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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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I heard footsteps on the other side of the newly bricked wall, heard them clearly, then the sound of a bucket dropping with a thud. So I
could
be heard down here. I don’t know how long I had been in the dark, but the tide was still high, reaching to my chest. Perhaps Portia had returned from Florence, or a servant had come down to the cellar to retrieve some wine.

“Help! I’ve been walled up here in the dark by the bloody lunatic senator!” But what if it was Brabantio himself, wracked with guilt, returned to set me free? I gentled my discourse. “And by lunatic I mean a nutter of supreme refinement, exquisite taste, and—”

Before I could finish shouting my flattery, there came screaming from the other side of the wall—screaming so piteous and animal that even in my dismal state, I shuddered. It was the sound of slaughter, no doubt, and not a subtle blade slipped under a rib. Someone, a man, was suffering, calling unto God and the saints between howls of pain pitched with terror that crashed into a low wail, then were silent. I heard scrambling sounds like dry sticks snapping, then just the steady drip in my dark chamber.

I dared not call out. I did not want the attention of whoever had been on the other side of the wall, for I was sure that no rescue would be forthcoming from there. So tuned was I for a sound from the other side that even the dripping water became a distraction, an annoyance amid devastation.

Time passed. An hour maybe. Perhaps only minutes.

Then a splash—inside my chamber.

I screamed. I jumped, pulling myself up by the chains as something in the water brushed my naked thigh, something heavy and alive, sinuous and strong. I stopped breathing, willing myself to become invisible in the dark, trying to become part of the wall. I felt a wash of current on my legs, as if driven by a large tail or fin. Perhaps there was enough slack in my chains that I might flip over, spread my legs into a split and find purchase with my heels on the ledge. I
am
an acrobat, trained and practiced for many more years than I was a pampered noble.

I threw my arms out to my sides as far as they would go; my feet lifted from the floor, assuming the posture of one being energetically crucified. I pulled my feet up behind me, scraping my heels and my bottom on the wall as I went. My feet encountered the vault of the ceiling, then I spread my legs and lowered, lowered, and finally my heels caught the ledge that a moment before had been at the level of my shoulders. The shackles were cutting into my forearms, and my arms trembled with the strain, but I was out of the water, my face only inches above it. At my fittest, I might have been able to hold the posture for a quick chorus of “Ale House Lily,” but now I was only a handful of breaths from doom. I opened my eyes wide so they might drink in any wayward light wandering in the room, but caught only the sting of my own sweat, which rolled down and dripped off my nose.

If only the Moor had let me sink in the Grand Canal and suck my own murky death when I had been ready . . . I would have gone, then, gladly shrugged off this mortal coil and stepped into dark oblivion. Then he’d made himself a pest of gallantry, but now, more desperate in hate than sorrow, I wanted to live, dammit.

Something broke the surface of the water, just in front of my face, I could feel it there.

“Take my head then, thou tarry devil! Choke on it!”

Whatever was in the water licked the drop of sweat from my nose.

CHORUS:
In Venice did a fool turned emissary find himself, and he, a royal consort—a prince by penetration, as it were—was invited into the senate, and into the homes of all the most high, where he did speak his lady’s displeasure at the pursuits of Crusade by the Venetians and the pope. And to his lady’s will, he, with utmost lack of decorum, did jape, joke, and jibe at the expense of all of his hosts, much to the amusement of himself and a few others. Thus did Pocket of Dog Snogging gain the favor and ear of the doge, Duke of Venice, leader of the senate, while among others prodded by his wit, enemies bubbled, conspiracies boiled, and grave threats were made upon his head. (The last upon the occasion of his monkey Jeff biting a senator’s wife on the nipple.)

So it came to pass that on the evening that the fool received news that his lady, Queen Cordelia of Britain, France, Belgium, et al., had perished of a fever, he was in attendance at a ball at the palace of a senate councilman on the Grand Canal and received no comfort from the Venetians at court except wine and silent scorn. Overcome with grief, the fool cast himself in the canal to drown, but was yanked out by the scruff of the neck by a soldier . . .

He lay there on the pavers for a long time, in a puddle of canal water, weeping, great gasping sobs at first, then commenced a breathless trembling, as if breath itself was born of a pain he could not bear. A thread of crystal drool ran from the tragedy of his face, shimmering in the torchlight as if the only thing keeping his soul tethered to earth. The Moor, in his fine blouse of golden silk, crouched over the fool, saying nothing.

A breath finally squeaked out of him, a whisper as weak as a fly dying on a windowsill. “She is dead. My love.”

“I know,” said the Moor.

“You don’t know love. Look at you. You’re a soldier—a hard, scarred, killing thing—a weapon. You’ve had an alehouse whore or the odd widow of the conquered, maybe, but you don’t know love.”

“I know love, fool. Love may not be mine, but I know it.”

“You lie,” said the fool.

The Moor looked at torchlight reflecting on the canal and said, “When a woman looks upon one’s scars with wonder, and sees not the glory of battles won, but sheds tears for the pain of injury suffered, then is love born. When she pities a man’s history and wishes away his past troubles with present comforts, then is love awakened. When that which makes a warrior hard is met with beauty offered most tender, then can he find love.”

The fool said, “She sees past your handsome exterior to the dark, twisted, broken beast that your years have made of you—the libidinous little creature that you are at heart—when she takes you not in spite of, but
because
you are the cheeky monkey, that is love?”

“I’m not saying that, I—”

The fool rolled to his knees before the Moor and took him by the front of his shirt. “You
do
know! Tell me, Moor, if you know love, true love, then why will you not let me drown, stop the pain? If your love was taken from you, I would hold your sword so you could run upon it and I would hold your head while you twitched in your own heart’s blood. I am kind that way. Why do you not do me the same kindness?”

