"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 grown cold.
Cesare and I had come to each other's notice as children in Borgia's palazzo on the Corso, he the Cardinal's son and I the poisoner's daughter. What began as wary glances progressed over the years until the night he came upon me in the library. I was reading Dante, ever my favorite; he was drunk and in pain after yet another argument with his father. I could claim that, having taken the virgo intacto by surprise, he had his wicked way with me under the benign gaze of the portrait of Pope Callixtus III, the family uncle and patron who had set them all on the road to glory. Yet the truth is that I had my way with Cesare as much as he had his with me, perhaps more. The darkness within me was drawn to him, constructed as he was of raw appetites that left no room for morality or conscience. He was without sin in the sense that he recognized none. With him, I came as close to being myself as I could ever hope in those years.
In his absence, I had considered taking another lover, but the only one I truly wanted other than Cesare I could not have. I was forced to fall back on the canard that self-denial is a virtue even as each passing day—and night—made eminently clear that it is anything but.
Does all this shock you? I hope so, for in truth, I am remembering how exquisitely bored I was just then and would do almost anything to liven things up.
"Are you going to sign it?" I asked finally, because really, someone had to. He'd been at it all afternoon, reading, rereading, groaning, complaining, insisting it be rewritten to change this word and that, and finally just staring at it. The pigeons that alit from time to time on the windowsill and pecked at the handfuls of grain I put out for them seemed more purposeful than did Christ's Vicar on Earth.
"Do you think I should?" Borgia asked. Despite the pleasant day, a faint sheen of sweat shone above his upper lip. He was then sixty-two years old, an age by which most men are in the grave or at the very least occupying a chair in Death's antechamber. Not Borgia the Bull. The office he had fought to possess with such vigor and guile had aged him, yet he could still be said to be a man near his prime. Even on his worst days, he projected an aura of indefatigability that sent opponents scrambling like so many ants seeking shelter from the burning sun.
Not for a moment did I believe he wanted my opinion. The question was merely one more excuse to delay disposing of what he feared might prove in time to be of greater value than he had yet perceived.
But then who knew how to put a price on a new world?
Unless it really was the Indies, as the instantly revered Cristoforo Colombo, hero of the hour, was claiming. In which case, there would be Hell to pay.
The wine he had called for arrived. Borgia leaned back in his chair, swirled the claret, and stuck his nose into the goblet. Let no one say that he was a savage. He could, when he chose, enjoy the bouquet of a noble vintage as well as any other great prince.
I watched him with hard-earned confidence. Since coming into the papacy, Borgia had collected an even greater assemblage of enemies than he had possessed as a cardinal. Fresh though the year still was, there had been three serious attempts against his life thus far. I had my own thoughts as to who might be behind the attacks but without proof my actions were of necessity constrained. Under any circumstances, nothing came near Il Papa—not food nor drink nor any item he might touch—without my scrutiny. The greater part of my job involved such efforts. Only occasionally was I called upon to do anything more, despite what you may have heard. Truly, people hear far too much.
"The Portuguese will not be happy," Borgia observed, whether to the air or to me I could not say. Perhaps it was the pigeons he addressed.
"You're giving them the other half of the world," I reminded him. He was doing just that with the help of his geographers, learned men if somewhat dour now that they had to remake all their maps. West to Spain, east to Portugal, and the Devil take the hindmost.
"I have to do something," he said a tad defensively, but who could blame him?
Just about anyone, as the situation was of his own making, but I forbear mentioning that. Let no one claim that I am entirely without diplomatic skills.
"Their Most Catholic Majesties will be pleased," I pointed out, meanwhile staring at the pen he had abandoned, willing it to leap of its own accord and sign the damn decree.
Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain would be delighted, hopefully enough to help Borgia in his present difficulties with the Kingdom of Naples. Difficulties he had provoked by—let me see if I recall—oh, yes, trying among other things to steal land from Naples to give to his second son, Juan, who he fancied to make into a great prince. People can be so very sensitive about such matters.
We would have war or we would not. The outcome hinged on the ability of the Spanish monarchs, once sufficiently paid, to purchase peace. Would a new world be enough to inspire them?
