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Robert Prescott has dined with Princes of Hell and gone whoring along the Grand Canal with fallen Archangels, and no longer feels the slightest apprehension on introduction to a daemon whose name had been a word of power to the infant-strangling priests of Melkart; but the first sight of the Jesuit gives him a peculiar frisson of horror.  Boyhood tales of Popish plots broach dark waters in Prescott’s mind, vast and almost-formless, and the unimposing black figure seems a thing of menace beyond any glamour-dewed Throne or Power. He has a nose like a beak and the flat face and staring black eyes of a native of the Indies, and in his black robes bears a strong resemblance to a raven, blown by some mischance into Prescott’s study. He looks as out of place and wears the same expression of wary startlement. The man’s name is Alvarez, or Alvaro, something like that.  A drab and dark thing he is, with weathered features like a hammered plate attesting to a life spent under a tropical sun, the only shabby object in a room otherwise filled to bursting with the luxurious impedimenta of power.  The elegantly-bound volumes standing in the glass-fronted bookcase, as staid and sober as a morning parade of kitchen staff, had been sourced at great expense from every corner of the Continent, and any one hides secrets that it is death for any less well-connected man to know. The lead crystal decanter is one of few remaining works of a Bohemian master whose life and legacy had been consumed in the holocaust of the Twelve Years War; the topaz-coloured sweet wine it holds is from one of the last vineyards the Most Serene Republic held in the Aegean Sea, a personal estate of the house of Ruzzini, who reserve its output for bribes to high-ranking Imperial officials. Of the paintings on the wall, the one depicting Danaë and Zeus is curiously more chaste than the landscape: Prescott sees with an inward smile that even the priest’s eye has been caught by the lubricious roundness of the hills, the rubenesque creases converging into shadow where they come together, the obscene exuberance of the musky thicket in the foreground, with its plenitude of curving branches. The slim book next to Prescott’s right hand is Baron Spencer’s celebrated  treatise ‘On Sodomy’; the silver reliquary on his right, originally from a bankrupt monastery in the Levant, now contains the black flesh of a certain aquatic centipede preserved in honey and opium. The carpet is from Kachan; the writing desk is of a peculiar Brasilian wood of which only one shipment has ever crossed the Atlantic; and Prescott himself is dressed with costly efficiency, eschewing the ornament of a Venetian dandy for the severe elegance of an English diplomat.

“And a good day to you, signor,” says Prescott. “Please take a seat.”

Father Alvarez, or Alvaro, perches on the chair Prescott indicates, his head cocked to one side in a bird-like manner as he continues to warily scrutinise the room’s furnishings. Sitting down, the man makes Prescott less uneasy. Almost a pity: he had been rather enjoying the unfamiliar feeling of fear.

“I understand you have an artefact you believe may be of interest to me,” says Prescott, smiling – ‘like one of the scaléd Ammirals of the Nile’ as his onetime friend Fourgon has said.

The Jesuit turns his attention to Prescott, and Prescott immediately feels it to be a complete and calculated attention – the attention of a watchman for a distant man who limps towards his post at dusk. “Yes, your Excellency,” he says.  His voice fits the room better than his appearance. He is an educated man, and his voice is smooth and deep, like the waters of the great rivers of the New World, the voice of a man who is used much to silence. His accent is almost imperceptible: he could be Italian, Spanish, or Greek. In silence, he unwraps the bundle he has brought – about the size of a cat – and sets the carving within on the table before him.

“I would rather not say how this came into the possession of my associate, nor how it has come about that I am selling it on his behalf. Your Excellency was one of the obvious potential buyers. Please, feel free to examine it as closely as you wish. If it interests you as greatly as we hope, I am authorised to conclude the transaction this evening: you need only make an offer.”

His heart pounds like the hooves of his horse, his loins are suddenly tight, and the cry of the fleeing girl fills him with daemonic joy. But he is not there, has never been there, he is here.

