Tasked to expose a coin counterfeiting scheme, Luca and Isolde travel to Venice just in time for Carnival. Amid the masks, parties, and excitement, the romantic attraction between the two reaches a new intensity that neither can deny.
Their romance is interrupted by the arrival of the alchemist, who may be the con artist they’ve been looking for. But as Luca starts to investigate the original charge, the alchemist reveals his true goal—he plans to create the Philosopher’s Stone, a mystical substance said to be capable of turning base metals into gold and producing the elixir of life.
With pounds of undocumented gold coins and an assistant who claims to be decades older than she appears, all evidence points to the possibility that the alchemist has succeeded in his task. But as Luca and Isolde get closer to the truth, they discover that reality may be more sinister than they ever could have imagined.
About the Author
Date of Birth:January 9, 1954
Place of Birth:Nairobi, Kenya, East Africa
Education:B.A. in history, Sussex University, 1982; Ph.D., 18th-century popular fiction, Edinburgh, 1984
Read an Excerpt
The four horse riders halted before the mighty closed gates of the city of Ravenna, the snow swirling around their hunched shoulders, while the manservant Freize rode up to the wooden doors and, using his cudgel, hammered loudly and shouted: “Open up!”
“You won’t forget what to say,” Luca reminded him quickly.
Inside, they could hear the bolts being slowly slid open.
“I should hope I can—though naturally truthful—tell a lie or two when required,” Freize said with quiet pride, while Brother Peter shook his head that he should be so reduced as to depend on Freize’s ready dishonesty.
The gateway pierced the great wall that encircled the ancient city. The defenses were newly rebuilt; the city had just been occupied by its conquerors: the Venetians, who were spreading their unique form of government—a republic—through all the neighboring cities, fueled by gold, driven by trade. Slowly the little sally-port door opened and a guard in the bright livery of the victors presented arms and waited for the travelers to request admission.
Freize launched himself into a mouthful of lies with ill-concealed relish. “My lord,” he said, gesturing to Luca. “A young and wealthy nobleman from the west of Italy. His brother: a priest.” He pointed to Brother Peter, who was indeed a priest but was serving as Luca’s clerk and had never met him before they were partnered on this series of missions. “His sister is the fair young lady.” Freize gestured to the beautiful girl who was Lady Isolde of Lucretili, no relation at all to the handsome young man but traveling with him for safety. “And her companion the dark young lady is riding with her.” Freize was nearest to the truth with this, for Ishraq had been Isolde’s friend and companion from childhood; now they were exiled together from their home, looking for a way to return. “While I am—”
“Servant?” the guard interrupted.
“Factotum,” Freize said, rolling the word around his mouth with quiet pride. “I am their general factotum.”
“Going where?” the guard demanded, putting out his hand for a letter that would describe them. Unblushingly, Freize produced the document sealed by Milord, the commander of their secret papal Order, which confirmed the lie that they were a wealthy young family going to Venice.
“To Venice,” Freize said. “And home again. God willing,” he added piously.
“Purpose of visit?”
“Trade. My young master is interested in shipping and gold.”
The guard raised his eyebrows and shouted a command to the men inside the town. The great gate swung open as he stood deferentially to one side, bowing low as the party rode grandly inward.
“Why do we tell lies here?” Ishraq asked Freize very quietly, bringing up the rear as servants should. “Why not wait till we get to Venice?”
“Too late there,” he said. “If Luca is going to pass for a wealthy young merchant in Venice, someone might ask after his journey. Someone may see us here at the inn. We can say we came from Ravenna. If they bother to enquire, they can confirm here that we are a wealthy family and hope that they won’t trouble to look beyond, all the way from Pescara.”
“But if they do trace us back, beyond Pescara, to the village of Piccolo, then they’ll learn that Luca is an inquirer, working for the Pope himself, and you are his friend, and Brother Peter his clerk, and Isolde and I are no relation at all but just young women traveling with you for safety on our way to Isolde’s kinsman.”
Freize scowled. “If we had known that Luca’s master would have wanted him to travel disguised, we could have started this whole journey with new clothes, spending money like lords. But since he only condescended to inform us at Piccolo, we have to take the risk. I will buy us some rich elegant capes and hats here in Ravenna and we’ll have to get the rest of our clothes in Venice.”
The guard pointed the way they should go, toward the best inn of the town, and they found it easily, a big building against the wall of the great castle, on the little hill above the market square. Freize jumped down from his horse and left him standing as he opened the door and bellowed for service for his master, then he came back out and held the horses while Luca, Lady Isolde and Brother Peter swept into the inn and ordered two private bedrooms and a private dining room, as befitted their great rank. Freize helped Ishraq down from her horse, and she went quickly after her mistress as Freize led all the horses and the pack donkey round to the stable yard.
As they settled into their rooms they could hear the bells of the churches chiming for Vespers all over the city, the air loud with their clamor, birds whirling into the sky from the many towers. Isolde went to the window, rubbed the frost away from the panes, and watched Brother Peter and Luca leave the inn and head toward the church through the occasional swirls of light snow.
