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Chapter 51

"It smells like a trap, that's for sure," Erik said to Manfred, as they strode along the loggia. "Maybe Sachs is right."


Manfred felt his broadsword. "If it is, they'll regret it."


Erik looked at the abundant cover of the loggia. "If they don't shoot us from a distance. But why us? I mean, we never introduced ourselves to that Signori di Notte, that one time we met him when the coiner got burned. But that message was specifically for us. Sealed with what the doorman assured me is the signet of Lord Calenti."


Manfred shrugged. "Search me," he said. "You might as well ask me 'why here?' At least it's daytime and there are a lot of people around this Accademia place. Too many with books if you ask me . . ."


"You're a fraud, Manfred. You were so busy reading in that embassy library, you didn't even hear me come in."


Manfred grinned. "My father's duniwasals say it's a sissy accomplishment. I don't think they wanted me to read or cipher or tally, so they can skive out of paying their hearth-loyalties. But with Francesca being a walking library I've had to do some reading up, or look a buffoon. It's not so bad now that I don't have some damned whiny tutor rabbiting at me about it. Where do we go now?"


"Through there, I think."


They walked through into a courtyard and then across to the described door.


Erik loosened his broadsword and checked the hatchet under the small round buckler strapped to his right forearm. Being left-handed had its negative points, but in combat it did have the advantage of discomfitting his enemies. Harder for them to deal with. It gave him an edge.


He pushed the door open fast. . . .


It was a pleasant enough chamber. And Lord Calenti did not appear to be waiting in ambush. He was perusing a huge pile of papers instead, very much alone, unless someone was balancing on the window frame behind these draperies. The Venetian was very grave-looking however, when he looked up to see who had thrust his door open. "Ah. Come in."


He stood up. "Gentlemen, I owe you an apology. I have come to realize that this treason nearly had the Knights . . . and myself . . . as unwitting dupes. Accounts are a more powerful tool than all the spies in the world. Now, about the incident at the House of the Red Cat . . ."


He paused. "I . . . I . . . My God . . . Luc . . ." His eyes bulged and he screamed. The hair on Erik's neck stood up. It was the same terrible shriek they'd heard on the night that Father Maggiore had been killed. He heard the hiss of Manfred's broadsword being drawn. He didn't even know how his own came to be in his hand.


"Reverse the blade!" yelled Manfred. "A crucifix!"


Erik did it. He began to walk forward. It was like pushing against the tide . . . the air seemed to be full of carillons of bells, all discordant. Sparks leaped and hissed from the steel. The words of the Lord's Prayer came instinctively to his lips.


To his right, Erik could see Manfred advancing also. Lord Calenti was tearing at his clothes; his face was contorted into the same terrible rictus of a smile they had seen on Father Maggiore. The flames and the cruel, vicious laughter began together with a maelstrom wind that plucked the papers up in a snowstorm. The velvet-seated chair skittered across the room; the writing table was hurled at them. It all stopped just short.


And still they continued to advance. A glance showed that Manfred's steel armor was almost purple with the sheen of crackling lightning. So was his own, Erik realized. The discordant bells were coming to a cracked and furious crescendo. He could scarcely hear his own chanting. They dropped to their knees on either side of the naked and burning man . . .


And there was silence. Blessed silence. And the flames died as if they'd never been . . . except for the ruin they'd left behind. Then Lord Calenti began to scream. It was a healthy, joyful sound, comparatively. It was merely the scream of a badly burned human in extreme pain.


At this point, Erik realized that they had an enormous audience. Students were peering in at the window, crowding in through the door. Awestruck and horrified faces gaped at them.


"Call a doctor!" yelled Erik at the crowd. "We need a chirurgeon here, fast!"


A man pushed his way forward through the crowd. Unlike most of the gaping young watchers, he was weather-beaten and wrinkled. He joined the knights at the side of the now moaning Lord Calenti, who was curled up in a fetal position on the floor of the ruined salon. The crowd was pressing forward, threatening to overwhelm them. Manfred got to his feet. "Back!" he shouted. "All of you out of here! Out!"


His bull-like bellows were accompanied by sharp swats with the flat of his broadsword, first on heads and then on behinds. So he was obeyed. Obeyed with alacrity—the fact that Manfred was able to wield that huge and deadly weapon in such a light and casual manner, causing no more damage that a schoolmistress with a switch, was even more frightening than the great blade itself.


