I’m a long way from finished. It’ll take me all year, probably. But you’ve been so very patient. So here’s something to tide you over. I love you all.
14 August 1329
“Where is he?”
The question echoed throughout Italy, reverberating from Venice to Pisa, Rome to Padua. “Where is he?”
In no city did it ring more loudly than in Verona, under new leadership for the first time in two decades. “Where is he?”
There was no answer. Rumours spoke of reported sightings, tales of wicked deeds and heretical feats. One woman in Bergamo swore she saw him poison her neighbour’s well, though it was found that the pestilence arose from a dead dog tossed into the water.
Even that, though, played into the tale. He was a known killer of dogs. After all, had he not murdered the Great Hound?
None of the stories were given credence by those desperate to find him. Accused of everything from heresy to patricide, the young knight had dissolved like sun-drunk dew. Last seen taking ship in Venice in the company of his cousin, the exiled princeling had melted away like a breath on the wind.
The seekers owned a variety of motives. Those who loved him longed to restore his name and spirit, both trampled, perhaps past salvage. Those who admired him hoped to prop up an icon they now worried was undeserving. Those who hated him hungered to remove this knight entirely from the board, too unpredictable to leave unchecked. Those who feared him sought to know what he planned to do next, that they might deny him.
Then there were those who, seeing his potential, sought to use him.
One such was Ludwig IV, Duke of Bavaria, King of Italy, King of the Romans, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, who emerged this day from Pavia’s Civic Tower in a towering temper. Stalking into the palace commandeered for his use, he threw down his gloves and, without preamble, demanded an answer to this familiar question. “Where is he?”
Dutifully, Margaret of Hainaut lowered her loom to rest on her pregnant belly. Seven months gone, it seemed the second child of her body would be born in Italy. “Oh dear, my lord. Did it not go well?”
“That backpfeifengesicht Rainalducci is a vacillating milksop. What use is a tame pope if he cannot rally the Italian Cardinals to my banner? Bah!” he snarled as he struggled with the clasp to his fur-lined cape, shrugging off the servants who endeavored to aid him. Freed at last, he dismissed his servants, threw himself into a chair and brooded.
It was not an easy time to be Emperor of the Christian World. He felt as though he was beset at every side. The French pope—derisively called ‘the shoemaking dwarf’ and variations thereon—had always been against him, to the point of issuing an excommunication. Ludwig had retaliated the previous year by installing Pietro Rainalducci as anti-pope in the abandoned city of Rome, taking some of the sting out of being exiled from God’s view. Still, the interdiction from Avignon made it all too easy for his enemies to claim a just cause to stand against him.
The greatest threat to his temporal authority, “King” Frederick of Austria, had been his honoured prisoner since their clash seven years earlier. Yet there seemed no end of other petty princelings who desired his downfall. At home, John of Bohemia was clearly plotting against him. Here in Italy, Robert of Anjou, the spurious Imperial Vicar vacante imperio,owned such a force as would stand against anything Ludwig could muster.
Vacante imperio. Such an insult. Hadn’t Ludwig appointed Berthold von Neifen, Count of Marstetten, as his Imperial Vicar of Italy? The man saw more with one eye sewn shut than most men could with two! Yet Robert had been appointed by Pope Jean in France, who claimed the right to do so “in the absence of a proper Holy Roman Emperor.” Who was that jumped-up, dwarfish bastard son-of-a-cobbler to dismiss the son of Rudolf I as if he didn’t exist?
And how the Italians chafed. Oh, the complaints! Berthold was not one of them! He did not appreciate art. He preferred beer to wine. He never laughed, and seldom smiled. What was wisdom, perspicacity, and sound judgment against such damning charges?
Worsening matters, the Imperial Vicar for the Trevisian Mark had died at the start of the summer. Little though Ludwig had liked the man, Cangrande della Scala had been universally respected. Certainly he had been capable of terrorizing the Guelphs of Italy. Joyful, arrogant, ambitious, with that damned smile of his, he had been so very—Italian!
The only thing Cangrande had been incapable of was taming his wild and brilliant heir. Who was now missing.
