Back | Next



Marco Valdosta greeted the news with a breathless hopefulness. “Are you sure?” He looked around their bedroom as if the sight of the chamber where the child would have been conceived brought some sort of reassurance that the news was accurate.

Katerina Valdosta, the last child of the ancient House of Montescue, nodded at her husband. “I can count, Marco, even without Maria’s assurances.”

“We’re pregnant!” he yelled, jumping into the air with delight.

“I’m late. I may be pregnant. You are just fat.” She poked him in the stomach, trying not to endanger her own ears with her smile. “I know Maria says it is definite but it’s too early to be absolutely certain, Marco.”

He folded her into his arms anyway.

A small, old castle near Arona, in the Duchy of Milan

Staring out the window of her own bedroom, quite some distance northwest of Venice, the expression on the face of Lucia Maria del Maino was not at all like that on the faces of Marco and Kat. It was sour, sullen, disgruntled.

The stirring of life in her womb gave her no pleasure. Firstly, it was too late. And secondly, it was just a tool to get what should have been hers by right. She would have her reward, even if it meant turning the serpent that devoured loose on all of them. She’d already given its blood price—her sister. If the great wyrm wanted more, it would have it.

As a bastard son, and the only child, Lucia might still have ruled Milan.

As a woman, no.

For a while her mind dwelled on revenge. She’d met Carlo Sforza, and he’d paid her no particular mind. She hadn’t liked that, even if he was a mere commoner. But then, she too had paid him no particular mind. And it was not as if she’d loved her father. Rather, she had loathed him. But he had been a lever. And now he was dead, by Sforza’s hand. Her anger at being thus cheated flamed white-hot.

It took a while before she realized Carlo Sforza would have to take his place.

She steeled herself, knowing it would have to be done. In a way, the serpent had honored the last bargain, given her power to capture Filippo Maria, to snare him away from her mother.

The castello at Arona had been a Visconti holding for time out of mind, perhaps even their original land, her father had said. It had certainly been built on the ruins and with the stones of older buildings. Down beneath the castello were cellars and the dungeon which had been adapted from several limestone caves. And those cellars lay atop of an even lower cellar, the old one, the one with the crude carvings in which the rock itself seemed to have flowed, making them look like a nasty accident. Lucia and her sister had found the key nearly eight years ago, now. The room in which it was hidden had once been their father’s room, and probably the nursery for every generation of noble children raised in the castello. It had fascinated them: why was it so carefully hidden, in a block that swung out of the wall, when touched just so with something sharp? The indent so painstakingly cut into the rock held the key neatly.

It had taken them nearly a month of dreams of treasure, secret passages and hidey-holes to find the door it fitted at the back of the cellars. Heavy, iron-bound, and with rusty hinges that shrieked. They had always been forbidden to go down into the cellars at all.

What they’d met there had cost her sister her life. Neither Lucia nor the dying, feverish girl had ever admitted where they’d been, or what they’d found there, or what had happened. But what was down there had said that next time she would have to come to it.

And that she would come.

She could have flung that key into the river. But she’d put it back into its hiding place.

In the old cellars, the dark had been hung with trailing cobwebs, touching her face like ghostly fingers trying to hold her back. But they had gone now, along with the light of the candle, so abruptly snuffed as she entered the round black maw in the far corner. She understood: no light came down here. No light ever had. No light was allowed. This was the place of the dark, and of its power.

The tunnel wall was curved and polished to an oily smoothness under her hand. The rock of it was cool on her fingertips as she felt her way, cautious step by cautious step, into that stygian blackness. Lucia needed that wall, for the floor of the tunnel had been cobbled, but the round edges of each hand-sized stone caught at her probing toes. The cobbles too were made of some unpleasant material that almost seemed to give a little underfoot. It wasn’t slippery, at least, which as the descent was steep, was just as well. Instead it seemed to cling to her soles. The tunnel wound down, turning left and right, seemingly at random. The silence was such that she could hear her own shallow, nervous breathing, her own careful footsteps, no matter how much she tried to keep quiet. Even her heartbeat was like a fast drumbeat in her ears, relentless, marching her cautious feet onwards, onwards, onwards, downwards, into the pit.

