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.
“Vino! Molto vino for everyone!”
He blinked once, twice. A moment passed, another. He let go of the girl’s breast, set the goblet on the table, and sighed deeply.
“Ai, mio, he sent you.”
“Of course he did,” I said. “Whom did you think he would send?”
A murmur went around. The whisper of my name. The brunette paled, pressed her legs together, and fled. So, too, did most of the crowd. Scrambling off her perch, the blonde fell. For a moment, her smooth rump was high in the air before she picked herself up and followed the rest.
Only the Spaniards remained. Arrogant, high-nosed young men, scions of ancient families, swift to take offense at any slight to their honor, real or imagined. They were lately come to the court of the Pope, who still considered Valencia to be home, and had been drawn inevitably to the company of his son.
“Who is this?” one of them demanded, resolutely ignorant.
Cesare Borgia rose unsteadily, adjusted his breeches, and made a token effort to straighten himself. He smiled grudgingly.
“My conscience, alas.”
Outside in the street, surrounded by the condottieri, he held his face up to the cool night air. A fine mist carried the tang of the sea miles off at Ostia. He breathed it in deeply, as did I. For a moment, the lure of far-off places and different lives filled us.
“Say you couldn’t find me.”
“It wouldn’t make any difference if I did. Your father would just send someone else. Be glad he sent your own guards and not his.”
He sighed. “Have you no pity? My life is ending.”
I fought a smile and lost. He was so young still, this boy-man with whom my own life was so unexpectedly entwined.
“You are scarcely eighteen years old and you are about to acquire more power and wealth than most can ever dream of. Do not expect anyone to weep for you.”
“All well and good, but this isn’t how I wanted to get either. You know that.”
“Who among us gets what we want?”
“My father has.”
I conceded the point with a slight nod. “True enough. Now let us see if he can keep it.”
Torches burned in brackets set into the walls of the palazzo near the Campo, illuminating the marble statues in the entrance and the loggia beyond. Despite the hour, the servants were all awake and scurrying about. I went with Cesare up the curving stairs to his private quarters and waited as he threw off his clothes and sank into a steaming-hot bath. As he sweated out the effects of his indulgence, I mixed a restorative from powders I carried in a small bag that hung at my waist. I never went anywhere without that bag or without the knife nestled in a leather sheath next to my heart.
He swallowed the potion I handed him without delay, testament to his trust in me. Watching him, I wondered how many people I knew would do the same. A dozen, at most, if I really stretched? And half of those would at least hesitate.
“That’s vile,” he said.
The tub was carved from a single piece of marble and decorated with ample-breasted mermaids. I sat on a stool next to it. “You’ll be glad of it all the same.”
He was leaning back, his head against the rim, his eyes closed, but he opened one to look at me. “You could get in.”
“I could.…” I appeared to consider it. “But you know what would happen. Tired as we both are, we’d fall asleep afterward and then we’d drown. Che scandalo.”
He laughed, accepting my refusal with better grace than I had expected. I took that as evidence of how truly low his spirits were.
When the water had cooled, he rose and stood naked, legs braced and arms held away from his sides. Droplets sluiced down his skin kissed by the sun. He was leaving the lankiness of youth behind, coming into his own as a man and a warrior. His shoulders had broadened first, followed by his torso, but lately the bands of muscle across his abdomen and thighs had become even more evident. So far at least, his body was without imperfection, a condition he lamented as he longed to prove himself on the field of honor. Scars, he insisted, were the true mark of a man; all else was pretense. His father, Christ’s Vicar on Earth, thought otherwise, and his will ruled, at least for now.
“This really doesn’t bother you?” Cesare asked as his long-suffering valet finished patting him dry.
I shrugged. “Why should it?”
He looked so uncertain suddenly that I went to him, wrapped my arms around his broad chest, and pressed a light kiss against his lips, the softness of which surprised me, as always. He stirred against me, making me laugh and causing my gaze to drift just for a moment in the direction of the bed. Only the light stealing through the high windows gave me pause. That and the great bells of Saint Peter’s that just began to ring on the far side of the river, heralding the dawn.
