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Chapter 50

"I don't believe we've met before, Father Lopez, although I've seen you several times at the Doge's soirees." Francesca glanced at Pierre and Diego, who were sitting in their own chairs in her salon not far from the Basque priest. "I'm acquainted with your two companions, somewhat, from the last such event." She pointed at Diego, and then Pierre. "He has an excellent wit, and the other laughs quite nicely. But I suspect you didn't come here to engage in humorous repartee. Nor, I'm quite sure, for the other reason gentlemen pay me a visit."


Lopez smiled. "Call me Eneko, if you would. The first thing I'd like to dispense with is formality."


"Good enough. Call me Francesca. The name 'de Chevreuse' is a false one, anyway—as I'm sure you are already aware."


Diego cocked his head. "Why are you sure of that? You've gone to considerable trouble to establish the name."


Francesca snorted. "Please! Father Lop—Eneko, rather, is a special envoy from the Grand Metropolitan in Rome. No one seems quite sure what he—and the two of you—are doing here in Venice, although I suspect Metropolitan Michael knows. You seem to spend most of your time in the Ghetto, which is largely terra incognita to the Venetian haut monde. Charitable work, it's said."


"That is, indeed, what we have been mostly doing," interjected Pierre.


" 'Mostly,' " mused Francesca, arching an eyebrow. "That leaves—?" She answered her own question almost at once. "Investigation. That's what it leaves. Most people think you're trying to ferret out Strega witchcraft."


"And you don't?" asked Eneko.


"The idea's nonsense," replied Francesca. "First, why bother? The Strega have been in Venice for centuries, with no one any the worse for it. Second, you've been here for many months now. 'Ferreting out' Strega so-called witches in the Ghetto wouldn't take more than a few weeks, for any but the most incompetent of clerical magic-workers. Which you are—don't deny it—and I don't think the Grand Metropolitan chose to send fumblers."


Eneko nodded, accepting the compliment. "I thank you for that. Although I must admit I've wondered at our own 'competence.' The saints know we've had a difficult time ferreting out what we did come to find."


Francesca sighed. "Which, I suppose, was not my true identity."


Diego cleared his throat. "Ah . . . no. As it happens, Francesca—Marie-Françoise de Guemadeuc, to use the name you were born with—we uncovered that little secret within a few weeks of learning of your existence."


"My condolences," murmured Eneko. "I can't say I approved of your family, but I would not wish such cruelty and destruction on anyone."


Francesca stared at him. She was a little shaken. "You learned that quickly?"


Diego began to say something but Eneko waved him silent with a little motion of his hand. "It is time for a full introduction, I think. Francesca, let me explain who we really are." He nodded toward Pierre and Diego. "By 'we' I include more than just the three of us. There are some others sworn to our cause. Most of them—which is not many; a half-dozen—still in Toulouse or Orleans. Another, Francis, now resides in Mainz. All of us, at one time, were students at the University in Orleans. That is where we first met, and forged our brotherhood. Which explains, of course, our intimate knowledge of Aquitainian affairs."


Francesca's lips twisted into a wry little grimace. "I wouldn't have thought Orleans—anywhere in Aquitaine—would make a good breeding ground for the creation of brotherhoods and the forging of causes. Except those leading to personal advancement, which—" She gave all three of them a quick inspection. "—does not seem to be the case here."


Pierre chuckled harshly. Diego's chuckle was a softer and warmer thing. Eneko simply smiled, a bit grimly.


"To the contrary, Francesca, Aquitaine explains much. It was there that all of us finally realized—and accepted—the extent of the rot within the Church. By which I mean the Petrine branch."


For a moment, Francesca's jaws tightened. "Do tell," she murmured. "I believe it took the Metropolitan of Orleans five seconds to decide to excommunicate my father. As much time as it took to fill both his hands with gold coin."


Her ensuing chuckle was even harsher than Pierre's. "I must say it's refreshing to hear this from a Petrine cleric. At least, I assume you consider yourself such. Difficult to imagine the Grand Metropolitan of Rome sending a Pauline envoy to Venice."


"Petrine through-and-through," agreed Eneko. "In fact, we have a close relationship with the Hypatian Order."


Hearing that, Francesca's eyes widened. In the complex welter of Church institutions, the Hypatian Order was considered—certainly by Paulines—the most extreme of the organized Petrine currents. Although they were generally regarded as ineffective and relatively harmless—


"Oh, God," she croaked. "Don't tell me." She sighed again, and this time far more deeply. "I was afraid you weren't really all that interested in my personal identity."


She rose abruptly, walked to the doors opening on to the balcony, and began to open them. She had a sudden need for fresh air.


"Don't," commanded Eneko. "Please, Francesca. We took great pains not to have our visit here noticed by anyone. If you open those doors—at night, with this room well lit—"


She closed her eyes, lowered her head, still clutching the door handles. "Please," she whispered. "All of that is behind me."


