Read The True Adventures of Nicolo Zen Online

Authors: Nicholas Christopher

The True Adventures of Nicolo Zen


This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Text copyright © 2014 by Nicholas Christopher
Front jacket photograph copyright © 2014 by Mark Owen/Trevillion Images
Back jacket photograph copyright © 2014 by Jonathan Chritchley/Trevillion Images
All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Random House LLC, a Penguin Random House Company, New York.

Knopf, Borzoi Books, and the colophon are registered trademarks of Random House LLC.

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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Christopher, Nicholas.
The true adventures of Nicolò Zen : a novel / Nicholas Christopher. — First edition.
p. cm.

Summary: “Orphan Nicolò Zen is all alone in 1700s Venice, save for his clarinet, enchanted by a mysterious magician to allow its first player to perform expertly. Soon Nicolò is a famous virtuoso, wealthy beyond his dreams, but he can’t stop wondering if he earned the success—or if the girl he met in Venice is safe from harm.” —Provided by publisher
ISBN 978-0-375-86738-5 (trade) — ISBN 978-0-375-96738-2 (li\b. bdg.) —
ISBN 978-0-375-89786-3 (ebook) — ISBN 978-0-375-86492-6 (pbk.)
[1. Musicians—Fiction. 2. Clarinet—Fiction. 3. Magic—Fiction. 4. Love—Fiction.
5. Italy—History—1559–1789—Fiction.] I. Title.
PZ7.C4581Tr 2014

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For Constance, in Venice


When the Master auditioned us, we were told not to speak.

Luca, his assistant, a heavyset man in a black coat, handed each of us a page of sheet music, from the first movement of the Master’s latest concerto. “Just play this,” he said gruffly, pulling at his black beard, “first in D major, then in B-flat minor.”

Two girls stood alongside me, one a violinist, the other a flautist. We were at the center of a long, poorly lit room in the rear of the church. It smelled of beeswax and lemon oil. The worn oak planks creaked beneath our feet. On one wall, there was a large portrait of our Doge, Giovanni Cornaro, who never smiled, facing a small portrait of Pope Clement. Even at the age of fourteen, I knew that in any city besides Venice, in the year 1714, the Pope’s portrait would have been the larger one. The Master was sitting in a high-backed chair against the wall, about twenty feet away. It felt like a mile, and I would learn that, even in close quarters, the Master seemed distant and remote. His head was bowed. His red hair flowed over his shoulders. He wore a yellow jacket, black pants, and boots with silver buckles. He never looked at us.

The violinist played first, but was so nervous she barely reached the middle of the piece before lowering her instrument and fighting back tears. The flautist played fearlessly, but made several errors, and out of the corner of my eye I saw Luca shaking his head.

When she was done, he nodded to me, and I stepped up to the music stand. My clarinet was constructed of ivory, its keys and spring gold, and even in that dim light the instrument shone when I raised it to my lips. I played the piece, an intricate saraband, in both keys as energetically as I could.

When I finished, the Master raised his head for the first time and peered at me. I felt his blue eyes were searching out my innermost self, and I prayed he would not find it.

“A clarinet,” he said. “I have only heard the instrument played twice before. Never in Venice. Never so well. Come here and show it to me.”

I tried to conceal my nervousness as I approached his desk. He examined the clarinet closely and handed it back to me. “A beautiful instrument. The ones I saw were ebony. This is unusual. Do you always play the part of the score written for flute?”

I nodded.

“Perhaps one day the clarinet will have its own part. Go back to your seat.” He looked at Luca. “She will do,” he said.

I sighed with relief, but not, as you might think, because he approved of my playing or was intrigued by my clarinet, but because Master Antonio Vivaldi had just admitted me, a boy named Nicolò Zen, to his orchestra, all of whose members were girls from the Ospedale della Pietà, the orphanage for girls attached to the Church of La Pietà.

When Luca asked for my full name and my father’s name, I replied, “Nicolà. Nicolà Vitale. Daughter of Giacomo Vitale.”

One lie after another, which he wrote down in the brown book he carried with him at all times.


How had I disguised myself?

With great difficulty.

I was slim-waisted, with large eyes and long brown hair. People thought me good-looking, but I had never been mistaken for a girl, and without altering my appearance, I never would be. I was fortunate to know something about girls, the way they dressed and moved and combed their hair, from having grown up with three sisters.

I was raised on the small, wooded island of Mazzorbo in the Lagoon, where my father eked out a living as a handyman and part-time tar mixer at the boatyard. He was also a fine fisherman—his own father’s profession—and one of my fondest memories of him is our rowing out to the deeper waters off the island of Burano, just the two of us, to catch a basketful of striped bass, the tastiest fish in the Lagoon, which my mother would fry for dinner. Usually we brought home enough to feed the entire family for several days.

My parents and my sisters contracted malaria when it wiped out most of our village. As with the nearby, and more famous, island of Torcello, Mazzorbo’s misty swamps were infested with mosquitoes. When they hatched in the spring rain, the mosquitoes carried the disease among us quickly, and dozens of people perished each day. I ran a fever so high that my eyes burned and
my tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth, until eventually, dizzy and short of breath, I blacked out. It was a miracle I survived. Thus, in addition to my ability to play the clarinet, and despite my true gender, I met a crucial qualification for the orchestra: I was an orphan. Sadly, that was no lie.

When my fever broke, I awoke from a restless sleep and at first had no memory of what had occurred. I was lying on a straw bed in an unfamiliar house. There was a crucifix hanging from the bedpost and an icon of the Savior nailed to the wall across from me. An elderly widow, a stout woman with curly white hair, was swabbing my forehead with a wet cloth. I had seen her around the village carrying baskets of laundry, for that was her business, serving the island’s rich landowners. Her name was Signora Capelli. Someone had carried me to her house when I was found wandering the streets two nights earlier. It was she who told me what I already knew but still could not believe: my entire family was gone. In quick succession, delirious with fever, they had succumbed to the disease. I was completely on my own. Signora Capelli had no idea where my family was buried.

“They were burying people a dozen at a time in unmarked graves,” she said. “God help us.”

Signora Capelli had kindly washed my clothes, and before I left her house she fed me a breakfast of cornmeal and honey. I thanked her, and promised myself that one day I would repay her kindness.

It was a hot, damp day, a foul wind blowing from the swamps. I walked down several lanes, to the other side of the village, the landmarks of my childhood—Signor Raguso’s bakery, the produce market, the glazier’s workshop—replaced by one scene of horror
after another. Men and women wailing in grief, tearing at their hair; children in their death throes, their eyes rolled back in their heads; and corpses everywhere, giving off a stench that made me gag. There were corpses piled in carts, like Signor Raguso and his wife; laid on ragged stretchers, like Carla, the butcher’s daughter; or just sprawled out in the baking mud, as I would have been had some Good Samaritan not carried me to the widow’s house. I prayed I would never see such things again.

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