Previous Page Next Page

UTC:       Local:

Home Page Index Page

All the Plagues of Hell: Chapter Six

       Last updated: Saturday, September 8, 2018 10:14 EDT




    Count Andrea Malatesta, Lord of Rimini, Forli, Cesena, Pesaro, Marquis of Ravenna, and Protector of Romagna was a nobleman’s nobleman. He traced his lineage back to Roman times, and, as he said with pride, even his distant patrician ancestors had shown their breeding. They had, as he did, derived their wealth from rents or conquest. Venice and its new-baked “Longi” chaffered in trade like the commoners they really were, and as for the likes of Florence’s De’ Medici… banking. Ha. Usury. By rights, it should be restricted to Jews who could be executed if they got too insistent about repayment.

    The problem for Count Malatesta was that the peasantry simply did not work hard enough. Rents were down again this year, land lying fallow. And war had become expensive. The last major territorial gains had been by his father, who had taken Faenza and the surrounds from the De’ Medici. They had failed, rather spectacularly, in their venture to recapture that, but while Andrea had enjoyed the victory, it had brought no territorial benefits, and little in the way of ransom. He had been a bit too hasty in making an example there. Urbino still held against him, and expansion to the south would be difficult, and not that rewarding. The Po valley was where the money lay, but it had thrown him back.

    This time, however, things would be different. He had a powerful ally in the fear that Carlo Sforza had spread among the nobility of the northern Italian states. He was entertaining some of them, right now. And they were eager, willing, greedy… and afraid.

    Duke Umberto Da Corregio of Parma and Viscount Lippi Pagano of Imola listened as Malatesta read to them from a letter that gave him great pleasure. Pleasure great enough that he paced back and forth as he read it, gesturing all the while, as if he was an actor on a stage.

    “We do not, at this stage”–here he waved a hand in a dramatic circling gesture–“see any immediate possibility of such nuptials, and would suggest a longer term approach, and considerable caution…”

    “Bah. What kind of man is Cosimo de’ Medici?” said Umberto, swilling back his wine. “A coward and a fool. To advise ‘caution’–with Sforza?”

    “Nonetheless, it does tell us that the Butterball is not to marry Sforza,” said Lippi Pagano, who had a cool head, and had drunk relatively little. That was all that Andrea Malatesta could find as redeeming qualities in the viscount. He had, de facto, allied himself with Ferrara, and Andrea Malatesta fully intended, at the appropriate time, to shorten the tall dour man of his head for that. A skirmish with Enrico Dell’este had not ended well for the protector of Romagna. But they would need Ferrara, and Venice, to at least stay neutral in the war, and preferably to attack Sforza. That was why the count had invited Lippi: so that he could act as a messenger to Dell’este. One thing did count in Count Andrea’s favor, though. He might have fought a skirmish with Enrico Dell’este, but the man’s hatred of Sforza was legendary.

    Venice… Venice would reach her own decisions, play things for her own unpredictable ends. If anything Andrea disliked and distrusted La Serenisima even more than Ferrara. In his grandfather’s time they had raided Rimini on the thin pretext that her vessels had been engaged in piracy against vessels of the Venetian Republic. But they too had little reason to love or trust Milan, or indeed, Carlo Sforza.

    “And we have torn up his letter, and sent it back to him with a suitable gift,” said Umberto. “The hand of his messenger and a piece of excrement, to show the depth of our disdain.”

    “I wonder what Cosimo will make of your actions,” said Viscount Lippi Pagano, dryly.

    “What does it matter? Cosimo is an old woman, more interested in money and art than war,” said Umberto. “He who hesitates will be left out. We have money and backing from at least half the states in Italy now.”

    “I do gather Florence is mobilizing her reserves,” said Lippi.

    “Cosimo does that without doing anything at least twice a year. It impresses no one anymore,” his host informed him. Indeed, getting rid of Viscount Pagano of Imola had risen in importance. Did the fool know no better than to cast doubts in Umberto’s path? There were certain protocols to be observed in assassination, and he had his value… for the moment.

