Disclaimer: Don’t own them, never will. Just borrowing them and throwing them into the Renaissance for fun.
Description: The boys meet to help out a certain green-eyed gentleman’s mother in a new AU – Renaissance Venice. Hope you like the idea of our men in tights.
Notes: This was (note the “was”) a reply to JeanG’s challenge to write a story titled “Figure of Speech” and including the words “harass, chiseler, and furtive,” but I failed miserably. For one thing, I went over the word limit, and for another, I never thought to look up the word chiseler. So, I screwed up twice, but I liked the idea so much, I ran with it anyway. I expanded it, filled it with some goodies, left a few things open for the future, and generally had a good time. I hope you like it. Oh, and the history is about as accurate as a Shakespeare play. In other words, names, dates, other brute facts, etc. are all correct, but the rest is in my head. Think “Merchant of Venice” instead of “The Cambridge History.”
The Golden Bull
In the most beautiful city in the world, in the year 1356, the sun shone down proudly, full of promise for a bountiful season. The canals shimmered, the streets hummed with activity, and the glass in the shop windows glittered. And underneath it all, the blood of change pulsed, signaling the rebirth of the human spirit after centuries of darkness.
This was Venice.
Along the Rialto, voices rose and fell, unconsciously mimicking the lapping of the waves created by the boats gliding up and down the waterways, as hagglers and merchants exchanged their wares. The laughter of children scampering underfoot and the gossip of the women in their stalls underscored the colorful scene. Here the wind blew soft and clean.
In contrast, barely a few hundred years away, St. Mark’s Square was full of a different kind of sound, as monks and priests crossed along one side to get to the basilica, and lawyers and politicians crossed the others to get to the Duke’s palace. Here the hum of voices was quieter, more tense, more reverential and, in some ways, more explosive. Occasional glances were spared across the square, some apologetic, some uncertain, but most challenging. Across the square, the wind blew harsh, cold and undeniable.
Then, just a few yards further along, the world shifted again, and the salt of the sea filled the air. The docks housed crowds of ships and boats, all competing for space. Voices got much louder, with seamen, longshoremen and merchants shouting at each other to be heard over the din of unloading packages, passengers fighting for space, squawking birds and creaking ships. The wind here was warm and powerful, stinging cheeks and demanding attention. But the wind was also what provided these men with their livelihoods.
Standing forward on one pier, a gentleman dressed entirely in black silk and leather tilted his head back to look up the gangplank of one of the larger ships. Silver threads lined his outfit, signaling him out as a man of means, and he examined the ship with an eye of an owner. He pressed a hand to his forehead to shield his eyes from the glare of the sun as he waited for his best friend to finish his inspection. Soon, a gentleman appeared at the top of the gangplank, the ship’s English captain by his side.
This man also dressed well, but in a much more subdued fashion, his colors tending more towards tans and blues. He also wore no hat, preferring to keep his long light brown hair tied in back with a ribbon in the English style, his sharp gray-blue eyes bright with amusement. He looked down at the man in black, crossed his arms, and smiled. The nobleman smiled back and nodded. The ship’s captain watched the silent meeting of the minds with a crooked, gap-toothed grin.
Suddenly, from the direction of the city came a voice….
The black-clad lord turned away, staring back up the dock. The ship’s captain sighed and watched patiently as the gentleman by his side left to walk down the gangplank and return to his friend’s side.
An acolyte wearing the plain robes of a monk rushed into view, panting and sweating. “Lord Larabee?” he asked, staring up at the tall man in black, then he looked behind at the man in tan and blue, “and Gentleman Tanner?”
Lord Chris Larabee frowned and looked back at his best friend. Vin shrugged. Still frowning, Chris looked back at the acolyte.
“I’ve been sent to fetch you. Someone needs your help,” the acolyte panted.
Sunlight streamed into the loft room, brightening the large space, highlighting the strange objects strewn about. Upon closer look, one could make out shapes in the half-finished objects – figures in repose, figures in motion, busts of heads, hands, feet, animals. Above and around it all, marble and chalk dust swirled about, glittering like fireflies in the daylight, coating everything with a fine layer.
A sound becomes audible, and the gentle scrape and tap of a chisel against fine stone, occasionally accompanied by the intake of breath of the person at work, is heard. Looking deeper, hidden in amongst all the sculptures and molds, a single living being is perched awkwardly on a dust covered stool, head tilted far to the side, long arms outstretched towards the large block of gray marble in front of him. The sculptor is molding the stone gently, brushing each chip with a cloth, his dark brown eyes narrowed in concentration as he inspects each change with the dedication of a perfectionist.
