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This Rough Magic: Chapter Five

       Last updated: Wednesday, July 9, 2003 23:31 EDT



    Looking out from the palace on the summit of the terraced plateau of Buda, Emeric could see all the way to the Danube. He preferred the nearer view, however. Just outside the palace he had two new pole-ornaments. The one on the left writhed slightly; the chill air of late autumn had the interesting property of prolonging the futile struggle for life—in high summer heat and winter's colds his ornaments had a tendency to expire much too quickly.

    The King of Hungary would not tolerate nationalism, or too much in the way of religious fervor. His kingdom's people were a mixture of Slovenes, Croats, Slavs, Magyar, Slovaks, Walachs and a half a dozen other minorities, not to mention several different religions. That didn't matter. They were, first and foremost, his. Impalement of those who sought to undermine that, in the interest of their insular little people, was an effective message.

    His kingdom stretched from the edge of Istria to the Carpathians. Now he wanted the southern Balkans. To the west, he had the Holy Roman Empire. To the east, the Ilkhan Mongols. To the north, the Grand Duke of Lithuania. Only the south offered softness, but unfortunately there were the hill-tribes between him and the Byzantines.

    He wished that one of those pole-ornaments could be the infamous Iskander Beg. The Illyrian would pay that price one of these days, if Emeric could winkle him out of those mountains. The Hungarian heavy cavalry were at a disadvantage there, in the broken, steep country. Emeric hated the mountains. If he could flatten all the damned mountains in the world he could ride all of his enemies down, from the Holy Roman Emperor to the Grand Duke.

    And now those idiots in Constantinople were going to give him his target on a platter; help him to bypass Iskander Beg and his hill-tribes. He smiled grimly, sat back on the golden throne, amid the tapestry-hung splendor of his reception room—he loved this display of wealth and grandeur—and let his eyes linger on the two victims outside the huge mullioned windows.

    That view might unbalance the greasy Byzantine.

    The servant was still waiting for orders, too used to his master's little ways to turn so much as a hair at the display outside the windows. Emeric raised a finger, and the servant snapped to attention. "Send the Byzantine emissary, Count Dimetos, up to me. Those accompanying him, also."

    The servant bowed, and whisked himself out the door.

    The Byzantine had been left to kick his heels for several hours. That did no harm, but little good either. He'd be used to that. Emissaries were often left in cold or overheated antechambers for hours, or even days at a time. A couple of would-be traitors on display on the top of sharpened poles would be somewhat more effective at impressing him.

    "Count Dimetos, Imperial Emissary of Alexius IV," announced the major-domo from the arched doorway, "and his advisors."

    Normally, Emeric discarded the hangers-on to any supplicant who came to seek a royal audience. They tended to bolster the confidence of the supplicant, an undesirable state of affairs. But the Byzantine Count had been nearly imperturbable last time, and very hard to read. Perhaps Emeric would get more from the escort's expressions.

    They filed in. The effects of seeing the impaled men just outside of the windows were most satisfactory. On three of the five, anyway. Count Dimetos calmly looked away. The fifth man, the blond one—unusual, that hair color, in a Byzantine—didn't even blink or give the dying men a second glance. He bowed, along with the Count. Two of the others forgot and had to be prodded to it.

    Emeric's curiosity and caution were aroused immediately by the indifferent one. There was something very odd about that blond man. It made Emeric suspicious.

    But he had no intention of revealing anything. Instead, Emeric nodded slightly, barely acknowledging the respectful bows.

    "Well. Count Dimetos, you have taken some time to get back to me."

    The Emissary held out his palms. "My apologies, King Emeric. Travel is slow at this time of year. But for a few small details, about which I am sure we can reach a speedy agreement, I bring happy news."

    Emeric was careful to look unimpressed. "I'm not some Turkish-bazaar merchant, Count. I do not bargain."