“Of course it makes no difference. How could it possibly?”
The valet cleared his throat. “Pardon me, signore. It is time to dress.”
I sat in a comfortable chair with my feet up and sipped a light cider from the first apple pressing while I waited. The procedure took longer than usual, no doubt because Cesare was donning clothes he had never worn before. When he emerged finally from the dressing room, my breath caught. I rose, smiling.
“You look exceedingly handsome.”
“This is not what I want,” he said and kicked at the long red skirts of his cassock in disgust.
I would have replied, but just then the bells of Saint Peter’s grew louder, their voices joined by the bells of churches all over Rome. Together they hailed the day of consecration for Holy Mother Church’s newest and most unwilling prince.
The bells were still ringing as I made my way across Rome. Despite its being Sunday, most of the shops were open and the streets were busy. His Holiness—a man of commerce himself—had designated virtually every enterprise in the city as “necessary,” and therefore exempt from closing on holy days. For that, and for reining in the crime that had been rampant in the streets during the tenure of his predecessor, Romans loved him. But theirs was no longer the giddy love of first infatuation that brings a blush to the cheek and a glow to the eyes. Rather it was the brittle love of experience that teeters on the edge of disillusionment, when the faithlessness of the beloved is becoming all too evident.
In Borgia’s case, his boundless lust for women, power, privilege, and wealth was a mere beginning. What he really wanted—what he was determined to have—was nothing short of immortality. He intended to so remake the world in his own image that his name would ring down through the ages, never diminished, never forgotten, forever glorious. I imagine that he envisioned himself sitting Jove-like in the heavens, gazing down benignly at what he had wrought. Unfortunately, his enemies were coming to the same conclusion, and they were determined to stop him.
Despite the shadow they cast, the sun was out, a benediction after the constant rain of late. For a moment, a fragment of my interrupted dream flitted through my mind. I could just as easily turn toward the Campo and visit Rocco. The recent announcement of his betrothal to Carlotta d’Agnelli had made no difference to our friendship, and why would it? True, there had been a time when Rocco fancied that he and I should wed, but given what he now knew of my dark nature, he should surely be glad of his escape. Even so, we liked and trusted each other in the way of colleagues bound by mutual interests. If I still longed on occasion for what could not be, that was my secret to bear and keep. I owed him a visit, just not quite yet.
After more than a year in His Holiness’s service, living constantly within the darkest aspects of my nature, I could no longer ignore the anxious melancholia that hung over me on even the brightest day. In front of Cesare or His Holiness himself, I managed to maintain the appearance of confidence, but it was no more than a thin façade over my deepest fears. Constantly on guard, seeing danger in every shadow, I was haunted by the conviction that my soul, insofar as it still existed, would never see the light for which I yearned so desperately. Out of sheer bravado, I told myself that to be damned was a kind of liberation. Not for me the endless cycle of sin, confession, and bought absolution. But having gone beyond all that, I found myself in a purgatory all my own.
A cloud moved across the sun. I shivered in the sudden chill and pressed on. The Tiber having overflowed its banks, I was forced to hold up my skirts as I made my way through filthy water to the small apothecary shop secluded down a narrow lane. Several customers were inside. I waited, loitering just out of sight, as they were seen to one by one. When the last had gone, I stepped through the door.
Within, all was clean and ordered: every bottle and packet properly stowed, the worktable scrubbed down with sand, the air bearing the scent of drying herbs. No hint lingered of the suffering and death that had played out within those walls the previous year when desperate refugees—expelled from Spain at the order of Their Most Catholic Majesties Ferdinand and Isabella—had streamed into Rome, their condition stark testament to man’s inhumanity to man. Any normal person would welcome the relative tranquility as evidence of the mercy of God, who, it is said, never sends us more than we can bear. To me, it had more the quality of stillness that precedes a great storm.
