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Chapter 84

It was his last night in town . . .

Benito headed towards the old apartment in Cannaregio. Maybe—if she hadn't gone to Kat—if he played his cards right—Maria might take the fact that he was going off to war as a reason to repeat their night together. He found himself desperately hoping she would, and—almost as desperately—telling himself he was solely motivated by a manly search for pleasure.

He was unusually deep in thought, walking down the narrow calle. His previous life had been a humble place, but a happy one. The world had been pretty straightforward then. Now . . . for all that it was much more wealthy and luxurious, life was much more complicated. Take this business with Caesare . . . he was starting to put things into place that he really didn't like, and didn't want to believe about his hero.

He was at the foot of the narrow stairway when he looked up and saw that the door to the apartment was open. Moonlight made it look like a black pit. Benito raced up the stairs, his mind full of fear. And, as he stepped into the darkness, someone grabbed him. Someone with big meaty hands. "Knew you'd come back, bitch! You killed my cousins!"

Benito stamped down hard—as Caesare had taught him to—and struck back with an elbow with all the strength of his roof-climbing honed muscles. Straight into the pit of the stomach, by the gasp and release.

Benito had realized a while back that he was never going to be as tall as his brother. But lately he'd been getting broader. And the one thing about roof-climbing was that his grip was as strong as one of those Barbary apes.

Which was a good thing, he thought, as he caught his attacker's descending arm. Whoever this was, he was as strong as one of those apes' bigger cousins. Benito snatched at his main gauche, cross-drawing it with his free hand. He drew it in a short vicious arc. The heavy pommel hit something, hard. The arm he was trying to hold went limp. He hit the sagging head twice more, with all the force at his disposal. As the body slumped against him, he caught his attacker by the hair, and pounded the base of his skull as hard as he could with the pommel. Then he stepped back and drew his rapier, slipping the main gauche into its sheath, and felt for the oil lamp.

It wasn't there. But he knew this place like the back of his hand. There were candles and a striker in the cupboard. . . .

A minute later he was looking at the carnage that had once been their apartment. His heart leapt like a fountain when he did not see what he had expected to see: Maria's body.

Then he realized what he was seeing. Two dead Matteoni brothers, with a third one—the one who had attacked him, whom he suspected had come on the scene later—slumped against the wall, staring at him with fogged eyes and a swaying head.

Since the Matteoni still alive clearly wasn't going to be moving soon—that was Giovanni, one of the Matteoni brothers' cousins—Benito took the time to examine the two dead ones. Luce and . . . Stephano, he thought. Luce had half his chest blown away. That was the work of a pistol at close range, and the only person Benito could think of who might have been at the apartment with a pistol was Kat. Whose body wasn't here either. His heart soared still further.

The other body, probably Stephano's, couldn't really be recognized at all. He looked more like a slab of meat in a butcher shop than a man. His shirt was blood-soaked from a stab wound and his head—

Benito averted his eyes, almost gagging. The man's features were completely obscured by drying blood. Brains were sagging out of the horrible head wounds. Someone—and he was pretty sure he knew just exactly what spit-fire woman could have done it, especially after he recognized the cleaver still jammed in the corpse's shoulder—had hacked his skull into shreds.

Matteoni. Caesare's errand boys.

As he finally accepted the truth about his idol, Benito felt a wave of sheer fury wash over him. The rage of a man who has been betrayed as well as wronged. He stalked towards the half-recumbent terror of the dockyards.

"Where is she?" He spoke in a voice that he scarcely recognized as his own. It was very, very cold. A voice which announced, as certainly as the tides: I will kill you, very slowly, if I don't get answers.

The man looked up at Benito with half-glazed eyes. What he apparently saw was not just a fifteen-year-old boy. Maybe the Ferrara-steel rapier had something to do with it. The Matteoni cowered back against the blood-spattered wall. "They got away. She—they—killed Luce and Stephano. I—I wasn't here. I was watching for Schiopettieri over on the next street. But when I saw her running away with that Case Vecchie bitch . . . I thought she'd come back, sooner or later."

Case Vecchie . . . who but Kat?

"Who sent you?" Benito demanded. He already knew the answer. But he had to hear it. In his heart of hearts, somewhere, he still hoped to hear it was someone else. But it was a faint hope, almost nonexistent. How else could they have known where to find Maria? He'd told Caesare himself, because—he'd thought it honorable and best.

