From reading uncensored history books while traveling abroad, Amadeo learned that Stagno and the other merchant republics had long served as a buffer between two great powers: Lotharingia, which stretched from the Baltic Sea to the Alps and emphasized tradition and conservatism, and the more liberal and intellectually inclined Etruscan-speaking Mediterranean empire of Great Rasenna. In addition to political and economic influence, the two vied for control over the church, the decentralized Ecclesia Gnostica, of which Stagno’s autocephalous See of St. Blaise was among the most influential. Great Rasenna and Lotharingia had both broken up within the last 80 years, but as is often the case, the legacy of their conflict affected the world for generations after.
“I guess our two worlds are more alike than I thought,” I scoffed, as Amadeo flashed a knowing smile.
While under de Proculo rule, Stagno was aligned with Great Rasenna, but Lotharingia wanted it as a vassal, so it persuaded the Darsas to overthrow and exterminate the de Proculos in exchange for wealth and protection. While Stagno became wealthier and more powerful, it also became more repressive.
So showing people the de Proculos had survived and were not the threat Stagnese propaganda claimed they were would – Amadeo hoped – expose the lies holding the government’s fragile edifice together and bring it down.
After landing in Venice early in the morning, we boarded a small regional jet, painted red, with a gold lion on the tail fin and Società Aerea Veneziana on the side.
When we arrived in Ragusa, we stood in the VIP line at passport control. Most people’s passports were blue, but Amadeo’s was purple, while he also affixed a small pin with a coat of arms to his lapel. The officer, who had brusquely waved others through, bowed his head and spat out “Mio Signore!” when he saw the pin on Amadeo, who said something to him while pointing to me as the officer carefully averted his eyes. After a moment I was asked to come forward.
“This, uh, for you, with Il Signore Darsa,” the officer stammered as he handed me a passport-sized green booklet, with “Passaporto Speciale” on the cover and a sticker with my name and Amadeo’s on the inside.
We walked past a long line at Customs, where a couple dozen officers in black uniforms with berets and coffee-colored Sam Browne belts went with surgical precision through people’s suitcases, carefully examining photographs and books while tossing newspapers and magazines into garbage bins.
“We will stay in Ragusa for a bit,” Amadeo told me as we walked briskly toward the taxi stand. Before we go to the capital.”
The taxi driver bowed and averted her eyes, mumbling “Sì, Mio Signore” after Amadeo – still wearing the lapel pin – barked a command at her. We sped away from the airport as the white-hot reflection of the rising sun pierced the Adriatic’s blue and illuminated the fast approaching city.
“What does that mean, ‘Mio Signore?’” I asked as I buckled my seatbelt.
“’My Lord,’” Amadeo replied.
I was about to smirk at the idea of such Victorian forms of address until I saw his seriousness as he looked right at me. Not a word passed between us for the next half hour as we drove along the highway that overlooked the hills seeming to spill into the sea, charming and clearly prosperous little villages passing by beneath us.
The main city, hitherto gleaming in the distance, took on a darker tint as it drew closer, turning cold and gray as we passed through the old city walls.
Once stately 18th and 19th century buildings with shops at ground level and apartments above, now cracked and coated in soot and dust, their fine plaster facades crumbling, towered over narrow streets strewn with garbage. People slept on filthy sidewalks beneath walls covered in graffiti and in front of shuttered storefronts as children with dirt-coated faces and ragged clothes turned whatever objects they could on the street into toys. The driver pushed a button to lock the car doors, her head darting to and fro as she positioned her right hand on the glove compartment.
“Disgusting, isn’t it?” Amadeo broke the silence, his lip curling. “Factory workers, shopkeepers, restaurant cooks – now look at them.”
“But my family?” he scoffed, shaking his head as he looked out the window. “What do they care? Everything they need, they can have in their beautiful homes behind iron gates. They work every day to find how to take more money for themselves.”
“Yeah, but we’re going to fix it,” I smiled.
“The people of Stagno have a right to benefit from their labor and from the skills of their scientists and engineers,” Amadeo asserted, looking back toward me. “When I’m in charge as Rector of the Republic, they will.”