Much Fall Of Blood — Snippet 34

“And why should there be a problem, Aunt?” he said, in an attempt at hauteur which failed completely. He knew that she was not actually an aunt, but more like a great aunt. Or even great-great-aunt. He also knew that she had manipulated and controlled his father and very possibly his grandfather too. He knew full well that she had arranged his father’s death, so that he could ascend the throne. Like a spider she had controlled the web of power that was Hungarian politics for the better part of the last century. She still looked as if she was barely twenty. Of course most people believed that it was her mother, and grandmother who had been so influential in their time.

Emeric maintained the fiction that he was independent of her power. And, in fact, he had done his best to try and become that. At least in Buda, they would question her orders now. But that was a small step, and one he was well aware of the danger of taking.

“Because you only ever come to see me when you are in trouble, Emeric,” she said coolly.

That was probably true. But then, she only came to Buda to interfere in the running of his kingdom. He almost always did her bidding in the end. That didn’t mean he had to like it.

“This time, it is more your advice that I want. I do not think we are in trouble yet. Vlad of Valahia has escaped from his quarters in the castle. I was going to have to release him anyway. With his father’s demise, the Vlachs are calling for his return to take the throne. I was going to insist that we had his mother as a hostage instead, and marry him off to a suitable lady of my court. A Hungarian or possibly a Slovene. Now the matter is rather out of my hands. There is that clan of cousins, the Danesti…”

Elizabeth smiled warmly at him. That was enough to sound some alarm bells, as well as allowing him to relax slightly. He could still ill afford to openly antagonize her, so it was good to see the smile, but it was a little worrying that he might find himself as a cog in her machinations. Emeric was well aware that Elizabeth was involved in some very black magic indeed. As black as it got, in fact. And in his heart of hearts, he knew that he was not a great and powerful practitioner of those arts.

“This time you were wise to come and speak to me before you did anything rash,” she said. “There is a great deal more to the house of Valahia than just a petty principality. There is power there. Power that we should harness for the Kingdom of Hungary. And Prince Vlad must be very innocent, the way you’ve kept him sequestered. More innocent and ignorant than a convent-reared babe.”

He knew her well enough to understand that she was not talking of dynasties, or the right to command vast armies, or rule by hereditary right over great swathes of Europe. She was talking about power in a less earthly sense.

That could still, of course, give him both the armies and the rule, which was what he wanted. But Elizabeth had always been rather uninterested in those, even though he was sure that she intended to keep the magical power mostly to herself.

“I have ordered some of my troops to seize his mother and sister and have them sent under escort to Buda. I will have the girl married off as soon as I get her there. I’ll find a suitable nobleman. Perhaps one of the Slavs or Croats.”

The countess shook her head. “It is be very unlikely that your troops will find them there. If they — whoever ‘they’ are, which still needs to be determined — are well enough organized to seize Prince Vlad from Buda, they will have taken steps to get his mother and sister out of harm’s way as well. You should have taken some measures with the girl earlier.”

“She’s barely thirteen.”

“A fine age,” said Elizabeth. “I’m sure you that would have found more than one noble ready and willing to do their duty for the kingdom. There are enough greedy little lordlings that would marry a cesspit if you told them to, and not a few of them would prefer it if the girl was young.”

“I’ve just been busy. I did not expect the Prince of Valahia to die just yet. I certainly didn’t expect his son to escape his captivity.”

“We need to look at steps that can be taken to capture Vlad. I must tell you that I need him alive, Emeric. If necessary you can kill him later, and put the Danesti on the throne. I think them a shaky reed for your purposes, though.”

“The instruction will be given.” She did not explain why she insisted that Vlad be taken alive, and Emeric did not enquire. The answer was likely to be one he didn’t want to hear — assuming she answered at all.

“You are very unlikely to catch him by ordinary means,” said Elizabeth. “If he has help, and that help has arcane skills, ordinary patrols and checkpoints are not going to catch him. He will certainly be disguised, and will probably be well-informed as to their whereabouts.”

She sat back in her chair. “I think that you’re going to have to leave this in my hands for now. By all means invest more troops in Valahia. Prepare for unrest. Make a few suitable examples of some of the peasantry. The local boyars have little cause to love the house of Valahia. The commoners however, are another matter. Let them feel the weight of your authority. I will need some of your troops. Mostly cavalry, I think. I believe I can locate him by magical means. Restraining him, and whatever partisans he has been able to gather, will take quite a few men. I will need to operate in secret. I’ll want some off your light cavalry as well, and an officer with no scruples and the ability to follow orders. But he needs to have some brains too.”

Emeric felt as if he was being given the orders. But as always, with Elizabeth, he felt powerless to resist her plans. He wondered, not for the first time, if she had put some kind of compulsion on him. But surely she would never have dared to do that. He was, after all, the king.