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Chapter 8

The Duchy of Milan

Francisco Turner had just come back to Milan with Carlo Sforza. They’d been readying several regiments, and a fair number of cannon for the move to the West. Sforza always liked to prepare well first, and then strike hard and fast. And he liked to oversee a part of the preparation personally. “They believe you know everything then, Francisco,” he said dryly.

“Or they’re scared you might,” said his physician. They’d reached the entrance to the ducal palace that Sforza preferred to use for all but formal occasions. “Well, if you have no further need of me, m’lord, I’ll go and take a run.”

“When they finally catch up with us, my friend, your running won’t get you away from the cavalry,” said Sforza, amused.

“Very true. But I just have to run faster than the rest of my troop,” he said lightly. “It keeps me fit and makes me feel better, and gives me the excuse for a mug of beer down at the water’s edge.”

“Don’t drink too many and fall in,” said his commander. “I shall venture on some of my paperwork in the scriptorium with my overanxious secretary and the scribes. I’d rather be at war.” He turned away and passed into the palace.

* * *

Francisco thought about the situation they found themselves in as he kept to a steady pace along the canal path. The canal would make something of a defensive perimeter, but it was too shallow and too long, and not well overlooked with a clear field of fire. Taking Milan had seemed a masterstroke when Carlo Sforza executed it. No one outside a small clique of sycophants had liked the last duke much. Certainly not the peasantry, nor the minor nobles, nor even the heads of great houses and lands.

The problem with the latter was that they liked Carlo Sforza even less, if for different reasons. They feared his military prowess; he was not one of them and not a known quantity. And if one lowborn condottiere could seize power and make himself an overlord in their place, what was to stop others from doing likewise?

Francisco had to admit…fairly little. All that stood between many of the Italian city-state rulers and their mercenaries was a certain lack of competence among the condottieri, and the possibility of the citizens and minor nobles successfully resisting. He did understand why they should be worried about Carlo, but the sensible arrangement would be to strengthen their own armies and make themselves somewhat more popular with their peasantry and minor nobility, and the craftsmen in the towns and cities. They preferred to get rid of an upstart who was upsetting their normal way of doing things.

It wasn’t going to work, but there might be a fair amount of bleeding and dying done before that was established. Ferrara clove to its lord, Enrico Dell’este—his habit of winning, and working iron like a tradesman, and not employing mercenaries, made him safe if unpopular with his peers. It was a shame that he hated Sforza since they were more alike than either of them realized. That was something that Francisco was never going to point out to either man, but the reason Duke Enrico Dell’este’s daughter Lorendana had been attracted to Carlo Sforza was probably that very similarity.

Venice had a fair degree of loyalty to its nobility—they went to sea together with the commoners, and lived in crowded cantonments with them. And, as a second string, the popolo minuto adored the two Valdosta brothers as part of themselves, and the Valdosta brothers were loyal to the Doge. Cosimo de’ Medici’s contributions to grandeur and the quality of life in Florentine territories meant he was more popular than most. He was a shrewd man, who knew when to display the common touch. Admiral—now Duke—Doria in Genoa had a support base at least among the sailors and ex-sailors. However, the bulk of the people in the rest of Italy’s states cared very little who their next overlord might be.

Francisco had reached the end point of his run, so he gave a brief last sprint and stopped at the water’s edge to scoop up a handful of water to wash down his face and hands. The water flowed into here from the Ticino River so it was not of the order of filth that the canals of Venice were, but he still had a rooftop collection system for his and—to the best of his ability—his commander’s water. You might get bird droppings in that, but not human ones. Several times in the course of his soldiering, Francisco had seen flux that could only have come from the well water, and had no faith in that either. It was better with a bit of alcohol in it. That seemed to kill or least weaken whatever it was that carried the diseases. On that thought, he decided to go and have a beer.

He must have bumped a reed or something in the water, because a bottle bobbed up, just short of his fingers. He resisted his natural instinct to grab hold of it, and stood up and walked across to the taverna, Grosso Luccio, and bought himself a mug of beer. It was dark and frowsty in there, and not unpleasant outside, so he took himself back out into the late afternoon spring sunshine. He sat down on a stump that had been dug in there as a hitching post, and looked at the water. It was, for a place on the edge of city, quiet at this time of day. The tradesmen were still at work, but most shoppers had gone home, markets had packed up and the farmers or their wives headed home.

