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This Rough Magic: Chapter Thirty Nine

       Last updated: Thursday, November 27, 2003 23:29 EST



    Maria decided that skirting Svanhild's reason for considering her true love ineligible was probably wise. Erik didn't seem to care anyway. All he wanted to do was to get out there and find out if she was all right.

    "So you say her brothers and their party stayed with her?"

    Maria nodded. "Two of them went on, saying they were going to return to Vinland. But the other fifteen or so stayed with her. Her two brothers included."

    Erik shook his head, angrily. "I don't understand why she didn't stay here. The Podesta has lots of space up at the Castel a mar. He told me that it is quite usual for important or high-ranking travelers to be their guests."

    Maria made a face. "Um. She had a clash with the Captain-General... and instead of sending them to see the Podesta, he gave them directions to Count Dentico's villa. They had been trying to find place for a party of sixteen in the town. But Kérkira's tavernas, um, weren't good enough. Apparently."

    "The Thordarsons are very wealthy. A powerful family in western trade," said Erik. "Svanhild would expect everything of the best. In a taverna, she would have to share a bed with other women, strangers."

    Maria blinked. Well, of course, she almost said aloud. After all, what else? You put up in a taverna, you were going to have to share the accommodations with other travelers. That went without saying. Didn't it?

    Erik seemed to read her thoughts; but, a bit to her surprise, he didn't react angrily or defensively. He simply shook his head, smiling a little.

    "You're not telling me all of what she said, I'm sure, because you think I'd be offended at the thought she found me unsuitable until she learned about Manfred. But I understand her, Maria, and you don't. Well enough, anyway. Vinland's not really that different from Iceland. I lived there myself, you know, for three years."

    Maria had forgotten that about him, if she'd ever known. But it explained Erik's skill with that peculiar Vinlander weapon called a tomahawk, and with the skraling style of wrestling.

    "She's from a very wealthy family," Erik explained softly, "but has no experience with towns and cities. Sent by her family, I'm sure, to find a proper husband. A girl who's known few strange men of any kind—and those, men whose customs she understands. Vinlanders or skralings, who, at least in some ways, aren't all that different."

    Manfred was staring at Erik oddly. "You understood all this about her? Then why..." He winced.

    Erik shook his head. "Clann Harald is true to its oath to the imperial family. Always. I could explain nothing to her, even though it was obvious to me that—"

    He waved his hand, curtly. "Ah, never mind. The point here, Maria, is that she's probably never shared a room, much less a bed, with any female she didn't know. She's never been away from home before, and I'm sure in all of the places she's stayed so far, they fell over themselves to give her a room to herself. Here, so crowded, not all the money even the Thordarsons have could buy a private room in a taverna."

    He sighed. "And her brothers, naturally—you have no idea how protective such can be, in matters like this—would not have dreamed of asking her to do something so outlandish."

    Maria thought about that; thought about the way that her brothers had tried to buy the ship just to turn it around. "Well, they did seem to have plenty of money. I suppose you look at things differently when you have that kind of money."

    Erik nodded, glumly. "She's as far above me as the earth is above the moon."

    "Oh, nonsense!" muttered Manfred.

    "Oh, nonsense!" Maria snapped the words, like a whip. "She was blubbering about you on the ship. The moment she found out your status was suitable—however those odd Vinlanders calculate such things—she stopped blubbering and tried to buy the damn ship to turn it around. I couldn't believe it! Then, when that didn't work, she got off here in order to wait for you. She was down on the dock, every day, watching for the galleys to come in. And her brothers didn't seem in the least unhappy about her interest, either!

    "If that helps any," Maria ended, a bit lamely, her voice now less sure of itself. It had just dawned on her that, under the present circumstances, the girl might as well have been on the moon... if not further away.

    The same realization seemed to have come to Erik as well. He was subdued, now, punctilious in thanks and farewells, but not really there.

