All Hallows' Eve, 1529
With almost ludicrous care the old man carried the pitcher of beer across the sunlit room toward the still older man who reclined propped up in a bed by the window. A smear of dried mud was caked on the foot of the bed.
'Here you are, Sire,' he said, pouring the black liquid into the earthenware cup which the old king had picked up from the table beside the bed.
The king raised the cup to his lips and sniffed it. 'Ah,' he breathed. 'A potent batch this time. Even the vapors are strengthening.'
The other man had now set the pitcher down on the table, pushing to one side a rusty lance head that had lain next to the cup. 'It's a few ounces short,' he confessed. 'He sneaked down here Easter evening and stole a cupful.'
The king took a sip, and closed his eyes rapturously. 'Ah, that is good beer.' He opened his eyes and glanced at the other old man. 'Well, I don't think we can grudge him one cup of it, Aurelianus. I really don't think, all things considered, that we can honestly grudge him it
'No familiar shapes
Remained, no pleasant images of trees,
Of sea or sky, no colours of green fields;
But huge and mighty forms, that do not live
Like living men, moved slowly through the mind
By day, and were a trouble to my dreams.'
* * *
All night the hot wind had swept up the Adriatic, and from the crowded docks down by the arsenale to the Isola di San Chiara at the western mouth of the Grand Canal, the old city creaked on its pilings like a vast, weary ship; and clouds as ragged as tatters of sailcloth scudded across the face of the full moon, tangling with the silhouettes of a hundred fantastic spires and domes.
In the narrow Rio de San Lorenzo, though, the smoky oil lamp at the bow of the gondola cast more reflections in the water than the moon did, and Brian Duffy reached over the gunwale to stir the black water with his fingers and multiply the points of yellow light. He shifted uneasily on the seat, embarrassed, for he was travelling at someone else's expense.
'I'll walk to my boat from here.'
'Pull in to the fondamenta,' he growled finally.
The gondolier obediently dug his long pole into the canal bottom, and the tiny craft heeled, paused, and then surged up to the embankment, its prow grating on a submerged step. 'Thank you.' Duffy ducked under the awning of the felze and took a long step to a dry stair while the boatman held the gondola steady.
Up on the sidewalk the Irishman turned. 'Marozzo paid you to take me all the way to the Riva degli Schiavoni. Bring him back the change.'
The gondolier shrugged. 'Perhaps.' He pushed away from the stair, turned his craft gracefully about, and began poling his way back up the glittering watercourse, softly calling, Stali!" to draw any possible fares. Duffy stared after him for a moment, then turned on his heel and strode south along the embankment calle toward the Ponte dei Greci, the bridge of the Greeks.
He was reeling just a little because of the quantities of valpolicella he'd consumed that evening, and a sleepy footpad huddled under the bridge roused when he heard the Irishman's uneven tread. The thief eyed the approaching figure critically, noting the long, worn cloak, evidence of frequent outdoor sleeping; the kneehigh boots, down at the heels, and twenty years out of fashion; and the rapier and dagger which looked to be the man's only valuable possessions. Edging silently back into the shadows, he let Duffy go by unaccosted.
The Irishman hadn't even been aware of the thief's scrutiny; he was staring moodily ahead at the tall bulk of the church of San Zaccaria, its gothic design undisguised by the Renaissance adornments that had recently been added to it, and he was wondering just how much he would miss this city when he left. Only a matter of time,' Marozzo had said over dinner. 'Venice is more than half a Turkish possession right now, what with that grovelling treaty they signed eight years ago. Mark me now, Brian before our hair is completely white, you and I will be teaching the uses of the scimitar instead of the honest straight sword, and our students will be wearing turbans.' Duffy had replied that he'd shave his head and run naked with the jungle pygmies before he'd teach a Turk even how to blow his nose, and the conversation had moved on to other matters - but Marozzo had been right. The days of Venice's power were fifty years gone.
Duffy kicked a stray pebble away into the darkness and heard it plop into the canal after bouncing twice along the pavement. Time to move on, he told himself morosely. Venice has done its recuperative job, and these days I have to look closely to see the scars I got at Mohacs two and a half years ago. And God knows I've already done my share of Turk-killing - let this city bow to the Crescent if it wants to, while I go somewhere else. I may even take ship back to Ireland.