"Aldanto . . . Caesare Aldanto. Said to make it look like a rape." It was said in a whisper, but it was loud enough to rock the foundations of Benito's whole world.

* * *

Three minutes later, with the surviving Matteoni lashed to the bed—and looking very surprised to find himself still alive at all—the place stripped of any weapon and the solid door firmly locked, Benito was jog-trotting in search of a gondola.

Maria's was still moored at the canalside. That was ominous. The gondola was her life.

Again, Benito felt despair seeping back in. And, again, that sudden wave of sheer rage. He had to restrain himself from stalking back into the apartment and cutting Giovanni's throat. But—

He wasn't quite up to cold-blooded murder, and there was nothing else to do with the man. He'd considered taking the Matteoni to the Schiopettieri and militia back on the campo. But Caesare had too much influence there. If Benito lived through this mess, then he'd take Giovanni Matteoni to Petro Dorma personally. But first he was going to the Casa Montescue to check that Maria was all right. And Kat, of course.

Then he was going to have to deal with Caesare. He hadn't made up his mind how he was going to do it, but it had to be done. It had him in something of a turmoil, but that wasn't going to stop him.

Soon enough, Benito found a gondolier to take him to Casa Montescue. He spent the entire trip locked away in the black thoughts in his mind. He was still trying to decide on the best course, when the gondolier cleared his throat, suggesting that now he'd brought the young signor here, payment and alighting would be much appreciated.

"How much?" asked Benito, feeling for his purse.

The gondolier told him.

Benito laughed savagely. "Va'funculo! What do you think I am? One of these poncy Case Vecchie idiots?"

The gondolier nodded, too dumbfounded to speak.

Benito had to acknowledge the justice of the man's assumption. "Here. That's the right sort of fare. And this," he held out a larger coin, far more than the fellow had asked for, "is for reminding me."

He alighted, and went to knock at the front door of the Casa Montescue.

An old man, worry written into his wrinkles greeted him. "Si?"

"Benito Valdosta. Here to see Milord Montescue. He must see me. About his daughter."

The old man ushered him in—and led him to a bedroom. Pacing the floor was Lodovico Montescue. His face lit up when he saw Benito.

"Ah! Young Valdosta. I didn't think they would find you so quickly. She seems to me to be getting worse."

He pointed to the bed. Benito was relieved. The woman in the bed wasn't Maria. He recognized the head on the pillow, despite the bandage. He'd seen her before. Not infrequently, visiting Caesare when Maria had been away. There was no mistaking that raven hair, the tiny mole above her mouth. He'd taken some observational sex lessons by peeking in at the window . . . something he'd never have considered doing with Maria and Caesare.

His mouth fell open. "What is she doing here?"

Lodovico sighed heavily. "For my sins, she is my granddaughter-in-law. She has been sleeping with your mentor, Caesare Aldanto."

Benito stuttered . . . He was trying to say how did you know?—but all he got out was "H–h–h–how . . ."

"She told us," said the old man. "The arrogant creature! She also told me I was a fool who had nurtured a viper in his bosom, choosing to believe my once-best friend's son a murderer, rather than to see the rot right here in my own house."

He took a deep breath. "Boy. I must tell you, I have been very wrong. I have blamed the Casa Valdosta for our losses, for our problems. I apologize. Fully. What small things I can do to put the past right I will do."

Benito saw that there were tears in Lodovico's eyes. He got the feeling that tears normally didn't come easily to this fierce old man.

"It's all right, milord. Honestly. Kat—your granddaughter—she's paid us back in spades. Saved my life maybe, and saved Maria's for sure. That's worth more than anything to me. Is . . . is Maria all right? And Kat, of course."

It was the old man's turn to look dumbfounded. "Yes. But—did they not send you here?"

Benito shook his head. "No. I . . . I thought they'd be here. At least I hoped . . ."

Worry must have colored his voice. Lodovico took him by the shoulder, gently. "They are fine, boy. They've gone to look for you at Dorma. Your brother as well, to attend to her." He pointed at the shallow-bubbly-breathing woman in the bed. "They've gone with a stout boatman and a pistol apiece."

Benito nodded. Caesare was out, organizing the new militia. Maria should be fine, going to Dorma. "My brother went across to collect his things from the Accademia. They'll be sent on to there. I'll go and see if I can find them."

The old man nodded. "Yes. But, before you go, there is something I must say to you. It makes it harder for me that you have not seen them. But . . . I must tell you that your mentor Caesare Aldanto . . ."

