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All the Plagues of Hell: Chapter Twenty Four

       Last updated: Wednesday, November 21, 2018 18:21 EST




    Francisco had informed his commander that he too was staying in Milan. “I cannot be on hand to see to you if I’m seeing to troop deployments in Brescia. Besides, you have better men than me for that. And you really do need to rest, stick to the diet I have prescribed, and take that vile concoction of mine.” He pointed to the cordial he had made up. He was not too sure that it would help, just as he was not too sure what poison had been given to Sforza. It was not, at least as yet, a lethal thing. He’d seen a little improvement in Sforza’s color and general mien since he had slept all the way back through the jolting to Milan. That he could sleep in the swaying bouncing carriage was worrying enough.

    Francisco was a soldier and a physician, not a spymaster. He needed to be the latter to find the poison, the poisoner, or the means of administrating it. He did know, both from the prevention and treatment point of view, that it was vital to do so. However, he trusted none of the spies whose proper trade it was, so he would just have to try his best too. Carlo’s bodyguard were all personally loyal and long term soldiers. He had enlisted their aid in this, and they were being slightly more jumpy than a mouse sneaking though a cat’s fur. That was fine by Francisco, but he still felt more needed to be done. So he went for an early morning run to think about it.

    That always did his head good, even if it did not entirely solve anything. He stopped for his usual beer afterwards, thinking of his strange aquatic encounter last time, and keeping away from the water.

    That resulted in a large lump of decaying lily-root hitting him on the back of the neck.

    “Stop ignoring me,” said the water-woman, whose bare breasts would have been hard to ignore, had he been looking that way.

    “I have no desire to be drowned, nor am I feeling frolicsome. The water is still too cold, and I have other things on my mind.” He wondered if she ever did.

    “I’ve got another message for you. Where have you been? Have you been avoiding me?” she asked, handing him the same bottle, but re-sealed.

    “No. I’ve been across the Po to a battle, and down to Minca for a siege,” he said, guessing that river names might mean more to her than town names. “And don’t you have many admirers of your own kind? I’m surprised you’re interested in humans. We’re poor swimmers.”

    She looked at him in surprise. “There are no males among the nyx. We look to humans to breed.”

    “Oh.” Perhaps comments about mules would be less than wise, he thought. “So, um, do you have many children?” he asked out of politeness.

    “No, they all die.”

    She actually seemed quite upset by that, and it was hard to know what to say. So he settled for, “Well, you must have been a child and lived, or you wouldn’t be here.”

    She wrinkled her forehead. “That was long, long ago. So long it has faded in my memory.”

    That seemed to affront her too, and she slipped away under the water.

    Which left Francisco to take Marco Valdosta’s message back to his quarters, and later to his commander. Sforza had chosen his sick-room with some care. It was a tower and had, one hoped, no secret chambers or spying points. It also had a most ingenious conceit which worked very well–on the roof there was a large cistern, which was painstakingly filled every day by men with buckets. That provided the water for a little ornamental fountain. A strange conceit indeed, indoors. But the tinkling splash made overhearing what was said very difficult. It was a fine idea, as long as you were not one of the poor fellows carrying the buckets up the stairs.

    Francisco was pleased to see Sforza looking alert, and–as he always did when confined indoors too long–looking like a caged lion, considering all ways out of there.

    “I have some interesting news from our spies in Venice,” said Sforza with a tigerish smile. “Two of them, separately, so I can believe it. We apparently have recruited a powerful and evil magician to our forces. Someone named Count Mindaug, originally from Lithuania. You were quite right. All we had to do was tell them we absolutely had not set out to do so.”

    “It’s amazing how far the imagination can stretch,” replied Francisco, chuckling.

    “In this case it appears to be supported by a fellow showing up in Milan with a great many books. I am assured that anyone who arrives with a whole wagon load of books and two foreign servants has to be a magician.”

    “Yes, I had similar conclusions jumped to about me in Venice. So who is this ‘magician’?” asked Francisco, who was naturally curious at the mention of books.

    “He claims to be Freiherr Jagr, of Bohemia, who has inherited his father’s library and is a travelling bookseller. But he hasn’t sold any books. My spies are, frankly, very suspicious.”

