PROLOGUE: Ospedalle de la Pieta, Republic of Venice, 1728.
He who has understood, let him understand--
My face has changed, Ogier, but don’t you know me?
Yes, I know you.
You are the author of my misfortune
And the source of my joy.
Bendetto Marcello chewed on the end of his pen. He crossed and uncrossed his ankles. He craned his neck to look out the window, but the gondola gliding by in the canal outside was too thoroughly ordinary to provide much of a distraction.
He looked back at his writing desk. The libretto Francesca had fetched for him was still there. So were the blank sheets of paper, already lined with musical staves, waiting to be written upon.
When he was a young man, Benedetto had written a single opera, in Rome. He had poured his soul into it, and it had flopped spectacularly. Of course that had nothing to do with the fact that Benedetto had spent his subsequent career indoctrinating his composition students against the evils of the genre: the improbable content, the absurd casting choices, and the universal dominion of the illiterate singer.
Now, against his better judgment, Benedetto had been persuaded to try his hand at the damned genre again, and he could not write a note.
Who could be blamed? Francesca Mara, the best singing student he had ever had, who delighted in the worst clichés of the stage, but had the voice and the acting instincts to almost override Bendetto’s disapproval. Yes, Francesca was partly responsible for this wretched turn of events.
But of course the true culprit was Rosanna. Rosanna Scalfi, who had begun her career singing in gondolas, who had refused a part in this very opera, even though it was she who had changed everything. In his secret soul, Benedetto knew that what he felt for Rosanna must, when put into words, very closely resemble the most hackneyed verses ever sung by operatic lovers—and it was that knowledge, more than anything, that made him feel he might really be able to write for the theater again.
“Of course I’m not going to sing in your opera,” she had told him, patiently. “We both know why our marriage has to be secret—but I don’t want people thinking I’m only your mistress. And besides, I am quite talented enough to get work of my own.”
Benedetto had been tempted to say that, as Rosanna’s husband—secret or not—it was his Christian duty to be make sure she was provided for. But that was the sort of thing Rosanna only laughed at, and he was learning.
He gathered up the pages of the libretto. Today, he had been too distracted. There would be time tomorrow. He would ask Rosanna for advice, and he would write a splendid opera, and all would be well.
Benedetto did not so much as glance at the gondolier as he stepped into the boat and gave directions for Rosanna’s apartment. The best thing about living in Venice was that the gondoliers were a discreet bunch—bound by oath to secrecy about the doings of their passengers. Gondoliers who spread rumors tended to turn up dead in the canals, slain by their own brethren.
Benedetto was so busy thinking about dead gondoliers that he did not notice anything out of the ordinary until the man’s hands closed around his throat. He thrashed, but could not get free. The world went dark around him.
San Francisco, USA, 2002.
The season subscription to San Francisco Opera had been Brian’s idea, even though it had been paid for with Grace’s money. Grace still remembered how, in the flush of new love, she had somehow been persuaded that Bizet’s Carmen would make a great date—and she remembered biting her tongue when Brian waxed lyrical over dessert afterwards, about the great tragedy of Fate that brought about poor Carmen’s death.
As far as Grace had been concerned, Carmen’s death was unambiguously the responsibility of Don Abusive Boyfriend—and if there was a superhuman, driving force at work in the opera, Grace was pretty sure it was just sordid patriarchy, not inexorable Fate.
Grace hadn’t said any of that at the time, but she sure as hell wished she had. In retrospect, she wished she had said a lot of things.
Opera with Brian had been one long series of almost acceptable compromises. Grace liked opera—that is, she liked old-fashioned stories with singing. Unlike Brian, she wasn’t wild about librettos like Carmen or Madam Butterfly, with their blatantly racist stereotypes and sexist assumptions. And she liked looking nice when she went out, too—but she had always thought Brian’s expectations that she wear jewelry and a gown were a bit silly, when she knew it would be perfectly acceptable to wear slacks.
Opera by herself, now that Brian was gone (and good riddance), was very different. Grace wore jeans if she felt like it. She brought her friends from the lab, when they had time, and she went on her own when they didn’t. And she gave herself permission to zone out and think about other things, if the plot of the night was too ridiculous, or too dated, to grab her sympathy.
By the time the season was over, she found she had been really enjoying herself. She renewed the subscription.
Tonight’s show was the premiere of a new Baroque production, revived for the first time in modern memory. If Grace had planned ahead she would have read the program notes more carefully—at the moment, she was pretty sure the young countertenor shepherd was in disguise, but she couldn’t remember who he was actually supposed to be—but for the moment she was content to just listen. The fake shepherd was surrounded by ridiculously frolicking sheep.
You are a queen, I am a shepherd
Trying to guide my flock
And defend them from bears.
Grace was wondering if there was a mistake in the translation—weren’t sheep typically defended from wolves?—when suddenly, over the noise of the orchestra, she heard the familiar, wheezing sound of a whale hitting the brakes.
The singer flickered and disappeared behind a sturdy blue box. The door of the box swung open, and Grace cracked up.
It was the Doctor.
Palazzo Barbaro, Venice, Italy, 1886.
It had never occurred to Vernon that taking Mary Wakefield to an extremely fancy dinner party might be a good way to get over her dreadful culte for the woman, but as she watched Mary’s elbow edge ever closer to her neighbor’s wine glass, Vernon thought she ought to have tried it sooner. In the polite company of Ariana Curtis’ gracious dining room, Mary Wakefield became like the proverbial bull in the china shop. Actually, Mary made the bull seem elegant.
But the real trouble, thought Vernon, as she listened to the tinkle of breaking glass, the real trouble with Miss Wakefield was not that she was a bull, but that she did not mind being one. Mary did not blush when the wine glass fell, shattered, and splashed its contents all over John Sargent’s lap. Quite the opposite: she laughed, with her bold, fortissimo voice, until even John forgot to be annoyed and laughed with her.
“I am so, so sorry,” said Marion Terry, in an infuriatingly proprietary tone, as she surrendered her own napkin to John, who took it gracefully. “I really can’t take her anywhere.”
Vernon glared into her own unbroken but unfortunately empty glass. She despised Marion Terry—and John, who ought to have been her ally, was actually smiling at the woman, as though he and she had something uncommon.
“Pardon me,” said the gentleman next to Vernon, “but is that young, ah, lady the same Miss Wakefield whom Mrs. Curtis asked to sing this evening?”
“Yes,” said Vernon, smirking at him approvingly. “Don’t worry, she’s better at singing than dining.” Mary Wakefield was a very good singer indeed.
The gentleman laughed in a way that made Vernon almost wonder if she had said that last sentence aloud. She peered at him curiously.
“I don’t think we’ve been introduced. I’m Violet Paget—you might know me as Vernon Lee?”
“The young writer, of course,” said the man. “You may call me Maestro Magnus.”
“The great composer?” said Vernon, surprised. Her brain felt suddenly fuzzy, and she wondered about the wine.
“The very same,” he said. “Miss Paget, I’ve read your book on eighteenth-century opera. It was…most informative.”
“That was one of my goals,” said Vernon. She tried to remember what she knew about the composer Magnus. She knew she held his work in high esteem, but her mind had gone curiously blank. Had he written a string quartet?
“Oh, yes,” said Magnus. “Actually I am writing an opera of my own, although it tends more towards Wagner than Handel.”
“That’s quite understandable,” said Vernon, although she could not quite suppress a shudder of distaste. “One must change with the times, after all.”
“Yes,” said Magnus, “one really must.”
Now that she knew her dining companion was a Wagnerite (how disappointing!), Vernon could not help but let her attention wander. There was nothing more dull than a conversation about modern music with someone who took the wretched stuff really seriously.
The first week of Vernon’s stay had been dull. She had been to Venice once before and enjoyed it enormously—but this time, Vernon found it easier to gaze pathetically at her friend Mary Wakefield than to gawp at the sights of the city. It was a great shame, and a terrible waste, since Mary Wakefield was altogether too preoccupied with Marion Terry to return any of Vernon’s longing glances.
Still, ever since Mrs. Curtis had invited Vernon to stay with her family at the Palazzo Barbaro—instead of at drab, lonely Danieli’s—life had been looking decidedly rosier. Vernon knew many of Mrs. Curtis’ distinguished guests already (Vernon and John Sargent, for example, had been intimate friends since childhood) but she loved meeting Mrs. Curtis’ more obscure acquaintances, like Maestro Magnus, or that eccentric old Italian, Count Alvise, who was always telling amusingly implausible stories about his ancestors.
Count Alvise was at it again, in fact, and the gullible Marion Terry was lapping it up.
“My dear,” said Alvise, with an unsubtle leer, “how can you not have heard of my poor grand aunt, a relation on my mother’s side? Why, she lived in this very house, dined in this very room! But not for long…”
Alvise glanced around the table, obviously hoping to gather an audience. Several of the guests obliged—and Vernon was surprised to see that Maestro Magnus, whom she had pegged as rather above this sort of thing, was gazing at the Count with rapt attention.
“Her name was Modesta Valier, before she married Almorò Barbaro, the powerful Procuratore. Poor Modesta was still a young bride when she came under the spell of a devilish singer, the notorious Zaffirino. Zaffirino’s voice was of such surpassing beauty that all the women of Venice had already fallen passionately in love with him—but not my grand aunt. Oh no. Her heart was ruled by courage and virtue.
“Courage and virtue,” said Alvise, again. He could never resist repeating the last word of a sentence. It was a tedious habit.
“Pray, continue,” said Maestro Magnus, encouragingly. Count Alvise spared him a gratified glance.
“My grand aunt had heard rumors of Zaffirino’s powers, and she did not wish to succumb to temptation—so she refused to go to the opera to hear him sing. Zaffirino discovered this, and was greatly offended. He had famously boasted that his first song could make any woman turn pale and lower her eyes, the second make her fall madly in love, while the third song could kill her off on the spot, kill her for love, there under his very eyes, if he only felt inclined. Zaffirino could not endure to be ignored, not even by such a powerful woman as the Procuratessa. Since she would not go to him in the theater, he took the opportunity, one evening at a large assembly, to sing in her presence. He sang and sang and sang until my poor grand aunt Modesta fell ill for love.”
The whole table was listening now. Vernon had not known the old Count had it in him.
“She fell ill,” repeated Alvise. “She fell ill, and no doctor could explain her mysterious malady. Finally a relative of hers, who had taken holy orders, received a vision of Saint Justina, who instructed him that the only thing which could possibly benefit his cousin was the voice of Zaffirino.
“At the Procuratore’s orders—he knew nothing of Zaffirino’s designs on his wife, for she was so virtuous that gossip concerning her had never so much as reached his ears—the singer was brought to this very house, where poor Modesta languished.
“Never had Zaffirino sung so divinely. And the end of the first song, the Procuratessa had begun to revive; by the end of the second, she was beaming with beauty and happiness; but at the third air, she began to change frightfully. She gave a dreadful cry, and fell into the convulsions of death!”
“What became of the singer, Zaffirino?” asked Marion Terry, breathless.
“Having finished his song, he withdrew,” said the Count. “He did not even wait to see her die. He left the city immediately, and travelled day and night as far as Munich. He never sang in Venice again.”
“How awful,” said Marion. “That poor woman.”