"I'm going to kill him," interrupted Benito, without heat, but with a grim certitude. "Or send him to face the headsman's axe."

For the first time since Benito had come in, Lodovico Montescue smiled. It was a grim sight. Grimmer than his worried frown. "Spoken like a true Valdosta! Boy—Benito, I should say, for you are clearly a boy no longer—between us we will crush him like an adder beneath a stout boot heel."

The old man seemed almost gay at the thought. "Montescue and Valdosta, together again! Ha! In the old days, nothing caused greater fear—"

He broke off, coughing a little. The cough seemed a compound of suppressed pride and rueful regret. But when he continued, his voice was calm and even. "I suppose that as we were the heart of the opposition to the Montagnards—and we'd given them good cause to fear our blades—it was inevitable that they should have sent their womanizing charmer to target my house's weakest point. I could forgive that, and the insult to my grandson—but not the deaths that she caused in my house."

He sighed. "And I suppose, given my pride, that it was inevitable that I would suspect everyone else. I just hope she doesn't die before she gives her evidence."

"What's wrong with her, milord?" asked Benito.

Lodovico pulled a wry face. "An old family servant—on hearing Alessandra's 'confession'—went for her with a fruit knife. I wouldn't have thought you could stab someone with a fruit knife, but old Madelena managed. She was like a dervish. Alessandra managed to flee to the stairs, but she was already stabbed in the chest, and the shoulder. She fell down the stairs. She hasn't regained consciousness since. Are you a doctor like your brother? Perhaps you should have a look?"

Benito laughed. "No. Marco is the only one. The healer. Me, I'm nothing much but trouble."

At last a genuine smile came to Lodovico's troubled, wrinkled countenance. "Yes. You sound like me, when I was your age. Then Luciano—your Valdosta grandfather—used to come and get me out of it."

"Well, I seem to spend my time getting Marco out of scrapes," said Benito ruefully. "And sometimes I mess that up too. I'd better get along, milord."

"Call me Lodovico. I'd like to stand in for the Valdosta grandfather you never had. And I think we will leave Alessandra to live or die. We've done what we can for her. I'm coming with you to the Accademia. The more I think about it, the more determined I am not just to wait here."

He must have seen Benito's doubtful look. He smiled. "We can take a boat, can't we? It's faster than running, young Valdosta."

* * *

Marco looked at Luciano's transformation of his small lounge. It didn't look pleasant. It didn't feel pleasant, either. In fact, it made his scalp crawl.

He wasn't the only one. Rafael also looked uneasy. "He shouldn't be doing this," the artist muttered. "He's taking far too much risk. This is dangerous, Marco. Really dangerous, and it's gray-magic even with the best of intentions."

Maria, too, looked as if she was ready to run hastily for the nearest chapel, if not engage in a bit of impromptu witch-burning. She had all the ingrained superstition about the Strega that was part of the Christianity of the commons. Most of the ordinary priests tended to regard the Strega as direct competition for their flock, no matter what the Metropolitan said about tolerance and allowing heathens to come to God rather than dragging them to Him kicking and screaming, and as for the canalers—well. When things were going fine, the Strega were the people you went to for love-charms and luck-talismans, but when they weren't . . . the Strega just might be the people causing the problems.

Kat, on the other hand, was just pressed against Marco, a dreamy look in her eyes, as if she could not bear not to touch him—and it didn't even matter if Luciano enacted a black mass, so long as she didn't stop holding his hand. If Petro Dorma had noticed, he hadn't commented.

Luciano had the corpse hedged about with diagrams; the man was inside a pentacle, which was inside a pentagon, which was inside a circle, inside a circle, inside a circle, all drawn with blessed salt and water and traced with a dagger made of black glass.

They all . . . glowed. Could anyone but Marco and Luciano see that? Rafael, probably—if Kat did, it didn't matter to her—and from Petro Dorma's slightly puzzled, slightly skeptical expression, he saw nothing. This wasn't the pure white light that Marco was used to in working with Brother Mascoli; this was a creepy sort of purple.

But—oddly enough—before Luciano had stepped out of the pentagram and pentagon and had invoked whatever spirits he'd called that made the lines spring into life, he'd placed a crucifix very firmly around what was left of Aleri's neck.

