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This Rough Magic: Chapter Nineteen

       Last updated: Tuesday, July 29, 2003 02:55 EDT



    The evening was wearing on and Maria found herself exhausted. Now that the ceremony was over, and the banqueting begun, Maria had settled into having a tedious time. She'd been seated among the guests of honor, among the gilt and brightness, and had been very uncomfortable. And kept her mouth shut. Yes, she loved Kat, and she certainly had wanted to be with her for her wedding. Marco, the bridge-brat she'd seen grow up, too had a special place in her heart.

    But... That was Marco and Kat. Marco Valdosta and Katerina Montescue, in their magnificent finery, surrounded by Casa Vecchie, were more like jeweled butterflies than real people. And, as with Caesare, she'd been painfully aware of her lower-class origins every time she opened her mouth.

    Benito had been seated as far as possible from her and Umberto. He'd tried to catch her eye, once; she'd looked down. Umberto had also been plainly uncomfortable among all those people who ordinarily he would only see at a distance; and a far distance, at that. Now that the guests were mingling, he'd hastily gone off to join his fellow guildsmen. She looked across to where he stood with several men, all gray-haired, and all at this stage very jovial. Umberto looked happy, for the first time in ages.

    Maria decided she'd had enough. Out in the Piazza there'd be real music and singing. Real talk, about things she knew, not her trying to keep her mouth shut. She got up; Alessia was in a room just off the banqueting hall with a dry-nurse, and by the feel of it Alessia could use some feeding.

    She walked across the crowded room to Umberto, moving carefully on the slippery marble, pausing every other step to keep from jostling someone who was probably important. It took an age to go thirty feet. He was laughing when she reached him, and greeted her with a smile that spoke of both care and happiness. "Ah, Maria! It is so good to be back in Venice again. Nice to be away from rude nature."

    She smiled back. She couldn't exactly tell him that she was finding the smell of the canals hard to live with. "Yes. But I must go to the baby, husband." He'd like that, being called husband with respect in her voice, and showing herself a good wife and a dutiful mother. It would make him feel good, in front of the other masters.

    "She must be fed, and then I think I'll take her to our lodgings. It has been a long day, and I confess I'm tired."

    He took her arm. "I'll come along to assist you home. A woman needs an escort on a night like this."

    Irritation flared. This being a good little wife was not something she did well. This was Venice. Her Venice! She'd sculled a vessel around it alone since she was fourteen.

    She shook his arm off, but did it gently, so it didn't seem as if she was rejecting his help. "I still need to feed Alessia, and then probably to change her." That would put him off, quickly enough. "It will take a while. Then the nurse can accompany me. She can do something to earn the wage that Katerina has paid her, and we'll take a gondola. You stay, please. You're enjoying yourself, and I don't want to spoil that for you. You won't see the other masters for a long time again."

    "You're sure?" He was plainly tempted, but he was dutiful. A solicitous hand touched her elbow.

    "Absolutely. Enjoy yourself." She kissed him on the cheek and went to find Alessia.

    She found the Salon easily enough. By ear. Alessia was bellowing. The dry-nurse was nowhere to be seen. There were, however, five or six empty goblets, one of which lay on its side in a pool of spilled wine. Wine stained the satin of the chair that had been provided for the nurse. And Alessia was demanding instant attention. Hastily Maria struggled with her lacing and quelled the bellows, rage building inside her that she had to tamp down, lest it affect Alessia's feeding.

    She'd just fed, winded, and changed Alessia when the nurse returned with a goblet in her hand, slightly unsteady on her feet.

    Maria put Alessia down. Carefully. Only then did she round on the slut who'd deserted her baby. "Where the hell have you been?" she demanded, anger putting an edge to her voice that only a drunk could have ignored.

    The nurse, it seemed, was just such a drunk, and beamed at her. "Just went to get a glass of wine, dearie. The poppet was sleeping beautifully."

