October 15, 2010

Issue 3: October 2010

October 2010

Until lions have their own historians, tales of the hunt shall glorify the hunter.
~ African Proverb


Chosen by Bryan Henery
The Letter of Marque by Catherine Lundoff
The Primate of Rome by Elizabeth Creith
Venezia Nova by Robert Wills
Resurrection by Doreen Perrine
Retro Ryder by Robert Caporale
Roman Sacrifice by Jasper Burns
The Watch-maker and the Pianist by Natasha Pulley
The Last King of Athens by Owen Dando
The Foreigner by Clare Ibarra
A Day for Burying by Mary Akers
The Silk Moth by Jessica Owen


Selene of Alexandria by Faith L. Justice
Napoleon Concerto by Mark Mellon

Editor’s Introduction

Editing an online journal is nothing if not a learning experience. This past year has taught me plenty about prioritizing, goal-setting, and asking for favors: about formatting and PhotoShop: about the thousand deaths of Adolf Hitler and the love life of Caravaggio. I’m grateful to everyone who’s helped with publicity by blogging, reviewing, and offering adspace—one of the things I’ve learned is that I need you. I’m inexpressibly grateful to those of you who’ve offered your own time and skills to keep Lacuna running smoothly.

I’ve also learned some important lessons about managing submissions. I was nowhere near prepared for the number and quality of submissions Lacuna has received since last June, and my submissions process and policy need some serious revising.

One change you may have noticed already; this issue is jam-packed with fiction. With so many good stories to choose from, I’ve increased the number of stories per issue from nine to twelve.

Even so, I found myself buried by an overabundance of stories. To keep from filling issues two years in advance, Lacuna will have to periodically close to submissions. Our last closing ended on October 1. Our next one will begin on May 1, 2011. Writers, that’s a seven-month window to send in your work!

Finally, to keep response times from running to six months, I am instituting new “hold” procedure for submissions. Within a week after receiving a submission, I will either let the author know that the piece is not quite right for Lacuna, or I will ask for permission to hold the piece for a few months while I reach a decision. Hopefully this will make it possible to avoid wasting my time and yours.

Now, go and enjoy the issue!

~Megan Arkenberg

Questions, comments, or concerns may be e-mailed to the editor at markenberg[at]yahoo[dot]com. If you are interested in submitting fiction, poetry, or nonfiction to Lacuna, please see our submission guidelines.



by Bryan Henery

Hundreds of campfires are strewn along the Jordan River like sparks scattered from the greater blaze burning in the west. It still smolders, a gaping pit of hot coals, all that is left of the walled city of Jericho. The flickering lights illuminate the horizon with an eerie, pulsing glow. It has been burning all day and into the night. Every building, every tree, every shrub, every stitch of cloth, and every corpse feeds it. Upon putting it to the torch, Joshua claimed that this festering sore in the flesh of the Promised Land has been cauterized. Now all that remains is a great, blazing tribute to the glory of Yahweh.

Stone faced warriors sit around the campfires, silent and brooding. The grime and gore of this morning’s work is mixed with the waters of the Jordan now, but many of them still do not feel clean. Joshua says it will pass. He says the memories will fade, the screams, the smell of burning flesh, and the sticky feel of blood clotting in the crevasses of their hands; he says Yahweh will cleanse their minds of these shadows. Yehuda is not so sure.

He sits by the fire with his back to distant Jericho, but it is no use. It haunts him and it is all he can do to keep his guilt hidden behind his dark eyes.

Cronos, a burly Canaanite with the thick black beard characteristic of his people, sits across from him staring into the fire. He has even more reason for guilt than Yehuda. The corpses smoldering in the blackened dust of Jericho’s streets were his people. It was his home. Cronos has never explained why he turned on them and came to Joshua. None of the Canaanites, the Amorites, or any of the foreign converts in the army has said why. Joshua doesn’t care. As long as they swear devotion to Yahweh and obedience to His will, they are accepted and proclaimed to be among the Chosen. Many of the Hebrews do not agree, but none will challenge their chieftain’s will; at least, not openly.

Cronos looks up from the fire and asks “How long are we to remain here?”

“Until our minds are clear,” Yehuda replies.

Cronos’ chuckle is humorless. “So we are to remain here forever.”

“Three days,” Yehuda sighs, “three days to cleanse our spirits. Joshua would not have us bring our demons home to infect our wives and children.”

A third warrior, Gideon, drags a broad bladed knife across a flat stone, recovering its edge. His focus was entirely on the task, but, at Yehuda’s words, he looks up and smiles.

“I am clean,” he says, “untroubled…at peace.”

Gideon is a huge man with crisscrossing scars forming a mosaic over his powerful frame. A fresh one traces a jagged path from his cheekbone to his ear. Other warriors generally avoid him; for rumor has it his mind is broken. He has been seen mumbling into his chest as if he were arguing with himself. If not for his legendary fits of rage he would be mocked openly, but none would dare. He fights like a horde of angry demons and the intensity of his stare can strike fear into the bravest of souls. Cronos, however, is not intimidated.

“You are untroubled because you are sick in the head,” he says. “You don’t know what it means to be clean in mind or spirit.”

Gideon gestures with his knife towards Cronos, but speaks to Yehuda. “Joshua commanded us to take nothing from that cursed place. Why didn’t we leave this Canaanite dog to burn with the rest of them?” Gideon turns with a sneer. “That’s right, Canaanite…I see you. I see the taint in that dusky hide of yours; the evil laughing in your eyes. You are not one of us.”

“Be still, Gideon,” Yehuda says. “Cronos stood with us in Yahweh’s name. He…”

“He is a jackal,” Gideon cuts in, “picking at the bones of his own people. Tell me Cronos, did you have any friends among the dead? Any family? Did you drive a spear into the back of a son?”

“Only enemies,” Cronos replies. “Only the lost and the damned…like you?”

Gideon laughs. “I am Chosen, Canaanite. Yahweh has proclaimed that I am to live long enough to grind your kind into the dust.”

“Why not start with me, ben znunim? I am right here.”

Gideon’s grip on his knife tightens as he rises. “Yes, why not?”

“Enough!” Joshua’s voice, level but commanding, turns all three of their heads. His eyes are tired and his face is blank. His voice has the tone of a teacher and father, but there is still the hint of a threat. “We are not savages, we are Yahweh’s people. We are not Canaanites, Philistines, or Hebrews. We are His Chosen. It is His law, His word that binds us, not our homelands.” Joshua’s gaze focuses on Gideon. “No one is above His word.”

“Forgive me, chieftain.” All the menace is gone from Gideon’s voice. He visibly trembles when Joshua’s hand comes to rest on his shoulder. “Forgive me I…forget myself.”

“Being Chosen is not a privilege, my brother, it is a duty. The duty to bring the laws of Yahweh into this world. We are his vision, his voice, and sometimes…” His gaze drifts towards the west and the dimming glow that was Jericho. “Sometimes we are his sword.”

* * *

The great ark rode the backs of bent and sweating priests at the head of the army. Their laws, delivered by Yahweh and carved onto stone tablets by the patriarch, Moses, were housed within. This vessel of their covenant with God, this symbol of their strength and His power, led the army on its seventh circuit around the city of Jericho. Six more priests surrounded the ark, blowing long curved horns that sounded low, ominous, notes. The braying of the horns and the shuffle of sandaled feet through the dust was the only sound the army made. Joshua forbade them to speak for the last seven days.

Cronos marched in the shadow of the ark, near the front of the column, but his eyes were focused on Jericho’s broken walls. It was once his home, but no longer. Now he lived on the soles of his feet, content wherever they took him. His home was the kingdom of Yahweh and it existed in every grain of sand, every drop of water, and every breath of man and beast. He was chosen and it was a wonderful thing. Yahweh’s laws gave him his life back after Jericho’s blood-thirsty goddess had taken everything he ever loved.

The ground rumbled for several seconds, making the sand tremble and dance beneath their feet. Warriors cast nervous glances all about, but Cronos smiled. The earth was always restless around Jericho. It is why her walls lay broken and incomplete with large gaps filled with crumbled stone. He remembered when he was a boy, sitting on his father’s lap at dawn, watching the last of the stars fade away. The rumbling began in the distance. He heard it at least five seconds before it struck. A calm peaceful morning was transformed into a chaos of cracking stone as the ground came alive and rolled underneath them. He remembered the screams of the people and the groans of the city being shaken to its foundations. After he was thrown from his father’s lap, he clutched at the earth seeking security in the very thing that rebelled against them. And then, as quickly as it had begun, it was over. As the dust cleared, he looked up at the section of wall in front of his family’s house, a section that had been erected no more than a season past. All that was left was rubble, another tumbled monument to the frailty of the goddess and her slaves. Amidst the jagged broken rocks he spied a red stain. An arm, no bigger than Cronos’ own, was hanging limply from the pile of stones. It was broken and twisted like a dead branch. Sometimes, the image returned to him in his sleep and he was forced awake drenched and wild eyed with terror.

Now, he welcomed the quaking of the earth. It made him smile because he knew it is a sign that Yahweh had damned this place. They build their walls in the name of their goddess and He tears them down, but they do not see. This day, the Chosen would show them. There was only one God, one power, and it was Yahweh.

Chronos gazed at the walls and wondered if his father was still alive behind them. He wondered if the old man was huddled behind broken masonry, clutching a spear in his wrinkled hands, trembling and taunted by each note of their horns. He wondered if his father was one of the mice hiding in Jericho, still and petrified, while this great cat stalked around them, playing with its prey. He hoped not. He hoped his father’s ashes were scattered in the gardens to feed the goddess. It was his only regret; that his father might live to see his son betray his own people.

He wondered if his wife was in there. Was she watching them? Waiting for the end? “Where is your goddess now?” he thought. “She is as dead as Jericho. No soul, no love, no reason, and no mercy. We are the Chosen and we live by laws, not the whims of some cruel mistress.”

Thou shalt have no gods before me.

Thou shalt not steal.

Thou shalt not murder.

Thou shalt not offer our daughter to the slab to be gutted like a pig.

He pictured her cold impassive face. She wouldn’t cross them when they called, cloaked priests demanding his beautiful child as tribute. Cronos’ wife bowed her head, silent in her complicity. He resisted so they made him watch. They bled her slow, dark red rivulets running down the grooves in the altar, dripping onto the floor of their foul temple. Her screams, the screams of a child, were poisoning the air; her pain, the agony of an innocent, feeding their bitch goddess.

Thou shalt not kneel before leering priests and thank them for putting your child to the knife.

They would have killed him too, claiming his blood was needed to calm the earth, but he escaped. Now, he was back. “Are your there my dear?” Cronos thought, wringing the shaft of his spear. “Are you huddled with your divine priests?”

The army completed its seventh circuit and Joshua gave the signal for the procession to come to a halt. He moved before them and raised his spear, scorn in his eyes, his lips trembling. Cronos was savoring breaking his silence, itching to give voice to all he had within him; all the pain, the anger, the hatred he felt for his home.

“Today my line ends and I am happy for it. Have you made your peace with your goddess? I’m going to send you to her…on a plate.”

