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Chapter 35

When the shaman's human form had returned sufficiently to enable him to speak, the grand duke leaned forward from his throne and touched the shoulder of the man squatting before him. Then, brought the fingers to his heavy lips and tasted the water which soaked the shaman's fur cloak. The taste was that of the stinking waters of the Jesolo marshes; that, and some blood.


"Well?"


The grand duke's shaman shook his head. The gesture was not one of uncertainty; it was one of fear. The man's lips were trembling.


"It is dangerous, lord. The Strega is not powerful, but he knows a great deal. Even now. And so long as he remains in the Jesolo, he has protectors." The shaman winced, rubbing his shoulder. As always, the shape-change had healed the wound, but the pain lingered. The undine's teeth had been sharp and jagged.


"The priest? Did you find him? I need to know where he goes when he leaves his quarters."


The shaman hesitated; tried to control his trembling lips. This question was far more dangerous than any undine. "I sensed him, lord, yes. Impossible not to, anywhere in Venice. Even in the marshes, I could sense him. Though not strongly. His presence is very strong anywhere in the vicinity of the Ghetto."


The shaman paused, hoping that answer would satisfy his master. He kept his eyes lowered, his shoulders hunched under the heavy cloak. At all costs, he wished to avoid the grand duke's gaze. Jagiellon's eyes were . . . frightening.


"Do not annoy me, slave. Or I will send you back into the forests of Karelen with your shape-changing powers severely stunted. Difficult to be a shaman without a hide. I will eat your skin."


The shaman was frozen, for a moment. The grand duke's threat was not an idle one; not in the least. The shaman had seen his master eat a retainer's skin thrice before. The first time, the skin had belonged to the shaman's predecessor. The grand duke had required the shaman to taste the meal first, before Jagiellon devoured the remainder, on the off chance that a fanatic might have poisoned his own skin before displeasing the ruler of Lithuania with his incompetence.


"It is dangerous, lord," whined the shaman. "For you as much as me. The priest is much less knowledgeable than the Strega, but—he is very strong. Very strong!" The shaman rubbed his temples with both hands; brackish water soaked through the fingers. "It hurt my head just being near him."


A massive hand seized the shaman's shaggy hair and jerked his head up. "Look at me."


Despite his terror, the shaman dared not disobey. For all that he desperately desired to close his eyes, he met the grand duke's stare.


The moment lasted for . . . the shaman knew not how long. It seemed endless. But, eventually, the grand duke relinquished his iron grip and allowed the shaman's head to sag forward.


"I will tolerate your cowardice. For the moment. There is some truth to what you say. The priest is, indeed, very strong."


The grand duke's huge hands tightened on the armrests of his throne. He swiveled his massive head and stared at the window facing to the south. As was true of all the windows in Jagiellon's private chambers, this one was covered with heavy drapes. The drapes, dark red against the dark brown wooden walls, gave the room an almost funereal atmosphere.


"I have already punished those who did not prevent his mission to Venice," said the grand duke, so softly it almost seemed as if he were speaking to himself. "Intolerable incompetence. The man himself asked leave to go to the Holy Land; and the Grand Metropolitan is a weakling. It should have been easy to arrange."


The shaman relaxed a bit. As was always true with Jagiellon's underlings, the news of another's punishment came as a great relief. The grand duke needed punishment in his diet as much as food, and he ate both in prodigious quantities. Still, he was not exactly a glutton. One or two Lithuanian agents in Rome dead—most likely by poison or knife; possibly by magic—meant less chance of a shaman's skin being fried in Vilna.


The shaman even made so bold as to speak. "For all his strength, lord, the priest is groping in the dark. Best to leave him there, until it is too late. Whereas, if you strike at him . . . and the thing is mishandled or goes awry . . ."


Ensconced in his heavy robes of office, the body of the grand duke filled the chair to overflowing. When the body shifted, as it did now, the sturdy piece of furniture creaked alarmingly.


With as much alarm, if not more, the shaman studied that shifting form surreptitiously, from under lowered eyelids. Suggesting that the grand duke might be contemplating error, as the shaman was now doing, was risky.


The shaman was relieved to see that the shifting seemed more a matter of a heavy body adjusting its weight than of one gathering itself for the attack. The grand duke's obesity, as the shaman had many occasions to recall, was deceptive. Beneath the rolls of fat lay slabs of muscle whose power went beyond the human. And while Jagiellon was now a great sorcerer in his own right, the ruler of Lithuania was partial to more physical means of expressing his displeasure. As a prince, before the fat which came upon his body after the change, Jagiellon had been a famous warrior.


"Um." Jagiellon said no more than that, for a few minutes. Throughout that time, the shaman squatted silently, unmoving, his eyes hidden under the lowered brow and the great mane of shaggy hair. Trying to make himself as inconspicuous as possible.


"You may be right," mused the grand duke, eventually. "It is certainly true that when I let the Woden escape, the results were . . . unfortunate. I had thought the Lion's slumber to be a heavier thing."


The shaman dared to speak again. "That was the strength of the priest at work, Lord. He is dangerous."


"Yes." Again, silence. "Impervious to seduction also, it seems. I had hopes for that tool, but she is proving less useful than desired."


There was a slight edge to the last words. From long experience, the shaman knew that a death sentence had just been passed. He felt a small regret. The tool in question was as beautiful as she was evasive. Thus far, unlike the other female in Venice, she had managed to retain her own soul. But the shaman knew it would have been only a matter of time before Jagiellon broke her to his will. After which, as was his way, he would allow his chief underlings to enjoy the woman.


But the regret was small, and fleeting. There would be other beautiful women. Being in service to Jagiellon was as rewarding as it was perilous.


Still . . .


"She may be of use yet, Lord," murmured the shaman. "If she has failed in that task, she has succeeded in many others."


Again, the great body shifted; and, again, the shaman grew tense. But, again, it was simply an obese ruler's discomfort.


"True. We will see. In the meanwhile, I have decided you are correct. We will continue the murders, but keep the Woden on a tight leash. And make no attempt, for the moment, to remove either the mage or the priest. Time is on my side, after all. Venice grows more ragged by the day. So long as the priest remains ignorant and the mage remains too terrified to act . . . good enough."


The grand duke planted his hands on the arm rests of the chair and heaved his great, gross body erect. "Leave now."


The shaman bobbed his head, rose, and scuttled from the room. He left behind him a trail of foul-smelling water, in addition to the pool which had collected before the grand duke's throne where he had squatted. But the shaman was not concerned about that. Jagiellon was not fastidious. Not in the least.


When the door closed behind him, the shaman finally heaved the great sigh of relief he had been suppressing. He was always relieved when he left Jagiellon's presence, of course. But never more so than when he could hear the heavy robes slithering to the floor and smell, behind him, the coming transformation.


Moving as rapidly as he could without actually running, he scurried down the corridors of the palace in Vilna. It would take the shaman some time to reach his room, for he had deliberately chosen quarters as far away as possible from those of Jagiellon. As far away, in fact, as the immense and sprawling palace permitted.


The distance was still not enough, as far as the shaman was concerned. The stench was getting stronger by the moment, seeming to follow him like a hound. None of the various guards whom he passed noticed it, of course. They did not possess the shaman's other senses.


Chernobog was feeding.


 


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