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This Rough Magic: Chapter One

       Last updated: Wednesday, July 9, 2003 23:27 EDT




Autumn, 1538 A.D.

    Benito Valdosta, latterly a gentleman of the Case Vecchie of Venice, walked along a narrow alleyway in the most dubious part of Cannaregio, quite a long time after midnight. Benito sauntered in the shadows, just hoping someone would make his day. Women! Women, as every man on earth knew, were the source of all the damned trouble in the world. And then some extra, he thought bitterly.

    No one obliged him. Even in the clothes of the Case Vecchie, walking where no sane Case Vecchie gentleman would go, the watchers—he could feel them, if not see them—knew who he was. These days he had a reputation, totally out of keeping with his age or size. Well, he would find a tavern. Not Barducci's. Too many memories there.

    And then, in the shape of two sailors, some relief came in sight. They were, in their clumsy fashion, trying to box him in.

    He let them.

    The one with the cudgel tossed it from hand to hand. A mistake, Benito knew. It meant, as Caesare had taught him, in what seemed a different world, that for a few instants you were not actually holding the weapon. The cudgel-wielder obviously hadn't been taught this. He was amazingly stupid, part of Benito's mind thought. When he spoke to his companion with the knife, he actually looked away from the victim!

    "Well, Spiro. Venice takes away... and she gives back to us. With interest." He laughed coarsely.

    Benito judged that the one with the knife was the more dangerous of the two, if the smaller. He showed signs of a recent beating-up, sporting a black-eye and torn cloak. "Yeah. I suppose so. Give us your money, rich kid. Hand it over, and you won't get hurt."

    Amateurs, thought Benito, wryly. Came in on the last tide. Got drunk. Maybe got rolled. Maybe just ran out of money and got thrown out of some tavern. Still at least half-drunk. Benito cringed, stepping back, to make sure neither could get behind him. "Please Sirs, you're not going hurt me?"

    "Just give us your money," repeated the knife-man, "and get out of here. This is no part of town for—what do they call noblemen around here?—yeah, a Case Vecchie."

    "I think I might just take that lucco too," said the cudgel wielder. He was big man. An oarsman by the looks of his muscles.

    "If... if I give you all my money, and my lucco too, will you let me go?" whined Benito, letting a quaver into his voice, still cringing.

    "Yeah," said the knife-man, relaxing, dropping the point slightly.

    Cudgel smiled viciously. "Well, I think you need a few bruises to take home to mummy, and maybe a cut on that pretty face." As he said this, cudgel-man had stepped in closer, still tossing it hand-to-hand and now getting in the knife-wielder's way.

    From behind the cudgel-wielder, Benito heard the knifeman say: "Brusco, he's only a kid. Take his money and leave him alone." Brusco wasn't listening.

    Cringing means your limbs are bent. You're into a fighter's crouch with a moment's change of attitude. Benito didn't bother to aim. He just hit the arm of the hand which was about to catch the cudgel. Grabbing cloth, as the cudgel went flying harmlessly, Benito pushed the sailor over his outstretched foot. As the former-cudgel-wielder fell, Benito stepped forward, planting a boot firmly in the thug's solar plexus. His rapier was suddenly in his right hand, and the main gauche in his left. Finest Ferrara steel gleamed in the gray dawn-light. Fierce exultation leapt inside him, as he moved in for the kill. Already the moves, long practiced, were in mind. Engage. Thrust. He had the reach. Turn and kill the other one before he could get to his feet.

    And then, as he saw the look of terror on the sailor's face, the battle-joy went away. Her words came back to him. "I won't marry a wolf."

    He settled for hitting the knife, hard, just at the base of the blade, with the rapier. It did precisely what cheap knives will do, given that, to save metal, the tang into the hilt is usually thinner than the blade. It snapped.

    The sailor looked briefly at the hilt in his hand, and prepared himself to die. "I didn't plan to hurt you," he said, hoarsely, his eyes now fixed on the two unwavering blades facing him.

    Benito flicked a glance at the other man, who was up on one elbow, feeling for his cudgel. Safety, prudence and Caesare said: "Kill them both, fast. Dead men are no threat. Desperate men are." Her words came back to him again: "Are you the son of the wolf or the fox?'

