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Chapter 31

Lies.


That was what his whole life had become, over the last few weeks. Lies and evasions and dirty little twistings of what scraps of truth he had told—


Marco's gut ached like someone had punched it, hard. It had ached like that for days. His throat was so choked most of the time he could hardly swallow. And his heart—if it wasn't broken, it was doing a damn good imitation of being broken.


Marco Valdosta, he who called himself Marco "Felluci" these days, had good reason not to own to the Case Vecchie family he'd been born into. His Ferrarese mother had made sure of that with her fanatical Montagnard beliefs, and the long-buried secrets that went with what she had done to further the cause.


Still . . . this wasn't why he felt as if he must be one of the most pitiable sixteen-year-olds in all of Venice. He was looking miserable enough for Benito's friend Claudia to comment on it. Claudia had told him to his face that he was drooping like a four-day-old leftover bunch of finocchio leaves, and had wanted to know the reason. He hadn't dared tell her. He hadn't dared tell anyone.


Although he really didn't intend to be that way, his disposition wavered between sullen and terrified. He spent most of his time moping around like a moon-sick idiot. His brother had given up on him in disgust; Maria Garavelli and Caesare Aldanto only knew he was pining over a girl and being unusually peculiar about it.


Caesare was being more than patient, he was being condescending—which Marco was overly sensitive to just now. Maria, having failed to jolly him out of it, had taken to snapping at him frequently. They repeated the same scene at least twice a day. It usually started with him glooming about in her path, and Maria stumbling around him, until she finally lost her temper—


Then she'd explode, canaler's cap shoved back on her dark hair, strong hands on hips, dark eyes narrowed with annoyed frustration—


"Dammit Marco, can't you get the hell out of my way?"


Even the memory made him wince.


She snapped, he sulked, they both got resentful, and Caesare sighed.


The problem was they didn't know the half of what he'd gotten into.


Marco, who was just home from work at Ventuccio's booth on the Piazza San Marco, huddled in a soft plush-covered chair in Aldanto's living room. He had lit one lamp, on the right side of the window tonight—that was to tell Maria that all was well—but had left the rest of the room in gray gloom. He was curled around the knot of anguish that seemed to have settled into his gut for good. Every time he looked up, the very room seemed to breathe reproach at him.


There was frost on the window—bitter cold it was out there. Here he was, warm and dry and eating good—he could have been out in the Jesolo marshes, freezing his butt off, but he wasn't, thanks to Caesare Aldanto. He could have been shivering in Benito's attic, or in their little barren apartment in Cannaregio—hell he could have been dead, but he wasn't, again thanks to Aldanto.


Caesare had taken him and Benito under his protection. He had protected them and then taken them into his own home. He'd been feeding them and housing them and keeping them safe because the town was in a turmoil and that was the only way he could be certain they were safe. And now Marco had gone and compromised the whole damned setup and compromised Caesare himself.


Maria was right. He was an ingrate.


He was more miserable than he'd ever been in his life; more miserable than the time he'd hidden out in the marshes, because that had only been physical misery—more miserable than when his mother had been killed, because that was a clean-cut loss. This—this tangle of lies and half-truths he'd woven into a trap binding him and Aldanto—this mess had him so turned inside-out—that it was a wonder he even remembered what day it was.


Oh, Angelina, he thought mournfully, if only I'd never seen you.


It had seemed so innocent, sending that love poem to Angelina Dorma. She wouldn't know who had sent it, so what harm could possibly come of it? But Angelina had assumed it had come from Aldanto, because she was in love with Caesare. Not surprising, that. Caesare Aldanto was a man, not a lovesick boy. Caesare Aldanto was urbane and sophisticated and, to top it off, tall, golden-haired—in a city full of short, dark folk—and as handsome as a sculpture of Apollo. No girl would think twice about Marco with Caesare Aldanto in the same city. Marco didn't blame Angela—and truth to tell, he hadn't really expected her to respond to the poems so strongly.


