Authors: Mary Hoffman
Gasparini was called and took the oath.
‘Signor Gasparini,’ began the prosecutor. ‘Tell the Council where you live.’
‘On Torrone,’ said Gianfranco. ‘I am curator of the cathedral museum there.’
‘And do you recognize the accused?’ asked the prosecutor.
‘Yes,’ said Gianfranco. ‘She is my foster-daughter.’
Arianna blinked back her tears. It was still upsetting to hear him say it. There was a murmur throughout the Council chamber.
‘Foster-daughter?’ said the prosecutor, riffling through his notes. ‘You mean you are not the girl’s natural father?’
‘Quite so,’ said Gianfranco. ‘She was raised by my wife and myself, but she is not our own child.’
‘But my information,’ said the prosecutor, ‘says that she was well known on Torrone as the
, the only child to be born there for many years.’
Gianfranco nodded. ‘Except that she was not born there.’
There was a sensation in the Council.
‘And where was she born?’ asked the prosecutor, though he had a horrible idea he knew what the answer would be.
‘Here in Bellezza,’ said Gianfranco.
‘Your Grace,’ said the prosecutor, unnerved by the way his examination was going. ‘This is new information. The witness must offer proof. Otherwise anyone accused of this crime could claim to have been born on Bellezza.’
‘Indeed,’ said the Duchessa. ‘Do you have proof, Signor Gasparini?’
‘If Your Grace would allow another witness to be called, one Signora Landini, your prosecutor could ask her for proof.’
The Duchessa nodded and the witness was called. Arianna had no idea who she was and nor, it was obvious, did the prosecutor.
‘Please give your name, Signora,’ he said.
‘Maria Maddalena Landini,’ said the woman, who was plump and about sixty years of age.
‘And what is your connection with the prisoner?’
‘I was midwife at her birth,’ said the old woman.
‘And where did that birth take place?’
‘Here, sir, in Bellezza.’
‘And who was the mother?’
The Duchessa was impassive behind her mask. The old woman looked straight ahead.
‘I don’t believe I have to answer that,’ she said.
‘Your Grace?’ appealed the prosecutor.
‘The child’s parentage is not the issue,’ said the Duchessa. ‘Only her place of birth. If that is Bellezza the case will be dismissed.’
‘What happened after the child was born?’ asked the prosecutor.
‘I showed her to the mother, who was a gentlewoman,’ said Signora Landini, ‘and she asked me if I would take her to a couple on Torrone, who had agreed to raise her.’
‘And that is what you did?’ asked the prosecutor, feeling the case slip through his fingers.
‘I did,’ said the Signora, ‘I took the baby by boat that same night to a family on Torrone by name of Gasparini. The mother paid me handsomely and that was the end of the matter.’
The Duchessa intervened. ‘It seems clear to me there has been a mistake. There is clearly no case to answer. Release the prisoner to her foster-father.’
The Duchessa returned from the hearing in high spirits. Lucien was waiting in her apartments with Rodolfo until the Council session was over.
‘How’s Arianna?’ asked Lucien. It had been traumatic visiting her in the palace dungeons, although she had seemed quite comfortable.
‘Free and happy, I hope,’ said the Duchessa. ‘Gianfranco will have taken her back to her aunt’s, I think.’
‘Can I see her?’ he asked.
‘It would not be safe for you to go out in the street with the warrant still out,’ said Rodolfo.
‘I shall recall that warrant,’ said the Duchessa. ‘I can say that the dismissal of one case has cast doubt on the validity of the other. Go back through the passage with Rodolfo and I will send a message to Arianna when the danger has lifted. Then she can go to you or you to her without fear.’
‘But please remember to come back here before you go home,’ said Rodolfo.
Lucien felt a weight lift from him. And now he looked at the Duchessa in a new light. Knowing that she was Arianna’s mother made him look for resemblances. And the Duchessa in a good mood was like her daughter, full of a good humour that was infectious.
‘Now go, both of you,’ she said. ‘I have other important matters to arrange.’
Enrico whistled as he walked along the canalside. He had a very useful new piece of information. His friend, Giuseppe, the Duchessa’s spy, had another friend, on Merlino, who knew the craftsman who had put together the Glass Room. And along this fragile chain of links had passed silver in one direction, getting less as it passed through each set of hands, and information in the other, growing slightly as it progressed from mouth to mouth.
