All The Plagues Of Hell – Snippet 49

“Venice is sitting out a perfectly good war with Milan? That is surprising.”

His grandfather shrugged. “It’s one I plan to sit out if they do, at least while I wait to see what is happening, and can see when and where to strike. I have no desire to have Sforza ruling a powerful, wealthy duchy that near to Ferrara, even if I did not have my own axe to grind, but only a fool underestimates the man. And it seems he has a number of fools opposing him. If they attack singly, he can devour any of them, and, as I know most of them, each of his foes will consider themselves to be the leader. Especially that ass, Umberto of Parma. Count Andrea is nastier, but at least has the sense to hire professionals and then claim the credit for their skill for himself.”

Benito sighed, seeing Sforza in his mind’s eye, holding Alessia. “It’s a war I hope we can stay out of. Odd, really. I used to dream of finally paying him back. But that was before I knew it was Caesare Aldanto who actually killed Mother.”

“Sforza was still to blame,” said Enrico, tersely. “And now, boy,” he said, obviously declaring the matter closed, and subject changed. He sat up in the bunk and swiveled so that his feet were back on the deck. Then, planted hands on his knees. “When do we leave for Venice? And what happens with Prince Manfred, and Erik and his bride?”

So Benito told him. He was relieved to leave the conflict between Carlo Sforza and his mother, Lorendana, out of it. Enrico Dell’este, as cool and calculating a man about almost any other subject was still less than rational about that. Some of it, Benito had decided, came down to the fact that his grandfather still felt guilty about it all.

“We sail in six days’ time,” Benito said. “Venice may command our immediate return, but that will allow the little arsenal, working non-stop, to repair and refit twelve of the great galleys, so we can sail with a safe convoy. The rest will follow in three weeks’ time. And it has been arranged that some of the vessels, those finished earlier, will ferry Prince Manfred and the Knights, Erik and Bortai and the horse herd to Venice. They’ll proceed together on to Mainz, following whichever route seems most feasible. Probably through Trento and Bolzano, but that might change depending on Milan and this war.”

“They’ll almost certainly have to avoid Lombardy and the Scaligieri territory around Verona, but they should be able to enter the Holy Roman Empire entirely through via Venetian lands.”

“I hope so, because the only other alternative would be to travel by sea–and finding adequate horse transports for that long a voyage would be difficult and expensive.” Benito had just had first-hand experience of that.

“As a reason for peace, saving Erik the cost of horse transport will I am sure appeal to the combatants,” said Enrico Dell’este with a laugh.

“You never know,” said Benito. “He is a handsome fellow, and some of those lords…”

“Go and sleep it off, before I throw something at your head.”

“I’d rather do that than join Manfred in a last night before Erik returns, exploring the delights of Corfu town. Sometimes I can be quite irritated with Francesca for going off to Alexandria.”

Chapter 26


Francisco Turner arrived back at his quarters to find a messenger from Carlo, and a small military matter he had to ride off and attend to for his master. It was the next day before he got to see his commander. Sforza was not looking as well as the previous day, and his pulse was a little faster. Francisco began to wonder if, somehow, despite the precautions, the poisoner had managed to administer another dose.

But Carlo Sforza was as mentally restless as he was feeling physically under the weather. He was on his feet, having chosen to meet Turner in a small chamber–not much more than a pretentious hallway–which had no furniture in it. As if to make up for the bare floor, the walls were covered with portraits of various dignitaries of Milan’s past, not one of whom was familiar to Francisco. Sic transit gloria mundi.

Despite the haggard look on his face, the new duke was not only on his feet but pacing about. “And how was your visit to the bookseller?” he asked brusquely. “One of my spies reports he may have enchanted you.”

Francisco smiled. “Then he’ll enchant you too. He’s an unashamed fraud who will put on a wonderful show for the spies of our foes, and may actually produce something useful.”

“What is he doing here?” asked Sforza.

“A nobleman of some sort, he is evasive about quite what he’s fleeing. He’s also a very intelligent man, multilingual, with more books than Cosimo de’ Medici, and he is widely read too. Able to debate the merits of Greek and Roman philosophers. I would guess a dilettante at various arts, including some experiments with gunpowder that are truly interesting. They’re not magical, but could look that way. But he needs a bigger, more isolated place for his experiments!”

