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Chapter 27

Maria had observed that hooded look in Caesare's eyes for the last few days. He was planning something again. That always worried her. He seemed quite back to his strength now, and that new wound had nearly healed entirely. But still—it always worried her.

She often wished she'd fallen for a man who had some kind of ordinary, safe, boring job. But . . . he was so fine.

"Right," said Caesare that evening, after they'd eaten. "I've got some documents coming down from Milan. Stuff from a contact back in the old days. The worst of it is one of my informers tells me half the town also knows about it. My old friend Aleri will have his watchers out for sure. I hear that someone, probably that Montagnard bastardo Aleri, has tipped off the Council of Ten. I've got stuff in that parcel for Ricardo Brunelli, stuff which will bring a nice sum in Rome, and some things I want none of them to see. This is worth a good bit of money, and we're short. So I'm going to use people they're hopefully not watching. I haven't used you, Maria, for much of the serious stuff. And I'm pretty sure you boys aren't marked at all."

He paused, pulling a wry face. "The parcel is being dropped off at old Grazzi's factory on Murano. That's close to your regular Wednesday run anyway, Maria. Marco goes across under that tarp and jumps out under the Ponto San Donato. Marco, you wait a bit and when no one's around, you can go and pick the stuff up. I'll give you a ring to show the old man. Then you come and meet up with Maria. Then, coming back, Marco can slip off under the Ponto at the Calle del Erbe, go across and into Ricci's for a brioche and glass of wine, as if he was just on his way to work at the booth on the piazza. One of the barmen, the Greek, is one of mine. I have him absolutely by the balls and I'm damned certain nobody knows it yet. He'll come up to you and say 'I'm Nicothedes.' You give it to him. Then you go to work at Ventuccio's as usual."

"I'm much better at sneaking than Marco!" protested Benito. "Let me do it. I'll be out of Maria's gondola like a greased rat and into old man Grazzi's so quietly—"

Caesare looked coldly at him. "If you'll just wait a moment, boy. Your job is the tougher one. The way this works is the other side doesn't know exactly when it's coming into town. They'll be watching me. They'll be watching my associates. They'll be looking for any break in the pattern. So you're going to be both yourself and your brother. He normally leaves here a good bit before you."

Benito punched Marco's arm. "He likes to dawdle along the way."

Caesare smiled wryly. "Fortunately. You—in his clothes—will go as far as Ricci's. That hat he's been wearing to show off to the girls is quite distinctive. Then you cut out and come back here over the rooftops. Then, in that green cotte of yours, you go out again and to work. Marco can't do the rooftops. It's a pity you're shorter than he is, but ten to one it'll be foggy tomorrow morning and at that time of day the light's bad. You'll also have to get Marco out of here and into the bottom of the gondola, maybe two hours before Lauds. Maria's gone long before then, but they'll be watching that water-door. She must leave alone."

Maria looked at the boys. Marco looked nervous. Benito . . . well, Benito looked delighted.

* * *

Marco had found it a grim morning so far. Firstly, Benito—whom he normally had to roust out of bed—had woken him in the pitch-black; then made him dress in the dark and climb out of a tiny window next to the kitchen-chimney. It wasn't meant for someone his age and size.

Benito had led him across what seemed a mile of coppo tiles to eventually bring him back to Maria's gondola. He lay cold, and decidedly uncomfortable, on the duckboards under the tarp. The tarp smelled of old spilled wine—probably from the barrels she sometimes transported. The wait seemed interminable.

He tried thinking about Angelina. But the thoughts were just frustrating. He still hadn't got up the courage to speak to her, and doubted he ever would. Angelina Dorma. Case Vecchie. Miles above his touch now.

But . . . oh, so beautiful.

The water-door banged. Moments later, the gondola rocked as someone stepped aboard. It had to be Maria. No one else whistled quite like that. She didn't say a word to him as she cast off and began to scull. They were out in the open water, judging by the rising and falling of the deck beneath him, before she said: "You can probably stick your face out, if you want a breath of air."

Marco did. The air was indeed wreathed with fog. Well, that much Caesare had predicted right. Hopefully, the rest would go well also. "Where are we?" he asked.

"On our way across to Murano. We should be there soon after the Marangona starts to ring. This fog'll hold a while yet. You should be able to get off nicely hidden by it. By the time we get back it'll have burned off though." Maria grinned sardonically down at him. "Then you'll have to run instead of lying flat on your back while I work."

In the distance the Marangona bell began to ring, calling the Arsenalotti to work. Two minutes later, Marco was clinging to the rotting bricks on the damp underside of the bridge. Nervously, he waited. Then, without anyone seeing him, he climbed out and made his way to the glassware factory.

The old proprietor was waiting for him—obviously as keen to get rid of this parcel of potential trouble as Marco was eager to get back to meet Maria, and get his part in this over with.

He waited. And waited. It was getting brighter next to the bridge. More and more people were about.

When she did finally arrive, Maria wore a scowl that would have frightened cream into unchurning itself back into butter. "Don't get on," she said. "We got trouble."

Marco looked around, warily.

"Tch." Maria clicked her tongue in annoyance. "Not here. Think I'd be stupid 'nough to bring trouble? Back in Venice. The Schiopettieri and the Capi di Contrada are searching all the small craft coming across from the east. Someone must have tipped them off."

"What do we do?"