And now Enrico had a sketch of how the room had been put together. He was ready to make his fortune.
Giuliana had been asked to impersonate the Duchessa again. She was not going to say no, of course. Her love of silver had begun to eclipse even her love for Enrico. This time she planned to keep it all for herself and so she didn’t tell her fiancé about the new commission. This time she didn’t have to appear in public, only to receive petitioners in the Duchessa’s audience-chamber. She would not have to speak; a waiting-woman would explain that the Duchessa was suffering from a sore throat. All she had to do was to dress up in the Duchessa’s clothes and appear to listen to some requests and then report them to the Duchessa afterwards. The ruler’s judgements would be communicated to the petitioners later.
Giuliana was surprised to learn that the Duchessa used doubles for minor indispositions; she had thought it happened only on State occasions, but she was willing to go along with the deception. She gazed at the growing pile of beautiful clothes in her cedar chest. She could hardly close the lid on them now. Giuliana was beginning to have far stronger feelings about the idea of her finery and the house she would one day have than her feelings for Enrico. At times he just seemed a necessary evil, a signpost on a route to a better life.
Arianna was practically dancing round the fountain when Lucien found her. It was too late to go out anywhere together. It was nearly time for him to stravagate home. But just to walk through the streets without that dull dread which had been hanging over him for days had felt very good.
‘Will you go on with your lessons?’ asked Arianna. ‘And shall we still have our afternoons?’
‘I don’t see why not,’ said Lucien. ‘I still have a lot to learn about stravagation and about Bellezza.’
He didn’t tell Arianna about a new worry of his. What would happen to his life in Bellezza when he had to go back to school in September? It was going to be hard enough to catch up on all the work he had missed and get back into doing a full school day, without losing night after night of sleep.
For the time being, he would enjoy what was left of the holidays, in both his worlds, but he could feel a change coming and he didn’t like it.
‘Have some more wine, Dottore,’ said Leonora.
‘Thanke ye,’ said Dethridge. ‘Ye are moste kinde. And where are the yonglinges now?’
‘Out somewhere in the city, making the most of their time together,’ said Leonora. ‘It’s nearly dark. He will have to get back to Senator Rodolfo’s and go home soon.’
‘So ye knowe whatte hee is?’ the doctor asked.
‘Oh yes,’ said Leonora calmly. ‘I’ve always known. But he’s a good boy and that matters more than what world he comes from, doesn’t it?’
Dethridge was thoughtful. ‘Ye knowe thatte I was the same as hee?’
Leonora looked at him. ‘No, but you say “was”. What happened?’
Dethridge sighed gustily. ‘There was daungere and an accident. It is too longe a tale for now. Some daie I may tell ye. But it sufficeth thatte I am noe longire like unto maister Lucian. I am here now – for gode.’
Leonora reached out and patted his hand.
‘I’m glad,’ she said.
Rinaldo di Chimici was furious about the result of the Council trial and even more so when he heard that Lucien’s warrant had been countermanded.
Enrico just shrugged. ‘You win some, you lose some,’ he said. ‘What will it matter tomorrow, when the Duchessa is dead?’
Di Chimici couldn’t repress a shudder. The man’s bloodthirstiness appalled him. Having to use him to achieve his aim was like eating an exquisitely prepared dish with a dirty knife. But he was too far gone with the plot now to back out. His cousin Francesca was already in Bellezza, awaiting her role in the plot. He had one or two Bellezzan nobles lined up to marry her quickly if the assassination succeeded.
‘But we can still get the boy if you want,’ said Enrico. ‘When we have a new Duchessa and are part of the Republic, you can get him under your new witchcraft laws. There’s definitely something unnatural about him.’
Di Chimici was relieved. He still needed the boy. In fact he might not wait till Francesca’s election. Why not just get this dirty tool of his to rob the boy? But he would wait till after tomorrow.
Once a month anyone in Bellezza could come to the Duchessa with a petition. It did not have to go before Council if it was a small complaint; she could settle for herself disputes between neighbours, inheritance claims among family members, landlord and tenant quarrels.
Silvia normally enjoyed it, sitting in the Glass Room which was reserved for more weighty embassies the rest of the month. She was quite aware that Bellezzans, who were notoriously litigious, often came before her on little pretexts, just to see the great lady face to face and have some discussion with her. It was one of the customs that made the citizens most devoted to their ruler.
