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Chapter 5

When Marco returned, there was no Benito at the dock—just a scrap of dirty paper wedged beneath it. Got a job. Come tamarra. Which left Marco to go back to his hide again, wondering if the "job" was a real task, or something Benito made up so he could enjoy another night of the festival.


Or . . . a ruse to lure Benito into the clutches of Them. Surely not. Surely They wouldn't go to all that trouble. Surely Benito would smell a rat if they tried.


By this time, Marco felt faint with hunger, and on his way back to shelter spotted a lone marsh-mallow just at the edge of what he knew to be dangerous mire. He took a chance, and worked his way out to it—but he had to stop just out of reach, when the hungry mud beneath the water sucked at his foot and nearly pulled him down. He stared at it in despair. He hadn't eaten in two days now. . . .


There was no way to reach it.


Choking on tears of frustration, he turned his back on the tantalizing plant, and headed for the hide again.


He crawled inside, too cold to shiver, wrapped a scrap of blanket around himself, and waited for the sun to warm the hide a little. There was just enough room under the lumpy dome for him and a few precious belongings. Sunlight filtered through the mass of enmeshed weeds at the entrance as he got feeling back into his toes and feet. Finally, for lack of anything else to do, he picked through his packets of herbs and oddments to see if he might have left a scrap of food in there.


Nothing. Except a single fishhook and a bit of line, left from the times he had something to bait the hook with.


He paused, with his hand over the packet.


It wouldn't be much of a sin. Maybe not any sin. Even in Milan—


Even in Pauline-dominated Milan, fishermen got blessings on their nets to increase their catch.


But he wasn't a priest, to give such a blessing.


On the other hand, if he passed out from hunger, he wouldn't be able to warn Benito.


Saint Peter—you were a fisherman! Blessed Saint Peter, send me a sign!


There was an angry squawk and a commotion just outside and above his hide—a thump, a splash—


He shoved his head and arm outside, just in time to wave frantically at the gull about to recapture its dinner from the water at his door—lost in a fight with the other two gulls circling overhead. He snatched the hand-sized gray mullet out of the water and withdrew back into his protection as the gull stabbed at him with its beak.


Thank you, Saint Peter!


He took his knife and worried slivers of flesh from the bony fish, eating them raw, and thankful that once again he had been saved from committing a sin.


* * *

He spent a terrible, anxious, miserable day in the hide, not even prepared to go and share his fear with Chiano and Sophia. With the dusk he was off to wait again.


* * *

This time he was rewarded. There was a pad of bare feet overhead—then tiny sounds that marked someone who knew what he was doing and where he was going, climbing down among the crossbeams.


"Hi, brother?" Benito's whisper.


"Right here."


"Be right with you." A bit of scratching, a rasp of wood on cloth and skin, and someone slipped in beside him with a quick hug, and then pulled away.


"Riot out there tonight. Sorry about yesterday. I couldn't get here in time. I tried but I got held up."


"Benito—I've got to go under cover again. One of Them nearly got me yesterday. Assassin. He was waiting for me, Benito. He knew who I was and where I was going. It has to be Them."


Swift intake of breath. "God—no! Not after all this time! How'd you get away?"


"I just—outran him." Don't let him know what really happened. He'll think he has to share the danger. Marco had been careful never to let his brother even guess that he'd had to kill—and more than once.


"All right." The voice in the dark took on a new firmness. "That's it. You're not gonna run any more, big brother. Running don't cut it. You need a protector, somebody with weight."


"Get serious!" Marco answered bitterly. "Where am I going to find somebody willing to stand up for me?"


Benito chuckled. "Been thinking about that. New man in town—got contacts, got weight—everywhere, seems like. Been watching him."


"Big fat deal—what reason is he going to have to help me?"


"Name's Aldanto. Caesare Aldanto. Familiar?"


Marco sucked in his breath. "Lord and Saints . . ."


"Thought I 'membered," Benito replied with satisfaction.


Marco did indeed remember that name—it went all the way back to their being exiled to Venice, an exile that Grandfather Dell'este thought would take them out of the reach of Mama's pro-Milanese friends and of her lover. Caesare Aldanto had been one of the Milanese agents in Ferrara—a friend of Mama's lover Carlo Sforza. Carlo was (presumably) Benito's father—that was probably why the name 'Aldanto' had stuck so fortuitously in Benito's memory.


"You can never forget anything, brother. What's the Aldanto you saw look like?"


Marco closed his eyes and rocked back and forth a little, letting his mind drift back—Lord and Saints, he'd been a seven, maybe, eight-year-old boy—


"Blond. Pretty guy. Moved like a cat, or a dancer. Blue eyes—tall, dressed really well."


