Back | Next
Contents


Chapter 3

"You are afraid, old man."


The undine called Etheria stared at Chiano with her flat golden eyes, and challenged him to deny his fear. He couldn't. He could only hang his head and nod.


"I am afraid," he admitted. It was always better to admit the truth to the elemental creatures, at least the ones that he had regular congress with. Some of them were damnably good at ferreting out lies. He stared at his dirty, bare feet, at the grasses and reeds of the hummock on which he perched, and heard the undine sigh.


"You should be afraid," she said, grudgingly, and he looked up. She settled her arms and upper back against the hummock across from him, looking like some odd and exotic courtesan relaxing upon the divan in her salon. Her hair was just beginning to dry along her hairline, and it frizzed out in little filamentous green kinked strands.


"Tell me, please?" he asked, humbly. Humility; it was a new emotion to him, or rather, new to the person he had begun to reassemble from the bits and pieces of his past. He remembered the confidence, bordering on arrogance. What do the Christians say? Pride goeth before a fall.


Etheria didn't show emotions in the way that a human would, for the undine's face was less mobile, more fishlike—but she was clearly as afraid as he was. "First—there are things, evil things that can change their shape, in the lagoon, snooping about the Jesolo, and in the canals. There have always been such things, but more often now; and much, much more evil. At first, we think, they looked for you, but you worked little magic, very little, and they may believe you are no more. Now they prowl more freely—when we do not find them first." She bared her sharklike teeth. "They are no match for us. But we think that one day, perhaps soon, something stronger will come."


Chiano shuddered. "Why?"


The undine studied him. "There is more blood in the water, of late. More bodies. There is more fear on the water; we can taste it, hear it in the voices of the fishermen, the boatmen. The world of you humans is fragmenting, and we do not know why." She licked her lips, but not in anticipation. "When you mortals are at war, we suffer too, for your world affects ours. As below, so above."


"As above, so below," Chiano sighed. He knew. Whatever happened in the spirit world was reflected in the material world, and vice versa. If there was trouble here below, there would be trouble in their world as well. If something evil came to prey upon humans, evil that preyed upon those who were not human would be attracted. Unnatural death brought unnatural destruction.


"The Silvani—can they tell me anything more?" he asked at last, when it was clear that Etheria had nothing more to give him.


"Perhaps. I know of one who will come if I do call her. And you might be wise not to call one yourself." At last the undine's expression softened. "It is little enough for all that you have done for me and mine."


He reached for the taloned hand she offered. "There will be no talk of debts between us, sister-of-the-waters. Perhaps—"


"When you have found yourself again," the undine said firmly. "You must find yourself again."


She took her cool hand from his, patted him on the head as if he was a child, and slipped beneath the water. Left to await the Silvani, Chiano shook like a reed in the wind. Again. Again that call to "find myself." His memories were still clouded; there were still key fragments missing, things that might protect him so that he could work magics safely again. He had known so much—and now it was all in pieces, shattered, and somehow he had to put the pieces together again. Someone had feared him enough to want him dead, and the self-confident and—yes, arrogant—person he remembered being was the sort who could attract such enemies. He who was Grimas of stregheria, the master of the three magics of stars, moon and earth—yes, evil would come looking for him, and he was bound to combat it. But he was a warrior whose sword lay shattered, his shield broken in two, and his courage beaten to the ground.


But he could pray; he could still pray.


Carmina, Agenoria, help me find my skills again! Fortuna, guard me! Nortia, give me back my memories! Fana and Fanus, Tana and Tanus, Jana and Janus, restore what I once had, and oh Aradia, help me protect this place again!


He hugged his knees to his chest and rocked back and forth in an agony of fear and longing—the longing to be himself again, and the fear of what must surely follow if he ever regained what he had lost. He didn't notice the Silvani until she brushed against his hair and blew into his face to attract his attention.


