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Chapter 55

Marco loitered around the edge of the Campo San Felice. This was stupid. How was he supposed to recognize this "Kat"? He'd been here ten minutes now, and had seen two old men manhandling a barge, and a solitary gondola going past without stopping. It wasn't much of a description to go on. A shabby gondola and a woman wearing a hooded cloak. This was a depressing waste of time.


* * *

Kat was depressed. It had been just over two weeks since she'd run into that woman who said she'd pass a message on to Benito. Huh. Imagine thinking Benito was her lover! She'd been at the Campo San Felice dead on time every night, except last Wednesday. Finally, two days ago, she'd ventured into Giaccomo's. He wasn't there. And one of Giaccomo's flunkies had quietly asked her to leave.


It had been a quiet request. But it was backed up with a potential threat. Clearly enough, some people had grown suspicious of the cargoes carried by "the Spook," and Giaccomo didn't feel he needed the possible complications of having her on the premises.


She'd tried Barducci's also. Those two singers had simply given her the wall-eye when she'd asked after Benito. She'd left a message with them, but she was willing to bet he'd never get that message. The only option that was left now was to go into Ventuccio's and ask to speak to Marco Felluci. . . .


She'd give it a few more days, but she was certain that Benito wasn't going to be there. She'd seen that canaler-woman last night, her head bent against the rain. But, in that downpour, Kat couldn't really have asked if she'd seen Benito lately. Not really the right time for a chat—nor the right area for it, either. You seldom found anyone hanging around Casa Dandelo. Not that you weren't safe enough on the water, but still . . .


She sculled towards the Campo San Felice. She couldn't see anyone. But then last time she hadn't seen Benito either.


* * *

The sky held the last translucent skeins of vermilion cloud. The sun was gone and that first whisper of the night-breeze brought the sound of distant laughter with it. The zephyr had picked up the scent of the sea from over the barrier lidi. For a moment, it carried Marco away. Back to the time centuries ago when the first refugees from barbarian invaders had smelled that same breeze, and had seen, perhaps for the first time, the swampy Rialto islands not just as refuge but also as a place of beauty. Venice had been loved, was loved. As much as a place of bricks, mortar and marble facing, the city of the winged lion was a great ancient repository of hopes and dreams. A place the barbarians had never managed to conquer. A city of love and lovers.


Then, cutting through the rippled, reflected last splendors of the day, came a gondola. Moving silently along the canal between the gothic-fronted buildings, sliding across the water, the dip and sway of the gondolier was as easy and graceful as a dancer's movements.


Marco looked across the water into the eyes of his kindred spirit.


The grace, romance, and beauty of the moment ended in a splash. His dream girl, her eyes locked on his, hit a mooring pole, dropped her oar, lost her balance and fell—fortunately—down onto her own duckboards.


The gondola was close to shore and Marco managed the jump without even thinking about it.


"Are you all right?" he asked anxiously.


"Fine." said Kat, sitting up, her face blazing. "Er. See if you can grab my oar."


He leaned over the side and pulled it inboard.


* * *

Kat seized the moment to pull herself together. What an absolute idiot he must think her. What a complete fool! And what a way to meet him! She'd have wanted to put on some better clothes. Maybe some belladonna to widen her eyes . . . She must talk to Francesca about it.


One minute ago, she'd been sculling easily, putting minimal effort into it. The next she'd lost her concentration; lost her balance; lost her dignity; lost her oar . . . what should she say? Reality was with her, now. He might turn out to be a lot less likable than her imagination had painted him.


He pulled the oar onto the gondola; then, offered her a hand. "I'm sorry," he said smiling. "Maria says it's really bad manners to board a boat without permission. But I thought you might be hurt."


Whoever "Maria" is, she's going to have to go.


Now that he was up close, Kat found herself tongue-tied for the first time in her life. She settled for smiling at him. God, he was handsome. No. That was the wrong word. He wasn't ruggedly handsome. He was beautiful. No wonder this Maria was chasing him.


"You've hurt your hand!" he exclaimed.


