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Chapter 44

Katerina Montescue was in a foul mood. It was all very well forming an instant rapport with someone across a crowded canal. But . . .

She'd always thought that if she ever married, she'd have to marry money. Then she'd seen him. Establishing who he was had proved easy enough. At least three people had asked her if she'd seen him, when they'd been looking for him. She'd been rather frightened to discover just how many of the canal boatmen knew her.

So: his name was Marco Felluci. A few casual questions began to paint a broader canvas. A clerk for Ventuccio. And something of a healer. Respected by the bargees and canalers—people who didn't give respect or liking easily. And a boy with friends. Friends prepared to spend money to find him when he went missing. She hadn't needed that information to tell her he was a good man. She knew that the moment she saw him.

So . . . he was only a clerk. It hadn't taken her long to realize that being Case Vecchie was less important to her than being happy.

So. She'd be poor, then. Why not? She was practiced at it by now, wasn't she? They'd have a little house and she'd wash, and clean and cook. Easier work—less dangerous, too—than what she'd been doing, after all. And if they needed more money than he could make as a clerk, Katerina could always take Francesca up on her offer to work as a special gondolier for Casa Louise.

She must learn more about cooking. . . . How to make cheap meals. They'd have children and his work would bring him promotion and . . .

Insane. She couldn't do it! Not that she cared herself about remaining Case Vecchie—well, not much, anyway—but if she abandoned her family Casa Montescue would collapse. Without her dealing in the gray goods coming in with Captain Della Tomasso, the Casa would fall apart. Be bankrupt before the summer. Her grandfather—who had borne so much, with such Montescue pride and fortitude—would die if the Casa were sold. And it wasn't just him. All the servants and family retainers, many of whom had spent their lives in service to Montescue—for generations, some of them—would be cast adrift also.

Katerina Montescue had responsibilities as well as longings and desires. She couldn't simply toss over the one for the other.

And, besides—she had no idea how to meet him anyway. Neither of her two personas, either as "the Spook" or as Katerina Montescue, would ever come into contact with a clerk who worked, no doubt, in a back room at Ventuccio. A dark back room where his eyes would go . . .

What to do? What to do?

Francesca. Yes! I'll talk to Francesca about it. The very next time I see her!

Katerina's face went through an odd little play of expressions. "Oh," she murmured to herself. "That's tonight, isn't it?"

And that was another problem! For a moment, Katerina almost burst into a pure shriek of frustration at society's quirks.

* * *

"Are you going to get dressed or aren't you?" snapped Alessandra, peering around the door.

Guilt and the reason for being so out of sorts returned Kat to the real world. "I'm coming."

"Well hurry up," said Alessandra irritably. "We go out so little that you don't have to be late when we do have the chance. You'll never find a man—not that you've got a chance without a dowry—cooped up here."

Kat began to hastily dress her hair. "I'll be there in five minutes."

"You're not wearing that dowdy old green thing to go to La Fenice, are you?" Alessandra demanded. Kat's sister-in-law was clad in a Venetian lace-trimmed gown of golden-yellow silk. Katerina shuddered to think where the money had come from. Alessandra, on the other hand, looked truly shocked at her sister-in-law's dusty-green taffeta.

"Yes. Now go away and let me finish." It was last year's style and last year's dress. And in Venice among the Case Vecchie, death was better than being out of fashion. It was just too bad. Katerina had learned this much if nothing else: there were many more important things in life than silk.

"We won't wait!" threatened Alessandra.

I wish, thought Kat. But she held her tongue and simply closed the door. Took out a string of "pearls" that wouldn't stand too close an inspection. Glass and fishscale . . . A poor replacement for what had been her birthright. She shook herself. It was no use getting upset about any of it. She had no idea if she'd ever get to meet him. Or if he was married already. But wait, that canal-brat, Benito! She'd seen him, now and then, wearing Ventuccio livery. Perhaps he would help her—

"KATERINA!" It was an old voice, the timbre going, but still strong.

"Coming, Grandpapa."

* * *

Katerina had that feeling in her stomach which more commonly accompanied a over-sufficiency of sugar-plums. Her stomach . . . well, she just felt sick. She was used to doing dangerous things—alone at night. Going to dark and insalubrious places to meet possibly very unpleasant people.

This was somehow worse. Kat swallowed, looking around at the slow butterfly swirl of the haut monde of Venice socializing. The public masques were events where the people came as much to be seen, as to see the performance. She wished desperately she'd never agreed to do this.

