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This Rough Magic: Chapter Eighteen

       Last updated: Friday, July 11, 2003 22:42 EDT



    Manfred whistled softly. "Holy Mother! See that blond, Erik? The original paps of Anu, I swear."

    Erik determinedly did not look up from the table. Ogling all the available—and, for that matter, all the unavailable—women of the world was Manfred's specialty, not his. "It is impolite to stare, Manfred. Women don't like it."

    Manfred snorted. "Then why do they wear clothes like that? Anyway, Erik, you've got have a look. I'll swear she is one of those Viking Valkyries come to fetch you after all."

    Despite all his best intentions, Erik did look.

    And was trapped. There were occasional blond heads in Venice. A few Lombards, and travelers from further afield. But this woman was a true Scandinavian blond, her great cascade of hair straight and fine and so pale as to be almost white. Her face, too, spoke of the northlands: the skin milk-white with blossomed cheeks, high cheekbones. And, as Manfred had pointed out, she had a magnificent figure. Despite himself Erik caught his breath and stared.

    Manfred laughed coarsely. "It is impolite to stare at her tits, isn't it Erik? You want me to organize a meeting for you? A quiet little alcove somewhere. I'll distract the bodyguards. And in this case, my friend, they really are bodyguards."

    Erik realized that he'd been so taken up with looking at the Scandinavian woman that he hadn't noticed the two men accompanying her. Once he did, it was very clear to him why the blond woman was not being mobbed by cisebeos. Looking at the two of them, Erik was wary himself. They were as blond as the woman, even taller, and much wider. And they had beards, something she lacked.

    Still... she was a magnificent, queenly figure. "Who is she?"

    Manfred took a pull from his goblet. "I only know half the women in Venice, Erik. I'll have to find young Benito. He knows the other half."

    Erik shrugged. "Wouldn't do me much good. See the furs she's wearing? And the jewelry, and the escorts. That is a very wealthy noblewoman."

    "The wildest kind, believe me," said Manfred.

    He stood up. "Anyway. Francesca asked that I come up to speak with the happy couple. She's scheming away for my Uncle, I suspect. Wasting her time. Marco is a nice boy even if butter won't melt in his mouth, but there's steel in him that not all of Francesca's wiles will turn. Y'know one of my father's duniwassals back at Carnac caught me stealing arrows from the war-stores to go duck-shooting with, when I was about eleven. I was the Duke's son, and I wasn't really worried. He fetched me such a clip around my ear I thought it might come out of the other side of my head. I squalled blue murder, and threatened to go to my Father about him."

    Manfred pulled a wry face. "I still remember what he said: 'I don't care if you go and talk to the Ard Ri himself, boy. Siege stores are my duty. I keep them frae pilfering by anybody, even your father hisself. Now run along and tell him'. The old devil was as unlike young Marco as possible, but the two are cut from the same cloth in one way. They know what they believe is right and you can't turn them from that."

    Erik nodded, his eyes still following the blond woman. "Besides, if what Francesca tells us is true-and after what happened here I have no reason to doubt it-he is at least in part possessed by the Lion of St. Mark." Dryly: "That's quite a creature to try and talk into something."

    Manfred snorted. "I don't think the Lion half is as easily distracted by Kat's figure." He turned and walked off.

    Erik made no move to go with Manfred. After the prince was out of sight, he got up and found his way across to the three Scandinavians.

    "Goddag," he greeted.

    He wasn't surprised at the Vinlander twang when one of the men turned and greeted him in return. "Icelander! What are you doing here?"

    He was the slightly larger of the two men, who were obviously brothers, as well as the older. A smile on his face—that on other man and the woman, also—now displaced the wary reserve that Erik had seen characterizing the Vinlanders' response to the Venetian pomp.

    Awkward questions first, dealt with as he had been instructed to do when he first took on Manfred as his charge. The role of the Hakkonsen family in Imperial affairs was not something discussed. Few if any people in Iceland had any idea that Clann Harald, to which Erik's family belonged, did loyal service to the Imperial house of the Holy Roman Empire. It was best so, Erik's father had always said.

    "I am just passing through," said Erik calmly. "And yourselves? My name, by the way is Hakkonsen... Erik. Eirikur, actually, but I've grown accustomed to using the Danish version. These continentals have less trouble with it."

