1. The Castle
On a disconcertingly mild February afternoon, some fifteen hundred and twenty years after Christ, two lords of Venice and a Florentine labored up a peak in the string of mountains that dominates much of the northern coast of the island of Cyprus. To the south a never-ending flatland, thickly forested, glimmered under a cloudless sky. Their destination remained far above them; they could not see it yet, because the peak was forested too.
Neither of the Signors had made so precipitous a trek in their long lives, though one was a soldier of great experience. They were wearing thick cloaks, as they would have in their home city, a thousand leagues north, so were hot and irritable. They had ridden hard for the best part of three hours to the base of the mountain, had endured an almost inedible lunch at an inn, and, because the trail could not accommodate horses, they had been offered a couple of bony, malodorous mules. They regretted declining them.
In strong contrast to their darkening humor, the Florentine seemed sprightly. His ascent was less arduous than theirs, not on account of his youth but because he was being carried by a pair of burly retainers in a chair strapped between two poles, for he had only one leg. The lords of Venice, fifty-seven and sixty-five years of age respectively, but with both legs intact, envied him. The ease of his passage, not to mention his high spirits, made him, in their opinion, less than endearing.
"Half a century old, Signors," the young man proclaimed, pointing upward, "but still sturdy and impregnable. Built by the lords of Byzantium as a protection against Arab incursion and subsequently expanded by the Lusignan kings, it was once called the Castle of the Lion, for it was besieged by the English Crusader King Richard. But today it is more commonly referred to as Buffavento, a shortening of Buffa di Vento."
As if in affirmation, a sudden and surprising gust of cold air almost toppled one of the Venetians, propelling his hat down the craggy path. A fortunately placed soldier, one of many following the party at a respectful distance, hurried to return it.
The Florentine laughed, annoying the briefly hatless Venetian still more. "Along with the other hill castles on the island, it is no longer thought to serve any strategic function—except as a place from which to espy invaders from the sea. But the steepness of the surrounding cliffs and this path being the only means of access make it an excellent place of confinement."
"Which is why you've put the murderer here," said Graziano Stornello, the elder of the two nobles. He'd been rather affronted by the young man's presumption that he knew nothing of history. He knew a fair amount—especially about military history and, indeed, the building of castles.
"Certainly," the Florentine replied.
"It's not very ... convenient though, is it?" puffed the other Venetian, Graziano Stornello's younger brother Lodovico (who had briefly lost his hat). "Wouldn't it be more sensible to keep him closer to hand?"
The Florentine motioned to his bearers to stop awhile. "You must understand, Signors, that this is no ordinary villain. He is like a ... like a ... a pestilence, a ... foul infection, an insidious contagion that cannot be felt until it is too late. He is a danger to all who come near him."
"I only meant," gasped Lodovico Stornello as they trudged on, "that for the purposes of interrogation it seems quite remote."
"Interrogation has proved futile thus far, though we continue to make efforts..." The Florentine raised an eyebrow. "The man has refused to speak a word since he was arrested."
The lords glanced at each other.
"Not a word?" asked Graziano Stornello.
The patricians allowed themselves to hang back as the Florentine was transported farther up the path and around yet another bend, not least because they needed to rest their aching legs.
"I think this criminal he talks of should come back to Venice with me," Graziano Stornello said quietly.
"I concur," his brother replied. "He should be placed in the hands of the interroganti and subjected to proper inquisitorial methods. They've probably only tickled him here."
"A contagion..." Graziano Stornello mused. "That's an interesting way of describing a man. And if he is indeed a danger to all who come close to him, as the young fellow claims, then I think the sooner he is removed from this volatile land the better."
"I don't suppose they even have the strappado here!" exclaimed Lodovico Stornello.
Graziano Stornello laid a hand on his kinsman's shoulder. "That's a shortcoming you will be able to remedy, I'm sure, when you're governor."
"Not much farther, lords!" the young Florentine shouted from above. They could see him waving through the trees.
"Arrogant pup," Lodovico Stornello muttered. "Didn't like him from the moment we landed. Swanking about as if he owns the place."
"Technically he does," Graziano Stornello said. "Until it's formally handed over to you. I shall perform the ceremony tonight."
Lodovico Stornello gazed south. There was good hunting to be had, apparently, in the vast forest beneath him. He saw mountains beyond it—loftier still than the range within which they stood, judging by the clouds that covered their peaks. And in the far distance a city sparkled: the capital, Nicosia. He would no doubt have a palazzo there. Indeed, he might have any number of palazzi. But then he shivered in the icy wind. "I'm not sure I want it."
