Race of Scorpions (House of Niccolò Series #3)by Dorothy Dunnett
With the bravura storytelling and pungent authenticity of detail she brought to her acclaimed Lymond Chronicles, Dorothy Dunnett presents The House of Niccolò series. The time is the 15th century, when intrepid merchants became the new knighthood of Europe. Among them, none is bolder or more cunning than Nicholas vander Poele of Bruges, the good-natured dyer's… See more details below
With the bravura storytelling and pungent authenticity of detail she brought to her acclaimed Lymond Chronicles, Dorothy Dunnett presents The House of Niccolò series. The time is the 15th century, when intrepid merchants became the new knighthood of Europe. Among them, none is bolder or more cunning than Nicholas vander Poele of Bruges, the good-natured dyer's apprentice who schemes and swashbuckles his way to the helm of a mercantile empire.
In 1462, Nicholas is a wealthy 21-year-old. His beloved wife has died. His stepchildren have locked him out of the family business. He and his private army are the target of multiple conspiracies. And both contenders for the throne of Cyprus, the brilliant Queen Carlotta and her charismatic, sexually ambivalent brother James, are demanding his support. Walking a tightrope of intrigue, Dunnett's hero juggles adversaries and allies, from the delectable courtesan Primaflora to the Mameluke commander Tzani-Bey al Ablak, a man of undiluted evil. Masterfully paced, alive with sensual delights, Race of Scorpions confirms Dorothy Dunnett as the grande dame of the genre.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
"Barbed with wit, elegant and sensuous . . . . The book yields many of the delights we've come to expect from Dunnett." The Washington Post Book World
"The finest living writer of historical fiction"The Washington Post Book World
Read an Excerpt
That November, God sent snow to north Italy, to the inconvenience of all who had to travel on horseback. The way between Porretta and Bologna became choked, and only the robust cared to use it. Among these was the friar Ludovico de Severi da Bologna who set out from Porretta one evening in a mood of ferocious good humour. The snow had brought him good luck. He had located the souls he was looking for.
The silly woman was there in Porretta, and about to ride north in the morning. The man, bless his heart, was on that identical road coming southwards, but storm-stayed in the hamlet of Silla. The two were certain to meet. The friar couldn't see how, happily, they could avoid one another. The woman (for a woman) was redoubtable. The man was a cheeky young profligate, and Carlotta would eat him for supper. Through the white gloom of dusk, Fra Ludovico plodded on mule-back to Silla, producing psalms from the caves in his chest so that clods fell from the trees and the tracks of hares melted the snowfields. He arrived late at Silla's one tavern, stabled his mule and his serving-man and was granted a mattress to sleep on. Rising early next morning, he took the squelched track to the latrines, broke the ice in the tub, and obtained punctual news of his quarry. 'He's in there,' volunteered one of the travellers. 'Big as a gallows-tree, and the age of my grandson. Niccol?, he answers to.'
'That's him,' said Ludovico da Bologna. 'Used to be an apprentice called Claes. Where's the common-room?'
Unaware of this conversation, Nicholas Vander Poele idled in an inadequate seat by a window, keeping himself to himself and resenting many things, but most of all the fact that he was sober.
The storm of snow had packed the hostelry with many travellers. In the roaring hell of the common-room, he could make out five different languages. There was a group of seraphic blond courtiers from Poland, freshly blessed and addressed by Pope Pius. There were established merchants from Milan and Ferrara; Adriatic agents and runners with business in Pisa, or Florence, or Rome. Representing Bologna was a noisy south-riding squadron of its first citizen's cavalry, led by an unshaven captain who had quickly drunk himself torpid. Nicholas emptied his parsimonious jug into his niggardly cup and sat staring at it.
Being virtually alone, he could do as he pleased. The two muleteer-guides and a house-man had been hired in Venice by Thomas, his only companion. Thomas had dropped into silence some days ago. The massive cargo he, Nicholas, had brought from the East had long since been dispersed, along with the men from his voyage. He himself, delayed by affairs, was on his way to the place where his wife had died. It was the first time, since he had had news of her death, that he had had time to fill. He found he disliked the journey, and dreaded the end of it.
For this excursion, he needed no bodyguard. The brigands who preyed on rich merchants were unlikely to connect him, as yet, with the Niccol? who had emerged with a fortune from the ruins of Trebizond. Or if they knew so much about him, they would know that his wife, the head of his company, had died in his absence, leaving her business elsewhere. Leaving him, at the age of nearly twenty-one years, embarked on a pointless journey to Burgundy. And then another one, to the dyeworks in Bruges where he had married her.
