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Chapter 71

The girl approaching the bench of Ventuccio runners was an enigma. She was definitely money. Her hair and clothes said that. If she hadn't been here, in the working part of the Ventuccio warehouse, Benito would have said she was Case Vecchie. There was something vaguely familiar about her. Benito chewed his thumbnail and wondered what brought her to Ventuccio.


She walked up to Ambrosino Ventuccio's desk like she owned him, the desk, and all of Ventuccio, and didn't need to flaunt the fact. The saturnine Ventuccio cousin sat up sharp when he saw her, and put what he was doing aside. She spoke quietly to him for a moment, too quietly for Benito to hear what she was saying, although he strained his ears unashamedly. But then she turned away from Ambrosino towards the bench and crooked her finger, beckoning. Beckoning Benito.


He jumped up and bounced over to her. Ambrosino Ventuccio looked him up and down, speculation in his no-color eyes, then cleared his throat. "Milady Montescue needs a runner—for something special," he said, slowly. "She wants somebody as knows where Marco Felluci went. I told her that he's not here any more, that he got proper leave to go, so he's not in any trouble with us. Then she wanted to speak to you, about him."


"Yes, milady," Benito said quickly. "Milady, I—" He gulped. He recognized the hairdo now. This was the woman who had brought Maria home. She smiled at him. His mouth must have fallen open in response. Only one person had that wide a smile . . . And standing as she was, only he could see her put a finger to her lips.


Digesting this one was going to take more than a few seconds. He wasn't quite sure what to say about Marco, and looked at Ambrosino for some clue. It was no secret—at least, he'd not been told it was—that Marco Valdosta was now openly under Dorma protection and sponsorship. But it wasn't something that too many people knew yet, either, outside the Case Vecchie circles. Ambrosino knew, but that didn't mean he wanted the other runners to know.


"Why don't you and the milady take a walk, kid," Ambrosino said. "Make this the last run of the day. The Montescue are still a great house."


Lord and Saints—That "Montescue?" The ones that owned the huge palace and shipyard down on the landward side of Cannaregio? It wasn't in the best of repair maybe, but still. They were Case Vecchie. Case Vecchie longi!


"—and it can't hurt to tell her what she wants to know."


"Yes, milord." Benito replied faintly. "Milady?"


She led him out, into the late-afternoon bustle and clamor on the shadowed walkway, maintaining a strained and complete silence. They moved with the flow of the crowd all the way down to the bridge, without her saying a word.


Finally, she stopped in the little alcove where the bridge met the walkway, a nook built in the side of the building so that people with long burdens to maneuver off the bridge onto the walkway could do so. She finally faced him there, and cleared her throat awkwardly. "Maria said I must talk to you."


Benito shook his head, still unbelieving. "Kat . . . Montescue?"


She grimaced. "Katerina Montescue, when I'm wearing these clothes. Kat the Spook when I'm . . . like you know me."


Benito swallowed. "But why? How . . ."


She shrugged. "Some things family have to do. And the Montescue are . . . few. There is nobody else. And I grew up playing around the boatyard. Playing in the boats. My mama wasn't Case Vecchie. The Negri aren't even curti. They're new money. Grandpapa Negri still rowed his own boat. I think Mama encouraged me to be a tomboy because . . . because it upset the Montescue cousins." She pulled a rueful face. "Back when there were some."


That left an awkward silence. "Um. Seeing as old Ambrosino said I could take off now . . . shall we go and have a glass of wine. Er. I gotta explain to you . . . 'Marco Felluci' is really . . ."


"Marco Valdosta," said Katerina sadly. "Come on. You're right. I could use a whole bottle of grappa, never mind a glass of wine." She pulled a wry face. "Except I don't like it. Somewhere quiet, Benito. I'm sticking the Montescue name out into public view enough just doing this. Maria said it was important. So important she posted a note under our water-door. Her writing's not great." That produced an almost-smile. "It took Giuseppe until this morning to give it to me. He thought he was protecting me. Madelena had a fight with him about it and made him come and deliver it."


