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Chapter 46

There was, thank the Lord, plenty of light from the windows and walkways above to let Marco see where he was going, and to show him the footing on the ledge that led to the hole.

The fact was that he really didn't want to be here at all.

But for some reason that maybe only God knew, that strange scarred man had followed him out of the Jesolo after saving both him and Benito from the Squalos gang. And, presumably for that same reason, he had decided to set himself up as a kind of watchdog or bodyguard for the two of them. Marco felt a certain guilty responsibility for the man's well-being. They had abandoned him when Aldanto and Maria had come to their rescue.

So here he was, clinging to the ledge above the waterline, with a bundle and a message to deliver and only the haziest notion if the man was still in there.

If he hadn't been so nervous, he might never have noticed the stranger at all. But Marco was desperately afraid that his last escapade had drawn unwelcome attention to the entire Aldanto ménage, attention that would have to include the Montagnards. And if anyone who had ever known Lorendana Valdosta got a good look at him—well, there'd be no doubt whose kid he was.

So he'd been watching every shadow, and thinking out every footstep ever since he'd emerged shakily from his sickbed—and he'd seen the man ghosting along, fifty feet behind as he went to work one morning. And no matter how he'd changed his course, there the man was. Then he'd watch from the dirty window of the Ventuccio offices as the man shadowed Benito on his first run of the morning. He was ready to rush out to attack the man himself out of sheer terror when he moved across a patch of sunlight—

It was at that point, when he got a brief but very good look at the man's scarred face, that he'd recognized him as the mysterious stranger who'd saved them.

That night he'd spotted the man slipping into the foundation hole across the canal.

And now, when he watched carefully, he could catch the stranger at his comings and goings—and very rarely, at trailing them. He thought that after a few days the man would get tired of it and go away—loco folk from the Jesolo weren't known for long attention spans. But he hadn't, and Marco realized that he was going to have to do something about the fact that he was there, and was apparently not going to give up on his self-appointed task.

First—tell Caesare, so that Aldanto didn't kill the stranger, thinking he was a threat. That was easiest done in the morning, before Aldanto was completely awake and thinking.

Marco had planned his approach carefully the previous morning, waiting until Aldanto had gotten his first glass of watered wine and was starting his second before accosting him.

"Caesare," he started hesitantly, "there's something you should know."

Before Caesare could do more than look apprehensive, Marco had plowed onward. "That man I told you about? The one in the marshes? The one that helped Benito and me?"

Aldanto nodded slowly, putting the goblet down on the table and absently running a hand through his tangled golden mane.

"He's here in the city," Marco said shortly. "Hiding out in that rundown building of Gasparsi's. I've seen him."

Aldanto didn't move, much, but he went from sleepy and a little bored to startled awake, wary, and alert. Marco continued before he had a chance to interrupt.

"He's right across the canal, holed up in the foundation under Gasparsi's place," Marco said, words tumbling over each other as he tried to get them all out. "Please, Caesare, I don't think he means any harm. I think he's guarding us, me and Benito. He's been following me to work, and I saw him following Benito on his runs. I think maybe he's trying to keep us safe. He's saved us once. I don't know why he did, I don't know why he's watching us, only—please, Caesare, please don't kill him."

Aldanto regarded Marco dubiously for a moment before replying. "You have strange choices in friends, boy." He picked up his goblet, and studied Marco over the rim of it.

Marco hadn't the faintest notion how to reply to that, so, in keeping with his recent decision to keep his mouth shut when he didn't know what to say, he'd remained silent.

"How sure are you of this—friend?" Aldanto asked, when even he seemed to find the silence had gone on too long.

Marco had to shake his head. "I'm not. I told you, I don't know why he helped us in the first place. I don't know why he's here now. I thought maybe—he's crazy, sort of. I thought he'd get tired and go away, but he hasn't. I don't know what to tell you, Caesare—but I just don't think he means us anything but good."

Caesare relaxed back into his chair, a thought-crease between his brows. Marco remained patiently standing by the table, wishing with all his heart that he hadn't been such a great fool this winter as to destroy any trust Aldanto had in him.

