All The Plagues Of Hell – Snippet 45

Chapter 24


Francisco had informed his commander that he too was staying in Milan. “I cannot be on hand to see to you if I’m seeing to troop deployments in Brescia. Besides, you have better men than me for that. And you really do need to rest, stick to the diet I have prescribed, and take that vile concoction of mine.” He pointed to the cordial he had made up. He was not too sure that it would help, just as he was not too sure what poison had been given to Sforza. It was not, at least as yet, a lethal thing. He’d seen a little improvement in Sforza’s color and general mien since he had slept all the way back through the jolting to Milan. That he could sleep in the swaying bouncing carriage was worrying enough.

Francisco was a soldier and a physician, not a spymaster. He needed to be the latter to find the poison, the poisoner, or the means of administrating it. He did know, both from the prevention and treatment point of view, that it was vital to do so. However, he trusted none of the spies whose proper trade it was, so he would just have to try his best too. Carlo’s bodyguard were all personally loyal and long term soldiers. He had enlisted their aid in this, and they were being slightly more jumpy than a mouse sneaking though a cat’s fur. That was fine by Francisco, but he still felt more needed to be done. So he went for an early morning run to think about it.

That always did his head good, even if it did not entirely solve anything. He stopped for his usual beer afterwards, thinking of his strange aquatic encounter last time, and keeping away from the water.

That resulted in a large lump of decaying lily-root hitting him on the back of the neck.

“Stop ignoring me,” said the water-woman, whose bare breasts would have been hard to ignore, had he been looking that way.

“I have no desire to be drowned, nor am I feeling frolicsome. The water is still too cold, and I have other things on my mind.” He wondered if she ever did.

“I’ve got another message for you. Where have you been? Have you been avoiding me?” she asked, handing him the same bottle, but re-sealed.

“No. I’ve been across the Po to a battle, and down to Minca for a siege,” he said, guessing that river names might mean more to her than town names. “And don’t you have many admirers of your own kind? I’m surprised you’re interested in humans. We’re poor swimmers.”

She looked at him in surprise. “There are no males among the nyx. We look to humans to breed.”

“Oh.” Perhaps comments about mules would be less than wise, he thought. “So, um, do you have many children?” he asked out of politeness.

“No, they all die.”

She actually seemed quite upset by that, and it was hard to know what to say. So he settled for, “Well, you must have been a child and lived, or you wouldn’t be here.”

She wrinkled her forehead. “That was long, long ago. So long it has faded in my memory.”

That seemed to affront her too, and she slipped away under the water.

Which left Francisco to take Marco Valdosta’s message back to his quarters, and later to his commander. Sforza had chosen his sick-room with some care. It was a tower and had, one hoped, no secret chambers or spying points. It also had a most ingenious conceit which worked very well–on the roof there was a large cistern, which was painstakingly filled every day by men with buckets. That provided the water for a little ornamental fountain. A strange conceit indeed, indoors. But the tinkling splash made overhearing what was said very difficult. It was a fine idea, as long as you were not one of the poor fellows carrying the buckets up the stairs.

Francisco was pleased to see Sforza looking alert, and–as he always did when confined indoors too long–looking like a caged lion, considering all ways out of there.

“I have some interesting news from our spies in Venice,” said Sforza with a tigerish smile. “Two of them, separately, so I can believe it. We apparently have recruited a powerful and evil magician to our forces. Someone named Count Mindaug, originally from Lithuania. You were quite right. All we had to do was tell them we absolutely had not set out to do so.”

“It’s amazing how far the imagination can stretch,” replied Francisco, chuckling.

“In this case it appears to be supported by a fellow showing up in Milan with a great many books. I am assured that anyone who arrives with a whole wagon load of books and two foreign servants has to be a magician.”

“Yes, I had similar conclusions jumped to about me in Venice. So who is this ‘magician’?” asked Francisco, who was naturally curious at the mention of books.

“He claims to be Freiherr Jagr, of Bohemia, who has inherited his father’s library and is a travelling bookseller. But he hasn’t sold any books. My spies are, frankly, very suspicious.”

