Republic of Venice, October 1491
A light, veiling fog had settled on the city as he traveled the silent, snaking waterway through the sestieri Cannaregio. The black water, lapping gently at the shallow boat, seemed to swallow the scant light offered every now and then by torch or the odd hanging lantern. It was unsettling, but he was glad of it, this hungry darkness, this cloaking mist. He had taken pains to conceal his own identity as well, as this meeting required, lest he be seen traveling this desperate path by any of his men. Around another corner and through the black tunnel of yet one more bridge, and there it was, the old palazzo eerily illuminated by four hissing torches on the pillars of the lower arcade. While the gondolier, obviously no stranger to this address, expertly piloted the little craft toward the landing place, the traveler turned his hawkish gaze to the façade, or what he could see of it through the mist and flickering firelight. The once beautiful imported stone, adorned with rows of expertly crafted ogee windows, their fine arches topped with quatrefoil embellishments and exotic marble tracery, arose four stories out of the canal. In its day it had likely been the jewel of the old waterway, but now, tucked away in what had become the rougher quarter of the sestieri, it looked as shabby as old lace. He imagined it smelled like old lace too-old lace, stale sweat, and fading flowers-once one passed under the crumbling arcade and was let inside the piano nobile. And he wondered again what fool notion had driven him to come here.
As soon as the gondola was tied onto the pole, he stood, his golden head and piercing blue eyes concealed by the hood of the black cape he wore, and tossed the gondolier a coin. "Stay here," he said in perfect Italian. "I shall be back in a moment." The gondolier, a wiry old man, smiled a nearly toothless smile by way of response and settled down in the bottom of his craft. He fished out a ripe plum and took a sideways bite that employed all his remaining back teeth.
"Nobody," he said, chewing, the fleshy fruit shaken lazily in his direction, "who visits this casa, signor, stays only a moment." He took another bite.
The traveler's eyes, dark and liquid in the shadow of the hood, widened in response. "In general, I imagine that's so. But I didn't come here to linger."
The gondolier's face split into a wide, gap-toothed grin. "Ah, you are nervous. It is your first time, no?" The very notion seemed to tickle him. "Pleasure should not be rushed, signor. You, my young friend, will linger."
There was really no polite response to this, and so, leaving the old man to relish his own conclusions, he jumped out of the boat and headed for the crumbling arcade knowing that he wouldn't be inside those walls any longer than he had to, because tonight pleasure wasn't in it.
After gaining entrance with a password and a heavy amount of coin, he was whisked up the stairs to the piano nobile, the grand parlor of the old palazza. Climbing, he could hear the faint music of plucked strings and melodious flute interspersed with high, lilting giggles. That was not uncommon in such a place as this. Yet nothing, not even his own vast experience, could have prepared him for what was on the other side of the door. The guard paused a moment to unlock this newest obstacle, uttering, "Enjoy your visit, signor." And then, without another word, he found himself thrust inside the grand parlor, his power of speech abandoning him as his eyes registered the writhing scene before him.
It was a dazzling vision of ancient Greece-a hedonist's vision-brought to life by a very savvy Venetian. The first thing that struck him was the number of people in the vast room partaking of its delights. Usually the parlors of these places were moderately empty, most business being conducted in the private rooms upstairs. But here that rule did not, apparently, apply. He stood for a moment as his eyes took in the erotic ambiance, every sense heightened by the wanton display of sex and lust. At the far end of the room a group of customers, dressed in short togas and carnival masks, gathered near a marble colonnade to watch a man dressed as a satyr, or perhaps even Pan himself, entertain his throng of nymphs. The man-goat, a remarkable creature with little horns sprouting from his raven curls, oiled chest, and legs covered in goat hair that, unfortunately, did nothing to detract from his spectacularly erect organ, stood under the arch playing the panpipes. The traveler didn't much care for the panpipes, and truthfully, although they were played with a lot of heart, they were utterly discordant. However, it was not the music or the satyr that had the men so enthralled. It was the seven willowy nymphs dancing barefoot in sheer, flowing, gossamer gowns. Correction: they weren't really dancing so much as frolicking. Yes, they most definitely were frolicking, moving between potted trees and crumbling columns, teasing both horny satyr and paying guests alike with erotic gestures and suggestive movements that left little to the imagination. The masked men, he noted with grim satisfaction, were about to get exactly what they paid for.
