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All the Plagues of Hell: Chapter Sixteen

       Last updated: Saturday, October 20, 2018 06:55 EDT



Duchy of Milan

    Carlo Sforza rose in the predawn, as was his custom, and with his usual troop, exercised his horses. It was as much a habit with him as Francisco’s running was. He knew that patterns got one killed, and to that end he at least varied what he rode, where he rode and the precise time he was out for, or would start. The troop varied somewhat, from day-to-day. But they were all veterans, all men who felt a personal loyalty to him.

    The ride was his thinking time. One did not talk to the commander when he was taking his ride. Carlo was glad of the silence, because he had a fair bit on his mind. He had taken the step to depose Phillipo Maria Visconti for one simple, clear cut reason: He had held a small child in his arms briefly. She had trusted him, knowing, heaven knew how or why, that she could. Generally, Sforza did not regard himself as an emotional man. He did not let his heart rule his head. When he’d been younger, he’d made that mistake once with Lorendana, Duke Enrico Dell’este’s daughter and another man’s wife. And when he’d found out eventually that she’d wanted him not for himself but for her damned Montagnard cause, he’d been nearly as angry as when he’d found out that the duke of Milan had dared to have his grand-daughter, that child that had held onto him and trusted him, kidnapped.

    He must be getting old, he thought irritably. Benito… he’d established, could look after himself. He was oddly proud of the boy. He had kept an eye and ear on his career. Sforza had accepted that the boy might come to kill him one day, and that that would be a bitter fight. But Visconti had dared to step on ground that was not to be touched. And, worse, he had tried to make Carlo Sforza appear to be the perpetrator.

    For that threat, there was only one possible response from Carlo Sforza. Killing Phillipo Maria without resorting to mere open warfare, when the worm could have slipped away, had meant taking over the duchy of Milan.

    The problem was that had having ridden the beast, now that he was in the saddle, there was no safe way off. Not for him, or his officers anyway, and quite possibly, for many of his men. They were loyal to him. And he was loyal to them. A marriage to one of the female heirs seemed to be the answer.

    Then last night he had received a letter from none other than Doge Petro Dorma. Venice was one of the few states to send an ambassador to the court of the new Protector of Milan, a gesture of appreciation for giving the Venetian Republic the man who had nearly succeeded in killing the doge. It was a step of unusual generosity, as Sforza had been the condottiere in several wars which had eaten Venetian territory, and had been en route to destroy her, at his master’s bequest, when Dell’este had stopped his barges on the Po, and neatly ambushed and entrapped him.

    The letter had informed Carlo that Venice had been asked to join an alliance against him and offered as its share of the possible spoils a great deal of territory to the east of the Po. It pointed out–as only a Venetian could–that someone had plainly set out to see that his plan to legitimize his rule by marrying a Visconti heir was being sabotaged by killing the possible contenders, and begged him to take extra care with Lucia del Maino’s welfare, lest she become the next victim.

    That just hadn’t occurred to Sforza. He detested poison and poisoners. And Francisco had seen the dead snake, and believed that it had bitten them. He’d sent a message to Cosimo to that effect. Viewed that way, the killings were entirely logical, and indeed, he’d immediately put Lucia under a far heavier spy-watch, and guard. And the marriage would have to be rushed along. That would give the states who were less willing and eager to engage in battle with him more reason not to. Without Venice and Florence, and with Dell’este away, he could deal with the rest, probably.

    But then there had been the message from his two men engaged to keep an eye on his grand-daughter. They’d be well rewarded for their actions, but it was true that his being Protector of Milan had not made them leave her alone. Well, it was likely Venice’s Council of Ten, who liked assassination, would have delivered “messages” to those involved. But he must see if the Venetians would also tell him who had been behind it. His messages tended to be louder, with cannon-fire for percussion.



    Sforza. Bah. She really did despise him more with every moment that she had to deal with him, thought Lucia. His proposal–if you could call it that–had been as brutish as his nature. Only the fact that it handed her, finally, the key to her inheritance, that which was hers by right, had stopped her schooling him appropriately.

    And then suddenly his soldiers were on guard at her door, his bodyguards were checking her food, and even her apartments. As if he owned her!

    There will be those who will try to kill you. They always do, whispered the asp. I can keep you safe from poisons, but not from the knife.

    “I’ve no objection to suitable guards but some of these have not shaved. And they have no idea of the deference I am due.” She knew she was being petulant. But that too was her right.

    They will learn. Later, said the asp in a whisper as old and dry as the legendary tombs in Egypt, from whence, it said, it had been drawn.

