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Chapter 82

Darkness was falling like a soft shawl across a busy Venice. Out on the lagoon the bargees were busy pulling out the last of the stakes that marked the safe channels. Only an invader who knew his way could come across the lagoon.

The Arsenal would not sleep tonight. Queues of citizens waited for the issuing of weapons.

In campos across the city, citizens of the new militia were drilling under Schiopettieri instructors.

Venice was preparing to fight for her life, and also to strike back.

Harrow was wrestling with a decision. The boys had both signed up. Benito would be going off to the Polestine forts. Marco was headed for Fruili. An ugly face and a bit of hard leaning had let him see both lists. He was sure of it. His inclination said, go with Marco, but he was sworn to guard both boys. He couldn't be in both places at once. And the Polestine galleys would be leaving first. At last he decided to go and see Luciano Marina. The man made him uncomfortable, always appearing to have the light behind him. But suddenly it felt very urgent. Very, very urgent.

He walked into a noisy Barducci's. He'd forgotten what taverns were like. This was, if anything, noisier than usual, with people who might be going to die having that last drink at their favorite watering-hole. It fell quiet around him, as he walked across to Claudia. "Need to talk to you. Need to see someone." It was playing hell with his cover . . . but right now he felt cover was less important than decisive action. He felt the build-up of great and terrible things.

Claudia recognized him. "What the hell do you mean by coming in here, you fool," she hissed.

"Need Luciano," he croaked. "Can't find him."

Claudia looked at him. Her eyes narrowed. She put the mandola down, and got up. "Come."

She led him out of Barducci's and at a jog-trot down towards the Calle Farnese, into Cannaregio. Up to a largish salon next to the Rio San Marcoula boatyard. Luciano was at drill practice too, with the Strega's tiny but grim-faced arm-militant. To Harrow's surprise, he realized that the eleven people—a mixture of men and women—were very good. Of course they'd be at a disadvantage with brassbound wooden staves, against swords or axes.

"Come about Marco," croaked Harrow.

Luciano looked alarmed. "We've been watching over him. Our best people have met to scry his movements, his danger. The scryings show nothing."

"He's signed up to go to Fruili with the volunteer militia. And Benito is going to the Polestine. I don't know what to do."

Luciano turned on Claudia. "And you brought him here, now, about this?"

Claudia lifted her hands defensively. "He came into Barducci's. He said he needed you. You said . . . well, I thought it must be urgent."

Harrow felt as he were blundering about in a thick cottony fog. "It is urgent! Well . . . it feels it! Must come to you. Must."

A wary look came over Luciano's face. "Chalk."

"There is none here," said one of the black-clad men.

"Make a pentacle of those staves, then," snapped Luciano.

Not two minutes later the ward-candles, hastily contrived from oil lamps, burned inside the circle. Invocation was begun. Harrow watched as a nimbus of light began to dance around one slight woman. Harrow's scalp crawled.

"Treachery," she said in a hollow voice. "The inner council is betrayed. It is fogged from within. Go, Luciano. The lion's cub is in need."

Luciano's faced grew pale. "Betrayed?" he whispered. "No wonder the scrying circles have failed." He rubbed his face, looking now like a very old man. "I have been a fool."

He dropped his hand. "How could I have been so complacent? Of course the enemy would fight us magically as well. I should have foreseen it."

"Who could do this?" demanded Claudia. "Who knows enough—" She broke off suddenly, her eyes widening.

"Lucrezia Brunelli, who else?" replied Dottore Marina wearily. "She advanced far enough to learn most of our secrets, before we cast her out."

He turned his head, staring to the northeast. "She is working for Grand Duke Jagiellon now, be sure of it. A second string to his bow, which I missed completely. In the end, the demon-nun Ursula and her cohorts in the Servants of the Holy Trinity are . . . not quite a diversion, but almost. A clear and obvious danger to the Strega—to all of Venice—which disguises the more subtle one. The naked dagger, distracting our eyes from the cup of poison."

He shook his head vigorously, the way a man does to clear his mind. "No time to waste! The Basque priest was right. I finally understand the Evil One's plan. And it is more horrid than I'd ever imagined."

He began striding off, gesturing for the others to follow. "And he was right about having a second string for our own bow," he murmured, too softly to be heard by anyone.

