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Chapter 86

Benito was a little edgy. For starters, the old man couldn't move very fast. For a second thing, the town felt like a powder keg. There was a tension in the air you could almost taste. He and Lord Montescue had gotten to the gondola landing to find several anxious-looking people with brass-bound staves waiting to take their vessel. There'd been someone running back across there. . . .


Then they'd entered the narrow winding calle which led to Marco's digs—and found a cluster of people in front of them, in the middle of what was obviously a tense confrontation.


And then he heard Maria shout: "I'll shoot at least one of you others!"


He left Lodovico and ran forward.


"Benito!" Maria nearly dropped the pistol. "You idiot! I almost shot you."


Lopez stared at Benito. "You!" Then, incongruously, he burst into laughter. "It needed only this!"


Benito noticed that Kat was pushing the muzzle of her own pistol into the Spaniard's belly. "Er. Kat. Why are you doing that?"


"He's maybe the one behind all the magical murders!" snapped Kat. "And he probably killed the bishop, too—that you nearly got executed for killing. He's certainly the driving force behind Venice's woes!" The lightning progression—maybe; probably; certainly—didn't seem to perturb Kat in the least. The youthful inquisitor, in full fury.


Benito took a deep breath. "He's also a Legate of the Grand Metropolitan in Rome. And—well, he's helped me."


Lopez bowed his head and smiled wryly. The fact that a cocked pistol was pressed into his midriff didn't seem to worry the man in the least.


"Here at the request of Metropolitan Michael to investigate the activities of the Servants of the Holy Trinity," he elaborated, in quite a calm tone of voice. "Particularly with reference to their persecution of magic-users. Since then I have been seconded to try to find out who was committing these magical murders, as well as how they were being achieved. And to determine—and thwart, it at all possible—the purpose behind them."


Luciano growled. "Well, look no further than your precious Servants of the Holy Trinity then. They're in league with Chernobog—be sure of it! And the woman you're looking for is that so-called 'nun' of theirs."


"Katerina," puffed Lodovico, who had just hustled himself forward. "What is happening now? And why are you threatening this gentleman with that pistol? Be careful, for the sake of God! You've got it cocked!"


Kat frowned, uncertainly. But her weapons training had been rigorous. She removed the weapon from Lopez's waistline; then, carefully and expertly, disengaged the lock. "I hope it may just be a misunderstanding, Grandpapa."


Benito heaved a little sigh of relief. Then pointed to Zianetti's, which was not twenty yards distant.


"That tavern's the place to settle this, not here on the street. Milord Dorma and Marco can join us there." He gave Lopez a polite little bow. "That's Marco Valdosta, I'm referring to."


Lopez nodded. "Valdosta, yes. There are portents attached to that name."


For the first time since Kat had ever seen the fierce-looking Basque, standing on Brunelli's balcony the year before, his intense face suddenly burst into an expression of pure good will. She was almost stunned by the sheer charisma the man seemed to exude.


"A tavern it is, then! Now, if you will allow me to introduce my companions—" He gestured to the two men standing behind him. "Father Pierre, from the Savoy; and Father Diego. Diego, like myself, is from Spain—although, poor soul, not blessed with being a Basque. On the other hand—also like me—he has the pleasure of being able to claim some Jewish ancestry."


The last statement was made in such an offhand manner that the import of it did not register immediately on Kat. When it did, she relaxed still further. The Paulines, especially the more fanatical ones, tended toward religious intolerance. No Pauline zealot, for a certainty, would so casually announce that he had some Jewish blood running in his veins. Kat realized that Lopez had made the statement deliberately. The Basque, clearly enough, was a skilled diplomat, whatever might be the ferocity with which he seemed to act otherwise.


"Father Pierre, as you will see for yourself the moment he opens his mouth," continued Lopez cheerily, "is blessed with the usual Savoyard skill for mangling civilized tongues. But he is quite accomplished in other ways. The detection of black magic, for one."


"Welcome to Venice," said Benito, with a laugh. "Let us buy you a glass of wine at Zianetti's!"


* * *

Zianetti's tavern was relatively deserted. The Accademia was emptying fast, and they got a small private room.


