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Chapter 57

When Father Mascoli saw the three figures entering his little chapel in the Cannaregio, he sighed. "Come into the back," he said. "I don't want to discuss the matter out here."


He led them through the door behind the statue of Saint Raphaella and into his private quarters. Then, seeing them pause, he waved his hand. "Further in the back," he muttered. "We need someplace that I'm certain is safe."


He opened the water-door at the rear of his cell and led them into the small water-chapel beyond. There was just enough room for four men to stand there.


The three other priests examined the chapel with interest. Their interest was aroused further when the heads of two undines broke the water and gazed at them. The undines' eyes seemed wary—or perhaps simply watchful. Both of them were female.


"It's all right," said Mascoli. "These are . . . friends." There was just a slight hesitation before the last word.


The undines studied the three strange priests, their eyes spending most of their time examining the shortest one. "I hope so," hissed one of them. Pointing at the short priest: "That one could be dangerous. Very powerful."


The priest in question pulled a wry face. The solid eyebrow line twisted into an S-shape. "First time I've ever been called that. Even before my leg got mangled."


"She's not speaking of your physical strength, Father Lopez," replied Mascoli, almost snapping. "As you well know."


"He likes to practice modesty," said one of the other priests, his Savoyard accent very pronounced. "Good thing, too. He'd be insufferable otherwise. I'm Pierre, by the way. The other one is Diego."


Despite the tension of the moment, Mascoli chuckled. "Well said. All right, then. I assume you've come because you heard the news about Dottore Marina. Reappearing in Venice—out of nowhere, it seems—after all these years."


Lopez nodded. "We need to speak with him. But it would be dangerous—very dangerous—to do so openly. We thought . . ."


"I can place you in touch with him," agreed Mascoli. "But for the moment, at least, I think you should have no direct contact at all. I doubt if Marina would agree, in any event. He is very frightened by the state of things in Venice." Mascoli nodded toward the undines. "The dottore has a special relationship with them. They can serve as the messengers."


"Difficult," hissed one of the undines. The tone of her voice was distinctly unhappy. "The stupid dottore has gone too far from the water."


"Not safe," hissed the other.


Diego eyed them curiously. "From the rumors which have been swirling through the city for months, the water is the most dangerous place to be. Because of the so-called 'canal monster.' "


The undines gaped shark-toothed grins. "Dangerous for most. Dangerous for us, even. Not dangerous for the dottore." One of the undines sank below the surface for a moment, then came up gushing water out of her mouth in an undine version of laughter. "The dottore eat that one easily."


"That makes sense," murmured Eneko. "A Grimas would be vulnerable to steel-clad enemies. Another great sorcerer; the most powerful of demons. And not much else."


Mascoli cocked his head in a quizzical gesture. As close as he was to the undines, he had no doubt at all that the rumors of a "canal monster" were quite accurate. "And what makes you think this thing is not a most powerful demon."


"Doesn't make sense," replied Lopez. "The thing—whatever it is—is a servant of Chernobog. I'm quite sure of it, now. Chernobog would have lamed it in some manner. Broken it to his service."


Mascoli ran his hand across his bald pate, grimacing ruefully. "You move in a strange world, Father Lopez. That thing is quite too powerful for my taste, thank you."


Lopez shrugged. "I did not say it wasn't dangerous. I am simply pointing out that it is, in the end, nothing more than a tool in the hands of another. It is that other that I am truly concerned about."


He looked down at the undines, moving slowly in the waters of the chapel. "Very well. Would you take this message to Dottore Marina: Tell him to concentrate all his efforts on finding the Lion. We will see to the rest."


The undine's mouth gaped wide. "And who is 'we'?" demanded one.


"He's a special envoy from the Grand Metropolitan of Rome," explained Diego.


The undine's mouth gaped wide again. "That means precious little to her," murmured Mascoli. The bald priest squatted by the edge of the water. "Just tell him that they are friends of mine. And I trust them."


A moment later, in a little swirl, one of the undines was gone. The other remained, swimming slowly through the water-chapel.


Father Mascoli stood up. "I hope Sister Evangelina is not mistaken." He gave Eneko a hard look.


The Basque priest smiled and spread his hands. "I could give you assurances of my own, Father Mascoli. But would they really mean very much? In the end, you must make your own decision."


"I already have. Doesn't mean I have to like it. I'm just a simple priest, Father Lopez." Mascoli pointed a finger at the still-swirling surface of the water-chapel. "These waters here are quite deep enough for me. "I tend to my flock—in whatever form they appear. I'm Hypatian—"


He gave the Basque another hard look, as if saying: as you are supposed to be. "I don't make judgments. Let God judge. That's His business, not mine. God has given me the gift to make it so that evil can't freely enter here, so anything that enters freely deserves my help."


