The Medici Conspiracy

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The Brightness of Being (Fantasy, Book Award 2023)
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In Italy, 1477, Andrea, a young soldier discovers a plot to kill the leaders of Florence, Lorenzo and Giuliano de' Medici. The plot involves Andrea's employer, the Duke of Urbino. But Giuliano is Andrea's close friend. Can Andrea save Lorenzo and Giuliano with the help of his friends and family?
First 10 Pages


On an early July evening in 1477, Andrea walked his chestnut mare into Florence through the south-eastern Porta San Niccolò. He guided her through the streets, white and brown houses rising on either side of him, and crossed the river on the long Ponte al Rubaconte. Beneath him, mud blurred and browned the shifting waters of the Arno. Overhead, the sky was crystal blue.

The last of his journey took him west beside the river. Rows of houses lined the bank along with the odd warehouse and a great tentering workshop run by the wool guild. On his left he passed a second bridge spanning the river—the Ponte Vecchio, lined with butcher shops with their raw, red smell. Then he turned right head up the street of his stepfather’s house.

The palace of Andrea’s stepfather stood in Via de’ Tornabuoni, one of the prime locations where the stately house of a merchant-patrician should stand. It was four stories of rusticated stone standing square on to the road with a small piazza in front. Andrea ignored the main archway through to the courtyard, walking his horse up the side alley to the stable. There he dismounted and gave the animal to the groom. But he did not go into the house. He had a job to do first. He slipped back up the alley and out into the street to head east.

In ten minutes, he arrived at the Pazzi family palace in Via del Proconsolo. Like most palaces in Florence, this one had four wings of several floors surrounding a central courtyard. On the outside it looked prettier than most. Rusticated stone covered the lower floor, but above was smooth, creamy stucco setting in clear relief the carved surrounds of double-arched windows.

Passing through the portal, Andrea found more stone and stucco in the courtyard and a dainty, colonnaded loggia. Here a servant met him, heard his business and conducted him inside and up to Jacopo de’ Pazzi’s study.

The room was small. A single window overlooked the courtyard, open to the humid summer air and the orange light of sunset. Andrea had only a minute to look around at the shelves of books, papers and ornaments.

Jacopo de’ Pazzi, head of his family, entered briskly, closed the door and looked Andrea over. “My servant says you’ve come from the Duke of Urbino. But I know you, don’t I?” He was thickset and greying, his face expressing permanent dissatisfaction.

“My name is Andrea de’ Grigi, Messer Jacopo. I grew up in Florence with my mother and stepfather.”

“Ah—yes. Your stepfather is Zanobi Macinghi, is he not?”

“Yes, Messer Jacopo.”

“And now you work for the Duke of Urbino?”

“As a soldier and bodyguard.” Andrea had joined the Duke the previous year. Hailed as the finest mercenary captain for probably a century, the Duke had founded a career, a fortune, a palace and even his dukedom on the strength of his military skills. Andrea could learn much from such a leader. And he intended to.

Jacopo said, “And as a trusted courier?”

Andrea smiled. “I hope he trusts me. He gave me the letter for you because I was coming to Florence in any case to visit my family.” He drew the letter from his purse and passed it over.

Jacopo glanced at it, then lowered it and lifted his eyes. “Thank you. Now you may go.”

Damn. Andrea had hoped to see Jacopo read this letter, and perhaps even hear if there was a reply. For he knew what was in the letter. He had read it, even though he shouldn’t have. And the content bothered him because it concerned his friend Giuliano de’ Medici. So he wanted to know two things. Why was this letter coming to Jacopo de’ Pazzi, and what would his reaction be?

He couldn’t risk arguing with Messer Jacopo. He took a polite leave and walked from the room before Jacopo thought to have a servant guide him. He ran down the stairs. But instead of heading out of the house he stopped in the courtyard.

A glance around in the twilight showed him the space empty of people. Immediately, he made a series of swift moves. He stood on the rim of a large pot holding an orange tree and jumped. His hands caught the carving at the top of one of the columns and he heaved and shinnied. His knees gripped and his hands clawed upwards over the carving of the arch, the decorative rondel, the stone courses running horizontally. His feet in their turn found the carvings and he clambered up onto the ledge above the loggia.

