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This Rough Magic: Chapter Twenty Three

       Last updated: Friday, September 12, 2003 01:17 EDT




    April, 1539 A.D.

    Emeric erased the circle and the pentacle scratched in a section of his pavilion where he'd pulled back the carpets to expose the naked soil. Then, eliminated all other traces of the ritual he'd followed to reach the chief of his spies on Corfu, cleaned himself, and put the carpets back in place. The work had to be done carefully, since he was only guided by the light of a few candles. Night had long since fallen.

    As always, Emeric was irritated by having to do such menial labor himself, instead of ordering a servant. But, he dared not do otherwise. Even the King of Hungary—even a king suspected by his subjects to be a manwitch—could not afford to have anyone observe him at such times. Not, at least, anyone knowledgeable in such matters, and it was always difficult to tell who might be.

    Several features of those rituals were satanic in nature, not simple witchcraft. Hungary was, after all, a predominantly Christian country—and those portions which were not, were mostly Muslim. His polyglot subjects would tolerate a great deal, true, but not open trafficking with that prince.

    Emeric didn't particularly fear rebellion, as such. His army was quite capable of crushing any combination of peasants or townsmen, as it had demonstrated several times over the past years. The problem lay with the army itself. None of Emeric's officers was burdened with any great moral sentiments. Still, the open use of satanic rituals would, if nothing else, give an ambitious general the handle to organize and lead a military overthrow of the Hungarian dynasty.

    Emeric did not follow all of his aunt's advice. But he had never failed to observe Countess Bartholdy's strictures on this score: Keep it secret, from all except those you trust. And trust only those you can control.

    Finally done, he soothed his irritation by ordering wine and cuffing the servant who brought it. He finished the goblet, ordered another, and cuffed the servant again.

    Throughout, it never occurred to him—as it had never occurred to him before—to wonder why his aunt had given him those secrets in the first place, starting when he was a boy of six. To wonder why she had violated, seemingly, her own rule.



    Like his master, Petros Fianelli erased all the symbols and signs of the ritual himself. In his case, not in the luxury of a king's pavilion but in the squalor of a basement owned by one who appeared to be a simple seller of secondhand goods in Kérkira, the chief town of Corfu. Which, indeed, Fianelli was—even if most of his income came from the criminal ring he operated on the island, as well as the subsidy he received from the King of Hungary.

    There was only one way to perform these rituals on Corfu: to create the symbols in fire. Each one was created on a special platen made of obsidian, filled with oily cotton, fed from a reservoir of defiled holy oil. When the oil was lit, the symbol burned in the element that Corfu could not counter, the Devil's own. But the platens had to be carefully hidden when he was done. If anyone found them, it would be awkward. If anyone who understood what they were for ever found them, the consequences would be dire.

    That done, he took the taper and mounted the stairs to the kitchen. It was a large kitchen, centered around a large table. Little cooking was actually done in the kitchen, these days, since Fianelli had quietly murdered his last woman a few months earlier after she'd become tiresome. Had her murdered, rather, by two of his three bully boys. Fianelli hadn't wanted to risk it himself, given his own short and pudgy stature. She'd been a large woman, full-hipped as well as big-breasted, with the shoulders of the Scoulo-born washerwoman she'd been before Fianelli made her his concubine.

    No loss. She'd been a poor cook, and Fianelli preferred to dine in public eateries anyway. Besides, it made it easier to use the kitchen for its real purpose, which was to serve as the headquarters for his various criminal enterprises.

    His three enforcers were already sitting at the table, lounging back in their chairs and enjoying the bottle of grappa he'd opened for them before going down to the basement.

    "All right, it's on." He pulled out a chair and sat down himself. Zanari poured him a glass of grappa. "I just got the word."

    None of the three enforcers asked him how he'd "gotten the word," or from whom. In truth, they didn't care. A large part of the reason they obeyed Fianelli, despite his unprepossessing appearance, was that they all considered him a veritable wizard when it came to knowing the right things and the right people.

    Paulo Saluzzo grimaced. "Treason's a dangerous business."

    "The more danger, the more profit," grunted Fianelli. "Besides, what do you care who rules Corfu?"

    "I'm from Florence, by way of Naples. I could care less whether this island is run by Venetians or Greeks or Hungarians—or manticores or unicorns, for that matter. So long as we get our cut."

    "We'll get it, and then some."

    "What's next?" asked Zanari.

    Fianelli considered, for a moment. "The Casarini bitch, I think. If you want to betray a town under siege, you've got to have an inside link with the big shots. She can get it, we can't."

    The third enforcer, hitherto slouched in his chair, sat up straighter. Smiling slightly, he emitted a soft whistle. He'd seen Bianca Casarini in the streets, from time to time.

    Fianelli scowled at him. "Forget her good looks, Papeti. Just forget it."

    The enforcer frowned, obviously a bit puzzled. Fianelli normally didn't care in the least what his men did with women. He hadn't even cared, knowing full well that Papeti and Zanari would have raped his discarded woman before they cut her throat and sank her in the sea.

    "Casarini's dangerous. Never mind the details. Just take my word for it. This is strictly business."

    The enforcer shrugged. But since the gesture was one of acceptance, not indifference, Fianelli let it go. He wasn't planning on using Papeti as his intermediary with Bianca Casarini anyway. Casarini lived in one of the better parts of the Citadel. The Venetian elite wouldn't tolerate someone moving in their quarters who looked like a thug, especially a Greek one. Of his three enforcers, Saluzzo was the only one who could carry off the needed pose in that area. There were traces left of the Florentine bravo he'd been, in an earlier life.

