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Chapter 43

Humiliation, Marco was learning, was a very different thing from shame.


Shame gripped your gut and made you sick. Humiliation made you wish you were dead. Shame had made him run. Humiliation made him hide. He hid at his job behind a facade of the drabbest clothing in his wardrobe and a bulwark of work. He was fast becoming one of the most put-upon clerks in the office, because he courted, volunteered for, the most tedious and boring tasks available. And he hid after work anywhere but home, once he made his check to see if Caesare had a job for him. He visited his friend the art student as much as he could without becoming a nuisance, which actually wasn't that difficult at the moment. When Rafael wasn't studying, he needed models to draw from, and Marco had absolutely no objection to stripping down to his smallclothes and holding still until he turned blue, so long as no one was teasing him about Angelina.


And when he wasn't visiting Rafael, he hid in books, or, increasingly, in the tiny church of Saint Raphaella—and somehow the confluence of names seemed appropriate. He didn't seek out the priest, Brother Mascoli, and he didn't let the priest catch sight of him. He simply sat in the back, and thought, until it was almost dark, and only then did he go home.


Here, at least, his thoughts weren't so much about humiliation as humility itself, and not at all about Angelina.


Over and over he thought about what the priest had told him, and tried to come up with counterarguments. He couldn't. Moreover, the more he saw of the militant Pauline faction, the less he liked them. They were arrogant, the most of them, and pride was arguably the most deadly of the sins, since it led to so many of the others. And oh, they were angry—he scarcely ever saw a Sot or a Knot without a frown on his face—and that was not only another deadly sin, but one that led straight to murder and mayhem. You couldn't keep that much anger pent up for long without it boiling over, and when it did, someone always got hurt. Perhaps the Petrines were soft, and perhaps they were inclined to another deadly sin, that of sloth, but at least no one was ever hurt by a slothful layabout with a deadly weapon.


The Paulines were right about one thing: there was such a thing as real evil, and oft times the Petrines preferred to pretend there wasn't in the hopes that it would get bored and go away. But not all Petrines. Not the priest here, for instance . . . no, that sort of thing was the besetting sin of those whose wealth and power allowed them to insulate themselves from the rest of the world. The ones who scoffed at the stories of the canal monster because no one they knew had been attacked by it. Well . . . except for the financier killed the previous summer. But that had been months ago, and most of Venice's elite seemed to have convinced itself that his murder was the work of a simple maniac. A disgruntled debtor, no doubt. Only ignorant and superstitious peasants would credit such a thing as "magical murder" or a mysterious monster in the canals.


But, being honest with himself, Marco could not be at all certain that Paulines sufficiently insulated by wealth and position from their sweating peasants would not have said the same thing, had the monster prowled the back alleys of Milan instead of the canals of Venice.


So, on long afternoons before darkness fell, Marco sat on a bench in the darkest corner against the wall at the rear of the church and looked at the crude statue of Saint Raphaella, and wondered what he should do. He didn't want to ask for a sign—who was he that a saint should give him a sign? He blushed to think that he had asked one of Saint Peter—Saint Peter!—those months ago in the swamp.


He'd come here again after another day of making triplicate copies of tedious documents, knowing that his friend was studying for an examination and Caesare was out on some mysterious business or other. The church had been darkening steadily for the past several moments, and he would have to go soon—


With a start, he realized that Brother Mascoli was in the church—was coming towards him—


Was coming at him.


Jesu! Has the man eyes like a cat?


"Marco, I need you," the priest said, as Marco started to get up, to get away, before the man could confront him. Mascoli grabbed him by the arm before Marco could protest, or even think of anything to say. "Don't argue with me, boy. I need you. They need you, and they asked for you by name."


"Who did?" Marco squeaked.


"You'll see," Brother Mascoli said, and dragged him up to the altar, around to his own quarters, and out a tiny back door.


It was, as it transpired, a water-door, which let onto a mere thread of a canal. Handy for poor canal-folk to bring in their sick and injured by night? Handy, too for smuggling—


In this case, handy for something else entirely, for something that was the last thing Marco would have expected. He stared down at the three faces in the water. Three pale green faces, looking up at him and the priest, their fishy eyes reflecting the light from a torch set up in a sconce on the wall, their emerald-green hair like water-weeds streaming and waving in the water around them. And it reflected upon a fourth face, so pale there was hardly any green to it, eyes closed, webbed fingers clasped over a hideous wound in its—her—stomach.


Marco turned on Brother Mascoli. "Those are undines!" he said accusingly.


"And this—if you will notice—is enclosed within the church walls," he replied, waving at what Marco had taken to be a canal. It wasn't. Now that the priest had drawn his attention to it, he saw that it was part of the church proper, beneath the roof, a crucifix mounted on the back with another Presence-Light beneath it on a shelf that served for an altar. A sort of watery chapel, apparently.


