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Bill Bucko

THE OUTCASTS -- Prologue

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Non voglio un figlio che pensa a se. Nessuno lo vuole.

I don’t want a son who has a mind of his own. No one does.

--Messer Agostino Tramontano (1350?-1409)

Prologue — March 1400

He was made to wear chains in his illness and delirium, though the weight of the castle pressed against his eyelids with the five years he had been here, the years that were meant to crush him, and his hands reached nothing in the darkness but the bed of straw and a few rough stones of the wall.

He struggled to his knees.

Spasms racked his body, as visions swarmed through his tortured mind. He squeezed his eyes shut and fought with what was left of his strength. Finally he gave a shudder and lay still at last, exhausted. The links of iron held him in an embrace more intimate than a lover’s, cold metal against burning flesh, as fire raged through his limbs.

He shook his head.

Is it the fever? Is that why she haunts me?

He reached out, as a shape loomed closer ... he did it against his will, knowing she couldn’t be real.

“Whore!” he cried into the darkness, as his fingers closed on empty air. “You’ve betrayed me! ... Haven’t you?”

She turned away in silence, like the wraith she was ... but not before he saw what was in her eyes.

“I need you,” he whispered. “I wouldn’t admit it, but ... I need you ...”

He fell back, in despair.

Sometimes the fire died down and ice began to swell like a wintry flood through his veins. Then the fever retreated, to lurk smoldering in the dark space behind his eyes, where the visions came from. He writhed on the bed ... not seeing her any more ... till cold sweat beaded his forehead and matted the hair around his bald crown.

“God, I pray to Thee—”

His beard was a tangle of gray, and pain had etched rivulets around the narrow eyes and petulant mouth.

“Is there no one to hear me?”

He raised his hands, to show heaven the manacles on his wrists. But the burning in his lungs was like a load of rocks on his chest.

He stared into the night. He had found no help for all the pain of his life, and few answers.

Answers?

He shook his head.

There was nothing left, in the darkness that stretched on all sides—only that innermost kernel of strength that was life itself—taunting him, reminding him of his own stubborn defiance that had brought him here. He buried his fists in his eyes ... till somewhere between waking and sleep the dream came to trouble him again, against his will. At least it seemed like a dream ... the images blurred, the voices distant, as though they had nothing to do with him and came throbbing and unreal from the fever that burned inside his skull—and in that mockery of a dream from long ago he saw the duke of Milan on his throne, deep inside the fortress at Porta Giovia, a rampant viper blazoned over his head—and he saw himself as he had been years ago, standing in the near darkness.

It all came back to him.

The torches burned feebly ... and in their half-light the duke nodded and gave him permission to approach.

“Messer Agostino, you bear a message?”

He nodded. “Your Excellency—”

“You Florentines must submit. That’s your destiny ... whether you will or no.” The duke ran talonlike fingers through a pointed red beard. “What do you say to that?”

He bowed.

“Your Excellency, all men fear you. No other lord is as mighty in all of Italy. But we will not submit.”

The duke sneered to his courtiers, who took the hint and laughed. “Don’t you wear chains every day of your life?”

“The laws of our city aren’t a chain.”

“Yet they serve well enough,” the duke mocked. “You obey your guilds, the Signoria, the parties.”

He bowed again, reluctant to admit it. The hall of the castle was cramped and unheated, draped in the Visconti colors of scarlet and white, with too much gilding on the heavy stone walls and not enough light to see it properly. He swallowed his fear. “We have at least the spirit of liberty.”

The duke nodded. “Appearances are important. Now if you were under my rule—”

“I said the spirit of liberty ... not the appearance.”

The duke leaned forward, and the long trailing sleeve of his gown seemed to tremble. “Don’t you think you’re too free with your tongue, Messer Agostino? When I can cut off your trade at any moment?”

“Your Excellency—”

“Remember, you need those routes to the sea.”

