Friday, 28 November 2008

Author’s note and postscript

If you have read this far, then I am frankly gratified and more than a little amazed. Thank you for your persistence in reading what is a very scrappy first effort at writing a novel.

I signed up for Nanowrimo as a personal challenge and it has rather taken over my life for the previous month. After the opening chapters I really started to struggle to get my fingers on the keyboard and get the words down on virtual paper. I kept a series of spreadsheets to calculate my daily word count and all sorts of statistical averages to let me know exactly how far behind schedule I was. I started to despair of finishing as I watched my writer buddies clocking up their word counts like metronomes. Some time around the thirty thousand word mark, I caught up and things started to flow. Characters started to do unexpected things, events took me by surprise and, against all expectations, I started to enjoy myself hugely.

The inspiration for this novel came from a couple of sources, and the first may surprise you. Many years ago I played the game Tomb Raider II on what was, at the time, a blazingly fast 486/33 pc with a four megabytes of RAM. The level that particularly stuck in my mind was set in Venice with a series of challenges for our pixelated heroine involving climbing over roof tops, diving into canals, exploring crumbling buildings, jumping through the middle of a covered bridge in a speed boat and duking it out with black clad assassins on stage and behind the scenes of a grand opera house. This, not surprisingly, was the genesis of the early scene with Donatella breaking into the house by crossing the canal on a rope.

The other inspiration came from excellent series about the founding and history of Venice by the historian Francesco da Mosta. It really is a city with a unique story that spans many hundreds of years from its founding in the unpromising swampy islands of the lagoon by disparate tribes of fishermen banding together for protection, through its glorious ascendance as one of the great powers of Europe to its slow (but highly pleasurable) decline and eventual capture by Napoleon

I started with little more than a vague image of mist drifting down the canals of Venice at some unspecified point in history that would allow for a generous helping of intrigue and sword play. I wrote the opening three chapters – the plot against Venice, the old man dying in the monastery cell and Donatella crossing the canal in the dead of night – with no idea of what might happen next. I hadn’t done any research to speak of or plotted any sort of direction for the story, or indeed had any idea for any eventual ending. The character of Alonso came out of the blue, as did his subsequent actions and escape from the monastery. The idea that Donatella might be breaking into her own family’s house was another surprise development. The best bit of serendipity though was the date that I had chosen for the story – late in the year 1605.

On further investigation, I found out that a number of significant events took place around this time. The story of the two priests Canon Saraceni of Vicenza and AbbĂ© Brandolin of Nervesa is a true one. They were indeed accused of a number of serious crimes including murder and rapine (although not, I am sorry to say, bumming each other). They were convicted and imprisoned by the secretive Council of Ten and imprisoned in the infamous Piombi lead roofed cells in a high corner of the Doge’s Palace, very much the Guantanamo bay of its day.

The Venetians made a point of thumbing their collective noses at the Pope in a number of different ways including passing laws restricting the church from acquiring property through donations as part of wills and bequests. Eventually they pushed the church too far and when the zealous pontiff Pope Paul V was elected something had to give. The Pope issued a decree excommunicating the entire city of Venice, which the Venetians cheerfully ignored and it seems entirely possible that a war would have ensued if diplomatic efforts by various foreign ambassadors hadn’t resolved the issue two years later.

Something else caught my eye as well, to whit the death of the much loved Doge Marino Grimani and the election of Leonardo Donato in that same year. All of the detail of the fabulously convoluted election process is true. Venice truly was unique in having – in effect – a democratic monarchy, elected by a combination of lottery and voting. Perhaps the process ensured that Doge’s were selected for their innate luck in some sort of evolutionary way?

When the Doge was elected, his powers were restricted by law in numerous ways – he could not read letters from other heads of states unless in the presence of others, he could not own property in a foreign land and of course, any attempt to pass on the position to an heir was strictly forbidden. Indeed, when a Doge died a commission would be set up to investigate any possible malfeasance by the late ruler and his family could be liable to pay back any ill gotten gains.

It is also true that Marin Falier, the fifty fifth Doge, tried to stage a coup to declare himself a Prince. Some accounts say that he may well have been senile and unaware of the consequences of his actions, or that he was motivated by an antipathy for the aristocracy. As punishment he was beheaded and his memory damned forever – damnatio memoriae in the Latin phrase. Even his portrait in the the council hall in the palazzo was ordered to be covered with a black cloth for all time, and so it remains to this day.

Other episodes from Venetian history are well worth investigating as well, if you are interested in such things, particularly the story of the acquisition of the bones of Saint Mark. It shows something of the Venetian mind set, that in order to have a suitably high ranking patron saint for the city(to replace the obscure Saint Theodore of Amasea) a group of adventurers set out for Alexandria in 828 to steal the bones of Saint Mark that were reputed to be held there. They concealed the bones inside a casket filled with pork so that the Muslim guards could not investigate the contents. About two hundred years later the bones went missing again, but conveniently a 'miraculous arm' appeared from a pillar and pointed out some bones in the foundations of the basilica that was being built at the time. Hence we now have the basilica and square dedicated to Saint Mark. You've got to hand it to the Venetians for chutzpah, if nothing else.

Italy has been, for most of its history, a loose federation of warring city states, and the Vatican was no different. It was rare for cities to maintain anything more than a token standing army, for fear of the commanders staging a coup. Instead, the practice was to employ mercenary armies, the so called 'condottieri', to fight their wars as required. The Black Company of the story is of course based on the famous White Company of the 14th century commanded by the Englishman Sir John Hawkwood, who was in turn the inspiration for Sir John Fletcher.

Fletcher was initially intended to be a minor character, and perhaps a bit of Falstaffian comic relief, but his role grew in the telling until he was a rather heroic figure. I feel a little bit guilty for killing him off, but perhaps I'll change that in the rewrite if I revisit this story at some future date.

Similarly Bompanzini was another comic character, and again a Falstaffian wine bibber, but he turned into rather a slimy and corpulent villain. If anyone deserved to meet a sticky end it was him, but alas he is still out there somewhere.

