All The Plagues Of Hell – Snippet 34
Milan had a week of frantic preparation. The reason given for the hasty marriage was the war with Parma. So far that had amounted to very little, and in truth, no one believed that to be the drive behind such a hasty marriage. But none but the most sanctimonious would suggest that marriage as soon as possible was not a great idea. They put either Lucia del Maino or Carlo Sforza down as fast workers, depending on where they stood, politically. Some felt tradition and Visconti blood was a good thing. More had a good gossip that a conqueror like Carlo Sforza was all too adept at lifting skirts and not taking no for an answer. But at least he would marry her, not that that would stop him! The well-informed said it showed in the behavior of Benito Valdosta, known to be his son, and also known for his drunken sexual exploits with wanton dancers on bridge arches. The fact that Benito appeared to be reformed was not something they let weigh with them.
Oddly, it did Sforza’s popularity no harm, as Francisco Turner found, returning to Milan the night before the wedding. He and a few of his men had stopped to play off their dust, and, among the carters and grooms in the taverna, Francisco was surprised to hear the rapid marriage treated as a matter to brag about in there. Human nature was sometimes peculiar, an observation that Francisco had made many times before.
Well, it mattered not. It might help to keep some combatants out of the war that was coming, and, if Carlo wanted a duchy to retire to, this one could be very wealthy if it had better management. Francisco didn’t like Milan itself, especially in summer, but there were plenty of pleasant places on the slopes of the Alps not that far away. And the beer in the north, with the Lombard influence and the Swiss that close, was better than in the rest of Italy.
He didn’t care much for his commander’s wife-to-be, but, on the other hand, neither his opinion nor in fact her desires and opinions, would make a lot of difference to Carlo Sforza. Francisco was here as one of his commander’s officers, not because he thought it an event of celebration which he wanted to support. It was a political event, and as such, nobles from the various parts of the duchy had been asked–or told–to take their roles as supporting the groom or the bride, rather than old friends. Francisco had been rather touched that his commander had apologized for this. But as a result he and the other officers had to be there, but had not a great deal to do except eat and drink. Still, it was no time for a run.
Carlo Sforza had had a week of arrangements and organizing, and some preparation for a little war. He would rather have been doing that. Still, there had been some essentials, matters he had never considered, particularly in setting up a suitable dowry for Lucia. She did have some possessions of her own, or at least her mother did, but by noble marriage status she was a pauper. And as she pointed out with surprising honesty and bluntness, in wars and with him being older than her, she could end up widowed and very insecure.
The nobles of Italy would never accept her as the legitimate ruler–she’d plainly been bitter about that, and Sforza had felt some sympathy, so she had to have a contract that settled a part of his wealth on her child. The contract specified that he should remain the protector and the regent–or in his stead, she should act for the child born of their marriage, until the child reached its eighteenth year. There had been some dickering about that. She’d actually wanted it longer, to his surprise. But nineteen years hence… at the earliest, seemed a long time away, and the nobles of Italy would hear of it, and a longer period would seem as if he was trying to remain in power for ever. Sixteen would have been not unusual.
She seemed rather fixated on protecting her children. But that too was only natural. She had to know of Benito, and his grand-daughter, and given her own uncertain inheritance, she was making sure.
Carlo found himself in some sympathy with her, if not with the bills she was running up. But that could wait until after the wedding to be reined in a bit.
A few replies to the hastily written letters of invitation came in. Many had not.
None of the invited guests from outside the state of Milan would be there. Several, Venice, Florence, Imola, had offered some sop of representation. Venice, oddly the most, sending several of the Casa Longi and a rather handsome gift. His spies did confirm that Dorma was advised not to travel, but that too could have been arranged. Still, the Venetians were plainly feeling generous towards him. Carlo had sent them the person who had tried to poison the doge, and had almost succeeded. And they plainly would rather not seek war at the moment, with so many of their men still away with the fleet that had gone to Constantinople and places to the east.
As for the rest: well, he had grounds to rule now. More so, if Lucia managed to get herself pregnant.