    "I know you weren't," said Benito. "That's why you're still alive. But if your friend moves a muscle that's going to change."

    The sailor looked at his companion. "Then you'd better kill me, Milord," he sighed. "That Brusco has no brains at all. He got us into this mess in the first place."

    Benito stepped over to where the brainless Brusco was busy proving his lack of intelligence, by trying to get to his feet. A slash of the rapier severed the man's belt. By the piggy squeal Benito's judgement must have been a touch off.

    "Stay down, Brusco," said the other sailor, urgently. "The Casa Vecchie'll kill you. Milord, he's still half-drunk. We... our ship left us. Winter's coming and berths are few now. We thought... some eating money... "

    Benito snorted in exasperation, feeling as if he were fifty instead of seventeen. "Come on. Both of you. Up on your feet, you. Use both hands to keep those trousers up... Brusco. Now. In front of me. Quick march. You're no more than a pair of damned virgins in a brothel, in this part of town! You're not cut out for a life of crime, either of you. You're not local or you'd never have been so stupid. Where are you from?"

    "Liapádhes. Kérkira... Corfu," the former knifeman said. He jerked a thumb at his companion, who was staggering along, holding up his trousers. "Brusco's from Bari. Down south."

    Benito prodded the former cudgel-wielder with his rapier. "They must breed them big and dumb down there."

    "I'm bleeding," said Brusco, sulkily.

    They'd arrived at the canal-side by this time. Benito flicked the complaining Brusco's shoulder with his rapier so the man turned around. So did his companion.

    "Bleeding. Ha. You're lucky, Brusco, that I didn't cut your damn-fool balls off before you sired any dumb kids. Now listen to me, sailor from Bari. You get yourself out of Venice and don't come back. If you do, you'll be lucky if the canalers cut your throat before I find you. Swim or sell your shirt. But get onto the mainland and don't come back. Go." They both turned. Benito put out his rapier and halted the smaller man, the one with the black eye, who had once bought a cheap knife. "Stay."

    The man looked wary, glancing at the canal.

    Benito shook his head. "Don't be as much of a fool as the idiot from Bari. If I'd wanted to kill you, I'd have done it back there. Anyway, a couple of mouthfuls of that water is more likely to kill you than any sword-stroke."

    "Here." Benito reached into his pouch, took out some silver pennies, and handed them to the would-be thief. "Get yourself some breakfast. Go that way along the fondamenta, and you're in a better part of town. And then get yourself along to the Dorma shipyards. Tell Alberto on the gate that Benito sent you. Tell him you're looking for a berth and that I said you'd do."

    The Corfiote seaman looked at the money in his palm. Then he shook his head, unbelieving. "Why are you doing this?" he asked quietly. "I thought you'd hand us over to the nightwatch. I was looking for a chance to run."

    "I needed a fight," said Benito, shrugging. "And I needed to sort out some things in my head. You obliged. I owe you. Now, I've got to find a gondola. You've straightened out my mind a bit, and there's a girl I've got say goodbye to. I was going to go drinking, if I couldn't find a fight."

    The sailor shook his head again, and then smiled. "If it's all the same to you, Milord, next time you're in need of a fight, I'm not going to be around. I thought I was going to be killed back there. One minute you were a scared kid. Then—you were somebody else. When I looked in your eyes... for a minute I thought I was dead."

    Benito took a deep breath. "You very nearly were," he said quietly.

    The sailor nodded. "A risk a thief takes. It's not something I've tried before, or I'm in a hurry to try again. And your girl should very sorry you're leaving. Any chance I'd be shipping out with you, Milord?"

    To his surprise Benito realized the man wanted him to be on the vessel. That was admiration in his voice. "I'm not shipping out." He waved at a dark, sleek gondola out on the Grand Canal. "She is. And as far as I can see she's not a bit sorry," he added, bitterly.



    The gondolier had responded to his wave, and the vessel was just about at the canal-side. Benito vaulted down into it, with athletic ease. "Basino San Marco," he said, taking his seat.

