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His hands quivered ever so slightly. Not with fear—he scoffed silently at the very notion—but with the exhilaration thrumming through his veins. His moment of triumph, of victorious possession, came upon him and he would not deny its power.
Battista della Palla stood before the carved door, shoulders hunched, broad body curled inward, as he jimmied the miniscule, well-worn silver rod into the small, square lock well. Dark eyes stole a quick, sidelong glance down each end of the empty corridor. A few flicks of his leather-cuffed wrist and ... click.
He hummed a contented sigh, pushed back the swath of wavy black hair from his face, and pushed over the arched swing shackle of the padlock. The heavy, intricately scrolled device dropped into his hands and he palmed it into his satchel; such locks were a treasure worth filching. For Battista, their value lay far beyond the monetary; they were trophies of a hunt well served. With a last glance to the empty passageway, a waggle of dark, thick brows, and a twitch of a smile, he took a bow to an imaginary audience and slipped in.
Stepping into the largest private room of the palazzo, he tucked his small tool back into its pouch on his cuff. One lone candle burned low in the far corner, its pale yellow light outshone by that of the three-quarter moon. The gray glow streamed through the four tall leaded windows on the opposite wall, checkering the room with squares of muted incandescence.
He had seen the inside of many a nobleman's bedchamber, spent more than a little time in them, for here the privileged kept their valuables. Here Battista did much of his work.
The fire burned low in the grate to his left, meek blaze sparking upon the gold cloth of the pastoral tapestries covering the inside wall beside him. There, in front of him, at the foot of the curtained bed, stood the mahogany strongbox, rugged and rigid with its thick steel bands, incongruous against the flowing cerulean bed draperies.
Battista grumbled an irritated chuckle. Two more padlocks bound each band, ones equally as intricate and as valued as the first. He knelt before the large chest, knees cracking, leather braces stretching against flexing calf muscles, nettled mumblings unchecked. The duca di Carcaci guarded his treasures well.
What a shame I must steal one.
The passing thought came and went in Battista's mind, one tinted with pale regret, brushed away with the impatient hand of his oft-thought though transitory vacillations. He had attempted to acquire the piece through diplomatic and pecuniary methods, had offered the duke a handsome purse—more than generous—and with it offered the nobleman a chance to assist Firenze. But both opportunities had been summarily denied, and now Battista must do what he must, whatever it took for his beloved Florence. If such efforts brought him a princely income in the doing, then so be it.
He dealt with these locks—round, bulbous, and brass—as easily as the first, and tossed open the heavy cover of the chest, cringing at the grating creak of the hinges. His glance tripped up and about sheepishly, as if waiting for the door to be thrown open and incarceration to commence. But with no true cause. The stillness continued unabated, as did his thievery. Only his gaze faltered, fixed upon the massive portrait crowning the large bed.
Four people gazed back at him, their happiness in the moment and in one another captured and undeniable. The duca, a middle-aged man but with youthful countenance, his wife still pretty, a full figure enhanced by the attentions of a loving husband and the births of their two children. Two girls played at their feet, perhaps two years apart in age, yet identical in their dark-haired beauty and mischievous smiles.
Battista recognized his feelings of respect and longing, measured out in equal parts, for he respected a man who loved his family, as his own father had, and desired to see himself the anchor of such a portrait, the patriarch of such a family. The yearning grew with each passing year.
Not likely, he chided himself with a surrendering shrug and a quirk of his lips, and not now.
Florence needed him now; it could not wait while he found love or conceived children.
Battista turned his almost-black brown eyes back into the cavernous strongbox, deep-dimpled chin tucked into his chest. His face bloomed at the treasures found within, so many of them made his hand tingle as it passed over them. But he came for only one, and rummaged quietly amidst the costly rubble within until he found it.
He stood the small statuette on the palm of his hand and studied every portion of the foot-length carving. There was no mistaking the Gothic style of Nicola Pisano, nor that this piece was a model created more than two hundred years ago as a basis for one portion of the artist's monumental work on the pulpit of the Siena Cathedral. Few knew this miniature existed, and its anonymity compounded its value tenfold. How Battista's patron knew of it was not for him to question.
