A warm welcome to Deborah Swift with an excerpt from her latest novel, The Fortune Keeper (Third book in the Italian Renaissance Series). Published November 2022 / 412 pages
@swiftstory @maryanneyarde #BlogTour #CoffeePotBookClub #FortuneKeeper #HistoricalFiction
Count your nights by stars, not shadows ~ Italian Proverb
Winter in Renaissance Venice
Mia Caiozzi is determined to discover her destiny by studying the science of astronomy. But her stepmother Giulia forbids her to engage in this occupation, fearing it will lead her into danger. The ideas of Galileo are banned by the Inquisition, so Mia must study in secret.
Giulia’s real name is Giulia Tofana, renowned for her poison Aqua Tofana, and she is in hiding from the Duke de Verdi’s family who are intent on revenge for the death of their brother. Giulia insists Mia should live quietly out of public view. If not, it could threaten them all. But Mia doesn’t understand this, and rebels against Giulia, determined to go her own way.
When the two secret lives collide, it has far-reaching and fatal consequences that will change Mia’s life forever.
Set amongst opulent palazzos and shimmering canals, The Fortune Keeper is the third novel of adventure and romance based on the life and legend of Giulia Tofana, the famous poisoner.
‘Her characters are so real they linger in the mind long after the book is back on the shelf’ – Historical Novel Society
Here’s an excerpt:
Venice, December 1643
Brother Mario walked through the Mercerie towards the Piazza San Marco, a light snow dusting the shoulders and hood of his black habit. As he went, he frowned at the number of hawkers accosting passers-by with their Pulchinello masks and disguises ready for the Christmas festivities. Christendom here had turned into the work of the Devil.
Perhaps he should send for the Town Guard again. It had worked well on that bunch of heretics at the Palazzo d’Ambrosi. Venetians thought they had the power, with their riches, and their titles, but Mario knew only God had the power. And He had given it to the Inquisition.
Gingerly, Mario tottered up the slippery narrow passage between the grand frontages of two palazzi, his feet raw and red in his monk’s sandals. He was at war with the city of Venice. Partly because there was too much water and the damp got into his bones, and partly because there was no solid foundation to stand on, either physically or spiritually. It was a place that thought it was a law unto itself. There were plenty of religious men in Venice, but all seemed oblivious to the heathen state of their sinking city.
He pulled his black cowl further down over his forehead, the feeling of it giving him security – he kept his face well-hidden as he went about God’s business in this city of masks. His sandals slid as he climbed up the icy steps to the colonnade of San Marco, and he let out a yelp and almost fell. A man put out an arm to steady him.
Mario gave him a thin, ‘Bless you’.
His saviour was a nobleman in a mink-trimmed doublet, and a hat with a garnet brooch as big as a knuckle. Mario eyed the man sourly. Not even an attempt to obey the sumptuary laws! So much wealth on open display had the power to hurt him with a twisting pain in the pit of his gut.
Two decades a friar. That rich aristocrat should have been him – before his elder brother Domenico had been duped out of their money by his second wife, Agnese. After his death she’d siphoned it off to feed a convent in Rome. Bad enough that now, as the youngest son, he was condemned to a life of penury in the Church, without the added humiliation of the de Verdi fortune being dribbled away on a few miserable nuns. Still, he’d have his revenge now.
He limped onward. Winter was terrible for his chilblains and his feet throbbed.
Once in the Piazza he gave a wide berth to the dark-skinned Arab pressing jars of oil of Attar onto two painted courtesans. How did they stand it? They were far too scantily-clad for the cold. He cheered himself with the thought he could afford to buy the whole stall with the bag of coin that hung from his belt and clanked under his surplice.
He kept his head bowed against the too-sharp winter wind as he spied the clock tower where he was to meet with Signor Imbroglio, the assassin. He was nervous, but consoled himself by muttering, the words of Exodus 21; ‘Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot,’ as he played his rosary.
His brother, Luca, who had employed Imbroglio before, had sent a message by courier instructing Mario where to wait, and even now the bells were resounding, striking twelve. He propped himself against the stone wall under the archway by the clock and waited, anxiously scanning the hurrying crowds.