The air was dank and stank of rat urine. They must dare this tunnel, too. Yet her reaching ears could hear no scurry, no chitter nor squeak. Just a silence, heavy and oppressive, as heavy as the hatred and anger that drove her down here. Drove her on, down, down, into the darkness.

Despite the pitch darkness, she somehow felt that the tunnel had opened up. Perhaps there was a breath of air movement, or perhaps…just a feeling. She edged out reaching for the far wall, reluctant fingers leaving the rock that gave her orientation and position. The tunnel had been two arm-stretches wide at the mouth.

“The other side can’t be that far,” she muttered to herself, as she edged further and further from the security of the wall.

There was a soft, shuddering, susurrating shiver in the very floor of the pit under her.

“Far.” The sibilant word came from behind her, and then, as she turned in terror, it echoed back from some vast distance. “Far, far…” The cobbles beneath her shuddered and clattered again, and she fell to her hands and knees, as the vast serpent shook its plate-sized scales, and it moved under her.

She screamed, realizing. The scream, too, echoed. It sounded very thin and small.

“Why do you disturb my rest?” hissed the great wyrm, in a voice cold as its scales.


Francisco Turner sat at his ease with the ruler of Milan—who occupied that position at the invitation of its people, if not the acclamation of the noble houses of Europe. Carlo Sforza did not insist on protocol unless it served his purposes, and he knew his trusted lieutenant and personal physician well enough not to waste time and energy on show. They’d shared quarters across the bloody campaigns and small wars of the Italian principalities, ranging from palazzos to mud hovels, and Francisco knew appearances worried Carlo Sforza not at all. If he put on airs and graces, they were for other people’s benefit. Left to himself, Sforza was rather Spartan in his quarters and his dress. But that was not what was expected of a powerful condottiere, let alone a duke. So now he was dressed accordingly.

“An elegant cotte, m’lord,” said Francisco, amused by his chief’s irritable pulling at the obviously prickly gold braid at the collar.

“When you have usurped the position, you need to live up to the people’s expectations,” said Carlo. Much like Marco had done just a short while earlier in Venice, Sforza looked around the luxurious salon in the palace as if to reassure himself that he was, indeed, the new duke of Milan. “But you would think that the wealthy and powerful would put their comfort ahead of fashion.”

“Something I have yet to see any evidence of,” said Francisco. “Perhaps you could start a new trend, m’lord.”

“Perhaps later when they don’t need to be reminded by my appearance or the sword,” said his master. Moved by a restless impulse, Sforza rose from his chair and began pacing about.

“Or cannon. Cannon make very effective fashion statements,” said Francisco.

“So, does Venice plan to show us how fashionable they think they are?”

“Not at the moment, m’lord. The leader of their fashion house is not himself yet. And he is disposed to make a grumpy acceptance of your marriage. Not too hastily, of course, as that might cause more problems than it would cure. The gift you sent was well received, and I think they got the message.”

“Hopefully one less source of poisoners, for now.”

“Oh, I think if he was sure it would weaken Milan, and be to Venice’s advantage, there is no doubt Petro Dorma would order you poisoned tomorrow. Marco Valdosta is otherwise. He’s too good for this world. If and when he comes to rule Venice, I think she will plunge headlong into war. Too many people will perceive him as weak. I think they may find out that they are wrong.”

“Besides, there is Benito,” said Benito’s father with a wry smile.

“Yes, but having spent time with Marco, there is more to him than meets the eye at first glance, m’lord. Depths most people will not suspect. And there is a magical side.”

“A story to frighten children, my rational friend.”

“I am not so sure, this time, m’lord. I’m not gullible, but I have spent quite some time with the man. Besides, there was our little experience with the winged horse.”

“That was Benito,” said Carlo.

Francisco took a pull at his inevitable flagon of beer. “They say that magic runs in families, sometimes. You are undeniably Benito’s father. I’ve been one of your captains for seventeen years now, and seeing him at the Villa Parvitto was a shock to me. It should have been for him too. You looked very like him when I first met you. You have the same turns of expression, the same shape to the mouth and nose. For him, looking at you is a look into the future.”

