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Chapter 90

The grayness swirled thick, carrying the sounds of combat and dying. Despite everything they'd done, some of Aleri's agents had survived. Fire bloodied the fog to the south, and the smell of it was thick in the air.


Marco turned to Kat, a heaviness in his chest, and the edge of despair in his voice. "We're losing. In spite of everything, we're losing. Count Badoero must have brought at least a thousand men. Caesare has made sure the damned militia are ineffectual. The Arsenalotti and the boat-people fight well. But this fog—it confuses everything. There's something wrong with this fog. It's like it's fighting for them."


"It feels heavy. Not natural," said Kat. She'd acquired a cut on one cheek and two ash smudges on the other. With or without them, Marco still thought she was the most beautiful, wonderful person he'd ever met. She lightened the fog around her, and in the face of her hope and determination, he lost some of his despair. If Kat believed in him, in their cause, maybe—


She patted his arm. "You're a good general, Marco. People rally to you."


He pulled a face; he didn't want to be a general, and it wasn't what he was good at. If only there was something he could do to make a bigger difference than merely whacking at people he'd rather be meeting over a glass of wine at a taverna! "Benito is twice the organizer. And I hate this killing."


Someone came running out of the fog. It was Rafael, gasping for breath. "Luciano says . . . needs you . . . the Marciana . . ."


They headed across at a run. They weren't that far from San Marco anyway.


Rafael led them upstairs to a room, and they burst through the door. Sigils and arcane symbols were chalked on the floor and all three of them came to an abrupt halt before they so much as touched a toe to one of those sigils. A complex triple circle with squares at the cardinal points and an internal octagon occupied the center of the room—that wasn't chalked, it was inlaid onto the floor of the room.


This is a—a working chamber, Marco realized. A place for magic, and nothing else. Christian magic? Jewish? Strega? All three, perhaps? There was some overlap—more than just some if Brother Mascoli was to be believed. Emeralds twinkled from the cardinal square nearest them—sapphires from the one across the room—topaz to the left and rubies to the right. The lines of the diagrams were laid out in—gold and silver? Well, for some Strega magic, the magic with the purest intentions that called only great spirits, silver and gold were a good thing, not something to be avoided. Silver for Diana, and gold for Dianus. Or silver for the Moon and gold for the Stars. Or silver for Earth and gold for Heaven. The jewels glittered, and the whole of the diagrams seemed to scintillate. The boundaries weren't fully up yet, but the energies that would create the walls between the realms weren't white, they were opalescent, rainbowed. The air was thick with incense.


Luciano, clad in a long white robe, loomed out of the scented smoke. He looked old and tired—older than Marco had ever seen him before. And frail. His skin seemed translucent, as if the motral part of him was wearing thin and his soul shining through it. "Are we winning?"


Marco sighed, and shook his head, despair once again pressing down on him. "No. We have more men, but Badoero and Caesare are just too damned good. And they have the certainty of more men coming. Kat's grandfather got the message off to Trieste—if that works, at least we won't have to deal with the rest of the Knots. Manfred and Erik and Lopez rode off to try to save the Polestine forts from that nun. We won't know for some time whether Sforza is on his way here with the Milanese. In the meantime, we're fighting fires—and each other, often enough—in this damned fog."


Luciano's lips thinned with anger. "It is indeed a 'damned fog.' It is caused by Chernobog, working through someone here in Venice. Lucrezia Brunelli, I would think, is the only one powerful enough to do it alone. But she's supposed to have left the city, so perhaps it is several mages working together. The only good thing about it is that it's taking nearly all of their energy. Weather magic is hard, expensive magic."


"They've obviously got gold to burn," said Marco bitterly.


"The expense I refer to is of magical energy," said Luciano tiredly. "And what I have been doing is also—expensive. I had hoped to avoid this, but it seems we have little choice . . . I will perform a summoning. If it works, it will save us. Save Venice. But it calls, of all things, for one of the Case Vecchie blood. One of the longi. And only four families are listed. Two are no more. The other two are Valdosta and Montescue."


