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Chapter 69

"I'm terrified of weddings, Erik," said Manfred grumpily. "You catch deadly diseases at them. And with Sachs there, I won't be able to do the good part . . . you know. Get drunk afterwards."


Erik snorted. He had to wear full armor for the occasion again. That worried him more than a mere wedding ceremony. "What deadly disease?"


"Matrimony. You can die of boredom, I've been told."


Erik snorted again. "I am going to save that up and tell your wife. And then you are going to be in trouble. Deep trouble. Manfred, he asked for us specifically. It is that Venetian grandee, Dorma, whom we helped with the Dandelos. His sister is getting married. It's a compliment. Sachs is delighted."


Manfred traced the outline of the caryatid on Erik's bedpost. "So we're going. Erik, I sent a private message off to my uncle yesterday. I asked Von Stemitz to take it with him on his trip to Mainz. Whatever Sachs and the knight-bishops are doing keeping the Knights of the Trinity in Venice . . . it isn't in the Emperor's interest. The last thing Charles Fredrik wants is to be involved in a civil war down here in Italy, no matter what these Montagnard-Pauline fanatics think about one Holy Roman Emperor over all the Christian world. We have the Aquitaines on our western flank, the damned Grand Duke of Lithuania on our northeastern flank and the King of Hungary on the southeastern—with both of them creeping down into the Black Sea. We need trouble to the south in Italy like we need a hole in the head. He should know about the situation here."


Erik nodded, hiding a grin. Francesca's influence was considerable. She plainly enjoyed this game of politics, and Manfred, too lazy and too obstinate to do it when driven, was letting his private parts lead him into this. Perhaps Charles Fredrik should hire her as an instructor of heirs. "Yes. The Knights are supposed to be independent soldiers of Christ, defenders of Christendom. But they're perceived by many—most, probably—to be the arm militant of the Empire, not the Church. And I get the feeling that the reality is the other way around. They're trying to use the Empire as the political arm of their faction of the Church. Some of the leaders of the Knights, anyway—along with the Servants, I don't doubt."


Manfred nodded in turn. "Power games. Charles Fredrik needs to rein them in."


Erik could almost see him taking it down in his mind. He'd bet he'd repeat it to Francesca within the next few days. Erik sighed quietly. It was all very well Erik's father telling him to stay out of politics. "Your loyalty is to the Godar Hohenstauffen, boy. Let them enjoy their wrangles." If Manfred was going to survive, he had to understand these wrangles, as much as he had to understand swordplay.


"So." Erik poked him in the ribs. "What are you lolling around for? We have to be at the church for the test of faith before this wedding. We've got barely an hour before Abbot Sachs is going to be squalling for his escort."


Manfred stood up. "Easy on those ribs. Between you and the hammering they take from Giuliano at the salle d'armes of his, I'm too tender for Francesca to appreciate me."


Erik began hauling out the quilted underclothes for their armor. Well suited to armor; ill suited to Venetian summer. "And we're no closer to finding out whether he had anything to do with killing Father Belgio yet," he grumbled. More brightly: "But my rapier-work is coming on."


"Yes, Giuliano said you were better than a blind drunken cow with a rapier handle up its butt . . . but only just." Manfred retreated, grinning, out of the door, bellowing for Erik's squire-orderly as he went.


He left Erik to his preparations and reflections. Giuliano insulted them both copiously. But he had rapidly moved them under his own, personal tuition. Very few attained that. And while Manfred's weapons of choice would always be dictated by his strength, they were both picking up techniques . . . techniques that could kill armored, broad-sword-wielding knights. Lessons that should be part of their armory of skills. It was high time the Knights of the Holy Trinity stopped playing religious politics and moved into the real world.


* * *

Politics and religion. Marco looked at the assembled people in the chapel. They were a cross section of the powers of Venice, not "wedding-guests" in the normal sense of the term. Everyone who was anyone was there. The Doge had graced the occasion with his elderly presence. Ricardo Brunelli and his legendarily beautiful sister Lucrezia were there too. The head of the Ventuccio—who looked at Marco as if he'd never seen him before. Other Case Vecchie he'd really never seen before, making their appearance, coming to examine the Valdosta.


