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Chapter 32

Marco made good time across to Dorsoduro; he'd have at least an hour with Rafael before he had to head back. He was glad to get there; the overcast had given birth to flurries of cold rain, and his nose felt numb.


If Rafael was there—


The Al Caraveillo tavern was the likeliest spot to find him; Marco poked his head in the door and got hit in the face with the light and the noise. It was almost as bad as a physical blow after the chill gray of the canalside. It took him a moment to adjust to it.


But when he finally did, he breathed a prayer of thanks to the Saints—for at a table in the rear, book propped up in front of him and huge orange cat spread out like a rug on his lap, was a tall, thin dark-haired young man wearing an Accademia cotte.


* * *

"—so that's the whole mess," Marco concluded miserably. He slumped on his hard wooden chair, staring at his own clenched hands, surrounded by the clutter of artwork, books, and other paraphernalia of a student and artist's life that filled the tiny room that made up Rafael's lodgings. The lanky student across from him lounged on his unmade bed, chewing his lip thoughtfully.


Marco had laid out the whole story—saving only Aldanto's exact identity and what he was involved with. Rafael de Tomaso had simply been told that Aldanto was a man with enemies—a lot of enemies. That was enough for Rafael to add into his calculations, without his knowing enough for the information to be a danger to Caesare. At least de Tomaso hadn't laughed at him.


"You've got yourself a problem, all right," Rafael said finally, putting his hands behind his head and staring at the ceiling. "A bad one. The Dormas are rising in influence; rising fast, from what I hear. I'm almost certain that Petro Dorma is in the Council of Ten already. From the little I know, Angelina Dorma would be a very bad enemy for your friend to have. And if you go through with this charade, she'll find out eventually. When she does she will want his hide as much as yours. Her older brother Petro's a calm one, sure. Still, it is a family thing—and, like I said, Council of Ten. A Lord of the Nightwatch, for sure."


"I figured," Marco replied dismally.


"You weren't planning on trying to carry it off, were you?'


"For about five minutes, maybe," Marco admitted. "After that—dammit, Rafael, it isn't right, that's all I can say. It isn't fair, even if I could make it work."


Rafael de Tomaso smiled; a kindly smile, as if he were giving Marco credit for honesty. "How much of your hide are you willing to part with?"


The lump rose in Marco's throat, nearly choking his words. "All of it," he said at last. "She's going to hate me forever, no matter what happens. If there's a way to keep my friend out of it, I'll take it and take my lumps."


"You got some place you could go to get out of sight for a couple of weeks? Long enough to let things cool down?"


Marco thought, as best he could. Not Aldanto's place. Not the apartment in Cannaregio that he and Benito had shared; that would be the first place a searcher would look. Claudia and Valentina?


They'd take him in—no doubt of it. But Claudia was a Strega and a thief on top of that—Benito had confirmed that, all of it. The two singers had been Benito's protectors and mentors in his early days on his own, Claudia more than Valentina, but he knew most of what there was to know about both of them. Claudia had been "courting" Marco ever since she'd found out he wanted to be a doctor, dangling a secret Strega-run healer school in front of him. He was mightily afraid that his resolution not to get involved with any more religious or factional fanatics would crumble under the slightest pressure at this point. It would be such a logical move; cut ties to Caesare, get under the protection of somebody else, drop out of sight—and get his dream into the bargain.


So easy . . .


No! He wouldn't even think about it. "Easy" usually had strings attached that wouldn't show up until later. And what if the Strega used him to get at Caesare or Benito—or Maria and her boatmen friends?


The Jesolo marshes? Back into the muddy velme and hide in barene?


He gave that one a second thought and then a third. Maybe not such a bad notion. He could move a hide into old Gianni's territory, it might still be open with Gianni dead by Marco's knife. Even if it wasn't, no marsh-locos would fool with the man who'd killed Gianni. They'd leave him alone, maybe clear out altogether themselves. There were a fair number of food plants there, and some good fishing spots. It was cold, sure; but he could take blankets and medicine out with him. He could tough it out for two weeks or so. Maybe getting back to the basics of surviving would clear out his head.


"I think maybe I got a place," he answered Rafael slowly. "Why?"


"I think if I were you, this is what I'd do—and first thing is, you aren't going tell anybody anything; you're going to write to them—"


* * *

It was almost dawn. Benito was so dead asleep he didn't even stir when Marco slipped out of bed. Marco hadn't slept more than a few minutes all night, lying there in the bed with every muscle so tight with nerves that they were ready to cramp. He dressed quickly in the dark, putting on every bit of clothing he possessed here; not daring to light a lamp lest he wake Benito. His pack was back in the Cannaregio apartment, already made up with the clothing he'd left there and the blankets from that bed.


There were other things there, too; things he'd bought—a spare knife, a tinderbox, fishhooks and line, and lures. He'd been afraid to bring the pack here, lest somebody catch him at it and try to stop him.