"I didn't even know that this watchdog of yours was there," Caesare said at last, cradling his wine goblet in both hands, as if taking warmth from it. "That argues for a—certain level of expertise. That is a very bad sign."

"If he wanted us he could have killed us a dozen times by now," Marco whispered humbly. "He could have just stood back in the marshes, and we'd have been dead and nobody the wiser."

"True." Caesare continued to brood over the wine goblet. "There would be no point in his watching you that I can see. If he wanted to take you to use against me he should have made his move by now. Which makes me think you might be right about him."

Marco heaved a completely internal sigh of relief.

"Now I can't for a moment imagine why this man should have decided to attach himself to you and your brother, but since he has, and since he seems to have some useful skills—" He paused, and raised one golden eyebrow significantly. "—and since he seems to have appointed himself as your bodyguard gratis—"

Marco flushed, and hung his head. He knew Aldanto was still desperately short of money, and he knew that the reason was because he had spent vast sums of money trying to find Marco when Aldanto and Maria had thought he was in trouble. Money that hadn't been his to spend. Brunelli money, Marco assumed. Or money from Bishop Capuletti, which amounted to the same thing.

"—well, I'm not inclined to look this particular gift horse in the mouth," Aldanto concluded. "But I hope he has the sense to realize that I am inclined to strike first and ask questions like 'friend or foe' afterwards. And I want you to stay out of his reach after this."

"Yes, Caesare," Marco backed out of the kitchen hastily. "Thank you, Caesare."

* * *

But here he was. Because he felt a responsibility to warn the man. And because he felt he owed him something besides a warning, he carried a bundle.

Word had gotten out from Tonio that, well, actually, it was that bridge-boy of Maria Garavelli's who had doctored their children. And if the parents had any doubts, the children didn't. That appeared to have overcome many an adult's doubt. Ever since his return from the swamp, Marco had found himself overwhelmed with new patients. Quite a few of them didn't even come through Tonio any more. The boat-folk, ignoring Marco's vehement protests that he did not want to be paid for doctoring their kids, had taken to leaving things in Maria's gondola or with Giaccomo. Things that Marco had no earthly use for—a woolen cloak, five sizes too big, laboriously knitted out of the remnants of five different lots and colors of yarn, half a blanket, candle-ends, a homemade oil stove of the kind used on boats, a bunch of fresh chestnuts off an incoming barge, a bundle of boccalao . . . and more.

A lot of it they couldn't use, and Maria couldn't sell or trade the stuff without going to a world of time and effort that she couldn't spare. But if the stranger had come out of the Jesolo, he was even poorer than the poorest canaler. These odds and ends could mean a great deal to him. So that was the thing Marco meant to do—see that the man was in some sort of comfort. It was a small payback for their lives. He'd gotten a few coppers doing some odd jobs on his day off, and those had gone for a bit of food for the man, flour and salt and oil, and some dried salt fish, all bundled in with the rest.

"Milord?" Marco called into the darkness of the partially flooded foundations of the building, wondering if the man could hear him—or if he was even there. He turned away for a moment to look out uneasily over the canal behind him—

"I'm no milord, boy," came a harsh whisper from right beside him.

Marco jumped and nearly fell backwards in the canal. A long arm snaked out of the darkness and steadied him.

"M-m-milord, I—" Marco stuttered.

"I told you, boy," the ragged, battered stranger said, a little less harshly, as he emerged from the darkness of the foundation cavern, "I'm no milord. Call me Harrow. Why have you come here?"

"I—came to thank you. Also to warn you. Aldanto says: 'Don't cross his path or bring him trouble.' Um . . . and I came to bring you a few things I thought maybe you could use. Food and some warm stuff. It's not a lot and it's not good. But it is something."

The stranger looked puzzled. "Why?" Then he nodded. "Thank you, Marco Valdosta."

Marco nearly fell backwards out of the entry hole again.

"How—" he started

"You look just like your mother. Now go, Marco. And be careful not to come here again. It is not safe." And without another word he turned and walked back into the darkness with Marco's gift.

