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Chapter 22

Here, away from the occasional smoky oil-brands, in deep shadows where the moonlight did not penetrate, it was pitch dark. Erik wished he had the eyes of the cat he'd almost stumbled over. The only light was the red lantern at the end of the alleyway.


Obedient to his orders, Erik did his best to sing. That would tell the waiting knights he was coming. According to the family skald back home, his singing was good . . . for frightening seagulls. Well, with any luck the waiting knights were tone-deaf as well as accustomed to repetition. Erik only knew one line of the song he'd heard Manfred caterwauling one evening. It still made him red-faced, even here alone in the darkness.


Making as much raucous noise as he could, within the limits of his straight-laced temperament, Erik staggered to the door. He felt like a complete idiot, certain that his playacting would fool no one who was not another complete idiot.


It was almost with relief that he reached the door of the Red Cat and started pounding upon it. The worst that could happen to him now was an ambush. Which was something he knew how to handle.


The door swung open. Erik saw the back of the man who opened it receding into the darkness of the gloomy salon beyond, and thought he recognized one of the brothel's bouncers. Fortunately, the man didn't seem to have recognized him.


He stepped through the door hastily and closed it behind him, relieved that his ridiculous behavior was no longer subject to public scrutiny. Then he began following the bouncer toward the corridor on the other side of the salon. After taking not more than two or three steps, however, Erik suddenly realized that the red-velvet-and-brocaded salon was much darker than the last time.


He just had time to understand that an ambush was in fact awaiting him—and a far more ferocious one than Sachs had implied—when someone stepped through a side door and flung an entire jug of coarse brandy over him. Momentarily blinded by the harsh liquor, Erik sprang toward the far corner of the salon, avoiding whatever blow might be coming along next. He heard the heavy door to the brothel being bolted, and knew that at least one more man had come into the room.


His eyes cleared. Crouching in the corner—his hatchet was already in hand—he quickly scanned the room. There were four of them, and Erik was not surprised at all to discover that he recognized not a one. These men were not the brothel bouncers with whom he had clashed on his last visit—although he could see the figure of the one bouncer who had let him in the door, huddling in the far hallway. Almost cowering, it seemed.


No, these men were killers, not bouncers. Professional criminals, he suspected, hired for the purpose. They consisted of three swarthy, stevedore-built men, lightly jowled but not exactly fat, and an athletic-looking pale-faced blond. And unlike last time, when a cudgel had been the worst he'd had to deal with, this time three of the four had daggers. The fourth, the blond man, had a sword. Just by the way he held the weapon, Erik knew he was skilled in its use.


The blond swordsman spoke. "Make him scream, boys."


The biggest of the low-browed solid bruisers moved in. Feinted, in the way that an experienced street brawler does, before striking his main blow. He was obviously a bit disconcerted by Erik's left-handedness.


The contest of knife against hatchet was entirely one-sided. Erik ignored the feint entirely and slashed the hatchet across the thug's empty hand, which the man had carelessly extended. A forefinger and half a thumb flipped through the air, streaking blood.


The thug began to howl with pain. The howl turned into a gasp of shock when the hatchet swung back and caught the knife-hand at the wrist. A thick fist still holding a dagger flew through the air and slapped wetly against the wall. The man's gasp of shock, an instant later, gurgled into a death rattle. Erik's hatchet, now held at the base of the blade, had chopped straight through his throat—a short punch, with a razor-edged fist.


Erik seized the dying thug with his free hand, turned and flung him across the room with a hip roll. The man crashed into his two companions and brought all three of them down to the floor.


Erik kept moving—fast—heading for the blond swordsman. He knew full well that was the truly dangerous one, and hoped he'd gained enough time to deal with him before the two surviving bravos could jump him from behind. If not . . . he had time for a quick prayer that Manfred's mailshirt was as good as the Breton prince claimed. He might well need it to guard his back.


The blond swordsman was caught by surprise, both by the speed with which Erik had killed the first thug and his instant attack on him. Still, he was a cool one. He ducked under the first whistling hatchet blow, and lunged.


Erik managed to parry with the hatchet's wirebound shaft. The swordsman made an excellent recovery, before Erik could riposte. Once again he pressed the attack. This was no amateur swordsman. The blond didn't seem in the least confused by the fact that Erik fought left-handed. His sword skittered on the hatchet handle as he beat back the young knight. With the greater reach afforded by the sword and the blond's obvious level of skill, Erik knew that he was in severe trouble, even if the other two did not intervene. There was certainly no chance he could finish the blond assailant before the other two were back in action. In fact . . .


