The Dragon Done Itedited by Eric Flint and Mike Resnick



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puttana and fraud on the street. I am used to respect. You may as well know that they believe that I am a witch. Everyone believes it. Even the Podesta, when he's sober enough to believe anything.""And are you, daughter?" asked Mascoli, calmly.She sighed and nodded. "Sort of. I suppose. What they might call a witch. They're going to kill me anyway. It is no use pretending. I have done no evil. No black magic or sacrifice, Brother. Or traffic with the Devil. Just remedies and rituals that I learned from my mother, and she learned from her mother. I swear upon my soul. It is just herbs, the old gods, and . . . using their fear. Understanding them. Knowing how people think.""You abused this gift a little, I think," said Mascoli, gently. "But not to kill."She shook her head violently. "Not to kill. Never." "Then we will have to find out just who did kill him.""And why," said the gravelly voice of the old soldier, from just around the corner. "'Why' usually answers all the questions."Mascoli sighed. "I suppose eavesdropping is another thing you had to learn in the army.""It's useful. You know which parades to avoid," Carlo said calmly, stumping towards them. "Now let's get a crust to eat and a glass of wine, and we can talk about the latest development." He looked at the woman. "Your magical skills are greater than you realized. You made a body vanish last night. Or at least that is what they're saying on the street.""What?" She peered owlishly at him."Vincente's corpse. You made it disappear into thin air.""And I would stand here behind bars if I had such powers?" she demanded, hands on her hips."It does seem a little unlikely, doesn't it?" he said dryly. "But it was a choice of that or admit that you might have an accomplice, or that someone else murdered him. It would seem that this Vincente wasn't a great candidate for resurrection."She shuddered and held herself. "No. He owed me money, though.""It seems that he owed everyone money. What did he owe you money for?"She held her tongue."They'll either burn you or hang you, you know," he said conversationally. "You might as well tell us.""Blue lotos."It was a mild narcotic, introduced from North Africa to the swamps and cultivated in secret there—unlike the black lotos, its far more powerful and addictive cousin, which was still smuggled in. The blue was illegal, but Brother Mascoli himself had several medicines that contained it. The Venetian authorities turned a blind eye to the blue, but they would hang traffickers in the black."Not the black?" asked Carlo mildly, raising an eyebrow. She shook her head. "It's filth. No one should deal in it." But then, she would say that.Carlo nodded. "True. Come, Brother. Karg is bringing something for the lady. We also need to eat a morsel before the huntsman gets here. I hope his dogs are more promising than he is."The dogs came in a variety of shades and sizes and their barking was obviously not sitting too well with their owner's patently sore head. "Too much new wine. Dottore Sarbucco was celebrating buying a new farm last night. Before the murder," he explained."Can the dogs find a blood scent?" asked Mascoli looking at the motley pack."They usually do," said the owner laconically. "But that's a boar, or a buck, not a man."They put the dogs to the blood scent and followed them as they ran off barking down the road. The trail did not lead them very far . . . to a dogfight and a newly butchered hog, being turned into pancetta, salami and some fine hams."Fine dogs," said Carlo, feeling his painful knee.The owner shrugged. "Vincente was a bit of a pig."Carlo bit his knuckle. "There goes my last throw. We need the body."They walked back towards the town, more slowly, past an inlet of the lagoon. The road was raised a little above the water on ancient stones from the Roman days. The stones on the water's edge were carved, being plainly part of some old shrine. Time had etched most of the carvings away but Brother Mascoli could make out the form of a triton. It stirred some thoughts in his head. "The murderer didn't have much time to bury a body or take it very far.""No.""Maybe he threw it into the water?"The soldier shrugged. "Very likely, but that would be even harder to find. We could spend a year dragging, especially if they used a boat and dropped him off in the middle of the lagoon. There'd be nothing but eel-gnawed bones in a few days. That woman doesn't have even a few days."Mascoli looked at the water, and around at the empty landscape of reedy marshland. "You believe that she is innocent?""Not as clean as driven snow, but innocent of this murder. Mark my words, if we solve this murder mystery, it will be tied to the smuggling of the black lotos.""You think she is involved in that evil trade?"Carlo shrugged. "Maybe. But most likely not. She made her money from selling the blue. That I knew before she confessed. But this little village is the entrepôt for the black. I am sure of that." Brother Mascoli looked doubtfully at his companion. What was he? Why did he know so much about a dark trade? He looked like a rogue, but he did not behave like one. And he seemed to be genuinely trying to solve this murder, even if he was doing it for reasons of his