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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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“You know you’re going to die here, Fortunato?”

“Pocket,” I corrected. “You’re mad, Brabantio. Deluded, paranoid, and irritatingly grandiose.”

“You’ll die. Alone. In the dark.” He tamped down a brick with the butt of his trowel.

“Senile, probably. It comes early to the inbred or the syphilitic.”

“The crabs won’t even wait for you to stop moving before they begin to clean your bones.”

“Ha!” said I.

“What do you mean,
Ha?
” said Brabantio.

“You’ve played right into my hands!”

I shrugged, as best I could, at the owl-horking obviousness of his folly. (Shrugging comprised my entire repertoire of gesture, as my hands were chained through a heavy ring in the wall above my head. I did not hang, but neither could I sit. If I pulled the chain to its exact balance point, I suppose I could have flapped my hands at the end of their shackles, but I had no story to go with the flapping.)

The senator chuckled and resumed troweling mortar for the next row of bricks. “We’re below the level of the lagoon. I could torture you to death and no one would hear you scream. But I prefer to go to my bed and fall into slumber wrapped in the sweet dream of your suffering in the dark, dying slowly.”

“Ha! See there. I thought myself dead when I drank your poison, so for my money, I’m ahead of the game.”

“You weren’t poisoned. It was a potion from farthest China—brought overland at great expense. It was already in your glass.” He reached into his robe and held up a small red-lacquered box.

“Not poisoned?” said I. “A shame. I was enjoying my resurrection. I had hoped to come back taller, but then tall as well as roguishly handsome would be gilding the lily, wouldn’t it.”

“Would you like to wager on how long you might last? Two—three days, perhaps? Oh, that’s right, you can’t wager, can you? You have nothing.”

“True,” said I. “Yet you see a victory in what is a simple truth for all of us, is it not? We have nothing, we are nothing.” The truth was, I had been nothing, felt nothing but longing and grief, since news of my sweet Cordelia’s death from fever had reached me three months ago. I did not fear death, nor even pain. I’d never have come to Brabantio’s palazzo if I had. That last moment, when I thought myself poisoned, I’d been relieved.

“Well,
you
are nothing. Would that you realized that before you brought ruin upon my daughter.”

“Portia? Oh, she’s not ruined. Bit sore, perhaps—might be walking a bit gingerly for a day or two from the rug burns, but she’s far from ruined. Think of her not as ruined, but simply as well used.”

Brabantio growled, then, red faced, he thrashed his head in the portal like a dirt-eating loony. (I thought he might burst a vein in his ancient forehead.) He seemed unable to form any retort but steam and spittle, which I took as cue to continue.

“Like a new pair of boots,” I said, Brabantio’s potion having made me especially chatty. “Like new boots you might wear into the water, so that even while enduring the squish and slop of them for a while, they cure to a perfect fit, molded, as it were, by experience, to receive you and only you. At which point you have to throw them over a chair and have raucously up the bum!”

“No!” barked the senator, at which point he flung a brick at me that would have taken a kneecap had I not quickly pulled myself up by the chains. The brick thudded off the wall and splashed somewhere in the dark.

“The strained-boot metaphor what sent you round the bend, then?” said I, a jolly jingle of my chains for levity. “You’re short a brick now, you know? You’ve bollixed up the whole bloody edifice over a smidge o’ literary license, thou thin-skinned old knob-gobbler.”

“Tis my eldest, Desdemona, that’s ruined,” said the senator, pressing his point by placing a brick atop the wall.

“Oh, well, yes, but I can’t take credit for that,” said I. And I was, of course, lying about his younger daughter. I’d never so much as been alone in a room with Portia. “No, Desdemona’s downfall is all Othello’s doing.”

Another brick joined its red brothers in line. Only the senator’s face was visible above them now.

“And but for your interference, he would be gone—or condemned, if I’d had my way. But no, you were in the ear of the doge like a gnat, making a case for your precious Moor, talking of Venice’s debt to him, spouting rhymes of how he was some noble hero instead of a sooty slave reaching beyond his station.”

