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October 29, 1636
Autumn chill nipped at Albrecht's ears as he stepped off the docks, and he pulled up the hood of his cloak to cover them. Palermo had changed in the years since he had left, and not for the better. Where the hand of the Spaniards had once been soft as silk, now he could see the bare steel of the gauntlet as it squeezed. Soldiers stood watching over the harbor or marched past on regular patrols. The docks themselves, and many of the surrounding buildings, had the salt-crusted patina of going without cleaning for too long. Even the harbor chatter and haggling seemed somewhat muted, as if afraid to draw unwanted attention. And yet . . . he inhaled deeply, letting the salt-rich scent fill his nostrils. It was the unmistakable smell of home, similar to any harbor of Europe while still carrying something unique. He pulled the hood lower to hide his face as best he could and weaved through the crowd towards the streets. Home it might be, but Palermo could still be a dangerous place for him. He would not bring additional danger down on Caterina's shoulders in the process of answering her call for help.
The run-down and increasingly crowded section of Palermo that was home to its working poor had the same taste of crumbling decay as the harbor, but here it gained a sharp edge the relatively more prosperous districts lacked. The ever-present soldiers patrolled in pairs here, Albrecht suspecting that they were seldom seen at night or wandering into dark alleys alone. Caterina had given him directions to her new home, and he navigated the streets with the calm assurance found in long-familiar routes, however long it had been since he walked them. He rapped on the indicated door—identical to all the others, despite his imagination insisting it was slightly cleaner and more welcoming than its neighbors—and waited until it cracked open.
"Who are you? What do you want?"
The crone peering at him through the gap was not his sister. It would have been generous to assume her young enough to have been Albrecht's mother, even allowing for the wear of age on a woman's features. After several loud repetitions of Caterina's name, she turned and shut the door in his face. Another minute passed before it opened again with a different face. It was not the face he had left behind, sharper and leaner with none of the rosy roundness of youth. But her eyes were the same, the rich dark eyes they had both inherited from their late mother.
"Catty." His pet name for her felt odd and heavy, rusty with age. Eyes that had been narrow with wary curiosity widened and filled with tears as she threw herself forward into his arms. He closed his eyes and hugged her tight, remembering . . .
Six Weeks Prior
Barentsen's Traveling Show of Marvels Staging Ground
Jan Barentsen's face was a curious mix of green and ash-pale as he looked back at Albrecht. The taller man felt about as unsettled as Jan looked, for all that he kept it carefully hidden.
"Yes. And soon—I need to be sure I'll make it around the mountains to the coast while there are still regular ships." The headshake that answered him was less of refusal than of a man trying to recover his wits from a heavy punch. Jan swept his arm around, gesturing at the assortment of tents and wooden buildings housing the steadily expanding chaos that called itself Barentsen's Traveling Show of Marvels. Two years had seen an explosive growth from four struggling entrepreneurs with three wagons into an operation of over fifty people in a dozen carts, and Jan's relentless pursuit of his ambitions showed no sign of slowing that pace.
"But I need you, Albrecht. We need you. Karl's shows barely draw a crowd these days, and Marie works herself to the bone managing the books and finances. The acrobats and animals bring in more ticket money than anything else, but The Man Who Can Escape From Anything is almost as popular. I've even got the handbills designed! And you're one of us, the original crew. We'll be going into winter camp here in Magdeburg; a show needs variety to keep the marks interested that long. I know how much you like getting pretty girls in the audience to tie you up, and you had that new trick you were planning to debut with the water tank escape—"
Albrecht cut him off with a raised hand, before Jan could really get going. Jan's phenomenal skill as a ringmaster and pitchman was in large part due to the raw sincerity he conveyed, to the point where he often came down from a show half-convinced the stories he had been spinning were true. Albrecht had treasured the time he'd spent living and working alongside all of them, but letting Jan sway him away from his decision could have an unthinkable cost.
"No, Jan. I have to go." He could have left it at that, but the bond between him and the Dutchman demanded he share just a little bit more, peel back the tightly wrapped shell that was Albrecht for a hint of the man hidden beneath.
"It's family. They need me." Albrecht almost felt guilty at trying to manipulate his employer-partner-friend so transparently, but the sudden solemnity of the other man indicated his success. He knew far more of Jan than the reverse, about the long estrangement between a Dutch marine merchant house and their sea terror-crippled son. Jan's gaze turned distant, then he gave a wan smile and clapped Albrecht on the shoulder.
"Then you're right. You can't turn your back on blood, ever. But you'll be drawing a purse from the communal emergency fund before you leave. Travel costs money, and you've been sending all of yours away . . . to whomever you're going to see, is my guess. Go with my prayers, and do try to come back someday—you've got a family here as well."