It was a most precarious position. Foolhardy really. If he didn’t fall and break his neck, anyone coming into the courtyard with a lantern would likely see him. Andrea chuckled. At least he was slim. He clung, carefully balanced, his scraped hands gripping the surround of the window to Jacopo’s study, and peeked around.

He was in immense luck. Old Jacopo was still reading his letter. When he finished, he gave a telling sign—an ugly grin. Then he sent for his secretary and began to dictate a letter of his own. Andrea’s fingers ached, his neck beginning to cramp, but he stayed where he was and listened.

“To my nephew, Francesco, in Rome,” Jacopo dictated. “The day you have longed for is here. I hold in my hand a letter from the Duke of Urbino, telling me the King of Naples feels Lorenzo de’ Medici has grown too powerful in Florence and must be taught a lesson. You must tell me what you hear in Rome. To attempt any harm to the Medici here would carry much danger. The benefits to our family could be tremendous, with the backing of the King of Naples. But I would want to be very sure of success before committing to any such course.”

Jacopo waited until the secretary finished scribbling. “That’s all. Put it in cipher, would you? And get it off to Rome.”

The secretary’s eyes were round with wonder at what he had written down but he retreated without a word. Jacopo stood still, thinking. Then he turned to the window and Andrea pulled back hurriedly. The window rattled as it closed under Jacopo’s hand, and Andrea was left high and dry on his ledge, his nerves pattering as much from the information as from his physical position.

Now he realized, it was well nigh impossible to climb down the way he had come up. He frowned, then wiped the frown away with a mental shrug. He certainly couldn’t stay up here. He gripped the ledge with his hands and let his body drop. His fingers screamed at him. Then he let go and fell. It was further than he liked but he landed loosely and rolled, stifling any grunts. In the same movement he rose to his feet and blended behind a column, waiting to see if anyone had heard. No one came. So torn, scuffed and bruised, his thoughts teeming at the implications of all he had seen and heard, Andrea walked swiftly to the main entry and away.

He returned late to his stepfather’s house and went straight to the room they still kept for him in this great house. There he checked the damage.

Even at the best of times, he took little care with his dress unless he was working. He chose plain, rather rough garments and preferred to wear them haphazardly. Now he looked significantly worse. A torn sleeve, holed hose and a good deal of dirt. What he had done was the sort of recklessness that made his stepfather sigh. Well. He didn’t care, given what he had heard.

What mattered now was, he was late. His mother had expected him this evening for the supper he had well and truly missed. He changed quickly and headed straight for the suite she shared with Zanobi.

They were in the antechamber off the main bedroom—Mona Betta, Zanobi and even his sister Anna. Recently married, Anna no longer lived in Zanobi’s house. But this evening she had visited.

Before Andrea could say anything, Mona Betta eyed him over her sewing. “More than an hour we’ve been waiting, since we heard from the groom you’d arrived. What do young men do with time?”

“Do you really want me to tell you?” He answered her frown with a smile. “I had a small errand to run for the Duke. It took longer than I expected …” He finished vaguely, rubbing his nose.

“Have you eaten?”

He shook his head and she sighed, but set aside her sewing and stood. Still smiling, he walked to her. “Don’t worry about it. I’ll find something later. Let’s talk first so you can all go to bed.”

To that, she smiled a little and held out her arms. They embraced.

He went to where Zanobi sat on one of the chests surrounding the bed and they clasped hands. Then he took a place next to Anna on the settle. Between them, Anna put down the book she had been reading.

Sitting again, Mona Betta took a few moments to rummage in the tiny coffer on the table beside her. It seemed to be full of ribbons, laces and thread, but she soon found a paper in amongst the rest and brought it out. When she spoke again, she did it in French.

