Burdens Of The Dead – Snippet 19


“Shh. We’ve come to rescue you,” whispered one of the men who came in, in the bastard Greek of the southern Black Sea coast.

“Cut me free,” he said, distrustful.

“We’ll cut your feet free. If we’re caught we need to claim we’re just taking you to the heads. Now, remember this. It’s Phillipo Pelluci and Julius Malacco, see. We let you go. You tell your people we let you go. If you’ll do that, we’ll get you onto a boat, and let you go free. Will you?”

His first inclination was to get these fools to cut him free and then to kill as many as he could. But his task had been to report back. “Where is my companion?”

“Fish food. He died when they put him to question. They’ll do you in the morning.”

“The admiral thinks he can fool your lot by going to Theodosia and then Constantinople, and not along the coast. He’s mad. The Genoese won’t help us,” whispered the second man. “Now we must go, quickly. Before the watchman comes back.”

“Only if he agrees,” said the other Greek-speaker.

It was written that the defenders of the faith could lie to unbelievers. So Malik nodded. “Yes. You will be spared. And given much gold.” They were driven by greed, these sons of Iblis.

They cut his feet free. One of them sneaked ahead and the other escorted him to the fishing boat, tied alongside.

It occurred to him then that his sailing skills were non-existent. “You must come with me,” he said.

“No. If the ships get through, we get home. If not, your people spare our lives. That’s the bargain,” hissed his escort. “Or we take you back. And kill you right here if you try and scream. If they catch you out here they’ll kill you anyway.”

“I cannot sail.”

“The wind will take you to shore, even drifting. Go.” He was pushed to the rail, and the other sailor came and helped to lower him, hands still tied, down onto the bow.

One of them tossed a knife down to peg in the planking beyond. The other cut the boat loose. Malik wondered if he should shout now…it would serve them right. But he was free, and retribution would wait. Their plot would have worked. The fleet was not going to be watching Crimea across the ocean. He barely knew where Theodosia was, or the likewise accursed Genoese. Godless foreigners, just like the Venetians. But it was not where the fleet would be expected to go. They would have been waiting for them off Samsun. The Venetians setting their fleet departure forward had merely changed the timing not the plan. He made his way to the knife, and began work on cutting himself loose as the fleet, dark and silent on the water, grew more distant.

If he had been a sailor he’d have wondered why no-one on watch noticed him and gave the alarm. Or why the little fishing vessel had been moored so that he could be dumped aboard. But he was not. He was barely able to hoist a sail and head toward the distant shore. He was not there, three hours later, to see the admiral ordering all sail made. They weren’t heading out across the Black Sea for Crimea. They were, hopefully, going on a leg that would see them in sight of land somewhere near Sinope. From there their course would be a lot more predictable, but also hopefully the news would also be too late.

The admiral would prefer to avoid battle if he could. This was a commercial fleet, but, when need be, Venetian sailors could be relied on to fight. Most of them had shares in what cargo there was on board the vessels. He just hoped that the Baitini and their backers had no real grasp of the rivalry between Genoa and Venice. They’d be as likely to shut Theodosia up and range their cannon on Venetian vessels as to offer them shelter. At sea they’d avoid each other. Or accuse each other of outright piracy, of course.

*   *   *

Two days later, the early morning was broken with a yell from a topmast lookout. “Sail! Sail ho! Northeast.”

The captain himself went up the ratlines to the basket. He came down, looking thoughtful. Admiral Lemnossa was waiting. “It’s Genoese vessels, Admiral. Seven of them. Round ships. They seem to be bearing down on us.”

“Can we outrun them?”

“Probably. It’d bring us back toward the coast. But seven vessels…they’re no threat to us, M’Lord.”

“Except to carry word of us, no.” He sighed. “Let’s hold our course.”

“We can always sink the bastards.”

“Tempting though it might be, it’d cost us too. And they might not be that easy. Those ships of theirs are big,” the admiral admitted grudgingly. The Genoese had pursued size over numbers in the last few years. The bigger vessels were harder to maneuver, but they carried more men. That counted for a great deal, in boarding actions.

So they held their course…but on the convoy, men began readying their gear for conflict. There were two men up in the mainmast basket on the flagship, watching. One came hurrying down the ratlines. “They’ve got the Venetian Lion flying along with their red cross. And a white flag.”

“Parley.” The admiral pulled a face. He knew Genoese pride ran as deep as Venetian, and they were good seamen too, although you’d be hard-pressed to find a Venetian who would admit it. If they were heading for a parley with Venetian vessels, then they were heading away from worse.

*   *   *

And that turned out to be the case, when the senior Genoese commander, Captain Di Tharra, came aboard. The vessels were showing signs of conflict too, so Admiral Lemnossa was not surprised to hear that they’d been attacked.

“Mostly galleys, M’Lord. From the north somewhere, by the look and garb of the crews. Maybe forty of them. We were lucky we hit bad weather. They’re not sailors. But there are plenty of them. Like lice.”

He took a deep breath. “We lost five ships, M’Lord Lemnossa. We came to ask…to beg to sail in the convoy with your vessels. We were attacked sailing west…we fled southeast under cover of darkness. We were making for Trebizond to petition the Venetian Podesta…but you’re already at sea. Safety in numbers. M’lord. We beg you out of Christian charity to permit us to sail with your company.” He looked as if he were swallowing something unpleasant. “We could pay.”

“No, we will not ask a fee. Not this time.” Lemnossa knew if word of that got back to Venice, they’d be wanting to know why he hadn’t skinned the bastardos, but it fitted. It fitted too well with what the Baitini had said. And the Genoans too were at sea early. Theodosia was the leading slave-port of Europe. The seasons for human traffic were different…but they also carried cargos that came from further afield, across the scattered khanates and fiefdoms of central Asia, silks and treasures from as far as fabled China. Instinct said that next time it might be his fleet, and that it might be that all the ships they had were not sufficient.

“We plan to make port at Sinope,” Lemnossa said.

The Genoan scowled. That city had been a Genoan trading post until recently. Unfortunately, the Genoese had fallen out with the bey of Sinope and his master the sultan of Rum. The parting had involved some burning of fortifications and a partial destruction of the quays and the town. The Genoese flag would be greeted with cannon-fire these days.