Part 62: A Scotsman In Egypt - Chapter 61Life was good.
Gordon of Edinburgh moved down the streets of Rome with a smile on his face and a song in his heart, enjoying the summer sun on his face. The last two weeks had been like a dream for the Diplomat, and at a time when most men were facing the ever present spectre of Death, he felt like his life was just beginning.
A month earlier, he'd received a personal letter from Prince Aodh Canmore himself, asking a personal favor of Gordon. A fortnight later, "she" had arrived, the most beautiful woman that Gordon had ever seen, a woman who hung on his every word and stared at him with plain adoration, stroking his ego in ways no one else ever had. She'd been sent to him because of Aodh's fears that her beauty and her desire to experience new things would see her virtue spoiled. So what better person to put her in the care of than an old man? And what better place to preserve her innocence than the holy city itself, Rome.
"She" was, of course, Prince Aodh's eldest daughter - Joan Canmore.
She'd been finely educated from a young age, both by the finest tutors - one of whom had accompanied her to Rome - and her father himself. At her coming of age, she'd been introduced as an observer to the intricacies of diplomacy and the Genoa Court, and shared letters with her cousin Muriel, who had taken an active part in helping her husband Aed run the Court in Cairo. Aodh had trusted her with a few carefully escorted diplomatic missions, but her great beauty had seen her saddled with the unwelcome attention of many would-be suitors, and according to Aodh, her knock-backs of those men had seemed less than outraged... almost as if she welcomed the attention.
So she had been sent to Rome, and Gordon had been smitten from the very beginning. Her physical beauty was no more or less than many other fine women he had been - whether noble born or commoner - but she had a grace, a way of carrying herself and a sparkle in her eyes that added something "extra" to her appearance. She was also a voracious reader, and always full of questions, and she'd coaxed much information out of Gordon, who had been more than pleased to have such a beautiful captive audience. He'd told her about the history of politics in Rome; the current climate; who was well regarded and who not; what local politicians could be trusted (the corrupt ones) and which couldn't (the honest ones); and, when he'd grown more comfortable with her, who was sleeping with who (or what) and why. She'd listened to it all with wide eyes, remarking often on how much he knew, how smart he was, how tapped into the pulse of the city, and he'd found himself feeling more than the usual lust he felt for young pretty women.
He was falling in love.
Of course, being who he was, Gordon's feelings were mostly based around his own personal gain. If he was to marry Joan Canmore, he'd be a member of the most powerful Royal Family in the world, and the King and Prince were both getting older and living dangerous lives.... should one or both die - heaven forbid! - why who would be better to take the throne than a man with decades of experience as the premier Diplomat of the mightiest Empire in the world? A man with a close personal connection to the Pope (well, he was allowed to attend the Pope's Court with the other diplomats) and a deeper understanding than any man living (and maybe dead!) of the ins and outs of world diplomacy.
He'd woken this morning to find Joan had all ready left the Diplomatic Residence, leaving him a note saying she had business to attend to, but she looked forward to seeing him later in the day. He'd laughed at the note, her "business" was likely the shopping that she so seemed to enjoy, perhaps moreso than her thirst for knowledge. With thoughts in his head of taking her for his wife and enjoying having her beneath him in bed as he taught her a few other things she didn't know, he'd dressed in his best and set out for the Holy Court of Rome, to hear the Pope give another of his interminable speeches on heresy.
He arrived at the Palace and noted the surprised looks of the Guards as they granted him entry, and allowed himself a smile. Yes he'd had his hair dyed, and obviously the woman he'd hired had done an admirable job, making him appear ten years younger and surprising the guards with his youthful look. He himself had been astounded at the change, he'd always felt his silver hair gave him a regal, dignified appearance, but now with his hair jet black, he looked vital and virile.
