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Chapter 34

The marsh and the wind swallowed up sound, and the rushes closed them almost into a small room, which was just as well. Chiano howled with laughter, his eyes vanishing in his wrinkles; Marco prayed at that moment that lightning would hit him and reduce him to cinder. It would hurt a lot less than what he was feeling now. He tucked his cold, wet feet under him, huddled under his cotte, and wished he was on the moon. Or dead. Or something.


"Shut up, ye old bastardo—" Sophia scolded sharply, her face crinkling up in anger as she pushed a stray bit of gray hair under her knitted cap; Marco had brought her that the last time he'd come. "Have some pity on the boy. Maybe it's baby-love, but it hurts all th' same—and a young one ain't never been hurt that bad before." She turned to Marco, huddled on one corner of the raft. "Marco-lad, don't ye let him get to ye. I ain't saying ye did right t' leave—but I ain't sayn' ye did wrong neither."


Marco made a helpless gesture. To these two, his protectors and friends, he could tell everything—and he had. It had lessened some of the burden, at least until Chiano had started laughing at him. "I—Sophia, after the mess I got him in, I can't face Caesare, and I can't keep on being a burden to him, either."


"I thought you was working for the Casa Ventuccio. Real work, I mean, not make-work."


"I was."


"That don't sound much like being a burden t' me."


"I—" He hadn't thought of it quite that way. Sure, he and Benito had been living on Aldanto's bounty lately, but they'd been keeping watch over him while he was sick. And helping to get him out of the tangle that illness had put him in. And it had been his savings and Maria's that had bought part of the medicine that had kept Caesare alive. He'd bankrupted himself for Caesare's sake, and hadn't grudged it. He'd lost several more weeks' salary too, staying with Caesare to watch him and watch out for him, and hadn't grudged that either. Maybe he had been pulling his own weight.


"And who's a-going take care of them sick canaler kids if ye're hiding out here?"


That was one thing he hadn't thought of. Not likely Tonio would take them to some strange Strega—Marco was risk enough.


"Don' ye go slamming no doors behind ye," Sophia admonished him gently. "Now, getting out of sight 'til that aristo girl can forget your face, that's no bad notion. But staying here? No, Marco-lad; ye don't belong out here. Stay just long enough to get your head straight—then ye go back, an' take yer licks from that Caesare fellow. Ye learned before, ye can't run from trouble."


Sophia was right. That was exactly what he'd been trying to do—he'd been trying to run from all his troubles, and rationalizing the running.


"Yes, milady," Marco said humbly, feeling lower than a swan's tail.


She shoved his shoulder; but not in an unkindly fashion, "Get along with ye! Milady! Huh!" She snickered, then turned businesslike. "Where ye going park your raft?"


"I figured at the edge of Gianni's old territory, right by the path near that big hummock with the patch of thatch-rush growing out of it."


"Good enough. Get on with it. We'll keep an eye out for ye."


* * *

Chiano waited until Marco was off down the trail and into the reeds; out of sight and hearing. Then he slipped off the raft onto one of the "secret paths" of firm ground that wound all through the swamp. He generally moored both his raft and Sophia's up against one of these strips of "solid" earth—they weren't really visible since most of them were usually covered in water about a handspan deep.


"Where ye goin'?" Sophia asked sharply.


"Going see to our guest," Chiano replied. She shut up at that; shut up and just watched him with caution. Chiano had changed in the past months.


Yes, indeed, he had. Or rather, begun acting more like the person he really was—ever since the news of Gino Despini's death. The more news that trickled out of Venice, the more he was allowing the cloak of deception to slip. From his mind even more than from the minds of others.


He balanced his way along the narrow, water-covered trails, so used to following them he did it unconsciously, so used to the cold water he never noticed his numb feet. Yes, Chiano had been changing.


For the first time in years he was himself—Luciano Marina. Dottore Marina. Strega Grand Master. Grimas.


