I’m running as fast as I can, but I can’t catch the thief. If I don’t, Alex’s life is over. The necklace the thief snatched from my hand gives away the game. Alex will be exposed. Locked up. Maybe even killed because Alex’s father, Francesco Barbanegra, has the temper and manners of a pirate. Alex’s family is rich. Very, very rich. Richer than most nobles. But they are common, like my family, which consists of my mother, who takes in laundry. She gets paid in pennies. I understand why she wants me to be ballot boy, but that’s her dream not mine. I don’t want to be ballot boy. I want to be me, whoever that is.
Only heartbeats ago, Alex and I had moored our boat to the wharf and staggered ashore, covered with mud. When Alex took off the necklace to give me—the gold dolphin on its golden chain, ruby eye glinting in the early light—the thief burst from the shed, yanked it from my hand, and took off like a demon down the deserted embankment.
“Go home,” I shouted to Alex over my shoulder, “before it’s too late,” and I tore after the thief.
The dolphin is fatal. If the thief tries to sell it at a Rialto pawnshop, the whole world will know. I can’t risk it.
Our feet slap on the mud, startling a flock of ducks. They flap their wings, burst up from the salt marsh, and take to the icy winter sky.
The thief is taller than most Venetians, with long spindly legs, no shoes, and a striped turban. He doesn’t look down; he doesn’t look back. He barrels down the embankment in the direction of the Customs House. My legs are a foot shorter than his, his stride worth two of mine. I suck air like I’m drowning and exhale prayers like I’m dying.
Queen of Heaven, hear my pleas. St. Nicholas, grant me thine aid.
When I manage to close the gap between us, he speeds up. No matter how fast I’m going, he goes faster. He clutches the gold chain in his fist, the dolphin dangling free, its ruby eye sparkling.
That dolphin is a pledge of brotherhood between Alex and me, the seal on our secrets, and a promise that I won’t be selected ballot boy because if I am, last night was our final meeting, maybe forever.
“Please, Nico.” Alex’s eyes had implored me, and I could never refuse. “You’ve been on the sea many times. I’m thirteen years old, and my father owns great galleys, but I’ve never seen the sea. This could be my last chance.”
“It’s not your last chance.”
“If you’re selected, it is.”
“Look at me. Do you think Ruggiero Gradenigo would pick me? I look like a muddy clown.”
“Anything can happen.”
Alex’s pleading eyes broke me every time.
Stars filled the sky, and the moon, hovering high above the mountains beyond the lagoon, sprinkled diamonds over the water. I’d been explaining the lagoon to Alex, showing off, I guess, paying no attention to the tide. I didn’t notice the moon pulling the lagoon out from under us until stranded fish danced a desperate tarantella on the exposed sandbars. A mile of mud separated us from the beacon fire atop St. Mark’s campanile. We jumped from the boat and sank up to our knees. We couldn’t walk, nor could we reach the shore until the morning tide swept back in and filled the lagoon. Alex would never get home without being discovered; I would never be in St. Mark’s Square in time for the selection, and my mother would kill me.
I breathe in, out, in, out, in, out, pushing myself harder and harder until I hit a wall and explode and pick myself up and keep going until it happens all over again. The thief took one look at the stupid costume Mama had sewn me for selection day, all torn and wet and muddy, and he must have figured me for a drunk noble, a pushover. Mama is convinced the costume will make Ruggiero Gradenigo select me. She believes in magic. Her eye is on the prize.
He’s waiting for me to collapse, this thief. He’s making a big mistake. He doesn’t know that every day since I turned eight, six years now, I row across the lagoon and back before the midmorning bells, and I will kill him if I have to.
He makes a move to outrun me on the straightaway in front of the old shipyard. We pound over rough planks, wobbly pontoons, and a muddy bog tangled with bramble. I’m glad he’s barefoot. It must hurt like hell. He can hear my sandals slapping the ground.
The buildings crowd close along the levee. The bogs and brambles disappear under wooden docks and wharves. Merchant galleys and cogs are moored all the way to the Customs House. The ground tapers to a point where the Giudecca Canal meets the Grand Canal. Keeping running and your turban floats.
He hasn’t lost me, so he squeezes between buildings with barely a foot between them, and I follow, the mortar between the bricks shredding my tunic.