There was indeed a thin trickle of blood running down her hand and onto her cuff. Kat looked at it and looked away. She really didn't like blood. "Oh, it's nothing," she said hastily.


"Here." He held out a tentative hand. "Let me see to it. . . . Signorina. I'm hoping to be a doctor one day."


"It's fine. Really."


He smiled. "I won't hurt you. I promise."


God in heaven, he could cut the hand right off if he wanted to. Well, if he wanted her as a practice patient she could have lots of injuries. Lots. If he wanted to lie her down on the duckboards—


Her mind shied away from that line of thought. She held out the hand.


He was gentle and surprisingly professional about it. "Just a scratch, I think. If you would just come over there to the light I could clean it and bandage it quickly."


"Thank you," she said, wishing he hadn't let go of her hand. "And I think we'd better tie up because we're drifting."


Two minutes later, the hand was neatly and professionally bandaged; the ragged scratch cleaned out. "There. Good as new within two days."


"And how do I find the doctor if it needs further attention?" She did her best to make the question sound casual.


"Oh. Well, I spend quite a lot of time over at Zianetti's near the Accademia."


So all this time hanging around Giaccomo's and even venturing into Barducci's had been vain endeavor! "Well . . . I'll find you there." If have to invent an injury. "What's your name?"


"Marco. Ah, Felluci." He bit his lip; then: "Well, I'd like to ask you to have a glass of wine with me, but I've got to wait for someone for Benito. Then we've got to go back to looking for Maria."


That explained it. He worked with Benito! What could be more natural than the scamp would send his friend off to see what she wanted. And what a friend to choose! But if this "Maria" was a girlfriend, then she—Kat Montescue—was going to do her best to make sure she stayed lost. "And this 'Benito,' did he tell you who you were to wait for?" she asked, managing to keep a straight face.


Marco shook his head. "Someone called 'Kat.' He's been avoiding her because she's trouble, but with Maria gone missing . . ."


It was Kat's turn to bite her lip. "Trouble," was she? Well, there was some justification to that that description. She'd partly orchestrated it herself, and, well, she did have dangerous associates. The story Benito brought back couldn't have enhanced a saint's reputation, she'd bet.


Then the humor of it all got through to her.


* * *

She has the most delicious laughter in the whole world, thought Marco. I could listen to it forever, even though I don't see what is so funny.


Finally she stopped laughing. "Sorry . . . I'm Kat." And she started laughing again.


Marco found himself drowning both in her laughter and his own embarrassment. And yet, as bad as that embarrassment was, it was all right: He'd finally got to meet her. He'd kill Benito! Either Benito had known and had been keeping his brother from another entanglement—for which he couldn't really be blamed, after the last time.


No. Benito must not have worked out that Marco's "dream girl" and Benito's "trouble" were one and the same. But at least he'd found her. Now if he could keep from putting his foot in his mouth while he talked to her. Maybe he could even find out where she lived. She was everything Angelina was not. While he'd worshipped the ground Angelina walked on, and dreamed one day of kissing her hand . . . this girl made him want to fold her in his arms and . . . well, better stop these thoughts dead right there . . .


"I'm sorry. I'm sure they didn't mean it," he said humbly.


Kat smiled broadly. "I'm sure they did!" she said. "And they were right too, but I promise, not to you."


Marco had put two and two together. "Um. The girl you sent the message to Benito with. You haven't seen her, have you? We're looking for her."


* * *

Ah. So that was Maria. "Yes," said Kat, thinking back to the driving rain of last night. After her experience in the church she'd given up taking shelter. "But not today."


"She went missing yesterday," said Marco. "Caesare is worried sick."


"Who is this 'Caesare'?" asked Kat carefully.


He smiled again, and it did odd things to her insides. "Oh, sorry. Caesare Aldanto. Her . . . her boyfriend."


Relief was like the sun coming out. "She's not your girlfriend, then?"


He looked surprised. "Maria? She's crazy about Caesare. She wouldn't even look twice at me." He looked slightly sheepish. "Um, I . . . I'm not involved with anyone right now."