    Maria watched them go, feeling obscurely sorry for him. The last time she had seen anyone that mad for someone, it had been Kat for Marco... Or maybe Benito...

    She pushed that thought away, firmly.

    Poor Erik! She felt savage for a moment. And this was all Captain Tomaselli's fault!

    Well, if—or when—Erik discovered Svanhild had been hurt, or worse-

    Umberto would be getting a promotion again, probably. Could you promote someone from the Arsenal into the Captain-General's job? Eh, it probably wouldn't matter; if the Captain-General was dead at the hands of Erik Hakkonsen, and the siege was still on, the Captain-General would be whomever the Governor said it was, and the Governor and his wife both liked Umberto.

    Maria closed her eyes, and recalled to herself those huge brothers, and equally huge followers. Maria had never seen Erik Hakkonsen fight herself, but both Kat and Benito had described to her the Icelander's ferocious ability in combat. If these Northlanders were all like that—

    Maybe Umberto wouldn't be getting that promotion after all. She hoped so. In fact, she prayed so.



    They trudged back up the hill. Now it was no effort to keep pace with the Icelander, which was a pity. An idea was brewing in Benito's head, but he wanted to talk to Manfred about it first.

    When they got up to the Governor's Palace, Erik finally obliged him. Manfred suggested a spot of rapier-practice.

    Erik shook his head. "I think I want to spend some time alone, Manfred. I've much to think about."

    "I'll give you a bout, Manfred," said Benito, as Manfred stared open-mouthed at Erik.

    Erik nodded. "You go and give the boy a lesson or two. I'll be in my room, if you need me."

    He turned then to Benito. "I am in your debt. I have used you very hard over the last while. Forgive me."

    "'S nothing. I understand," said Benito awkwardly. He'd rather have Erik chewing him out than being like this.

    Erik nodded and went into his room.

    "Well, let's get the quilted jackets and the buttoned rapiers," said Manfred, far too heartily. "They're with my gear."

    When they got to Manfred's chambers, Francesca said, firmly, "Your sword-play will have to wait, Benito. I need to talk to Manfred."

    Benito grinned. "So do I. And the truth to tell, all I feel like doing is falling asleep once I'm done talking. I didn't sleep at all last night. The last thing on my mind is rapier-practice."

    Manfred grimaced. "Except it is never the last thing on Erik's mind. I'm worried about him. Up till a couple of weeks ago I'd have thought he'd rather fence than make love to a woman. Cut line, Benito. Talk quickly. I need to discuss this with Francesca."

    Benito cleared his throat. "Well... I thought... A siege, especially with that Captain-General in charge, I'm not going to see a lot of action."

    He looked pensively at Manfred. The Prince had folded his arms across his massive chest, and was now looking at Benito in the totally expressionless, ox-dumb manner that Benito recognized, by now, as a sign of Manfred in deep thought.

    "So I thought... Well, I can't do a lot of good here. Maybe I should go to where I can—out there. I'm pretty sure I could swim with the current, using a float of some kind, and come out clear of the troops tonight. I could probably even have them lower a small boat over the walls on the seaward side. Then I could do what Von Gherens was hinting at: raise the peasantry against the Hungarians. And I could also find out what has happened to Erik's girl. It's not likely to be anything good. But he's going to be torn up until he knows."

    Manfred's eyes narrowed slightly. "I'll think about it. The Captain-General won't approve."

    Benito shrugged. "I don't think I really give a damn. But I do need your help to signal back what I find out about the girl."

    "I'll think about it," said Manfred. "I'll come and talk to you later. Now go and get that sleep you need. I need to talk to Francesca."

    Francesca pointed to a seat. "Actually, I think Benito had better stay. And no, Manfred, you are not going out there with Benito."

    Manfred shook his head. "How the hell did you guess?" To Benito, plaintively: "The woman's a witch, I swear it."

