The Medici Conspiracy

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Logline or Premise
In Italy, 1477, Andrea de' Grigi, a mercenary soldier, must fight to save his friends, the rulers of Florence, from an assassination plot involving several powerful Italian states. At the same time he must deal with the arrival in Florence of his English birth father whom he has never met.
First 10 Pages

Chapter One

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.

Chapter Two

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.