“Your Excellency,” he repeated, “may I tell an ancient tale? Perhaps it holds a lesson for us.” In the suddenly silent hall among all the grim, hostile faces he was alone, with no weapon to help him but the truth.

“A mighty king rode out to war, with archers, charioteers and footsoldiers ... but though his army was three times greater, he was crushed with all his forces. So he fled to the mountains. Falling into fever he cursed the name of the Lord, saying, ‘Why hast Thou done this to me?’ ... And God spoke to him, saying, ‘Thou art an enemy of Mine.’

“The king cried, ‘Is my foe such a lover of Thee, that Thou goest to his aid?’

“The Lord answered, ‘It pleases Me to destroy My enemies by means of My enemies. Therefore gird thyself, and ride out again with thy handful of warriors, though thy foe is swollen twice as great.’ The king did so, and slew so many that his foe never rose again.” He raised his eyes. “And though we have only the spirit of Liberty, so may we Florentines rise up—”

The court astrologer spat at his feet.

“What insolence!”

“The dog!”

“Son of a dog!”

“Where does he think he is?” they taunted ...

The dream spun away like a torch waved before his eyes, then flung over the battlements into the dead of night. It left him in anguish, as he awoke with a moan. It had really happened. It was that scene, in which he bearded the tyrant of Milan in his own capitol, that had led to his imprisonment.

He remembered it all ...

“Leave our presence,” the duke told him coldly, after the courtiers fell silent, “we do not wish to look upon your face again, Messer Agostino. Florence may send other ambassadors if she wishes to treat with us.” He could still recall that voice, though it had been years ago. “You have three days to quit our dominions ... Be sure to take the road through Piacenza, where our cousin will treat you as becomes a Florentine envoy.” The duke pretended to smile, following Messer Agostino with his eyes as he left the hall, and leaning to whisper to one of his captains.

They had saddled their horses in haste, to ride out of Milan by the south gate, across the Ambro and the new-mown fields that lay burnt and yellow under the sun.

“You were too bold,” Ser Filippo the lawyer chided him from his dappled gray, “too outspoken, and you displeased the duke.”

He looked up.

“What would I be if I had pleased such a man?”

They were in a hurry to report their failure, and the others didn’t envy Messer Agostino. But he seemed untroubled, as they rode along.

Then came the ambush near this remote castle. The deed was done on the territory of one of the duke’s puppet states, so it wouldn’t too obviously be laid to his account.

“Hold! Stand back!” soldiers cried, with a flash of swords from the bushes. He saw the notary cut down, then the lawyer and servants, till he was the only one left, with the cries of the dying in his ears.

“God help us!”

“Murderers!”

“Traitors—”

Someone struck the sword from his hand.

“Get him!” a man cried, pointing.

They dragged him from his horse to tie a rag over his eyes. They hurried him to this fortress and shoved him down endless corridors of stone, so many that he lost count long before they reached this cell and chained him to the wall. He shouted his protests, he pounded his fists on the door, but they only laughed. His rage could do him no good. As the days passed he heard the murmur of a river outside the walls, but no whisper of speech, not even footsteps in the corridor, till gradually the sound of the river disappeared, as though his senses were losing their acuteness. He raised his arms and sang hymns till he had no more breath in him. Then he fell silent. They starved him and kept him in solitude. He was so far from the world that sometimes he lost all self-awareness; there was loneliness, but no one to feel it, just the raw pain.

He pressed his face to the wall.

“Lord ... deliver me from evil ... if Thou art a true God,” he had whispered, more a long, voiceless moan than a prayer. “But if Thou art a traitor ... turn Thine ear from me and answer me not.” His untrimmed beard masked the grim set of his mouth, as he peered into the shadow ... a darkness that stretched forever, it seemed, mirroring his own distance from heaven. When no reply came and the weeks stretched into nothingness he beat his head against the wall with the feeble strength that was left him: “You tempted God! ... He was right not to hear you ... so He turns His back now.”

