It appears that someone is murdering the courtesans of Venice. All were well-known, admired for their skills-and somehow connected by a sinister event involving one of the great families of the city.
While Nostradamus attempts to use the dark arts to solve riddles which confound explanation, Alfeo finds himself led by a possibly demonic force through a maze of deceit and death. And when the master and apprentice come to the end of their intertwined paths, there may be hell to pay.
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PRAISE FOR The Alchemist’s CODE
“The even more intriguing sequel to The Alchemist’s Apprentice (2007) is a mystery solved by the clairvoyant and sage Nostradamus and his apprentice, Alfeo Zeno . . . Duncan’s alternate late-Renaissance Venice is wonderfully drawn and quite believable.”—Booklist
PRAISE FOR The Alchemist’s APPRENTICE
“Brimming with wit and low-key charms; neither aficionados nor newcomers will be disappointed.”
—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“The occult is a grace note in this cynical whodunit, juicy with period detail.”—Entertainment Weekly
“This book is fun . . . There’s humor and adventure, mystery and magic, all rolled up in one package . . . The Alchemist’s Apprentice can be enjoyed by both mystery lovers and fantasy fans.”—SFRevu
“Duncan mingles arch fantasy and a whodunit plot in this alternate version of old Venice . . . Nostradamus and Alfeo’s adventures provide more amusement than chills in this charming farce, which comments lightly on class prejudice, political chicanery, and occult tomfoolery.”—Publishers Weekly
“Dave Duncan’s wit shows a distinctive intelligence, a clear-eyed vision that’s both irreverent and astute.”—Locus
“Duncan’s latest novel launches a new series set in an alternate Venice and filled with the author’s customary touches of humor, light satire, and fast-paced action. [Duncan] shows his mastery of both storytelling and character building.”
Acclaim FOR DAVE Duncan AND his PREVIOUS WORK
“Dave Duncan knows how to spin a ripping good yarn.”
“Duncan is an exceedingly finished stylist and a master of world building and characterizations.”—Booklist
“Dave Duncan is one of the best writers in the fantasy world today. His writing is clear, vibrant, and full of energy. His action scenes are breathtaking, and his skill at characterization is excellent.”—Writers Write
“Duncan excels at old-fashioned swashbuckling fantasy, maintaining a delicate balance between breathtaking excitement, romance, and high camp in a genre that is easy to overdo.”—Romantic Times
“Duncan can swashbuckle with the best, but his characters feel more deeply and think more clearly than most, making his novels . . . suitable for a particularly wide readership.”
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“An enormously clever and impressive reshuffle, whether you regard the final twist as a brilliantly contrived sleight or an outrageous swindle: for panache, style, and sheer storytelling audacity, Duncan has few peers.”
—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
Also by Dave Duncan
The Dodec Books
Chronicles of the King’s Blades
Tales of the King’s Blades
A Man of His Word
A Handful of Men
ill MET in THE ARENA
THE BERKLEY PUBLISHING GROUP
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This is an original publication of The Berkley Publishing Group.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.
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PRINTING HISTORY Ace trade paperback edition / March 2009
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
eISBN : 978-1-101-01974-0
1. Nostradamus, 1503-1566—Fiction. 2. Alchemists—Fiction. 3. Astrologers—Fiction.
This doesn’t make any sense,” I said. “What use is it?” I saw at once that I had asked a bad question. My master was glaring at me.
He had spent all morning instructing me in numerology—gematria, isopsephy, and similar thrilling pastimes. He had quoted from the Kabbalah, Pythagoras, Johannes Trithemius of Sponheim, Hermes Trismegistus, Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa, Saint John the Divine, and his own celebrated uncle, the late Michel de Nostredame, marking critical passages that I was now required to memorize. He had set me a dozen problems to work out in my free time, if I ever got any.
And I had just implied that he had been wasting his time and mine.
