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Chapter 72

There were more ways in to any building than by the door, and Benito knew most of them. He and Mercutio began their operation with him going over the roof and down an air-shaft. The air-shaft was very narrow. A year ago, Benito would have slid down it easily. Today—even though Benito didn't have an ounce of fat on him, he was already showing the stocky and muscular physique of his presumed father, Carlo Sforza. It was a tight fit.

But the air-shaft gave access to a window that was never locked. The window gave on a storeroom holding cleaning supplies, and the storeroom was shared by both the jeweler in question and his neighbor, a perfumer.

Benito opened the outer door to Mercutio, just as all hell broke loose on the bridge.

Mercutio flitted in, Benito out. Crouched in the shadows by the door he kept eyes and ears peeled for the approach of anyone. Innocents could make as much trouble as Schiopettieri if they noticed the boy in the shadows, or that the door was cracked open.

Across the canal on the bridge, torches were flaring, waving wildly; there was clamor of young male voices, shouting, cursing. A girl's scream cut across the babble like a knife through cheese—a scream of outrage and anger, not panic, and the hoarse croak of a young male in pain followed it.

And Benito saw, weaving through the walkways and heading up the stairs to a bridge, a string of bobbing lights moving at the speed of a man doing a fast trot.


"Mercutio!" he whispered. A slim shadow flitted out the door, shutting it with agonizing care to avoid the clicking of the latch, a sound that would carry, even with the riot going on across the water. A bundle under Mercutio's arm told Benito everything he needed to know.

He grinned, as Mercutio took off at a trot, heading away from the Rialto bridge. Benito lagged a bit; his job to guard Mercutio's backtrail, delay any Schiopettieri.

Perfect, he thought with exultation. Worked this 'un timed as perfect as any of the Doge's contraptions—

And that was when everything fell apart.

People were looking out of windows, coming out of compartments with walkway entrances, moving toward the bridge, attracted to the ruckus like rats attracted to food. He and Mercutio had counted on that, too—it would cover their trail—

An old man, looking angry, popped out of a shop door in his nightshirt, halfway between Mercutio and the bridge. He was holding something down by his side; Benito didn't even think about what it might be, just noted his presence and his anger, and planned to avoid him. He looked like he'd been disturbed and wasn't happy about it—he probably had a cudgel, and he'd take out his pique on anyone jostling him. A lantern carried by someone hurrying toward the fight flared up and caught the gaudy patchwork of the Turkish coat Mercutio wore.

And the man let out an angry yell.

"You punk bastard!" he screamed, raising his hand. "Break my windows, will you! I'll give you 'protection'—"

Too late, Benito saw what the man held was a matchlock arquebus. Too late he yelled at Mercutio to duck.

Too late, as the arquebus went off with a roar, right in Mercutio's astonished face. His head exploded, blood fountaining as he fell.

Benito screamed, his cry lost in the screams coming from the bridge, the screams of those around the madman and his victim. "Mercutio!" he shrieked, and tried to push his way toward his friend, past people running away from the carnage. But something seized on him from behind, and when he struggled, hit him once, scientifically, behind the right ear, sending him into darkness.

* * *

He woke with an awful headache, and looked up into the eyes of the eagle. When his head stopped whirling quite so much he realized that it was the man with the solid line of eyebrow . . . who had seen him and Kat hide from the Schiopettieri and return to retrieve that package. Who had chased them down the alley outside Zianetti's. Senor Lopez. He was wearing a simple monk's habit. Benito pulled away in fear.

"Lie still!" snapped the man. There was such command in the voice that Benito did. Lopez's hands explored his scalp. Gently. "Well, your skull appears intact. Now lie still. You were noticed. The Schiopettieri are casting around for you. Your burned-face rescuer couldn't stick about." He pulled a blanket over Benito. Moments later the voice of the law could be heard.

" . . . a boy. Rumor has it he lives somewhere in this area of the city. Dark curly hair."

Then the voice of Lopez. "There are thousands of boys in Venice with dark curly hair. Doubtless I have this one hidden under a blanket in my cubicle." This was said in an absolutely level voice.

Respect in the voice. " . . . just wondered if you'd seen him, Father Lopez."

"I did. When I see him again, I will tell him you are looking for him," said Lopez.

Benito lay still, trapped between the terror of the Schiopettieri and horror about Mercutio's death.

A minute later, Lopez returned. "Schiopettieri are looking for you. Now. Explain to me what happened. Your burned-faced friend simply deposited you at my door and left."

Benito sat up, frightened. "I don't know what you're talking about. Mercutio, my friend . . ."

