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Chapter 10

Florence, Tuscany

Francisco had been—as was his habit—observant and taking mental notes during his journey to Florence. The first observation was that this principality had become rich pickings under the de’ Medici. The second observation was that even for Sforza, it quite possibly wouldn’t be worth the cost of taking it. Someone had put a fair amount of thought into the fortifications and defenses. And there were many soldiers drilling. These had the look of levies about them, but when it came to massed harquebus fire, a well-drilled squad of levies could still do a lot of damage. Less than the same number of well-drilled professionals, but still, a great deal, especially if they could choose their own ground and time. The fortifications had also been built recently, and for cannon. They weren’t the showy tall stone towers of many castles. Instead they were low, broad-walled structures, built in a star shape with triangular ravelins on the star points. Francisco wished he had the liberty to walk and measure them, but no doubt Carlo would have had his spies do so.

Two days later he arrived in Florence, presented his credentials, and requested an interview with Cosimo de’ Medici. He knew it was perfectly possible that he would be refused, or be left to kick his heels for weeks on end. That could happen, but there were worse places to have to do so than Florence. The beer wasn’t bad and there was, of all things, a library which was open to the public, where a man could sit and read. The city was cleaner than Milan and smelled far less than Venice. Its citizens seemed reasonably fat and happy.

Francisco repaired to the library, to see what books the benevolent master of the city had seen fit to let the people read. The stock of some two thousand books and a great number of manuscripts was enough to make Francisco green with envy. Books were expensive to produce, and even the twenty-eight books Francisco owned added up to a year’s wage for a manservant. The use of woodcut presses had brought the price down a great deal though, from when the books were handwritten. Now a press could do two thousand pages a day!

The downside of the place was that they would not let him drink beer in the reading room, or eat there, for that matter. Still, there were benches, with the backs to serve as reading desks, and the smell of books. Two librarians kept an eye on the place, and kept it quiet, and there must have been a good forty people inside.

He was engrossed in Plutarch when someone coughed, delicately, in front of him. Looking up, Francisco saw a man in a large loose cap, and what was probably a false beard, looking at him and smiling. He had not lived as a soldier for all these years not to realize that the two men on the flanks, also in very ordinary clothes, were almost certainly bodyguards—and good at their work, for all they were pretending just to be there.

“I am glad to see you enjoying a book, Caviliero Turner,” said the one in the middle. “You do realize I cannot meet with you, so perhaps you would walk to the back of the stacks on your left and take the small door on your right. I will join you shortly.” He walked past and pulled down a book from the shelf.

Francisco calmly returned the Plutarch to its place and went down the stacks to the small door. It led into a room which had considerably more books in it than the library, but most of them were piled against the wall, except for those on the large table obviously in the process of being repaired. “His Grace said that he would be here presently, so find yourself a book that isn’t too badly damaged,” said the librarian, who was painstakingly stitching the pages back into a book.

“A lot of them get damaged, do they?” asked Francisco.

“Sadly, yes. We also buy and repair damaged ones for the library. Some books are very popular.”

As a way of increasing the popularity of a ruler with his subjects, too, Francisco had to approve. He would suggest it to Carlo, if they could brush through the next few years.

Cosimo came in with his bodyguards before Francisco had comfortably settled into a damaged copy of Boccaccio’s De Mulieribus Claris.

“Your reputation, Caviliero, appears to be accurately derived,” said the duke. “How worrying!” But it was said with a disarming smile.

Francisco rose and bowed. “Yes. If we are to start believing all these reputations…I am very impressed by your library, Your Grace. Florence is a great city, but nothing I have seen here could delight me more than this.”

“It needs a bigger building. And more books,” said Cosimo disparagingly. “My wife says we should rather spend the money on a great public camerata for the musical arts, or a theater for drama to rival Rome.”

“I’m sure that would be popular, but for me, this is the finest gift to the people. But then, I like to read.”

“And to drink beer,” said Cosimo.

“The simple joys of life, Your Grace. I blame it on my English ancestry, if I have to excuse my tastes. But then, I am a soldier and it is not expected that I be refined in every direction or, indeed, any.”

