Burdens Of The Dead – Snippet 06
The city before Hekate’s gate began to stir behind its walls. It was still a very great city, a place of assassins, sailors, whores, princes, spies, merchants, thieves, saints and cut-throats, but as the population had steadily declined under the misrule of Emperor Alexis, some of them had been obliged to take on more than one of these professions.
Antimo Bartelozzi was a spy. He masqueraded as a merchant in the Venetian quarter of the Golden Horn, and was good at it, as he was good at almost anything he turned his hand to. He’d on occasion had to resort to being a thief; and, in the service of his master, the duke of Ferrara, had killed a few people.
Fortunately, the Old Fox, Duke Enrico Dell’este, did not order death lightly or without reason. The ruler of Ferrara was an odd master, winning the love of his people by working iron himself, with his own hands. He administered fairness in a time when that was rare from nobles. But mostly the people loved him for his bravura, and for winning against the odds. For keeping them safe.
That was not why Antimo Bartelozzi loved him. Antimo had once been sent to kill the duke, and had not done so. The Old Fox had given him a reason to live, which was more important than merely sparing his life had been.
Antimo would not ever have considered himself a saint, not even here in this most venal of cities. He was reasonably generous, though, so he tossed a scrap of his breakfast pastry to a hungry-looking stray dog in the alleyway, an odd looking creature with red ears.
Antimo went quietly on down the filth-strewn street, measuring, watching, making mental notes. He didn’t see the dog watching him, and then turn to follow its mistress. Antimo was looking for ways into and out of Constantinople. The dog knew some, but they were not used by ordinary mortals.
Antimo studied Constantinople with infinite care. He had been busy doing so for more than a month now. The emperor Alexis, profligate and debauched, had turned the city into a rotten fruit — ready to fall at a touch, but held in place by thorny branches. The emperor himself was not capable of directing the defenses of the city. He lacked troops, for one thing. He was scared to keep too many in the city, just as he was too scared to keep a good general there. He lacked the money for the sort of mercenary army he actually needed, and lacked the money for the sort of mercenary general, too, whom he might have been able to trust politically. Or distrust less, at least. A lot of money flowed into Byzantium, but it flowed away from Alexis just as quickly if not faster. The emperor was immobilized by his fears, pulled in so many directions, that in the end, he generally did nothing.
Alexis was fragile — but Constantinople was not. She had ancient walls and towers, and her people. Even abused by Alexis, they were a formidable force, and not one that would easily bend a knee to an invader. They loved and were proud of their city, from the Hagia Sophia to her mighty walls.
The walls and the citizenry could potentially hold off a large attacking force. Antimo explored the chinks in those wallsâ€¦and in the citizenry. The traders’ enclave was one such chink. The court of Alexis another, although that would be dangerous and expensive to use; Alexis expected treachery there, and was always looking for it. A third, possibly cheaper chink, were the mercenary captains. Alexis used his own people and his own ships to defend Byzantium and to tax her. But since the days of the Varangian Guard, mercenaries had played a major role in the defense of Constantinople. There just were not enough of them now to form a proper force.
Mercenary were relatively trustworthy, so long as they were paid. The emperor of Byzantium was wary about having his own generals here, so the mercenaries were his compromise for the safety of his city. The best of Constantinople’s generals were in Asia Minor on the borders of the Ilkhan’s satellite states of Cilcilia and the sultanate of Rum, or on the northern borders, where the tribes raided down from the lands of the Lord of the Mountains, Iskander Beg.
That worked fine for Antimo Bartelozzi, too.
In the Campo Ghetto, Itzaak ben Joseph, Kabbalistic mage and goldsmith, bent to his work. He took pride in his workmanship — and if a Jew dared to love a place, he loved this city. He felt as safe in this place as it was ever possible for a Jew to feel safe. He dared to think about the future, a future that held something other than packing up and fleeing to another place. Life in Venice under Doge Dorma was at least better and safer than it had been for the people of the Ghetto under Doge Foscari. It was still a place of Jews, Strega, even the occasional Mussulman trader. And of course, frauds and rogues, but in it a Jew could walk the streets without being molested.
There was plenty of quackery and trade in grey goods, philtres and charms and meaningless cantrips scrawled on strips of parchment. Still, there was real magic here, and not all of it good. Since the death of Marina, the mages had failed to unite or to accept any new leadership. The Strega families would continue with their old beliefs, but, no longer threatened by a common enemy, and without any particularly inspiring leaders, they grew more fractious.
Some drifted into areas that Itzaak would prefer not to think about. He was no great mage himself, his skills being limited to a bit of divination and his metalwork. He knew everyone, though, which was a kind of magic in itself. All news eventually came to his shop.
The latest was a bit worrying. A traveler had come into the shop, a co-religionist who had arrived from Constantinople. Besides the fact that the man wanted to convert quite a lot of jewelry into cash — of interest, naturally — he brought something of more interest. Itzaak’s small magical skills related to his profession. He could read precious metals, gold especially, and a little in some gemstones. They told him from whence they had come, and what they were made of. Often the two pieces of information were part of the same thing. Raw gold had different amounts of other metals mixed in with it. And of course processed gold was frequently adulterated.
This was gold from far off. Gold from the lands beyond the Volga River. Andâ€¦it was new. It had still been in the rock when Corfu had been under siege.
Gold was not a metal that, unmixed and relatively new, came into his hands very often. He smiled politely and proceeded with an assay, using the aqua regia, and carefully weighing the metal. The assay was totally unnecessary except as camouflage. It was accompanied by some equally careful fishing for information.
That was not very hard. Once he established that Itzaak shared his religion and history of persecution, Suliman ben Ezra was quite ready to tell him. “I don’t know where the emperor Alexis is getting it from, my friend. But it does come from the palace. Even though the attack on Corfu failed, he is still spending gold like water. It’s all he knows how to do. I think he expects Venetian vengeance, so he has been spending a little on mercenaries. This is where my gold came from. I was a seller of fine goods and perfumes. Mercenary captains run to expensive mistresses.”
“It’s information Venice should know,” said Itzaak.
His customer shrugged. “They must have their own spies. They’ll find out in good time, without me meddling. But it was time for wise people to leave there, my friend. The emperor was offering Jews as scapegoats and a blood-sop, to those who were angry about the losses. We’re being blamed, somehow. Again. He doesn’t quite want to destroy the Venetian quarter on the Golden Horn yetâ€¦but Greek pride stirs and is hurt. My family has lived there for two hundred years” — he made a face — “and yet I am still a foreigner and a Jew to them.”