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Authors: Gary Jennings

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BOOK: The Journeyer
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He said, still in a murmurous voice, “You fixed on the wrong victim. The one who might talk, not the someone who might listen.”
She laughed again and said archly, “You never speak the name of that someone.”
“Then you speak it,” he murmured. “To the snout. Give the foxes a goat instead of a chicken.”
She shook her head. “That someone—that old goat—has friends among the foxes. I require a means even more secret than the snout.”
He was silent for a time. Then he murmured, “Bravo.”
I assumed that he was murmurously applauding the performance of the frusta, which, after one last loud and piercing screech, was just then ending. The crowd began to mill about in preparation for dispersal.
My lady said, “Yes, I will inquire into that possibility. But now”—she touched his cloaked arm—“that someone approaches.”
He clasped the hood still closer about his face and moved off with the crowd, away from her. She was joined by another man, this one gray-haired, red-faced, dressed in clothes as fine as hers—perhaps her real father, I thought—who said, “Ah, there you are, Ilaria. How did we get separated?”
That was the first time I heard her name. She and the older man strolled off together, she chattering brightly about “how well the frusta was done, what a nice day for it,” and other such typically feminine remarks. I hung far enough behind them not to be noticeable, but I followed as if I were being tugged on a string. I feared that they would walk only as far as the waterfront and there step into the man’s batèlo or gòndola. In that case I should have had a hard time following them. Everyone in the crowd who did not have a private craft was competing for the boats for hire. But Ilaria and her companion turned the other way and walked up the piazzetta toward the main piazza, skirting the crowd by staying close to the wall of the Doge’s Palace.
Ilaria’s rich robe flicked the very muzzles of the lionlike marble masks which protrude from the palace wall at waist level. Those are what we Venetians call the musi da denonzie secrete, and there is one of them for each of several sorts of crime: smuggling, tax evasion, usury, conspiracy against the State, and so on. The snouts have slits for mouths and on the other side of them, inside the palace, the agents of the Quarantia squat like spiders waiting for a web to twitch. They do not have to wait long between alarms. Those marble slits have been worn ever wider and smoother over the years, by the countless hands slipping into them unsigned messages imputing crimes to enemies, creditors, lovers, neighbors, blood relations and even total strangers. Because the accusers remain unknown and can accuse without proof, and because the law makes little allowance for malice, slander, frustration and spite, it is the accused who must disprove the accusations. That is not easy, and it is seldom done.
The man and woman circled around two sides of the arcaded square, with me close enough behind to overhear their desultory talk. Then they entered one of the houses there on the piazza itself, and, from the demeanor of the servant who opened the door, it was evident that they lived there. Those houses of the innermost heart of the city are not elaborately decorated on the outside, and so are not called palazzi. They are known as the “mute houses” because their outward simplicity says nothing about the wealth of their occupants, who comprise the oldest and noblest families of Venice. So I will be likewise mute about which house I followed Ilaria to, and not risk casting shame on that family name.
I learned two other things during that brief surveillance. From the bits of conversation, it became apparent even to my besotted self that the gray-haired man was not Ilaria’s father but her husband. That caused me some hurt, but I salved it with the thought that a young woman with an old husband ought to be readily susceptible to the attentions of a younger man, like myself.
The other thing I overheard was their talk of the festa to be celebrated the next week, the Samarco dei Bòcoli. (I should have mentioned that the month was April, of which the twenty-fifth is the day of San Marco, and in Venice that day is always a feast of flowers and gaiety and masquerade dedicated to “San Marco of the Buds.” This city loves feste, and it welcomes that day because it comes around each year when there has been no festa since Carnevale, perhaps two months agone.)
The man and woman spoke of the costumes they were having made, and the several balls to which they had been invited, and I felt another heart pang because those festivities would be held behind doors closed to me. But then Ilaria declared that she was also going to mingle in the outdoor torchlight promenades of that night. Her husband made some remonstrance, grumbling about the crowds and the crush to be endured “among the common herd,” but Ilaria laughingly insisted, and my heart beat with hope and resolve again.