“I would be, too. It’s a fair distance from Bohemia,” said Francisco, who had been there twice on horseback.

“But he really does have a vast number of books, according to them. I don’t trust their judgment. I want you to investigate. It’s an opportunity you are not often offered by me: go and buy a book. We’re watching him, and can toss him in jail if need be, but sometimes one can find out more before one put on the thumb-screws, than after. Take a few men, in case he tries anything exciting, but don’t make him run, if you can help it. He’s frightening our foes for us.”

“I suspect a vast number of books will be ten, and he will be some illiterate mountebank, but yes, I will do that. Now, I have something else that’s peculiar, that I wish to bring to your attention, M’lord.” He handed Carlo the letter from Marco Valdosta. “There are two things relevant about this. The first is the nature of young Valdosta: he simply isn’t any good at duplicity.”

“I remember that from him as a child, occasionally attempting, as children do, to deny responsibility for something. It usually wasn’t him of course, it was Benito, and then he’d say it was him, to shelter the brat. Benito could be as clever as a fox about avoiding being caught, but not Marco.”

Francisco nodded. “That probably hasn’t changed. But the second is that he names the source of this ‘plague’ story: Thomas Lüber of Baden, who is something unusual. He’s a churchman, but he is known across the medical world for his systematic work on medical plants, and his blunt outspokenness. He’s no mystic or politician dressed in church clothes. He’s a scientist who cares for nothing but his work.”

“And to add a third, you and I were both sure this was a rumor set by the church intent on bringing Milan down,” mused Sforza. “There is a faction in Rome that would like to see that happen. But none of my spies have reported it to me. None. That says for a deliberately spread rumor it’s being kept very secret. We’ve had it from precisely two people, and while Cosimo can be as sneaky as a Sicilian”–Carlo Sforza had never forgiven the entire population of Sicily for the fact that one of them had stolen his pilgrim medal–“he appears to only have told you, and only once he knew that he could trust you.”

“Which brings us a problem. I don’t think it’s in our best interests to alienate young Marco. Besides, it would be like kicking a puppy. But there is no real treatment known for the plague of Justinian. It killed vast numbers across Europe, and then came back more or less every generation. It did seem to get less intense in the numbers killed, but stories of the blue-black buboes are enough to frighten peasants witless centuries later.”

“What happened to it?”

Francisco shrugged. “It would run its course, and stop when it ran out of new places to spread. Quarantine did contain it… for a while. And then it just didn’t happen anymore. We’ve had a few centuries since the last outbreak.”

“Like fire, it needs to keep spreading. And if you thin the fuel out enough, it’ll stop. Well, I agree with you. Let’s do our best to keep young Marco sweet. Did you get this message in the same bizarre way?”

Francisco nodded.

“Always good to have… shall we say, alternative channels of communication. Give him some advice on quarantine, and give him an opening which will allow him a chance to tell you how that won’t work,” said Sforza.

“I’ll have to give it some thought, but I will do my best. Now, how are you feeling today?”

After examining his patient, Francisco picked a couple of men–a tough sergeant, and the sort of trooper who would have been a sergeant if he gave up getting drunk and fighting with the sergeants. Both were in Milan because they’d been injured, but both were due to rejoin their troops soon, and, anyway, reflected Francisco, half-dead they were still tougher than any so-called magician, or most other forms of life. In that they were like Sforza, but not as intelligent, or quite as tough.

“Where are we going, Captain?”

“A bookseller. Or so he claims. It should be a new experience for both of you, unless it turns out that he is being a front for a brothel or tavern, and I can’t see any sign of anyone keeping those secret,” said Francisco.

“He’s a spy or up to something,” said the trooper.

“Possibly. But you’re to behave unless he shows signs of trouble or flight.”

Because Francisco was a soldier first and an investigator of dubious booksellers somewhere far below that, they checked the flanks and rear first. Francisco left the sergeant to watch the rear, and told him to come running if there was a shout.

He and the trooper knocked at the front door of the unpretentious little house. It was opened almost immediately by a pretty young woman, who was plainly pregnant.