Back | Next
Contents


Chapter 20

Erik shifted his feet in the antechamber before Abbot Sachs's door. He took a deep breath. Then, reluctantly, knocked on the thick oak.


He waited. He'd just knock again, and go. He could try later. He raised his hand. . . .


"Enter," said a voice from within.


Erik walked in. The room was sybaritically appointed. His eyes were still drawn first to the deep-set glowering stare of the abbot, rather than the furnishings fit for a prince of the blood. Sachs sat behind one of these, an escritoire of dark wood inlaid with ivory.


"You wished to see me, Abbot?" asked Erik evenly. The air in the room was overly warm and full of an acerbic incense. And maybe just a hint of . . . perfume? Erik found himself wondering if Manfred's frequent witticisms about the relationship between Sachs and Sister Ursula might not have a basis of truth.


Whatever the scent's nature, it was making his nose itch and his eyes water.


The abbot's sour countenance twitched. Then, to Erik's amazement, his face did something the confrere knight had never seen it do before—the thin lips dragged themselves into a smile. "Ah. Hakkonsen. Yes. I have a task for you."


Erik wondered whether it was too late to bolt for the door. It was either bolt—or sneeze soon. If there were two things Erik was certain of, the first was that Abbot Sachs disliked him violently; the second was that this incense was driving him mad. But as a confrere Knight he was, by order of Bishop-Commander Von Schielbar, under the authority of the leader of the Servants of the Holy Trinity in Venice.


That remained true even if Erik had forcefully reminded the abbot, less than a fortnight ago, of the limits of his authority. The months they'd spent here in Venice had made their dislike mutual; the incident in the church over sanctuary had brought it into the open. In the two weeks that had gone by since, the abbot had spoken not a single word to Erik, prior to now.


The only official notice of the clash had been a summons to the quarters of Von Stublau, where the knight-commander began a stern lecture on the proper conduct of knights when dealing with abbots. It had been as brief as it was stern, because Erik had turned on his heel and left before Von Stublau finished his third sentence.


The Prussian had been outraged, no doubt. But not even Von Stublau was prepared to press the matter any further. Erik's conduct in the church had given him a reputation among all the other knights as a man to be dealt with very, very gingerly. The more so when the reaction of official Venice to the incident in the church made it as clear as crystal that Erik's behavior had been the only thing that had saved the Knights from what might very well have been a political disaster.


As Sachs had discovered two days later, not even the usually sympathetic Doge wanted to hear the abbot's side of the story. Canal-brats are canal-brats, you idiot, not "servants of Satan." Such had been the entirety of Foscari's opinion, before Sachs had been summarily dismissed.


And the Doge's reaction had been mild compared to that of Metropolitan Michael, who, by all accounts, had been livid when Father Ugo's story reached him. The prestige of the Pauline orders, always low with the Petrine patriarch, was now as low as it could possibly get. Rumor had it that the patriarch had only been dissuaded with difficulty from demanding the forcible eviction of the Servants and the Knights from Venice. And dissuaded, by his advisers, solely because they reminded the patriarch of his policy of trying to avoid clashes with Foscari.


Nor was there any doubt that if the Pauline orders lost the favor of the Doge, they could be expelled from the city—by force, if necessary. There were only a few hundred Knights in Venice. Leaving aside the actual military forces at the disposal of the Doge, which were much larger, the sixteen thousand workers in the Arsenal where Venice's great fleet was built were famous—or notorious—for their willingness to take up arms readily. They were also famous for their solidly Petrine allegiance in religious matters and for being a hotbed of Metropolitanism. Not even the Servants of the Holy Trinity were rash enough, or arrogant enough, to try to enforce their attitudes in the vicinity of the Arsenal or the quarters of the city where its workers lived.


Being shown to be utterly wrong hadn't, needless to say, made Abbot Sachs any fonder of the Icelandic knight. He had said nothing to Erik in the two weeks afterward. But Erik had not failed to notice that, each and every day since, he had been given nothing but arduous and menial duties.


To Erik's surprise, however, the incident had also caused a number of the knights—especially the younger ones and the confreres—to view him with much greater warmth than they had done previously. Some, bolder than most, had even whispered quick congratulations into his ear when no one was watching. It was clear enough that Sachs's arrogance grated on many others besides himself.


Still—the abbot was his lawfully appointed superior. So long as Sachs made no further attempt to transgress law and honor, Erik's own stiff sense of honor obligated him to obey the man, and pay him at least the outward signs of respect. Even if the wretched creature did use the vilest incense Erik had ever encountered.


So all he said was: "I am yours to command, Abbot."


The abbot blinked. He looked as though he hadn't expected it to be so simple. For a moment, Sachs seem to fumble for words. Then:


"Well, the mission we have for you is not simple or easy. This city is full of corruption and evil. We need to root it out. I, personally, would like to put half of these ungodly ones to the question."


I'll bet you would, thought Erik wearily. Personally. And by the time you'd finished with them they'd confess to anything you pleased.


