Standing beside the altar of the huge cathedral, Marco watched as Brother Gerard, dressed in a heavy green cloak, made the sign of the cross and lifted a golden lamp from the marble table. There it is; the lamp of Jerusalem. Marco's father crossed himself, then rose and came forward, glass bottle in hand, bowing graciously as the old priest prepared to pour oil from the lamp into Matteo's green receptacle, which he accepted with a prayer, then corked and slipped into the inside pocket of his red tunic.
"Tell the Khan that this is holy water." Brother Gerard said, a serious look on his face. "First she'll receive the vision of the mother and child, then she'll be cured of—" Brother Gerard hesitated and glanced at a guard who was standing motionless as a gargoyle. "Of her disease."
"The Khan sends his sincerest thanks," said Marco's father. From underneath his crimson tunic poked dirty white slippers, and white leggings. On his face was the most solemn of frowns, but as soon he turned to hand Marco the bottle, he swore he had an impish look, like he was concealing a smile. I don't even know my own father. Marco thought.
Though he was already seventeen, he'd only known his father for two months. As he waited for Brother Gerard to finish the blessing, his mind raced over the weird course of events his life had taken in that time. Just in April he'd been working at his uncle's store, counting money, selling spices, and generally sitting on his ass for most of the day. It was demanding intellectual work, and Marco's head for figures was razor sharp; but at seventeen he'd started thinking the life of a merchant wasn't all it was cracked up to be. In fact, he hated it. He'd been living with his Aunt Giani and Uncle Timon ever since his mom had died twelve years ago. The Gianis were fair people, and successful, but Aunt Giani, who'd inherited the Balotelli family business, was a ruthless spice merchant, and worked the two of them—Marco and Timon, twenty-four seven, always invoking the same maxims like make hay while the sun shines and a lira saved is a lira earned.
Looking back, Marco couldn't believe that was his life only two months ago.
He had come on a clear blue Sunday in the spice market: a short, crippled little man who jaunted up with Uncle Timon, laughing and slapping him on the back. He had on a red beaded shirt with weathered, pointy-looking shoes the likes of which Marco had never seen and woolen pants that seemed very expensive to Marco's well-trained eye. Everything about this man suggested the exotic and the rare; in short, everything Marco had ever wanted.
"So this is my boy…" His face was round and craggy, with a scar across one side of his face. When he smiled a gold tooth twinkled. "When I left you you were no bigger than a Saipan jackfruit. And look at you now." Although he was actually shorter than the gangly-limbed Marco, he had a presense about him that seemed to fill the little stall. "Tonight we feast!"
That night at dinner Niccolo had raised a toast, and honored his son by giving him a prize; a lens to appraise jewels, like a magnifying glass, but instead of a handle it folded into a gold case engraved with the initials MP.
"Does anyone have a stone to test it out on?" said Marco's father, looking to Maffeo, then Marco's uncle Timon. As they shrugged, a grin slowly formed on Niccolo's face, and he pulled out a milky-colored, pebbly stone from his ruffled blouse. "You never know what you might find the couch cushions, eh?"
Marco was already an expert jewel appraiser, having dealt in goods translatable to hundreds of thousands of dollars per month. He could spot an imperfection faster than a Hebrew diamond-seller could say top quality, but he could find value too, and under his new hand lens he peered through the rough exterior and saw into the purest diamond he had ever laid eyes on.
"Hmmm," Marco said with flat expression. "You say you found this in your couch cushions?"
"What would you pay for it?"
"If you were so simple as to pull out an S2 clarity diamond of your couch cushions without knowing it…I'd probably pay you about two lira."
Niccolo roared with laughter. "I think this boy may have some Polo in him after all!" Niccolo chewed on a drumstick as he talked. They say that the Polo side of the family has the weaker genes. We're short and ugly. But you know what we do have? Wits." He gave his son a head to toe glance. "Now I can see you have the Gianini type: arms of bamboo and head like a watermelon!"
Marco noticed that aunt Giona was frowning at his dad, who took a large drink from his wine glass.
"And from the looks of it you also have their weak constitution. But we'll train you up alright. Now, let me ask you." He set down a drumstick and smiled, gold tooth glinting. "Are you ready to go on the adventure of a lifetime?"
"Why—you just only got back!" Giani said. "You still owe the concern five thousand lira." She scowled as Uncle Timon picked up the plates from the table and began washing. "You're not going anywhere until you pay back the family!" By the family, she meant the Giani family, who since the death of Maria Giani had become a bette noire of the family. "You better start selling whatever you brought from down Asia way, cuz you have a long ways to go, buster. I don't even see you with some much as a bag of spices to take to market. Have you two just blown it all away on diamonds and hookers and camel rides?"
With a blasé expression Nicollo pulled out a bag from his undershorts; a leather, beat-up bag, and emptied a small pile of stones onto the tabled. They weren't precious stones; they were world-beating stones. An astonishing array of diamonds and rubies piled up on the tabletop like a mound of shiny, trapezoidal beads.
"Would you like that payment in diamonds or rubies?" he said with a smirk.
...to be continued...