“I envy that freedom at times. I myself am not musically inclined, but it is expected of me. Anyway, Caviliero, we could discuss books for hours, but I am expected to give an audience shortly. So let us come to the point. I know why you are here, and you know that I will not be meeting with you…officially. You must also know that I have no real desire for conflict with your master.”

“Carlo Sforza feels likewise, Your Grace. He does not excel at the niceties of diplomacy, but he holds you in some considerable esteem.” That was true enough. “Which is the reason he sought an alliance by marriage with your house.”

“Nothing to do with seeking to bestow legitimacy on his usurpation?” asked Cosimo urbanely.

Francisco decided to play it the same way. “There are other candidates for that.”

Cosimo sighed. “I am very fond of my cousin Violetta. Her father was one of my closest friends, before he embarked on that reckless venture of his. Aside from political considerations which, let us be honest, do not place her in a good position, Violetta is, shall we say, a determined woman. She has made up her mind. I cannot see a great advantage in the short term for Florence, so I will not bring pressure to bear on her, even if I could. I admit, I actually do consider the match favorably, but she does not. Nonetheless, Caviliero, I shall take you to meet her, and you can put the matter to her personally. I am, I will be honest, trying to keep Florence out of war. Now, I am committed until Thursday of next week. You will fail to see me, for obvious reasons. I suggest you petition every day, and spend your days kicking your heels, possibly here in the library.”

“That will be a great hardship,” said Francisco with a smile.

“Indeed, I hope it will be as hard for you as it would be for me. And then you will leave on the Friday morning in high dudgeon at being ignored. Do not move too fast, and choose the north road. We’ll overtake you, as I ride out to see Violetta and her mother.”

Francisco blinked. “That…is very generous of you, Your Grace.”

“I merely hope to make you understand why this would not work, and that it is not an insult to Carlo Sforza. Violetta is no pawn. I shall see you on Friday.”

Francisco bowed. “I will enjoy your library and petition to see you with increasingly visible anger.”

“Excellent. I look forward to talking of books with you. I shall leave now. If you don’t mind, wait for a few minutes before you leave my man to get on with his repair work.”

He left Francisco Turner with considerable food for thought, and access to a large number of books. Francisco had been around enough Italian courts to know that Cosimo de’ Medici was generally held in some disdain, but that he usually ended up getting what he wanted. Francisco knew Carlo Sforza did not share that disdain, an opinion he now shared himself. Cosimo might try to please everyone. Florence was not worth attacking, because her money was very important. Everyone borrowed from Venice, or Florence, or both. A failed attack might end up in future loans not being forthcoming.

He did not hold out great hopes of persuading Violetta de’ Medici into a marriage with Carlo Sforza. But at least he could tell Carlo, firsthand, that Cosimo was doing his level best to avoid an armed conflict with Milan. He would probably succeed, barring something exceptional happening, Francisco judged. Of course, exceptional was less rare than you’d think it could be.

Still, he went through with the charade of being ignored by Cosimo so that the spies of various other states could gleefully report that Sforza’s emissary was being given the cold shoulder. On Friday, he regretfully bade the library farewell and rode out in a suitable display of high dudgeon.

Nearly two hours later he was joined on the road, relatively close to Croci di Calenzano, by Duke Cosimo de’ Medici. His escort and Francisco’s far smaller one gave them space so they could ride and talk without being overheard. By the way that the duke’s troops needed no instruction for this, Francisco guessed they’d done it before. They were relatively well-drilled cavalry: good, if not of the caliber of Sforza’s men, or Dell’este’s forces for that matter. Those troops had a degree of skill whose final polish came only from being blooded. Often. That, Cosimo’s pacific nature had avoided.

“I should have specified a time for you to leave,” said Cosimo. “I am more accustomed to midday departures, than ones at first light, Caviliero. You keep military hours, and my wife had a soiree which did not end until after midnight last night. We had to make our usual leisurely departure and then ride like hell.”

“My apologies, Your Grace. I’ve had a lovely ride admiring the countryside. It is verdant and so well-protected,” said Francisco, gesturing at a windbreak grove of chestnuts.

Cosimo laughed. “The trees or the fortification on the hill?”

“I had noticed those, yes. They have an interesting design.”