    Hakkonsen was an honorable patronymic, as was Harald as a clan designation. Erik's own father was well known, in Iceland, and there were always some of the clan in the Althing. True, Clann Harald was not rich; in fact, wealth seemed to avoid them. His father's own holding at Bakkaflói was a place of stark beauty but little else. Still, it was a name that was well respected.

    The Vinlander obviously recognized the name. The smile grew, considerably. "Bjarni Thordarson, at your service. This is my brother Gulta and our little sister Svanhild. We're setting up a trading house for Vinland goods. We have a Venetian factor and partner." The big Vinlander gestured. "This is his daughter's wedding."

    "An honor to meet you all." Erik's smile might just have been a fraction brighter for Svanhild, but he thought he'd done well keeping it under control. "So, here you are invited to a Venetian function, and you don't know anyone, and your host is buried in having his daughter married. Uncomfortable."

    "And it is quite an affair," said Gulta, looking at the laden tables, the richly dressed people. "As an Icelander you must find all of this ostentation odd."

    Erik smiled, remembering his first Venetian banquet. The ostentation had been overwhelming, yes, but it had been less so than the magical murder of the monk. "It was quite a shock, yes, but I've gotten used to it. Why don't we find a few glasses of wine and somewhere quiet to sit and talk? It has been five years since I went to Vinland. Where is your clan based?"

    If he could find a quiet spot Manfred might actually not come and join them. Under the circumstances Erik thought he'd prefer that. Manfred had far more than his share of female attention anyway.

    Something about what he'd said had made Svanhild smile upon him. Erik found himself hoping Manfred would stay away a long while. She was stunning.

    Fortunately, her brothers seemed to approve. "The Thordarsons are a trading house," said Bjarni. "We have our headquarters at Cahokia in the Mississippi valley, deep in the interior, but we have factors on the coast also. And I agree. It has done us no harm to be seen at this gathering as guests of the Doge's ward's wedding, but I'm tired of all these people staring at my sister and none of them having the manners to come and speak to us."

    Erik reflected silently that he'd nearly been amongst them.

    "I don't mind," Svanhild said. But there was an undertone of faint unhappiness that told Erik that she minded a great deal. "After all, they don't know us, either. We must be odd to them."

    We look like polar bears in a room full of lap-spaniels, said her tone.

    "Well, if there isn't any business that you need to be doing, why don't we get out of the crush," Erik said, but said it to her. "I like these people, but I have to say that they must be the most obtuse lot I've ever seen. Nothing can be said or done directly, and they use occasions like this one to chatter around and around subjects they've already made their minds up about."

    The older brother heaved a sigh of relief. "So I'm not the only one who thinks that!"

    "I think I know where there will be a quiet room. Or quieter, anyway." Erik caught a passing page by the elbow, and gave him instructions. "Just follow me."




    One thing that his previous visits had done was to give him a good grasp of the geography of the Doge's palace, and what was more, to know what rooms were likely to be closed off to the general invitees. The little chamber off to the side of the council chamber, for instance. It was too small to be useful in a great gathering, and there was no comfortable furniture for assignations.

    Not that something like that would stop Manfred... But, fortunately, Manfred wasn't there.

    "Oh..." Svanhild said, as he closed the door behind the three Vinlanders. She looked around at the rather somber room with no hints of gilding or the usual Venetian opulence anywhere, only cold stone and dark wood and grim portraits of former Doges. "I thought all of the palace was red and gold."

    "Not everywhere." Erik didn't tell her that this particular chamber was used for interviews with the spies—and sometimes, interrogations. At least they were interrogations that didn't require a trip to less salubrious quarters, the kind equipped with pincers and tongs and ropes and hot irons.

    "Here." He purloined Petro's comfortable chair from behind the formidable desk for Svanhild, and offered the other, uncompromising pieces to her brothers. He sat on the desk, just as the page returned with wine and more refreshments.

    "So, tell me why you're here, and about your clan holding in Vinland!" he said with enthusiasm. "It's been too long since I heard anyone speaking my own tongue."

    Svanhild simply lit up at that invitation. If he was any judge, she was desperately homesick, and, if she'd been able, would have flung herself on the first ship going west. The brothers were full of enthusiasm for their mission and what they expected to accomplish in Venice, but Svanhild wanted to talk about home. About little things—how she missed being able to hunt, how horribly crowded this place felt to her.

    "Just like a gigantic ship!" she said, which actually was an excellent observation, seeing how hemmed about Venice was by water. He asked her, in between declamations by her brothers, if she had seen much of the city, and she said "no" in a tone that suggested to him that she didn't want to. "There are so many people," she elaborated. "Too many. As many just in the inn in which we live as there are in all of our holding!"