He wondered why they weren't back in action.


He risked a quick glance. And immediately saw the reason.


Manfred! You idiot!


Grinning cheerfully, Manfred had both of the remaining thugs in his fists, practically holding them up off the ground. Then, he began slamming them together, like a gleeful boy might pound cymbals. If he was carrying a weapon, Manfred showed no inclination to use it.


Cursing bitterly, Erik parried another sword thrust. The curse was aimed as much at Manfred's recklessness as it was at the damnable expertise of his opponent.


He should have guessed. Of course the young Breton knight-squire had made no mention of his intention of being here! If necessary, Erik would have taken him to Abbot Sachs to prevent it.


Manfred knew that. He also had a habit of getting his own way.


Erik snatched at a curtain—ripping it off its rail. If he could get that wrapped around his left hand . . .


The blond swordsman chose that moment to close. Erik dropped the curtain and grabbed his opponent's arm, staggering him. The bare arm was . . . hot. As the man twisted away, Erik's hatchet slashed across fine linen. First blood spilled, but it was anything but over. The swordsman still had the advantage. A feint and a fleche and Erik was on the defensive.


He caught his foot in the carpet as he dodged away. The sword-point hit his side. The Koboldwerk links didn't give; but Erik lost his footing, falling backwards over the body of the first thug.


The blond man rushed forward for the coup de grace. As he did so, Erik saw Manfred lift one thug and, with a huge grunt, fling him at the swordsman. The blond ducked, but was still knocked sideways by a flailing foot. Then was forced to duck again, to avoid the other thug whom Manfred heaved at him. Erik was impressed with the man's agility—the more so since, judging from that one touch, he was suffering from illness.


I'd hate to see what he's like when he's well!


And then there was an outburst of shouts and whistles, and the sound of rattles from outside.


"Schiopettieri!" bellowed someone. "Open up in the name of the Signori di Notte and the Doge of Venice!"


The assault on the heavy door showed they weren't waiting for it to be opened. By the shouting and female shrieks they'd already made entry by the water-door. The blond man stooped quickly, hefted the two thugs onto their feet, and darted down the short hallway toward the door at the other end. With much less agility, almost stumbling, they began to follow him. Then one of them stopped and stared back, his heavy face creased with emotion.


"Alberto!" he cried. "We've got to—"


Erik heard the snarling voice of the blond swordsman roll down the hallway. "He's dead, you fool! Come on!" A moment later all three men were gone. The door slammed shut behind them.


Manfred hauled Erik to his feet.


Erik shook his head. "I should have guessed you'd come here. How am I going to explain your presence here to Abbot Sachs?"


Manfred smiled grimly. "You won't have to. Those are Schiopettieri, not Knights. Since when do Knights sound rattles?"


Erik's eyes narrowed. "Do you know any other way out of here?" He looked at the side door from which one of thugs had emerged to toss the liquor over him, but saw at once that it led only to a closet.


Manfred shook his head. "Get thrown out or leave after paying your shot. Either here or by the water-door."


Erik grimaced. "Let's get out of this room, anyway. The Schiopettieri might want us to explain why we're sharing this salon with a dead body."


"That way." Manfred pointed to the door at the end of the hallway the ambushers had used for their escape. "Leads upstairs. Maybe we can find a balcony or something to jump from."


The staircase began just behind the door, to the left. They began running up it three steps at a time, Erik in the lead. He still had the hatchet in his hand, his eyes scanning ahead to watch for another ambush. He didn't expect one, though, since he was almost certain the blond swordsman and his two surviving companions had no further purpose beyond making their own escape.


They had just made the second landing in the winding staircase when they heard the street door burst open. Erik grabbed Manfred's arm and stopped him, gesturing for silence.


From below came a voice of authority. "—wearing a white surcoat with three red crosses on it. He must be taken. Kill him if you must."


Manfred pulled a wry face. "Some goddamned ambush!" he muttered. "It looks like you were the target."


"He went up the stairs!" cried another voice from below.


"Must be the bouncer," whispered Erik.


Manfred shook his head. "I put the bastard to sleep first. Come on. Give me a hand with this couch."


The couch was a venerable piece of furniture. Either it had been intended for some unusual antics in a higher bedroom, before its carriers had been defeated either by its weight or the angle of the stairs, or it was for elderly patrons who needed to lie down before going on to visit the delights on higher floors. It was solid and heavy, and made of some exotic black wood that Erik did not recognize. This was Venice. Strange things found their way here, even wood. The couch was about six cubits long and must have weighed at least four hundredweight.


