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Chapter 45

Lopez followed the Montescues out of the palace, keeping far enough back not to be noticed. As the family began embarking onto their gondola, he emerged onto the steps. A moment later, his two companions joined him.

"A very nice voice, she has, even with the tremor of fear in it," said Lopez quietly. "I recognized it from the counseling session I had with her last year."

"You should be ashamed of yourself, Eneko," chuckled Diego. "Frightening girls the way you do."

Lopez shrugged slightly. "The encounter was quite accidental. Her small sins cause her to fear the suspicion of great ones. Of which, as it happens, I am quite sure she is guiltless. She is involved somehow with the evil which is coiling within this city, but she is not one of its vessels."

Diego turned his head to peer down the canal where the Montescue gondola had vanished. "I agree. If Satan were that capable, old friend, we would long ago have vanished into the maw of the Antichrist."

Lopez rubbed his bad leg. "Bad today," he muttered. "Come, brothers. Since the Grand Metropolitan has seen fit to dole out some more funds, let us employ a gondola for a change."

After they climbed into the gondola, Diego returned to the subject. "How involved do you think she is, Eneko? And in what manner?"

The gondola was just pulling into the Grand Canal. The Basque priest stared thoughtfully at the statue of the winged lion in the Piazza San Marco, quite visible in the moonlight. "Has it struck you yet, brothers, how many odd coincidences we have stumbled across since we arrived here in Venice?"

Diego and Pierre glanced at each other. Pierre shrugged. "What coincidences?" asked Diego.

"One. The coincidence that I happened to witness Katerina Montescue and Benito Valdosta—yes, it was he; I'm sure of it now that I've had a glimpse of him—engaged in mysterious activity on the same evening and in the same locale that the Woden casket was brought to Venice. Two. The coincidence that those two had met each other in the first place. Three. The coincidence that we happened to find lodgings in a part of the city which would enable us to observe the older brother Marco engaged in charitable work. Four. The coincidence that Katerina Montescue—"

"Enough, enough!" chuckled Diego. "Odd, I admit. But what's the rhyme and reason to any of it?"

"I wish Francis were here," mused Eneko. "If he weren't needed in Mainz . . ." He shook his head. "Francis is more versed than I am in those aspects of sacred magic which deal with pagan powers and spirits. The whole subject remains a bitter bone of contention among theologians, you know. Are pagan demons such as Chernobog independent beings—or are they simply so many manifestations of Satan?"

"If you start talking about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, I will pitch you overboard," growled Pierre.

Diego chuckled. "It's not as silly as it seems, Pierre," reproved the Castilian lightheartedly. "The issue is not whether two or twenty angels can dance on the head of a pin. It's a dispute over the nature of angels in the first place. Are they immaterial or, in some manner, corporeal. If the former, then an infinite number of angels can dance on a pin. If the latter, then the number—whatever it is; and no one cares about that—is nevertheless finite. So you see—"

"Overboard," growled Pierre. "The both of you."

"Desist, Diego," chuckled Eneko. "The Savoyard grows surly. As to the subject we were discussing, I have no definite opinion myself. But . . . there are too many coincidences. Something is at work here."

"What?" asked Diego. "Not the Lion, surely. You have said yourself that it can only be summoned by one who knows the ancient rituals—pagan rituals, mind—which none of us do."

Eneko shrugged. "And what exactly is this creature, this being?" He ran fingers through his close-cropped hair. "I don't know, Diego. While I was living at Casa Brunelli I scoured that magnificent library. There wasn't much, but . . . there are these occasional references to the Shadow of the Lion, as well as to the Lion itself.

"I tend to believe that these ancient pagan spirits have a life of their own. Are not simply constructs of Satan. And, if so, they have their own ancient rules and customs. Savage ones, often enough. Still . . . I think Chernobog is constrained himself, by those rules. Must operate indirectly, subtly, lest he rouse the Lion himself. But in so doing, I think . . ."

He gazed out over the Grand Canal, observing the shadows cast by the moonlight. "Too many coincidences," he repeated firmly.

Then, he shook his head. "But that is all speculation. For the moment, we must concentrate on matters we can get a grip on." He smiled faintly. "In a manner of speaking. So I think it is now time to have a discussion with that other young lady. The one you and Pierre spent most of the evening with. Set it up for me, Diego, if you would be so kind."

Lopez's Castilian companion chuckled again. "You are bound and determined to place me in the way of mortal sin, aren't you?"

Lopez smiled wryly. "I prefer to think of it as a kindness on my part. Personally, I think forcing you to spend time with the formidable Francesca de Chevreuse is all to the good. It will give you something to do penance over, when we finally make our pilgrimage to the Holy Land."

"Very long penance, I'm afraid," mourned Diego. "Her flesh I can resist easily enough. But the woman's mind—" He sighed. "So tempting."

* * *

"Why don't you tell me about it in the morning, Alessandra," Kat yawned, looking pointedly at the door and then at her bed.

Of course, Alessandra refused the invitation to go and leave Madelena to undress Katerina. "How could you, Katerina? We've got our reputation to consider! You spoke to that . . . that . . . puttana!" she spat. "And how could Grandpapa go and join that throng around that cheap woman? Lucrezia was furious. Three of her cicebeos left her and went and hung about that . . . that . . . scarlet . . ."

"I doubt very much if Francesca de Chevreuse is 'cheap,' " interrupted Kat, pushing Alessandra towards the door. "And she seems nice—which, frankly, is not something you can say about Lucrezia Brunelli. Now, good night."

"She's a slut!"

"And you and Lucrezia both seem to be jealous. Why? Now go away, do. I don't care."


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