"Time for straight talk," said Benito.


"Yes," said Lopez firmly. "The fate of Venice is at stake."


Benito shrugged uncomfortably. "I dunno about the destiny of Venice. But you kept me free and alive, true enough." Benito saw the puzzled looks around the table. "Look, never mind. It's a long story. I got into stupid trouble and he helped me out. He was very truthful—and very rude."


Father Diego laughed. "Ah, yes. The true Eneko! Don't feel bad. He's rude to everyone."


Lopez allowed himself a brief smile. "It has been on my conscience. But I have told you . . ."


The other priest, the Savoyard, said something. He pointed at Luciano.


Lopez looked carefully at him. "He says you are a mage. He says . . . there is a stink of blackness."


Luciano nodded, tiredly. "He's right. But the stink isn't coming from me, it's—like a man who's been in smoke and still smells of it. I have just been performing a rite, one which you Christians would term 'black.' On the other hand I did it—at the peril of my soul—to try to save this city and my co-religionists. I have been practicing necromancy on an agent of those who serve Chernobog."


There was a silence. And then Lopez said: "You are Dottore Marina, of course. A Grimas, indeed. I don't really approve of necromancy, of course. But . . . there are worse things. What did you discover, Dottore Marina? And did you allow him to confess and be received back into the arms of God?"


Luciano shook his head warily. "Chernobog snatched him back from me. I was nearly drawn in myself. But we know now that this is his conspiracy, and that the nun who is with the Servants—"


"Sister Ursula," said Lopez. "Renowned to be one of the greatest practitioners of Christian magic in the Northeastern Frontier."


Luciano snorted. "She may once have been. But she's nothing more than a vessel for Chernobog now."


"But she is a nun!" protested Diego. "She bears the crucifix!"


Luciano pulled a wry face. "You will find that it is broken. Or bathed in the blood of unbaptized infants, or desecrated in some other terrible way. Or not even there at all. Chernobog's acolytes are masters of illusion. Masters of corruption."


Kat leaned forward. "What I want to know is why Lucrezia Brunelli should want Marco Valdosta dead. And why you, Lopez, stayed at the Casa Brunelli."


Lopez shrugged. "I stayed at the Casa Brunelli when I first arrived because the lodgings were offered to me, by a man well known in Venice and in good repute with the Grand Metropolitan. As for Lucrezia . . ."


Lopez seemed to shudder a bit, for just a moment, as if a sudden unpleasant memory had come to him. "I'm afraid I was perhaps oblivious to the woman's other vices, since I was so preoccupied with avoiding a particular one." He pursed his lips thoughtfully. "As to why she might want Marco Valdosta dead, I cannot think of a reason offhand. Except . . . She seems to have an insatiable appetite for men. Perhaps he turned her down too brusquely." His lips thinned. "The woman is, ah, quite taken by her own beauty."


"She's in this up to her elegant neck," said Kat savagely. "Deceive yourself if you like, Senor Lopez. I know for a fact she has ordered magical materials from the East. I've delivered them to her. But she's no Strega."


Lopez rubbed his face. "The worst I know of her is that she passed on a message from Capuletti that he would meet me at midnight at the San Trovaso Chapel, instead of in the morning. I had tracked this dealing in that vile black lotos to him, somewhat by accident, while dealing with a Signor Tassole. I confronted the bishop about it and the peril to his immortal soul. He denied it, but wrote to me later to say it was true and that my words had troubled him. He said he wanted to fast and pray for the night but had things on his conscience that he wished to confess. It was the letter of a deeply troubled man."


"I'll bet she was in that up to her neck, too," snarled Kat. "She probably dictated the second letter herself, and then killed him."


Marco and Petro Dorma came in looking for them. Petro seemed to accept Lopez and his companions as perfectly logical people to be there. "Still no sign of the Schiopettieri," said Petro, sitting down. "I've left a message over at Marco's old apartment for them to come here. Bribed several of the locals to wait for them. Still, if they're not here in ten minutes, I must go and rouse the Council of Ten myself. I wonder why they haven't arrived?"


