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All the Plagues of Hell: Chapter Twenty

       Last updated: Sunday, November 18, 2018 16:01 EST



Northern Italy

    On the other side of the Felsen ridge, the count and his servants were making haste for the pass. It had taken Mindaug a little time and the acceptance of his absolute authority–and some brandy–to get Tamas and Emma calmed down. And then, Tamas had started sniffing as if he smelled something bad. “It’s going to snow, master. Soon.”

    Perhaps it was the brandy. Or perhaps it was wisdom, or perhaps it was just the idea of being stuck here in the snow without as much as a village ale-house for shelter, that made Kazimierz Mindaug say: “Well, we’d better pole up the horses then and move.”

    The moon had risen now, and although there were scudding clouds, it was possible to see the track. A little further on they came to a fork, and chose the more travelled route, which took them slightly downhill and was definitely in better condition than the rutted steep track that was the alternative.

    They walked on, Tamas leading the horses, into the increasing dark.

    The downhill and the quality of the track had both been temporary situations. Indeed the count might have been inclined to think them illusions. They were, by the occasional glimpses in the moonlight, out on the mountain, with no sign of habitation, and no easy place to turn the wagon. Indeed, they’d had difficulty negotiating some of the turns. The only comfort was that it was plainly a well-travelled track, with deep wheel-ruts into which the wagon’s steel banded wheels fitted. That was just as well too, because a flake of snow settled on the count’s nose, as he sat on the box.

    They stopped. “What is it?” called the count to his man.

    “Pole across the track, master.”

    Mindaug and Emma got down to have a look. It was plainly a deliberate barrier, and on kindling a lamp, there was a stone-built cross between a hut and a fortress there–unoccupied. “It must be a toll-post. Protection from bandits around here, I shouldn’t wonder.”

    The hut was a two-story affair, with a stable beneath. It had a stack of wood at the back. And it was snowing steadily by then. So Mindaug made the decision to stop. The horses were stabled, rubbed down with hay and an old sack, and given oats and hay. Mindaug himself took a hand because, by the looks of Tamas, he might just fall over before the horses were cared for, and they were too valuable to risk, here.

    In the meantime, Emma had a fire kindled and had shaved dried meat into a pot, along with crushed wheat to make a broth of sorts. It was warming, and they were out of the snow, and were probably three hours travel on their way. It did not look as if the single room hut was normally lived in, but rather used as some kind of billet. There was a rough table, a couple of straw pallets and a fireplace, and not much else. Still, it was warm, out of the wind, and out of the snow. They slept peacefully enough.



    Morning brought a leaden sky and occasional flurries of snow, although it looked a lot worse to the north. And they were in daylight, at the top of the pass, with the trail winding through snow and then into clear fields. Far below, there was a village with smoke rising from its chimneys.

    It was somewhat amusing, thought the count, that he’d spent the night in the place he’d been concerned about getting past–the border-post between the Holy Roman Empire and the Italian states. By the looks of it, the weather-wise locals had abandoned their post and gone home. The question now was whether they could do likewise. Well, at least to abandon the post. Go home? The count thought of the draughty castle at Braclaw that stayed chilly even in summer, despite its huge log fires. He had lived out his early years there, and then been taken to be introduced to his first steps in magic. As a younger son, it should not have been his inheritance, but the others… died. Jagiellon had burned the castle, by way of revenge, when the trap on Corfu had failed and Mindaug had had to flee to Hungary.

    Home was a concept which obviously meant something to other people, just not to him. He called Tamas, and they went to look at the trail. The snow lay fetlock deep and powdery. “Can we get the wagon down it?” the count asked.

    They’d been along steep mountain trails for weeks now, and while those on the worst places had been fitted with windlasses, they’d replaced the brake-blocks on the wagon once already. This slope looked steeper, and in worse condition. Mindaug had learned to trust his servant’s judgment on such matters more than he did his own. The ex-miller had a great of practical common sense, more than most men of education.

    Tamas kicked the snow. “It could help, if we put something to drag behind us. If there’s ice, that could be treacherous. There are some eight to ten cubit logs beside the shed, waiting to cut for the fire. We could chain one to the tail, to make a broad anchor to drag in the snow behind us.”

    “Let us do that, then.”

    Emma had come out to join them. “But is it right to take their log of wood, master?”

    The count almost laughed, but she wasn’t joking. And… he needed their respect and goodwill, as he’d come to realize.

