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The Prince's Doom

The Prince's Doom

Book excerpt


Verona, Italy

Saturday, 26 November 1328

“Show me ‘yes’.”

Dark as an angry sky, the polished marble teardrop twitched, then began to describe a sinister circle.

“Show me ‘no’.” The stone at the end of the chain adroitly changed direction.

Watching, Elisabetta Contarini gasped and clutched the medal of her namesake, Santa Elizabetta of Portugal. “You’re doing that.”

“No, Madonna. Ask your questions and you will hear the truth.”

It took a moment to parse the diviner’s accent, but she obeyed. “Tell me – will Soranzo survive the year?”

The question repeated, the chain at the end of the diviner’s finger continued in the same direction. No.

Elisabetta glanced excitedly to her husband, sitting in bored submission. “Will my husband become Doge?”

Reversing, the teardrop spun leftwards with some force. A resounding Yes.

Watching from across the room, Francesco Dandolo was annoyed with himself for feeling pleased. Everyone knew he would be the next Doge. At seventy years of age, he had certainly showed patience, enduring many hardships and perjuring his soul to rise to the top of Venice’s Signoria. Barring any drastic change in Fortune’s wheel, Dandolo would be elected the moment Soranzo released the last bonds of life. Which would happen soon, according to this man.

But Dandolo refused to be drawn in by such a grotesque mountebank. He had not wanted to admit the man at all, but Zanino had been favourably impressed. As guests in an enemy city, and without invitation to the revels this night, they required amusement. If Elisabetta found the man’s trade entrancing, it did not hurt to indulge her, even if it was utter nonsense. Astrology, numerology, palmistry, divination – fashionable pastimes. Doge Soranzo himself put stock in such arts. 

Not that the ailing Doge would appreciate tonight’s prediction. While Elisabetta pressed on to more mundane matters – when the next shipment of silk would arrive, the birthdate of their latest grandchild – Dandolo tried to divine the man himself. Perhaps a soldier, crippled on some battlefield. For there had been an injury, a dreadful one. The right shoulder was badly bunched, and there was a crimp in the diviner’s left hip that forced him to rely on a heavy crutch. Worst of all was his visage. Whatever his other wounds, the left side of his face had received a devastating blow, causing his eye-socket to collapse inwards. Little wonder he kept his cowl forward. His was a face to turn the stoutest stomach.

But his voice was strong and clear, if marred by the unintelligible accent of Bergamo. His pendulum answered each question in turn. Wisely, not every answer was satisfying. Nothing makes an audience more suspicious than convenient truths.

There were clever wrinkles to the business, too. He carried a calendar, letting the pendulum hover over this date or that. Or else a map of Italy, crudely drawn – Naples was in the wrong place. But it allowed him to answer more than simple binary questions.

After twenty minutes, Elisabetta turned to her husband. “Ask it something!”

Dandolo smiled thinly. “Why is the sky blue?”

Elisabetta pouted. “Ask it something only you would know.”

Loving his wife, he relented. “Did I eat pickled apricots yesterday?”

The man had a fifty-fifty chance, and guessed correctly. At his wife’s urging, Dandolo posed several more queries of no consequence. Each time the answer was true.

Better lucky than skilled, thought Dandolo. Time to trick the diviner. “Did I meet the Greyhound today?”

It was well known that he had dined at the Scaligeri palace at noon, wading among the ornate flotsam flooding Verona for this momentous occasion. So when the dark pendulum tugged the chain to describe a negative, Elisabetta sighed in disappointment.

Dandolo frowned. “Has Venice bestowed its citizenship upon the Greyhound?”

Again, the answer was no. Elisabetta was distraught. Venice certainly had offered citizenship to Cangrande della Scala, months ago, as everyone knew.

Not by word or gesture did Dandolo betray his sudden interest. A truth known only to a few was that the man commonly called Il Veltro, the Greyhound, was not the true owner of that mythic title. That honour belonged to his natural child, whom Dandolo had not seen today, and who had not been granted the rare privilege of citizenship.

Several more questions, pointed now. All the answers were true. Either this crippled hulk was a genius of deception, or his gift was real.