    Now, it was a waiting game, waiting for Sforza to make a move, any move against the allies, and then they’d have due cause for a war. They did not really need due cause, since war was their plan anyway, but it would bring in the laggard and the reluctant.



Arona, Duchy of Milan

    It was said that the first steps to hell were the easiest. They were wrong, reflected Lucia, walking down to the cellars, the heavy key hung on a ribbon around her neck and resting like a cold snake between her breasts. Asking the serpent, back the first time, when they had not even seen it, to make her father love her… that had been terrifying, especially when she understood what the serpent and her father understood of “love.”

    Now she was going down to the lowest cellar and the pit, again, with the tokens that would bring death to two women. And she felt nothing.

    The great serpent had said to her: “You understand that it is far easier for me to destroy a city full of people than just one person. That is my power. That is what I can give you.”

    “Nonetheless, for now I need two people to die. And they must die as if by natural causes.”

    There had been a shaking of the scales. “All death is natural. Humans die, all that lives dies, and their dying and fear is my food. I hunger for the great feasting again.”

    “I mean no daggers or obvious poisons.”

    “I do not use daggers, and my poisons are subtle. You have paid my price, and will pay my price again, so I will do as you command. But you will need to provide a way I can find and identify those who must die.”

    “Eleni Faranese, and Violetta de’ Medici. They are my rivals. There are lesser claims, but I do not need to kill them yet.”

    “Names are important to mortals, but they mean nothing to me. For me to know them, I need their essences. I can derive that from hair, skin, nail-clippings, sweat, blood or their body’s waste. Give me that and it will allow my minions to find them and work your will. Otherwise, you would have to point them out to me.”

    That had given Lucia temporary pause. They were in Tuscany and thus far from her. But she had some wealth, and most things could be bought. It took a little bribery, and some intimidation. Some hair from the heads of those she’d sent out.

    Her sendlings believed her to be a witch, one of the dark Streghira. She could get killed for that, despite the foolish Hypatians cries for tolerance. Her room was pointedly empty of the paraphernalia of magic. And if they found the key, and followed her path to cellars… they’d never come back.

    The two men she’d sent to do her work would be dead soon anyway. She would not leave them alive, just in case they brought trouble. That level of poisoning she could deal with herself. Assassination, like seduction, was an important skill for the line and the house, and she had worked hard to learn as much as possible about both. Fortunately, her father had agreed with her about the need for her to learn both. An old courtesan, and a half-blind alchemist had been his gift. She had liked neither, but learned as much as she could from both. The problem with poisons, of course, was that they could be traced, and showed signs.

    Since her father’s death at the hand of Carlo Sforza her mother had retreated further into herself, withdrawn into her chambers, and often did not leave them at all. That had started when her sister died, and Lucia had encouraged it, because she had more space and more power as a result. She’d become the de facto chatelaine of this place. No one would question her decision to go anywhere, not even the lower cellars. She still took great care to do it only late at night, and make sure she was not observed.

    The cold rage at Carlo Sforza when she might still have done something foolish was long since burned out. Now all that was left was a bitter ash that would go on etching her mind and actions forever. She would have what was hers. What she had paid so much for. And in achieving it, take as few risks as possible.



    In the darkness she put down the two oil-cloth bags. “I have hair from Eleni Faranese, and a cloth marked with the sweat of Violetta de’ Medici. How soon will they die?”

    There was a long silence. And then the serpent spoke in that cold sibilant voice that made her scalp prickle: ‘What is time to me? How long does it take a rat to scurry through the night, or the viper to slither thence? That is how long it will take, no longer and no less.”

    And not all her questioning could get a more precise answer. It was only later that night, when she washed again to try and get rid of the rat stench that seemed to cling to her after she’d been to its lair, that it occurred to her that it might possibly have spoken the literal truth. She had assumed the death would be magically inflicted. But perhaps a snake-bite…

    That was quite a natural death, really. Hard to call assassination. She expected Milan and Carlo Sforza to be engaged in war, but at the time and place of Milan’s choosing, and once she was ensconced, not while she was still living in the borderlands.