But she had; and she had come to her own conclusions about them. She'd caught Marco delivering a third love-poem. She'd got him so twisted around with the way she'd acted towards him that all he could think about was that she'd guessed about his own passion and she was being Case Vecchie and coy. He'd been so bemused he hadn't left her until long after dark . . .


Caesare—still recovering from the fever—Maria and Benito had all been in a fine case over him by then, worrying that he'd been caught by Montagnards, caught and maybe been tortured or killed.


But he was so full of Angelina and how she'd guessed at the identity of the author of the poems, and sought him out, that all he could feel was resentment that they were hovering over him so much.


It was only after he'd read her note—then reread it and reread it—that he realized that she'd guessed wrong. She'd figured that the author was Caesare, and he was the errand-boy. And she'd set him such a tempting little trap, too—offered to have Dorma sponsor and fund him into the Accademia, and make his dream of becoming a doctor come true, so that he could be conveniently close to deliver more such messages. So tempting; he could at least see and talk to her, any time he wanted. He could also have his other dream—all he needed to do was to keep up the lie, to keep writing those poems and pretending Caesare was sending them. That was all. Just as simple as Original Sin and just as seductive.


And now he was afraid to tell Caesare, because he'd been such a fool, and worse, got them tangled up with a romantic Case Vecchie girl, one with power and connections. He was afraid to tell Maria because—because she was Maria. She was capable and clever and she'd laugh him into a little puddle of mortification and then she'd kill him, if Caesare didn't beat her to it. And he couldn't tell Benito. Benito was put out enough over the notion of his brother taking a sudden interest in girls—"going stupid on him" was what Benito had said.


Hell, he'd gone stupid all right. So stupid he couldn't see his way straight anymore. And that was dangerous for him, and for all of them, with the town in a dither over the magical killings.


Marco himself was sure that the killings were Montagnard work, not "magical" in the least. Sure as death and taxes; and Caesare was ex-Montagnard and knew too damned many Montagnard secrets. For that matter so did Marco.


And the city was simmering with suspicions. He, Marco, might be sure the wicked Viscontis were moving again. But if you got three people together you got eight opinions. Strega or Jews were the most common suspects, of course, but the Council of Ten and the agents of Rome were accused too. Of course there was no certainty who might or might not be in one of the factions, so opinions were voiced very carefully.


Complications were not what Caesare needed right now. Yet "complications" were exactly what Marco knew he'd gotten them into. And this left him unable to tell the truth. Because the truth hurt so damn much, and he couldn't force it past the lump in his throat and the ache in his gut.


But he had to tell somebody; had to get some good advice before what was already worse became disastrous. He could reason out that much. Somebody older, but not too much older; somebody with experience with nobility. Somebody who knew how girls thought, wild and romantic Case Vecchie girls in particular.


A face swam into his mind, surrounded with a faint shimmer of hope, almost like a halo.


Rafael—Rafael might help him to think straight again. Rafael de Tomaso was a student. He was, Lord knew, smarter than Marco was—and a little older, more experienced. He dealt with Case Vecchie families all the time in the form of his fellow students. And he was old enough to know how to handle girls. Maybe even how to handle angry girls.


Yes. He'd be willing to give advice. He was the right person to see.


Marco made up his mind to go and find Rafael right then and there, before he got faint-hearted again.


He jumped up out of the chair and padded across the soft carpet to the bottom of the stairway, listening carefully at the foot of the stair for the faint sounds of Aldanto dozing in the bedroom above. Caesare had been sleeping a lot the past couple of weeks, since Brunelli wasn't using him much lately . . . although Marco was beginning to realize that Caesare Aldanto had plenty of other irons in the fire.


Poor Caesare. Damn near everyone's hand was against him now—or would be if they knew what he was. And now one of the kids he'd taken in had gone and messed up his life even more, and he didn't even guess the danger that kid had put him in. Marco felt like a total traitor.


Benito was in the spare bedroom downstairs, sprawled on his back half-draped across the foot of the bed and upside down, trying to puzzle his way through one of Marco's books and making heavy work of it. This one had illustrations, though, which was probably what was keeping Benito's attention.


