Burdens Of The Dead – Snippet 12

 Chapter 9


 In Trebizond, the loading proceeded furiously. Sweating lines of porters carried tarpaulin wrapped bales from the warehouses, up the gangplanks into the round-ships. The pace of loading and trade was frenetic. So was the intrigue.

The Podesta, Michael Magheretti, realized quite soon that the Baitini were out to wreak havoc. Unfortunately for them, the story about them trying to poison the cistern of the Hypatian siblings had spread all over the city. The dead bodies on the steep stair outside their cloister, having fallen from the roof, and the gaff and the purpose it had been needed for, got talked about, and tied together. The assassins were feared, and used that fear to intimidate. They were discovering that intimidation only works when the victims believe that silence and co-operation will help them to survive. When that is not true — when you started poisoning water-supplies that would just kill everyone — that does indeed produce fear, but no co-operation, not even tacit co-operation.

It didn’t help them at all that they’d attacked Hypatians. The siblings were known as gentle and tolerant near-pacifists, yet it was the Baitini who had died, not them. As he knew, the siblings were loved by the poor and the women…and, it seemed, by anyone who had come to them for healing and help. Resentment was growing by the day, by the hour, and the dead assassins were widely regarded as having been struck down by a miracle.

Surely, given that the Baitini had been the ones that had fallen, even their own fierce God could not be smiling on them? Had they gone too far?

The Baitini responded with characteristic violence, which had worked in the past. But what they had not realized was that in the past people had assumed that there was some logic behind their killing, and that something could be done to mollify the killers. Now people were swiftly revising their estimations and that, too, was making them angry. When you can appease something, you are inclined to do so. But when something is clearly operating from a position of intractable insanity — “They’ve become mad dogs,” Michael Magheretti said grimly. He sat, cross-legged, on cushions in the private audience chamber with the sultan of Trebizond and two of his advisers, sipping a spicy licorice tea. Or pretending to, rather. He really did not like the stuff and wondered if he could contrive to spill it.

“Maybe we fail to discern their reason,” the plump sultan said. He had done considerable business with the Baitini before. Commerce had governed those transactions.

“Garrgh!” The more elderly of the two courtiers courtier, who had slurped noisily at his small cup moments before, clutched at his throat. Then, fell forward struggling for breath, his lips turning blue and his hands clawing spasmodically.

The sultan gaped. His bodyguards, lounging in the doorway and around the walls, rushed forward and surrounded him. The podesta’s guard did the same — tried to, rather. With only just two of them, it was more of a challenge.

A servant went running for a physician, as two others tried to help the dying man. But it was too late. By the time the doctor arrived, the old adviser was dead. A search of his body and clothing turned up a scrap of parchment someone had stuffed in a pocket. The scrap carried the mark of the Baitini. It was the assassin cult’s custom to mark their work thus.

Magheretti looked up from the paper into the stricken eyes of the sultan. “I think, most exalted one,” he said carefully, “That this is your answer. Things have gone quite beyond reason.”

The assassins had intended to show the powers that ruled Trebizond that no-one was beyond their reach. They had planned to set power against power, killing the Venetian in the sultan’s palace. The wise assassin chooses his target and his place of attack very carefully. Only this time they’d killed the wrong man, in the wrong place.

The sultan of Trebizond was known as mild man, better at intrigue and politics than acts of violence. His major weakness was a love of falconry. His eyes now were as wide and wild as one of his birds, hunting, and it looked as if violence was a sure option. “Send a message to the Baitini,” he said through clenched teeth. “That I want the ones who did this, and I want the one that gave the order and I want the people who paid for it. And I want them alive before tomorrow dawns. They’ll answer to me under my torturers. They have killed the master of my hawks, and I will see the killers and their payers suffer for it.”

“They will try to blame it on us,” said Michael, his voice shaky. Thank Heaven he hadn’t liked the tea! The poison had been so toxic — too toxic, really; the Baitini had overstepped themselves there too — that it had almost instantly slain the first of their party to drink it. “But I think that poison was aimed at me. They have gone mad. We need to get rid of them. Smoke them out.”

