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Epilogue

VILNA
 

The shaman raced frantically through the water, trailing blood from several gashes. Behind him, their jaws leaving their own red trace, came the vengeful undines.


Insofar as the shaman could think at all in his state of panic, he was sure he could elude his pursuers. He was well into the open waters of the gulf now, beyond the lagoon, and he was a better swimmer than the undines.


The thought was not especially comforting. Undines were not the only menace he faced. The shadow of the Lion, sweeping across the lagoon, had not only cast terror into the minds and hearts of Venice's enemies. It had also emboldened Venice—and its friends.


Among those friends, often enough, the tritons of the gulf and the open sea could be counted. And those, more fishlike than the undines, he could not outswim.


For that matter, the blood he was trailing might draw sharks as well. And if the sharks were no friends of Venice, they were no friends of his either.


Again and again, he cried out in his mind for the master to rescue him. Open the passageway! Open the passageway!


There was no answer. No passageway.


* * *

When he sensed the disturbance in the water, quite some distance away, the shaman veered aside. That was the sound of a ship breaking up and men spilling into the water. No threat to him, in itself—but it might draw tritons. Occasionally—not often—the sea creatures rescued drowning sailors.


But his master's voice, finally appearing, commanded otherwise.


Find the ship and its sailors. Seize the strongest one and bring him to me.


The shaman did not even think to protest the order. Partly, because he was too glad to finally hear his master's voice. Mostly, because he had never heard that voice groan with such a terrible agony. As if the master himself were trailing his own spoor of blood.


The shaman was indifferent to the master's pain. But not to the rage that pain had so obviously brought with it.


* * *

When the shaman found the sundering vessel, he had no difficulty selecting the strongest man of its crew. He was the only one who had not drowned yet; and was already sinking below the surface himself, gasping with exhaustion. Fortunately, his golden hair made him easy to find.


The shaman seized the collar of his tunic in his sharp teeth. He hoped the master would open the passageway soon. The drowning man was larger than the shaman in his fishform. He did not think he could tow him any great distance—certainly not while keeping the man's mouth above water. The shaman was nearing exhaustion himself.


But the master was apparently alert. A moment later the passageway formed. Gratefully, the shaman plunged into it, bringing his golden-haired burden with him.


* * *

Dripping water, but no blood now that the shape-change had closed his wounds, the shaman lay sprawled on the floor of the grand duke's private chamber. Gasping for breath and feeling as if he could not move at all. Next to him, the golden-haired sailor gasped also. His eyes fluttered for a moment, blue gleaming through the lids, as the man began to return to consciousness.


The shaman sensed the huge form of his master looming over them. When he looked up, half-dazed, he was paralyzed still further by the sight. The grand duke's forehead gaped open; his face was coated with blood. The shaman could see his master's brains through the terrible wound.


The shaman had long since understood that his master was not really human any longer. Had he any doubts, that wound would have resolved them. No human being could have possibly survived such an injury, much less have been able to move and talk.


"I must have food," hissed the grand duke, in a voice almost hoarse from screaming. "Now."


Glancing toward the great stove against the wall of his master's private room, the shaman could see that the fire was already burning in its belly. Drops of blood spilled from his master's head wound were sizzling on the side of the huge fry pan. The cleavers and flensing knives were ready on the butcher's table nearby.


The grand duke seized the half-drowned sailor by his golden hair and lifted him up, as easily as he might an infant. But then, seeing the man's face for the first time, he paused.


"Him," he muttered. Despite his fear and exhaustion, the shaman was fascinated to see the way the grand duke's forehead wound was beginning to close up. Much more slowly than one of his own wounds would heal during a shape-change, of course. And the shaman could only imagine the agony the grand duke was suffering. No wonder that the master craved his . . . special food. It would speed the healing immensely, and alleviate the pain.


The shaman was so fascinated by the sight that he didn't pay attention to his master's odd hesitation. It wasn't until the grand duke lowered the golden-haired head back to the floor that the shaman tore his gaze from the wound and looked at the eyes below.


He wished he hadn't. Even before he heard his master's next words.


"I may have use for this one. I can get another shaman."


The grand duke's giant hand seized the shaman by his long hair and dragged him toward the butcher table. The shaman fought in a frenzy along the way, but he might as well have been a toddler for all the good it did. Once on the table, a blow from the grand duke's fist ended his struggles.


Which was perhaps just as well. The shaman was too stunned to really feel the blade which began flaying him. His screams didn't start again until much of the skin was already gone. But, by then, the master was ready to prepare the blood sauce. A quick slice of the knife ended the screams.


* * *

When Caesare Aldanto finally returned to full consciousness, he discovered himself sitting at a table. A man he didn't recognize was working at a stove nearby. Huge man, he was—inches taller than Aldanto himself, and perhaps twice as broad. Adding in the walrus fat so obvious under the heavy robes, he probably weighed three times what Aldanto did.


When the man turned around and approached, Aldanto hissed. Partly because of the wound on the forehead, the likes of which he had never seen except on the body of a corpse. Mostly, because of the black and inhuman eyes under the heavy brow.


The man—the monster?—shoveled something out of the fry pan directly onto the table. "Eat now," he commanded. "There is no time for platters."


Caesare stared at him, then down at the food before him. When he recognized what it was—the tattoos alone made it obvious—he hissed again and began to draw back. A savage blow to the head half-dazed him. Then, a hand with the strength of an ogre seized him by the hair and shoved his face into the food.


"Eat it like a dog, slave. I have no use for fancy table manners. Neither do you, from this time forth."


 



 


THE PIAVE RIVER
 

"I think it would be best if I were escorted into Venice by your troops instead of my own, Enrico." The Emperor scanned the countryside along the Piave, the muscles working in his heavy jaws. "Bad enough I've brought them this far. But so long as Venice itself doesn't get its back up, I'm not too concerned about the reaction of the rest of Italy. Not at the moment, at least, when the bastards are cowed."


The Duke of Ferrara nodded. "I agree, Your Majesty." He hesitated a moment; then: "But I urge you not to be too cautious, either. The Scaligers of Verona have managed to infuriate just about everyone by now. Venice, Ferrara, and Rome by their actions; Milan and the rest by their failure."


Charles Fredrik's lips parted in what a shark might call a smile. "You think the time is ripe to take them down a peg or two?"