They came away even more in awe of her powers and confused about what they had seen. The Glass Room led straight off the Duchessa’s private chamber. A sliding door between them admitted her into the audience-room. But today it was her substitute who stepped through to sit on the Duchessa’s glass throne.
The room gave Giuliana a vertiginous sensation. She wouldn’t have dared get up off the throne to take two steps across the room. All was illusion and deception; she couldn’t tell which was the reality and which the reflection. Giuliana shuddered; there was something spooky about this room. Only a mind like the Duchessa’s could have dreamed it up.
With the first three petitioners, Giuliana scarcely listened to the details of their pleas. Her gaze, behind her red feathered mask, flitted around the extraordinary room which reflected her image back to her over and over again, fractured into splinters by the intricacy of the mirrored panels. It was giving her a headache.
But the fourth petitioner jolted her out of her reverie. It was Enrico! She couldn’t speak to him, of course, but she blushed behind her mask until she felt her face must match her dress. What was he going to ask? She felt sure that it was going to be something to do with the wedding.
But he said nothing. Perhaps he was confused by the room like the other people? But no. He was looking straight at her, not misled by the mirrored glass at all. Suddenly, he nodded, bent down and seemed to bowl something like a ball under her chair. Then he turned and left the room in a hurry.
Rodolfo heard the explosion from his laboratory. Lucien had just arrived for his morning lessons. There was a deafening boom followed by the sounds of crashing and splintering glass.
Rodolfo knew where the Duchessa should be at this time and on this day, just as he always knew. In fact, one of his mirrors was trained on the audience room. Rodolfo looked in horror at the mess of glass and blood. She couldn’t possibly have survived. But he was prepared to tear through the glass shards bare-handed to find her.
The quickest way to the Duchessa was the secret passage. Leaving Dethridge and Lucien behind, he wrenched the sconce round and ran in the dark, not waiting to use the firestone. He could hear his own breath rasping loudly in the stone corridor. A voice was moaning, ‘Please, goddess, no!’ and he was quite unaware that it was his own.
Death of a Duchess
Enrico walked as slowly and calmly as he could coming down the stairs of the Duchessa’s palace and across the square. But as soon as he was among the usual crowd of tourists, he heard the explosion and ran as fast as he could all the way back to his lodgings. He had agreed not to contact di Chimici. He had given a false name at the Palazzo and he was going to lie low for a few days. As soon as he had the money from the Ambassador, he would collect Giuliana and leave for Remora. It was foolproof.
Rinaldo di Chimici heard the explosion too, in his rooms on the Great Canal. The sound was followed by a silence, in which all Bellezza seemed to hold its breath. And then a roar, as people went running to the Palazzo, guards trying to keep them out of the building while others were picking their way through the wreckage to the Glass Room.
Di Chimici was fighting to behave normally. What would be normal for a Reman Ambassador suspecting carnage at the Palazzo, he wondered. He must make an appearance in public, must seem surprised, distressed even, or he would be suspected of involvement. He rang his bell to call his servant for news and, when none was forthcoming, except that there had been an explosion in the direction of the Piazza Maddalena, he descended to his mandola at the landing stage.
As the vessel cut through the water, he could see lots of traffic heading in the same direction. The square was thronged with people as if a feast was in progress. But the black smoke pouring from the roof of the Palazzo belied the carnival atmosphere. The Bellezzan fire-fighting team were pumping water from the lagoon to the Palazzo as fast as they could.
As the Ambassador leapt from his mandola on to the Piazzetta landing-stage, he heard the first cry of ‘
Bellezza è morta!
’ It stopped him in his tracks. After what had happened at the Feast of the Maddalena, he could not believe the plot had succeeded. But the shouts meant only one thing; the Duchessa was dead.
Rodolfo ran into something soft in the dark – a person coming from the opposite direction. At first he grabbed it by the shoulders to cast it out of his way, but something stopped him. A scent, a caught breath like a sob, and he had the figure in his arms. He did not know how she had survived, but this was Silvia, beyond any doubt.
‘Thank the goddess!’ he whispered.
The woman sighed and took a long, shuddering breath.
‘The goddess might have helped,’ said Silvia, in a shaky voice, ‘but I gave her a hand.’
The two seemed to stand in the dark tunnel for a long time, until their heartbeats returned to normal and they walked slowly back to Rodolfo’s side of the passage.