Drawing out a thick cloth from his sack, Battista efficiently wrapped the piece, and placed it vertically in the leather satchel resting on his hip—worn, smooth, and shiny, curved to his back where it had rested for years, as if it were an organic extremity born with him.
Battista closed the strongbox, reattached the locks, and—with a tip of his head in gratitude to the man in the portrait—exited the room with the same ease with which he had entered.
Quiet hugged the palazzo in its nightly embrace as Battista made his way unremarked and unnoticed to the ground floor—where Frado waited, impatiently, with their horses, just outside the kitchen door at the rear of the building as agreed—and through a statue-guarded foyer and down a west-facing corridor. It had cost Battista little to get the pretty scullery maid to explain the layout of the palazzo: a good dinner, some time in his bed—which he enjoyed as much as she, bless her feisty heart—and she'd told him of every corridor and door in the palace.
Turning left, he did little to muffle the clack of his boot heels on the ochre marble tile, or contain the strut swinging his hips. Though many locks held the treasure of the house, Battista's thievery had been far too easily done; a man with such little a mind for security as this nobleman deserved to be robbed. Battista quickened his step as he neared the end of the corridor and the two doors on either side.
A few more steps, into the door on the left, and he'd be in the kitchen and on his way out. He grinned, lifted the pronged latch, and pulled the door open.
All air left his lungs with a wheeze. His eyes protruded almost painfully from his head.
The four armed and armor-clad men lounging about the room—polishing swords and playing at dice—stared at him with the same bewildered gape ... but only for a fleeting moment.
The cries erupted as the guards jumped to their feet, overturning chairs, upending tables, in their rush toward the intruder. Battista jumped backward out of the room as leather-clad fists and sword tips stretched out at him.
"Porca vacca. Damn it! The right door is the right door!" Battista cursed himself, slamming the door shut in their faces.
Shoulder bolstered against the portal, his whole body trembled as hard warrior bodies crashed against the other side, jarring the door violently in its cradle. With one hand, he set the latch. The other seized the handle of the largest of the three daggers tucked into his belt. He planted one foot back, stretched his arm high and taut above his head, arching his back, stretching like a bow about to launch its arrow.
With a propulsive growl, he slammed the dagger into the wood of the door at its edge, penetrating through it and into the jamb surrounding it.
Seconds, the thought rushed at him as rushed across the hall. It gives me seconds, no more.
Barging through the opposite door, he almost fell into the nearly abandoned kitchen. The house fire embers glowed red in the two large stone alcoves at either end of the massive room, the blood-colored gloom festering in every corner.
Three servants, two boys and a woman—those on night duty should the master return and call for anything—flinched back, already roused by the screaming and banging from across the hall. They stared openmouthed as Battista ran through the room, pulling down copper pots and cauldrons with a deafening clatter as he went, anything to throw between him and the angered guards soon to follow.
"Scusi." He ducked his head sheepishly to the older woman as he rushed by her, seeing his mother's condemnation in her wrinkled face and narrowed eyes. His steps faltered, his head swung back, and he swiped a biscotto off the counter between them. "Grazie, donna mia. Thank you, my lady."
The woman rolled her eyes, but not without a hint of a grin.
With a raucous splintering of wood, the door across the hall ruptured open and the four men burst out, a rushing ocean hurling through a broken dam, tripping over one another to get out and get at him.
"Sbrigari! Hurry!" The old woman flapped her apron at Battista, pointing him to the wide double door in the east corner of the room with one fleshy finger.
Battista spared her no more pleasantries, running for escape as the guards jumped and tumbled over the obstacles thrown down in their path.
He burst through the doors, gasping at the cool night air as with his last breath. If he didn't move quickly, it would be.
In the shadowy courtyard, two horses whinnied in alarm; a male voice squeaked in almost-feminine surprise. Battista turned to the sound, finding his horse and his accomplice waiting, just as they planned, on the cobbles below the portico, the small, round man no more than a perched ball on the smaller of the two powerful steeds.
