“Zio Tito,” asked my four-year-old nephew, “what do you think Befana will leave in my stocking?”
Little Matteo clung to my knee with candy-stickened hands and searched my face with grave brown eyes. It was the eve of Epiphany, only five days into the new year of 1740 and the night that the good witch Befana raced her flying goat all over the skies of Italy. In the morning, good children would awaken to find stockings stuffed with candy and trinkets. Naughty children would be rewarded with a single, bleak lump of coal. While I’d never actually known a child consigned to that terrible fate, Epiphany Eve could be an anxious time for a little boy whose curiosity often overcame his mother’s admonitions.
“Befana may not leave you anything.” I addressed the boy with mock severity, settling back into a stuffed chair after helping him hang two stockings over the sitting room stove. “It depends on how you’ve behaved.”
His huge eyes grew even larger as I pulled him onto my lap. “Now, you must tell your uncle the truth. While I’ve been away in Dresden, have you been into any mischief?”
Matteo shook his head quickly and tried to distract me with a question of his own. “What were you doing in Dresden, Zio?” The name of the unfamiliar Saxon town came out with a decided lisp.
“I was singing at the royal opera house. I played a knight in love with the sister of a wicked sorceress. For weeks and weeks, I sang every night and lots of people came to see me.”
“Did they like you?”
“Very much. After every aria, the people clapped and shouted for me to sing it again. They paid me so handsomely and gave me so many presents that now I can stay home in Venice and have a nice long rest.”
My nephew shrugged his shoulders with a contented sigh and began to twist the sparkling crystal buttons on my waistcoat. I raised his chin with my forefinger. “But tell me, little man, have you been behaving yourself? If you speak the truth, I may put in a good word for you with Befana.”
He darted a look toward my sister Annetta, who was bent over an embroidery frame trying to work by the flickering glow of a table lamp. “Have I been good, Mama?” he asked. “I tried to be.”
Annetta pushed her sewing aside, resisting a smile. The last few years had been kind to my sister. Marriage to my friend Augustus Rumbolt had erased the shadows of old worries from her eyes, and I was glad to see that she had traded her severely coiled braids for a loose chignon. As soon as I had stepped over our threshold, I had also noticed a new plumpness about the front of her apron that hinted I might soon have another niece or nephew to indulge. There couldn’t be too many for me. Since the knife that created my voice and my livelihood had also severed any hope of fathering my own children, my sister’s family was the only one I was ever likely to enjoy.
Annetta raised an eyebrow at the squirming, sticky bundle in my lap. “Have you forgotten that just this morning you hit your sister and took the sugar stick that Papa brought her from the market?”
Matteo sent me a stricken look. His nurse, Lucia, had come downstairs and was bearing down on him to commence the nightly ritual of undressing, washing, and bedside prayers.
I bent my mouth to his dark curls and whispered, “If you let Mama and Lucia put you to bed without a fuss, I think I can persuade Befana to overlook this morning. I’ll make that old witch jump down the chimney and stuff your stocking with more presents than you can carry.”
Annetta carried the grinning boy away, stopping in the hallway to allow him an enthusiastic hug for his Papa, who was just coming in from a long day at his easel.
Gussie Rumbolt was a second son of English gentry. Drawn to Italy by dreams of painting like the great masters, my friend and brother-in-law seemed to grow more Venetian with each passing year. It wasn’t his unruly yellow hair, blue eyes, or honest, pink-cheeked goodness that had changed. The signs of his transformation were much more subtle. Gussie’s walk had grown liquid and languid, his laughter more ready, and except for a few favorite exclamations, our soft Venetian idiom had gradually replaced his mongrel speech of English tidbits and schoolbook Italian.
When he caught sight of me, Gussie spread his arms and crossed the faded Persian carpet with long strides. As further proof that Venice was seeping into his soul, he did not pump my arm in his customary fashion but embraced me warmly and graciously endured a kiss on both cheeks.
“Tito, how long have you been here? Annetta should have sent to the studio for me.”
“My coach reached Mestre last night, but I couldn’t find passage on a boat crossing the lagoon until this afternoon. After I landed, I had to stop at the Post and call at my tailor’s. By the time I reached our door, it was almost dark. I wouldn’t let Annetta send old Lupo after you. She said you are swamped with work.”
“Rather!” His blue eyes twinkled. “I’ve secured a commission from one of my countrymen. The Duke of Richmond wants ten views of the Grand Canal as a memento of his visit to the sunny South.”
“An ambitious project.”
“Quite so, especially as the duke is in a hurry. I’ve had to hire several assistants—a boy to stretch the canvases and grind the pigments and another man to lay out the perspective and sketch the architecture. Of course, I’ll do all the painting myself.”
Gussie warmed his hands before the stove’s glowing coals, then moved to the cabinet that held some glasses and a decanter of Cyprus wine. In our case, the difficulties that are apt to arise when an extended family shares a house had been avoided by a fortuitous mixture of mutual affection and happenstance.
