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The Outcast Blade (Assassini Series #2)

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Overview

As the Byzantine and German emperors plot war against each other, Venice's future rests in the hands of three unwilling individuals:

The newly knighted Sir Tycho. He defeated the Mamluk navy but he cannot make the woman he loves love him back. Tortured by secrets, afraid of the daylight, he sees no reason to save a city he hates.

The grieving Lady Giulietta. Virgin. Mother. Widow. All she wants is to retire from the poisonous world of the ...

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The Outcast Blade

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Overview

As the Byzantine and German emperors plot war against each other, Venice's future rests in the hands of three unwilling individuals:

The newly knighted Sir Tycho. He defeated the Mamluk navy but he cannot make the woman he loves love him back. Tortured by secrets, afraid of the daylight, he sees no reason to save a city he hates.

The grieving Lady Giulietta. Virgin. Mother. Widow. All she wants is to retire from the poisonous world of the Venetian court to mourn her husband in peace. But her duty is to Venice: both emperors want her hand in marriage and an alliance with Europe's richest city. She must choose, knowing that whichever suitor she rejects will become Venice's bitterest enemy.

Lastly, a naked, mud-strewn girl who crawls from a paupers' grave on an island in the Venetian lagoon and begins by killing the men who buried her.

Between them, they will set the course of history.

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Editorial Reviews

Mike Carey on The Fallen Blade
"Sharp as a stiletto, dark and dazzling as a masquerade. Grimwood's Venice is totally compelling."
SF Crowsnest on The Outcast Blade
"Rich, inky-black atmosphere and scrupulously well though-out blend of historic and fantastic elements."
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781441887788
  • Publisher: Brilliance Audio
  • Publication date: 3/28/2012
  • Series: Assassini Series , #2
  • Edition description: Unabridged
  • Product dimensions: 5.37 (w) x 7.50 (h) x 0.50 (d)

Meet the Author

John Courtenay Grimwood's novels Felaheen and End of the World Blues, won the BSFA Award for Best Novel. He has been shortlisted twice for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, and shortlisted for the British Fantasy Award, the August Derleth Award (UK), John W Campbell Memorial Award (US), among other awards.
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Read an Excerpt

The Outcast Blade


By Grimwood, Jon Courtenay

Orbit

Copyright © 2012 Grimwood, Jon Courtenay
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780316074421

PART 1

“These violent delights have violent ends…”

Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare

Prologue

Constantinople 1408

Incense filled the air inside Hagia Sophia, the largest and most famous cathedral in the world. Beneath its huge dome, small boys scattered rose petals on thousand-year-old marble mosaics, which would need scrubbing before nightfall to remove the stain.

Ahead of the shambling figure of John V Palaiologos – God’s ruler on Earth, Basilius of the Byzantine Empire – walked his cross bearer, carrying a huge crucifix with an icon of Christ in its centre. Had the crucifix been solid it would have been impossible to lift. But it was made from beaten silver, chased and fretted and hammered into shape over a light wooden frame.

Under the icon was a piece of the True Cross. There were a thousand such relics but the patriarch of Constantinople had judged this one real.

As the emperor approached, his courtiers fell to their knees.

The mind of the Basilius was old and as tired as his body; and his body ached on waking and hurt worse in the approach to sleep. He might claim his growing hatred of his empire came from a simple wish to find himself in the company of God. In his heart the Basilius knew he was tired of life.

He’d inherited the throne at nine, his German mother having pawned the imperial crown for 300,000 Venetian ducats two years before he was born. It was a miracle he survived his childhood. That only happened because he was more valuable alive than dead. At the age of seventeen – exhausted by uncertainty – he ordered the slaughter of both Regents, their staff and households. The coup was quick, brutal and performed by a tiny group of the imperial guard who’d grown disgusted by the empire’s chaos.

A revolt by the cousin of a Regent ended brutally. The army was purged of untrustworthy generals and the civil service reordered. Wealth found in the strongrooms of the Regents and the treasury master was returned to the treasury and taxes lowered. An action that brought John V Palaiologos the loyalty of Constantinople’s merchants. It was the first time taxes had been lowered in fifty years.

The new emperor watched and learnt. He identified his friends and his enemies, and those who pretended for whatever reason to be one when they were really the other. At the age of twenty-two, he slaughtered the son of the Seljuk king at Cinbi, after Prince Suleyman and thirty-nine of his father’s knights crossed the Hellespont in boats hired from Genoese merchants.

Having ordered the massacre of every family from Genoa in Constantinople, the Basilius led an attack on Sulyman’s father. The loss of lands, his sons and most of his army rendered King Orthan so desolate he sued for peace.

In the years that followed, the Byzantine emperor reconquered provinces thought lost for ever. Of course, if the Mamluks had not hated the Seljuks the outcome might have been different. Those were thoughts wise historians kept to themselves.

And so courtiers wearing armour whose design was a thousand years old knelt on mosaics even older and averted their eyes.

“Andronikos…”

The emperor’s mage stepped forward.

He was tall and thin, wearing simple robes that managed to look more striking than the gold-embroidered tunics of the governors, independent princes and courtiers around him. Many men in the East claimed to be mages. A few were charlatans, most could do simple magic, produce fire, read minds, rid houses of troublesome spirits. A handful could see the future as it would happen. Andronikos could see all futures, weigh them and make fate’s dice fall one way rather than another. The man had ridden at the emperor’s right hand the night they killed Suleyman Pasha and changed the tides of history.

“Majesty.” Bowing low, Andronikos adjusted his robe and struggled to stand. His bones were old and enough of them had been broken in battle to carry their ache into later life.

“What have you learnt?”

The mage ran through the city’s rumours, the assassinations and assignations, secret raptures and rapines. The Mithraic cult was gaining in strength. A slaughtered white bull had been found by the river. A Seljuk princeling had arrived in the city planning the Basilius’s death. There was always a Seljuk princeling planning the emperor’s death and the emperor suspected the Seljuk king used it as a cynical way to rid himself of troublesome younger sons.

“And Venice?”

Andronikos drew together his fingers.

“No need for masking spells. No one will hear us.” The emperor was right, of course. The chanting of plainsong and rustle of robes, the squeak of fans swinging overhead and the gasps of the slaves who dragged the ropes that worked the fans created their own masking spell.

“Good news and bad news…”

The emperor waited. He was used to men starting sentences and then hesitating to check if he wished to listen to the rest. Andronikos should be above such behaviour; but the emperor had once jailed him for speaking out of turn. Jailed him, confiscated his estates, co-opted his eldest son into the army and sent the boy south to die. The mage had been more cautious in his opinions since.

After a life of simplifying politics and hardening his empire’s boundaries, increasing trade, securing alliances and forging treaties that would last – all the while pretending to be interested only in God – John V Palaiologos had let the Mamluks transport a caged demon through his lands a year ago in return for the renewal of a minor treaty.

Wolf-grey-haired and white-skinned, the demon was kept captive in a cage with silver bars. That it could travel only at night should have warned him this was a bad idea. And though the emperor wouldn’t dream of admitting it, Andronikos had been right to advise against the Mamluk plan.

Only the fear of standing before the recording angel and being called to account for his sins stopped the Basilius from having the sycophants who’d agreed it was a good idea slaughtered.

Sacred checks and balances, his confessor said. They kept the scales almost level. If the world lost those it would be unbearable.

