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Chapter 66

This has all been too easy.


Luciano Marina had worked his way back into his old life so smoothly that he was worried. Granted, he had not attempted to reach most of his former adherents among the Strega. Granted also, he had not practiced any magic without so many protections that the air was thick with them, literally. Still.


He had made some contacts . . . carefully, and a very few. Claudia and Valentina, a pair of Strega entertainers whose eyes and ears were always open and who had, in their turn, contacts everywhere. Itzaak ben Joseph, a Kabbalistic mage and goldsmith, whose clients ranged from the Casa Vecchie to a very recent arrival at Casa Louise, who—as Luciano alone knew, thanks to Itzaak—had up to that moment been a popular "entertainer" at the House of the Red Cat. Sister Evangelina and Father Mascoli of the Order of Saint Hypatia, who had always been friendly to the Strega. Father Palladio, who taught anatomy to the students of medicine at the Accademia. He would very much have liked to have more trusted contacts among his fellow Strega. Sadly, though they were well intentioned they were often lamentably loose tongued.


That was probably why poor Despini had been found floating. He had, said old rumor, been alerted to something very evil coming to Venice; he had certainly made the attempt to fill in the gap in Strega leadership that Luciano's own disappearance had left.


But the first rumor—that Despini had learned of something very evil with its eye on the pearl that was Venice . . . Very evil. As evil as that which Marina had seen in his vision? If so, that evil had a name, and it was a thing that Luciano was not prepared to confront. Not yet.


The Lion was stirring, true, and no longer in slumber. But neither was it awake yet—and waking it was a major and very dangerous ceremony, which also required the presence of . . . certain persons. Without the Lion, Luciano could do very little against the black evil that threatened Venice.


He shivered. He hated even to think the name of that evil, for fear of attracting its attention.


He had not moved back into his former set of rooms in the complex of buildings that loosely comprised the Accademia. For one thing, they were already occupied by someone else; for another, moving back into them would be like issuing a challenge. Instead, Luciano Marina—using his true name, since he saw no reason not to, being as he was assumed to be dead—had taken this little furnished room. Comfortable enough, with the advantage of having a back door even the landlord didn't know about, a door that had been paneled over until Luciano divined its presence and surreptitiously restored it. It let out into a private courtyard, but if Luciano had to escape some night, he wasn't going to be too particular about whose sensibilities he offended at the time. This sort of arrangement of doors and windows being paneled over happened all the time, when men of wealth fell on hard times and had to sell or lease their former manors, which then were carved up into individual dwellings. It had even happened to Casa Vecchie families. Even Casa Longi.


Poor little Katerina. The fortunes of the Montescues had not prospered in the time he'd been gone, although there was a part of that which could be laid at the old man's door, wasting endless amounts of money on that stupid attempt to destroy Casa Valdosta, root and branch.


Old fool.


But Luciano, now huddled over his brazier as the evening mists crept in and the air grew cold and damp, did not have a great deal of time or pity to waste on his former pupil and her family. He was collecting information, and he needed as much of it as he could gather, as fast as he could bring it in.


He had questions, but there was one thing that he had no doubt of. The hand of true evil was stretched towards Venice, and it had at least one finger firmly planted within the city.


Finger? Call it a claw, a talon.


Who, for a start. Who was the nun with the dead eyes? If there was a vessel for that talon, it was surely her, but who was she? To what Order did she belong? The Servants of the Trinity? If that was so, then how could such a creature have gotten into the ranks of those most fully dedicated to fighting it at all costs? How could they possibly miss the signs of such evil?


What? What was the monster he had seen in the scrying-mirror, the thing that was surely a servant of the Great Evil if not another vessel for it—the monster that was killing in such a horrible manner, the monster that could seemingly reach anyone, anywhere?


Why? What was the ultimate plan here? Luciano was quite certain by now that the Great Evil lurking behind these machinations took the form of the Grand Duke of Lithuania. But why was the duke so interested in Venice? At a glance, there seemed no logic to it.


And, a very, very urgent question—when? There would be an attack on the city, of that Luciano was now also certain. So—when? Who would be the major players?


His vision had shown him some of those players: Lucrezia Brunelli and her brother Ricardo, the nun, another churchman who was certainly wearing the cassock of the Servants of the Trinity. Another question, just how many plots were there building to a climax, and how many of them were interwoven? What he had seen was—he thought—the sources of danger to Venice; which, since these things were of necessity biased towards the attitude of the seeker, meant Venice as he knew it. Now, Lucrezia and Ricardo could, together or separately, have plans for Venice involving alliances outside the borders of the city-state that would certainly destroy the fabric of the city as he knew it, but did that mean they were allied to the Great Evil? And if they were, did they know it? The Sots—


Well, the Sots and presumably the Knots, fanatical Paulines as they were, would be only too happy to purge the city with fire and the sword of anything that was not of their own rigidly defined Christian path. That would certainly destroy Venice, but that did not mean they were allied with the Great Evil.


Ah, but one did not need to be allied with or a part of something to serve it.


What could he do? Well, he could, at the least, move to protect a few people, who had no protections of their own. Little Kat, for instance. He had once held that Hypatian medal of hers in his own two hands, and that once was enough for him to invest it with far more power than the mere wardings it contained. Now that he knew the reality of . . . It . . . in his city, he could do something specific.


But first, his protections.


He moved his bits of furniture against the wall, picked up the rug—a sadly worn import from Persia—and flipped it over. No one but another mage would ever have guessed what he'd had bonded onto the back of this old rug.


