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Chapter 37

Old habits woke Marco with the first hint of dawn—he'd been so exhausted otherwise that he'd have managed to sleep through to the afternoon. He'd spent a good part of the night with his teeth chattering hard enough to splinter, until exhaustion put him to sleep for another hour or so. He stuck his head out from under the hideout, still shivering, and peered around in the gray light. No fog this morning, though the sky was going to be overcast. He pulled his head back in, and checked his clothes where he'd put them under his bottom blanket. As he'd hoped, they were reasonably dry, water driven out by the heat of his body. He beat the worst of the dried mud out of them, and pulled them on, wrapped a blanket around himself, pulled his cotte on over it all, and crawled back out into the day.


He hopped from the edge of his raft onto the edge of the islet—which was an exposed and weathered ledge of rock, and a lot more solid than many a landing back in town. He wriggled his way in to the center of the islet, having to carefully pull his blanket and clothing loose when branches snagged them, lest he leave tell-tale bits of yarn behind, or rip holes in clothing he didn't have the wherewithal to repair. He was looking for a place where he would be well hidden by the reeds and rushes—at least hidden from the casual observer. He finally found a dry spot, one well padded by the accumulation of many years of dead reeds, and made himself a little hollow to sit in. He reckoned it would do well enough; he hunched down into the hollow, hugged his knees to his chest, and settled down to the unpleasant task of confronting everything he wanted to avoid thinking about.


Take it one step at a time—


All this time, he'd been casually saying to himself: "Caesare will kill me for this." Looking at the mess he'd made of things in the cold light of dawn, and soberly recollecting his own lecture to Benito—might he?


He might, Marco thought reluctantly. And be justified. If Casa Dorma take offense . . . he could hand Petro Dorma my head, and get himself out of it. I've made myself into a pretty expensive liability.


But would he? Marco looked at it from all the angles he could think of, and finally decided that he probably wouldn't. Aldanto never did get that drastic without having several reasons for doing it. To be brutally frank, Aldanto was too much of a professional to waste anything, even the time and effort it would take to dispose of a stupid child.


And Maria would probably get upset if Aldanto actually killed Marco. For all that the girl doted on her lover, and had the usual canaler's tough outlook on life, Marco didn't think that she really approved of Caesare's . . . profession. And he thought that, underneath the temper, she was actually quite fond of him and Benito.


But just to be on the safe side—


Rafael had suggested he hide out here about two weeks, then come back into town. Get hold of Benito first—give him a note for Caesare. Use the old Montagnard codes, and flat ask him if he thinks I'm better gotten out of the way, permanent-like. Then make a counteroffer. Say—say that I'll do what he wants me to do; come in, stay here, or leave Venice altogether.


The last wouldn't be easy, or desirable from his point of view, but he'd do it; he couldn't go north—but south, maybe? Or maybe hire on as a hand on an Outremer-bound ship?


That was a possibility. The sailors had seemed pretty rough characters, but basically good people, when he'd met a couple at Ventuccio's. But


He had a fairly shrewd notion of what some of the duties of a very junior (and passable-looking) sign-on might well include, and he wasn't altogether sure he could stomach the job. Better that, though, than dead. No such thing as a "fate worse than death" in Marco's book—except maybe a fate involving a lengthy interrogation at the hands of Montagnards, the Servants of the Holy Trinity, or Ricardo Brunelli—or Caesare Aldanto.


But Benito—if he left Venice, he'd have to leave Benito. No good could come to a fourteen-year-old kid in a strange place like Acre or Ascalon, or more-or-less trapped on an eastbound ship.


That would leave him more alone than he'd ever been.


He swallowed hard, and wiped his sleeve across his eyes. So be it. For Benito's sake, he'd do just about anything. Including take on that lengthy interrogation.


But figure Caesare wanted him back in; in a lot of ways that was the worst case. Si, I'll go in, I take my licks. God knows what he'll do. Probably beat the liver out of me. Be worse if he didn't, in some ways. He won't be trusting me with much, anyway, not after the way I've messed up. Don't blame him. I wouldn't trust me, either.


So. Be humble; be respectful. Take orders, follow 'em to the letter, and earn the respect back. Even if it takes years.


Thank God he'd told the truth—at least he'd cut the thing with Angelina short, before it had landed them in more tangles than could be cut loose.