“Thank you.” His face frozen in an expression of mild interest, he picks up the statue, feels the smoothness of the wood with a caressing touch, gives the broader features of the image a swift appraising look and proceeds to peer at its finer details through a glass. It is made of a fine-grained hardwood, another rare exotic like the wood of his desk, caramel-coloured like the skin of an Indian maiden pinioned by a pirogue, and it is carved in a manner quite unlike the crude products of the Indies, more like the work of forgotten sculptors of the East whose temple carvings lie buried beneath the dunes of Konarak, and even more like certain works he has seen done in a blood-red stone unknown on Earth, hanging between the breasts of succubi.

“It is rather of interest. Do you know anything of its provenance?” He puts the magnifying glass in his pocket and sets the statue on the table in front of the priest.

“It comes from somewhere north of our missions in the Chiquitos,” says the Jesuit. “Many weeks journey; there were large settlements there a hundred years ago, but the report is that they are now abandoned. We suppose it comes from one of those.”

“Interesting. It is quite unlike other native carvings I have seen. Quite unlike.”

The priest nods. “Do you wish to make an offer?”

Richard Prescott, representative of His Majesty James III of New England to the Most Serene Republic of Venice, makes an offer. The offer is accepted, and ducats are exchanged. Father Alvaro – or Alvarez, or Alfari – makes his farewells, and is shown out of the Palazzo Valmarana Cini by Prescott’s butler Ridley.

Prescott’s chamber asserts its nature with the removal of the foreign body. The air is thick with debauched privilege like steam. This atmosphere surrounds Prescott, envelops him, comforts him: he takes the magnifying glass from his pocket and hunches forward, greedily studying the pudenda of the carving.


“To the King of New Spain,” says Perkins, lifting a glass of grappa. He is well-drunk, as are his companions:  Radcliffe, who has come over with him from Boston, and the two men of the River Plate they have met by chance this evening, Alarcon and Rodriquez. They have drunk more swiftly than intended, and the fiery sprit has given them each the strength of ten. “The King of New Spain!” the others answer lustily, drink, and Alarcon, who looks even younger than his twenty years, with a mere wisp of mustache on his lip, lifts his glass in return and cries “To the King of New England!” The other great monarch of the New World is toasted with much enthusiasm. At home they are rivals, and their subjects cut one another’s throats over the possession of verminous outposts in the swamp:  from the Old World they seem as brothers, for all Europe – save Venice only – has been for ninety years under the Empire.

“To the day we see home,” offers Radcliffe in a more sober tone – a slightly more sober tone. He is the oldest of them all, over thirty years of age, with a wife and five children in Massachusetts, and the poisonous atmosphere of the Old World is like a cold shadow cast on his soul. Perkins and the two Argentines respond to this toast even more eagerly than they did to the first two, and Rodriquez summons out of the bright whirling chaos around them a fair-haired German lad with hands like a girl to refill their glasses.  “This is a hateful place,” says Alarcon.

“Yes, I will be glad to leave this Babylon behind,” says Perkins. “All my life I heard stories. My uncle was a sailor, and he used to tell me stories from when I was so high.” And in miming to show how high he was Perkins almost falls from his stool. “I used to think, he has to be pulling my leg. Those folk can’t possibly be as black as they’re painted. But, Lord-a-mercy…” He shakes his head.

“The devil take this place,” mutters Rodriquez.

“Soon enough,” says Perkins, shaking his head again. “Soon enough,” agree the others, and Venice is roundly cursed, compared with Sodom and Nineveh and Tyre, to the basest sort of poltroon and the most desperately obliging whore. If any Venetians overhear amid the noise of the taverna, they have no mind to defend the honour of their city.

The image of Emperor Acontius stands before Westminster and the Escorial, an apparition from the book of Ezekiel made manifest in gilded bronze: in another generation such an image will stand in the Piazza San Marco.  Rodriquez and Alarcon can feel it, Perkins and Radcliffe can feel it, the Venetians know it in their bones:  one day the well of cunning that is the diplomacy of the Doges will run dry, and their neutrality will be at an end. Year after year the usefulness of Venice to the Emperor declines, while the lesser daemons and powerful men of the Empire grow more accomplished at employing her for their own schemes. The Kings of the West and of the East also grow more adept at furthering their goals on the neutral ground of Venice, but they are nothing to Acontius.  They are flies on distant swine.

