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THE OUTCAST BLADE

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.