* * *

Marco had been drowning in Kat's eyes, paying almost no attention to the conversation. It took a few moments for Petro's words to drum through.


"I wonder why they haven't arrived?"


That, and Aleri's last word—which he and Petro had agreed did sound as if Aleri might have been starting to say "Caesare"—finally registered. Marco's immediate reaction had been: that can't be true. But walking across the darkened campo the thought had come to him. . . . What allegiance did Caesare Aldanto owe to Venice? He was for sale to the highest bidder, after all. He'd always seemed good to Marco . . . but the way he had cheated Maria . . .


"Um . . . Would your Schiopettieri messenger have gone to Caesare Aldanto?"


Petro turned on him, pursing his lips. "It was his name! It was that name that the Chernobog destroyed Aleri rather than let us discover! Oh, Jesus. I've given the city defenses into the hands of a traitor."


"He's a traitor and a murderer all right," grated Lodovico.


Petro took a deep breath. "He could wreak more havoc than all the Montagnard firebombs put together. I can't take the chance, even if I've guessed wrong and he's innocent. What the hell am I going to do?"


Maria stood up. "What you should have done in the first place, Dorma. Call out the Arsenalotti. They haven't joined your stupid militia because they are insulted by it. The defense of the Republic has always been their responsibility."


Dorma nodded. "Get me paper and sealing wax," he commanded Rafael. He turned back to Maria. "You obviously know the Arsenal, woman."


"My cousins are caulkers," said Maria stiffly. "My father was a caulker."


"Would they rally to the Republic, if you were to tell them that the defense of the Arsenal and the Doge's palace are in their hands, that they must deal with any rogue militia?"


Maria snorted. "You're so stuck up, Dorma, that you have no idea. Of course they would! And most of the boat-people too. Send Marco to rally them. They saw him with the Doge. And he has a reputation five times as good as yours. They trust him."


Petro stood up. "Good. Because I have work, tonight, for every one of you. You too, Lodovico Montescue."


"I am at the service of the Republic," said the old man stiffly. "But I hope that that work includes arresting Caesare Aldanto."


"That's dangerous work," said Petro mildly. "But I have another task for you. I want to know which of the Trieste-coasters is running messages to Trieste. You have the contacts. Get onto them. If need be, arrest them. I want to know to whom these messages are going. And I want to alter a message."


Kat and Lodovico gaped at Petro. "How—"


Petro smiled sardonically. "You can thank the Doge. I would have closed you down. He said the gray trade would exist anyway, and he would rather it was in the hands of someone we knew and who was loyal to Venice. Someone that we could use if need be. Besides, the Doge felt the Jews and the Strega did a great deal for Venice's wealth and well-being. He thought your trade supported them. Just because he has that childish devotion to clockwork devices doesn't make him a fool, you know."


Kat recovered her wits first. "Captain Della Tomasso. He is carrying messages for the Sots. And if anyone knows of any other secret messages being carried, it'll be him. His ship leaves on the full tide at about two o'clock this morning."


"I'll see to him," said Lodovico. "But who gets to arrest Aldanto? I can provide a charge."


"And I have evidence," said Benito, "in the shape of a bound and locked-up hired murderer lying in our apartment. Giovanni Matteoni."


Marco gaped at his younger brother.


Petro took a deep breath. "I will. My sister is going to be angry." He sighed. "And I must try to do something about Lucrezia, while my messengers rouse the Council."


"I've heard Ricardo Brunelli has sent Lucrezia away to safety," announced Lopez.


"Ah. Then, with you, Lopez, and the Doge's Swiss Guards, and what other force I can muster, we will go to the Imperial embassy and confront the Knights."


He turned on Luciano. "The attack is at least in part magical. The Strega must contest that. Can you damp fires?"


"Rafael will go to see that that is in hand. I must go to the Marciana library. There is a guardian . . . if I can arouse it, it will do more than any fire-damping."


"Very well. Marco. You will go with this lady," Petro pointed to Maria. "I will give you a signed order for Admiral Marchese. Ring the Marangona. Rouse the Arsenalotti. Send any men who can be spared to Piazza San Marco. And I want squads of men to proceed to as many of these addresses as they can. Take no chances. Douse any gunpowder they find, or toss it into the canal. And then proceed to rouse any of your canaler friends you can find. Send them to San Marco."


