Burdens Of The Dead – Snippet 08

Chapter 5


 Marco Valdosta sometimes wished for his old life back. When he had been Marco Felluci, with just enough money to put food on the table and a dream girl to see. The world had been a simpler place, then. He had been able to learn more about healing, work with sick children and ask for little else except the dream girl. Life was much more complicated since he had taken up the mantle of the lion.

True, the dream girl was now his wife, and that had its blessings. True, old Lodovico no longer wanted him dead, and that too was a good thing. Of course a lot of other people had taken over that desire, some of whom were a lot richer and more powerful than Lodovico. But they didn’t pursue the matter quite so relentlessly; and, besides, he had much better defenses.

There were so many conflicting demands on his time now. As the ward of the Doge Petro Dorma, as the grandson of Duke Enrico Dell’este, as a person to whom the Strega turned, as a player in various power blocks and merchant houses of Venice, there was less time for medicine than he liked.

He peered down at the book, devouring the words hungrily. The Quia Primos set out the concept of precisely calculating the dosage of medication for treatment in fractions and ratios. It was an area that most practitioners of medicine had a hazy grasp of, at best. Here was a precise mathematical way of doing what had been trial and error…not that Marco minded the trial part. It was the error that he hated.

Old Alberto cleared his throat. “A message for you, Milord.”

The message from Itzaak, begging him to come to the Campo Ghetto just when he’d finally been getting into Alkindus’ treatise, was not particularly welcome. Still, the elderly goldsmith was a good man, well thought of among the Strega. Not one to call him unnecessarily. He’d better go.

Marco and Katerina remained in the Casa Montescue even though he could have easily set up an establishment of his own now. He made his way from his study down to the water door. To be honest he hoped to avoid running into his father-in-law. Not that he didn’t like old Lodovico, but he’d inevitably ask when he’d be getting a grandson.

And that just didn’t seem to be happening, despite plenty of effort by Marco and his wife. The fact that she still wasn’t pregnant was worrying Marco. It was not good either for their relationship or for the future of Venice.

The Lion of St. Mark needed someone that was of the blood of the four first families — the longi of the Casa Vecchi longi. Back then they’d been anything but noble, but only the families Lacosto, Terrio, Montescue and Valdosta could take up the mantle and become one with the great ancient power that defended Venice. The Lacosto had gone first, taken in one of the plagues that swept Venice periodically. Not even the Lion could prevent plague, it seemed. And the Terrio had followed, more recently, cut down by the same — which made Marco wonder, now and again, if this had been “just” a plague, or the meddling of something else, something working so subtly that not even the Lion had noticed. Of the Montescues, only old Lodovico and Katerina survived. And of the Valdosta blood — not name — there was only him left. But the truth was, that was not what weighed with him, although he knew it should. It was that Kat wanted a baby…and to please her, so did he. He liked babies anyway; he’d be happy surrounded by a veritable swarm of them.

Marco was getting to the point of considering the various magical and medical interventions. Only…he was well enough versed in both to know that that area was full of quackery and fakery. He’d also postponed asking advice of the part of him he shared, willingly, with the Lion. The matter was…personal. Difficult even to talk about to himself, let alone something that was all of Venice and her marshes. It would feel like he was telling all of them.

He didn’t manage to avoid Lodovico, but the old man was deep in conversation with his friend Admiral Duoro. They were sharing wine in a little reception-room off the hall that led to the water-door, so he nodded respectfully at both of them, and tried not to make it appear that he wanted to hurry past them.

He must have succeeded a little too well. His grandfather-in-law smiled and gestured to him. “Ah Marco. Come and join us. We were just discussing Alexis of Constantinople’s likely reactions to the demands we made for reparations for his ships and their part in the siege of Corfu.”

Marco shook his head. “The politics of Venice at home are too rich for my blood, Lodovico, let alone the politics of Byzantium.”

“They’re one and the same, Marco,” said Lodovico, but he must have realized that the only reason Marco was down here was because he had somewhere to go. “Trade is our lifeblood. So where are you off to, young man? More sick canal brats?”

“Not this time, milord. A call to see an old friend. A goldsmith.” Marco knew Lodovico would know exactly of whom he spoke, but he didn’t want to spell it out to Admiral Douro. The man was undoubtedly one of the masked council of ten that effectively ran Venice.

Admiral Douro snorted into his wine. “Going to see old Itzaak, are you? Prod him a bit for information from those Strega connections of his about what is happening in Constantinople and Outremer.”

“I try to stay away from politics,” repeated Marco.

So much, thought Marco, for not telling him. The Council of Ten’s spies were probably aware of what he had for breakfast and which page of what book he was on. For his own safety and good, no doubt.

“I’m sure it will be about some medicine or a new instrument for surgery. I try to stay away from politics, as I said.”

“Ah, but will politics stay away from you?” asked the old admiral, straightening his stiff leg.

Somehow Marco doubted that it would, even though he wanted it to. He expected Itzaak to once again beg him to involve himself with the local Strega, which would be more politics. It was always politics. Plagues were simpler.

*   *   *

But when he got there, he found that the old goldsmith actually wanted to tell him about Constantinople. About gold coming from the territories allied to, or controlled by, Grand Duke Jagiellon, and the implications of treachery.

“I don’t want to involve you in this, Marco. But I do need the Council of Ten told, without letting them know it came from me. The Byzantine emperor is getting gold, a lot of gold, from the east…since Corfu. It can only come from the monster of Vilna.”

Marco knew a little of the old cabbalistic magician’s background, enough to know that he’d been born elsewhere. The Campo Ghetto was a place of refugees.

“In Jagiellon’s father’s time, Jagiellon led the mobs that came to rape and steal and kill Jews,” said Itzaak quietly. “It was politics, of course, but it was not necessary for him to do that in person. Orders were given and mobs went out. But it was his pleasure. And by all accounts he’s delved into darker things since then, Marco. He must be opposed; hopefully, stopped. If Alexis is getting gold from Jagiellon, he is, without a single doubt, getting other things, darker things. Gold from the monster of Vilna always comes with so many strings attached that the man who takes it will become a puppet, whether he knows it or not. The man who sold me this gold was running again, and told me that I should run, too. But sooner or later we’ll run out of space to run. I have found friends, peace of mind, and a little security here. I am not minded to lose them.”

“I’ll pass it on,” said Marco. “But are you sure of this, Itzaak? The Council wants verifiable information, not just rumors.”

Itzaak’s long face grew longer. “Marco Valdosta, I give you my word, by the Temple of King David. My little talent never fails me. The gold the emperor Alexis is spending came from Lithuania. Recently.”

Marco sighed. “Your word is good enough for me, Itzaak, but if I go straight back with this, they will know that the information came from you, and there are those who don’t love the Streghira, or the Jews. You must realize I am watched. So at least I will buy a small gift for my Katerina. And then proceed to several other places, some of them where I will be quite alone. A few hours won’t make that much difference, and perhaps this will make them think my news came from further-roaming creatures than you.” The tritons, the merfolk, he thought. He would go and spend a solitary half hour in that water-chapel.

Itzaak shrugged. “Sometimes heartbeats do. But not this time, I think; I believe that you are right. And perhaps it would be best to — confuse the source. Now, I have some beautiful inlay work on these brooches here, Marco. Done in the Mussulman style, from Outremer. The craftsmanship is superb.”