Burdens Of The Dead – Snippet 10

 Chapter 7


Poulo Bourgo, once a mercenary, and before that one of the bravos for the Casa Dandelo, the slave traders of Venice, had returned to the canals he thought he’d left behind forever. He did not return as a mere tool controlled from afar, however. The Black Brain had learned that such control was a flag of warning to the Lion of Etruria, the elder neutral power that guarded Venice. So Chernobog had instead used the flesh and mind of his sendling to imprint his general commands and desires onto Bourgo.

In essence, the Black Brain sent Poulo Bourgo back to Venice with a compulsion that over-rode his logic or his fear. He thought himself to be still Bourgo, but he was not the man he had once been, in mind any more than in his appearance or in mind. He now carried a parasite-demon within him, a creature of magic and slime, that was inactive — but there, ready to do Chernobog’s will. The parasite was also something of a protector, giving Bourgo the ability to recover quickly from almost any wound.

So Poulo was loose and free…apparently. His memory was clouded of just how he’d gotten back to Venice. But he knew where he was going despite the savage scars on his face, scarring that, along with damage to the cheekbones, changed the shape of the face, and left him with a permanent rictus. His hair, once curly thick and black, was now a sparse white fringe around his misshapen ears. Until and unless people looked at his eyes they were inclined to offer the oldster a seat or charity. When and if they did look into his eyes, they went elsewhere in a hurry. If they could.

“Campo Gallia?” said the gondolier. “No, old man. That’s a part of town that you should stay out of. I don’t go down there myself…”

He looked up into Poulo’s eyes, then, and found that he’d changed his mind.

A twist of gulls flapped after them, as they might follow a fishing vessel.

*   *   *

Malaki Molados was a dealer in used furniture. And a fence, procurer, pimp, and a supplier of philtres and various drugs. He was not obviously associated with the now destroyed Casa Dandelo, but the linkage was there.

He was careful to keep it hidden. Venice was a fairly amoral society, and prostitution was barely considered a vice. The by-product of trying to retain family fortunes by restricting marriage to the youngest son of the Casa had created a large supply of affluent custom, and of course there were the infamous “nunneries” to which daughters of the noble houses were sent along with a suitable endowment, and often no desire to be a nun, or to behave like one.

Some things, however, even went beyond the pale here in Venice. Casa Dandelo had trafficked in slaves, and were eventually destroyed for it. They’d paid well, though, and that was all that ever interested Molados.

He was always polite to a potential customer, even if they had apparently come looking for a spare cassone. Sometimes that was indeed what they wanted, sometimes to sell goods of questionable origins, and sometimes to buy…other things. How those customers got in touch with each other, and how they were able to recognize each other was a mystery to Molados. But they did somehow.

And sent customers to him. So he bowed to the scruffy slightly ill-smelling fellow with the shock of white hair who walked into his shop as if he owned the place.

He was jerked upright by a harsh hand. “Didn’t recognize me, did you, Malaki?”

He still didn’t. But he had a sharp answer for anyone who took liberties. This was a bad neighborhood, but no-one tried rough stuff with Molados. Word had got around. They left him alone and didn’t get cut up. He had sewed weights and long razors into the edges of his short cloak, and more razor blades into the edge of his hat. He went for them now.

The white-haired man slapped Molados’ hat off, and grabbed his wrists. “Even in these parts, Malaki, they’ll kill someone who bought children off the Dandelos. Don’t make me point that out to them. I know too much.”

Who was this fellow? He was strong as an ox, despite his elderly appearance.

“I’ve got influence…” Molados tried to put a ferocious edge in his voice. He had a bad feeling he’d failed.

“With your customers. Yes, you do — and I intend to use it. Now, who is still in business with the black lotos?”

“I don’t…”

“Don’t make me use your own razor on you. You’d wouldn’t look good with an extra smile. You know who they are, and the addicts will never give it up.”

Molados knew that one of the two of them was going to have to die, and he’d rather that it wasn’t him. He talked, playing for time, knowing full well that when the rich and powerful people he’d betrayed caught up with him he was going to be killed for doing so.

He had to kill this man. He had a final hold-out, the razor in his boot top. He dropped and snatched it out, slashing.

Blood sprayed.

Only it didn’t have the effect it normally had. The white-haired man slapped the blade out of his hands.

And as Malaki watched, horrified, the cut throat oozed a thick clear slime and knitted itself. The bleeding stopped.

So, very rapidly, did his scream.

*   *   *

The great winged Lion of St. Mark was an ancient and powerful magical creature, and it was as much part of the Venetian lagoons and marshes as the marshes were part of it. It defended and watched over them, and, according to the compact with first four families, the four who had dared to defend the saint, it was a part of them too. Marco Valdosta wore the mantle now — and thus he was suddenly aware of a dark working, somewhere in Cannaregio. It had the reek of the North, of Chernobog, about it. But how could such a thing have passed the wards of the Lion’s territory? The Lion felt unease, which transmitted itself to Marco.

Marco had been in the act of making love to his wife, and the reminder that he no longer enjoyed any privacy was hardly a welcome one. But while the loving was sweet, there was, at this time of day, some desperation in it. They had been watching Kat’s cycles carefully, and working on yet another worried attempt at conception.

