Burdens Of The Dead – Snippet 31

Burdens Of The Dead – Snippet 31

 Chapter 21

Milan

 Fillipo Maria was delighted with the new conduit of news coming out of Venice. Details of the 48 pounders ordered, and how they were being fitted — along with the Arsenal guild masters varied reactions to it. The coming spring campaign was enough to make him chortle to himself. Firstly because by spring he planned to be ready for a fairly bloody summer — with a lot of Venice’s soldiery away. And secondly because his engineers had laughed at the bombards. The duke of Milan had nothing but disdain for the emperor of Byzantium and his rapidly shrinking and collapsing empire. But he must send Alexis word somehow. The news that Venice and Genoa would be engaged in far away wars was a good thing. They had territory that would be lost by the time they got back. And it fitted so well with his plans for Sforza.

*   *   *

Carlo Sforza read the report carefully. It was not why he had put the man in place, but it was still extra information, and valuable. Not for the first time did he ponder his future. A great condottiere had to keep winning. Not only did his mercenary soldiers need the loot and the morale boost, but his employers tended to have strong ideas about what they were paying for. Many of his peers were good at playing the part. Sforza had been good at doing the deeds. Now…Now he knew his employer wanted him to challenge Venice again.

And he did not wish to.

 

Vilna

 

Jagiellon sat on the throne, motionless. Someone more ignorant than the tongue-less slave that brought the message might have thought the Grand Duke deep in thought. But by now the slave knew better. Someone was going to die. His master used blood-rites in that chamber down in the dungeons. Blood rites and dark magics feared even here in pagan Lithuania.

The slave was correct. “Fetch me Count Tcherkas.” So he did. The count, like many of the nobility here, dabbled in magic. He was not in the league of Count Mindaug — but then Count Mindaug had gone to great lengths merely to seem an ineffectual academic. But the rituals the Grand Duke and the demon Chernobog used needed participation. And needed terror — both from the victim and from the perpetrator. Jagiellon was too far gone to feel human emotions. Tcherkas felt fear, revulsion and…eagerness, in the blood sacrifice and skin eating. It helped to penetrate the veil — not to Venice, but to Milan, deep within the western lands.

From there the news he could glean from Venice — where Chernobog dared not venture, not even in spirit — and other points of the Mediterranean was that the West was readying itself for a spring attack on Constantinople.

“Spring. By then it should hold, until the fleet from Odessa reaches there, even if the Venetians have somehow managed to work out a way to fire massive forty-eight pound bombards from the decks of their vessels without sinking them.”

Jagiellon turned to the count. “Send word. Alexis must be warned of this. The Byzantine emperor should concentrate his guns on the seaward walls, on the walls facing the Sea of Marmara as the great chain will keep the vessels out of the Golden Horn. That will keep them out of effective range.”

The count, still gagging from his meal, nodded.

Jagiellon went on as if he had not engaged in torturous blood rituals a scant hour before. “If Alexis can be kept from alternating between his depravities and total panic, he will hold the city. He is a weak reed, but at least that means that he is corruptible and malleable. I also want some men and weapons sent with the raider fleet to the coast of the sultanate of Pontus. The Baitini are squalling from Ilkhan lands.”

The demon was somewhat more concerned about this leg of his plans. It appeared that the laissez faire methods of Mongol rule were changing in response to the Baitinis’ attempts to instill panic and terror. Not — as they dreamed — cracking and disintegrating. He might have to spare some troops there to take Mongol pressure off the borders with Alexis’s Themes in Asia Minor. They would read great things into a small landing somewhere, and redouble their efforts. The demon did not care if they won or lost. He wanted westward geographic expansion for reasons that were not earthly.

 

Constantinople

 

Antimo quietly locked the door. The first two sets of his maps and coded notes had already been dispatched. A good spy also had to be a good scribe, and a patient copyist. He could lose six month’s work by not making multiple copies. He could lose his life by traveling with them. None-the-less he had copies of his notes. Not hidden in the obvious places like the soles of his shoes or lining of his bag. The church might not be forgiving if they read the Latin text of some of the bible he carried. With luck, which had favored him in the past, they would never see it and neither would anyone else.

Leaving at night was a risk — it meant getting over walls and bribing guards, and there was no need for that yet. It was, outside of the foreign quarters, still business as usual in Constantinople. Yes, trouble was coming as sure as sunrise, but not until springtime. A lifetime away. In the morning he’d be leaving quietly with a group of minor merchants going to a cattle sale some miles away. He wouldn’t be coming back with them. There were just a last few things to be arranged tonight.

He was unsurprised to see Red-ears and his sister there, tails wagging. He’d met Ripper and Ravener so often on his nightly walk-abouts that he’d taken to carrying a tit-bit or two with him. Dogs — they were always hungry. He’d been like that as boy himself. Maybe that was why boys and dogs had such an affinity. He hadn’t met their mistress again. Somehow he felt that was just as well.

But she was there, standing in the shadow.

*   *   *

He was plainly leaving the city. Hekate had watched him obsessively, she had to admit, for the last while. He intrigued her, he brought her out of herself. For so many centuries, she’d been wrapped in her grief, mostly oblivious to the marchings of the mortal world. That grief had not left her, and it never would. But now that she had begun to shake free of the total absorption of it, she was aware of so much that had changed. She had been peripherally aware of it, of course. But she just hadn’t cared enough to pay any amount of attention to it all.

The world had become a very strange place to her; she was forgotten as a goddess, and mentioned only obliquely. She had been so forgotten, in fact, that only the drink- and drug-addled and the mad could see her. And…those who still had magic, which were few, very few here. The only point of connection with this new world she’d found was the silent magic-user and his strange business.

What was he doing? It puzzled her. There must be some form of magic involved, she had at first concluded, what with the pacing, the writing, the complex diagrams. She could not imagine what else it could be.

But magic was something over which she had had some power, and which was a part of her, and she saw no trace of it in these workings of his.

Had that too gone from her?

No. Impossible. She still walked in the shadowed paths, she still, when she chose, could easily, trivially, work bits of sorcery that were beyond all but the most powerful of mortal magicians.

Was he in the service of some other god or goddess unknown? Was that why he did what he did? Were these some strange rites she did not recognize?

And now — now he was leaving.

She was Hekate. What did she care if one mortal moved away?

Yet she did. And the dogs would miss him. She parted the shadow so that when she spoke, he would see her.

“Where are you going?” she asked.

He turned very cautiously. “I didn’t see you there, Lady. Just out.”

She shook her head, denying his words. “You are leaving the crossroads. This place.”

“I was trying to make that less than obvious. Yes. I have to go. You’ll take care of my friends here, will you?” He petted them, scratching behind their ears. Then, looking at the dogs. “I think you should leave here, if possible, as soon as is practical. There’s siege and war coming, probably sooner than they anticipate. That’s not kind to dogs or women.”

She knew that. Oh, how well she knew that. “Will you be coming back?” she asked, remembering. Remembering far too much. This man was…kind. Unexpectedly kind. He was warning her.

“It’s possible,” he said, cautiously. She sensed why. He did not want to lie, nor to promise what he could not do. “I go where I am sent. I may come back here to finalize things.”

 

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