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Chapter 77

Benito was sick of it. His "transfer" to the Case Vecchie world was going to drive him mad. It was all very well for Marco, learning things he was interested in. So far he hadn't even seen a Dorma cousin he was interested in getting into the pants of, let alone spend time in endless social chitchat with. Dorma was treating him like a child.

For crying out loud. He was fifteen now! A mere year and a half younger than Marco—who was already married! On the canals or even on the ships, at sixteen you did a man's work. Only among the soft Case Vecchie did they give you another five years to grow up. Yeah sure, the house was at sixes-and-sevens with Angelina showing signs of being ready to pop.

He would take off again tonight. Seeing Maria always cheered him up. In the months since he moved in here, he'd been back to visit more frequently than Marco had.

So he would be absent without leave again tonight from the soiree. They couldn't sing anyway, compared to Valentina and Claudia. He'd slip off to Barducci's instead.

* * *

Kat listened to the singing coming out of Barducci's. The place was less crowded than usual. Times were hard in Venice . . . although right now the Casa Montescue were having a run of unprecedented luck. The coaster they used for transfers of gray merchandise coming in from the east hadn't had any cargos of stuff out of Ascalon for a while. But its every-second-day run to Trieste was turning in a real profit, for the first time ever. And the little caique was one of the few ships they still owned outright. Covertly, it was true. And Captain Della Tomasso was as crooked as a dog's hind leg and ran various dubious operations. But right now his legal cargoes, which belonged to the Montescue and were just supposed to break even, were making a small fortune.

For the first time in nearly two months, the caique Margerita had met a galliot that had made it through the blockade. Kat had a parcel from Ascalon to collect. Delivery to run. She had it easier than the galliot captain, however. He would turn in a fat profit, true—but he was also having to face an interview with the Council of Ten tonight . . . and the address to the Grand Council tomorrow. All Venice wanted to know what was happening. It was a hard summer for trade for most people.

Captain Della Tomasso had news that he couldn't pass on to most folk. And for once he was dying to talk. "The Dalmatian pirates, a fleet from Ancona, and Genoan fleet are in the gulf. No sign of the galleys from the Golden Horn or the western fleet."

Three years ago, Papa had parted with the western fleet at Bruges. Even hearing it mentioned brought a pang to Kat. "The city's not safe at night. Keep your crew aboard if you can. There was another magical murder yesterday and the factions are blaming each other. There'll be knife-fights tonight."

Della Tomasso was a bad man, who ran a smelly evil-crewed little ship. Kat met him on dark nights off Guidecca. He never showed the slightest concern for anything except money. She realized he was tense too, with the first inquiry he'd ever made—in two years of collections. "You going to be all right, Kat?"

"Yeah. I'll be fine," she said. "I'll stay on the lagoon, not go through town, and deliver in the early morning. When do you sail?"

"I'm running some messages. As soon as they arrive . . ." He snorted. "For the churchmen, would you believe it?"

Kat chuckled. "Doubtless the Metropolitan came to you personally."

"Nah. This German bunch. There's a lot more of them sitting in Trieste." Della Tomasso looked vaguely alarmed. "I never said that."

"Who am I going to tell, Captain?" asked Kat dryly. "Anyway, the wind's getting up. I'd better go."

Della Tomasso nodded. "Stiff land breeze coming. Maybe a storm, later."

The row up the Guidecca canal against the wind was a stiff one. After a while, Kat decided that even the risks of rowing quietly through town were worth it. It would cut her distance in half and avoid rowing against the wind. There was definitely a storm coming.

* * *

Benito walked out of Barducci's. The place had been thin on company, and full of uneasy knots of people. Even the music that Valentina and Claudia chose tonight had been careful. Things were just too explosive in town. Rumors were circulating that a small galliot had arrived from down-gulf, bringing news of the blockading fleets. Rumor had everyone from the King of Sicily to the Ilkhan intervening.

"We should side with Milan." "We must call on Rome." "A pact with Emeric of Hungary." Ha. According to what Benito had been able to pick up at Casa Dorma, the Case Vecchie were in the same confused state. And the Doge wasn't doing a coherent job of leading.

Benito shimmied up an ornamental pillar, grabbed a cornice and headed for the rooftops. The streets weren't safe tonight; and why take a gondola, when he was short of exercise and liked the view from up here anyway? Mind you, it wouldn't be pleasant up here for too long. The wind was starting to blow.