Maria shrugged. "I go back to town. I've organized a lift across to the mainland for you. There's a pirogue heading for Mestre. You remember Tonio's cousin Alberto? His boat. He's down the glass warehouse at the end of the Fondamenta Serendella. You go there and slip onto his boat. Then in Mestre you cadge or buy a ride over to the west-side quays. You'll miss some time at work but Caesare has leverage with Ventuccio. I wouldn't come home with the parcel. See if you can get to Ricci's and deliver it to that Greek of Caesare's—Nicothedes. Now, I'm running behind schedule. I'd better get along or it'll look suspicious, and they might start wondering where I've been. They're probably going to search and harass me anyway. It'll keep 'em busy."

And with a flick of the oar she was gone to face the waiting Schiopettieri.

Marco got himself along to Alberto's scruffy pirogue. Two hours later he was near emptying his meager purse to get across the west quays. He was going to be very, very late for work. He was also very, very nervous.

* * *

Benito, hurrying along to Ricci's, literally ducking in one door and out the other, had his plans go awry too.

He slipped the new hat that was Marco's pride and joy off his head as he got inside the door. This time of morning there shouldn't be many people around. The Marangona bell had only just started to ring over at the Arsenal.

Except . . . the pasticceria was full.

Full of Schiopettieri.

Benito, hearing the door close behind him, felt sick right to the pit of his stomach. Then just before he bolted, he realized that his only "crime" was wearing his brother's hat. Personally, Benito had always felt the hat was ugly, but wearing it was still not a crime. Hat or no hat, the Schiopettieri weren't interested in him.

In fact they were discussing something he'd love to have stayed to listen to. Venice was buzzing with rumors about "magical murders" and "demon killings." If he heard the horrified talk aright, there'd just been another. And this time it sounded as if someone had actually caught sight of whoever—or whatever—had committed the deed. No wonder the Schiopettieri were in having a drink so early.

As Benito wormed his way across to the side door that would give him access to an alley with some easy-to-climb beams, he picked up snatches of the conversation.

"—suckers like an octopus—"

"—blood everywhere—"

"—poor priest was shaking so much he could hardly speak—"

And then he was out, heading upwards to the rooftops. Later he walked along to work as usual. Which was fine until one of the older Ventuccio came and asked him if he knew why Marco wasn't coming in.

After that, it was torture. Waiting in worry and uncertainty always is. Where the hell was Marco?

* * *

Marco alighted from a barge-load of chickens at the Fondamenta Zattere ai Gesuati. To his relief, there were no watching Schiopettieri. Now it was just a short cut across the Accademia, take a traghetto across the Grand Canal, and off to Ricci's. He was already trying to think of a good excuse to use at Ventuccio when he realized he was being followed. Or thought he was, anyway, he wasn't sure. Someone big, in a black cloak.

This was even more frightening than Schiopettieri. Marco paused and looked back surreptitiously. He couldn't see the big man in the black cloak any more. Maybe it had all been a figment of his imagination.

Then again—maybe not. If he was being followed by an agent of the Montagnards, it would be someone good enough not to be easily spotted. The Montagnard and Metropolitan factions had plenty of skilled spies—and assassins. His mother had been a Montagnard spy herself, far more skilled than Marco at maneuvering in these murky waters. But that hadn't prevented them from killing her, had it? Had she, too, once been followed like this?

His panic was rising rapidly. A Montagnard agent. One of his mother's killers, now following him.

Marco rounded the corner into Calle Pompea and started running. The street was crowded at this time of day. Dodging between the pedestrians and the porters, the students heading for classes, and the barrows of vegetables, Marco made fearful time around the corner, doubling back toward the docks, and down into an alley.

He looked back. And he ran smack into someone who was coming the other way. He dropped the precious parcel. The other person dropped a variety of things including a folding easel and at least a dozen brushes. As they both bent to retrieve their possessions they looked at each other . . . with mutual recognition.

Rafael de Tomaso!

He and Marco had struck a kindred note in each other from the first words they'd exchanged. Marco still remembered de Tomaso coming in to Mama's place, the first time, looking for plants for pigments. Rafael had been grinding and preparing his own paints already then. They'd struck up a conversation with the ease of two boys—unaware of the difference in politics or background. They'd met up again later, one evening at Barducci's and it was . . . once again an immediate encounter with a kindred spirit. It was as if the intervening years hadn't passed.

"Marco!" Rafael smiled.

"Rafael . . . can you hide me? Someone is after me. At least—I think so. Maybe."

Rafael didn't hesitate. "Licia's—my lodging—it's only a door away. Will that do?"

Marco looked around nervously and nodded. In a few moments he was upstairs in a dingy room long on artist's supplies and short on space or comfort. "What are they after you for?" asked Rafael curiously.

Now that Marco felt relatively secure, his fears were ebbing. In fact, he was starting to feel embarrassed. There were a lot of big men in Venice, after all, plenty of them wearing black cloaks. He was beginning to think he'd just imagined the whole thing.

"Well . . . I might have been wrong. Maybe there wasn't anybody. But if there was—" He held up the package clutched in his hand. "They'd want this parcel. I'm supposed to deliver it to Ricci's."

Rafael smiled. "Better safe than sorry, what I say. I'm on my way across to Castello to paint a portrait. It's not much of a commission but every bit of money helps. I'll toss it in my paint-bag and deliver it for you. You can stay here in the meanwhile."

Marco felt his muscles go slack with relief. "That would be fantastic."

* * *

The relief on Benito and Maria's faces when they saw him was almost worth missing a day's pay for. And Caesare was pleased with his parcel too. Benito and Maria did quite a lot of yelling at him, of course.


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