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Chapter 49

One casual question to two independent sources—Jeppo at Giaccomo's, and Barducci's cook Katia—had given Marco one simple, and odd, fact. The cheapest place in town for spices wasn't Badoero's. To the contrary, their prices were, if anything, more expensive. It was, however, the place of choice for wealthy women of Venice to buy their spices.


Rafael de Tomaso had been Marco's source on Capi Tiepolo. Marco had had plenty of reason to visit his new friend—his good news, for one: some seaweed you could apparently boil up and make a suspension medium for paints to achieve a marbling effect. It was one of those things Marco had picked up from one of his boat-people patients, when he'd mentioned painting. They claimed their father had done it, and he was a seaman from the far-off League of Armagh. That might be true. You could find blood of many origins on the waterways of Venice. But Rafael had been wildly excited by the idea, and begged him to find out more. So here he was with a bunch of dried seaweed. And while Marco was visiting, he'd asked Rafael if he could find out something about Capi Marco Tiepolo's background. The Tiepolo were, after all, an aristocratic family.


Though the Accademia student had been a little puzzled by the question, he agreed—especially after Marco told him that if it became any trouble to find out, he wasn't to bother. As things turned out, it was easy for him to resolve with a couple of casual questions to his own patron, carefully spaced out over several days.


It seemed that Capi Tiepolo was a bastard son of Count Badoero, who held large estates outside of Venetian territory in Padua. Padua . . . wooing—and being wooed—by Milan. The Badoero on Murano were cousins of the count, which meant they were allied with the Montagnard-leaning faction in Venetian politics—and friendly with the Pauline orders like the Servants of the Holy Trinity.


Yet . . . most curiously, Capi Tiepolo himself was apparently one of Bishop Pietro Capuletti's protégés. Which in the tangled weave of Venice's politics should have made him . . . an adherent of Rome and the Grand Metropolitan, as the Capuletti positioned themselves with the Brunelli Family. Bishop Capuletti, in fact, was the Doge's representative at the Accademia.


This was all very complicated.


Well, that sure as hell explains the Badoero connection, if nothing else, Marco thought to himself, as he hurried to reach Della Elmo's before the lunch-time crowd did. But it surely doesn't explain this. There's a connection here I'm missing, and it's a Family connection, or politics, maybe. It's not enough to give Caesare—yet—


He scampered in at the back entrance; Michelo Viero, one of the barman's helpers, had agreed to let Marco take his place at noon for the next several days. It hadn't been hard to persuade him, not when Marco had offered to split the tips for the privilege of doing his work for him. Michelo had no notion who or what Marco was; Marco let him think he was a student with some gambling debts to pay and a short time to pay them in. And Lord and Saints knew that a few of the patrons of the Della Elmo's Trattoria were quite good tippers. It was close to the San Marco, and it was fashionable right now.


Marco joined the milling lot of a half-dozen other boys in the shabby back hall, claiming Michelo's apron from its wooden hook and bobbing awkwardly to the burly owner. "Michelo still got th' bad ankle?" the square-faced man asked gruffly.


"Yes, milord," Marco replied, scuffing his bare feet in the sawdust on the wooden floor. "Says he's mortal sorry, milord, but it's still swole up."


The man actually cracked a smile. "I ain't, boy. You lookin' for a job, you check by here regular. I get an opening, you got a place."


Marco contrived to look grateful. "M-my thanks, milord," he stammered, and slipped past him onto the floor of the tavern proper.


After that it was nothing but scurry and scramble and keep his head down so that nobody could see his face long enough to recognize him later; bringing orders of food and drink to tables, clearing away the dishes after, bringing more drink when called for—and keeping his ears open.


For Elmo's Trattoria was where the second sons of the Families met—and where they met, there was gossip aplenty. And where there was gossip—


Lord, it was wearing him down, though. He leaned around a patron's bulk to snag the empty plates before the man could yell for them to be taken away. He was beginning to be very grateful for his sit-down job at Ventuccio's. He was so tired when he got home at night that he was bolting a little dinner, going straight to bed, and sleeping like a stone. Aldanto had been worried enough by this anomalous behavior that he'd actually asked Marco if he was all right—which surprised him. He'd explained—he thought; his mind wasn't too clear on anything after sundown anymore. At least Aldanto seemed satisfied.


Two days ago he'd learned that Count Badoero was one of Lucrezia Brunelli's more ardent suitors, and as such, was not popular at Elmo's. He was certainly the target of enough gossip.


From Luciano Delmi's idle comment yesterday, had come the news that Accademia must be awash with new gold the way Bishop Capuletti was spending it. And someone had said suspiciously, cattishly, that they wondered where it was being minted. That was the problem with subversion here in Venice. Venice ducats. Unpunched winged-lion-faced ducats were just not freely available outside the city. The gold refined and smelted here was definably, noticeably purer than coin from Florence or Milan. The magical blessing of the molds gave the coins a faint but delicate bouquet . . . cinnamony lavender. A fake coin was not worth passing.