‘Hevene bee praysed!’ said Dethridge when he saw them emerge. ‘Wee thoghte the worste had happened.’
‘It very nearly did, Dottore,’ said the Duchessa. ‘But it takes more than a di Chimici to kill
‘Luciano,’ said Rodolfo. ‘Give her some wine. She has had a shock.’
‘What happened?’ asked Lucien as he went to a cupboard and poured wine into Rodolfo’s best silver cups.
The Duchessa drank deep before she answered. She was wearing the crimson dress and feathered mask that they had seen in Rodolfo’s mirror only seconds before the explosion. Apart from a little dust and a few cobwebs picked up in the secret passage, her ensemble was undamaged. Rubies glowed at her throat and ears and the fan she still clutched was of blood-red lace.
‘I used a double for my public audience today,’ she said, with only the slightest tremor in her low voice. ‘It was a good idea as it turned out.’
Lucien was appalled. An innocent woman had gone to her death. He knew that a ruler lived with danger. He had helped her survive one assassination attempt already. But suddenly he had the horrible thought that the Duchessa had known very well what she was doing when she sent a substitute into the Glass Room.
Rodolfo obviously had the same thought. ‘You knew that something was going to happen?’
The Duchessa nodded. ‘I had a warning.’
‘Do you know who it was?’ asked Rodolfo through clenched jaws.
‘The instrument was a common rogue, who thought he was murdering Bellezza when in fact he was killing his own fiancée,’ said the Duchessa. ‘But of course the real assassin was the same as last time – Rinaldo di Chimici.’
‘How did you know all this?’ asked Lucien, still shocked that the Duchessa would send another woman to a certain death, even if that woman was somehow connected with the plot.
‘My mother, Arianna’s grandmother, makes lace on Burlesca,’ said the Duchessa, as if she were answering his question.
Lucien wondered if the shock had been too much for her.
‘I know,’ he said ‘I have met her.’
‘Ah yes, I forgot,’ said the Duchessa. ‘Well, if you have seen her work, you must know it’s very good. People come to her from all over the lagoon when they want something special made. And a young woman recently went to see her about a splendid set of wedding-clothes. That woman was boastful about the money her intended husband would be getting for a secret job for Rinaldo di Chimici.’
‘What a coincidence!’ said Lucien.
The Duchessa rubbed her eyes behind the mask. ‘I don’t believe in coincidence,’ she said. ‘It was Fate. My mother managed to get a message to me in a way that only I would have understood. When I had unravelled it, I decided to use that young woman as a substitute today – I had used her before.’
‘But why did she agree if she knew the danger?’ asked Lucien.
‘I don’t suppose she knew when it was going to happen. Probably she didn’t understand herself half the clues she had passed on to my mother. She was greedy and she liked the offer of more money. And she had broken the agreement we made on the occasion of her first impersonation.’
The Duchessa looked at them a shade defiantly, as if challenging any of them to protest against this reasoning. Lucien thought again that she was the most ruthless person he had ever met. He thanked his good fortune that he was on her side in the dangerous and violent world of Talian politics.
‘What happens now?’ asked Rodolfo. ‘Shall I send your guards to arrest di Chimici?’
The Duchessa got up and looked in the mirror which showed the wreckage of the Glass Room.
‘No. When I left my chamber, I was alone. I just wanted to get away from the noise and the confusion. But in that dark corridor, I realized that I could make today work to my advantage in another way.’
She turned back and looked at them, then slowly, deliberately, untied her crimson mask. ‘I have decided that the Duchessa is dead.’
The funeral was the most magnificent Bellezza had ever seen. A public day of mourning had been declared. Six of the Duchessa’s guards carried the silver-inlaid ebony coffin into the cathedral, where the Senators and Councillors awaited it. Two of the guards had been among the first to reach the Glass Room and knew how little remained of the great lady to bury. The scraps and fragments of red silk and feathers, all stained a darker red, were the only way of identifying the pathetic human remains after the explosion. No one doubted that the elaborate coffin held the Duchessa. It was Giuliana’s last impersonation.
The Bishop of Bellezza performed the rite in the silver Basilica. Senator Rodolfo, in his public role as senior statesman and his private one as the widely acknowledged favourite of the late Duchessa, was Chief Mourner. He followed the coffin into the cathedral, his face set and grim. Behind him walked Rinaldo di Chimici, representing Remora and the Pope.
