Burdens Of The Dead – Snippet 17

Burdens Of The Dead – Snippet 17

 Chapter 14

Odessa

 In Odessa a very frightened little man made painstaking notes about the numbers of troops passing beneath his window. He was unsure how or even if he would get the information to his paymaster. But if he had nothing to sell, he would never have enough money to leave.

 

Vilna

 

Jagiellon was wise to the workings of agents and double agents. Spies and betrayal were meat and drink to him. Economics was not. The Black Brain knew a great deal about several planes of existence. If anything, he knew least about this earthly one. Trade was something Chernobog had always understood poorly. Power meant that you took what you needed. The only purpose of trade was to corrupt and to move spies into the territories of those who did not understand absolute power. Right now it was more important to keep them out of his territories than to send them out. He had solved the potential problem of spies by closing the port. Odessa was slowly starving. People even dared to mutter against the voivode. At this stage it was still merely frightened resentful mutterings. It would have to get a great deal worse for the utterly cowed population to even contemplate rebellion.

The voivode of Odessa also poorly understood his overlord. He thought he was merely a cruel and monomaniacal man who could possibly be reasoned with.

He screamed. His arm, raised in supplication a few moments before, was definitely broken, and Jagiellon had merely brushed him aside as a man might a beetle. “Grand Duke,” he gasped. “Agh! I…do but fear that if they get any sign of outside sympathy or support…they may rebel.”

“And where would that come from?” asked Jagiellon, seemingly unaffected by the clenched-teeth whimper of his vassal.

“There…there are some of mixed blood. Mongols. The Vlachs too…agh.”

“The Mongols we have dealt with. The Vlachs are a slave race, by and large. Go. I have other affairs to attend to. Do not waste my time again.” The kneeling voivode struggled to his feet, trying to support his arm, and, not daring to do otherwise, bowed and fled from the throne-room.

*   *   *

The Black Brain had, however, been aroused from the affairs it pursued in nether hells. It turned its attention to the progress of the fleet and the thrust to the south.

Jagiellon had had reports. But he preferred to hear about it from the source. And he had puppet emissaries — those who were literally his eyes and will. He would have had more, perhaps even that foolish voivode, had it not required no small expenditure of power and time. They had also proved an ineffectual way of command. Vassal generals and princes often did better driven by their own greed, fear and will. Of course he always had to have some control over them. It was in his nature.

*   *   *

A little while later a blank eyed man roused himself from where he lay, rather uncomfortably, in a supply tent. He was cold and stiff and walked with a jerky and unsteady gait, as a result. No one spoke to him as Jagiellon looked around the shipyard. Most of the workers there were aware of what was looking at them. Neither Jagiellon nor Chernobog knew very much about shipbuilding. Jagiellon had never chosen to interest himself in such mundane tasks before he encountered Chernobog. Ships such as these that plied mere oceans of water did not occur in Chernobog’s normal realm. However, both of them could recognize the signs of industry. There was plenty of that. Rigging and ratlines were being strung on some of the vessels already. Others were still being clad with their outer planking. That ran to plan too: if they were going to be forced to wait for another season, they may as well build more vessels.

Chernobog left the human-vessel right there. Someone would take it back to the tent. Instead he occupied the body of a cavalry commander and looked out onto the vast parade ground. Levies from across the lands that gave fealty to Prince Jagiellon were engaged in drill. In part Jagiellon had already known this. The Black Brain kept a far closer grasp on military matters. It was a necessity. The levies came from several linguistic groups. Many of them were hereditary enemies. To a greater or lesser extent the Black Brain managed and controlled their officers. It required a vast capacity. But then Chernobog had that, even if it sometimes poorly understood the abilities and limitations of mere human soldiers.

The army being readied for the round ships — some forty thousand men, now — was but a small portion of the force that Jagiellon was mustering. He would have to strike in the north and the center, once he held the gate to the Mediterranean. For the last few years he had kept up a slow war of attrition, without any major attacks, while building more reserves. He’d learned that it would take large numbers to bring down Europe under the leadership of the Hohenstauffens.