Any attempt at subversion here in the Republic of Venice was expensive. There were just too many noble families you'd have to buy. Anyone spending that kind of gold was due a visit from the Council of Ten's agents.


Then somebody asked if the Casa Badoero was still courting the Milanese. The scar-seamed merchant considered the question thoughtfully before replying with the carefully worded bit of information that no, it was too late for courting.


And just as Marco was hauling a load of dishes to the back, he got the final key piece from Mario Pellagio. Marco overheard mention that the Signori Di Notte were looking for some ideas on who had killed Veronica Mantelli. And Delmi's unknown companion had said they need look no further than whoever was bringing the new supply of black lotos into the city. It was just an unrelated comment . . . except the rich and beautiful Signorina Mantelli had been prominent among Lucrezia Brunelli's set.


If there was one thing that could get you into real trouble with the Doge and the Signori di Notte and their Schiopettieri it was black lotos from Turkey. When they'd collected the tiny blue lotos in the marshes for Sophia's concoctions, Chiano had explained. From the magical lotos that had stolen the wits of Ulysses' men in Libya had come the two strains. The blue lotos was a rare, wild plant in the marshes of the Mediterranean coast—doubtless spread by sailors over the years. The blue was a mild hallucinogenic and soporific, and difficult to harvest in quantity. But somewhere within the Pontus mountains the plant had been bred, and magically altered. Black lotos. Twenty times as powerful . . . before refining. The magically refined drug had become a plague not twenty years back. Then it had been freely for sale. Doge Marco Gradenigo had utterly banned its import and sale, and agents of the Council of Ten had quietly killed importers. So. It was back. And back in the wealthiest circles. People who went a-spice-buying on Murano. People who had ample Venice ducats.


Ducats to buy support . . . inside the Accademia where the sons of Venice's nobles were an available target.


Marco's head buzzed, and his gut went tight with excitement. So—Accademia might be involved in this new Milanese policy!


Or part of the Accademia was. Marco was no longer so naïve as to figure that what one priest wanted, the rest did too. Assuming, of course—which those at Elmo's did—that the bishop's superiors were aware of his loyalties. Which might, or might not, have been the truth. In either case, it was something Caesare Aldanto would find fascinating indeed.


Marco hustled the last of the dishes into the kitchen, took off his apron, and hung it up for the last time. He had what he needed; time to give Michelo his job back. Now only one thing remained; for Marco to verify with his own eyes exactly what was going on down at the Ventuccio warehouse and how it was being conducted.


* * *

Aldanto was beginning to have a feeling of déjà vu every time he looked up from dinner to see Marco hovering like a shadow around the kitchen door.


"Something wrong, Marco?" he asked, beginning to have that too-familiar sinking feeling. The last time the boy had had that look on his face, that—watcher—had moved in across the canal. And the time before—


The time before was what had gotten them all into this mess.


"Caesare—" the boy hesitated, then brought his hands out from behind his back. "This is for you."


Aldanto took the slim package from the boy; a long and narrow, heavy thing, wrapped in oiled silk. He unwrapped it, and nearly dropped it in surprise.


It was a fine—a very fine—main gauche, the like of which Caesare hadn't seen, much less owned, since his Milan days. Light-rippling oystershell folded Damascus steel; perfection from tip to sharkskin handle—balanced so well in his hand that it already felt part of him. Unmistakably Ferrarese workmanship. For nearly a century now, since Duke Andrea Dell'este had had the foresight and cunning to recruit steelworkers from the East and swordsmiths from Spain, and brought them together, Ferrara blades had become the standards whereby all other swords were judged.


He was so surprised that his first thought was that the boy must have stolen it. The Lord knew it wasn't the kind of thing the boy could afford! But Marco spoke before he could voice that unworthy thought.


"It—it's from my grandfather, milord," he said, his face and voice sounding strained. "He says it's by way of thanking you. He sent me one for Milord Dorma too—seems he wrote and told him who my mother was!"


"He what?" Aldanto tightened his hand involuntarily on the knife hilt.


"He says," Marco continued, "that he thinks Casa Dorma ought to know, and that I'm safer with them knowing, because they'll put me where hurting me would cause a vendetta no one wants. 'Hide in plain sight,' is what he says."


"The man has a point," Aldanto conceded, thinking better of the notion. Relaxing again, he checked the weapon for maker's marks, and sure enough, on the blade near the quillions found the tiny Dell'este symbol. The old man was a shrewd one, all right—he hadn't kept his smallish city intact and largely independent while sitting between three powerful forces by being stupid. He had a real instinct for which way to jump. Besides, if Dorma now knew what station the boy really was, the obligations would be turned around. Dorma would now be in the position to negotiate favorably with the guardians of the Po River and the roads to Bologna and Rome.


