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Chapter 63

The summons to Dorma had come often that spring. Petro seemed to enjoy talking to him, and they would be sending him to the Accademia in the summer.


This Friday morning it was different.


* * *

Petro Dorma was sitting—as usual—in his inner sanctum. The balding man's face, usually serious, was downright solemn. Across his desk lay an open box containing a naked sword on a sheet of scarlet silk it had plainly been wrapped in. It was an old hand-and-a-half-blade, made in a style a century out of date now. The blue-silver folded Damascus steel was as rippling mirror bright as if it had left the maker yesterday. Only the golden hilt showed the signs of years of careful devoted polishing. Wordlessly, Petro Dorma held out the letter.


It didn't take Marco long to read it.


I send into the keeping of House Dorma one of the honor-blades of Dell'este, in token of the bond now between us. Young Marco will know how it is to be cared for.


"Your grandfather says you know how to care for this sword."


Marco nodded, not able to speak. There was a hidden message there from Duke Dell'este, a message Milord Petro could not possibly read. But Marco knew—and the implications turned his life upside down in the single span of time it had taken Petro to free the blade from its silk wrapping.


Petro Dorma was no fool, of course. If he could not read the message, still, he knew that one was there—and that it must be portentous for his house. So he took Marco's nod at face value, and set the sword back down in its silken nest.


Dell'este steel—Dell'este honor. There is no going back now. Not for Grandfather. Not for the Old Fox.


"Tell me what you need," Dorma said simply. "I gather this isn't the sort of thing you just leave in the armory or hang on the wall."


"A—p-place," Marco stammered. "I need a place for it, somewhere where it's safe, but where it can be seen by—by—" He flushed. "By the House-head. You, milord. You're—supposed to be reminded by it, milord."


Petro nodded thoughtfully. "Will that do?" he asked, pointing behind and to Marco's right.


There was an alcove between two windows, an alcove currently holding an unimpressive sculpture of the Madonna. The alcove was approximately a foot wider than the blade was long.


"Yes, milord," Marco said immediately. "Yes. Milord—that's perfect."


* * *

A few days later, the thing was done. And he was summoned into Dorma's presence again.


Marco held his breath, and with all the concentration he could command, placed the century-old hand-and-a-half sword reverently in the cradle of the special rack he'd asked Milord Petro to have made.


Marco stepped back two paces to scan his handiwork with an apprehensive and critical eye.


He'd inspected and cleaned the blade of the sword that morning, that being a small ritual in and of itself. Somewhere in his earlier conversations he'd told Petro that in Venice's damp climate, he'd have to inspect the blade once or twice a week, and that he preferred not to have to move it too far from its resting place.


He'd been a little apprehensive about that, since this was clearly the Head of Dorma's private—and very special—sanctuary. But Petro had nodded his acceptance of that, gravely, and then he'd taken the undyed tassel off the hilt, keeping it, not giving it to a servant to be dealt with.


This morning he'd returned the tassel to Marco, now the deep and unmistakable midnight-blue of Dorma's house colors. That was all Marco had needed. The ancient sword was now ready to take its place in the heart of Dorma.


He knelt again, and reached out to adjust the blade so that the silk tassels hung side-by-side from the hilt, neither obscuring the other. The Valdosta-scarlet and Dorma-blue tassels hung gracefully, shining as only heavy silk could.


Dorma colors. Dell'este colors. Ferrara's steel.


* * *

Marco wore all of them, now. A main gauche and rapier of more modern design on his belt, sent by the duke. And—on his right hand, a signet ring. A new-cut signet, with an old design. The lion's head seal of Casa Valdosta.


He would be hidden no longer. After all these years, the secret life in the marshes and the canals, Valdosta had returned to take his rightful place in Venice.


* * *

"It is your grandfather's opinion—which I share—that you would now be far safer in the public eye, where harming you would be noticed and acted upon. You must come to live here in the Casa Dorma." Petro Dorma's gaze weighed and measured Marco before he added—


"Both of you."


It took all the eloquence that Marco possessed to convince Petro that he did not want Benito—not-entirely-ex-thief, bridge-brat Benito—inside Casa Dorma. At least not for now.


"Caesare Aldanto's the only one who can control him, milord." He pleaded earnestly. "I can't. And you might as well try to tell the tide not to come in, for all he'll heed you. Caesare Aldanto can keep him safe until he develops a little more sense."


