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Chapter 56

Maria realized that the bedroom she'd swayed into was the finest she'd ever seen. Or must once have been very fine. But there were subtle signs of decay everywhere. The gilt-trimmed mirrors were old and fogged. The silken hangings on the carved bedstead were slightly tattered. The beautiful cassone had a little chip in it.

"Sit here on the bed." Kat thrust her gently onto it. Maria sat. Obedient, bewildered, but at least no longer terrified. Benito certainly picked his girlfriends! Kat went to the dressing table, took a branch of candles and lit them at the wall sconce. She rummaged in the closet and came out with a gown of some sort before returning to the bed. "My God! Your poor knees!"

"I crawled. From the Casa Dandelo to where you found me. It was better than staying there," said Maria quietly.

Kat took a deep breath. "Well, you're safe now. Lord. I wish Marco was here. He's so good at doctoring. Let's get you out of that smock anyway."

Marco? Maria's tired mind took a moment to work this one out as she managed to stand and hold her arms up to allow Kat take off the coarse slave-smock. Marco . . . Marco? By the worshipful tone, Benito had lost his Case Vecchie girlfriend! Well, it was keeping her alive. And Marco was a good soul. Too good for comfort, at times. But he would at least be nice to her, even if he was still daydreaming about his "girl in a boat."

The dress Kat dropped over her was soft twilled . . . silk.

From the doorway came a horrified squeak. "Katerina! You can't dress some slave-girl in your best taffeta!" The little bright-beady-eyed old woman with the tray of food and wine looked utterly horrified.

Kat clicked her tongue. "Madelena, just leave me to my business. And she's not a slave." To Maria: "It's not a new dress. But we've got to get you back to . . . to Caesare and they won't be looking for someone dressed in clothes like these. Put the tray down, Madelena, and get me some hot water. Do. Please."

Madelena set the tray down, pinching her lips with disapproval. Then she took a deep breath and, with the attitude of a stern taskmistress, shook a bony finger at Kat. "You can't do this, Milady Katerina! I'm going to go and talk to the master, no matter what old Giuseppe says."

Kat hugged the old lady. "Please, Madelena. He's asleep by now. And this is the honor of the Casa at stake here. Papa would have told me to do this."

The old lady sighed. "I wish he would come home." But she turned and went out.

Kat shook her head as she lifted the hem of the newly loaned dress above Maria's raw and bleeding knees. "Sorry. My old nurse, and my father's too. She won't accept that he's never going to get back, or that I'm not five years old any more. If I set this tray here on the bed, do you think you could eat a little? And maybe drink a glass of wine? You're as pale as a sheet. I'll try to clean up these knees. I'm not much of a doctor, I'm afraid. And it is not much in the way of food either."

Maria looked at the tray. Bread, the crumb finer and whiter than any she'd ever eaten. Slices of prosecco, salume, taleggio cheese, some early melon, something wrapped in pastry, olives, a tiny sweet cake bursting with raisins and almond slivers, dusted with sugar. Huh. Kat's ideas of "not much"! Case Vecchie ideas.

Maria sighed. This was Caesare's background. This was the world he belonged in. It was a world that left her feeling like a fish on a mountaintop. "Why are you doing this?" she asked quietly.

Kat shrugged. "Honor. I promised I'd help to find you."

Both the old man and old woman bustled in, arguing. "Hush!" snapped Kat. "You'll wake the house. And I do not want Alessandra here!"

That shut them both up. Madelena had brought a crock of warm water, cloths, soap. Giuseppe had in hand a small fine-toothed saw and a huge pair of pliers. He set to work on the chain. "You'll need a blacksmith to break the locks, or cut through the shackles. But if we cut the chain you can walk properly," he said. "Or run if you have to. You a local girl, missy?"

Maria nodded. "Born and bred." By his walk he was a seaman. All caulkers did a stint with the Republic's galleys and, as often as not, other vessels. "My family are caulkers."

She was right in her guess. That brought a look of frosty approval to the old man's face. "So what are you doing in slave clothes and slave chains?"

Maria shrugged. "The Dandelos don't care much where they get their slaves."

Giuseppe nodded, his face growing heavy with anger. "This time you were right, signorina. We must talk to milord about this. He can take it up with the Signori di Notte or even the Doge. This ought to be stopped!"

Kat sighed. "Do some more sawing, Giuseppe. I can just hear Grandpapa saying: 'Well, Your Grace, my granddaughter was just out for a little midnight row, on her own, when she found this runaway slave who happened to be a citizen of the Republic. Now, that's not allowed, Your Grace. Yes, my seventeen-year-old granddaughter is often out alone at midnight. For starters, the Dandelos and their allies would laugh us out of the council. How could we prove Maria was a captive of theirs? For seconds, we don't need any attention. We have too much business of our own we don't need examined too closely."