He came down to canal level to cross a bridge over the Rio di Muti when he noticed a familiar gondola tied up there. A lousy mooring—a rotten old pole, half under the bridge shadows.

Maria? What was she doing here? This was way off her usual routes.

There was something in the bottom of the boat. Very cautiously, Benito pulled the mooring. The something in the bottom of the boat sat up, a bright sliver of steel in her hand.

"Maria Garavelli?" said Benito incredulously. "What are you doing here?"

"'Nito? Are . . . are you looking for me?" There was a curious pitiful hopefulness in her voice.

"No . . . I was just going past." Benito took a liberty. He climbed into Maria's boat. You didn't do that without permission. Benito knew then that something was seriously wrong. She didn't react. "What's up? What are you doing here, Maria?"

Scudding clouds cleared the moon-crescent, shining down on Maria's face. Those were tear tracks. Benito ignored the knife still in her hand, moved uneasily down the rocking boat and hugged her. She clung to him. This wasn't like Maria. He'd never seen her like this. She was always so tough. Even when she'd gotten away from the Dandelos . . .

"What are you doing out here, Maria?" he asked for the third time, gently.

"I . . ." She sniffed. "I've got nowhere else to go, Benito."

Benito had a sinking feeling in his gut. He knew the answer before he even asked. "Caesare . . . the apartment . . . ?"

She swallowed. "He threw me out. I came home this afternoon . . . he was making love to another woman."

Benito didn't know what to say, so he just held her. It was the right thing to do. "He said . . . he never loved me. He used me, Benito. He used me. And I loved him. I wanted him so badly. Am I so ugly?"

"Lord and Saints no! You're really . . . well, when I saw you in that outfit of Kat's I thought you were one of the most beautiful women in town."

"You're a smooth talker, Benito Valdosta." But she didn't let go of him.

"No, it's truth." A dash of the old Benito audacity returned. "You feel pretty good too."

This didn't get him the slap it would've normally earned him. She leaned against him instead. It made the gondola rock, dangerously. "I'm too thin and my feet are too big."

Benito clicked his tongue. "Now what man is going to look at your feet?"

"So what do you look at, Benito?"

Benito realized he was in dangerous and unfamiliar waters. "Um. I like your eyes." He was aware of curves pressed against him.

"And what do you like about my eyes?"

"Uh, the way they spit fire when I look any lower down. Um. Not too low." He hoped turning it into a joke would at least ease things.

She pushed him away. The moon was out again, and a small, sad smile trembled at her lips. She tugged at the cords of her bodice-lacing. His eyes almost popped out of his head as she spilled her breasts out of her bodice. The white curves were hypnotic. The nipples stood out sharply in the moonlight. "You mean these?"

"Uh. Y . . . yes," stammered Benito.

Maria's voice was still sad, questioning, doubtful. "Benito. I need someone to make love to me. To kiss my breasts. To tell me they're beautiful. To tell me he wants me . . ."

Benito Valdosta found himself suddenly very dry in the mouth. "They're really really beautiful. They're . . . they're . . ." His biblical lessons with the Dorma pastor came to his rescue. "They're like twin does, it's, it's . . . from the Song of Solomon," he said thickly.

She smiled a little. "Come and kiss them now, Benito." She lay back on the duckboards, and pulled him down with her.

Benito found himself exploring a nipple gently with his tongue, her belly with a fumbling hand. He was both more excited and more . . . awkward feeling . . . than he could ever remember. This was no young boy's eagerness. Even Benito understood that for the first time in his life he was seized by a man's passion. Not for any girl, but for a particular woman. Maria! He was almost desperate in his desire to please her.

Gently! he told himself. But Maria was having none of it. She was caught up in her own passion—and a more furious one even than his. Her hands were tugging at his breeches cord. The boat rocked wildly as he attempted to help.

"You'll have us over, you fool!"

That sounded so like the old Maria, that Benito paused. "We shouldn't be doing this. . . ." His body was betraying his mouth.

"I asked you to, Benito," she said, a hand guiding. "I need . . . aaha!"

And after that there was no more talking for some time. Nothing coherent, at any rate.

* * *

"I think there's more water in the boat than in the canal," Maria said, laughing softly. "Ooh. I am going to have bruises. Duckboard stripes on my behind." The arms that held him tight didn't seem perturbed.

Benito felt the trickle of water down his neck. "I think some of it is because it's raining."

