Burdens Of The Dead – Snippet 09

Chapter 6


Trebizond was part of a small semi-autonomous state, the sultanate of Pontus, which in turn was a vassal of Ilkhan Hotai the Ineffable. To make matters more complicated the city had a Venetian quarter, which had its own Podesta and small garrison. Michael Magheretti had been delighted with his appointment to that post, three years back. Trebizond was vital to the interests of Venice, and time spent serving with distinction here would serve him well in his progression within the ranks of those who served the Republic.

He’d soon found that he was being tested by fire. There were far too many conflicting factions inside the Venetian quarter, let alone in the small city. And his authority was limited. The Doge had made it very plain that he was to sooth tensions, not exacerbate them as Commander Tomaselli had, in his short clumsy tenure as commander of the local garrison.

Michael sighed. “You wish me to settle a domestic dispute, Signor Gambi? That…”

“Please, Podesta. It is a small thing. But Nestor and I have been friends, business rivals yes, but friends for fifteen years. We’re the bedrock of this community. A few words from you and the matter could be resolved.”

“Tomorrow afternoon.” Surely compared to the usual vicious factions all hiring Baitini assassins, and the inscrutability of the Ilkhan’s emissaries, and the local Sultan’s various relatives and cronies, it would be solvable?

Gambi frowned. “Your Honor, this really is a minor matter — if it is dealt with tonight. By tomorrow the families may be hiring assassins.”

Something about the way he said it made the young Podesta aware that this was not quite the domestic spat he had thought it was. Maybe it was the reference to “assassins.” When families clashed in Trebizond, they usually employed bravos for the purpose. Thugs, certainly, even blades-for-hire, but not outright assassins.

Could Gambi be making a veiled reference to the Baitini? The sect was causing a lot of problems lately — even for the Ilkhan, whom they normally avoided antagonizing.

But there were factions there too. There were factions everywhere in Trebizond. Spies spying on spies, assassins plotting against assassins. Michael was sure that at least three different spies were listening in to this conversation.

He sighed again. “I’ll come and drink a glass of wine with you, signor.”

So they walked the short distance to Villa Gambi. They were not unaccompanied, naturally; one never went anywhere here without guards. The villa was a handsome building — with suitable features for defense, as was the custom in the city. The Podesta had been there before. Gambi was one of Trebizond’s leading lights, and his support was valuable.

A window in an even more imposing pile across the narrow street flew open. “Testa di cazzo!” shouted the old man in a shrill cracked voice. “You try to turn even the Podesta against me?”

“Please, Nestor, it’s not like that. Can we not at least talk, old friend?”

“I am not your old friend,” said the elderly merchant, grumpily. “But if you will come to my house, we will talk. The Podesta can decide who is right. But you leave those thugs of yours outside.”

Gambi seemed determined to make the peace between the two houses. “Please, Podesta. You will be quite safe with Nestor. I’ll leave my men out here too.”

The heavy door was unbarred, and they went in, just the two of them. The doorman handed them over to a young woman. To his surprise Michael saw that it was Nestor Paravatta’s bastard daughter, that Gambi’s son — also here, far from Venice, from the wrong side of the blanket — was said to have insulted. She was the cause of the feud in the first place, but she didn’t seem very upset about it all.

This smelled. Michael turned to Juliano Gambi, to ask what was going on — to be given a warning shake of the head. They walked on down the Turkey-carpeted flags and to a small room. Nestor was sitting there, showing no signs of his earlier outrage. The door swung shut with a dull clank. It was, Michael had noticed in passing, very thick.

Gambi pulled another, inner door, with layers of fleeces nailed to it, closed behind him. He exhaled in obvious relief. “Sorry about our charade, Your Honor. They’re watching us a bit too closely for comfort right now. But Nestor’s inner room is about as secure as we can be.”

“So… there is no feud?” asked Michael warily. “No insults between the youngsters?”

“Oh, many. They have a wonderful time at it,” said Gambi. “And they’ll have a nice noisy reconciliation, and maybe one or two more spats, when we’ve done. No, the matter is that three carracks bound for Constantinople were attacked by pirates off the coast near Ordu.”

There were always a few astute merchants sending the goods of early caravans back before the holds of the fleet were full. There were good profits to be snatched. “I can see this could be a financial disaster, but well, was it a matter of faking a family feud to tell me? I mean piracy is a problem, and them daring to attack three ships…”

“Bless you, Podesta, they carried no part of our cargo. Well, I have a small share in a colleganza on one vessel, but not much. But it’s the effort that they went to stop the news of the attack that is of concern to us. There were only two survivors out of all three ships, and they were attacked by Baitini, here, within the walls, rather than let the men report it. It is not the piracy but the sheer number of attackers, and how they tried to make sure that there were no survivors that is worrying — and then the fact that the Baitini must have been actively waiting for anyone that escaped that would make it as far as this. This says the pirates are trying to keep their very existence quiet, planning something they don’t want us to know about. And there is only one possible thing that it could be. They want the fleet.”