Albrecht turned away before his own emotions could break his calm facade. His body headed for the Magdeburg rail depot, but his mind headed elsewhere - south to the Mediterranean Sea, courtesy of the tightly folded letter concealed in his pocket.
Forgive me if I put you at risk by writing this. You have made yourself very hard to find, and I can only pray this reaches your hands in time. The money you have sent over the years has kept us alive, but now I need your help. There is no one else I can ask.
All my love,
The faintest scent of wildflowers tickled his nose - entirely within his head, being the wrong season for them to grow and too far for the paper to have traveled while retaining any odor. But even after eight years apart, seeing his baby sister's name brought back memories of the spring flowers she loved to pick as adornments. They had parted expecting not to see each other again this side of heaven; something truly dire must be at hand for her to call him back.
"Oh—praise God, you came back. A . . ."
He hushed her, untangling from the embrace to look down at her.
"Albrecht, now. That's what you should call me, Catty. It's safer, and I've grown used to answering to it."
She nodded, drawing him in through the entryway and pushing it to shut out the noise of the street. The old woman glared at him from around a corner until Caterina waved her off and led him down the narrow hall to a small room off the kitchen. It was already occupied, a figure hiding behind the tiny bed as they entered.
"Tomas, come meet your uncle . . . Albrecht." To her credit, Caterina recovered almost flawlessly from her hesitation and used the foreign name as if she had been practicing it all her life. The boy carefully came around the end of the bed and approached, sizing Albrecht up even as Albrecht did the same. A knot of tension went out of Albrecht's stomach as he let out a breath he hadn't realized he was holding; his worst fears that the boy would too closely resemble his father hadn't been realized. A hint of angle in the brow at most, but the influence of his mother and grandfather through her had been stronger. Stretching, he knelt and rotated one shoulder to wrap his right arm around the back of his neck before kneeling down and offering the upside-down hand towards Tomas. Tomas stared, then giggled and grabbed at the outstretched hand. Albrecht rotated his shoulder back into place while the boy started trying to unsuccessfully bend his own arm, the tension of a stranger in the room forgotten. Caterina watched her son with a smile, leaning down to touch his shoulder as she motioned Albrecht towards the tiny table occupying a corner of the room.
"Find something to eat in the kitchen, Tomas, then go outside and play. Come back before dark." As he obediently scampered out, she took the second of two rickety chairs and joined Albrecht at the table. For what seemed like hours, they simply looked at each other, taking in all the changes visible in each other. Albrecht was the first to break their silence.
"He's a good child. I can see your influence in him." Her eyes glittered, Albrecht fighting back the urge to wince as she saw through what he said into what he hadn't.
"And you were worried his other blood might ring true, weren't you? A—" He hushed her again, the building anger shattered by surprise.
"Not even here? Just the two of us, alone with no one else to hear? The old man is long dead, his family broken and destitute. No one is left who would wish you ill."
"He had two more sons, did he not? That other name might still have an arrest warrant outstanding, buried in the archives of the magistrate's offices. No, Catty, let the name I left behind sleep quiet, even here. Habits are hard to form and easy to break. No need for us to taunt Murphy." Surprise and chagrin became confusion in her expression.
"Murphy? Who is that? Some new enemy you made in the Germanies?" He shook his head.
"Never mind. It would be difficult to explain and can wait. Why did you write me, what is wrong that I can help you with?"
She fell silent, emotions and thoughts flickering in her face. He waited patiently until she could answer.
"After...after you left, I found a home with Sal the bricklayer, Papa's old friend. He and his wife sheltered me from the old man's people, especially once it became clear I had a child in me. When Tomas was born, her sister found me a servant's position in the viceroy's residence so that I would not have to sell myself to keep him from starving. What you sent helped, especially with the taxes growing higher each year."
"The viceroy is not a bad man to work for. He has many servants keeping his compound clean, and barely notices us at all. Others . . . others do."
Her eyes fell, and she swallowed hard. When Albrecht looked at her and she looked back, he felt a ball of ice congeal in his gut. This was his beloved baby sister. Not the smartest at times, but utterly fearless and determined enough to keep up with the boys at whatever game they pursued. The girl who had staggered home with her maiden's blood barely dry, looking for a knife with which to go back out and personally avenge her lost honor. The woman who had borne and raised her dead rapist's bastard child without selling her body or soul in the process. He looked into her eyes and saw something alien there—consuming, paralytic terror.
"The commander of the city garrison, a Spanish colonel. He . . . pursues lowborn women he fancies, either straight off the street or from the viceroy's servants if one catches his eye. Calls them his mistresses. Private whores, really. The lucky ones he tires of quickly and throws them back to the streets. The unlucky ones he . . . keeps."
