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Chapter 13


Lucia came to Milan without fanfare and, arriving just after noon, spent a great deal of money on suitable court dresses and all the other items of fashion that a woman might need, especially perfume, before they would proceed to the palazzo. She and her mother would remain, quietly, in a house hired for the purpose until the dresses were ready. It was a wonderful sign that the asp had her mother under perfect control, in that there was not a whisper of protest at the expenditure which might have kept them in reasonable style back at the Castello di Arona for several years.

The truth was, she was somewhat nervous. She had met Carlo Sforza at her father’s court, as a young woman of fourteen, when many of her peers had already been getting married off. That had been a time when favor from the duke’s bastard daughter could have possibly been valuable. Yet Sforza had made not the smallest effort to acknowledge her, let alone charm her or even show respect. Of course she had done likewise, but that was to be expected. He was a mere condottiere. Rich yes, successful yes, but still not what she had wanted then—and still, she admitted, not what she wanted now—which was a nobleman who desired her because she was who she was by birth.

Had he ignored her then because he was beneath her touch? She doubted it, since he had had Lady Lorendana Valdosta, a duke’s daughter, as a lover. He had exchanged the polite flirtations of court with several well-born ladies. He’d been, to Lucia’s ear, heavy, awkward and unskilled at these, but the comments and flattery had been well received because he was a man of power and wealth, if not noble birth.

This time, of course, she had considerable value to him, even if she intended to see him dead for it. The heir to the ducal throne was already in her belly. She would rule as the regent until the child reached majority. And then…she’d see.

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 Filippo 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 talented when it came to 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 gray 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 in 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 traveling 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.

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 Filippo 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 Soirée 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.”

Carlo Sforza’s use of heavy cannon was well known. What was not well known—Sforza and, indeed, Francisco Turner hoped—was that the artillery was successful because it was substantially better than that owned by other states or condottieri. Success was not just because Sforza applied more force and larger numbers than others. Carlo went to some lengths not to make the difference in the quality of his guns or bombardiers obvious.

“So he is reluctant to go to war with us, and we, with him.”

“And we will continue, if possible, to let him think he is the one who doesn’t want to fight,” said Carlo with a wry smile. “So tell me what has happened to Violetta de’ Medici. I’d heard she was a fat termagant.”

“She’s certainly not thin. I can’t say much about the termagant part. I don’t know if she’ll recover. But she’s brave enough to take on a snake with a pair of garden shears. Cosimo thinks very highly of her. He values her a great deal.”

“She was his mistress?”

“I doubt it. There was genuine affection, Carlo, but I didn’t get the feeling of anything more. Not from the responses of the servants or…well, anything else. He took me there in person, to see if I could persuade her to change her mind about your proposal. That’s not the act of a lover.”

“Yes. I will grant you that. I didn’t know he’d go that far for my sake.”

“A complex man, Cosimo. I think that if he did decide to pursue a war, he would be devious and relentless. And far tougher than most guess. I saw a different side of him that night.” Francisco went on to tell his commander as much as possible. “He’s also had this plague rumor fed him, by the way. The Church is mixing quite heavily in politics as far as you are concerned.”

“Oh, they do, while they pretend not to. I think the Hypatians have decided I’m a bad man, despite spending time and money in their hostels on my way to the Holy Land. And they’re in the ascendant at the moment.” Sforza sighed. “It would be all very well if the Paulines had not also decided that I was a bad man.”

“So: It’s not them being right that is a problem, but them both being right at the same time?” said Francisco, pouring more beer.

“Precisely. Now all we need are problems from Venice. Ferrara I have against me just by breathing. Next thing I know, we’ll have the Holy Roman Emperor sending troops over the Brenner Pass to kick out the usurper. And given that Eleni Faranese will not be my bride, and Violetta de’ Medici is comatose and on death’s door, even if she was willing, it’ll have to be the bastard daughter. She arrived today.”

“Ah. And is she willing?”

