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Chapter 52

Maria stared at the two golden hairs in her work-calloused hand. She stared at them, not for the first time, or the third time, or the thirty-third time. It couldn't be true.

Both hairs came from Caesare's pillow. And they certainly weren't his—or hers.

They didn't even come from the same head! One was much coarser, yellower and had a dark root; the other finer and more wavy.

There had to be some other explanation. There had to be. Only . . . it was hard to work out what it was. Her heart and mind felt as if they were tearing each other apart. This wasn't the first time she'd been suspicious. But this was the first time she'd had hard evidence.

"Whatcha starin' at, Maria?" Benito had come in, unobserved. She had thought she had the place to herself. The little scamp had probably come in the third-story window. He'd have to give that up one day. He had turned fifteen over the winter and he wasn't so little any more.

Hastily she thrust her hand into her skirt pocket before Benito could see. "None of your business!" she snapped.

Benito looked hurt. "Hey, come on, Maria. You can trust me. I carried that 'cargo' to Giaccomo's for you, right? And I got a bloody nose from Jewel as well as my ribs nearly kicked in—and I still got it there for you. Not one lira missing."

She felt herself floundering. He wasn't a bad kid, really. She had to talk to someone. If she talked to one of the cousins . . . they'd try to kill Caesare. Benito—and Marco too—had proved themselves both trustworthy and honest. But Marco was so . . . so good, even if he was nearer her own age. Benito she could at least talk to, about this sort of thing. He was more worldly than Marco. Marco's interest in girls was real but so—innocent. Sending them love poems! On the other hand, she'd seen Benito doing some experiments in heavy kissing with one of the Sarispelli girls. Those two girls were heading one way. . . .

She took a deep breath and rushed her fences. "Benito, do you think Caesare could be seeing some other woman?"

He looked as if she'd just smacked him in the face with a wet fish. But only for a moment. "Na! There ain't no one in Venice as pretty as you."

She snorted and took a swing at him. She'd noticed that hesitation. But his reply still gave her a smile. "You were born to be hung, Benito. I ain't pretty! Now, according to that Sarispelli girl, if only you could kiss as sweet as you talk, you'd be inside the pants of every girl in town."

* * *

Benito felt himself blushing. He had thought that he didn't do that anymore. Still, she'd spotted that hesitation. Merda. Women didn't feel the same way about this as men did. Well, except for Marco. But Caesare just did what a real man did. Played the field. At the same time he also felt for Maria. She so wanted Caesare. But there was no way she'd keep him except as a part-time lover.

And the funny thing was that Maria Garavelli was pretty. She was more than just pretty. She was . . . Maria. Tough as nails. She had to be, as a woman alone, working small cargos on the canals. But there was a gentle side to her too. She really was quite something, compared to, say, Lisa Sarispelli who was only a year younger than Maria, but good only for kissing, and . . . well a bit of fumbling experimentation. Maria was worth ten of her. Maria was working so hard with her speech, and getting Marco to teach her to read now . . . All to try to raise herself up to Caesare's level. To keep him. Regretfully, Benito knew that there was just no way she could do it. Caesare . . . well, he and Marco owed him. But Benito could sense that Caesare had ambitions that went a long way beyond a canaler wife. It would all come apart one day. And Benito didn't want to be around when it happened. Best to try to lead off the subject.

"I'm workin' on the kissing," Benito said, with a shrug. "I mean, how's a fellow supposed to get better without getting some experience?"

Maria snorted. Benito noticed she was smiling, however. "Just be careful it don't end up with her up the spout or you with the French pox, 'Nito."

She walked off. When she was well gone, Benito exhaled. Long and slow. He'd better have a word with Caesare about this. Men had to stick together.

* * *

Maria was too preoccupied to be keeping a proper lookout. Normally this was what she did well. Nobody could sneak up on her. It was a lesson a woman learned quickly out on the water . . . or else. Especially on a foggy morning like this. She knew she wasn't looking out properly . . .

But Caesare's infidelity was preying on her mind. Should she confront him? Did she hope it was just a once-off? Just pretend it had never happened. So many times she'd said to herself: Just enjoy now. Don't even dream about tomorrow. Just be grateful for what you have got, now. He was so beautiful. So refined. She was just a canal girl. . . .

Something bumped into her boat. Maria nearly dropped her paddle and jumped overboard. To her relief it was only a hooded girl in an even shabbier gondola than her own.

"Idiot! Look where you're going!" snapped Maria.

The girl held up a hand apologetically. "Sorry. This fog. I misjudged the distance. I just wanted to ask you something."

Maria had placed her now. Working nights—as she did sometimes for Giaccomo's cargos—she'd seen her before. Also, lately, in the early mornings. She was the one the canalers called "the Spook." Someone who sculled a gondola like she was canal born and bred, but nobody knew her. She was nobody's family. Looking at that dress under the hooded cloak, Maria guessed it was because she wasn't anyone's family.

