All The Plagues Of Hell – Snippet 02


Francisco Turner sat at his ease with the ruler of Milan–who occupied that position at the invitation of its people, if not the acclamation of the noble houses of Europe. Carlo Sforza did not insist on protocol unless it served his purposes, and he knew his trusted lieutenant and personal physician well enough not to waste time and energy on show. They’d shared quarters across the bloody campaigns and small wars of the Italian principalities, ranging from palazzos to mud hovels, and Francisco knew appearances worried Carlo Sforza not at all. If he put on airs and graces, they were for other people’s benefit. Left to himself, Sforza was rather Spartan in his quarters and his dress. But that was not what was expected of a powerful condottiere, let alone a duke. So now he was dressed accordingly.

“An elegant cotte, M’lord,” said Francisco, amused by his chief’s irritable pulling at the obviously prickly gold braid at the collar.

“When you have usurped the position, you need to live up to the people’s expectations,” said Carlo. Much like Marco had done just a short while earlier in Venice, Sforza looked around the luxurious salon in the palace as if to reassure himself that he was, indeed, the new duke of Milan. “But you would think that the wealthy and powerful would put their comfort ahead of fashion.”

“Something I have yet to see any evidence of,” said Francisco. “Perhaps you could start a new trend, M’lord.”

“Perhaps later when they don’t need to be reminded by my appearance or the sword,” said his master. Moved by a restless impulse, Sforza rose from his chair and began pacing about.

“Or cannon. Cannon make very effective fashion statements,” said Francisco.

“So does Venice plan to show us how fashionable they think they are?”

“Not at the moment, M’lord. The leader of their fashion house is not himself yet. And he is disposed to make a grumpy acceptance of your marriage. Not too hastily, of course, as that might cause more problems than it would cure. The gift you sent was well received, and I think they got the message.”

“Hopefully one less source of poisoners, for now.”

“Oh, I think if he was sure it would weaken Milan, and be to Venice’s advantage, there is no doubt Petro Dorma would order you poisoned tomorrow. Marco Valdosta is otherwise. He’s too good for this world. If and when he comes to rule Venice, I think she will plunge headlong into war. Too many people will perceive him as weak. I think they may find out that they are wrong.”

“Besides, there is Benito,” said Benito’s father with a wry smile.

“Yes, but having spent time with Marco, there is more to him than meets the eye at first glance, M’lord. Depths most people will not suspect. And there is a magical side.”

“A story to frighten children, my rational friend.”

“I am not so sure, this time, M’lord. I’m not gullible, but I have spent quite some time with the man. Besides, there was our little experience with the winged horse.”

“That was Benito,” said Carlo.

Francisco took a pull at his inevitable flagon of beer. “They say that magic runs in families, sometimes. You are undeniably Benito’s father. I’ve been one of your captains for seventeen years now, and seeing him at the Villa Parvitto was a shock to me. It should have been for him too. You looked very like him when I first met you. You have the same turns of expression, the same shape to the mouth and nose. For him, looking at you is a look into the future.”

“I hope he is wise enough to learn from that future. Yes, he is very much my son, although the Dell’este strain is there too. But what does that have to do with it, Francisco?”

“You are as magical as a brick, M’lord,” said Francisco with a smile. “Therefore if it runs in the blood, and if Benito has it, it must come from…”

“Lorendana Dell’este,” scowled Carlo Sforza. He went back to his chair and sat down. “And if she used such skills for anything, it was wild idealism and leading my head astray. I would have killed her if I’d gotten my hands on her, Francisco, I was so angry at the time.”

“But in the end, you didn’t. Anyway, I was about to say the Dell’este line rather than Lorendana.”

“Famous for being blacksmiths.”

“Famous for being smiths, anyway. Those were reputed to be magic workers back in my father’s homeland. Weyland Smith, for example. Magic work… It is one area Milan has little depth in, and Venice, at least a reputation.”

“Reputation and fear wins wars,” said Carlo Sforza. He had used his to great effect. “I hadn’t thought about it before, Francisco. I would have thought it right up my predecessor’s sneaking alley.”

“From what I can gather, the late duke dabbled in it, once, as a young man. The experience, whatever it was, left him deathly afraid of direct contact with it. And he was scared it might be used in the plotting against him. So the Strega and the Jews were persecuted. Or so I heard in Venice, from one of the Streghira. They’d have it he was gulled, and it had nothing to do with them.”

Carlo rubbed his chin. “He didn’t frighten that easily, nor was entirely a fool. I must admit I want no part in it, personally.” He sighed. “We need the reputation, at least.”

“I would deny utterly that we have any magic workers, or that we are looking to recruit them.”

“That should work in the meanwhile,” said Carlo, amused. “So how was Venice, otherwise?”

“Smelly as ever. Better in winter than in summer, though. Less soft than she looks, and I gather Admiral Lemnossa is seeing to her defenses, but you would know that. The Council of Ten are betting on who you are going to marry.”

“Now that I did not know, but should have guessed. And just who are they betting on?”

“Eleni Faranese, mostly. Although Violetta de’ Medici is, I would guess, Petro Dorma’s bet.”

The self-styled protector of Milan sighed. “They know more than we do. There is the third possibility, of course.”

“Lucia Maria del Maino?”

“She has the most legitimate claim,” said Carlo with a wry twist of his lips at the legitimate part. “Just not the wealth and influence of the other contenders. So obviously, she is not high in the betting, but the odds raise, day by day.”

“So you have heard nothing, M’lord?”

“No. I know from second-hand experience that these decisions are not taken quickly or easily. Or cheaply.” He grimaced.

Francisco had over the years been subjected to his commander’s opinion on dynastic marriage and the women involved in somewhat pithy terms before. “So the sanctimonious negotiations over the price continues?”