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Chapter 25

The next day Caesare and Maria were being very careful around each other. But at least the worst of their fight seemed to be over. One of Maria's cheeks was distinctly bruised, but otherwise there was no obvious damage except a shortage of breakfast crockery that no one mentioned.

"I've an errand for you, Marco," said Caesare, carefully slicing a piece of frittata and placing it inside a flap of bread. "This evening before moonrise. You'd better go with him, Benito. Along that 'upper highway' you boast about, because I want this scroll delivered without anyone knowing. But Marco will go inside alone."

It was a sign of increasing trust, Marco knew. Up to now he'd only taken messages to Captain Della Tomasso—Benito's fence and a coast trader who added confidential message carrying to his quiver of expensive services. This was a step up. But he would have preferred it if Benito weren't involved.

* * *

The rooftops were slippery, curled with mist. The only light was that reflected up from windows and the occasional torches in the street below. Marco wished like hell he was down there. Roof climbing was difficult enough when you could see, although it didn't seem to make much difference to Benito. But for all the inconvenience, Marco understood why they were going along the rooftops. He understood at once, the moment Caesare had told him exactly where he was going: The Casa Brunelli.

Ricardo Brunelli was Caesare's "protector" among Venice's upper crust. He was a power in those elite ranks. Brunelli saw himself as the Doge-in-waiting, and there was no doubt that the information Caesare had been able to furnish him about the Montagnards and their adherents in Venice had been valuable. From a comment that Maria had made, Marco was sure that Caesare performed other services for the head of Casa Brunelli. The whispered knowledge that Caesare lay under the mantle of Brunelli protection was a shield the former Montagnard agent needed. Brunelli was a power in the Metropolitan faction in Venice, even if he kept a public distance from it. And although the Metropolitans did not have quite as savage a reputation as the Montagnards, they had one savage enough—and theirs was the stronger of the two factions in neutral Venice. So long as Caesare enjoyed Brunelli's favor, the Montagnards would steer clear of him. Revenge was not worth the risk of Metropolitan retaliation. Brunelli shielded Caesare just as Caesare's own mantle protected Marco.

It was a precarious way to survive. No wonder that Caesare didn't want to go himself to Casa Brunelli with a scroll destined for someone other than Ricardo. To be kept secret from Ricardo, in fact.

For a guest at the Casa . . .

"Well, there it is." Benito pointed down at the glass windows of the Casa Brunelli. Across the canal, Marco could see the massive edifice which served the Holy Roman Empire as its embassy in Venice.

"You stay up here," said Marco sternly. "Don't try and peek. I'll be out presently."

Benito shrugged. "Huh. Can't see anything on the south side anyway. Unless I climb up the Imperial embassy, and I hear they've got some of the Knights of the Holy Trinity on watch on the roof."

"Just stay here," repeated Marco, as he dropped off the guttering to a narrow, rickety wooden outside loft-stair. It was only when he was close to the cobbled street that it occurred to him that Benito knew more than was comfortable about watching the Casa Brunelli.

With a boldness he didn't feel, he went up to the arched doorway and raised the heavy knocker. Before the hollow boom of it had even died away, the door opened. The liveried door warden looked disdainfully at Marco. "Yes?" he asked frostily.

"I have a message—" began Marco.

The door-warden snorted. "Messages for those in the Casa Brunelli are carried by the house messengers. Not by scruffy urchins." The door began to swing closed.

"For Senor Eneko Lopez—your master's Castilian guest," said Marco, hastily putting a foot in the way and hoping that the heavy iron-scrolled door would not simply crush it.

The heavy door stopped. "He's Basque, not Castilian!" For some reason, the point seemed important to the door warden. From his slight accent, Marco suspected he was originally from Spain. But Marco found Italian politics confusing enough, without wanting to know the quirks of the Iberian variety.

"I will have it taken to him," the door warden added, grudgingly.

Marco shook his head. "No. My master said I must give it into his very hands, and carry his reply."

The doorman snorted again. But he plainly did not want to anger his master's guest. Reluctantly, he opened the door and allowed Marco to enter. Watching Marco as if he expected this cockroach-in-human-form to instantly begin laying eggs or stealing the silver, he tinkled a small bell. A footman appeared hastily, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. The door warden sniffed. "Louis. Take this . . . messenger up to Senor Lopez. He says he is to wait for a reply."

The tone said: and watch him like a hawk.

The footman led Marco to the back stairs. Not for the likes of him the front steps. They walked up four flights of ill-lit stairs . . . And then were nearly knocked down them again by an extremely angry woman, who was so busy looking back up that she failed to see them. Even in poor light she was a truly beautiful lady, clad in a low-cut azure Damask-silk gown, trimmed with a jabot of finest Venetian lace. Her hair was on the red side of auburn; her skin, except for flaming patches on her cheeks, a perfect unblemished cream.

The footman nearly flung himself up the wall to get out of her way, with a hasty terrified "scusi."

Marco pressed himself against the wall too. She didn't say anything to either of them, but her angry look promised retribution later. Marco was glad he wasn't the footman, and that he'd never have to encounter her again. He had a feeling that despite her legendary beauty, Lucrezia Brunelli (and this could only be her) would enjoy making someone else's life a misery. And she looked mad enough about something to be looking for a victim, shortly. But even angry, she was beautiful.

Marco shook himself guiltily. How could he think this of anyone but Angelina?

They walked on to the upper floor. The footman knocked.

"I am at my devotions, Lucrezia," said the voice from within. The accent was distinctly foreign. But the tone had a suggestion of tried patience.