    “Of course, we’ll pay for it. Do you think a silver penny fair for the lodging?” Mindaug had no idea what a reasonable price would be for such a thing.

    “Oh, that’s far too much, Master. We only used twelve of their fire-logs, and I have given the place a good clean up.” She sniffed, disapprovingly. “I’d say two coppers for lodging and one for their log. And, if it please you, there’s porridge and honey ready for you to break your fast. I’ve baked some pot-bread for the road, too.”

    One day, thought Mindaug, he’d get used to their way of thinking. But he doubted if he’d ever be able to share it. In many respects, he was still a nobleman of Lithuania, and always would be.

    Using the log as a snow-anchor they crept their slow way down the pass. It took care, ropes, patience, and Tamas’ inventive and practical skill to get them down, but they managed. Count Mindaug was glad of it, because there was an inn at the foot of the pass as well as a border watchman, who was happy to have his palm silvered. The little mountain village was not much of a place, but it was warmer. The air seemed warmer here too. They had lost a lot of altitude. The border guard seemed mostly interested in collecting money and was not concerned with invasion, even if he was mildly incredulous that anyone could have been crazy enough to bring a wagon over the pass in the snow. At least, that was what Mindaug thought he was saying. His Frankish was so accented that it was hard to tell.

    Still, it was without let or hindrance that they proceeded lower, and to the west. The count was beginning to think of finding a good place to stop travelling now, somewhere on the borders of the Lion of Etruria’s territory. That would hopefully make it possible to flee there if there was an attack, but not so close to Venice as to call attention to himself.

    Sooner or later he would have to wield power, build himself a demesne, or find himself a protector. And, of course, build a bolt-hole. In that regard, northern Italy had several possibilities: Padua with its university and library sounded attractive, Milan had a ruler who was recruiting magicians, and Verona was, from what he had read, a beautiful and cultured city–although one always had to wary of the city’s ruling family. The Scaligeri who ruled Verona were prone to lawlessness, even by the standards of Italian nobility.

    He had to sneer at himself, a little, in an amused way. Going west had made him soft. The Holy Roman Empire worked on their roads and bridges, policed their little towns, hunted down bandits, and had nothing worse than toll posts for a traveler to deal with. In Lithuania, he could not have undertaken such a journey without a troop of horsemen.

    As they rounded the spur, it was brought home to him that this was no longer part of the Empire, but was one of the Italian principalities–and Scaliger territory, known for brigandage.

    It had been a steep up-grade, and the horses weren’t moving very fast, when the horses shied and one man jumped out of the thick bushes at the roadside and grabbed their bridles. His companions bundled out of the brush on either side of them, armed with what peasants-turned-thieves had–cudgels and knives. From the way the first one thrust at the count, it was apparent that this wasn’t a hold up and robbery. This was intended to be the murder of a few travelers–they’d rape Emma in the bargain before they killed her as well–followed by dumping their bodies in a ditch after stealing what they had.

    Mindaug leaned away and hit the forearm of his attacker, before slipping his own knife up under the man’s ribs. To someone trained to survive murder in Lithuania, it was ludicrously easy. His two servants did not have his advantages, though. Tamas was down but not out of the fight, wrestling with two men next to the wagon. There was a knife being wielded. Emma, seized by a man who hadn’t killed her because a woman was a prize, was screeching like a wild cat and clawing and fighting–fiercely, but not very effectively.

    Mindaug picked up the dropped whip and sent the lash around the throat of the man who had pushed aside his dying companion and was yelling for help with the count. A hard jerk and the scream stopped, suddenly. The pommel of the whip then cracked the one wrestling with Emma over the head.

    Mindaug muttered a quick spell that slowed the three fighters–Tamas included–as if they were trapped in thick mud. There was no time right now to avoid magic, much as he would have preferred to. He stepped up to the trapped men and dealt with both the attackers with his blade, and then pulled Tamas free and to the seat where Emma hauled him up. The lad was bleeding profusely.



    Now there was just the varlet holding the horses–and half a dozen more men straggling out of the bush. The whip dealt with the horse-holder, and the surging panicked horses did the rest. Mindaug gave them their heads, merely trying to keep the wagon on the road while they put some distance between them and the attackers. A keening Emma tried to deal with the injured Tamas, attempting to staunch the blood. Mindaug hoped he didn’t bleed on the books. Leaving aside the mess, it would not be wise with some of those books to let them taste human blood.