He moved through the long corridors of the Palace unerringly towards the Court, a path he could have walked in his sleep, he'd taken it so many times now. If he'd timed things right, he'd be seating himself just before the Pope made his entry, saving himself a boring wait for the Pope to arrive followed by the even more boring hours of the Pope's speech. The great doors to the Court opened and he stepped in, finding the Court all ready filled to capacity by diplomats, lesser nobles and merchants. When Villanus had first risen to Pope, he'd made it clear that his words were for all the peoples, but it hadn't taken long for a hierarchy to reassert itself, either through the use of diplomacy, bribery or outright theft. Now the Pope's speeches were attended by almost always the same people, who used the opportunity not only to be seen as one of the elite, but also to gather together and network, form relationships, do business and forge alliances.
As he entered, a few heads turned to note his entry, and as he moved towards the unmarked seat that everyone knew was "his", he felt more and more eyes upon him, and heard surprised murmurs rising and rising all around him. He knew at once that this was more than comment on his new youthful appearance, and he tried to bite back a frown as the noise grew and grew as he took his seat.
"What the hell is going on?" he hissed in a whisper to the merchant sitting beside him, a Hungarian he'd developed a mutually beneficial relationship with years earlier that saw him given access to fine wines before anyone else in the City.
"The Pope is giving a private audience," started the merchant,"And..."
"The Pope doesn't give private audiences!" exclaimed Gordon in surprise,"He has never granted a single one since he was named Pope!"
"More than that, Gordon," whispered the merchant,"We were informed that the Pope had granted a private audience.... to you!"
"What?" snapped Gordon, trying to keep his voice down and ignore the rising level of chatter around him,"No one said anything to me."
"The Papal Guard announced it to us," insisted the Merchant,"His Holiness The Pope had granted a private audience to Scotland's Diplomat to Rome."
"I'm going to get to the bottom of this," grunted Gordon angrily, and stood up, all talk around him ceasing instantly.
"Now see here!" he snapped,"I-"
"His Holiness, Pope Villanus I!" came the cry, and instantly everyone was standing and bowing low, forcing Gordon to do the same as the Pope entered the Court, joined by....
"Nae," whispered Gordon in horror, the shock knocking every refinement he'd forced upon his natural accent away,"It cannae be..."
"And," continued the Herald, announcing the name of the woman accompanying the Pope a respectful step behind him,"Scotland's most noble new Diplomat to the Holy Church, Princess Joan Canmore."
Life was terrible.
Gordon of Edinburgh moved down the dirt lined streets of Arguin with a frown on his face and a dirge in his heart, feeling the salty air of the sea wind blowing against his face under a stormy sky.
Six months ago he'd thought he was in love. Six months ago he'd discovered he'd been played for a fool, used like a pawn by his Prince and pumped for information by his Princess. Using her relationship with her Father - beloved by the Church and particularly by Villanus himself - Joan Canmore had gained a private audience with the Pope and explained her Father's feelings that as important a relationship as that between Scotland and the Church - the premier powers on Earth - should not be trusted to someone without a blood tie to the Scottish Royal Family. So he had sent his daughter - the ugly, conniving bitch! - to become the new Scottish Diplomat to Rome, and she'd been welcomed to the Court with the personal endorsement of the Pope himself.... the stupid, blind old fool.
Gordon had been livid, but held in his rage, swallowed his pride and allowed an impotent internal fury to rage inside of him as she sat in pride of place behind him as he gave one of his usual speeches on heresy, but this time more fired up and energetic than anyone could remember. It seemed the harlot had been working her female wiles on him too, and Gordon cursed the Pope for a fool. With the audience over, he'd tried to corner Joan to confront her in silence, but she'd been too highly in demand, mixing easily with diplomats, merchants and nobility alike, charming all around her, the idiots being lead around by their cocks instead of their brains, Gordon despised them all.
Finally she had deigned to notice him, and he'd found himself tongue tied as she approached with a smile and taken him by the hands and kissed him softly on one cheek, then whispered into his ear,"Ye'll be rewarded commensurate to ye service, Gordon, have nae fear."
With that she'd stepped away to chat with a young Hungarian Captain, showing she was daring indeed considering the current heightened tensions between Hungary and The Church. Gordon had been left standing gaping, considering the implications of her words and wondering what it could mean.... a Governorship, perhaps? Not Toulouse, but maybe Valencia?