    "Morning, Valdosta. Or are you too important to greet us these days?"

    Benito looked up. "Oh, hell. Sorry, Theobaldo. My mind was somewhere else."

    The gondolier shrugged. "It's too late, boy. She's married and he's a fine man. Besides, she is one of us and you're one of them. It would never have worked."

    Benito was not in the least surprised that the canaler knew all about his private life. He'd lived next to these canals himself for far too long not to know that the real lifeblood of Venice was not the water in her canals or the trade of her far-flung colonies, but gossip. When you and your brother are real, romantic heroes, nobles hidden in slums, who come into their own while saving the city in its hour of need... When your patron is the new Doge...

    Well, suddenly everyone knows you. To be fair, on the canals, most of them had known his brother Marco anyway. Marco was pretty well regarded as the local saint, for his work in healing the poor and sick of the canals. He, Benito, had a fairly well-deserved reputation for being a thief and trouble, and a pack follower of the assassin Caesare Aldanto, until almost the last. He'd redeemed himself in the fighting, to be sure. Fighting was one of the few things he was good at, thanks in part to the treacherous Caesare, and thanks in part to his father's blood—neither of which most people regarded as good things.

    Benito sighed. His skills: Fighting, carousing and climbing buildings. None of the three seemed to fit him for the aristocratic mold Petro Dorma wanted to cram him into.

    His half-brother Marco, on the other hand, was a gentleman born. Fitting into the Case Vecchie mold was easy enough for him, so long as he could go on with beloved medical studies and seeing Katerina Montescue. Besides, ever since Benito's brother and the Lion of Venice had shared a body, Marco was... different. He was still the brother Benito knew and loved. But he'd always been the thinker. Benito was a doer, not a thinker. Marco was no longer unsure of himself, and now it was Benito's turn to be. It was something Benito had never been before.

    "I know, Theobaldo. I messed up good, huh? But I grew up as a bridge-brat. I'm still learning this Case Vecchie stuff, and, to tell the truth, I don't like it much."

    The gondolier sculled easily, moving the boat along the limpid water of the canal, under the Rialto bridge. A few banker's clerks were already setting up their masters' stalls. "We always reckoned you were born to be hanged," he said. "That brother of yours is too good for this world, but you! Anyway, you're not going to make trouble for Maria and Umberto, are you? Because if you are, I'm going to pitch you into the canal here. You and that fancy sword of yours."

    Benito knew he was good with that fancy sword, so long as he was on dry land. He also knew what Maria had taught him: Never mess with a boatman in his own boat. The gondolier had spent forty years staying on his feet in this vessel. Benito was a landsman, even if he'd grown up canalside.

    Besides, Benito had no intention of causing trouble. Umberto was a fine man, even if he was twenty-five years older than Maria. And never mind the gondolieri—Maria would pitch him into the water herself if he tried anything. She was certainly strong enough and quite capable of doing it.

    "I'm just going to say 'goodbye'," he said quietly. "And good luck. She deserves some."

    He withdrew into a brown study, thinking back to that time of poverty he'd spent living with Maria and Caesare, when both of them, in their different ways—Maria as Caesare's lover and he as Caesare's young protégé—had thought Caesare Aldanto was some kind of demi-god on earth. Until, in one night and day, Aldanto's evil nature had surfaced and Benito and Maria had wound up becoming lovers themselves. A night which was still, for all the horror of it, Benito's most precious memory.

    Benito realized now with crystal clarity, looking back, how he'd been shaped by those times. His blood, if you were shaped by blood, was terrifying enough. His mother was an undutiful daughter of Duke Enrico Dell'este. The Old Fox, they called him. Lord of Ferrara, Modena, Este, Regio Nell' Emilia, and, since Milan and Verona's defeat a month back, of several more Po valley towns. Dell'este was supposed to be the leading strategist of the age. A man feared and respected. A nobleman.

    But Benito's father was worse. Carlo Sforza, the Wolf of the North. A man feared. The most powerful and deadly soldier-of-fortune of the day, Italy's most notorious condottiere. Undefeated, until the debacle at the Palatine forts on the Po, during the battle for Venice last month, when the Old Fox had bloodied the Wolf. Bloodied the Wolf, but not killed him. Benito still had his father's broken sword in the cupboard at the Casa Dorma.

