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Chapter 41

Chiano brooded over the little fire while Sophia grilled fish he'd coaxed into his net for dinner. He thought about how Harrow had slipped away into the marsh so easily he might have been born here; the man made scarcely a rustle in the reeds. What he'd done to mold the creature that had come into his hands into the man now called Harrow had used a smidgeon of magic, a great deal of knowledge he'd gleaned from Sophia about the properties of the plants of the Jesolo, and all his manipulation.


Face the facts, old man, you used him. To protect Marco, yes, but he'd made Harrow into a mere tool for that protection . . .


He was a tool before you got him. He just didn't know it. You gave him that much; self-knowledge. There are those who'd give anything for that.


And there were those who would—and did—give anything to have the luxury of denial, too. He hadn't given Harrow a choice.


How many choices did I have? None, if he was to give Marco a protector. And Marco had to have a protector, if he was to grow into the power the Lion's Shadow promised for him. He was close now, close to accepting the Winged Mantle; Chiano had sensed it. But Marco had to live to grow into that power, and—


And Venice is suddenly a world more dangerous than it was before. And you, old man, aren't there.


Self-knowledge. . . .


He'd had the luxury, not of denial, but of absence of that knowledge for a long time, courtesy of those who had ambushed him in the very corridors of the Accademia, coshed him, and dropped him into a canal. Him! Dottore Marina! And he hadn't even remembered that much until recently! All those experiments with drugs and hallucinations—he knew enough to be able to tell the difference between a real vision and a hallucination—hadn't been to gather the Word of the Goddess. It had been to jar loose his own memories from the confused mist the blow to the head had sent them into.


At first, when he came here, all he'd known for certain was what old Sophia had told him—that the undines had brought him to her, that they had told her he was their friend and that they had rescued him when someone had tried to kill him. They didn't know who; the men had worn steel armor, and that had prevented their magic and his own from saving him. They knew he was a magician, a powerful magician, one who was the friend of water creatures in particular, but that was all they knew. That, and his name, which meant nothing to him as he was, and nothing to an old herb-witch living in the Jesolo.


Sophia had decided—and told him—that he must have some powerful enemy in the city to have earned such treatment, and he had caught fear from her. For the longest time he hadn't wanted to know; it seemed safer when he didn't. And he particularly didn't want to use magic. Sophia had told him that magicians could tell where other magicians were using magic, and even who it was that was doing it—as if there would be any other magician in the Jesolo!


But when nothing happened, and no one came seeking him, then he dared, a little at a time. He dared first a little magic, a very little magic, something that he remembered bits of, that Sophia knew bits of, to call the undines to him. And it worked; they came out of friendship more than anything else, but stayed because he could feed them tidbits of power out of his own stores. It was the undines who came often enough for his tidbits and stayed to chase fish into his traps. It was the undines, also, who frightened the locos sufficiently, with their clawed hands and shark-tooth smiles, that he and Sophia were left unmolested. They could even, at need, make dangerous locos like the late Big Gianni feel threatened enough that he could have made Big Gianni back off from Marco if he'd been there when it needed doing.


And finally he tried getting those memories back of who, exactly, Dottore Marina was, and what he could do.


"Here," Sophia said, nudging him. "Better eat."


He accepted the piece of grilled fish from her and ate it mechanically.


* * *

It was a good thing that it was the memories of danger that came back first, and not the ones he had just gotten over the last few days, or his enemies would have surely found him. Someone had paid for very, very skilled bravos, dressed head-to-foot in fine chain mail, to ambush him within the Accademia itself. His defensive magics, the ones he could do without thinking, had all been of the sort to use against another mage or a creature of magic. When striking cold steel, they had fizzled and died, like a wet firework. That was all he remembered; the blow to his head that must have followed blanked out everything else.


For a while at least.


He had struggled since then, trying to put a face on the faceless enemy. Who could have hired these men? Obviously someone conversant enough with magic to know exactly how to disable a Magister Magus, a Grimas, a master of all three of the stregheria traditions. He had enemies, but none that virulent. Some were political; he was—had been—the spokesperson, not only for the Strega but also the rest of the non-Christian mages, the Jews and Moslems and that bizarre little fellow allegedly from the Qin empire. He had managed to get a single voice out of that chaos of conflicting personalities, even though for the most part it was like trying to herd cats and just as thankless a task. But the Strega were little more than an afterthought in the politics of Venice; he couldn't think of anyone who would consider him a political threat.


What did that leave? A mystery, a faceless threat, and somehow that unnerved him, unmanned him, and left him determined to hide out here and depend on no more than the little dribs and drabs of magic it took to just stay alive.


But then that poor child had shown up, running from faceless enemies himself, men who had killed his mother. And on him, guiding him—the Lion's Shadow, the sign that Chiano had not—then—recognized for what it was, because he himself was not aware that he was the wearer of the Winged Mantle. He only knew that Marco could be a magician if he chose, and through Marco, he himself could work the magic that would elevate life in the swamp above mere survival.


Until now. Until now . . .


Now he knew what he was—the force through which the Protector, the Soul of Venice could work, a Soul that went right back through the Romans and to the first Etruscan fishermen who had plied the Jesolo. The Soul that now took the shape of the Winged Lion of Saint Mark, but who was older than even Dottore Marina could guess. And the Shadow he had seen on young Marco was not just the shadow of potential power, it was the Shadow of the Lion, showing that Marco—if he lived, if he grew into and accepted his power—would be the next to wear the Winged Mantle. Marco might even—Chiano was not sure about this yet—be the first to assume the Lion's Crown as well, something which no one had done in centuries.