Marco looked alarmed. But nodded.


"Benito. Your task is the Casa Dandelo."


Benito smiled savagely. "Yes. Although I'll arrest Caesare first for you if you like."


Marco gaped at his brother again.


Petro looked calculatingly at him. "No. I'll do that. You deal with the Casa Dandelo. Neutralize it. Destroy it." He sighed. "I go beyond my authority here. To act against foreigners is easy, but a Venetian Casa . . . Even to order a search will take time and manpower I don't have."


"The place is like a fort," mused Benito, considering the problem. In that moment, he seemed much older than he was.


"I know. Do it."


Benito grinned. "Si. How much gold do you all have? I'm going to need a fair bit. And Maria—you going to come and help when you've finished talking to the Arsenalotti? I'll need a couple of your cousins. Good honest boatmen. I'll see you at Giaccomo's. We're going into the barrel delivery business. And the Signori di Notte and the Schiopettieri are turning a blind eye."


Maria nodded. "Come and choose them."


"Si. I'll need some gunpowder from the Arsenal anyway."


Petro looked rather warily at the imp he'd just set loose. But he dug into his pockets.


"I guess that leaves me," said Kat. "I'd better go with my grandfather to Della Tomasso."


Petro took a deep breath. "No. Lodovico Montescue is old enough not to need his hand held. You go with Marco. We may all be dead soon. You may as well—" He waved a little feebly. "Be together."


Lodovico looked at Marco Valdosta. Shrugged. "My house is in ruins anyway. Be happy at least, cara mia."


* * *

Marco faced a crowd, a sea of faces. The torches made the planes of the faces stand out. Showed the lines of hard work and poor food, particularly in the clustered caulkers. Hard times and hard faces. Mouths set in a grim line. His stomach turned itself inside out. He looked at Maria. There was the same grimness, the same determination in that square jaw, as there was on the faces in the crowd. And Maria said that he, not she, must tell the Arsenalotti what Petro had said.


He looked at Kat. She reached out and squeezed his hand, and he realized just how right Petro had been. He still did need someone to hold his hand. "Introduce me," he said to Maria.


She stood up onto the marble step. "Arsenalotti!"


There were a few cheers. A number of smiles. A good many waves. Everyone here knew Maria Garavelli. Honest as the day was long, even if she had a temper on her that you could boil a kettle on. "What are you doing up there, Maria?"


"This is Marco Valdosta. He needs to talk to you. He's Case Vecchie, but he has doctored some of your kids. He's a good man and he's got a message for you from the Council of Ten."


Marco got up onto the step. "Thank you, Maria."


There were a few people clapping. He heard his name repeated. He cleared his throat and looked at Kat. She smiled.


"Who has always defended the Doge, the piazza? On whom has the last defense of Venice always rested?" His voice cut through the silence.


No one answered. Then someone in the back of the crowd said "Not Petro Dorma's damned 'militia,' Valdosta!"


"Right," said Marco. "Not the militia. The Arsenalotti. That is the way it has always been. And that is the way it must stay."


The crowd cheered.


Marco knew in his bones that he was doing the right thing. He had them. He held up a parchment. "Dorma made a mistake. He's man enough to admit that. I, Marco Valdosta, have his writ here. The Council calls the Arsenalotti to the Defense of the Republic." A strange power infused his voice. "In the name of the Winged Lion of Saint Mark, you are called to Arms! Will you answer?"


The assent itself was a roar. And to Marco's shock, he realized that they were chanting "VAL—DOS–TA! VAL—DOS–TA!"


He stilled them with a gesture. "This is my brother, Benito. He's the one who is good at organizing and plans. He'll tell you what the Council wants."


Benito, wide-eyed, was pushed to his feet to face the cheering crowd. "I'll get even with you for this, Marco," he said quietly.


"Face it, Benito," said Marco. "You tell people what to do far better than I do."


And Benito went on to prove him dead right.


 



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