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Chapter 6

What was that about? wondered Maria. She stared after Benito's rapidly receding form, pausing for a moment in her rowing of the gondola.

"Peace?" "Truce?" I didn't know there was a fight between me and Benito in the first place. If there is . . . we'll see whether there's a truce or not!

Maria Garavelli looked at the bright rectangle of silk lying on her duckboards and bent down and rescued the precious scrap before it got wet. It was the expensive color that dyers called golden flame or oriflamme. It was just the color of the evening sun-trail on the water of the lagoon. She shook her head clear of these impractical thoughts. Honestly! Sometimes she behaved as she was some Case Vecchie lady, instead of a canal-girl.

That bridge-brat Benito . . . He hung about with young Mercutio Laivetti. Mercutio was Trouble if she'd ever met trouble, and you didn't get to be sixteen as an orphaned girl on the canals of Venice without being good at spotting it. She'd fended for herself for three years since Mama died, leaving her nothing but the gondola. Cousin Antonio had offered to let her move in with them, but heaven knew there were enough mouths to feed there. Saint Hypatia! And his wife was the worst shrew and gossip in all Venice. Maria pulled a wry face and tucked the silk scarf into the top of her blouse. She went back to sculling.

Some of that gossip was about her in the last few months, she was sure. The cousins didn't approve of Caesare. They really, really didn't approve of her living with him. It wasn't just that they weren't married. A fair number of Caulker-guild brides, those of the Garavelli cousins among them, had tried for the reputation of having been the most pregnant at the altar. Cousin Rosina had looked as if she might just have to get the priest to help with the delivery! But Caesare came from above the salt. The Garavelli were artisans. Mostly caulkers, cladding Venice's great ships. They had a pride in working with their hands and not much liking or trust for a man who didn't.

She worked the oar just a bit faster. The only reason that bridge-brat Benito could have been giving her a silk scarf—a stolen silk scarf, she'd bet—was something to do with her Caesare. She set her mouth in a grim line. Scarf or no scarf, she'd sort that Benito out if he'd brought trouble onto her!

All the same . . . it was a gorgeous red, that scarf. It would set off her thick dark hair beautifully. She craved for lovely things like that—not for themselves but because they'd make her look a little less like a canal-girl. Caesare was so fine. Everything about him said Case Vecchie, from the smooth, curved golden hair that looked as if it were cast in bronze, to the long white hands. Her hands were work-hardened and brown. She'd kill young Benito if he'd brought trouble.

Without even realizing it, her fists were clenched tightly on the oars. Maria Garavelli was not one to back away from a fight. She'd been fighting for most of her young life; she could say it had even begun before she was born, when her mama's own people had thrown her out for getting pregnant without the benefit of a husband. Like she'd have starved, except that she had a small boat, inherited from her grandfather, and a regular list of customers she made deliveries for, gotten on her own initiative. So Mama had worked right up through the first labor pains (so she'd said) and then headed for the canalside midwife she'd already made arrangements with, and the next day she was up and working again with Maria wrapped up in swaddling in a cradle made of half a cask.

Maria had grown up, like every other canal-brat, knowing that it was only fight and hard work that kept you that bare nail-paring away from starvation and disaster. She'd worked at Mama's side from the time she could stand, and when Mama took the fever and died, she kept right on working.

And fighting. She had to fight with the toughs who saw her as an easy mark and tried to take her cargo or her pay. She had to fight with the other canal-boat owners who tried to steal her customers with implications that a "little girl on her own" couldn't do what she'd pledged. She even had to fight Mama's family who wanted her to come work at some miserable pittance of a dead-end job for them. She had to fight the boys—relatives and canalers and toughs—who figured since her mama had been "loose," the daughter's skirts were there for lifting. They finally let her be when one of their number had to join a castrati choir when she'd finished with him.

So it was no wonder that she'd never exchanged so much as a single solitary flirtatious glance with a boy, much less had anything like a romance. Oh, she'd certainly thought enough about it. She wasn't made of wood, after all. When a good-looking tough sauntered by, flaunting himself for the admiration of the puttanas, or she'd see a wedding coming out of a church with the bride beaming—when she'd hear a snatch of song and see some love-sick student balanced precariously in a gondola, serenading a window she couldn't help thinking . . . Even, on the rare occasions that she went to Mass at Saint Lucia's and spent the entire time contemplating, not God, but the pale and beautiful face of Father Raphael—how could she not think about the ways of man-with-maid?

But she'd had no illusions, either. She knew she was hard and rough, not smooth and silky. She knew only too well that her skin was brown and weathered, not soft and pink like rose petals.

