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Table of Contents
Chapter 1 - The Magician
Chapter 2 - The High Priestess
Chapter 3 - The Empress
Chapter 4 - The Emperor
Chapter 5 - The Hierophant
Chapter 6 - The Lovers
Chapter 7 - The Chariot
Chapter 8 - Justice
Chapter 9 - The Hermit
Chapter 10 - The Wheel of Fortune
Chapter 11 - Strength
Chapter 12 - The Hanged Man
Chapter 13 - Death
Chapter 14 - Temperance
Chapter 15 - The Devil
Chapter 16 - The Tower
Chapter 17 - The Star
Chapter 18 - The Moon
Chapter 19 - The Sun
Chapter 20 - Judgment
Chapter 21 - The World
PRAISE FOR The Queen’s Gambit
“A welcome way to spend an adventurous time in Renaissance Italy.”—Margaret Frazer
“[An] impressive debut . . . The mesmerizing plot moves swiftly to a dramatic conclusion that will leave readers eagerly awaiting the next volume.”
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Stuckart creates her plot with confidence and describes Renaissance Italy with expertise. The Queen’s Gambit is perfectly played.”—Richmond Times-Dispatch
“An enjoyable period mystery . . . Stuckart’s narrative artfully interweaves Dino’s backstory . . . and much about da Vinci as artist, inventor, engineer, scientist, and, in this particular instance, sleuth.”—Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine
“A masterful historical mystery . . . Highly recommended.”
—I Love A Mystery
“Stuckart’s mystery debut . . . captur[es] the essence of fifteenth-century Milan.”—Library Journal
Berkley Prime Crime titles by Diane A. S. Stuckart
THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT
PORTRAIT OF A LADY
THE BERKLEY PUBLISHING GROUP
Published by the Penguin Group
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This book is an original publication of The Berkley Publishing Group.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.
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Berkely Prime Crime trade paperback edition / January 2009
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Stuckart, Diane A. S.
Portrait of a Lady / Diane A. S. Stuckart.—Berkley Prime Crime trade paperback ed.
eISBN : 978-1-101-01460-8
1. Leondardo, da Vinci, 1452-1519—Fiction. 2. Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan,
1452-1508—Fiction. 3. Milan (Italy)—History—To 1535—Fiction. 4. Italy—
History—1492-1559—Fiction. 5. Apprentices—Fiction. I. Title.
This one is for several people in my life . . .
First, for Helen Janet Ponewczynski Smart, a truly great lady who has inspired me ever since birth. I love you, Mom!
And also for my friends Holly Thompson and Gail Selinger, two of my very favorite writers ever. Thank you for all your support and encouragement over the years. You’re the best!
And, as always, for Gerry, who keeps things cooking . . . literally! I can’t do it without you, sweetie.
And, finally, big hugs to Ranger, my real-life “Pio,” who always makes me laugh. What a good boy!
This book would not be possible without the support of three great editors: Natalee Rosenstein and Michelle Vega of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., and Denise Little of Tekno Books. Thank you, ladies! You’re the best!
Be not deceived by grand illusion.
—Leonardo da Vinci, The Notebooks of Delfina della Fazia
MILAN, PROVINCE OF LOMBARDY, AUGUST 1483
“By the mercy of all the saints, we are almost home again. I can see the castle walls.”
The glad cry came from my fellow apprentice, Vittorio. I felt equal relief, for we had been struggling for a good half of an hour to carry between us a large canvas bag as tall as we were. It bulged and shifted with all manner of heavy items inside, though its contents were a mystery to us. Upon a straight path, the sack would have been unwieldy enough. Carrying it across rolling fields had indeed been a task.
The cherub-faced boy and I had cleared a final rise as he spoke, so that the sun-baked tan stone edifice of Castle Sforza now sprawled in the distance before us. As always, the sight of that magnificent fortress with its rough-hewn sandstone blocks gleaming against the pale blue sky filled me with awe. Other castles in other provinces might be larger, perhaps more beautiful, but surely they lacked the unabashed boldness of the Duke of Milan’s grand stronghold.