But it really was still too cold to enjoy sitting outdoors for long. He might as well go back inside and finish this mug. His man would be here with his horse soon, and they would ride back to his apartments in the Palazzo Ducale. To run anywhere near his quarters would be to run through the streets, and this was more pleasant than having to constantly explain to worthy citizens that they didn’t have to hold you for your pursuers, or to let them hide you from the same. Or have to explain to stall-holders that throwing fruit which was past its best could cause the runner to stop and do some surgery on their tripes.

With this thought, he started to stand up…only to find a slim, delicate hand around his ankle, with a grip that was more to be expected from a steel manacle.

He looked down at the face of the slight woman in the water. A foxy little triangular face, alive with mischief and a little malice. There was a greenish pallor to her skin, and there was a lot of that to be seen.

“Scream and I’ll pull you under,” she said in a tone that suggested that she could, quite easily. “I’m not to drown you, but I know how to take you to the very edge of it. And I can do it any number of times.”

Francisco prepared himself to reach for the main gauche at his belt. He had a second knife in his sleeve, too. He was an old soldier. He wasn’t going to show either unless it was to the fish-girl’s guts, if he had to use them. No sense in forewarning the enemy, unless one hoped to frighten them out of something, and it was too late for that.

She held up a bottle—the same one, by the looks of it, that had bobbed up when he was washing his hands. “A message for you. The healer who is also the Winged Lion of Venice wanted it delivered privately.”

It took Francisco a second to grasp just who that had to be. It was going to take him a little more time to get his head around the evidence of the truth of that rumor. “Next time, tell Marco to send two bottles. The one with the message and the other with some grappa to help me get over the shock of meeting his messenger!”

“You don’t like the way I look?” she said, pouting, thrusting her nubile bare breasts above the waterline.

Francisco thought that if anything showed her to be non-human, beside the slight greenish tinge to her soft-looking skin, it was, firstly, the perfection of those breasts, and, secondly, the fact that she wasn’t a mass of shivering goosebumps. He did not think her nipples were pert from cold either, but rather, for other reasons.

He also knew just what was reputed to happen to young men who found the charms of that flesh irresistible, and had the feeling that she might not take well to being resisted. “You are, of course, beautiful. You quite take my breath away.”

He’d bet that she would, too. Permanently. “Alas, if it wasn’t the stern duty of seeing what this important message was about, I’d have stayed to drink the grappa with you.”

“I don’t like grappa. You can bring me some of that sweet pelaverga wine next time.”

“Only if you decide not to drown me.”

She wrinkled her nose at that. “I suppose since I have made an exception for you once, I could do it again.” She let go of his ankle and held up the bottle again, which he took. “I will tell Marco about the grappa for next time.”

Francisco retreated from the water, bottle in hand, half tankard of beer forgotten, but his wits not lost. “Thank you,” he said politely.

His mind was in more of a ferment than the beer had been, anyway. This type of messenger was something he had to tell Carlo, and then get Carlo to believe it. That would be difficult. The Wolf of the North did not like tales of magic and superstition. He wouldn’t like the fact that Venice had agents who could come and go freely in these waters, either.

Francisco was a rational man, and didn’t much believe in what passed for magic. But he also knew he hadn’t imagined the delivery of the bottle, either. He saw his man had arrived with his horse and was waiting by the tavern door. There was always a saddlebag on the horse containing a cloak in case the weather had turned unpleasant and a brace of wheel-lock pistols in case anything else turned unpleasant on the ride back.

Francisco pushed the bottle down below the cloak, and drew one of the pistols out and put it in his waistband. “Let’s go, Balco,” he said to the old sergeant, who had watched this and reached his own conclusions. “I want to get back in a hurry.”

They mounted and rode off at a brisk trot. Francisco noted the sergeant was carefully riding point, and had loosened his own rapier and hastily checked his big horse pistol, but the ride was uneventful. It wasn’t always. The people of Milan were wary about their new overlord, but there was still the occasional jeer or brat throwing a stone. They had been grateful to Sforza for reining in his mercenary army, but human gratitude was a fairly shallow cup. They’d need something else soon, Carlo had been saying on the ride back, either another lesson or a show of grandeur. Francisco hoped it would be a suitable wedding.