"Technically, since I bless this place three times daily, this is Holy Water," Brother Mascoli continued. "They may not be human, but they've passed the test of faith. And they asked for you by name. I can't heal her, but they think you can."


"Me?" Marco's voice went up another octave.


"You," said a sibilant voice from below. "We have seen you with our brother, among the reeds. You have the light and the power. We cannot reach him in time—you must heal our sister!"


He couldn't help himself; he knelt down on the water-stair and looked at the terrible gash that crossed the undine's torso from left nipple to the top of her right hip, and a spasm of sympathetic pain closed around his throat. How could anyone heal that? How could the poor thing still be alive?


The wounded undine's eyes opened, and he was caught in her gaze. She moaned pitifully, and held out webbed fingers to him. "Please," came the faintest of whispers.


Blessed Maria— It was more than a spasm of sympathy now; he swallowed down actual tears.


"But—" he directed, not a protest, but a plea of his own to Brother Mascoli. "I don't know how—"


"They're magic creatures, Marco. You probably couldn't heal a human slashed like that, but they're as much spirit as flesh—" Brother Mascoli began, then shook his head. "Just do what I do." He looked down at one of the uninjured undines. "Little sister, you're going to have to help. I may need you to act as a catalyst; the boy's never done magic as far as he knows."


One of the undines separated herself from the injured one, leaving the other two to support their sister in the water. "I am ready," she said, undulating over to Marco, and sliding up onto the water-step beside his feet. He couldn't help noticing when she spoke that she had long, sharp claws on those graceful green hands—and a mouth full of sharklike teeth. Looking at those teeth . . .


Marco almost shuddered. The "our brother" the undine had referred to could only be Chiano. He'd always known old Chiano had a special relationship with the undines in the Jesolo. The marsh locos had always been afraid of Chiano. Marco had thought it was only because of some vague fear of Chiano's magic, but now—looking at those teeth—he suspected that at least marsh locos had learned the hard way not to fool around with a friend of the undines.


Brother Mascoli turned Marco to face the opening of the water-chapel that led to the canal, "Holy Angel Gabriel—"


He nudged Marco who realized suddenly that this was a prayer, and he was expected to follow. "Holy Angel Gabriel," he repeated obediently, echoed by the undine at his feet.


Jesu—it's a prayer—I'd better put some feeling into it. All it took was a single glance at the poor creature at his feet to do that.


"You who brought the word of God—to the Blessed Virgin Mary—who guard the waters—and those who dwell therein—we beseech and pray thee—to guard our circle—and guide our work."


He'd been concentrating on putting his heart into the words and he hadn't really thought about what the prayer might do—and it came as a shock when the area of the opening suddenly filled with a flare of green light so bright it made the torch pale. It certainly made Marco start back with surprise, but Brother Mascoli only grunted with what sounded like satisfaction and turned Marco to the right to face the blank wall of the chapel, and began another prayer. "Holy Angel Michael—you who guard the world with a flaming sword—and all the creatures born of fire—we beseech and pray thee—"


This time when the flash of red light came, Marco was, more or less, ready for it. He turned on his own this time, beginning to get the idea. The angel was Raphael this time—"who guard the air and those who dwell therein"—and the flash was of blue light along the wall with the crucifix mounted on it. And last of all, they faced the wall behind them and invoked the Angel Uriel, the keeper of the creatures of the earth, and were greeted with a flash of pure golden light practically at their noses.


Brother Mascoli once again turned Marco to face the altar. "In nomine Patri, et Filius, et Spiritus Sanctus, fiat lux!" he intoned, with Marco only a fraction of a second behind him, and a blinding white light enveloped the entire water-chapel for a moment, to die down to a faint curtain of light between them and the outside world.


And if Marco doubted that—there was the evidence of his own ears. There was no sound coming from out there—nothing of the echoes of voices and the splash of water, of the bumping of boats against the mooring and the slap of feet on the walkways. Nothing.


Brother Mascoli gave another grunt of satisfaction. "All right, Marco, the rest is simple. Kneel down beside our little sister there—"


Too caught up now to even think of protesting, Marco knelt on the step beside the undine at his feet. She placed her hands in the water, just over the injured one's, once again clasped desperately over her wound.


"Just put your hands over hers—" the priest directed.


Marco shivered at the order—shivered once again at the touch of the cool flesh under his, cooler than a human's could ever be, and—scaled? Yes, those were scales under his fingers.


Brother Mascoli bent over and completed the stack with his own hands. "Now," he said in Marco's ear. "Just pray. Pray to Saint Raphaella and Saint Hypatia, to give you the power to heal this child of God—"


How—he thought, but he obeyed, closing his eyes and putting every bit of concentration he had into a fervent, even desperate, plea. He barely noticed one of the scaled hands slip from beneath his and come to rest just over his heart. Instead he concentrated on an image that came to him from nowhere, of the dreadful wound being un-made, sealing up, closing over, leaving the flesh sweet and unmarked, linking that image to his prayer in a way he felt was right—


And then he felt something else entirely.