I know that the story is rather rushed in places, and incoherent elsewhere, but it is after all a first draft and a first attempt at anything remotely like this. Anybody who has followed my blog will know that my preferred literary form is the haiku with its spare seventeen syllable form, so writing extra words in is a rather alien experience for me, to say the least. The structure is a bit ropy too, but I think that there are some good ideas in there somewhere. I particularly like the bits about the Carnival and I think the image of the villainous Carmelo in the sinister costume of the plague doctor with the hooked beak bird mask is a strong one.

To any Italian readers, or anybody that knows Venice and its environs, I can only apologise for any errors of geography or description. I have effectively written a historical novel by looking things up on Wikipedia as I went along, but that's Nanowrimo for you, I suppose.

To conclude, I will say that my ambition is to visit Venice one day, hopefully in the near future and do some proper research on the locations and history of the place. I really would like to do the ideas that I have had here justice.

Until that time, long live the most serene republic of La Serenissima!

Neil Hopkins, November 2008

Chapter Forty Two

Alonso cradled the dying Fletcher in his arms as he lay on the ground.

“Bloody stupid way to die”, said Fletcher weakly, “Always thought that I’d die in bed, an old man”

“You saved the ghetto”, said Alonso, and it was true, for the mob had started to disperse by ones and twos, shocked at the actuality of the bloody violence they had just seen. They were also angry with themselves at having being so easily talked into contemplating mob action against their neighbours by the weasel words of the priests and the clerics. It was as if somebody had held up a mirror to them and they had seen the animals that they had so nearly become for a brief moment.

They didn’t like what they had seen. They would not be fooled so easily again.

o o o o o

In the burning palace, the last few revellers who had been in the Doge’s apartment escaped following the route that Donatella had found. Silvio and his father shepherded them up through the Inquisitor’s chamber and then out on to the lead roof of the piombi where a rope allowed them to climb down on to the roof of the bridge of sighs below, and safety.

Those who had escaped through the courtyard did not stand idly by to watch the fire. Bucket chains were organised to fetch water from the adjacent flooded piazza San Marco to douse the flames, and slowly but surely the blaze was brought under control.

The fire would still smoulder for days to come, but the structure of the palace was still sound. There had been other fires of this magnitude during the long history of the building and it had survived them before. The real damage was in the loss of paintings, artworks and decorations of almost inestimable worth.

o o o o o

As the weak winter sun rose across the Venetian lagoon, the commander of the papal army watched a thin column of smoke rise into the sky. The palace had burned, but word had reached him that the Doge still lived. He had heard nothing from Carmelo and had to presume him dead. He surveyed his depleted forces, still demoralized after the devastating explosion during their assault on the breached wall, and lacking the support of their mercenary battalions, and he made a decision.

The army would withdraw beyond the river boundaries that marked the extent of the Vatican territory, and if the Pope wished to press the campaign against Venice he could come and lead the charge in person, rather than ordering it from the safety of his gilded throne.

He gave the orders to his subordinates to prepare to march away, and the war against the most serene republic of Venice was at an end.

o o o o o

The bell was sounded to signal the start of morning trading at the Rialto.

The atmosphere in the room was one of uncertainty and lack of confidence, with nobody quite sure how to react to the events of recent days. Nobody seemed to be willing to trade with the usual enthusiasm for commerce normally seen in that place.
Antonio di Rossini strode across the floor, his head held high, and climbed the dais to make a general announcement.

“My name is Antonio di Rossini and I speak as a representative of the Rossini Trading Company. I have two announcements to make. Firstly I am retiring and stepping down as chairman of the company and I will be replaced by my son Silvio who will take on all of my responsibilities. Secondly, I wish to confirm that today we have placed the sum of ten million Ducats on deposit with the bank, and that these monies will be available for investment and speculation at favourable rates as of this moment. Long live the Republic!”

There was a moment of surprise, followed by a resounding cavalcade of cheers and applause as the news sunk in, quickly replaced by a buzz of excitement as trading commenced again with a vengeance.

The traders of Venice were doing what they did best – making money.

o o o o o

Silvio di Rossini watched his father climb down from the dais and went over to his side to shake his hand.

“Father”, he said simply.

“The company is yours now, my boy, and it’s well positioned to trade effectively for many years to come. I will give you one piece of advice from my own experience though, If a deal seems too good to be true, then it almost certainly is.”

“I shall bear that in mind” replied Silvio with a grin. “For one thing we will be opening an office inside the ghetto. There are a lot of very talented people there that we can employ, I’m sure. Furthermore, Captain Parese has some very promising suggestions for new markets to explore, and I have given him carte blanche to travel and trade as he sees fit. We have heard from some of Portuguese partners about possible trading contacts with the Japanese, for example.”

“Well, it’s your responsibility. I promise that I shall not interfere, and I now intend to fulfil my proper duties as a lean and slippered pantaloon, sit back in my easy chair, and enjoy my dotage to the full,”

“And I shall return to my office, and draw up draft contracts and trading agreements, and prepare us for one hundred years of prosperity”

Both father and son were happy with their new roles, and they embraced as the mantle of power passed from one generation to the next.

o o o o o

In his room at the di Rossini house Alonso sat a desk and composed a letter to Antonio.

“Signor”, he began, “I am writing to thank you once again for your generosity and hospitality, but I wish to tell you that I intend to return to family in Padua and commence my studies at the University there. I intend to make up for lost time and learn as much as I can about history and philosophy, for I believe that only by understanding the past can we hope to make sense of the events of the present. I remain, your obedient servant ... “

He signed the letter with a flourish, and folded and addressed the single sheet of paper, leaving it propped on the desk.

He patted his pocket and felt the reassuring weight of John Fletcher’s silver flask
within. He would take it to an engraver and see that the roll of honour was finally completed as Fletcher’s name would take its place next to the names of his fallen comrades of old.