Pierre had opened his mouth when Mascoli proclaimed his unwillingness to make judgments as if to protest, but closed it after that last sentence, looking far more satisfied.


Mascoli led the way out of the water-chapel. Once in his cell, with the water-door closed, he paused at the entrance to the main chapel. "There are still other waters too deep for me," he added, facing Lopez. "The Marco boy you asked about."


"Valdosta."


Mascoli winced. "That secret is getting too frayed, I fear."


"What 'secret'?" demanded Pierre. "Dell'este sent word to Casa Dorma. From there, it is spreading like fire."


"Not quite that," demurred Diego. "But it is spreading. I fear Petro Dorma has spies in his household."


Mascoli looked even more unhappy than ever. "The boy is—has the potential, I should say—to be a powerful user of magic in his own right, Father Lopez. Especially healing magic. I will not be able to train him properly much longer. I am reaching the limits of my own talent and knowledge."


Eneko nodded. "Consider the bargain made, Father Mascoli. But . . ." He hesitated. The Basque priest seemed to be experiencing one of his few moment of uncertainty. "In truth, I am not well versed in the healing arts myself." After another pause, grudgingly: "Nor, I confess, is that a branch of magic in which my own talents are particularly, ah—"


Pierre snorted. Diego laughed. "Ask a Viking berserk to be a nursemaid, Mascoli—you'd do better."


Lopez glared at him. His companion responded with an insouciant smile. "It's the truth, Eneko. You know it as well as I do." To Mascoli: "I will be glad to assist you with the boy's training. And, if all goes well, in a few months others of our brotherhood should be arriving in Venice. At least two of them—Francis, in particular—are superb with healing magic."


"Thank you," said Mascoli softly. "I have become very fond of Marco." He studied Eneko for a moment. "Does this—ah, Viking berserk—magic of yours extend to protective spells? Or is it simply a specialty in smiting the ungodly?"


Lopez's glare at Diego was in full flower now. "See what you've done?" he demanded. "My reputation was bad enough already."


Diego simply smiled. After a moment, sighing, the Basque looked at Mascoli.


"What do you desire, Father?"


Mascoli groped for words. "I would like—something—don't know what—to protect the brothers somehow. A shield of some sort, I suppose. Marco is swimming in those same deep waters, whether he knows it or not. And Benito—" He rolled his eyes; he couldn't help it. "Benito dives into every bottomless pool he can find. And dives to the bottom of everything else as well."


Pierre grinned at this assessment of the younger brother, but sobered as Eneko shook his head. "At this point, that would be more dangerous than anything. I don't think the enemy—not Chernobog, at least—has any sense yet of the potential danger to him which rests in those two boys. A shield of the sort you're suggesting would just draw his attention. Attention which, for the moment, I would much prefer centered on Dottore Marina."


He glanced at the crucifix on the wall. "But I think something else might be of use. The boys already have a guardian. Two of them, in fact, if my suspicion is correct. I can place a finding spell of sorts on them—not a geas, something much more delicate—which would . . ." It was his turn to grope for words. "Enable the guardians to find them very easily, and know where to bring them in case of trouble. Think of it as lubricating an axle, if you will, and perhaps giving the cart a push over the rough spots."


Diego winced at the crude analogy. Pierre, on the other hand, beamed from ear to ear. "We'll make you a good Savoyard yet!"


They heard the sound of the church door opening. "Wait here," said Father Mascoli. "I'll let you know when you can leave without being observed."


* * *

But he was back within a short time. Behind him came a woman whose face could not be seen because of the cowl over her head. But that she was a woman there could be little doubt, even under the heavy and utilitarian clothing.


"And now this," muttered Mascoli. "What have you gotten me into to, Lopez?"


The woman swept back the cowl. Francesca's smiling face appeared. Even without her usual elaborate coiffure and cosmetics, the woman's beauty seemed quite out of place in Father Mascoli's austere living quarters.


"Nice to see you again, Eneko," she said. "You've heard the news about Dottore Marina, I imagine?"


Lopez nodded. "I assume you have more tidbits to share," he added, with a wry smile.


"Does a chicken have feathers?" snorted Francesca. She glanced around the small room. "Is there anywhere a bit more commodious? I have quite a few 'tidbits,' in fact."


Sighing, Mascoli opened the water-door and led the way back into the water-chapel. "There's no place to sit, I'm afraid."


"No matter," responded Francesca cheerily. "We'll squat. I have very strong legs."


Once in the water-chapel, she spotted the undine immediately. "Oh, thank heaven! Another female."


The priests' faces grew stiff. "You have nothing to fear—" Pierre began to growl.


"Nonsense," snapped Francesca. "And why would I be afraid of a mortal sin in a Hypatian chapel, anyway? The peril lies elsewhere. Men don't know how to gossip properly."


The undine's mouth gaped wide. "Truth!" She swam to the side. "Did you hear—"


 


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Framed