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Chapter 2

It was a racasse. A scorpion-fish. The only catch of the day, and it had to be a Godforsaken racasse.


Marco Valdosta stared at the reed-woven fish trap. It was the best and newest one he owned. He stared at the contents, which flopped around getting its long, poisonous spines nicely wedged, then cursed a curse which was long, literate, and alliterative.


The words did not match the speaker. Benito's older brother was a painfully thin, ragged sixteen-year-old, dressed only in tattered breeches, balanced on his haunches on a scrap of raft cobbled together from waterlogged flotsam. A marsh-dweller—one of the mixture of destitutes, refugees, and criminals who scratched out a living among the islands, and the mosquito-singing Jesolo marshes to the northeast. The coastal lagoon that sheltered Venice was pleasant enough around the city but closer to the mainland, away from the cleansing ebb and flow, the marshes that fringed the lagoon were an ooze of thick stinking muds and stagnant, brackish waters. The townsfolk of Venice called the people who lived there "loco."


Marco looked it. His dark hair was nearly waist length, indifferently clean, and held back in a tail with a twist of marsh-grass; his lean tanned face was smudged with mud above the almond eyes and along the cheekbones. This was not the sort of creature from which one expected anything intelligible, much less intelligent.


Marco was flat out of patience, with the day (which was hot and stank), with his luck (which smelled almost as bad as the day), and with the world (which smelled worse than his luck). For anyone else on this muddy lagoon, for anyone else fishing between the quays of this sinking, stinking city, a racasse would be cause for rejoicing. They were fine eating. And you could sell the spines. There was always a market for poison. All you needed was a 'priest' to club the fish with, and some care. And—if it was stuck in a fish trap—a good long harpoon.


But Marco didn't have a harpoon. There was no way to kill the fish in that trap, short of clubbing the painstakingly woven structure to reed-splinters. He had a knife . . . of sorts. But it was no more than a splinter of stolen Murano glass, with one end dipped in a caulker's tar-bucket, and wrapped with string.


All he could do was to stare at the three-times-damned thing wedging itself more and more tightly in the depths of his fish trap and try not to cry. The only catch of the whole day, useless, and he hadn't eaten since yesterday morning. Damn the Saints and damn the trap. His only hope was the chance that the fish might relax when it died, enough to let him slide it out. Or if he could find a fisherman with a harpoon. He would lose half the value of his catch, but he might get something.


He poled the raft toward the wharves in hopes of finding a fisherman; there was just the barest possibility there would be someone there with a bit of a coin or something edible to trade—he'd willingly swap fish, trap and all for a little bread. He hadn't had any real bread in months.


Real bread—the smell of bread baking—used to drive him nearly out of his head. Mama would laugh at him—tell him he'd never be a fighter, he wasn't carnivore enough. Marco wanted to be a healer, not a fighter.


Mama had been a fighter; but meaner people had killed her.


* * *

He almost missed the shadow under the wharf pilings that moved wrong. Almost. But living with the marsh-folk gave you paranoia, if nothing else, and when the shadow lunged down from its perch on a crossbeam he already had in hand the only thing on the raft that could count in a fight.


The trap that was full of scorpion-fish.


The trap wasn't much more substantial than a marsh-dweller's promise; it shattered as it hit the man (all dressed in dark colors he was; real clothes and not rags, and his face covered). The man got a spine in one eye and the rest in the hand that came up to fend it off. The dagger in his other hand flew into the water.


He was already insane with pain when he hit the raft; which promptly capsized, but Marco had been ready for that. He dove with the push of the raft behind him, took off into deep water and shoved off the mucky bottom; then, came up with a rush that got him halfway back onto the raft before his attacker finished his death agony. The man floated, a dark bundle that twitched and rolled, being slowly pulled back under the wharf by the current. No more danger from him, for sure.


Marco got himself back onto his raft—and started to shake.


A man—waiting there, like he knew it was part of Marco's regular circuit. Man dressed all dark, with his face covered, and a knife in his hand. Man that came down on him like he knew exactly what he was doing, who he was going for. Assassin. Had to be!


They were hunting him—after two years, They were hunting him! Now, They'd found him again and They'd get him like They'd got Mama . . . Oh, God.


Marco poled back towards the Jesolo marshes in a fog of panic, hunger forgotten, casting glances back at the wharf to see if anyone had found the body, if there were any more of Them after him. But all he could see was the normal working small craft and a few of the other marsh-dwellers out bobbing on the lagoon—most of them too busy fishing or dozing in the sun to take any notice, the rest not wanting to notice trouble lest it fall on them, too.