A sharp knock at the door and he is startled from his reverie.
“JACKSON! Open this door damn it!”
Nathan Jackson dropped his arms, and his head bowed to his chest. With an exaggerated sigh, he placed the chisel and cloth down and stood to answer the door. The hammering, meanwhile, didn’t stop.
“Jackson, open up! I know you’re in there. That insane priest of a landlord you’ve conned into letting you live up here told me you were in. Now get up off that lazy….”
Nathan swung the door open and stared at his intruder with the darkest glare he could muster. Buck Wilmington smiled back with a wolfish grin, his impassioned ranting interrupted.
“What are you doing here Buck,” the sculptor asked. He straightened his shoulders and adjusted the brown leather apron he wore, wiping his hands on it to leave long trails of white dust.
The Venetian lord before him stood in full regalia, complete with bright red tights, gold inlaid tunic and skirt, and a broad brimmed red and gold hat. He looked like a clown at carnival. A rich clown, but a clown nonetheless. His smile dropped some at the rude welcome.
“What am I doing here? Is that any way to greet your greatest patron, knave?”
“My greatest patron?” Nathan couldn’t resist a smile. “You bought one small figurine from me two years ago, Buck, and you still haven’t paid for it.”
“Oh pshaw! What is money between friends but the muddy river that stains all who touch it. I prefer to jump over it and move beyond, don’t you?” Buck grinned and, sweeping up the long silk cloth that hung from the back of his hat to the floor with one arm, he strode into the loft room and sniffed distastefully. Nathan was about to follow when a young man in much darker colors, browns mostly, although equally as rich in quality as those of the taller man, slid into the room after Buck. Nathan raised an eyebrow as he lifted his apron up over his head to take it off.
The younger man offered him a furtive glance, then moved to stand a bit behind Buck.
“Now JD, stop acting the shy one. Nathan, friend of my heart, this is the Duke’s youngest son, John David. I call him JD for short,” he placed one hand to the side of his face and mock whispered, “because it annoys his father.”
Nathan’s grin broadened. “Welcome my lord,” he said, bowing slightly. JD smiled sweetly and nodded.
“And welcome to you as well, good doctor. Lord Wilmington has been telling me much about your work, and insisted that I come to see it.” The young man stepped out from behind the tall man’s shadow, clearly trying to demonstrate that he could indeed stand on his own. Putting on an air of experience, he joined his hands behind his back and turned to look around.
Nathan crossed his arms over his smock and waited, while Buck moved to prop himself up on one of the many stools that sat scattered about the loft room. JD moved around, inspecting each piece with a light smile on his face, until he came to a stop before a the figure of a girl.
The sculpture was exquisite, the black marble giving the girl depicted the sensation of movement. Indeed, the more JD stared, the more certain he became that she would move. Whoever the model was, she was beautiful. Her hair hung in long braids from her face, hidden beneath a peasant’s hat, her features were filled with innocence. She sat in the sculpture, her legs dangling from the too large chair she sat in, her head tilted to one side in contemplation. The Duke’s son was entranced.
Nathan shared a glance with Buck, who looked ready to laugh out loud. The sculptor grinned as JD looked back at them.
“I like this one.”
“That’s Cassandra Wells, your lordship. She’s the daughter of one of the dame’s around here. Her friends call her Casey.”
“Casey,” JD reached forward to touch the sculpture’s face, then drew back as if suddenly aware of what he was doing. “How much?”
“She lives only three doors away,” Nathan prompted. JD watched him for a moment, then shook his head.
“Oh come on, JD!” Buck called, jumping from of his stool. “This is Venice, not one of the old kingdoms to the North. We are of the modern world here! You are one of your father’s favorites. If you met a girl you liked, that you fell in love with, I’m sure he’d be more than happy to give his blessing, no matter her station.” Buck strode forward to have a look at the sculpture of the girl that had so caught his young charge’s eye. He smiled. This Casey looked very sweet.
Nathan was about to agree when another knock at the door sounded, this one far more polite than that which introduced Buck. With a shrug to his friend, he let them continue their conversation about the girl next door and went to open the door.
This time it was his landlord, the priest Josiah, standing on the doorstep in his plain robes, accompanied by a man in dark green clothing highlighted by silver thread. The stranger was standing a little behind the priest, staring away back down the stone steps and to the stone courtyard beyond with a sense of longing, as if he didn’t want to be there. The newcomer was someone Nathan knew, but not well, and he shot Josiah a curious glance. The priest smiled.
“He is looking for Lord Wilmington,” Josiah said.