There was no hurry, since the journey was pointless, to leave the tavern when the snow persisted through the night and into the following morning. He sat, the empty jug at his elbow, throwing dice against himself as the wind threw grey thrumming smuts against the yellow horn window. The young woman who had wished to get into his bed came again and then went, and two of the archers from the Bentivoglio troop invited him to join in their gaming. One of them had tried to get into his bed as well. They went away. Nicholas threw his dice steadily. Thomas came to his side and peered through his window. Thomas said, 'There's that monk again. He came late last night. The road from the south must be passable.' He waited hopefully, but was vouchsafed no comment. Thomas was tired of the inn, and of Master Nicholas vander Poele, the youngest banker in Venice.
They themselves were bound south, on a detour to the medical baths of Porretta. Sante, the ailing lord of Bologna, wished to discuss a matter of silk. He might expect to place further commissions, which Nicholas would have to refuse since, of course, he was no longer working from Trebizond. Thomas spoke, still peering out at the snow. 'There. The monk's waving. You'd think that he knows you.' He spoke in soldier's Flemish, with a gross English accent.
Nicholas said, 'Maybe it's the lord of Bologna come to hunt for his late household cavalry. I hope not. The captain's still sleeping.'
He didn't listen. That was what irked Thomas mostly. He said, 'I said a friar. A Franciscan friar built like a barn, with an old goathair cloak and his habit hitched up to his knees. He's coming in.'
Nicholas flung down the dice. The door burst open. A bulky man stood on the threshold in a pool of fresh snow and strode forward, striking his cloak from his shoulders. His bare feet, encased in wet sandals, had tufts of black pelt on each toe. He said, 'Messer Niccol? vander Poele. Remember me, boy?'
Nicholas heaved a great sigh and rose slowly. He said, 'I could never forget you. Thomas. Fra Ludovico da Bologna, the man who means to drive the Turks out of Europe. Did you collect the money you needed?'
'Have your joke,' said the monk, undisturbed. He hitched up a stool with the sole of his sandal and sat himself down with a clang of his crucifix. 'You look as if you could do with one. That the Bentivoglio cavalry?'
He gazed across the room at the soldiers. Their livery was easy enough to identify. So was their high degree of intoxication. Nicholas sat and said, 'Yes. On their way to Porretta to collect a guest of their lord. The snow and the wine delayed them.'
'And I'll wager,' said the friar, 'that you know the name of the guest of Bentivoglio. Met her in Venice, am I right? Refused what she offered you, am I right? And you're hanging about here trying not to meet her again, am I right? Of course I am. You didn't tell Thomas here, but I know your games.' A serving-girl came across and he said, 'Well, my girl. Said your prayers this morning?'
'Yes, brother,' she said, retiring circumspectly and stopping, since Brother Ludovico had retained her crucifix in his grasp like a halter.
'I doubt it,' he said. 'Kneel there, and hold that. That's what it's meant for.'
She clasped her cross obediently under her chin, then shut her eyes as he raised his voice over her. In two minutes he had ended, blessed her and given her a poke in the ribs, which made her drop her hands and open her eyes. 'That'll protect you from here to the kitchen,' said Fra Ludovico da Bologna. 'Now I'll have a jug of well-water. And tell your owner there's a humble friar here ready to call down God's grace on his house for any morsels his table can spare.' He turned. 'Well, Messer Niccol?, I have news for you. The lady from Porretta is coming here. If her escort didn't arrive, she planned to set off with her household without it. She should pass the door any time.'
'So long as she passes it,' Nicholas said. He watched the girl run away.
The friar contemplated him. His hair was so black and so plentiful that even when shaved, his crown and his jowls were as blue as fish-hide. He said, 'Well, you're giving thought, I can see, to your fellows in trouble. You would let the lady ride without extra help to Bologna, while these fellows risk the wrath of their lord, sleeping here while she went by unknowing?'
'I probably should,' Nicholas said. 'But it's going to be all right, because you'll tell the captain.'
'Well, the lieutenant,' said the friar. 'The captain is not wholly in touch with his intelligence.' He was watching the road. It struck Thomas that he was watching the road quite intently.
Nicholas said, 'Is there something wrong?'
The friar redirected his gaze. 'Wakened up, have we?' he said. 'I don't know. I thought I saw something.'
Thomas looked out of the window. He said, 'There is something. A man. Riding this way from the south.' He got to his feet. He said, 'A man wearing livery, wounded.'
Nicholas rose, and so did the friar, as if their interlocked gaze had been hefted. The wounded rider came nearer. He was shouting. The tavern door opened, and two of the soldiers ran out, accompanied by three of the Poles. Nicholas said, 'You knew this was going to happen.'