“I hope he is wise enough to learn from that future. Yes, he is very much my son, although the Dell’este strain is there, too. But what does that have to do with it, Francisco?”

“You are as magical as a brick, m’lord,” said Francisco with a smile. “Therefore, if it runs in the blood, and if Benito has it, it must come from…”

“Lorendana Dell’este,” scowled Carlo Sforza. He went back to his chair and sat down. “And if she used such skills for anything, it was wild idealism and leading my head astray. I would have killed her if I’d gotten my hands on her, Francisco, I was so angry at the time.”

“But in the end, you didn’t. Anyway, I was about to say the Dell’este line rather than Lorendana.”

“Famous for being blacksmiths.”

“Famous for being smiths, anyway. Those were reputed to be magic workers back in my father’s homeland. Weyland Smith, for example. Magic work… It is one area Milan has little depth in, and Venice, at least a reputation.”

“Reputation and fear win wars,” said Carlo Sforza. He had used his to great effect. ”I hadn’t thought about it before, Francisco. I would have thought it right up my predecessor’s sneaking alley.”

“From what I can gather, the late duke dabbled in it, once, as a young man. The experience, whatever it was, left him deathly afraid of direct contact with it. And he was scared it might be used in the plotting against him. So the Strega and the Jews were persecuted. Or so I heard in Venice, from one of the stregheria. They’d have it he was gulled, and it had nothing to do with them.”

Carlo rubbed his chin. “He didn’t frighten that easily, nor was entirely a fool. I must admit I want no part in it, personally.” He sighed. “We need the reputation, at least.”

“I would deny utterly that we have any magic workers, or that we are looking to recruit them.”

“That should work in the meanwhile,” said Carlo, amused. “So how was Venice, otherwise?”

“Smelly as ever. Better in winter than in summer, though. Less soft than she looks, and I gather Admiral Lemnossa is seeing to her defenses, but you would know that. The Council of Ten are betting on whom you are going to marry.”

“Now that I did not know, but should have guessed. And just whom are they betting on?”

“Eleni Faranese, mostly. Although Violetta de’ Medici is, I would guess, Petro Dorma’s bet.”

The self-styled protector of Milan sighed. “They know more than we do. There is the third possibility, of course.”

“Lucia Maria del Maino?”

“She has the most legitimate claim,” said Carlo with a wry twist of his lips at the legitimate part. “Just not the wealth and influence of the other contenders. So, obviously, she is not high in the betting, but the odds raise day by day.”

“So you have heard nothing, m’lord?”

“No. I know from secondhand experience that these decisions are not taken quickly or easily. Or cheaply.” He grimaced.

Francisco had over the years been subjected to his commander’s opinion on dynastic marriage and the women involved in somewhat pithy terms before. “So the sanctimonious negotiations over the price continues?”

“That’s what happens when you have pimps posing as aristocrats,” growled Carlo Sforza, who might pose as an aristocrat, but did not have to like them. “But they’re being unusually coy about it. One message from Cosimo, and that is it. The fat girl is being contrary, it seems.”

“Sometimes the woman is even consulted,” said Francisco dryly. “That can add some time, m’lord.”

“True with Cosimo, by all accounts, which adds considerably more time and expense to the process. Whores by any name and description price themselves high, so they can afford to come down. It’s a waiting game, and they know that time is on their side, since I will need some illusion of right to rule. In the short term, sword and cannon work well enough, but people forget.”

“So I assume we will remind them, m’lord?” said Francisco.

The protector of the Duchy of Milan nodded. “You know me too well, my friend. A border action, merely to remind Da Corregio of Parma that a relation by marriage is more pleasant than a wolf on your doorstep. And a reminder to the people of Milan of what the wolf can do. They forget too fast and too easily.”

“Nothing like the sound of cannon to remind them.”

Carlo Sforza nodded. “And it’s a long way from Venice, and they’ve not been on the best of terms with Ferrara. Now that I have met him in the field, I want to annoy my son even less.” He smiled wryly. “It is odd to find myself not wishing to annoy him. But it is not a fight I would choose, for several reasons. And yes, Francisco, I like being in that position.”

