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Chapter 14


Maria had had enough of Venice. She had loved it, once. It had been all she’d known. She could have imagined no greater, better place. And now she was longing for the sight of Pantocrator, the mountain on the north end of Corfu, almost as much as she longed for Benito. The canals stank and La Serenissima left her feeling anything but serene.

She had gone down to the dock to see if there was any news of the Venetian fleet—sometimes coasters would make better time than a laden fleet, especially if they had stopped for repairs. Well, that was the story she told herself. It did happen. And it gave her an excuse to go down to the docks along the Ponto Lungo. She had dressed appropriately, so that they would know she was not a woman going down to the docks, without her own boat, for the reasons they usually did. She’d gone in one of the Montescue gondolas, rowed by a family retainer.

She’d been the very model of decorum and had not taken the oar out of the incompetent fool’s hands.

There had been no news in from the fleet, but there had been a vessel loading for Corfu. A good, well-found vessel with a Corfiote captain, who knew who she was. He knew her, she knew him, and she knew his wife and their new babe.

A berth to Corfu was easily arranged. She would get back to the island, back to the Mother’s temple, and be there when Benito arrived. She would see him far sooner than waiting for him to come to Venice.

Feeling very pleased for the first time since she had come back from Aidoneus’ shadowy kingdom—well, very pleased since the first time she had hugged her daughter after her return—she had to stop herself singing on the way back to Casa Montescue. Now she just had to tell Marco and Katerina. They’d fuss, of course, but she and ’Lessi would soon be away.

“Well,” she said on her return, finding Marco and Katerina together. “Good news. You will soon be rid of me.”

“The fleet has been sighted?” said Marco, with palpable relief. “But you and Benito will be here with us a while yet, with things as unsettled as they are. The Doge will not send Benito away from Venice until…I have said too much, but you may be here for the summer. And we love having you and ’Lessi!”

And it was plainly true that Alessia loved having Marco and Kat. She toddled to them as fast as her fat little legs could carry her, and was now using Marco’s elegant slashed breeches to wipe her nose on. “Um, no. I found a captain about to set sail for Corfu. I can meet the fleet there. I…I long to see Benito again.” She did, so badly it hurt. “I am sorry, but I—we—must go. My role on Corfu, as I have explained to you a little…is important, too.”

“I don’t think you can go,” said Marco slowly. “Not that I would try to stop you, Maria. But, well, I suggested it to the Doge. Suggested it would be safer for Alessia. He said no.”

“I don’t see what it has to do with the Doge,” said Kat.

“Or how he’d know,” Maria felt her anger rising. “It has nothing to do with anyone else. I am my own mistress. I do not take orders.”

Marco shook his head. “I would guess the Council of Ten’s agents have already reported it, Maria. And please, dear God, you would not be stupid enough to disobey that sort of order. Not from Petro Dorma.”

For a moment, she was tempted to tell him there was only one stupid person here, and that was Marco Valdosta. But Marco was not stupid. Blind sometimes to the obvious, but never stupid.

He interrupted her. “A poor choice of words, I am sorry. Not stupid but crazy. And we have enough craziness just with Benito, surely?” he said plaintively. He then hugged Alessia, who snuggled into him, which took the wind right out of her sails.

She shook her head at him. “Marco, you obviously thought it would be good for me to go.”

“Yes, not because we don’t love you and Alessia, but because I thought it would be safer for her, and make you happier. But when I suggested it, the Doge simply vetoed it out of hand.”

“But you won’t tell him I am going, will you?” she asked.

Marco sighed. “You do know how to make things difficult, don’t you? I am not looking forward to explaining this to him.”

“I’ll say my farewells here, and leave most of our things with you. We will just need clothing for a couple of weeks’ voyage, and you can claim that you knew nothing of it.”

“I’m a poor liar,” said Marco ruefully, looking at his wife. “And I wouldn’t try to lie to Petro Dorma. I’ve used up my ration of trying to deceive him. But I will not betray you.”

