The Poison Keeper by Deborah Swift
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 Italian poisoner Giulia Tofana, this is a story of hidden family secrets, and how even the darkest desires can be vanquished by courage and love.
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A splash of noonday sun danced against the latticed window. Giulia paused, plate in hand, as a spider, escaping the sudden light, spooled slowly downwards on a silvery thread. If it put so much as a leg into the downstairs chamber, Mamma would kill it. Any stray crumb could pollute her work, she said. Any creature that fell into her carefully measured remedies could change the balance. Turn good to ill. Things were apt to turn into their opposite without careful attention, Mamma said, and Mamma was always right.
Fortune smiles on you today, little one, Giulia thought, Mamma is busy in the still-room.
The spider completed its acrobatic descent and was gone; spindly legs scuttling away across the windowsill, and into the blue-black shadow behind the cheese press. Giulia finished laying out the meal; yesterday’s bread, wedges from a round of hard salty cheese, pickled olives and figs from Tuscolo.
She called down the staircase, ‘It’s ready, Mamma.’
It was their servant Maria’s day off, so it was left to Giulia today to make Mamma eat. And today she was determined to make her listen.
She cocked her head. No answer.
Mamma often didn’t hear, or pretended not to, when she was involved in her work. Giulia tucked the stray wisps of hair back into her dark coiled braids, lifted her heavy skirts and went downstairs, heels clacking on the stone treads. The door was shut as usual. It seemed to her she’d been locked outside this door her entire life. Only when Mamma was ready, would she open it.
She remembered the time when she was eight years old straying into the still-room and lifting the end of a stopper to her nose to smell it. A stinging slap to the cheek. ‘Never, never do that,’ Mamma had shouted, whipping the stopper away with a gloved hand, ‘You could die.’
Since then the door was locked, until Mamma deigned to open it.
Jerking her attention back to the present, Giulia gave a double knock, louder than necessary. She’d make Mamma listen, this time.
The door swung open, and Mamma was there, angry as a wasp, a pair of red-hot tongs in her hand and a lump of something black smoking in their jaws. She hated being disturbed. ‘What?’
Giulia put a hand to her nose. The heat and noxious smell of the still room had stopped her at the threshold. There was always something on the boil down here.
‘Well, what is it, that you must knock fit to wake the dead?’ Mamma pulled down the gauze so only her sloe-black eyes were showing. The lower part of her face was covered so she did not breathe in the gases as she worked.
‘It’s ready,’ Giulia said again.
‘Food, Mamma. You put it in your mouth and swallow it, and it stops you from dying.’
‘Ha, ha. Less of that. I’m coming. What’s the hurry? Nothing will spoil. I must wait until this dissolves.’ She pointed with the tongs to a small charred pan bubbling over the fire.
‘I’m hungry,’ Giulia said, ‘even if you’re not.’ She blew onto her upper lip. ‘It’s airless again down here. How can you can bear it?’
‘Because if I don’t finish this, neither of us can afford to eat, my dove, that’s why.’
‘You should let me help more.’
Mamma dropped the smoking lump of matter into the pot. ‘This is delicate and needs a slow and steady hand. Better I do it. And never fear, there’ll be time enough for learning this when you’ve mastered the kitchen simples.’
‘They’re mastered, Mamma. I can make them blindfold, every single one. You promised you’d train me in the secret arts when I was sixteen. Then you changed your mind, and said when I was eighteen. And still, even now I’m waiting.’
Mamma threw her look that said, ‘not that old argument’. Giulia watched her mother hang up the tongs, wash in the stone basin, wipe her hands, wash and dry them again, examine them minutely, put her gloves back on, and then return to ministering to the fire.
She was used to her excessive cleanliness, though today it made her want to scream. Mamma dealt in grains and specks – granules of matter so small they could barely be seen. Not a single ant was allowed to tiptoe into her workroom; every table was scrubbed with lye and bleached white, and she made Maria burnish the tiled floor with beeswax to a high gloss.
Giulia hovered by the dispensing table, picked up a small lead weight from the scales, then put it down again. It was fruitless to discuss this again. But the words still came out of her mouth; ‘When will you train me in alchemy, Mamma? Who will make the remedies when you’re too old and sick?’
‘Tush. I’m hale as ever I was. Can’t get rid of me yet. Anyway, I’m far too occupied at the moment to spare the time.’ Mamma shrugged and turned away again to stir the pot. ‘Pass me that flask, will you.’
The sight of Mamma’s bent back, with the neat grey curls poking from under her starched cap, and the hunch of her shoulders, suddenly made Giulia furious. By God, she’d make her listen this time. Deliberately, she picked up the slender glass flask from the table, opened her fingers and let it crash to the ground.
Mamma whirled round at the sound of splintering glass, astonishment in her face.
About the Author
She lives on the edge of the beautiful and literary English Lake District – a place made famous by the poets Wordsworth and Coleridge.
For more information, please visit Deborah Swift’s website. You can also find her on Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads.
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The Poison Keeper