“Lady Giulietta…” Andronikos’s voice was carefully neutral.

These days the emperor called his granddaughters by their mothers’ names and his great-grandsons by the names of their fathers. Occasionally he called his librarian by the name of a slave who’d filled the post thirty years before. That was one advantage of surrounding himself with old men like Andronikos. The Basilius knew who they were. His mind would never decide they were someone else. He fought to remember the girl and failed.

“Well?” he said crossly.

“The late duke of Venice’s niece.”

“Zoë’s daughter? How is Zoë?”

“She was murdered by Republicans, majesty.”

“Ahh…” The emperor considered this. Decided he probably remembered that. And remembered something else. “Zoë married one of my nephews? Is that right?”

“Not a happy marriage.”

“Ahh… What about this daughter?”

“Her husband died in the recent battle off Cyprus.”

“We’ve discussed this, haven’t we?”

The mage nodded and kept his face impassive. “There’s a child,” he added. “And rumours about its parentage. We’ve touched on that, too.”

“The husband recognised it?”

“Yes, majesty. He named it his heir.”

“That’s all that matters.” Enough noble families had used natural sons or adopted children to continue their lines; it was an ancient Roman tradition, and since the Basilius was in a direct line from the Caesars, why would Andronikos expect him to be troubled by that? “Cut to the core.”

The emperor’s mage took a deep breath.

“Her husband was Sigismund’s favourite bastard…”

Sigismund was the German emperor… Well, technically he was the Holy Roman Emperor, King of Germany, Hungary and half a dozen other places of equal unimportance.

“And this matters why?”

“Majesty. The new duke of Venice shows no interest in women. We already know his mother’s threatened to have her co-Regent poisoned if he marries and produces an heir. So, all Prince Alonzo can have is bastards, and those can’t inherit the throne.”

“Why have we not discussed this?”

“We’ve touched on it,” said Andronikos, hurriedly adding, “but not in any depth. All this only matters now because Sigismund will offer Venice another of his bastards for Giulietta to marry.”

“Sigismund wants Venice?”

“Majesty, he’s always wanted it.”

“You know what I mean. I mean, he intends to have it? By marrying his natural son to Zoë’s daughter, then claiming Venice in the name of Leopold’s legitimate son when the time comes?”

“Yes, majesty.”

The emperor sighed.

“Shall I order the child killed?”

“Checks and balances, Andronikos. I’m too close to meeting God to want another infant on my conscience. And killing its mother won’t work either. We need a counter-proposal. A husband more suited to our needs.”

“Indeed, majesty.”

The emperor thought about it while plainsong halted and restarted, and fans swirled warm air down from the domed ceiling to be cooled by huge unglazed jars that wept bead-like tears. Around him, his entourage talked quietly, having fought hard for positions that required only their ability to show reverence. The emperor knew how ridiculous that was, and suspected Lord Andronikos knew how ridiculous that was, and imagined his courtiers knew also. They still fought for the positions, though. The empire had been like this for hundreds of years.

“Where’s Nikolaos?”

“On his estate, majesty. Under guard.”

“He is as he was?”

Born of a freed Varangian slave, Nikolaos was the handsomest of his sons, with blond hair and broad shoulders that might have come from a statue of Hercules. The youth was virile and charming, beautifully mannered to his women in public but savage in private. It was a woman who saw him exiled. A duke’s daughter, she’d been beautiful, talented, intelligent and obstinate in the face of his wooing.

A perfect target for his rage.

“Majesty, this might not be wise.”

“Giulietta’s the daughter of a Byzantine prince, her mother is the granddaughter of another, our blood flows in her veins, not Sigismund’s. We’ll send them Nikolaos. If Venice’s spies are any good they’ll know what they’re getting. Tell Duke Tiersius we’re exiling Nikolaos after all.”

“He wanted Nikolaos dead.”

“Death. Venice. It’s all the same.”

1

Venice

On the first of May, in the same hour of the night that the Basilius spoke to Lord Andronikos about the situation in Venice, the flagship of the Venetian fleet put into its home lagoon, its rails smashed by storms and its sides scarred by battle.

The San Marco was the fleet’s only survivor.

On board was the demon the Basilius regretted letting pass through his empire. Called Tycho, he hated being on board for three reasons: 1) being over deep water made him feel weak and sick, 2) he could not shake his nightmares from the battle, 3) the girl he loved had locked herself in her cabin and refused to come out. Not what he’d intended when he revealed his true nature to her.

“By yourself again, Sir Tycho?”

The demon scowled.

Arno Dolphini was one of the few crew members unimpressed by Tycho’s part in their recent victory. Mind you, even those who were impressed believed him recklessly ambitious. Why else would he risk courting a Millioni princess so soon after the death of her husband?

Except I loved her first, he thought bitterly.

And she’d been the one to seek him out on the night deck of the San Marco, dressed as no newly widowed woman should be in a thin undergown made clingy with sweat. The mere memory made Tycho’s throat tighten. “My lady is upset.”

“Screaming baby and dead husband? I’m not surprised. Still, no doubt her family will choose her another prince soon enough.”

Curling his hands into fists, Tycho stared at lights on the shore, willing himself not to hit Dolphini. The young man was a bully and an idiot, the spoilt heir to a massive fortune. The real reason he wanted to rip out Dolphini’s throat, however, was that he spoke the truth.

“Come on. You’re missing the fun.”

On arrival, the San Marco had been ordered to join the quarantine line like any other newly arrived ship. Lord Atilo, its captain, was not the kind of man who felt he should be made to wait.

“You dare tell me what to do?”

Don’t show panic, Tycho thought.

But the messenger was already measuring his drop to the dark lagoon behind. If he reached the rails he might be able to jump before Atilo struck. Only then the Regent would have him hung for cowardice. The look on the messenger’s face said he knew he was doomed either way.

“Those are the Council’s orders, my lord.”

“Damn the Council. I’m coming ashore.”

“You’ll be arrested.”

Even Lord Atilo looked shocked at that.

“I’ve just sunk the Mamluk fleet. Saved Cyprus from capture and protected our trade routes. Do you really think anyone would dare?”

“My lord. Your orders…”

Atilo il Mauros wanted to say that no one gave him orders. Except that wasn’t true: Duchess Alexa did; her son would have done had he not been simple. And Prince Alonzo, the Regent of Venice, also had the right.

“I’ve fought storms for three days. My ship is battered. My crew are exhausted. I did this to bring you news of our victory.”

“We have the news already, my lord.”

“How could you possibly…?”

“It was announced last Sunday.”

So cross was the old Moorish admiral that he growled in fury. It would have been funny if he hadn’t also fallen into a fighter’s stance the messenger was too ignorant to recognise. Atilo’s temper was about to boil over. When it did he would strike for the man’s heart.

The night air would fill with the stink of blood, and Tycho would have to fight his hungers. He was exhausted, sick from days at sea, and uncertain he could stop himself from becoming the beast he was on the night of the battle.

“Let it go,” he said.

Atilo swung round, seeking his one-time slave. “You dare question my authority?” The messenger was forgotten and all Atilo’s attention on the perceived insult. When Atilo gripped the handle of his sword, Tycho wondered how far the old man would take this…

There will be no fighting.”