Those Bellezzans who could not get into the cathedral stood with bowed heads in the Piazza, listening to the music and the solemn sounds of the Requiem Mass coming from the great silver doors, which remained open throughout the service.
After the service, two hours later, six of the Duchessa’s best mandoliers carried the coffin to the black ‘mandola di morte’ waiting in the lagoon, as the single bell tolled from the campanile. The funeral mandola was draped with black lace, but the curtains were tied back to allow citizens their last glimpse of their beloved ruler’s coffin.
The mandoliers took it in turns to scull the vessel the length of the Great Canal and out at the northern end, towards the Isola dei Morti.
The whole city was in mourning. There wasn’t a single Bellezzan old or young who had not managed to be part of the thousands lining the canal. The two bridges across the great waterway were so thronged with people that they looked in some danger of collapsing. Bellezzans had camped out on the Rialto all night to be sure of a place near the parapet from which to bid the Duchessa farewell. Whoever owned a room overlooking the canal, or had a friend in one, was out on their balcony watching the water cortège.
A little beyond the Rialto stood a family group showing less emotion than other Bellezzans. Two middle-aged women and two men of the same years, with a young girl, not yet old enough to wear a mask. Behind them was a tall young red-headed man. The women were soberly yet well dressed, in black, like the rest of Bellezza. Even the girl had her brown curls hidden under a black lace veil. Leonora and Arianna had not attended the funeral, for the simple reason that its subject stood beside them. The handsome woman with the violet eyes was wearing one of Leonora’s dresses; luckily Leonora had a good wardrobe of mourning clothes.
As soon as the Duchessa had decided to maintain the charade of her own death, she had sent Lucien to Leonora’s to tell Arianna what had really happened and to borrow some plain clothes. The Duchessa’s senior waiting-woman, Susanna, the one who had hired Giuliana on the last day of her life, had eventually guessed what had happened and made her way through the secret passage. She was the only one who knew of its existence. Her emotion on finding her mistress alive had so moved the Duchessa that the two had pledged themselves to stay together in hiding.
The men of the little party by the canal were also not as inconsolable as most Bellezzans around them. Egidio and Fiorentino were two more of the small number of people who knew that their Duchessa was not in the coffin. Guido Parola was also in on the secret. He had suffered such agonies when he heard that the second assassination attempt had succeeded that the brothers, who had been told the truth by Rodolfo, had begged Silvia to let them take the young man into their confidence.
Now they watched the funeral mandola slowly making its way up the canal, followed by the State vessel with Rodolfo and the Reman Ambassador, another with the Bishop and his priests and then the Barcone, with many Councillors and Senators on deck, beside a band of musicians playing a dirge, their plangent harmonies clashing with the single note of the campanile bell.
The canal was filling up with flowers as Bellezzans hurled blooms at the passing coffin. Some landed in the mandola, so that its severe black lines were now blurred into a mass of colour. But most fell unheeded into the water, where they floated along in the wake of the cortège, alongside cheap golden ornaments representing the goddess.
And all the time the great bell of the campanile kept tolling.
As the mandola bearing the coffin passed by the little family party, Silvia observed closely the citizens around her. All were weeping, many fell to their knees and crossed themselves as the mandola went by, or made the ‘hand of fortune’. Many cried out ‘Goddess bless her!’ or ‘Bellezza is dead!’ or other laments. An old woman near Silvia said, ‘There will never be another Duchessa like her – not in my lifetime!’ Silvia had to pull her veil low over her face to hide the smile of pleasure she felt forming there, but she was genuinely moved.
Then the State mandola passed by them. ‘Hypocrite!’ she whispered. Rinaldo di Chimici was holding his handkerchief to his face as if afflicted by grief.
‘He does that because he just can’t stand the smell of the canal,’ she muttered.
Rodolfo sat upright beside the Ambassador, as if frozen in grief. But in fact the little party knew that he was rigid with nervousness at the part he had been called upon to play. His face looked more deeply lined, as if the events of the past few days had aged him. The crowds were all sympathetic to him, seeing in him the romantic figure of a man who has lost the love of his life as well as his ruler like the rest of the city.
‘Poor fellow!’ said a bystander. ‘I’ve heard she led him a hell of a dance.’
Silvia darted him a vicious look, but he had already been suppressed by the people around him, who would take no criticism of their Duchessa today.