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Chapter 38

Francesca looked out of her window onto the Grand Canal. "It will be nice here in spring. Not as nice as on the Ligurian coast, but still pretty." She spoke calmly, conversationally—as if Erik had not come bursting in here three minutes back, looking for Manfred.


Now he was sitting here, being as polite as if in any Venetian lady's salon. And feeling utterly ill at ease.


Erik swallowed. Francesca always left him not really sure of his ground. She was so . . . alien to him. Different from his expectations, especially after that first meeting. By the time the second one occurred, he was floundering. Francesca's new residence could, he supposed, be technically referred to as a "bordello." But it was like no bordello Erik had ever seen. There was no salon downstairs where half-naked women lounged for the inspection of the customers. In fact—other than, presumably, in the privacy of their own very spacious and luxurious apartments—the women were always extremely well dressed. And not flirtatious in the least, in the blatant manner that Erik expected from "whores."


Erik glanced around, trying to keep himself from fidgeting. Francesca's apartment was on the third floor of the Casa Louise. It had a large salon and a balcony and windows—real glass windows—looking out over the hustle and bustle of the Grand Canal. As always when he arrived to round up Manfred, she had greeted him like a lady when he came in the door—and, as always now, she was dressed like one.


Well . . . a lady with a taste in low-cut upthrust bodices. Erik found it nearly as distracting as her nudity had been. While they waited for Manfred to get dressed, Francesca—as always—engaged Erik in genteel conversation. He had found her intelligent, well-read, and with a political background that made him feel naïve. To his back-country Icelandic-Vinlander values, a whore was a whore. A lady was a lady. The concept of a "courtesan" was new to him, and he still wasn't sure how to deal with it. Or how to protect his charge from her. Or even—a very new and heretical thought, this—whether his charge needed to be protected from her.


"You can't really stop him, you know."


How had she known what he'd been thinking about? Well, it was no use beating about the bush. Despite his warnings, either Manfred had said something to her or her very quick mind had picked it up. "I must," Erik said stiffly. "It is my duty to care for him. To keep him under my eye and train and protect him . . . from entanglements too."


Francesca laughed musically. "Poor Erik! He must be a great trial to you."


It was all Erik could do to keep himself from agreeing. Manfred was a tearaway. There was no getting away from it. Half the taverns and a fair number of the women in the Empire could testify to that. "I do what I have to do, madame."


She gurgled. "The title is premature, Erik. But it is correct. I shall either be a madame or simply retire with considerable wealth after a career as a courtesan. Perhaps marry one of my clients, at the end—some plump, cheerful rich old merchant looking to stay cheerful in his dotage. I have no long-term designs on young Manfred. He is amusing and . . . energetic. He is also young. His fancy will turn elsewhere, and some sweet young thing can be very grateful that I have polished him a little." She patted Erik on the arm gently. He tried very hard not to be distracted by her soft skin. "He is safer here, with me, than on the street. The owners of this building take great precautions. There are mistresses of men from all factions, and courtesans who could entertain a man who is Montagnard tonight and one who is a Petrine legate tomorrow. This is one of the safest places in all Venice."


There was some shouting and catcalling down on the canal below.


"Ah." Francesca smiled. "They must have found him."


"Who?"


Francesca moved to open the doors onto the balcony. "Someone has been spending a great deal of money looking for a youngster who got himself into trouble with a girl. If my informant is to be believed, with one of the daughters of the Casa Dorma no less! It is a long and complicated romantic story."


Erik blinked. "Do you know everything?"


Francesca dimpled. "I do my best."


They'd gone out onto the balcony as the gondola which was drawing the comments drew near.


"Ah. That must be him. The dark-haired one in the bow."


Erik looked. And saw a very recognizable handsome blond-haired man also in the gondola. "Do you also know who the blond fellow is?"


Francesca looked amused. "Of course. Caesare Aldanto. Once of Milan. Reputed to have once been a Montagnard agent. A sellsword under the shadow of the hand of none other than Ricardo Brunelli."


"He's also the man who is directly responsible for us meeting you, Francesca," said Erik dryly.


She smiled again and turned him back to the warm apartment. "Then I owe him. But I don't think I'll tell him. So, he set up that . . ."


"Fiasco. It would have been different if Manfred hadn't deliberately fooled me and been there too. I would have probably been dead—certainly injured. Your 'sellsword' is awfully good with that sword of his. So he takes orders from Ricardo Brunelli. Who is this Brunelli? By your tone he is a big cheese here in Venice." Erik hoped his tone did not betray the fact that he intended to see the cheese sliced down to size.


"Have you found Erik a girl, my demoiselle?" asked Manfred, who had finally come out of the bedroom, giving Eric a brief glimpse of a rumpled large brass bed.


Francesca turned to him. "Manfred, did you dress entirely by guess? Come here! Let me fix your collar. Your friend has ambitions on killing the head of the house Brunelli."


Manfred was obviously better informed than he was. Probably by Francesca. "Ha. You don't start low, do you, Erik?"


"Who is he, Manfred? It appears he's the bastard who set me up to be killed at the House of the Red Cat."


Francesca smiled, as she neatly twitched the neckband of Manfred's shirt into shape. "He is the man who believes he will be the next Doge."