The voice from behind Tycho sounded less confident than its command suggested. And the red-headed girl who pushed past as if he didn’t exist was shaking with anger, nerves or tiredness. At Lady Giulietta’s breast was an infant, half covered by a Maltese shawl.

“Tell the mainland I accept quarantine. I do not, however, accept being confined to this ship with idiots. The Council of Ten will find another solution. You may use my name when you send this.”

The messenger bowed low.

And Giulietta di Millioni, Prince Leopold’s widow and mother to his heir, turned for her cabin secure in the knowledge she would be obeyed. The Millioni were good at that. Assuming others would carry out their wishes without question.

So good, that they always were.

Tycho slept through the next day in the darkened hold of the San Marco on earth he’d brought aboard at Ragusa, a port on the Adriatic coast. The sun hurt him, being above water made him sick, daylight blinded him. His illness was well known.

The sailors avoided him. Everyone avoided him.

Atilo’s officers were careful to give him the courtesy his recent knighthood demanded. And his friendship with Lady Giulietta, complex as it was, made them more uneasy still. Only Lord Atilo’s betrothed, Lady Desdaio Bribanzo, came and went as if nothing had changed.

“Tycho…”

Rolling to his feet, Tycho only realised a dagger was in his hand when Desdaio said, “Is that really necessary?”

“My apologies, lady.”

She looked doubtfully round the hold.

His walls were crates, his floor space made by pushing those crates apart. A square of old canvas over the top kept out any sunlight that might filter through a hatch above. His thin mattress rested on red earth.

“It makes me feel less sick.”

“You always know what I’m thinking.”

“Some days I know what everyone thinks. Your thoughts are usually more pleasant.” He watched her blush in the gloom, turning aside to hide her embarrassment at his words.

“I came to say Lady Giulietta’s message has been answered.”

“My lord Atilo sent you?”

Desdaio almost lied out of loyalty to the man she was to marry, then shook her head because honesty was in her nature. “I thought you’d want…”

A snort above made them both look up.

Giulietta stood at the top of the steps, with Leo asleep in her arms and a starlit sky behind her. She wore a scowl, and a black gown bought in Ragusa. Both scowl and gown had become armour in recent days.

Tycho only just caught up with her.

“What did you come to tell me?” he asked.

“That Lord Roderigo is here.”

“Captain Roderigo?”

“He’s a baron now. My uncle’s doing. I’m surprised your little heiress didn’t tell you that. You seemed to be having a friendly chat.”

“It’s not…”

“Like that? Isn’t it? What is it like then?”

“My lady, we need to talk.”

“We have nothing to talk about. You should know I plan to leave Venice the moment I get the Council’s permission.”

“Where will you go?”

“What business is that of yours?”

“I simply wondered, my lady.”

“To my mother’s estate at Alta Mofacon. Leo will be happy there and I’ll be away from this sewer of a city.”

And from you. Tycho knew what she was saying.

Across his shoulder Lord Roderigo wore a sash with the lion of St Mark, signifying he was here in his capacity of head of the Venetian customs service.

“My lord,” Lady Giulietta said.

Roderigo bowed. Looking beyond her, he let his jaw drop at the richness of Tycho’s doublet. Although what stunned him was the half-sword at Tycho’s hip.

“He’s been knighted.” Atilo’s tone was disapproving.

“For his part in the battle?”

“Before that.”

“He was a slave.”

“Indeed,” Atilo said.

“I was knighted for what I would do.” Tycho’s smile was bland. “King Janus believed I might be of some small help.”

“And were you?”

“He won the battle for us,” Giulietta said flatly.

“How did he do that, my lady?”

“No idea. We were sent below.”

Lord Roderigo believed he saw a boy pretending to be a man. An ex-slave pretending to be a knight. Tycho was happy to let him think this since Roderigo was Prince Alonzo’s man and it was Alonzo who had Tycho sold into slavery.

“When do we go ashore?”

“Who said anything about going ashore?”

“You’re here. I doubt you’d come in person if we had to remain aboard. So, since you’re here, we’re going ashore.”

Roderigo’s stare was thoughtful. “Food has been landed at San Lazar,” he admitted. “Also wine, ale and new clothes. Because of Lord Atilo’s great victory the Council have shortened quarantine to ten days.”

That was an impressive concession.

“But it’s a leper island,” Desdaio protested.

“My lady, no leper has been there in fifty years. Nowadays, the White Crucifers treat those wounded in battle. Since there have been no battles in Venice for twenty years,” Roderigo shrugged, “they have time enough for prayer. My lady Giulietta, if you’ll take the first boat…?”

She smiled graciously.

“And, Sir Tycho, if you’ll travel with her?”

Lady Giulietta’s smile turned to a scowl.

Stone steps disappearing under dark waves were a common occurrence in Venice, where such runs helped adjust for tidal differences. Most of the water steps in the island city were algae-green and slippery underfoot. The steps up to the fondamenta, the stone-lined embankment at San Lazar, had been scrubbed so clean on the Prior’s orders that the chisel marks of the original masons could be seen.

“My lady.” The Prior bowed.

“Lord Prior.”

His knights wore mail under their cloaks and carried swords. Their mail looked unscrubbed and almost rusty, but the recently sharpened edges of their blades glittered in the torchlight.

“This is an unusual honour, my lady.”

Giulietta’s mouth twisted and she was about to say something rude when Tycho stepped forward. “I’m Sir Tycho.”

The Prior stared doubtfully.

“Lord Atilo will be here soon.” Tycho still found it hard not to say my master. Although that relationship was done and its ashes sour in both their mouths. “He presents his compliments, and thanks you for your hospitality. In particular, the hospitality you extend to Lady Giulietta and Lady Desdaio. He knows…”

“It’s true, Desdaio Bribanzo is with him?”

“Yes,” Tycho said.

The Prior pursed his lips. “They will be given separate quarters.”

“I doubt she’d have it any other way,” Giulietta said tartly. “And if she did I doubt my lord Atilo would allow it.”

The Prior kept his disapproval to himself after that.

2

White Crucifers dedicated themselves to poverty, chastity and protecting pilgrims on the journey to Jerusalem. They avoided the company of women whenever possible, and it had been over a century since the last one set foot on St Lazar. It being well known that the female sex carried the taint of sin. And so, five hundred young monks prayed, worked their gardens, practised their weapons and did their best to ignore Lady Giulietta’s presence on their island.

Sitting in her room, Giulietta twisted the ring Leopold had put on her finger until her finger was raw enough to hurt. She’d like to be able to ignore herself too. And how could she disagree with the Crucifers’ opinion?

She wasn’t sure which disgusted her more.

What she’d let Tycho do on the deck of the San Marco. Or that she’d sought him out so soon after Leopold’s death. She loved her husband. Leopold was a good man.

Had been a good man.

When she was at her most desolate, scared of being recaptured and already pregnant, Leopold zum Friedland found her on the quayside after she’d been turned away from the patriarch’s palace. He reduced her to tears with kindness.

Something she didn’t expect from men.

It was a strange love; but no one had a fiercer friend, and he married her for all he never tried to take her to his bed. He stood father to her child. He died so she could live. Tears backed up in Giulietta’s eyes.

Leopold made her feel safe

And Tycho…?

She swallowed hard.

If she felt guilty it was Tycho’s fault.