Now he knew why he had lived—because the Shadow had dispersed his attackers with the brush of its wings that called up terror, and called the undines up the canal to rescue him before the assassins could complete their business. Because the Shadow had told the undines to take him to Sophia, deep into the Jesolo, where he could live and regain his memories.


But there was no reason to follow Marco into the city, to go back. Was there? The boy had Harrow to protect him. He didn't need Chiano, nor did anyone else.


Except—


Except for the stories that came drifting into the Jesolo like mist, like the echoes of bells from the city, the stories that spoke of the sinister and cruel acts of the Servants of the Trinity—


Who would burn you, if they could take you, Chiano—


And of a monster who prowled the waterways and killed—


And what business is that of yours?


The shadow of wings brushed through his mind, reminding him that—yes, it was his business. It threatened the city. It was not just politics, but evil, that had sent him into the canal that night, not merely to serve as a warning to those who might think to challenge it but to rid the city of its protector.


Dottore Marina would have scoffed and taken up the gauntlet. Chiano had come too close to death. Chiano was afraid.


The truth is—


The truth was, he didn't know enough.


That's easily remedied, some small inner voice told him. He sighed. Yes, it was—except he was afraid of the remedy.


No more softness!


He stood up abruptly, and jumped down off the raft. It was not quite sunset; there was still time for magic. Sophia paid no attention. By now, she was used to the way he would just get up and go off somewhere without a word.


Sophia was more than a little loco herself. Odd behavior meant little or nothing to her.


There were places, even in the Jesolo, where there was pure water. Springs bubbled up from beneath the marsh, rainwater collected—you could find it, if you knew where to look. Anyone who was friend to the undines could find it without difficulty at all.


It had rained last night. Chiano waded out onto a thread of a path that took him to a place among the hummocks where he had left a bowl to collect water. It would be fresh and sweet and pure—exactly what he needed for scrying, since he would use something other than the stregheria rite, which would surely pinpoint him to anyone who was looking for him.


Dottore Marina did not need to go through an elaborate ritual to invoke and erect a Circle of Power and Protection anymore; he just thought a few key words, and it sprang up around him. Invisible to most eyes, and only barely visible to those with the Inner Sight, it ringed him with the Inner Fires that would screen his probing from those watching for magic. Holding his hands over the bowl of pure water as he squatted beside it in the dying light of day, he breathed another invocation, and watched patiently. As the last of the sun vanished, and the first rays of the moon touched the surface, it misted over, then cleared, showing him the once-familiar canals and walkways of his city.


Show me the threat, he commanded silently. Show me the peril to my city.


He had hoped to see nothing. But the water misted and cleared immediately, and showed him, in rapid succession—a voluptuous woman with red-gold hair—


Lucrezia Brunelli—


—her brother, Ricardo—


—a sour-faced, fanatic-eyed man in a cassock with three crosses emblazoned on it—


An abbot of the Servants? But who? I don't recognize him—


A woman in the habit of a nun of the Servants.


Whose eyes were—lifeless. Then something looked out of them.


At him. And saw him. And knew him!


And last, before he could react to that flicker of malevolent recognition, the darkened canal, with something swimming below the surface.


He bent nearer, closer to the water, trying to make out what it was.


It was coming out.


It sent one clawed hand, then another, to fasten into the stones of the canalside. Then it heaved itself up out of the water faster than a striking adder, and it turned, and it looked at him!


He screamed, and involuntarily thrashed at the water, breaking the spell. Just in time.


One moment more, and it would have been through the water-mirror, meant only for scrying, and at his throat, feeding on his life.


And his soul.


Reflexively, Luciano called up all of his defenses until he lay, panting, within a cocoon of power. Oh, anyone looking would See him now—but it didn't matter. Not after that. They knew he was out here, and it wouldn't take long for them to find him. How many undines would die protecting him?


For a very long time he couldn't think, he could only sit and shiver with fear that turned his bowels to water. As the moon climbed higher in the sky, he sat, and shook, and even wept unashamedly.


Not to me! This can't come to me! I'm too old, too tired—


But on his shoulders rested the Winged Mantle. He felt it, though it was invisible. There was no one else. Marco was untrained and unaware and could not take the Mantle in any case until Chiano was dead. The Mantle had come to him on the death of his predecessor—irony of ironies, it had been a little Hypatian priest-mage, out of a bastard branch of one of the four Old Families, and not one of the Strega.


No, Chiano was the bearer, for the good of Venice. If there had been anyone in all of Venice fit to wear it, it would have gone to him, or her, the moment his body hit the water, senseless, and he would have died. Extraordinary measures had been taken to ensure that he did not. Marco no doubt had the Mark, even then, but he hadn't the training, had no one to train him, and in any case was too young for the weight. The weight of the Mantle, even, much less the Crown.


His denial turned to a plea. Please—not now. Please, not to me.


But the answer was still the same. There was no other.


The night had never seemed so dark. . . .


Then, the shadow of a wing brushed him, and a quiet filled him. He made his mind very still, then, and waited.


There is no other, my child, said a voice as deep as the seas, as vast as the night sky. But I will be with you. Your soul will survive.


His soul . . . not his body, perhaps, but his soul.


It was enough; enough for him to find a small scrap of courage left, to drag together the rags of his sense of self, and to find a little more courage, a little more heart. And finally, what was left of his dignity.


He dismissed his protections with a word, and walked back to what had been his home, and would not be for much longer. Sophia looked up as he rejoined her on their combined rafts. Her eyes widened a little, as if he somehow looked different, now.


Perhaps he did.


For a moment he gazed out over the water towards the city, towards his fate.


"It's time, Sophia," he said at last. "It's time to go back."


Sophia smiled at him, shifting the wrinkles. And shook her head. "It's time you went back, Chiano. But this is my place, now," she said with finality.


 


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