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The Exiled Blade
By Jon Courtenay Grimwood
Orbit Copyright © 2013 Jon Courtenay Grimwood
All rights reserved.
The emperor rode ahead on a high-stepping stallion draped with a cloth of gold, and behind him came his flag bearer, the doubleheaded eagle of the Holy Roman Empire snapping in the winter wind. A small group of carefully selected courtiers followed wrapped tightly in furs against the early snow. Old men riding down a valley towards a troop of younger men who were the future if they lived long enough.
Sigismund of Germany had come to meet his son.
The emperor was in his fifties, long-faced and tired eyed, exhausted by the effort of controlling an empire for which he hadn't provided a proper heir. The boy he approached was a youthful indiscretion. Well, as Frederick was seventeen, perhaps not that youthful on Sigismund's part, but still an indiscretion.
Since he was a bastard, had lost his battle against Venice and was returning with a dispirited army, having gained little glory from his siege of the island city, Frederick wondered why his father bothered to greet him.
At a word from the emperor the courtiers halted, and though they stayed in their saddles they relaxed enough to let their tired mounts feed on the thin Alpine grass of the high meadow. The emperor rode on alone.
Sliding from his horse, Prince Frederick knelt on the damp grass, bowed his head and waited. Only for his father to vault from his saddle with the enthusiasm of a man half his age. "Stand," Sigismund insisted, dragging his son to his feet.
Frederick said, "I apologise. The fault is all mine."
Clapping him on the shoulder, the emperor grinned. "Nicely said. Always take the blame and share the glory. It costs nothing but words, and makes your followers love you." He glanced beyond Frederick at the returning troops. "Sieges are always hard – especially when they fail. You could have done with a proper battle and a few more deaths."
"Your majesty ...?"
"What did you lose? A half-dozen of your friends, no real soldiers at all. Your troops need comrades to mourn and enemy outrages to make them angry. I'm riding for Bohemia to put down a Waldensian heresy, your army can join mine. There'll be killing, mourning and drinking enough to make any soldier happy."
"I would be honoured to ride with you."
"And use that sword?"
How did he ...? Frederick shifted uncomfortably and his father smiled.
Sigismund said, "It was well done, a fair exchange. We get the WolfeSelle." He nodded at the anonymous-looking blade slung across his son's shoulders. "And we gain proof that her brat is ..."
"One of us?"
"One of you, certainly." There was slight jealousy in the emperor's voice. One Frederick had noticed before. "So, as I say, a fair exchange. I'll be honest, I never expected you to win."
"You stand here before me. The emperor in Constantinople waits to get his son back in a barrel pickled in brandy. You lost well. The Byzantines badly. Venice remains Venice and ready for the taking." Wrapping his arm round his son's shoulders, Sigismund hugged him. A gesture undoubtedly noticed by both the courtiers and Frederick's friends. "Why should I not be happy?"
"Who said you were meant to win?"
"You did." Frederick's voice cracked and he blushed, hoping no courtiers had heard. "You said ..."
"Whatever I said it's enough Byzantium is damaged. Now, I have another task. You are to return to Venice and woo Lady Giulietta. What you could not make Venice give you through force – and I've been unable to gain through fear – we will make them give us from love. Take your friends and go humbly. In battle, timing is all. So wait for the right moment."
"You want me to win Giulietta's heart?"
"And her other parts," Sigismund said. "Make her like you. Make her love you. Hell." He smiled. "Make her smile. That usually gets them into bed."
Cheers greeted the news of a fresh campaign, rising loud enough to echo from the mountains when Frederick's troops discovered the emperor himself would be leading them. Having appointed a replacement for Frederick, Sigismund ordered them to head up the valley, through the pass and keep moving until they reached the first town on the other side, where they were to billet. He would join them there that evening. His courtiers were to remain with him but keep their distance. He wished for time to say goodbye to his son.
Frederick watched and he listened and he wondered as all this went on around him. Mostly, he wondered why his father thought winning Lady Giulietta di Millioni's heart would be any easier than conquering her city. She was notoriously as stubborn as the city was strange. He watched his own armour and baggage be sent back the way he'd come to wait for him at an inn below. His friends were gathered in a group, talking quietly. They'd asked as many questions as they dared.
"Now," Sigismund said. "Tell me about the man who gave you the WolfeSelle."
"Tycho," Frederick said. "Lady Giulietta's lover."
The emperor saw his son's unease and waited, listening to Frederick's faltering attempt to describe how the battle on Giudecca ended.
"Tell me exactly what you saw."
"Flames," Frederick said. "Wings of fire."
"My Moorish astrologer says she beds a djinn, my bishop that he's a devil, my cabalist says a golem of china clay. The Englishman Maître Dee says an elemental fire spirit. What did he look like to you?"
"Competition," Frederick said after a moment's pause.
The emperor laughed. "How long since you've run?"
"Weeks," his son admitted.
"Since you ran as a pack? For the joy of it," Sigismund said firmly. "I mean, how long since you ran as a pack for the joy of it?"
