Authors: Jon Courtenay Grimwood
“You will live for years yet . . .”
“You think I’m immortal?”
The thought had occurred to him. He knew the duchess was far older than she looked and wore her veil to hide her youth as much as in mourning for the late lamented Marco the Just. One of the few men for whom the words
always went together and were meant.
“I have a year at most. Perhaps less.”
“My lady . . .”
“Magic, potions and self-control can only do so much.” Opening a small alabaster box, Alexa took a handful of herbs and scattered them on the brazier, letting sweet smoke fill the tiny room.
Alta Mofacon . . .
Tycho recognised the scent carried on the previous summer’s winds when he’d stayed at Lady Giulietta’s manor on the mainland. Lavender, hops and dog rose. Something medicinal hid under it.
“Wherever she is I want my niece happy.”
“How long will she be like this?”
Duchess Alexa considered the question. “A week at most. Any more than this and I risk addicting her. Even that long may be too long.”
“And me?” Tycho asked. “What do I do?”
Alexa smiled bleakly. “Sharpen your daggers. You seem to enjoy doing that. Sharpen your daggers and prepare yourself for a trip to Montenegro. You’re to kill Alonzo . . . I should have had you do it sooner.”
Tycho kept his silence.
This should have been when we were happy
. . .
The days were short and the nights long, giving him time to enjoy himself and her, had enjoyment been possible, and it should have been. Giulietta should have been laughing at his side as they kicked through the snows in the rose garden at the rear of Ca’ Ducale, Leo asleep in his cradle or carried in her arms.
Instead, Tycho killed Alonzo a thousand times.
And in between his moments of rage-crazed fantasy he sharpened his daggers until their edges glittered and their points could pierce boiled hide. Having sharpened them, he oiled them against rust and made sure they slid effortlessly from their sheaths. Then he sharpened them again, and again, until their edges cut almost before touching and the points could make the very air bleed.
No matter how often he did this, in his head he killed Alonzo more.
He gutted him, castrated him, cut his throat, pierced his heart. He burnt him alive, drowned him in a ditch, tossed him over a cliff. All he wanted was Alonzo dead and Giulietta freed from the drugs that kept her misery at bay but took the life from her eyes. Hatred of Alonzo consumed him.
Others couldn’t see it but he could from the corner of his eye. A swirling darkness that isolated him in the cold corridors of Ca’ Ducale. Guards still came to attention; servitors dropped curtsies, footmen bowed . . . Gestures he barely noticed. No one knew his position any more. Until others stopped knowing he hardly gave having one a moment’s thought. He loved Giulietta and she loved him; that was all that mattered. Now he knew the court’s reluctant acceptance had been based on him being Giulietta’s lover.
With Giulietta so
, the balance changed.
What worries you about Francesca’s replacement?
Alexa’s question about the dead nurse troubled Tycho so deeply he stopped bothering to eat or reply to questions or even return the nods of those who still greeted him.
What was it that he’d missed?
Tycho stalked through the gaming rooms without noticing that silence fell the moment he entered. Courtiers, dozens of them, they all looked the same to him.
When the answer came to him it came if not by accident then by chance. On the third night he returned before dawn to find a red-haired girl in his bed. Alexa had sent her. The duchess thought he needed company. Despite the young woman’s protests Tycho sent her away. She was back the next night to tell Tycho he could do anything he wanted with her. Alexa’s orders. It was obvious she had no idea what
meant. Equally obvious, she didn’t need to know to be terrified of whatever it might turn out to be.
“What did Alexa offer you?”
“My father’s life.”
The man was a forger. Since Venice’s trade depended on the purity of its coin, and a Venetian ducat was welcome anywhere in the Mediterranean, the city was brutal to those caught forging. Her father would be blinded and his hands cut off to stop him forging again. Tycho considered bedding her to still his fury, as Lady Giulietta had used him to still her grief the night her husband died.
But he didn’t trust himself. More to the point, this wasn’t the woman he wanted – but if it was true her father would be blinded if Tycho rejected her then how could he reject her, or wasn’t that his concern? Alexa’s logic was cruel enough for Tycho to decide this was a test, but of what . . .? He was still wondering when he looked up and thought – for a moment – it was Giulietta in his bed.
