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Venice Christian Year 1576
Sebastiano Venier, Doge of Venice, gazed from the stone quatrefoil window, with eyes that were as troubled as the ocean.
His weather-eye, sharpened by many years at sea, had seen the storm approaching for three days, clotting and clouding on the horizon and rolling in across the sickly amethyst waves. Now the maelstrom was here, and it had brought with it something more malign than ill weather.
With his flowing white beard and noble countenance, the Doge had been immortalized by Tintoretto and been compared to Neptune who also ruled a seabound kingdom. He had even, in hushed tones, been compared to the Almighty. A profoundly devout man, the Doge would have been deeply troubled, for different reasons, by each com- parison; but today he would have given anything to have the omnipotence to save Venice from her darkest hour.
He watched as six figures, huddled together against the elements, hurried along a dock already glazed with water at every flow of the tide, the ebb tugging at the hems of their black robes. The cloaks and cowls gave them a monastic look, but these six men were men of science, not religion. They dealt in life and death. They were doctors.
As they drew closer he could see their masks clearly;
bone-white beaks curving in a predatory hook from the dark cowls. The masks were frightening enough, but the reason for them even more ominous.
They were his Medico delle Peste. Plague doctors.
They were six scholars, men of letters from good fam- ilies, all schooled at the best medical academies, one for each of the six sestieri of Venice. To see the Doctors together was an ill omen. Doge Sebastiano Venier doubted that they had ever even met together before; and they seemed to him to swoop like a murder of crows at a graveside. Perhaps his own. His shoulders dropped for an instant; he felt very old.
He watched the doctors wade along the peerless Riva degli Schiavoni, one of the most wondrous streets in the world, and knew that any minute now they would enter his great white palace. The Doge’s skin chilled as if sea-spray had doused him. He leaned his head against the cool quar- rels of glass, and shut his eyes for one blessed instant. If he hadn’t done so, he might have seen a Venetian galleass sail- ing swiftly away on the dark and swelling waters; but he did close his eyes for a couple of heartbeats, just to be still and breathe in the salt ether.
The smell of Venice.
Sebastiano Venier straightened up, reminding himself who he was, where he was. He looked at the delicate stone- work of his windows, the finest Venetian glazing keeping the thunder of the sea from his ears. He looked up, tilting his noble head to the ceiling and the peerless frescoes of red and gold painted over hundreds of years by the finest Venetian artists, covering the cavernous, glorious space above. And yet, all the riches and the glory could not keep the Pestilence from his door.
The Doge settled in his great chair and waited for the
doctors to be announced. They filed in, dripping, and semi- circled him like vultures, the red crystal eyepieces set into their masks glittering hungrily, as if ready to peck the very flesh of him. But the moment they began to speak, the Doge ceased to be afraid of them.
‘We had expected it, my lord,’ said one. ‘In the botanical gardens of the Jesuiti, there have been of late unusual numbers of butterflies – hundreds upon thousands of them.’
The Doge raised a single, winter-white brow. ‘Butterflies?’
The doctor, failing to register the steel in the Doge’s tone, prattled on. ‘Why, Doge, butterflies are well known to be harbingers of pestilence.’
‘It is true,’ chimed in another. ‘There have been other signs too. There is a bakery in the Arsenale, and when you tear the loaves in twain, the bread itself begins to bleed.’
The Doge rapped his fingertips on the arm of his chair. ‘The fact that the pestilence has arrived in Venice is not a matter for debate. The question is, how to best treat the Plague.’
It was no use. One physician wanted to combat the pesti- lence by advising his patients to wear a dead toad around the neck. The next advised backing a live pigeon into the patients’ swollen buboes in the groin and armpit, so that the tail feathers could draw out the poison. They began to talk over one another, their beaks almost clashing, the masks now ridiculous; the doctors’ learned, mellow voices raised in pitch until they were quacking like so many ducks.