I gave the scene before me a considering look, allowing my artist’s eye free rein. From this angle, the castle resembled nothing so much as a broad, audacious hand reaching up from the rolling green plain from which it sprang. Its fingers were the fortress’s massive corner towers—two cylindrical, and two square—along with the immense clock tower situated at the main gate. Not content to accept whatever came its way, this hand, in the person of the duke, Ludovico Sforza, took whatever it wanted from the surrounding provinces.
And this was why our Master, Leonardo the Florentine—also known as Leonardo da Vinci—was guaranteed continued employment at court as master engineer in the art of advanced weaponry.
I had been in Milan but a few short months, toiling along with a score of young men in Leonardo’s workshop. My fellows all knew me as Dino, a small, dark-haired young man, little older than Vittorio, who had come from a village to the north. Possessed of no little skill as a painter—I say this as the truth and not as a braggart—I had managed to obtain an apprenticeship with the artist whose talent was known as far away as Florence and even Rome. But none of them, not even Leonardo, was privy to the secret that would have had me summarily dismissed from my apprenticeship had it been known.
None of them knew that I was in truth Delfina, a young woman of twenty years, who had fled my comfortable home and the prospect of an arranged marriage to disguise myself as a boy and join the workshop of the great Leonardo, himself! And it was a secret that I had worked diligently to keep, so that I was accepted as a youth by all who knew me there.
It was unusual to find us apprentices wandering the countryside as Vittorio and I were this day. Most days found us in the workshop honing our craft. Sometimes we worked beneath the Master’s watchful eye; more often, we toiled under the equally strict supervision of his senior apprentice, Constantin. This day, however, the Master had put us to work at something other than plastering walls and creating stencils in preparation for yet another mural.
For the duke had been pressing Leonardo to complete some of the many elaborate inventions that were the reason the Master had managed to secure the fickle Ludovico’s patronage in the first place. That is how we found ourselves well away from both town and palace on this day. Since early morning, a group of us had been splashing about in a small stream helping the Master test scale-size versions of his latest designs.
The first of the inventions was a portable bridge, consisting of several small segments nested one atop another. Once, many weeks earlier, I had assisted the Master with a child-size model of that very design. This version, though still far smaller than what would be the final plan, was large enough for someone my size to walk across it. Powered by a complicated gear assembly, it was made to be extended, section by section, until those parts formed a single long unit that would reach the opposite bank. A full-scale model would, in theory, span a river; this version could cross a small stream.
I’d had my doubts that such a fanciful design would truly work. But, to my surprise, the miniature bridge performed exactly as expected on the first try. With a few hearty cranks of the gear shaft, it stretched as gracefully as a water bird’s neck to span the narrow channel, the feat drawing cheers from us apprentices. The Master appeared pleased with this trial run, as well, though he complained that it worked a bit too slowly.
The second was a far less elegant contraption. Designed to dredge mud from silted rivers and canals, the bargelike machine with its series of bucketed arms arranged on a wheel scooped and flailed its way with only moderate success along one edge of the stream. Leonardo had agreed that it would require modification before he attempted a demonstration before the duke.
As the day drew to a close, Vittorio and I were sent on ahead with the equipment that could not readily be carried upon the wagons lest it be damaged by the water and mud that coated all else. We were approaching the castle from its flank. The main gate, as well as the city of Milan, lay toward the east. While once we might have been trudging through a small forest, those trees had long since been cleared on three sides, leaving a clear field of fire for Ludovico’s troops against any army bold enough to attack. Thus, although we were still some distance from the walls, I could readily spy the brightly garbed person lying at the foot of one tower.
“What’s this?” I murmured, frowning.
The supine figure lay along the inner edge of the moat that surrounded the castle. Depending upon the season or the progress of Ludovico’s various conflicts with his neighbors, that broad ditch might be filled with brackish water as a final deterrent to an approach. It had been empty for some time now; even so, I would not have cared to take my rest upon its rough grass that still smelled faintly of piss pots and decay.
