All The Plagues Of Hell – Snippet 24

All The Plagues Of Hell – Snippet 24

One thing did gall her, though: Milan had forgotten her. She had been shown respect as a customer… up to a point. But the tradespeople had demanded money, before the shears cut crisply through the silk. She knew they had not done that when she’d gone to the dressmakers and silk-merchants when she had still been known as Duke Visconti’s illegitimate daughter. She and her mother had never dared spend too freely then, but that was because Phillipo Maria had not been generous with the allowance he had given their mother, and would have been angry if they’d outspent it. He had been strange that way. Strange in other ways too, she supposed. Mother had been very good about making a good showing on a small stipend, buying frugally and seeking bargains. She made no attempt now, and Lucia had not bothered. Now it would be all or nothing. If this failed…

And in the street… no one knew who she was, or gave her any deference.

That would have to change.

It will said the asp in the quiet, terrible voice that seemed to be inside her head. She hoped so, and it seemed that was true. The first time it had spoken when other people had been present, she’d been afraid.

Now she knew that they should be afraid. That she quite enjoyed.

There were various tasks to be undertaken before they officially arrived in the city–hiring several new servants, as well as awaiting the work of the dressmakers of her new wardrobe of court clothes; and, of course, measuring the response of the citizens to the usurper, while she was still anonymous. It was a shock to discover that Milan did not yearn for her father. About Sforza… feelings ranged from outright fear to a sort of perverse pride in his brutally effective conquest.

That was not what Lucia had expected at all. In a way she had expected to be welcomed as the returning rightful Visconti ruler to the duchy. She’d never had a great deal of time for the commons but discovering their lack of due respect to her blood lowered their value even further. She did however find out that Sforza was away from the city, and would only be back later in the week. That suited her fine.

Three days later, when the first of the court wardrobe was ready with her hair suitably dressed, chopines trimmed with gilt on her feet, her eyes widened with belladonna, and jewels at her throat, she was different from the young woman who had come in from the country a few days earlier. An elegant carriage had been hired to transport them, and they made their entrance in a suitably grand style.

Of course, Sforza himself did not come to greet them, the great peasant. The courtier–one she knew from when they had come to the court more frequently–was suitably apologetic and made all the excuses she’d heard him make for her father. Still, they were settled comfortably in a pleasant suite of rooms on the third floor, and were presented to Carlo Sforza that evening. He hadn’t changed a great deal. The grey at his temples had increased, and he was somewhat more tired-looking. He was still too broad to wear the current mode, which favored tall slim men. He looked like a big mongrel walking through a pack of carefully bred greyhounds, with the same slight stiff-legged gait, watching the courtiers, Lucia thought. But she favored him with her best smile, nonetheless.

His response showed that at least he had learned to conduct himself as a pretense of a courtier. He bowed, kissed her hand. “My dear Lucia,” he said, “it seems to have been such a long time since I last saw you here. May I bid you a heartfelt welcome back to Milan? And this is your charming mother. I remember you well, madam, when you were not a great deal older than your lovely daughter.”

That was a lie, of course. At that time the usurper had been a minor condottiere in the service of Lucca. But her mother favored him with a mechanical smile, as if she had no reason to hate him either.

Lucia’s estimation of his potential rose slightly. Not a great deal, not enough to let him live overlong, but somewhat. He was, after all, behaving as a good Italian noble should.

Sforza did not dance, but he did circulate among the guests. The principal topic of small-talk–the new style of lace out of Mantua–was one where he did little more than smile and nod. He did venture the opinion that the current high price of spices was largely due to the Venetians and Genovese having trouble Outre Mer, which he predicted would resolve itself.

“Or we’ll resolve it for them, eh, Protector?” said one courtier, making a shooting gesture.

“Not at the moment,” said Sforza, coolly. “I have other… less spicy fish to fry.”

That caused laughter, although Lucia could not see why. But perhaps laughter was the safe option, and thus the courtiers used it a great deal. If it was real information, it would be worth a fair number of florins. But it could be that he was misleading them.

****

When Francisco arrived, tired and somewhat muddy, he made that an excuse not to join the proceedings in the great hall. He had no particular taste for that type of affair and was glad to make the need to get out of his mud and travelling clothes an excuse. He needed to talk to Carlo as a matter of some urgency, but that was not going to happen privately at a grand reception. And he’d prefer it if they weren’t overheard. He got one of his men to carry the message that he was back to one of Carlo’s bodyguards. He did not, despite the temptation, go to bed. He knew Carlo Sforza too well for that.

And sometime after midnight his commander arrived. “Clear the place out,” he said to his bodyguard. “And watch the door. Outside. If I need to watch my back with Turner, I’m several years too late about it.”

“I might have changed my mind,” said Francisco, smiling.

“And you might have stopped running and drinking beer too. So to test that you’d better pour me a tankard, and yourself one. It’ll help to wash the taste of that load of two-faced crawlers out of my mouth. Have I told you how much I hate courtiers?”

“Not more than five or six hundred times,” said Francisco, giving his commander a mug of beer and drawing himself one. “You could purge them and get a better mix, you know. These are mostly still Phillipo Maria’s cronies and yes-men. Not of much worth.”

“Give me time. When I have a little more stability, it’ll happen.” Sforza took a pull of the beer, sitting down on the table and straightening each leg in turn. “Dress boots. Worthless for campaigning and hell on the feet for standing. So what happened in Florence?”

“Well, Cosimo refused to see me officially, although he was very much more forthcoming in private. But, in short, you should forget marrying Violetta de’ Medici. The girl may well be dying, and she’s in no state to marry anyone, even if she were willing.”

“What has happened to her? She was reported to be in robust health by several of my courtiers, who had seen her at some Soiree in Florence.” He paused. “Cosimo is playing both ends against the middle again, is he?”

“I’d say he is genuinely reluctant to go to war.”

“That’s Cosimo. He’d rather impoverish his enemies. Or appease them.”

“Florence is well defended, though. It’s wealthy, as I’m sure you saw when you passed through it on your way back from the pilgrimage.”

“They were working on some new fortifications back then. I’ve bought the plans. Some people would sell their own mothers. They’re intended to withstand cannon, and might even do it. I’ve no desire to prove how effective they are, in case the idea spreads.”

 

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