Domenico had been a brute, of course, but neither of them had forgiven Agnese, not just for the suddenness of his death, surely by an inheritance powder, but for the fact his entire fortune had all gone to her. So as soon as he’d seen her treacherous face, he’d written to Luca and told him she was in Venice. Luca was a lazy dog. His answer was to pay someone else to deal with it, and he, Mario, had fallen foul of it. Luca had instructed Mario to meet Luca’s man Imbroglio. The man who’d helped Luca in Naples with one of his troublesome tenants.
Needless to say, the tenant was no trouble now.
Grateful to enjoy the warmth of the wall, Brother Mario scanned the Piazza again. He didn’t know what Imbroglio looked like, but Imbroglio would no doubt know him, from his habit and the fact he was loitering there obviously waiting for someone. After the bells had died away a cough from behind him made him turn, startled. He hadn’t expected the man to come from behind.
He was looking up into a pair of dark glittering eyes under a stark white half-mask. The mouth visible beneath it curled upwards, though in a smile more of terse politeness than pleasure.
“Brother Mario.’ It was a statement. ‘Let us walk.’
Imbroglio set off in the direction of the newly completed arcade of the Procuratie Nuove on the south side of the Piazza, and Brother Mario hurried to keep up, following the man in the flapping faded cloak and the ancient sun-scorched tricorn hat that barely hid his collar-length hair. There was something familiar about the man, but he couldn’t place him. Of course many men wore masks in public. It was de rigeur in the times leading up to Christmas. But he couldn’t help wishing he’d seen his face. He wracked his brains, but nothing would come.
Once they were away from the merchants and shoppers Imbroglio paused for Brother Mario to catch up and walk beside him past the Campanile, and on down another darkened arcade away from the salt stink of the sea. Puddles of ice cracked beneath his feet.
‘So, you have a task for me, I hear,’ Imbroglio said, above the whistle of the wind. He was thin, the jawbones of his face jutting under the edge of his mask. It made Mario feel like a lumbering bear.
‘It’s delicate,’ Mario lowered his voice. ‘There’s a woman, Agnese de Verdi, calls herself di Napoli—’
‘Yes, yes.’ Imbroglio cut him off. ‘Your brother told me. I made some enquiries. She is the woman he says bought poison from Giulia Tofana. Though nothing could be proved. Agnese de Verdi is living above the lantern-maker in the Giudecca.’ His mouth grimaced in distaste. ‘Not a good area.’
Brother Mario baulked. How did the man know so much? ‘She’s far better provisioned than you might suppose from her lodgings,’ Mario said defensively. ‘Appearances are deceptive.’
‘And you have brought the sum I asked for?’ Imbroglio asked. ‘Half now, half when the deed is done.’
Mario drew out the pouch of coins and Imbroglio stretched out a bony hand for it.
‘It’s not so simple,’ Mario said, refusing to let the bag go and clutching it to his chest. ‘A woman of such wealth – I suspect she has made a will. She donates to the Convent of Maria Assumpta in Rome. That will, and any documents relating to the de Verdi family must be found, and destroyed.’
Imbroglio raised his chin. ‘So you want to hire a thief too, do you?’
Deborah Swift Deborah Swift is a USA TODAY bestselling author who is passionate about the past. Deborah used to be a costume designer for the BBC, before becoming a writer. Now she lives in an old English school house in a village full of 17th Century houses, near the glorious Lake District. She divides her time between writing and teaching. After taking a Masters Degree in Creative Writing, she enjoys mentoring aspiring novelists and has an award-winning historical fiction blog at her website www.deborahswift.com
Deborah loves to write about how extraordinary events in history have transformed the lives of ordinary people, and how the events of the past can live on in her books and still resonate today.
Recent books include The Poison Keeper, about the Renaissance poisoner Giulia Tofana, which was a winner of the Wishing Shelf Readers Award, and a Coffee Pot Book Club Gold Medal, and The Cipher Room set in WW2 and due for publication by Harper Collins next Spring.
Thanks for a fascinating excerpt, Deborah, and congratulations on producing another great read