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Chapter 30

The Old Fox smiled. "Angelina Dorma. Well, well, well! How serious do you think it is, Antimo?"

The Duke of Ferrara's agent considered this silently. Finally he said, "Angelina Dorma is a young woman of some beauty and absolutely no common sense. Your grandson Marco is besotted with her—to the point of foolishness. Angelina has bragged about her 'secret admirer' to several confidantes both inside and outside the Casa. It was easy enough for my spies in the household to get wind of it, to see young Marco and to track him. This was done as part of our ongoing research into Casa Dorma, milord, not with our agent being aware of whom he was tracking."

The Old Fox raised an eyebrow. "We were all young and foolish about women once, weren't we?"

Antimo Bartelozzi didn't respond with a smile. "Foolishness gets people killed, milord. And Dorma is very protective about his family."

The duke pulled a wry face. "His weakness is his family, Antimo. His mother and sister can be used against him. It's been a factor which has held me back in my approaches to him, despite his many impressive qualities. And as for the foolishness, those it doesn't kill—learn. So, I want Dorma watched closely. I see possible alliances here as well as possible dangers. And it is conceivable my foolish grandson may have found a way to remove one loose cannon from the Casa Dorma, and tie it down."

Antimo nodded.

The duke put a hand to his chin and looked speculative. "Given the current positions of the major factions in Venice—how do you assess Petro Dorma's strength?" He waited patiently for the reply he knew Antimo would eventually formulate. Privately he regarded Antimo Bartelozzi as his personal version of the mills of God. The agent ground slowly—but he ground very, very fine.

"Well—superficially his faction is the smallest, the weakest, and the most diverse and divided. Petro is very able, but he is not charismatic. He lacks the flamboyance and panache of Ricardo Brunelli, for instance."

The Old Fox looked at him through half-lidded eyes. The languor might have fooled a lesser man. "Ah. But you think there are other factors to be considered?"

"Yes." The agent smiled wryly. "Should circumstances prompt either the Metropolitan or Montagnard factions to lose support in Venice . . . that support may easily go to Dorma. He has long been seen as the firmest advocate of a centrist, neutral stance. His party's weakness is its diversity. But, as a broad church, it offers space to former adherents of both the other parties—the softer ones, if not the fanatics. And Venice's people—though they might lean Montagnard or Metropolitan with the blowing of the factional winds—have a strong tradition of independence. Like a heavy keel to a ship. That is Dorma's central creed. If either Rome or the Empire truly threaten Venice, I think its populace—and most of its senators—will remember that heritage. While Dorma has the smallest support base, and is not flamboyant like Brunelli, he is respected. You can find very few people who dislike him. And he has a reputation for hard, meticulous, scrupulously fair work—as you know."

The Old Fox gave a smile that, had he really been his four-footed namesake, would have sent every peasant farmer who saw it off to sleep—uneasily, with their boarspear and their dog—inside their henhouse.

"That's all shaping up nicely, then. And now that Baron Trolliger has arrived . . ."

Antimo's smile almost matched that of his master. "It's such a pleasure to have a capable Emperor sitting on the throne in Mainz."

"Is it not?" agreed the duke cheerfully. "Hohenstauffens of the past, more often than not, would have already been planting their great clumsy boots on the Brenner Pass. But Charles Fredrik is almost an Italian, the way he thinks. I assume he's offering us money, not soldiers?"

"Baron Trolliger hasn't been specific yet. He only arrived yesterday, after all. I doubt he will be, milord, until you meet with him personally. But those are the signs, yes. The Emperor, clearly enough, wants a proxy army here in northern Italy—just in case the situation in Venice proves to be as dangerous as he and we both think it is. And he's more than smart enough to see that Ferrara—little, innocuous Ferrara—is the logical choice."

Antimo's smile grew very wry. "Baron Trolliger's praise for the honor of Dell'este—as well as the cunning of the 'Old Fox'—has been most, ah, fulsome."

"As it should be!" chuckled the duke. "I've spent a lifetime developing that reputation, after all. Send the man in for a private audience, then, as soon as he's ready. Is he still cleaning his boots?"

"Probably," replied Antimo. "There's a man who genuinely hates to travel. His curses on that subject were almost as fulsome as his praise for Dell'este. And, I'm sure, quite a bit more heartfelt."

"There's no rush. Negotiations will be lengthy, in any event. I intend to squeeze as much money as I possibly can from the Empire. Charles Fredrik can certainly afford it."

Antimo nodded. "And what about Marco? Do you wish me to take any steps?"

The Old Fox raised an eyebrow. "No. Let him alone. Perhaps practice will improve his poetry."


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