Radcliffe has pulled out his pocket watch, and struggles for a moment, blinking, to make sense of the obscure symbols on it, like they were written by hashish-eaters of Damascus.  “We do not want to be late tomorrow, Perkins.”

“What? Late?” Perkins is still excoriating the sins of this wicked city, and Radcliffe’s words have intruded with the obscure gravity of a Sibylline utterance.

“We should go, I fear, gentlemen. We have an appointment in the morning.”

Rodriquez says that if this must be, so it must be. His ruddy complexion has been enhanced by the grappa, and he looks fierce and brutal, but he has proven himself to be to be a most courteous and agreeable drinking companion; at home he is known for his kindness to strangers and those of low estate. “I doubt not that, God willing, we will meet again, signor Radcliffe. It was a providence that brought us both to the gondola at the same moment.”

“It has been a true pleasure to make your acquaintance, sir,” says Radcliffe, standing. He downs the remainder of his glass in a few swallows and extends a hand to Rodriquez. Exuberant courtesies are exchanged between Radcliffe and the two Argentines, and promises made to meet again soon, God willing, in this taverna.

“A friendly face that does not want your money only, that is not easy to find here,” says Alarcon. “Not easy to find at all,” he claps Radcliffe on the back.

A realisation comes to Perkins, like the sun coming unexpectedly out from behind a cloud, like a choir of angels singing gloria in excelsis Deo on an icy evening. “We have to see the ambassador in the morning,” he says. His words are slurred but bright with boyish awe. He cranes his neck to look at Radcliffe, and the room swings around him like a fiery chariot.

“Yes, quite, young sot,” says Radcliffe. He helps Perkins to his feet; he is unsteady, and to reach the door Radcliffe has to hold him up on one side and Rodriquez on the other.

The cold of the air outside is instantly sobering, but it is the kind of sobriety that will fade again quickly.  The moon is full and casts a thick murk on the narrow street. Their lodging houses are both along the Fondamenta Bontini, but in opposite directions, and another round of handshakes are made. As they part Perkins calls out with gusto, far too loud at this hour “To the King of New Spain!”, and Rodriquez and Alarcon reply “To the King of New England!”

Flies on distant swine.


A haze from the factories on the shore hangs over the lagoon, and a chill fog a few feet deep lies on the surface of the water like a blanket of snow. The catches have been poor in recent years, and only a few fishermen still work these waters so close to the foul industry of San Giuliano: but Piero and Zorzi are old, and unindebted, and know no other life, so they labour here in the darkness an hour before the dawn.  The net is heavy, and sure enough there is a drowned man in it. At first the corpse looks like no more than a bundle of rags; a mass of sodden black cloth wraps around the head and limbs, giving the tangled mass the look of a crow drowned in a water butt.

“He is a priest,” says Piero, when the mass is untangled and recognised as a cassock, and Zorzi crosses himself again, as he first did when they laid the man’s body in the boat.  He cannot look away from the sockets where the filthy things of the lagoon have eaten the priest’s eyes. The skin of the corpse is grey and slimy: it has been already some days and nights in the water. His nose is large, and reminds Zorzi of the beak of a bird.

“Poor soul,” says Piero. “It is still early, but enough, I think.” He jerks his head to indicate home, then bends to put a flap of cassock back over the man’s face.

“He must have fallen from a steamship,” says Zorzi.  The behemoths that have come to ply the waters in recent years are anathema to him, and his instinct is to blame every evil on them if it is at all possible.

“Who can say?” says Piero. “It is a strange end for a priest, but I expect he was sure enough of a good welcome in Paradise.”


