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Chapter 36

Benito hadn't worried when he'd awakened and seen that Marco's bed was empty. Marco had been going to work early, the past few weeks, working in a frenzy of earnest activity all day, and leaving work late. Old man Ventuccio himself had come down out of his office to see the handiwork of his new clerk. Too bad Marco hadn't been there at the time; he'd been out at lunch, and nobody thought to mention it to him when he came back. Of course, the other clerks were probably jealous—half of them were Ventuccio hangers-on anyway, worthless cousins who weren't expected to accomplish much for their salary.


Benito thought he knew why Marco had been working so hard—he might be hoping to get an advance on his wages. He'd spent all the cash he'd saved on Caesare, and in a week the rent was due on their apartment in Cannaregio. A runner earned about a quarter of what a clerk earned; Benito couldn't pay it. And if Marco couldn't raise the ready, it was back to the leaky attics for both of them, unless Aldanto would let them stay on. Which wasn't really likely. Maria was getting an impatient and irritated look whenever her eyes happened to fall on them. She'd been snapping at Marco for being underfoot, and it was clear to Benito that they'd worn out their welcome once Aldanto had recovered from the fever. He had a fair notion that it was Caesare overruling Maria that was keeping him and Marco in the apartment.


And that despite Benito's being smart-mouthed with both of them.


With Marco too, which Marco hadn't much noticed, but he had noticed Benito's attitude with Aldanto. That had gotten a rise out of him, more than Benito had intended.


He'd backed—no, slammed—Benito into the wall the night before last; and his face had been so cold, so tortured—


"You listen to me, Benito, you listen to me good. You're messing with fire, I'll tell you once and not again! Caesare's an aristocrat, he's quiet—but he's killed more people than you have hair, and you'd better think about that hard before you smart him off another time. I don't know why he's putting up with you, but I won't, not any more! I'll beat you black and blue next time—because I'd rather you were beaten up than dead. Remember he's a trained assassin. Remember who trained him, and that they murdered Mama before you open your mouth to Caesare again."


He'd sulked for the rest of that day and most of the next, not speaking to Marco. But he had thought about it, and he'd come to the reluctant conclusion that Marco had been right. Even if Marco was more than a bit touched about some girl. So he'd started to make friendly noises at his brother again.


Thus, all-in-all, he didn't think twice about Marco being gone. But when Marco wasn't at work, and didn't show up there by the time Benito got sent out with his first message, he began to worry just a little.


He came around the corner of Ventuccio's on his second run of the day and saw a familiar gondola tied up at the base of the stairs with a lurch of foreboding. No mistaking that particular tilt of a weather-beaten hat—that was Maria's gondola down there, and with Maria in it. And where Maria was—


"Man to see you, boy," was the curt greeting at the door; sure enough, behind Benito's supervisor stood—


Caesare Aldanto. Wearing that impassive mask that said trouble.


"Benito . . ." Caesare barely waited for Ned Ventuccio to get out of earshot before starting in, and Benito backed up a pace or two, until his back was against the office wall. "Benito, have you seen your brother this morning?"


Benito decided to play innocent. "You mean he ain't here?" he replied, making his eyes big and round.


Aldanto was not fooled—and the flash of annoyance in his eyes told Benito that he was not in the mood for this sort of nonsense.


Aw, hell—Marco's in trouble—


"You know damned well he hasn't been here," Aldanto hissed, grabbing Benito's arm before he could dart out of reach. "Your brother's in a mess—now I want to know what it is and where he is."


"I don't know, M'lord Caesare, honest—" Lord the strength in that hand! Benito belatedly began to think about what Marco had told him when he'd given him that lecture—about what Caesare was—and what he could do. And he began to wonder—


What if the man had turned his coat a second time? If he was planning to use Benito to get to Marco, and sell Marco back to the Montagnards? Marco was worth plenty to the right people.


Paranoid, that was plain paranoid; there'd been no hint of any such thing.


But—if the Montagnards threatened Maria? Would he buy safety for Maria with Marco's life? He might, oh God, Aldanto might . . .


"Boy, I want you back in the apartment—" Aldanto was saying. "I've made it right with the Ventuccios." Benito had missed what had gone before; God, this did not sound good. There was no threat that Benito could read in Aldanto's face, but dare he take the chance that he could read an experienced agent?


Aldanto still had his arm in that iron grip, and was pulling him out of the door with him. Benito's mind was going like a scrap of drift in a strong current. He couldn't take the chance; no way. He had to get away from Caesare if he could.


Besides, if Marco was really in trouble, Benito could likely help him better than some Milan-born foreigner or even a canaler like Maria could; he knew the town, and knew most of the dark ways. And there was always Valentina and Claudia to call on if he had to.


They were out on the balcony now, Benito playing docile, and Aldanto loosed his grip just enough.


Benito whipped around, putting all his weight behind a wicked blow with his elbow, and he'd aimed a bit lower than Aldanto's midsection—aimed at something more personal.


Hit it, too; dead on target.


Caesare was wide-open and completely taken by surprise.


He doubled over with a painful wheeze, and loosened his grip on Benito's arm.


Benito lit out like a scalded cat, heading around the balcony and straight for the bridge.


