Fletcher listened to Alonso’s story in respectful silence.
“So, a Cappuchin monk with doubts, eh? Still, I supect that that is not so very unusual. In my experience most people, even those like yourself who are in Holy Orders, harbour some sort of doubt and uncertainty about their faith. It is the ones with cast iron surety about their beliefs that frighten me”
He shuddered involuntarily. He had seem that fanatical gleam in the eyes of true believers on many occasions, usually as they were about to burn some poor sod at the stake.
“The question remains though. No matter how many doubts you have, why try to burn down the monastery and run away in the middle of the night? It doesn’t make sense to me, and it doesn’t explain who our friend on the horse is.”
“He is a man with some very dangerous enemies. He was being held in the monastery, kept drugged and sedated, and I suspect that the Inquisition were intending to keep him locked up there until he died from the cold. Worse still, I found out that they had a torture chamber hidden away in the cellar, for who knows what foul purpose? I could not countenance that, regardless of my faith”
“It seems to me”, Fletcher replied, “that you are exhibiting a far truer Christian charity than those that would trumpet their virtue from the roof tops.”
They continued their journey in silence for a short while, both lost in their own thoughts. On the horse Antonio de Rossini gathered his strength and finally began to speak.
“This whole situation is my fault and mine alone. I made a deal with the devil and signed my name in blood, metaphorically speaking, and now it is not just I who will pay with my immortal soul. I fear that I have doomed the whole of Venice into the bargain. I have been such a fool – a greedy, stupid fool”.
Fletcher looked at the old man quizzically. He knew that he was struggling to unburden himself of a terrible weight of guilt, and that with a little gentle prompting the whole story would come out, piece by piece. He had seen before the look he now saw in Antonio di Rossini’s eyes. Men who had seen the horrors of war and participated in terrible deeds had that same haunted emptiness, like an old house abandoned to the elements for too long.
Fletcher reached into his tunic and pulled out one of his most prized possessions. It was a small, solid silver flask engraved with the names of his colleagues who had fallen in a particularly grim battle in Anjou some ten years ago. He kept it filled with a fine French Calvados brandy from a small farm in Normandy, and although he rarely drank from it, it served almost as a talisman. He would take a small nip from it before going into a dangerous situation – just enough to take the edge from his fear but not enough to fuddle his senses. Now he offered the flask to the frightened old man on the horse who took it with gratitude.
“Here – take a little of this. It should help to steady your nerves. Careful – not too much, now. It’s strong stuff”
The old man coughed and spluttered as the fiercely strong liquor burnt his throat on the way down, but it seemed to do the trick. The colour returned to his cheeks and he drew himself up in the saddle, reinvorigated. He began to speak again.
“Yes, I have been foolish. I did not stop to question what an agent of the Catholic Church would want such a large sum of money, other than simple greed. If I hadn’t found that piece of paper then the deal would have gone ahead, and perhaps I would have been none the wiser …”