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This Rough Magic: Chapter Eleven

       Last updated: Wednesday, July 9, 2003 23:48 EDT




February, 1539 A.D.

    The forests of Istria were dripping and bleak. The mists seemed to hang heavy and cold around the trees. That matched Maria's mood fairly well. She was big bellied and uncomfortable. What she really wanted was someone to have a good fight with. A good fling-plates-and-break-things fight. In that respect her husband Umberto was hopeless. For starters he was always off marking trees or accompanying the foresters. The life out here didn't suit him, but he was a fiercely conscientious man. He'd far rather have been in the dockyards in the Arsenal back in Venice. This however, was where he had been sent. And after the affair with the previous chief Forester he did his best to keep going out with the tree patrols.

    At least he had listened to her—or if he hadn't done so consciously, some of her insistence that he look into the peccadilloes of those under him had unearthed the culprits still running the timber-scam.

    She tried not to be too irritated with him, even so. He insisted on thinking of it purely in terms of "timber being sent away from Venice" rather than "timber being sold to the enemies of Venice." Sometimes, his focus was so narrow, so parochial, it made her want to scream. And never mind that not all that long ago, her focus had been entirely on running her cargoes and not enquiring too closely about where they were from, or where they were going, on being dazzled by a pair of blue eyes and not asking what was going on in the head that housed them.

    Well, that had changed. If only Umberto had learned the same lesson.

    At least he was on to the cheaters now, and he was off every day, trying to match his city strides with the long paces that the foresters took, and sneezing a lot.

    She envied him, envied his long hikes through the forest, envied that he got out of the house every day, into the open, beyond the four confining walls. To her surprise she'd found that the openness, space and silences felt welcoming. Umberto complained of missing the people and the sounds of the city. She enjoyed their absence.

    In the first day here, she had learned all that, despite the fact that things had been quite chaotic. To get out, under those old, quiet trees, had been a pleasure she would never have anticipated. So far as she was concerned, all that had happened was that she'd had a lovely walk and solved half the timber problems—and, yes, gotten a little lost and gotten home a little late, but that was hardly anything to worry about.

    Umberto'd almost had the baby for her, to judge by the performance he had given when she came back at last. And unfortunately, she was no longer the sole arbiter of what she did; she was a wife now, and half of a couple, and it behooved her not to send her husband into a state of panic. The result—with her "delicate condition" in mind, was being confined to the house and yard with an elderly forester's widow as a combination between house-servant and guard.

    Not that she was in any real sense a prisoner. No, she was just confined by chains of care and Umberto's ideas of how it all should be, and the proper arrangement of the universe. Women had their place. It was a pampered and protected one—well, as pampered as a caulker's wife ever got, anyway. It didn't include being out on the canals at midnight, running gray-cargo, nor traipsing about the woods like a forester.

    It all chafed at Maria's soul. She was used to her independence. She was used to defining for herself what she would and wouldn't do. And if her mother had plied her own boat until the very day of Maria's own birth, why should she now be stuck within four walls, tending to the housework as if she hadn't a care except that the floor be clean enough?

    For that matter, her world was so much wider now! The last year—no one who had lived through what she had could be unchanged. She'd come up against challenges she would never have dreamed of, and beaten them, and if she'd chosen to marry rather than try and raise a baby on her own, well, it was for the baby's sake.

    She certainly wouldn't have done it for her own. So she'd taken the husband that she thought would best love her baby, no matter who the father was. And now, she found herself powerless to fight the trammels of Umberto's gentle care. She didn't even know how to start dealing with his hurt expressions when she didn't fit in with his expectations.

    How did you fight this? She really could use a good screaming fight.

    Issie, the black-clad forester's widow who was supposed to help her, tugged at her arm. "Why don't you sit down, dearie, and rest your feet. You'll get little enough rest when the baby is born."

    Maria looked out into the black, bare trees, ignoring Issie. Umberto was out there now, trying to select good timbers for masts and keels, when what he knew about was cladding. The caulkers back in Venice were undoubtedly going to be grateful for the improvement in the quality of deck planking. Maria was however sure that he'd be getting more letters of complaint from the masters of the carpenters' Guild. At least he got regular letters from Venice. It was more than she ever did.

