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Authors: Christopher Moore

Tags: #Fiction, #Humorous, #Historical, #Mystery & Detective, #General

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BOOK: The Serpent of Venice
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“No, you nitwit, I’ve not had a go—” And so I spun out my story, from when I’d first gone to Brabantio’s, to being walled up in the dungeon, of his confession to killing my Cordelia, of the fear and submission to Vivian, of my time in the dark, kept alive by the will to revenge and my worry over the dim giant’s welfare. And though I know he did not follow it all, he would remember it, as was his way, and I needed to tell it, so I told him of my escape from the dungeon, my rescue by Jessica and her nursing me back to health. I told him of the plot to revenge those wrongs, my disguise as a Jew (although the only Jew Drool had ever known was Phyllis Stein, who ran the pawnshop in London and used to let him blow the candles out on the menorah every Christmas to celebrate the baby Jesus’ birthday), so I explained that they were the people in the yellow hats. I told him of the attack by Lorenzo and Salanio and how Viv had saved me, followed me, and had no doubt slain Rodrigo.

And when I had talked for an hour, and brought us round to a rowboat outside the harbor at Genoa, Drool said, “Smashing, Pocket! You shagged a mermaid.”

Which made me wish that I hadn’t left the puppet Jones sans stick, in a box at Belmont, so I could pummel the enormous fool about the head and shoulders with it for missing the bloody point. I thought perhaps to press Jessica’s bag of treasure into action in the puppet’s stead, when the black shade moved under the boat.

“Oh no,” said I.

Drool followed my gaze over the side, then followed the movement of the mermaid from one side of the boat to the other, causing the boat to rock precipitously.

“Pocket . . . ?” said Drool.

I leaned over the side, trying to follow her movement, as she swam out, perhaps fifty yards, then turned and came back toward the boat. “No,” said I, to the water, trying to send the command to her with a picture in my mind’s eye. “Not this one. Do not hurt him,” I said.

“Pocket,” said Drool, his voice rising in tremolo terror. He started to stand and I grabbed his shirt and pulled him down. “Pocket . . . ?”

“No, not this one. No!” I barked at the water, straining to send my thoughts at the creature. “He is a friend. A friend.” Did this venomous creature of the deep even understand the concept? But I felt a response of sorts, a blankness, confusion, a question maybe, an image in the lightning blue I had seen in the dark.

Whatever she had received, the creature stopped, about five yards from the boat, then surfaced and stood out of the water half again as tall as a tall man, so black that she nearly soaked up the light. A thick, serpentine body, for she was a serpent, her head—jaws—wide and square, with long whiskers at either side, nostrils that snapped open and took breath, audibly, but gills down her neck. She had short arms, front legs, with web talons, and from the tip of each heavy black claw, each as long as the blades of my daggers, emerged a fine, translucent, needlelike claw that dripped a milky venom. She hovered there, held aloft by her rear legs paddling and a great tail swishing below the surface, looking at us, emerald eyes set back on the sides of her head glistening in the sun, set in the unscaled skin like the small whales the Venetians call the blackfish. She turned her head to the side so she might get a better look at us, then slid back into the sea and dove down until we could see her no more.

“Pocket?” said Drool, some of the alarm gone from his voice now.

“Aye, lad. Don’t be afraid. She won’t hurt you.”

“Pocket, that weren’t no mermaid.”

“No, lad, I don’t know what that was.” Of course I knew what it was. I am English, am I not? I was raised in the bosom of the church, was I not? You couldn’t count a half dozen church windows, tapestries, or altarpieces in all of Blighty that weren’t emblazoned with St. George and his bloody dragon.

Then Drool spoke in a voice that I did not recognize. “
The Khan told me, on pain of death, I was never to speak to outsiders of the black dragons, who were gods to his people, and whose venom could be distilled into a black tar that made men’s heads swim as if in the most pleasant of dreams. Yet as our caravan left the Khan’s kingdom, I paid a village fisherman to catch me a very small, perhaps newly hatched serpent, which I was able to smuggle back to Venice in my rucksack, keeping it damp in a bundle of wet cloth even while crossing the wide desert
.”

“What is that, Drool? Whose story is that?”

“Bloke what was in my cell with me. He was on the ship when they sunk it. He were the dog’s bollocks, Pocket, told stories near good as you.”

“Row, Drool. For the lighthouse.”

“We gettin’ Jeff and that girl what looks like a lad?”

“No, foolish fool, we are going to get your cellmate out of prison.”

“Smashing! You can tell me mate the story of how you shagged a dragon.”

ACT IV

The Green-eyed Monster

If any wretch hath put this in your head,

Let heaven requite it with the serpent’s curse.

—Emilia,
Othello,
Act IV, Scene 2

EIGHTEEN

Cloak, Dagger, Wimple, and Veil

A
ntonio Donnola, the merchant of Venice, looked out from his balcony, over the Venetian harbor, and wondered for a moment if the four-story fall to the pavers below would kill him instantly or if he might linger, bleeding and broken for a time, before he expired. He was not considering suicide, but considering how Iago might react upon his return from Corsica to find that his part of the plot to take Brabantio’s council seat had gone horribly awry. There would be questions before the violence, and although he was not a man of great courage, he would allow Iago’s wrath to fall upon him before sacrificing his beautiful boy, Bassanio.

“A fool’s head, you say?”

“Aye,” said Bassanio. “Like one would find atop a harlequin’s scepter at Carnival, except there was no stick. I beg your forgiveness, Antonio. I was assured that it was the right casket. Salanio had found out and sent word through a gondolier.”