"Break them in half, rather," growled the Old Fox.


"Well said," snapped Baron Trolliger, riding to the Emperor's left. Unlike the Emperor, Trolliger was wearing armor. He seemed as annoyed by the martial equipment as he was with the state of the world in general. Trolliger was a courtier, not a soldier. Or perhaps it was simply that he detested travel.


"See to it, Hans," murmured Charles Fredrik. "Use Wilhelm Gneiss and his Bavarians. You can leave the military details to him. But make sure the Scaligers are bloodied. You needn't besiege Verona, I don't imagine—but tell Wilhelm not to hesitate if necessary. I want the territory under the control of the Scaligers shrunk—in half, as the Duke of Ferrara says. Spread the pieces around as seems best to you during the negotiations." He glanced at the Old Fox. "Make sure Ferrara gets the biggest slice."


"I've always been partial to Legnano," said Dell'este, almost idly. "Pretty town."


After Trolliger trotted off, riding his horse about as awkwardly as a man can and still stay in the saddle, the Emperor glanced behind him at a figure who was riding her own saddle with considerably greater ease and skill.


"Would you allow us a moment in private, Enrico?"


"Certainly, Your Majesty." The Duke of Ferrara trotted his horse away with the same superb skill that the old man handled a sword or a hammer. The Emperor waved Francesca forward.


When she drew alongside him, Charles Fredrik glanced at her manner of riding and made a face. "How do you manage that, anyway?"


Francesca smiled. "It's the fashion in the Aquitaine for ladies, Your Majesty. I learned to ride sidesaddle when I was barely old enough to walk." She plucked the dusky folds of silken lace-trimmed twill covering her thighs. "I could hardly wear something like this straddling the horse."


"It's quite a costume," agreed the Emperor. His tone was . . . meaningful.


Francesca gave him a sidelong glance. "I did not think Your Majesty would appreciate it much, if I were seen in my usual costume. Discretion and modesty seemed . . . well advised."


"Smart woman. Not—" The old man gave her a sidelong glance of his own. For a moment, his eyes seemed those of a much younger man. "—that I wouldn't have appreciated the other, I'm quite sure."


Francesca said nothing. Her smile was almost that of a Madonna.


Charles Fredrik cleared his throat. "And why didn't I see that other costume, Marie-Françoise de Guemadeuc? Since your arrival at Innsbruck, you've both dressed and behaved as a most modest and chaste demoiselle. In my experience—which is considerable—most courtesans would have cheerfully pitched over a prince for the sake of snaring an emperor."


Francesca hesitated, a little play of subtle emotions running over her face. Before she could speak, the Emperor continued.


"Three possibilities come to mind. The first is that you have a rigid sense of honor, which would preclude that course of action on the grounds that it skirts incest. But since you are Aquitainian, I think we can dismiss that possibility out of hand."


"We do have a reputation." Francesca's accompanying chuckle was soft and throaty. "Indeed, I agree. We may dismiss it out of hand."


"The second possibility, then. You have formed an attachment with my nephew which transcends the obvious bond between a courtesan and a young nobleman." He stopped abruptly, cocking an eye at her.


"Um. I am fond of Manfred, Your Majesty. Genuinely so, in fact. But—"


Charles Fredrik heaved a sigh of relief. "Thank God. I'm not dealing with a madwoman."


Francesca's chuckle, now, was neither soft nor throaty. Indeed, it was almost an open laugh. "Please. Manfred is charming, vigorous, good-humored—often genuinely witty—and far more intelligent than he likes to pretend. His company, more often than not, is quite delightful. Far more so than that of most of my clients. But anything more serious . . ." She shook her head firmly. "There's nothing in it, neither for Manfred nor myself. Although I'm good for him now, Your Majesty. That I do believe."


The Emperor nodded. "I also. I have no objection to a continuation of your liaison. Actually, I'm in favor of it." He cleared his throat. "You do understand, of course . . ."


"Yes, yes—certainly. Now that Manfred's identity is in the open, he can hardly remain simply one of my clients. A rich young knight can share a courtesan. A prince requires an exclusive mistress."


It was her turn to clear her throat.


Before she could speak, Charles Fredrik snorted. "Yes, yes—certainly. I know it'll cost me." He examined her briefly, spending more time on the modest but expensive clothing than on her well-covered but intrinsically immodest figure. "Plenty."


The way in which Francesca smoothed the fabric of her dress was demure propriety itself. "Perhaps—"


"Which brings us to the third possibility," said the Emperor loudly. The gaze he now bestowed on Francesca was almost angry. "Every now and then—not often—a whore becomes truly ambitious. And—if she's smart enough—realizes that the ultimate coin in this sinful world is trust."


Francesca meet the fierce eyes with calm ones of her own. "Trust which would be quite shattered if I abandoned the prince for the emperor. For the one as much as the other."


The Emperor nodded. "Good. Now—it is time to speak honestly. I will allow you two lies. No more. What do you want, Marie-Françoise de Guemadeuc? Tell me all of it."


She grimaced. "First of all, I don't want that name. Francesca is now—"


"That's the first lie. Be careful, woman."


For the first time since he'd met the courtesan, her aplomb was shaken. Francesca almost jerked in the saddle.


"It is not a lie," she hissed. "I am simply—" She broke off, staring at the countryside with eyes which clearly saw a different one. "My God," she whispered, "it is a lie."


"Of course it is," snapped Charles Fredrik. "The mistake your mother made, Marie-Françoise, was settling for revenge. She should have bided her time, and waited until she could triumph."


They rode on in silence for a bit. Then Francesca shook her head, as if to clear it. "Yes and no, Your Majesty. Oddly enough, I find that I like Francesca de Chevreuse rather more than I did the girl she was. So I believe I'll stick with the name—within, as well as without." Again, that soft throaty chuckle. "But . . . yes. I will keep an eye out for the possibility of triumph."


"Good. What else?" He waved a thick hand. "Wealth, ease, comfort, all that. Naturally. But what else?"


Francesca seemed to be groping for words. The Emperor clucked his tongue. "Well, it's time you did start thinking about it. Clearly, for a change." He twisted a bit in the saddle, until he was facing her almost squarely. "Let an old man provide you with some assistance. The 'what else,' I'm quite sure, is power and influence. Your own power and influence, not that which you derive from befuddling a man's wits with your—no doubt magnificent—legs and bosom."


