Burdens Of The Dead – Snippet 11

 Chapter 8


The news of evil magic might be well-hidden from Marco Valdosta, but there were a fair number of canalers who brought Marco the news that a new quack-healer had come to town.

They didn’t see him lasting too long, though. “He doesn’t know much,” said Alfredo, scornfully. “Ignatius went to see him about that tightness of his chest, and he told him to try opening his windows. No potions or anything, and then he wanted to charge Ignatius a copper too. You can imagine just where Iggy told him he could look for it. Mind, the fellow’s got a shelf of foreign-tongue books. He looks the part. Just knows nothing. Everyone knows the air is full of poisonous humors, especially at night.”

Marco had by now a good insight into the working of the minds of the popula minuta of Venice’s canals. He’d learned, early, that people needed to believe, and to have something to hang that belief onto. He always gave a measure of help to that belief these days. Marco’s patients often got better and that helped people believe…but so did some of the victims of the frauds and the charlatans that the desperate poor took themselves to. Even the better off and well-educated could believe in the most blatant fakery, and not all of the eminent and expensive physicians were anything but ignorant charlatans themselves. Marco had come to realize that the human body was a resilient thing, which would heal itself as often as not. Still. It was a wise physician who gave the mind something to use to work on the body with,

Marco had been inside Ignatius the pewter-smith’s noisesome little workroom. It sounded to him as if the new healer’s advice might have been quite good. But he’d delivered that advice without the trappings that made it palatable, and thus to be rigorously obeyed. A cantrip on a scroll, which the patient was told needed to flutter in the breeze to be effective, would have achieved the same thing, and the patient would see the visible spell moving in the open window and feel that it was working. How not? There were the magic words, right there, clearing the air that passed them! Marco wondered about the books though. If the man thought to use props like that…

A few days later, another story about the new charlatan reached Marco’s ears. The scornful verdict was that the new fellow was nothing but incompetent. “He wanted to know my cousin’s weight, and then he went and peered in those books of his. A real doctor, like yourself, M’lord, knows how to treat a man’s sickness. This one had to go and look inside his books and then weighed out some rubbish on a little scale, like one that the goldsmiths use.”

In the minds of the ordinary folk, books were a powerful testimony to intellect. Using them was not.

Contrary to his informant’s intentions, Marco was impressed rather than amused by the fellow’s “incompetence,” and had added two traces together. The man had showed up — admittedly not in the right part of town — at the time that the Lion had detected the use of some dark magic. He made a decision to look him up, and more importantly to see what these books were. Marco knew full well that neither he nor any other physician knew everything, and the weight of the patient and precise weight of the dose sounded like the advice in Alkindus, that he had been reading himself not two weeks back.

He found the man in his rooms above the Marciano sotoportego, customer-less, with his feet up, reading, and drinking beer. Marco had not often seen the latter two things being done together, and particularly not in this part of town — and even more particularly reading a book that was not in Frankish or even a western script. The rooms were neat enough, and more than clean enough, and breathed an air of shabby gentility. More to the point, they did not stink, neither of chemicals nor of dark magic, nor of rotting things, and no more than was normal of the smell of the canals.

The man appeared more irritated with being disturbed in his beer and reading, than in need of customers or impressed by the quality of the person who just walked in. “And what might I do for you, M’lord?” he asked, lazily, not leaping to his feet to bow. Not in fact moving at all, his eyes going back to the book.

“Well, you could tell me what you were reading,” said Marco, slightly refreshed rather than affronted by his behavior.

“Ah. You do not seek a love philter? That’s a change.”

Marco blushed. The thought of help with fertility was never that far from his mind these days. But he hadn’t come for that reason…precisely. Though since it was never far from his thoughts, it certainly was possible that somewhere in the back of those thoughts…

Marco might be taken with the lack of formality and respect, but his escort loitering just outside on the stairs felt differently about the matter. The escort coughed.

“That’s no real cough,” said the man in the chair. “Go away and come back when you are really sick.”

“I think it’s a warning sign, not a sickness in itself,” grated the gondolier who had brought Marco here. “The city of Venice expects more respect for its favorite son. I suggest you get up and bow and show some respect to M’Lord Valdosta, before I toss you into the canal. And think yourself lucky if I just do that, pizza da merda. If I walk off and tell people about it, they’ll treat you to drinking the canal dry.”