Fra Ludovico da Bologna would never, surely, look gratified. He said, 'Am I a necromancer? But that's the device of the lady. And thieves and cut-throats love travellers. That man has been sent here for help.'
Now there was a crowd of people in the yard, helping the man from his horse. The lieutenant passed out of the room at an uncertain run. By the hearth, the captain lay snoring. Nicholas said, 'Then isn't it lucky that there's a whole squadron of horse here to help him?'
'With no captain,' said Ludovico da Bologna.
Thomas looked from one man to the other, and out of the window, and across to the hearth. He said, 'Someone's been attacked on the road. Did you hear that? There's a mob besieging a farm with some travellers in it.'
The friar smiled, still looking at Nicholas. Nicholas said, 'So it seems.'
It puzzled Thomas. He said, 'Then shouldn't we rescue them? I don't mind.'
'There you are,' said Ludovico da Bologna. 'There speaks the professional soldier. Will you let him go? You don't appear to want to go with him.'
It seemed to Thomas that his employer was being accused of something. He said, 'Master Nicholas can handle himself in a fight.' He paused and added, 'Nowadays.' Outside, horses were being brought and men were mounting, and running back and forth with helmets and swords. They included the Poles, and quite a number of other men who were not soldiers.
Nicholas sighed again. He said, 'I never thanked you for what you did in Florence, did I? Well, let me thank you for everything now. Thomas, get the grooms and the arms and let's go.'
The cloud disappeared from his companion's face. Thomas said, 'Well, it's the right thing. Especially if it's a lady. Who's the lady in trouble, Master Nicholas?'
'She's not a lady,' Nicholas said. 'She's a Queen called Carlotta.'
At the time of the attack, Carlotta by the grace of God Queen of Jerusalem, Cyprus and Armenia was twenty-four years of age; small, and trim, and sharp as a triple-split needle. Setting out from Porretta, she could have wished herself back in the warm baths, except that she was out of temper already, over days wasted in Rome and further days of fruitless wheedling in Florence. At Porretta, the Pope's fifty horsemen had left her, but very soon she would meet her next escort. Messer Sante had begged her to wait for them, but she was tired of old men's advice. Of any advice. If she had listened to Luis her consort she would never have won free of Cyprus. He was still besieged on the island, complaining about lack of fresh food. He should be pleased now. The Pope was sending him grain, if the ship ever arrived, and if Luis had the gumption to mill it.
In any case, she was not unescorted. With her, since she landed in Italy, were the chief of her courtiers from Cyprus, and her personal household, and enough soldiers to guard the roped boxes that contained all she had left to barter. Since they held neither ducats nor jewellery, she had not looked for trouble, but had ridden vigorously. The Greeks and the high-born, as ever, were the women who snivelled and faltered. She gave them the edge of her tongue. The others kept up, as expected. Carlotta believed in professionalism.
The attackers came from a copse. But for the snow, she would have seen them more quickly. She was riding so fast that the flying flakes made a tunnel, obscuring everything. Then she saw racing towards her a crowd of glittering shapes; the long Roman noses of horses; the studded ellipses of shields. She screamed a warning and dragged her horse round, as the others jostled behind her. The wagons halted askew. And she saw, far behind, another troop of alien horse, approaching fast and spread to encircle her.
She turned her horse round and round, alarmed and angry. The snow, lifting, showed the wall of a steading with behind it an orchard, a byre and a big, solid house with closed shutters. Through open gates, the yard showed the slush of much recent trampling: there was a child's swing in a corner, and a hobbyhorse. The Queen of Cyprus said, 'There!' and, whip-hand working, set her mare to make for the gates. Her women followed. She heard the voices of de Bon and Pardo organising the rearguard to hold off the attackers while the wagons drove through. They jolted round the side of the house and disappeared, led by a group of Ansaldo's men. Outside, arrows flew and swords clashed as Pardo and the rest began to retreat into the yard and force the gates shut. She waited to see that, before she marched up to the door of the house and struck it with the butt of her whip. 'Open!' she said. 'We are the Queen of Cyprus, and we command your assistance.'
It opened. Doors always did, for Carlotta. There was a hubbub. Then Pardo came in and said, 'We're secure. Madama, don't be distressed. I've sent someone to Silla for help: there will be men: there's a tavern. And meantime, the archers are ready.' He turned to the farmer and his servants, crowded into the end of the room. He said, 'The Queen thanks you, and will show her gratitude. The rogues outside have hackbuts, and might fire through the windows or door. Is there a secure room for the Queen and her ladies?'
They took her to a room at the back, along with the women. One of them was snuffling. The others knew better. One was missing. She knew which one that would be. She said, 'They are brigands? How many?'
From the Trade Paperback edition.
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