Dandolo called for wine. “Put your tool down. If we go on, you’ll flay the skin from your hand.”

The man’s finger and thumb were indeed raw, and he accepted the cup of mulled wine with surprise. He knew the pendulum had been wrong about those two questions. Yet clearly the Venetian’s interest had been piqued.

Sipping his favoured beverage, Dandolo said, “You have a rare talent. I can see why Zanino insisted you call upon us. Have you always been so blessed?”

“There are some would call it a curse, my lord.”

“Of course. In Venice such things are tolerated. But many devout souls see it as witchcraft. Trading with the Devil. Is that how you came by your infirmities?”

“No, my lord. I took these many years ago, in Padua.”

“It has been a long war,” offered Dandolo. “You must be pleased to see the seal set on peace.”

The man shrugged his good shoulder. “Came to ply my trade. This is where the people are.”

“Where the people are indeed,” said Dandolo after navigating the man’s accent. “But you did not answer my question. Have you always been so talented?”

“No,” admitted the diviner. “It came after my injuries.”

Dandolo raised his brows. “Compensation, after a fashion.”

“Yes, lord.” Clearly uncomfortable, the cripple finished his drink, too quickly to be polite, then set it aside. “It grows late. Are there any last questions you’d like answered?”

Elisabetta said, “O, you’re not leaving? Francesco, you should put him on retainer. Your own spy into the divine.”

Dandolo paused. There was one question to which he would like an honest answer. How to phrase it? “Tell me this. I have been made an offer by someone here in Verona. My question is twofold. One, is the offer honest?”

The chain, the teardrop, the question. For the first time, the answer was equivocal, with the pendulum swinging in all directions. The diviner apologized, but Dandolo waved him off. “It was a poor question. Here is a better one. If I accept, will it benefit Venice?”

The bob on the chain spun leftwards so hard and so fast it might have pulled itself from the diviner’s fingers.

Dandolo’s mouth twitched. “Thank you. My mind is quite made up. Zanino will see you paid. One more thing. Should I seek your services again, where shall I find you?”

“I’m at the Duo Gentes, lord.”

“And what was your name?”

“Girolamo of Bergamo, my lord.”

“Thank you, Girolamo, for a most illuminating evening.”

As an excited Elisabetta raced to her closet to pen letters to her daughters, Dandolo waited until Zanino returned. How distressing, to see the first streaks of grey in his own son’s hair. The only son left to him, regrettably not by his wife. But it is a foolish man who places all hope of posterity in one womb.

“I hope your guest amused Donna Elisabetta, my lord.”

“Mightily. Now, as to the other matter. Send word to our Veronese friend – we accept.”


♦           ◊           ♦


London, England


The king tapped his foot in annoyance. “And where is the Earl of March today?”

“On the road, your highness,” replied Lord William Montagu, the king’s friend. “He’s chased Lancaster out of Winchester, and is returning.”

Edward III, King of England, grew momentarily still. “He did not catch Lancaster then?”

Montagu shook his head. “The Earl had a lucky escape.”

“Lucky for whom?” asked the king. Lancaster was a danger, true. More dangerous was what would happen once he was dead.

In the interval, the king’s tapping foot providing the only sound, Montagu reflected that it had been a year for narrow escapes. In August, as he tried to drive the Scots from his land, Edward himself had almost been captured by the Douglas. Returning from that humiliation, the king had then barely escaped falling into the power of his father’s second cousin, the warlike Earl of Lancaster.

Escape, however, did not bring freedom. Just two weeks past his sixteenth birthday, the king remained under the sway of Roger Mortimer. Newly-made the Earl of March, all knew that Mortimer was the lover of the King’s mother, Isabella of France.

Mortimer had spearheaded the invasion two years ago, championing his lover’s son as rightful ruler of England in place of that degenerate cuckold Edward II. Victorious, Mortimer discovered a taste for power, for riches, for rule. He was opposed by many, the most recent being the Earl of Lancaster, who sought to capture his royal cousin and use him to rule in Mortimer’s place.

