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Chapter 87

Erik stared at the desecrated Lady chapel. Grim. Silent. Pellmann had not run away after all, as his remains testified. But it was the bells that were the most offensive. Made from infant skulls, with a small thighbone for a clapper. The cross was broken. The walls were scrawled with strange and unpleasant symbols . . . scrawled in what could only be blood and excrement. Rusty stains marred the once white altar cloth. Pieces of clothing . . . A cotte. A knitted cap. A richly embroidered nightshirt . . . lay on the floor.

But of the Woden-casket, which had been placed there, there was no sign.

"I think I am going to throw up," said Manfred quietly. "Under our noses. Right under our very noses! Well, Sachs? What do you have to say to this?"

The abbot, defiant, furious, and threatening divine retribution until a bare minute ago, sank to his knees. "My God. My God! Forgive me."

"He may. But I won't," said Manfred, grimly. "Where is it and where is she, Sachs?"

The former abbot looked into Manfred's implacable eyes. Looked around at the desecrated chapel. "Sister Ursula, the casket, and an escort of knights left this late afternoon. There was a chance that the witches could . . ." He faltered. "That's what she said. She said they would try to liberate it. That it would be safer with our friends on the mainland. My God, my God, I have been weak, misled by the carnal desires of the flesh! My God, forgive me."

Erik hit him. "Enough time for self-pity and remorse later, you stinking swine. Where have they gone?"

Sachs whimpered. "I don't know. She said something about forts to Aldanto."

"The Polestine forts," said Francesca.

Erik turned to Manfred. "She's going to turn the Woden loose on the forts, presumably to clear the way for a fleet from Milan, which will be coming down the Po River."

Sachs nodded wretchedly. "Sforza is coming. But we didn't know . . . I thought—she said it was Christ's work. . . ."

Manfred pointed at the chapel. "Well, now you see whose work it really was. What is this about Trieste?"

"A thousand two hundred of our knights, the Chapters from Greifswald, Landsberg, and Schniedemühl, are ready to embark to restore order and seize the Arsenal. They wait for our message."

"So," said Manfred, sardonically. "You stripped the northeastern frontier for this adventure. The Grand Duke of Lithuania must be very pleased with you. What do you think, Erik? Shall we turn them loose to make a demonstration on the border against Emeric of Hungary? That'll keep him out of the mess, anyway, and them away from here."

"Yes." Erik nodded. "And we will need local guides. If we ride hard, we may get to the Woden-casket in time."

Manfred nodded. "Francesca and Count Von Stemitz—with an escort of Knights—can ride for the Brenner pass to reassure Uncle Charles Fredrik that I am still alive. Now we'd better go and look for Petro Dorma."

A knight ran in. "There is a huge party of Venetians disembarking outside. Looks like some mercenaries too. And cannon. Knight-Proctor Von Dusbad and Etten are readying defense." He stared at the horror in the chapel . . . "What is this!"

"Sister God-damned Ursula, is what it is. Hell's teeth! Let's see if we can stop this. You—" Manfred pointed to one of the knights. "You see to it that the Servants are marched in here to see this abomination." He pointed to the kneeling Sachs. "And take him and lock him away."

"Open up in the name of the Holy Church and the Republic of Venice!" demanded someone outside.

"Let us out the wicket door. You can prepare a charge in case there is a problem." Ducking, Manfred, Erik and several of the senior knights came out to face the Venetians.

Erik felt his heart lift to see Petro Dorma out there in the torchlight. Petro may have felt similar relief, but he didn't let that show on his face or stop the mercenaries lining up the small cannon. All he said was "Where is Abbot Sachs?"

"I sent him off to be locked up," said Manfred. "We don't want trouble, Dorma. In fact I need to talk to you . . ."

"Ciao, Petro," said Francesca, sweeping forward with her hands outstretched, as if greeting an old family friend.

Dorma's mouth fell open. His face seemed to flush a bit.

Francesca smiled at him. "You look like a catfish with your mouth open, Petro. Close it, dear. You really do need to talk to them. They've just foiled a plot against you—and the Holy Roman Empire. This large young man is the Emperor's nephew, as it happens. Who would have thought it? And, I believe, also his Emissary Plenipotentiary."

Having obeyed Francesca's first injunction to close his mouth, Petro Dorma then did an even better catfish imitation.

"You'd better come inside," said Erik. "We have found out who has been committing those murders."

"Do you have her prisoner?" asked a slight man with an aquiline nose and a solid single dark line of eyebrow. "I am Eneko Lopez, a Legate of the Grand Metropolitan of Rome. We demand to speak to 'Sister' Ursula."

Erik shook his head. "Too late. We've found her foul chapel. But she's gone. Come."