Joshua dropped his spear and a great shout rose from the Chosen. Forty thousand voices exploded into the dry desert air, echoing through the valley, and striking fear into the hearts of the Canaanites. Cronos’ eyes were mad as his voice joined in. He was filled with a rush of passion, the lust to spill blood, the power of collective hate. In his mind, his wife and the goddess had become on bloody, cringing, cackling, murderous hag.

“Can you hear me, my dear? I’m coming.”

* * *


* * *

The voices, those mad gibbering voices in Gideon’s head, were mercifully silenced by the shout of the Chosen. Tears of joy and gratitude streamed down his face as he joined the call for blood. For the first time he could remember, he was alone in his mind. “Silence—oh blessed silence. Is this the voice of God?”

It must be God, for the demonic laughter faded and the whispers urging him to commit foul, perverse acts were gone. He was free of the tingling under his skin, the raking of their claws and fangs as they gnashed, ripped, and struggled to tear through his flesh and be free. In the past, he tried to let them out. He cut himself, savoring the pain, but every mad cackle or hissing suggestion that bled from his wounds, from his soul, was replaced by two more voices that mocked him and goaded him to excess. He had squeezed the life from harlots in the hope of satisfying their hunger. He found hermits in the hills and dashed their brains upon the rocks. He stole, raped, and maimed; he has done everything to satisfy their lusts, but their appetites only grew upon being fed. But on the field, amongst the Chosen, under the light of Yahweh’s power, they were silent. This empty, quiet peace must be the voice of God.

Still shouting, Gideon and his brothers surged forward, moving as one across the plain. A sharp knife in his left hand, a heavy club in his right, his eyes were fixed on Jericho. The sky was turning red behind the city and its walls pulsed and writhed like a dying heart. He saw, he understood, he knew. Yahweh was revealing Jericho in all its decadence to him.

Before his eyes, the walls were losing their sharpness. The whole city was wavering, becoming insubstantial, unreal. Yahweh was showing him the truth, that nothing man made was real. It was like his nightmares when dark, monstrous things closed in, laughter, scorn and pain; when, in the dark of night, he was beset by monsters. He felt this same kind of menace, but now Joshua’s strength flowed through him and he was not afraid. Gideon was now the monster and he hungered.

They were close now and he could see figures moving in the gaps of the towering stone walls. The demonic voices were rising again, but no longer from within his head. They were coming from Jericho. A smile spread across Gideon’s scarred face, for those voices that usually taunted him were screaming in terror. Judgment was coming and with it, his inner world was calm, determined, and silent.

He was free.

Demons from within the walls loosed their barbs, flights of arrows arcing through the air. Gideon heard them hissing towards the Chosen, serpents intent on stinging the righteous. They struck all around him, piercing the throats, eyes, and torsos of his brothers. Chosen were falling in sprays of their own blood. They were hurdled by the living who rushed on, closing with Jericho’s walls.

An arrow grazed Gideon’s cheek, ripping away skin and flesh, but he didn’t notice. All that mattered was the wall that protected these subhuman devils who would deny the Chosen their destiny. The voices were loud now, assaulting Gideon’s senses. The laughter, the gnashing of teeth, the bestial growls, and the screams were pounding at him from the city, from throats that could be crushed and ripped, from plague bearing vermin that could be silenced.

Gideon hurdled the first piles of rubble and leapt into their midst. His club crushed the skull of the first defender before he could drop his bow in favor of a spear. Gideon spun and drove his knife deep into the chest of another. The warm rush of blood gushing over his hand thrilled him. The knife was lodged in the sternum so he let it go as the man fell and grasped his club with both hands.

At his back, he felt his brothers pushing him forward while ahead there was a sea of demons. Their lips did not move, but he could hear their taunts, their lewd blasphemies against the Chosen. He saw their eyes narrowing, their faces contorting into demonic visages that their human masks hid. Gideon was laughing as his club dealt death indiscriminately, crushing bone and ending lives. Organized resistance faltered before the fury of the Chosen. The lines broke as the Canaanites fled and the real killing began.

Gideon picked up a blood-smeared bronze sickle-sword for his off hand and joined the hunt, for Joshua proclaimed that no living thing would be spared. Gideon no longer heard their laughter: only their pain, their screams, and their deaths. It was euphoric.

He screamed with all his might, raising his stained weapons to the heavens, “We are Chosen!”

He saw a serpent’s tail disappear behind a mud hut and bolted after it. Demons! They were small and clustered in the shadows, hiding from judgment. He saw them changing, imps and salamanders, hissing in fear. Knee high, they dodged and squirmed, but could not escape his rage. Gideon ripped into them, his weapons tracing arcs of gore as he struck again and again, silencing their cries. He saw only red and heard only one voice in his head.

“We are Chosen.”

* * *

For Yehuda, it was all too much.

He dry-heaved but his stomach was empty. He turned away from the screams of the children as Gideon butchered them, but it made no difference. Everywhere he looked, it was the same. He imagined his own daughters under the blade of that mad man and the thought staggered him, sending him reeling with a fresh wave of nausea. He knew this was coming; he knew they were to kill every man, every woman, every child, every beast, but he did not expect it to be like this.

He expected a battle, a glorious pitched battle, where their glory would be proved through acts of valor against a wicked foe. The battle was over almost before it began. Now, there was only atrocity at every turn. The Chosen were racing through the streets with torch, blade, and mania in their eyes. Canaanites scattered, but there was nowhere to flee. The city had become a trap.

An old man was being kicked to death in front of his hut. He begged, but his attackers only laughed and redoubled their attacks. A girl was being dragged screaming behind a wall by two warriors. One was cutting away her clothes while a third grabbed her by the jaw and stuck a knife in her mouth to cut out her tongue. Another warrior had a child by the leg. He bludgeoned the body against a stone wall relentlessly. Those that ran were chased down and torn apart. There was no mercy among the Chosen. They were in the frenzy, state described by Joshua as a gift from Yahweh that allows them to defeat their foes. Yehuda did not feel it, could not. Children were dying.

Everywhere it was the same. Screams and laughter, smoke and blood, cruel grunts and the sick sound of blades cleaving flesh. As the sun climbed, Yehuda tried to find a corner where he could hide from the carnage, but it was like trying to avoid sand in the desert. So many little nightmares played themselves out. Every scenario belonging to the landscape of Hell was painted into the mosaic that was Jericho’s death. Yehuda’s hands were sticky with blood and he wondered if it was, as Joshua claimed, the blood of the damned. Is it so different from his own? It is thick and flows freely before clotting in the dust. As it drains, eyes go dim and struggles cease. It is red and the sight of it drives men into this lust that shatters reason. It is the paint that decorates the underworld and everywhere he looked, the Chosen were swimming in it. It was their wine and they were drunk and reveling.

Yehuda ducked through a shimmering curtain painted with odd signs. He just wanted to be away, alone, anywhere but on the streets. The chamber was long and the walls were lined with murals of the finest cloth. Each one depicted a woman, voluptuous and haughty, with dark probing eyes. The detail was amazing and Yehuda was so caught up in her beauty that he forgot what was going on outside. He stared into those eyes, the eyes of their goddess. She was in a dozen poses: some regal, some sensual, some suggestive and lewd. He looked around the chamber, but froze when his eyes reach the altar at the far end and the man splayed out upon it.

The priest’s mouth was locked in a silent scream. His eyes were dark holes that leaked foul fluids. His hands stretched down each side of the altar to the floor where they had been nailed into the ground with heavy stakes. It seemed his arms were not quite long enough, for both shoulders were badly dislocated, stretched to accommodate his lack of reach. Broad bladed knives pierce the body in at least a dozen places. He had been gutted and his insides draped around the altar in a decorative fashion. Someone took their time with the man.

Yehuda approached slowly. The scene was gruesome, but not as appalling as what was happening on the streets. He knew what had been done in these chambers. He wondered if the priest had time to appreciate the irony in dying on the same slab on which he took so many lives. These priests and their foul goddess were why Yehuda was here. But why the rest? The priest was wearing a necklace of human teeth and his bald head was tattooed with intricate runes. His death was as his life; an abomination. But why the children?

Yehuda was about to leave when he spied the glint of silver behind the altar. They were piled neatly amongst bolts of fine cloth: shining, clean silver coins. Joshua’s voice came back to him: “All the silver, and the gold, and vessels of brass and iron are consecrated unto the Lord: they shall come into the treasury of the Lord.”

Yehuda’s palms itched. He could trade. He could leave the fighting, the death, the pain, the wandering. “Is it stealing to take my share?” he thought. “What need does God have with a treasury?” He could put up the sword.

“Keep yourselves from the accursed thing, lest ye make yourselves accursed.” Yehuda reached trembling, driving Joshua’s voice into the back of his thoughts. “When ye take of the accursed thing, and make the camp of Israel a curse, and trouble it.”

No…he had earned it.

* * *


* * *

Joshua lets the words hang in the air before he repeats, “Sometimes we are his sword.”

He leaves the three warriors to their thoughts and their dying fire. Gideon stares after him with all the longing of a lover. When Joshua has disappeared amongst other fires and other warriors, Gideon turns back to Cronos and nods. “I am sorry, brother. It is as our Lord says. We are all Chosen.”

He gets up and leaves Yehuda and Cronos alone. Yehuda stirs the fire and looks up tentatively. “Did you find what you came her for, Cronos?

“No. I couldn’t find her.” He pauses, his face dark. “I found a priest. I made him pay. But I am…unsatisfied. Revenge is empty I think.”

“It’s just as well. Revenge has two edges, my friend.”

“Yes. I have had my fill of death, of dark thoughts. I’ve had my fill of the past.”

Yehuda frowns. “For today, maybe. But we are not done. There will be other Jerichos, other purges before this Promised Land is ours. I can see it in Joshua’s eyes. We are not done.”

“Do not be so glum, my friend. In two day you will see your wife and your daughters. You can forget much of this.”

“Maybe,” Yehuda sighs. “What will you do now, Cronos? Now that your revenge is a thing of the past.”

He smiles. “I am too old to start again, but at least I can carry on. Jericho, with all her demons, is behind me my brother.” He gathers his things and heads off to find some place to sleep. “No longer will it haunt my dreams.”

Yehuda is silent. He closes his eyes and prays for the same.

* * *

Once cleansed, the army returns to their families, their lives, and their peace. It is over, it seems, until a week later, the shouts ring through the camp. “Thief! Betrayer! Cursed!” Cronos pushes his way to the front of the circle that is forming. Before he can get within view of the spectacle, he hears Joshua’s booming voice over the crowd.

“You would dare to steal from Yahweh himself? You would break our covenant and bring down his wrath? Look upon this wretch, brothers, this fiend deserves no pity.”

Cronos finds his way to the front and sees Yehuda sprawled in the dust, blood from his broken nose flowing down his garment. His hands are bound and before him lays a small pile of silver shekels and two bolts of fine Canaanite fabric. Joshua grabs him by the back of his neck and shoves his face into the silver.

“These were found under your tent, do you deny taking these things from cursed Jericho? Do you value this more than our covenant?”

