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.
“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.”
“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”