Much Fall Of Blood — Snippet 27

“Planning your campaign already?” asked Erik.

“He’s collecting maps,” said Maria. “Some of them smell.”

“And none of them are too accurate,” said Benito grumpily. “Or at least no two of them seem to agree with each other exactly. I’m hoping that they’ll have better quality maps and more information in Venice. There has to have been more to this than one message from the Ilkhan.”

Manfred nodded. “I think you’ll find that is true. Petro Dorma and the Council of Ten maintain a pretty effective and widespread network of spies and assassins. So does the Holy Roman Empire. You know it often only takes one keystone piece of information to make it all fit together. From what you say, they’ve been conferring. It may even be that this confirms information that hasn’t come back. Jagiellon uses some means which are denied to the rest of us to maintaining his security. And working in his territories is a high-risk profession.”

“Petro is not exactly a rash individual,” said Erik. “I think you can guarantee that he knows more than just the information we sent from the Ilkhan.”

“I hope so,” said Benito. “What we have now is not much to plan a campaign upon.”

“Why don’t you come down and discuss them with Falkenberg and Von Gherens? You wouldn’t find much better advice,” said Manfred. “Just so long as you bring the wine with you. They’re too expensive for me to provide for at the dockside tavern. For men of God, the Knights drink far too much.”

“I’ve noticed that you only complain now that you’re paying,” said Erik. “And they drink far less than you do. We also need to discuss the possibility of sending Mongols across the Balkan mountains with the tarkhan himself. He’s not the easiest of men to read or get along with.”

Manfred grunted an agreement. “The Mongols keep to themselves. A couple of the warriors speak a little Frankish. So does the tarkhan. But he doesn’t talk to anyone.”

“I suppose keeping himself to himself is part of what an envoy has to do,” said Erik.

“Huh,” said Manfred. “Old Eberhart can and will talk to anyone, usually at such length that they will pay him to go away. And my uncle says that he is one of the most effective diplomatic envoys in the Empire.”

“Still, talkative or not, we could use the Mongols not coming south.” Benito paused. “Actually,” he said thoughtfully, “what we really want is information from the Black Sea. Or better still… An alliance with the Golden Horde and we would have successfully isolated Alexis and flanked Emeric, and threatened Jagiellon. By a stroke of diplomacy we would have won more than the Knights of the Holy Trinity have in the last fifty years.”

“Remind me not to get you to explain that to Falkenberg,” said Manfred, laughing. “Still, the idea is not without some temptation. I wonder if we can send old Eberhart with the Ilkhan’s Mongols to the Golden Horde?”

“He is not that bad,” said Erik. “A bit prosy, that’s all. But he has served you very well on occasions. Bought us a lot of time.”

“He’s good at that,” granted Manfred. “I’m still in favor of sending him to treat with the Golden Horde, though. It’s as good an opportunity as the Empire has had to make contact with them. As usual, Benito makes a good point.”

“It wouldn’t work,” said Erik. “They are very hierarchy conscious. Well, in a way. They believe any Mongol is the social equivalent of a noble among other people. They would only treat prince to prince. That’s always made finding ambassadors very hard. Eberhart was telling me about it. Actually, he was telling both of us about it, but you were asleep.”

“The Empire has at least half a dozen impoverished principalities in it,” said Manfred. “A fair number of princes should be willing to take on lucrative and non-energetic employment, I would have thought.”

“Eberhart commented on that also,” said Erik dryly. “It’s true enough that there is no shortage of princes. However, can you think of any one of them that you would trust to buy a horse for you without them coming home with a three-legged donkey? That is, assuming that they didn’t drink away the money before they even got to the horse fair. Most of them are not impoverished for no reason.”

Manfred grinned. “Prince Heinrich of Swabia. The perfect choice. He could be guaranteed to come home from the horse fair with a fine pair of dead ducks and a price on his head. As a diplomatic envoy, he would make a very fine hat stand.”

“Curiously, the very example that Eberhart mentioned,” said Erik.

“I do see the point,” admitted Manfred. “Still, in terms of value to the Empire, and the fact that the Mongols have a very strict code of honor about the treatment of diplomats, you’d think my uncle could have found someone.”

Erik shrugged. “The problem is also one of finding the right opportunity to talk actual business. According to Eberhart, they’re experts at talking for a very long time and not saying anything.”

“If he thinks that they’re good at that, then heaven help any ordinary prince,” said Manfred. “So will you see what you can do about our Mongols for us?”

Benito nodded. “It might be best if I went in person,” he said nonchalantly.

“Not all the way to the Black Sea!” Maria said sternly. “Petro Dorma himself has sent orders for you to go to Venice.”

Benito pulled a wry face. “True enough. On the other hand, we could get such a lot out of somebody from our side going along to have a good look. It’s mostly going to be sea battles, this campaign. Except of course for Constantinople. I’ve a mind to use stealth there, if at all possible.”

“It shouldn’t be,” said Erik.

Manfred took a deep pull at his wine glass. “We’re talking about Emperor Alexis here,” he said. “Anybody else would take preemptive measures. Among other things, Alexis believes that he’s a military genius. He’s also still deeply in debt, and likely to stay there. It might be easier just to buy our passage to and fro.”

Benito shook his head. “Not if we are in a bidding war with Jagiellon. Then Alexis could afford to trade the two of us off against each other. By reputation, Alexis does not stay bought.”

“So Eberhart said,” said Erik. “You really have to give up sleeping when he talks, Manfred.”

“I think I was half awake for that part,” said Manfred. “So tell me, Benito, are there any delightful young ladies with acrobatic skills you’d like to introduce me to here?”

“There had better not be,” said Maria.

Benito laughed. “I’ve gotten respectable these days.” He paused briefly. “From this I gather that Francesca went through with her plans to go to Alexandria?”

“Unfortunately,” said Erik. “I thought that I had persuaded him out of that sort of behavior. It appears that I hadn’t, and that it was just Francesca’s influence.”

“I wouldn’t have called it influence, myself.” Manfred crooked his arms’s. “More like affluence.”

Everyone laughed, Erik while blushing. Benito found that quite funny. After all, Svanhild had been even more ‘affluent’ than Francesca. “I am sure,” he said, “that all the ladies of our beautiful isle, some of whom may easily be both acrobatic and even possibly well endowed, will be delighted to make your acquaintance… without Francesca.”

“Quite a few of them were interested even when she was around,” said Maria, with a secretive little smile. “They are going to be a bit more aggressive about it this time, I think.”

Erik groaned. “I hope we can get these Mongols heading off across Illyria as soon as possible. Then I can get him back on the ship and out to sea where the worst I have to worry about is predatory mermaids.”