"Dunno about the eyes, but the rest is him. It's the same man. Appears to me he'd have reason to help us. Appears to me you'd want to get Mama's message to him, no?"


"Lord—" Marco said, not quite believing this turn of events. "It's—"


"Like that story you used to tell me? Yeah, well, maybe. I'm more interested in seeing you safe, and I think this Caesare Aldanto can do that. Right then, we'll go find him. Now. Tonight."


Marco started to scramble up, but Benito forestalled him. "No way you're going to pass in the town, brother. Not dressed like that."


"Oh. Yes."


"You wait here—I won't be long."


* * *

Benito thought he'd managed that rather cleverly; he thought he'd remembered Caesare Aldanto's name when he'd first heard it, and he had just been biding his time, waiting for the opportunity to get Marco to take the bait he was going to offer. The marshes were no place for Marco—sooner or later someone or something would get him. Venice was safer, by far. Besides, since he'd been thrown out from Theodoro's family, Benito had been getting lonelier and lonelier. He had friends—Lola, for instance. Well, she was sort of a friend. Mercutio, he was fun, and he looked out for Benito. But it wasn't the same as having Marco around. He wanted his big brother back!


Well, now—first things first; a set of clothing that wouldn't stand out in the Solstice crowds. Benito took to the rooftops and thought while he climbed. Nearest secondhand clothing store was close to the Palazzo Mastelli. That was the area he was hanging out in at present—no go. Off limits. He could hear Valentina now, cracking him over the ear for even thinking about it. "Never soil your own nest, boy. Rule one."


The air up here was fresher, the breeze carrying away a lot of the stink. Benito slipped around chimneypots and skylights as easily as if he'd been on a level walkway. So: the next closest was over toward the Ca' d'Oro. Old man Mirko was a stingy bastardo, too cheap to put good shutters in his windows. And the Dalmatian wouldn't miss the loss. Mirko's place it was.


He crossed the bridges on the support beams below, keeping a sharp eye out for watchers, finally getting himself up on the supports of the high-level bridge that crossed the Rio Malpaga. Mirko had a second-story window just below and to one side of it. Benito unwound the light rope and grapnel from his waist, spied a sturdy cornice, and made his cast.


Solid. He pulled three times. ("Always three times, no matter how rushed you are," came Claudia's voice from memory.) Then he swung himself over, in the shadows all the way.


Within a few minutes Mirko's shop was lighter by a pair of breeches, a shirt, and a cotte, all sized for someone thin and not over-tall, along with some other small items. And Benito was most of the way back to the wharf, dancing across the rooftops and bridge-beams like a half-grown cat.


* * *

"Huh-uh," Benito said, keeping his grip tight on the bundle he carried and handing something small to Marco instead. It shone white in the starlight. "I sto—found some soap, too. Down, brother; in the harbor. Get clean first, or they'll know you, by the smell, for marsh scum."


Marco flushed with embarrassment—living in the swamp was changing him, and in ways he didn't like. He used to be so fastidious. . . .


He grabbed the proffered soap and dropped straight down into the water next to the wharf—trying not to remember the twitching thing that had so lately floated there. He was so used to being chilled that the cold water wasn't much of a shock to his system. He soaped and rinsed and scrubbed until he thought his skin would peel off, then washed his hair three times for good measure. Benito had shinnied down to his raft and handed him back up onto it with a sniff that held approval. "Better. You smell better than a lot of canal-dwellers now. Here—"


A piece of sacking to use for a towel, and a comb. Getting the tangles out of his hair was a job—Marco had to be content with just getting most of the major knots out, and smoothing down the rest, tying it back with the piece of ribbon (Lord—ribbon!) Benito handed him. Then into the clothing—oh, heaven, clean, and warm, and not ripped in a dozen places—and even the right size. The precious Message went into his shirt pocket.


Marco stood up straight with one hand steadying himself on the piling, and felt like a human being again for the first time in years.


Benito grinned at him, teeth flashing white in his shadowed face. "Know what, brother? You clean up really pretty. I can think of a couple of girls just might like to share a blanket with you."


Marco blushed hotly, and was glad the dark hid it.


"Thought I'd warn you—because that's who we're going to go see first."


They took to the rooftops, much to Marco's bewilderment; oh, he still remembered how to climb, he was fast and agile enough to keep up—but why not take the walkways openly? And—where had Benito gotten this kind of expertise in roof-scrambling?


It was more of a maze in Venice-above than it was in Venice-below. If there was a level space up here on the roofs that was more than three feet square, it was a rarity. "Up here" was a work of towers, cupolas, skylights, and spires. Benito danced along the spines of peaked roofs and jumped from structure to structure as if he were half cat. Marco followed as best he could. He was just lucky that "above" also sported rain gutters and collection pipes on every surface, for without these aids he'd never have been able to emulate Benito. From time to time Benito would half-start toward something Marco knew was unclimbable—then glance back as if suddenly remembering his brother's presence and choose some easier path. Marco couldn't help but wonder what he'd have done if Marco hadn't been there.