"What do I have to do?" asked Marco, a bit doubtfully. A summoning? Just what was Luciano going to summon? Not necromancy, dear Jesu!


"Be within the circle of invocation. Give some of your blood." It seemed simple enough. Some of his blood—that couldn't hurt. Not here. It was a token sacrifice, not an actual one; something, perhaps, to remind a greater spirit of a promise from long ago.


Blood to blood.


"I'll do it," said Kat decisively. "It says Montescue, doesn't it?"


Luciano shook his head. "The script is faint, but it clearly says 'a son.' This—this is a Christianized attempt at a far more ancient ceremony, but it is all that I have. Hence—" he waved an ancient bronze knife vaguely at the rest of the room "—all this. According to this it should be the Metropolitan who is doing this, but—"


He didn't finish the sentence.


"What will this do?" Marco asked, feeling oddly detached and strangely calm.


Luciano shrugged. "The spell has only been used twice before. Yet this is a very ancient copy of an even more ancient spell. It is called the Lion's Crown and it invokes the spirit of the lion of the marshes. One of the oldest of the great neutral spirits. The Guardian of the lagoon, the marshes, the islands. And, yes—the Lion is still here, and strong. It influences much, still. But mostly it slumbers, waiting for Venice's hour of need. It is what Chernobog has feared most all along, and why he maneuvered so stealthily. If the Lion awakes—awakes fully, as only you can do—not even Chernobog can stand against it. Not here, not in Venice."


The memory of a brushing of wings passed through Marco's mind, but was gone before he could snatch at it.


Luciano looked directly into Marco's eyes, as if weighing the heart behind them. "I think this is that hour of need. And not only do you bear the blood, you carry the mark of that Lion. Scrying glasses turn to you. I've long known you would wear the Mantle after I'm gone, but you can also wear the Crown—and do it now. Are you willing?"


The mark of the Lion? Mantle? Crown? But this was no time for questions, not now. Questions could wait until after, when this was over. If they all survived. This might be the only way for them all to survive. Certainly the enemies of Venice, whether they were evil spirits or came with fire and the sword, would not leave any of them standing. Marco nodded. "It's my city. And they are my people."


"I am your person too," said Kat quietly. "And I'm scared for you, Marco. I don't understand any of this—and—and—it sounds like a sacrifice!"


He leaned forward and—for the first time—kissed her cheek, gently. "It'll be all right. And . . . if we don't do something it won't matter. The city is burning. Caesare and Count Badoero's men are winning."


Somehow, she composed her face, stilled her trembling, drew herself up, and stood like the daughter of Montescue that she was. "I love you, Marco Valdosta."


His heart swelled with pride for her. "And I love you too, Katerina Montescue."


Luciano stamped his foot impatiently. "Come on! There are auspicious times for doing these things. And one of them is dawn. It's hard to tell in this fog, but that must be soon. Step inside the circle and let me close it behind you. This is a great spell and it will tax me to my utmost."


* * *

Kat was left standing, head bowed, disconsolate, his kiss still warm on her cheek, to watch as the ward-fires flared. A tear trickled down her nose. This was dangerous, horribly dangerous. She felt it in her bones, no matter that Marco didn't seem to think anything of it. A Strega mage practicing a Christian version of a pagan spell? It was crazy—how much could go wrong, or had gone wrong in the transliteration? Luciano was taking on more than he should ever have dared and he had dragged Marco in after him. Or was she just getting overprotective about Marco? She fumbled out her talisman and took comfort from the fact that at least the medal was cool.


The door opened, and Kat whirled, one hand on her Saint Hypatia medal, the other on her dagger. The medal flared with heat.


Lucrezia Brunelli stood there, smiling in triumph. "Crying for your lover, little Montescue?" she asked smirking cruelly. "It's a waste of time and tears."


