Venice, page 1
Tom Swan and the Head of St George
Part Two: Venice
Tom Swan – Part Two: Venice
Also by Christian Cameron
There’s something very . . . historical, about writing an historical serial for e-publication. If it’s been done recently, I haven’t heard about it, and yet it has impeccable historical credentials – before we had the epub, we had the magazine, and in that format Dumas did it, and Conan Doyle, and a host of other authors with magnificent credentials; Harriet Beecher Stowe, for example, and Charles Dickens.
It’s a fine format. Instead of a single pulse of seven hundred manuscript pages, the author can write in blocks with independent storylines that may still have an arc and a complex interweb of characters and motivations. I was resistant – but not for long.
So here is Tom Swan, my first serial character. Tom is firmly based in history; Italy was full of itinerant Englishmen, especially soldiers, throughout the period, and so was Greece. I confess that the man who forms the basis for the character was not English but Italian – Cyriac of Ancona, sometimes known as the ‘Grandfather of Archaeology,’ who roved the Levant in search of antiquities and manuscripts that he could beg, borrow or steal for the Pope and other rich clients in their burning zeal to rediscover the ancient world. Ancient manuscripts were then, and remain, incredibly valuable; recent re-discovery of a complete text of Archimedes in a palimpsest shows that such manuscripts are still out there, and give us an idea of the kind of treasures for which Tom Swan – and Cyriac of Ancona – searched.
If this serial has some success, I’ll write more – the format, as I say, is fun, and allows me to explore some nooks and crannies of history – and even some characters that I’d love to take to greater depth; Philokles, in the Tyrant series; Archilogos (Arimnestos’s Ionian adversary) in the Long War series; Geoffrey de Charny in the late Middle Ages – the list goes on and on. And I’ll add pieces rapidly – perhaps even one a month.
Readers of my other books are aware that I’m a passionate re-enactor and also a military veteran, and that these experiences inform my writing. Those who are new to me deserve the following reassurance – I’ve worn the clothes and armour, and shot the bows, and rowed, and even ridden some of the horses. In the process of working as an intelligence professional, I met people who exercise real power every day, and I got an idea of how they work – and how history works. But I don’t do this in a vacuum and I receive an amazing level of support from friends, fellow re-enactors, veterans, academics crafts people and artists. In those last categories, I’d like to thank Dario Wielec, who drew the illustrations; he has a passion for historical detail that delights me every time I see his drawings, from any period, and you can see more of his stuff at http://dariocaballeros.blogspot.ca/. Finally, the ‘covers’ for the Tom Swan series are provided by Albion Swords, who are, to me, the premier manufacturers of accurate replica swords in North America. I use their products every day. How many people can say that – about swords?
Toronto, June 2012
Tom Swan – Part Two: Venice
Italy was a different world. The air was different. Farms were different. Food was delicious, women were beautiful, they flirted harder and they hit harder when offended. Men were quick to make friends and quick to draw knives.
Swan liked it.
They paused for a week in Florence, where Bessarion had relatives. Swan was enough part of the cardinal’s household that he had come to understand that the cardinal had an extensive network of informants and special friends who provided him with the essential information that allowed him to remain important and powerful – while impoverished.
Florence was . . . incredible. Swan went from one building to the next, from one magnificent vista to the next, from one Tuscan vintage to the next. One evening, he threw his arms around Giovanni Accudi and demanded to be made an Italian.
‘An Italianate Englishman is the devil come to earth,’ Cesare said, and laughed.
Two weeks later they were in Rome. Bessarion had a place – a magnificent set of apartments in an old palazzo, the whole decorated in statues pulled from the Forum, with paintings from many of the artists.
Swan had never seen so much wealth in his life. He’d been in the English palaces. They had carvings, old oak, blue and gilt ceilings . . .
They were like merchant’s homes in Cheapside compared to this. Every ceiling was painted with a scene – the resurrection of Christ, the birth of Venus, the crucifixion, the rending of Adonis by Artemis’s hunting dogs. Swan walked from room to room, his neck strained, watching the scenes go by and bumping into furniture.
