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Aptly named after one of history’s most famed travelers, the Marco Polo International Airport is located four miles north of St. Mark’s Square on the waters of the Laguna Veneta.
Because of the luxuries of private air travel, Elizabeth Sinskey had deplaned only ten minutes earlier and was already skimming across the lagoon in a futuristic black tender—a Dubois SR52 Blackbird—which had been sent by the stranger who had phoned earlier.
For Sinskey, after being immobilized in the back of the van all day, the open air of the ocean felt invigorating. She turned her face to the salty wind and let her silver hair stream out behind her. Nearly two hours had passed since her last injection, and she was finally feeling alert. For the first time since last night, Elizabeth Sinskey was herself.
Agent Brüder was seated beside her along with his team of men. None of them said a word. If they had concerns about this unusual rendezvous, they knew their thoughts were irrelevant; the decision was not theirs to make.
As the tender raced on, a large island loomed up to them on the right, its shoreline dotted with squat brick buildings and smokestacks. Murano, Elizabeth realized, recognizing the illustrious glassblowing factories.
I can’t believe I’m back, she thought, enduring a sharp pang of sadness. Full circle.
Years ago, while in med school, she had come to Venice with her fiancé and stopped to visit the Murano Glass Museum. There, her fiancé had spied a beautiful handblown mobile and innocently commented that he wanted to hang one just like it someday in their baby’s nursery. Overcome with guilt for having kept a painful secret far too long, Elizabeth finally leveled with him about her childhood asthma and the tragic glucocorticoid treatments that had destroyed her reproductive system.
Whether it had been her dishonesty or her infertility that turned the young man’s heart to stone, Elizabeth would never know. But one week later, she left Venice without her engagement ring.
Her only memento of the heartbreaking trip had been a lapis lazuli amulet. The Rod of Asclepius was a fitting symbol of medicine—bitter medicine in this case—but she had worn it every day since.
My precious amulet, she thought. A parting gift from the man who wanted me to bear his children.
Nowadays, the Venetian islands carried no romance for her at all, their isolated villages sparking thoughts not of love but of the quarantine colonies that had once been established on them in an effort to curb the Black Death.
As the Blackbird tender raced on past Isola San Pietro, Elizabeth realized they were homing in on a massive gray yacht, which seemed to be anchored in a deep channel, awaiting their arrival.
The gunmetal-gray ship looked like something out of the U.S. military’s stealth program. The name emblazoned across the back offered no clue as to what kind of ship it might be.
The ship loomed larger and larger, and soon Sinskey could see a lone figure on the rear deck—a small, solitary man, deeply tanned, watching them through binoculars. As the tender arrived at The Mendacium’s expansive rear docking platform, the man descended the stairs to greet them.
“Dr. Sinskey, welcome aboard.” The sun-drenched man politely shook her hand, his palms soft and smooth, hardly the hands of a boatman. “I appreciate your coming. Follow me, please.”
As the group ascended several decks, Sinskey caught fleeting glimpses of what looked like busy cubicle farms. This strange ship was actually packed with people, but none were relaxing—they were all working.
Working on what?
As they continued climbing, Sinksey could hear the ship’s massive engines power up, churning a deep wake as the yacht began moving again.
Where are we going? she wondered, alarmed.
“I’d like to speak to Dr. Sinskey alone,” the man said to the soldiers, pausing to glance at Sinskey. “If that’s okay with you?”
“Sir,” Brüder said forcefully, “I’d like to recommend Dr. Sinskey be examined by your onboard physician. She’s had some medical—”
“I’m fine,” Sinskey interjected. “Truly. Thank you, though.”
The provost eyed Brüder a long moment and then motioned to a table of food and drink being set up on the deck. “Catch your breath. You’re going to need it. You’ll be going back ashore very shortly.”
Without further ado, the provost turned his back on the agent and ushered Sinskey into an elegant stateroom and study, closing the door behind him.
“Drink?” he asked, motioning to a bar.
She shook her head, still trying to take in her bizarre surroundings. Who is this man? What does he do here?
Her host was studying her now, his fingers steepled beneath his chin. “Are you aware that my client Bertrand Zobrist referred to you as ‘the silver-haired devil’?”
“I have a few choice names for him as well.”
The man showed no emotion as he walked over to his desk and pointed down at a large book. “I’d like you to look at this.”
Sinskey walked over and eyed the tome. Dante’s Inferno? She recalled the horrifying images of death that Zobrist had shown her during their encounter at the Council on Foreign Relations.