The tall, slightly pot-bellied man stood up. He wore a well-worn sword, and didn’t look overly worried, but he bowed. “My mistake. I am new to Venice. What can I do for you M’Lord?” Like his rooms, his clothing showed shabby gentility. Perhaps he was more interested in paying for books than cloth.

“I apologize for disturbing you,” said Marco, both embarrassed and amused. The sword — Marco was of Ferrara blood, after all, and steel-knowledge was in his blood — was plain but of good quality. It did not match with the persona of a normal charlatan at all. An out-of-work mercenary — an officer perhaps?

“Not at all, M’lord. Alkindus can wait.” He carefully put a marker in the book.

Marco grimaced. “It’s been waiting long enough for me. But…are you reading it in the original?”

“Not the original, no. I’m not made of money. A copy merely. But in Arabic. Not as full of errors as the translations.”

Marco was impressed. “You’re a scholar sir! I must introduce you to Dottore Felice at the Accademia.”

But the man shook his head. “I wouldn’t. I’d tell him he was a fat useless self-opinionated fraud. I’ve little time for the likes of him. You can’t learn a language just from books, any more than you can learn medicine just from them.”

That was a sentiment Marco found himself in perfect agreement with. “So…you are a physician then, and a scholar?”

The man shrugged. “I’m someone who reads a bit, and seen a great deal. I make no claim on being physician or a chirurgeon. I’ve done both as well as I can, when there was a need.”

“Oh. I thought you’d set yourself up as a doctor. It appears you’ve been treating people and charging them a fee.”

“I learned along with the smattering of medicine I have picked up, that most people regard advice as worth what it cost them. Besides, it helps to pay for the beer. People see the books and jump to conclusions. They assume either I’m a magician or doctor, and doctoring is something I have more experience of, and is safer to be taken for. I give them good advice, charge them for it, they don’t like it and then they leave me alone.”

“Doesn’t that make paying for the beer difficult?” Marco was thoroughly amused by now, and also very curious.

“It does. But by then I have picked up a few other jobs, teaching usually. And love philters sell at quite amazing prices and with great frequency. Ones that help for the smell of the breath even work sometimes. Now, M’lord, what can I do for you? What brings you here to my humble abode?”

“Curiosity,” said Marco, not entirely believing him. The man plainly knew more about medicine than many an academic, simply by his choice of reading matter. He was probably a sell-sword, and a good one, by his attitude…but there was still the matter of the books. Caesar had been able to read, but had not done so by choice, and had certainly never chosen to read medical texts.

If this man was in fact doing so. He might be pretending in order to impress people. Marco remembered the opening paragraphs of the book well enough. “I have a translation of the book. How does it start in your version?” There, that was enough to tell him if the man had actually read the book, without sounding as if Marco was setting a test.

The man took a pull of his beer and intoned solemnly in a foreign tongue, and then in Frankish repeated the gist of the opening Marco recalled. He did it all without referring to the book, so his reading skills may have been unproven, but his knowledge was not. “I have read it too often,” he said. “He’s wrong about a lot of things, but I think he’s right about precise quantities. After all, you use precise quantities of black powder for cannon. Too much will kill the cannoneer and too little won’t throw a cannon-ball.”

That was true too, but it was not the simile most non-military people might have chosen. He’d been a soldier, of that Marco was certain. So what was he really doing in Venice? And how was it that he read Arabic, and medical books? He could claim otherwise, but he was a healer and cared about healing, Marco suspected. There was a little hint of irritation when he talked about people ignoring his advice. And yet…that black magic had come into Venice recently. Were black magic and healing even remotely compatible? Would a healer ever be desperate enough to use black magic? Best to keep an eye on this odd stranger, and if it was him, well, best to have the Lion close. “So as you say that you teach, perhaps you would consider teaching me enough of the language to be able to read those?” asked Marco.

The fellow pulled a face. “I could teach you enough to start reading in Arabic. But it’ll cost you enough to keep me in beer for a while. And it’d be years before you can read the language well enough for Alkindus. I’m not staying years, milord.”

He was at least honest, it seemed. And less evasive than Dottore Felice had been when Marco had suggested learning Arabic. “Is it worth making a start?” asked Marco

The man grinned. “To me it is. To you M’lord, it depends on what you make of it.”

The idea intrigued Marco, and it would enable him to watch this fellow. He wasn’t sure where the extra time would come from, but it would have to be found. Besides, this was Venice, where even the slightest knowledge of another language generally had its uses.