back to The Empire of Glass »
read reviews
previous chapter
next chapter

Chapter 3


"Well, I wish that we were always greeted like this," Steven said, gazing around the room at the ornate carpets, the life-sized frescoes of biblical scenes and the furniture with its carved legs and delicately embroidered upholstery.

Vicki dived onto a silk-cushioned sedan. "Isn't it wonderful!" she cried. "I could happily live on this thing forever."

"It's acceptable, I suppose," the Doctor sniffed. He crossed to a long wooden cabinet and opened a door at random. "But I've been to planets where furnishings this basic would be considered an insult." Reaching inside, he brought out a bottle of wine. "Then again, I suppose it does have its advantages."

"I'm not complaining," Steven said. He walked over to the window. Beyond the leaded glass he could see the wooden jetty that they had landed beside, and the square across which they had been escorted. "What's this place called again, Doctor?"

"The city is called Venice, my boy, and this building is called the Doge's Palace. We have been mistaken for persons of high rank." He reached into the cupboard again and retrieved a wine glass.

"So who is this Cardinal Bellarmine, then?"

Behind him, a soft snore could be heard. Steven and the Doctor both turned, to see Vicki curled up on the sedan, fast asleep.

"Poor dear," the Doctor said. "It's been a long day for her. She deserves her sleep." He turned his face back to Steven. "Now, where was I? Oh yes - Cardinal Roberto Francesco Romolo Bellarmine, general of the Jesuit Order, Consultor of the Holy Office and Master of Controversial Questions at the Vatican. I assume that is who I have been mistaken for. Although many believe him to have been behind Guy Fawkes's attempt to blow up the English Parliament, he will be made a Saint in, oh let me see, some three hundred years time." The Doctor frowned. "Hmm, I must admit to a slight worry. Being mistaken for an emissary of the Pope in Venice in 1609 is, perhaps, not the safest thing that could have happened."

"Why not?" Steven asked.

The Doctor shook his head. "Religion is never an easy thing to explain. Where do I start. Let me see… " He furrowed his brow, thinking, then raised a finger aloft. "Yes, I do believe that it began three years ago when two priests visiting Venice were charged with various things, including murder, by the Venetian authorities. They were locked up in the dungeons in this very building -"

"Dungeons?" Steven asked, but the Doctor kept talking.

"- and the Doge of Venice threatened to have them put on trial in a secular court, rather than an ecclesiastical one. Tried by the people, not by the Church, if you like."

"And what happened?" Steven asked, more because he knew the Doctor wanted him to than because he wanted to know the answer.

"What happened? Why, the Vatican couldn't let its ecclesiastical authority go unchallenged, could it?"

"Couldn't it?" Steven couldn't see why not, but he assumed that the Doctor knew what he was talking about.

"Why no, of course not. The Pope had to have the final say on everything. So he excommunicated Venice: lock, stock and barrel." The Doctor rubbed his hands together. "Caused quite a furore, I believe. No baptisms or burials could be carried out, no masses could be held, all marriages were dissolved and all children were declared illegitimate."

"And what happened then?" Steven was becoming interested in the story, despite himself.

"For a few months it looked as if war might break out. Spain allied itself with the Vatican and France allied itself with Venice. England, which had split away from the Catholic Church some seventy years before, made advances to Venice as well. The whole poisonous boil seemed about to erupt, but thanks to a little fancy diplomatic footwork, the two sides came to a face-saving arrangement. Honour was satisfied on both sides, and Venice was brought back into the fold."

"Oh," said Steven, disappointed. He'd been hoping for a good scrap.

"But that is why Papal emissaries are not necessarily the most welcome visitors, even now," the Doctor continued. "Still, there are worse people to have been mistaken for. Cardinal Bellarmine is no religious fanatic, but a deeply philosophical thinker. He has a formidable mind, sharp as a pin, and he is an astronomer to boot. I'm not surprised that he's interested in Galileo's spyglass. It's right up his street, hmm?"

"And who's this Galileo that you're supposed to have come to see?" Steven said. He was getting a little lost amongst all the names and the history. "And what's a spyglass?"

"Your education has been woefully neglected, my boy. We're fortunate to have arrived at such a time in your history." The Doctor frowned for a moment and patted the pocket in which he had placed the mysterious invitation. "Or perhaps luck had nothing to do with it," he added.

Irving Braxiatel stood in the centre of the room and gazed around with some pleasure at the books that lined the walls, their spines facing inward as was the custom. The collection was complete. In this room he had every single book that was on the Index of the Catholic Church. They were banned knowledge, books considered too dangerous to read, but such books were, in the end, the most precious. Censorship illuminated perfectly the directions in which any civilization would advance. And knowledge was power, of course.

