THE LILY AND THE FALCON
  THE LILY AND THE FALCON

An excerpt from
The Lily and the Falcon

Chapter One
Florence, Italy

No one escaped the dankness, not even the rats scurrying up and down the dim, flame-lit steps. The delicate clicking of the small fleeing creatures came only second to the heavy breathing mingling anxiously from the dark figures pressed against the rough ashlar stone wall.

Bianca degli Albizzi clutched her cloak tightly at her throat. She felt the wild pulse there relaying her fears. Insanity stuck in her mind--her insanity for going along with her political, headstrong brothers, Piero and Luca. She had warned them against such foolishness. To penetrate the Palazzo della Signoria in the covert darkness of night was suicide. Should they be caught...she shuddered. She was too young to burn alive in the town's square. But they were family, of the same blood. No matter what, no matter how misguided they were, she had to remain loyal.

"Piero!" she called in a hushed voice to her older brother. "It is not too late to turn back."

Piero turned a scathing look on her, his teeth clenched in warning.

Bianca appealed to Luca, but he, too, gave her a condemning glare, as did Marco and Enrico, Piero's less than honorable friends.

"Piero, the lines do not lie," Bianca tried again. Her brother made a hissing sound, turning viperously on her as if to strike.

"Do not burden me with your witchcraft."

"Reading the palm is not--"

"Silenzio!" Piero's brown eyes muddied with contempt. "You are no better than your mother."

"Your mother, too," Bianca shot back, hating him a little more each time he refused to acknowledge they were born of the same mother. In his mind, Piero's mother was a saint whose only flaw was indulging in deciphering hand lines. "You're simply frightened by what you do not understand. I am a student of science."

"You're a witch," he argued. "You will be scorned as was your mother."

"Quit this feeble battle," Luca ordered. "Have you forgotten the reason we are here, Piero?"

"Bah! Get this whiny female out of my sight."

"I beg to differ, my brother. I do not whine. I merely have a mind of my own," Bianca corrected. Her brother grumbled, then turned his attention to the top of the stairs that lead to the alberghettino.

"Have you the vial, Luca?" Piero asked.

"In my pouch."

"Good," Piero said; then he gave Bianca a threatening look. "One more word and I will strangle you."

* * *

Cosimo de' Medici sighed deeply. With his back propped against the cool stone wall, he sat on a pallet in his small cell high in the soaring tower of the Palazzo della Signoria. His fate did not worry him. No, his fate would be his to determine. More important matters pressed his thoughts. Looking down his broad, hooked nose to the firelight twisting grotesque images on the floor, he knew what must be done. He had summoned his stalwart cousin for that purpose.

Cosimo lifted his head. He stared for several moments into the concerned blue eyes of Cristiano de' Medici. The younger man was like a son, and Cosimo trusted him immensely, even with his life, if it came to that. Although he had been denied all visitors, human nature was not beyond accepting bribery. The promise of a generously filled purse with gold florin to the gaoler had bought him Cristiano's presence. Even so, on this particular night, Cosimo knew he must be cautious.

"I will not be released."

Cristiano held his silence.

"I am not guilty."

"No." Cristiano leaned back, fitting his broad frame to the column of bars.

"My friends in Venice had begged me not to return. They warned me that Rinaldo degli Albizzi had set a trap. I should have listened. When we received word in Venice that Bernardo Guadagni had been appointed to the committee of Gonfalonier, I should have been wary. Guadagni was in arrears in his taxes. Rinaldo paid his debt. That devious Albizzi has begun to turn Florence 's committees against me. Now I sit and wait."

Cosimo rested his head back and narrowed his eyes. Lowering his voice, he continued, bitterness in his words. "Whatever Rinaldo has prepared, he will not destroy me. Before my arrest, I wrote a list--names, services, all that will insure my businesses and holdings remain. Contessina will direct you to this list. No one else knows of it but you, me and my wife."

Cristiano nodded.

"There are people who want me financially ruined. Others who want me dead." Cosimo leaned forward and dropped to a whisper. "While I am incarcerated in this alberghettino, you must bring my food to me."

