All The Plagues Of Hell – Snippet 08

“No, or at least not immediately. But the symbol which has been repeatedly oracularly derived is one that should be familiar to Venice, and has endangered her in the past: the crowned devouring serpent.” He moved his forefinger through the air, as if drawing the image of the serpent.

“Milan. I still don’t see why the doge…”

“He will be informed. But what they have foreseen is not a war. Or not just a war. It is the reason I have been sent here, and the reason that Patriarch Michael sent for you first, not Doge Petro Dorma. Disease is what is foreseen. And not just any disease, but a disease that has not affected Europe for centuries, but devastated the cities and countryside like no war could.”

“Plague.” The word itself carried terrible fear.

“Yes. If we are correct in our foretelling, somehow this is the Justinian Plague reborn. Visions of rats too have been described by the seers, rats, a strange monstrous face, dead cities, and the countryside laid waste. And famine and war following in its wake. Millions dead, men, women and children. That is why I have been sent here, to Venice. That is why trusted messengers have been sent north to the Holy Roman Emperor in Mainz. That is why men are being prepared for action, and called to readiness. It will need hard, effective and fast action.”

“What can be done? There is no certain cure for the plague. Some live, many die. Most die, if the plague is virulent enough.”

“We will be working on whatever treatment we can, Signor Valdosta.” He ran fingers through his closely-cropped hair. In that moment, he looked both tired and ridden with anxiety. “I will confer with you, and others at the academia. We need to prevent panic as much as anything else. But the disease must be contained. And the problem, as we foresee it, will begin in the duchy of Milan, with whom the patriarch of Rome has poor relationships. These have not been bettered by the train of events with Carlo Sforza taking control of the duchy and its territories. And we know, from what remains of the historical record, that isolation and quarantine were all that was sure as a treatment.”

He paused. “It is known that you had a friendship with Caviliero Francisco Turner, who is the personal physician to Carlo Sforza.”

“Yes, I did–and hopefully, still do. Francisco is the very man I would pick to head a fight against the plague.”

“Unfortunately, politics would get in the way of that idea. The states of Parma, Rimini and Ferrara are vehemently opposed to any form of co-operation with Carlo Sforza. I wish we could rise above that for such a dire situation. But it is not so. I had hoped, through a neutral, or at least not so violently opposed party, and personal contacts to, well, make them aware. To get them to make such preparations as they can, to contain and quarantine.” He grimaced. “Military force will be needed. And people fleeing in panic will spread the disease. Fear and war will merely make it worse and spread it wider.”

“I see. So, what you are asking is that I send Francisco warning, and through him to Carlo Sforza.”

The priest nodded. “Yes. We would thus set up a route of communication that would not be open to us otherwise.”

Marco sighed. “I don’t know what my word means to Francisco. He is a clever man, and, I think an honorable one. But he is not an easy man to read, and he is intensely loyal to Carlo Sforza. That said, I am willing to try at least.”

“Thank you,” said Father Thomas.

Chapter 4

The Border Marches

Count Mindaug had discovered in his few days of rough travelling that having been born with many servants to wait on your needs, even a master magician could struggle. Simple tasks like hitching horses to the wagon–an unobtrusive choice for travel, perhaps, but very slow–were more difficult than he’d realized. The runaways Tamas and Emma had been a spur of the moment decision, and might still have to die, but they had eased his passage, somewhat. His two servants had, as he guessed, been lovers–she was a pretty peasant girl who had caught the eye of the local lord, and he, amusingly enough, was a bastard child of the same lord, a fact to which he’d owed his elevation to the important–in a minor village–position of miller. It meant he had some skill with things rudely mechanical, which could indeed prove useful.

The problem, of course, was a passage to where? He had thought about various possibilities–Vinland, Alexandria, one of the remote Iberian states. The issue was that physical distances were not the same in the netherworlds, where Chernobog held such power.

The more he thought about it, the more Count Mindaug realized he would have to go either to the Holy Roman Empire or to one of its vassal states. The problem with that, of course, was that their rulers would kill him as surely as Grand Duke Jagiellon, for his role in working with the Grand Duke and for his aiding of both King Emeric and Elizabeth Bartholdy. He would have to keep his true identity secret. That would be easy enough in a physical sense, but difficult in a magical one. He could protect himself reasonably well, both magically and in combat (as a noble, little as he’d enjoyed it, he had had some training with the sword, main gauche and lance). But against armies and forces of magic such as the empire, or indeed, the Grand Duke could muster, he could not stand. At least, not against both at once. He wanted a secure position, where he would be protected, physically, and he could prepare for a quiet departure again, if need be. It was a situation he had realized he would have live with, or he would not remain living for long.

He would avoid Pressburg, and head northwest, and cross the black water of the March River, he decided. The far bank was the territory controlled by the Knights of the Holy Trinity, but it was formally part of the Holy Roman Empire. And then he would be going south, to Italy and the sun, and also various small states and principalities. A place where he could possibly find protectors, and return to his art.

In this, he found his awed new servants invaluable. For the first time in his life, the count had servants who did not fear him, but instead felt they owed him their lives, and it seemed were very conscious of that debt. They were both awkwardly eager to please. It was something of a revelation to him: their desire to repay him made them more industrious and more ingenious than fear or money had made his previous lackeys. There had been some wary jealousy on the boy’s part that Mindaug might try to exercise droit de seigneur. Mindaug had very little interest in women, or men, for that matter. He had had his pick and fill as a young and powerful noble. He had in the course of his researches encountered more and varied sexual practices than most people. He’d realized what a lever they could be, and taken certain steps to prevent himself being thus entrapped.

He hadn’t realized that it would also make him totally uninterested.

To his servants, however, with their small knowledge of sex and power, that indifference obviously made him seem even more benign. They travelled steadily, with not more than minor brushes with authority, which he was easily able to dismiss with a touch of arrogance, and a little money. Ahead lay the March River, and the border of the Kingdom of Hungary. It looked a very similar country on the other side of that river: meandering streams and lush vegetation. The count, however, knew appearances could be deceptive, and for him, the other side of the border was much safer from his old master.