Gemini (House of Niccolò Series #8) [NOOK Book]

Overview

Scotland, 1477: Nicholas de Fleury, former banker and merchant, has re-appeared in the land that, four years earlier, he had brought very close to ruin in the course of an intense commercial and personal war with secret enemies--and, indeed, with his clever wife Gelis.

Now the opportunity for redemption is at hand, but Nicholas soon finds himself pursuing his objectives amid a complex, corrosive power struggle centering on the Scottish royal ...
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Gemini (House of Niccolò Series #8)

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Overview

Scotland, 1477: Nicholas de Fleury, former banker and merchant, has re-appeared in the land that, four years earlier, he had brought very close to ruin in the course of an intense commercial and personal war with secret enemies--and, indeed, with his clever wife Gelis.

Now the opportunity for redemption is at hand, but Nicholas soon finds himself pursuing his objectives amid a complex, corrosive power struggle centering on the Scottish royal family but closely involving the powerful merchants of Edinburgh, the gentry, the clergy, the English (ever seeking an excuse to pounce on their neighbor to the north), the French, the Burgundians. His presence soon draws Gelis and their son Jodi to Scotland, as well as Nicholas's companions and subordinates in many a past endeavor--Dr. Tobias and his wife Clémence, Mick Crackbene, John le Grant, and Andro Wodman among them. Here, too, Nicholas meets again with others who have had an influence, for good or evil, in his life: King James III of Scotland and his rebellious siblings; the St. Pols: Jordan, Simon, and young Henry; Mistress Bel of Cuthilgurdy and David de Salmeton; Anselm Adorne and Kathi his niece. Caught up in, and sometimes molding, the course of great events, Nicholas exhibits by turns the fierce silence with which he masks his secrets, and the explosive, willful gaiety that binds men, women, and children to him. And as the secrets of his birth and heritage come to light, Nicholas has to decide whether he desires to establish a future in Scotland for himself and his family, and a home for his descendants.

Gemini brings to a dazzling conclusion Dorothy Dunnett's House of Niccolò series (synopsized in this volume), in which this peerless novelist has vividly re-created the dramatic, flamboyant world of the early Renaissance in historical writing of scrupulous authenticity and in the entrancing portrait of her visionary hero. Now, in a book infused with wit and poetry, emotion and humor, action and mystery, she brings Nicholas de Fleury at last to choose his heart's home, where he can exercise all his skills as an advisor to kings and statesmen, as a husband, a father, and a leader of men--and where, perhaps, we will discern a connection between him and that other remarkable personality, Francis Crawford, whose exploits Lady Dunnett recorded so memorably in The Lymond Chronicles.


From the Trade Paperback edition.
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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
The House of Niccolò

What makes a long book -- a really long book -- worth the time and effort of reading it?

With the publication of Gemini, the eighth and final volume in her sweeping House of Niccolò series, Dorothy Dunnett brings to a close the intricate and vastly entertaining adventures of her Renaissance hero, Nicholas de Fleury. Each book in this series, like those in Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin novels, may be read with pleasure as a freestanding tale, but the greatest satisfaction lies in following Nicholas from the first volume to the last, from his youth in mid-15th-century Flanders to his culminating exploits in Scotland some 25 years later. Along the way, we discover not only the portrait of a charming, romantic, and compelling protagonist, but the portrait of a complex age: the modern world in the making.

When we meet Nicholas in the first book of the series, Niccolò Rising, he is merely Claes vander Poele, a clever, illegitimate dye-shop apprentice of 18, whose rapid rise in the world carries him from the role of laborer to trader, to banker, to spy, and through half the courts and trading cities of Europe. Book by book, driven by the challenges of his time as well as by the secrets embedded in his own mysterious past, he visits Trebizond, last outpost of the dying Byzantine empire; wages mercenary war on the embattled Aegean island of Cyprus; hunts for gold in the hidden North African kingdom of Timbuktu; and matches plot and counterplot with the scheming, artful powers of Florence, Venice, and Burgundy, Poland, Persia, and Russia.

Travels of this sort, peopled with dozens of brilliantly sketched secondary characters (many of them drawn from the historical record) and layered with labyrinthine subplots, are the typical stuff of which all good historical novels are made. But Dunnett brings to her enterprise a formidable set of additional skills and concerns. A flexible and highly literate writer, she displays a happy facility for the fresh simile ("The friar smiled. It was like a rat diving into a hedge"; "The oysters...were the finest Nicholas had ever seen: the sensitive shells, thin as a porcelain roseleaf, slowly closed as he watched"), the unhackneyed pun ("Bestow a little thought on what must be arranged for these [mystery] plays. For the Multiplication des Pains, six dozen loaves from some baker"), and the nuanced, lapidary turn of phrase ("I want the teachers sprung of your line to help instruct the poor fools sprung of mine"). She invests Nicholas and his world with a commanding realism and grounds his myriad adventures in meticulous research of astonishing depth and range. Nicholas's story is told with delightful wit and lyrical richness; Dunnett draws upon Renaissance art, science, and literature not merely as tools of her narrative but with real insight, creating a fully persuasive account of an age on the cusp of dramatic change.

At the heart of this world is the mysterious Nicholas himself: enigmatic, skilled at mathematics and codes, passionate, clever, and secretive; talented at constructing complex games and puzzles; dangerous and alluring to friends and enemies alike. Who is this Nicholas who changes his name and nationality as occasion warrants? What is his relationship to the powerful St. Pol family of France and Scotland? As he meets and overcomes challenges, confronts defeats, and acquires new talents, volume by volume, Dunnett gradually exposes the layers of a personality as intriguing, difficult, and multifaceted as that of another clever, widely traveled, problematic hero, Odysseus. Like Odysseus, Nicholas is not only a skilled soldier but also a master craftsman, a maker of delicate toys, a trickster and joker; he is Harlequin in tattered clothes; like Harlequin, he wears masks. Dunnett, a clever craftsman like her hero, plays intricate games with the reader of narrative within narrative, mystery within mystery.

Indeed, among the many pleasures of the Niccolò books is that though they may be read purely as highly enjoyable, fast-paced, swashbuckling individual stories, the reader who wants something more will discover in them a deeply serious exploration of character and narrative form that draws upon the full body of western literature, from the Norse and Greek myths and epics to the medieval Christian mystery plays and courtly romances. Dunnett knows how to use classical allusion with a light touch; her echoes of mythic themes are never intrusive, but are woven into her narrative with exquisite grace and fluidity, just as the eight books together comprise a well-knit, unified tale.

Here is a passage from the third volume, Race of Scorpions. The year is 1463. Nicholas, age 23, is on the island of Cyprus, birthplace of Aphrodite, conspiring in the warm air of a summer evening against -- or perhaps with -- the powerful Venetian nobles who control it, watched by the visiting Flemish lady Katelina van Borselen, who may either love or hate him. One of the Venetians, Jacopo Zorzi, speaks:

"Will you allow me to arrange a meeting --"

"With me?" said the voice of Nicholas behind him. Zorzi, half risen, stood and turned. Katelina subsided. A moth, substantial as brown rotted fruit, advanced through dying smoke and opened and closed its wings on the table. Nicholas, his doublet caught on one shoulder, was a blur of white, below shadowy features. He said, "Young as I am, and greedy for women? If she wants to exchange her services for her murdering nephew, she should come back to Kouklia tomorrow. Today and tonight, I am suited." She saw the heaviness of his eyes, turned towards her, and heard the one clumsy word in that speech. He said, "Did he persuade you to escape?"