"And fetch us a priest!" he bellowed after the retreating students. "We may need one."


Erik had stayed with the lean, wrinkle-faced man who was gently examining Lord Calenti. "Will he live?" he asked quietly, surveying the burned, whimpering man.


The weather-beaten man shrugged. "Might do. Might not. He'll need skilled nursing, and lots of fluids. He's going to be terribly disfigured even if he does live. Hell on a man who thought of himself as the ladies' delight. But I think you saved his soul. He should be grateful for that at least, even if he dies. It was devouring him. Here. Help me with these."


From a battered pouch at his waist he produced two poultices of neatly folded leaves, thick with some unguent. "I was taking these to someone else. Treatment for healing skin, not fresh burns, so they're not ideal, but they'll do. They'll sooth and keep the infection out of his face."


They were in the final stages of applying them to Lord Calenti's ruined face when a man in an elegantly tailored cardinal's red, with beautifully coiffured hair burst into the room. Despite the horror of the scene, the bishop's eyes were first drawn to the healer. His eyes grew as wide as saucers.


"Marina!" he choked. "What—what are you doing here? You've been gone for—I thought they said there was a doctor with him!"


The lean, weather-beaten man stood up, dislike written loud on his features. "And I thought they'd gone to fetch a priest, Bishop Capuletti, not a scavenger. I learned a thing or two about healing on my pilgrimage, and I was on hand. But I've done what I can. Get one of the Accademia's cadaver-masters if you prefer. I'm out of here. I don't like the smell—and I don't mean that of burnt flesh and parchment."


The bishop merely snorted dismissively as the weather-beaten man left. When he'd gone, he turned to the knights. "Pilgrimage, my foot! More likely, that Luciano Marina went to learn the dark arts from the devil himself. Now. One of you had better go and fetch a doctor, and the other find someone to send for the other Signori di Notte. And get me someone to tidy this room." He looked at the confetti confusion of parchment. "Might as well throw this lot away."


Erik shook his head. "I'm sorry, Monsignor. I think we should stay with him. Whatever attacked him may come back."


The bishop patted his crucifix-hung chain. "I will deal with it. I am, in case you cannot see, your superior in the Church."


Erik shook his head again. "Dealing with this magic requires steel, Monsignor. Not just holiness."


"So—as he is going to live and we don't need your priestly services, why don't you trot off to do the errands," said Manfred, with all the arrogance of an nineteen-year-old prince crammed into his voice. Because of Manfred's size and the fact that he'd seen a lot, Erik tended to forget his age. Sometimes however, like now, it showed.


The bishop goggled, his ever-so-white face suffusing with choler.


Erik thought he'd better intervene. "That's enough, Manfred! Go and bellow for someone at the door. I'll collect these papers. Lord Calenti seemed to ascribe some importance to them. Perhaps they'll mean something to one of the other Signori di Notte."


Bishop Capuletti sniffed. "They're just bills of lading and accounts from the bankers at the Rialto bridge," he said, in voice like iced vinegar. He deliberately ground one underfoot.


Erik calmly picked it up and smoothed it. It was indeed nothing more than a partly burned bill of lading. A spice-cargo from Acre. It seemed to be innocuous enough. Loading. Unloading. Damages. Signed by the captain and bearing official looking seals. The bishop snatched at it. Erik held it away.


* * *

Manfred watched as Erik lifted the piece of paper out of the portly bishop's reach. He'd known Erik for the better part of eight months now, and he knew the danger signals. He'd better be ready to intervene. Erik was easygoing and rational a lot of time. Hard to anger. But the Icelander had a rigid code of right and wrong—and the bishop had overstepped it. Erik would not let little things like the future stand in his way.


"A man has nearly died for what is contained in these pieces of paper." Erik's voice was absolutely level, utterly expressionless. "You will treat them with respect." Erik's gray-blue eyes bored into the red-clad prelate with an implacable stare. That look would have sent a ravening lion creeping off quietly to its lair.


The bishop, about to make some stinging comment, looked into those eyes. He shut his mouth. Raised his hands pacifically without even thinking about it.


Seeing Bishop Capuletti wilt, Manfred relaxed. Manfred knew himself to be much quicker to anger. But Erik, when he finally got angry, didn't cool easily. The famous Norse fury of ancient times didn't lurk all that far beneath the civilized and pious surface.