The Doge, irritated, found his attention wandering. These physicians were charlatans, buffoons, each one more self-important than the next. His eyes drifted to the shadow of an arras, where a man, an old man like himself, stood
listening; waiting for the moment when the Doge would call him forth, and tell him why he had been summoned.
The old man in the shadows – who happened to be an architect – was not really listening either. Always more interested in buildings than people, he was admiring how the stone cross ribs above his head described the curve of the ceiling, and how the proportions of the pilasters complemented the great panels of the frescoes.
Like the Doge, he had felt an initial jag of fear when he had seen the doctors enter the room. Everyone, from the Doge to the meanest beggar, knew what the masks meant. The Plague was in the city. But the architect was not overly concerned. There had been a minor outbreak of Plague two years ago, and he would do now what he’d done then. He would leave the city and go into the Veneto; perhaps back to his old home, Vicenza. There, in the hills, he would wait and plan and draw. He would sip wine while he waited for the Plague to slake its own thirst. With a fast boat to Mestre and a faster horse to Treviso, he could be at Maser by sunset, at the house of his good friends the Barbaro broth- ers. There would be room at their house, he knew it; after all, he had built it. As soon as he had found out what the Doge willed he would be gone.
The Doge had heard enough. These doctors could not help Venice. They would dispense their potions and remedies, make gold along the way, and some citizens would live and some would die. He grasped his chair until his knuckles whitened and as he looked down in despair. His own hands
depressed him – gnarled and veined and liverspotted. How could an old man hold back the Plague?
He cleared his throat. He must act. He could not let his legacy be to allow this jewel of a city to be blasted by pesti- lence. The Doge’s old heart quickened. He got to his feet, his blood rushing to his head. ‘You are dismissed,’ he said to the doctors, slightly too loudly. ‘Get out.’ He flapped his arms as if to scare them away like the crows they were. He waited till the doors had closed behind them. ‘Andrea Palladio,’ the Doge said, his tones ringing out in the great chamber, ‘come forth.’
Palladio stepped from the shadows, and walked to stand before the Doge’s great chair. The wind rattled at the case- ments, bidding to be let in, bringing its passenger the pestilence with it. Palladio fidgeted, anxious, now, to be gone; but the Doge, his anger spent, had taken his seat again, and seemed in a reflective mood.
‘Have you heard of the miracle of Saint Sebastian of Giudecca?’
Palladio frowned slightly. Although he had never met the Doge before, he knew of him by repute; a sea lord of forty years standing, deeply devout, respected, and intelligent enough to have avoided the Republic’s dreadful prisons through many successive councils of The Ten. Had Sebastiano Venier come to the greatest office too late? Was his mind now addled? Through the windows he could see the island of Giudecca, battered by rain, but still one of the most beautiful sestieri of Venice, curving round the back of the old city like a spine. ‘Yes, of course.’ He answered slowly, wondering where the question tended. The Doge began to speak again, as if telling a tale or preaching a parable.
‘In the grip of the last great Plague in 1464, a young sol- dier came to the gates of the monastery of Santa Croce on Giudecca and called out for water. The sisters were all within, the Lady Abbess herself suffering from the pesti- lence. The portonera, one Sister Scholastica, came to the gate. When she cast her eyes on the young man she saw he had armour of shining silver, hair of golden fire and eyes of sapphire blue. Awed, she passed him a cup of water on the convent’s wheel, and he drank. The vision thanked Scholastica and instructed her and all her sisters to pray to Saint Sebastian day and night, and drink of the water of the well. If they did this, the convent would be spared of the Plague. Then he struck his sword to the ground and departed from her, as if no more than a wisp.’
Palladio, who had been wondering how fast he could get to Mestre once the Doge was done, felt prompted by the sudden silence. ‘What happened?’ he asked.