“Zobrist gave this to me two weeks ago. There’s an inscription.”
Sinskey studied the handwritten text on the title page. It was signed by Zobrist.
My dear friend, thank you for helping me find the path.
The world thanks you, too.
Sinskey felt a chill. “What path did you help him find?”
“I have no idea. Or rather, until a few hours ago I had no idea.”
“Now I’ve made a rare exception to my protocol … and I’ve reached out to you.”
Sinskey had traveled a long way and was in no mood for a cryptic conversation. “Sir, I don’t know who you are, or what the hell you do on this ship, but you owe me an explanation. Tell me why you harbored a man who was being actively pursued by the World Health Organization.”
Despite Sinskey’s heated tone, the man replied in a measured whisper: “I realize you and I have been working at cross-purposes, but I would suggest that we forget the past. The past is the past. The future, I sense, is what demands our immediate attention.”
With that, the man produced a tiny red flash drive and inserted it into his computer, motioning for her to sit down. “Bertrand Zobrist made this video. He was hoping I would release it for him tomorrow.”
Before Sinskey could respond, the computer monitor dimmed, and she heard the soft sounds of lapping water. Emerging from the blackness, a scene began to take shape … the interior of a water-filled cavern … like a subterranean pond. Strangely, the water appeared to be illuminated from within … glowing with an odd crimson luminescence.
As the lapping continued, the camera tilted downward and descended into the water, focusing in on the cavern’s silt-covered floor. Bolted to the floor was a shiny rectangular plaque bearing an inscription, a date, and a name.
IN THIS PLACE, ON THIS DATE, THE WORLD WAS CHANGED FOREVER.
The date was tomorrow. The name was Bertrand Zobrist.
Elizabeth Sinskey felt herself shudder. “What is this place?!” she demanded. “Where is this place?!”
In response, the provost showed his first bit of emotion—a deep sigh of disappointment and concern. “Dr. Sinskey,” he replied, “I was hoping you might know the answer to that same question.”
One mile away, on the waterfront walkway of Riva degli Schiavoni, the view out to sea had changed ever so slightly. To anyone looking carefully, an enormous gray yacht had just eased around a spit of land to the east. It was now bearing down on St. Mark’s Square.
The Mendacium, FS-2080 realized with a surge of fear.
Its gray hull was unmistakable.
The provost is coming … and time is running out.
Snaking through heavy crowds on the Riva degli Schiavoni, Langdon, Sienna, and Ferris hugged the water’s edge, making their way into St. Mark’s Square and arriving at its southernmost border, the edge where the piazza met the sea.
Here the throng of tourists was almost impenetrable, creating a claustrophobic crush around Langdon as the multitudes gravitated over to photograph the two massive columns that stood here, framing the square.
The official gateway to the city, Langdon thought ironically, knowing the spot had also been used for public executions until as late as the eighteenth century.
Atop one of the gateway’s columns he could see a bizarre statue of St. Theodore, posing proudly with his slain dragon of legendary repute, which always looked to Langdon much more like a crocodile.
Atop the second column stood the ubiquitous symbol of Venice—the winged lion. Throughout the city, the winged lion could be seen with his paw resting proudly on an open book bearing the Latin inscription Pax tibi Marce, evangelista meus (May Peace Be with You, Mark, My Evangelist). According to legend, these words were spoken by an angel upon St. Mark’s arrival in Venice, along with the prediction that his body would one day rest here. This apocryphal legend was later used by Venetians to justify plundering St. Mark’s bones from Alexandria for reburial in St. Mark’s Basilica. To this day, the winged lion endures as the city’s symbol and is visible at nearly every turn.
Langdon motioned to his right, past the columns, across St. Mark’s Square. “If we get separated, meet at the front door of the basilica.”
The others agreed and quickly began skirting the edges of the crowd and following the western wall of the Doge’s Palace into the square. Despite the laws forbidding feeding them, the celebrated pigeons of Venice appeared to be alive and well, some pecking about at the feet of the crowds and others swooping into the outdoor cafés to pillage unprotected bread baskets and torment the tuxedoed waiters.
This grand piazza, unlike most in Europe, was shaped not in the form of a square but rather in that of the letter L. The shorter leg—known as the piazzetta—connected the ocean to St. Mark’s Basilica. Up ahead, the square took a ninety-degree left turn into its larger leg, which ran from the basilica toward the Museo Correr. Strangely, rather than being rectilinear, the square was an irregular trapezoid, narrowing substantially at one end. This fun-house-type illusion made the piazza look far longer than it was, an effect that was accentuated by the grid of tiles whose patterns outlined the original stalls of fifteenth-century street merchants.