    The smell just didn’t seem to wash out. She used more perfume.



Mainz, The Holy Roman Empire

    Moving slowly, as men do who are afflicted with arthritis, the old man eased himself into his chair. The piece of furniture was expensive and well-upholstered, although not as large as the throne in the main audience hall. But it was considerably more comfortable than the throne and the small chamber could be kept quite warm.

    “Nothing,” he said peevishly, “is ever simple, is it?” Which might have seemed like a grumpy complaint from almost any man of advanced years, but this particular old man had the lives of millions balanced on his decisions and actions. And he took that very seriously, not delegating the responsibility as much as he could have–and should have, in the opinion of most of his advisors. He spent much of each day reading reports, hearing from his emissaries and ambassadors, and writing personal instructions himself, despite an army of scribes, in a crabby handwriting that had no doubt caused chaos and quite possibly war by being both illegible and enormously important.

    “Don’t answer that, Hans,” he said, waving a large hand which was still sinewy despite its little tremor. “I am glad to see you back, even if you doubtless bring me more complications.’

    “My efforts in Aquitaine have not been crowned with great success. The more I tried to change anything, the more irrelevancies they put in my way, My Liege,” admitted Hans Trolliger.

    “Perhaps for the best,” said Emperor Charles Fredrik, tiredly. “The more we try to fix, the more new things break. Anyway, I called for your return because I need men I can trust. Things look… awkward. There are too many thunderheads piling up.”

    Baron Trolliger blinked. He had heard a certain amount of news, if, obviously, not as much as the emperor. It had seemed good to him. “I had thought the last communiques from Manfred had been full of good news. Or so I had been led to believe.”

    “Oh, they were. We have protected access by sea from Jagiellon’s armies to the underbelly of Europe, secured the goodwill of the Ilkhan and the Golden Horde, and acquired a powerful new ally in Prince Vlad of Transylvania. Unfortunately, that has left a power vacuum and chaos where two less-than competent leaders have been deposed. Emeric of Hungary and the Emperor Alexis were foes, or, at best, untrustworthy allies. But they kept control over their territory. The breakdown of power in Hungary and its territories, and to a lesser extent Greece, opens the potential doorway to an invasion into Slovakia by the forces of the Grand Duke of Lithuania, or the new proxies and allies for our foes–right on our border. Hungary under Emeric was at least a buffer state, as much an enemy to Jagiellon as to us, meaning we only faced the monster of the east directly in Polish lands. Now… we stand on the edge of a possible precipice. Of course, there are upstarts and pretenders to the thrones of various nations that Emeric had overthrown. Some we will support, some are as bad or maybe worse. It all depends what happens to the crown of Hungary.”

    “Emeric of Hungary did not leave any heirs, I know. But who stands in the succession? Is there someone we should favor?” asked Trolliger.

    “As with everything Emeric touched, it is a mess. He, or that aunt of his, had gone out of their way to kill off any obvious claimants or rivals. There was no heir named, and not even a living bastard child, although he fathered a few. At the moment my informants say the principal rival claimants are John of Simony and Christopher of Somolyo.”

    “Ah.” Trolliger knew something of both men, as was inevitable in diplomacy and the small pool of noble houses. Neither were of such a reputation that he could be enthusiastic. That was probably why they had been allowed to survive.

    “And then there is Lazlo De Hunyad.”

    Baron Trolliger sucked his teeth. “I thought he was living in Moravia.”

    “He made his return within days of the news of Emeric’s death. He obviously had it planned. He is not in the direct descent, but he’s a good general and popular with the minor nobility and commons.”

    “And a very strong-willed man,” said the baron, who had once had the misfortune of having to deliver a message from Charles Frederik to him. Of course, the former Ban of the Puszta was no longer young.

    “True. But at least a man of strong principles. It is my feeling that we should back him in this race.”

    “With troops? It would be difficult to find a commander he’s not going to drive to drink, Your Majesty. Or vice versa.”