"No," she said. The moth shifted, and she stood up quickly. . . .

Nicholas said, "Do you know who he is?"

"She knows," said the Venetian patiently. He had recovered himself.

"She knows," Nicholas said, "that Bartolomeo of the dyeworks is your brother. She doesn't associate you as yet with your other brother. Nicholai Giorgio de' Acciajuoli, who once shared your journey from Scotland, demoiselle, and whose good advice sent me to Trebizond."

...She remembered. She remembered the crazy, joyous apprentice whose name was not yet Nicholas. She remembered a tall, elegant Greek of Florentine descent whose affairs she had always known, vaguely, to be involved with the Charetty company; with its great new ventures; with the marriage, even, of Nicholas and Marian, his employer and wife. She said, "Do you mean to destroy his brothers as well?"

The thing on the table moved. Following her eyes, Nicholas picked up a napkin and, leaning forward, placed it over the live moth and pressed on it. He said, "I don't destroy everyone who hurts me. You know that better than most. I don't even know whether the Zorzi wish me well or the opposite." He lifted his hand, leaving the crumpled cloth on the table. Nothing moved. He said, "What do you think?" to the Venetian.

"I think it's dead," said Jacopo Zorzi, "whether it harmed you or not."

In this passage, it is perhaps useful to know -- although the reader will not discover it for many pages yet -- that Katelina has a deadly fear of insects. The act of casual cruelty and menace with which Nicholas warns his interlocutors is thus also an act of subtle, observant kindness toward one of them, of which the other is unaware. It is perhaps also useful to remember here that in Greek myth the moth is a symbol of Psyche, the soul, who falls in love with the god Adonis and is transformed.

Transformation and reversal are repeated themes in the Niccolò stories. Dunnett's picaresque tale of a young man rising by his wits in a changing world of international commerce, shifting national borders, and new political and social structures also resonates with powerful, archetypal themes of personal identity, parental and sexual love, and political loyalty.

The core question is that of Nicholas's own identity. With his parentage and his name in doubt, he must forge a place for himself in a Europe that stands uncertainly between the old medieval, feudal and religious order and the nascent secular order of independent, quarrelsome nation-states. He must find for himself the country and family to which he belongs -- or else make them. Talented in trade and commerce, skilled at warfare and the policies of courts, and uniquely perceptive about human nature, Nicholas's private mottos are "Put yourself in the other man's place" and "Change, change and adapt." His flexible world view echoes that of Europe in the flux of the early Renaissance and provides the key to the extraordinary financial and intellectual virility of both; it offers him many advantages over his adversaries, but also reveals some desperate flaws: For Nicholas is a man who may lack a fundamental moral grounding in the world, just as he lacks a homeland and a name of his own. His quest for riches, love, nationality, and family are ultimately a quest for a sense of self.

At the onset of Gemini, he is no longer lowly Claes vander Poele, but Nicholas de Fleury, erstwhile Baron of Beltrees, struggling for happiness in marriage; with children, friends, mentors, rivals, and enemies known and secret; possessor of houses, goals, and a scarred record of mixed crimes and achievements. Here Nicholas returns to Scotland, the theater of former violent confrontations with the St. Pol family and his own wife, to settle once and for all his claims to belong to both. In this last, elegiac, and valedictory tale, Dunnett portrays with affectionate precision a country "north of the real world," far from the political and cultural hubs of Europe and struggling to civilize itself. She masterfully populates her young nation with tradesmen and courtiers, counselors and nobles, and one of the most spectacularly dysfunctional royal families short of Britain's current clan. Here Nicholas the merchant finds himself embroiled in the petty conflicts of an immature court. A seasoned politician as well as a businessman, adept at playing both sides of any dispute or battle, Nicholas finally finds that he must choose his loyalties and his place in the world, and pay the price of his commitments.

What makes a long book -- a really long book -- a particular sort of pleasure? In the House of Niccolò series, author and reader have the luxury of exploring themes great and small in depth (the recurrent metaphors of rivers, blindness, wheels, and twins, for example) within the framework of an exciting, often riotously funny set of adventure novels. Just as Dunnett has been compared to Patrick O'Brian for her command of period detail and historical fact, so too has she been compared to Charles Dickens for her panoply of vivid secondary characters and for the passionate intensity with which her avid readers follow the fate of her hero, from the starlit wastes of the Sahara to the icebound volcanoes of Iceland, and from the arms of lovers to the arms of his true love. Yet perhaps it is most appropriate to cite two other authors of very long books here: Anthony Powell and Marcel Proust, the former for A Dance to the Music of Time, his witty, leisurely 12-volume portrait of an age in flux and at odds with itself; the latter for his elaborate, extended, impressionistic fabric of interwoven ideas and personalities, evocative prose, and deeply felt passions. The simple genre of romantic historical fiction has garnered little respect in the world of literary fiction and may make such elevated comparisons ring a bit awkwardly in the ear. Yet Tolstoy, too, once wrote a sprawling historical romance whose underlying structure proved to be fiercely intellectually rigorous. Dunnett's panoramic scope and occasional infelicities of plotting and character motivation may diminish her power for some readers, who will perhaps place her not on Olympus with Tolstoy and Proust, but rather in the solid, earthbound company of Walter Scott and Alexandre Dumas. Let those readers be satisfied with a dazzling romantic tale told in limpid, prismatic prose.