"We must away!" Battista shouted, running full tilt now, hurtling himself from the top of the five steps, leaping across the beast's derriere with a two-handed launch, and landing directly, if painfully—with a gruesome groan at the jolt to his groin—on his horse's saddle.
"They are on to us, amico mio," he hissed at the flustered man bouncing on the horse beside him, grabbing the reins and taking control of his mount. "The chase is afoot, my friend. Hiiya!"
The leather straps snapped at his will and his horse leaped forward, Frado's following, impelled by the panic now thick in the air.
The horses' metal shoes clopped noisily against the stones and into the quiet of the night, thudding onto grass-covered field, an ever-increasing thrumming of urgency. In those seconds Battista had foretold, cries of protest rang out behind them and galloping pursuit exploded, muffling the men's bellows.
Battista spared a quick look at his praying friend, the urge to laugh barely contained at the sight of the flabby man hanging on to his reins and the saddle's pommel for dear life, bereft of even the pretense of control over his horse as he bounded up and down, grunting with each downward slam on the hard seat.
The sound of pursuit grew ever closer. Battista dared a look and saw their pursuers had taken form, if only as ghostly shadows intent upon malice. Were they close enough for his dagger to find them? He couldn't be sure. No matter, only two blades remained and at least four men came for them, if not more, as the alarm most surely had brought others to the chase.
He tugged his horse closer to Frado's, close enough to see the look of sheer panic upon the man's round, red-splotched face.
"We have no choice." Battista raised his deep voice over the thunder of the hooves. "We must throw them."
Frado answered with a pitiful look of pleading, but Battista shook his head.
"Do it, Frado. You know you can."
With a curled lip of anger, Frado reached into the saddlebag behind him, drawing out a moist goatskin sack, one of a perfect size to fit into his palm. Without looking backward, tilting precariously as he lifted his right arm, he threw the dripping ball, quickly reaching in for another, then another again.
The sound of splitting skin and splashing liquid pop, pop, popped behind them and within seconds a screeching of horses followed, answered by painful, frustrated human cries and a rumbling as bone and flesh—of horse and man—tumbled hard upon the ground.
The sounds of pursuit faded behind them, dissipating into the dominion of night's stillness, returning it to tranquility once more.
With more than a modicum of disgust, Frado shook the residual drops of wolf urine off his hand, casting a worried glance toward Battista.
"I hope the horses are all right."
Battista's brows jumped up his forehead as he turned, catching the glint of amusement in his friend's winking eye. He threw back his head then, howls of laughter ringing out through the starlit sky, bursting with peals of relief and triumph.
"To home, my friend," he hooted.
"Sì, home." Frado chuckled, round head bobbing in relieved agreement.
They turned their horses south, no one behind them close enough to see, and made for Florence.
"Ack, you son of a dog. You cheated!"
The outrage scaled the stairs, penetrated the door, and trounced upon Battista, waking him from his deep slumber, be it midday or not.
Battista pulled a pillow over his head, his arms dropping back to the silk-covered ticking with a plop. His exhaustion permeated every bone and muscle in his laden body. He wanted no more than to sleep a few more hours; not even the thought of gloating over his prizes could rouse him or his spirit.
"I didn't, I swear, Giovanni."
An answering yelp soon followed and Battista sighed, hoping it punctuated the end of the fracas. Such nonsense could not last long; such nonsense would not dare keep him from his rest.
"You lie like you smell ... badly!" The next salvo launched, the battle ensued.
Men barked at one another; chairs thrown out scraped across stone floor. Someone threw a punch and it landed with a riotous thwack.
"Basta!" Battista roared, flinging the pillow off and to the floor in one fluid motion of frustration, jumping out of bed, and kicking it as if it were the men who woke him. Stumbling and tripping to his door, his unsteadiness adding fuel to the flames of his fury, he leaned out the door to scream once again. "Enough!"
Despite himself and his ire, he bit back a smile as silence doused the tomfoolery below, as hissing whispers took the place of childish braying.