Anaxagoras dixit quod oportet intellectum esse immixtum ad hoc quod imperet, et agens oportet quod dominetur super materiam ad hoc quod possit eam movere, thinks the being that wears the black Jesuit robes of Father Alvaro of Negroponte, and a smile moves over its lips, as transitory and ethereal as a man’s hopes of earthly happiness.


The unblemished white skin of Celestina di Castelano. Prescott closes his eyes so the imagination of it can better fill his senses. He has not slept at all. The rosy fingers of dawn are spreading across the sky. A dozen open books are spread across his desk. He has made up his mind: the carving is genuine. It is the work of men who have had a traffic with Hell far beyond his own. It is the focus he needs.  He has much to do today, but he cannot wait. The beat of the horse’s hooves like his heart; the hot moist air of the jungle; the sweat on his face, and on the naked body of the fleeing native girl. Not there. Here. He rings the bell to summon Ridley.

“Yes, your Excellency?” Ridley will come at any hour, punctually, uncomplainingly. It is his nature.

“Ready the Beryl Room for the Rite of Aïsha.”

“Yes, your Excellency.” Ridley never questions Prescott’s commands, whatever they might be. It is a particular point of pride to them both.


“Good morning, gentlemen,” says the ambassador with an effortless bonhomie. He is not an intimidating man, but one with a skill for putting others at their ease.  “May I offer you anything? Tea, sherry, tobacco, hashish?”

“No, thank you, your Excellency” say the two New Englanders. They are freshly scrubbed, awkward in their best clothes, unused to such luxurious surroundings. The younger one is suffering from some over-indulgence of the night before – his attention has been caught by the painting. But the older one has kept his mind on the business at hand. They put the ambassador in mind of dogs that have been brought into a room of the house where they are not normally allowed. He indicates that they should be seated, and makes polite inquiries about their journey from Boston while pouring himself a glass of sweet wine. After these pleasantries the supplicants explain their difficulty.

“…the notary says that the letter of authorisation from the Exarch is perfectly in order, but Lord Bothynus’ men still refuse to release the cargo. Without the goods, we are stuck.” He spreads his hands in a gesture of helplessness. “There doesn’t seem to be any clear way forward, so we hoped you might be able to assist us, your Excellency. I have all the letters here.” He reaches into his coat and produces a packet of correspondence, which he lays before Ambassador Prescott.

“I will do what I can, gentlemen,” says the ambassador, taking up a gilded letter-opener and cutting the cord that binds the packet.  The taut cord, slit, writhes back into indolent coils in a satisfactory manner.  “I have had some dealings with Lord Bothynus before. He is a very reasonable – being. I think when I explain the matter he will see that your position is a perfectly straightforward one, and that there is no need to cause you unnecessary difficulty.”

“Thank you, your Excellency.”

He leafs through the letters – so unblemished, so smooth beneath his fingers, the paper used by the ministers of the daemon Lords – and picks one up at random.  For a long minute the words flicker past him, leaving wisps and shreds of meaning behind.

“Yes, I think I can write you a letter that will resolve your difficulties. If you continue to encounter problems with Lord Bothynus’ servants despite this, you must let me know, and I will make a more personal approach.”

“Thank you, your Excellency.” This is a heartfelt and breathless ‘thank you’ from the younger man, who is clearly terrified at the thought of a personal approach to a creature such as Lord Bothynus. Prescott smiles.

“If you return this afternoon, the letter will be waiting for you. Ridley will know your business, if I am indisposed.” He sees the younger man shudder, and catch himself shuddering, and redden ever so slightly. There is a certain something about Ridley that is liable to affect some people in such a way: those who are innocent, fresh from the forests of North America, or young and sheltered. With the soft moon-pale skin and carnelian lips of Celestina di Castelano. It is so much more delightful when she shudders at the sight of Ridley; but it is delightful enough when this fellow shudders. Hoofbeats. Sweat. The desperate hammering of bare feet on yielding moist earth. His hand has made an involuntary movement toward the reliquary of St. Dionysius. He brings it back and makes it lie still.