The man turned and took in Nathan with a pair of clear green eyes. His mouth was set in a thin line, and his thick brown hair ruffled by the wind. Based on the quality of his clothes, Nathan was surprised this man had no hat. He also couldn’t help but think that this man’s face would be a fascinating one to try and sculpt – it changed expression with every shift of the light.
“Moor Jackson,” the new man said, not warmly. It was not a polite title.
“I prefer Doctor Jackson, Lord Standish,” the reply was even colder. “I studied at Padua.”
“Of course, Doctor Jackson. Is Lord Wilmington here?”
“Ezra? Old friend! What a surprise!” Buck’s warmth quickly dispelled any awkwardness and some of the tension left Ezra’s shoulders. Buck came forward and clapped Ezra on the shoulder, then, without compunction, grabbed him up in a hug. Ezra immediately tried to push away. Buck laughed and let go.
“Why do you do that!” Ezra demanded angrily, straightening his clothes.
“Because you hate it,” Buck replied happily. “Ezra, you do know young JD here, don’t you?”
“The duke’s youngest son. Of course. How do you do, your lordship.” Ezra bowed, and JD blushed slightly.
“No need for that, Lord Standish,” the boy said, smiling. Ezra smiled back and turned once more towards Buck.
“So Ez, what’s so awful that you have to come searching for me here?” Buck asked, enjoying Ezra’s wince at the nickname. The mischievous Lord clearly knew exactly how to annoy the younger man, and he did it with great glee. Ezra grimaced.
“Well, I initially went in search of Lord Larabee and Gentleman Tanner, but without success. I then came looking for you, hoping you could perhaps offer some help to my predicament.”
“Oh, well, Chris and Vin are down at the docks today, Ezra. They have a ship coming in. The maps Tanner has provided to Chris are making the man incredibly rich. Every ship that returns brings more. I heard Chris say that today’s ship would bring a treasure even the Duke would be jealous to have.”
“Ah, yes, that would explain their absence.” Ezra didn’t react at the news, which finally brought a glint of worry to Buck’s eyes.
“Ezra? What is the matter?” This time the question was more serious, and Ezra responded in the same manner.
“Lord Wilmington, I’m afraid I have sought you out because I need to call in my marker.”
“My…my marker?” Buck’s face flashed briefly with annoyance before returning to its usual gregarious state. “What for?”
“I am…being harassed by a rather…unpleasant gentleman,” the smaller man replied. He looked down at the floor for a moment, before turning to look out one of the many windows in this room. It was only then that he noticed the sculptures, and his expression shifted for a moment to one of appreciation. It changed back when Buck spoke again.
“Being harassed? Who would harass you, my friend? Who would dare?” Buck shook his head and looked over at Nathan and Josiah who were still standing in the doorway. “Priest, come over, perhaps you should here this as well. Our Lord Standish may need absolution after he tells his tale.” Josiah frowned slightly, especially at the sudden anger that lit upon the face of the man in question. Ezra glared at Buck, then schooled his face to reflect nothing. Meanwhile, JD moved back to sit on a stool, while Nathan once more crossed his arms.
“Well?” Buck asked.
“Oh hell!” Buck exclaimed, then his face blanched and he looked across at Josiah. “Sorry father.”
“No need to apologize, Lord Wilmington. I too have had the opportunity to meet the Lady Maude,” Josiah bowed his head in mock sorrow. Buck grinned, and looked back at Ezra who was watching the priest.
“So what mess has she gotten you into this time?” Buck asked, crossing his arms. Ezra looked back at him.
“She got married, Buck, to the Duke of Strabia.”
Buck’s response was a slew of invectives that made even Ezra blush, and Josiah crossed himself slowly at the words. JD’s eyes widened to the size of orbs, while Nathan merely winced.
“A German Prince? When?” Buck demanded at the end of his litany.
“Last week. And before you say anything, it was, as usual, without my knowledge. But that is not the worst of it. Seems this Prince is feeling a bit upset at all the power his family has lost over the years and, hearing about my skills….has asked that I acquire for him an object which he believes will give him back his voice in the Empire.”
“Your skills? Besides being one of the best gamesmen I know Ezra, I was not aware….”
“This is not a skill I am proud of Buck,” Ezra interrupted, right before he swallowed harshly. Buck quieted and waited, while Ezra spared a glance at the priest. Josiah nodded encouragement. Ezra sighed and looked back at Buck.
“I was…once…uh…,” Ezra faltered, and he turned once more at Josiah with pleading eyes.
“He was a thief,” Josiah supplied easily, as if he were discussing the weather. Buck’s mouth fell open. Ezra nodded, and something akin to relief crossed his face briefly.