    A mile or so further, the horses tiring anyway, he pulled them to a halt. There were open fields on either side of them, and little chance for another ambush. “Look to see if there is anyone following,” he said to Emma. “I will deal with Tamas’ wounds as best I can.”

    He was irritated with himself, and somewhat shaken, as well. To let such a little incident break his cover! Those who watched this world and others for traces of magic, might now be aware that Count Mindaug was not dead. Such a minor working would be hard to pin-point, true, but he’d preferred them to think him dead, his corpse lying among the bodies on the steppe where Emeric’s forces had failed.

    It would have been wiser to just let the bandits have killed the boy. But… that would have left him short a loyal servant, which this journey had made him value. And, truth be told, Mindaug simply hadn’t thought of consequences at the time. He set about looking at the injured Tamas. He knew a good thousand ways to kill people, but had little knowledge and no experience at healing or even at dealing with the injured. He did have several books on medicine, simply because he collected books.

    Tamas, it appeared, was at least not dying this instant. He was trying to sit up, and kept rubbing his eyes, which was not helping the cut on his forehead at all. He was plainly confused and ready to try and fight the count too, by the way he milled his hands around. “Lie down and keep still,” Mindaug said sternly.

    The wrinkling of his eyes did not help the bleeding, and he was plainly trying to focus and failing. But the familiar voice had an effect. “Yes, Master,” said Tamas, in a slurred but plainly relieved tone. “Emma, is she…?”

    “She’s fine. She’s safe. Lie still, I told you.”

    Mindaug ripped aside the man’s rough shirt to expose considerable blood and a long wound–from mid-chest and onto the belly. It was bleeding… but he’d seen enough sacrifices to know that this was not the pumping out of major arteries. Emma was back at his shoulder, so he told her to fetch him water and cloths. A quick wash-down of the wound had Emma at his shoulder whispering prayers, wide-eyed because imbedded in the blood and torn flesh was a small, cheap copper icon–a head of St. Arsenius, now with a slit in it. The overhand stab had been forceful enough to go through the leather jerkin, and hit the little saint’s medal and gone partly through it–which had undoubtedly saved Tamas from being opened up like a split carp.

    Personally, Count Mindaug doubted divine intervention, but nothing short of a chorus of angels would ever convince Emma that the saint had not personally put his hand out to save her man. The rest of his wounds amounted to a nasty cut on the head, basically a split from the crack he’d got from the cudgel, and two other minor cuts on his arm and shoulder. The bandaging that Mindaug and Emma managed was rough, as the patient was not co-operative. Eventually Mindaug fed the fellow a little poppy-juice, and he did subside into uneasy rest, as they made their way to Vicenza later that afternoon.

    They found an inn there. Mindaug decided he’d be wise to leave Emma with Tamas and search out some help. The young woman, distraught, was not good at making sense of the local bastard Frankish. It was hard enough for the count.

    He found an apothecary, but two minutes talk convinced him the man was nothing but an ignorant fraud and that what he sold was close to worthless if not dangerous.

    In the process, the count found himself wondering why he was taking so much trouble over a servant. He supposed the truth was that he’d probably spent more time in the company of this pair of servants than he had of anyone, since being a small boy. A few further questions of a merchant put him on the trail of a physician, who was, by dint of coin up front, persuaded to come look at Tamas.

    “He’s suffering from an impairment to his wits from the blow on the head,” said the physician.

    “I needed to give you gold to tell me that?” muttered the count. “What can we do for it?”

    “I would say bleed him to remove the excess phlegm,” said the physician.

    “I should say he has bled enough,” said the count, irritably.

    “Oh,” the physician was plainly a little alarmed by the tone. “Well, he should recover with sufficient rest, unless the demons have taken hold of him. He may suffer terrible headaches. I can provide you with a preparation of my own for that.”

    The count did not kick him down the stairs, but it was tempting. Demons! Ha. He knew more about demons than ten such idiots. Instead of buying his quackery he went and dug out the books he had on medicine. It took a while, although each box had been labelled and the count had allowed a narrow passage down the center of the wagon. When he returned to the bed where they’d put Tamas, he found the man had thrown up, and was by his own account feeling better if weak, and keen to see to the horses.

    “The hostler has seen to them. You will rest,” commanded Mindaug.

    Emma asked permission, timidly, to go and give thanks to God and the blessed St. Arsenius, and to pray for his healing. By the looks of her, she had been weeping, and Mindaug had nothing else that needed doing. So, he sat and read while Tamas slipped into a shallow sleep, and the count moved between Galen and Rhazes.