This time they would feint north. The war-hardened Holy Roman Empire, led by the Knights of the Holy Trinity, would stop the attack, as they had many others. But the underbelly of Europe was distinctly soft and unprepared. With any luck Emeric of Hungary would attempt to take advantage and attack either Italy or the Holy Roman Empire — not realizing that this would leave him vulnerable on his own eastern borders. Jagiellon would settle for a bridgehead into the heart of Europe through Hungary. The part of Jagiellon that was the black brain, Chernobog, cared little for these geographical conquests, normally, but these were physical prizes which were not without value in the spiritual world. And besides, pouring across the northern Carpathians from the lands of the Kievan Rus would allow Chernobog to seize the physical earthly holdings of an old enemy, Elizabeth Bartholdy. There would be a certain satisfaction in that.

 

Venice

 

Benito Valdosta had no such advantages. All he had was a stack of maps, the foremost tactician of the age to stare at him from under beetling brows if he said anything stupid, and a small dribble of information.

“One positive thing to come out of Odessa being as tight as a duck’s vent is that some of Jagiellon’s channels have dried up too.”

“Don’t gamble on it,” said the Old Fox. “Remember Caesare. He has puppets and means denied to good men.”

“Even denied to us,” said Petro, with a quiet smile. “I believe Patriarch Michael and Eneko Lopez when they say traffic in that sort of thing is a peril to the soul, better done by those properly protected, and best avoided entirely. But it is my task as the Doge of the Republic to keep the body and soul together for as long as possible. A few eyes in the lands of our foes would help a great deal.”

“Part of the problem, besides the vulnerability of any such ventures to the spirit of the traveler,” said Marco Valdosta seriously, “is the sheer vastness of the world. There are lands beyond lands and people beyond people. And the power in the east has made anchoring to any fixed point there difficult and dangerous. It would be easier to find an individual drop of rain that fell into the ocean last week.”

“It’s sometimes easier to do things the hard way, in other words,” said Benito. “I just wish I wasn’t trying to juggle so many uncertainties and possible variables in my head. All I can be sure of is that we’ll be ready to sail in a month with less of a fleet than I would have liked, but better than we expected, once the vessels from the western convoy are included. The lists are up in San Marco, and they’re filling up fast. I would have thought Venice had had enough of war.”

“Ah, boy,” said Lodovico Montescue. “But they haven’t had enough of you.”

“That’ll change,” said Petro Dorma, smiling faintly.

“Just make sure they are all on a ship first,” said the Old Fox slyly, “before they find out quite what you plan for Constantinople.”

“It’s the part where the admirals discover that he has hijacked their fleet that I look forward to. Especially as I will not be there to listen to it,” said Petro Dorma. “Admiral Douro guesses, I think. But the others from Genoa do not know you yet.”

Lodovico cracked his old knuckles. “The joys that await them.”

“And me,” said Benito. “They look at me and say that I am still wet behind the ears. And the worst of it is that I know they are right in some ways.”

“It is a good thing,” said Enrico Dell’este, “That I am coming along to provide a certain gravitas. Not to mention grey hair.”

“You. But…Ferrara?”

He shrugged. “Is as secure as I can make it in terms of Italian principalities. I have two heirs. A great grandchild too. If Venice and the Doge stand, Petro here has given me his word that they will inherit my seat. I am old. Respected. I may not go to war again. I would have a part of this one. If this fails…I think the West may fail too. Even if that is not true, the relative peace we now enjoy will be over.”

“I think you are reluctant to let your grandson go off on his own,” said Lodovico. “Not that I would not like to watch, but he has proved that he is capable of looking after himself, and Venice too. As long as there are no dancers and public bridges.”

“It’s that part that I promised I would prevent,” said the Old Fox, cuffing is grandson’s head gently. “He is his mother’s son, sometimes.”

“I do trust that you are letting it leak out that we will overwinter on Corfu?” asked Benito, feeling more than a little uncomfortable.

“I have very carefully, in the strictest confidence, told a certain lady,” said Lodovico, grinning like someone only a third of his age.

“You need a minder too,” said the old Fox, shaking his head.

 

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