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Chapter 73

"Who in the name of God is this Francesca?" demanded the Holy Roman Emperor. He held up the second of the two letters Count Von Stemitz had brought with him from Venice. The letter was quite a bit longer than the first, which consisted of a single page.

The count cleared his throat. Then, cleared it again. "Ah. Well, as it happens, Your Majesty, your nephew has taken up with a Venetian courtesan. For quite some time now. He's kept the liaison more or less secret from Abbot Sachs and his coterie. But Erik Hakkonsen quietly informed me of the situation early on."

"Hakkonsen allowed this to continue?" demanded the Emperor, his heavy brows so low that his dark blue eyes seemed a deep purple.

"Well . . . yes, Your Majesty." Again, Von Stemitz cleared his throat. "Actually, in an odd sort of way, I get the feeling Hakkonsen rather approves of the arrangement."

The Emperor's brows lifted. "I'll be damned," he grunted. "I didn't think the young Icelander was that smart. His father—God rot his soul—would have beaten me black and blue."

"It was a simpler world in those days, Your Majesty. If you'll permit me the liberty of saying so."

"Indeed it was," sighed Charles Fredrik. "Jagiellon's father was a brute, and the uncle he usurped the throne from was even worse. But they weren't as ambitious." He fanned his face with the sheaf of papers held in his left hand. "Not to mention that accursed Emeric of Hungary. Either he or Jagiellon would be bad enough. To have both of them coming to power within a year of each other . . ."

He sighed again and picked up the single sheet of paper which contained Manfred's letter to him. Then, hefted it a bit, as if he were weighing the one letter against the other.

"They say essentially the same thing. But this Francesca's so-called 'addendum' is ten times longer, twenty times more sophisticated, and lays out in fine detail all of the nuances Manfred missed."

"I thought Manfred's letter was quite thoughtful," said the count, rallying for the moment to the young prince's behalf.

The Emperor snorted. "For an eighteen-year-old boy who's never given any evidence in the past of thinking past the next tavern or whorehouse, the letter's a bloody miracle." He squinted at Francesca's letter. "Still—there's nothing in Manfred's letter we didn't know a year ago. Whereas this one . . ."

"She claims to be from the Aquitaine. I tend to believe the claim, even though I'm certain the name she uses is fraudulent."

"Oh, I don't doubt she's from the Aquitaine," mused the Emperor. "Nobody else in the world—not even Italians—has that subtle and convoluted way of looking at things." His eyes left the letter and drifted toward the narrow window. An arrow-slit, that window had been once. Probably half the arrows fired from it, over the centuries, had been aimed at Aquitainian besiegers.

"I'd be a lot happier if I knew exactly who she was."

The third man in the room coughed discreetly. The Emperor and Von Stemitz moved their eyes to gaze on him.

"Her real name is Marie-Françoise de Guemadeuc," said the priest. "You can be certain of it. We investigated quite thoroughly."

The count grimaced. "A bad business, that was. Even by the standards of the Aquitaine."

The Emperor's expression was a study in contradiction—as if he were both relieved and disturbed at the same time. "You are certain, Francis?" he demanded.

"Yes, Your Majesty." The priest nodded at the letter in the Emperor's hands. "My brothers in Venice have even more at stake in this matter than you. Their lives, in the end."

"True enough," admitted Charles Fredrik. His brows lowered again. "Which is perhaps the part about this that bothers me the most. You had given me no indication, prior to this moment, that your . . . 'brotherhood' was involved at all with my nephew."

Father Francis spread his hands. "And we are not, Your Majesty. Not directly, at least. But, you may recall, I did tell you—several times, in fact—that we had established a line of communication with you which was less circuitous than the letters I receive from Father Lopez through our brothers in the Aquitaine."

" 'Less circuitous!'" barked the Emperor. He jiggled the letter in his hand. "That's a delicate way of putting it!"

Father Francis did not seem abashed. "Well. Yes, it is. We have taken solemn vows, after all."

After a moment's worth of imperial glowering, Charles Fredrik's heavy chest began to heave with soft laughter. "I'll give you this much, Francis. You have a better wit than the damned Sots." The amusement passed. "Let's hope that extended to your wits also."

He laid the letter back on the table, planted his thick hands on the armrests of the chair, and levered himself to his feet. Then, almost marching, went to the window and gazed out. There was not much to see, beyond the lights of the sleeping city.

"I agree with this Francesca's assessment of the situation," the Emperor announced abruptly. "The troubles in Venice have been carefully orchestrated to leave the city helpless and at odds with itself—while Jagiellon has moved to precipitate a war in northern Italy. A war whose sole purpose is the destruction of Venice itself."

Von Stemitz had not actually read Francesca's letter. She had given it to him already sealed. "That seems a bit farfetched, Your Majesty, if you'll forgive me saying so. Why would anyone want to destroy Venice? The city is the key to the wealth of the East."

