The Prisoner of Paradise
A 400 Year Old Murder
The world’s largest oil painting. A 400-year-old murder. A disembodied whisper: “Amore mio.” My love.
Nick and Julia O’Connor’s dream trip to Venice collapses when a haunting voice reaches out to Nick from Tintoretto’s Paradise, a monumental depiction of Heaven. Convinced his delusions are the result of a concussion, Julia insists her husband see a doctor, though Nick is adamant the voice was real.
Blacking out in the museum, Nick flashes back to a life as a 16th century Venetian peasant swordsman. He recalls precisely who the voice belongs to: Isabella Scalfini, a married aristocrat he was tasked to seduce but with whom he instead found true love. A love stolen from them hundreds of years prior.
She implores Nick to liberate her from a powerful order of religious vigilantes who judge and sentence souls to the canvas for eternity. Releasing Isabella also means unleashing thousands of other imprisoned souls, all of which the order claims are evil.
As infatuation with a possible hallucination clouds his commitment to a present-day wife, Nick’s past self takes over. Wracked with guilt, he can no longer allow Isabella to remain tormented, despite the consequences. He must right an age-old wrong – destroy the painting and free his soul mate. But the order will eradicate anyone who threatens their ethereal prison and their control over Venice.
The ballroom of the recently completed Palazzo Balbi was luxurious, with a high, painted ceiling and crystal chandelier hanging at its center. Along each side wall, long tables draped with fine ivory linen showcased silver platters bearing sausages, breads, smoked sea bass, and hens stuffed with pickled vegetables, all set amidst juniper and candles. Actors in a manger scene with a sheep and a cage of four songbirds welcomed guests at the entry, and an oversized fireplace warmed the whole space from the far wall. A quintet of string musicians and a trumpeter entertained the guests with an upbeat melody from a balcony.
The song ended, and the musicians played the opening notes of the bassadanza. Revelers cleared the center of the room, and men approached ladies, escorting them back to the dance floor.
Knowing the steps, Angelo could’ve asked any lady there to dance, yet he felt no compulsion to do so with those present, as attractive as they were. Being from another class, he found such opulence quite distasteful. He was painfully aware that a short distance away, communities were comprised of tattered garments and calloused hands.
Angelo wished this were a masquerade. He had never attended one and heard of the decadent nights filled with lust and sin. It wasn’t to engage in scandalous activities that he wanted a mask but simply for the freedom of anonymity.
Crowds did not unnerve him. He had always been a social person, always personable, always polite. Of late, he’d grown more accustomed to mixing with members of higher society. He found most of them harmless and charming. The prominent women made him smile while they’d clasp his arm muscles and laugh flirtatiously. No, it wasn’t the event itself that made him ill at ease.
Two gentlemen approached Angelo. He was acquainted with them both, but not well. Vito Uccello, an eagle-like man, always had a look of displeasure and the potential for unprovoked intimidation. At his side was the crow-like Ivan Uccello, a slight man with swiftly moving dark eyes and a perpetual scowl. The Bird Brothers had sent the surprise invitation.
Though Vito and Ivan held the key to a promising future, each meeting with them felt as though maggots swarmed his body.
“Siòr Mascari,” Ivan said, his skin flush from drink. He scrutinized Angelo’s attire with a frown. “Do you not own another doublet?”
“I have my leather for dueling.”
“No, that would be more inappropriate.” He extended his large hand. “Even dressed as you are, we’re pleased you could attend Siòr Balbi’s little soiree.”
“Gratitude for the invitation. Happy Christmas to you both,” Angelo said, swallowing the shame of his wardrobe. He matched Vito’s enthusiastic handshake, then received Ivan’s.
“Leave it to Balbi to host a Fourth Day of Christmas Ball,” said Vito with a snicker. “Lovely affair, but likely not a lasting trend.”
“It’s my first ball for any day of Christmas, or any occasion,” Angelo replied. He wished he hadn’t refused the Pucinum that passed by earlier. At the time, he thought it better to abstain from drink. Now, he longed for it. The refreshing bubbles would’ve soothed his drying throat.
“Based on your performance at the tournament, you’ll be invited to many others. You’ll be competing in the European circuit in a few years.”
