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Chapter 80

Marco pulled himself back into the middle of his bed, sitting on the handsome wool blanket cross-legged and pondering the silk-wrapped, sealed package that Petro Dorma had sent over by messenger. There was more than enough light from his tiny slit-window to read the inscription on the package.

By what means the dagger had been taken from the Signori di Notte and whisked to Ferrara heaven only knew. Heaven and Petro Dorma.

Marco opened the outer canvas, then the box wrapped in it, tipping out the package inside. Two hand-spans long, narrow, and heavy. A main gauche in the new Toulouse style . . . Marco knew that before he even opened the box. He'd hefted too many blades in his time not to know the weight and balance of a knife. Even with it well wrapped and in a wooden box, he could tell.

Silk cords twisted about the final wrapping inside the box in complicated knots; red silk cords in patterns Marco knew, patterns difficult to duplicate. The final knot had been sealed with a wax stamp, imprinted with the Dell'este crest.

Hazard, those knots said, and Be wary. You only tied a package coming out of Ferrara with those knots when you thought there might be a possibility the package would be opened by unfriendly hands somewhere along the way.

All of which meant that this was the very blade that had gone upriver to Ferrara and Duke Dell'este, the town's iron-spined ruler.

The knife that had slain Bishop Pietro Capuletti. The Ferrara blade, a signed blade with the intaglio crest etched proudly on the pommel nut for all to see, pointing straight to Valdosta—and another clan, a Venetian clan.

House Dorma. A new Power, and rising, which made their situation more precarious than if they had been established movers-and-shakers.

Guilt by association implicated Casa Dorma; and most especially Petro Dorma, who had taken in two long-lost Valdosta boys and had tied silken cords of tighter binding to Marco, and so to the steel of Ferrara.

Someone had used a Ferrara main gauche to sever more than Pietro Capuletti's life. Someone had gone to expensive lengths to bring a signed Valdosta knife down-river to assassinate the pro-Pauline prelate.

Marco rested his elbows on his knees and stared wearily at the thing, bright on the dark wool blanket of Dalmatian weave.

I didn't expect an answer so quickly. Maybe I ought to put off untying those knots. My life's complicated enough as it is.

But the knots, and the message in them, did not permit any such evasions. Particularly not now, not when Petro Dorma needed any scrap of information, however hazardous, to counter the attack on their houses.

Slowly, reluctantly, Marco reached for the packet; slowly broke the seal, and gave the cords the proper twist that freed them.

The silk fell open, falling on the open oiled canvas that had contained the box. Marco pulled the silk away and the knife slipped free of it. The knife, and a tube of closely written paper. But it was the knife that held the eye: shining, beautiful in its way, like a sleeping snake.

There was more in the way of an answer than Marco had expected. He'd thought to get a simple note. Instead—instead there were several pages, all in the duke's precise hand.

Marco picked up the letters and began to read.

* * *

Petro Dorma's private study was bright as only the best room in a wealthy man's house could be; walled on two sides with clear, sparkling-clean windows and high enough to catch all the sunlight available. A beautiful Cassone. Linenfold scrollwork on the polished wooden panels on the walls, soft Turkish rugs on the floor—an expensive retreat fitting the head of one of the rising stars of Venice, both in commerce and government.

It struck Marco that despite being balding, Petro was an incongruously young man for such an important post in a republic which traditionally favored septuagenarians and octogenarians for its leaders. Although . . . not always, especially in times of crisis.

" '—purchased seven months ago by Marchioness Rosa Aleri,' " Petro read, his words dropping into the silence like pebbles into a quiet backwater. " 'Cousin to Francesco Aleri.' " He looked over the top of the letter at Marco, who was seated stiffly on the other side of the desk. "How certain can your grandfather be of this, Marco? How can he tell one knife from another?"

Marco still had the blade in his hands, and chose to show him rather than tell him. He unscrewed the pommel-nut and slid the hilt off the tang, laying bare the steel beneath. He tilted the thing in his hands so that it caught the light from Petro's windows, and touched a hesitant finger first to the tiny number etched into the metal just beneath the threads for the nut, then to the maker's mark that was cut into the steel below the quillions, where it would be visible. "This is a signed blade, Petro," he said softly. "Signed means special, and special means numbered. Valdosta has always kept track of what special blades went where. Of course," he added truthfully, "unless we get a blade back into our hands for sharpening or cleaning, we can't know who gets it after the original buyer."

"How many people know about this?" Petro Dorma's eyes were speculative; darkly brooding.

