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The Years of Longdirk: 1525
By Dave Duncan
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1998 Dave Duncan
All rights reserved.
Hamish Campbell was not looking for trouble that fine spring evening and did not expect any. Toby Longdirk attracted trouble like stables drew flies, but Toby had stayed behind in Florence to organize this year's fighting season. Hamish had come to Siena on a quiet little spying mission. If he were caught, he would be tortured and possibly hanged, so he was certainly not looking for trouble.
Lady Lisa, on the other hand ... Trouble was not what she had in mind. Adventure would be a better term. But trouble was what she got.
Extraordinary consequences were to result from their meeting. Although it appeared to be due to the merest chance, it was not fortuitous at all. There were demons involved.
Lisa had opened hostilities before noon. "Mother! It is Carnival! How can you possibly resist the opportunity for a little innocent merrymaking?"
Looking up from her embroidery, the Countess of Ely uttered one of her longer-suffering groans. "Very easily. We have not spent two nights under the same roof in the last month. We have just crossed the ocean in the dead of winter, and the last thing I want to do is go out and participate in a public riot. Have you practiced the virginals today?" Maud seemed tired, but then she always seemed tired now. However skilled, her maids could no longer disguise the grooves in her face, and her once-golden hair was quite obviously dyed, not merely touched-up as it had been until last summer. That was no excuse, because people wore masks at Carnival, and the handsome young men would be looking at Lisa, not her mother.
"It was not the ocean, we were never out of sight of land, we were three nights in a row in the horrible inn in Pisa, and before that we were shut up in that awful Savoyard villa leagues from anywhere for months and months, we have been in Italy almost a week, and I have yet to ... um, experience any of the culture."
"Then I suggest you try a few madrigals. I saw some sheets beside the virginals."
"Just to look, I mean. Surely a sedate stroll—"
"No, Lisa! This is a very dangerous place for us, as I have repeatedly warned you, and we must remain indoors until safer arrangements—"
"Danger? Mother, you imagine things. You behave as if the Fiend himself were personally hunting you, and that is crazy! Other people do not—"
"Lisa! You are a foolish, ignorant child! And a very ill-mannered one, to yell at your mother so. I have told you a thousand times ..." She was still in full bleat when her daughter slammed the door on her.
The countess was haunted by imaginary terrors. For as long as Lisa could remember, the two of them had never remained more than a few months in any one place. Fleeing by night, as often as not. Traipsing from castle to château to hunting lodge to obscure city house, she had spent her entire life being dragged around the free nations of Europe. Burgundy, Swabia, Bavaria, Switzerland, Savoy ... on and on. How could she ever make friends? Now Italy! Lush, beautiful, romantic Italy, the wellspring of culture. A land renowned for its art and music and sultry-eyed, handsome young men.
What she needed was a selection of sultry-eyed, handsome young men serenading her with lutes under her balcony, and how were they ever to find her if they did not even know she was here?
Not that the cramped, musty-smelling house possessed a balcony, or a garden full of gardenias either. Whoever their current landlord might be—Lisa had not even heard his name, let alone met him—he had very warped notions of the style in which a countess and her daughter ought to be quartered. The only local servant he had provided was a surly, spotty boy who spoke nothing but Italian. Frieda was doing the cooking, so Bavarian sausage, morning, noon, and night. Ugh! Old Jacques, the coachman, had stayed behind in Savoy, worn out by all the years of traipsing. The countess's household was down to four stupid girls and one spotty boy.
Lisa tried again in the afternoon. And again after dark, when the sounds of music and revelry were heart-achingly plain in the streets—not the street outside, which was a smelly dead-end alley, but streets just maddeningly out of sight and reach. She made no progress, except that Mother began complaining of a headache. Halfway through dinner, she threw down her napkin, lurched to her feet, and in martyred tones bade Lisa be certain the house was secure before she went to bed. Then she vanished upstairs to lie down.
Lisa gobbled the rest of her meal, inspected both doors and the downstairs windows, and graciously informed Gina that she and the other servants could go off duty as soon as they had cleared the table. She retired to her room. She had already established that the bars were loose on the upstairs corridor window that looked out on the stable roof. All by herself, without any help at all, she donned her best apricot silk gown, the one with the epaulettes, slashed sleeves, and V-necked décolletage. Fortunately her hair was already pinned up, and she had a fetching satin balzo hat that left a little of it exposed in the front—hair as blonde as hers must be extremely rare in Italy. Adding her light blue cloak and a mask fashioned by cutting two eyeholes in a kerchief, she set off to investigate Carnival.