"Don't be stupid," said the Basque. "That's simply cowardice speaking. You are not a coward—far from it. And you don't even mean it, anyway."


She turned her head, staring at him. "Yes, I do," she insisted. In a very soft voice; which, she realized, didn't sound as if she really meant it.


The Basque's grin, when it came, was astonishing in its sheer charisma. Francesca got her first real glimpse of the personality which had forged this little band of . . . brothers.


"You adore the world of politics, Francesca," continued Lopez, still grinning. "All this—" He made a little circling motion with his finger, indicating the plush surroundings. "—is really fraud and fakery. You enjoy wealth, I'm sure, but is that really why you chose this life?"


"I didn't 'choose'—"


"Of course, you did! A woman as beautiful and intelligent and charming as yourself could have easily—long since—settled yourself into a nice comfortable situation."


"In fact, the Comte du Roure," added Diego, "asked you to marry him—the night before you fled with your mother to Avignon."


Francesca almost spat. "He was forty years old—and looked seventy—and almost as stupid as the hogs on his estates. He would have shut me up in that great ugly castle of his until he died. Which couldn't possibly have been soon enough."


Suddenly, she burst into laughter. "You're a shrewd bastard, Eneko. Pardon the expression. The Saints know, I've met few enough priests in my life who can see past the harlotry."


Again, she sighed heavily. But she found it easy enough to release the door handles and walk back to her chaise. "Yes, you're right," she admitted. "My fondest memories, as a girl, were the times I spent at the dinner table discussing the political affairs of the world with my father and his friends. I didn't realize at the time, of course, how deadly those affairs could become."


She plumped herself back in the chaise, making no effort to maintain her usual languid and seductive manner of sitting. "God help us all. You—that's what you're doing here, isn't it? You intend to organize a new Petrine order. The equivalent of the Servants of the Holy Trinity—say better, a challenge to the Sots."


"I prefer to think of it as a challenge to the Petrines, Francesca." All traces of humor left Eneko's face. "Who have grown soft, lazy—even corrupt, and not just in Aquitaine. The accusations leveled by the Servants of the Holy Trinity have far too much truth in them, as you well know. I leave aside their frenzied gibberish about heathens. I speak of the rest."


"I'll still take the Petrines over the Paulines," growled Francesca. "Any day of the month."


Eneko shook his head. "If things continue as they have, you will eventually not have a choice. The Paulines have been gaining in strength for a century, at least. Soon enough—if nothing is done—they will dominate the entire Church." Seeing the courtesan's little frown of protest, he pressed on. "It is inevitable, Francesca. For centuries, now, the Paulines have been the shield of Christendom. Their power and influence ultimately derives from that simple fact. So long as the Petrine church is willing to loll about in comfort, here in the soft and summery south, and allow the Paulines to wage the battle against the Evil One, the Paulines will continue to wax in strength."


He shrugged. "And deserve to, in all truth. Or would, except . . . their own theological errors leave them prone to a different kind of corruption. One which is, in the end, far more dangerous than simple avarice and sloth." Eneko paused, for a moment. "Indeed, I fear they have already fallen into that pit. The Servants, at least—leading elements within them, I should say—if not yet the Knights. But the Knights have become, more and more, simply the tools of the Servants."


Francesca stared at him for a moment, her hands making little movements on her thighs. Like caresses, only firmer—as if she were drying her hands before lifting a heavy weight.


"What do you want from me?" she asked abruptly. "I'm a whore, Eneko, not a theologian or a paladin."


"I did not use that term," he said mildly.


"Use it, then!" she snapped. "If you want something from me, speak plainly."


"I will not use the term, Francesca, for the simple reason that if I believed it I would not be here at all. Neither that term nor the term 'harlot.' " He smiled thinly. "I can accept a 'lady of easy virtue.' Easy virtue is still virtue, after all."


Again, Francesca burst into laughter. "God, I'd hate to argue theology with you! The Grand Metropolitan must tremble at the sight of you coming."


Eneko winced. "It is true, I suspect, that the Grand Metropolitan . . . Well. I seem to make him a bit nervous."


"I can imagine!"


"Which is why he sent me here, of course," continued Eneko. "You might think of this as something of a test."


Diego cleared his throat. "Probably best not to ask whether the Grand Metropolitan hopes we succeed or fail. I'm not sure he knows himself."


Francesca smiled. "I could guess . . ." The smile went away and she sat up straight. "All right, Eneko. But the 'lady of easy virtue' still needs to know what you want from her."


