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Chapter 60

Swords clashed in a high-speed flurrying dance of steel. Not for the first time, Manfred wondered how Erik could be so damned quick. The edges were blunt, there were buttons on the points, and they wore quilted jackets. So why did Erik always leave him feeling he had been half skinned and half beaten? He put in another determined rush. If he was going to feel like that, so was Erik.


"Hold." A voice commanded. They put up the practice swords. "You must go to Abbot Sachs's chambers." Von Stublau looked sour enough to curdle milk. "He has some Venetian lord to see you." He looked disdainfully at the training rapiers. "Pah. Too light for a knightly weapon."


"But very fashionable," said Manfred with a grin, knowing this would irritate the surly Altmark knight.


"Enough, Manfred," said Erik before the slow-thinking knight had time to respond to Manfred's lure. "We train with broadswords on the pells, Ritter. But these give us more of a chance to learn how to respond to a live opponent. Come Manfred, the abbot and this Venetian lord won't thank us for keeping him waiting. Help me out of this jacket. We need to get some kind of mask also, if we're to do this 'fencing' properly."


Manfred pulled the quilted jacket off his mentor, and turned so that Erik could do the same for him. "We're neglecting the legs, too. We need a trainer, Erik. A master of this Italian bravura style. I'll ask Francesca."


Erik turned hastily, to see if the supposedly celibate knight-squire had an audience. But fortunately Von Stublau had left. "It's not a bad idea, Manfred. I don't care what Von Stublau says—for marine warfare, anyway, armor is history."


"I like armor myself," grumbled Manfred, as they made their way up to the abbot's rooms. "But I'll admit having a horse to carry it helps."


* * *

The Venetian waiting for them with the abbot was the balding one of that group of Signori di Notte that they'd met after they'd saved Lord Calenti from being magically murdered.


Abbot Sachs was doing his best to be pleasant. It sat ill with the cleric. "Ah, Ritters. Signor Petro Dorma has requested specifically to speak to you two."


"You were quite correct in your surmise," said Dorma. "Each of these vile murders—except possibly one, where the fire destroyed the entire building it was in and therefore we can't be certain—has been found to have recently involved a missing item of clothing."


"Mammet witchcraft!" barked Sachs.


Petro Dorma cleared his throat. "Well, the expert on magic I have spoken to says there are several other possibilities. But I wanted to thank you gentlemen for your efforts on behalf of my fellow Signori . . . and also to tell you the sad news about Father Belgio and Lord Calenti. Despite our hopes, Lord Calenti died last night. And in a separate type of murder, someone killed Father Belgio as well."


"Father Belgio was not killed by magic?" asked Erik, intent.


Petro Dorma shook his head. "No. Just straight assassination. A misericord pushed in behind the ear while he slept. A thoroughly professional killing."


"Why?" Manfred demanded. "He didn't seem the sort of man to attract enemies."


Sachs snorted. "He was a man of God. That's enough for these Godless Strega."


Petro Dorma's expression was pained, for an instant. "We have had Strega murders from time to time, Abbot. Poison, not steel, is their way. We're following several lines of inquiry. That is only one of them."


Dorma paused for a moment, studying Erik and Manfred. "I came for another reason, as well. There was another magical murder last night. In the slave quarters of Casa Dandelo, of all places! According to my investigator who examined the scene, once again the victim had lost—or claimed to other prisoners to have lost—all of his clothing." Petro Dorma frowned. "Whoever murders these people by whatever demonic means, and for whatever reason, there is certainly no respect for rank. From Lord Calenti, to a slave."


Again, Dorma paused. Then: "But the reason I asked Abbot Sachs to speak to the two of you is tangential to the murder. Rumors are flying all over Venice that the Dandelos abducted a citizen into slavery, just before the killing. A canaler by the name of Maria Garavelli. She apparently took advantage of the confusion caused by the magical murder to make her escape."


Erik's jaws tightened. In the months since he had arrived in Venice, he had developed a detestation for the type of chattel slavery tolerated in the Republic—throughout most of the Mediterranean, in fact. Slavery had been legally abolished in the Holy Roman Empire for more than a century. And while it was still officially practiced in his own League of Armagh, Celtic and Norse thralldom had little of the sheer brutality and degradation of the Mediterranean variety of servitude.