I never know from one hour to the next what he will tell me to do: cast horoscopes, run errands, blend potions, help him with patients, rescue damsels, memorize pages of ancient mumbo jumbo, cast spells, decrypt letters, massage the doge’s lumbosacral musculature, or fight for my life—all in the day’s work. Apprentices do as they are told; they never ask why.
Yesterday it had been sortilege. Today it was numerology. The real problem was the excess of rheum in his hips, which the current February weather had aggravated until now he was barely able to walk. He had needed help from Bruno, our porter, just to make it out of bed and across the salone to his favorite chair in the atelier. There he had refused any breakfast and set out to stuff me with fifteen hundred years of numerology before noon as a way of taking his mind off hurting and growing old. I had run back and forth at his bidding, doing calculations at the desk, fetching musty tomes from the great wall of books, squatting alongside his chair while we went over the texts, word by incomprehensible word. I admit that he never complains of his infirmities, but when they trouble him he complains massively about everything else. I had never known him crabbier than that morning. It was past noon, dinnertime.
“Sense?” he snarled. “Sense? You mean it does not appear to make sense to you! Do you claim more intelligence than San Zorzi or Pythagoras? Can you concede that smarter or better informed persons might make sense of it?”
“Of course, master.”
“For instance, suppose you explain to me how the doge is elected?”
Doge? So far as I knew, our prince was still in reasonable health for his age. I had updated his horoscope just a month ago, and it had shown no need to elect Pietro Moro’s successor for several years yet. The way Venice chooses its head of state is certainly madder than any numerology, but I felt the Maestro was playing unfairly by throwing it in my face.
“The patricians of the Great Council, but only those over thirty years of—”
Thunk . . . thunk . . .
Saved! Seldom have I been happier to hear our front door knocker. I rose, relieved to straighten my knees. The Maestro scowled, but greeting visitors is another of my jobs. I went out into the salone and opened the big door.
The visitor was unfamiliar, wearing a gondolier’s jerkin and baggy trousers in house colors I did not recognize, but his sullen, resentful expression was all too typical of his trade. He was taller, wider, and older than I.
“For Doctor Nostradamus,” he said, thrusting a letter at me. That was the name written on the paper, but he wouldn’t know it unless he had been told.
“I’ll give it to him directly. Wait for the reply.” I shut the door on him and went back into the atelier.
“Read it,” the Maestro growled impatiently. He is old and shrunken, but that day he seemed more wizened than ever, huddled in his black physician’s robe, clutching a cane in one hand, with another lying nearby, balanced on a column of books. Normally he walks with the aid of a long and elaborately decorated staff, but lately he had been forced into using two canes. He dyes his goatee brown and days of neglect had turned the roots to the same bright silver as the wisps of hair dangling from under his bonnet.
I broke the wax and unfolded the parchment. “It’s from the manservant of sier Giovanni Gradenigo, written in an appalling scrawl and signed ‘Battista’ in the same hand. He begs you to attend his master in haste because other doctors have given up hope of his recovery.”
The Maestro winced at the thought of going anywhere. “He’s no patient of mine.”
“No, master. Sier Lorenzo Gradenigo commissioned a horoscope from you four years ago, but he belongs to another branch of—”
“I know that! Tell him to call Modestus.”
“The letter is from the Palazzo Gradenigo. Those Gradenigos are richer than the Pharaohs ever were.”
The Maestro winced again, this time at the thought of the fee he was losing. Where money is concerned, if he can’t take it with him he’s not going. His medical practice has dwindled to a few very wealthy or important persons and he rarely gets called out any more, but this attack had him so crippled that he would be unable even to stand at a patient’s bedside. “Do as I say!”
I went over to the desk and penned a quick note, recommending Isaia Modestus of the Ghetto Nuovo as the second-best doctor in Venice. I signed the Maestro’s name to it, sealed it with his signet, and took it out to Surly, who scowled at the soldo I offered him.
“It’s as much as I ever get,” I told him cheerfully.
“I can see why.” With that parting sneer, he took the coin and slouched off down the marble staircase. He ought to know by now that the grander a palace is, the worse the chance of a decent tip.