"You must understand the severe limits we are working within, Francesca. There are only three of us here in Venice. The Grand Metropolitan has provided us with some funds, but . . . nothing extravagant, I assure you." For a moment, his face grew pinched. "Which is why, to my regret, I was at first forced to accept the hospitality of Casa Brunelli. Diego and Pierre were not invited, so they found lodgings in a poor hostel, as I have now."


"Not to my regret," growled Pierre. "The hostel stinks—but not half as bad as Brunelli. The evil in that house practically saturates the stones."


Eneko's lips were very thin. "Indeed. But let's not get side-tracked, for the moment. In addition to our financial constraints, Francesca, we are also—more and more every day, it seems—being watched by spies. It has become difficult for us to move about, outside of the Ghetto, without being observed."


He raised his hand in a little gesture of reassurance. "We managed well enough tonight, I assure you. But when the time comes—which it surely will, before too many more months have passed—when we need to contact certain critical persons, we will not be able to do so directly. We need you to serve as our conduit."


" 'Certain critical persons,' " husked Francesca. "Who?"


"Petro Dorma, for one."


Francesca tried to keep from smiling. Not entirely with success. "That should not be, ah, too difficult. Who else?"


Eneko was silent for a moment, studying her. "You know perfectly well 'who else,' Francesca. When the crisis comes, the actions of the Holy Roman Emperor will be decisive. My own contact with the Emperor is circuitous and would take far too long to set into motion when the time arrives. And besides, I suspect I will be preoccupied with other matters. Whereas you—you are but one step removed from Charles Fredrik."


Francesca froze. Diego coughed into his fist, discreetly. "The Hohenstauffen dynasty," he murmured, "has perhaps dipped too often into that well for the subterfuge to work as nicely as it did once. And the Earl of Carnac is a rather distinctive young man. And . . . well, as it happens, I met him once." Hastily: "I'm sure he doesn't remember. He was only sixteen at the time, visiting Orleans with his mother. And, ah, quite drunk. Sad to say, the lad fell into bad company—roistering students, the city's plagued with them—and, ah . . ."


Francesca rolled her eyes. "I can imagine," she muttered. She brought her eyes back to meet Eneko's. "He doesn't even know that I know who he is. I'm his whore, not his confidant."


The Basque priest's gaze remained level. He said nothing. After a moment, Francesca looked aside. "I suppose I'm being a bit disingenuous."


"More than a bit, I think. The earl trusts you, Francesca."


The look which came on Francesca's face made her seem much younger, for an instant. "I think he does," she said, almost in a whisper. "Why is that?"


Eneko's gaze was still level. Francesca sighed again. "I'm a disgrace to the Aquitaine," she muttered. "What kind of respectable whore can be trusted?"


Still, level. Francesca threw up her hands. "All right, then! Damn you. I'll do it." She rallied briefly: "When the time comes, not before. And how will I know that?"


Still, level. Francesca glared at Diego and Pierre. "Does he ever glance aside?"


The Basque's two companions grinned. "Welcome to our brotherhood, Francesca," said Pierre. Diego coughed behind his fist. "In a manner of speaking," he added.


* * *

As they were about to leave, Francesca placed her hand on the door and held it shut. "This will cost you, Eneko."


He smiled. "Not in coin, I trust."


"Coin I'm not short of," she snorted. She glanced at Pierre. "Although I'm a little shorter now than I was. Your Savoyard here is not the only one who can smell the stink coming from Casa Brunelli. I hired a bodyguard a week ago, after the Doge's last soiree. I do believe Lucrezia Brunelli has placed me on her list of enemies, and she's got a reputation. At least two courtesans have been murdered in Venice in the past year, both of whom apparently attracted too much attention from her."


The three priests frowned simultaneously. "We did not notice any bodyguard, coming in," said Diego.


Francesca smiled. "He's very good. Cost me plenty, but it was worth it. Another Aquitaine, unfortunately. So he insisted on coin rather than, ah, taking part of his payment in trade."


"How long do you intend to keep poking me, Francesca?" asked Eneko. His tone was very mild. "It's quite pointless. I have no doubt you will set a record for the longest stay in purgatory, when the time comes. Purgatory is not my concern."


She made a face. "No, it wouldn't be. And how stupid can I be to get involved with a priest who doesn't care about my sins?" Stubbornly: "It'll still cost you. And you know the payment I want."


The Basque nodded. "Trust. Confidence. To play a part—as you thought you did once, as a girl—in the great affairs of the world. Sitting again at your father's table, excited by knowledge; excited, even more, by the feeling that your knowledge mattered."


She lowered her head and removed her hand from the door, squeezing her eyes shut to hold in the sudden tears. "Thank you." Then, in a very small voice: "Forgive me, Father, for my sins."


Eneko placed a hand on her head and kissed her forehead. "Not so many sins as all that, child." He chuckled into the glamorous hair. "Well . . . many sins, I admit. Or, at least, the same sin oft repeated. But, in the end, not such a great one, as sins go."


