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Chapter 26

"Oh, my—" Kat stood in the doorway wide-eyed at the sight of Francesca's new suite of rooms. Francesca smiled wryly.


"Don't be too impressed, my dear," she said. "Remember how this is all paid for. My five current patrons are all over fifty, two are fat, one is bald and has a nose the size of a melon, and the last, poor man, needs—" She considered for a moment how to phrase what she wanted to say delicately. "—a great deal of encouragement to achieve his desires."


Kat blushed a charming color of pink.


Francesca's smile widened. "However, things may be on the verge of improvement. In one respect, at least. Do you recall that very large knight who was one of your rescuers at the church?" Seeing Kat's nod, Francesca cheerfully related the incident where she had provided Manfred and Erik with a means of escape from an ambush—sparing no details at all.


Kat blushed a charming color of scarlet.


Francesca laughed. "Don't be so innocent! That young knight certainly isn't—the large, young one, I mean. In fact, he and his blond friend visited just yesterday evening. To tender their thanks, they said. Which I have no doubt is all the blond one intended, but not large young Manfred." Her smile was now almost seraphic. "So I do believe I shall be acquiring a new patron, and very soon. He'll tire me out more, of course, but it'll still be a nice change of pace."


Kat's blush was beginning to fade; all the faster, as her face was creased by a frown of puzzlement. "I wouldn't have thought that a young knight could afford you in the first place, even if—" She stumbled over the next words, trying to avoid offense.


"—even if his morals were scandalous for someone supposedly devoted to holy orders?" finished Francesca, grinning. "Such an innocent! Kat, one of my existing patrons is quite high-ranked in the Church—and no temporary confrere knight, either."


The grin faded, and Francesca looked away. "As for the other . . . I'd just as soon not talk about it. Better for you also if I don't, girl, trust me. Just remember that confrere knights, whatever their current state, are often young men from the elite of the Empire. So a large purse is not really that surprising. Large enough, at least"—waving her hand about—"for these purposes."


She shook her head. "But enough of that! I am really so glad that you accepted my invitation," Francesca continued merrily. "My afternoon is entirely free today, as it happens. I made certain of it." She gestured at the sofa, chaise, and chairs, inviting Kat to take her choice among them.


Kat gingerly took a seat on the sofa, which betrayed her with its softness as it was intended to do, drawing her into a cushioned embrace. Kat resisted for a moment, then, wearing a sheepish smile, allowed the sofa to have its way with her.


Francesca reclined on the chaise, which bore more than a passing resemblance to an ancient Roman dining-couch. Not only was it an attractive pose, it was supremely comfortable. "Help yourself to the fruit next to you, by the way," she offered. "If you don't, it will only spoil—one of my admirers sends it every day, far more than I can eat. Evidently his last inamorata had the appetite of an elephant." As Kat reached for a grape, she continued. "I've already taken some measures to protect you if . . . your personal situation becomes worse. I spoke to the Madame about having a house gondola. Although she doesn't believe we need one yet—" Francesca emphasized the yet "—she agrees that we could use a very discreet courier for various errands, which could include patrons who for one reason or another would rather not make use of public boats or their own. And she also agrees that I will soon need a private gondolier of my own, in any event. It wouldn't pay a great deal, but . . ."


Kat let out a sigh. "It would enable me to survive, whatever else." She tried to look on the bright side. "If nothing else, it'd be safer than what I'm doing now. No one's going to pester Case Vecchie in a gondola, or a courtesan going to visit one discreetly."


"That was my thought also, although"—another grin—"I saw no reason to mention your current activities to the Madame. You'd probably want to wear a mask, of course, since I imagine you'd want to keep your identity secret. From other Case Vecchie most of all, since yours is one of the four oldest houses."