Alonso packed the clothes and other essentials that he had been given, and counted the money that he had been given by Antonio. It was more than sufficient for him to pay his way through university for the next few years.

He was ready to embrace the life of an academic and critical thinker, in the true spirit of the renaissance.

o o o o o

In her room in the ghetto, Rachel di Jehuda picked up her father’s text books and started to read. He hadn’t ever been aware of quite how much knowledge she had gleaned over the years as she had nursed his patients under his guidance. Her father’s brutal murder had left her with a steely determination to study the arts of medicine.

Rachel di Jehuda would one day become a physician in her own right.

o o o o o

On the deck of La Serenissima, Captain Benito Parese surveyed the repair work that was already under way. Gangs of carpenters were busy removing the shattered mast and making preparations to replace it with a new one. Other teams were making good the damage to the hull and caulking seams that had been opened by the combination of the storm and the cannon fire.

He saw a familiar looking figure walking along the jetty and waved to her

“Donatella! Welcome aboard!” he yelled

“Thank you.”, she replied with a smile. “Can you keep a secret?” she asked.

“Of course, milady. You know that you can trust me with your life.”

“Good. When La Serenissima sails again, I intend to be on board. I have a desire to see the world, and the far east in particular. My father is content to retire and my brother will busy himself with ledgers and contracts, and I am happy for them both, but I want more than that. If they hear of what I plan, then they will try to stop me, so please don’t let them know.”

“I promise that your secret is safe with me. Anyway, your brother gave me free reign to carry any cargo that I saw fit to deal in, so perhaps that includes you as well?” said Benito.

“You should be a lawyer, not a sea captain!” replied Donatella with a wolfish grin. “Now, be sure to give me ample notice of when you plan to depart and I will be on board, depend on it!”

She looked out over the waters of the lagoon, to the open seas of the Adriatic beyond and knew that her future lay out there somewhere, in the land of the rising sun.

o o o o o

The Doge toured the areas of his palace that were safe to enter and surveyed the ruin that lay around him.

He ordered a clerk to produce an inventory of all that had been lost to the flames and vowed to replace it and supplement it twice over. Art would be commissioned from all over Europe and far beyond, and the patronage of Venice would be legendary.

The palazzo would rise like a phoenix as a symbol of the wealth and power of Venice, the most serene republic – La Serenissima resplendent!

Chapter Forty One

Within the palace the fire was taking hold with furious speed.

The crowds of revellers from the lower levels were able to make their way safely out through the main courtyard, but the stair case leading to the Doge's apartment was now an inferno. The narrow space was acting as a chimney, drawing flames and smoke upwards and feeding them with air.

The fire consumed everything within its path. Priceless and irreplaceable paintings by Tintoretto burned, statues toppled, furnishings and fabrics vanished in an instant. Rare books, maps and globes, and treasures from the furthest corners of the Venetian trading empire were similarly destroyed.

In the apartment upstairs the smoke was rapidly becoming choking. Donatella grabbed her brother's arm and spoke into his ear.

"We have to get these people to safety. We can't go down, so you have to lead them up to the roof and then find a way down from there. I'm going to go ahead, after the plague doctor. I think that he is the key to this situation"

Silvio took charge of the frightened revellers, getting them to duck under the thickening smoke to where the air was slightly clearer and took care to close the doors to the stairs leading down. That should buy them a little extra time before the fire could break through.

Donatella went ahead through the crowd, via a series of rooms that led into the inquisitor's chamber where the council of ten would deliberate on their secret trials of those who had transgressed against the republic. This was the only route up to the lead roofed piombi cells above, where the prisoners would be taken to serve out their terms.

Donatella’s suspicions were proven correct when she saw the figure that she had been seeking – the man in the black costume of the plague doctor. He was standing by a tapestry depicting the harbour, and he had a tinderbox and oil. He was clearly attempting to start a second fire here, so that the people attempting to escape from the fire below would be trapped here and surely perish.

Donatella shouted and the man gave a start, dropping his bottle of oil which shattered at his feet soaking his robe. He turned to face Donatella, and his eerie bird mask with its spectacled eyes looked directly at her.

“It’s you! Why do you thwart me at every turn, thou thorn in my side?”. He abandoned his attempt to set a fire and made a break for the stairs leading up and Donatella gave chase after him. They ascended another flight of stairs until they were at roof level and Donatella saw that the man had prepared his escape route in advance, with a ladder leading up from the space outside the cells to a hole giving access out on to the lead roof. He was just disappearing through the hole when Donatella reached the foot of the ladder

As Donatella climbed, the man tried to shove the ladder away with a vicious kick. Donatella reacted quickly and caught the sole of shoe and pushed up with all of her strength sending him sprawling backwards on to the roof. This gave her the chance to follow him out into the night air. The man climbed to his feet and they confronted each other.

The man gave a brief, humourless laugh and reached up to remove his mask. Underneath was the aquiline face of Father Vittorio Carmelo.

“Father Carmelo?” said Donatella, not really surprised at what she was seeing.

“Yes, and I would have gotten away with it if it hadn’t been for your meddlesome interference, child!” he said, and laughed again. He continued.

“So, I suppose that you think that you’ve won? Do you have any idea of just how much trouble you have caused me? I have waited for this opportunity for years, until God chose a pope who would be sympathetic to my cause and my ambitions. A word in the right ear, a bribe in the right pocket, and Venice would have been mine for the taking. The people would have begged for me to ascend to the throne and wear the Corno Ducale. And I would have humbly accepted, and then banished far away all pretence at so called, self styled democracy” He spat the last word with venom.

Donatella asked just one question with one single word.


“What does it matter? Power, influence and money, of course, but more important than those Europe would be freed from the Jewish taint in a cleansing fire, and from the ashes a new Holy Roman Empire would arise to rule the world, as is its manifest destiny.”

He coughed as a swirl of smoke rose up from below and blew into his face.

“It will happen one day. Our order will watch and wait until the time is right and then we will strike again, I promise you.”