—Eve Harrington

Barnes & Noble Guide to New Fiction
The climactic installment in the saga of Niccolo - banker, soldier, adventurer, and Renaissance man extraordinaire.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Few literary projects these days rival in scope Dunnett's dazzling House of Niccol , a series of well-researched historical novels (each running over 500 pages) that propels its 15th-century hero across Turkey, Poland, Italy, France, Flanders, the Sahara desert and Scotland in search of gold, legitimacy, glory and family. This eighth and final installment finds the former banker Nicholas de Fleury back in Edinburgh, grappling with a whirlwind of royal machinations, business deals, family vendettas and empire-building challenges. Despite an absence of four years, the charming, shrewd Nicholas quickly insinuates himself back into the court of King James Stewart III, striking up a friendship with James's rebellious brother Sandy and spying for the king's coterie of advisors. Meanwhile, Nicholas must keep watchful eye on the wealthy St. Pol family, which has long hated him for claiming to be Simon de St. Pol's son. (The family insists he's the bastard child of Simon's promiscuous ex-wife.) Will the tempestuous adolescent Henry de St. Pol discover that he is Nicholas's child, not Simon's? Will France help Sandy topple the weak King James? Will the nefarious David de Salmeton, a religious procurator, be able to assassinate Nicholas? Can Nicholas and his wife, Gelis, maintain their hard-won happiness? These are just a few of the questions that underlie this intrigue-ridden epic. Considering the vast cast of characters (a list of them runs 13 tightly spaced pages), it's remarkably easy for the neophyte to enter Dunnett's adventurous world, for the author does an outstanding job of keeping each personality distinct and each of the innumerable subplots coherent. But despite the bounty of suspenseful sword fights, feasts, battles and closed-door negotiations, the real pleasure here lies in the reams of artful repartee, which can rival Jane Austen's for wit and subtlety. Despite a few minor flaws (the wives are too good, the peasant girls too compliant, a few historical distortions), Dunnett's work sits triumphantly at the top of a crowded field: it is a sensational, emotionally resonant epic. Introduction by Judith Wilt. (July) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Library Journal
Dunnett's eighth and final installment of the "House of Niccol " series has as its backdrop the late 15th-century rift between King James III of Scotland and his brothers. Nicholas de Fleury has decided to return to Scotland to face two enemies: his family, the St. Pols, who still refuse to recognize him, and David Simpson, who stole the African gold in an earlier adventure. Nicholas immediately gets swept up in the fraternal strife of the royal family, leading to the increasingly dangerous role of envoy for the brothers. As his two sworn enemies further endanger his task, Nicholas perseveres in establishing himself, his family, and his supporters in Scotland. For those who have not read the seven earlier books, there is a summation of the plots, but Dunnett skillfully gives enough background when introducing characters that one can read this book without having read the earlier ones. For those familiar with the series, this is essential reading; for others, it's a good introduction to Dunnett's ability to weave history, characters, and adventure into a suspenseful and entertaining work. Highly recommended.--Joshua Cohen, Mid-Hudson Lib. Syst., Poughkeepsie, NY Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
School Library Journal
Few literary projects these days rival in scope Dunnett's dazzling House of Niccol , a series of well-researched historical novels (each running over 500 pages) that propels its 15th-century hero across Turkey, Poland, Italy, France, Flanders, the Sahara desert and Scotland in search of gold, legitimacy, glory and family. This eighth and final installment finds the former banker Nicholas de Fleury back in Edinburgh, grappling with a whirlwind of royal machinations, business deals, family vendettas and empire-building challenges. Despite an absence of four years, the charming, shrewd Nicholas quickly insinuates himself back into the court of King James Stewart III, striking up a friendship with James's rebellious brother Sandy and spying for the king's coterie of advisors. Meanwhile, Nicholas must keep watchful eye on the wealthy St. Pol family, which has long hated him for claiming to be Simon de St. Pol's son. (The family insists he's the bastard child of Simon's promiscuous ex-wife.) Will the tempestuous adolescent Henry de St. Pol discover that he is Nicholas's child, not Simon's? Will France help Sandy topple the weak King James? Will the nefarious David de Salmeton, a religious procurator, be able to assassinate Nicholas? Can Nicholas and his wife, Gelis, maintain their hard-won happiness? These are just a few of the questions that underlie this intrigue-ridden epic. Considering the vast cast of characters (a list of them runs 13 tightly spaced pages), it's remarkably easy for the neophyte to enter Dunnett's adventurous world, for the author does an outstanding job of keeping each personality distinct and each of the innumerable subplots coherent. But despite the bounty of suspenseful sword fights, feasts, battles and closed-door negotiations, the real pleasure here lies in the reams of artful repartee, which can rival Jane Austen's for wit and subtlety. Despite a few minor flaws (the wives are too good, the peasant girls too compliant, a few historical distortions), Dunnett's work sits triumphantly at the top of a crowded field: it is a sensational, emotionally resonant epic. Introduction by Judith Wilt. (July) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Alexander Harrison
The publication of Gemini completes an ambitious literary circle...a powerful, almost operatic work...as a writer of historical fiction, Dorothy Dunnett deserves recognition.
The Times Literary Supplement
Kirkus Reviews
The eighth and concluding volume in Dunnett's House of Niccolò series (Caprice and Rondo, 1998, etc.), tracing the fortunes of the bright, troubled, ferociously resourceful (and uncannily lucky) merchant Nicholas de Fleury in 15th-century Europe, demonstrates once more the qualities that have made Dunnett's long labor so distinctive. Nicholas, driven by a variety of furies only gradually revealed, is a believably complex and winning character, not without a lethal Machiavellian side but also possessed of a profound humanity and an unflagging sense of loyalty to those he loves. His friends and enemies have always been rendered with equal care and complexity. And the broad tapestry of courts and cities in this turbulent era has been captured with a vigorous, convincing sense of specifics. Nicholas has repeatedly, throughout his long rise to prominence as an international banker, been the intended victim of a variety of plots. This last installment features one more particularly nasty attempt to destroy him, which he manages to defeat—at a great cost. For those who have made the long journey with de Fleury, Dunnett provides a satisfying roundup of answers to persistent mysteries, and a climax that is both fitting and very moving. An ambitious, deeply informed, and consistently gripping series, likely to be cited for some time to come as one of the most accomplished and imaginative modern works of historical fiction.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307762337
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 8/11/2010
  • Series: House of Niccolò Series , #8
  • Sold by: Random House
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 720
  • Sales rank: 276,789
  • File size: 3 MB

Meet the Author

Dorothy Dunnett, who lives in Edinburgh, is the author of many novels. In 1992, Queen Elizabeth appointed her an Officer of the Order of the British Empire.


From the Hardcover edition.
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Read an Excerpt