Maria did feel faintly guilty, but she thought Marco was taking it all too seriously. After all, Venice would barely notice she wasn’t here. She said her farewells and found them tearful, nonetheless. Then she got into a hire boat that she hailed from the water door, refusing Marco’s offer of an escort, or sending her with a boatman from the casa.

“The less you are seen to have to do with it, the better,” she said firmly, playing on his ridiculous fears. The truth was she relished being independent again, even if it cost her money.

“Ponto Lungo, the south end,” she said, while making sure Alessia was securely seated. She didn’t recognize the boatman, which, she thought, just showed how long she’d been away.

He nodded. “Right, Signora Verrier.” Well, he obviously knew who she was. He rowed out skillfully onto the Grand Canal. However, he did not take the San Troverso. Just kept going.

“You’ve missed the Rio di San Troverso. Where do you think you’re going?” asked Maria irritably.

It was broad daylight, there were dozens of other watercraft within fifty cubits and even a bunch of Schioppettieri going the same way in a caorlina about ten yards off. Maria was more irritated than worried. She knew that one did not mess with a boatman on his own vessel by choice, but she’d spent too many years staying on her feet to be any kind of pushover.

“Doge’s palace,” said the boatman. “Orders from the Signori di Notte.”

Maria felt the blood drain from her face. “I get the message. You can just take me back to the Casa Montescue.”

The boatman shook his head. “I have my orders, Signora.”

For a brief, mad moment, Maria considered tipping the testa di cazzo into the canal. Or yelling to the Schioppies that she was being molested, and leaving while this bastard explained who he was and why and what he was doing. But then she realized that the Schioppettieri weren’t just accidentally going the same way. And neither was the boat on the other flank. They weren’t in uniform, but they were just too well fed a set of bullyboys to be anything but enforcers of some kind.

That feeling was confirmed when they escorted her and Alessia, and the boatman, in through a water door into the Doge’s palace. No one said anything, not even Alessia, who plainly realized that something was wrong and clung to her. Alessia had gotten rather upset at leaving Uncle Marco and Aunt Kat and all her other friends in the Casa Montescue—and everyone, it seemed, was her friend. Except, of course, when they wanted her to do what she didn’t, when matters were loudly proclaimed to be otherwise.

Maria was escorted up several flights of stairs, and then into a small empty salon. And there they waited, Maria getting steadily more nervous. It was the silence that made it so alarming.

Of course, Alessia soon got bored and squirmed free and engaged in exploring the high ceilinged room. Maria let her. She traced patterns on the tapestry. And then there was a startled, but very adult curse. Maria stood up hastily, to find her daughter poking a plump little finger through a hole so much part of the pattern that it was very difficult to see. Maria had to smile at the idea that some spy had got a finger in their ear or eye. It served them right.

A few minutes later a footman came in. He bowed perfunctorily and said: “The Doge will see you now.”

Maria had little choice but to pick up Alessia and follow him down the passage, past several more footmen, and into another salon which plainly served as a study. She had met the Doge, and knew most people considered that a great privilege, at the great celebration of Katerina’s and Marco’s wedding. But a private meeting? She knew it had happened to Benito, and Marco—as the Doge’s trusted physician—saw him often. But for an ordinary citizen of the Venetian Republic? It was almost unheard of. And she had been doing something he had explicitly forbidden. Yes, she had lived with an ancient god as his bride, met with and found remarkably human Prince Manfred of Brittany and various grandees who had come to Corfu. But…this was Venice, and she was Venetian. The worst part was, she realized, that it had to hurt Marco, because no one would believe he hadn’t known.

Petro Dorma was sitting, looking out past San Giorgio Maggiore towards the sea. Calenti coughed. “The Signora Maria Verrier, Your Grace.”

The Doge turned slightly to look at her. He did not show any sign of pleasure at seeing her, or utter a word of greeting. Maria curtseyed, bowing her head deeply, wishing she was somewhere else.

The Doge pointed out to sea, at a coaster galley. “That could be your vessel. Her captain claims the ship is going to Istria. She is actually heading for Ancona. Her purpose was to make sure the goods that had been ordered were delivered to the right person.”