By now, I could see the figure was that of a woman, her blue gown spread like a blanket around her. Perhaps she was one of the court ladies enjoying an afternoon’s reprieve from castle life, I thought with a frown. But how odd that she was alone. And stranger still that she was sprawled like a peasant boy upon the grass, without even a length of cloth beneath her to protect her fine gown.
My frown deepened as we advanced upon her. She had not stirred in the few moments since I’d first noticed her; this despite the fact that Vittorio, cheered that his labors were almost at an end, had begun whistling with earsplitting enthusiasm. The trilling notes surely could be heard at this short distance; they should have been loud enough to wake her had she been sleeping.
Vittorio’s voice as he called my name held a small note of fear that echoed my own sudden feeling of disquiet. Allowing his end of the sack we carried to drop, he gazed a moment upon the woman in the grass before turning to me, wide-eyed.
“Dino,” he repeated more softly, “the lady lying near the tower . . . I don’t think she’s sleeping. Do you?”
Gently, I set down my end of the sack.
“Wait here,” I told Vittorio, surprised to find myself whispering, too. Determined not to fly into a panic, at least not at this juncture, I added in a normal tone, “I shall check to see if she is well.”
Vittorio gave me a doubtful look but nodded. He and I stood perhaps twenty paces from the unmoving woman who lay upon her back, her face turned toward the tower. Had the sun been at the correct angle, we would have been engulfed in the tower’s shadow. As it was, the afternoon sun beat relentlessly upon us . . . and upon her.
Perhaps she’d only taken ill with the heat. I allowed myself that hopeful thought as I swiped a trickle of sweat from my brow. I moved closer, aware now of a buzzing sound like that which I’d earlier heard among the tiny blooms that blanketed the stream where my fellows and I had toiled. Yet what would draw those bees here where no flowers or sweet grasses bloomed?
A few steps closer still, and I saw that bees were not the creatures doing the buzzing.
Instead, a relentless swarm of black flies hovered about her, lured by the dark seep of blood beneath her that stained her fine blue gown as well as the grass around her. She was not positioned neatly upon her back, as I’d first thought, but instead lay oddly askew, facing away from me. One blue-sleeved arm was flung back toward me, her delicate white hand seeming to reach out in supplication.
I shut my eyes and swallowed against the sudden rise of bile in my throat. She was dead . . . of this, there could be no doubt. Reluctantly, I opened my eyes once more and glanced back at Vittorio. His usually cheery countenance was pinched into an expression of sick dread that made him look older than his years. I wondered if my own face reflected the same emotion. Mindful that I was the elder, however, I knew I must take charge of the situation.
I shook my head, indicating he need not come closer. “I will remain here,” I called to him. “The Master should be but a short way behind us. Run back and find him, and let him know what has happened.”
But what had happened, at that?
Uncertain of the answer, save that an unknown woman was lying dead almost at my feet, I pondered the question while I watched Vittorio hurriedly retrace our earlier steps. Only when he had disappeared over the rise did I return my attention to the scene before me.
I must admit with shame that my first thought was for myself. Saints’ blood, why did I have to be the unlucky soul to stumble across her? For hers was not the first dead body I had found during my short tenure at Castle Sforza.
Not many weeks earlier, I’d had the ill fortune to discover the duke’s own cousin cruelly murdered in a private garden; this, while the rest of the court was distracted by a living chess game in honor of the visiting French ambassador. That unfortunate encounter had led to my small role in helping the Master solved that gruesome crime at the duke’s own behest. Before all was done, there had been other bodies . . . and, indeed, one of them almost had been my own!
Deliberately avoiding any look at the woman’s face now, I instead studied her garments in an attempt to determine her position within the court. As I’d first noted, she wore over her white chemise a pale blue bodice, to which matching sleeves had been tied. One sleeve now was loosened from its lacings, while the other was entirely missing, revealing the closely sewn arm of her shift.
