In this exciting sequel to “The Ballot Boy,” disaster threatens Nico as neighboring Padua launches an undeclared war on Venice. Mistrustful of diplomats and spies, the doge dispatches Nico on a secret mission to the court of King Louis of Hungary to gauge the king’s support of Padua.
The doge also drafts Donato Venturi, the greatest swordsman in Venice, nicknamed Black Hercules, as Nico’s adviser and bodyguard. It’s love at first sight for Nico, but he knows nothing about Donato, the son of a Venetian noble and a princess of Mali. Assuming Donato is straight, Nico guards his feelings until an unlikely encounter at the Prior of Brotherly Love proves otherwise.
The pair steal moments together, but the declaration of war changes everything. Cutthroat political struggles with his own nobles keep the doge busy in Venice as Nico again confronts the carnage of battle, testing his cunning. This brings him face-to-face with his nemeses, Ruggiero and Marcantonio Gradenigo, forcing an unplanned rescue of his soulmate, Alex.
When the war goes disastrously for Venice, the fate of the Serene Republic hangs on the will of the doge and the skills of Nico and Donato. Desperate to defeat Padua and drive out the Hungarian invaders, they risk all in a final gambit to checkmate in three. In love as in war, winning and losing aren’t what they seem.
I’M SAFE AS long as I’m rowing. No enemy has ever successfully breached the mercurial lagoon surrounding Venice on all sides. For three glorious miles I row free, my stroke easy and automatic. I spent my youth on the lagoon until, at fourteen years and nine months of age, I was randomly selected ballot boy against my will and inclination. Taken from my mother, from my friends, from my home, and installed in the palace with the doge as my boss, my rowing time turned into riding and Latin lessons. I still ache at times for an oar in my hands and a breeze riffling my long black hair.READ MORE
“Midway between the Doge’s Palace and Marghera, one of our ports on terrafirma, with the sun in my eyes and the scent of the lagoon in my nose, I savor a moment of sweet peace before embarking on my new mission. Our neighbor and enemy, Lord Francesco Carrara of Padua, regularly burns our farms and plunders our mainland towns. Our amorphous shoreline teems with crooks, assassins, and spies. I don’t wear a sword because I wouldn’t know how to use one, but my crossbow is at hand, and my dagger hangs at my waist with a special kiss of poison along its razor-sharp edge. I’m rowing to meet a man I’ve never seen in a place I have never been. Serenissimo assured me I needn’t worry, that I would know him straight off, and I trust any man stamped with the doge’s imprimatur. He rides from Treviso fortress, ours, to meet me at the inn by the tower of Marghera at Vespers.
I tether my boat in the shadow of the three-story brick watchtower, the lower course of obvious Roman origin. The Romans never ventured onto the marshy islands of the lagoon, confining themselves to solid ground.
“Fishermen’s huts clustered at the base of the tower enclose a crude square deserted in the late afternoon. The tower looms overhead, a rook on a chessboard spreading from Carrara Castle in Padua to St. Mark’s Square. At the back of the square, outside the inn, three men—desperados, mercenaries, or thugs—watch me approach with an unhealthy interest. None of them looks likely to be Donato Venturi. I place my hand on my dagger to show them I mean business. The doge’s ring glints on my finger. Those who respect the power of the doge see the ring as a talisman; those who don’t see only a large chunk of gold. One more step and I clearly pick out the splayed red carts, the carros of the Carrara, on their blood- and mud-spattered tunics.
“Aw, ain’t he pretty?”
“You heard about those Venetian butt boys. Better than women, they say.”
As I unsheathe my dagger, three longswords lunge at me, their wielders laughing at the notion that a dagger could protect me from them. I stumble backward, catch myself, stand as tall as possible, and hold up the doge’s ring. “Arms down in the name of His Exalted Serenity, the Doge of Venice.”
“Exalted Fucking Asshole, that one. Old Contarini got no weenie.”