On the deck of the San Marco he’d taken advantage of her sadness, and then told her terrible lies. He’d used what happened eighteen months before, when they first met in the cathedral, when he took the blade from her hands… He should have let her kill herself; before she met Leopold, before she had Leo, before she met him.

She hated him for it.

Lady Giulietta repeated that to herself.

He was nothing. Merely an ex-slave for all he had the face of an angel and a fear of God’s light more suited to a creature from hell. Her nurse had warned her about men like him.

Staring across the lagoon to Venice beyond, Giulietta came to a decision and made herself a promise. It didn’t matter that he made her feel… Lady Giulietta refused to put how Tycho made her feel into words. She would ignore him from now on. And she would behave like the Millioni princess she was.

Leopold’s widow.

She had responsibilities, a child and a reputation to protect. How dare he assume there was room in her life for him?

Princes ruled countries according to the rule of God. So Lady Giulietta had been taught. Within these countries their word was the law, quite literally. But there were several Orders of Knighthood where the Grand Prior’s word was law within the Order, wherever the knights might be. She should have realised the Prior would want a chance to impress the princess he’d taken in so unwillingly.

“Must I…?”

Lord Atilo smiled. “My lady. It would be rude not to.”

“God forbid…”

Trestle tables were laid in the monastery hall.

The Prior sat himself in the middle of the top table with her to his right, her baby in a basket at her feet. Atilo sat to the Prior’s left. Next to Atilo sat Desdaio, with Tycho on her far side.

The Under Prior took Atilo’s place on Giulietta’s side of the table, meaning Lord Roderigo had the seat beyond. In placing his deputy above the captain of the Venetian customs, the Prior was stressing his Order’s independence.

But for all the Prior’s manners were questionable his feast was magnificent. Barolo wine darker than velvet. Whites from Germany made sweet by letting their grapes rot on the vine. The Order brewed its own ale and provided barrels of it. The food was equally impressive. Fresh bread from the kitchens, pickles and salted vegetables from the gardens, dried mutton soaked until it was salt free, and skimmed until the fat was gone. Carp from the pond, fried anchovies from the lagoon and grilled eel with fennel.

Everyone ate on huge rounds of stale bread.

Those at the high table left theirs to be cleared away. Those on the lower tables ate their rounds softened with the juices from the meat. After the pies came puddings, mounds of sweetmeats and candied fruit, fresh dates and plums. Wine and ale flowed so freely a glass only had to be a little empty to be filled.

“You don’t like wine?”

Tycho shook his head at Desdaio’s question. He’d grown sick of wine that Easter, when he had to drink his way from tavern to tavern on a trail that led him to Alexa and Alonzo. He failed the task they set.

The memory of being ordered to kill Prince Leopold made Tycho glance along the table towards Lady Giulietta. So he caught the moment a man appeared in a doorway beyond. Temujin was Roderigo’s sergeant, and the blood between the sergeant and Tycho bad enough for each to want the other dead.

Since Temujin had not arrived with Roderigo he had to be newly landed. A supposition strengthened when Lord Roderigo pushed back his chair, muttered some excuse to the Under Prior, finished his wine in a single gulp and headed for the exit. At the doorway, Roderigo turned back and saw Tycho watching. His expression was unreadable.

Returning his attention to Desdaio, Tycho froze.

“You’re staring,” she protested.

How could he not? Her face had become translucent, and, beneath it, bone glistened yellow. Her eyes, famous for their beauty, were empty hollows. The skull beneath the skin…

Death stared at him from her face.

“Tycho… What’s wrong?”

For a second he felt like a man drowning. Without asking, he downed her wine and stared around him, shocked by the skulls staring back. Not just the high table but row upon row of Crucifer knights with skeleton faces. Their flesh was there. But death showed beneath. “Leave here,” he told Desdaio. She would have replied but he was already gone. Giulietta blinked, finding Tycho beside her.

“How did you…?”

“No time.” Jerking Leo from his cradle, Tycho grabbed Giulietta’s wrist and dragged her upright, sending her chair tumbling backwards. The clatter halted conversation around them. “Move.”

“Give me Leo…”

“You have to come with me.”

Tycho, give me my son.”

“You want him to die?”

A few of the more observant Crucifers on the lower tables had their bodies angled to show they knew something was wrong without knowing what.

“Is there a problem?” the Prior demanded.

“Yes,” Tycho said.

“I was talking to Lady Giulietta.”

“I wasn’t.” Tycho sped Giulietta towards the door, then hurried her into a wide courtyard, only stopping when he reached a grain store on the other side. When he handed Leo back, the baby’s face was rosy, its laugh gurgling.

“Stay here…”

“Tycho, you can’t…”

“Or die.” He left the choice to her.

A few seconds later, he reappeared with Atilo and Lady Desdaio, dragging the young woman and elderly Moor at blurring speed across the courtyard. Only releasing their wrists when they reached Giulietta.

“What the hell…?” Atilo demanded.

And the world ignited behind him.

Stained-glass windows blew out. Doors blew open.

As the explosion split ancient brick walls, a thousand slates tipped from the roof. And in the after-second of silence, fire whooshed through shattered windows, carrying a scream that filled the air, followed by another, and another. Until the night echoed with a choir of pain.

Lady Giulietta crossed herself.

The dining hall stood for another second, and then one end sank through the ground into the fiery fury of wine cellars below. Flames billowed skywards as Tycho drew his sword and pushed Lady Giulietta behind him. His first thought was to protect her from attack, his second to get her and her child out of there. There was an arch with a locked door next to the grain store. He needed to find someone still alive who had a key.

“That was gunpowder,” Atilo growled.

“How did you know we were in danger?” Giulietta asked, looking at him strangely. As if his saving her was somehow tied to a guilt that involved trying to blow her up in the first place. It was obvious she trusted him even less than she had.

I saw death in your face.

Roderigo’s sergeant appeared in the doorway and I saw death in your face and in the face of your child and all those sitting around you.

“I just did,” Tycho said.

His answer did nothing to reassure her.

Tycho looked for wounded survivors from the hall and realised smoke would kill any who survived the fire and explosion. Oily billows filled the air around them with the stink of charring meat and burning brick dust.

“Dead gods, my lady…” The voice from the arch that had been locked was loud. Lord Roderigo bowed to Giulietta, nodded to Atilo il Mauros and Desdaio, and ignored Tycho altogether. “Are you safe?”

Giulietta nodded.

“Then we must get you away from here.”

“She goes nowhere with you.”

Roderigo’s eyes narrowed. Although Tycho was the only one with night sight to see it happen. The man’s blade was half out of its scabbard before Atilo stepped in front of him. “Put back your sword.”

Lord Roderigo shook his head.

“If you don’t,” Atilo said flatly, “Tycho will kill you.”

“I’ll take my chances.”

“You will not,” Lady Giulietta said. “At least, not until the Regent and my aunt have asked how you knew to leave the banquet at that point. And how Sir Tycho knew the hall was about to explode. After that you’re free to kill each other at will.”

3

The palace of the Millioni was the grandest in Europe.

A confection of cream and pink supported on an elegant colonnade of marble, and positioned alongside the open expanse of lagoon, Ca’ Ducale was built from bits of other buildings stolen from all over the Mediterranean. In that fact could be read the entire history of Duchess Alexa’s adopted city.

