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Chapter 54

The rain was hissing down on the water. At a time when all sensible canal people—anyone with any sense at all—were indoors in front of a fire, maybe with a nice hot glass of mulled wine, Maria was out in the wet. But . . . things were rather tense between her and Caesare, right now. And he'd asked her to do this especially. And she really wanted to show him that she did love him. The last two weeks had been horrible. Left her sick to her stomach with a mixed mess of emotions.

He'd been so hurt when she had accused him. That hair might have blown in the window or something. Didn't she trust him? And, then, he'd been loving and attentive once he'd gotten over being distant and hurt.

She was still suspicious. But . . . she loved him. How could she let him go? So here she was getting soaked to the skin. She must be the only person on the water right now.

But, no. There was another gondola on the canal. As it went by without so much as a greeting from the other paddler, Maria realized that she knew her. That wasn't really surprising—she knew most of the boat people. And if anyone would be out in the half dark and rain, it would be "the Spook."

Maria was grateful, at least, that her destination wasn't all the way out to Guidecca to drop letters with Captain Della Tomasso this time. Tonight her rendezvous was comparatively close. Too close to the Casa Dandelo and the reek of its warehouses for comfort. You could smell the slaves even in the clean rain-washed air.

She pulled into the little landing. Good. There was no one around yet. She must be early. She shivered. She moved down off the stern to the duck-boards and sat down, huddled against the gunwale.

Someone loomed suddenly through the rainy darkness.

"Well, let's have it," grumbled Maria. "I'm wet and cold and I want to get home."

And then someone else jumped onto the stern behind her.

Maria stood up hastily, reaching for her knife. "Hey! Figlio . . ." Bright lights and stars exploded in her skull. But not before she'd seen that it had been Luciano Matteoni jumping onto the stern of the boat.

* * *

When she awoke it was to the betraying stench of the Casa Dandelo. But all she wanted to do was to be sick and pray the pain in her head stopped. Once she'd cast up everything that was inside her onto the rotten straw, blessed oblivion came again.

When she gradually awoke again . . . naked, cold, still sore, lying on the filthy straw a scant few inches from her own vomit . . .  she was leg-shackled too. It was then that the true horror of situation dawned on her.

Casa Dandelo.

Slave traders.

Officially, they were not permitted to touch hide nor hair of Venetian citizens. Officially, their "cargo" was checked. The poor of Venice knew the truth: the Doge and the Case Vecchie turned a blind eye. The Dandelos took what they could and if the slave might complain to the Capi di Contrada signing the cargo outbound on ship . . . they took out the tongue that might wag. Or beat the victim senseless. Either way, the Dandelos never released any of those who found their way into their clutches. They brought a lot of money into Venice, and Venice looked the other way. After all, it was only the poor and unwanted who ended up in their clutches. The Dandelos didn't want a fuss. As far as the officials of Venice were concerned, their depredations were nearly the equivalent of "human garbage" collection. So long as it stayed that way, the Council of Ten and the Signori di Notte left them to it.

So: who would notice if she was gone? Well, Caesare would be waiting for his message. He'd panic.

A short, dark-visaged, thick-bodied man looked in at her. Instinct made her cover her nakedness. But this man wasn't interested. You could see it in his look. Merchandise. She was no more appealing to him than a bale of cotton would be. Calm now. Try to talk your way out. "Let me out. I've got friends with contacts. Ricardo Brunelli . . ."

The slaver grave a sardonic snort. "You wouldn't believe how many cousins of the Doge go through here. Anyway, the party wanted to know when you were awake." He turned and walked off.

"Can I have some water?" Maria called after him.

"If the man says so."

She was left to her fears. The minutes passed slowly.

The man who now entered walked like a cat. He was very like Caesare in that way. "I've got some questions for you about Caesare Aldanto. I will get answers. If I get good enough answers you'll go free."

And Caesare would die. "You can burn in hell, figlio di una puttana."

His hand twitched. "You are lucky there are bars between us woman," he snarled. "Any more lip from you and I'll see that you end up as a whore in Aleppo, servicing a hundred fresh-from-the-desert rancid camel drivers a night. You think you're tough. You might last a year."

She spat at him.

He wiped the spittle away from his face. "It seems you need to think about it. Let's see how well you spit after a day of being dry."

* * *

Tonio's whistle woke Marco. Sick child. Must be very sick to call Marco out of bed. Marco seemed to be suffering from a lack of sleep these days. He'd been to see Rafael the night before. He'd been for another private meeting with Milord Petro Dorma last night. He liked the balding, chubby, perpetually worried-looking Petro. He also got the feeling that, although Dorma would be funding his studies at the Accademia, Petro was using him as a window into the world of the tradesmen and canalers.

