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This Rough Magic: Chapter Twenty

       Last updated: Friday, August 22, 2003 23:04 EDT



    Manfred was more than a little nervous about this interview. The hangover had barely subsided. He had not even been back to the Embassy to change—and after last night, these were not the clothes of a gentleman any more. Besides, he had a definite feeling that the Doge was not going to be very pleased to hear what Manfred had gotten up to with his young ward. Even if Manfred was here on an official Imperial visit and was a noble of a great foreign power.

    He was therefore both surprised and pleased to see that Petro was smiling, albeit slightly, when he entered the room. "Ah, Prince Manfred. I apologize for my people arresting you," said Petro urbanely. "They didn't realize who you were."

    "And I didn't see fit to inform them." Manfred had the feeling that the more honest he was about all of this, the better off he'd be. "Less embarrassment all the way around. I've paid the fines. I'm afraid I gave your clerk a false name for his records."

    "Wise," Dorma said, quite as if he had expected something of the sort. "But I still must apologize. Normally my agents would keep an eye on visiting dignitaries, and keep them out of trouble. Or at least out of jail."

    "Should have left him there," grumbled Erik, glaring at him. A glare like that should have qualified as an offensive weapon.

    Manfred felt sheepish, and very much inclined to encourage just about any other thread of discussion, especially if it involved going home to bed. But there was the question of young Benito. "Um. About Benito..."

    He was surprised to see the Doge go off into helpless laughter. Eventually, though, Petro stopped and shook his head.

    "I am going to have the justices come down on him like a ton of bricks, if only to stop every other damned young blade in Venice from doing the same thing—or trying, anyway. I doubt very much if they'd succeed. The boy has managed to make himself a legend, from the canals to the Palace. The whole city is talking about it this morning, and there are bets on whether or not he actually did was he was trying to do. Just one thing I do want to know: Where on earth did he get a woman willing to go up there with him?"

    Manfred felt his ears glowing as Erik stared at him. "She... uh... she's an acrobat at that place where they have the Alexandrine dancers. The stomach-dancers. Although there is a lot more to it than just the stomach," he amended weakly.

    Petro put his head in his hands. His shoulders still shook. "And the bear?"

    "We didn't really mean that to happen," he pled. "It just did. The poor thing really was being mistreated."

    Petro sat back in his throne and closed his eyes for a moment, the corners of his mouth still twitching. "Prince Manfred. Erik. What do you think I should do with the boy?"

    "Give him to me," growled Erik. "I'll take him away from Venice and sort him out. And right now I need someone to beat, besides Manfred."

    Petro Dorma blinked, gave them both a penetrating look, and smiled broadly. "You know, I think I might just take you up on that. I was going to send him out to Corfu as my factor for a year or two, anyway. You two can take him along with you. If you don't mind that is, Prince Manfred?"

    Manfred nodded. "Of course not." With a wry smile he asked. "How much trouble can one boy be?"

    Petro snorted. "In the case of this one, plenty. I will arrange this with the Senior Justice. He keeps a straight face better than I do. I, of course, am far too angry to even see him. He has damaged the reputation of our fair city and the Casa Dorma. And his brother. And he's quite spoiled the dignity of his brother's wedding."

    "But hasn't he?" asked Erik, seeming rather puzzled by Dorma's good humor.

    Dorma smiled. "Please, Erik! This is a port city. It's not quite as decadent as Aquitaine, but we are not Icelandic puritans here. The Venetians are shocked, yes, of course. Venetians love being shocked. It is a wonderful story and will grow into the most improbable legend. And Benito will acquire a reputation twice as large as it is already. I must send Benito out of town before he is forced, by a desire to live up to the legend, to do something even more crazy."

    Erik shook his head. "You Venetians are all crazy."

    Petro laughed, and shook his head. "There is something in what you say. Now tell me, Manfred, Benito's um, partner in crime. Do I have to get her out of prison too?"

    "Who? Lolita? No, she took off like a scalded cat, Petro. Laughing like a mad thing." Manfred remembered that quite clearly. Her little bare rear was just as luscious as the front.

    Petro raised an eyebrow, but said only: "Good. I would hate to think Benito had gotten someone other than himself into trouble."

    Manfred snorted. "In this case your worry is wasted effort."

    "Nevertheless," said the Doge, with an attempt at seriousness. "I feel I should investigate these dancers. It sounds like a lively spot."

