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Chapter 23

Well, that was certainly interesting.


Francesca pulled on an open-fronted robe, in case someone came back, tied it around her waist with a tasseled cord, and shook out her hair. Then she turned to the ewer and basin on the top of the table across the room where it wouldn't be knocked over in a moment of passion. She rinsed her mouth with herb-scented water and spat it into the basin.


And why did I do that, anyway?


It was not an idle question. Francesca had reacted to the situation based on reflex, because there had been no time to think things through carefully. But her reflexes had been honed by a perilous life, and she had come to trust them. Now that it was over and she did have a chance to think, she probed her memory to discover what twisted chain of logic had led her, almost without conscious thought, to behave in a way that she would normally have not.


Most certainly not! If men wanted her favors, they could damn well pay for them. She was no silly maiden to rescue a handsome man from danger without good reason—much less two of them, neither of whom was really that handsome anyway.


A pair of Knots, ambushed by the Schoppies. And not just any pair of Knots, either. Whoever arranged this particular episode either had no idea what kind of a mess he would create—or intended to. I wonder which?


She picked up the wooden comb from beside the basin and ran it through her hair, walking back to the bed as she did so. Francesca had not come from the streets. Before her family's ruination, they had been skilled players in the subtle and deadly intrigue which was the principal sport of Aquitaine's aristocracy. Her father had trained her in the political and diplomatic arts as thoroughly as her mother had trained her in other ways. So, a mind far better educated than anyone would have expected to find in that brothel worked at the problem, while she sat on the edge of the bed and combed her hair.


She had known, of course, from the moment she saw the two men, that they were what her mother—as chauvinistic as any Aquitaine—would have called, disdainfully, étrangers. The embarrassed blond was too fair to be Prussian or Austrian; and his companion had called him "Erik." He could only be a Norse of some kind. And that was odd, because there were very few Norse in the Knots. The Christian Norse who belonged to the Holy Roman Empire were Danes; and the Danes were rivals of the Knights of the Holy Trinity in the Baltic. The other Christian branch of Scandinavia were the Icelanders and their various offshoots—but they gave their allegiance to the League of Armagh, not the Holy Roman Emperor.


Except—


Her eyes widened. Like a flash, her mind focused on the other of the two men—the very large and square one. Very large, she remembered with some amusement, and in all respects; but he hadn't been rough at all, so she didn't hold it against him. He had spoken with a pronounced Breton accent—unmistakable, to one born and bred as Francesca had been in the Aquitaine.


And his name was "Manfred." His companion Erik had used it once.


Her eyes widened still further. Manfred of Brittany? The Manfred of Brittany? Is it possible?


Hair-brushing was too sedate. Francesca set down the comb, got to her feet and began pacing slowly about. Her quick mind raced, tracing the connections.


Nephew of the Emperor . . . probably second in line to the throne . . . third in line, for a certainty . . . still a just a youth, he'd be . . . bit of a rakehell, supposedly . . . what would Charles Fredrik do with such an imperial scion?


Of course! It's practically a tradition now with the Hohenstauffens!


Back and forth, back and forth. Her bare feet made no sound on the floor. That, too, her mother had taught her. Noise is something you make to please a man, when it suits your purpose. Otherwise—move silently.


Yes, it all made sense. Charles Fredrik would have reached beyond the Empire altogether, called in that ancient clan favor. Brought in someone who could be trusted in such a matter, have no ties or links to the complex web of imperial politics, and also be quite capable of


She winced, slightly, remembering the noise that had erupted earlier from the entry salon downstairs. Those fools! They might as well have tried trapping a tiger with a fishnet.


She was sure of it, now. The two men she had rescued were an imperial prince—Manfred of Brittany—and his Icelandic bodyguard.


Then, remembering Kat's description of her frightening encounter with the Knights in the church two weeks earlier, Francesca began laughing softly. Kat had not mentioned the name of either of the knights who had come to her defense, on that occasion, but she had described them. Her description, of course, had borne precious little resemblance to the two men Francesca had just finished . . . entertaining in her room. Granted, Manfred was very big; but he was not a giant. Nor—here Francesca's laugh almost gurgled—had the shy and red-faced Erik seemed quite the Nordic werewolf that Kat depicted.


Still . . . thinking about it, Francesca could well believe that those two young men—especially Erik—could be utterly terrifying under different circumstances. Judging from the sounds she had heard coming from below earlier that evening, a number of would-be ambushers had certainly found them so.


She had not, however. And, now that she was certain of their identity, Francesca found herself strangely delighted by the entire episode. She had chosen to rescue the two men out of half-conscious calculation, true. But . . .