He smiled to himself. Knowledge was his speciality. He collected it assiduously. It was his most profound desire to have all of the knowledge in the Universe in one place at one time: a huge Library that any member of any intelligent race could consult without let or hindrance. A dream, of course, but an achievable one. His own race collected knowledge, but as an end in itself, and they never shared it, not even if by doing so they could avert catastrophe and save lives.

Braxiatel believed that perfect knowledge led to peace, and so he had left his people and travelled, seeking out obscure facts to add to his vast and comprehensive database. His presence on Earth, in Venice, was on other business, but he hoped to make a small start here by collecting together works of fact and fiction that would otherwise be burned. Perhaps, at some stage in the planet's future, he might return and see what had become of the Braxiatel Collection.

He took off his bifocal spectacles and polished them with a handkerchief. What was it that Friar Sarpi had called the Index earlier that evening, when he brought the last of the books along? "The first secret device religion ever invented to make men stupid." Sarpi didn't agree with the existence of the Index, but he was a Friar when all was said and done, and couldn't be seen to disagree with the Pope's edicts. That was why Sarpi obtained the books in secret and passed them to Braxiatel. To preserve them. To keep their knowledge alive.

"Excuse me, sir."

Braxiatel turned. Cremonini, his manservant, was standing in the doorway. "Yes, what is it?"

"A visitor, sir."

"I'm not receiving anybody tonight. Send them away."

Cremonini coughed discreetly. "No sir, you have avisitor ."

"Ah." Braxiatel nodded. "I'll come straight down."

Sperone Speroni bent close to Baldassarre Nicolotti's contorted face, close enough to have kissed the corpse's cold lips, and sniffed.

"That's poison, right enough," he said, pulling back from the body and gazing up at the imposing form of Baron Tommaso Nicolotti. "Your son was murdered."

Around them, the Tavern of St Theodore and of the Crocodile was empty of patrons. Its buttressed timbers, and the smell of damp wood that underlay the smell of spilled wine, reminded Speroni of the inside of a ship's hull. For a moment he felt a twinge of nostalgia for the Arsenale, and the career he had lost when he was chosen as a Lord of the Night watch, but only for a moment. The simplicity of that life was a fading memory now.

"Are you sure?" the Baron snarled, his voice like gravel shifting at the bottom of some deep well. "Is there no doubt in your mind?"

"None, my lord," Sperone replied. He stood up and brushed at his trousers. Despite Tommaso's saturnine glower and expensive clothes, Speroni was polite but not deferential. "The smell is unmistakable. It's a common compound distilled from the leaf of the laurel bush. Death can occur within seconds or hours, depending on the dosage."

"Common," Tommaso sneered. "The word sums up my son's short and unproductive life. He drank with common gondoliers, consorted with common whores and died from a common poison." He gazed down at his son's face for a moment, then fastidiously turned the body over with the toe of his boot. "And what of his murderer? Was this attack against my son or against my family? Was the murderer a jealous lover, a distressed moneylender or an assassin in the pay of the Castellanis?"

"Too early to say," Speroni said, shrugging. "I could have someone tortured, but what would that give us apart from one more corpse?"

"In the hands of even a passable torturer," Tommaso agreed, "the victim will give any answers you want, and none of them are reliable." He turned his gaze upon Speroni. "The only function of torture is to provide an example to others. What of this Paduan teacher? I hear that he was present, and argued with my son. He would make a fine example."

"Galileo Galilei?" Speroni grimaced. "He's a violent man, but poison isn't his tool."

"He threw wine into my son's face. The wine may have contained the poison."

"So could anything your son ate or drank in the past twelve hours."

The corner of Tommaso's mouth turned up in the closest Speroni had ever seen him get to a smile. "Never the less, this Galileo would do well to leave Venice immediately, lest he find himself missing certain vital elements of his being. His heart, for instance."

"My lord," Speroni said as hard as he dared, "there is no reason to believe that Galileo is involved in this matter, beyond his proximity to your son when he died."

"My family honour demands vengeance," Tommaso said levelly. "It matters little to me whether we get the right person or not. Everybody is guilty of something."

"I shall hold you and your family responsible for Galileo's life," Speroni warned. "Nicolotti or not, Lord or not, there are laws here in Venice."

"Laws?" Tommaso's lips twisted as if he had bitten into something sour. "Laws are for the peasants. The families of the Golden Book make their own laws."

"Suffice it to say," the Doctor continued, "that 1609 is one of the pivotal years for scientific history. Galileo Galilei is about to present the Doge of Venice with the first telescope, and thus open up the stars to mankind's inspection. There is a direct line between this moment in time and the spaceship which you were unfortunate enough to crash on the planet Mechanus."