Mortimer and Lancaster were like lions fighting over their prey. Having spent most of his twenty-seven years at court, Montagu knew the young king was not one to enjoy being thought of as prey. He bridled at his situation, and had hoped the Scottish campaign would earn him a measure of autonomy. Sadly, the reverse was true. He was now more dependent upon Mortimer than ever.

Edward resented his mother’s paramour, of that Montagu was sure. That he was obedient to Mortimer’s wishes was equally certain. Montagu wished he understood why. 

Pent-up energy propelled the king from his chair. “Stuck here all winter! We should have gone abroad.”

Seated across the room, the king’s younger brother grinned. “I told you,” said Prince John. “We should have gone to Crécy.”

Edward shook his head. “If I go to France, it will have to be with either gold or an army. Cousin Philippe is demanding tribute.”

“An army, then.” John was twelve years old.

“What army?” growled Edward. “Our soldiers are too busy fighting each other. They can’t even hold Scotland…!”

Here was the root of the king’s ill-humour. While his growth was stunted under other men’s shears, the rights his grandfather had squeezed from Scotland were all lost through the so-called Peace of Northampton, the result of his own failure. His French lands were threatened too, and there was nothing to be done. Not until the day when he was free to wield the power he held now only in name.

The king paced, biting back the worst of his thoughts, lest an incautious word be reported to Mortimer. They all knew the servants were feed by the Earl of March.

Montagu yawned, and the king said, “Do we bore you, Lord William?”

“No, your grace. I was kept awake last night by my son’s bawling.” In June, William’s wife had given birth to a lusty boy with lungs of iron.

Edward winced. Married less than a year, he was deeply in love with his wife, whom he considered a confidant and friend of his soul. Yet of late he had abstained the royal marriage bed. If Philippa should produce an heir, the succession would be secure, and the Earl of March would not need then a king growing into manhood. An unworthy suspicion, perhaps. But best not tempt a man who had already deposed one king.

Seeing his sovereign’s expression, Montagu had an inspiration. “If your highness is unwell, perhaps we should send to the Italian for a cure.”

Edward’s laugh was dark. “And what should Pancio do to cure a man sick at heart?” Pancio de Controne was the king’s personal physician, a native of the city of Lucca who had studied medicine at the University of Bologna.

“Tell you tales from Italy, of course. He still has many correspondents there. I know he is friendly with a doctor I met in Verona during my visit two years ago.”

Distracted by his own troubles, the king was heedless. There had to be some way to make his meaning heard. Snapping his fingers, Montagu said, “What is the date?”

Prince John replied, “Four days until the Feast of Saint Andrew.”

“Ah!” cried Montagu. “The heirs of Verona wed tomorrow!”

Edward paused in his pacing. “Each other?”

The king’s little brother chortled as Montagu pressed doggedly on. “Forgive me, your highness, no. The two male cousins are each to marry young women from outside Verona.”

“How old is the Heir?”

“Fourteen or so.”

“A year for young bridegrooms,” observed the king. “I wish him as happy a match as mine.”

“It should be a happy time,” said Montagu. “Like your highness, they are celebrating a peace. I’ve told you of Verona’s daring lord. He has won his rights in the region. As I understand, only one city holds out against his authority.”

The king jaw clenched with outrage, and only too late did Montagu realize his words were salt in the Scottish wound. Quickly he pressed on. “When your Grace gave me permission to joust there, I found Italy a most friendly land. Verona, especially. And they now have little need of their fine mercenary army.”

It was as far as he could go. Was it far enough?

The king’s eyes sharpened for a scant moment before glazing with feigned boredom. “I would like to see an Italian of the mold you describe. I’ve never met one yet worth a groat. Or a goat.”

“Your highness, shall I buy you one?”

“A goat?” asked John with a grin.

Smacking his brother’s head playfully, Edward said, “I have no need of goats, Sir John. William meant an Italian. Do, Lord Montagu, by all means. Find me an Italian to lighten my spirits. If you find one that is not too dear, perhaps we can make him dance.”

A question asked, a question answered. Now, whom to send? Who could be trusted, and was yet expendable? Montagu felt a small shame when the name came to him.

That name was Montagu.

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