And now, six months later, Gordon found himself standing in the dusty, sandy, sunbaked VILLAGE of Arguin, a shithole sitting on the edge of the world.
Gordon did not know - neither would he have cared had he - that he currently stood near where Gille Calline the Balleol had once stood and counted his blessings to be a servant of Scotland. All he knew was that this posting was an insult, some bad taste joke at his expense. He stared distastefully at the approaching collection of local townspeople, rough red-haired Scots with skin burned and blistered to a thick, leathery tan.
"Ayup, laddie," snorted the biggest of them,"Name's Rory, I Captain the garrison of this here shithole... and this pack of useless shites, HA!"
The men laughed behind him and clapped him on the back as if this was the height of wit, and Gordon sighed.
"Hello," he grunted,"My name is Gordon of Edinburgh, I will act as diplomat to any fool stupid enough to come to this "shithole" and try to open negotiations with the Scottish Empire.... any questions?"
"Aye," chuckled Rory, reaching behind him and down into his kilt, rummaging his hand around between his arsecheeks before pulling his hand free and lifting a finger in Gordon's direction,"Does this smell?"
"Oh Lord," sighed Gordon as the men fell about themselves laughing,"So this is my life."
Doge Tusco the Scarred was King of all he surveyed.
Currently that was the tree stump, the forest wall and a small babbling brook running through the clearing he'd stopped in for the night.
Humiliated and stripped of everything by King Domnall the Merciless, Tusco had fled into the forests with what was left of his personal bodyguard (which was also now the entire "army" of Venice) and wandered aimlessly for months, driven increasingly madder by the paranoia and derangement that had plagued him throughout his life, and that he had finally surrendered to.
His men had gradually abandoned him as his madness became clearer, though none blamed him for retreating into despair and lunacy. Now only five remained - his strongest supporters and best friends - and right now their leader, Michael, was trying to convince Tusco that they should get out of Scottish lands. This was a task made harder by the fact that often Tusco seemed to forget Michael was his Bodyguard Commander and not his late brother, the former Doge.
"We cannot stay in these lands, Doge," whispered Michael now, hoping to get through to him,"The Byzantines would offer sanctuary surely."
"We cannot leave Scotland," whispered Tusco, shaking his head and staring far away,"Domnall Canmore told me he would guarantee my safety while I was in Scottish lands.... Domnall Canmore is a man of his word... he's a man of his word, yes, yes... yes he is."
"It's no use," sighed Michael, standing up and turning to what was left of his men,"He sees assassins under every rock and behind every tree, he's become convinced he will only be safe in Scottish lands."
"And so he is," spoke a new voice, and Michael twisting grabbing at his sword hilt, only for a thin blade to plunge into his throat. As their Commander fell choking and clutching at his throat as blood bubbled out of his mouth, the remaining soldiers grabbed at their own weapons, pulling blades loose and looking around in shock.
There was no one there.
"ASSASSIN! ASSASSIN!" squealed Tusco in terror, staring at Michael's corpse,"ASSASSIN!"
"Where?" howled one of the soldiers, casting his eyes about the shadows amongst the trees,"KING DOMNALL SAID WE'D BE SAFE!"
"Nae, lad," chuckled the voice, directly behind the soldier,"Only ye Doge."
The soldier rasped horrifically as his throat was slit, and the three remaining soldiers swung their swords at the brown blur of the robed figure dancing backwards towards the trees.
"Stand still and fight like a man!" howled one of the Venetians. Suddenly the brown robed figure froze in place, the soldier rushing past him unable to check his forward momentum, and he felt a horrible pressure and release in his gut as his belly was cut open.
"ASSASSSSSSSSIN!" squealed Tusco, sitting in his own filth and unable to move as he watched the assassin dispatch the last two soldiers, then grab the hair of the one he had gutted and pull back his head, slitting his throat with brutal efficiency.
"Aye, Assassin," whispered Farquar the Killer, turning to grin at the Doge,"BOO!"
Tusco welped in fright and stumbled off of the tree stump he was sitting on. As if the movement had broken his paralysis, he scrabbled on all fours through the brook and into the treeline, while Farquar grinned and cleaned off his blades, then set out after him.