I wonder, he thought, if anyone back in Dingle would remember Brian Duffy, the bright Young lad who was sent off to Dublin to study for Holy Orders. They all hoped I'd eventually take the Archbisbopric of Connaught, as so many of my forefathers did.
Duffy chuckled ruefully. There I disappointed them. As he clumped Past the San Zaccaria convent he heard muted giggles and whispering from a recessed doorway. Some pretty nun, he imagined, entertaining one of the Young moneghini that are always loitering around the grounds. That's what comes of Pushing your unwilling daughters into a nunnery to save the expense of a dowry -they wind up a good deal wilder than if you'd simply let them hang around the house.
I Wonder, he thought with a grin, what sort of priest I would have made. Picture yourself pale and softvoiced, Duffy my lad, rustling hither and yon in a cassock that smells of incense. Ho ho. I never even came near it. Why, he reflected, within a week of my arrival at the seminary I'd begun to be plagued by the odd occurrences that led, before long, to my dismissal - blasphemous footnotes, in a handwriting I certainly didn't recognize, were discovered on nearly every page of my breviary; oh yes, and once, during a twilight stroll with an elderly priest, seven young oak trees, one after another, twisted themselves to the ground as I passed; and of course worst of all, there was the time I threw a fit in church during the midnight Easter mass, shouting, they later told me, for the need-fires to be lit on the hilltops and the old king to be brought forth and killed.
Duffy shook his head, recalling that there had even been talk of fetching in an exorcist. He had scribbled a quick, vague letter to his family and fled to England. And you've fled quite a number of places in the years since, he told himself. Maybe it's time you fled back to where you started. It sounds nicely symmetrical, at any rate.
The narrow calle came to an end at the Riva degli Schiavoni, the street that ran along the edge of the wide San Marco Canal, and Duffy now stood on the crumbled brick lip, several feet above the lapping water, and looked uncertainly up and down the quiet shallows. What in the name of the devil, he thought irritably, scratching the gray stubble on his chin. Have I been robbed, or am I lost?
After a moment three well-dressed young men emerged from an arched doorway to his right. He turned on his heel when he heard their steps, and then relaxed when he saw that they weren't a gang of canalside murderers. These are cultured lads, clearly, he reflected, with their oiled hair and their fancy-hilted swords, and one of them wrinkling his nose at the salty, stagnant smell of the nearby Greci canal.
'Good evening to you, gentlemen,' Duffy said in his barbarously accented Italian. 'Have you seen, by any chance, a boat I think I moored here earlier in the evening?'
The tallest of the young men stepped forward and bowed slightly. 'Indeed, sir, we have seen this boat. We have taken the liberty, if you please, of sinking it.'
Duffy raised his thick eyebrows, and then stepped to the canal edge and peered down into the dark water, where, sure enough, the moonlight dimly gleamed on the gunwales of a holed and rock-filled boat.
'You will want to know why we have done this.'
'Yes,' Duffy agreed, his gloved hand resting now on the pommel of his sword.
'We are the sons of Ludovico Gritti.'
Duffy Shook his head. 'So? Who's he, the local ferrier?
The Young man pursed his lips impatiently 'Ludovico Gritti,' he snapped 'The son of the Doge. The wealthiest merchant in Constantinople To whom you did refer, this evening, as "the bastard Pimp of Suleiman"
'Ah!' said Duffy, nodding a little ruefully. 'Now I see what quarter the Wind's in. Well, look, boys, I was drinking, and kind of condemning anyone I could think of. I've got nothing against Your father. You've sunk my boat now, so let's call it a night. There's no -
The tallest Gritti drew his sword, followed a moment later by his brothers. 'It's a question of honor,' he explained.
Duffy breathed an impatient curse as he drew his rapier with his left hand and his shell-hilted dagger with his right, and Crouched on guard with the weapons held crossed in front of him. I'll Probably be arrested for this, he thought; engaging in a duello alla mazza with the grandsons of the Doge. Of all the damned nonsense.
The tallest Gritti made a run at the burly Irishman his Jewelled rapier drawn back for a cut and his dagger held at the hip for Parrying. Duffy easily ducked the wide Swing and, blocking the dagger-thrust with the quillons of his rapier, stepped aside and gave the Young man a forceful boot in his satin-clothed backside that lifted him from the pavement and Pitched him with an echoing splash into the canal.
