All The Plagues Of Hell – Snippet 44


But by the time he arrived at the hamlet of Cerlongo, some miles from Goito, and just inside the lands held by his troops, to meet his sappers and siege cannon, he was so exhausted he merely gave the orders and went to bed.

He wasn’t that surprised to find that his officers had sent for Francisco Turner, who was there on his waking.

“If that explosion didn’t wake you, you’re sick,” said his physician grimly, taking his pulse.

“Did it work?” he asked.

“Took out the center-span, the one next to it, partially, and damaged the middle piling. They failed to think of a barge full of kegs of black powder, and a cross-strut too wide for their bridge,” said Francisco, with the ghost of a smile. “The barge jammed under the bridge for a solid couple of minutes before the fuse burned enough to blow the powder-kegs. We had sharpshooters keeping them from jumping down onto the barge. Anyway, the siege guns will be in place in the next hour, and the fortress must be bulging at the seams. We’ve got the infantry in the village, and the encampment has been burned.”

“Good. What is wrong with me?”

“Besides doing what two men half your age would be exhausted by, I don’t know yet,” said the physician.

“I don’t get tired, Francisco.”

“You don’t admit you do. I’ve seen you grey with exhaustion and still in the saddle.”

“Yes, but that was after three days solid, and we’d had no food, and I had the flux.”

“I know. I was there, remember? Now lie down, I need to examine you.”

He did, leaving few bits un-poked or un-prodded, and, as usual, asked too many questions.

“When did you last eat?”

“I don’t remember. Oh, yes. The boys and I stopped before dawn and changed horses and I had some sausage and bread.”

“And before that?”

“I had some food at an inn somewhere. It was typical peasant pottage. Too many pease, too little meat, plenty of onions. Bound to give you gas, but I was not feeling too good before we left Fidenza, to be honest.”

“It’s my opinion that you have been poisoned. Your eyes are yellow, or at least the whites of them are,” said Francisco.

“‘S wounds, Francisco! If anyone poisoned me, they’d have to have poisoned half my men. It was the same sausage, the same pottage. I ate with the men before we gave Umberto a hiding. You know I always do that, and they like it.”

“So do you. But, as Petro Dorma could tell you, not all poisons are administered by food, and not all are quick-acting.”

“So what are you going to do to me?” asked Carlo slightly peevishly. Of all the things he was suspicious about, and disliked most, cupping was very high on the list.

“Restrict your diet. Make sure you use a taster, even for your wine. Shuffle your bodyguards, and order you to take a week’s bed-rest. A bed back in Milan so you don’t get out of bed to shout at your siege-masters. We know our trade too,” said Francisco.

“A week! Are you mad?” said Carlo, sitting up, and feeling giddy.

“If I order a week I might get two days,” said Francisco. “And now is the best time for it. The Piedmontese troops are not in the field yet, Parma and the Genovese are reeling, and the Scaligers will be too busy trying to relieve this lot.”

“You make a good point,” admitted Sforza.

“I do my best. I’ll go and arrange a carriage.”

“I can’t be seen in a damned carriage! They’ll be saying I’m nearly dead.”

Francisco shrugged. “We’ll let you ride out of town.”

“I’ll inspect the siege first. They expect it of me, and that’ll quash any rumors.”

“No, you won’t,” said Francisco.

“Are you telling me what to do? Again? After last time?” demanded Carlo.

“Yes. Because you look like pallid shadow of yourself, and you’d fall over, and then you’d have worse than rumors. Trust me, I’ll go and tell some lies for you. Tell them your new wife is panting for you, and the first night left you exhausted. They’ll like that, and believe it too.”

“Humph. You should have entered politics. I had no idea physicians were so dishonest,” said Carlo, attempting a bit of banter, and sensing his man’s concern under the joke.

“Doctors have to tell people that they’ll recover,” said Francisco with a wry smile. “I’ll go across to the siege-works. The Scaligers won’t last too long, I don’t think, as long as we hold the other bridges.”

Carlo Sforza was left trying to think how he could have been poisoned. By whom was harder. It was more of a case of which one of his foes would not prefer him dead. Still, he’d planned to go back to Milan in another day or two. Anyway, there was a great deal of planning and co-ordination that needed doing, and realistically Milan was far more central and had better resources than some border village did. He’d get reports from the spies he had employed before–a very small select group–and from his predecessors’ large and somewhat less select group. Some of them, Carlo suspected, had survived by telling Phillipo Maria what he wanted to hear. Those would have to go soon.

He wondered, briefly, how his new wife would take to the news that he had been poisoned. It had seemed very important to her that her child would one day rule Milan. Unless she’d been lucky on their wedding night, that would have to take a lot more wine than Francisco was going to let him have.


Lucia was not surprised to see him brought back to the palace, sickly. She feigned concern, of course. And he told her to stop it, because their enemies would be given courage by his obviously being ill, and dismay by his being seen not to be.

Nothing could be easier.

And while he suspected he’d been poisoned, he had no idea that she, or rather the asp, had done it while he slept. It had seemed fitting revenge, and after all she had no further use for him, after that. He was not to die… not until it was closer to the time of her confinement. So she continued building up her networks of power. She’d paid back those who had slighted her in full already, except for the few who she was making suffer as long as possible. She’d even made one of them a lady-in-waiting. That was going to be a sweet form of slow torture.

Lucia had also singled out those who had given her suitable deference, too, for advancement. But this gave her a new opportunity. “I think I ought to have my own guards and a taster,” she said.

“Certainly. I’ll have Francisco Turner choose a few suitable…”

“l shall choose them myself,” she said firmly. “I am far more acquainted with the nobility of the court than you are.”

Sforza shrugged. “As you wish. But I warn you–most of them could not defend themselves against a man armed with a dried sausage.”

He was dismissive of the aristocracy of Milan in private with her, although he avoided it in public. She made sure they knew of his opinions, though, and that she did not share them. She would need some of them. And it was quite pleasant to have them fawn on her. It filled an old need.

“He’s quite healthy looking,” she said to the asp, disapprovingly.

He is stronger than we knew, said the asp-voice

“Well, do something. I can’t have him dead yet. But I want him weaker so he does not come back to my bed. I do not wish to go through that again.”

When darkness falls. In the quiet hours I will prick him again. Just a tiny scratch on the skin. It is much easier just to kill.

“I don’t need you to do things the easy way.”