All The Plagues Of Hell – Snippet 48

Chapter 25


The Venetian fleet, storm-battered and tired, limped into Corfu harbor, having had to make back most of the distance they’d been blown south under oars. Several of the vessels would have to remain in the little Arsenal for major repairs, and it would be a few days at least before even those which had weathered the storm best could sail on in convoy for Venice. Benito was glad he was going to be leaving them there. Glad to get back to Corfu, glad to get back to his wife and babe.

Maria was not on the quay, nor waving with the others on the walls. Renate Belmondo was not an adequate or welcome substitute. She did bring him a letter from Maria, and a letter with the seal of the doge, as her husband, who was sick again, was not really up to coming down to the quay. He had been wheeled out of retirement to act as governor while Benito–who was himself a temporary appointee–was away with the fleet.

“I am sorry not to see your wife back on the island,” said the woman who was the high priestess of the Mother-Goddess cult, as well as the wife of the ex-governor.

She was not entirely sincere, Benito could read that in her tone. Maria might not be aware of it, but he could guess that the old queen-bee was enjoying being in sole charge of the hive. Maria being away was good for her, but he was sure Renate would have been a lot happier if it was Benito who hadn’t come back.

“Yes, but the letter is reassuring,” he said calmly, hiding his worry as he tucked the letters away in a pocket of his doublet. “And I am grateful for the messages.”

He’d do his level best to get the Venetian Republic to post Renate’s husband back to Venice, or somewhere else. On the other hand… that might promote Maria into her shoes.

“Excuse me, I must go and read these,” he said. She’d be curious and that would gall her. Benito knew he was nurturing a grudge, but that was what happened when anyone did not take extreme care with his family.

Duty be damned. After her got back to his cabin on the ship, he opened the letter from Maria first. She’d plainly worked on her penmanship since the last letter he had from her.

My darling Benito

I am missing you terribly, and so is Alessia. The doge will not permit me to sail to Corfu to meet you, as they want you in Venice. I have a good surprise for you in that we will not have to be apart again.

That was wonderful. But… how had she done it?

Benito eased himself onto the chair at his small writing desk, as he pondered the problem. He’d made the bargain with Aidoneus, knowing that two-thirds was still better than none at all and that had been his alternative. He’d never been that secure in the Lord of the Dead’s ability not to weasel out of his promise, but it seemed that not only had he honored it, but he had also decided to do more. Meeting the Lord of the Dead to thank him for his honorable conduct probably wasn’t going to happen, but one never knew. He wondered if Maria had thrown plates at his head. She had a fire of a temper on her!

There was more, news that Katerina was pregnant. That would be good for Marco. News of what Alessia was doing and saying…

Benito stopped himself from re-reading it immediately, and opened the letter with the doge’s seal on it. He knew it would be ordering his return to Venice, and indeed it was so. There were scant details, just that he should proceed immediately to Venice, as the Republic had need of his services, yet again. They did get around to thanking him for what he’d done, but obviously the willing horse was to be flogged another mile. Well, at least Maria would be there waiting for him. And Venice would have to wait for services until he’d provided them to his wife.

His grandfather came into his cabin, closing the hatch behind him. “Well. So you’re to go to Venice.”

“Does everyone know? I have just read about it myself,” he said, holding up the letter. “Do you know why, seeing as they don’t say?”

The old fox gave the smile that had earned him his name, as much as his ability as a strategist and his cunning in outsmarting larger foes. “Not yet. But two of my spies were waiting on the quay for me, as well as a considerable number of letters. The joys of governance.”

Benito nodded in invitation at the nearby bunk where he slept at night. His cabin was on the small side and that was the only other place to sit besides his writing chair. After his grandfather had taken a seat, Benito shook his head. “Indeed. I’m quite glad not to wade through the mess old Belmondo will have made of my reforms to the Libri del Oro system. They’ll have been trying get at him to reverse the changes. Not so good for Venice.”