The Jesolo marshes had been a really good notion—except that he hadn't any money to buy the gear he needed to survive. In the end he'd had to get back to their apartment in Cannaregio, retrieve his precious books—and sell them. He'd already spent all the money he had saved on the goods he'd traded with Sophia for herbs to treat Caesare's fever. His books were all he had left in the way of portable wealth. It had damn near broken his heart all over again to part with them. But this was his only choice. He couldn't live for weeks out there without supplies and cold-weather gear, not in wintertime. He knew that Chiano and Sophia would have stripped his hideout of everything useful once they were certain he wasn't likely to be coming back to the marsh.


And maybe he'd have to stay out there for longer than a couple of weeks. The more he'd thought about it last night, the more logical that seemed. He'd just about talked himself into staying out there—unless his plan worked; the other plan he'd thought of, lying in the dark last night—


Now he crept to the spare room, one careful, hushed step at a time. He had to get into Aldanto's medicine-chest for the last of what he needed.


He hated to steal, but he wasn't sure Sophia had been able to collect any more artemisia in the marshes, even if he'd had the money to pay for it, and Aldanto had enough to cure a dozen fevers—or to kill four men. Marco was glad there was a night-lamp left burning in the room, else he'd probably have broken something and roused the whole house. The herb was right out in front, in neat twists of paper. Marco knew exactly how many there were, since he'd weighed and made the twists himself. It was, he supposed, something he'd traded for. Still, Marco took half of them; neither Aldanto nor Maria was likely to need it, and Marco might very well before the winter was over. If the fever got him, he'd need it for sure. He stuffed the packets into his pocket, and stole out.


Now he crept quietly into the kitchen; ran his hands along the shelf until he found the old bread and a bit of cheese, then found the round, hard bulk of the wine carafe the same way. First thing that Aldanto did when he wandered downstairs in the morning was to take some watered wine, so that was where Marco's letter to him would go.


* * *

Dear Caesare;
I am a Bigger Fool than you ever thought I was. I've gone and got Both of us into Trouble, it began, and went on from there. It had been a torture to write, and Marco wasn't entirely clear on what he'd put down. He'd fought down the ache in his gut and the swelling in his throat all through writing it, so it wasn't exactly a miracle of coherency. But it did lay out the whole sordid story, and finished by telling Caesare not to go looking for him. He rather doubted Caesare would want to waste the time looking for such a fool as he was, but—better assure him that Marco was going to be hidden where nobody was likely to be able to find him.


 


Maria's letter was shorter by about three pages; that was going to her cubbyhole at Giaccomo's. It occurred to him, belatedly, that she wasn't going to be able to read it anyway. But he owed her some explanation.


He wasn't going to leave a letter for Benito. Best not to.


Although it caused him a physical pain as sharp as Gianni's knife to do so, he left Angelina's letter folded up inside Caesare's under the wine carafe, so Caesare would be able to see for himself how Angelina had woven a fantasy around him.


* * *

His throat and stomach were hurting again, but he forced the bread and cheese down. He wouldn't be getting any more of that in the swamp. There was no way of keeping anything for more than a day or two in the marshes anyway. If it didn't go moldy it drew vermin. From now on anything he ate—not that food was real attractive at the moment—he'd have to catch or find it when he wanted to eat.


He'd oiled the hinges of the door last night; now he eased down the hallway, and slid back all of the locks and bolts as carefully as he could. He froze half a dozen times, agonizing over the slightest sound, and finally inched through the door, opened just enough so that he could slip through. The sharp-edged cold hit him hard, waking him completely. He closed the door and relocked it. He couldn't do the bolts of course, but at least the door was locked. He posted the key gently back under it. Then he went softly down the water-stairs and sneaked past old Minna's and Tonio's and Maria's empty gondolas all tied up at the bottom. The gondolas stayed silent, their occupants tucked up in all the blankets they owned. Except for Maria, who was tucked up with Caesare—


He stomach lurched. Oh, Angelina!


Now came the hardest part of all—


* * *

He knew Angelina would never be up this early; the Case Vecchie kept hours like Caesare's. He trotted down the wet walkways, watching carefully for slippery pools, as the sun began turning the edge of the sky a bloody red. No fog this morning, but it was as cold as Brunelli's heart, and there might be more rain or even sleet before the day was over. The wind was cutting, cold and bitter. There were a few hearty souls about, even this early: boatmen, folk on their way to work or coming home from it. The cold kept the stink down; the sharp breeze smelled mostly of smoke and wet wool.


Once he thought he saw Claudia's raven head with her bold red scarf tied about her hair to confine it—so he quickly chose another way. Claudia could be damnably persuasive when she wanted to be. And he didn't want to be talked out of the only honorable course he had left.


Dorma's doorkeeper wasn't even awake—thank the Lord. Marco managed to slip his sealed letter to Angelina into the hollow block she had shown him to leave her private billets-doux in. Billets-doux she thought had come from the fascinating, dangerous Caesare. This was no love letter. It was, however, five pages long—and ended with a poem so that she'd believe it really was him who had written the others.


Now she'd hate him forever. It couldn't be helped. It wasn't in agreement with Valdosta honor that he leave Caesare entangled in a lie, nor that he let Angelina continue to believe that same lie.


So why didn't he feel better?


Now to Cannaregio, for his pack, then Giaccomo's.