Got to hide. That was all he knew, his pulse pounding in his ears and his knees wobbling with weariness. He pushed the scrap of the raft into the marsh, where the high, yellow reeds made a maze you could easily get lost in. He brought it in up against a particular reed-islet—which he and Chiano knew wasn't an islet at all. He looked around again; then crouched and listened.


Nothing out of the ordinary. Sea birds mewling, reeds whispering, nothing else. He jumped off the raft—water was just a bit more than waist deep here, though the bottom sucked at his feet—and picked up an edge of the islet. It was a kind of basket made to look like a hummock with reeds sticking out of it, resting on a much larger raft. Marco heaved his little raft atop the big one, climbed onto them, and lowered the basket down to cover himself and his "home" again.


There was just enough room under the "roof" to sit hunched over, with his chin on his knees—but it was safer than anywhere else in the swamp, especially with Them out after him. Only he, and old Sophia and Chiano, had these hideaways that he knew of. Chiano taught the two of them how to make the hideouts. The half-crazy old man swore they were called "blinds" in the Camarque and that you used them to shoot birds from. Marco's hide was the reason he was still alive; he'd waited out many a loco-gang hunt in his, and no end of searches by Big Gianni.


But would it hold against Them?


Whoever They were. Mama had had plenty of safeguards, but none of them had helped her . . . 


Ends of reeds tickled his back and arms as he pushed the thought of discovery resolutely away. No. He wouldn't think about it, he needed to think about something else. But songs weren't any good—the only ones he could remember right now were all grim. Think. Get calm. Keep your mind occupied, or you'll panic.


He began breathing deeply and quietly, willing his pulse to slow, making himself a bit calmer, telling himself he had nothing to worry about. The raft bobbed a little; if anyone came by Marco would know it by the disturbance of the water. There was no way anyone could get near him without him knowing.


As usual when he wanted to relax and calm down, Marco relied on mathematics. He loved figures and calculations. Now—if you started with a load of salted fish; say forty barrels, say two hundred thirty-seven fish to a barrel, and you transported up the Po, with your costs going up but the worth of those fish going up, the farther you went . . . 


The heat under the basket, the bobbing of the raft, the close air and exhaustion, all conspired to put him to sleep.


* * *

It began again.


Benito tugged at his elbow. "Si?" Marco responded absently; he was doing Mama's accounts, and there'd been a lot of business today.


"Mama said I should stay with Theodoro overnight—Marco, can he be on the ship up to Milan? Please?"


Dream-skip again; stumbling around in water and mud up to his waist, lost in the dark and crying—that was how the marsh-dwellers had found him. And beat him up, and robbed him of everything but his breeches and the paper he kept clutched in one hand. He lay in shallow mud and water; freezing, dazed, hurting and crying. . . .


* * *

He woke crying—but silently, silently. He'd learned since then never to make a noise. He wiped the tears from his face with the tail of his hair, and listened. Nothing. And it was getting on towards sunset, judging by the red that filtered through the basket and the go-to-bed sounds the marshbirds were making.


Oh, God—he was supposed to meet his younger brother Benito at dawn. He had to warn him that They were on the hunt again. Benito could be in as much danger as Marco. But first he had to find Chiano and Sophia.


They would probably be out on their usual squat—the bit of dry sand bar off the end of the Lido. It had formed during the last really big storm, and likely the next one would take it away again, but for now it provided a good spot for clams and driftwood.


Old Sophia and Chiano. As unlikely a couple as ever decorated the face of the lagoon—Sophia maybe forty and looking four hundred, Chiano ten years older and looking thirty. She had been a bargee's wife, until a fifteen-hundred-ton roccaforte with a following wind behind it ran down their small barge and sent her man and kids to the bottom. Chiano claimed to be everything from a stranded Sicilian seaman to the Prince of Damascus.


She was the closest thing to a chirurgeon and healer the marshes boasted, and so was inviolate from most of the mayhem that raged among the marsh-dwellers. He proclaimed himself to be the One True Prophet of the Great Mother herself. He was treated with superstitious care, although Marco was sure that if Chiano hadn't lived with Sophia the marsh-dwellers would have burned him out.


The two of them had found Marco, in pain and half delirious—and for some reason known only to themselves picked him up and carted him back to Sophia's hovel, and nursed him back to a semblance of health. They'd taught him how to survive, during that vague six-month period during which shock had kept him pliant enough to adapt. He'd paid them back for their care by sharing the scroungings that Benito gave him and writing down Chiano's "prophecies." Chiano induced visions with fly agaric and was obviously then in no condition to record his prophecies himself. Why he wasn't dead twenty times over—well . . .