She had three languages. Her first was the English of Scotland where she had been born. Her second was the French of Paris, where she had spent a number of years, where Andrea and Anna had been born, and where she had met Zanobi and married him. Her third was the Tuscan of Florence and Zanobi’s native tongue.

Now she said, “We will speak French so if the servants overhear they will not understand. I asked you to come because I received a letter two weeks ago from your father in England.”

Andrea opened his mouth.

Mona Betta continued before he could voice a word. She glanced at the paper she held. “He states he is coming to Florence. The King is sending him here on a diplomatic mission to do with wool.”

Into the first pause she left, Andrea said, “He can’t.”

They all looked at him.

“Well, he can’t, can he. You’ve always said we look like him. Does he propose to wear a mask the entire time he’s here? Or simply to come, do what he wants, then leave and let you deal with the consequences. Like last time.”

“Andrea,” Zanobi warned.

Andrea closed his mouth but kept his eyes on his mother.

Anna reached and dropped her hand over his on his thigh. “Mother? Andrea has a point. Does … Lord Grey not realise?”

Mona Betta looked at them in turn, levelly. She showed neither discomfort nor embarrassment. She had lived with this for two decades. “Of course he realises. He has to come. His father died last winter and he is no longer Lord Grey but the Earl of Stanford. His King has told him to come, so he must. But he has considered the difficulties it will pose for us.” She paused, but it seemed only to brush a crease from her gown. “He and I met twenty years ago in France, as you know. A cousin of his was there also but died that winter. So Edward proposes, since it is generally believed I was a widow when I married Zanobi, my previous husband should be named as Edward’s long-deceased cousin.”

Anna watched Andrea, her hand still over his. Andrea couldn’t tell what she thought.

He had always hated his looks. Ever since Mona Betta had told them they resembled this man. The Englishman who had met her in France, supposedly loved her, engaged himself to her and then abandoned her when she was newly with child. Who had ended by leaving nothing of himself with her save the appearance of the boy and girl she had gone on to bear.

Andrea said, “He wants us to lie. More.”

Mona Betta shook her head. “He wants to help preserve my reputation and your positions.”

“In the way that best preserves his? What a surprise.”

Anna’s hand squeezed his, but she chuckled. Doubting his ears, Andrea looked at her. She said, “It is a lie. You’re right. But you must see, it is the best possible lie in the circumstances.”

Andrea’s mouth felt sour. “I see it. I don’t like it.”

“You told me you lie sometimes,” Anna said reasonably, “and keep secrets in the cause of your work. I don’t think our mother means less to you?”

“Of course not.”

“Well then.” She was annoyingly calm. Now her light eyes were serious also. “Besides, I wish to meet him.”

“Do you? Well, it seems you will have your wish. But I trust the Duke of Urbino’s business will keep me from Florence for some time. Excuse me.” Andrea stood and walked out of the room, without so much as a good night, before they could argue any more.

He wasn’t hungry now. He went directly to his own room and shut the door. There he stood motionless, staring at himself in the mirror, with distaste.


On the south eastern outskirts of the city, down on the river just east of the San Niccolò weir, the north bank of the Arno curved prettily, like a Turkish bow. The water was deeper here than over the weir and would cover a man’s head. Part-way out was a small island, a sandbank the shape and colour of an almond, where fishermen might pause with their punts or swimmers in their exercise. It was a spot popular for swimming with Florentine youths and to many, a salubrious retreat from all the hustle, noise and smells of the city.

This afternoon, Wednesday the ninth of July, Giuliano de’ Medici had planned a picnic here in honour of Andrea’s visit home. Giuliano was late. Andrea sat alone on the slope of the bank, pitching stones into the water.

The earth was nut brown, the grass olive green and the water ice blue. Beyond the weir, the Ponte al Rubaconte spanned the river, its high arches with their reflections in the waters below making round, blue eyes to spy on the sport of the men. At either end of the bridge, the walls and roofs of the city shimmered in the sunlight, white, red and tan. Rising above the rest were the cathedral with its great dome, the bell-tower and the towers of the Abbey, the government palace and the gates in the city walls.