"I'll bet that's causing a stir," snorted Manfred.


Dorma pulled a wry face. "To call it a 'stir' is to understate the matter considerably. Bad enough that the Dandelos tried to enslave a legal citizen. To make matters worse, the girl is a well-known canaler from a large family of caulkers at the Arsenal."


Manfred whistled softly. "All hell's going to break loose, then. They abducted a daughter of the Arsenalotti? Are they insane?"


"I have no idea what motivated the fools. They are trying to deny everything. But the facts seem well enough established." Dorma scowled. "And, at this point, I no longer care what their reasons might have been. If the authorities do not act decisively—" He nodded at Manfred. "As you say, 'all hell will break loose.' "


By now, Erik understood Dorma's purpose. "And you want us—Manfred and me—to be part of the, ah, what shall I call it?"


" 'Punitive expedition' will do quite nicely," said Dorma firmly. "Yes, exactly. There are enough factional tensions in the city. If some Knights of the Holy Trinity are involved in the affair, no one will be able to claim the raid was done for partisan purposes." He glanced at Sachs. "The Dandelos are known to have Montagnard leanings."


Erik was a bit puzzled by the abbot's apparent willingness to go along with Dorma's plan. But Sachs cleared up the mystery immediately.


When the abbot spoke, he almost seemed to be choking on the words. "Naturally, Lord Dorma. Given the recent unpleasantness . . . misapprehensions of the Knights' motives . . ."


Erik almost laughed. You mean the mess you've stirred up with your idiot witch-hunts.


"Both the servants and Knights of the Trinity are only too pleased to help serve God and your Venice," finished the abbot, lamely. "Eh, Ritters?"


Erik nodded. "It would be our pleasure."


Manfred bowed deeply. Which was a good thing, thought Erik. It helped to hide his grin.


Dorma bowed in return. "Thank you. If you would be ready by Lauds, tomorrow morning, I will have some of my Schiopettieri come to meet you here. I'll take my leave now." He sighed. "Affairs of state, business, and at the moment, family. The last are the worst, believe me!"


Sachs motioned to the two knights to stay, and showed his guest out. When he returned, his face was sour.


"A silly business, asking knights to serve as common policemen. But . . ." He shrugged irritably. "You are to make yourselves available for Lord Dorma. Whatever he wants. You are dismissed."


* * *

Erik was not surprised to find Petro Dorma waiting for them around the corner. He had been certain that Dorma had said as little as possible in the presence of Sachs.


"You'd like more than just the two of us, I imagine."


The Venetian lord nodded. "Yes, please. At least half a dozen, as heavily armed as possible." He smiled grimly. "I want to overawe the Dandelos from the very beginning. And for that purpose, Knights of the Holy Trinity will serve far better than Schiopettieri."


He hesitated. "Of course, I do not expect you to do anything which would jeopardize your good standing with the abbot."


Manfred snorted. Erik just smiled. "We were told 'whatever Lord Dorma wants.' That seems clear enough." He and Manfred exchanged glances.


"Von Gherens, for sure," said Manfred. "Let him pick the others. Except I'd like Gerhard Bach along."


Erik's smile widened. "Bach, eh? Yes, I agree."


Dorma looked back and forth from one to the other, his eyes expressing a slight question.


"Gerhard Bach's our gunnery expert," explained Manfred cheerfully. "He's got a new little bombard he's been dying to test under field conditions."


Dorma seemed to choke a little. Then, after a moment, grinned himself. "A bombard, you say . . . Well, why not? The main door to Casa Dandelo may not open quickly enough."


"I can guarantee it won't open quickly enough," growled Erik. "No matter how fast they try."


* * *

"I must talk to Francesca," said Erik, as they walked down the passage after parting company with Dorma. "We've got some time. And—" He glanced at Manfred. "At this time of day she won't be, ah, occupied."


Manfred looked at him with some amusement. "So long as it's only talk. But why?"


Erik shrugged. "Because she understands all this intrigue and I do not. And it is my task to keep you safe in it."


* * *

"The way I see it," said Manfred, going into the breech, "these 'Strega' are not in the clear at all when it comes to Father Belgio's murder. They can hire their killing done as well as anyone else."


