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Chapter 8

"Party lookin' for you," said Lola, green-eyed suspicion in her voice. The runner-girl wore the scarf he'd given her for telling them where to find Caesare. And a fine silver pin she'd got from someone else. That was Lola for you. You had to be loyal to her. . . .

Benito winked at her from his rooftop. He had to get back to Marco, but it paid to stay on top of the canal-talk. And Lola knew most of it before it even got out. "Who'd that be, Bright-eyes?"

Lola raised a dark eyebrow. "That girl we call 'the Spook.' You never see her in daylight. Always wears a hood. Got connections on the Rio del Ghetto."

Benito started guiltily. Kat! He'd forgotten he was supposed to meet her tonight. Getting Marco to move out of the swamp had driven the whole thing from his mind.

"Where is she?"

Lola sniffed. "You find her."

"Come on, Lola," pleaded Benito. When she was in this sort of mood, which was most of the time, Lola could be very capricious.

Lola just sniffed and shrugged.

Benito tried reason. "C'mon, Lola. It's a job."

The runner shook her head. "With that one you're safer chasing her body than getting into her line of work." And she was off. Benito knew it was useless to chase after her. Even if he could catch up, which was no certainty, because Lola was fast and knew every alley and shortcut in Venice, she wouldn't talk. And pressing her was a bad idea, anyway. Lola had several large and unpleasant friends.

He tried the arranged rendezvous. But Katerina wasn't there. Seeing as it was close to the noise of Barducci's, he slipped in. It was early still and the sailors weren't there in numbers yet. On the spits they were cooking rows of toresani. The juniper and rosemary scented squabs gave Benito's stomach an abrupt, pointed reminder that he hadn't eaten yet. He hastened past to the bar where Valentina was plucking a complex melody. Claudia was counterpointing it, softly, with a treble flute. The audience was still a small one. Which was just as well. This was crying in your wine music. . . .

He waited. When the tune was finished, Claudia tipped him a wink. "Someone casting dabblers about for you. That 'Spook.' I've seen her on the water, but never in here. Wants to meet you at the Campo San Felice about ten. You'd better take care, Benito. Those are bad people you're mixing with."

Coming from Claudia, that was scary. Still. All Katerina wanted him to do was to recover that parcel. She'd offered an entire ducat for the job, too. She'd been pretty pointed in her comments about what would happen to him if the stuff turned up on the market. If you're lucky, the Servants of the Trinity will get you before my . . . associates do. Yeah. He'd fish that parcel out and leave her well and truly alone. He had responsibilities now. He might even have turned away from that ducat if he hadn't been feeling guilty about not getting to the rendezvous. In the shadowy side of Venice, you were a man of your word or you didn't survive.

* * *

Katerina Montescue was feeling guilty. Being late had been unavoidable. But you had to be careful here in the gray canal and dockside world. It had its own rules. You could kill someone. No problem, so long as you sank them quietly and didn't get the Doge's Schiopettieri stirred up. You could steal from them. Lie to them. But a deal was a deal. God help you if you broke it. Word got around. Only the marshes would offer refuge then. She, it was true, could go back to the Casa, her identity unknown. But Casa Montescue was in such straits that it could die. It was likely to die, if this cargo was lost.

She moved the gondola quietly along to the Campo San Felice. And the boy detached himself from the shadows and dropped into the boat, almost without rocking it. He moved as lightly as the thief he undoubtedly was. She shuddered. This was a scary world that she was forced to move in.

They did a magnificent duet.

"I'm sorry I was late. Problems."

"You were late . . . ?"

"You were late . . . ?"

"Why are you repeating everything I say?" snapped Katerina.

"I'm not. I was late. . . ." Benito burst out laughing. "So, we were both late, huh?"

"I was delayed," said Katerina, sourly. "Unavoidably."

Benito grinned. "Me too. So, let's get to it."

Tight-lipped, Katerina poled away. The shabby gondola prow cut a silent notch through the still water. After a while, though, she found herself almost smiling. For all his ragamuffin ways, there was undoubtedly something a little charming about young Benito.

* * *

From the high windows of the Imperial embassy, streamers of light spilled whitely onto the thin mist-shroud clinging to the dark canal-water. Inside the building all might be warmth, light, music, and occasional trills of laughter. Here, in the shadowy darkness of the side canal, it was cold. Katerina shivered. At least she didn't have to get into it.