The doors were opened. Dorma and some of his party were escorted to the desecrated Lady chapel. One of the priests gagged immediately and clutched his nose. "Chernobog!" he gasped. "The stench is horrid! Fierce!" Even under the circumstances, the man's broad Savoyard accent was unmistakable.

Erik looked curiously at the fellow. He'd heard of witch-smellers, but had had no faith in them in times past. Now . . .

Erik sniffed experimentally himself. Yes. It was the same odor he'd smelled in Sachs's study that one day. He'd thought it was sister Ursula's perfume—and how odd it was for a nun to use perfume. It was . . . sort of sickly sweet. Confined in Sachs's room it had made him want to sneeze. Perhaps Sachs himself had been the victim of a powerful amount of magical manipulation.

Manfred was talking to Petro Dorma. "—three parties. Ten will remain here. The message to Trieste should stop the Knights. If not . . . well, those who remain here can pass on Charles Fredrik's orders. The rest are split into the party going to tell Emperor Charles Fredrik that I'm not dead yet, and the bulk of us are riding after Sister Ursula."

"Take us with you," said Lopez. "She is what we seek."

Manfred looked him over. "We want to leave as soon as we can get a boat to the mainland. Mounts may be a problem." He hesitated. "And it'll be a hard chase. Even for soldiers."

Lopez snorted. "I was a soldier once, lad—and longer than you've been, I venture to say. You think I got this limp from the stairs in the Vatican? Nor have I led what you'd call a soft life since."

Dorma interrupted. "I can solve one of your problems. We have remounts on the mainland at the landing at Chioggia. I'll send Capi D'Strozza with you. He's from Chioggia, and will see you through to the forts. And, as he says, Senor Lopez was once a knight. Despite the limp I think you can still ride, no?"

Lopez smiled. "Better than any Ritter, I suspect. We'll find out." The last sentence came out almost gleefully. Holy the man might be now—but, clearly enough, there was still that Basque truculence lurking somewhere within his soul.

* * *

Over on Saint Mark's Square a bell began to ring, frantically.

Petro looked despondent. "The alarm tocsin! Now what?"

Erik smiled. "Part of this conspiracy that we have partially unraveled, I suspect. Give us your Capi and we'll be moving, and you can get back to Saint Marks." He peered into the darkness, at the hazy, haloed moon. "Looks like you're in for fog. I hope your Capi is a good navigator."

Petro smiled back. "The best. He was a smuggler before I recruited him. Fog was one of his favorite kinds of weather."

* * *

Down on the water, on the mainland side of Rialto, Benito could have told Erik the fog was thick enough to cut with a knife already. It smelt . . . odd. Marshy. Not the usual wet-wool and smoke smell of Venice fog. Benito wasn't going to let it worry him. Giaccomo was enough to worry about.

The heavy, balding man was not the type to be impressed by Case Vecchie clothes or orders. Money would talk, however. Benito hoped he had enough. They'd picked up Valentina . . . Claudia was off somewhere. The way Valentina said "somewhere" meant: Strega stuff, don't ask.

"Your eyes almost seem to be glowing," said Maria, looking at him curiously.

Benito knew he could get killed doing this. So could Maria . . . So could other people. It didn't stop him loving it all. He was feeling brave, so he put a hand on her forearm. That was gambling with your hand, with Maria.

"It's in my blood. My grandfather . . . And my father."

She flicked the hand off. But almost gently. "Your grandfather I've heard about. Dell'este is a legend. But the Valdosta . . . I asked. They're like Marco."

Benito pulled a wry face. "We're half-brothers really, Maria. I think my father was Carlo Sforza."

She stared at him, wide-eyed. Sforza. The Wolf of the North. She shook her head. "So. Just what are we going to do to get into the Casa Dandelo? There are probably up to thirty Dandelos and their slave overseers. There are God alone knows how many Montagnards there too. We have thirty men and one thief."

"There must be three hundred slaves," said Benito. "And the way out is going to be through the Casa."

Maria nodded. "True. And having been in there myself, killing a few slave-masters might be sweeter than freedom to a lot of them. Well, keep it simple. Clever plans go wrong."

"I'll do my best."

* * *

"You want thirty empty casks?" Giaccomo looked at Benito. Then at Maria. "What for?" He went on polishing glasses.

"And your small barge." Benito ignored the question, and began counting out gold coins onto the counter. He noticed that Giaccomo had stopped polishing glasses.

"You're with Dorma nowadays," said Giaccomo. "Quite the young Case Vecchie gentleman. With a brother who once tried to sell me fake relics. I want to know why, boy—or no deal. Not for twice as much."

"I'm not Marco," said Benito calmly. Giaccomo flustered Marco; Benito knew you just had to keep calm around him. "Have I ever done you wrong, Giaccomo? I brought coin for you once."

