Excerpt: Lent by Jo Walton

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Young Girolamo’s life is a series of miracles.

It’s a miracle that he can see demons, plain as day, and that he can cast them out with the force of his will. It’s a miracle that he’s friends with Pico della Mirandola, the Count of Concordia. It’s a miracle that when Girolamo visits the deathbed of Lorenzo “the Magnificent,” the dying Medici is wreathed in celestial light, a surprise to everyone, Lorenzo included. It’s a miracle that when Charles VIII of France invades northern Italy, Girolamo meets him in the field, and convinces him to not only spare Florence but also protect it. It’s a miracle than whenever Girolamo preaches, crowds swoon. It’s a miracle that, despite the Pope’s determination to bring young Girolamo to heel, he’s still on the loose…and, now, running Florence in all but name.

That’s only the beginning. Because Girolamo Savanarola is not whoor whathe thinks he is. He will discover the truth about himself at the most startling possible time. And this will be only the beginning of his many lives.

Lent by Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy Award-winning Jo Walton is a magical re-imagining of the man who remade fifteenth-century Florence—in all its astonishing strangeness. Lent is on sale on May 28.

Chapter 1

Thy kingdom come.

APRIL 3RD, 1492

Have the Gates of Hell been opened? Shrieking demons are swarming all over the outside walls of the convent of Santa Lucia, everywhere the light of their lanterns reaches. It’s unusual to find so many demons gathered in one place. They are grotesque and misshapen, like all the demons Brother Girolamo has ever seen. Stories abound about demons that can take beautiful human forms for the purposes of seduction and deceit, but if there is truth in them, God has never revealed it to him. He sees only the monstrous and misshapen. Some are almost human, others seem twisted out of animal forms. One, swinging from an unlit sconce beside the doorway, has an eagle’s head in place of a phallus—both mouth and beak are open, emitting howls of mocking laughter. Others flaunt all-too-human genitals, of both genders. One, perched above the door, is pulling open the lips of its vagina with both hands. Hands, head, and vagina, are huge, while the legs, arms, and body are tiny. Taken together, the demons remind Girolamo of the gargoyles serving as waterspouts on Milan cathedral, except that those are the colour of innocent stone, while these are the colours of all-too-guilty flesh.

He glances at the two monks flanking him. There is an old pun on the word Dominicani where, instead of its true meaning, “follower of the rule of St Dominic,” the word is split into two in Latin, “Dominicani,” the hounds of God. Brother Silvestro, short and swarthy, the greying hair around his tonsure tightly curled, is like an old grizzled guard dog, and Brother Domenico, tall, broad shouldered, with the pink cheeks of youth, is like an overenthusiastic puppy. Brother Girolamo sometimes sees himself, with his long nose and his ability to sniff out demons, as a Pointer in God’s service. “Anything?” he asks.

Brother Domenico frowns, holding his own lantern high. The swinging light and shadows ripple over demon wings, scales, and fur. “I think I can hear something—it sounds like distant laughter. It’s very unsettling. I can see why the nuns might be disturbed.” A demon with stub-wings and a snake’s tail hanging from the eaves pulls open its beak with both hands and roars close by Domenico’s head. His peaceful countenance remains unchanged. Another, scaled all over, nips at him with its dog’s head. Girolamo makes an irritated gesture towards them, and they shrink away. Good, they still fear him.

Brother Silvestro is gazing intently down at one that is fondling itself with one hand as it tweaks at the edge of Silvestro’s black robe with the other. “I don’t see or hear anything, but I feel an evil presence here,” he says.

The convent echoes with the demonic laughter. Girolamo is more inclined to cry. Domenico and Silvestro are the best of his brothers, the most sensitive to such things. The fiends are all around them, visibly, audibly, palpably present, and Domenico could perhaps hear something, while Silvestro could almost feel a presence. No wonder the forces of Hell gain ground so rapidly in the world when they can do so unobserved. He himself had dismissed the rumours from Santa Lucia at first. Hysteria among nuns is much more common in the

world than demonic incursions. He is only here now because the First Sister was so persistent. Why are the forces of Hell unleashed here? Why is this little Dominican convent on the south bank of the Arno of such interest to demons at this time? It’s true that the little commonwealth of Florence is home to many sinners, but he has never seen so many demons gathered anywhere. If he banishes them immediately, he will never know. Better to let them rampage just a little longer while he investigates.