He following the panting, uncontrollably weeping Doge through the trees for ten minutes, shaking his head and chuckling as he made certain to shepherd him in the direction he wanted to go. Finally, he seemed to have had enough and quickened his pace, grabbing the Doge by the ankle with one big hand and physically flipping him over onto his back.
"NO!" cried the Doge,"DOMNALL CANMORE IS A MAN OF HIS WORD!"
"Aye, he is," smiled Farquar,"Thank ye for being so accommodating.... we crossed the Hungarian Border five minutes ago."
"No... no... NO!" screamed Doge Tusco, as Farquar leaned down and ended the once mighty Venetian Empire in the most humiliating, undignified way any could have possibly imagined.
Micheil Broune frowned at the head of the table as the other men laughed, thoughts far away from the large, lavishly furnished command tent he was sitting in.
"Something bothers you, Micheil?" asked Duncan Forster, who had insisted that they share drinks in the Command Tent ahead of the upcoming battle. The others had been willing enough to break the tension, but Micheil couldn't get his mind off of what was coming. He'd been having strange dreams recently, and a sense of foreboding was....
"Nae, nae," he grunted, and forced a smile,"This was a good idea, Duncan, we need to relieve the tension ahead of the battle tomorrow.... I am sorry if I do nae seem entirely here."
There were five of them gathered in the tent - Generals of the Northern Desert, men who had either dim memories of their ancient homeland on the other edge of the world or none at all. Though he was not the eldest, Micheil was their chosen leader, and he was joined by Dougall Inchmertyn (the eldest of them); Duncan Forster who was Micheil's own age; Comgell of Carnavarane who was younger; and Farquar Makfulchiane, the youngest of them.
"Micheil, do nae worry yeself," chuckled Comgell, taking Broune by the hand. Micheil forced himself to leave his hand there, reminding himself that Comgell was a very "tactile" person,"So our conquering of Smyrna raised the alarm of the Byzantines? So they're sending 2200 finely trained soldiers who have had 1000 years of the finest military training our way? So we're a hastily assembled group of 1500 Scots with barely any infantry? Bah.... ye're forgetting that we have one advantage over them."
"And what is that, pray tell?" grinned Dougall.
"Why, ye dinnae ken?" asked a shocked looking Comgell, then let a wide smile cross his face,"We're Scottish!"
Slow smiles crossed all their faces, and they raised their cups to Scotland and drank deeply, Micheil included.
In the overcast light of day, Micheil looked at the vast numbers of the Byzantium soldiers spread out across the slope before him and realized that there was only one thing worse than finding yourself facing 2200 soldiers out for your blood.
Doing so with a hangover.
They stood at the border between Scotland's new territory (formerly Venice's) and Byzantium land, soldiers shouting insults across the invisible line of territory and goading each other. The Byzantine Captain - Tobromeros - had acted wisely and brought large numbers of archers, and though Micheil had his own archers at his disposal, they could not match the Byzantium numbers, and certainly not their skill. Though they spoke Greek, these were Romans, or at least what the Romans had become. The Holy Roman Empire had long ago split off from their Eastern cousins, but what both retained in common was a proud martial tradition and deadly competent training ethic. The archers could outshoot and do more damage than their Scottish counterparts, and Micheil had a horrible feeling this battle would consist of his men being whittled down before his very eyes and their recent land gains lost.
Comgell and Dougall rode up beside Micheil and looked over the gathered host, and finally Dougall spoke.
"Comgell has a plan."
"Mmmm?" asked Micheil, who had been trying to throw off the sense of foreboding doom he'd had since learning that the Byzantines were marching on their border.
"Their archers are the key," Comgell spoke hesitantly, looking to Dougall for encouragement and getting it,"They mean to attack us from a distance and pull back from our infantry when they try to engage, and send in their own cavalry. Then when he send in our cavalry, they will pull back and allow their archers to fire on us again."
"That would be the traditional way of doing things, yes," nodded Mecheil,"Ye idea?"
"A Scottish General rides on the frontline with his troops," Dougall quoted, and Comgell smiled hesitantly, and Micheil started to see what they intended.