Give up on the notion of the Accademia—too close to the Dorma, especially with Dorma cousins going there. Hang it up; stay content with being Ventuccio's third-rank clerk. At least that paid the bills.


Stay clear of anyplace Angelina might show, unless Caesare ordered different.


Keep clear of the Strega, too. That meant Valentina and Claudia and Barducci's tavern—again, unless Caesare ordered differently.


Going back meant more than facing Caesare—it meant figuring a way to pay the damn bills with no money. Rent was paid until the end of the month—but that was only one week away. Borrow? From whom? Maria didn't have any to spare. Not Caesare—


Marco gnawed his lip, and thought and thought himself into a circle. No choice. Has to be Caesare. Or beg an advance from Ventuccio. Have to eat humble pie twice. Charity. Hell.


Sometimes it seemed as if it would be a lot easier to find one of the marsh bandits and taunt them into killing him; God knew it wouldn't take much. But he hadn't fought and fought and fought to stay alive this long just to take the easy way out.


Last possibility—that Caesare would tell him to stay. That Caesare would trust to the Jesolo marshes to kill him, rather than killing him outright. Well, wasn't staying what Marco had figured on doing in the first place?


All right, if Caesare told him to stay in the marshes—well, Marco would stay. At least this time he'd arrived equipped to do a little better than just survive. Not much, but a little. So long as he could keep clear of the bandits, he'd manage. And he and Benito could go back to the old routine—at least he'd be near enough to keep in touch.


Now—the Montagnards—have I screwed up there too?


* * *

Benito waded through mud and freezing water; over his ankles mostly, sometimes up to his knees. His legs were numb, his teeth were chattering so hard he couldn't stop them, and his nose was running. He kept looking over his shoulder, feeling like he was being watched, but seeing nothing but the waving weeds that stood higher than his head. There was a path here, of a sort, and he was doing his best to follow it. If he hadn't been so determined to find his brother, he'd have turned tail and run for home a long time ago.


Rafael de Tomaso had told him the whole messy story, and had admitted that he had advised Marco to go and hide out for a week or two until the thing could blow over. Benito had gotten a flash of inspiration right then, and hadn't waited to hear more—he'd lit off over the roofs again—


It had taken him half an hour to reach the apartment in Cannaregio—


To discover Marco's belongings stripped, right down to the books. The fact that it was only Marco's things ruled out thieves. Stuff gone, plus hiding, added up to "marshes" to Benito.


So he put on every shred of shirt and cotte he had, and two pairs of pants, and made for the roofs again.


He had to get down to the roadways by the time he reached Castello. By then he had gotten the notion that it might just be a good idea to let Maria and Caesare know where Marco had gone, and to let them know he was headed out after him.


Damn fool Rafael, he'd cursed, more than once. Damn marshes almost killed Marco before this—hell, it could do it now! Damn fool city-dweller, thinks living in the Jesolo in wintertime, in the middle of the Aqua alta, is like living in the city—


So he'd looked around for a boatman, knowing that boat-folk stuck together, knowing that what he told one would be halfway across town by midmorning.


"Hey!" he'd yelled at the first head that poked out of a small pirogue's cabin to peer at him, bleary-eyed, in the dawnlight. "Hey—you know Maria Garavelli?"


"Might," said the bargee; old, of dubious gender.


"Look, you find her, you tell her Marco's headed out into the Jesolo marshes and Benito's gone after him." Then he added, shrewdly, "There's money in it."


The whole canaler had popped out of the hidey then, and the creature was jerking at his tie-rope as Benito continued his run down to the sandbars off the eastern point of Castello and the "path" Marco had told him about. He hoped he was right about the tide. You could only get across there at dead-low.


Marco had talked so casually about walking in among the islands and out into the Jesolo. Benito was finding out now that it was anything but easy. For one thing, he could hardly tell where he was going, what with the reeds being so high. For another, it was hard to follow this so-called "path." It was prone to having deep washouts where least expected. He was wet to his collar, and mired to his waist, and it was a good thing that wool clothing stayed warm when wet, or he'd have been frozen into an icicle by now. The swamp was eerily silent, the only sounds being the splashing and sucking noises of his own passage and the murmur of a breeze in the reeds. It was damned cold. And it smelled to high heaven. Worst of all, Benito wasn't entirely certain that he wasn't lost.


