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Chapter 3


Marco had wondered why he would get a request from Patriarch Michael to visit him at his palace. The Church was…just a little wary about the connection between the Lion of Etruria and the House of Valdosta. Still, while it was politely worded, and merely an invitation, the Church was powerful in the Holy Roman Empire and Venice.

“It’s not, politically speaking, an invitation you can refuse,” said Lodovico, handing the message back to Marco, “even if you wanted to. And he’s not a bad old fellow, Michael. Quite moderate, really.”

Marco shook his head. “I know. It’s just that, well, the stregheria are very suspicious about the Church, and I’ve been hoping for medical help from them. There are some plants…”

“Marco, if they can’t live with you visiting the patriarch, especially after his defense of Benito, then they’re crazy,” said Kat firmly. To emphasize her point, she planted her hands on her hips and leaned forward a bit.

“Yes, but they have been persecuted, at times.”

“Not by him. And anyway, he’s near ninety and was looking quite frail the last time I saw him. It’s probably about medical help.”

That was a very persuasive argument as far as Marco was concerned. So he went, not that he had that much choice. He was escorted in to a small withdrawing room—a place in some contrast with the wealth displayed in the rest of the building. It was Spartan and simple, with plain wooden settles and an open fire, and a wooden cross on the wall. The patriarch himself was seated there, not on anything like the inlaid golden throne he sat on in the cathedral but on one of the settles. He rose, not fast, but still quite spryly for someone of his age, when Marco was ushered into the room. “Welcome to my sanctum,” said the old man.

“Thank you, Your Holiness,” said Marco bowing. He’d met the patriarch before, at functions at the Doge’s palace, and seen him at the Basilica of St. Mark, of course.

“It tends to surprise people,” said the patriarch, plainly understanding the expression. “I let them make a fire in here now, as a gesture toward my aging bones. But I was a Haitian monk for some years, before the Grand Metropolitan of Rome called me to serve here. Venice and her great families love and expect the display of wealth and power. Simplicity does not impress them. I am uncomfortable with such display. Much of the wealth and artwork was, however, gifted to the Church to use, and cannot merely be disposed of.” He sighed. “Powerful families like to show the value of their piety. They know full well what their ancestors gave, and expect to see it displayed.”

“Oh. I had heard Lodovico…my grandfather-in-law Lodovico Montescue, mention the Montescue candlesticks.”

“Given your upbringing, young Valdosta, you are probably unaware of the fact that the cloth of gold used for Martinmas was a gift from Alberto Valdosta. There is quite a list of other items too.”

“Well…those could be sold without offending me and I don’t see Benito caring a fig either, Your Holiness.” Was this why he’d been asked to come?

“Thank you. Of course people are used to seeing some of them, and this is Venice, so one does not wish to start nasty rumors. They breed quite well enough without help. Shall we sit?” He gestured toward the settles. Marco sat in one of them and the patriarch sat in another.

“Ulrico has gone to fetch the gentleman that I asked for you to come to see me,” continued the patriarch, “so that you could meet. He has been sent from Rome, by the Grand Metropolitan.”

“I, er, do think matters of state should be dealt with by the Doge. I am only his ward.”

“I believe this to be a matter above the state,” said the patriarch, with a mischievous smile more fitting for a boy of four than for a man of almost ninety. “Marco Valdosta, I have invited you here as the rising physician of Venice, not as the ward of the Doge. I have had a fairly substantial number of reports from the poorer parishes about your work. That’s more important to me, but we won’t tell Petro Dorma that.”

Marco’s surprise and embarrassment was interrupted by the entry of a tall man in clerical clothes with a rather long bony nose. “Ah,” said the patriarch. “Father Thomas. Father Thomas Lüber of Baden, this is the young gentleman I wished you to meet. Marco Valdosta, the ward of our Doge, and also a man of some repute of medicine and healing.”

The newcomer bowed. “I have heard a great deal about you, Signor Valdosta. Eneko Lopez wrote to me of you.” His Frankish had a decidedly Mainz accent, and he plainly suffered from some shortness of breath. He breathed audibly at each sentence.

Marco rose, bowed and made haste to shake the hand of man. “I also know a great deal about you, Father. And about your work with Professoro Ghini. I have an interest in the plants described in De Materia Medica myself. I’ve been trying to combine them with the system of quantifying dosage for treatment suggested by Dacetto, and Von Hohenheim’s Lexicon of Toxicology. He took the approach that it was dosage that made some substances toxic, and noted that bigger persons took larger doses to kill, and I was reasoning that the dose had to be proportional to the weight of the patient.”