“No, my lord,” he whimpers. “I was weak, please forgive me.”

The other side of the circle breaks and a woman, wide eyed and terrified, is pushed to the ground followed by two dark eyed little girls. Yehuda sees them and groans trying to struggle to his feet.

“No, my lord, please! Punish me…Punish me!”

Joshua ignores his cries and stares coldly at Yehuda’s wife and children. “He has broken the covenant and angered Yahweh. All flesh of Yehuda must be purged.”

Cronos stomach churns and he wants to retch as the Chosen around him mutter curses and begin to pick up stones.

“It is not a privilege to be Chosen, it is a duty. Yahweh demands of those he draws to his bosom and he will cast us all out if we allow one to thwart his will.”

Cronos mind is screaming, “No, we aren’t like them, we are Chosen!”

For a moment, one of the little girls locks eyes with him. The world slows and he feels everything through that look. She doesn’t understand. She doesn’t want to be here. She is scared. And then the first rock smashes into her head with a sick crunch.

Joshua’s voice rises above the throng of angry hisses, “Let Yahweh’s judgment rule us, let his will be done.”

“Not again.”

The stoning goes on for hours, even after the family is long dead. The Chosen continue to pelt the bodies until they are unrecognizable. Joshua orders that more stones be piled atop them until a monument has been formed. A pile of bloody stones commemorating the glory of Yahweh’s will.

No one sees Cronos slip away from the crowd. The next morning a sentry finds a sword discarded at the edge of camp and a set of footprints disappearing into the sandy wastes, alone.

* * *


* * *

Bryan Henery is graduate student in California State University's inaugural MFA program in creative writing, focusing on poetry.

What do you think is the most important part of a historical fiction story?

I think the most important thing to keep in mind when writing a historical fiction story is to not let the historical details overwhelm the story itself. The setting and context are important, but it is still well rounded characters and strong plotting that will draw the reader in.

The Letter of Marque


The Letter of Marque
by Catherine Lundoff

Celeste Adele Girard laughed, fluttering her fan just below her topaz eyes. The gesture was enough to make her audience, old rakes and young chevaliers alike, to vie against each other even harder to make her laugh again. But Celeste was becoming distracted. Her gaze turned as often on the ballroom door as it did to her admirers.

A liveried footman announced each new guest as they arrived, bowing them into the Governor’s ballroom as if it were Versailles itself. Celeste smothered a sigh at the memory of her last vision of her beloved France. Oh, to leave this benighted island, hot, dull and filled with boorish Englishmen!

Sternly, she reminded herself that the King had promised to make her a Countess if she succeeded in her mission. That alone should be reason enough to stay. She drew herself up and smiled harder.

It was at that moment the footman announced a “Mr. Bernard.” Mademoiselle Girard merely glanced briefly toward the door as if the arrival of the man she hunted was of little moment before declaring herself faint from the heat. A hundred arms, or so it seemed, were proffered and she was soon swept off to an elegant, uncomfortable chair from which she could observe her quarry. The youngest of her admirers was dispatched to fetch her wine and exited with resigned grace.

Bernard had not seen her, which was as well since he might have recognized her from the Court. But he spared none of the young ladies present a glance on his way across the room to the Governor’s side. Sir Henry Morgan, Governor of His Majesty’s colony of Jamaica, seemed inclined to listen to the gentleman. Certainly their faces were serious enough to suggest grave matters, and that alone was unusual on such an occasion.

“La!” Celeste murmured. “It is so hot in here. Perhaps you would be so kind as to escort me?” She gestured toward the open balcony at Morgan’s back and fluttered her lids at the young man who had just returned with her wine. His youthful cheeks flushed crimson but he was fast enough to offer his hand to assist her in standing, moving with a fencer’s grace before the others could reach out.

He was swift enough too in sweeping her over the floor and out into the relative cool of the deserted night air before anyone could follow. Celeste gave him a speculative glance. There was not even the beginning of a beard on his tanned cheeks. But his expression, now that suggested years of a certain kind of experience she would not have expected in one so young. Had she miscalculated? She had thought him easily handled. Celeste frowned a moment, slightly puzzled.

The young man murmured in near perfect court French, “How lovely you are tonight, mademoiselle.” He reached out and twirled one of her blonde curls around his finger, barely grazing the bare skin of her neck.

Celeste shivered despite herself. He moved his hand up and traced the delicate shell of her ear. “And such perfect ears, straining so very hard to hear the English Governor’s words. What do they talk about inside, do you think, the former pirate and the French gentleman in the somber clothes?”

He had leaned over so that his lips were nearly at her ear and this time, Celeste did start. She stared up at him in the moonlight, her eyes narrowed in suspicion. “Who are you?”

“Another lost soul from France, my lady.” The words were said with a smile that sent Celeste’s fingers searching for the small dagger hidden in her skirts, moving as if of their own accord. The young man caught her hand and pressed it to his lips. “Surely so beautiful a flower has nothing to fear from a boy like me?”

Now Celeste did stare. What was it about this lad? He had a pretty face, did the young man, with a long, narrow jaw, brown eyes, and a thin patrician nose, all beneath a shock of dark red hair. She dropped her gaze to his beardless chin and from there, below. “Mon dieu! You’re a woman!” She gasped at last.

The young man went on holding her hand. “Captain Jacquotte Delahaye, at your service.”

“The pir--!” Jacquotte’s fingers were on her lips now, silencing her startled exclamation. Celeste could feel her eyes go round, like a girl scarcely out of the nursery and she despised herself for it. With an effort, she squelched her awe.

Even though she stood in the moonlight with the celebrated French pirate queen, steps away, an Englishman plotted against the French King. There was no time for this nonsense. Her expression must have changed because the pirate pulled her fingers away, so speedily she must have feared being bitten.

Celeste pushed her companion back toward the curtain, a low, flirtatious laugh rising from her lips. “Oh sir,” she said in an excellent English accent, “You are too forward!”

Delahaye smiled and looked down as if she was the only maiden in the world. The Governor and Mr. Bernard continued their discourse. Now and then, a word, a phrase, drifted out on the night breeze. There was mention of a treasure, then something else she could not hear.

A moment later, though, Morgan’s voice boomed out, “You have done well, Sir. Come to my residence tomorrow and we will discuss payment.” The Governor slapped his guest on the shoulder, clearly to the other man’s distaste, and turned to survey the room. His expression was shrewd as he glanced around, pausing a moment on the two figures on the balcony.

“Don’t bite me, chéri,” Jacquotte murmured and Celeste found herself being thoroughly kissed. She pushed vainly against the pirate’s muscular arms and shoulders but could do nothing against being held tight in the other woman’s grasp. It was only for a moment, but it was enough to her gasping for air and filled with strange sensations. Delahaye released her. “Now behave as you would with any young man who took such liberties.”

Celeste slapped her hard. “How dare you, sir! I am not to be used in this way.” She shoved Jacquotte so that she stumbled back, releasing her grip. Then she stormed into the ballroom in time to catch Governor Morgan’s eye.

The old pirate leered and offered his arm. “And how could any man resist stealing a kiss from such beauty? Permit me, dear lady. I shall keep you safe at my side until you desire otherwise. You are newly come from England to visit Lady Aston, are you not?”

Celeste noticed that Monsieur Bernard had vanished as suddenly as he had come. She simpered and blushed under the Governor’s eye, summoning nearly forgotten skills. The blush was long out of fashion in Paris, but here it seemed required. “Yes, my Lord. Jamaica is such a beautiful island!”

Morgan smiled down at her, while his black eyes caressed her décolletage so that if she had been the maid she pretended to be, she might have feared for her virtue. As it was, she thought of her mission, and not a little of Jacquotte Delahaye. With the former in mind, she prattled on about the tropics and about her fear of pirates, now assuaged by the presence of such a stalwart representative of His Majesty’s government.

At the mention of pirates, Morgan’s face changed from flirtatious to nearly unreadable. Celeste found herself transferred inelegantly from the Governor’s arm to that of Lady Aston, who approached at his gesture. “He’s very sensitive on that topic, my dear,” Lady Aston murmured. Celeste very nearly rolled her eyes. Lady Aston was charming, of course, but sometimes it was simply not enough. At that moment, their progress toward the door was blocked by a familiar figure.

“My apologies, Lady Aston. I felt I must beg forgiveness from your young charge.” Jacquotte Delahaye had a sweeping bow, graceful and powerful. “I was overcome by the moonlight, beautiful lady. Please forgive me. Say that I may call tomorrow.”

Celeste drew back, her heart pounding. Whatever the pirate wanted here, it could have nothing to do with her. Unless she too sought the Spanish gold that the King of France needed. There was only one way to find out. Celeste fluttered her fan once more as if undecided. Lady Aston sounded puzzled when she answered for them both, “I’m not sure what you mean, sir.”

“Very well. You may call tomorrow afternoon.” Celeste closed her fan with a snap and tugged Lady Aston forward. Delahaye stepped back and they made their escape.

Lady Aston looked askance as they entered her coach. “Have you acquired an admirer, my dear?”

“Something even better.” Celeste’s smile was more genuine than it had been all evening, but not another word would she say on the topic. Instead she steered her friend into the safer waters of gossip and fashion. Such things were far less likely to place her neck in a noose than knowing the secrets of the King of France’s best spy in the Caribbean.

Celeste’s mind was whirling when she reached her room, and once her maid had unlaced her and helped her into her nightdress, she found herself dismissed. Her employer paced the room as she left, absently running a brush through her blonde curls.

Morgan and his mysterious visitor had to have been speaking about the missing treasure of Jean Fleury. Rumors that the privateer’s gold had finally been discovered had drifted as far as Versailles and the King’s ear. And here she was, sent to find the truth. She pulled her orders and papers from their hiding place and spread them on the desk. But she wasn’t ready to sit down and read through them again, not yet.

She had managed to gain enough information in the last fortnight to make it clear that the stories were true, but as to the who and the where of it, that was more challenging. For that, she would need something more than her disguise as an English near-innocent come to visit her aunt in Jamaica. She opened the wardrobe and reached into its darkest recesses. There was a click, as of a tiny secret lock, then she emerged carrying a bundle of clothes, a pair of boots and a sheathed sword.

The curtains at the open window fluttered, their white length startling her. But that was nothing in comparison to her response to the appearance of Jacquotte Delahaye in their midst. “Good evening, mademoiselle. I prefer to set my own hours for visiting.” The pirate smiled.

Celeste threw the clothes and boots aside and drew the sword with the ease of long practice. She held the length of her rapier between herself and her unexpected visitor. “What are you doing here?”

The pirate looked amused. “I’m accustomed to young ladies shrieking for their maids when I appear in their rooms. This is something new. But then, you’re not what you seem, are you, mademoiselle?”

“Do you make a habit of sneaking into ladies’ bedrooms at night then? I though pirates sailed on ships and robbed on the high seas.” Inwardly, Celeste cursed Delahaye’s timing. A few more minutes and she would have been dressed for fighting. Now, her nightdress would slow her down. But she did not let the pirate see that thought and the hand that held the rapier was rock steady.