"That day in Wolf Valley when you came to find me."
Sigismund said, "Then run now. Run here where no one can see you. Catch up with your carts when the hunt is finished and take new clothes. But enjoy yourself for today and worry about duty tomorrow."
A run ...?
The boy stripped quickly, his enthusiasm overwhelming shyness. The others, his friends, realising what was happening, grinned and stripped in their turn. Frederick was the youngest, his body slight, the hair at his groin pale as gold, the hair on his chest so fine as to be near invisible. And then he began to change, and his father, despite having seen what happened half a dozen times before, looked away as his son's flesh rippled and his bones twisted and fur rolled up his body in a wave, closing over the wolf's head. Only his eyes remained the same.
Frederick was not the largest animal in the pack. But he was the only one with silver fur and he was the one who opened his mouth and howled loud enough to echo off the valleys around them. And then, without even glancing at his father, he turned and headed for distant rocks and the pack followed without question, a streaming V of smoke behind their leader as they raced forward, and a stag that had been hiding among the rocks lost its nerve, rose to its feet and ran.
Sigismund sighed. He was emperor of half the Western world and, God-given duty or not, he'd give it all to run with his son.
"So I withdraw from city life for a life better suited to an old solider. I will tend my vines and plough my fields. Repair the walls on my estate in Corfu and have wells dug to water the olives ..."
Of course you will, Tycho thought.
The Regent's honeyed words had to be borrowed from someone else. An old Roman statesman maybe. They certainly didn't sound like anything Prince Alonzo would have thought up for himself. "I will be taking my wife with me."
Even the sleepiest member of Venice's Council of Ten looked up at that. They all knew the Regent was unmarried and had no children, legitimate or bastard. His sister-in-law's threats to poison any brats at birth saw to that.
"Your wife?" his sister-in-law asked.
"Lady Maria Dolphini ..." Prince Alonzo smiled at Duchess Alexa, nodded politely to the councillors on their gilded chairs, let his gaze slide over Duke Marco, otherwise known as the Simple, and ignored Tycho entirely. He was only there because Marco insisted on bringing his bodyguard.
"I marry Maria tonight," the Regent said. "With your permission, that is. The archbishop has already given his agreement. I know that I need the Council's seal on this but I imagine no one would deny an old soldier company in his remaining years?"
Alexa snorted but her heart wasn't in it. Tycho could see she was as shocked by this news as the rest of them. And worried, if she had any sense. Alexa liked to keep her enemies close. In banishing her brother-in-law she had, like it or not, given him freedom to move.
"No one objects ...?"
The Regent was a barrel-chested, broad-shouldered bear of a man, as fond of wine, women and warfare as he was publicly contemptuous of politics. In private, of course, he was as political as the next Venetian and that was very political indeed. Smiling deprecatingly, he took a sip of red wine and pushed his glass firmly away. Look, the gesture said. I'm barely drinking these days.
Around the small room on the first floor used for meetings of the Ten, old men were shaking their heads. A single chair stood empty, the one used until recently by Lord Atilo, now dead and buried. The Regent was careful not to glance at it just as he was careful not to glance at the boy sprawled on the throne, or the boy's mother beside him. Duke Marco was watching a wasp repeatedly take off and crash-land, its flights short, abrupt and increasingly desperate. "It's d-d-dying ..."
Alonzo's scowl said he wished Marco would join it.
"Everyone's d-dying these days."
When the duchess looked at her son strangely, he simply nodded to a soft-jowled courtier in a purple doublet twenty years out of date. "I think Lord B-Bribanzo wants to s-speak." The two things, Bribanzo's opening and shutting mouth and Marco's morbid comments, were probably not linked. With Marco it was hard to know. "You w-wish to o-object?"
Lord Bribanzo shook his head fiercely.
Bribanzo looked to Alonzo for guidance, caught himself and pretended he'd been looking at a tapestry of a unicorn on the wall beyond. Marco's brief moments of clarity always caused problems for those used to taking their cues from Alexa or Alonzo; depending which faction they favoured. There was more to Lord Bribanzo's nervousness than this, though. Something in his manner said the hesitation was staged. Alonzo had just accepted defeat. He was withdrawing from public life to his estates in Corfu, one of Venice's many island colonies. This was close to open surrender.
Of course, Alexa had left him little choice. Exile or death had been her offer. Since Tycho had provided the proof that Alonzo was behind a plot to have Alexa murdered, along with Marco and Marco's cousin Lady Giulietta, he was on the list of people Alonzo would like dead. "Get on it it," Alexa said.
"I disapprove of the Regent's decision."
Everyone looked up, openly shocked. Bribanzo was Alonzo's man, his banker. The idea that Lord Bribanzo would publicly disapprove of anything Alonzo wanted was absurd. Lapdogs had more will.
"Yes," Bribanzo said fiercely. "It's a waste. Our greatest general retiring to dig his own fields." He sounded as if he really thought Alonzo would dig ditches, tend vines and build drystone walls. He must know Alonzo's bucolic vision was for public consumption – like most of the things Alonzo said.