From Venice to Caffa, from Antwerp to the Gold Coast of Africa, merchants anchored their ships and unloaded their cannon and flipped open their ledgers as if in twenty years nothing had changed, and nothing was about to change now. As if old men did not die, or younger ones grow up, eventually. There was no fool in Europe, these days, who treated trade as a joke. All that sort were long sobered, or dead. Or were temporarily unavailable like Nicholas de Fleury, who had removed himself to the kingdom of Scotland, far to the
north of the real world of pretty women, and international intrigue, and the benefits of social and financial success.
     North of the real world, it was noticed quite soon that Nicholas the Burgundian was back. The first to suffer was the bailie of Berwick, who had a house of three floors and good eyesight, so that he personally observed this big Flemish ship plunging up from the south and bucking round into the mouth of the river. He held his breath until the manoeuvre was finished, for the Karel of Veere was the first merchantman to reach Scotland this season, and he had serious need of its news. When the harbour-bell clanged through the gale, Thomas Yare closed his shutters and sent a clerk pelting down to the wharf with an invitation to the Karel's seamaster. Then he had a word with his wife, and strode down through the garden to the red-painted warehouse, where his business room was.
     Thomas Yare, an active Scot of burnished acuity, wished to entertain Mick Crackbene of the Karel before anyone else. Thomas Yare was bailie and chamberlain of the town of Berwick-upon-Tweed, and the River Tweed was the frontier with England, which meant that one did not bellow sensitive news, even now, in times of miraculous peace. Tom Yare was a native of these parts but, until recently, had earned most of his living in Edinburgh. That was because, until recently, the English owned Berwick. Berwick had switched sides between England and Scotland thirteen times since it was founded. Half its footloose population were spies, and the other half smugglers.
     So Yare wanted the big Scandinavian's news for himself. He would get it. They had an understanding. Trade news was worth money. At whatever port they arrived, no matter how high the bribe, Crackbene's men never talked. Unless, of course, first primed by Crackbene. Crackbene or one of the merchants he carried. You never knew who that might be.
     There were two with Crackbene today. Pouring ale in his office, Tom Yare heard the footsteps and doubled the number of tankards. When the door thundered back on its hinges and the red-faced master marched in, Yare winced, waved the pitcher in welcome, and then set it down to go forward, hand outstretched.  Behind Crackbene was another robust figure of door-cracking capacity: Andro Wodman, the Scots-Flemish consul with his blue jowl and fighting-man's shoulders and twice-broken nose, all of which Yare duly greeted. And behind Wodman approached another of the same breed, heaven help us: so big his furzy brown head and soaked hat barely got past the lintel.
     Tom Yare dropped his welcoming hand and also released, very slightly, his business gentleman's smooth-polished jaw as he set eyes on a man he hadn't seen for four years.
     Nicholas de Fleury of Bruges. Ser Nicholas, do you mind: former banker, former dyemaster, former owner of armies, stepping over nice as a hen and unpeeling a soaked sailing-cloak to stand gazing down (Tom Yare straightened) with that bloody disarming smile and two dimples. They knew one another. The Burgundian had once made the bailie a very fine profit in cod.
     The first emotion felt by Tom Yare, and most others, upon meeting Nicol de Fleury, was an urge to be friendly. The next, based on experience, was a heady mixture of horror and glee.
     De Fleury said, 'Are you going to be sick?'
     Tom Yare, his face warming, recovered. 'Damn you. Why didn't you warn me?'
     'I wish I had,' said de Fleury. 'You might have managed something better than ale. Ale? Business bad, Tom? Wish you had firm news from somewhere?' It brought back immediately all that fascinated Yare about Nicol de Fleury, and all that he distrusted as well.
     'Mick prefers ale,' the Conservator observed, shaking wet from his bonnet.  
     'Nobody knew you were coming, Nicholas, with your luxurious Persian tastes. How are you, Tom?'
     'Dumbfoun'ered,' said Yare with unusual honesty. He opened the door, called an order, and shut it swiftly again. 'Have ye spoken to anyone yet?'
Crackbene's evil smile broadened. The consul, Wodman, said, 'What about?'
De Fleury sat down on a coffer, which groaned. 'Can't you guess? He wants to know if the siege of Nancy is over. It is.'
     'That's old news,' Wodman said cheerfully. 'He's bound to know that.'
     Tom Yare didn't waste time being exasperated. He said, 'There hasn't been a ship from the south since Epiphany. You're the first.'
     'It's a good ship, the Karel,' said the Scandinavian shipmaster proudly. It was purgatory.
     'But you must have had dispatches by road,' Wodman said. 'Wardens' runners. Envoys. Lawyers on business. Wenches with well-informed clients. After all, that's England, over the river.'
     'I remember,' said Yare. Men behaved like this, safely landed from sea. Nicol de Fleury behaved like this far too often. Tom Yare was a solid, fit man, but lodged between de Fleury and Crackbene he felt small and thumbed, like a rosary bead. He continued in his soft, deliberate voice, defying the burr in his speech that Margaret always said she found sweet. 'The roads [rhodes] have been closed, and the place is jumping with rumours. Wheat prices are surging already. The word [wuhd] is that there was a disaster at Nancy, and the richest prince in the West is a corpse, with an unmarried lass as his heiress. True [tehoo] or not?'
     Someone tapped on the door. Wine came in, and was poured. No one spoke. When the door closed: 'The Duke of Burgundy is officially dead,' de Fleury said, saluting the ceiling and drinking. 'I was there. That isn't a bad little Osey.'
     'Tell me,' said Tom Yare. Then he listened to what he was given: the unemotional account of a disaster.
     The Grand Prince of the West had been discovered dumped dead in a ditch after a mindless battle with Swiss and Lorrainers. The news had taken a long time to spread. Before de Fleury left Flanders, he had had an audience with the widowed Dowager Duchess, and discussed the future with men of commitment like Gruuthuse, Hugonet and Adorne. For, of course, France would try to reclaim her borders, and the heiress would marry someone who might not suit Flanders at all. So there were implications.
     They discussed them. Wodman contributed: he had once been a soldier in France. By the end, Yare had grasped that de Fleury had actually taken part in the fight and been wounded. Most of his companions were dead. Some were captives about to be ransomed, among them two Scots: the gunner John, and that decent young merchant, Robin of Berecrofts, who had also been injured.
     Yare said, 'Was Robin hurt bad?' It was the business-man in him that spoke. The noble Anselm Adorne of Bruges bought and sold through his kindred in Scotland, and Robin had wed Adorne's niece. A trading empire was involved.
     De Fleury said, 'I don't know. He was shot. It looked serious enough at the time.'
     Yare said, 'You'll want to tell his eme and his father in Edinburgh. What else have ye in mind while you're there?'
     He was entitled to know. Four years ago, without explanation, the Burgundian had closed all his ventures in Scotland and gone, abandoning the stripling Court which had befriended him. Now he was back, with a trading-ship which belonged to his wife. All the years de Fleury was absent, his wife Gelis had successfully run a good business, as you would expect of a van Borselen of Veere. She had an eight-year-old son by her husband. Tom Yare's own sharp-witted wife admired her acumen, but not what she had heard of her casual marriage. Yare thought de Fleury (in this respect only) a fool. Yare also admired Gelis van Borselen, who was still at home in Bruges and, it seemed, abandoned again. He had met other husbands like this. Men who could sail, but not navigate.
     De Fleury hadn't mentioned his wife, except in the context of business. Nor did he now. He said, 'I thought I'd see what was happening. I suppose I'd better report what I've told you. Then I'll probably pick up a cargo and leave.'
     Yare said, 'They'll want you to stay.'
     'They?' said de Fleury.
     'The King. The Council. The merchants. It depends whom you plan to see first.' He let a pause develop unhindered.
     De Fleury said, 'Perhaps I should ask your advice about that. As you said, it is sensitive news, and incautious handling could cause damage.'
     Yare said, 'What have you heard?'
     Wodman glanced at his fellow passenger, but said nothing. De Fleury said, 'Only what reached Bruges before the end of the year. The King's brothers and sisters are young, and occasionally wilful. Sometimes merchants and even envoys find it better to speak first to the older men of the Council, who can then choose the right time to debate the issue with King James or his brothers. But I may have heard wrongly.'
     'No,' said Yare. He was aware that he had been spared an explanation he would not have wanted to give. He was bailie of Berwick, but he was also one of the small circle -- Scheves, the Prestons, the Sinclairs -- who supplied personal service to the royal household; whose ships brought in baby night coats and wine-barrels and salmon, while some of their houses in Edinburgh were grand enough to lodge envoys. He heard a lot of personal gossip and, of course, used it. But he was careful to whom he imparted it.
     Now he said, 'What you heard is true. It is a young Court, as you say. The Duke of Burgundy's death raises complex issues that the King's advisers will want to consider.'
     'So that perhaps I should see them initially,' de Fleury said. 'But if the King summons me first, there is not much I can do.'
     'No,' said Yare. 'Once he knows that you've landed, that is. But you could be sorely held up. It's a bad beat sometimes, north, in this wind.'
     'And Mick Crackbene, as we all know, can't set a course. Yes, that's true,' de Fleury said, lifting a brow at his shipmaster.
     'If you say so,' the big fair man said blandly. And to Yare: 'I didn't tell you. We've brought your tombstones. Lovely, they are. One for you, one for your lady. Come and see when we get them ashore.'
     He promised. As the talk turned to more everyday channels, it occurred to Tom Yare that there was a piece of gossip he should give to Nicol de Fleury. Something heard by Yare's brother the friar, who lived near the Priory that taught the King's youngest sister in Haddington. He would tell de Fleury, in private.


From the Trade Paperback edition.
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First Chapter

CHAPTER ONE
For euery man desyris naturally
To leir and knaw and heir of novelté

From Venice to Caffa, from Antwerp to the Gold Coast of Africa, merchants anchored their ships and unloaded their cannon and flipped open their ledgers as if in twenty years nothing had changed, and nothing was about to change now. As if old men did not die, or younger ones grow up, eventually. There was no fool in Europe, these days, who treated trade as a joke. All that sort were long sobered, or dead. Or were temporarily unavailable like Nicholas de Fleury, who had removed himself to the kingdom of Scotland, far to the north of the real world of pretty women, and international intrigue, and the benefits of social and financial success.