Francesca hesitated. Then, nodded abruptly.


"Good. That ambition an emperor can trust. For the simple reason that it cannot be achieved without trust." His smile was almost that of a cherub. "And I must say you're doing quite well, for such a young and innocent girl."


Francesca began that soft throaty chuckle again; but this time she choked it off almost before it began. "Good God! You're serious. Um—Your Majesty."


"Of course I'm serious." The cherub smile was replaced by something infinitely grimmer. "Take it from an emperor, child. What you know about sin is pitiful; what you know about wickedness . . . almost nothing."


Again, they rode on in silence. After a time, the Emperor spoke again. "I'll be sending Manfred off, soon enough. It's time for the next stage of his education—as well as the education of the Grand Duke of Lithuania."


Francesca's eyes widened. "No, girl," said the Emperor softly, "I am not sending him off to war. Not directly, at least. The time isn't right for a war with Jagiellon. Not with Emeric on the throne in Hungary, still unbloodied, and now this rot in my own—"


He broke off. Then, cleared his throat. "Never mind that. But I do think a demonstration is called for. Since that Lithuanian bastard chose to use a demon from the Svear, against the Svear it shall be."


Francesca seemed to wince. The Emperor grinned. "Oh please, demoiselle! I do not expect you to traipse around with Manfred and Erik in the marshes and forests of Småland! But I will expect you to accompany them as far as Mainz. And then, possibly, to Copenhagen."


The Emperor's grin widened, seeing the eager light in the young woman's eyes. "Yes, yes—intrigue with the Danes against the Sots, all that. You'll have a splendid time of it. But there's something else, more important, we need to discuss."


"I am all ears, Your Majesty."


"Thought you would be. Have you ever given much thought to finance, Francesca de Chevreuse?" After a short pause: "Didn't think so. Time you did. More than anything else, girl, wars are fought with money. Don't let any one ever tell you different, especially generals. And—take it from an old emperor—organizing the finances of a major war is even more complex and difficult than organizing the supply train. Takes even longer to do it right, and it's far more treacherous. To begin with—"


On they went. Across the Piave, now, heading west toward the city of the winged lion. The Emperor never stopped talking—


"—great financiers, especially with war looming, are always old men, you see. It occurs to me that a gorgeous young woman—especially one with a disreputable past and a flavor of scandal about her—especially a smart and witty one—"


—and Francesca was all ears.


 



VENICE
 

It was easier, Kat was learning, to triumph over evil than to explain it.


She and Marco, holding—no, clutching—hands openly, were spared having to repeat what had transpired in the magic chamber over and over again, only by the intercession of Petro Dorma. With an efficiency that was almost terrifying, he'd sent them straight to the Doge's palace, where they'd been fed and allowed to rest—rest, not sleep, although both of them were swaying with exhaustion.


They hadn't gotten much past the first few mouthfuls when Marco's Strega friend Rafael joined them. He didn't look any better than Marco. Both of them had huge, bruised-looking circles around their eyes, and both of them must have been existing on nervous energy alone. Heaven only knew she was, and she must look much the same. Here they were, three tattered and stained vagabonds in a room that usually entertained the most prominent folk in Venice—and often, in the world. The murals on the walls alone were stunning works of art worthy of the Grand Metropolitan's palace in Rome, and the amount of gold leaf on the carved woodwork didn't bear thinking about.


It could serve to repair Casa Montescue five times over.


"What are they going to do with us?" Rafael asked dully.


The answer came from an unexpected source; Petro Dorma himself, who entered the sumptuous dining room behind a servant bearing a gold pitcher.


"Ah, my weary young heroes," Petro said, quite as if he was not as weary as any of them. "I want you to eat and drink while my messengers round up everyone who has any interest in what went on in that chamber where Dottore Marina's body was found. Then I want you to tell your stories, answer questions for a reasonable length of time—which will probably be quite a bit shorter than usual, given that we are all rather the worse for wear. By that time, you won't be able to walk three paces without staggering, so you will all be escorted to comfortable bedchambers here in the palace, where, I suspect, you will probably sleep until this time tomorrow."


Unbelievably, terrifyingly, efficient. If Petro became the new Doge, which was the rumor Kat had been hearing, he was going to be something to be reckoned with.


Petro joined them, thus making a tableau of four tiny figures who were dwarfed by the chamber and humbled by the crimson-and-gold trappings. Mostly gold, Katerina couldn't help but notice. She thought Casa Montescue's desperate financial situation had probably been somewhat alleviated by the recent events. Surely the money-lenders won't harass us for a few weeks. But, maybe not . . .


They ate slowly. Katerina concentrated on every bite, not least because the food was delicious—out of all expectations, considering the conditions of the last day and night. When did I eat last? she wondered. It seemed a year ago or more. Whenever it had been, she was as hungry as she was weary. But hunger, at least, could be easily remedied. They were only just finished and nibbling in a desultory manner at sweets, when a servant in Dorma livery arrived and Dorma rose.


"We seem to have collected everyone we're going to find," he said. "Come along; the sooner this is over, the sooner we can all sleep." The three of them got slowly to their feet—Kat, at least, was aching in every limb—and Dorma escorted them all out.


Both grandfathers were there, Montescue and Dell'este—sitting side by side, for a wonder. Nine men who, Dorma had whispered briefly as they entered, represented the Senate—but Kat suspected were really, along with Dorma himself, the entire Council of Ten. And Metropolitan Michael, of course.


All these Kat had expected—but not the cluster of priests surrounding Michael, nor the horde of secretaries seated at tables running the length of the room behind the notables. She felt uneasily like she was falling into the hands of inquisitors.


"Gentlemen," Dorma nodded to all of them. "These young people are the first we will hear, beginning with Marco Valdosta, continuing with Katerina Montescue, with—" He shook his head, clearly going blank when it came to Rafael's name. "Ah—their friend, who also witnessed what happened, as the last of the three. Hold your questions until they are finished, and try to keep them brief."


Marco began, omitting nothing, and although Kat found herself blinking in stunned disbelief when he got to the part where he apparently collapsed in the magic circle, and described what had happened. But neither the Metropolitan nor the priests with him seemed at all surprised.


A spirit? A pagan spirit, but also the Protector of Venice? The very Lion that met Saint Mark?