‘The Lady Abbess recovered that night, as did every other nun who was ill. None of the other sisters was touched by the Plague, and all those who drank of the well were saved.’ The Doge rose and stepped off his dais. He walked to Palladio and faced him, looking down from his greater height. ‘The monastery was a place of pilgrimage for many years, and the people took the waters from the well for the Plague, and later, other ailments. When I was born, four doors away from Santa Croce in the Venier Palace, I was named Sebastiano after this miracle. But now the convent is a ruin.’ He fell quiet.
The wind whistled into the silence. Palladio thought he knew, now, what was required of him, and his heart sank. For years he’d wanted to build on Giudecca, an island with good ground of solid rock and some of the best vistas on to
the lagoon. For years he’d petitioned the Council of Ten for a site there, to no avail. But now, when all he wanted to do was quit the city, the very thing he wanted most was to be presented to him. Palladio’s thin mouth twisted in half a smile. Sometimes he thought that the Almighty had a rich sense of irony. ‘And you want me to rebuild the monastery of Santa Croce?’
‘No, not precisely that.’ The Doge crossed to the window once again. ‘Look at them, Andrea.’ With a sweep of his gnarled hand he invited Palladio to look down on to the wondrous expanse of Saint Mark’s Square. Two prostitutes strolled below the window in their traditional yellow and red, and despite the lashing rain, their breasts were bare and swinging freely as they walked.
Palladio, too old to be moved by such sights, spotted one who was not; a man watched them from the arches of the Procuratie Vecchie, his hand revoltingly busy in his crotch. The watcher beckoned the women into the arch with him, and, as soon as a coin had changed hands he pushed one against one of the noble pillars of the loggia, rutting and thrusting below her bunched skirts. The other woman pushed her hand down the back of his breeches to assist her client’s pleasure. ‘In the street, Andrea,’ said the Doge, turning away. ‘In the very street. That magnificent pillar, constructed by your brother-architect Sansovino to make this square the most beautiful in the world, is now a polly- pole.’ He sighed in counterpoint with the wind. ‘The licentiousness, the decadence, it is getting worse. Such behaviour used only to manifest itself at Carnevale, for two short weeks of the year. Now such sights are commonplace. We are known for it abroad. Derided. They do not speak of Sansovino’s pillars, nor your own villas and churches. They
speak of the whores that ply their trade in the streets.’ The Doge placed his hand on the window catch, trying it, as if to make sure the miasma was kept out. ‘And once word spreads about the city that the Plague is with us, it will be worse. The shadow of death does strange things to a man – he becomes lawless, and he feels he must rut and steal and lie and make coin while he may.’
Palladio was trying to connect the fractured tracks of the Doge’s discourse, the miracles and the harlots.
‘Only one man can save these wanton, wonderful people from the Plague, and from themselves, and it is not I.’
Palladio thought of the six doctors of the sestieri, none of whom seemed to be worthy of the mantle of saviour. Then he realized that the Doge was speaking of Christ, and he arranged his features into an expression of piety. The Doge turned his watery blue eyes upon him. Pale and rheumy, the orbs looked old and defeated. ‘You are that man.’
Palladio’s expression of reverence dropped with his jaw.
‘Don’t you see? God is punishing Venice. We need an offering, a gift so great that we will turn the edge of the divine anger and stay His hand from smiting our city. If medicine cannot help us, then we must turn to prayer. You, Andrea, you will build a church, on the ruins of the convent of Santa Croce. You will work in the footsteps of Saint Sebastian and build a church so wonderful, so pleasing to the glory of God, that it rivals His creation. And when you are done, the people will come, in their hundreds and thou- sands, and turn to God; they will praise Him with their voices and thank Him upon their knees. The power of prayer will redeem us all.’
Palladio blustered his reluctance. ‘But . . . I’d thought,
of course I’d be honoured, but perhaps I could direct operations from Vicenza or maybe Treviso . . .’