The footman cleared his throat. He gave Marco a quelling look. "Senor Lopez. It is I, Louis. I have brought a messenger to see you."

"My apologies. Bring him in, Louis."

Marco found himself bowed into the presence of a short, slightly built man, who was carefully placing a marker in a book. He too had reddish hair. For a moment Marco found himself wondering why the woman who was considered to be the reigning beauty of Venice should interest herself in this man. Then Eneko Lopez turned and limped toward him and Marco realized what attracted Lucrezia Brunelli to this foreigner.

Power. There were the eyes of an eagle under that solid, heavy single line of dark brow. Even without a word spoken between them, Marco knew this to be a man in whom the fires of spirit burned high. And, by his calm assurance, someone to whom command was almost inborn. "Thank you, Louis. That will be all." The footman bowed respectfully and left.

"You have come from Mainz, or from the Grand Metropolitan?" The Basque held out his hand to take the scroll.

Marco swallowed, and passed over the scroll. "Neither, sir. My master is here in Venice. He said I must wait and take a reply."

Lopez sighed. "I had hoped . . . Never mind. All things will come to pass eventually. Sit."

So Marco sat down. The guest of Brunelli's occupied a room that filled him with envy. It was full of books, leather-bound volumes on volumes. Marco gazed hungrily at them. In the meantime, Lopez had taken his own seat at a small desk nearby. He cracked the seal and scanned the contents of the scroll.

When he finally spoke his voice was cold. "You may tell your master that I am neither prey for blackmail nor interested in treachery. He misinterprets my work here on the Rio del Ghetto, as he does my messages to Rome."

Marco rose hastily. Rio del Ghetto. Where the "magicians" sold their charms and wares. Where the Jews were supposed to remain, although in tolerant Venice that practice was widely ignored. Very close to where he and Benito had shared lodgings. Rome . . . well, the Grand Metropolitan was not overly enamored with Venice's religious health, if Father Del Igilo was to be believed.

But this was no time for debate. "Yes, Signor," was all he said.

As Marco turned to leave, the Basque rose from the desk and said grimly: "Stop. Since you chose to come here, I will have a few words with you as well."

Marco froze. "I d-didn't 'choose' anything, sir. My master—"

"How old are you?" demanded Lopez.


"Old enough not to think like a boy any longer. What is your name?"

The man's force of personality was too great to resist. "Marco, sir. Uh, Marco—ah—Felluci."

The Basque snorted. " 'Felluci'? I doubt it. But if you chose a false surname—chose, young Marco—then you need to give a thought to all your choices. At sixteen, you can no longer use the excuse of being a 'boy.' You are a man, now. And a man chooses his own masters."

Marco said nothing. Lopez sighed. "Not a man yet, it seems. Very well." He resumed his seat and turned his face away, studying a document on the desk. "When you do decide to become a man, Marco-who-says-he-is-Felluci, I advise you to find another master. This one walks a path to ruin. If you continue to follow him, you will share his fate."

The footman was lurking outside the door. He saw Marco off the premises, with no comments but a tight set to his face. Well, thought Marco, at least he was being shown out and didn't have to deal with Lucrezia Brunelli in a foul mood.

Benito was loitering in the street. "I thought you were going to stay on the roof," said Marco when Benito joined him.

"Came down to meet you."

"How did you know . . . ?" Marco sighed. "Never mind. You've been peering in windows again, haven't you? You'd do this side of Caesare's business much better than I can."

Benito shuddered. "Believe me, brother. This was one time I was really glad it was you. That's a scary guy. I've seen him before, that time when . . . never mind. Now come on. Let's climb up there and get moving if you still want to drop in at Barducci's tonight."

Marco thought of Angelina. The thought was enough to get him moving up to the slippery coppo tiles. Benito was already walking up the rickety stairs that had given them such an easy descent. The roof was an easy jump and haul from there. Marco sighed. It wasn't the roof walking as much as the looking down that worried him.

* * *

Benito peered over the roof edge. They'd have to descend here again. Then he put out a hand to stop Marco. There were two people coming out of a sotoportego into the broad Calle dei Fabbri below. To discourage cutpurses and cutthroats, there were oil lamps burning in niches there. You could see the two men clearly, just for a moment.

They were both tall, and one of them very large. The large one was dark-haired; the other blond. The dark-haired man moved with a sort of solid determination, the blond with catlike grace.

"Knights of the Holy Trinity. Even if they're not in uniform," whispered Benito. "I saw both of them . . ." His voice trailed off.

An errant night-breeze stirred the mist and brought a snatch of conversation up from below.

" . . . shouldn't have come. This is my affair, Manfred."

A snort. "I think I owe her more for 'services' than you do, Erik."

The two stopped outside a building with long Moorish-style arched windows, and knocked.

Benito gave a low whistle. "Well, well, well. Who would have thought it?" He chuckled. "So much for their holiness."

Marco looked. It seemed a fairly innocuous if moderately well-to-do three-story building. "What is it?"

Benito looked startled. "Sorry. I forget that you lived in the marshes for so long. That's the Casa Louise. It's . . . um, a place where wealthy merchants and some of the Case Vecchie maintain their mistresses. I guess you could call it a bordello, but it's as high-class as it gets."

Benito studied the two knights below, squinting a bit. "It's funny, though. I wouldna thought knights—not that young, anyway—could've afforded the women in this place."

Marco shook his head. His brother's knowledge of vice worried him. He supposed that, having lived in town for all these years, the boy would have more knowledge of things like that than he did.


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