The Exiled Blade: Act Three of the Assassini (5 page)

BOOK: The Exiled Blade: Act Three of the Assassini
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“Exorcised,” Alexa repeated. “Against ghosts.”

What did Aunt Alexa expect her to say? Tycho was really cold when he came to bed last night, apparently he likes walking in the snow? I’m sure he simply took a turn round the square.

“Don’t you find that strange?”

“Find what strange? Giulietta asked.

“That Lady Maria should see a ghost the night before she left with her new husband for our provinces in Montenegro . . .”

“An ill omen.”

“No one’s seen a ghost there before,” the duchess said, ignoring her niece’s words. “Strange Maria should see one now.” Aunt Alexa wore a veil, as always, and her voice was flat to the point of being bored. All the same, Lady Giulietta could swear Aunt Alexa was looking past her to Tycho beyond.

“All in white,” Alexa said.

Tycho went still.

“Yes,” said Alexa. “A ghost, all in white, wafted through her window and disappeared just as quickly, having tucked Lady Maria into bed. She asked who it was, little idiot. Seemingly it answered,
no one
. . .”

“A lost soul,” Lady Giulietta said.

“So Dolphini’s priest thinks. Hence the bell and candles, prayers and incense. Of course, my brother-in-law slept through all of this. So like Uncle Alonzo, don’t you think? To be asleep when the gates of hell open for him and close again.”

Pity he didn’t fall through them. We could be burying him instead of waving goodbye.
Aunt Alexa would like that, too.

Her aunt was staring to where lamps on the galley lit Uncle Alonzo against a backdrop of steel-grey clouds and a glowering half-hidden moon. He was good at stage-managing these things. Even Aunt Alexa admitted the only difference between princes and actors was that princes could kill the audience if they misbehaved.

Moonlight reflecting from snow lit the underside of the clouds, which reflected the light back to the snow. The strangeness of this and the thick-falling snow gave the galley and San Maggiore an unworldly look. As if Alonzo was leaving this world for another. Thinking that, Giulietta shivered, and suddenly Lord Dolphini having his palace exorcised didn’t seem so strange.

“How much longer do I have to wait?”

. . .”

“Sorry.” She’d sounded like the girl she used to be; not the new her who would marry Tycho and become Regent one day. “I don’t want to leave Leo too long.”

“You fuss too much,” her aunt scolded.

Most noblewomen left their infants with wet nurses or sent them to mainland estates to be kept out of trouble. Boys left home by the age of seven to join another household if they were noble, to become traders if they were
, or be apprenticed if they were poor but lucky. Street children ran ragged in the cold and quickly died.

The thought of ragged children made Giulietta think of Alta Mofacon in the Julian Alps. Her favourite manor perched on the side of a hill and the snow would hit it hard. She hoped her villagers had enough food to last until spring.

“A few minutes,” Tycho whispered. “You’re doing well.”

So she tightened her fingers into his, and stared at the bloody galley and tried to look as if she was worried for her uncle’s safety rather than hoping that storms capsized him and waves ground his boat on the rocks. She felt closer to tears than she liked. These days she felt permanently close to tears.

Shock, Tycho called it. She’d asked him shock from what and he’d just looked at her. They spoke little about had happened on Giudecca before Tycho killed Andronikos, and what they did say was too much.

“Thank the gods,” said Alexa. Apparently even her aunt was bored with standing on a cold quayside pretending she was sad to see Uncle Alonzo go. His sail was being angled to catch a wind blowing along the wide expanse of the Giudecca channel; and a kettledrum began its slow beat as oars dipped into the water, and the freemen Venice prided itself on using in its galleys drew their first stroke and Alonzo’s war galley shifted slightly. A second then a third stroke were enough to make its movement obvious.

“I hear the storms are bad this time of year,” Tycho muttered.

“You’re going to have to stop doing that.”

“No magic,” he said. “I simply watched your face, saw you glance at your uncle’s boat, scowl deeply, and knew what you were thinking.”

“Knowing what I’m thinking is magic.”

“Not when you make it that obvious.”

Lady Giulietta folded her fingers tighter into his. On their way back, she hesitated as they approached the Porte della Carta and glanced to the darkened edge of the basilica beyond. The two buildings stood side by side, with the basilica stepped forward and obviously Byzantine in style; while Ca’ Ducale, with its pale marble columns, fretted balconies, pink brick and elegant colonnades looked like a Moorish sugar cake. “I’m going to light a candle for my mother.”

