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Chapter 5


Marco Valdosta had labored long over the letter he had composed to his friend the Caviliero Francisco Turner. It was dangerous and difficult ground. He knew he was spied on, as indeed were most of the Casa Longi to some extent. In his case, he knew that the watch was fairly intense, because he was the Doge’s ward and well-connected in other areas, as well as having some associations with the stregheria. And there were others that spies and the political overlords of Venice and elsewhere feared—the creatures who were not of this world and beyond their machinations, like the Lion of St. Mark and the tritons of the lagoon. There were spies from Rome, other states, and naturally, Venice herself. Normally, this didn’t worry Marco much. After all, he lived a fairly blameless life. He was sure they found him boring, which was his best defense. And he had an ally they could not reach in the Winged Lion of St. Mark.

But in writing in secret to Francisco he risked two things. The first, obviously, was that Francisco was the trusted confidante of a man the Venetian Republic considered at best a threat, and at worst, one of their most dangerous enemies. Writing to him in secret, well, that made Marco guilty of conspiracy. Marco had done his best, telling Doge Petro that he would be writing privately to Francisco about medical matters. The Doge had raised his eyebrows. “Not my health. Not unless you are telling him it has returned to robust strength and I can at last increase my consumption of the pate made from the livers of fat geese. I am sure as they’re made of livers they must support mine. And best not about the condition of your wife. Those are matters of state, Marco.”

“No. I wish to talk to him about the prevention of the spread of infectious complaints. We get a lot of that every spring and autumn.” That was the truth, but not what this letter would be about. The Doge would have spies listening, night and day.

And that was the second reason Marco was so afraid of the contents of this letter. People, even spies, remained terrified of the plague. It had been centuries since the last exceptionally infectious strain had swept across Europe. The fear still remained. Marco knew that those infected with it, but not yet dying, had also tried to flee, and had carried it with them, spreading the disease. There had been outbreaks of what could be the same disease since, but oddly, they had been contained by their own virulence. The victims had died too fast to pass it on beyond their community, become too sick too rapidly to travel.

It was a terrible thing to hope for, and yet it would spare many lives.

The letter itself was carefully phrased making reference to several of the books that Marco knew his friend and mentor in the Arabic medical tomes would recognize.

My friend in Medicine. Using the medical methods much criticized by Alpharabius, but that we nonetheless have found completely reliable, we predict that the coming season, particularly in the low-lying areas near the rivers—that is for both Venice and Milan—will spread the swelling condition of which Avicenna refers to in the first book we studied together.

That had been a tome on anatomy, which had described the glands in the groin which typically swelled with the infection from the plague. They’d talked about it at some length and, in Francisco’s dry manner, some humor. “A pity the swelling is in the wrong place,” he’d said, “or I’d have customers prepared to get the plague, aye, and pass it on, just for the swelling.”

I must advise you that we are taking such steps as we can to prevent the spread, and hope you will do the same.

Seemingly an innocuous letter, which would probably still attract suspicion and considerable reading of medical tomes and ones saying that prediction and divination by astrological means were nonsense.

And now to send it… But how best to do so? With the sanction of Petro, who would want to know what it meant? With a private messenger? There would be a good chance of him being intercepted with that message…intercepted, robbed and killed, most likely. Marco wished his grandfather Enrico Dell’este was back in Ferrara. The Old Fox had his reliable networks and methods not available to other men.

“So do you,” said the voice of the Lion within him. “They will rob men, but they’ll be hard pressed to take the message from an undine or one of those they do traffic with.”

“Oh. I hadn’t thought of that. I suppose I could be a little more direct then. But I better write it on something waterproof,” said Marco to the inner voice of that magical being he shared his mind with. He got up from his writing desk and went to the room he had converted into a store for his medical paraphernalia, drugs, and instruments. Finding something waterproof was not hard. Finding something he could write on that was also waterproof, and where the writing would not suffer from immersion, was a lot more challenging. Finally he hit on the happy and simple answer of merely using a bottle that he could seal properly.

He went back to his desk to find that someone had bumped over the precariously balanced quill and little ink bottle. It gave him something to clean up and to think about. The letter he’d worked on was ruined, so it was just as well he was writing it again, in more direct terms.

He really didn’t like spies here. Especially if they were going to be that clumsy! He would have to find out who they were and do something about it, because he did not want them accidentally ruining a medical preparation. He didn’t wait, but took the new letter as soon as the ink was dry, folded it and put it in his pouch, and took the bottle in his bag of medical implements and medicines, and headed for the Chapel of St. Raphaella. There he spoke with Brother Mascoli and then went below, through the water door, to call for one the undines.

He had treated several of the merfolk over the last while, and as the Lion he could command anything that lived in the lagoon or marshes of ancient Etruria. But he would rather ask. He had one of Francisco’s books with him, one of those he’d retrieved from the Signori di Notte after Francisco had abruptly left Venice in the wake of Alessia’s disappearance. He’d offered them back to the caviliero when he had returned as Carlo Sforza’s emissary.

Most of them, Francisco had taken with gratitude, but this one he had presented to Marco. “I have another copy, and they’re not easy to come by. This is a later copying and there are a few errors. But it was my original copy, and I did put corrections in when I got an older version.”