Benito paused on the roof edge overlooking the bridge across the Rio della Misericordia. Balancing carefully, he scrutinized the bridge and its attendant walkways.


"Looks good," he said finally, in a whisper. "If anybody followed, they've lost us. Come on." And he shinnied down a drainpipe to the walk below them. Marco followed suit. Shielded torches on the bridge danced and smoked; they were placed so far apart they did more harm than good. There seemed to be no one about in this area, and their bare feet made no sound on the bridge, which contributed to the gloomy atmosphere.


"From here we go to Rio Del Servi, then down by the Maddalena—just in case we get separated," Benito said in an undertone, moving uncomfortably fast for Marco, who was accustomed to poling a raft rather than walking. "The ladies I want to talk to should be in a tavern called Barducci's on the Rio di San Marina—it's down on the water. There'll be a lot of canalers tied up at it. Got that?"


Marco nodded, saving his breath.


"Good, because once we get to the Maddalena, we'll be going up again."


They didn't get separated, but Marco was weary and aching by the time they stood at the tavern door. And confused, and lost. Only rarely had they crossed bridges by the normal paths—more often they'd scrambled underneath on the cross beams, or worse, inched along the support cables overhead. It made good sense in a way—for surely no one would ever have been able to follow them—but Marco was thoroughly exhausted by the time they reached their goal.


They descended to the walkway, cold and wet under their bare feet, and walked decorously enough to the wooden porch that marked Barducci's front entrance. There were boats tied up here, and lanterns everywhere; light and noise and confusion that dazzled Marco's eyes and made him more than a little nervous. The water of the canal looked very black and cold compared with all that light and warmth, and Marco found himself hoping they weren't going to find out just how cold it was.


There was a food-smell; waves of garlic from the bruschetta toasting over the charcoal, grilling Sarde, and the heady bouquet of young red wine. There was smoke, little wisps of it, from the lanterns. There was more smoke from the charcoal grill. There was sound—people laughing, talking, arguing, and singing. Most of all, singing. Just as they got to the wooden porch a great roar of a chorus bounced out of the open door and off the brick of the wall opposite.


"Hoo—they're rabble-rousing tonight, for sure!" Benito grinned. "They best hope there ain't no Schiopettieri around!" Somewhat to Marco's surprise, he was talking just like the canalers, chameleonlike acquiring the coloration of his surroundings.


Marco began to make out some of the lyrics. Benito had the right of it. The song skirted just the high side of treason—but oddly enough, he couldn't identify what faction the song was in favor of.


"Valentina and Claudia and they ain't on anybody's side." Benito elbowed his way in through front door, with Marco trailing warily behind. "They just like to rile people up, I guess."


The tavern room was hot and redolent with the bouquet of food, drink and humanity; crammed full, every table and chair occupied and people jammed in against the walls. The objects of their attention were perched on the bar, grinning insolently and singing for all they were worth. Their voices were amazingly strong and clear; Marco could hear them long before he could see them.


Benito finally wormed a place for them in beside the bar, and Marco managed to get a good view under someone's elbow. They were something to stare at, were Valentina and Claudia, though which was which he couldn't guess. One was playing a lute, her hands moving on the strings so fast Marco could hardly credit his eyes. She seemed the older of the two by five, maybe ten years. The other was setting up a complicated pattern on a couple of hand drums, but Marco could see a mandola leaning up against the bar next to her. Both had dark, nearly black, straight hair, tied around with red scarves. The older one wore hers long, past her shoulders, the younger, shorter than Benito's. Both had sharp features and ironic grins. Both were wearing flounced red-patterned skirts. Both had pale, pale skin—as if they didn't see the sun much.


And both of them were wearing at least three knives that Marco could see.


"Hope they get the crowd calmed down before they finish up," Benito muttered, "or with this lot, half-drunk as they are, no tellin' what they might do."


To Marco's relief they did just that, finishing up at last with something melancholy enough that one or two of the more sodden customers began sniffling into their wine. Then, ignoring demands for more, they picked up their instruments and hopped off the bar. Benito waved at them. The older one spotted him and motioned him over. Seeing that he'd been summoned by one of their darlings, the crowd parted politely so that the two boys could make their way to the singers' tiny table, crowded into a cramped nook to one side of the bar itself. There was barely room for both women, the boys and the instruments.