    Actually, Emeric was impressed. The counter-demands he'd made a few months earlier when the Byzantines had first approached him with an offer for a secret alliance against Venice had been extreme:

    Forty galleys, full crews, thirty carracks capable of carrying at least a two hundred men each, and five hundred thousand ducats to cover the cost of the campaign. And Zante and Crete. Nothing less, and all that in exchange for simply seizing Corfu from the Venetians—which the Hungarians would keep, not the Greeks—so that the Byzantine Empire could finally be rid of the untaxed and commercially aggressive Venetian enclave in Constantinople.

    To call it an "unequal exchange" would be like calling an elephant a mouse. Yet, to Emeric's surprise, the Byzantines were apparently willing to settle on his terms.

    It all seemed opportune, much too opportune. If Alexius came up with the money, Emeric would know that it was indeed too good to be true. There was only one place Alexius could still raise that kind of money: by making a secret alliance with Lithuania.

    Emeric suppressed a vicious smile. If Grand Duke Jagiellon wanted to give him money and ships to do exactly what he had already intended to do, so be it. Emeric couldn't see Jagiellon's exact plan yet, but his target was plainly the Venetian Republic. That was also fine. Emeric wanted Venice and their holdings too, eventually, but he would take things one step at a time. Corfu, first. That would cripple the Venetians and allow him to turn on the Byzantines. Before that weak fool Alexius knew what was happening, Emeric would have Negroponte, and then...

    The hell with merely holding the Golden Horn as the Venetians did. Constantinople itself would do. And Alexius himself—Jagiellon also, it seemed—would provide him with the wherewithal to do so.

    Now he did smile, but pleasantly, and his voice was smooth and urbane. "However, please continue, Count Dimetos. I do not object to some small adjustment of the terms. Not necessarily."

    "Just details to be arranged, not really adjustments," said the emissary, fluttering his hands. "The agreement we spoke of the last time was not entirely complete."

    He's nervous, thought Emeric, incredulously. The Greek is nervous.

    What did it take to make someone like Dimetos nervous? Dimetos' quick flicker of a glance at the expressionless blond man answered that question.

    Emeric leaned forward. "Introduce me to your companions, Count."

    The Count bowed. He indicated the tallest man of his party. "Your Majesty, this is Admiral Lord Nikomos of Volos. He is our naval expert. This is General Alexiou. He is, as you might gather, a military man. Mavilis here has come to support me with any financial... details."

    Emeric raised his eyebrows. "That is one detail, about which there will be no discussion." He pointed to the blond man, who looked back at him with dead eyes. "And who is this?"

    "Ah... An advisor to the Emperor," the emissary stated uncomfortably. Decidedly uncomfortably. "Milord Aldanto, is his name."

    Emeric nodded with feigned disinterest, and yawned, his voice at variance to the curiosity sparked by Dimetos' reaction. "An Italian name. Interesting. Where are you from, Aldanto?

    "Milano." There was a toneless quality to the voice that matched the man's stony expression. Toneless? Rather say, lifeless.

    Emeric simply raised his eyebrows again, and turned back to the emissary. "Well, Count. Perhaps you should explain these little details that you believe require—what did you call it?—'completion,' I believe."

    There was a slight beading of sweat on the Count's face. "Well. The galleys—"

    The admiral interrupted. "We just don't have that many ships to spare, King Emeric. It would leave us with too few for—"

    "If I had wished you to speak, Admiral, I would have told you so," Emeric said curtly. "I need those vessels. Mine are not a seagoing people. I have enlisted what I can, but we are talking of blockades, escorts and transports. I can move men overland as far as the mouth of the Narenta. The rest will have to be achieved by sea. If you don't provide those transports then the assault is a waste of time. The Narenta pirates have been brought into my fold for this task. Backed up by the galleys of Byzantium, you should be able to deal with any Venetian vessels. Provided we time this right, that's the key."

    He studied the pole ornaments for a moment. The one on the left had now apparently died also. Pity. Emeric had hoped, idly, that he wouldn't be too preoccupied to observe the last moments.