"It still ought to be stopped," grumbled Giuseppe, going on sawing.

Madelena said nothing. She just snorted. But Maria noticed that she was more gentle about the cleaning. Maria sipped at the wine and tried to work out just how Kat was planning to get her home. The wine too was fine. A vintage red. Unless she was completely turned around this was one of the old great houses that looked onto the lagoon, towards the mainland. That was a long way from home, if the Dandelos were out looking for her. And they would be, for a certainty. They wouldn't want a citizen well known to canalers and Arsenalotti to escape their clutches and tell her story. That could cause them a lot of trouble.

* * *

Getting Maria home if the Dandelos were combing the canals could be tricky, thought Kat. But from the moment she dropped the dress over Maria's head, Kat realized that this was, potentially, a very beautiful woman. True, her jaw was very square and firm. But it simply enhanced the strength of those dark features. The dress suited Maria far better than it had her. Out of her baggy canaler's clothing, which was all that Kat had ever seen Maria wearing, it was obvious that the canaler girl's figure was . . . female. Decidedly so, in fact.

Giuseppe had cut his way through the chains for the second time and left to return the tools. Maria now had two heavy iron anklets. But, if need be, she could run. And she could walk normally. "Madelena, we need to dress her hair up. Do you think you could steal one of those Spanish combs from Alessandra's dressing room?"

The old woman smiled evilly. Madelena loathed Alessandra. The feeling was mutual. Alessandra detested a servant she could not dismiss. At least once a week, Alessandra accused Madelena of anything from theft to poisoning. Perhaps once—long ago—the war between them had sparked out of jealousy of a new wife for an old nurse. But especially after the death of Alessandra's baby, it had degenerated into simple warfare. "I'll bring some of her makeup too, Katerina." She got up and went out.

Kat surveyed Maria, weighing up the possibilities. "Shoes will be a problem. But the rest will be easy." She grinned at Maria. "Let me do that lacing on your bodice. No Case Vecchie is going to be at a party unlaced. Or at least they'd get someone to lace them again afterwards. If you keep your feet tucked under you and don't talk, we can do a remarkably fine pair of ladies going home for the night after a party."

Maria took an embarrassed look at her feet. "They're too big," she said wretchedly. She began to cry.

Kat hugged her. "It's all right. It's all right."

Maria gave a determined sniff. "I don't cry. I'm a canaler. I don't cry. I get even," she said gruffly. Then she sobbed. "But I've got very big feet. Canaler feet. And he's so fine."

* * *

No one could possibly have recognized Maria Garavelli the canaler and "Spook" the night-cargo runner, in the two finely arrayed and made-up Venetian Case Vecchie ladies who made their way through the maze of passages to the front of the house. Giuseppe bowed. "The gondola will be here in a few moments, signorinas."

Maria felt . . . odd. She could hardly recognize the elegant woman in the mirror in the hall. Her hair was dressed up onto an ornate comb, her face heavily made up, her cheeks and lips red, her eyes widened with belladona. In one hand was a fan of lacquered sticks and silk. In the other a little reticule . . . in which rested the comforting solid bulk of a pistol. It was a small and very finely made wheel-lock, the kind of weapon which only extremely wealthy people could afford. Kat had one identical to it in her own somewhat larger purse. Maria hoped that Kat knew how to use hers; she had only the sketchiest notion herself.

"If you see anyone," said Kat, "flirt with the fan—like this—over your mouth and nose. It makes it very hard to recognize you."

Maria tried it, looking at the stranger with the fan in the mirror.

"You're a natural," said Kat with a grin. Maria was quite relieved to see that expression. It was the only familiar thing about her rescuer: that wide-mouthed grin. Kat didn't smile that often. But it transformed her face when she did. Maria saw the smile change to a frown.

"And where are you going?" demanded the cause of the frown. The willowy-figured woman who had come into the hall looked every inch a wealthy Case Vecchie. Maria guessed her at mid to late twenties. Her complexion was as flawless as a master of the paintbrush and rouge pot could make it, except that she had a little mole on her cheek, just above the rosebud mouth. It seemed to accentuate the perfection. Her hair too was a lustrous black, dressed into a perfect frame for her face. She looked as sour as vinegar, despite her beauty.

"Out, Alessandra." Kat's face had closed down. There was now no expression on it at all. "Family business."

Alessandra looked as if she'd just swallowed a cup of gall. "What nonsense!" she snapped. "This trollop is no family of ours. And why is she wearing your best gown?"

"My mother's family. And Maria spilt wine on her gown. It's in that bag." Kat pointed to the bag at their feet. It actually contained a hooded cloak.