“Is there something here?” Silvestro asks.

“Yes. Just as the First Sister told me, it’s full of demons,” Girolamo says. He rings the bell, which cuts clearly through the renewed demonic bellowing. “God is truly guiding your senses.” If feebly, he does not add. Few people seem aware of the presence of demons at all. Silvestro and Domenico at least feel something. He looks at them as encouragingly as he can, his good honest brothers, each with a lantern in one hand and a flask of holy water clutched tight in the other. They look back at Girolamo with identical expressions of expectant trust.

With a grating sound that rises above the clamour of the demons, a nun draws back bars inside and opens the door a crack. “Thanks be to God. Who’s there so late?” she asks, and then recognizes him. “Oh, Brother Girolamo!” She opens the door wide. “Please come in, Brothers.”

He strides in, passing under the demon over the door, who leers down at him. Inside is a cloister, stone arches supporting a covered walkway running around a central garden square. It must be pleasant enough ordinarily, but right now it is as demon-infested as the rest of the place. He takes a step to the right, stops, and takes a step to the left. The wardress stares.

“What are you doing?” Domenico asks, his voice full of trust in Girolamo. Domenico is intelligent, if young and overenthusiastic. He is also deeply devout. And he has seen enough to make him believe utterly in Girolamo’s powers. Domenico’s unswerving faith in him can at times exceed his own faith in himself. He looks into that deep reservoir of faith and trust in his brother’s eyes and doubts for a moment—is it right for a man to trust anything human that much? Well, he would with God’s aid endeavour to be worthy of Domenico’s trust.

“I’m hoping they’ll try to prevent me going in one direction, so I’ll know where they don’t want me to go,” he explains. “But they don’t seem eager to cooperate. We’ll just have to search the place.” He turns to the wardress. “Can you take us to the First Sister? I don’t want to cause a panic among the nuns by going among the cells unheralded.”

“Wait here, I’ll wake her,” the wardress says, bustling off. He can barely hear her answer over the racket the demons are making. There is clearly something here they don’t want him to find. Interesting.

Girolamo sits on the wall of the cloister and folds his hands in his sleeves. The clean green scent of medicinal and culinary herbs rises up around him from the garden behind. His brother monks sit down beside him. The sobbing laughs of the demons rise all around, but they keep away now, scuttling from shadow to shadow catching the lantern-light along the edges of his vision. He ignores them as best he can and waits with what patience he can muster. Patience is not one of the gifts God has granted him. Rather the opposite. He has always burned, as long as he can remember. He burned as a child in Ferrara, wanting answers to questions his father and mother could not answer, and his grandfather only sometimes. Then he burned for education, for a girl once, which he does not like to remember, and then for God and the life of dedication and worship his parents refused him. He fled towards God. But even after he became a Dominican he burned, not so much the hard battle with lust, but with ambition. Pride. The everyday reality of the monastery was a disappointment. He burned then for more purity, more severity, more preaching, more rigor. He burned always with a desire to be closer to God.

He breathes deeply, and tries to identify the scents. Rosemary, comfrey, melissa, something sharp—a little bat-eared demon interrupts him by bellowing in his ear, and he banishes it impatiently with a gesture, drawing it through his fingers back into Hell where it belongs.

The wardress comes scurrying back, the First Sister following behind. He stands up. “It is very late, what brings you now?” the First Sister asks grumpily. Her headgear is a little askew. They keep the divine office properly here. She would have gone to bed after the Night Office at midnight, to sleep until Dawn Praise at three.

“You asked me to come across the river to exorcise your demons,” he says, trying to make his voice soft and gentle. He knows his Ferrarese accent sounds always harsh to the Florentines, so sometimes they hear his most ordinary speech as roughly intended. “You told me they plagued you after dark. I am here to rid you of them.”

“Brother Girolamo can see demons,” Silvestro puts in.

“Do you see them here?” the First Sister asks. “You said it was imagination, hysteria, as if I can’t tell the difference after all these years.”