Her wide skirts worn over a scarlet petticoat were the same hue as her sleeves and bodice, the fledgling color of a morning sky. Both skirts and petticoat were hiked so high on one side that I could see where her dark blue stocking was neatly tied above that knee.
Her slippers, I noted, were missing.
She was not a noblewoman, for she did not sport the fashionable slashed sleeves a woman of leisure might wear. Moreover, her garments lacked the weighty richness of fabric and elaborateness of trim that marked a woman of rank, someone who could afford the finest creations of my friend, Signor Luigi, or another equally talented tailor. Neither did I spy any heavy gold chains or bejeweled metal cuffs around her neck or wrists.
Likely she was a merchant’s daughter, or perhaps a noblewoman’s servant. Though I still dreaded to look at her face, I could tell simply from her youthful figure that she was not much older than I.
The knowledge that her life had been so abruptly cut short saddened me all the more because of our similarities in age and station. Her youthful dreams would never see fulfillment, nor would her smooth brow ever wrinkle with the inevitable worries that afflicted one with age. But at least this poor woman had not met her death at someone else’s hand, as had the past dead person that I’d previously discovered.
I glanced up at the massive tower. Had I been prone to fancy at this moment, the sight might have put me to mind of some mythical colossus tasked with supporting a portion of the fortress walls. The day’s heat radiated from the weighty sandstone blocks that formed it, adding another element of life to its foreboding presence. Standing this close to the rock giant, I had to crane my neck to see its full height.
From this angle I could barely make out the long, narrow windows that, like Argos’s eyes, ringed its uppermost level just below its spire-topped crown of a roof. It was from these same tower windows that previous dukes’ archers took the vantage point, shooting off one arrow after another at an approaching enemy army. While from the ground the individual openings appeared impossibly narrow, I knew a man could readily stand framed within one of those stone casements.
A woman, smaller and slimmer, would have little difficulty slipping through the same window and hurtling to her death.
For surely that was what had happened, given this woman’s twisted form; that, and the fact that I glimpsed a long scrap of pale blue fabric dangling like a forlorn flag from one window. Doubtless that cloth was her missing sleeve, which must have caught on the rough stone as she fell. But what had brought her to that tower in the first place?
She would have no business there, I knew. The parapets were the domain of Il Moro’s soldiers, those loud, brash men who kept watch over the castle and outlying areas from its heights. Quartered within the maze of storerooms and chambers built into the massive walls, they rarely left the castle’s perimeter save for when they were deployed against one enemy or another. The only members of the gentler sex likely to breach that domain would be washerwomen or else prostitutes. No female of better station would willingly mingle with such men.
Or would she?
A shout from above abruptly shook me from my thoughts. I looked up to see a trio of soldiers above staring down from the roofed battlements at me while gesturing and speaking among themselves. Of course, I could not hear what was said at such a distance, but their pantomime was easily read. Leaving one of their number to stand watch lest I flee the scene, the other two swiftly vanished. I had no doubt they were rushing to the castle’s main gate, intent upon investigating this strange matter and learning what part I had in it.
I shot a nervous glance back toward the ridge. Whatever was taking Vittorio so long to bring assistance from the Master? I did not relish fielding the soldiers’ questions alone, certainly not under such circumstances. Lacking imagination—or, equally likely, fearing they might be faulted for allowing such a tragedy to occur at their very feet—they could well blame me for the poor woman’s death!
So clear was that imagined outcome in my mind that I gave a guilty start when, a few moments later, I heard my name called from behind me.
“Dino,” Leonardo lightly scolded as he approached, “have you again embroiled yourself in some bad business?”
“Alas, I fear so, but not by choice,” I replied, not bothering to hide my sigh of relief at his timely appearance.
Behind him trailed Vittorio, still looking distraught. The other apprentices were farther back, having just now crested the final ridge. Constantin and Paolo each led one of the horse-drawn carts, one wagon carrying the expandable bridge, the other the dredger. They were not headed directly toward us but instead followed the main road that ran parallel to the castle.