“Do you want me to wait for you?”

“You go home . . .”

She saw him smile. Her home, maybe, although even that was new. She could remember when she called Ca’ Ducale a prison. She watched Tycho turn to find a guard to escort her, but one had already peeled off in anticipation. Of course he had. She was a Millioni princess. “See you later,” Tycho said.

Giulietta nodded.

The basilica was empty and her footsteps echoed as she walked under the stern-faced apostles ringing the dome above. The frescos were new and their colours still fresh, and saints watched her as she stopped to ask the Virgin’s blessing. Mary’s cloak was paler than it had been the first time she knelt there, the night she arrived in Venice as a child, her mother dead, her father still hunting her.

The bright circle of glass stars on a wire that ringed the Madonna’s head was now dusty. But she had the same smile, the same kind eyes. Lady Giulietta felt a wave of happiness wash over her. It was here she had met Tycho on the worst night of her life, when the palace felt like a prison and all she wanted was to kill herself – and even that had turned out for the best. The thought of him dropping from the ceiling, strange-eyed and wild-faced, made her smile. Back then she’d been terrified into not taking her life. Now it felt like a warm memory. She glanced apologetically at the Virgin as other warm memories made her blush. “Thank you,” Giulietta said.

The stone mother smiled.


Alexa’s party had won and Alonzo was going into exile. Duke Marco appeared less of an idiot every day, the Byzantine navy that blocked the lagoon, and the German army that had camped on its edge, had left . . . Tycho doubted Frederick’s army would have a good time of it in the snows. He didn’t envy the Byzantine fleet the storms that would buffet the last of their journey. But those were not his problems.

I have the girl, I have the title, I have the gold . . . Half the nobles in the city envy me. The others want me dead so they can take my place.
Why had tightness gripped his chest the moment he entered the palace? Why this dread as he climbed the marble stairs to the Millioni chambers, passing sour-faced dukes staring from paintings, and tapestries exaggerating how great their victories had been? Tycho knew something was wrong the moment he reached the landing.

His jaw ached so fiercely the pain stopped him dead.

As walls and windows, tapestries and a guard outside Leo’s nursery fell into sharp focus, his dog teeth threatened to descend and Tycho recognised the smell of Millioni blood tainted with shit and the smell of fear. The guard stepped back as Tycho hurtled towards him.

“My lord . . .”

Leo’s nursery was locked.

“There’s a new woman tonight, my lord. I heard her lock the door behind her. Perhaps she’s embarrassed about feeding?”

“Leo’s weaned.” Anyway, it wasn’t a wet nurse’s job to be embarrassed about breastfeeding a baby; it was what she did, fed a child and kept it safe. “Stand back,” Tycho ordered. Twisting, he side-kicked the lock.

By the time a second guard came running the door hung on one hinge, Tycho having aimed for a point behind it. The stink of Millioni blood was overwhelming. At least, it was to him. “Get Duchess Alexa . . .”

The new guard froze. Tycho might be noble, Lady Giulietta’s lover and rumoured to have powers, but Alexa was sole Regent now Alonzo had sailed. She couldn’t simply be sent for.

“She’ll have your head if you don’t.”
Yes, thought that would convince you.
The man ran and the other guard tried to look past Tycho into the blood-splattered room beyond. “Stay back and stay out.”

“My lord . . .”

“This is blackest magic.”

The guard instantly averted his eyes.

Taking a deep breath, Tycho forced himself inside. Spilt blood, a discarded knife, open shutters to a window with the glass cut out, a grappling iron and a rope still hanging from the sill beyond. A single glance was all it took to know the world had changed. Tonight’s nurse had been ripped open and her guts bulged in coils through the edges of the cut. Leo’s cradle lay overturned on a carpet that was dark and sticky with blood. Not that. Anything but that.

Tycho upturned the cradle to reveal the dead child beneath.

Very small, very precious, and very broken. Sliced cloth and the pucker of a wound showed where Leo had been stabbed in the heart. Other wounds disfigured the tiny chest. His mouth was open in a silent cry. Tycho felt sick at the sight, raw with grief and riven with unfitting hunger.

The thought brought him up short.

The child at his feet was dead, and yet hunger tightened his throat so viciously his teeth threatened to descend. One of them was still alive. Swinging round, Tycho dropped to a crouch beside the nurse. She was young, dark-skinned and on the very edge of death. “Look at me,” he ordered.