"Yeah. But I still want to know. And nobody else has barrels enough."

Benito shrugged. "Dorma wants me to blow up Casa Dandelo. Destroy the place. We had a dead certain tip-off"—he couldn't resist the pun—"that it's full of Montagnards. They're due to cause trouble when the invaders come." Benito smiled. "And we all know how Maria loves the Dandelos."

A small corner of a smile touched Giaccomo's face. "She ain't your tip-off?"

Benito knew that Giaccomo regarded even a whiff of magic as bad news. So he chose his phrasing carefully. "Party called Aleri. Heard of him?"

Giaccomo's eyes narrowed. He nodded. He didn't look friendly. "You can't trust him."

"Ah. Let's put it this way. He was answering certain questions for the Signori di Notte in an . . . involuntary fashion."

Giaccomo actually smiled. He pulled three of the stacks of coin towards himself. "I'd lend you some manpower . . ." He paused. "This has nothing to do with Aldanto, has it?"

Benito shook his head very firmly. Giaccomo pushed one of the stacks of coin back. Benito pushed it over again. "It's Dorma's money. And it's only right to tell you that if things go wrong you won't see your barge again."

"Aldanto's got money from Ferrara sitting here. Been coming in ever since you and that brother of yours showed up. You see him, you tell him there's two lots here." The expression on Giaccomo's face said: and I don't mind if he doesn't fetch it. "The barge is round the back. Jeppo will help you get the barrels loaded."

* * *

Fifteen minutes later, Giaccomo's barge was heading for the Casa Dandelo with a cargo of "wine." Benito hoped that Valentina had the gunpowder in position. When they'd cased the joint, picking up the guards on the roof, she'd said that it would be easy. He hoped she was right, because they'd need the distraction.

The cargo wouldn't get into the Casa proper, but there was an enclosed loading bay into the stores and slave quarters. He, Maria, and Maria's cousin Luigi poled the barge, little more than a floating flat-bed full of barrels, around to the front of the Casa. Benito went and pounded on the door.

"Who is it at this time of night?" demanded someone, far too quickly.

"Wine delivery. From Giaccomo's!" yelled Benito.

"Go away!" bellowed someone within. "We didn't order any wine."

Benito yelled back. "Party by the name of Aleri came in and paid for it, special delivery, tonight."

There was the sound of talk, as if a small argument were going on. But Benito was relaxed, confident. No one behind that door was going to turn down a cargo of wine. And the deliverers were not exactly a threat. A ragged fifteen-year-old boy, a seventeen-year-old girl, and an older bargee. Odds on, the "extra guests" had already worked their way through most of the Dandelos' wine stock—and with the war on, heaven knew when they'd see more.

The door cracked open. An eye appeared, examining Benito for a brief moment and then, for a much longer moment, the cargo on the barge. "All of that for us?"

Benito laughed. "You wish! Five casks. The rest are for Barducci's. The boss won't let us do 'one person' deliveries. And Barducci's is running dry. Gotta have it there inside the hour. Party there tonight, with everyone going off to war. You goin' to accept this load or do we take it away again?"

That dire threat brought the final decision. "Bring it round the side. Some of the men will come down and open up."

"Send someone to offload, too."

"Cheeky little sod. Does your master know you're so lazy?"

"Ah, come on—"

"On your way! The men will see you there."

On his way down the side canal, Benito whistled loudly, tunelessly. Out of the corner of his eye he had seen a glimpse of Valentina on the opposite roof, grappling hook ready. She wasn't going to swing across, herself. But the small barrel of black powder was going to pendulum across. Valentina reckoned it'd smash through those shutters like a knife through silk. It didn't matter whether it did or not, just so long as there was fire and trouble in the main residential part of the Casa. Still, Benito wished he could watch. He also hoped like hell Valentina didn't stay to watch.

The Dandelo men had already gotten the rusty portcullis they used to enclose their dock half up by the time they got there. When the barge was in, as Benito expected, the portcullis dropped again. That made good security sense.

What happened next was not, however, what Benito had expected at all. There were seven Dandelo men there. As soon as the portcullis dropped, the leader smiled at the barge crew and rubbed his hands. "Well! We got thirty barrels and three slaves for the price of five barrels. And it's on Aleri's coin! Ha. Take 'em, boys."

"Hey!" protested Benito. "You can't do that! Giaccomo knows where we are. And he'll send for the Schiopettieri. And you don't mess with Giaccomo's cargos!"

The slaver laughed. "By the time he knows you've gone, it'll be too late. Hear that Tocsin? You got in just before the bell, boy. Now we're shut up siege-tight until Sforza gets here. So come quietly or you're going to get hurt."

Benito was paralyzed for an instant, not knowing what to do. Then—dead on time—an explosion rocked the walls.

