All The Plagues Of Hell – Snippet 46

She smiled at them, “Good morning, úr,” she said, in heavily accented Frankish–and not with the Italian accent, either. Hungarian, by the honorific. Francisco was dressed well enough for the woman to grant him that, and a small bow. She did keep one hand tucked in her apron, and there was a bucket and mop just behind her. A smell of new baked bread, and… gunpowder tickled Francisco’s nose.

He bowed politely. “Jó napot kívánok.” He said cautiously, expending his entire supply of polite Hungarian.

He was given a huge smile and a positive gale of what was presumably her native language, and a far bigger curtsey–enough to see a glimpse of the hand cannon she had tucked under her apron.

He held up his hand and shook his head. “I am sorry. That is all I can understand or can say in your language. I am the Caviliero Francisco Turner. I am a collector of books and I have heard you have some for sale.”

She frowned. Realizing she had not understood him, Francisco repeated himself, slowly.

“Ah. Books. So many, so much to dust. I am not to touch some, the master says. I call him. Wait. I call.”

As she turned, there was an explosion. Not huge, to a man who had known cannon fire, but still loud. The young woman turned and ran. Francisco and his man ran after her, down a short passage lined with shelves of books, into the kitchen and down a stairs.

Well… part way down the stairs. Smoke and a smallish man with a vast white mustache and rather disheveled hair was coming up it, coughing. Francisco would guess that what she was frantically asking was if he was all right. From a scullery door came another young man, limping, and with a bandage still around his head–obviously equally concerned.

“Let me guess,” said Francisco. “You’re an alchemist.”

The fellow with a mustache waved off his servants, and stepped forward to meet him. He bowed. “Alas, no, just a man seeking knowledge, and occasionally making some error of judgment.”

He looked at the two of them, in an assessing fashion. “What is it that you gentlemen seek in my house?”

His Frankish was impeccable, as if spoken by a gentleman of Mainz. That in itself was a bit odd, combined with the Hungarian servants. Francisco introduced himself, and repeated his story about wishing to buy books.

“Ah. The Caviliero Francisco Turner. I had heard you might be my only customer in Milan,” said the man. “May I introduce myself? I am Kazimierz Jagr of Bohemia, a visitor to your fair city. What manner of books are you interested in, M’lord? I am afraid I only have a small number of volumes for sale. The rest are for my work.”

His eyes were as sharp as gimlets and very alert and, despite the fact that he was not very large, Francisco, who had spent much of his life summing up enemies, had a feeling this man could be dangerous if he chose to be. Still, at the moment he seemed polite and wary. Well, that was wise for a foreigner in any place. “Medical texts, particularly,” answered Francisco.

“Aha. You are a physician? I have some texts… and I would like your services.”

“I’m a soldier, not a physician for hire.”

“A pity. Come with me, good sir. Emma, bring wine.” He sniffed, “And maybe some of the new bread.”

He led Francisco and his man to a second room. The furnishing was, at this stage, Spartan–a table, and shelving which the fellow with bandage on his head had perhaps been constructing more of–there were planks and tools, and a pile of oilskin-wrapped bundles. The shelves were in the throes of having books unpacked onto them. Not as many books as Cosimo de’ Medici had in his public library–but this was one room. And these books were different. They were old. “I try to collect the original texts. With hand-copying they become much altered. But the inks do not last forever,” said the man. “You are, I gather, a reading man. Are you familiar with the Persian physician and philosopher Avicenna? I have a very early translation, a copy in Cremona’s own hand. I have it in Arabic too, but…”

“I do read and speak that.”

The look he got from the supposed bookseller said he had gone up in the fellow’s estimation. “Then I do have something which will interest you. I do not have the complete work, but I have some of Al-Nafis’ writings. Some of the originals.”

Francisco’s mouth fell open. “Interested! I should say I am. I thought they had all been destroyed. I must…um, I would like to see those.”

“It will be my pleasure to allow you to read them. I don’t think they have been unpacked yet. Tamas, poor fellow, is suffering quite badly from the effects of an assault we suffered in Scaliger lands just east of Verona. He has been struggling to put up the shelves.”