Steven was about to make some protest about this cavalier dismissal of his heroic struggle with the controls of a dead space fighter, but through the window he suddenly caught sight of something hanging from a pillar in the square and lost his train of thought. "Is this Doge the leader of Venice then?" he said, trying to make out what the object was by the flickering light of the flambeaux.

The Doctor nodded sagely. "The Doge heads the Council of Three, which heads the Council of Ten, which heads the Great Council." From a pocket he withdrew a corkscrew, with which he proceeded to open the wine.

"Powerful man, then?" Steven asked. The object hanging from the pillar was swaying slightly in the fresh breeze that was blowing in off the lagoon. People were passing it by without paying it any attention.

"That's a difficult question," the Doctor observed judiciously. "Suffice it to say, that at this time in its history, Venice itself is one of the most influential states in the world. Most, if not all, of the trade between Europe and the Orient passes through its ports. Every commodity known to man of this century - silks, spices, precious stones, slaves, marble, ivory, ebony, fabulous animals… It is the greatest sea power of the age, unrivalled in firepower, tonnage and efficiency. During the recent wars against the Turks a new galley left its shipyards - the Arsenale - every morning for one hundred days. Imagine that! A new warship every morning!" He poured himself a glass of wine. "And that, incidentally, is what Speroni and his men were so worried about - that we might be Turkish spies."

"Why are they worried, if they can build ships that quickly?" Steven asked. That dangling object was worrying him. The more he looked at it, the more it looked like a body, hanging by a chain.

"The approach into the lagoon from the Adriatic is almost impossible to navigate, except by skilled Venetians," the Doctor replied, and took a sip of his wine. "Hmm, most acceptable. Yes, most acceptable. There are sandbanks under the surface that would rip the keel from any ship that didn't know the way through the maze. The Venetians are paranoid about Turkish spies sneaking into the lagoon in small boats and mapping out the sandbanks."

One of the flambeaux flared suddenly as the wind caught it, casting its light across the pillar and the puffy, bird-pecked face of the body that hung from it, suspended by a metal chain around its throat. The flesh of the neck had swelled so much that the links of the chain had become buried in it.

"Doctor… " Steven whispered, his mouth suddenly dry, "there's a dead body out there."

"I wouldn't be at all surprised," the Doctor said, nodding. "Not at all. Three hundred or so years ago Marco Polo described Venice to me as being one of the most repressive states he'd ever known - and he had travelled a bit - with one important difference."

Steven swallowed. "What's that?" he asked.

The Doctor sipped at his wine again, and sighed happily. "Most repressive states exist to ensure that the leader holds on to his power. In Venice, the entire power of the state is dedicated to ensuring that nobody has any power at all."

"Not even this Doge?" Steven asked.

"Especially not the Doge," the Doctor replied. "He's virtually powerless, forbidden to talk to foreigners alone and unable to write an uncensored letter to his wife, should he have one. The Venetians are so terrified of a dictator taking over the state that they go through the most ridiculous rigmarole to elect a Doge. Nine members of the Great Council select forty people, twelve of whom are then chosen at random to select twenty-five people. Nine of these twenty-five are again chosen at random to select forty-five people. Eleven of these forty-five are then chosen at random to select another forty-one, and these forty-one then elect the Doge. And, as if that wasn't enough, they ensure that the man they elect is in his seventies so that he won't have time to amass too much power."

Steven turned away from the window, forgetting in his amazement the body hanging from the pillar. "What a ridiculously complicated system."

"Complicated it may be," the Doctor replied seriously, "but it makes absolutely, perfectly certain that there can be no favouritism, no influence and no vote-rigging."

Steven's gaze was dragged back to the swaying body. "So who has the real power, then?"

"It's spread out through the various members of the various Councils. No one person can ever make a decision. Ithas to be agreed by majority."

"But personalities will always win through over committees," Steven protested. "Individuals will always take control. I may not know much about history, but I knowthat ."

"Of course," the Doctor said, walking over to join Steven by the window. "Let one man have power, and it goes to his head. Government by an unelected, unaccountable group of shadowy figures is, when you look at it dispassionately, quite an elegant solution." He gazed out across St Mark's Square, the light from the flambeaux flickering across his angular, lined face. "A typically Venetian solution. Never let anybody become too popular with the people."

"And if they do?" Steven asked.

The Doctor turned to gaze at Steven. His eyes were a sharp, penetrating blue. They seemed much younger than the rest of his face. "There is a Venetian saying," he murmured, nodding his head towards the body hanging from the pillar. "The Council of Ten send you to the torture chamber; the Council of Three send you to the grave"

Steven swallowed. "I think," he said, "that I'm going to go out for a breath of fresh air."

