Previous Page Next Page

UTC:       Local:

Home Page Index Page

This Rough Magic: Chapter Twenty Five

       Last updated: Saturday, September 13, 2003 12:03 EDT



    She stood at the head of the stone breakwater, her long blond hair streaming like a banner in the wind. Further back along the breakwater, Maria could see the inevitable brothers were lounging against some crates, along with four or five of their Vinlander escort. To the north the galleys of the Outremer-bound Venetian convoy cut the bright water under full sail.

    Maria suppressed a chuckle. Svanhild was making absolutely certain that the first thing that Erik saw was going to be her. The dockyard tarts were also on the quay-side, but Svanhild was making damn sure she got her hooks set before the island's hookers did.

    But that wasn't really fair, Maria knew. She was thinking like a canaler. The Vinlander woman wouldn't see it that way; her heart might know what she was really doing, but her head would be telling her that she only wanted to get the first possible sight of the convoy and of Erik.

    Maria left off watching the convoy coming in. They were still under sail; they'd have to drop their sails and come in to port under oars. Maria hoped Svanhild felt like a good long stand, because she was going to be on her feet there for a while.

    But Maria couldn't wait about; she had food to prepare. The one thing that Corfu had going for it was the presence in the market of even better fish than were available in Venice. She'd bought some small octopus this morning. Umberto loved them, and he was having a rough enough time at work for Maria to wish to improve his day just a little. Umberto was used to working within the framework of rigid guild discipline, where a Master said something and was obeyed, instantly and precisely. Here, away from Venice... what was needed was a sharp clout from the Master before the 'prentices would stop their pretense of immobility.



    The small house was redolent with the scent of zuppa con popli, and Umberto was still sitting with a glass of white wine, the frown-lines easing around his eyes and forehead, when someone knocked at the door.

    Maria went to it, angry. "Can't you even leave the Master to eat his meal in peace!" she yelled. The Little Arsenal would work day and night now until the fleet left, and she expected it to be yet another problem for Umberto's attention.

    But, when she flung the door open, she saw it wasn't someone from the shipyard. Instead it was a very woebegone looking Svanhild and her brothers and their men. The narrow roadway seemed very full of large Vinlanders.

    Maria was taken entirely aback. "Oh! I... I thought it was someone for my husband from the shipyard. I'm so sorry."

    "Erik is not on the ships!" By the reddened eyes Svanhild had already been crying. The poor woman-child seemed to spend her life crying.

    "Oh." That seemed a very inadequate thing to say. Maria knew the Vinlanders had almost certainly extended their stay in Europe for a whole season on the basis of what she'd told them about Erik's plans. The only reason they were here at all was because of what she'd said about the convoys stopping at Corfu.

    "I know Prince Manfred is definitely going to the Holy Land," she protested. "Katerina told me herself! And she got that from... uh, from Mademoiselle de Chevreuse. She's, ah, a close friend of the Prince."

    "None of them are on the Convoy," Svanhild repeated, half-wailing. "I've lost him!"

    "I believe I can help you, my lady," said Umberto diffidently, from the table where he had hastily risen to his feet. "Prince Manfred and his Knights of the Holy Trinity are coming with four special great galleys that have been built for service off Cyprus. I heard from the Admiral of the Outremer fleet that they were doing final outfitting in the Arsenal the day his fleet left. He says they should not be more than a week behind the Outremer Convoy." Gloomily, he added: "The Little Arsenal will be sore pressed to fix those vessels as well, if we haven't got the Outremer fleet out by then."

    It was like the sun coming out on Svanhild's face again, and it looked as if she would gladly have flung herself at Umberto and kissed him, if it hadn't been so improper to do so. So Maria did just that for her. He was a good man.



    Far enough away from the house not to be spotted in the darkness, two women studied the figure standing in the doorway talking to the enormous and crude Vinlanders. Sophia Tomaselli's expression was tight and pinched with anger; that of her friend Bianca Casarini, simply cool and calculating.