Kat gasped. "You're supposed to have left!" Then, as the words themselves penetrated: "And damn you! I'm crying for a good man."


Lucrezia laughed, throwing her handsome head back. "There's no such thing, girl. Believe me—I've tried them all, from Capuletti to my brother Ricardo."


Kat gaped, for a long moment, as Lucrezia waited for the sense of that to penetrate, unable to believe what she had actually heard. "Your b—your brother!?"


Lucrezia smiled lazily, but the smile had a nasty edge. "Cleopatra slept with hers. He did crawl into my bed when he thought I was too young to understand, but in the end, he was just a man. And I did have my revenge, after all. I've had him killed for it."


The words, so cool, so unemotional, chilled Kat to the bone.


"And now," Lucrezia continued, "I need to kill these two while I still have the strength. Weather magic is wearisome."


"B–b–but—" Kat was trying to ask why, but the words wouldn't come. By now the Hypatia medal was almost burning her hand. But was that caused by what Luciano was doing, or was it Lucrezia's presence? Or both?


Lucrezia obviously understood what she meant to ask. "Oh, for many reasons—but among others, it's enough that they are two of the three who ever turned me down. Strange. Those potions you brought me from Ascalon were very effective, you know, and to have them fail so significantly on two occasions, your sweet little boy and that upright priest . . ."


Priest? "Dottore Marina isn't—"


"I wasn't talking about him. Unfortunately, Luciano disappeared before I had access to those philters. If I'd had them—" she licked her lips, as if she tasted something bitter "—perhaps we wouldn't be having this discussion now."


Rafael, who had been standing ignored on the other side of the room, chose this moment to try to deal with her in a rush. He stopped as if he had hit a wall, paralyzed. Kat's medal enveloped her in warmth.


At Lucrezia's gesture, Rafael dropped the knife and folded, to sprawl before her feet.


Lucrezia shook her head. "I am far too powerful for little Strega with their little knives. Lie there, little Strega, and watch as your friends die—for I believe that I will allow you to die last of all."


She turned back to Kat. "I learned a great deal from the Grand Duke of Lithuania's emissary, you know—in no small part, what not to do. She allowed Chernobog to possess her, in exchange for her beauty and power. I have not made that error."


"You—" Kat tried to speak.


Lucrezia smiled viciously. "And oh, my dear little virgin Montescue! Luciano made a most incalculable mistake in allowing you here, for you will make the perfect sacrifice to break the circle of power."


* * *

Inside the circle, Marco was unaware of all of this. Luciano's words were like the droning of bees as he walked the sevenfold circle. Why seven? Why not three or five or nine? He tried to remember what Brother Mascoli had been teaching him. Seven wasn't a Strega number, though it was pagan. It went back a lot farther than that, to the Romans, or the Etruscans. It felt right, though; each time Luciano completed a circuit, the rest of the room receded a little, the sound from outside faded, and the less important what was outside seemed. He noticed vaguely that someone had come into the room, but—


Well, it just didn't matter.


Marco found himself transported with the words of power; they carried him somewhere else, or perhaps it was that the interior of the circle became somewhere else. The air was not full of incense. Instead it was a smell he knew far better that: the smell of driftwood fires. Of the marsh-reed pollen. Of the delicate scent of water lilies, of marsh-mallow, of sweet-flag blossom. The air glowed with the thick, amber light of the sun cutting through the mist.


Luciano beat on a drum; or was it a drum? It was more like his own heartbeat, but slow, slow, and full of heat. The air thickened until it was as sweet and heavy as honey, and Luciano's voice wasn't chanting words anymore, it was the bees that were droning the chant.


Then came a rumble that built up slowly, and from a distance in the thick air. Thunder?


No—not thunder. A roar. Marco heard a roaring echoing across the marsh, the last great refuge of lions in Europe. But no lion had ever roared like this, no lion he had ever heard of! This roar was thunder in the sky, from a throat like the mouth of a volcano!


