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Chapter 76

Trade was thin. Maria felt her ribs. So was she. Nothing coming downriver. A trickle of expensive food coming in from Fruili. Nothing but some local fish coming in from the sea. There was just no work available. She rowed along slowly. Other boatmen were sitting idle too. She might as well go home. At least it would be cool.


She pondered over relationships in general, and hers in particular. Lately all she and Caesare seemed to do was fight. It had been different back when they had first gotten together. Even once he'd established a relationship with his protector, Ricardo Brunelli, he been gentle . . . caring. For a while.


Yes. In those early days, he'd been quite different. Back when they'd been arranging the smuggling chambers he'd been a darling. She sighed. They'd yet to see a profit from that. Her cousins had painstakingly cut the chambers in the keels, had put up the secret Colleganza that paid for the cargo . . . And not one of those galleys had come back. The Garavelli clan were the poorer for it, and . . .


Well, nobody actually said it was her fault.


She sighed again. Most of their conflict came down to money, really. Well—except their quarrels about Kat. Caesare seemed to have a real animus against Kat. He'd told Maria to stay away from her, that she was a Case Vecchie bitch. How had he known she was Case Vecchie? She hadn't mentioned it.


"How's trade?" Tonio had come up alongside while she was in her brown study.


"Slow, Tonio," she said. "We need to take some kind of action, but the Doge is just sitting on things."


"He can afford to. We can't. I got some more sick kids for young Marco. Fancy him turning out to be a Valdosta. A good Casa that, in his grandpa's day."


"He's still seeing kids . . . Why am I telling you this? You know."


Tonio shrugged. "Si. I'll go there this evening. But likely enough he'll say 'they need more food.' And that's what I want to talk about, Maria Garavelli. He's the only Case Vecchie we know to talk to. You know him special-well. He's tied in with Dorma. They're a good house; look after their people—and Petro Dorma was the only one who stood up to the Dandelos. Dorma's got influence now, lots of it. You tell him the popli minuta want the Doge to stop playing with his toys and sitting on his ass. Boats are only going as far as Ferrara . . ."


Maria snorted. "You're behind the times, Tonio. Ferrara is being attacked by condottieri from Bologna and Milan. Nothing's going up the Po at all."


"Merda." Tonio spat into the canal. "Why don't we at least go to the help of the Old Fox? The Duke Dell'este was a good friend to Venice, back before we argued about the salt pans. What's a few salt pans? We need trade."


Maria laughed wryly. "We need you on the Council of Ten, Tonio."


The lean Tonio acknowledged a hit. "Yeah. Well. You tell Marco, huh. His grandfather. He should listen."


Maria pushed off. "You tell him, Tonio. You'll see him before me."


Tonio looked uncomfortable. "Si. But he's got respect for you, see. You and that fancy man of yours. Tell him."


Maria sighed. "I'll tell him, Tonio. But I don't think there is much he can do."


She rowed on up the canal, heading home. She'd tell Marco when she next saw him. She'd promised, and a canaler's word was always good. But she'd also tell Benito. He came to see her more often.


She smiled for a moment, thinking of Benito. He was quite a boy, although she wouldn't tell him that. Effective. Not like Marco, who might be a saint, but would still be seeing good in people while they slit his throat.


The canal by the water-door was limpid, with not even a ripple around the floating bits of garbage. She tied up quietly. Maybe Caesare would be home and they could spend the afternoon in lovemaking . . . like they used to do. The idea was attractive. Distracting.


She went in quietly.


And it rapidly became apparent that an afternoon's lovemaking had been on someone else's mind too. The panting and begging said they'd been at it for a while.


Her mind in a furious turmoil, Maria went up the stairs three at a time. Threw the door open. She'd . . . timed her entry well. Caesare was so preoccupied in thrusting up into his kneeling mount that he didn't even realize Maria was there for a moment.


Maria took in the white body, slightly pendulous breasts, the long elegant neck and perfect face complete with tiny mole above her mouth. The face was flushed and prim mouth wide. It was a double shock. The last time Maria had seen her, she, Maria, had had one of the woman's Spanish combs in her hair. Seeing Kat's sister-in-law here . . .


Maria—having got this far—suddenly realized she didn't know quite what to do next.


She picked up the ewer and flung it at them, as one might at a pair of dogs.


The water had the same effect.


"My hair!" shrieked Alessandra.


Caesare abruptly parted from her, grabbed for his rapier. "Maria! What the hell are you doing here?"


"I live here, remember? Or maybe you forget. Like your promise that you were faithful to me? That you loved me?"


The woman, now with a sheet around herself, snapped. "Get out, you little dockside puttana! He's my lover. He's been mine for years! Long before he met you."


"Get out, Maria. We can deal with this later." Caesare's voice was dangerously even.


Maria's reply was not. "For you and me, there is no later, Caesare Aldanto! We're finished. Finished, you hear me? FINISHED!"


Caesare advanced on her. Stark naked except for his sword. "Get out. Get out now."


"Or what!? Or you're going to kill me?" She snarled back. Right now she didn't care.


She'd forgotten how fast and strong he was. He grabbed her arm and spun her round and pulled it up behind her back, his sword arm around her throat. He hauled her painfully, half off her feet, down the stairs, ignoring her struggles and screams. "Shut up, you bitch. Or I'll give you something to scream about." He took two fingers off the sword hilt and put them around the chain around her neck. With a sharp, flesh-tearing jerk he snapped it, tinkling the keys to the apartment onto the steps. He pushed her past the steps, thrusting her into the barred gate. He picked up the water-door key.


"You're going to get out of that door, now. And stay out," he said grimly. "Love you? A canal girl? I never did, but you were very useful. Now you're not. Get out, stay out and keep quiet. I'm warning you. I never do that twice."


Maria felt something break inside her. A tiny voice that seemed to belong to someone else said, "Unlock the door then."


And as she stepped out into the summer brightness of Venice, she heard Alessandra's mocking laughter echoing down the stairs that used to be hers.


 


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