An upwelling within himself, first a trickle of warmth and life and energy, then a rivulet, then a stream, then a gush—energy that was somehow green, although he could not have said why, that flowed from somewhere into him, and down through his chest and into his arms and out his hands, which grew warm as it passed through them. Startled, he opened his eyes, and saw, to his open-mouthed astonishment, that it wasn't some trick of his imagination. His hands were glowing with a green light the color of sunlight passing through early leaves, and the light was sinking down and spreading over the wounded undine.


And the wound was closing, exactly as he had imagined it.


There were two—beings—of light, one to his right, and one to his left, hovering weightlessly over the water. They were vaguely human-shaped, but too bright and at the same time too diffuse to really make out anything else. They each held a hand over his head, and he knew, somehow, that this was the source of that energy that was coursing through him. Brother Mascoli and the other undine were caught fast in some sort of trance; their eyes were shut fast.


This is for your eyes only, little brother. He sensed, somehow, that the being to his right was smiling at him, that the words came from—him? Her?


Both. And neither. Meaningless, little brother. God's spirits have no gender.


He didn't know whether to be elated—to have at last that sign he had not dared hope for—or to be ashamed that he had doubted and had waited so long to use this thing he'd been given. He decided he had to be both.


And neither. Could the infant Tintoretto have painted a fresco? Some things must wait upon . . . maturity.


Embarrassment, the too familiar taste of humiliation at his own stupidity, his own failures; then, suddenly, the sweeter taste of something altogether different. Humility.


Of course. Sometimes, old Chiano had said, you have to wait until you're ready. . . .


Exactly. Now—concentrate, little brother. We cannot remain much longer.


He closed his eyes again and focused his attention, until the flow of what he now knew was pure, simple power began to ebb; from a rush, to a stream, from a stream, to a rivulet, from a rivulet, to a trickle, and then it was gone.


He opened his eyes, and pulled back his hands.


The only light came, once again, from the torch in the sconce overhead. The water-chapel was utterly unchanged. But in the water, a miracle opened her eyes in wonder.


The wound was gone, exactly as he had imagined it, leaving not so much as a scar.


The newly healed undine clapped her hands with joy, and to Marco's intense embarrassment, leapt out of the water to plant wet and strangely hard lips on his cheek, as her sister who had sat at his side did the same on his other cheek.


"Well done, Marco," said Brother Mascoli heartily—but with overtones of weariness. A moment later, Marco had to put out a hand on the step to steady himself, for when he tried to stand, he was nearly bowled over by the same weariness.


The undines made a move in the direction of the water-entrance, and Brother Mascoli called out to them while Marco was still trying to get to his feet. "A moment, little sisters—who did this to you?"


The one who had been wounded turned back, although her three companions shook their heads in warning.


"It's all right—I haven't dispelled the circle," Mascoli assured them. "It's safe enough to use a True Name."


"We do not know the True Name, Elder Brother," the wounded one said solemnly. "Only that it is a thing of water or land or fire as it chooses to be, that it is a thing that is a stranger here, and that—" she hesitated. "We think that it was once a god."


Marco looked up at Brother Mascoli to see his reaction, and a shiver of fear came over him. Brother Mascoli was as white as foam.


But within a moment he had gotten hold of himself, and made a gesture of cutting in the air. With a rapid flurry of thanks, the undines plunged under the surface, and disappeared, presumably out into the canal, and from there, into cleaner water elsewhere.


"Now," Brother Mascoli said, putting a hand under Marco's elbow to help him up, "You, my young mage, are not going elsewhere until you learn the right way to do what we just cobbled together."


"Yes sir," Marco said. He knew the look on the priest's face. He might just as well try to argue with the Lion of Saint Mark. Brother Mascoli drew him in through the water-door and sat him down at a little work table, then pulled out a dismayingly heavy book. "First of all, you always cast a circle of protection. The only reason we got away with not doing so this time is because the church is within a permanent circle that only needs to be invoked, and . . ."


It was going to be a long evening. But at least he wouldn't be thinking about Angelina for a while.


* * *

Or so he thought, until he finally returned home the next day.


It was a shock to see her. Especially this close, and here of all places. Marco didn't know what to say when he almost bumped into Angelina Dorma. . . . Here in Caesare's apartment—coming out of Caesare's bedroom. Not wearing an awful lot of clothing. Also, by the slight sway, anything but sober. Marco had stammered something incoherent, and bolted for the room he and Benito shared, her somewhat guilty laughter ringing in his ears.