A pentagram within a protective circle, formed of bitumen mixed with blessed salt—courtesy of Sister Evangelina—and the pulverized dust of pearls and gemstones, frankincense, myrrh-gum, ambergris, copal resin, and cinnabar. A coating of artist's varnish sealed it and allowed it to be painted over with the appropriate symbols, then sealed again. Before he went to work, Luciano went over the entire diagram with his nose mere inches from the painted cloth, looking for cracks and flaws. Today there were none; had there been any, he would have immediately repaired them. Never mind that the energies were supposed to be able to flow across any such defects; in these circumstances, he dared not take any chances. Once he was done, he blew out all the lanterns in his room but one, set up his tiny altar in the middle of the pentacle, then blew out that final lamp before feeling his way to the altar.


He lit a single candle on the altar, with a spark of magic.


He cast his circle three times three, with each element—salt for earth, incense for air, a candle-flame for fire, and water. Then he traced it again, three times three, with his ritual white dagger, made, not of human bone as the Paulines claimed, but the leg bone of a fine buck-deer. And again, three times three, with the black dagger, carved of obsidian-glass from the heart of a volcano. When he was done, a faintly glowing border followed the outermost line of his circle.


He took up the bowl of water and whispered a blessing over it, then held it up to the east. "Guardian of the spirits of the water, guardian of the creatures of the water, I summon thee from thy dwelling place in the Uttermost East to stand as Watchtower, to witness my rites and guard my work."


As he flicked a single drop of water towards the east, a pillar of blue light sprang up out of nowhere, reaching from floor to ceiling, as if it was some arcane support pillar.


He turned to his right, to the west, and took up the candle. "Guardian of the spirits of fire, guardian of the creatures of fire, I summon thee. . . ."


When his invocations were complete, four tall pillars of light—blue, red, green, and yellow—stood within his glowing circle, which was now a glowing floor-to-ceiling wall stretching in a curve along the curve of the painted circle on the rug. But his protections were not yet complete, for now he would do what no Christian mage ever dared. He would invoke his deity. The Goddess, not the God—he had a sense that the monster he had seen might once have been linked in to some northern deity—Odin, perhaps, or Thor. It might be . . . impolitic . . . to invoke the Lord at the moment. Let Him decide whether or not to act on His own; there was no point in trying to force His hand.


He faced the altar, with the triple-moon sculpture of hammered bronze, and the ancient Cretan axe that was also Her symbol. "Lady of the night, Lady of the moon, you who have been Isis, Astarte, Tiamet, Diana, Artemis, Aphrodite, Rhiannon, Inana, I call and invoke thee to witness my work and guard my rituals—"


He didn't necessarily expect a response; you could invoke all you wanted, but whether or not She chose to bless you with Her presence was up to Her. But this time—


This time, with no warning at all, the inside of his circle was flooded with powerful, silvery light. The Lady of the moon not only approved, but She was minded to take a hand.


Thank you, he whispered, feeling much humbled, and bent over his scrying bowl. He had to find Kat. Then he had to fence her in with a subtle web of power that would cut any thrice-damned Odin-creature to ribbons before it even knew the protections were there.


And then—well, he would see what occurred to him.


* * *

He was startled by a knock on the door. He wasn't expecting any visitors at all. But, since the knock had consisted of the special signal he'd told his few confidants to use—two short, two long, three short, one long—he went to the door and opened it immediately.


He was more than startled to see Marco standing there. "How—"


"Rafael told me," said Marco. The boy's face seemed full of suppressed anguish. "Please, Chiano—I have to talk to you."


* * *

After Luciano heard what Marco had to say, he rubbed his face wearily. "Is happiness so much to ask for?" he murmured.


But he did not dwell on the matter. He had asked the Goddess that question many times, in his life. He would ask it no longer.


No more softness!


"Marco," he said quietly, "Venice is in the gravest danger. At such a time, you must think of your responsibilities. You don't even know this canaler-girl's surname. You know nothing about her family—or even, to be honest, she herself."


Marco's face was set in a stubborn cast. Luciano sighed. "Speak to the girl if you must, before you make your final decision. But I will tell you this, boy. I can think of nothing you could do which would strengthen Venice more than to weld Valdosta reborn—and Dell'este—to the house of Dorma."


Except a marriage between Valdosta and Montescue, came the whimsical thought. But Marina dismissed the notion as a ridiculous fancy. Lodovico Montescue would disrupt any such wedding by having the groom assassinated as he walked to the altar.


"The Valdosta name, which is still a powerful thing, would give weight to Petro Dorma's position. And, as I'm sure you've come to realize yourself, he's the best of the lot. Potentially, the leadership which Venice will need—does need, already."


Marco hung his head. He was listening, at least. Marina started to add more, but decided not to do so. Anything more, at this point, would be counterproductive. Marco Valdosta had a fierce sense of honor. Give the boy time, and he would make the right decision.


"I've got to talk to Kat," he whispered. When he lifted his head, his eyes were blurred with tears. The sight was heart-breaking.


"Talk to her then," said Luciano. "But please, Marco—remember your responsibilities."


It was time to change the subject. "So. When are you being officially presented to the city?"


Marco smiled wanly. "Tomorrow night, at the Doge's Levee."


"Splendid!"


"I think I'd rather go anywhere else," muttered Marco. "Even the Jesolo."


 


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