He lay helplessly, sharing the bed of straw with the rats and lice. He pressed his fists to his eyes till flashes of light tore through the darkness. He wasn’t here at all ... he was at the bottom of a deep well, drifting farther from the world, where no one could reach him. But there was an echo of the world he had left ... mocking shadows, the faces of the two sons he had sired, haunting him as they shifted and changed and faded as in a dream. He saw his first wife, Monna Silla, groaning as the black plague spots spread across her flesh ... and even more painfully, he saw Monna Teresa—her pale careworn face twisted in sanctity and bitterness, eyes glistening with tears that reflected no trace of love for him ... eyes that avoided his ... till with a suspicion that grew upon him he cursed her and called her unfaithful. He loved his wife but he also hated her for not being as strong as he was, for lacking the moral stamina ... His parents, long dead, haunted him too. Their faces were full of reproach, stern and silent in the cold stone rooms of the ancestral house, or at Sant’ Apollonia where he used to kneel as a boy ... calling on the blood of God’s own Son to fall on him and cleanse him from sin. His eyes filled with tears, as the candles blurred into stars of light ... he bowed his head and submitted himself to the Almighty, to serve Him and only do His will. He felt the presence of God. In the darkness of his dungeon, he saw ...

“This could only come from Him ... Perhaps He’s ... forgiven me ... He Who makes us strong … to face tribulation ... and withstand the trial ...”

Once a week a surly jailer came to empty the slop pail. There was bread and water every other day. He could go three short steps to the end of his chain, though they were more like stumbles, one, two, three, to the filth in the corner. The rattling iron cut his wrists as it fell in heavy links to the floor.

“Old man!”

No answer.

The jailer said: “When I speak to him he doesn’t hear.”

“Put that in the report.”

“You, there!” they called through the door, long after he had lost count of the days. “Are you ready to submit? The duke wants to know—”

He raised his head.

“I know no duke.”

“Old man! We’re talking to you! ... Do you hear us?”

He fell back. “Leave me alone.”

He squeezed his eyes shut. This isn’t real ... none of it is. He scraped a knuckle against the wall, unmindful of the pain, it was as imaginary as the vault of the ceiling that hung unseen in the darkness, somewhere close overhead. His eyes were unfocused ... for he had never really wanted to see. He denied what he didn’t want to face, trying to make it unreal ... retreating farther from the world, where his captors couldn’t follow. But no matter what blindness he created for himself he still tossed and turned in the night ... unable to escape his own mind, that bringer of doubts and fears.

He longed to be free of it ...

There were things he didn’t want to remember, voices he didn’t want to hear—why did they come back to haunt him? After his first wife died he thought he would never love again. But then, after years of loneliness, he found himself thirsting for young, virginal Monna Teresa. He won her after a difficult courtship, for she preferred the convent, and only pressure from her parents made her yield at last. But marriage had disillusioned him. She hated giving him her body, she thought it sinful and degrading. He remembered the quarrels between them as she pleaded to be left alone, with bitter hurt forcing tears to her eyes, eyes small and brown and glistening like a whipped spaniel’s. Her refusal took something from him which he could neither acknowledge nor ignore, leaving him shamed and crippled, less than a man. Not that he would share his feelings with her, nor she with him. No, they had gone their separate ways, their lives hardly touching at a single point ... as he tried to tear her from his soul, devoting his energies to the wool trade, to keep himself busy, and to forget. The lines of sternness in his face deepened and became set. When the Signoria appointed him to several small posts in the government it restored a measure of pride in himself. Until finally he was sent on this embassy to Milan with instructions to be conciliatory, the one thing he could never be; and that led to prison ...

He looked up. His fever had broken.

“Winter’s over ... day must be dawning, the air feels warmer, and ... I heard something,” he whispered, “the call of a bird, or ... I don’t know what ... but there’s something in the air.” He rubbed his wrists and ankles where the chains bound him. It was two days ago that his bread had come, he was fairly sure but not certain of it, with hunger gnawing at the wall of his stomach.

