In this irresistible historical novel set in the turbulent world of the Medicis, a young woman finds herself driven from pick-pocketing to espionage when she meets a mysterious man.
Giulia has been an orphan all her life. Raised in Florence's famous Ospedale degli Innocenti, her probing questions and insubordinate behavior made her an unwelcome presence, and at the age of fifteen, she was given an awful choice: become a nun, or be married off to a man she didn't love. She chose neither, and after refusing an elderly suitor, Giulia escaped onto the streets of Florence.
Now, after spending two years as a successful pickpocket, an old man catches her about to make off with his purse, and rather than having her carted off to prison he offers her a business proposition. The man claims to be a cabalist, a student of Jewish mysticism and ritual magic, who works for the most powerful families in Florence. But his identity is secrethe is known only as "the Magician of Florence"and he is in need of an assistant. She accepts the job and begins smuggling his talismans throughout the city.
But the talismans are not what they seem, and neither is the Magician. When Giulia's involvement with him ends with his murder, she's drawn into a treacherous web of espionage and deceit involving the forces of Rome, Naples, and a man known as Lorenzo the Magnificent. Accused of the Magician's murder, Giulia is pursued by the handsome policeman Niccolo, Lorenzo's henchmen, and foreign spies, and in order to survive, she must not only solve the mystery of the mystery of the Magician's murder, but that of her own past.
|Publisher:||St. Martin's Press|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.00(d)|
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The night I was caught with my hand in a gentleman's pocket — the night my life completely changed — it was burning cold, so bitter I'd never felt anything like it before or since. I would have stayed inside if we hadn't been out of food and coin, or if the moon, whose light I could never bear to waste, hadn't been full. So out we went, Tommaso and I, onto mostly quiet cobblestone streets in the pale blue light, the moon huge and glorious in a clear star-riddled sky, the air perfectly still and burning where it touched my exposed face. Because of the cold, I walked so fast I may as well have been running; Tommaso gasped and whined because his little legs couldn't keep up. I ignored him, of course, and increased my pace until he was too breathless to complain. I didn't make our usual stop at the Fico Tavern, where the marks were plentiful if not wealthy, but headed straight for the Buco Tavern instead. Our chances of cutting a single fat purse were better there; I wanted to be home and warm fast as a blink.
We were barreling down a side street with tall narrow houses crammed side by side, uninterrupted walls of stone and stucco on either side of us, when Tommaso yelled something that finally made me slow.
"Paolo!" he called out, in that piping baby voice of his. "Wake up! You can't sleep out here tonight!"
Impatient, I stopped and turned around to see Tommaso addressing someone's front door. He looked like a cherub then, Tommaso did, though he was emphatically not on the side of the angels. Six years old at most, blond as a German weaver, and thin, a sprinkling of freckles across his nose and cheeks, his head too large for his body, his pale faintly blue eyes too large for his face. He was wrapped in a hole-pocked horse blanket, because the Game made it necessary for him to look as pathetic as possible. Pathetic and adorable, able to melt any heart — save mine, of course. He had a talent for deceit and adored the Game; he'd have gone barefoot if I'd let him, just for the effect. I'd had to insist that he keep his woolen cap on that night, especially since I kept his hair cut close to his scalp, just like my own, the better to keep down the lice and fleas. Keeping mine short had an additional advantage, that of convincing dangerous souls that they were dealing with a streetwise lad, not a fragile young lady.
I came two strides closer and saw the seated figure, its spine pressed to the doorjamb in hopes of catching a waft of heat escaping from the hearth inside. I'd passed by it but paid it no mind; just another poor homeless wretch dying of starvation and cold on the streets of Florence. If I stopped for every one of them, I'd be the one starving. And on this night, especially, I'd die of cold.
But we knew this poor homeless wretch.