He laughed again, a laugh of doomed madness, and took his tinder box from within his robe, and struck a spark.

“Time to die”, he said as his oil soaked robe caught afire, and then he screamed like a banshee as the flames consumed him. He ran for the edge of the roof and jumped, falling like Lucifer banished from heaven, a fiery meteor that plunged into the canal far below.

Father Carmelo was no more.

Chapter Forty

Sir John Fletcher had a nose for trouble.

As soon as he had stepped off the barge and set foot on the streets of Venice he knew instinctively that something was amiss. The atmosphere was one of hostility and incipient violence, and he didn't like it, not one bit. He dismissed most of his men, telling them to find a tavern and stay out of mischief, and decided that if something was wrong he wanted to be at the heart of it.

He wandered the streets, following the sound of the crowd and heard a commotion some way ahead of him. A fight of some sort was in progress, or to be more precise, on a closer look he saw that a large crowd was gathered round a group of five or six men who were attacking a prone figure on the ground with a wicked looking selection of cudgels and sticks.

Time to even the odds a little, he thought, drawing himself up to his full height and taking a deep breath.

"Think this is a fair fight, do you?" he shouted in his best parade ground sergeant major bellow.

The attackers stopped their assault and turned to face him, and the crowd pressed in at the prospect of more entertaining violence.

"What's it got to with you, you interfering fool?" replied the tallest man, the nominal leader of the gang, it seemed.

"I don't like to see anybody kicking a man when he's down, and if you don't stop of your own accord I'll bloody well make you", at the last he dropped his voice to a growl.

"This man ", the attacker gestured at the wretch laying prostrate on the ground, "is a filthy Jew out on the streets after dark. Everyone knows that the Jews are to blame for the war and the panic at the Rialto! Isn't that right, boys?"

His appeal to the crowd provoked a few cheers in response, but most appeared a bit uneasy at the turn of events and stayed silent.

"We're teaching this piece of vermin a lesson, and we'll teach it to you as well", the man sneered and waved his cudgel.

"I was handing out lessons in how to take a beating while you were still wrapped in swaddling clothes", replied Fletcher, and he rushed the nearest thug with a shoulder charge that he dropped into the man's midriff at the last moment, knocking the wind out of him and sending him sprawling on the ground struggling for breath. One down, four to go. He picked up the man's stick - a useful looking five foot length of ash pole, which he casually tucked behind his back to keep it out of view.

"Who's next?" asked Fletcher.

The attackers seemed momentarily nonplussed, and then one of them made a move, making a wild swing with his cudgel at Fletcher's body, aiming to crack him in the ribs. Fletcher stepped neatly back on his right foot and brought his stick up and over his own head and delivered a smart thrust into the man's face breaking his nose in the process. The man yelped and clutched his face, blood spraying from between his fingers. That was two.

The next two attackers were smarter and worked as a team. One of the pair approached Fletcher, swinging his club in a lazy figure of eight while his partner edged around the Fletcher's blind side. The attacker to the front suddenly attacked with an over head swing attempting to cave Fletcher's skull in, but Fletcher blocked the strike with his stick held high in both of his hands. He then dropped and planted his boot in the man's stomach, allowing the man's own momentum to carry him up and over, cannoning into the other thug sneaking up up from behind. Four down, and less than a minute had passed.

The last attacker drew a knife and eschewing all preamble or bravado launched himself at Fletcher to stab him in the heart. Fletcher planted the stick, like a pole arm set against a charging horse, and caught the knife wielder in the chest, stopping him dead. That was all of them, but he had to move before anybody in the crowd picked up the courage to intervene.

He knelt to the man on the ground and offered him a hand. He whispered urgently to him.

“Can you stand, my friend? Good. We need to walk away from here - right now. Don’t run, and whatever else you do, don’t look back. Now, come on - let’s get out here.”

They commenced walking at a stiff pace, some in the crowd jeering at them as they left, but the five thugs sprawled on the ground in various states of injury and conciousness had obviously been enough to dissuade anybody else from interfering.

Fletcher introduced himself to his new companion - “Sir John Fletcher at your service sir!” and the man he had rescued from a beating replied simply that his name was Isaac.

“I assume that you need to return to the ghetto, Isaac, before we run into any more troublemakers?”

“Yes, I was just about my business this night when I was attacked. It is well before the hour of the curfew, but that didn't matter to the crowd. I don't think that it was all of them, but there were certain people provoking and encouraging the others”

Isaac led Fletcher through a succession of back alleys to avoid the main streets, and they headed to the North West of Venice until they reached the gate by the bridge over the Canale di Cannaregio. The gate was usually manned by a rota of guards drawn from the city's Christian community, paid for by the inhabitants of the ghetto but tonight the guard posts were empty.

“I don't like this, not one little bit” said Fletcher, feeling an ominous sense of foreboding in his stomach. His mood was considerably improved as he recognised a friendly face standing in the centre of the ghetto's central campo, an open space surrounded by tall buildings each with multiple stories piled higgle de piggledy one on top of the other, some with synagogues at the very peak.

“Fletcher!” shouted Alonso, genuinely pleased to see his friend.

“I wish we could meet under more peaceful circumstances, my friend” replied Fletcher, “but I fear that an attack is on the way. The guards are missing and the gates are wide open. We need to organise a defence, and quickly!”

They ran to the open gateway, gathering a handful of men on the way. A mob was already gathering on the far side of the bridge, some armed with cudgels and swords, or rocks and other missiles to throw, others with flaming torches, and their mood was an ugly one.

“If they cross the bridge and get into the ghetto, there’ll be a bloody massacre” said Fletcher urgently, “We have to hold them here until cooler heads prevail”

“How do we do that?” asked Alonso, worry etched into his face

“Just watch me” replied Fletcher, and he strode into the middle of the bridge, head held high. He looked at the members of the mob with a steady gaze, challenging them. If they wanted to cross the bridge they would have to get past him first. He reflected that his stand here was a microcosm of the siege of Mestre that he had fought so recently, only now he did not have cannon fire and black powder traps to fall back on.

