All The Plagues Of Hell – Snippet 19

Chapter 10

Florence, Tuscany

Francisco had been–as was his habit–observant and taking mental notes during his journey to Florence. The first observation was that this principality had become rich pickings under the de’ Medici. The second observation was that even for Sforza, it quite possibly wouldn’t be worth the cost of taking it. Someone had put a fair amount of thought into the fortifications and defenses. And there were many soldiers drilling. These had the look of levies about them, but when it came to massed harquebus fire, a well-drilled squad of levies could still do a lot of damage. Less than the same number of well-drilled professionals, but still, a great deal, especially if they could choose their own ground and time. The fortifications had also been built recently, and for cannon. They weren’t the showy tall stone towers of many castles. Instead they were low, broad-walled structures, built in a star-shape with triangular ravelins on the star points. Francisco wished he had the liberty to walk and measure them. But no doubt Carlo would have had his spies do so.

Two days later he arrived in Florence, presented his credentials, and requested an interview with Cosimo de’ Medici. He knew it was perfectly possible that he would be refused, or be left to kick his heels for weeks on end. That could happen, but there were worse places to have to do so than Florence. The beer wasn’t bad, and there was, of all things, a library which was open to the public, where a man could sit and read. The city was cleaner than Milan, and smelled far less than Venice. Its citizens seemed reasonably fat and happy.

Francisco repaired to the library, to see what books the benevolent master of the city had seen fit to let the people read. The stock of some two thousand books, and a great number of manuscripts was enough to make Francisco green with envy. Books were expensive to produce, and even the twenty-eight books Francisco owned added up to a year’s wage for a manservant. The use of woodcut presses had brought the price down a great deal though, from when the books were hand written. Now a press could do two thousand pages a day!

The downside of the place was that they would not let him drink beer in the reading room, or eat there, for that matter. Still, there were benches, with the backs to serve as reading desks, and the smell of books. Two librarians kept an eye on the place, and kept it quiet, and there must have been a good forty people inside.

He was engrossed in Plutarch when someone coughed, delicately, in front of him. Looking up, Francisco saw a man in a large loose cap, and what was probably a false beard looking at him, and smiling. He had not lived as a soldier for all these years not to realize that the two men, on the flanks, also in very ordinary clothes, were almost certainly bodyguards–and good at their work, for all they were pretending just to be there.

“I am glad to see you enjoying a book, Caviliero Turner,” said the one in the middle. “You do realize I cannot meet with you, so perhaps you would walk to the back of the stacks on your left and take the small door on your right. I will join you shortly.” He walked past, and pulled down a book from the shelf.

Francisco calmly returned the book to its place and went down the stacks to the small door. It led into a room which had considerably more books in it than the library, but most of them were piled against the wall, except for those on the large table obviously in the process of being repaired. “His Grace said that he would be here presently, so find yourself a book that isn’t too badly damaged,” said the librarian, who was painstakingly stitching the pages back into a book.

“A lot of them get damaged, do they?” asked Francisco.

“Sadly, yes. We also buy and repair damaged ones for the library. Some books are very popular.”

As a way of increasing the popularity of a ruler with his subjects too, Francisco had to approve. He would suggest it to Carlo, if they could brush through the next few years.

Cosimo came in with his bodyguards before Francisco had comfortably settled into a damaged copy of Boccaccio’s De Mulieribus Claris.

“Your reputation, Caviliero, appears to be accurately derived,” said the duke. “How worrying!” But it was said with a disarming smile.

Francisco rose and bowed. “Yes. If we are to start believing all these reputations… I am very impressed by your library, your Grace. Florence is great city, but nothing I have seen here could delight me more than this.”

“It needs a bigger building. And more books,” said Cosimo, disparagingly. “My wife says we should rather spend the money on a great public camerata for the musical arts, or a theater for drama to rival Rome.”

“I’m sure that would be popular, but for me, this is the finest gift to the people. But then I like to read.”

“And to drink beer,” said Cosimo.

“The simple joys of life, Your Grace. I blame it on my English ancestry, if I have to excuse my tastes. But then I am a soldier, and it is not expected that I be refined in every direction, or indeed, any.”

“I envy that freedom at times. I myself am not musically inclined, but it is expected of me. Anyway, Caviliero, we could discuss books for hours, but I am expected to give an audience shortly. So let us come to the point. I know why you are here, and you know that I will not be meeting with you, officially. You must also know that I have no real desire for conflict with your master.”

“Carlo Sforza feels likewise, Your Grace. He does not excel at the niceties of diplomacy, but he holds you in some considerable esteem.” That was true enough. “Which is the reason he sought an alliance by marriage with your house.”

“Nothing to do with seeking to bestow legitimacy on his usurpation?” asked Cosimo, urbanely.

Francisco decided to play it the same way. “There are other candidates for that.”

Cosimo sighed. “I am very fond of my cousin Violetta. Her father was one of my closest friends, before he embarked on that reckless venture of his. Aside from political considerations, which, let us be honest, do not place her in a good position, Violetta is, shall we say, a determined woman. She has made up her mind. I cannot see a great advantage in the short term for Florence, so I will not bring pressure to bear on her, even if I could. I admit, I actually do consider the match favorably, but she does not. Nonetheless, Caviliero, I shall take you to meet her, and you can put the matter to her, personally. I am, I will be honest, trying to keep Florence out of war. Now, I am committed until Thursday of next week. You will fail to see me, for obvious reasons. I suggest you petition every day, and spend your days kicking your heels, possibly here in the library.”

“That will be a great hardship,” said Francisco with a smile.

“Indeed, I hope it will be as hard for you, as it would be for me. And then you will leave on the Friday morning in high dudgeon at being ignored. Do not move too fast, and choose the north road. We’ll overtake you, as I ride out to see Violetta and her mother.”

Francisco blinked. “That… is very generous of you, Your Grace.”

“I merely hope to make you understand why this would not work, and that it is not an insult to Carlo Sforza. Violetta is no pawn. I shall see you on Friday.”

Francisco bowed. “I will enjoy your library, and petition to see you, with increasingly visible anger.”

“Excellent. I look forward to talking of books with you. I shall leave now. If you don’t mind, wait for a few minutes before you leave my man to get on with his repair work.”

He left Francisco Turner with considerable food for thought, and access to a large number of books. Francisco had been around enough Italian courts to know that Cosimo de’ Medici was generally held in some disdain, but that he usually ended up getting what he wanted. Francisco knew Carlo Sforza did not share that disdain, an opinion he now shared himself. Cosimo might try to please everyone. Florence was not worth attacking, because her money was very important. Everyone borrowed from Venice, or Florence, or both. A failed attack might end up in future loans not being forthcoming.

He did not hold out great hopes of persuading Violetta de’ Medici into a marriage with Carlo Sforza. But at least he could tell Carlo, first hand, that Cosimo was doing his level best to avoid an armed conflict with Milan. He would probably succeed, baring something exceptional happening, Francisco judged. Of course, exceptional was less rare than you’d think it could be.