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Before the Tudors, there were the Borgias. More passionate. More dangerous. More deadly.
From the author of Poison, called "stunning"* and "a fascinating page-turner," comes a new historical thriller, featuring the same intriguing and beautiful heroine: Borgia court poisoner, Francesca Giordano.
In the summer of 1493, Rodrigo Borgia, Alexander VI, has been pope for almost a year. Having played a crucial role in helping him ascend the chair of Saint Peter, Francesca, haunted by the shadows of her own past, is now charged with keeping him there. As court poisoner to the most notorious and dangerous family in Italy, this mistress of death faces a web of peril, intrigue, and deceit that threatens to extinguish the light of the Renaissance.
As dangers close in from every direction, Francesca conceives a desperate plan that puts her own life at risk and hurls her into a nightmare confrontation with a madman intent on destroying all she is pledged to protect. From the hidden crypts of fifteenth-century Rome to its teeming streets alive with sensuality, obsession, and treachery, Francesca must battle the demons of her own dark nature to unravel a plot to destroy the Borgias, seize control of Christendom, and plunge the world into eternal darkness.
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Sara Poole lives in Connecticut, where her discovery of the abundance of deadly flora growing just beyond her doorstep prompted her interest in the poisoner's art.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
"I see... ," the woman said. She walked a little distance across the room to glance out the small window facing the river. Moonlight fell across her face. A young woman, pleasing enough in appearance though hardly remarkable in a city where beauty was common currency. Someone who would have aroused only passing interest were it not for the whispers that swirled around her.
"You never knew their names?" she asked.
The man who was about to die shook his head. He was kneeling on the bare wood floor in just his shirt, having been preparing for bed when she arrived. Come morning when the gates opened, he would have been gone from the city, taking the road north to Viterbo, to safety. Too late now.
His hands were clasped tightly in front of him, the knuckles showing white. "Why would they tell one such as I, lady? I am nothing."
She smiled faintly. "You were almost something. The killer of a pope."
Bile rose in the man's throat. He wondered how long she would make him suffer and what methods she would use. He had heard terrifying stories.
"Why would you do such a thing?" she asked. "For God?"
If he told her the truth, perhaps she would spare him a little. "For money."
Behind him, the man she had come with snorted. He had the look of a grizzled soldier but he wore the broad sash and other insignia of a high-ranking condottierre. A self-made man then, proud of it.
"I hope you got a good price," he said. "It was your own life you haggled for, whether you realized it or not."
The man's voice cracked. "I knew the risk."
"But you thought—what?" the woman asked. "That you could outwit me? That I would not realize what you had done until it was too late?"
"I hoped—" That they were cleverer than she, as they claimed. That what they gave him to put in the wine would not be detected. Yet she had found it all the same, the woman who bent down closer now to get a better look at him. He shivered, desperately afraid, praying not to wet himself. He had been reduced to that: Please God, don't let me piss.
"You wanted money that much?" she asked.
Had he? He couldn't seem to remember now. But he had looked at the gold they offered, more than he had ever imagined, and saw his life transformed. Wealth, comfort, ease when he had never known any, the best foods, lovely women. The promise of all that and more had shattered his wits. He thought that he must have been mad, knew that it would do no good to say so.
Instead, he said, "I was tempted into sin."
The woman sighed, almost as though she sympathized with him. Not so the condottierre.
"We can take him to the castel," he said. "Put him to the question."
She stood, looking down at the man for a moment, then shook her head. "There's no point. He doesn't know anything."
"How can you be sure?"
"He would have told us by now," she replied, and pointed to the puddle spreading across the floor.
The man's lips moved frantically in prayer. He stared up into her face, luminous in the moonlight, not unkind, almost gentle.
"Drink this," she said, and held out a wineskin made from the hide of a young goat, topped with a smooth wooden valve that slipped easily between his lips.
"I don't—" Tears slid down his cheeks.
She touched his hair soothingly and lifted the bag, helping him. "It will be easier this way. A few moments and it's over. Otherwise—"
The castel and hours, perhaps days of white-hot suffering before his life would end. Had already ended though he had not realized it, in the moment when he had allowed himself to hope for more.
It was a rich, full-bodied vintage fit for a pope, what he would have drunk in his new life had he been given the chance. He had a moment to wonder how she could possibly have known what the wine concealed. What if she was wrong? What if it had all been a trick and he was not going to die—
Scarcely had the thought formed when fire exploded in him, burning down his throat into the pit of his stomach and beyond. He cried out, convulsing. The woman stepped back, watching him closely, almost as though she was curious to see what effect the poison had on him. No, exactly like that.
He heard a great buzzing sound, a thousand insects swarming inside his skull. His eyes opened wide, bulging, even as his vision narrowed down, racing toward pinpricks of light before blinking out. He was blind and deaf save for the buzzing, and none of that mattered because of the pain. He would have cried out but the muscles of his throat were paralyzed as very quickly was the rest of him so that his last breath barely reached his lungs before his heart ceased to beat.