“Only very unusual young ladies.” Delahaye nodded toward the sword. “And you can handle a blade. I can see as much from your stance. So now that I know that, put up your sword, lass. I’ve come to talk.”

“Talk fast then. My aunt often comes to my room to say good night.”

Delahaye moved like a striking cat, knocking aside Celeste’s blade with a pillow she seized on her way to the door. With a single gesture, she slid the bolt home and leaned against it. “Now we won’t be disturbed.” She looked around the room, ignoring Celeste’s muffled curse as she rubbed her wrist. “Ah. Just what I was looking for.” She snatched the papers from the writing desk and drew her pistol, pointing it at Celeste.

Celeste saw her death in its round mouth for a span of breaths. But Delahaye did not pull the trigger. Instead, she rifled through the papers as if looking for something specific. Celeste lunged forward, hoping to catch her off guard.

Delahaye spun away, her expression annoyed. She leveled the pistol at Celeste’s head and spoke in a tone that did not allow for disagreement. “Do that again, mademoiselle, and I’ll be forced to damage a work of art.”

Then she seemed to find what she was seeking. She studied the document with a satisfied expression that froze Celeste in place, waiting for what she could not prevent. She read aloud, “It is in the service of the King of France that the bearer of this letter has done what she has done.” Delahaye’s smile turned wicked. “You have a landsman’s letter of marque, mademoiselle. Perhaps you might tell me why.”

The pirate’s dark eyes were cold and fierce and the easy lie she had been about to tell caught in Celeste’s throat. What would Delahaye believe? “I’ll make it simple for you then. You are a Frenchwoman pretending to be English and you can handle a sword. I believe you to be either a spy or an assassin. Now what has Sir Henry Morgan got that your King Louis wants?”

“He is your King as well as mine,” Celeste retorted, her tone ice in the humid air. “Now put my papers back. I would dislike to add you to my list of enemies, Mon—Maidemoiselle.” She stumbled over the words, wincing at her own clumsiness.

Jacquotte Delahaye laughed softly. “Madame, if you will. But alas, widowed.”

“Widowed? Never mind.” Celeste raised her free hand. “I have no wish to know the fate of Monsieur Delahaye. I do, however, want my papers and to be free of your presence.”

“And thus I am dismissed.” Jacquotte crossed the room, pistol still pointed steadily at Celeste. She seated herself on the edge of the bed. “Sit,” she gestured at the room’s only chair.

Celeste gritted her teeth. “I prefer to stand.”

“Indeed.” Jacquotte shrugged. “Well, mademoiselle, I have speculated on your purpose here in Jamaica and you have not denied my theories.”

“Do you really believe me an assassin?”

“I imagine that I would even now be fighting for my life if that were the case.” Jacquotte’s eyes gleamed with mockery. “I suspect that we both seek the same goal, however: Jean Fleury’s gold. Though it would seem we have a different purpose for its use.”

Celeste snorted. “The taverns of Port Royal are hardly a noble purpose.”

“In comparison to gold-plating the asses of some aristocrats at Versailles? No, I suppose not. In any case, I desire more than that and you, mademoiselle, may help me achieve what I desire. I am willing to divide the gold equally in return for your help.”

“And if I don’t?” It was an extraordinary offer. Extraordinary and ridiculous. Why should this woman think she would accept it?

“I could shoot you now,” Jacquotte responded, her expression thoughtful. “But that would rouse the household and be something of a waste. No, mademoiselle, refuse my generosity and I will foil your plans at every turn. Consider, if you will, that I have a ship and men at my command. You have only your wits and considerable charms. How will you liberate the gold? What will you do with it then?”

Celeste studied the pirate before answering. It seemed wisest to appear as foolish as the other woman thought her. She mustered a look of confusion. “I can call upon any French ship in these waters.”

“And as you have been so eager to declare me a subject of the King of France, allow me to offer my ship as the one you call upon. Provided, of course, that you accede to my wishes.”

“Which I know nothing of. Do you plan to enlighten me?”

“It will be nothing beyond your powers, I can assure you. Now I have other business to attend to and must take my leave.” Jacquotte stood, but seemed to waiting for a response.

Celeste frowned as if considering her options. Finally, she summoned a reluctant, “Very well.”

“Excellent. Then I will take my leave, Celeste, if I may call you so, and leave you to your dreams.” The pirate vanished out the window before Celeste was able to respond.

She dashed over and looked out. Delahaye was clambering down the wall below, ending with a short leap into the bushes. She was gone from view within moments, leaving her audience shivering behind her. Celeste closed the window before she turned back to the room, refusing to wonder what the pirate might want from her.

Within moments, she was dressed in her man’s garb. She bucked her rapier to her belt, slid daggers into the sheaths in the top of her boots and bound up her hair so it would tuck up beneath her hat. The heavy vest that she added next would leave her panting if she had to run but would cover her breasts enough so that she might pass as a man, if not examined too closely. She had no intention of letting anyone get close enough to notice.

Last, she caught up her most important papers and slipped them into a pouch that hung around her neck and tucked it beneath her shirt. They would be safer there, she suspected if Delahaye could enter her room so easily.

Then she grabbed the rope she had stored in with her clothes and opened the window once more. After tying it to her bedpost, she began her own descent to the ground below. Miraculously, it seemed as if Lady Aston’s household slept through it all. She viewed the darkened windows above her with relief. Lady Aston had been so kind, had asked so few questions of the daughter of her former school friend, that to distress her seemed an unkindness.

Celeste slipped through the garden like a shadow, silently traversing her way through the old gate in the far wall and into the quiet streets beyond. The streets of Port Royal were as close to silent as they ever were. Celeste could hear drunken shouts in the distance as she slipped quietly through the darkened streets. She made a right turn, then two lefts and she saw torches flickering feebly before an old inn. Faded letters pronounced it to be “The Sea Dog.”

She stepped forward with a quick glance to either side to verify that she was not followed. Then she loosened her sword in its scabbard and opened the tavern door with a manly swagger. Still, her heart raced as she looked around the common room, prepared as she could be, for anything.

Fortunately, the lateness of the hour ensured that there were few within still sober enough to sit upright. Men slept on the benches or head down on the tables. A whore snored in a corner near the unlit fireplace. Only one or two heads turned to watch her, then looked away when they saw her sword. The landlord gave her a hard stare, then jerked his head toward a closed door in the darkened recesses under the stairs when she gave him a two-fingered salute. She nodded and rapped door three times.

Responding to a sound from within, she entered. The two men at the table stood, one after the other. The taller one swept his plumed hat from his head and would have bowed had he not been stopped by a preemptory gesture. A few moments of muted conversation followed and candlelight glinted on a handful of gold coins as they changed hands. Then all three left the room, and the tall man tossed the landlord a coin.

Once outside, they separated, each moving in a different direction. Celeste directed her steps back toward Lady Aston’s and bed. Perhaps weariness made her careless, or so she thought afterwards. By then it was too late. Before she knew she was under attack, shadowy figures forced a foul-smelling sack over her head and knocked her unconscious.

When she awoke, she was bound hand and foot, but at least the sack was gone. Her head hurt like the very Devil, and she could feel the sea’s motion somewhere under the table she was tied to. The room was nearly dark, for which she was grateful. She forced herself to test her limbs, then to try her bonds. Both were solid but the movements hurt enough to tear a groan from her throat.

As if it was a signal, a huge man opened the door and stepped inside. He grinned down at her, his smile exposing a few missing teeth. His beard was filthy and his person made even less appealing by the stench that rolled off him: rum and long unwashed flesh. Celeste yanked frantically at her bonds, nearly breaking her wrists in her struggles. She had sworn that no man would harm her again; two deaths were testament to that vow. But now she was helpless.

The man laughed and stepped closer, meaty hands descending on her bound legs. His fingers dug into her flesh through her breeches. “You’re a pretty piece, aren’t you? Think I’ll have me a bit of fun while the Captain’s not about.” He leered as his hands slid higher and Celeste cursed him with every oath in her vocabulary.

The door opened behind him with a sharp bang, making them both jump, and she could see another man in the doorway. Silently, she vowed that she would live to kill them all, every one of them. That determination leant steel to her spine and a layer of ice to calm her panic. She had only to endure, wait for her chance and be ready.

A sharp blow from behind staggered the brute and he fell away, spinning around with his knife drawn. He was snarling now, knife held at the ready, knees in a fighter’s couch. But there was a sword’s point hovering before his eyes now and at the other end, the blazing eyes of Jacquotte Delahaye.

Celeste wondered if Delahaye was swordsman enough to defeat an opponent nearly twice her size. She worked even harder at loosening her bonds; after all even if Delahaye won this unequal combat, there was no guarantee that Celeste would not be next.

The clash of blades tore her from her thoughts. The man lunged at Jacquotte and she had turned his blade easily. The knife blade flashed as he matched her movements, looking for a chance to get past her rapier. But her guard held. “Give it up, Poole,” she said in heavily accented English. “Your pigsticker is no match for my steel.”

He growled something at her and Celeste could see his free hand dart out of sight, searching for something to hurl. “Watch out!” She exclaimed as his hand closed on a loose bolt.

Jacquotte dodged as it sailed through the air, then ducked under his arm and drove her sword into his shoulder. He bellowed in pain as she yanked the blade free and pressed the tip against his throat. The knife fell to the floor with a clatter and Celeste smiled as blood began to stain his already filthy coat.

Delahaye raised one dark eyebrow. “Is this done?” Poole nodded. “Disobey me again and I’ll cut your balls off and stuff them down your throat.” She stepped aside and he sidled past her, clearly reluctant to turn his back until he could stumble away across the deck.

“Now, as to you, mademoiselle, my apologies for your treatment. I anticipated that you might prove...reluctant to cooperate if you had too much time to think.” Jacquotte smiled and it sent shivers down Celeste’s spine. “But I suppose my point is made.” With a few deft turns of her wrist, she severed the ropes that bound her captive to the table.

Celeste sat up awkwardly, hands still bound. She held them out, “What must I exchange for my freedom?”

Jacquotte’s smile changed a bit, her lips twisting in a slight grimace. “So simple? I must wonder. But here it is, mademoiselle. I want a letter of my own, one that says that I do what must be done in the service of France. I would like to return home a welcome hero, not a despised pirate. This is my price.” Her back straightened and she looked past Celeste as she spoke, as if she was seeing into the future she described.

“A letter of marque, making you a privateer for the King?” Celeste spoke slowly, trying to think. It surprised her that Delahaye would trade the complete freedom of the seas to pillage for France but if the great Henry Morgan could turn governor, anything was possible. “And for this, you will help me to capture all of Fleury’s treasure for France?”

“Let us say much of it. I have expenses.” Jacquotte sheathed her sword and gestured expansively at the cabin walls.

“Rob more Spanish and English dogs then, and leave the King of France his gold.” Celeste growled. “Fleury would have done so had he lived.”

“Would he? God save us all from honorable pirates,” Jacquotte laughed. “Now, Mademoiselle Celeste, I will free you if I have your word that you will not attempt to slaughter the crew or myself.”

“It is much to ask.” She could feel the boat’s motion changing, as if sails were being brought in. “Where are we?”