She'd had no illusions about her looks, but still—she'd had dreams she never told anyone, just cherished to herself, and played over in the theater in her head when she was halfway between waking and sleeping. Someday, some handsome fellow would drop into her life—she'd rescue him from a flood, or from footpads, or he'd hire her boat to visit some worthless, heartless bitch who would throw him over. He'd look at her, and see something in her that no one else ever had—he'd take off her cap, pull all her hair down around her face, and say, "Maria—you're beautiful!" in tones of moonstruck surprise. And he'd love her forever, and it would turn out that he was the long-lost heir to one of the Old Houses—

Oh, stupid dreams, and she would never, ever have admitted to anyone that she had them. She would never, ever have believed them, either.

Except that . . . one night they came true.

She'd been tied up for the night under a bridge to get out of the rain, when she heard the sounds that no Venetian—boater, canalside dweller, or high-and-mighty—ever wanted to hear. A scuffle. The sounds of a blow. Then the sound of two men carrying something heavy up to the top of the bridge.

It was a dark night on top of the miserable rain, what with the moon hidden by the clouds, but she knew she didn't dare move or make a sound. She huddled under the roof of what she grandly called the "cabin" of her little boat, and hoped that the men up there wouldn't notice that she was tied up in the shadows underneath. She might be able to fight off one or even two, but from the sounds there had been more than that.

A grunt, and a heave, and something dark and heavy drooped over the edge of the bridge. It hung up on the railing for a moment, and before it dropped, there were footsteps running away. Then, as she strained her eyes against the dark and the rain in horrified fascination, the thing tore loose from the coping and tumbled down.

Into her boat.

It had been a fairly low bridge; getting hung up had slowed the object's fall. Otherwise it probably would have overset the boat, or even driven a hole right through it. When it—the body, for that was clear what it was—had landed, it had done so on its feet, crumpling, or else it would have bashed in its skull (if it wasn't already bashed) or broken its neck (if it wasn't already broken). Probably the stone tied to its ankles had helped out there.

And all she could think of was—get it off my boat!

She'd scrambled out of the cabin, and Fate or God or something had undone all of her good sense and intentions.

For just as she reached the body, it gave out a groan and turned face-up. And just as it did so, the clouds parted for a moment, and a ray of moonlight shone down on what must have been the most beautiful man she had ever seen apart from Father Raphael, who was in any case a full priest and out of the running so far as romance went.

And that was how Caesare-the-handsome, Caesare-the-dangerous, Caesare-the-all-too-persuasive-damn-him ended up in her shack, in her blankets, and in her care.

And it was just like one of her daydreams, from start to finish. She moved Caesare into her little shack near the canals, where there would be no spying eyes and ears. She nursed him and kept him warm and fed him from a spoon for days—and then, suddenly, one day he looked up at her with sense in his eyes, and said "Who are you? Where am I?" and she answered him. And then, like he'd been watching the same dreams, he reached up, and pulled off her cap and her hair came tumbling down and he said, "My God, you saved my life, and you're beautiful!"

Well, what was any girl to do when a handsome man said that to her, in her own bed, in her own house, on a moonlit night when the lagoon was bright and glassy-smooth?

He didn't tell her a lot about himself, afterwards. Except that he was a danger to her, and he had to leave her—which she expected, really. But what he said then she didn't expect.

"How can I leave you? I love you!"

—and she, fierce as a lion with a cub, swore she could help him, keep him safe from those enemies—she'd known they were enemies all along, no footpad ever bothered tying a rock to someone to sink him. But then he told her who those enemies were—the Milanese—and that he'd been working for them right up until the moment that they betrayed him. Almost, almost she took it all back, almost told him to leave. Almost.

But she hadn't. And she'd hidden him until she was able to get him to someone who could offer him, for a price, a precarious bit of protection. Then a little more. And him, with his sneak's ways and his angel's face, clawed and fought his way up to being very valuable—alive—to enough people that it was no longer more profitable for him to be dead. For now, at least.

And that was why Maria Garavelli found herself rowing her boat along a back-canal in the dead of night, roused by a messenger; going, once again, to pick up her lover from wherever-he-was now; short on sleep, short on temper, and wondering if this time, despite passwords and safeguards, it wasn't him, but an ambush. And lovesick idiot that she was, she'd have been sculling through canals of fire if she had to, to get to him.

The ache in her fists suddenly registered on her brain, and she eased up her grip on the oar. For some reason, that reminded her of Benito and his peculiar "peace offering."

For a moment, Maria's natural combativeness caused her to frown. But, within seconds, the frown cleared away and she uttered a soft little laugh.

That scamp!

Truth be told, she thought she was probably fond of Benito. Maybe.

And it was a lovely red, that scarf.


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