    Francesca smiled knowingly. "Your face doesn't give anything away. But I know just how your mind works. The minute you said you'd go and talk to Benito later, I knew just what you were planning. And quite simply: No. You can't do it. You, with your rank and the Knights at your command, are the only person who can effectively influence the defense of this Citadel. The Captain-General will lose it to the enemy. He's done well enough so far, but he'll swiftly be out of his depth. You are the only one here who outranks him, and you, of everyone, are the only one here who can command the Knights to lock him in a room, if necessary, and take over command. Given how his own men have reacted to his commands, I do not think you will find a great deal of opposition if you are forced to that action."

    She glanced at Benito. "And there is one thing that needs doing a lot more than raising the island's countryside—its rather little countryside—against the Hungarians. That is getting news to Venice. In time the news, garbled and distorted, will trickle overland. But unless the two ships which did not take part in this landing manage to get to Rome or Venice—and I doubt they will, now that I've seen the effort Emeric's put into this—help will be many months in coming. It could take a month or two, if the blockade is effective, before the Venetians even realize there is a blockade. We'll get you a small boat, a few seamen, and you should go across to Illyria."

    "Forget it." Manfred shook his head. "Francesca, I'm barely a mouse to your elephant as far as your knowledge of politics is concerned. But I do have some military acumen, you know."

    He grinned. "Even if Erik won't admit it. Look, assuming Benito got across all right, his chances of crossing the Balkans alive are non-existent. Darling, why do you think a non-maritime power like Hungary is transporting its troops and weapons by sea? The answer is pretty obvious even to the non-military mind. Emeric is coming by sea because even with an army of tens of thousands he probably couldn't get through the Balkans. There's a fiercely independent Illyrian chief over there named Iskander Beg who is welding the tribes into a nation. And one thing that all those tribes do is kill people who try to pass through their territory. Do you imagine I'd have paid Dorma a fortune for the hire of these four vessels to transport horses if I could have sent them overland? We could have sailed in one vessel, and met them at Constantinople. However, crossing over the Adriatic and going via Rugosa down the old Roman Road to Constantinople is out of the question these days."

    Francesca raised a perfect eyebrow. "What was it that Eberhard said to you the other day: 'If all politicians had to be soldiers first, they wouldn't ask soldiers to do the impossible.'"

    Manfred shrugged. "He does make good points, occasionally."

    Francesca laughed deliciously. "The poor old man. Every time he's getting to approve of you, you do the next rash thing, according to him. But as it happens I don't agree with him."

    "Miracle of miracles." Manfred grinned. "Why not? For once he is simply making sense."

    "Because it would make for monolithic thinking. All solutions would be militarily influenced, and military men don't always understand how civilians work, either. Anyway, forget Benito for a moment. You too, Benito. Let's get back to what should be done for Erik."

    Manfred, flopped into a chair, making it groan in protest. "I was all for Erik getting over her. Quite honestly, Benito, you and that ex-girlfriend of yours have stirred up something I had hoped would blow over."

    Francesca had come to stand behind Manfred. She rubbed his shoulders. Benito couldn't help but notice how small her hands seemed on them. "I don't think it is going to happen quite as you'd like, Manfred dear," she said slowly. "He's a very intense man. A serious one. He is torn between his duty to you and his... shall we call it... infatuation, with this woman."

    "He's stuck here. Fortunately, as far as I'm concerned! Can't we get him another girl to chase? I am not convinced she's good enough for him. I set high standards for Erik."

    Francesca shook her head and smiled. "Manfred, you know as well as I do that that might work for you, but it won't work for Erik. In your company, he has been trailed past more attractive ladies than most men would see in three lifetimes."

    Manfred grunted. "And half them wanted that clean-cut face of his. And he didn't notice them at all. No, I suppose you're right, as usual, but the point is that he's still stuck here. She's probably dead by now, anyway."