“We are following our mysterious countryman, he who is such a good friend of Monsieur the Governor.” Jacquotte gestured toward the open door. “Do you wish to see if we have been successful at finding his hiding place?”

Celeste held out her bound hands in mute answer, nodding to the question in Jacquotte’s eyes. Her wrists were free a moment later and she was staggering to her feet on legs not yet seaworthy. Jacquotte caught her arm and guided her forward to the door, and from there across the deck.

Despite her stumbling, Celeste was able to look around the ship as they moved toward the prow. It had been a flagship, probably English, from the build, before it turned pirate. The black flag was folded and stowed on deck, she noticed, while the ship flew merchant colors from Portugal.


But the men were as she expected: a rainbow-hued assortment of cutthroats, murderers and common sailors. Celeste glanced from one scarred or tattooed hard-eyed face to another and wondered what kind of woman could survive their company.

Jacquotte glanced at her and smiled. “I’m their Captain and they know I’m fair. Everyone gets an even split of the spoils. It’s enough for most of them. The rest know I can kill them.”

Celeste felt her lips curl into a reluctant smile. It was difficult not to feel admiration for this pirate. She only hoped that she would not be forced to kill her.

A motion out on the water caught her attention: some distance away, a small boat was sailing into what appeared to be a wall of rock. “Look!” The word fell from her lips before she realized that Jacquotte had released her arm and was now training a spyglass on the ship. “Are we going in after him?” She demanded, her voice full of newfound eagerness for the hunt.

Jacquotte did not lower the glass. “No, chéri. We would tear the bottom from my ship and I will not permit that to happen. We will wait here for him to sail back out and we will capture him then.”

Celeste let out a sigh as if deeply disappointed. In reality, she had ordered her men to find and hunt this dog Bernard when they left the tavern. If all had gone well, one of them should be aboard that vessel. The other... well, time would tell, she hoped.

Jacquotte glanced briefly at her, then ordered one of the pirates to bring up a short stool. “Here,” she nudged it with her foot. “Sit and keep watch up here. We’ll be preparing the ship.” With that, she turned over the glass and nearly flew down the stairs to the deck. Celeste watched her, bemused as she strode the length of the deck, barking orders and gesturing at the rigging and the guns.

Celeste permitted her mind to drift, watching the sea and the rocks for a time, while she dreamt of home. But then she saw the pale outline of a ship’s sales against the rock walls. “They’re coming!” She called over her shoulder, hoping her voice would carry above the mayhem on the deck, but no further.

Several footsteps raced up the stairs behind her and a large hand plucked the spyglass away. Celeste glared up at a skinny man with a scar running the length of his long face. Jacquotte threw her an amused glance and she staggered to her feet, determined not to be caught off guard.

“Right enough,” the fellow grunted as he handed the glass to Jacquotte and gave Celeste an approving nod.

Celeste took a moment to glance at the deck below them and was astonished to discover that the cannon were all hidden below painted clothes. Everything was the color of the deck or of the sea beyond, so the guns might well be invisible from a distance. But why go through so much trouble for one small ship?

She looked up at Jacquotte for answers and noticed that the glass was pointed toward the distant cape now. If she squinted against the sun, she could just make out the sails of several large vessels. “Henry Morgan’s ships, awaiting delivery of Fleury’s gold.” Jacquotte murmured as if she knew Celeste’s thoughts. “But we’ll hail them first.”

The pirate captain bared her teeth in a species of ferocious grin and Celeste could not suppress a shudder. If the pirates miscalculated, they would be attacked by their quarry and Morgan at the same time. That way lay near certain death.

Celeste could not stop herself from glancing away toward the other end of the island. Were there white sails visible in that direction as well? She prayed that it was so. Unless the French ship was in place, she might well have to turn pirate herself.

When she turned back, the rock wall and Bernard’s ship were much closer than she expected. There was a brisk exchange in Spanish above her head, the words too fast for her to follow. Then she found herself being towed down to the deck and back to the cabin by the thin man.

“Captain’s orders, dulce. No landsmen on deck to get underfoot.” He grinned down at her with blackened teeth and gave her an affectionate slap on the buttocks as he crammed her into the cabin where she’d been held earlier. A key turned in the lock as she grabbed for the knob and she cursed Delahaye and her crew heartily.

A few moments later, the ship listed sharply, as if it had struck a rock. Celeste fell to the floor and cursed even harder. She had not thought Delahaye so foolish as to sail too near the shore. From outside, she could hear voices bellowing, then the sound of a ship being hailed. She glanced out the porthole and noted a taut chain that dragged something through the water.

More shouts from outside, then a moment of silence broken by a barked order. The chain clanked sharply as it was suddenly released. The ship rocked back upright and one cannon, then three suddenly loosed their load. Celeste covered her ears and braced for return fire.

When none came, she reached into her belt and found a thin, narrow piece of metal. She bent it first one way, then the next and inserted it into the lock. She kept trying until the lock turned and she was able to crack the door enough to see out on deck. The other ship was well within range now and it was clear that it had lost sails and part of its mast to the pirates’ cannon.

Celeste squinted through the smoke as the ships moved closer. A grappling iron thrown across fell short but she knew it would connect the next time. Smoke was rising from the other ship’s hold.

And on the pirate deck, Delahaye was shouting her orders. She carried a pistol in her hand and there was a light in her eyes like that of a woman in love. Celeste looked out to each end of the island, one after the other, checking on Morgan’s ships as much as her own. The sails were closer now. If they were to take the gold and get away from Morgan, they must do so now.

A hail came from the listing ship. Bernard stood at the prow, hands cupped around his mouth to make his voice carry. Delahaye yelled something back but the wind turned it and shredded it before Celeste could hear it. She suspected that he intended only to buy time until Morgan’s ships arrived but it was clear that he would not succeed.

There was a crunch of wood as first one grappling iron, then another found its purchase. Pirates began to wiggle or swing across. A shot from a musket felled one into the water, then the first of them were over. Celeste could hear the clash of blades as she eased her way out of the cabin.

No one seemed to notice as she made her way around the deck. All eyes were trained on their quarry or on Morgan’s ships. It was child’s play to reach the ropes that bound the ships together, less so to crawl across. As she hung between ships, it gave her a moment’s pause to notice that Delehaye’s ship was called The Lioness while Monsieur Bernard’s was The Antelope. Had she not been so terrified of falling into the churning waves below, she might have laughed.

As it was, she hung from the swaying rope and hoped that her legs would hold her if her bleeding hands finally released the coarse salt-laden twine. Perhaps she did not need to be a Countess after all. If she disappeared into the jungles of this New World, who would ever know that she had failed in her duty?

Finally, she reached The Antelope’s side and managed to ease her trembling body over the rail to collapse on the deck. Once there, a few of the sailors still fought the pirates. Bernard was in the thick of it, his sword flashing as he repelled as many of Delahaye’s crew as he could.

Celeste saw one of the pirates glance her way and turn to alert Jacquotte whose sword even now met Bernard’s. She gathered herself for an awkward dash across the smoking deck before diving into the open hold. She landed with a roll that brought her up short against something hard.

She unrolled with a curse and fumbled through the smoke and the darkness for the flint she’d hidden in her leather vest. There must be something down here that she could safely light as a torch. It was then that her nearly deafened ears heard the tell tale crackle of flames coming from somewhere above her. Her heart sank; the French ship would not get here in time. This ship would sink and she would die and vanish along with the gold.

But there was no time to give her fears free rein. The flames would give her a bit of light to see by, as long as she was fast and careful. With a mighty effort, she pulled herself back from the brink of despair and began to look through the objects in the hold. The gold must be here somewhere.

There was a shout from the deck and a figure hurtled down into the hold, landing next to her. She and Monsieur Bernard stared at each other in startled recognition. “You!” He finally hissed. “Louis’ little spy! This all your fault!”

“Traitor!” Celeste bellowed.

He swung his sword as she spoke, a great sweep of the blade that might have taken Celeste’s head from her shoulders if she hadn’t ducked. She felt for her own sword, forgetting that Delahaye’s crew had taken it when they kidnapped her.

Bernard’s blade passed perilously close to her face and she threw herself backward in an acrobat’s roll. When she uncoiled, her hands closed on a loose iron hook, heavy but not so much that she couldn’t lift it. Bernard was stumbling toward her now, trying to see in the dim light and the smoke.

She hefted her weapon and swung it, forcing him back for a moment. He brought up his sword and she caught the blade on the hook. For a moment, they wrestled and she held him off. But he was stronger than she was and the blade was coming free.

Using every bit of force she possessed, she kneed him sharply between the legs and he doubled over. But he held onto his blade as she stumbled back ward.

“Here.” Jacquotte’s voice rang out unexpectedly over the noise of the fire. She tossed her cutlass hilt first and Celeste caught it, though barely.

It was nearly as heavy as the hook but she managed to raise it in time to meet Bernard’s blade. She could see his face now, teeth set in a snarl as sweat and blood ran down his cheeks. A quick glance upward told her that the flames were spreading: not much time left. She dropped down into a crouch so that he stumbled and shoved him backward while he was still off balance.

Then she swung Jacquotte’s sword with all her might, slashing her way across Bernard’s belly. He screamed and clutched at himself with his free hand, but still managed to deal Celeste a savage blow with his own blade, cutting her shoulder before she managed to force his blade away. “Slash up! Up!” Jacquotte bellowed from the dimness.

For a moment, Celeste staggered, unable to grasp what the other wanted her to do. Then she turned the blade and sliced Bernard open. He fell with another scream and a liquid thump. Celeste turned away, trying not to be sick. She had never killed like this before.

It almost made her forget the gold. “I’ll take that.” Jacquotte plucked the blade from her nerveless fingers. “You did well, chéri. Now help me find the gold before this tub sinks.”

That brought Celeste back to herself. Moments of frantic searching later Jacquotte stumbled across a locked door in the back of the hold. A single ball from her pistol opened it for them and there they found the chests they sought. Celeste ran a wondering hand through a sea of gold coins, marveling at the wealth before her.

Jacquotte’s crew found them then. “Captain!” The mate’s eyes were wide. “This tub is spent and both Morgan’s men and the Neptune, flying the colors of France, are nearly upon us.”

Jacquotte stared at Celeste. “Your pistol, Villiers.” She took it from his hand and pointed it at Celeste. “Now take two of these chests over to The Lioness.” Celeste jumped up to protest, but stopped at the look on the pirate’s face. “You sent for a ship of the line, mademoiselle. Very clever. Now you shall wait here for them to rescue you.”

“You could take me with you. You’ll outrun Morgan or maybe even outfight him.”

“Best to run. Morgan’s ships carry more guns. Now, as regards taking you with me...”

Jacquotte caught her up then, hard arms holding her still while steel fingers trapped her jaw. Then she kissed Celeste, her lips and tongue so surprisingly tender that Celeste found herself surrendering to them.

She wrapped her arms around Jacquotte’s neck and kissed her back until it felt as if she might lose herself completely. It was enough to ignore the little voice in her head that screamed that she was committing a mortal sin. What was one more amongst so many? The bearer of the letter had done what she had done.