    Maria Verrier's face was illuminated fairly well by the lamps inside her house. After a moment, Bianca turned away and began walking slowly toward the Castel a terra.

    "I'll recognize her, Sophia, whenever I see her again. Let me give the matter some thought."

    "You should have seen her earlier!" hissed Tomaselli. "The slut! She must have spread her legs for half the Casa Vecchie to afford a dress like that—her, a Scoulo's wife!"

    "Umberto Verrier is not exactly a Scoulo," murmured Bianca. "Yes, he started as a simple guildsman, but he occupies a considerably more prestigious position these days."

    She glanced at Sophia's face, which was momentarily well-lit by a lamp in a taverna they were walking past. "Be careful, Sophia," she said softly. "Whatever her past, Maria Verrier is well-connected now. Better than you are, to be honest, and—"

    Her eyes slid down to Sophia's midriff. "Please take no offense, but she's also got a child."

    As Bianca expected—the Tomaselli woman was so predictable—that drew an angry glare. But even Sophia had enough sense to understand the point. A married woman with a child, in provincial Corfu even more than Venice, had a certain aura of respectability which a childless wife like Sophia didn't. Especially when the wife in question had now been married for several years, to a man as generally disliked as Captain-General Nico Tomaselli—and was herself detested by almost everyone except her cronies. Over time, quietly, snickering remarks had spread, speculating either on Sophia's frigidity or her husband Nico's impotence—neither of which enhanced her status at all.

    They walked on in silence for a bit. Diffidently, Bianca cleared her throat. "Querini has been no help, I take it?"

    Sophia's scowl was heavy enough to spot even in the sliver of moonlight. "That pig! Bad enough he ruts like one, but he doesn't even manage the job."

    "Ah. His lovemaking does leave a lot to be desired, in the way of finesse. I admit I rather enjoy his energy myself. But then—" She issued a soft laugh. "I've been taking precautions to make sure I don't get pregnant. Unlike you, I have no convenient husband to assume he's the father."

    Again, they walked on in silence for a time; and, again, Bianca cleared her throat. "I have another lover who might do the trick—two, actually—but..."

    Hearing the pause, Sophia seemed to shrivel a bit. "You think it's me, Bianca? Tell me the truth."

    Casarini kept the surge of triumph from showing. Hard, that. She truly enjoyed snaring her prey.

    "I hate to say it, but... it could be, yes. Crude he may be, but Querini's certainly not impotent—and I know of at least two bastards he's sired."

    Sophia Tomaselli seemed to shrivel still further. Bianca watched, sidelong, gauging the moment.

    "I might be able to help, there," she added. "I know someone who's... well. A Strega mage, I think. Or... something else, but similar."

    Sophia made a face. Bianca laughed softly again. "No, no, Sophia, not what you think. Ha! Aldo Morando's no shriveled up crone, that's for sure. Quite a handsome devil, actually. In fact, I've been considering... well. The point is, he's an accomplished apothecary and knows a number of magics."

    "Have you..."

    "I certainly wasn't trying to get pregnant! My problem was the opposite, actually. If Morando's as good at fertility as he was at abortion, you'll be fine."

    They were now near the entrance to the Castel a terra, where the Tomasellis lived. Bianca drew to a halt. "So, do you want me to set you up with him?"

    Sophia didn't hesitate. "Yes," she hissed. "If I could get that problem taken care of—" She glanced over her shoulder, back the way they'd come, her eyes narrow. "That bitch!"

    Bianca issued her soft, friendly laugh again, and placed a hand on Tomaselli's shoulder. "One thing at a time, Sophia. I'll give some—ha." She broke off, as if struck by a sudden thought.

    "What is it?"

    "It just occurred to me that Morando might well be of help on that problem, also. Apothecaries and magic-workers—good ones, anyway, which he is—often know... You know. Poisons. Hexes. Curses."