Luciano's Strega moved more cautiously than their leader, if as fast as possible, because they did not want to encounter either Schiopettieri or the new militia. The staves were relatively innocuous-looking, true. But they didn't need delays just because someone decided they looked threatening as a group. So they'd split into twos and threes, walking perhaps thirty seconds apart. Any troublesome Schiopettieri would soon find himself outnumbered. If there were too many Schiopettieri, the others would melt back and go another way.

* * *

Lodovico looked at the roughly bandaged Alessandra. The woman moaned weakly. "We need a doctor who can hold his tongue," he said grimly.

"Marco," said Maria immediately.

Kat looked at her sister-in-law and took a deep breath. "He'll be at Dorma. It's no use sending a messenger, even if we could find one tonight. Dorma won't let him come out, not to something that could be a trap."

Lodovico nodded. "Go. Bring the Valdosta boy here. Bring both of them if you can. It will give me a chance to make the apology I owe to both of them. And if she dies I want her sunk in a canal far away from here—and the younger boy has the practicality to do that. If she lives, she'll testify to the Senate about this Caesare Aldanto. The devil take the shame to the house! I want him to meet the headsman's axe. Both of you go, but take pistols, loaded and cocked. I'll stay with the hell-bitch. If she should regain consciousness, I want to hear what else she has to reveal about her treachery to my Casa."

Guiseppe went to get Lorenzo, he who had been their gondolier the night that Kat had smuggled Maria home. Maria found herself once again being hastily dressed from Kat's wardrobe. "Ladies" were much less likely to be interfered with, and tonight there were certain to be a fair number of drunken roisterers about. The floor-length dress, bulked with petticoats, wasn't going to show her feet. Ten minutes later they were headed for Marco at Casa Dorma.

* * *

Marco was packing up his books and medical gear rather more slowly than was strictly necessary. It seemed to him that Rafael was lingering similarly over his brushes and paints. Both of them were destined to join their Volunteer units in the morning. Both were headed for Fruili and would face some weeks of drilling and training before being flung into combat. Marco wanted to get back to see Benito before the boy went off with the galleys headed for Polestine. On the other hand, he didn't want to leave this apartment. It represented fulfillment of one of his dreams.

He sighed. He'd have left it on the instant to see Kat. But the head of Casa Montescue had made it absolutely clear. Never again. Petro Dorma had said the same, if less directly.

* * *

Petro Dorma was facing Katerina Montescue at that moment. He had in fact been about to step out when he had overheard the doorman saying: "No, Milady Montescue. Milord Marco Valdosta is not at home. Neither is Milord Benito."

"We'll see Petro Dorma then," said a young woman, decisively.

"Milord Petro is not available, signorinas."

Better to deal with it, he decided. Montescue was only one vote, but once that Casa had been a real bastion against the Montagnards. The daughter of the house was plainly still besotted with Marco. The old man could become an enemy if this was handled wrongly. And even one vote in the Grand Council could be of huge value.

He stepped out. "I'll see them, Paolo. Escort them to the Blue Salon."

"We just need to find Marco . . ." said the other woman, nervously, in far from refined tones. She sounded like a canaler.

Petro turned his back. "I'll speak to you in the Blue Salon."

* * *

Kat thought it was a terrible shade of blue. She wanted, desperately, to see Marco again. Even if she couldn't have him. She was also afraid that she might see Angelina Dorma. Her hands crooked into claws at the thought. She might not be able to restrain herself.

But only Petro was there. "You must understand," he said gently, "that I cannot allow you to see Marco. Your grandfather would not permit it."

Kat handed him the letter that Lodovico had written. "It's addressed to Marco, but my grandfather said we could show it to you, if need be."

Petro took the letter doubtfully. It carried the Montescue seal. He cracked it open and read the brief, polite letter Lodovico had scrawled.

"Well." He bit his lip. "This puts something of a different complexion on the matter, but . . ."

"I'm not going to run off with him," snapped Kat. Even though I would like to. "My grandfather has discovered that he was entirely mistaken about the Valdosta involvement in our House's loss. He wants to apologize to the Casa Valdosta."

Her voice quavered slightly. "He is an old man and he, and they, may not live through this war. And we have someone who is injured we would like Marco to see. That's all. Word of a Montescue."