The mob seemed to hesitate, with no one person willing to make the first move. Alonso noticed a black clad figure, lurking in the background of the crowd. He was talking in conspiratorial tones to a group who detached themselves from the main body to challenge Fletcher. One of them threw a rock which hit Fletcher on the side of his helmet, making him stagger backwards a pace. They prepared to rush him, and then Fletcher spoke again.

“So it’s come to this has it? An armed mob picking on the weak and helpless. Why, for goodness sake? These people are your neighbours and your friends. You are happy to work with them, trade with them and for them to be your physician when you are ill. The real enemy is outside the walls” - he gestured in the direction of Mestre - “and inside too, whispering in your ears and trying to drive a wedge between people who should be on the same side.”

The mood of the crowd seemed to change abruptly, and they shrank back, leaving the figure in black standing in the open. The man looked about desperately, as if were a centipede found under a rock, looking for another dark place to scuttle away too. He realised that there was no escape and came forward on to the bridge himself.

“You fools!” he shouted “Can’t you see the canker that is infecting your city from within? It matters little, for even now your palace is burning and your precious Doge will soon be dead! This city will belong to the church, and we will scour it clean!”

He was within reach of Fletcher now and he reached into his black robe, pulling out a short but wickedly sharp blade, catching Fletcher off guard.

“So die all heretics!” he screamed, plunging the knife deep into Fletcher’s chest before turning the blade on himself, cutting his own throat in a spray of crimson blood.

Alonso could only look on in horror, as John Fletcher sank to ground, mortally wounded, and beyond him from the direction of the Doge’s palace, smoke and flame seared the night sky.

Tuesday, 25 November 2008

Chapter Thirty Nine

The masked ball at the Doge’s palazzo marked the beginning of carnival, and this year was particularly symbolic of the determination of Venice to resist its enemies by refusing to be cowed.

"Surely the Doge will be guarded", Alonso pointed out, "How can anyone hope to get near him to do him any harm?"

"The attempt will come from somebody that he knows and trusts because they are member of the council. It will almost certainly be somebody from our list of names" said Silvio

"So how do we prevent it then?" asked Donatella

"I don't know." admitted Silvio, "All we can do is to act the patient agent. We must watch for our enemy to make his move and then respond. I like it even less than you, but it is all we can do. We will attend the ball and be ready to act".

As members of the nobility the family di Rossini were all automatically invited to the ball, but Alonso posed a problem. Rachel suggested that he return to the ghetto in case of trouble there.

"We know that something is being planned but we don't know what yet. We need to be on our guard, and any help is more than welcome" she said

"I'm just glad to be of some use" replied Alonso.

"Well, that's settled then." said Antonio, with an air of finality, "We will attend the ball as a family, and try to prevent an atrocity"

o o o o o

A costume ball required costumes, and of course the family had their favourites from the many traditional choices on offer.

Silvio was to dress as Harlequin, in a diamond patterned jacket and trousers with a demonic black half mask covering his face and a fur trimmed white felt cap. Donatella adopted her favourite disguise of Columbine the servant girl, with the patterns on the dress matching her brother's costume and a coquettish gold mask carried on a stick. Antonio was, naturally enough, Pantaloon - the wealthy and hard nosed merchant with his a red jacket, short belted breeches with a wooden sword, a black cloak over his shoulders lined with red on the inside and black Turkish slippers with the ends curled up. He stroked the goatee beard on his mask in the manner of a businessman appraising a deal and spoke to his children.

"Let us be about our business", he said, and they set off into the cold winter's night.

o o o o o

Alonso and Rachel walked through the Campo Santo Stefano, enjoying the carnival atmosphere despite the serious nature of the business that they had just been discussing. A carpet of grass had been laid across the square, and elegantly dressed and masked revellers were promenading there to display their costumes to best effect for the admiration of the crowd.

Wine was being quaffed in generous quantities and some people were already approaching a state of rambunctious inebriation. As the couple made their way through the streets toward the ghetto the carnival gaiety seemed to give way to something darker and more sinister. Both Alonso and Rachel had simple wooden masks borrowed from the di Rossinis, and the crowd assumed that both were Jewish people returning to their homes before the midnight curfew.

Some of the people they passed shouted insults and jeered at them, others spat and threw fruit, and still others, local toughs and yahoos, jostled them. Alonso resisted the urge to fight back, and they made it to the bridge across the canal that would lead them back to the ghetto.

"It's turning nasty out there", Alonso noted.

"Somebody is whipping the crowd up. I recognised some of the troublemakers there, and when they have a group of people who are drunk and looking for trouble it is not difficult to provoke them into acting on their base impulses. We had best prepare for the worst.”

o o o o o

The Palazzo Ducale di Venezia, the Doge's palace, was alive with colour and life. Each of the rooms hosted dancing and music in the grandest possible setting amidst the gilded ceilings, the awe inspiring paintings and sculptures and the sumptuous architecture.

The costumes sported by the revellers were as intricate and ornate as the setting that they were being worn in, particularly the ornate masks, gilded and covered with jewels. As well as examples of the Harlequin, Columbine and Pantaloon costumes that the Rossinis were sporting, there were Brighellas and Gnagas, Bernardons and The Mattacino, Turks, fishermen, weeping Jews, demons and satyrs and a myriad others. All of them intermingled, true identities concealed by the facade of carnival.

The Rossinis made their way through the inner courtyard and climbed the giant stairway where the statutes of Mars and Neptune had been draped with decorations to show that even the Gods themselves were not above the mockery of carnival. Moving through the crowd formed an elaborate social dance with intricate rules of its own. It would be rude to push through in a hurry, so they had to flit from one group to the next, exchanging pleasantries and then slipping from one orbit to the next like wandering planets amongst the stars.

Their ultimate goal was to climb the fabled golden staircase to the party in the Doge's apartment. This was were the Doge himself was to be found, and they spotted him dressed in the multicoloured striped tunic embellished with golden buttons, a feathered hat and of course the enormous sword of The Captain, another famous trope of the carnival tradition. He was not wearing a mask, one of very few not to be so adorned.

