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Chapter 1

The silhouette of the Basilica of St. Mark was black against the paling predawn sky. The pillar and the winged lion in the Piazza San Marco could just be made out.


In the bow of the gondola Benito shifted uneasily, looking at it. "Figlio di una puttana, woman," he said, trying to sound older than fourteen. "Can't you get a move on? It'll be sunup before I'm home." He wished his voice would stop cracking like that. Marco said it was just part of growing up. He wished that that would stop too. Being bigger was no advantage for climbing or running. And if he stopped growing, he might stop being so hungry all of the time.


Up on the stern the hooded oarsman ignored him, moving slowly and steadily.


"You want me to row this thing for you?" he demanded.


"Shut up," she hissed. "You want to attract attention? At this time of the morning, only people in trouble are rushing."


Benito had to acknowledge that it was true enough. Even now there were three other vessels moving on the Grand Canal. All of them slowly. He sighed. "I just need to get back home. I'm supposed to see my brother."


She snorted. "If you hadn't held us up, we'd be the other side of Campo San Polo by now. And you can't be in any more of a hurry to get back to whatever rat-hole you sleep in, than I am to see the back of you. I should never have agreed to take you."


Benito huddled down in the bow. This woman's tongue was even sharper-edged than Maria Garavelli's. The wind between the ornately facaded buildings was cold. He was cold and, as usual, he was hungry. It had been a fruitless night. Mercutio had let him down. Again.


He liked working jobs with Mercutio. His ideas were exciting, daring and, well, crazy. You always knew with any job he organized it was going to be nip-and-tuck. Skin of your teeth stuff and needing lots of luck. But somehow Mercutio always seemed to have that luck.


Benito sighed. Mercutio also had the habit of not turning up for a job. Benito had sat waiting for four cold hours for him tonight, and not a copper's profit to show for it. He could have used some more coin. All he had in the attic was a half crock of elderly fagioli stufata. It was definitely past its best. The beans were producing gas before they even hit his stomach.


* * *

His eye was caught by the body. It bobbed in the dark water under the pilings as the tiny fish plucked at it. That was a fine cloak. . . . A few knife slashes could be dealt with. His jaw dropped. The rich soft swollen white hand still had rings on it.


He turned to speak.


"Don't even look," she hissed between clenched teeth.


"But . . ." he started to point.


She hit his hand with the oar. "Shut it!" There was such intensity in that quiet command that Benito didn't even dare to glance at the corpse again.


They poled on in silence, the bow of the shabby gondola cutting the oily, still water, here where it was sheltered from the predawn breeze. Most of Venice was still sleeping.


When she spoke, they were a good hundred yards past the corpse. "Despini." Her voice shook slightly. She was plainly shocked.


Benito looked warily at her. "What?" A stray strand of long, wavy, copper-colored hair had found its way out from under her hooded cloak. She pushed it back. Whatever this girl moved must be valuable. That was a well-fed wrist.


"Gino Despini. He was one of my customers. He had a booth down on the Calle Farnese. Sold love philters, charms and amulets of protection against the French Pox."


Benito nodded sagely. That was the sort of cargo she moved. The frauds, hedge magicians, tricksters and petty Strega around the Campo Ghetto didn't always want to declare their imports to the state or the church. Dangerous, tricky cargoes. But valuable. "So why didn't you want to stop? Get those rings, or take him to his family . . ."


She raised her eyes to heaven. "You're a fool. Whoever killed him could have sunk him if they just wanted him dead. They didn't even rob him. What does that mean?" she demanded.


Benito knew he was out of his league here. He was a good enough sneak thief. But this . . . "He was wounded but escaped, died and fell in the canal," he ventured warily.


She shook her head. "You don't know anything, do you, boy? If they left his body to float, they're not scared of the Schiopettieri."


Benito swallowed hard. The Schiopettieri were professional soldiers under the official command of Venice's Signori di Notte . . . The Lords of the Nightwatch, answerable to the Senate of the Great Republic. In effect, they were the city's police force. You didn't mess with them.


"That spells someone with influence and power," she continued. "Whoever killed him obviously doesn't need money." She pursed her lips. "There was a rumor about that he was more than what he seemed. A Strega Mage proper, not a charlatan. He was left to float either as message, or more likely, as bait."


Bait. "Who did it?" he asked, huskily. This was deep, dark water.


The woman shrugged. "Maybe the Servants of the Holy Trinity. They've been pretty active lately. So have the agents of the Council of Ten. Maybe other Strega. But I don't think so. They favor magic or poison. He'd been stabbed."


