Sigismondo is an Italian Condottieri, a mercenary for hire. Though he has enough money and treasures to retire and live comfortably, he still travels through Italy solving crimes and other problems for the rulers of the many Italian city-states, solving problems for the rulers who tend to use murder, poison and intrigue to wage war with other rulers, that is, when they aren't actually waging war via mercenary armies.
Sigismondo is in Borgo to witness the wedding of its Prince, Galeotto, to Princess Arianna of Altamura, along with his servant, Benno, and Benno's pet dog, Biondello. But strange doings darken the wedding festivities- first, a mannequin of Ariella, hung from a garland in celebration, alongside a similar mannquin representing her soon-to-be bridegroom, is brought down nearly on top of the bride with a slingshot. The falling mannequin hits her horse, which is bruised, but the lady herself is all right.
Sigismondo approaches Galeotto and tries to warn him that this may mean someone is out to do either him or his bride-to-be harm, but the fat and balding Prince is more interested in the delights to come from the marriage- the feasting, and the body of his nubile young bride. He considers the problem dealt with when he has the man who hung the mannequin flogged and hung. The stepmother of the bride is more concerned, but Duchesse Violante can't force Galeotto to do her bidding. This isn't her husband's city, and she has no power here.
But the next day, at a night spectacle and feast in her honor, Arianna is found dead in a pavilion constructed especially for her by her husband. The fact that her husband's bride-gift of golden bracelets set with diamonds were copies of ones he had already given to one of his mistresses, confessed to her by one of her maids, and the other fact that the pavilion had also been a present to the same mistress had enraged her, and she'd quarreled quite loudly with her husband and the mistress in question, who'd been set to become one of her ladies-in-waiting, was noticed by more than a few, and leads many of the revelers to assume that Galeotto killed her, especially when some of the golden buttons off his sleeves are found wedged into her bracelet, as if in a struggle.
But Sigismondo finds evidence that Arianna was under the influence of a sleeping draught when she was killed, and she was strangled to death, so it is unlikely that the buttons got in her bracelets while someone was killing her. And he also finds the evidence as to how the killer got close enough to the pavilion to kill her without being seen. Asleep, she was an easy target. So who else had been summoned to see her before she died?
Sigismondo goes to see Galeotto's mistress Zima, she of the matching set of bracelets. But she no longer has them. Arianna stripped her of them and threw them in the mud outside the pavilion when she confronted Zima the night before. Sigismondo found one of them, partly crushed, in the mud outside, which was how he knew Zima was there. Galeotto wants Sigismondo to find the killer of his bride, but he has other concerns in mind as well.
For one, he is building a new fort on land which once belonged to Altamura. Since the border between the two city-states is a river, when the river shifted its banks to be closer to Altamura, Borgo was enlarged. However, the land is under dispute, as Altamura still considers the land theirs, and are in talks with Borgo to determine who ultimately owns the land. Galeotto has decided to jump the gun and construct a new fort on the land, which will not only cement his right to the land, but allow him to defend it should the outcome of the talks not go his way.
When Sigismondo is attacked by an assassin at the home of Galeotto's other mistress, Leonora, it is revealed that she was in on the plot to kill Arianna. She is also the one who "found" the body, and Sigismondo concludes that the man who attacked him is also the killer of Arianna. Although he's skilled with a sword, his true expertise is in the use of the bolo, a weapon which can leave the same marks as a garotte.
Then, Galeotto is attacked at his wife's funeral, making him doubly burn to catch the killer. He implores Sigismondo to do so, but Sigismondo leaves with Duchess Violante when she is set to return home to Altamura, and her husband, Duke Ippolyto. On the way, she and her party discover the fort Galeotto is building, and Sigismondo pretends to be an engineer inspecting the fortress for Galeotto, then uses the gunpowder stored in the fort to bring it down, at her request.
But their journey to Altamura is not a peaceful one, and they are attacked several times on the way. In the last attack, Duchess Violante is captured by a bandit named Rodrigo Salazzo, and Sigismondo goes to her rescue, killing not only Salazzo, but his equally disreputable brothers as well, which makes Duke Ippolyto indebted to him. The Duke, too, is having problems in his city, and it is quickly clear that someone is manipulating events to cause problems for, and perhaps even kill the Duke.
But can Sigismondo discover who is behind the killer, even as he struggles to keep the Duke and his family safe? Will the Duke be forced to go to war to defend his land, or can Sigismondo solve the Duke's problems without troubling the people of Altamura with the burdens of a war? And can Sigismondo even save himself when the killer seems to be taking trouble to kill him first so that the way is clear to destroy the Duke and his family?
I have loved all of these books, which are actually a collaboration between two authors, Jill Staynes and Margaret Story, writing under the Pseudonym of Elizabeth Eyre. These stories came out in the 1990s and are mostly in hardcover (I have a few in softcover, but they are exceedingly hard to find). The reason why I tracked them all down is because they are simply so good. Each scene in the book comes alive, from the grand homes of the rulers of each city-state to the homes and businesses of the less fortunate.
Sigismondo himself is something of a cipher, and remains so in each book. It's not really his background that is important, or his family, but his keen wit, sharp eyes and ability to survive the lethal challenges fate throws his way as he searches for killers, plotters or poisoners. He himself is a striking figure- A Renaissance Sherlock Holmes who dresses in unrelieved black and is completely bald. He's so much a cipher that it's as if he disappears from the book, making only his ability to see, gather and put together the clues that solve the mystery he faces important. It's somewhat strange, but you never feel the lack of detail about him and his past unbalances the story in any way.
And most of the time, the story moves too quickly for you to even wonder about it. And the story keeps your attention, even in the midst of somewhat Byzantine mysteries. This is a book that makes you use your own wits as well as Sigismondo's.to solve the mysteries, and I love reading them. Reading this book was like savoring a full-course meal full of rich tastes and refreshing flavors. Well worth the time to enjoy. Highly recommended.