Fool Grand Master! Beaten, nearly dead. Fleeing for his life. Wounded and damaged. Even his mind confused, abused and lost . . . in that conflict. He still didn't know who had done it, or why—was afraid to know, in truth.


He'd ended up in the marshes and he'd survived. Barely. Perhaps his magical skills had helped. Perhaps the Goddess had held her hand over him, despite his pride and foolishness, as he wandered amnesiac for months among the other loco in the Jesolo. That had been—long ago. It had taken time for the Strega master to begin to return; humbled but alive.


And when he had, then he'd cursed the fate that left him so stripped of all position, possessions, and contacts as to have to stay here. He'd joined up with Sophia some time before Marco had come to them; how much time, he wasn't sure. His memory of that period was . . . vague.


Sophia'd had the gift of healing that he lacked, though he had the knowledge. Together, they'd formed the only source for medicine the swamp folk knew, and he'd done his best to follow the healing path among the crazed and the impoverished losers who lived here.


And now . . . well, perhaps she who was Hecate, Artemis, and Ishtar needed him back. There was a yearning to go back. His position both in the Accademia and Marciana Library had brought prestige, and power. But most of all he yearned for the books.


And—he had learned a great deal. Humility, for one. But also, the need for greater stringency in the service of the Goddess. The Dottore Marina he remembered had been too vain; yet, also, not proud enough. Too peacock soft.


His mind turned to the boy. The boy did not even begin to realize he bore the mark of the winged lion, which had been obvious to Luciano's Strega-trained eye from the moment the boy had stumbled into their lives. Well, the guardian of the lagoons and marshes who had welcomed the gentle Saint Mark was ever so in its choices. They were good vessels. He had to admit that he, Luciano Marina, was a flawed vessel. Still . . . The boy had come back here, and he carried with him the feeling of danger. Danger and darkness far greater than could be linked to one life or death. But Luciano also felt the potential for something else.


* * *

Luciano approached the islet cautiously through the mist, making no sound in the water; he'd left Harrow trancing-out on the mushrooms he'd fed to him.


His caution was needless; Harrow was deaf and blind to everything around him. Except Luciano's voice, and magic.


* * *

Harrow was having another vision. This one was, like the others, beginning with a face; a woman's face. She started out young, then flickered from girl to woman to crone and back again. It was the Goddess, of course. She had come to instruct him again. Harrow felt both exalted and humbled; and excited, with the kind of near-sexual excitement he'd felt only when he'd completed an assignment for Duke Visconti. But he wasn't supposed to be thinking of that. He was supposed to be making himself worthy to be the vessel of the Goddess.


"Harrow—" said the Goddess, her hollow, echoing voice riveting his attention upon her. "You have much to atone for. Are you ready?"


"Yes," replied Harrow thinly, bowing his head as her eyes became too bright to look upon. Those eyes—they seemed to see right into the core of him.


"So let it be."


There was a sound like a great wind, and Harrow was alone in the dark.


Or was he? No—no, there was someone coming. Or forming rather, out of the dark and the mist. Another woman.


For a moment he thought it might be another avatar of the Goddess. Then with a chill of real fear he recognized her. Lorendana Valdosta—once a Montagnard agent herself and dead at the hands of the Visconti's assassins these five years gone. He knew she was dead, and for a certainty. He'd been there when Aleri had given the order; and Bespi himself had slid in the blade while Lorendana's new lover Aldanto held her silent and immobile.


She had been the key Montagnard information-drop in Venice, but she had also been loose-tongued and incredibly reckless. Never less so, Bespi had realized later, than when she'd personally insulted Duke Filippo Visconti by spurning his advances. That knowledge had been the thing, more than any other, which had finally crystallized Bespi's growing disillusionment with the Milanese. He had uncaringly killed a woman for being—so he'd been told—a danger to the cause. The knowledge that he'd actually killed her for no more reason than the duke's personal disgruntlement, when it finally came to him, had been . . . unbearable. He'd realized then that he'd been as gullible as the woman he'd murdered.