Everybody in Florence knew young Paolo and his cat Old Sot, a red tabby now curled in his owner's lap, both apparently sleeping — the latter's head dropped, chin on chest. Paolo and Old Sot were fixtures on the steps of the city cathedral. The former did good business there, as his missing lower leg, cheer, and drunken cat coaxed alms out of the stoniest hearts. Paolo could hobble on well enough on a wooden leg, but when begging he sat with his legs sprawled in front of him, the stump pointedly visible. Regular contributors always remembered to bring a bit of ale for Old Sot, and pour it in the little bowl his owner kept for him. One bowl for the coins, one for the cat. Old Sot would yowl for his treat, lap the ale up promptly, then shake his head to flick the foam from his whiskers.
My throat tightened. I had a fond spot in my heart for Old Sot and Paolo, but fond spots were a dangerous luxury for poor folk scrabbling to survive.
"Come away, Tommaso," I said in a low voice, hoping to spare him grief. "Paolo knows what he's doing." I knew where this was unhappily headed; no point in getting Tommaso upset. He had to keep his wits about him for the Game. I had to keep my wits about me for the Game.
Tommaso pretended not to hear. He stepped up and jostled the lad's shoulder. "Wake up," he said. "You'll freeze to death. So will Old Sot."
Paolo and his cat didn't stir.
Tommaso shook his shoulder harder.
I raised my voice. "Come away now, Tommaso!"
Too late. Tommaso gave a push, causing Paolo to fall on his side; the cat went with him, still curled, and hit the cobblestone beside his master, the two frozen stiff.
A moment of silence passed after Paolo's body fell; Tommaso was stunned, but I'd known the instant I'd seen them that Paolo and his cat were dead. I waited a respectful second, then patted the corpse down looking for coins and found none. Paolo's fall had revealed the bottom half of the wooden door, where someone had painted the words, Death to the pope, and a second wag had come along and painted beneath it, Lorenzo beds his mother.
Actually, I didn't quote the second phrase word for word, but you get the gist. Lorenzo de' Medici, the wealthiest, most powerful, and theoretically most revered citizen, was at war with the pope and Rome, which meant that Florence was at war with them, too. The enemy armies were fighting only a few days' ride from our city walls, which meant food and goods were becoming scarce and more people like Paolo were starving and freezing to death on the streets. Fewer people gave money or food to beggars, and the middle class had less money to be stolen. Impolite graffiti became a common sight in the city and lately was increasingly directed at Lorenzo for not putting a stop to the war, even though it was all Pope Sixtus's fault. There had been bread riots, and calls for Lorenzo to surrender himself, and rumors that he was thinking of abandoning the city to save his own neck. Don't get me wrong, I'd always been loyal to Lorenzo, but I was angry with both men for the war, which was hard on the wealthy and middle class and deadly to us poor. When food was scarce, guess who got it?
Work or starve. Why else would Paolo have risked being out in such weather?
Why else would we?
That was when I realized Paolo's wooden leg was gone; he couldn't have walked to safety if he'd tried. Some bastard had to have taken his money and the leg as well, so Paolo couldn't follow. I felt a surge of sadness and rage, but turned my face from the emotion; it wouldn't do Paolo, and especially not Tommaso, any good.
Tommaso began to wail.
I snatched his hand and pulled him along with me as I resumed my former pace.
"Stop sniveling," I hissed, as Tommaso gasped and sobbed beside me. "It won't make him any less dead. You don't see me crying, do you?"
I had to say it; he had to be taught. Otherwise, his heart would break so many times he'd give in to despair, a sure way to wind up like poor Paolo.
Two days before we'd found a skeletal mother and her infant frozen in an alleyway, and Tommaso had cried all night long. I'd had to hold him and soothe him to shut him up. But, as I tried to tell him, you can't let yourself be affected by these things, because they're going to happen all the time on the streets. I'd liked Paolo, who was cheerful and charming despite his circumstances, but I couldn't let myself care about what happened to him. All of us unwanted folks on the street were going to meet an early death. As I'd explained to Tommaso, any day might find me hauled off to prison or killed by a mark, competitor, or rapist, or stricken dead by plague. Caring for anyone, including me, was just stupid — because once he let himself do it, he'd cry until he went mad, and that would just make him easier prey.
