All The Plagues Of Hell – Snippet 47

“And can you provide those?” asked Francisco, who had reached his own conclusions.

The bookseller looked at him from under heavy-lidded eyes. “Can I make gold from base metal? What do you think, Caviliero? If I could transport magically would I travel by wagon? If I could conjure ever-filled purses or demons to transport the treasures of the earth to me, would I be down in the cellar grinding charcoal and saltpeter crystals, and adding various other substances to achieve suitable smoke? Would I not have foretold your coming and magically cured my man?”

“A point. As it happens, my master might have employment for someone who was believed a great magician,” said Francisco. The man was as sharp as a razor and had successfully pointed out the flaws in many a mountebank’s tale… while enhancing his reputation.

“People will believe anything, especially aided with a suitable trick or two,” said the bookseller, cheerfully admitting he was a fraud. “I was experimenting partly for that reason too. I have a marvelous list of pyrotechnic effects in a treatise by Hakawai, in one of the languages of Hind, which did not agree with those in Wujing–which was what I was experimenting with. And of course,” he added sarcastically, “I can write you suitable protective cantrips against diseases of the genitals and for creating lust or fidelity.”

As he’d had experience of being asked for those, Francisco understood precisely what he was talking about. “They seem to work too, when they are believed in.”

“Ah, belief. Many strange things may be due to that,” said the bookseller cum magician-fraud. “It was a concept about which Xenophanes was wrong, and Pythagoras correct. Anyway, come down to the cellar, and I will show you one of the devices I have had some success with. I am really in need a larger and more private place for this. I used to have space… back before I was relegated to fleeing with my books. In those days I never thought of experimenting with these things, and now I regret it.”

“You fled your home?”

“Oh, yes. In Hungary, not Bohemia. Politics, you understand.” He sighed. “At the time I cared, I think. But now the farther I get from Hungary and its mad politics, the more I just want a safe place to read my books and experiment a little.”

“Milan is not what most would think of as ‘safe,’ these days.”

The man shrugged. “I actually wanted to go to Florence, but it seems there is a war in my way.”

He led Francisco down to the cellar, which was singularly lacking in pentacles or such arcana, but did have a workbench along one wall with considerable broken glassware–the result of the last experiment Francisco guessed. There was a little shelter of crates, which had a desk, a journal and a book which plainly been being referred to, and a stool in it, and in the far corner a second screen–now somewhat splintered.

The journal had careful notes in it, Francisco noticed. The man was obviously systematic and for what he was doing, careful. He took out a small tube from the drawer. “These are quite successful. I have a larger version which produces a great volume of smoke too, and considerable noise. But I cannot test those yet. The smoke would be unendurable down here, and the neighbors might become upset. It is a simple mixture of the substances used in gunpowder, ground malachite, and salt and iron-filings.” He put the little tube in a clamp behind the structure, and then lit a small candle, which he placed under a second little bowl, and a wick on top of that. He retreated to join Francisco. “The second little bowl is made of wax. It takes a little time to melt through and ignite the fuse. This little device appears quite safe–but I am cautious.”

They waited and watched. The second wax bowl melted through, the candle flared up, the fuse burned, and the tube began spraying green fire–and then spat, with a small shriek a fat glowing yellow spark, which burst with a loud pop and smell of sulfur.

It was, even knowing what it was, and having seen the muzzle flash of cannon often enough, and even having seen gunpowder sparking and burning, still enough to raise the hair on Francisco’s neck.

“So-called ‘magic’ via gunpowder,” said the supposed bookseller, plainly smiling behind the mustache. “Now let us go upstairs before those men of yours come bursting in to rescue you, and I end up on trial for black magic. I can provide you with the precise instructions. There are no demons involved.”

“I’ll talk to Carlo Sforza about it. And possibly find you a place where the neighbors are less likely to come and haul you out at night and crucify you. You can do other colors?”

“Some. And probably more, with experimentation. And the description of rockets that I have read sounds… militarily interesting.”

