All The Plagues Of Hell – Snippet 32

All The Plagues Of Hell – Snippet 32

Chapter 16

Duchy of Milan

Carlo Sforza rose in the predawn, as was his custom, and with his usual troop, exercised his horses. It was as much a habit with him as Francisco’s running was. He knew that patterns got one killed, and to that end he at least varied what he rode, where he rode and the precise time he was out for, or would start. The troop varied somewhat, from day-to-day. But they were all veterans, all men who felt a personal loyalty to him.

The ride was his thinking time. One did not talk to the commander when he was taking his ride. Carlo was glad of the silence, because he had a fair bit on his mind. He had taken the step to depose Phillipo Maria Visconti for one simple, clear cut reason: He had held a small child in his arms briefly. She had trusted him, knowing, heaven knew how or why, that she could. Generally, Sforza did not regard himself as an emotional man. He did not let his heart rule his head. When he’d been younger, he’d made that mistake once with Lorendana, Duke Enrico Dell’este’s daughter and another man’s wife. And when he’d found out eventually that she’d wanted him not for himself but for her damned Montagnard cause, he’d been nearly as angry as when he’d found out that the duke of Milan had dared to have his grand-daughter, that child that had held onto him and trusted him, kidnapped.

He must be getting old, he thought irritably. Benito… he’d established, could look after himself. He was oddly proud of the boy. He had kept an eye and ear on his career. Sforza had accepted that the boy might come to kill him one day, and that that would be a bitter fight. But Visconti had dared to step on ground that was not to be touched. And, worse, he had tried to make Carlo Sforza appear to be the perpetrator.

For that threat, there was only one possible response from Carlo Sforza. Killing Phillipo Maria without resorting to mere open warfare, when the worm could have slipped away, had meant taking over the duchy of Milan.

The problem was that had having ridden the beast, now that he was in the saddle, there was no safe way off. Not for him, or his officers anyway, and quite possibly, for many of his men. They were loyal to him. And he was loyal to them. A marriage to one of the female heirs seemed to be the answer.

Then last night he had received a letter from none other than Doge Petro Dorma. Venice was one of the few states to send an ambassador to the court of the new Protector of Milan, a gesture of appreciation for giving the Venetian Republic the man who had nearly succeeded in killing the doge. It was a step of unusual generosity, as Sforza had been the condottiere in several wars which had eaten Venetian territory, and had been en route to destroy her, at his master’s bequest, when Dell’este had stopped his barges on the Po, and neatly ambushed and entrapped him.

The letter had informed Carlo that Venice had been asked to join an alliance against him and offered as its share of the possible spoils a great deal of territory to the east of the Po. It pointed out–as only a Venetian could–that someone had plainly set out to see that his plan to legitimize his rule by marrying a Visconti heir was being sabotaged by killing the possible contenders, and begged him to take extra care with Lucia del Maino’s welfare, lest she become the next victim.

That just hadn’t occurred to Sforza. He detested poison and poisoners. And Francisco had seen the dead snake, and believed that it had bitten them. He’d sent a message to Cosimo to that effect. Viewed that way, the killings were entirely logical, and indeed, he’d immediately put Lucia under a far heavier spy-watch, and guard. And the marriage would have to be rushed along. That would give the states who were less willing and eager to engage in battle with him more reason not to. Without Venice and Florence, and with Dell’este away, he could deal with the rest, probably.

But then there had been the message from his two men engaged to keep an eye on his grand-daughter. They’d be well rewarded for their actions, but it was true that his being Protector of Milan had not made them leave her alone. Well, it was likely Venice’s Council of Ten, who liked assassination, would have delivered “messages” to those involved. But he must see if the Venetians would also tell him who had been behind it. His messages tended to be louder, with cannon-fire for percussion.

****

Sforza. Bah. She really did despise him more with every moment that she had to deal with him, thought Lucia. His proposal–if you could call it that–had been as brutish as his nature. Only the fact that it handed her, finally, the key to her inheritance, that which was hers by right, had stopped her schooling him appropriately.

And then suddenly his soldiers were on guard at her door, his bodyguards were checking her food, and even her apartments. As if he owned her!

There will be those who will try to kill you. They always do, whispered the asp. I can keep you safe from poisons, but not from the knife.

“I’ve no objection to suitable guards but some of these have not shaved. And they have no idea of the deference I am due.” She knew she was being petulant. But that too was her right.

They will learn. Later, said the asp in a whisper as old and dry as the legendary tombs in Egypt, from whence, it said, it had been drawn.

“He wishes to send messages to the noble houses. Which could take months, and then there will be the ceremony with pomp and display. And much as I would like them to see me finally take my place”–there had been all the small slights over the years at court, especially as her father simply had not provided enough for them to dress as if they were really equals–“I am more than three months pregnant. Or can you delay that too?”

A little, said the asp. The unborn will take the milk of the serpent from your blood. That will slow its development.

“The milk of the serpent from my blood?”

As is suckled from the breast of adders. Hist. Sforza comes.

He entered her chambers, with, to her disapproval, two of his men. He bowed. “My affianced wife. How do you do this day?”

“Very well.” Actually, she was feeling nauseous, but that was not for him to know.

“I have had a disturbing communication from Petro Dorma, in Venice, which was why I set extra guards on your door last night, and had my personal taster attend you breaking your fast.” He grimaced. “Spies and poisons. What I like least about the noble houses of Italy.”

He would doubtless prefer force. He lacked finesse of any sort. But all she said, while idly waving her fan to hide her mouth, lest the expression show was: “And what did the doge say to cause this alarm?”

“Ah.” He paused as if struck suddenly by something. Then, shrugged. “This is a little awkward, but I must be direct. After all you will have to deal with my bluntness in our marriage. As you may know, there were three female relations of Phillipo Maria Visconti, all with some claim to the Visconti lands.”

She lifted her chin slightly. “I am aware,” she said, coolly. He could have allowed a tissue of illusion. By blood, hers was by far the strongest claim.

“What you don’t know, and I was unaware of until Dorma pointed it out, is that someone or some persons, seeking to prosecute war against me and to dismember and spoil the duchy of Milan, has killed one of those women, Eleni Faranese. The duke of Parma has blamed me and foolishly seeks to engage in war as a result. One of my captains, Francisco Turner, was able to intervene in the incident in which both Violetta de’ Medici and her mother were apparently bitten by a snake. The dead snake was even provided, but I suspect that a poisoned stiletto was really used.”

Lucia wanted to know just exactly what this Turner had been doing there, to foil the great serpent. But then… the killing had not actually been necessary. He had asked her, after all. “Did neither woman see the attacker?”

“Neither were conscious when Francisco got there. He was too occupied in trying to save them to follow it up properly, for which I don’t blame him. The mother died, and the girl, well, Francisco holds her chances of recovery as not very high.”

 

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