“He’s right. I was, well, once known to dabble somewhat successfully in the, uh, larcenous arts.”
“Larcenous…” Buck’s face screwed up into a dark expression. “I would have thought that someone with your money wouldn’t need to steal.”
Ezra smiled thinly, “I was not always as you see me, my Lord. Before my mother made a handful of…strategic marriages, I had to learn to provide for myself through other means. So it was, when I was younger, that I earned something of a reputation as a…”
“Second story man,” Buck deadpanned.
“Yes.” He took a couple of steps back, unable to meet his friend’s eyes, afraid of what he might see there. In the background, JD’s face was flushed, unable to contain his youthful excitement at finding out such a secret, while Nathan’s was as hard as flint, the sculptor clearly not pleased with the confession. In his corner, Josiah watched with an expectant air. Buck blew the air out of his cheeks.
“Are you still a thief?” the brightly dressed lord asked. Ezra’s dimples flared to life as part of a crooked grin.
“I…yes, sometimes, occasionally, to stay in practice….But I don’t steal for money, Lord Wilmington. And I return what I take. Well, most of the time.”
Buck raised an eyebrow, but in the background, Josiah was nodding in agreement. Nathan watched his landlord with a dark expression. He was curious how Josiah seemed to know all of this in advance. Meanwhile, Buck’s eyes narrowed as he seemed to consider all this information for a moment. After a short while, the mischievous glint returned.
“Well, so long as you don’t plan on stealing any of my lady’s hearts, sounds like a very useful skill, my friend,” the lord said. Ezra’s head came up, and his smile broadened into a genuine grin to mirror the one on Buck’s face. Ezra looked around the room, and saw Nathan’s expression had also lightened to one of mere disapproval, but not anger, and JD was simply smiling. The erstwhile thief sighed.
“Anyway, the point, gentlemen, is that this rather pathetic German prince is holding my mother hostage until I deliver a particular object.”
“So what is it?”
“Have you, by chance, heard of the fight going on between the current Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, Charles IV, and the Pope?” He paused while the others nodded. Everyone knew of the political war going on between the Germans and the Vatican – the smell of a permanent division had been in the air for the last fifty years. “Well, Charles recently announced that he would be formally naming the electors that will appoint the next Emperor in a document entitled the “Golden Bull.” From what I’ve heard, the Pope is not mentioned in it at all. Charles plans to officially unveil it next month.”
“So…” Buck played with his moustache, “I take it this minor German of yours wants you to get this document for him before hand, so that he can get his name on it?”
Buck frowned, confused. Ezra smiled wryly.
“He wants me to get him the golden bull. A real golden bull. He thinks it is a work of art. He thinks, if I steal it for him, then he’ll have leverage against Charles to force him to choose him as one of the electors.”
Buck stared at him nonplussed, then started to laugh uproariously. Around the room, even Nathan and Josiah cracked a smile.
Ezra looked down at his feet and sighed. “I never said the Duke of Strabia was smart, Buck, merely vicious.”
This quieted Buck some, and, though his mouth continued to twitch at the edges he attempted a veneer of seriousness. “So what do you plan to do?”
“Find the Duke a bull.”
Buck’s mouth twitched some more. “Where?”
“Well, I hope to have it made. It was suggested to me by a friend, “ he looked at Josiah, who nodded encouragingly, “that I ask Doctor Jackson to sculpt it.” He looked at Nathan, who pursed his lips.
“Out of gold?” the sculptor asked.
“No, out of stone, but with Gold overlay. Unfortunately, at the moment, I am lacking the funds to do this, so I hoped you, Lord Wilmington, might be able to help. After all, you do owe me quite a considerable amount.”
Buck’s face lost its mirth, and he frowned. “Uh, well, you see, Ez, um…”
Ezra sighed and looked away, “You don’t have any gold.”
“No. Its all tied up in my ships. I’m sorry, old friend.”
Ezra nodded, and tucked his arms around his chest. Over by JD, Nathan cleared his throat, bringing the others attention to him.
“I could sculpt the stone for you, on credit, Lord Standish. Provided you provide a bond. However, I have no gold for the overlay….”
Ezra’s face lit up slightly, and he nodded. “Doctor Jackson, thank you, I don’t know what to….”
“And I have some gold,” JD piped up. “Not much though. But I have about twenty pieces of bullion I could lend you.”
“Good on ya, lad!” Buck said, slapping him across the back. Ezra just stared at the Duke’s youngest son, too surprised to say anything. JD smiled trustingly, and the gambler had to work to smile back.
