Authors: Mark Tricarico
“The greatest feat of this novel is that it takes a completely foreign world—Venice, Cairo, and Crete in the early 16th century—and, through the evocative descriptions of spices and architecture, the detailed history of trade and war, and an uncanny sense of place, turns out a suspenseful and fascinating tale.
One of the book’s strongest points is Venice: as much of a character as any human; ruthless, powerful, and beautiful.”
Copyright © 2016 by Mark Tricarico
All rights reserved.
This book or parts thereof may not be reproduced in any form, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form by any means—electronic, mechanical, photocopy, recording, or otherwise—without prior written permission of the publisher, except as provided by United States of America copyright law.
To my girls,
whom I live for
iro couldn’t help but grasp the irony even as his mind began to shut down, a primal attempt to protect it from what lay ahead. Glass, the very thing that gave him such joy, that had infused his life with light and grace would now, he knew, be the instrument of his death.
He looked about the dimly lit room with raw swollen eyes, could see little save for the quivering shadows cast by the flames of the crucible. He had no idea what hour of the day it was, but knew it was not the sinking sun that stole the light. His sight was leaving him, the first in an orderly procession of bodily functions abandoning what would soon be just a husk. He could still feel however, the numbness spreading too slowly, and he silently prayed to feel no more.
The heat was intense, but the man didn’t seem to notice. He sat hunched over his table, a brown hulk humming a tune Ciro couldn’t place. His hearing was going now too, sounds turning to vibrations. The progress of pain had been well thought out, enough to make him sever the tip of his tongue, but not quite so much to rob him of his consciousness. The bleeding too followed a course. Soon becoming weak and limp, Ciro was a docile subject, a puppet presented for carving like a bled-out boar.
The man stood, his massive shoulders blotting out the licks of light on the far wall of the room. He gazed down the length of the long rod he held in his hand, the
, caressing its smooth shaft. He walked to the crucible, plunged the rod into the molten pond, slowly turning it to gather the liquid glass, rolling it like a tasty confection from the campo’s Christmas market, until he had a glowing ball the size of his fist.
The pulsing orb was perfectly shaped. He felt an odd sense of pride in the fact. He had initially feared the crucible and the searing pain that could be inflicted by the small lake of molten glass that lay within. But he had come to see the beauty of it, how the purifying heat could serve a far nobler purpose than the making of pretty baubles for effete men and bored women.
He turned toward Ciro, the fiery ball safely gathered at the tip of the rod. He gazed down at the nearly eviscerated form before him. “Just one more,” he whispered, tenderly smoothing Ciro’s damp hair back from his forehead.
In the moment before the blinding pain killed him, what saddened Ciro most was that he was unable to summon the image of his family, of his home. He had nothing to fill the void, his mind’s eye gone dark as well. He began to cry, his tears quickly dissolved by the heat. The man began to hum once more. Ciro closed his sightless eyes, and longed for death.
he wine supplier was late, again. It was a habit old Francesco had taken up with increasing frequency. He had grown lazy in the last few years, knowing full well he was one of a very select group of men wealthy enough to accommodate the tremendous amount of wine the Arsenale required annually, and more importantly, at the consistently meager prices the Venetian state demanded.
Paolo rubbed his eyes, banishing the remnants of the little sleep he had enjoyed the night before. His eye sockets squeaked.
That can’t be good
. His heavy-lidded eyes, falsely suggesting sleepiness and some level of disinterest, continued to groan under the circular motion of his hands. Taller and thinner, yet more solidly built than his older brother Ciro, Paolo had close-cropped hair and a short beard that seemed to be of a single piece, making him look older than his twenty-six years.
He gazed across the Arsenale’s mammoth wine cellar, its two parallel rows of massive storage casks standing silently in the perpetual twilight. Annoyed as he was, Paolo couldn’t blame Francesco. He supposed he would behave in exactly the same fashion given the circumstances. Years of systematic extortion by the State would leave even the most eager of men somewhat more…relaxed.
, Paolo had a job to do. With nearly two thousand workers at the Arsenale, it was no small task to calculate the amount of the wine and water mixture that was the daily refreshment for the workers, distributed in buckets across the Arsenale’s sixty acres of slips, sheds, and workshops by his twelve assistants. Poor wretches. They literally did nothing but carry wine all day, every day. Not that his own position was so grand.