Marco clenched his hands in anguish on the arms of the chair. "Please, milord—Lord and Saints know I love him, but I know him. He's Dell'este blood—but wolf Sforza blood also. He's been on the street since he was a kid. Bridge-brat taught; it'd be like trying to tame a wild kitten. Tell Caesare to bring him around to being civilized. If anybody can make Benito see sense, it'll be Caesare Aldanto."


Petro Dorma scowled at the mention of Aldanto's name, then nodded again—this time reluctantly. "I can't say that I like it, but you know your brother." His mouth firmed. "That makes it all the more important that we fulfill our obligations toward you, Marco." He surveyed Marco's clothing with a critical eye. "And one of the first things will be an appropriate wardrobe. I'll have my mother see to that—"


But in the end it had been Angelina, not Rosanna, who had outfitted him. Petro's mother, Rosanna, was indisposed, and Marco had yet to actually see her except at meals. She seemed ill, and looked as frail as a creature of lace and spun glass. He much doubted she'd seen him, not really; he'd kept his head down and his eyes fixed on his plate, and he never spoke. That wasn't because Dorma cousins were unfriendly; mostly it was because he didn't know what to say. The intricacies of polite social conversation were still a mystery to him. And what could he talk about, anyway? How to survive in the marshes? The best ways to break into a house?


So he kept his mouth shut, and let the Dorma cousins steer him though the maze of dancing, religion, and etiquette lessons; let Angelina guide him through what it meant to be a House scion; let Caesare Aldanto try to show him how to keep himself alive with that Valdosta steel—


And let Angelina outfit him. In leather, silk, wool, and finest linen. Clothing he hadn't worn since that long ago childhood in Ferrara, the kind where the cost of one pair of boots would outfit a canaler for years.


The silk of a sleeve slid caressingly along his arm as he adjusted the positioning of the basse taille enameled sword-rest by a fraction of an inch. The stand itself was adequate—the best Petro could do on short notice. The cabinet maker had been given a more exact design, and instructions to paint the stand with no fewer than twenty coats of varnish. That kind of work took time, and Marco was content to wait for it.


The walnut half-moon table it stood on, though, was perfect. Rescued from the Dorma attics, its neat marquetry could have come from the hand of a master craftsman. Perhaps it had come from Ferrara too—Rosanna Dorma had brought some furnishings with her from their estates outside Vicenza. Iron from Vicenza went to the forges of Ferrara and the Dell'este craftsmen marked only their steel.


Marco looked again at the old sword and shivered. The second sword of Dell'este, that he'd last seen on its own rest just below the first sword. It brought with it levels of meaning as intricate and interleaved as the folded and refolded steel that made up the blade.


* * *

"The sword of Duke Dell'este is the soul of House Dell'este," the old duke had said, with Marco kneeling attentively beside him.


"This sword—" Marco had turned wide eyes on his grandfather—"is as old as Ferrara?!" He could not imagine it: the tally of years made him dizzy to contemplate.


"Not Ferrara and not this sword," Grandfather had sighed. "The Dell'este were swordsmiths . . . back when the Etruscans first came across the mountains to the flatlands of the east. The first soul of Dell'este was forged in Felsina. The second in hiding in Motena. The third was made in the marshes we reclaimed to make Ferrara's wealth. Each time we have made two. As strong and with the new skills that the Dell'este alone can give to the great blades. Some call it magic . . ." The old man had smiled, dryly. "The witchfinders suspect us. But if there is magic, it is in the blood and bone and steel of the Dell'este. Sometimes . . . when the House Dell'este is threatened—in uncertain times—it is sometimes wise to send a second soul out with an heir to seek a new home, so that the Dell'este line will continue. This is the third blade that—"


Beside him, Benito wriggled and yawned audibly.


"Father, this is boring me to tears." Lorendana had complained. "I can hardly imagine the boys—"


"Exactly," Grandfather had snapped. "You can hardly imagine anything. Exercising your mind is evidently beyond you." He rose to his feet, his face gone cold with anger, and pointed to the door behind her. "Go, get out of here, and take your impertinence with you."


* * *

That was what Grandfather had meant, sending the sword. That things were deteriorating in Ferrara. That he feared for the House Dell'este, and was taking steps to ensure its survival. But he, Marco Valdosta, was merely the child of a daughter of the house. Things must be dire indeed . . . that he, Marco, was now a recognized heir.


Dell'este honor. The Dell'este soul-sword. He wanted to heal people, not cut them down. But honor demanded he must do as the House Dell'este needed.