They'd traveled for a month over rough seas to reach this colony, and Lodovico Stornello, who was generally forthright in his opinions, had not once vacillated during the voyage. This sudden hesitation was unsettling. "It produces fruit of many excellent varieties," Graziano Stornello ventured. "You said yourself the wine we had last night was more than passable."
"But, as you admitted, it's ... volatile ... full of rebels..."
"Most outposts of the empire are, brother. They don't like us being here."
Graziano Stornello, a veteran of many conflicts and currently invested with the title of Captain-General of the Sea, understood that his sibling was in need, at that moment, of dedicated encouragement.
Toward the end of the previous year, reports had reached Venice that Cyprus, a perennially bothersome colony, had become yet more unmanageable. A new governor had been dispatched to rid it of the menace from the Ottoman—whose lands were less than a hundred leagues across the water. This he had managed to do. His second task had been to quell the natural insubordination of the island's unruly inhabitants. In this endeavor he had singularly failed. More disturbing still, the Venetian garrison itself had become riotous and disobedient. And the Ottoman Turks, alert to the disarray, were prodding once more at a precariously accessible coastline with their caïques and skiffs. Farther out to sea, bigger ships had been spotted. The place was, as ever, full of spies and agitators.
And so it was that the Serene Republic had decreed that Lodovico Stornello should take the governor's place. Graziano Stornello was to oversee the handover and to ensure, as a respected commander, that it was as swift and unruffled as possible. It had been his intention to conduct the ritual of conferral upon landing the previous morning, but circumstances had not allowed it.
To the Signors' astonishment, Cyprus was now under the command of the young Florentine. The governor whom Lodovico Stornello was there to replace had been murdered some three weeks earlier. Among the killer's other victims had been the governor's young wife. Niece to the two lords, daughter to their brother, Brabantio Stornello, her name was Desdemona.
But Graziano Stornello had lobbied hard for Lodovico Stornello's advancement. He decided, as they both surveyed the vista below them, to appeal to his mercantile instincts. "You could raze those thousands of acres of forest and plant anything you liked. We always have need of grain. Or exotic fruits—oranges, why not? Why must Venice go to Persia for her oranges? We are but three hundred leagues from Persia here, and almost as far south as they are. Why must we trade with the infidel for oranges? There's a fortune to be made here."
"I already have a fortune," Lodovico Stornello said smugly. He was indeed one of the richest men in Venice and had managed to become so without straying too far from the Rialto. Recently, however, he'd started to be tempted by more than the power of money. He had other brothers besides Graziano and Brabantio—ten in all—most of whom enjoyed positions of weight in the republic. Although Lodovico Stornello was a member of the Great Council, as were all the patricians in Venice, he'd grown a bit envious of his more politically engaged relatives, of their confidence and influence. Some had sway over men's lives.
"Agreed, brother, you have enriched yourself beyond anything I could contemplate," said Graziano Stornello. "But a shrewd and ruthless plutocrat such as yourself will always have a taste for further opportunity."
"Ruthless? Am I ruthless?"
"As unrelenting in business as I am sure you will be in the governance of this land."
"Yes, I suppose it does need an uncompromising approach," Lodovico Stornello mused. "A firm hand," he added, with a slight clench of a fist.
Graziano Stornello again patted the other's shoulder. "This young pup of a Florentine, as you so correctly call him, has evidently been far too moderate since his entirely unapproved accession to the governorship. And the previous governor, the Moor, was probably too lenient also."
"The Moor, yes ... Brabantio always mistrusted him. What can have possessed the Doge and the Council to give command of this territory to a man with skin as black as night?"
Graziano Stornello did not elaborate on the color of the Moor's skin. He had in fact been an advocate of the Moor's appointment; he had always and only judged him as a warrior. So he changed the subject. "Brabantio won't take his daughter's death well, I think."
"It'll probably kill him. He's been sick for months."
Neither of the Signors had any real regard for their brother Brabantio and had not felt any particular sorrow upon learning of the death of a niece they had rarely met, but they were, finally and most importantly, Stornelli. So Graziano Stornello said, "I think it behooves us, as Stornelli, to ... sort this place out once and for all?"
"For the sake of a murdered niece, yes," said Lodovico Stornello.
"So that, dear Lodovico, is your mission."
"Yes, my mission," the younger lord repeated. "But what about the damned Turks?"
"The Turks, brother, are my problem, not yours." Graziano Stornello paused. "And you could be home within the year."
"Sooner, perhaps, if you're properly steadfast."
"And Venice, I'm confident, would be boundless in her gratitude."
"Are you bolstered, brother?"
"I am," said Lodovico Stornello.
"That's good. Now let's go and meet the extraordinary devil who may well have been the cause of this whole upheaval."