"So what are you waiting for?" she hissed. "Get on with it and we can get out of here."

The boy did not look eager. The way he was taking off his jacket spelled reluctance. She could understand that. She wouldn't want to get into the smelly cold dark water either. She gritted her teeth. If necessary she would.

* * *

Benito looked doubtfully at the canal water as he dropped his jacket into the boat. It wasn't so much the swimming part, as the getting into the water that he hated. It was all right when you had the sun on your back, or when things were dire, but just to do it in cold blood on a misty night . . . The worst part was when the water got to your upper thighs. "Do you want to do it instead?" he asked, crossly. "I'm just wary. It's early in the evening for no one to be around."

Katerina shook her head, irritably. "The Schiopettieri did a clear-out here earlier. They're doing regular patrols. We've got a bit of time before the next one comes through. Get a move on."

He shrugged. No sense in asking her where she got such precise information. She wouldn't tell him, and he wasn't sure he wanted to know. He stripped off, down to his breeches. No sense in getting all his clothes wet.

He slipped into the water. It was cold, even at this time of the year. A couple of deep breaths and he duck-dived under the water. Swimming down for the bottom he forced himself to open his eyes. He might as well have kept them closed. Well, up was dimly lighter. His hands touched ooze. He felt around and realized this was not going to be an easy job after all. The water-door was plainly where the embassy threw out its garbage. He went up, breaking water with relief.

Katerina was a dark figure against the lights. "Did you find it?" she hissed anxiously.

Benito shook his head. "No."

He heard her sharp intake of breath. "It must be there. It must." There was more than a hint of desperation in her voice.

"Yeah, maybe," he agreed hastily. "But look, there is lots of rubbish on the bottom. You got something heavy I can use to keep myself down there?"

She had the rock in a rope bag that did the poor-man's duty for an anchor. It gave him something to pull down on, and a point to feel around. That was a broken pot. That was . . . eughh. He pulled his hand back from something rotten enough to crumble. It took willpower to feel again. And then he screamed. Underwater. Which is never a good idea. Something slimy and snakelike had slithered up his arm. By the time his conscious mind had worked that out, he was already spluttering and pulling himself up into the boat. He nearly had the gondola over in his haste. "Saint Marco, Saint Theresa . . ."

"Hush!" snapped Katerina, looking around. "What's wrong?"

"There is something dead down there! And it is full of eels." The Venice lagoon was famous for its eels. You didn't want to think too much about what they ate. Benito didn't even want to say that what he'd touched felt like . . . cloth.

* * *

Katerina could see that the encounter with eels had scared this canal-wise urchin nearly witless. Still, they only had a short time left to find the parcel. Inquiries—discreet inquiries, but nonetheless alarming inquiries—had begun to come in about when the consignment would be delivered. They'd had to take money in advance for some of this lot. The inquiries had been . . . polite. Among that fraternity word had gone around that the Montescue were to be treated with respect. But they'd been insistent, nonetheless.

She shook Benito. Gently, though. "It was only eels. They'll have gone by now."

Benito shuddered. It was all Katerina could do to suppress her own shiver of sympathy. She knew only too well just what eels liked to eat. But for the Family, it must be done. "You gave your word."

"Eels . . ." Benito whispered.

Katerina shook him hard this time. "Come on! We've only got a little time."

The boy looked at her with big eyes. And took a deep breath. "One last try. Try and work out exactly where you put it in."

Katerina gritted her teeth. She'd been frightened as hell, and lying down too. How would she know? She looked about, trying to gauge things. "A bit further out, I reckon. And maybe a bit more toward the Grand Canal. It's difficult to judge without the other boats here." The noise from the embassy hushed. They both tensed. Then from inside came the familiar sound of voices uplifted in the Latin of a plainsong chant.

"Go," said Katerina roughly, pushing him, hiding her own shrieking nervousness in abrasiveness. As Benito slipped off into the water she decided that she'd try on the other side of the gondola with the boathook she'd brought as a last resort. He wasn't going to find it. The hook might damage the parcel. But even damaged was better than lost completely.

* * *

He wasn't going to find it. He knew he wasn't going to find it. He was only making this last effort for honor's sake. The bottom had been stirred up by his precipitous flight from the . . . corpse. Now it was so black down here that only the direction his body wanted to rise told him where up might be. It was claustrophobic, crushingly so, down here. He felt around. Very, very tentatively. And his fingers encountered fiber. He almost repeated his rapid ascent before he worked out it was twine. Coarse, thick twine, the kind merchants use for baling. He was almost out of air, but he couldn't risk losing it. He swam, following the cord. It was a fairly long swim. His hands encountered fabric . . . oilcloth. He had Katerina's precious parcel. Gripping it with both hands he turned and kicked for the surface.