“Oddly enough, they owe their design to Violetta’s late father. In defensive terms, he was a very good engineer. A genius, you might say. That led him to believe he’d be a great conqueror. Alas, the two did not actually go together. I learned something from his unfortunate demise. I hold my base well. I do not risk all in expensive and dangerous ventures. However, I wouldn’t mention that to the Signoretta Violetta. She can be quite touchy, and she’s well-read on military subjects.”

“She is? That’s…unusual.”

“Oh, my little cousin is very unusual. She’s also let herself get sadly fat since her father’s death. I think she ate for comfort, and it became a habit.”

Further confidences were ended by a rider—not a very good one—who came racing over the brow of the hill towards them. Both Cosimo’s and Francisco’s men took defensive measures, but unnecessary ones, as they could soon see. The rider was waving furiously whenever he could take a hand off the saddle horse. He was, by his dress, plainly a servant.

“Ah. One of the Lady Calimet de’ Medici’s footmen,” said Cosimo. “She only has two, at my insistence. I wonder what is wrong?”

The servant pulled his steaming horse to a halt. “My lord! Come quickly!” he panted. “The mistress…and the young mistress…bitten…by…snake.”

They spurred their horses to a gallop.

The neat little manor house was in chaos. Screaming women—not the injured ones—and there were people running around frantically.

“Be quiet!” commanded Cosimo, with an icy and effective authority that Francisco had not seen him employ before. In the sudden silence, he said, “Now. You,” he pointed to one of the older dames. “Take us to the ladies. Caviliero, I believe you are a physician, could you accompany me? The rest of you remain here. Be quiet and wait on my commands.”

Francisco drew his traveling kit from his saddlebag as he dismounted. “The snake. Did it get away and, if so, did anyone see it? I need to know what kind it was,” he explained to Cosimo.

“The signorina. She cut it in half,” said one elderly servant, by the looks of him a gardener.

“Bring it to us. And be careful; they can still bite and poison, even when dead.”

He followed Cosimo, led by an elderly servitor, into a salon where the two women lay, on a settle and a daybed, surrounded by the entertainments of ladies of the gentry—tambour frames, a basket of delicate whitework, and a number of books. Francisco wasted no time, checked for a pulse on the older woman, found it weak but racing and erratic. She moaned feebly and panted. Then to the plump girl—and that was worse. At first, taking the limp, cold, clammy hand, he thought she was dead, but there was a pulse at her throat—he could find nothing on the wrist—faint, slow and weak.

“Is she dead?” asked Cosimo.

“Not yet, Your Grace,” said Francisco, loosening the neckband of her dress by the simple expedient of cutting it.

The gardener came in with a still-twitching snake—both halves speared onto a garden fork and held as far from himself as possible.

“What is it?” asked Cosimo.

Francisco had seen a fair number of snakes in Africa and Arabia as a slave, and a few in Italy. This one was the color of a savage bruising: purple heading toward black with a dirty yellow underside. It also had a vee pattern in brighter yellow on its head scales. The head had been cut in half, so that was less easy to see. It was very distinctive, and yet new to him. “I’ve not seen the like of it, I’m afraid.”

“What is to be done?” asked Cosimo. He was maintaining an icy calm but Francisco could see that the man was as taut as a bowstring, and despite the façade, deeply upset.

“I will find the bites and apply a tincture to them. I don’t know if it will help, Your Grace. And then it will be a matter of managing the symptoms and time.”

“It bit Lady Calimet on the hand,” said the gardener, “and when she screamed and the signorina ran to her—she had been cutting some herbs with me—it lunged and bit her on the leg. She cut it with the shears in her hand.”

“How long ago did this happen?” asked Francisco.

“Oh, not long, master. Just before the None bell.”

Like most rustics, he probably could not read or tell the time, but nonetheless, that could not have been an hour ago.

Cosimo must have seen his expression. “That’s bad, is it?”

Francisco nodded. “It is very soon for this extreme a reaction. Your Grace, I will be honest with you,” he said, as he located the two puncture wounds on the feebly panting older woman’s hand. “I’d send for a priest. And get me a couple of men to move the bed and settle closer together. I’ll want a stool so I can sit between them. And I’ll want someone who can understand what I tell them to do and will obey orders.”

“That will be me,” said Cosimo de’ Medici calmly. “Unless you have one among your men who will have more experience?”