Back in his chambers, Francisco pondered briefly how to get the letter out of the bottle and settled for the easy way—giving the bottle a smart tap with the heavy pommel of his knife. Being a physician and a surgeon, and well aware of just how nasty a weapon glass could be, he did so over a large basin, with caution, but no one got injured. The letter, when he unsealed it, however, could do that well enough on its own.

Dear Francisco, I am sending this letter to you to warn you of a situation of which I have been made aware, but have been asked to keep secret, thus I beg you to do the same. My informant requested that I find the means to communicate this with you, and I am using contacts which are unlikely to be intercepted or available to others. The Church has, in its attempt to foresee and manage threats, used a team of scryers. While I know you do not have much faith in this, I can vouch to some degree for its accuracy and success at prediction. They believe there will be a recurrence of the Plague of Justinian, and the Church is quietly preparing for the possibility of an outbreak. This is predicted to happen within Milanese territory, and thus I urge you to quietly ready yourself, your master, and the forces at your disposal to respond to the disease with quarantine, and to stockpile such treatments as you think may help. I would like your advice on what these may be, and what, if any, preventative steps we can take.

Yours in Medicine

Marco V.

Francisco stood and reread it carefully. His first reaction was to burn the letter forthwith. But he would need to show it to Carlo first. Marco Valdosta remained an innocent, doing his best to heal and help, even if he was caught up in the tides of Venetian politics—and had the power to make murderous water nyxes run his errands for him.

He folded the letter carefully and set out to find Carlo Sforza. He was, as he had said he would be, in the scriptorium. Sforza might not like the tasks of governance but he did them scrupulously, if just as brutally as he would run a military campaign. That might take the civilian administration some time to get used to, by the look on the secretary’s face, thought Francisco entering the room.

“My lord.” He bowed. “I have some urgent business that must be discussed privately. Can I disturb you?”

“Everyone’s business is always urgent and private,” growled Carlo irritably. “I’m not sure if you’re the fourth or fifth this morning, and none of them were at all. This paperwork also needs my attention.”

But he set down his pen and swiveled in his chair to face Turner more directly. “Spit it out, Francisco. You need a new drain under your running track?”

“No, my lord.” Francisco stared at his commander, trying to convey with his eyes alone that they really needed to talk, without other ears listening in. Venice wanted those ears to hear, and so did Rome. He did not plan to oblige them.

Something about that stare must have gotten to Sforza. “This woman of yours is really giving you trouble, Francisco,” he said, getting up and clapping an arm around him. “Well, I can spare you a few minutes. It may stop me killing someone.” He looked hard at the scribe in the corner who bowed his head and industriously scratched away with his quill.

“The drains are best discussed from where we can see them, my lord,” said Francisco. “The tower will do nicely.”

Sforza raised his bar of an eyebrow, but walked with him to the stairs which led up to one of the small corbelled turrets ornamenting the palazzo.

He closed the door, checked the small room for people, and then led his master up the spiral stair to the arrow-slitted small room above. “You are never insolent, so I assume that look wasn’t that this time either, Francisco. Or have you made me puff up all these stairs for nothing?”

Francisco did not say that he thought his extremely strong master was out of condition and beginning to put on some middle-aged weight, if such a flight of stairs made him puff. This was not the time for that.

“No, my lord. I have received a message which was sent to me with the intent to be intercepted, to cause panic. I want you to know what they’re trying to do before I destroy it. I also wanted to tell you just how effectively Venice can penetrate our defenses to send messages. This is something we need to add to our calculations.”

“They have spies and messengers, just like us. Or are they training rats or birds to the work?”

“They may for all I know. But this was a naked woman.”

“That’s an old one.”

“Not when she swims up the Naviglio Grande underwater, and has greenish skin and drowns men, m’lord. I have explained it badly. This messenger may look like a woman, but it’s not. I didn’t believe in such things, but I have now changed my mind. And it appears Marco Valdosta can make these creatures carry messages for him. He sent me this in a bottle carried by this nyx.”

He handed the letter to Sforza, who held it out at arm’s length and read it.

Carlo Sforza seldom let his expression betray his emotions, and did not this time either. But he said at the end of it: “I think I understand why you wanted to speak to me in secret. But if this is what they choose to do, they will start the rumor anyway. Not everyone will be so careful and not everyone has that kind of messenger. I’d tell you to stop drinking that stuff, but for the winged horse incident.”