I raise my dagger, knowing something they don’t know. They snigger and slash, making their steel blades sing. I cannot possibly nick all three with my blade before they cut my hands off, so I retreat. One of them slip-slides into my space, swinging. The point of his blade slices my doublet, stinging my skin. I swipe with my dagger, desperate to break his skin and deliver the poison kiss, but he flips his sword, grips the blade with his gauntlets, and swings it, braining me with the pommel. I fly backward to general laughter, rolling away as the disrespectful thugs advance to skewer me for the fun of it.
They don’t notice until their heads turn, following mine, and by then it’s too late. A whirlwind of dust whips toward the square delivering an armed soldier on a lathered white destrier showering foam. He swoops in and circles the Paduans, freeing me to sheathe my dagger and scramble to the boat for my crossbow, but before I can, he disarms all three in a shower of blood. He doesn’t kill them, but he may as well have.
He jumps off his destrier, which stands still as a statue behind him, grips my hand in his gauntlet, and yanks me to my feet.
“Are you hurt?”
“Only my pride.”
The Man with the Sapphire Eyes
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Two Venetian men fall in love while battling the city-state’s enemies in Mellman’s rollicking medieval romance novel.
In 1371, the Republic of Venice is threatened by a potential alliance between the loathsome Lord Francesco Carrara of Padua (who is pillaging Venetian territory and illegally selling salt below the customary price) and the arrogant King Louis of Hungary (who covets the Venetian-held town of Treviso). Centering the story are Niccolò Saltano, a 17-year-old aide to His Exalted Serenity, the Doge of Venice and the finest crossbowman in Venice, and Donato Venturi, the son of a Venetian nobleman and an enslaved Malian princess—hence his fetching combination of brown skin and sapphire blue eyes—and the finest swordsman in Venice. On a spy mission to Louis’ court, the duo dispatch bandits, kill a wild boar, save Louis from a bear attack, and then slaughter the assassins he treacherously assigns to murder them. Along the way they are taken in by the monks of Saint Mary’s, who encourage them, after much spiritual counseling, to consummate their mounting sexual attraction in the priory’s grotto. Back in Venice, Niccolò and Donato enter the thick of the ensuing war with Padua and Hungary as they formulate strategy, lead troops in battle, are captured and escape, and investigate conspirators selling state secrets to the enemy. They also delve into the murky activities of Niccolò’s monstrous father, Marcantonio Gradenigo, who raped Niccolò’s mother—and raped and killed Donato’s mother as well—and is now posing as the Augustinian monk Brother Bernardo as he plots with a cabal of disgruntled nobles to overthrow the Republic and place Niccolò’s odious half brother, Ruggiero Gradenigo, on the Doge’s throne. With all of that on their plates, Niccolò and Donato still find plenty of time for lengthy, graphic sexual trysts.
Mellman’s period adventure feels a bit like a gay take on Othello without the madness or much jealousy, featuring sharply etched characters (“He speaks with precision and supreme authority,” Niccolò observes of Louis, though “[h]is lips, full and pendulous, fill me with repugnance”) and rousing, well-staged action scenes (“I plunge my blade into his exposed flank, twisting to force him to his knees, raging and helpless as I stomp him flat, pinion him with my boots, and with every ounce of strength in my being, plunge my sword into his heart again and again”). With pungent, evocative prose, Mellman immerses readers in a fine re-creation of medieval life and worldviews, especially the centrality of Catholicism, whether in ecstatic devotion (“Christ ascendant hovers majestically in the golden dome above our heads, where sunlight pours through the windows of the transepts over the gold tiles framing the last scenes of Christ’s earthly journey,” Niccolò notes while gazing at St. Mark’s Cathedral) or in earthy, Chaucerian observations of social mores (“Between here and Trieste, I know every village with a humble church, a stingy bishop, and a bawdy housewife with plenty of hay in the barn and a spare penny for a knuckle from the little toe of St. Agnes of Todi,” chuckles a mendicant friar Niccolò and Donato meet on the road). This captivating period saga mixes precise, colorful details with epic sweep.
A richly textured picaresque full of adventure, intrigue, and erotic passion.