Heirs were on the Emperor’s mind at the moment. Fortunately, Ludwig’s imperial title was an elected position, not an hereditary one. Since he could not pass it on to one of his sons, and was thus out of his hands, Ludwig refused to worry about it.
The title of Duke of Bavaria, however, was his birthright, and had to be safegaurded until his eldest son was of age. Custom demanded he divide the Wittelsbach lands between all male heirs. Ludwig had split the duties between himself and his brother Rudolf—until Rudolf had opposed his sibling’s nomination to King of the Romans, King of Italy, and Holy Roman Emperor.
That Ludwig had been forced to wage war on his own brother was a plumbline on his heart, troubling him far more than his excommunication. The last he had seen of his brother had been at the submission, Rudolf handing over all his rights to Bavaria and heading off to exile in England. England! Almost too horrible to contemplate. One heard they lived in huts and slept among wild pigs in England. Barely part of the civilized world.
And Rudolf died there. England seemed to be a place where princes went to die. When had that happened? Nearly a decade now. No, exactly a decade, come to think of it. August of 1319. Has it been so long?
It was in these moments that Ludwig felt the burden of his three crowns, crushing his spirit beneath the weight of the years behind him. The years, and the decisions he could not repair.
Or could he? I owe Rudolf something… Rubbing his bearded chin, the forty-six-year-old ruler grunted to himself.
“Yes, my lord?” His eighteen-year-old wife, already the survivor of five years of imperial marriage, knew her husband’s grunts to be performative, requiring a response.
Ludwig glanced round at her and her lady-in-waiting, whom he had hardly noticed. “A solution. Well, a partial one.”
“A brilliant one, I am sure.”
The emperor very nearly smiled. “Time will tell. Berthold!”
Entering from the next chamber, his Imperial Vicar of Italy had to stoop to avoid barking his head on the doorframe. “Your majesty.”
“Where is he?”
“Who, your grace?”
“You know who. The young hound! Have you learned where he has gone?”
“Yes,” answered Berthold.
All the other occupants of the room looked up. Even Margaret’s lady-in-waiting seemed interested.
“And you’re not telling me, you obstreperous oak,” mused Ludwig, “because you disapprove.”
“Not at all, your majesty. The ship he was on called at Brindisi, where he boarded another headed west.”
“Not east?” remarked Margaret. “I would have thought, given the talk of heresy, that he would have sped to heathen lands.”
“Perhaps he fears the rising sun, and instead seeks the place where the sun sets,” remarked her handmaiden softly.
Margaret smiled indulgent approval, but waved her girl to silence as her scowling husband said, “Its destination?”
“Marseille, Barcelona, Lisbon, Rouen, and Antwerp,” reported Berthold.
The knuckle on Ludwig’s forefinger stroked his chin as he counted. “Given the time of year, the soonest he could arrive at Marseille is the end of the month.”
“Assuming the boy remains aboard, his majesty is correct.”
“Implying that we are assuming a great deal.”
Like the oak he had been called, Berthold was impassive. “I only mean to point out that, if his aim is to lose himself, he would hardly allow his movements to be so easily tracked.”
“True enough,” replied the emperor, continuing to knuckle-stroke his chin. “We remember him at chess. He was impolitic enough to win against us more than he lost. And he favoured allowing us to place him in impossible predicaments, then fight his way to victory. He enjoys courting disaster, that one. We wonder he was imprudent enough to allow it to overtake him when it mattered most.”
Berthold allowed silence to speak for him. It was Margaret who said, “Do you believe the story? That he murdered his own father and then abandoned his coup and his child bride to flee with his own sister, whom he had taken as a lover?”
Ludwig’s head snapped up. “Wherever did you hear that tale?”
Blushing, Margaret glanced to her lady in waiting, who kept her gaze upon her hands until prompted. “Giada?”
“It is only rumour, your grace,” said the pretty lady-in-waiting, eyes lowered.
“One that cannot be correct,” said Berthold stolidly. “His only shipboard companion was his cousin, the Nogarola heir. Who has been disowned by his recently widowed father.”
“You relieve our mind,” said the emperor drily. “Though so much death. The Scaliger, his sister…Perhaps Franz’s flight was wisdom. He was ever skilled at reading the stars.”