Kat's a friend of mine. So I suppose I owed those two boys a favor anyway. Not—again the little gurgling laugh—that Erik seemed to enjoy it much, even if Manfred certainly did.


The laugh died away. Favors were favors, true, but self-interest remained. Where was the benefit to her in this thing?


This called for more leisurely reasoning. Once again, Francesca resumed her seat on the bed and went back to combing her hair.


She began by examining the ambush. She hadn't seen it, of course, but she didn't need to. She had seen the key piece of evidence—Erik's naked body, completely unmarked by any wound. Whoever set that trap had no idea what kind of ferocious "prey" would be walking into it. Which meant they were quite unaware of the true identity of Erik and Manfred. Whatever had been the purpose of the ambush, it had been aimed at two—or perhaps only one—junior members of the militant order. Not an imperial prince and his special companion.


That ruled out any of the Venetian factions immediately. Neither the Metropolitans nor the Montagnards would have any reason to ambush ordinary knights. Not in such an elaborate manner, at any rate, in a well-known brothel where there was bound to be a risk of capture by the Schiopettieri. If either of the factions had a quarrel to settle with a common knight, they would have stabbed him in the streets. A quick thrust from a doorway, followed by easy escape through crooked alleys in the dark.


Then . . . why had the Schiopettieri shown up so quickly? That was completely atypical. To have gotten here so quickly, the Schiopettieri had to have been forewarned—suborned, in fact. And whoever could wield that much influence would hardly have done it for the petty purpose of killing or injuring a simple knight.


Nor, again, was it something either the Montagnards or the Metropolitans would have done anyway. Not for their own purposes, at any rate. It was conceivable one of them might have done so as a favor to an ally, or for pay.


What ally, or paymaster? Not any of the powers within official Venice, for a certainty. The last thing official Venice wanted was any cause for quarrel with the Holy Roman Emperor. Charles Fredrik was a grim and dangerous man to have ruling the most powerful realm in Europe, especially one which was almost a neighbor of the island Republic. But—unlike some emperors of the past, Charles Fredrik was not given to grandiose ambitions. He was not a conqueror by temperament. Despite occasional frictions, Venice had gotten along quite well with the Empire since Charles Fredrik came to the throne, all things considered. It would be sheer insanity for the Venetian oligarchy to attack the Emperor's nephew.


All of which led Francesca to one inescapable conclusion. She set down the comb, folded her hands in her lap, and stared sightlessly at the far wall of her room.


Whoever was behind that ambush, and whatever the reason, it was someone whose motives were imperial. Or aimed at the Empire. This—whatever it is—goes far beyond petty Venetian squabbling.


She made no attempt to pursue that train of thought any further. She lacked sufficient information. Instead, she considered another question:


So. Was it a blunder, a piece of idiocy, or a calculated attempt to throw a tremendously big boulder into the already roiling pool of Venetian politics at present? For purposes which go quite beyond Venice itself?


After a minute or so, she set that question aside also. Again, she simply lacked the necessary information to make any kind of intelligent assessment. That left her with the final and most important question:


So. What do I do? Pursue this any further, or leave it be?


The answer to that question came almost as fast as the question itself. If she'd had any intention of not pursuing it, her well-trained reflexes wouldn't have led her to assist the two men in the first place. And, as always, Francesca trusted her reflexes.


For a rare moment, Francesca allowed herself a sheer grin. Not a seductive smile, but a true baring of the teeth with unrestrained glee.


What a grand game this would be!


The grin faded quickly enough. She was neither rash by temperament nor, certainly, by training. Patience had been drilled into her as a small girl. For the time being . . .


Meddling with this immediately or directly would make me a dangerous woman. I think I would rather not be dangerous at the moment, when I have my own pot to stir.


There was still a lot of noise and to-do going on in the rest of the house. Good. She'd intended to leave very soon anyway, now that Katerina had provided her with the last things she needed. Francesca had planned to wait a day or two more, but . . .


No. Tonight would be ideal. Once everything was sorted out and the appropriate bribes paid—this time, to the Madame of the Red Cat for a wonder, and not from her—things would be very quiet. The other girls would be upset, especially the young and not-so-experienced ones, the servants would be nursing bruised bodies and ill-tempers, and since by now the word had spread all up and down the Grand Canal that the Red Cat had been descended upon by the Schoppies in force, customers would be thin on the ground tonight. Tomorrow, of course, they'd be thick as fleas on a feral cat, wanting to know what happened, but not tonight. Tonight, in a hour or so, she could envelope herself in a cloak and walk out without anyone noticing.


Fernando, the aged servant who usually saw to the needs of the girls on this floor, stuck his head into the room without knocking—as usual. "Francesca—are you all right?" he asked.