“Speaking of singing,” said Ariana Curtis, breaking brightly into the hushed silence, “shall we go into the salon? That shocking story nearly made me forget, but Miss Wakefield has kindly agreed to give us a private recital.”
“Do I dare?” murmured Maestro Magnus, in Vernon’s ear. “Will she knock over the piano—or enchant us with the songs of Zaffirino?”
Vernon blushed. “I don’t think Miss Wakefield’s singing is quite good enough to kill,” she said carefully.
Mrs. Curtis caught up to Vernon as they moved out of the dining room.
“I think the old Count’s stories get better as he gets older,” said Mrs. Curtis. “Not more truthful, but better.”
“Is he really related to Modesta Barbaro?” asked Vernon curiously.
“Perhaps,” said Mrs. Curtis, “but I doubt it. There was a Vendramin bride who married into the Barbaro family, but that was all the way back in the fifteenth century, when this palazzo was built. Almoro Barbaro’s first wife was named Modesta Valier—but she died decades before he was elected Procurator. And even that was too long ago for her to have been Alvise’s grand aunt—why, he’d have to be about a hundred years older than he already is.”
“But she did die young?” asked Vernon, intrigued.
“Sadly, yes,” said Mrs. Curtis. “Poor Almoro must have been heartbroken. He hired an architect to remodel the Palazzo just before they married, in honor of his bride. Actually, most of paintings in the salon were added then, for her.”
“Do you know how she died?”
“No,” said Mrs. Curtis. “Modesta had no children, so almost no one remembers her.”
They reached the salon. Marion Terry was sitting on the piano bench, getting ready to accompany her friend. Vernon scanned the small crowd for Maestro Magnus, and, with a smirk, picked out a seat beside him. Vernon wanted to see what a modern composer would make of the eighteenth-century airs she knew Mary favored.
Virtue personified glared coldly down on them from the painting on the wall.
The concert was everything Vernon had known it would be. Mary Wakefield was an amateur, but a talented one, and as her pure, limpid soprano climbed ever higher, Vernon felt an ache in her chest, like a wound. In her very low, red plush dress, Mary looked too grotesque for words—and yet she was enchanting. Vernon held her breath.
“Chi ha inteso,” Mary sang, with intense, peculiar sweetness, “inteso, inteso, intenda.”
Vernon’s heart was beating as though it must burst. Beside her, Maestro Magnus was applauding.
“A stirring performance,” he said, glancing sidelong at Vernon.
“Yes,” she said, breathing again.
“I wonder if even the great Zaffirino could have sung it so well,” said Magnus. “And that reminds me—I don’t suppose you know why he was called by that name?”
“Why, of course I know,” said Vernon, laughing. She had spent the entirety of her youth reading up on eighteenth-century musicians, and there were very few singers of that era with whom she was not to some degree familiar.
“I read a bit about him when I did the research for my book. Dr. Burney, the music historian, wanted to meet him, but by the time he arrived in Munich—that much is true, his retirement in Munich—the singer had died. So very little is known of him, and all of it is conjecture and fairy tales like the one Alvise told us. His stage name is from the jewel he always wore when he sang—a ‘little sapphire.’”
“But that is only a fairy tale, like you say,” said Magnus.
“Actually,” said Vernon—and she wondered that she had not thought about the coincidence until now—“I have proof that it is not. I was in the square of San Polo this afternoon, looking through the penny prints—and I found this. What a funny accident.” She pulled a little engraving from her pocket, unbent the corners, and handed it to Magnus, who inspected it carefully.
The picture was of an attractively feminine young man, with curled hair and a fat face, a sword through his embroidered pocket, surrounded by clouds, a swooning nymph, and little cupids. The artist had drawn a stone pinned at the young man’s throat, tinted blue and engraved with cabalistic signs.
Maestro Magnus was staring very intently at that carved stone.
“How did you find this?” he said, urgently.
Vernon shrugged. “Pure accident, like I said. I was looking for a gift for my friend”—for Mary, she didn’t say, because Maestro Magnus had clearly guessed too much about that friendship already—“and the cupids caught my eye. Aren’t they dreadfully funny?”
“Yes, yes,” said Magnus, impatiently, “but who told you that this was Zaffirino?”
“One of the vendors,” said Vernon. “I doubt it’s from life, but you never know. It certainly fits well with his legend. I’m surprised you hadn’t heard about the sapphire before—a lot the old stories say it was the true source of his powers. That’s rubbish of course, but—“
“Oh I had heard of the sapphire,” said Magnus, evenly. “In fact I expect I know more about that sapphire than you could possibly imagine.”
Vernon raised an eyebrow. “You can keep the picture, if you like that much,” she said. Mary Wakefield was approaching, surrounded by admirers.
Maestro Magnus carefully tucked the picture into his breast pocket.
“Thank you very much, Miss Paget,” he said. His smile was oddly cold. “You have helped me more than you know. I greatly regret that we shall never meet again.”
Republic of Venice, 1728.
Once, when Bianca Cesare was a little girl, she used to cry when her brother left for parties without her. Now that she was old enough, she wished she had an excuse not to go.
It was not that she minded putting on her good shoes and a fine new dress, or wearing the little blue ring her brother had bought her to match the broach he wore when he sang. Bianca was polite enough not to embarrass Balthasar and clever enough to be interesting—but their hosts rarely noticed her cleverness. They affected to love meeting Bianca—but only because she was one more way to learn about her famous brother. None of them bothered to ask her about herself.
“Zaffirino,” cried tonight’s hostess. “Zaffirino, won’t you sit with me at the harpsichord? Pisana Venier doesn’t know your ‘Husbands’ Song’, and she’s simply dying to hear it. Don’t worry, I know the accompaniment—I’ve heard it in the theater more than enough times.”
Bianca watched as her brother untangled himself from his crowd of admirers. It was a better evening than some. Their hostess was a talented amateur singer herself, which meant that a great number of her friends were musicians. Many of them, outside the world of Modesta Barbaro’s ridiculous salon, were professional acquaintances of the Cesare siblings. A few of them were even friends.
Francesca Mara, for instance, had taken lessons from the same singing master who had trained Modesta Barbaro—but unlike Signora Barbaro, Francesca had never been rich and she had not married well. In fact, La Mara had been so successful on the operatic stage that she had never bothered to get married at all.
“You know it’s not actually called ‘the husbands’ song’,” said Francesca, in an amused tone. Signora Barbaro smiled at her.
“’You are a queen, I am a shepherd,’” quoted Signora Barbaro, sighing. “Why shouldn’t it be called the husbands’ song? It has frightened away enough of them!”
Francesca caught Bianca’s eye and winked. Bianca stifled a sarcastic laugh.
“Aren’t you tired of that one?” asked Balthasar, approaching the harpsichord. There was room for him on the bench beside Signora Barbaro, but he leaned against the wall instead, in a pose so artificial that Bianca was sure he must have practiced it for the stage.
“Oh no,” said Signora Barbaro. Signora Barbaro’s friend (not to mention several other people in the room) added, “Definitely not,” and Balthasar shrugged in acquiescence. Signora Barbaro’s capable hands plinked out the introduction, and Balthasar opened his mouth to sing.
The words were very stupid. Years ago, when Balthasar was just beginning his stage career, he had been cast in an opera about a Persian prince who was raised in ignorance of his birthright. Balthasar’s first aria—the one he was singing now—had brought down the house. A grand lady had supposedly fainted at the sound of his voice. (Bianca thought it more likely that the woman had fainted from the dreadfulness of the poetry.)
The words were stupid, but Balthasar’s soprano pierced through the stuffy, heated air of the Barbaro salon, ringing across the room and quieting even the loudest, tipsiest chatter. Even Francesca Mara, who could sing every bit as well herself, and had been rolling her eyes a moment ago, stood fixed in place, drinking in the sound, her lips curved in an approving smile.
The impromptu audience whistled in appreciation when the song was over, but Balthasar shook his head when Pisana Venier pressed for an encore.
“Perhaps Signora Mara and I will sing something else for you later,” he said, with a glance at Francesca, who nodded. “But for now”—and this was directed entirely at Modesta Barbaro—“I would far prefer the pleasure of your conversation.”
Bianca drifted away. She didn’t really want to listen to her brother pretend to flirt with another society lady, and besides, there were people she could be meeting. Bianca introduced herself to a foppish, goateed composer. When his talk grew tiresomely technical, she let herself be rescued by glamorous Diana Vico, the contralto, who was eventually joined by a boy who looked about Bianca’s age. He was young enough to be Diana’s son, but that didn’t stop him from making eyes at her. Bianca excused herself politely.
Francesca and Modesta Barbaro were talking nearby. Bianca drifted back towards them.
“I don’t think it’s funny at all,” said Francesca. “I think Marcello’s widow has been deeply wronged—by her brother-in-law, most of all, let alone by the state. Alessandro Marcello ought to be ashamed of himself.”
“Alessandro Marcello is only upholding the law,” said Signora Barbaro. “It would be charitable of him to take in his late brother’s mistress, but—”
“She is his wife, in the eyes of the Church.”
Signora Barbaro laughed easily. “Come, Francesca, can you really imagine Rosanna Scalfi in polite society, hosting a party like this—socially equal to someone like me? Before we met her, the creature used to sing in a gondola! The law is the law for a reason, and the truth is, old Benedetto should never have pretended to marry her. It was unkind of him.”
Signora Barbaro’s perfect brows drew together, in dainty disapproval.
“Then again, I suppose I can’t expect an actress to understand such things.”
Bianca saw Francesca’s shoulders slump for a brief moment—but Francesca was, after all, not an actress for nothing.
“Perhaps I shouldn’t have expected an upstanding woman like you to understand compassion,” said Francesca, coolly. “But I know you, Modesta, and you do understand.”
Francesca turned gracefully away. The composer Bianca had met earlier was hovering nearby—and when the actress caught his eye, he smiled brightly, and bowed to kiss her hand.
Francesca might have escaped, but Bianca had not. She stayed where she was, unsure if she should leave, too, since she had not really been part of the conversation to begin with. It was not long before Modesta Barbaro’s eyes snapped to her. She looked oddly…bereft.
“So you, my dear, are the sister of the great Zaffirino?”
Stiffly, Bianca nodded—and Signora Barbaro took that as her cue to take Bianca’s hand in her own, pressing it tenderly.
“How wonderful to meet you at last. Of course I met Zaffirino years ago, when he first sang in Venice—but you were very young then. How young you still look! Why, you must have been touring with him for your whole life!”
“We lived in Naples until I was eight,” said Bianca, trying not to wrinkle her nose. The perfume Signora Barbaro wore was far too sweet.
“Of course,” said Signora Barbaro. “And is it true that he raised you, all by himself?”
“Yes,” said Bianca. When her brother had still been a music student, Bianca had lived in the orphanage—but that wasn’t a story they shared with wealthy strangers.
“How good of him,” said Signora Barbaro, fervently, “to have given up so much for you. That is to say—so many other singers live such dissolute lives. They seem to think life on the stage is a grand adventure—and I’m sure they never spare a thought for their poor, far-away relations.”
Apparently, Bianca’s conversational skills were so terrible that Signora Barbaro assumed it must be a constant sacrifice for her own brother to live with her. She tried not to feel too insulted.