He lay back, peering into the darkness.

He was alone, forever alone.

And he vowed, as he had so often before, all the things he would do if he were freed. He had been weak—as most men were. But that would change.

“God, I swear to Thee—”

A rat scurried over his leg, to disappear under the bed.

Yet something was coming, some deliverance from God, in whatever form it might take. He felt sure of it.

It would be soon ...

Hours later, with nothing to precede it and no sign that anything was different, there came the thing least expected, the agony he had never felt before: his eyes exploded, as needles of pain stabbed down into his brain, and further, into his very soul. He flung his hands over his face. There was a lantern before him. He hadn’t heard the door unlocked, though the rusted metal usually protested loudly whenever intruders came to violate his private world. Figures stood around him as though in judgment, and rough hands grasped his hair and beard.

He was sitting up involuntarily, in the corner. A doctor seemed to be examining him, ear to his chest, tapping him in various places. The doctor pulled his eyelids back.

“Well?” someone asked, a voice not connected to a body.

There was no answer.

“What do you say, Ser Lapo?”

“His lungs are gone ... He can’t live out the year.”

“You’re sure?”

“As sure as I can be.”

“Stretch his hands across that stone.”

They struck off the chains with sledges. Each blow jarred him to the bone. But he would not look at them, nor would he break down and beg for food.

“You,” he heard, through the ringing in his ears. “Help him up.”

He rose into the circle of the lantern’s glare, wrists and ankles throbbing, supported by a hand under each arm. His head swam. But somehow, mechanically, he made his legs move ... Was he dreaming? They were going toward the door ... It slammed shut behind him, and he wanted to protest. His world was gone, that wasn’t right, not right at all ... He couldn’t tell how long they went on, up steep stairways, through dark cobwebbed arches stained with dripping water, going along with little will of his own. But at the end of a stone corridor he stumbled away from the guard and fell to his knees, facing a loophole that pierced the wall.

“How? He wants to disobey?”

He raised his head, to find a halberd poised over him. But he bent down to the rusted cross of iron that blocked the hole, and kissed it.

“The first cross I’ve seen ... in so many years.”

“Get on.” They shoved him roughly.

“I thought I could see our Lord upon it.” He fumbled to make the sign of the cross.

One of the guards spat. “There’s nothing in our orders about stopping.”

His feet barely moved as they dragged him upstairs.

They took him to a room furnished with chairs and table, to a man who seemed to be their leader. There was a brighter pain, something he didn’t understand coming through the barred window to flood the room, and it took him a minute to find the word: it was sunlight.

“Sit down, if you please.”

“What—?”

“Please sit down.”

They led him to a chair. He sank down heavily, to stare at his hands through a haze of blindness. But a voice deep inside him warned: Be careful ... don’t give them anything ...

Their leader stepped forward, in silver doublet and velvet sleeves, to bow with a flourish. His mouth bent into a cold smile, circled by narrow black mustache and carefully trimmed beard. “I congratulate you, your Excellency. Truly, I do. This castle has been captured by your friends ... The duke of Milan sets you free.”

He stared.

“The duke knew nothing of this.” The leader went to a table, poured a glass of wine and extended it with a steady hand. His eyes were circles of steel. “Do you understand what I’m saying? He knew nothing at all ... Why, he would never offer violence to the person of an envoy. He was moved to anger when he heard you were imprisoned ... Well, hardly that. But he did clap his hands and vow by the Virgin that your captors should die.” The guards stood by, indifferently and unconcerned. “You know how he venerates the Blessed Virgin,” he added. A dark-robed priest stood in the corner, watching gravely. “Is it your pleasure, my lord ambassador, to see them slain before your eyes?”

Were they addressing him? He had been an ambassador once, long ago ...

“I don’t understand—”

“But there’s nothing to understand.”