“Because you are drunk.”

“Oh, do fuck off. You Muslims and your aversion to drink. Fucking slaughter the greater part of the Western fucking world in Allah’s name, but someone wants to toast to your health and suddenly it’s all piety, prayer, throw out the pork, and let’s put draperies around the women.”

“I am not a Muslim.”

“Well, a secret Muslim, then. Same thing. You have the curvy sword and the earring and you’re black as Satan’s scrotum, aren’t you?”

“Tomorrow, when you are sober and the drink is out of your head, if then you still wish to drown yourself, I will help you tie a stone to your ankle and throw you in the canal myself.”

“You would do that for a poor, heartbroken fool?”

“I would and I shall, but not tonight. Tonight I shall see thee home safely, little one.”

The Moor picked the fool up as if lifting a child and threw him over a shoulder.

“Think not of robbing me, Moor, I have no money left. Not much, anyway. I will have to live by the largesse of the doge and I fear that may be running out.”

“I know.”

“You’ll not have your way with me. I’m not one of you soldier types, ready to bugger anything that moves to relieve boredom between battles. Not that I blame you, I
am
fit—somewhat of a prize, really. I was a king for a while.”

“If words were wealth,” sighed the Moor. “A king among kings you would be, but now you are only small, damp, and loud.”

“True, I am drunk, and small, and damp, but mistake not my moistness for weakness, although there’s an argument to be made for that, as well. I’m armed, you know?” said the fool, squirming, trying to look back over his shoulder at his abductor. “Don’t think that as soon as we’re out of sight of the palace you can make your move. I have three daggers at the small of my back.”

“Only a soldier or the doge’s guard may carry a weapon in Venice,” said the Moor.

“I am outside the law,” said the fool.

“As am I, I fear,” said the Moor.

“What did you mean, that you know love, but it may not be yours?”

“I will tell you tomorrow, when I come to see you drown.”

“Tomorrow,” said the fool. “Over the bridge, then go right.”

The Moor walked up the stairs of the Rialto Bridge, which even in the evening was bustling with merchants, hawkers, and whores.

CHORUS:
And thus was friendship formed. Two outsiders, outside a palace in the night, found fellowship in their troubles, and there one’s problems became the other’s purpose.


Who is that?” asked the fool.

“I don’t know him,” said the Moor. “Is he following us?”

“No, he’s just yammering on about the bloody obvious to no one. A nutter, no doubt.”

“I cannot carry him, too,” said Othello.

FOUR

How Much for the Monkey?

I
ago was a pillar of leather and steel among the silks and rich brocades of the Rialto merchants. They flowed like anemones in the surf—bargaining, bickering, lying politely and expansively—plucking profit from the flow of goods and services all around. You could buy anything from a pomegranate to a shipping contract on the Rialto. Notaries had set up their desks among the booths to record transactions, whores wagged their rouge-tipped tits from balconies above.

Iago stood with his hand on the hilt of his sword as commerce swirled around him, the odd merchant looking up and wincing as he passed under the soldier’s scowl. Before long, a circle cleared on the pavers around Iago, an eddy in the current.

One of the whores, looking down, said, “That one must have a right stink about him, the way they’re all movin’ away.”

When Antonio stepped out of the fray flanked by two young fops in finery too heavy for the heat, Iago did not offer his hand.

“You’re late,” said the soldier.

“Business beckoned. You didn’t give me much notice,” said Antonio. “Iago, these are my friends, Gratiano and Salarino—they have been trying to coax me from my melancholy with good cheer.”

Iago nodded in turn to each of the two, both taller and more stout than the soldier. Well fed and well kept, he thought. Soft, he thought. “Gentlemen, please do bugger off.”

“Pardon?” asked Gratiano, startled, his floppy hat falling over one eye.

“For a bit,” said Iago.

Antonio stepped between Iago and the youths. “See here, Iago, these gentlemen are—”

“Business,” interrupted Iago.

“Antonio’s affairs are our business as well,” said Salarino.

Iago shrugged. “Brabantio is dead,” he said to Antonio.

“Oh,” said Antonio. To his friends: “You two need to bugger off.”

“Just for a bit,” offered Iago, as the two backed into the crowd, looking more liberated than insulted.

Antonio took Iago by the shirt and hurried him to a nook between the booths of two spice merchants. “Brabantio is dead? When?”

“They found his overripe corpse this morning. Servants followed a foul smell to the cellar. I was brought word by my man, who was on the island. He uses one of Portia’s maids on occasion.”

“Portia has returned from Florence, then?”

“Just yesterday. The Montressor has been missing for two weeks—since the Assumption. The servants at Villa Belmont thought he’d gone to Florence to join Portia, or perhaps to Corsica to retrieve Desdemona from the Moor. They found him so deep in the cellar that the smell hadn’t even risen to the wine cellar.”

“Deep in the cellar? I wondered why I had not heard from him. Then he’s been there since that night, with the fool.”

“Undoubtedly.”

“Do you think the fool awakened and attacked him?”

“No. I went to Belmont as soon as I heard, right after I sent word to you to meet. There were mason’s tools by the body, a bucket with mortar and tools hardened in it. The Montressor had built a wall shortly before he died. He must have been planning what he would do even before he brought us into his plan. I believe he walled the fool up in that deep chamber where we carried him. Left him there to die.”

“And in building the wall, Brabantio collapsed. He
was
very old, feeble of body, if not of mind.”

“He was eaten,” said Iago, and he smiled at the horror that crossed the merchant’s face.

“Rats?” said Antonio. “If he’d been dead that long, I’m not surprised—”

“Yes rats, after, but something ripped his head from his body, ate his hands, his liver, and his heart.”

“So not rats?”

BOOK: The Serpent of Venice
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