Antonio di Rossini went to speak to the Doge directly, whilst Silvio and Donatella mingled with the larger crowd nearby, being watchful for anything that caught their eye.

“This is a hopeless task”, complained Silvio, “Unless we see somebody actually pull a dagger, what can we do?”

“Patience brother”, replied Donatella, “Watch and wait”

In the inner orbit of nobles, dignitaries and guards around the Doge, Antonio di Rossini waited patiently and then finally, at last, caught the eye of the Doge.

“My lord, a brief word, if it pleases you?” he said, bowing politely

“Of course, di Rossini. I had been given to understand that you were absent from Venice. You are well I trust?”

“Yes my lord, I am well now. However, in recent days I have been held prisoner by the very same forces currently arrayed against our fair republic. They are plotting against you personally, as I believe my son has already warned you. I urge you to be on your guard at all times”

“Believe me, I will be watchful. I am pledged to defend this city and this republic to my very last breath, but I do not intend to draw that breath for many years to come.”

“Thank you, my lord. Our family is, forever, at your service”, said Antonio, bowing again and retiring from the crowd.

o o o o o

Through patient listening to the buzz of flirting and general conversation, Donatella had identified most of the people in the immediate vicinity within a fairly short space of time, and believed that most of those she recognised were to be trusted. However, one figure in particular troubled her – a person dressed in the black robes and the strange bird like bespectacled mask of the plague doctor. The plague was one of the few forces of nature ever to truly threaten all of Venice, afflicting as it did rich and poor alike with a fearful rate of mortality and no known cure or treatment. She shuddered at the thought.

The plague doctor did not seem to be talking to anybody in particular, and if anything was acting in the same watchful manner as Donatella and Silvio themselves. She resolved to approach the figure to see if she could talk to them when they seemed to vanish through the melee of the crowd like a wraith at midnight. She was still trying to see where the figure had gone when a commotion was heard at the other side of the room. A note of alarm spread through the room and then a cry rang out from one voice, quickly taken up by others.

“Fire! Fire!”

The Doge's palace was ablaze and starting to fill with smoke. Fear gripped the crowd with an icy hand, and Donatella knew that if action was not taken quickly then not just the Doge, but hundreds upon hundreds of people would die in a terrible inferno.

Chapter Thirty Eight

The walls of Mestre were a lonely place to stand.

Fletcher was looking out over the serried ranks of the papal forces whose guns had not yet started their bombardment for the day. He could see smoke from numerous cook fires dotted around the battlefield and men making preparations for the day’s fighting - honing weapons, cleaning armour or just sitting in quiet prayer and contemplation. Something was different though, but he couldn’t put his finger on exactly what had changed. Was it just his new perspective looking out from the city walls as a defender, rather than when he had been on the opposing side?

“Why aren’t the bastards attacking?” he asked himself rhetorically, not expecting an answer.

“Perhaps they are afraid of your reputation, Fletcher?” replied a voice behind him.

Fletcher had been joined at his vantage point by Caption Lucio Patrese of the Venetian city guard, the nominal commander of all of the forces besieged within the city walls.

“More likely they are waiting for something, but what though? They were happy enough to throw me and my men into the breach yesterday, so why not follow it up with another attack?”, Fletcher asked.

“Look out over the camps again, Fletcher. Can you not see anything different from yesterday?”

Fletcher looked again, and was struck by what he didn’t see rather than what he did see. The mercenary units that had been attached to the Papal Army had marched during the night and now were no longer to be seen on the battlefield. Fully two thirds of the forces facing Mestre had disappeared overnight.

“Obviously your little stunt yesterday had an effect.” Said Patrese. “Perhaps they were renegotiating their contracts to ask for more money if the Papal commanders were going to put them in the front rank?”

“Either that or they haven’t been paid at all” replied Fletcher, with a chuckle. “I hear that the Pope may be finding himself unexpectedly short of gold today”

Lucio Patrese laughed as well. In the midst of war and horror, any release of the tension was more than welcome. The moment was short lived, however.

Dispatch riders were busy delivering messages through the enemy camp, and ranks of men were beginning to form up.

“They’ll be on their way soon enough”, said Fletcher and the guns of the Papal army erupted with fire, beginning their bombardment for the day. Even with their substantially reduced numbers the Papal army was more than capable of over running Mestre and the handful of defenders left within.

o o o o o

The attack did not begin until well after the middle of the day.

The sun was dipping toward the western horizon casting long shadows from the advancing attackers, and the late afternoon winter light was dazzling the eyes of those on the walls. The Papal army had waited until this time so that they could march out of the sun and make it difficult for the defenders to discern their movements and manoeuvres.

Patrese spoke to the defenders of the breach.

“They will come in waves. Hold your fire until they are well within range and make every shot count. Each crossbow man will have at least one other man behind him loading a bow and passing it forward so you can keep up the maximum rate of fire. Arbusqiers will do the same. Remember to aim low - a shot to the belly or the legs will stop somebody more effectively that a shot that bounces off a breastplate or helmet. When they get within the walls we have two cannons loaded with canister shot that will hit them from both sides. After that we will be fighting hand to hand."

He looked along the line of men waiting and spoke again.

"At some point, they will get sufficient numbers into the breach to force us back. At that point you will retreat and use the boats to get across the lagoon to Venice and into the city. We can't hold them back forever, but like the Spartans at Thermopylae we can make them pay a bloody price. When I give the order to leave, head for the boats and don't look back."

He raised his sword high into the air and raised his voice to its highest pitch.

"Now, get to your posts and make those bastards pay in blood for every inch of ground they take!"

o o o o o

The first wave of attackers marched out of the setting sun and into the breach.

The Venetian defenders lining the walls to either side of the ragged hole in the city's defences kept up a withering cross fire of cross bow bolts and lead shot, and the attackers started to falter. The next wave followed them closely, and sergeants armed with pikes pushed the stragglers forward until the were inside the breach itself.