“No, Your Grace. But it is likely to be grim,” said Francisco, cleaning the wound, noting the swelling and mottled bruising developing up her arm. The hand was clammy and her brow was beaded with sweat.

“I can cope,” said Cosimo. “I will go and give the orders.”

He came back to find Francisco cutting the fabric away from the younger woman’s thigh. Francisco stopped briefly to allow them to move the settle. “Should I have them fetch a bed?” asked Cosimo.

Francisco shook his head. “Later. Your Grace, it appears she only got one fang—I can only find one puncture wound. But her heart rate is decreasing and very weak. I am going to administer a tincture of belladonna. It’s a poison, but it does increase the heart rate. But it may kill her if she gets too much.”

“She’s dying anyway,” said Cosimo, his voice harsh. “Do it. I’ve heard you are one of the best physicians in Italy.”

“An exaggeration,” said Francisco as he carefully measured out the dose. “I do know someone who will be, though.”

As he said that, his other patient began to twitch and moan, and that took their attention. “One with barely a heartbeat, the other with a weak racing erratic heart. An odd poison,” said Francisco, “although different toxins affect the body differently.”

The priest came at this point. Francisco left him to his business and paid attention to the younger woman again. The heartbeat was faster and at least discernable now.

But then things went from there to worse with the older woman. Francisco tried various stopgaps, even a low dose of the belladonna. It was not particularly effective and he tried several of his other drugs, with no better result. Eventually, her heart fluttered its last and stopped. Fortunately, the younger woman had gradually started breathing slightly better during this time, but then she, too, had a relapse, and Francisco was too busy dealing with her to concern himself with the dead. Violetta, however, did respond to a second dose of belladonna tincture. The trouble was the response was just so slow, administered like that.

He was in for a long afternoon and then night. But by just after dawn the next day, he began to feel he would not lose the second patient. She was still comatose, and still had clammy extremities, but her breathing and pulse had stabilized. Cosimo came in, looking gray and exhausted himself, bringing with his own hands a goblet of wine for Francisco.

They had long since passed from “Your Grace” and “Caviliero” to first name terms. “I have sent two of my men back to Florence, to fetch the best of her physicians, Francisco. I should have thought of it last night. At least they could give you some rest.”

Francisco took a deep gulp of the wine. He felt he’d earned it. “Well, the good news is I think that they will not be needed. She’s certainly gotten no worse and has possibly improved slightly.”

“You, sir, are a miracle worker,” said Cosimo. “I curse myself that I thought this would be a suitable place for them. It was the only one of my cousin’s estates that he had not sold to fund his military adventure. And that, purely, because there was a lawsuit pending on it at the time. Lady Calimet resented my charity, and I am afraid my wife disliked her very much. But Violetta…she was always my favorite among the cousins. I pray she lives.”

“It might well have been a miracle,” said Francisco tiredly, “or the prayers of the priest. Look, she was young, strong and had only one fang of venom, and was the second person bitten. Whatever that snake was, it was very deadly. I’m sorry I couldn’t save her mother, but Cosimo, you must realize that it is not over yet. Her heart or her liver—they could be damaged. So could her nerves. She may never recover consciousness, and may never recover movement. We just don’t know.”

There was a long silence. Finally Cosimo said: “Earlier, much earlier, you said you knew the best physician in Italy.”

“What? Oh. I know the young man who will become that. Marco Valdosta. I assisted him in the treatment of the Doge when the Doge was poisoned. Privately, I will tell you I was sure Petro Dorma would never recover. But Marco seems to have, and I mean this literally, a healing touch.”

There was another long silence. Then Cosimo nodded. “I will write immediately to beg him to come to see her. May I mention your name?”

“Certainly. But, to be realistic, we should wait a day or two, and see if she makes any progress or…relapses. I’ll stay on hand to stop these doctors of yours from undoing my good work.” He smiled, which turned into a yawn.

“Do you think he would come?” asked Cosimo, patting the girl’s hand.

“Marco? It would be difficult. The Doge seems determined to keep him close, I gather. But…well, you could arrange to send Violetta to see him. I don’t think travel will make a great deal of difference to her. It is not as if she has any broken bones. It is some distance, but a part of the journey may be accomplished by river and by sea. I will be going some of the way myself and could watch over her. But we need to check that she is stable, first.”

