All The Plagues Of Hell – Snippet 41
“Oh, they can get very close–within a few feet, usually. The count pays little attention to mice in his wagon, so long as they stay away from his crates of books. Even squirrels, he generally ignores. He’s odd, that way.”
Dimitrios smiled. “Of course, my little friends have little brains as well. So while they can hear what he and his servants say, they are just meaningless sounds to them.”
“You can’t translate?”
“Oh, no. I hear only what they do. But there’s nothing wrong with their eyesight, and I see everything that transpires quite well. I tell you, Archimandrite, whatever the count from Lithuania’s plans are, there has been no indication at all that he is seeking confederates beyond his two servants. And he’s refrained from using magic except once when he and his servants were attacked by robbers on the road–and that was a minor spell.”
Von Stebbens frowned. “But he fended them off? How?”
Dimitrios made a little grimace. “Even without magic–even as small as he is, and at his age–Mindaug turns out to be quite deadly. If you should happen to engage him in personal combat, at some point, I strongly recommend you stay at sword’s length from him. Up closeâ€¦”
The hesychast shook his head. “He is very adept with a dagger. A whip, too.”
“What one could expect from such an evil man,” said Heinrich von Tarnitz, nodding his head sagely.
Dimitrios gave the Knight a none-too-admiring look. “You think so? Let me ask you, Ritter–do you think a hawk is evil?”
“No, of course not. A hawk is just a wild animal, doing what its nature calls for.”
“Indeed so. I don’t like to spend time in a raptor’s mind, as I told you once. No more would I care to spend time in the mind of Count Mindaug. But did you ever once consider”–he glanced at von Stebbens–“either one of you, what it would be like to be born and raised a very high-ranked nobleman in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania? Mindaug’s even in the line of succession.”
He paused, waiting for a response–but all he got were blank stares.
“I thought not. How much time have either of you ever spent in Lithuania?”
Von Tamitz shook his head. “None at all.”
“I visited Vilnius once,” said von Stebbens. “Thankfully, only for three days.”
“Yes, well–I have spent a great deal of time in Vilnius and other cities in the Grand Duchy, as well as in those vast, ancient forests. My little friends make excellent monitors of Jagiellon’s doings. It is a wicked country–more so than ever since Jagiellon was possessed by Chernobog. The only man who could have survived Count Mindaug’s upbringing, no matter how inclined he might have been toward kindness, would have soon learned to think like a hawk himself.”
He shook his head. “Do not be so certain, Ritters, that you understand the workings of such a man’s mind. I make no such arrogant claim myself. I simply pass on to you what I have observed for weeks now–that there has been no indication from Mindaug’s actual deeds that he intends any of the things you suspect him of.”
He paused briefly. “Have you heard that miners use canaries to warn them of the presence of dangerous fumes?”
Both Knights nodded.
“Well, you might do well to consider those two young and quite innocent servants of Mindaug’s as your canaries. If you wish to know what evil the count plans, watch them. If they die–if they faint, or grow ill–then you have your warning. Until thenâ€¦ be cautious in your conclusions.”
Emperor Charles Fredrik sat in one of the smaller rooms in the palace to discuss the matter with Abbot Goldenbuss and two of his other advisors. “Milan. Carlo Sforza. We had assumed that the worst of the rot in Milan had died with Phillipo Maria, but we were wrong. It continues, apparently.”
“He’s a very capable general. But outnumbered–vastly so, if we intervene,” said Baron Saasveld.
“Which may well be why he has brought Count Mindaug into the equation,” said Count De Bressy, who was a rising strategist in imperial circles. The emperor liked him. The man was cautious when it came to military affairs, but thoughtful and never lost sight of practical matters like how to keep an army supplied in the field.
“But when we add the possibility of an outbreak of Justinian’s Plague, we cannot take military intervention lightly,” De Bressy continued. “We could just wind up making the situation worse than it is already.”
The abbot looked grave. He leaned forward in his seat, planting his hands on his knees. “Our largest concern is that the three things tie together. That, somehow, Mindaug has found how to magically control the plague, and Sforza plans to use it for military expansionism. There are hints of something similar in a few documents in the church’s possession.”
There was a silence.
Then the emperor said heavily: “If I had known this earlier, I would have ordered Mindaug’s immediate capture and, after questioning, his execution.”
“We did not knowâ€¦ or rather, we never guessed,” said Goldenbuss. “One of the scholars searching for treatments for the plague came to me only two days ago. He found reference to such a possibility in a very old text, somewhat distorted by re-copying. It took us a while to work out that when it referred to the purple bites of the summoned destroying serpent, it was not merely using poetic language to describe Satan. Parts of it are literally indecipherable but we think it refers to a pagan rite of the sacrifice of a virgin to a dragon.”
“It’s a common story,” said Baron Saasveld, chuckling a bit sarcastically. “Invariably, a knight saves her.”
“But what if it had a real origin?” said the abbot, sitting back up straight. “Stories often do, after all. Monks and nuns of our orders are researching it urgently, going through manuscripts and record from that time.” He looked directly at the emperor. “:You do realize, Your Majesty, that Count Mindaug has one of the premier collections of old books and writings, particularly of magic? That was how we first spotted him approaching our borders–the books contain so much lore, much of it very dark in nature, that they emitted a faint aura. He has that very dangerous library with him, and he is, apparently, an indefatigable researcher.”
“It all does seem to tie together, does it not?” mused De Bressy. “Your Majesty, what about the Venetians? They seem, by all reports, to be on relatively good terms with Carlo Sforza. Surprisingly so, all things considered. Could they be asked to intervene?”
The emperor nodded. “They can be asked, certainly; hard to know what their response would be. Abbot Goldenbuss, send some of your men to Venice. I will send a message to my ambassador there, as fast as possible. Firstly, Petro Dorma must be appraised of these developments, and secondly, perhaps they can arrange for the Knights to travel to Milan and exchange this man for some concessions.”
“Venice being Venice, and the Council of Ten being what they are, they can always just have him killed,” said Saasveld, with the brutal practicality for which he was famed as a general.
That thought had gone through the Emperor’s head, too. But all he asked was: “And what news from Hungary?”