“Balth—Zaffirino likes my company,” Bianca said. She could not resist opening her eyes very innocently wide, as she asked, “And what makes you think my presence makes his life any less dissolute?”
Signora Barbaro blinked, and laughed.
“My dear,” she said. “What can you possibly mean by that?”
“Oh, I’d better not gossip,” said Bianca, as virtuously as she could manage. “After all he never does.”
The Signora grinned.
“My dear,” she said, “I think I like you.”
Her eyes narrowed.
“Now, what can you tell me about that broach he wears?”
San Francisco, USA, 2002.
“You know I don’t mind fighting space invaders, Doctor, but couldn’t you try and time your visits so I’m not always at the opera when you need me?”
The Doctor sighed long-sufferingly as he picked alien gloop out of his hair. “Grace, the world as you know it—as anyone knows it—might have been destroyed, and you are worried about missing David Daniels?”
“Yes, actually,” said Grace, handing him a washcloth. “The world as I know it ends every six months nowadays, and those tickets weren’t cheap. Besides, it’s not like skipping out on La Boheme. Do you know how many times The Coronation of Ogier has been revived since the eighteenth century, Doctor?”
“Er,” said the Doctor.
Grace bet he only ever went to premieres. She rolled her eyes.
“Never,” said Grace. “The first modern production of a great Baroque opera, and I missed it to fight aliens with you. Who knows how long I’ll have to wait to see it again?”
There was a pregnant pause.
“You’re fishing,” said the Doctor, sounding mildly betrayed.
“Maybe,” said Grace. She grinned. “Come on, what good is a time machine if you only use it to save the world? Can’t you take me back just a few days? And maybe you could use the psychic paper so we don’t have to buy—”
“A few days?” The Doctor laughed. “You can ask for better than that, Grace. Tell me who wrote it and we’ll meet the composer—was it Georgie, or Tony? Ooh, Grace, you’ll love—”
“That’s just the thing,” interrupted Grace, laughing. “No one knows who the composer was. It’s been debated endlessly—at least that’s what the program note said. The score was only rediscovered in the 1950s, and it was attributed to Vivaldi at the time, but recent scholarship says it was somebody else. M something? Do you know any good M composers?”
The Doctor looked intrigued.
“I suppose we could look in the TARDIS database,” he said, intrigued.
“I’d really like to see this production,” said Grace, pointedly. Everything was always more complicated with the Doctor—not because it had to be, but because he liked it that way. It was annoying and endearing, all at the same time.
“Oh come on, Grace, don’t you want to solve the mystery?”
Something in Grace melted a little. She had lived a pretty good life before she met the Doctor, and it had stayed good when he left for what she’d thought would be the last time. Grace had never been the kind of person to worry about whether or not her existence was meaningful—she made a difference every day, at her job, and she was proud of it, end of story—but seeing the Doctor, every once in a while, really did make everything kind of wonderful.
If Grace had been in the position to offer a prospective boyfriend the whole of time and space, and he had turned up his nose at it, she didn’t think she would have spoken to him ever again, much less enlisted his help with the bi-annual alien invasions that had apparently been happening since before Grace had been clued in enough to notice them. But the Doctor was a funny guy: as far as Grace could tell, he didn’t hold a grudge.
She figured she should humor him.
“All right, Doctor,” she said, digging the scrunched-up program note out of the pocket of her jeans. “Here’s all I know—have at it.”
The Doctor held the program up close to his nose and thumbed once through the pages like it was a flip-book.
“Interesting,” he said.
Grace raised an eyebrow.
“You didn’t just read that,” she said.
“Time Lord, Grace,” he said, reproachfully. “And aren’t you going to ask me what—”
“All right, Doctor,” she said. “What’s interesting?”
“The people who wrote the note seem to think Benedetto Marcello died a year too soon,” said the Doctor, in a tone that implied this was something Grace should care about.
“Typo?” said Grace. “Or maybe a calendar change?”
“Yes, I expect so,” said the Doctor. Now he sounded like he didn’t care. Grace wondered if the Doctor’s mood swings had anything to do with the personality change he supposedly went through when he changed bodies.
“Also, look at this,” said the Doctor, pointing smugly at a name. “My friend Zaffirino premiered the lead role.”
“Of course he did,” said Grace. "Go ahead, tell me how you know him."
“It's a bit hazy," admitted the Doctor, sheepishly. "It was…before you met me.”
Grace nodded, accepting that. She had a kind of wary regard for the Doctor’s past self, but some of the stories he told her sometimes scared her a little, too. Grace was relieved that her Doctor had turned out to be more eccentric poet and less calculating genius. He also had far better fashion sense, which really said something about his predecessor.
“So you’ve met him, but you don’t actually remember him?”
“No, no, I do,” said the Doctor. He always protested when people challenged his celebrity stories. (Grace wondered if he sometimes used lingering regeneration sickness—and possibly her lingering guilt—as an excuse.)
“He was a teenager, worried about his career. I gave him a little friendly advice and encouragement.”
“Just like that?” asked Grace. “He wasn’t on the run from aliens?”
“I think he gave me directions,” said the Doctor, sheepishly. “Like I said, I don’t remember all the details.”
The Doctor unlocked the TARDIS.
He disappeared inside. Grace followed him.
Venice, Italy, 1886.
The more Vernon thought about Maestro Magnus, the odder he seemed. She still couldn’t remember any of his tunes, and, now that she thought about him, she wasn’t even sure why she had recognized his name. Had she been to a concert? Had someone shown her a score? She remembered nothing.
She wondered if what Magnus had said was true, that she would never see him again.
All in all it could have been a worse night. She and Mary Wakefield were still on safely friendly terms, and Vernon had not said anything she might regret later. The story old Alvise had told everyone, about Zaffirino and the tragic Modesta Barbaro, was very romantic. She had never paid much attention to Zaffirino before today—after all he was only a name, with no letters surviving and very few genuine anecdotes—but with Vernon’s own encounter with Maestro Magnus added to the mix, and the alteration of a few key names and places, the whole affair seemed promising as the basis for some kind of ghost story.
Magnus’ peculiar personality was what would make it perfect. The look on his face had been enchantingly desperate—or perhaps even enchanted. His was not a preoccupation to be lightly dismissed. And what other tale had he been told about the little sapphire of legend? Was there more to the story than Vernon, for all her research, had ever uncovered?
Yes, it was very promising. Magnus the obsessive, a composer unmoored, abandoned by his muse, or perhaps enslaved all unwilling to a new muse, to the spirit of the wicked singer, a man cold enough to stop the heart of a woman too virtuous to be seduced. In fairness to the real, historical Modesta, of course it was possible she had just not been interested. The kind of woman honored by the dreadful, moralizing paintings in the Barbaro salon might just be too boring to fall for the charms of a musico.
Truth be told, Vernon suspected that many ladies from Modesta’s time (which Vernon refused to believe was so very different from her own) might have been too boring for that. It wasn’t just people like Alvise who told exaggerated stories: there was plenty of risqué material in the history books, if you could read untranslated sources and knew where to look. But sometimes, one doubted the stories. Privately Vernon thought that, perhaps, being loved by a musico might not be so different (assuming that, unlike the Zaffirino of legend, he had a nice personality and was not homicidal) to being loved by a woman—but Vernon also privately knew that she was not exactly the right woman to judge.
She shuffled the papers on her desk and took out a pen. She would write to Molly about it, and sort out her thoughts. Molly: not fickle, androgynous Mary Wakefield, with her sensuous voice and vaguely repulsive chin, but beautiful, girlish Mary Robinson. Vernon missed Molly terrible. She also felt terribly guilty towards her—or possibly terribly angry.
Molly’s parents had forbidden her to come on this trip. They had long wanted her to see less of Vernon, and this time, unlike all the times before, Molly had given in without much fuss. Stung, Vernon had done her best to enjoy herself—but without Molly everything was flat, and since Mary Wakefield was here, every letter home felt like a lie.
She wondered if Molly ever suspected that the accounts Vernon wrote her each week might not be entirely truthful. Vernon had deliberately overdone them once or twice—too many protestations of how much she enjoyed Marion Terry’s company would surely come to sound as though she were protesting too much, and that would get Molly’s attention—unless they made Molly jealous of the wrong woman. Or unless Molly was no longer interested in being jealous at all.
Vernon wrote a little, undressed, and slept. Her dreams were strange and stormy. Vernon heard the whoosh of a tree, felled by the wind, and it was the resounding echo that made her finally jerk awake and sit bolt upright in bed, peering into the darkness.
The wall was not where it was supposed to be.
There was a door in the wall that was not supposed to be. Light seeped from its windows. Vernon had never written anything quite this exciting.
She fumbled for her spectacles in the dark, but her groping hand touched the letter opener instead, which to her sleep-addled brain seemed like a happy accident. She brandished it.
“Who goes there?” she said, in a ludicrously theatrical whisper.
The door that was not supposed to be swung open with a bang.
“Tell me again, Doctor,” said a woman’s voice, “How did you meet this singer—what did you call him?”
“Zaffirino,” said the person who had opened the door, who was now in Vernon’s bedroom, “And we—“
His face was a blur.
“Oh,” he said. “Hello there.”
He sounded surprised.
“Grace,” he said, “Bit of problem, better stay in the TARDIS while I sort—“
“Doctor,” said a woman’s behind him, “This is not the Teatro Vendramin.”
She sounded American. Were they tourists? Perhaps Mrs. Curtis had other guests, or insane relatives, and had forgotten to warn Vernon ahead of time.
“If you want to go to the opera,” said Vernon, surprising herself with an extremely level voice, considering she was still clutching the bedclothes to her chin with one hand and gripping a very dull letter-opener with the other, “it’s not far, but I think they all finished up a few hours ago. Perhaps you could try again tomorrow.”
Also, Vernon was almost certain that she had read about the theater they were looking for, the Vendramin, and it wasn’t from reviews in the current papers. The Vendramin had been rebuilt and renamed over a century ago.
“I am so, so, sorry,” said the woman, her voice strained. “Doctor, I think you should go back into the TARDIS while I sort this out.”
“Yes,” said the Doctor. “I, um, yes.” His shape disappeared into the light behind the door.
“I’m Grace,” said the woman, extending a blurry hand, and then thinking better of it. “Look, why don’t you get dressed, and then we’ll talk?”
She turned her back politely. Vernon hesitated, then slipped out of bed, found her glasses, and threw her dressing gown on over her nightshirt. She lit the lamp on the table, and Grace jumped, startled by the light.
“I didn’t know it was possible to turn up by accident in other people’s bedrooms,” said Grace, “or I would never have agreed to this trip. I hope you—“
“Is your friend really hiding in that box?” said Vernon, who was less frightened now that she could see. She noted, with approval, that Grace was wearing trousers. “Because he’s welcome to come out and apologize for himself.”
“Just checking the controls,” said the Doctor, emerging from the door. He looked like a tragic poet from the ‘30s—all dark curls and green velvet. Vernon choked back a laugh.
“Slight miscalculation, Grace, owing to the reversal of the flow of the—“
“We’re not in 1720s Venice, Doctor, that’s all I need to know.”
“You are in Venice, though,” said Vernon helpfully, and wondering what on earth kind of game she was playing along with. “Did you come here in that blue box?”
“Yes,” groaned Grace, “We did. And I already want to go home.”
