"I saw the way she measured you, Master." Fear stripped away the carefully cultivated French accent that years of travel had perfected, revealing the Irish brogue. "You have made a bitter enemy."
Dr. John Dee touched the edge of the quill to the ink block, then deliberately etched a graceful looping curl to the end of the paragraph. "I am well used to women taking my measure," he said absently. He dotted an i with a flourish, then dropped the pen to the table. Rubbing his hands briskly together, the spymaster broke off a piece of Venetian cheese from the wedge on the table before him. Its milky aroma filled his nostrils with delight, and he devoted his entire concentration to it as he savored the first bite. Then he sipped from the goblet of young Venetian wine. It was sour and tart, but once it was laid down for a couple of years, it would be very passable indeed. Dee nibbled some more cheese. It was said that the Old Ones, who had walked this world in the days following the Creation, dined only on cheese and wine. At that moment, he believed it was true.
"Master," Edward Kelly said evenly, "this be not some kitchen wench making eyes at you. This be one of the great Medici women."
"Be she the pretty one with the copper tresses?" Dee asked, his voice muffled and full of the soft runny cheese.
"No, Master," Kelly sighed, "the ember-haired one was her maid. The hook-nosed one was Marie, niece of the Grand Duke of Venice. His favorite niece," Edward Kelly added significantly.
The English ambassador licked the last vestiges of his lunch from his ink-stained fingers and returned to his writing table to finish his writing, then tapped his teeth with the end of the quill. "Ugly girl with unfortunate eyes?"
"I didn't notice her eyes," the big Irishman said. "I was too busy watching the way the Medici kept fingering her dago dagger. But I grant you, she was ugly," he added with a toothy grin. "God's blood, but was she ugly! What did you say to her to put her so out of her humor?"
John Dee carefully penned his signature mark and then rolled his governmental report into a hollow wooden tube whistle and tossed it to Kelly. Within the week it would reach the court at London, where it would no doubt be read and discussed by no less a personage than the Queen herself. Unfortunately he had little to add to his earlier reports, or at least nothing he wished his monarch to know about. Dee might be doing his duty by Her Majesty, but that did not prevent him from turning a small profit for himself. Business should never get in the way of trade. Dee folded away his writing box and began to clean his quill; then he suddenly smiled, his dark eyes dancing with amusement. Kelly caught the look and groaned. The last time he had seen that expression, they had barely escaped a French mob outside of Chenonceaux in the Val-de-Loire while attending one of Catherine the Florentine's grand fetes champetres.
"You remember now," Kelly demanded of the small man.
"She may have proffered an offer," Dee said mildly, "that I was unwilling to accept." He blew on the nib of the pen. The sound was a low lewd whistle.
Edward Kelly immediately turned away and began to pack a few items into a leather satchel, mumbling that if they left now, they might be out of Venice before the vengeance of the Medici descended on them. "Did she, or didn't she, make you an offer?" he demanded.
Dee came to his feet, pressing his hands into the small of his back, arching his spine, and stretched toward a low-hung ceiling he could never expect to reach. Kelly's orange-red hair brushed the filthy rafters, but even with the oversized heels of his boots, Dee barely stood five feet. Lifting a candle from the bedside table, he held it high and turned to examine his distorted reflection in the clumsy mirror. He was proud of what he saw there. At eight and forty -- a respectable, even a venerable age -- he still had a full head of hair. It was iron-gray now, of course, but he felt it lent his rather sharp features a measure of distinction, and emphasized his bright blue eyes.
"Master?" Kelly persisted. "What did that witch ask of you?"
"She made me an offer." The small man shrugged. "She was intrigued by my size. She added that she had never been serviced by a man so small and mayhap it might make a merry divertissement.
"And your reply?"
"I pointed out that I had eyed many a midget at court and that it was unlikely that they were all eunuchs."
Kelly groaned aloud.
"I protested her flouting my size. Though I am slight of stature, I am perfectly formed. Wouldn't you say so?" he asked Kelly.
"Yea, verily," Kelly muttered.
"I moreover cited that I was an alchemist and a mathematician, and as such, almost priestlike in my celibacy."
"And she believed you?" Kelly asked in astonishment.
"Nay," Dee sighed. "She had heard rumor out of London."
