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All the Plagues of Hell: Chapter Twenty Six

       Last updated: Saturday, December 1, 2018 20:56 EST




    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.”



    “And on the other side of the Po?” asked Francisco, taking his commander’s pulse. It was faster than it should be. It was easier to keep him talking for as long as possible, while he got the examination underway.

    “How am I supposed to wave my hands around if you’re holding my wrist?” demanded Sforza, half annoyed, half amused. “So far we’re sparring. They advance. We retreat. They assume it is a trap. They retreat. We advance back to where we came from, sometimes a bit further forward, because our logistics and communication is better. We threaten to besiege a town… and they rush to defend it. So we go elsewhere. But I need to get a bit closer to the action.”

    In Francisco’s opinion, what his master had done was move a fraction closer to an early grave. “I’m going to purge you, for the bad news. For the good news, yes, I think you should move at least to Pavia.”

    “Purge me? For Heaven’s sake, Francisco, I have no appetite, anyway, and now you want the rest of what’s in me out?”

    “Yes. You had improved, and now your vital signs are worse. So is your temper. I think, somehow, that they’ve slipped you some more of whatever they had poisoned you with.”

    “Hmph. Well, I’ll have to exercise that temper of mine by sending you to the east to keep an eye on matters there for me, at least until Goito is resolved. It’ll keep you from being a mother hen in Pavia. You know, I despised poisoners even before you thought that I was being poisoned. What is it they’ve given me?”

    “I don’t know. If I did I’d be a little happier, because I’d know where to look and what to do,” admitted Francisco.

    Later, when the examination was over, and Francisco had seen the purgative administered, Carlo said, in a quieter voice: “Turner. You know I am sending you to the east because there are few men I regard as highly, and none I trust more. And it strikes me, old friend, that I am sending you off to offer a fraud the gift of an estate. When, if, this is all over, my friend, we are going to look for a suitable set of estates for you. It’s in my gift, if we survive. A place where you can run in peace, eh? And titles and suchlike, as I can bestow them, and wealth enough to buy all the books you ever desire. A place at court, and a role in the running of Milan. You need to know that, as do all my loyal men, I think.”

    “You pay me well,” said Francisco gruffly, knowing that his loyalty to the man had been freely given, but was at least appreciated. That made a huge difference, and while Sforza might know this was a good way to make loyal men more so, he was at least genuine about it. “And we trust you. Anyway, what would I do with an estate? I’m no noble.”

    “Grow old comfortably on it. Not something every mercenary soldier achieves, and something you deserve. And titles, well, you can have those for the asking, friend. It doesn’t mean that much.”

    “I’ll put it all off a while,” said Francisco. “Especially the growing old part.”



    He took himself to see the bookseller, who was plainly expecting him. “Signor Jagr,” he said, bowing.

    “Call me Kazimierz, Caviliero. That is one of my names, the latter part being a convenient fiction, which I will maintain.”

    “Well, Signor. My master says he possibly has use for someone who can convince our foes we have a powerful magician in our employ. He empowered me to ask what you would expect to be paid? It is fair to say he is fighting several wars at the moment, and these are expensive, so he is unlikely to agree to vast sums of money, but he would offer you an estate, with some lands, and help with your experiments. I suggested a bombardier, since I have one at the barracks who has lost a leg and an eye, but is still a man with a great knowledge of explosives. It would give you privacy and space to conduct your experiments.”

    Behind the mustache, there was definitely now a smile. Perhaps the old fellow had bad teeth or something that he wished to hide.

    “I would need some money for materials and equipment,” he said. “For myself…” he shrugged. “Say the same rate as one of his newest captains. I think he will discover my worth.”

    “He’s good at showing that appreciation. I will speak to him. As for materials, well, I would guess as long as they’re not ruinously expensive, he would be willing to agree to reasonable expenditure.”

    “Oh, I think he will get good value. I have a good assistant in young Tamas. Good with his hands and good with adapting things. I showed him the drawings of the fire-thrower, and he has wasted several good pieces of parchment re-designing it. Keeping him still, as you prescribed, is hard for the boy. Unlike us, he cannot merely read a book.”

    “Let him learn. He’ll make a better assistant that way.”

    The man blinked. “He’s a good worker, but he’s a peasant, really. They don’t read.”

    “Not unless you let them learn, no.”

    “It’s a dangerous idea,” said the bookseller. “Like giving women guns. Far more dangerous than wars.”

    Francisco was not sure if he was joking.

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