But he held his tongue, and simply concentrated on not sneezing.


Sachs plainly expected a reply or a comment. "Well?"


"I am yours to command, Abbot," repeated Erik woodenly.


The abbot looked intently at him. Then, laced his fingers. "Very well. I shall command you. Tonight, just before midnight, you will proceed to the Calle Largo di Lorenzo. You will be unarmored, and without your sword, but wearing your surcoat showing yourself to be one of the Knights of the Holy Trinity. Get one of the boatmen to take you, as you'll never find it on your own. You will have wine on your breath, and you will be seen to be unsteady on your feet. Do you have that clearly? You will be seen to be unsteady. You will turn into the third alleyway and proceed down it. Perhaps you should sing. You will go to the last house on the left-hand side and demand entry."


Erik swallowed. Was this some kind of trap? Why in the seven hells was the abbot sending him to visit one of Venice's most notorious brothels? He didn't need a boatman to show him the way. He knew perfectly well where it was, down to which door. He'd hauled Manfred out of there not two nights ago. The Madame was not going to be pleased to see him again.


"Why?" he rasped.


At last, Sachs looked genuinely pleased. "Because I have commanded you."


"Yes, Abbot." And then Erik could contain it no longer. He sneezed. Then he sneezed again.


Sachs had obviously not expected this answer, because he did explain. "It is an ambush. One of our agents has brought us information that a large group of the ungodly pagans will be conducting their evil rites there. When you have gained entry, you will create a disturbance. You will continue to do so for as long as possible, while the Knights force entry at the water-door."


"Haaachoo! Yes, Abbot. Ndow will you excuse me? By dose is streaming."


* * *

The bed groaned as Manfred did his customary flop onto it. As usual, he gave his attention to the bedpost caryatides before turning to Erik. "What's up? Why are you pacing about, rubbing a thoughtful hand on that pious, sharpcut chin of yours?"


Erik took a deep breath. "I've got to go brothel-creeping!"


Manfred leapt to his feet in a single movement, like a crossbow snapping straight. It was at moments like this that the big knight revealed his true strength and agility. He rubbed his hands gleefully and grinned, revealing those blocky teeth.


"Oh, me too. Me too! But this time just to watch! What's suddenly come over you, my pure Icelandic friend? Besides the need for female company, that is?"


Erik scowled. "I've got orders from Abbot Sachs to go to the House of the Red Cat. You will be staying here. Even if I have to lock you up, you will be staying here. And it's not funny," he snarled, seeing the young knight-squire's expression.


Manfred put his hand in front of his grin, trying to hide it. His shoulders began to shake. Then he gave up. He laughed. He guffawed. Eventually he collapsed onto the bed again, still fighting off paroxysms of chuckles while Erik stared at him in icy irritation.


Eventually he stopped long enough for Erik to start speaking. "It's a direct order!"


This provoked a snort of derision from Manfred. "I'll bet. Tell me another one. Unless Sachs is learning more from Sister Ursula than we realize."


"I'm supposed to be a decoy for a raid, you young fathead! I should take you out into the practice yard and teach you some decorum," snapped Erik.


Manfred sat back and raised his big hands in a pacific gesture. "I'm all decorum, I swear. I haven't forgotten the last time! Neither have my ribs. Has Sachs got wind of your last little visit and the friendly little chat you had with the Madame and her bouncers?"


"Jesu. I hope to God not." Erik crossed himself. "Let me tell you about what he wants me to do."


* * *

By the time he'd finished, Manfred wasn't laughing. He wasn't even grinning. "I suppose they'll be waiting by the water-door for the ruckus. This smells to the heavens, Erik! That idiot Sachs will get you killed—and I wouldn't doubt that's really what he wants. Why in the hell no sword and no armor?"


Erik pulled a wry face. "I suppose they don't want the bouncers too alarmed and deciding not to interfere. I'm supposed to create a disturbance."


Manfred had the grace to look shamefaced. "I think they're going to be a little alarmed just to see your face."


"Thanks to you, yes," replied Erik grimly.


Manfred stood up slowly. "True enough. Are you going anywhere in the next while?"


Erik shook his head. "Not until I leave smelling of wine, shortly after Compline."


Manfred pursed his lips. "That gives us plenty of time." The knight-squire headed for the door. "Wait here. That Pellmann is nowhere about, is he?"


Erik raised his eyes to heaven and shook his head. "When he doesn't have to be? Not likely."


Manfred nodded, and walked out and away up the passage. He could walk fast and quietly for such a big man.


A short while later he was back, with a bag and an oilcloth roll. He closed the door and bolted it before tossing the bag onto the bed. It clinked. Erik raised an eyebrow.


Manfred unrolled his oilcloth onto to the table and revealed a set of tools that would have done any torturer from Damascus to Vinland proud. "Get out of those clothes. If you've got a close-fitting quilted shirt, put it on. If you don't, we'll have to get you one. We'll need to fit this thing. It's too small for me these days, but likely it'll be still too big for you."


