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Captain Archer rallies support, with help from Traveo and Carlo. Malcolm and Estrella find sanctuary with one of Floccia's old friends. Just what kind of secrets does Kosso hold over Archer's head? And Sovale decides to correct a mistake of his own making.

Warning: Medicine was not anywhere close to what it is in the 21st century. One part of this chapter isn't graphic, but it might squick some people out anyway.

Dominican friars: The Pope authorized this particular sect of monks to supervise the Inquisition.

Wedding ceremony: It was as elaborate as possible, to show off the wealth of the bride's and groom's families. In fact, the governments of Milan, Florence, and Venice passed usury laws, which limited the amount of extravagant clothing and accessories someone could wear. Of course, people got around that.

Italian: Maledizione! (Darn/Damn it!), Per mio fe! (Equivalent to an exasperated, "Oh for crying out loud!"), Dio mio (My God), un'caccatore (let's just say this isn't a compliment)

Spanish: El Capitan (the Captain, referring to Archer). It's different from the Italian Il Capitano.

Japanese: ashiteru. (I love you. The whole expression is "Watashi ni ashiteru", but it's obvious who loves whom in this case.)

Lady Eriana had many contacts in Venice, many more than Captain Archer, and in many unexpected places. Carlo and Traveo acted as runners, relaying messages via gondola. Traveo knew all the hidden routes through Venice. The gondolier knew all the traders and guildsmen at the canal front. Carlo watched as Traveo's charm and way with people won them many allies.

“Do you know everyone in the city?”

Traveo laughed and shook his head. “No, not everyone. Venice is actually a series of islands interconnected by the ponte. My father was a trader; I'm still friendly with most of his old contacts.”

“Ah, no wonder. That'll help us tremendously.” Carlo fiddled with the leather pouch at his belt, which held his surveying and measuring tools. The feel of the leather calmed him somewhat.

“I hope Lady Estrella and Lieutenant Reed are all right,” Traveo said in a low voice. “I worry for them. They are not Venetian, and Captain Archer has enemies in the city.”

Carlo nodded. An Englishman and a woman from the East would not be able to hide long from the condotteri. Although he hadn't talked much with Reed, Carlo knew that the lieutenant would rather die than have Estrella fall into hostile hands. That situation made his trouble with Kosso seem rather trivial.

“If I were a betting man, I would say the two problems are connected. No one bothered Lady Estrella until Signor Kosso made his intentions towards Lady Paola known,” said Traveo.

The remark brought Carlo up short. The gondolier wore a knowing expression. “I'd agree with you, Traveo, wholeheartedly. But Kosso hasn't made a formal request yet, and Captain Archer could still refuse or delay it, can't he?”

“I would think so. Il Capitano has the power to refuse Kosso since he is Lady Paola's guardian. If anyone has any objection to the betrothal at all, it will not go through.” Traveo's brow wrinkled in thought as he steered the gondola through the canal.

“But it seems that Kosso has the potential to ruin Captain Archer if the captain refuses to marry Paola to him. Blackmail of some kind?”

Traveo winced at the possibility, but he answered, “Perhaps. Il Capitano is silent about his time of employment with Kosso. Something must have happened during those ten months. And if Kosso has the sympathy of the Council of Ten, even Archer wouldn't be able to withstand such pressure.”

“Then we have to find out how to outwit Kosso at his own game.”

The gondolier was startled at Carlo's calm and steady tone. His rhythm with the gondola faltered, and he came close to losing the pole. Luckily, Traveo managed to recover. “Carlo—” he dropped the formal title, “—be careful what you say, even out here. There are ears everywhere.”

They arrived at the Palazzo Moretta Pisani in time to catch the end of the hastily-called meeting in the mezzanino. Captain Archer and Lady Eriana were there, as well as Captain Carlos Ramirez, the head of the Lady Eriana's guard. There were others present whom Carlo didn't recognize.

“So, all of you know our situation. We must find my first lieutenant and Lady Eriana's handmaiden, and we must find a way to derail Signor Kosso's plot.”