She had her ring. No harm could come to her while she wore that.
The stable roof part was a little trickier than expected. It ripped the hem of her gown, but May could stitch that up so Mother would not notice. The descent into the alley splattered a lot of disgusting mud on the cloak, but once around the corner, she was into Carnival—torches and music and dancing! Before she knew it, a group of laughing youngsters swallowed her up and swept her away. They pressed wine bottles upon her and whirled her around in dances. They laughed at her protests, jabbering cheerfully in Italian. They took her to a huge semicircular piazza full of crowds larger and louder and more riotous than any she had ever known. She was surrounded by people of her own age, being totally ignored by the older folk present. It was more fun than she had dreamed possible.
Suddenly it was terror, heart-stopping, choking terror. She was lost. She felt ill, but that was partly from too much wine. She had never intended to go farther than the corner. The men who had plucked her from there had vanished into the crowd. She had no idea where she was or where she should be and couldn't even ask anyone for directions. She had never been truly alone in her life before. When Mother discovered her absence, she would have no one to send out as a search party.
Calm! Stay calm! There must be a way out of this situation. All it needed was a little thought. (So why were her teeth rattling?) She still had her ring. No harm could come to her while she wore her ring, but it could not help her find her way home. Even if she knew no Italian, there must be someone around who understood one of the languages she could speak. But she did not know the name of the street she wanted, nor what the house looked like from the front. Fool, fool, fool! Shivering in the cool air, she left the piazza and plunged into the ants' nest of alleys—smelly, deserted, and pitch-black. She had come downhill, so she went uphill, half-running, half-staggering, heart thumping in her throat. Every road looked like every other. Here and there, a public-spirited householder maintained a lantern beside his door, but the gaps between were long and dark.
Hearing a movement behind her, she glanced back, saw nothing, and began to run anyway. There was a lantern ahead, but before she reached it three men emerged out of the shadows, obviously menacing. She turned on the spot, saw three more coming behind her. She screamed. Rough hands grabbed her. She scratched, kicked, and bit down on a set of foul-tasting fingers. Their owner said, "Bitch!" and backhanded her across the mouth. Very hard. Her head shot back as if it had been knocked right off, and she sagged and fell limply into thick, powerful arms. She tasted blood. She was giddy. She was about to vomit from terror. The ring? What had gone wrong with her ring?
Feet flailing on the greasy cobbles, she was dragged along to the light. Nails clawed away her mask.
"Yes! Bring her."
She opened her mouth to scream again, and the cloth of her mask was thrust into it. Two of her captors began running her along the road, back the way she had come, each pulling an arm. She stumbled, lost a shoe, and they held her up, still running. Six men, all masked for Carnival, but not true merrymakers, not drunk. There had to be some mistake! How could it possibly be she they wanted? But they had spoken in English.
A voice shouted: "Stop!"
Another man came running after them, and when he passed under the lantern, its light flashed on a drawn sword. The kidnappers dragged blades out of scabbards. Her left wrist was released as that man jumped into the fray. One against five.
A terrible scream. Four.
"Kill him!" shouted the man holding her, his fingers digging into her arm.
She kicked, squirmed, and beat at him with her free hand. He shook her until she fell to her knees, expecting her shoulder to break. Metal rang and clashed in the night. The newcomer whirled like smoke between the swords, living a charmed life, dancing with death. A howl of pain meant another one down—three left! But the odds were too great. He was retreating before the assault.
Then ... it wasn't possible! The stranger lit up with a golden glow of his own, brighter than the lantern, illuminating the shuttered windows and doorways, the staircases and balconies. He blazed like a golden sun, and the kidnappers wailed as they realized that they were fighting gramarye. The one holding her threw her to the ground and began waving his arms and shouting. His companions fled from the man of fire with the molten blade. Was her ring working at last? It hadn't saved her from the punch that still throbbed through her head, puffing out her lip like a melon. She pulled the rag from her mouth and began to rise, hoping she could make a run for it, even with only one shoe ...
More gramarye, more conjuration! A thing like an ape or a bear—something huge and pale-furred—loomed up at the rescuer's back, twice his height. His own light reflected in its eyes, on great fangs, on claws like daggers. Sensing it, he glanced back and ducked just in time as it swung a taloned paw at his head. Then he sprinted toward Lisa, sweeping the last two assailants aside with his sword. Roaring, the demon lumbered after him.
Her rescuer jabbered some Italian and grabbed her wrist with a hand that should have been fiery hot but instead felt cool and dry. He turned to face the monster, raising his sword in hopeless defiance.