It was a mystery, like where Chiano came from in the first place, or got the paper, or what he did with the pages after Marco filled them with the "holy words" in his careful, clear hand. Chiano kept him safe too. Chiano wasn't big, but the fear that he really might be a witch helped Chiano keep the swamp-dwellers, who wanted a boy, at bay. The swamp gangs wanted runaway boys as their slaves; Big Gianni wanted them for—other things. All of them were crazy, mostly from chewing blue lotos, and no telling what they would do to someone who got between them and what they wanted. But Chiano stood by him until Marco was big enough to fight back and canny enough to hide from what he could not fight.


* * *

Chiano and Sophia were where he expected to find them. They had lit a small fire of driftwood and were grilling fish spitted on reeds over it. They looked like images out of hell; red lit, weather-and-age-twisted faces, avidly watching their cooking dinner.


Marco didn't make much noise, but they heard him anyway. "That you boy?" Chiano called into the dark.


"Si. Chiano, I got trouble."


"Boy, the world got trouble," replied Chiano easily. "Neveryoumind. What's the matter this time? Big Gianni? One of the gangs?"


"Wish it was just that! Somebody jumped me, out at the wharf—a man dressed all in dark clothes, with his face covered, and waiting like he knew I was coming. He had a knife. I think They've found me."


"Damn! That be trouble and more'n ye need!" Sophia coughed. "You got any notion who They be?"


"No more than I ever did. Could be anybody: slave-takers, Schiopettieri, even . . ."


"Milanese," Chiano growled.


"Damn it all, no! Not Milanese; never Milanese. Milanese would be trying to help me, not kill me!"


"I'll believe that when I believe . . ." Sophia hushed Chiano before he could say any more.


"Fine," Marco said, "But whose mama was a Montagnard agent, huh? Who saw Duke Visconti's agents coming and going? So who should know?" It was an old argument.


"And whose mama was probably killed by the order of the Duke Visconti she served, hmm? Marco, leave it, boy. I know more politics than you do. Still, I notice you may have thought Strega. But you didn't say it. You off to give Benito a warning?"


"Got to. He's in danger too."


"Boy—" This was another old argument.


Sophia chimed in forcefully. "No buts! Ye're young; this ain't no life for th' young. We'll be all right."


"She's got the right of it, boy." There was a suspicion of mist in Chiano's slightly crazed eyes. "The Words of the Goddess are complete now, thanks to you. You go—"


Chiano claimed the Words were complete about once a month.


"Look, I'll be back, same as always. Benito won't have any safe place for me, and I won't put danger on those as is keeping him."


For the first time in this weekly litany Chiano looked unaccountably solemn. "Somehow—I don't think so—not this time. Well, time's wasting, boy, be off—or They might find Benito before you do."


Sophia's face twisted comically then, as she glanced between Marco and their dinner; she plainly felt obliged to offer him some, and just as plainly didn't really want to have to share the little they had.


"You eaten?" she asked reluctantly.


Marco's stomach churned. The fear and its aftermath made the very thought of food revolting.


"Grazie; but no. I'm fine."


She smiled, relieved. "Off wi'ye, then, ye'd best hurry."


Marco went, finding the way back to his raft, and poling it out into the black, open water of the lagoon. In the distance were the lights of Venice. But the tide was out. He would have to pole the channels. At least coming back he would be able to run with the turn of the tide at dawn.


* * *

Lots of lights in the city tonight—lots of noise. Marco blessed it all, for it covered his approach. Then remembered—and shame on himself for not remembering before—that it was Solstice Feast. What night of the Feast it was, he couldn't remember; his only calendars were the moon and stars these days, and the seasons. By the noise, probably well into the festival. But that meant Benito would be delayed by the crowds on the bridges and walkways. That might prove a blessing; it gave him a chance to check all around their meeting place under the wharf for more of Them.


He poled all over beneath the wharf, between the maze of pilings, keeping all his senses alert for anything out of the norm. There wasn't anyone lying in ambush that he could find, not by eye nor ear nor scent, so he made the raft fast and climbed up into their meeting place among the crossbeams out near the end of the wharf.


The first time they'd met here—after Marco had slipped into the town with his heart pounding like an overworked drum, and passed Theodoro a note to give to Benito—they hadn't said much. Benito had just wrapped his arms around his brother like he'd never let go, and cried his eyes sore and his voice hoarse. Marco had wanted to cry too—but hadn't dared; Benito would have been shattered. That was the way the first few meetings had gone.


But boys are resilient creatures. Before too long, Benito was begging for Marco's stories again, and the tears only came at parting—and then not at all. But now the stories included another set—how they would find the agents of Duke Visconti; get Mama's message to them. The original paper was long gone, but the contents resided intact in Marco's head—and what Marco memorized was there for good and all. That was why Mama had taken him everywhere with her—when she'd ask later, he'd recite what had been said and done. And just as a precaution, Marco had made plenty of copies of that paper over the last two years. He made a new one as soon as the previous copy began deteriorating, and kept it with him at all times, mostly hidden on his raft. One day, they'd get that message back to Milan—and the Visconti would rescue them, take them home to Milan, and train them to be noblemen. Benito hadn't liked that story as much as the tales about the steelworks in Ferrara, and the doings of their grandfather the famous Old Fox, but it had comforted Marco.