I don't care, he'd sobbed, clinging to me. I love you anyway. Don't you love me back?
I didn't answer, which made him cry all the harder, but I held him until he finally gave up and went to sleep. I didn't want him thinking of me as his mother. I'd seen too many times what happens to mothers and their children on the streets.
When it comes to naming taverns, we Florentines take a practical approach. Take the two most notorious taverns in town, the Buco and the Fico, both of which generate far more capital from human flesh than from ale. They're named for the specific type of flesh they peddle.
The word buco can mean many things in the Florentine dialect, hole being chief among them and, in less polite company — particularly among the men frequenting this particular tavern — it refers to a highly puckered part of the anatomy. Fico, on the other hand, means fig, which is also the rudest way in our Tuscan tongue of referring to the sweetest part of a woman. Want a lad? Visit the Buco. Looking for women? Go to the Fico.
I never much liked working near the Buco, even though it caters to a wealthier clientele. Not because I had anything against gentlemen who prefer lads; local wisdom says all boys go through the submissive phase, which they supposedly grow out of by the time they're married. And no one thinks twice about older men, especially bachelors or widowers, visiting the Buco looking for a tender young morsel. Two grown men together, now that's taboo in this wicked town. Those are the sort that earn the attention of the Eight of the Night and get arrested for sodomy. But if one of the partners is a boy just past puberty, like Paolo, it's considered perfectly natural; the Church frowns on it, of course, but the police look the other way.
Me, I'm a thief and damned myself, so I don't judge other people's business. I never liked going to the Buco simply because the tight alleyway leading to it didn't offer a lot of options for escape; I preferred playing the Game where the odds of getting away were better. But it was cold and I wanted my one fat purse.
Tommaso had quit sniveling by the time we reached the alleyway outside the Buco, because I'd told him silly stories about Paolo and Old Sot in heaven — how Paolo had both his legs and was chasing after young wenches and catching them because he was so speedy, and how Old Sot had his very own keg and was lying on his back with his tongue to the tap, lapping up all the ale he could hold and becoming very inebriated in the process. I'd had Tommaso grinning, but he'd stopped and said sadly, "But you don't believe in heaven."
What I really believed was that heaven wasn't for people like Tommaso and me, because God all too obviously didn't care about us. It was just easier to say I didn't believe than to explain that I felt God especially had it in for me in particular. Why else had my life turned out so rotten? God and heaven were for good people, kind people, people who could afford to care. My problem was I had cared too much, and I'd have slit my own throat early on if it hadn't been for Tommaso; I had to learn to guard my heart, and the least I could do was teach Tommaso to guard his, so that it would never break.
I shrugged. "Maybe I'm wrong," I said, and that was enough to make him thoughtful instead of weepy.
Oddly enough, by the time we took our places on opposite sides of the alleyway near the tavern door, I'd grown nervous, as if I'd known something was about to go wrong. I was clutching the unsheathed razor hidden in my cloak pocket so hard that my gloved hand ached. I focused on creating my best come-hither male prostitute expression while ignoring Tommaso. It was a Saturday and, despite the weather, the Buco was fairly busy; every minute or so, yellow light spilled out into the alley when the door opened or closed as sober men went walking in and pairs of drunken men came stumbling out.
As I stood on the side of the alleyway opposite Tommaso, trying not to watch the torchlight glint off the trickle of clear snot running from his little nose, someone walked up to share the alleyway with us. A man in his early twenties, shoddily dressed and shivering. And handsome, though I usually never allowed myself to notice such things. I would have called him pretty, given his bow-shaped upper lip and strikingly pale eyes set in a nest of effeminately long dark lashes. I don't like pretty men — sometimes I have to pull myself short and remind myself that I can't afford to like men, period — but I judged this one undeniably attractive, despite his unfashionably long, straight copper hair and bangs covering his eyebrows.