“Aren’t you going to church?” Ishraq asked, surprised, as Isolde was usually very devout.
“Tomorrow morning,” Isolde said. “I couldn’t concentrate tonight.”
Ishraq did not need to ask her friend why she was so distracted. She only watched her gaze follow the young man as he strode down the cobbled street.
When the men came back from Mass they all dined together in the private room, Freize bringing up food from the kitchen. When he had spread all the plates: the pie, the pitadine—a sort of pancake with rich savory toppings—the venison haunch, the roast ham, the braised chicken and the sweetbreads on the table, he stood by the door, the very picture of a deferential servant.
“Freize: eat with us,” Luca commanded.
“I’m supposed to be your general factotum,” Freize repeated the grand word. “Or servant.”
“No one can see,” Isolde pointed out. “And it feels odd when you don’t sit down. I’d like you to eat with us, Freize.”
There was no need for her to repeat the invitation. Freize pulled up a chair, took a plate and started to serve himself generously.
“Besides, this way you’ll get two dinners,” Ishraq pointed out to him with a little smile. “One now, and one in the kitchen later.”
“A working man needs to keep up his strength,” Freize said cheerfully, buttering a thick slice of bread and sinking his white teeth into it. “What’s Ravenna like?”
“Old,” Luca remarked. “The little that I have seen of it so far. A great city, wonderful churches, as beautiful as Rome in some parts. But before we leave tomorrow I want to go to the tomb of Galla Placidia.”
“Who’s that?” Isolde asked him.
“She was a very great lady in ancient times, and she prepared herself a great tomb that the priest at church told me to go and see. He says it is very beautiful inside, with mosaics from floor to ceiling.”
“I should like to see that!” Ishraq remarked and then flushed, anxious that Isolde would think that she was trying to get into Luca’s company.
As soon as Isolde saw her friend’s embarrassment she blushed too and said quickly: “Oh but you must go! Go with Luca while I pack our bags for the journey. Why don’t the two of you go in the morning?”
Brother Peter looked from one red-cheeked girl to another as if they were troubling beings from another world altogether. “What on earth is the matter with you now?” he asked wearily.
“If you are to pass as my sister and Ishraq as your servant then you had both better come and see the tomb,” Luca said, quite blind to the girls’ embarrassment. “And surely Ishraq should always accompany you, Isolde, when you are walking around a strange city. You should always have a lady-in-waiting.”
“And in any case, we can’t go halfway across Christendom with you two carrying on like this,” Freize said gently.
“Why, what’s the matter?” Luca looked from one to another, noticing their confusion for the first time. “What’s going on?”
There was an awkward silence. “We had a disagreement,” Isolde said awkwardly. “Before we left Piccolo. Actually, I was in the wrong.”
“You two quarrel?” Luca exclaimed. “But I’ve never known you to quarrel. What’s it all about?”
Freize, who knew that they had quarreled over Luca, stepped into the silence. “Lasses,” he said generally to the table. “Often upset about one thing or another. Highly strung. Like the little donkey. Think they know their own mind even when it’s not quite right.”
“Oh don’t be ridiculous!” Ishraq said crossly. She turned to Isolde. “I should want everything to be as it was between us, and anything else will work itself out.”
Isolde, her eyes on the table, nodded her fair head. “I am sorry,” she said, her voice low. “I was utterly wrong.”
“That’s all right then,” Freize said with the air of a man having brought about a diplomatic compromise in a difficult situation. “Glad I settled it. No need to thank me.”
“You had better pray for patience,” Brother Peter said crossly to the two girls. “God knows that I have to.” He rose from the table and went solemnly out of the room. As the door closed behind him the four young people exchanged rueful smiles.
“But what was the matter?” Luca persisted.
Freize shook his head at him, indicating he should be silent. “Best left alone,” he advised. “Like the little donkey when it has finally settled itself down.”
“Anyway, it’s over,” Isolde ruled, “and we should go to bed as well.”
As soon as she rose to her feet Luca held open the door for her and followed her out into the hall. “You’re not upset with me, about anything?” he asked her quietly.
She shook her head. “I was quite at fault with Ishraq. She told me that she had held you in her arms for comfort, when you were grieving, and I was angry with her.”
“Why would you be angry?” he asked, though his heart hammered in his chest, hoping that he had guessed her answer.
She raised her face and looked at him honestly, her dark blue eyes meeting his hazel ones. “Alas, I was jealous,” she said simply. He saw her little, rueful, smile. “Jealous like a fool,” she confessed.
“You were jealous that she held me in her arms?” he said very low.
“Because you and I have never held each other close?”
“Well, we cannot,” she reasoned. “You are promised to the priesthood and I was born a lady. I can’t go around kissing people. Not like Ishraq. She’s free to behave as she wants.”