Directly they disappeared inside their casa muta, I ran to a shop I knew near the Rialto. Its front was hung with masks of cloth and wood and cartapesta, red and black and white and face-colored, in forms grotesque and comic and demonic and lifelike. I burst into the shop, shouting to the maskmaker, “Make me a mask for the Samarco festa! Make me a mask that will make me look handsome but old! Make me look more than twenty! But make me look well preserved and manly and gallant!”
SO it was that, on the morning of that late-April festa day, I dressed in my best without having to be bidden to do so by any of the servants. I put on a cerise velvet doublet and lavender silk hose and my seldom worn red Còrdoba shoes, and over all a heavy wool cloak intended to disguise the slenderness of my figure. I hid my mask beneath the cloak, and left the house, and went to try my masquerade on the boat children. As I approached their barge, I took out and put on the mask. It had eyebrows and a dashing mustache made of real hair, and its face was the craggy, sun-browned visage of a mariner who had sailed far seas.
“Olà, Marco,” said the boys. “Sana capàna.”
me? I look like
“Hm. Now that you mention it …,” said Daniele. “No, not much like the Marco we know. Who do you think he looks like, Boldo?”
Impatient, I said, “I do not look like a seafarer more than twenty years old?”
“Well …,” said Ubaldo. “Sort of a
seafarer …”
“Ship’s food is sometimes scanty,” Daniele said helpfully. “It could have stunted your growth.”
I was much annoyed. When Doris emerged from the barge and immediately said, “Olà, Marco,” I wheeled to snarl at her. But what I saw gave me pause.
She too appeared to be in masquerade in honor of the day. She had washed her formerly nondescript hair, revealing it to be of a nice straw-gold color. She had washed her face clean and powdered it attractively pale, as grown-up Venetian women do. She was also wearing womanly garb, a gown of brocade cut down and remade from one that had been my mother’s. Doris spun around to make the skirts whirl, and said shyly, “Am I not as fine and beautiful as your lustrìsima lady love, Marco?”
Ubaldo muttered something about “all these dwarf ladies and gentlemen,” but I only stared through the eyes of my mask.
Doris persisted, “Will you not walk out with me, Marco, on this day of festa? … What are you laughing at?”
“Your shoes.”
“What?” she whispered, and her face fell.
“I laugh because no
ever wore those awful wooden tofi.”
She looked inexpressibly hurt, and retired again inside the barge. I loitered long enough for the boys to assure me—and make me half believe—that nobody would recognize me as a mere boy except those who already knew me to be a mere boy. Then I left them, and went to the piazza San Marco. It was far too early for any ordinary celebrants to be yet abroad, but the Dona Ilaria had not described her costume while I was eavesdropping. She might be as heavily disguised as I was, so to recognize her I had to be lurking outside her door when she departed for the first of her balls.
I might have attracted some unwelcome attention, idling about that one end of one arcade like a novice cutpurse of extreme stupidity, but fortunately I was not the only person in the piazza already strikingly attired. Under almost every arch, a costumed matacìn or a montimbanco was setting up his platform and, long before there was really enough of a crowd to play to, they were displaying their talents. I was glad, for they gave me something to look at besides the doorway of the casa muta.
The montimbanchi, swathed in robes like those of physicians or astrologers, but more extravagantly spangled with stars and moons and suns, did various conjuring tricks or cranked music from an ordegnogorgia to attract attention, and, when they had caught the eye of any passerby, began vociferously to hawk their simples—dried herbs and colored liquids and moon-milk mushrooms and the like. The matacìni, even more resplendent in gaudy face paint and costumes of checks and diamonds and patches, had nothing to peddle but their agility. So they bounded up and down on their platforms, and onto and off them, doing energetic acrobatics and sword dances, and they contorted themselves into fantastic convolutions, and they juggled balls and oranges and each other, and then, when they paused to take breath, they passed their hats around for coins.