"So—now I'm bound to the Lion," he finished wearily; then, out of nowhere, managed a brilliant smile. "And my Pauline relatives will surely disown me now for such blasphemy!"


His grandfather, the Old Dell'este Fox, snorted, and her grandfather choked on his drink—with suppressed laughter, she realized a moment later.


"Those of your Pauline relatives who are stupid enough to be fretted about blasphemy after all this—none of whom are on my side of the family, I might mention—can go hang themselves," the Old Fox growled. "I'll lend them the rope."


"Nonsense!" barked Lodovico Montescue. "Sell it to them. I'll go in with you in a Colleganza."


The room erupted in a roar of laughter—and there was an end to that topic.


The priests added a few questions, mostly about the Lion, what it and Marco had done, and the awakening spell. But very soon the Metropolitan himself called a halt. "Anything more we can learn from the book, and it will be more certain than this young man's memory," he said. "I will confer with Father Lopez when he returns, but I am satisfied that there is not so much as a whisper of evil about this creature—to whom, and this young mage, we can only be grateful."


And then it was her turn.


Everyone listened in silence until she got to the part where Lucrezia Brunelli appeared. "Ha!" exclaimed one of the priests, smacking the table and making her jump. "Father Pierre was right! I thought he was."


"Don't interrupt her," commanded Michael sternly; then, unexpectedly, smiled at her.


She continued, wanting to close her eyes to better recall Lucrezia's exact words—but knowing that she didn't dare to, because if she did, she'd fall asleep. She managed well enough until she got to the part about the warmth that filled her, coming from her Hypatia medal; the pure, sweet voice in her head, and the glowing golden hands that overlaid hers. Then she saw something that she would never, ever have imagined.


She saw Metropolitan Michael's eyes widen and his jaw sag. Actually, at that point, there were many jaws dropping, especially among the priests. The only one who didn't seem surprised was Marco, who squeezed her hand encouragingly. No one interrupted her, though, and she continued doggedly, through the point of Lucrezia's transformation, the seizing of the Bible, and the aftermath.


"And then the voice said, Let Evil beware the weight of the Word of God, and then—I suppose it was gone, because the warmth went away," she concluded. She prudently omitted the other outrageous puns that the voice had made, as well as the remarks that had prefaced and followed the aphorism she'd been told to use.


Heads nodded wisely all over the room—


—except for Metropolitan Michael's. He appeared to be choking for a moment, but quickly composed himself.


Did he get the joke? A moment later, a glance from his dancing eyes confirmed her suspicion that he had.


Oh, dearest Dottore Marina, now I understand what you meant about history becoming somewhat cleaned up and simplified. Who, except perhaps for this single cleric, would ever understand the full version? Who would ever appreciate it for what it meant? Yes, there was terrible evil in the world, and yes, they must fight grimly to defeat it—but there was also peace, love, and joy . . .and to forget that, would be to forget there was a God.


"I have no questions, but I would like to examine the young lady's medal," Michael said gravely. She pulled the chain over her head and handed it to the page who came for it, feeling uncomfortable and naked without it. Michael and his group of priests each examined the Saint Hypatia medal closely, and they put their heads together and muttered for a moment.


Then the Metropolitan handed it back to the page, who brought it back to her. She put it back on, with relief.


"I would like to place into the record of these proceedings that we have found the original protections placed upon this talisman by the Order of Hypatia. As well as a very recent reinforcing spell, placed on it within the last three months or so, by some other magician. Whom I believe to have been Dottore Marina." He paused significantly. "All of which bear the completely unmistakable aura of sanctity. This medal has been used within the last day as a vehicle for one of God's own spirits. We are not prepared to state which spirit, but I believe we can assume it was, at the least, one of the angelic order of the cherubim." Michael raised one eyebrow. "Possibly higher. Possibly the saint herself. But without having a Christian mage as a witness, we cannot state that this was a bona fide Hypatian miracle, and therefore we will confine ourselves to pronouncing it a genuine case of divine intercession."


Well, that caused as much of a buzz as Marco's revelations, and Rafael got off with doing no more than providing confirmation for her story and Marco's with no questioning. And very shortly after that, they were all three dismissed and followed their page—stumbling, as Dorma had predicted—to their rooms.


Kat found attentive maids waiting, who stripped her with the same terrible efficiency as shown by Petro Dorma, popped a nightdress over her head, and eased her into a bed she didn't even see. After that—she didn't even dream.


* * *

But the next day . . .


All of the peace of mind which had come to her came crashing down the moment she stepped out into the public corridors. Two pages were waiting for her, and whisked her off to join Marco, chattering at her the entire time.


She and Marco, it seemed, were the Saviors of Venice. Father Lopez, still covered with dust from his hurried return to the city, explained it all to them.


Never mind Petro Dorma, or the Arsenalotti. Forget the brilliant tactics of Dell'este. Ignore the subtle intervention of the Emperor. Completely discount the actions of the Knights under confrere Manfred and his friend Eric Hakkonsen. Pretend that Father Lopez never battled Sachs and Ursula and the horrible thing they had brought in on behest of the dread Grand Duke of Lithuania. She and Marco were the Saviors of Venice.


Dorma was with Marco, and Senor Lopez joined them a moment later. "You must make an appearance," Dorma told them firmly, before they could make any objections. Lopez nodded, even more firmly. Kat discovered that, when sandwiched between two such forceful personalities, no becomes a word that does not effectively exist.


Dorma and Lopez took them both to the very, very public Scala di Giganti, where the new Doges were always inaugurated, and as they all stepped out onto the top step, a roar went up from the Piazza San Marco. As she stood there, once again clutching at Marco's hand, half-blinded by the sun and deafened by the noise, she realized to her horror that the piazza was packed solid.


"Smile," Dorma shouted into her ear. "Wave."


She did; the crowd roared again.


"Now come this way." Dorma took her arm and steered her along the second-floor balcony to the side that faced the lagoon as Lopez did the same for Marco. The piazza was too densely packed for anyone to follow, but that hardly mattered, since the wave of sound propagated along as they passed. And when they got to the seaward side of the balcony, it seemed that every floating object in Venice began parading past.


At least here, facing the Doge's palace and the lagoon, where not so many people could crowd up against the building, it was easier to hear.


"Keep smiling and waving," Lopez said gravely, doing the same. Then he and Dorma explained to them how and why it was that they were suddenly the Saviors.