Petro nodded. "He's over at his apartment near the Accademia, packing up. He should be back soon, if you'd care to wait."

The other woman stood up, giving Petro a glimpse of her bare feet. The unexpected sight—the dress was very fine—startled him.

"We'll get him there," she said. "Come, Kat. I know where it is. You—Dorma—tell Benito that Maria says he's to come to the Casa Montescue. And don't you tell that stinking Caesare Aldanto."

Petro was plainly unused to being addressed like this. But he'd picked up on the name. "Maria?"

Maria nodded defiantly. "Yep. That's me. Come, Kat. We'd better move, or that woman'll likely die on us. I should have thought to stop at the Accademia on the way over."

* * *

Marco took a last look around. "Time for leaving." He started to pick up his bags. There were more of them than could be easily carried. Dorma could send someone over for the bulk of them in the morning, he decided.

Rafael nodded. "I'll walk with you as far as the Traghetto."

Laden with the things that he felt he couldn't leave behind—his books and instruments—Marco walked in awkward silence down the stairs and out into the narrow calle. The first inkling he had of trouble was the boom of an arquebus, followed immediately by what felt like a bull hammering into his chest. The sheer force of it winded him, knocking him down. It sprayed the precious books it had struck into the street.

"Finish him!" yelled someone. "Make sure he's dead!" A group of dark-clad figures stood up from the cover where they'd been lurking in wait.

"Help!" yelled Rafael. "A rescue!"

And to Marco's amazement a rescue came, running down the darkened street.

"A Mercurio! Lux ferre!"

That was Luciano's voice! The entire street danced with witch-fire, showing the mottled, scarred face of Harrow and several others with him, the weird light gleaming on brass-bound staves. The five waiting assassins were trapped in the cul-de-sac. Swords and knives were drawn to meet the challenge.

One of them ignored the fight and came on at Marco, who was struggling—with Rafael's help—to get to his feet. It was Francesco Aleri, rapier in hand.

Marco stared at his death.

"Aleri!" yelled someone. "I've come to get you."

Somehow that voice halted Marco's nemesis. "Bespi?" he asked incredulously.

"Yeah, Aleri! Me." Harrow had thrust his way through the melee. "I've come to kill you."

Marco had never seen the big Milanese "Trade Ambassador-at-Large" look anything less than utterly confident. A few moments ago, even when the ambush had turned into a fight in which his side was outnumbered, Aleri's face had still worn that look. Now he just looked frightened. "You're dead!"

Harrow moved forward, a knife in either hand. "No thanks to you that I'm not. I'll have revenge now, Aleri. You're a dead man." He feinted.

Aleri had a rapier. He was, you could tell by the way he held it, skilled in its use. Harrow only had two knives. Yet Aleri was backing off—and plainly badly scared. "It was an accident," he protested.

"This isn't going to be," Harrow snarled, staring at the Milanese with mad, unblinking eyes.

Aleri made a frantic grab for Marco, while holding Harrow off with a sword.

It was a mistake. Harrow was far too good a bladesman, even with knives against a sword, for Aleri not to concentrate on him completely. The Montagnard assassin managed to stab Harrow through the belly with the rapier. Then . . .

Harrow's knives worked like a machine. Blood spouted everywhere, coating both men. The two sprawled to the ground. Aleri, still barely alive, stared at the sky; Harrow groaned once, tried to pull out the sword, and then lapsed into unconsciousness.

* * *

Maria and Kat were nearly knocked flying, first by a black-clad man and then by a man and woman with brass-bound staves.

They stepped into the little calle where Marco's lodgings were, pistols at the ready. The shutters were open and light was flooding into the street. Marco was kneeling beside the burnt-faced man, working on him feverishly. Even from here, Kat thought his efforts were probably pointless. The sword-hilt was flush against his body.

She and Maria rushed forward. As they kneeled next to Marco, the man half-trapped under the burned man groaned and blinked at Kat. "You'll have to kill him yourself, Lucrezia my love."

Kat winced at his wounds. The man's body was soaked in blood. Trying to avoid the horrible sight of his wounds—she could see intestines bulging out through one of them!—she concentrated on his face.