“But you do want me to hold you?” He stepped closer and whispered the question against her blonde hair, so that she could feel the warmth of his breath.
She could not say the word, she merely leaned her head toward him.
Very gently, very softly, as if he was afraid of startling her, Luca put one arm around her slim waist and the other round her shoulders and drew her close. Isolde rested her head on his shoulder and closed her eyes to savor the intense pleasure that rushed through her as she felt the length of his lithe body against her and the strength in his arms as they tightened around her.
“Did she tell you I kissed her forehead?” Luca whispered in her ear, delighting in the touch and the rose-water scent of this young woman he had desired since the moment that he had first seen her.
She raised her head. “She did.”
“Were you jealous of that too?”
There was a gleam of mischief in his eyes, and she saw it at once and smiled back at him. “Unfortunately, I was.”
“Shall I kiss you as I kissed her? Would that make it fair?”
In answer she closed her eyes and raised her face to him. Luca longed to kiss her warm mouth but instead, obedient to his offer, he gently kissed her forehead, and had the satisfaction of feeling her sway, just slightly, in his arms, as if she too wanted for more.
In a moment she opened her dark blue eyes.
“Shall I kiss you on the lips?” Luca asked her.
It was a step too far. He sensed her flinch, and she leaned back so she could see his warmly smiling face.
“I think you should not,” she said, but, in contradiction, her arms were still around his waist and she did not let him go. His arms held her close and she did not step back.
Slowly, he leaned forward, slowly her eyes closed, and she raised her mouth to his. Behind them the door opened and Freize came out with the dishes from dinner. He checked himself when he saw the two of them, enwrapped in the darkened hall. “ ’Scuse me,” he said cheerfully, and went past them to the kitchen.
Luca rapidly released Isolde, who put her hands to her hot cheeks. “I should go to bed,” she said quietly. “Forgive me.”
“But you’re not angry with Ishraq, nor upset with yourself anymore?” he confirmed.
She went to the stairs, but he could see that she was laughing. “I scolded Ishraq like a fishwife!” she confessed. “I accused her of loose behavior for allowing your kiss. And now here am I!”
“She’ll forgive you,” he said. “And you will be happy again.”
She went up the stairs and turned back and smiled at him. He caught his breath at the luminous loveliness of her face. “I am happy now,” she said. “I think I have never been as happy in my life as I am now.”
In the morning, as Freize went out to buy new and beautiful capes and hats for their sea voyage to Venice, Brother Peter and Luca—holding to their pretense of being merchant brothers—and Isolde and Ishraq—as their sister and her companion—went to walk in the town of Ravenna.
It was a small city, tightly enclosed within the encircling walls, the great castle dominating the jumble of shabby roofs around the castle hill. The morning was bright and sunny, the early frost melting from the red-tiled roofs. Rising to the blue sky, at every street corner, were the tall bell towers of great churches. A shallow canal flowed into the very center of the town, where a market sold everything on the stone-built quay. The city had been the capital of the ancient kingdom, and the great stone roads running north and south and east and west across the whole of Italy crossed at the very heart of the old city.
The two girls hesitated beside the great church that towered over the area, admiring the rose-colored brick. “The church is what takes your eye, but the tomb I want to see is just here,” Luca said, and led the way to a modest little building set to one side.
“This little place?” Isolde ducked under the low opening; Ishraq followed her, Brother Peter behind her. The building was in the shape of a cross, and they entered by the north door. For a moment they paused at the entrance of the tiny church and then as Isolde crossed herself, and bent her knee, Luca exclaimed at the explosion of color inside the modest building.
Every part of the arched interior was glistening, almost as if it had been freshly painted. The walls, the floor, even the curved ceilings were rich with bright mosaics. Isolde gazed around her in amazed delight; Ishraq could not take her eyes from the roof above their heads, which was deep-sea blue, studded with hundreds of golden stars. It was like a silk scarf sweeping over their heads and down into the arches on all four sides.
“It’s beautiful!” Ishraq exclaimed, thinking how similar it was to the rich designs of the Arab world. “What is it? A private chapel?”
“It’s not a church at all, it’s a mausoleum,” Brother Peter told her. “Built by a great Christian lady hundreds of years ago for her own burial.”
“Look,” Isolde said, turning back to the door where they had entered. A spacious mosaic over the doorway showed a warmly colored scene of the Good Shepherd, leaning on his crook, crowned with a golden halo and surrounded by his sheep. “How could they do this hundreds of years ago? The tenderness of the picture? See how he touches the sheep?”
“And that is the story of a Christian risking his life for the gospels,” Brother Peter said piously, pointing to the opposite wall where a man was depicted running past the flames of an open fire, with a cross over his shoulder and an open book in his hand. “See the gospels in the library?”
