Burdens Of The Dead – Snippet 18


Chapter 15


The Black Sea


The Eastern Fleet sailed out of Trebizond, into the Black Sea. Admiral Lemnossa set an atypical course, bearing away from the coast they normally hugged, taking advantage of a stiff south-easterly breeze to bell their sails and carry them away from the sight of land. Land had watchers and in the open ocean they only had to scan the horizon to know if they were being pursued. On the southern coast of the Black Sea that meant a long way offshore as the steep coastline gave more than the normal eight miles of vision to the horizon.

They had not been at sea for four hours when it became obvious that at least one vessel was trying to stay in visual range. A lateen-masted fishing boat heading down the same course seemed unlikely in the extreme. Lemnossa ordered two of the light galliots to drop back. Running as the fishing boat was before the wind, it had limited options in using the wind to outrun the galliots under oars.

“So what do we do if we catch him, Admiral? Sink the testa di cazzo?” asked the young captain. This was his first command, and he was ready to dash in where even angels — or great galleys arrayed for war — would go in cautiously.

“It’s tempting. We’ll shift course a few more points to windward when you engage. If he tries to fight — that’s their look-out. If they try to run, catch them, and bring them along. If they come to meet you, it might be that they have that young woman with a baby on board that you thought you’d left behind.”

The light galliot’s captain grinned. “Then I’ll just have to sink them. My other girlfriend is waiting in Negroponte.”

“Probably with the same little present for you. Go and deal with them.”

They did. And the fishing boat had tried to run.

A little later the galliot, running with the wind so that the tired rowers could rest, and now accompanied a lateen rigged fishing boat, rejoined the fleet.

“They tried to pretend they were just fishermen. But those two never caught a fish in their lives,” said the young captain, pointing to two angry-looking prisoners trussed up in enough rope to anchor a round-ship in a gale. “I spotted their nice soft hands — and the real fishermen were terrified of them, you could see. So I gave the nod to some of my boys, and as we questioned them, Julio and Rupe hit them over the back of the head with marlin-spikes. They had all sorts of nasty toys hidden on them. Knives and potions. When we’d dealt with them the fishermen tried to tell us they’d been forced into this. But they had a fair amount of silver on them for that story. So, do we feed them all to the fishes?”

“I reckon keelhaul them,” said his mate. “Baitini bastards. They’re good at sneaking around and killing people. Let’s see how good they are at bleeding and breathing water.”

“I have always wondered,” said one of the lieutenants, as the admiral looked on thoughtfully, “how an assassin without hands manages?”

“Wouldn’t do much good,” said the captain. “This lot kills their own. Got no loyalty.” He spat overboard. “Worth as much as that spittle to each other.”

The admiral looked at the two trussed prisoners. Looked at their eyes. “Take that one away.” When they’d hauled the smaller of two away, he cut the gag off the remaining man. Who swore at him out of gratitude.

Admiral Lemnossa raised an eyebrow. “I’m a sailor. I’ve been at sea for more than forty years. Is that the best you can do? Try a little harder, man,” he said testily.

The assassin had expected torture or death. He was braced for that. Not for disdain.

“You will all die for this,” he said, sullenly.

The admiral yawned. “By whose hand? You are at sea, and if we tossed you all overboard no-one would ever know how your fish-eaten corpse met its end.”

“The masters know…”

“They know you set off to sea. No more. The sea kills more men than your kind ever have, or ever will. So what do I do with you?”

“Kill us. Torture us. It’s what you plan to do. We will have our reward in paradise!”

“Then it would be in our best interests to keep you alive and unable to receive it. Or if you die to make sure that you die defiled,” said the admiral, who had manipulated angry and drunken sailors to his will before. “Or I could let you go…if you convinced me that your retribution was sure.”

“The fleet that comes is greater than yours. Forty great galleys!”

“Impossible. And how could one such as you know?”

Bit by bit, with a combination of apparent boredom and the mention of unclean animals, Lemnossa found out just what the rank and file of the Baitini knew…or thought they knew.

He then repeated the process with the other fellow, who was less pliable, but Lemnossa had the bait of what he had extracted from his fellow Baitini. He had, of course, no intention of killing either of them. They were too valuable for that. He knew, now, that the fleet from the Dnieper was at least in part, at sea. He doubted it was the size these men believed, or that it was coming to liberate — from their point of view — the caliphate from the Ilkhan’s persecution.

To the Baitini, Mongol oppression seemed to constitute not letting them kill anyone who offended them. Even worse, the fact that the Mongols were in a position to do this to the sect which had controlled much of the land that the Ilkhan conquered. The admiral found himself in sympathy with the Mongols, and wondering just why they’d left the Baitini in existence for so long. Lemnossa was sure of one thing — that fleet was going, not the lands of Ilkhan, but to Constantinople and points west. And it was set on stopping his fleet re-enforcing the ships and crews of the VenetianRepublic

That was something Venice needed to know. But of course he had to get there first. The assassins could be fed some misleading information too, and let loose. They were spear-carriers, not big fish. Nasty spear-carriers that he’d prefer to hang out of hand, but still. He had near on seventy leagues of possible trouble before they reached the Bosphorus; he could not keep these two aboard, and they would serve a better purpose being turned loose than serving as fish-food. While fast ships raced from Crete to Venice with the new wine in a mere twenty-two days averaging six leagues in a day, his laden round ships and their escorts would be hard pressed do much more half that.

Normally, they’d wait out any bad weather, and would stay in sight of land. Now…that wasn’t an option.

*   *   *

That night, around midnight, the taller Baitini captive heard his tiny cabin door being quietly opened. There were two men with a shuttered lantern. He was still very thoroughly tied up and his captors had had scant regard for his physical needs — food, drink or relieving himself. He had not been gagged again, but he expected the worst. He was prepared for it now.