“Well, she hasn’t treated me like something you’d scrape off the bottom of your boot, this time around. She was wearing enough scent to make my eyes water. I suppose it was always a case of something I would have to put up with, a marriage in name, but I was hoping for something else. Not that the choices sounded much better.”

Francisco grinned. “If it leaks out, my friend, that you are a starry-eyed romantic, you’ll have even more of the states going to war against you.”

“Romance? No, thank you. I once made a fool of myself with a woman, and once is enough for a lifetime. But I’d hoped for someone who would at least be able to make conversation that did not bore me to tears, and make sensible decisions when I was away campaigning. Condescension has never sat too well with me. I’ve known a few nobles I’d respect: Dell’este, for all that he hates my guts, and some fine soldiers born on the wrong side of the blanket. I’ll not hold it against a man, but Lucia’s ‘I-am-the-duke’s-daughter-and-don’t-you-forget-it’ used to get up my nose and itch. Filippo Maria publically acknowledged that she was his get, but never made any effort to legitimize her, so he didn’t think much of her nobility.”

“Well, Carlo, it’s what choice you have.”

“I know. I’ll start to take steps tomorrow. And speaking of tomorrow, I must ask you to go to Arsizio. The troops there are afflicted with a flux that makes them near useless for combat, and it keeps coming back. I’ll need those men. I’ll need them fighting fit, and soon.”

That, by the way the thunderheads were piling up, was true. But Francisco had great faith in his commander. As long as Sforza headed them, his mercenary soldiers were worth considerably more than the soldiery of most of the states that opposed them, in skill, experience and loyalty, and his artillery even more so. The reputation of the Wolf of the North had been dented by the Venetians and Ferrara in that attack down the Po, but he had rebuilt it with his men, and, to the limit that he had been allowed, with Milan’s enemies.

They might discover that with the Wolf in charge, and not the mercurially moody Filippo Maria Visconti, things were quite different, Francisco thought, with some grim satisfaction, preparing himself to rise early and ride out.

* * *

Three days later, having shot a thieving cook and had a new well dug, Francisco got a visit from Carlo Sforza and his personal bodyguard troop. “I thought I’d check on your progress. And tell you the news in person.”

They met inside the tent that Turner had set up as his headquarters. He’d had the tent erected in the city’s center, in the square that fronted the shrine of Santa Maria di Piazza, as something in the way of a none-too-subtle political statement. Normally, Francisco—like any sensible commander inside a city rather than in the field—would had used a large tavern with good sleeping accommodations for the purpose. But he’d suspected corruption from the beginning and had used the tent to reinforce his image as an untainted outsider.

“I found out that a cook and several of his apprentices were using the old salt meat, and selling the new. I shot him, and hung his apprentices.” He gestured with his hand to the open flap of the tent, beyond which could be seen part of the square and one of the arched windows of the shrine. “If you’d gotten here yesterday, you’d have still seen their corpses out there, displayed for the education of the troops.”

Sforza nodded approvingly. The Wolf of the North wasn’t given to pointless acts of cruelty, but he was no stranger to savage disciplinary methods when he felt they were warranted.

Francisco wrinkled his nose in disgust. “And you should have smelled the well! You couldn’t tell it from a sewer, it had gotten so bad. So I had a new one dug some distance from the privies. I think we’ll see an improvement in the number of melted entrails.”

“Should have forced him to eat his own melted entrails,” growled Sforza. “On another subject—I won’t be able to give Eleni Faranese to the men for a communal slut, after all.”

“Why? Did you find out how much she’d have liked that?”

“Pure rumor, Francisco. No, she’s dead, and I am blamed for poisoning her even though I do not and have never resorted to poison. But Umberto sees it as a reason to go to war, and to urge his camp followers to do the same. Oh, and I have become affianced to Lucia del Maino. She deigned to accept my offer, on the condition that her child will be heir to the ducal throne.”

“I suppose congratulations are in order,” said Francisco.

Sforza snorted. “Yes, it should be a nice little war.”

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