“Nobility and courage being frightening and foreign qualities to you—you piss-ant merchant, twat.” The senator was sensitive about his nobility, or lack thereof. Venice was the only city-state in Italy, nay, the only state on the continent where there were no landed nobles, largely because there was no land. Venice was a republic, all authorities duly elected, and it rankled him. Only in the last few months had he convinced the doge and the council to allow senate seats to be inherited. And because he had no sons, Brabantio’s seat would go to the husband of his eldest daughter. Yes, the Moor.

“Strictly speaking, he didn’t really ruin her. I mean, she’s married to a general who will someday be a senator of Venice, so really, a step up from her bloodline, which I think you’d have to agree is as common as cat piss.”

He growled and flung another brick through the portal. This one took me on the front of one thigh, which should have been more painful than it was. Considering it, I suppose I should have been more concerned for my fate. Perhaps the Oriental powder had made me giddy.

“That’s going to leave a mark, Montressor.”

“Damn you, fool. I will silence you.” He went back to his masonry with a fury that was making him breathless. Soon he was down to the last brick, just a square of yellow light from the port.

“Beg for mercy, fool,” he said.

“I will not.”

“You won’t be able to drown yourself, I’ve made certain of that. You shall suffer, as you have made me suffer.”

“I care not. I care for nothing. Finish your bloody business and be off. I’m tired of listening to your whingeing. Give me my oblivion so I may join my heart, my love, my queen.” I bowed my head, closed my eyes, waited for the dark and what dreams may come. I don’t suppose it occurred to me that I could be both heartbroken
and
dead.

“Your queen did not die of fever, fool,” said Brabantio, a whisper now in the dark.

“What?”

“Poison, Fortunato. Formulated by one of Rome’s best apothecaries to mimic a fever, slow and deadly. Put into place soon after you arrived as emissary and spoke your queen’s strong opposition to our Crusade. Sent to Normandy on one of Antonio’s ships, and delivered by a spy recruited from her guard by Iago. We may not have landed nobles, but he who rules the sea, rules trade, and he who rules trade, rules the world.”

“No,” said I, the truth of it burning through the haze of the potion and grief like a fire across my soul. Hate had awakened me. “No, Montressor!”

“Oh, yes. Go join your queen, Fortunato, and when you see her, tell her ’twas your words that killed her.” He scraped the trowel around the opening, then fit the last brick and tamped it into place, plunging me into darkness as the water rose around my knees.

“For the love of God, Montressor! For the love of God!”

But the tapping had ceased and my last call on the senator’s conscience was drowned by his laughter, which faded, and was gone.

THREE

A Spot of Bother

A
spot of bother, innit: walled up and chained in the lightless, lonesome cold, seawater rising to my ribs, silence except for my own breath and a steady drip somewhere above my head. Then a slight scraping from the other side of the new wall. Perhaps Brabantio gathering his tools.

“Brabantio, thou treacherous coal-souled wank-weasel!” said I.

Was that cackling I heard beyond the wall, or just the fading echo of my own voice? The chamber had to be connected to the lagoon, somehow, but I could not hear even a distant lapping of waves. The darkness was so complete that I could see only the phantoms that populate the back of the eyelid, like oil on black water—“cracks in the soul,” Mother Basil used to tell me before she would lock me in the cupboard at the abbey at Dog Snogging, where I was raised. “In the dark may you contemplate the cracks in your soul wherein leaks wickedness, Pocket.” Sometimes I would pass days contemplating the cracks in my soul until the dark and I made peace. Friends.

Recently I had thought I might make a friend of Death as well, meet its feathery oblivion with a soft embrace. My sweet Cordelia’s death had cleansed me of fear, of self-regard, and after weeks of drinking, of anger and control over most of my fluids. But now I was wide awake with both anger and anguish that my actions might have brought an end to my queen.

“Thou wretched pillar of syphilitic pheasant-fuck!” said I, in case the Montressor was still listening.

At least the water was warm. It being August, the lagoon had saved summer’s heat, yet I shivered. A drip of cold water tapped my left hand with the regularity of a ticking clock, and as soon as I would think of it, it would sting like a needle of ice. I found that if I stood straight, took my full weight upon my feet, I could rest my arms on a ledge of brick at the level of my shoulders, where the wall met the rounded vault of the ceiling. In that posture I could take the weight of my arms off my shackles, and the cold drip of water would splash harmlessly on the chains. But if I fell to a position where I might rest, put my weight on my back against the wall, let my hands go slack in the chains in the manner of a praying saint, the cold drip would again vex me like a tiny frost-pricked fairy, humping away at my joints, jolting me awake when I would drowse. I could not know then that the cruel sprite would hold the key to my very life.