Benito didn't know who these people were. But he knew a private place, close enough. He nodded. "Follow me." He led off to a little wine-cellar a hundred yards off. Inside it was dark and smoky, and still further privacy was offered by little cubicles. The sound was oddly damped within. "Traders use this place for negotiations. The partitions are double walled and filled with wool."


Kat and he sat down and the padrone wordlessly brought them a carafe of wine and a bowl of anchovy-stuffed olives. "Supposed to make you thirsty," said Benito, cheerfully taking three. "Now . . . if you already know that Marco is Marco Valdosta, what else can I tell you?"


Kat chewed her lip. "I . . . sent him a very angry letter, when I found out he was getting married to Angelina Dorma. I thought, I, I, well, he, I mean, er . . ."


Benito had to help out. There was some fun in seeing Kat tongue-tied, but he felt sorry for her anyway. And it was too late now, even if she was Katerina Montescue and not Kat "Trouble" the Spook. "Was two-timing you?"


"Yes," she said, her voice hardly audible. "Maria—I saw her early this morning—said it absolutely wasn't like that. She said I had to talk to you. Even if it was too late now. It's taken me all day to screw up the courage to walk into Ventuccio and ask for you."


Benito took a deep breath. He didn't really know how to handle this. But honesty to his brother seemed only fair, especially as Maria had already muddied the waters. Women! They made things complicated.


"Marco wasn't seeing Angelina when he was seeing you. He . . . well, never mind, but I promise, word of honor, swear to God, he never even saw her face in the last three months. Not until he moved into Dorma."


"I know," said Kat, dully. "And he's married now. Anyway it would never have worked. He's Valdosta. I'm Montescue. Our Families are enemies to the death. And I suppose it was the honorable thing for him to do, even if they had split up. He had to marry her. She was carrying his baby."


Benito choked on his wine. He spluttered.


"What!?"


* * *

Kat looked around anxiously. No one appeared to be staring at a red-faced Katerina Montescue and a tousle-haired teenager who was still gawping like a fish out of water. Marco . . . Marco had always been rather protective of Benito. Kat couldn't see why, because she'd bet his co-worker knew all about where babies came from when he was still in his own cradle. Still, it was par for the course. Very like Marco. She'd bet that Dorma bitch had seduced him. Her hands crooked into claws.


Benito finally got control of his larynx. "Who told you that?"


"Maria. Marco told her."


Benito shook his head. "Marco is the ultimate prize idiot. He needs a minder."


"Accidents happen," said Kat, stiffly.


Benito snorted. "Not unless Marco is the male equivalent of the Virgin Mary. And I've known him all my life. He's only half a saint. The other half is pure idiot, I promise."


He seemed so absolutely certain. "So who is the father then?" Kat demanded.


Benito looked at her, then away; then shook his head. "Let's just say Marco is paying his debts."


She had to know. "Benito, I'm not joking. If I have to spend the whole of the Casa Montescue's strongbox on a truth-spell, I'll get that answer. There isn't much in the strong box—but we can borrow." And some things are more important than money.


Benito shrugged. "It's too late, Kat. I know Marco. It is a question of honor. He's made his decision. He'll live by it."


Kat sighed. She should have trusted her heart and gone and talked him out of it. "He made it after he got that stupid letter from me." Well, marriages could be annulled. It wasn't easy, but once she had the real father . . . "I need to know who the father is, Benito. I'll find out. Every Strega scryer in this town relies on us. So you might as well tell me."


Benito shook his head. "Who did Marco tell that he was the father? There's your answer. And it is no help to you, Kat."


Marco told Maria. . . . "Caesare?" she asked, weakly.


Benito nodded. "After Marco's silly love poems made Caesare know the Case Vecchie girl had the hots for him, he made a move."


She'd even seen them together, she now realized. At that ridotto—true, Angelina had been masked, but the hair was recognizable. "Maria?" she asked, already knowing the answer.


"Doesn't know. I mean, she was after Caesare about him having another woman. But she doesn't know who, or even for sure. Hey—you leave her out of this, Kat! Look, there is no way the Dorma would have taken Aldanto. He's an ex-Montagnard. Forget about Marco. All you can do is wreck his life, and wreck Maria's. I know my brother. He won't back out. I'm sorry . . ."