Relief in the shape of a doctor and a worried-looking Schiopettieri arrived.


"Ah! Father Belgio!" squeaked the prelate. "As you are both an ordained priest and a doctor, er . . . I think I'd better go and confer with the Accademia authorities." He left hastily, without his dignity—but with his head.


Manfred turned his attention to the doctor-priest. The Schiopettieri had taken one horrified look, a second to confirm just who the burned man was, and had followed the bishop's example of a hasty exit. Hopefully he was going to call someone more senior. The doctor, on the other hand, had knelt by the fetal-ball of burned man. He looked at the poultices.


"Where did these come from?"


"A weathered and wrinkled fellow called . . . Marina, apparently," Erik answered. "Your bishop didn't like him much. Do we take them off?"


The doctor-priest shook his head. "No. I wonder if he knows what he is dealing with? Someone . . . a woman . . . has imbued those with a great healing and soothing power. I sense the work of one of the neutrals . . . one of the ancient nature spirits about them. They may do more good than I can. Now. This man has been spiritually attacked as well as physically hurt. The physical hurt is great, but the spiritual hurt is greater. His life is like a guttering candle flame. This not a consecrated place, so we will need circles of exclusion and the evocation of guardians to secure and defend him. Are either of you skilled in the working of magic?"


Both Erik and Manfred hastily shook their heads.


The doctor-priest sighed; shook his head. The gesture seemed one of slight puzzlement. "Your auras . . . Never mind. Take these."


He dug into his bag and came up with a censer, salt, and a bottle of water. He hesitated a moment. "Water. Yes." He looked carefully at Erik. "Water. There is much latent force in you." He turned on Manfred. "And you can take the salt. It is . . . right. Neither of you must ever take fire or air." The enigmatic doctor-priest then placed candlesticks around the Venetian lord.


"Fiat lux!" The doctor-priest's voice, so gentle a few moments before, now commanded.


And there was light. The censer in his hand began to smoke.


"Let that which cannot abide, depart! In the name of Jesus, in the name of the Holy Spirit . . ."


He led them, praying, in the ninefold circle . . . of smoke, sprinkled salt, and water.


Then, when that was done and they were enclosed in a wall of smoke, they went to work under the doctor-priest's direction. First unguent, then poultices and then, as gently as possible, they rolled Calenti onto a blanket the doctor-priest had brought. As they worked the priest led them through various psalms.


Father Belgio called on names of power, evoking guardianship and protection on the burned lord. Then he led them in thanking and dismissing the Guardians and the wall of shifting smoke was gone . . . to reveal Abbot Sachs, Sister Ursula, several knights, and three people who were obviously Venetian nobility. All of whom wore expressions of irritation, worry, and perplexity in varying degrees.


"What in Heaven's name have you been doing in there?" demanded Sachs.


"God's work, brother," answered Father Belgio tranquilly. "Lord Calenti can be moved now. It is God's will that he should live, at least for now. And these brave knights saw to it that he was spared."


"But what were you doing?" demanded Sister Ursula. "We tried to reach you, to break in, but to no avail! Abbot Sachs and I are two of the most skilled practitioners of Christian magic in the Servants of the Holy Trinity!"


Father Belgio smiled tiredly. "I am a simple healer, and one whose gift it is to be sensitive to certain occult forces. A minor magician only." He looked at Erik and Manfred. "I can only think that some of the primitive nature forces lent their aid. They are capricious . . . And I am exhausted. Can some stout fellows be called to carry poor Lord Calenti to the chapel? I think it best that he be nursed there."


"Will he live?" demanded Ursula. She shuddered. "Burns are dreadful. I fear them." Manfred noticed that the nun's hands were balled into such tight fists that her knuckles were strained white. She looked ready to faint. It was the first time he'd seen the ice-woman display as much as a trace of any emotion.


Belgio nodded. "If it is God's will."


"We will accompany him to the chapel and pray. It was surely the hand of the Lord and his apostle Paul that brought the Knights of Holy Trinity here today," said Sachs.


"Actually, it was that letter from Lord Calenti, Abbot. The one you thought was a trap," said Erik, yawning.


"It is still God's work," insisted Sachs.


Manfred found himself yawning in sympathy. He suddenly felt drained.