Battista walked back into his room and stood in the midst of the chaos. He could not remember what time he and Frado had arrived home. They had traveled hard all through the night, not knowing for sure if di Carcaci's men had regrouped and resumed their chase. Not daring to slow and find out.
They had arrived at Battista's three-story home on the Street of St. Proculus in the shadow of the Palazzo dei Pazzi as only a smudge of the next day's light appeared on the horizon; not a soul had been stirring in the quietest of hours, save for those spirits haunting this ancient city.
As he stood with the afternoon sun streaming through his southern windows, he looked down at himself, shiny black hair falling in two large, soft waves to his chin.
He still wore his thick hose, though the laces fell loose, the long ties hanging down to his knees. He wore neither boots nor stockings, satchel nor jerkin; his ecru linen undershirt hung out on one side only, as if he had fallen asleep while trying to dispatch it, and the whole of it was a mass of wrinkles, wounded by the crush of his hard sleep. The night's antics had exhausted him, not an easy task on a man of his prowess, of his eight and thirty years. Oh, but what a night it was.
The sculpture! The thought of it lurched into his mind. He kicked at the piles of clothing and linens covering the floor, searching for the satchel.
With a rejoicing cry, he spied it, rushed to it, and flopped to the floor beside it. Throwing the flap of the bag wide, he took the wrapped bundle in his hands and tenderly unfurled its covers with a cautious grace as if he unclothed a beautiful woman. It had been his night's conquest and he caressed it with the respect such a distinction deserved.
Excerpted from The King's Agent by Donna Russo Morin Copyright © 2012 by Donna Russo Morin. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Posted May 1, 2012
How to sum up a book such as The King's Agent with mere words? The book has all the elements of what I consider to be great fiction. Adventure, mystery, love, and mysticism. And to speak of my opinions without giving the story away will be quite a feat in itself, but I shall attempt to do it justice without revealing too much.
Set in the 16th cenury, in the twilight of the Renaissance, The King's Agent tells the story of a quest for an object of power that would be at the heart of the demise of mankind. Battista, who is loyal to his benefactor, King Francois I of France, and also to his beloved home of Florence, embarks on this quest with a clear idea of the outcome. But he is soon to learn that there is no clear outcome and the circumstances surrounding the obtaining of this object are shrouded in danger and mystery. As I was reading the sections where dangerous obstacles had to be overcome for Battista to reach his goal, my mind kept going to the Indiana Jones films. That is the kind of adventure the reader experiences in The King's Agent. Talk about a thrill!
To add to the mystery, we have the character of Aurelia who is an enigma, to be sure. Everyone who encounters her can feel that there is something different about her, but her mystery is kept secret, thankfully, until the very end. What is present in the character of Aurelia is a resolve to complete her destiny, a destiny not of her making. She is a brave woman who accepts her fate and ultimately sacrifices her own happiness for the good of all.
Finally, I must touch on the historical aspects of this book. Wonderful was the introduction of the stories of Dante and the presence of Michelangelo himself in the story. The historical detail is so well researched and interesting. I found myself on Google several times while reading, wanting right then and there to learn more about the people and places I was reading about. I must say that Ms. Morin is a talent in the historical fiction genre. I have To Serve a King is on my review pile and so I must get to reading it soon, as well as her other titles. Her books will remain a sought after commodity for my home library.
In conclusion, I must not forget the love story between Battista and Aurelia. Their love is inspiring and breathtaking. The sacrifice they have to make and their reconciliation to the fact speaks of a very true love indeed. So I leave you with a favorite passage from Dante which Battista whispers to Aurelia, " 'lady, you in whom my hope gains strength, you who, for my salvation, have allowed your footsteps to be left in Hell, in all the things that I have seen, I recognize the grace and benefit that I, depending upon your power and goodness, have received.' "
Posted April 15, 2012
What starts out as a seemingly standard historical fiction novel quickly turns into more of an adventure novel in a historical setting. This was a new sort of twist in the HF genre and certainly for Morin’s novels in general – and it was an amazingly fun ride! Our hero and heroine set out on an epic adventure to find a relic of some extraordinary power for the king of France. To ultimately get to this relic they will have to face tests of strength, speed, power, stamina, emotions and many more challenges along the way.