"Well, I'm not either." There. What an opening. "Although I have had several suitors." That seemed important to say too.


"I'm not surprised," he said warmly. "But about Maria. When did you last see her? We . . . we've had word she's a prisoner somewhere."


Kat cocked her head, put a finger to her jaw. "It was long after Vespers, but before midnight. Maybe a hundred yards from the Casa Dandelo. I . . . wanted to ask her about Benito. But it was raining too hard."


"I'd better go and tell Caesare. Why did you want to see Benito? I can give him a message."


"Oh . . . I, um, just wanted him to get hold of a friend of his for me," said Kat airily. "It's all right now. How about I take you to where I saw her?"


"You haven't got other work to do?" asked Marco. "I want to talk to you, but if you've got work . . ."


Her heart warmed. He was an ordinary working man, after all. And a considerate one. She wished the Montescue could somehow sponsor him to do what he should be doing: medical studies. Already he was worth six of any Case Vecchie scion-doctors she'd ever met. But unless her father came home laden with half the jewels of the Indies, there was no way. Casa Montescue limped on from day to day as it was. Extra expenses just couldn't be borne. Only yesterday her grandfather had said to her that he didn't know how they'd have managed without her. "No. Nothing this evening. I'd be happy to help."


They rowed along and Kat found that conversation was as easy as breathing. It was obviously his interest, so she led him to talk about medicine. The more he talked, the more Kat decided that her first look had led her unerringly. He wasn't—unlike most of the elderly roués at the occasional functions the Casa Montescue still attended—at all inclined towards over-the-line flattery and flirtation. Instead he talked with passion about medicine. About what could be done.


"By the way—how do you know that this Maria is definitely alive?" she asked, as they neared the Casa Dandelo.


Marco pursed his lips. "Well, you wouldn't know him but we went to see Luciano Mariana—"


"But I do know him! He was my tutor! But—he went away, years ago. I was afraid he was dead."


Marco pauses. "Um. Well. They say he's just got back from Jerusalem. I know him well, too, from—from earlier. I owe him my life in part. Anyway, he's—ah—good at divining. And he says she's alive, a prisoner and surrounded by water. We've got half the town looking for her."


Kat pointed to the mess of heavily barred old buildings, isolated on their own islet across the Rio della Crea. "Casa Dandelo. That's where she'll be. Nobody knows what happens there."


Marco pulled a wry face. "You don't have any contacts?"


She shook her head emphatically. "I'd sooner sell black lotos," she said with distaste.


"Yes. It's a disgrace to the Republic," said Marco grimly.


She got the feeling that if he were the Doge for a day, the Casa Dandelo would be among the first festering sores to go. "Come on, let's go find Benito and this Caesare."


They actually found an irritated-looking Caesare and a still-eager Benito within two hundred yards.


"Ciao, Kat. I see Marco's got you working too," said Benito cheerfully. "Listen, old Beppi saw her at the corner of the Canale di Cannaregio. She was definitely heading for this part of town."


Caesare shook his head. "After which she could have been taken anywhere."


Marco smiled. "Except that Kat saw her too. Right near the Casa Dandelo. That's where we reckon she must be."


Caesare nodded. "I suppose it's possible. We can't get in there. Well, I'll get the Capuletti. One of them is Capi di Contrada for the Dandelo shipments. Relax. They won't be able to take her out. She's a citizen of the Republic. Now I think we ought to go back, maybe stop at Giaccomo's in case there is a message or a ransom demand."


"Let's just go on down to the Casa Dandelo. Please," pleaded Benito. "See if any of Marco's patients are about. Or you could go back—I'll go on. Case the joint."


So, little Benito did care about someone. He'd talked about a brother once. But obviously this Maria was important to him. It was odd to realize that she'd met this Caesare Aldanto too. He'd been at a rather raffish ridotto she'd found reason to leave early. His partner, with whom he'd been flirting outrageously, was definitely Case Vecchie. A masked blond. Not his Maria—who, to judge by their one meeting—was canaler through and through. "I'll give you a lift down. Quicker than walking. And safer, too."