    Fury passing all ability to use mere words seized Maria. She grabbed the woman and shook her like a rag doll. " puttana," she hissed into the wine-laden breath. The woman swayed. "You're drunk. You left my baby, all alone. Anything could have happened. Anything!"

    The nurse wrested herself away, clumsily, and looked down her nose at Maria, her face reddening with more than just wine. "You're nothing but a canaler, even dressed up like that. Why should I sit here with your misbegotten brat?" she spat. "You begrudge me a glass of wine..."

    Maria stepped forward, pulled back her arm, and slapped the woman hard. And hard again. The nurse's head jerked back and her cheeks each had a scarlet handprint on them, but Maria wasn't done. She seized the woman by the front of her gown, and threw her at the seat. It cracked as the dry-nurse fell onto it, her eyes wide, her mouth falling open with shock. It didn't break—quite—but Maria knew with satisfaction that it was damaged. The dry-nurse was going to have to answer to one of the Doge's upper-upper servants for it.

    "I might be a canaler," she hissed, "but I'm worth three of you. At least I always did what I was paid to do, honestly."

    Maria snatched up Alessia and stormed out; out into the crowd, out past the crowd, too angry to even hear if anyone was trying to hail her. She was still so angry she wasn't really thinking, just walking, once she'd got past the revelers. But when she got out of the palace and past the fires in the Piazza, the night air was cool. It helped to cool her temper and her anger, too. After a while she paused and took stock of where she was.

    With a sense of surprise rather than shock, she saw that she was on one of the walkways bordering the canals, and must be more than halfway to their lodgings. She'd walked further than she'd intended in this dress. The hem and the petticoat hems would need washing.

    Her feet, crammed into shoes that were too narrow for her, complained. One of the disadvantages of marrying Umberto had been that she had to wear shoes all the time. His position, he said, demanded it. Well, her canaler feet demanded space. She kicked the shoes off, then struggled to pick them up, with Alessia fast asleep in one arm. She gritted her teeth, as she realized that the shoes were meant for dancing in ballrooms, not striding along canalside. The pretty doe-skin would be ruined.

    She sighed irritably; there was little point in spending money on a gondola now. Anyway, the gondolas would be as thick as flies down at the Piazza San Marco, and few and far between anywhere else. She might as well walk the rest of the way, cross the Rialto bridge and go to the apartment. Not more than a few hundred cubits now.

    Besides, she'd been walking and poling for most of her life—her own two legs were good enough. She was just a canaler, after all; canal-born and canal-bred, and the day she couldn't make it anywhere in Venice on her own feet, they might as well start building her coffin. So she walked on quietly. With half of Venice already drunk on the Doge's wine, and the other half trying to get to that state, there probably wasn't a bullyboy or a pickpocket anywhere nearer than Naples. She'd be more than safe enough tonight.



    The riot and rumpus met her just short of the Rialto Bridge.

    Schiopettieri. A lot of them. The professional soldiers who served Venice for a police force had two struggling figures in their midst, yelling and fighting like young bulls. Maria stepped up onto a mounting block, partly to avoid the press of Schiopettieri, partly to see what was going on.

    She looked across the heads—and straight into Benito's eyes. As their eyes locked, he stopped, and a look of absolute horror transfigured his face.

    That was the opportunity that the Schioppies needed. They piled onto him. Maria caught a brief glimpse of Benito, upended over someone's shoulder. He wasn't wearing any trousers. Or small-clothes.

    Maria, with Alessia in her arms, stood transfixed, watching the tide of Schiopettieri bear Benito and his large companion away. The large companion seemed content to be restrained. All the fighting had obviously come from Benito.

    The tide passed, and moved on, away from her, and Maria stepped down off the block, and walked on.

    For a brief moment she'd nearly waded into that crowd of Schioppies to help Benito. Then Alessia had stirred against her, and how do you interfere in a drunken brawl with a baby in your arms? She couldn't exactly have put Alessia down. Benito had gotten himself into that trouble, whatever it was. Benito would just have to get himself out of it. It wasn't her job to rescue him anymore.

