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Chapter 42

After he lowered his pack onto the cot which would henceforth serve him as a bed, Eneko Lopez heaved a sigh of relief. "Thank God," he murmured, as his eyes made a quick survey of his new living quarters. The survey was very brief, for the simple reason that there was very little to survey in the first place. The room was tiny, as small as any cell he had inhabited in his years as a monk. Except for the cot and a small chest at the foot of it which would serve to store his few belongings, the only other item of furniture was a writing table in front of the room's one small window and a chair. Other than that, the room was bare except for a crucifix hanging on the wall above the cot.

"I'll miss the library," he murmured. "But nothing else."

His two companions smiled. Diego motioned with his head toward the open window. "The smell from the canals is bad at times, here in the Ghetto."

"Not half as bad as the stench in Casa Brunelli," growled Pierre. "What did you give as your reason for changing quarters?"

"I simply told Ricardo Brunelli that my work in the Ghetto had progressed to the point where I needed to live there. Which is true enough, as far as it goes."

"You should have—"

"Oh, Pierre—do stop!" snapped Eneko. "We have enough problems on our hands without offending the Brunellis unnecessarily. Any more than I have already by spurning that infernal Lucrezia's constant advances."

Pierre, as usual, was stubborn. " 'Infernal' is right," he growled.

"Pierre . . . please. You admit yourself that you've never been able to detect any sense of a witch about her."

"You're making too much of that," retorted Pierre. "My talent has definite limits, Eneko. What I said was that I could not detect any demonic possession in the woman. That's what a 'witch' is, after all. That does not mean she can't be as vile as any of Satan's minions."

"That the woman is evil I don't doubt for an instant," replied Eneko, shrugging. "But we have not a shred of evidence to think she is in any way connected to the events in Venice which brought us here. And, given the position of the Brunellis, I can see no logical reason why she would be."

"You yourself have said 'evil needs no reason,' " pointed out Pierre.

Eneko sighed. "Savoy mule! Let there be an end to it, Pierre, at least for now. We must concentrate on the matter at hand."

"On that," interjected Diego, "there is news. Perhaps, I should say."

At Lopez's cocked eyebrow, Diego elaborated. "I have discovered the identity of that boy you asked about. The local healer who also works for Caesare Aldanto. His name—so it is said, at least—is 'Marco Felluci.' And he doesn't simply work for Aldanto, he lives with him. He and another boy named Benito. Along with Aldanto's woman, a canaler by the name of Maria Garavelli."

Lopez's eyes widened a bit. "Are the two boys related? Brothers, perhaps?"

Diego shook his head. "Not according to the information I've been able to collect. The other's last name is Oro. And I've seen him, once. He doesn't resemble Marco in the least. The only similarity between the two boys is that, according to rumor, they are both orphans."

Lopez studied him for a moment. "But . . . you are, I suspect, wondering the same thing that I am."

Diego nodded. "It seems odd, yes. For Aldanto to take two boys under his wing . . . and he just spent a large sum rescuing the boy Marco."

"From what?"

Pierre chuckled. "From an absurd romantic complication." He proceeded to give Lopez a quick sketch of what he and Diego had learned from local canalers about what had quickly become a rather famous little episode.

Eneko smiled. "Love poems, eh?" Slowly, he sat down on the chair. "It is odd. Why should a mercenary like Aldanto go to such lengths to shelter two waifs? Two orphans—presumably penniless. One of whom, at least, does not seem to have the temperament one would expect from a protégé of Aldanto. Healing poor children—for no payment—love poems. Even leaving aside that angel face."

"And the names," added Diego. Eneko nodded. "Yes. Marco and Benito are common names, of course. Still . . ."

"One moment," said Diego. He left the room and returned shortly with a scarf in his hand. "I obtained this from the little girl whom we saw the boy treat that time. She was reluctant to part with it, but . . ."

Lopez couldn't refrain from wincing. Another coin gone, from the few they had in their possession. But he did not utter any protest. Like Diego, he thought the money well spent.

"Yes," he said forcefully. "With that scarf, we can discover the boy's past. As much, at least, as that scarf was a part of it."

Pierre, unlike his two companions, was not well versed in sacred magic. "Unreliable . . ." he murmured. "Possibly even risky."

Diego shook his head. "Not in the least, Pierre. This is not like scrying, which another mage could detect and distort. Nor is it as difficult—almost impossible, really—as foretelling the future. The past is done, immutable. What Eneko proposes is simply an aspect of—" Diego, who had a bit of the pedant in him, began what was clearly going to be a long-winded description of the principles of contagion as applied to sacred magic. But Eneko cut him short.

"Enough!" he chuckled. "Pierre wants to hear it less than I do." To Pierre: "It can be done. Trust me. Will you join us in prayer?" He cast his eyes about their new home. "Since I am going to be living here, working here—" He raised his eyebrow significantly. "—and worshipping here, it should be cleansed first. And Diego, you may pretend ignorance, but you know very well how to ritually cleanse a dwelling."

Diego groaned. "I'll get a broom."

"A prayer of intention, first," Pierre said, with a laugh of his own.