Kat's head was whirling. She put it in her hands.


"Have some wine," said Benito gently, pushing the glass to her.


She took the wine. The harsh ruby liquid slopped a little. "You're his brother!?" There was a small sameness about the mouth, and in mannerisms . . .


Benito nodded. "I don't think we have the same father," he said wryly. "But yes, I'm Marco's brother. And believe me, Kat. Best thing you can do is leave him to get on with life with Angelina Dorma."


"Your name is Valdosta?"


Benito nodded. "Benito Valdosta. But I don't advertise it. After Mama was killed we went into hiding. Marco took off into the Jesolo. I lived in an attic and was a sneak thief. Then someone tried to kill Marco, about a year ago. Assassin. Professional. So I took him to Caesare."


"Someone tried to kill him?"


"Yes. Marco kind of assumed it was someone from the Council of Ten. But later we decided maybe it was the Montagnards."


Kat closed her eyes. "Dear God!" That was Grandpapa!


"He didn't even get hurt," said Benito reassuringly, but she wasn't listening anymore. She stared into nothing for a moment. Then she stood up.


"Don't ever tell anyone your name," she said harshly. "Never. Not anyone. Or go to Dorma for protection. And whatever you do, don't tell Aldanto." And she walked away.


* * *

Giaccomo was watching them out the corner of his eye, so Benito was doing his damnedest to act virtuous.


"—I can't believe it," Mercutio said, leaning back in his chair against the wall, and sipping at his brandy, his eyes alight with laughter. Jeppo cleared away their plates, with an odd look at Benito, but didn't say anything. Benito concentrated on being very well behaved. This was Giaccomo's after all, and if he did anything, Maria would hear about it. He wasn't even drinking brandy, though Mercutio had offered it, he was sticking to wine. Watered wine. He'd have a halo at this rate.


Outside Giaccomo's open door there were canalers lounging on his porch, mugs and glasses in hand, enjoying the balmy evening. He and Mercutio had the taproom pretty much to themselves.


"I just can't believe it'" Mercutio repeated, chuckling. "I leave this town, and the very next day all hell breaks loose! And me not here to help it along!" He shook his head mockingly. "I can see I've got a lot of lost time to make up—"


Suddenly he leaned forward, and his tone grew conspiratorial. "That's where you come in, kid. If you want in. Because I need a lookout and a housebreaker for a little piece of work."


Benito brightened. "'Course I want in!" He replied softly. "What'd you take me for? What's the action?"


Mercutio's eyes flamed with glee. "Who's the richest, dumbest man in this city?"


Benito snorted. "No contest. The Doge."


"And what does he love above power, wealth, women—everything?"


"His clockwork toys," Benito supplied.


"Now—what would he do, do you think, if he'd gone and built a wonderful toy just to send to Rome as a kind of present for the Grand Metropolitan—and he'd sent it to the jeweler to get all gilded and prettied up, and get sparklies put on it—and somebody—borrowed it? And told him he'd get it back only if he left a great deal of money in a particular place—and didn't tell anyone about it. And told him if he did bring in the Schiopettieri, he'd get his beautiful clockwork toy back in a million pieces?" Mercutio settled back in his chair with a smile of smug satisfaction.


"He's just dumb enough to do it," Benito acknowledged, answering Mercutio's smile with one of his own. "When and where?"


"Tonight, if you're game. Jeweler just opposite the bridge."


"Schiopettieri?" Benito asked.


"Got a distractor. Gave Jewel Destre a Turkish-made coat like this'n when he drooled over it. He thought I was groveling." Mercutio chuckled. "Then this afternoon I sent a couple messages to him and Giancarlo Polo concerning the coat and Jewel's manhood. Send one more and I'll guarantee they'll play knife-talk on the bridge tonight."


Benito chuckled evilly. "An' if anybody sees anythin', all they'll notice is the coat. So if anybody comes lookin' for a thief—they go for Jewel. Si. What is this thing of the Doge's anyway? A timepiece?"


Mercutio snickered. "I heard it's a clockwork whale he put together for his bath."


Benito snickered at the notion of a grown man playing with bath toys. "Let's do it," he said.


 


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