In the center of the room was another eye-grabbing attraction in the form of a marble reflection pool. It was a wonder of a thing, complete with a magnificently sculpted bubbling fountain, only it wasn't water that spewed from the erect phallus of this huge marble satyr but wine. More nimble women frolicked here beneath the rose-colored liquid as it drenched their voluptuous bodies, turning their thin Grecian gowns into wine-stained skin. The women, playful as kittens, were seasoned sirens of seduction, driv?ing their male guests to frenzy by touching, teasing, and feeding them from their own dripping lips.
"Dionysus, god of wine, inspirer of madness and wondrous ecstasy, I am your slave," he uttered softly to himself as his eyes held the scenes before him-from the mood-setting art on the walls and the lush greenery of the potted gardens to the trays overflowing with fruits, sugared nuts, and cheese set near the low couches where couples lay entwined, heavy with lust. "But please, have mercy on me this night." He closed his eyes and fought to expunge the raging fire in his blood- the glorious madness that so easily took him. But he would not be a slave tonight-not here, and certainly not now. Four deep, cleansing breaths, and he opened his eyes again; the prophetic statement of his smirking gondolier rang through his overtaxed brain: You, my young friend, will linger.
Damn him, he was lingering.
It was then that he silently cursed Dante for being the misbegotten whoreson he was. The wily little Venetian never warned him of this and was no doubt having a good laugh over it too. And he had been very wrong: this place smelled nothing like old lace. It smelled like paradise, and he cursed himself again for pursuing the task that brought him here tonight. Unbeknownst to him, he had paid heavily to partake in a good old-fashioned Greek orgy, and he felt it a real shame to have to forgo the pleasure. He would likely kill Dante for this.
"Signor?" came a sultry voice behind him. He turned and looked into the eyes of a dark-haired, dark-eyed Venetian beauty dressed like a goddess. In her hands she held a white toga and plain black carnival mask. "Will you take off your cloak and join them . . . or do you prefer a private room?"
He smiled at her and pulled back the hood concealing his face. The girl, he saw with returning satisfaction, froze where she stood and stared at him in speechless wonder. One might have thought such a reaction to his golden, northern looks would have gotten old after a while, but today, in this palace of pleasure, it was welcomed; a small consolation for his troubles. "Thank you, my dear, but no," he replied coolly, with just a hint of the urbane. "I'm after something quite different."
"Really?" The goddess's large black eyes looked both naughty and delighted at once. "But, signor, I can provide different if you wish?" The way she pronounced different elicited the rise of one golden eyebrow.
He let his cerulean gaze rake her from head to toe before offering his sweetest, most disarming smile. "Very well," he said, and handed her a slip of paper. He watched with satisfaction as her open and inviting features darkened.
"This is what you came for?"
"Shocking, isn't it?"
"What . . . what kind of man comes here . . . at this hour, for . . . this?"
"Only the kind of man who has total mastery over all his urges."
Her dark eyes sparkled with devilish mirth as she let out a trill of laughter. "Really? I've never known such a man to exist. A real saint among us sinners, are you? Or is it that you prefer-"
"No, and no," he replied before she finished. "And I believe it would hurt your pretty little head to puzzle out exactly what I am. So, shall we just get on with it?"
It was several moments later-after the full, mesmerizing hips had stopped swinging as she led him upstairs-that he found himself standing before a door on the very top floor of the old palazzo. The sultry music and engaging voices of the piano nobile below were but a soft echo. He wondered again why he had listened to the daft Venetian. The goddess, holding him with suspicion and just a touch of disappointment, prepared to knock on the door. A sardonic smile crossed his lips, and he nodded.
"Signora Evangelista?" she called. "You are expecting a visitor?" There was a faint reply to this, and the goddess, hearing it, turned to him and cautioned that he should wait. Without another word she slipped inside the room.
He waited a good ten minutes before the goddess reappeared, noting that her beautiful dark eyes were not coy or teasing any longer but suffused with pity and something close to fear. "The signora . . . will see you now."