North of the real world, it was noticed quite soon that Nicholas the Burgundian was back. The first to suffer was the bailie of Berwick, who had a house of three floors and good eyesight, so that he personally observed this big Flemish ship plunging up from the south and bucking round into the mouth of the river. He held his breath until the manoeuvre was finished, for the Karel of Veere was the first merchantman to reach Scotland this season, and he had serious need of its news. When the harbour-bell clanged through the gale, Thomas Yare closed his shutters and sent a clerk pelting down to the wharf with an invitation to the Karel's seamaster. Then he had a word with his wife, and strode down through the garden to the red-painted warehouse, where his business room was.

Thomas Yare, an active Scot of burnished acuity, wished to entertain Mick Crackbene of the Karel before anyone else. Thomas Yare was bailie and chamberlain of the town of Berwick-upon-Tweed, and the River Tweed was the frontier with England, which meant that one did not bellow sensitive news, even now, in times of miraculous peace. Tom Yare was a native of these parts but, until recently, had earned most of his living in Edinburgh. That was because, until recently, the English owned Berwick. Berwick had switched sides between England and Scotland thirteen times since it was founded. Half its footloose population were spies, and the other half smugglers.

So Yare wanted the big Scandinavian's news for himself. He would get it. They had an understanding. Trade news was worth money. At whatever port they arrived, no matter how high the bribe, Crackbene's men never talked. Unless, of course, first primed by Crackbene. Crackbene or one of the merchants he carried. You never knew who that

might be.

There were two with Crackbene today. Pouring ale in his office, Tom Yare heard the footsteps and doubled the number of tankards. When the door thundered back on its hinges and the red-faced master marched in, Yare winced, waved the pitcher in welcome, and then set it down to go forward, hand outstretched. Behind Crackbene was another robust figure of door-cracking capacity: Andro Wodman, the Scots-Flemish consul

with his blue jowl and fighting-man's shoulders and twice-broken nose, all of which Yare duly greeted. And behind Wodman approached another of the same breed, heaven help us: so big his furzy brown head and soaked hat barely got past the lintel.

Tom Yare dropped his welcoming hand and also released, very slightly, his business gentleman's smooth-polished jaw as he set eyes on a man he hadn't seen for four years.

Nicholas de Fleury of Bruges. Ser Nicholas, do you mind: former banker, former dyemaster, former owner of armies, stepping over nice as a hen and unpeeling a soaked sailing-cloak to stand gazing down (Tom Yare straightened) with that bloody disarming smile and two dimples. They knew one another. The Burgundian had once made the bailie a very fine profit in cod.

The first emotion felt by Tom Yare, and most others, upon meeting Nicol de Fleury, was an urge to be friendly. The next, based on experience, was a heady mixture of horror and glee.

De Fleury said, 'Are you going to be sick?'

Tom Yare, his face warming, recovered. 'Damn you. Why didn't you warn me?'

'I wish I had,' said de Fleury. 'You might have managed something better than ale. Ale? Business bad, Tom? Wish you had firm news from somewhere?' It brought back immediately all that fascinated Yare about Nicol de Fleury, and all that he distrusted as well.

'Mick prefers ale,' the Conservator observed, shaking wet from his bonnet. 'Nobody knew you were coming, Nicholas, with your luxurious Persian tastes. How are you, Tom?'

'Dumbfoun'ered,' said Yare with unusual honesty. He opened the door, called an order, and shut it swiftly again. 'Have ye spoken to anyone yet?'

Crackbene's evil smile broadened. The consul, Wodman, said, 'What about?'

De Fleury sat down on a coffer, which groaned. 'Can't you guess? He wants to know if the siege of Nancy is over. It is.'

'That's old news,' Wodman said cheerfully. 'He's bound to know that.'

Tom Yare didn't waste time being exasperated. He said, 'There hasn't been a ship from the south since Epiphany. You're the first.'

'It's a good ship, the Karel,' said the Scandinavian shipmaster proudly. It was purgatory.

'But you must have had dispatches by road,' Wodman said. 'Wardens' runners. Envoys. Lawyers on business. Wenches with well-informed clients. After all, that's England, over the river.'

'I remember,' said Yare. Men behaved like this, safely landed from sea. Nicol de Fleury behaved like this far too often. Tom Yare was a solid, fit man, but lodged between de Fleury and Crackbene he felt small and thumbed, like a rosary bead. He continued in his soft, deliberate voice, defying the burr in his speech that Margaret always said she found sweet. 'The roads [rhodes] have been closed, and the place is jumping with rumours. Wheat prices are surging already. The word [wuhd] is that there was a disaster at Nancy, and the richest prince in the West is a corpse, with an unmarried lass as his heiress. True [tehoo] or not?'

Someone tapped on the door. Wine came in, and was poured. No one spoke. When the door closed: 'The Duke of Burgundy is officially dead,' de Fleury said, saluting the ceiling and drinking. 'I was there. That isn't a bad little Osey.'

'Tell me,' said Tom Yare. Then he listened to what he was given: the unemotional account of a disaster.

The Grand Prince of the West had been discovered dumped dead in a ditch after a mindless battle with Swiss and Lorrainers. The news had taken a long time to spread. Before de Fleury left Flanders, he had had an audience with the widowed Dowager Duchess, and discussed the future with men of commitment like Gruuthuse, Hugonet and Adorne. For, of course, France would try to reclaim her borders, and the heiress would marry someone who might not suit Flanders at all. So there were implications.

They discussed them. Wodman contributed: he had once been a soldier in France. By the end, Yare had grasped that de Fleury had actually taken part in the fight and been wounded. Most of his companions were dead. Some were captives about to be ransomed, among them two Scots: the gunner John, and that decent young merchant, Robin of Berecrofts, who had also been injured.

Yare said, 'Was Robin hurt bad?' It was the business-man in him that spoke. The noble Anselm Adorne of Bruges bought and sold through his kindred in Scotland, and Robin had wed Adorne's niece. A trading empire was involved.

De Fleury said, 'I don't know. He was shot. It looked serious enough at the time.'

Yare said, 'You'll want to tell his eme and his father in Edinburgh. What else have ye in mind while you're there?'

He was entitled to know. Four years ago, without explanation, the Burgundian had closed all his ventures in Scotland and gone, abandoning the stripling Court which had befriended him. Now he was back, with a trading-ship which belonged to his wife. All the years de Fleury was absent, his wife Gelis had successfully run a good business, as you would expect of a van Borselen of Veere. She had an eight-year-old son by her husband. Tom Yare's own sharp-witted wife admired her acumen, but not what she had heard of her casual marriage. Yare thought de Fleury (in this respect only) a fool. Yare also admired Gelis van Borselen, who was still at home in Bruges and, it seemed, abandoned again. He had met other husbands like this. Men who could sail, but not navigate.

De Fleury hadn't mentioned his wife, except in the context of business. Nor did he now. He said, 'I thought I'd see what was happening. I suppose I'd better report what I've told you. Then I'll probably pick up a cargo and leave.'

Yare said, 'They'll want you to stay.'

'They?' said de Fleury.

'The King. The Council. The merchants. It depends whom you plan to see first.' He let a pause develop unhindered.

De Fleury said, 'Perhaps I should ask your advice about that. As you said, it is sensitive news, and incautious handling could cause damage.'

Yare said, 'What have you heard?'