    She sighed. It wasn't as if reading came that easily. True, she'd spent more time working on it since they arrived here. But there weren't many people back home who could write in the first place. She only ever seemed to get letters from Kat. Letters of full of Marco. Letters from a life she'd chosen to leave behind, to try and forget. Benito was always carefully not mentioned.

    The second reason Maria found it difficult to pick a good fight with Umberto was straight guilt. He'd married her, loved her enough to take what fellow Venetians would have called "spoiled goods". She had taken his offer, not because she felt any deep affection for the balding, slightly worried looking gray-haired man, but because she needed a father for the child. She had grown up without that social protection, and she would not inflict it on her baby. Lately, she'd come to realize that Umberto's affections had been transferred to her from his love of her mother.

    Her mother! Well, she should have expected that. Even as a tiny child, she had known that Umberto followed her mother with his eyes every single time she was anywhere around the docks where the caulkers worked. The older man had plainly been crazy about her. He had even called Maria by her name a couple of times by accident. How did you start a good fight with someone who was still in love with your dead mother?

    At least she wasn't in love with Umberto herself. If this was hard, trying to rival the memory of your dead mother and win over someone you loved would be even harder.

    Maria sighed again. She leaned heavily on the broom, and some of the birch twigs cracked. Outside the chief forester's house the rain fell in heavy sheets. Once upon a time all she'd wanted was a house that was warm and dry. Now she was almost tempted to go out in the rain. It hadn't melted her in all those years of sculling her gondola through the wet winter canals of Venice.

    Housekeeping, cooking and preparing baby clothes did not fill up the day, let alone her mind. True, being warm was good and so was being well fed. But being cooped up, being a good wife, even a good pregnant wife, was going to drive her crazy, even if the final stages of this pregnancy were beginning to leave her feeling permanently exhausted.

    "Really, why don't you have a little rest, dear," clucked Issie again.

    Maria swept irritably. She'd been just about ready to do that. Now she wouldn't.

    The jingle of a horse's harness was a welcome distraction. Ignoring the rain, ignoring Issie's squawks of alarm, Maria ran out to the messenger who was wearing wet Venetian Republic livery. It must be something important to bring the man out here in this weather. The messengers of the Republic were supposed to conduct their business with the utmost dispatch, true. But out here, this far from the authorities in Venice, that meant "when it wasn't raining." The forests of Istria were vital to the shipbuilding in the Arsenal, but they were also a long way from the messengers' Capi back in Venice.

    She was drenched the moment she stepped foot outside the door, of course, and she didn't give a damn, of course. This wasn't the canal; she wasn't the same Maria who hadn't but two dry skirts to her name. There were several warm outfits inside that house that she could change right back into when she got inside. Issie could spread this one on chairs in front of the fire—it would give the old cow something to do.

    Maria struggled with the buckle on the wet leather pouch, ignoring the shivering messenger who was trying to tether his horse with numb fingers. "Can you help me?" he asked finally.

    Maria looked up from her task with annoyance. "Take yourself and your horse into the stable, you fool. Are you not bright enough to get in out of the rain?"

    A smothered snort from the messenger suddenly drew her attention to the fact that she was apparently not bright enough to get in out of the rain.

    She got the pouch off the saddle, and retreated into the house.

    Issie, clucking like a wet hen, handed her a rough towel. Maria had no time for it now. The fussing about while she was trying to get to the message in the pouch would drive her insane. "Go get the messenger a drink," she snapped. "He's wet through. I'm just a little damp."

    Issie sniffed irritably. "He's not pregnant." But she went anyway.

    The pouch buckle finally surrendered to a superior will. There was only one wax-sealed missive inside. The seal was that of the house Dorma, the Doge's house, and not the familiar crest of the Montescue. It was addressed to her... and not to the chief forester of Istria.

    Oh blessed Jesu—

    Maria tore at it with trembling fingers.

    No one would send a special messenger to the wife of a forester unless it was horrible news. The worst of all possible news.

    No one from Dorma would send me news by a special messenger. It must be from Marco. It could only mean Benito had been killed.. Why hadn't she...