    “I would be, too. It’s a fair distance from Bohemia,” said Francisco, who had been there twice on horseback.

    “But he really does have a vast number of books, according to them. I don’t trust their judgment. I want you to investigate. It’s an opportunity you are not often offered by me: go and buy a book. We’re watching him, and can toss him in jail if need be, but sometimes one can find out more before one put on the thumb-screws, than after. Take a few men, in case he tries anything exciting, but don’t make him run, if you can help it. He’s frightening our foes for us.”

    “I suspect a vast number of books will be ten, and he will be some illiterate mountebank, but yes, I will do that. Now, I have something else that’s peculiar, that I wish to bring to your attention, M’lord.” He handed Carlo the letter from Marco Valdosta. “There are two things relevant about this. The first is the nature of young Valdosta: he simply isn’t any good at duplicity.”

    “I remember that from him as a child, occasionally attempting, as children do, to deny responsibility for something. It usually wasn’t him of course, it was Benito, and then he’d say it was him, to shelter the brat. Benito could be as clever as a fox about avoiding being caught, but not Marco.”

    Francisco nodded. “That probably hasn’t changed. But the second is that he names the source of this ‘plague’ story: Thomas Lüber of Baden, who is something unusual. He’s a churchman, but he is known across the medical world for his systematic work on medical plants, and his blunt outspokenness. He’s no mystic or politician dressed in church clothes. He’s a scientist who cares for nothing but his work.”

    “And to add a third, you and I were both sure this was a rumor set by the church intent on bringing Milan down,” mused Sforza. “There is a faction in Rome that would like to see that happen. But none of my spies have reported it to me. None. That says for a deliberately spread rumor it’s being kept very secret. We’ve had it from precisely two people, and while Cosimo can be as sneaky as a Sicilian”–Carlo Sforza had never forgiven the entire population of Sicily for the fact that one of them had stolen his pilgrim medal–“he appears to only have told you, and only once he knew that he could trust you.”

    “Which brings us a problem. I don’t think it’s in our best interests to alienate young Marco. Besides, it would be like kicking a puppy. But there is no real treatment known for the plague of Justinian. It killed vast numbers across Europe, and then came back more or less every generation. It did seem to get less intense in the numbers killed, but stories of the blue-black buboes are enough to frighten peasants witless centuries later.”

    “What happened to it?”

    Francisco shrugged. “It would run its course, and stop when it ran out of new places to spread. Quarantine did contain it… for a while. And then it just didn’t happen anymore. We’ve had a few centuries since the last outbreak.”

    “Like fire, it needs to keep spreading. And if you thin the fuel out enough, it’ll stop. Well, I agree with you. Let’s do our best to keep young Marco sweet. Did you get this message in the same bizarre way?”

    Francisco nodded.

    “Always good to have… shall we say, alternative channels of communication. Give him some advice on quarantine, and give him an opening which will allow him a chance to tell you how that won’t work,” said Sforza.

    “I’ll have to give it some thought, but I will do my best. Now, how are you feeling today?”

    After examining his patient, Francisco picked a couple of men–a tough sergeant, and the sort of trooper who would have been a sergeant if he gave up getting drunk and fighting with the sergeants. Both were in Milan because they’d been injured, but both were due to rejoin their troops soon, and, anyway, reflected Francisco, half-dead they were still tougher than any so-called magician, or most other forms of life. In that they were like Sforza, but not as intelligent, or quite as tough.

    “Where are we going, Captain?”

    “A bookseller. Or so he claims. It should be a new experience for both of you, unless it turns out that he is being a front for a brothel or tavern, and I can’t see any sign of anyone keeping those secret,” said Francisco.

    “He’s a spy or up to something,” said the trooper.

    “Possibly. But you’re to behave unless he shows signs of trouble or flight.”

    Because Francisco was a soldier first and an investigator of dubious booksellers somewhere far below that, they checked the flanks and rear first. Francisco left the sergeant to watch the rear, and told him to come running if there was a shout.

    He and the trooper knocked at the front door of the unpretentious little house. It was opened almost immediately by a pretty young woman, who was plainly pregnant.