As Langdon continued on toward the elbow of the square, he could see, directly ahead in the distance, the shimmering blue glass dial of the St. Mark’s Clock Tower—the same astronomical clock through which James Bond had thrown a villain in the film Moonraker.
It was not until this moment, as he entered the sheltered square, that Langdon could fully appreciate this city’s most unique offering.
With virtually no cars or motorized vehicles of any kind, Venice enjoyed a blissful absence of the usual civic traffic, subways, and sirens, leaving sonic space for the distinctly unmechanical tapestry of human voices, cooing pigeons, and lilting violins serenading patrons at the outdoor cafés. Venice sounded like no other metropolitan center in the world.
As the late-afternoon sun streamed into St. Mark’s from the west, casting long shadows across the tiled square, Langdon glanced up at the towering spire of the campanile, which rose high over the square and dominated the ancient Venetian skyline. The upper loggia of the tower was packed with hundreds of people. Even the mere thought of being up there made him shiver, and he put his head back down and continued through the sea of humanity.
Sienna could easily have kept up with Langdon, but Ferris was lagging behind, and Sienna had decided to split the difference in order to keep both men in sight. Now, however, as the distance between them grew more pronounced, she looked back impatiently. Ferris pointed to his chest, indicating he was winded, and motioned for her to go on ahead.
Sienna complied, moving quickly after Langdon and losing sight of Ferris. Yet as she wove her way through the crowd, a nagging feeling held her back—the strange suspicion that Ferris was lagging behind intentionally … as if he were trying to put distance between them.
Having learned long ago to trust her instincts, Sienna ducked into an alcove and looked out from the shadows, scanning the crowd behind her and looking for Ferris.
Where did he go?!
It was as if he were no longer even trying to follow them. Sienna studied the faces in the crowd, and finally she saw him. To her surprise, Ferris had stopped and was crouched low, typing into his phone.
The same phone he told me had a dead battery.
A visceral fear gripped her, and again she knew she should trust it.
He lied to me on the train.
As Sienna watched him, she tried to imagine what he was doing. Secretly texting someone? Researching behind her back? Trying to solve the mystery of Zobrist’s poem before Langdon and Sienna could do so?
Whatever his rationale, he had blatantly lied to her.
I can’t trust him.
Sienna wondered if she should storm over and confront him, but she quickly decided to slip back into the crowd before he spotted her. She headed again toward the basilica, searching for Langdon. I’ve got to warn him not to reveal anything else to Ferris.
She was only fifty yards from the basilica when she felt a strong hand tugging on her sweater from behind.
She spun around and found herself face-to-face with Ferris.
The man with the rash was panting heavily, clearly having dashed through the mob to catch up with her. There was a frantic quality about him that Sienna hadn’t seen before.
“Sorry,” he said, barely able to breathe. “I got lost in the crowd.”
The instant Sienna looked in his eyes, she knew.
He’s hiding something.
When Langdon arrived in front of St. Mark’s Basilica, he was surprised to discover that his two companions were no longer behind him. Also of surprise to Langdon was the absence of a line of tourists waiting to enter the church. Then again, Langdon realized, this was late afternoon in Venice, the hour when most tourists—their energy flagging from heavy lunches of pasta and wine—decided to stroll the piazzas or sip coffee rather than trying to absorb any more history.
Assuming that Sienna and Ferris would be arriving at any moment, Langdon turned his eyes to the entrance of the basilica before him. Sometimes accused of offering “an embarrassing surfeit of ingress,” the building’s lower facade was almost entirely taken up by a phalanx of five recessed entrances whose clustered columns, vaulted archways, and gaping bronze doors arguably made the building, if nothing else, eminently welcoming.
One of Europe’s finest specimens of Byzantine architecture, St. Mark’s had a decidedly soft and whimsical appearance. In contrast to the austere gray towers of Notre-Dame or Chartres, St. Mark’s seemed imposing and yet, somehow, far more down-to-earth. Wider than it was tall, the church was topped by five bulging whitewashed domes that exuded an airy, almost festive appearance, causing more than a few of the guidebooks to compare St. Mark’s to a meringue-topped wedding cake.
High atop the central peak of the church, a slender statue of St. Mark gazed down into the square that bore his name. His feet rested atop a crested arch that was painted midnight blue and dotted with golden stars. Against this colorful backdrop, the golden winged lion of Venice stood as the shimmering mascot of the city.