    Francesca patted him. "Too little sleep, that's what it is. Manfred, Erik is an Icelander. He probably has spent more time in small boats than he has on horseback. That means he's as capable of getting out of here as Benito. He is staying here out of loyalty to you and tearing himself apart in the process. Worst of all, for him, is the uncertainty. Erik is one of the most effective warriors alive. He's used to taking initiative. Right now loyalty means he can't."

    Manfred flicked himself onto his feet. From reclining to standing in an instant. Benito realized again just how strong the Prince was. Not simply strong, as an ox might be, but phenomenally athletic as well.

    "Well. No point in that! I'm as safe here as a man can be with three thick walls and a moat around him. Well, sea channel and a small ocean—better yet. Erik should get out there, set his mind at rest and either bring this charmer home or bury her."

    Francesca sighed. "For an example of why only ex-soldiers should take part in politics, you've just failed, Manfred. You regard this place as militarily secure?"

    Manfred nodded, cheerfully. "It would do better with twice or three times the garrison. With six thousand men you'd be able to hold this place against virtually any force, as long as the food and water held out. But it is not too bad, actually. According to Captain-General Tomaselli, with his forces, our men, the ship crews and the militia we have maybe two thousand men. The food stocks should last that number a couple of years with rationing"

    "And yet," said Francesca, "there are at least eleven thousand souls here in this Citadel. Aside from children, that is. Does something not strike you as odd?"

    Manfred made a face. "Uh. These guys have a four wives each? No wonder they look so dozy. How did you get this figure, Francesca?"

    Francesca laughed. "Dozy indeed! I asked the Podesta's secretary, Meletios Loukaris. He's a very efficient little Greek. The local eminences fled to the Citadel when the warning came on the night before the attack. Most of them are Corfiotes, the local gentry, people of the Libri d'Oro who live in town and have estates in the country. The Citadel refused to allow in arbitrary locals, but in addition to these, some people had chits signed by the Podesta. There are nearly six thousand of them. The Captain-General is not well pleased with this."

    Benito blinked. "You mean he wanted to leave them outside? But... this is supposed to be a Venetian protectorate!"

    "True," said Francesca, in an absolutely level voice that conveyed as much by its evenness as her normally expressive tones did. "Unfortunately, the Senate did not vote the Captain-General a budget to allow siege provisions for the people of Kérkira. Or so my little Greek informant told me."

    Manfred bit his knuckle. "Are you telling me this ass is planning not to feed them? They outnumber his troops, oh, nine to one, and he's not going to feed them?"

    "Fortunately the Podesta prevailed on him that this would be foolish. They'll be issued a ration. Smaller than the Venetians, of course. There is no love lost between the locally stationed Venetians and the Greeks."

    Manfred shook his head. "How do you find all this out so quickly, Francesca? Here we are sitting on a powder-keg waving slow-matches and I thought it was quite safe!"

    She smiled demurely. "It is because I am just a woman, and not a soldier."

    "You're not ever going to let me forget that, are you?" grumbled Manfred. Insofar as a man could grumble while grinning.

    She chucked him under the chin. "No. But I am also not going to let you forget that many more fortresses fall by treachery than by strength of arms. And this fortress, with its divided populace, is probably in more danger than most."

    Manfred's eyes narrowed. "It sounds like the Captain-General is going to have to go. That could be difficult."

    "It's difficult from more than one direction. The Corfiotes themselves reciprocate the feelings the Venetians have about them. They won't co-operate unless their lives are in direct danger." Francesca smiled gleefully. "To think I thought I would be bored during this siege! Manfred, between Eberhard and myself, we will manage the Captain-General and keep an eye on the locals. The actual commander of the garrison is quite young, but a better soldier, apparently. Relax. Erik wouldn't be any good at this sort of thing anyway. He might as well go and look for his Svanhild."

    She looked consideringly at Benito. "You, however, would probably be very useful here, because—"

    She broke off, cocking her head a little. "What is happening out there?"

    They went out, following the people who were streaming to see what the commotion was about.

    The strait was full of sails. Emeric's cannon and the rest of his army had arrived.

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