She paused for a moment, allowing Kat to absorb the fact that Francesca had learned she was Montescue. But Kat was neither surprised nor worried. She'd realized very soon after meeting Francesca that the courtesan was far too intelligent for Kat to be able to keep her family identity a secret from the woman for very long. And, perhaps oddly given Francesca's self-admitted (say better, self-proclaimed) mercenary nature, Kat was not worried about betrayal. For reasons she could not pinpoint, but didn't doubt at all, she knew Francesca could be trusted completely. In this matter, at least, if no other.


So, she simply returned Francesca's gaze with a level one of her own. And then, slowly, smiled.


Francesca's face softened. Her eyes even seemed to acquire—just for an instant—a slight film of moisture. "Thank you for that, Kat," she said, very softly. "Friendship does not come often, to a courtesan. We treasure it all the more for its rarity."


But her gaiety returned immediately. "And now—enough of all this gloomy business. Let's look to a brighter future. Information I promised you, information I have. That's really why I asked you to come here. So. Let's trade gossip!"


"Gossip?" Kat asked incredulously.


Francesca laughed. "When women talk, it's called gossip; when men do it, it's called information. In either case, it's an exchange that could profit one or both of the parties. That was our arrangement, wasn't it?"


"I suppose—" Kat looked dubious now, and Francesca shook her head. "Believe me, dear, men are far worse at holding their tongues in the presence of a woman than a woman is in the presence of anyone. I may know something that you can turn to profit that I can reveal without breaking confidences. But let's start with you. What's the current news down on the water?"


* * *

When they were done, perhaps two hours later, Francesca was no longer smiling.


"None of this is good, Kat. Although I'm glad you'll be able to turn some of my tidbits of information to profitable use. But something's deeply wrong. Something . . ." She hesitated, groping for words.


"Good times and bad times," shrugged Kat. "The world is like that. Certainly Venice."


Francesca shook her head, quite forcefully. "This is more than simply 'bad times.' Something—someone—is deliberately making things as bad as possible."


Kat frowned. "Why do you think that? And why would anyone want to do it?" Before Francesca could answer, Kat made a little waving motion with her hand, forestalling objections. "Oh, sure—Duke Visconti wishes Venice all the ill in the world. But even he has nothing to gain by creating turmoil in the city. No matter how desperate Venetians ever got, the last thing they'd accept is Milanese intervention in our affairs."


The courtesan sitting across from her lifted herself up from the chaise and began pacing about slowly. Kat was struck by how silently she moved.


" 'Intervention,' no. But what if the purpose wasn't intervention? What if it was simply—destruction?"


"And what would be the point of that?" cried Kat. "If Milan tried to destroy Venice—which they couldn't do anyway—we're an island and our fleet is far more powerful than anything they could muster—" Her words were coming in a rush.


It was Francesca's turn to wave down an objection. "Not Milan, Kat. Not, at least, as anything but a tool. I was thinking of Lithuania."


Kat's face went completely blank. She stared at Francesca, for a moment, as if she had suddenly found herself confronted by a raving lunatic.


Seeing the expression, Francesca chuckled. "I'm quite sane, I assure you. Yes, Kat, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and Poland is very far from Venice. And has no common border with it. No apparent source for mutual conflict." She shrugged. "Not even the commercial rivalry which periodically agitates the Hungarians and the Genoese and the Greeks in Constantinople."


"Exactly. So why in the world—"


"Who is the great rival of Lithuania, Kat?" interrupted Francesca.


"The Holy Roman Empire, of course."


"Precisely. And what will happen if Venice is destroyed? Who will fill the sudden power vacuum in northern Italy and the Adriatic? Not Milan!"


Kat stared at her. Then, slowly, remembering things her father—and even more, her grandfather—had told her in times past . . . things Dottore Marina had told her also, now that she thought upon it . . . her face began to pale.


Francesca made a most unfeminine grunt. "Precisely. Grand Duke Jagiellon's reputation for insensate brutality is well-earned, girl. But don't be fooled by it. He is also a consummate manipulator. A man who prefers to let others bleed themselves to death, if at all possible."