Bits of mortar fell. It was like a slap around the ears. Benito realized he still had a lot to learn about black powder. It certainly stunned the Dandelos, but Maria and her cousin Luigi were tipping barrels as if it hadn't happened. Arsenalotti were scrambling out from under, weapons in hand. Benito hadn't waited, either. He'd gotten between the doorway and the Dandelos. And the first fool didn't even try to avoid the rapier he'd snatched up from between the barrels.

He hadn't been prepared for the horror on that face. But he didn't have time to think. The blade was stuck right through the slaver, so he pulled his knife out. The next few moments gave him several reasons to write off part of Caesare Aldanto's crimes. Only the training he'd had at Aldanto's hand kept him alive.

Two minutes later, at the cost of one dead and three wounded men, the dock was theirs. And even from here they could hear the chaos that Valentina's black powder had generated.

They moved out, to the slave pens. Heavy hammers and cold chisels in the hands of two blacksmiths from the Arsenal began making short work of the locks. Two of the Arsenalotti stood by with a barrel full of cutlasses. In the meanwhile Maria and her ten escorts raced up the stairs, looking for the passage she'd found through to the Casa itself. The barrel of black powder they had with them should see that door blown open. Then it would be a case of shepherding freed, armed slaves up and in.

"Listen up, all of you!" shouted Benito. "We have to cut our way out of the Casa. Loot what you can, especially clothes. And don't kill anyone wearing these hats." He pointed at his red woolen cap. "They're our people. When you're out into Venice, toss the cutlasses into the canal. Scatter. Act like citizens, otherwise the Schiopettieri will put you away." Not strictly true, but the last thing Petro Dorma wanted on top of his troubles was a rampaging mob of armed ex-slaves. Arsenal-issue cutlasses were cheap compared to that risk.

There was a ragged chorus of cheers. Most of the slaves were still staring, unbelieving. They started to believe when big Gio smashed open the first lock with his cold chisel. Men and—from the next pen—women streamed out, taking the weapons as if they'd been handed the Holy Grail.

There was a small explosion from upstairs. A much more controlled-sounding one. At least Maria had an Arsenal gunner to manage her black powder.

"Up!" shouted Benito. "Up the stairs—and at the Dandelos!"

The cheer now was a wild deep-throated roar, like a tiger uncaged and seeking furious vengeance on its trapper.

Benito led them on up. Reflecting all the while on an old proverb he'd once heard about the risks of riding a tiger.

* * *

Maria had found being back inside this place a nightmare. It made her feel weak and scared. Not the fighting, or the danger. Just the horrible place itself. Still, they had a job to do. And Casa Dandelo would rue the day they had taken her prisoner. She heard the tumult of the slaves coming up the stairs, and saw Benito at the head of them.

There was a fierceness in his shining eyes. This wasn't the mischievous, laughing boy she knew—and had once made love to, a memory she found strangely haunting. This was the blood of the Wolf of the North. She didn't like it. She didn't like it at all. But when she thought about it, it had always been there, lurking under the surface. For all his charm, there was also something a little frightening about Benito.

She followed after the rush. Fifteen minutes later she and Benito were out on the Grand Canal in fog. The Casa Dandelo was burning behind them.

"Well. That's that," said Benito, rubbing his hands in satisfaction.

"I suppose you're proud of yourself?" said Maria quietly.

"Well," said Benito, swelling his chest a bit. "It was a good fight. We didn't expect them to have Milanese soldiers hidden in there. But those slaves didn't let arquebuses or even the magicians stop them. No finesse but lots of courage."

"They had lots of courage because they were desperate, Benito, and no way out. And you used them as cannon-fodder. And that 'distraction' of yours exploded in the family living quarters. You probably killed and maimed a whole lot of kids. So I hope you're not too proud of yourself, Benito Valdosta, because I'm not. We just did what we had to do, that's all."

Benito started to say something. Then he stopped himself. "So what should I have done, seeing as you are so clever?" he asked. But there was doubt as well as hurt in his voice.

Maria looked back at the burning building. "I don't know," she said quietly. "But that was the way the Wolf would do it. The Old Fox kills for family, not just for fun. He would have figured out a better way."

"Uh-huh. Well, I'll think about it when I haven't got a war to fight," said Benito. The adult male gruffness in his voice did a poor job of covering the hurt in the boy's. "We'd better get back to the piazza and find out what that tocsin was all about."

* * *

The bell was Lucrezia Brunelli's way of telling the city that its second most important citizen, Ricardo Brunelli, was dead. Murdered.

And not five hundred yards away, a building was burning.

A runner came up, panting. "Arsenalotti! Count Badoero has landed at the Sacca della Misericordia. With many men!"


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