His head swam, and he felt faint.

He leaned back, too weak to resist, like a man of straw. These were the duke’s men, surely, in red and white livery, and there on the wall was the hated banner of Gian Galeazzo Visconti, son of Galeazzo and nephew of Bernabò. It didn’t seem possible ...

“Here, Messer Agostino.” They thrust a paper under his eyes. “Something for you to sign ... What is it? ... Nothing important.”

He saw the words “sent to work treason,” and remembered they had wanted him to sign this, long ago.

He shook his head. “No.”

“But it’s only a matter of form—”

“I refuse.”

They coaxed and pleaded for a while, in the hope that confinement had weakened his mind. Finally they gave up, and brought him food and drink. He tasted the wine involuntarily. He didn’t believe any of this; they were toying with him. His eyes focused with effort on the far wall. There was the shadow of bars across the deep embrasure of the window, and it was too high to climb, even if he could escape to that vision of moving leaves of green and gold against a sunlit sky. But it proved not to be necessary. That afternoon after more reassurances they took him down to the courtyard, and through the outer gate to a field beyond the moat.

The leader pointed to a row of bodies.

“Your captors.”

There were at least ten of them in ragged shirts, laid out like carcasses in the butchers’ market.

Messer Agostino stumbled across grass slippery with blood, to kneel and touch a body, against his will. They had been disemboweled.

He shook his head grimly, as flies searched out their entrails. They looked like peasants, not soldiers, and he recognized none of them. It’s a jest, he thought, the kind only they could think of.

“Are you satisfied, your Excellency?”

He said nothing.

Why? What is their motive?

“The duke always fulfills his vows. And his ambitions.”

There were clouds, a blue sky overhead, and a sun far too bright to look at. And the buzz of flies, the song of birds in the air, and an ache in his lungs whenever he tried to breathe.

“I’m free?” he stammered, not willing to believe it.

The leader smiled.

“But of course. The duke wishes it, as he has always wished it.”

They pointed out the road, as though he wouldn’t have known it. He stood swaying in the middle, weak and confused by the distance that stretched before him, but feeling stronger after the slight meal they had given him. He forced his body erect. Thirty men-at-arms stood crookedly in line. They bowed, dipping their viper’s flag, or rather pennant, which he saw was clutched in the hands of a page boy.

They know they’re doing wrong. Evil conscience peers out of their eyes ...

“God speed you,” said the priest. The doctor, a tall straw-haired man with a brand on one temple, turned away guiltily.

“I had no choice—” the doctor whispered.

Someone laughed, the rest kept their peace, and he began staggering down the long road to Florence on legs that felt like stumps.

They took him for a beggar along the way. He found an untrimmed branch, old and bent as he was, to serve for a staff. He gathered berries in the woods, and ate once in a while from the charity of fellow travelers, who wondered at his stumbling gait and tried to question him. But his proud glance discouraged inquiry.

“Take this bread. You’re one of Christ’s poor ...”

Sullenly he sank his teeth into the scrap, though it was old and hard.

“Florentines?” The merchant peered down from his horse, as a grimace spread across his craggy face. “Why, don’t you know? The duke closed our borders. No one trades with Florence any more.” He turned, slapping one of the mules of his pack train. “Want a place on the cart?”

The old man grunted.

“Go ahead ... Boy, help the man up.” Messer Agostino found a place and slumped down against a sack of grain. The cart lurched forward. The screeching of the wheels filled his senses, mingling with the clatter of hoofs. After miles of dust and discomfort, jolting over rutted roads under the hot sun, they drew near a walled city, passed through a dark gate after the toll-collector’s inspection, and turned down a narrow cobbled street to the market square.

“Farewell,” said the merchant, helping him down.

Messer Agostino fixed lifeless eyes on him, then turned away.