    “He wishes to send messages to the noble houses. Which could take months, and then there will be the ceremony with pomp and display. And much as I would like them to see me finally take my place”–there had been all the small slights over the years at court, especially as her father simply had not provided enough for them to dress as if they were really equals–“I am more than three months pregnant. Or can you delay that too?”

    A little, said the asp. The unborn will take the milk of the serpent from your blood. That will slow its development.

    “The milk of the serpent from my blood?”

    As is suckled from the breast of adders. Hist. Sforza comes.

    He entered her chambers, with, to her disapproval, two of his men. He bowed. “My affianced wife. How do you do this day?”

    “Very well.” Actually, she was feeling nauseous, but that was not for him to know.

    “I have had a disturbing communication from Petro Dorma, in Venice, which was why I set extra guards on your door last night, and had my personal taster attend you breaking your fast.” He grimaced. “Spies and poisons. What I like least about the noble houses of Italy.”

    He would doubtless prefer force. He lacked finesse of any sort. But all she said, while idly waving her fan to hide her mouth, lest the expression show was: “And what did the doge say to cause this alarm?”

    “Ah.” He paused as if struck suddenly by something. Then, shrugged. “This is a little awkward, but I must be direct. After all you will have to deal with my bluntness in our marriage. As you may know, there were three female relations of Phillipo Maria Visconti, all with some claim to the Visconti lands.”

    She lifted her chin slightly. “I am aware,” she said, coolly. He could have allowed a tissue of illusion. By blood, hers was by far the strongest claim.

    “What you don’t know, and I was unaware of until Dorma pointed it out, is that someone or some persons, seeking to prosecute war against me and to dismember and spoil the duchy of Milan, has killed one of those women, Eleni Faranese. The duke of Parma has blamed me and foolishly seeks to engage in war as a result. One of my captains, Francisco Turner, was able to intervene in the incident in which both Violetta de’ Medici and her mother were apparently bitten by a snake. The dead snake was even provided, but I suspect that a poisoned stiletto was really used.”

    Lucia wanted to know just exactly what this Turner had been doing there, to foil the great serpent. But then… the killing had not actually been necessary. He had asked her, after all. “Did neither woman see the attacker?”

    “Neither were conscious when Francisco got there. He was too occupied in trying to save them to follow it up properly, for which I don’t blame him. The mother died, and the girl, well, Francisco holds her chances of recovery as not very high.”



    She will die, whispered the asp in her bosom. Nothing lives through the poison of the great serpent, unless the serpent wills it… and even then, they live but for a while.

    “I see,” said Lucia.

    “As Francisco, and Cosimo de’ Medici did, I blamed it on an accident, a snake in the garden, which could possibly happen. It took our Venetian friends–whose Council of Ten are all too prone to use poisons in their assassinations–to point this out to me. And to point out that I should keep an extra guard on you, my dear.”

    “Ah. Are you sure that Venice are our friends?”

    “Who knows? Venetian politics are as murky as their canals and filled with even more dead bodies. But I think it a fair warning, and it brings me to a subject–awkward though it may be–that I wish to broach to you.”

    “Speak your mind… My Lord,” she said, getting her tongue around the words with difficulty.

    “Once you are married there is nothing to be gained by killing you. One of their pretexts for war disappears and some of the weaker camp-followers may decide the duchy of Milan has a rightful ruler. If even one leaves, their alliance will disintegrate, and those who remain can be dealt with easily. I hate to press the idea of a rapid marriage on you, I know all women long for the pomp and ceremony and show, but I think for your safety and that of Milan, the sooner we are wed, the better.”

    To think she had worried about how to press this forward. She put on her best show of coyness and reluctance. “Not for myself, but for the sake of my father’s duchy,” she said.

    “Good. Hopefully our union will be blessed with a child and they can put all this behind them,” said Sforza, blissfully ignorant.

    There was something to be said for a marriage of convenience to a fool who has no nobility, thought Lucia. “Let it be soon, My Lord.”

    “I will have the banns read out in the cathedral this Sunday, and letters will be dispatched to all the noble houses. Let them wonder about the haste, and whether I have to marry for other reasons.” He laughed at his own coarse jest.

    She did not, but then he did not seem to expect her to. He took his leave.

    “Mother and daughter?” she said to the asp. “I gave orders that it was not to be obvious. Not that it has not worked out precisely for the best, but I do not like being disobeyed.”

    I will send a message to the great serpent. It will know. I will be told.

    “In the meanwhile I have nine days to get suitable bride-clothes,” said Lucia.