The author points out that two of the inspirations behind this novel are Dante’s The Divine Comedy, which is explicitly known while reading, and the video game series, Zelda. If you are not a video game aficionado you will not recognize any references to the video game, so don’t be concerned that it will cause to you miss out on something or won’t be to your interest. But, for those of us, me included, who are quite familiar with the game series you will notice that the format of the plot very much feels like a video game. There were times while I was reading where I remember thinking, “I remember doing that!” It was quite the multilayered experience and I can certainly understand why this was an inspiration. If you are not familiar with this video game series, I would compare the plot in some ways with The Da Vinci Code in the regard that you are looking for clues that are hidden in plain sight which will lead you to the next item of importance. In regard to The Divine Comedy I do not have much experience, except knowing the general concept of his work, but the novel actually helped me to have a new experience with the work. I have a lifetime goal to eventually read Dante’s work.
There is a requirement at some points where you have to suspend reality in this novel. This is especially true for those of us who read a lot of historical fiction when it tends to follow a set sort of path anchored in historical detail. The novel is certainly historical fiction, as the events that take place are set within the historical events, people, and setting, however there are some elements that sort of defy the historical formula. Again, a good thing, but just a heads up.
Morin chooses to set this novel in various prominent cities in Italy – Florence, Mantua, Rome – however for some reason I expected it to be set in France. I guess with the back cover text referring to King Francois I of France and not specifically stating Italy I got that stuck in my head. That being said, I loved the world created by the author. Everything stood out in vivid detail – and this is especially true of the artworks, which play a prominent role in this novel. If the art was not given a depth of definition I do not think the plot would have come off as well.
Another great outing from Donna Russo Morin – I can’t wait to read more of her work.
Posted April 6, 2012
The King's Agent by Donna Russo Morin is a historical fiction novel set during the 16th century in Italy. It is based on the real life art thief, Battista della Palla. Battista works for The King of France, Francois I. During a trip to 'acquire' a particular piece of art he runs into Aurelia. Aurelia has lived a very sheltered and mysterious life. She helps Battista escape with the condition that she accompany him. Battista is desperate so he agrees. Battista and Aurelia have great chemistry from the beginning of the book.
Battista takes Aurelia home with him. Aurelia won't sit back and stay at home. She wants to help Battista solve an artistic mystery that might help France. Together, with the help of Battista's lively crew, and a poem by the infamous Dante, they traipse across Italy on an adventure of a life time. Battista is charming, loyal, and clever. Aurelia is an intriguing character. The way her character unfolds during this novel is compelling. This story has quite a handful of characters including Battista's loyal friends.
The King's Agent is a cross between the Da Vinci Code and Indiana Jones with endearing characters that will captivate you. The Italian landscape makes a perfect backdrop to this book. It has everything from adventure to romance. The King's Agent by Donna Russo Morin is very entertaining. It is an epic adventure that was a joy to read.
Posted April 1, 2012
This book has a great mix of history, mystery, and romance. It's told from the point of view of Battista, who is sent to Italy to look for a mysterious relic by the King of France. I feel like I don't read too many historical fiction books from the gentlemen's point of view (I wonder why that is?) so this book was a nice change of pace from that perspective.
Lady Aurelia is a cool character for a book about this time period. Even though she's a woman, she's independent and she's smart. She doesn't seem like she'd tolerate being pushed around. I know that women back in this time really didn't always have a lot of choices in their life but Lady Aurelia seems to defy convention in that way. I love it!
I loved, loved, loved that the artist Michaelangelo has a starring role in this book. I'm a huge fan of his work and this book is particularly timely with the news story going around that art historians may have found one of Michaelangelo's paintings behind another painting (How cool is that). I didn't know much about Michaelangelo's private life and we the readers kind of get to see some of that from Battista since he's a lifelong friend of Michaelangelo's.
