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Authors: Jon Courtenay Grimwood

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BOOK: The Fallen Blade: Act One of the Assassini
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Behind him, a door began to open.

“Go,” Giulietta begged.

He went, taking the scent of roses, the memory of her heart-shaped face and the taste of her blood with him.

13

When she looked the boy was gone. Despite herself, Lady Giulietta glanced at a huge marble pillar, seeing movement where it met a balcony. But the light in Basilica San Marco came from candles or oil lamps, and she couldn’t be sure it wasn’t just shadows shifting.

“My lady…”

Captain Roderigo looked tired, and worried at how he found her. Since his scars said his courage wasn’t in question, she assumed he hung back to give her time to pull up her dress. He said nothing as she fixed her cloak and bent for the dagger, sliding it into a secret hiding place.

“What?” she demanded.

“I have a message for you.”

Lady Giulietta sighed. “So?” she said flatly, and watched the captain’s eyes tighten at her rudeness. As if she’d care.

“The Regent is asking where you are.”

“What did my aunt tell him?”

“My lady, I wouldn’t…”

“Of course you would,” Giulietta said crossly. “Everyone in the palace knows everything. They just pretend they don’t. It’s a prison.”

It wasn’t. She’d been inside a prison.

As a child she’d been taken to see a toothless and naked patrician, who huddled in a freezing cell, filthy with his own faeces and sitting in a puddle of his own piss. Nicolo Paso led a rebellion in his youth. The so-called Second Republic, which lasted three years and saw a hundred senators beheaded in a single day when it fell. Paso was spared.

His condition an object lesson in what awaited those who challenged the Millioni dynasty. She’d heard the Byzantine empire funded Paso’s treason. But then she’d heard the German emperor was to blame. And the Hungarian king, and the Mamluk sultan… Clearly, no one considered Paso might have thought of the rebellion himself. She kept that opinion to herself.

“I’ve seen Paso’s cell,” she said, by way of apology. She couldn’t help being rude. Well, she probably could, but she wouldn’t know where to start or why she would…

“Bother,” Giulietta said, fumbling a button.

Roderigo’s apparent fascination with her face obviously turned on the fact that her fingers struggled with buttons at the neck of her dress, and her hands wouldn’t stop shaking. “My lady,” he said. “Lord Paso’s conditions are good.” Before she could disagree, he added. “There are far worse…”

“Worse than that?”

“Much worse,” Roderigo said. “The Ca’ Ducale is
not
a prison. In comparison with the worst this city has, Lord Paso’s cell is almost a palace.”

“As I would know if I’d need a
real
prison?”

“Yes, my lady.”

Giulietta hated being patronised. “Tell me the worst then.”

Roderigo considered her demand, then shrugged and obviously decided he had nothing to lose in answering. “The pit of the Black Crucifers. It fills with water each tide and requires hours of labour to empty. Prisoners work in shifts to remove the water before the next tide comes.”

“And if they don’t succeed?”

“They drown.”

“Well,” she said, fastening her last button. “I’d still rather pump water there than be here talking to you.” Captain Roderigo looked as if he wanted to slap her. That was fine; most days she wanted to slap herself.

Smothering a shiver, Giulietta ordered him to escort her back to the palace. Where she discovered Aunt Alexa and her uncle now separately abed, and retired to her own chambers on the palace’s family floor. Dismissing Lady Eleanor, who’d stayed awake to help her undress, she struggled out of her blood-stained dress, pulled off her undergown and changed it for a fresh one, hiding her bloodied shift under her mattress. Falling into bed, Giulietta dragged a heavy fur over her and dreamed of snows and wooden buildings burning.

Next morning she woke, pissed in a cold pot and dressed as quickly as her buttons and ribbons and Lady Eleanor’s slowness allowed.

“Eleanor.”

“My fingers are frozen.”

Her lady-in-waiting was fumbling the ribbons on the sleeve of an overgown when she stopped, with the ribbon half tied. Pulling back the sleeve she revealed a bruise on Giulietta’s wrist.

“My lady.”

“What?”

“It looks…” Eleanor hesitated.

“Well?” Giulietta said crossly. “What does it look like?”

“Finger marks.”

Lady Giulietta slapped her.

And having slapped her, she sent Eleanor to her room and tied the ribbons herself, pulling them too tight and making a mess of the bows. She considered recalling her lady-in-waiting to tell her she was dismissed for good. But Giulietta couldn’t face that, and Eleanor probably didn’t want to go to Cyprus anyway and would only be glad of the news.

So she said nothing and kicked her heels in the map room, endlessly examining a fresco of Cyprus, which showed pitiful little ships sailing in all directions. The artist depicted her future home as rocky and barren, with few towns and fewer cities. This made her no happier than arguing with Eleanor.

It was absurd and ridiculous. It made her sound like a maiden in a troubadour’s song, but Giulietta couldn’t shake the feeling that the touch of the boy in the basilica had set hooks into her soul. As if he’d stolen a part of her and left a part of himself in its place. A part that tasted bitter, unforgettable.

Aunt Alexa was too busy to be disturbed.

So Giulietta spent the rest of the day practising her harpsichord with fearsome intensity, until the guards in the corridor winced at every repetition. It was next morning before the girls spoke, and three days before they made up their quarrel. Without discussing it, both avoided mentioning the bruises again.

14

“Where is my aunt?”

Roderigo looked into Lady Giulietta’s anxious face and opened his mouth to say he didn’t know.

