Joaquin shifted uneasily in the undulating gondola. His stiff back hurt and the rocking made it worse. He was exhausted and wanted to close his eyes but fought it and kept watch over Valeria, his queen and duty. They’ve been on the run for over a fortnight now, sleeping where they could, whenever they could.
The swirling muck of Santa Croce’s canals lapped against the hull, thick and dark. The firmament of old gods and young stars flickered in the Venetian night sky. They were deep inside the intertwining canal maze of the West sestiere.
Valeria slept with her head on Joaquin’s lap, her greying hair rough against his leather pants.
Two weeks ago, she would have not done anything as indecorous and unbefitting of her status as this. But here we are, Joaquin thought. An exiled queen napping on her tired guard, seeking asylum with the lagoon dwellers.
Mustafa, their guide, sat across the strange couple, his torso quarter-turned towards the gondolier, a young Egyptian boy named Ahmed. They chatted in scurried Arabic, a language Joaquin loved and was captivated by, but never learned.
He recalled the bright morning when he was but a boy, waiting by the docks as his father’s ship came in, and the small package wrapped in brilliant, shimmering teal satin under his arm as he disembarked.
“What is it, Papa? What is it?” young Joaquin had asked eagerly.
“A gift for you, my son,” he replied, eyes smiling. “The first of a dozen.”
It was the first volume of Antoine Galland’s Les Mille et une nuits, an expensive treat even for a merchant’s son. Over the years, Joaquin’s father would bring back yet another volume, once a year until his last voyage to Porte Royale where his galleon was boarded by Calico Jack’s crew.
Joaquin was nineteen by then and had grown tired of the fantastical tales of Aladdin and Sinbad and Ali Baba and the Djinns. And by that age, he’d also finally realize he would never truly win his father’s love or attention. The books had become a heavy anchor in his life, representing his father’s constant absence.
Joaquin was Shahryar, his father was Scheherazade and the king saw little point in prolonging the inevitable.
The truth was, Joquin’s father was an irredeemable sea-addict who was surly, lifeless and drunk when he was home, but bursted into a cacophony of joy and tearful kisses just weeks before his next high-seas adventure. Young Joaquin and his three younger brothers began to look forward to their father leaving, as that was the only time they felt like a happy family together.
When news arrived of his father’s death in the Caribbean, Joaquin did not mourn. Nor did his mother and brothers.
Joaquin’s thoughts drifted through the chattering of Arabic, as the long oar of the gondolier sculled through the shallow water. Valeria right leg twitched when she slept, an idiosyncrasy Joaquin was not privy to until the first night after they fled their burning city. Joaquin had thought she was dying or in shock.
“Joaquin, my dear boy,” Mustafa said, shaking him out of his revery. “You mustn’t be so tense. We are nearly at the procurator’s home. He will make this all right.”
Joaquin stared at Mustafa and his thick black moustache covering the corner of his lips. “I appreciate the advice. Thank you.” Joaquin said coldly.
Mustafa shrugged and returned to his conversation with the boy gondolier. Valeria stirred, and upon realizing how she had slept, promptly sat straight up, turned away in embarrassment and preened her hair. “Where are we?” she asked.
“We’re almost there, my queen.” Joaquin said. “We’re on the Rio Ca’ Tron and we’ll be getting off soon. After that, it’s a short walk to Palazzo Mocenigo down Calle de Tintour and up Salizada San Stae.”
“The smell. It’s unbearable.”
“Yes, my queen. It’s the swamp, unfortunately.”
“These marsh merchants, as they like to call themselves,” she observed, “they are a resilient people, aren’t they?”
Joaquin nodded silently.
“They too were running from invaders, Joaquin. Not unlike us tonight. Did you know that? They were Romans escaping the invading hoards of Visigoths and Huns. And look at them now, the great Republic of Venice, centre of commerce, birthplace of Vivaldi.”
Valeria spoke with a hint of bitterness and regret. She had watched as her own people rose up against her, slaughtered her three daughters and two sons before her eyes, half her council slain.
She had not shed a single tear yet.
She may not, Joaquin thought, not until she exacts vengeance. That would be the queen Joaquin knew and trusted and protected. Strong even in the face of finality.
It was in her eyes. The fire consuming her soul, charring her bones, licking her flesh. She was a phoenix. And tonight, she will begin to rise from the ashes. Joaquin would follow her through the flames and back.
She was the father figure Joaquin never had. A person of even-keeled constancy and girth. Someone you could rest your faith in.
Valeria fed Joaquin no stories of wonders and marvel, only resolute strength and integrity. She never stalled, she knew what she wanted and moved towards it. But most important of all, she heeded Joaquin’s advice and respected him as a man.
And that, drew an unwavering loyalty from Joaquin like he had never known before.
“We’ll start again here, Joaquin,” Valeria declared softly. “We’ll start again in La Dominante, the Queen of the Adriatic, the City of Masks. Yes, here, we will be reborn. And we will rise again.” ☣
This week’s Garage Fiction prompt was provided by Nicholas Brack…
Check out the rest of Icam’s videos here: https://vimeo.com/user869654
And if you’re desperately wondering what that haunting song is, it’s “I Found A Reason” by Cat Power.
These weekly scenes & stories are part of an ongoing project codenamed “Garage Fiction”. Since January 2015, three writers (Nicholas Brack, Dogwood Daniels and I) have committed to writing a flash fiction or scene each and every week. We post on Fridays and dissect on Tuesdays via podcast.