He glanced at Luciano for reassurance.


But—Luciano didn't look right. He was pale and sweating, the hand that held the little drum shaking, and his breathing coming hard.


"Chiano?" he asked—but Luciano didn't respond. The steady drumbeat faltered.


The beater fell from Luciano's hand; a hand that clutched at the front of his own white robe, looking remarkably like a claw.


"Chiano!" Marco shouted, panic in his voice.


Slowly, Luciano's knees gave out and he sank to the ground. Slowly, the drum, too, fell from his hand, rolled across the floor, and overset a bowl of some dark liquid that had been laid aside when Luciano had completed the circles. And Luciano Marina toppled over onto his side and did not stir.


And then Luciano was silent. The mists and brightness around him cleared and Marco understood why.


Luciano Marina would not be summoning anything again. Whatever this was . . . it had been too much for him. His eyes were glazed, staring—and empty.


The yellowed old book was still on the pedestal where Luciano had been standing. A long-bladed bronze knife was lying atop the open pages.


Marco took up the book. It was only a book—but what was in it had killed Luciano.


The circles of power still held, but the magic within them faded with every passing moment.


I have to do something—


But what? He was no magician. Besides, looking at what was said at the top of the page, this called for a willingness to make the greatest of sacrifices. What had Luciano said? "Only been done twice before. And two of the families listed are no more."


Perhaps . . . perhaps it had been no token sacrifice. Valdosta . . . and Montescue were left. I am Valdosta. . . .


A faint sound penetrated the thinning circles of power, and Marco looked up. As if through a mist, or through frost-covered glass, he saw Lucrezia. Saw Rafael fall. He tried to push through the barrier that Luciano had raised. It was like steel. He beat at it. He might as well have pounded on a rock with his fists.


They were watching him now—Kat, with one hand at her throat and the other clutching her medallion; and Lucrezia. Lucrezia had a cruel smile on her face and a long steel and silver dagger in her hand. The handle like a dragon, or a winged serpent, with eyechips of ruby. Marco's arms fell to his sides; he felt frozen with fear and indecision. They all seemed frozen in time, insects caught in amber.


Something cold touched his foot, and he jerked out of his paralysis. He looked down. The puddle of spilled liquid oozed across the patterned marble and touched his foot, mingled with a thin trickle of blood coming from Luciano's outstretched wrist. And a mist passed over it for a moment, and Marco saw, as if from above, Venice burning. Children screaming, dying. And the body of Kat sprawled, abused. And then a sequence of people he knew, and loved. Gutted. Raped. Burned. And the face of Lucrezia . . .


Laughing, with a great darkness behind her. He knew it for a true scrying vision of the future. A future which Luciano—his friend and in many ways, more truly a father to him than his own blood had been—had been prepared to sacrifice himself to prevent. Perhaps, when he failed, Luciano had dared use his last life-blood, the last of his own magical power, not to save himself, but for this vision. So that Marco would know the consequences of failure, and act.


Marco took up the bronze knife, put it against his chest and began to read the words from the ancient book. From outside the enchanted circle Lucrezia gaped. If he read her lips aright before the brightness and mist engulfed him, she was saying "No!"


* * *

"No! Caesare!" Benito looked down from the barricade he'd just climbed.


Caesare Aldanto looked up from Maria. He had an arm around her neck, and a knife against her breast. "I nearly killed her when she came through the gap," he said, conversationally. "Quite a reunion, this. Where's that brother of yours? Also around?"


"Why?" demanded Benito. "Do you want to make a clean sweep of the Valdostas?"


Benito tried to figure out what do next. He had an arquebus in his hands. But the weapon was far too inaccurate—even in the hands of someone expert in its use—to risk a shot at Caesare. As inexperienced as Benito was with firearms, he'd more likely kill Maria. But Benito made himself a promise that if anything happened to Maria . . . he'd blow Caesare's mocking, smiling face apart. At this range, not even Benito would miss.