He found a doorway to sleep in that night, out of the rain, and in the morning a Franciscan found him and took him to the monastery. The monks put him to bed at once. His feet were torn and blistered. They thought he was mad or dumb, since he wouldn’t answer their questions. But eventually he got up and insisted in a weak voice that he was ready to continue on his way.

“You’re not strong enough—”

“I am.”

They watched skeptically, shaking their heads, as he stumbled down the road through the oaks of the valley below. But he didn’t fall.

“A miracle.”

“God gives him strength, no doubt ...”

“And the Virgin.”

“And the saints.”

His anonymous path took him through Parma, where the armies of Milan camped outside the walls in their striped tents, sprawled over acres of close-cropped fields, and Montaccio, where the ruined towers, scattered pikes and stink of unburied horses testified to the recent conquest. The Visconti banner was everywhere ... with its emblem, a viper swallowing a man. He stared ahead, placing one foot in front of the other in a mindless rhythm ... hour after hour ... till he couldn’t any longer, and his legs gave way.

“Who are you?”

“Agostino Tramontano,” he muttered, looking up.

“Are you ... ill?”

“No.”

“You don’t have ... the plague?”

He shook his head.

The peasant studied him, but could read nothing in the traveler’s eyes. “You’re welcome to spend the night at our humble house, just over the hill, though we can’t offer ... where’d you say you come from?”

He waved a hand toward the south.

“I’ll help you up.”

The first few days some of his fever lingered; but then, gradually, there were words in his mind: There has to be a reason for this. The fields before him were endless but they were free, and he could drink pure water from the streams when he fell down to rest, feeling the sky over his head, which wasn’t a weight but a blessing from God.

“I give thanks that Thou hast struck off my chains.” He knelt and prayed in the dust, before a rain-streaked shrine at the side of the road. A weather-beaten Virgin stared down at him, with eyes almost worn away. “Now is Thine hour, o Lord, and all unrighteousness shall perish from the earth ... and I am Thy servant ...”

What lay ahead?

He remembered a woman’s face ... her tears ... and a betrayal.

There were pilgrims on the road, bands of white-robed penitents who sang hymns and prayed for forgiveness as they trudged along:

Misericordia, eterno Dio,

Pace, pace, Signor pio,

Non guardare il nostro errore ...

(Mercy, eternal God,

Peace, peace, O gentle Lord,

Do not regard our errors ...)

They scourged their backs with knotted cords, till with every flick of the lash a shower of red droplets flew through the air, to spatter the dirt.

“Mercy!” they cried. “Mercy, o Lord ... mercy for the sinner!”

They set him on a mule and took him along, feeding him from their meager store of cheese and eggs. They left him near Modena.

He bowed to accept their blessing.

“Farewell ... you are one of Christ’s own.”

“And as God is true, He will watch over you.”

A roving band of mercenaries surprised him the next morning as he emerged from a cypress grove where he had spent the night. They peered down from their horses at this ragged derelict, who hardly seemed to merit their attention.

“Who are you?”

“Nobody.”

“We see that,” they laughed. “What money have you?”

“None.”

They searched his rags, gave him a blow with the butt end of a lance, and left him lying in the grass. He reached for his staff to pull himself up, dirt staining his hands, and stagger on with leaden steps. He mustn’t stop ... not for any weariness ... He forced his body to obey, as he always had subdued it to an iron will. It was one step after another, no matter how painful, in an endless rhythm that seemed to go on for weeks and months ... long after he had forgotten his purpose, with fever throbbing through his veins, his tongue dried and cleaving to his mouth.

But the fever passed, he awoke on a hill and found the sun rising in a flood of light over the plains.

His eyes widened.

“Home,” he whispered. “Soon I’ll be home ...”

He saw the foothills of the Apennines rising to the south, blue summits that would be cool when he awoke each morning, but dusty, hot and suffocating through the long afternoons, with sheep dotting the bare ridges and only a few lone pines for company.

The road disappeared into the distance.

He took up his staff.