Ramirez snorted and crossed his arms. “We are at a disadvantage, Capitan. Any response we make could spark a conflict between us and the Council of Ten. We do not have the numbers or the strength to make a prolonged stand against them.”

Archer nodded in agreement and agreed, “Very true. Options?”

Ramirez glanced over at Eriana and asked, “Your friend, Señor Floja is also missing from his shop. Assuming that he is with the others, where would he go in times of trouble?”

“Here, but since he is not here, Capitan Ramirez...he could be anywhere.” Eriana pursed her lips as she thought. “We can also assume that Senor Floja would eventually make his way to warn us.”

“If they fall into Kosso's hands, he could use them as leverage to get what he wants,” Archer said grimly.

An unexpected voice said in a trembling tone, “No.”

Heads turned at Paola, who sat at the edge of the couch. Carlo knelt again at her side and supported her. Neither of them saw the smile on Traveo's face, or the amused sparkle in Archer's eyes. That amused sparkle died at Paola's next words.

“No. I will not allow Kosso to harm any of your family, Captain Archer. If it is necessary...I am prepared to accept his marriage proposal, if it will avert this conflict.”

Archer opened his mouth to protest, but Carlo beat him to it. The engineer's face darkened with anger and he shook his head. “Maledizione! Per mio fe, Paola, don't say that! I won't let you do it!”

Her eyes pleaded with him to understand. “I do not want to become his wife, Carlo. I know what kind of man he is, but I cannot allow him to--”

“I said no, Paola. We'll find a way out of this. I know we can.”

She forced her tone to become steady. “We must consider all of our options, and as much as I loathe that particular one, it is a possible outcome.”

“Paola, I meant what I said earlier. If it comes down to it, I will fight for your hand. Make no mistake. He is an architect, I am an engineer. Neither of us are soldiers, so we'd be on more even ground.”

“He will find a way to cheat. Honor means nothing to him, unless it is his own. I will not bear it if you are killed--”

His mouth quirked upward and his tone became teasing. “Come now, Paola. Didn't I say I knew some tricks from my childhood? I still remember them.”

A brief flash of humor passed on Archer's face as the two continued to argue. It was as if Carlo and Paola were the only two in the room; they had forgotten the presence of the others. Captain Ramirez rolled his eyes as if praying to God for patience.

Ramirez muttered, just loud enough for Archer to hear, “Perhaps it is those two who should be married, Capitan. They certainly act like it.”

One of the other noblemen shook his head. “He is far below her in social class. No one would accept him as an equal. Not Kosso, and certainly not the nobility of Venice or Milan. In fact, such a proposal would rally more people to Kosso's side.”

Lady Eriana looked at Ramirez, then at her husband. Her mouth curved in a slight smile. Archer raised his eyebrows at the sudden change of mood; he took a step backward and bumped into the desk. Traveo tried to stifle a chuckle at the sight of the intrepid sea captain trying to put space between himself and his wife.

Eriana stepped forward and put a hand on Carlo's shoulder. “I have an idea, Signor Tocceri, but I will need your help.”

Carlo nodded. “Anything, my lady. I'll do anything, if it means Paola will be free of Kosso.”

“Then listen carefully, Carlo. Listen very carefully.”

Signor Girolamo Lucasi knew his friend Giovanni Floccia as a congenial, even-tempered Spanish gentleman. So when Floccia arrived at his door with an injured sailor and a non-Venetian woman, Lucasi immediately sensed trouble. Yet he didn't hesitate as he ushered the strange trio into his rooms and called for his servants to bring his medicines and strong wine.

“What have you gotten yourself into, Giovanni?”

“Thugs attacked Lieutenant Reed and Lady Estrella in the alley in front of my shop,” Floccia replied tersely. “What do you suppose I should have done? Stand aside and pretend to hear nothing?”

Lucasi chuckled, his breath stirring the mustache above his lip. “I'm not criticizing your actions, Giovanni. You were always one to help others in need.” He smiled at Estrella, who tentatively smiled back. “Signor Floccia was kind enough to show me around Seville while I was visiting there, so I repaid the favor when he came here to Venice.”

