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Chapter 61

Benito's eyes were riveted on the bombard nestled in the hold of the barge, with three of the knights squatting next to it. From Benito's vantage point, high atop Casa Dandelo, he could see the bombard clearly. But he knew that from the angle of Dandelo observers below, the bombard would still be invisible.


That, as much as anything, finally convinced Benito that Dorma's expedition was serious. Like most canalers and lower-class Venetians, his first reaction on hearing the news that Lord Dorma was going to "inspect" Casa Dandelo was jeering. Oh, sure. Dorma'll trot through the place and come out announcing that all is well.


But the bombard . . . hidden from sight . . .


And—the fact that there were Knights in the expedition. If Benito had lost his childhood enthusiasm for his mother's Montagnard cause, he still retained a certain romantic image of the Knights. The champions of Christendom; defenders of the right; bold and brave and true. If the image was tarnished—and had been tarnished even more by the general behavior of the Knights in Venice over the past year—it was still there, lurking in the corners of his mind.


Besides, not all of the Knights were simply lackeys for the Servants. Was there a canaler in Venice who hadn't heard the story, by now, of how some of the Knights—one in particular—had defied their abbot when he ordered a girl and some children hauled out of a church and put to the inquisition? Benito had heard that story several times over the past months, in several different places and from several different pairs of lips.


The stories varied in detail, of course, as city rumors will. Except on one point: all of them agreed that the knight who had first defied the abbot was a Nordic wolfman of some sort. A young blond maniac, who had been ready to carve his fellow knights into bloody pieces over an issue of law and principle.


The barge was closer now. If they hadn't been wearing helmets, Benito could have seen individual faces. Eagerly, he scrutinized what little he could see of the Knights past their helmets and nose guards. Which was not much, unfortunately.


Then Benito noticed that one of the knights—one of the three standing in the bow of the barge—was a very big man. And he remembered that, according to some of the stories he had heard, the blond one had been aided by a supposed giant.


I wonder if . . . 


At that moment, one of the knights standing next to the very big one unclasped his helmet and removed it. Then, quickly wiped his forehead and brushed back his long hair; in the way that a warrior will just before battle, to make sure that his hair will not slide forward in the helmet and obscure his view.


His very long and very blond hair . . .


The knight glanced up at Benito as he did so. Then, after shaking his head in bemusement—crazy kid!—replaced the helmet. The whole thing had not taken more than a moment, but long enough for Benito to see the knight's face clearly.


A face that seemed a thing made entirely of angles and sharp planes, for all its obvious youth.


Yes! It's got to be him! I'm sure of it!


Benito's excitement was cresting. Suddenly, he was certain that this expedition was no thing of "show." Not in the least little bit.


I've got to see it!


He made up his mind right then. Curling quickly back into an upright position, he planted his feet firmly on the crossbeam of the roof. Then, looking across the canal to the rooftop across the way where Maria was perched, watching him, gave her a quick and cheerful wave. And a thumbs-up.


Moving quickly, before Maria could have time to start yelling orders at him to cease and desist, Benito took out the little prybar he had brought with him—just in case—and began working at the iron bars of the small window he was squatting beside. Those were some of the iron bars he had sawn through two nights earlier, and it was quick work to pry a couple of them loose. Benito glanced down to make sure no one would get hit, and pitched the bars into the waters of the canal below.


Then, he paused. Better wait until . . . He looked at the barge holding the knights. He could see Petro Dorma also. Benito recognized him from his many public appearances. The Lord of the Nightwatch was perched in the very tip of the bow, preparing to offload. The barge had almost reached the Casa Dandelo.


A moment later, the barge came alongside the wharf. Lord Dorma and the three knights in the bow hopped off and strode to the main door of Casa Dandelo. One of the knights—the big one—began pounding on the door. Lord Dorma was shouting something.