“Why don’t we make introductions,” said the Doctor in a pleading tone, “and then everyone will be comfortable, and we can find out when we are. I’m the Doctor, this is my good friend Grace, whom you’ve already met, and you are—”
He stopped speaking, blinked, and looked at her again, delight written plainly on his face. “You’re Vernon Lee, aren’t you? I didn’t recognize you without the glasses, but Grace, look, it’s Vernon Lee!”
“Who?” said Grace.
Vernon raised an eyebrow. “I go by Violet Paget in polite company, actually. Miss Paget, to both of you.”
“Right, yes, of course, Miss Paget, it’s just, I wasn’t expecting to meet you like this. Grace, don’t tell me you don’t know Vernon Lee!”
“Who?” said Grace again, looking more confused than ever. “Have you two met before?”
The Doctor’s face fell. “Oh of course,” he said. “Just like poor Herman, sometimes it takes a few decades before you humans know what you’ve missed.” He ticked off his fingers one by one, as though he were counting something. “Yes, you’ll just miss it, Grace. Late nineteenth-century author, very underappreciated during her lifetime and immediately after, but by 2100, Vernon Lee’s short stories will be on the reading lists for half the schools in England.”
He grinned at Vernon. “So if you’re here, and if this is Venice, it must be…1885?”
“1886,” she corrected. “It’s my second visit.”
“Of course it is,” said the Doctor, beaming at her.
“Did you say that you know Zaffirino?” said Vernon, suddenly remembering what her guests had been talking about when they arrived.
“He claims he does,” said Grace. “But he says that about a lot of famous people, I’m pretty sure he just tried to imply that he knows Herman Melville. Or possibly someone else that I’m just not smart enough to have heard of. We, um—look, do you have science fiction yet?”
“Grace,” said the Doctor, “she writes science fiction.”
“Are you ghosts?” asked Vernon, looking from one to the other. They looked solid to her, but she was fairly certain that the ghost stories she knew best were all fraudulent anyway.
“Not yet,” said Grace, glaring at the Doctor again. “We’re…well, I don’t really know about the Doctor, but I’m from the future, not the past. We’re time travelers.”
“And you were trying to get to 1728,” said Vernon. “To visit Zaffirino, whom one of you already knows.”
“His name’s really Balthasar,” the Doctor chimed in helpfully. “Balthasar Cesare, and as I was saying to Grace, a very nice young—“
“Oh, God,” said Vernon, fervently. “Just take me with you.” She pushed past the Doctor and Grace and stepped into the light inside the box.
Republic of Venice, 1728.
“Bianca!” said Francesca, gazing earnestly at her friend, and taking her hand, “My darling, what would you think, if the Teatro Apollo decided to invest in a tame bear?”
Francesca’s hair was arranged in the latest, most elaborate style, and her powdered face was pale in the morning light—except for the modish beauty spot pasted at the corner of her eye. The woman was positively glowing with good humor.
In the music room, just one thin wall away, Balthasar’s voice reached the lowest note of his absurd solfege exercise and fell silent for a moment. He had sounded beautiful at Modesta Barbaro’s party last night—but this morning, in his little sister’s opinion, the scale he was working on made him sound like a deranged cat.
“Of course, you’re going to tell me that buying frivolous things will only convince the Vendramins that allowing me to take Marcello’s place for the season was a mistake, and that they should have asked a man to be impresario, and that I should be much more concerned about taking care of little details, like making sure the orchestra is paid enough to actually show up for rehearsals,” said Francesca, not bothering to breathe, let alone wait for a reply.
“But, come to think of it, don’t you think they might show up, just to get a better look at the bear? Certainly the audience will show up for a bear. And most of them don’t care about the orchestra anyhow.”
“Well,” said Bianca, carefully, “it certainly sounds like you care about the bear.”
It had been years since La Mara played anything but leading roles, but this season, after the tragic death of her mentor, Francesca’s duties—and her powers—had increased significantly. It had obviously gone to her head.
“But if you’re looking for advice and approval,” added Bianca, “shouldn’t you ask some of your actual cast members?”
Francesca flashed her a conspiratorial smile.
“I thought if I could get you on my side, you might help me convince Balthasar.”
Bianca thought about it. “I honestly don’t know what he would say,” she said. “Which opera would the bear be in?”
“Oh, all of them!” said Francesca, as though it were obvious. “Otherwise I could never justify the expense. After all we would have to feed it, and I’m not sure how tame it really is, so we would have to hire the handler, too—just in case. I wouldn’t want it to accidentally eat any of the ballet girls.”
Bianca laughed. “You’ll have to ask him when he’s done practicing.”
From the music room, they heard the twang of a new chord on the harpsichord. Balthasar’s soprano modulated to D sharp major. Francesca smiled fondly at Bianca.
“I don’t understand how he does it,” Francesca said. “If I practiced as much as your brother, my voice would fail within the week.”
“Don’t tell him so,” said Bianca, pulling a face. “He hates it when people mention it. I’m not supposed to so much as compliment him except at a real performance.”
“Oh, that’s not just him, said Francesca wryly. “I can’t stand the thought of the servants hearing me singing scales. I have to pretend they can’t hear me. It’s stupid, of course—but how could we improve, if we were always performing for someone?”
Bianca shrugged. “But I’m not just someone,” she said.
“Of course not,” said Francesca. “That makes it worse.”
She put an arm around Bianca’s shoulder.
“Enough about my bear,” she said, decisively. “I didn’t really get to talk to you last night—how did you like Modesta’s party? And do you like the books I lent you last week?”
Bianca said, “I liked the party, but don’t know if like her.”
Francesca sighed. “I know. I knew her when she was a girl, so I see who she used to be.”
Bianca wondered if she should ask. She didn’t.
Instead, she said, “I thought Merino’s Adonis was…interesting.”
“‘But who can portray the lovely scarlet of his sweet lips, rich and full of fiery treasure?’” recited Francesca, with obvious delight. “I love that one! ‘What whiteness of ivory or lily can equal his throat?’”
When Bianca and Balthasar had arrived in Venice a week ago for rehearsals, Francesca had lent them a whole stack of books and papers. She had claimed to be concerned for Bianca’s education. It was admittedly hard to keep up a consistent academic regimen when your singer brother moved you from one city to the next every few months. But the quality and content of some of the titles Francesca had particularly recommended made Bianca wonder what exactly the prima donna thought a young lady’s education ought to consist of.
“I…actually thought it was a little silly?” said Bianca.
“Silly?” said Francesca, with a knowing smile. “You’ll learn.”
Bianca thought that if a whole childhood spent behind the scenes of various opera houses hadn’t already taught her to appreciate bad poetry, it was probably something that couldn’t be taught. She doubted getting older would make much difference.
“Actually,” said Bianca, “So far my favorite was your teacher’s book—The Fashionable Theater. I love what he says about respecting the classical texts, and bringing operatic narrative closer to reality. Although I didn’t like what he had to say about stage mothers.”
“I knew you would like that one,” said Francesca, pleased. “I wish you could have met him—he was a curmudgeonly old fart, and he never approved of me, or of anyone—but he was a good teacher, and I did love him.”
She was smiling as she spoke—Francesca always smiled, even when she was annoyed at people—but her eyes looked tired.
“Does anyone know exactly what happened?” asked Bianca, remembering what she had overheard last night.
“No,” said Francesca. “He was found in the canal, but God only knows why. The poor man had only just gotten married—in secret, because he was a nobleman and she…wasn’t. Now the state won’t recognize their marriage, and his widow will inherit nothing. It’s terribly unfair.”
She sighed. “I really did like his book. No one who knows anything about backstage life can argue with it—but even so, there needs to be a little more pure joy, in theater, than he ever allowed for. It’s not all about the music—it’s the spectacle, too. I don’t think Benedetto ever quite understood that. After all he almost never wrote for the stage.”
“He certainly wouldn’t have approved of your bear,” said Bianca, tentatively.
Francesca burst into laughter.
“No,” she gasped. “He certainly would not! That’s…sort of why I want one. Because we would have argued about it now, if he were still alive.”
From the music room, Bianca heard the dominant chord on the harpsichord, then the tonic, in the home key. Then, at last, there was silence.
“Do you think Balthasar would mind if I went in now?” asked Francesca. “I want to nail down the final duet from Julius Caesar, he always changes the ornamentation with warning me first.”
“No need,” said Bianca, as the door swung open.
“Francesca!” Balthasar said. “I was just thinking of you. Would you mind going over that last duet with me?”
“You see, you sing it so beautifully, only you keep forgetting to use the ornaments we agreed on.”
Bianca rolled her eyes. “You’re both horrible,” she said, “and you both practice too much. Have breakfast first, with me.”
Over rolls and coffee, Balthasar said, “Do they even have bears in Egypt?”
Francesca snorted. “You do know that Metastasio’s version of Julius Caesar is not actually faithful to history, right? Bears are what you are going to complain about?”
“Fair point,” said Balthasar. “But there are no bears in my contract.”
Francesca rolled her eyes at him. “Fine, then I’ll put in in somebody else’s scene. What about Vivarelli? It could go into the prison scene, to be an extra torment. He’ll ham it up perfectly.”
“Yes, he’ll play it perfectly,” said Balthasar. “And then he’ll whine about it for weeks—and he won’t bother you with it, he’ll bother me.”
“It’s your own fault for being so friendly,” said Francesca. “If you hadn’t given him those extra stockings…”
“I know you think he’s annoying, but he’s too green to take care of himself,” said Balthasar, defensively. “And besides, it’s not like you don’t have terrible friends.”
“Oh?” said Francesca. “Like whom?”
“Modesta Barbaro,” said Balthasar promptly. “I don’t know what she’s been told about me, but—”
Francesca snorted. “Yes, all right, she’s annoying too, but she has the very same excuse as your Vivarelli: she has a devil of a voice. It’s a pity she was born so well. Her rich parents paid for her to take lessons with Marcello, when we were both young, but of course the poor girl always knew it would come to nothing when she married.”
“A devil of a voice?” said Balthasar. “That’s high praise, coming from you.”
Francesca shrugged. “She was better than I was, once.”
“I don’t believe that,” said Balthasar. Bianca didn’t believe it either.
“By the way,” said Francesca, “now that we’ve all agreed that the bear is a wonderful idea, I can tell you my real news: Vincenzo Magno finally finished the opera.”
“Is he the one with the goatee?” asked Bianca.
“Yes, he’s apparently Modesta Barbaro’s cousin—although I’d never heard of him until a month ago, when she produced him to be Marcello’s replacement. He’s changed the libretto a bit, but that was to be expected—and the music isn’t bad. We had a long conversation last night, and Magno said some awfully nice things about last season—he says he saw every one of my performances, can you imagine? Anyway he started telling me about his work on the opera, and it actually sounds very promising!”
“So have you have seen the score to this mystery music?” asked Balthasar, smirking at her. “Or are you only telling us this story because he flattered you?”
“Everyone flatters me, Balthasar, don’t be ridiculous. He wouldn’t let me keep the score, but he did play a little of it for me, and I glanced over the changes he made to the story.”
“What is the story, anyhow?” asked Balthasar curiously. Venetian seasons usually comprised two operas, and Marriage of Ogier was scheduled for the second half—and since the music had been late in coming, there had been nothing for him to practice.