“Ah. I understand,” she said.

“Your're Giovanni's countrywoman? You do not look like--”

Estrella shook her head; the long, straight black hair tumbled out of its elaborate bun and slid past her shoulders. “I serve Lady Eriana Hernandez Archer. I was born...far away from here.”

“I meant no disrespect, Signora. I was merely curious.” Lucasi looked at the sailor and continued, “I need to see to your wound, Signor. May I?”

Estrella translated his question into English, and the sailor nodded. Lucasi examined the bloody scrape in his shoulder. The man was lucky; any deeper and he might have already bled to death. “Signora Estrella, please tell him that I must clean and bind his arm, and it will not be pleasant.”

She was pale as cream, but she did as he asked. The sailor only nodded in agreement, but still didn't say anything at all. Lucasi was impressed at his stoic demeanor; he knew what was to come, and refused to let pain unsettle his wits. Lucasi glanced at Lady Estrella and gently shook his head.

“Please, Signora, you must not witness this. It will distress you.”

Estrella got to her feet, and Lucasi thought she was going to leave the room, but she only walked around to the sailor's uninjured side and took his hand. Lucasi opened his mouth to admonish her, but Floccia put a hand on his shoulder.

“He is a stranger, and she is the only familiar person he knows here,” Floccia said in a low tone. “And I believe there is a tie between them that not even death would break.”

Lucasi's eyebrows shot up, and he took another look at the odd couple. Despite the grimness of the situation, a sad smile flickered upon his lips. “Very well, Giovanni, but if she faints, you are in charge of her welfare.”

It was as bad as the mustachioed doctor had warned her. Estrella gripped Malcolm's hand throughout the entire ordeal. He gritted his teeth as the doctors did what they needed. She caught and held his feverish gaze and sent her unspoken support.

Oh, Malcolm. I'm so, so sorry. The tears leaked from the corner of her eyes as his hand nearly crushed hers. She willingly bore the pain; if it hadn't been for her, he wouldn't have been hurt. It was all her fault. If he died...she didn't want to think of the aftermath.

“There, it's done. Signora, we're going to move him to a more comfortable place, then we're going to give him a cup of wine mixed with herbs to help him sleep.” Lucasi's tone was still gentle. “You must rest too. It won't help him if you collapse from pure exhaustion.”

She nodded and rubbed her sore, gritty eyes with her free hand. Somehow, she managed to lever herself up without letting go of Malcolm's hand. It took her and the two doctors to move Malcolm into a smaller room with a simple pallet along one wall, and another bed nearby.

Estrella coaxed Malcolm to drink the medicinal wine, then helped ease him onto the pallet. Floccia put a hand on her shoulder. “I will watch over him, Estrella.”

“The bathing room is up the stairs and to the left,” Lucasi added. “My daughter's former quarters are across the hall from there. I've asked the servants to tidy up the room. Go there and rest; if there is any change in his condition, we will fetch you.”

Despite herself, she knew Lucasi was right. She needed to recoup her strength if she was going to warn Lady Eriana. She reached down and brushed a lock of dark hair from Malcolm's forehead. Impulsively, she kissed him on the forehead and murmured in her native language, “Rest, my love, and I'll be back soon.”

She was tempted to just fall into bed, but she didn't want to muddy up the warm, woolen blankets. So she spent a half hour soaking in a cramped tub, changed into a simple linen camiccia, and curled up onto the bed, instantly asleep.

She wasn't sure how long she was asleep, but a cold shiver woke her. Moonlight shone brightly through the windows. Estrella swung her legs onto the floor and made her way down the tiny wooden staircase.

A candle burned low in the sickroom. She entered without a sound, startling Floccia, who was reading a bound manuscript by the dim light.

“He still sleeps, Estrella. If he survives the night, then he will do very well. If not--” Floccia shook his head and added, “I do not wish to distress you, but I've seen men die from less serious wounds than his.”

