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This Rough Magic: Chapter Twelve

       Last updated: Wednesday, July 9, 2003 23:51 EDT



    "You're not that old," protested Manfred for the fifth time.

    The Emperor smiled wryly. "Thank you. Nevertheless, I still want you to do it. You will pray for my soul in Jerusalem. It needs it, believe me. And it wouldn't do you any harm to do some thinking about your own mortality."

    Erik looked at the emperor's nephew. Manfred was trying to keep a straight face. He glanced at Charles Fredrik, and realized that the Emperor understood the humor in this too. Erik could see the similarity between the two men in the facial lines. Of course Manfred was bigger, and had a darker Celtic complexion, but the family likeness was definitely there—and went deeper than appearances. He could readily believe, looking at the Emperor, that there were some sins worth praying about.

    Charles Fredrik shook his head ruefully. "When I was your age I didn't believe in my own mortality either. Just do it, Manfred. Humor me. I'm an old man. I know that both in Venice and now in Norway, the chances of you being killed or injured were remarkably good. Neither luck nor Erik are going to stop everything. So I'm putting in a formal request to the Abbot-General of the Knights of the Holy Trinity to furnish you with an escort of knights. He has already acceded to my 'request' that you go on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land for me, while you are still in the holy order. I don't think he will refuse this either. You will be invested, both of you, as Knight-Proctors and given discretionary command over the Knights assigned to accompany you. To assist you I'm sending my old friend and mentor, Eberhart of Brunswick with you."

    Manfred rolled his eyes. "To instruct me in statecraft no doubt, Uncle. This pilgrimage is going to be a real penance after all."

    The Emperor covered a smile with his hand. "Yes. Poor Eberhart is expecting to find it that, for a certainty. Now, Francesca, stay with me a while. I would like to talk to you without that young idiot interrupting me. Go on, you two. I'll want to talk to you as well, Erik. But not tonight, I think."

    Erik and Manfred had little choice but to leave. Francesca waved as she walked over to stand beside the Emperor.



    "Did you see that!" said Manfred fuming. "One minute he's dying and wanting me to pray for his soul, the next he's stealing my girl!"

    "She's scarcely a girl," said Erik, latching onto the one safe point in the entire argument.

    The disapproving look brought a grin to Manfred. "Among the things I can promise you, she definitely isn't a boy. Or have you forgotten a certain night in a certain brothel? Francesca says you're the biggest stiff thing she's ever had between her legs. Your whole body was rigid... with shock."

    Erik fumbled for something to say, and failed. The memory of the first time they'd met Francesca, fleeing from an ambush, still embarrassed him. They'd been ambushed in a brothel in which she was employed at the time, and she'd agreed to hide them—by using the expedient device of hiding them in plain sight, engaged in the sort of activity anyone would expect to see in a brothel. Erik himself, mortified, had faked his part of the thing. Manfred... had not.

    Which was perhaps why Manfred reveled in the memory. "It's old age, that's your problem. Memory's going first. Never mind, I'll get Francesca to refresh the picture. Just some millafiori beads as I recall, all she was wearing."

    "Manfred! You know that's not what I meant." Erik wondered just how he should deal with this. "Have you no morals at all? I meant she's a woman, not a girl."

    Manfred snorted. "Only you Icelanders seem to worry about it."

    "Vinlanders take it even more seriously. It's just not respectful!"

    Manfred went off into a guffaw. "Well, that's something, considering her former profession."

    Erik found himself blushing; as usual, confused by what his response should be to the former whore, then courtesan, now a prince's mistress. His conservative upbringing said he should treat her with disdain. Yet...

    Francesca, he knew from experience, lived by a rigid moral code too. It just had a totally different set of rules about sex.

    He decided to take refuge in something he was familiar and comfortable with. "Come. You're getting fat, Manfred. Let's go down to the jousting yard."

    "Erik, it's snowing out there. Besides I know you just want to take it out on me."

    There was some truth to that, even if, as the years went by, "taking it out" on Manfred was getting a great deal harder to do. But at the new rapier-work Erik still had the edge, and always would have. He was just faster than Manfred could ever be. "Then we will find a salle big enough for some more fencing practice. Come. I have the quilted jackets in my quarters."

    "I'd rather go drinking," protested Manfred.

    Erik threw him against the wall with a rolling hiplock.



    Francesca looked severely at the Emperor. "Using me to tease your nephew is not kind."

    Charles Fredrik smiled. "It's one of the few pleasures left to an old man." The smiled widened. "And by now Erik will have talked him into some training and will administer some bruises, which his disrespect deserves."

    "You are a very bad old man," she said, shaking her head at the most powerful man in Europe.

    The first time she'd met the Emperor she'd been quaking inside. But when all was said and done, he was also a man. Men, she understood. This one, for all his power, was a good man. And behind the smiles she read genuine worry.