The sentence died under the Doge’s eye, and the wind whistled in mockery. The Doge let a moment pass before speaking. ‘Andrea. We are old men. The time left to us is short. You will stay in Venice, as will I. There is no greater service you can render your city than this. Don’t you see?’ He took Palladio’s shoulders in his hands, with a surpris- ingly strong grip. ‘You are entering into a contract with God himself.’
Palladio remembered that as a young mason he always used to find fossils in the stone that he worked. No day would pass without him finding at least one nautilus, fossilized in its perfect Vitruvian spiral, compressed and entombed for thousands of years in the Carrera marble. And now he was equally trapped: his appointment held him; he was imprisoned, literally, in stone.
He recognized the devotion in the Doge’s eyes and knew that Sebastiano Venier would not be gainsaid. How could he ever have thought the Doge’s eyes were those of an old man? They blazed now with the blue fire of the zealot, the fire of Saint Sebastian. Even if he’d had the courage to refuse, the proximity of the prisons settled the matter. Palladio bowed his head in silent acquiescence.
The Doge, who had not been anticipating a refusal, called for his chamberlain. ‘Camerlengo, take Signor Palladio to his house – he is to have everything he needs. And, Camerlengo,’ he called as the chamberlain was about to follow Palladio through the great doors, ‘now find me a real Doctor.’
Constantinople, Ottoman Year 983 One Month Earlier
Feyra Adalet bint Timurhan Murad took extra care with her appearance that morning.
Her father had already left the house, so she could not – as she often did – put on his clothes. It was common in Constantinople, among the poorer families, for women and men to wear the same; male and female clothing was so similar anyway, and there was often only enough money for one good suit of clothes; for one good pair of shoes. Feyra and her father were not badly off, as Timurhan bin Yunus Murad was a sea captain of good rank and standing, but Feyra still approved of the tradition: it helped her to hide.
Today, her father must have had an appointment of some consequence, and an early one at that; for when Feyra opened the carved lattice shutters of her window she could see that the sun had barely risen over the city. The domes and the minarets that she loved were still only silhouettes, describing a perfect negative contour of darkness bitten out of the coral sky. Feyra breathed in the salt of the ether.
The smell of Constantinople.
She looked out to sea, barely yet a silver line in the dawn light, wondering what lay beyond it. For an instant she felt
a yearning for another land, for those places that lived for her only in the stories of a seafaring father.
But Feyra’s reverie had cost her time. Turning away from the view, she faced, instead, the rectangle of silver that hung on the wall, edged in enamel and polished to almost perfect reflection, distorted only slightly by the dents of the metal. It had been brought back for her by her father from some Eastern land over some Eastern sea and had hung in her room since she was a baby. As a child the mirror had been a curiosity; it had shown her what colour her eyes were, what her face looked like as she pulled it into odd shapes, how far her tongue could reach when she stuck it out. Now that Feyra was a woman, the mirror was her best friend.
Feyra looked carefully at her reflected self, trying to see what the men saw. When she’d first noticed men staring at her in the street, she had begun to cover her hair. Then they stared at her mouth, so she took to wearing the half-face veil, the yashmak. She had even chosen one with sequins at the hem, so that the gold would draw their eyes away from hers. But still they stared, so she switched to the ormisi, a thin veil about a hand span in width that was worn over the eyes. When this didn’t work she surmised that her body must be attracting the male gaze. She began to bind her budding breasts so tightly that they hurt, and yet still they stared. Why did they stare?
Feyra had read enough sonnets and odes of the lovesick to know that she did not confirm to the ideals of the Ottoman poets. Nor did she even resemble the maidens who featured in the bawdy macaroons her father’s sailor friends sang; she overheard them, sometimes, when she was in bed and they were downstairs at dinner and had had too much to drink.