“Twenty bullion boiled down would get me about halfway there,” Nathan agreed. “But I still need about twenty more.”
Everyone jumped as someone banged again on the door. Ezra instinctively crowded behind a statue, while JD moved to stand behind Buck. Josiah followed Nathan as the sculptor grumbled all the way to the door about uninvited guests. Swinging it open, he peered around the edge…and laughed.
“Chris! Vin! Good to see you boys!”
“Nathan,” Chris greeted solemnly. Vin grinned and patted Nathan on the back as they moved into the room. The loft was beginning to look very crowded.
“Chris, you old war dog! What brings you here?” Buck bellowed, jumping over to hug his friend. Like Ezra, Chris cringed at the touch, then pushed out of it. Buck peered behind at the gentleman behind him, offering his hand for Vin to shake. The merchantman took the hand warmly.
“Buck, good to see you. Been a while,” Vin said.
Chris grimaced as he looked about the room. “We’ve come because one of Josiah’s acolytes told us Standish was looking for us, and that we would find him here.” Chris tilted his head, pulling off the black silk hat on his head to wipe some of the sweat from his brow. Despite the fact that it was late summer, the man always wore black, in memory of his wife and son who were killed several years ago while Chris was out to sea.
“I’m here,” Ezra said quietly, appearing from around a sculpture. “And yes, I was looking for you, Lord Larabee. I need your help.”
Chris sighed, brushing some of the dust off his hat. “Who is after you this time, Standish? I’ve heard about the kind of trouble you get into, and, let me tell you, if you weren’t Josiah’s friend I wouldn’t even be here.”
“Well, please, don’t feel obliged to stay,” the younger man curtly replied. “I’m sure I can deal with this without your help.”
“Ezra…” Josiah said in a warning tone, causing Nathan once more to look curiously at the priest.
“No, no, I’m here now,” Chris argued. “However, unless you have a truly good story to tell, Standish, I will take you up on that offer.”
Ezra smiled wryly, and Buck started laughing. When Vin asked what was so funny, Buck proceeded to tell them a slightly more embellished version of what Ezra had told them. The gambler leant back on a stool and let him go. By the end, Vin was laughing with Buck and Chris was negotiating with Nathan about how much gold would be needed. JD stood next to him, adding what he could offer. In his corner, Ezra was staring at the dust covered floor, his face expressionless. He didn’t even notice Josiah until the priest was almost on top of him.
“Did I not tell you they would help, my son?” the priest asked quietly. Ezra snorted and shrugged. Josiah smiled and draped an arm over Ezra’s shoulder. The younger man stiffened under the embrace, then relaxed. Josiah gazed out at the others.
“They care about doing what is right, these men. And right now, helping you is what is right. You’ll see, Ezra, something great has been forged in this little loft above my small monastery today.”
“Are you sure we won’t fail?” the young man asked, his worry creeping into his voice for the first time. “I must admit, I’m not certain that the Duke of Strabia will necessarily keep his word about releasing my mother, even if I bring him this bull.”
Josiah firmed his features and nodded, “We won’t fail, son. We’ll save her. I’d bet my livelihood on it.”
Ezra turned his head so that he could look at the priest out of the corner of his eye. Josiah smiled down at him, and hugged him closer. Ezra shrugged out of the embrace and took a few steps away. After a moment, he looked back at Josiah with a calculating smile.
“Does your livelihood include the church’s coffers?”
Josiah crossed his arms and rolled his eyes in exasperation, “Lord help us, Ezra. I should know better by now than to say the word ‘bet’ around you….”
The Duke of Strabia did indeed get his golden bull, but as Ezra had guessed, had “changed his mind” about releasing the Lady Maude. Having Ezra under his thumb was too much of a useful pawn for the Duke to give up. Unbeknownst to the vicious little German prince, however, the others had already managed to steal Maude away and get her to safety. It wasn’t until that night, when the Duke went to check on her, that he found her gone. Worse, when he ran to ensure that the bull was still in his treasury, he found that it, too, had disappeared. Angry beyond belief, the little Duke swore revenge on Maude, her son, and anyone else who may have had a part in his deception.
Nevertheless, a month later, Emperor Charles IV of the Holy Roman Empire did unveil the real “Golden Bull,” which, of course, was a rather long document that named seven Princely electors to name the next Emperor. The Duke of Saxony was the only German Duke included on that list, the rest being three German archbishops, the German King of Bohemia, and two German Margraves.
It also made no mention of the Italian Papacy anywhere in its clauses.
(For historical sticklers – Strabia does not exist. Swabia and Styria exist, and had German Dukes as princes, but I couldn’t bring myself to use a real place.)