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Chapter 70

It was about a month after the wedding before Maria finally got a chance to see Kat.

The Arsenal was working flat out. It was always like that, anyway, this time of year. The convoy for the Golden Horn would leave in a week and the last-minute outfitting was still going on. Now, with a war looming, there was additional work getting the navy's galleys ready.

A couple of cousins waved to Maria as she rowed in with the load of brass nails from Seino's. "Maria, we need a piece of trompe l'oiel work for the admiral's cabin fetched from the Botega Giorgione," said the foreman, when she'd off-loaded. He pulled a sour face. "The admiral sent it back because of the cherubs. So they've held it back to the last minute. They're not punishing Admiral Niccolo. They're punishing us. But do you think they can see that?"

Great. That meant into town. Again. Well, she'd see if she could fit a trip to Giaccomo's into her rounds. They said trade was tight in Venice lately, because of the political situation, and you could see signs of it. But not right now. She felt she was being run off her feet, or more like rowed off her shoulders. "Consider it done, Paulo."

He patted her shoulder. "We trust you, Garavelli."

Yeah. They trusted her. The boatyard work was reliable, but for real money she still relied on Giaccomo. And the trouble with the squeeze on trade on the Po, the Vinland trade, and Genoa trying to muscle Venice . . . everyone was poorer and everything was more expensive. Which didn't worry those who had a lot coming in.

The trouble was—since she'd been living with Caesare, she'd gotten used to those little luxuries, like sleeping warm and dry. But they seemed so short of money, especially with Marco not putting in anymore. Caesare seemed really tight.

She was in a brown study about it as she sculled along to Giaccomo's. It took her a good moment to realize the "Psst!" from the gondola resting against the poles was addressed at her. It was Kat. She looked drawn and miserable.

"Been lookin' for you for days," said Maria.

"I went to the mainland," Kat replied dully. "We still own a small farm there. It's mortgaged to the hilt, so we can't sell it. And then Giuseppe didn't give me your note until Madelena decided it might stop me . . ."

"Crying into your breakfast," finished Maria. Kat didn't look like she'd eaten or slept much in the last ten days.

Kat nodded.

Maria snorted. "She must have been pretty desperate."

Kat shrugged. "She always told me men were like that. I didn't believe her."

There was a time for sympathy. There was also a time for no mercy. This, decided Maria, was the latter. "Like what?"

"False!" spat Kat. "Cheating, lying, and false. Making up to . . . becoming engaged to someone when they say they're not even involved with anyone. Not even seeing anyone."

Maria shook her head. "I don't know what maggot you've got in your head. The only other woman young Marco has 'seen' in the last three months is me. Unless you are talking about women he passed in the street! And he hasn't 'made up' to me. That's for damned sure."

"So how come he suddenly married Angelina Dorma?" demanded Kat savagely. "Just suddenly, huh?"

Maria shrugged. "Because she's more than three months pregnant."

Kat stood there gawping like a carp, abruptly out of water. Eventually she managed a small "oh."

"Yes. 'Oh.' Marco is so 'good' it almost shines out of him. He's done this because he felt it was the right thing to do. I wanted you to help me to talk him out of it. That's why I tried so hard to get hold of you. He doesn't love her, and never did. He had a 'she's a gorgeous Case Vecchie girl' crush on her. She didn't even know he was Case Vecchie. She's a tramp. But . . . well, it's too late now."

"Are you sure . . . about it all . . . about the baby?"

Maria nodded. "He's a terrible liar. He might lie to save someone else pain, but not himself. And he told me straight out. I'm sorry, Kat."

Now it was time for comforting. Maria hitched the gondola, and climbed over and held Kat for some time. The chiming of bells suddenly started Maria back into a realization of her duties.

"Hell. I've got to move. I'm supposed to have that picture back there for them as soon as possible! Look, you must go and see Benito. Talk to him. Confirm what I said. You can find him outside Ventuccio's just after lunch. I've got to go."

* * *

Lunchtime for runners saw Benito draped in his usual spot over the lower railing of the Ventuccio stairs, absorbing lunch and sunlight at the same time. He was blind and deaf to the traffic into Ventuccio behind him, intent as he was on his study of the canal below, until an elegantly-booted foot nudged his leg.

"Hey, kid," drawled a smooth voice, rich with amusement. "How's the trade?"

Benito looked up sharply from his afternoon perusal of the traffic and stared, his mouth full of bread. He knew that voice!

Wiry and thin, dark hair falling in a mass of curls to below his shoulders, Mercutio Laivetti leaned elegantly on the walkway rail beside him, grinning, looking very like a younger, darker, shorter version of Caesare Aldanto. Benito took in the slightly exotic cut of his clothing, the well-worn hilt of his rapier, the sun-darkened state of his complexion at a glance, before bursting out with his reply.

"Mercutio!" he exclaimed, scrabbling to his feet, and throwing his arms around the older boy—boy still, for Mercutio was only a year or two older than his brother, Marco. "Where've you been? I was thinkin' the Dandelos got you!"

