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Chapter 7


Maria had longed to return to her daughter and to Benito. To leave the cool halls of Aidoneus, the Lord of the Dead. The longing to see Venice again, too, had been like a dull ache within her.

And now that she was here in Venice, had held Alessia in her arms…she found that longing seldom lived up to reality. She had gone to the marshes, and set out to reestablish the old religions among the stregheria. That had gone so well, for a while. She had told Aidoneus in no uncertain terms that their marriage of four months a year was over. She had found a potential new bride for him and she could not wait to tell Benito that she had solved that problem.

And that was where the matter stuck. She found herself, perforce, for Alessia’s sake continuing under her brother and sister-in-law’s roof. She could have rented a lodging for herself, but as the Church would not recognize her relationship with Benito, his money was not available to her. As Umberto Verrier’s widow, she had a small pension paid by the Arsenal. The Arsenal’s guildsmen did not forget their own, and he was, she found, accepted and remembered as one of the heroes of Corfu. Her old boat was still here, waiting for her. She could have gone back to poling the canals. Between those two she could have afforded a room somewhere and have bought food, even it if was a long, long, long step down from the comfort and safety of the Casa Montescue.

But she knew that would reflect badly on Marco and Katerina, and they would be very hurt by it, Marco in particular. They certainly had done nothing to deserve being hurt—the opposite was true. Katerina, with generations of Casa Longi blood, treated her like a friend, a sister, even an equal. Marco…

Maria had looked after him and Benito, and Marco had been a romantic fool. Back then, she’d always felt ten years older than him. Benito might be Marco’s younger brother, but somehow he’d always been the one who had been less the innocent child, more able to cope. Now, that too was different. Marco had moved on, moved up into a world she really didn’t grasp, a world of intrigue and politics, and also of academic study. He was still Marco, still as soft, as gentle, as kindly. But being married to his love, and part of a still-functioning ancient and noble Casa—and especially being part of the Lion—had changed him. She knew they had looked after, fought for, and nurtured Alessia, as if she was their own beloved child. She couldn’t be that ungrateful.

And secondly, there was no way it would have been as good or as safe for Alessia. For that, Maria would put up with being part of a great house, full of servants, where she was but a guest.

That wasn’t easy when she was used to running and commanding her own household. So she had turned to worlds she knew…or, rather, thought she knew. She was a priestess of the Great Mother. She was a woman of the canals of the popula minuti.

She would do the work of the Goddess here, in Venice’s lagoons. Among the swampers, and among the stregheria.

Very rapidly she discovered two things. Time was like a river. It moved on, and she could not go back. She still had relations, and even people who were friendly, if not what she would have called friends, among the canalers. But…she was Benito Valdosta’s woman. And she was Marco’s sister-in-law, and half of the poor of Venice regarded him as the greatest physician ever to breathe. They regarded the Casa Montescue as part of the Longi, a core part of the Longi. And that was where Maria lodged. As far as they were concerned, that was where she belonged and who she was now.

Oh, they were proud of her. They thought she’d gotten somewhere. But she wasn’t one of them anymore.

And in truth, she knew she wasn’t. Not that she didn’t understand them and love them, or at least, some of them. But their world, especially for the women—some of the men had been on Venetian ships to Flanders or Outre Mer or Trebizond on the Black Sea—was the canals of Venice. Few of the women had been more than a league from where they had been born. Once she had been like that too. But, since then, she had lived in Istria, and Corfu, and then Aidoneus’s shadowy halls. And because of Benito, she had mixed with men from far further afield: men—and in the case of Francesca, a woman—of very different orders of society, from princes and dukes, to thieves and powerful merchants. It had changed the way she saw things, given her a bigger picture.

Or made her too big for her boots, according to the canal women. And by the time she realized that they were saying this, it was far too late. They might like her. They might possibly listen to her, sometimes, but in general they listened to her the same way they’d listen to the Schioppettieri. Which was when she was watching or when it suited them.

When it came to the worship of the Great Mother, among the stregheria…it wasn’t that they didn’t give her respect as the priestess of a powerful, old goddess. It was just that, away from Corfu, she was not their priestess. They had those of their own that they called on. There were secret shrines, secret rites, secret places of worship. She hadn’t even realized it when she went trampling in, full of missionary zeal.

And now she found that she was not welcome among them. Really, seriously we-will-kill-you not welcome. The stregheria varied and were divided. But on this they seemed at one. The Great Mother was the first and oldest of the fertility goddesses…but the lagoon gave primacy to the Lion of Etruria.

On Corfu, her role as the Bride and as priestess meant she was the most powerful woman, certainly among the women, and as a result, with many of the local men. That had taken a lot of getting used to, and then it took a lot of getting used to its absence.

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