“It’s not classical,” said Bianca. “At least I don’t think…”
“As far as I know, the plot is totally new,” said Francesca. “And it’s very exciting! Prince Ogier goes out hunting one morning and falls into a trap set for him by the beautiful Fairy Queen. That’s me, of course. I carry Balthasar off to my magical land, show you the wonders of my realm, and beg him to marry me.”
“Oh really,” said Balthasar. “And what do I say?”
“Obviously you have a wife at home,” said Francesca, in a tragic tone. “So our love is impossible.”
She gazed at him soulfully.
“And then what happens?” asked Bianca, breaking the slightly awkward silence. “I suppose he comes to a bad end?”
“Not quite,” said Francesca, dreamily. “Ogier sings a very manly aria about his love for his homeland, and his pretty wife, and his princely duties, and I sing a very sad one about my scorned, broken heart, and give him one more chance, which he refuses. So then I finally get to fly into a rage and send him packing. Ogier goes home like he wanted to, only the magic of my kingdom means that hundreds of years have passed in the ordinary world, so his wife is dead, his line is ended, and nobody so much as remembers his name.”
“That…is actually pretty awful,” said Balthasar.
“Oh, yes,” said Francesca. “You sing a very sad aria about it. Finally you meet one person, a young singer, who tells you about a legendary hero, the famous Prince Ogier. And this boy singer asks if you would like to hear a song about the deeds of Ogier, and despite everything you’re still very vain, so of course you say yes.”
Balthasar grinned. “Is the young singer really the Fairy Queen in disguise?”
Francesca choked on her coffee. “How did you know?” she asked, disappointed. “I never guessed, when Magno told the story to me!”
“It’s obvious,” said Bianca. “If his poor loyal wife is dead, he still has to have a recognition scene with someone, doesn’t he?”
“Exactly!” said Balthasar approvingly, smiling at his sister. “Besides which, Francesca’s part would be pretty small otherwise.”
Francesca sniffed, but didn’t deny it.
“Then,” said Balthasar, “I suppose that Ogier forgives Francesca for the terrible trials she’s put him through, and she gets what she wanted in the first place, now that no one else will have him?”
“Of course,” said Francesca, “but unlike the two of you, Ogier is perfectly happy about it. Nobody would really want to go home to his wife after hearing me sing.”
“Hmm,” said Balthasar. “Do you remember any of Magno’s music?”
“Yes,” said Francesca. “There’s a lovely bit at the end. It’s just before the Fairy Queen reveals herself, when you still think she’s a boy. She sings in praise of Ogier, and it echoes their earlier love duet, and then she says, ‘Whoever has understood, let him understand,’ and she pulls back the cloak from her face.
“Chi ha inteso,” she began, “inteso, inteso, intenda.”
The story was terrible—no surprises there—but Francesca was right that there was something about the music. Bianca could feel it in her bones, under her skin.
“Well?” said Francesca, in her blunt, eager speaking voice. She could break a spell as quickly as she cast it.
“I think it needs more bears,” said Bianca.
Republic of Venice, 1728.
Grace would have expected the Doctor to need a little convincing before he allowed a strange woman who had just invaded his TARDIS to come along for the ride. (In fact, Grace might have argued in her favor. Intruder or not, after the scare they had given poor Violet Paget, they definitely owed her.)
As it turned out, Grace couldn’t get a word in edgewise. The Doctor and Miss Paget chattered their way towards the TARDIS wardrobe, where Grace changed into eighteenth-century-appropriate men’s clothing. (As much as she wanted to look her best at the opera, she wasn’t convinced she wouldn’t need to run away quickly from something.) When Miss Paget had traded her bathrobe for a tastefully simple dress and, of all things, fancy evening gloves, she and the Doctor proceeded to chatter their way all the way back to the control room.
“Your essay about Metastasio,” the Doctor was saying, as he followed Miss Paget out the door of the TARDIS, and into what Grace sincerely hoped really was 1720s Venice this time, “is uncannily accurate. Have I met you before? Have you—“
“No of course not,” said Miss Paget, looking thrilled and flattered. “I’ve never seen you in my life. As for Metastasio, I just did a lot of imaginative research. Actually Walter Pater told me I made too much up. He said it was unscholarly.”
She frowned, taking in their surroundings for the first time.
“How odd! It’s my bedroom again, only—different. Doctor, did we really just—”
Grace looked around. Miss Paget was right. They were in exactly the same room they had just left, only the curtains were a different color, the bed was smaller, and it wasn’t the middle of the night.
“Of course it’s the same room,” said the Doctor. “You were staying in the Palazzo Barbaro, weren’t you, Miss Paget?”
“It’s a good parking place,” said the Doctor. “Yours is just one guest room of dozens—the current owners will never notice one more piece of furniture.”
“I don’t suppose you know the current owners,” said Grace.
“Not exactly,” said the Doctor.
“We can probably sneak out the servants’ entrance,” said Miss Paget, looking delighted. “If the house really won’t change until my time, I think I know where it is.”
“Oh, I like you,” said the Doctor. “But why bother to sneak out? Just act like you belong here—after all you will, in a few centuries’ time—and nobody will stop us from leaving by the front door!”
Grace groaned. She could really use less of this “breaking into people’s houses” thing, especially now when it apparently wasn’t accidental. But Miss Paget had already taken the Doctor at his word, and was striding purposefully into the hallway.
By the time they arrived in the front hall of what was truly a massive (not to mention surprisingly empty) house, the Doctor and Miss Paget had moved on from Miss Paget’s literary career to…aesthetics? Obscure eighteenth century poets? Grace was out of her depth. She was starting to wonder, snidely, what would happen if she decided to redirect the conversation to something more in her own line of expertise. She was pretty sure Miss Paget knew nothing about molecular biology, and Grace just knew she could get the Doctor going if she tried.
“…but you can’t have actually met Diotima, Doctor,” argued Miss Paget, as the Doctor gallantly helped her into a conveniently available gondola, “Socrates invented her.”
Grace waved the Doctor off and helped herself in.
“Actually” said the Doctor, earnestly, “The way Soctrates tells it, Diotima invented him. After all you can’t believe everything classicists tell you, especially not before the interdisciplinary women’s studies movement really gets going in the 2020s…”
Their gondolier looked like he was listening a little more closely than Miss Paget and the Doctor seemed to realize, so Grace distracted him with a conspiratorial grin.
“They’re always like this, I can’t take them anywhere,” she said, “Can you believe it? Talk about taking philosophy too seriously!”
The man’s eyes crinkled when he laughed. “Well, signora, where can I take you and your philosophical friends?”
Grace hesitated, not wanting to give the wrong address. “Is Zaffirino singing tonight?”
“Every night for the next month—at the Teatro Apollo.”
“The Apollo?” asked Grace, relieved they hadn’t botched it entirely, but still confused. “I thought he was at the Vendramin?”
“Same building, different names,” said the gondolier. “Called the Apollo, formerly the San Luca, owned by the Vendramin family for over a hundred years. How long have you been staying with the Barbaros?”
“With the—oh, right,” said Grace. “Not long at all, and I’ve never been to Venice before. I’m Grace, by the way.”
She stuck out a hand, but he was busy punting the boat, so he didn’t take it.
“Giovanni,” he said, beaming at her instead. Grace thought he had a rather dashing mustache.
“Have you been to see Zaffirino?” she asked, curious. Her music history was a little rusty. Grace knew that some kinds of opera had been for the very rich only, and some kinds had been attended by everyone. But she couldn’t remember which was which.
“Of course,” said Giovanni. “A few years ago, the last time he was here—but he’s not the reason to go to the Apollo this season.” He shrugged. “My mother loves Zaffirino, but the real star is his leading lady. That’s Francesca Mara—she’s from right here in Venice. You’ll love her. Zaffirino can sing, but La Mara can act.”
Grace laughed. “I wasn’t really expecting too much in the way of acting,” she confessed.
“You won’t be disappointed by the rest of the cast, then,” said Giovanni, rolling his eyes. “Myself, I prefer the comedies—not to mention spoken drama. If I want to hear singing, I can just sing to myself!”
As if to prove his point, Giovanni hummed a few bars of something vaguely familiar, in what turned out to be a respectable baritone. He grinned at her surprise. For a guy from the seventeen hundreds, he had pretty good teeth. “You see?” he said, winningly. “Why pay to hear a bunch of musici, when you could listen to me?”
The gondola slid neatly into place beside the dock, and as Grace left the boat Giovanni reached out a hand to steady her.
Other well-dressed people were stepping out of the gondolas in front and behind them. Giovanni frowned slightly as he watched one particular woman, quite close, and he said, “Why, that’s Modesta Barbaro. Grace, why didn’t you just ride with her?”
The Doctor and Miss Paget were already out of the boat.
“Oh look, we’re late,” said Grace, flustered. “Doctor, let’s go.”
She cast a helpless glace back at Giovanni. He looked faintly disappointed in her—or maybe that was just her imagination. After all, she was a little disappointed in herself.
“Will I see you again?” Grace asked.
Giovanni shrugged. “Well, you will need a ride after the opera.” His eyes narrowed. “To wherever you’re really going.”
Grace didn’t know what to say to that. She caught the Doctor’s eye and turned away awkwardly, leading the way across the square and into the theater.
“This really isn’t a dream,” said Miss Paget, in hushed tones, as they made their way through the imposing doorway and into the lobby. She was gazing around her with an expression much more fearful than Grace would have expected, considering how well she had taken their surprise midnight appearance in her bedroom.
The Doctor was talking the ear off an usher—apparently he knew someone who knew someone, and they wouldn’t even need to use the psychic paper this time. The usher was nodding and smiling and looking increasingly impressed.
“Everything so far,” continued Miss Paget, “I could have made all of it up. It’s almost too real to be true, except—this theater. I’ve been here before, in my own time, and I’d never have imagined it like this. It really does look a century younger, and some of the details—it doesn’t matter how much research I do, I’d never have known.”
“I’ve never been to Venice,” said Grace, lightly. “I wouldn’t know the difference.” She’d never been much of anywhere, actually. Her life-long, single-minded ability to focus on her work had definitely paid off in med school, but there were downsides to that. Not to mention that her vacation days since she met the Doctor had mostly been used up fighting alien visitors a lot closer to home.
“When I was a girl,” said Miss Paget, “my friend John and I went to visit the Philharmonic Academy, in Bologna. They have portraits there, of famous musicians. John wanted to sketch them and I wanted—well, I wanted to know them. We used to stand in front of the Farinelli’s portrait and wish him alive, so he could sing for us. And now—to think I might be about to hear what I imagined as a child…”
Grace laughed. “Time-travel suits you. It took me a lot longer than you have just to get used to the idea! You should have seen my face the first time the Doctor told me who he was.”
Miss Paget frowned. “Who is he, exactly? A time traveler, like you—that’s all I know.”
Grace said, “He’s not really a doctor. Not a medical one, and if he has a degree it’s not from anywhere on Earth. He isn’t even from Earth.”
Miss Paget watched her silently, waiting for more.
“He fights aliens,” Grace said. She wondered if the TARDIS translator would kick in and replace twenty-first century slang for “creature from outer space” with an appropriately Edwardian substitute. Did they even have the concept of aliens in Miss Paget’s time?
