Burdens Of The Dead – Snippet 15

 Chapter 12


Benito was surprised at how much he was longing for a sight of Venice, of his brother…even of Kat. He grinned. She’d been right about what he should have done about Maria too, the vixen. But his desire to see the city on the horizon was thwarted by the sea-mist clinging to the lagoon, a harbinger of autumn. A reminder of what was to come between him and Maria, it obscured everything. The vessel had to creep through the Lidi channel under oars, the leadsman calling depths as the moved out of the Adriatic and into the waters of the Venetian lagoon.

And then, as if swept by a down-draft from the Wing of the great Lion of St. Marco, a breeze off the sea stirred the mist, roiled it and rolled it away to reveal the city in the gold of morning sunlight, coming up out of the last clinging mist on the water.

“I’d forgotten just how beautiful it could be,” said Maria from beside him. “It’s best seen from out here. It hides the bits you’d rather not see.”

“And you can’t smell the canals from here either,” said Benito, with a grin. “To think I dived for Kat’s Strega stuff in that water, once.”

“Huh,” said Maria smiling back at him, “And nearly drowned her, from what I heard.”

Benito shrugged. “Well, I was young. Inexperienced. I had to get her blouse wet somehow. I thought pretending to hide in the water from the Schioppies was pretty clever back then. And she nearly pronged me with a boat-hook.”

“Not surprising really,” said Maria, tartly.

“But I am reformed now,” said Benito patting her behind suggestively.

She rolled her eyes, still smiling though. “You aren’t. But I love you anyway, Benito. It will be good to see them again, even if I don’t tell Katerina you were ogling her breasts.”

“Whatever you do, don’t tell Marco. He’s got no sense of humor about that sort of thing.”

“Now I have something to keep you to good behavior,” she said, hugging him against her hip. Obviously she too was feeling the closeness of autumn and parting.

*   *   *

Marco Valdosta was at his daily clinic, in one of his favorite places, the chapel of St. Raphaella. And he was a worried man. This was the second patient he’d seen — in a poor quarter of town — showing the signs of addiction to black lotos. Denying it of course, but Marco could not see what else it could be.

But…black lotos was expensive. Always had been, and since Petro had become Doge, and had tried to destroy the trade, more so. So what was it doing down here? And what sort of havoc could it wreak among the poor and their families?

He was faintly surprised to recognize the priest he and Kat had met in Cannaregio, accompanying a woman, wringing her hands in despair.

“M’lor’ Valdosta,” said the priest humbly, “I hope I do not presume too much on having met you that once, but I need some help with this young woman. She is, er, rather beyond me in class and breeding. But she has no one to turn to and I wondered if you could help her in any way.”

The woman bit her lip and looked down. “No one can help me,” she said in a sad small voice, “My Mia is gone. I’ve lost her.”

She wore worn and somewhat threadbare clothes with neat darns, but her accent spoke of education and a wealthy upbringing. She walked away, almost as if blind, to stand in front of one of the small tryptichs in the chapel, the one showing Mary with the baby Jesus.

“She, um, is the bastard daughter of one the Casa Vecchi families,” the priest explained. “The Casa Brunelli. They saw to her education and welfare, until, well the attack by the Milanese, when Brunelli fell from…prominence.”

Marco knew that he was largely responsible for that fall. That there might have been innocent peripheral damage had never occurred to him. “Oh…”

“She found a place as a governess to some very young children in the house of one of the curti,” continued the priest He scowled. “The master of the house seduced her, got her pregnant — which was more than he could do with his second wife — and she, jealous woman, said she had to go. But he provided for her and the babe…”

“The baby got sick and died?” asked Marco. He’d dealt with that melancholia before.

“Worse. The child disappeared. She can’t find her or any trace of her. Swears she never took her eyes off her. She was a lovely little girl.”

The priest sighed. “But around here it would only be a few seconds and the child is into a canal. Anyway, the merchant swears she neglected the babe, and won’t pay her keep. And she is so upset she can’t look after herself. I’ve been trying to help, but mine is a poor parish. And she’s gently bred. So…um… I just wondered if you could put out some feelers. If she could find work with some children again — it’s only with children that she seems to be herself. She needs help, M’lord. She needs to be back among her own kind. And she loves children.”

“I’ll see what I can do,” said Marco, doubtfully. Guilt combined sympathy here, though. He and Benito had been poor and protector-less on the canals of Venice. His brother had been good at living like that, but he had not. And he had not had the terrible melancholia to cope with too. She was a pretty little woman, despite the signs of distress. “I’ll find something for her.”

“Thank you M’Lord,” said the priest earnestly.

“What is her name?”

“Marissa di Pantara.”

Marco knew of the family. They had had money, once. Like so many, the trade that made Venice wealthy was not kind to everyone, and Fortuna could not smile upon all.

*   *   *

Benito found that time had not dulled Venice’s memory when they stepped ashore at the Fondamenta Zattere Ponto Lungo. He got waves, cat-calls and whistles…and a few fluttery eyelashes and blown kisses and more waves from upper-story windows. Maria glared at them, hard enough to cause a few windows to be hastily closed.

“Here you are, with a wife and baby, and they still make eyes at you! Shameless!” She glared at him from under lowered brows.

“Ah yes,” said Benito, waving back — and ducking. “Makes you wonder what sort of woman could make me leave all this and go back to a war, living off boiled roots and Kakotrigi wine for her, to say nothing of breaking into a besieged fortress or two.”

Maria looked away, a bit guiltily, and shook her head. “You really can take the wind out of a woman’s sails, Benito. But they’d better stick to waving.”

“They’ll have to unless they plan to go to Constantinople. Waving goodbye is all the opportunity they’ll have. Now let’s take a gondola to Marco and Kat. I spoke to Captain Parosos. He’ll have our baggage sent there for us.”

So they found a gondola.

The women — and men — still waved and grinned. Some shouted “Keep him off the bridges!”

“Seems like they remember young Benito,” said the gondolier to Maria.

“They’d better not all be remembering him,” said Maria tartly. “And stop smirking.”

As the gondola poled on through the familiar canals of Venice, nostalgia and remembrance tugged at both of them. “I’d forgotten how much I loved and hated this place, ‘nito,” said Maria quietly. “I don’t think I even knew back then that I felt that way away about it.”

“Loved, I understand,” said Benito, holding his daughter. “But hated?”

“Well, the cold in winter. And being wet and just never being able to get really warm and dry.”

Benito nodded. “Being hungry, being scared too. I suppose that that could have happened anywhere though.”

“But it did happen here. And the buildings and the water bring it all back to me. I wouldn’t mind poling a boat again, though. Not in the rain in winter though.”

“Ach, your old boat’s still on blocks at Similano’s yard,” said the gondolier.

“I told Rosa to sell it,” said Maria.

“I reckon she thought you’d be back and need it,” said the gondolier, spitting in the water. “La Serenissima never lets go of you, really. I was Outremer and in Trebizond for nearly ten years.”

“The other thing about Venice is you can never be alone, and without someone knowing what you’re doing,” she said acerbically.

“Yes, I missed that too,” said the gondolier cheerfully. “Here we are. The Casa Montescue.”

The Casa’s staff was of course overwhelmed with excitement and delight with the arrival of Benito. So was Kat. Marco was out helping the sick, as usual. A runner was sent to find him.

Benito had enough faith in his brother to know he’d be delighted to know that he and Katerina were to be Alessia’s wards. Delighted? That was putting it mildly. There would be a baby in the house at last. And maybe…maybe the presence of one baby would make enough magic to bring another.