    "He's turning out well, you know. But he is still very young."

    "And very jealous. If I were twenty years younger he'd have reason to be. Now tell me, Francesca. What do you intend to do now? I am sending Manfred to Jerusalem. But I have a place for you here in Mainz. You've served me well in Denmark, much though Trolliger disapproves of your methods! Mind you, I don't think he realizes that your methods are—"

    "More refined than in Venice. And not horizontal in the least." She smiled tolerantly. "Wait until his spies are done reporting to him—or until he finishes reading those reports he's already gotten. I believe he will be astonished that I have become a veritable pillar of respectability."

    "Good," the Emperor replied, and sounded as if he meant it. "I gathered that already; unlike Trolliger, I read the entire reports from my spies—and his, by the way—not just the parts I deem are pertinent at the time."

    "Well, I may not be Caesar's wife," she said thoughtfully, with a long look through her lashes at the Emperor, "But—"

    "But you must still be above reproach, as my nephew's paramour," Charles Frederick agreed with her. "Though a bit of banter between the two of us, in private, is harmless enough."

    "And in public," she twinkled, "I find finance to be the most fascinating possible topic for discussion."

    He chuckled, as she had known he would.

    Francesca licked the corner her mouth. Slowly and catlike. "So, whatever could he find to disapprove of in finance?" she asked, innocently, looking at him through lowered lashes.

    She was rewarded with the Emperor's laughter... which went off into coughing. It took a while to subside, and now he looked older. Gray and tired, though still able to muster a smile.

    "Don't make me laugh, please!" he said breathlessly. "It's a pity. I find little to laugh at these days. No wonder the Danes were so willing to help you. You must have had them wrapped around your littlest finger. But what do you intend to do now? Because I would like to ask that you accompany Manfred. Not for the reasons he'd like, lucky young dog, but for my own interests. And yours, for that matter. I pay well, as you know."

    Francesca chose her words carefully. She was aware just how dangerous these waters were. She knew she was tolerated as the mistress to the Emperor's second-in-line heir. But more than that? No.

    "I was planning on accompanying Manfred. Not, I'm afraid, for the reasons he thinks. But the truth is that Mainz is not my sort of town. And I fancy seeing the east. Alexandria tempts me."

    "Alexandria!" She was surprised by the enthusiasm in the Emperor's voice. "What a place! I went there, you know, as a young prince." He sighed. "A paradise of a town for a young man. But there is more to it. A place of intellect too. More than anywhere else in the world, as I know it. I regret, in my old age, that I didn't explore that aspect more."

    "I would wager you didn't regret it then!"

    "True. But I'll have to tell you about it some other time. Right now I want to talk to you about Eberhard of Brunswick's mission."

    "To the Ilkhan."

    The Emperor shook his head. "If I didn't know you better, I'd have you burned for witchcraft."

    She shrugged. "It is quite obvious."

    The Emperor shook his head again. "I just hope that Grand Duke Jagiellon is not as intelligent and devious-minded as you are."

    "If he isn't, he's bound to have someone who is," she said.



    The Emperor looked thoughtful. "Not necessarily. The plots and machinations of Jagiellon are not constructed as you or I would construct them. You've given a lot of thought to western politics. Turn your mind now to the east. There is a factor at work there you must not forget: power in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania is wrested by strength and cunning, not just by hereditary right or, as in Venice, by election."

    He held up a hand. "Yes, I know. There are intrigues and schemes here, also. But this is the playing of puppies compared to the fight for pack-dominance there. Jagiellon dares not allow anyone into his trust. He must always act, to some extent, alone. Even his closest advisor, Count Mindaug, will pull him down if he can, and thus is not privy to the innermost workings and plans and secrets. That would require trust and a loyalty born of love, not fear. Those are as alien to Jagiellon as his kind of absolute enslavement is to us. He gains their loyalty by robbing them of their will and their self. Our most trusted people can betray us... his cannot. But his cannot think or act independently, either. Those Jagiellon allows free thought to, must be kept weaker, and ignorant. We don't have that problem, although we do need to fear treachery. We must place our trust carefully."

    Francesca looked at the Emperor in some surprise. "Maybe it really is a pity that you spent so much time in the pleasure-palaces in Alexandria."

    The Emperor gave a small snort. "Not nearly as much as you might think. I learned a great deal about things that my tutors hadn't mentioned, while I was there. But a fool and his empire are soon parted. Alexius IV of Byzantium is busy proving that. And while I, or Conrad or even Manfred might not be the best people for the job... as my father said to me, when I protested that I didn't really want to be Emperor, better those who have been trained for it but don't want it, than someone who just wants it. A man who wants this kind of power, does not want the responsibility that goes with it." He shrugged. "Nobody would."