    "That young hellion would find a lively spot in a Shetland town," grumbled Erik. "And if he couldn't find one, he'd make one."



    Benito was in trouble, and knew it. More trouble than he'd ever been in before.

    He'd never been in this room before; this was where they took people who had done things that were just short of murder or robbery, a darkly somber room that left no doubt in the prisoner's mind that he had trespassed on at least five of the Ten Commandments. There was pretty little doubt that everybody was still nearly incandescently angry with him. The Senior Justice had not so much as cracked a smile when the affair with the bear had been related to him by the bear's former owner. By the time it had got to the challenge on the Rialto Bridge...

    Well, he sounded like God Himself, thundering out the Law.

    "The Rialto Bridge is one of the most important landmarks of our fair city! Your drunken and licentious behavior has brought shame onto us. I gather only your drunkenness has saved you from the more serious charge of public fornication."

    The Senior Justice had eyes that could pierce a fellow like a pair of stilettos. "That you should do this on the occasion of your brother's matrimony!—and as a ward of our Doge!—simply makes your lewd behavior and other offences more heinous still."

    The Justice paused. He seemed to be waiting for Benito to say something.

    "Yes, milord," he said, faintly.

    The floodgates opened again. "This is not the first time you have been in trouble in this court. I see the record indicates you have been fined for brawling here before. I therefore sentence you to a fine of one hundred ducats, and the owner of the bear is to be recompensed for the loss of his animal. And you, Benito Valdosta, are hereby given a choice. Remain imprisoned here for a year. Or be exiled from the City of Venice for a period of five years."

    Benito swallowed; this was serious. Really serious, this time. One hundred ducats! That was a year's earnings for a gentleman-at-arms. More money than he had. Dorma had paid him an allowance, but he had a feeling that would not be available any more.

    All right; he'd pawn everything he had. Somehow he'd take care of the fine. But he was damned if he'd turn tail and run away into exile; he'd messed up, he'd take it like a man. "I'll take the impri—"

    But he was interrupted.

    "Pardon, Milord Justice! If I might be permitted to speak?"

    It was the one and only member of the public who hadn't just come to gawk at Venice's latest scandal: Marco. Benito wished like hell he hadn't come.

    The Senior Justice nodded approvingly. "Permission is granted, Milord Marco Valdosta."

    "No!" protested Benito. Damn it, Marco, you can't get me out of this one!

    The Justice looked sternly at him. "Silence. Or I will have you silenced, Benito Valdosta."



    Marco cleared his throat. "Your Honor. As Benito, my brother, is the ward of the Doge, no special consideration can be shown to him."

    The Justice nodded gravely. "Well said. Indeed, I have a message here from Petro Dorma, instructing me that Benito Valdosta is to be treated in the same way that any other citizen of Venice would be treated."

    Marco nodded. "Nonetheless, I would like to appeal on the basis of his youth and the fact he grew up without the guidance of good parents, as an orphan, and that in the fight to save Venice last fall he fought and led with great courage. Many here can testify to that. Perhaps some part of this—ah, incident—is due to a nature that requires an outlet, and there has been nothing of the sort to purge him of his excess of spirits."

    There was a murmur of approval. The Justice, however, was shaking his head. Marco hurried on. "I do not appeal for the sentence to be reduced. I just ask that the option of imprisonment be removed. Your Honor, many of Venice's wildest young blades have gone out to the outposts of our empire and served well, and faithfully, and returned as upright and respectable citizens. I do not think Benito would be improved by a year in the dungeons. I think he might learn if sent elsewhere."

    Benito felt his mouth dropping open, and snapped it closed.

    The Justice nodded, the look he bestowed on Marco the very image of benevolence. "I find this a reasonable plea, Marco Valdosta."

    He turned back to Benito, and God On High was back. "Very well, Benito Valdosta, the option of imprisonment is withdrawn. You are exiled from Venice for five years. You will remain in custody until a passage is arranged for you out of the city."

    Marco stepped forward. He tapped a pouch, which jingled. "Your honor, I have here monies to pay the reparations and the fines for Benito Valdosta.

    The Justice pointed. "The clerk will see to it."

    And Benito, the leg-irons clanking, was led out. Marco did not even look at him.

    On the whole, that was probably not a bad thing.



    He did come down to the cell, later. "Petro would have added twenty lashes to the sentence," he said grimly, the first words out of his mouth. Not: Are you all right, or: We were worried about you.