Her bedchamber looked out from the second floor in a suite of family rooms that housed her son Marco, the Regent Alonzo, and Lady Eleanor, who’d been Giulietta’s lady-in-waiting until Giulietta went missing.

The room Alexa liked most was a floor above.

The blue study was where she retired to think or work the quiet magic her son’s subjects whispered she practised without really knowing whether they believed it or not. They were right to whisper it. Saying it aloud would have brought the Council of Ten down on them.

Scowling at what she’d just seen, Alexa brushed her fingers across the water filling a jade bowl and fractured the picture of the still-burning monastery into a swirl of colour that faded like endlessly diluted ink.

She’d seen enough.

Her scrying bowl was mutton-fat jade. It was older than the celestial empire of China itself and had arrived from Timur the Great – whom some called Tamburlaine – a few months earlier in reply to one of her reports. That the khan of khans sent such a present showed unusual, indeed worrying, respect on his part. Either that or an acute understanding of how difficult her position as Duke Marco’s mother was.

The Khan’s other present lay curled around her feet.

The lizard’s tongue was purple and its eyes bright yellow, with black pupils that narrowed against the light. Its scales were tiny and iridescent. The frill around its neck expanded if the creature grew cross. The frill felt softly spiky to the touch, as if held up by boiled fish bones. Alexa had been shocked when the creature first unfolded fragile wings. They’re common in my country

Her lie had been instinctive.

I couldn’t believe you didn’t have them here.

How could she tell her ladies-in-waiting she’d thought Chinese winged lizards a myth? The dragonet was unhappy to be woken before dawn, and its yellow gaze baleful enough to make her smile. Half an hour later, she’d just enticed it on to her lap when guards came to attention outside her door and someone knocked. News of the explosion at St Lazar presumably.

She was surprised it took that long.

The eleventh of May in the fourth year of his reign was not one of her son’s better days. Duke Marco sprawled on his throne like an ungainly spider, his legs over the arms on one side, his head tipped back over the other, one hand scratching his groin. Marco IV had seen ghosts.

Specifically, his father’s ghost.

The Council of Ten had to wait while he explained this.

His stammer making it m-m-m-minutes before they could get to the matter of real importance. The explosion at San Lazar and the close escape from death of returning runaway Lady Giulietta di Millioni, second in line to the Venetian throne.

Since the death of Marco’s father, known to Venetians as Marco the Just, a label Alexa chose for him, her primary goal was to keep their idiot son alive. Her secondary one was to keep the city out of the hands of the Byzantine emperor, the German emperor, and her own brother-in-law. One of whom was undoubtedly behind this outrage. Alexa’s third goal was to protect Giulietta. It came lower on her list, but she still took her niece’s safety seriously.

In front of the thrones stood Lords Atilo and Roderigo. Sir Tycho stood one pace behind them. Roderigo’s Mongol sergeant had been made to wait outside.

“Is G-g-giulietta safe…?”

“She’s gone to the basilica to give thanks for her safety and to pray for the soul of her dead husband.” A demand, Alexa thought sourly, impossible for the rest of them to refuse without looking impious.

Alonzo snorted.

Her brother-in-law was everything her son was not.

As much at ease among the shipbuilders of the Arzanale as among the city’s merchants and nobles. In early maturity he’d been handsome, even beautiful. Now his face was soft with good living, his voice rough with wine as he ordered guards to admit the Mamluk ambassador.

“Your highness…”

Having bowed to the throne, and touched his fingers to his heart, his lips and his forehead in ceremonial greeting, the Mamluk avoided looking at Duke Marco again. Since his pride was notorious and his sense of the respect owed a servant of his master unbreakable, the fact he’d waited an hour in a deserted audience chamber stressed how seriously he took news of the explosions on San Lazar.

He might be presenting himself to the duke, but he was speaking to Alonzo and Alexa first, the Council of Ten second, and those gathered at their orders third. The pretence that he addressed the twitching fool on the throne was simply that. Pretence. “My master is not responsible for this outrage.”

“Do you know that for certain?” Alonzo’s voice was cutting. “Does your master tell you everything he does?”

“Yes, my lord.” The ambassador held Alonzo’s gaze. “Everything.”

The Regent of Venice considered that for a moment. When he spoke again his face was calmer and his voice mild. A stranger wouldn’t have guessed he was the man who burnt the Fontego dei Mamluk only a few months earlier, nailing the chief merchant’s daughter to a tree and ordering her flayed alive. Though the Mamluk ambassador was unlikely to forget it.

“We have your word on this?”

The Mamluk ambassador nodded stiffly, then added, “You have my word. The sultan did not order the explosion that destroyed the Crucifer hospital.”

“It was not destroyed,” Atilo said.

“Damaged then…” The Mamluk’s curtness revealed how much he hated acknowledging Atilo, a man he despised as a turncoat to his own race and a traitor to his religion. “Any help we can offer solving this crime is willingly offered. Should we receive information we will share it. We would not wish you to believe we are breaking the truce we have just signed.”

The almost total loss of the Venetian and Mamluk fleets in battle off Cyprus had left both sides shocked. And the sultan’s offer of a year’s truce had been accepted with little reluctance. Venetians were pragmatists. The more enemies you had the fewer people you could trade with.

“My lord ambassador,” Alexa leant forward, “do you plan to remain in our city?” Her question was almost gentle. Its weight in what she avoided mentioning. That the ambassador’s brother was among those who died in the recent battle.

“W-w-webs,” Duke Marco suddenly said.

His mother stared at him. His uncle, the Regent, simply looked disgusted.

“S-see?” Marco pointed at the ceiling.

“They shall be cleaned away this very morning,” Duchess Alexa promised. “Every single last one of them. Next time you’re here they’ll be gone.”

“W-where will the p-poor spiders live? Everyone has to l-live somewhere.” Her son sounded sorrowful. “Even s-spiders with nowhere to live.” Having exhausted that day’s supply of words, Marco kicked his heels against the legs of his throne, curled into a ball and began to suck his thumb.

The duchess looked thoughtful.

“I think,” said Prince Alonzo… Then stopped as Duchess Alexa abandoned her chair to kneel in front of her son. Gently she pulled his thumb from his mouth and nodded towards the ambassador.

“Is he a spider?”

“He l-looks like a s-spider to m-me.”

It was true the Mamluk ambassador was tall and thin, and dressed in a robe that made him look thinner still. The fat turban he wore could have looked like a spider’s head with a little imagination.

Well, maybe a lot of imagination.

“Is the Fontego dei Mamluk yet sold?”

Count Corte, whom Alexa asked, blinked furiously at finding himself the unexpected centre of attention. “We’ve had offers,” he said carefully. “Good offers. From the Moors and the Seljuks.”

“Has it been sold?”

“No, my lady.”

“Then it is returned to its original owners.”

She smiled at the ambassador, who was so shocked he forgot to keep his face impassive. “My lady, that is unexpected.”

The balance of power in Venice had changed and Alexa intended to provide proof. In removing Lady Desdaio without permission, Atilo had risked disgrace. He’d also made it impossible for Alexa’s brother-in-law to seduce the richest heiress in the city. In winning a battle against the Mamluks, Atilo had put himself beyond punishment. Since he was her man – as surely as Roderigo was Alonzo’s – her hand was strengthened.

Bowing lower than usual, the Mamluk bid farewell and left the room, walking backwards as his customs required. He left so speedily everyone suspected he feared she’d change her mind.