“I think,” said the sultan, grimly, “that this time they have gone their length.”

*   *   *

The Master of the Blade sat with the Master of Poisons and the Master of the Garotte, in audience with the Master of the Hidden Hand, the new commander of the Trebizond chapter. They were far from the winds of Alamut and the scented halls of Damascus here. This had always been a busy post, but not a particularly religious one. Yes, the work was holy…but they had all known that money changed hands.

The new Master sent from the Supreme Master in Damascus did not seem to grasp the realities of the situation here. “We are treading on dangerous ground here, master. We…”

“We have orders from a higher authority,” interrupted the Master of the Hidden Hand, his voice austere.

“You don’t understand, Master. We could order some of the lesser Hands to confess, suitably drugged. The sultan…”

“Is a man. His time has passed. It is our time now.” The Master of the Hidden Hand of God with absolute conviction. “We have orders, divine orders, to halt the sailing of the unbelievers fleet until the normal day. If we have to kill all of them, it will be done. And we will make examples of those who try to go against the order. Do you dare to question that, or our Master’s will?”

They did not, of course. But there were barely a hundred and thirty of them in the city. And they had lived and acted with impunity for many years. The local officials and soldiery feared them. Someone would always attempt to curry favor by giving the Baitini word of any move against them.

They were not prepared for the sultan’s Mongol mercenaries, his personal bodyguard who were not in the least afraid of the wrath of Alamut. Three full companies of the mercenaries smashed through the doors of the house used by the Master of Blade and several of the hands an hour later. The fighting that ensured was savage. Yashmad, one of the hands, escaped in the melee. Later, bloody, angry and afraid he reported to his Master, the Garrote. “Mamud and Ishmael are dead, I think. Malkis is still alive. They beat him insensible. They were dragging Amad. I don’t know if he was alive.”

The Master of the Garrote called one of his senior hands. “Send word to the palace. They are to release our people on pain of our…displeasure.”

The man came back a little later, looking shaken. “Sheik Marawass has been taken to the torture chambers. Emblin has fled. The sultan is offering five hundred in gold for him alive and a hundred for his head. We’d better leave here, Master. Marawass knows too much.”

Something hit the outer door with a thunderous crash. The Master of Garrotte and the senior Hand wasted no time, but fled out the back and over the roof. Someone in the street shouted to the soldiers — something neither would have thought they’d dare to do a few weeks ago. “Tonight we go killing. Them and those Venetian unbelievers,” panted the Master, angrily.

But first, they fled for their lives, knowing that the utter hold of fear they had enjoyed for so long was broken.

*   *   *

Michael Magheretti, podesta to the Venetian quarter of the city of Trebizond, tried to exercise both sympathy and patience. He had not previously been aware of just how many Venetian citizens had made their way to this far outpost of the commercial empire of Venice, only to find that the streets were not paved with gold. They’d found instead that it was easy to acquire a family and to live barely within their means.

“Please, your honor. You must help us,” said the fifth supplicant for the day. “I have to get them out of here. They’re all I have and I can’t afford the prices the captains of the ships are asking, let alone the bribes.”

“Bribes?” asked Michael. This was the first he’d heard of bribes.

“Yes. To get on the list. There’s no space for everyone. So you have to pay to get on the list before they’ll take your money as a passenger. And the price keeps going up.”

Once — not long ago — Michael would have leapt to his feet and said: ‘I’ll put a stop to that.’ But now he merely steepled his fingers and said: “I see. Who collects these payments?” he asked, his voice disinterested.

“Balbi. The boatswain from the Pride of Chiogga,” said the man, before realizing that he might have said too much. “I mean, I have heard he might be…”

Michael nodded wisely. “You can’t believe all you hear.”

A little later he scheduled a series of meetings with various captains of the Eastern Fleet. And a boatswain. And the admiral of the Eastern Fleet.

There was considerable explaining. Also a boatswain who would be lucky if he did not hang. But it did little to counter the fact that three Venetian-quarter people had died the night before, and one had been a babe in arms. The ships were going to be full, not of their usual cargo of rare spices and delicate silks, but of people and a lot of the money they’d need to sustain themselves back in safer places.