"Dell'este is not one of us," Dorma said, bowing as one of the House racing-boats passed with every scion of nobility the House possessed manning an oar. "The Knights—well, so far as the average Venetian is concerned, they have only just redeemed themselves for the actions of Sachs and the Sots. And, besides, they aren't our people either."


"Nor are we, the foreign clerics, and never mind who sent us here," Lopez agreed wryly. "And Petro Dorma—" His lips twisted in an attempt to suppress a smile. "Petro Dorma is a fine example of the best of the Casa Vecchie, and he will surely make a great Doge. But he is balding, middle-aged, and has an undistinguished nose. Not the fine figure of which legends are made."


Dorma chuckled. "True enough. Not"—here, a bit smugly—"that my humble nose is going to stop any of the single ladies of the Casa Vecchie from seeking out my company with an eye to matrimony. But, yes, I will be the first to admit that I do not make an appropriate figure for the future statues which will commemorate this triumph."


He gazed at Marco and Kat. "You, on the other hand—you are both handsome, young, and—well. That problem still has to be dealt with, but the rumor of your little romance is already sweeping the city. Not so little, actually. You have ended a feud between your families to rival that of the Capuletti and Montague in Verona. You have served as the vessels for the oldest of Venice's magical protectors, and of a bona fide angelic power. So, I can hardly blame the people for deciding that we old men only sat and twiddled our fingers while you two saved the city. Smile," he added, as Kat began to object. "And wave. This is what is meant by noblesse oblige, as our Aquitaine friends would say."


The two youngsters did as they were instructed. But Kat had the sinking realization—sinking like a stone anchor at sea—that the "rumor sweeping Venice" was going to make her life a lot more complicated than it already was. The ugly term adulteress crept into her mind, making her wince. She wasn't sure if she should keep holding Marco's hand. But—


His grip was far too firm to resist anyway. Even if she'd really wanted to.


 



 


CASA DORMA


 


"You have used the children quite enough. Go any further and you imperil your souls."


Eneko Lopez's words were spoken softly; but, to Enrico Dell'este, they seem to ring through the luxurious salon in Casa Dorma like hammer blows on the anvil in his workshop. As always, the concept of uncertainty seemed utterly foreign to the Basque priest.


The Old Fox's lips twisted in a wry smile. "If the Grand Metropolitan of Rome refuses your request to found a new order, Father, you might consider taking up prophecy as your new vocation. I'm quite sure you could learn to carve stone tablets, with a bit of practice."


A nervous little laugh rippled through the salon. Lopez, showing that easy humor which—oddly enough—always lurked beneath his implacable surface, flashed the Duke of Ferrara a quick grin. Then nodded, acknowledging the hit.


The acknowledgement, of course, did not sway him for a moment. "The fact remains, milord, that you cannot manipulate everything for political purposes. Not without risking eternal damnation."


Petro Dorma coughed, drawing attention his way. "There's no need to argue the theology involved, Father Lopez. As it happens—for political as well as personal reasons—I agree with you."


Dorma had not spoken so far, since the discussion over the fate of Marco's marriage to Angelina had first begun. Everyone had expected him to be one pole of the debate—and quite the opposite one—so his statement brought instant silence.


"A Case Vecchie who is wise instead of shrewd," murmured Eneko. "Truly we have entered a new age of miracles."


Again, laughter rippled through the room—less nervously, this time; almost with relief.


Dorma shrugged. "I have done my best for my sister. But the fact remains that Angelina is . . . unstable. And Venice cannot afford to have Marco Valdosta in an unstable marriage. Nor, for that matter, can it afford to have Katerina Montescue develop the reputation of an adulteress."


He gestured with his head toward the great window overlooking the Grand Canal. Even though the window was closed, and the Piazza San Marco was some distance away from the Dorma palace, the roar of the huge crowd filling the streets and piazza in triumphal celebration was loud enough to be heard easily. Now in its second day, there seemed no sign yet that the festivities were abating.


"Some of that applause is for the Emperor, of course. Charles Fredrik is the first Holy Roman Emperor to visit Venice in two centuries, and since his visit—unlike the last one—is seen as a show of support for Venice, the crowd is casting its republican sentiments aside."


"For the moment," growled Lodovico Montescue. "If the Emperor isn't smart enough not to leave within a few days, you watch how fast that'll change. And good it is!"


"Oh, stop being a grouch," drawled Dell'este. "Look on the bright side. The Montagnards have been dreaming for years of the day when the Emperor would enter Venice—and now that it's finally happened, they're all hiding in their cellars."


He and Lodovico exchanged cold smiles.


Petro Dorma sighed. "Montescue, your house is still in dire financial circumstances. So you can't afford assassins anyway."


"I can," interjected Dell'este immediately. "And Lodovico can find them for me." He turned his head and smiled gently at Antimo Bartelozzi, seated in a chair behind him. "No offense, Antimo. But I always feel it's wise to consult the local experts."


Antimo nodded solemnly. "Quite so, milord."


"Enough!" snapped Petro. He glared at the Old Fox. "Ferrara is not in charge of Venice. Insofar as anyone is, at the moment, I am. I'm certainly in charge of the Lords of the Nightwatch." Discreet as ever, he did not add: the Council of Ten, also. "So if I discover either of you—or both together—have been conspiring to assassinate Montagnards, I'll take measures. Don't think I won't. I've had enough—so has Venice—of these damned factional wars."


The Old Fox was tempted to rise to the challenge—and just how will you take measures against Ferrara, Venetian?—but he resisted the temptation easily enough. He had nothing to gain, and everything to lose, from entering a pissing match with Petro Dorma. Besides—


"I give you my word, Lord Dorma," he said, almost insouciantly. "But it won't stop the crowd from doing it. Word is the Arsenalotti have organized their own assassins. And the canalers are guiding them to the Montagnard hideouts."


Petro made a face; then, shrugged. "What the Venetian commons do at the moment, to settle their scores, does not concern me. They'll crush the snake and be done with it. Casa Vecchie vendettas take on an insane life of their own."


Lodovico Montescue had the grace to flush and look away. A bit to his surprise, Enrico Dell'este found himself doing the same.


"My word," Dell'este repeated. This time, with no insouciance at all. After a moment, with a tone of aggrieved resignation that brought another little ripple of laughter, Lodovico added his own vow.