Aldanto started yelling—recovering faster than Benito had figured he would, and began running after him. But Benito had gotten a good twenty feet worth of a head start, and that was all he needed. He made the bridge supports and jumped for the crossbeams, swarming up into the scaffolding like one of Venice's feral cats. From there he made it to the rooftops and, as he knew from long experience, there was no way an adult was going to be able to follow him up there—not unless the adult was another roof-walking thief like Valentina.


It was cold up there, and doubly dangerous with the wind so strong and unexpected patches of wet everywhere, and smoke blowing into his face when he least expected it. Benito didn't stop for breath, though, not until he'd gotten halfway across Castello. Then he slumped in a warm spot between two chimneys for a bit of a rest and a bit of a think.


Marco was in trouble—that much was certain. Either with Aldanto or on his own. And Benito was going to have to see what he could do about it—if he could find out what the trouble was.


The last person Marco had talked to—that he knew of—was Rafael de Tomaso. Benito reckoned he'd better pay that fellow a little visit.


So best to lie low for a bit, then get across the Grand Canal to Dorsoduro. He'd been to Rafael's room once; and Benito figured he knew of a way in that wasn't by the door.


* * *

Katerina looked out of the high window of one of towers of Casa Montescue at the gathering dusk. It was a slaty, gray evening. The lagoon was gray too, chopped and flecked with white. It was going to be bitter out there tonight. Still, she had no choice.


Well . . . she could become a courtesan. Francesca had managed to make that—occupation—seem even less attractive than Kat had thought possible. And she hadn't thought it was in the least bit attractive to begin with.


Still—at least she'd get to spend miserable evenings indoors. And it wasn't as if she'd ever met any one man she felt she'd like to be tied to. But it would kill her grandfather. Kat Montescue was a realist, though: one day she might just have no choices. And at least a courtesan had some choices and more independence than most wives could dream of. And unlike many Case Vecchie, she did have one of the essential requirements for being a courtesan and not just a whore. She was literate. Still, the idea of multiple lovers . . . many of them old and corpulent, was repugnant, to say the least. Francesca could put a bold face on it, but the idea still frightened Kat. When she'd been a girl, she'd always thought that she'd marry a young and handsome man. The trouble was, in Venice, most of the young and handsome Case Vecchie were off in various trading colonies of the Venetian Republic. Of course some of the older men—like Lord Calenti—were still attractive, at least in their own opinion.


She pulled a wry face. This was all foolishness! She might have the education and literacy, but that was hardly sufficient. She didn't have the lush beauty of someone like Francesca; not even close. So . . . it would be out in the dark on a nasty night again, and there was an end to it.


Lodovico came in, rubbing his hands and looking worried. "What did you think of Lord Calenti's visit, cara mia?"


Kat bit her lip. She could hardly tell her grandfather that she thought the man had too high an opinion of himself, and that she'd always thought there was something vaguely slimy about Calenti. Although she allowed that, other than being so obviously vain, he had been pleasant enough. A surprising visitor, but pleasant withal. Alessandra had been in an absolute fury when she'd discovered that one of Venice's most eligible bachelors had come on a private call on Milord Montescue—and not one involving her.


"I don't understand why he came, Grandpapa." Calenti had been perfunctorily polite to Kat, nothing more. So he certainly hadn't come to see about her.


Or had he?


Kat hadn't considered that possibility, she suddenly realized. Casa Calenti had plenty of money, but they were not really Case Vecchie. For them, a dowry would not be as important as the social advancement involved in marrying a girl from what was still, despite their current misfortune, one of Venice's handful of most prestigious families.


Lodovico pulled a face. "I don't know how to tell you this . . ."


Kat waited, blood draining to the pit of her stomach.


Lodovico continued. "He wanted a small parcel of documents transported to Constantinople."


Kat, her hasty assumptions knocked asunder, could only manage to shake her head. "Him?"


Lodovico Montescue nodded. "He offered me a great deal of money for it."


Kat sighed. "I wish you hadn't, Grandpapa."


Her grandfather hugged her, smiling. "Katerina. I didn't accept it. In fact, I rather indignantly refused. Does the man think me a fool? It's either spying, treason, or a trap."


Kat's eyes narrowed. "A trap."


Lodovico chuckled. "The Council of Ten will assume we are clean as driven snow." He scowled fiercely. "And I told him not to offer my granddaughter his slip-slop compliments either."


Katerina went down to her room to change into her warmest clothes in a far more cheerful frame of mind. Yes. Lord Calenti would be just the man to set such a trap.


* * *

The cheerfulness lasted until she was out on the dark water, battling the wind and the waves. Deliveries, she'd shifted to the daytime. But collections from Captain Della Tomasso were always at night, always before moonrise, and always off Guidecca. Della Tomasso was definitely a fence, definitely a messenger for spies, a smuggler . . . and their lifeline. He was a careful, taciturn man. And they owned his ship.


She hit a wave amidships, and it splashed and slopped over the gunwale. It was a good idea keeping the relationship between the illegal cargoes that Captain Della Tomasso carried and the Casa Montescue as far apart as possible. The old devil would load a legal cargo of salt, beeswax, and hides at the Montescue warehouse not seventy-five yards from Kat's bedroom tomorrow morning. Of course his coaster would be clean as a whistle while the Capi di Contrada were about at the warehouse. Of course they couldn't chance passing incriminating parcels to-and-fro there. But Kat wished to hell—by her half-frozen hands—that she could meet him somewhere closer to the Casa.


 


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