One of the undines, Chloe, came to his call. “Healer. Lion,” she said respectfully, as they always did. She was one he had treated before—in the last year he’d treated infections, had sewn up injuries on a fair number of the magical non-humans. Just because they were not human did not mean they could not be hurt, or that they could not become infected, or as he had discovered, that they could not have stomach ailments. That had been difficult. He had no idea what or how often they ate, or what their normal body temperatures were, or how to treat what was plainly a fever for the merfolk. He’d started developing treatments and learning about their physiology, which he had been painstakingly recording and drawing. He wondered, suddenly, what the spies made of that! He would hate it used against the merpeople. He would have to devise a way to keep it away from them.

“A long silence, Healer. What do you seek?”

“There is a sickness coming among the humans, and I need to send a message to another healer, one who lives in the city of Milan, to warn him. I cannot send the message through the normal human ways, and thus I thought I would ask here. My need is great.”

The undine was amused. “You do know you can command, as the Lion.”

“But I would rather ask, as a friend and your healer,” said Marco.

“And as such we can hardly refuse. Some of our kind do swim north, and they have built canals from the Adda and Ticino rivers. At night we pass through the locks…But reaching humans in their city fastness, and even finding them, if they do not come to water is hard.”

“He talked of going running along the canal path. I have drawn a picture, and this book was once his property.”

“Wait. I go to call my sister Melisande,” said Chloe. “She is from the river-lands. Her nyx-kind like the fresh water.”

So Marco waited.

A little later the undine Chloe returned with two others. They were both smaller than the lagoon undines, but also had that greenish pallor and bare breasts, which they seemed to enjoy showing. He wondered if they did suckle their young, and why he had never seen any.

Once introductions had been done, Melisande and the dark-eyed Rhene said they came from upriver. “We come to feel the salt on our skins,” they explained, without explaining why. Marco had discovered to his surprise that a lot of humans didn’t even think about why. Perhaps the merfolk were similar.

“We came from the Ticino River,” said Rhene, “and often venture down the big ditch they call the Naviglio Grande, to go and watch the humans.” She sniggered. “Especially the young men, swimming. Chloe says you seek to send a message to a one who runs, not just when he needs to flee or to chase. Does he look like this?” And with a long, sharp fingernail she traced the outline of a face with a little water on the slate paving around the edge of the water-chapel. She had an ability Marco’s artist friend Raphael could not rival for capturing the essence of a face shape in a few lines.

“Yes. This is my picture of him,” said Marco, taking out his attempt, feeling a little inadequate about his artistic skills.

“Ah. Yes, he runs nearly every day, along the path at the water’s edge. We like to watch him. In summer he will swim, and always he stops to wash. He is much cleaner than most of you humans.” She sniffed.

Marco was faintly affronted. Why, he bathed his hands often, and always between patients now, since his conversations with Francisco, and his whole body far more frequently than most. Sometimes even twice or three times in one month. There were many who only did so once a year.

But the nyx continued: “And then he will stop at the taverna that is called the Grosso Luccio, next to the water, near the Basilica of Sant’ Eustorgio. In fine weather he comes and dangles his feet in the water and drinks beer.” Rhene gave a wicked little laugh. “We talked of pulling him in.”

That seemed to confirm it to Marco. Francisco’s fondness for beer and running were notable. “I wouldn’t. I suspect he can be quite dangerous. But that is the man I need to send my message to. He is a healer, but a soldier, too. This is his book.” He held out the battered copy of Alkindus’s De Gradibus. “I don’t know if you also trace people like the tritons do?”

“Oh, yes. We know the taste and flavor of you humans,” said the nyx, taking it. Marco suppressed his immediate instinct to tell her to dry her hands first. This was more important, although it was hard to accept that. Books needed to be treated as the valuable things they were! She held it between her fingertips, sharp face intent, and then held it up to her little retroussé nose and sniffed, looking, despite the bare breasts, like a disapproving countess being asked for a charitable donation. Then she stuck out a long slim tongue and licked it.

“Yes. It is difficult to separate your flavor from that of the runner. But I think that is him. I would know the owner of the book if I tasted his essence.” She handed it back.

Marco hastily dried the book on his cotte. “So could you take this message to him? I have put it in a bottle so it will stay dry. Please?”

She shrugged. “For the Lion, and the licence he gives us to come into his waters, yes. We go north tomorrow, to the sweet water again. I will give it to the runner. I like watching human faces as we come up and show them our breasts.”

Some instinct made Marco say: “And then?”

“Then we drown them. We can’t leave them alive. They would hunt us down.” She paused, perhaps reading something in Marco’s expression. “Or sometimes we seduce them, draw them into the water for loving, and then drown them. Would that be better?”

“Er. Not really. I am sending him a message,” explained Marco, thinking that the nyx was proof that beauty and brain did not have to go together, and being lusciously curved didn’t mean that you couldn’t be a cold-blooded killer either. “What would be the use of my doing that, if you killed him before he could read it and act on it? Besides, he is my friend. I don’t want him drowned.”

“Oh. That’s difficult. We don’t show ourselves to humans otherwise. It’s not like here.”

“We have to be careful here, too, sister,” said Chloe. “Still, it is quite useful to have traffic with them sometimes.”

Rhene giggled and nudged Melisande. “Oh, yes. Remember that last fisherman, Meli.”

“They can be very virile,” said Melisande.

“Well, there are other uses,” said Chloe, gesturing at Marco. “This one is a healer and the Lion’s human.”

“So is Francisco,” said Marco. “A healer, anyway. And he will not betray or hunt you. And”—his voice burred to the deep-throated edge of a roar of the ancient and magical Lion within him—“you will not kill him. If you do, I will banish you and your kind from my water. Understood?”

The undine and nyxes, wide-eyed and silenced, nodded.

Sometimes it really is easier not just to ask nicely, thought Marco, on his way home.

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