“Now,” Alexa said. “Tycho will tell me why he thinks Lord Roderigo is involved in this.” When Roderigo opened his mouth, Alexa scowled. “You’ll have your turn later.”

“My lady. Roderigo was on the island with us.”

Lord Roderigo,” the duchess corrected. “These things matter.”

“I’m sorry,” Tycho said. “His lordship was with us. But when I looked up at the banquet and saw his sergeant, who was not, I knew…” Those watching probably imagined Tycho gathered his thoughts. But he was wondering how to word what he needed to say. “I knew something was wrong.”

“You knew this how?”

“My lady. Please. I just knew.”

“This knowledge gave you proof Lord Roderigo was involved?”

“No, my lady. I simply thought…”

Tycho saw the duchess look at a fat little man at the far end of the row of chairs arranged in front of the thrones, who shook his head. Quietly dressed and seedy in appearance, Dr Crow was reputedly the greatest alchemist alive. He’d questioned Tycho already on how he knew death was coming. He took for granted that Tycho did; his only interest was how.

I just did had probably disappointed him.

“You were right about the danger,” Alexa said. “Wrong about Lord Roderigo’s involvement. Prince Alonzo tells me he sent Roderigo’s sergeant to confirm no disease had developed. If it had, quarantine was to be extended. Lord Roderigo locked the door to the courtyard because that was what regulations demanded.”

“My lady…”

“This was a Republican conspiracy. Arrests are already being made. We have dangers enough outside not to tolerate traitors within. Lord Roderigo is a loyal servant to the throne and was not involved.”

“No, my lady. Of course not.”

The duchess was waiting for something. After a moment, Tycho realised what. Although she was too subtle to make it an order. Turning to the Captain of the Dogana, he offered apologies for his insult.

Roderigo grunted.

“And now,” Alexa said lightly, “to other matters. Who was the last armiger executed?”

“Sir Tomas Felezzo, my lady. An hour ago.”

“His house now belongs to Sir Tycho as reward for his part in the battle. Its contents, however, belong to the city. Have the building emptied. I take it no family exists to contest this order?”

“All executed, my lady.”

“Republicans?”

“Every one of them. The worst kind.”

That would be clever ones. Or those with influence.

4

Tyrol

The wolf pack streamed through the high alpine meadow, leaving mountain grass waving behind it. The wolves moved so lightly that the tiny blue flowers flattened beneath their paws sprang up unbroken. Seen from above through the eyes of a hawk they formed an arrow, a dozen racing beasts spread in a vee from their leader who ran ahead as if challenging the outriders to catch him.

And there was – indeed – a hawk.

High and cold in the Tyrol sky it wheeled and gyred above them as it considered what it saw, before rising through the winds to navigate a high pass from this valley to the one beyond. The hawk was tired and hung on the very edge of exhaustion, but its task was done and food and petting waited as reward for its return.

“Master Casper…”

“Seen it, majesty.”

The falconer, who was Emperor Sigismund’s magician and came from the far north of his empire, and had the cheekbones and sallow skin to prove it, threw up his hand to let the exhausted hawk sink its talons into his gauntlet. Then he bent his head close to the hawk’s own until they touched.

Hunger and tiredness. And an arrow’s head of lupine smoke streaming across waving grass far below.

“They are found, majesty. The next valley across.”

Sigismund, who styled himself Holy Roman Emperor for all his enemies called him emperor of the Germans, stared towards the point where valley floors joined. He knew these mountains well, having hunted the area as a child. “Follow me,” he ordered.

The wolf pack had begun its day chasing down a stag and killing it with brutal efficiency, then kept running for the sheer joy of it. Humans knew to avoid their valley. It had belonged to the ancestors of the wolves long before all humans now living had been born.

They ran into a sharp wind that streamed their own scent behind them and brought them warnings of dangers on the wind ahead. Because of this, they knew horses were close long before Sigismund’s lead huntsman sighted their pack.

When he did, the man raised his horn and blew a note that echoed off the valley walls and deafened those around him. Still in their vee formation, the wolves kept coming, and when a foreigner riding with Sigismund grabbed his crossbow, Sigismund himself shook his head.

“Wait,” he ordered.

The emperor was old, still broad-shouldered but with grey in his beard and his eyes were weaker than when young. He wanted to see the pack in formation for himself, marvel at what it must be to be one of those creatures.

Looking up, the lead wolf grinned.

“Hold,” Sigismund ordered. “Everyone will hold.”

Gripping the reins of his stallion, Sigismund forced the terrified horse to stay steady as the wolves split at the last second and streamed like smoke around the riders. A man was thrown, another’s ride bolted, but most managed to obey the emperor’s order to remain where they were. Tumbling with the speed of their stop, the wolves scrambled upright and turned to charge the riders.

“Enough,” Sigismund shouted. He was laughing.

The lead wolf, who was neither the biggest nor the most fearsome, bowed its head in acknowledgement. Its body began to change, the fur along its spine splitting to reveal flesh and human skin as its pelt somehow turned inside out.

The young man who stood naked before the emperor bowed again, while behind him the rest of the pack underwent the same transformation.

“It hurts?” Sigismund asked.

“Not as much as becoming krieghund.”

The pack could inhabit one of three states: human, wolf or a human/wolf hybrid. The last of those required a truly brutal transformation. But then krieghund bore no resemblance to anything natural.

“Majesty…” A huge bearded man came to stand beside Prince Frederick. He too was as naked as the day he was born, with a gut proud as a jutting chin and sword scars on his chest. The wolf master and the emperor were old friends for all Sigismund was human and unable to run with the pack.

“My son’s training is finished?”

The wolf master stared at the young man beside him. He seemed to be considering. “If needs be, majesty. Of course, there is always something else to learn.”

“Even at our age,” Sigismund agreed. He lowered his voice. “And what I’m learning is that I should have made my move on Venice earlier.”

“The Basilius?”

“Andronikos is pushing him into making a move.”

“How, majesty?”

“By saying I’m making one.” The emperor shrugged. “Which means I have no choice but prove him right.” The men around Sigismund took the emperor sliding from his horse as permission to dismount. Although they stayed back when he put his arm around his son’s shoulders, steering him away from the rest.

“They say next winter will be hard.”

When Sigismund said nothing else, Frederick looked at his father, wondering. The emperor sometimes spoke in riddles or expected his silences to be read for words. This time it seemed he simply meant it. Next winter would be hard.

“I’m sorry,” he added.

“For the winter?”

The emperor chuckled. “So like your mother.” It was rare for him to mention the mistress he’d loved but not married; being already married to Queen Mary of Hungary. Frederick’s mother had brought her looks and her laughter. Queen Mary had brought him a kingdom to add to his others.

Frederick understood.

“I have a task for you. Not one you will enjoy.”

“I am yours to command.”

Sigismund nodded. “It’s been three years…”

The emperor halted for Frederick to compose his expression.

It was three years since Frederick’s own wife and child died of plague. Three years in which he’d fought his way out of sadness and found peace and even happiness in his hunts with the wolf pack. He knew he was not Leopold, who had been the elder and their father’s favourite. And, at seventeen, Frederick understood he still looked like a boy while his elder brother had been a man.