The big bell at St. Mark’s, the Marangona, starts tolling to summon the Great Council to pray for God’s grace on the election of the doge. All 1,200 nobles are members of the Great Council. Their names are inscribed in the Golden Book. After Mass, Ruggiero Gradenigo, the youngest member of the Great Council, will walk out of the church, onto St. Mark’s Square, and pick the first commoner he lays eyes on, age fifteen or less, to be the ballot boy. That’s the law. The old doge is dead, and we can’t elect a new one until a ballot boy is selected at random to count the votes and make sure the nobles don’t cheat.
I squeeze out of the crawlspace and glimpse the thief’s turban disappearing down a dark lane the sun never reaches. Several lanes lead into this small square; all but one dead end at the water. He doesn’t know where he’s going and probably doesn’t care as long as he stays ahead of me. He’s as desperate as I am. My heart beats a battle tocsin.
I struggle to master my breath as Abdul taught me. I’m dog-tired from fighting the moon, the tide, the mud. Sweat floods my face. The salt burns my eyes. I wipe them with my muddy sleeve, squeeze them shut, and listen. This quarter is silent. Everyone is at St. Mark’s for the selection.
The thief’s bare feet, bloodied from running the embankment, leave a trail winding through a labyrinth that will lead him back to me. That’s how Venice is. Outsiders always go in circles, even we do occasionally outside our home parish.
The old doge died last week. He didn’t last very long; he was eighty-two when they elected him back in 1365. That’s old even for a doge. I was twelve then. Mama knew I was going to be selected his ballot boy. She’d worked it all out with the Blessed Virgin and St. Mark. She took to bed for a week when I wasn’t selected, but she never gave up. She started praying for the new doge to die before my fifteenth birthday. I heard her, every night. First, she prayed forgiveness for wanting him dead. Then, she begged heaven for him to die. Now, she believes a miracle has happened. I’m going to be ballot boy. She knows. The Virgin interceded.
If I’m not in front of St. Mark’s when Ruggiero Gradenigo selects the ballot boy, I will be dead to her. She will curse me for spoiling her miracle.
The thief backs into the little square. He doesn’t see me. He sees a glint of sun on water at the end of a narrow chasm of brick. He takes off toward the water, and I get there first, waiting, as he staggers onto the wharf. On the opposite bank, mothers and their sons clog St. Mark’s Square, tricked out like piglets at the Ascension Day fair, each one praying for the job I don’t want.
The thief ducks between the pilings of the empty ferry dock. None of the ferries, trapped on the water, can move for all the other boats. Nobody is going anywhere. Every eye will remain on the Doge’s Palace until a new doge is elected. Venice is the richest city of all; the stakes are high. Mama says anything can happen.
I charge, pin the thief against a striped pole stuck in the Grand Canal, and grab for the dolphin in his hand. But he twists free and hurls himself off the dock, crashing into a boat below. The boat rocks wildly, the passengers scream, he steadies himself. Before anyone knows what’s happening, he leaps into the next boat, and the next, and the next. As fast as he can, he bounds across St. Mark’s Basin toward the twin columns at the water’s edge framing the Doge’s Palace, St. Mark’s Church, and the greatest square in the world. Executions and burnings take place between the columns, and walking between them brings a curse upon your head, which is why we call them the Columns of Doom. I saw a murderer executed there when I was seven. They chopped off his hand first, in San Barnaba Square, where he’d killed someone, strung his hand around his neck, and rowed him back here. They hung him, quartered him, and left the pieces out to dry here between the columns.
I jump from boat to boat to boat after the thief. People squawk, but I’m out as fast as I’m in, never stopping, my eye always on his bobbing turban. He scrambles up between the columns and pushes his way toward St. Mark’s Square through the bodies packing the Piazzetta.
The church doors aren’t open yet. The thief towers above the mothers and sons, his turban threading through the Piazzetta toward the church. Arsenal men in leather armor hold the crowd back, creating some space for Ruggiero Gradenigo to come out and pick. Mothers fight for places directly in front of the church.
The big bell tolls.
Mass is finished. The crowd surges forward, a wave of anticipation silencing them. The stones beneath our feet vibrate with the wild clangor of bells.
He made a big mistake, and now he sees just how big. Bodies block him on all sides. I elbow my way through the crush as the church doors swing open. The crowd gasps. Out of the corner of my eye, I see Mama desperately looking for me. She’s furious I’m not up-front and center with her.
I leapfrog a tangled knot of eight-year-olds and their mothers, grasping for the thief’s throat. He panics and hurls the dolphin over the crowd. I vault, twist, and grab the dolphin out of the air by its chain. I can’t land on my feet. I come down sideways, rolling over bodies onto the cleared pavement. The guards can’t stop me.