“The goods in question were you and your daughter,” said Doge Petro, steepling his fingers. “Did it not occur to you that you would make a very valuable hostage? There has been one attempt already to take the little girl. Did you think that meant that there would never be another? That Corfiote captain showed up just by chance, eager and willing to take you…anywhere you could have asked for? But as you have spoken of going back to Corfu, that would obviously be what was offered. Did not even the fact that he asked for no money up front and less than the normal passage fare strike you as odd?”

Maria blushed to the roots of hair. “I…uh, thought it was out of respect. I don’t believe…”

“The Council of Ten’s agents are very thorough, Signora. And since that first incident, our watch has trebled. We have intercepted the messages. And we’re not your only watchers. Agents of Carlo Sforza saw to it that that vessel would not sail today.”

The Doge sighed. “Benito Valdosta is one of our greatest assets, Signora. He has, repeatedly, shown his loyalty and faith in the republic. He has risked his life and well-being for us and, I believe, for you. He trusts us to do our best for his family. He does not fail us, and I will not fail him. If that means putting you in a nunnery or putting you in one of my cells—and I have some well-appointed ones—until Benito gets here, I will do so.”

Maria wondered in a moment of anger just how he would respond to her calling on the power that was hers, through the Mother Goddess, and the Lord of the Dead…and then she realized that she had given that up, when she’d walked away from being the bride of Aidoneus for those four months. And besides, from what she now knew, Venice was the realm of another ancient power, the Lion of Etruria.

“You are a bad man,” said Alessia in the silence.

The Doge’s mouth twitched, the first sign of any softness Maria on his face. “Yes. I am.”

“Tell Marco on you,” announced Alessia, looking sternly at him.

“I will be sorry,” said the Doge, while Maria tried to hush her. “But this has to be done. Now, I suggest you both go. My officers will see to your safe transportation back to the Casa Montescue. Tell Marco and Katerina Valdosta and Lodovico Montescue that I await the pleasure of seeing them this morning.”

“They knew nothing of this.”

He peered at her from under heavy brows. “Try not to undo the good your daughter has just done you. I understand family loyalty, but stupidity is intolerable. My Lord Calenti, see them out.”

He turned back to the window.

Maria was escorted out of the salon, still seething, afraid, and wishing desperately she had not brought trouble to her brother and sister-in-law, the best friends she had in Venice. It was a long and silent trip back to Casa Montescue. Well, it would have been, except Alessia was now in the mood for playing; the fact that her mother had much to reflect on was her mother’s problem.

She was rather dreading her return to the house, especially having to deliver the Doge’s message. She was fairly surprised to find that her return and the summons to the palace were not unexpected. Kat hugged her. “Stop looking so upset. There’s not a lot the Doge can do to the Lion’s vessel,” she said cryptically.

“I’ve learned enough now, to be very afraid of what he knows and what he can do,” said Maria, as her daughter prattled away to Marco. “I’m sorry I even thought of it.”

She was left alone with her thoughts and her daughter, as they went off to the palazzo.

* * *

Even out on the water in their felse, with their own gondolier rowing them along, Marco, Kat and Lodovico kept their conversation casual. Katerina was a little more worried than she let on. Petro Dorma might not be able to do much about the man who wore the mantle of the Lion—her beloved husband—but he was still a powerful figure in the commerce of the city. The Casa Montescue had made some recovery, and looked to make more. But expenses were high, and just a blighting word from Petro Dorma could hurt.

Kat really, really did not want to go back to running secret cargos around Venice at night. True, she sometimes missed the excitement…very slightly, on evenings when Marco worked late into the night, or when they had to attend something particularly tedious. But she really did not miss the insecurity and the fear that had always gone with her.

She loved Maria dearly, who’d been a friend when friends were few. Maria had given her a great deal of good advice about Marco—whom she’d known forever—and about children. But she was plainly unhappy in the casa. It just wasn’t her place, Kat guessed.

They arrived and were conducted in to see the Doge. Marco politely enquired after his health.

“I have been reliably informed that I am a bad man, and that you were going to be informed of the fact,” said Petro. “So I imagine my health, or at least my diet, is about to get worse. But otherwise I have no need to see my physician.”