The street, the demon, the attackers, the dark ... all gone.
She was standing on a thick rug in a room lit by three or four candles. Her savior was still holding her arm and extending his blood-streaked sword to meet a danger that had now vanished. He no longer glowed. He said, "Ha!" in a satisfied tone and turned to her, lowering his sword. Only a very potent hexer could burn in the dark with cold fire and evade demons and conjure her here to this palatial chamber of gilt furniture, frescoes on the walls, crystal and fine porcelain, thick rugs underfoot, and an enormous bed with its curtains open—and now his dark eyes glittered through the holes in his mask as he inspected his catch.
Lisa fainted into his arms.CHAPTER 2
Back in Florence, Toby Longdirk was attending the Marradi Carnival Ball, although he would rather have fought a squadron of landsknechte single-handed. A man who had been reared in a one-room hovel did not belong amid such grandeur. Standing beside Don Ramon in a reception line that wound among statues of bronze and marble across the grand courtyard, a hundred guests, with more still arriving, lined up to meet their host and hostess, he fidgeted and squirmed and kept wondering if he had forgotten to lace up his hose.
Yet his gilt-edged invitation would have fetched a hundred florins at public auction, because Pietro Marradi's hospitality was legendary, and this was the first grand function he had sponsored since the death of his wife. The Magnificent was the richest man in Italy—probably in all Europe since Nevil had devastated most of it—a celebrated patron of the arts and a major poet in his own right. His palace was a treasure chest.
More than the grandeur was bothering Toby. Florence was a very beautiful city, but all cities were dangerous for him. In some dark corner of his mind he was conscious of the tutelary in its great sanctuary, only two streets away, and also of many lesser spirits in lesser sanctuaries. They were watching him, ready to strike if the hob escaped from his control for an instant.
The line shuffled forward, ever closer to the Magnificent.
"A moneylender!" the don sneered, not quite quietly enough. "A common draper! One inflicts irreparable injury upon one's honor by gracing his board." Don Ramon de Nuñez y Pardo could trace his excruciatingly elongated pedigree from the Emperor Romulus Augustulus. Toby Longdirk had been fathered by a committee of English fusiliers.
"Lunch is lunch," he said philosophically.
"It will be a miracle if we complete the evening without anyone being hexed, poisoned, or stilettoed."
True enough. And although Don Ramon thoroughly despised the likes of the Magnificent, he was quite willing to enjoy his party. Toby would endure it only because he knew something important was going to happen during the course of the night.
He shivered, for the air was cool, and he felt naked without cloak or jerkin. His multicolored hose clung tight as paint, but his waist-length doublet hung open at the neck to display the embroidery on his shirt. His face was razored smooth as porcelain, his hair hung to his shoulders under a hat like a mixing bowl with a brim. This was fashion. His tastes in clothes— now that he could afford to have taste—was naturally conservative, for no one his size needed to draw attention to himself, and yet this outrageous outfit had cost more money than an honest man earned in a year. Over the tailor's tears, Toby had insisted on subdued greens and grays instead of reds and mauves, but he had lost the rest of the arguments. Hip-length tunics were for the middle-aged and cloaks for the elderly, the tailor had maintained, and messer must not conceal such magnificent thighs, for which most young gallants would cheerfully execute their grandmothers with blunt spades. He had gone on to enthuse about Toby's calves and shoulders until Toby threatened to ram a bolt of Genoese silk down his throat.
Untroubled by any qualms of modesty, Don Ramon was never reluctant to make himself conspicuous, and admittedly his lithe form suited these revealing styles. His coppery hair and thin-horned mustache were set off by brilliant blues and greens, his pearl buttons inset with rubies. The golden plume in his hat was as long as his arm, his exposure of shirt close to indecent. Even so, his garb was not as extreme as that of some of the young men there, whose use of padding was unseemly or even ludicrous.
And the women! Every one of them was loaded with enough silk, satin, velvet, brocade, and damask to build a tent. How could they walk, carrying the weight of those skirts and sleeves? Their necklines were cut so wide and low that it seemed the slightest unwary movement would cause the entire ensemble to collapse around their wearers' ankles. It was a marvel.
"Magnificent!" murmured the don, indulging in some gawking of his own. "That one in mulberry?"
"What I don't understand," Toby whispered, "is how the gowns stay on them at all!"
"Ask not how they stay on, my boy, but how easily they come off!"
Much too easily in many cases, from what Toby had heard, but he did not have to worry about that.
Excerpted from Demon Knight by Dave Duncan. Copyright © 1998 Dave Duncan. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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