"Bait . . ."


"They'll take whoever comes to go on with their questioning. If it's the Servants, you know how they question people. With knives. And fire. And prayers for your soul." She raised an eyebrow and said sardonically, "You were thinking of sneaking back there, weren't you?"


"I didn't understand." The boy answered humbly. "But Katerina . . ."


"Who told you my name?" she demanded fiercely.


"Captain Della Tomasso . . . Look!"


While they'd been talking, a flotilla of rowing boats had appeared and were coming along the Grand Canal. Rowing steadily in measured strokes. The leading ones were definitely Schiopettieri oarships.


"Merda!" Katerina spat. "It must be a sweep. We've got to get out of here." She began to scull frantically, pushing the gondola towards the mouth of a narrow canal.


Benito got up hastily. He was getting off the unfamiliar water and onto the buildings. Quickly. "They'll have blocked off the side canals, Kat."


"Right." She pushed the boat into a group of tied up gondolas and small craft moored to poles at the water-door of the marble-faced mansion. She dropped a loop over the bollard. "Lie down . . . little brother. We're poor boatkids who've lost our parents and have to sleep on the water."


Benito looked askance at her. But he lay down on the gondola ribs next to her. She pulled a grubby piece of sailcloth over them. She also tied a piece of cord to a knobbly yellow oilcloth parcel from the bow. She dropped the parcel gently over the side, down into the still water. Hastily she tied it off.


Benito wondered what the hell cadging a ride across from Guidecca had gotten him into. He liked a bit of excitement, but messing with people who knew people who were being killed by the Servants was too much.


* * *

It was too much, thought Katerina, lying on the ribs of the gondola. Here she was with a cargo that could get her burned at the stake. Even if they never picked it up . . . well, if it came to hard questioning they might get her name. Under that sort of questioning, especially if they used magic, they could find out everything. Unless, like Despini, you had defenses that would kill first. Holy Mother. She must not be caught. The dishonor to the family if she were! It would kill the old man. Every time she'd gone out she'd known it was a risk. But they could simply not afford to lose another cargo. And who else could they trust? Somehow the Casa Montescue, secure for all these years, had been infiltrated. There was no other explanation.


She looked up. They were tied up beside the Imperial embassy. Across the canal was the pretentious Casa Brunelli. Pah. Nouveau riche. Curti. They had glass windows instead of the varnished silk that real Longi Case Vecchie used. The kind of neighborhood that the Schiopettieri would not take kindly to finding loiterers in, even if they didn't pick up the parcel dangling from the bow.


She looked across, not without a certain envy, at the ornate marble-faced building. She was startled to realize there was someone on the third-floor balcony of the Casa Brunelli.


"Lie still," Kat said between clenched teeth to the wrigglesome urchin next to her. "There is someone on the balcony up there."


To give him credit, the boy didn't peer. He froze. "Who?"


"How would I know? You . . . you canal-brat. It's hard to make out anything in this light. A man, by the way he stands."


"He must have seen us come in," whispered the boy. Kat could feel him tense next to her. Getting ready to run.


"Stay still!" She hissed.


Benito's dark eyes flickered nervously. Then she felt him tense again. "They're stopping. They're coming here!"


Kat reached for the slipknot on the cord. "How do you know?"


The boy's eyes darted. "You can see the reflection in the window," he mumbled.


It was true enough. The two Schiopettieri oarships were slowing. Backing water. The vessels behind them . . . weren't Venice-built. She'd swear to that. Whoever made them needed lessons in shipbuilding. Tubs. But tubs bright with steel. So much so that it was a miracle they didn't tip over. That would've emptied all the armored men, in bright triple-cross-enameled breastplates and their gilt-trimmed helmets, into the canal.


Benito and Katerina gaped, forgetting the watcher on the balcony. The Teutonic Knights of the Holy Trinity. The fabled Arm Militant of the Pauline Orders. The soldiers of God who beat back the Huns, the Norse, and the various Slavic and Magyar pagans and heretics on the northern and eastern frontiers of Christendom. The borders of Emperor Charles Fredrik's Holy Roman Empire rested squarely on their steel shoulders. Those breastplates were unmistakable, a legend across the Christian world. And they were half feared, as well as admired and respected, by the southern and Mediterranean folk who generally followed the Petrine currents in the Church.


