Burdens Of The Dead – Snippet 16
Like dark tendrils the poison that had crept out of the Casa Dandelo, the trade in slaves had corrupted everything that its vileness had touched. Slaves had been ideal for those who desired such flesh. Slaves had no-one — at least no-one who could do anything. And if the price was right, the Casa Dandelo would sell. And with the illegal trade came other things. Black lotos. Murder and kidnapping. And of course extortion and the treason it could buy. The old adherents and customers of the Casa Dandelo still had ties to the Montagnards, and to Fillipo Maria of Milan.
That worked very well for Poulo Bourgo. His new master had nothing magical coming into the bounds of Venice. But other places were a different matter. Ordinary messages could travel down the same channels to Venice as were used by contrabrand and the flesh-trade.
And thus came the news of a little girl arriving in Venice — much younger than most of the victims the network traded in. A victim his master in Vilna wanted the duke of Milan to get.
The duke wanted her as a hostage and not for their usual reasons. But snatching and transporting children was familiar enough to Bourgo’s associates.
This group of people had no more love and respect for Benito Valdosta than most of society had for them. They feared him, though. That was apparent during the meeting the former mercenary found himself at, with various conspirators — all in various attempts at disguise. Of course Poulo recognized some of them. “We need someone on the inside,” said the man from Milan.
Poulo Bourgo had never actually met Carlo Sforza. But the man’s tallness and forceful nature were well known. He had seen him in the distance and now his profile betrayed him. Poulo had had occasion to run into several of the officers of Sforza’s mercenaries. He’d been looking for work at the time, but their commander had not been there, or hiring. Sforza had been able to pick and choose in those days. He’d come down in the world since then. Not far down, but down.
It was surprising that he’d attend the meeting in person, but that was Sforza’s reputation. Direct, forceful, in personal control.
“Let your master know that has been arranged,” said Poulo.
“For maximum effect you need to wait until Benito Valdosta has left Venice,” said the tall man from Milan.
Several of the others nodded fervently. That was not the only reason they would be pleased to wait until Benito was far, far away. They did not want to face what would come when he learned his baby girl was taken.
And when Benito returned, as he would?
They planned to be just as far away as their money could take them.
* * *
At that moment, Carlo Sforza was actually on a hill just beyond Nogara, watching as the Scaliger mercenaries prepared for battle. The former allies were not much of a challenge. In fact their condottiere, Marcus Baldo, was about as far back from the lines as it was possible to be without hiding in a privy outside one of the villas they were attempting to use as a defensive position.
The villa had a straw roof, too. Had the fool never heard of fire?
Fillipo Maria Visconti, the duke of Milan, was the driving force of the Imperial Montagnard faction in Italian politics. The name was something of a misnomer, and had been for decades. The Holy Roman Empire had long since distanced itself from the Viscontis and their cause, and made clear that it wanted no part in the endless small wars of Italy. The dukes of Milan retained the formal pretense of serving the interests of the great power across the Alps simply because it sometimes enabled them to act more surreptitiously than they could have otherwise.
This was perhaps one of those times. The well-known fact that the Milanese dukes and their relatives conspired constantly in the Montagnard cause might disguise the fact that this particular conspiracy had a very narrow purpose.
The duke beamed on his second cousin, Count di Lamis. Di Lamis was a tall, assertive-seeming man, but not one who had turned that to appearance to martial endeavor. Rumor had it that he was scared of blood. Fillipo Maria had sent him to the meeting which the surviving Visconti loyalists of Venice had requested for two reasons. First, he was expendable if it proved to be a trap. Second — you never knew, and the duke believed firmly in serendipity — he might be mistaken for Carlo Sforza, which could prove handy. The count bore a certain resemblance to the condottiere.
“So just who is this fellow, Augustino?”
The tall count shrugged. “He calls himself Poulo, and he’s elderly looking with white hair. His accents suggest he’s fairly low-born — but he’s effective. It seems he has a finger in a fair number of criminal matters, but he supports us. Or at least he wants to see the back of Petro Dorma.”