“I see,” Ishraq said demurely. In this exquisite and holy place she did not want to tease Brother Peter about his devotion, or to express her own skepticism. She had been raised in the Christian household of Isolde’s father, the Lord of Lucretili, but her mother had taught her to read the Koran. Her later education encouraged her to examine everything, and she would always be a young woman of questions rather than of faith. She looked around the glittering interior and then found her attention caught by a wash of color on some white mosaic tiles. Someone had glazed the open windows of the mausoleum, and one of the pieces of glass had been broken. The morning sunlight, shining over the chipped surface, threw colored rays on the white tiles and even on Ishraq’s white headscarf.
“Look.” Ishraq nudged Isolde. “Even the sunlight is colored in here.”
Her words caught Luca’s attention, and he turned and saw the brilliant spread of colors. He was dazzled by the rainbow shining around Ishraq’s head. “Give me your scarf,” he said suddenly.
Without a word, her eyes on his face, she unwrapped it, and her dark thick hair tumbled down around her shoulders. Luca handed one end to her and kept the other. They spread it out to catch the light from the window. At once the white silk glowed with the colors of the rainbow. Together, as if doing a strange dance, they walked toward the window and saw the colors become more diffuse and blurred as the stripes grew wider, and then they walked away again and saw that the brightly colored beam narrowed and became more distinct.
“The broken glass seems to be turning the sunlight into many colors,” Luca said wonderingly. He turned back to the mosaic that he had been examining. “And look,” he said to her. “The mosaic is a rainbow too.”
Above his head was a soaring wall going up to the vault above them, decorated exquisitely in all the colors of the rainbow and overlaid with a pattern. Luca, his hands holding out Ishraq’s scarf, nodded from the rainbow mosaic to the rainbow on the scarf. “It’s the same colors,” he said. “A thousand years ago, they made a rainbow in these very colors, appearing in this order.”
“What are you doing?” Isolde asked, looking at the two of them. “What are you looking at?”
“It makes you think that a rainbow must always form the same colors,” Ishraq answered her when Luca was silent, looking from the scarf to the mosaic wall. “Does it? Is it always the colors as they have shown here? In this mosaic? Don’t look at the pattern, look at the colors!”
“Yes!” Luca exclaimed. “How strange that they should have noticed this, so many hundreds of years ago! How wonderful that they should have recorded the colors.” He paused in thought. “So, is every rainbow the same? Has it been the same for hundreds of years? And if the chip of glass can make a rainbow in here, what makes a rainbow in the sky? What makes the sky suddenly shine with colors?”
Nobody answered him, nobody had an answer. Nobody but Luca would ask such a question; he had been expelled from his monastery for asking questions that verged on heresy, and even now, though he was employed by the Order of Darkness to inquire into all questions of this world and the next, he had to stay within the tight confines of the Church.
“Why would it matter?” Isolde asked, looking at the rapt expressions of her two friends. “Why would such a thing matter to you?”
Luca shrugged his shoulders as if he was returning to the real world. “Oh, just curiosity, I suppose,” he said. “Just as we didn’t know the cause of the great wave in Piccolo, we don’t know what makes thunder, we don’t know what makes rainbows. There is so much that we don’t know. And while we don’t know the answer, people think that these strange tricks of nature are carried out by witchcraft or devils or spirits. They frighten themselves into accusing their neighbors, and then it is my job to discover the truth of it. But I can’t give them a simple explanation, for I don’t have a simple explanation. But here—since whoever made these mosaics knew the colors of the rainbow—maybe they knew what caused them too.”
“But why are you interested?” Isolde pursued. “Does it matter what color the sunset was last night?”
“Yes,” Ishraq said unexpectedly. “It does matter. For the world is filled with mysteries, and only if we ask and study and go on discovering will we ever understand anything.”
“There is nothing to understand, for it has already been explained,” Brother Peter ruled, speaking with all the authority of the Church. “God set a rainbow in the sky as his promise to Man after the Flood. I will set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be the sign of a covenant between me, and between the earth. And when I shall cover the sky with clouds, my bow shall appear in the clouds.” He looked gravely at the young women. “That is all you need to know.”
He turned his hard stare to Luca. “You are an inquirer of a holy Order,” he reminded the younger man. “It is your duty and your task to inquire. But beware that you do not ask about things outside your mission. You are commanded by our lord and by the Holy Father to discover if the end of days is coming. You are not commanded to ask about everything. Some questions are heretical. Some things are not to be explored.”
There was a silence as Luca absorbed the reproof from the older man.
“I can’t stop myself thinking,” Luca replied quietly. “Perhaps God has given me curiosity.”
“Nobody wants to stop you thinking,” Brother Peter said as he opened the low door to the mausoleum. “But Milord will have made it clear, when he hired you, that you are to think only inside the limits of the Church. Some things are not known—like the change of a man into werewolf, like the cause of the terrible Flood—and it is right that you hold an inquiry into them. But God has told us the meaning of the rainbow in His Holy Word, we don’t need your thoughts on it.”
Luca bowed his head but could not stop himself from glancing sideways at Ishraq.