"Marco, the powers he's calling up—" Rafael was still murmuring in Marco's ear. "You've got to be careful with them. You know? They're not just called on for good things—"

Marco's skin shivered and it felt as if a cold, dead finger was running down his spine. Oh, he knew. Luciano was just muttering his incantations, but—Charun, Vanth, Carmina—oh, he knew all right. These were the Dread Lords and Ladies of the Night, of the Dead, and not the sort of Powers you called on for a blessing or a healing. . . .

The corpse began to glow. Luciano's face looked as gray as the corpse's in the strange light—and was the purple witch-light growing stronger, or the room light weaker?

The latter.

As Marco glanced surreptitiously out of the corner of his eye, he watched the candle flame nearest him sinking. It wasn't guttering, it was sinking, diminishing, exactly as if someone had upturned a jar over it. It didn't go out, but in a few moments, it was giving off no more light than a mere coal.

No one commented; not Dorma, not Rafael, not Kat, certainly not Luciano, who was—weaving some sort of complicated knot in the air above the corpse with the point of his knife, which left a trail of sullen red light where it passed. And there was no doubt that Aleri hadn't said anything about it either. Although, to Marco's horror, the pentacle-enclosed man—corpse—was stirring. He shouldn't be. Even if Harrow hadn't killed him, Marco was a good enough physician already to know that the herbs that Luciano had stuffed down Aleri's throat should cause death all over again. The hair stood up on Marco's head; this should not be happening! He'd expected a ghost, or something, not that the dead body should sit up and start to move! This was wrong!

Aleri's voice was a weak and hollow thing. But the words were clear, even though the jaw hung loose on the face. On what was left of the face. "Who has called me back . . . ? Why am I called back . . . ? The pain . . . the agony . . . oh, Lucrezia . . ."

Luciano straightened, and became something altogether terrible. His face, corpse-gray and marble-still, took on the qualities of a death-mask. "I, Grimas Luciano Marina, servant of Triune Diana, have summoned you. She is the mistress of the earth, the dead and of rebirth. In Her name I command you; in Her name I compel you!"

The corpse made abortive moves, jerky, and uncoordinated. It brushed against the purple lines of the pentagram, and moaned. "I am not hers. Let me go . . ."

"You are Hers, as all things are," Luciano said sternly. "I abjure and command you. Stay you will, until She or I permit you to depart. Speak the truth and the truth only. You are bound here until you answer the questions set to you."

The lips of the dead man moved. "I . . . obey," he whispered. Sobbed.

Marco felt nauseated. How horrible could this be for Aleri's soul, trapped in a body already dead, and surely knowing that he faced, at absolute best, the worst that Purgatory could offer when Luciano released him?

"From which direction is the main attack on Venice coming?" demanded Marina. "And when?"

Aleri's lips moved again. The words were very faint, since they had no real breath behind them. "Word came through . . . the barges are at Bondeno. Got to be past the Polestine forts by tomorrow morning . . . got to beat th' galleys. Our people in Ferrara'll start the fires there t'night, pass in the confusion . . . Tell 'em to stop th' Trieste fleet . . ."

Petro Dorma croaked. "Ask him what the Milanese are planning to do to break through the Polestine forts?" Marco took a quick look at him—the corpse-light made everyone look awful, but the hitherto-unflappable Dorma, of the Council of Ten, was definitely—flapped. His eyes were big as saucers, and he was sweating, in spite of the funereal chill of the room.

The dead body shivered. "The Casket . . . the black nun . . . the servant and voice of Chernobog. She will deal with the forts. I warned Lucrezia. Danger, danger, danger. It hears me speak its name."

"The black nun?" Petro fumbled for the sense of this.

Luciano spat. "Sister Ursula. That 'nun' who travels with the Knots. Ask your next question."

Dorma licked his lips and didn't look as if he relished the taste. "How does Sforza plan to overcome Venice's defenses?"

Aleri's corpse answered. "Fires. Many fires."

Dorma had more stomach for this than Marco did. "How?"

"Gunpowder. Laid charges. Lucifers in amulets in some of them. Spellcasters in the Casa Dandelo will begin to trigger them, when the fog comes. Agents will light the others."

"How do we stop it? What order must be given?" A good question, milord! How the hell can we be everywhere at once?

"Can't be stopped now. We made sure."

Petro sighed, then tightened his jaw, deciding, evidently, to focus on what he could do. "Where are the firebombs?"

And Aleri began listing place after place, scattered across the Rialto Islands

Petro frantically tried to write. "I'll never get them all. . . ."

