All The Plagues Of Hell – Snippet 12
Politics, places various
Count Andrea Malatesta, Lord of Rimini, Forli, Cesena, Pesaro, Marquis of Ravenna, and Protector of Romagna was a nobleman’s nobleman. He traced his lineage back to Roman times, and, as he said with pride, even his distant patrician ancestors had shown their breeding. They had, as he did, derived their wealth from rents or conquest. Venice and its new-baked “Longi” chaffered in trade like the commoners they really were, and as for the likes of Florence’s De’ Medici… banking. Ha. Usury. By rights, it should be restricted to Jews who could be executed if they got too insistent about repayment.
The problem for Count Malatesta was that the peasantry simply did not work hard enough. Rents were down again this year, land lying fallow. And war had become expensive. The last major territorial gains had been by his father, who had taken Faenza and the surrounds from the De’ Medici. They had failed, rather spectacularly, in their venture to recapture that, but while Andrea had enjoyed the victory, it had brought no territorial benefits, and little in the way of ransom. He had been a bit too hasty in making an example there. Urbino still held against him, and expansion to the south would be difficult, and not that rewarding. The Po valley was where the money lay, but it had thrown him back.
This time, however, things would be different. He had a powerful ally in the fear that Carlo Sforza had spread among the nobility of the northern Italian states. He was entertaining some of them, right now. And they were eager, willing, greedy… and afraid.
Duke Umberto Da Corregio of Parma and Viscount Lippi Pagano of Imola listened as Malatesta read to them from a letter that gave him great pleasure. Pleasure great enough that he paced back and forth as he read it, gesturing all the while, as if he was an actor on a stage.
“We do not, at this stage”–here he waved a hand in a dramatic circling gesture–“see any immediate possibility of such nuptials, and would suggest a longer term approach, and considerable caution…”
“Bah. What kind of man is Cosimo de’ Medici?” said Umberto, swilling back his wine. “A coward and a fool. To advise ‘caution’–with Sforza?”
“Nonetheless, it does tell us that the Butterball is not to marry Sforza,” said Lippi Pagano, who had a cool head, and had drunk relatively little. That was all that Andrea Malatesta could find as redeeming qualities in the viscount. He had, de facto, allied himself with Ferrara, and Andrea Malatesta fully intended, at the appropriate time, to shorten the tall dour man of his head for that. A skirmish with Enrico Dell’este had not ended well for the protector of Romagna. But they would need Ferrara, and Venice, to at least stay neutral in the war, and preferably to attack Sforza. That was why the count had invited Lippi: so that he could act as a messenger to Dell’este. One thing did count in Count Andrea’s favor, though. He might have fought a skirmish with Enrico Dell’este, but the man’s hatred of Sforza was legendary.
Venice… Venice would reach her own decisions, play things for her own unpredictable ends. If anything Andrea disliked and distrusted La Serenisima even more than Ferrara. In his grandfather’s time they had raided Rimini on the thin pretext that her vessels had been engaged in piracy against vessels of the Venetian Republic. But they too had little reason to love or trust Milan, or indeed, Carlo Sforza.
“And we have torn up his letter, and sent it back to him with a suitable gift,” said Umberto. “The hand of his messenger and a piece of excrement, to show the depth of our disdain.”
“I wonder what Cosimo will make of your actions,” said Viscount Lippi Pagano, dryly.
“What does it matter? Cosimo is an old woman, more interested in money and art than war,” said Umberto. “He who hesitates will be left out. We have money and backing from at least half the states in Italy now.”
“I do gather Florence is mobilizing her reserves,” said Lippi.
“Cosimo does that without doing anything at least twice a year. It impresses no one anymore,” his host informed him. Indeed, getting rid of Viscount Pagano of Imola had risen in importance. Did the fool know no better than to cast doubts in Umberto’s path? There were certain protocols to be observed in assassination, and he had his value… for the moment.
Now, it was a waiting game, waiting for Sforza to make a move, any move against the allies, and then they’d have due cause for a war. They did not really need due cause, since war was their plan anyway, but it would bring in the laggard and the reluctant.
Arona, Duchy of Milan
It was said that the first steps to hell were the easiest. They were wrong, reflected Lucia, walking down to the cellars, the heavy key hung on a ribbon around her neck and resting like a cold snake between her breasts. Asking the serpent, back the first time, when they had not even seen it, to make her father love her… that had been terrifying, especially when she understood what the serpent and her father understood of “love.”
Now she was going down to the lowest cellar and the pit, again, with the tokens that would bring death to two women. And she felt nothing.
The great serpent had said to her: “You understand that it is far easier for me to destroy a city full of people than just one person. That is my power. That is what I can give you.”
“Nonetheless, for now I need two people to die. And they must die as if by natural causes.”
There had been a shaking of the scales. “All death is natural. Humans die, all that lives dies, and their dying and fear is my food. I hunger for the great feasting again.”
“I mean no daggers or obvious poisons.”
“I do not use daggers, and my poisons are subtle. You have paid my price, and will pay my price again, so I will do as you command. But you will need to provide a way I can find and identify those who must die.”
“Eleni Faranese, and Violetta de’ Medici. They are my rivals. There are lesser claims, but I do not need to kill them yet.”
“Names are important to mortals, but they mean nothing to me. For me to know them, I need their essences. I can derive that from hair, skin, nail-clippings, sweat, blood or their body’s waste. Give me that and it will allow my minions to find them and work your will. Otherwise, you would have to point them out to me.”
That had given Lucia temporary pause. They were in Tuscany and thus far from her. But she had some wealth, and most things could be bought. It took a little bribery, and some intimidation. Some hair from the heads of those she’d sent out.
Her sendlings believed her to be a witch, one of the dark Streghira. She could get killed for that, despite the foolish Hypatians cries for tolerance. Her room was pointedly empty of the paraphernalia of magic. And if they found the key, and followed her path to cellars… they’d never come back.
The two men she’d sent to do her work would be dead soon anyway. She would not leave them alive, just in case they brought trouble. That level of poisoning she could deal with herself. Assassination, like seduction, was an important skill for the line and the house, and she had worked hard to learn as much as possible about both. Fortunately, her father had agreed with her about the need for her to learn both. An old courtesan, and a half-blind alchemist had been his gift. She had liked neither, but learned as much as she could from both. The problem with poisons, of course, was that they could be traced, and showed signs.
Since her father’s death at the hand of Carlo Sforza her mother had retreated further into herself, withdrawn into her chambers, and often did not leave them at all. That had started when her sister died, and Lucia had encouraged it, because she had more space and more power as a result. She’d become the de facto chatelaine of this place. No one would question her decision to go anywhere, not even the lower cellars. She still took great care to do it only late at night, and make sure she was not observed.
The cold rage at Carlo Sforza when she might still have done something foolish was long since burned out. Now all that was left was a bitter ash that would go on etching her mind and actions forever. She would have what was hers. What she had paid so much for. And in achieving it, take as few risks as possible.