The salon was the only room in the house save the kitchen that contained no books. It was plain, its walls furnished only with a tapestry showing a golden lion confronting a group of robed merchants. As Braxiatel entered, an ordinary man, of medium height and unremarkable appearance turned from the window that overlooked the canal.

"What news, Szaratak?" Braxiatel asked.

"The Doctor has arrived," Szaratak replied. "He landed on an island out in the lagoon with two companions. I followed them to the city. The last thing I saw was them making friends with the local guards."

"Good, I was beginning to worry that our people hadn't passed the invitation on to him." Braxiatel smiled slightly. You could always count on the Doctor to arrive in the right place, give or take a few miles, at the right time, give or take a few days. His approximateness was one of his few endearing qualities. "Have you made contact?"

"Of course I didn't make contact!" Szaratak snarled. "You said you would rather do it yourself. If you wanted me to make contact then why didn't you say so?"

"Calm down. You did right: there's no sense worrying the poor chap unduly." Braxiatel turned towards the door, then turned back. "Oh, and you may as well turn the hologuise projector off. We don't want to waste the batteries."

The man reached down to his hip and fiddled with something hidden. As Braxiatel watched, the man's body shimmered and faded away. Within seconds, a stick-thin alien with a rapier-like horn and mottled blue skin covered with bumps was standing before him.

"You weren't seen, were you?" Braxiatel said. "It would scupper our plans completely if anybody saw you in your true form."

"No," Szaratak snarled, "I wasn't seen."

Steven had never seen anything like Venice before. He walked its alleys as if he were in a dream, trying to forget the rotting body dangling from the pillar, letting his feet take him where they would. The Doctor had assured him that it was impossible to get lost in the city. All one had to do was to ask any passer-by the way to St Mark's Square. He hoped that the Doctor was right. There were certainly enough people to ask. Crowds thronged the place, dressed in everything from rags to silk robes.

The haphazard arrangement of the alleys amazed him. They followed no plan or pattern, running in random directions and narrowing or widening for ho apparent reason, terminating in taverns, restaurants, houses or just dead ends. Sometimes they crossed dark, glittering canals that stank of sewage, sometimes they ran parallel to them. The canals seemed to form an alternate means of transportation: a second Venice that lived beside the first. Black gondolas with gilded prows floated along them, curtains fluttering at the windows of their cabins. They looked like chrysalises for coffins.

Steven marvelled at the bright colours and exotic smells as he walked along narrow thoroughfares, down winding streets and through leaning arches and across bridges made of wood or stone. He ended up, out of breath, sitting on a flight of stone steps which had been smoothed into curves by generations of feet. He felt dazed by the labyrinthine geography, and he had lost all track of time. Venice didn't seem to sleep.

A cat sprawled on the steps above. Venetians and travellers from other countries ignored him as they walked past, as if he occupied a different but parallel universe to theirs, perhaps. He shook his head. All he needed was a good night's sleep in a soft bed, and he'd be as right as rain. This place was no more alien than the other places, times and planets he'd visited.

He patted the cat on the head, pulled himself to his feet and caught hold of the sleeve of a passing woman. "Excuse me," he said, "but which way is St Mark's Square?"

The woman pointed down a narrow and empty alley. "Merely straight ahead," she said, and pulled herself free of his grip. Within moments she had vanished into the crowd.

Steven shrugged, and pushed his way across the flow of pedestrians and into the alley. It was unlit. He wasn't sure about this. He wasn't sure at all. For a moment he considered turning back and following the tide of people, but then the Doctor's advice came back to him. Sighing, he headed on down the alley.

After five minutes the alley had narrowed to the point where he had to walk sideways. He was about to turn back in disgust when he was disgorged onto the bank of a canal washed white by the light of the moon. The mouth of the alley behind him was just a narrow slit in the wall, almost indistinguishable from the brick if he hadn't known what to look for. Across the canal rose a sheer cliff-face of houses, their windows shuttered against the night. To his left was a bridge over the canal, and to his right -

He caught his breath and glanced around. There was nobody in sight: the embankment on both sides of the canal was empty. He listened hard, but he could hear nothing. No talking, no movement, nothing apart from the sigh of the faint lap, lap, lap of water against stone and the moan of the wind getting lost in the canyon-like alleys.

Steven looked again to his right, where a body was lying crumpled up on the stone embankment. Ribbons of blood curled away from it, seeking out the cracks between the stones and trickling towards the canal.

Catching his breath, he crouched down beside the body and cautiously felt for a pulse, but the skin was cold and his hand came away sticky and dark with blood.

"Brilliant," he sighed. "I knew we shouldn't have accepted that invitation."

Something scraped against stone behind him.