"Or not," Borgia said with a wave of his beringed hand. "This will have to wait." He tossed down the pen and rose from behind his desk.
"You are going?" I asked as I, too, stood. Given the seriousness of the situation, you might have thought that Il Papa would be focused solely on business. But Borgia never did anything without a reason—or several, sometimes seemingly contradictory purposes that managed nonetheless to come together in the end to further his vaunting ambition.
"I have promised to counsel a troubled soul," he said, suddenly in better humor.
I heard the secretaries groan and could not blame them. He would slip away to visit his mistress, Giulia Farnese Orsini, justifiably known as La Bella and, so far as I knew, not in the least troubled in her soul. Meanwhile, it would fall to the secretaries to deflect the questions of anxious ambassadors and courtiers trying to determine what, if anything, the Holy Father intended to do.
"Well, in that case—," I said, and made for the door. It being ever necessary to maintain appearances, Borgia would take the strictly private passage that linked his office with the adjacent Palazzo Santa Maria in Portico where he housed both his young mistress and his slightly younger daughter from an earlier affair that had also produced Cesare and two other sons. I would have to use the more public route, which meant running the gauntlet of hangers-on clustered just beyond the inner office. Fortunately, as I was both a woman and a figure of some considerable apprehension, I would be spared the worst of the interrogation about to afflict the hapless secretaries.
I got as far as the first antechamber before a nervous, ferret-faced fellow sidled up. Do not be misled by my description of him for, although it is accurate, I had a certain fondness for Renaldo d'Marco, formerly steward of Borgia's palazzo when he was a cardinal and now elevated to his service within the Vatican.
"Has he signed it?" Renaldo inquired, eyes darting furtively, which of course only made him more likely to attract undesired attention to himself—and by extension to me.
I seized his sleeve and drew him off a little into an inglenook where we could be less readily observed. The pounding and sawing from the nearby wing of the Vatican Palace where Borgia's grandiose apartment was under construction offered cover for private conversation. Even so, I kept my voice low.
"Not yet, but he will."
"Are you certain?" Renaldo was not asking idly. Like almost everyone, he had bets placed with one or more of the hundreds of touts in Rome who took such wagers. He might also have entrusted funds to various of the merchant houses whose profits could be affected by the papal decree. In this, he and I were no different. Borgia had been more than generous—any sensible man is with his poisoner. I had no complaints, but I would have been thought a fool if I failed to make sound use of the information that came my way.
"He has no choice," I said. "He must have Spain's favor and their Majesties have made it clear that there is no other way to gain it."
"But if Colombo is right—"
I nodded brusquely. All knew the problem that had so far stayed Borgia from signing the decree.
"If the Holy Father gives Spain what turns out really to be the Indies," I said, "there will be war with Portugal. Everyone knows that. But all the scholars, the geographers, the mapmakers, all of them still say what they said when the great captain was peddling his crazed scheme to every court in Europe and being sent away empty-handed: The world is too big for him to have reached the Indies."
In the weeks since the battered caravel La Niña limped out of an Atlantic storm to find shelter in the port of Lisbon, few had been able to speak of anything other than the astounding news she brought. Scarcely had the first reports reached Rome than Borgia set to work to determine how he might take advantage of whatever it was that had just happened.
To help him decide, we had endured a seemingly endless parade of sages who explained to him over and over exactly why, all claims to the contrary, Colombo could not possibly have reached the Indies. By all rights, he and his crew should have run through their provisions and perished at sea long before ever making landfall. That they had not could mean only one thing—they had found not the Indies with its great spice wealth coveted by all, but an entirely new, previously unsuspected land—Novi Orbis.
"What if they are wrong—?" Renaldo began but I would have none of it.
"The ancient Greeks knew the world's girth and so do we. Colombo has found something else, something entirely new, whether he wants to admit that or not. It may be a place of unimagined riches or it may offer nothing but death and ruin. Spain will find out soon enough."
The steward looked comforted by my reassurances yet something still troubled him.
"Have you heard the rumors?" he asked, bending a little closer so that I smelled the anise on his breath. It was not an unpleasant scent but it could not fully mask the nervous sourness emanating from his stomach.
"Which rumors? Each day, each hour brings new claims wilder than the last."