Celeste gasped as the pirate let her ago. “Until next we meet, chéri. Perhaps I will see you at Versailles.” Jacquotte moved like a cat, slipping over the side of the wounded ship before Celeste could utter a word. Celeste watched as she swung across on the grappling iron’s rope. The pirate ship was cut loose in a span of breaths and began to pull away as the wind filled its sails. Celeste glanced to either side at the ships bearing down on them. Already Morgan’s ships were turning to chase the pirates, and Celeste’s man had emerged from somewhere to hail The Neptune.

Jacquotte stood at the prow of The Lioness, Celeste’s letter of carte blanche from the King fluttering in her hands. “The bearer of this letter had done what she has done in the service of France,” she bellowed over the cheers of her crew. Then she blew Celeste a kiss as the wind caught her ship’s sails, leaving Morgan to wallow in its wake.

Celeste pounded her hand on the railing in frustration. When had Jacquotte stolen her letter? And she had only a third of Fleury’s gold to show for her efforts. How could she lose so badly? Unconsciously, her fingers touched her lips. She would find a way to recover what was hers; of that, Jacquotte Delahaye might be quite sure.

* * *

Catherine Lundoff is the two-time Goldie Award-winning author of Night’s Kiss (Lethe Press, 2009) and Crave: Tales of Lust, Love and Longing (Lethe Press, 2007) as well as over 70 published stories. She is also the editor of Haunted Hearths and Sapphic Shades: Lesbian Ghost Stories (Lethe Press, 2008) and is the co-editor, with JoSelle Vanderhooft, of Hellebore and Rue: Tales of Queer Women and Magic (Drollerie Press, 2010). In her other lives, she's a professional computer geek and teaches writing classes at The Loft Literary Center. Website: www.visi.com/~clundoff

What do you think is the attraction of the historical fiction genre?

I've always been a big fan of historical fiction. As a kid, I read a huge amount of Alexander Dumas (father, not son), Howard Pyle, Robert Louis Stevenson, Baroness Orczy and Raphael Sabatini. I still enjoy them all, though now I tend toward Jeffrey Farnol and Georgette Heyer. As a genre, it has the charm of being based on real events without the burden of coming off as rather dry. I'm often fascinated by the differences I see in what is presented as established history and what actually happened. The latter is often even much livelier than the fiction, but the fiction is usually better written.

The Primate of Rome


The Primate of Rome
by Elizabeth Creith

On the evening of August the eighteenth, 1559, Pope Paul IV ate his supper of stewed lamprey in wine sauce and retired to bed. In the morning his valet found him cold and stiff. The valet crossed himself and breathed a quick prayer of thanks; His Holiness had been a peevish, querulous and exacting master on his good days, of which there were fewer and fewer.

The College of Cardinals was convened to elect a new Pope, which it did with remarkable speed, unanimously deciding upon the late Pope's pet squirrel monkey, Philip.

This decision had much to recommend it, as Philip had lived his entire life in the Church, having been presented to then-Cardinal Paul by the Spanish King some fifteen years before. Philip was celibate, circumspect and not given to the vices of envy, sloth, pride, avarice lust or greed, although he had been known to bite in anger. However, his bite was judged less harsh than his master's had been. Furthermore, he was unallied to any of the great houses, and free of the taint of worldly attachments. Surely a better choice could not be made.

Philip was immediately invested with the office of Pope. He kept largely to his chambers in the company of his confessor, no doubt in prayer and meditation. Having little interest in politics, he did not interfere in the cardinals' plans and schemes; nor did he institute awkward investigations into the households of the clergy or ban the selling of indulgences or demand to be kept informed of the state of the papal treasury or the papal winecellars. He was sparing, not to say abstemious, in his diet (although the kitchens and winecellars nevertheless found demand upon them undiminished).

The people loved the new Pope, who did not press them with demands for money or rail at them for their evil ways. His infrequent appearances to bless them, orbi et urbi, always inspired enthusiastic cheering. His reputation for piety and gentleness was legend.

Alas, Pope Philip, like most popes, was closer to the end of his life than the beginning when he was elected. Within a few months his little body began to fail. Despite the best care of the Papal physicians, despite bloodletting and leeches and physicks, midway through Advent he died.

Those who were present at his deathbed spoke of throngs of white squirrel monkeys, clothed in light, who bore Pope Philip's soul aloft on their dove wings. A swirling brightness appeared in the canopy above the bed, and the saintly Pope Philip ascended into heaven.

Afterwards the College of Cardinals elected Pope Pius IV. He was a Medici, and turned out about as one would expect.

* * *

Elizabeth Creith draws on her familiarity with history, myth and folklore to write her fiction and poetry. Her children's book "Erik the Viking Sheep" was published by Scholastic Canada, and for ten years she wrote humour and commentary for CBC radio. She has had stories published or accepted by The Linnet's Wings, New Myths, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Silver Blades and THEMA. Her flash "Companion Animal" placed twelfth in the Writers' Union of Canada 2008 Postcard Fiction Contest and is the seed of a novel currently in progress.

Elizabeth lives, writes and commits art in Wharncliffe, Northern Ontario, distracted occasionally by her husband, dog and two cats.

What do you think is the attraction of historical fiction?

We always regard romance - romance in the broad sense - as having existed in some earlier age. There's lots around us, but we don't see it. We also tend to idealize any place or era in which we don't live, and that's a powerful attraction, too.

Venezia Nova or New Venice


Venezia Nova, or New Venice
by Rob Wills

Author's Note: This piece of alternate history arose from the close resemblance I noticed between Venice's lagoon and Moreton Bay near Brisbane, Australia.

* * *

Now that certain matters have become common knowledge due to that map of one Ortelius in this year of our Blessed Lord 1570, I have been instructed to make an account, a secret and private (and alas brief) account, of the settlement called New Venice. We know this Ortelius – correctly Abram Oertel – and watch him, and his work, closely. On his map are three countries, Beach, Lucach and Maletur, within the territory of Terra Australis Nondum Cognita – The Southern Land Not Yet Known. On the flank of this Not-Yet-Known-Land Oertel writes: Vastissimas hic esse regions etc. "Here lie the incredibly vast regions described by those travellers M. Polo the Venetian and Lodovico Varthema" (and who today knows of Varthema, that Bolognese – apart from myself?).

It is known that the merchant traveller M. Polo visited the far land of the idolater Kublai Khan. It is known that Polo told of his travels in his book Description of the World, vulgarly called Il milione. It is known Polo says in his book that after taking leave of the great Khan he sailed south but contrary winds held him for five months at the island of Java Minor, preventing him from continuing westward.

It is known that in the year of our Blessed Lord, 1324, back in Venice and with death due to visit him in his native district, the sestiere of Castello, Polo claimed he had revealed hardly half of what he knew of distant lands.

It is not known that Council of Ten received specific denunciations that Polo had withheld information of the highest importance to the Most Serene Republic. It is not known that the Council interrogated Polo regarding information that, during the five months his fleet was delayed in Java Minor, one ship had in fact detached itself from the squadron and sailed east and south, some say to the land of Lucach, some say to the land of Maletur, some say to the land of Beach.

Under certain encouragements from the Council of Ten, Polo did not deny this. Indeed far from denying it, he said he had given a full account of Lucach in his "Description of the World". He respectfully directed Their Excellencies' eyes to the chapter that relates how a south-easterly course from Java Minor brings one to the large and rich province called Lucach, part of Terra Australis: "Its inhabitants are idolaters. They have a language peculiar to themselves and are governed by their own king, who pays no tribute to any other. Gold is abundant to a degree scarcely credible. Elephants are found there. Here they cultivate a species of fruit called berchi, in size about that of a lemon and having a delicious flavour. That country is wild and mountainous and is little frequented by strangers."

Their Excellencies observed they were familiar with this passage, but doubted that Polo was doing anything more than repeating such fabulous tales as travellers tell to astound and impress. For themselves, which means for the Republic, they wanted, demanded, the truth. The old man said indeed he had not told the half of it, and if he had related the whole truth who would have believed him? He confessed that the giant animals of Lucach were not elephants at all but hairy beasts the height of a Swiss Guard with the shape of a monstrous rat and the forward movement of a toad, or a frog, which is to say in great leaps. Had he told the truth that would rightly have been regarded as fantastic. And how did he know of this monster? Because he had seen these creatures himself.

With further encouragement Polo gave full bearings and sailing directions for landfall in Lucach, and was glad to yield up certain sea charts and portolani of that coast. He was also pleased to assist the Camaldolese monks on Murano to prepare charts even more detailed. He died soon after, in this same year of 1324, and the Council of Ten approved his burial without the door of the church of San Lorenzo in his own sestiere.

Venice being busy with other affairs, not least the impudence of the Genoese and other upstarts, all the papers and charts in this matter of Lucach were confined away in the greatest secrecy in the naval archives deep within the Arsenale. There they could not be seen, and especially not by Petrus Vesconte, that map-maker of Genoa.

It is known that a great disaster befell the Most Serene Republic in the years 1347 and 1348, when one of our own galleys brought the plague to our islands, and that only some forty thousand Venetians survived from what had once been more than one hundred thousand.

It is not known that at the height of this catastrophe the Doge Andrea Dandolo and the Council of Ten decreed in secret that as the Republic was in train to die out to the very last man, woman and child, provision must be made to save some who could, if necessary, start the city anew. In short – and short I must be, I have been given no permission to tell this history in full – a gathering of sailors and shipwrights and artisans and builders and military and notaries and, Yes, a score or more of courtesans (it was not fitting that gentle women be subjected to such an enterprise), and two priests and a band of drummers and trumpeters were held for a quarentena on the islet of San Lazzaro. Those who did not die were then sent by sea and by land and by sea again to find Lucach.

The chroniclers of New Venice tell that the very squalls and tempests that had once delayed Polo now swept them south and east through the Oceanus Indicus and on, until, with only five vessels remaining, they were left battered and hard pressed in a vast unknown sea. And before they could catch their own breath a great blast of wind from the north-east drove them landwards.

Our flagship, the San Marco, most sails blown out and the hull taking water, only with difficulty crested a double line of breaking waves. Due to my great skill and fortitude, and with the help of the Almighty, we made the safety of the lagoon, and with deep thanks dropped anchor in the lee of a sheltering island. It was shaped like a cupped hand and gave us protection from the battering wind. This was on the Feast Day of San Lorenzo in the year of Our Lord 1350 and I called this the isle of San Lorenzo. None of our other sail were in sight.

So Vitale Vidal, the Governor of the expedition, wrote (or rather did his scribe). To run, too fast, too fast, through the pages of his journal I can relate that the next day three more ships arrived together, having made entrance to the lagoon through another, wider channel to the north.

They found fresh water, they began their colonia, they made an uneasy peace with the natives (I leaf through fragile old documents in cautious haste – this is no way to write history). Here is the Governor's summary at the end of the first year of settlement, dated 10 August 1351, the Feast of San Lorenzo.

