All The Plagues Of Hell – Snippet 17

“Perfect. And suggest that, for her safety, I would like my grand-daughter out of that pesthole that is Venice. My spies tell me her mother is back in Venice from wherever she’d got to, and I think they’d be safer in Corfu.”

“That’s true enough,” agreed Francisco.

There was a thunderous knocking on the lower door of the turret. “My Lord Sforza! You commanded us to call you if any messengers came from Parma or Florence.”

“Some people have no notion of the privacy of their master,” said Carlo, with a sigh. “Come, Francisco. Let me see what new farrago of nonsense they have sent me. I had a three page waffling non-letter from Cosimo de’ Medici only yesterday, saying discussions were ongoing, but the lady was reticent.”

The footman who had interrupted them stood waiting at the foot of the stair. “My Lord. I put the messenger in the Giotti salon, so he could repose.” He took a deep breath. “My Lord, he needs a physician. He has been grievously wounded.”

“Better come with me, Francisco,” said Sforza, quickening his pace.

So Francisco went with him. The messenger had not taken advantage of the gold damask chaise longue which had plainly been drawn up for him, but his face was nearly as sallow as its cover. He was standing awkwardly instead, with a posture that Francisco recognized after seeing many combat injuries. He was upright by force of will, nothing more.

“My Lord,” he said, and bowed. The bow was not a very deep one, not for lack of respect but to enable him to remain standing. He didn’t manage that for long, as Carlo took him by the shoulder and sat him down on the chaise longue. “What’s happened to you, man?” he demanded.

For an answer the man held out the stump of his right arm. “This was done by the order of the Duke of Parma for daring to bear your message about his cousin, my Lord.”

“Hell’s teeth!” Carlo Sforza did not bother to restrain his fury now. “I’ll have the stupid testa di cazzo’s head shoved up his own hind end and his body displayed on his gates for this. You were a messenger, damn him.”

“He sent you his reply,” said the man, through gritted teeth. “My severed hand holding a pizza da merde from a mongrel dog.”

“I’ll give him mine in the shape of cannon. Francisco. See what you can do for this man.”

To the injured messenger he said, as Francisco began to examine the stump and its rusty dressing: “This happened in my service. I can’t give you back your right hand. But you will be cared for, and I’ll give you your pick of the duke of Parma’s estates when I am done with him.”

But the man had quietly keeled over onto the chaise longue. Francisco felt his pulse in the throat. “Alive,” he answered the unspoken question in his master’s eyes. “Pulse is weak and tumultuous, but he’s alive. He’s lost a lot of blood, and got himself back here by sheer willpower and anger. I’ll have to take him to my chambers and clean the wound, check it and cauterize it while he’s unconscious.”

“Do that. Keep him alive if you can. I want him alive to see the duke of Parma suitably chastised.” Sforza was still plainly boiling with anger, at his most dangerous. In this mood other men were rash, but Francisco had been with his commander long enough to know that it would make him cold and brutally efficient instead. “You,” said Sforza to the footmen. “Carry him on this day-bed.”

So Francisco left with his patient. There was considerable work to be done–bones were shattered and there was septic tissue to be dealt with. Still, the man was tough. He would probably survive to see vengeance done.

Francisco was summoned again, late that evening. “You’d better get your message off to your Venetian friend tonight,” said Sforza. “I’m trying to make sure I have only one foe to face, Francisco. Cosimo de’ Medici has his faults, but he’s not going to harm a messenger, and I think you can be my most honest and insightful set of eyes. Go to Florence and get me a straight answer. I’d rather have Cosimo as an ally and a banker than the fig leaf of legitimacy I’d get from marrying that cousin of his. I’d get that from marrying Lucia del Maino. But Cosimo as an ally… for that I’d rather have his cousin, but I do not read this as very likely. Go, and get the best diplomatic compromise out of it you can. I doubt if Cosimo wants war, and I’d guess he’d rather not be dragged into one. He knows of you, and knows where you stand with me. That will give you some advantage. In the meantime, I’m going to invite Lucia del Maino to the court here, in preparation for the inevitable. Try and be back in three weeks. I’ll be moving in force majure against Parma in four. This is not just about a few border villages anymore.”

After he had gone back and checked on the health of the messenger again, Francisco returned to his quarters. He poured himself a mug of beer, and calmly and methodically burned Marco’s letter. Then he wrote a reply, couching it in careful terms.

My dear friend in medicine, my thanks for the letter. We had been told of a similar problem, but Venice had been identified as the area from which it would spread. Precautions of a magical, as well as a practical nature, are being undertaken, and we believe ourselves reasonably safe as a result. My friend and mentor has suggested that his grand-daughter be removed to a safe spot, to keep her safe from contagion.



On the spur of the moment he collected a bottle from his store of herbs and medications, put the letter inside, and then corked and sealed it with a mixture of beeswax and Venice turpentine. He would go for an early run in the morning, along the canal path and see if he could send a reply back the way the message had come. It could be useful. He was due to leave with a small troop escort, at the Terce bell, with a letter to Cosimo de’ Medici that Sforza would have written by then.

He packed his gear, finished his beer, washed, and went to bed. The next morning he was up well before the dawn, rousted out his yawning orderly from next to his peculiar, and took himself to the stables, and then down to the canal path. He ended up sitting on the same stump, looking out at the mist drifting above the water. The sun was not yet up.

“Nyx. Water woman. The pretty one…” he said, he said, feeling mildly foolish.

She stuck her head up near a couple of water-lily pads. “Why don’t you keep normal hours like other men?”

“I suppose because, like you, I am not just like other men.”

“True. You bathe more often and like to run. But like other men you are enchanted by my body.” She flaunted it.

“Also true, beautiful nyx,” Francisco lied, guessing by her conduct that saying otherwise would not be welcome. “I have a boon to ask, for my friend Marco. The one you called the Winged Lion.

“My name,” said the nyx, “is Rhene. You are a healer, too?”

“Of sorts. My skills are more those of a chirurgeon. Marco is better with other ailments,” answered Francisco, used to the pre-amble that people wanting treatment gave. “My abilities are more what is needed in times of war.”

“Then I will do what you ask. Chloe says having a healer has been of value. And I may not drown you. Therefore it is better to befriend you, and have you in my debt.”

“Almost exactly as my master, Carlo, put it last night. On a different matter.” He handed her the bottle. “Now I am in your debt.”

“Oh, good. So come into the water. I need a virile young man.”

I walked into that one, thought Francisco. “Alas, beautiful Rhene. My man will be here at any moment. And also, you want me in your debt, and if I repaid you thus, I would not be.”

She wrinkled her forehead. “I have not allowed any men to see me without drowning them, except you. I’ll have to think about these debts.”

She slipped under the water silently, without a ripple, and left Francisco looking at the twisting trails of mist wreathed above the water, wondering if it had all been his imagination. But the bottle–which would have floated–was also gone, somewhere beneath that limpid water. Behind him Francisco heard a horse stamp and his orderly cursing and understood that perhaps it wasn’t just his eloquence that had saved him from at the least, a thorough, cold wetting.

But in the meantime he had breakfast to eat, and his gear to finish readying before a long ride. He might also find time for another wash. Those were always tricky in foreign towns, let alone in roadside camps or in village inns. He might even be longing for the cold wetting by the time he got back.

He was rather looking forward to meeting Cosimo de’ Medici. The man was exceptionally well-read, by all accounts. He just wished the meeting could be on a less bootless and awkward mission.