Kat spoke in a whisper. "If Venice . . . is destroyed, the Holy Roman Emperor will have no choice. If he doesn't come in, the Hungarians surely will. And—and—"


"And Charles Fredrik, with Lithuania and the borderlands to deal with already, cannot also afford to see a more powerful Kingdom of Hungary—especially not one with a toehold in Italy. Especially not with a man on the throne like Emeric, who doesn't quite have Jagiellon's reputation—outside of Hungary, that is—but comes in a very close second."


"There'd be war between the Empire and Hungary!"


Francesca nodded. "For a certainty. With—for a certainty—Milan and Rome sucked into the vortex as well. Genoa also, be sure of it—soon enough, the Greeks as well." She resumed her slow, silent pacing. "Ever since he took the throne, one of Charles Fredrik's policies has been to stay out of Italian affairs. He's resisted—harshly, at times—every attempt of the Montagnards to drag him into this morass of endless bickering. 'The Po pisshole,' he's been known to call it."


Despite her own mild reflex of Italian chauvinism, Kat couldn't help but laugh a little at the crude expression. And admit, privately at least, that there was some justice to the barb. It was a fact that Italians—northern Italians, especially—were prone to endless and ultimately futile feuds and vendettas. Had not her own beloved Grandpapa, an otherwise sane and even kindly man, been obsessed for years with his feud against the Valdostas? A house which no longer even existed, except in vague rumors and her grandfather's heated imagination.


"What can we do, Francesca?"


Francesca shrugged. "Us? Nothing. You must tend to the affairs of Casa Montescue. I can think of few things which would be better for Venice than to have that house back on its feet again. Me?" She chuckled. "I'm just a very fancy whore, girl." She spread her arms wide, in a gesture of helplessness. "Do I look like the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire?"


Kat sighed. "No." Then, giggled a little. "I've never met him, but . . . I don't think he's got your cleavage."


* * *

The Emperor's "cleavage," at that moment, was quite invisible. Covered as it was not only by the thick velvet of his imperial robes of office but by his own thick hands, clasped and folded across his chest as he listened to his adviser.


Baron Trolliger came to the last item on the agenda. "Oh, yes," he sighed, "that obnoxious Father Francis is still pestering you for another audience. I assume you'll want to me brush him off again. He's seen you once already. That's more than enough for the demands of courtesy. Irritating man! I'll tell him—"


"Send him in," interrupted the Emperor.


Trolliger stared at him. "He's just a priest, Your Majesty. Not even, from what I can tell, one in the good graces of Rome. He's certainly not an official emissary from the Grand Metropolitan."


Charles Fredrik's lips twisted into a wry smile. "I should think not, given his purpose here. I rather imagine the Grand Metropolitan has been tempted more than once to strangle him—even more so, the Father Lopez from whom Father Francis takes his directions."


The look of surprise vanished from Trolliger's face, replaced by impassivity. For all that the baron was one of the Emperor's closest advisers and agents, he knew full well that there were matters which Charles Fredrik chose not to discuss with him. This mysterious business of giving an obscure and apparently unimportant priest another private audience was obviously one of them.


"As you command, Majesty." Trolliger rose from his chair and began making for the door.


The Emperor stopped him. "I'd just as soon you were here for this audience, Hans. Have a servant bring the man."


The baron cocked an eye at the Emperor. Then, sighed. "I suppose this means I'll be traveling soon."


Charles Fredrik smiled and spread his hands in a gesture which expressed, in part, uncertainty. But which, mostly, expressed irony at the complicated world of political intrigue. "Most likely."


Trolliger managed, more or less, not to scowl.


* * *

An hour later, after Father Francis had come and gone, the baron was making no effort at all to keep his scowl hidden. "It's insane, Your Majesty. What these lunatics propose amounts to creating a Petrine version of the Servants of the Holy Trinity. As if the Servants aren't enough grief already. And then—then!—they want your permission to operate freely in imperial territory. I don't even want to think about the mess that would create."