Benito couldn't make out the exact words. Mostly because he was doing his best to close his ears entirely, so he could claim later that he hadn't heard Maria's—now very loud and profane—shouted orders at him to stop what you're going, you crazy little bastard!


He grinned wryly. Well . . . he was pretty little, and he was certainly a bastard. "Crazy," on the other hand . . .


I prefer to think of it as "bold."


Maria's cursing could probably be heard in the Jesolo by now. Get away from that window, you blankety-blank stupid little blankety-blank . . . what do you think you're doing?!


Benito avoided looking at her—his eyes were fixed on the bombard, which several of the knights were wrestling onto the wharf—but he did give her an assuring little wave. Relax, Maria. I know what I'm doing.


A complete lie, of course. Even Benito thought what he was about to do was at least half insane. Voluntarily entering the lair of the Dandelos?


But . . . I have got to see this!


Lord Dorma shouted something which sounded very . . . final. Then he and the three knights at the front stepped back. The other knights, by now, had nestled the bombard against a heavy stone abutment on the wharf. One of them took out a smoking slow match—


They must have already loaded it.


and the bombard went off with a BOOM. Even though Benito was expecting it, the noise startled him. So did the sound of the heavy front door of Casa Dandelo being turned into splinters. Not so much from the cannonball, which had simply shattered the lock, but from the weight and fury of half a dozen armored knights slamming into it.


Maria's shrieking orders and curses at Benito could be heard in the Alps, by now. He gave her a last little wave and plunged through the window, into the darkness of Casa Dandelo.


* * *

The room he found himself in was some kind of storage area. Everything was very dark, but he could see the dim outlines of a door on the opposite side. Stumbling over various carelessly stacked crates, holding God-knows-what, he scrambled to the door. Then, tested it cautiously. Despite the recklessness of his project, he hadn't lost the fine details of burglary work.


To his relief, the door wasn't locked or bolted on the other side. He opened it slowly, carefully, peeking out into the corridor beyond.


There was no one in the corridor. To his left, the corridor dead-ended a few yards away. Three other doors on that side seemed to be the same type as the door he was opening—old, decayed, apparently little used; the kind of doors which led to nothing beyond rooms for storing mostly unwanted items. By pure luck, he had chosen a perfect entry route into the Dandelo building.


To his right, the corridor angled almost immediately to the left. He couldn't see what lay beyond that bend. But he could hear a furious ruckus coming from somewhere below. The excitement he wanted to watch, obviously.


Hurriedly, not wanting to miss any of it, Benito almost lunged out of the storage room and scurried to the bend of the corridor. The lighting was so bad—just one sconce at the very end of the corridor—that he tripped over an unseen obstacle lying on the floor and wound up sprawling around the bend instead of creeping unnoticed.


Fortunately—


There was no one. The bend led immediately to a flight of stone stairs leading downward to a landing and then curving to the left again.


The noise was louder now. So was—the stench.


Benito almost gagged. Maria had told him how badly Casa Dandelo reeked of the effluvia of slave trading. But he hadn't quite believed her. Breathing through his mouth, and trying to breathe as little as possible, Benito pranced down the stairs. For all the speed with which he negotiated the steps and the landing, he made almost no noise at all.


There was no one on the landing, either. But then Benito got careless. The noise coming up from the fracas below was very loud, now. Men shouting at each other. Benito was suddenly terrified that he would miss everything. So, abandoning what little caution he still retained, he raced from the landing down the stairs. As he neared the bottom of the steeply inclined staircase, he could see that it ended in a balcony overlooking a large room. He covered the last three steps in a single bound, landing on the balcony in a crouch and then eagerly leaning over the stone railing.


Below, in the large entrance hall of Casa Dandelo, he could see Petro Dorma, backed by all of the knights, almost face-to-face with Angelo Dandelo, the head of the House. Dandelo was backed in turn by more than a dozen of his own retainers, all of them armed. Most with cudgels and knives, but at least two with halberds and another two with arquebuses.