They resumed their ascent, scuffing their fine shoes on the ever-steeper path.
The edifice they at last reached seemed piled upon itself on the mountain's summit, with level upon level of buttresses and battlements and many separate boxlike buildings. It appeared rather delicate in its way, despite having withstood five hundred years or so of high, battering winds and a substantial number of sieges.
"Welcome to one of the most invincible fortresses in Christendom!" the Florentine exclaimed proudly.
"Invincible from within as well as without, we hope," said Graziano Stornello.
"There are guards posted at every corner of the trail, as you saw. You will witness for yourselves that the rest of the castle is encircled by cliffs."
The gate tower was a square, thick-walled, two-storey structure. The double doors were massive, a foot thick at least, and as they passed through them, Graziano Stornello noted that they could be secured from within by two sturdy ten-foot beams, currently resting against a wall, and with little evidence of having been moved for some time.
The guards in the tower did not look alert. The arrival of no less a personage than the Governor of Cyprus, let alone two illustrious members of the Venetian Signory, appeared to have no impact on them.
A small courtyard gave onto a steep flight of steps leading up to the rest of the castle. Even if an invading force were to overwhelm the main entrance, it would remain an easy target from above. Graziano Stornello peered over the low wall that would be the only means of escape and saw a drop of about three thousand feet, with nothing to break the fall.
The two lords ascended steps so vertiginous that the Florentine had to be lifted from his chair and carried up by one of his brawny soldiers. The Signors felt pleasingly nimble by comparison.
The lower ward of the castle was a cluster of buildings around a central enclosure—a hall, sleeping quarters, latrines, a bathhouse, a grain store, and a small chapel. Some of the doors could be reached directly, but others only by more steps or ladders. The space must have once bustled with life, but today its few occupants were asleep or dozing. Protected from the wind, the air was once again warm here, even sultry. Mangy dogs sniffed at one another, and chickens clucked. Despite the stench of urine and decomposing food, Graziano Stornello detected the scent of spices, which reminded him of the infidel souks he had known on his travels. He saw women, too, whom by the darkness of their skin he presumed to be local girls, prostitutes probably, for he knew of the island's reputation for lasciviousness.
"So where's our prisoner?" Lodovico Stornello asked brusquely, looking in vain for evidence of a door that might lead to a dungeon.
"I'm afraid you'll have to climb a bit farther still," said the Florentine.
The lords stared aloft, considering it an odd notion to have to clamber up again. They'd expected to be led down a dank flight of stairs to some airless, lightless chamber more suited to incarceration.
The upper section of the castle was yet another jumble of parapets and redoubts and lookout towers, all connected by still more steps, some of which hung precariously over the crags.
"Are all the prisoners kept up here?" Lodovico Stornello asked, puffing with the effort of almost vertical ascent.
"There is but one prisoner," the Florentine responded.
Graziano Stornello, though surprised, was also reassured. "So you keep the fellow in isolation. Good ... good..."
"Even those assigned to watch the Mantuan never enter his cell," said the Florentine. "Only his interrogators are permitted to approach him. And I would advise you too, lords, to venture into his presence with caution—"
"The Mantuan?" Lodovico Stornello snapped.
"He's from Mantua?" Graziano Stornello echoed.
"Originally, or so he claims."
"He's not a Turk, then."
"No, Signor Lodovico, he is not a Turk, although he has traveled to Constantinople and other infidel lands."
"So he could be a spy, or some damned agitator."
"Are there any interrogators with him now?" Graziano Stornello inquired.
"They come and they go," said the Florentine. "You will be able to see for yourselves, lords, for that is where he is held."
They had reached the very top of the castle, the apex of the mountain indeed. The young man from Florence, still at a level below theirs, was pointing up to a small white box, the only structure to have been erected at this lofty altitude. It seemed to dangle hazardously over a plunging rock. It once must have been the castle's highest lookout point. There were windows indicative of that function on three of the walls. The murderer of the governor and his wife, and by report several others besides, was evidently not being consigned to the darkness he surely deserved.
The door to the little building was open. "As I said, Signors," said the Florentine, who was being carried up the final steps, "approach with care."
With some impatience, they entered.
Graziano Stornello walked to a window on the northern wall. It was not barred, or curtained, but open to the elements. He looked out and down. There was nothing between him and a ragged coastline, thousands of feet below. The sea seemed infinite and almost white under a blasting sun. Thoughts of home assaulted him, as they always do when a Venetian sailor stares at the ocean. He moved to the other two windows. There was the same abrupt plunge from both.
Aside from a narrow pallet bed, a table with a flagon and some playing cards upon it, and three or four chairs, one of which was on its side, the room was empty.
Copyright © 2011 David Snodin