THE PRINCE'S DOOM
Verona, Italy - Saturday, 26 November 1328
“Show me ‘yes’.”
Dark as an angry sky, the polished marble teardrop twitched, then began to describe a sinister circle.
“Show me ‘no’.”
The stone at the end of the chain adroitly changed direction. Watching, Elisabetta Contarini gasped and clutched the medal of her namesake, Santa Elizabetta of Portugal. “You’re doing that.”
“No, Madonna. Ask your questions and you will hear the truth.”
It took her a moment to parse his accent before she obeyed. “Tell me – will Soranzo survive the year?”
The question was repeated. The chain at the end of the diviner’s finger continued in the same direction. No.
Elisabetta glanced anxiously to her husband, sitting in bored submission.
“Will my husband become Doge?”
Reversing, the teardrop spun leftwards with some force. A resounding Yes.
Watching from across the room, Francesco Dandolo was annoyed with himself for feeling pleased. Everyone knew he would be the next Doge. At seventy years of age, he had certainly showed patience, serving Venice with able devotion. He had endured many hardships and perjured his soul to rise to the top of the Signoria. Barring any drastic change in Fortune’s wheel, Dandolo would be elected the moment Soranzo released the last bonds of life.
Which would happen soon, according to this man. But Dandolo refused to be drawn in by such a grotesque mountebank. He had not wanted to admit the man at all, but Zanino had been favourably impressed. As guests in an enemy city, and without invitation to the revels this night, they required amusement. If Elisabetta found the man’s trade entrancing, it did not hurt to indulge her, even if it was utter nonsense. Astrology, phrenology, numerology, palmistry, divination – fashionable pastimes. Though Doge Soranzo certainly put stock in such arts.
Not that the Doge would appreciate tonight’s prediction. While Elisabetta pressed on to more mundane matters – when the next shipment of silk would arrive, the birthdate of their latest grandchild – Dandolo tried to divine the man himself. Perhaps a soldier, crippled on some battlefield. For there had been an injury, a dreadful one. The right shoulder was badly bunched, and there was a crimp in the diviner’s left hip that forced him to rely on a heavy crutch. Worst of all was his visage. Whatever his other wounds, the left side of his face had received a devastating blow, causing his eye-socket to collapse inwards. Little wonder he kept his cowl forward. His was a face to turn the stoutest stomach.
But his voice was strong and clear, if marred by the unintelligible accent of Bergamo. His pendulum answered each question in turn. Wisely, not every answer was satisfying. Nothing makes an audience more suspicious than convenient truths.
There were clever wrinkles to the business, too. He carried a calendar, and let the pendulum hover over this date or that. He also carried a map of Italy, crudely drawn. Naples was in the wrong place. But it allowed him to answer more than simple binary questions.
After twenty minutes, Elisabetta turned to her husband. “Ask it something.”
Dandolo smiled thinly. “Why is the sky blue?”
Elisabetta pouted. “Ask it something only you would know.”
Loving his wife, he relented. “Did I eat pickled apricots yesterday?”
The man had a fifty-fifty chance, and guessed correctly. At his wife’s urging, Dandolo posed several more queries of no consequence. Each time the answer was true.
Being lucky was better than being good. Time to trick the diviner. “Did I meet the Greyhound today?”
It was well known that he had dined at the Scaligeri palace at noon, part of the many who had flooded into Verona for this momentous occasion. So when the dark pendulum tugged the chain to describe a negative, Elisabetta sighed in disappointment.
Dandolo frowned. “Has Venice bestowed its citizenship upon the Greyhound?”
Again, the answer was no. Elisabetta was distraught. Venice had certainly offered citizenship to Cangrande della Scala – it had happened months ago. Everyone knew.
Not by word or gesture did Dandolo betray his sudden interest. It was a truth known only to a few that the man commonly called Il Veltro, the Greyhound, was not the true owner of that mythic title. The name belonged to his natural child, whom Dandolo had not seen today, and who had not been granted the rare privilege of citizenship.
Several more questions, pointed now. All the answers were true. Either this crippled hulk was a genius of deception, or his gift was real.
Dandolo called for wine. “Put your tool down. If we go on, you’ll flay the skin from your hand.”
The man’s finger and thumb were indeed raw, and he accepted the cup of mulled wine with surprise. He knew the pendulum had been wrong about those two questions. Yet clearly the Venetian lord’s interest had been piqued.
Dandolo sipped his favoured beverage. “I can see why Zanino insisted you call upon us. You have a rare talent. Have you always been so blessed?”
“There are some would call it a curse, my lord.”
“Of course. In Venice such things are tolerated. But many devout souls see it as witchcraft. Trading with the Devil. Is that how you came by your infirmities?”
“No, my lord. I took these many years ago, in Padua.”
“It has been a long war,” offered Dandolo. “You must be pleased to see the seal set on peace.”
The man shrugged his good shoulder. “I’m here to ply my trade. This is where the people are.”
“Where the people are indeed,” said Dandolo after navigating the man’s accent. “But you did not answer my question. Have you always been so talented?”
“No,” admitted the diviner. “It came after my injuries.”
Dandolo raised his brows. “Compensation, after a fashion.”
“Yes, lord.” Clearly uncomfortable, the cripple finished his drink, too quickly to be polite, then set it aside. “It grows late. Are there any last questions you’d like answered?”
Dandolo rose. “No, but thank you. It has been an illuminating evening.”
Elisabetta said, “O, you’re not leaving? Francesco, you should put him on retainer. Your own spy into the divine.”
Dandolo paused. There was one question to which he would like an honest answer. How to phrase it? “Tell me this. I have been made an offer by someone here in Verona. My question is twofold. One, is the offer honest?”
The chain, the teardrop, the question. For the first time, the answer was equivocal, with the pendulum swinging in all directions. The diviner apologized, but Dandolo waved him off. “It was a poor question. Here is a better one. If I accept, will it benefit Venice?”
The bob on the chain spun leftwards so hard and so fast it might have pulled itself from the diviner’s fingers.
Dandolo’s mouth twitched. “Thank you. My mind is quite made up. Zanino will see you paid. One more thing. Should I seek your services again, where shall I find you?”
“I’m at the Duo Gentes, lord.”
“And what was your name?”
“Girolamo of Bergamo, my lord.”
“Thank you, Girolamo, for a most illuminating evening.”
As an excited Elisabetta raced to her closet to pen letters to her daughters, Dandolo waited until Zanino returned. How distressing, to see the first streaks of grey in his own son’s hair. The only son left to him, regrettably not by his wife. But it is a foolish man who places all hope of posterity in one womb.
“I hope your guest amused Donna Elisabetta, my lord.”
“Mightily. Now, as to the other matter. Send word to our Veronese friend – we accept.”