The older one reached over the table and tweaked Benito's nose. "Where've y' been, cull? Y' haven't been here since the Feast started—we was beginnin' t' think y' didn't love us no more."


"Out an' about, earnin' a wedge or two. You tryin' t' get yourselves invited down to the Doge's torture chambers? What'f there'd been Schiopettieri around?"


"Huh, Schiopettieri are all dead drunk by now. Besides there's a crow on the door. That's the latest ballad out of Syracuse."


"With additions by you, Valentina, I got no doubt," Benito snorted. "The Servants don't hold with Moorish music, y'know, and they say the Doge is favoring 'em these days. God rot th' senile old fool. Ye're gonna find yourself at nubbing cheat, an' not because of what y' do outside the walls."


"Listen to the kitten, telling the old cats how to prowl!" the younger woman crowed. "Who taught you, hmm? Ins and outs, ups and downs—"


Benito cleared his throat with a sideways glance toward Marco—and only then did the women seem to see him.


"Well! Who's this? Can't be related to you, kid—he's too pretty."


Marco felt his ears burning.


"This, Valentina, is my brother . . . Marco. You know."


"Oh-ho. Brought him out of hiding, hmm? And y' need something, I don't doubt. Make him someone's cousin?" Claudia—the older woman—caught Marco's chin in one long, sharp-nailed hand, and turned his face from side to side, examining it closely. "Just feeding him'd do. I'd think a little flesh on him, and no one'd tumble to 'im."


Benito shook his head. "No go. He needs more; needs protection, needs somebody with weight backing 'im. So I'm askin'—you seen that pretty blond—the one that ain't from these parts—in here lately?"


Claudia shook her head, letting go of Marco's chin. "Not me. Valentina-love?"


She too shook her head. "No. Know who would, though—that canal-rat that used't work for Antonio. Maria Garavelli. She's living with him, people say."


"Oh, no—" It was Benito's turn to shake his head. "Ain't messin' with that one. That Maria keeps an eye on 'im; push him, she'll know—I damn sure don't want her knowin' I'm trying to touch her man. She's got a nasty way with folks as bothers 'im."


"Point," Valentina agreed. "All right. Best I can say is try that runner-girl of yours, Lola. She's been doin' runs down along where he mostly seems t' hang out—'specially lately."


* * *

A fistfight broke out across the room, interrupting them. For a few seconds it remained confined to the original two combatants—but a foot in the wrong place tripped one up and sent him into a table and its occupants—and things began to spread from there.


Valentina and Claudia exchanged glances filled with unholy glee.


"Shall we?"


"Let's—"


With reverent care, they handed their instruments to the bartender, who placed them safely behind the wooden bulwark. They divested themselves of knives—this was a fistfight, after all—then charged into the fray with joyful and total abandon.


"Women," Benito said, shaking his head ruefully. "Well, at least they'll come out of that with full pockets. Back way, brother." Marco followed him outside with no regret.


Benito led the way again, back over the rooftops, climbing towers and balconies, inching over drainpipes and across the support beams of bridges until Marco was well and truly lost yet again. Fatigue was beginning to haze everything, and he hadn't the least notion where in Venice he could be—except that by the general run of the buildings, they were still in the lower-class section of town. When Benito finally stopped and peered over a roof edge, Marco just sat, closing his eyes and breathing slowly, trying to get his wind back, with a gutter biting into his bony haunches.


"Hi!" he heard Benito call softly, "Lola!"


There was the sound of feet padding over to stand beneath where Benito leaned over the edge. "Benito?" answered a young female voice. "You in trouble?"


"No. Just need to find someone."


By now Marco had recovered enough to join Benito in peering over the roof edge. On the walkway just below him was a child—certainly younger than Benito, pretty in the way that an alley-kitten is pretty.


"I'm waiting," she said, and "Oh!" when she saw Marco.


Benito shook his head at the question in her glance. "Not now. Later, promise. Gotta find that blond you're droolin' after."


She looked incensed. "I ain't drooling after him! I just think he's—nice."


"Yeah, and Valentina just sings cute little ballads. You know where he is?"


She sniffed. "I shouldn't tell you. . . ."


"Oh c'mon! Look—I promise I'll give you that blue scarf of mine—just tell."


"Well, all right. He's in Antonio's over on the Rio della Frescada. I just run a message over there and I saw him. I think he's going to be there awhile."


"Hot damn!" Benito jumped to his feet, and skipped a little along the edge of the coppo tiles while Marco held his breath, expecting him to fall. "Bright-eyes, you just made my day!"