The Master, meanwhile, had turned his attention to the dead woman and was kneeling beside her. He studied her still form from several angles, glancing up a time or two at the edifice that loomed above. Finally, he stood and brushed the grass from his knees.
“I fear she is long past any help,” he briskly said. “I am sure you will agree as to the cause of her death?”
“The tower,” I replied, dismayed by his seeming lack of empathy in the face of such a tragedy.
I gazed up again at that forlorn strip of cloth dangling from the window. What had been the poor woman’s final thoughts as she stepped off the ledge and into nothingness? Assuming her fall had been accidental and not a deliberate end to her life, she surely would have been consumed with terror. But supposing she had made the leap of her free will? Had fright and regret overcome her in those last seconds, or had she thrown her arms open and fiercely welcomed the ground rushing toward her?
Either way, the horror of such an end surely deserved a moment of respectful silence, if nothing else.
Something of my thoughts must have shown on my face, for the Master put a hand upon my shoulder. “As I said, there is nothing more that can be done for her, but we shall make certain that she is treated more kindly in death than she was in those final moments of her life.”
Before he could say more, we were interrupted by shouts that heralded the soldiers’ approach. Those stern-visaged men, appearing little older than myself, were followed by a score of servants and tradesmen. While some of those onlookers wore the appropriate expressions of pity and horror, others gazed with rabid interest that better befitted spectators at a feast day play. The soldiers gestured them to remain a short distance back and then approached us with grim purpose.
“You, Master Engineer,” the dark-haired one of the pair spoke up, halting as he recognized Leonardo.
He gave the Master a sharp look, seemingly taken aback by the sight of his still-damp clothes and hair, as well as the faint aroma of muddy water that clung to him from our earlier forays into the stream. Then, gesturing toward the body before him, he demanded, “What do you know of this?”
“Fear not,” a sour voice spoke up before the Master could reply. “The great Leonardo will surely be able to give a full accounting of all that has transpired.”
A man stepped forward from the bystanders, and I promptly recognized the speaker as the court’s surgeon. A pompous, balding man in flowing green robes that accentuated his rounded belly atop spindly legs, he had been at odds with Leonardo since the Master’s arrival at court. I’d first learned of their enmity while the Master and I were probing the death of Il Moro’s cousin.
Apparently, the surgeon’s presence here now had been requested, for the second man-at-arms gestured him forward. “You, surgeon, check the woman for signs of life,” he demanded in a gravelly voice that contrasted strangely with his boyish pale hair and cheeks. “As for you, Signor Leonardo, answer the question. What do you know of this unfortunate business?”
“I can tell you no more than what you have seen for yourself,” the Master mildly replied, though I noted the impatient flick of his fingers that was his reflexive gesture when annoyed. “The young woman fell to her death from the tower above, and not more than an hour ago, by my reckoning.”
“She might as easily be run over by a cart, given her injuries,” the surgeon retorted. I watched in alarm as, kerchief fastidiously applied to his nose, he prodded her lifeless form with a pointed-toed shoe. “Moreover, she might well have been lying here far longer than the master engineer believes. It is a warm day, and—”
He broke off with a strangled squawk as Leonardo gripped him by the shoulder and unceremoniously hauled him out of reach of the dead woman’s body.
“Your hypothesis is without merit,” he pleasantly told the surgeon as that man gave an offended snort and jerked his arm from the Master’s grasp. “The ground here is soft, yet there are no wheel marks anywhere near her body indicating a cart passed by. Moreover, if you look closely where she lies, you will see a slight indentation in the earth, as if some object landed upon it with great force.
“And if you dared look upward past the length of your nose,” he finished with a tight smile, “you would note a strip of cloth dangling from the tower window that would seem to match the missing sleeve from the dead woman’s gown.”
“I agree with Signor Leonardo,” the first soldier broke in while the surgeon continued his indignant sputter. “I’ve seen someone fall off a wall before . . . not a pretty sight. But what of the boy?” He paused and pointed at me. “We saw him from the parapets standing next to her. What’s his role in this?”