Marco was the son of an undutiful younger daughter of the House of Dell'este. But the Dell'este honor was legendary. It ran as deep as the heavens were wide. No trading family would want such an enemy. Marco would no longer be the object of charity, and the Dorma would actually wind up owing Aldanto for bringing the boy to their attention. Altogether a nice little turn of events—especially considering that he was being paid by Dell'este to watch over the boys.


"He says," Marco continued, looking a little relieved but still plainly under strain, "it's by way of a bribe, milord, for you to keep Benito. He says he doesn't think we better let Dorma know about Benito at all, not that he's my brother."


Aldanto thought about young Milord Lightfingers loose in Dorma and shuddered. "I think he's right." Besides, the boy might just be a main chance.


* * *

Marco carefully calculated his day off to coincide with the day that the Badoero hirelings picked up their consignment from the Ventuccio warehouse. By dawn he was down at the warehouse dock, ready and willing to run just about any errand for anybody. This wasn't the first time he'd been here—he'd played runner before, when he wasn't playing waiter's helper at Elmo's. He wanted his face to be a familiar one on the dock, so that he wouldn't stand out if Capi Tiepolo became suspicious. He even had Ventuccio permission to be out here; they thought he was strapped for cash, and he was supposedly earning the extra odd penny by running on his day off.


He'd run enough of those errands by noon that no one thought or looked at him twice when he settled into a bit of shade and looked to be taking a rest break. The sun was hot down here on the dock; there wasn't a bit of breeze to be had, and Marco was sweating freely. One friendly fellow offered Marco the last of his wine as he went back on shift, and Marco accepted gratefully. He wasn't having to feign near-exhaustion; he was exhausted. He was mortally glad that the remainder of his self-imposed assignment was going to allow him to sit out here, in the shade of a barrel, and pretend to get splinters out of his hands while he watched the Badoero barge being loaded twenty feet away.


The barge was a neat little thing; newly painted and prosperous looking. The boatman who manned her did not, however, look like the run-of-the-mill canaler.


In point of fact, that carefully dirtied cotte looked far too new; the man's complexion was something less than weathered—and those hands pushed pencils far more often than the pole of a skip. Marco would be willing to bet money on it. This was no canaler, hired or permanent retainer. This was likely one of the younger members of the Family.


This notion was confirmed when Capi Tiepolo put in his appearance. There was something very similar about the cast of the nose and the shape of the ears of both the good father and the boatman. Even in inbred Venice, features that similar usually spelled a blood-relationship.


It didn't take long to load the tiny casks onto the small barge; Marco didn't bother to get any closer than he was. He wasn't planning on trying to see if the articles were stamped or not. He was doing what only he could, with his perfect memory.


Even amid the bustle of the dock, he was keeping absolute track of exactly how many spice casks—and only the spice casks, nothing else—were going into the bottom of that barge.


Three days later, when the bundle of tax stamps came in, Marco had his answer. Three more casks had gone into the barge than there were stamps for.


* * *

That night he intended to give Caesare Aldanto his full report—but that afternoon he got an unexpected surprise.


A creamy white and carefully calligraphied note from the House of Dorma.


* * *

Marco finished his report to Aldanto, given while he was finishing his dinner in the kitchen, and Caesare was both impressed and surprised. The lad had handled himself like a professional—


Like an adult. He'd thought out what he needed to know, he'd planned how to get it without blowing his cover, and he'd executed that plan carefully, coolly, and patiently. Aldanto pondered the boy's information, and concluded that no matter how you looked at it, it was going to be worth a great deal to both sides of this messy and treacherous game he played. He nodded to himself, then looked up to see that the boy was still standing in the doorway, looking vaguely distressed.


Aldanto's approval did nothing to ease the boy's agitation; if anything, it seemed worse. "Marco, is there something wrong?"


"Caesare—" The boy looked absolutely desperate. "I—got this today—"


He handed a square of creamy vellum to Aldanto; feeling a terrible foreboding, Caesare opened it.


It proved to be nothing more than a simple invitation for Marco—and a friend, if he chose—to come to dinner at Dorma, to be introduced to the Family.


Aldanto heaved a sigh of relief. "One may guess," he said, handing the invitation back to Marco, "That Milord Petro Dorma has received your grandfather's letter." The boy's expression didn't change. "So what on earth is wrong?"


"It's—it's me, Caesare," the boy blurted unhappily. "I was a child the last time I was in a noble's household. I don't know . . . how to act, what to say, what to wear . . ."


He looked at Caesare with a pleading panic he hadn't shown even when he'd known his life hung in the balance. "Please, Caesare," he whispered, "I don't know how to do this!"


Caesare restrained his urge to laugh with a control he hadn't suspected he had. "You want me to help coach you, is that it?"


Marco nodded so hard Caesare thought his head was going to come off. He sighed.


"All right, young milord—let's see if we can create a gentleman out of you." He smiled dryly. "You may wish yourself back in the swamp before this is over!" Inwardly he smiled. This might be tedious, but it would be valuable.


 


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Framed