    Emma came back, with food for him. “They say there will be war soon!” she said, fearfully. She could not tell him much, as she struggled with the language. But people were buying supplies against the possibility of siege. So, although it was early evening, the count went out again. He found what he was looking for quickly enough–a gunsmith. Next time that the horses shied from a roadside bush, the count planned to be ready.

    Not only could the gunsmith sell him two wheel-lock hand-cannons and tell him that, yes, the Scaligers, long-time allies of Milan, would go to war against the usurper Carlo Sforza. That hadn’t yet been officially declared, but everyone knew it.

    The gunsmith was quietly packing up. “They talk of rights–but this is Sforza they fight. I’m going to my cousins in the mountains until it is over, sir. So I’d be glad to let you have these at a good price.”

    He and the count disagreed about the good price part, but Mindaug had been in cities under siege before. He too had heard of the reputation of Carlo Sforza, the Wolf of the North, the condottiere who had only ever been bested by Duke Enrico Dell’este and the Venetians together. And then only with magic added into the mixture. Sforza was perhaps not the master of grand strategy that Dell’este was, but his tactical strength was legendary. And he destroyed the cities and towns that resisted him.



    So, it was time to move on again. Despite Tamas complaining of a terrible headache, and protesting about not being allowed to pole up the horses and do the other tasks he normally did for the count, they left early the next day, going west.

    Mindaug waited until they were well clear of the town and in a clearing surrounded by trees that blocked sight and would muffle sound before getting Emma to practice with the hand cannon. The count tried it out first. It kicked, and left the firer in a cloud of blue smoke.

    Emma eyed it fearfully. “But… am I allowed to use such a thing, Master?”

    Mindaug knew King Emeric had strongly disapproved of an armed peasantry. Yes, they had knives and pitchforks, axes and bill-hooks and here and there an old spear, and many had bows, but weapons that could threaten a knight? No. Not to be tolerated.

    “This is not Hungary,” he said.

    She looked puzzled. “Yes, I know that. This place is not as good, of course, but it was… nice, in some ways. Until we were attacked. It is not safe here.”

    Mindaug had to think his way around the “not as good” part. It had never occurred to him that his servants might yearn for the fields and the mill, things they knew. But that was peasantry for you, where “safe” was life and death in poverty at your lord’s whim. At least it was certain, thought the count, like life in Jagiellon’s court had been certain. If you showed too much competence you’d be killed. Too little and you’d be killed. Sooner or later, you would step over one or the other bound.

    Neither Elizabeth Bartholdy nor King Emeric had been that different. Not quite as murderous as Jagiellon, but then, who was? Mindaug was beginning to like the idea of dying of old age, as unlikely as that possibility had ever seemed to him in the past.

    “No one here cares, Emma. If you had had such a thing at the ready, you could have shot the man who attacked you.”

    She plainly thought about this, nodding. Mindaug wondered suddenly if it was the idea of killing that worried her. He’d come across that notion in some books before. A curious concept.

    But her reply showed that this was not the case.

    “Yes, I could,” she said, quite thoughtfully. “I could have shot him and the man who attacked my Tamas–and you, Master! I could have shot them dead. Show me.”

    So he had, once he was sure there was no one to see what they were about. This time, in another clearing, Mindaug set up a target for her to shoot at. It was nothing fancy, just a dead branch propped against a tree stump. She was delighted when she blew the branch apart on her second shot–and her first shot had not missed by much.

    Tamas had wanted to try too, but the count had settled for showing him the mechanism and telling him to lie down again. Then he had Emma shoot a few more rounds against other targets he set up in the clearing. Despite the recoil, Emma was quite successful at hitting them. She had strong hands and wrists, and seemed to have a genuine knack for the handcannon.

    There was a point, thought the count, in keeping these weapons from the commons or from the women. Women of rank had always used guile, poison or magic to win fights. These weapons–particularly if they got smaller and better–could change that.

    Mentally, he shrugged. Mindaug was only worried about his own future, and even if his earthly foes were armed with hand-cannon, sword or spell, he could deal with most things. Let those who could not cope, deal with it in their own way.



    On the other side of the pass, in Imperial lands, Von Stebbens and his men were still coping with the snow. Sleds and horses were moving about again, the trail was being cleared–but they were advised not to follow the pass that Count Mindaug had taken for some days yet. The magical watch on the count continued. And, at last, they saw some sign of him using his powers.

    “Deaths,” said Ritter Hartz, who had been the one gazing on the thaumaturgic sphere. “It was a small working, though.”