With every step he was growing in purpose, in will, in clarity of mind. No fear could hold him back, now that God had freed him and preserved him for the day that was coming ... I’ve been through too much. He asked at each town, “What allegiance do you owe?” and when they answered “to the duke,” he cursed them with a shake of the head.

I’ll outlast them.

“Look at him,” they said, staring, as dogs ran barking at his heels. “That old man. Who is he?”

He turned on them.

“You’ve no right to pity me,” he snarled. “I’m a man. A man! ... Don’t you know what that means?”

“Here’s some wine,” a woman offered. “Take a drink.”

He brushed her aside. “Out of my way.”

They muttered after him, as he tottered down the road.

All men are weak, and sinful; but some are weaker than others. This is a test ... to see if I can stand it. And if I can—

He turned his back on the plains of Lombardy.

When he trudged into Bologna, footsore and weary, he saw that the city still held out. But in the eyes of her citizens, wherever he looked, he saw doubt ... the uneasy knowledge that it was only a matter of time. He shook his head grimly. Their walls and towers would do them no good. They would give in, submit, when the time came. That was the way, he thought, of lesser men. But it wasn’t his way ... He had heard Visconti’s praises all too often, as the man destined to rule Italy; the spirit of freedom had died out in men’s eyes. But he would change that. And soon. He would sit again in the councils of his city, where with patience, determination, and unrelenting hatred he would carry on the fight ... to the end.

Copyright © 2007 by Bill Bucko

All Rights Reserved

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Has The Outcasts been published in full yet? In print form?

Not yet. Patricia LeChevalier published several chapters (of an earlier version) in The Atlantean Press Review, a few years ago. More recently, the editor in chief of Prometheus Books found my description of the novel "intriguing," but returned the manuscript on the grounds that the only fiction they now want to publish is science fiction and fantasy. (I kid you not; he said fantasy.)

I will soon submit it to another (hopefully more reality-centered) publisher.

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This has the images for a great TV movie. How much history did you have to research?

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This has the images for a great TV movie. How much history did you have to research?

Two hundred books. Unlike most historical novels, the background is 95% accurate. I had to change very little. I was fortunate in finding a time and place that were perfect for my purpose: to dramatize the clash between religious and secular world-views.

Florence, the cradle of the Renaissance, is better documented than any other city of the time: there are huge archives full of letters, diaries, legal proceedings, etc. And these riches have been searched through and published by excellent scholars. Quoting the Afterword of my novel:

The Merchant of Prato
, Iris Origo’s detailed portrayal of a businessman’s everyday life around 1400, and her researches on Tartar slaves published in
Speculum
(July 1955), were extremely useful to me, as were the many original documents collected and translated by Gene Brucker in
The Society of Renaissance Florence
. And I’ve relied on a number of old guidebooks and maps, especially the 1904 edition of Elvira Grifi’s
Saunterings in Florence
.

My novel’s background is authentic in broad outline and in most details. It describes a little-known but critical moment of history—what scholar Hans Baron has called “the crisis of the early Italian Renaissance”—when Florence was fighting for its freedom against the duke of Milan. (This was under the oligarchy that ruled from 1382 until the Medici came to power in 1434.) Duke Gian Galeazzo Visconti, scholar Manuel Chrysoloras, the humanist chancellor Coluccio Salutati, Maso degli Albizzi and his fellow politicians, were all real persons. Chrysoloras (1353?-1415) taught most of the first generation of Renaissance humanists, and his activity in Florence marks the beginning of the Renaissance. The Tramontano family, however, are my own invention, as is the town of Val d’Aggia ...

I owe a debt to those wonderful scholars. My greatest debt, however--for revealing a dark secret that's been forgotten for centuries--is to W.E.H. Lecky’s classic History of the Rise and Influence of the Spirit of Rationalism in Europe. He documents something absolutely horrific that women did, out of belief in Original Sin, that led directly to my writing the climax of Chapter 5. No one could have invented what he reveals!

