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In this captivating debut, Christi Phillips blends fact and fiction, suspense and sensuality into a vibrant, richly imagined novel in which a modern historian uncovers a courtesan's secret role in a shocking conspiracy of seventeenth-century Venice.
The Hanged Man 3 March 1618 Her hands looked unnaturally pale in the moonlight. For a moment, Alessandra forgot the bitter wind that kicked up an icy spray off the lagoon, and regarded her hands as though they belonged to someone else: a conspicuous ridge of bone-white knuckle, with pallid veins that were faintly visible through milky flesh. As they approached the Ponte San Biagio, she realized how tense she was, how tightly she gripped the edge of the gondola. Calm yourself, she thought, and released her grasp.You must be calm.She reclined against the seat cushions, assuming a relaxed posture she did not feel, and the coarse fabric of her costume bunched uncomfortably against her back. She chose to ignore it.If Nico sees that you are uneasy, he will insist that you return home. Her manservant steered them into the Rio dell' Arsenale, leaving behind the lagoon where they'd hugged the shore since leaving her house at the southeast end of the city. The canal was empty and quiet, devoid of movement and light, save for the silent passage of the gondola and an occasional torchlight that trembled in the black water. The houses along both sides were shuttered and dark. They would remain that way until morning, while the inhabitants celebrated elsewhere: in the Piazza, in the smaller public squares, in the palaces along the Grand Canal. The end of Carnival was only three days away. After weeks of celebration, the revelry had built to a frenzy, as in the tale of a bewitched princess who danced for days and nights without rest. When morning dawned on Ash Wednesday, fragile and silver fogged, all of Venice would fall into a limitless sleep, as if under an enchantment. They turned into the Rio di San Martino, then into a narrow waterway that circled west toward the Piazzetta dei Leoncini. In their wake, small waves gently slapped against stone foundations smothered in clumps of thick, glistening moss. She could reach out and brush the damp stone with her fingertips if she desired, so close were the buildings, and she inhaled their familiar grotto scent with a kind of reverence. Traveling through Venice at night always filled her with a rising excitement, but tonight her anticipation was tinged with fear. Alessandra tried not to think about what waited for her at the end of her journey, which was quickly approaching. Already she could hear strains of music. Then came an indeterminate cry -- of fear, passion, or laughter? -- that echoed off stone walls and was abruptly silenced, leaving once again the oar's rhythmic squeak and splash. Soon there appeared a harbinger of the celebration at the city's center: a single gondola with a red lantern at its bow glided slowly toward them. Seated within it were two velvet-breeched men wearing the masks of pagan gods, and two elegant courtesans with feathered headdresses that resembled exotic birds, whose ruby lips and bejeweled throats gleamed in the rosy light. As the gondola passed, these fantastic creatures turned to regard her with a languid curiosity; then one of the strange, hybrid women wet her rouged mouth with her tongue and reached out her hand in silent invitation. Alessandra felt as if she were merely a spectator at a passing show. Then she and Nico were swallowed by the shadow of a bridge and disgorged again, and all at once they were enveloped by music and light and laughter, a riot of color and strange costume, as the crowds along Calle Canonica pressed into the Piazza. Nico halted the gondola and exchanged a wordless look with Alessandra before she stepped onto thefondamentaand rushed away. The Piazza was bright with torchlight, alive with music and revelry, but she could not join the general high spirits; the sinister maw that waited for her in the dark courtyard of the Doge's Palace filled her with dread. Thebocca di leone, the lion's mouth, was a special receptacle cr