"What the hell are they doing here?" Benito got it out seconds before Kat. His voice had more admiration in it than Katerina Montescue would have voiced.


"Going to the Imperial embassy, by the looks of it," said Katerina with relief.


Benito too sounded more relaxed. "I always wanted to be a knight."


Katerina shook her head. "Fighting trolls and hellspawn in the frozen northlands? Dealing with pagan Russian and Tatar princes and their demons? And—even worse—the heretic Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Kingdom of Hungary and their sorcerers and shamans? Ha! It's dark half the year up there. And they look silly in that armor. It's no good anyway. One of the new pistols from Spain will put a ball right through it. Besides, they take the sons of the nobility of the Empire, not canal-brats."


The boy looked militant. "I'm more than just a 'canal-brat.' My father . . ."


"Was the Holy Grand Metropolitan of Rome himself," snapped Katerina. "And your mother was the Duchess of Milan, and just a canal-side puttana in her spare time. Now shut up. They still wouldn't be pleased to find us here. The Schiopettieri would run us in and beat us up just for being in this part of town."


The boy bit his lip. His dark eyes fumed at her. But he lay still. Katerina turned her attention back to the pageant reflected in the windows of the Casa Brunelli. With shock she recognized the file of gray-cassocked and hooded men filing out of the embassy onto the stone-faced landing. Even in the poor light there was no mistaking the white triple crosses on the backs of those cassocks. The monastic Servants of the Holy Trinity did not inspire the same awe as their sibling Paulines, the Knights, did. They simply inspired fear and distrust. Especially for Katerina Montescue. And they weren't an unfamiliar sight in Venice. Their war on the Jews and the Strega was not officially sanctioned by the Doge. On the other hand, Doge Giorgio Foscari was turning a very blind eye. Well, at his age your thoughts started turning more to Heaven than earth anyway. And the Servants claimed to be the custodians of the keys to Heaven. Kat suppressed a chuckle. That had gotten Metropolitan Michael very steamed up in the pulpit last Mass. Rome and the Holy Grand Metropolitan did not approve of the strident claims of the Paulines.


A querulous, elderly whiny voice sounded across the canal. It rose above the soft sonorous sound of the plainsong that the Servants of the Holy Trinity were beginning to chant. "My best cassock. I wanted to wear it for this occasion . . ." Someone hastily hushed the old monk as the boatloads of knights drew up to the quay.


A trumpet sounded, sharp and bright. Steel-clad figures disembarked from the boat and came up the steps. They were in military array, formed up around a palanquinlike structure which was borne by several of the hefty knights. It was plainly heavy, but too small to hold a person.


"What are they carrying?" whispered Benito.


"How in the names of all the Saints do you expect me to know?" Katerina hissed savagely. "Do you want me to go over and ask them?"


Benito sniffed. "There's no need to bite my head off. It's just that it looked like a chest. There were big locks. Maybe it is treasure."


There was a thoughtfulness in that young voice that made Katerina catch her breath and shake her head. This boy was going to die young. "Are you crazy? Don't even think of stealing from them. Don't even think of it."


Two figures now left the tail of the procession. One was a gray-cassocked and stooped monk. The other was a woman. True, she wore a nun's habit. But she walked like a duchess. Her head held up with an arrogant tilt that revealed a silhouetted prow of an aristocratic nose.


"Sister Humility," whispered the incorrigible canal-brat next to her.


Katerina had to bite back a snort of laughter. Then, when she realized what the reflected-in-glass figures were doing, it made her forget all about laughing. They were getting into a small gondola with a single arquebus-armed Schiopettieri. A knight carried a small brazier over to the vessel. Another brought a box from their ship. Katerina knew enough of magical practice to guess that they were about to conduct a rite of enclosure. They could hardly fail to pass her gondola. Heaven alone knew what was inside the parcel from Ascalon that she was supposed to deliver. But having it inside a magical circle of enclosure was not a good idea. She pulled the cord, and the slipknotted parcel went down to the mud.


Benito had plainly also seen what was happening. "Over the side. Quick!"


Katerina shook her head. "I can't swim."


"You don't have to," Benito snapped impatiently. "You can hold on to the boat. Come on. Be quick and quiet about it. They'll be here any minute." He slipped over the side and into the water between the boats like an oiled rat.


Nervously, hastily, Katerina followed. Icy cold canal water slid up her legs, soaking into her petticoats. Her heavy twilled bombazine dress was more resistant to water. It bulged up around her like some clumsy bubble. She clung to the gunwale.