"Now, why would I do that, Benito?" said Caesare. "I've always looked after you."


Benito scrambled down. Other Arsenalotti faces appeared. But there were several of Caesare's men too, all with arquebuses.


"You got money from Ferrara, for looking after us," said Benito coldly. "It's sitting at Giaccomo's. You never really did anything for any reason except for money, did you?"


Caesare snorted. "What other reason is there?"


Benito smiled. "Tell you what, Caesare. I'll show you another reason. You let her go and I'll fight you."


It took Caesare a moment for the implication to sink in. "Maria?" he said, incredulously. "You love this—peasant?"


"I dunno about 'love,' " said Benito carefully. "But I care a whole damn lot about her. Use the word 'love' if you want. So I'll fight you for her freedom."


Aldanto laughed. "Cocky little brat, aren't you? At your age you think you're immortal and you expect to win."


"No," said Benito calmly. "I don't. But you'll have to let Maria go."


* * *

"NO!" yelled Lucrezia, gazing in horror at Marco and the knife. She looked around wildly.


"I must stop him. Kill him! Come here, girl! I need you."


For an instant, Kat felt the sheer power and compulsion of that voice. Then, a further warmth, a heat, a fire spread from the Saint Hypatia medal that she held, and with a shake like a spaniel pulled from the dirty water of a canal, she shook off the compulsion.


Instead of answering Lucrezia's beckoning hand, she pulled her pistol from her reticule. She'd reloaded five times in the fighting. The last time she'd had to take powder from a dead arquebusier. But the balls he'd carried had been too big. So she'd filled the barrel of the pistol with some metal junk from a ruined shop. Thrust it down and hoped it would work.


Lucrezia laughed. "Your little toy won't do me any harm, you stupid child! Do you think I haven't taken the simplest of precautions? I command the spirits of air and water and darkness! The powder won't fire, the balls will miss!" As Kat hesitated—can that be true? Can she really do that?


Lucrezia sneered at her. "Besides. You don't know how to use that silly thing, anyway."


Doubt assailed her and once again, Lucrezia was using all her powers. Kat wanted to drop the weapon. Run closer.


Warmth rushed over her again, and—


—a glowing, delicate hand, insubstantial as a kiss and warm as life, closed over the hand that held the pistol.


She squeezed the trigger instead.


The metal junk cut into Lucrezia, who had half-turned, ready to throw her knife. It knocked Lucrezia to the floor.


Lucrezia screamed; and of all the screaming Kat had heard that day, this was, by far, the most horrible sound she had ever heard in her life. It went on, and on, and on, as Lucrezia writhed on the floor, thrashing spinelessly, her thrashing as horrible as the scream.


And then, the woman's body began to change. Metamorphose.


* * *

The point of the knife broke the skin, and a single drop of blood formed on the blade. Strangely, there was no pain.


Before he could press harder and end the ritual with his own death, something—took him.


The light, the mists, thickened again in an instant, golden, sweet, the honey of the Jesolo, and held him so that he could not move.


Light blinded him, and light permeated him. It became him, and he felt himself change . . . felt a roaring in his ears that came from his own throat, felt great golden wings spring from his back and begin to grow and grow.


"It's been a long time," said the great voice that was within him, but was not him. Huge muscles flexed and stretched. His golden hide twitched. He was no longer indoors. Instead, from the column-top, he looked out over fog-shrouded Piazza San Marco.


"So. A Valdosta again, is it?" said the great voice. "Last time it was a Montescue. They're more bloody minded." Marco felt his wings extend, though he was not the one to flex his muscles, stretch his claws, spread his wings.


"Who . . . who are you?" he asked timidly.


