Burdens Of The Dead – Snippet 30


“To destroy it for ever so that I can have a better world for my daughter,” said Benito, lightly. “That’s what I want, but it is not what I’ll get.”

Androcles was amused now. “And what do you hope to get?

“I need to take a fleet all the way to Constantinople. In the teeth of winter. That is neither wise nor easy. But I believe it must be done. So we will do it. But I could use some help with the weather.”

Juliette snorted delicately. “Try gods.”

Benito ignored the comment. “You are more weather wise than we humans are. And I have heard tell you can communicate over long distances.”

Androcles wagged his head a bit. “It would be hard to be less weather wise than humans. And sound travels well underwater. We can hear sounds ten or twelve leagues away.”

“There are ports along the way, or at least sheltered anchorages we can use — if we are not caught too far from them. What I want is some kind of advance warning.”

“It’s not wise to cheat the sea of its prey,” said Androcles, with the air of someone testing waters.

Benito shrugged. “Please. This is me you are talking to. I’m not wise.”

“He even cheated the Lord of the Dead of his bride,” Juliette reminded all of them. With cautious admiration.

Benito squeezed Maria’s shoulder. “As much as I was able.”

“More than most humans,” said Androcles, but he nodded. “Very well. Something can be arranged. But there is a price.”

“If we can afford it, it is yours,” said Benito, sounding as if he was one of the best bargainers on the canals. He probably was, thought Maria, with an inward smile to herself. He’d started hard and young, no matter where he’d risen to.

“Ah. Nothing you cannot afford. A drop of your blood on the water when you wish to call us, and a little something that Venice can afford. Besides the fact that we owe the healer, it seems wise to be on the right side of you,” said Androcles disarmingly.

“And he is my god-daughter’s father,” said Juliette, coming forward to touch Alessia.

“What is it that you want?” asked Benito.

“A piece of water to call our own. A place where no-one fouls and no one fishes. A couple of acres here, within the Lion’s shelter, that we can call our own. If ill times are coming, we’ll need it.” By the sudden sober look on the triton’s face, this had been something the mer-folk had long desired. Maria understood. Sanctuary, under the shadow of the Lion…valuable. Worth, to them, more than pearls. If they could not be safe with the Lion to guard, they could not be safe anywhere.

Benito nodded. Maria knew it would not be easy to police, although Doge Petro could make it legally so at the stroke of a pen. She was a canaler. You could hardly be that without knowing that the writ of the law as to fishing rights was often trespassed on, and the offenders were seldom caught. And she had a strong feeling these were not folk you could casually give your word to. So she said so.

“We’ll tell you who breaks the bargain. There are always some who will go too far for fish.” Juliette looked pointedly at the triton

He grinned, showing sharp teeth. “It will be up to you landfolk to punish them. We will know if you do not.”

Benito nodded. “I will talk to Petro about it, but I think I can safely promise it. He knows the value of sanctuary — and allies.”

Maria planned to take it a step further. She’d talk to the canalers about it. There’d be enough of them heading out with her Benito. It was not a deal to be turned down. The canal people were superstitious enough to keep each other out of the protected water, just in case.

Marco, who still practiced most of his medicine among the Venice’s poor and probably knew them as well as Maria did, obviously thought likewise. “I will talk to the canalers. Keeping their loved ones safe from the ravages of the sea while on this voyage is a bargain they’ll find hard to refuse, I think. And if they agree…well, their word is good. With all respect to Petro, it would be of more value than any piece of pap…”

They all felt it then. A cold that had nothing to do with temperature, the shiver down the spine, the touch at the back of the neck. And the power, oh yes, the power. The two merpeople vanished. Slipped away under the water like ghosts. Someone else had entered the water-chapel, although the door was still closed. They could all feel his cold presence behind them. Maria was chilled to the bone, and she held tightly onto Benito and her daughter.

They turned, slowly, to face Aidoneus, lord of the cold halls of the dead. Once again, Maria was struck by his beauty. How could a thing that ruled the dead be so handsome?

He inclined his head, unsmiling. “My bride,” he said.

She had known this was coming. She just had hoped for more time. But he would come when he would come, by his own calendar — and by his calendar, winter was about to begin.

Maria felt Benito tense. “For four months,” she said calmly, squeezing Benito’s shoulder. “That was our bargain. I honor my bargains. Benito will honor his.”

Aidoneus nodded. “I will keep her safe. And keep my bargain.”

Maria took a deep breath. “And him. Now…I need to bid them goodbye.” Her voice cracked slightly. She had meant to keep her self-control. But…four months. Four months of no Benito. No little ‘Lessi…Four months among the dead, four months being the sole living creature in those cold, silent halls…already she ached fiercely for them, and she had not said goodbye.

“If you don’t want…” Benito began.

Maria shook her head, fiercely. “A bargain is a bargain. I keep mine. And I’ll be back in the spring. I promise.”

Benito took a deep breath. “Or I’ll be there to fetch you. And this time…” He left the threat unspoken.

“I will keep my bargain too,” said Aidoneus to Benito, gravely, and with no sign of insult. “Not because that is my nature, but I would be foolish not to. She is not someone to anger, lightly. And I need her. She brings life to my lands. That is no small thing.”

Benito grimaced, and being Benito, could not forbear but try for a joke of some kind. She understood why. The cold…it froze a man’s soul. No wonder Aidoneus wanted Maria’s fire. “And she throws plates. And anything else she can get her hands on. And she has a temper and a voice that will probably blow those mists of yours away. Very well. I accept it. But I don’t have to like it.”

Benito turned to his wife and folded her in his arms, a stocky, short man, with muscles like rope, binding her. She could feel his anger and his sadness. And she could feel that he loved her, that if he could he would take her place, he would go again to the land of the dead to bring her out.

“I’ve done it once,” he said quietly to her, confirming what she felt. “If need be I’ll do it twice.”

She hugged him, unable to speak. She kissed and cried a little over her baby. And then she put her child in her father’s arms, and turned away and walked beside Aidoneus into the misty archway that had opened ahead of them. It was quite the hardest thing she’d ever done. If she’d turned back to see him and their daughter standing there beside the greenish water of the water-chapel…she knew she’d fail.

But she had a bargain to keep.