From the author of Poison and The Borgia Betrayal, comes a new historical thriller, featuring the same intriguing and beautiful heroine: Borgia court poisoner, Francesca Giordano
Mistress of death Francesca Giordano--court poisoner to the House of Borgia--returns to confront an ancient atrocity that threatens to extinguish the light of the Renaissance and plunge the world into eternal darkness. As the enemies of Pope Alexander VI close in and the papal court is forced to flee from Rome, Francesca joins forces with her lover, the brilliant and ruthless Cesare Borgia to unravel a conspiracy that strikes at the heart of Christendom. But when a shattering secret from her past imperils her precarious hold on sanity, only Francesca's own courage and resolve can draw her back from the brink of madness to save all she values most.
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St. Martin's Griffin
May 22, 2012
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Excerpt from The Borgia Mistress by Sara Poole
I was in the Campo dei Fiore, walking toward Rocco's shop. There was something important that I needed to tell him.
I quickened my pace, avoiding the pushcarts and passersby, the piles of manure and the importuning peddlers, afraid I would be too late.
I really had to ... it was important ...
The street in front of me dissolved. I blinked in the sudden glare of light piercing the cocoon of my curtained bed. Portia, holding up a lamp, grasped me by the shoulder and shook me.
"For pity's sake--" I squinted, trying without effect to cling to the dream.
"Condottieri are here," the portiere said. "His condottieri. They say you must come."
"You must come. They wanted me to let them in, but I said I would wake you myself. Even so, they are right outside. They won't wait for long."
Despite the coolness of early autumn, I slept naked. A film of sweat shone on my skin. The nightmare had come as usual, leaving its mark on me.
"I'll kill him, I swear I will."
The dwarf chuckled. She jumped down from the stool, found a robe of finely woven Egyptian cotton dyed a saffron hue, and held it out.
"No, you won't. He'll charm you as he always does and you'll forgive him."
Slipping my arms into the sleeves of the robe, I winced. "How can the sharpest-eyed portiere in all of Rome be such a romantic?"
Portia shrugged. "What can I say? He tips well."
I started to laugh, coughed instead, caught myself, and strode out of the bedchamber, through the salon filled with my books and the apparatus I used in my investigations, all feeding the rumors about me. The robe billowed around my legs, gold mined from the crushed stigmas of Andalusia crocuses. I went quickly between light and shadow, pausing in neither. A cat, perversely white in violation of hallowed superstition, followed in my wake. The door to the apartment stood open. Beyond, I could see helmeted soldiers in shining breastplates pacing anxiously.
Their leader saw me coming and stiffened, as he damn well should have, given the circumstances.
"Donna," he said and sketched a quick bow. "A thousand apologies, but I thought it best ... That is, I wasn't certain if you would..."
"Where is he?"
The captain hesitated, but he could not lie. Not to me. One of the benefits of my having a reputation as dark as the Styx.
"At a taverna in the Trastevere. He's not ... in good shape."
I sighed and arched my neck, still struggling to wake fully. A thought occurred to me. "It's Sunday, isn't it?"
"It is, donna, unfortunately. We don't have much time."
I went back into the apartment. Portia, the only name by which I knew the portiere, was laying out clothes for me. As her eye for such things was much better than my own, I did not protest. Instead, I said, "Remind me to change the lock on the door. Either that, or just give me your key."
She grinned and shook her head. "What good would either do, donna? The locksmith would be in the pay of the landlord and I'd have a new key before the day was out. Besides, who would look after things for you if you have to go away?"
I pulled a shift over my head, muffling my voice. "Why would I go away?"
Portia shrugged. "I'm only saying ... it could happen."
"What have you heard?" For surely the portiere had heard something. She always did.
"It's not very nice in the city right now. Too much rain, the Tiber flooding, rumors of plague. Certain people might think this was a good time to visit the countryside."
"Oh, God." Manure, pigs, bucolic romps, too much open space. I hated the countryside.
"Just get him to the chapel," the portiere advised. "That will spare us all a lot of trouble."
* * *
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. To acquire the means to avenge him, I poisoned the man chosen to take his place. Fortunately, Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia, as he was then, saw past my offense to perceive my usefulness. At his behest, I set out to kill the man I believed at the time to have ordered my father's murder. Only God knows if Pope Innocent VIII died by my hand. What is certain is that his demise opened the way for Borgia to become pope.
Recoil from me if you will, but know this: No one feared the darkness of my nature more than I. Had I been able to recast myself into an ordinary woman--a wife and mother, perhaps--I would have done so in an instant, though it require me to walk through the fires of Hell. Or so I liked to believe. Saint Augustine, while still a young man wallowing in debauchery, prayed to God to make him chaste--but not yet. My own aspirations may have owed at least some of their appeal to the unlikelihood of their achievement any time soon. I was as I was, may God forgive me.
I was then twenty-one, brown-haired, brown-eyed, and, although slender, possessed of a womanly figure. I say this without pride, for in the parade of my sins, vanity brought up the rear. Working in a man's profession as I did, my appearance discomfited more than a few. That suited me well enough, for while they were preoccupied with thoughts of either burning or bedding me--not excluding both--I did not hesitate to act.
The taverna was on one of the little corsie that ran off the Campo dei Fiore. When the marketplace was bustling, as it usually was, the place would be easy to miss. But in the hours before dawn, the light and sound spilling from its narrow door made it impossible to overlook.
A burly guard stood outside to deter the pickpockets who preyed on drunken young noblemen too busy slumming to notice that they were being robbed. He took one look at the approaching condottieri and vanished down a nearby alley.
"If you wish us to go in first, donna...," the captain said.
I ignored him, pushed open the door, and stepped inside. The smell hit me at once--raw wine, sweat, roasted meat, smoke. I inhaled deeply. Ah, Roma. The looming threat of the countryside flitted through my mind, but I repressed it.
A lout cross-eyed with drink saw me first and reached out to grasp my waist. I eluded him easily and pressed on. The greater part of the din was coming from a large table toward the back behind half-closed curtains where a bevy of mostly naked young women clustered, vying for the attentions of the male guests.
A burst of deep laughter ... a girlish shriek ... a snatch of ribald song ...
I pushed past a nubile young thing wearing only diaphanous harem pants, elbowed another even more scantily clad, and came at last within sight of the reason why I had been rousted out of bed in the wee hours of the morning.
Lolling back in his chair, a goblet in one hand and a rounded breast in the other, the son of His Holiness Pope Alexander VI appeared to be in high good humor. A blonde--to whom the breast belonged--straddled his lap, while a completely nude brunette posed on the table in front of him, her legs spread invitingly.
Cesare raised a brow, though whether in interest or amusement I could not say. His dark hair with a slight reddish cast was loose and brushed his shoulders. In features, he resembled his mother--the redoubtable Vannozza dei Cattanei--far more than he did his father, having her long, high-bridged nose and large, almond-shaped eyes. He had been in the sun even more than usual and was deeply tanned. In public he generally wore the expected raiment of a high-born young man, but that night he was dressed for comfort in a loose shirt and breeches.
He bent forward, whispered something in the ear of the blonde that made her shriek with feigned shock, and called for more wine.