Pierre scowled. "It's still sinful, and you should give it up," the Savoyard grumbled. "But . . ."


Diego smiled. "He's a witch-smeller, you know. It's quite a rare talent. But that's really why he kept insisting on kissing your hand at the Doge's palace."


Francesca's eyes were quite dry, now. She peered at Pierre intently. "And?"


The Savoyard looked away. "You should still give it up," he insisted. "But . . . there's nothing here in the way of that stench coming from Casa Brunelli and the Imperial embassy."


"Enough, Pierre," commanded Eneko. To Francesca: "I will keep our end of the bargain, Francesca. Be sure of it. Whatever we discover will be passed along to you." Slyly: "This will be quite an adventure, you know?"


* * *

After she closed the door behind them, Francesca leaned her forehead against the ornately carved wood. She could still feel the slight moisture from the priest's kiss. And was not really surprised, when she thought about it, that Eneko Lopez did not have dry lips. Whatever his vows—and Francesca was certain he kept them—she didn't doubt for a moment that the Basque was also the most passionate man she'd ever met.


"Quite an adventure," she murmured. "Idiot woman!"


But when she pushed herself away from the door, she was smiling. And did not even try to deny, to herself, that she felt as if she'd shed years as well as sins.


The effect translated immediately into action. Francesca had been trying to decide for days . . .


She went directly to her little writing table and penned a note. Quickly, for all the impeccable handwriting. Then, sealed it with wax and went back to the door.


Her bodyguard was standing in front of her, not more than an instant after she opened the door. Francesca had no idea where he'd come from. Nor did she care—that was what he was being paid for, after all.


"Have this taken to Casa Montescue, Louis. No—better yet, take it yourself. I'll be safe enough here tonight and I want to be certain it goes directly to the person addressed. Let no one else see it. Understood?"


Louis examined the name on the note and nodded. "Easy enough," he said, and was gone. Francesca watched him leave, wondering if she'd hear any sound at all.


She didn't, of course. Louis Marillac had come highly recommended.


* * *

The next evening, when she opened the door, the man who entered made no attempt to walk quietly. Not that he clumped, even as big as he was. The noise his feet made was more in the way of a shuffle. As if he were trying to disguise embarrassment.


"Mademoiselle de Chevreuse," he said, bowing and kissing her hand. "I was delighted to receive your invitation to pay you a visit, of course. Didn't feel I could refuse. But—"


"Please, come in!" Smoothly, Francesca closed the door and guided him into a chair. "And I insist you call me Francesca."


The man cleared his throat. "Francesca, then. But—"


He fell silent, obviously groping for words. "I must explain—"


"You need explain nothing." Francesca smiled and laid a hand on his shoulder. "I asked you to come, did I not? I am well aware of the straightened financial circumstances you are suffering from at the moment. I simply wanted the pleasure of your company, that's all."


The man stared up at her; his eyes disbelieving, at first. Then, slowly, the stiffness in his face began to ease. "It's been a long time," he murmured.


"Too long, I think." Francesca took his hands and lifted him out of the chair. "Come."


* * *

Quite some time later, as he stared at the ceiling of the bedroom, the man's face had lost all of its customary sternness. "I haven't felt this good in years."


"Not so old as all that, eh?" She lifted herself on one elbow and smiled down at him, running her hand across his wide chest.


He rolled his head on the pillow and met her gaze. "What do you want from me, Francesca?"


"I want you to think about the future, for a change. That's all, Lodovico. Your grand-daughter is my best friend. Your—obsessions—are not good. Neither for her nor for you."


For a moment, the old man's face grew fierce. Then, he chuckled. "I make no promises. But . . . yes, I'll think about it."


"You'll do more than think about it, you old vendettist!" Francesca laughed. "If you've got any coins to spend, I'll expect you to spend them on me. I dare say I'm a lot more capable at what I do than those incompetent assassins and spies you've been wasting your money on."


He grimaced. "True enough. And what else?"


She studied him for a moment. "Does there need to be anything else, Lodovico? Your company has been quite a pleasure, I assure you. It's not often I meet a man who understands—or cares—how a woman's body works."


"There's always something else, Francesca." He placed a hand on hers and gave it a little squeeze. "That's not intended as an insult. I sometimes think courtesans are less predatory than anyone. But there's always something else."


"As you say: 'true enough.' " She sat up in the bed. "I've decided I love Venice, Lodovico. And when something I love is threatened by enemies, I believe in taking steps."


"Well said!" he growled. A moment later, he was sitting up beside her. "Tell me what you know. If there's a threat—" The growl became a rumble, as if an old lion was awakening.


"There's your 'what else,' Lodovico," she whispered, placing a hand back on that great wide chest and giving it a caress. "There's still a lot of muscle there, you know?"


 


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