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This Rough Magic: Chapter Six

       Last updated: Wednesday, July 9, 2003 23:34 EDT




Winter, 1538 A.D.

    Eberhard of Brunswick waited patiently in the antechamber. He looked upwards and across toward the tall, narrow windows of the throne room, and then back at the empty throne. Weak winter sunlight patterned down through the windows and onto the mosaic tiled floor of the throne-room. The mosaic, a religious scene showing Christ feeding the multitudes, had been commissioned by the present Emperor's father, at tremendous expense. Personally, Eberhard thought the Byzantine splendor did not fit well with the Gothic style of Mainz. The workers had been recruited—also at great expense—by the Venetians, all the way from Constantinople. Charles Fredrik's father, nearing the end of his life, had been convinced that the pious work would help to ease his path to heaven.

    If God had the taste of a Byzantine, maybe it had. Eberhard grimaced. He had been close to the old Emperor. If Emperor Walther had lived to see the work finished, Eberhard had a feeling that the old flagstones might just have been put down again, on top of the mosaic.

    He sighed. Charles Fredrik would be here, no doubt, shortly. In the meanwhile it would have been nice to have something other than these damn tiles to look at. It was damnably cold for an old man. He paced, to warm himself and distract his attention from the mosaic.

    When Charles Fredrik finally arrived, with his aide Baron Trolliger, Eberhard of Brunswick began to wonder if he would be arranging for more Byzantine craftsmen to smooth this Emperor's path to heaven. Charles Fredrik looked tired. He looked more than tired: he looked worn. And he looked worried.

    Still, his expression lightened when he saw Eberhard. He raised the old counselor up. "I see they have not even brought you a glass of wine to fight off the chill." He shook his head disapprovingly and gestured to one of the footmen. "Hippocras, for my Lord of Brunswick, and for us."

    A few minutes later the three of them were seated in a small, warm side-parlor. An apple-wood fire burned merrily in the grate. That, and a goblet of rich, spiced hippocras had helped fight off Eberhard's chill and had lightened the Emperor's expression, even given some color to his cheeks. Charles Fredrik still looked twenty years older and much closer to the grave than he should. Eberhard knew that the wounds he had received in a youthful campaign still troubled one of the Emperor's lungs. Winters were always hard for him.

    "Still no news from my nephew Manfred," said Charles Fredrik heavily.

    "The roads and passes are snowed closed," said Baron Trolliger. "There is no reason to get too worried, Your Majesty. The Norse are honorable about their oaths."

    Charles Fredrik shook his head. "I trust those petty pagan kinglets not at all, the so-called Christian ones not much more. I've sent a messenger through to Francesca in Copenhagen."

    Baron Trolliger touched his head. "That woman..."

    "Has secured us more co-operation with the Danes in two months than you did in five years, Hans Trolliger," said Charles Fredrik, almost snapping the words. "If I had twenty more like her, I could afford to die without worrying about the succession. As it is—well, at least Hakkonsen is with Manfred. Between Erik and Madam'zelle de Chevreuse, they keep one of my heirs on a reasonably even keel."

    Baron Trolliger nearly choked. "That affair in Venice nearly had him killed! I still say we should have hanged every last one of those damned Servants of the Trinity."

    Charles Fredrik smiled grimly. "If we'd hanged as much as one, the entire Pauline church would have been in an uproar. Instead they've excommunicated a few obvious bad-eggs and we must put with and isolate the rest. As for Francesca and Erik, I still say they kept Manfred on a reasonably even keel in very dangerous waters. Without either of them, he would have definitely been killed. Erik has made a warrior out of him, and Francesca has done even more. She's made him think. She might have led him by his testicles to that point, but she actually made him think. To my certain knowledge, that's something which no one else ever succeeded at doing. The Venetian affair has done a great deal for one of my heirs. Besides, I enjoyed my visit to Venice and to Rome, even if you didn't, Hans."

    Baron Trolliger looked as if he might choke. "The visit was bad enough. The months you made me stay there afterward..."

    Eberhard of Brunswick chuckled. "Well, Your Majesty, at least Prince Conrad hasn't caused you as much trouble, even if he hasn't provided you with as much entertainment. What is Manfred doing in Norway, anyway? Winter in Scandinavia is not something I'd ever want go through again. I did it with your father in Småland back in '22, when we went in to bale the Danes out. Far as I was concerned, the pagans deserved the place."



    To an extent, Charles Frederick agreed with his advisor, though it was hardly politic to say so.

    "In winter, it can be bleak. Nice enough in summer," said the Emperor, mildly. Eberhard of Brunswick had been one of his father's closest friends and the old Ritter was now one of Charles Fredrik's most trusted emissaries. He'd spent the better part of the last year in Ireland, with the Celtic Ard Ri, representing the States General and the Holy Roman Emperor to the League of Armagh.

    Now he was home. Charles Fredrik knew the old man had delighted in the thought of seeing his grandchildren again. The Ritter had dropped some hints in his correspondence that he'd like to retire to his estates.