“I was mistaken, Mother.” He bows his head in humility. “I did trust your belief and experience enough to come to see for myself. You’re right. You have an infestation of demons. I could hardly avoid seeing them, they are so many.” He points at a dog-faced one with spikes on its back that is peering at the First Sister from behind a pillar. It darts away from his pointing finger. “There is one, and there—” A snaking shape, vanishing as he points at it. “And there, and there.” His finger stabs at them as they disappear into the shadows. “I am not surprised your sisters heard them, for they are shrieking and yammering so that my ears ring with their jeering. What puzzles me is why they are here, what’s drawing them, or who.”

“I’m sure all my girls are well behaved,” the First Sister says, drawing herself up.

“It needn’t be misbehaviour. They sometimes bother the especially holy, because they hate them more,” Girolamo says. “Something must be attracting them here. It may be one of your nuns, or something else. Do you have any new sisters?”

“Not very new—we have four novices, but the newest had been here for months before this began.”

“I’d like to walk through the convent before I banish the demons, to see if I can learn why they came,” he says.

“It’s true that you can banish them?” she asks, relief visible in the sudden relaxation of her shoulders. She isn’t an old woman, Girolamo realises, perhaps no older than his own forty years. It was anxiety that had lined her face.

“God has given that power to me,” he says, stiffly.

“What do you want to do? Sister Clarice said you wanted to search?” She spares half a glance for the wardress. Girolamo does not. “I want to find what attracts them. Come with me—we will all search together.”

“I cannot see the demons,” she says, uncertainly.

“No, but you can see that I and my brothers do nothing wrong,” he explains. “Show us the place.”

She begins to lead the way along the walkway of the cloister. “This is the chapel,” she says, at the first doorway. He holds his lantern high and looks inside. There is an altar, with a single wax candle burning before a plain wooden crucifix. On the wall is a fresco he cannot make out in the wavering light. The floor is tiled in red and black, a repeating pattern. The room smells of the candle, with a faint undertone of incense. There are no demons.

“That’s one place clear at least,” he says.

“I never feared them in the chapel,” the First Sister says, and the wardress nods.

“You need not fear now. They will not harm you when I am with you,” he says. Earlier the First Sister had told him a tale of overturned inkpots, spoiled bread, spilled soup, and similar little misfortunes. He felt compassion for her, doing her best to keep her little realm together, as he did his at San Marco, but without his resources.

“Some of the girls have been pinched black and blue, and when I came back from visiting you this afternoon, I was told that Sister Vaggia heard a trumpet blow in her ear as she was coming down the stairs, and tumbled,” she says.

“I am with you now,” he says, calmly. “Was Sister Vaggia badly hurt?”

The First Sister shakes her head. “Bruises and scrapes. But she could have been killed.”

“Not likely,” he says. “God does not seem to allow demons power to do true harm.” She leads on again. “We don’t know why God permits them into the world at all.” At the end of the cloister is a set of stone stairs leading upwards, probably the stairs down which the sister had fallen. The foot of the stairs is barred with demons, one like a skeleton, another with one long arm and one short one, another covered with multiple breasts everywhere beneath the chin. They scatter as he advances on them. “But their power to harm seems limited, unless they have human help. Then they can be truly dangerous.”

“If they possess someone, you mean?” the First Sister inquires as she leads them up the stairs.

“Yes, or if someone enters into a compact with them.”

“Surely no one would do such a thing?” she asks, sounding shocked at the idea.

The demons set up their screeching again, perhaps trying to drown out what he is saying. He raises his voice a little, though he knows none of the others can hear the demonic screams and laughter that hang behind his words. “Strange as it is to think, some will risk eternity for Earthly power.”

“And can the demons give such power?” she asks. They follow the First Sister down a corridor lined with cells. He can smell tallow candles, though none are lit now. She opens each door as they come to it, and he looks in. Each one holds a handful of demons, darting away from his light, and a single sleeping nun, on a straw mattress beneath a devotional painting. Some of them sleep quietly, others move restlessly in their sleep.

“They promise it, and sometimes it seems they fulfil those promises,” he says, quietly, so as not to wake the sleeping sisters. “You only have to look about you at the world and see who has the earthly power to know that such compacts do occur.”

“But God—” Silvestro protests.