“Well, I shall go on thinking, whether your Church needs it or not,” she declared. “And the Arab scholars will go on thinking, and the ancient people were clearly thinking too, and the Arab scholars will translate their books.”
“But we are obedient sons of the Church,” Brother Peter ruled. “And actually, what you think—as a young woman and an infidel—does not matter to anyone.”
He turned and led the way out, and they obediently followed him. Isolde lingered in the doorway. “It’s so beautiful,” she said. “As if it were a freshly painted fresco, the colors so rich.”
There was a little pause before Luca came out, and she saw he was putting something in the pocket of his breeches, under the fold of his cape.
“What d’you have there?” Isolde whispered to him as Brother Peter led the way back to the inn.
“The chipped piece of glass,” he said. “I want to see if we can make a rainbow with it, anywhere.”
Gravely, she looked at him. “But isn’t it God’s work to make a rainbow? As Brother Peter just said?”
“It’s our work,” Ishraq corrected her. “For we are in this world to understand it. And like Luca, I want to see if we can make a rainbow. And if he is not allowed to do it, then I will try. For my God, unlike yours, has no objection to me asking questions.”
Freize was waiting for them back at the inn, and they mounted up and rode the little way out of Ravenna alongside the silted-up canal to the port of Classe. The ferryboat was waiting for them at the stone harbor wall; other merchant ships and the famous Venice galleys were tied up alongside.
“But do you have the courage to get on board?” Ishraq teased Freize, who had not been on board a ship since he had been swept away by a terrible storm.
“If Rufino my horse can do it, then I can do it,” Freize answered. “And he is a horse of rare courage and knowingness.”
Ishraq looked doubtfully at the big skewbald cob, who looked more doltish than knowing. “He is?”
“You need to look beyond ordinary appearances,” Freize counseled her. “You look at the horse and you see a big clumsy lump of a thing, but I know that he has courage and fine feelings.”
“Fine feelings?” Ishraq was smiling. “Has he really?”
“Just as you look at me and you see a handsome down-to-earth straightforward sort of ordinary man. But I have hidden depths and surprising skills.”
“I do,” Freize confirmed. “And one of those skills is getting horses on board a boat. You may sit on the quayside and admire me.”
“Thank you,” Ishraq said, and sat on one of the stone seats that led into the harbor wall as he led all five horses and the little donkey to the wooden gangway that stretched from boat to quay.
The horses were nervous and pulled away and jibbed, but Freize was soothing and calm with them. Ishraq would not feed his joyous vanity by applauding, but she thought there was something very touching about the way the square-shouldered young man and the big horses exchanged glances, caresses and little noises, almost as if they were talking to each other, until the animals were reassured and followed him up the gangway to their stalls on the boat.
There were no other travelers taking the ship that day, and so when the horses were safely loaded, the four travelers took hunks of bread and pots of small ale for breakfast and followed Freize on board as the master of the ship cast off and set sail.
It took all day and all night to sail to Venice, going before a bitterly cold wind. The girls slept for some of the time in the little cabin below the deck, but in the early hours of the morning they came out and went to the front of the ship, where the men were standing, wrapped against the cold, waiting for the sky to lighten. Ishraq’s attention was taken by a small sleek craft coming toward them on a collision course, moving fast in the dark water, a black silhouette against the dark waves.
“Hi! Boatman!” she called over her shoulder to the captain of the boat who was at the rudder in the stern of the boat. “D’you see that galley? It’s heading straight for us!”
“Drop the sail!” the man bellowed at his son, who scurried forward and slackened the ropes and dropped the mainsail.
“Here! I’ll help,” Freize said, going back to haul the sail down. “What’s he doing, coming at us so fast?”
The two girls, Brother Peter and Luca watched as the galley, speeding toward them, powered by rowers hauling on their oars to the beat of a drum, came closer and closer.
“A galley should give way to a vessel with sails,” Brother Peter remarked uneasily. “What are they doing? They look as if they want to ram us!”
“It’s an attack!” Luca suddenly decided. “It can’t be an accident! Who are they?”
Brother Peter, squinting into the half darkness, exclaimed: “I can’t see the standard. They’re showing no light. Whose boat is it?”
“Freize!” Luca shouted, turning to the deck and grabbing a boat hook as the only weapon on hand. “Beware boarders!”
“Get the sail back up!” Brother Peter shouted.
“We can’t outsail them,” Ishraq warned.
A galley with a well-trained rowing crew could travel much faster than a lumbering ship. Ishraq looked around for a weapon, for somewhere that they could hide. But it was a little boat with only the stalls for the horses on deck, and a small cabin below.
Freize joined them, his club in his hand. He pulled a knife out of his boot and handed it to Ishraq for her defense. His face was grim.
“Would this be the Ottoman lord come back for us?” he asked Luca.
“It’s not an Ottoman pirate,” Luca said, staring at the oars biting into the waves as the galley came swiftly closer. “It’s too small a craft.”
“Then someone else is very eager to speak with us,” Freize said miserably. “And it looks like we can’t avoid the pleasure.”