A sound of hooves, and servants in Medici livery arrived with laden mules. Andrea stayed where he was and let them work around him—blankets, cushions, baskets of foodstuffs and two punts all made ready.

Then more hooves, and Andrea looked up. Giuliano with his companions. Their horses, keen for the water, made their way down the bank without needing to be told.

Giuliano dismounted. Black-haired, brown-eyed, olive-skinned and blessed with natural grace despite his considerable height, Giuliano had the sort of physical presence that could clear spaces about him, the better for people to look at him. Now he stood over Andrea, hands on hips, feet a little apart, smiling. “We have to stop meeting this way. You arrive, you fly about town for two days, we meet for all of two hours and you fly away again.”

Andrea got to his feet. He smiled. “This is my third day. I’m heading back to Gubbio tomorrow—the Duke’s in residence there. You’re the one who’s been hard to pin down.”

Giuliano looked rueful. “All right. True this time. My brother’s been away in Pisa. It left me with more work.” He waved his friends forward to be greeted: Luigi Ridolfi, a nonchalant young gentleman, Marco Vespucci from a family of wealthy merchants, and the brothers Cante and Domenico Cavalcanti, of merchant stock but younger even than Andrea—Domenico was only fifteen.

Luigi spoke cheerfully. “You can both stop whining. We’re here now and it’s hot. Let’s swim.”

Stripped down, they swam boisterously before they ate. They launched the punts, dived from them and raced between them. They rounded the island, both punting and racing in the water, and built a pyramid of flesh, standing on one other’s shoulders, arms linked. They rode the horses bareback into the water and took them around the island as well. Cante and Domenico even took their punt sliding and splashing over the weir and had to get out and haul it back up again.

On the path above the bank, men passing by watched with envy, children pointed and laughed and a few women hurried on, carrying baskets and jars on their heads, eyes averted.

Unsurprisingly, Giuliano won the races easily. He was a natural sportsman. The Cavalcanti boys, not particularly athletic, came last without minding in the least. Luigi and Marco were consistently solid. Ordinarily, Andrea would have enjoyed nipping at Giuliano’s heels, but today he felt less than inspired.

His performance caught Marco’s attention. In a lull in the activity, as they lounged on the island under the broad sky, Marco said, “You’re lazy today, Andrea. What’s the matter? Someone worn you out?”

Lying on his stomach, his chin on his clasped hands, Andrea shook his head. “Distracted, I suppose. Thinking about work.”

Marco laughed. “Well, that’s nice. Hello—you’re here with us. Thought you’d at least found a girl to ponder over. Far more interesting.”

“My work is interesting enough, thank you.”

“Actually—” Giuliano cut himself off.

Andrea rolled onto an elbow. “Well?”

“Never mind.”

This feeble response drew all their eyes. Andrea said, “Come on. You have a smile on your face like you’ve just tasted meat after Lent. You’ll have to tell us.”

Giuliano looked down at the fingers of one hand, digging with gentle irritation into the sand. “All right. It’s just … I have a girl now.”

Five mouths fell open and Andrea’s was one. He was probably the only one who felt pain as well as shock, but he stifled that hard after the first flash. There was no point pining for someone who could never love you back. Friendship was good. He leaned over to clasp Giuliano’s forearm gently. “Giulio,” he murmured, “that’s marvellous.”

The others all nodded slowly.

Giuliano asserted himself. “Well, what are you all so surprised about? It’s not like I couldn’t, ever.”

Cante blurted, “But what about Simonetta?”

Every head turned, including Andrea’s. Giuliano gasped. And Marco hissed, “Shut your mouth!”


“Or I can do it for you,” Marco insisted.

Andrea silenced them. Softly, watching the waters of the river lap by, he opened his mouth and began to sing, halting the fight before it began.

The song he chose was a sonnet, penned the year before by Giuliano’s brother Lorenzo and set to music for him by a friend, the director of music at the cathedral. The piece was well known and every man sitting around Andrea knew to whom it referred. Simonetta Vespucci, beloved wife of Marco. Loved indeed from afar by half the men of Florence. Yet also by the women. She was beautiful, but as much in her soul as in her face or figure.