Lying staring into the dark, he'd made some hard decisions last night. Given all the trouble he'd caused him, the best thing he could do for Caesare Aldanto was to cut his ties with the man. All of his ties, including the job with the Ventuccios, so not even they could hold that over his head.


He sniffed in the cold, his eyes burning and watering—surely from the early-morning woodsmoke—and rubbed his eyes and nose across his sleeve.


Woodsmoke. Sure. Be honest with yourself, Marco Valdosta, even if you've lied to everyone else.


This was hurting more than he'd ever thought it would. For a little while he'd had a family. A weird family, but a family all the same. It hurt to cut loose.


And he had to cut loose; and do it before he managed to do something that couldn't be repaired.


Benito could still be useful to Caesare, and if he ever needed anything Marco could supply, Marco could send it surreptitiously through Benito. Honor could still be satisfied that way.


But he needed some way—if he was ever able to poke his nose back into the city—to keep himself housed and fed. And, maybe, maybe, save enough to sneak into the Accademia . . . perhaps with yet another changed name. If he could find some way to make enough money—


Medicinal herbs weren't all that could be found in the marshes, after all. The other things that were abundant enough were bones. And the way Marco figured it, if someone was superstitious enough to want relics or charms, well, he might as well get the benefit of the money being thrown away. He only knew of one person, though, who might know where he could safely dispose of "smuggled" "relics."


Giaccomo. Who scared the hell out of him.


* * *

Giaccomo's was just open; Marco went up to the front porch and through the door, open and aboveboard. He walked, barefoot because he'd stowed his socks and boots in his pack, silently and oh-so-carefully across the wooden expanse of floor. He gave over Maria's sealed letter, then asked of the man behind the bar in a soft and very respectful voice, if Milord Giaccomo might be willing to talk with him on business. Jeppo left the bar in the care of one of the other helpers and vanished briefly. As it happened, Milord Giaccomo evidently hadn't gone to bed yet—and was apparently willing to see the frequent bearer of so much of Aldanto's coin. Jeppo returned and directed Marco with a silent jerk of his thumb. The office.


The door to the office was next to the bar. Facing Giaccomo scared the liver out of him; to sit quietly at Giaccomo's invitation all alone in the cluttered cubbyhole while the dim gray light smudged the dirty windowpanes, and stammer out his offer, took all of the courage he had left. Giaccomo sat behind his desk, tall, balding—and big, most of it not fat—and looked at him hard and appraisingly, melting away the last of Marco's bravery.


* * *

"You want to sell relics, huh?" he asked Marco bluntly. "Why?"


Marco could hardly think under that cold, cold stare—he stammered something about needing a lot of money, and didn't elaborate.


"What?"


"Saints b-bones. Saint Theodoro," Marco stuttered. "Saint's bones" were fairly common—a cure and a protection for everything from pox to plague. Caesare had once said that it was a good thing that the saints had such numerous and big bones, the rate the city used them. "And . . . and some fragments of Saint Gerado's skull . . ." Skull fragments were more precious. But still quite commonplace.


"That won't get you much money in a hurry." Giaccomo continued to stare at him, jaw clamping shut on each word, eyes murky.


"Don't need it in a hurry. Just need to put it t-together. I can get you Strega herbs and charms, also."


"Huh." The way the big man kept staring at him, Marco imagined he could see all the way through him. He wondered what Giaccomo was thinking; the man's opaque eyes didn't reveal even a hint of his thoughts.


"Well, I don't deal magic, Christian or otherwise."


"Oh." Marco's plan for independence—and the Accademia—collapsed. "I'm sorry to have bothered you, milord. I guess it wasn't too good a notion."


He rose, awkwardly, and started for the door.


"Boy—"


Marco turned, a thread of fear down his spine. Giaccomo wasn't anybody to trifle with. He wondered if he'd passed the invisible bounds beyond which Giaccomo allowed no one he dealt with to trespass. Giaccomo had a way of dealing with trouble, or potential trouble. It ended in the canal, with a rock tied to one ankle. Splash, gone. He wondered if he looked as deathly white as he felt.


"Don't you go making that offer anywhere else—"


Marco gulped. He wasn't quite sure what the look on Giaccomo's face meant, but he thought he'd better answer with the truth. Or part of it.


"I w-wasn't going to, milord." he replied. "You were the only one. I got more sense than to deal with anybody but you. Milord, I got to be going, please, milord. You likely won't be seeing me again. Ever. That's a promise."


He meant that. It would be better for everybody at this point if he went back to the swamp and stayed there. Ties cut clean.


Giaccomo looked—funny. His eyebrows were up near where his hairline used to be. The big man looked a little confused. And oddly troubled. But he let him go, with only: "The town is full of spies, boy. Agents for the Council of Ten, the Servants of the Trinity, and even the Grand Metropolitan in Rome. This sort of business will get you burned at the stake for witchcraft, or beheaded for grave robbing . . . If you're lucky. The brethren who run the real thing . . ."


He shook his head. "Go. You stay out of it, boy. Especially with these magical murders happening. Everyone from the Church to the Doge wants to catch someone. Any scapegoat will do. That's how it works."


 


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