Before Charles Fredrik could answer, the count made a little waving motion with his hand, forestalling objections. "Oh, to be sure—Duke Visconti wishes Venice all the ill in the world. But he wants to control the city, not ruin it. And how could he do it, anyway? Venice is an island and its fleet is far more powerful than anything Milan and its allies could muster—" He broke off suddenly.

"Unless Emeric of Hungary comes onto the scene," finished the Emperor. "Which he surely would if it appeared that Venice was falling into ruin."

"But—" Von Stemitz was clearly groping, his face tight with confusion.

"Think," commanded the Emperor. He spread his arms wide. "But think on the largest scale, because that's how—I'm certain of it now—Jagiellon is thinking." He turned away from the window entirely. "At first glance, of course, Jagiellon would seem to be the least likely source of trouble in the Adriatic. 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." He shrugged heavily. "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?" interrupted the Emperor.

Von Stemitz frowned. "We are, of course. The Holy Roman Empire."

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

Von Stemitz stared at him. Then, slowly, the count's face began to clear. And seemed, as well, to grow slightly pale.

"Precisely," grunted Charles Fredrik. "Grand Duke Jagiellon's reputation for insensate brutality is well earned, Count. But I think that's as much of a maneuver as anything else he does. Don't be fooled by it. He is also a consummate manipulator; a schemer, quite unlike his father. A man—we'll call him that, for the moment—who would prefer to let others bleed themselves to death, if at all possible, while he marshals his forces elsewhere."

Von Stemitz spoke in a whisper. "If Venice . . . is destroyed, the Holy Roman Empire will have no choice. If you don't intervene—with direct military force—the Hungarians surely will. And—and—"

"And with Lithuania and the borderlands to deal with already, I cannot also afford to see a more powerful Kingdom of Hungary—especially not one which has 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!"

Charles Fredrik nodded. "For a certainty. With—for a certainty—Milan and Rome sucked into the vortex as well. All of north Italy. Genoa also, be sure of it—soon enough, the Greeks as well." He turned his head, staring out of the arrow slit again. "Within a year . . ." he mused. "Within a year, half of my army would be mired in north Italy. Leaving Jagiellon free to strike elsewhere."

"Where, do you think?" asked Father Francis.

The Emperor swiveled his head back and fixed his eyes on Eneko Lopez's companion. "I don't know," he said. "You'll find out for me."

Father Francis's head jerked a little. Then, slowly, a small smile came to his face and he lowered his head. The gesture was almost—not quite—a bow. "Thank you, Your Majesty," he said softly.

The Emperor chuckled. "Not just yet, Francis. We still have to spike this plot of Jagiellon's in Venice. And you still have to get the agreement of the Grand Metropolitan in Rome before you can form a new order. What are you going to call it, by the way?"

Francis hesitated. "We haven't really decided, Your Majesty. Most of us lean toward the 'Society of Hypatia.' "

"Eneko Lopez also?"

"No, actually—he doesn't seem to like the name. He—"

"Smart man!" barked the Emperor. "Within a year, your enemies will be calling you 'the Shits.' What does he favor?"

"The Society of Chrysostom."

The Emperor stroked his thick beard. "Better. Better. Still . . . they'll shorten it to something like 'the Socks.' Then, within a week, to 'the smelly Socks.' Be certain of it." He paused. Then: "Call yourselves the Society of the Word," he stated. Firmly, even imperiously.

Francis seemed to bridle. The Emperor barked a little laugh. "Don't be stupid, Francis! Allow me the luxury of command in small things, if you would—since you do need my permission to operate in imperial territory. My cooperation, in fact, even if it is kept at a certain official distance."

Francis' stiff shoulders eased. "True, Your Majesty." A little crease appeared between his eyebrows. "But I don't see how calling ourselves—" The crease disappeared into a much deeper one. "Your Majesty! 'The Swords?' We are not a militant order."

The most powerful man in Europe simply stared at him. And, after a moment, the priest looked away.

* * *

When Antimo finished his report, the Duke of Ferrara rose from his chair and moved over to the blade-rack along the wall. There, for a moment, his eyes ranged admiringly over the blades before he selected one and took it down from its rack.

"Benito has made his decision, has he?" mused the Old Fox. He hefted the dagger in his hand, holding it with an expert grip. "The main gauche, Antimo. Not so glorious as the sword, of course. A plebeian sort of weapon." His left hand glided through a quick motion. "But, in the end, it's often the blade sinister which spills the enemy's guts on the field."

Dell'este replaced the dagger and turned back to Bartelozzi. "Show in Baron Trolliger now, if you would. I assume he's brought the rest of the money with him."

Antimo nodded. "Enough to hire all the condottieri we'll need." Smiling grimly: "Ferrara will seem like a veritable military giant, when the war erupts."

The Old Fox shook his head. "Don't fool yourself, Antimo. The great swords will remain in the hands of the Emperor and the Grand Duke and the King of Hungary. But for the needs of the moment, here in northern Italy?" Again, his left hand made that swift, expert motion. "Ferrara will be Charles Fredrik's main gauche."


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