Something hauled at it. Trying to pull it away from him.

* * *

Katerina was beginning to realize the boy hadn't lied. Her attempts with the boathook had so far dredged up some scrap metal. It looked like an old bird-cage. And a piece of . . . cord. Baling-cord. She dropped the boathook in her haste to grab it. And it was plucked neatly out of her grasp. Swearing, forgetting the need for silence she snatched at it, nearly upsetting the gondola. She missed. Her sleeve wet to the shoulder, she hauled the boathook she'd dropped out of the water. Fortunately the cork handle—intended for idiots who drop boathooks—had kept it afloat. Shaking the bird-cage remains clear, she hooked furiously.

"That's me! Stop it! You madwoman!"

To Katerina's horror she saw she'd hooked the something all right. Benito's breeches. He was clinging to the pole with one hand and her oilskin-wrapped parcel with the other. Benito jerked angrily at the boathook pole, and Katerina lost her balance. She landed in the water beside Benito with a shriek and a splash. Benito swam away as she came up.

"I can't swim!" she yelled, spluttering. Fortunately there was quite a lot of air trapped in the thick serge of her dress.

Benito backed off to the stairs at the water-door. "You tried to murder me!" he accused, also forgetting to keep his voice down.

Katerina shook her head. She was getting lower in the water. "You were on the other side of the boat. Now get me out!"

"Oh. Yes. Like I was supposed to stay where I went down." Benito clutched the parcel to his chest, and retreated.

Katerina managed to grab the edge of her gondola and, having learned from last time, hauled herself hand over hand along the boat to the mooring post and thence to the steps.

Benito held the precious parcel in front of himself like a shield. "You come any closer and I'll throw it back into the water."

Katerina found herself trapped between fury and embarrassment. "Look. It was an accident. I told you."

"Accident, my foot!"

By the tone, Katerina knew she was in trouble. She couldn't offer him more money. A ducat was stretching things as it was. "Look. I can offer you more work. . . ."

"Va'funcula!" spat Benito. "Are you crazy? Claudia warned me—"

A terrible shriek, a sound not intended to issue from a human throat, came from the embassy behind them.

It silenced both of them. Briefly.

Benito snapped out of it first. "Holy Saint Mark! What . . ."

A terrible inhuman laugher erupted. Katerina felt the hair on the nape of her neck rise. She knew she had little magical skill, but she was sensitive to it. This was magic. Something dark. The medallion on her chest felt very hot.

"Never mind what!" Katerina scrambled into the gondola. "Come! Let's get out of here."

Benito looked doubtful, his face white in the reflected light of the unshuttered windows. Then there came more sounds from the windows, as if tables were being overturned and glass breaking.

A man's voice, shouting: "Back! Back, you fool! Knights! Seal the doorways!" Followed immediately by a swelling chorus of many voices screaming in panic.

"Come on!" Katerina barked. "Get in. You can hold the parcel. Just get in! We've got to get away from here!"

The boy jumped into the boat and cast loose hastily.

Katerina pushed off. With skill, she turned the gondola and sent it gliding away from the embassy.

Breathing a prayer she looked back. And nearly dropped the oar. It was hardly surprising really, with all the noise they'd made and the goings-on over at the embassy. But at the Casa Brunelli, the doors leading onto the upper-floor balcony were thrust open, flooding the balcony with light. She saw him clearly. The same slight red-haired man. The same single forbidding line of dark eyebrows. He was staring at them. Katerina would swear the expression on his face was one of triumph.

She shivered. And the shiver had nothing at all to do with her wet clothes.

* * *

Benito felt for his dry jacket. He was shivering. It was partly the cold and partly the fright. The boathook, bobbing in the canal behind them, had barely scratched his thigh. Hell. He loved thrills. It was the best part of being a roof-climber. But this was deep dark water. She could have her parcel. Then he'd be off. He wanted no part of this woman and her business. Fortunately, they'd part ways in a few hundred yards and he would never have to see her again. She'd never be any part of his world. He could look after himself, but he didn't want Marco involved with someone like this girl.


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