From the author of Poison and The Borgia Betrayal, comes a new historical thriller, featuring the same intriguing and beautiful heroine: Borgia court poisoner, Francesca Giordano
Mistress of death Francesca Giordano—court poisoner to the House of Borgia—returns to confront an ancient atrocity that threatens to extinguish the light of the Renaissance and plunge the world into eternal darkness. As the enemies of Pope Alexander VI close in and the papal court is forced to flee from Rome, Francesca joins forces with her lover, the brilliant and ruthless Cesare Borgia to unravel a conspiracy that strikes at the heart of Christendom. But when a shattering secret from her past imperils her precarious hold on sanity, only Francesca's own courage and resolve can draw her back from the brink of madness to save all she values most.
About the Author
SARA POOLE lives in Connecticut, where her discovery of the abundance of deadly flora growing just beyond her doorstep prompted her interest in the poisoner's art.
Sara Poole lives in Connecticut, where her discovery of the abundance of deadly flora growing just beyond her doorstep prompted her interest in the poisoner’s art. Her novels include Poison, The Borgia Betrayal and The Borgia Mistress.
Read an Excerpt
The Borgia Mistress
By Sara Poole
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2012 Sara Poole
All rights reserved.
Rome October 1493
"Donna Francesca ..."
I was in the Campo dei Fiore, walking toward Rocco's shop. There was something important that I needed to tell him.
I quickened my pace, avoiding the pushcarts and passersby, the piles of manure and the importuning peddlers, afraid I would be too late.
I really had to ... it was important ...
The street in front of me dissolved. I blinked in the sudden glare of light piercing the cocoon of my curtained bed. Portia, holding up a lamp, grasped me by the shoulder and shook me.
"For pity's sake —" I squinted, trying without effect to cling to the dream.
"Condottieri are here," the portiere said.
"His condottieri. They say you must come."
"They say — what?"
"You must come. They wanted me to let them in, but I said I would wake you myself. Even so, they are right outside. They won't wait for long."
Despite the coolness of early autumn, I slept naked. A film of sweat shone on my skin. The nightmare had come as usual, leaving its mark on me.
"I'll kill him, I swear I will."
The dwarf chuckled. She jumped down from the stool, found a robe of finely woven Egyptian cotton dyed a saffron hue, and held it out.
"No, you won't. He'll charm you as he always does and you'll forgive him."
Slipping my arms into the sleeves of the robe, I winced. "How can the sharpest-eyed portiere in all of Rome be such a romantic?"
Portia shrugged. "What can I say? He tips well."
I started to laugh, coughed instead, caught myself, and strode out of the bedchamber, through the salon filled with my books and the apparatus I used in my investigations, all feeding the rumors about me. The robe billowed around my legs, gold mined from the crushed stigmas of Andalusia crocuses. I went quickly between light and shadow, pausing in neither. A cat, perversely white in violation of hallowed superstition, followed in my wake. The door to the apartment stood open. Beyond, I could see helmeted soldiers in shining breastplates pacing anxiously.
Their leader saw me coming and stiffened, as he damn well should have, given the circumstances.
"Donna," he said and sketched a quick bow. "A thousand apologies, but I thought it best ... That is, I wasn't certain if you would ..."
"Where is he?"
The captain hesitated, but he could not lie. Not to me. One of the benefits of my having a reputation as dark as the Styx.
"At a taverna in the Trastevere. He's not ... in good shape."
I sighed and arched my neck, still struggling to wake fully. A thought occurred to me. "It's Sunday, isn't it?"
"It is, donna, unfortunately. We don't have much time."
I went back into the apartment. Portia, the only name by which I knew the portiere, was laying out clothes for me. As her eye for such things was much better than my own, I did not protest. Instead, I said, "Remind me to change the lock on the door. Either that, or just give me your key."
She grinned and shook her head. "What good would either do, donna? The locksmith would be in the pay of the landlord and I'd have a new key before the day was out. Besides, who would look after things for you if you have to go away?"