"You fear poison?" Cristiano didn't shield his shock.

Cosimo nodded ever so slightly.

"As you wish, Messer."

Sighing again, Cosimo sat back once more and displayed a brief smile, knowing that little action would niggle at his cousin. "Should I be sentenced to death or banished, you know what you must do."

"Sì, Messer Cosimo."

"Good." Again the fleeting smile. He now intrigued Cristiano, had the younger man's full attention. "The Medici name must survive. It must thrive for centuries to come. Only the strong will live on, will rule."

"With respect, Messer, I have yet to find a wife," Cristiano boldly ventured. That subject had always been open for discussion with the determined elder of the Medici family.

"Cristiano," Cosimo chuckled, "why the reluctance to take a wife? In less than four months you will mark your thirtieth year. Marriage doesn't mean the end of your life." His expression turned darkly serious. "Families must be united. Should a Medici and an Albizzi be joined, harmony will flourish."

"For the Medici, perhaps."

"Perhaps," Cosimo agreed. "Know you I have seen many a fine Albizzi woman?"

"Don't think to handpick me a wife," Cristiano warned good-naturedly.

"I leave it your choice. Go now. Sleep this night, for tomorrow will be filled with my bidding as well as your own business affairs."

Cristiano leaned toward the powerful Medici head, giving Cosimo the customary kiss on each cheek. "Niccolo will bring your food with the first light. Sleep well, cousin."

Leaving the alberghettino, a sudden dread overtook Cristiano. What madness was this, suffering the chilling intuitions of a woman? He shook off the ominous feeling and started for the steps, paying little attention to the flickering candle-lights stretching the length of the wall.

Hushed voices carried up the stairwell. In a heartbeat, Cristiano halted. Small fingers danced up his spine, tingling his flesh with fearful anticipation. Finally, to his relief, the dark figures shadowed the walls like hug, elongated ghouls. Taking shallow breaths, Cristiano waited and listened.

"Piero," Bianca hailed, but her brother ignored her. She brought up the rear, holding onto her old cloak firmly. Beneath it, a loaf of bread laced with the same poison that was in the vial suddenly became a heavy burden.

Bianca lifted her gaze to the top of the steep stairwell just as her brothers reached the floor of the alberghettino. When Marco and Enrico joined them, they paused and looked back at her. Piero jerked his head, motioning her to hurry up. But her feet seemed wont to lag, her soft shoes invisibly filled with sludge from the Arno River .

"I will drag you by your hair," Piero threatened.

"And I will scratch your eyes out," she hissed back, finally lifting her feet out of the mire.

Piero pushed her ahead of him. "Cause me trouble, witch, and I will force you to eat the bread you carry."

Bianca flinched at the venom in his voice. He shoved her again. She stumbled, falling headlong across the filthy landing. Her hand came to rest on a leathery surface, and she rubbed her fingers over it, holding her breath as she realized the familiar shape of a boot. Slowly, her gaze roved upward, following a darkly clad leg, up the dark cloak, and higher yet.

"Dio!" she cried out, scrambling to her feet.

The figure detached itself from the wall. A monstrous hand grasped a good portion of her cloak. Bianca let out a croak, for her voice was stuck somewhere deep in her throat, imprisoning a scream. With wide, frightened eyes, she implored her brothers for help. They drew their swords but swiftly abandoned their impending attack when the blade of the unknown's dagger glistened at her neck.

"Release your weapons, or I will make quick work of this fool before I carve your hides," the man commanded, the walls vibrating from his deep, thundering tone.

The huge stranger wore a cloak that bespoke of wealth. Piero would have known the interloper's family identity had not his sister's head covered most of the crest at the man's wide chest. "Identify yourself," he demanded, realizing palazzo guards could surround them at any moment.

"I am Cristiano de' Medici."

Piero saw his sister tense, and he spat on the stone floor between them. "Vile wretch that you are."

"Have we met?"

"Acquaintances we are not, though enemies we are." Piero sized up the man. He had seen this particular Medici in the light of day, though from afar. He had underestimated the largeness of the man.