She blinked away tears, but only nodded. “I'd prefer that you'd tell me the truth, than raise my hopes with a lie, no matter how kindly.”

“I thought you would. Signor Lucasi sent word to Capitano Arciere that his first lieutenant is injured and is taken care of.”

Estrella sat in the chair at Malcolm's bedside and took his hand in hers. Again, she whispered to him in her native language, the one she rarely used anymore in public.

“I don't know why I feel so drawn to you. I've only just met you, but I know you are an honest, upstanding man. You risked injury and death to save my life. Is it possible that you feel the same way for me? I know it's not your belief, but perhaps we have met in a life long before this. If that's true, then perhaps we are fated to be together.”

A faint whisper answered her, “You have the voice of a nightingale, love.”

She started at the wide-open blue-gray eyes looking up at her. “I'm sorry,” she said in English. “I didn't mean to wake you.”

“You didn't. I was already awake.” His accent was like gravel, rough with pain. “The language you were speaking...I'm not familiar with it.”

She blushed crimson, but her voice was steady. “It's...from my homeland. I don't speak it much, anymore, just when no one else is listening. There are too many suspicious ears. I already speak in tongues, but no one can understand this one.”

“I understand your caution. After what happened in the alley--” he winced and tried to find a more comfortable position. “--there are many who would believe you do the Devil's work.”

“I've tried to be discreet, but apparently, I've not been discreet enough. Only Lady Eriana knows about my history; even Captain Archer is only vaguely familiar. We agreed that was for the best, to protect him.”

“Again, your caution is wise.” Malcolm's brow furrowed as he concentrated on her words. “Someone in Lady Eriana's household must have suspected something and told Arturo Grigio and his thugs. If the Church had already known it, they would have sent the Dominican monks straightaway, not a bully.”

Estrella relaxed only a fraction. “So you believe that it was the Council of Ten behind the attempted assault?”

“Most probably. The Church wouldn't have bothered with intermediaries such as Arturo Grigio, not with a member of Lady Eriana's household. That doesn't mean that you aren't out of danger, love. It's still very dangerous for you.” Malcolm's eyes started to drift shut. “I'd take you away from here if I could—”

She gripped his hand. “We must think of one issue at a time, Malcolm.”

“If you were my wife, no one would harm you again. I'd protect you with my last breath.”

Her eyes widened at the soft declaration. Had she heard him correctly? Did he--? Estrella was about to ask him, but his eyes were closed, and he was asleep again. Despite herself, her mouth moved in a tremulous smile. He felt the same way she did for him.

He loved her.

She raised his hand to her cheek and whispered, “As would I...aishiteru.”

Kosso signed the day's missives with a flourish of his quill. He re-read his words with a trained eye for detail. There was so much to prepare for, much more than he expected. He consulted the religious leaders of Venice, and they were adamant in following tradition to the letter. After all, this wedding would set the standard for those to follow!

Kosso sat patiently as the Holy Fathers droned on. The betrothal needed to be announced during Mass for three consecutive Sundays, in the presence of the community. Anyone who had any objections had to bring those up during that time. Kosso was confident there would be none.

But all the rules and traditions, the usury restrictions on how much wealth could be shown and spent at the was enough to drive Kosso mad. He seriously considered getting married in Milan instead of Venice. After a moment, he shook his head. The Council of Ten and their allies expected to be invited to this affair. He needed their support for this to succeed.

And the last thing he wanted was to anger the Council of Ten.

And if I was to be married in Milan, there would definitely be certain objections raised. I cannot afford any more delay. Kosso pressed his lips together. Umbrico Sovale was a fool to allow Paola into such a strange and non-traditional household! Despite Sovale's denials, Kosso knew he still took an interest in his niece's welfare. If Sovale came up with an objection to the marriage at the last minute, it would ruin Kosso's plans.

No, it had to be held here in Venice. Preferably sooner than later. Kosso was confident he could gain a dispensation from the Church to hasten the preparations to his satisfaction. Archer wouldn't be able to do anything about it, not after what had happened between them:

“If it weren't for my intervention, you would have been arrested for treason, Captain Archer! You owe me for this!”