Francesca smiled at him the way a teacher smiles at a bright pupil . . . who has managed half the answer. She ruffled his hair and neatly evaded his arm, going to sit instead on the arm of Erik's chair. "True. But as you rightly point out, so could anyone else—if it was paid for. But," she held up an elegantly manicured hand, "it would have to be a rich anyone. The Church does not take kindly to its clerics being assassinated. And beside the chance of excommunication, their investigators are ferocious. This was professionally done, and that doesn't come cheap. And there are very few who do it well."


She paused, thinking. "If it was paid for . . . well, the first name that springs to mind is your blond friend Caesare Aldanto. Or, as a second choice, Giuliano Dell'Arta. Although Giuliano probably makes more as swordmaster than he does killing people. Both of them have powerful protectors, and are pretty much immune to Petro Dorma. If it was done to further the aims of the factions, Bruno Di Netto is Rome's man. The Metropolitan's chief executioner in Venice. Francisco Aleri is in charge of Milan's—and he has the whole Montagnard faction at his command. They ship men in and out. The Republic's Council of Ten . . . well, they keep their secrets. So do the imperials, although I suspect Count DeMarien or Von Stemitz." She smiled. "Enough, Erik?"


"There are how many factions?" said Erik, weakly.


She smiled. "In Venice? Where there are three people together, at least five factions are gathered! The Venetian Republic is worse than elsewhere because Venice sits a jewel between so many interests. It is the key to the Mediterranean. And the key to the East. Emeric, the King of Hungary, Milan, Rome, the Holy Roman Emperor . . . all want Venice—or, at least, the riches which pour through the city. The Ilkhan Mongols have their own interests, also, as do the Greeks. Even the Grand Duke of Lithuania . . . just to stir up trouble, or to flank the Holy Roman Empire. And that is without the interests of the Church and its various factions, and the Strega, and the Jews. I think the latter just want a quiet life, but both factions have money for whoever will offer to leave them alone." She laughed throatily. "It's a quiet little town. I love it, even more than I did my native Orleans."


Erik sighed. "I want to go back to Iceland. At least you only had to worry about someone trying to kill you. This is all too complicated for me."


Manfred smiled. "Why don't we get some lessons from this swordmaster's salle? I don't think us going to visit this Caesare Aldanto fellow is a good idea."


Erik drew a deep breath. "I still think a visit is called for."


Francesca laughed. "What ill came of it, Erik? I thought it was the Italians who believed in vendetta?"


Manfred laughed. "Compared to Icelandic clan feudists? Not even in the same league, Francesca! And Erik's got humiliation to avenge as well as a simple attempt on his life. Aldanto's the man responsible for getting him under your sweet thighs, don't forget."


Francesca chucked the unfortunate Erik under the chin. "Poor man. It must have been so hard for you."


Erik got hastily to his feet, amid Manfred's guffaws. "I think it's time we talked to Von Gherens."


"Coward," grinned Manfred. "You talk to him. I'm going to stay here and take my punishment like a man."


* * *

Von Gherens was willing. So were the four young Ritters he spoke to.


Gerhard Bach was downright avid.


* * *

Fortunately, the abbot was sequestered in private discussion with Sister Ursula when the Schiopettieri barge arrived at the embassy in mid-afternoon. Erik thought Sachs would probably have had a fit if he'd seen eight armored knights wrestling a bombard into the Venetian vessel. Even a small one.


The knight-proctor Von Stublau did pitch a fit. But with the official authority of Sachs on his side—as attested to vehemently by Manfred and Erik—Von Gherens simply ignored Von Stublau's protestations.


"Take it up with the abbot!" snapped Von Gherens. "Better make it quick, too. We're leaving."


Fuming angrily, the Prussian knight-proctor stormed back into the embassy. Von Gherens, grinning, turned to his knights and said: "Let's go. Just in case Von Stublau develops the nerve to interrupt Sachs and Sister Ursula."


"He'd better knock first," muttered Manfred, not quite under his breath. Two of the younger knights chuckled softly. Erik frowned.


"That's in very bad taste," he growled.


"Not as bad as Sister Ursula, I'll bet," responded Manfred cheerfully. The two young knights burst into outright laughter.


Erik sighed. Once again, reproving Manfred had proven to be as useful as pouring naphtha on a bonfire. . . .