Again, Tonio whistled. Louder. Eyes bleary, Marco fumbled about, dragging on clothes. By the lack of light coming in through the shutter crack it was very early.

Tonio whistled again; louder still. He'd have the whole neighborhood awake in a minute. Benito thrust open the shutters. "He's coming," he said crossly to the boatman below on the dark water.

Tonio beckoned. "You too," he said.

The two of them, both more-or-less dressed, legged down the dark stairs.

"Who is sick?" demanded Marco, his herb bag in hand. His eyes were still half focused. It was still half dark.

Tonio pointed to the gondola attached to his vessel by a rope. "Couple of the night fishermen picked it up on the tide-wash. They brought it to us."

Marco recognized the boat now. Maria's. A terrible sinking feeling hit his gut.


Tonio shrugged. "Maybe she fell overboard."

"Get real, Tonio!" snapped Benito. "Maria wouldn't even know how to fall off a boat, any more than you do. She was born on one."

Tonio shrugged. "Accidents happen," he said grimly. "Sometimes people help them to happen. You'd better go tell that fancy-man sellsword of hers." There was disapproval in the canaler's voice.

Benito took a deep breath. "Yeah. We'd better."

Caesare took it with a rigid face, allowing not one trace of emotion to show. "She'll be at the bottom of a canal with weights on her feet, I'm afraid. I should never have let her go out last night, in that rain. But she said they were relying on her. She said she'd overnight at Murano, if the rain got worse. I didn't worry too much . . ."

He shook his head, regretfully. "Leave me alone, please. I need some time."

"Sure, Caesare," said Benito quietly.

"Can I bring you a glass of wine, Caesare?" asked Marco.

Caesare smiled wanly. "No. Just leave me alone, please."

Benito and Marco went downstairs again. Marco found the emptiness and helplessness hard to bear. Benito snuffled slightly. It was a long quiet morning. Neither of them had it in themselves to go to work. Caesare had not come down, but they felt they should be on hand, perhaps . . .

The bells had just rung Sext when Marco decided he'd had enough. "Benito, I'm going across to Rafael."

"I'll tag along, if that's all right."

Marco understood the feeling. He didn't really like the idea of Benito being out and about and maybe in danger either.

* * *

"You're sure she's dead?" asked Rafael

Marco shrugged. "How can we be sure? But what else? They found her vessel, not her."

Rafael pursed his lips; looked at them thoughtfully for a while. "I do know someone who might be able to tell you if she's alive or dead. It is a little magical skill that he has. Do you have any of her clothing?"

Marco shook his head. Benito fished in his pockets. "Scarf she's been wearing?" he asked, pulling it out.

"That should work. Come on. He's over at the Marciana Library this morning."

* * *

Luciano looked up from the book he'd been peering at. The ink was old and fading. His eyes were tired. And there coming toward him was a sight for sore eyes: Rafael de Tomaso and Marco and Marco's brother. Well, it was time he made formal contact. He looked back among the stacks. There was Harrow. The boy was still protected.

* * *

Here, in between the books, he felt safe. Walking out to see Rafael, Marco had felt naked . . . as if they might be the next victims. Because he was utterly certain Maria hadn't disappeared by accident.

Still, he'd nearly fallen over his own jaw when Rafael brought them face-to-face with Chiano. Chiano wearing a fine cloak, and now calling himself Dottore Luciano Marina—but still unmistakably Chiano.

"Hello, Marco," his Jesolo guardian said with a smile.

It was Rafael's turn to look dumbfounded. "You know each other?"

For an answer, Marco embraced Luciano. "Better than you could dream, Rafael. And Sophia?" he asked. Seeing Luciano brought it back to him. He'd been forgetting a debt. He longed to see her, especially right now.

"She's still in the marshes, boy. Won't leave. Says it it's where she belongs, now. I went to see her a few days back. Misses you. You were always better with her medicines and potions than I was. So—what brings you here? I am delighted to see you, of course, but you came looking for me."

They explained.

Luciano looked grim. "The town is awash with trouble. Give me that scarf." He stretched both hands out, palms up.

Benito laid the scarf across them.

They waited.

Luciano shuddered briefly.

Took a deep breath.

"She is alive," he said slowly. "Hush. This is a library!"

"Sorry. We're just relieved."

"Don't be," said Luciano grimly. "All I can tell further is that she is a prisoner, and surrounded by water."

Benito took a deep breath himself. "Right! Well, we'll get a search organized. I'll get back to Caesare and have a word with all the runners. Marco, you could maybe get hold of Tonio. Get the canalers to look for anything."

Rafael smiled. "Your little brother's quite an organizer, Marco."