Slowly, as their little caravel came to a halt and wallowed in the water, the galley changed course and drew up alongside them. Two of the rowers got to their feet and threw grappling hooks upward at once, gripping the rail of the boat. Isolde resisted the temptation to throw them off as the rowers in the mysterious galley hauled on the ropes and drew in close.
Summoning their courage, Luca and Isolde looked down into the galley at the rowers, who were free, not chained, and at the man who stood in the stern.
“Who are you? And what do you want with us?” Luca demanded.
The commander at the back of the boat had drawn his cutlass. The cold light glinted on the hammered blade. He looked up at them both, businesslike. “I am commanded by the Lord of Lucretili to take that woman into my keeping,” he said, pointing at Isolde. “She is the runaway sister to the great lord, and he has commanded her to come home.”
“Your brother!” Ishraq exclaimed under her breath.
“I’m not her,” Isolde said at once in the strong accent of a woman from the south. “I don’t know who you are talking about.”
The man narrowed his eyes. “We have followed your trail, my lady,” he said. “From the convent where the lord your brother entrusted you to the good sisters, to when you fell in with these men of God, to the fishing village, to here. You were charged with witchcraft . . .”
“She was cleared!” Luca interrupted. “I am an inquirer for the Church, commanded by the Pope himself to discover the reasons for strange happenings in this world and to see the signs for the end of days. I examined her, and I sent my report to the lord of my Order. I have cleared her of any wrongdoing. She’s not wanted by the law of the land nor of the Church.”
The man shrugged. “She can be innocent of everything, but she’s still the Lord of Lucretili’s sister,” he said flatly. “She’s still his possession. If he wants her back, then no one can deny his rights to her.”
“What does he want her for?” Ishraq asked, joining the two of them at the rail of the little ship. “For he was quick enough to get her out of the house when her father died, and quick enough to make an accusation that would have seen her burned to death. Why does he want her back now?”
“You too,” the man said shortly. “The slave, Ishraq. I am commanded to take you back too.” He turned to Luca. “You have to give that one to me because she is a runaway slave and the lord is her master. And the lady has to be given to me because she is the Lord of Lucretili’s sister and as much a part of his property as his chair or his horse.”
“I am a free woman,” Ishraq spat. “And so is she.”
He shrugged as if the words were meaningless. “You’re an infidel and she is his sister. She was at the disposal of her father and then, on his death, her brother. He inherited her like the cows in his fields. She’s his property just like a heifer.”
He turned his attention to Brother Peter. “If you prevent her coming with me, then you have stolen Lord Lucretili’s property, his slave and his sister, and I will have you charged as a thief. If you keep her, you are guilty of kidnap.”
Freize sighed. “Difficult,” he remarked into the silence. “Because legally, you know, he’s right. A woman does belong to her father or brother or husband.”
“I don’t belong to my brother anymore,” Isolde suddenly asserted. She slipped her hand in Luca’s arm and gripped his elbow. “We are married. This man is my keeper. I am his.”
He looked from her determined face to Luca’s set jaw. “Really? Is this so, Inquirer?”
“Yes,” Luca said shortly.
“But you are a man of the Church? Tasked to inquire into the end of days and report to your Order?”
“I have broken my vows to the Church and taken this woman as my wife.”
Brother Peter choked but said nothing.
“Wedded and bedded?”
“Yes,” Luca said, gripping Isolde’s hand.
There was a moment, and then the man shook his head. He smiled disbelievingly, looking up at them both. “What? You bedded her? Took her with lust, had her beneath you, made her cry out in joy? You two kissed with tongues and you caressed her breasts? You held her waist in your hands, and she gladly took you into her body?”
Isolde’s face was blazing red with shame. Ishraq looked furious.
“Yes,” Luca said unblinking. “We did all that.”
“You can’t . . .” Isolde began, but Luca turned to her and put a finger beneath her chin to raise her face, and then he kissed her slowly and deeply, as if he could not bear to move his mouth away from hers. Despite her embarrassment Isolde could not stop herself, her head tipped back, her arms came around his shoulders, they held each other, her hand on the nape of his neck, her fingers reaching into his hair.
Luca raised his head. “There,” he said, a little breathlessly, when he finally let her go. “As you see. I do not hesitate to kiss my bride. We are husband and wife, she is my chattel now. Her brother has lost all his rights over her. She belongs to me.”
Freize nodded sagely. “A wife must go with her husband. His rights come first.”
Brother Peter’s face was frozen with horror at the lies spilling out of Luca’s mouth, but he said nothing.
The Lucretili man turned to him. “Am I supposed to believe this? What about you, Priest? Are you going to tell me you are married to the other one? Are you going to kiss her to prove it?”
“No,” Brother Peter said shortly. “I live inside my vows.”
“But these two are truly husband and wife? In the sight of God?”
Brother Peter opened his mouth. A little swell rocked the boat, and he put his hand on the rail to steady himself.