He may have been good-looking enough to get a lot of business, but he was ten years too old to still be peddling his wares outside the Buco. Young male prostitutes always grow into men and have to find more honest employment, which is why they're on the lookout for wealthy patrons to pay for their education. This handsome prowler was obviously one of the unlucky ones, but he should've had the good sense to realize he'd outgrown the passive sexual role and needed to get into some other line of work.
He barely gave Tommaso a glance, but then he caught sight of me standing near the door and gave me a fleeting look of interest, which he instantly corrected with a frown. No point in flirting with one of his younger peers. I scowled back. I'd never let a man catch me looking at him starry-eyed. I held my ground, forcing him to stand farther from the tavern door than he probably wanted; I didn't like that he was close enough to interfere with the Game if things went badly.
The heavy tavern door swung open again, letting out the warmth, the light, and the roars of men wagering on dice or on the doomed birds in the cockpit. They tie spurs and sometimes razors to the cocks' feet, and last week, one of the birds here turned on its owner and slashed his throat for putting it in the ring too many times. The man fell dead on the spot. They dragged the body away and went to get the cock, to kill it. But some sly competitor had already stolen the bird.
A couple emerged from the tavern. Typical patrons, one a well-dressed man in his thirties, his red felt toque marking a successful merchant, and the other a lad of perhaps seventeen — my age, in a thin gray cloak shiny with wear. Both were drunk and singing a carnival song loaded with double-entendres; the older, shorter man's head was lolling on the shoulder of the lad's, their arms wrapped around each other's waists. They didn't notice me or the handsome competitor, or Tommaso, who by then had managed to work up some more tears — dishonest ones now, for the patrons — that were trickling down his dirty cheeks.
Our handsome prostitute watched the couple pass with a sigh. I barely noticed; I was too busy eyeing the solitary figure headed through the alleyway toward us, in the direction of the tavern.
Leaning heavily on his cane, the man shuffled slowly into the arc of light cast by the torches. A very old man, judging from the stooped shoulders beneath his black cloak and the straggly white hair hanging over his ears. He wore a traditionally Florentine red felt toque, the kind that fits tightly over the ears and temples, but flares out a bit at the crown, like bread dough rising in a round pan. His face was lean and narrow with a sharp chin and a long, thin crooked nose, big enough but nothing like those gigantic twisted monsters sported by the cream of Florentine society, the Tornabuoni and Medici. But what set him apart most was the narrow swath of fine black silk tied around his head, covering one eye. I'm good at guessing professions and I took him for a banker.
The drunken couple emerging from the tavern staggered past the old man, jostling him so that he wobbled and had to struggle to regain his balance. He scowled in disapproval at the handsome prostitute's solicitous smile.
As the old man drew nearer to me, the handle of his cane glinted in the torchlight. Pure gold: I spot it the way a soaring falcon spots a hare in the forest below. His cloak was of the finest quality heavy wool, simply but exquisitely tailored. And he was alone, no doubt with a purse full of coins intended for the pleasures of the Buco.
A juicy mark — rich, feeble, and half blind, hallelujah — had just dropped into our laps like manna from the sky. My one fat purse. It was too sweet, too easy.
So I worried. The cane was a potential weapon, and the handsome prostitute was still nearby. Granted, the old man needed the cane for balance, and I was sure the younger man would run at the sight of my razor. If we were lucky, this would be our first and only Game of the evening.
I let go a discreet cough, one just loud enough for Tommaso to hear. When he glanced at me, I inclined my head slightly toward the old man and drew my left forefinger beneath my nose, as if wiping it. It was the signal.
The Game had begun.
Excerpted from "The Orphan of Florence"
Copyright © 2017 Jeanne Kalogridis.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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