But I
did
drowse, after a while, hanging in the warm water, dreams washing over me both pleasing and horrific, wrenched from the company of my loving Cordelia by the claws of a voracious beast, waking breathless in the dark chamber, wishing it had been real, relieved that it was not, until the full weight of the darkness would descend on me again.

“Pocket,” she had said, “I think I shall send you to Venice, to speak to them my mind on this Crusade they propose.”

“But, lamb, they know your mind. You’ve sent them a bundle of letters, royal seal, Queen of Britain, Wales, Normandy, Scotland, Spain—do we still rule Spain?”

“No, and
we
do not rule any of them. I rule.”

“I was using the royal
we,
wasn’t I, love? Bit of the old God-in-your-pocket plural fucking
we
you royals use when being just a singular enormous twat will not suffice.” I tilted my head and grinned, jingled a bell on my coxcomb in a manner most charming.

“You see, that’s why I must send you.”

“To convince them that you’re an enormous twat? I was speaking figuratively, love. You know I adore you, including and especially your specific lady bits, but I respect the awesome twattiness with which you wield dominion over the realm. No, I say send them another pound of royal seals and wax, with a resounding ‘Fuck off’ to the pope, in Latin. Signed Queen Cordelia, Britain, France, et cetera, et cetera, and after lunch I can try to impregnate you with a royal heir.”

“No,” she said, her delicate jaw quite set.

“Well, fine then,” said I. “We’ll send the letter, skip lunch, and go right to siring the heir. I’m feeling full of tiny princes, bustling to get out into the world and start plotting against one another.” I thrust my cod at her to show the palpable urgency of our progeny.

“No, that’s why I must send you,” she said, ignoring my eloquent gesture of prince pumpage. “No letter, dispatch, or herald can be even remotely as annoying as you. Only you can shame them for just how badly they bollixed up the last bloody Crusade. Only you, my darling fool, can convey just how ridiculous—and bloody inconvenient—I find their call to battle.”


Moi?
” said I, in perfect fucking French.


Toi,
mon amour
,” said she, in the teasing tongue of the frog
.
She kissed me lightly on the eyebrow and danced across our bedchamber to a heavy table where lay paper, ink, and quill.

“The kingdom is going to shit. I need my loyal knights here as a show of strength against those who would usurp me. You need to make it clear to the Venetians that I have no intention of joining yet another holy Crusade, nor will anyone from any of my lands, or, if I can manage it, our allies. And I want you to wear your motley. I want my message to come from a fool.”

“But I am your king.”

“No you’re not.”

“The royal consort?” I ventured.

“I have, in my weaker moments, shagged a fool,” said she, her head bowed in shame.

“And married the same,” said I.

“I don’t think we should dwell on that, love. Go to them. Speak my mind. Dwell in their palaces, drink their wine, learn their secrets, and leave them flustered, frustrated, and insulted, as I know only you can do.”

“But, lamb, sending a fool to the pope—”

“Oh, bugger the pope!”

“I think he already has someone to do that.”

“No, you needn’t worry about Rome. It’s Venice that’s behind this. Genoa has just kicked nine shades of shit out of them and they need to raise money. They think a holy war will rebuild their navy and reopen the trade routes they’ve lost to the Genoans, but they’ll not do it on the fortune of Cordelia. Go to Venice. And take Drool and Jeff with you.”

“Salting the earth of
all
decorum, are we then?”

“Yes. Take your great drooling ninny and your monkey and your acid wit and inflict them upon the court of the doge. They dare not turn you away. And when you return, we will make an heir.”

“I am your humble servant, milady,” said I. “But we’ve still an hour before lunch, and—”

“Cry havoc, and let slip the trousers of most outrageous bonkilation!” said the queen, throwing off the sash of her gown and stepping out of it. “Off with your kit, fool!”

I so adored her when she let her warrior-queen armor fall and came silly and giggling into my arms.

BOOK: The Serpent of Venice
9.93Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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