    Francesca's smile was small, tight, and sympathetic. "I think most of them would just choose to ignore the responsibilities. I think the Holy Roman Empire has been fortunate in its Emperor."

    "To my sorrow, no. One of the reasons that I want Manfred to pray for my soul is that I know I have failed sometimes, Francesca. Too often," he said quietly, shaking his head. "And thanks be to the hard lessons I got from Erik's father that I can acknowledge this responsibility. You know, I once said something stupid and arrogant about some peasants. Hakkon explained that if they'd said the same about me, they'd have died. And, as I couldn't learn if I was dead, he'd simply made me wish I was dead. It gave me an insight the imperial heir had previously lacked."

    He paused, lost in reflections. Francesca waited, patiently. "Now, to return to the Ilkhan. I think we can benefit each other. Of course Eberhart of Brunswick will be doing the actual negotiation but I would like you to be able to... shall we say, 'smooth things over' if there are difficulties." He smiled. "This means I will have to trust you, which Jagiellon would not."

    Francesca shook her head. "So: you will have to trust me, which Jagiellon would not. But, Your Majesty, neither, by the sounds of it, would Emeric of Hungary trust me. He is, by all accounts, a man who would match your image of the Grand Duke. And he is closer too. Why do you focus on the Grand Duke?"

    Charles Fredrik sighed. "It is ill fortune to have two such men on the thrones of powerful neighboring lands. But Emeric is not threatening us at the moment." The Emperor smiled grimly. "I have reliable information that he is turning his attention to the southern Balkans. Being involved in a war down there would be, for him, what being involved in the wars of Italian principalities would be for us. There is an Illyrian Chieftain down there who is giving him considerable pause."



    "What!?" Manfred shook his head. "You want me to take a couple of hundred knights with me? That's an army, Uncle! That's ridiculous. You managed fine in Italy-with just Erik and myself escorting you."

    The Emperor shook his head. "I enjoyed that. But we were traveling incognito, Manfred. I am afraid that part of the point of this exercise is to travel in the full glare of public view. Even two hundred men-at-arms may not be enough."

    Manfred thumped a meaty fist on the table. "When I went to Sweden I had seventy! And for all the use they were, I might as well have had none!"

    The Emperor glared at him. "You were within my realms and supposedly protected by my hand. The fact that you went off into Norway, to Telemark, with just on half of that, when I had clearly and expressly told you to 'take a sufficient escort' just proves to me that I have to dictate how many men escort you. And I hear from the master of the Chapter House at Vänersborg that it was only on his insistence that you even took that many with you. Accept it, Manfred. I've heard the story from Erik. Your days of being the young, happy-go-lucky knight are over. Even in the Knights of the Holy Trinity, where you were supposedly anonymous and protected, you were a target. They tried to kill you, Manfred, as a way of getting at me. The day is fast approaching when they'll try to kill you just because of who you are. You won't always have Erik there. Besides, you need some command experience. The men I'm going to have sent with you are older, tough, solid veterans. You'll be younger than almost all of them. Less experienced. You'll spend half your life commanding men with the advantage over you of age and experience. Learn how to do it now, when you don't have to do it in combat."

    Manfred groaned. "Bad enough that I've got to put up with old Eberhart's moralizing and carping. Now you're saddling me with a bunch of graybeards who are going to spend the entire journey, to and from Jerusalem, complaining about their rheumatism and grumbling how things aren't like they used to be when they were young."

    The Emperor snorted. "You will treat Eberhart of Brunswick with respect, Manfred. Learn from him. He is a statesman and a truly skilled negotiator. One of the best. I've always thought that if he hadn't been born a noble he'd have been the richest horse-trader in the Empire. He's a valuable man, probably worth as much to the Empire as you are. If you don't treat him with respect I will curtail your personal allowance—which I imagine you and Francesca would find difficult. And as for the quality of the men I'm sending with you: I took Erik Hakkonsen's advice. I have asked the Knights of the Holy Trinity to send me a knight by the name of Von Gherens. Erik suggested I get him to select the men who will accompany you."

    Manfred brightened. "Well, that's not so bad. Von Gherens can drink."

    The Emperor shook his head and laughed. "Manfred! What are we going to do with you? I keep hoping Francesca and Erik have worked miracles and then you give me that sort of comment."

    Manfred grinned. "Well, I have made some inroads in teaching Erik to drink! He still does it badly, though. And I've failed with Francesca entirely. Teaching her to drink properly, that is. I've had successes in other important areas, of course."

    The Emperor shook his head again, helplessly.

    "And I'm looking forward to visiting Venice again. Some fine red wines those Italians produce."

    "I hope Erik beats you," grumbled the Emperor. "And I'm going to have a word with Francesca too."

    "So long as you keep to talking," said Manfred, warily.

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