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All the Plagues of Hell: Chapter Twenty One

       Last updated: Sunday, November 18, 2018 16:01 EST



The Duchy of Milan

    Actually, Count Mindaug and his two servants were at that very moment having their first encounter with the mercenary troops of Carlo Sforza. The soldiers were guarding a bridge over the Adda River, and had positioned themselves in such a way as to direct flanking fire from their harquebuses to support the half-dozen lancers on the bridge. They weren’t in loot-and-destroy mode yet, thankfully, because Count Mindaug would have had little choice but to use magical means to survive such. Two hand-cannons weren’t going to go far in changing the balance of power.

    Unfortunately, no one had explained that to Emma. She kept the weapon pointed unwaveringly at the lead horseman.

    “Put that down,” snapped the sergeant in charge of the patrol. She obliged him by turning her aim on him. Holding the hand-cannon two handed and rock-steady, she provided, Mindaug thought, a good distraction, and would stop them watching him too closely. He would see how he could play this.

    The count raised a hand pacifyingly. “She doesn’t speak Frankish, Your Honor. We were attacked and her man badly injured by men dressed as soldiers outside Verona. So she is very scared. I don’t want her to panic and kill you. Then your men would kill us. We mean no harm, but please don’t alarm her. She’s, um, upset by her experiences. Not quite rational yet. I am hoping to take her to a convent for help.”

    The sergeant didn’t like the weapon pointed at him. But it was obvious her fixed expressionless stare must have convinced him that there was some truth at least to the don’t cause her to panic part. So he concentrated his attention on the small older man with the huge mustache. “What is your business in the duchy of Milan?”

    Before he could answer, another horseman came clattering across the bridge from behind the guard. This was an obviously, by the more ornate uniform, a senior officer. The sergeant saluted him.

    “And what have we got here, Sergeant?” he said, looking at the wagon. “The Scaliger invasion force?” He took in the hand-cannon and the woman holding it. “Armed to the teeth, too.”

    Mindaug was a good enough judge of character to say: “I will try to tell her it is all right, Your Honor. She is just scared.” He repeated his story, and then told Emma in her native Magyar that she could rest the gun on her lap.

    “Hungarian?” said the officer.

    “My servants are, yes.” He repeated his tale about being a bastard who had inherited his old lord’s books, but gave his origins as Moravia.

    “And so what is your business here?”

    “Please, Your Honor, I am a scholar and bookseller.”

    “Well, Francisco Turner will be glad to see you, even if no-one else will. Don’t you know there is a war on?”

    “No, we were just trying to get away from Verona. Actually, I hoped to go to Florence. I have heard books are much valued by Duke Cosimo.”

    “I’ve been there. He even has a public library, so you’d lose your market.”

    Mindaug shrugged. “Reading causes more reading, Your Honor. Please do not send us back into that lawless country behind us.”

    “If you’re spies, you’re cleverer than most. We’ll need to check your wagon.”

    “Certainly. I can show you my books,” said Mindaug, eagerly.

    The officer snorted. “I think I’ll save that privilege for the sergeant. Go and have a look, sergeant.”

    So, accompanied by Mindaug, he did. They opened several bales and boxes at random. Fortunately, luck served the sergeant well–as it did Mindaug himself. Of course, it was unlikely a man as untutored as the sergeant would have realized the dangerous nature of some of the volumes. In any event, the presence of the bandaged and bloody Tamas inside the wagon bore out their story. They were allowed to proceed, which they did, towards the city of Milan.

    It was not an unappealing city, thought the count. But that could also be because he was tired of travelling. He hired a small house near the lazaretto, and began the process of making himself comfortable. Count Mindaug knew something of spies and would have cheerfully bet that a man with a large collection of books arriving in the city would be known and noted quite fast. They would approach him in their own time and manner. The house had a cellar, which was good, because Mindaug wanted to perform some more experiments of the pyrotechnic nature. And, if you counted the fact that most of the rooms could have his books arrayed in them so he could find them easily, and a central, windowless one had a solid door and good lock, it was adequate. The weather, creeping toward summer, showed that it might be rather too warm for comfort here, later in the year. But Tamas, besides complaining of headaches, had largely recovered.

    Milan might be in a state of war with its neighbors, but it was not yet showing any signs of it. Goods were still freely for sale, and farmers came in from the surrounding countryside to sell their produce every day. Emma apparently found the food acceptable, even if some things were far too expensive in her opinion. Mindaug found it slightly amusing how conservative she was of his money. The food was plentiful, not rationed in any way, and neither was the wine, which was better than he’d tasted before. No-one appeared to anticipate a siege. Well, the count knew that that did not mean anything. And, so long as he kept looters away from his books, why would he care? He could, if need be, take magical steps to see that happened. He had, gradually, carefully, without using any of his power, set up certain traps and wards that he could activate quickly.

    Still, it had all cost rather a large proportion of his gold. He would need some more soon. If that had not been the case he could have considered himself very comfortably situated, safe, hidden, and working on a bolt-hole.

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