"Marco?" he called, hoping that he was close enough to the area Marco had described Chiano and Sophia living in. He hoped that his brother would be the one to hear him. One heard horrible stories about the marsh-folk. "Marco?"


* * *

Harrow crouched in the cover of the reeds and rushes on the little muck-and-reed hummock Luciano Marina had led him to, watching the boy. Or rather, what he could see of the boy, which from this angle was only the top of his head. So far, this business of guarding Lorendana's kids had been absurdly easy. He'd stayed under cover most of yesterday, watching the boy work on his hideout until he seemed finished, then watching the hideout after the boy crawled into it to sleep. Then Luciano Marina had come to bring him some food and told him to get some sleep. He'd gone back to his hiding place near Luciano's raft. When dawn arrived, so had Luciano Marina. The Strega had given him something to chew on—"keeps the cold away," he'd said—and sent him back to his watching-place.


So far all that the boy had done was to make a pocket-sized fire and boil a pot of water for drinking. Other than that, he'd sat on the island for the past hour or more, hidden in the reeds, not moving. Harrow chewed the bitter-tasting, woody stuff Luciano Marina had given him. It made his head buzz pleasantly, and did, indeed, keep the cold away. He wondered what the kid was up to. Meditating? Neither Luciano Marina nor the vision of Lorendana had said anything about the boy being mystical. But it was a possibility, given the Goddess's interest in him.


Well, whatever, it was certainly proving to be a lot easier than he'd thought it was going to be—


He was too well trained to jump at the sudden sound of a shout, echoing across the marsh. It was the voice of a boy calling out a name, echoing out of the depths of the swamp.


"Marco?" It was so distorted he couldn't really tell what direction it was coming from. "Marco?"


Someone was looking for young Valdosta! He focused his attention on the boy just in time to see him slide off the islet and into the reeds, fast as a lizard and nearly as silently. Harrow saw the weeds shake once—and the boy was gone.


* * *

Saints!


That was Benito's voice, echoing among the islets. If Marco could hear him, it was damn sure others could. For all of his younger brother's savvy about the streets and canals of Venice, Benito had no real understanding of the dangers which lurked in the marshes.


Marco slid off the islet, skidding on sharp-edged, rustling grass, slipping on icy mud patches. He splashed down onto the path, ignoring the knifelike cold of the water, and then began moving as quickly and quietly as he could. He wove through the reeds, hoping he'd get to his brother before anyone else did. But he must get there without getting ambushed himself. Marco made scarcely more noise than a snake, keeping his feet under the icy water to avoid splashing, slipping between the clumps of dry, rattling rushes rather than forcing his way through them. Benito's one hope was that at this time of year, most of the really bad locos were deeper into the marsh than this.


He burst into a tiny clearing unexpectedly, knife at the ready, practically on top of the kid.


"Marco!"


Benito flung himself at his brother, heedless of the knife Marco held, looking well and truly frightened. He clung to him as they both teetered in icy, knee-deep, mud-clouded water. Marco returned the embrace, relieved almost to the point of tears to find him safe.


"Benito—" He hugged him hard. "Thank God—thank God you're all right!"


Then Marco looked up from the kid clinging to him, to see that they had been surrounded on three sides.


It was the Squalos; a banditti gang of marsh locos. A bad bunch, too. Mostly younger than the general run of the swamp folk; late teens to early thirties. Rumor had it they worked for slavers. When supplies of suitable bodies in town ran low, bodies tended to start disappearing from the swamp.


There were ten of them, ragged, dirty, and predatory. They had spaced themselves in a rough ovoid, standing on high spots at irregular intervals between the reed hummocks, at distances from fifteen to twenty feet from the two boys, except on the side bordering the deep water. Feral eyes gazed hungrily at them from within tangles of filthy hair and beard.


They were in deep trouble.


Marco slipped his spare knife from his belt, feeling the hilt like a slip of ice in his hand, and passed it wordlessly to Benito. Then he shifted his own knife to his left hand and felt in his pocket for his sling and a stone. He got the stone into the pocket of the sling one-handed, and without taking his attention off the gang. With the sling loose and ready in his right hand, he shifted his weight from side to side, planting himself a little more firmly in the treacherous, icy mud. And prayed his numb feet wouldn't fail him.


"Hear ye finished off Big Gianni, Marco."