I locked the door behind him, but I paused outside the atelier because I saw Mama Angeli rolling along the salone toward me without a glance at all the magnificent Titian and Tintoretto paintings, the giant statues, and the shining Murano mirrors she was passing. She carried a burping baby on her shoulder, while a squalling toddler staggered in her wake. She has lots more that came from where those came from—and a flourishing herd of grandchildren besides—but she is the finest cook in Venice, and when I say “rolling” I am not exaggerating much.
She glowered at me, chins raised in anger. “My Filetti di San Pietro in Salsa d’Arencia will be ruined.”
I groaned and rumbled simultaneously. “The Ten could use you. None of their torturers can touch you for pure sadism. I’ll see what I can do.”
That wasn’t much. I got no further than the first syllable of Mama’s name.
“Sit!” The Maestro jabbed a gnarled finger at the floor by his chair.
“Yes, master.” Instead of sitting on the floor as suggested, I planted myself on one of the piles of books that stood around his chair. I wasn’t seriously worried that otherwise he might order me to roll over so he could scratch my tummy, but the thought did occur to me. I would probably have to re-shelve every one of the books before I got any dinner, if I ever did get any dinner. Nostradamus forgets all about food at times. He could outfast a camel.
“Now,” he said, screwing up his face in a truly hideous grimace, “explain to an ignorant foreign-born how the Venetians elect their doges.”
“The Great Council starts by drawing lots,” I said. “That’s called sortilege.” Probably almost all the twelve hundred or so eligible patricians will attend for a ducal election, because they happen rarely. “Each one draws a ball out of the pot and thirty of those bear a secret mark.” The Maestro must have been told all this sometime and he never forgets anything. I couldn’t see what it had to do with numerology. Or my dinner.
“Then they draw lots to reduce the thirty to nine.” I had been hoping to eat quickly and pay a brief but possibly rewarding visit to my adored Violetta, who lives in the house next door, Number 96. She works nights and I work days, so the noon break is our best chance to be together. I had not seen her for three days and was missing her sorely. “Then the nine elect forty. The forty are reduced by lot to—”
Thunk . . . Thunk . . . Thunk . . .
I smiled woodenly and went out to see.
And gape. Poised like an alighting angel on the landing outside was the most breathtakingly gorgeous exciting ravishing woman in the entire world. The perfection of her face, the lightning speed of her wit, and the enslaving madness provoked by her peerless body inspire men to pay hundreds of ducats for a night with her. Sometimes more than that. She was, of course, Violetta herself, my beloved, the finest courtesan in Venice.
Violetta will sometimes provide the Maestro with strategic advice on the wealthy, for it is among them that she spends her evenings and finds her patrons. I visit her whenever I can; she never comes calling on me.
“I’m busy,” I whispered. Whatever his other frailties, the Maestro has ears like a bat. I rolled my eyes in the direction of the atelier.
“It is wonderful to see you again, Alfeo.” Violetta sighed a low-pitched, heart-stopping sigh. She had automatically slid into her Helen-of-Troy persona, which meant that she wanted something; no man can resist Helen. Her voice thrilled like a low note on a cello, and eyelashes fluttered over deep-set eyes promising all the joys of the Prophet’s paradise. “But you mustn’t try to distract me, you lovely man. Later I’ll have lots of time for whatever it is you want. I came to consult Maestro Nostradamus.”
“Consult? If you need your horoscope cast, I’ll be more than—”
“No. I want him to find somebody for me.” She extended a hand, and I perforce offered my arm, for she was wearing her platform soles, which make her considerably taller then I am. In February her hair lacked the glorious auburn glow that it gains from summer sunshine, but it was coifed, scented, and bejeweled as if for a state banquet. A pearl necklace and low-cut scarlet gown shone through the open front of a floor-length miniver robe. Altogether, dressing her would have cost a duke’s ransom and taken at least a couple of hours; she rarely opens her eyes before noon.