It was no secret throughout the city that she was loved also—and from not quite so far away—by Giuliano de’ Medici, Marco’s friend. Right up until April the previous year when she had died from a consumption that had wasted all her body, but not her beauty or her spirit.

Andrea was trained for war, so he was a curiosity in Florence, a city that usually dealt with such problems using mercenaries. His hair was dark brown but his skin was very fair and his eyes were a light blue-green—distinctively un-Florentine and unlike his stepfather and half-siblings. Regardless, he had found when he opened his mouth to sing, none of it mattered. No one cared what he looked like, who he was or where he came from. He could have murdered his mother and women still would have wept at any song he sang of unrequited love.

Most of the young men watched Andrea singing. Andrea saw, Giuliano and Marco watched each other peaceably.

At the song’s end there was silence. Then Andrea clapped his hands together. “We need some wine. I’ll bring it back in a punt. Cante, come and help me.” He grabbed Cante by the arm and took him to the water’s edge.

Later still, after they had all returned to the bank and eaten, drunk, rested and drunk some more, the others went out in the punts, their shirts loosely on their backs again.

Giuliano sat beside Andrea where he reclined on a blanket. With the greater privacy, Andrea asked casually, “So who is your girl? When did you meet her?”

Giuliano glanced at him but answered readily enough. “Her name is Fioretta. I met her in May. A friend introduced us—he knows her father. And he knows—” There he stopped.

Andrea waited. “Giulio?”

Giuliano’s gaze concentrated beneath his frown. “About Simonetta. You know … I couldn’t help that. But I never touched her.”

“I know.” Andrea’s stomach had tightened. He breathed to relax it.

“Marco was always tolerant. And he and his father are Medici partisans. So after she died, they gave me her portrait and a few of her dresses.”

Andrea squinted one eye at the river. “And that’s what your friend knows?”

“That and …”

Andrea faced him. “Giulio—spit it out or give it up.”

It came out in a blurt. “He knows I was mad over her death. I used to take those dresses to bed, for God’s sake. He met Fioretta and thought she looked—she does look—she looks so much like Simonetta it’s uncanny. And that’s why he introduced us.”

Moments passed. Andrea blinked. “To bed?”

Giuliano eyed him heatedly.

“Christ Almighty,” Andrea said. Giuliano’s mouth opened. “No, wait. Let me get this straight. Someone introduced some girl to you on the off-chance you would take to her because she looks like … like your dead first love?”

Under his olive skin, Giuliano flushed bright red. He nodded.

“God save us.”

“But I did, Andrea. I’m sorry, but I did take to her. I—I love her.”

Andrea’s stomach lurched. He swallowed. “Why say sorry?”

“I … erm …” They stared at each other, Giuliano still red.

Andrea pulled his gaze away to the river. “Forget it. You clearly ended … whatever you felt for me over a year ago when Simonetta died. Don’t worry. Enjoy this. Enjoy her. You deserve that.”

Giuliano cleared his throat. “Thanks,” he muttered.

A reasonably comfortable silence followed. Then Andrea sat up. “Can you tell me why Lorenzo was in Pisa for so long?”

The air seemed to lighten with the change of subject. Giuliano took a good-sized breath. “You really have been thinking about work? Your brain never stops, does it. All right. You know an uncle of the young Duke of Milan is exiled in Pisa after that failed coup of his, and some of his supporters have joined him there?”

“Mm.” This much was common knowledge. Amid all the shifting alliances of all the states in the Italian peninsula, Florence was currently in a fragile three-part league with Milan and Venice, that was fostered only two years before by Florence’s unofficial leader, Giuliano’s brother Lorenzo. But six months ago, the Duke of Milan had been assassinated, and his heir, the new Duke, was only eight years old. The little Duke’s mother, the Regent, was widely reputed to be a fool but her chief counsellor and Chancellor was sensible and wise. He needed to be, with the little Duke’s uncles constantly scheming to seize power. Milan was supposed to be Florence’s firmest ally. But only if she could staunch her own blood loss.

