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This Rough Magic: Chapter Nine

       Last updated: Wednesday, July 9, 2003 23:44 EDT



    Manfred and his fellow-confrere Erik Hakkonsen made as much noise invading Francesca's boudoir (or what passed for a boudoir, here in the frozen and barbaric Northlands) as a small army.

    Then again, between the two of them, they were a small army. The Danish escort who had been cooling their heels here every day, awaiting their return, looked quite alarmed at their appearance, and Francesca didn't think that was entirely due to how battered they were.

    She was pleased to see them, though. Charles Frederick would be even more pleased.

    The one thing that this room had was privacy, even if it was cold enough that she could see her breath except when she was right on top of the fire. And a lot of furs. Most of which were piled on top and around her in a kind of luxurious nest that Francesca was loathe to leave—which was why she hadn't leapt to her feet to greet the Emperor's secondary heir as she probably should have.

    Still, Manfred was not the kind to stand on ceremony. Neither was Erik.

    Instead, Francesca looked up tolerantly at the two men, who were very much worse for wear than they had been when she last saw them. Then wrinkled her fine-boned nose. "You stink. And that's a thick lip and pair of black eyes you have there, Erik. How did you get those?"

    They were unshaven and filthy, and she shuddered to think of how many fleas Manfred alone was providing a haven for. She was not exaggerating when she told them that they stank. In fact, they reeked: of sweat, of rancid grease, and something musky and animal. Clearly, they had come straight here the moment they arrived within the walls of the fortress-cum-palace complex.

    Whatever had detained them had been physically hazardous, it seemed. She could well believe it. The Norwegian town of Telemark was some considerable distance inland from the sea. The countryside was steep, cold, snowy—which was to say, so far as Francesca was concerned, barbarous in all respects. She'd been born and raised in the Aquitaine and spent most of her adult life on the sunny coasts of the Mediterranean.

    Erik looked balefully at her. "I'd rather not talk about it."

    Manfred guffawed. "I'll tell you... for a consideration, darling."

    "No, you won't," said Erik immediately.

    Somehow, Francesca doubted she'd be getting that story. "Well, I've brought a fair number of sleighs here at your Royal Uncle's command." She gestured at the well-armed but nervous looking Danes. "The Emperor wants you back in Mainz immediately. Is your business here done?"

    Manfred grimaced. "It is, although we had to agree to slightly modified terms. Give us a few moments to bid a farewell to Queen Borgny and her—ah—consort, and we can get the hell out of Norway. It's a nice country. For bears."

    "They're welcome to it," said Erik, feeling his nose gingerly.

    Francesca nodded. "I saw some of the Norsemen dragging a bear-carcass, earlier. A big brute."

    Both knights laughed, and she wondered why. Did it have anything to do with Erik's black eyes? Or something else?

    "You can say that again," said Manfred. "Where do you think we'll find the queen and that Turk of hers, Erik?"

    Erik gestured at the hall behind them. "Back in her rooms in the palace by now, I should think," he said.

    Francesca stuck an enquiring nose out of her sables. "I thought this Kingdom was ruled by a King Vortenbras?" She didn't just think that. It had been—but apparently had was the operative term. Getting to the bottom of this was imperative enough to tempt her out of her furs.

    Erik laughed. "Not any more. You might say that's what we've been involved in, although most of the time it just felt like we were trying to stay alive. Come on, Manfred. We'll not introduce Francesca to the queen. There are enough clever women in this world without getting two of them together. And the knights will be as glad to go as we are. Time they got back to Sweden, anyway."

    Francesca snuggled her toes down against the still-warm brick at her feet. "From that I conclude, the knights feel even one clever woman is too many." But she had no real desire herself to emerge from her warm cocoon to meet this other clever woman. The Norse hall might be warm, but going there would mean moving out of this nest.


    Before we leave, anyway. Nothing official. But if she's clever, she'll already know about me.

    Just what did go on up there, anyway?

    She couldn't help but notice that neither Manfred nor the icy Erik showed any signs of romantic attachment to this woman. That was a bit of a relief, since that would be a complication they didn't need. She wondered, briefly, just what a Turk was doing here, with a Norse queen.

    But there'd be time for the story, somewhere warmer. Say... Italy. Or even... as she'd been thinking lately, Alexandria. She'd had several very interesting discussions with a Danish scholar about that city. And that fit in very nicely with the Emperor's plans.

    After all, she was, first and foremost, the Emperor's servant, and she never, ever, forgot it. She couldn't afford to. And neither, if he was wise, could Manfred.



