All The Plagues Of Hell – Snippet 16

Francisco retreated from the water, bottle in hand, half tankard of beer forgotten, but his wits not lost. “Thank you,” he said, politely.

His mind was in more of a ferment than the beer had been, anyway. This type of messenger was something he had to tell Carlo, and then get Carlo to believe it. That would be difficult. The Wolf of the North did not like tales of magic and superstition. He wouldn’t like the fact that Venice had agents who could come and go freely in these waters, either.

Francisco was a rational man, and didn’t much believe in what passed for magic. But he also knew he hadn’t imagined the delivery of the bottle, either. He saw his man had arrived with his horse, and was waiting by the tavern door. There was always a saddlebag on the horse, containing a cloak in case the weather had turned unpleasant and a brace of wheel-lock pistols in case anything else turned unpleasant on the ride back.

Francisco pushed the bottle down below the cloak, and drew one of the pistols out and put it in his waistband. “Let’s go, Balco,” he said to the old sergeant, who had watched this, and reached his own conclusions. “I want to get back in a hurry.”

They mounted and rode off at a brisk trot. Francisco noted the sergeant was carefully riding point, and had loosened his own rapier and hastily checked his big horse-pistol. But the ride was uneventful. It wasn’t always. The people of Milan were wary about their new overlord, but there was still the occasional jeer or brat throwing a stone. They had been grateful to Sforza for reigning in his mercenary army, but human gratitude was a fairly shallow cup. They’d need something else soon, Carlo had been saying on the ride back, either another lesson, or a show of grandeur. Francisco hoped it would be a suitable wedding.

Back in his chambers, Francisco pondered briefly how to get the letter out of the bottle and settled for the easy way–giving the bottle a smart tap with the heavy pommel of his knife. Being a physician and a surgeon, and well aware of just how nasty a weapon glass could be, he did so over a large basin, and with caution, but no-one got injured. The letter, when he unsealed it, however, could do that well enough on its own.

Dear Francisco, I am sending this letter to you to warn you of a situation of which I have been made aware, but have been asked to keep secret, thus I beg you to do the same. My informant requested that I find the means to communicate this with you, and I am using contacts which are unlikely to be intercepted or available to others. The church has in its attempt to foresee and manage threats used a team of scryers. While I know you do not have much faith in this, I can vouch to some degree for its accuracy and success at prediction. They believe there will be a recurrence of the plague of Justinian, and the church is quietly preparing for the possibility of an outbreak. This is predicted to happen within Milanese territory, and thus I urge you to quietly ready yourself, your master, and the forces at your disposal to respond to the disease with quarantine, and to stockpile such treatments as you think may help. I would like your advice on what these may be, and what, if any, preventative steps we can take.

Yours in Medicine

Marco V.

Francisco stood and re-read it carefully. His first reaction was to burn the letter forthwith. But he would need to show it to Carlo first. Marco Valdosta remained an innocent, doing his best to heal and help, even if he was caught up in the tides of Venetian politics–and had the power to make murderous water-nyxes run his errands for him.

He folded the letter carefully and set out to find Carlo Sforza. He was, as he had said he would be, in the scriptorium. Sforza might not like the tasks of governance but he did them scrupulously, if just as brutally as he would run a military campaign. That might take the civilian administration some time to get used to, by the look on the secretary’s face, thought Francisco entering the room.

“My Lord.” He bowed. “I have some urgent business that must be discussed privately. Can I disturb you?”

“Everyone’s business is always urgent and private,” growled Carlo, irritably. “I’m not sure if you’re the fourth or fifth this morning, and none of them were at all. This paperwork also needs my attention.”

But he set down his pen and swiveled in his chair to face Turner more directly. “Spit it out, Francisco. You need a new drain under your running track?”

“No, my Lord.” Francisco stared at his commander, trying to convey with his eyes alone that they really needed to talk, and without other ears listening in. Venice wanted those ears to hear, and so did Rome. He did not plan to oblige them.

Something about that stare must have gotten to Sforza. “This woman of yours is really giving you trouble, Francisco,” he said, getting up, and clapping an arm around him. “Well, I can spare you a few minutes. It may stop me killing someone.” He looked hard at the scribe in the corner who bowed his head and industriously scratched away with his quill.

“The drains are best discussed from where we can see them, My Lord,” said Francisco. “The tower will do nicely.”

Sforza raised his bar of an eyebrow, but walked with him to the stairs which led up to one of the small corbelled turrets ornamenting the Palazzo.

He closed the door, checked the small room for people, and then led his master up the spiral stair to the arrow-slitted small room above. “You are never insolent, so I assume that look wasn’t that this time either, Francisco. Or have you made me puff up all these stairs for nothing?”

Francisco did not say that he thought his extremely strong master was out of condition, and beginning to put on some middle-aged weight, if such a flight of stairs made him puff. This was not the time for that.

“No, my Lord. I have received a message which was sent to me with the intent to be intercepted, to cause panic. I want you know what they’re trying to do before I destroy it. I also wanted to tell you just how effectively Venice can penetrate our defenses to send messages. This is something we need to add to our calculations.”

“They have spies and messengers, just like us. Or are they training rats or birds to the work?”

“They may for all I know. But this was a naked woman.”

“That’s an old one.”

“Not when she swims up the Naviglio Grande, underwater, and has greenish skin and drowns men, M’lord. I have explained it badly. This messenger may look like a woman, but it’s not. I didn’t believe in such things, but I have now changed my mind. And it appears Marco Valdosta can make these creatures carry messages for him. He sent me this in a bottle carried by this nyx.”

He handed the letter to Sforza, who held it out at arm’s length and read it.

Carlo Sforza seldom let his expression betray his emotions, and did not this time either. But he said at the end of it: “I think I understand why you wanted to speak to me in secret. But if this is what they choose to do, they will start the rumor anyway. Not everyone will be so careful and not everyone has that kind of messenger. I’d tell you to stop drinking that stuff, but for the winged horse incident.”

“They plainly intend to sow panic. But in all seriousness, I doubt if Marco Valdosta was more than their cat’s paw, My Lord. The choice of method of sending this was his, and thus he foiled their plan. I don’t think he bears you that much ill-will. Also Byzantine plotting is more the style of Venice’s Council of Ten, than his.”

“I’d agree. I remember the boy when Lorendana was my mistress. He was a serious little fellow, and too good for this world. I can’t say I paid him a lot of attention, back then, and now I wish I had. Still, he is being used.”

“And except for the little part, he has not changed that much,” admitted Francisco. “I had gathered, peripherally, that he does not hate you, especially once it was revealed who had actually killed Lorendana. Of course it was not a subject I encouraged him to speak to me about. I didn’t want to betray myself.”

“I would have killed Lorendana if I had gotten my hands on her, after her last tricks. But my orders were always to bring her back to face me, and not to hurt the children. I doubt if he’d believe that, but it is the truth. Never leave anything but a dead enemy behind you, Francisco. Otherwise make peace with them. Hmm. In this case, send back a message saying we have had similar rumors or tales or foretellings, but that the source predicted was Venice, and that we have taken precautions…”

“Magical ones, as he’ll know there are no non-magical ones.”