“Um, monsters from other worlds,” she clarified, just in case. “There are other worlds. He’s from another world.”
“Right,” said Miss Paget. “But right now he’s…just taking you to the opera?”
“Yeah,” said Grace. “In theory.”
This new, quiet Miss Paget was a lot more sympathetic than the loud, clever woman who had so monopolized the Doctor outside, but Grace still had a bone to pick with her—and now was as good a time as any.
“By the way,” said Grace, “If you get to be ‘Miss Paget,’ you really ought to be calling me ‘Doctor Holloway.’”
Miss Paget looked at her curiously.
“You’re a doctor, too? With a degree?”
“Yeah, with a degree,” said Grace. “What, do I look dumb or something?”
“No, of course not,” said Miss Paget, confused. “It’s just—you’re a woman. That’s rare.” She looked…impressed.
“Right,” said Grace. “1886. Wow, uh…”
Grace obviously still needed time to get used to this time travel thing. Right now, suddenly, she felt pretty dumb.
“I’m a cardiologist, from 2002,” she said, starting over. “The medical field, in my time…well, there’s still room for improvement. When I first started, I was usually the only woman in the room at professional conferences. But it’s gotten so much better.”
“This is amazing,” said Miss Paget. “Everything the Doctor just told me is nothing to that.”
There was a silence. For the first time since Grace had met her, Miss Paget seemed to have nothing to say. She just looked happy.
“Doctor Holloway,” said Miss Paget, after a moment. “You certainly don’t have to call me Miss Paget. It’s Violet, if you like. Or—Vernon. My very best friends call me that.”
She smiled at Grace. Grace smiled back.
“Oh good,” said the Doctor from behind her, and Grace jumped. “Now that we’ve all made friends, why don’t we run along up to Pisana Venier’s box? She’s out of town but I did her mother-in-law a favor a few years back, they won’t mind if we use it…”
“What kind of favor?” Vernon asked, before Grace could warn her not to. The Doctor’s story took them up two flights of stairs and through the polished door at the back of their box. The front was covered up by a curtain, which Grace opened curiously.
Vernon and the Doctor joined her at the edge of the box, peering down at the people milling around in the stalls below. The orchestra was already tuning, but the sounds Grace heard in the audience were a far cry from the hushed reverence she was used to from the opera-going experience she had gained in her own time. People were laughing, and chattering, and eating, and Grace was really glad she wasn’t in the pit because she could see a group of teenagers on the other side of the theater who were leaning out of a box to spit on the crowd below them. Were they drunk, or just really terrible people?
“...of course then it turned out the Duke had been a robot the whole time, which was embarrassing for everyone really, and—“
“Hush, Doctor,” said Vernon, imperiously. The overture had begun. “I know I can’t expect all these Venetians to be quiet, but I want to hear this as perfectly as I can.”
The curtain of the box next to theirs had been closed since they arrived, but as the last boisterous notes of the overture ended and the curtain rose, Grace saw a corner of the curtain twitch, as though someone were inside. She wondered what the point of going to the opera was if you didn’t even bother to look at the stage.
The backdrop onstage was of a palace wall, and out of the painted window, Grace could see mountains, covered in snow.
The trumpet fanfare at the beginning of the overture was a lot better than it had been in 2002—and the music, overall, was as good as Baroque music always was (she would be kidding herself if she pretended she could really tell a difference in quality between Handel and whatever forgotten hack had written this opera). The fact that Prince Ogier’s hunting party was going after an actual live bear was pretty awesome. (Grace suffered a brief moment of guilty doubt about the RSPCA, and resolved to donate to some kind of wildlife preserve when she got back home.)
When Ogier got lost in the woods and sang his first aria, Grace stopped caring about the plot, or the pretty-good-for-back-then painted sets, or the bear. She just wanted to hear him sing again.
“Hey, Doctor,” Grace hissed, while the chorus blustered away. “Is that Zaffirino?”
He nodded, eagerly.
“I wish I had brought opera glasses,” said Vernon. “I can’t see his face.”
The Doctor reached into the pocket of his silly velvet coat. “Here you are,” he said, pulling out a yo-yo, a skein of multi-colored yarn, a rubber chicken, and a little black device covered in flashing lights. He handed the last item to Vernon, who took it gingerly, inspected it, and put it up to her eyes.
The Doctor started to put the other things back in his pocket, then, with a wink at Grace, he tossed the rubber chicken into the crowd below. There was a shriek and laugh below them, and the Doctor leaned over the edge of the box and caught the eye of the little girl who had caught the chicken. She grinned fiercely at him. He waved.
Grace hadn’t been exactly sure that Baroque opera would be the Doctor’s thing, but she hadn’t taken into account how much he obviously loved chaos—and the crowd below them certainly qualified. Grace hoped that little girl had someone looking out for her.
On stage was getting chaotic, too. The bear was back, and at the moment, the orchestra sounded a little under-rehearsed.
“Oh, look!” said Vernon, pointing. She handed the alien binoculars to Grace. “Zaffirino really does wear a sapphire, look!”
Thanks to the TARDIS translator (what language were they even speaking?) Grace got the connection between the name and the gem—but she wasn’t sure why that should be exciting. She looked through the binoculars. Something clicked and whirred, and suddenly Grace could see startlingly well. Zaffirino was standing at the edge of the stage, eyeing the bear a little nervously—but as Grace watched, he started to sing again, and his nervousness dropped away. Sure enough, there was a blue stone pinned at his throat. It was carved in a design that…actually looked weirdly familiar.
Grace was about to ask the Doctor to take a look—something was nagging at the edge of her memory—when something thumped loudly in the box next to theirs, and someone screamed.
“She’s fainted!” said a woman’s voice.
Grace glanced over. The drawn curtain was rustling. She could still hear the woman’s voice, muttering something urgently, but Zaffirino’s voice drowned everything else out.
“I’ll be back in a second,” said Grace, and she gave the binoculars back to Vernon, and scrambled out the back of their box.
The door next to theirs was locked, but Grace banged on it. “I’m a doctor,” she called. “Let me in.”
The door was opened by a rather short man with an elegant mustache. He gestured for Grace to enter, and she followed him to the little group of people who were gathered around the woman on the floor. Grace knelt beside her.
It was the woman from the other gondola—the woman Giovanni the gondolier had recognized as Modesta Barbaro. Her breathing was shallow and her skin was damp with perspiration, but otherwise she seemed perfectly healthy.
“Can you sit up?” asked Grace. She slid a hand under Modesta’s shoulder and supported her as she rose.
“I’m sorry,” said Modesta, “I don’t know what came over me. Almoro—”
The man who had opened the door crouched down beside Modesta and Grace. He took Modesta’s hand in his. He looked very upset.
“Sweetheart,” he said, “you should go home. Rest.”
She nodded, weakly. Almoro turned to Grace. “Go with her, Doctor…I don’t believe I know your name.”
“It’s Holloway,” said Grace, sticking out her hand. He shook it distractedly.
“Doctor Holloway,” repeated Almoro. “Please, go with my wife and see she gets home safely.”
Grace thought longingly, for a moment, about the opera she would be missing. On the other hand, after breaking into the Barbaros’ house (multiple times, if you counted future crime), it was the least she could do—and maybe if Modesta seemed all right by the time they got home, Grace could return for the last act.
She nodded, and put a steadying arm around Modesta. “Let’s get you home.”
Backstage at the Teatro Apollo, Republic of Venice, 1728.
During the break before Act Three, Balthasar handed Bianca the torn cloak of Prince Ogier.
“I got too close to Francesca’s damn bear,” he told her, with a rueful smile.
Bianca had helped maintain her brother’s stage costumes since she was old enough to thread a needle. She took the cloak from him, and picked up her sewing basket from the floor of his dressing room.
“You never should have humored her!” Bianca said, not sure if she should be amused or horrified, and settling for disapproval.
“It’s nice to know my little sister sympathizes with my troubles,” said Balthasar, kissing the top of her head. “I could always refuse to come back. This time next year, we could be backstage somewhere in Munich.”
Bianca pulled a face. “Munich? Really? You wouldn’t.” Her fingers worked quickly and steadily, pushing the needle in and out of the fabric.
“Do they even have opera in Munich?”
He shrugged. “Or Rome, or Naples—anywhere you like.”
“I like it here,” said Bianca, firmly. “And I know you do, too.” She glanced at Balthasar. “Tell you what, since I’m already I’m altering your wardrobe, why don’t you let me take a few feathers out of your head-dress?”
“Why on earth would you want to do that?” exclaimed Balthasar, taking off the head-dress in question and flopping onto a chair.
“Because you look like a peacock,” said Bianca. “People fall in love with you as soon as you open your mouth—so why does your costume need to be so ridiculously elaborate?”
“Francesca should never have let you read The Fashionable Theater,” said Balthasar, amused. “Just because Benedetto Marcello said singers don’t know how to dress themselves doesn’t make it true.”
Bianca had a ready retort for that, but Balthasar added, “Besides, I already look ridiculous. I might as well do it in style.”
Bianca looked at her brother. He was awkwardly tall, even sitting down, and despite every argument Bianca had ever tried, he kept himself neurotically thin. His face was plump and kind.
She said, “I love you when you look like yourself.”
He rolled his eyes at her.
Bianca cut the thread with her teeth and tossed the cloak at his head. He caught it, laughing.
“Go sing,” she said.
Later, when Prince Ogier was lamenting his woeful fate on stage, Bianca sat with Francesca and Vivarelli in the wings, talking quietly. Vivarelli was playing Ogier’s wife, who by now was long dead, and Francesca’s Fairy Queen was absent for almost the whole last act.
“Did either of you hear? One of the stagehands just told me Modesta Barbaro left during the first act,” said Vivarelli.
“Really?” said Bianca. That wasn’t promising, considering that tonight was the first performance of an opera Modesta Barbaro and her husband had heavily supported.
“How does he know?” asked Francesca, frowning slightly.
“The stagehand had it from an usher,” said Vivarelli. “I suppose it might not be true, but I’ve only seen Almoro in the box—haven’t you?”
Francesca nodded. “It’s her loss if she’s missing it—it’s going splendidly, don’t you think? I hope Vincenzo Magno is pleased—he said he would come backstage after it was over, but I haven’t seen him in the audience, either.”
Bianca shivered. Vincenzo Magno had been nothing but polite to any of them, and he had, at the last minute, written a season-saving opera, but something about him creeped her out. He had been strangely uninvolved in Francesca’s carefully planned rehearsals. What composer didn’t care if his first opera was performed exactly right? It would be just like him to not even show up to the premiere.
“Did Balthasar tell either of you what Magno asked us to do last night, at the dress?” asked Francesca.
Bianca shook her head. She hadn’t even known Magno had been at the dress rehearsal.
“He showed up at the end, and he obviously had no idea what we had been working on, and he wanted Balthasar and me to promise him that at the end, we would sing our final duet exactly as he had written it—that is, without any ornaments!”
“Without ornaments?” asked Vivarelli, baffled. “No trills, no appoggiatura?”
“Nothing,” said Francesca, obviously still appalled. “The man acts like he’s never been to an opera in his life! And frankly, as much as I like the rest of the show, that last number is pretty, not beautiful—it needs as much help as we can give it. Anyway, Balthasar and I laughed in his face, and he went off in a huff.”