There was a roar of laughter, warm and full. "I am you. And you are me. You have taken up the Crown as well as the Mantle—the first to do so in many centuries. And we are the Lion . . . the Lion of Venice, now. The Lion of Etruria that was."


The back and shoulder muscles tensed, enormous wings beat down in a great surge of power, and the lion bounded up through the cloud and out into endless blue of the sky.


"The Lion of Saint Mark?" Marco looked down as the Lion looked down. Fog was streaming away from the downbeat of the great wings. Below he could already see the piazza, clear of all but the last wisps of it.


Again the Lion laugh-roared. "Saint Mark! I nearly ate him. He wasn't even the Mark of your Four Books, you know. You little children, you've confused him with one of my Romans! A secret Christian, that Roman, a Christian who hid his fellows in the Jesolo—Marcus Fidelus—that was what they called him, Mark the Faithful, and you people managed to get him confused with the other! 'Hic requiscet corpus tuum— On this spot your body shall rest.' It was meant as a threat, not a prophecy."


The Lion roared with laughter, and Marco had to admit it was rather funny.


"But that Marcus was pious enough, and holy enough, and had the magic—the magic—even if up until that moment he didn't know it. I knew it. And you four little swamp thieves—Terrio, Montescue, Lacosto, and Valdosta—you that had set out to rob him and instead became his converts, begged for his life. You were my people, and he won you! Won you fairly! But you were my people, and when you begged—what was I to do? I let him live, and gave him leave of my domain. Ha. Not only did he make free of my marshes, he also took seizin of me, to come and go and look and know. He became one of mine, save only that he was first and always the child of Christ. And in exchange that we be of one heart, and would I still hold sovereignty here and not be driven from the place by later mages of Christ, that my people be free to make their own choices in who they serve—he laid this form on me, this binding with the blood of the four families. I think it a good bargain. I steer my families and look after my lagoon, my marshes, and my islands. And sometimes, when the need is dire, they take the Crown and they steer me." The great, laughing roar shook the body again. "So. Steer me, Valdosta. What do we need to do?"


Some grasp of the great strength that was his to command dawned on Marco. "First, let's get rid of all of this fog. It's not right."


The Lion spiraled upward into the dawn sky, above the cloud. "Yes. It is a magical one, a sending from a great and evil power. But this is my place. My lagoon, my marshes, and my islands. My power is stronger here."


The great wings beat down. The wind beneath those wings was more than just air. It was bright with strength and the wild primal magic that was the Lion. Marco felt not only the beating of the wings but the rushing of blood to those great wing-muscles. He knew that the very arteries and veins of the Lion were somehow channels that nourished the reedbeds, the canals that carried the trade. And they all moved to the heartbeat of the sea. The Lion was Marco. It was also the soul of the lagoon. It was rich with the love of the generations of Venetians. Of many, many people, not just some few wealthy lordlings, but all of its people.


And, like them, the Lion treasured its liberty and independence.


The fog . . . the fog was no mere cloud. It was a thing of strangling darkness. Of hatred and domination, issuing from the bleak northeast. But although it might overwhelm cities and kings, it was feeble against that independence of spirit, of the love Venetians had given this place, this special place over the centuries. The Lion was a repository of all of that. Chernobog was great. But it was also a great distance away—and was now trying to extend its power to a foreign land. Foreign to Chernobog, not to the Lion. The Lion who was also Marco drew its strength from the land, the water and from many many small sources. Generations of them—brought together in the unity which was the Lion. Individually they were mere drops of water against stone that was Chernobog. Together, they were like the raging torrent . . . and Chernobog a mere loose cobblestone, flung willy-nilly before the fury.


Magical power surged like the sea with each great wingbeat, and below them the fog scattered and tattered. The last spell-shreds of Chernobog's power here tore. Venice and the lagoon appeared, the sun striking the red roofs and dancing brightly off the clear water.


"And now?" asked the Lion.


"Let us break up the fighting. Put fear into the hearts of those who want to destroy Venice." Somehow Marco knew that was the right thing to say.