* * *

Benito had traded on the fact that he was a known runner in order to get into Antonio's. It wasn't a place Marco would have walked into by choice. The few faces he could see looked full of secrets, and unfriendly. They approached the table that Aldanto had taken, off in the darkest corner of the room, Benito with all the aplomb of someone who had every right to be there, even if he was only fourteen years old. Marco just trailed along behind, invisible for all the attention anyone paid him. The place was as dark as Barducci's had been well lit; talk was murmurous, and there was no one entertaining. Marco was not at all sure he wanted to be here.


"Milord—" Benito had reached Aldanto's table, and the man looked up when he spoke. Marco had no difficulty in recognizing the Caesare Aldanto from Ferrara. Older, harder—but the same man. "Milord, I got a message for you—but—it ain't public."


Aldanto looked at him. Startled at first, then appraisingly. He signaled a waiter, and spoke softly into the man's ear; the man murmured something in reply, picked up the dishes that had been on Aldanto's table, and motioned them to follow.


The waiter led them all to a tiny room, with barely room for more than a table and a few chairs in it—but it had a door and the door shut softly behind them. Aldanto seated himself at the table and put down his wine glass. The way he positioned himself, the boys had to stand with him seated between them and the door. The lantern that lit the room was on the wall behind Aldanto's head and made a sunblaze out of his hair.


"I'm waiting," was all he said.


"Milord, my brother's got information that you might be able to use—it might be you and him know the same people. We want to sell it."


He poked Marco with his elbow. Marco shook himself into awareness.


"Information?" Aldanto did not look amused. "What on earth could you two have that would be of any use to me?"


"Milord, somebody thinks it's important. My brother has been having to hide out in the marshes because somebody thought it was important enough to kill my mother, but she passed it on to Marco here. See, we know who you are. We know where you're from. We reckoned you would be the right man to know what he's got. And we figured you'd be the best man to pay our price—and that's to keep him safe after he's told you."


The blond man began to look angry. "If this is some kind of a scam—"


"Brother," Marco said clearly and distinctly, "the viper strikes." It was the password of those in the service of the Milanese Duke Visconti.


Aldanto, who had just taken a mouthful of wine, coughed and practically choked.


Marco took the most recent of his precious copies of The Message from his shirt pocket and handed it to him.


* * *

Hazed with fatigue, Marco was blind to Aldanto's reactions—but Benito wasn't.


Within a few moments, Benito had figured Aldanto was not pleased with their recognition of him as a Milanese agent. Moments after that he knew by the worried look that Aldanto wasn't working for Duke Visconti anymore.


This required recalculation.


Then Aldanto's mouth began to twitch as he read the paper Marco had given him.


"Where did you come by this?"


"I told you," Benito said, stalling for time. "Our mama was something with the Milanese—passed their messages and whatall. Except somebody figured that out an' came for her, and Marco ran for the marshes to hide out with the last thing she got. Figured things were fine until he got jumped out there a day or so ago, and it weren't just any nightbird, it was an assassin. We are Valdosta; you might know the name—you might know people Mama knew—Ventuccio. You going help us out?"


"Valdosta. Well . . . well . . ." Aldanto pointed at the paper. "Nothing here for me," he said. His mouth was amused but his eyes were hard. "What you've got is an out-of-date infiltration schedule. Useless. And worthless."


* * *

Marco's mind went blank. All the hope—the plans—all in ruins; and the man Aldanto didn't seem the least bit interested in helping, much less being the shining rescuer Marco had prayed for.


"But—somebody must think I know something," he said desperately, "or why try to kill me? And why send an assassin? They could have hired one of the marsh-gangs, easy." Now all he wanted was to be able to think of something useful to Aldanto; something worth the cost of protecting both himself and Benito. It was far too late now to go back to the Jesolo marsh. "Maybe—maybe I know something someone doesn't want out—like a name, or a face—can't you use that?"


"Absolutely—Marco never forgets anything," Benito chimed in. "That's why Mama took him everywhere with her. He knows all kinds of things—things maybe still worth knowing."


"Like I remember you, milord. You were with Mama's man, Carlo Sforza—it was—around the beginning of October, I think, about nine years ago. You were wearing brown velvet, and you and Carlo talked about the bribes your father'd been paying . . ." Marco trailed off at the grim set of Aldanto's mouth.


"Besides—damned Milanese are out after us along with you," Benito interrupted, stepping hard on Marco's foot. "Mama would have sold us to slavers if they'd told her to. Duke Visconti never got us anything but trouble, and I bet it's him as sent the assassin. You need something, well, I can get it, or I know who can; I can get things done, too—get people disappeared—get you disappeared too, only less permanent. We've got connections you can't get from the Case Vecchie or the boatpeople. You need us, milord—about as much as we need you."


"Interesting. Valdosta . . ." Aldanto said, then said nothing more, obviously thinking hard. Marco turned on Benito, and tugged him into a corner of the little room.


