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The Alchemist‘s Pursuit


Being even crabbier than usual, Maestro Nostradamus refuses a request from Violetta Vitale, the finest courtesan in Venice, to investigate the murder of her friend Lucia. But when another courtesan dies, and then another, the Maestro repents and sets Alfeo Zeno--his apprentice and Violetta‘s lover--to work gathering evidence. Their quest has hardly begun before the ruling Council of Ten intervenes, forbidding them to pursue the investigation. Any normal detective would be balked, but the Maestro is the finest seer in Europe, and even the implacable Council of Ten cannot prevent him from seeking to foresee the next murder and sending Alfeo to catch the killer in the act. The hunt becomes ever more urgent and desperate as it seems that Violetta herself may be destined to be the next victim and Alfeo begins receiving mysterious occult help that he did not ask for and probably dare not accept.


" These quotes are from the only reviews I've seen so far. Locus doesn't review this series, probably feeling that the stories are more mystery than fantasy. Personally I cannot see why a mixture of two cannot be BOTH and has to be just one or the other, but I cannot force someone to review my books, either. Duncan's outstanding third Venetian fantasy mystery... neatly blends a vision of magical Venice with an engrossing whodunit. " - Publisher's Weekly - Starred review

" The book is ideal for readers who like mysteries with historical settings and do not mind venturing into the fantasy section.... The author plays fair but the answers will surprise all but the most skilled armchair detectives. " - Gumshoe, March 2009

" Because Duncan uses mysteries as his model, each book in the Nostradamus fantasy series is complete in and of itself, and the charming little puzzle in this third installment is no exception. Again Duncan takes us to his slightly fantastical Venice, which has more magic than the original and just as much intrigue. " - Romantic Times

" Duncan plays off known Venetian history and politics, as well as theories of alchemy and demonology, subtly mixing the fantastical and the mundane. Alfeo's a witty narrator who loves his city, his mentor and his lover, and he describes a Renaissance Venice anyone would wish to visit. The Alchemist's Pursuit is simply terrific entertainment." - Doug Barbour in the Edmonton Journal

Sample Chapter

It took us only a few minutes to arrive at the Gradenigo palace, which is so large and sumptuous as to make even Ca‘ Barbolano look so-so. There were at least a dozen gondolas outside the watergate, and about twice as many gondoliers waiting in the loggia, gossiping in threes and fours. Only the rich use two boatmen to a boat, so I did not need the livery and insignia to tell me that a widespread family was gathering for the death watch. I noted a couple of boats pulling away, though, and assumed that they were carrying the news to more distant, or less wealthy, relations.

I was too late.

At the exact moment I stepped ashore, the bell of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari began to toll a few streets away. The bored boatmen made the sign of the cross and then carried on with their talk. They had already been informed of the death.

Had the dying man shared his urgent message with someone else? I had no need to knock, for the door stood open, and an elderly manservant waited there holding a piece of paper. I thought of San Pietro at the Gates greeting Giovanni Gradenigo.

"I am Alfeo Zeno. Friar Fedele sent for me. I have come too late?"

He bowed a smallish bow, frowning at my garb, then glanced down at his list. "Indeed you have, clarissimo." He looked behind him, into the grandiose hall. "The friar is coming now."

I walked into the great hall and wished I had time to admire the enormous splendor of marble, glass, and gilt--about a week would do. It all seemed like a monument to human folly in the presence of death, but Gradenigo would have seen it as evidence that he had preserved, and doubtless expanded, the family fortune. They would be reluctant to admit it, but the Venetian aristocracy admires rapacity above all.

Several people were standing around or moving about their business with suitable gravity, but I went straight for the priest, who was obviously leaving. We met halfway between door and staircase; I bowed.

Bareheaded and barefoot, Friar Fedele wore the gray habit of the Order of Friars Minor, with the belt cord dangling at his side tied in the required three knots, representing his vows of poverty, obedience, and chastity. Obedience is an old Venetian virtue that the Great Council enthusiastically preaches to the commonality, but poverty and chastity are rarely popular at any level.

The fringe around his tonsure was brown but his beard was closer to red. He seemed about thirty or so, with a weatherbeaten ascetic face, humorless and arrogant, a face chiseled out of granite, more suited to a Dominican than a Franciscan. Personally I like my clergy to be New Testament, warm and forgiving. One glance at Friar Fedele told you right away that he was straight out of the Book of Judges, all blood, blame, and brimstone. He looked me over, his gaze lingering for a moment on my rapier and dagger.

I held up the letter with his name on it. "I am Zeno, brother. I fear I have arrived too late."

He nodded. "Do not grieve unduly, Alfeo. He was much confused at the end. I wrote that letter because he insisted and we must humor the dying, but I don‘t think you would have heard anything of importance. He might not have known you."

"I am sure he would not, because we never met. I assume that he wanted to confide something to my master, Doctor Nostradamus, and asked for me because I am the doctor‘s aide?"

He gave me the same answer any other slab of granite would--silence.

"Do you know what messer Gradenigo wanted to tell my master?"

Fedele shrugged. "I cannot say. He was babbling much of the time."

"He was elderly, I believe."

"He had passed his allotted span, yes."

"But a good man, from all accounts." I believe in being charitable to the dead, lest they come back and haunt me.

"He was a fine Christian, a devoted husband and father, and he served the Republic well. He went peacefully to his reward." Fedele raised his hand to bless me.

I doffed my bonnet. Then I stood up and watched him stride away with his habit swirling around his ankles, bare feet making no sound on the terrazzo. I cannot say. Fedele had not said that he did not know. It was an odds-on bet that he knew perfectly well but had been told under the seal of the confessional. I glanced around the hall and decided that now was definitely not the time to pry. Whatever the dead man‘s problem had been, if anyone knew it, it would keep.

I went back out to the bustling landing stage and had to wait a few minutes before Giorgio was able to slip his boat in close enough for me to board. His oar stroked the water and we were on our way. The Frari bell was still tolling.

"Too late?"

"Too late," I agreed. "The dying man wanted to tell the Maestro something, but he‘s never been a patient or a client. Why the Maestro? Odd."

"He was a good man, they say." By "they" he meant the other boatmen, who often know more than most people know they know. "He did things for the poor."

Being one of those, I said a prayer for his soul.