“They plainly intend to sow panic. But in all seriousness, I doubt if Marco Valdosta was more than their cat’s paw, my lord. The choice of method of sending this was his, and thus he foiled their plan. I don’t think he bears you that much ill will. Also, Byzantine plotting is more the style of Venice’s Council of Ten than his.”

“I’d agree. I remember the boy when Lorendana was my mistress. He was a serious little fellow, and too good for this world. I can’t say I paid him a lot of attention back then, and now I wish I had. Still, he is being used.”

“And except for the ‘little’ part, he has not changed that much,” admitted Francisco. “I had gathered, peripherally, that he does not hate you, especially once it was revealed who had actually killed Lorendana. Of course it was not a subject I encouraged him to speak to me about. I didn’t want to betray myself.”

“I would have killed Lorendana if I had gotten my hands on her, after her last tricks. But my orders were always to bring her back to face me, and not to hurt the children. I doubt if he’d believe that, but it is the truth. Never leave anything but a dead enemy behind you, Francisco. Otherwise, make peace with them. Hmm. In this case, send back a message saying we have had similar rumors or tales or foretellings, but that the source predicted it was Venice, and that we have taken precautions…”

“Magical ones, as he’ll know there are no non-magical ones.”

“Perfect. And suggest that, for her safety, I would like my granddaughter out of that pesthole that is Venice. My spies tell me her mother is back in Venice from wherever she’d got to, and I think they’d be safer in Corfu.”

“That’s true enough,” agreed Francisco.

There was a thunderous knocking on the lower door of the turret. “My Lord Sforza! You commanded us to call you if any messengers came from Parma or Florence.”

“Some people have no notion of the privacy of their master,” said Carlo, with a sigh. “Come, Francisco. Let me see what new farrago of nonsense they have sent me. I had a three-page waffling non-letter from Cosimo de’ Medici only yesterday, saying discussions were ongoing, but the lady was reticent.”

The footman who had interrupted them stood waiting at the foot of the stair. “My lord. I put the messenger in the Giotti salon, so he could repose.” He took a deep breath. “My lord, he needs a physician. He has been grievously wounded.”

“Better come with me, Francisco,” said Sforza, quickening his pace.

So Francisco went with him. The messenger had not taken advantage of the gold damask chaise longue which had plainly been drawn up for him, but his face was nearly as sallow as its cover. He was standing awkwardly instead, with a posture that Francisco recognized after seeing many combat injuries. He was upright by force of will, nothing more.

“My lord,” he said, and bowed. The bow was not a very deep one, not for lack of respect but to enable him to remain standing. He didn’t manage that for long, as Carlo took him by the shoulder and sat him down on the chaise longue. “What’s happened to you, man?” he demanded.

For an answer, the man held out the stump of his right arm. “This was done by the order of the Duke of Parma for daring to bear your message about his cousin, my lord.”

“Hell’s teeth!” Carlo Sforza did not bother to restrain his fury now. “I’ll have the stupid testa di cazzo’s head shoved up his own hind end and his body displayed on his gates for this. You were a messenger, damn him.”

“He sent you his reply,” said the man, through gritted teeth. “My severed hand holding a pizza de merde from a mongrel dog.”

“I’ll give him mine in the shape of cannon. Francisco, see what you can do for this man.”

To the injured messenger he said, as Francisco began to examine the stump and its rusty dressing: “This happened in my service. I can’t give you back your right hand, but you will be cared for. I’ll give you your pick of the Duke of Parma’s estates when I am done with him.”

But the man had quietly keeled over onto the chaise longue. Francisco felt his pulse in the throat. “Alive,” he answered the unspoken question in his master’s eyes. “Pulse is weak and tumultuous, but he’s alive. He’s lost a lot of blood, and got himself back here by sheer willpower and anger. I’ll have to take him to my chambers and clean the wound, check it and cauterize it while he’s unconscious.”

“Do that. Keep him alive if you can. I want him alive to see the Duke of Parma suitably chastised.” Sforza was still plainly boiling with anger, at his most dangerous. In this mood, other men were rash, but Francisco had been with his commander long enough to know that it would make him cold and brutally efficient instead. “You,” said Sforza to the footmen. “Carry him on this daybed.”

So Francisco left with his patient. There was considerable work to be done—bones were shattered and there was septic tissue to be dealt with. Still, the man was tough. He would probably survive to see vengeance done.