Wodman glanced at his fellow passenger, but said nothing. De Fleury said, 'Only what reached Bruges before the end of the year. The King's brothers and sisters are young, and occasionally wilful. Sometimes merchants and even envoys find it better to speak first to the older men of the Council, who can then choose the right time to debate the issue with King James or his brothers. But I may have heard wrongly.'

'No,' said Yare. He was aware that he had been spared an explanation he would not have wanted to give. He was bailie of Berwick, but he was also one of the small circle - Scheves, the Prestons, the Sinclairs - who supplied personal service to the royal household; whose ships brought in baby night coats and wine-barrels and salmon, while some of their houses in Edinburgh were grand enough to lodge envoys. He heard a lot of personal gossip and, of course, used it. But he was careful to whom he imparted it.

Now he said, 'What you heard is true. It is a young Court, as you say. The Duke of Burgundy's death raises complex issues that the King's advisers will want to consider.'

'So that perhaps I should see them initially,' de Fleury said. 'But if the King summons me first, there is not much I can do.'

'No,' said Yare. 'Once he knows that you've landed, that is. But you could be sorely held up. It's a bad beat sometimes, north, in this wind.'

'And Mick Crackbene, as we all know, can't set a course. Yes, that's true,' de Fleury said, lifting a brow at his shipmaster.

'If you say so,' the big fair man said blandly. And to Yare: 'I didn't tell you. We've brought your tombstones. Lovely, they are. One for you, one for your lady. Come and see when we get them ashore.'

He promised. As the talk turned to more everyday channels, it occurred to Tom Yare that there was a piece of gossip he should give to Nicol de Fleury. Something heard by Yare's brother the friar, who lived near the Priory that taught the King's youngest sister in Haddington. He would tell de Fleury, in private.

Back on board: 'He didn't notice the chip in the marble,' Nicholas said.

The ship heaved. Wodman said, 'He wasn't really thinking of tombstones. He was trying to work out how fast he could get a message to Edinburgh. Whom will he send the news to? The guilds?'

The ship pitched. Nicholas said, 'Christ, Mick: you have rigged the sails badly. No. The guilds will come second. First, he'll send to the Lords Three.' They both knew whom he meant. Avandale, Whitelaw and Argyll led the inner council that supported the King. That supported young James and his little wife and the four royal brothers and sisters about whom Tom Yare knew so much that was disquieting.

Mick Crackbene said, 'You mean he'll send to the Council, who will then tell the King that the Duke of Burgundy's dead, and suggest what to do about it? Is that what Yare told you?'

And Nicholas answered, 'As good as. You heard him.' He wished sometimes that Mick were less observant. For many years, the shipmaster had worked, off and on, for Nicholas de Fleury, and sometimes against him, as Wodman had done. But what Yare had said, in that brief aside noticed by Crackbene, had been for no one but Nicholas himself.

Yare had given him news--no, a piece of scandal, which Nicholas was compelled to believe, however unwillingly. He would have to deal with it personally: there was nobody else. But first, he had a weightier errand: to report to the policy-makers of Scotland the facts of the Duke of Burgundy's death. He did not know how long all that would take, or when he could set in train what he had come for, which was not to pick up a cargo. He was not, in fact, perfectly fit; but that would mend. His injuries had been nothing to Robin's.

Landing in Berwick that wild, February day, Nicholas de Fleury had known that he was mad to come back to Scotland, but that it had to be done. And since he had made a computation, as he always did, of all the possible risks, he concluded that the two parties who intended to kill him would not try it at once, but would hope to have some sport with him first.

In which he was wrong.

With the co-operation of the weather, it was not hard to arrive tardily at the harbour for Edinburgh, and Nicholas was unsurprised, knowing Tom Yare, to find nobody there but a few unfamiliar harbour- and customs men, who dealt solely with Crackbene, and showed no interest in identifying his patron or passengers. Although it was mid-afternoon, the sky was dim with rain-clouds, and a blustering wind scoured the puddles and seethed over the sandbanks, and collided in spume with the jetties.

Officially, they were to stay aboard, with their cargo, until morning.

Unofficially, it was conveyed that two persons might land if they wished. Which let Nicholas take Wodman to Edinburgh.

It was only two miles from Leith. Someone hired him a couple of hacks, in a port where once he had had his own stables and lodging. Crackbene's wife stayed in Leith with their children: he didn't know where. Four years ago, he could have named every man in these streets. Now he and Wodman rode out muffled in scarves, leaving the ship to toss in the gloom of the river-mouth. He had sympathy for the crew, but relied on Crackbene to preserve the fiction that no one had landed. Presumably the harbourmen knew to keep silent. He wondered whether the Council or the Abbot had arranged it, and who would come to escort them to their rendezvous; for obviously someone must come. To arrive unprimed at the portals of Edinburgh would defeat the object of all this performance. Once recognised, he could hardly withhold his news, whatever damage it did.

Out of Leith, the road was a mess. All the land to the north of the river was under the jurisdiction of Archibald Crawford, Abbot of the most important monastery in Edinburgh. The Abbey of Holyroodhouse lay at the foot of the hill on which the King's castle was perched. The town clung to the steep spine between them. He knew every house, every lane in it.

He hadn't been here for four years. He had been growing and changing somewhere else, with different people, speaking a different language. He had never meant to come back, but had done so. Chilled and sore and battered by violent sailing, Nicholas was suddenly positive that he was right to be here; seized by a kind of hope not incompatible with the lunatic joy that he had forced himself to leave. Now he knew what he wanted, and had resolved to bring it about. He meant to succeed.

They had chosen the western, riverside route to the town, because it kept to the Holyrood bailery, and touched the busy hamlet of Bonnington, which led to the Canongate, and was tenanted by yet other Crawfords. Also, being longer, the way was less apt to be plagued like the Easter Road, with wealthy pack-trains, or ox-wagons stuck in the mud, or by common contingents on foot, rolling their kegs or dragging their sledges of merchandise.

Their chosen path was mostly used by pedestrians, who kept clear of mud-throwing hooves and did not look up as they trudged. To the right was the river, with an occasional mill and its lade, and its service buildings close by, on the rising ground where the thatched cottages huddled. On the left, the ground was rough and uneven, and rose in humps and hillocks towards the high town ahead, with a steep hill between. There were crofts there as well, each with a beaten yard and some hens and a kailpatch among dug-up anonymous workings, or parcels of rough grass and whin and low trees. Nicholas knew what it all was or had been. It had once been his business, and it might be so again, depending on what happened now. He said, 'What d'you think? I expected someone to collect us by now.' The rain had begun, but the sky was no lighter.

'We're going too fast,' Wodman said. 'We could get to Bonnington and stop at a tavern. You could do with a rest.'

'You stop at a tavern,' said Nicholas. 'If you think you can drink through your scarf. We are meant to be still on board the Christmassy Karel, and not spreading good tidings just yet. If you're desperate, I have a flask.'

'I'm desperate,' Wodman said. 'You wouldn't have any food?' In France, he had been a royal Archer, and they were all hearty drinkers and trenchermen. Turned merchant, he made a good, conscientious Conservator, who just happened to know some dangerous people. Nicholas handed over the flask, and dropped his horse's gait to a saunter. The rain rustled down. There was no one on the road at the moment, and nothing to attract anyone either. Between themselves and the river, there were three wattle cabins with smoke drooping down from the heather and childish voices disputing inside. The noise drowned, at first, another sound from behind them, which gradually emerged: he automatically identified it. Allah-u akbar, la ilaha illa'llah; the afternoon summons to prayer.