* * *

The barge carrying Erik and Manfred met up with the rest of Dorma's flotilla not far from Casa Dandelo. It was quite an impressive show of force, even before the Knights and their bombard arrived: three barges packed with Schiopettieri, and another three coming behind. The last three, to Erik's surprise, were empty except for skeleton crews. He wondered as to their purpose.


As soon as Dorma's barge came alongside, Petro hopped into Erik's vessel. The easy and nimble way he moved reminded Erik how young Lord Dorma was—not yet forty, he'd heard—for a high Venetian notable. The man's bald head, pudgy build, and judicious manner normally made him seem older.


"I'll ride the rest of the way with you," Petro announced, smiling. "I believe I should, since I'm officially in charge of this—ah, I believe we're still calling it an 'investigation.' And you'll be spearheading the—ah, I believe I'll call it an 'entry.' "


He eyed the little bombard. "Can you fire that from the bow of the boat?"


Gerhard Bach looked indignant. "Are you cra—" He broke off, coughing, as if he'd just remembered he was addressing a high-ranking Venetian official rather than a young knight-squire. "Ah, no. Sir. That'd be a very bad idea. The recoil would probably hull the barge. It's not designed to be a gun platform."


Dorma frowned. "Then how—"


"I'll figure something out," replied Bach cheerily.


Dorma shrugged. "I leave the matter in your capable hands, then." He turned to Erik. "Any questions?"


Erik looked at him uncertainly. Yes. How in the hell did you ever get the Council of Ten to agree to this—much less the Doge? But he decided that question would be impolitic. If rumor was to be believed, Dorma himself was a member of that secretive body. As for the Doge . . .


Petro coughed. "I might mention that the Doge has given me his blessing. Well. In a manner of speaking."


Again, he eyed the bombard. "I told him we needed to test a new mechanism. He was quite engrossed in his clocks at the time. I took his wave as a gesture of assent. It seemed a reasonable interpretation."


Erik nodded solemnly. It seemed a reasonable response. And less likely to get him in trouble than any words he could think of.


Manfred, as usual, suffered no such inhibitions. "Foscari'll probably have a heart attack when he finds out. On the other hand—" the big young knight swept his arm in a half-circle "—I think you're about to become the most popular official in Venice."


Erik and Dorma turned their heads, following Manfred's gesture. Erik was startled to see the size of the crowd that had already formed alongside the canal, with more and more people pouring in from little side streets. And as the flotilla passed by a small side canal, he could see that it was full of gondolas. All of them were packed with onlookers, for all the world as if they were going on a family promenade. As soon as Lord Dorma's flotilla passed the mouth of the canal, the much larger flotilla of gondolas came following behind.


At first, Erik was surprised that the crowd was so quiet. Almost completely silent, in fact. But before long he understood. Venice's canalers and working classes were still not sure about the nature and purpose of Dorma's flotilla. True, it looked as if . . .


But the Venetian authorities had a long history of looking the other way, when it came to the transgressions of the Dandelos. So who could be sure that this would not just turn out to be another empty gesture?


"They're wondering about us," murmured Manfred. "Look at 'em whispering back and forth, all through that mob. On the one hand, the Knights are supposed to be nothing but tools for the Emperor—which means the Montagnards, to them. On the other hand . . ."


He examined his fellow Knights, standing in the barge, and grinned. "We are a rather fearsome lot to be hauling around just for show."


Erik wasn't sure whether to smile or frown. Once again, Francesca's influence on Manfred was showing. Not so many weeks ago, Manfred wouldn't have been able to analyze a foreign crowd so surely and readily. For that matter—not so many weeks ago—the thought of doing so would never even have crossed his mind. Wine, women, and song, it had been—and very lightly on the "song." Since he'd met that one particular woman, however . . .


He doesn't even drink that much anymore. Will wonders never cease?


But he had no time to pursue the thought further. The grim and imposing edifice of Casa Dandelo loomed ahead of them. Even at a distance, it was obvious the Dandelos had forted up. There was not a person to be seen anywhere in the immediate vicinity.


Except one.


"What in the name of God is that boy doing?" demanded Von Gherens. "Crazy kid!"


Erik stared at the small figure perched on one of the timbers holding up the roof of Casa Dandelo. "Perched" like a bat, not a bird. The kid was hanging upside down.


"I guess he wanted the best possible view," said Manfred. He loosened his great sword in its scabbard. "So let's not disappoint him."


 


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