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The Book of Unholy Mischief: A Novelby Elle Newmark
The Book of Unholy Mischief
My name is Luciano — just Luciano. I'm Venetian by birth, old now and chained to my memories, compelled to return, link by link, seeking clarity.
There's a matter about which I am sworn to secrecy, but times have changed since I took my oath. In my lifetime, I've witnessed man's emergence from centuries of darkness. Great thinkers have unlocked our minds, and great artists have opened our eyes and our hearts. Some are calling it a renaissance — a rebirth — and it will reverberate far into the future because of a miraculous new invention called the printing press. Perhaps, now, it would be a disservice to the advancement of knowledge to remain silent. Perhaps the pendulum has swung a full arc, and the time has come for me to speak. If I proceed with caution...well, those who have ears, let them hear.
The intrigue took place in my youth, when I served as an apprentice to the doge's chef in Venice. I first suspected some unholy mischief when the doge invited an uncouth peasant to dine with him in the palace. In the time-honored tradition of servants everywhere, I assumed my post behind the slightly open service door to the dining room in order to spy, and I marveled at the sight of them together: The doge, chief magistrate of the Most Serene Republic of Venice, gracious and bejeweled, sat with his guest, a bewildered paesano with calloused hands, dirt under his fingernails, and unwashed hair that had been hastily wetted and pushed off his face to show respect.
The meal began with clear calf's-foot broth served in shallow porcelain bowls so fine as to appear translucent in candlelight. The peasant offered the serving maid a sheepish smile and murmured, "Grazie, signora." His rough voice clashed with his meek demeanor.
She snorted at his ignorance — the absurdity of thanking a serving maid — then bowed to the doge and took her leave. Out on the landing, with me, she mumbled, "I hope that dumb contadino enjoys his free meal. The doge is up to no good." She shrugged and went down to the kitchen for the next course, but she needn't have bothered.
The peasant stared into his soup bowl like a Circassian studying tea leaves. Having come from his world myself, I could read his mind: Surely, here in the palace, soup should not be gulped from the bowl as it was in his own dirt-floor kitchen. How should he proceed?
When the doge selected a large spoon from an array of filigreed silverware beside his plate, the peasant did the same. The shabby guest attempted to slide the soup silently into his mouth from the edge of the spoon, as the doge did, but gaps in his rotted teeth caused a loud, sibilant slurping. The man's bristled face reddened, and he laid his spoon down in defeat.
The doge appeared not to notice. He smiled — a glimpse of gold winking from the back of his mouth — and generously filled a silver goblet with his private stock of Valpolicella, a dark red wine with a floral bouquet and bittersweet aftertaste. With a hospitable tilt of his head, the doge said, "Per favore, signore," and offered the goblet to his chastened dinner companion.
The poor man smiled timidly and wrapped two meaty hands around the goblet. He tried to drink his wine slowly, soundlessly, and this self-conscious attempt at delicacy allowed the wine to saturate his senses. Unaccustomed to such complexity of flavor, he drank the goblet down and finished with a lusty smacking of his lips. Flush with pleasure, he carefully placed his empty goblet on the lace tablecloth and turned to offer his thanks to the doge, but...Marrone!
The man's smile twisted into a grimace. His forehead knotted like a ginger root, and he clawed at his throat. While he choked and struggled, his eyes spilled shock and confusion. He fell sideways off his needlework seat and tumbled headfirst onto the Turkish carpet with an inelegant thunk. His eyes glazed over with a dead man's stare.
The doge, a feeble, syphilitic old man, dabbed the corners of his mouth with a linen napkin, then heaved his royal personage off the chair. He steadied himself on the table edge with one liver-spotted hand, knelt over the corpse, and reached into the folds of his robe to bring forth a vial of amber liquid. He pried open the dead man's mouth, tipped the vial to lips already turning blue, and carefully dribbled in his elixir.
With a grunt of disgust, the doge poked his finger into the fetid mouth, pressing on the tongue to make sure the fluid trickled down the dead man's throat. When the vial was empty, the doge released the sigh of a man who has completed a small but unpleasant task. He pulled out the lemon-scented handkerchief he always kept tucked in his sleeve, wiped his hands, and then pressed the handkerchief to his nose. He inhaled deeply, clearly relieved to be able, finally, to counter the peasant's stench.
The doge, clad in his cumbersome brocades and with his handkerchief pressed firmly to his nose, sat back in his chair and watched the corpse with small, critical eyes. Absently, he adjusted his sly red cap so that the blunt peak at the back stood up, like a middle finger pointed at God.
Copyright © 2008 by Elle Newmark, Inc.
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