Feyra did not consider her amber eyes, large but slightly slanted like a cat’s, round and dark enough to be praised in song. Her small, neat nose was too upturned for beauty. Her skin was the colour of coffee, not dusky enough for men to write poems about. Her hair, falling in thick swags and ringlets to her shoulder blades, was not silken and straight enough for the poets, and the colour was wrong too: every shade of tawny brown, not one of them dark enough to be compared to a raven’s wing. And her wide, ruddy mouth, strangest of all, with the top lip bigger than the bottom, was a generous shape that could not, in even the most heroic couplet, be compared to a rosebud.
To her, her features – taken separately, taken as a whole – were unremarkable, even odd. But they seemed to have some strange power that she didn’t understand, and cer- tainly didn’t welcome. Even her disguises had limited efficacy. If she covered her eyes, men looked at her mouth. If she covered her mouth, they stared at her eyes. If she covered her hair, they looked at her figure. But she still had to try, for the inconveniences of her daily disguise were nothing to the consequences of revealing herself.
The Feyra in the looking-glass raised her chin a fraction and the reflection encouraged her. Today she must wear feminine garb; very well, she would make the best of it. She began her ritual.
Wearing only her wide billowing breeches made of trans- parent silk, Feyra took a long, cream bandage and tucked one end into her armpit. She pulled the material tight to her flesh, round and round her ample chest. When her breasts pained her and her breath felt short, she was grimly happy.
Now it was time for the gown. Feyra’s father had brought her gowns of gold and silver satin, brocade, bales of samite
and Damascene silk from the four corners of the world. But they lay untouched in a sea chest below the window. Instead she had bought a plain shift dress, a barami, in the Bedestan market. The dress fell without folds to the ground, disguis- ing her shape. Next she added the upper gown, the ferace, bodice buttoned to the waist after which it was left open.
Then she combed and plaited her hair, coiling it around the top of her head like a crown. She struggled with the curls that crept from her veil by the day’s end however hard she tucked them back. Every day she tried to tame them. She placed and tied a veil of thin taminy over her hair, and tied it around the forehead with a braided thread. Then she damped the tendrils around her face with rosewater and pushed them viciously back until not a single strand could be seen.
Over it all she crammed a four-cornered hotoz cap, which buttoned under the chin, and a square yemine veil to cover her whole face. Then she took a length of plain tulle and wound it around her neck several times. She looked in the mirror again. Effectively swaddled, she was unrecognizable. Her clothes were the hue of sand and cinnamon, designed to blend in to the city and offer her camouflage. The only flare of colour were the yellow slippers of her faith – leather slippers with upturned toes that were fastened over the instep, practical and proof to water and the other more noxious fluids she was wont to encounter in her job.
Dressed at last, she added no ornaments to her apparel. Feyra had gold enough – she had as many trinkets as an indulgent father could provide, but bangles and baubles would draw attention to her – and what was more, interfere with her work.
Feyra’s finishing touch was born of utility, not fashion
nor status: a belt, bulky and ugly, an invention of her own. It held a series of little glass bottles and vials, each in an indi- vidual leather capsa, all strung together on a broad leather band with a large brass buckle. She strapped the thing beneath her ferace, so it was completely hidden at her waist while at the same time making her dumpy in the middle and giving her the silhouette of a woman twice her age.
By the time she was finished, the sun was fully up and the sky had bleached to a birds-egg blue. She allowed herself one more glance at the city she loved, now described in every daylit detail. The heartbreaking curve of the glittering bay, the houses and temples lying like a jewelled collar upon this matchless curve of coastline. Crouching like a sentinel of the Bosphorus was the great temple of the Hagia Sophia, where the Sultan’s hawks rose on the thermals from the sunbeaten golden dome. Feyra forgot her moment of yearning; she no longer wanted to know where the sea went. She vowed, instead, that she would never leave this city.
The wailing song of the muezzin-basi floated in a sweet, mournful thread from the towers of the Sophia to her ear. Sabah, sunrise prayer. Feyra turned and ran, clattering down the stairs.
She was very, very, late.