    She smiled at them, “Good morning, úr,” she said, in heavily accented Frankish–and not with the Italian accent, either. Hungarian, by the honorific. Francisco was dressed well enough for the woman to grant him that, and a small bow. She did keep one hand tucked in her apron, and there was a bucket and mop just behind her. A smell of new baked bread, and… gunpowder tickled Francisco’s nose.

    He bowed politely. “Jó napot kívánok.” He said cautiously, expending his entire supply of polite Hungarian.

    He was given a huge smile and a positive gale of what was presumably her native language, and a far bigger curtsey–enough to see a glimpse of the hand cannon she had tucked under her apron.

    He held up his hand and shook his head. “I am sorry. That is all I can understand or can say in your language. I am the Caviliero Francisco Turner. I am a collector of books and I have heard you have some for sale.”

    She frowned. Realizing she had not understood him, Francisco repeated himself, slowly.

    “Ah. Books. So many, so much to dust. I am not to touch some, the master says. I call him. Wait. I call.”

    As she turned, there was an explosion. Not huge, to a man who had known cannon fire, but still loud. The young woman turned and ran. Francisco and his man ran after her, down a short passage lined with shelves of books, into the kitchen and down a stairs.

    Well… part way down the stairs. Smoke and a smallish man with a vast white mustache and rather disheveled hair was coming up it, coughing. Francisco would guess that what she was frantically asking was if he was all right. From a scullery door came another young man, limping, and with a bandage still around his head–obviously equally concerned.

    “Let me guess,” said Francisco. “You’re an alchemist.”

    The fellow with a mustache waved off his servants, and stepped forward to meet him. He bowed. “Alas, no, just a man seeking knowledge, and occasionally making some error of judgment.”

    He looked at the two of them, in an assessing fashion. “What is it that you gentlemen seek in my house?”

    His Frankish was impeccable, as if spoken by a gentleman of Mainz. That in itself was a bit odd, combined with the Hungarian servants. Francisco introduced himself, and repeated his story about wishing to buy books.

    “Ah. The Caviliero Francisco Turner. I had heard you might be my only customer in Milan,” said the man. “May I introduce myself? I am Kazimierz Jagr of Bohemia, a visitor to your fair city. What manner of books are you interested in, M’lord? I am afraid I only have a small number of volumes for sale. The rest are for my work.”

    His eyes were as sharp as gimlets and very alert and, despite the fact that he was not very large, Francisco, who had spent much of his life summing up enemies, had a feeling this man could be dangerous if he chose to be. Still, at the moment he seemed polite and wary. Well, that was wise for a foreigner in any place. “Medical texts, particularly,” answered Francisco.

    “Aha. You are a physician? I have some texts… and I would like your services.”

    “I’m a soldier, not a physician for hire.”

    “A pity. Come with me, good sir. Emma, bring wine.” He sniffed, “And maybe some of the new bread.”

    He led Francisco and his man to a second room. The furnishing was, at this stage, Spartan–a table, and shelving which the fellow with bandage on his head had perhaps been constructing more of–there were planks and tools, and a pile of oilskin-wrapped bundles. The shelves were in the throes of having books unpacked onto them. Not as many books as Cosimo de’ Medici had in his public library–but this was one room. And these books were different. They were old. “I try to collect the original texts. With hand-copying they become much altered. But the inks do not last forever,” said the man. “You are, I gather, a reading man. Are you familiar with the Persian physician and philosopher Avicenna? I have a very early translation, a copy in Cremona’s own hand. I have it in Arabic too, but…”

    “I do read and speak that.”

    The look he got from the supposed bookseller said he had gone up in the fellow’s estimation. “Then I do have something which will interest you. I do not have the complete work, but I have some of Al-Nafis’ writings. Some of the originals.”

    Francisco’s mouth fell open. “Interested! I should say I am. I thought they had all been destroyed. I must…um, I would like to see those.”

    “It will be my pleasure to allow you to read them. I don’t think they have been unpacked yet. Tamas, poor fellow, is suffering quite badly from the effects of an assault we suffered in Scaliger lands just east of Verona. He has been struggling to put up the shelves.”

