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Chapter 67

Kat was whistling. A terrible un-genteel habit, as Alessandra told her frequently. Right now the thought of that made her want to whistle louder. She wanted to practice being un-genteel. And besides, happiness was bubbling up in her.


Her joy seemed to be affecting everything. The last cargo had come through, perfectly. The Montescue's tiny share as part of a Colleganza of a wood shipment to Alexandria had paid off handsomely, the merchant having come up with a return cargo of ivory . . . which had caught the current fashion for marquetry just in the upswing. It had made them a tidy profit. Not enough to tow the Casa Montescue out of the river tick but enough to make it seem as if there might—eventually—be a light on the horizon.


And she'd be seeing Marco again on Thursday. She hugged herself. Two days. She should have made it sooner. But, well, she didn't want it to appear too much as if she was chasing him.


Even the thought of tonight's levee at the Doge's palace could not upset her. If Senor Lopez was there and wanted to talk to her . . . well, he had no real evidence. Mind you, even the thought of that eagle gaze was enough to put a damper on her mood. He wasn't the sort who needed "evidence." She shook off the thought and took her mind back to Marco Felluci. It wasn't hard. And the thoughts were pleasant as she waited for Madelena to come down and help her dress for the levee.


* * *

A levee at the Doge's palace . . . Marco was so nervous he could hardly think straight. All the haut monde of Venice would be there, Case Vecchie, rising merchant houses, distinguished foreign visitors, ambassadors and nobility. All the power and glitter of Venice. Marco had looked across the piazza past the winged lion of Saint Mark at the colonnaded Gothic palace often. But to be inside?!


* * *

The inside was a place of confusion, light, and above all, people. Musicians—no mean performers either—played in a side salon. Nobody kept quiet for them, however; people simply continued their light inconsequential chatter and laughter. If anyone had dared treat Valentina and Claudia's music thus! Marco was introduced to yet another Case Vecchie family head. He bowed politely for the . . . he'd lost count. No wonder the Case Vecchie went slumming at Barducci's.


"Valdosta, eh?" said the florid Count Antonelli. "That's one of the old names we haven't heard for a while. Where have you been, boy?"


"With his grandfather, Duke Dell'este," interposed Petro Dorma smoothly.


The Count nodded. "So, boy—which way is Ferrara leaning? Venice, Milan . . . or Rome?"


Yes, these were worrying times. Ferrara had for the better part of century stood by Venice, but keeping its independence. Then the Venetians had demanded the salt pans, and Ferrara had balked and called on Rome—and even, for a time, threatened alliance with Milan. Who, for its part, had sent no less of a condottiere than Carlo Sforza to pay a friendly visit to Ferrara . . . a visit to which, Marco suspected, he ultimately owed his brother.


It had all blown over, eventually. But . . . by the presence of that sword in the Casa Dorma, the storm was brewing again.


Marco was not prepared for the direct question. For the simplest reason: he had no idea what the old duke was planning to do.


"My grandfather keeps his own council, milord."


"Yes, but . . ."


"I see the majordomo is beckoning to us, Count Antonelli," interrupted Petro. "Pardon us. I must find my sister and take my new ward to be presented to the Doge."


Petro steered Marco away across the salon to where Angelina was talking to a tall, beautifully made up woman with a neat little mole above her rosebud mouth, standing in the circle that surrounded Lucrezia Brunelli. They were laughing. The woman gave Marco a very considering look as Petro snagged his sister and led them off to meet Doge Foscari.


* * *

Kat was preparing herself for the sheer delight of giving Signor Sergio Della Galbo the finest put-down of his obnoxious life. The fat curti had cornered her again. But knowing how her grandfather felt, and having met her soulmate, Katerina Montescue was going to tell this disgusting old roué where to get off. In training for a life as Katerina Felluci she was going to use some choice canaler terms she'd picked up from Maria.


And then her grandfather came storming up, towing Alessandra. His lined face was as pale as his snowy linen. His eyes bulged. Alessandra was looking terrified and wasn't even protesting. "Come," was all the old man said. Very quietly.