own, and not to save an innocent. That, Brother Mascoli knew, was his duty. "I have . . . contacts," he said quietly. "Nonhuman ones. They could find the body for us, if it was dumped into the water.""So I had been told," said the old soldier, with a broad smile. "I sent a messenger to Venice during the night. It appears that you are highly regarded by certain very powerful people, for a humble monk. They gave you a glowing character reference."Mascoli raised his eyebrows. "The Podesta's assistant and a receiver of messages from the Republic in a place too small to be properly called a town, and you sent messengers during the night? All the way to Venice and back? You are not the common soldier that you pretend to be."His large companion leaned on his crutch and smiled sardonically. "I give orders too easily for a start. I never said that I was a common soldier. I never said that I was once a condottiere either. I never lie if I can help it. I let my appearance deceive those who wish to be deceived.""And what are you doing here?" asked Brother Mascoli carefully. Carlo did have an injured knee. But he was still a powerful man, and the water was very close. "That is for me to know. But for now our purposes run in tandem. Call up your undine friends, Brother. I'll keep watch." So Brother Mascoli prepared his summonsing. And with a faint mist on the water, they came. Juliette, whom he had treated, healed from a savage cruel gash that would have marred her inhuman beauty if not taken her life, and the triton Androcles. The tritons preferred the open sea, but, well, it was perhaps best not to ask questions about the physical relationships between the creatures. Juliette smiled at them, her teeth like pearls. "Cleaner waters, healer," she said. "Too brackish for my liking," said Androcles, "but cleaner than the waterways of that cesspit you live in. What can we do for you, healer?"Mascoli dug in his pouch for the shred of red-brown stained linen in its tiny bottle. "There is blood on this cloth. I want you to find the man it came from, if his body lies in the water."Androcles took the scrap of cloth and put it into water he scooped into his cupped palm. Then both of them tasted the water. Brother Mascoli knew that they smelled and tasted things many thousands of times more sensitively than humans. They'd found bodies for him before. It helped the grieving widows of fishermen to reach some closure, and bodies were just dead things to nonhumans The two water denizens looked at each other and then began to laugh."Do you mind telling us what is so funny?" asked the soldier, his eyes narrow."You've made an error with the sample, Brother," said Juliette. "This blood is not that of a human.""Fey blood?" asked Mascoli warily. This opened up a whole new and dangerous area.Carlo ground his teeth. "No, Brother. We've been set up. Pig blood, I'll warrant. Say goodbye to your friends. We need to get back to town." Carlo walked at a brisk pace for a man with a crutch. "Where are we going?" asked Mascoli, keeping up, but not without effort."To the blacksmith. I doubt if there is anyone else in this one-donkey town capable of making a key. We already know where the bastards got the blood. The dogs led us right there.""Pig blood! You mean . . . ?""Yes, Brother," said the soldier. "Fresh blood sausage probably. We haven't been busy trying to find a murderer. We've been busy trying to prevent one. The mob failed him. Now he will let the law—or that useless drunk that passes for it here—do it for him. And I think I now know why, too, and why he tried to do it that way.""What? I mean who? Why?"The soldier smiled sharkishly. "You sound confused, Brother. I was too, until I realized just now that I had looked at the wrong motive for the crime. I thought it was a falling out between black lotos smuggler-bosses. That this Vincente had somehow gotten in the way. Instead it was a clever way of getting rid of a thorn in his flesh, that the smuggler-master dared not simply have killed. The locals liked his money—the place is awash with more loose money than you'd ever find in a poor fishing and small market-town. They feared him and obeyed his orders. But they were scared of the witch. They respected her. He was an incomer, and she was thwarting him where she could. She deals with blue Lotos from the swamp. She did not want to lose her customers to the black."They'd arrived at the smithy, where the smith was hammering away at his trade. He was a burly man, as smiths are wont to be. "I want to know who you made a key for," said Carlo, not beating about the bush, pointing at him with the crutch.The smith eyed him truculently. "I don't know what you're talking about." He started to turn back to his work. Mascoli scarcely saw Carlo move, he was so fast. The crutch speared out and hit the smith in the solar plexus. As the man doubled forward, Carlo twisted the top of the crutch and drew out a long, thin concealed blade. He held it against the man's throat. "Unless you wish to die, don't lie to me. Who else could make a key?""They will kill me," said the smith fearfully. But there was resolve behind that fear. He looked at Brother Mascoli, a hasty glance, but something both of them saw. He believed—or perhaps just hoped—that the soldier would not kill him before a man of God.Mascoli