He writhed around at Marco's soft footfall.


"I've got to go out; an hour maybe. I'll be back by dark, si?"


"Why?" Benito's dark face looked sullen; rebellious. Not only was he mad about Marco getting mixed up with girls, but Marco had had it out with him over obeying Caesare and treating him with respect. Benito had been smart-mouthed and Marco had finally backed the boy up against the wall and threatened honest-to-God serious mayhem if Benito didn't shape up. Benito was still smoldering with resentment, and Marco still wasn't sure the lecture had taken.


"I've got to see Rafael. I've got to take some of Sophia's herbs for him. One she says will give him a deeper red than madder root. I promised him some and I've never taken them."


Benito's expression cleared. He nodded and his brown eyes got friendly again, because it wasn't a girl that was taking Marco out, and it wasn't one of Aldanto's errands. "Si. Reckon he can make something off them?"


"Probably, what with all the painters at the Accademia. He isn't much better off than we are, you know? He deserves a break."


"Just you best be back by dark," Benito admonished, shaking a tangle of brown hair out of his eyes only to have it fall back in again. "Or Maria'll have the skin off you."


Talk about pot calling kettle! Marco bit back a retort. He dug a bundle of herbs out of the box under the bed, noting wryly that Benito was far more respectful of Maria than Caesare, even now, after all Marco had told him. One of these days Benito was going to push Caesare Aldanto too far, and his awakening would be abrupt and rude. And probably involve any number of bruises.


"I'll be back," he promised, shoving the packets into his pack, huddling on his cotte and shrugging the pack strap over his shoulder. "And probably before Maria is in."


He slipped into the dark hallway, walking quietly out of habit, and eased the front door open so as not to wake Caesare. The last rays of the evening sun were not quite able to penetrate the clouds, and Venice of the bridges and waterways looked bleak, shabby and ill-used. There was snow coming to the Alps. Marco could smell it in the air and shivered inside his woolen shirt and canvas cloak. The grayed-out gloomy bleakness suited Marco down to his toenails and it was just dark enough that if he kept his head down and muffled in his scarf, it was unlikely he would be recognized. Foot traffic was light; what with the bitter wind blowing, anybody with cash was hiring gondolas even this early in the evening. That suited him too.


He'd almost made it down the water-stairs when somebody called his name. Recognizing the voice, he swore to himself, but stopped on the steps above the landing. Rowing to his night tie-up was Tonio della Sendoro—and clinging to Tonio's prow was a kid.


Marco sighed and padded down the last three stairs to wait for Tonio to toss him a cold, stiff line.


"Ciao, Tonio," he greeted the canaler, once he'd gotten the gondola tied. "Got another one for me?"


Tonio nodded, his face a comical mixture of relief and reluctance. "Her Papa says her ear hurts—she's been crying since yesterday and he can't get her to stop. Her name's Leonora."


No last name. Not that Marco was surprised. He rather doubted that Tonio was even telling the parents exactly who he was taking their sick kids to. They probably suspected Strega. That would be bad enough. But to take them to see one of Maria Garavelli's pet bridge-boys, who were probably thieves, or something worse, and were definitely going to come to no good end? The idea would have appalled them. They would have laughed at Tonio for the very suggestion.


The ragged little girl huddled on Tonio's halfdeck was still crying; the kind of monotonous half-exhausted sobbing that tore Marco's heart right out of his chest. He eased down onto the gondola in the over-cautious fashion of one not very used to being on a small boat, then slid along the worn boards and crouched beside her so that his face was level with hers.


"Come here, little one." He held out hand coaxingly. "It's all right, Leonora. I'm going to make it better."


She stopped crying, stared at him for a minute, then sidled over to him and didn't resist when he gathered her into his arms, trying to warm that thin little body with his own. Children trusted him. So did dogs.