No, of course not: wrong country. Women, singing. Fisherfolk, calling their wares. Sellers, calling buyers to Paradise. Allah-u akbar.

Wodman took his mouth from the flask. 'I heard it,' Nicholas said. 'Do you really want food?'

'I don't think so,' said Andro Wodman. The warbling voices were clearer and closer, and there was a rumbling basso beneath. 'Unless they're selling bowls of seethed meat with onions. What are they selling?' They had both turned and stopped to look back. Toiling up the rise was a group of sturdy young people, their faces bright in the rain, hauling sledges behind them. Walled sledges, crowded with hampers.

The wind was from the east. Even without that, you could tell what was in them.

'What about oysters?' Nicholas said. Wodman handed over the flask and jumped down before he did.

There were three sledges, each with two fellows hauling and another couple striding behind. The girls rode with the creels, singing and holding them steady. The men wore skin caps and tunics, with rough over-mantles of felt for the rain. The women were hooded and bundled in hessian and stopped singing as they came up. One of the men delved in a creel and came forward, his hollow hands weighted and dripping. The oysters in them were the finest Nicholas had ever seen: the sensitive shells, thin as a porcelain roseleaf, slowly closed as he watched. 'They like to be serenaded,' the man observed. 'If you will sing to them, they would surely re-open, my lord.'

Nicholas laughed a little, for the voice was educated, and the discreet device to attract them was plain. A clerk, a servant of Church or of state, had at last arrived to collect them. The girls, who remained crouched with the creels, were no doubt genuine.

Wodman had realised it also. Dismounting, amused, he was accepting the gift with bravura. Nicholas gathered his reins to do likewise. The same well-spoken man smiled, and stepped round to help him, still speaking. 'But you will need something to open them with.'

The something was naked steel, flashing from under the felt and driving expertly upwards.

It was so fast that only instinct could help. As Nicholas swerved, he shouted to Wodman. They hadn't indulged in an escort, but they weren't crazy enough to have come on this ride unprotected. The swordpoint bit into his cloak and grated across the cuirass underneath, bringing the swordsman close for a moment, his face blank with surprise. Nicholas kicked him under the chin, so that he blundered back and hit someone else while Nicholas dragged out his own sword. The horse wasn't his, but it was a powerful beast and alarmed enough to be ready to rear. Nicholas wrapped the reins round one wrist and hauled, using the bit to drag the horse threshing on to its haunches, and then allowing it to plunge forward kicking again. It couldn't last very long, but at least he didn't fall off, and enjoyed the whistling sound his blade made as he slashed it down on one side, then the other as the oystermen mobbed him. He could hear Wodman making loud breathless noises, but couldn't see him, which meant he hadn't managed to remount. He tried to steer towards him, but it was like jousting in a cone of molasses. Too many men. And he was not at his best.

It was now very noisy, with a lot of shouting and cursing and the flat sound of steel against steel from his blade and Andro's. All their assailants seemed to have weapons. There were three less than there had been: two fell back, bloodied, and someone was screaming continuously. Far from summoning help, the uproar had probably frightened off every traveller for miles. Jolting about in the saddle, fending off the blows to his legs and his horse and the inventive characters who wished to mount up behind him, Nicholas kept track of the sound of Wodman's swordplay, and heard his yell of triumph as someone was spitted. He had never fought beside Wodman before, and was glad to have the benefit of an expert. He wondered if Wodman were wishing he hadn't come.

He fell off, finally, because they stabbed the horse under him and he wasn't expecting it, this being an action profoundly alien to professional robbers. His horse wasn't wearing a cuirass. Nicholas hurled himself off as it staggered, with his sword in one hand and the wine-flask in the other, unstoppered. One man got the force of his shoulder, and two others the remaining wine full in the face while he located where Wodman was and crashed into him, back to back. Wodman said, 'About time.' He was covered with blood, but his sparse teeth gleamed: he was happy. They had been about fifteen to two. Fewer, if you left out the girls, screaming, crouched in the sledges. A lot fewer now, when you reckoned the men on all fours in the road, and even one who looked dead. Say eight to two.

It was worrying, for the fact was that they themselves both ought to be dead. The first man had certainly meant to disable him, but no one had tried to do more--and with those odds, and his shortcomings, it should have been easy. So it wasn't a personal matter. Not handsome David de Salmeton, and his private grudges. Not a minion of the St Pol family, which had thrown de Salmeton out of its business, but shared his hatred of Nicholas de Fleury. Just someone who wanted a ransom, and assumed he was rich, and worth a lot more than a horse. Or perhaps he wasn't the target at all. He said, panting, 'Have you bedded anyone you shouldn't have lately?'

'I was trying to remember,' Wodman said. He was slowing.

If they could get to the cabins . . .

They couldn't hide in the cabins. There were children there.

They were being forced towards the cabins. Their assailants wanted them there. They were going to be killed, but at leisure. Wodman suddenly swore.

'I know,' Nicholas said. 'Any suggestions?' It emerged in gasps, for his strength had suddenly gone, and he had no reserves. His limbs belonged to somebody else, and one eye was shut, he trusted not permanently. With mixed hope and dread, he caught sight of a flash from the cabins: one of the low doors had opened, and men were running out, carrying weapons. Several men. Enough almost to balance the odds. Wodman said, 'Oh deary dear.'

And it was Oh deary dear. The newcomers hurtled straight to the sledgers and joined them. Nicholas was cross enough to try quite hard to kill one or more, but this time he had no real strength, and neither had Wodman. In the end there was too much against them, and it finished quite soon. They were disarmed and flung on the ground, their cuirasses shed, while someone brought rope-lengths to bind them. One or two others embarked on a kicking, which he unwisely resisted. He saw Wodman doing the same. Then the kickers were stopped by a new voice, very gentle, speaking half in English, half in a language Nicholas de Fleury had known all his life.

'Mais non!' it said. 'You must not let them die yet. Foolish men! There is no hope of rescue. Who will interfere in a fisher-feud? Everyone knows the mettle of oystermen; how those who own the scalps of Inchkeith will fight the dredgers of Musselburgh. The men who walk this path later will find broken sledges, and blood, and two wayfarers who became sadly embroiled in the dispute. But they will never, of course, find the oystermen.'

The French was irreproachable, with an accent as familiar to him as his own, although it was not Burgundian. The speaker was one of the girls from the sledge, cloaked and hooded in hessian over a fine gown of green. He could not see her face. He could not speak.

Wodman said, 'You didn't even fight, you. You set fifteen on two. If we die, we die with honour at least.' He spoke in English, so that all the others could hear.

Nicholas used English also. Sitting stiff with his bound hands before him, he sustained the gaze of the invisible face with his one unbloodied eye and spoke in a clear, level voice. 'You have planned well, but not well enough. There are men coming to meet us who will not be deterred by a fight, but will feel it their duty to stop it. Also, Andro Wodman is a royal official, Conservator of Scots Privileges in Bruges and the King's familiar squire. The King will not rest until his killer is found.'

'In which case,' said the girl, 'the deed had better be done indoors.'

'But not by you,' Nicholas said. 'You devised this, but others will hang. What will you do when the bailie or the King's men arrive? Are there horses for everyone? Look, your men are worried already.'

It was true. One man had glanced at another. Their momentum was failing. Nicholas addressed the girl evenly. 'There is my sword. Kill me yourself.'

Wodman growled. Even the sodden ground beneath him seemed to stir with unease. The rain stuttered on the uneven group round about them, and on those who had left it, unbidden, to search out the dead and the wounded. The other girls had all gone.