When had Benito started scrounging for him? Marco wrinkled his brow in thought, and picked at the splintery beams under him, staring at the stars reflected in the wavelets in the harbor. Must have been that winter—that was it; when he'd showed up, as usual, in nothing but his trousers, shivering, and pretending he wasn't cold. Benito had looked at him sharply, then cuddled up real close, and not just for his own comfort; he'd put his little body between Marco and the wind. Next meeting, Benito'd brought a woolen cloak—old, faded, snagged, and torn, but better than anything Marco could get in the Jesolo. After that he'd never come to a meeting empty-handed, though Marco refused to ask him for anything.


Lord knew he needed those meetings himself; needed the comfort, needed to hold someone, to talk to somebody sane. Chiano and Sophia were only sane sometimes. He'd needed company even more than the material comforts Benito brought, and he needed those desperately.


* * *

He waited. And waited. But before the largest bell at San Marco pealed, he had to leave to cross the lagoon. The uncertainty and fear it brought gnawed at him.


As he always did at times like this, he thought about magic. Chiano was a magician—a master of his craft, if one believed the stories he told when he was around Marco and felt no need to be cautious, or the cheap rotgut he brewed went to his head. Perhaps no one but Marco and Sophia did, though, because he never used magic much anymore. "Too dangerous," he said, and it went without saying that he was probably right. Someone had certainly tried to kill Chiano, leaving him wandering senseless in the marshes, and his magic hadn't protected him any. Of course, if the people who'd beaten him had been wearing steel armor, his magic wouldn't have been much use against them.


Chiano claimed that people—other magicians—could tell when magicians were casting a spell, what kind it was, where the magician was, and even who was doing the casting. That was why it was too dangerous for him to use magic unless there was no other choice. But then, there was Marco.


Marco could be a magician; that's what Chiano said. He was perfectly willing to teach Marco everything he knew. There was just one little problem with that: Chiano was Strega, and Marco was Christian—and not just any Christian, but one who had been indoctrinated by his mother in the Pauline creed. It was a sin for any Pauline who was not an ordained priest to dabble in magic, for only a priest was sufficiently armored in holiness to withstand the blandishments of the Evil One, who was always on the watch for magicians to tempt them into using their powers for selfish purposes. It was, according to everything Marco had been taught, a short step from selfishness into real, black sin. And it was doubly, triply, impossible for a true Christian to even think of using Strega magic. Marco was already deep enough in sin as it was, associating with the pagans.


But life would have been so much easier with the help of a little magic . . . a little magic to tease the fish into his traps, a little magic to keep him warm in the winter, a little magic to protect him—


No, he told himself. That was temptation, and behind temptation was the Evil One. Surely God was watching him—well, maybe not God, but an angel, anyway—watching and waiting to see if he fell; and if he fell, washing His hands of Marco, who was not strong enough to resist so minor a temptation.


But oh, it was hard, hard to resist at times like these.


The sounds of Solstice Feast drifted over the water; over there, people thronged the waterways, the streets, the plazas, everyone wearing some sort of mask, even if they couldn't afford a costume. People who had saved all year for this time were stuffing themselves with fatty sausages, bread, rich bean soup, Salame, Mortadella, Cotechino, still-steaming loaves of ciabbata, thick fragrant zuppa di fagioli—


Don't think of food!


With Lent on the horizon, they were throwing themselves into pleasure.


Pleasure leads to temptation, and temptation to sin, he reminded himself. But even Mama's stern Dell'este family had enjoyed Solstice Feast. And when Mama had come here to Venice, she had made certain that at Solstice Feast there had been masks and costumes for all three of them, and that at least once during the three days of the festival they had all gone out together, to see the stilt-walkers, the jugglers, the musicians, even a puppet-show or a play. She always seemed to know what great house was giving away food after a feast, too—wonderful food, bread as white as could be, soaked with the juice of the meat the great folks had eaten, piecrust heavy with gravy with bits of mushroom and venison clinging to it, the broken sweetmeats of marchpane and sweet cake—


Don't think of food!!


Faintly the sound of singing floated over the marsh, and Marco bit his lip, overwhelmed for a moment by loneliness. Don't think of Mama either.


There were thousands of people over there, across the lagoon, and somewhere among them was Benito, probably enjoying himself as only Benito could, with or without money.


With never a thought for the death that might be, even now, stalking his path.


 


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