“I will keep these papers for the moment, in case it is necessary to refer to any details.” His mouth makes the words with precision, his smile is unforced, his eyes meet those of his visitors. But these are the automatic actions of a somnambulist. He neatly stacks the letters, and nods as he is thanked once again by the two men. He sees them out.  There are two hours until his next appointment, and the Beryl Room is ready.


“Did you see the eyes of that butler?” says Perkins. “They weren’t natural. Like snake’s eyes, they were.”

“Uh-huh,” says Radcliffe. He is setting a brisk pace as they thread their way through the crowded street, around them a babble of voices in a dozen languages.  The words are to do with buying and selling, intrigues and assignations, invocations to God and daemons, snatches of song, curses.  Each word is clear, though most are meaningless. Everything is sharply outlined in crisp sunlight.

“Like bits of honeycomb, with black lines through the middle. I wonder if he eats rats.”

“Swallows them whole, probably. I expect he’s got a big cage of them in the cellar.” Radcliffe’s tone is bright and cheerful, but he does not turn to speak to his companion nor slacken his pace, forging onward through the crush.

“Gave me the horrors, he did,” Perkins shakes his head, which still aches dully. “I wonder what he looks like in truth, when he’s not putting on a man’s face.” A hundred monstrosities roil hopefully in the dark corners of his mind, reptilian, insect, or gelatinous, daring him to imagine them.

“Don’t think about it, Perkins. It’s best not to pay them any mind at all. Any attention you give them just encourages them.”

“Try not to pay them any mind? How can I do that?” Perkins gestures emphatically, and finds a knot of Constantinopolitan Jews with a handcart have cut him off from Radcliffe. The traffic has been thickening as they approach the Rialto. A short caricature of a man with bulging eyes and the oily beard of an Assyrian statue makes apologies.

“Slow down!  What are you rushing for?” calls Perkins.

“Pardon me,” Radcliffe edges around a tall severe man in the attire of a cavalier and leans up against a wall to wait for Perkins.  “Didn’t notice,” he tells him, when he catches up. “I suppose I just have a feeling that we’ll be able to move on soon, and want to get as many of the loose ends tidied up as fast as we can. So if we move quick, we can see old Abrams about those gems he wanted, settle our bill with the mapmaker, make an appointment to see Captain Biscotti again, and square the account at San Trovaso, before we go back to the ambassador.”

“No need for us both to go see the ambassador,” mumbles Perkins.

“Oho, no! No fear, if I have to face that butler again, so do you.” Radcliffe snorts, and takes advantage of a momentary gap in the foot traffic to plunge back into the street.

“You’re just as afraid as I am.”

“Maybe so,” agrees Radcliffe. “But I don’t show it, and that’s all the difference with these people. Think of them as dogs. Don’t show fear, and on some level they’re respect you for it.”

“Some level,” Perkins mutters. “What about rabid dogs?”

“There are powers in this place that deal with daemons – or men – like that right quick, I warrant. Don’t worry about it. I have a feeling, like I said, that this letter of the ambassador’s will do the trick, and then we’ll be out of this place.”

“I pray so,” says Perkins. He loses his temper. The press of the crowd, the memory of the butler’s eyes, Radcliffe’s haste – he has picked it up again, weaving nimbly between the mass in a way Perkins cannot manage – all serve to aggregate Perkins’ headache.  “Damnation, what a lot of damned handcarts there are trying to cross this damn bridge!”


The preparations are made.  In the Beryl room the air is heavy and foul.  Watched over by a brass statue of Baphomet, a single strand of the maiden Celestina di Castelano’s hair has been fastened around the waist of the obscene carving by Prescott’s trembling hands. All else is in readiness. His will gives assent to the Rite that will accomplish her degradation, her submission to his debauched and jaded perversions. The treachery is committed. His damnation is complete. He knows the mistake he has made – too late, too late – as his soul is thrust down into the Pit. He sees the Mark on the statue with the preternatural clarity of vision he is given in his last instant of mortal life, and recognises it for the fraud it is.  Inwardly he screams; and the daemon exults as it takes possession of his flesh, his sense, his memories.