I locked the door behind her and escorted her into the atelier. The Maestro was scowling again. There are few people whose company he enjoys at all and he hates to be interrupted, so he ranks unexpected visitors with lice and vipers, even if they bring money with them. Violetta can be an exception because in her Minerva mode she is at least as brilliant as he is, and the idea of an educated woman fascinates him. I hoped she would be a welcome distraction for him in his present mood; his expression suggested that he thought I had sent for her.
“Donna Violetta Vitale, master.”
“I can see that. Send her home and you come right back here.”
It was my turn to sigh. I had never known him quite this bad.
“I trust I find you well, Doctor?” Violetta said, advancing toward him. But that silvery, flutelike voice belonged to Aspasia, her political and cultural mode, and if anyone could outmaneuver Nostradamus, it was she. She bobbed him a curtsey, then made herself comfortable on one of the two green chairs on the far side of the fireplace. I beat a strategic retreat to the desk in the window, where I was out of the Maestro’s sight and could adore Violetta at my leisure. Her eyes are the deep blue of the sea when she is Aspasia. I don’t know how she makes these transformations and neither does she; she claims it is not a conscious choice.
“I do not recall inviting you to be seated, woman. Who is this person you want me to find?”
The city regards Nostradamus as an oracle. All sorts of people come asking Who? Where? When? What? and sometimes even How? or Why? questions. Amazingly often, he can answer them, for a price.
His mouth shrank to a pinhole and his eyes to slits. “You think I’m a common sbirro? Any time I have exposed a murderer it has been because I needed to know his identity for some other, more worthy reason.” Not true at all, but he likes to think that unmasking criminals is beneath a philosopher’s dignity. “Talk to the Signori di Notte. Or go directly to the Ten.” He dropped his gaze to the book on his lap, believing that he had just ended the conversation.
Violette lobbed a sympathetic glance across at me, who must live with this. “You have a wonderful wit, lustrissimo, or do you really think that the Lords of the Night can catch anything more serious than head colds? This matter will not interest the Council of Ten.”
After a moment Nostradamus looked up, frowning. According to what it would have you believe, the Most Serene Republic is governed by the nobility of the Great Council, who elect one another to dozens of courts, councils, and committees, whose mandates overlap so much that every magistrate has some other magistrate watching over him. Our head of state, the doge, is a mere figurehead who can do nothing without the support of his six counselors. This grotesque muddle is justified as necessary for the preservation of freedom and prevention of tyranny.
In practice, the real government is the Council of Ten, whose official mandate is to guard the security of the state, but which meddles in anything it fancies—permissible wages and prices, what clothes may be worn, the way banks operate, so on and on. The Ten certainly include murder within their jurisdiction.
The Maestro eyed his visitor angrily. “The name of the victim?”
“Lucia da Bergamo.”
“Your relationship to the deceased?”
Violetta’s smiles normally brighten the room, but this one brought enough pathos to make a songbird weep. “She was my mentor.”
“She was a . . . courtesan?” That he did not choose one of the word’s many vulgar synonyms I found mildly encouraging.
“Dying is a hazard of your trade. Women who earn their bread in bed are always at risk. Why should this one be any different?”
I spread my hands and shrugged hugely to tell Violetta that the case was hopeless. In his present mood, the Maestro would not shift himself to investigate a murdered pope, let alone a courtesan.
She raised a perfectly shaped eyebrow. “She still had all her clothes on, and also her jewels.”
That was certainly unusual, and the Maestro took a moment to respond.
“When and where did she die?”
“She was last seen three weeks ago, January fourteenth. Her body was found floating in the lagoon about a week later.”
“Bah! What the fish left of her body, you mean. It is impossible! No witnesses, of course? No clues or leads? Has her last customer been identified?”
Stony-faced, Violetta said, “I did not hear the news until three days ago, and some of it only this morning. No to all of your questions.”
“Impossible. Ask the recording angel on Judgment Day.” He bent to his book again.
“You are the greatest clairvoyant in Europe.”
He did not reply.
“Clairvoyance only reveals the future,” I said softly. “Not the past.”