The Lion rose higher, toward the rising sun. "Let them see my shadow. In the minds of our enemies, the shadow of the Lion is more terrifying than the Lion itself. It releases their fears. To those who love Venice, my shadow is a shield."


In a slow spiral the Lion turned above the canals of Venice. Marco's keen Lion-eyes picked out the knots of fighting men, picked out his brother on the barricade. Picked out Maria. Picked out Caesare Aldanto, and saw into the core of him, saw him for what he was. He roared. The air blurred and shivered with the sound.


* * *

The roaring was like that of a thousand trumpets. But it was a glad, bright noise. To Maria it was like an infusion of strength. That little fool Benito was going to get killed!


It must have had the opposite effect on Caesare, because suddenly she was able to pull free. She spun around and, with all her strength, kicked him in the testicles.


Caesare folded up nicely. Maria scrambled up the barricade. She heard the roar of an arquebus, but if it was fired at her the bullet went wild. And then the fresh sea-scented wind hit her in the face.


"What the hell—" Benito pulled her flat; arquebus fire boomed. Fog streamed in the sudden gale, a gale so strong that it flung masonry fragments from the barricade. The dawn sun came striking at the walls. . . . Bright and warm.


And then there came a huge winged shadow—


Maria suddenly realized that Caesare's Schiopettieri were running away, as if in a panic. And so was Caesare. Running as if the very devil was on his heels.


And somewhere between Venice and the rising sun a huge winged being flew, caressing the city, its lagoon and marshes with the shadow of its great wings.


* * *

Kat stared at the devilish thing that had been Lucrezia. It was red-eyed, silver bodied, snaky like Lucrezia's dagger handle had been—and it was wounded in a dozen places. Maybe she hadn't quite killed it but she'd certainly stopped it. It was leaking black ichor from the wounds.


And from the moment Marco had fallen, it had no interest in her. Instead, it was struggling to fly on torn, batlike wings. It was heading for the windows as if drawn by an invisible wire.


* * *

Half the town seemed to be fleeing for their lives. The other half appeared to be chasing them.


Benito would have sworn he was the only one who looked up as they pursued Caesare's party across the Piazza San Marco. It might have been the brightness of the morning sun, but he'd swear that he saw the winged lion settle back onto its column.


* * *

"Is there anything more?" the Lion asked.


Marco looked around, and couldn't see anything. There was—something—far off—


"It is of no consequence," the Lion said dismissively. "The Christ-mage, the one who limps; he and his knights have conquered it, and its vessel. And there is another, but believe me—" He laughed, this time a deep rumbling in his chest. "Your young mate and her Power have that well taken care of. Now—shortly, you must become yourself again. But, Marco Valdosta, you not only bear the Winged Mantle now, but you have also taken up the Crown. As long as you live, only you may be the one to call me. No mage may do it for you. You must take care, Marco Valdosta! You must have a care for yourself, and most especially, when you think it might be good to leave my lagoons and my islands. Should Venice need me in your absence, it will not have me, for only you can call me!"


"Yes, Lion," Marco replied obediently, feeling the burden of responsibility settle on shoulders that stiffened to meet it. "I will remember. If I leave—it will be because there is no other choice, not only for me, but for Venice."


The Lion seemed satisfied. "You do not complain. Good. It does not seem a great sacrifice to me. I do not know why you humans are so itchy-footed. Now—time to put an end to this, before you—or I—come to like it all too much!"


* * *

The monster crawled towards the window, and Kat felt fear mixed with rage. It—she—was going to get away! Lucrezia had unleashed war in the streets, had killed men with her own hands or her own orders, had hurt Rafael and she was going to get away!


Not this time, little sister.


The golden, glowing hands over hers made her drop the pistol—made her reach to the side, and take a book from a shelf there—a very, very, heavy book, which must have weighed several pounds, encased in a silver-chased cover.