    Benito shrugged. "I'm sorry, brother. The evening started in fun. It just got out of hand."

    "Several people, including Prince Manfred, have said that you were simply looking for trouble," said Marco, who could have passed, at this moment, for one of the Senior Justice's prize pupils. He was doing a very good imitation of God on High, himself. "Petro's had some of his spies keeping an eye on you. You pitched one of them into the Rio San Felice. You're lucky that was not another charge you faced, by the way."

    But then, suddenly, the whole stern image collapsed, as his brother added, plaintively, "Petro says you've been so much better the last while. And then this."

    Benito shrugged his shoulders sulkily. He wasn't going to justify himself to Marco. He wasn't sure he could justify himself to himself. And he sure as hell wasn't going to let Marco know just how wretched he'd felt when he'd seen Maria with the baby in her arms, and she wouldn't even look at him.

    Marco sighed. "I haven't even had a chance to tell you yet, but Kat and I stood as Godparents to Maria's daughter."

    Benito felt truly as if the wind had been kicked out of him. But he had to know—he was as starved for some word, any word, as a swampy was for a decent meal. "Is she all right? I mean with having the baby and all." In a very small voice: "She wouldn't even speak to me, Marco."

    Marco looked at his younger brother with a compassion that hurt almost as much as Maria's silence. "So that was what it was all about, was it?"

    Benito said nothing. What could he say? He couldn't deny it, but he sure as hell wasn't going to admit it.

    Marco shook his head. "She's fine. Seems happy enough, Benito. The baby is fine too." But then, he smiled, that purely Marco smile, with a touch of mischief. "She's got something unusual though. She has an undine as one of her Godmothers."

    That caught Benito off-guard. "What?" he said, not sure he'd heard right.

    "Umberto's sister was supposed to be one of the godmothers, only she didn't approve of Umberto's marriage. You know she always kept house for him. I suppose she must have thought that no one was good enough for him, but she absolutely hates Maria. So, at the last minute, she didn't show up. The Lion in me... I think the Lion must have guessed she might do something like that. I asked if the water-people would add their blessing, and the priest said he'd see about it. Well, I think the Lion sent an undine to take her place."

    So that was the reason for the mischief. Benito could hardly believe it. Marco, doing something just for the reason of giving someone who deserved it their comeuppance!

    "All things considered, since they're going to be around water all their lives, you could hardly ask for a more useful godmother," Marco pointed out with just a touch of glee. "That little girl will never drown."

    Benito tried to imagine the scene, and failed. "I wish I could have been there."

    Marco looked at him hard, and raised an eyebrow. "And who would that have pleased or helped, Benito? Nobody would ask you to be a godfather."

    Benito shrugged. "I just feel... Oh, I don't know. I just feel I owe her some help." He sighed. "She saw me that night, you know."

    "So I have heard," said Marco dryly. "She told Kat." He paused, as if he was considering something, then evidently made up his mind about it.

    "They're shipping out for Corfu in a couple of hours. You'll have your chance to help her, if you can manage to stay out of trouble long enough to do anything useful. You're going there too. It's a small place. You'll probably see her every day."

    Benito's mouth fell open in horror. And worst of all, the horror was so mixed with a thrill of delight that he couldn't tell where one started and the other ended.

    "What?" he squawked. "I can't! I'd rather go to prison, Marco." He gripped the bars, pleading. "Go and talk to Petro. Tell him about this."

    All right; he had to admit it. He had to. It was the only thing that might save him. "Seeing her is what sent me over the edge. Please, Marco! I'll go anywhere else, but I can't go there!"

    Marco nodded. "I thought so. I'll ask him." He sighed. "But don't get your hopes up. He was pretty grim about this, and had made up his mind. And anyway, there aren't a lot of places you can go, now."



    The Terce bell had rung before he returned. "I'm sorry, Benito. Petro says: 'If he can't learn to behave like a gentleman, then let him take the consequences. He'll have plenty of opportunity.'"

    "No—" Benito whimpered. "You didn't tell him? Didn't you tell him about Maria?"

    Marco sighed. "I told him everything, including how you felt about the christening, and how seeing Maria at the wedding just made you crazy. He said you'd have plenty of chances to help Maria in Corfu. He said you could offer to be a dry-nurse, since the one Maria had was unsatisfactory."

    Benito groaned, and dropped his head in his hands.

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