Dark eyes opened and struggled to focus.

At the far end of the corridor halberds crashed as guards came to attention. The nurse tried to speak but her throat was ruined. A flat-handed strike had been used to silence her. He could read the mute desperation in the woman’s eyes. She was desperate to say something. He could feed, of course, take her memories and use what he learnt to hunt down whoever did this. Because he would hunt them down. The cold fury where his heart should be guaranteed it.

Raising his head, Tycho let dog teeth descend, blood filling his throat from where they cut his gums, but he was too late. He felt rather than heard Alexa behind him. “Leo’s dead?” she demanded.

Tycho knew he looked strange, crouched over the nurse, his hand over his mouth as if to stop himself vomiting. Alexa had come alone.

“Tell me.”

“Yes, my lady.”

“I will crucify him between the pillars. I will cut down his bloody olives, destroy his precious villa and sew his land with salt. His name will be cut from public plaques and his portraits burnt.”

“Who, my lady?”

“Alonzo. Who else?” The duchess turned so swiftly Tycho had only just looked round when her dagger stabbed the original guard under his chin and pierced his brain. He tottered, dead without knowing it, staggered backwards as she withdrew her blade. Contemptuously, she tumbled his body into the room.

“My lady,” Tycho protested.

“You disagree with my actions?”

The guard’s smile had been easy and his manner relaxed when Tycho first arrived. Too relaxed? Did Tycho now imagine an uncertainly around the eyes? A slight desperation? “We could have questioned him.”

“And learnt what?” Alexa’s voice was brutal.

“Whatever he knew, my lady . . .”

“Others will give us that information. Where is my niece?”

“Lighting candles for her mother.”

Duchess Alexa froze, and Tycho wondered if even here, even now, so many years after Lady Zoë’s murder, the woman who brought up Lady Giulietta could be jealous of the mother who’d never age, never be cross, never be anything other than perfect in her daughter’s eyes. “I’ll have guards detain her,” Alexa said.

“She’ll want to see Leo.”

“You’d show her this?” Alexa gestured at the window, the nurse bled out on the carpet, the cradle Tycho had righted. Alexa saved Leo’s blood-soaked body until last.

“She has a . . .”

“. . . right to be driven mad with grief?”

“My lady.”

“I lost a child,” Alexa said. “My first son. He died in his cot and I was the one who found him.” It was obvious from the flatness of her voice she stood in that room, not here in the doorway of this. “That was hard enough . . .” Nodding at the bloody scene, “This is more than even I could have borne.”

“I’ll go to her . . .”

“No. You have other work to do.”

Alexa will look after her.
Walking away from Giulietta’s scream was the hardest thing he’d ever done. Not even falling through the circle of flames in Bjornvin or waking, chained naked to the bulkhead of a ship in the Venetian lagoon, with silver shackles burning his skin, came close.

I must keep walking.

In that second he
Giulietta and she him. The sound of her anguish echoed inside his head long after it stopped in the hall. He and Giulietta were tied in a way impossible to describe. In a way he wondered if Giulietta even understood. When the screaming was replaced by silence he knew she’d fainted, been drugged or magicked by Alexa into some false peace. By then he was striding towards Misericordia on the city’s northern shore . . .

The area was well named. A fierce wind blew into his face and the tramped earth beneath his feet felt slick with compacted snow. Ice crust cracked as he walked through street-wide puddles, and his boots were soaked and his feet numb by the time he reached a square of dark water. A monastery stood on the inlet’s far side, its walls black with soot from nearby foundries, which burnt all night with a sombre glow, their fires and furnaces never being allowed to cool. The guard Alexa killed had lived in a narrow tenement between the monastery’s wall and the side of a foundry. His wife, Francesca, lived there still.

Francesca was Leo’s usual nurse, and, between her falling sick and a new nurse arriving, she’d arranged for Leo to be looked after by the wife of one of the cooks. That Francesca then called a replacement from the mainland worried Alexa. In a city of a hundred thousand, twenty-five out of every thousand died each year and fifty were born; fifteen of which lost their mothers in birth, and twenty-five died within the year . . . The point was that in a city where five thousand gave birth annually there was no shortage of women able to act as wet nurses, nurses and childminders. So why summon one from the mainland?

BOOK: The Exiled Blade: Act Three of the Assassini
6.41Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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