Charles Fredrik studied his adviser under lowered brows, his heavy hands clasped over his purple robes of office. "I've already got a mess on my hands, Hans. Or are you so naïve as to think that the mission which the Servants sent to Venice was as innocent an affair as they claimed?"


Trolliger's lips grew pinched. The Emperor chuckled. A suggestion of "naïveté" was perhaps the ultimate insult in the baron's lexicon.


"No, I didn't think so," murmured Charles Fredrik. He rose to his feet and moved toward the narrow window nearby. "Then tell me, Hans—what are the Servants doing in Venice? Not to mention all those Knights they've assembled there." Now at the window, he cocked his head and gazed at his adviser.


Trolliger shrugged. "I don't know, Your Majesty. My spies tell me—"


"Nothing," interrupted the Emperor curtly. "Nothing worth knowing." He slapped the stone wall. "They're up to no good, Hans. I can feel it in my bones. And I've felt for some time anyway that the Empire was relying on them too much. At this point, I don't have a single magician worthy of the name who isn't a damned Sot. Where does that leave me—especially if Jagiellon is undertaking a campaign against me? Which I am now certain is what's ultimately at the bottom of these mysterious doings in Venice."


Not even Trolliger could keep a look of surprise from his face. "Jagiellon?" For a moment, he fumbled for words. "But—he's the archdemon in the Servants' pantheon of evil. Has been ever since he came to the throne four years ago."


"So?" shrugged Charles Fredrik. "It wouldn't be the first time in history that people got too close to their enemy, would it?" He scowled through the narrow window. "Which is what I suspect happened to Jagiellon himself. Until he seized the throne from his father, there had been no indication that Jagiellon was anything more than another ambitious and bullying Lithuanian prince. Since then . . ."


"There's something dark about the man," admitted the baron. "Even by the standards of the Lithuanian nobility."


" 'Dark'?" snorted the Emperor. "Say better: 'black as night.' " He rubbed his heavy jaw thoughtfully. "Why does he wear that mask at all times, for instance? Simply to disguise the scars he claims to have received when he tried to fend off his father's assassins?"


Charles Fredrik turned away from the window and resumed his seat behind the heavy desk he used for working audiences. "I think not. I don't believe for an instant that Grand Duke Jagiellon is truly blind. Nor more than you. I think he keeps his eyes covered so no one can see the monster shining through them."


Trolliger took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "That is," he admitted, "my deepest fear also."


"Exactly," said the Emperor, nodding. "Which means that if Lithuania is behind the situation unfolding in Venice, we face something far worse than simple political intrigue. And if that's true, then I think I'd be a fool to keep relying on the Servants of the Holy Trinity."


"The Empire is Pauline, Your Majesty. The populace and the dynasty both. To allow—"


"Bah!" The Emperor's thick hand slammed down on the desk. "Do I care about the quarrels of theologians? I have an Empire to maintain, Hans. Be damned to all that!"


Again, the baron took a deep breath; again, let it out slowly. Then abruptly nodded his head. "True. And, as always, I am at your command." He pushed back his chair, beginning to rise.


"Venice it is, then. God in Heaven, I detest that city."


The Emperor waved him back down again. "It's not quite that bad. I think we can rely on Father Francis to pass on my message to his Father Lopez in Venice. No reason for you to go there. Instead—"


Trolliger didn't so much resume his seat as fall into it. The baron was quite familiar with the intricacies of northern Italian politics. He could see immediately the logic of the Emperor's train of thought.


"Oh, no," he groaned.


Charles Fredrik grinned. "Ferrara's not so bad. A very pretty little city, in fact, as I recall."


The baron's scowl would have frightened ogres. "Who cares about the city? Have you ever—personally—negotiated with Enrico Dell'este? You think they call him 'the Old Fox' for nothing?"


The Emperor's grin didn't so much as waver. "That's why I have advisers and trusted agents."


 


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