himself was less sure. He did not approve of the violence, but there was a time and place for it. And great evil would come unless they found evidence here. At the very least the Strega woman would die. The flow of black lotos would do more harm by far. "My friend," he said with gentle firmness. "You know the woman Lucia Bari. I believe her ill sayings were respected." He would do penance for that too. But it was necessary.The smith nodded. "She could turn cows' milk. Or women barren and cold. Or so my wife believes," he added warily.He believed too, Mascoli could see. Both were simple herbal matters, hedge magic. But here in this rural swampland, well, little could be more important. A man's life was just his life, but his children were more than that. No wonder she was respected."A dying curse is powerful," he said. "I will tell her what you have done.""I have done nothing to her," protested the smith. "I was not even with the crowd. I came home before the Dottore bought wine for the men in the inn. I would have stayed if I had known," he admitted. "I would do nothing to the Streghira. I swear.""Yet you made the key for Vincente. So he could escape after he pretended he was dead. And you fear him, and his smuggler friends.""Vincente? I do not fear Vincente," said the affronted smith. "He owes me money. You say . . . he pretended to be dead? Anyway I did not make the key for him.""My friend," said Mascoli, "do you think that you will have anything to fear from an outsider and his friends when the truth comes out? That they tried to get the people of this town to murder the Streghira by pretending that she had killed Vincente? Who owed, by the sounds of it, every man in the district money. You made the key for Dottore Sarbucco, did you not?"Slowly, the man nodded. "But you cannot touch him. He is too powerful."Carlo slid the blade back into its sheathing crutch. "As an agent of the Signoria di Notte of the Republic of Venice, I think you will find that I can," he said grimly.The smith's eyes nearly started out of his head. "You will accompany me back to the cells," said Palinni. "My patrol of Schiopettieri are hidden in the house. We are going to visit the home of Dottore Sarbucco. Even if I cannot find him with black lotos on his hands . . . I think I may find a key, and a certain very alive dead man who was willing to pretend death to escape his debts. That will be enough to persuade the justices in Venice to put Sarbucco away for a considerable length of time, if they will not oblige me by hanging him.""But his men . . ." said the smith warily."He lives about half a mile outside the town. We will have him away in a boat and on his way to Venice before the town even knows." Brother Mascoli did not accompany them on their raid. Instead he went to the church. He felt a need for prayer, and a little soul searching. He found that his soul was not as offended by his conduct as he'd thought it should be. He was just walking out to greet the newly returned Father Baritto, when he heard a great commotion. It was Carlo and the plump Schiopettieri Karg, walking on either side of a man in chains. They were being followed by most of the town. Father Baritto gaped. Brother Mascoli took him by the arm. "It would appear, Father, that we have witnessed something no man has seen for fifteen hundred years. A man returned from the dead. But this one is no messiah. I think he has just come to pay his debts.""He owes me money," said Father Baritto. Later, Mascoli sat and enjoyed some more of the Barbera at the inn with the agent of the Signoria di Notte. It seemed a good wine, now, and not at all like blood."So he screamed his lungs out while Sarbucco gathered witnesses, well liquored witnesses, into a suitable mob. Once they started pounding on the door, Vincente broke open the bladder full of pig's blood and lay down in it. I believe that Sarbucco made them all hold back while he certified the man dead. He then had Lampara lock the second door, making sure that no one would find the missing corpse, leaving Vincente to use the spare key to let himself out and take off in the twilight for Sarbucco's house. Of course the deed was supposed to be done, and Lucia dead, by the time morning came and the mob sobered up enough to realize that they'd killed someone they were scared of.""What are you planning to do with her?" asked Mascoli. "Leave her to you, I should think," said Carlo with a grin. "You're going to preach at her, aren't you? She's had something of a fright. That should keep her from playing with real danger . . . which the blue lotos is not. And anyone attempting to move black lotos through her patch will suffer severe consequences now, I should think. I gather a few people have left town hastily since she was freed.""You are not the evil man I thought you might be, Carlo Palinni.""Not good either. And my name is not Palinni, of course. But you aren't the saint I feared you might be either, Brother. Sometimes we need saints, and sometimes we need a bit of pragmatism. I've been looking for a priest I could speak to with confidence for a while. Will you hear my confession? I've done things with this crutch that weigh on my conscience, and in my line of work a man can die unexpectedly."Brother Mascoli nodded.

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