1589 A.D. - Republic of Venice
“Were you followed?”
Angelo Mascari struggled to catch his breath, panting from his twenty-minute sprint through serpentine streets in oppressive summer humidity, not yet able to answer the tall nobleman glaring at him with steady, pale blue eyes.
Unfamiliar with this district of Venice, Angelo’s nerves demanded his senses be at full attention. They stood on the fondamenta of a narrow canal at a corner outside the Jewish Ghetto. No torches or lanterns lit the footbridge, the wall’s porticos, or a dozen other potential hiding spots on either side of the waterway. Silently, he thanked the moon for its fullness, as its light would provide precious seconds of reaction time should a lurker reveal himself. A black skiff bobbed next to them. Other than retreating the way he’d come, the boat was his only option for escape.
He was hesitant to trust the nobleman, but with friends in short supply and a warrant on his head, Angelo had little choice. That the man had yet to kill or arrest him was a promising sign. He slowed his breathing and leaned against the wall, the stucco’s mildew finer than wet velvet.
“You spoke the truth,” Angelo said between inhalations. “I should not have gone.” The heavy sea air left a salty tang on his lips.
“Were you followed?” his contact asked with a clipped whisper. Though the windows in the four-story buildings looming over them were shuttered, voices carried in the cramped neighborhood.
“No, impossible.” Angelo scanned the alley and glanced over his shoulder, more concerned with potential pursuers than prying ears. His words betrayed his confidence. No one was aware of his attendance at his beloved’s sentencing—but anything was possible.
I know that now.
His unnamed collaborator narrowed his eyes, seemingly reading Angelo’s doubt. Six or seven decades of lines etched themselves into the man’s face, framed by chin-length, oyster-gray hair. A snub nose lay in waiting over a trimmed beard of tarnished silver.
“Your childish endeavor accomplished nothing and nearly ended your life.”
Angelo did not appreciate this near-stranger chastising him, but he held his tongue. During their lone prior meeting, the man declined to disclose how he knew of Angelo’s predicament. He had also refused to divulge his identity, though his precise, modulated diction and distinct, upper-class air exposed his nobility.
“And you ruined your garments.” He scowled at Angelo’s lacerated hemp doublet and bloodstained white wool shirt, a stark contrast from the man’s all-black, posh attire. “That may pose a problem,” he said.
Angelo scratched at the squalid bandage that wrapped his left ear. Having neither bathed nor seen a mirror in many days, grime coated his bruised face and matted his curly, dark hair, but he cared not about his appearance.
The incredible sight he witnessed less than an hour earlier dominated his thoughts, though he’d yet to process it. He loathed to trust his eyes. From a concealed alcove in perhaps the largest room in Venice, he had watched, helpless. As his enemies concluded their ritual, it appeared as though they had drained Isabella’s very life essence from her body. In the flesh, yet flesh no more. The unimaginable agony she endured. His final vision of the once-beautiful girl, wilted and shackled, would be engraved in his brain for the remainder of his days, however few they may be.
He blamed himself for the whole of the affair. How could he not? Though only twenty, Angelo strove to live a virtuous life despite the widespread vice in his city. In the end, he succumbed to the greatest addiction of all—love.
Now, with no foreseeable way to rescue her, he felt no justification for standing unscathed. He should have been in her place. With his dreams quashed and his well-being an afterthought, he had two goals: avenge his beloved and—by some means yet known—save her from the torturous fate that befell her.
“Be truthful,” Angelo said, a humble demand. “What has become of Isabella? What? What did I witness?” He hung his head at the hopelessness.
“Mourn later. She’s not lost forever.”
A breeze skittered moonlight across the canal, bringing with it an acrid, fishy odor, though Angelo found it refreshing on his sweat-drenched skin. Hope swelled within.
From under his gold-embroidered, hip-length linen cloak, the nobleman removed a pouch of coins and a sealed letter, which he offered to Angelo. “Take these and this skiff. Make your way to Palos in Spain and find Sebastiano Cadamosto. Give him the letter. He’ll provide you passage to New Spain.”
“New Spain? What about our next move?”
“This is your next move. It’s your only move. At least for some time.”
“It’s the other side of the world.” Angelo abhorred the desperation in his voice, like a punished boy sent away when a man’s work had to be done.
“At present, you’re a liability to the Guild, to the cause at large. You’ll be caught here, anywhere in the Republic, perhaps anywhere in Europe. Go, posthaste. The ceremony has surely ended by now.”
Angelo eyed the boat. He had already been forced to flee danger twice in three days. The mere notion of abandoning Venice without so much as a goodbye to his friends and family grated his core. He’d never set foot on the mainland and was now told to traverse it. A most uncertain future lay beyond the horizon. How could he help Isabella from across the oceans, idling for years with a handful of ducats to his name?
“No,” Angelo said. “I cannot leave my home.”
“You should have considered that before seducing a married woman.”
Angelo seethed. “She’s the love of my life. Not some wanton mistress. I’ll join your cause and fight them here.” He grasped the rapier at his hip.
“Your prowess with the blade is well known.” The nobleman laid a gentle hand over Angelo’s and guided the sword into its sheath. “But how will you fare against a hundred men?”
