All The Plagues Of Hell – Snippet 13

In the darkness she put down the two oil-cloth bags. “I have hair from Eleni Faranese, and a cloth marked with the sweat of Violetta de’ Medici. How soon will they die?”

There was a long silence. And then the serpent spoke in that cold sibilant voice that made her scalp prickle: ‘What is time to me? How long does it take a rat to scurry through the night, or the viper to slither thence? That is how long it will take, no longer and no less.”

And not all her questioning could get a more precise answer. It was only later that night, when she washed again to try and get rid of the rat stench that seemed to cling to her after she’d been to its lair, that it occurred to her that it might possibly have spoken the literal truth. She had assumed the death would be magically inflicted. But perhaps a snake-bite…

That was quite a natural death, really. Hard to call assassination. She expected Milan and Carlo Sforza to be engaged in war, but at the time and place of Milan’s choosing, and once she was ensconced, not while she was still living in the borderlands.

The smell just didn’t seem to wash out. She used more perfume.

Mainz, The Holy Roman Empire

Moving slowly, as men do who are afflicted with arthritis, the old man eased himself into his chair. The piece of furniture was expensive and well-upholstered, although not as large as the throne in the main audience hall. But it was considerably more comfortable than the throne and the small chamber could be kept quite warm.

“Nothing,” he said peevishly, “is ever simple, is it?” Which might have seemed like a grumpy complaint from almost any man of advanced years, but this particular old man had the lives of millions balanced on his decisions and actions. And he took that very seriously, not delegating the responsibility as much as he could have–and should have, in the opinion of most of his advisors. He spent much of each day reading reports, hearing from his emissaries and ambassadors, and writing personal instructions himself, despite an army of scribes, in a crabby handwriting that had no doubt caused chaos and quite possibly war by being both illegible and enormously important.

“Don’t answer that, Hans,” he said, waving a large hand which was still sinewy despite its little tremor. “I am glad to see you back, even if you doubtless bring me more complications.’

“My efforts in Aquitaine have not been crowned with great success. The more I tried to change anything, the more irrelevancies they put in my way, My Liege,” admitted Hans Trolliger.

“Perhaps for the best,” said Emperor Charles Fredrik, tiredly. “The more we try to fix, the more new things break. Anyway, I called for your return because I need men I can trust. Things look… awkward. There are too many thunderheads piling up.”

Baron Trolliger blinked. He had heard a certain amount of news, if, obviously, not as much as the emperor. It had seemed good to him. “I had thought the last communiques from Manfred had been full of good news. Or so I had been led to believe.”

“Oh, they were. We have protected access by sea from Jagiellon’s armies to the underbelly of Europe, secured the goodwill of the Ilkhan and the Golden Horde, and acquired a powerful new ally in Prince Vlad of Transylvania. Unfortunately, that has left a power vacuum and chaos where two less-than competent leaders have been deposed. Emeric of Hungary and the Emperor Alexis were foes, or, at best, untrustworthy allies. But they kept control over their territory. The breakdown of power in Hungary and its territories, and to a lesser extent Greece, opens the potential doorway to an invasion into Slovakia by the forces of the Grand Duke of Lithuania, or the new proxies and allies for our foes–right on our border. Hungary under Emeric was at least a buffer state, as much an enemy to Jagiellon as to us, meaning we only faced the monster of the east directly in Polish lands. Now… we stand on the edge of a possible precipice. Of course, there are upstarts and pretenders to the thrones of various nations that Emeric had overthrown. Some we will support, some are as bad or maybe worse. It all depends what happens to the crown of Hungary.”

“Emeric of Hungary did not leave any heirs, I know. But who stands in the succession? Is there someone we should favor?” asked Trolliger.

“As with everything Emeric touched, it is a mess. He, or that aunt of his, had gone out of their way to kill off any obvious claimants or rivals. There was no heir named, and not even a living bastard child, although he fathered a few. At the moment my informants say the principal rival claimants are John of Simony and Christopher of Somolyo.”

“Ah.” Trolliger knew something of both men, as was inevitable in diplomacy and the small pool of noble houses. Neither were of such a reputation that he could be enthusiastic. That was probably why they had been allowed to survive.

“And then there is Lazlo De Hunyad.”

Baron Trolliger sucked his teeth. “I thought he was living in Moravia.”

“He made his return within days of the news of Emeric’s death. He obviously had it planned. He is not in the direct descent, but he’s a good general and popular with the minor nobility and commons.”

“And a very strong-willed man,” said the baron, who had once had the misfortune of having to deliver a message from Charles Frederik to him. Of course, the former Ban of the Puszta was no longer young.

“True. But at least a man of strong principles. It is my feeling that we should back him in this race.”

“With troops? It would be difficult to find a commander he’s not going to drive to drink, Your Majesty. Or vice versa.”

The emperor shook his head. “No.” he paused, and then continued. “Hans, I say this only because I trust you, but I have news out of Rome that makes it unlikely the Holy Roman Empire is going to commit troops or engage in anything but defense for the next while. They have been employing magical means, and their predictions have a good record of accuracy. This must go no further, but they predict a major outbreak of the plague in northern Italy. If that happens it will spread, and our foes will take advantage of us, while we are weakened. It destroyed the Eastern Roman Empire. It could destroy us, far more surely than an invasion from the east could. We will prepare as well as possible, but…”

Now Baron Hans Trolliger knew just why the emperor looked so weighed with care. The last great plague still lived in the memory of men–as did the worst of them all, Justinian’s Plague of a millennium earlier. And it was not just the disease that killed. Crops had rotted in the fields without men to harvest them. People had starved, although the seasons had been, reportedly, benign. The wheels of commerce ground to halt. Trade stopped as people feared the spread of disease that came with the traders, and of course, war came down on the decimated people.

And walls and armies, and magic and prayer… all had proved ineffectual.

There had been many outbreaks of some infectious diseases since then, destroying people and settlements. But the last great sweep by the plague had been nearly five centuries before. There were more living people now. More roads, more vessels. More likelihood of more contact with noisome places, from whence the disease was reputed to spring. Just, all in all, more possibility to spread the plague. This time it could quite easily be worse. The horror was almost too much to contemplate.

“I see,” said Hans Trolliger. “Well, you know that you can trust me, My Liege. What do you want of me? I am wholly at your service. This calls for all good men to stand against it, no matter what other differenced we have.”

“You’d think so, Hans. But there will always be a few who’ll try to play it to their advantage. I’m afraid my task for you is a difficult one–or rather to be dealing with a difficult man.”

“De Hunyad.”

“Yes. We cannot offer him the backing of men, which I suspect is what he’ll ask for. Money, and even weapons, yes. But we’ll need some form of agreement. He’ll hold to that, if we don’t give him weasel-space.” The emperor sighed. “We have a somewhat more dangerous–to us, and indeed to Hungary–claimant on hand to introduce if he fails.”