The two men seemed to have finished shouting at each other. Dorma was turning his head, clearly on the verge of issuing orders which—just as clearly, from the tension of the knights and the arquebus-armed Schiopettieri standing behind them—no! spreading to the sides, ready to fire—was going to cause all hell to break loose!


Benito was ecstatic. Sure enough! He had a grandstand view!


* * *

Unfortunately . . . so did the four Dandelo retainers who were also perched on the balcony, not more than ten feet away from him. All of them large, angry looking—and armed with cudgels.


* * *

The moment was . . . tense. Benito stared at the Dandelo goons. They stared at him.


What to do? What to do? Two of the Dandelos were starting to move toward him.


Fortunately for Benito, his abrupt arrival had also been noticed by one of the knights standing next to Dorma. The very large one, with a very large voice.


"Hold!" came the bass bellow. Wide-eyed, Benito stared down at him. The very large knight had taken a step toward the balcony, pointing a very large (and armored) finger at the advancing Dandelo goons. "Hold right there! You men are under arrest!"


The very large and armored finger now pointed imperiously at Benito. "You have your orders, Knight-Squire Crazykid!" The finger swept back—as imperiously as ever—to the Dandelo goons on the balcony. "Arrest them! Don't let them escape!"


One of the Dandelo retainers standing not far from the very large knight began to shout some sort of protest. The knight—moving way faster than Benito would have believed he could—slammed a very large and armored fist into the man's face. The Dandelo was flattened instantly. Blood everywhere. Benito wasn't sure, but . . . he thought the blow had broken the man's neck as well as crushed his head.


Knight-Squire Crazykid? Arrest them? Don't let them go?


Fortunately, Benito was no stranger to brazening his way out of jams. He drew his little knife and brandished it like a sword. What the hell. "Knight-Squire Crazykid"—slurred in that terrible accent—did sound a bit German.


"Stop!" he shouted at the goons on the balcony. "I'll kill any man who tries to escape!" He took two steps toward them. "God and the Right!"


Before he got out the last words, an arquebus went off with a roar on the floor below. Then, two more. The four Dandelos on the balcony took off like antelopes. In an instant, they had disappeared up another set of stairs.


Benito looked over the balcony. Both of the Dandelos holding arquebuses were down. One of them clearly dead, his chest a bloody ruin; the other, groaning and holding his side. Blood was pouring through his fingers.


Benito hadn't seen it, but he was sure that the Dandelos had made some threatening move with the firearms and the Schiopettieri had cut loose with their own. Now, with the Dandelos armed with nothing beyond cudgels and edged weapons . . .


Against Knights of the Holy Trinity?!


The stampede was already starting. When the very large knight whipped out his sword and bellowed "Dia a coir!" the stampede turned into a rout. Dandelo retainers raced out of the entry hall, seeking escape anywhere they could find it.


Most of them made it, but five were corralled by the Knights or Schiopettieri. Angelo Dandelo didn't even get two steps. He tried to make his escape, but the blond knight seized him by the scruff of the neck and drove him to the floor by kicking in the back of his knee. None too gently, with an armored boot.


Benito practically howled with glee. But his pleasure ended abruptly, when he noticed that the very large knight was glaring up at him.


Again, the imperious finger. Again, the booming basso voice.


"You! Come down here!"


Benito danced back and forth. The staircase he'd come down from was just behind him, after all. Benito was sure he could outrun that big knight, especially since he'd have to come all the way from the floor below . . . clanking in heavy armor up a staircase that was at an angle from where Benito was standing on the balcony. . . .


He was sure he could make his escape.


On the other hand—


—if he didn't—


Benito glanced down at the Dandelo who'd been struck by the knight's fist. Um. Yes. His neck was broken.


"RIGHT NOW, KID!!"


Meekly, Benito trotted over to the staircase indicated—even that damned finger looks like it could break bones—and came down the stairs.


"Yes, sir! I'm coming!"


