Aretino shrugged. "Obscure gnostic fable."
"I've never heard of it, and demons are supposed to know more theological speculation than poets. Are you quite sure you didn't make it up yourself?"
"Would it matter if I had?" Aretino asked.
"Not one bit! Wherever the tale came from, I like it. Our play will be about seven pilgrims, and we will give each of them a golden candlestick, possession of which will grant each of them his heart's desire."
"Wait a minute," said Aretino. "I never said there were any golden candlesticks. Not really. It's a legend, that's all, and if there are any golden candlesticks I don't know if they have any power."
"That's a mere quibble," Azzie said. "I love the tale and we must have golden candlesticks for our retelling of the legend even if we have to make them ourselves. But perhaps they still exist somewhere. If so, I'll find them. If not, I'll come up with something."
"What about the people who will carry them? The people who are to act out the story?" Aretino said.
"I'll pick them myself," Azzie said. "I'll choose seven pilgrims, and give each a candlestick and a chance to get his heart's desire. All he—or she—has to do is take the candlestick; the rest will be done for him.
Magically, as it were."
"What qualities will you look for in your pilgrims?" Aretino asked.
"Nothing special. I just need seven people who want a wish granted without difficulty. They shouldn't be hard to find."
"You're not going to insist that they win their heart's desires through perseverance and good character?"
"No. My play will prove the opposite of that sort of thing. It will show that any person can aspire to the highest Good without having to lift a finger to help himself."
"That's really unprecedented," Aretino said. "You're going to prove that luck and chance rule men's lives, rather than moral observances."
"That's what I intend," Azzie said. "That's the whole point of Evil: proving that the weaker case is best.
What do you think of my moral, Aretino?"
Aretino shrugged. "Chance rules? It's the sort of reflection that weak men love."
"Good. It will win us a big audience."
"If that is what you want," Aretino said, "I have no objections to it. Whether I serve Bad or Good, everything I write is propaganda and special pleading. You are paying for this play, after all. I am merely the artist accepting the commission. If you want a play demonstrating that green gallstones bring May flowers, pay me and I'll write it for you. The big question is, do you like my idea?"
"I love it!" Azzie cried. "We must get started on it immediately."
Aretino said, "We'll need to consider what theater to use. That always makes a difference in the way I block out my scenes. Have you any particular actors and actresses in mind? If not, there are several I could recommend."
"Be assured I'll not tell them," Aretino said. He clapped his hands and his servant came in sleepily with a tray of stale petit fours. Azzie took one to be polite to his host, although he rarely used human food. He preferred such traditional Hellish dishes as candied rats' heads and thorax stew, or a human haunch nicely browned and served up with plenty of crackling. But this was Venice, not Hell, and he took what he got.
After refreshment, Aretino yawned and stretched and went to a nearby room to wash his face in a basin of water. When he returned he took half a dozen new candles out of a cupboard and set them alight.
Azzie's eyes glowed in the dancing light, and his fur seemed charged with electricity. Aretino sat down opposite him again and said, "If your stage is the world, who will be the real audience? Where on Earth can you seat them?"
"My play will be for all time," Azzie told him. "My main audience isn't even alive yet. I create, Pietro, for the future generations who will be edified by our play. It is for them we labor."
Aretino was trying to be practical — no small trick for an Italian gentleman of the Renaissance. He sat forward, this big rumpled bear of a man with a large nose and high coloring, and said, "So I would not actually write the play?"
"No," Azzie told him, "the players will have to contrive their own lines. But you will be privy to all the actions and conversations, you will see and hear all their reactions to events, and from that you will weave a play that can be performed for future generations. The first time through, however, will belong to the world of legend, for this is how myth is formed."
"It is a noble conception," Aretino said. "Please do not think me critical if I confess that I perceive a difficulty or two.
"I am assuming that our actors, no matter where they begin, will come at last to Venice bearing their candlesticks."
"That is how I visualize it," Azzie said. "First, I want to commission your tale of the seven candles as the basis for my tale." Azzie withdrew a small but heavy sack from his wallet and handed it to Aretino.
"I think you will find this sufficient for your start-up costs. There's more where this came from. All you have to do is write down the basic story line. You will not write the actual dialogue, remember. Our actors, whom I will choose, will do that for themselves. You will watch and listen to them, and be stage manager and coproducer with me. Later you will write your own play on this subject."
"To that end," Azzie said, "through charms and talismans I will grant you the ability to move around freely in space and time for purposes of looking after our production."
"And what of Venice when we have finished?" Aretino asked.
"We will slip our sequestered Venice back into the time track of the real Venice, where it will fit as neatly as a shadow fits its object. From that point onward, our legend will cease to be merely a private affair, and will become a part of universal legendry, with its actions and consequences recorded in the annals of mankind."
"My lord, I love the opportunity this gives me as an artist. Not even Dante was granted such an opportunity."
"Then get to work," Azzie said, rising. "Write me out the legend of the golden candlesticks in a fair hand.
I'll see you again soon. Meanwhile I've work to do."
And he disappeared.
Aretino blinked and passed his hand through the space where Azzie had been. There was nothing there but insubstantial air. But the bag of gold Azzie had paid him was solid and comforting.