    The words seemed to fill Sophia Tomaselli's figure, removing any trace of hunched shoulders. "Yes. Set it up for me with this Morando, Bianca."

    Bianca nodded and began to turn away, headed toward her own domicile in a less prestigious part of the Citadel. But Sophia stopped her with a sudden hug. "You're such a good friend!"

    That was a bit startling. It was the first time Sophia had ever expressed any affection for Bianca beyond the gossipy and sniping camaraderie of two women of like temperament. Their friendship was close, after all these months that Bianca had spent cultivating it, but only in the sense that two spiteful conspirators were intimate with each other. There had never been any warmth in the thing before.

    Immediately, Bianca returned the embrace. Rather fiercely, in fact. Partly, to maintain the pose—but mostly to disguise the sheer thrill from showing. She loved that moment when the trap was sprung.



    "Well?" asked Morando, closing the door behind her and giving Bianca his well-practiced arching eyebrow. Morando, Bianca knew, thought the expression gave him a certain enticingly satanic air.

    It did, in fact. Studying him for a moment, Bianca decided to let him finally seduce her. That would help snare him as well; all the more so because a man of Morando's type invariably thought of himself as the conqueror. Of all prey, predators were the easiest.

    Besides, Bianca was tired of Querini's clumsy lovemaking herself. She'd only initiated the affair and continued it in order to tangle Sophia Tomaselli in her web. Morando would probably make a pleasant change. If nothing else, he'd be too suave to grunt.

    "Well?" he repeated.

    "It's done. She should be coming here before much longer."

    Morando waved at the table where an open bottle lay waiting. And two glasses. Not all that suave, alas.

    So be it. Bianca had had worse, and would have much worse in the future. Gracefully, she slid into one of the chairs and allowed Morando to fill her a glass. Before it was half-finished, she'd accepted his invitation to tour his establishment.



    It proved to be quite a bit more impressive than she'd expected. Later, after Morando fell asleep, she slid out of the bed and tiptoed into the hallway. There, she paused for a moment, listening carefully to be sure that she hadn't awakened Morando. Fortunately, he snored, though not as badly as Querini.

    Yes, he was sleeping soundly. Bianca made her way to the flagstone in the floor that was actually a trapdoor. Prying it up slowly and carefully, making sure to remain silent, she peered down into the darkness. All she could see in the dim light were a few steep wooden stairs.

    She rose and padded, still nude, to the door to the bedroom. After listening for a moment further to Morando's snores, she decided he was a heavy enough sleeper to risk further investigation. She went to the kitchen and picked up the oil lamp burning there. With it in hand, she returned to the trapdoor and went quickly down the steps. She left the flagstone pried up, rather than closing it behind her. That was a bit risky, perhaps, but less risky than finding herself unable to lift it when she wanted to emerge. The damn thing was heavy.

    Once she was down in the cellar, she spent little time examining what was obvious. Morando had already shown it to her, in the tour he'd given her earlier. She'd had a hard time to keep from laughing, then, and now found herself smiling sarcastically. Morando had been quite proud of his "secret magical lair," dropping a number of hints that he was even skirting the edges of satanic rituals. But to someone like Bianca Casarini, for whom those rituals were a reality and had been for several years, Morando's fakery was obvious. The man was a charlatan, pure and simple. Somewhere along the line—perhaps in Milan, in the days when Casarini had first met him as they each plied their separate swindles—he'd learned just enough of the trappings to be able to put on a reasonably good show. Good, at least, to anyone who didn't know the truth.

    She wasn't interested in any of that. The only reason she examined the "satanic altar" at all was to check for a secret passageway. There was none, as she'd expected. That would be too obvious.