Alessandro laughed at him. So did the lawyers, who, home at last, wanted to show off their adoptive city. ‘Come out with us!’ Giovanni said. ‘Meet the most beautiful women!’
‘Play cards with them,’ Cesare said.
‘Bed them,’ Giovanni said.
‘If you can pay,’ said Cesare, and he frowned. ‘Do you have any silver?’
Swan made a face. ‘Take me to a pawn shop,’ he said, ‘and I might have a little silver.’
Most of the cardinal’s entourage had their own homes, but the lawyers had rooms in the old palazzo and Giannis, the only one of the regular guards to be unmarried, also lived in the villa. Cesare pounded on his door. ‘Wear a clean doublet – we’re going to visit Aphrodite!’ he called.
Giannis opened the door. He had plainly been asleep. On the road, the guards – among whom he might have been numbered, at least by a casual observer – had been awake a great deal, even in safe towns in northern Italy. In the palazzo, they slept. Contrarily, the lawyers, who’d scarcely ever been employed on the road, were now expected to write all day.
Cesare looked Swan over in the courtyard of the palazzo. ‘You look like a very young assassin, or perhaps a peasant in the borrowed clothes of a relative,’ he said.
Indeed, Swan hadn’t bought a rag since Paris, and his one suit of doublet and hose had been slept in, fought in, and oft mended. Even clean, the doublet was threadbare.
Cesare, by contrast, looked like a different man. Instead of the long gown of his profession, or the travelling gown he’d worn on the road, he had a short doublet and very, very tight wool hose. As he was a big man, edging on to a life of having a roll of fat at his waist, he shook his head. ‘I’d lend you clothes,’ he said sadly. ‘But there’s nothing about you that’s the same size as me.’
The same was true of Accudi, who stood over six feet tall in his stockings and was as thin as a spear.
‘I’m not sure I can be seen in public with him,’ Giovanni said when he came down. His fine brocaded wool doublet contrasted perfectly with his hose and his matching shoes. Even his dagger belt matched, and had gold fittings that looked, to Swan, like real gold. ‘I’m not going to take him to Donna Lucrescia’s house. We’ll be mocked.’
‘I’m more afraid we’ll be killed,’ Cesare amended.
Swan began to be annoyed. ‘Go, then,’ he said. ‘I’ll stay home.’
‘Are you too poor to buy clothes?’ Cesare asked. ‘Good clothes can be had cheaply, if second hand. A good cutter can resew them in an hour.’
‘I wasn’t born yesterday,’ Swan complained. ‘We have clothes in London, too.’
Giannis came down in a pierced leather doublet and particoloured hose. He looked at Swan. ‘He can’t go out dressed like that. None of the girls will even look at him. He looks like somebody’s country cousin.’
Cesare guffawed, and Swan boiled over. ‘Very funny, you bastards!’
‘Fine. Let’s go to a pawnbroker’s. I’ll get a little cash, and then we’ll get some clothes. If you popinjays are then satisfied, we can go to dinner.’ He glared around at the two Italians and the Greek. They all smiled tolerantly back.
‘So young,’ Cesare said, and reached out to pinch his cheek. Swan’s hand whipped out and caught the Brescian’s. ‘And so touchy.’
The pawnbroker’s was nothing like a similar booth in Cheapside. First, the shop was in the front of a very old building of brick and stone near the ancient Forum. The street was broader than any street in London or Paris. The shop – if it was a shop – displayed few wares – a painting, some helmets of Milanese make, and a single, beautiful golden rose.
Swan looked hard at the rose. ‘Is that a papal rose?’ he asked.
Giovannni barely gave it a glance. ‘Yes. No doubt Frederico has a dozen of them. As soon as men get them they pawn them.’
Swan shook his head, shocked. ‘The highest award in Christendom?’
Cesare laughed and pounded his fist on the counter. ‘House!’ he called. ‘Customers!’
‘Hush,’ said Giovanni. ‘They’ll take us for peasants.’