"Good enough," said Petro. Again, he gestured at the window. "What I was about to say, however, is that most of that applause is not for the Emperor. It is—as everyone here knows—addressed at Marco and Katerina." He rubbed a hand over his bald pate, smiling ruefully. "About whom the wildest rumors are sweeping the city."


"What's wild about them?" snorted Lopez. "Marco Valdosta does carry the Mantle of the Lion. And wears the Crown also, it seems." Seeing the uncertainty in the faces of the hard-headed Venetian grandees in the salon, the Basque chuckled harshly. "Oh, yes—have no doubt about it. Metropolitan Michael tells me he was able to study enough of what Dottore Marina left behind to understand what happened, even if he could not duplicate the thing himself. I'm not sure anyone could, except a Grimas."


From the back of the room, where he had been sitting uneasily in a chair—he was not accustomed to such society—Father Mascoli spoke up for the first time. His words were soft, but firm for all that. "There were many witnesses, milords, who saw the lion leave and return to the pillar. I have spoken to several of them."


Petro swiveled in his chair and examined the priest. It was at his insistence that Father Mascoli had come. "You have spoken to Sister Evangelina?"


Mascoli nodded. "Yes, Lord Dorma. And she has agreed—provided Angelina is not coerced in any way."


Petro nodded and turned back. "I have not coerced her. In fact, it was Angelina who first made the suggestion herself."


His round face took on an expression which was partly one of chagrin, partly one of fondness. "My sister's moods swing back and forth, rather unpredictably. At her best—" He straightened in his chair. "Her marriage to Marco was a fiction, as all here are well aware. Angelina, in her way, has grown very fond of Marco. And seems now to have become determined not to be an impediment to his happiness."


He raised a fist to his mouth and coughed into it. "She proposed, in fact, a simple annulment on the grounds that the marriage was never consummated. Which, as it happens, is quite true in this case. But—"


He broke off, his expression clearly showing his unease.


Enrico immediately understood the quandary, and slid into it with all the grace of an expert swordsman in a fencing match.


"Petro. Naturally you would like to avoid the public embarrassment of admitting that the child is not Marco's." Dell'este saw no reason to add the obvious: even if no one in Venice except halfwits believes it anyway—and even the halfwits don't believe it once they see the bastard's hair. As always, for Case Vecchie, formalities and appearance were as important as the reality.


"I see no problem, Petro," he continued easily. He glanced at Father Mascoli. "If Angelina has agreed to take Holy Orders, that gives another ground for annulling the marriage. One which is much less awkward, for all concerned."


"What about the baby?" asked Lodovico. "Angelina can't very well take her with her to a nunnery. And if you give her up, you undermine the whole purpose of the subterfuge."


Dorma smiled; again, the expression conveyed that odd mix of fondness and chagrin. "I've spoken to Marco. He immediately offered to raise the child as his own. Truth to tell, he already spends more time with the girl than does my sister."


Dorma hesitated. Then, his innate honesty forced him to keep speaking. Dell'este was quite delighted. Venice would need an honest Doge, in the time to come.


"I must point out the possible problem," said Petro. "An annulment due to my sister joining a religious order will take quite some time. The Grand Metropolitan will agree to the annulment readily enough, I'm quite sure. But he will insist on following the established procedures." Dorma half-turned his head, looking back toward Mascoli. "The Hypatian Order requires a one year novitiate, before the final vows can be taken. Until that time passes, the annulment will not be final. In the meantime . . ."


His words trailed off into silence. Most of the people in the room shifted uneasily in their chairs. A year . . . And it took no great perceptiveness—certainly not for anyone who had seen Marco and Kat in each other's company over the past few days—to realize that the two youngsters were hardly likely to wait . . .


"Can't afford another scandal," gruffed Lodovico. "Certainly not," echoed Dell'este. "We'll have to insist that they see each other rarely, and then only with a proper chaperone in—"


"Oh, for the love of God!" snapped Petro Dorma's mother Rosanna. Since the discussion began, the old woman had been sitting against the wall tending to her point-vice embroidery. "Men! Katerina is a sensible Case Vecchie girl. She'll understand the precautions needed—and where to find them."


The faces of all the men in the room grew pinched. Except that of Eneko.


"Hah!" barked the Basque priest. "Of course she'll know where to find them. She's been trafficking them, I don't doubt." The faces of the other men grew very pinched. Lodovico's expression was downright vinegary.


"And what little she doesn't know from lack of personal experience," Lopez continued blithely, "she'll have no difficulty at all learning from her close friend Francesca de Chevreuse."


Rosanna Dorma almost cackled. "For that matter, I could—never mind."


She and Lopez exchanged smiles. The Basque shrugged. "I see the moment of wisdom has passed, replaced by that detestable shrewdness." He made a motion with his hand which might have been that of a prophet, carving stone. "Be done with it, o ye wise men of Venice. Allow them their love in peace, in whatever manner they choose, until they sanctify it in marriage. There will be no harm done, and you have used the children quite enough. Look to your own souls."


The Venetian grandees stared at him, their jaws a bit loose. The church had never formally condemned such practices, true; but they were much frowned upon by clerics. Not to mention fornication and adultery.


Lopez returned their stares with his own; and his jaw was not even a bit loose. "Chernobog has seized the throne of Lithuania," he said, almost snarling. "If anything, Emeric of Hungary delves into even blacker arts. The church rots from the inside or takes on the coloration of its enemies. The rumors from Egypt—"


He rose to his feet abruptly and began limping toward the door. "Enough! Worry yourselves sick over matters of petty shrewdness if you will, grandees of Venice. I return to the wisdom of the crowd, saluting its young champions."


After he was gone, Dell'este looked at Dorma and Lodovico. Then shrugged and rose himself.


"And why not? The worst that can happen is another bastard. Won't be the first in our families; and certainly not the last."


 



 



THE PIAZZA SAN MARCO
 

A few days had done a great deal to change the city and the political landscape, thought Benito, looking at the celebrating crowd.


Horsemen had come in to report that the Scaligers were scrambling out of Fruili, with the whole countryside rising against them and imperial troops hot on their heels. A sharp merchant had brought the first pirogue-load full of fresh vegetables down the Po, past the sunken remains of the Milanese invading fleet. Venice's foes had put the bulk of their forces into that fleet, and now they were in dire trouble.


