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Chapter 83

Manfred lay in the position that Francesca called the "twin Camellias." Now that it was over, he reflected that this could very well give a man a permanent back injury. At the time it had seemed irresistible and exotic. Now, as he tried to disentangle his foot from a footstool, he wondered if the old-fashioned ways he had used before encountering Francesca didn't have something going for them. For one thing they were faster . . .

Francesca nibbled his earlobe. "I must eventually teach you to cultivate patience. Stallion, ha. Who needs a race horse?"

"I'm cultivating this damned footstool instead," answered Manfred. "I've got my leg stuck in the arch."

She laughed. "Like politics, it is going to take you a while to learn these things, Manfred. Now tell me, what news from across the border?"

Manfred grunted. "Two bits, my dear. My uncle's emissaries have succeeded in persuading the Aquitaines to release the Venetian ships. Their western fleet is on its way home."

"That's forty days' sailing. They won't be back in time to make any difference. Even if the fleet from the Black Sea—to which I imagine Constantinople is refusing passage—suddenly got out . . ."

"You forget how long it takes for news to travel. Charles Fredrik sent his men off to Bordeaux just as soon as he had that first letter from me. And forty days is the sailing time from Flanders. They're a week closer than that, at least. They could be as little as a week off, if you consider the time it takes to carry the news here."

She sighed. "Well, I hope this situation holds for a further few weeks. But it smells of trouble, Manfred. With the situation in Fruili . . ."

Manfred kissed an elbow. It was all he could reach. "Ah. That's my next bit of news. Emeric is poised on the border, ready to join the free-for-all orgy of destruction the Scaliger's mercenaries have loosed on the countryside. The Scaligers want to flood Venice with refugees. About the only good thing that has happened for Venice is that cunning old Duke Dell'este served the Bolognese attacking Modena such a trick they're out of it."

"He isn't called 'the Old Fox' for nothing," she chuckled. "And how did he do this trick?"

Manfred grinned. "My uncle says Dell'este is one of the most dangerous strategists in Christendom and Uncle has a mind to send me to study there next. He hasn't met you yet, my love. But whatever you do, don't get him into this position. He's an old man and I think Aunt Clothilde only knew one good German position. Flat on her back and thinking of the imperial heir. Let me out of this, do. The footstool and these cushions are killing my back. Not to mention the voluptuous weight of you."

She tickled him. "If you had not said the last, I would have let you up. But now you must first tell me what the Duke Dell'este did to confound the Bolognese."

"Leave off with the tickling, then! It's, uh, distracting." He continued: "While the condottiere from Ferrara was engaging the troops from Milan and Bologna—outside Modena—Dell'este himself led a band of partisans disguised as wagoneers with loot from villas in Ferrarese territory to within two leagues of Bologna. There is a big stand of pine trees there—or, I should say, there used to be a big stand of pines there. Those wagons had barrels of naphtha and oil in them. They set the pines into the biggest smokiest blaze imaginable.

"Then one of Dell'este's lieutenants, riding an exhausted horse and with Bolognese colors, rode up screaming 'Treachery!' into the Bolognese rear. The cities are only eight leagues apart, you know, so they could see the smoke clearly. He said the Milanese had sneaked an attack on Bologna, while the Bolognese were distracted into attacking Modena. There's no love lost anyway between the Bolognese condottieri and the ones from Milan. Next thing there was an all-out fight between the mercenaries, with all the Bolognese levies riding home hell-for-leather."

"It's a good story. I'll let you up," conceded Francesca. "I'm amazed Sforza fell for it."

"He didn't. It was Ambroso. And I don't think I need to get up any more. Part of me is up already."

But her next statement brought him down and struggling to his feet. "Then you can bet Sforza is on his way here already. They simply want to distract the Ferrarese. Venice is the real prize. The attacks on the Ferrarese positions were designed to get Dell'este out into the countryside. They must be coming down the Po."

"What about those Venetian forts? The Polestine forts. They'll knock the hell out of a fleet of river-craft with their cannons."

Francesca bit her lip. "I would expect treachery."

Manfred reached for his clothes. "I reckon it's time I had a talk with someone in authority here in Venice. If I suggest Brunelli, Erik will have a fit—although he seems the right man, now that their Doge is hovering between lucidity and death. Who else is in their inner councils, Francesca?"

"Petro Dorma. But he has no love for the Holy Roman Empire."

Manfred shrugged his surcoat on. "I know him. He's a good enough seeming fellow. Doesn't let his feelings show, even if he does dislike us."

"He doesn't reveal too much at all. I'm certain that he's one of the Council of Ten. He is also a Signor di Notte. Since Lord Calenti died, he has been acting as the one in charge of them. He also heads the new militia. He has them under the command of your old friend, Caesare Aldanto."

"Oh. Well. These are for you, by the way." He handed her a bundle of parchment heavy with seals.

"What are they?"

Manfred smiled grimly. "Erik's idea. Signed and sealed warrants for the execution of Bishop Sachs and the Knight-proctors. Erik calls it insurance. And this one is from me. It's a safe conduct to an audience with Charles Fredrik."

Francesca was silent. Then she said in a rather small voice. "I have recently become fully aware of just what deep water I have waded into. You know, I did consider betraying you for a while. Not very seriously, I admit. But . . ."

"And my prowess as a lover convinced you otherwise?" said Manfred, hopefully.

She kissed him. "No. Well, not much. Two other reasons. The first, of course, being Erik. I am quite unwilling to bring the wrath of that clan down on my head. I'm sure he has cousins and brothers as ferocious as himself."

Manfred nodded. "My cousin had his older brother for a mentor. He says Olaf is half troll. And I think he was only half joking." He cocked his head. "And the other reason?"

Whatever qualms Francesca might have been feeling seemed to disappear instantly. The grin she gave Manfred was not coquettish in the least—just, very cheerful. "I find that I rather enjoy deep waters."


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