Whirling around to face his other two assailants Duffy knocked aside a sword-point that was rushing at his face, While another struck him in the belly and flexed against his shirt of chain mail.
Duffy punched one of the Young men in the face with his rapier pome1 and then hopped toward the other with a quick feint-and-slash of his dagger that slit the lad's cheek from nose to ear.
The Gritti in the canal was splashing about, cursing furiously and trying to find a ladder or a set of steps. Of the two on the pavement, one lay unconscious on the cobblestones, bleeding from a broken nose; the other stood pressing a bloody hand to his cut face.
'Northern barbarian,' this one said, almost sadly, 'you should weep with shame, to wear a concealed hauberk.'
'Well for God's sake,' returned Duffy in exasperation, 'in a state where the nobility attack three-on-one, I think I'm a fool to step outside in less than a full suit of plate.'
The young Gritti shook his head unhappily and stepped to the canal edge. 'Giacomo,' he said, 'stop swearing and give me your hand.' In a moment he had hoisted his brother out of the water.
'My sword and dagger are both at the bottom of the canal,' snarled Giacomo, as water ran from his ruined clothes and puddled around his feet, 'and there were more jewels set in their hilts than I can bear to think of.'
Duffy nodded sympathetically. 'Those pantaloons have about had it, too, I believe.'
Giacomo didn't answer this, but helped his younger brother lift the unconscious one. 'We will now leave,' he' told Duffy.
The Irishman watched as the two of them shuffled awkwardly away, bearing their brother like a piece of 'broken furniture between them. When they had disappeared among the farther shadows of the calle, Duffy sheathed his weapons, lurched away from the water's edge and leaned wearily against the nearest wall. It's good to see the last of them, he thought, but how am I to get back to my room? It's true that I have, on occasion, swum. this quarter mile of chilly brine - once, to impress a girl, even holding a torch clear of the water all the way across! - but I'm tired tonight. I'm not feeling all that well, either.
Heavy exertion on top of a full night of eating and drinking always disagrees with me. What a way to end the evening - 'by the waters of the San Marco Canal I sat down and puked.' He shut his eyes and breathed deeply.
'Pardon me, sir,' came German words in a man's voice, 'would you happen to speak the tongue of the Hapsburgs?'
Duffy looked up, startled, and saw a thin, whitehaired old man leaning from a window two stories above; diaphanous curtains, dimly lit from behind, flapped around his shoulders like pale fire.
'Yes, old timer,' Duffy replied. 'More readily than this intricate Italian.'
'Thank God. I can for the moment stop relying on charades. Here.' A white hand flicked, and two seconds later a brass key clinked on the pavement. 'Come up.'
Duffy thoughtfully bent down and picked up the key. He flipped it spinning into the air, caught it, and grinned. 'All right,' he said.
The stairway was dark and cold, and Smelled of mildewed cabbages, but the door at the top, when unlocked and swung open, revealed a scene of shadowy, candle-lit opulence. The gold-stamped spines of leather- and vellum-bound tomes lined a high bookcase along one wall, and ornate tables, shellacked boxes, glittering robes and dim, disturbing paintings filled the rest of the room. The old man who'd hailed Duffy stood by the window, smiling nervously. He was dressed in a heavy black gown with red and gold embroidery at the neck, and wore a slim stiletto at his belt, but no sword.
'Sit down, please,' he said, waving at a chair.
'I don't mind standing,' Duffy told him.
'Whatever you prefer.' He opened a box and took from it a narrow black cylinder. 'My name is Aurelianus.' Duffy peered closely at the cylinder, and was surprised to see that it was a tiny snake, straightened and dried, with the little jaws open wide and the end of the tail clipped off.
'And what is Yours?'
Duffy blinked. 'What?'
I just told you my name - Aurelianus - and asked you for Yours.'
'Oh! I'm Brian Duffy.'
Aurelianus nodded and put the tail end of the snake into his mouth, then leaned forward so that the head was in the long flame of one of the candles. it began Popping and smoldering, and Aurelianus puffed smoke from the tail end.