She pouted. "I am, but my customers weren't happy. I only finished one off, and I suspect they sneaked out without paying. There were two—a big Circassian and a little Moor." There. Now if anyone thinks to connect me with Manfred and his keeper, they'll be disabused of the notion. I doubt the captain was paying attention to complexions and hair colors, other than mine.


Fernando frowned fiercely. "Half the house sneaked out without paying. I hope Madame soaks those Schoppies good!" He withdrew and shut the door. Francesca laughed softly to herself.


She waited, still as a statue, her hands folded in her lap, while the house settled.


Eventually, except for the murmur of distant talking and the hysterical sobbing of some girl too overset to be comforted, it did. Francesca bound her hair into a net to keep it in order until she could put it up properly, and got out the package that Kat had brought her early this afternoon, putting the latch on the door just in case. If anyone tried it, let them think she was having a case of the vapors herself.


Just as well that she was already naked under the robe, because she was about to go up several steps in the world, sartorially speaking, and the transformation would have to be from the skin outward, staring with perfumed oil. None of this had been cheap, but it was all necessary. Just as the Red Cat would turn away a mere putta who came calling at the door, so Casa Louise would turn away a whore from the Red Cat.


Silk hose; silk knitted hose, which clung to the leg as mere cut-and-sewn hose couldn't. Silk shifts, three of them, as fine as cobweb, and trimmed with lace. Undergown, of silk-satin, once white but re-dyed in ochre—not new, but no one would ever know that unless they got their noses within an inch of the seams. Overgown, also not new, but very, very cleverly put together from two "donor" gowns, one of which was the source of the embroidery, the other of the foundation fabric—silk-and-linen twill in a rich re-dyed brown.


Now, how am I going to use this little entertainment? It's too soon to throw any nets—and too dangerous—but a bit of bait . . . 


Young Manfred was very much attracted to her, of that she was quite certain. But would he remember where she had told him she was going? Probably not. He did not strike her as the kind of young man who would remember such things. So—how to remind him?


It was as she was tying the embroidered girdle just under her breasts that it came to her, and she laughed. Of course! She would send him a short length of perfumed rope, with a card saying only Casa Louise. She would pay a messenger to see that it went only into Manfred's hands. He must go outside of the chapter house and the Imperial embassy sometime.


The sobbing had stopped, the buzz of conversation increased. Good. Time to go.


She gathered all that she wanted to take with her in a very small bag. She hadn't wasted any of her earnings—until now—on cosmetics or clothing as the other girls did. But her savings—except for enough to take her to her new home—weren't here. They were on deposit with a goldsmith. So the cosmetics and hair ornaments and jewelry all fitted into a very small bag. She left her robe lying on the floor with her two dresses; some other girl could have it and welcome. She flung over her splendid gown the cloak that had come wrapped around the dress and the rest—the plain side, a dark tabby-weave linen that no one here would look twice at. She drew the hood over her head, and slipped out the door.


The doorman was gone—nursing a bruised and possibly broken skull, she suspected. There had been no one in the Madame's room, either. Luck smiled upon her tonight.


She did have to walk a little, and this was the most hazardous part of the undertaking—footpads, toughs; she was fair game for anyone who saw her—but they, too, had been frightened out of the area along with the gondoliers. When she finally found one free and flagged him to the side of the canal, she was far enough away from the Red Cat that no one was likely to connect her to the place.


"Casa Louise. Don't hurry," she ordered the gondolier. She drew the curtains around the tiny "cabin," but did not blow out the lamp, for she was going to need it—and every moment it would take to get to Casa Louise.


By the time the boat nosed into the mooring at this most prestigious of Houses, Francesca had completed her transformation. Her hair was now arranged as elegantly as that of any merchant princess, twined with strings of lustrous glass and semiprecious beads, held in place with bejeweled pins. The careful use of cosmetics turned handsome features into something dramatic. And the cloak, now turned right-way around, showed its true face of ochre velvet and gold cording. When she drew back the curtains and the gondolier stooped to offer his hand to help her up, his eyes widened in admiration.


He aided her onto the walkway, and when he withdrew his hand, there was a coin of sufficient worth in it to assure his satisfaction and silence.


Casa Louise, unlike the Red Cat, boasted a landing lit by lanterns, with more lanterns on either side of the door, and two footmen beneath each one. The place was a well-lit stage, for very few of those who arrived here were reluctant to be seen.


Francesca glided up to the footmen with practiced grace and studied aplomb. "Francesca de Chevreuse," she told the right-hand man, taking up her new identity and name for the first time with immense satisfaction. She did not have to add I am expected, because he would already have been informed.


"Madonna," the footman murmured, and opened the door to the next stage of her life.


 


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