"Here," he whispered hoarsely, pulling her hand. "Take the bow-rope."


She had to give up her precious hold on the gondola and flounder. Her head went under but she managed to grab the rope. The bow came forward, cracking into her head, nearly stunning her.


"Quiet!"


They waited in the water. Through the narrow gap between the canalboats she could see the windows of the Casa Brunelli. They still provided a mirror-view. The two watchers in the water could see the gondola with the monk, nun and a slowly rowing Schiopettieri come down the side canal. The nun was chanting prayers, waving the censer. The monk had a pole with something on the end which he ran along the wall. If it made a line, it didn't show up in reflections.


Benito pressed his mouth against her ear. "When they get to the edge of the boats, you take a deep breath and hold it. I'll take you under. Start breathing deeply now."


When he did pull her under it was all she could do not to struggle frantically for the surface. And they seemed to stay down forever. Then she felt Benito tug—upwards. She bumped her head against the gondola again.


"What was that sound?" The voice was male, but high and cool. The diction was faintly stilted, as if this was a second language.


"Perhaps a fish, Monsignor Sachs. They shelter among the boats." The voice of the Schiopettieri was frightened, respectful. Katerina, trying to breathe quietly, was not surprised. The Servants of Holy Trinity were terrifying enough without magic.


"Who do those boats belong to? Why are they here?" the man asked. The nun continued her low melodious chanting as if the man had not spoken.


Katerina could imagine the soldier's shrug even if she could not see it. This was Venice. There were gondolas and skiffs everywhere. "They are for the staff of the embassy, Monsignor."


The foreign monk was plainly unimpressed. "They will no longer be able to use this door. The embassy can only be entered by the portal. Have them moved," he commanded. "And I am Abbot Sachs. I will be addressed as such. Not by southern titles." It didn't sound as if he approved of those either. But at least their voices were getting farther away.


"I will see to it, Abbot," said the Schiopettieri.


"Merda," whispered Benito. "We have to get out of here." He started to pull on the gondola.


Katerina shook her head. "Wait," she said quietly. "Give it another minute. They're not far enough away yet." So they waited in the water. It seemed an eternity before they decided it was safe. Benito took a deep breath and ducked under the water; then, thrust up and hauled himself over the gunwale. Katerina tried to pull herself in. Her petticoats, dress and sodden hooded cloak all impeded her. Even Benito's hauling was not sufficient. He let go and she fell back. Little bastardo! Then she realized he'd let go in order to take the oar and push the gondola closer to the water-door. He was quick-thinking, if inexpert with an oar. There were slimy steps under the water. Dripping, Katerina was able to get back into her boat and flip the bow-rope free. She seized the oar from the inept Benito and sent them out into the canal. He could swim but not handle a boat.


As she turned the vessel with quick, skilled movements of her feet and oar, a movement caught the periphery of her vision. Someone up there . . . She'd forgotten about the watcher on the balcony of the Casa Brunelli.


He was watching, impassive. It was much lighter now, and she could see him as clearly as he could doubtless see her dripping self. The man was slight. Reddish haired, with dark eyebrows that met to form a forbidding line. A gaze like an eagle. It was not a face that you could forget. And it looked . . . implacable.


She sculled hard. It was not something which could be done too hastily, without ending up in the water. She nearly did that again.


"Why didn't he call out?" asked the wet Benito, once again huddled in the bow.


"One of life's little mysteries," snapped Katerina, trying to keep her teeth from chattering. Sculling was an exercise which could leave you pretty warm, but she still hadn't recovered from either the cold water or the fear. However, by the expression on the man's face, she was sure that the only reason he hadn't called out was that he didn't want to be seen himself.


The largest of San Marco's bells began to peal the dawn. When it was still, the Arsenal's Marangona bell began to sound. It would ring for some time, calling the shipwrights, carpenters, and caulkers to work. Venice was stirring. And Kat was a long way from home. She could hardly help being seen, wet. Well, at least she could get dry, and she had other clothes. She was probably better off than the boy. But her cargo was somewhere in the canal mud outside the Imperial embassy.


Bad.


She couldn't come back that evening, or the next. The Solstice Feast with its celebrations, ridottos, and balls would go on for two more days. She would just have to pray that the heavy parcel would not wash with the tide, and that the boy would keep his mouth shut.


Worse.


And because she had never learned to swim, she'd have to ask this shivering canal-brat to get it back for her.


Worst. Damnation!


 


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