After the death of our father, this modest house on the Campo dei Polli had passed equally to Alessandro, Annetta, and me. Our younger sister, Grisella, had been lost to us long ago. Alessandro was the eldest, a merchant seaman. After years of sailing on ships owned by the great trading houses, he had finally amassed enough capital to purchase his own vessel. Venice might no longer be the complete mistress of Mediterranean trade that she once was, but my enterprising brother had managed to locate an exporter of Turkish tobacco who also provided a ready market for Venetian goods. Thanks to his loyal business partner in Constantinople, Alessandro reaped a tidy profit on glass chandeliers, books bound in gilded leather, exquisitely woven lace, and other luxuries produced on the islands of our lagoon republic.
I had not been seeing nearly as much of my brother as I would have liked. These days, Alessandro spent more time in Constantinople than Venice. Though he denied it, we half believed that he had set up housekeeping with a dusky Turkish beauty. At any rate, Alessandro occupied his room in the house on the Campo dei Polli only several months of the year, and when he sailed, he left no wife behind to foster strife by challenging Annetta’s domestic arrangements.
Traveling almost as often as my brother, I was as much of an Italian export as the Murano glass nestled in Alessandro’s straw-filled crates. Europe had gone mad for Italian opera. From Handel’s theater in London, to the chilly courts of Sweden and Russia, right down to the sunnier stages of Madrid, music lovers clamored for the vocal fireworks that only Italian singers could produce. Great sums were offered to engage the best singers, and I was counted among their ranks.
The best meant castrati—male singers gelded as boys to outwit nature and produce sopranos who could deliver angelic song with the powerful lungs of fully grown men. In addition to the surgery, the process of creating a castrato voice separated us from our families for years of intense musical training. It was a brutal system, but the public seemed to think that the end results outweighed our suffering.
There had been a time when I shrank from the role of musical eunuch, but I had given up my doubts and my meekness long ago. I was what I was. If that disturbed some people, so be it. Music was as much my delight as my master, and I was proud to be one of its most exclusive servants. However, I had to admit that my latest round of travels had been less than uplifting. Dresden had left me tired to the core of my being.
“How was the journey, Tito?” Gussie handed me a glass of wine as we settled ourselves in a pair of chairs by the stove.
I merely shrugged.
“You must have come over the Brenner,” he continued, “then down the valley to Bolzano. Not an easy journey over those mountains on winter roads.”
“Traveling wasn’t the worst of it.” I thought back to the endless hours in the hired coach, swaying and jogging over rutted roads with only the irreverent comments of my manservant, Benito, for amusement. “Though once we’d crossed the pass, the postilion trotted the horses downhill so fast, I fear my backside may never recover.” Gingerly, I shifted forward and contemplated the garnet liquid in my glass. “No, what I’m feeling is more than road weariness.”
“What is it then? You look quite done in.”
“Dresden doesn’t have public theaters like we do in Venice. There is only one opera house—wholly supported by the Elector, Prince Frederick Augustus. The singers and musicians are obliged to perform at His Majesty’s pleasure, and his royal pain in the ass desires the pleasure of music at all hours. He would keep us at the theater until midnight and beyond, then demand a performance while he took a late supper. Mornings, I had to report to the palace for lessons.”
“You had pupils there?”
“Yes, two young ladies. The Elector’s daughter and her companion.” I shook my head at the memory. “It was absolute torture! No matter how I encouraged or demonstrated, I couldn’t convince the girls that moderation was a virtue. They insisted on shrieking their notes as if they were playing to the fifth-tier boxes at the opera house. To make matters worse, the older one decided to fall in love with me. She started by brushing my hand as I turned the pages on her music book. Before I knew it, she was calling me her angel and tucking fervent notes in my pockets. I practically had to perform acrobatics to keep the clavier between us.”
Gussie’s paint-stained waistcoat rumbled with a deep chuckle. “Was the journey as profitable as you hoped?”
I nodded. “Mainly thanks to the concerts in private homes. Everyone was vying to have the Prince’s latest favorite, and the Saxons are a generous lot. Besides my fees, I collected a whole trunkful of snuffboxes and other costly gifts.”
“What’s next for our famous virtuoso?”
Instead of answering, I closed my eyes and let the familiar sounds of home surround me: the sighing of the coal in the plastered stove; a child’s laugh from the floor above; the muffled clatter of dishes as Lupo, our ancient factotum, set the dining table for the evening meal. A lump swelled in my throat. Why was it so hard to say that I simply needed to wrap myself in the warm mantle of home and family?
I answered Gussie’s question with a weak joke. “I suppose I’ll just rest in Venice until I grow fat as a sow and lazy as a Calabrian mule.” I stretched my arms above my head. “Thank God I’m not at the everlasting mercy of a patron. Not so many years ago, my entire career would have been spent singing for my supper at some noble court, dancing attendance on a master who wouldn’t know a decent portamento from a pisspot. But now that opera has become a business, theater managers are fighting to engage me. Thank God I’m free to make my own arrangements.”
I sank lower in my chair, smiling at the prospect of long mornings in my dressing gown, sipping chocolate and catching up on the gazettes. In the afternoons, Alessandro and I could loaf on the Piazza, and in the evenings, we’d all see what the Venetian opera houses had to offer. I’d eventually cast around for work that suited me. But only when I was fully ready.