“A gondolier?”

“He showed me Sal’s dagger as proof the message was authentic. They must have changed the caskets after Sal and Lorenzo left for Cyprus.” Bassanio joined Antonio on the balcony and squeezed his shoulder. “I will pay you back, I promise. I will pay you back.”

He wouldn’t, of course. Three thousand ducats? Bassanio would never see such a sum unless he married into it. He was a strong, handsome young man, and not entirely dim-witted, but he was a shit merchant. If not for Antonio’s patronage, the boy would have been begging in the street years ago. Perhaps Iago had been right—he should have paid suit to Portia himself, taken the senate seat himself, not utterly bollixed up the whole process—threatened a lawyer or two, as the soldier had suggested. It was too late now. He no longer had funds to make suit himself. Oh, he still had weeks before his bond was due to Shylock, and at least one of his ships would return by then with the profits to cover the debt, but he couldn’t secure another three thousand ducats plus the money to intimidate the lawyers. Iago would counsel for that, he was sure. Should he send word to Corsica? Declare their Crusade defeated before it started, take his three-thousand-ducat loss, and stop Iago’s plot before it went too far?

He looked at the pavers below again. Perhaps it would be quick and painless. Perhaps he should go to mass, to get his soul in order, because if Iago returned to find the calamity that had befallen them, someone was going to die.

“The gondolier, do you think you would recognize him?”

“I would know him in a second,” said Bassanio. “I thought him to be the messenger of my most happy future and so committed his face to my memory.”

“Find him, then. Find out his name, and where he lives. Bring him here. Offer him a bribe if you must.”

“Oh I will, good Antonio. I will.”

Would Iago accept a gondolier as sacrifice?

“A fool’s head, you say? Did you keep it?”

“No, I was so distraught and overcome with heartache that I threw it over the railing into the garden.”

“Do you remember anything else about it?”

“It was a fool’s head made of painted wood, like any other. Except instead of bright colors, it wore a black hat with silver bells at the tips.”

“Go, find the gondolier. Take Gratiano or Salarino with you.”

“I will, Antonio. Thank you. I will make this right, I promise.”

“Of course you will,” said the merchant.

He looked to the pavers below and imagined a sunburst of blood spread across the stones.

Despite being uncommonly pretty, like many working-class girls, Emilia had married the first fellow with a means of support who showed an interest in her. Also, like many poor girls, both plain and pretty, she found herself bound to a man who was, despite a handsome aspect and mercurial charm, a vicious scoundrel. She had hoped when the war with Genoa escalated that she might be mercifully widowed, but instead of doing the proper thing and perishing like most of Venice’s forces at Curzola, Iago had the annoying luck to have been serving under Othello, defending the city, and had not only survived, but in his more grandiose moments (which were many) claimed that credit for saving the city had been stolen from him by “
that upstart crow,”
Othello. Then she thought fate had smiled upon her side when Iago volunteered her to serve Othello’s wife, Desdemona, in Corsica, putting a sea between her and her husband, yet here he was, in her chambers, in need of a favor.

“I hope you are not here to ask me to do my bawdy business—the monkey has a nosebleed and the circus, sir, is closed.”

“As it has been for three years solid, wife,” said Iago.

“Fine, do your will, I’m sure you will be the one blessed man whose willy does not turn black and drop off after taunting the crimson curse. Don’t mind my praying as you perform your disgusting deed.”

“No, I am here to ask you to prevail upon Desdemona to speak with Michael Cassio, and to arrange that they might have a private place to speak—on Desdemona’s balcony, perhaps.”

“And why would you have me do that?”

“Because Cassio is a fine officer who has made a simple mistake, yet he is denied the audience to ask forgiveness of his general.”

“You would have me prevail upon my mistress on behalf of the fine officer you have previously referred to as an
‘addlepated accountant,’
that
‘bum-brained bean counter,’
and that
‘flouncing fucking Florentine’?

“He has flounced, upon occasion, but I have new, kinder eyes toward him, for all men, since the death of my good friend Rodrigo.” Iago looked off to the corner in the way he imagined would a strong man trying to avoid tears.

“I am sorry about your friend, Iago. He will be missed.”

“Oh yes, of course
you
will miss him,” said Iago, shrugging off his grief as easily as an unpinned cape. “Miss him in your bedchamber.”

“You’re mad.” Emilia sighed and started to walk away.

Iago grabbed her arm and spun her around. “I remember, you showed him favor, made eyes at him when you saw him before.”

“Favor? I said he didn’t seem to be a
complete
knob. That is not favor, that is just a kind comparison to everyone else with whom you keep company. Despite what you might think, Iago, I am not shagging every man I meet just because I am not shagging you. I am not shagging you because you are
you,
and I am not shagging them because they are not my husband. There is no sodding shagging going on.”

“So you say.”

“So it is. What do you want, Iago?”

“I need you to prevail upon Desdemona to receive Cassio.”

“What’s in it for you?”

“Nothing. A brother-in-arms.”

“Bollocks. What’s in it for me?”

“It would suffice as the wifely duty you would owe me in other ways.”

“For how long?”

“For a month.”

“Forever.”

“Unfair.”

“Well, fuck off then.”

“Fine, forever.”

“Have him here in an hour. I will show him to the lady’s balcony.”

“I shall.
Adieu,
foul harridan.”

“Good-bye, husband.”

BOOK: The Serpent of Venice
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