One of the least ragged of the gang members stepped forward. Marco recognized the leader, Grimaldi, by his shock of wild reddish hair.


"Hear yer got pretty good wi' that sticker." The redhead made a vaguely threatening gesture with his own thin-bladed knife.


Marco's hopes rose a little—if he could somehow convince them to go one-on-one with him, they might have a chance. Benito would, anyway, if he could talk the kid into running for it while the gang's attention was on the fight.


"Good enough to take you, Grimaldi," he said, raising the knife defiantly. "You want to dance?"


"Maybe, maybe—" the filth-caked, scrawny gang leader replied, swaying a little where he stood, knee-deep in muddy water, wisps of greasy red hair weaving around his face.


"What's the matter, Grim? What's matter? You scared?" Marco taunted, as the blood drained out of Benito's face and his eyes got big and frightened. "I'm not a kid anymore, that it? Afraid to take me on now?"


"Marco—" Benito hissed, tugging urgently at his soggy sleeve. "Marco, I don't think that's too smart—"


The gang leader hesitated—and his own followers began jeering at him, waving their arms around and making obscene gestures. Under cover of their catcalls, Marco whispered harshly to his younger brother.


"Benito—don't argue. For once, don't. I know what I'm doing, dammit! When you figure they're all watching me, you light out for deep water. You swim—"


"No! I'm not leavin' you!"


"You'll damn well do as I say!"


"No way!"


"Shut up!" Grimaldi roared, effectively silencing all of them. He sloshed forward a pace or two and grinned. "I ain't afraid, Marco, but I ain't stupid, neither. I ain't gonna get myself cut up for nothin'—not when we can take both o' ye, an' make a little bargain with the Dandelo buyers for two nice young eunuchs—" His knife described a fast nasty low flick.


He sloshed forward another step—his last.


Marco's right hand blurred, and Grimaldi toppled sideways into the mud, wearing a rather surprised expression, a rock imbedded in his temple.


There was a moment of stunned silence, then the rest of the gang surged forward like a feeding-frenzy of weasels.


* * *

Harrow lost the boy as soon as he slid into the reeds. It took him longer than he liked to get to the place where the boy had vanished. If this had been the mountains, or a forest or a city—even a weird city like Venice—he'd have had no trouble tracking the kid. Here in this foul wilderness he was at something of a loss. He floundered around in the mud, feeling unnaturally helpless. Fine vessel of the Goddess, he was—he couldn't even keep track of a dumb kid!


Then he heard the shouting; there was enough noise so that he had no trouble pinpointing the source even through the misleading echoes out there. It sounded like trouble; and where there was trouble, he somehow had no doubt he'd find the boy.


But getting there . . . was a painfully slow process; he literally had to feel his way, step by cold, slippery step. Waterweeds reached out for him, snagging him, so that he had to fight his way through them. The noise echoed ahead of him, driving him into a frenzy of anxiety as he floundered on, past treacherous washouts and deposits of mud and silty sand that sucked at him.


Until he was suddenly and unexpectedly in the clearing.


He blinked—there was the boy—no, two boys, standing at bay, side by side on a hummock of flattened reeds. They were holding off—barely—a gang of mud-smeared, tattered marsh-vermin. One boy was Marco—


Merda!


The other was Benito!


Harrow saw the pattern of the Goddess's weave. It was too much to be coincidence; first the vision, then Marco just happening to be holing up out in this Godforsaken slime-pit—and now the other boy also turning up—


But the boys weren't doing well. They'd accounted for one of the crazies, now floating bloody-headed within arm's reach of Harrow. But the others were going to overpower them before much longer. Marco had an ugly slash across his ribs that was bleeding freely and soaking into a long red stain along the front of his mud-spotted tan cotte. And even as Harrow moved to grab a piece of driftwood to use as a weapon, one of the crazies started to bring down a boathook, aimed at the younger boy's head.


"Benito!"


Harrow saw the horror in Marco's eyes as the boy saw it coming, and before Benito could turn, the older boy shoved him out of the way and took the blow himself.