Violetta ignored my remark. “Lucia left me everything she had, and I will gladly pay it as a reward for the capture and execution of her killer.”
The Maestro raised his head like a hound that has scented its quarry. “And how much is that?”
Violetta-Aspasia looked close to tears. “Depending on how much the house sells for, the notary told me he thought it would amount to about 1,470 ducats.”
Nostradamus painfully twisted around to stare at me, no doubt wondering if I had stage-managed this conversation. I had no difficulty in looking suitably startled. A courtesan with such a fortune was almost as amazing as another one offering to give it all away. Giorgio, our gondolier, would need a century to earn that much, because his wages are limited by law to his board and fifteen ducats a year.
Obviously Lucia had been a cortigiana onesta like Violetta, an honored courtesan, one who entertains men with her wit and culture. Sex is not the least of her attractions, but it is far from the only one and not necessarily the greatest. Men are drawn to Venice from all over Europe by the beauty and skill of our courtesans. The state permits them to ply their trade and then taxes them exorbitantly.
“Alfeo!” Nostradamus snapped.
“Warn Mama that we have a guest for dinner and tell Bruno I need him.” Although he rarely displays it, Nostradamus does have a sense of humor; sometimes he can even laugh at himself.
The dining room on the upper floor of Ca’ Barbolano can seat fifty. The Maestro and I dine there in splendor every day, with silver tableware on damask tablecloths under grandiose Burano chandeliers. I dine, he nibbles. The palace belongs to sier Alvise Barbolano, who is richer than Midas and a similar age. The old man lets the Maestro stay on the top floor rent free in return for some trifling services, including business astrological advice, trading clairvoyance, and effective roach poison. The Barbolanos live below us, on the piano nobile. Below that are two mezzanine apartments, occupied by the Marciana brothers and their respective families; they are of the citizen class, partners with sier Barbolano in an import-export business.
I once suggested to the Maestro that he obtain a chair on wheels, but he does not need it while he has Bruno, who is a mute, a little larger than Michelangelo’s David. He happily lifted Nostradamus, chair and all, and carried him through to the dining room. He loves to be useful.
Excerpted from "The Alchemist's Pursuit"
Copyright © 2009 Dave Duncan.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Nostradamus respected throughout Venice and beyond for his clairvoyant skills is a tad grumpy because his rheumatism has nearly crippled him. His apprentice Alfeo, an impoverished noble, goes about his chores ignoring his master¿s constant complaints when his mistress Violetta asks Nostradamus to find out who killed her friend and mentor courtesan Lucia. At the same time, the dying Giovanni sends someone to the house to tell something to Nostradamus, but he dies before he can reveal his closing remarks. Alfeo learns from a servant that the dead man wanted a killer brought to justice; a person who murdered a courtesan a week ago.
When Alfeo learns that another courtesan was killed, he informs Nostradamus who is interested in the serial killings. Their inquiries come to the attention of the Three, the ruling body of Venice who demand they desist in their investigation. Meanwhile Alfeo finds out that the killer was called ¿Honeycat ¿by the Courtesans who were killed.¿ This turns out to be the name of Zorzi Michiel. Eight years ago Zorys was accused of killing his father and Lucs though he fled the city to avoid conviction. The Michiel Palazzo is riddled with secrets with seemingly everyone having something to hide. Nostradamus believes if they can unravel each person¿s secret, they will identify the killer of Zorzis¿ father as he believes the son did not commit patricide.
The latest Alchemist saga (see THE ALCHEMIST'S CODE and THE ALCHEMIST'S APPRENTICE)takes place in an alternate Renaissance Italy where magic exists along side of science (so one might ask if Nostradamus could obtain magic to relive his chronic aches). The hero Alfeo remains obstinately resolute to solve the case before someone carves Honey Cat on his beloved Violetta who is also a courtesan. Inside a fun whodunit, master fantasist Dave Duncan makes his version of the latter half of sixteenth century Venice seem believable as THE ALCHEMIST¿S PURSUIT is a terrific historical urban fantasy.