Della Galbo protested. "Get lost, worm!" snapped Kat, pushing past him to her grandfather. She slid an arm around the old man. "What is wrong, Grandpapa?" she asked, worried. The last time she seen him like this was when they'd brought the news of Alessandra's baby's death. Normally, if he was angry, the whole countryside knew about it.


"Valdosta." He spat the name out as if it were a curse. "They're not all dead, girl. I told you some of the vermin still survived. But I never thought I'd see them here, bold as brass, under the protection of Casa Dorma." He pointed.


She was glad she had her arm around the solid if elderly stanchion of her grandfather. Walking, head bent forward in the listening pose she knew so well, had studied so lovingly . . . was Marco Felluci. He was listening to Petro Dorma and that horrible spoiled brat, Angelina Dorma. Marco was not wearing Ventuccio livery, or old canaler clothes. He was dressed in a silk shirt, and fine hose, with a cloak that could have bought Maria's gondola. There was gold on his finger.


"Who—who is that?" she asked, in a small wooden voice, feeling stupid, stunned, her world in chaos.


Her grandfather hissed like a leaky kettle. "Calls himself 'Marco Valdosta.' They claim he's been in Ferrara. With the Dell'este. That's another Valdosta lie. I'm quite sure he's the same one I tried to have assassinated here in Venice last year—and failed, I'm sorry to say."


For a moment, Kat thought she might faint.


"Now come," growled Lodovico. "We're going home."


* * *

Kat sat on her bed. She had neither the will, nor, it seemed, the ability to do more than stare at the wall. Madelena had fussed her charge into a nightgown. Gently and quietly this once, seeing Katerina behaving like some porcelain doll, obedient but mechanical, and silent.


Even Alessandra coming in to her room didn't excite any reaction. Madelena crossed herself.


Alessandra was big with excitement. "Well! What a scene. I thought the old fool was going to drop dead on us. That Valdosta's not bad looking, is he? Although I prefer more rugged men, myself. Still, that Angelina Dorma seems pleased enough with her catch."


"WHAT!?"


Alessandra prattled on. "They say she's getting married to the Valdosta boy. Lucrezia said it has to be pretty soon, because she's already carrying his baby."


The roaring in Katerina's ears refused to be stilled. Even Alessandra noticed. "What's wrong?"


"Nothing." Lead was lighter. "I feel sick."


"Are you pregnant?" said Alessandra, eager for more fuel.


This was enough to penetrate Kat's armor of confusion and misery. "No!" she snapped. "But if I left it to you, half the town would say I was. And I'll bet all this gossip is just as true as my pregnancy."


Alessandra shrugged and turned her shoulder. She sniffed. "And I suppose Grandfather isn't talking about finding a decent assassin to get rid of the brat."


"Be real, Alessandra," said Katerina a terrible sinking feeling in her gut. . . . He could. He hated the Valdosta name bitterly. "Like we need to open warfare with Dorma. Or even Duke Dell'este."


Alessandra shrugged an elegant shoulder. "I suggested he hire Aldanto. He could do it quietly."


"Caesare! Ha! He knows Mar . . . Valdosta too well," a curious mix of fear and misery betrayed Kat into speaking before she thought.


Alessandra pounced on her. "And how do you know Caesare Aldanto? You keep away from him Katerina." She laughed. A humorless, bitter sound. "He's too strong a meat for you."


Alessandra turned and walked out, with a parting snort.


It took Kat a few minutes of mulling to suddenly wonder. How did her sister-in-law—married at seventeen from a cloistered background into a sheltered and restrictive Case Vecchie family—know someone like Caesare Aldanto at all?


Sleep was not going to come tonight. She got up and put on a dressing gown, and went up to her grandfather's study.


He was sitting there staring at his tallies. He wasn't looking, just staring. He didn't even see her come in. She had to put an arm around his shoulder before he noticed her.


