Aqua Vitalis

In the last year the winter floods swept the New Bridge down the River Amin, three discoveries were made. The witch of Florens discovered the recipe for Aqua Vitalis; the Duke of Florens discovered the poisoner at his court; and Baldesar di Casatico, first friend of the Duke and undoubtedly the perfect courtier, discovered the reason for a dog’s death.

He had returned from several months in Iomli, where the beautiful Countess had proven beautifully non-compliant, to find the Duke in a fury over the fifth paterfamilias to die in a convulsing froth of blood and vomit. “Of course it’s the Hallowed Father! What the hell’s he playing at? When I catch this assassin–”

The Duke’s strong brown hands were explicit on the subject of Latan agents discovered in Florens. Baldesar felt one of his headaches coming on. “What should I do?”

“Give me some good news! How was the Countess? Amenable?”

“Ah. Well…”

“Anna was asking after you. Don’t tell her about this poisoning affair. You know she never really listens.”

The ruined palazzo of at least one unsubtly ambitious patrician testified to what could happen when Anna listened enough to understand the problem, but not enough to understand what the Duke meant to do about it. “I wouldn’t dream of it. How’s her highness?”

“My wife? Oh, perfectly well, I believe. You missed her eighteenth birthday.”

“Then I must apologise,” Baldesar said. “I would hate Donna Isabella to be unhappy with me.”

*

Donna Isabella gave Baldesar a subdued greeting that expressed more than outright coldness would have done, though not for the reasons he first thought. She was sitting with her women in the Room of Lilies, a stray spring sunbeam catching light in her red-gold hair. “Donna,” Baldesar said respectfully and launched into his apologies. “Might I be forgiven?”

She gave him a look that was mostly distracted. “Why? I knew where you were.” She plucked at her green gown. “Did Caterina write? She must be cross with me. I promised her some Mediolan silk.”

It was not what Baldesar had expected, nor, probably, what Donna Isabella really wanted to say. He experienced a stab of genuine worry. “Oh, who cares about that?” Donna Isabella said impatiently, when Baldesar mentioned the recent murders. “They were all brutes. Everyone knows Ghirardo Donati beat his first wife to death. Baldesar, do you want to see the puppy my mother sent me?”

She must have had hunting in mind: it was a sleek, sweet greyhound that leapt up eagerly as they entered the kennels. “I asked for two,” Donna Isabella said. “Baldesar…”

“Donna?”

“Is Anna upset with me? Was it something I did? Doesn’t she like me?”

Her upturned face was as fresh as a flower. “Anna doesn’t like anyone,” said the perfect courtier. “If that woman said anything to you–”

“I gave her the other puppy. And she killed it.” She looked so hurt Baldesar couldn’t even ask why giving Anna an animal had seemed a good idea: the question died on his lips. “Does she hate me, Baldesar?”

*

So then Baldesar had to pay court to the barred house behind the cypresses where the Duke kept his mistress, the pale northern signora with the wintry eyes. He found Anna in her workroom contemplating a dead rat. “Hello, Baldesar,” she said. “Pietro said he sent you to Iomli.”

“He did. I came back.”

“I scried you out for the little duchess. She said the Countess was very pretty.”

If Anna was upset with Donna Isabella, it was not apparent from her tone. Baldesar massaged his temples. “Why did you kill Isabella’s puppy, Anna?” he asked bluntly.

“What puppy? Oh. That puppy. It came when I called.”

“What sort of a reason is that?”

“It was easier than catching a rat,” Anna said. “But the dosage was wrong. It wasn’t very useful. I had to test it again.”

Her worktable was strewn with notes and jars; the bottle at her left hand contained what might have been water. Baldesar eyed it with misgivings. “I thought you were making face-creams for Isabella and her women.”

“I was. It’s Aqua Vitalis. Some Latan woman used to sell it for eye-drops. Among other things.”

“What other–” said Baldesar, and then his glance rediscovered the dead rat.

It had died painfully. There was blood on the worktop and its muzzle was matted; its tail was as contorted as its body. The witch weighed a scalpel in her steady physician’s hands. “There wasn’t a recipe,” she said. “But I think I’ve worked it out now. Arsenic. Lead. Belladonna to taste. Although it doesn’t actually taste of anything.”

He couldn’t tell if she was joking. He had never heard her joke before. “Anna,” he said carefully. “You haven’t been testing this on people, have you?”

“No. I did give some to one of Isabella’s friends. She said something about a rat problem.” Anna glanced up with a flicker of interest. “Why, do you think I should?”

*

It was left to the Duke to explain the undesirability of dispensing undetectable poisons to injured wives to his mistress. Baldesar remained until he heard Anna say, aggrieved, “If I hadn’t, she’d never have gone away,” then had to go out and laugh himself sick under the cypresses. At least he could assure Donna Isabella that Anna liked her no less than she liked anyone else.

The Duke emerged in a familiar state of helpless exasperation. “She wants to dissect the victims. As if the families would let her!” He pulled at his black curls. “She can have the poisoner as soon as she remembers this woman’s name. By all the gods, Anna!”

With some effort, Baldesar composed himself. “Probably Ghirardo Donati’s widow. But she passed it around, you know. They’re all guilty.”

“I did gather,” said the Duke. “I’m going to rebuild the New Bridge in stone. Enchanting that should give Anna something else to think about. You can talk to my wife about finding better friends.”

© Julia August. First published in Lakeside Circus in 2014.

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