“And,” Giuliano went on, “did you know the King of Naples’s eldest son passed through Pisa last month on his way to Spain?”

Andrea nodded.

Giuliano said, “Lauro met with them all.”


A shout came from one of the punts over the water and they looked towards it. Domenico was standing, his arms spread wide, facing outwards like the mock prow of a great galley. Behind him, his brother Cante moved roughly, the punt rocked and Domenico staggered before resuming his pose. Cante’s laughter floated. The other punt, holding Luigi and Marco, was some distance away up the river.

“Because,” Giuliano said, “Lauro has the gift of the gab and the last thing we need is more trouble in Milan, and whoever is scheming to rule there getting too friendly with the heir to Naples.”

“Ah.” Andrea felt a flicker of amusement. “What you mean is, Lorenzo has been working to calm the rumblings of another attempted coup in Milan, and to keep anyone who might be plotting one away from any friendship with Naples.”


“Because that could be an alliance of catastrophic proportions, especially for Milan’s beleaguered Chancellor.”


“But my master the Duke of Urbino believes—as he has told Milan—Lorenzo is in Pisa to help them all plot against Milan’s Chancellor.”

Astounded, Giuliano sat up. “Really?” He stared, but Andrea watched their friends over the water. Cante laughed loudly as he rocked his punt more violently. Domenico dropped his arms and turned to swear at him.

“Well,” Andrea said, “so I heard.”

“You heard?”

“Yes.” Andrea added nothing, but he brought his gaze steadily to Giuliano. For once, he didn’t try to conceal any trouble he felt.

“Holy Mary,” Giuliano murmured. “Andrea, I shall have to tell this to Lauro.”

“I know. He will need to be careful. You … you both will. Just don’t tell him where it came from.”

They were silent. Then Giuliano said, “For the last few minutes, we have been talking about the excessive heat and the consequent aweful size of the mosquitoes this summer. But … thank you.”

Andrea gave him a genuine smile. “There’s nothing¾” He broke off as Domenico fell into the water.

It was not sudden, or graceful. Cante had begun rocking the punt like a cradle and Domenico had kept to his feet with difficulty and sworn at him. At that, Cante’s grin had faded. He stopped rocking, hauled his shirt off over his head and switched it at his brother. It tangled around Domenico’s ankles like the gyves of a galley slave. Domenico swore again as he fell. There was a crack as some part of him hit the edge of the punt and he sploshed over the side into the water. Cante laughed again.

The problem was when Domenico did not come to the surface.

Andrea ran, Giuliano just behind him.

Cante was gazing in slow realization over the side of his punt when they entered the water and struck out. Twenty or so strong strokes and Andrea reached the side of the punt. He dived immediately.

Giuliano was beside the punt when Andrea came up. Cante was in the water as well, his gaze now terrified. Andrea scanned the surface of the river, drew breath and went down again as Giuliano did the same.

As fortune would have it, this time he found Domenico’s wafting hair below the surface, and he rose gripping the boy under the arm. Treading water, he heaved him into the punt with Giuliano’s help. They pulled themselves in after and tipped Domenico up, thumping him on the back. Domenico spluttered, coughed and rid himself of a small quantity of river water before dragging in a harsh breath.

Cante hauled himself over the side and scrambled to his brother, holding him, full of apologies. Domenico stared at him blankly before breaking into a wet and wan grin.

Giuliano turned his back and looked at Andrea, then grabbed him into a relieved hug.

Under his touch, Andrea’s muscles hardened with surprise, before he relaxed into the embrace. His head was on Giuliano’s shoulder when Cante’s voice broke in, thanking them both breathlessly.

Andrea pulled away, without meeting Giuliano's eyes.

He knelt to examine Domenico’s cranium and gave Cante a press on both shoulders and some soothing words. Then he looked around at them all with a grin. “This punt’s really too small for four. I’ll race you back.” He waved his hand and, before any of them could even pick up the punt pole, he slipped away over the side and swam for the shore.