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Chapter 39

Benito hadn't missed the subtle little signals Aldanto was passing to those shadow-lurkers canalside. Benito knew those shadows, knew them for Giaccomo's. Knew how much they cost. Was totaling up that cost in his head, and coming to a sum that scared the socks off of him.

All that—for Marco?

Oh, hell.

He began doing some very hard thinking about the time they hit the Grand Canal. He'd made up his mind by the time they reached the house in Castello.

Aldanto helped to get Marco as far as the kitchen, then let Maria take over; he headed for the sitting room, and stood looking out of the window in the dim sunlight, arms crossed over his chest, handsome face brooding and worried. Benito made himself a silent shadow following him.

"M'lord—" he said quietly, as soon as they were alone.

Aldanto started—barely visibly; controlling an automatic reaction of defense. Benito's quick eyes caught it all, and his evaluation of Caesare rose considerably.

Damn—he's good. If he can pull his reaction after all this—he's damned good. Better'n anybody I've ever seen.

"What?" the man said shortly, obviously not in a mood for more nonsense.

"M'lord," he said soberly, as Caesare regarded him over one shoulder. "I—I'm sorry about the—" he gestured, flushing, "—where I hit you."

"You're sorry?" The ex-Montagnard was actually speechless.

"M'lord—listen a minute, please? I didn't know what to think. Thought maybe you might have—well—Marco might be worth a bit, to the right people."

"Thought I might have turned my coat again, is that it?" Aldanto looked very odd; a little amused, and maybe a little understanding.

"M'lord, I didn't blame you—I was thinking maybe somebody's been leaning on you. If I was you, reckon I'd swap a kid for Maria, if I had to—hard choice, but—that's the way I'd be doing it." Benito kept his eyes on Aldanto, and thought he saw a thoughtful gleam there.

"So—hey, I thought, you didn't have Marco, you might use me to get to Marco. So I let you have it where it could count, so as I could scat."

"I'm afraid, boy," Caesare said quietly, "that this once you were wrong."

Benito preferred not to think about what that peculiarly phrased sentence might mean if he examined it too closely.

"Look, m'lord, I told you—you got a hard choice to make, you make the best one you can. Happens I was wrong this time—but I'm sorry, hey? Now—" Benito got down to business. "I think my brother cost you more than you could afford, no? I've got eyes—and I know what Giaccomo's rates are—"

Aldanto's own eyes narrowed speculatively, but he said nothing.

"M'lord Caesare, I used to figure there was one person worth spending all I had to keep alive, and that was my brother. Now, I figure there's two—"

He felt, more than heard, Maria come in behind him. That was all right; nothing he was going to say now that he didn't want Maria to hear. "Well, maybe three, except Maria back there can take care of herself, I reckon. But the other one's you. We owe you, m'lord."

Aldanto turned to face him fully. "I may be able to salvage something from Marco's poetry," he said dryly. "I wish he'd told me about it earlier." He shifted his weight to one foot. "But what is the point of telling me something I know?"

"It's this, m'lord—Marco, he's good, ye know? I'm not good—I'm trouble. I don't know how, but the Dell'este—my grandfather—always knew that, even when I was a kid. 'You take care of Marco,' he told me. 'The good ones need us bad ones to keep them safe.' "

Aldanto's right eyebrow rose markedly. "I'm not exactly popular with the Duke of Ferrara, boy. How do you think he'd feel about the company you're keeping now?"

Benito shrugged. "That's not my problem. He just told me I was to take care of Marco."

Aldanto looked pensive, but he said nothing. Benito continued, nervously, but determined. "M'lord, I—" he waved his hands helplessly "—I guess what I want to say is this. You got into this mess because of us. It cost you. You didn't have to do it. Well I'm guessing. But I figure you might need help. Well, from now on, you say, and I'll do. Whatever. However. For as long as you like. And there's some things I'm not too shabby at."

The eyebrow stayed up. Caesare made no pretence that he didn't understand what Benito was talking about. "And if I say—no noise?"

Benito remembered a certain window, and a certain escapade that no longer seemed so clever, and the shadowy men on the canalside walkways—and shuddered. "Then it'll be quiet, m'lord. Real quiet. Babies wouldn't wake up."

"And how long can I expect this sudden fit of virtue to last?" Caesare asked with heavy irony.

"It'll last, m'lord, long as you got use for me. Though, I reckon—" Benito grinned suddenly, engagingly, "you'll have to crack me over the ear, now and again. Claudia used to—about once a week."