It had not seemed unreasonable when she was sitting talking to Francesca. It was very different here under the glitter of the candelabras. "Introduce me to your grandfather at the interval at the masque at La Fenice. It's something of a public place, and I have not yet acquired the cachet for exclusive soirees or recitals at private camerata. He's still a man of influence, you know, and highly respected. Crème de la crème, in Venetian society. It will do me a great deal of good just to be seen talking to him."

Kat understood the logic. In truth, all that visibly set the courtesans at such events apart from the matrons and virgin daughters of Venice was the lower cut to their dresses. And the more well-known and reputable men that a courtesan could draw around her, the more her acceptability grew.

The problem for Kat, however, was that there was a fine social line "respectable" women did not cross. Men openly talked and flirted with the courtesans at these events. Women didn't. So Kat needed to make the introduction in as discreet and unnoticed a manner a possible.

Unfortunately, this night—when she desperately wanted Alessandra to do her usual disappearing trick—her sister-in-law seemed to be glued to her. Kat had tried to shed Alessandra and stick to her grandfather, which was normally not that difficult. But tonight the swirling crowd had peeled off Lodovico Montescue somewhere along the line, while Alessandra remained by her side at every moment.

There was Francesca. The daring chaperon-hat with the peacock feather made her easy to find. As usual, the courtesan dressed with a flair that separated her from the lesser birds of paradise.

What to do, what to do . . .

At last, Alessandra had caught sight of Lucrezia Brunelli and hastened away from Kat. Kat tried desperately to spot her grandfather. She gritted her teeth. Now or never. She'd find him and drag the old man over to the chaperon-hat she could see bobbing over there by one of the ornamental pillars. And then she'd trip over a flounce or something. She just hoped that Lodovico would not be as scathingly rude as he could be.

First off she must get rid of this prosy bore. "I'm afraid I have no real interest, signor," she said cuttingly, to a well-meaning if prosy curti who was attempting to explain the work of the new painter, Robusti. "Excuse me. I must go and find my grandfather. There is someone I wish him to meet."

The truth was easy enough when the person you were talking to didn't know just what you were talking about! She walked away, edging her way through the knots of people, quite differently from the way she'd seen Francesca sashay her cleavage through the crowd. Unfortunately she hadn't spotted Lodovico. Her grandfather had a commanding presence, so it was easy to forget he was not actually very tall.

She spent the next while in fruitless search. Well, she'd go over to Francesca and at least show she'd tried. The play would be starting soon. At least Francesca's hat was easily visible.

As Kat came around the ornamental pillar she heard Francesca's laughter. It was a liquid and musical sound. "Most amusing, Signor Montescue," she said, and the courtesan rapped Lodovico's knuckles gently with her ivory fan. And he was only one of the cortege she had gathered. Her flirtation with Lodovico done, Francesca turned her head and made a quip of some kind to a couple of priests standing next to her. The little crowd immediately burst into laughter. "Oh, how very well said," choked one of the priests, managing even in that short phrase to convey a thick Savoyard accent.

Kat caught her jaw. Most of the men gathered about Francesca were typical of what showed up from the great merchant-houses of Venice at these events. They were old. Middle-aged, at the very least. The youngest of the Venetians was Petro Dorma, who was almost forty—and, with his short stature and bald head, hardly the image of a romantic swain.

The only exception were the two men in clerical garb, who seemed even younger than Dorma. And quite a bit more slender and physically fit. Kat was a little puzzled by their presence in the crowd surrounding Francesca. Not because they were clerics. There were several high-ranked members of the Church present at the masque, and Kat knew that at least one of them, Bishop Capuletti, was notorious for being a libertine. But the clerics who came to these events were generally Case Vecchie themselves—whereas these two, judging from their plain and simple garb, seemed to be nothing more than simple priests. One of them, judging from that heavy Savoyard accent, no more than a villager in his origins.

The sight of those mostly pot-bellied men brought home to Katerina that despite the wealth and comparative liberty they enjoyed . . . there were certain disadvantages to being a courtesan. She slipped her arm into her grandfather's. "I have been looking for you everywhere, Grandpapa." Kat smiled at Francesca, who dimpled just slightly in reply—lowering her lashes a touch. "Won't you introduce me to your fascinating lady-friend?"

"Er." Lodovico Montescue, not accustomed to being at a loss for words, was caught a bit short this time. "Signorina Francesca de Chevreuse. This is my granddaughter Katerina."

Kat bowed and extended a hand. "I am delighted to make your acquaintance," she said demurely, almost managing to keep a straight face.

Lodovico's discomfiture was relieved by the ringing of the bell to signal that the masque was about to begin. It didn't stop him bowing very low to Francesca in parting.