Marco took Luciano's hands. "Thank you, old friend. We'll find her. And even if she is in danger—we have friends." Turning to Rafael he smiled. "You don't want to try living with Benito, Rafael. He organizes himself out of all the bad chores. But Maria's important to him. She's important to me too, but Benito thinks the world of her, though he won't admit it. Anyway, I must go. Thank you both from the bottom of my heart."

* * *

Maria knew every detail of her cell by now. There wasn't much to learn. Three cubits by six, rusty iron bar-gate, and stone floor and walls. On the floor, moldy straw. On the walls, prayers and curses written in what could only be excrement. This was just one of some ten cells on this level. Solitary confinement for troublemakers and "specials," according to her neighbor. He claimed to be a wealthy cargo-master from Sicily, who had missed his ship and got himself into one bar brawl too many. He'd been mugged, robbed of everything but his breeches—and now these porco cane had taken even those.

There was no water. No place or container to relieve herself in. And a jailor who threatened to beat the pair of them if she spoke to her neighbor again. It wasn't worth it.

God, she was thirsty. And . . . eventually she had to use one of the corners of the cell. No wonder this place stank.

* * *

"How sure can you be of this, Marco?" asked Caesare. "I mean, as I said to Benito, these charlatans prey on the fact that it's hard to accept that someone you love is dead."

"He's no charlatan," said Marco, quietly. "He's the man who kept me alive in the marshes. I know you don't want to start hoping, Caesare. But he's a real magician. If he says she's alive, then she is."

Caesare stood up. "Then we'd better look for her. I'll get word out to some of my contacts. I'd better see Giaccomo. She did a lot of work for him."

Benito could be heard panting up the stairs. He was hot, tired, and enthusiastic. "I got her cousin Luigi and Fredrico. The Arsenalotti will be looking for her too. And I stopped by and woke up Claudia and Valentina. Once they'd gotten over it, they started to look too. We'll have everybody but the Schiopettieri out looking for her."

Marco smiled. It was best to be able to do something. "Well, now that you're back, you can go out again. Stick with Caesare, Benito. He's going to get to his contacts—but he might be the reason someone snatched Maria. I'm going to see if I can get Tonio to take me around to some of my 'patients.' I can get the bargees and boat-people looking too."

Benito stood up from the chair he'd flopped into. "Well, the other thing you could try is to stop by and see Kat. She's that 'Spook' I told you about. She has some contacts in among the Strega, I think. I was going to, but I'll be with Caesare. If you get a chance, go to Campo San Felice between seven and half past. She always wears a hooded cloak and she's got a shabby gondola. Anyway, just ask if her name is Kat and tell her you're my brother. Stick with Tonio if you can, Brother. I'm nervous about you being alone out there."

"I'll probably have my shadow, anyway."

"That you will," said Caesare grimly. "I don't want anyone on my back trail on this venture. You go out first."

They went their various ways. By the late afternoon, it seemed as if half of Venice was looking for Maria.

* * *

Maria was sitting in the one place that no one could go looking. And she didn't know for sure that anyone was looking for her.

"Are you ready to talk yet, sweetie?" asked her persecutor from the night before. The light was better now and she could see him clearly. She took in the details of his heavy-set face and his dress. He wore well-to-do merchant clothes. And, unlike the slave-warder's disinterest, his eyes roamed her naked body with an unpleasant eagerness.

He turned to the warder. "Take her out of there. Give her a smock and put her in the 'interview' room. We'll have some wine and some food."

Maria behaved herself when the slave-warder let her out. She was quiet and submissive, putting on the slave-smock when she was told to. She knew that this wasn't the time to try anything. She hobbled her shackled way along to a room off the passage.

The room was bare. Except for two chairs and a small table. "Sit." There was a mug of wine and a plate of pasta on the table.

She sat. He sat down across from her.

"Taste your wine."

The devil will let me have a sip and then take it away from me, she thought. She took the mug and drained it. It was cheap raw strong red wine. And there was a lot of it.

"That was stupid, but predictable," said her interrogator, with a horrible smugness. "That was a lot of wine on an empty stomach. Which is what I wanted you to have, but I thought I'd have to persuade you. Now, I want answers. You might as well give them to me. Even if I have to take them out of you with pain, I'm going to get them. If I get them . . . I'll have them let you go."

The wine burned in her stomach. It might have been his intent to get her drunk, but it did lend her some courage. And heaven knew she needed it right now. Somehow his calmness was more unnerving than shouted threats. "How about some more of that wine?" she said with an assumption of casualness.

Without any warning he hit her. Hard. A stinging openhanded slap that rocked her head back. Maria tasted blood. Put her hand to her cheek. The speed and sheer violence of it left her huddling back in her seat with a little whimper of pain.

"Don't play games with me, bitch," he hissed. "You'll lose."


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