* * *

The ritual cleansing didn't take long; to be honest, although the room was physically filthy, there wasn't much in the way of negativity to chase from it, and nothing at all of evil. The smells might be dreadful, but the spiritual atmosphere was clean. There was a practicality to a ritual cleansing—following the principle of "as above, so below," you cleaned; you cleaned everything, floor to ceiling, in order to set a barrier of protection permanently in place, but you cleaned with intention, prayer, and the magic to flush away the "dirt" you couldn't see along with what you could. Diego was very good at floors.

One of the reasons Eneko had chosen this particular room was because of a peculiarity of alignment: the four corners were exactly pointing to the four cardinal directions. By nailing a bit of wood into each corner to serve as a shelf for the tiny statues of the Archangels Michael, Gabriel, Raphael, and Uriel he had brought, he recreated, in miniature, a ritual chapel. Like Hagia Sophia on the other side of town, like the ritual chapels of Hypatians everywhere, by the time he and Pierre finished blessing it, setting up the boundary-spells, blessing it again, this was sacred ground, protected from evil.

"Ah!" Eneko said, stretching his arms and shaking out his hands when they were done. "I much prefer this sort of comfort to anything Casa Brunelli offered."

"I can't say as I blame you," Pierre replied. Diego just shrugged and picked up the scarf, which they had left lying on the cot.

"If you're going to do this, you might as well get it over with," he said, holding it out to Eneko gingerly, as if it was a viper.

Eneko just smiled and dug a flat bowl out of his belongings, while Pierre went out to find a water-seller. He returned with a cask of potable water which he set up in the corner beneath the statue of Gabriel and tapped. "Strange that in a city on the water, you can't drink any of it," he remarked.

"No stranger than being on a ship, surrounded by water," Diego countered. "For that matter, would you drink water from the Loire in Orleans?"

"Ah . . . no. Here you are, Eneko." Pierre had filled the flat bowl with clean water and put it on the floor where the two of them knelt on either side of it. Eneko murmured a blessing over it, and Pierre blessed salt and cast it over the top of the water. Then, holding an end of the scarf each, the two mages bent over the bowl, while Diego peered at it from his perch on the cot.

While Pierre readied the bowl to reflect the images that came to it, Eneko used a thread of power to "talk" to the scarf. Show us where you have been, was the gist of his spell, and in a moment, a mist passed over the face of the water, and images appeared there, looking exactly like reflections.

Except these reflections were of nothing that was in the room.

The scarf itself was not very old, which was just as well; Eneko hurried past the silkworm, the weavers, the dandy (prone to getting recklessly drunk in foolish places) who had owned it, until he came to the moment that Benito Oro plucked it from the drunk's neck.

"Ah—" said Diego, with interest. Now they settled down to watch in earnest.

* * *

When the work was finished, the magic dispelled, and the blessed water scattered around the room, Eneko chuckled again. "The Marco boy may be an innocent, but his young companion Benito is certainly not. Which, unfortunately, leaves us knowing not much more than we did before. Since the scarf was stolen only a few days before Marco gave it to the child."

He rose to his feet. "Still, there is enough here to warrant further effort. Diego, I need to make a trip. It will use up most of what we have, until we get another disbursement of funds from the Grand Metropolitan. But well worth it, perhaps."

Pierre had risen to his feet also. "It will do us good to live on alms for a while, anyway."

Diego, still seated on the cot, cast a questioning look upward. "A trip? Where? And to do what?"

When Lopez told him, Diego sighed. "And what makes you think the old man will allow you the privilege? He's ferocious on that subject, by all accounts."

Lopez handed him the scarf. "I will give him this. Then tell him how the younger boy acquired it and what the older one did with it. If our suspicion—say better, surmise—is correct, he will allow me to see the portrait."

"If there is one," demurred Pierre. "He may have burned whatever existed."

"Oh, I doubt that," said Lopez softly. "It is one thing for a man to disown his daughter and cast her out. It is another thing entirely to burn his own memories."

* * *

"It appears that Marco has come to no permanent harm in his sojourn in the marshes," said Antimo, carefully. "The money you've been sending Aldanto to keep the boys was well spent. Although—" For a moment, Bartelozzi's prim mouth pursed with distaste. "Needless to say, he's been letting everyone think that it was his money which rescued Marco."

The Old Fox chuckled wryly. "You expected Caesare Aldanto to be truthful and modest?"

Antimo shrugged, acknowledging the truth in the little jest. "However, there is another aspect of the new situation you need to consider, milord. A quite unforeseen one. It appears the boys have acquired another protector besides Aldanto—and one who is every bit as skilled, and in some ways perhaps even more dangerous."

Dell'este put his hands behind his head and rocked back on his chair. "They seem to have a talent for attracting supporters and defenders. That is a valuable trait for the Dell'este," he said cheerfully. "You might even say: a family custom."

Antimo looked at him. A steady unblinking basilisk stare.

The Old Fox sighed. "All right, Antimo. Who is it?"

"Fortunato Bespi."

The chair came down with a thump. The Old Fox looked anything but cheerful. Then he shook his head sharply.