I pulled a shift over my head, muffling my voice. "Why would I go away?"
Portia shrugged. "I'm only saying ... it could happen."
"What have you heard?" For surely the portiere had heard something. She always did.
"It's not very nice in the city right now. Too much rain, the Tiber flooding, rumors of plague. Certain people might think this was a good time to visit the countryside."
"Oh, God." Manure, pigs, bucolic romps, too much open space. I hated the countryside.
"Just get him to the chapel," the portiere advised. "That will spare us all a lot of trouble."
* * *
My name is Francesca Giordano, daughter of the late Giovanni Giordano, who served ten years as poisoner to the House of Borgia and was murdered for his pains. To acquire the means to avenge him, I poisoned the man chosen to take his place. Fortunately, Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia, as he was then, saw past my offense to perceive my usefulness. At his behest, I set out to kill the man I believed at the time to have ordered my father's murder. Only God knows if Pope Innocent VIII died by my hand. What is certain is that his demise opened the way for Borgia to become pope.
Recoil from me if you will, but know this: No one feared the darkness of my nature more than I. Had I been able to recast myself into an ordinary woman — a wife and mother, perhaps — I would have done so in an instant, though it require me to walk through the fires of Hell. Or so I liked to believe. Saint Augustine, while still a young man wallowing in debauchery, prayed to God to make him chaste — but not yet. My own aspirations may have owed at least some of their appeal to the unlikelihood of their achievement any time soon. I was as I was, may God forgive me.
I was then twenty-one, brown-haired, brown-eyed, and, although slender, possessed of a womanly figure. I say this without pride, for in the parade of my sins, vanity brought up the rear. Working in a man's profession as I did, my appearance discomfited more than a few. That suited me well enough, for while they were preoccupied with thoughts of either burning or bedding me — not excluding both — I did not hesitate to act.
The taverna was on one of the little corsie that ran off the Campo dei Fiore. When the marketplace was bustling, as it usually was, the place would be easy to miss. But in the hours before dawn, the light and sound spilling from its narrow door made it impossible to overlook.
A burly guard stood outside to deter the pickpockets who preyed on drunken young noblemen too busy slumming to notice that they were being robbed. He took one look at the approaching condottieri and vanished down a nearby alley.
"If you wish us to go in first, donna ...," the captain said.
I ignored him, pushed open the door, and stepped inside. The smell hit me at once — raw wine, sweat, roasted meat, smoke. I inhaled deeply. Ah, Roma. The looming threat of the countryside flitted through my mind, but I repressed it.
A lout cross-eyed with drink saw me first and reached out to grasp my waist. I eluded him easily and pressed on. The greater part of the din was coming from a large table toward the back behind half-closed curtains where a bevy of mostly naked young women clustered, vying for the attentions of the male guests.
A burst of deep laughter ... a girlish shriek ... a snatch of ribald song ...
I pushed past a nubile young thing wearing only diaphanous harem pants, elbowed another even more scantily clad, and came at last within sight of the reason why I had been rousted out of bed in the wee hours of the morning.
Lolling back in his chair, a goblet in one hand and a rounded breast in the other, the son of His Holiness Pope Alexander VI appeared to be in high good humor. A blonde — to whom the breast belonged — straddled his lap, while a completely nude brunette posed on the table in front of him, her legs spread invitingly.
Cesare raised a brow, though whether in interest or amusement I could not say. His dark hair with a slight reddish cast was loose and brushed his shoulders. In features, he resembled his mother — the redoubtable Vannozza dei Cattanei — far more than he did his father, having her long, high-bridged nose and large, almond-shaped eyes. He had been in the sun even more than usual and was deeply tanned. In public he generally wore the expected raiment of a high-born young man, but that night he was dressed for comfort in a loose shirt and breeches.
He bent forward, whispered something in the ear of the blonde that made her shriek with feigned shock, and called for more wine.
