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This Rough Magic: Chapter Thirty Seven

       Last updated: Wednesday, November 19, 2003 01:48 EST



    "I can't deny I'm very glad to see re-enforcements, Prince Manfred. I've been wishing I had some way of getting word to Venice."

    Captain-General Tomaselli limped over to a cabinet on the wall, hauled out a metal flask and a tray of Venetian glassware, and limped back to his table. "Try this, gentlemen. I think we all need something a great deal stronger than wine. It's from the mainland. They distill it from plums, I believe." He poured the clear liquid into glasses and motioned that they should help themselves. He took one of the glasses.

    "Is a lady permitted to try some too?" asked Francesca.

    "Of course. Of course!" The flustered Venetian handed her a glass. "Unless you would prefer some wine? This stuff is frightfully strong."

    Francesca lowered her lashes. "I think, Milord, after the morning we've had, I'd better have some strong drink." She tossed it back without any sign of discomfort.

    That was more than could be said for Erik. He choked and spluttered. Even Manfred went a little red. Benito sipped the clear liquid cautiously. It burned his throat and all the way down to his gut. Only Von Gherens managed to drink it with anything like Francesca's aplomb.

    The Captain-General stared at her with respect, for the first time seeing something beyond her cleavage. "Saints alive!" He shook his head. "I can't drink the stuff like that. Did you enjoy it?"

    Francesca smiled and nodded her head.

    The Captain-General sat down, shaking his own. "Well. Back to the matter in hand. The Podesta has offered the officers—and you, of course, Prince Manfred—quarters in the Castel a mar. Your escort also. We can quarter all your other men and horses here, at the Castel a terra." He sighed, softly. "Truth to tell, we could hold several hundred more men. There was no perceived threat here and we're badly undermanned. Four thousand men would be an optimum number for this fortress. I had twelve hundred under my command, but that is on the whole island. Only nine hundred and fifty odd are here."

    "Where are the rest?" asked Manfred.

    "About a hundred and seventy are on Vidos—that small islet out there. The rest were stationed in various towns and villages. Still, this siege can't hold. There are relatively few men out there, and they don't appear to have any siege pieces."

    Manfred looked grim. "The guns and a lot more men are on their way, I'm afraid. You're in for the long haul. How are you for food and water?

    "There are a couple of springs on the Citadel, and we have reservoirs here in the castle. The reservoirs are full, and this soon after winter, the springs are strong. As for food... we're not so well-off. Winter is over, but with the fleets coming and going, we're used to re-provisioning wheat, particularly on the autumn convoy. So we're about half way. Good for eight months at the very least. Arms are the one thing we have plenty of."

    "Well, even rocks will do when it comes to defending walls," said Erik. "Rocks and enough people is what we need. And we have enough rocks, even if we could use more people."

    "We brought you a good supply of Knights and some extra citizens," said Von Gherens with a smile. "How are the Corfiotes outside the walls being treated?"

    The Captain-General blinked. "We've seen a lot of fires. Could be Venetian villas burning. Could be some peasant villages. We've seen some atrocities from the walls. Why, sir?"

    "One of the things I've seen over and over again on the north-eastern frontier: where the peasantry resent the hand of their overlords, we push forward easily enough. Emeric of Hungary is renowned to be a harsh man, a firm believer in the lash and the knout. I know my friend Falkenberg was involved in some fighting down in Bohemia—against Emeric's father—before the Emperor concluded the Peace of Brno. He said it was like a knife through butter. The peasants were fawning on the Prussians as if they were saints. Showed them all the Hungarian defenses, traps and so on. Found them food and fodder and guided them. And tore their former masters apart when they had the chance. It's different up in Sweden. There the tribesmen, even the Karls, resist us to the last man. Belike if your men out there stir up trouble it'll be more than Emeric can do to hold this island."

    One of the Captain-General's officers sniffed disdainfully. "I hardly think that will apply here. The Greeks are degenerate. Can't work, can't fight. All they can do is talk about ancient glory."

    The plump captain of the Dolphin snorted. "I've had Corfiotes in my crew. They're good oarsmen. Better than Dalmatians, better than Venetians even. Seems to me you've got a local problem with them." He turned to Benito. "And how is Ritter Falkenberg, by the way, Milord Valdosta?"

    "The chirurgeon says he will probably live. But he's lost an eye."

    "I was across there too," said Von Gherens, shaking his head. "His face is a mess, and he looks like he's been cupped fifteen times. But he's alive and has his wits. He said he got hit on the only soft spot in a head that's as solid as a rock. He also said the last thing he remembers is you lugging him in, boy."

    "The landing wasn't the success I had hoped it would be," admitted Benito glumly.

    "Hell's teeth, boy, it's a damn sight better than we'd have done any other way!" snapped Von Gherens. "We lost three men and we have three more with serious injuries. If we'd tried to charge our way in... we'd have considered ten times that light. War means casualties."