Two sturdy-looking Schiopettieri took up the corners of the blanket and lifted Lord Calenti. He whimpered faintly. One of the worried looking Venetian noblemen cleared his throat. "May we talk to you about it?"


Manfred looked at Erik. The Icelander showed no signs of following the procession. "What do you say, Erik? A glass of wine would be nice."


Erik swayed slightly. "Some of that grappa might be even better."


Two of the Venetians looked a trifle taken aback. The third, a shorter balding man who was considerably younger than the others, smiled. "Why not? Lord Calenti is in good hands. There does not appear to be anything further to do here. Let us go and sit these good knights down, give them a well-earned glass and see what they have to say."


* * *

An alarm bell rang in Erik's head. Nothing more to do here? He looked hastily around the salon. Someone had righted the desk and taken away the smashed chair. They'd also taken away the laboriously gathered partially burned bills of lading and accounts from the bankers. Only two or three badly burned fragments, which must have been within the circle, still lay on the floor.


"Do you know what happened to the bills that were here? A whole stack of them? In that corner?"


The three shook their heads. "They will doubtless have been taken somewhere for safekeeping," said one, as Manfred gathered up the three remaining fragments.


"Not just thrown away?"


The balding, slightly plump man laughed. "In Venice! Never. We are a republic of traders. And that means records. Half the reason we make a profit out of you northerners is poor bookkeeping on your part. Come. There is a tavern just around the corner. Zianetti's. I remember it well!"


They walked to the tavern past knots of worried, peering students. In silence, except for the bald-headed nobleman quietly informing Erik and Manfred that he was Petro Dorma. He did not mention the names of the other two Venetian lords.


Inside Zianetti's, Dorma secured a room at the back. Once everyone was seated, he poured the strong Italian brandy which was already on the table.


"Now," said oldest of the three. "Tell us what happened."


Erik shrugged. "The doorman at the Imperial embassy received a note from a runner. The note was sealed with Lord Calenti's official seal. It was addressed to us, by name, but it was taken to Abbot Sachs who was meeting with the knight-proctors. They called us in."


"I expected them to haul us over the coals, like we were bad children," said Manfred with a grin.


"The abbot told me to open the letter and read it to the assembled proctors," said Erik, managing not to smile at Manfred's accurate assessment. "Lord Calenti asked us, and only the two of us, to please come to his rooms here before Sext. He said it was of greatest importance. Since it was then well past Terce, we left immediately, on the abbot's instruction. A party of knights followed some ways behind us, so as not to frighten anyone who might be attempting an ambush."


Manfred shrugged. "It looks as if someone tried to kill him before he spoke to the Knights."


"All he did manage to say to us was that he'd uncovered treason that almost had the Knights—and himself—as unwitting dupes. And that accounts are a more powerful tool than all the spies in the world. Then he started to say something about the incident at the House of the Red Cat, but the attack came before he got out more than a few words."


The three looked startled, obviously recognizing the name of the bordello. So Erik had to recount that episode. He edited it, cutting Francesca's part out entirely. He could still feel his face glowing despite that.


"Well, we can find out where those orders came from," said the eldest. He was plainly familiar with the near-dockyard bordello, which led Erik to suspect that he was—or had been—an officer of the Venetian fleet. Probably an admiral, judging from the man's easy assumption of authority. The main clientele of the House of the Red Cat were naval officers; common seamen frequented less expensive brothels.


"And I'll talk to Doge Foscari," said the second nobleman. "At least we know the Knights are not part of this conspiracy."


"I'm going to try to track down these accounts," announced the bald-headed Dorma. "Any idea what they're about?"


Erik shook his head. "I only saw one. A bill of lading. A cargo of various spices, and the damages."


"And there are these pieces," Manfred handed over the pitiful scraps of burned parchment. "I can't make anything of them."


Dorma examined them. "It's a tally of punched ducats being released to merchants in payment for goods. Probably a copy. I'll try to track down the original, but there are thousands of pages to go through. Unless I know where to start . . ."


The second one was a list of punched ducats exchanged for the whole ducats used in the city. Had been a list, at any rate. What was left of it contained only the names of two merchant houses, with no amounts surviving, and a third amount—with the name itself no longer readable.


The third scrap was simply a Capi di Contrada seal on a piece of paper.


The three signori thanked Manfred and Erik and left them to finish their drinks. Manfred chugged his and called for a second. Erik sat sipping. "Well. I owe you an apology. I heard the bells this time. Not very musical, are they?"