    Francisco knew when he’d been out-maneuvered, and it was not un-pleasant in discovering one of the rarest and most anatomically accurate of texts. “Let me have a look at him,” he said. He dug in his pouch and took out a coin. “Gilotti, go tell Marona I said for you both to go and have a mug of wine. And I mean a mug. One mug. Come back here when you’re done. I see that I shall be a while.”

    The trooper grinned, took the money, saluted and left.

    By now Francisco was sure of three things: the man was not illiterate, or a mountebank, and he did have a large number of books.

    He just wasn’t sure quite what he actually was. He was too well read, too knowledgeable. He was decidedly experimenting with something in his cellar. Did magic involve black powder? Alchemy seemed most likely. On the other hand, his servants plainly worshipped the ground he walked on, and yet there was a peculiar attitude to both of them, as if they were looking after beloved but slightly abnormal child. The man was investing a level of care in his servant not common among the nobility. That, no matter where he was now, was what this fellow had been raised to be, and amongst.

    Francisco examined the servant. “You should have stitched that up,” he said of the long, shallow slash down his chest and abdomen. “You have some infection down there. It needs to be kept as clean and dry as possible. You have some spirits of wine in your experimental equipment? Clean it with that. I hold with boiled cloth for dressings myself, there seems some virtue in it from the heat. And clean the wound drawing the swabs away from the wound, like this. You won’t believe how many healthy wounds can have the evil humors spread by cleaning up and down them.”

    Then he examined the patient’s head, tapping his teeth, feeling very carefully. “I’ll need a razor,” he said.

    “Er, it requires surgery?”

    “No, I just wish to shave a piece of his head. I believe he has a fractured skull, but it is necessary to see if there is any depression of the bone. I don’t think so.”

    A razor was hastily brought. And Francisco noted the bookseller knew very little of medicine, but a great deal about anatomy. The girl was quietly crying and praying. But the bookseller was two things–curious, and worried. He did his best not let either show, but Francisco had dealt with too many men in too many battles.

    He examined the shaved skull carefully, gently. “It’s unlikely there is large damage. He’d have had worse than headaches. But my experience says as little activity as possible, as little bouncing about as possible–I’ve lost count as to how many patients got worse after riding. Give it a few weeks. He is to sleep as much as he can, and, from my experience keeping troopers from doing stupid things, you should keep him busy doing non-physical activity, when he isn’t sleeping. There’s no guarantee, but there is a good chance of recovery. It’s my finding that narcotics or wine don’t help much, and tend to have worse effects later, for all the relief they give now. Sleep is best.”

    The bookseller translated. The girl let loose with a burst of what Francisco would bet was a severe lecture directed at the poor young man. She was a pretty young thing now, but she’d make a dragon of an older woman one day, he judged. Then she kissed Francisco’s hand, and from what he understood, thanked him and the saints and God profusely.

    “Take him upstairs and put him to bed, Emma,” said the bookseller, putting an end to her recital.

    When they’d left, the man said: “And now, Caviliero, maybe you will actually tell me what you want?”

    He sounded faintly amused. “I know you are one of the officers of the Protector, Sforza. I have seen you are a well-read man and plainly an experienced physician. You did not come here–accompanied by a soldier, with another outside–merely by chance. I would guess that you want to know who I am and what I am here for. I would guess you act directly for your commander. Am I correct?”

    The fellow was all too astute. “You could be. But I want to know what you were doing in that cellar?” asked Francisco.

    The bookseller scowled. “Following instructions in a book precisely–and getting an unexpected and very dangerous result. I can only conclude the quantities were willfully recorded wrongly to cause that result. I had used only a tenth part of the recipe, too.”

    “What book?”

    “Your knowledge of Arabic script may be of some value here, Caviliero. Perhaps I made a mistake. It is a Persian translation of a book from China, the Wujing Zongyao, a text largely on the construction and use of Chinese imperial weapons. I had thought the weapons described in it might make me of some value to the Protector. If he does not want magical support, that is. I have already had a number of others making inquiries for suitable spells.”



    “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.

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