Francisco was summoned again, late that evening. “You’d better get your message off to your Venetian friend tonight,” said Sforza. “I’m trying to make sure I have only one foe to face, Francisco. Cosimo de’ Medici has his faults, but he’s not going to harm a messenger, and I think you can be my most honest and insightful set of eyes. Go to Florence and get me a straight answer. I’d rather have Cosimo as an ally and a banker than the fig leaf of legitimacy I’d get from marrying that cousin of his. I’d get that from marrying Lucia del Maino. But Cosimo as an ally…for that I’d rather have his cousin, but I do not read this as very likely. Go, and get the best diplomatic compromise out of it you can. I doubt if Cosimo wants war, and I’d guess he’d rather not be dragged into one. He knows of you, and knows where you stand with me. That will give you some advantage. In the meantime, I’m going to invite Lucia del Maino to the court here, in preparation for the inevitable. Try and be back in three weeks. I’ll be moving in force majeure against Parma in four. This is not just about a few border villages anymore.”

After he had gone back and checked on the health of the messenger again, Francisco returned to his quarters. He poured himself a mug of beer, and calmly and methodically burned Marco’s letter. Then he wrote a reply, couching it in careful terms.

My dear friend in medicine, my thanks for the letter. We had been told of a similar problem, but Venice had been identified as the area from which it would spread. Precautions of a magical, as well as a practical nature, are being undertaken, and we believe ourselves reasonably safe as a result. My friend and mentor has suggested that his granddaughter be removed to a safe spot, to keep her safe from contagion.



On the spur of the moment, he collected a bottle from his store of herbs and medications, put the letter inside, and then corked and sealed it with a mixture of beeswax and Venice turpentine. He would go for an early run in the morning, along the canal path, and see if he could send a reply back the way the message had come. It could be useful. He was due to leave with a small troop escort, at the Terce bell, with a letter to Cosimo de’ Medici that Sforza would have written by then.

He packed his gear, finished his beer, washed, and went to bed. The next morning he was up well before the dawn, rousted out his yawning orderly from next to his peculiar, and took himself to the stables, and then down to the canal path. He ended up sitting on the same stump, looking out at the mist drifting above the water. The sun was not yet up.

“Nyx. Water woman. The pretty one…” he said, feeling mildly foolish.

She stuck her head up near a couple of water-lily pads. “Why don’t you keep normal hours like other men?”

“I suppose because, like you, I am not just like other men.”

“True. You bathe more often and like to run. But like other men you are enchanted by my body.” She flaunted it.

“Also true, beautiful nyx,” Francisco lied, guessing by her conduct that saying otherwise would not be welcome. “I have a boon to ask, for my friend Marco. The one you called the Winged Lion.”

“My name,” said the nyx, “is Rhene. You are a healer, too?”

“Of sorts. My skills are more those of a chirurgeon. Marco is better with other ailments,” answered Francisco, used to the preamble that people wanting treatment gave. “My abilities are more what is needed in times of war.”

“Then I will do what you ask. Chloe says having a healer has been of value. And I may not drown you. Therefore it is better to befriend you and have you in my debt.”

“Almost exactly as my master, Carlo, put it last night…on a different matter.” He handed her the bottle. “Now I am in your debt.”

“Oh, good. So come into the water. I need a virile young man.”

Francisco thought to himself, I walked into that one. “Alas, beautiful Rhene. My man will be here at any moment. And also, you want me in your debt, and if I repaid you thus, I would not be.”

She wrinkled her forehead. “I have not allowed any men to see me without drowning them, except you. I’ll have to think about these debts.”

She slipped under the water silently, without a ripple, and left Francisco looking at the twisting trails of mist wreathed above the water, wondering if it had all been his imagination. But the bottle—which would have floated—was also gone, somewhere beneath that limpid water. Behind him, Francisco heard a horse stamp and his orderly cursing and understood that perhaps it wasn’t just his eloquence that had saved him from at the least, a thorough, cold wetting.

But in the meantime he had breakfast to eat, and his gear to finish readying before a long ride. He might also find time for another wash. Those were always tricky in foreign towns, let alone in roadside camps or in village inns. He might even be longing for the cold wetting by the time he got back.

He was rather looking forward to meeting Cosimo de’ Medici. The man was exceptionally well-read, by all accounts. He just wished the meeting could be on a less bootless and awkward mission.

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