Sofia Montefiore finished rinsing her hands in the vinegar she used as a protection against spreading disease and reached for a towel. Seeing me, she frowned.
“You look a wreck.”
Friends can always be counted on to soothe one’s vanity; only good friends tell the truth. Sofia, a middle-aged woman with a sturdy build and a cloud of silver hair pinned up haphazardly around her plain but pleasant face, cared too much for my well-being to be less than honest. I could not do otherwise, especially as my best efforts to deceive her invariably failed.
“I haven’t been sleeping well.”
“That’s nothing new. What have you been doing about it?”
“Drinking,” I admitted. “Likely too much.”
“Nothing else?” When I hesitated, she came around the table to look at me more closely. I resisted the urge to squirm under her scrutiny.
“No opium?” she asked.
As much as I would have liked to feign shock, I could not manage it. Sofia knew what all of Rome knew: the Turkish sultan, who paid well to assure that his younger brother and rival remained a captive in the Vatican, supplied said brother with all manner of indulgences intended to keep him weak and complacent. Chief among these was opium, which the generous Prince Djem shared with his friends in the Church and among the nobility.
“I’ve tried it,” I admitted. Shortly before Cesare’s investiture, when he was in the throes of realizing that his father would not relent and let him become the war leader he yearned to be, he had procured some for us to sample together. The euphoria it evoked was seductive in the extreme, but the drawbacks were obvious. “It dulls the senses too much. I have to be able to work.”
Sofia looked relieved. “It is as well you realize that. There is much you can do to help yourself without relying on—”
I did not let her finish but interjected, “There was opium in the sleeping powder you gave me a few months ago, wasn’t there? That’s why you refused to continue providing it.”
She did not deny it but said, “That was a mistake. I thought that if your sleep could be adjusted to a more normal pattern, it would remain that way after the powder was withdrawn. Now it seems that I may have only sparked a craving that lingers still.”
“My only craving is for sleep. I am desperate for it. Surely, under your care, following your instructions, I could take some form of the powder safely?”
I was prepared for her to reject the idea out of hand, in which case I had rehearsed my argument. Borgia was the Jews’ pope as much as he was anyone’s, insofar as they had provided the sums needed to elect him. In return, he had pledged them his protection. I, in turn, protected him. Sofia must see the benefits of keeping me functioning.
But before I could begin to convince her, she gestured for me to sit. Leaving me for a moment, she returned with hot water from the stove in the rear of the shop. As she prepared an infusion of chamomile and rose hip, she said, “David is back.”
I swallowed my impatience; no great task, as her news interested me. David ben Eliezer was the leader of a band of renegade Jews prepared to fight for the survival of their people. He and I had joined forces before to that end. The last I had heard, he was in Florence keeping an eye on the fanatical monk Savonarola, who, when he wasn’t railing against the corruption of Holy Mother Church, kept busy calling for the extermination of the Jews. Savonarola had an ally, a priest named Bernando Morozzi, who I believed was the man ultimately behind my father’s death. David had been watching him as well. Whatever had made him break off and return to the Holy City must be important indeed.
“What brings him to Rome?” I asked.
“The same concerns that keep you wakeful, I imagine. Borgia seems intent on collecting enemies, including some with the capacity to be deadly.”
I could not deny it. “He is determined to advance the interest of la famiglia at all cost. Witness his insistence on making Cesare a cardinal despite how it has outraged so many of the prelates.”
“Such hubris will be his downfall,” Sofia said with a sigh. She filled two stoneware cups with the infusion and handed one to me. As I sipped, she added, “I fear that we will have a new pope or we will have war. Most likely both.”
I could not dismiss either possibility, but had I been willing to accept them as inevitable, I would not have been sitting in her shop.
“If there is one thing I have learned,” I said, “it is never to bet against Borgia. Everyone who has done that is the poorer for it, assuming they’re still with us at all.”
Sofia did not hide her skepticism. “You really believe that he can survive?”