When it was over, the condottierre went to find the innkeeper who had been roused from his bed and stood quaking in the great room. A few coins in his hand, a quick word, and the grateful man learned that he had only to dispose of a body and keep his mouth shut, which he would do to the end of his days, he swore, and give thanks unceasingly to be shown such mercy.
Outside, in the pleasant coolness of the early spring night, Francesca waited. She pulled her cloak more closely around herself, for comfort more than warmth, and tried not to think too much about the dead man. She was very tired but she knew that she would not sleep. Not then, not yet.
The condottierre returned. Together, they walked toward the horses. "How many does that make this year?" he asked.
"Three," she said as he cupped his hands to give her a boot up. She disliked horses and preferred not to ride but as with so much in life, sometimes there was no good alternative.
Settled in the saddle, she added, "There will be more until we can put a stop to this."
"Or until one succeeds," her companion said.
She nodded grimly and turned her mount toward the river, anxious suddenly to be done.
The fate of the world rests upon a piece of paper set in front of a man who puts down the freshly cut quill pen he has been toying with for far too long and calls for wine.
The moment is suspended in my memory, caught like an insect in amber as though some power beyond our ken stopped time at that instant.
Of course, nothing of the sort happened. Time went right on, bringing with it great events involving great personages. But beneath the glittering scaffold of history imagine, if you will, the lives of humble people hanging in the balance. For truly, they did so hang, and more than a few found their necks stretched unbearably.
I could have done with a drink myself just then. On this pleasant day in early May, Anno Domini 1493, Rodrigo Borgia, now Pope Alexander VI, had spent most of the afternoon considering the papal bull Inter caetera, decreeing the disposition of the newly discovered lands to the west. I had been in attendance throughout, for no good reason; what man needs his poisoner to help him decide how to divvy up the world? But since I had played a role the previous year in hoisting him up onto Saint Peter's Throne, His Holiness had fallen into the habit of keeping me nearby. I would like to believe that he saw me as a talisman of sorts but the truth is that he thought it prudent to keep a close eye on me lest I do who knows what.
My name is Francesca Giordano, daughter of the late Giovanni Giordano, who served ten years as poisoner to the House of Borgia and was murdered for his pains. I succeeded to his position after killing the man originally chosen to take his place. I also slit the throat of one of the men involved in my father's death. Ultimately, I tried to poison the man I believed—incorrectly, as it turned out—to have ordered his murder. Only God knows if Pope Innocent VIII died by my hand.
Before you recoil from me, consider that I had good reason for all I did, at least by my own lights. Yet there is no denying that a darkness dwells within me. I am not like other people, although I can pretend to be when the need arises. I am as I am, may God have mercy on my soul. But then we can all say that, can't we?
Beyond the high windows overlooking the Piazza San Pietro, the day was fair. A northerly wind blew the worst of the stink off the city and bathed us in the perfume of the lemon groves and lavender fields for which every good Roman claims to yearn. That is a lie; we can barely spend a few days in la campagna without longing for the filth and clamor that is our beloved city.
Popes come and go, empires clash, new worlds arise, but Rome is eternally Rome, which is to say that its people were busy as always sweating, swearing, working, eating, fornicating, occasionally praying, and without surcease, gossiping.
How I longed to be among them rather than where I was, in an uncomfortable window seat under the censorious eye of Borgia's secretaries, both men, both priests, both despising me.
Not that I blamed them. My profession alone provokes fear and loathing without any additional effort on my part, but there is no escaping the fact that as a woman in a man's world, I discomfited many a male. I was then twenty, auburn haired, brown eyed and, although slender, possessed of a womanly figure. That, too, makes some men, especially priests, prickle with disapproval—or with something. Men prickle for so many reasons it is often impossible to know what provokes them on any given occasion.
Borgia being Borgia, a young woman of any degree of attractiveness could not be in his company without suspicion arising that she shared his bed. Disabuse yourself of any such notion regarding me. Borgia and I shared much over the years that would be thought unlikely between a man of his stature and a woman of mine, but bed was never one of them.
As for his eldest son, Cesare, that is a different matter. Thoughts of the son of Jove, as Cesare's more overwrought admirers styled him, distracted me from the endless, interminable moment. He had been away from Rome for several weeks, attending to his father's business. In his absence, my bed had g...
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Book Description St. Martin's Griffin, 2011. Paperback. Condition: New. Brand New!. Seller Inventory # VIB0312609841
Book Description St. Martin's Griffin. PAPERBACK. Condition: New. 0312609841 New Condition. Seller Inventory # NEW7.0092006
Book Description St. Martin's Griffin, 2011. Condition: New. book. Seller Inventory # M0312609841
Book Description St. Martin's Griffin, 2011. Paperback. Condition: New. Original. Seller Inventory # DADAX0312609841