She didn't look too gullible now—


"Bespi," a voice said . . . seemingly inside his head. "I see you—"


He blocked his ears, but it did no good. The ghostly voice cut right through him; the almond eyes did the same. She was stark-naked, her well-formed ivory flesh floating in a cloud of smoke and fog and midnight-black hair, obliquely slanted black eyes cold as the grave—she aroused no desire with her weird nudity; he'd never wanted a woman less.


Bespi. You carry my curse. Do you wish to be free of it?


A low moan came from his throat.


My curse shall follow you wherever you go. Her eyes grew until they filled his entire field of vision, black and like looking into hell. He felt ghostly hands running down his arms, leaving chill trails behind them. When you sleep, I shall be there—waiting. When you wake, I shall follow; in all your comings, in all your goings, I shall be one step behind you, making you careless, making you nervous, until one day you will make a mistake—then my fingers will close about your throat—


"Wait!" he yelled. Panic snatched at him now. Dread he had never felt in dealing with the living, or the soon-to-be-dead, closed around his heart and squeezed it like an invisible hand reaching through his chest-wall. He panted. Whimpered . . . "I'll do anything you want!"


The eyes receded and again she floated before him in her cloud of smoke and hair and magic. Then guard my sons.


That caught him off guard. "Huh?" he replied stupidly, unable to fathom the puzzle.


My sons live, Harrow. Bespi who was. Guard them. Guard them well. Keep them from harm. Keep the Montagnards from their throats. Only then my curse will leave you.


"I don't—I mean I don't even know what they look like. How . . . how do I find them!"


There—she pointed and something began forming out of the smoke and the dark beside her. The foggy image of an adolescent—sixteen, seventeen, maybe. A dead ringer for Lorendana. That is Marco.


Bespi/Harrow gasped as he recognized the boy. The one who had killed Gianni! The boy with the great reasons! Harrow could now understand why he had been witness to the sight.


And there—


Beside the first, a boy about two years younger; Carlo Sforza as a kid.


That is Benito. Guard them, Harrow. Your life on it, or you will carry my curse forever.


He had barely sworn to it, when she faded away and his grasp on consciousness went with her.


* * *

Luciano was well pleased with himself. That had been one of the better vision-quests he'd sent Harrow on. The former assassin hadn't fought him, he had responded beautifully to all the suggestions. He hoped the sending of Marco's brother was right. He'd only seen the boy once, but somehow it had seemed a good touch. These were just small magics, true. But he did not dare to try greater magic than this. Not without calling the sort of attention that he didn't want onto himself.


Harrow came around gradually. He wasn't a particularly pretty sight, with half his head scarred and the rest of him splotchy with burned skin. He coughed a good deal too: a gift from the smoke and the water he'd breathed in. But he was functional; indeed, he'd healed better and faster than Luciano had thought likely. The new vessel of the Goddess sat up slowly, uncurling from his nest of reeds and rags and old blankets. He blinked at the sun, and then at Luciano, his dilated eyes not focusing properly.


"Well?" asked Luciano.


"I got—a thing—I got to do," the man said through stiff lips, eyes still hazed with the drug.


"The Goddess gave you a task, huh?"


"But I don't—I don't—I got to take care of a couple of children—" His pupils were still dilated, but there was a certain despair in his voice. Luciano kept his satisfaction shuttered behind his own stony expression as he crouched down next to Harrow in the reeds.


"So?"


"But—how the hell am I going find her children?"


"What children? Whose children?"


"Valdosta. Marco and Benito Valdosta." If Harrow was confused about why the Goddess would be concerned over the welfare of Lorendana's two children, he wasn't showing it. But then Harrow had never been strong on logic. "How the hell am I going to find them?"


Luciano spread his arms wide with his hands palm-upwards and looked to the sky, taking on dignity and power as he deepened his voice. This was the part he played the best— He knew, thanks to another very minor piece of magic, that the former Montagnard assassin now saw him haloed in a haze of dim white light. Every time he took that particular pose, Harrow would see him glowing with the power of the Goddess. "Praise be the Goddess. Blessed are the vessels of her will. Her ways are beyond all mortal understanding."


