King Richard’s return from the crusade should have been a glorious progression—he had, after all, managed to negotiate a peace with Saladin that allowed Christian access to Jerusalem—but the voyage home had been fraught with unpredictable weather. At sea, their boat had been driven off course, and when they had been forced to abandon the vessel, they had made landfall farther west than they had anticipated—in lands nominally controlled by the Holy Roman Emperor, a man who was aggrieved about Richard’s conduct in the Holy Land.
Richard had, in fact, a number of enemies in Christendom, which made an overland journey north from Italy fraught with danger.
They stumbled into Gorizia, thinking they were farther east than they were, and were nearly caught by Meinhard, the nephew of Conrad of Montferrat, king of Jerusalem. Conrad had been murdered in the Holy Land, and many believed Richard was the architect of the assassination. Meinhard, as did others in Christendom, wanted Richard to answer to this charge, and he would have captured Richard had it not been for the dogged loyalty of a handful of Shield-Brethren, men of the Ordo Militum Vindicis Intactae who had insisted on accompanying Richard back to England. Richard’s party escaped, and after several harried days of travel through the Alps, they reached Friesach, a town known for its silver mint. They were trying to outrun news of their presence in Christendom, hoping to remain anonymous, but the people of Friesach were too eager to be helpful, filled with a false sincerity that masked an underlying apprehension. Friesach was a trap, and Baldwin of Bethune, one of Richard’s remaining knights, volunteered to remain behind, pretending to be the king, while Richard—along with William de l’Éstrang and the sole remaining Shield-Brethren—rode on toward Moravia.
But first they had to get across the Danube, the wide river that flowed past Vienna, the home of Leopold V, the duke of Austria.
There was a ferry east of the city that would take them across the river, and while William went to negotiate passage, Richard and the young Shield-Brethren knight found an inn in the village of Erdberg. Richard stumbled inside, leaving the knight to tend to their horses, and the king nearly wept with joy as the heat from the fire started to thaw the icy surface of his skin. The innkeeper brought him food and drink, and only after his belly was full and his clothes were starting to dry did Richard shake himself free of the cloying fever fog that had clouded his mind the last few days. I just have to get across the river, he thought.
Richard picked up his tankard and glanced around for the innkeeper, meaning to call for more ale. There was no sign of the man, and he realized that the few patrons in the inn were all trying very hard not to look at him. He knew he was not a pleasant sight: his plain robe and cloak were filthy, his beard and hair unkempt; he was both sweating and shivering. He knew he was taller than most men, but the weight of the fever on him made it easy to obscure his height. He had left the bulk of his money with Baldwin in Friesach, knowing that wealth only attracted attention. How could they possibly know who I am? he wondered.
As he set his tankard down on the table, he caught sight of the ring on his hand. He had tried to take it off several days ago, but his hands had been too stiff and swollen, and he hadn’t been able to get the band past his knuckle. It was not the ring of a poor merchant. It was the ring of a king.
The door of the inn banged open and men, wearing the livery of the duke of Austria, marched into the room.
Henry VI, emperor of a vast portion of Christendom that stretched from the Low Countries in the north to Sicily in the south, was growing tired of waiting. Initially, having the king of England in a castle dungeon where no one would ever find him had been a delightful distraction. Henry had mulled over endless ideas about what to do with his captive, but the truth was that he couldn’t simply leave the king incarcerated forever. The doddering old fool Celestine had already excommunicated Leopold for having captured the king of England in the first place, and Henry suspected the Pope would eventually get around to excommunicating him as well. Such expulsion could be reversed, of course, with the right sort of abasement to God and the Church, but Henry had enough crises to address already.
The duke of Saxony, Henry the Lion, was—once again—making trouble in the north. Lion, the lackluster younger brother of Richard, was spending too much time in Paris, making plans with Philip, the king of France. And now the bastard Tancred had crowned himself the king of Sicily. Land that was Henry VI’s by right of marriage!
This was the eternal problem with ruling such a vast domain. An emperor never slept well; he could never be sure his borders were secure. And if he wasn’t being vexed by sons of a previously vanquished enemy who had managed to raise an army to take back what had been stolen from their fathers, then it was some unexpected dearth of coin in his treasury.
Maintaining an empire was expensive.
Ransoming Richard back to England had been a masterful idea, but it was a plan that was taking much too long to come to fruition. That was the problem with insisting on such a fantastic amount—one hundred thousand silver marks—to ensure the release of the English king. It took time to assemble that much coin.
Henry had some reason for celebration, though. He had received word from his spies that England had finally assembled more than half of the ransom. Of course, he had also heard disturbing rumors that Philip was quite aware of England’s progress in gathering the funds to rescue Richard. His spies suspected Philip was contemplating some sort of counterproposal.
Henry thought his spies weren’t nearly devious enough in their estimation of what Philip was considering.
There was a sharp double rap on the door to his room, and his steward, Wecelo, entered. Wecelo was tall and thin, and his robe fit him badly enough that he reminded Henry of a wounded bird. Wecelo stepped aside, holding the door, and a second man entered.
The visitor was shorter and broader than Wecelo—neither of which was very difficult—and the man’s face was burdened with a large nose that had been broken several times. As he reached the center of the room, the man dropped to one knee and touched his fist to his forehead.
“Ah, Otto,” Henry said, “I have a delicate matter for your attention.” Otto Shynnagel was not the sort of commander who swayed men with his beauty or bearing, but what he lacked in countenance and charm, he made up for in loyalty and single-mindedness.
“I am at your disposal, Your Majesty,” Otto replied, remaining on one knee, though he raised his head and gazed intently at a spot near Henry’s ankles.
“Several weeks ago, I sent several ambassadors to England, inquiring after the money that Queen Eleanor is seeking to raise for the safe return of her son. Last night I received word that the ambassadors were preparing to return to my court, along with a portion of the money.”
“Yes, Your Majesty,” Otto said.
“Queen Eleanor is sending a contingent of guards, of course, augmenting the men accompanying the ambassadors,” Henry said. “The silver will be well guarded, though I suspect France might try to intercept the company as it returns to Speyer.”
“And you wish me to intercept this ambush?”
“Not in the slightest,” Henry said with a smile. “I hope the French are successful in stealing this cargo.”
Otto’s brow furrowed. “I do not understand, Your Majesty.”