Benito laughed. "Not many would want to mix it with Caesare, Kat."


There was admiration in that voice. He needs to be more selective about his role models, thought Kat. But what would a wharf-and-canal brat know of such things? Well, enough to choose one good loyal friend at least, it seemed.


Marco was all agreement about going back down to the Rio della Crea outside the Casa Dandelo. However, Caesare put his foot down firmly. "You leave the Dandelos alone. Come. We'll go back to the house. Get some food. You two will stay there. I'm going to see the Capuletti."


"I'll take you," offered Kat. At least that way she'd be able to find out where he lived. But she still worried about their loyalty to this Caesare. Obviously what he said went.


* * *

"Your loyalty is misplaced," said Maria's questioner. "How do you think we knew exactly where to find you? He wanted to be rid of you so he made a deal with us. He's the pig who betrayed you. What do you owe someone like that?"


Maria's head was spinning a little. She'd had a lot of strong unwatered wine on an empty stomach. The blows hadn't helped either. "Can't tell you what I don't know," she said sullenly. "Caesare kept his business private." He was lying. They weren't going to let her go. No matter what she told them.


Her questioner sat back. "It's going to be a long night. But you are going to tell me everything you do know." He leaned forward. His hands shot out and he grabbed her by the throat. The strength in those hands was terrifying. And she'd learned by now that resistance only made him worse. "Understa—"


Someone started screaming. A terrible, awful scream, even by slave-trader standards. At least her tormenter let go of her.


By the sounds of it, pandemonium was breaking loose. Yelling and panic around the screams.


The slaver who had brought her in here said: "Ask questions later, signor. She goes back to the cell! There's trouble out there." He pulled her to her feet and thrust her, stumbling in her hobbling leg-irons, out of the door. It was here that the wine came to her rescue. She tripped and fell against the wall, into a little alcove, intended by some long ago builder for a saint's shrine. Maybe the place was still blessed.


The stampede of panicked prisoners and warders thus missed her. But her warder and her questioner were swept off with the mob. The screaming had turned to a terrible laughter. Looking over her shoulder, she could see her interrogator glaring back at her. He was shouting something, but the words couldn't be made out over the general din. A moment later, the stampeding crowd had taken him out of sight.


Hurriedly, Maria got to her feet and went the other away, moving toward the horrible sound, half-laughter, half-screaming. The sound made her scalp crawl, but that was the only direction in which she might escape. Fortunately, before too long she found an unlocked door and pushed her way in.


She was apparently inside Casa Dandelo's warehouse area. She made sure the door was shut behind her and then plunged into the cluttered, cavernous interior. Maria wasn't moving very fast. Leg-irons didn't help. Neither did being a little drunk and completely lost in a strange building. She wanted down, but the only staircase she found went up. Not having any choice, she climbed the stairs, struggling with the leg-irons.


The staircase led to a heavy, iron-reinforced door—which obviously was normally bolted and locked from the outside. But now it was ajar. Maria stepped through and out of one world and into another. This place was soft with carpets and rich hangings. This was the living quarters of the slavers.


For a moment she hesitated. Then, hearing voices behind her, she stepped into the first room and held the door handle up. It was dark in here.


She heard the bolts being shot. She—and the other slaves—were being safely locked in. Only . . . she was already on this side of the door. It had been panic and drunken luck that had gotten her this far. But one thing she was determined on—she wasn't going back. She'd kill anyone who tried to take her. She felt about the darkened room for a weapon. She decided the shutter-bar would do as well as anything else. She shuffled—so as not to clank her leg-irons—over to the crack of light and lifted the bar. The shutters swung open. Moonlight touched the canal below.


To young Benito the climb down would have been a joke. To her . . . with leg-irons and a bit dizzy with wine, hunger and fear . . . it seemed impossible.


She heard voices, and her determination returned. She could just jump, taking the shutter-bar with her. Whatever else, at least she'd be outside and with a weapon.