Polo said there is gold in abundance. There is no gold (Note to Self: should I mention this so ... inelegantly, so bluntly, so early?) (Second Note to Self: Should I mention it at all?) (Third Note to Self: Reconsider when fair copy is made). [Marginalia in a different hand: No fair copy was made, only this foul draft survives].

A survey of the land, and the sea, is well under way, to the north, to the south, to the west, and of the two great littoral islands, Pellestrina and Lido. The lagoon and its islets have been described in full. The great river that waters it, the Brenta del Sud, has been navigated and charted to its upper reaches (Note to Self: Perhaps better if the river were to be named after some leading figure in the world of public affairs, for example the River Andrea Dandolo? For further thought).

We have seen Polo's giant Swiss Guard rat toad (we call it Swiss Toad but the natives call it boogal) and we have eaten Swiss Toad. The taste is like goat. But we are Venetian and the seas are rich in fish. There is a small whale that lives in the water-grass of the lagoon and the natives put it to many uses. I have appended a word-list of the natives tongue. [Marginalia: No such list can be found].

The Governor's report continues with a list of Items: Order; Agriculture; Towns; Church; Itineraries; Health; and so on (there was also an item Carnival, but this had been struck out). However there are no entries under most of these Items, except for Towns, where he writes:

There is stone for quarrying. In the middle reaches of the Andrea Dandolo/Brenta del Sud there are cliffs that can provide good material for the masons (Note to Self: No need to mention that all the masons have died – the carpenters say they can work stone).

The report includes a large map of New Venice, showing the amount of territory the New Venetians had surveyed in a year. As always, when I study maps of New Venice and see the great lagoon, the two long sheltering islands to the east shielding the small, settled islands within, I am astounded by the resemblance to old Venice. But whereas our islands are in the lagoon's north, in New Venice this was the opposite, as only befits the reverse of the world, the islands there being, in the main, in that lagoon's south.

To my joy I have been given unfettered access to the most secret archives in order to write this history, to my despair I have been told my account of New Venice (to be produced in one original and ten copies) will be read only by the Council of Ten and then, the copies destroyed, the original will join its sources and all will be returned to the archivio segreto. The sources I use – journals and reports and maps and letters and scraps of paper – all are kept in a handsome, iron-banded, double locked chest. I have one key, the Chief Secret Librarian (a most worthy, helpful, generous, learned and sharp-witted man) has the other. His kindnesses to me are immeasurable.

Here is a private paper written in his own hand by notary Enrico Contarini, also compiled at the end of New Venice's first year:

The banks of the Brenta del Sud are patched with seasonal encampments of the natives. Many fine cities, towns and villages could line this broad river, but with our small numbers we consolidate New Venice on our islands in the lagoon, the foremost being San Lorenzo. Two others are permanently settled, Sant'Elena and San Zan Degola. Being three districts in all we have gone but a half measure and have only a terzieri, yet from understandable affection for our distant home we continue to call them sestieri.

We are Venetians, we live best surrounded by water.

The question of crime: We have gibbets, each island has a gibbet, but these are more to encourage than to punish (I for one do not want the corpse smell following me in each sestiere). And in any event, while we might willingly rid ourselves of a dishonest mouth and stomach, we cannot afford to lose the strong back and the useful arms and legs nourished by that stomach. Our Governor proposed a prison on the island dedicated to Sant'Elena (named with affection for our true home) but there was no enthusiasm for the waste of such fine ground. It has a good eminence commanding the mouth of the Brenta d/S.

Naval Captain Ordelafo Orseolo, a coarse man notorious for his unguarded tongue, openly said only a fool would waste such a fine island to house criminals. When Vitale Vidal heard of this he swore that he would have Sant'Elena as a prison, but did nothing further. Of course. He is a man who blows hot and cold, cold and hot.

Other papers tell me that the island of Sant'Elena there was so called because it shared the shape of the same-named island here in our true Venice, which perhaps to their eyes it did – eyes sadly fogged with the mist of yearning for an old, familiar life. As for the third part of the terzieri, the Governor was moved to write, it seems in his own hand, on the back of a chart of this inshore island:

San Zan Degola (in our Venetian tongue) – the name is a foolish caprice of Captain Orseolo, a man quite lacking in piety, who joked that the island looked like a head severed from its shoulders, namely the coast of the mainland close by. Not to mention this locality's bright red clay – the "blood" from the "beheading" visible on both "head" and "shoulders". A silly conceit, but the name has stuck. He named it so on the second feast day of St John the Baptist, 29 August, when the loss of the saint's head is observed. Naturally a small chapel to St. John has been built there. Addendum: The Captain was even more pleased with himself (if that is possible) when he discovered that the natives already call the island Goocheemudla, which, he speciously claims, sounds like San Zan Degola. But he went too far when he proposed (how seriously I do not know) that we might use this native name. I firmly rejected such a ridiculous idea. Firmly.

In my box of archives there are many letters that are indeed but one extraordinarily long letter written by the courtesan Francesca Monegario to a sister in disgrace, her friend Olimpia, whose dwelling here in true Venice, according to the direction carefully noted on each, was: "Sestiere of Castello, parrocchia of San Zanipolo, the house with the carving of the sword and the book where the Rio di S. Giovanni Laterano meets the Rio della Tetta." Clearly a neighbourhood of courtesans! Nonetheless I can say, objectively as a scholar, that this woman Francesca Monegario, despite her shameful calling, writes with wit and colour, and I confess that from time to time I am glad she is so prodigal with her words.

My dearest Olimpissimissima,

What to say of this place where we have – I was going to say "ended up", but I refuse to believe, to think, to even consider that I will "end" here! It is not New Venice, it is not "old" Venice, in short it is not Venice at all. What it is is sand. Sand sand sand sand sand. It is sand everywhere. My dear I have so much more sand than I have ever wanted or needed. In my hair, in my clothes, dusting the very few small objects I possess, in my very person!

But enough of sand. I will speak of it no more. We live on the main island, San Lorenzo. Think of some primitive little hillock just above high tide in the far reaches of the lagoon (the real lagoon) where a fisherman and his family have set up summer camp. A fishing camp with a crude hut of one room and walls of rough timber (imperfectly fitted), reed roof and a cooking fire outdoors, fishing nets everywhere, boats and sails and oars and balers and hooks and shells and the smell of fish everywhere. Welcome to San Lorenzo!

The company here is, you might imagine, quite limited. At the top of the column, wreathed not in laurels but the nastier plants that flourish here (there are so many!) is our Governor. A man whose opinion of himself is so high that he need not worry what others may think, which is just as well as others are of a different mind. A man of tall stature (and like all such he believes his height translates into superiority in all things), I have to concede his person is not unpleasing. When not engaged in making decisions of state – and we have already learned that not making decisions is very much part of his humours – he has an engaging manner about him, and eyes and mouth that tell he is man not unfamiliar with pleasure. Of course I do not speak from personal knowledge. Yet. Beyond his fine robes, not quite so fine now, behind his "official" face, so stern and forbidding, some kindness, some tenderness might perhaps be found.

The Governor holds decisions delicately at arms length between his fingers, examines them from all sides, then drops them and walks away, while the Captain makes too many decisions. Like all sea captains he believes that the imperative is the only manner of speech. Do this. That. Stop. Go. Come. Run. Wake. Sleep. He barks like an angry dog all day and much of the night. And when I tell him so, like any dog he only barks some more. So I call him good dog and pat him and offer him some titbit (so to say) and he settles to that. To our mutual comfort. Oh, and when he eats he gnaws and chomps with table manners not fit even for the deck of a ship of war. Unsightly battle wounds have disfigured him everywhere. This is known to more than me, as Dame Modesty has no lodging in our New Venice (I think she must have drowned on the voyage here or else died of shock on arrival). From living so long in close quarters aboard ship, from still living crammed together on these damned sand islands where even tho' we wash separately in the lagoon, men at Adam's Beach, women at Eve's, we all know each others' bodies as well as a mother knows her baby. I tell a slight untruth – the Governor of course bathes shielded by his servants holding up an old sail.

And there is the Notary, a sober and learned man, with somewhat cold blood in his veins, even in the heat of New Venice. He stares, he examines, he observes, he notes. I suspect he already has a list of our weaknesses longer than the priests who hear our confession. He seems to have wit but is too mean to share it, old miser. In this purgatorio we are all starved for entertainment, for amusement, and a man with a sharp eye and a quick tongue is highly valued – or would be if we could find one. You know I love nothing more than to chatter of people and their foibles, their deeds and their do's and their don'ts. How I miss it!!

I will stop here before my great tears of sorrow for myself blot and blur all I have written so far. I do not want to have to write it all again!

With muchest love, your dearest friend Francesc-amica.

Dated this Feast Day of St Giles (the hermit!)
Venezia Nova
Sestiere of San Lorenzo
The fourth fishing hut on the left as you follow the path from Merciful Cupped Hand That Saved Us Bay (the hut that stinks worst of fish guts)

That was her first letter and I treasure it. By which I mean of course that I value the perspective even a wicked mind and tongue and pen can provide to better assist my understanding of New Venice. Her description of the "fishing camp" has a greater ring of truth than many of the Governor's fine and elaborate accounts, where one might be led to believe that the very Doge's Palace had been transported in the same way as the Holy House of Loreto, namely through the skies, and laid down on a patch of sand atop the isle of San Lorenzo in the southern seas.

How Francesca Monegario thought this letter these letters would ever be read by her friend Olimpia I cannot say. But a person, like myself perhaps, has some understanding why she would be moved to confide all things, all, to a sympathetic piece of parchment. Yesterday I found my steps had taken me through the city to that house with the carving of the sword and the book. Several centuries on but still my thoughts, my thoughts ... No, there is no profit in this.

At the end of the colonia's first year comes mention of the sealed orders, and the secret order, that came to, to contaminate New Venice. There were a number of orders, but I have done my best to untangle which order was issued by whom, and to whom, and why, and what each order was (this is not as clear as I had intended). Apart from their large wax seals, the only aspect they shared was that each was marked: "To be opened by the named holder on the first anniversary of arrival in the Land of Lucach."

The Governor had one such instruction, issued to him by the Council of Ten. He was ordered to establish a trading agreement with the King of Lucach so that Venice might gain access to the gold of this kingdom. Any other riches and trading goods of value that came to the Governor's knowledge were of course to be included in this agreement. And any agreement need not be confined to the King of Lucach should there be other kings, other kingdoms, whose possessions would enrich Venice and Venetians (the Council took pains to spell out all possibilities so that Vidal could be in no doubt of what was expected of him). By order of the Council, His Excellency Vitale Vidal was raised to Ambassadorial rank and as a Plenipotentiary Extraordinary granted full powers to treat with the King (any king) on behalf of the Most Serene Republic of Venice. His new status was to be displayed by a heavy silver chain, embellished with a precious jewel, to be hung round his neck (the value of this symbol of office was noted by the keepers of the state Treasury and Vidal was adjured to hold the chain in secure keeping).