“I shall die fighting.”
“Death is but the first consideration. And then your beloved will indeed be lost forever.”
Angelo conceded and released the hilt. He accepted the letter and coin purse, tucking them into his doublet. “To what purpose do you aid me? Answer that, I pray you.”
“Mutual adversaries. You may be the key to their demise. I’ll send word when it’s safe to return. When we can free Isabella and the others. Now go.”
With a reluctant nod, Angelo untied the small boat, then clasped his collaborator’s hand. “Thank you, sir. Tell me. How can I save her?”
“We need to—”
A whiz through the air was followed by the sickening thud of penetrated flesh and bone. The nobleman gazed at the blood pooling around the tip of the arrow jutting from his right shoulder, then at Angelo, with a mouth agape and befuddled eyes.
A second arrow embedded itself in his collaborator’s thigh. Cries of anguish slipped from the old man’s sagging lips. He dropped to his knees. The sight of yet another person’s blood inches away was too much for Angelo to bear. Like all Venetians, he was accustomed to injury and death, but never like what he’d witnessed recently. Never so sadistically.
“Go,” the man ordered, straining to utter the command. “You’ve seen what happens if they catch you alive.”
Angelo crouched and examined the arrow.
“There’s nothing you can do.”
Shifting to the wall, Angelo peeked around the corner. Two hulking men dressed in dark garb—one winding a crossbow, the other loading a bolt into his, stood thirty paces away.
“How? How can I save her?” Angelo asked in a whisper, crouching close to his collaborator. If he didn’t learn now, he’d likely never learn.
“Love of God, Mascari.” The man gripped Angelo’s collar. “What are you waiting for?”
Footsteps ambushed them.
Angelo squeezed the nobleman’s uninjured shoulder, then drew his rapier. “Wrongs shall be righted. Starting now.”
The attackers reached the corner. Both wore hoods obscuring much of their faces. A scar spread from the larger one’s eye to his mouth. The shorter of the two, though taller than Angelo, had an unruly brown beard.
“Run, you fool,” the nobleman shouted as he slunk into the canal, just below the bearded man’s swipe. The nobleman struggled to swim away, but the assailant caught his cloak and hauled him back onto the ledge.
The larger attacker charged. Angelo was ready. He lunged his rapier at the man’s crossbow, inducing an errant shot. The arrow ricocheted off the wall. In a flash, the man dropped the weapon, drew a short sword, and unleashed an assault. He pressed Angelo without remorse, driving the bout down the length of the narrow fondamenta.
The strikes were relentless and crushing, but the attacker’s shoddy technique exposed a weakness—his arm remained stiff, his wrist lacked rotation. Angelo parried the hacks, anticipating the right moment to riposte. It soon arrived. He angled for a side-cutting stroke, but an arrow flew through the flesh between his knuckles, cleaving a lump of skin from the back of his hand and spraying his arm with blood. The bearded assailant, while kneeing the nobleman to the ground, had shot with remarkable aim. Angelo gritted his teeth; his scorching right hand would be useless in this contest.
In one fluid motion, Angelo parried a wild swing from the attacker, tossed his rapier to his weaker left hand, and pivoted, dodging another blow. The switch drove his opponent off balance. His blade scraped the wall.
Angelo circled the man’s short sword with his rapier and squatted, completing his move with a slice through both thighs. The man dropped to his knees, writhing in agony. Angelo kicked his chin, then booted him into the canal.
Isabella was not yet lost.
He rushed to aid his collaborator but stopped short. From the alley, the commotion of an untold number of men, yelling and running toward him, reverberated off the adjacent walls.
At the corner, the nobleman’s eyes grew wide at the fast-approaching mob. “Go,” he screamed to Angelo with his remaining strength.
Death is but the first consideration. His collaborator’s words tolled in Angelo’s mind.
He spun, stomped on the scarred man’s fingers gripping the fondamenta edge, and raced for the skiff. An arrow zipped over Angelo’s head as his horsehide boots met the boat’s bottom, his impetus propelling the craft forward. He thrust the oars into the murky water.
Half a dozen men, all in black, rounded the corner. The first gave chase, dashing along the canal edge. Angelo paddled with all his strength, an excruciating task with a mangled hand.
At the canal’s edge, the pursuer tossed his empty crossbow on the cobblestones and dove for the boat. He caught the gunwale, nearly capsizing it.
“The Order will take you,” he cried as he climbed in.
Angelo yanked an oar from its rowlock and swung it into the attacker’s cheek, knocking the man into the water. Resuming his frantic paddling, he glimpsed the far end of the fondamenta. As the bearded assailant pressed the nobleman to the ground, the old man stretched for his boot, retrieved a dagger… and slid the blade across his own throat.
Stunned, Angelo rested an oar to cross himself.
An arrow struck the skiff. Another flew past his ear. As more arrows landed in the water, Angelo hunkered and rowed furiously to the wider Rio di San Girolamo canal, which led to the open waters of the Venetian Lagoon.
Guilt roared through him—his collaborator’s death was on his hands. A vision of Isabella flashed in his mind. 'Mòre mio. I failed you.
One day, he vowed. One day, her captors will feel a pain far more severe.