"Which rumor?" Dee was the subject of many of the most bizarre rumors that circulated in London society. Dee suspected that Kelly knew the good doctor was himself the source of many of the stories. Only last season, an extraordinary tale had gone the rounds of society that he was more than friendly with the Virgin Queen.
"Tittle-tattle about me and the Queen," Dee muttered. "Utter madness."
"Oh. That rumor," the big man whispered, and crossed himself quickly. That rumor had almost had them killed, first by Elizabeth's supporters, then later by those friendly to the dead Scottish queen. Lifting the bag off the bed, he turned to the shuttered window, unlatched it, and eased it open. Venice, washed bloodred in the late-evening twilight, spread about before them, slender towers silhouetted against the sky. The effect was marred by the pall of gritty smoke that blanketed the city and obscured the top floors of some of the taller residences, and the silence was disturbed by the shrieks of pigeons soaring in and out of St. Mark's Square. Leaning out, he looked down. Ten feet below, filthy, foul-smelling, begrimed canal water lapped directly beneath their window.
Dee joined him and peered down, wrinkling his nose, nauseated at the stench. "The rankest compound of villainous smell that ever offended nostril," he muttered. "Can you swim?"
"Why?" Kelly asked.
"Because I cannot. So you will have to jump in, swim to yonder boat, row it back here, then keep it steady while I descend."
Kelly shook his head quickly. "That's a foolish waste of time. It would be more provident if we both jumped in and swam to the next walkway. I could keep you afloat." An enormous black rat crawled across a clotted mess of refuse and dropped into the oily water.
"I would rather bed Marie de' Medici," Dr. John Dee said simply. "Now, mind your master and fetch that boat. I shall scribble de' Medici a note of gramercy."
"As you wish, Master." Handing the leather satchel to Dee, Kelly tugged off his worn boots and climbed onto the window frame, turned so that he was facing into the room, and lowered himself into the water. He sank beneath the surface, the coagulated water barely registering a ripple. When his head broke the surface it was streaked with filth, his red hair and beard plastered to his skull and matted with rotten fruit and bird droppings.
Dee jerked his head back so that Kelly would not see the look of disgust and amusement on his face. He held him in too much esteem. He laid the satchel on the open window ledge and was reaching for a poncet of civet to take the stench of the water from his nostrils when the door cracked and splintered inward, and a score of guardsmen, wearing the distinctive blue livery of the Medici, burst into the room.
Instantly, Dee caught the worried eye of his manservant, Kelly, and then swiftly turned to face his intruders. As the soldiers advanced into the chamber facing the blinding sunset, they could not see what was directly behind the man at the window. Dee deftly elbowed the out-of-sight satchel over the window's ledge and out into the water. Although he was listening for a splash, he heard nothing and could only hope that Kelly had caught it. Folding his arms across his chest, he faced the soldiers with an arrogance that belied his height. Behind a barrier of lowered spears, he watched two of the guards professionally rip apart his room, scattering Dee's personal items and heaving Kelly's boots into a corner alongside the stinking chamber pot. There was a shout outside the door and the soldiers straightened imperceptibly as a very theatrical Marie de' Medici strode into the room, light running silver and rose-red off the naked blade of the assassin dagger in her hands. Elbowing past the soldiers, she stopped before Dee.
"Spy," she spat in his face. Lifting the knife, the buxom wall-eyed woman placed it against Dee's cheek. The point almost touched his left eye. He felt its heavy coldness, knew from its feather-light touch against his skin that it was razor sharp. When he had occasion to do bloody-handed work himself, he favored the Medici-style dagger, though he had never once considered that it would be used on him. The irony amused him and he was unable to prevent his lips from twitching in a smile. "You stand accused of spying for the Virgin Queen of England, of plotting against the Medici and Venice. What say you?"
Before he could respond, one of the soldiers brought over the wooden flute Kelly had left on the bed and handed it to the big woman. Smiling as she slowly withdrew her dagger's threat from Dee's face and sheathed it, Marie de' Medici snapped the instrument in half and pulled out the thin small sheet of parchment. She stared at it for a moment and frowned, bushy eyebrows meeting above her nose in a straight line as she scanned the lines of meaningless symbols inked onto the thin paper. Her unmasked anger was palpable.Majesty, your humble servant begs to bring you the latest news from Italy.
The line was in Enochian script.
"This is in code!"--This text refers to the