    “But with Mindaug, there would be deaths, no matter how small his use of magic was,” said Von Stebbens, grimly. “We push through the pass tomorrow, snow or no snow, Ritters. Or we will go further east and take a lower pass.”

    So they did. The guard had gotten to the border watchtower-fort barely an hour before the Knights did. Yes, someone had slept and stabled their horses there–and they had left some coins for payment. The guard produced the coppers to prove his claim. “Not everyone is so honest,” he said.

    The Plocken Pass took the Knights most of the day to lead their horses down. Von Stebbens knew there was something of a delicate balance to their behavior here. They were no longer in the Holy Roman Empire, and were mere travelers like anyone else. Not that most people or even the local nobility would interfere in their business. But it could cause complications, especially after the Knights had been used to unwittingly transport Chernobog’s demon into Venice. The Knights had redeemed themselves since, but they had a good reason not to start any diplomatic incidents.

    They rode hard to catch up with Count Mindaug. Orders or no orders, the archimandrite was determined to take the man in custody now. The information about Baron von Wisselbacher had plainly been a false lead. Whatever associate Mindaug was heading for must be in Italy somewhere.

    Only, as it proved, those few days lead that Count Mindaug had gained, had been crucial ones.

    The city-state of Verona was at war with its neighbor, and military patrols were now guarding and setting up barricades on the roads. And the count and his wagon were on the far side of those barricades and patrols.

    “Milan. He must be heading for Milan. We had better send word to Mainz.”

    So once again magical communication was made.



    A discordant note, however, was introduced by Brother Dimitrios. When told of Von Stebbens’ plans, the Aemiline hesychast shook his head.

    “I think you may be acting precipitously, Archimandrite,” he said. “I have been able to watch Mindaug at very close range, using my little friends. So far I have seen no sign at all that he is engaged in any sort of dark magic. And it seems very odd that he would have two such servants if his intentions were really those you fear.”

    Von Stebbens was skeptical. “And, who, exactly, are these ‘little friends’ of yours who make such reliable spies?”

    “Mice, mostly. Squirrels, sometimes. Once in a while I’m forced to use a bird, although I try to avoid that for this work.” His expression was rueful. “I’m afraid there is a reason for the expression ‘bird-brained.’ It’s hard to keep a bird focused on anything for very long.”

    “I should think hawks or owls would be able to concentrate.”

    The hesychast’s rueful expression was replaced by one of distaste. “I do not like to spend time in the minds of raptors,” said Dimitrios. “Their thoughts–and they generally have only one: kill and eat–are not pleasant.”

    The archimandrite was still not satisfied. “Are you saying you can get these ‘little friends’ of yours close enough to Mindaug to really be able to spy on him?”



    “Oh, they can get very close–within a few feet, usually. The count pays little attention to mice in his wagon, so long as they stay away from his crates of books. Even squirrels, he generally ignores. He’s odd, that way.”

    Dimitrios smiled. “Of course, my little friends have little brains as well. So while they can hear what he and his servants say, they are just meaningless sounds to them.”

    “You can’t translate?”

    “Oh, no. I hear only what they do. But there’s nothing wrong with their eyesight, and I see everything that transpires quite well. I tell you, Archimandrite, whatever the count from Lithuania’s plans are, there has been no indication at all that he is seeking confederates beyond his two servants. And he’s refrained from using magic except once when he and his servants were attacked by robbers on the road–and that was a minor spell.”

    Von Stebbens frowned. “But he fended them off? How?”

    Dimitrios made a little grimace. “Even without magic–even as small as he is, and at his age–Mindaug turns out to be quite deadly. If you should happen to engage him in personal combat, at some point, I strongly recommend you stay at sword’s length from him. Up close…”

    The hesychast shook his head. “He is very adept with a dagger. A whip, too.”

    “What one could expect from such an evil man,” said Heinrich von Tarnitz, nodding his head sagely.

    Dimitrios gave the Knight a none-too-admiring look. “You think so? Let me ask you, Ritter–do you think a hawk is evil?”

    “No, of course not. A hawk is just a wild animal, doing what its nature calls for.”

    “Indeed so. I don’t like to spend time in a raptor’s mind, as I told you once. No more would I care to spend time in the mind of Count Mindaug. But did you ever once consider”–he glanced at von Stebbens–“either one of you, what it would be like to be born and raised a very high-ranked nobleman in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania? Mindaug’s even in the line of succession.”