Francisco was thinking of night signals, let alone frightening the hell out of superstitious foes. The trick might be to not frighten their own troops just as badly.

He was actually whistling jauntily when he left there. More so, because the bookseller had given him a gift of the three books attributed to Al-Nafis that he had wanted. So the fellow was a fraud…

All the better. Both Francisco and Carlo Sforza would be more comfortable with a fraud and a man of science than a real magician. Now all he had to do was compose a letter to Marco Valdosta.

He was a few hundred paces down the street when it struck him that he might just as well ask the bookseller-fraud–obviously a fallen nobleman, but one who had spent his wealth on reading and experimentation rather than drink and fornication–if in his researches he’d ever seen a description that snake. That would be something to tell Marco, anyway.

So he went back. The man was settling in with a book when he returned, but got up to greet him. “Had you forgotten something, Caviliero?”

“Not directly, no. It struck me as I was walking down the road that you are a well-read, and it seems a well-travelled man. I have been trying to identify a snake–an extremely poisonous one. It’s a plummy blue-black and has a dirty yellow belly, and has some brighter yellow about the head. I had never come across such colors in a snake.”

The man raised his head, and nodded thoughtfully. His cheeks moved indicating a smile beneath that vast mustache. It must be very in the way for eating, thought Francisco.

He cocked his head slightly. “Is this a trick question?

“Not that I am aware of.”

“Oh. I thought you were referring to this.” He pointed to the book on the table. “A few pages back.”

He turned them, carefully. It was a very old book, hand-written, and illustrated. “A history of Lombardy. Not very well written, but interesting. Ah. Here it is.”

There was a color illustration of a crowned blue-black serpent, with that precise purple shade to it, devouring a red human.

Francisco had seen it often enough. The biscione was the heraldic charge of the noble house of Visconti. The modern version he’d always seen, however, had made it far closer to argent than purple, and the figure had been more determinedly male, and the head modified to be more dragon-like.

The bookseller frowned slightly. “I did read something about it in a poem about Theoderic many years ago. I forget the precise details. Something about a knight rescuing a virgin from the wyrm.”

“That was what dragons did,” said Francisco.

“Ah, but the line between ‘dragon’ and ‘serpent’ and ‘wyrm’ is very small, the further back you go. I’ll look for the story. It’s still in one of the crates to be unpacked. Such stories and symbols often have a basis in reality, or have become real as a result. Reality, Caviliero, is less easy to understand than I once thought.” His sharp eyes were glinting. “Now, is there anything else I can do for you?”

“No. My thanks, although I don’t think it can be that serpent… Well, unless reality is more complex than I imagine.”

“Oh, it always is,” said the bookseller.

Walking back to his quarters, this time Francisco was not whistling. He was deep in thought.


That was true of Count Mindaug, too. He’d lied. He had never forgotten any of the details of anything he had read. It was, of course, court practice, and his in particular, to use that knowledge to out-fox and entrap your foes. But there had been something unusual about the Caviliero’s visit. It had been many months since Mindaug had last had anything to do with people of his own order, and years since he’d had anything to do with men of his own intellect, well-read and with quick minds. And those had been foes, who would rather not give him information, unless, as he had done himself, for advancement, or as a trap.

This Turner was not of his own order–he was a soldier and an officer, not a nobleman. But the gap was not large, especially in Lithuania. Furthermore, his curiosity and his willingness to explain his field of knowledge, and the fact that he could converse intelligently on other topics and was, it was easy to see, still excited by ideas, had been striking. Turner had briefly made the count forget who and what he was, and take pleasure in the exchange of ideas.

This was a different world, and one which had not been given to the count’s prior experience. He thought, slightly wistfully, that it might have been rather pleasant to live like that. It was a bit late in life, now, and Lithuania under Jagiellon had been no place for it.

But what was this about the wyrm? That was worrying, and not in his plans at all. He knew how it had been born, and whence the color came from. It was the color of the buboes.