"I don't think you can do that, Erik," said Manfred seriously. "I don't think even my—the Emperor—could stop the Venetians hanging the lot of us."


"Besides," said Francesca, "Aldanto is reputed to be for sale, confidentially, to the highest bidder. It may have had nothing to do with Brunelli."


"He sounds like the sort to have influence with these Venetian Schiopettieri."


Francesca shook her head. "Not really. Any of the Signori di Notte could have done it. But Brunelli is not one of them."


Manfred stretched. "I know you don't like the idea, Erik. But I still think you need look no further than our dear abbot."


Erik shrugged. "Sachs says he sent Pellmann to me with a message that the raid was off. Pellmann has enough of a grudge against me to not deliver it. I'm not a North German Ritter."


"And you didn't beat him, so he didn't respect you," said Manfred with a grin. "You're a callous brute, Erik. How could you treat the man like that? No wonder he ran off."


Francesca laughed. "And what the two of you do not see is that that does not add up. Aldanto being the organizer of that ambush, and the time at which the Schiopettieri arrived, adds up to two things: money and influence. Venetian influence. How would this Pellmann have access to either? He was not a Venetian, was he?"


"Pomeranian," said Erik. "Couldn't even make himself understood in the local dialect. Despised all Southerners, and Venetians most of all."


Francesca sighed. "I think you will find he's dead."


Manfred snorted. "Well, that's no loss to the world. Unless sharing Von Tieman's squire-orderly is worse, Erik?"


Erik shook his head. "No. He's a nice enough old fellow. A bit slow upstairs. Probably from all those slaps around the head Von Tieman gives him. He's pathetically grateful that I don't. But why kill Pellmann? And if it wasn't him, arranging it in a piece of spite, who was it? It can't be the abbot, Manfred. Me being wounded or killed or even captured in a raid by the local constabulary on a brothel would have shamed the Knights—and by extension, the Servants."


Manfred shook his head. "Believe me. If they had caught you, the abbot would have been the first person to be shocked that you were there. It was a set-up, I tell you."


"I don't believe it," said Erik, stubbornly. "I have opposed him, true—in a relatively minor matter—but surely that's not worth the effort and money such a plot would take. He could just send me home."


Manfred grinned. "Heh. I'd be sent off on the next boat. Just think. No Uncle Erik to ride herd on me."


Erik didn't say anything. Francesca was there. But he smiled and shook his head. His duty was to protect Manfred. There were certain steps he would have to take if the abbot tried to send him away. A signet ring to be used. In dire emergencies.


"Well, the thought of my running wild has shut Erik up. He's even forgotten he's come to hale me away for guard duty. Goodbye, my sweet. Until tomorrow."


Francesca shook her head. "Not until Thursday, Manfred, as you well know."


A look of pouting hurt spread over Manfred's face. "I wish you'd give this up. I thought you loved me."


She smiled, and patted his cheek. "And I do! But not exclusively."


He put his bulky arms around her waist and drew her close, his face growing sulky.


Francesca gave him a quick, easy kiss, but her hands were on his chest gently pushing him away. "Please, Manfred. You could not begin to afford keeping me for yourself, and you know it as well as I do. So enjoy what we have."


"But . . . Francesca," he pouted.


"Thursday. Build up your strength." Her next kiss was firm, and dismissive.


* * *

On their way back, observing Manfred's clumping steps from the corner of his eye, Erik found himself fighting down a smile. For once—ha!—even the happy-go-lucky imperial prince seemed to have met a woman who confounded him.


Perhaps sensing his companion's humor, Manfred shrugged thick shoulders. "What can I do?" he demanded, in a tone which was half-amused and half-exasperated. "Next to Francesca, all the other women in this town are just . . . boring."


His still-young face seemed, for just a moment, even younger than it was. "It's not fair! I'm being ruined for a normal life of whoremongering." Blackly: "You watch! Before you know it, she'll be reading to me in bed."


Erik held his tongue. But he finally decided Francesca was right. Maybe some young girl out there—some eventual princess—would thank her for the training she was giving Manfred. He was far too used to getting his own way; with women as much as anything else. Being stymied and befuddled was undoubtedly good for the royal young lout.


As a guardian and a warrior-mentor, Erik still regretted the incident that had led Manfred into consorting with Francesca. Because of the debt between them, he hadn't been able to deal with it as decisively as he usually would have. But . . .


Yes, there was truth in what she'd said. He simply couldn't watch the young hellion twenty-four hours a day. Manfred was as safe with Francesca as in the Imperial embassy . . . from which Manfred had found at least three unofficial exits. If he could leave, then anyone could enter too. Erik had pointed this out to the abbot, to be told that the rite of enclosure precluded it. All Erik could say was that the rite appeared—as testified by Manfred's presence in the Casa Louise—to be ineffectual.


And, he supposed, just as he was seeing to some aspects of the education of the future Duke of Brittany and possible heir to the Holy Roman Emperor's throne, Francesca was also. Erik blushed a little. These were certainly areas he was ignorant of. And besides that, she was knowledgeable about other things which Erik knew little about—such as the political intrigue that seemed to be the heart of the Venetian Republic. The Italians seemed to relish it. It left him puzzled and with a feeling of distaste. But this was what Manfred would have to deal with when Erik went back to Iceland and thence to Vinland.


 


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