Title: The Man With Sapphire Eyes
Series: The Ballot Boy, Book Two
Author: Larry Mellman
Publisher: NineStar Press
Release Date: 05/16/2023
Heat Level: 3 – Some Sex
Genre: Historical, historical/14th century Venice, lit/genre fiction, gay, new adult, interracial, political rulers, political intrigue and plotting, wartime action and adventure, gore, family drama, betrayal
In this exciting sequel, disaster threatens Nico, ballot boy to the doge, as neighboring Padua launches an undeclared war. Mistrustful of diplomats and spies, the doge dispatches Nico on a secret mission to the court of King Louis of Hungary to gauge the king’s resolve to aid Padua.
The doge also drafts Donato Venturi, the greatest swordsman in Venice, nicknamed Black Hercules, as Nico’s adviser and bodyguard. It’s love at first sight for Nico, but he knows nothing about Donato, the son of a Venetian noble and a princess of Mali. Assuming Donato is straight, Nico guards his feelings until an unlikely encounter at the Prior of Brotherly Love proves otherwise.
The pair steal moments together, but the war changes everything. Cutthroat political struggles with his own nobles keeps the doge busy in Venice as Nico again confronts the carnage of battle, testing his cunning. This brings him face-to-face with his nemeses, Ruggiero and Marcantonio Gradenigo, forcing an unplanned rescue of his soulmate, Alex.
When the war goes disastrously for Venice, the fate of the Serene Republic hangs on the will of the doge and the skills of Nico and Donato. Desperate to defeat Padua and drive out the Hungarian invaders, they risk everything in a final gambit to checkmate in three. In love as in war, winning and losing aren’t what they seem.
The Man with Sapphire Eyes
Larry Mellman © 2023
All Rights Reserved
I’m safe as long as I’m rowing. No enemy has ever successfully breached the mercurial lagoon surrounding Venice on all sides. For three glorious miles I row free, my stroke easy and automatic. I spent my youth on the lagoon until, at fourteen years and nine months of age, I was randomly selected ballot boy against my will and inclination. Taken from my mother, from my friends, from my home, and installed in the palace with the doge as my boss, my rowing time turned into riding and Latin lessons. I still ache at times for an oar in my hands and a breeze riffling my long black hair.
Midway between the Doge’s Palace and Marghera, one of our ports on terrafirma, with the sun in my eyes and the scent of the lagoon in my nose, I savor a moment of sweet peace before embarking on my new mission. Our neighbor and enemy, Lord Francesco Carrara of Padua, regularly burns our farms and plunders our mainland towns. Our amorphous shoreline teems with crooks, assassins, and spies. I don’t wear a sword because I wouldn’t know how to use one, but my crossbow is at hand, and my dagger hangs at my waist with a special kiss of poison along its razor-sharp edge. I’m rowing to meet a man I’ve never seen in a place I have never been. Serenissimo assured me I needn’t worry, that I would know him straight off, and I trust any man stamped with the doge’s imprimatur. He rides from Treviso fortress, ours, to meet me at the inn by the tower of Marghera at Vespers.
I tether my boat in the shadow of the three-story brick watchtower, the lower course of obvious Roman origin. The Romans never ventured onto the marshy islands of the lagoon, confining themselves to solid ground. I stash my crossbow and quiver in my boat, expecting no danger at the inn, only a new friend.
Fishermen’s huts clustered at the base of the tower enclose a crude square deserted in the late afternoon. The tower looms overhead, a rook on a chessboard spreading from Carrara Castle in Padua to St. Mark’s Square. At the back of the square, outside the inn, three men—desperados, mercenaries, or thugs—watch me approach with an unhealthy interest. None of them looks likely to be Donato Venturi. I place my hand on my dagger to show them I mean business. The doge’s ring glints on my finger. Those who respect the power of the doge see the ring as a talisman; those who don’t see only a large chunk of gold. One more step and I clearly pick out the splayed red carts, the carros of the Carrara, on their blood- and mud-spattered tunics.
“Aw, ain’t he pretty?”
“You heard about those Venetian butt boys. Better than women, they say.”
As I unsheathe my dagger, three longswords lunge at me, their wielders laughing at the notion that a dagger could protect me from them. I stumble backward, catch myself, stand as tall as possible, and hold up the doge’s ring. “Arms down in the name of His Exalted Serenity, the Doge of Venice.”
“Exalted Fucking Asshole, that one. Old Contarini got no weenie.”
I raise my dagger, knowing something they don’t know. They snigger and slash, making their steel blades sing. I cannot possibly nick all three with my blade before they cut my hands off, so I retreat. One of them slip-slides into my space, swinging. The point of his blade slices my doublet, stinging my skin. I swipe with my dagger, desperate to break his skin and deliver the poison kiss, but he flips his sword, grips the blade with his gauntlets, and swings it, braining me with the pommel. I fly backward to general laughter, rolling away as the disrespectful thugs advance to skewer me for the fun of it.
They don’t notice until their heads turn, following mine, and by then it’s too late. A whirlwind of dust whips toward the square delivering an armed soldier on a lathered white destrier showering foam. He swoops in and circles the Paduans, freeing me to sheathe my dagger and scramble to the boat for my crossbow, but before I can, he disarms all three in a shower of blood. He doesn’t kill them, but he may as well have.
He jumps off his destrier, which stands still as a statue behind him, grips my hand in his gauntlet, and yanks me to my feet.
“Are you hurt?”
“Only my pride.”
“What did they want?”
“We never got that far.”
As the wounded Paduans crawl away, he laughs heartily, slaps me on the back, and says, “Well met, Niccolò Saltano. I am Donato Venturi.”
He lifts off his helmet and shakes his head, smacking his right ear with the butt of his palm. I lack words to describe his sudden impact. Even his shadow has tangible presence. But more astonishing are his brown skin and blue eyes. His beauty shatters every canon of classical aesthetics and redefines them. His square face is made up of rounded planes showcasing Arab eyes, a Venetian nose, and plush lips wreathed in moustaches and goatee. No matter how fierce his brows or severe the crop of his black curls, his smile strikes me speechless. He covers my blush and stammer with easy conversation. “I’ve heard a lot about you from Serenissimo. He brags about you like the son he never had.”
“I wouldn’t take his word on me. His fondness inclines to dotage.”
“And also from General Giustinian, who credits you with our smashing victory at Trieste.”
“And yet I know nothing of you but your name.”
“Accompany me inside,” he says, “and we can remedy that.”
Meet the Author
Larry was born in Los Angeles and educated in literature, political science, and life at the University of California, Berkeley. He has worked as a printer and journalist in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, and St. Paul, Minnesota. Larry also worked with Andy Warhol and the Velvet Underground on the Exploding Plastic Inevitable in NY, Provincetown, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, was mentored by Dean Koontz, and shared a palazzo in Venice with international opera singers Erika Sunnegårdh and Mark Doss.”
While living in Venice for many years, Larry also taught English, led tours, and immersed himself in the history and art of the Venetian Republic. The Ballot Boy was born in Venice and completed in St. Paul.
Larry is a lifelong social activist and writer, a voracious reader and researcher, an opera fanatic, and devoted walker. He currently lives in St. Paul with his partner of twenty-one years and his ex-wife of twenty-five years. His son is a pianist devoted to blues and jazz.