reliable than a spell scroll, smoked and fizzed. "I'm giving you to the count of five. One." His voice cracked. But the muzzle of the arquebus was rock steady.


Luciano's grip on Maria must have slackened with the sudden intrusion of firepower. Maria bit savagely and broke away. She didn't go far. Just far enough to pull her knife and hiss like an angry cat at Luciano.


"And if you pull that trigger, Stephano," said Marco, producing the knife, "your surviving brother might have to explain to Brunelli just what you were doing. I think the Schiopettieri would be glad to hang him this time." Luciano looked uneasy at the mention of the Casa Brunelli. Distinctly uneasy.


Stephano sized the situation up. "All right. We're going. But we want money, Aldanto. We want money or we'll go straight to . . . Aleri."


Aleri. Marco pricked his ears. He knew that name well from his mother's Montagnard days. Francesco Aleri. The Milanese controller. Duke Visconti's spymaster in Venice.


Caesare laughed easily, unpleasantly. "You do that. He won't pay you either. Now get out. Keep out of trouble and there may be work for you again. Open those mouths of yours and you can join Alberto. Now go. Get. Don't ever come back here. I don't know you."


They backed out like whipped curs.


Marco felt the tension drain out of his shoulders.


"You can put that knife away," said Caesare.


Startled, Marco dropped it back into the bag. "Sorry." Then he realized that Caesare had actually been addressing Maria.


Looking at her stormy face, Marco realized that maybe he'd been too hasty about relaxing. The Matteonis had been a minor danger, comparatively. "How could you, Caesare? Matteoni? Figlio di una puttana! They're filth! Slavers. They sell . . . and make castrati to the east. And they broke my cousin Tonio's fingers! You know how a caulker with broken fingers finds work?"


"Put the knife away, Maria. I work with what I have to work with."


Her response was to put the knife down on the table, snatch a platter off it and fling it at his head. It shattered against the wall behind him. "Testa di cazzo! If my cousins hear you work with the Matteoni, they don't never work for you again!"


Caesare picked a pottery fragment out of his hair. His eyes blazed angrily in his pale face. He snapped right back at her. "They'll damn well do what they're told and you'll keep your damned mouth shut to everyone about it, bitch!"


"Damn you to hell, Aldanto!" she snarled. "I'll talk to who I want to talk to, when I damn well want to!"


Benito, up on the landing, put the arquebus down carefully. He'd already snuffed the slowmatch. He gestured to Marco with his eyes and head. Marco nodded, wide-eyed, and ducked as the next piece of crockery hit the wall. With a quiet that was quite unnecessary above the shouting, he headed to join Benito moving for the door. Even the risk of lurking Matteonis seemed less dangerous than staying.


* * *

In the relative quiet of Barducci's, Marco turned to Benito. "Does that sort of thing happen often?"


"What? The fights?"


"Yes."


Benito shrugged. "It's happened a couple of times that I know of. Maria's pretty quick to flare up. They always patch it up, after. Caesare needs her and she's crazy about him."


Marco looked across the room. Angelina Dorma and her Case Vecchie friends hadn't come in this evening. Barducci's was only one of the taverns they frequented. Quite frankly that crowd of hers worried him.


"I thought Caesare was too independent to feel like that about Maria."


Benito snorted into his wine. "He plays the field. But carefully. He needs Maria's cousins is rather what I meant."


"Oh." Marco let his curiosity get the better of him. He thought of Maria's extended family of "cousins." Even if she had no parents she had enough of those cousins to start a tribe. A poor tribe, though, and not . . . well . . . the sort of people you'd think would be of any value to Caesare in his shadowy world. Most of them were just caulkers, not even thugs like the Matteoni brothers. It was the poorest guild, putting the outer planking and caulking on Venice's ships. Not for the life of him could he see why someone like Caesare—with contacts like Ricardo Brunelli—would need to have anything to do with them. "Why?"


Benito looked around the tavern. "Come on, big brother. Finish up. I'm tired. That girl you've been mooning over isn't in tonight. If we take the long way back we should get back after the kissing and making up, and with any luck after the sweeping up, too."


Marco drained his goblet. He hadn't realized that Benito was aware of his fascination with Angelina Dorma. He felt a little embarrassed about it. On the other hand, he felt he'd better find out what Benito was talking about with Maria's cousins. He owed Caesare. It was only right to take care of his business for him. And he couldn't do that unless he knew what it was. Obviously his eternally curious brother had found out something. Equally obviously he wasn't going to tell Marco here.


He stood up and stretched. "Very well, it must be well the other side of midnight anyway."


They followed Benito's habitual "upper route." Even after all these weeks in town, and his frequent clambers after his brother, Marco would never possess half of Benito's catlike surefootedness across the pan-tiles. He would never have Benito's love for high places, either.


They stopped up against a chimney stack. While Marco caught his breath, Benito explained. "It's a great scam. A couple of Maria's cousins do the outer cladding at the Arsenal. They've been hollowing out a section from the actual keel timber of the galleys. Then it is fitted with a cunningly made cover, that you have to know exactly where to release. The Doge's customs and excise officers will never find it. You can only get to it from underwater."


"Oh." Well, that was relatively innocuous. Everyone tried to evade the Doge's customs to a greater or lesser extent.


Benito yawned. "Come on. Let's get back."


* * *

They both approached Caesare's apartment rather nervously. But all was quiet. And someone had swept up most of the broken crockery.


 


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Framed