And plenty of non-Venetian folk, too:


The peacocky condottiere Aldo Frescata. The head of the Milanese "trade delegation," Francesco Aleri. Marco looked him over very, very carefully. Yes. He was the man they'd seen at the mouth of the alleyway. The man Maria said had taken her prisoner, who was in cahoots with the Casa Dandelo. Who was probably the director of the Montagnard spies and assassins. Maybe even the man who'd had Mama killed. They greeted each other with urbane politeness and every appearance of disinterest. It left him feeling a bit sick and unconsciously putting his hand onto the hilt of his rapier.


Petro Dorma was making sure that the whole of the power of Venice—of the entire region—saw Marco, knew that he had the Doge's blessing, and also that he had passed this test of faith. The Servants of the Holy Trinity, too, were glorying in this display of power. A nun and several gray-clad monks were doing the slow rounds, sprinkling holy water, chanting psalms. The air was heavy with holy incense. Bishop Capuletti, resplendent in his robes, there to conduct the wedding ceremony later, looked faintly put-out.


Then the bells began their solemn tolling. And the chapel was hushed. In the front of the chapel the abbot had the chalice, the bread, sword and bible arrayed. Obedient to the nudge from Petro, Marco walked forward. The monks began their chanting plainsong. Both fear and misery suddenly knotted his stomach. By the poisonous look that the abbot had given him, he clearly thought Marco ought to fail. And even if he didn't . . . he was going to be married to Angelina. He should make best of it.


Oh Kat—


If he even began to know where to find her . . . He'd spent the morning in futile wandering. Asking around. Being treated with Case Vecchie respect. He'd spotted Harrow in the distance, but even attempting to reach him to ask him had failed.


Too late now. He bit his lip and walked up and knelt before the altar.


* * *

Petro Dorma breathed a sigh of relief. He was fond of Angelina. But he was no fool. She was trouble. The last thing he'd ever expected was for her to catch someone who would be of value to Dorma. A nobleman short of money, perhaps. Almost certainly someone who would be a liability to Dorma—like Caesare Aldanto. Marco Valdosta was an innocent, and in some ways Petro felt almost guilty about catching him this way. But he had to look after Angelina. The boy had no idea just how much the name "Valdosta" counted for among the older Case Vecchie.


And among the populace, perhaps even more so. The Valdosta Family was old. True, Marco's father had been a wild young man, who married an out-of-town Ferrarese woman too involved in politics for her own good. But Luciano, the paternal grandfather, had been enormously popular. And the Dell'este connection . . .


The Old Fox might be in trouble right now, with Venice, Rome, and Milan all wanting his steel works. But he was a cunning old man. Ferrara might just hold its own. The Republic's Council of Ten, as Petro had reason to know, were warming again towards their one-time ally. Alliances changed. And the Old Fox knew that Dorma's shipyards needed good steel. And the Dell'este could use an accommodation with the Republic to ship to the east again. If Ferrara survived the gathering condottieri and internal factions, well, then Marco would be rich and powerful. Even if the boy were not old Case Vecchie, Dorma would have welcomed the alliance. Petro just hoped Angelina wouldn't drive Marco mad with indiscreet, expensive-to-hush affairs.


Petro sighed again. His duty as her brother would be to help out. He settled back in the pew and watched the ceremony. Unlike Marco, he had no qualms about the test of faith. The boy's goodness was patently obvious. He'd bet the lad had not a hint of a stain on his soul. Unlike himself. When it was over he got up and went to collect Angelina.


To his relief and amazement, she was ready.


* * *

Marco knew his normally excellent memory was . . . having trouble. He was . . . married? Standing accepting congratulations from the Powers-that-be . . . from Lucrezia Brunelli herself. "My, but Angelina caught herself a handsome one," cooed the legendary beauty, taking his hands in hers. She tickled his palm with one of her fingers. "You look . . . almost familiar. Have I met you before?"


Marco swallowed. Not all the lessons in etiquette had taught him how to deal with this. Yeah, I met you on the back stairs of Casa Brunelli, with you in a fury because you'd failed to seduce Senor Lopez. . . .


Was not the right thing to say. "No, m'lady."


She laughed. "Come now, Marco! We're going to be . . . friends, aren't we? Call me Lucrezia." Then she continued—in an entirely different tone. "Well, I wish you a happy married life. You and dear Angelina."


Bishop Capuletti, who had just approached them, looked like he might consider making that a very short life, if he had the opportunity.


 


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Framed