THE PRISONER'S GOLD
October 9, 1298
Republic of Genoa
(249 miles northwest of Rome)
Metal creaked and groaned, startling Rustichello da Pisa from his restless sleep. Even in the fog of slumber, he knew the horrific sound of a cell door opening. Anytime he heard it, he would snap awake to the pounding in his chest—even after all these years.
His senses on full alert, he strained to hear every rustle and scrape on the other side of the wall. He knew the Genoese guards were returning his neighbor after yet another round of torture. With any luck, they were done for the day and wouldn’t be coming for him next.
He would find out soon enough.
The uniformed guards moved into the adjacent cell and dumped their day’s entertainment on the floor with a wet splat. Then they quickly closed the door behind them and left without a word. Only then did Rustichello let out the breath that he had been holding.
He didn’t move until he heard the guards’ heavy footsteps recede down the dark corridor. He always did his best to avoid their notice, unless they were coming for him. On those occasions there was nothing to do but submit. He was too weak and frail to fight them anymore.
There was no sense in making them mad.
He slowly stood from the loose straw on the floor that served as his bed and brushed away the pieces that were tangled in his hair. Then he slipped a hand into his ragged linen trousers and scratched at the fungal infection on the right side of his groin. Thanks to the humid air in the city of Genoa, everything in the dungeon was damp. The walls, the ceiling, the floor, his clothes. Molds and lichens grew over every surface of his cell. Some patches were so large that they looked like broccoli.
On the bright side, at least he hadn’t started eating them.
Or naming them.
Confident that the guards were gone, he moved over to the wall and peered through the small window into the next cell. It was little more than a missing stone that had been dug out by a previous occupant, but the rectangular gap served a monumental purpose. Rustichello and his neighbor used the empty space to chat, to pass the long hours well into the night.
Their window provided meaningful human interaction.
But today, he couldn’t see his friend through the hole.
Suddenly worried, Rustichello lay on the damp floor where it met the moss-covered wall and glanced through an even smaller gap. This one at floor level and designed for drainage. The stench of dried urine in the gutter near the hole was overpowering, but he needed to check on his neighbor, who was deadly silent in his cell.
“My friend,” Rustichello said in Venetian, “do you need water?”
He knew better than to ask if the man was all right. Both had been to the chamber where the Genoese slapped them around. When they left there, they were never all right.
The beaten merchant blinked at him a few times, trying to regain his bearings, then coughed up some blood from his broken ribs. Though he was far younger and hardier than Rustichello, the constant beatings were taking their toll.
“If you can spare some,” he croaked.
Their daily rations were minimal at best, but Rustichello would gladly share his water. His neighbor had done the same for him on his own return trips from abuse. He grabbed his tin cup and scooped some murky water from the stone bowl he was given each morning. Then he carefully positioned the cup in the tiny drainage hole on the floor and nudged it through the tunnel, careful not to tip it or touch the drinking rim to the top of the tunnel’s roof.
With a trembling hand, the merchant grasped the thin handle and dragged the cup along the floor until it was right next to his face. He pressed it to his swollen lips and sipped cautiously, pleased when swallowing did not add to his pain.
“I don’t think they are after information anymore…. I’m not even sure they still enjoy the beatings…. It feels more like routine now—for them as well.”
“Must not have been Guillermo, then. That sack of shit enjoys it every time.”
The merchant smiled at the eye on the other side of the wall. They would frequently curse their captors in private, but never loud enough to be heard by the guards or other inmates.
“No. Not the ogre,” he muttered. He finished the water in small sips, quietly thankful that Guillermo hadn’t been to work in nearly a week.
It was a small blessing in his current hell.
The merchant had been captured during Venice’s war with Genoa when his ship had run aground on a sandbar near the Anatolian coast. Enemy soldiers had taken him in chains on one of their boats back to the Republic of Genoa—one of the last places a Venetian ever hoped to find himself. Of course, it probably hadn’t helped matters that during the fighting he had fired the severed heads of Genoese sailors from a massive catapult in between the volleys of rough iron balls designed to plunge through the decks of enemy ships.
The merchant had spent the last few years paying for his hubris.
“So,” Rustichello whispered, “do you need to rest for today, or shall we continue?”
The merchant smiled and slowly clambered to his feet. “I think we can continue.”
He moved to the gap in the wall at eye level, grateful to no longer smell the latrine. Rustichello’s smiling face quickly appeared on the other side of the opening. The merchant handed him the empty cup through the hole. “Thank you, my friend.”
Rustichello took the cup and nodded.
He was only in his fifties, but he looked at least seventy—his hair white, his skin pale, his eyes sunken. He had been captured in an earlier naval defeat, and as a result he had already languished in the dungeon for a decade by the time the merchant had been imprisoned. Everything about him was thin and haggard, the look of a man who was nearly defeated.
The one thing that would return life to Rustichello’s face was story. It didn’t matter whether the tale was told or received, he thrived on sending his mind to other places. At first, the elder man had impressed the merchant with tales of King Arthur, but once Rustichello had heard some of the details of the merchant’s travels to the far edges of Tartary it was the only subject that he wanted to talk about.
And write about.
Amazingly, on the night of his imprisonment—before the pouches on his clothing had been properly searched—Rustichello had discovered a small nook under a loose stone in his cell and had managed to hide a book, a broken quill, a small inkpot, and a pair of spectacles.
Not much, but enough to keep him sane.
The book, a stained and worn copy of Herodotus’s history, had seen better days, but it was serving a different purpose now. The Venetian would talk about his journeys, and Rustichello would carefully write down each word in French in the spaces between the lines of existing Greek text. He was defacing one of the greatest historians who ever lived so that the merchant’s adventures might one day lead Rustichello on a journey of his own.
That is, if the guards never found his hiding place.
And if he lived long enough to be released.
And if he could grab the book before he departed.
Everything, it seemed, came down to that one small word.
“Shall we begin?” Rustichello asked.
The merchant turned his back to their window and slowly slid down the wall in his cell. Rustichello did the same. It was their custom to sit with their backs to the wall between them. The Venetian would speak for a few hours each day, until his voice felt dry, while Rustichello scribbled and scratched his quill on the paper of the book, always attempting to tease out more information on the hidden wealth of Asia and the treasures that his friend might have left behind.
“Where were we?” the merchant asked through the wall.
“You were about to describe the people of Tebeth.”
“Ah yes,” he said, remembering, as he closed his eyes and left the cell in his mind. “The province of Tebeth was terribly devastated at the time of our arrival….”
The merchant had no problem recalling the most trivial details of his journeys abroad, and yet there were some aspects of his travels that he refused to share with anyone. Though he was extremely grateful for the kindness that Rustichello had shown him over the years, he wasn’t ready to trust his neighbor with his greatest secret: the location of his family’s fortune.
That was a secret that Marco Polo would keep for himself.