I also love how in order to solve the book's grand mystery, Battista and Lady Aurelia follow clues from Dante's Divine Comedy. I thought it was a really cool touch. Even if you have not read the Divine Comedy, you will have no trouble following along with the mystery. It's been a long time since I've read the Divine Comedy (I think since high school) but the story is familiar to us through cultural references that it works really well. Morin does a good job of weaving the story together.
Bottom line: This book has a little of something for historical fiction lovers of all stripes.
Posted March 23, 2012
Lady Aurelia is a noblewoman under the care of the Marquess of Mantua. Being under watchful eye night and day, she is desperate for freedom and for some adventure. Battista della Paglia is an agent working for King François I of France. He attains what the King asks of him, legally or illegally if need be. He is the King's agent. Battista is now in search of a mysterious sculpture for the King.
When she finds Battista pillaging her home, Aurelia helps him escape and partners up with him in the search for a mysterious sculpture.
The story then takes twists and turns as Battista and his men, along with Aurelia, find clues to the mystery. Aurelia not only harbors secrets, but she also has knowledge that will help the men in the search.
Soon enough the group sets off to "Hell", "Purgatory" and "Heaven". Clues are found within paintings and Dante's works are used as a guide as this story takes plenty of twists and turns and keeps the reader good and hooked until the very end.
I found The King's Agent to be an exciting and well written story rich with vivid details.
I always love reading a great historical that can transport me to another time and place. Adventure, romance and a beautiful setting all come together wonderfully in The King's Agent.
I have to say the first fifty pages or so were a bit slow for me, but after that the book too right off and I didn't want to put it down. For me this book was reminiscent of Indiana Jones and The Da Vinci Code. There is action, history, danger and mystery within these pages.
Author Donna Russo Morin weaves art, history and Italy into the storyline perfectly. I felt like I was transported to Florence in the 1500's as I read.
I enjoyed the quotes from Dante's works at the start of the chapters. Dante's poems are woven into the storyline seamlessly and become a part of the clues for the hunt.
The supporting characters were well written and I thought Battista's right hand man, Frodo was endearing. He's older, unwed and thinks of Aurelia almost as a daughter.
I liked both Battista and Aurelia. Battista is cunning, quick and handsome, and as I read I enjoyed learning more about his character. Aurelia is up for an adventure and is hiding life changing secrets. She has the knowledge to help Battista and his men find the sculpture. There is an air of mystery about her.
I first discovered Donna Russo Morin's work when I read The Secret of the Glass and I must say, she is quickly becoming a go to author for one of my favorite genres.
I recommend this book to fans of action and historical fiction and especially readers who enjoy stories revolving around art and ancient Italy.
Posted March 20, 2012
Takes historical fiction to the next level...adventure, paranormal, art, a touch of romance...it's all in here. WonderfulWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted March 19, 2012
Battista della Palla would do anything to help his beloved Florence and has aided the cause by stealing artifacts to give to the King of France, François. This time the King wants an artifact that might just be beyond Battista's expertise. When he finds himself in trouble, Lady Aurelia comes to the rescue. Longing for adventure and the opportunity to live life, Lady Aurelia demands that she be included in the task of finding the mysterious artifact. However, Lady Aurelia has some secrets of her own. Battista and Aurelia finds themselves on a whirlwind adventure and with the help of historical side characters, they put their knowledge of Dante's Divine Comedy to good use and hope to find the most powerful artifact of all.
This book certainly takes the reader on quite an adventure. I had not previously heard of Battista della Palla but I found myself intrigued by the patriotic thief who had many complexities. While I initially found Lady Aurelia to be more straight forward, I soon learned that I had underestimated her which drew me even deeper into the story. I loved how Ms. Morin was able to weave in much history and include small details about these real life characters. These details never took away from or slowed down the action and served as an added bonus to a great story. The research is evident and I found myself in constant awe of Ms. Morin's hard work. This is an adventure historical fiction story that has supernatural elements that might take the reader by surprised. I didn't see the ending coming at all, but I certainly respect Ms. Morin's creativity.
There are plenty of details that make this a more dense read, but they really do add to the story and set the stage for a fantastic journey. Overall, I recommend this to those who enjoy a a good historical fiction read with some action and supernatural craziness thrown in.