He murmured nonsense at her while he gently felt along the line of her jaw and checked for fever. Relief washed over him when he found neither a swollen gland nor a temperature elevated beyond what he would expect in a kid who'd been crying in pain for a day or more. With every kid brought to him, he expected to find one too sick for his knowledge or experience to help. Then what would he do?


Ah, he knew what he would do. Tell Tonio the child needed real help—and if the parents couldn't afford it, tell him about Claudia and her Strega healer. And let the parents decide whether it was worth the risk of having Strega strings attached to their child's soul.


Or maybe kidnap the child and take it there himself, and take the damnation onto his own soul . . .


This one—like all the others so far, thank God—was an easy one. Infection. A scratch just inside the little ear gone septic. He went back up to his rooms and fetched some dead-nettle tea. He mixed it with a little of Tonio's grappa, poured into a spoon and heated it to just-bearable over Tonio's little boat stove. This he poured into Leonora's ear. She cried out briefly, but then was still. Then he heated a small pot of dead-nettle tea, along with a pinch of aromatic pine resin, scrounged from the timberyard.


He gave her a pebble. "Now, honey, you suck on this pebble, and sniff that steam up." Her nose was a bit stuffy, but the inhalation would clear that if he was right. The ear would drain and the pain would suddenly go. He and Tonio watched.


He could see it in her face—the sheer wonder of the moment when the pain went away. Looking at him like he was an angel. He blushed and his heart melted a bit more.


"Now," he said softly and mock-sternly, "you have to promise me something. When the wind blows and it's cold, you will keep your scarf tied around your ears good and tight, you hear? Otherwise your ear'll start to hurt again."


The tiny girl gazed at him from eyes so big they seemed to take up half of her tear-streaked face. "Don't got no scarf," she protested.


He sighed again, and reached under his coat collar to pull yet another of Benito's "souvenirs" off his own neck. That was the fourth one used so far—two gone for bandages and one as a sling. Benito must surely think he was eating the damned things—it was a good thing they weren't the silk ones Benito liked to sport; his brother would have strangled him in his sleep.


He tied the scarf under her chin, making sure both ears were covered. "Now you have. Promise?"


She nodded, then unexpectedly threw her arms around his neck and kissed him messily. He hugged her back, and she squirmed out of his grasp to go and crouch at Tonio's feet. He knew he was still blushing a little, but he was feeling better than he had all day, kind of warm inside. She was a little sweetie—a lot nicer than the last one, who'd kicked him. He got gingerly to his knees and edged carefully off the pitching boat onto solid land, tucking his chilled hands under his arms as soon as he got there.


Tonio cleared his throat, and Marco knew what was coming next.


"Dammit Tonio, I've said I won't take anything about a hundred times—and I damn sure won't take anything this time either. You folks haven't any more to spare than I do, and I haven't done a damn thing this kid's papa couldn't have done if he knew how!"


"But he didn't, did he—"


"So you tell him and he will." Marco set his chin stubbornly. "And don't you go bleating debts or imperiled souls at me either. There is nothing magical about this, and by the Lion of Saint Mark, even if there was, then surely Christ himself would have blessed it. He said 'Let the children come to me,' after all. I don't believe in counting favors. I do what I can. Let the accounting be set in God's hands."


"That's true enough, may be—" Tonio replied, just as stubbornly, "—but this baby's papa does believe in the payment of debts. He may be poor, but he's proud and honest."


That just about described all the boatmen, caulkers and fishermen of Venice. Only the rich and the rogues had other standards. "Oh, hell—" Marco sighed, pulled the rope loose, and stood up holding it in both hands, braced against the tug of the sluggish water and the icy wind on the boat. "All right, I tell you what. If you people are so worried about debt, here's what you do. When there's a few lira to spare, have the people I've helped put it in some kind of common pot against the day when I can't help one of these children and they need a real chirurgeon. I suppose you might as well hold the pot, Tonio, since you're always the one bringing them here. If they do that, I figure we're even. Si?" That should solve two problems—theirs and his.


Tonio's face still looked stormy, but he must have reckoned that that was the only concession he was going to get out of Marco. "Si," he agreed, after a long moment of stubborn silence.


