“It is said that the Ynglings have magic.”
Bruno did his best to keep both hope and fear out of his voice. This was a gamble, a long throw of the dice to save the kingdom, but there was no need to let the Norse know that. To his relief, the foreign minister did not immediately order him out of the room.
“Not magic, but… we command certain resources not available everywhere.”
Noncommittal, to say the least. Still, he hadn’t laughed in Bruno’s face.
“Resources that might, for a small consideration, be made available to an ally?”
“That would depend on what the ally wanted them for.”
Bruno hesitated. The Norse couldn’t very well help Italy without knowing what sort of help was needed, but he had been denying the problem in public for so long that it was a habit. But needs must.
“When good king Matteo died, the Kingdom of Italy was left in the hands of his son Vincenzo – which is to say, in the hands of his uncle Nicolau, and a regency council.”
“Possibly an unhealthy thing for Vincenzo.”
Bruno snorted inwardly. Trust an Yngling to see the worst in everyone.
“No, no. Nicolau is as loyal as anyone. But the boy king is – troubled. Some even say, possessed. There are whispers in the countryside. And the great families, some of them – ”
” – believe that they could do as well as the von Zähringens on the throne, and have a better right. Especially a better right than one who just may be possessed. Yes, I see.”
“Can you help?”
The foreign minister stroked his beard, thinking.
“Can we, indeed? But let me answer the question you did not ask: If we can, we will. For if Italy is weakened – ”
” – Brittany flows into the gap.” Bruno hid unsurprised relief; the Norse understood the balance of power. The foreign minister turned to an alcove Bruno had not noticed, and his tone grew peremptory.
“Ingvar, you heard the man.”
A tall, muscled man, dressed all in gray, stepped out of the alcove. One cheek was disfigured by a brand, but he carried himself with defiant authority.
“I heard, but not enough to answer. Describe the boy’s symptoms.”
Bruno blinked at the odd juxtaposition of the marks of slavery with brisk assurance, bordering on arrogance. And while the clothes were gray, they were finely cut, and not made of the rough wadmal that would usually be a slave’s lot. Curious – but the man’s question was reasonable enough.
“Sometimes he will laugh for no reason, or cry. Tiny remarks will send him into temper tantrums, and then nobody can control him – not for tenderness of a King’s skin, he’s no spoilt brat; but in his rages he does not feel pain. Sometimes he will go into a panic at the sight of a dog, and cry for it to be taken away immediately; at other times he plays with them as any royal child might. He has been known to sit at Mass and declare that a priest is spouting gibberish, and order him to talk sense or be beheaded – once the Bishop of Ravenna left the capital in a huff, and we’ve seen no taxes from that city for a year.”
Ingvar half-smiled at that, but spoke seriously. “I know the disease. Nothing I can do. If I had all the tools of” – he stopped, waved his hand in a way that the foreign minister seemed to understand, but which meant nothing to Bruno, then went on – “then yes, there would be no difficulty. But we did not bring anything for this, it is too rare.”
Bruno’s shoulders slumped, and the foreign minister looked grim. “Not even the pink? I’ve seen you heal a man with his lungs half out of his mouth from coughing.”
Ingvar shook his head. “Not the same kind of disease. The pink would do nothing, except perhaps keep the body healthy. But that does suggest another solution.” He thought for a moment. “Suppose the King went on a retreat, for perhaps a year or even two, in, let us say, the Alps. Yes. If that were done, and if I were to visit that retreat, then I believe that with prayer and healthy outdoor exercise, much could be done.”
“I thought you said there was nothing you could do?”
Ingvar’s mouth twisted, half-amused. “Not I, no. But with God all things are possible, yes?”
The foreign minister slapped the table, annoyed. “Talk straight, man. You have a plan, and it has nothing to do with hoping for a miracle. Spit it out.”
“As I recall, the boy is only a few years old. They grow terribly fast at that age; in two years he will be changed out of all recognition, even perhaps to his own mother, who is dead in any case. And so, it does not matter much precisely how he is changed, no? A basic similarity, that’s all that’s expected. So if a holy man of a distant kingdom known for its magic were to state that he can cure the lad, but he needs absolute privacy over a long period in seclusion, with only a few loyal servants allowed to see the king… Well. I can certainly guarantee that a quite ordinary, sane boy will be returning to Venice. Well trained, too.”
Bruno blinked, shocked. The man could not be suggesting – but he was. To replace a king, as though royal blood counted for nothing! And to speak so casually of it, even amusedly! And yet – once thought of, the idea had a certain twisted elegance. Not magic, not the miracle cure he had been sent for. But it would probably work, if only because nobody would dare to think of such a thing. It was no wonder they kept this man a slave; he was far too dangerous to be allowed to run free. And no wonder he spoke with the self-assuredness of a free man. He was far too valuable to be killed, and he must know it.
In his youth, Bruno had briefly thought of entering a monastery. A month of trying to remain chaste had cured him of that. Now he felt the same deadly pull towards a tiny, tiny sin, even knowing that it would inevitably lead to greater and greater transgressions and eventually a full defilement. But the first steps were so easy, and one could always stop later.
“How” – he had to stop, and clear his throat. “How soon might the holy man reach Venice?”
Ingvar grinned, and Bruno blinked to clear his eyes. Surely that had been only his imagination – yes, he saw it now, it was only the tapestry behind the man’s head that had, for a moment, formed the illusion of horns. Besides, he was acting to save the Kingdom of Italy. Certainly, in such a cause, he could not be damned.