“Men who experiment with gunpowder tend to get killed,” said Sforza, with a frown, obviously remembering one.

“He’s cautious, within the limits of what he has. He has made quite a neat delayed fuse system. And I could see the use of flares–aside from making the enemy think we have magical weapons. He showed me a green one, which spat yellow sparks–very bright. He says he can do various colors. I thought they could be useful both as a way of signaling and possibly for lighting a place to be attacked… well, it could have quite an impact on night attacks.”

“There is a reason for avoiding those,” said Carlo with a grimace. “But yes, I’m interested. What’s he likely to cost me?”

Turner shook his head. “I have no idea. A secure comfortable estate, and someone to put up bookshelves would be my opening bid. Maybe a bombardier to help him with his experiments. It’s hard to judge, M’lord. He’s not easy to read. But he’s not a young man, and I get the feeling that he’s looking for somewhere quiet to read his books and continue his experiments.”

Sforza’s eyes seemed to get a little unfocussed, as he searched through his memory. After a few seconds, he said: “I’ve plenty of estates in my gift. Phillipo Maria seemed to collect them, killing off the owners on his little whims. Hmm. There’s Val di Castellazo. I was considering turning it into an officer school for the artillery one day, but the villa is really too small for more than twenty men. It’s not more than eight miles out, but the woodlands are dense. It’s very private. As for money… well, let him ask. I have a tight purse right now, so if it is too much, it won’t happen. But the joy of it is my foes also are purse-pinched. Let them borrow more from Cosimo to counter my magician. Whom I don’t have, of course.”

“Of course. Now he did bring up something else. You remember the snake that bit the bit the fat girl–Cosimo’s niece?” asked Francisco.

“Yes, you said it was the strangest color you’d ever seen on an animal.”

“I’ve seen shades of blue on birds and some fish. Never a snake or frog or any other animal.”

“There was a bit of blue on those newts from the streams in the Alps. Remember, we had half a troop claiming they were devil’s spawn.”

“True. But that sort of bruised purple is not common. But as our future magician pointed out there is one blue snake, which is quite well known. And the old picture he showed me was a lot less blue and a lot more purple in color.” Francisco pointed at the coat of arms carved into the stone above the doorway in the chamber where they stood.

Sforza looked at the snake. “But… it’s just a heraldic device. It is not real.”

“Yes,” said Francisco. “An odd one, thinking about it. And the figure he had being swallowed appeared to have breasts. Anyway, I wondered if I should mention that in my letter to Marco Valdosta. I’m still trying to think of a suitable reply to his request. It may have been based on a historical serpent, and that may just help him. But it does perhaps make it look as if Milan was involved.”

“As if the Visconti were involved, not Sforza of Milan. They throw it in my face that I am not one of the Visconti. Let them square that with my somehow training the Visconti snake to kill people. Besides the biscione is a grass viper. Not venomous. Tell him. And tell our new fraud magician to come up with a spell that sounds good for you to reply to Valdosta with.”

They talked of the reports coming in from the captains on the various fronts. Not surprisingly, the Scaligers had tried to construct a temporary bridge to Gioto’s fort. But a little grape-shot had dissuaded them. Then they’d tried to force the bridge at Borghetto. And then sent some troops over by boats.

“Infantry, of course–horses in small boats on a flooding river not being a great success–and their attempt at swimming them over was brave, but sad for the horses. So Captain Pelta waited until they had gotten close to the bank–they’d been watching them set up for hours, and his harquebussiers were behind a good solid stone wall–and let them try landing under fire. They plainly planned some kind of suspension or pontoon bridge–but they needed a bridge-head.

“When you have to do that under fire it gets expensive in troops,” said Sforza dourly. “They seem now to be trying to send a force over by stealth to capture a bridge. They’re not doing very well at stealth. I’m tempted to let them have one–and blow it up when they’ve got enough men over to be in more trouble than they can cause. But Goito will surrender soon, I think. And if we get through this, we’ll have to rebuild the bridges, which is expensive in money.”