Even with Manfred's oxlike strength, lifting it was not easy. They struggled to raise it above the banisters. On the other hand, the bunch of arquebus-armed men who came running up the stairs were unable to resist it as it came hurtling down at them. Neither was the wooden staircase up to this sort of treatment. It splintered. Amid the thunder of gunfire, the shouting—and screaming—of men, and the partial collapse of the staircase, Erik and Manfred fled upwards again.


"There are other stairs," panted Manfred. "Stone ones. They'll cut us off up those."


Erik pointed. "Take that next passage, any room and a window. If need be we'll break our way into the next house."


"Corner room. Give us two sides."


They legged it down the passage. Ripped open the door. And Erik suddenly remembered just where he was: in a notorious Venetian brothel.


The woman on the bed languorously raised herself up. Her very voluptuous self. She tilted her head and twitched full, red, red lips into an easy, provocative smile. "Two of you?" She had an ornately arranged head of auburn-red hair, and pale olive skin. She wore a string of gold-netted millefiori beads. That was all she wore, so the skin was very obvious.


Despite the circumstances, Erik found himself staring at the almond-skin color of the broad areolar rings around her nipples, like a snake-hypnotized rabbit. His eyes were drawn down instinctively until he wrenched them upward and away with a tremendous force of will.


She, in turn, stared thoughtfully at the three red crosses on his surcoat.


Manfred shut the door hastily behind them. He had no trouble looking at her.


"Your friend seems a little shy." There was amusement in her rich contralto voice.


Manfred snorted. "Don't mind him, demoiselle. In fact, don't mind us. We're just passing through."


"Demoiselle!" She chuckled. "Most of my visitors are just 'passing through,' darling." Her accent was a little strange to Erik, despite his skill with languages. Not that he was interested right now in worrying about where she came from.


"Well, we mean really passing through your room," said Manfred, heading for the window. "If you'd oblige us by not screaming about it, I'll come back for a longer and more generous visit when the fuss has died down. Oh."


The "oh" was aimed at the close-set steel bars in the window.


The woman laughed. Her laughter was low and cool, much like her chuckle. "Madame Claudia doesn't like customers leaving—or coming in—without having to pass through her cash box."


In the background they could hear the distant sounds of the pursuit. Getting closer. "We'd better get out there, Manfred," said Erik grimly, heading for the door. "We'll have to try and fight our way out."


"Wait," commanded the woman. "There is another way out. You'll just have to wait until the passage is empty." She had inserted herself between Erik and the door, as effectively—in his case—as a portcullis.


"They're likely to search," said Manfred. Unlike Erik he had no problems looking at her. Or at picking her up and moving her . . .


Her means of thwarting him was to blow a kiss at him. "I think I can hide you for few minutes. For a . . ." she broke off, as if she'd reached a sudden decision. "Never mind." She looked appraisingly at Erik, and then turned to Manfred.


"You, and especially your shy friend, present me with something of a challenge." She laughed wickedly. "Come on, big boys. Both of you. Get those clothes off. There must be twenty of them out there."


"I'll go," said Erik hastily. "They're only looking for me."


Manfred grabbed him. "Don't be a fool, Erik. The demoiselle is right. If there are two of us—ah, occupied with her—they're likely to look elsewhere. Come on, Erik. Get them off. Especially that surcoat."


The woman began expertly removing the horrified Erik's trousers. "I have some wigs. Some of my clients like a little masquerade. And you'd better call me Francesca. As charming as 'demoiselle' is, my clients do know my name."


* * *

Looking up at Manfred's hairy thighs standing over him was, Erik decided, the best view from a moral standpoint. Even if it was not attractive in any other sense. He couldn't just close his eyes when a murderous bunch might burst in on him at any moment—


Not with him trapped in this position. With Francesca's silky thighs straddled over him—muscular thighs, for all the soft smoothness of her skin—if he looked forward his view was of large naked breasts. Better to look at Manfred, even if large hairy . . .


The situation was grotesque! Especially because Manfred and Francesca didn't share any of his own sense of modesty.


He couldn't quite see just what Francesca was doing with Manfred, but the noise didn't leave much to the imagination. And she didn't have to roll her hips on him like that! It wasn't as if he could do anything.


* * *

When the Schiopettieri captain wrenched open the door moments later, he was greeted with the sight of three naked people on the bed, indulging in what his wife would have called "unnatural acts" that he himself would fantasize about for weeks thereafter. The slimmer dark-haired fellow who was being straddled was plainly putting in a tremendous effort, to judge by his bright red face.