From his position inside the wall Fletcher could see the fear etched into the faces of the soldiers who were now lined up in the sights of a gunner waiting by the side of his cannon.

"Dear god, that would have been me" thought Fletcher as the gunner touched a burning match to the touch hole of the cannon and a blast of canister shot ripped through the attackers in the breach. The canister shot was simply a collection of lead balls inside a tin container which ripped apart as it left the muzzle of the cannon. The hail of metal spread out in a lethal cone shape as it flew through the air. The effect was like a monstrous shot gun or blunderbuss and it turned the poor wretches caught in its blast into bloody, unrecognisable ruin in an instant.

The next wave appeared and the second cannon fired, repeating the horror and filling the air with choking powder smoke.

Fletcher knew that is was now time for his men to join the fight.

Another wave of attackers appeared through the smoke through the mouth of the breach and into the space immediately inside the wall. Fletcher drew his heavy sword and led the charge, abandoning any attempt at finesse and chopping wildly from left to right, clearing a path through the ranks of men in front of him. The rest of the Black Company were no less savage and the sheer fury of their counter attack drove the papal soldiers back from whence they had came. This was war at its most primal, bloody and brutal.

There was a brief lull and they quickly regrouped and reformed their position, waiting for the next assault. Patrese, was atop the wall and could see a large column of men marching towards the breach. They had calculated that the sacrifice of the first men through the breach would have spent the efforts of the defending forces and broken their will. Patrese now knew what he had to do, and he shouted a general order.

"There are too many of them coming. Retreat! Flee for the boats! I order you - go now!"

Fletcher's men looked at him for confirmation, and he nodded assent. He knew with a sickening feeling in the pit of his stomach exactly what Patrese was planning, but there was nothing that he could do to dissuade him from his chosen course of action.

"Do as the man says, boys. Lively now, before the Papal army gets up the nerve to chance the breach again!"

They didn't need any more encouragement, and made their way quickly, but in a calm and orderly fashion to the boats and boarded a pair of barges that were standing ready. They manned the oars and pushed off into the waters of the lagoon.

Fletcher looked back into the city and heard an eerie silence that seemed to stretch for an age. He imagined the soldiers of the Papal army climbing the rubble slope into the mouth of the breach and finding it empty of defenders, save for a single man. Their moment of triumph would be short lived.

Fletcher saw - felt - an explosion that ripped through what was left of the city wall, eviscerating the heart of the Papal army. His ears rang with a high pitched tone and it sounded as if he were listening to the world from a long way under the surface of the water. Patrese had stayed behind to fire the gunpowder mine concealed within the city wall, and he had timed it to perfection. His sacrifice had not been in vain.

Fragments of smoking stone rained down on to the sea and the men in the barges, and a large cloud of black smoke rose into the air above the ruined city. The silence that followed the explosion was swiftly filled by the screams of the wounded and dying, and then the spitting crackly of the fires that took hold in the wooden houses nearest to the wall.

"Now, pull boys, get those oars moving! We're going to Venice!”

o o o o o

The regular units of the Papal army were shattered and demoralised, and they retreated to regroup. Even though their casualties in the breach and by the wall had numbered no more than a few hundred the sudden and shocking violence had been like the knock out blow to the head that leaves a prize fighter reeling on the canvas.

Meanwhile in the shadows and dark places of the city another, more insidious, army lurked. This army had been watching and waiting for the moment at which to strike, and now came their opportunity. Plans were laid, weapons readied and soon blood would be spilt on the streets of Venice.

Sunday, 23 November 2008

Chapter Thirty Seven

It was the day of the feast of Saint Stephen.

The most serene republic of Venice was facing blockade, war and ruin. A storm was blowing through the streets, rattling shuttered windows like an angry lover. Flood waters roiled in the Piazza San Marco and house holders nearby rescued rugs, paintings and furniture and moved them to higher floors for safe storage. There was much to be concerned about and little to celebrate, but the day had a significance that countermanded everything else, for the feast day of Saint Stephen was the start of the Venice carnival.

The carnival ran every year from the 26th of December – Saint Stephen's day – to Shrove Tuesday, lasting for between six and eight weeks depending on where the moveable feast of Easter fell in any particular year. During the carnival everyone would dress in their finery, regardless of whether they could afford the money for extravagant clothes, and wear elaborate gilded masks to conceal their true identities. It was a time of licence, licentiousness and Bacchanalian excess. It was the very spirit of Venice, distilled and concentrated into a brief span of time.

A mere trifle like a war was not going to stop the people of Venice from celebrating with gusto.

In Mestre, a small flotilla of boats, gondolas and barges had ferried most of the civilians who wished to leave the embattled port across the lagoon to the comparative safety of Venice itself. Fletcher had persuaded Alonso and Antonio di Rossini to leave in one of the boats while the Venetian guards and the hundred and twenty men of the Black Company had control of the city walls.

“What about you and your men?”, Alonso had asked, “You'll be wiped out if you stay.”

“Don't worry about us. We'll make a tactical withdrawal to Venice when we have to. It's all in hand.”, and with that Fletcher had made sure that they had boarded their boat for the short trip across the choppy waters of the lagoon. The noise of cannon fire was an omnipresent background noise, both from the forces besieging Mestre and also at one point a brief but violent volley from the direction of the seaward entrance of the lagoon.

“Some fool must be running the blockade” remarked the Gondolier who was propelling them across the waters. “Bloody stupid if you ask me. This war will be sorted out soon enough – there are too many people relying on Venetian trade to allow anything to interrupt it for too long”.

This was indeed true. The thought of a world without the finance, trade and culture of Venice was unthinkable, and after every previous war, battle and skirmish Venice had risen again like a phoenix from the flames – a true fenice – more powerful, elegant and richer than before.

Their gondola was now approaching the dock where they would set foot onto Venetian soil.

“What do you plan to do now” Antonio di Rossini asked Alonso, who had fallen silent.