"What the hell—"


"Truth, damn it!" Benito whispered harshly. "It's all true and you know it! Mama used you—why do you think she never paid me any attention? Theodoro's folks knew what was going on; told me too. Told me it was probably Duke Visconti's people that got Mama."


"Uh—"


"That's why they turned me out, couple of years ago. They were afraid, and I don't blame 'em. Lucky I ran into Claudia and Valentina."


"They're thieves! I know thieves cant when I hear it!"


" 'Course they're thieves! How d'you think I came by all that stuff for you? Where'd you think it came from? The Moon? I've been living in bloody attics for two years now! Look, brother—I've mostly given up thieving—the odds aren't in it. I'm a messenger now. But I couldn't get stuff for you, and feed me, on what I make running, and I wouldn't leave you without. So I stole. And I still steal. And I'll keep doin' it. 'Cause you're worth it—like Mama wasn't. Tell you what else. This Aldanto may have been Montagnard before, but he damn sure ain't now! Or didn't you notice him have a fit when you hit him with the password? Our best bet is to figure something he needs bad."


The fog began to clear from Marco's head, as Benito's words and his memory started to come together. Certain things were becoming a lot clearer than they'd ever been before.


Item: Chiano and Sophia had been trying to tell him—in gentler terms—exactly what Benito was telling him now. If three so very different people—one of them his own flesh and blood—were saying the same things about Duke Visconti and the Montagnard cause, and Mama's involvement with it, well it followed that he had probably been dead wrong and dreaming all these years.


Item: stripped of the fairy-tale glamour Mama had decked them in, Montagnards were not in the least attractive. Take the rhetoric of united Christian Empire away, and they became little more than highly trained, professional killers.


Item: they were now alone with this unhappy professional assassin, who was probably thinking that no one would miss them.


Marco looked over Benito's shoulder at Aldanto, who was contemplating them with a face of stone. Marco's blood ran colder than the spring-melt water that the Brenta carried down from the Alps.


Item: they were a liability. And Aldanto was looking at them like someone who couldn't afford liabilities.


* * *

Benito suddenly broke off, seeing Marco's face turn pale and still. "Brother—you all right?" he whispered, unable to fathom why Marco should suddenly look as if the great Lion of San Marco had come to life and confronted him. He knew that some of what he'd said was bound to come as a shock to Marco, but he hadn't thought any of it was enough to turn him white to the ears!


He shook Marco a little, beginning to feel worried. The way Marco was staring at Aldanto, sort of glassy-eyed—it wasn't like him. Marco was always the quick one, the alert one—except—


Benito went cold all over. Except when Marco had been sick . . .


* * *

Marco was watching Aldanto's eyes, the only things in his face that were showing any change. They were growing harder; and Marco's blood acquired ice crystals.


Item: they were quite likely to be dead very soon. Benito, with the panache of a fourteen-year-old unable to believe in his own mortality, had led them into dangerous and unfriendly hands—and with no way to escape. Aldanto was between them and the door, in a room barely big enough to hold all of them and the table and chairs.


Looking at those calculating eyes, Marco knew exactly what their fate was going to be. They had, at most, a few more minutes.


He forced himself to smile at his brother; he couldn't protect him from what was coming. "Nothing—just—you're right. About all of it. I've been plain stupid."


Benito shrugged. "No big deal. Everybody makes mistakes, and hell, I probably wouldn't believe anything bad anybody said about you, either."


"And I never told you how much I missed you, half." The old nickname made Benito grin. "That was even stupider. We're the team, right? So, from now on it's going be you and me—aye? All the way."


Benito dropped his pretense of adulthood and threw both arms around his brother in an affection-starved hug. Marco tightened his own arms around Benito's shoulder and stared at Aldanto, trying to beg with his eyes, and figuring that it was a lost cause before he started.


But to Marco's surprise, Caesare suddenly cleared his throat. A little sound, but the older boy started as violently as if a gun had gone off in his ear.


"You say your mother had connections with Ventuccio?"


Marco stared, unable to get his mouth to work. It was too much to comprehend—he'd expected the knife, and he'd only hoped Aldanto was good enough to make it fast and relatively painless. And then—this—


His ears roared, and little black spots danced in the air between his eyes and Aldanto's face.


"Ventuccio?" he heard himself say stupidly, as his knees suddenly liquefied on him.


* * *

Benito felt Marco start to collapse, and held him up by main force. Oh, God, please—no!