But he had married at thirteen, which was more than Leopold had done, and he had sired a child. His body might have been even slighter back then, hair more faded blond, his moustache vestigial, where now it was simply token. But he had loved and bedded his wife, who’d been older, stronger willed and cleverer, and who loved him back for reasons he still didn’t understand. For a year they had been blissfully happy.

“As I said. I’m yours to command.”

Sigismund sighed. “You are to marry Lady Giulietta di Millioni and bring Venice into the empire.”

“Leopold’s widow?”

“I’m sorry. But if you don’t marry her a Byzantine prince will. The Basilius will acquire a base in Italy. We can’t risk that.”

5

When Lady Desdaio had taught Tycho his letters the previous year she had done so because she had been impressed by his keenness to learn and the effort he put into his studies. That was what she told him anyway. How was she to know that he’d learnt to read for one reason only?

He’d learnt to read so he could study a manuscript stolen from a book maker in the days immediately after his arrival in Venice. A manuscript he’d now read so many times he could recite the words by heart; although reciting them brought him no closer to understanding how what the words said was true could be.

Tycho had kept the script hidden in the floor of the cellar at Ca’ il Mauros, Lord Atilo’s house, to which he’d insisted on returning while his new house in San Aponal was cleared at the duchess’s orders.

Sometimes Tycho felt he recognised enough of the story in the manuscript for it to be his story. And other times he decided what he thought he recognised was so impossible it must be the story of someone else.

Slowly – because Tycho still read slowly, although he no longer needed to use his finger to follow the lines – he read the words aloud and listened to them echo off the walls of the little cellar that had once been his slave quarters.

In a year when the world turned colder, and canals froze in Venice, blizzards smothered a town beyond a huge ocean no longship had crossed for more than a hundred years. 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…

The scribe was Sir John Mandeville’s squire who’d travelled with his master across the whole known world. The story of Bjornvin’s fall came from a bitter-faced crone with a withered arm far beyond Muscovy, who told it to a Franciscan envoy to the Khan, who had his own scribe record it.

The Franciscan later told a Benedictine friar who told Sir John, who remembered it well enough to dictate it to his squire. The events in the manuscript happened over a hundred years before.

Food became rare in the year the stranger arrived. The snows melted later and arrived earlier, fell for longer and lay deep. Lord Eric and his warriors grew used to making do with less food. His slaves starved. And the oldest, Withered Arm, was weak before her contractions began.

It was a bad birth. Any birth was bad in winter, in the slave quarters, with no light, when the mother was cold and hungry, but this one was worse. The child had turned inside her. Mothers died of such injuries. Babies died too.

“Let me look. I have skill…”

“Lady. It’s not right.”

Had anybody heard, Withered Arm would have been whipped for her politeness. They were slaves. But she’d shown the stranger a respect she’d never shown anyone else. Also pregnant, but not so close to term, the stranger lifted Withered Arm’s smock with casual disregard for what the older woman wanted. As they thought, the cord was round the infant’s neck. “Your child’s dead,” the stranger said.

“I can feel it kicking.”

“As good as dead. You have a knife?”

“Under the straw.”

“Keep steady,” she ordered. Casually, she edged the blade down her wrist to where her fingers ended. “It’s done.”

Withered Arm sobbed. She knew.

The stranger hid the butchered scraps under straw, having tied off the cord, and waited for the afterbirth. “Now my turn.”

“Lady?”

Although Lord Eric had a wife, mistresses and slaves to bed no woman had given him a child. He’d claimed the stranger as his slave and took her pregnancy so badly he flogged her himself. She hadn’t changed her story. She was pregnant when she arrived. Her kind simply took longer.

“For my child to become yours we need my baby now.”

“You’ll die.”

“I welcome it.”

“And when Lord Eric asks why I didn’t stop you?”

Denied the pleasure of killing the stranger’s child, Lord Eric would slaughter Withered Arm without thought.

“Come here,” the stranger ordered.

She punched Withered Arm without warning. Hard enough to blacken her eye and start it swelling. Before Withered Arm could retreat, she did it again. “I had that knife. We fought. You couldn’t stop me.” She nodded towards the blood-soaked scraps under the straw. “That was my baby. This is yours. Understand?”

Without waiting for a reply she began to cut open her belly.

It couldn’t possibly be him. Yet how could it not? Tycho’s memories of Bjornvin were too vivid, his hatred of a woman with a withered arm who’d allow him to believe she was his mother too fierce.

Folding the parchment, Tycho wrapped it in oilcloth and added it to his small pile of possessions. He suspected he’d learnt all he could from its words. If he wanted to find out who he was – although he suspected the real question was what he was – he’d have to find other ways to do it. Tomorrow, or the day after, he would leave Atilo’s house for ever and the parchment would go with him, a talisman of sorts. But first there was the Victory feast.

6

The tables set to celebrate the defeat of the Mamluks filled Ca’ Ducale’s new banqueting hall; a room so new it stank of turpentine, brick dust and plaster, and so vast it was said to be the largest in Europe.

Pity it’s not finished, Tycho thought sourly.

Scaffolding still covered one wall. The ceiling beams were held up at one end with props. The ceiling itself, which would be carved and painted, and hung below the beams had yet to be made.

Everyone in Venice was finding their places.

Well, everyone who mattered to the Millioni. Tycho imagined they came for the lavish food, for the half-naked jugglers and acrobats, for the right to say they’d attended, or because their absence might be used against them.

To judge from those at the reception a large number had come to gawp at him.

Tycho understood why. How many men in Venice had been shipped south and sold in the slave markets of Cyprus, only to be bought and freed for ten times their price by Lady Desdaio? That he was now a knight only made him more intriguing. Understanding didn’t mean he liked it.

The richer of the men around him wore velvet cloaks shaved in intricate patterns and embroidered doublets in the latest style. The young ones wore prominent codpieces, older ones hip-length jackets. Breasts overflowed from their wives’ low-cut gowns, gold circled perfect necks and pulses throbbed like tiny butterflies.

Lord Roderigo stood with the Regent. When Tycho caught Roderigo’s gaze the man scowled and Tycho glared back. He knew Roderigo had something to do with that explosion. He didn’t care what Alexa said.

“Sir Tycho…?”

An usher stood next to him, dressed in the gold and scarlet of the Millioni livery. “Lady Giulietta is waiting.”

“For what?”

The young man blinked. “You’re going in together, sir.”

This is not my idea…” Giulietta looked close to tears. The usher might as well have been invisible. And, with a hurried bow, that was how he made himself, retreating through the crowd to leave Lady Giulietta soothing her baby, and glaring at her partner for the evening.

“My aunt says I must sit with you.” Her scowl made Giulietta look younger than her sixteen years. “I owe you my life. Apparently.”

Tycho resisted saying she owed it twice. Of course, the first time the person he’d saved her from was himself. Instead he shrugged to say it was nothing.

Giulietta flushed. “Marco’s idea.”

This translated as Only a madman would make me sit next to you. Turning to see what made her scowl deepen, Tycho saw Arno Dolphini, who’d been aboard the San Marco with them. “The man’s a fool, my lady.”

“And a liar.”

Tycho wondered what he’d been saying.

Lady Giulietta wore her hair up as befitted a once-married woman, its flaming red contrasting with her widow’s gown, which was cut from black silk that shimmered as she fidgeted. Around her neck were rubies the size of pigeons’ eggs. Prince Leopold’s ring circled her finger. The only unusual thing was the baby in her arms.