"I don't know how wild these are. Indeed, I fear they may be all too true. It is being said that man, Pinzv=n, captain of La Piv±ta, is dying of a disease no one has seen before. He is covered in strange pustules and consumed by fever."
I had heard the same rumor and shared Renaldo's fear, though I was not about to admit it. Sailors frequently returned home with all manner of ailments, but this was different. By all reports, no one had ever seen the scourge that was killing the subcaptain of Colombo's fleet. Nor was he alone; several other men who had sailed with the great discoverer were similarly stricken. There were even reports, as yet unconfirmed, that the same symptoms were appearing among the whores of Barcelona, the city to which many returning crew members had gone.
"We must pray for him," I said solemnly.
Renaldo paid that no more mind than I intended. "Of course, of course," he said. "But about the decree—you are quite certain?"
I assured him that I was and pleaded a pressing need to be elsewhere, which was true enough. Moments later, I was crossing the vast piazza, crowded as usual with all manner of tradesmen, gawkers, priests, nuns, pilgrims, dignitaries, and the like. The Vatican was, as always, open for business.
The sun, drifting westward, was warm on my face and I felt as though I could truly breathe for the first time in hours. Even the muscles in the back of my neck that had become so tense as I waited upon Borgia unclenched, if only a little. Behind me, the crumbling hulk of Saint Peter's lurked, more than a thousand years old and in dire danger of collapse. I did not look in its direction but as always, I was vividly aware of its presence.
Certain events the previous year haunted me still. Waking and sleeping, I relived the desperate search through Saint Peter's for a lost child in the hands of a madman bent on ritual murder. What I had seen in the corpse-clogged catacombs was nightmarish enough but it faded to inconsequence when compared to the terror that had followed in the vast, abandoned garret under the basilica's crumbling roof.
As though all that weren't enough, I had gotten it into my head that one of my dark calling should not go out of her way to attract divine attention, as I surely would do were I ever foolish enough to face God again on the very rock where His Church was built.
Fortunately, there had been no need to do so. Borgia himself despised the dreary pile; he had visited it only a handful of times since becoming pope and spoke regularly of pulling it down. He had some scheme in mind to build a new, more glorious basilica that would stand as a tribute throughout time to his papacy. Sadly, the funds for such an ambitious enterprise did not exist and were not likely to anytime soon.
It was just as well that no one seemed to notice, far less care, that I avoided setting foot inside Peter's Church. I could not remember when I had last made the prerequisite confession for the cleansing of one's soul. There had been that night the previous summer when I broke down and admitted to Borgia that the possibility that I had killed Pope Innocent VIII, the Vicar of Christ, God's chosen representative on earth, troubled me. He insisted on giving me absolution and I, weak as I am, accepted. We were both rather drunk at the time, which perhaps helps explain it.
Since then I had killed no more than three times, always in response to the attempts on Borgia's life and always as mercifully as I could, if that counts for anything. I told myself that to kill in defense of His Holiness did not constitute sin, which was not to say that I was without transgression. Relatively smaller offenses aside—fornication, alas on too rare occasion; lying, of course, as is always necessary in our world; working on the Sabbath, if the private studies I pursued for my own benefit could really be considered work—all that aside, the truth was that a day rarely went by when I did not contemplate murder.
I say contemplate in the sense of taking out an idea, turning it this way and that, considering how better to burnish and refine it, all in an exercise intended to give me some relief from the implacable reality that the mad priest Bernando Morozzi, the true mastermind behind my father's death and, I suspected, the instigator of the attacks against Borgia, remained very much alive.
Unsatisfied with the expulsion of the Jews from Spain the previous year, the priest with the face of an angel and the soul of the Devil had plotted to secure a papal declaration banning them from all of Christendom. I had played my role in thwarting his evil ambitions but I had failed to avenge my father's death. Thus far.
It would hardly do to explain any of that to some hapless cleric, who would then have to scramble about for an appropriate penance when there was none, since I was most definitely not contrite and I had absolutely no intention of mending my wicked ways.
Even so, the shadows cast by Peter's crumbling rock still had the power to make me shudder. I quickened my pace, eager to be gone, if only for a little while, from the Vatican and everything it represented.