"We hit them by surprise with something they will nae expect," Comgell said,"We flood their archers with our cavalry - ALL of our cavalry - right from the start of the battle. We completely negate their ranged advantage, it'll be mass confusion, we slaughter their archers and bog them down in fighting so their cavalry has to ride into the fray, and we hold them there and allow our own archers to fire on them while our infantry sandwiches them with out cavalry."
"It could work," muttered Micheil, stroking his chin thoughtfully,"But ye realize, lad, ye're suggesting what is essentially a suicide charge.... we'll lose a great number of cavalry doing this, and we'll be on the frontline of that attack."
"Aye," noted Dougall,"But the alternative is to lose hundreds of men and be sent running from the field of battle licking our wounds.... that's nae way for a Scotsman to live."
"The Byzantines will nae see it coming," Micheil whispered,"Aye... aye so be it. I've had this foreboding feeling since I learnt they were coming... there is nae point in running from it, I'll meet it head on with my sword and my horse, and we'll see who blinks first, me or death.
"I'll inform the men," Dougall smiled, and prepared to ride away when he suddenly turned back and called out Micheil's name.
"Aye, Dougall?" asked the General.
"For Scotland," smiled Dougall.
"Aye, for Scotland," smiled Micheil back.
Micheil sat on his horse, sweating and panting roughly, staring about him in disbelief as around him his men cheered and roared out,"SCOTLAND! SCOTLAND! SCOTLAND!"
"Death blinked," he gasped, pulling his helm off and staring around him at the dead bodies littering the battlefield - so many of them Byzantium, so few Scottish.
Dougall rode up beside him and removed his own helm, shaking his head in disbelief as Micheil grinned and nodded his head.
"A famous victory, Dougall," he smiled,"Comgell should be proud, his plan worked perfectly."
"Would that he could," replied Dougall sadly,"He fell in battle, trying to protect Farquar... they both died under the hooves of the Byzantium Vardariotai."
"Dammit!" snapped Micheil angrily, cursing himself for a fool. Death hadn't blinked it all, it had simply taken a different target. For a moment, Micheil had felt free of the pressure that had been coming to bear on him, but now it was back, that horrific sense of foreboding.
The Byzantines would be the death of him, he knew it.
The Pope was dead.
Long live the Pope.
Villanus had died in his sleep, vital and alive one day, stone dead in his bed the next. Some superstitious commoners spoke uneasily that one of the heretics his Holiness had hounded in life had taken their revenge, while calmer heads instead noted his advanced years and commented that these things happened.
In the newly refurbished dining hall of the Scottish Diplomatic Residence in Rome, Joan Canmore was hosting a dinner for diplomatic representatives of Poland and the Holy Roman Empire, both long term allies of Scotland. She had been accepted into their fraternity with open arms, though she suspected their acceptance had more to do with a combination of their lust for power, information and influence and their lust for what was under her dress. Now they shared idle gossip and complimented her on her choices of wine, far superior to the Hungarian muck that Gordon of Edinburgh had insisted on foisting onto them. Finally, one of them brought up what she knew would have to be said, they simply could not resist lording it up over a diplomatic opponent, whether friend, foe, man or woman.
"I must say, my Lady," smiled one of the Holy Roman Empire Diplomats,"I was surprised that you instructed your Cardinal to vote for Ugolinus to be the new Pope, surely you saw that our Friedrich had the support of the Polish Cardinals and would be the clear winner.... it was a surprising choice for one who has shown such a gift for diplomacy."
"I too, must admit some surprise," nodded Joan, acknowledging the point,"I did nae think the Cardinals would overlook what they did."
"Hmmm?" asked a Polish Diplomat, raising an eyebrow.
"Friedrich's recent turn," Joan spoke off-handedly, as if it was common knowledge,"His physician instructed him he was lucky not to lose the use of his limbs, and that any pressure or stress could potentially kill him. I did nae think the Cardinals would add the pressure of making him Pope onto his shoulders, but I must acquiesce that obviously they know more than this poor woman could ever hope to understand."