And if Francesco was late, as rightfully outraged by the State’s perpetual disregard for his ability to turn a profit as he might be, Paolo’s operation would be delayed, and impatient gang bosses would be sending their own men to the wine cellar—a practice strictly forbidden, which of course meant nothing to a dry throat. The celebrated Arsenale would then not operate with its legendary efficiency. And, despite all evidence to the contrary, the blame would fall on Paolo.
was not why Paolo had come to the Arsenale however, and he found it endlessly ironic that his relationship with his father had been destroyed by this, his occupation as a glorified wine steward. Even now—that very morning in fact—he still felt the excitement of the world inside the ornate turrets of the Porta Magna, the Arsenale’s main gate, looking more like the entrance to a royal palace than that of a bustling shipyard.
The sounds of clanging metal and biting saws echoed off the thick walls, the sweet smell of freshly cut timber mingling with the sour tang of sweat. It was an intoxicating brew. He could literally feel the hum of the place move through his body. Venice seemed to breathe in rhythm to its hammers and saws, that breathing accelerating like the rapid beating of a bird’s breast in the weeks before a sailing. Paolo could not get enough of it, the clamor along the waterfront as benches were set up to recruit the galley crews while merchandise, food, oars, and sailing tackle were sorted, parceled up, and ferried out to the galleys anchored offshore. The voyage would be blessed in Saint Mark’s Basilica or the seafarers’ church of Saint Nicholas on the Lido, and would set out amidst cheers, prayers, and hopes for a successful journey. The Arsenale would change everything. It was what made Venice the most modern city in Italy, if not the world. Superstition and barbarism had been replaced by trade and enterprise. But it was a concept his father could never grasp.
All Tomaso Avesari had ever cared for was his legacy. Avesari e Figli, the family glassworks, was his world, and he meant it to be the world of his sons as well. Naming the business “Avesari and Sons” the moment he discovered his wife Donnatella was pregnant, Tomaso was convinced that the plan he had so carefully conceived would come to fruition. The fact that he had no idea whether his first child, or second when the time came, would be male was of little consequence. Tomaso seemed to extract two boys from his wife’s womb by the sheer force of his will.
And things appeared to be moving forward as planned. His brother Ciro, when old enough to begin instruction, responded enthusiastically to his father’s tutelage. And while not naturally gifted in the art of glassblowing, his insatiable need to please his father seemed enough to garner Tomaso’s love.
Three years later Paolo was born, and Tomaso, more than simply confident that his dream would indeed become reality, felt as though God himself had anointed the glassworks. Unlike his brother, Paolo displayed an immediate affinity for the delicate technique and enduring patience required to be one of the true masters of the craft. He quickly and almost effortlessly surpassed Ciro.
But, as with so many gifted people to whom things come too easily, Paolo’s boredom overcame the designs of age-old tradition, and he longed for something not of his world, and especially not of his father’s.
It was also then that he had found the Arsenale. He dreamed of working on the frames of the great galleys, his hands shaping the wood, the majestic ships still but sketches on scraps of paper. There was something about being present at the genesis of a thing that would later demand awe from all who saw it. But instead, he had been apprenticed in the rigging shed. Too filled with the rashness of youth, he could not appreciate the value of his simply being there. All he knew was disappointment, and he had been unable to conceal it. His apathy all too apparent, he was dispatched to the then
as one of his assistants, had worked hard in the subsequent years to become
himself, always hoping to return to the heart of the Arsenale. But the elusive second chance never came.
A bark of alarm pulled Paolo from his thoughts. Turning toward the entrance, he expected to see Francesco’s plump face flushed red with wine arriving with his precious cargo. Regardless of when during the day Paolo encountered the old merchant, his countenance was always unchanged—a pink splash of sunrise across both cheeks and a crooked smile dangling below. Francesco was forever frozen in artifice, always too charming. It made Paolo feel as though the merchant were trying to manipulate him. No one was that happy to see you unless they wanted something you were unwilling to give.
To Paolo’s dismay however, it was not Francesco but rather one of the men from the rope shed. Each area of the Arsenale housed a different wonder, and each and every work gang was convinced that its particular specialty was the crucial element that made the great republic the dominant maritime power in the Mediterranean. Paolo had to admit, there was justifiable reason for such conceit. It was the same reason the Arsenale alone consumed ten percent of the Republic’s entire budget.
Squat, square, and powerfully built, the rope worker moved toward Paolo with a jutting chin and the authority vested in him by his gang boss.
“Canever!” The man spat out the title in a vain attempt to establish dominance. Paolo was in no mood. “The wine is late, yes?”
A master of the obvious. What the man didn’t say, but surely implied, was
. Paolo smiled graciously. “I hope you have not traveled all the way from the rope shed to tell me something I already know.” The man narrowed his eyes. “I fear,” continued Paolo still smiling, “that both our time has been wasted by your…revelation.”