    "We must allow the Eastern and Western convoys to pass," he continued, looking back at the Byzantine envoys. "The commander of the Corfu garrison will send a request for replacement stores by coaster afterward. At that point we attack. If we fail to take the fortress and the island, we will have some months to lay siege before the Venetian ships can return."

    "The Emperor Alexius has arranged that neither fleet will be returning," said the blond-haired man expressionlessly.

    Emeric had not asked for him to speak, either, but he let that pass. Instead, he snorted. "The last time that was tried it failed."

    "This time it will not fail." The man made that statement with the same certainty with which he might have said, The sun will rise tomorrow. Which was.. also interesting.

    Emeric shook his head. "I don't gamble on my campaigns. Certainly not based on empty promises." His tone made clear his opinion of the spendthrift and debauched young Alexius.

    "We do not make empty promises." There was such a cold certainty in that voice! Who was this fellow, that he could make such pledges on behalf of Alexis?

    Emeric dismissed that with a wave. "We will calculate as if you are not that sure. Firstly, let us settle the important question: money."

    An unpleasant conviction was growing his mind about this blond man. He would have to check with the Countess Elizabeth Bartoldy, his principal advisor in magical matters. Despite his reputation, fiercely cultivated, Emeric was little more than a hedge-wizard compared to her.

    He was now almost sure that the money was coming from Jagiellon. That did not worry him. Money was not a potential threat, nor a potential spy. Gold had no loyalty, and was never a traitor or an assassin.

    What he hadn't expected, and didn't like at all, was dealing with Jagiellon almost face-to-face, as it were. He suspected the blond man was little more than a talking puppet. The name Aldanto rang a bell. He would have to investigate the matter further. Emeric didn't want this—thing—in his kingdom for one moment longer, if it was what he thought it was. Talking puppets could become doorways.

    "The Emperor wants to negotiate-er-payment in tranches." The little money-man stuttered. "P-part as and when the work is f-finished. So to speak."

    Emeric shook his head. Alexius thought he had best put a brake on the Hungarian advance, did he? Withhold the money if the Hungarians moved into Epurius...

    Ha! "No. I can't see the vessels up front. So I'll see the money. Otherwise I might find myself caught like a rat in a trap, without your ships."


    The blond man interrupted. "You will have the money within the month."

    Emeric's eyes narrowed. He was fairly certain now he was right. So this was the face of the enemy across the northern Carpathians.

    Odd, in a way. He knew this kind of possession was possible, but it took daemonic power. And that daemonic power too often ended up devouring the user. Emeric himself dealt with a power below...

    But very, very cautiously. Well, he would need magicians for this project anyway. He would consult with Elizabeth; she had a long memory, and longer experience. She even frightened him a little. How could a woman that old look as if she were barely twenty?

    She was truly beautiful, too, with the sort of allure that literally held men enthralled. And she used that beauty like the weapon that it was; ruthlessly and accurately. It was, fortunately for Emeric, the kind of beauty that he could close his mind to.



    In the craggy and cliff-hung little valleys on the north end of the enchanted island, the night-wind was full of the clatter-clatter of little goaty feet on the limestone and the hollow trilling of reed pipes. The shepherd huddled down under his sheepskins in his little lean-to. It was a full moon out there. This was when all good men stayed indoors.

    Kallikazori still walked on the high barren hillsides on these holy nights. And a man might turn over to find his wife was not beside him. If he was a wise man, he went back to sleep and said nothing at all about it to her in the morning. If he was a fool, he might beat her for being half-asleep the next day. But a man who wanted children, fertile fields and fertile flocks would keep his tongue and hands still. A wise man knew that here on Corfu, the old ones still walked and still wielded their powers.

    A wiser man stilled his mind to the fact, prayed to the saints, and pretended he saw and heard nothing.

    The wisest of all...

    The wisest of all found a way to pray to the saints by day—and something else by night. After all, the Holy Word said, Thou shalt not have other gods before Me. It said nothing at all about having other gods in reserve.

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