“Except to alarm my sister-in-law,” said Marco.

“Well, yes. But I did it for good reason, Marco. She very nearly ended up as the ‘guest’ of Count Andrea Malatesta, which would have annoyed me, your brother, Enrico Dell’este, and quite possibly Carlo Sforza. And they would have been angry with me for failing them. If you could, by those channels you are so carefully not telling me about, tell Sforza that I do not appreciate his spies taking direct action in my territory. Informing my men is all very well, but they overstepped the mark.”

“What did they do?”

“Drilled several holes below the waterline of the galley. That part of the port will now be out of action for several days until we get the boat lifted.” The Doge did not sound particularly displeased. “I’m tempted to have them ornament my interrogation chambers. The Council of Ten are mostly in favor of having them found floating facedown in the back canals, along with the captain of the galley, except that they mostly seem to be here to watch your niece.”

“I suspect that didn’t help the captain of that galley,” said Lodovico dryly.

“Your years of experience have not misled you,” said Petro Dorma. “Now, I wish you all to understand that Maria and the little girl are not to leave Venice. Not without going as part of the whole fleet, not without my consent. I expect to be informed of any attempt at such folly. I expect you to tell me if it is contemplated. Family considerations aside, there are things afoot that make her and the little one valuable hostages. You will tell her this is what you are constrained to. I do not think she will ask it of you again, but you are watched. I would like your word on this.”

They all gave it. What else could they do?

Petro smiled. “As I said, we are watching. After last time…anyway, actually Marco, I asked you to come to see me because I have a request from…a very powerful person for your medical skill. You were recommended by the man you called in to help me when I was poisoned. Francisco Turner thinks if anyone in all Italy can do anything for the young woman it will be you.”

“Oh. Of course, if I can help, I will. Although Francisco flatters me. He knows so much more…”

“He seems to think it goes beyond mere knowledge. He says you have a healing touch that he does not.”

“Just what I have always said,” said Lodovico, with satisfaction. “I liked that man, for all that he was a bit rough and ready, plainly spoken, and liked beer.”

The Doge nodded. “A testimony of some worth that, Lodovico Montescue. But I would be very obliged if you would give this woman your especial care, Marco. Usually one ends up owing Cosimo de’ Medici. It would be good for Venice if the boot was on the other foot.”

“Who is the patient, where are they, and what is wrong with them?”

“It is the Lady Violetta de’ Medici, Cosimo’s second cousin. My men have carried her into chambers on the northern side of the building, as she arrived by boat this morning. I believe she was bitten by a serpent, but her majordomo will tell you more and provide you with a letter from Francisco Turner. I would like to know just what he achieved in Florence, as I was under the impression he’d failed to meet with Cosimo, and had left in a high dudgeon, information which it would seem was…misleading. The young woman in question is, as you may know, one of the closer female legitimate blood relations to the late and unlamented Filippo Maria Visconti. There are only two others closer, and the one is somewhat disqualified by being an illegitimate daughter, and the other is, according to my messengers last night, dead.”

“Someone is doing all they can to deprive Carlo Sforza of the fig leaf of legitimate rule. I would be guarding that bastard daughter very closely.”

“I sent a message, indicating that I thought that would be wise,” murmured Petro Dorma, as if talking about the weather. “I should imagine that it hasn’t passed him by, though. On the other hand, Sforza had been refused—rather pointedly—by the woman who died. He is being blamed for poisoning her. And I gather the duke of Parma and his allies—who just happen to include the person who ordered Maria and her daughter kidnapped—now go to war over this matter.”

“If you don’t mind, I think I had better go and see the patient,” said Marco. “The sooner the better.”

“Of course,” said the Doge. He tingled a bell. “Barossa will take you down to her immediately.”

Katerina had to smile to herself. The Doge might rule Venice, but when it came to the sick, it would seem nothing could stand in Marco’s way, and it would seem even the Doge knew it. Marco was meek and mild most of the time, but every now and then the Lion in him was very visible.