"His... recent turn....?" whispered the HRE Diplomat in growing horror,"How did you know?"
"It was nae common knowledge?" asked Joan, affecting ignorance,"I thought all the diplomats of Rome had that information?"
"Excuse me, my pardon," whispered the Diplomat, his face pale as he stood and bowed awkwardly,"I had forgotten some urgent matters that needed attending too."
He quickly excused himself, and within ten minutes the other diplomats in attendance had done so as well. Joan sat alone in the dining hall alone, quietly eating her meal until a note was brought to her by a harried looking messenger. She opened it and a thin smile crossed her lips.
"Well, here's to progress then," smiled Joan, and raised a glass of wine to herself.
"Farquar Makfulchiane is dead" cried out a voice, but Farquar Makfulchiane's expression did not change at the rather chilling news,"Farquar Makfulchiane and Comgell of Carnavarane have died in the victory against the Byzantines! Micheil Broune had won a great victory, and even now rides on Nicaea!"
If Farquar felt any remorse at the news of his relative and namesake's death, he showed no sign. He moved through the streets of Thorn where his current accommodation was maintained, looking forward to settling his aging bones into a hot bath and washing off the dust of his long travels. He maintained many such homes in different cities around the Empire (and outside of it) and maintained no servants, and allowed no one but his young apprentice entry to any of them. As he moved through the streets, he silently cursed the recent Scottish victory that had seen people come out into the streets at a time when they were usually deserted to celebrate and revel.
A busty woman, beautiful but clearly glassy eyed from either too much wine or some drug, almost tumbled into his arms, but he moved aside indifferently and let her stumble to a stop against a wall instead.
"Thanks for ye help, ye bastard!" she spat back at him, betraying a far more uncouth upbringing than her beauty and fine clothing suggested. He ignored her and continued on as she shouted at him some more then seemingly forgot about him and moved on to "stumble" into the hands of another man, this one more than happy to get a handful of her flesh as he "saved" her, while she got a handful of his coin purse.
Farquar continued on through the streets, getting darker now, the revelers thinning out. As he passed an alley, a young man called out to him in a low whisper, promising him forbidden pleasures like none he'd ever known. He ignored the man as he'd ignored the woman, continuing on but making sure to slide into the shadows one street on. Moments later, the young catamite slinked noisily down the street and looked about, confused to have lost him, and put his dagger back into his tunic and returned to the alleyway to look for another mark.
Farquar continued on until finally he reached the home, and he stopped across the street to observe it carefully, noting no obvious signs of unauthorized entry. Slipping between the two buildings, he moved to the door blocked off from street view, checked the lock for signs of picking, then unlocked it and entered the house. Once inside, he did not visibly relax, instead sniffing at the air and frowning, then moving through the narrow corridor and opening the door to reveal the wide room where he kept a library, desk, bed and chair.
A man sat at his desk smiling.
"Ye're very good, Farquar," smiled the stranger, a young bearded man in a red hooded robe.
"Ye need work," replied Farquar simply,"The catamite and courtesan roused my suspicion rather than dulling it; ye failed to remove the blood scent entirely from the house when ye killed my apprentice; and ye allowed a candle to burn in here thinking to blind my night vision when I enter, ignoring the torches of the revelers that I have all ready adjusted too."
"The revel was an unexpected complication," acknowledged the red robed man,"Ye are nae upset ye apprentice is dead?"
"Ye must plan for unexpected complications," replied Farquar, ignoring the question,"If ye mean to kill me and replace me as the premier assassin of the Empire, ye must be better than this."
"If I can kill ye, that means I am all ready good enough," smiled the assassin.
"Nae one is ever good enough," grunted Farquar, rolling his eyes in exasparation,"Now if ye mean to do this, let me see ye best."
The red robed man slid his hands out of his sleeves, revealing a strange cylindered object with a handle that he pointed at Farquar, rather than the blades he had been expecting.
"And what in the devil is that, then?" he grunted, and then the cylinder was exploding with light and Farquar was pitched backwards against the door, half his face missing and an acrid stench filling the air.
"That?" smiled Duncan Colison,"That, my friend, is progress."