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This Rough Magic: Chapter Twenty Nine

       Last updated: Sunday, October 12, 2003 13:56 EDT



    "The other guild foremen and assistant-foremen have got to go and see the Captain-General," said Umberto unhappily. "He has sent for us."

    "I hope it isn't his wife complaining about the chickens," said Maria. "But you'd think he'd have other things on his mind."

    "It is a great pity that you should have fought with her, Maria. She seems to wield a lot of influence here."

    "I'm sorry, Umberto. It just happened. She's a vindictive bitch." Sophia Tomaselli had found small ways to needle at the Verrier family already.

    "It's a shame she hasn't got any children to occupy her time," mused Umberto, looking at his wife rocking Alessia.

    "They certainly occupy enough of it!" said Maria, dealing with a milky belch. "Wave goodbye, 'Lessi." Maria assisted a fat little hand. The baby gurgled and Umberto managed to leave with a smile.

    He was back a little before the terce bell, frowning. "The Commander wants to draft our men in as soldiers. He says the boatyard is sitting idle while the siege is on, and he hasn't enough men to guard his walls."

    "It makes sense, I suppose," said Maria. "If the Citadel falls we'll all be in the soup. What happens to you, Umberto?"

    The Master-caulker shrugged. "He says he will brevet us as officers, but that's not the point, Maria. He simply can't do this. The guildsmen will refuse."

    She blinked; she could remember all too clearly the fighting in the streets and canals of Venice, and calling out the Arsenalotti. Why wouldn't they help now? "But why not? I mean, if the Hungarians get in they'll butcher half of the people at least."

    Umberto shook his head. "The Arsenalotti are already part of the military reserve—but of the Arsenal, not of Corfu. He is not our commander. We are part of the Militia, to do Militia duties when we are not at work. To assist local authorities at any time in dealing with fires, disasters, and in dealing with immediate military threat. It is very clearly stated in the deeds of the guilds. It is one of the oldest privileges. We are not soldiers under his control. And it is not within the right of the Captain-General to terminate our employment. Even the Podesta cannot do that. Such an order can only come from the full Senate in Venice."

    Umberto pulled a wry face. "The Guildsmen here are hazy about their duties. But their knowledge of their privileges is crystal clear. They're absolutely insistent on the maintenance of the same. I wish they felt the same way about their duties." He sighed. "I'm afraid their hardness of attitude has made the commander equally awkward. We'll be doing shifts of guard work, every night."



    It was a peaceful and beautiful spot, if a little isolated, reflected Svanhild from where she sat on an outcrop just above the villa. The villa was perched above a little fertile valley of patchwork fields, olive groves and some salt-pans beside the bay. She sat plaiting sedge-stems and looking out across the sea. Of course the ships would not come from along the western coastline, but anyway. She reached for more sedges. She'd never been able to keep her hands still.

    As she did this she noticed a column of white dust coming down the winding roadway that lead to the villa. Could it be news? Bjarni had ridden over to Corfu town earlier. The Greek servants had been full of some story the day before yesterday about an invasion. Then, yesterday, none of them had come to work. Today Bjarni had insisted on riding to the town, despite the fact that they'd offered the Port officials handsome bribes to send them word if any ships were expected. And they'd been very reliable with the last fleet.

    She got up and began walking down towards the villa. She could see the rider's blond head by now. Bjarni was flogging that poor horse. And it wasn't really up to his weight in the first place.

    "To arms, all of you!" she heard him bellow.

    By the time she got to the house, the Vinlanders were strapping on bucklers and breast-plates.

    "What is happening?" she demanded.

    "Corfu town is under siege," he said, wrestling with a recalcitrant breast-plate strap. "And there are bands of marauders out looting and burning the great houses."

    "Who?" She tugged the strap through for him.

    "How do I know? All these continentals look the same to me. All I know is that the one group I saw had red sashes on, and horsehair plumes on their helmets. There's a bunch of them not half a league hence and I think they saw me."

    He turned to one of the men. "Olaf, go up onto that little knoll behind the house. Give Sven a wave if you see them coming. Gjuki, open that front door. There are not more than twenty of them. We'll give them a welcome. I want men with arquebuses hidden at the upper story windows."

    He pointed to the dark-haired Kari. Kari's mother had been an Osage tribeswoman, tall, strong, and handsome—no mean hand with a bow and a knife herself—and she'd raised her boys in many of the tribal ways. Kari and his brothers had been trouble all the way across to Europe, and through it. Now they would come into their own.

    "Kari, you take your brothers out by the outside wall. I want this place looking open, deserted. Svanhild, you go back up to the knoll with Olaf."

    Svanhild nodded. She also took a bow with her, and a belt-knife she hadn't worn since she'd left the holding on the Mississippi.

    The marauding horsemen had indeed spotted Bjarni. They came on at a ground-eating canter, riding huge, magnificent horses. There were in fact only eighteen of them and they were loot and captive hungry. So far they'd met no resistance, and they needed to beat the Croats to as many more villas as they could find.