That idea was enough to silence Michael. A large part of the wealth of Venice — and the survival of Trebizond itself — rested in the holds of the Eastern Fleet and the storehouses of Trebizond, waiting to load.

“Are you sure?”

Nestor shrugged. “Why would Baitini ambush the survivors — two common sailors — otherwise? And they killed the gate guards the crewmen spoke to, one of whom must have been the informant. One of the sailors got away, and found his way to the chapel of the Hypatian siblings. He told their seniors his story. The Baitini attempted to silence them too. But for a missed knife-stroke and a lot of luck we would have known nothing. And they were willing to murder all the Hypatians to silence that one man.”

“That could cause a riot!” The siblings were not universally popular, but they had a strong following among the poor and the women. “How did they survive?” he asked in a kind of horrified fascination. The Baitini did not often fail, and the Hypatians were so helpless-seeming.

“The Baitini were caught trying to poison the water cistern.” The older man allowed himself a grim smile of satisfaction. “The abbot sent to me that they had unfortunate accidents and fell from the roof. I did not enquire further. The siblings draw their members from all walks of life and are not all the gentle soft targets they appear. The Baitini were taken by surprise. And the siblings got word to us, and we, to you. So, Podesta, what do you plan to do?”

Michael wished he knew. The caravans from the east came in day after day, laden with the rich goods Europe craved. There were fortunes to be made…but plainly the pirate fleet thought itself able to capture the fleet. Since the Baitini were involved Michael would not rule out sabotage, infiltration and even suicidal murder for them to gain their ends. They — or at least the rank and file — were encouraged to believe in an afterlife in paradise guaranteed if they died fulfilling their appointed tasks. Oddly, the leaders of the sect did not feel this applied to them, thought Michael dryly. “What would you advise, signors?”

The two looked at each other. Eventually, Nestor said carefully: “Milord, keeping a fleet at sea for a long time is no easy thing. The time and day of the Eastern Fleet’s departure is well known to all. They will not remain waiting offshore for another two months. This was a feeler, to blood their men, and to try our strength…and to stop vessels running across to Odessa and Theodosia”

“But do they need to? I mean the Baitini do not push against the Ilkhan. Surely if they’re involved it means the Ilkhan are too? There are other ports and places”

Julianio Gambi chuckled wryly. “Come now, M’lord, you know as well as I do that the Ilkhan could ride in tomorrow and take Trebizond. the sultan’s army wouldn’t last an hour defending the walls, if they fought at all. Why should the Mongols do such a thing? They’d rather have the trade flourish and tax us. Besides they would fair poorly at sea against Venetian ships and seamen.”

Gambi paused, and took a deep breath. “There is only one place such a fleet of raiders could be coming from — across the Black Sea. The satrapies and princedoms under Grand Duke Jagiellon’s sway could build and man the massive fleet they would need, and provide port facilities for it, without it becoming common knowledge. No one else could do it. It’s the only possibility. Those fifteen raiders were nothing. They were a patrol to keep vessels from venturing across to Crimea, as they do at this time of year.”

Michael felt like the man who was called to help get a cat out of a loft, but who found a lion waiting for him instead. There was only one real answer — well, other than the fleet not sailing at all — and that would be to sail early. Before the ships were fully laden. That would mean a loss, but not, hopefully, a total loss.

“Gentlemen,” he said with a calm he was far from feeling, “how much of your cargo can you have loaded and ready to sail in three weeks? Because that is when the fleet will be leaving.”

The two men nodded together as if they were puppets controlled by the same set of strings. “There’s going to be an almighty outcry,” said Gambi. “But it is the only explanation for the efforts the assassins are making. And the Hypatians are to be trusted. I’ve spoken to the sailor myself. He’s scared near witless, but he’s telling the truth. I recognize him. Big ox of an oarsman.”

“Maybe there will be less of an outcry than you think, my friend,” said Nestor. “Merchants in a place like this are sensitive to unrest. And it’s been reeking of it here for the last while. And if I know the Baitini, they’ll try to foment more trouble. That’ll play into our hands.”

“If we live through it,” said Gambi, with morbid satisfaction. “It’s a good decision, though, Podesta.”

Michael hoped the Council of Ten he would have to answer to in Venice thought so as well. They weren’t here, where the streets smelled of fear.