His irritation was plainly something the vast otherness was aware of, and amused by. But there was a worry behind that amusement as well. The lion wanted that child too, Marco realized. Was it his mother’s blood, he thought wryly, with Benito and himself both trapped in relationships of three?

Kat touched his cheek gently. “What’s wrong?” she asked.

A hard question to answer. While he was still groping, she said in a small voice, “It’s me, isn’t it?”

“No! A thousand times no.” Marco said, hugging her, holding her. “It’s just…well, something magical and evil stirred in the city.”

“How…? Oh.” She colored. “Doesn’t he know there are times we need to be alone?”

“Um… The Lion is part of me, Katerina. Not something I can shut off at will.” Marco felt awkward and embarrassed and not in the least like continuing what he had been doing.

Which, by the look on Kat’s face, was just as well. She sat up, pulled the cover around her shoulders. “I love you, Marco, but…”

“If it is any comfort, the Lion really did not want to disturb us. It, er, wants us to succeed. But something very unpleasant and magical that should not be able to happen, just did.”

“What?” she asked.

“Someone just died…but lived anyway. And no, I don’t know why that was evil. I just have some idea of where it happened. I’m going to have to go and have a look.”

“I’ll come with you.” She stood up.

“It might be a good idea if you put some clothes on first.”

She grinned, the same wide mouthed grin that had told him they were kindred spirits when he’d first seen it across the grand canal. “You too, Marco.”

It was going to be difficult for Venice’s most famous couple to travel anonymously. Not for the first time Marco wished that he was as at ease as his brother was, on the pan-tiled roofs. They were going, Marco knew, to one of the poorer quarters of Cannaregio, not somewhere that would draw their visit for any reason but charity. That was easily enough believed, although it would never fool the magic-user. Anyway, as Kat was with him, Marco wanted agents of the Council of Ten as bodyguards. He had the strength of the Lion to draw on, but they could both be physically killed, despite that.

Kat was taking no chances, guards or no guards. She checked her wheel-lock pistol and put it into her reticule, even before the task of dressing herself with Marco’s help. He was at least deft at it, and a fair substitute for a lady’s maid by now, he thought ruefully. By the time that they arrived in the sad, mean, garbage-strewn part of the Lion’s domain, with a basket of goods for the local priest, the Lion in Marco felt that this spell had been worked in…and it was gone.

The agent of the Council of Ten who was serving as their gondolier spat in the water. That briefly improved its quality. “Bad part of town, M’lord. Someone around here is trafficking black lotos. But we haven’t pinned it down. It’s causing a lot of stolen goods to move round here. If you hear anything, M’lord, in the course of your doctoring…”

Marco’s heart sank. They’d never quite managed to eliminate the trade. And those who were addicted to it, would do anything, anything at all, when they needed it. Even the blackest of blood magic. And somehow one form of corruption always sought out another.

They went past the buyers of old furniture and on to the local church. The priest was a sad, rather beaten-looking man, stoop-shouldered and beginning to go bald. It was plain that the last thing he had been expecting this afternoon was a visit from the Doge’s ward. His front parlor was a little untidy and he himself was rubbing sleep from his eyes. He was amazed, and suitably grateful and not a little suspicious and puzzled at the visit.

“I’ve seen several patients lately from his area,” said Marco, by way of an explanation. “I was wondering…are there any problems? Above and beyond the normal poverty?” He probed delicately.

The priest nodded. “There are, M’lord. I think lotos. But really I can’t say where it comes from.”

Can’t or won’t? Marco wondered. The blue was fairly cheap and grew — or could be grown — in the freshwater parts of the marshes. It was only mildly addictive, and frequently provided rather unpleasant side-effects. Oddly, it left more of a mark on its users than the black. Little things the observant physician could pick up, a nervous tic, bloodshot eyes. That wasn’t something he’d seen a lot of here in the city, despite the availability and the price. This wasn’t the sort of neighborhood you’d look to find addicts of the black. It was too expensive.

They talked a while of the medical problems, and the issues with water, and the poverty and — because they were Venetians — of the trade situation. But if the priest knew anything about practitioners of dark arts in his parish he wasn’t saying. Marco did not wish to seem like the fanatical Bishop Sachs seeing witchcraft under every bed. He knew Venice had its share. But he had thought — from his own involvement in it — that it was fairly benign.

They left after polite farewells and promises to see if anything could be done about the shortage of potable water.

Back in the gondola, Marco noticed that Kat was frowning. “What’s wrong?” he asked.

“He wasn’t pleased to see you.”

“I don’t suppose everybody has to be,” said Marco with a smile. “You know I do have some enemies, Kat. Some even blame me for Benito. Recchia’s family, the Capuletti. The Brunelli relations and by blows…I don’t try to be their foe but they are better at grudges than reconciliation. And this is Venice. Everyone is related to someone.”

“Maybe that’s it. But you’re loved by the populi minuta, Marco. He must know that. And his house smelled odd.”

“Odd? In what way, Kat?”

“Of fear, I think. It has a smell,” said his beloved, seriously.