“It has the charm of novelty, if nothing else,” said his personal physician. In all the years they’d campaigned together, he’d yet to see Sforza shy away from a fight. Plan, choose his time and place, yes. But back off, no.


Benito Valdosta simply wanted to go home, to his wife and baby daughter. The once great city of Constantinople, the bridge between East and West, the gateway to the immensely profitable trade in the Black Sea, had no appeal for him at all. Victory, delivering the Ilkhan Mongol ambassador to the lands of the Golden Horde, and retrieving Prince Manfred of Brittany with the remainder of his escort of Knights of the Holy Trinity from the same place were achievements. Lives and great power were affected. What Benito wanted, however, was his daughter’s arms around his neck.

Constantinople seemed determined to thwart this. As he peered glumly out over the city from his perch on a balcony, Benito was beginning to wonder how the Republic of Venice, would take to “I wanted to get home” as a reason for burning the place to the ground.

Hungary, a castle once part of the extensive estates of Elizabeth Bartholdy

Count Kazimierz Mindaug, the former castellan of Braclaw and voivode of Zwinogrodek, master mage, and aide-de-camp to various powers, had spent a great deal of his life making sure he was not around when things finally fell apart. In this he excelled, both in his own schemes, and in those of others. Thus he had fled the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, after the failure of his attempt to destroy both Jagiellon and the demon Chernobog—the demon that his then-master Jagiellon had attempted to use and then had been consumed by. He had fled to the protection of the satanically empowered Elizabeth Bartholdy. Through the compact she’d made, she had access to vast magical powers. When, as was inevitable, that had caught up with her, it had been sensible and easy to flee, as he had from Jagiellon’s wrath. He’d left before she’d known he had engineered the possibility of her downfall.

Then he’d taken shelter with King Emeric of Hungary. That had always been a mistake, as the military power and the vast lands he ruled were no substitute for the king’s weakness in magical and spiritual matters. Kazimierz Mindaug admitted he’d been overconfident at the lack of response from Jagiellon or his demon master. He’d thought that he could assume the position of power Elizabeth Bartholdy had occupied, without paying the same terrible price, by using his magical skill.

Now as he lay, groaning, bruised, and drawing desperate, painful shuddering breaths on the stone floor of the abandoned old castle where he’d done his best to hide, he knew that he had been wrong.

Chernobog had neither forgotten nor stopped hunting for him. And now the demon had found Mindaug’s magical escape route. The demon had waited for him, entrapped him, and very nearly killed him, when he had fled through the spirit worlds. That had been a battle on Chernobog’s home ground, where knowledge and subtlety had counted for little. He’d learned that he’d been stalked and hunted, that every spell he’d used had been visible to his foe like a fire on hilltop in the netherworlds crying “here I am!” Mindaug had known that magics had their signature, but he had not known how precise it was. He did now, and he wouldn’t make that mistake again.

The count still could hardly believe that he was alive. He had only escaped in the end by pretending that he was dead. Yes, he’d managed to hurt the demon, but not enough to win. That was almost certainly beyond his power.

Eventually he sat up. It was probable Chernobog thought him dead. He would do nothing to disabuse the demon of that delusion…at least until he had a new protector who could deal with that kind of raw power. And a new way of escape.


Maria, like Benito, was perched on as balcony and overlooking a city. In her case, the city was Venice, and the balcony was part of the house owned by Marco and Kat. More like a mansion, really, even if it had still not fully recovered from the ill-fortune into which Kat’s Montescue family had fallen over the years.

She itched to return to Corfu. It was said that a prophet was not without honor, except in their own country. Venice and her canals were busy proving that held true for the high priestess of the Goddess too. It wasn’t that they didn’t respect her as Maria Verrier. She’d earned that, working in the canals. Her relationship with Benito was also well known and quite accepted. But the stregheria of Venice had no place for foreign goddesses, or their priestesses. They had their own hierarchy and their own internal politics and she was not a part of it.

Back | Next