The deadly hook missed, but the boy took the full force of the pole on his unprotected head. The pole broke—the boy sank to his knees—


And Harrow waded into the fray from behind, roaring in a kind of berserker rage, wielding his driftwood club like the sword of an avenging angel. The ex-Montagnard assassin used a blade by preference, but he was every bit as expert with a cudgel. His first blow landed on a skull with enough force to cave it in. Thereafter, his opponents warned and trying to fend him off, he shifted to the short and savage thrusts of an expert brawler and killer. One throat crushed; a rib cage splintered; a diaphragm ruptured—two more sent sprawling by vicious kicks. The rest fled in a panic and faded into the swamp; leaving behind four floating bodies and another crawling into the reeds coughing blood as he went.


There was a sudden absolute silence.


The younger boy had flung himself at his brother when Marco had gone down, and was holding him somewhat erect. He looked around with wild eyes when the quietude suddenly registered with him.


His eyes fastened on Harrow. He paled—


And put himself as a frail bulwark of protection between the one-time Montagnard assassin and his semi-conscious brother.


Harrow was struck dumb by a thought that approached a revelation. Those two—they'd die for each other. My own brother might have killed someone for me . . . But he wouldn't have been willing to die for me.


Coming from the mercenary background that he did, Harrow had never known much affection or loyalty. His mother had been a Swiss mercenary's whore. She'd reared the boys as a way of making a living. A poor substitute for the kind of living a daughter would have brought her, but a living. Bespi had never experienced that kind of attachment. He wouldn't have believed anyone who told him it existed. But here it was, and unmistakable. Those two boys would willingly give their lives for each other.


He held himself absolutely still, not wanting to frighten the younger boy further.


They might have remained that way forever, except for Marco. The boy began struggling to his feet, distracting his brother, so Harrow was able to transfer the crude club he held to his left hand and take a step or two closer. At that, Benito jerked around, knife at the ready, but the older boy forestalled him, putting a restraining hand on his shoulder.


Harrow met the disconcertingly direct eyes of the older boy with what he hoped was an expression of good-will.


"N-no, 'sfine, Ben—"


The words were slurred, but there was sense in the black eyes that met his.


"—'f he meant us trouble, he wouldn't have waded in to help us."


Marco used his younger brother's shoulder to hold himself upright, and held out his right hand. "Marco—" he hesitated a moment "—Valdosta . . . dunno who you are, but—thanks."


Harrow looked from the outstretched, muddy hand, to the candid, honest face, with its expression of simple, pure gratitude. He stretched out his own hand almost timidly to take the boy's, finding himself moved to the point of having an unfamiliar lump in his throat.


This boy was—good. That was the only way Harrow could put it. Honest, and good. Small wonder the Goddess wanted this thread for her loom. It was a precious golden thread, one which would lift the other colors in the weave into brightness. Harrow had never known anyone he could have called simply . . . "good."


And—so Harrow had often been told—the good die young.


Resolve flared in eyes. Not this one. As an assassin, one of the most deadly killers the Visconti had ever unleashed for the Montagnard cause, he had felt an almost sexual pleasure when he had fulfilled his missions. When he'd killed. Now a similar but richer feeling came, displacing the old. He was the vessel of the Goddess. And he was full, full to overflowing. He was only distantly aware of the impression of a great winged shadow, passing over all of them. The Montagnards brought death to serve their purposes. The Goddess conserved life. Purpose and reasons flooded into Harrow. Not this one! Death will not take him while I watch over him.


Marco swayed in sudden dizziness, and Harrow sloshed through the churned-up mud to take his other arm and help keep him steady; Benito tensed, then relaxed again when he realized that Harrow was going to help, not hurt them.


"Which way from here?" the vessel of the Goddess croaked, finding his voice with difficulty.


* * *

Marco fought down dizziness as he grayed-out a little; heard the battered, burnt-faced stranger ask: "Which way from here?"


"We've got to get him out of here—back to Venice, back where it's warm and they can look after him," Benito replied, hesitantly. "There's probably people out looking for him by now—and he ain't in any shape to stay out here, anyway."


Marco gave in to the inevitable, too sick and dizzy and in too much pain to argue. "The path's—through those two hummocks," he said, nodding his head in the right direction and setting off a skull-filling ache by doing so. The three of them stumbled off down the rim-path, making slow work of it—especially since they had to stop twice to let him throw up what little there was in his stomach. He concentrated on getting one foot set in front of the other. That was just about all he was up to at this point; that, and keeping from passing out altogether.