The most senior of the two priests also opened a sealed command, although here the wax was stamped with the seal of St Peter, his orders having come from Rome rather than Venice. Giovanni of Dorsoduro (an apt place of origin, the papers reveal him to be a hard-backed, stiff, unyielding cleric) was told that he was both to keep close watch on the Venetians to make sure there was no back-sliding from the faith and the precepts of Rome, and to bring the heathen natives to the true religion. The first of these orders would surprise no one, it being no secret that Venice and Rome hold each other in mutual suspicion. As the popular saying drolly has it – we Venetians believe in San Marco whole-heartedly, in God to a sufficient degree, and in the Pope not at all.

The Captain, Ordelafo Orseolo, was the third man to break the seal on a confidential letter on 10 August 1351. His orders were brief and to the point. To ensure the preservation of Venice – the real Venice – the colonists were to hold their quarantine abroad for one hundred years from their arrival in Lucach. Then they and their descendants could return. That was all. Any breach would result in the painful death of those who flouted the order, and eternal ruin for any and all family members, to the third remove. And the Captain was charged with the duty to make sure that – in the event he was not still alive in 1450 – his successors carried out the order. Should he fail, ruination would befall his family to the sixth remove. He was at liberty to make these proclamations.

The Captain, not a man comfortable with his letters, was moved to scrawl in a large hand on this order:

100 years generous indeed as we expect in 1450 the youngest of us will have lived 112 and I will be 139. well the best we can hope is that the plague in Europe will have left no one to carry out barbarous commands. of the other order the most secret order I am at a loss I will keep it close held the closest and consider

This "most secret order" was an insidious plague that entered New Venice at this time. But more of this later, perhaps.

A leather pouch in the archive chest contains disparate pages where the Notary, who took an interest in the natural world, kept notes he wrote on divers topics. Despite Francesca Monegario's unkind view of him, I felt some warmth for the Notary, a man who could use his Logic skilfully without losing regard for his fellows:

The mangroves, like the natives, are all around us but we see more of the mangroves. These amphibious trees are great colonisers, certainly better than we. They send out fleets of small green pods to claim and settle tracts of mud flats. They are everywhere in the lagoon, fringing the islands, concealing the entrance to the Brenta d/S, and clinging to its banks. We could well take example from their quiet tenacity, but for us it is a hard lesson to learn.

There are signs of the natives wherever we go, footprints, old fires, piles of shells. And in every direction we see the columns of smoke rising high from their fires. One of the natives, Toonbar, a man with whom I converse so we can learn each other's language (altho he does better with mine than I with his) showed me an ingenious fish trap at the place called Goompee on Pellestrina (Goompee is where we have built a modest chapel to San Marco). In shallow water by the shore the natives have set low rock walls to make a large square enclosure, so that when the tide recedes fish are held within the walls for harvesting. I was delighted, and told him of the valli da pesca back in our old home lagoon that use dykes for the same purpose. And the long, tapering fish cages they make here from reeds have the shape of our own cogoli. He was less amazed than myself, taking it as natural that such ways of fishing would be universal among men – and I do believe now he is right to think this way.

We struggled, I struggled, up steep sandy tracks to the highest point on Pellestrina, a hill they call Bippo Penbean – a name which, despite the Governor's distaste for native words, has nonetheless gained currency among us. We gazed in silent pleasure at the lagoon and its islands shining with gold and silver alchemised by the late-day sun. In the far distance the smudge of purple trees, the thin strings of smoke, and all around us the insistent buzz and hum of summer in New Venice. At dusk the bats we call pipistrelli fly out in their millions and overflow the sky.

Letter of Francesca Monegario, dated Feast of St Porphyry of Gaza, 1352:

So much good news!

I have eaten berchi! It is like ... nothing I have tasted before. Smooth yellow outer skin, great oval seed inside and between skin and seed the sweetest golden flesh that makes the most delicious mess and leaves stringy reminders between the teeth for days! We all gorge and grow drunk on Marco Polo's berchi.

We have sung and danced our first carnival in New Venice!! With masks of painted bark and songs that marry the music of old Venice and native chanting of the New. The natives can take up a tune or a dance faster than any music master from Paris. This carnival is the first and only time we and they have been at ease in each others' company. I hope for more.

The Governor's second year summation is an odd document:

New Venice, Feast of San Lorenzo, 1352

Great progress was being made in treating with the native kings. There are many, but, as ordered, I have been assiduous in establishing harmonious contact with the great chiefs. However my untiring efforts have been seriously impeded by the loss of my Ambassadorial chain of office. When I say loss there should be no misunderstanding that I misplaced it. I am pursuing this serious breach of order and have [etc etc].

There is much, much more in the same vein. Indeed the whole lengthy report deals with nothing but the missing chain.

Letter dated Feast of St Euthymius the Younger 1352 from Francesca Monegario:

The Governor's latest grand notion is a colony up river, opposite the stone cliffs. Knowing his humours, all agree with him and of course nothing gets done. When the Governor speaks of this or that plan I hear the Captain grunt rudely, or see him flick his eyes and shoulders heavenwards. I asked him later what he thought of a land-bound village and he replied, "It may well sing the Gloria for some, the Genoese I would certainly think, but not for we Venetians – we are people of the islands, of the lagoon." I laughed. I have grown fond of his rough wit but his irreverent mention of the Gloria brought on a bout of melancholia as I recalled the voices singing in rich, splendid San Marco. I yearned so for my old life and wept for my present my past my future, for us all.

But to happier matters! The bird song here is the sound Venetian glass would make if it sang – full of brilliance and trills and twists and turns. There is a particular bird, a small sharp-shaped one, with such silken bright colours that we smile every time we see one. Its nest is a burrow in the sand!

Then the Captain was killed, his lifeless body found behind a sand dune. At first the natives were suspected but the Notary, who was charged to investigate, found evidence suggesting it was not one of them but one of the colonists who had done this thing. A scrap of paper clutched tight in the Captain's clenched fist had remains of a wax seal and all believed that this was from the "most secret order", but no sense could be made of it. The Notary's investigations were fruitless, no one being brought to justice for the crime.

As for the Governor's Ambassadorial chain, it was, to my knowledge, never found.

As for who killed Captain Orseolo, I am satisfied I have deduced who committed that crime. But, and I say this without spite or malice, because I have insufficient space at my disposal here I will not reveal who the criminal was. To do so in a true and convincing manner I would need to set out my Logic in full. Unfortunately I am denied the words so to do.

The history of New Venice did not proceed peaceably, but where and when does history ever do that? There were more deaths, murders even, many on San Zan Degola, and there are sombre hints in the documents that these were due to the infamous "most secret order." As always, rumours rushed to fill the gaps left by lack of knowledge.

But life stumbled on, as it does, and there were marriages and births and deaths. In great contrast to Francesca Monegario, I will say nothing of her marriage – she devotes countless letters (some 23 in all) to her swain (a man of no account), his courtship, her joy at her nuptials and matters too degrading for an important report such as the one I am writing here. There is no more to be said on this. It is of no account whatsoever.

Nonetheless I have to say, because my history demands it, that her marriage was fruitful and she bore eleven children, of whom four survived; including her last born, a son, who was baptised on St Genesius the Actor's day in 1375. He fathered a daughter, Caterina, born in 1414, but he did not live to see her an adult. Francesca Monegario herself died a "respectable" old woman of ninty-two in 1426, and her grand-daughter Caterina buried her with pomp on the cemetery island of San Michele. This Caterina married Domenico, a descendant of the notary Contarini, and together they governed New Venice, with what authority I am sure I cannot say, both sadly abusing the title of Doge.

Domenico Contarini writes as follows somewhere around the year 1440 (alas, precision with dates had fallen into some confusion in the most remote colonia of New Venice and I have often had difficulty in matching their dates with the correct ones):

Our relations with the natives remain ... unresolved. Over the years there have been killings on both sides, reprisals and truces. And the n the same again. And there have been lives saved by both sides – some party in danger rescued, a lone traveller nursed to health from snake bite, struggling children plucked from the lagoon by a saviour who saw only a child, not the set of its hair or its skin colour. For all that we are still separate. They do not accept us here, and, truth to tell, if the Turks were to build their dwellings on an island in our old home lagoon in full view of the mighty church of San Marco ... well.

As the wheel of the years turned, the colonia expanded and contracted like a bellows (does this read well? – the wheel and the bellows?). From time to time new settlements were established. some even on terra firma, along the banks of the Brenta d/S. But then they would shrink back again to the lagoon. In the last years the New Venetians were consolidated, confined even, only on Sant'Elena, the other islands having been reduced to seasonal or overnight camps shared with the natives. On one of these out islands – Pellestrina, I believe – during a fishing party's overnight stay, the last warning came.

A young native man, name not given, who was admiring the paintings glorifying the walls of the chapel of San Marco told one Agostino, also an art-lover it seems, that he should know there was continual talk of the Black Swan dance. Caterina then explains in her careful, small hand, that this unlikely bird, the black swan (proof if ever it was needed that all things are reversed on the underside of the world) was notorious for aggressively defending its territory, for driving out intruders. Thus when the natives were enraged against some encroacher they would paint their bodies black and their noses red to resemble, to be, this fierce bird. This man told Agostino that red ochre was being gathered in great quantity from Goocheemudla. Smoke could be seen up and down the coast from a great number of fires, many more than usual.

To hasten through to the end game, the colonists decided they must leave immediately, standing no chance against overwhelming numbers. Their departure had been long planned for they believed the year 1450 to be fast approaching. But not all wanted to leave for there were those who would stay. But whether all left or whether some stayed I cannot say. No list was kept of travellers on the vessel New Marco Polo. Certainly there is none in the records I have seen. A small number of New Venetians made landfall in India, finding refuge on the Malabar coast where it seems there are rivers and lagoons and backwaters and sand dunes – a dear, familiar landscape for old and new Venetians. St Thomas is revered there. These survivors – how many? one, two, more? there so many frustrating gaps! – made contact with the Portuguese and lied and bluffed and false-promised their passage home. Here they were of course, and quite rightly and properly, interviewed by the Council of Ten. Let us trust they were then peacefully and happily reunited with distant family members who would succour and cherish them. Let us trust this happened, for no more is heard of them. Their records – all these papers and charts and letters and sketches and dead leaves spread out before me – do survive to this day.

Here ends my meagre history of Venezia Nova. The Council of Ten, in their far-sighted wisdom, have decreed that I must limit my account to some few thousands of words, but in truth one hundred thousand could not do it justice.

Venice, Feast Day of St Cyriacus the Recluse, 1570



* * *


* * *

Rob Wills says: I am quite old and content to be so. I'm glad I studied foreign languages at high school (where I had to) and at university (where I chose to). Languages are the best key to other peoples, other cultures and – not least – other times. I married young and we lived and studied and worked abroad before settling back home in Australia. Our children were born in the UK and Ghana. My daughter recently saw a performance of King Lear and said that, unlike most productions of Shakespeare, the fool was actually very funny, and he looked and behaved like me. This pleased me.

What advice do I have for other writers of historical fiction?

Do your research, but don't overdo your research. I have a lot of embryonic stories, novels, film scripts, that never developed into anything because I kept thinking they "need more research". It's a pity, because so many good ideas stay just that, good ideas and nothing more. So be sensible in your research on an historical subject: remember that you only need to know enough, you don't need to know everything.