Mercutio laughed and ruffled Benito's hair, but did not attempt to extract himself from the younger boy's embrace. "Had to make a trip to the East, kid—for my health." Benito let him go and backed up a step, looking up at him in perplexity. Mercutio tapped Benito's nose with a playful fingertip. "Not to make a story out of it, laddie, but my dear father turned me in to the Schiopettieri. Hopped a ship one step ahead of 'em, and worked my way to Turkey and back. Didn't have much time for goodbyes."

Benito grinned in delight. "Truth."

Mercutio turned his expression to one of unwonted seriousness, and placed his hand solemnly on his satin-covered chest in the general vicinity of his heart. "Truth." Then he dropped the pose, put his arm around Benito's shoulders, and returned the boy's embrace. "So what you been up to, kid? Still roofwalking?"

Benito grinned. "Some. Mostly been running. Do an odd job for Claudia and Valentina, for—'nother fellow. Out-of-towner. Landsman but a good fellow. Some for a canaler too, but that's been a special—"

He broke off, not wanting to talk about Maria to Mercutio, for some odd reason. He finished a bit lamely: "I've been helping, like. Mostly running for Ventuccio these days."

"Ventuccio?" Mercutio pursed his lips in surprise. The sun struck red lights from his hair, green sparks from his hazel eyes. "Come up in the world, have we?"

Benito flushed with pleasure. "Hey, ain't no big thing. And it's mostly on account of that fellow, the one I do a bit of odd work for. He got me the job. I been staying with him."

Mercutio grew silent, a silence punctuated by the distant clamor of voices on the canal below, the splashing of poles, the regular spat of wavelets on Ventuccio foundations. "Benito—" Mercutio's expression darkened, and his grip on Benito's shoulders tightened. "Benito, this feller—he isn't messing with you, is he?"

Benito's open-mouthed shock seemed to reassure the older boy, even before he spluttered out his reply. "Him? Hell no, not in a million years! He likes girls. Got him one, too. 'Member Maria Garavelli?"

Mercutio's eyebrows rose, and his tense expression relaxed. "Milady Hellcat herself? An out-of-town landsman? Lord and Saints, I don't know whether to congratulate the man, or pity him! Who is this paragon?"

"Name of Aldanto," Benito replied. "Caesare Aldanto."

"That's not a name I know." The questions in Mercutio's eyes gave Benito momentary qualms, and he belatedly began to pick his words with care.

"Aristo, Capuletti bastard, half German," Benito said, sticking to the "official" story. "They pay him to keep himself quiet and do a job or two for 'em."

"To not make an embarrassment of himself, and to do what Milord Capuletti doesn't want to dirty his fingers with, hmm?" Mercutio mused. "I can see where a smart kid like you could be useful to him. Is he treating you all right?"

Benito nodded vigorously. "As good as you. 'Cept he tries to keep me outa trouble."

Mercutio laughed. "Then I've got no quarrel with him. And how are my old pair of nemeses, Miladies Valentina and Claudia?"

Benito hid another grin. Claudia did not approve of Mercutio Laivetti, and Valentina approved of him even less. She considered him far too reckless, far too careless; which, to Benito, seemed rather a case of pot calling kettle. She hadn't liked it when Benito had taken to hanging around with the older boy—she'd liked it even less when Mercutio had included him in on some of his escapades.

But Mercutio was something special—a kind of substitute brother; while Benito's brother was out of reach in the Jesolo, he'd given Benito someone to tag after, look up to, try to imitate. He'd initiated Benito into the no-longer-quite-so-mysterious ways of Girls—or rather, Women—just prior to his disappearance. And he'd been something of a protector when there was trouble and Claudia wasn't around.

Truth to be told, Mercutio was a great deal that Marco was not. He took risks Marco would not even have thought of, and took them laughingly. Marco was so serious—and Benito grew tired of seriousness, now and again.

It was Mercutio's easy, careless good humor that attracted Benito the most. Mercutio could always find something to laugh at, even when the job went wrong. Mostly, though, nothing went wrong in Mercutio's hands, and he did everything with a flair and style that Benito could only envy.

"Claudia's okay—but ye'll never guess who Valentina's playin' footsie with," Benito replied, smirking.

"Ricardo Brunelli?" Mercutio laughed.

"Less likely'n that."

"Less likely—the only man less likely would be a Schiopettieri—" He stopped dead at Benito's widening grin. "You can't be serious!"

"Dead serious."

"Dip me in batter and call me fried fish! If Valentina's a-bedding with a Schiopettieri, can Judgment Day be far behind?" Mercutio's eyes were wide and gleeful. "I can see I've been missing far more than I dreamed!" He let Benito go, and regarded him with a lifted eyebrow and a grin that practically sparkled. "I can see that getting caught up is going to cost me at least the price of a dinner. So tell me, my young wage earner—when do your employers release you for the day?"


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