“It’s a smart man who can see the long term,” said his grandfather. “And a smarter one who can persuade others to do so. It’s one of the joys of absolute rule. Not that you can let go of popularity, just that you allow yourself a little more leeway.”

Benito shook his head again, this time in disbelief rather than reproof. The duke of Ferrara, Benito knew, was so popular with his people that it was hard to imagine them turning against him.

He said so.

The duke pulled a wry face and shook his head. “That is something you can never be sure of until you’re dead. Remember that. Always remember that. If you have to do something unpopular, you see to it that you make a good show of it making your life less pleasant too. Let them identify with you–beat iron even if you do it badly. Give them victories, but don’t let them get too fat and comfortable.”

Benito realized he was getting the you will take over my principality talk. He still wasn’t at all sure how he felt about that. But instead of debating the point, he merely said: “But if they’re fat and comfortable surely they won’t be rebellious?”

“Ah, but if they’re too fat and comfortable the slightest hardship will seem like the world’s end and fit to rebel about. It’s a balancing act. You should be good at it from climbing around on roof tops.”

“They don’t move as much as people do. So how did you know I was going to Venice?”

His grandfather looked around, making a pretense of inspecting the cabin. “No Maria here,” he said after a few seconds. “But you are not that upset. Therefore, logic states she and your daughter must be in Venice, and you are going there. So: as you have nothing else to do, come and hear my spies reporting to me.”

This too was a great honor and an exercise in trust, Benito knew. But it was not to happen just then, because no sooner had he and Dell’este gotten back out onto the deck than Manfred came bustling up.

“Ah, Benito! Our friend the Loukoumia just found me on the quayside.” He waved his hand more-or-less in that direction. “He says Erik is across the channel, some miles away, with Iskander Beg. Is there any chance I can prevail on you to arrange transport and accommodation for him and Bortai before you charge off to Venice?”

Benito scowled. “Does everyone know I’m going to Venice?”

“Of course. It’s as obvious as the nose on your face, even if all the crew didn’t know it already. Some trouble with Milan, apparently. Not war, though–yet, at least.”

That was uncomfortable. The last time he’d faced his father it had been as Carlo Sforza handed him back his daughter, and without Sforza, that entire incident would not have come out well.

“Why do I bother to pay spies? I should just listen to the crewmen,” said Dell’este, sourly. “Go with Manfred, Benito. I’ll tell you all about it later.”

So Benito did that. Arranging transport for Bortai and Erik Hakkonsen was not particularly trying. Arranging transport, and feed, and sufficient land for the grazing of their herd of horses was another challenge entirely. That involved going to his old offices in the Castel del Mar and seeing the mess that he would have to deal with, if he did not leave for Venice, pretty smartly. It involved old friends, all of whom wanted to talk to him.

On Corfu they understood that talk was a dry, thirsty business, and believed it needed lubricating with wine. So they repaired to a nearby tavern. It took a long time before he got back to his grandfather, who was waiting for him in his cabin, reclined on the bunk and reading a book.

The duke of Ferrara sniffed, and said: “Good party?” disapprovingly.

“If you mean the smell of wine, you try talking to the skipper of a fishing vessel without it. It hasn’t been a party. More like a mystery of just how they all managed before me and how they managed without me,” said Benito, sitting down on the chair at the writing desk. “And, no, thank you. I won’t have another glass of wine. I shall have a headache tomorrow anyway.”

“They probably did manage to cope just as well as they will manage when you’re gone again,” said his grandfather. “Some interesting news about Milan for you.” And he outlined the fact that Carlo Sforza was now the Protector of Milan, and married to Lucia del Maino. “Who I gather was one of Phillipo Maria’s by-blows.”

“And I didn’t even get an invitation to the wedding,” said Benito, who had actually had a bit more wine than was wise, or rather, made him think he was wise. “No wonder we’re on the brink of war.”

“Well, for what it is worth, Venice is not. She’s sitting out this one, although it seems there are several other supposed rightful claimants to the ducal throne for whom any excuse will do.”