All The Plagues Of Hell – Snippet 42
The Duchy of Milan
Actually, Count Mindaug and his two servants were at that very moment having their first encounter with the mercenary troops of Carlo Sforza. The soldiers were guarding a bridge over the Adda River, and had positioned themselves in such a way as to direct flanking fire from their harquebuses to support the half-dozen lancers on the bridge. They weren’t in loot-and-destroy mode yet, thankfully, because Count Mindaug would have had little choice but to use magical means to survive such. Two hand-cannons weren’t going to go far in changing the balance of power.
Unfortunately, no one had explained that to Emma. She kept the weapon pointed unwaveringly at the lead horseman.
“Put that down,” snapped the sergeant in charge of the patrol. She obliged him by turning her aim on him. Holding the hand-cannon two handed and rock-steady, she provided, Mindaug thought, a good distraction, and would stop them watching him too closely. He would see how he could play this.
The count raised a hand pacifyingly. “She doesn’t speak Frankish, Your Honor. We were attacked and her man badly injured by men dressed as soldiers outside Verona. So she is very scared. I don’t want her to panic and kill you. Then your men would kill us. We mean no harm, but please don’t alarm her. She’s, um, upset by her experiences. Not quite rational yet. I am hoping to take her to a convent for help.”
The sergeant didn’t like the weapon pointed at him. But it was obvious her fixed expressionless stare must have convinced him that there was some truth at least to the don’t cause her to panic part. So he concentrated his attention on the small older man with the huge mustache. “What is your business in the duchy of Milan?”
Before he could answer, another horseman came clattering across the bridge from behind the guard. This was an obviously, by the more ornate uniform, a senior officer. The sergeant saluted him.
“And what have we got here, Sergeant?” he said, looking at the wagon. “The Scaliger invasion force?” He took in the hand-cannon and the woman holding it. “Armed to the teeth, too.”
Mindaug was a good enough judge of character to say: “I will try to tell her it is all right, Your Honor. She is just scared.” He repeated his story, and then told Emma in her native Magyar that she could rest the gun on her lap.
“Hungarian?” said the officer.
“My servants are, yes.” He repeated his tale about being a bastard who had inherited his old lord’s books, but gave his origins as Moravia.
“And so what is your business here?”
“Please, Your Honor, I am a scholar and bookseller.”
“Well, Francisco Turner will be glad to see you, even if no-one else will. Don’t you know there is a war on?”
“No, we were just trying to get away from Verona. Actually, I hoped to go to Florence. I have heard books are much valued by Duke Cosimo.”
“I’ve been there. He even has a public library, so you’d lose your market.”
Mindaug shrugged. “Reading causes more reading, Your Honor. Please do not send us back into that lawless country behind us.”
“If you’re spies, you’re cleverer than most. We’ll need to check your wagon.”
“Certainly. I can show you my books,” said Mindaug, eagerly.
The officer snorted. “I think I’ll save that privilege for the sergeant. Go and have a look, sergeant.”
So, accompanied by Mindaug, he did. They opened several bales and boxes at random. Fortunately, luck served the sergeant well–as it did Mindaug himself. Of course, it was unlikely a man as untutored as the sergeant would have realized the dangerous nature of some of the volumes. In any event, the presence of the bandaged and bloody Tamas inside the wagon bore out their story. They were allowed to proceed, which they did, towards the city of Milan.
It was not an unappealing city, thought the count. But that could also be because he was tired of travelling. He hired a small house near the lazaretto, and began the process of making himself comfortable. Count Mindaug knew something of spies and would have cheerfully bet that a man with a large collection of books arriving in the city would be known and noted quite fast. They would approach him in their own time and manner. The house had a cellar, which was good, because Mindaug wanted to perform some more experiments of the pyrotechnic nature. And, if you counted the fact that most of the rooms could have his books arrayed in them so he could find them easily, and a central, windowless one had a solid door and good lock, it was adequate. The weather, creeping toward summer, showed that it might be rather too warm for comfort here, later in the year. But Tamas, besides complaining of headaches, had largely recovered.
Milan might be in a state of war with its neighbors, but it was not yet showing any signs of it. Goods were still freely for sale, and farmers came in from the surrounding countryside to sell their produce every day. Emma apparently found the food acceptable, even if some things were far too expensive in her opinion. Mindaug found it slightly amusing how conservative she was of his money. The food was plentiful, not rationed in any way, and neither was the wine, which was better than he’d tasted before. No-one appeared to anticipate a siege. Well, the count knew that that did not mean anything. And, so long as he kept looters away from his books, why would he care? He could, if need be, take magical steps to see that happened. He had, gradually, carefully, without using any of his power, set up certain traps and wards that he could activate quickly.