She was about to slip away when he grabbed her by the wrist and, pressing her to the wall with his hard body, kissed her roughly and very thoroughly on the mouth. "I'm sorry," he whispered, noting that she had gone breathless. His fingers were entwined in her thick tresses, and he bent back her head to kiss the column of her olive neck. Her breath came in short, bursting gasps. "I'm a liar," he said near her ear. "I have no mastery over any of my urges at the moment."
"Then I shall wait for you," she uttered, her voice suddenly thick. God, she was a beauty.
Delivering one more kiss, he released her. "No," he said with finality. And then, without looking back, he walked inside the darkened room perfectly ignoring his exploding senses and that voice of reason inside his head that warned against such foolish desperation.
He had never been a patron of necromancy and regarded the whole notion of dabbling in the spirit world not only distasteful but a cartload of, well, the slipperiest kind of excrement. The practitioners of the art were little better, mere actors supreme in the art of deception. He knew all this; the parlor below was proof enough. Yet still, he was here.
"Well, don't just stand there gawking like a mute fool, boy! Come forward." The voice, crackling with impatience, had come from the direction of a huge chair.
The old woman, the legendary owner of this crumbling palazzo whom he had gone to such great pains to see, was in reality a wizened, wrinkled wraith of a being who looked more like some naughty, misshapen child who had plundered her mother's jewels and makeup to engage in a game of pretend. Still, he had to admit that this petite old woman, dressed in garish finery and peering at him from the depths of the vast chair, was mightily unsettling. So too was the room, for that matter. For here was a shrine designed to create a legend. It was filled with Grecian antiques. Marble busts, short columns supporting heavy vases and chipped pottery, wondrous wall hangings of the finest cloth, were all cast in an ominous red hue. This, he saw, was achieved by four hanging lanterns encased in red Venetian glass. A little brazier sat on the floor next to the old woman's chair with a silver pot simmering over it. The heat provided warmth on the chilly, damp night, while the burning coals served to illuminate her weathered face from below, casting the Roman nose, the thin, painted lips, the sunken eye sockets ringed in black kohl, in wavering shadows. Although old, her painted skin no longer plump and vibrant with youth, he could tell she had once been a beauty. A fine veil covered her white hair and was kept in place by a circlet of gold studded with jewels. Of course they were real, likely the spoils from her many conquered lovers. He guessed the reason the lovely goddess had taken so long in this room was to complete the illusion of Signora Evangelista Continari, the High Priestess of Cyprus, as she was more commonly known-a self- proclaimed descendant of Aphrodite, goddess of love, teller of fortunes, finder of lost souls. Doubt clouded his mind again, yet he had to admit, as far as seers and necromancers went, she was quite the consummate professional. No silly hocus-pocus here, but a real actress. God knew he loved a good performance, but not in matters as dire as this.
Her old red-rimmed eyes, black and sharp as a raven's, held his. A wave of sickening regret washed through him. "So," she spoke plainly, "you have finally decided to seek my counsel."
"When being fleeced I prefer to be a willing party," he replied amiably. This caused the painted eyebrows to rise. "And while we're on the subject of parties, may I add that you're one of the few women I've ever met who really knows how to entertain her guests."
Her old lips pulled into a wry grin as she indicated that he should take the seat across from her. "I find, Signor Blythe, that if one wants to make lots of money, one has to first understand the hungers that govern before one can exploit them. Take, for example, your cloth merchant, your spice merchant, and even our glassmakers of Murano. All have learned to exploit a growing hunger. I am no different."
"An old, insatiable hunger you've tapped into, I see." It was said with genuine appreciation as he took the offered seat. "And I commend you. You're quite exceptional at it."
"I take it Dante did not tell you the nature of our business?"
"He's a very modest young man, is Dante. All he said was, 'She runs an old brothel.' Not a complete lie. Don't tell me he worked here?"
"He was one of the best satyrs I've ever had," she said ruminatively, her liquid black eyes softened now, still holding his. "Seldom sober, never sated . . . passionate about his work."
This caused him to laugh, and he offered, "You'll be happy to know he's not changed."
Excerpted from The Angel of Blythe Hall by Darci Hannah. Copyright © 2011 by Darci Hannah. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.