It was beneath the golden lion, however, that St. Mark’s displayed one of its most famous treasures—four mammoth copper stallions—which at the moment were glinting in the afternoon sun.
The Horses of St. Mark’s.
Poised as if prepared to leap down at any moment into the square, these four priceless stallions—like so many treasures here in Venice—had been pillaged from Constantinople during the Crusades. Another similarly looted work of art was on display beneath the horses at the southwest corner of the church—a purple porphyry carving known as The Tetrarchs. The statue was well known for its missing foot, broken off while it was being plundered from Constantinople in the thirteenth century. Miraculously, in the 1960s, the foot was unearthed in Istanbul. Venice petitioned for the missing piece of statue, but the Turkish authorities replied with a simple message: You stole the statue—we’re keeping our foot.
“Mister, you buy?” a woman’s voice said, drawing Langdon’s gaze downward.
A heavyset Gypsy woman was holding up a tall pole on which hung a collection of Venetian masks. Most were in the popular volto intero style—the stylized full-faced, white masks often worn by women during Carnevale. Her collection also contained some playful half-faced Colombina masks, a few triangle-chinned bautas, and a strapless Moretta. Despite her colorful offerings, though, it was a single, grayish-black mask at the top of the pole that seized Langdon’s attention, its menacing dead eyes seeming to stare directly down at him over a long, beaked nose.
The plague doctor. Langdon averted his eyes, needing no reminder of what he was doing here in Venice.
“You buy?” the Gypsy repeated.
Langdon smiled weakly and shook his head. “Sono molto belle, ma no, grazie.”
As the woman departed, Langdon’s gaze followed the ominous plague mask as it bobbed above the crowd. He sighed heavily and raised his eyes back to the four copper stallions on the second-floor balcony.
In a flash, it hit him.
Langdon felt a sudden rush of elements crashing together—Horses of St. Mark’s, Venetian masks, and pillaged treasures from Constantinople.
“My God,” he whispered. “That’s it!”
Robert Langdon was transfixed.
The Horses of St. Mark’s!
These four magnificent horses—with their regal necks and bold collars—had sparked in Langdon a sudden and unexpected memory, one he now realized held the explanation of a critical element of the mysterious poem printed on Dante’s death mask.
Langdon had once attended a celebrity wedding reception at New Hampshire’s historic Runnymede Farm—home to Kentucky Derby winner Dancer’s Image. As part of the lavish entertainment, the guests were treated to a performance by the prominent equine theatrical troupe Behind the Mask—a stunning spectacle in which riders performed in dazzling Venetian costumes with their faces hidden behind volto intero masks. The troupe’s jet-black Friesian mounts were the largest horses Langdon had ever seen. Colossal in stature, these stunning animals thundered across the field in a blur of rippling muscles, feathered hooves, and three-foot manes flowing wildly behind their long, graceful necks.
The beauty of these creatures left such an impression on Langdon that upon returning home, he researched them online, discovering the breed had once been a favorite of medieval kings for use as warhorses and had been brought back from the brink of extinction in recent years. Originally known as Equus robustus, the breed’s modern name, Friesian, was a tribute to their homeland of Friesland, the Dutch province that was the birthplace of the brilliant graphic artist M. C. Escher.
As it turned out, the powerful bodies of the early Friesian horses had inspired the robust aesthetic of the Horses of St. Mark’s in Venice. According to the Web site, the Horses of St. Mark’s were so beautiful that they had become “history’s most frequently stolen pieces of art.”
Langdon had always believed that this dubious honor belonged to the Ghent Altarpiece and paid a quick visit to the ARCA Web site to confirm his theory. The Association for Research into Crimes Against Art offered no definitive ranking, but they did offer a concise history of the sculptures’ troubled life as a target of pillage and plunder.
The four copper horses had been cast in the fourth century by an unknown Greek sculptor on the island of Chios, where they remained until Theodosius II whisked them off to Constantinople for display at the Hippodrome. Then, during the Fourth Crusade, when Venetian forces sacked Constantinople, the ruling doge demanded the four precious statues be transported via ship all the way back to Venice, a nearly impossible feat because of their size and weight. The horses arrived in Venice in 1254, and were installed in front of the facade of St. Mark’s Cathedral.
More than half a millennium later, in 1797, Napoleon conquered Venice and took the horses for himself. They were transported to Paris and prominently displayed atop the Arc de Triomphe. Finally, in 1815, following Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo and his exile, the horses were winched down from the Arc de Triomphe and shipped on a barge back to Venice, where they were reinstalled on the front balcony of St. Mark’s Basilica.