In truth, Alonso was at a loss. He simply had not thought this far ahead from the point at which he had decided to leave the monastery. Since that time they had been on the run, with barely a moment in which to contemplate his future. Now he felt utterly spent and bone weary, adrift in an uncertain world.

“I don't know. I don't know about anything, any more.” he said.

“Perhaps you should stay with us for a while” said Antonio, in kindly tones. “The company always has need of smart, resourceful young men like you”

“Thank you, signor. I appreciate your generosity” replied Alonso.

“It is I who should be thanking you. Without your help I would still be dying in a cell in that monastery. We have survived together. Now, we are at our destination, let us disembark.”

A commotion at the far end of the dock caught their attention. A large ship was approaching the dock at a rate of knots and it looked as if it sailed to hell and back. The hull was splintered and holed in several places, the main mast had shattered and was lying across the deck and what remained of the rigging was tattered and torn. It looked as if it was lucky to have made it to the dock without sinking.

Antonio di Rossini stared in disbelief and then shouted for joy

“I'd know that ship anywhere – it's La Serenissima! By the bones of San Marco it's the bloody Serenissima!”.

Better still was the sight that greeted him when they reached the jetty where the Serenissima was being moored. Walking down the gang plank was a figure – wind swept, soaked to the skin, bruised and scarred but grinning exultantly there was no mistaking the figure of his daughter, Donatella.

“Father! I brought your ship home” she said and ran into his arms.

Alonso watched the joyous reunion and smiled. This was the reason for his sacrifice. The simple joy of a parent and child meeting, both of whom had feared the other to be dead or captured. All of the troubles of the recent past seemed as naught in comparison with this happy moment.

Antonia di Rossini seemed to change, almost in an instant. He was transformed from a feeble and ailing old man into somebody twenty years younger and full of vitality. He stood up taller, and his voice was as clear as the bell of San Marco. This was his city and his business, and he was taking charge again. He hadn't run one of the most successful trading companies in the Adriatic by being a doddering old fool.

“Captain Parese!” he summoned the captain of La Serenissima to the dock.

Benito Parese had been injured in the engagement with the Papal ships by a large splinter of wood dislodged from the mast as it fell, and one of his arms was bandaged and strapped to his chest.

“Yes sir!”

“Running the gauntlet of the blockade was the most foolhardy manoeuvre that any of captains in my company has ever attempted. You were lucky not to be sunk with all hands and now be supping with Neptune on the bed of the lagoon. The repairs to the ship will cost a sum that you can barely imagine. You are dismissed from your command of La Serenissima immediately”

Benito looked momentarily shocked at these harsh words, but then a sly smile spread across Antonio's face and he continued.

“However, seeing as you have brought home safely a treasure of ten million ducats and something of inestimably greater value to me personally”, at this he indicated his daughter Donatella, “you are henceforth instated as business manager for the whole fleet, with a seat on the board of directors and an appropriate percentage share of any and all profits.”

Antonio held out his hand to shake Benito's.

“Congratulations – you are now a very wealthy man, indeed.”

“Thank you sir!”

“Please – it is Antonio now. We are on an equal footing. Now, I trust that I can leave you arrange safe and discreet transport of the money to the Rialto bank as soon as possible, and after that to take full charge of the repairs to La Serenissima – I want her seaworthy and ready for action within a month.”

“I'll see to it without delay Sir, I mean Antonio” Benito corrected himself and smiled.

Another figure was approaching from the end of the dock, and he most definitely was not smiling. He had a face as grim as the storm that was approaching Venice. It was Silvio di Rossini.

“Father. Donatella. I am pleased to see you both, but we do not have time to celebrate just yet. Our enemy is still at large, and I believe that an atrocity is being planned for tonight. We must return to the house and plan our strategy carefully. We may have won a skirmish but we have not yet won the war.”

Silvio winced as his sister hugged him fiercely.

“Careful, please. The enemies that are spoke of are not averse to using cold steel to the furtherance of their ends. I am lucky to be alive, and indeed I would be cold in my grave now if not for some people that I would like you to meet.”

“I have my own scars, brother.” replied Donatella. “I believe that we all have reasons for seeking revenge, but we must be cautious in the extreme.”

“True. Let us return to the house and then we discuss this properly.”

o o o o o

They were all sat around the grand dining table of the di Rossini family palazzo in the Campo Santo Stefano and a strange assortment they were indeed. The three di Rossinis – Antonio, Silvio and of course Donatella, Rachel di Jehuda and Alonso, now no longer called Brother. All were much changed from the people that they had been until recent days, harder, grimmer and more care worn.

The first order of business was food and wine. It was after all the feast day of Santo Stefano himself, the patron saint of their local church, and they were all much in need of sustenance. Alonso could scarcely believe the richness of the fare laid out in front of him on the table. He had lived the ascetic life for years and he had difficulty even identifying some of the provender on offer. Rare cheeses, fine wines, spiced meats sliced more thinly than paper, candied fruits and other sweet meats.

Antonio smiled and welcomed them all to his home.

O o o o o

They all shared their stories and experiences, and then examined the evidence that they had accumulated, particularly the list of names and amounts that they had acquired from Carmelo and Bompanzini. Rachel di Jehuda spoke,

“These are the people that we have suspected for some time. We have evidence of a conspiracy to subvert the lawful government of Venice by bribing some members of the council and black mailing others.”

Silvio continued

“They tried to influence the voting for the election of the Doge, but at least they failed in that attempt.”

Rachel spoke again,

“It is worse than that – we have good reason to believe that the late Doge Grimani was poisoned, and that an attempt on the life of the present Doge Donato will be made tonight. The republic will be thrown into chaos and dark forces will take control. Venice will become a puppet client of Rome and they will rule Europe with an iron fist. Their ultimate goal is to eliminate the Jewish people in their entirety.”

“Surely not!”, Antonio interjected in shock.

“Believe me. We know. We have seen the future, and it is a very dark future indeed”