    They yelled in delight and eagerness, seeing the villa with its open front door. It was plainly a wealthy nobleman's residence. The looting of Venetian villas had so far been a very profitable business indeed. Much wealth flowed into the Venetian republic up the Adriatic, and not a little of it stayed here in this colony. Corfu was fertile, and had a good climate, and all the trade passed through it.

    The doorway was fortunately too low or they might have ridden into the house itself. Instead they scrambled from their mounts in their haste for loot, yelling like banshees. The first eight were in through the door when Svanhild heard Bjarni yell: "Fire!"

    There were six arquebusiers at the upper windows, all veterans of Vinland campaigns. All of them could shoot, and shoot well. Kari and his three brothers leapt over the wall and pulled down the only Magyar knight who hadn't dismounted or been shot. They attacked the last of the knights who was on foot outside, before hurtling into the fray inside the house.

    From up here Svanhild could hear the boom of a wheel-lock pistol and clash of metal, mixed with screams.

    She saw, briefly, someone emerge at a run from the front doorway and leap for a horse. It was a well trained animal, and the rider was a great horseman. Almost flat on the horse's neck the rider clung, and spurred it to a gallop.

    Svanhild took careful aim.

    The horse ran on. But the rider lay dead, sprawled on the track, a feathered shaft between his shoulder-blades.

    Bjarni came striding out of the house. "Get the horse!" he bellowed.

    Svanhild loosed. But neither aim nor heart was in it. She loved horses and this one was a beauty.

    "God rot it, Hildi!" said Bjarni furiously. "Now they'll have a riderless horse coming back to tell them that someone is killing these useless nithings. Come back to the house. Hrolf has a cut that needs tending. And we need to gather food and gear. We can't stay here."

    He brightened perceptibly, when she came up to him. "At least we have got some nice horse-flesh out of it. And Gjuki hit one of them on the head—we can find out just what is going on here." Bjarni cracked his knuckles explosively. "He is going to be telling us. Or I'll pull his ears off and force-feed them to him."

    It wouldn't be ears he'd be pulling off, if he left the work to Kari. The skralings had some gruesome means of getting information out of captives.

    "Where are we going to go, Bjarni?" asked Svanhild, hastily scrambling down to him.

    The huge blond Vinlander shrugged his shoulders. "Let's see what the prisoner tells us. We can base our decision on that. But I suspect we'll have to hide out in the mountains to the north."




    Unfortunately, the domicile from which Fianelli ran his operations had been built right against the fortifications. The walls of Fianelli's kitchen rattled every time the Citadel's cannons fired. So, at least, it seemed to Bianca.

    "You get used to it," grunted Fianelli. He raised the bottle, offering her some more, but she declined with a little wave of her hand. Bianca Casarini didn't have a good head for wine, so she never drank more than a glass at a time. Half a glass, when she was in the presence of men such as Fianelli and his goons.

    Fianelli set down the bottle, after refilling his own glass. "Been through it before," he said. "Twice."

    Bianca frowned. Fianelli was only in his mid-forties. "Corfu hasn't been attacked in—"

    "Not here. Someplace else."

    He provided no details, and Bianca decided not to ask. She wasn't afraid of Fianelli, but she was cautious around him. A man like that... it didn't pay to press questions. Bianca didn't know what had happened to the woman he'd once been keeping as a bedmate. But she did know that the woman had disappeared a few weeks after she got bold enough to start nagging at Fianelli.

    "Nagging," at least, as Fianelli would consider it. The criminal chief's definition had a pretty low entry bar.

    So, best not to ask any questions not directly relevant to the work at hand. Bianca leaned forward in her chair a bit.

    "I think I've got the man you want. And the way to trap him."

    Fianelli cocked an eyebrow. "Can't be just some common soldier you're playing with."

    Bianca suppressed a spike of anger. I don't copulate with common soldiers, you—!

    But she suppressed the reaction. First, because while she didn't sleep with common soldiers—not lately, at least—she was in no position to be finicky about her bed partners. Secondly, because the moment was too delicate for anger to be muddling her. Thirdly, because a part of her was enjoying the vengeful twist in the game. Querini really was an oaf.

    "He's a cavalry captain. Querini's his name. Alfredo Querini."

    One of the three men who were also lounging around the huge table grunted. Bianca thought his name was Zanari. "I know him. A bit, not well."

    "What's the hook?" asked Fianelli.

    "He likes to gamble. And he's not good at it, even in the best of times. Give it a few months—" Bianca let the rest of the sentence trail off. She'd been in a siege once herself, but saw no reason to let Fianelli know.

    "Sieges get boring, true enough," mused Fianelli. "And since before too long everybody's on rations, there's always a lot of loose money around. Idle hands and idle money, so there always starts to be a lot of gambling."

    He squinted a little, looking at Bianca. The expression was not exactly suspicious, but... close. "I don't run the kind of gambling establishments that a cavalry captain would frequent."

    "No, but you can make contact with someone who does. Count Dentico and his sons."

    Fianelli's suspicions rose closer to the surface. "Why not you? You're closer to those Libri d'Oro circles than I am."