"Oh, hell. These are my only clothes."

Benito stretched, feeling her underneath him, muscled yet soft. "Um. Well, I've got some ideas about that. You can't sleep out here."

"I haven't got anywhere else, Benito," said Maria. "I'm not going back to the Garavellis'. The cousins were very unhappy about my moving in with . . . with Caesare anyway. I'll sleep under bridges. Take me a few days to find my feet, get together money for a place to stay."

"What I was going to say is . . ." The next words came out in a rush: "There is our—Marco's and my old place—in Cannaregio. It's got no windows and it's pretty noisy, but well, it's a roof. Got some spare stuff there, too."

She was silent for a few moments. "I don't want to be beholden." There was a shutdown in that voice. Pure canaler pride.

Benito shifted position slightly, shivering. The wind and drifts of rain had taken the heat out of what had been a sultry summer evening.

"Maria," he said quietly, gently. "You don't owe me anything. Marco and I, we put a lot into paying back the debt we owed to Caesare. Strikes me we probably owed you just as big a debt. We kind of thought we were paying both of you back. But it wasn't really like that, was it? We are beholden to you. Our place ain't much, but until you get sorted out . . . it's yours. You're already wet. It's going to get colder. Marco would never forgive me if I left you out here." He kissed her cheek. Then, awkwardly: "There's no conditions attached . . . or anything like that. It's yours."

She sighed. "Benito Valdosta. You can be just like your brother, sometimes."

Benito snorted. "Yeah. But I lie down and it goes away. Marco's my conscience. I'm just Benito—the practical one, and trouble. Come on. I'm getting cold, and you must be too."

"I've got a warm heavy blanket on top. But my back is tired of being wet. Let's see if we can sit up without having this thing over."

They managed. Maria saw to her lacing. "Benito," she said. "I'm sorry. I . . . used you. I needed someone and I used you."

Benito shrugged, smiling widely. "I didn't exactly mind! Actually . . ." His smile changed into something very shy. "It was wonderful. We men don't feel the way women do about it."

Maria snorted. She sounded almost her old self. "I've noticed! So. Was it better than with that Sarispelli girl?"

"Uh." Now Benito was embarrassed. "It was—very different. And, yes, much better." He suspected his face was bright red. "The truth is, Maria," he said very softly, "I think . . . well. There's nobody like you. Not for me, anyway."

Maria stared at him, for a moment. Then she snorted again. "Benito. Sometimes you say exactly the right thing. Whereabouts in Cannaregio is your place?"

* * *

Kat cursed the rain. If there was one thing about her night-trips she hated more than anything else, it was getting wet. But she'd decided to never shelter in a church again! Under San Trovaso bridge was safer than San Trovaso itself.

When the rain slacked off, she headed on down the canal. She decided she'd been right to come through town. It was safe enough. There were few people about and they were hurrying to their destinations before they got caught by the rain again. The torch-bearers were scattered and lights from unshuttered windows were few.

She was not prepared for the shout from a torch-bearer. "He's dead! Quickly! Come quickly. Bring lights. The bishop is dead!"

Shutters flew open. Lights spilled onto the rain-wet fondamenta, and the canal.

Kat put her head down and sculled. And as she did so, she saw a man slip from the shadows into the sotoportego. But in the momentary glance she saw him clearly. She started, and their eyes met. Then she hunched her face down and sculled. When she next looked he was gone, and she was into the comparative safety of the Grand Canal.

There was no doubt about one thing. She'd seen Eneko Lopez and he'd seen her. And neither of them, not her nor the creepy Spaniard, had wanted to be caught on the scene.

* * *

"It's not much of a place," said Benito anxiously. Surveying the tiny room by the candlelight, it looked even smaller and dingier than he remembered.

Maria smiled at him. Her hair was wetly plastered about her head. Somehow, this and the candlelight made her definite features stand out. The firm chin; the straight nose and broad cheekbones.

"It looks like heaven compared to the boat in this weather. Going to have some baling to do in the morning." She shivered. "So. How about you help me light this fire?"

"Sure." He knelt in front of the prepared kindling and took a candle to light it. "There's some dry gear here." He pointed to the cupboard. "Boys' clothes, I'm afraid. But they're dry. You should fit into them. And we've got blankets. And there's some wine. Some grappa. Some almond biscotti. But that's all the food, I'm afraid."