Still, it had all cost rather a large proportion of his gold. He would need some more soon. If that had not been the case he could have considered himself very comfortably situated, safe, hidden, and working on a bolt-hole.
The Eastern Mediterranean; Venice
The disadvantage, Benito Valdosta found, of having had the tritons advising the fleet on winter weather on their outbound trip, was that he had become accustomed to it. There had been no warning of the storm coming down the Adriatic that had struck them a day out of Cerigo, driving them southwest. There was little they could do but to ship oars and run before it, and hope it blew itself out before it left them shipwrecked on the coast of Africa.
“According to Grandfather’s maps, the good thing about this is there isn’t a lot of land to hit,” said Benito. “The bad thing about it is there isn’t anything to shelter behind, either.” Benito was standing on the heaving deck with Manfred. Neither of them suffered from sea-sickness, and the smell below-decks was enough to make anyone think about being sick, even, as Manfred said, without drinking any wine.
Manfred shrugged. “It might get warmer if we reach Africa. There’s a smell of snow on this wind, as well as the bite of it. It is spring, but I shouldn’t wonder if Erik is stuck in a felt tent somewhere in the Balkans. Not that he’ll be complaining with the company he has, but it’ll hold him up as much as it does us.
“I want to get home. Home to a quiet life with my wife and baby,” Benito complained.
Manfred laughed. “Now, you are doomed. There’ll be at least another war by the time you get home, if not two.”
Marco Valdosta had largely despaired of finding out what sort of snake it had been. He’d had some success in getting a swallowing reaction from the young woman, but that still meant she was being fed, painstakingly slowly, a small spoonful of broth at a time. It was a good thing she’d been well-covered and healthy or she’d have starved by now.
He had also largely despaired of hearing from Francisco Turner. The nyx Rhene had not returned to the salty waters of the Lagoon. He had no messages, but the doge’s agents had brought word that war had begun, with soldiers from Parma and Lombardy ravaging the northern Milanese countryside. And now, it seemed, the Scaligers were also about to attack Milan in the east. Probably his friend was away on military duties–but that did not make Marco worry less, or prevent him from wondering why he had not heard anything. He decided that the chief role of being a father-to-be was to increase the amount of worrying he did, a hundred-fold.
A summons to see the doge, privately, did not ease matters. Petro Dorma received Marco in one of the small chambers in the Doge’s palace that he used for small meetings he wished to keep very private. He was already seated when Marco entered and he gestured at a chair nearby.
“Please, have a seat.” Once Marco had done so, Dorma continued: “I have had a troubling message from Mainz, sent by their fastest courier. And as you haveâ€¦ um, magical connections with La Serenissima, I think you need to know. A very powerful and very unpleasant magician has now arrived in our back yard–a man who was Jagiellon’s confidante and worked for a time with Elizabeth Bartholdy. He was also, the Imperials inform me, Emeric of Hungary’s mage when he invaded the territory of the Golden Horde. He is thought to be in Milan, suspected of being in alliance with Carlo Sforza. They are attempting to locate him there.”
“Do they know what he’s planning?” asked Marco.
The doge shook his head. “Not that they informed me of. He’s a nasty piece of work, though. I suspect Sforza may end up being used and devoured by the fellow. They’ve asked for our help in neutralizing him, or at least, locating him. They ask for my support in dealing with Carlo Sforza. They have a team of Knights of the Holy Trinity, monitoring his magical works. It appears serious, whatever it is. Sforza does have a problem with the sheer number of enemies he has, but I cannot feel that adding the Holy Roman Empire to them is going to be worth having this fellow. My spies will be advised, and I will let you know, just as soon as I know any more.”
And with that, Marco had to be content. It was not information he could share–but it was shared with him, by back channels, by old Isaac the goldsmith in the Campo ghetto.
“There’s an evil and powerful new magician arrived in Milan, M’lord Marco,” he whispered in a very harsh croak, after Marco arrived at his shop. “Out of Lithuania. And anything from there means bad, bad, bad.”
“Butâ€¦ didn’t some of your family come from there?” asked Marco.
“Yes. That’s why we left. Because of his kind.”
He would not say how he’d heard about it. But something he did let slip was that the news was not from Milan, but from a source in Venice. “Phillipo Maria purged almost all the Streghira in his duchy. We don’t hear much from there. There is no one in Milan, um, right now.”