    This was the tricky moment. Fianelli was right, of course. In the year she'd been on Corfu, Casarini had made it a point to cultivate good relations with a number of the Greek aristocrats on the island. The "Libri d'Oro," they were called, after the "golden book" in which the Venetian masters of Corfu had recorded the names of those Corfiote families who were given preferential treatment.

    The truth was that Bianca could easily introduce Querini to the Denticos. She knew all of them, after all. But Bianca was determined to keep herself at least one step removed from the treasonous links she was creating. Fianelli, like almost all criminals she'd ever known, tended to look at the world solely through his own eyes. He thought of what he would do, giving little more than cursory attention to what the authorities would do other than the obvious. Understandable enough, given the generally crude and sloppy methods of police work followed in most Italian or Greek cities.

    Sloppy and crude when it came to simple criminal activity, that is. When it came to treason, those same authorities—given the history of Italy and the Greek territories—were far more energetic and astute. Bianca was pretty sure that Fianelli's activities in the past had steered clear of politics, though, so he wouldn't really understand the difference.

    But she did. Sooner or later, there was a good chance the Venetian rulers of Corfu would detect treachery at work. They were almost bound to, even with a Captain-General as incompetent as Nico Tomaselli. First, because anyone with any experience knew that treason was the single most acute danger to a fortress under siege, so they'd be looking for it. Secondly, because in this instance Bianca would also be undermining the traitors as well as the authorities. Her mistress Elizabeth Bartholdy wanted Corfu to fall to Emeric, true; but not quickly.

    Fortunately, Bianca had prepared for the moment. She squirmed a bit in her chair, doing her best to let a trace of an embarrassed flush enter her skin. "I can't," she murmured. "Count Dentico—his son Flavio too, well... Let's just say we're not on good terms, any longer."

    Fianelli smiled thinly. One of his thugs smiled broadly. Papeti, his name was. He had the annoying habit of openly ogling Bianca, she'd noticed. She was sure that her veiled suggestion that she'd had sexual relations with both the Count and his oldest son would make the man even more aggressive toward her in the future. Probably to the point of becoming a real problem, in fact.

    But the future could take of itself. Bianca Casarini was not worried about her ability to handle a common thug. Countess Bartholdy was still withholding many secrets from her, but she'd given Bianca a great deal of other training.

    Her ploy did the trick. Fianelli leaned back in his chair, visibly more relaxed. She was not surprised. Another characteristic of criminals was their ready willingness to believe the worst of people. "The worst," as they saw it—and they had a very limited imagination.

    In point of fact, while Bianca knew the Denticos, she'd been careful to keep a distance from the family once she'd assessed them fully. Early on, she'd decided they would be the easiest among the Libri d'Oro to lure into treason, when the time came. For one thing, they were fairly open about their pro-Byzantine inclinations; for another, they were almost blatantly corrupt. But that had become apparent so quickly that she'd seen no reason to develop intimate relations with either the Count or his sons. She never lacked for bed partners, after all, and she wanted no obvious links between herself and those whom she was fairly sure would eventually be executed.

    "All right," Fianelli said. He cocked his head a little, glancing to the man who seemed to be the chief of his little squad of enforcers. That was the Florentine, Saluzzo.

    "See to it, Paulo. Since Zanari already knows Querini, he can start that side of it. Put on your best Italian manners and start cultivating the Denticos."

    Saluzzo nodded. He murmured something in addition, but Bianca didn't catch the words. The kitchen was rattling again.

    "I hate sieges," grumbled Fianelli, finishing his glass and reaching for the bottle. "Good for business, sure—but risky."

    Bianca wondered what arrangements Fianelli had made with his master, King Emeric, to see to his own safety once the Hungarian troops finally breached the walls and poured into the Citadel. She was sure they were quite good arrangements. Fianelli was too experienced a criminal to be careless about something like that.

    She was even more sure that Fianelli's arrangements would be meaningless, when the time came. Fianelli was accustomed to dealing with criminals and corrupt officials. He simply had no idea what the King of Hungary was like. Emeric took as much pleasure in betraying his own, once they were useless to him, as he did in betraying his enemies.

    More, actually, Bianca suspected. She did herself, after all. Bartholdy had trained both of them well. The difference between Emeric and Bianca was that Emeric was too egotistical to realize that, sooner or later, his great-great-aunt would have the pleasure of betraying him. Bianca, on the other hand, had no illusions that eventually the Countess would betray her as well.

    Try to, rather. Bianca Casarini's skill and strength was growing constantly. Someday...

    She shook her head slightly. The future was the future, and now was now. The kitchen walls seemed to be rattling again.



    "I'm on duty tonight on the Vidos wall," apologized Umberto. "I've volunteered for the fourth vigil. If I take it, then none of my underlings can complain."

    Maria wondered how many of the men doing militia duty had a small, restive child in their homes. But she said nothing. Just: "Wake me. I'll prepare some frittata. Jemma and Rosa have been laying well."

    "Those hens are a blessing. The goat, however-it has eaten one of my gloves," said Umberto crossly.

    Maria shook her head. "I see why they are used as a symbol of Satan. The beast seems possessed by an eating-devil."

    "Well, if she doesn't take care we'll dine on her," said Umberto.

    Even if she does, we probably will, Maria thought, but did not say.

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