“God allows us free will, and allows the demons to work in the world. We have to make an active choice to seek God and what is good, and we have to repeat that choice over and over. If the temptations weren’t actually tempting, it wouldn’t be much of a choice, would it? The vanities of this world are empty, we know that, but we also know how hard it is to fast when a feast is spread before us. God put Adam in a garden where everything was fitting and there was only a single wrong choice, and still he was tempted and fell. Since then, we have lived in a world where we are surrounded by temptations and there are more wrong choices than right. But we can still win through to God, through his own grace and sacrifice.”

Silvestro does not answer. He is looking, as far as Girolamo can tell, at the bare arm of a young nun, flung out in her innocent sleep. The First Sister closes the door and they move on. The demons are everywhere, lurking along the edges of the light, but they seem to pay no more attention to one nun than to another.

“Is there nothing we can do against them?” the First Sister asks, as they come to the end of the corridor.

“Prayer,” says Domenico, confidently.

“Prayer works if we are firm in our faith and hold tightly to it,” Girolamo clarifies. “If we fear, or waver, as is so easy to do, then they can find a way past. But they hate prayer, and the name of our Savior.”

She opens the door to her own rooms. He notes a writing desk, a prie-dieu, her hastily disturbed bed, and the scent of lavender. The next door is to the novice dormitory, where four girls lie sleeping. “That’s Sister Vaggia,” the First Sister whispers, gesturing to a big-boned girl with a bruise visible down the side of her face. A demon is sitting boldly on her feet. It has a man’s face with a pointed beard, but the breasts of a woman. Everything beneath its waist is covered in scales. It shrieks piercingly and then laughs in Girolamo’s face as the girl wakes, terrified.

“Begone,” Girolamo says to it. The girl screams then, and the others, less sensitive to demons, wake and scream with her.

“Hush, girls, hush,” the First Sister says, uselessly.

The demon slides between Vaggia’s lips, and speaks with her mouth. “Mock monk, false friar, hell sunk, hell fire, so high, fly free, hell’s gate, see be, other brother, burn and smother—”

As soon as he sees the demon disappear into the girl, Girolamo hands his lantern to the wardress and steps forward into the room. His shadow falling before him in the light of the three lanterns looks as monstrous in shape as the demons. His flapping sleeves look like bat wings spread out at his sides as he raises his arms to take hold of the nun’s shoulders. He is uncomfortably aware of her young body beneath the thin nightgown covering it. She struggles and strikes out at the crucifix around his neck. “Friar Agira!” she shouts. “Friar Giraaffe, Giraffo! Gyration! Friar Agitator!” She strikes him hard in the chest as she deforms his name over and over.

“Come out of her,” he says, more for the comfort of the shrieking nuns than because he needs the words. “Begone, and let Vaggia be, in the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” The demon is peeping out from between Vaggia’s lips, and he is about to banish it when Domenico throws his holy water, soaking both Girolamo and Vaggia. He shudders at the cold shock, and the girl shudders too, and the demon bursts from her mouth as if she were vomiting it. It cowers away from Girolamo now it no longer has the protection of the girl’s flesh. He lets Vaggia fall back onto her bed and makes a circle between thumb and forefinger of his left hand. “Back you go, in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord,” he says. He felt the power of the holy name thrilling through him. He always feels that power, and so he is sparing of its use and never speaks it lightly. The demon is drawn towards him, compelled. It passes through the gap in his fingers and is utterly gone. The other demons flee the room, but he can hear them still rampaging through the monastery.

“Was that it? Was it Vaggia drawing them?” the First Sister asks, her voice shaking as she speaks. He wonders what she saw. The only things visible to worldly eyes would have been him leaning over Vaggia amid her babbling and the screaming of the other girls, and then Domenico throwing the water.

“No. Though she is especially sensitive and holy and should make a fine sister,” Girolamo says. He does not know if the sobbing girl can register what he is saying, but he knows the First Sister will, and the other novices, who are all staring at him wide-eyed. “It used her fear and pain, nothing more. There is something else. Let us go on. Domenico, next time wait until I call for the water. There was no need.”

Domenico looks abashed. “I feared for you,” he says. “And it worked.”

“It drove the demon out of her, yes, but I could have done that without a soaking.” He takes his lantern back from the wardress. “Let us move on.”

“Stay to comfort the novices and get everyone quiet and back in bed, Clarice,” the First Sister instructs the wardress. Doors are open all along the corridor and nuns are peering curiously out. It is probably the most exciting thing that has happened in Santa Lucia for years.