He sighed. "Ah Katerina, cara mia. I had begun to see some small hope from the Casa Montescue. A future for you, a dowry." He sighed again. "Now . . . Valdosta."


She hugged the hunched shoulders. "Grandpapa . . . I know they are our enemy . . . but I've never asked . . . why?"


He snorted. "Never wanted to make me angry by even mentioning the name, is what you mean." He rubbed his face wearily. "The two houses were once allies—even friends. We go back far into the history of the Venice. Luciano—that was Luciano Valdosta—he used to joke that it was a Valdosta and Montescue that witnessed the meeting between Saint Mark and the winged Lion. He said the Montescue was busy stealing Saint Mark's fish and the Valdosta, not to be outdone, was stealing the whole boat . . . Luciano and me. We were like that." The old man twisted his fingers over each other. "People used to say 'Luci and Lodo'—here comes trouble."


Lodovico Montescue sighed. "It wasn't really like that. I used to get us into trouble and Luciano would get us out. He was a good man . . . deep down. Not like his son, Fabio." The old face was contorted into a scowl. "Luciano would have married my sister: your great-aunt Fiorenza. But he got involved with the Montagnards from Milan. He and I had a fight. The first time ever . . . It's a long story. But then he married Viviana. And there was bad blood between us and the two houses didn't speak.


"But I missed him, truth to tell. There wasn't a day when I didn't think I'd been stupid. I even sent a message over once. It came back, torn up. Then, when Luciano was killed in a freak accident over at the boatyard . . . I went to the funeral. To pay my respects to a man I loved. And that little pig Fabio screamed at me and denounced me for killing his father. Right there in the church! He swore revenge. I was angry, true. But—out of respect for the Church and for Luciano—I didn't throttle him right there. I should have. He paid us back with black magic. You can put the death of your mother, your aunt Rosa, your brother, and even my grandson down to him. Even a baby at his door.


"He fled to Ferrara with that silly foreign-born wife of his before I could take action. The Signori di Notte and the Doge claimed it was plague, but I didn't believe it for a moment. Then Fabio got himself killed in a fight with some mercenary. But that wife of his continued the vendetta when she came back here, I'm sure of it. Very low she was then, thinking she could get away with her Montagnard activities by pretending to be a mere shopkeeper. She and her Montagnard friends organized against our house. I'm sure they're responsible for your father's disappearance."


Even as angry as Kat was at anything remotely "Valdosta," her grandfather's theories seemed . . . well, insane.


He sighed. Ruffled her hair. "I suppose it all sounds insane. And . . . perhaps it is. At least, that's what—ah, a good friend of mine tells me. She may well be right. But if I've given up the vendetta—not that we could afford one against Dell'este as well as Valdosta anyway—I haven't given up my sentiments. Now, be off to bed, minx."


Kat went. But not to sleep. Before dawn she dressed in her canal-going clothes and hooded cloak and went out.


* * *

"I missed you at the levee tonight," yawned Francesca, tying up her robe. As she led Kat into the salon, the courtesan glanced at the window, still covered with curtains. The sun was just beginning to rise and its light, filtered through the expensive cloth, bathed the room in a soft velvety glow. "Or last night, I suppose I should say. I just got home myself, and was about to go to bed."


The courtesan examined Kat's clothing and grinned sleepily. "Congratulations, by the way. How in the world did you manage to talk your way into Casa Louise dressed like that?"


Abashed, now that she was actually inside Francesca's apartment, Kat glanced uneasily at the door to Francesca's bedroom. The door was open.


Francesca's grin widened, and became less sleepy. "Relax. I don't usually entertain my clients here any longer. Except Manfred, of course, since I refuse to smuggle myself past that gaggle of knights at the embassy. And . . . one other, who wants to keep our liaison a secret from his closest relative."


Kat tried to find the right words. Then, when she couldn't find any words at all, burst into tears.


Francesca's grin vanished. "Come, come, little one," she crooned, folding Kat into an embrace the way a mother or a big sister might, "it can't be that bad."