"Vino! Molto vino for everyone!"
He blinked once, twice. A moment passed, another. He let go of the girl's breast, set the goblet on the table, and sighed deeply.
"Ai, mio, he sent you."
"Of course he did," I said. "Whom did you think he would send?"
A murmur went around. The whisper of my name. The brunette paled, pressed her legs together, and fled. So, too, did most of the crowd. Scrambling off her perch, the blonde fell. For a moment, her smooth rump was high in the air before she picked herself up and followed the rest.
Only the Spaniards remained. Arrogant, high-nosed young men, scions of ancient families, swift to take offense at any slight to their honor, real or imagined. They were lately come to the court of the Pope, who still considered Valencia to be home, and had been drawn inevitably to the company of his son.
"Who is this?" one of them demanded, resolutely ignorant.
Cesare Borgia rose unsteadily, adjusted his breeches, and made a token effort to straighten himself. He smiled grudgingly.
"My conscience, alas."
Outside in the street, surrounded by the condottieri, he held his face up to the cool night air. A fine mist carried the tang of the sea miles off at Ostia. He breathed it in deeply, as did I. For a moment, the lure of far-off places and different lives filled us.
"Say you couldn't find me."
"It wouldn't make any difference if I did. Your father would just send someone else. Be glad he sent your own guards and not his."
He sighed. "Have you no pity? My life is ending."
I fought a smile and lost. He was so young still, this boy-man with whom my own life was so unexpectedly entwined.
"You are scarcely eighteen years old and you are about to acquire more power and wealth than most can ever dream of. Do not expect anyone to weep for you."
"All well and good, but this isn't how I wanted to get either. You know that."
"Who among us gets what we want?"
"My father has."
I conceded the point with a slight nod. "True enough. Now let us see if he can keep it."
Torches burned in brackets set into the walls of the palazzo near the Campo, illuminating the marble statues in the entrance and the loggia beyond. Despite the hour, the servants were all awake and scurrying about. I went with Cesare up the curving stairs to his private quarters and waited as he threw off his clothes and sank into a steaming-hot bath. As he sweated out the effects of his indulgence, I mixed a restorative from powders I carried in a small bag that hung at my waist. I never went anywhere without that bag or without the knife nestled in a leather sheath next to my heart.
He swallowed the potion I handed him without delay, testament to his trust in me. Watching him, I wondered how many people I knew would do the same. A dozen, at most, if I really stretched? And half of those would at least hesitate.
"That's vile," he said.
The tub was carved from a single piece of marble and decorated with ample-breasted mermaids. I sat on a stool next to it. "You'll be glad of it all the same."
He was leaning back, his head against the rim, his eyes closed, but he opened one to look at me. "You could get in."
"I could...." I appeared to consider it. "But you know what would happen. Tired as we both are, we'd fall asleep afterward and then we'd drown. Che scandalo."
He laughed, accepting my refusal with better grace than I had expected. I took that as evidence of how truly low his spirits were.
When the water had cooled, he rose and stood naked, legs braced and arms held away from his sides. Droplets sluiced down his skin kissed by the sun. He was leaving the lankiness of youth behind, coming into his own as a man and a warrior. His shoulders had broadened first, followed by his torso, but lately the bands of muscle across his abdomen and thighs had become even more evident. So far at least, his body was without imperfection, a condition he lamented as he longed to prove himself on the field of honor. Scars, he insisted, were the true mark of a man; all else was pretense. His father, Christ's Vicar on Earth, thought otherwise, and his will ruled, at least for now.
"This really doesn't bother you?" Cesare asked as his long-suffering valet finished patting him dry.
I shrugged. "Why should it?"
He looked so uncertain suddenly that I went to him, wrapped my arms around his broad chest, and pressed a light kiss against his lips, the softness of which surprised me, as always. He stirred against me, making me laugh and causing my gaze to drift just for a moment in the direction of the bed. Only the light stealing through the high windows gave me pause. That and the great bells of Saint Peter's that just began to ring on the far side of the river, heralding the dawn.