“Those weapons were planted in the cargo holds of my ship, Kosso! You switched out the real cargo behind my back! If that barrel of gunpowder hadn't exploded and killed that poor servant girl--”

“She was a little too curious for her sake. Then again...your household has always had a penchant for appearing at the most auspicious time. I managed to convince the authorities that it was an unfortunate accident and that your trading company was not to blame, despite the fact the weapons were found on your ships.”

“Everyone knows my reputation as an honest trader, Kosso. I wouldn't transport weapons for rebel groups--”

“True, but even the best reputations can be sullied by one incident, my friend John. Your wife's position is the only thing that has saved you from a Spanish jail, or even worse, execution. And I've ensured this incident has 'never happened'. The only ones who know about this are you and I.”

“I doubt you've done this out of the goodness of your heart.”

“Our business proposition has been fulfilled to the letter, Captain, and therefore, I believe that this partnership has outlived its usefulness for both of us.”

“I couldn't agree more, Kosso.”

“Then we are agreed. But remember, a single word can bring down the mightiest of men. I trust you'll be more...careful about your cargo from now on.”

Kosso smiled as he sealed the letter of intent with wax and imprinted his ring's signet into the seal. He got up from his desk and went to the bookcase. A tightly bound bundle of papers were safely ensconced in a wooden box, next to a book of Plato's philosophy. The records of that 'incident', all written in his hand, were the means of his revenge against Archer. He trusted that he wouldn't need to use it, if Archer knew what was good for him.

Of course, if this fell into anyone else's hands, Kosso would lose his hold over Archer, and most probably his life as well. After all, the altered ship manifests and letters to certain people didn't paint Kosso in a favorable light. Kosso possessed the only original copies; he was as thorough with blackmail as he was in architectural plans.

His ambitions ran higher than just being a simple architect, under the control of his parents. Now Kosso held power over many people, and with his impending marriage to Paola, his sphere of influence would increase a hundredfold. He'd show all the ones who scorned him as weak.

Kosso rang for his messenger and handed the man the letter. “Bring this to Captain Archer, at the Palazzo Moretta Pisani. He's expecting this.”

Umbrico Sovale stared out at the Piazza del Duomo of Milan. His spies in Venice reported the goings-on there. Sovale's reputation as a shrewd and practical man served him well with the banks, but when it came to matters of the heart...well, that was a different arena entirely.

“The little pup is more wily than I thought, Lara,” he commented softly. “He still finds a way to stir up trouble, even in another city.”

Lara crossed her arms over her ample chest. Her mouth thinned in tightly-controlled anger, but her tone was cool and deferent. “Sending Paola away was the right decision at the time, and I trust John and Eriana to keep our niece out of harm. But Kosso is un'caccatore, Umbrico. He has overstepped his bounds this time.”

Sovale inclined his head in covert acknowledgment of her criticism. “I shouldn't have insisted Kosso to ask Captain Archer for Paola's hand. Now that this rather embarrassing...incident has come to light, I believe I'm obligated to help sort out this situation.”

“Yes, you should.”

He suppressed a grin at his wife's strident tone. Normally, Lara was diplomatic to a fault, but when it came to serious issues, she made her opinions known. Sovale never asked where his sister Lesa had gotten it from, or Paola. Dio mio, the women in my family have influenced me more than I thought...

“Kosso is short-sighted when he sees something he wants. He forgets that the laws of inheritance do not necessarily run in his favor.” Sovale raised his chin as the bright sunlight of morning filled his study. “Prepare for a trip to Venice, carissima. We leave as soon as possible.”

“Yes, Umbrico.” She curtsied, turned and headed for the doors, but Sovale's voice stopped her.

“And Lara--?”

She looked at him over her shoulder and blinked at the slight smile on his lips.

“Find our wedding clothing. If what I'm hearing is true, there will still be one.”


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May 2012

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