He blew on the fire. It caught, sending small tongues of smoky flame to nibble at the bigger twigs. He turned around to see her still standing there, dripping. Those were tears adding to the wetness. He went across to hug her. "What's wrong?"

"Nothing. Well, everything. I was going to say 'you're a good kid, Benito Valdosta.' " She sighed. "Only you're not a kid any more and I'm not as strong as I thought I was. Can . . . can you stay a while?"

"Sure," said Benito, letting go of her and going to the cupboard. He unstoppered the bottle of grappa with his teeth; then poured a generous dollop into a cracked mug and took it to her. "Here. Get yourself outside this. Let me get you out of those wet clothes."

Her teeth chattered against the edge of the mug. She drank. "I can deal with it myself."

Benito went on loosening the laces. "I saw it all earlier, Maria. Do it yourself if you like. But I want you out of that wet stuff, wrapped in a blanket, eating biscotti in front of the fire in two minutes or I'll do it for you."

This drew a smile. "Help me, then. You can be really bossy, Benito Valdosta."

"Uh-huh. And who do you think I learned it from?"

She laughed. "Well. You'd also better get out of that wet stuff before I help you."

Benito took a deep breath. He wasn't naïve enough not to see certain inevitable consequences coming. And . . . he was quite shocked when he understood how much he wanted them to.

This can't be happening! cried out some little corner of himself. You idiot! You'll turn into a fool like your brother!

The rest of him, however, as his hands drifted across Maria's shoulders and back—so feminine, for all the muscle—had a different opinion.

Shut up . . . boy.

* * *

The next hours seemed almost like a dream to Benito. In a bed, well lit by candlelight, Maria was not the fierce and dimly seen rutter she had been in the bottom of a gondola, lit by nothing more than a crescent moon. There was nothing of the hard canaler left in her now. She was soft, rounded, smooth—more velvety and gorgeous than anything Benito had ever imagined.

The muscle was still there. The strong arms and legs coiled around him in passion gave proof of that often enough. But Benito barely noticed. His entire existence seemed nothing but a world of warmth, wetness, softness, all aglow with candlelight and his own dreams, finally boiling to the surface.

The first time he told her he loved her, Maria didn't even scowl at him. Indeed, she smiled.

"You don't have to say that, Benito," she murmured softly.

"I wanted to," he insisted. Feeling a bit of the old street savvy wailing somewhere in his heart—you idiot!—but not much. Hardly any, in truth.

Maria shook her head. "Please—don't. The word is cheap. Caesare showered me with it like false coins. I don't want to hear it any more."

So he subsided, for a time, distracted easily enough by Maria's next wave of passion. She might not want to hear the word with her ears, but every other part of her body seemed eager to listen. Besides, it was hard to stay poetic with Maria. She made him laugh too much.

When she wasn't criticizing him, that is. Usually both at the same time.

"What did that silly Sarispelli teach you, anyway?" she grumbled at one point. "I'm not a wooden plank being nailed on a ship, you know? And that thing of yours is way too big for a nail in the first place."

By now, Benito was relaxed enough to give an honest answer. "Hey, she's nice. I don't think she really knew any more than I did."

"Guess not," agreed Maria.

Benito was even relaxed enough to be smart instead of street-savvy stupid. "Show me, then. Please."

"Good boy," gurgled Maria happily, and proceeded to do so. Some time later, as she cried out with pleasure—much louder than she had before—Benito whispered the words again. Moaned them, rather, since he was awash in his own ecstasy.

Maria slapped the back of his head, sure enough. But, that done, the same hand which slapped began to caress and clutch. And stroked him, softly and steadily, as they lay in each others' arms afterward, pooled in their own moisture.

"That stinking bastard Aldanto was good for something," Maria whispered. "I give it to you as a gift."

"I love you," he whispered back.

She didn't slap him, this time. But her hand came up and closed his mouth. "Don't, Benito. Please. Tonight is too special, for both of us. Just let it be what it is, that's all."

He never spoke the words again that night, even though it lasted almost until dawn. Before he finally fell asleep, not long after Maria, he raised himself on one elbow and gazed down upon her nude body lying next to him. He had never seen anything so beautiful in his life, and knew that he never would. Fifteen years old be damned. Some things are certain.

Still, he didn't say the words, even though she was no longer awake to rebuke him. In some obscure way, he couldn't.

He puzzled at the problem, for a bit. Just as he drifted into slumber, it came to him. He could never steal anything from Maria, he realized. Not even words of love.


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