    "This'll be your job, Paulo."

    "I don't know where she lives. Only seen her in the streets and caffés a few times."

    "You don't need to know where she lives, for the moment. Just approach her on the street tomorrow. She'll be passing by the corner where the dock-road crosses the road to the inner wall gates; you know—where Dendrago's old bake-house used to be."

    "How do I know she'll be there?" There was a whining undertone in Saluzzo's voice. Like any such man, he hated to work—and, for him, spending a day lounging about waiting for someone to show up who might not constituted "work."

    "Don't worry about it. She'll be there."

    Fianelli spoke with confidence. He'd taken the time, after receiving his instructions from Emeric, to use the magical symbols and rituals to speak to Casarini herself.




    That very moment, Bianca Casarini finished the same—very close, at least—satanic procedures. In her case, in the luxurious room which her aunt and uncle had provided for her in their house in Kérkira, after her arrival on the island the year before.

    The face of her mistress appeared, hovering like a ghost above the bowl.

    "They have approached me, Mistress, as you predicted."

    Countess Bartholdy smiled cheerfully. "Surely you didn't doubt me?"

    This was dangerous territory. "Surely not, Mistress," Bianca said quickly.

    "Do as they say, then," Elizabeth commanded. She cocked her head a little, studying the woman who had become, over the past few years, something very close to her slave. Bartholdy's quick mind had detected the slight traces of discomfiture.

    "Surely the fact that some of it will be unpleasant—even worse, undignified—does not bother you?"

    Again, dangerous territory. "Surely not, Mistress."

    The Countess' beautiful face became just a bit taut; harsh, even, insofar as that term could ever be applied to it. "Immortality has its price, Bianca Casarini. Many prices, rather. Cavorting about with whomever I require you to cavort with and copulating with animals—even real ones—is one of the least. So do as they tell you. I need to remain informed at all times concerning the progress of their treachery, once the siege begins. My own plans require precise timing."

    She did not explain what those plans were, and Bianca did not ask. Did not even think of asking, in fact. By now, she was well trained.

    "Yes, Mistress."

    Bianca was able to say the last rather easily. Her own mind was quick as well, and she'd already realized that she could shift the worst of the work onto another's shoulders. Several others, in fact. In the year since she'd been living on Corfu, she'd ingratiated herself into the social circles of the Venetian aristocrats and the Greek Libri d'Oro. With the skills she'd learned from Countess Bartholdy, she'd been able to detect which of them possessed inner demons and vices. The ones which were most obvious, at least.

    She'd start with Sophia Tomaselli, she decided, when the time came. The wife of the Captain-General would be...

    Easy. Like leading a pig to a trough.



    After the image of Bartholdy vanished and she'd erased the symbols, Bianca laughed aloud. Leading a slut to an orgy, more like.

    Casarini was beautiful herself, if not to the extent that Bartholdy was. But, unlike the Countess, a sneer distorted her features badly. So, from long practice, she suppressed the expression. That was a bit difficult, thinking about the wife of Captain-General Tomaselli.

    After a bit of practice, Sophia wouldn't care if her partners were pigs in a trough.

    That sour thought was suppressed even more firmly than the sneer had been. The day would come, Bianca knew, when she'd have to undergo the rituals of bestialism herself. Immortality had its prices. But there was no reason to dwell on it beforehand.

    The last work in erasing the traces of the rituals was on her, now. Bianca made no attempt to keep the distaste from showing on her face. A simple expression of distaste, unlike an outright sneer, was expected on the face of a noblewoman. Which she was not, in actual fact, but had long since mastered the art of appearing to be. She'd even successfully—and easily—fooled her "relatives" into thinking she was their niece.

    She brought the bowl to her lips. It wasn't the taste that bothered her. Blood was blood. The problem was that there was so much of it that had to be drunk. She was normally a light eater, and drank little beyond an occasional glass of watered wine.

    But it had to be done, so she got on with it. She comforted herself with the thought that at least she hadn't had to drink the niece's blood. There had been no rituals necessary, in that work. The silk scarf Bianca had used to strangle the girl had left no messy traces at all.



    It was odd, really. Elizabeth Bartholdy discovered herself, these days, often coming to visit the monster in the glass jar. True, she'd created the thing, and she usually enjoyed studying her handiwork. But the unnatural elemental fetus she'd brought into being was unpleasant to look upon. Even worse, perhaps, was the aura of malevolence which emanated so strongly from the trapped monster as to permeate the entire chamber where she kept it.

    Nonetheless, she came, almost every day. The creature was the blade she'd created for a masterstroke. And if the stroke succeeded...

    Moved by a sudden thought, she left the chamber in the dungeons and made her way through the castle to her special bathing room. Once there, she studied the obsidian bathtub, gleaming with the sheen of oil in the light. It had taken a year to get it carved and polished, and she had gone through several craftsmen, not to mention blocks of volcanic glass, before one had managed to complete the task without shattering the tub. Now she regarded it as a carpenter might measure a cabinet.

    I'll need a bigger one. Better order the work started on it now. This will be no dainty little virgin. Chernobog's blood will slop over in buckets, each drop worth more than diamonds.

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