In anima in Cocito già si bagna, e in corpo par vivo ancor di sopra.


The ambassador has not given Ridley any letter for Radcliffe and Perkins, but neither has he said he is indisposed.

“Yes, show them in, show them in,” they hear him say, and Ridley obliges. Ambassador Prescott bestows a broad smile on the two men as they enter. The decanter on the table, which was two-thirds full when they saw the ambassador that morning, is empty. The lid of the reliquary is ajar, and a sickly sweet smell of decay wafts from it. The book on the desk is open to a detailed woodcut displaying one of the practices attributed to the Knights Templar at their trial; the ambassador makes no effort to close it on the approach of Radcliffe and Perkins.

“We’re here about-” Radcliffe begins, but the ambassador cuts him off. “Yes, I remember, I remember.  I remember. Here is your letter for Lord Bothynus’ purblind minion: a fool who deserves to have his balls roasted on a griddle, if I’m any judge.” He presents the letter to Radcliffe with a flourish.  “And if he doesn’t accede to your request, my two scions of Massachusetts, I am sure such will be his fate. Lord Bothynus can be understanding, yes, and forgiving, yes – but, ha, ha – certain exceptional circumstances are required.” The ambassador has a fine jovial manly laugh.

“Thank you, your Excellency,” says Radcliffe. Perkins gives a little bow and mumbles.

“I wish you a good journey; may you turn aside Poseidon’s wrath, and escape the chill embrace of Oceanus, devourer of cities and nations.”

“Yes – er, thank you, your Excellency.”

“There is something more you wish?” asks the ambassador, after a long moment of silence passes.

“The correspondence, sir – your Excellency – that we left for you to consult.”

“Of course.  I remember. I remember.” He rummages on the desk and finds the stack of letters somewhat disordered. Over Radcliffe’s protests that it is not at all necessary, your Excellency, he sorts them into a bundle, fusses about finding cord to retie it, gets into rather a muddle cutting a piece the right length, and eventually manages a semblance of the original packet of correspondence. The man is as drunk as a Lord, thinks Radcliffe; but his fingers are quick and nimble enough, once he gets to tying the knot.

“Thank you again, for all your help, your Excellency. We will not forget your kindness to us.”

“No, you never will,” says the ambassador cheerily. “If you will wait just one moment more, there is one more small matter.”

Perkins has already bowed and taken one step towards the door; he stops reluctantly and turns back to face the desk. “Yes, your Excellency?”

There is a gilded letter opener on the desk, with a handle worked in arabesques. It is kept exquisitely sharp. The ambassador picks it up, and without turning his gaze from the two men, drives it into his own chest. It is driven with the precision of a surgeon and the force of a navvy.

“My God!” cries Perkins, and Radcliffe lunges forward to staunch the wound; but somehow the ambassador has managed to wrench the letter opener out again, and a crimson fountain cascades across the study. “Ridley! Ridley!” calls Radcliffe, pressing his hands against the ambassador’s chest.

The ambassador speaks, his voice eerily calm. “It… has… been… marvellous… meeting… “ His lungs are out of breath, his body slips out of Radcliffe’s grasp, and he falls face-forward onto the open book before him.

“Oh God oh God oh God” cries Perkins.

Drops of the ambassador’s blood beat a dull staccato rhythm as they strike the floor, staining the carpet from Kachan a bright arterial red.


Videtur quod caecitas mentis et hebetudo sensus non oriantur ex vitiis carnalibus, thinks the being that wears the face of Father Alvaro of Negroponte, a face which at this moment displays a calm beatitude. It would seem that blindness of mind and dullness of spirit do not arise from sins of the flesh. He has climbed to the roof of the presbytery, and his naked body is outlined starkly against the blue of a clear winter sky. His cassock has been neatly folded and set aside out of the wind.  In the space between two heartbeats he vanishes.