"Of course it makes no difference. How could it possibly?"
The valet cleared his throat. "Pardon me, signore. It is time to dress."
I sat in a comfortable chair with my feet up and sipped a light cider from the first apple pressing while I waited. The procedure took longer than usual, no doubt because Cesare was donning clothes he had never worn before. When he emerged finally from the dressing room, my breath caught. I rose, smiling.
"You look exceedingly handsome."
"This is not what I want," he said and kicked at the long red skirts of his cassock in disgust.
I would have replied, but just then the bells of Saint Peter's grew louder, their voices joined by the bells of churches all over Rome. Together they hailed the day of consecration for Holy Mother Church's newest and most unwilling prince.
The bells were still ringing as I made my way across Rome. Despite its being Sunday, most of the shops were open and the streets were busy. His Holiness — a man of commerce himself — had designated virtually every enterprise in the city as "necessary," and therefore exempt from closing on holy days. For that, and for reining in the crime that had been rampant in the streets during the tenure of his predecessor, Romans loved him. But theirs was no longer the giddy love of first infatuation that brings a blush to the cheek and a glow to the eyes. Rather it was the brittle love of experience that teeters on the edge of disillusionment, when the faithlessness of the beloved is becoming all too evident.
In Borgia's case, his boundless lust for women, power, privilege, and wealth was a mere beginning. What he really wanted — what he was determined to have — was nothing short of immortality. He intended to so remake the world in his own image that his name would ring down through the ages, never diminished, never forgotten, forever glorious. I imagine that he envisioned himself sitting Jove-like in the heavens, gazing down benignly at what he had wrought. Unfortunately, his enemies were coming to the same conclusion, and they were determined to stop him.
Despite the shadow they cast, the sun was out, a benediction after the constant rain of late. For a moment, a fragment of my interrupted dream flitted through my mind. I could just as easily turn toward the Campo and visit Rocco. The recent announcement of his betrothal to Carlotta d'Agnelli had made no difference to our friendship, and why would it? True, there had been a time when Rocco fancied that he and I should wed, but given what he now knew of my dark nature, he should surely be glad of his escape. Even so, we liked and trusted each other in the way of colleagues bound by mutual interests. If I still longed on occasion for what could not be, that was my secret to bear and keep. I owed him a visit, just not quite yet.
After more than a year in His Holiness's service, living constantly within the darkest aspects of my nature, I could no longer ignore the anxious melancholia that hung over me on even the brightest day. In front of Cesare or His Holiness himself, I managed to maintain the appearance of confidence, but it was no more than a thin façade over my deepest fears. Constantly on guard, seeing danger in every shadow, I was haunted by the conviction that my soul, insofar as it still existed, would never see the light for which I yearned so desperately. Out of sheer bravado, I told myself that to be damned was a kind of liberation. Not for me the endless cycle of sin, confession, and bought absolution. But having gone beyond all that, I found myself in a purgatory all my own.
A cloud moved across the sun. I shivered in the sudden chill and pressed on. The Tiber having overflowed its banks, I was forced to hold up my skirts as I made my way through filthy water to the small apothecary shop secluded down a narrow lane. Several customers were inside. I waited, loitering just out of sight, as they were seen to one by one. When the last had gone, I stepped through the door.
Excerpted from The Borgia Mistress by Sara Poole. Copyright © 2012 Sara Poole. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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.
Reading Group Guide
1. In modern terms, Francesca Giordano suffers from post-traumatic shock related to an event early in her life. Is she helped or harmed by the discovery of what really happened to her? Is the uncovering of hidden truths always beneficial or are there times when secrets should remain unspoken?
2. Do you consider Francesca to be insane? Is her willingness to kill a result of her troubled mental state or a rational response to circumstances in her world?
3. Francesca has a complex relationship with her employer, Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia. Why do you think he withheld information about her past from her? What role may he have played in the murder of her father?