He lowered his eyes to meet Harrow's. "She has you in Her plan, Harrow; She's had you there from the start of the world. She weaves the threads of destiny on her loom! Marco Valdosta is right here, Harrow; in the swamp. He's hiding out, an' he's scared. He damn-well needs protecting; he's a good child and this here is a bad place. But he's nervous and he's touchy; he won't let nobody near him, except them as he knows, like me and Sophia. You want to watch over him, fine. That's the Goddess's will. But if you show yourself, he'll run, I can promise that. If he even guesses you're there, he'll run. You want to keep him from running further and right into more trouble, you stay right out of sight."


As Harrow nodded understanding, Luciano rose and stepped off the islet into the knee-deep murky water of the swamp. Harrow followed, showing no more discomfort than Luciano.


"Come on, then—I'll show you where to keep watch on him without him knowing you're there."


* * *

Marco's hands ached with the cold as he worked without really thinking about what he was doing. He was trying to hold his mind in a kind of numb limbo, as numb as the rest of him was getting. He was doing his best to avoid thinking, to just exist. The cold and the damp were making his nose run and the slap of water and the hushing of wind in the reeds and the little sounds he was making were punctuated by his sniffles.


His raft and hideout had been where he'd left them—and as he'd expected—they'd been stripped. The hidey was still in surprisingly good shape, all things considered. Marco was grateful. He hadn't had much other good luck lately.


Even with the water level in the swamp at high water, it had been cruel, hard work to pole the raft out of his old territory and into Gianni's.


Gianni had ruled one of the best territories in the marsh. There was an unobstructed view of the city across the water and a nice stock of food plants as well as two really good fishing holes and a couple of solid islets. Marco's arms and back were screaming with pain before he got his home to its new location and, if he hadn't been working, he'd have been three-quarters frozen. As it was he was soaked to the skin and glad of the change of dry clothes in his pack. He had moored the raft up against the islet. With the camouflaging hideout over it, it would look like an extension of the island.


The sun was a dim, gray disk above the horizon when he'd gotten set up properly. Despite the cold, he'd been sweating with exertion; even his feet were almost warm. He'd been up since before dawn and by now it seemed as if it should be nearly nightfall, not barely morning.


From the islet he gathered rushes and sedge to weatherproof the hideout against the winter rains and winds. Then it was nothing but drudge-work. Crouch over the framework and interlace the vegetation into it. Grass, then sedge, then reeds, then grass again until it was an untidy but relatively windproof mound. With only his hands moving, evening coming on and the wind chilling him, he'd lost all the heat he'd gained by the time he was ready to thread new tall reeds into the top of the bushy hammock to renew its disguise. It was well towards full darkness when he'd finished to his satisfaction.


He was exhausted and cold all the way through, still soaked to the skin and more than ready for the sleep he'd lost last night. But he hadn't forgotten his old lessons. He made more trips to the center of the islet for old dry grasses, stuffing the cavity beneath the hideout with them. He crawled under the basketlike hideout and stripped, putting his soggy clothing between the "mattress" of dry grasses and his bottom blanket, to dry while he slept. Then he curled up into his grass-and-blanket nest to shiver himself to almost-warmth, then sleep the sleep of the utterly exhausted. It was a far cry from the cozy bed he'd left in Aldanto's apartment. If he hadn't been so cold and tired, he might have cried himself to sleep.


* * *

As he returned to his own islet, wading through the reeds, Luciano did not notice the sudden swirl in the nearby deep water, as if a large fish had been attacked by a larger and was making a desperate escape. Nor did he notice the undine, a short time later, slowly raising her head above water and studying him as he made his way back to the camp he shared with Sophia.


A small streak of blood dripped from the undine's sharp-toothed mouth. The mouth gaped wide, expressing satisfaction. Then the undine slid beneath the surface of the water and was gone.


 


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