“Interesting times,” said Lodovico, with the relish of a Venetian for intrigue and politics.

Kat could swear she’d felt her baby move in her belly. She had no appetite for interesting intrigue at all, as Marco took his leave of them.

Petro looked at her. “Now, while I do my best not to be overlooked or overheard, I will speak somewhat cryptically here. Some of your old connections from harder times have been engaged in trafficking information. Word of Maria’s unhappiness and her desire to return to a…religious sphere of influence she holds on Corfu had leaked that way, I believe, from what my informant in Andrea Malatesta’s court tells me. I don’t actually know the precise source. I would hate to ruin Venice’s reputation for tolerance. Perhaps you should go shopping, my dear, and leave old Lodovico and me to talk. Lord Calenti will provide you with an escort. I suggest you use your family gondola, I will have the others conveyed home in my vessels.”

Kat knew what she was being asked to do, and where she would go on the Campo Ghetto, after a number of other stops, and with a few more after that. Also, she knew her grandfather well, better than Marco. As the interview was going on, she’d realized that of the three of them, he was the one with the most reason to be nervous but had not been. It was probable that the Council of Ten’s spies had ferreted out a great deal of this plan. It was likely that Sforza’s men had sunk the boat. And extremely likely that her grandfather had sent one of his old friends on the Council of Ten word of Maria’s intention. He had made no promise not to tell, and had apparently not been privy to all of it, or was not paying that much attention. Ha, when he was obviously not attending, then you had to be wary.

Lord Calenti, that sinister devoted servant of the state, had an unobtrusive footman for her and, thoughtfully, a bag of coins. “It’s unlikely that you would have brought much with you. One does not always wish to leave traces of debts behind.”

Kat wondered just how much he knew of her past dark-night delivery of gray goods to the stregheria and other magic workers of the city, who did not like to advertise their purchases or leave traces of them either. “I suppose if I am doing Venice’s business, I may as well spend her coin.”

“Precisely,” said the spymaster, giving one of his reputedly rarer-than-diamond smiles. “A little pleasure will make it look like it is not just a cover.”

And will, no doubt, get various businesses, silver- and goldsmiths and a few cloth merchants onto a list they’d rather not be on. Even if their noses are clean, thought Kat, making a mental list of a few that had, in prior years, given Casa Montescue no reason to love them. It was an odd wheel, but it turned.

She spent quite a lot of silver and some gold, and made the footman work, carrying parcels and boxes, before arriving at the goldsmith in the Campo Ghetto. She’d already made it clear to Calenti’s man, in their visits to several other establishments, that his job was to stand near the door, out of easy earshot, and make sure that Katerina was not overheard. She had several other people to visit but the old Jew had been a friend and a major contact in her trafficking days, and had passed information to the Doge via Marco before. He was, she was aware, a Cabbalist, and had some magical skills with precious metals.

The goldsmith’s shop was just as tiny as Kat remembered; and, as she always had in previous visits, she wondered how the old man could get any work done in such tight quarters—or, for that matter, where he had sufficient space to hold his tools and supplies. Granted, gold and the other metals he worked with were not bulky.

His appearance hadn’t changed much either, if at all. He was wearing a wool black-and-white tallit katan, a fringed garment designed rather like an Incan-style poncho. The distinctive knotted fringes called tzitzit were attached to the garment’s four corners. It was a style of dress favored by particularly devout Jews—or, Kat suspected, by Jews trying to avoid the attention of Venice’s sometimes-overbearing rabbinate.

She was pretty sure this goldsmith fell into the latter category. At least, the cheery twinkle he usually had in his eyes didn’t seem to fit very well with a man pondering the miseries of the world.

There wasn’t a twinkle in his eye today, though. In fact, he seemed quite worried. Before she could even start, he said: “I’ve been wanting to pass word to the Council of Ten from the stregheria. Some of the stregheria I know…they dabble in foretelling. Some even get things right. And three of them have gone mad in the last few weeks. I got to talk to Donatzio before he slipped away. He said something about seas of dead bodies. And the Serpent…and that was all. But the talk is going around. A few people are leaving, quietly.”

