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PROLOGUE—VENICE 1620

A beautiful woman, richly dressed in fine velvet and silvery brocade, lay reclining in the seat, but strangely, not moving.  Her unmarked skin was rosy, as if she were deep in sleep, the fine lace of her bodice forming a shroud about her throat. She looked as still and frozen as a statue, and although it was cold and damp, she gave not one shiver, and made no attempt to huddle or close her half opened cloak.

The gondolier plowed through the lagoon, his long pole rising and then plunging back into the depths, as he pulled the gondola forward. He paid no attention to his passenger, who rested in the shadows, a courtesan he had been hired to serve. He braced himself as he turned the craft straight into the chilling wind, and his eyes stung as they tried to focus on his destination, the bedazzling palazzo directly ahead.

The gondolier poled on, aiming for the open gates that marked the entryway for his boat and where he would let his passenger disembark.  After securing his craft, he could join the other gondoliers who waited beside their gondolas in anticipation of the palazzo’s bounty: meats and savory dishes from the table of the mistress of the palazzo, Belladonna, the city’s most famous courtesan.

The torches were ablaze by the palazzo’s gates, and their flames were reflected in the canal, creating a rippling golden path. As the gondolier turned into it, he had to pull with all his might against the wind, as he steered his boat into the open mouth of the palazzo, the one blot of darkness in its brilliant façade. 

Once inside and out of the wind, the gondolier wiped his streaming eyes and steadied the craft against the rough stone of the pier. Then he jumped off and fastened the ropes to secure it in place. When he was confident he had tied it securely, he came round to the cabin, and extended his hand to help his passenger onto the pier. But she remained inside the cabin, her face in shadow. The gondolier, frustrated, announced their arrival at the palazzo and waited a few moments more, but the woman did not respond. No hand reached out to steady herself by clasping the sides, and there was no sound of rustling silk with the occupant’s effort to rise. The gondolier leaned in to the cabin, thinking perhaps the woman had fallen asleep, and he reached over to wake her.

In an instant he recoiled, and withdrew his hand, which he now cradled in the other as if it had been burnt.  His face was marked by a look of horror which he kept trained on the cabin of  the gondola. He had paled, and his mouth opened into the full round circle that was a prelude to a scream, but he stifled it by chomping on his fist. He suddenly looked from side to side, his hand traveling rapidly down his haunches to the knife he kept in his belt.  Now, knife in hand, he backed further way from the gondola and made his way outside. In a moment he was gone, leaving the boat and its cargo bobbing inside by its pier.