After the announcement of the unexpected death of Marino Grimani, the Doge of the most serene republic of Venice, the crowd in the Rialto had exhibited a range of reactions. At first there was a stunned silence - the Doge had only been in office for eleven years and had not been particularly old, or suffering from any illness, so his death was like a bolt from the blue.
The shock did not last for long though. Within a matter of minutes the throng of bankers, merchants and nobles had started to form into small knots of people, theorizing about the cause of death, offering wild speculations that foul play was involved somewhere and of course pontificating on who his possible successor might be.
The Doge of Venice was unique in just about all of the known world, being a leader who was not born into the role - indeed, after a few early scandals the Doge was forbidden from naming his successor or of granting his patronage to any member of his family. Instead, the Doge was chosen by a curious mixture of election and lottery - from all of the members of the Great Council thirty were initially chosen by lot, and those thirty were reduced by another lottery to nine; the nine chose forty and the forty were reduced by lot to twelve, who chose twenty-five. The twenty-five were reduced by lot to nine and the nine elected forty-five. Then the forty-five were once more reduced by lot to eleven, and the eleven finally chose the forty-one who actually elected the doge. The final stage had initally been set at an electorate of forty, but after a tied vote in 1268 the number had been increased by one to avoid such a situation ever arising again.
Thus, the reasoning went, no family or power bloc could control the final selection, but this did not stop the frantic horse trading that went on as different interests tried to bargain with those chosen by each stage of the lottery to score themselves a place in the next round of voting. The final ballot of the forty one was the most important stage of all, but because of the protracted and wide ranging nature of the arguments that led to that point, every noble member of the grand council had some sort of influence in the process.
Whilst his father was absent, Silvio was responsible for casting his vote by proxy, and as he pushed through the crowd he was surrounded by those who wished to argue for their particular choice of voting member or candidate. He felt overwhelmed by the choices on offer and eventually threw his hands up in frustration and ignored everyone trying to talk to him and finally managed to make his way to the exit and thence out onto the steps of the Rialto bridge.
He hailed a gondolier who had just delivered some passengers to the jetty and was about to board when a voice behind him said.
"I trust that you will allow me to share your gondola - I believe we are heading in the same direction?'
He was too startled by the effrontery of the stranger to say no, and before he quite realised what had happened he was sat in the boat being propelled towards the centre of the Grand Canal with somebody sat at his side.
"It is so much more peaceful here than in the pandemonium of the Rialto bank, wouldn't you agree?" said the stranger.
Silvio took a moment to look at the interloper who had imposed on his gondola. The stranger was clad in a simple black clerical robe with no adornments, and he was sitting with his hands folded in his lap.
"Indeed, it would appear so. I bring a message from my superiors, and I urge you to listen carefully. Over the next two days the lottery and election process for the new Doge will be held. You will be selected in the final round and you will receive instructions at that time as to how you should cast your vote. If you do not follow these instructions to the letter the consequences will be very serious indeed."
"How dare you threaten me! Any way, how can you possibly know that I will be one of the forty one electors - the process is as random as throwing dice or drawing cards from a deck."
"Ah, you do not understand. For one thing, our God moves in mysterious ways, his wonders to perform. If we say that you will be part of the forty one, then that is how it will be. Secondly, I am not threatening you, I assure you. However, you might like to consider how you would act if your impetuous sister were to fall into the hands of thieves and robbers. I understand that the roads between here and Navarra are particularly dangerous at this time of year, especially for a lady travelling on her own ..."
He let the implicit threat hang in the air, and Silvio felt trapped like a fly in amber.
"Very well, how will you contact me?"
"We will let you know, when the time comes. Do not fail us. Now, I believe that this jetty is my destination"