The Poison Keeper
Aqua Tofana – One drop to heal. Three drops to kill.
Giulia Tofana longs for more responsibility in her mother’s apothecary business, but Mamma has always been secretive and refuses to tell Giulia the hidden keys to her success. When Mamma is arrested for the poisoning of the powerful Duke de Verdi, Giulia is shocked to uncover the darker side of her trade.
Giulia must run for her life, and escapes to Naples, under the shadow of Mount Vesuvius, to the home of her Aunt Isabetta, a famous courtesan. But when Giulia hears that her mother has been executed, and the cruel manner of her death, she swears she will wreak revenge on the Duke de Verdi.
The trouble is, Naples is in the grip of Domenico, the Duke’s brother, who controls the city with the ‘Camorra’, the mafia. Worse, her Aunt Isabetta, under Domenico’s thrall, insists that she should be consort to him – the brother of the man she has vowed to kill.
Based on the legendary life of Giulia Tofana, this is a story of hidden family secrets, and how even the darkest desires can be vanquished by courage and love.
‘Her characters so real they linger in the mind long after the book is back on the shelf’ Historical Novel Society.
Publication Date: 18th May 2021
Publisher: Quire Books
Page Length: 394 Pages
Genre: Historical Fiction
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Now for the excerpt -
Duke de Verdi’s palazzo, Palermo
Antonio, the Duke de Verdi, levered himself up from the pillows. His arms were as fragile as straw and the push as feeble. He hated this, scrabbling for purchase on a pile of bolsters like an old man. He had been the strongest of all the men he knew, even the mercenaries, and this unlooked-for infirmity filled him with pent-up rage. The fact his body was too frail to vent it exhausted him.
He was not too weak to give orders though. His men had caught up with those witches, Theofania d’Adamo and Francesca La Sarda, as they headed for the port, and they were now incarcerated in the city gaol. There was a daughter too, who’d been a part of this vile travesty, but she had slipped their net. Not for long though.
‘Lucio!’ he yelled. His voice was cracked and hoarse, not the commanding voice he once had. She had brought him to this. That whimpering dishcloth of a wife. ‘Lucio!’
The manservant came running from his position behind the door.
Antonio dragged himself upright against the bedhead to catch his breath, though he felt sweat trickle in a trail from his hairline.
‘Have you found men to be tasters?’
‘Yes, Your Excellency. The famine drives them to desperation. A man and a boy are in the kitchens.’
‘Good. Make sure the boy tastes first. The poison will show more easily on a small body.’
An inclination of the head.
‘And bring my hag of a wife here. I will speak with her again.’
‘She’s out, Your Excellency—’
‘Out?’ The word would barely come. ‘You disobey my orders? I forbade them to let her go out. She only lives at all because of my favour.’
‘She’s making penance at church. Bruno and Alessandro are guarding her. You were sleeping. And they saw no harm in her confessing before God.’
‘No harm? You would give the witch the comfort of a stay in heaven? Fetch her back.’
‘They swore they wouldn’t be more than—’
‘Enough. Don’t try my patience.’ He had to try harder from this position to make his authority felt. It was impossible to feel assertive in a nightshirt. Before this cursed calamity had befallen him, Lucio would never have dared answer back. Antonio raised his voice. ‘Bring her now,’ he insisted, ‘not in three hours’ time.’
Lucio bowed, looking aggrieved, and went out as if it was a chore he could do without. Antonio slumped back, breathless from exertion, before making a renewed effort. He could do nothing lying here like an invalid. He must get out of bed. He willed himself to get stronger. The effects of the poison were abating, hour by hour, he told himself. They had to be.
With effort, he pulled back the weight of the damask coverlet and stretched one leg out of the bed. He stared at it. He’d only been ill six weeks, and yet surely this was someone else’s limb – thin and white as raw pastry, blue veins crawling up the front of the bone. He eased himself to the edge of the bed and rested his weight gingerly on one bony bare foot. It held. A small triumph. Pressing his lips together in concentration, he dragged out the other foot and placed it on the cold marble.
He was weak, but not beaten. When Valentina had confessed, he sent the physicians away. Useless bunch of leeches, they’d sucked his purse dry, and never once suggested it could be poison. Mind you, he didn’t want them seeing his lack of control over his wife, it would be the talk of Palermo. So now, five days later, after fasting, and eating only food brought to him direct from the market and not from his own kitchen, he was improving.
But he must decide what to do with Valentina. It would do his reputation no good to have been brought so low by that worm of a woman. His housekeeper had been paid to leave him and keep silent, but in his position, he could not dispose of Valentina so easily, not without causing a scandal, and she knew it. Unlike his brother, Domenico, who had rid himself of one wife and had now found himself another.
Nauseous, he staggered to the basin, spat and then washed himself. In the stucco-framed glass, he saw his beard needed trimming and his skin was as grey as eel jelly. The sight of his own face, once strong-jawed but now jowly with loose skin, disgusted him. It fired his anger more. He wanted the old duke back. He struggled to the closet and dressed himself in a black leather doublet and matching breeches, though they hung loose over his wasted muscles. He could not drag on his high boots, but using a shoehorn, he prised on a pair of heeled shoes with red rosettes.
He was panting and rimed with sweat by the time he sank into the chair by the window, but he gripped the arms to heave himself more upright, braced his shoulders and took on a haughty expression.
Lucio returned shortly afterwards, but he stopped short when he saw him upright in the chair.
‘I am stronger than I look, Lucio,’ Antonio said. ‘The will is stronger than the flesh, is that not so? What’s more, I remember all those who slighted me when I was ill. Those who couldn’t wait for me to die. Were you one of them, eh?’ He fixed him with a cold gaze.
‘No, Your Excellency. Of course not.’ Lucio’s face flamed red. ‘Your wife waits below; shall I send her up?’
‘Not yet. Bring me some fortifying wine.’
Lucio went back downstairs, and after a while he appeared, bringing the tray with a decanter and a glass containing a red wine, dark as garnets.
‘Has it been tested? The boy?’
‘Has she tried it?’ he asked. His faithless wife, Valentina. The thought of her made him want to retch.
‘The same glass?’
‘Then you drink,’ he said, gesturing to Lucio to try it. Lucio wrinkled his nose, but then obliged before wiping the rim with a napkin and passing it to him.
‘Like communion wine,’ he said, giving a coarse chuckle, the first in weeks. ‘Now, fetch my wife up.’ He was wary of anything that passed his lips now, but he needed the strength. He downed the sweet cloying liquid and its heat rushed into his throat. He could always hold his liquor before, but now, since sickening, he had become overly attuned to the changes in his humours that such spirits brought. His head swam, but he felt something of his old vigour returning.
The door opened and his two bodyguards, Bruno and Alessandro, big-handed men, their faces scarred by fighting, parted to let Valentina come through.
Deborah Swift lives in the north of England and is a USA Today bestselling author who has written fourteen historical novels to date. Her first novel, The Lady’s Slipper, set in 17th Century England, was shortlisted for the Impress Prize, and her WW2 novel Past Encounters was a BookViral Millennium Award winner.
Deborah enjoys writing about ordinary people thrust into extraordinary circumstances, and most of her novels have been published in reading group editions. She holds an MA in Creative Writing from Lancaster University and is a mentor with The History Quill.
You can connect with Deborah Swift via these platforms -
Amazon Author Page: http://author.to/DeborahSwift
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That's it for now.
Till the next time.
Take care Zoe.