“It’s like he thinks the composer should have control over the performance!” said Vivarelli, with a characteristic lack of irony. “Obviously, us singers will always know what’s best.”
Onstage, the chorus sang, low and doleful, as Prince Ogier discovered the grave of his dead child. As their last notes faded away, the orchestra fell silent except for the string section, playing the precise, stately chords that would prepare the audience for Balthasar’s next aria.
Francesca said, “It’s nearly time for me to go on.” She stood, and walked away from Vivarelli and Bianca. They both watched her, barely off stage, as she bowed her head and covered her face with her hands in concentration. When Francesca straightened to make her entrance, even the set of her shoulders had changed—she was a queen now, not an actress.
“Isn’t it sad,” said Vivarelli, “that she still needs to go through that silly ritual? When I have as many years’ experience as she does, I am sure I’ll just be able to—“
“You’ll never be as experienced as she is,” said Bianca, indignantly.
Vivarelli’s face fell, but she wasn’t sorry. Balthasar kept saying she should be patient with him, but Bianca was pretty sure her brother would be even more annoyed than she was at anyone who slighted Francesca.
She was about to tell Vivarelli that he ought to be ashamed of himself for speaking ill of the woman who was giving him a chance to sing with the best company in the city—when the stage was suddenly, frighteningly lit with weird, flickering light. Balthasar and Francesca had their arms around one another. They were singing the final duet. For a terrible moment, Bianca was sure someone must have kicked over a footlight and set the stage on fire—but the light was blue, not red, and as she and VIvarelli glanced at each other, equally horrified, the light went out, and the stage returned to normal.
“What was that?” hissed Bianca.
Vivarelli shook his head, mystified. On stage, Francesca and Balthasar were still singing—with trills and mordants more elaborate than Bianca had ever heard them rehearse. Had they even noticed?
When Francesca and Balthasar came backstage they were still arm-in-arm.
“Well?” said Francesca. Bianca hugged them both.
“You fools,” said a man’s voice behind them. “What have you done?”
It was Vincenzo Magno.
“I’m sorry we didn’t take your suggestion about the ending,” said Balthasar. “But did you hear the audience? There was barely a sound out of them for the entire duet!”
Bianca knew what her brother was like after successful premieres. Nothing would ruin his good mood—certainly not anything so trivial as a disapproving composer.
“Yes,” growled Magno, “I did hear the audience during the last song.”
The man raised himself to his full height, but if he was trying to be intimidating, he failed. After all he only came up to Balthasar’s chin.
“May I speak to you both…privately?” he said.
Balthasar glanced at Francesca, who shrugged.
“Why not?” she said. “We’ll use Balthasar’s dressing room. Vivarelli, be a dear and keep everyone out for the next ten minutes, would you?”
Bianca didn’t think Vincenzo Magno had meant to invite her along for the private chat, but also she didn’t think Francesca or her brother would care, so she followed them into the room. Someone should really clear out some of the furniture in here—the wardrobe with the broken lock, for instance, was useless and bulky, and made the room far too cramped.
“Maestro Magno,” said Francesca, politely, “I am sorry you are disappointed in our execution of your opera, but you were in the audience—you heard how loved it was. And I can’t help but think that perhaps if you had contributed a little during more during the rehearsals—”
“Oh, Signora Mara,” said Magno, “you quite mistake me. I am not here to tell you how angry I am about your disobedience. It is too late for that, and you humans have a saying about spilt milk… No, Signora, I am simply here to tell you a story.”
His gaze travelled around the little room, and he gave a little acknowledging smile when he noticed Bianca.
“You may choose to believe that my story is the fanciful plot of yet another opera, if you wish. But I assure you it is all quite true. I have taken a great deal of trouble to personally verify the details of my tale.
“A very long time ago, in a world peopled by men and women so powerful even your gods would quake to meet them, there was a great ruler. His name was Rassilon, and he was the greatest of what are called the Time Lords. Rassilon was able to bend the very nature of reality to his will.
“Just like Ogier’s Fairy Queen, the Time Lord Rassilon had power over time and space. He was the greatest telepath of his age, and his curiosity as a scientist was unlimited. When he was still young, Rassilon created a device that would enhance the telepathic connection between him and any other person—so that instead of controlling just one mind, he might influence thousands—no, millions of people to do his will.
“That device was stolen from him. I have searched long and hard to recover it. And it was only when I heard the legend of Zaffirino, the man whose voice could hold thousands in thrall, who could even—so I hear—drive his audience to madness, or to death—that I knew that I had found it.”
“You’re right,” said Francesca. “That would make a good plot. But you really don’t know opera, do you? Balthasar’s ‘legend’ is not exactly unique—or haven’t you ever heard of La Romanina, or Senesino? Or, for that matter, of me?”
“Oh, I know opera,” said Vincenzo Magno. “And Zaffirino knows exactly what I am talking about.”
Balthasar shook his head, but he looked unaccountably nervous. He never had been as good an actor as he wanted to be.
Vincenzo Magno said, “Perhaps I should describe the device again. It was engraved with ancient symbols of power. To you ignorant humans, it resembles an ordinary precious stone. A sapphire, to be precise.”
Balthasar put a hand to his throat, and touched the sapphire he wore for luck. It was engraved in a design neither he nor Bianca had ever been able to puzzle out.
“Well, Zaffirino?” said Magno, and he spread his hands invitingly. “Would you care to tell us how you came by that jewel?”
“Who are you?” whispered Balthasar. “He said he would come back for it, but you aren’t him.”
“He?” Magno laughed with pleasure. “No, I am not him. But I shall tell you my name if you answer my question.”
“I don’t understand what either of you are talking about,” said Francesca, too loudly. “Why on earth would we believe your ridiculous story had anything to do with Balthasar’s broach?”
“He is telling the truth,” said Balthasar. “And you both deserve to hear the truth from me.”
He looked at Francesca, and then at Bianca. He took a breath.
“I gave my debut performance when I was seventeen. It was a disaster. I was my teacher’s favorite pupil, he was sure of my talent, but when I had to sing in public for the first time, I just totally fell apart. And of course after that, I was terrified to try again. Porpora was furious with me. He called me a failure and a coward and he told me he wished he had never wasted his time on me.”
Bianca had never heard this story before, and from the way Francesca was looking at Balthasar, it seemed clear she hadn’t either.
“And just a few days after that…I met someone. He was obviously a foreigner but I’ve no idea from where. He was on a street corner, playing the spoons. We started talking and I—told him everything. I don’t know why.”
Balthasar unpinned the sapphire from his collar.
“Before he said goodbye, he gave me this. He said I seemed like a trustworthy fellow and that he had been looking for somewhere safe to leave it for a while. He said I should think of it as a good luck charm, and that I would become one of the greatest singers of my time. He said it like he knew. I never saw him again—but he saved my career.”
“This is absurd,” said Francesca. Her voice was strained. “You think that because somebody gave you a charm, it somehow made a difference to your singing? Of all the people to succumb to superstition, I never thought you would—”
“You have it wrong,” said Balthasar. “It’s not superstition, it’s true. I can’t sing without it.”
There was a shocked silence.
“So what you are saying,” said Francesca, slowly and very coldly, “is that you are only a great singer because this mystery man gave you a magic blue stone.”
Balthasar said nothing.
“You were a failure, and some devil gave you a magic sapphire—and it made people love you?”
Her mouth twitched in disgust.
“What would you have done?” demanded Balthasar. “I was seventeen, not twelve, it’s not like I could have become anything else. And Bianca—“
“Leave Bianca out of this,” said Francesca. “It’s not her fault her brother is a liar and a fraud.” She laughed bitterly. “I respected you, Zaffirino. I admired you. Well, fuck me—oh wait, you can’t.”
“What would I have done?” continued Francesca, with cold fury. “Do you think by the time I was seventeen there was any turning back for me? Do you think any respectable man would have married a little failure of a theater girl? Do you know how many respectable men still treat me like a whore, after everything I’ve accomplished? I don’t need any little sapphire. What I have, I earned.”
“You’re right,” said Balthasar. “You’re right.”
He held out the sapphire.
“Take it, Magno. I don’t want it anymore.”
Vincenzo Magno smiled triumphantly.
“Could the two of you be any more self-centered?” demanded Bianca, and she snatched the sapphire out of her brother’s hand.
“Can’t either of you guess what he’s going to do? This man is going to take Balthasar’s sapphire and use it to enslave people’s minds and take over the world, and all the two of you can think about is your stupid careers. And your stupider feelings! How can you stand there shouting at one another when the fate of the world is at stake?”
“Your little sister makes a good argument, Zaffirino,” said Vincenzo Magno. “But she has just sealed her own fate. A great pity. Wasn’t she is the reason you chose this life in the first place?”
He turned his attention to Bianca.
“I cannot take the Sapphire from you unless you give it willingly. Lord Rassilon programmed it with certain protections for the owner—but it was never designed to be worn by a non-telepath, let alone by a human. There are other ways it will be useful to me, even in your hands.”
“I will never do anything for you,” said Bianca. “Who are you, anyway? Some kind of hack mystic? Vincenzo Magno, the composer nobody’s ever heard of? You can’t make me—“
“Oh, but I can,” said Magno. “You see, Vincenzo Magno is not really my name.”
Bianca tried to look away from him scornfully—but she had made eye contact when she shouted at him, and now she could not tear her gaze from his. The rest of the room seemed to fall away, until nothing existed by the implacable coldness of his eyes.
“I am the Master, and you will obey me.”
Giovanni’s gondola was waiting outside the theater. He frowned when he saw Grace and for an awful second she was sure he was going to give her away—but he didn’t say a word to either of them. Apparently gondola etiquette was different when your passenger was a wealthy native and not an obviously out-of-place tourist.
“You can drop the act now, Doctor Holloway,” said Modesta Barbaro, as they settled into their seats.
The woman looked much better already.
“I’m sorry?” said Grace.
“Oh, come now! Almoro might have been just panicked enough not to notice your womanly curves, but I have eyes. You’re obviously either not a doctor, or you’re one of Vincenzo’s time-travelling friends. Either way, you certainly aren’t from around here.”
“Right,” said Grace. She kind of wished she’d thought to bring the Doctor along. How was she even supposed to respond to an accusation of time-travelling?
“Almoro’s your husband, right?” she asked, stalling. “And he doesn’t know about…all this?”
Modesta smirked. “Why should he? He’d only get in the way—and I don’t plan to be tied down to a man when the new world becomes a reality.”
“Right,” said Grace, again, as the boat glided up to the door of Modesta’s palazzo.
“Come inside and wait with me,” said Modesta. “Vincenzo will join us soon—and then it will begin.”
Grace wondered if she should ask what “it” was. There was obviously something fishy going on here, but she couldn’t think of a way to ask directly without completely giving herself away.
“So how do you know, uh, Vincenzo?”
“I met him when I was still practically a child,” said Modesta, as Grace trailed her through hallways that were already starting to seem familiar.
They stopped in what was definitely the nicest living room Grace had ever set foot in. There were paintings all over the walls—even on the ceiling. It was pretty incredible.
“I had just been betrothed, but I wanted a different life for myself. I wanted excitement, and power, and freedom—and I knew that as Almoro’s wife, I would have none of those things. I felt so helpless.”