Benito wasn't sure he wasn't in dire trouble, too. Maria hadn't given him the hero's welcome he'd rather thought he was going to get. Instead she'd said: "I fell in love with a wolf once. I'm not giving my throat to another one, Benito. And I'm not sure if what you are is fox or wolf. You're still young. It's hard to tell. But I've had enough of wishing to be something I can't be." And she'd turned on her heel and left him standing there.


After a while, he'd shrugged. He'd try later. In the meanwhile half of the girls in Venice seemed very pleased to see him. They thought he was hero, at least.


* * *

Later in the afternoon, someone took Benito by the arm and drew him away from a young female admirer. Oddly enough, he didn't feel any urge to resist even before he saw that it was Petro Dorma.


"I've got news I felt you should hear right away. A crew that arrived this morning came upon a shipwreck in the gulf the day of the fighting. I just got the word. Caesare Aldanto's galley, it was."


"Are they sure?"


Dorma nodded somberly. "They say there were big seas that afternoon. Probably stirred up by the gale that blew the fog away. They saw a galley in bad trouble and were heading for a rescue when a double wave came through. The galley snapped in two and broke up. By the time they got there—the waves were very severe . . . it was all over. No survivors.


"After the sea calmed, they recovered some of the bodies. Caesare's was not among them, and they say it was much too far from land for anyone to have a hope of swimming ashore."


Dorma took a deep breath. "There's more. Part of the wreck was still floating. The captain had a look and they've hauled that section out and brought it back. Someone had hollowed out a great chamber in the keel. When it hit the waves, it snapped. We think this must be how the other galleys were lost. We'll be checking them all now."


Benito closed his eyes briefly. The smuggling scheme . . . now he wondered if it had really been a smuggling scheme, and not just Caesare's way of sabotaging Venice's commerce. Whichever it had been: Caesare's own mischief had come back to sink him.


* * *

After Dorma left, Benito wandered through the huge throng aimlessly. He was trying to decide how he felt about Aldanto's death. On the one hand, he'd planned to kill him anyway, if he could. On the other . . .


He sighed, remembering all the little ways in which Caesare Aldanto had helped him. For his own purposes, to be sure. But . . . not always, perhaps. And even if it had all been done for nothing but mercenary reasons, the help itself remained.


Benito had long known that life couldn't be separated into neat blacks and whites. Now, he was discovering that gray is also a much more confusing color than it looks at first glance.


Out of that welter of confusion, one thought came clearly. I want to see Maria.


* * *

The piazza was redolent with the smells of feasting. Not a few of the Arsenalotti had already been dipping deep in the casks of good Veneto red that Petro Dorma had caused to be set among the tables. Benito found laughter, smiles, and winks from pretty girls and even snatches of song amid the laden trestles. What he didn't find was Maria Garavelli. It worried him. He'd been looking for her for quite a while.


The afternoon was rich and golden. Everybody was full of happiness. Everybody except Benito Valdosta, it seemed. And Maria, maybe. He thought there'd been a tear in her eye when she left him earlier. Or maybe . . . he just hoped so.


Only, where the hell had she got to? Ah. A familiar face. "Hey Tonio. You seen Maria?"


The bargee nodded. "Yeah. Saw her heading for the moorings down by the side of the Marciana."


"Thanks!" Benito quickened his pace and walked off towards the moorings beside the library.


* * *

She was sitting on a bollard, staring out across the gently bobbing rows of gondolas and the forests of masts in Bacino San Marco. A lonely figure—sheltered from the noise and laughter of the piazza. Here only the occasional gull shrieked and squabbled overhead.


"So what's wrong now?" He knelt down next to her and put an arm over her shoulder. She shrugged it off.


"I just want to be alone," she snapped. "You wouldn't understand."


"Try me."


She lifted that square jaw. "It's not a Casa Vecchie problem. Now go away."


"What's this Casa Vecchie stuff? I'm Benito!" He stood up and backed away a pace, raising his hands in protest.


She looked him up and down. Benito was acutely aware of his velvet and lace. "It's a poncy outfit," he muttered. "But Dorma insisted."


Maria stood up and turned to face him, hands on her hips, her dark eyes fulminating. "Oh. The next Doge insisted. You poor thing."


Benito flushed, acutely aware that she was slightly taller than he was. "So?"


"I am a canaler, Benito. You, on the other hand. You're behaving like an absolute copy of Caesare, strutting about."


Benito felt that was unfair. All right, so he'd been enjoying the victory. Enjoying the waves and . . . yeah, enjoying the kisses some of the girls had given him. Maybe that was it. "What's wrong with you? Why are you biting my head off?"


"I'm not. I just asked you to leave me alone . . . seeing as you only seem to want to see me when it suits you."


Benito felt his mouth drop open. "Give me a break! I've had to spend time with Marco and my grandfather and Dorma. And there just hasn't been much time. And I've been to see you . . . twice. And you were with Kat. Or out."


"Twice!" said Maria. "Oh, I am sorry. I should have stayed in just in case you came to call. I'm a canaler, Benito Valdosta. I have to work, you know."


Benito took a deep breath. "Well. That's sort of what I wanted to talk to you about. I thought—"


What was he thinking, anyway? He'd been wandering around with a vague notion in his head of "making it all work out with Maria."


The thought finally came into clear focus. He was too surprised to keep from blurting out the words.


"Well, then, you and me should get married. Maybe," he added hastily, seeing the storm signals.


There was a long silence.


"I mean . . . you wouldn't have to work or . . . and Dorma and my grandfather said they'd set me up. Um . . . Get some experience in trade. One of the colonies . . ." he trickled off into uncertainty.


"You're proposing to me," she said flatly. "To get me off the canals."


"Well, yes." Benito said awkwardly, flushing. "I thought it would be best."


"I don't."


"But . . . but you'd be rich and comfortable and . . ."


"And a canaler in the Casa Vecchie. No thank you. I won't marry for that reason."


Benito was bright red. "We could go to Corfu. Or Negroponte . . ."


"Oh, excuse me. Where Venice can't see me?" Maria's voice would have cut steel.


"I thought you would want to marry me. You don't have to," said Benito, beginning to get angry himself now.