Petro Dorma couldn't know these things, but he had evidently understood that the coming of the sword meant far, far more than mere courtesy to a new ally, a new powerful trade partner, or even the Family that had assumed guardianship of his grandsons.


"You realize—we've had to change our original plans about you." Petro spoke reluctantly, as if he regretted having to tell this to Marco. "We were going to sponsor you into the Accademia in anticipation that you would eventually replace Doctor Rigannio. He's getting old, he's been hinting for some time that we should start thinking about finding an 'assistant.' But now—"


Petro shrugged, helplessly.


"I'm sorry, Marco, but it's really out of the question. It simply isn't done, having a son of one Family serving another Family, even in so honored a position as Family physician. Oh, I see no reason why you can't study medicine, so go right ahead, and we'll go through with our sponsorship and support. But—"


Marco nodded. "I understand, milord," he'd said quietly. "That's just the way it is."


Dell'este honor.


Dell'este responsibilities.


There was no running away from this. And he had learned, finally, the folly of running. Even Caesare didn't run from problems—because he had taken on responsibilities. So there would be no "Doctor Marco" living canalside, helping the canalers and the poorest of the canalsiders.


Still . . . Doctor Rigannio, a kindly man, had been letting him be something of an assistant, in the past month or so that he'd been visiting Dorma. Now that he was here he spent more time with him, so long as it was within the House. And Rigannio'd been listening, carefully, to what Marco had poured out to him about Sophia's cures. That information—slowly, carefully, and with no clues as to the source—was something Doctor Rigannio had taken to leaking back into the Accademia. It wasn't heretical; and Marco had already seen evidence that it was coming back down to canalside, as the herb-hunters were pointed to new plants, and the results coming into the apothecaries. So he'd done that much good.


And there was something else. He'd been watching these aristocrats, and from the inside vantage point. No one thought any the worse of the Casa heads for having hobbies—some of them pretty odd. Old man Renzi cultivated entertainers. Bruno Bruschi studied Venetian insect life. Carlo di Zecchilo played the flute. Angelo Ponetti made lace, for God's sake! As long as it didn't obsess you, the way the Doge's clockwork toys did, a hobby was actually considered genteel.


There was no reason why the head of an old Case Vecchie family like the Valdosta couldn't indulge himself in a hobby of medicine. And if he chose to treat the impoverished canalers and canalsiders, well, the medical establishment would be relieved that he wasn't taking away potentially paying patients, and his peers would consider it no more than mildly eccentric. He could work it out with the priests by explaining that he was discharging religious obligations. As for having the time to do this, he'd been watching Petro; and yes, he was busy, but he did have some leisure time. It was possible.


And the opportunity to so indulge himself—the training to be able to do so—would have come without any strings attached other than those of duty to his family. Not Strega, not Dorma. There were other ramifications—of potential benefit to both Valdosta and Aldanto. He could earn loyalty and gratitude for Valdosta down along canalside that no amount of money could buy. He could earn friends for his Family, and ears for Caesare Aldanto.


"I'm kind of lost here," he had been saying to his patients, or his patients' parents. They knew by his accent that he wasn't canalside born, though what they made of him, he couldn't guess. "I don't know canalside. I need friends in the trade, friends who'd tell me when somebody's setting up to cheat me or hurt me. Not spies, Lord and Saints, no! Just friends—who'll give me a ride now and again, give me warning if there's a bullyboy on my tail, and tell me the common gossip everybody knows, but nobody else would tell me. That's help, honest help, worth more than silver, worth more than enough to clear any debt."


Those who'd insisted on paying him with goods instead of that asked-for help, he'd had leave the stuff in front of Harrow's hole. It kept disappearing, so he assumed Harrow was getting most of it. He doubted anyone else was. That part of Castello had become mysteriously free from crime of late . . .


He sighed, and got to his feet. It was hard, trying to think out all the ramifications of something. He was so used to living one day at a time, not thinking beyond the needs of the season. Now—


Now it was time for dancing lessons. Pah. Dancing lessons. He'd been here a week and needed to get out and see Kat. But he wasn't sure what to tell her. She was a commoner, a smuggler. He was now one of the Case Vecchie. How was she going to take that? She was the greatest darling in nature. But touchy about her home. It must be very simple and poor and she didn't seem to want him to know where it was.


How would he handle that, now? How would he handle anything?


He didn't know. All he knew was the meaning of the sword, there in its rightful place.


Dell'este steel. Dell'este honor. It had been returned to him. He had no choice but to honor it. Nor, he discovered, probing his heart, did he have any desire not to honor it.


 



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