    They all expected him to be like one or the other of these men. And maybe, in time he might be. But he knew very little of either of them, or of their very different worlds. He'd learned how to live, and how to behave, mostly from two women street-thieves, until he and Marco had tied up with Caesare. Like it or not, Benito had to admit he'd modeled himself on Caesare Aldanto. The man had been something of a hero to both of them. Caesare and Maria had been the center of their world for some very crucial years.

    Maria. If there was ever going to be a reason why Benito didn't turn out as much of a pizza da merde as Caesare had turned out to be, she would probably be it. Deep inside him it ached. Her values were hard, clear, loyal and true. And she'd turned him down to marry a caulker. Here he was, protégé of the man who was the new Doge... hurting because some canal-woman had spurned his offer of marriage.

    Deep down, he was also worried that she was dead right to have done so. He'd nearly killed those two stupid sailors, just because he was in a foul mood and looking for excitement to distract him. Caesare would have done the same, but would not have stopped short. So, according to rumor, would Carlo Sforza. As for the Old Fox—well, stories painted him as a good friend and a bad enemy, but a cautious and wily man. A cautious and wily man might well have done as Benito had.

    Or perhaps, not.

    But the Old Fox, Maria—or a younger, less arrogant Benito—would never have gotten into that position in the first place. He sighed. Maybe part of it was that he was so short. One of the other things he owed to growing up a thief, living under bridges and in secret in other people's attics. With no money, but lots of enthusiasm. More enthusiasm and conviction that things would come right, than food, sometimes. Food had been hard to come by for a few years. He was growing broader now. But he'd never be as tall as his brother. Marco had done his basic growing before hard times hit the two of them. Besides, the Dell'este were not tall. The tall willowy shape was that of the Valdosta family.

    "You going sit to there all day?" asked the gondolier, interrupting his musing. "Or are you going to get out?"

    Startled, Benito stood up and reached for the mooring-pole.

    "You can pay me, Valdosta," said Theodoro, dryly.

    Flushing, Benito did. Generously. After all, money was the one thing he had plenty of now.



    Benito was not surprised to find Katerina Montescue on the quay-side. And if Kat was going to be there, his brother was almost inevitably going to be too.

    Marco and Kat eyed him with considerable wariness as he came up. "You shouldn't be here!" hissed Kat.

    Benito held up his hands, pacifically. "I'm not going to cause any trouble."

    "You should have caused trouble," said Kat crossly, "before she did this. It's too late now."

    Benito nodded, and swallowed to clear the lump in his throat. "I know. Now all I can do is... not make trouble. So I'm just going to say goodbye to an old friend."

    The spitting-tabby glow in Kat's eyes died. She patted his arm, awkwardly. "Maybe it is for the best. I mean, she seems happy enough."

    Benito looked over to where Maria Garavelli—no, not Garavelli any more; Verrier, now—was talking to two older women. She seemed, if not happy, at least to be her usual abrasive self.

    "Don't be crazy!" she was saying. "The boat's worth twice that. Put it up on blocks in Thomaso's yard if you won't use it."

    Benito missed half of the reply. Something about "...when you come back."

    Maria shook her head emphatically. "I'm not coming back."

    Benito winced at that certainty.

    Maria caught sight of him, then. Immediately, she turned and strode over to him, her dark eyes flashing.

    "What are you doing here, 'Nito?" There was challenge in her voice, challenge, and deep down, anger. If there was anything else there, he didn't want to know about it.

    Benito shrugged. "I heard an old friend was leaving Venice. She did a lot towards raising me. I came to say good-bye, good luck, and a safe journey. And I hope—I mean, I really hope—she's happy."

    For a moment she said nothing. Then: "Good-bye, Benito." It was said very quietly, with just a flicker of pain. She turned her back on him and walked away.

    Benito had spent his life knowing exactly what to do next. For once, he didn't. So he walked blindly off into the Piazza, leaving Maria to embark with her new husband on the ship outbound for Istria.

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