“Well, I have something for you to pass on to them, from the Council of Ten, and unless they want to leave Venice fast, something needs to be done.” She explained how news of Maria’s desire to get back to Corfu and to the shrine of the Mother Goddess had been reported to Count Andrea Malatesta, and what had nearly happened as a result. “The Doge said he would hate to ruin Venice’s reputation for tolerance. Read that as a warning to find the informant and deal with them, Itzaak.”

The old man nodded. “I like it here. I want to stay, to call this home. And”—he gave a little smile—“I would think the stregheria want Benito Valdosta hunting them even less than the Council of Ten.”

“If Maria or, heaven help anyone, Alessia got hurt, I would think you might have Marco after you, too. And that could just be worse, Itzaak.”

“We know that,” said the old man. “Trust me, we know that. For those of us who work with things not of this world, we’d far rather take on Benito and the Council of Ten’s agents than the Lion.”

* * *

Two days later, Marco, on his way into the palace to see his new patient, was met in one of the passages by Lord Calenti. “Please tell your wife that her little shopping spree was successful. The Schioppettieri fished a body out of the canal this morning, with a message pinned on it. It said: this one will not be sending messages to Ancona again. The woman was a fertility charm seller. Perhaps she had a grudge against Maria Verrier for that reason.”

“Oh. Kat did say something about it. I’m sorry, I have been so deep in research. This snake bite…”

“How does your patient do?” Lord Calenti inquired politely.

“She isn’t dying,” said Marco, grimacing. “Her swallowing reflex seems to work. But if the poison of the snake does not kill her, the poison from the hemorrhages it has caused may. She was fortunate it happened to bite her on the thigh, where she has plenty of flesh. If it had been a hand, the swelling might have been too much for the circulation. She’s fighting for her life. I’ve had to open and drain several of the pustules. She has messy, pussy sepsis.”

He saw the spymaster was looking faintly green, and stopped there. It was strange that a man who had without doubt ordered deaths and torture, and quite possibly done and overseen them, should be affected thus. So he said no more and went on to the room when the man and woman chosen from among the Doge’s staff were busy changing her sheets again. It was a job they’d done a number of times already and doubtless would many times again. He checked Violetta’s pulse, temperature, the circulation in her limbs, and the state of the necrosis around the bite. That had, at least, not become any worse, although it was still weeping and the dressing would need changing soon. The circulation in her right leg—the bitten one—was poor, so he set about gently massaging it while trying to decide if anything else should be done.

The problem was that he was on unknown ground. Francisco had carefully described the purple-black snake, and even sketched it in the letter he had sent. He hadn’t recognized it though, and neither had anyone else that Marco had shown it to. Something about it made his flesh crawl, and the part of him that was the Lion even felt the drawing as of something evil. He wondered, not for the first time, if it was actually just a snake, or something magical. But that was a more difficult question still, and he had no one really to ask. He’d searched the Doge’s library, and at the Academia. He’d finally asked Professor Balti to find him two dedicated but poor students that he could pay to go on searching, as he really did not like to leave his patient for too long. He knew liquids had to keep going into her or she would die, but these had to be carefully administered, a sop at a time, or they would end up in her lungs.

If she lived, it would be a good thing she’d been a fat girl, he reflected, because broth was the most they’d been able to give her.

The little majordomo who had accompanied her came to him while he was busy dealing with the wound, which had grown into a necrotic hole. If she recovered, she would have bad scarring on that leg. He just hoped it would not affect the bone.

The majordomo did not interrupt Marco, but watched patiently. Eventually Marco paused and asked what he wanted. He bowed. “My lord. Is there any news I can send to my master? I have just received another message from him asking how she goes on.”

“Not right now. Let me finish here and I will see what I can say. I’ll have you called,” said Marco tiredly, also thinking that it might take a little consultation with Petro Dorma on how best to phrase what wasn’t a particularly happy state of affairs.

The man nodded. “I will write at least what I have seen your lordship doing, the hours you work and the goodness of your helpers.”

Well, that was a start. And fair.

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