"All right, Antimo. You've succeeded! For once you have brought me a piece of information that was so totally unexpected I was at a loss. Bespi! Who would have thought it? All reports claimed he was dead. That he should turn up protecting Lorendana's children is . . . bizarre."

There was a long silence. The duke sat quietly. After a moment, he turned his lined old face away from Bartelozzi and stared blindly at a far wall. Moisture welled in his eyes, and, eventually, slowly, a tear found its way down one cheek.

At length Antimo Bartelozzi cleared his throat. "What do you wish done about the matter, milord?"

The Old Fox rubbed his eyes and took a deep breath. "Nothing," he said harshly. "Lorendana made her choices. It may be that I failed her as a father. She was a very beautiful child, Antimo. Maybe I indulged her more than I should have. But, nonetheless, she made her own decisions. She lived by them and she died by them. Bespi was a fanatic. Had he murdered her for money, I would have had him assassinated at the time as a message: Killing a Dell'este for money guarantees you will not live to spend it. But Bespi killed to orders, because he was a single-minded fanatic. I would have done as well to have my revenge on a knife. Still true."

He peered at Bartelozzi, his eyes once again as sharp and dry as usual. "Tell me this, however: are you certain that Bespi guards them?"

The agent nodded. "Yes, milord. He could have killed both boys in the swamp as easily as he could two chickens. You know that as well as I. Bespi is—deadly. And I've watched him myself since he returned to the city. A mother hen puts in far less effort caring for its chicks. You know, my lord, how a fanatical foe can turn into the most loyal of defenders, if you can change their hearts."

The Old Fox looked at the man who had many years ago been sent to kill him. "I know that, Antimo," he said quietly.

There was silence, for a moment. Then the Duke of Ferrara clapped his hands in a quick and decisive gesture. "Enough! I trust your judgment. Now, let us turn to the general situation in Venice. The Council of Ten: what of Calenti?"

Antimo shook himself back to the present. "Lord Calenti remains apparently neutral, milord. But . . . we have discovered he has been having a very discreet liaison with Lucrezia Brunelli."

The Old Fox raised an eyebrow. "She's a busy woman. She must have to apportion her time carefully. She's been linked to several other people whom we have watched. Well . . . does this lean him toward the Metropolitans?"

The agent shook his head. "Based on Lucrezia's other . . . paramours . . . I would guess that the tendency is not in favor of her brother's party. Lucrezia is her own woman. Ricardo Brunelli thinks his sister draws her suitors to him. But of the ardent suitors and possible lovers we know of—quite a number have Montagnard sympathies or contacts. Count Badoero, for example."

"A bad egg if there ever was one," said the Old Fox. "Lord Calenti will bear watching. And what of Petro Dorma? Have there been any repercussions from Marco's foray into poetry?"

Antimo shook his head. "No, milord. Apparently, Lord Dorma stifled the usual 'young bravo' sentiment within his own house quite decisively. I have to say I'm growing increasingly impressed by the man. I think he remains our best bet among the Council of Ten."

The Old Fox reached for his quill. "So am I. Well, then. Let us see if we can arrange a little warming of relations between the Dell'este and Dorma. I think the blade that is my grandson Marco has been tempered. It is time to start using it. Let us see if my enemies dare to move openly—when the head of a reborn Casa Valdosta stands forth in Venice under his rightful name."

Antimo looked perturbed. "He may be killed, milord."

The Old Fox shrugged. "If he is, then we will know he was poorly tempered steel," he said quietly.

* * *

When Eneko returned from Ferrara, he said nothing to his companions at first. He simply unwrapped the small parcel he brought with him, and showed them what it contained.

Diego hissed. "Dear God, what a resemblance."

"There is a much larger portrait at Dell'este, in which the resemblance is even more striking. But the duke gave me this miniature."

"Why?" asked Pierre.

Eneko smiled. "I asked him that same question myself. A most interesting answer he gave me. 'You must remember the mother, most of all.' "

"I don't understand," said Diego, frowning.

Eneko placed the miniature on his little writing desk. " 'Old Fox,' indeed," he murmured. "I shall keep the portrait here at all times. To remind me that both boys had the same mother." He turned back to his companions. "And what was she, brothers? An evil woman or a good one? Or simply a mother?"

Diego stared at the portrait, still confused. But Pierre nodded. "Indeed so. The portrait is a reminder to us. A warning, perhaps—of the danger of pride."

"She was indeed a proud woman, by all accounts," mused Diego.

Eneko shook his head firmly. "You misunderstand. The duke was warning us of the danger of our pride." He smiled grimly. "Canny old man. That is indeed the downfall of theologians."

His eyes went back and forth from Pierre to Diego. "We will do nothing with this knowledge, for the time being. That, too, the old man made me swear. The children are safer for the moment with their identity concealed, obviously. But when the time comes—remember, brothers. There were two sons, produced by the same mother."

"God works in mysterious ways," said Diego solemnly.

"Oh, nonsense!" chuckled Pierre. "Not in this instance. Any Savoyard can tell you the trick. Always keep a second string for your bow."


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