Burdens Of The Dead – Snippet 14

 Chapter 11


“The chamber-servant to Lady Hooli is to open the door to the women’s quarters at midnight,” said the Master of the Blade to the three of the Hands he had designated to the task. “Amud, you and Ishmael will go to the Hypatian Chapel for the matins prayers for the few who attend their early rituals. They are at the root of this defiance.”

More orders, another night in Trebizond, more killing, and more terror. It was getting harder, though. The sultan had instituted a dawn to dusk curfew, and not all the strikes had been successful — inevitable with the haste, and the pressure, and the tense watchfulness of the people. But even with help of the drugs, some of the hands had failed as well. Been taken alive, and talked under torture. Moreover, they had been betrayed by others, repeatedly.

And killing some of the people they’d suspected of informing had swung around to bite them. Servants, slaves, women, these had always been easy to pressure into co-operation before. They were, themselves, safe from the Baitini by virtue of being of no account, and often bore a grudge against their masters. Only now they were deathly afraid for their own lives, and clung to those who they thought might protect them. The houses of the wealthy and powerful in Trebizond were little fortresses anyway. And the Venetians — well, they’d banded together, and many of the women and children were sleeping on the ships. The sailors and officers who would normally be enjoying the comforts and pleasures of the city were on board too. They were angry, and had neither fear nor respect for the Baitini.

The tavern keepers and whores were bitter, too. The Masters of the Hands would have killed the alcohol sellers long ago, but the Ilkhan had let it be known that he would hang the Masters, and destroy Alamut totally the next time they overstepped certain bounds. And that was one of them.

But now, the restraints were banished. The Master of the Blade of Trebizond had heard from a fellow Master in Sinope that they were wreaking havoc there too. Privately — very privately — the Master of the Blade wondered if the Supreme Master had finally gone mad. They were still too few, and the Mongols were not that weak. The Hand mocked the Mongol overlords, called them dissolute and degenerate. But the rest of them still feared the Mongols, and with good reason.

He wondered what the Old Man of the Mountain in Alamut thought of all of this. But that was not his affair. His role was to do the killing. Tonight seven of them would descend on the merchant Giuseppe Di Colmi. The man thought himself and his family secure. But there was a cellar, and patient digging had made an ingress from next door. This would shock the Venetians into slowing down their loading of ships, as the Supreme Master had ordered. Nothing else seemed to have succeeded so far.

The woman brought the food. The master could see fear in her eyes too, as she set out the bowls for the Hands to eat, before the cleansing and the holy rituals.

The woman left and the Hands ate.

*   *   *

The poison took effect two hours later. The drugs of the ritual had dulled their senses until it was too late. The Master of the Blade found himself lying in the narrow crawlway, vomiting blood. He did not have the strength to move. The Baitini were not the only killers-for-hire available, and their digging had not gone undetected after all.

The servant of the Lady Hooli did not fail, and the woman and her husband and child were found dead the next day. But the Hypatian Chapel was not nearly empty, as had been expected, Instead it was as full as it could hold, mostly with crewmen and soldiers, on their knees, heads bowed.

The Hands had their orders: Kill the monks first, and then as many of the worshipers as have not fled. Independent thought was not encouraged, and the rituals and drugs made doing so difficult. The drugs banished fear and stifled pain, but they drowned thought as well.

Besides, even if their mazed minds had been capable of fear, the Hands were far more afraid of the punishment meted out by their own people for failure than they were of anything else. So, ignoring the crewmen and soldiers entirely, they ran forward screaming the name of their God, blades out, toward the nave and the cross and the two Hypatian siblings leading the service.

The unarmed white-haired woman faced them with a kind of terrible calm dignity that almost, but not quite stopped them. But they’d come to kill. Paradise waited on their deaths in the service of the Hidden Hand. It was written and ordained.

They cut her down in a flurry of wild stabbing.

The other sibling was younger and less courageous, perhaps. He was trapped in the nave of the small chapel and clung to the feet of the figure on the cross that hung there. The celebrants — at first shocked into immobility — were now scrambling to their feet. They were big strong men, mostly oarsmen, and the front row had grabbed the heavy pew and used it as sort of broad shield, penning and pushing at the wild-dervish assassins. The pew was too wide for the nave and struck the round wall just as the lead Baitini swung his knife at the surviving Hypatian sibling, screaming: “Die, unbeliever!”

The cross the sibling was clinging to fell off the wall, onto the assassin with a terrible crash.

There was a moment’s silence, before the celebrants surged forward. They were not drug-fueled or trained particularly. But they were many and they were angry and afraid. They’d come to celebrate a final mass before setting sail. The sea was a perilous place, but not, it would seem, as dangerous as Trebizond.

Anger and fear and many big men, who all carried knives as working tools — who had just witnessed what many took for a miracle, not perhaps extra weight on old mortar — and the half dozen Baitini found themselves overwhelmed. Once they were down they were kicked and slashed and trampled.

The violence was only stopped by the surviving sibling somehow hauling the heavy cross upright, off the fallen Baitini and yelling: “In Christ’s name stop!” He was probably in shock, and that lent volume and fury to his voice. “Hold back! This is a house of worship, not murder. Holy St. Hypatia preached tolerance and forgiveness of our enemies. We have no need of violence here in God’s house, because his rod and his staff protect us.”

He pointed at two of the sailors, about to crush a stunned Baitini with a pew they hoisted between them. “You will put that pew back! As for these men, if they are still alive, bind them fast. And bind their wounds too. We must see to Sister Eugenia.”

But it was too late for the other sibling. They carried her to the altar, where the male Hypatian still stood, leaning on the cross he held upright. “Hold the cross,” he said to some of the sailors. Two of them took it — it was heavy and they staggered slightly — as the sibling knelt and prayed over his departed sister. The chapel was silent except for one of the Baitini, who was hastily muzzled with a rough hand and then gagged. The sibling stood up, not hysterical now, no, and not in shock. Perhaps the strength of his elder had passed into him. That was likely how it would be told, later. “Lean the cross against the wall. I will need someone to assist me with Mass.”

“But they’ve killed her, Brother…” said one the Venetians.

The sibling straightened, stern, strong. The Venetians took comfort. “Yes. She died in the service of the Hypatian Order, in the service of Christ in the House of God. People have come here to receive a last communion before the ships set sail, and she was a willing sacrifice to see that was fulfilled.” He toke his place behind the altar. “Thus, in her name, in the name of God and of Saint Hypatia, it will happen.”

“And these?” Someone pointed at the Baitini. Two were still alive and conscious. They were in a poor state — their clothes ripped and bloody, and plainly several of the others were dead.

“Let them watch,” said the sibling. “They may receive the sacrament if they choose to repent and accept grace. If not, when we are finished they will be taken out of the Church they have defiled with their actions, and they will answer to the sultan himself. And may God have mercy on their souls, for the sultan will have none.”

*   *   *

The Eastern Fleet sailed that morning, the winged lion flags fluttering bravely in the brisk breeze and the broad sails of the round ships belling with it, carrying the ships away from the shore. Ships laden with children and women, and not their usual cargo.

The traders that remained forted up together. The late caravans would be rich pickings, but money could not buy life.

And the sultan of Trebizond sent a message to the Mongol satrap of Erzurum, asking for help.