Much Fall Of Blood — Snippet 03
It was as luxurious a boudoir as Manfred had been able to contrive. She had taught him a great deal, reflected Francesca, and not just about sex or politics. Whether the knowledge of fabrics and cushions was really essential to a man who might one day yet rule the Holy Roman Empire, and definitely would rule the rough Celtic halls of Brittany, was another matter. Francesca de Chevreuse had no doubts about it being of value. Both politics and sex were enhanced by such things. How many pointless wars were born, accidentally, out of a poor night’s sleep or an uncomfortable seat, after all? While dukes, kings and emperors might claim to rule by divine right, that did not appear to protect them from occasional peevishness. She’d gotten to meet several of the great men, first as a courtesan and later as Manfred’s leman.
She bit her lip. Being Manfred’s leman had been a comfortable life and an interesting one. She had a great deal of power and influence, even with the Emperor himself. It would take very little effort and feminine wile to maintain the status quo. But in a way, this life was a gamble. And she was an intelligent gambler. It was time get out of this particular game, while she was still winning. The Emperor might have looked indulgently on his nephew’s mistress, even used her as his agent, while she was a transient feature of Manfred’s life. But she knew, too well, that the throne would not tolerate her installing herself as the power behind the prince.
Manfred was changing. Command on Corfu had altered him. He didn’t realize it yet, but he was ready to move on.
She’d seen it before as a courtesan. She recognized the signs now.
Therefore it was time for her to move on too. Quickly and neatly, retaining the contacts and friendships that she’d established. Alexandria called to her. It was supposed to be a warm, cultured and seductive city. Well, that sounded just like her sort of place. She gave a wicked little chuckle. Besides, the city would need something to counter Eneko Lopez and his companions’ piety.
Manfred came in quietly. For a big man he could move remarkably silently when he chose to. “I thought you might be asleep,” he said.
The solicitousness too was unlike him. It wasn’t that Manfred was inconsiderate, or even particularly self-centered, for a prince of the blood. Erik had seen to that. Manfred could be very considerate — when it occurred to him that his normal way of life might be less than pleasant for someone else. That much she had tried to teach him, along with politics and a less brute force approach to everything.
“A glass of wine?” he asked pleasantly, running a big hand down her spine.
Francesca swallowed. She’d dismissed many lovers before. Some of them had been powerful, big, violent men. She’d taken appropriate steps to deal with that sort of problem, and moved on. Anyway, she had no such fears from Manfred. It was not in his nature. But then, why was she afraid? It suddenly came to her. Yes, he was powerful and influential. But she was afraid of hurting him. That was not something that had ever bothered her before. She’d spent a long time with Manfred, though, longer than with any other lover. Long enough to know that he too had his soft spots, and where they were. “I thought you were still in church,” she said.
“The bishop got tired of me. He threw me out.” Manfred smiled. “The church loves me… and loves me to leave when I sing.”
He walked across the room and poured out two goblets of wine. “The truth is that I had a feeling I should come up and bid you farewell.”
She gaped at him.
“I didn’t want you to go without at least saying goodbye.”
Her eyes narrowed. “Eneko?”
He handed her the goblet. “He’s as mum as an oyster, my dear. You know that.”
“Then how…” she was never at a loss of words. Suddenly, she found them scarce.
“You said so, a while back. And I’ve been seeing the signs. I was taught by a selection of women, Francesca. As well as you.”
“You’ve learned a bit too well,” she said wryly. “What do you intend to do about it?”
“Help with the organization. I’ve learned over the years that you usually do exactly what you plan to do. And I value you too much, both as a friend and a lover, to stand in your way.”
“It is not fair to play emotional games, Manfred.” Her voice was slightly gruff in spite of the superb self-control she prided herself on.
“Nothing is fair, Francesca. But I’m not good at games. I’d rather hope that I could see you in Alexandria one day, than be stupid enough to try and keep you.”
“You’ve grown a lot, Prince.”
“I hope not. Getting armor altered is more complicated than you may realize. Now, do I lock the door to keep Erik out for a last few minutes or not?”
“Oh, I think I can spare you more than a few minutes, and make it last a little longer than that too,” said Francesca, lowering her lashes.
Erik Hakkonsen, bodyguard and mentor to Prince Manfred of Brittany, forced the attacker’s blade point into the wood of the door behind him. In the process he might just have broken the man’s fingers. Erik hit him with pommel of his knife to silence him. The last thing that he wanted was to attract extra attention. Narrow alleys were not his choice of fighting ground. Kari was still fighting with the other two. Erik grabbed both of Kari’s opponents by their loose garments and slammed their heads together. Hard.
Kari looked reproachfully at Erik as he dropped the two limp bandits. “What did you do that for? It was shaping into a nice little fight.”
Erik shook his head at the young Vinlander. Kari’s family were sept and kin, at least by Erik’s understanding of the duty he owed to Svanhild. Erik therefore owed a duty of care to the boy. He’d not expected that to mean taking care of a tearaway, who, while less inclined to go drinking or whoring than Manfred had been, liked fighting. Kari fitted Jerusalem like a bull-seal fitted a lady’s glove.
“If you want to fight there are plenty of knights. And there is me,” said Erik.
Kari grinned disarmingly, showing a missing tooth. “The knights fight like knights. And as for you… I like to win sometimes. I thought you were busy watching over the Godar’s nephew?”
“He’s in church. On his knees. Where you will be shortly. Those men did not want to fight. They wanted to kill and rob you.”
Kari shrugged. “Who else could I find? I don’t like picking on drunks. You said that that was unsporting.”
“One of these days you will also remember that I said picking fights with back-alley murderers would get you killed, you young fool.” Erik took him by the ear and led him toward more salubrious parts of the city. With Manfred, Erik had thought that he was hard done by having had to locate all the taverns and brothels in any town. Kari took things to whole new level. He could be looking for a fight anywhere.
Vilna, The Grand Duchy of Lithuania
The mask of Jagiellon stared down at the man on the rack. There was little more information the former servant of Count Mindaug could be forced to remember. The servant had never been in the traitor’s confidence, anyway. The few details he had been able to provide had merely told the Grand Duke what he already knew: Mindaug had tried to destroy him.
Mindaug had been aided and abetted by an old enemy. She called herself Countess Elizabeth Bartholdy these days, and she thought that she was beyond his reach. Nothing was forever beyond the reach of the Black Brain. Her time would come. Maybe it would come across the Carpathians…
In the meantime he had other more pressing plans. Plans that stretched across the Rus plains to Damascus.
The torturer coughed. “Your Highness? What do you want done with him?” He gestured at the former servant. The now dry source.
Jagiellon shrugged. “Continue. He will die soon.”
Buda, The Kingdom of Hungary
From the topmost ducat-gold curl to the tip of her toes, Countess Elizabeth Bartholdy was the most beautiful and youth-filled damsel any man could ever dream of. She simply had to smile and lower her long sooty eyelashes to have most men agree to do anything she asked of them. The guard on Prince Vlad of Basarab’s elegant prison was made of sterner stuff. Well. You would want such guards for the grandson of the Dragon.
But he was still a man. And too slow to react, when she put her hand where no lady would have done.
That instant of hesitation killed him, as the razor-sharp talon-like steel tips to her claws slipped through the cloth far more easily than the proverbial hot knife through butter. There were a few inhuman things that could survive the venom that tipped those nails. No human could.
She sheathed the claws again, as he fell with barely a whimper. There was a slight clatter from his sword. She paused for an instant to enjoy the look on his face. She loved that look of startlement and betrayal. It suited men so well.