All The Plagues Of Hell – Snippet 15
The Duchy of Milan
Francisco Turner had just come back to Milan with Carlo Sforza. They’d been readying several regiments, and a fair number of cannon for the move to the west. Sforza always liked to prepare well first, and then strike hard and fast. And he liked to oversee a part of the preparation personally. “They believe you know everything then, Francisco,” he said, dryly.
“Or they’re scared you might,” said his physician. They’d reached the entrance to the ducal palace that Sforza preferred to use for all but formal occasions. “Well, if you have no further need of me, M’lord, I’ll go and take a run.”
“When they finally catch up with us, my friend, your running won’t get you away from the cavalry,” said Sforza, amused.
“Very true. But I just have to run faster than the rest of my troop,” he said lightly. “It keeps me fit and makes me feel better, and gives me the excuse for a mug of beer down at the water’s edge.”
“Don’t drink too many and fall in,” said his commander. “I shall venture on some of my paperwork in the scriptorium with my over-anxious secretary and the scribes. I’d rather be at war.” He turned away and passed into the palace.
Francisco thought about the situation they found themselves in as he kept to a steady pace along the canal-path. The canal would make something of a defensive perimeter, but it was too shallow, and too long, and not well overlooked with a clear field of fire. Taking Milan had seemed a masterstroke when Carlo Sforza executed it. No one outside a small clique of sycophants had liked the last duke much. Certainly not the peasantry, nor the minor nobles, nor even the heads of great houses and lands.
The problem with the latter was that they liked Carlo Sforza even less, if for different reasons. They feared his military prowess, and he was not one of them, and not a known quantity. And if one low-born condottiere could seize power and make himself an overlord in their place, what was to stop others from doing likewise?
Francisco had to admit–fairly little. All that stood between many of the Italian city-states rulers and their mercenaries was a certain lack of competence among the condottieri, and the possibility of the citizens and minor nobles successfully resisting. He did understand why they should be worried about Carlo, but the sensible arrangement would be to strengthen their own armies, and make themselves somewhat more popular with their peasantry and minor nobility, and the craftsmen in the towns and cities. They preferred to get rid of an upstart who was upsetting their normal way of doing things.
It wasn’t going to work, but there might be a fair amount of bleeding and dying done before that was established. Ferrara clove to its lord, Enrico Dell-este–his habit of winning, and working iron like a tradesman, and not employing mercenaries, made him safe if unpopular with his peers. It was a shame that he hated Sforza since they were more alike than either of them realized. That was something that Francisco was never going to point out to either man, but the reason Duke Enrico Dell’este’s daughter Lorendana had been attracted to Carlo Sforza was probably that very similarity.
Venice had a fair degree of loyalty to its nobility–they went to sea together with the commoners, and lived in crowded cantonments with them. And, as a second string, the populi minuta adored the two Valdosta brothers as part of themselves, and the Valdosta brothers were loyal to the doge. Cosimo de’ Medici’s contributions to grandeur and the quality of life in Florentine territories meant he was more popular than most. He was a shrewd man, who knew when to display the common touch. Admiral–now Duke Doria in Genoa–had a support base at least among the sailors and ex-sailors. However, the bulk of the people in rest of Italy’s states cared very little who their next overlord might be.
Francisco had reached the end point of his run, so he gave a brief last sprint and stopped at the water’s edge to scoop up a handful of water to wash down his face and hands. The water flowed into here from the Ticino River so it was not of the order of filth that the canals of Venice were, but he still had a roof-top collection system for his–and to the best of his ability–his commander’s water. You might get bird droppings in that, but not human ones. Several times in the course of his soldiering, Francisco had seen flux that could only have come from the well-water, and had no faith in that either. It was better with a bit of alcohol in it. That seemed to kill or least weaken whatever it was that carried the diseases. On that thought, he decided to go and have a beer.
He must have bumped a reed or something in the water, because a bottle bobbed up, just short of his fingers. He resisted his natural instinct to grab hold of it, and stood up and walked across to the Taverna Grosso Luccio and bought himself a mug of beer. It was dark and frowsty in there, and not unpleasant outside, so he took himself back out into the late afternoon spring sunshine. He sat down on a stump that had been dug in there as a hitching post, and looked at the water. It was, for a place on the edge of city, quiet at this time of day. The tradesmen were still at work, but most shoppers had gone home, markets had packed up and the farmers or their wives headed home.
But it really was still too cold to enjoy sitting outdoors for long. He might as well go back inside, and finish this mug. His man would be here with his horse soon, and they would ride back to his apartments in the Palazzo Ducale. To run anywhere near his quarters would be to run through the streets, and this was more pleasant than having to constantly explain to worthy citizens that they didn’t have to hold you for your pursuers, or to let them hide you from the same. Or have to explain to stall-holders that throwing fruit which was past its best could cause the runner to stop and do some surgery on their tripes.
With this thought he started to stand up… only to find a slim, delicate hand around his ankle, with a grip that was more to be expected from a steel manacle.
He looked down at the face of the slight woman in the water. A foxy little triangular face, alive with mischief and a little malice. There was a greenish pallor to her skin, and there was a lot of that to be seen.
“Scream and I’ll pull you under,” she said in a tone that suggested that she could, quite easily. “I’m not to drown you, but I know how to take you to the very edge of it. And I can do it any number of times.”
Francisco prepared himself to reach for the main gauche at his belt. He had a second knife in his sleeve too. He was an old soldier. He wasn’t going to show either unless it was to the fish-girl’s guts, if he had to use them. No sense in forewarning your enemy, unless you hoped to frighten them out of something, and it was too late for that.
She held up a bottle–the same one, by the looks of it, that had bobbed up when he was washing his hands. “A message for you. The healer who is also the Winged Lion of Venice wanted it delivered privately.”
It took Francisco a second to grasp just who that had to be. It was going to take him a little more time to get his head around the evidence of the truth of that rumor. “Next time, tell Marco to send two bottles. The one with the message and the other with some grappa to help me get over the shock of meeting his messenger!”
“You don’t like the way I look?” she said, pouting, thrusting her nubile bare breasts above the waterline.
Francisco thought that if anything showed her to be non-human, beside the slight greenish tinge to her soft-looking skin, it was firstly the perfection of those breasts, and secondly the fact that she wasn’t a mass of shivering goose-bumps. He did not think her nipples were pert from cold either, but rather, for other reasons.
He also knew just what was reputed to happen to young men who found the charms of that flesh irresistible, and had the feeling that she might not take well to being resisted. “You are of course, beautiful. You quite take my breath away.”
He’d bet that she would, too. Permanently. “Alas, if it wasn’t the stern duty of seeing what this important message was about, I’d have stayed to drink the grappa with you.”
“I don’t like grappa. You can bring me some of that sweet pelaverga wine next time.”
“Only if you decide not to drown me.”
She wrinkled her nose at that. “I suppose since I have made an exception for you once, I could do it again.” She let go of his ankle and held up the bottle again, which he took. “I will tell Marco about the grappa for next time.”