All The Plagues Of Hell – Snippet 18
The Duchy of Milan
Lucia looked at the letter from Carlo Sforza, inviting her mother to bring her to the Plazzo Ducale for an extended stay of a month or two, so that he could become properly acquainted with her, as one of the late duke’s kin. She understood precisely what the letter meant, and fierce delight and triumph leapt in her breast. Milan! To go to her own. That was, after all, what she’d waited for, worked for, tried relentlessly to achieve. And now it was barely a step away from her.
Then standing there, looking at the letter again, she realized that being just that close to her goal was going to be more difficult than being far off and striving for success–because she would be so close that the smallest misstep would take her down completely. Lucia also knew she was going to be much further from that which gave her power, that which lurked in the darkness below the Castello di Arona.
She took the key from its hiding place, and made her way down to the cellars. Familiarity had not bred contempt, but at least she felt less in the way of sheer terror as she walked down the stairs in the darkness now.
“And now?” asked the sibilant voice in the darkness. There was a kind of terrible languor about the way it spoke. Something that would make the listener abandon all hope, and give over to the serpent.
“I go to Milan. Your killers have worked well.”
There was a long silence. Then it said: “They are not dead yet.”
“Oh?” Had she gone through all that expense and difficulty for nothing? “Well, I go to Milan. But I may need you, there. Is there any way I can reach you while I am in the city?”
There was a long drawn out hiss. “I will go there. But I need more time before I can move out of the pit. It is still too cold. Summer, stinking summer is when my little ones thrive. But I can send one of my serpent lackeys with you, if you will carry it between your breasts and keep it warm and safe.”
“A snake? You want me to carry a snake? Carry it there! Are you mad?”
Again the scales shifted under her. “A serpent. Not a mere snake, but a part of me. He can bite and poison for you, give you that which you desire, and send word to me. But yessss, you will have to carry him. Feed him. He likes his mice trapped and helpless. But he does not require many.”
Lucia paused at the thought of having a snake nestled up against her. She wanted to scream just at the idea. Butâ€¦ but she had come so far. And she knew she would need to go further still, before it was all done.
“Very well.” And then she screamed and clawed at her leg. Hauled at her skirts.
“It is your little helper. Do not hurt him or he may bite you,” said the great serpent as the snake wound its way up her leg, and thrust under her girdle, cold scales slithering against her skin. Almost rigid with fear, Lucia stood and pantedâ€¦ but controlled her hands as the snake slid up between her breasts, and stopped, resting there like a vast weight on her heart.
“I can’t breathe,” she panted, resisting the urge to tear at the fabric. Firstly, she knew she must not, and secondly, it might bite her.
“You will grow used it. You will even assume it is normal, soon,” said the serpent, unconcerned. “Others have told me so, the last time, and the time before.”
“But you must. Or you will die.”
Eventually, she got to her feet and began the long walk up to the cellars. With every step she could feel the scales move against her flesh. It must be a very small snake, really. That didn’t stop her flesh wishing to crawl away from it.
She went to inform her mother about the letter. Her mother had once been something of a beauty, in a slim, childlike way, but all that was gone now. All that was left was a shrunken, sad-eyed woman. A woman who had given up. Even with a snake in her bosom, Lucia felt anger and scorn seeing her like that. She’d let herself come so close to power and then let it get away from her.
“Milan. I don’t think I can, again,” her mother said weakly. “The expense. Yes, I know we would be fed, but court clothes will cost. And the noise. No, Lucia, I don’t think so. No, it would be better if we stayed here, where we are safe and it is quiet. Why would you have anything to do with some lowborn soldier anyway?”
“Don’t be stupid, Mother. Our living here is at his whim. Yes, the court clothes will cost us, but stay here? What is there here for me? A bare half a dozen servants and a rotting old stone-pile. We have no power and no influence. The local great families pretend we do not exist. At least in Milan they will bow. And afterwards, the families here will grovel before us.”
“Lucia, it is not as simple as that. You don’t know the court. I do. I was raised there. I can’t do it.”
As Lucia drew angry breath to harangue the stupid woman, a woman who had known full well what her father had done–when a little voice from her breast, or possibly within her head said: I will deal with this.
Lucia knew the woman reposing on the daybed was as good as dead. That did not worry her. But she would need a chaperone, and the letter had invited her mother to come back to the court to present her there. And even without her, with someone compliant in her place, a funeral would take time to organize, and then there would be the mourning period to further waste time she did not have.
“Not dead,” she said hastily.
“What?” said her mother, and then she gasped, her eyes going round with fear, as the serpent slithered out of Lucia’s bodice, and, as Lucia watched in the wall mirror, balanced itself, upright, swaying slowly, and staring cold eyed at her mother.
The snake did not lunge or strike. Just swayed slowly and steadily. Tell her what to do, said a quieter version of the voice of the great serpent below. She will obey, now.
So Lucia gave her mother instructions. In two days the household would be packed up, and the Castello closed, with just old Aleta left behind as a caretaker, and they would go to Milan. To the Palazzo Ducale, where she would present her daughter.
And her mother had not answered back, but had nodded obediently, all the while looking at the swaying snake’s eyes, not her daughter.
Later, back in her chamber, Lucia asked the serpent in her bosom. “Who are you and just what can you do?”
I am the asp. I serve those who are in a pact with the great worm. I have served others. I have served queens. I have bitten one too, at her command. Octavian would have had her killed.
“You are not to bite me, I command you.”
I am yours to command.
But it would lie, part of her mind said. Had she been in the same position she would have lied. She would plan to kill itâ€¦ in time. For now. “What can you doâ€¦ and what can’t you do for me?”
I can kill, slowly or fast. I can induce paralysis, either in the whole or in any part. I can cause great pain. I can hypnotize, as I have done to your mother. I am but a small part of the great worm. I cannot deal with more than one foe at a time. There are some who can resist my hypnosis, but they are few. I can help heighten your own charms. That magic too is in your grasp.
The great wyrm was correct. She did get used to having the asp in between her breasts, although she had been afraid to sleep, the first night.
Two days later they left for Milan. For her goal.