* * *

When he arrived before the very large knight, it seemed as if everyone was glaring at him. Most of the knights with reproof, the Schiopettieri with anger, Petro Dorma with the stern face of official Venice.


Well . . . everyone except the blond knight and the big one. The blond was still holding Angelo Dandelo down. He just glanced at Benito and shook his head, the way a man will when confronted with the crazy act of a crazy kid.


The big knight's heavy and square face was half hidden behind the nose guard of his helmet. But Benito saw it very clearly when he . . . winked at him.


"Who are you?" demanded Petro Dorma. "And what are you doing here?"


For some reason, the large knight's wink returned all of Benito's usual self-confidence. Although he did manage to restrain his usual swagger.


"I'm Benito Oro," he announced. Then, angrily: "It was my friend Maria the bastards grabbed! That's why I'm here!" The angry tone faded into something more sullen. "I just . . . wanted to make sure, that's all."


Dorma sighed. Then, exchanged glances with the blond knight.


Benito heard the blond knight mutter something to Dorma. He wasn't sure, but he thought it was "From the mouths of babes."


Dorma's mouth quirked into a little smile. "And why not? All right, young Benito. Since you're here anyway, you can be my—ah, let's call it witness for the canalers. How's that?"


Benito nodded his head, eagerly.


The eagerness faded, when he felt a very large hand close on his shoulder. The hand squeezed a bit. Just a bit. Benito felt like he was caught in a vise.


"I'll look after the kid, Lord Dorma," rumbled the voice. "Have no fear."


Dorma's quirky smile turned into something a lot broader. "Oh, I don't." He gave Benito a genuine official stare.


"I don't believe there's any reason to fear. Is there, boy?"


The very large hand squeezed a bit more. Benito's head-nodding became very eager.


* * *

The next two hours were sheer joy. Benito accompanied Lord Dorma and his entourage as they went through every room—every closet—of Casa Dandelo. Those locks on slave pens for which Angelo had keys in his possession were unlocked. Those which he didn't, were smashed open.


Every slave was inspected. Then, records demanded.


Every slave for whom Dandelo had no records was immediately freed and escorted away by Schiopettieri. Then, Lord Dorma made a notation of the fine. In every instance, he fined Casa Dandelo the maximum permitted by Venetian law.


Every slave for whom Dandelo had inadequate records was also freed—with the same maximum fine.


Lord Dorma's concept of "adequate records" was . . . strict.


Manfred's was . . . Teutonic. Erik's was . . . Viking.


"The ink is smudged here," announced Dorma. "Can't be read at all," snorted Manfred. "I say she's a free woman," growled Erik.


Dorma hesitated a moment, then nodded. Scribble, scribble. Maximum fine.


"He doesn't quite resemble the description," mused Dorma. "To say the least!" boomed Manfred. "An inch too short," sneered Erik. "No resemblance at all. He's a free man."


Scribble, scribble. Maximum fine.


"Does that hair look black to you, Ritters?" queried Dorma. Half a dozen helmeted heads shook back and forth in firm disavowal. "Brown," stated Manfred firmly. "Practically blond!" barked Erik.


Dorma nodded again. "He's free, then." Scribble, scribble. Maximum fine.


* * *

Angelo Dandelo stopped even trying to protest, halfway through the process. Partly because of the split lip he had from his first—and very profane—protest. The blond knight had been no more gentle with his (armored) backhand than he'd been earlier with his boot. You'll show respect for the Lord of the Nightwatch, damn you. Next time you'll spit teeth. The time after that you'll spit guts. Try me, you fucking slaver bastard.


But, mostly, because Dandelo was not a fool. Protest was pointless. The Dandelos had misgauged the political situation, and misgauged it badly. Lord Dorma's place in it, most of all. And they were now going to pay the heavy price which Venice's often ruthless politics exacted from losers. Dorma would leave them just enough slaves—the ones who were incontrovertibly legal—to keep them from outright bankruptcy. But by the end of day, Casa Dandelo would be almost penniless and politically humbled.