Taking a deep breath, she struggled up onto the sill and jumped.


Moments later, she realized she should have thought about swimming in leg-irons first.


It took all her strength to haul herself out of the canal on the far side, and onto the walkway. Then spotting a nearby alley, she crawled toward it, too exhausted to walk. She could only hope that all their attention was distracted by the riot going on in the building. She could only bless whatever had caused the commotion in the first place.


Maria crawled on, into the alley and then down it, keeping to the shadows. If somebody found her now, in this part of town, she'd be dead meat. Or—worse—returned to the Casa Dandelo. At length the alley ended next to a canal.


She was so tired and turned around. This could be Canale di Cannaregio. Oh, God. She was such a long, long way from home. If only she could spot a boatman she could trust. But the barge moving slowly along the water was not familiar.


Then a gondola came into view . . . a bit scruffy . . . It was that Kat! A moment of indecision, mostly due to sheer exhaustion, and Maria called out.


By the startled look on her face, Kat was not used to being greeted or summoned. But she peered; and as soon as she saw who it was she came in, pulled up and hauled the manacled Maria into her boat. Maria was so exhausted she simply tumbled onto the duck boards. Kat pushed off hastily. "Marco, Benito, and your Caesare have been looking for you. Let's get away from here, before someone else finds you."


Maria groaned. "Ow. Yes. The farther from the Dandelos the better."


Kat looked down at her. "I told them that's where you'd be. You're in a bad way. Do you know if the Dandelos are looking for you?"


Maria shook her head. "Dunno. Probably. But they may not have figured out that I got out of the building already."


Kat exhaled. "I think . . . I'd better take you to my home. We are close. Get you off the water and out of that slave-smock. But you must promise me you won't tell anyone where I live."


"Promise," said Maria tiredly. "Swear to God. Just keep me away from those Dandelo bastardos."


Kat took a deep breath. "You'll be safe enough. I swear. Just pull that canvas over yourself." And she bent to the oar. "I think we'll try for speed rather than being unobtrusive right now. They could take me for you, and then we'd both be for it."


She concentrated on her sculling. Then, panting a little, glanced over her shoulder. "There are a few boats in the distance. They're too far off to see us in the moonlight but when we get to the Casa, you must move as fast as you can. Please."


Maria tensed her tired body. "Won't they just follow us?"


Kat snorted. "Not . . . huh . . . likely." They bumped against a tiny landing. Kat leaped forward and dropped a painter over a pole. She turned and helped Maria up and they staggered up the stairs. Kat rapped a hasty pattern on the water-door.


Maria heard the bolts slide. She and Kat half-fell and were half-dragged within by a white-haired old man with "family retainer" written all over his wrinkles.


The bolts sliding home were a wonderfully secure sound. But as Maria slumped against the wall and felt the suspicious angry gaze of the old man wash over her, she wondered whether this was security or worse trouble. The old man had a wheel-lock pistol in his belt and looked ready to use it. "And now, Signorina Katerina! What's this?" He pointed at Maria as if she were a long-dead alley-cat. "Milord won't be pleased. Trouble." His tone would have rimed boiling minestrone with ice.


Kat wasn't pleased either. "Oh, Giuseppe! Stop behaving like an old woman. As if I didn't learn half my troublemaking from you in the first place! See if you can find something to cut this chain with. And if you see Madelena, ask her for some food, some wine, and some hot water. We'll be in my room. Please."


The old man shook his head doubtfully, as Kat helped Maria to her feet. "Ai, signorina. You are like your father all over again. Still, the master won't be pleased."


"Then we won't tell him," responded Kat quietly, but firmly. "He has enough worries already. Now get Madelena for me, Giuseppe, do. Please."


He nodded and turned away. His rolling gait as he left—still muttering—said that this family retainer was an old seaman. Kat led Maria down a succession of corridors, up a staircase, down another corridor and into a bedroom. By the time they got there, the leg-irons felt like lead weights.


 


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