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Chapter 12


Duke Umberto Da Corregio of Parma had not yet managed to outstay his welcome with Count Andrea Malatesta. He was trying, though. It was, however, a case of him being too drunk by midday to make much of an impact besides passing out and spewing his host’s red wine. The planning of the campaign against the usurper Sforza had not gotten very far as a result.

Viscount Lippi Pagano of Imola had returned to his city, and not a day too soon, reflected Malatesta. He’d rather put up with puking drunks who had all the decent women of his court locking themselves in, than the smart-mouthed Lippi. Still, he had committed troops to the coming war.

Money was, of course, still a problem. They really needed Florence. And for that he needed allies, because for all that Cosimo de’ Medici was scrupulously polite, Count Andrea was very certain he still held a grudge about his cousin’s death at Faenza.

Count Andrea had been fairly certain that today would bring more of the same as yesterday. However, the morning brought instead a messenger who had ridden in haste from Parma, and demanded to see Duke Umberto as soon as possible. When that failed, as the duke was still abed, and the count’s majordomo was under no delusions that waking him would be a good thing, the messenger begged for an audience with Count Andrea. That, too, would have failed, but as it happened, the count had been on his way back from the stables just then and overheard the request. As he had seen the man’s exhausted horse being led away in the stables, Andrea knew the messenger had plainly ridden far and fast. That was worth finding out about, even if Umberto would be hung over and unpleasant when he woke naturally, let alone at this time of day.

“Spit it out, man,” he instructed.

“My lord, I beg that you would have the duke woken. It’s rather grave news about his niece.”

Count Andrea was in some doubt that Duke Umberto would care if a messenger brought him news even of his mother’s demise at this time of morning, let alone grave news about a niece. Then something occurred to him. “Which niece?”

“Lady Eleni, my lord—she’s dead,” the messenger blurted hastily. “Poisoned!”

“Go and wake Duke Umberto,” said Count Andrea to his majordomo, rather pleased at the news. That put a whole new complexion on the day.

Umberto shambled forth from his chambers some half an hour later, his cotte askew. His cameriere must have had a great deal of difficulty dressing him. He had a large flagon of wine in one hand. “One of your footmen woke me,” he said blearily. “Said there was an important message.”

Count Andrea was already dictating letters to his scribe for the various allies, paused at the interruption, and stood up. “I will take you to him,” he said, as if he normally conducted his guests in person. “I told my men to put him in one of the salons off the great reception hall.”

He went along to see the reaction. It was as furious as he had expected. “That dog Sforza! Next he will try to poison me! This means war! War!”

“Absolutely despicable,” said Count Andrea. “Is there no end to the depth of his depravity? A woman refuses his unwelcome advances and he has her killed. Tell us exactly what happened?”

The messenger looked to the duke, who nodded. “We’re not sure how the poison was administered, Count. Her tirewoman heard the lady calling out, and went to her. She was in great distress in her bedchamber, panting and sweating and thrashing about on the bed, although the weather was cool. She was delirious, and a physician was called to cup her. During the process, she had some kind of spasm and died. She was fine and healthy when she retired to her chamber. The physicians all declared it had to be poison, my lord.”

“What else could it be?” said the duke, gulping his unmixed wine so hastily it slopped down his chin.

“And who will be next? We had better warn Cosimo.”

“The Butterball would eat poison and call for seconds,” sneered the duke. “But by all means, let us tell him. It may frighten Cosimo into hiding under his bed. I need to return to Parma, Andrea, to ready my men for action.”

“Quite understood, Duke Umberto. Quite understood.” Count Andrea was quite happy to have the duke gone. Firstly, the troops of Parma were intended to blunt and occupy Sforza’s mercenary troops. They had no hope of beating them, but they would make them bleed. Andrea used enough mercenaries himself to know how little they liked that, even if Sforza’s men were, reputedly, more reliable than most. Secondly, Duke Umberto had two condottierie of a reasonable level of competence to lead his men, so he could safely get drunk in the afternoon without losing a war.

It could be that Sforza had ordered the bitch killed for the slight. It was more likely that the duke’s niece’s penchant for experimentation had gotten the better of her. She had had something of a reputation. It did not matter, for it was all the pretext they had needed. If he’d thought of it, Andrea Malatesta would have ordered her poisoned himself.

It was only three days later, when the news via one of his spies in Tuscany reached him, that Cosimo’s cousin had been bitten by a snake at roughly the same time, that he began to wonder. He did, like all of Italian nobility, take some precautions against poison and assassins. He decided it would be wise to increase these, especially as he was related to the Visconti himself. Quite closely, but he had not pointed that out. The time would come when the duchy was to be carved up.

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