Francisco knew when he’d been out-maneuvered, and it was not un-pleasant in discovering one of the rarest and most anatomically accurate of texts. “Let me have a look at him,” he said. He dug in his pouch and took out a coin. “Gilotti, go tell Marona I said for you both to go and have a mug of wine. And I mean a mug. One mug. Come back here when you’re done. I see that I shall be a while.”

The trooper grinned, took the money, saluted and left.

By now Francisco was sure of three things: the man was not illiterate, or a mountebank, and he did have a large number of books.

He just wasn’t sure quite what he actually was. He was too well read, too knowledgeable. He was decidedly experimenting with something in his cellar. Did magic involve black powder? Alchemy seemed most likely. On the other hand, his servants plainly worshipped the ground he walked on, and yet there was a peculiar attitude to both of them, as if they were looking after beloved but slightly abnormal child. The man was investing a level of care in his servant not common among the nobility. That, no matter where he was now, was what this fellow had been raised to be, and amongst.

Francisco examined the servant. “You should have stitched that up,” he said of the long, shallow slash down his chest and abdomen. “You have some infection down there. It needs to be kept as clean and dry as possible. You have some spirits of wine in your experimental equipment? Clean it with that. I hold with boiled cloth for dressings myself, there seems some virtue in it from the heat. And clean the wound drawing the swabs away from the wound, like this. You won’t believe how many healthy wounds can have the evil humors spread by cleaning up and down them.”

Then he examined the patient’s head, tapping his teeth, feeling very carefully. “I’ll need a razor,” he said.

“Er, it requires surgery?”

“No, I just wish to shave a piece of his head. I believe he has a fractured skull, but it is necessary to see if there is any depression of the bone. I don’t think so.”

A razor was hastily brought. And Francisco noted the bookseller knew very little of medicine, but a great deal about anatomy. The girl was quietly crying and praying. But the bookseller was two things–curious, and worried. He did his best not let either show, but Francisco had dealt with too many men in too many battles.

He examined the shaved skull carefully, gently. “It’s unlikely there is large damage. He’d have had worse than headaches. But my experience says as little activity as possible, as little bouncing about as possible–I’ve lost count as to how many patients got worse after riding. Give it a few weeks. He is to sleep as much as he can, and, from my experience keeping troopers from doing stupid things, you should keep him busy doing non-physical activity, when he isn’t sleeping. There’s no guarantee, but there is a good chance of recovery. It’s my finding that narcotics or wine don’t help much, and tend to have worse effects later, for all the relief they give now. Sleep is best.”

The bookseller translated. The girl let loose with a burst of what Francisco would bet was a severe lecture directed at the poor young man. She was a pretty young thing now, but she’d make a dragon of an older woman one day, he judged. Then she kissed Francisco’s hand, and from what he understood, thanked him and the saints and God profusely.

“Take him upstairs and put him to bed, Emma,” said the bookseller, putting an end to her recital.

When they’d left, the man said: “And now, Caviliero, maybe you will actually tell me what you want?”

He sounded faintly amused. “I know you are one of the officers of the Protector, Sforza. I have seen you are a well-read man and plainly an experienced physician. You did not come here–accompanied by a soldier, with another outside–merely by chance. I would guess that you want to know who I am and what I am here for. I would guess you act directly for your commander. Am I correct?”

The fellow was all too astute. “You could be. But I want to know what you were doing in that cellar?” asked Francisco.

The bookseller scowled. “Following instructions in a book precisely–and getting an unexpected and very dangerous result. I can only conclude the quantities were willfully recorded wrongly to cause that result. I had used only a tenth part of the recipe, too.”

“What book?”

“Your knowledge of Arabic script may be of some value here, Caviliero. Perhaps I made a mistake. It is a Persian translation of a book from China, the Wujing Zongyao, a text largely on the construction and use of Chinese imperial weapons. I had thought the weapons described in it might make me of some value to the Protector. If he does not want magical support, that is. I have already had a number of others making inquiries for suitable spells.”