The priest looked thoughtful. “Yes. A different approach. And one which has merit! I have been following up on an idea I had, oddly based on apples. I grew two plants, from seed from the same fruit. One at the new botanical garden Signor Cosimo has ordered cultivated in Pisa, and the other in Montfalcone, where my brother-in-law has a small estate. The fruit look alike, but the taste is quite different. Those from Montfalcone, barely three leagues away from the Botanica, are tart, delightful apples, but those in the Botanica are watery and of poor flavor, and much larger. I had wondered if it was perhaps a virtue of the earth of a particular place. That would go a long way to explaining why the curative properties of some of the plants Pedanius Dioscorides recorded, those that we have found and cultivated, are in some cases not effective.”

“Well, I have been told that the same grapes produce different wine from different places,” said Marco. “Those growing on the clay in the valley floor are quite different to those on the granite slope facing north, and different again on those that face south. But—please have a seat.”

Marco sat back down on his settle and motioned for Father Thomas to join him. Once he’d done so, they resumed their conversation.

“Precisely!” said Father Thomas. “And that is an easier example for most to grasp than my apples. Not all of the same plants produce food alike, thus why would they produce medicines of equal value?”

“I can see I have brought together two kindred spirits,” said the patriarch. “But before the two of you become entirely absorbed in the academia that interests you, let me remind you of the matter of business that you are here about, Father Thomas.”

The priest’s face fell. “Yes. It is a grim business, Signor Valdosta. You know that the Patriarchy in Rome keeps a group of clerics whose work it is to magically scry the future, to try to divine where evil will strike next and so help to prepare our defenses. Eneko Lopez was senior among those practicing this form of sacred magic, and that was one of the reasons that the Grand Metropolitan was so reluctant to grant him leave to form his new monastic order. I am not a man of any knowledge of magic, myself, but I believe he was among the most skilled at this field of magic, and is sorely missed. But I digress, a bad habit of mine. They have identified a new threat.”

“Not to Venice again?” Marco could not see how this could not be a matter of state.

“No, or at least not immediately. But the symbol which has been repeatedly oracularly derived is one that should be familiar to Venice, and has endangered her in the past: the crowned devouring serpent.” He moved his forefinger through the air, as if drawing the image of the serpent.

“Milan. I still don’t see why the Doge…”

“He will be informed. But what they have foreseen is not a war. Or not just a war. It is the reason I have been sent here, and the reason that Patriarch Michael sent for you first, not Doge Petro Dorma. Disease is what is foreseen. And not just any disease, but a disease that has not affected Europe for centuries, but devastated the cities and countryside like no war could.”

“Plague.” The word itself carried terrible fear.

“Yes. If we are correct in our foretelling, somehow this is the Justinian Plague reborn. Visions of rats, too, have been described by the seers; rats, a strange monstrous face, dead cities, and the countryside laid waste. And famine and war following in its wake. Millions dead, men, women and children. That is why I have been sent here, to Venice. That is why trusted messengers have been sent north to the Holy Roman Emperor in Mainz. That is why men are being prepared for action, and called to readiness. It will need hard, effective and fast action.”

“What can be done? There is no certain cure for the plague. Some live, many die. Most die, if the plague is virulent enough.”

“We will be working on whatever treatment we can, Signor Valdosta.” He ran fingers through his closely cropped hair. In that moment, he looked both tired and ridden with anxiety. “I will confer with you, and others at the academia. We need to prevent panic as much as anything else. But the disease must be contained. And the problem, as we foresee it, will begin in the Duchy of Milan, with whom the patriarch of Rome has poor relationships. These have not been bettered by the train of events with Carlo Sforza taking control of the duchy and its territories. And we know, from what remains of the historical record, that isolation and quarantine were all that was sure as a treatment.”

He paused. “It is known that you had a friendship with Caviliero Francisco Turner, who is the personal physician to Carlo Sforza.”

“Yes, I did—and, hopefully, still do. Francisco is the very man I would pick to head a fight against the plague.”

“Unfortunately, politics would get in the way of that idea. The states of Parma, Rimini and Ferrara are vehemently opposed to any form of cooperation with Carlo Sforza. I wish we could rise above that for such a dire situation. But it is not so. I had hoped, through a neutral, or at least not so violently opposed party, and personal contacts to, well, make them aware. To get them to make such preparations as they can, to contain and quarantine.” He grimaced. “Military force will be needed. And people fleeing in panic will spread the disease. Fear and war will merely make it worse and spread it wider.”

“I see. So, what you are asking is that I send warning to Francisco, and through him to Carlo Sforza.”

The priest nodded. “Yes. We would thus set up a route of communication that would not be open to us otherwise.”

Marco sighed. “I don’t know what my word means to Francisco. He is a clever man, and, I think, an honorable one. But he is not an easy man to read, and he is intensely loyal to Carlo Sforza. That said, I am willing to try at least.”

“Thank you,” said Father Thomas.

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