A foray into the world of The Borgias, by far my favorite show on Showtime. The title is a bit of a play on words, belladonna both meaning beautiful woman and being the actual name for deadly nightshade. Please read and enjoy. Reviewers will get to play with Illeso.
Niccolo Adimari did his daughter no favors by dying in 1486.
At the age of fourteen, Caterina found herself unwed, without a father, and the sole benefactor of her father's will. Before his death, she and her father had run a modest but respectable apothecary. Now that her father was gone, she found that formerly trusting clients were less willing to buy from her. An unwed woman, running an apothecary by herself? It was hard for most people to believe that she could be very skilled in her profession.
But Caterina was skilled, and had always known more about herbs and plants than her father. It was why he had not tried to marry her off. Niccolo had needed his daughter to help him run the business. Unfortunately, when he died, most of that business went away.
Caterina did not wish to sell the shop, and had a strong suspicion that if she married she would end up feeding her husband amanita and nightshade at some point. The men who courted her were the sort her father had warned her to stay away from: they cared very much for her flesh but very little for her heart.
So she took business wherever she could, and expanded her wares into territory her father had always been loath to try. She grew amanita and nightshade, hemlock and wolfsbane, angel trumpet and hyacinth. These she grew separate from her other wares, simple herbs like basil and rosemary, and away from the flowers she used in her products, away from the roses and poppies. She advertised by word of mouth, and through back alleys and Rome's endless side-streets. She advertised the quality and effectiveness of her products, her unwavering discretion and silence, and soon every assassin in Italy knew that the best product for poisoning came from Caterina Adimari, and her small apothecary in Rome.
Still, business was always a day-to-day endeavor, and there were months when she wondered how she was going to pay her bills. Selling to assassins helped. They were, for the most part, willing to pay higher prices for the excellent quality of product that she provided. And it served as good evidence of the quality of her product and her use to the community that so far none of her clients had tried to kill her.
And, in truth, almost every plant she grew did have a medicinal or commonplace value, even those with more sinister purposes. The women of Rome, for example, flocked to the nearest apothecary for a solution of belladonna to dilate their pupils of all things. Caterina did quite a lot of business selling her nightshade, her lovely belladonna, to clients of all sorts. But she did not partake in the fashion of dilated pupils. After seeing what her beautiful belladonna had done to the rat in her shop when she had laced a piece of cheese with it was more than enough to persuade her that putting drops of nightshade in her eyes could not be advisable.
And her pupils were dilated enough, grazie.
On that particular day, shortly after the election of His Holiness Alexander Sextus in 1492, Caterina was just finishing up a last bit of business in her shop, which was situated just below her home. Her father had been lucky to find this bit of property in Rome, and Caterina had done her best to maintain hold of it since his death. It had good light, an essential for growing her wares, and it was close enough to the nearest well that watering her plants was easy and convenient.
She tended to her plants at the beginning and end of each day, giving them water and checking them for bugs or parasites. She worked wearing thin gloves, not for vanity, but simply because some of her wares were deadly enough that even touching them could prove harmful. Her wolfsbane and amanita were particularly potent, as was her precious belladonna. She had personally tested her wares on the local rats and stray dogs, and was more than pleased to advertise their efficacy.
She also walked to the cage in the back of the shop to feed her rabbit. She slipped some of the leaves she had just pruned from the belladonna into the cage. The rabbit looked up at her with his big brown eyes. "I have a special treat for you today, Illeso," Caterina chimed, "it's your favorite food."
In testing her wares, Caterina had learned a few years ago that, oddly enough, rabbits were immune to belladonna. She couldn't help but respect an animal that could withstand one of the deadliest poisons in her shop. So she had decided to keep the particular rabbit as a pet, a spotted male that she had named Illeso, unharmed.
Illeso started munching on the leaves. Caterina poked a finger through the cage. "Does that taste good, Illeso?" she hummed and smiled. She loved that rabbit. Tough as armor, that one.
She heard the bell on her door ring and straightened up. It was late for customers, but, then again, some of her less savory clientele had come to her in the middle of the night before.
"Buonasera," Caterina called as she walked back to the front room of her shop. "What may I do for you today, sir?"
The man standing in her shop was tall, with broad shoulders. He wore both a sword and a dagger on his belt, and his brown eyes could have pierced a hole in her floor. His red-brown hair was short, cropped nearly as close to his head as his beard. He looked as though he had not shaved for a few days, and his clothes could stand to be washed. But he didn't smell, and that was a relief to Caterina, who had a very sensitive nose. His voice was rough, almost a growl, but somehow unthreatening. "I'm looking for a potion," he said.
Caterina smiled. "And what type of potion do you seek, sir? You will have to be a bit more specific. What exactly do you want?"
Caterina paused. She knew the language of assassins well. "What you seek is rather expensive," she said, "and, forgive me, but I must ask in what way you wish to achieve this."
"Subtlety is not required for tonight." He was looking directly at her now. "And, your terms are of no issue."
Caterina nodded. This man was a professional. And his eyes were really something. "If you will give me one moment, sir."
Caterina walked to the back room of the shop and began looking through her poisons. This man was a new customer, and she knew that he was the sort she would want repeat business from. He didn't ask too many questions. He stated what he wanted, and was willing to pay a high price for her quality. For this man, nothing but the best would suffice.
She settled on a small vial of a coarse, white powder sealed with wax, and, taking it carefully in her hands, returned to the front of the shop.
"I believe that this will give you the desired effect," she said to the man. "It is completely tasteless and will leave no trace in wine." She handed over the vial. "But you will need to finish grinding it right before it is served. Refine it any sooner and it will lose its potency." The man pocketed the vial carefully, and handed over a small purse. "I assume this will serve for payment," he said.
Caterina emptied the purse onto a nearby table, and had to suppress a gasp when she saw the volume of gold inside. "Yes, this will do very nicely," she said. Then she turned around and smiled. "I do hope that you are satisfied with your product. And I hope that you will return to this shop for all your future needs."
The man nodded curtly. "Farewell," he said, and left.
Once he was gone, Caterina sighed and collected up the coins. Such customers as that man were hard to come by. She knew to never ask questions of the assassins that she served, and yet she did find herself wishing she at least knew his name. She walked to the back of the store to make another vial of what she had just sold. It was a mixture of amanita and belladonna, with some rose hips blended in to disguise the taste. She had a long night ahead of her. She turned back to her rabbit. "And what did you think of that man, Illeso?" she cooed, "Do you hope we see him again too?" Illeso only munched on his nightshade. Caterina giggled. "Well, I hope we see him again." Humming to herself, she walked to the front of her shop and locked up for the night.