Luckily I did not recognize either of the guardsmen, so they would not be acquainted with my unfortunate proclivity for stumbling over corpses here at Il Moro’s court. Had they known, they might have regarded me with even greater suspicion. At the Master’s nod, I took a step forward.
“I fear I have little to add,” I ventured in my most humble manner. I gestured toward Vittorio, who stood half-hidden behind Leonardo, clutching at the Master’s tunic for reassurance like the child he still was. “My fellow apprentice and I were returning to the castle when we spied the poor woman lying here. Vittorio went for help while I kept watch. Neither of us saw her fall.”
Or jump, I mentally added, though why I was so certain her plunge was no misstep, I was not certain.
The guardsman, however, seemed satisfied with my response. “We shall bring the woman to the surgery while we wait for someone to identify her. You, and you”—he pointed to two of the gawkers, who immediately jumped to attention as if they were themselves soldiers—“find a litter or a cart that we can carry her upon.”
While that pair rushed to obey, the guard turned back to the Master.
“Signor Leonardo, perhaps you will accompany the surgeon,” he said with a small smirk, obviously aware that neither man would relish such a request. “The two of you can do further examination of the body and make your conclusions together. Depending on who she is, we might well have to make a report to our superiors.”
I indignantly waited for Leonardo to decline that dubious honor. I knew that, as the court’s master engineer, he answered only to the duke and not to some rough man-at-arms. To my surprise, however, the Master made a slight bow.
“I would be glad to lend the esteemed surgeon my assistance,” he replied. “As to the woman’s identity, my guess from her manner of dress is that she is servant to one of Il Moro’s family. Perhaps you might spread word of this mishap among the ladies’ maids and let them determine if any of their number is missing.”
He paused and gently detached Vittorio from his tunic hem, then gave him a light shove in my direction. “If you have no further questions for my apprentices, perhaps you will allow them to leave now. This tragedy is hardly an appropriate sight for boys of their tender age.”
“They may go,” the soldier replied with a magnanimous sweep of his arm.
The Master gave him a nod of thanks and then turned to address me. “Take Vittorio and return to the workshop, so that you are able to join your fellows for the evening meal. And you may tell Constantin that, once everyone has supped, I give all of you leave to spend the remainder of the night as you will.”
The announcement of an unexpected bit of leisure normally would have drawn gleeful shouts from us . . . most particularly from Vittorio, who never passed up an opportunity for play. This time, however, he simply dropped his gaze and retreated the short distance to where we earlier had abandoned the Master’s oversize sack with which we’d been entrusted.
For myself, I could muster little more than a subdued, “As you wish, Master.”
While the soldiers had conducted their questioning, some compassionate soul from the crowd had stepped up with a tattered cape and done his best to conceal the dead woman’s twisted remains from curious gazes. I carefully averted my own eyes from the now-shrouded form and was quick to rejoin Vittorio.
Driven less by our desire to return to the workshop than by our urgency to leave this scene, we hurried with our unwieldy burden past the growing crowd of onlookers. Vittorio kept his uncharacteristic silence, and I wondered if I should attempt a few words of comfort. Although he surely was old enough to have witnessed death before, the sight of a broken body was unsettling for even the strongest of constitutions.
“It is fortunate we came by when we did,” I told him, “else the poor woman might have lain there until morning before someone found her. And, do not worry, the Master will see to it that she will be taken care of, and word sent to her family.”
Vittorio merely nodded, but I saw a single fat tear slip down his cheek. I sighed. Had I not been disguised as a boy, I would have dropped my end of the sack to give him a reassuring hug. As it was, I could only do what any of the other apprentices would have done in my stead . . . pretend not to have noticed this unseemly show of emotion.
We reached the main gate in a matter of minutes, passing on our way the two men who’d been charged with managing some means of transport. They were pushing between them a handcart, certainly not the most dignified means of transporting a body, but perhaps the most efficient, given her state.