The last time Marco had done this, he'd missed the meetings for the next month; and when he finally showed up, he was pounds thinner, with eyes gone all hollow, and a rasping cough that lasted for weeks. Please, God—he begged, struggling to keep Marco on his feet long enough to pull a chair under him, don't let it be fever, he might not make it this time—and we're almost home free—


* * *

"Milord, just let me get him sat—milord, he's all right!" Marco heard Benito over the roaring in his ears, over the scrape of a chair on the floor "You don't—milord, you don't need—"


Something shoved up against the back of his legs; hands were under his armpits letting him down easy, the same strong hands then pushing his head down between his legs.


"Stay that way for a bit—" Aldanto's voice. And the roaring went away, his eyes cleared. When his head stopped spinning he looked up. Aldanto sat on his heels beside him, Benito looking frantic, trying to get between them without touching the man. "Better?"


"I—" Marco managed. "I—"


Aldanto took his chin in one hand, tilted his eyes into the light, scrutinizing them closely.


"I'm sorry, milord, I'm all right," Marco whispered, thinking, Daren't, daren't show weakness in front of this man! "Honest, I'm all right."


"You're not—but you will be."


Ignoring Benito's worried protests (Great, thought Marco dizzily, now he realizes we could be in trouble), Aldanto went to the table and brought his glass of wine to Marco, who took it with hands that shook so hard the wine slopped. Poison? No—not likely. Not when he'd had the chance to kill them easily and hadn't. An assassin as physically capable as Aldanto so obviously was, wouldn't bother with anything other than a blade. Not, at least, dealing with two poor boys in a place like this.


"Get yourself on the outside of that."


Marco sipped, the alcoholic warmth spreading from his stomach to the rest of his body. His hands stopped shaking, slowly.


"When did you last eat?"


"Eat?" Marco was taken totally by surprise by the question and the funny half smile on Aldanto's face. "Uh—I don't remember."


"Then it's been too long. Small wonder you're falling at my feet. They're reserved for women, you know."


As Marco tried to adjust to the fact that Aldanto had just made a joke, the blond man turned to Benito. He held out a piece of silver. "Go out there and get some bread and risi e bisi."


Benito scampered, and returned with a steaming bowl moments later. Some customer was going to have to wait a little longer for his dinner. The thick green rice-and-pea soup was set down, and Benito scampered off to fetch bread and a bowl of shaved Parmesan. Aldanto held out the spoon to Marco.


Marco stared at it as though it was alive, not taking it.


"Go on, eat." Aldanto pried one of Marco's hands off the glass and pressed the spoon into it. "Marco—"


God and Saints, they were saved. Marco's head spun—this time with relief.


"About the Ventuccio—"


Marco took the bread which Benito had now brought. He dipped it into the soup and took a tiny bite. He swallowed around a lump in his throat, and began.


* * *

When Marco had finished telling Aldanto all he knew and most of what he guessed, and when his knees could hold him upright again, Aldanto considered them both carefully for several long moments. Marco took advantage of his preoccupation to finish every drop of soup and every crumb of bread.


"Something must be done with you two," Aldanto said at last. "The safest you can be is in plain sight. And Ventuccio can do that better than anyone."


Marco didn't argue with him—after all, he'd just proved how poor his own judgment was. Aldanto pondered something silently for a very long time, while a young riot of shouting youths passed by outside and moved on.


"I think it's not too late to get speech of Ventuccio," Aldanto said abruptly. "It's Solstice, after all. Come along."


Before Marco could protest, before Benito could do anything more than look stunned, Aldanto had chivvied them out of the door and onto the walkway. Benito, for once, looked appropriately apprehensive, but that could easily have been because he'd run errands for Ventuccio and reckoned on being recognized there.


Aldanto had not been speaking rhetorically, for a brisk walk brought them straight to Casa Ventuccio proper.


At least he didn't take them to the main door of the great house. Instead, he led them down to a water-door, where he tapped out a sequence of knocks, and was answered.


The man who opened the door frowned ferociously when he saw who it was, but at least he listened to Aldanto's whispered words and, after a moment, nodded.


"I'll see about it," the man growled, and allowed them, grudgingly, past the door to stand waiting in the damp entry while he went away somewhere. Presently, he came back, still looking displeased, but jerked his head as a sign that they should follow. He led them down long, unlit halls of wood and stone, and finally into a room piled with ledgers that was so brightly lit Marco was blinking tears back.


Now they fronted a man Aldanto called by name, and that man was coldly angry. "You have a lot of balls, coming here, Caesare," the man spat. "And for calling me away from my guests on a night of the Feast—"


"Granted," Aldanto said coldly. "However, I think you happen to take your honor and your pledged word fairly seriously, and I have just learned that you happen to have an unpaid debt and a broken promise you might want to discharge. These boys are Valdosta. Marco and Benito Valdosta."


Marco had rarely seen words act so powerfully on someone. The man's anger faded into guilt.