As they walked to their seats, Lodovico shook his head at his granddaughter. "Minx. How could you do that to me? Making me introduce you!"

Kat pinched his arm. "Ha. You can talk to her but I cannot? Ha."

Lodovico sighed. "Our society is a hypocritical one, my girl. I must protect you from gossip-mongers or I would be very tempted to take you to talk with her. She is a very intelligent woman. Cultured. Understands the vagaries of politics. That's a rare coin. It attracts men."

Kat smiled up at him. "And her cleavage has nothing to do with it."

The encounter with Francesca had left Lodovico in rare good mood. He chuckled. "This is Venice, my girl. We are an ostentatious people. We like to display our . . . endowments."

Kat chuckled. "She has enough 'wealth' to display in that respect, that's certain." Despite the humor, she found herself torn between gratification that Francesca had succeeded in charming her grandfather—and an irrational jealousy of sorts. He was her grandfather! Not a man chasing a woman! She suppressed the ungracious thought. It was nice to see him take an interest in something other than their troubles and his dreams of vengeance on the Valdosta, she supposed.

Perhaps he read her mind. "Ah. My Kat. I must admit she made me forget my age too."

They sat, and Kat noticed that Alessandra was looking frozen-faced at the stage. Alessandra pointedly ignored their arrival. Kat wondered—not with much interest—what had got up her sister-in-law's nose. Well, one of the misfortunes of being cloistered in the same house as Alessandra, was that sooner or later Kat would be told. Quite probably with histrionics.

* * *

After the masque was over, Lodovico insisted on remaining for a while. That was unusual. Then he took up an offer to join a number of the Case Vecchie at private soiree at the camerata of Lord D'selmi. As a rule, Kat's grandfather preferred to keep his appearances at these social gatherings to the bare minimum required by the demands of status. Tonight, however, he seemed much more energetic than usual. Kat noted that the invitation to proceed to the Casa D'selmi had included Francesca. Seeing him join the crowd which gathered around Francesca there—quite a bit larger, now, that crowd—Kat almost choked. Partly from amusement, partly from chagrin bordering on outrage.

My own grandfather! That woman is shameless! So is he!

Eventually, humor won the engagement. Kat smiled and turned away from the sight of her grandfather flirting suavely with Francesca. At least he's not glaring at the walls, planning revenge on Valdosta.

She sighed. Not that Lodovico Montescue could afford Francesca, these days, any more than he could afford to pay capable spies and assassins.

* * *

The evening wore on. The camerata sparkled with silver, candlelight and fine Venetian glassware. Katerina wished she could say the same of the intelligence of the boring, fat old curti who had backed her up against a wall and was now attempting to talk her to sleep with his self-praise. There was Lucrezia Brunelli, laughing to her own court of gallants—who were no younger and no less corpulent than the ones gathered about Francesca—her hair gleaming as if it had been spun out of coppery gold. Katerina didn't envy her for suitors . . . and if rumor were to be believed, lovers. All she envied Lucrezia for was the ability to escape being trapped by a idiot with breath like old anchovies, too many chins, and his interminable tales of his not-really-so-clever little swindles in the Levant.

Kat was amused to see that—for once!—the crowd of men gathered about Lucrezia was not the largest in the palace. It was not small, of course, but it was definitely smaller than the little mob surrounding Francesca. Smaller, and—a lot less noisy. Lucrezia was slightly more beautiful than Francesca, Kat supposed. The beautiful lady of Casa Brunelli was also famous for her intelligence and witty repartee. But Kat had overheard that repartee, in times past, and had always found it fundamentally hard-edged. Nasty, in truth—a matter of scoring points in a contest. Whereas, judging from the relaxed and boisterous laughter coming from Francesca's gathering, the men there were discovering Kat's friend to be more convivial company. Francesca's sense of humor was . . . genuinely funny. Her jests were jests, not barbs; and as often as not likely to be directed at herself rather than others.

So, as the fat old curti droned on and on, Kat paid him as little attention as possible. She was observing the subtle contest going on between two beautiful women elsewhere. And found herself enjoying the fact that Francesca was clearly emerging the winner—judging, at least, from the frequent and angry little glances Lucrezia Brunelli sent her way.

* * *

Relief came from a strange and unexpected quarter. And relief was even less welcome than the old geezer's breath had been. As happens at such large gatherings, the slow swirl of the crowd eventually brought someone new in front of her.