The dress was old, but had once been very good. Too good for canal. And word was out on the water that you stayed clear of her. Word was she had connections that could get you hurt. Strega. Maria tensed. She really didn't need any more trouble now.

"Yeah? What?" she asked warily. She can't be more than a year older than me, thought Maria. And I've got bigger shoulders. I could tip her into the water and hit her over the head with a paddle. In this fog, nobody'd be the wiser. Hear what it was she wanted and if it was trouble . . . In her heart of hearts she wondered if she could do it.

The girl smiled uneasily. "Well, um, you go to Giaccomo's quite a lot."

Here came trouble. Maria tensed. Nodded but didn't say anything. Messing with Giaccomo's cargos meant trouble. And you didn't cross Giaccomo.

The girl continued. "I'm looking for a party that goes there sometimes. Only . . . I don't want to go there myself. Could you give him a message from me?"

Maria relaxed, slightly. "Depends. Who?"

"Well, his name is Benito. He's a kid—about fifteen, maybe sixteen. Dark curly hair. Round face. He's a runner with Ventuccio."

Suspicion leapt into Maria's mind. Was this woman somehow tied to whoever had tried to kill Marco? With the mess their mother had been involved in? Could be. Could be! It would explain the oddities.

"Might know him. Why?"

Even in the fog, Maria could see that the other girl was blushing. "Just . . . wanted to see him. That's all," she said airily "He's . . . he's a friend of mine. I'll be around Campo San Felice between seven and half-past most nights."

Somehow Maria restrained the bubble of laughter. That Benito! She'd have to warn him to stay clear of this girl. "Yeah. I'll tell him. Who do I say? Benito's got so many girls chasing him he'll need a clue."

The girl shook her head. "He's a kid! I mean . . . um . . . just tell him Kat wants to see him. It's not about business or anything," she said hastily. "Just . . . want to ask him something."

"Uh huh. Kat who?" Benito wasn't that much of a kid.

The girl looked faintly alarmed and taken aback. "Just Kat. Er. Kat Felluci."

* * *

Kat was surprised to see the canaler's eyes narrow like that. Then she remembered. It had been all over the canals. What a stupid name to choose for herself . . . it had just come from silly daydreams and just not being able to come up with a different name on the spur of the moment. She flicked her oar and sent the gondola off into the fog to hide her burning face.

* * *

Caesare hadn't been in when Maria had rowed her reluctant way to the water-door. She still hadn't made up her mind what to do about Caesare, but she'd been bracing herself to meet him. So—of course—he wasn't there. Both Marco and Benito were, however.

It set her off-balance not having Caesare there. All day she'd been making up her mind just what to say to him. And then changing it. She hadn't even had time to wonder too much about the girl's choice of surname. It obviously wasn't hers. . . . It could be coincidence. It wasn't that rare a name. Or she might know Marco.

"Met one of your girlfriends today, Benito."

Benito looked suitably embarrassed. "Aw. She's not really that. She's just . . ."

"Someone to practice kissing on?" she teased. "I didn't know about this one. She's a big girl, too."

Benito looked startled. "Huh? Who?"

Maria gave a wry smile. "Kat. Or that is what she calls herself."

"Kat?" Benito looked puzzled.

"Wears a hood," said Maria, taking a glass of wine from Marco. He was considerate like that. "And works nights, mostly. Girl from a good family by the way she dresses."

Light dawned on Benito. "Oh, that Kat! She's no girlfriend of mine!" he added hastily.

Marco looked amused. "I didn't know you were into the petticoat-line yet, Benito."

Benito looked a little shamefaced about growing up, thought Maria. "Um. Well, Kat's no girlfriend of mine. I've just done some work for her."

Maria shook her head. "Word is out on the water that she ain't someone you should mix with, Benito. Trouble. Anyway, she said you could find her at Campo San Felice between seven and half-past most evenings."

"I know she's to be steered clear of now, but, well, I didn't know then," admitted Benito with shrug. "Valentina and Claudia both warned me off."

Marco's amusement had entirely drained away. "If they did that I hope you listened to them, and have stayed away from her?"

Benito looked uncomfortable. "I figured out she was the kind of girl you don't mess around with, but well, you know when I had that spot of bother with Jewel?"

"Uh huh."

"Well after that marsh-loco showed up and beat him to a pulp, I was running on, but kind of sore and a bit spooked. And there she was and she owed me a favor, maybe. So I got her to give me a lift to Giaccomo's. She knew exactly where the Schiopettieri were working."

Maria swallowed her wine. "That's scary in itself. And that explains why she's looking for you at Giaccomo's. Anyway, do you know when . . . Caesare will be back?" She was irritated at herself for allowing that hesitation and hurt to show in her voice when she mentioned his name.