Then he looked up. If he had not had such an affinity with water-creatures, the Silvani surely would have been his favorites; they appeared as lovely girls, not more than two feet tall, dressed all in red and winged. This one hovered just barely above the water, wings blurring to keep her there, and regarded him with wide eyes.


"What would you, old man?" she whispered. "I think I know you."


"I wish that I remembered," he replied sadly. "Just—of your courtesy, what do you know of the evil our friend tells me is abroad in the city?"


"More than I wish to," she replied in a breath. "Something terrible has come, bound in a strong box of iron and guarded by men in steel, hedged about with spell and sword. We dare draw no nearer to it than the island on which it dwells."


For once, he felt a stirring of hope. There were enough Christian mages in the city, surely there was no need for one broken old man! "If it is hedged about—" he began.


"The hedges are . . . peculiar," the Silvani said, frowning severely. "And among the guardians at least one is unclean. Perhaps more." The Silvani looked so human it was easy to read their expressions, and this one assumed an air of pleading. "Let me speak for those of the air, the Silvani, the Laura, the Folletti and Folletto—you must come again into your powers! The path of the future is shrouded, and the one who veils it from us is—" She shivered, and clearly was not willing to say more.


Well, he could hardly blame her. He suspected he knew the name she would not speak, even though he could not remember it himself. Did not, indeed, want to remember it. But he had a momentary image of something huge and monstrous, squatting in a dark forest littered with rotting tree stumps and shattered bones, devouring . . .


The image fled. Or, perhaps, he fled from it.


"Thank you," he said, his spirits sinking. There was no choice then; it would be more of the rue and the fennel and the fly agaric; more of the visions to sort through looking for what was memory and what was hallucination . . .


The Silvani took his thanks as a farewell, and vanished, leaving him once more alone.


* * *

Chiano remained on the hummock for some time thereafter, thinking through his course of action. By sunset, he had come to one definite conclusion.


He would have to take steps to protect Marco. He could sense that the boy would not remain in the Jesolo for much longer. In the marshes, Chiano had been able to shield the boy as well as shelter him. The marsh locos were afraid of Chiano—Chiano, and his undine friends. The undines would not voluntarily leave the water, true. And so what? No dweller in the Jesolo could avoid approaching the water, within easy reach of a lurking undine. Not even crazed and vicious Big Gianni was willing to risk their anger.


But if Marco returned to the city, the undines would be of no use. The elemental creatures rarely even entered the canals, for they found the city's waters very unpleasant. And they would not be able to protect the boy, anyway, from the perils he would encounter there.


Not now, for a certainty. Venice would have been dangerous for Marco under any circumstances. But now, with a new assassination attempt having been launched against him, the city was ten times more dangerous than ever. Chiano's memory was still too fragmented to understand the exact nature of that danger. But, in truth, that hardly mattered. Chiano had long ago understood Marco's true identity. For that boy, with that lineage, deadly threats could come from any direction.


No, the undines would no longer make suitable guardians. City assassins were not marsh locos. They did not have to perch by the water every day for their sustenance.


And . . . Chiano was not ready yet—if he would ever be—to return himself.


So. Practical steps. If necessary, bloody steps. And he had the perfect instrument for the task, right here at hand in the marshes. In that, too, he understood, the Goddess was giving him a sign. And a gentle warning: no more softness.


He even understood, to a degree, the Goddess's insistent and unusual hardness. Marco had to be protected. Not so much for his own sake, but for that of Venice. Chiano wasn't sure exactly why—yet—but he knew it was so. From the very first moment he had laid eyes on Marco, he had seen the great shadow which the slender boy cast in the spirit world. Venice would need that shadow, some day, of that he was certain. And he was certain of it because Chiano himself cast a similar shadow—or had once, at least. But never as wide, never as broad, never as deep.


Chiano sighed. He knew what to do, and how to do it. Even though that doing was . . . distasteful. Even, in the end, perhaps wicked.


No more softness, old man!


* * *

Oh yes, and he'd gotten his little tail well scorched, had the former Swiss mercenary turned fanatic assassin. Fortunato Bespi had been dying when the undines had fished him out and brought him to Chiano. It would have made a pretty wager, whether shock or drowning would have gotten him first.


