All The Plagues Of Hell – Snippet 20

Still, he went through with the charade of being ignored by Cosimo, so that the spies of various other states could gleefully report that Sforza’s emissary was being given the cold shoulder. On Friday, he regretfully bade the library farewell, and rode out in a suitable display of high dudgeon.

Nearly two hours later he was joined on the road, relatively close to Croci di Calenzano, by Duke Cosimo de’ Medici. His escort and Francisco’s far smaller one gave them space so they could ride and talk without being overheard. By the way that the duke’s troops needed no instruction for this, Francisco guessed they’d done it before. They were relatively well drilled cavalry–good, if not of the caliber of Sforza’s men, or Dell’este’s forces, for that matter. Those troops had a degree of skill whose final polish came only from being blooded. Often. That, Cosimo’s pacific nature had avoided.

“I should have specified a time for you to leave,” said Cosimo. “I am more accustomed to midday departures, than ones at first light, Caviliero. You keep military hours, and my wife had a soiree which did not end until after midnight last night. We had to make our usual leisurely departure and then ride like hell.”

“My apologies, Your Grace. I’ve had a lovely ride admiring the countryside. It is verdant and so well-protected,” said Francisco, gesturing at a windbreak grove of chestnuts.

Cosimo laughed. “The trees or the fortification on the hill?”

“I had noticed those, yes. They have an interesting design.”

“Oddly enough, they owe their design to Violetta’s late father. In defensive terms he was a very good engineer. A genius, you might say. That led him to believe he’d be a great conqueror. Alas, the two did not actually go together. I learned something from his unfortunate demise. I hold my base well. I do not risk all in expensive and dangerous ventures. However, I wouldn’t mention that to the Signoretta Violetta. She can be quite touchy, and she’s well read on military subjects.”

“She is? That’s… unusual.”

“Oh, my little cousin is very unusual. She’s also let herself get sadly fat since her father’s death. I think she ate for comfort, and it became a habit.”

Further confidences were ended by a rider–not a very good one–who came racing over the brow of the hill towards them. Both Cosimo’s and Francisco’s men took defensive measures, but unnecessary ones, as they could soon see. The rider was waving furiously whenever he could take a hand off the saddle horse. He was, by his dress, plainly a servant.

“Ah. One of the Lady Calimet de’ Medici’s footmen,” said Cosimo. “She only has two, at my insistence. I wonder what is wrong?”

The servant pulled his steaming horse to a halt. “My Lord! Come quickly!” he panted. “The mistress…and the young mistress, bitten… by…snake.”

They spurred their horses to a gallop.

The neat little manor house was in chaos. Screaming women–not the injured ones–and there were people running around frantically.

“Be quiet!” commanded Cosimo, with an icy and effective authority that Francisco had not seen him employ before. In the sudden silence, he said, “Now. You,” he pointed to one of the older dames. “Take us to the ladies. Caviliero, I believe you are a physician, could you accompany me? The rest of you remain here. Be quiet and wait on my commands.”

Francisco drew his travelling kit from his saddle-bag, as he dismounted. “The snake. Did it get away, and if so did anyone see it? I need to know what kind it was,” he explained to Cosimo.

“The signorina. She cut it in half,” said one elderly servant, by the looks of him, a gardener.

“Bring it to us. And be careful, they can still bite and poison, even when dead.”

He followed Cosimo, led by an elderly servitor, into a salon where the two women lay, on a settle and a daybed, surrounded by the entertainments of ladies of the gentry– tambour frames, a basket of delicate white-work, and a number of books. Francisco wasted no time, checked for a pulse on the older woman, found it weak but racing and erratic. She moaned feebly and panted. Then to the plump girl–and that was worse. At first, taking the limp, cold, clammy hand, he thought she was dead, but there was pulse at her throat–he could find nothing on the wrist. It was there. Faint. Slow and weak.

“Is she dead?” asked Cosimo.

“Not yet, Your Grace,” said Francisco, loosening the neck-band of her dress by the simple expedient of cutting it.

The gardener came in with a still twitching snake–both halves speared onto a garden fork and held as far from himself as possible.

“What is it?” asked Cosimo.

Francisco had seen a fair number of snakes in Africa and Arabia as a slave, and a few in Italy. This one was the color of a savage bruising: purple heading toward black with a dirty yellow underside. It also had a vee-pattern in brighter yellow on its head-scales. The head had been cut in half, so that was less easy to see. It was very distinctive, and yet new to him. “I’ve not seen the like of it, I’m afraid.”

“What is to be done?” asked Cosimo. He was maintaining an icy calm but Francisco could see that the man was as taut as a bowstring, and despite the façade, deeply upset.

“I will find the bites, and apply a tincture to them. I don’t know if it will help, Your Grace. And then it will be a matter of managing the symptoms and time.”

“It bit Lady Calimet on the hand,” said the gardener, “and when she screamed and the signorina ran to her, she had been cutting some herbs with me, and it lunged and bit her on the leg. She cut it with the shears in her hand.”

“How long ago did this happen?” asked Francisco.

“Oh, not long, Master. Just before the None bell.”

Like most rustics he probably could not read or tell the time, but nonetheless that could not have been an hour ago.

Cosimo must have seen his expression. “That’s bad, is it?”

Francisco nodded. “It is very soon for this extreme a reaction. Your Grace, I will be honest with you,” he said, as he located the two puncture wounds on the feebly panting older woman’s hand. “I’d send for a priest. And get me a couple of men to move the bed and settle closer together. I’ll want a stool so I can sit between them. And I’ll want someone who can understand what I tell them to do, and will obey orders.”

“That will be me,” said Cosimo de’ Medici calmly. “Unless you have one among your men who will have more experience?”

“No, Your Grace. But it is likely to be grim,” said Francisco, cleaning the wound, noting the swelling and mottled bruising developing up her arm. The hand was clammy and her brow was beaded with sweat.

“I can cope,” said Cosimo. “I will go and give the orders.”

He came back to find Francisco cutting the fabric away from the younger woman’s thigh. Francisco stopped briefly to allow them to move the settle. “Should I have them fetch a bed?” asked Cosimo.

Francisco shook his head. “Later. Your Grace, it appears she only got one fang–I can only find one puncture wound. But her heart rate is decreasing and very weak. I am going to administer a tincture of belladonna. It’s a poison, but it does increase the heart rate. But it may kill her if she gets too much.”

“She’s dying anyway,” said Cosimo, his voice harsh. “Do it. I’ve heard you are one of the best physicians in Italy.”

“An exaggeration,” said Francisco as he carefully measured out the dose. “I do know someone who will be, though.”

As he said that his other patient began to twitch and moan, and that took their attention. “One with barely a heartbeat, the other with a weak racing erratic heart. An odd poison,” said Francisco, “although different toxins affect the body differently.”

The priest came at this point. Francisco left him to his business and paid attention to the younger woman again. The heartbeat was faster and at least discernable now.

But then things went from there, to worse with the older woman. Francisco tried various stopgaps, even a low dose of the belladonna. It was not particularly effective and he tried several of his other drugs, with no better result. Eventually her heart fluttered its last and stopped. Fortunately, the younger woman had gradually started breathing slightly better during this time, but then she too had a relapse, and Francisco was too busy dealing with her to concern himself with the dead. Violetta, however, did respond to second dose of belladonna tincture. The trouble was the response was just so slow, administered like that.