Burdens Of The Dead – Snippet 26


They went back to Marco’s attempts at reading, and, when that was done, Marco asked about something else that had been troubling him. He knew, by now, that Francisco had been a slave of the Barbary pirates for a time, and that was where he had acquired his linguistic skills and some of his medical knowledge. It was an area from which black Lotos was still smuggled into the lands to the north. And not two days ago he’d been called to help with a woman deep in the hallucinations the drug could cause.

“Black lotos…did you ever have to treat anyone with addiction to it?”

“No. I have seen a few, over in Icosium,” said Francisco. “Until I started teaching I spent my time with mercenary companies, M’lord. There are drunks, in mercenary companies, but not many with such expensive tastes. That’s for the nobility. And a mercenary company doesn’t keep such men, anyway. Drink is one thing, but black lotos? Makes a man useless for fighting. I know of no drug that would stop men craving drink, and I doubt if there is one that’ll stop them craving lotos. Only desiring to do so more than desiring the drug can do that. And that, m’lord, is a truly powerful desire.” He rubbed his nose. “Mind you, we did have a bombardier once. The drink was the death of him in the end…but the condottiere needed him in the siege. He was a genius with cannon and a fool with burned-wine. We kept him going by giving him just enough. While he was in that state you’d hardly know he was enslaved to the stuff…except he’d do anything to get more.”

Marco sighed. “I was hoping there’d be something in the Arabic medicine books.”

“There is no easy way out of it, M’lord,” said Francisco sympathetically. Clearly he wondered why Marco was asking — and clearly, he was not going to ask.

“I’ve heard the ink cap — you know, the mushroom, can make a man dislike alcohol, or rather alcohol dislike the man.” Marco offered that in hopes that it might trigger a similar memory.

Francisco chuckled a little. “Ah. Tippler’s bane. Makes them feel as if they had the hangover to end all hangovers. But I’ve no knowledge of it working on anything else.” He shook his head. “And it doesn’t stop a man wanting to drink, just stops him from keeping it down. When it comes to a man’s addictions, m’lord, whether it be drink or gold, there is never an easy answer.”

*   *   *

Maria watched how tenderly Kat held Alessia. The tentativeness had gone now, and there was…almost a hunger in the way she looked at the child. She didn’t want to ask — but really, she didn’t need to. She’d seen the same hunger in other would-be mothers coming to worship at the shrine of the mother. The difficult part would be talking about it. Not that Kat wouldn’t want to talk; Maria knew that, she could feel it — perhaps yet another gift of the Mother, that she could tell these things now. Just…the problem was, how to start.

At least she could be sure Katerina would give Alessia real love, not in the Casa Vecchi style of handing the child over to a nurse to care for. So when she went to the Underworld, as she must, her baby would not just be in good hands, but in the best. A little of her ever-present anxiety eased. Kat would be as much a mother to Alessia as if Maria herself was there. Kat would keep her safe.

Besides, no one could ever imagine Marco Valdosta mistreating a child; the very opposite, in fact. To judge by their first few days in Venice, Alessia was going to be a thoroughly spoiled little girl, pampered by everyone from Milord Lodovico to the lowest chambermaid. Marco was already talking about hiring some extra servants. Some people of real quality, he’d said. Well, she’d have to meet them first. If there was time…She knew Aidoneus would find her anywhere. There was no point in running away. Anyway, that was her bargain, and she’d stand by it.

Marco came in, fresh from his language lesson with what Maria guessed to be an ex-soldier, who was apparently teaching him to read Arabic script. The idea of learning to read not only another language, but other letters made Maria’s head hurt. Her grasp of the ordinary alphabet, which started late, had been hard enough, although it had grown easier with practice, to the point where it was no longer an effort to read Kat’s letters, even it was still a labor replying to them. His arrival did put the damper on speaking to Kat about fertility…and the mother-goddess. Men were entirely too sensitive about these things. Or squeamish. Besides, he might take it all too personally. Most men would be inclined to blame their wives; Marco would be inclined to blame himself.

“Francisco has persuaded me I have to do more exercise,” said Marco cheerfully, picking up Alessia. “I am getting fat.”

“You are not!” said Kat, flying to his defense. “You were too thin before.”

Privately, Maria agreed with both of them. Marco had been too thin, back in the old bad days, but now…the good life was perhaps a bit too good. He was getting soft.

Not like Benito. Benito was and would always be a restless soul, who found it difficult to sit still and who enjoyed fencing with his arms-master, or chasing game on foot in the rugged folds around Pantocrator when he could get away from his desk. And he’d throw himself into doing anything physical. Marco wasn’t like that, which probably made him more peaceful to sleep next to, but also was likely to turn him into one of those round little scholars with white hands like a woman.

Marco wagged his head at his wife. “No, I think he is right. And I’ve made up my mind I have to do something. For…reasons. Anyway, my problem is just what to do. Even taking a walk is impossible. People want to talk to me. The agents of the Council of Ten surround me. We both know I am a disaster at poling a boat. Dancing…no. And I really do not enjoy fencing. What do you suggest?”

“We could go over to the old villa on the mainland and you could ride. We could both ride, together.” Kat actually sounded as if, now that idea had been broached, she thought she might enjoy that.

“Isn’t that the horse getting the exercise?” asked Marco with a smile.

“No,” said Benito from the doorway. “Trust me on this one, brother. I would rather spend all day climbing ratlines, than spend an hour in the saddle. Or in my case, on and off the saddle. Perdition! A horse is a thing created by the devil, I swear.”

“Benito! Have you finished with the admiral?” said Maria, running to him.

Benito grinned evilly, hugging her. “I think I have nearly finished him off, yes. So I decided to spend some time with my wife and baby, while I still could. If I can ever get either of them away from my brother and his wife.”