"Politics bores me, Bribanzo." The Regent's voice was warm and convincingly honest. The qualities that made him loved by his troops and so dangerous to Alexa. Drunk, Alonzo was dangerous. Sober, he was more dangerous still. It had always been thus – to use one of his own expressions.
"My lord, reconsider. For Venice's sake."
"My mind is made up."
"If you're bored with the city ..."
"Bribanzo. I was born here, the canals are my home. I spoke Venetian before I could speak Latin or mainland Italian. Listen to the crowd ..." The Regent paused, a little too theatrically, to let the Council hear the rumble of carts, the singing of gondoliers and the shouts of stallholders on the Riva degli Schiavoni. "That is the sound of my heart beating. This city is my heart. The canals my blood. How could I ever be bored of Venice? The thought is absurd."
Staged, Tycho thought. Both men had rehearsed their lines before the meeting began. If not, then they'd certainly discussed how this should be played.
"Then why ...?" Bribanzo began.
Alonzo risked a glance at Alexa. A quick, slight glance that suggested complications and things he couldn't say. Questions that only she could answer, not that he expected she ever would.
"I-is this g-going anywhere?" Marco demanded.
"Highness. We have Barbary pirates in the Adriatic. The governor of Paxos has declared himself king. Then there are the Red Crucifers ..."
Marco looked at his mother, who bent to whisper. "Ahh," he said. "The renegades. I thought I'd lost t-track of a c-colour ..." He smiled as the Council laughed dutifully. The recognised Priories were the White, who protected pilgrims, and the Black, who extracted sin with torture and oversaw executions. When the local Prior of the White in Montenegro proclaimed himself High Prior of the Red, and announced he and his followers would drive heretics from Montenegro, most regarded that as heresy itself. The man might be dead but his knights remained, holding to their new name, their supposed religious mission and the land they should be protecting from Serbian bandits. The Duchy of Montenegro was one of Venice's newer colonies. Not large, but its position across the Adriatic from Sicily made it key to protecting Venetian trade.
"My friend ... What are you suggesting?" Alonzo asked. Bribanzo glanced at the other councillors. One of them nodded slightly, and from the sudden stiffening of Alexa's shoulders Tycho knew she'd caught the glance. Alonzo's plot spread wider than both of them thought. She's worried. Alexa worried is me worried. Tycho loosened his dagger and Alexa shook her head.
"If you won't stay here, my lord, serve Venice in another capacity. Don't simply retire to your estates. The city can't afford to lose its greatest general."
The Regent shrugged.
"I mean it, my lord." Bribanzo's voice was stronger.
Here it comes.
"So," said Alonzo. "Sail against the Barbary pirates ... Retake Paxos ... Defeat the Red Crucifers ... Which do you want from me?"
"Any of them, my lord." Bribanzo looked to the Council for agreement and received half a dozen nods. Alexa would note who agreed and who kept their counsel. She glanced at her son but Marco seemed too lost in his thoughts to notice a split was appearing.
"Alonzo," she said.
"Yes, my lady?" The Regent sounded innocent.
"I thought you were determined to retire to your estates?"
"That is my dearest wish. But if the Council of Ten still want me to serve my city ..." There was enough ambiguity in his tone to leave it unclear whether he meant he served the city, or he regarded the city as his. He'd made it clear to everyone over the years that he didn't consider it hers. "If the Council want me to serve, how can I refuse? No matter what my enemies say about me ..." He looked at Tycho this time. "My devotion to Venice is unchanging. My friends already know my friendship is for life. My enemies would be fools to underestimate me ..."
"A man may say goodbye to his friends. Especially when he goes to risk his life for his city. Any Venetian knows this."
"And I'm not Venetian?" Alexa's voice was tight.
Alonzo smiled. "As you say ..."
"S-s-snow." Marco said suddenly. The room stilled as he unfolded spidery legs, abandoned his throne and wandered to the window. He opened an inner shutter, peered through a small circle of bottle glass and sucked his teeth at the darkness beyond. "It's going to s-snow. Look ..."
Stars that had been high and bright when the meeting began were now shrouded by cloud, and the moon a sullen glow on the far side of a slab of grey. It was cold enough in the chamber to need a brazier in the fireplace, but snow? Snow was rare in Venice. At least flakes that lasted beyond a few days.
"Isn't it, T-Tycho? Y-you've seen snow. D-doesn't it feel like snow to you?"
What's behind that smile?
"M-my uncle will need a big b-blanket, and an army for when he g-goes to M- Montenegro. Well, g-gold to buy an army but in such a good cause. And a n-nice thick coat for M-Maria for when he's not k-keeping her warm in b-bed."
"Montenegro?" Alexa asked.
Excerpted from The Exiled Blade by Jon Courtenay Grimwood. Copyright © 2013 Jon Courtenay Grimwood. Excerpted by permission of Orbit.
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