    If it ever had been.

    This close to midnight, even when there was a great wedding on at the Doge's palace, with feasting in the Piazza San Marco, the stall-lined wooden Rialto bridge ought to be quiet.

    It wasn't. There were several groups of people, mostly local women, gossiping eagerly about what had just happened.

    One of the women, her eyes bright with excitement in the lamp-light that the Republic provided to make bridges and sotoportegos safer, turned to Maria as Maria tried to get past her. "Did you hear? Did you see? Isn't that younger Valdosta a scandal!" Her voice was full of glee.

    Maria could not restrain her curiosity. "No, I wasn't there. I'd just come from the celebration. What happened? What did he do?"

    She did restrain the "this time" she'd been about to add.

    The woman pointed at one of the cross-beams that held chains which supported the center bridge section. "He was up there."

    Well, Benito climbed things. He always had been like a little shaved ape. "What was he doing?" she asked warily.

    The woman shook her head-then told her. "Scandalous! In a public place like that!"

    Maria felt herself redden. "You mean he was..."

    An older woman, looking out of her half-shuttered window, snorted. "Well, he was so drunk, that it'd be better to say he was trying to. Good thing for her the girl is a dancer."

    "The Doge will have to make an example of him!" pronounced the first woman; half-primly and half-gleefully. The last time—"

    "And the other man?" asked Maria hastily.

    "Oh, he was just singing some bawdy song and cheering. He only got involved when the Schioppies got here. He's as strong as an ox."

    Maria walked on. To think that that was Benito. Her Benito.

    No. Not hers. Never hers. And not her problem.

    So she told herself. And maybe if she told herself often enough, she might believe it.

    And pigs might fly.



    Erik stared balefully at Manfred, and pointed a finger through the bars. "You are quite safe and I am going to leave you here. I have searched this stupid town for hours now. I thought you'd gone to bed, and suddenly I'm dragged out of my blankets and sent on a hunt that I should have known was going to end here." He glared, and an unrepentant Manfred glared back, then dropped his eyes and closed his hands around his head, looking very much the worse for wear. "I am going back to tell Francesca that waking me up was a waste of everybody's time, and that she should go back to sleep. I am going back to sleep. Back to my bed that I should never have left for a drunken oaf. I am going to leave you here, locked up like a common felon until this town goes back to normal business. After the wedding, that should maybe happen by Vespers-bell."

    Manfred held his head. "Don't shout, whatever you do. The jailor says I'll only be up for disturbing the peace and creating a nuisance. Just leave me some money for the fine and I'll get myself home. But find out what they've done with the kid, Erik. Dorma is unlikely to forgive me if I've let him get into serious trouble."

    That was a change, Manfred thinking about someone else's woes rather than his own. Erik sighed and shook his head. "Just what did you do? Just what did he do? That boy must be the first person I've met who is worse than you are, Manfred."

    "Uh. I don't think I'll tell you about all of it. But the first part involved some fellow bear-baiting. Benito took against the bear's master. The bear... Bears can swim, can't they?"

    Erik put his hand over his eyes. "Why did I ask?"

    "Well, when Benito set the bear after the Schiopettieri... " Manfred continued, and paused when Erik groaned.

    "He set the bear—against the Schioppies! Why did he sent a bear against the Schioppies? Don't answer that," he added hastily, as Manfred opened his mouth. "It was a rhetorical question."

    Manfred raised his eyebrows and managed a hurt expression. "It was very funny at the time, Erik. The Tavern did get busted up a bit, but the girl seemed to like that..."

    Oh, God. Erik shook his head. "I'll go and see Petro Dorma, and get it sorted out," he promised.

    "Oh, good."

    "But not immediately. In no small part because he is getting exactly what he was asking for. It will be after I have told Francesca that you are where you deserve to be."

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