Lucia had reveled in the untrammeled spending on bride-clothes. She’d also taken great delight in the fact that the great oaf seemed blind to what he was signing. He failed to realize that after he was dead, she would rule until the child in her belly was eighteen. And if it died too, then she could continue to rule. She might almost have thought he did not care about the power and the great glory of ruling the duchy of Milan. But such an idea was entirely ridiculous, and it had to be a charade.
She had suitable noble maids of honor, chosen had they but known it, to repay old scores. He had given her a free hand in the selection of the groomsmen too, and she had promoted a few old favorites there too.
Her mother continued dazed and co-operative. She would have to stay like that, or die.
Actually, perhaps she would keep Sforza hypnotized too, at least for a while.
The asp answered her. Some cannot be hypnotized easily, or at all. You will have to let me kill him.
“How do you know what I am thinking?” She asked suddenly suspicious.
You speak your thoughts to yourself, so softly that others cannot hear. But I can. I have an answer from the great serpent as to what happened to the women of de’ Medici. The scent marked both.
It was possible that the handkerchief had been used to blot two brows… not that she cared or that it mattered.
With both hands, she leaned on the sill of the open window in her chamber in the palace, and spent a moment gazing up at the huge cathedral across the Piazza del Duomo. She was quite unmoved by the architectural splendor of the Duomo; she just felt a mild resentment that it was so much larger and more imposing than the palace itself.
“Will she still die?” she asked the asp.
Oh, yes. The venom alone will kill, and if it does not, the flesh will rot, and the sweet scent of that kills, and there is magical part to it all, that will kill too. She is dead and triply dead. But she lies and dies within the demesne of the winged Lion of Etruria. The serpent will not challenge that great creature until his full strength is raised.
“And when will that be?”
When it has fed enough on dying.
She turned away from the window. At the moment she had no vast quarrel with Venice, so she gave no further thought to the Lion. Lucia was not given to thinking in the long term, and what really galled her at the moment was the absence of the grandees of the Italian states at the wedding. She had spoken to her bridegroom-to-be about it, but he had just shrugged the matter off. “Give them time to admit that their greed will get them devoured, Lucia.”
She was not sure that she should make him free of her first name, but that too was a small price, which would wait until after the wedding. “And then?”
“And then we will see. You’ll have a wedding night, and then, early the next day I will go to join my men in countering what Duke Umberto considers a lightning thrust to give you a gift: my dead body in exchange for his.”
She blinked. “What do you mean?”
“If I am killed, several of these gallant gentlemen,” he said, sarcastically, “will follow their conquest of Milan with either your death or your remarriage to one of them. So: There is some reason for you to hope I don’t lose. I have met some of them.”
“You will not be defeated,” she informed him. And he would not. She had come too far to lose Milan now.
The voice within her bosom informed her that she had but to say the word, and the great serpent could kill all. Nothing could stop the dying, once she turned it loose.
“He can try first,” she murmured. She suspected, more by what it had not said, than what it had said, that once it started killing it would be hard to stop.
Her wedding day came, with its triumph. It was very sweet indeed to finally sit upon the seat next to the ducal throne which would be fully hers too, in time.
The wedding night was all that she had imagined. Hopefully, she would not have to put up with that very often.
He left well before the dawn.
The officers who had attended the wedding rode out in a body with their commander, with an escort of cavalry and with scouts out. Someone made a bawdy comment to Carlo. He quelled it with a raised eyebrow. There was a little silence before the talk turned to the forthcoming campaign. A little later, Carlo Sforza signaled that he wanted to talk to Francisco alone, and the two of them were given space.
“You’re not yourself, Carlo,” said Francisco, once he was sure the others were out of earshot. “Are you not well?”
“Fine. Well, that is not true, but I’m not close enough to death’s door to need your treatments, my friend. Except for the fact that I wonder what I have gotten myself into.”
“It’s a bit late now,” said Francisco, wryly, mildly puzzled. Carlo Sforza wasn’t a man given to introspection. He tied knots and went on. “And it may be she will find it’s what she’s gotten herself into.”
“Yes… But I wasn’t expecting that in my bed. She wasn’t a virgin,” said Carlo. “She uses perfume by the bucket, and still has an unwashed rats-nest stench about her. Clammy bitch. It’s not a bed I’ll be rushing back to.”
Francisco did not quite know what to say to that.