    There had to be a bolthole somewhere. Morando would not overlook something that basic. The man might be a charlatan when it came to magic, but Aldo Morando was a genuine professional when it came to his real trade. Trades, rather, since Morando was many things: procurer, swindler, narcotics peddler, seller of information. Anything, really, that was outside the law and involved no muscular effort other than copulation. When Bianca had discovered him on the island a month or so after she arrived herself, she'd practically crowed with glee. He'd make the perfect instrument for her plans. Countess Elizabeth Bartholdy's plans, rather. Working through Morando, Bianca could manipulate both Sophia Tomaselli and King Emeric's agent on the island, Fianelli.

    Eventually, she found the bolthole. It was hidden, not by cleverness, but by the crude expedient of size. An entire wall in a very small side chamber in the cellar could be swung aside. Not easily or quickly, though. At least Morando kept the hinges well oiled.

    Bianca frowned. Morando was getting careless. He'd been on Corfu too long, two years longer than Casarini herself, and it was evident that he'd picked up some of the slack nature of Corfu's society. In Milan, he'd have made sure to have a bolthole he could get through in a hurry. Duke Visconti's agents were ferociously shrewd as well as ferociously brutal.

    So be it. Bianca Casarini had no intention of finding herself trapped in that cellar, after all. She'd mainly wanted to find the secret escape route to see if she could get in, not out. The Countess wanted the coming siege protracted long enough to force her nephew Emeric to come to her for help. Eventually, however, the Hungarians would overwhelm the city—Bianca's orders were to delay Emeric's victory, not prevent it. And when that day came, she wanted to be well out of the rapine and carnage that was sure to follow. It had occurred to her, when Morando gave her his tour earlier, that the cellar would make the ideal place to hide during the sack of Kérkira.

    She'd have to make sure that Morando was out of the way by then, of course. But Bianca was not particularly concerned about that. Most likely, in the long months of the approaching siege, Morando would outsmart himself and get arrested by the island's Venetian authorities. If not, Bianca herself would see to his removal, when the time came.

    After, with considerable effort, prying the wall open wide enough to slip through, Bianca used the oil lamp to guide her down the narrow passageway beyond. She had to stoop, bent almost double, to make her way through it. The tunnel—it could hardly be called a "corridor"—looked to be ancient in its construction. It had probably been built when the stone building was first erected, centuries earlier.

    It wasn't long. Some twenty yards down, after a single sharp bend, Sophia found herself in front of a grating looking out onto an alley. The grating was old too, the iron coated in rust. From the outside, to anyone passing by in the narrow and—she had no doubt, though she couldn't really see it in the dim light thrown by the oil lamp—filthy, garbage-strewn alleyway, the grating would attract no notice at all. A town as old as Kérkira had a multitude of such architectural oddities.

    Inspecting with her fingers, she discovered that, here also, Morando had taken care to oil the hinges on the inside of the grating. He hadn't grown that careless. When and if the time came, the grating could be opened—where most such would be rusted shut.

    So. All that remained was to examine the latch. It was a simple bolt on the inside—her side—of the grating, tucked out of sight of anyone in the alley. She experimented a bit and satisfied herself that she could reach through the grating and pry it open, when the time came.

    A good night's work. Now moving quickly, Bianca retraced her steps and, soon enough, was silently lowering the flagstone over the secret entrance to the cellar. She returned the oil lamp to the kitchen; then, made a quick inspection of her body to make sure there were no tell-tale traces of her activities. Beyond cleaning the soles of her feet and wiping her hands on a rag, there was nothing. Bianca, unlike Morando, had not grown careless with the passage of time.

    She returned to the bedroom and eased her way back into the bed. Morando grunted faintly, as her weight depressed the mattress, but didn't wake up.

    Bianca started to sneer, in the darkness. Sloppy oaf! But she removed the expression almost instantly. First, reminding herself that she had a powerful motive for always remaining careful which Morando lacked—her quest for immortality. And, secondly, reminding herself that too many sneers would eventually disfigure her face. Eternity was... forever.

Home Page Index Page




Previous Page Next Page

Page Counter Image