Francesca removed part of her oxlike client's anatomy from her mouth. "We're busy, Luigi. You'll have to come back later," she said lazily.


The Schiopettieri captain shut the door hastily.


* * *

"Give it a minute and I think you can leave. Unless you'd like to finish off also," she added coquettishly, tickling the hastily dressing and red-faced Erik in the ribs.


"Nothing Erik'd like more," said Manfred, smothering a guffaw. "But I'm afraid we've got to go. Just how do we get out of here?"


She took a key from the drawer. "I was in a house that caught fire once. Since then I have always made sure I had a way out. There is a door at the end of the passage with a hoist-beam for bringing furniture up from the Canal."


"Ah. Going to be a splashy, wet landing. You don't want to drink this canal water if you can help it, Erik," said Manfred.


Francesca smiled lazily at him. "You'd make an even bigger splash than I would. Wait a moment. I have some rope."


Manfred nodded. "Sounds good. Beats jumping."


Erik wondered why there would be rope in such a room. Then, seeing the paraphernalia in the closet from which Francesca withdrew the rope, found himself blushing more fiercely. He had never seen such things, although he had heard of them.


But by now Erik had finished dressing, and the relief of being no longer unclothed brought back his usual calm. He turned to the still-naked Francesca, carefully looking only at her face. "Will you be all right? Should we take you with us?"


Francesca shuddered. "Three stories? When the building's not burning? No thank you! I'm not planning on staying in this establishment much longer anyway. But when I do leave, I will use more conventional means. I am certainly not built for the climbing of ropes."


Her smile widened to a grin. "My strength is in my legs. I shall use them to walk out of the front door. Quite soon, in fact. This house does not have sufficient cachet for someone of my . . . talents, shall we say. I have no intention of remaining a mere brothel puttana, although it has taken me a while to gather resources. Now, I shall move to the Casa Louise."


She chucked his chin. "Just remember that you owe me a favor. And now, get out of here before Luigi comes back."


* * *

They slid down into the darkness. It was just as well they hadn't jumped, thought Erik. When he dropped lightly off the end of the rope, he found not water but the deck of a vessel. The boatman who had been waiting for the Schiopettieri didn't expect the "prisoner" to land on his boat. Not, at least, when that prisoner was armed and unescorted except for an even larger friend. But with Erik's Algonquian war hatchet at his throat, he wasn't going to argue about taking them away from there.


They left him tied up in his own boat, on the edge of the Grand Canal, a hundred yards away from the Imperial embassy.


Manfred looked back with regret. "You know, that Francesca had a certain something."


Erik shuddered. "She had a great deal of everything. But still. I owe her a debt."


"I owe her," said Manfred, shaking his head. "That sort of thing doesn't come for free. That's a mercenary profession if there ever was one."


"Even ladies of that stamp must have kindly impulses," said Erik stiffly.


Manfred pulled a wry face. Despite being five years younger than Erik he knew a great deal more about whores. He remembered the look on Francesca's face when she'd first seen Erik's surcoat. It had been . . . calculating. The Knights were all at least minor aristocracy. Many were confreres, merely serving a three-year novitiate. He would certainly not put it past that worldly-wise woman to know that. He'd already prepared himself for a hasty argument on price when she'd suggested hiding them, until she suddenly changed her mind or thought of something else. A few moments of Erik's reactions to a naked woman would have convinced the stupidest harlot that this one was a pure young knight. Francesca'd been very speculative, very suddenly. Manfred gave a low chuckle. He could see that perhaps he'd have to protect Erik against predatory female wiles. Well. It might not be unpleasant. "Yep. Maybe she did," was all he said.


"I will have to reward her," said Erik slowly. "Mary Magdalen too . . ."


"Oh, I think she'll be happy enough with a few ducats," said Manfred calmly, with an ease he didn't feel.


In the moonlight Erik looked doubtful. "Do you really think so? I mean it was an act of great v–v–virtue," he stammered.


Manfred swallowed his amusement. Only Erik could describe a harlot performing fellatio on one man while straddling another as "virtue." And believe it too. For all the Icelander's ferocious skill in combat, he was an innocent country boy in so many other ways.


"I'm sure," he agreed cheerfully. "And I think Abbot Sachs will be surprised to see you back. Unharmed."


Erik shrugged. "Maybe it was just some kind of mix-up."


"That'll be his story," growled Manfred, with court-honed wisdom far beyond his years.


 


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