He was still survival-oriented enough to be aware that now that they were in the clear, they were attracting the attention of the marsh dwellers with boats—some of whom were more dangerous than the Squalos. He tried to warn the other two, but his tongue seemed to have swollen up and it was hard to talk.


But the walls of the Arsenal were in sight now, crumbling and water-logged brick-and-wood, looming up over their heads. Things began to whirl. . . . He couldn't possibly see the Piazza San Marco from here, but he would swear he saw the pillar and the lion . . . and the open book. He struggled to read the words. . . .


"Don't fall over yet, Marco!" Benito's voice. Pleading. "Don't die on me, brother!"


By an effort of will, the whirling world steadied briefly.


There was a shout from behind; just as a small boat came around the Castello point. An errant beam of sunlight glinted off blond hair in the bow, and there was another, darker figure waving at them frantically from the stern.


And there was ominous splashing growing nearer behind them.


The stranger on Marco's left suddenly dropped his arm, and Marco and Benito staggered as Marco overbalanced.


Then things got very blurred and very confusing.


The stranger bellowed behind them, and there was the sound of blows, and cries of anger and pain; Benito began hauling him along as fast as they could stumble through the weeds and muck. Then he was in waist-deep water, with the sides of a gondola under his hands, and he was simultaneously scrambling and being pulled aboard. That was . . . Maria Garavelli cursing under her breath beside his head.


And then a gun went off practically in his ear.


He tumbled onto the bottom slats and lay there, frozen, and wet, and hurting; shivering so hard he could hardly think, with shouting going on over his head, and another shot.


Then they were under a winged leonine shadow as consciousness slipped away.


* * *

When he came to again, it was to the sight of Maria standing on the stern, moving the gondola with steady easy strokes. Benito wrapped a blanket around him and helped him to sit up. It was a good thing Benito was supporting him; he was shivering so hard now that he couldn't sit on his own.


"He all right?"


There was worry in Maria's voice; that surprised him.


"He need help? Lord—he's bleeding, ain't he! Caesare—"


Aldanto was down on the slats beside him, without Marco seeing how he had got there. He shut his eyes as much to hide his shame as to fight the waves of dizziness. Amazingly gentle hands probed his hurts.


"Cut along the ribs—looks worse than it is. But this crack on the skull—"


Marco swayed and nearly lost his grip on consciousness and his stomach, when those hands touched the place where the boathook pole had broken over his head. The pain was incredible; it was followed by a combined wave of nausea and disorientation. The hands steadied him, then tilted his chin up.


"Open your eyes."


He didn't dare to disobey; felt himself flush, then pale. The blue eyes that bored into his weren't the dangerous, cold eyes he'd seen before—but they were not happy eyes.


"Not good, I'd judge."


"So what's that mean?" Maria asked harshly.


"Mostly that it's his turn to be put to bed, and he isn't going to be moving from there for a while. You—"


Caesare was speaking to him now, and Marco wanted to die at the gentle tone of his voice.


"—have caused us a great deal of trouble, young man."


"I—I didn't mean to—I just—I just wanted—" He felt, and fought down, a lump of shamed tears. No, no he would not cry! "—I made such a mess out of things, I figured you were better off if I went away somewhere. I didn't mean to bring you more trouble! I tried to find some way I could get you out of it, and get out from under your feet, and when that didn't work I just tried to do what was right—"


"If I had thought differently," Aldanto said, slowly, deliberately, "you'd be out there entertaining the locos right now. There are more than a few things I want to have out with you, but it's nothing that can't wait."


Then he got up, and took a second oar to help Maria, ignoring Marco's presence on the bottom slats.


But that wasn't the end of his humiliation—every few feet along the canals, it seemed, they were hailed, either from other boats or from the canalside.


"Si, he's okay," Maria called back, cheerfully, "Si, we got 'im—"


Apparently everybody in town knew what a fool he'd made of himself. There were calls of "Hooo—so that's the loverboy? Eh, throw him back, Maria, he's just a piddly one!" With every passing minute, Marco felt worse. Finally he just shut his eyes and huddled in the blanket, ignoring the catcalls and concentrating on his aching head.


Because, as if that humiliation wasn't enough, there were more than a few of those on canalside who didn't shout—shadowy figures whom Caesare simply nodded to in a peculiar way. And Marco recognized one or two as being Giaccomo's.


Giaccomo—that meant money—


—a lot of money. Out of Caesare's pocket.