He signaled to Marco to toss back the rope and poled back out into the current.


Marco headed back along the walkway, resuming his interrupted journey. His leather-soled boots made no sound on the damp wood as he kept to a warming trot. No bare feet in this weather, not for him or Benito—Aldanto had bought them boots when he caught them without foot-coverings. Another undeserved kindness.


Sounds were few above the wind; the occasional murmur of voices from above, the slap of waves on boats and buildings, the ever-present creaking of wood, canalers calling out to each other down on the water. Cold—God, it was cold. Weather for sickness, that's for certain; in the swamp, down on the canals, weather for dying, too. Winter would be bad this year, he thought.


Funny, this business with Tonio della Sendoro. It had started when Marco caught Rafael de Tomaso with a cut hand going septic and forced him to let Marco clean it out. Then de Tomaso had brought him a child with a bad case of the fever. Then Tonio had gotten into the act. Always children, though, never adults. Eleven, no, twelve of them so far. Marco couldn't resist a sick child—not even when they kicked or bit.


Soft heart to match my soft head.


No matter. Marco knew damned well he could no more see a child in pain and walk on, without doing something about it, than he could stop breathing.


Well, one thing for sure, no matter how badly he'd messed things up with Caesare Aldanto, there were a dozen poor boat-people or fisher-folk babies he'd made a bit healthier.


* * *

From across the Canale di Cannaregio, on the Ghetto side, the three priests watched the boy trotting away. Then, their eyes followed the gondola as it made its way up the Canale and turned into a smaller canal which entered the heart of the Cannaregio sector of the city.


"That boy has become a bit of a blessing for this poor neighborhood," said Diego approvingly. "That's at least the seventh child I know of that he's given medical attention."


"Nine," grunted Pierre. "That I know of. Good treatment, too, by all accounts."


Eneko's expression was grim; not sharing any of the approval so evident in the faces of his companions. "He's also the same boy who brought that message to me from Caesare Aldanto. That despicable offer I told you about."


Pierre and Diego's eyes widened. "Aldanto?" choked Pierre. "Are you certain?" asked Diego.


Eneko nodded. "Quite certain. I was struck at the time, by the incongruity. Between the villainy of Aldanto and the boy's own face—the face of an angel, almost."


"But . . ." Pierre lapsed into silence, for a moment. Then: "I don't believe Aldanto is guilty of black magic, true enough. But I don't doubt he's guilty of almost any other crime. Treacherous to the core, by all accounts. A pure mercenary." He pointed a finger toward the distance into which the boy had disappeared. "Whereas he . . . He refuses to accept any payment, Eneko. I've spoken to that canaler myself. Tonio is his name."


"It just doesn't make sense," added Diego, shaking his head.


"No, it doesn't," mused Eneko. "Which is precisely what interests me the most. Why is such a boy working for such a man? Or—perhaps more important—why has such a man taken such a boy under his wing?" He cocked his head at his two companions. "Aldanto is indeed, as Pierre said, 'a pure mercenary.' So what is his mercenary reason in this instance?"


His two companions looked at each other. Pierre shrugged; Diego sighed. "I suppose this means you want me to investigate something else."


Eneko chuckled. "I don't think it will be as bad as all that, Diego. If the boy is a healer—" Eneko pointed across the canal at the Cannaregio district. "You've met Father Mascoli. I introduced you to him just a few weeks ago. Ask him first. If the boy is as well known in this area as all that, as a lay doctor, Mascoli will know who he is."


"The Cannaregio," muttered the Castillian. "The Ghetto's reputation is bad, but overrated. There are other places in Cannaregio whose reputation is . . . not."


"I'll protect you," said Pierre stoutly. "From sin, of course. Footpads—you're on your own."


Eneko clucked. "The only danger you'll face in the Cannaregio is from cutpurses. And since neither of you has a purse . . ."


He ignored the glares coming his way. Insouciantly: "Righteousness, brothers. Always the best armor."


 


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