Manfred scowled. "You said it was inside my head after I was flung away onto that flimsy chair. You know they complained to me about breaking that chair? Ha. And I could have saved that whiny old Servant of the Trinity as well. Only that force seemed much stronger."


Erik smiled. "There were two of us this time. Come on. Drink up. Time we got back."


Manfred shrugged. "They'll never notice if we don't. Erik, I've a need to accumulate a few sins to confess."


Erik shook his head, hiding a reluctant smile behind his hand. "Get up, before I turf you off the bench."


They were crossing the campo, under the eyes of the bunches of students still buzzing with hushed talk, when a woman came running up to them.


People, Erik had noticed—particularly the Venetians—tended to avoid the Knights. That was hardly surprising. The likes of Von Stublau were likely to knock anyone who got in their way into the nearest canal. So a young woman running up to them was something of a surprise. To judge by Manfred's expression—even if by her dress she was a serving-maid—it was a welcome change. She was pretty enough.


She curtseyed hastily, nearly dropping the bundle she bore. "Pardon your honors, the students says you are the ones who saved M'lord Calenti?"


Manfred bowed. "We are, signorina."


"Ooh! From demons seventeen feet tall with horns and lots of teeth! And dancing naked witches with six breasts—like dogs. And I heard the whole building was destroyed and Legions of Cherubim, not that I understand why fat baby angels can fight well, but Father Pietro always tells us they do. Then there were those with trumpets and the whole city shook. And the winged lion itself stirred in the piazza. And there was a rain of blood—" Her eyes sparkled, as she tilted her head, quizzical for more juicy details.


Even Manfred was gobstopped. "Er. No . . . It wasn't quite like that. . . ."


Well, if they weren't going to oblige, she'd help out. "And poor Lord Calenti, him so handsome and all, he fought like a tiger before he got so burned by the devils. They burned the clothes right off his back, with their pitchforks and I don't know why they say that because surely it must have got the clothes in the front, but that would have got his privates, or at least showed his smalls and he has such elegant knitted smalls." She giggled coyly. "Not that a girl like me would know anything about that."


"Er," Erik began.


That was quite enough interruption. "So when Signora Elena said she needed someone to take m'lord his best nightshirt, because he was too sick to move, and Silvia and Maria were both too scared to come for fear of demons, and all the boys at the Accademia ogling them, and I don't know why because Maria's been walking out with that rough Samarro boy—and what's a few noble students compared to that?—I said I would take it. Only then Signora couldn't find it and I've had to bring him his second best and it hasn't got nearly such nice embroidery, and now I don't know where to find him, and none of these students want to tell me."


They probably couldn't get a word in edgeways, thought Erik. "The chapel," he said, hastily, pointing.


"Thank your honors," she said, curtseying again. Then, peering at Manfred, "You're awfully handsome, your honor. And so big, too." Squeaking and giggling at her own temerity, she scuttled off towards the chapel.


* * *

"It's not that funny." Manfred shook his head at Erik, whose steel armor—proof against great dark magics—was in danger of being shaken apart internally.


Erik snorted, his shoulders still shaking. "You fancied her and she fancied you. I don't see the problem. Just the girl for you to take home to your mother."


Manfred raised his eyes to heaven. "Hah. Funny, funny. Icelander sense of humor. Cowpat in the face."


"That's Vinlanders'," grinned Erik. In the aftermath of the terrible encounter, and with the grappa burning in his veins, he was feeling unusually silly. "Icelanders are more likely to put sheep droppings in your stew."


"Huh. I'll watch out for 'olives' in ragout while you're arou—" Manfred stopped suddenly.


His face had gone serious. "Erik, that's the third victim that we know of that had just lost a piece of clothing. Remember old Maggiore was complaining about his cassock. And that coiner's housekeeper and his favorite cap. And now a nightshirt."


Erik's felt the blood drain from his face. "I've heard of this. Mammets with the victim's hair and clothing . . . We better tell Sachs."


Manfred pulled a wry face. "If we can persuade him to listen."


Erik shrugged and began to walk on. "If not, we can perhaps get Calenti to give us a lead on who could have got hold of one of his nightshirts."


"Do you think he's going to live?" asked Manfred. "Those are major burns."


Erik nodded. "He'll live. Just as long as he is in the care of that priest. He's a good healer, that man."


 


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