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Caskets of Lead

By Maroah Foster

Fantasy / Romance

Chapter 1 - An Infinite Deal of Nothing

Who ever loved that loved not at first sight?

~ William Shakespeare

The study was too noisy. Horses clip-clopping outside, merchants shouting, criers crying, beggars begging, carts rattling, gamblers shouting, drunken brawls, laundry ladies singing-

It was too much.

Antonio swung around and shut his window with a little too much force. The window rattled, almost as if it were irritated by his unnecessary violence. Antonio leaned his head against the cool pane of glass. He was slightly out of breath. There was too much on his mind; he needed silence.

With a weary sigh he ran his fingers through his short, dark hair and returned to looking at the map stretched across his desk. Several model ships sat on the map, two in the Indian Ocean, one in the Atlantic, five in the Pacific… and one in the Caribbean. His father was on that ship.

Antonio sighed and shook the stories of pirates he had heard down at the docks from his mind. His father had taken his best crew with him on that ship. Antonio's father was a merchant, the richest in Neo Venice. Antonio was of the opinion that having the whole fleet on the ocean at once was a foolish move, and had voiced his opinion to his father. His father had laughed at him. He was seventeen summers, not yet a man but no longer a boy. What did he know of trading?

Antonio's stomach twisted with resentment and worry. He reached for the goblet of red wine waiting for him, on the edge of the desk. He lifted the goblet to his lips-

The door to his study flew open and hit the wall with a bang, starling Antonio into dropping his goblet and spilling the wine down the front of his shirt.

"My lord Antonio," the intruder, a slender boy with bright orange hair, announced with a dramatic bow. "I have arrived!"

"I had not noticed, Gratiano," Antonio said sarcastically, plucking at his soaked and ruined shirt.

Gratiano waltzed across the room with the dramatic flair that was ever present in his movements and speech. He threw an arm around Antonio's broad shoulders, and Antonio noticed the garish quality of his friend's attire. The bright colors and puffed sleeves would have better suited a woman's dress, but then again it was Gratiano's style to stick out of the crowd in whatever way possible…

"I have been anticipating this night for a long time," Gratiano gushed with a grand sweep of one slender arm. "The fine wine, the fair women, the music and games!" He did not seem fazed at all when Antonio shrugged him off. "It will be a grand party indeed, and so generous of you to host it, my lord." Gratiano gave his friend a big smile, but Antonio's grey eyes were glued to the far wall. Gratiano squinted at the wall; what was he looking at? The bookshelf? Who cared about books when there was a party to be attending?

"Are you ill?" Gratiano asked Antonio, studying his face closely.

"I feel fine, Gratiano."

"Then you are sad!" Gratiano gasped, his brown eyes wide. "Why are you sad?"

"Who ever said I was sad?" Antonio demanded, his patience wearing thin.

Gratiano spied the wine-stained map and the eight ships on it. "Ah, you are worried about your father and his fleet."

"My father is capable of handling himself on the open sea as he has a hundred times before," Antonio muttered.

"Is a family member ill?" Gratiano pressed, determined to get to the source of his friend's worried expression.

"My family is fine."

Gratiano threw up his arms. "Then I am at a loss as to your reason for a heavy heart!"

Antonio sighed; maybe the fool would let the subject drop. He moved to the window and looked down upon the street just as a brand new carriage pulled by four immaculate white horses started to come down the drive. Antonio's family manor had once been a secluded sea-side mansion, but as Neo Venice had grown the town's borders had pushed closer and closer to his family's property line. The property line was unfortunately not far enough from the house to insure that the din from the city did not disturb the occupants of the house.

Antonio did not recognize the carriage at first; who besides his close friends or family would be arriving so early in the afternoon before his party was due to commence? The carriage pulled up to the entrance and one of Antonio's servants went down to greet the guests. The servant opened the door and out stepped a slender young man with soft blond hair that curled to his shoulders and eyes the color of a cloudless sky.

Antonio's heart dropped into his stomach and for a second he was sure he'd be ill.

Gratiano was suddenly at his side again and slung an arm around his shoulders. "Ah! It seems Bassanio has arrived with his lady. That must be a new carriage; I have never seen it before. And the latest make too! Her family always has to have the latest everyth…"

Antonio stopped listening to his friend. He watched with an aching heart as Bassanio turned and held out his hand to the other occupant of the carriage. A slender, gloved hand settled in his and from the confines of the carriage emerged a truly spectacular lady, the most beautiful in all of Neo Venice: Portia of House Belmont. Her dark brown curls flowed in a supple cascade down her shoulders and back. Her new dress, a full-bodied, long-trained, green thing, brought out her dark green eyes with stunning vibrancy. Her full lips were painted red and her porcelain skin glowed. She smiled at her escort and the birds seemed to sing a little louder at what that smile did to further enhance her beauty.

"She is lovelier than the finest jewels in Neo Venice," Gratiano breathed. Only Portia's beauty could make Gratiano lower his voice to an acceptable volume.

Antonio turned away from the window, his eyebrows knitting together in a fierce frown. He tugged his ruined shirt off and dropped it on the floor. A maid would be up later to fetch it. Luckily, one of his servants had set his own evening attire in the study for him. They had noticed that he didn't leave his study much these days.

He pulled on the crisp white evening shirt that stood out starkly against his tan skin. Gratiano tried not to stare at the white scars that rippled across the young lord's washboard stomach. Whatever sense that the man had in his head, it was telling him not to ask about the scars. Soon his curiosity outweighed his sense.

"My lord… Where did you get those scars?" Gratiano asked.

A faint smile touched Antonio's lips. "A sword, or a knife, usually." He touched a particularly thick scar across his chest and remembered the day he got it. It was less than a year ago, and Bassanio had been in financial trouble with a rather nasty moneylender. Antonio, as always, had come to Bassanio's aid with money and, as usual, that hadn't been enough for the moneylender to atone for Bassanio's witty comebacks and patronizing ways.

As usual it had turned into a swordfight, but Antonio had not anticipated the moneylender's son to be so skilled with a blade. He had received the gash that was now a scar before he had rendered the moneylender's son unconscious. Antonio had fainted from blood loss on the way to the closest infirmary. Bassanio had cried, thinking his friend was dying.

Antonio chuckled. This was the way it had been with them since they were boys and Bassanio's father was a servant in their household. Bassanio would talk himself into a corner and Antonio would get him back out. Then Bassanio's father had gone into the map making business (a veritable trade in Neo Venice, where there were almost as many ports as houses), and had made a small fortune for his family. It was enough to promote Bassanio to a social standing that allowed him to become the object of fancy for the beautiful Lady Portia…

"Ah-ha!" Gratiano cried suddenly. "I have it! You are in love, my lord! Is it the fair Portia? Tsk, tsk, Antonio. Bassanio will not be pleased when he learns that you have eyes for his lady!"

Antonio shot a glare in his friend's direction. "Gratiano, you speak an infinite deal of nothing."

Gratiano gave another of his dramatic gasps, which Antonio ignored. He donned his evening coat and, with a queasy stomach, left the room to welcome his guests.

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