Tycho said, “Show yourself.”
Her hips were a little wider, her buttocks slightly rounder, her teats a little more generous . . . But she was close enough in looks to be mistaken for Giulietta at a very quick glance, or would have been had her hair been natural. The long hair she’d untied was only dyed the red he loved so fiercely.
He felt not elation but the first stirrings of recognition. He wondered briefly what he’d have done had Alexa sent him a natural redhead, a girl closer to Giulietta in looks. Bed her and be done with it? Lose what he’d just found?
“Stand up,” he said.
The girl stood naked while he walked around her. He touched her body hair and it was soft as silk where Giulietta’s was coarse and wiry. The hair on her head was too fine and smelt wrong. She smelt wrong. He stepped back.
“You don’t want me, my lord?” The girl sounded worried.
“Tell Duchess Alexa your debt is paid a dozen times.”
She looked at him.
“Go,” he said. “Go and talk to whoever you’re meant to report to. Be sure to say the debt is paid, and tell your father to find another job, one that doesn’t land you on your back in bed with a stranger. If such a thing exists.” Girls from her class ended up either married or in brothels, and he’d come to wonder if there was a difference. Giulietta would say not, but Giulietta’s anger at where she’d found herself was fierce.
Something had been waiting beyond his shock at discovering Alexa was dying . . . Beyond his fury that the woman he loved lay drugged because the risk of addiction was less than the damage grief might do. Against all logic, Giulietta had adored the child Alonzo’s plot had forced on her. Take Leo away and all that was left was her uncle’s brutality. Alexa’s drugs were there to prevent Giulietta from realising this.
Anger at the unfairness of it all had stopped him finding the answer. Stopping for a moment had let his thoughts settle like water filtering through sand. But first he needed to check that what he suspected was possible.
Leo’s former chamber was locked but the key rested in the door. A guard hesitated at the end of the corridor, and, knowing the next door led to Giulietta’s original chamber, turned and strode back the way he’d come with the steady steps of someone convincing himself he’d done the right thing. He turned in surprise when Tycho followed him. “Has Leo’s room been visited recently?”
“My lord, I wouldn’t know.”
“Of course you would.”
The palace guards knew everything and said nothing. They saw what never happened, heard words that were never spoken. “I believe, my lord, orders are no one visit this corridor. Except us, of course . . .”
“Of course . . .” The palace guard walked every step of every corridor and colonnade every hour. Ca’ Ducale might be a confectioner’s delight, made from pillars as fine as spun sugar, and every canal and the whole lagoon act as its moat, but that didn’t mean the Millioni took risks. They were protected against everything, except, it seemed, themselves.
The nursery was in darkness. It stank of death and dried blood. The carpet had been removed for cleaning or destruction; cleaning, probably. It had been Persian and valuable. The duchess was practical about such things. Little else had been touched. A broken crib, a burnt-out fire, evidence of emptied bowels . . . The tiles had been mopped but dirt stained the mortar between them.
Glass from the window lay in a heap.
In the richer Venetian houses windows were made from small circles of greenish bottle glass fixed into a lattice with lead, rather than oiled paper. The local pebbles could be ground to almost pure silica; the city had a monopoly on soda ash shipped from the Levant, and the glass was justly famous.
Pulling aside a drape and opening the shutters, Tycho let in fresher air. Shards of glass jutted in like the teeth of a lamprey. A neighbouring pane was cracked and Tycho looked more closely. Two chips revealed the bottle glass had been hit from outside. A single chip showed it had been hit from inside as well.
Several things were wrong with that. The first was that the sound of a window breaking would have startled Leo’s nurse.
Why didn’t you call for help?
The second was obvious.
Who had reason to hit the glass from inside?
No one, unless that’s where you already were, and you hit that pane first, found it too tough to crack and tried another instead.
Should have let me have the guard.
He wished Alexa hadn’t simply stabbed the man.