Several years after writing my Prologue, I found that the duke of Milan did in fact imprison a Florentine ambassador, whom he captured on the field of battle.

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This has the images for a great TV movie. How much history did you have to research?

Two hundred books. Unlike most historical novels, the background is 95% accurate. I had to change very little. I was fortunate in finding a time and place that were perfect for my purpose: to dramatize the clash between religious and secular world-views.

Florence, the cradle of the Renaissance, is better documented than any other city of the time: there are huge archives full of letters, diaries, legal proceedings, etc. And these riches have been searched through and published by excellent scholars. Quoting the Afterword of my novel:

The Merchant of Prato
, Iris Origo’s detailed portrayal of a businessman’s everyday life around 1400, and her researches on Tartar slaves published in
Speculum
(July 1955), were extremely useful to me, as were the many original documents collected and translated by Gene Brucker in
The Society of Renaissance Florence
. And I’ve relied on a number of old guidebooks and maps, especially the 1904 edition of Elvira Grifi’s
Saunterings in Florence
.

My novel’s background is authentic in broad outline and in most details. It describes a little-known but critical moment of history—what scholar Hans Baron has called “the crisis of the early Italian Renaissance”—when Florence was fighting for its freedom against the duke of Milan. (This was under the oligarchy that ruled from 1382 until the Medici came to power in 1434.) Duke Gian Galeazzo Visconti, scholar Manuel Chrysoloras, the humanist chancellor Coluccio Salutati, Maso degli Albizzi and his fellow politicians, were all real persons. Chrysoloras (1353?-1415) taught most of the first generation of Renaissance humanists, and his activity in Florence marks the beginning of the Renaissance. The Tramontano family, however, are my own invention, as is the town of Val d’Aggia ...

I owe a debt to those wonderful scholars. My greatest debt, however--for revealing a dark secret that's been forgotten for centuries--is to W.E.H. Lecky’s classic History of the Rise and Influence of the Spirit of Rationalism in Europe. He documents something absolutely horrific that women did, out of belief in Original Sin, that led directly to my writing the climax of Chapter 5. No one could have invented what he reveals!

Several years after writing my Prologue, I found that the duke of Milan did in fact imprison a Florentine ambassador, whom he captured on the field of battle.

I for one like to see history revisited this way, with minimal alteration of the background facts. You provide both education and entertainment. I approve of your clarification regarding the line between fact and fiction, because otherwise people could end up confusing the two. I wish more writers of historical novels went to this trouble. Compared to the goofy movies that dominate these days, this would make wonderful entertainment.

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I enjoyed this very much, Bill. I hope you are able to find a publisher, and I agree with those who indicated it was easy to visualize this and it would make for a good movie.

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Thank you very much for writing this, Mr. Bucko. It's gripping and moving. Plus, Agostino's early release from prison is a thrilling entry: the reader's identification with the wronged character [who may or may not be the main character] is upfront and complete. I very much look forward to finishing the story.

Is this a long novel or a short one?

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I enjoyed the prologue very much, and I will most certainly look forward to read the book. I am sure you will find a more reality-oriented publisher who will publish your novel (though I must say I love fantasy literature very much as well).

Thank you for posting it!

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Thank you very much for writing this, Mr. Bucko. It's gripping and moving. Plus, Agostino's early release from prison ...

Is this a long novel or a short one?

Thanks to everyone for their comments.

But he's Messer Agostino to you (and to everyone else)--or he'd knock you down with his staff! Messer and Ser correspond in form to the modern Mister and Sir; but they were applied only to those who had acquired a certain standing in the community. (Cf. Mess Lethiery and Sieur Clubin, in Hugo's Toilers of the Sea.)

Twelve chapters, 135,000 words.

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I expect to publish this novel soon on Amazon Kindle.

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I'm glad to hear that. Far better that it be available only electronically, especially as Kindle presence grows (including PC/Mac/iPad/iPhone devices), than not available at all.

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