4. Francesca lives at a time when both secular and religious powers are clashing for control of a rapidly changing world. How does that struggle shape this story and the challenges that she faces?
5. While she yearns for the glassmaker, Rocco, and the life she could have had with him, Francesca does not hesitate to pursue a relationship with Cesare Borgia that is sexual and more. Is she hypocritical in having feelings for both men or is she drawn to each for different reasons?
6. The Cathars believed that the material world is ruled by evil that can be escaped only by rebirth into a realm of light. Numerous followers from all classes of society were drawn to this spiritual view. What do you think influenced people to so completely reject this world and seek to escape it forever?
7. Why did the Roman Catholic Church act so brutally toward the Cathars and others considered to be heretics? Would a spirit of religious tolerance have helped conditions in Europe or would it have weakened institutions that were forces for stability, education, and overall social advancement?
8. Lucrezia Borgia is depicted very differently in this story from much of what has been written about her. Why do you think she has been portrayed in such dark terms historically? Did being a woman make her more vulnerable to exploitation by her family's enemies?
9. As Rodrigo's son, Cesare Borgia has access to great power yet he cannot use it to claim the life he truly wants. What acts might his frustration give rise to?
10. Throughout this story, poison appears as a metaphor for the stain of corruption running through the highest levels of society. Is a similar metaphor appropriate in our own time and if so, where?
11. What role do you think the corruption of the popes and other high-ranking prelates of this time played in triggering the rebellion against Catholicism that we know as the Reformation? Were there internal reforms the Catholic leadership could have taken that might have prevented the Reformation from happening?
12. If Rodrigo Borgia's dream of a papal dynasty controlled by his family had succeeded, what would have been the implications for his time? For ours?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I have enjoyed this series very much. The first book is still my favorite. The second one good too. This last one i felt still left me hanging. For example...what happens with juan, or rocco? Does borgia let cesare live his life as he dreams? What the freak happened to morrozi?
¿The Borgia Mistress: A Novel¿ by Sara Poole is a historical fiction story that takes place in Rome around the year 1493. The lead character, Francesca Giordano, is the court poisoner to House of Borgia and Rodrigo Borgia who becomes Pope Alexander VI. Francesca¿s father was a prisoner to the House of she was raised in the household along with Borgia¿s son, Cesare Borgia, who eventually becomes Francesca¿s lover. Francesca has to unravel a conspiracy that threatens to tear apart Pope Alexander¿s rule and possibly Christendom. To get to the heart of the conspiracy, she has to find an assassin who was sent to attack the Pope. While trying to locate the assassin, Francesca¿s sanity is at stake and she wonders if she is going mad. This is the third installment in the Poisoners series by Ms. Poole. I did not read the first two. Although I felt that I did miss some of the backstory by not reading them, I did not feel that they were needed to enjoy this story. I love historical fiction and it is books like this that reaffirm why I love them. Ms. Poole blends fictional characters and real people seamlessly in this novel. She has definitely done her research and found a way to breathe new life into it. I did find the book a bit slow in the beginning (perhaps because I did not read the first two books in the series), but around halfway it really picked up and I couldn¿t put it down until I was finished. Francesca is a sympathetic character who you find yourself caring about, even though her primary job is to poison enemies of the Pope. I definitely want to read the first two books in this series. It was well written and a pleasure to read.**This book was received for free through Goodreads First Reads. That in no way influenced my review.**
This is Rachel's cave. There is a purple curtain over the entrance, flanked by two golden torches. On the inside, it is awash in color, covered with colorful art projects, handwoven carpets, and paint stains. In one corner, there is a dresser and a personal bathroom. Rachel comes here when she isn't at her family's mansion.
I suppress a yelp as she grabs my injured arm, get to my feet, and follow her with downcast eyes.
Now that i have finished this book, i raise my rating from weak 2 stars to a mediocre 3. The last 15% of the book was acceptable.