"What business have you here in the tower?" the Medici asked.

"None that concerns you, so step aside." Piero glanced at the marked fear on Bianca's face. Still, he maintained his concentration on the Medici, lest he become distracted and careless and lose his life because of his worthless sister.

Cristiano grew weary of the standoff. His quivering captive gave him no cause for concern. The boy was so frail that Cristiano knew one forceful squeeze would snap the youth's life in an instant. Yet he wondered about the scrawny lad beneath the coarse, bug-eaten cloak. The other four, each dressed in pauper's rags, did not pose a real threat on his life. Still, the ominous feeling he'd had after leaving Cosimo remained strong.

One youth lunged for him, and Cristiano reacted like a lightning strike. He flung the boy behind him and drew his heavy sword, swiftly impaling his attacker and sending him down the steps to his death.

Another came after him. Cristiano took a deep breath and ducked the hearty youth's sharp blade as it swung toward his neck. When he straightened and his combatant faced him again, Cristiano plunged his dagger into the young man's heart and watched as he crumbled to the stone, his life's blood gurgling out of the wound. Cristiano pulled his weapons back, raising them for another onslaught, but the remaining two had already begun their retreat.

Certain they would not return, he squatted and wiped the blades clean on the dead man's tunic. He kept his back to the boy as he listened to his soft but uneven breathing.

"What purpose had you here?" he asked.

The boy did not answer. Cristiano unfolded to his full height and sheathed his sword before he turned. He studied the little fool in the flickering lights. The worn cloak couldn't hide his bony shoulders or narrow build. Cristiano arched one of his eyebrows and sank the other low over a narrowed eye.

"I asked your purpose. Have you no tongue?"

Impatient now, Cristiano reached for the boy's arm, but the boy kicked out aimlessly and scooted away. Reaching down again, Cristiano closed his long fingers around a tender wrist and yanked the lightweight to his feet.

"I could have you imprisoned," he threatened. "Know you how unpleasant that will be for a tender pup such as yourself? Know you the sinful things evil men do with boys?"

Still no response. The boy stood stiffly, keeping his head lowered. Cristiano gave him a violent shake and thought he heard a whimper.

"I grow impatient, boy. Do not tinker with me."

The runt struck, kicking Cristiano's booted shin with little result except causing himself pain. Grasping his foot and hopping on the other, he wailed and carried on. Cristiano leaned back with a hearty laugh, but it died abruptly when he saw something fall from the boy's cloak.

"What's this?" he asked as he snatched up the loaf of bread. Had his cousin a premonition? Cristiano asked himself. How the devil had Cosimo known someone would attempt to poison him? He thrust the loaf in the boy's face. "Here. Eat."

The boy shrank back against the wall.

"You're dressed in beggar's rags. Surely you must be hungry?" He studied the tender features, their soft lines confusing him. Above the boy's head, the flickering flame from a candle tricked his sight, Cristiano decided, and he shoved the bread under the boy's sweet little nose. "It's poisoned, is it not?"

The boy turned his head aside.

"Dying from eating the poisoned loaf, or burning alive in the public square. . . which will it be?"

Having had enough of the silence, Cristiano swept the cloak hood back from the boy's head, and a wealth of the palest blond hair he'd ever seen cascaded over those bony shoulders. The woman's sharp gasp pierced Cristiano's flesh like a swiftly striking snake. For a moment, what he saw struck him speechless and rendered him immobile. Her hair glittered like sunlight. Firelight played off its brightness, creating a halo about her head.

His shock barely abated just as his warrior's intuition took over. Clearing his mind, Cristiano demanded harshly, "Who are you?"

"Bianca," came her meek reply, though he could see she was trying to act brave.

Upon closer look, Cristiano saw a ravishing beauty before him. Her wide-set eyes shone crystal blue above high cheeks and a slender nose that begged to be kissed. In her fright, her full lips pursed, giving chase to the prominent pout of her chin. He wanted to set his lips to that part of her, too.

Damn the winged reaction his body produced. Cristiano mentally slipped himself out of his passionate wanderings and fixed his features so she couldn't interpret his shock or the sudden desire for her in his eyes.