"I've brought them here," Aldanto continued deliberately, "so that we can even some scales. You made a promise to Duke Dell'este, and didn't keep it. I—lost you some people. Both these kids are useful."


Now the man looked skeptical, as if he doubted Aldanto's ability to judge much of anything.


"Milord," Benito piped up, "you've used me, I know. Ask your people. I'm a messenger—a good one. I don't take bribes, I'm fast—"


"You could take him on as a staff runner and train him for bargework as he grows into it. And the older boy clerks," Aldanto continued.


"You don't expect me to take that on faith!"


Marco took a deep breath and interrupted. "Set me a problem, milord. Nothing easy. You'll see."


The man sniffed derisively, then rattled off something fast; a complicated calculation involving glass bottles—cost, expected breakage, transportation and storage, ending with the question of how much to ask for each in order to receive a twenty-percent profit margin.


Marco closed his eyes, went into his calculating-trance, and presented the answer quickly enough to leave the man with a look of surprise on his face.


"Well!" said the man. "For once . . . I don't suppose he can write, too?"


Aldanto had a funny little smile. "Give him something to write with." He seemed to be enjoying the man's discomfiture.


Marco was presented with a quill pen and an old bill of lading. He appropriated a ledger to press on, and promptly copied the front onto the back, and in a much neater hand.


"You win," the man said with resignation. "Why don't you tell me exactly what's been going on—and how you managed to resurrect these two?"


Aldanto just smiled.


The man took Aldanto off somewhere, returning after a bit with a troubled look and a bundle, which he handed to Benito.


"You, boy—I want you here at opening time sharp, and in this uniform. And you're not Valdosta anymore, forget that name. You're Oro; you're close enough to the look of that family. Got that?"


Benito took the bundle soberly. "Yes. Milord."


"As for you—" Marco tried not to sway with fatigue, but the man saw it anyway, "—you're out on your feet. No good to anyone until you get some rest. Besides, two new kids in one day—hard to explain. You get fed and clean, real clean. We've got a reputation to maintain. And get that hair taken care of. I want you here in two days. 'Oro' is no good for you. Make it—uh—Felluci. I don't suppose you'd rather be sent back to your family?"


"No, milord," Marco replied adamantly. "I won't put danger on them. Bad enough that it's on me."


The man shook his head. "Saints preserve—you're a fool, boy, but a brave one. Dell'este honor, is it? Well, Dell'este can usually deal with most things, too. Anyway . . . Right enough—now get out of here. Before I remember that I'm not a fool. Ventuccio honor's real enough, but it isn't that hammered steel version the Old Fox insists on."


Aldanto escorted them to the door, stopping them just inside it.


"This wasn't free—" he told Marco quietly.


"Milord. I know that, milord."


"Just so we both know, I'm going to be calling in this debt—calling in all those things you promised me. I may call it in so often that you'd wish you'd never thought of coming to me."


"Milord Aldanto," Marco replied, looking him full in the eyes, "I owe you. And I can't ever pay it all."


"Well . . ." Aldanto seemed slightly embarrassed. "They say the one who wins is the one who is left standing, so by all counts you came out of this a winner. Be grateful—and remember to keep your mouth shut."


Marco figured that that was the best advice he'd had in a long time.


* * *

Benito hauled Marco back to Valentina and Claudia before taking him "home." The Marco that came from their hands was much shorter of hair by a foot or two; and a bit darker of complexion—not to mention a lot cleaner and with a good hot breakfast in his stomach. It wasn't quite dawn when he and his brother climbed up to the garret where Benito had made his home. Benito gave him a pair of blankets to roll up in, and he was sleeping the sleep of the exhausted before Benito had gotten into his store clothes. Benito smiled to himself, a smile warm and content with the world, and set to one last task before heading back to Ventuccio.


He pried up a particular board in the attic, felt around until he located the little bag he had hung there, and pulled it out. Caesare's woman Maria Garavelli was bound to hear of this—and he reckoned he'd better have a peace offering. And there was that scarf he'd taken off that duelist to prove to Claudia that he was able.


* * *

After the Ventuccio let him go for the day, he waited under the Ponto di Rialto knowing she'd be by. When he spotted her, he swung down to hang from the support by his knees.


He whistled. She looked up.


"Maria—" he called. "Peace, huh? Truce? Okay? Here's something for sorrys." He'd knotted a pebble into one corner of the scarf—and it was a nice one; silk, bright red. He dropped it neatly at her feet, and scrambled back up before she could get over her surprise. With Maria Garavelli it was a good idea to get out of the line-of-sight and find out about reactions later.


Besides—he warmed to the thought—he had to get back home. His family was waiting. And once they'd eaten there was a bit of swimming he'd promised to do for that smuggler-girl.


 


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