Fillipo Maria steepled his fingers. “What does he want from us?”
Augustino di Lamis looked faintly puzzled. “Nothing much, now that I think of it. Not the usual demands for money or weapons. Or even the assurances of titles and lands. All he asked for was a squad of cavalry stationed at or near Villa Parvitto — to carry the child onward as fast as possible, when they have captured her.”
“Villa Parvitto? Where is that?”
“Technically, in Scaliger territory. Now in Veneto, in the border-lands. It appears to belong to one of his confederates.”
Fillipo Maria allowed a faint frown to shadow his face. He was wary of traps. “Why my soldiery?”
Augustino smiled toothily. “He was laboring under the delusion that I was someone else, and seemed to assume I’d send soldiers.” It wasn’t the first time this mistake had happened.
“Ha. Excellent!” Fillipo Maria rubbed his plump hands in glee. “Perfect in fact. Couldn’t be better. At a stroke we implicate Carlo. If things go wrong and this fellow is caught and the Signora di Notte’s torturers squeeze this information out of him, Sforza will get the blame. He’s campaigning in Scaliger territory, doing quite well, so it looks likely to be him. It’ll inflame old wounds between him and that bastard son of his, so when I disown him for this deed, he won’t go to Venice. And wherever he does end up he’ll take the enmity of the Valdostas and probably Dell’este with him.”
“Yes, but what if this Poulo succeeds? He seemed well in control, and very familiar with the whole process of kidnapping children.”
Fillipo Maria shrugged. “Then we have a hostage. It’s not going to make Venice and the Valdosta clan any more nor less my enemies than they are already. And we’ll see that this Poulo fellow is betrayed and rats that it was Sforza who organized it. Carlo is bound to me by need then.”
Back from his meeting of conspirators, Poulo Bourgo moved to take complete control over the shadowy network of black lotos and the even more secretive world of those whose tastes ran to very young victims. There were certain brothels that catered to that trade too. On his way to pay a visit to one of them, Poulo was surprised to see one of Carlo Sforza’s closest confidantes, and someone he had once met himself, talking to none other than…Marco Valdosta.
So. Sforza was up to something. Maybe treachery — but that was not really his reputation. Direct force was, and this looked like he was preparing a direct route to deal with one of the main problems Venice posed to the Visconti, and indeed to Chernobog.
Killing Valdosta would certainly be one way of doing so. It was a very risky option, however. Lurking within the innocuous-seeming young Valdosta was a vastly more powerful creature, here in the lagoons.
Perhaps Sforza’s aide planned to take the child?
Poulo waited. It was imprinted onto his very being that he should stay away from Marco Valdosta. When the willowy Marco left, with a cheerful wave, Poulo followed Sforza’s man up to a set of rooms above the sotoportego.
The man was seated, door open, feet up. He had a book opened at a place-marker already, but Poulo was not fooled. He wasn’t reading. Too ready…Poulo knew, these days, he could kill the man, but that was not his purpose.
“And what can I do for you, signor?” asked the fellow, coolly. He plainly did not have the vaguest idea that Poulo had met him before, which was not surprising. “There are pox-doctors and sellers of love-potions and enhancements to your virility elsewhere. I can’t help you with that sort of thing.”
“More like what I can do for you. We’re on a similar task for the same master. If you get her and find things are a bit tight, make for the Villa Parvitto.” That was intended as something of trap — or a signal. After all, Sforza would have provided the waiting escort there. This man would know.
“I think you have the wrong man. What is ‘Villa Parvitto’? Do they have good beer? That’s my next task. The beer here is barely worth drinking. And I don’t work for any master, my friend. I am what they call self-employed. A gentleman of fortune. Now, I have book to read. Go away.”
Well, if he wanted it that way. Still…
“Just into Scaliger country. Remember that if you need an out.”
“Who are you?”
“If you don’t know you don’t need to know,” said Poulo, and turned on his heel and left.