    The Emperor bit his lip. The old man deserved retirement, had more than earned it, but men of his caliber were rare. Very rare. In point of fact, there was no one skilled and canny enough to replace him.

    He'd have to send the silver-haired warrior out again. But not somewhere cold and wet this time; that was the least he could do.

    "It's still part and parcel of the same business, Eberhard. Well, the aftermath of it. The Danes are content to hold the coastal lands, but the chapters of Knights of the Holy Trinity that my father established there after the '22 campaign are still pushing deeper into pagan lands. They stir things up, and the pagan tribes tend to take it out on the Danish settlers. The Knights are building little empires out there. At this point, they're a law unto themselves."

    Eberhard snorted. "Rein them in, Emperor. Rein them in hard. We need the coast to keep the pagan bastards from raiding our shipping on the Baltic, but the hinterland... not worth the price in blood the Empire will pay for some bar-sinister Ritter to get himself an estate."

    The Emperor nodded. "That's what Manfred had gone to do. Last I heard it was in hand, but then this business in Norway cropped up, and he went off to sort that out. We haven't heard from him in over a month."

    "It is near midwinter, Your Majesty," pointed out Baron Trolliger.

    "I know. That treaty is supposed to be ratified on midwinter's eve. He'd have sent me word..."

    The Emperor rubbed his eyes, tiredly. "I know, Hans, the passes in Norway are closed. But I've had the Servants of the Trinity try to contact him by magical means, also. Nothing."

    To Eberhard, he said in explanation: "He's gone to Telemark. One of those little kingdoms on the Norwegian side of the Skagerrak. Dirt poor, rotten with raiders and pirates because the land can't feed all of them. We concluded a treaty with King Olaf two years ago. He's dead, and his son Vortenbras has taken the throne, and so the treaty needs to be ratified again. Since Vortenbras is pagan, the oath must be sworn in the temple on Odin's ring at the midwinter festival. Only it's been stolen. Manfred and Erik and two of our best diviners have gone to see if they can find it. No word from them. All I can find out is that it's snowing heavily in the north."

    The old Ritter looked as if even the thought of a trip into snowy Scandinavia was enough to make him break out in chilblains. Nevertheless, he said calmly, "Do you want me to go, Your Majesty?"

    The Emperor leaned over and patted the age-spotted, sinewy hand. "No. I've sent a message to a woman who will see to it. The same Francesca de Chevreuse of whom"—here he gave Trolliger a sly glance—"Hans disapproves. But no matter what Hans thinks of her capability, I have confidence in her over any other possible agent in this case."

    Trolliger shuddered. "She's capable enough. Her methods..."

    "Work," said the Emperor. "Even you find her attractive, Hans. Men will tell an attractive, intelligent woman things they won't tell us; they'll do things for her they would not consider doing for us for any amount of money. They'll go to great lengths to help her."

    "They reduce us to the level of Aquitaine, Your Majesty," said the Baron, sulkily.

    The Emperor pulled a wry face. "Which is why our officials fail so dismally when we have to deal with the Aquitaine. I'm almost tempted to send you to Francesca for lessons, Hans."



    Charles Fredrik saw the look of trepidation on the old Ritter's face. He smiled reassuringly at the older man. "Not you, Eberhard. You would enjoy her intellect and company, though, I can assure you of that. Baron Trolliger here finds her physically threatening—or her breasts, anyway. He fears they will cast a fascination over him and, like Samson, leave him helpless to resist the lady's whims."

    Eberhard of Brunswick shook his head. "It is not the company of an intelligent woman that I fear, Your Majesty. It is rather that I am concerned that you'll send me to Aquitaine. I was hoping to spend some time in Swabia with my family." He touched his silver hair. "I'm not getting any younger, Your Majesty. Especially for Aquitaine, you need younger men. "

    The Emperor gave a small snort of wry laughter. "The last thing I need in Aquitaine is younger men, Eberhard. But relax, I am not going to send you there. However, I'm afraid I can't let you go home to pasture either. Men like you are too few on the ground. The Holy Roman Empire still needs you. I still need you."

    The older Ritter shrugged. " Well, I just hope it's somewhere warm this time, Your Majesty. This winter seems colder than last winter. Or maybe I'm just older. At least Mainz is not as damp as Ireland was."

    Charles Fredrik allowed the corners of his mouth to ease into a smile. "Would the Holy Land be warm enough and dry enough for you?"

    "A pilgrimage for my soul has always been one my desires," said the old Ritter quietly. Eberhard of Brunswick was one of the best and most reliable of officials in the States-General. He was an adept politician and diplomat, but at the core, he was a pious man. His soul might need cleansing of what he'd done for the Empire, but not for himself, Charles Fredrik knew.

    "It's more for my soul than yours, old friend," the Emperor said equally quietly. "I don't know how many more of these winters I can take either." He smiled wryly. "No mosaics this time though, Eberhard. Perhaps some churches in places that need them. I haven't lived your life and I have a feeling I'll need a good many prayers to get me away from hellfire, as well as a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. But I can't go; you will have to go for me."

    He lifted a heavy eyebrow. "Of course there are some small tasks you can do for the Holy Roman Empire while you're there. And along the way."