    He paused, waiting for a response–but all he got were blank stares.

    “I thought not. How much time have either of you ever spent in Lithuania?”

    Von Tamitz shook his head. “None at all.”

    “I visited Vilnius once,” said von Stebbens. “Thankfully, only for three days.”

    “Yes, well–I have spent a great deal of time in Vilnius and other cities in the Grand Duchy, as well as in those vast, ancient forests. My little friends make excellent monitors of Jagiellon’s doings. It is a wicked country–more so than ever since Jagiellon was possessed by Chernobog. The only man who could have survived Count Mindaug’s upbringing, no matter how inclined he might have been toward kindness, would have soon learned to think like a hawk himself.”

    He shook his head. “Do not be so certain, Ritters, that you understand the workings of such a man’s mind. I make no such arrogant claim myself. I simply pass on to you what I have observed for weeks now–that there has been no indication from Mindaug’s actual deeds that he intends any of the things you suspect him of.”

    He paused briefly. “Have you heard that miners use canaries to warn them of the presence of dangerous fumes?”

    Both Knights nodded.

    “Well, you might do well to consider those two young and quite innocent servants of Mindaug’s as your canaries. If you wish to know what evil the count plans, watch them. If they die–if they faint, or grow ill–then you have your warning. Until then… be cautious in your conclusions.”




    Emperor Charles Fredrik sat in one of the smaller rooms in the palace to discuss the matter with Abbot Goldenbuss and two of his other advisors. “Milan. Carlo Sforza. We had assumed that the worst of the rot in Milan had died with Phillipo Maria, but we were wrong. It continues, apparently.”

    “He’s a very capable general. But outnumbered–vastly so, if we intervene,” said Baron Saasveld.

    “Which may well be why he has brought Count Mindaug into the equation,” said Count De Bressy, who was a rising strategist in imperial circles. The emperor liked him. The man was cautious when it came to military affairs, but thoughtful and never lost sight of practical matters like how to keep an army supplied in the field.

    “But when we add the possibility of an outbreak of Justinian’s Plague, we cannot take military intervention lightly,” De Bressy continued. “We could just wind up making the situation worse than it is already.”

    The abbot looked grave. He leaned forward in his seat, planting his hands on his knees. “Our largest concern is that the three things tie together. That, somehow, Mindaug has found how to magically control the plague, and Sforza plans to use it for military expansionism. There are hints of something similar in a few documents in the church’s possession.”

    There was a silence.

    Then the emperor said heavily: “If I had known this earlier, I would have ordered Mindaug’s immediate capture and, after questioning, his execution.”

    “We did not know… or rather, we never guessed,” said Goldenbuss. “One of the scholars searching for treatments for the plague came to me only two days ago. He found reference to such a possibility in a very old text, somewhat distorted by re-copying. It took us a while to work out that when it referred to the purple bites of the summoned destroying serpent, it was not merely using poetic language to describe Satan. Parts of it are literally indecipherable but we think it refers to a pagan rite of the sacrifice of a virgin to a dragon.”

    “It’s a common story,” said Baron Saasveld, chuckling a bit sarcastically. “Invariably, a knight saves her.”

    “But what if it had a real origin?” said the abbot, sitting back up straight. “Stories often do, after all. Monks and nuns of our orders are researching it urgently, going through manuscripts and record from that time.” He looked directly at the emperor. “:You do realize, Your Majesty, that Count Mindaug has one of the premier collections of old books and writings, particularly of magic? That was how we first spotted him approaching our borders–the books contain so much lore, much of it very dark in nature, that they emitted a faint aura. He has that very dangerous library with him, and he is, apparently, an indefatigable researcher.”

    “It all does seem to tie together, does it not?” mused De Bressy. “Your Majesty, what about the Venetians? They seem, by all reports, to be on relatively good terms with Carlo Sforza. Surprisingly so, all things considered. Could they be asked to intervene?”

    The emperor nodded. “They can be asked, certainly; hard to know what their response would be. Abbot Goldenbuss, send some of your men to Venice. I will send a message to my ambassador there, as fast as possible. Firstly, Petro Dorma must be appraised of these developments, and secondly, perhaps they can arrange for the Knights to travel to Milan and exchange this man for some concessions.”

    “Venice being Venice, and the Council of Ten being what they are, they can always just have him killed,” said Saasveld, with the brutal practicality for which he was famed as a general.

    That thought had gone through the Emperor’s head, too. But all he asked was: “And what news from Hungary?”

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