The First Sister leads them in the other direction, down a flight of stairs, through the kitchen, where bread is rising with a strong yeasty smell, then through storerooms, laundries, with a faint scent of harsh soap, and finally through the refectory, where the aroma of last night’s bean soup lingers. His sandals squelch as he walks. He sees no more demons, but he hears them still.

“Is that everywhere?” he asks, disappointed, as they come back out into the cloister.

“Everywhere but the library,” the First Sister says.

“You have a library,” Silvestro asks, surprised. Any Dominican monastery should have a library, but many women’s houses do not.

“We each read a book every year, as the Rule of St Benedict dictates,” she replies. “We recently had a bequest of additional books from the King of Hungary.”

“Show me,” he says, excited. He has always loved books, though like his namesake saint, Jerome, he has had to teach himself to hunger only for those that were wholesome.

The library is dark now, but he can see by the shapes of the windows that it would be well lit in daylight. It is not a proper scriptorium such as they have in San Marco, but it is a good room. It smells of leather and good wax candles. The demons completely fill all the space in the room, and the sound they make is deafening, louder than the streets of Florence at the end of Carnival. Whatever is drawing them, it is here. “Stay back,” he says to the others. “And no more water unless I call for it.” He takes a step inside. The demons withdraw reluctantly, making a clear space around him. He moves to where they are thickest, holding the lantern high on one hand and searching with the other hand outstretched until he touches it. He finds himself reluctant to grasp it, though it seems to be just an ordinary brown-covered book. He draws it forward, ignoring the howls of the demons. They can not speak proper words unless they are encased in flesh, but they keep up their endless gibbering and laughter. He turns the book so he can read the title in the lamplight. Pliny. Strange. He was a secular author, a Roman, a nobody. Not the kind of book you’d expect demons to be drawn to. He opens the cover, and sees that the pages have been hollowed out in the centre to make the book almost a box. In the gap is a flat green stone, about the length of his palm, and as thick as his thumb, with a shallow depression in the centre.

“Now I have you,” he says, conversationally. He sets the lantern down on the writing table and moves the book to his right hand. With his left, he makes the circle again. “Begone, you legions of Hell, begone all of you foul fiends, in the name of Jesus Christ!” Rapidly, but one by one, the demons stream through the space between his fingers and vanish. The silence that replaces their clamour beats on his ears. “Thank you, Lord,” he says, and wipes his empty hand on his robe before taking up the lantern again.

“Are they gone?” Silvestro asks.

“Yes, all gone. Can you tell?” he asks, hopefully.

“I think so,” Silvestro answers. “I sensed some change, as if the wind had changed and blown a more wholesome air.” “And it’s quiet now, isn’t it?” Domenico asks shyly. “Yes, yes, it’s quiet.”

“Thank you, Brother Girolamo,” the First Sister says. “Thank you for believing me, thank you for coming here.”

“God has given me these gifts, I must use them for the good of all,” he says, in complete sincerity. “I will keep this book, if I may, or it will draw them here again. Them, or worse things.”

She nods emphatically. “Please take it. And anything we can do for you.”

He smiles. “There will be work enough. Meanwhile, it must be almost time for Dawn Praise. Wake all your sisters up early and gather everyone in your domain into the chapel to give thanks to God for this deliverance. We will do the same when we get back to San Marco. Prayer will help us all.” It would steady him, certainly, as the prayers and rituals always did.

“Is it true that Magnificent Lorenzo is dying?” she asks.

“Yes, everyone is saying his death will be on him soon.”

“And is it true that you foretold it?”

“Yes,” he says, baldly. It annoys him that she asks, treating him as a kind of oracle. It annoys him too that God had vouchsafed to him such a worldly prophecy, such a petty matter as the death of a gouty merchant prince. Girolamo has never met Lorenzo de’ Medici. He has in fact avoided him, for reasons that are partly pride and partly a confirmed distaste for hobnobbing with the rich. Easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, after all.

“God be with you,” she says. “And with all of you here.”

Copyright © 2019 by Jo Walton

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1 thought on “Excerpt: Lent by Jo Walton

  1. This is everything I had hoped for when I first read about this book. I can’t wait to dive into the full story. Florence and the DeMidici’s have a fascinating history – ripe for a story including fantasy and the supernatural.

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