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This Rough Magic: Chapter Two

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



    The roll of the ship on its way to Istria was comforting, something familiar in an increasingly unfamiliar world. Maria needed that comfort now, as she lay, sleepless. For the first time in her life she wasn't going to be living in a city. That worried her, more than she liked to admit, but it worried her a lot less than the life stirring inside her did.

    Beside her, Umberto snored. She'd get used to that, she supposed, eventually. At least the snoring made him different from Caesare. And Benito, for that matter.

    Benito had upset her; the baby had kicked just when he'd said goodbye. She'd swear it was his—it was so damned restless, just like him. But it would be a long time before she forgot the look on his face, there on the quay-side. Not for the first time, Maria wondered if she'd made a mistake. Still, she'd made her decisions, made her bed, as the old ones said, and now she must lie in it. Benito just reminded her too much of Caesare. Not surprisingly, as Benito had modeled himself on the man he'd considered to be a hero. Caesare had hurt her, worse than she'd ever been hurt in her life, and in ways she was probably never going to get over.

    Whatever else, she wasn't going to have that happen to her again. Umberto wasn't an exciting man, true, and hadn't been even in his youth. But Maria had known him since she was a little girl. Umberto Verrier was as decent as they came and as reliable as the seasons.

    She sighed. It was good fortune that Umberto had gotten this post as chief forester for a district in Istria. The post usually went to one of the master-carpenters from the Arsenal, which the caulkers technically were, but normally it went to one of the more prestigious guilds, not to the poor-relation caulkers. She suspected the hand of Petro Dorma in that appointment. His family had huge estates in Istria, and besides, the Doge had influence everywhere in Venice. But she was grateful, even if all it meant was that the Doge was trying to get Benito Valdosta of the Casa Vecchie Valdosta away from the canals and a certain boat-girl who might try to exercise a hold over him. It would take her away from Venice before her pregnancy began to show.

    Now all she had to do was bear with the interminable voyage, an alien new life, and try to love the husband she had bound herself to. He was a good man, Umberto. He deserved at least that she try, try as hard as she ever had in all her life.



    The voyage wound up not being as long or as uncomfortable as she had feared it would be. But once the tarette had dropped them at the tiny harbor at Rovini, the enormity of the change in her life really struck her. She had not been on the dock for more than a minute before she was aware, deep in her gut, that Venetian-held Istria was...different.

    All her life had been formed around the bustle of Venice, around an existence that centered on people and water. She stood on the dock with a bundle of her personal belongings beside her, as Umberto looked for the forester who was to meet them, and fought down a sudden surge of fear.

    Fortunately, the forester was also looking for them, and his arrival pushed the fear aside in favor of more immediate and practical concerns. There was the usual confused comedy over boxes and chests. Eventually, Umberto and the other man got it sorted out while Maria stood by, trying not to feel impatient because she would have had it dealt with in two minutes. The effort to control her often-brusque temperament steadied Maria—the brusque temperament itself, even more so. Whatever else Maria had to worry about in the future, her own practical competence was not one of them.



    The foresters had arranged for a small caretta to transport the new chief forester and his bride up to his home in the forests and the hills. Bouncing up the muddy track beyond the olives and the bare fields, they moved into the fringes of forested land. For the first time in her life, Maria found herself out of sight or scent of the sea.

    The forest smelled. A damp, rich, mushroomy smell, that probably, under other circumstances, would have been pleasant. At least it wasn't the sewage-stink of the canals in high summer. But it wasn't familiar, either, it wasn't anything she was expecting, and it was strong. That, or pregnancy, or just the bouncing of the cart, made her feel sick.

    But when they got to the house Maria was so astounded that she forgot her nausea.

    It was made of wood, like a rich man's home! Wood was saved for things that could float, and bring you profit, not used for houses. And it was big. Set apart from the cluster of foresters' huts, it was a real house. She could not imagine how they could afford it.

    The house was new, so it must have been built by the man Umberto was replacing. "How did he afford such a place?"

    Umberto looked sour. "The Admirals at the Arsenal discovered three weeks back that he, and five of the foresters, were in a very convenient arrangement with the Lazzari, the timber buyers from Trieste. That is why the post was vacant—and probably why I got it. They didn't want anyone who might still have a hand in the arrangement to come in and start it up all over again, which meant delving deep into the Guild to find a replacement. As deep as the caulkers, even."

    He sighed. "The nice part is that the house comes with the post. But I will have a mountain of paperwork to do and I doubt if the oxcart with our clothes and furnishings will be here until dusk. I'm sorry, Maria. I'll have to get stuck in straight away. Even when the oxcart gets here, the house will have to wait until I have time to arrange things. We have bedding at least, Rossi assures me, but the house is otherwise bare inside."

    It was a crisp, and for a miracle, dry autumn day. The hills with their leaf-bare stands of oak and larch called to her. The thought of getting out of this carriage and onto her feet called even more. She'd walk up to the ridge where the dark pines stood like the raised hackles of some huge cat.