“You are their witness before God,” the man reminded him. “I conjure you, in His name, to tell me the truth.”
Brother Peter gulped.
“On your oath as a priest,” the man reminded him. “The truth, in the sight of God.”
Brother Peter turned to Isolde as she stood, her arm still around Luca’s waist. “I am sorry,” he said, his voice very low. “Very sorry. But I can’t lie on God’s name. I cannot do it.”
She nodded. “I understand,” she said quietly, and moved away from Luca as he let her go.
“He doesn’t have to say anything,” Ishraq spoke up. “I will bear witness.”
The man shrugged. “Your word means nothing. You are an infidel and a slave and a woman. Your words are like birdsong in the morning. Too loud, and completely meaningless. Now”—he turned his attention briskly to Luca—“send both of the women over the side of the ship or I will order my men to board your craft, and we will take them by force.”
Luca looked down; there were about a dozen men in the galley, fully armed. He glanced at Freize, who stoically hefted his cudgel. Clearly, they could fight, but the odds were heavily against them. They were certain to lose.
The commander turned to the boatman, who was grimly listening at the stern of the boat. “You are carrying stolen goods: these two women belong to the Lord of Lucretili. If I have to, I will board your ship to take them, and there may be damage to your ship or danger to you. Or you can give them up to me and there will be no trouble.”
“I took them in good faith as passengers,” the boatman shouted back. “If they are yours, they can go with you. I’m not responsible for them.”
“There’s no point fighting,” Isolde said very low to Luca. “It’s hopeless. Don’t try anything. I’ll give myself up.”
Before he could protest, she called down to the man in the galley below: “Do you give your word that you will take us safely to my brother?”
He nodded. “I am commanded not to harm you in any way.”
She made up her mind. “Get our things,” she said over her shoulder to Ishraq, who quickly went to the cabin and came out with their two saddlebags, tucking Freize’s knife out of sight, into the rope at her belt.
“And what is to happen to me?” Isolde demanded. She beckoned Ishraq to go with her as she went to the prow of the boat. The commander gestured to Luca and Freize that they should haul his boat alongside, so that the young women could climb down over the rail and into the waiting ship.
“Your brother believes that you are trying to get to the Count of Wallachia for his help. He thinks you will try to get an army to come against him and claim your home. So he’s going to marry you to a French count who will take you away and keep you in his castle.”
“And what about me?” Ishraq asked as Luca, Freize and Brother Peter each took a grappling iron and, pulling on the ropes, walked the galley to the prow of the boat.
“You, I have to sell to the Ottomans as a slave, in Venice,” the man said. “I am sorry. Those are my orders.”
Luca, whose father and mother had been captured by an Ottoman slaving galley when he was just a boy, went white and gripped the rail for support. “We can’t allow this,” he said to Freize. “I can’t allow it. We can’t let this happen.”
But Freize was watching Isolde, who had suddenly halted at the news that Ishraq would not be with her. “No. She comes with me,” she said. “We are never separated.”
The man shook his head. “My orders are clear. She is to be sold to the Ottomans.”
“Be ready,” Freize whispered to Luca. “I don’t think she’ll stand for that.”
Isolde had reached the front of the ship. Stowed at her feet was an ax kept for emergencies—if a sail came down in a storm or if fishing nets had to be cut free. She did not even glance at it as she stepped up on the tightly knotted anchor rope, so that she could look down over the rail at the man who had come for her. “Sir, I have money,” she pleaded. “Whatever my brother is paying you I will match, if you will just go back to him and say that you could not find us. Your men too can have a fee if you will just go away.”
He spread his hands. “My lady, I am your brother’s loyal servant. I have promised to take you back to him and sell her into slavery. Come down, or I will come and get you both, and your friends will suffer.”
She bit her lip. “Please. Take me, and leave my friend. You can tell the lord my brother that you could not find her.”
Wordlessly, he shook his head. “Come,” he said bluntly. “Both of you. At once.”
“I don’t want any fighting,” she said desperately. “I don’t want anyone hurt for me.”
“Then come now,” he said simply. “For we will take you one way or another. I am ordered to take you dead or alive.”
Freize saw her shoulders set with her resolve, but all she said was: “Very well. I’ll throw my things down first.”
The commander nodded and put a hand on the grappling iron’s rope and drew his galley closer to their gently bobbing ship. Isolde leaned over the rail, holding the heavy saddlebag. “Come closer,” she said. “I don’t want to lose my things.”
He laughed at the acquisitive nature of all women—that Isolde should be such a fool as to be still thinking of dresses while being kidnapped!—and hauled the galley in even closer. The moment that it was directly under the prow of the ship, Isolde dropped the saddlebag down to him. He caught it in his arms, and staggered back slightly at the weight of it, and at the same time she snatched up the hatchet and, with three or four quick, frenzied blows, hacked through the rope, which held the heavy ship’s anchor against the side of the boat.