The rope the killers were supposed to have used was still tied to its grappling hook and lay coiled in one corner. Rust flecked on to Tycho’s fingers as he hooked the grapple over the window. Slipping out of the window, he lowered himself over the edge and gripped the rope, planning to climb down.
A split second later he was falling.
He kicked off from the wall and turned in mid-air to land knee-deep in snow. The grappling hook remained in place but most of the rope lay coiled in front of him. It was as rotten as the hook was rusted. While most of Venice watched Alonzo’s ship sail for Montenegro the killer had entered the nursery by the door. Tycho doubted the nurse killed the child. He didn’t discount it but he doubted it. A hundred women in the city would be desperate enough to kill a child if the money was right. The nurse had been brought from the Italian mainland for another reason.
Tycho intended to find out what that was.
That thought took him through the palace garden, over a lowish wall and into the garden of the patriarch’s little palace next door. Most young men his age probably linked places in the city to kisses taken and kisses given, knee-tremblers in darkened doorways and perhaps the occasional street fight. He remembered places for people he’d killed or deaths he’d seen or overheard.
Here was where Lord Atilo slit the throat of the last patriarch, and Tycho watched before dodging the dagger Atilo threw after him. Tonight Tycho moved swiftly through the snow-covered garden and over a second wall into an alley beyond. And then, as if a man returning from a tavern, sauntered into St Mark’s Square and let himself discreetly through a door into the basilica. He nodded to the stone mother with her halo of glass stars, and stole a candle from a box, lighting it from a wall lamp and gluing it with a blob of wax to the floor at the Virgin’s feet.
The crypt was below the altar, down a cold spiral of steps that magnified Tycho’s careful tread into giant’s footsteps as he descended into a darkness his eyes swallowed and turned to light. A thousand ghosts plucked at the shadows’ edge. Here princes and statesmen had lain before they were buried. Because the ground was frozen hard and the attack on Leo was a secret, here lay a small child and the nurse who’d been looking after him.
Ice slicked the wall in a pottery glaze that made the walls look natural, not something built by man. The sluggish water around the island city was gelid, the canals snaking through its heart colder still. Old women were insisting the canals might freeze. It had happened before when they were children. Touching his fingers to the wall, Tycho believed it could happen again.
In a year when the world turned colder, and canals froze in Venice, blizzards smothered a town beyond a huge ocean no dragonship had crossed for more than a hundred years . . .
Tycho muttered the words so softly they might have been a prayer for the two cloth-covered bodies on slabs in front of him. They came from a book by Sir John Mandeville’s squire; a man who travelled to the world’s strangest places, where the dead walked and dragons lived and serpents spoke. It was the story of Bjornvin’s fall. The last battle of the Far West Warriors, the Viking conquerors of Vineland, whom Tycho remembered as drunken scum. But he’d been their slave, from a people far older, so he was hardly likely to remember them fondly.
The blizzard almost buried the woman approaching the gates of the last Viking settlement in Vineland. She had walked an ice bridge from Asia. Not this winter. Not even the one before.
She was at Bjornvin’s walls before the gate slave saw her. His orders were to admit no one. He would have obeyed, too. But she raised an angelic face framed by black hair. Even at that distance he could see she had amber-flecked eyes.
Without intending, he descended the ladder from the walls, removed the crossbar from the gate and opened it . . .
It was the amber-flecked eyes that made Tycho suspect the woman was his mother. The gate slave who descended the walls was his foster-father. Tycho could remember Bjornvin falling. He was the reason the town fell. He’d not been called Tycho then. He had no idea what he’d been called.
Thorns and wild roses probably grew over its remains; at least he hoped they did. The caribou, foxes and hares would have returned. He doubted even Bjornvin’s red-painted enemy, the Skaelingar, remembered it had existed.
Leo’s nurse and the dead infant lay under grave sheets on marble slabs that looked like cuts of some fatty meat. He could smell corruption in the air, so faint a trace he doubted anyone else could do the same. It was the corruption he’d expect from a corpse an hour or so dead. Alexa must have had them carried down here quickly. The cold had done the rest.