Neither did. Chiano and Sophia had patched him up and kept him dosed against fever. He had been bleeding from blade wounds, and burned all over. From what Chiano and Sophia had been able to piece together from the man's semi-incoherent ravings, he had fought off his assailants until they set fire to the house he had barricaded himself in. Even then, apparently, the man had been able to escape and try to find shelter in the marshes, which were the traditional refuge for Venice's outcasts and outlaws.


Eventually, Chiano had been able to glean his identity from the ravings. And, when he did, had come very close to killing the man himself.


Fortunato Bespi! Of all men! If Sophia hadn't restrained him, Chiano would probably have rolled the man back into the waters. This time, with his throat slit and a weight around his ankles.


Fortunato Bespi! Even with his broken memory, Chiano had recognized the name immediately.


Bespi was notorious. Perhaps the best—certainly the most ruthless—Montagnard assassin in all of northern Italy. A fanatic, by all accounts. A true believer, not simply a sellsword. A man so dangerous that, apparently, the Montagnards themselves had decided to kill him. Such, at least, was the explanation Chiano had eventually deduced from the words Bespi muttered in the days of his slow healing.


But . . . Sophia had been firm. So she and Chiano had hidden the badly injured man on one of the firmer reed-islands, under a basket made to look like a reed-hummock. Sophia, with her own eccentric "theology," had insisted that the spirits had brought Bespi to them for a purpose. And, over time, Chiano had come to half-believe it himself.


And was glad he had, for it was now clear that Sophia had been right all along. Who better to guard Marco from assassins than Fortunato Bespi?


It remained only to . . . begin the transformation. And he needed to begin immediately, because the transformation would take many weeks to complete.


* * *

Chiano found Bespi where he expected to find him—squatting on his little island in the reeds, staring at an insect. Bespi did very little else, since he'd finally begun recovering from his injuries. He stared at everything; studied the most insignificant things for hours on end. A man betrayed by the cause he had devoted his life to was trying, Chiano understood, to find meaning in something. Even if it was only the reason that an insect climbed a stalk of grass.


Chiano made no attempt to approach silently. It would have been pointless, anyway. Whatever else Bespi had lost, he had certainly not lost his assassin's reflexes and senses. By the time Chiano appeared in the little clearing where Bespi squatted, the former assassin was awaiting his arrival. Staring at him with the same intentness he stared at everything.


Bespi wanted reasons. Chiano would give them to him.


He held out his hand. "You must begin to eat these also now. With the other food we bring you."


Bespi's burn-scarred face held no expression. He simply stared at the fly agaric and belladonna in Chiano's outstretched palm. He said nothing.


"You are not who you think you are," continued Chiano softly. "I have discovered your true name and your true purpose, in my visions. Now you must discover them also. These will help."


He said nothing further. Simply allowed Bespi the time to examine the possibility of reasons.


Eventually, as Chiano had known he would, Bespi reached out and took the substances. He did not ingest them, simply held them in a loose fist. But Chiano knew that Bespi would begin eating them with his next meal.


There was no expression on the assassin's face. Chiano had not expected to see one. Bespi was an empty man; Chiano would fill him.


He felt some qualms in so doing, but not many. It was, after all, mostly a change in orientation, not in nature. This, without a doubt, was what the Goddess had intended when She'd caused Bespi to be stranded out here. Chiano was sure of it. He rose, and began to turn away. He would return later that night, once Bespi was well into the trance, and begin the transformation.


Bespi's first and only words that day stopped him. "What is my true name, then?" he asked, in a whisper. "They told me it was Fortunato Bespi."


Chiano hesitated. Then, squared his shoulders and turned back to meet the hollow eyes. "They lied. Your true name is Harrow."


"A hard name," murmured Bespi. His lips seemed to tighten. But not with distaste so much as—anticipation.


 


Back | Next
Framed