“You don’t seem helpless now,” said Grace.
Modesta inclined her head.
“Then, I met Maestro Magno. He came to a party at Almoro’s house—here—and ignored everyone but me. He could tell I was special. He couldn’t save me from my marriage, but he promised me, if I waited patiently, and if I did exactly as he asked, one day he would give me greater power than a queen.”
“And is that still what you’re hoping for?” asked Grace.
Modesta smiled brightly at her.
“It is no longer hope, it is certainty. I followed his instructions to the letter, but for years I feared I must have made some tiny, stupid mistake, because I heard nothing from him. I thought perhaps he had only been playing with me. Now I know he was only waiting for the right time.”
“What exactly did he ask you to do?” asked Grace. This was seriously creeping her out.
“He didn’t tell you?” asked Modesta—but she looked excited, not suspicious. “Here, I’ll show you.”
She beckoned Grace to a shrouded side table the corner of the room, behind the harpsichord. Grace pulled the cloth away.
It looked like a gramophone.
“Um,” said Grace.
Modesta looked disappointed. “This is only the outer part,” she said. “Most of the machine is hidden in the walls. When we married, Almoro had the whole building redesigned in my honor, and I slipped Vincenzo’s plans to the architect.”
“What does it do?” asked Grace.
“Nothing yet,” said Modesta. “But what Vincenzo Magno did at the opera tonight was only the first experiment. When his machine is activated, it will magnify whatever is said in this room a thousand-fold. The whole city will hear it. All we need now is the final piece.”
“Wait a second,” said Grace. “What kind of experiment are we talking about?”
“I thought you knew,” said Modesta. “That’s why you collected me, it wasn’t safe to stay there.”
“Not safe?” hissed Grace. “Why not?”
But Modesta seemed to be finally cluing in to the idea that Grace might not be the person Modesta thought she was. She said nothing.
“What exactly are you planning?” asked Grace, in what she hoped was a more reasonable tone. “Why does the whole city need to hear what happens in this room?”
“Who are you?” said Modesta.
“Doctor Grace Holloway,” said Grace. “Just like I told you. And you’re right, I’m from the twenty-first century, not from here, but I’ve never met Vincenzo Magno in my life and I’m starting to hope I never will.”
“If you don’t know the Maestro, then how—“
“I came here with the Doctor,” said Grace. “Your Maestro sounds like a bad apple, so he’s probably heard of the Doctor.”
All of a sudden, Grace knew where she had seen the design on Zaffirino’s sapphire broach. It was the same—or almost the same—as the symbols she had seen carved in the room where the Doctor kept the Eye of Harmony. In other words, the same as the symbols she had seen on the night Grace had died.
And Maestro sounded an awful lot like a different English word.
“Actually,” Grace continued, really hoping she was wrong, and also hoping that the Doctor and Vernon had managed to stop whatever Vincenzo Magno and Modesta Barbaro had started at the theater, “I’m pretty certain of it.”
“It sounds like Maestro Magno saved you,” she said, “Or at least you think he did. But you can save yourself, and all of the people you’re going to hurt. Just tell me what he’s planning, and I promise you, we can make it right.”
Modesta looked at her strangely.
“This Doctor,” she said, “Who is he?”
Explaining the Doctor twice in one day was too much for Grace. How could Grace possibly hope to explain a man she barely understood to a person she had only just met—let alone a particularly shady person? The Doctor was her friend. He kept saving the world. He was an insufferable name-dropper and sometimes his monologues were really boring and she had killed him but he had come back to life in her morgue, and kissed her, and now he was taking her on vacation, even if it didn’t really feel like that at the moment.
And unlike Violet Paget, or Balthasar Cesare, the Doctor didn’t ever use his real name. He might not even have one.
If Grace was right in her guess about who this Maestro Magno was, that was something the two of them might have in common.
“The Doctor,” said Grace, “is—“
She was interrupted by shouting in the hallway, and then by the soothing sound of the TARDIS, landing, finally, thank God…
…except for how it wasn’t the Doctor’s TARDIS.
The door of a fancy wardrobe that hadn’t been there a moment ago opened, and Grace took a step back.
“At last,” said Modesta Barbaro, fervently. “It has begun at last.”
Vernon realized there was something truly odd going on when Zaffirino’s broach started to glow in the final act.
“Doctor,” she said, “I didn’t want to speak ill of your friend, but I’ve heard—“
“My word,” he breathed, “The Sapphire of Rassilon has been activated somehow. How…?”
“The what?” said Vernon.
“The Sapphire of Rassilon,” said the Doctor. “I gave it to him when he was a teenager, thought it would cheer him up. I never imagined it still worked.”
He grabbed her hand. “Well, shall we go fix it?”
“Doctor,” said Vernon, “What exactly does this sapphire do?”
“Hypnotizes people. Subjugates them to the wearer’s will. Handy thing for a stage sensation to have, actually, funny I never thought about that until now, but—“
“And you gave it to him?” said Vernon. “This is too ridiculous. How can it be that you, of all people, could have ended up in my bedroom, the very night I met Maestro Magno, the very night Count Alvise told us the story about Modesta Barbaro and Zaffirino…”
“Modesta Barbaro?” asked the Doctor. “What about her?”
“Zaffirino’s going to kill her,” said Vernon.
“Doctor,” said Vernon, “don’t we have somewhere to be?”
They started to run.
By the time they got downstairs, the opera had ended and there was already a crowd; but Vernon had always been good at navigating crowds of people who thought themselves more important than she was. She elbowed her way to the stage door, the Doctor at her heels, and they pushed easily past the guard.
Backstage, there were fewer people, but Vernon faltered, not wanting to be thrown out by someone who might well be an idol of hers. The Doctor picked up his pace and flashed a calling card to the first person they saw, a tall young man Vernon was almost certain had played Ogier’s wife.
“He’s not expecting you,” said the young man. He looked spooked. “But I can show you his dressing room.”
The door was locked. Vernon could hear shouting from inside, and then the same sound that the Doctor’s TARDIS had made, and then more shouting—women’s voices, she thought.
The Doctor reached into his pocket again—he seemed to have the whole world in his pocket, literally as well as metaphorically—and drew out a slender device about the size of a pen. He pointed it at the door, pushed something, and it buzzed. Vernon heard the lock click.
They opened the door.
“You were standing right there, why didn’t you stop her?”
“Why didn’t I—"
Both their heads turned to the open door.
“Get out,” said Francesca Mara, the leading lady.
Vernon took a step back. The Doctor ambled into the room like he owned the place.
“There was a TARDIS here,” said the Doctor. “Who was in it?”
“My sister,” said Zaffirino. “My sister, and the composer Vincenzo Magno.”
“Magno,” repeated Vernon and the Doctor, looking at one another.
“Balthasar’s good-luck broach apparently has magical powers,” said La Mara. “Magno’s going to take over the world.”
“We have to get back to the TARDIS,” said the Doctor. “Back to my TARDIS. I can track his TARDIS’ signature from there.”
Then, naturally, they were running again—this time out of the theater.
A gondolier hailed them from the canal.
“I remember you,” said the Doctor, hopping in, “It’s Giovanni, right?”
“Yes,” said the man, “I’ve been waiting for you. It’s about Grace—I think she’s in trouble.”
Bianca had never felt so calm in her life, and she had never felt so safe as she did now, with her brother’s broach pinned at her own throat and the Master at her side.
Somehow, she knew all kinds of things she had never known before. She knew she was in a TARDIS, and what that was, and she remembered what it had been like to be a little child sneaking into the Special Collections branch of the University Library to read up on the shadier aspects of Time Lord history.
She knew what a Time Lord was.
She also knew that to activate her brother’s sapphire broach, she would have to hum a quick series of pitches—no trills, no improvised ornamentation of any sort, just those notes, thirteen times in succession. She was no singer but that hardly mattered. All that mattered was that she would wait until they reached the salon, where her voice would be amplified and her telepathic signal would be transmitted to the entire city.
She knew that when this happened, they would not bow to her will. Their minds would become blank, ready to obey, but she herself would cease to matter.
She did not mind.
The TARDIS landed.
“You still have time, Modesta,” she heard. “You can still make this right.”
“Bianca,” said her brother, “Oh, thank God—”
She started to sing, and the pain started.
EPILOGUE: The TARDIS
“So you weren’t trying to seduce Modesta Barbaro after all,” said Vernon, from her seat in the TARDIS sick-bay.
“No, I really wasn’t,” said Balthasar.
“And you’re…actually sort of a nice person.”
“Right on the mark,” said Francesca. “I can see that flattery is one of your strengths, Miss Lee.”
Vernon took off her glasses and rubbed at her eyes with the back of her hand. “From now on,” she said, “reading history books is going to be an even more frustrating experience than it already was.”
Grace laughed, sadly.
“It sounds like history got most of this story wrong,” she said. “If Modesta Barbaro hadn’t grabbed the sapphire at the last minute, Bianca Cesare would be dead—but by your time, all people think they know about her is that she was a victim.”
“I can’t believe I missed all this,” said Bianca. “It’s like one of those stupid operas where everything that’s actually interesting happens off-stage, and then the messenger comes back from the field of battle to sing about it.”
“I completely agree,” said Giovanni. “I’d love to see a real battle on stage.”
“Don’t either of you talk about stage battles until you’ve had to choreograph them,” said Francesca, dryly. “Stage battles are few and far between for a reason.”
“You could probably make it work,” said Balthasar.
“What happened to the Master?” asked Bianca. If she let herself think about it, she could still remember the way she had felt about him when she had been hypnotized—like he had been a part of her, like his past was her past—and his future infinitely more important than hers. She was trying not to think about it.
“It all happened so fast,” said Grace. “The two of you stepped out of the TARDIS, and the Doctor and everyone else came running in, and I was literally in the middle of convincing Modesta that she really shouldn’t throw all of Venice to the wolves just so that she could feel better about her life. Then you started glowing, and singing, and Modesta ran up to you and ripped the sapphire away from you.”
“She disrupted the telepathic link,” said the Doctor, coming in. “But it was like sticking your finger in an electrical socket. All that power went straight through her, and her body couldn’t take it.”
“Why am I alive?” asked Bianca.
“Because you weren’t touching the sapphire after she grabbed it,” said the Doctor. “And oh, by the way—the Sapphire really is de-activated, now.”
He reached into his coat pocket and pulled out Balthasar’s broach.
“If you still want it, it’s yours.”
Balthasar started to shake his head, but Francesca said, “Of course he wants it.”
“I really thought—” said Balthasar.
“You really thought that that broach was what made you a great singer?” said Francesca. “Well, that was stupid. It was stupid of me to believe it even for a moment. The Doctor has already told us that it was only activated by Vincenzo—by the Master’s scientific device, and now that that’s gone, there’s no reason—”
“This whole conversation is stupid,” said Vernon. “Don’t any of you read? Doctor, please keep that out of sight—who knows what damage it might do in the wrong hands!”
“Yeah,” said Grace. “Didn’t you think it was de-activated last time?”
The Doctor grinned sheepishly and put the sapphire back in his pocket.
“Where to now?” said Grace.
“Well,” said the Doctor, “We should drop off our passengers.”
“Good luck with that,” said Grace.