As the day went on, more entertainers came and took up stands in the piazza, also the sellers of confèti and sweets and refreshing drinks, and more commonfolk strolled through, too, though not yet wearing their own festa finery. Those would congregate about a platform and watch the tricks of a montimbanco or listen to a castròn singing barcarole to lute accompaniment, and then, as soon as the artist began passing his hat or peddling his wares, would move on to another platform. Many of those people ambled from one performer to another until they came to where I lurked in my mask and cloak, and they would stand stolidly and ogle me and expect me to do something entertaining. It was slightly distressing, as I could do nothing but sweat at them—the spring day had become most unseasonably warm—and try to look as if I were a servant posted there, waiting patiently for my master.
The day wore on and on interminably, and I wished fervently that I had worn a lighter cloak, and I wished I could kill every one of the million nasty pigeons in the piazza, and I was grateful for every new diversion that came along. The first citizens arriving in anything but everyday raiment were the arti guilds wearing their ceremonial clothes. The arte of physicians, barber-surgeons and apothecaries wore high conical hats and billowing robes. The guild of painters and illuminators wore garments that may have been of mere canvas, but were most fancifully gold-leafed and colored over. The arte of tanners, curriers and leatherworkers wore hide aprons with decorative designs not painted or sewn but branded onto them … .
When all the many guilds were assembled in the piazza, there came from his palace the Doge Ranieri Zeno, and, though his public costume was familiar enough to me and everybody else, it was sufficiently lavish for any festive day. He had the white scufieta on his head and the ermine cape over his golden gown, the train of which was carried by three servants clad in the ducal livery. Behind them emerged the retinue of Council and Quarantia and other nobles and officials, all likewise richly attired. And behind them came a band of musicians, but they held their lutes and pipes and rebecs silent while they moved with measured pace down to the waterfront. The Doge’s forty-oared buzino d’oro was just gliding up against the mole, and the procession marched aboard. Not until the gleaming bark was well out upon the water did the musicians begin to play. They always wait like that, because they know how the music gains a special sweetness when it skips across the wavelets to us listeners on the land.
About the hour of compieta the twilight came down, and the lampaderi moved about the piazza, setting alight the torch baskets bracketed above the arches, and I was still hovering within sight of the Lady Ilaria’s door. I felt as if I had been there all my life, and I was getting faint with hunger—for I had not even gone as far from it as a fruit peddler’s stand—but I was prepared to wait all the rest of my life if that should be necessary. At least by that hour I was not so conspicuous, for the square was well populated, and almost all the promenaders were in some kind of costume.
Some of them danced to the distant music of the Doge’s band, some sang along with the warbling castròni, but most simply paraded about to show off their own regalia and admire that of others. The young people pelted each other with confèti, which are the little sprinkles of sweets and the eggshells filled with perfumed waters. The older girls carried oranges and waited to catch a glimpse of some favorite gallant at whom they could throw one. That custom is supposed to commemorate the wedding-gift orange of Jupiter and Juno, and a young man can boast himself an especially favored Jupiter if his Juno throws the orange hard enough to give him a black eye or knock out a tooth.
Then, as the twilight deepened, there came in from the sea the caligo, the briny mist that so often envelops Venice by night, and I began to be glad for my woolen cloak. In that fog, the hanging torches changed from iron baskets of curly flames into soft-edged globes of light magically suspended in space. The people in the piazza became merely darker and more coherent blobs of mist moving through the mist, except when they passed between me and one of the blurs of torchlight. Then they radiated extravagant spokes and wedges of shadow that flickered like black swordblades slashing at the gray fog. Only when some stroller passed quite near me did he or she briefly become solid, then in the next moment dissolve again. Like something out of a dream, an angel would take substance: a girl of tinsel and gauze and laughing eyes, and she would melt into something out of a nightmare: a Satan with varnished red face and horns.
Suddenly the door behind me opened and the gray fog was gashed by bright lamplight. I turned and saw two shadows against the dazzle, and they resolved themselves into my lady and her husband. Truly, if I had not been posted at the door, I could not have recognized either of them. He was totally transformed into one of the standard characters of masquerade, the comic physician, Dotòr Balanzòn. But Ilaria was so much changed that I could not immediately determine into what she was changed. A white and gold miter concealed her bronze hair, a brief dòmino mask hid her eyes, and layers of alb, chasuble, cope and stole made a dumpy dome shape of her fine figure. Then I realized that she was adorned as the long-ago female Pope Zuàna. Her costume must have cost a fortune, and I feared that it would cost her a heavy penance if any real cleric caught her dressed as that legendary lady Pope.