Alessandra sniffed. "Oh. I didn't know we had anything to do with them." Her expression said she didn't want to know either. She let them leave and get into the waiting gondola—which was not shabby—without a word.

Only when they were well away down the canal did Kat give way to helpless laughter. "Oh, she is such a snob! If she'd noticed the comb in your hair, we'd have been for it."

"Or my feet," said Maria, tucking them under the folds of the dress. "Who is she?"

"My dear sister-in-law," answered Kat. "And my mother's family were just merchants. Not even curti. She pretends they don't exist."

Maria sat back tiredly against the squabs. "Who are you, Kat?"

Kat shook her head. "Best if I don't say. Not that I don't trust you, but, well, what you don't know can't slip out even by accident. And remember: you promised."

Maria nodded. It felt odd with all her hair piled up. "Even wild horses wouldn't drag it out of me. But I owe you."

Kat shrugged. "I promised I'd help."

* * *

They waited next to Alberto's barge. "He's trustworthy?" Kat asked for the third time.

"He's fine." Maria soothed. "He's Tonio's brother and a sort of cousin of mine." Here, out of her place, Kat was as uneasy as Maria has been in Kat's home. "They could be watching the building, as they know who Caesare is. I'm sorry I lost the water-door key when they took my clothes, because we could row up safely enough. But two ladies walking down our calle at this time of night would be in danger—even if the Dandelos aren't watching. So—best if Alberto fetches them. Can your gondolier be trusted to get you back?"

Kat nodded. "They do work for the family. And old Giuseppe knows who took us. Pietro would be insane to come back without me. Besides I have my little friend in here." She patted the reticule. "I can shoot. Quite well."

There was the sound of running footsteps. They both hastily reached for their reticules. Maria was still struggling with the fussy little catch when she heard Benito's voice. "Maria! Maria!"

He bounced over the barge and looked down at the two of them, and their patient gondolier. Benito was obviously a little startled to find himself staring into the muzzle of Kat's hand-cannon, but he didn't let it stop him. "Maria?" he asked incredulously.

"Who else, Benito?" said Maria tiredly. "Where's Caesare?"

Benito swung down onto the deck. He grabbed Maria and did a fierce little jig. Then he hugged her. Benito never even touched her, normally. Not that she had encouraged it, but . . .

"He's seeing the Capuletti. In case the Dandelos had you. Marco is off with Rafael over around Accademia looking for you. They were going to some Marina guy, the one who told us you were alive but a prisoner, to see if he could tell them anything else. They left me alone here to hold the fort. I reckon they both knew that way I wouldn't go back to the Casa Dandelo. That Kat said to Marco they must have you. And here you turn up looking like the queen of Sheba! Where have you been? We've been worried sick!"

For an answer Maria lifted her dress to reveal her bare feet and the iron anklets. " 'That Kat' was right. Casa Dandelo. I escaped. And Kat saved my bacon. I owe her, so you treat her with respect, see."

"Oh she's not so bad," said Benito with a grin. "Got a snappy tongue when she's cross though. She brought us back here, but Rafael was waiting, so Marco went off with him, and she left. So who's the friend with the cannon?"

Maria realized that Kat was hiding behind her fan. "Just a friend, little sneaker. Leave her alone. Katerina—I'll get these clothes back to you. And . . . thank you. Thank you a million times. You ever need to find me, you leave a message with Giaccomo. I'll tell him. I owe you. Go carefully, huh?"

Kat nodded, without taking the fan from her face. And—with her other hand, still holding the pistol—pointed to the bag on the duckboards.

"Good idea," said Maria. "You take care now, see." She took out the hooded cloak and pulled it over her borrowed finery.

The gondolier had pulled the boat next to the walkway and the two of them alighted. The gondola pulled away.

Maria waved. Kat, having returned the pistol to the reticule, waved back.

"Mighty silent friend, that," said Benito curiously.

Maria yawned. "Be a good thing if you buttoned your lip sometimes, Benito. Let's get home. I can't wait to bathe myself." She could hardly believe that he hadn't recognized Kat. But then, looking in a mirror, she'd hardly recognized herself in these clothes.

"She reminded me of someone," said Benito. "But I can't think who. I don't know any posh women like that. But I hardly even recognized you in those clothes." He hesitated. Then, speaking much less brashly than usual, almost shyly: "You're real pretty when you dress up nice, Maria Garavelli. Real pretty."

Maria swatted his ear. Gently, though. She was quite sorry Caesare hadn't seen her in Kat's best gown. She was tempted to hang on to it for long enough to model it for him, but on reflection that wasn't a good idea. For Kat's safety, it would be best if she revealed as little about her part in this as possible.


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