Angelo laughed with more ease than he felt. “I should hope it won’t take that long.”
“Come, we want you to meet someone.” Ivan gestured to the side of the ballroom.
The brothers guided Angelo to the opposite end of the dance area.
“There,” Vito said, gesturing to a small group of women engaged in animated conversation.
Each was dressed in the finest fashion of the day, their hair and skin powdered, their bosoms rising invitingly. They cooled themselves with painted folding fans. Angelo was a lover of women, but these ladies reminded him of porcelain dolls.
The men stopped within earshot, allowing Angelo to eavesdrop.
“It hadn’t been such an affair since the death of Veronese,” said the blonde in the deep green and gold gown.
“The heretic? If only the Great Plague had taken him.” Another blonde in a yellow dress who towered above her friends fanned the back of her neck. Angelo assumed the chopines she wore beneath her dress far exceeded the legal height limit.
“Violetta, please. Why must you always bring up such horrors?” asked a lady with her back to Angelo. She wore a silk lavender gown beneath auburn hair, styled in a crown braid and garland.
“The horror is that he painted buffoons, dwarves, and absurdities alongside the Holy Spirit,” Violetta said.
“The Feast at the House of Levi,” the auburn-haired lady said, “is a breathtaking treasure of our most serene city. Veronese’s work and name shall live forever.” Her voice wasn’t tinged with a prickly singsong like that of other noblewomen. It had a sweetness that aroused memories of Angelo’s mother’s pinza cake. It was a voice he could taste—and his mouth watered for more.
Ivan nudged, grinned, and winked at Angelo. “Siòra Scalfini,” he called.
The beauty with auburn locks turned as the three men approached the group.
Angelo’s breath caught in his throat. Siòra Scalfini differed dramatically from her friends. Her flawless olive skin was not powdered white. Her eyes smiled. They were sparkling, like polished marble, offering a reflection of himself in her dark pupils. But they weren’t marble—they were alive and vibrant, twinkling with innocence and sensuality simultaneously. Her glance pierced his soul. Angelo was overcome by her radiance.
Ivan prodded him and flourished his hand in introduction. “May I present Angelo Mascari, the finest young swordsman in La Serenissima.”
The woman bowed her lashes and extended her gloved hand. Angelo took it and brought it to his lips. The embroidered white leather smelled exquisitely floral but with a stronger scent mixed in, possibly cinnamon or pepper.
“I am enchanted, my lady,” said Angelo.
Her eyes widened. “Are you suggesting I am a witch, sir?”
“That I can enchant you with a spell?” Isabella continued in a solemn tone.
“My lady, no.” Angelo stumbled for the words. “I meant—”
“How he blushes,” Isabella said, giggling along with her friends. “At ease, my good man. I only tease.”
She locked eyes with Angelo over their joined hands. He swayed back. Her contemplation of him felt deeply intimate, though a moment prior she had been playfully mocking him.
A pleasurable sort of queasiness rolled through Angelo’s gut. He was reluctant to release her fingers, but Ivan tugged at his sleeve.
“There you are.” A loud voice resonated from behind the group. Renzo Scalfini took his place at his wife’s side.
Ashamed, Angelo dropped her hand at once.
“Siòr Mascari,” said Ivan. “Allow me to introduce Siòr Renzo Scalfini.”
Angelo fought to regain his composure. “Happy Christmas, siòr,” he managed, extending his hand to Renzo.
Renzo narrowed his eyes, not reciprocating the salutation. “This is the swordsman you were squealing like washer girls about?” he asked Vito and Ivan.
Vito laughed off the insult. “One of the Republic’s most promising. He’s in need of a sponsor. Are you not, Angelo?”
“It would be an honor,” he said to Renzo.
“I think not,” Renzo snapped. “You speak of honor, yet you have none.”
In addition to being a novelist, Rob Samborn is a screenwriter, entrepreneur and avid traveler. He’s been to forty countries, lived in five of them and studied nine languages. As a restless spirit who can’t remember the last time he was bored, Rob is on a quest to explore the intricacies of our world and try his hand at a multitude of crafts; he’s also an accomplished artist and musician, as well as a budding furniture maker. A native New Yorker who lived in Los Angeles for twenty years, he now makes his home in Denver with his wife, daughter and dog.