A middle-aged man emerged from the back in the cap and gown of a rich merchant or a senior scholar – or perhaps a priest. ‘Ah – messires. A pleasure. I hope that you gentlemen had a pleasant trip north.’
‘Pleasant?’ Cesare said. ‘Frederico, you know better than that.’
The shop-owner, if he was such, shrugged expressively. ‘I hear things. The treaty died in a battle. Constantinople fell to the Turks.’ He shrugged again. ‘These are hard times. How may I help you gentlemen?’
‘My young friend has come into the possession . . . of items—’ Cesare smiled. ‘To be honest, I don’t know what he has. But I assured him that this house was the right house in which to sell them. Or leave them and borrow a little money.’
‘You may tell your friend to step in, then. Is he shy? Waiting in the street? Admiring antiquities in the Forum?’ The man in the cap walked out from behind his counter.
‘This young man right here,’ Giovanni said, pointing graciously to Swan with a sweep of his hand.
‘A servant? My dear friends, I do not lend money to servants.’ The man’s face closed. ‘Are you making game of me?’
Swan wavered between anger and amusement, but amusement won out. He bowed deeply. ‘Messire is mistaken if he thinks me a servant,’ he said. ‘Or perhaps not. I am, in fact, a poorly dressed Englishman. I serve God and my own interest – in that way I’m a servant.’
Frederico returned the bow. He smiled. ‘Ah! Your pardon, messire. A man can be judged only on clothes until he opens his mouth.’
‘And sometimes after,’ Swan said. ‘My clothes are against me, and it is to remedy this important shortcoming that I have come—’ He smiled and coughed. ‘Ahem.’
‘Just so!’ Frederico said.
‘Might we do this in private?’ Swan said.
The other three smiled and withdrew to the front step.
Swan opened his purse. ‘I have these,’ he said, withdrawing three ivory crucifixes. Each had the image of Christ in carefully carved and dyed ivory on a cross of ivory, about the size of a woman’s hand. All three were set in silver.
The banker – he was clearly no pawnbroker – put spectacles on his nose and bent over the ivories. ‘Not bad,’ he said. ‘Paris work. May I ask how you came to own them?’
Swan set his mouth, considered blank refusal, and then smiled. ‘Spoils of war,’ he said.
‘Ah!’ said the banker. ‘The owner is . . . dead?’
Swan was surprised by the direction of the conversation. ‘Yes,’ he lied.
‘Ah,’ the banker said. ‘Good. Do you wish a loan, or a sale?’
‘How much are we talking?’ Swan asked.
‘I never bargain,’ said the banker. He shrugged. ‘I never intended to be in this business and I despise haggling.’
Swan tried not to smile. In this case, he had heard it all before.
‘Twenty Venetian ducats for the good one, and ten each for the others,’ the banker said.
‘As a loan, you mean,’ Swan said.
‘No, that was my final price,’ said the banker.
Swan pursed his lips. ‘You know, my friends are in a hurry,’ he said. ‘But I am not in quite such a hurry as that.’ He picked them up and dropped them back in his wallet.
The banker plucked the spectacles off his nose. ‘What did you expect? A hundred ducats?’
‘More like four hundred,’ Swan said. He shrugged. ‘Good day.’
‘You’re mad!’ said the banker.
‘You mistook me for a servant, and then you mistook me for a mark.’ Swan smiled. ‘Would you like to start again?’
‘No,’ said the banker.
Now it was Swan’s turn to shrug. He walked out into the sunlight. ‘Take me where the man behind the counter knows what things are worth,’ he said loudly.
‘Don’t come into my shop again,’ said the banker, and the heavy door slammed shut.
‘He’s the best dealer in Rome,’ Cesare said.
Swan shook his head. ‘I’ve seen better dealers in a London thieves’ market,’ he said.
The third shop they visited was in the Jewish ghetto.
‘You are too picky. Are you sure these things are worth anything?’ Giovanni asked.
But the Jew was both friendlier and far more accommodating. Swan bowed deeply, was polite, and bargained only briefly. The Jew, Isaac, counted two hundred and fifty Venetian ducats into a bag. When he was done, Swan leaned over the counter. ‘Messire, I should very much like to learn Hebrew. And Arabic. I wonder if you know someone who might teach me.’