Solid hammered iron, it plunged downward, monstrously heavy, and crashed straight through the galley’s light wood deck, and straight through the bottom of the galley, smashing an enormous hole and breaking the sides of the craft so the water rushed in from the bottom and from the sides.
In a second Ishraq had jumped to be at her side and had thrown her knife straight into the man’s face. He took the blade in his mouth and screamed as blood gushed out. Luca, Freize and Brother Peter took the grappling irons and flung them onto the heads of the rowers below them as water poured into the galley and the waves engulfed the ship.
“Hoist the sail!” Luca yelled, but already the boatman and his lad were hauling on the ropes, and the sail bellied, flapped and then filled with the light wind, and the ship started to move away from the sinking galley. Some of the rowers were in the water already, thrashing about and shouting for help.
“Go back!” Isolde shouted. “We can’t leave them to drown.”
“We can,” Ishraq said fiercely. “They would have killed us.”
There were some wooden battens at the front of the boat. Isolde ran to them and started to haul on them. Freize went to help her, lifted them to the rail and pushed them into the water to serve as life rafts. “Someone will pick them up,” he assured her. “There are ships up and down this coast all the time and it will soon be light.”
Her eyes were filled with tears, she was white with distress. “That man! The knife in his face!”
“He would have sold me into slavery!” Ishraq shouted at her angrily. “He was taking you back to your brother! What did you want to happen?”
“You could have killed him!”
“I don’t care! I won’t care! You’re a fool to worry about him.”
Isolde turned, shaking, to Brother Peter. “It is a sin, isn’t it, to kill a man, whatever the circumstances?”
“It is,” he allowed. “But Ishraq was defending herself . . .”
“I don’t care!” Ishraq repeated. “I think you are mad to even think about him. He was your enemy. He was going to take you back to your brother. He was going to sell me into slavery. He would have killed us both. Of course I would defend myself. But if I had wanted to kill him, I would have put the knife through his eye, and he would be dead now, instead of just missing his teeth.”
Isolde looked back. Some of the crew had clambered back aboard the wreckage of their boat. The commander, his face still red with blood, was hanging on to the battens that she and Freize had thrown over the side.
“The main thing is that you saved yourself and Ishraq,” Luca said to her. “And they’ll have to report back to your brother, so you should be safe for a while. Ishraq was wonderful, and so were you. Don’t regret being brave, Isolde. You saved all of us.”
She laughed shakily. “I don’t know how I thought of it!”
Ishraq hugged her tightly. “You were brilliant,” she said warmly. “I had no idea what you were doing. It was perfect.”
“It just came to me. When they said they would take you.”
“You would have gone with them rather than fight?”
Isolde nodded. “But I couldn’t let you be taken. Not into slavery.”
“It was the right thing to do,” Luca ruled, glancing at Brother Peter, who nodded in agreement.
“A just cause,” he said thoughtfully.
“And your knife throw!” Luca turned to Ishraq. “Where did you ever learn to throw like that?”
“My mother was determined I should know how to defend myself.” Ishraq smiled. “She taught me how to throw a knife, and Isolde’s father, the Lord of Lucretili, sent me to the masters in Spain to learn fighting skills. I learned it at the same time as my archery—and other things.”
“We should give thanks for our escape,” Brother Peter said, holding the crucifix that he always wore on a rope at his waist. “You two did very well. You were very quick, and very brave.” He turned to Isolde. “I am sorry I could not lie for you.”
She nodded. “I understand, of course.”
“And you will need to confess, Brother Luca,” Brother Peter said gently to the younger man. “As soon as we get to Venice. You denied your oath to the Church, you told a string of untruths and”—he broke off—“you kissed her.”
“It was just to make the lie convincing,” Isolde defended Luca.
“He was tremendously convincing,” Freize said admiringly, with a wink at Ishraq. “You would almost have thought that he wanted to kiss her. I almost thought that he enjoyed kissing her. Thought that she kissed him back. Completely fooled me.”
“Well, I shall give thanks for our safety,” the older man said, and went a little way from them and got down on his knees to pray. Freize went down the ship to speak to the boatman at the rudder. Ishraq turned away.
“It was not just to make the lie convincing,” Luca admitted very quietly to Isolde. “I felt . . .” He broke off. He did not have words for how he had felt when she had been pressed against him and his mouth had been on hers.
She said nothing, she just looked at him. He was fascinated by the ribbon that tied her cape at her throat. He could see it fluttering slightly with the rapid pulse at her neck.
“It can never happen again,” Luca said. “I am going to complete my novitiate and make my vows as a priest, and you are a lady of great wealth and position. If you can raise your army and it wins back your castle and your lands, you will marry a great lord, perhaps a prince.”
She nodded, her eyes never leaving his face.
“For a moment back then, I wished it was true, and that we had married,” Luca confessed with a shy laugh. “Wedded and bedded, as the man said. But I know that’s impossible.”
“It is impossible,” she agreed. “It is quite impossible.”