    The emperor shook his head. “No.” he paused, and then continued. “Hans, I say this only because I trust you, but I have news out of Rome that makes it unlikely the Holy Roman Empire is going to commit troops or engage in anything but defense for the next while. They have been employing magical means, and their predictions have a good record of accuracy. This must go no further, but they predict a major outbreak of the plague in northern Italy. If that happens it will spread, and our foes will take advantage of us, while we are weakened. It destroyed the Eastern Roman Empire. It could destroy us, far more surely than an invasion from the east could. We will prepare as well as possible, but…”

    Now Baron Hans Trolliger knew just why the emperor looked so weighed with care. The last great plague still lived in the memory of men–as did the worst of them all, Justinian’s Plague of a millennium earlier. And it was not just the disease that killed. Crops had rotted in the fields without men to harvest them. People had starved, although the seasons had been, reportedly, benign. The wheels of commerce ground to halt. Trade stopped as people feared the spread of disease that came with the traders, and of course, war came down on the decimated people.

    And walls and armies, and magic and prayer… all had proved ineffectual.

    There had been many outbreaks of some infectious diseases since then, destroying people and settlements. But the last great sweep by the plague had been nearly five centuries before. There were more living people now. More roads, more vessels. More likelihood of more contact with noisome places, from whence the disease was reputed to spring. Just, all in all, more possibility to spread the plague. This time it could quite easily be worse. The horror was almost too much to contemplate.

    “I see,” said Hans Trolliger. “Well, you know that you can trust me, My Liege. What do you want of me? I am wholly at your service. This calls for all good men to stand against it, no matter what other differenced we have.”

    “You’d think so, Hans. But there will always be a few who’ll try to play it to their advantage. I’m afraid my task for you is a difficult one–or rather to be dealing with a difficult man.”

    “De Hunyad.”

    “Yes. We cannot offer him the backing of men, which I suspect is what he’ll ask for. Money, and even weapons, yes. But we’ll need some form of agreement. He’ll hold to that, if we don’t give him weasel-space.” The emperor sighed. “We have a somewhat more dangerous–to us, and indeed to Hungary–claimant on hand to introduce if he fails.”



    “Who would that be, Your Majesty?”

    “The Castellan of Braclaw and the Voivode of Zwinogrodek. Count Kazimierz Mindaug.”

    “A Lithuanian!”

    “He is of that origin, yes. Somewhat out of favor with the Grand Duke, to put it mildly. His castle at Zwinogrodek was razed to the ground and the count had fled to his cousin, Elizabeth Bartholdy. And following her, and King Emeric’s demise, he has fled again. He crossed the March River some days ago, and is travelling southwest. He is a very competent magic worker, a schemer and a scholar of note. Unfortunately for him, he is not aware of all of the methods of the Knights of the Holy Trinity. He is in disguise, travelling with no escort, masquerading as a travelling bookseller. He is being watched, carefully, both magically and physically. He still, by blood, has as good or better claim to the throne of Hungary, and indeed, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, as any other rival.”

    “I’d put him in custody, until you need him. Perhaps put him to the question too,” said Trolliger.

    “The spymasters want him to reveal his associates first. Someone like that does not move without a plan.”

    “Sometimes I think we are all too devious for own good, Your Majesty.”

    “It would be nice if life was all simple and straightforward. I also think the spymasters see devious plots in people drawing breath. In the case of Count Mindaug, however, they may well be correct. Now if we can discuss what I can permit you to offer De Hunyad…”

    The discussion moved on to what the baron would be authorized to offer, what compromises he could accept, and what was non-negotiable. But Baron Trolliger had to wonder just what the Lithuanian Count Mindaug was doing sneaking about the Holy Roman Empire. It was a little worrying. All very well to say he was being watched and was needed, but such men were dangerous and had skills that were beyond that of most watchers. And worse, they were unpredictable. If there was one thing Hans hated in his ordered life, it was unpredictability.

    Even dealing with a hot-tempered elderly Hungarian like De Hunyad was at least something where he could guess, with reasonable accuracy, what the man would do.

Home Page Index Page




Previous Page Next Page

Page Counter Image