Marco wanted to die.


The ribald and rude comments were coming thick and fast now, as they headed into the Grand Canal. Maria was beginning to enjoy herself, from the sound of her voice. Aldanto, however, remained ominously silent. Marco opened his eyes once or twice, but couldn't bear the sunlight—or the sight of that marble-still profile.


* * *

The third time he looked up, his eyes met something altogether unexpected. Aldanto had shifted forward, and instead of his benefactor, Marco found himself staring across the water at another gondola.


There was a girl in that elderly nondescript vessel, rowing it with consummate ease. From under the hood curled carroty-red hair. She had a generous mouth, a tip-tilted nose—merry eyes, wonderful hazel eyes—


She wasn't beautiful, like Angelina Dorma. But those eyes held a quick intelligence worth more and promising more than mere beauty.


Those eyes met his across the Grand Canal, and the grin on that face softened to a smile of genuine sympathy, and then into a look of utter dumbfounded amazement.


Which was maybe not surprising, if she felt the shock of recognition that Marco was feeling. Because even if he'd never seen her before, he knew her; knew how the corners of her eyes would crinkle when she laughed, knew how she'd twist a lock of hair around one finger when she was thinking hard, knew how her hand would feel, warm and strong, and calloused with work, in his.


In that moment he forgot Angelina Dorma, forgot his aching head, forgot his humiliation. He stretched out his hand without realizing he'd done so—saw she was doing the same, like an image in a mirror.


And then his eyes blurred, and vision deserted him. When his eyes cleared, she was gone, and there was no sign that she'd ever even been there. And he was left staring at the crowded canal, not even knowing who she could be.


Before he could gather his wits, they were pulling up to the tie-up in Castello. He managed to crawl under his own power onto the landing, but when he stood up, he didn't gray out, he blacked out for a minute.


When he came to, he had Maria on the one side of him, and Caesare on the other, with Benito scrambling up the stairs ahead of them. They got him up the stairs, Lord and Saints, that was a job—he was so dizzy he could hardly help them at all. Aldanto had to all but carry him the last few feet. Then he vanished, while Marco leaned against the wall in the hallway and panted with pain.


Maria, it was, who got him into the kitchen; ignoring his feeble attempts to stop her, she stripped him down to his pants with complete disregard for his embarrassment. She cleaned the ugly slash along his ribs, poured raw grappa in it. That burned and brought tears to his eyes. Then she bandaged him up; then cleaned the marsh-muck off of him as best she could without getting him into water. Then she handed him a pair of clean breeches and waited with her back turned and her arms crossed for him to strip off the dirty ones and finally bundled him up into bed, stopping his protests with a glass of unwatered wine.


He was so cold, so cold all the way through, that he couldn't even shiver anymore. And his thoughts kept going around like rats in a cage. Only one stayed any length of time—


"Maria—" he said, trying to get her attention more than once, "Maria—"


Until finally she gave an exasperated sigh and answered, "What now?"


"Maria—" he groped after words, not certain he hadn't hallucinated the whole thing. "On the Grand Canal—there was this girl, in a boat—a gondola. Maria, please, I got to find out who she is!"


She stared at him then, stared, and then started a grin that looked fit to break her face in half. "A girl. In a boat." She started to laugh, like she'd never stop. "A girl in a boat. Saint Zaccharia! Oh, all the Saints! Damn, it's almost worth the mess you've got us into!"


She leaned on the doorframe, tears coming to her eyes, she was laughing so hard.


Then she left him, without an answer.


Left him to turn over and stare at the wall, and hurt, inside and out. Left him to think about how he'd lost everything that really meant anything—especially Aldanto's respect. About how the whole town knew what a fool he was. About how he'd never live that down.


And to think about how everything he'd meant to turn out right had gone so profoundly wrong; how he owed Caesare more than ever. Left him to brood and try to figure a way out of this mire of debt, until his head went around in circles—


He was going into the reaction that follows injury. Sophia had told him . . . He tried desperately to recapture her words. . . . It was all vague. He knew about that somewhere deep down, but he didn't much care anymore. He wouldn't ask for any more help, not if he died of it. Maybe if he died, if they found him quiet and cold in a couple of hours, maybe they'd all forgive him then.


He entertained the bleak fantasy of their reaction to his demise for a few minutes before he dropped off to sleep.


 


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Framed