    Eventually, her brothers announced that they had stayed away from the celebration too long. There was, after all, business to be tended to.

    "And the Venetians feel the same, you know." Erik escorted them out the door and back towards the party. "They discuss business everywhere, in church, even at funerals! I thought I would never get used to them, or their ways, but I can tell you that underneath it all, they're people that are no different from anywhere else. You'll find you've got plenty in common with them after all."

    But Svanhild cast him a glance that told him that in this much, at least, she was in total disagreement with him.



    Manfred sat down with thump next to Erik, who was sitting in an alcove staring at a wine goblet. "I never thought I'd see the day when I'd have to come looking for you, instead of the other way around," said Manfred cheerfully. "Two hours it's taken me to find you—at least! To think of what I could have gotten up to a few years back, if you'd been like this then."

    Erik looked up, his eyes bleak. "Manfred, I think I'm in love."

    The young Duke grinned. "Don't worry. I'll get Von Gherens to give you some advice on how to do it. I think you'd prefer it from him rather than from me or Francesca."

    Erik's voice was icy. "Shut up or I'll break your head. It's not like that."

    Manfred was silent for a few moments. "Who?" he asked, in a quiet serious voice. This wasn't like Erik; this could be serious. Erik usually shied away like a nervous horse from women. Francesca and Manfred had been discussing a hypothetical future partner for his mentor not a week back. What had she said? When Erik falls he'll fall hard.

    That wasn't a problem. Manfred's opinion of what constituted a suitable girl for Erik, on the other hand, was a problem. She'd have to pass the Manfred test of approval. And for Erik, Manfred set very high standards.

    "Svanhild Thordarson." Erik sighed. "Such a beautiful name. And she moves like a swan too."

    Manfred felt real alarm. He started looking around. He needed Francesca. "Who?"

    "You're right. She is like a Valkyrie," said Erik, dreamily. "A true shield-maiden. Not one of those girls who needs ten servants just to get dressed in the morning. And such a sweet nature, too—getting stared at and snubbed, and not a complaint out of her about it."

    Manfred stared at his friend, mentor and bodyguard. "You mean the one with the big pair of—of—bodyguards? The blond one?"

    Erik nodded at him, scowling a bit. "You watch what you say about her."

    "I wouldn't dream of uttering a wrong word," said Manfred, quite truthfully. Erik was ferocious enough on the training fields even when he wasn't mad about anything.

    Erik sighed. "Not that it really matters. I think I must have said the wrong thing. We were getting on so well. She wanted to know all about Mainz. Next thing they got up and left. Polite, but... closing me out."

    "Oh." Manfred tried hard to keep the relief out of his voice, because of the hurt in Erik's. "Well, I'm heading out of here. This affair is beginning to drag."

    Erik stood up with a sigh. "Yes. I could use my bed, I suppose."

    Manfred—given the circumstances—didn't point out that it hadn't been his bed he was seeking. Or at least, not his own. And right now Erik wasn't picking up the undercurrent of Manfred's words as he usually did. In fact, he actually wandered off to his own quarters without making sure that Manfred was coming with him, which suited Manfred right down to the bone.

    Erik was welcome to a quiet night. Manfred had other plans; the hellion Benito would either be along presently, or Manfred would go find him.

    Manfred snorted with amusement at that thought. It was a shock to find himself doing Erik's usual job of slowing a tearaway down. Francesca was waist deep smiling on, and politicking with, old admirers. Manfred found being around while she dealt with them set his teeth on edge. So the last set of plans he'd made with the rascal were that they were off to a place Benito had found—good Sicilian music and some dancers that, according to young Benito, could make the tassels on their boobs do amazing things.

    Manfred finally got tired of waiting for Benito to find him, and traced Benito down at the wine-butts. "Let's go, tearaway. I find myself consumed with curiosity about these tassels."

    The boy swayed gently as he stood up. He was already half-drunk. Manfred was mildly surprised. The last week Benito had escorted him to choice taverns and nightspots but the boy seemed to have some degree of caution about wine. What was it that he'd said? "I don't want to end up as a lush."

    It had seemed to Manfred then that he was more inclined to drink enough to get up to devilry and stop there, than to go on to the fall-down stage. Odd. Distinctly odd. But none of his business, when all was said and done.

    "Time to find the girls," Benito said, and his speech was clear enough. "There's no one here worth bothering about."

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