"Yes it can!" wailed Kat. And proceeded, in the ensuing time of babbled words, to prove her point. Or try to, at least.


* * *

By the time she was done, Francesca was standing at the window, looking at the canal below through a curtain she had drawn partly aside with a finger.


"You could probably nip it in the bud, you know," the courtesan mused. "This budding marriage between Casa Dorma and Casa Valdosta, I mean."


She removed her finger, allowing the curtain to sway back into place, and cocked her head toward Kat. "I heard the rumors myself, last night. A marriage of convenience, driven partly by politics and partly by the crude fact that Angelina Dorma is pregnant. Nothing more than that."


"Nothing more!?" choked Kat. "It's still a marriage, Francesca! And—" She choked again. Then, in a whisper: "Pregnant? By Marco?"


Francesca shrugged. "That seems to be the assumption. Myself, I wouldn't—"


"That bastard!" shrilled Kat. "That—"


"Katerina!"


The sharpness in Francesca's tone jolted her. "Yes?"


The courtesan was frowning. "Before you get too carried away with your own self-righteousness . . . A question: Did you ever tell this young man exactly who you were?"


Kat's face closed down. "No."


"Why not?"


After a moment, between tight lips: "Because."


Francesca chuckled dryly. "Ah, right. 'Because.' Oh, you Venetian Case Vecchie! How quick you are to condemn others for your own sins."


Kat couldn't meet that sarcastic gaze. "My grandfather . . ." she whispered, trying to summon up a protest.


" 'Your grandfather,' " mimicked Francesca. "And you think Marco Valdosta isn't also thinking of a grandfather? A grandfather in a desperate position of his own, you know. Which an alliance with Casa Dorma in Venice would go a long way toward improving."


But Kat was in no mood to be calm and objective, much less charitable. "It's because she's pregnant," she hissed. "That bastard. Telling me—while he was—with her—"


"Go home, Kat," said Francesca wearily. "I'm tired, and you are obviously not willing to think. If you were, you might realize—"


"I'm not listening to any more!" snapped Kat, jumping to her feet. "I hate him!" She rushed for the entrance.


"Don't slam the door on your—"


Kat slammed the door on the way out.


* * *

Ugo Boldoni's poor little church was thinly attended for Lauds. It was not hard for him to spot an extra person in a hooded cloak, who waited until his early morning parishioners had left. He went back into the church where Katerina was waiting.


"And now, Katerina?" he asked the white-faced young woman who was standing chewing her lip, looking at the ground.


Katerina half-mumbled the next words. "Ugo, you're the only priest that I've known since we were both children . . . I need to find something out. I need to find out if someone is getting married."


Father Boldoni shrugged. "The banns will be read."


Kat shook her head. "I need to know now. I need to know . . . is . . . Marco Valdosta marrying Angelina Dorma?


"Not in my parish."


"Oh." Kat took another deep breath. "Well, can you find out for me? Please. I need to know now. Please."


Ugo took pity on her. "As it happens, I was at the palace of the Metropolitan only yesterday. Having a meeting about witchcraft—with Senor Eneko Lopez, as it happens, that Basque priest who seems to terrify everyone." He chuckled dryly. "I'll admit he somehow manages to be, simultaneously, one of the most frightening and inspiring men I've ever met. In the course of it, Lord Petro Dorma did come in to make some enquiries about the marriage of his sister. Soon."


"To . . . whom? And . . . and they're getting married in a hurry? W-why?" she faltered.


Ugo shrugged again. "I am the priest of a poor parish. They didn't confide in me. But I imagine for the usual reasons, Katerina. Is she a friend of yours?" Then the thought struck him. "Or—is he? I thought the Valdosta name was bad word with the Casa Montescue."


"I hate both of them," said Kat between clenched teeth and stormed out, not even genuflecting to the altar as she left.


* * *

Before Kat went back to her bed there was one last job to do. She stopped at Giaccomo's and left a brief note, before going home. Her chin was held high.


 


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