In the security of the room he tried to work through the confusion of his feelings. She wasn't his. Never had been, the truth be told. He had no reason to feel torn up like this. After all, Angelina was just another daydream. She'd been nothing like his dream girl. Her face lacked the character, humor and . . . a certain something of the girl he'd seen on the Grand Canal the day he'd been brought back from the Jesolo marshes. But he had still kept Angelina on something of a pedestal . . . which she'd climbed off and into Caesare's bed. He needed to be alone to think this lot over.


Then he realized he wasn't even alone now. Benito was sitting on the far side of the bed, looking at him with a quizzical, slightly worried expression on his round face. For all that Benito was younger than he was, sometimes he looked older. And . . . at least there was no need to explain. "How long?"


"Quite a while now." Benito answered, sotto voce. "Started up seeing her while you were still in bed with that knock on the head. Seems like he took the opening you had made once he realized she was interested. They don't meet here hardly at all, though, so I was hoping you'd never find out."


Marco shook his head, trying to clear it. "Um. So what are you doing here?"


"Same as you. Old man Ventuccio gave us a half holiday because he's got a grandson to carry on the family name, in case you forgot. Only I didn't come in by the door, and I didn't drop in to see a friend at the Accademia." Benito grinned impishly. "Thought I'd catch up on my sleep 'cause I got things to do tonight."


"Oh." Marco paused. "What about Maria?"


Benito look a little uncomfortable. "She's gone on a long trip out to Murano. Got some more glassware for that ceremonial galley to fetch. You know what Maria's like. They trust her. When she's away is a good time for us to stay away, brother. Aldanto . . . entertains visitors."


Marco swallowed. "More?" he asked in a small voice.


Benito nodded. "Couple or two or three. There's Signora Selmi. Her husband is one of the captains in the galley fleet. And there's this one I don't know. Little prisms-and-prunes mouth with a mole on her left cheek. She's wild. Doesn't come often but when she does . . . we even had old Camipini coming over later to complain about the noise—when Maria was home. Lord and Saints! I thought the fat was in the fire then!"


Marco felt as if he might faint. Benito had said that Caesare played the field with women. But . . . "Do you think I should warn Angelina?" he asked quietly, his loyalties torn.


Benito snorted. "Marco, big brother, Grandpapa was right. You do need someone to look after you. Like me. Now listen good. Your precious Angelina is a wild girl. She's trouble, Marco. That's a bad crowd she runs with, and I don't think Caesare is her first time either. You just leave her to Caesare. He knows how to deal with girls like that. You don't."


Marco stood up, biting his lip. Then, nodded. "You're right, brother. This time, anyway. I need to go out. I'll see you."


Benito stood up too, stretching. "I'll tag along for company. I think we ought to leave quietly by the window. We can go and see Claudia and Valentina. Unless you'd rather go looking for that dream girl of yours?"


Marco wanted to be alone, but Benito obviously had no intention of letting him be. "At least my dream girl is not like that," he said quietly.


Benito muttered something. Marco didn't quite catch it, and didn't want to ask him to repeat it. But it could have been "In your dreams, brother." Instead he swung out of the window heading for the ornamental casement Benito always said was like a ladder. A slippery ladder that the city's pigeons used for other purposes, in Marco's opinion. Once they were away up on a roof, overlooking the canal, Benito leaned back against the chimney stack. "Right, brother. What am I looking for again? Let's hear the lyrical description."


Marco panted. "Stop teasing me."


Benito grinned impishly. "Oh, that's right. I remember now. Amazing what even I can remember when I've only heard it three thousand times. 'She has curly red-carroty hair. She has a generous mouth, a tip-tilted nose—merry eyes, wonderful hazel eyes.' And she's your soul mate. You knew the minute your eyes met."


"You're a cynic, little brother."


"At least I'm not a fool."


Benito regretted it the moment he'd said it. He found that look of Marco's one of the hardest things to deal with. That clear look that seemed to see right into you. He squirmed slightly under the gaze. Marco didn't even seem to be aware that he was doing it. After a while, as if from a distance, Marco said: "It's good to be a fool sometimes, Benito. And you will be too, one day."


"Yeah. When hell freezes over, Marco," said Benito, feeling uncomfortable. "Come on, let's go down. I got a tip today and my pocket'll run to a couple of toresani. Or maybe some Muset and beans."


Marco sighed, but stood up. "Do you ever think of anything but food, brother?"


"Do you ever think of anything but girls?" It was an unfair comment, and Benito knew it. He was starting to think quite a lot about girls himself, nowadays. And Marco thought, if anything, about too much. He cared for the whole world, especially sick canal-brats. Benito . . . well he cared for his brother Marco. And . . . well . . . Maria. He'd like to earn her respect sometime. And Caesare. He owed them.


 


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