“Most definitely. The longer he does, the more frustrated and divided his enemies become. Eventually, at least some of them will seek an accord with him.” Or so I most profoundly hoped, for every other possibility loomed grim and lethal.
Before she could comment, I went on quickly. “But I need help, Sofia.” I gestured with my cup. “I am far beyond such remedies as this. Will you give me what I need or not?”
She took a breath and let it out slowly. “What will you do if I refuse?”
“I hadn’t thought of that.” It was a lie, but I hoped a small one. I had considered various alternatives; I just hadn’t been able to come up with any that were remotely good.
Her eyebrows rose. “We both know that when it comes to such matters, your expertise surpasses my own.”
“You give me too much credit. I wish to sleep only for a few hours, not eternally.”
What I needed was beyond the limits of my dark calling. While I knew a hundred ways and more to kill, I knew next to nothing of how to heal. What little I had managed to learn I owed entirely to Sofia’s efforts to reform me.
A smile tugged at the corners of her mouth, but her gaze remained serious. “In that case, I will see what I can do. But you must promise that you will follow my instructions without exception.”
Having assured her that I would not dream of doing less, I thought to linger longer in her company, but just then a customer arrived. I took my leave, greatly relieved now that I knew help was at hand. With the improvement in my mood, I was tempted once again to seek out Rocco. But when I reached his shop in the Via dei Vertrarari, the street of the glassmakers, I found it shuttered. Likely he and his young son, Nando, were visiting with Carlotta and her family.
Determined to ignore the sudden hollowness where my heart was, I returned to my own apartments. There I spent the remainder of the day pursuing an investigation that had sparked my interest. Recently, there had been a spate of deaths among older gentlemen who had in common both wealth and young wives. All had died after complaining of sharp stomach pains and passing blood in their urine. Naturally, this had prompted rumors of foul deeds. Ever on the lookout for signs that a poisoner might be at work in the city, and therefore a possible threat to Borgia, I made my own inquiries.
As it turned out, all of the gentlemen had been taking a commonly available compound made from the dried husks of the Spanish fly, which is in fact a rather pretty emerald-green beetle, renowned for stimulating the flagging vigor of the male member. I had become curious about how this effect was accomplished and had gone so far as to inquire of Cesare what he knew of it. After he got over being both offended and amused by my assumption that he would have any such knowledge, he relented enough to tell me that the compound appeared to greatly increase the flow of humors through the body, most especially that of the blood. While the result could be an impressive erection, it also could overstrain the heart, cause severe pain in the stomach, and interfere with urination. Despite so mixed a reputation, it remained much in demand among men desperate to hold on to their virility.
All that made me wonder: If a little of the cantharidin, as it was known, could accomplish so much, what might a more concentrated dosage do? Without dwelling on the details, I quickly discovered that the problem lay in the purity and strength of the substance. The gentlemen in question had had the misfortune to encounter an unusually potent supply. The source, a back alley seller unworthy of the title of apothecary, had agreed to sell me all of his remaining stock shortly before he departed Rome in considerable haste. I had set myself to study the effects—and how they might be made even more potent and deadly.
So occupied was I that I failed to notice the storm blowing in from the west. Wind-driven rain was splattering the floor of my workroom before I realized what was happening and hurried to close the shutters over the tall windows. As I did so, I happened to glance down into the courtyard. A figure was standing there, wrapped in an enveloping cloak and sheltered from the rain by an overhang. I could not make out any features, but the angle of the head made it appear that the watcher was looking up at me.
Having shut the windows and pulled the shutters closed, I told myself that my imagination was overwrought. With so little sleep and so much worry, likely I had conjured the watcher from shadows. Yet before I finally retired for the night, I glanced outside again. Nothing stirred in the courtyard, not even a bedraggled rat.
Perversely, I slept well, at least for me, waking shortly after dawn to the lingering scent of rain and the sound of trumpets blaring the news of a papal proclamation.
Copyright © 2012 by Sara Poole
SARA POLE 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.