"With the Turkish waistcoat? The Schiopettieri say he is dead. Killed in the fracas." Lopez took a deep breath. "I am here to save a city, not to look after little sneak thieves. You are a piece in this puzzle, Benito Valdosta. You and your brother Marco and Katerina Montescue."

Benito started in fear. "How did you know—" He shrank back a little. It was always said that the Montagnards had killed their mother, had hunted Marco. Benito had always believed that himself. But what if . . . it had been the Metropolitans . . . even possibly this man, or agents of the Council of Ten. Those shadowy agents no one knew.

And Mercutio was dead. His mind just kept coming back to it. Dead . . . What was it that Valentina had said . . . He'll end up dead, and in two days Venice will have forgotten even his name.

Mercutio was dead. Dead. The whole of his face blown off. Dead.

Lopez shook him. Benito swung a fist at the Spaniard. "He's dead! Mercutio is dead!"

Lopez sighed. "Go on. Get out of here. You have that young fool's death on your mind. Perhaps we can talk when you are no longer a boy."

* * *

As he staggered out onto the street, Benito was vaguely aware that there was something very wrong about that scary priest. Ricardo Brunelli's guest, at one time, now living in the Ghetto. A Legate of the Grand Metropolitan . . . being attired as a monk and manning a confession booth in Dorsoduro . . . waiting for some great happening. But his mind was too full of the death of Mercutio.

He charged down the cobbles to Aldanto's, wiping hot, angry eyes with his fists. He only slowed when he got to their house, because he had to talk to the gate-guard, and he wouldn't be crying in front of anyone, not if he died for it. So he composed himself—holding his sorrow and his rage under tightest of masks; opened the door with his key—

Started to. The door opened at the first rattle of key in lock, and he found himself looking at Aldanto himself.

He just stared, frozen.

"You're late," Aldanto had said, grabbing his arm and hauling him inside. "You should have been back—"

"Let me go!" Benito snarled, voice crackling again, pulling his arm away so fast his shirt sleeve nearly tore.

Aldanto gave him a startled look, then a measured one. He let go of Benito's arm and turned back to the door, careful to throw all the locks—and only then turned back to Benito.

"What happened?" he asked quietly, neutrally.

He'd told himself, over and over, that he was not going to tell Aldanto what had happened.

But Caesare was a skillful interrogator; Benito couldn't resist the steady barrage of quiet questions, not when Aldanto was between him and the door. Syllable by tortured syllable, the handsome blond dragged the night's escapade out of him, as Benito stared at the floor, smoldering sullenly, determined not to break down a second time. He got to know every crack and cranny of the entryway floor before it was over.

Silence. Then, "I'm sorry," Aldanto said quietly. "I'm sorry about your friend."

Benito looked up. Aldanto's face was unreadable, but his eyes were murky with thought, memory, something. He looked past Benito for a moment.

"But you know very well," he said, noncommittally, "that was a damned fool stunt."

Benito snarled and made a dash for the stairs. Aldanto made no move to stop him. He tore up the stairs, stubbing his toes twice, getting up and resuming his run—got to Caesare's bedroom and through it, not caring if Maria was in the bed—to the roof-trap and out, slamming it behind him—

And out onto the roof, into the dark, the night, the sheltering night, where he huddled beside the chimney and cried and cried and cried. . . .

* * *

Dawn brought the return of sense, the return of thought.

Valentina was right, he thought bleakly. She told me and told me. Must have been a million times. She told me Mercutio was a fool. She told me he wouldn't see twenty. She was right. Him and his ideas—"gonna be rich and famous." So what's he come to? Blown away 'cause some ol' fool thinks he's Jewel. And ain't nobody going to remember him but me.

He crouched on his haunches, both arms wrapped around his knees, rocking back and forth and shivering a little. Ain't nobody going to remember him but me. Could have been me. Could have been. Been coasting on my luck, just like Mercutio. Only one day the luck runs out . . . 

He stared off across the roofs, to the steeples and turrets of the Accademia. Marco maybe got it right.

He sniffed, and rubbed his cold, tender nose on his sleeve. What have I done? What the hell good am I doing for him, or even for Caesare? The Dell'este has gone and made an heir to the house. And Marco . . . poor fish, doesn't even begin to know how to be sneaky. Just honest—and honest could wind up with him just as dead as Mama. There's gotta be somethin' I can do. There's got to be . . . 

His thoughts went around and around like that for some time until he heard voices below, and saw Maria shutting the door beneath his perch, saw her hop into her gondola and row it away into a shiny patch of sun and past, into the shadows on the canal.

He knew Aldanto would be up.

He unwound himself and crept on hands and knees to the trapdoor; lifted it, and let himself down into the apartment.

"I wondered if you'd gone," said a voice behind him as he dropped.