Isaac called for kahve. They were served the sweet stuff in tiny cups by a veiled woman and Swan felt as if he was living in a fantasy poem. After some sips, Isaac said, ‘You intend the priesthood?’
Swan shook his head. ‘No, my friend. I would like to travel. And to read scripture.’
Isaac nodded. ‘I will consider,’ he said. ‘I know a rabbi here who teaches foreigners. I could perhaps teach you Arabic. If not, I have a slave who might be of help.’
‘I would esteem it a favour,’ Swan said. He held out his hand.
Isaac took his hand. ‘Very few Christians clasp hands with Jews,’ he said.
Swan shrugged. ‘I’m told that Jesus’s mother, Mary, was a Jew,’ he said. He smiled to indicate that this wasn’t meant as an insult.
Isaac didn’t smile, but neither did he withdraw his hand. ‘Very few men think as you do,’ he said.
He walked out into the late afternoon sun to find three very disgruntled men waiting.
‘You had coffee with a Jew!’ Giannis spat.
Swan shrugged. He found that in Italy everyone shrugged as much as he did.
‘How much did you get?’ Cesare asked.
‘Enough. Let’s get some clothes,’ Swan said.
The clothing trade was one of the most prosperous and raucous in Rome. There was a market, where very pretty girls screamed prices at the tops of their lungs to lure male customers into their booths. It was early evening – the coolest part of the day – and the market was crowded. Most of the clients were religious – priests and monks who desired to have a second – or third – set of clothes in which to, as Cesare muttered, ‘have adventures’.
‘I don’t see any women’s clothes,’ Swan said.
Cesare snorted. ‘Women don’t buy used clothes,’ he said. ‘Or dress up or pretend to be what they are not.’
Swan laughed. ‘Do you know any women?’ he asked.
As a young man, he was immediately drawn to the dark-haired beauty in a gown recut to show her ankles and breasts. It was dark blue velvet. She smiled at him, and he instantly wanted to buy from her.
Swan smiled at the girl, but when she saw he was headed elsewhere, her eyes moved right through him and she was busy smiling at a young French priest behind him.
He followed Giovanni to a stall well up the middle street out of the market square. There was a dark awning; neatly folded shirts and braes and hose on a low cart in front, and a massive jumble of coats, jupons, doublets and short cloaks littering six tables stretching away into ever darker interior regions.
‘Foglio,’ Giovanni said, waving an arm like a man welcoming a guest into his home. ‘All the best clothing at the most reasonable prices.’
Cesare rolled his eyes. ‘If an Orsini dies, his clothes will be here in three hours,’ he said. He stepped out into the street and looked up. ‘Speaking of which, it is past six. What if I skip along and order dinner at Angela’s? And we’ll meet for mass, then eat and get laid?’
Giovanni put a hand over his eyes. ‘Really, Cesare! To speak of eating and mass in the same breath—’
Giannis smiled. ‘You are all going to hell. But you are poor heretics, so you know no better anyway.’ He nodded to Cesare. ‘I’ll accompany you.’
When the other two were gone, Giovanni turned. ‘What did you sell?’ he asked.
‘An heirloom,’ Swan said.
An old man came out of the shop. He bowed to Giovanni, and then turned to look at the Englishman.
‘This, I take it, is the customer?’ he said. His tone was acerbic, as if it was really too much bother for him to wait on anyone.
Swan smiled as ingratiatingly as he could manage.
Giovanni grinned. ‘He can pay,’ he said.
‘Ah!’ said the old man. He managed a smile. ‘I sell so much on credit.’
‘Last week, a young man who had bought on credit was killed in a street fight,’ Giovanni said. ‘When they took his corpse to be anointed, there was a man from Messire Siciliano here to take the clothes.’
Messer Siciliano shrugged. ‘What can I do?’ he said, as if he were the oppressed party. ‘And you cannot tell me the young scapegrace needed the clothes.’
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