My brother-in-law poked a pin in one of my lovely dream bubbles. “Alessandro isn’t here. His ship sailed this morning, but you can come with me to the studio tomorrow. This new project is really quite interesting. I’m starting with the Rialto Bridge at sunset. The light is tricky, but…”
I let Gussie chatter on. Watching paint dry wasn’t the sort of relaxation I had in mind. My thoughts sprang to the ghetto that lay a few squares away. It was an Israelite enclave, gated, and ringed by walls and wide canals. I’d befriended a family of Hebrews who kept an old clothing shop there. Perhaps tomorrow I’d make a visit to the Del’Vecchio household and inquire after their wandering daughter. I had not seen Liya for almost five years, since the unhappy events surrounding the murder of her lover, Luca Cavalieri.
I pictured the lovely Jewess as she had been at our last meeting: angry, grieving, poised to flee the stifling confines of tradition and religious prejudice for a freer life in the wild mountains of the mainland. Not for the first time, I puzzled over what might have happened to her and the child she carried.
A loud banging on our street door jerked me back to the present. I shot a questioning look toward Gussie. He shook his head, forehead wrinkled.
Lupo hobbled the few steps from dining room to front hall. The front door creaked, and the sitting room lamps flickered in the rush of cold air. The clatter of many boots filled the hall.
Gussie and I jumped up. Before we’d taken two steps, a uniformed constable burst into the room and ordered us to stand still. Ignoring our surprised protests, a dozen of these rough sbirri fanned out through the ground floor, overturning chairs and scattering papers and bric-a-brac.
Several made for the stairs. When a feminine scream sounded and was sharply cut off, Gussie and I pushed our way to the hall. On the stair landing, Annetta and Lucia each held a frightened, whimpering child. One constable had my manservant Benito by the collar and was threatening the little man with a thick truncheon. Old Lupo had collapsed in a heap by the front door.
“Annetta,” Gussie bellowed, charging the stairs. A bull-necked constable blocked his path. The man flashed his dagger, and my brother-in-law halted with the blade inches from his nose.
I ran to kneel beside old Lupo. His face was pale and a trickle of blood ran down his forehead, but he nodded to show that he still had his wits about him.
“What’s the meaning of this?” I cried to the assembled sbirri. “You have no right to barge in and terrorize decent citizens.”
“They have every right,” someone snapped from the front door.
Gussie and I turned to see Messer Grande, the chief of Venice’s constabulary. His red robe of office lent his weasel face an eminence it otherwise lacked. I had sparred with the man over the investigation of Luca Cavalieri’s murder. I would always remember his haughty incompetence, and I was certain that he had not forgotten what he had described as my amateurish meddling and lack of respect for my betters.
An unpleasant smile danced across Messer Grande’s lips as he entered and began to unfold an official-looking document. “My men are doing what they’re paid to do,” he said. “Securing the household of a wanted man. I have a warrant here—for the arrest of one Tito Amato, virtuoso.”
“What?” I cried.
Lupo weakly pressed my shoulder, urging me to stand. I propped the old servant’s back against the wall and went to face Messer Grande.
“I advise you to come quietly, Signor Amato.” His gaze was stony. “There is no reason why anyone else should be hurt.”
I was dumbfounded. I had committed no crime. When I’d set out for Dresden, I’d just finished a successful run in an opera by Maestro Vivaldi. I’d been the toast of Venice, everyone’s darling. Who could I have crossed in the few short hours since my return?
Gussie approached and extended his hand. “Let me see this warrant. Who authorized it?”
Messer Grande ignored Gussie and handed the paper to me, holding it by his fingertips as if he couldn’t bear to brush hands with a eunuch. As Gussie hung over my shoulder, I skimmed through the flowery legal language to the signature at the bottom of the page.
My heart sank. “Montorio,” I whispered.
Gussie was suitably impressed. “Senator Montorio? The State Inquisitor?”
I nodded. Doge Alvise Pisani and the senate elected by the heads of noble families were the titular rulers of the Venetian Republic. But everybody knew that the real power was concentrated in a secretive body of powerful senators called the Council of Ten. No unacceptable act or opinion escaped the notice of the inexorable Ten. With their well-paid network of spies and informers, they kept an ear to every café, church pew, and, it was rumored, bedroom. The Ten were a law unto themselves, and the instrument of their absolute authority was the Tribunal of State Inquisitors. In chamber, two inquisitors dressed in black robes and one in red. Senator Montorio wore the red.
Gussie stared in wordless bewilderment. Messer Grande waited by the door, smacking a limp pair of leather gloves against his palm.
“What am I accused of?” I asked. “Why was the warrant issued?”
“I’m not here to answer questions.” Messer Grande shrugged disdainfully, but his voice softened a trace. “I will, however, conduct you to someone who can.”
Despite the hackles rising on the back of my neck, I forced myself to lower the pitch of my natural speaking voice and calmly announce, “Don’t worry, Gussie. Someone has simply made an unfortunate mistake. I expect to sort things out and be home by tomorrow morning.”
Messer Grande didn’t even try to conceal his smirk.