He turned. Aldanto sat on the edge of the rumpled bed, eyes half-closed, but not at all sleepy, fishy-smelling breeze coming in the open window and ruffling his hair.

"No, Caesare," Benito replied uncertainly. "I've—been thinking."

He could feel Aldanto considering him from under those half-closed lids; weighing him.

"You've been thinking?"

"I'm a fool. Lucky, but—Mercutio was lucky for a while."

"And you saw what riding luck got him."


"And what do you propose to do about this revelation?"

Benito couldn't stand looking at that expressionless face. He dropped his eyes to his own feet; bare, callused, dirty, and covered with little scratches. "Don't know, Caesare," he muttered. "Just—you need help, m'brother needs help—and I don't how—what to do. I just—want do it smart, that's all. I want to be able t' do things. An' if somebody decides to put a hole in me—"

He looked up again, his chin firming stubbornly, a kind of smoldering anger in the bottom of his stomach.

"—if somebody decides to put a hole in me, I don't want it to be for no damn reason!"

Aldanto licked his lips a trifle, his eyes no longer hooded. "You're asking my advice."

"Si," Benito said. "I'm asking. And I'll take it. I ain't going to be a fool any more."

"Dorma," Aldanto replied.

Benito wrinkled his nose doubtfully. "Milord? What's Dorma got to do—"

"Petro Dorma has been made aware of the fact that there are two Valdosta boys in Venice. It is only because of my effort and Marco's that he hasn't had his people out to bring you in regardless of your wishes in the matter." Was that a hint of smile? If so, it was gone before Benito had a chance to identify the expression. "We persuaded him that until you wanted the shelter of Dorma's patronage, it would be—a less than successful venture. He continues to inquire about you. He has a very strong sense of obligation—" It was a hint of a smile. "—has Milord Dorma. He's a powerful, influential man. Keeps quiet, but has a following. I wouldn't mind knowing what happens at Dorma. You have eyes that see things that your brother doesn't."

"But—Marco, he wants to be a doctor," Benito felt moved to protest. "I ain't smart, not that smart—what am I supposed to do?"

"What did your grandfather tell you to do? I know he sent you a note not long ago."

Benito remembered, as clearly as if he had Marco's perfect memory, the words of his granther's note. It is your duty to take care of Marco. He has no talent for lying, no ability to deceive. This is not altogether bad, as there should be one in every generation who understands and believes in Dell'este Honor. But those who believe in the Honor need those who understand the price of Honor to care for them.

"He told me to take care of Marco."

"Why you?" said Aldanto quietly.

"Because I'm not good—and the good ones need bad ones to watch out for 'em." That may not have been what the duke had said, but it was what he meant.

"Ferrara is being squeezed. The Dell'este have not a sure ally in the world. The old Duke is a canny old fox. But Marco could become the Head of the Dell'este in exile." Aldanto spoke intently, his blue eyes boring into Benito's. "What then?"

Benito thought about the duke; the clever, canny duke, who understood expediency—and Marco, who did not—and shivered.

Aldanto leaned back on his pillows a little. "So. You see."

Benito nodded, slowly.

"Then, young milord, I advise you to go to Petro Dorma. And I advise you to ask him to train you in the ways of business. And I further advise you to learn, Benito Valdosta. Apply yourself as devotedly as you did to learning to pick a lock."

"Si," Benito said, in a small humble voice. He turned, and started to go—then turned back for a moment. "Caesare—"

Aldanto simply raised one golden eyebrow.

"We're still in your debt. You call it in, any time—I pay it. Roofwalking too."

"I'll hold you to that," said Caesare, bleakly.

Benito nodded. And he picked his way carefully down the staircase, and out the door, into the dawn sunshine.

* * *

He sat on the doorstep of Dorma for a very long time before the doorkeeper opened the outer protective grate for the day. The doorkeeper was a withered old man who stared at him with a pride far more in keeping with a House Head than that of a doorkeeper.

"Away with you, boy," he grated, looking down his nose as Benito scrambled to his feet, and clasped his hands behind him. "We don't need idlers or beggars. If you're looking for work, present yourself at the kitchen."

"Pardon, sir," Benito interrupted, looking out of the corner of his eye at the huge pile that was Dorma, and feeling more than a little apprehensive at what he was getting himself into. "Your pardon—but—I've got a message. For Milord Dorma."

"Well?" The ancient drew himself up and sniffed disdainfully. But his disdain was short-lived.

"Caesare Aldanto sent me, sir. If it's convenient . . . I'm supposed to speak to Milord Petro. I'm—" He gulped, and watched the surprise flood the old man's face. "I'm Benito Valdosta. Marco's brother. I think Milord Petro wants to see me."


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