Fifteenth-century Europe. Tom Swan is not a professional soldier. He's really a merchant and a scholar looking for remnants of Ancient Greece and Rome - temples, graves, pottery, fabulous animals, unicorn horns. But he also has a real talent for ending up in the midst of violence when he didn't mean to. Having used his wits to escape execution, he begins a series of adventures that take him to street duels in Italy, meetings with remarkable men - from Leonardo Da Vinci to Vlad Dracula - and from the intrigues of the War of the Roses to the fall of Constantinople.
Release date: February 18, 2016
Print pages: 87
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Tom Swan and the Last Spartans: Part One
Ser Thomas Suane, knight of the Order of St Mark of Venice, donat of the Knights of St John Hospitaller of Rhodes, sometime courier, servant and even spy of Cardinal Bessarion, waited in the pope’s antechamber. It was August in Rome. It was sweltering, brutally hot, the hottest summer anyone could remember. Swan stood by a thankfully cool chimney piece with hosts of attendant cherubs who owed more to Ancient Rome than to the Kingdom of Christ and thanked his own goddess, Fortuna, that the fires were laid but not lit. He wore black silk hose and a neat silk doublet in clerical brown, decorated with a judicious display of embroidery. He was not the first owner of either garment, nor of the round cloak that was neatly folded on the chimney stool because, being wool, it was unbearable to touch in the heat. His shoes were the lightest he could afford, and two buttons on his doublet were undone, exposing a tanned neck and the perfection of his absolutely white, perfect linen shirt.
Ser Thomas gave every appearance of being most courteous. He gave way to other courtiers, allowed his appointment to slip from second place to third, and stayed by the chimney piece even when there was a breeze at the window, a breeze he’d ceded with a gentle and somewhat disturbing smile to Prospero Colonna, cardinal-deacon, and head of the Colonna faction in Rome. As he was Colonna Uno, and frequently, if not always, an ally of Cardinal Bessarion, Swan had no trouble deferring to the older man, the more so as he was a great humanist and a leading religious authority.
In contrast to his attitude to many cardinals, Swan respected Prospero Colonna a great deal.
Orso Orsini, a cadet of the Orsini, who were themselves the hereditary enemies of the Colonna, was not a man Swan liked, admired or even needed to charm. He was, in almost every way, an enemy. Yet he held the second window in the almost airless room, and it had cost Swan a great deal in affected calm to allow the Orsini to take the window as if by right, with a gracious sneer of condescending superiority that he tossed to Swan, as if to say ‘I see you have learned your place’.
Yet, as a man who was known to have gone sword to sword with the Ottoman Emperor himself; as a man who had not only witnessed the greatest Christian victory of the century, but had played a role in it; as perhaps the most famous knight in Rome with the additional kudos of being perhaps the only English knight of whom anyone had heard, Swan could afford to ignore such a slight.
Whether Swan, who was just twenty-four, might actually have managed to ignore an insult under ordinary circumstances was open to conjecture. But he had been sent by Bessarion to learn of a confidential mission from the Pontiff himself, and, he hoped, although he had no confidence whatsoever in princes, that he was to be granted a small title and a tiny landed estate in recognition of his service. This knowledge might have puffed out a lesser man, but Swan had been promised many things by many potentates and he had developed a cynicism that might have done justice to a much older man.
In truth, the real reason he stayed by the stifling chimney piece and eschewed the windows was that he could hear a conversation occurring a floor above him. He’d cooled, or rather warmed, his heels for over an hour, and in that hour he’d established which papal officers were arguing so loudly; he knew the topic of their conversation, and he had begun to understand its import. As the conversation, of which he received only one word in five, implicated both Orso Orsini and Cardinal Colonna, he was able to stay by the fireplace without responding to any sneer cast at him by Orsini or his thugs, or the equally annoying glances from two young Colonna bravos who seemed to be questioning his reputation.
Old Colonna …
Those were the words he was sure of.
His right foot was almost asleep, and he walked to the other side of the enormous marble chimney piece and leaned against a disturbingly carved cherub. Swan had taken a dislike to the little boys with their carefully rendered bodies. He didn’t like the message.
He was almost sure that the louder voice was that of Antonelli, the Pope’s new financial officer, a servant of the Medici.
He glanced over at Colonna, who was displaying the outward annoyance that was permissible in a very important man being made to wait on a desperately hot day. Most of the cardinals were gone; Rome in the summer was not the death trap that Naples was, but it was no man’s friend, and most of the powerful made their way into the hills. The Orsini and Colonna had fought for three hundred years over possession of the finest castles in the area to avoid days like this in Rome, or so people said.
And yet here were two of their most important men, and their retinues, in one long, stifling room.
Young men in both entourages were posturing. Weapons were forbidden in the papal fortress, but no onlooker would have known, as almost every man carried a knife ‘long enough to measure cloth’, as Swan had heard Joshua, a friend in the Jewish ghetto, remark the day before.
His position by the chimney piece also placed him midway between the two parties, as if he was neutral. Which he was not. Except that he was aware that sometime in the next hour or so he would probably accept a position from the Pope. And then he would, indeed, be above conflicts between Orsini and Colonna.
old pope …
half a million ducats! …
have him killed …
Thomas Spinelli had been the Pope’s principal banker for more than five years. Spinelli had countersigned every bill on the Medici that Swan had used to finance Hunyadi at Belgrade. For men like Swan, Spinelli had done more to defeat the Grand Turk than any soldier or monk. He had met the man twice; both times because Spinelli could be counted on to rise in the middle of the night to find money if called upon to do so, and he was Bessarion’s personal banker too.
It was fashionable to hate bankers, but Swan rather admired Spinelli. On the other hand, Spinelli had an income greater than five thousand ducats a year; enough to buy fifty Tom Swans each annum. It rather put the man in perspective, Swan thought; he would rise in the middle of the night to personally pay a spy or a courier.
The voices above him began to die away. It was possible that Antonelli was simply over his tantrum. Antonelli was a tool of the Medici bank, extended into the Curia. He was a banker that Swan could detest.
One of the best-dressed of the Orsini entourage had wandered far out over the black and white marble floor. Judged impartially, he might have been said to have crossed the middle line of the room. His head was thrown back, his shoulders high, and his right hand itched for the magnificent cinquedea in his belt, a short, broad sword pretending to be a legal knife.
Cardinal Colonna had several young men of blood in his retinue, and one of them was a priest in a plain black cassock, with high cheekbones and a red flush to him that Swan didn’t like. The young priest walked out over the marble floor, like a chess piece sent by Colonna to answer Orsini’s move.
‘The Pope begs his brother Colonna’s pardon, and is now free. If you will follow me, Eminence …’ said Jacob, the Pope’s newest chamberlain. He was a German, middle aged, close mouthed, pious and very competent. Even as he bowed to the cardinal, he made a signal to Swan.
Beyond my control, said the papal chamberlain with a small hand motion. His eyes met Swan’s. A week before, Swan and Bessarion had bluffed their way past him, but Jacob bore them no ill-will, as the Pope had approved their actions. The chamberlain had little will of his own; he merely obeyed.
Swan gave a little shrug. Shall I go home?
Jacob actually gave him a little bow and a head-shake. Oh, no! Not at all.
Or so Swan read it. He longed to pour cold water over his own head. He longed to mount a horse and ride for Milan with Bessarion’s letters.
He longed …
He was afraid even to imagine. Was he even close? It was hard to know. A patent of nobility and a house in Bologna might win him his lady.
Did he want his lady? It seemed a terrible question to ask, but memories of Violetta and Khatun Beng. . .
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