A Bible?


—and throw it.


It landed squarely on the monster.


There was a flash of light that was somehow black, a scream that cut through Kat's skull so that she clapped both empty hands over her ears in a futile attempt to block it out.


Then there was nothing.


Nothing but a silver-chased Bible in the floor, and a snaky black smudge on the marble.


Hmm. What's appropriate, I wonder? "A little knowledge is a dangerous thing?" "The Word is mightier than the blade?" Ah, I know! "Let Evil beware the Weight of the Word of God!"


There was—a golden laugh that washed through her, erasing the pain that the scream had left behind, and the feeling of uncleanliness. Then the presence was gone.


Kat shivered convulsively. Then . . . saw the candles in the magic circle suddenly snuff out, saw the air suddenly clear, and the glittering circles of power fade to nothing more than the silver and gold inlaid on the floor.


"Oh God—Marco!" She pushed forward past Luciano's body. Marco lay still and cold, with the blade still pressed into his breast. Katerina had the impression of a misty and insubstantial gold crown on his head. But the image faded almost instantly, and she had no time to think about it. She tugged at the hateful, fateful dagger. It fell and snapped as if it had been made of the finest Venetian glass. She stared. There was no blood. She ripped at his shirt, scattering buttons.


Marco's chest had a tiny, V-shaped cut on it—not a fingernail deep. Kat seized his wrists. She was shaking too badly to feel for a pulse. She pressed her ear to his chest. After a terrible instant of fear—silence!—then she heard his heart beating. Beating steadily.


Suddenly, Marco breathed deeply and put his arms around her. She clung to him like a drowning woman.


"I can never leave here, you know," he said softly. "He said so. I have to stay, or he can't protect Venice."


She burrowed against his chest, not giving a damn who he was. "I will never leave here then, either."


* * *

It was Benito who found them, nearly an hour later. He walked in and stared at the two of them.


"Thank God Claudia knew where this place was. Otherwise you two lovebirds might still have been here tomorrow. Tore the shirt off him, eh, Kat?" He was grinning broadly. "I must get Maria to have a little talk with you, girl. Tearing the breeches off him is much more satisfying for everyone."


"Benito!" roared Marco.


It was a real roar. The windows rattled.


Benito started at the sound, but the grin stayed on his face even if it became a little less broad.


But as he looked around, studying the room, the grin faded away. The bodies. The paraphernalia.


"So I didn't imagine the Lion," he said quietly. "I think you two had better get out of here, before someone else finds you. I've got news for the two of you; besides that, Dorma and Montescue are both searching frantically for you."


They got up. "Tell, Benito," said Kat. "What's happened?"


Benito managed another grin. "Well, lots of stuff. The Doge has stopped slipping into a coma, but he's really weak. He's offered his resignation, as he says the city needs a strong Doge in these times. I reckon Petro will be chosen, even as young as he is. A boat's just come in from Chioggia. Grandfather Dell'este and the Knights of the Holy Trinity and the boys in the Polestine forts made my father and his army head back to Milan." His good cheer faded. "But it looks as if Caesare Aldanto managed to escape."


"What?!" They both exclaimed simultaneously. "Damn him," added Kat, snarling.


Benito walked toward the nearest window, still covered with heavy drapes. "Let's get some light in here, what say?" He shrugged. "Nothing's ever perfect. Aldanto had a galley ready—in case things went wrong, I guess. That'd be just like him. When the fog cleared and the Lion's Shadow spooked them, he took advantage of it. Just in time, too. Petro Dorma is spitting mad about it. And he's looking for you pair of lovebirds." He looked quizzically at them. "So what are you going to do now?"


Marco took Kat's hands. "Kat. You realize that this doesn't change anything? I made my promises. I'm still married to Angelina."


Kat smiled. "Marco. I'll be your mistress if you want me. I'll be your friend if you don't. But I won't leave you again."


 


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