"Won't be in tonight," said Benito.

Maria was proud of her casual tone this time around. "Oh. Well, I'm pooped. I'm going to catch some shut-eye. He didn't say where he was going, did he?"

Benito laughed. "He never does, Maria."

She nodded and headed up the stairs.

* * *

Benito did however know where he was meeting Caesare. He had work to do for him. He felt a little uncomfortable about the evasions. Caesare had said it was best to give her time to get over it. And Benito supposed he knew. But Maria, trying to keep the misery out of her voice when she said Caesare's name, made him feel uncomfortable. Even a little miserable himself.

"Benito, who is this 'Kat'?" asked Marco. "And what's bothering Maria?"

"Kat? Just a girl I know. Got the sharpest tongue in Venice. I ran into her by accident, brother, and I'm keeping clear of her. I'll stay away from Giaccomo's for the next while."

"And Maria?"

Benito shrugged his shoulders. "She's worried about competition."

Marco pinched his lips. "Oh." He sighed. "I don't know what to do about it, because we owe him. But it's not right, brother."

Benito shrugged again. "A man's got to do what a man's got to do, Marco. And it's not our affair, huh?"

Marco sighed again. "It's not right."

Benito felt uncomfortable—as he frequently did when Marco drew the moral line. "Yeah. Well, nothing we can do about it. It's kind of your fault, Marco." That was unfair and he knew it. Caesare had always played the field. Just that Angelina in the last few months had been somewhat "in-your-face" to Marco. But that too seemed to be tapering off. As if the sheer heat of it was burning it out. "Anyway, I've got to go out. I'll see you later," he said hastily.

* * *

"I don't trust you, Aldanto." He could see the swarthy, heavy-bodied man was ready to leap like a cat. Whether it was at Caesare's throat or away, Benito couldn't be certain.

By Caesare's posture, Benito could tell that he too was keyed up. Small movements betrayed him. Benito, hiding in the deep shadows, on the roof across the alley, prided himself that he'd learned well from Caesare. He could even read his mentor. But Caesare's voice was dead-steady. "The feeling is mutual, Francesco Aleri. But it's business."

"You are not welcome back."

Caesare snorted. "I'm not coming back. And if I happen to die, some very interesting information will be forwarded to Ricardo Brunelli."

It was the heavy-set Francesco's turn to snort. "You've got nothing. We've changed things since your time."

Back on the shadowy rooftop Benito squinted, trying to absorb the details of his face. So, the man was a Montagnard agent. Well, his official title was "Milanese Trade Ambassador-at-Large." Benito knew that from delivering the initial message to the man at the German hotel next to the Rialto.

There was a flash of teeth from Caesare. "Everything?" he asked slyly. "Even your sleepers?"

Aleri gave a short bark of laughter "You don't know who those are. You were never on that part of the operation."

"Ah, but on the other hand—Lorendana Valdosta was," purred Caesare. "Now, why don't we talk business. In there. You've got the Dandelos in your pocket."

The two walked into the small shrine and, to Benito's frustration, he could hear no more than the indistinct murmur of their voices, no matter how hard he strained his ears. It had been something of a shock to hear his mother's name. But obviously Caesare had gotten something useful out of Marco's careful writings. Well, he was glad they'd paid something back.

Minutes later, the two emerged and went their separate ways. Benito waited a good minute before slipping away like a ghost.

* * *

A good minute after that, Harrow moved. Marco was at least asleep, safe. But this younger boy! He was old Dell'este reborn, if rumors about the old duke were to be believed. Harrow found Benito's preference for roofs made him hard even for an experienced former-agent to track. Basically Harrow had to try to second-guess him. Either he was a good guesser or the Goddess was doing more than her fair share of intervention. He'd get lost in the alleyways and then catch sight of Benito . . . against all probability. Harrow had decided that if the Goddess wanted the boy followed she'd make sure he succeeded. Marco was easier. For this Harrow was devoutly grateful. But he was also glad he'd followed the younger boy tonight . . . first into the hotel and then to this rendezvous. Obviously, the Goddess had meant him to witness this. Obviously, also, Aldanto hadn't meant Benito to be here. But just from following him, Harrow knew that Benito wasn't good at doing what he was supposed to do.

This meeting was a worrying one. He'd been sure that a meeting between Aldanto and Aleri could only be short, sharp—and end with Aleri dead. In his former life as Fortunato Bespi he'd seen both men's swordsmanship. Aldanto had the edge. Aldanto was perhaps the best he'd ever seen. So: what was this all about? No good, he'd bet. Interesting to hear Lorendana Valdosta's name. It had nearly startled him into moving. That had to be the Goddess's hand again. She watched Montagnards too.


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