    "Jerusalem!" Manfred nearly fell off the bed in shock. It was, especially for these parts, a very luxurious bed. It was certainly one he was very glad to be in, after all he'd been through, especially since it contained Francesca. "You're not serious, dear!"

    "Do go on with your massage, Manfred," said Francesca languorously, turning slightly, and giving him a view of her magnificent breasts. He felt his blood heating up a little more; just as well, considering how cold he'd been over the past several weeks. He'd been wondering if he would ever feel warm again.

    "I will say that the one good thing about all that drilling and training that Erik insists on is that it gives you very strong hands. You're the only man I have ever met with strong enough hands to give me a really relaxing massage." She twinkled at him. "And you do want me relaxed, don't you, dear? It gives me such a lot of energy."

    Manfred went back to his task, but his mind was not distracted from her comment. "What's this about my going to Jerusalem for Charles Fredrik?"

    Francesca ran a hand down his hairy, naked thigh. Nerves he'd thought frozen numb for the duration became most delightfully alive again. "Forget that I said it, darling. It just slipped out."

    Manfred raised his eyes to heaven. But like a terrier onto a rat, he stuck to his questions. Rather admirably, he thought, considering the distractions. "Why Jerusalem, Francesca? I mean, it has got to be an improvement on Norway at this time of year, but—well, I thought I'd be involved in setting the Knots to rights. I'm only a confrere for another year and there's still a lot to do."

    "I think you've started the ball rolling," she said playfully... nearly distracting the terrier. Not quite, but nearly. "Never make the mistake of thinking others cannot do the job, if not quite as you would, possibly just as well."

    He grinned. "They don't have my hands, darling, or Erik to make theirs as strong. Now tell: There's more to this isn't there? Politics?"

    Francesca gave him a look of deepest innocence, from under half-lowered lashes, spoiled only by a throaty chuckle. "How could you suspect that! The Emperor is an old man. He feels his age. He would like, for the sake of his soul, to undertake a pilgrimage to Jerusalem himself. But the Emperor's health..."

    "Besides his dislike of leaving Mainz."

    "Tch. Don't interrupt while I am betraying confidences, Manfred dear." She tapped his lips with one long finger. "His health and the running of an empire do not allow him to take the six months or a year necessary to go to Jerusalem. But as age creeps up on him he would like to prepare his soul for the inevitable. As would any man above a certain age."

    Manfred snorted. "The Ilkhan do keep a substantial presence in Jerusalem," he stated, and was rewarded by her sly little grin, which told him he had struck dead in the black.

    Well. Politics, then. Not his favorite task, but he wouldn't be the one engaged in it. He wasn't nearly crafty enough to deal with the Mongols. The Swedes and Danes were about at his level; if he hadn't had Francesca, the Italians would have had him raw, on toast. Even with her help, they nearly had, anyway.

    "Who is going to accompany me? Trolliger? Or Brunswick?"

    Francesca rolled over, exposing a front draped only in the sheerest bits of lace and silk, certainly not designed to conceal. "Eberhard of Brunswick. But I do believe your Uncle does want to make his peace with God, and that he is feeling his age. And let's not talk boring business right now... unless you want to, of course?" She cocked her head slightly, lowering her long lashes, and ran an elegant finger down his torso. Reviving still more nerves.

    "Argh!" He sighed, as a gloomy thought occurred to him. "I don't want to leave you for a year, Francesca."

    Not that there wouldn't be plenty of distractions in the sophisticated and ancient (as well as holy) city of Jerusalem, not to mention the other delightful metropolises along the way. But they wouldn't be Francesca.

    She pulled him closer and began to do very distracting things indeed. "Who said anything about leaving me behind?"

    "You want to come with me?" He was startled enough to be distracted from her distraction. "But—"

    Why had he thought she'd want to be left behind? Why had he thought that his uncle would allow her to remain behind? She was, after all, first and foremost, the Emperor's trusted servant, and he would be wise never to forget that.

    Still. She was also Francesca. "That's wonderful!"

    "Well, it is warmer there, is it not?"



    It was only later, much later, on the verge of sleep, that it occurred to Manfred that Francesca did not betray confidences, and she didn't let things slip out. He'd been very skillfully manipulated. Very skillfully indeed.

    Well, it had been more fun than being told. And even if he doubted that Charles Fredrik really needed any praying for another ten years, Jerusalem would still be interesting—and much more pleasant to visit with Francesca for company.

    And if she was the Emperor's trusted servant, well, so was he. She was wise enough to remember that, even when he was distracted. Wise enough for both of them.

    The thought gave him immense comfort.

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