“You’re taking Leo in with you?”

“I’d like to see them stop me.”

In a world where noble women rarely breast-fed, and fathers sent sons away at an early age to learn warfare or trading – as happened to Marco Polo himself – Giulietta’s concern for her child was close to open rebellion.

“Leo looks…”

“Miserable.”

Tycho suspected that was her.

Courtiers read their fortunes in where they sat. Fresh alliances were formed as families realised previously ignored neighbours had become more powerful; old alliances broken as those once favoured found themselves spurned. A feud to last generations began when one noble decided another had his place.

The top table was laid with circles of stale bread and two-pronged silver forks, a Byzantine affectation adopted by the Venetians long before it reached mainland Italy. Tycho only knew this because Lady Desdaio, Atilo’s betrothed, had told him their history.

Did Giulietta realise silver burnt him?

Duchess Alexa did. So did Roderigo and Atilo who once captured him in a silver net… “I can’t use this, my lady.”

“Spear food with your dagger. Scoop gravy with the bread… You were a slave. Why should my aunt expect you to have manners?”

Tycho held his temper.

How was she to know that their sitting together troubled him as much as it obviously troubled her? A heavy stink of smoke might rise from torches on the walls, and the stench of the crowd and the savour of meat roasting in the kitchens might fill the hall, but all he could smell was the orange water she used as scent, and beneath it the musk of her body, addictive as opium.

He should say something.

Anything would do. He could ask how she’d been, or say something about Leo, apologise for… Tycho picked up his wine glass and put it down again. If he started apologising where would he stop?

Yet what did he have to apologise for?

She’d be dead by her own hand if he hadn’t stopped her in the basilica. He’d never have found her again if Alexa hadn’t sent him to kill Prince Leopold and Tycho ended up saving the prince instead. The creature Tycho became the night of the battle he became to protect her. Did she expect him to apologise for telling the truth?

He had been sent to kill her Aunt Alexa.

And he’d been sent on her Uncle Alonzo’s orders, or so he’d been told by a Mamluk prince whose life he spared. The boy had no reason to lie and no lie had shown in his eyes.

Tycho went back to pushing his food around the table.

Talk ebbed and flowed around him. Most was boring, several conversations close to outright rude, a few intended to be private. It was one of these that hooked his interest. Largely because Giulietta had turned away to calm Leo, and Tycho refused to let himself look to see if she fed the child.

So he noticed when the Regent summoned Dr Crow with an imperious click of his fingers. Everyone noticed that. Only Tycho had the sharpness of hearing to make out Alonzo’s words to the little alchemist.

“You’re certain the secret’s safe?”

“My lord, we’ve been through this.”

Answer my question.” Alonzo spoke so loudly Lady Giulietta tensed. Dropping his voice, Alonzo added, “You’d better be certain.”

“I stake my life on it, my lord.”

“You’ve done that already.”

A wave dismissed the man, who left, head down and face troubled. Perhaps Tycho only imagined the man glanced at him as he went.

“My lady,” Tycho said.

“I’m going to feed Leo,” she said tightly.

A servant stopped her before she reached the door. He did so politely, with embarrassment and a low bow, his nod towards the Regent showing where the order for her return originated. Glancing towards the exit, she seemed to consider leaving anyway. Although she returned to her place.

“Apparently I can’t leave until the banquet is over.”

Since Prince Alonzo had already used the privies twice he was obviously making a point about Leo. “You fed him at your wedding. Remember Leopold removing the lace shawl to reveal…?”

Giulietta flushed.

“Not that,” Tycho said hurriedly.

The flash of breast had been unintentional. Leopold meant to show the scar on Leo’s chest. Proof his adopted son was Leopold’s heir in all things. Since Leopold was krieghund his son would be, too. A werebeast, tied to the changes of the moon. The child would be dead if Alonzo or Alexa knew.

Turning his chair, Tycho said, “I’ll look away.”

“Make sure you do.”

Saliva flooded Tycho’s mouth as she undid her gown, his dog teeth ached furiously. He could smell sweat and feel heat rise from her flesh. Turning further away he found Duchess Alexa staring.

“My lady,” Tycho said to Giulietta.

What?

Leo wailed, Tycho caught a glimpse of nipple, people tensed and he lost Giulietta’s attention as she returned the baby to her breast, covering both with Leo’s Maltese shawl. The next time Tycho checked Alexa was talking to Alonzo.

“My lady, when you were abducted…”

Giulietta froze.

“You said men dressed as Mamluks took you and were attacked in their turn, and your new captors held you on an island in the lagoon?”

“I think so.”

“You don’t know?”

“I was blindfold, wrapped in a carpet and carried through streets, locked in a deserted room.” Her voice was rising and Tycho wondered how much she’d drunk. His own body adjusted for wine. Giulietta’s didn’t.

“And the krieghund killed your new captors?”

Yes,” Giulietta said. “He…

Her voice died away and she swallowed. The beast that killed her captors became the man who loved her, without ever bedding her. The complex, charming, deadly and now dead Prince Leopold zum Bas Friedland.

“Sorry,” Tycho said. “I didn’t mean to upset you.”

Everything upsets me. Look at what I’m wearing… My husband is dead. I’m not allowed to feed my child in private. And worst of all…” She waved her hand to where Alonzo and Alexa sat; one drunk and the other watchful. “I’m back here. In the bosom of my loving family.”

Giulietta.”

But he’d left it too late.

Her chair was scraping back.

This time no guard tried to stop her leaving.

“May I join you…?”

Looking up from his cup, Tycho found the Regent standing over him, while half a hundred courtiers pretended not to watch. Alonzo tapped Lady Giulietta’s abandoned chair as if he might need permission to sit.

“I’d be honoured, my lord.”

“What’s wrong with her?”

“She’s tired.”

“We’re all tired.” Prince Alonzo caught his irritation, reaching for a honeyed almond and sucking it slowly while he let his scowl dissolve. “These have been difficult times for all of us.”

Tycho waited.

One almond followed another.

When the Regent reached for a glass it was Tycho’s own, which Alonzo then emptied in a single gulp, waving away a servant who hurried forward with her jug. “Don’t want women listening when men talk, do we?” Alonzo shrugged. “I know we’ve had our differences…”

One way of describing his order that Tycho be sent south to be sold in the slave markets of Cyprus.

Tycho had more sense than to say this and simply nodded, wondering what Alonzo wanted. Because he wanted something. The way the Regent was forcing himself to be polite said he wanted it badly.

“You and my niece? You’ve become close?”

“My lord?”

The Regent sighed. “Enough fencing. I’m a simple man. A soldier. I like those who speak plainly and tell the truth. Did you befriend Lady Giulietta on the return trip?”

“She needed to talk, my lord.”

“Of course she did. Women always do. What about?”

“Her husband’s death.”

Prince Alonzo stiffened at the words. “You were at this wedding? It was done properly? With a real priest and legitimate witnesses?”

“Prior Ignacio took the service. King Janus witnessed it. The entire Cypriot court was there. I acted as groom’s man…”

“You?”

“I was his choice.”



Continues...

Excerpted from The Outcast Blade by Grimwood, Jon Courtenay Copyright © 2012 by Grimwood, Jon Courtenay. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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