They crossed the square through the porridge of people, and themselves immediately entered into the festa spirit: she scattering confèti in the manner of a priest aspersing holy water, and he tossing them in the manner of a mèdego dispensing dosages. Their gòndola was waiting at the lagoon-side, and they stepped into it, and it pushed off toward the Grand Canal. After a moment’s thought, I did not bother to hail a boat in which to follow them. The caligo was by then so thick that all the vessels on the water were moving with extreme caution, close to the banks. It was easier for me to keep my quarry in sight, and to pursue it, by trotting along the canalside streets and occasionally waiting on a bridge to see which canal it would take when the waterways diverged. I did a good deal of trotting that night, as Ilaria and her consort went from one grand palazzo and casa muta to another. But I did a lot more of waiting outside those places, in the company of only prowling cats, while my lady enjoyed the feste within.
I lurked in the salt-smelling fog, which was now so heavy that it collected and dripped from eaves and arches and the end of my mask’s nose, and I listened to the muffled music from indoors and I imagined Ilaria dancing the furlàna. I leaned against slippery, streaming stone walls and I enviously eyed the windowpanes where the candlelight glowed through the murk. I sat on cold, wet bridge balustrades and heard my stomach growling and envisioned Ilaria daintily nibbling at scalete pastries and bignè buns. I stood and stamped my gradually numbing feet, and I again cursed my cloak as it weighed ever more heavy and dank and cold and dragged at my ankles. Notwithstanding my sodden misery, I perked up and tried to look like an innocent merry-maker whenever other masqueraders loomed out of the caligo and shouted tipsy greetings at me—a cackling bufòn, a swaggering corsàro, three boys capering in company as the three Ms: mèdego, musician and madman.
The city does not sound the coprifuoco on feste nights, but, when we had arrived at the third or fourth palazzo of that night and I was waiting soggily outside it, I heard all the church bells ringing the compline. As if that had been a signal, Ilaria slipped away from the ballroom and came outdoors and came straight to where I crouched in an alcove of the house wall, my hood and cloak clasped close about me. She was still in her papal vestments, but she had taken off the dòmino.
She said softly, “Caro là,” the greeting used only between lovers, and I was struck stiff as a statue. Her breath smelled sweetly of bevarìn hazelnut liqueur when she whispered to the folds of my hood, “The old goat is drunk at last, and will not be ch-chasing after—
Dio me varda! Who are you?”
And she shrank back from me.
“My name is Marco Polo,” I said. “I have been following—”
“I am discovered!” she cried, so shrilly that I feared a sbiro might hear. “You are his bravo!”
“No, no, my lady!” I stood up and threw back my hood. Since my seafarer mask had so affrighted her, I slipped that off, too. “I am nobody’s but yours only!”
She backed farther away, her eyes wide in disbelief. “You are a boy!”
I could not deny that, but I could qualify it. “Of a man’s experience,” I said quickly. “I have loved you and sought you since first I saw you.”
Her eyes narrowed to examine me more closely. “What are you doing here?”
“I was waiting,” I babbled, “to put my heart at your feet and my arm in your service and my destiny in your keeping.”
She looked nervously about her. “I have page boys enough. I do not wish to hire—”
“Not for hire!” I declared. “For love of my lady I shall serve her forever!”
I may have hoped for a look of melting surrender. The look she gave me conveyed more of exasperation. “But it is the hour of compline,” she said. “Where is—? I mean, have you seen no one else hereabout? Are you alone?”
“No, he is not,” said another voice, a very quiet one.
I turned about and realized that a sword’s point had been very near the back of my neck. It was just then withdrawing into the fog, and it glinted a gleam of cold, bedewed steel as it vanished beneath the cloak of its wielder. I had thought the voice was that of Ilaria’s priest acquaintance, but priests do not carry swords. Before I or she could speak, the hooded figure murmured again:
BOOK: The Journeyer
7.51Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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