"And you think he fancies you."
The ice in Albrecht's gut had sprouted jagged spikes, though he kept it from creeping into his voice. Her reply was a harsh bark of laughter, bitter and forced.
"He is not a subtle man, the colonel. The chase is a game to him, some part of his twisted hidalgo pride. He finds me when I'm working, offers flowery compliments to my beauty and leaves small presents where I will find them. If I did not know the truth, he might seem to be courting me."
Albrecht thought he kept his thoughts off his face, but the returning edge in her gaze indicated otherwise.
"I am not too prideful to be a Spanish noble's bedwarmer, not unmarried with a child to feed. Were it any other man, even a short time of such favor could have benefits. But the colonel . . . he is only kind until he gets a girl behind his own walls—it is different then. He hurts his women—beats them—worse." Tears started to well up, and Albrecht reached out to take her hand.
"The last girl he took, she escaped somehow from his villa. Barefoot, at night, she made it all the way to the harbor and—she threw herself in to drown. The one before that, they said she fell ill and died suddenly. But one of the kitchen girls had been sent to his villa, to deliver some wine. She saw them wrapping up the body, and swore it—she—was missing fingers." Now she clutched at Albrecht's hand, the stream of tears widening to a flood.
"I would become a rich man's whore if it meant Tomas could grow healthy and safe. But I cannot orphan him by offering myself to a man so bestial that risking eternity in hell is preferable to spending another night on Earth in his bedchamber. He will not relent, but continuing to refuse him will wear his patience thin."
At this, her composure broke entirely. Albrecht got up from his own seat and wrapped her in a hug as she cried convulsively into his shoulder.
"You want to leave Palermo before this colonel takes you. And you need me to help you escape."
Caterina nodded through her sobs, and he patted her gently.
"Then we'll leave, Catty. I'll take you back to Germany with me, and you'll be safe. I promise."
Several hours later, they had moved into the slightly less cramped space of the kitchen. Some watered wine for both of them—heavy on the water for Albrecht, heavy on the wine for Caterina—had taken the edge of hysteria from her mood and restored a bit of cheer to the air. Mama Vella, the crone who had answered the door and apparently owned the house, had reappeared just long enough to fill a bowl from the pot above the fireplace before vanishing into her own much larger room. Tomas had also returned, seated on the floor while proudly showing off an entirely typical eight-year-old flexibility to his bemused mother and newly-met uncle.
"You should have just packed up and left. Plenty of fishermen and ships who would carry both of you to the mainland for a few coins."
"And go where? A few coins is all I can spare. The wheat tax goes up as the loaves get smaller. Italy is not a safe place for a lone woman and child, especially poor ones." Her voice was calm, and her objections reasonable. Her eyes, though, wouldn't meet his head-on.
"Do you fear being chased? Is this colonel's obsession with his victims such that he would send someone after you?"
"No. He would find some other poor girl to torment, one pretty face is like any other."
"I'm still your brother, Catty. I know when you're not telling me something."
She flinched, the guilty expression making her look young again for a moment.
"The colonel wouldn't care about me. But the viceroy would care if Kuwat left, and I don't want to leave him behind."
Paterfamilial instincts stirred, and Albrecht's eyes narrowed.
"And who is Kuwat?"
"He's the viceroy's menagerie keeper. A Dutchman, from their Indian lands. He's smart, strong, brave. We're going to be betrothed."
The last few words came out in a rushed jumble, as if in hope they wouldn't be noticed. Despite having been dormant for close to a decade, it was remarkable how quickly those instincts flared into sudden life. He glared down at her, and she glared back just as determinedly.
"A thousand miles away is no place to be judging my suitors, dear brother. He's a good man, and he's genuinely interested in adopting the true faith. The local priest has already been speaking with him. I love him, he loves me, and he loves Tomas too."
Albrecht just scowled at her until she broke the stare.
"He was taken prisoner from a captured ship. The king sent him as part of a gift. If he ran away, the viceroy would have to send soldiers after him. You could get us away without anyone knowing where we went. You know who to talk to, where to look. I don't."
Albrecht's frown finally broke with a sigh.
"Smugglers, then. I can find us someone to take us to Naples or Sardinia. Four extra passengers won't be too much—what now, Caterina? Do I need to arrange the escape of Sal and his family too? Everyone living on this street? Half of Palermo?"
She shook her head with chagrin.
"No, no . . . it's just Hansken. Kuwat would be heartbroken if he had to leave her behind. She's so smart and friendly, but gets so lonely and bored. No one ever comes to visit her, I don't think anyone would even remember to feed her if he wasn't around. We'll both be so much happier if you can bring her with us. That's it, I promise."