    Inside was Kat's familiar handwriting. It started with the words: Glad news!

    Maria sat down with a thump on a hard oak settle, and composed herself with a deep breath. She patted her bulging stomach to still the flutters just under the skin. "If Katerina only knew how close she came to causing your premature birth, child," she muttered, blinking to clear her eyes before reading further.

    I've got Marco to use the Dorma seal so this will get to you as soon as possible, wrote Kat. Fantastic, wonderful things have happened!

    That seal could indeed achieve great things. It had nearly achieved an early baby, thought Maria wryly. She read on, learning of the Vinlanders who would restore the fortunes of Montescue, of the annulment of Marco's marriage to Angelina, and Angelina's hasty internment in the Cloister at Santa Lucia Della Monte outside Verona. It seemed that this had been a very busy week.

    She tried not to think how busy she would have been, had she been there, how in the thick of it all. She'd be poling Kat about, of course, and maybe helping her a little with the Vinlanders. And she wouldn't be getting the news of the wedding plans at second-hand like this.

    Petro Dorma insists it is to be a great state function. Marco and I have had to agree. On conditions: firstly I want you to come and support me on that day. Secondly Francesca de Chevreuse will be returning to Venice. She is to be my other matron of honor. Dorma says he will make arrangements for you and Umberto to return to Venice for the occasion.

    She had to read that twice, and then a third time, before it began to make sense.

    And when it did, Maria could only laugh helplessly. The flower of the House Montescue and the heir of the House Valdosta, grandson of the Duke of Ferrara... with a caulker's wife and one of Venice's most famous courtesans as her attendants to the altar.

    Well, she could hardly refuse. Kat, after all, had come to her low-key Caulker's wedding in the same role. But it would mean returning to Venice. Returning—she looked at the date of the wedding—returning with a three week old baby, if everything ran to time.

    The back door banged, and her head came up. If it was Issie—

    A sneeze. Not Issie; Umberto. He came through to the front parlor. Maria took in the wet-plastered gray hair and the faint bluish tinge to her man's lips. He smiled caressingly at her, and a wave of affection swept through her. Her man might have his faults and his rigidities, but he was a good one. People might become exasperated with Umberto Verrier, but you couldn't really dislike him; he was too mild a soul to engender anything so active as dislike. And he was such a good husband. A conscientious one, at least.

    He was shivering slightly, and she beckoned to him, smiling. "Umberto! Come over to the fire, before ice forms on your poor nose."

    He did, holding his thin hands out to crackling flames. "There is a message from Venice? One of the foresters said he saw a messenger in the Doge's livery coming across."

    She'd pulled a chair up for him by this time, handed him the towel Issie had been trying to press on her. "It was for me, dear. A letter from Katerina Montescue, the lady who was my maid of honor at our wedding. She is to marry Marco Valdosta, you know, the Doge-elect's ward, in a great state ceremony in the early spring. It's all finally been sorted out, and settled at last."

    Umberto looked at her wonderingly. "I have never understood how you came to know such a one. The Casa Montescue! She is a great lady."

    I don't dare tell you how I know Kat, thought Maria. It was no tale to chance spreading about among all these foresters, especially as Issie had come in with a goblet of hot, spiced, honeyed wine, her lined face alive with curiosity. She'd have it all over Istria before tomorrow night. The new chief forester's wife! Blessed Jesu, she's worse than we could have thought! A smuggler! Poling her own canal boat! And no better than she should be, no doubt!

    Well, the wine might be just an excuse to find out what was happening, but Maria was grateful. Umberto was in need of it. "There was more to it than just telling me that the wedding has been set, or she wouldn't have needed a messenger. She has asked that we—you and I—go back to Venice for the wedding. She has arranged with Petro Dorma to make it possible."

    Umberto sipped some of the hot wine. "Well, it would be nice... I have been thinking how I would like to go to town. It would be very good to see people again, perhaps to ask if I might take a post closer to the city. But.. what about the..." He hesitated, "the baby?"

    Maria patted her stomach. "Baby should be born by then. It had better be. Katerina has asked me to be one of her matrons of honor."

    The goblet crashed to the floor. Neither Issie nor Umberto seemed to notice.

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