Excerpt from The Serpent's Tale by Ariana Franklin, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Serpent's Tale

by Ariana Franklin

The Serpent's Tale
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2008, 384 pages
    Feb 2009, 416 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Kathy Pierson

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Print Excerpt

But his parents regarded the ceremony as vital, if only to ensure the boy a Christian burial should the worst happen. Master Reed had been about to send for the shabby, peripatetic priest who served the area.

The Reed family watched in silence as bejewelled fingers wetted their son's forehead and a voice as velvety-rich as its owner's vestments welcomed him into the faith, promising him life eternal and pronouncing him "Geoffrey in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, amen."

"Fen people never say thank you," Adelia apologized, as, carrying her baby, she joined the prior in his barge, the dog called Ward scrambling in with her, leaving Mansur to follow in their rowing boat. "But they never forget, either. They were grateful but amazed. You were too much for them, as if archangel Gabriel had come down in a shaft of gold."

"Non angeli, sed angli, I fear," Prior Geoffrey said, and such was his fondness for Adelia that he, who had lived in Cambridgeshire for thirty years, remained complacent at being instructed in the ways of the fens by this woman from southern Italy.

Look at her, he thought, dressed like a scarecrow, accompanied by a dog that will necessitate fumigation of the bench it sits on, the finest mind of her generation hugging her bastard for joy at having delivered a brat into a hovel.

Not for the first time, he wondered about her parentage, of which she was as ignorant as he. Brought up by a Salernitan couple, a Jew and his Christian wife, who'd found her abandoned among the stones of Vesuvius, her hair was the dark blond sometimes seen on Greeks or Florentines. Not that anybody could see it at the moment, hidden in that unspeakable cap.

She is still the oddity she was when we first met on the road to Cambridge, Prior Geoffrey thought. I returning from the pilgrimage to Canterbury, she in a cart, accompanied by an Arab and a Jew. I put her down as their trull, not recognizing the virginity of a scholar. Yet when I began to bawl in pain—Lord, how I bawled, and Lord, what pain it was—despite all my company of Christians, only she played the Samaritan. In saving my life that day she reduced me, me, to stammering adolescence by manipulating my most intimate parts as if they were mere tripes to be cooked. And still I find her beautiful.

She had been obeying a summons even then, brought from her work with the dead of Salerno to be part of a team in disguise led by the investigating Jew, Simon of Naples, to find out who was killing Cambridge's children—a matter that seriously bothered the King of England because it was leading to riot and, therefore, a depletion of his taxes.

This being England and not freethinking Salerno, it had been necessary for Mansur, Adelia's servant, to set up as the doctor, with Adelia herself pretending to be his assistant during their investigation. Poor, good Simon—even though a Jew, the prior remembered him in his prayers—had been murdered in his search for the killer, and Adelia herself had nearly lost her life, but the case had been resolved, justice imposed, and the king's taxes restored to his treasury.

In fact, so useful had been Adelia's forensic skill in the matter that King Henry had refused to let her return to Italy in case he should need her again. A miserly and greedy ingratitude typical of kings, Prior Geoffrey thought, even while he rejoiced that it had made the woman his neighbor.

How much does she resent this exile? It wasn't as if she'd been rewarded. The king had done nothing—well, he'd been abroad— when Cambridge's doctors, jealous of a successful interloper, had driven her and Mansur out of town and into the wilderness of the fens.

Sick and suffering men and women had followed them, and still did, not caring if treatment was at the hands of foreign unbelievers but only that it made them well.

Reproduced with permission of Putnam Publishing. Copyright © 2008 by Ariana Franklin All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission.

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