Erik looked doubtful. "What is it?"


Manfred stepped over to the bag on the bed. He hauled out a shirt of tiny chain links. They gleamed with an odd black pearly sheen. "Koboldwerk. My uncle had me wear it at court. Somebody must have washed it because it's shrunk."


Erik snorted. "Particularly across the belly."


It was an unfair observation. Manfred was as square as a foundation block, but he was also solid muscle. He'd been a great deal softer before Erik had started on him. He trained with Manfred from an hour before dawn until Lauds every single day. Then they'd put in at least an hour on the pells. Then they'd join the knights for morning drill.


To give the Breton squire his due, nowadays Manfred gave the training his heart and soul. At first, Erik used to have to haul him out of bed. But lately it was getting to be the other way around, despite the fact that Manfred had managed to explore the wilder aspects of Venice's nights quite successfully. Also, he'd noticed how the squire had put on inches, particularly across the shoulders, in the months they'd been together. The boy was finishing his growing, and it certainly wasn't around the waistline.


Erik suspected that Manfred had been genuinely shocked to discover how much more capable his Icelandic "keeper" was than he, when it came to any kind of extended fighting. Manfred's incredible strength and athletic ability had not been matched by endurance—leaving aside the fact that he had little of Erik's actual combat experience and the brutal skills the Icelander had learned in the island's savage clan feuds as well as frontier skirmishes in Vinland.


One thing Erik had come to realize about his charge. For all of Manfred's roustabout ways, the young scion of the imperial family was quite capable of learning something when he put his mind to it. And, if it accomplished nothing else, the incident in the church seemed to have finally brought a certain amount of seriousness to Manfred's outlook on things. The big young man had brooded for days afterward, obviously ashamed of his initial reaction to Erik's defiance of Sachs.


Erik suppressed a snort. Not that Manfred's new-found solemnity went all that deep. If Abbot Sachs kept the Knights here much longer, he didn't doubt that Manfred would even learn to speak the local dialect. Well enough, at least, to ask directions to any location in Venice. He'd already learned how to find the taverns and brothels.


Manfred slapped his stomach. "It's the wine," he said mournfully. "I need more."


Erik shook his head, and smiled ruefully. "That is the one thing you don't need."


"This is a matter of opinion. Now get out of that cotte and put on a quilted shirt."


Erik did as he was told. The chain-links were heavy and cold, despite the shirt. And while it was loose around the waist and a little tight around the chest, it fit across the shoulders.


Manfred grunted in satisfaction. "Too big I can fix. Too small would have been a problem. Stand still."


He reached for the tools, displaying a familiarity that surprised Erik. The Icelander watched in some amazement. "I thought you were a prince, not a blacksmith."


Manfred twitched a lockring loose with an evil-looking set of long-nosed pliers. "According to my father, the Breton chiefs were once both—blacksmiths as well as princes. This was his idea. I got to run tame in the castle smithy back in Carnac. Beat spending time with the tutors mother inflicted on me, that's for sure."


His thick fingers moved with expert skill. "That's the difference between Mainz and Carnac," he continued. "Too bookish in Mainz. The aristocracy either reads or fights. In Carnac, according to our old seneschal, my father used to do the winter slaughtering before mother got there and 'civilized' him. Now stand still. Old Sachs didn't say anything about that hatchet of yours, did he?"


"The subject never came up," said Erik, standing still as he had been told. Books were a treasure up in Iceland. Especially in winter. But he could see where sitting still with a tutor might aggravate a boy like Manfred.


Erik sighed. He was supposed to watch over him; guard him; teach him. But it seemed to Erik that Manfred's supreme skill was slipping off to have a good time. Taking his watchdog with him, if that was the only choice, but without him if he could manage it. It had been from one of those expeditions that Erik had retrieved him from the House of the Red Cat.


Manfred whistled tunelessly between his teeth. "Stretch your arms out." Erik complied. "Bring them round in front of your chest. Can you move easily?"


Erik nodded. "It's not very comfortable. But I can move."


Manfred snorted. "It's never comfortable. And be grateful. I even had to sleep in it."


Erik looked grimly at Manfred. Sooner or later the boy had to accept the fact that he was in close line of succession to the throne of the Holy Roman Empire, the largest and most powerful realm in Christendom.


"Your uncle wanted to make sure you stayed alive. And that is why I'm supposed to watch over you. No one but the High Abbot at Wurtemburg knows who you are. And that is your best defense. But somebody may just possibly recognize you. Even with that moustache."


Manfred's responding grimace was so like that of a boy denied a day's play that Erik almost laughed. He could sympathize with Manfred's plight, inwardly if not openly. By Manfred's description, life in rather ramshackle, relaxed Celtic Carnac had been a far cry from the stilted imperial court at Mainz. But there was no point in letting his charge see that sympathy. Manfred would only try to take advantage of it.


 


Back | Next
Framed