    Von Gherens slapped his breastplate with a mailed hand. "But me no buts! Our comrades get hurt. Our friends die. Falkenberg is a knight who swore an oath to serve the church and to defend the weak. He'd be the first man to tell you to stop puling and start planning. Because what we are doing—at risk to ourselves—is what we have sworn to do. The West relies on us. It is a risk we take with pride. It is an oath we honor. Even when some soft southern burgher mutters about us, we know the reason he sleeps soft and comfortable, why his wife is able to complain about the price of cabbages as her most serious problem and why his children dare to throw dung and yell 'Knot' when we pass. It's because we are what we are. For all our faults we stand for law and light."

    He smiled, and his tone softened. "A good plan is one that keeps our casualties light and costs our enemy dear. Keep making them, Benito Valdosta."

    Manfred cleared his throat. "And that brings us to discussing the defenses of this place. With all respect, Captain-General, we have veterans of a dozen sieges here. We offer you our expertise as well as our arms."

    "Your arms are appreciated," the Captain-General said stiffly. "But this is a Venetian fortification, under Venetian command."

    Manfred opened his mouth to speak and Francesca kicked him.

    Von Gherens unfortunately wasn't in kicking range. He snorted. "You're under-manned, under-provisioned, and badly organized. You—"

    "That will do, Von Gherens!" barked Eberhard, in a tone so stern it made even Manfred blink. "I apologize, Captain-General. The Ritter spoke out of turn."

    "And we appreciate your hospitality and especially this drink," added Francesca throatily, holding out an empty glass. "But is it already being rationed?

    The Captain-General lost his train of angry thought and gawped, as she poured charm on him. "My apologies, Signora! Of course not. Allow me." He poured out another.

    After a moment's hesitation, Von Gherens put out his glass. "I spoke hastily there, Captain-General. Apologies."

    "Accepted," said the Captain-General stiffly. He limped forward and filled the Knight's glass. "Anyone else?"

    Benito watched Francesca calmly empty the glass into the purse hanging from her chatelaine, while the Venetian officer's attention was on Von Gherens.

    "Perhaps later," she said, putting down the glass. "Right now I am dying to put off these salty clothes and have a wash." She fluttered her eyelashes at him.

    Erik nodded. "Yes. The armor, especially the joints, must be cleaned and oiled. The salt water does it no good."

    Von Gherens groaned. "That was the worst aspect of your plan, Benito."

    The Captain-General rang a bell. "I'll have one of my men show you to your chambers."

    Francesca smiled at him. "Thank you, Captain-General Tomaselli. You are too kind."

    "You may call me Nico, Signora," he said bowing over her hand and kissing it.

    Benito felt rather than heard the low rumble from Manfred. He also caught Francesca's wink to the Prince, while the Venetian Officer's head was down.



    "Well, it's a nice bed," said Manfred, testing it. Naturally enough the bed complained. "But I don't know if it was worth you nearly seducing that Venetian ass for."

    "A good bed is past price, darling," said Francesca, carefully emptying her purse. She looked at it sadly. "You will have to get me a new one, Manfred. I think the leather will be quite ruined by that vile drink."

    "I thought you liked it?" said Manfred, with an evil grin. "You nodded when fancy-pants asked you. I saw you."

    "I had to nod. I couldn't speak. I'm afraid the disgusting stuff may have ruined my vocal cords forever. Besides, if I had opened my mouth I might have been sick." She sniffed cautiously at the reticule. "Bleh. Even if it doesn't ruin the leather I refuse to live with the smell."

    "And there I thought you'd finally learned to drink." Manfred shook his head sadly. "I'll admit the stuff was strong enough to make me pause. He might run a lousy garrison but he certainly has a drink which would put hair on your chest."

    "I certainly hope not!" said Francesca. "But it was all part of the show, Manfred."

    Manfred stood up and reached for her laces. "I better check about the hair," he teased. "What do you mean? 'Part of the show'? I hope you don't mean the hair..."

    She lifted his hands aside, kissed them and said: "Later, when you don't smell of oil and old iron and fish and seaweed. What I mean by 'part of the show' was that it was our little Captain-General's attempt to show how tough he was. Think of it. This is a backwater of Venetian defense. It's a major point in their resupply and trade routes, but for a commanding officer—well, it's not a place Venice expected to be attacked."

    "A junior posting."

    "More like a backwater posting. He's not so young."

    She patted Manfred's broad shoulder. "Now, think. You are a given such a posting—a good trade spot but militarily a sign of being relegated to someplace where you can't do any damage. And suddenly—a siege! He hasn't done too badly, really. From what we've been told, had he been a totally arrogant ass like that fool who told us Greeks were no good, the fortress would have fallen to Emeric's sneak attack. Instead... someone did some preparation, saved the citadel, and saved a good many lives outside. It doesn't look as if he's doing too badly, so far, all things considered. Venice will be proud of him, that's what he's thinking. And then... in come a couple of hundred of the Empire's greatest knights, in the most dramatic style, poking a stick in the eye of the enemy. Led by a Prince of the blood who offers to assist him in conducting the defenses."

    Manfred swallowed. "It was well meant, Francesca."

    "I know," she said, gently. "But then I'm not a thin-skinned minor noble with a dying military career. And I nearly ruined my toes kicking you. I wish I could have kicked Von Gherens too."

    Manfred grinned. "He'd have asked why you were kicking him."

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