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«The Alchemist's Code», Dave Duncan

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I hate prologues. When I go to a theater I want action, dialogue, dancing, singing. I resent some long-winded actor coming out to lecture me at length on what the play is about or how great the performance is going to be. In real life, prologues are more interesting but rarely recognizable. This was like that-at the time I did not realize I was in a prologue, but it is relevant to the story and I promise to keep it brief.

“Saints preserve us! Alfeo Zeno!”

That was how it began.

The time: early on a September evening, sweltering hot. The place: a narrow calle, packed solid with people emerging from a doorway to spill off in both directions. And me, squashed back against a wall. All that endless, baking summer I had been saving my tips so I could take Violetta to the theater when she returned from the mainland, and the afternoon had been a great success. I had every hope that the evening would be even more so.

As we were trying to leave the courtyard, though, she was hailed by a tall man whom I recognized as sier Baiamonte Spadafora, one of her patrons, so I tactfully squirmed away. I could not love a courtesan if I did not have my jealousy under control, but Baiamonte would be shocked to see her being escorted by a mere apprentice, which was how I was dressed. In the Republic people’s costumes define them exactly.

That works both ways, of course. While I waited for my lover to catch up with me, out in the calle, I amused myself by watching the throng squeezing by, identifying clerks and artisans and shopkeepers, male nobles in their black gowns, doctors and lawyers in theirs, even a couple of senators in red. Venice finds nothing odd in its ruling class mingling with the common herd. They live cheek by jowl and share many of the same tastes; some nobles are wealthy beyond the dreams of Midas, others are paupers.

Of course I did not neglect the women, mentally sorting them into ladies, respectable housewives, and courtesans. Other cities are ashamed of prostitutes and try to hide them; Venice brags of its courtesans, flaunting them even in the highest levels of society. They are not confined to specific areas or required to wear some shameful badge; most of them dress better than senators’ wives.

A man barged past me, then spoke my name: “Saints preserve us! Alfeo Zeno!”

I knew the voice even before I turned, the most memorable male voice I had ever heard, rich and resonant as a pipe organ. I could even recall the summer it had appeared, basso profundo hatching from boyish treble in a matter of weeks. I had turned bright malachite with jealousy.

“Danese Dolfin, as I hope for salvation!”

“How long has it been?”


Danese and I had been children together in San Barnaba parish, but never close. He was a little older than me and would disappear for a year or so at a time, whenever his father was elected to some minor office on the mainland, helping to rule some fragment of the Venetian empire. His father cannot have been very impressive in his work and obviously had no influential patron to back him, because he suffered long gaps between the postings, when he and his brood sank back in among the barnabotti, the impoverished nobility. Danese had still been a lot better off than those of us who did not have fathers.

Squashed together almost nose to nose-more specifically my nose, his chin-we inspected each other.

“You are doing well,” I said.

He had always been tall and good-looking, with blue eyes, almost-blond hair, and a fair complexion. When a nobleman reaches twenty-five or so, he lets his beard grow in and switches to floor-length robes, unless he is a soldier or follows some unusual profession, but sier Danese was clearly not there yet. Nay, he was a strutting peacock in bright silk doublet and knee britches, all embroidered and padded. His ruff was crisply starched, his puffed bonnet bigger than any pumpkin. He wore a sword, too, and clearly did not belong among the barnabotti now.

“Moderately well,” he said smugly. “And how is the world treating you?”

“I have no complaints.”

His expression implied that I should have. His outfit had cost more than I would earn in several years. How had he done it? A nobleman can join a profession or engage in trade, but if he sinks to manual labor, his name will be struck from the Golden Book. Whatever Danese was up to was certainly not carpentry or canal dredging, but there are few honest ways for a man to shoot from poverty to wealth so quickly. The most obvious was marriage, because a nobleman’s children are noble even if his wife is not. If Danese had found a rich merchant of the citizen class with a daughter and a craving for noble grandchildren, then his sudden prosperity had sprung from her dowry.

He had also had four sisters. Possibly one of them had married into money and towed him in on her bridal train.

“And your family?” I asked. “Your parents, sisters? Married yet?”

“My mother is still alive. My sisters all married down, alas. No, I’m not married.” He smirked, knowing exactly what I was wondering. “And you?”

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