"Did you poison this bread you refuse to eat?"

"No, not I. You must believe that."

"Why should I believe anything you say? Did you not come here with intent to poison Cosimo de' Medici?"

"My brothers--"

"Brothers?" Cristiano glanced at the dead man.

"They fled," she said, then asked in a quiet voice, "Will you kill me?"

"I should." When she gasped, Cristiano's lips hardened with a smile. He tucked the loaf under his arm and brought his dagger up. She let out a tiny scream and squeezed her eyes so tightly that her temples creased with delicate spider lines.

He lifted a soft lock of her hair. Although the times dictated women with pale hair fashionably correct, most relied on the aid of dyes to achieve the custom. Not so with this woman. From what little light there was, he could see that she was as pale of skin as she was white of hair. Pinching the healthy lock between his fingers, he quickly sheared off a chunk.

"A small token," he told her, holding up the white lock as if it were a good-luck trinket.

Cristiano dropped the poisoned loaf and kicked it. It crumbled into hundreds of tiny pieces. "That should take care of the rat infestation." He grinned then. "Come, I will escort you to the courtyard. That is how you entered the palazzo, is it not?"

The young woman stiffened her back, pointed her nose upward, and walked past him as if she were a princess, though she could not hide the lingering fear in her eyes. He continued to grin. Bianca. The name suited her, for she was as pure and snowy as her name implied.

They passed through the thick columns and entered the courtyard, Bianca leading the way. Cristiano stopped her beside the fountain, paying particular attention to the slenderness of her arm in his large hand. Her beautiful eyes stared up at him, the innocence he saw in them interrupting the rhythm of his heart.

"Will you set me free?" she inquired.

"Like a pigeon with a mission?"

Bianca tilted her head back. Holy Mother, he was a massive man! Her own stature wasn't short by any means for a woman, but he had to be a hand more than six feet. He was as imposing as the bell tower of the palazzo behind them. She gently pulled her arm free, but she couldn't tear herself away from his engaging blue eyes.

"I'll not attempt to go near Signor de' Medici again," she promised.

"And your brothers?"

"I will speak with them." To no avail, she thought to herself. Piero despised the Medici family, and Luca often went along with their persuasive older brother. "Am I free to go?" Bianca repeated.

His face came down to hers. She drew in her breath, taking with it a scent unfamiliar, exciting, a decidedly male flavor. Her head felt light and her heart pumped faster. When the Medici's voice rumbled low beside her ear, she almost stopped breathing.

"My beggar lady is lucky I am preoccupied with other matters this night, else she might find herself my captive."

He straightened away, and Bianca's breath rushed out at once.

"Be warned, lady of the night. While Cosimo de' Medici has been falsely imprisoned, the Medici power will never weaken. The Albizzi will never rule Florence ."

"Do not be so certain, my captor. The Albizzi have more power than be known."

"You dare taunt me with that delusion? You poor misinformed soul. You know not of what you speak. Go now. Fly like a pigeon, for you have a mission to pursue. Tell all the Medici rule Florence . It is our city-state."

Bianca pulled the cloak hood over her head. Her eyes skimmed the Medici family crest boldly displayed on his velvet cloak. She glimpsed his hands, and suddenly she wanted desperately to read his lines, to see what fate lay ahead for the striking Medici.

"Be gone, now, Bianca, before my mood changes. The moonlight and my ire may play on my soul, and I may find a splendid release in ravishing you."

"No, my lord Medici, I would not like that." She fled swiftly, like a fleeting rabbit in the night.

Cristiano stared into the darkness. He held the woman's lock of hair up to his nose, breathing in its clean scent. He smiled at the precious curl wound around his thick finger, caressing it delicately. When he pulled the hair taut, the strands recoiled into a fat white-blond curl. He took a deep breath and his smile faded.

Glancing up at the tower where his mighty cousin was imprisoned, he realized the grievous state of Cosimo's situation. From now on, Cristiano knew he'd have to watch his back. The Medici were no longer safe in the city of lilies.

 

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