“And then ignoring them,” replied Berthold.
“He was also skilled at recitation,” remarked Margaret fondly.
“Naturally, having been weaned at the teat of Dante,” mused Ludwig. “Well we remember his translation of Hell. And his singing of Parzival was the best we ever heard.”
True to his reputation, Berthold remained unimpressed by poetic talent. “Was that all your grace desired?”
“Not by half.” The knuckle straightened to give the finger a commanding length as it tapped the chin. “We desire to depart Italy. But we cannot until we are certain it will remain in our hands. Our pontifical friend Rainalducci is disappointingly weak.”
“Perhaps it would strengthen him to give him his title,” observed Berthold.
Momentarily stung, at last Ludwig barked out a laugh. “A fair hit! How can he use the mantle we have given him if even we do not honour it. Very well, Pope Nicolo. The title, however, does not alter his nature. He’s a dünbrettbohrer, not a leader. That, combined with the loss of our strong arm in Verona, means there is no one we may trust. So, in lieu of departure from Italia, we have decided how to arrange matters at home.” His wife and chief advisor looked attentive. “Young Ludwig is already Margrave of Brandenburg. That’s enough for any thirteen-year-old. Until he and his brothers are ready, we will split Bavaria between Rudolf’s boys.”
Margaret was silent. Young Ludwig was her step-son, not a child of her flesh. Though she loved him as a mother, it was not her place to advocate for him.
For his part, Berthold was measured, never allowing his own preferences to show. “Split how, your grace?”
“Adolf was Count Palatine of the Rhine before he died. We shall bewstow that on little Rudolf. And we shall give Rupert the Upper Palatinate of Bavaria. Not enough to threaten us, more than enough to safeguard the land for the other boys.”
As one of those other boys was Margaret’s own son, she was pleased. Her greater pleasure came from seeing her husband resolved. Threats were weighing on him more and more these days. Decisions made him strong.
If Berthold appeared less pleased, it was because he knew young Rupert a shade too well. But his leige had made up his mind, and it was not for Berthold to question. “And Italy?”
The emperor’s face curled at the corners like burning parchment. “Italy! Tell me, my Vicar, and tell me true. We crave your honest assessment—the one you do not present at council.” When Berthold glanced at his empress and her attendant, Ludwig waved a hand. “Give your tongue licence. Margaret has heard it all before, and clearly there is no difference between telling her a tale and telling it to Giada.”
Nodding once, Berthold took time to frame his reply. At last he said, “My lord. Lombardy is boiling. Your royal presence does not cool it, but neither would your absence. Florence desires complete dominance over her neighbors. Until she has it, she will foment trouble. Along the coast, Venice is much the same. The Serenissima sees her trade threatened, and is eager to stir a troubled pot. Rome, as your majesty rightly surmises, is in weak hands. Pope Nicolo is neither a charismatic nor farsighted leader for the church.”
“So we were mistaken in choosing him,” mused Ludwig sourly.
“Nicolo was an excellent choice when the criteria was picking a churchman who supports you and longs to return the Holy See to its rightful place in Rome. However, your grace made certain to choose a man who also would not challenge your authority.”
“Meaning he does not have the authority to challenge my foes, either.” Ludwig had grudgingly come to the same conclusion. “Get on with it, man. What about the fiend of Anjou?”
“Robert of Naples is your most formidible foe this side of the Alps. He is linked to nearly every great family in Europe, with his strongest ties being to the French and Hungarian thrones. The unquestioned leader of the Guelfs, he is both respected and admired. He rules the Kingdom of Naples, but also controls Genoa. His title as the King of Jerusalem is hollow at present, but his title of Count of Provence is definitely not. Given Avignon bordering the county of Provence, his relations with Pope Jean are understandably close-knit. It is your good fortune that, just as you have him as a perpetual irritant, he has his own thorn in his side in the form of Frederick III. The Aragonese king of Sicily is your ally, aligned against both Robert and the shoemaker’s son. But he is too concerned with the safety of his own realm and opposing the greed of Genoa to be of much pratical aid.”