The minute that Kat saw his face, she recognized it. It was not a face you forgot. The aquiline nose, the single line of forbidding brow; the aura of power and dominance quite out of keeping with the man's height. He was dressed with plain severity, which was also out of keeping with the Venetian nobles and merchants. The same garb, she recognized, as that of the two priests in the crowd around Francesca. Someone had commented on it. Someone had murmered "political influence." It worried her.

He obviously worried the fat old toad, too. "Goo . . . good evening, Senor Lopez."

The foreigner favored the toad with a faint lift of his eyebrow line. "Ah, Signor Della Galbo. I have been to see you on a number occasions at your home. You were either away or indisposed. I am glad to find you here when you are neither."

"Uh. Yes, of course, signor." Little beads of sweat had started out of many-chinned toad's florid face. "But it's really getting late, and I must be off. Call upon me at my home. Excuse me, M'lady Montescue." He vanished with a speed that was almost astonishing for one so portly.

Katerina found herself fully in the eagle-eyed gaze of Senor Lopez. "My apologies, signorina. I did not mean to interrupt your discussion with Signor Della Galbo." He bowed. "My name is Eneko Lopez de Onez y Guipúzcoa. I am a stranger and guest here in your midst."

Kat curtseyed and held out her hand in the accepted manner, restraining a strong instinctive desire to run like hell. She wished she could equally restrain the cold sweat on her hand. Maybe this Lopez expected all women who were introduced to him to have cold-fish hands. "Katerina Montescue. I trust you are enjoying Venice?"

He certainly showed no reaction to her clammy hand as he bowed low and kissed it in a practiced courtly manner. "Alas, no." An almost-smile touched the face. "I find it damp. But that is inevitable in a city with so many canals. And one does God's work where God wills. Now, if you will excuse me, Signorina Montescue?"

"With pleasure!" Kat fled. He recognized her—she was sure he did!

She found she'd escaped one unpleasant thing, only to have to deal with another. "Well, well, well!" said Alessandra, archly. "Got a suitor I see. Signor Della Galbo is quite a catch. But better keep your hands off that fascinating Spaniard. Lucrezia has marked him as hers."

Kat shuddered. "She's welcome to him. And she can have Della Galbo too, with pleasure. Alessandra, he's fifty-five if he's a day. He's old enough be my grandfather, never mind my father! And he is fat, gross, and stupid, and his breath smells."

"But he's got money, darling," said Alessandra with a little moue. "Pots and pots of it. And you, I obviously need to remind you, haven't got any. You'd be lucky to even get such an attractive offer. He'd at best want you to be his mistress if you weren't Case Vecchie, and him nouveau riche. Or are you going to run off and marry some commoner? You just do your duty and . . . well you can always have a lover on the quiet. So long as you're discreet."

"If that's the choice, yes. I'll run off as soon as possible." The thought of "doing her duty" with that . . . made her feel nauseated. Best change the subject. "Who was the other man, that your friend Lucrezia has got her hooks into?"

"My cousin Lucrezia Brunelli . . . That was Ricardo's guest from Spain. Castilian nobility. Well—Basque, actually. A rising man in the Church, with friends in Rome. An envoy plenipotentiary from the Grand Metropolitan himself, people say."

Kat swallowed. The Petrine church had its agents too. This was probably one of them. The Petrines were more tolerant than the Paulines, but in the factional fighting . . . well, people were ground between them. Whole cities were ground. If the rumor her grandfather had told her was true, Ferrara could be next. The Po River city had played a delicate balance between Venice and Rome, against Milan and the North . . . And sometimes the other way around.

She was relieved to see her grandfather stumping up. "Let's go home. The conversation's turned to politics, and the more I listen to these fools the angrier I get," said the old man, his grizzled eyebrows lowered in an angry frown. "Except for Petro Dorma—and Francesca de Chevreuse, from the little she said—they're all a lot of sheep. Bah. The Republic of Venice must stand for the Republic of Venice. Not for Milan, or Rome, anyone else. Come. I want to go home."

Predictably, Alessandra pouted. "The night's still young. I'll come home later. I want to meet some of those knights from Germany. They're supposed to be here later."

"You'll come home now," growled the old man. He turned his lowered brow on Katerina. "As for you, young lady. I won't have you associating with the likes of that Della Galbo. He's nothing but a cheap crook. Even the slave-trading Dandelos are not as low. I want you home, too."

"Grandpapa, I'm only too glad to obey you," said Kat from under lowered lashes. "I couldn't stand him."

The thunderous brow lightened. "You're a minx, girl. Now, let's get out and find a gondola to take us home. The Montescue have been here. Shown face. Shown we are still Case Vecchie." The pride in that old voice was as deep as the ocean and as hard as granite.


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