She knew him, she suddenly realized. This was Aleri—the man she'd seen kissing Lucrezia Brunelli at the mouth of the alley. Plainly his blurred eyes, in this lamplight, saw her red-gold hair as being that of Lucrezia. And Lucrezia Brunelli had plainly told him to kill Marco.

She shook his shoulder, hard. A moment later, as she demanded "why!", she realized that her hand was covered in a warm wetness. Aleri's face was untouched, but Harrow's blades seemed to have cut him everywhere else.

She was only dimly aware that others were listening too, and that one of them was Petro Dorma.

"Tell me, Aleri," she shouted.

"But . . . you told me to, Lucrezia," he muttered, slurring the words. His voice sounded puzzled. "You said before Sforza gets here . . . Valdosta boy mus' die."

Kat shook him again. "More! What about Marco?"

"Lion . . ." it was a breathy whisper, followed by a gout of bloody foam. Then, silence.

Marco pushed her aside gently and felt Aleri's throat for a pulse. "He's dead," he said, after a few moments. Then he went back to Harrow.

"I wish to hell he'd stayed alive just five minutes longer," said Petro grimly. "That was the best decision of my life, to follow after you two women."

A lean Luciano, his left arm bloody, stepped forward out of the shadows. "Petro Dorma?"

Petro nodded. "Marina. You're the one who disappeared, and then came back claiming he'd been on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem."

Luciano smiled slightly. "You would know, Signor di Notte."

Petro's eyes narrowed. "I would also know that you are under suspicion of being a Strega mage, accused by Bishop Capuletti."

"He was quite right, for once," said Luciano calmly. "And given certain guarantees from you, I will give you your five minutes to question Aleri."

"You admit this?" Petro looked at Luciano with a mixture of suspicion and curiosity. "Most of the 'Strega' who used to have booths down on the Calle Farnese have proved to be fakes."

Luciano shrugged. "Yes, I am a real mage. A master, in fact. It is not—yet—a crime not to be a Christian here in Venice, you know. We practice secrecy because the threat of persecution here is very real, not because we have any evil to hide."

Petro nodded. "True, it is not a crime here in Venice . . . yet. But practicing black magic is. And at least part of the Church defines all magic which is not their own as that."

Luciano took a deep breath. "Yes. But Rome, to its credit, takes a more liberal attitude than the Pauline fanatics from the North do. And I would not be admitting this to you, if I was guilty of any 'black magic' or Venice's need was not both desperate and dire. If given your word to keep this secret—and you have a reputation for keeping that word—I will attempt some of what the Church would call 'black magic.' Necromancy, if you choose the term. I will call back this dead man's spirit and let you question him."

Petro looked carefully at Luciano. "What other conditions do you set?"

Luciano opened his palms. "None. Our scrying shows that there can be no survival for the Strega unless Venice survives. I risk the future of our faith, and my own life, by doing this. It is very dangerous for the mage."

Petro bit his lip; looked down at Aleri. "Very well. What do you need and how soon must it be done? I need to send certain messages about the information we already have."

"The sooner the better," said Luciano. "Before the soul slips too far. But I can give you ten minutes while I prepare. And one of your Schiopettieri have arrived. Use them. We can take the body up to Marco's old room."

Marco interrupted. "Use my room for that if you wish. But I need to get Harrow somewhere else. One of the hospitals." He rose, coming to stand next to Kat, and stared down at his protector. "I've done as much as I can for him here." Sighing: "He'll probably die from disease anyway—damned belly wounds—but he might not, too. God knows if anyone's tough enough to survive, it'll be him."

"Get me some paper," said Petro, as the wide-eyed Schiopettieri stepped forward. He pointed to Harrow. "And have some of your men take him to the nearest hospital."

As the Schiopettieri hurried to obey, Petro faced the others. "We can have a message to Duke Dell'este within hours. Our galleys must sail with what force we can muster in the next few hours. And no ship leaves Venice, not for the mainland or for the open sea, that could carry a message to Trieste. I don't know exactly what Aleri was talking about, but a fleet from there can only be more bad news."

Kat knew that it was a good twenty leagues to Ferrara. This could only imply that the Doge and the Council of Ten themselves had magical links to the duke. She squeezed Marco's hand. She was unaware that she had been holding it. Both their hands were bloody.


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