Caesare's eyes narrowed a little as he studied Benito. The boy held steady beneath that merciless gaze, neither dropping his own eyes, nor shifting so much as an inch. Finally Aldanto nodded in apparent satisfaction.

"You'll do as I say? Exactly as I say? No arguments?"

"Yes m'lord. No arguments, m'lord. I can spot a professional when I see one, m'lord. Happen you could teach me more than a bit, no? I learn quick, even Valentina says so. One other thing, though—Marco, he went an' spent all the rent money on your medicine, and both of us had to leave work to help out here, so there's nothing saved." Benito was not averse to rubbing that in, just to remind Aldanto that they'd already bankrupted themselves for him, and that debt could work both ways.

He got a bit of satisfaction when this time he definitely saw Caesare wince. "Money's a bit tight."

Benito shrugged. "I understand. Giaccomo's boys don't come cheap. But we're broke. So we either got to stay here, or hit the attics again. Happens the attics are no bad notion; you've got to get over the roofs to get in them—hard for folks to sneak up on you."

Aldanto shook his head, closing his eyes for a moment.

"Mercy—" he mumbled, "—what have I let myself in for this time?"

He cast a glance behind Benito. "Maria—you've got some stake in this too—"

Benito didn't look around, but heard Maria flop down in a chair behind him.

"I think it's no bad idea," she said. "Let them stay here. Lots of comings and goings—maybe not all by doors—confuse the hell out of any watchers."

Aldanto looked over at Benito again, and Benito had the peculiar feeling of seeing someone quite near his own age looking at him out of those adult eyes for one brief flash.

"Hey, the attics ain't so bad," he gave a token protest. "I lived there two years. You get some heat from the house and if you keep quiet you don't get found out and have to move too often. Better than the marshes by a long way."

Aldanto shook his head. "I'd rather you were where I could see you."

Benito shrugged. "Well, if you let us stay, we stay. But we've got jobs. We'll kick in."

"You'd better." That was Maria, behind him.

Caesare shook his head again. Sighed. "Well then, Benito Valdosta, I think we may have a bargain even if my bones tell me it may well be a partnership made in Hell."

Benito just grinned "Hey, not for you, m'lord. But for people acting unfriendly-like? Against a team like the three of us, you, me, and Maria, m'lord Caesare? They haven't a chance!"

* * *

Harrow had panicked at first, when he'd seen who was picking the boys up—he'd broken out of the knot of fighting loco he'd tipped into the water and struggled vainly to get to the gondola before it could carry the boys off. The treacherous bottom had betrayed him. By the time he'd hauled himself out of the washout the two boys were aboard the gondola and being sculled away, back into the shadowed bowels of the city.

Then recollection came to him, and he edged past the brawl back into depths of the swamp, comforted by this new evidence of the Goddess's intervention. Aldanto was former Montagnard; a man with an assassin's knowledge, a snake's cunning, an eel's ways, a duelist's defenses. If the Montagnards were after the boys, what better protection could they have than that of the man who knew most about the ways the Visconti operated, from firsthand experience?

But the Goddess had charged him with watching over them—and Aldanto was only one man; he couldn't be everywhere at once, and he couldn't spend all his time awake. So. That meant Harrow should return to the city—

* * *

Luciano was pleased with his convert's plans. Secretly. The man responded well to manipulation. It was necessary to rant at Harrow about the folly of them until he was hoarse—but Harrow simply held his peace until Luciano ran out of words and then repeated his intentions.

"I'm going back in," he said simply. "The Goddess put it on me, the job's not done till She says so. She said to watch the boys, so I'm watching the boys."

Luciano sighed, "Can't argue with Her, or you," he said glumly, concealing his triumph. "But you got any notion where you're going?"

Harrow nodded, slowly. "Know where Aldanto lives; know lots of watchin' holes around Castello—"

"You just go to the boy's friends if you run into trouble, hear me? Claudia—that's th' main one. Singer—"

"—works out of Barducci's tavern, lives second floor. You told me that already." Harrow did not add what he was thinking—that he probably could teach this Strega more than a few things about covert work. He had little respect for female agents; most of them were damned little use out of bed. He was itching to get out and get moving—Luciano had given him some other drug that cleared his mind and fired his feeling of purpose to a near-obsession, and every moment spent dallying only made the urge to get into place stronger.

"All right, get moving," Luciano growled. "I can see you've no more interest nor purpose out here."

Harrow did not wait to hear anything more.


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