"That we keep track?" Marco considered his answer carefully. "Not many, outside the swordsmithy. Not many inside the swordsmithy, for that matter, except the ones making the signed blades. I don't think Mother ever knew, or if she did, she'd forgotten it. I doubt Benito was ever told about it; he wasn't really old enough when we left. The duke, me, Cousin Pauli, and whoever is working in the special forges. Maybe a dozen people altogether. That much I'm sure of. I'm pretty sure my grandfather was counting on me remembering."

The right corner of Petro's mouth lifted a little. "That remarkable memory of yours at work again, hmm?"

Marco nodded. "Grandfather showed me once how the signed blades were registered, when he took me through the forges. He'll remember that, I know he will. So he'll be pretty well certain I do, and probably figured that was why I sent the knife to him."

"So we have, at the very least, a tenuous link right back into the Milanese camp and as far from Senor Lopez as possible. He works for the Grand Metropolitan of Rome . . . of that much I am sure. I am not sure just what he's doing here. He and the two priests who came with him spend most of their time doing charitable work in the poorest quarters of the city, but I'm quite sure that's not his ultimate purpose. And I don't think Ricardo Brunelli really knows what Lopez is doing any more than I do. Yet if your friend Katerina is correct, it was the Petrine who was actually there. Interesting."

After a long silence Marco dared: "Well, Petro—now what?"

"I need more. Aleri seems to have disappeared—since the day before Milan began their embargo, in fact. Yes. I was having him watched." It was as close as Marco had seen Petro Dorma come to admitting that he was one of the shadowy Council of Ten that watched over the Republic's safety.

"But he evaded us. He is very good. I believe he is still here in Venice." Petro looked down at his desk. "I believe he may be sitting tight in the Casa Dandelo. We are watching it. But like news of Condottiere Frescata's success against the Scaligers of Verona . . . There is nothing coming out. Not that we know of."

Marco thought a while. "But the Capi di Contrada go in once a week to make sure there are no Venetian prisoners. And they happen to be . . ."

"Capuletti. Supposedly loyalists of Ricardo Brunelli." Petro sighed. "Leave me to it, Marco. Off you go."

So Marco went.

But he didn't go very far.

Just down two floors and over a few corridors, to another office—one not nearly so opulent as Petro's, but possibly more important to Dorma prosperity.

* * *

"—Francesco Aleri's cousin," Marco concluded; he sat back on the hard wooden chair, then continued with his own speculation. "Not enough to convict anyone, but maybe enough evidence to be embarrassing?"

"Could be." Caesare Aldanto leaned back in his own plain wooden chair and interlaced his fingers behind his blond head, looking deceptively lazy and indolent. Marco knew that pose. He also knew what it meant. Aldanto was thinking. Hard. "So why bring this news to me, Marco?"

"Because I still owe you," Marco said bluntly. "Because you may be playing Milord Petro's game, but that doesn't mean his coat'll cover you if things get real sticky. Because I don't know if Milord Petro will bother to tell you or not. He didn't tell me not to tell you, and my debt to you comes first."

Aldanto smiled, very slightly, and pointed a long index finger at him. "You're learning."

"I'm trying, Caesare," Marco replied earnestly. " 'Tisn't like the Jesolo, and it is. There are still snakes, only they don't look like snakes. There are still gangs, only they don't act like gangs."

"How are you doing?" There seemed to be real warmth in Aldanto's murky blue eyes, real concern.

Of course, that could just be concern over the Inquisition taking up one of Caesare Aldanto's best informers, and one of the few folk who knew who and what he really was—but Marco didn't think so. As much as Aldanto could—and more than was safe or politic—he cared for Marco's welfare.

"All right, I think," Marco gave him the same answer he'd given Petro Dorma.

Aldanto laughed at that, a deep-throated chuckle. The past few months had been good to Aldanto. And he and Angelina were, if not on friendly terms, less at odds. Thanks to Marco's work, she no longer blamed him for her mother's perilous addiction to black lotos. There was still tension in the air whenever they met, but Marco wasn't certain what the cause was.

Could be just because it's really Caesare she wishes she had married.

That might be what kept setting her off into hysteria, seeing as she and Caesare could meet easily since Aldanto had moved into quarters on Dorma at Petro's urging.

This just brought the confusing issue of Maria . . . and Benito to mind. Marco had tried . . . four times so far in the last two days to corner his little brother on this one. The last time Benito had straight out told Marco to keep off. Caesare had not mentioned Maria.

Marco wasn't sure how Aldanto and she were doing. The fact that she hadn't moved with him to Dorma . . . He must go back to the apartment and visit her. But, at least to Marco's eyes, the suite of rooms that the new head of the Dorma-ordered militia occupied looked more secure than Caesare's old apartment. Marco could only hope that it was.

What Aldanto made of the situation, he couldn't tell; he could read the man a little better these days, but—well, Aldanto was Aldanto, and when he chose not to be read, there was no catching him out.


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