“You don’t know, do you?”

“No, my lady.”

“Idiot,” she said crossly. “Everyone’s an idiot this evening. I know she’s not with the duke, because he’s in his room.” Permission was needed to visit Marco after dark, even for Giulietta, so Roderigo avoided asking how she knew.

“Have you asked the Regent?” he said instead.

Giulietta turned on her heel.

Wrong suggestion, obviously. “My lady,” he called after her. “Shall I mention your wish to see her should I meet the duchess?”

“Yes,” came the answer. Although Lady Giulietta didn’t bother to stop or turn and thank him for the thought.
Why would she?
he thought. She was a Millioni. A member of the richest family in Europe. And he…? A minor patrician, who squatted one room of a ten-room palace because the other nine were colder, damper and even more disgusting than the one he used.

His meeting that afternoon with her uncle had been worrying.

There was something not being said. Something that had Prince Alonzo trapped between fury and worry, with the Mamluk ambassador’s reactions almost identical. The men were sparring nervously. Roderigo would have been happier, and more secure, if he had known about what.

The Mamluk ambassador demanded the Ten investigate the burning of his master’s ship, and refused to accept the ship hadn’t been ransacked and its cargo stolen before being set on fire. He refused, flatly, to accept it was an accident.

“Mamluks don’t drink wine,” he said crossly, when Duchess Alexa suggested a drunken crew member tripped over an oil lamp and brought disaster. There were just enough drunk Mamluks, Arabs and Moors in the taverns along Riva degli Schiavoni to give that the lie. But in general it was true.

The ambassador’s position was firm.

His master did not take kindly to his trade ships being burnt. Nor would the sultan take kindly to the Ten’s refusal to investigate. The duchess hoped that wasn’t a threat. The ambassador, with the cold pride for which he was famous, declared it a warning, nothing more. Although he suggested Venice take his warning seriously.

“You already know,” Alonzo said, “my respect for your master.”

“The sultan has been your friend in the past.”

Maybe Roderigo was the only one who read
but that is now over
into this sentence. “I would hate to be disappointed,” Prince Alonzo said. “To feel my overtures, my offers of friendship were being rejected.”

“Disappointment is a fact of life.”

Prince Alonzo looked at the ambassador in shock. “Both our countries will lose if this is not resolved smoothly.”

“As God wills,” the ambassador said.

At this, Prince Alonzo seemed to regain his temper. He repeated
that the fire aboard the Mamluk ship had been an accident. Captain Roderigo was certain of this, wasn’t he?

“Of course,” Roderigo had said.

“My lady…” The voice behind her was oily.
Unctuous
, Lady Giulietta decided, shivering at the word’s suggestion of greasy ointment. She increased her pace towards the stairs.

“His highness is looking for you.”

“The duke?” she said, spinning round.

The Regent’s secretary swallowed, and shot a nervous glance at a nearby guard. “Forgive me,” he said. “I meant, his excellence, Prince Alonzo…”

She knew her uncle was looking for her. That was the reason she was looking for her aunt. Lady Giulietta had begun to fret about the way Uncle Alonzo eyed her. And his constant suggestions that they have a quiet talk soon, alone. Her worry wasn’t helped by her aunt’s reply when told this earlier.

“We must talk too,” Alexa said. “In the meantime, light a candle for your mother, every night. You can rely on her to guard you.”

Everyone wanted to talk. No one specified when and time was running out. Sir Richard left on tomorrow’s tide and took Giulietta. The treaties were signed, the banquets were over. The courtiers wanted her gone. She could see it in their eyes. They wanted her moping, and her anger and her misery, out of their lives.

Aunt Alexa was so elusive that Giulietta now wondered if she also wanted her gone. The duchess knew how she felt about this marriage, because everyone at court knew how she felt, even those who usually found safety in knowing nothing. So why was Alexa refusing to see her?
If you had any guts you’d kill yourself.

The voice was small, still and her own.

“My lady.”


What?
” Her uncle’s horrid little secretary was still there. Looking like a weasel, with his watery eyes and balding head.

“I really think, my lady…”

“Well, don’t.” He’d never dare express an opinion if she wasn’t leaving tomorrow. But she’d be gone by the following noon, so what did he have to fear from her now? Her aunt was nowhere to be found and she could hardly complain to… “Where is my uncle?”

“Della Tortura.”

“He’s torturing someone?” She wouldn’t put it past him. He often claimed to miss the mud, blood and brutality of the battlefield.
So much cleaner than politics.
You were meant to believe he was a reluctant ruler. But he plotted and schemed and lied with the rest of them.

The Sala della Tortura was on the fourth level, below the roof and above the armoury and chambers of government. Since she was on the second level she had two sets of stairs to climb and a dozen or so guards to pass. No doubt each would sneak a look at her face, wondering what was wrong this time.

The stairs were cold and wind rippled the tapestries ordered by the last duke. These were French and showed the highlights of his reign. The first outlined Marco III’s overthrow of the Second Republic as a young god, with his enemies crabbed and bitter. The second his marriage to the Khan’s granddaughter, who became Alexa di San Felice il Millioni. She arrived with three boxes of gold, a case of black tea and a dozen imperial pigeons. Her grandfather relied on the breed to carry messages about his conquests, issue orders to his armies and send to the rear for supplies or reinforcements. T
m
r, the new khan of khans, did the same.

BOOK: The Fallen Blade: Act One of the Assassini
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