    Before the hour was out, her orders had gone far and wide across Milan. She did not go to dressmakers and silk merchants anymore. They came to her, and if they knew what was good for them, came quickly. Sforza’s coarse mercenaries were useful for that purpose, at least.



    The letters Carlo Sforza’s scribes neatly wrote out and various messengers took to their varying destinations did not include Parma, but did include Venice, Florence, and even, though it would have been impossible for a response, let alone attendance, Rome and Naples. The letter provoked varying reactions, but most of them had a common theme.

    It was not going to be a very well attended wedding.

    Carlo Sforza expected that. But he had more important matters on his mind, a war to prosecute in the northwest, which, unless he judged incorrectly would soon spread to several more fronts. He knew all too well how expensive war could be, but this was the first time he had, so to speak, been drawing on his own coffers to pay for it. That was proving a shock! The only thing, he thought sourly, that seemed to have more ability to spend money than a regiment of cavalry was his bride-to-be.




    For the first time that Marco could recall, Petro Dorma–living as he did in close proximity to Milan, at least when compared to Rome or Naples–was quite pleased that he had been poisoned.

    He had called Marco up to the public chamber from his latest visit to his patient. “And how is she?”

    It was a public audience, and Marco knew enough to be aware that anything he was asked here was for a greater audience. And he knew… and still doubted Petro’s theory that this had been assassination… but just in case he was wrong and Petro was right: he shrugged. “No real progress, Your Grace.”

    That wasn’t strictly true. The flesh had stopped dying around the wound. The honey treatment seemed to be working, even it was a mess to apply. The circulation in her foot was definitely better than it had been. Her pulse was slightly slower and slightly easier to find. But she was still comatose, and showed no signs of recovering consciousness.

    “How very sad. Poisons can be so terribly debilitating. And it is about that that I called for your advice: I have been invited to attend the wedding of the Protector of Milan to the lady Lucia Maria del Maino, the former Duke Visconti’s natural daughter. An occasion of some pomp and ceremony, which is taking place in a week’s time. As my chief personal physician, would I be fit for such a journey? It would have to be done in a great hurry, as, well, you know my work schedule here in keeping our great city running.”

    Marco understood that too. Petro probably would suffer no ill effects that a bit of rest would not cure, provided he didn’t overdo things or eat unwisely. But… this was politics.

    “I am not the doge, Your Grace. I am merely your medical advisor. If I were the doge, I would absolutely forbid Petro Dorma from undertaking any such exercise, yet. It could have fatal consequences, as you know. In easy stages, undertaken over a few weeks with travelling by galley, it would be risky. At speed, suicidal. I hope the Council of Ten will concur with my opinion, and advise you not to go, purely on the grounds of your health.”

    “That is most awkward, because I would very much like to attend,” said Petro. “I will have to send a delegation in my place, to wish them well, as well as my personal message of congratulations.”

    “I am sorry I cannot advise otherwise,” said Marco. Which was also true, but for a different reason. What he’d heard from Benito had begun to make him put his own youthful memories of Sforza in context. Marco had been his mother’s darling, and had been largely ignored by the bluff mercenary commander. Then had been the time when Mother had broken from Sforza, and the memory of those furious fights, and her belief–which he’d shared, and passed to Benito–that Sforza wanted them all dead and had hired assassins to kill them.

    He’d been his mother’s partisan then, loyal to the last drop of his blood. Now, as an older person, knowing more of her cause and more of the people who had supported it, like the slave-trading Dandelos and the black Lotos smugglers…

    He’d begun teasing out the truths from her ardent beliefs, particularly since Alessia’s kidnapping and Carlo Sforza’s part in rescuing her. The condottiere had never taken any real interest in Marco as a child, or even in Benito, who was his own son. Marco had resented that, at the time. On the other hand, they’d always been well fed, always been well housed, and had never been abused by him. Well, he had gotten a most unfair box on the ear for something that Benito had actually done once. But he realized, now that he was working in the city often with sick and injured children, and he’d seen for himself what could happen to step-children, they’d been lucky.

    Also he could forgive much of a man who had Francisco Turner’s loyalty, and had sent his own physician to watch over his grand-daughter.

    Peace between Venice and a Milan ruled by Phillipo Maria Visconti was never going to be anything but an excuse for Milan to regroup. But perhaps there could be a real chance with Sforza.

    Marco would always choose peace over war. But if they come to take my marshes and Lagoon, said the Lion of Etruria, within him, they will have war.

    And that too was true, and Marco knew his name would be right up there, first on the lists of volunteers in Piazza San Marco. He had fought for his city before, and would do so again, if need be.

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