    Eberhard nodded. He understood politics thoroughly enough to know precisely whom, in that part of the world, a "small task" might be directed towards. "The Ilkhan?"

    Charles Fredrik nodded. "We've had tentative feelers from them. Baron Trolliger had a long discussion with a visiting Jew from Damascus, during the months he remained behind in Italy. The man was there strictly on family business, of course, but—as they often do—the Mongols were using the Jewish merchant as an informal emissary."

    The Ilkhan Mongol Empire stretched from Egypt to the Black Sea and no one really knew just how far into the Asian hinterland. The Ilkhan were themselves pagan, but had no qualms about their subject peoples worshiping gods of their choice. Christians, Muslims, Jews—many religions—all prospered in the Mongol realm. They enforced a degree of tolerance that the fiery Christian Metropolitan of Alexandria might find irksome, but it did make things peaceful in their dominions.

    Eberhard's eyes narrowed. "They won't like that in Alexandria."

    The Emperor shrugged. "Politics and war make for strange bedfellows, Eberhard. And it all comes down to Grand Duke Jagiellon trying to flank me, or force me to fight on two fronts, and the Holy Roman Empire trying to flank him. The Grand Duke is building up quite a fleet in Odessa. Then, too, there's this: the news Hans brings back from his long stay in Italy leaves me concerned that the Hungarians are up to no good either."

    The Ritter nodded. "The Ilkhan could at least bottle them up in the Black Sea. But surely Emperor Alexius IV can do that just as well from Constantinople?"

    Baron Trolliger coughed. "We have a treaty with him, yes. But we've had word that a few ships—which are definitely not from Odessa—have been discharging visitors, who have gone on to visit the Imperial palace."

    The old Ritter nodded slowly. "I see. That would indeed leave our flank wide open. Very well, Your Majesty, when do I leave?"

    "Not until spring, Eberhard," said the Emperor. "Even if you left today, getting passage to Acre or Ascalon before spring would be impossible. You can have a few winter months to spend cooped up with your grandchildren. By the time spring comes, even the muddy road will probably look appealing."

    Eberhard smiled. "There is some merit in what you say, Your Majesty. The last time I was home my daughter's youngest was teething. Yes, by spring it may even be good to be on the road without children."

    Charles Fredrik coughed. "Well. Not strictly without. He's a bit old to be called a child, these days. But he is one of my heirs."

    A look of horror came across the old statesman's face. "Not Manfred? Sire, I'm an old man!"

    The Emperor nodded, ruefully. "It's a symbol of great trust, Eberhard of Brunswick. I am feeling my age, and my wound troubles me. I may not survive another winter and such a trip will take the boy a long way from the intriguers of court. If I die, the succession must be a simple matter of Conrad being the only candidate at hand. Not that I have the least fears about Manfred wanting the throne, but that has never stopped factions in the past. On the other hand, if by any evil chance Conrad and I are killed—as happened to the Emperor Maximilian and his son—I want Manfred safe and ready, where no one can get to him easily. Besides, you're the leading statesman of my Empire. I want him to learn from you. If there is time I'll send the boy to Ferrara to Duke Enrico Dell'este to see if he can learn strategy and tactics from the Old Fox, but statecraft needs to come first. And you'll find he's improved a great deal. Circumstances, Erik and Francesca have made him grow up a great deal."

    But all the old man said was "Manfred!" with a face full of woe.



    The messenger bearing dispatches from the Emperor to Francesca de Chevreuse only took ten days, and that was by spending Imperial gold like water. A brief thaw and then a vicious freeze had made the roads full of iron-hard ridges and ruts... which was still better than fetlock-deep mud.

    Francesca looked at the Imperial seal—and the scrawl. Well, the Imperial tutors probably hadn't beaten him for untidiness.

    She grimaced. One had to wonder what vagaries of Imperial policy had stemmed from some terrified official doing his best to interpret this handwriting. It really was difficult. Looking carefully, though, she could see that was in part due to a definite tremor in the hand of the writer. Perhaps the rumors about the emperor's health had some substance after all.

    Francesca looked out over Copenhagen and the Sound. The water was gray, bleak, wind-chopped. She'd been out earlier, wearing her beautiful sable coat and muff. Her new venture into vertical diplomacy instead of the horizontal kind still required appearances. Even though, as the Prince's leman, she was strictly off-limits, men could be just as foolish when flirting as they could in bed. More so, sometimes; in bed, they weren't trying to impress a woman with their brains.

    So she needed to look as good, if not more so, than she had as one of the most sought-after courtesans in Venice. That, alas, meant keeping up with her rigorous exercise regime. The air had been biting cold and full of the dusty smell of coming snow.

    Just the time for a little venture into the Norse wilderness. Ah, well. What the Emperor wanted...

    The Emperor would get. Besides, she was a little worried herself about the lack of communication from Manfred.

    She sat down at her writing desk and sharpened her quill. Then, in a hand that was both beautiful and legible, penned several letters. She shook the sand off them, and tingled a delicate glass and sliver bell. Poor little Heinrich could go out in the cold and deliver these.

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