* * *

Harrow waded back into the blackness, knowing his way even in the pitch-dark, the stale water slimy around his ankles. After a short while, he felt and heard dry gravel crunching under his feet. Harrow struck tinder and lit the tiny fire of dry debris. By the flickering light he carefully surveyed the place that was now his home.

He'd lived in worse. By some freak or other, the back end of the ruined bottom story was still above water level and relatively dry, a kind of rubble-floored cave. You had to get at the dry part by wading through ankle-deep, stagnant water, but it wasn't bad, certainly not as bad as the swamp.

Mind you, it was no palace, either. Water condensed on the walls and ceilings above the sunken area, dripping down constantly, so that the air always smelled damp. And with stale canal water coming in with every tide, it often smelled of more than damp. But there were feral cats down here, which kept the place free of vermin. Harrow had always admired cats. And he held them almost sacred now, for cats—black cats in particular—were the special darlings of the Goddess. There was a mama-cat with a young litter laired up down here that Harrow had begun luring in with patience and bits of food. He had hopes he could tame the young ones enough for them to stay with him.

For the rest, he had a bed of sorts, made up of a couple of blankets and armfuls of dry rushes brought in from the swamp. Certainly no one ventured down here, so anything he managed to acquire was safe. It wasn't much. He sat down on the bed and opened the bundle.

What the boy had given him tonight was very welcome. The little fire was guttering and so rather than waste his meager fuel supply he lit one of the tallow candle-ends Marco had given to him. After pulling the new cloak over his chilled body, he examined each little prize with care. Then he stowed it all away within reach of his pallet so that he'd be able to find the stuff if he needed it in the dark.

He re-made his bed to add the new coverings to the top and the rags that the boy had brought as padding underneath; then Harrow blew out the candle-stub and lay back on the pallet, staring into the darkness. Thinking.

Thinking mostly about his past. Thinking about his life as Fortunato Bespi. It was mostly a life he would rather have forgotten. A time when he had been one of the most deadly killers and workers of mayhem that Duke Visconti had ever recruited into his Montagnard agents. He'd served the Montagnard cause, for which he'd done much . . . that was to the superficial look, evil. He had done it all with a clear conscience, knowing the cause was good. Now—in the light of hindsight—he could see that the "cause" was no more than a thin cover for the ambitions of the only one he'd ever really served. Filippo Visconti.

Harrow felt his scarred lip curling into a stiff and soundless snarl, thinking of the Duke of Milan's treachery and the willingness of his tool Francesco Aleri to further that treachery.

But, soon enough, he pushed the anger aside. The Goddess had given him other work, after all.

His thoughts turned to young Marco. The boy's . . . considerateness . . . shone through every item in that bundle. Duke Visconti had carelessly handed out gold—of which he had plenty. This boy had next to nothing. There'd been nothing careless in that bundle. The kid was unlike anyone Harrow had ever known before; he was—kind, that was it. Compassionate in a way that Harrow didn't really understand, and could only admire from a distance. The younger boy—that one he understood, but the older one—never. Marco's type was the sort he could appreciate, but never emulate. But he understood why the Goddess might have a purpose for the child of such an unlikely woman as Lorendana Valdosta.

Well, I can't be like that, he thought somberly. But I can do what the Goddess put on me; I can help that boy survive to do some good. That ought to count for something.

He settled himself a bit more comfortably, and thought about the warning the boy had delivered. That was something he hadn't thought of; he hadn't considered Caesare Aldanto except as a fellow guardian.

Better make sure not to ever let him get a look at me, he decided thoughtfully. Even as scarred up as I am, he might recognize me. And he won't be seeing Harrow—he'll be seeing Fortunato Bespi. A threat. And I know damned well how Caesare Aldanto responds to threats.

Then he grinned in the dark, his lips curling like stiff, old leather. No threats from me, Caesare Aldanto, we're on the same side, as it happens. Just like old times. But Francesco . . . you bastard, you—

His grin turned into a feral snarl. Let's just see you try and get past Caesare and me together, Milord Francesco Aleri. Let's just see you get at the boy through me. I might leave enough for Caesare Aldanto to play with, after.


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