One of the girl's henchmen looked up. A single horseman was racing towards them; not by the road but crosswise, over the hillocks. He was shouting a warning.

Nicholas said, 'The bailie's men are coming. I told you.' The ground was vibrating. It was obvious that he was speaking the truth, even before the outrider arrived.

The girl said, 'Get the horses.' So the mounts had been concealed in advance. As he had said, it had all been well enough planned. If you had resources, you could arrange matters. The men ran; the girl stayed. She had picked up the sword. She had capable hands.

Wodman said, 'Damn you. If she kills you, she's got to kill me as well.'

'But that would be an injustice,' Nicholas said. She had come to stand at his side. The sword, gripped in both hands, reflected into her face, which was swathed to the cheekbones under the hood. All he could see were her eyes, fringed, wide and lovely. All he could hear in his mind was her soft, husky voice. Nicholas said, 'I could have killed you, but I didn't.'

'Because you are a coward,' she said. 'Which I am not.' And slowly raised her arms holding the sword.

Nicholas kept his eyes open, upon her. Kept his single eye open. It seemed fitting that, at this, the ultimate moment of his preposterous life, he should be staring one-eyed at his killer. Like his captain, Astorre, who had died for the Duke. He was probably about to meet Astorre in Hell, and be lectured into eternity about military privies and pasties and women. She might not have time to kill Wodman.

She didn't have time for anything. Her own hired leader, now mounted, had lingered. As she gripped and aligned the sword, the man swore and flung his horse back towards her. She turned, swinging the sword, but he avoided it. Instead, stooping, he grasped her and swept her aside, so that the sword fell and she was pulled away screeching at his flank. He bent and hauled her up into the saddle, and then spurred off, fast, after the others. They took the way towards Edinburgh. The man was not a philanthropist: he simply didn't intend to be named by some frightened employer.

A moment later, the bailie's horsemen breasted the rise and slowed and stared, as well they might, at the trampled mud, the cottages with their imprisoned, screaming inhabitants, and the Conservator of Scots Privileges and Nicol de Fleury trussed and half stripped and blood-stained at their feet.

The bailie said, 'My lords! What has happened? The Abbot expects you!'

Nicholas said thinly, 'A case of mistaken identity. You saved us. A little salve and fresh clothing, and we shall not disappoint the Abbot, I hope.' Every bone ached.

He avoided looking at Wodman. Wodman maintained a welcome silence all the time they were being untied, and Nicholas was blocking auxiliary questions, and inventing explanations as they occurred to him. They were given horses and cloaks and some temporary patching, until the bailie's own household could tend them. The Abbey Farm of Broughtonwas not very far.

In public, Wodman didn't utter a word. Wodman was forty, and could pass for being exhausted. In private, he waited until they were riding together. Then he said, 'It wasn't a girl.'

'No,' said Nicholas, whose digestive organs were obeying him once again. 'But pretty enough to pass for one. He tried to kill me in Cyprus, and I let him escape. Didn't you recognise him, your old colleague David de Salmeton? You would have, when he flung back his cloak in that hut.'

He didn't have to explain. Wodman knew why Nicholas had come back to Scotland, and had promised to help him. To track down some gold. To end a family feud. To kill a man who meant to kill him. A French-speaking one-tone royal Archer called David de Salmeton.

Wodman said, 'You thought he wouldn't attack to begin with. You thought he would play with you first.'

'I was wrong,' Nicholas said.

'But you didn't denounce him to the bailie?'

Nicholas said, 'What, without any proof? Could you swear that was David de Salmeton?'

There was a long pause. 'No,' said Wodman.

'No. And neither could I. But now I am warned. Now I know what precautions to take. And it isn't all loss.'

'No?' said Wodman.

'No. They're bringing the sledges. Are you hungry?' Nicholas said.

He knew, without looking at Wodman, that the words they had just exchanged were like the steps in a dance: a formality. For him, they were bleaker than that. He was watching the sledges jump and slew at the heels of the horses, their creels roused to a silvery rattle, their spillings dancing from timber to timber and sprinkling the unwinding roadway like rose-leaves.

Or like the living creatures they were, male and female at once; lust and tenderness embraced in one heart; each now shut and alone in its shell, because the singing had stopped.

Copyright © 2000

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Reading Group Guide

About the Book:The questions, discussion topics, historical background, and author biography are designed to enhance your group's reading and discussion of Dorothy Dunnett's eight bestselling novels in the House of Niccol?. We hope this guide will enrich your experience of these intriguing and adventuresome works of historical fiction.Discussion Questions:

For Discussion: Gemini

&quote;They were more than halfway towards becoming friends,&quote; says Nicholas of his two sons. What had made them enemies? As Jordan and Henry stepped tentatively and poignantly towards friendship, which do you think made the greater effort? Which made the greater achievement?

What are the links between the story of the Duke of Gloucester, soon to become the infamous English King Richard III, and that of Alexander, Scottish Duke of Albany? Are theirs at some level the same story? How do they diverge?

At the climax of this novel, and this series, Nicholas de Fleury finally kills a member of his family. What are the elements that make up what Kathi now calls his &quote;obsession&quote; against doing this? What do you think enables him to do it at last?

In its final quarter the novel devotes considerable attention to Jordan de Rebeirac. What enlightenments about him invite our understanding, and even our pity? What does Bel mean by insisting that he and Nicholas are alike? What is his final tragedy?

In their final scene together, Anselme Adorne says to Nicholas, &quote;I wish—&quote; and is cut off. How would you finish that sentence? How is Adorne's role in the Scotland of this section of the novel similar to his role in the Bruges of the early chapters? And different from it? What are some of the reasons he is &quote;at home&quote; in Scotland?

For Discussion: The House of Niccol?
Throughout the eight books of the House of Niccol? series a picture emerges of Sophie de Fleury, the mother of Nicholas, and of her centrality in the life of her son. Can you put this picture together now —the Sophie of rumor and gossip, the Sophie of Nicholas's slowly revealed memories, of his maturer judgement, of Andro Wodman's reporting? Are there still some mysteries and obscurities in this portrait?

The House of Niccol? series offers a sustained and in many ways highly sophisticated version of the changes in intellectual , political and psychological structures which mark the transition from the medieval to the modern world. But like any good set of historical novels it abounds too in individual scenes and characters of great emotional, dramatic, and visual power, or stylistic verve, &quote;set pieces&quote; which hang in the memory even longer, perhaps, than the plot or the author's philosophy of history. What are some of your favorites here—scenes of comic impact or tragic illumination? Best-drawn villain or victim, most vexatious female adolescent? Most breathtaking fight or chase? Most engrossing moment of romance? Most stunning surprise?

At the opening of the second volume of the series, and at the closing of the last volume, the voice of an astrologer-character replaces that of the novelist-narrator. What do you make of this—some invitation to compare and contrast those two professions?

Some readers will have come to the Niccol? series after reading the Lymond Chronicles, to which they are a 'prequel'; others have now finished the Niccol? series and will go on to the sequel, the Lymond Chronicles. What are some of the dividends of doing it the first way? The second way? How (after a reading of both) are these two heroes, these two worlds, these two intricate plots, alike and different?

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Sort by: Showing all of 7 Customer Reviews
  • Posted July 1, 2012

    recommended highly

    I have loved this whole series - this is my second time to read the whole series. Claes?Niccolo is one of my favorite characters. If you love history - this makes a fun way to learn about that time period.

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    Posted August 9, 2010

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