“I will immediately send a messenger to the Doge to beg this favor, at least to have Signor Valdosta examine her.”

“Oh, Marco Valdosta’s problem is that he would help anyone,” said Francisco tiredly.

“I will still send messengers, and have my men organize transportation and a suitable escort. But I would be further in your debt, Francisco Turner, if you could at least see her safe to the river, and bestowed on a fast, comfortable vessel for Venice. And…if you ever look for another employer, look no further than Florence. Land and titles are yours for asking.”

“I’m flattered, but I merely did what I could. And the girl is far from safe or healed.”

“I saw your effort, read the stresses on your face, Francisco Turner. If you could have dragged them through by sheer force of will, you would have. You are a physician born, not a soldier, I am afraid.” It was said with a smile and a hand on his shoulder.

“Funnily enough, that’s also what Marco said. You’re both wrong, projecting yourselves onto my nature. I’d rather be a man who drinks beer and reads books, and avoids sick or injured people.”

“I don’t particularly believe you, but I shall send you a suitable gift of books,” said Cosimo. “Which brings me to another subject. One I wished to broach in some security that I could not be overheard. The Church is apparently preparing itself—and giving warning to a few trusted individuals—that there may be another outbreak of the Plague of Justinian, in the Duchy of Milan. Church warnings are not always to be trusted, but I would still like to send word on to Carlo Sforza. And as his personal physician, I should imagine you would be consulted.”

“We have had this rumor already sent on to us,” said Francisco. “I’m not sure that it is anything but an attempt to destabilize the Duchy of Milan, Cosimo. The disease is always recorded as originating in the East, and has always spread from the ports into the interior.”

“Ah. I did not know that. Still, I suppose someone could sail up the Po River with it. I doubt that the rumor is being set about as a tactic against Carlo Sforza. I could be wrong but, well, Monsignor Di Marino is a man of some honor. He’s a great humanist.”

“I hope I’m right, simply because we have never successfully stopped the plague. It just burns itself out, when it runs out of people.”

“That is even more terrifying coming from you, Francisco. Well, I hope it is a mere vicious rumor then. How odd to hope for that.”

Francisco was too tired, just then, to analyze what Cosimo had said. He was just grateful that the girl survived his short sleep, and he was able to somewhat forcefully dissuade the physician from Florence from cupping her. Violetta de’ Medici showed no signs of recovering consciousness, although the circulation to her limbs had improved somewhat. Francisco took that as a good sign: less blood was being directed to her vital organs and some could be spared to warm her hands and feet. Of course, there was no telling what damage had been done to those organs already.

Cosimo had arranged a horse-borne litter for his cousin, a letter to Marco Valdosta, another to Doge Petro Dorma, and a majordomo to bear the letters and to see to the transportation and any other matters. The man had suitable funds and the right to draw on more from a certain banker on the Rialto Bridge. They would have an escort of fifteen guards.

“Enough to make it not worth an attack by petty bandits and unlikely to attract the attention of the large ones,” said Cosimo. “Sometimes indistinguishable from the local nobility. A sick woman, though, is not likely to be considered a valuable hostage, or worth their trouble.”

“And I will have my eight rascals to add to that, as far as the Po River, where we will put her aboard a vessel. She’ll be safe enough, and travel fast enough.”

By now, Francisco was quietly certain of what he had begun to suspect the afternoon before: Cosimo de’ Medici was in love with his “little” fat cousin. Probably not as a lover in the physical sense, but as an affair of the heart. There was a gap of many years between them and Cosimo was married, but Francisco had seen that often enough. He’d probably have accepted her marriage to someone suitable, because that was the nature of the man. But he would cherish a soft spot for her and woe betide the fellow if he hurt Violetta. Cosimo de’ Medici might seem a mild and sensible man, but Francisco had seen enough of him during the period they’d fought for the women’s lives, to realize he could be brutally efficient, and was very well able to outthink most Italian nobles. Cosimo was also fabulously wealthy. He had the money and the intellect to crush them, even if not the martial prowess.

So, besides for other reasons, that made Francisco hope the girl lived and recovered fully. He was Carlo Sforza’s man, and Sforza needed allies, especially ones like Cosimo de’ Medici.

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