* * *

It was late afternoon before Benito emerged from Casa Dandelo. He came out at the very end, with Lord Dorma and the knights. The very large one's hand was still on his shoulder, but it had long since stopped squeezing.


By now it seemed that half of Venice must have gathered to watch. Quite a bit more than half, probably, of the canalers and Arsenalotti. The roar of the mob was almost deafening. No one had any doubts any longer—not after seeing the procession of freed slaves who had emerged from Casa Dandelo for the past hour or so, and been escorted by the Schiopettieri into the waiting empty barges.


Dorma led the way onto the last barge. Unsure what to do now, Benito let the large knight propel him into the barge also.


"Better come with us, Knight-Squire Crazykid," he said. "You don't want to be left alone on Casa Dandelo's wharf tonight."


"My name's Benito."


The very large knight grinned. The square blocky teeth were visible even under the helmet. "Benito, then. It was still a crazy thing to do."


"You should talk, Manfred," chuckled the blond knight standing next to them. He removed the helmet and shook his long, very pale blond hair in the breeze. "God, I hate helmets." Then, smiling at Benito: "I'm Erik Hakkonsen, by the way. And you are insane."


But the words were spoken in a very friendly tone, and Benito found himself meeting the smile with a grin.


"I just couldn't help it, that's all. And I wouldn't have missed that for anything."


The very large knight—Manfred, he was apparently named—now removed his helmet also. Benito was almost shocked when he saw how young he was. He's not much older than me. Can't be more than eighteen.


The barge pulled away from the wharf and began heading across the canal. The mob on the other side was packed like sardines, all of them waving and shouting.


"LORD DORMA! LORD DORMA!" And more than a few: "Doge Dorma!"


The knight named Erik stared, apparently taken aback by the crowd's frenzied applause. Oddly, the young knight named Manfred didn't seem surprised at all.


"Just like Francesca predicted," he mused. "I do believe Venetian politics just went through an earthquake."


* * *

"I'm letting you off here," Petro Dorma said to Benito, as the barge was almost across the canal.


At that moment, a young woman suddenly pushed her way to the forefront of the mob. Her eyes seemed a little wild. As soon as she caught sight of Benito, her square jaw tightened like a clamp. Then . . .


"That's an incredible command of profanity, she's got," said Manfred cheerily. "And the way your girlfriend's shaking her fist at you doesn't bode well for your future."


"She's not my girlfriend," growled Benito.


Manfred's already huge grin got bigger. "Could have fooled me!" He eyed the shrieking young woman. "In my experience—okay, it's limited, I admit—but still . . ." The grin faded a little, and the next words came softly. "Young Benito, I think only a woman in love gets that angry at a man."


"You're crazy!" snapped Benito.


They were almost at the edge of the canal. With as little effort as if he were picking up a toddler, Manfred hoisted Benito by the armpits and began to deposit him off the barge.


"Maybe so," he whispered. "But if she isn't, you're the one who's crazy, not me. Damn, but she's gorgeous."


Benito stared at the furious eyes that Manfred's huge hands were depositing him before, to meet his punishment. The square jaw, the red face, the thick hair swinging wildly—almost as wildly as the fist—the broad shoulders.


Damn. She is gorgeous.


* * *

The thought vanished as soon as Maria's hand cracked his face. And it stayed away while she shook him by the shoulders—slapped him again; not as hard, but twice—and finished cursing him. But it returned, in a flood, when she seized him and hugged him close, sobbing softly in his hair and kissing his cheek.


"God damn you, Benito, don't ever scare me like that again."


"I'm sorry, Maria," he mumbled. "But . . ."


He didn't know how to respond. He was too confused. Damn, but you're gorgeous seemed . . . crazy. But he couldn't think of anything else to say. Not a damn thing that didn't seem . . . crazier.


 


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