His anger was nothing to her white-hot sarcasm. "Oh! What a favor the next Doge's brother-in-law's younger brother is doing me! A poor little canal-drab like me should be so delighted at his attentions. Well listen to me, Benito Valdosta . . . Va'funcula." And she turned and walked off to her gondola, leaving Benito still gawping at the obscenity. A few moments later she set off, a lone vessel heading up the Grand Canal into a virtually deserted Venice.


* * *

Benito wandered back. There didn't seem much point in staying here. He was not concentrating on his footsteps—or where he was going. It took severely disturbed concentration to walk into someone the size of Manfred. Benito managed it.


Manfred looked more amused than anything else. "Ah. My crazy young friend from our visit to the Dandelos, and a little assault in court-house! Dressed like a princeling, today, not an urchin, or a Dorma servant. What are you doing walking around with a face like your girlfriend just gave you some really bad news. What's wrong?"


Benito shrugged. "Women," he said trying to sound casual about it.


Manfred laughed. "I know what you mean. My uncle seems too fascinated by Francesca for her to have any time for me either. Can't figure it out. He's not even staring at her cleavage." His shrug was a massive copy of Benito's. "Women, just as you say. Let's go and find some wine. Wine always has time for us. And wine doesn't mind if you have another goblet of wine either."


 



 



THE GRAND CANAL
 

It came to Maria that someone had been whistling to her for some time. She looked up. Valentina. And Claudia. With a very suspicious-looking bag.


"Maria Garavelli, I wish the Schioppies were as dreamy as you," said Claudia from the fondamenta. "Give us a lift, will you?"


She pulled up. They slung the bag in. It clinked. "A good time to be shopping," said Valentina cheerfully. "Everyone is at the celebration."


Claudia looked curiously at Maria. "Why aren't you?"


"I didn't want to stay," said Maria, curtly.


"I would have thought Benito would want your company?"


"There is nothing between me and . . ." Her lip quivered. "Benito. He doesn't love me. And I don't need him. Anyway, I'm going to marry my cousin Umberto. I just made up my mind. My family's been pestering me about it for weeks. They've got it all set up."


There was a startled silence from the two thieves. "Oh. That's very sudden," said Claudia. "We thought . . ."


"It's not exactly something that can wait," said Maria bluntly.


Valentina and Claudia exchanged glances. "How long . . ."


"At least two months," said Maria, shortly. "And, no—I don't know who the father is. Probably Caesare. Um. Maybe not. I always took precautions with him, after the first few days. The other thing happened too quickly—"


She broke off, squaring her shoulders. "What difference does it make? It's either Caesare or one other, and either way if I don't get married it's a bastard."


She shook her head. "Never mind. My cousin Mario is a sweet man—I've known him since I was a kid—and he says he doesn't mind. It'll work out. I won't marry for security and I won't marry for position and I definitely won't marry someone who still doesn't know if he's a fox or a wolf."


She looked at Claudia and Valentina. They were staring at her. I'm babbling, she realized. And why am I telling this to a couple of thieves? "So. Enough of that. Where can I put you off?"


"Er. Here will do fine," said Valentina. She sounded as uncertain as Maria sounded to herself.


 



 



THE ROAD TO ROME
 

When Father Eneko Lopez and his two companions recognized the three horsemen who overtook them on the road to Rome, their jaws fell. Even the Basque priest, for a moment, lost his composure.


"Your Majesty?" croaked Diego. He glanced at Lopez, seeking confirmation. Lopez had spent time with the Emperor in private discussion; Diego hadn't.


Eneko's jaw snapped shut, almost audibly. "This is most unwise, Your Majesty. The Holy Roman Emperor should not be traveling the roads of Italy escorted only by two bodyguards." His eyes squinted at the costume Charles Fredrik was wearing. "Especially not disguised as a prosperous merchant."


Charles Fredrik's scowled. "Nattering at me like Trolliger! And here I'd been looking forward to your company, too."


He plucked at the rich fabric. "As for this, it's far more comfortable than my imperial robes—much less armor. And it's necessary, anyway, to keep my identity a secret. It is essential that I be able to meet with the Grand Metropolitan in person." Breezily: "I'll not forget to put in a good word in favor of founding your order, Eneko, be sure of it." Less breezily: "And—ah—I felt the secrecy was needed, not for only for its own sake, but because—ah—"


Pierre barked a laugh. The Emperor's face darkened a little.


"Well, yes," admitted the most powerful man in Europe. "The last time a Holy Roman Emperor visited Rome he may have left some residue of ill will. Seeing as how he sacked the city. So I felt a certain modesty and discretion would make for better diplomatic results. I have got to bring this damn Petrine-Pauline feud under control. Down to a simmer, at least." He brought hard eyes to bear on the three priests who hoped to found a new brotherhood of struggle against a rising Satan. "As I'm sure you will agree, under the circumstances."


Eneko nodded. "As to that—certainly. But . . . Your Majesty, it's simply dangerous."


The Emperor's laugh sounded like a lion's roar. "Oh, nonsense!" He slapped a meaty hand on the even meatier shoulder of the man riding to his right. "Here I have my nephew, who quite recently"—the ferocious old man couldn't keep the pride out of his voice—"broke the back of a Svear demon. You saw it yourself, Father! And to my left—"


Another meaty hand slapped a shoulder which, though sinewy rather than massive, sounded more like iron than flesh. "The finest scion of Clann Harald!"


Eneko smiled grimly. "Who, on the same day—unless I'm badly mistaken—gave Chernobog himself the worst headache of his life." He raised his hands in a little gesture of surrender. "I suppose you're right, Emperor. With such an escort, you probably don't have much to fear from highwaymen."


"I'd say not," murmured Diego. "In fact . . . I'd feel a little better myself, having them accompany us."


"Done, then!" pronounced the Emperor. "You will provide us with still more in the way of disguise—pilgrims going to Rome—along with your own convivial conversation, of course. And we will keep the odd ruffian from pestering you."


Pierre nodded solemnly, in the sage manner of peasants everywhere. "Well said. Ask any Savoyard. It's always best to have a second string for your bow."


 



 


THE PIAZZA SAN MARCO
 

Venice slept. The last celebrants had gone home. Dawn would be here in a few hours, but for now the great winged lion looked out over a sleeping town. Well, nearly.


Kat and Marco stood in each other's arms at the base of the Lion's column, looking out at the moonlight on the dark water of the lagoon.


The moonlight cast a great winged shadow over them, and the piazza that is Venice's heart. Like a shield.


 


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