“I understand all of this,” said the emperor, unconsciously slipping from royal plurality into common individualism. “What happens when I depart?”
Berthold shrugged one shoulder, his face wryly unamused. “This is Italy. They will inevitably return to their petty squabbles. Rome will collapse once more. Pisa may fall to Florence. The south will remain an unenviable mess. Venice will plot, but cannot conquer. Naples, however, will attempt to expand her power, backed by both the French and the Pope.” He drew a breath and then did the one thing experienced advisors least enjoyed—he advocated a course of action. “The best we can hope is to consolidate our gains in the north, along the Trevisian Mark. Fortify our allies and vassels north of the Arno. For we cannot lose the Brennaro Pass. That is Italy’s link with the rest of the empire.”
“And Verona is key to the Brennaro,” observed Ludwig grimly.
Berthold regretted his master’s perspecacity. For it was true. If the Alps were the door to Italy, Verona was the lock. And locks required keys.
“Shall I summon Verona’s new capitano, the young mastiff? Your grace has not yet congratulated him in person.”
Ludwig didn’t seem to hear this. Instead the emperor suddenly brightened from within, gifted with an idea. Not a man given to smiles, it was more a relaxing of the furrows in his brow. “Marseille, you say, will be his first port of call?”
Berthold’s great frame seemed to deflate. “If he remained on board, yes.”
“If not, the ship will know where next to look. An unusual hunt. We must loose our falcons to snare a rogue hound. Who would you send?”
A question that required thought. But Berthold’s answer was forestalled by the lady Giada whispering something in her mistress’ ear. The empress, nodding, said, “Husband? Why not send Rupert?”
The frown returned. It was a thought. His nephew had known the renegade prince well, had shared his company for months, even taking part in some of the boy’s wilder escapades. “I can make the Upper Palatinate a reward for bringing the lost hound home,” mused the emperor.
Berthold raised an objection. “He is too well-known as your adherant to travel to Marseille.” Marseille was under the direct control of Robert of Anjou.
“Forgive me, Lord Berthold, for my boldness.” It was Giada who spoke. “What you say is true. But they could hardly object if he was on an errand for my mistress. A token to her father, perhaps. Or a gift to her sister in England.”
Ludwig breathed deeply in appreciation. “A solution. Like the invidious Robert, our lady wife is also related by blood and marriage to the greatest houses of Europe. Indeed, she is the balm to many noses chafed by my title. What excuse might serve?”
Margaret said, “They have again delayed my sister’s coronation. It seems the English king’s mother is reluctant to relinquish her title. And her revenues,” she added tartly.
“Doubtless she views them as hard won,” mused Ludwig. “Berthold?”
“A coronation gift. A pair of hounds, your grace? We could claim we did not receive word of the changed date.”
“Greyhounds! They must be greyhounds.” Ludwig’s laughter subsided. “They must be seen to come from Margaret, though.” He worried his nether lip, the eyes of both Berthold and Margeret upon him.
Giada’s eyes, however, were downcast, as was proper, focused on her mistress’ shoulder. She had been in service to the empress’ chamber for less than a year, yet had outlasted all the other Italian ladies who had applied to attend her needs. More, she was pretty. Dark brown tresses as yet unbound, as she was unwed, her smile winning even in repose.
Ludwig had considered her beauty often, for personal reasons. Now he found himself considering them politically. “Lady Giada shall go as well. If they find him in Marseilles, she can go on and do homage to England’s new queen. If not, Rupert can go as well, and claim he’s making a pilgrimage to his father’s tomb while he tracks down the young hound.”
He looked to his wife, who would lose her favourite companion for several months at least. But he was not asking her permission, only her agreement. She gave it, though inwardly lamenting Giada would be absent when she gave birth.
Ludwig looked to Giada, whose normally calm eyes were stormy with excitement. “Do this. By whatever means required. We want him found. We want him back.” He repeated the important words, leaving space between for emphasis. “We. Want. Him.”
Meanwhile, on the isle of Sicily, Mount Etna was erupting, a man was dying, and a hunted hound was watching the molten heat rage forth from the earth to scorch all in its path.
It reflected his mood, which was mercurial. Ever hot. Ever changing. Ever destructive.