"I will," said Marco, finally feeling that here was something he could do.

Petro nodded; that was the genius of the man, to know who and what he could trust and not worry about what he had handed off to others. He turned back to Aleri. "And who can Venice not trust? Who are your hirelings, your agents?"

Once again Aleri began listing. Marco found he recognized many of the names of Mama's sleepers that he'd written down so carefully for Caesare. And Count Badoero and the Tiepolos—the black lotos smugglers with their partisans, who would be coming across from the mainland. They were locals, they knew the lagoon and the city. And then . . . and then . . .

"Caesa . . . aaaahhhhhh!"

The scream was a horrible one; the more so since it came from the throat only. And it was echoed by Luciano.

The lamps went out, and so did the light from the ritual circle. The silence and the darkness were worse than the corpse-light. Kat's fingers tightened on his arm, and she whimpered a little, deep in her throat.

In the darkness Marco heard Luciano say, in a trembling voice: "The black one silenced him as soon as he tried to say that name. Chernobog has claimed his own."

Somebody kindled a light. A candle flame only, but it was still a beautiful sight, in Rafael's hand. That hand shook, and Marco couldn't blame him in the least. There were some things no one should have to witness.

Then, with the light, came the stench.

Marco backed up, gagging, dragged from what was left of the circle by Kat. Dorma staggered to the wall. Rafael covered his mouth with his hand and turned convulsively away.

Something had made sure that no one was going to reanimate Aleri's corpse again. There wasn't going to be enough of it left. It seethed with maggots. The stench of decay was enough to send them all fleeing, gagging, out the door that Rafael opened for them. Rafael had to help Luciano, as the man was barely able to stagger. He slammed the door on the horror in what had been his rooms, and they all leaned against the wall, Luciano included, with shaking legs that would not carry them further, at least for the moment.

First to recover, Petro turned to Marco. "I need you, now, to come and write down those lists." He took a deep breath. "And then we're going to have to decide how to deal with Caesare."

Marco nodded. His laced fingers released themselves from Kat's hand. "Yes. But Luciano looks like death warmed over. . . ."

Kat giggled, faintly—but in a tone that said in a moment she might go from giggling to screaming.

"Ah . . . er . . ."

"That—" Luciano somehow managed to wheeze "— was a poor choice of words."

Marco patted Kat's shoulder comfortingly. "Look, anyway—we ought to take him over to Zianetti's. It's just across the campo. I'll see you there in maybe twenty minutes."

Petro nodded. "If you see any Schiopettieri, send them here. I'd say we should all go there but I left word for Benito I would be here, and in that message that I sent to the Council, I asked that Schiopettieri be sent here."

Luciano nodded; Marco wondered where the old man found the strength. Spiritual and physical. "I'd like to get away from this place. But I must speak to you again, Dorma. The others of the Strega arm militant should be watching around here. I need to send them off to prepare defenses—and to eliminate two traitors. Lucrezia Brunelli was once a neophyte, who wanted to learn the Strega way. She was rejected at the rite of purification, but it seems that she'd found out enough to corrupt some of our people."

"Grand," Dorma said grimly. "Well, I'll leave that in your hands. Mine are over-full as it is."

* * *

Reluctantly, Kat parted with Marco. As they walked out of the lodging, one of Luciano's group emerged from the shadows. A hasty, whispered conversation followed and the nine watchers left at a run.

Slowly Luciano, Rafael, Maria, and Kat proceeded down the curving calle, between shuttered houses. They turned the corner. Two candles burned in a wall-sconce shrine to the Virgin, lighting the narrow alley.

They nearly walked smack into them, and there was certainly no avoiding Senor Lopez and his two companions. The Basque grabbed her shoulder. "This time you will not evade me, girl!" His dark line of eyebrow lowered heavily.

Kat reached into her reticule and produced the pistol, which she pressed against his stomach. "I have you, Lopez! You turn up like a bad penny every time there is evil about. You were there when that monk was murdered magically. You were there when Bishop Capuletti was killed. You're here now when Luciano has had this encounter with Chernobog."

"Name not that evil!" snapped Lopez. "And lower your weapon, girl!" His companions moved forward.

"Stop!" cried Maria. "I'll shoot at least one of you others!" The canaler was holding her own pistol two handed. She stood feet apart, weapon raised, looking like Nemesis.

The Basque priest seemed to be almost grinding his teeth. "Madness!" he hissed.


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