    "I'll explore around," she said, not caring a pin whether or not there was a chair to sit on or plates to eat off. Hadn't she done without those things before? Well, she could again. "I need to walk. To get some air."

    "Very well. But please don't go out of sight of the house. These wild places are dangerous. Rossi has been telling of bears and boar..." he trailed off, looking miserably at the house.

    Personally, Maria thought Rossi's tales improbable even for the wilds of the fabled east. The half-Slovene was having fun seeing how many stories he could get his new boss to swallow, most likely. But she nodded, since she wouldn't contradict him in front of Rossi. Bad thing, for a boss to be shown up in front of his underlings by a girl-wife, before he'd even met most of those underlings.

    Umberto wasn't quite finished. "Just remember, you're, um..." He flushed. "In a delicate condition."

    Maria nodded again. Poor Umberto. She'd been brutally frank before accepting his proposal: she'd told him straight out that she was pregnant. He'd gone puce, but he'd also managed to say that it wouldn't matter to him. That was quite something from anyone.

    Still, Umberto struggled to talk about the pregnancy. It had begun to dawn on Maria that it wasn't the mysterious father so much as the fact that, so far as Umberto was concerned, this was an area men didn't refer to. Ever. Babies just happened, and he would much prefer that things stayed that way, thank you.

    Maria walked out past the house, looking about her with wonder. She had never in her life seen trees so tall or so—untamed. Beneath her feet, the springy turf felt very different from dockside boards and stone quays, and the cool air was dry. Wondrously dry. In Venice, the air was thick enough to wring out like a dishclout. The loneliness out here was compelling, and pulled her farther under the trees. In short order, she'd very rapidly broken the injunction about going out of sight of the houses. Risso's stories and Umberto's concern aside, the hills seemed as unthreatening as a kitten.

    And she was in a phase of pregnancy where she just seemed to have too much energy. She was over most of the morning-sickness now, and although she'd been told she would become heavy and uncomfortable soon, she still felt strong, not needing to be pampered and cosseted.

    Still...there was maybe less room in her lungs than there used to be. She sat herself down on a pile of leaves with a neat rock backrest just short of the ridge. The rock was sun-warmed, and she'd walked a long way. A canaler's strength, she realized after a moment, really didn't lie in the legs. She'd just rest a while. Just a little in the sun, the warm sun...



    She woke with a start—though, out of habit, not moving, not even to open her eyes. Voices, strange voices; near, but not near enough to see her, obviously. She recognized the one: Rossi, the forester who had brought the caretta to collect them.

    "—see any problems. The old man they've sent up doesn't look like he'll understand what is going on, Torfini." Rossi chuckled. "I reckon after the wolf, bear and boar stories I told the man and that young woman of his, the two of them will stay barricaded in the house for the next two years, never mind the next two months."

    "Even so. I'm sure it was Rudolpho and Marco who somehow got word to the Admirals at the Arsenal. I don't want those two to hook onto the fact that we still have timber to move out. Oak that well curved is much in demand."

    "So who is buying ship ribs now? Constantinople?"

    The other man snorted. "For heaven's sake! I don't care. It's all money."

    "Good money, and I want mine, Torfini." There was a threat in that voice which made Maria press herself into the rock.

    "You'll get it, all right. Just keep everyone away from the Mello ridges for a couple of weeks."

    "I'll find you if I don't get it."

    "You'll get yours."

    Maria waited a good long while after they'd left; the last thing she wanted was for either of those two pizza de merde to guess she'd overheard them. In fact her descent was more alarming than she'd anticipated, for darkness had come on much quicker than she'd expected. It was twilight when she got down to the cottages, which were already twinkling with firelight.

    Umberto was standing outside their house, with the door wide open, beside himself. "Where have you been? I have been so worried! I've got the men out looking for you. There are saw pits..."

    She patted his cheek, and tried to make him really look at her. "I'm fine. I just walked further than I meant to. Then I stopped for a rest, and fell asleep. But Umberto, never mind all that now! I found out something very important."

    He wasn't listening. "You must be more careful, Maria! This isn't the canals of Venice. It is dangerous out here. You hear me? Dangerous! Rossi told me that before the Old Chief Forester left—"

    She tried mightily to keep from snapping at him. She wasn't a child! This wasn't about a new flower or a wild hare she'd seen!

    "Umberto, Rossi is a liar. He was trying to keep us indoors. And if the old Chief Forester's name was Torfini, then he hasn't gone far. He was up on that ridge over there talking to Rossi. I heard them."

    He wasn't even listening. He led her indoors, patting her. "You're in a... a delicate condition, Maria. You must rest. I'll get someone to look after you."

    Suddenly she was too tired to fight for him anymore. Maybe if a man told him what was going on, he might actually listen to it. "Very well. I'll rest. If you go out and get two of your men in here, Rudolpho and Marco."

    "You really must be more careful Maria..."

    In this, at least, she would be firm. "Rudolpho and Marco, Umberto. Now. And then I'll rest and be good."

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