Three adults, one child, and a pet of some sort. All in all, it could be far worse, or at least far more complicated. For all of Caterina's concerns and the seriousness of her problem, he could get them all out and hopefully still have enough money left from the travel purse he'd taken for the return trip.
"All five of us, then. I don't know yet where we'll go, but it'll be away from here, and I promise we'll stay together this time. You, me, Tomas, this Kuwat, and his Hansken."
Tomas briefly looked up at the sound of his name and chuckled, repeating the name 'Hansken' and blowing through his lips like a signaling trumpet. Albrecht gave the boy a brief glance before returning to Caterina.
"I want to meet Kuwat first, though. The Germanies may be a poor place to judge your suitors, but I am no longer there. I will talk to this man before I will agree to a marriage, regardless of his conversion."
He knew perfectly well that enforcing either of those clauses would be the next thing to impossible back in the USE, but as he had just reminded both of them, that was very far away. His energetic little sister still needed a guidestone, and he honestly hoped the Dutchman would suffice. She pulled him in for a hug and kiss.
"Tomorrow morning, then. You can sleep on our floor, Mama Vella won't mind once I convince her that you're family. Thank the saints and Virgin you've come back, I've missed you so much."
October 30, 1636
Villa del Verrey, Palermo, Sicily
The palatial villa that the Spanish viceroy had claimed as his residence sat on a low hill overlooking Palermo. It had its own walls, with a well-maintained road connecting it to the city proper. Guards stood at the front gate stiffly, but the single elderly soldier posted to guard the servant's entrance in back was less presentable. Half-asleep before the sun had fully risen, he gave no sign of noticing when Caterina shuffled past with Albrecht and Tomas in tow. Inside, the number of local servants hurrying about gave them plenty of cover to lose themselves in and to reach the heavy doors to the outdoor menagerie unchallenged.
Inside, the high brick walls surrounded a number of separate smaller enclosures. A massive jet-black bull glowered at Albrecht from inside the closest pen, but most appeared to be unoccupied. With Caterina at his heels, he headed down the path, only to jump at the sudden and eerily human cackling that erupted from a pen to one side. From beneath a wooden overhang, two bizarre creatures regarded him calmly, looking as if God had combined a very large cat with a dog and finished off with a few spare parts from a bear.
"They are called hyena. From Africa. No danger to you unless you are already dead. Then they will eat you."
The speaker's Sicilian was rough but understandable, and Albrecht turned back to face him. The other man was tall, with nut-brown skin and a politely deferential smile as he regarded his visitor. A moment later, he spotted Caterina and the smile became a wide grin. She in turn rushed forward and flung her arms around him. He returned the embrace, but visibly held back from more as he noticed Albrecht's stiff posture.
"Kuwat, I told you about my brother. His name is Albrecht now, but this is him, and he's here!"
With Caterina towing him forward, the two men took each other's hands with mutual mixtures of wary appraisal. Kuwat was clearly no native Dutchman, not with that skin hue. An East Indiaman, apparently one who had been fortunate enough to win service on a Dutch merchant ship and unfortunate enough for that ship to fall into Spanish hands. Why a sailor was the viceroy's choice to manage his collection of exotic beasts was a mystery, but not one Albrecht needed to concern himself with. The genuine tenderness in his face whenever Kuwat's eyes fell in Caterina's direction told Albrecht all he needed to know.
"How is Hansken doing today, Kuwat? Albrecht wanted to meet her too, he's going to find a way to get us all off the island to safety. He promised, and my brother always delivers his promises!"
Either of the men alone outweighed the younger woman, but her raw enthusiasm sufficed to tow them both bodily forward towards the largest enclosure at the menagerie's rear. An equally large wooden shelter dominated one side of the pen, and a massive shadow stirred from the gloom as they approached. Kuwat took the lead, reaching out to the creature now emerging into the early morning light and whispering to it in some foreign tongue.
Albrecht tried to keep his heart from forcing its way out of his throat in shock and dismay. He'd never seen such an animal before. He doubted more than a tiny number of people in Europe had, at least the ones who had been born there. But he'd seen pictures of them, from the American library books Jan had shown the crew. Not identical—smaller and lacking the two massive teeth that the pictures had shown. But still easily half again the height of a man, with a bulk that put the mightiest draft horse in the world to shame. An impossibly long and thin nose, curled back against its jaw, and huge eyes that stared at him with intelligence and patient curiosity.
"This is Hansken, Albrecht. Isn't she wonderful?"
Some sort of pet, indeed. This was what happened when you did favors for family.