Burdens Of The Dead – Snippet 27

 Chapter 19


 The narrow waters of the Bosphorus had seemed like a refuge. The admiral of Eastern Fleet had relaxed when they had entered them, with the wooded bluffs seeming like shields.

Now, with the sunset red-hazed by the smoke hanging in the still sky above Constantinople’s walls, Lemnossa realised that it was no sanctuary. The great chain was being raised — you could hear the huge windlasses creak and rattle in the Megalos pyrgos in the Galata citadel even from here, a good mile away. It was, in these almost windstill evening conditions, too late to flee. They were trapped in the Golden Horn anchorage. It did not look good.

Normally the little oared lighters and schifos pulled out from the shore like flies as the fleet sailed in, toward the wharves below the Venetian quarter. Not this time. All that approached was a solitary Byzantine Empire fusta, which rowed to the admiral’s flagship. The officer who climbed up onto the Great Galley plainly had no love for Venice or the Venetians. His bow was a bob, so perfunctory as to border on an insult, and he certainly was not going to salute the admiral. “You are to provide us with your manifests. Charges to the value of half your cargo will be levied before your vessels are allowed to proceed.”

Admiral Lemnossa sighed. “What’s your name, son?”

“It’s of no concern to you. And I am no son of yours, old man. Those are orders from the emperor Alexis himself.”

“They’re also a direct breach of the Treaty of Tarsus that your emperor is signatory to. So, if they’re his orders you’d better bring us proof of it, signed and with the Byzantine Imperial seal, or when the Venetian fleet arrives your emperor is likely to offer fulsome apologies, offers of restitution and your head on a platter. And if you didn’t know that you’d have been happy to give me your name and style,” said the admiral, calmly.

The calmness jarred the young officer briefly, but his bombast and arrogance re-asserted themselves. “The emperor repudiates the terms of Tarsus. You have until sundown tomorrow to comply, or the cannon on the wall will be brought to bear on your vessels.”

*   *   *

Under the circumstances Lemnossa decided that they would be wisest to lie off, rather than come in to the quays. They were still under the guns of the city and of Galatea — just off the Venetian quarter, and the little quays in the bay they would normally have made for. A little later a small boat came over from the Genovese Fleet. Lemnossa took a look at the Genovese Captain Di Tharra, and held up a hand. “Wine first.” The captain’s face was the color of the purple-red of the wine from the vineyards of Masceron.

The captain tossed it off in a masterful fashion, and did look a fraction the better for it. He was plainly near incandescent, still.

“The testa di cazzo wants half our cargo. Half! He said as we sailed in here with Venetians, we could be treated like them.” He looked enquiringly at his host. “I assume…?”

“Yes,” said Lemnossa.

“So what are you going to do?” asked Di Tharra.

Lemnossa ground his teeth. “Pay, I expect. I do not expect my crews or my officers are going to be very happy to do so. But we’re not in the best of positions to refuse. We’ll need guarantees, though.” He jerked a thumb at the walls of Constantinople. “Alexis must need the money desperately or he’d have tried sinking the fleet anyway. We’re trapped and while we could inflict quite some damage it’s obvious we’re not equipped for war but for trade. That won’t be the same next time we come to Constantinople. He must know these vessels will be turned against him, and that this must mean war.”

The captain nodded. “The duke of Genoa is going to be, shall we say, spitting hellfire. We negotiated a trade-treaty with the emperor Alexis only last year!”

“He may have acquired other allies since then,” said Admiral Lemnossa, thinking that the pieces fitted all too obviously and well. He just had to hope the Ilkhan Mongols were not part of the scheme.

The Genoese captain snorted. “Alexis? They must have a rare taste for incompetence and treachery.”

Lemnossa nodded. “They will pay him back in kind, at least with the treachery, of course. But Alexis has never been able to see that far into the future. Today is far enough for him.”

“Which brings us to what we do tomorrow, M’Lord. We cannot stand off against the fortress on our own. And if we do somehow break through the chain, we still have the Hellespont.”

“So we will pay up. Alexis is correct on this one. More and we might have baulked and taken our chances. We can try to negotiate. of course.”

They sat and talked, trying to find an alternative and not succeeding. Night fell and a seaman came to interrupt them. “Admiral, there is a man to see you. He’s just come from the Venetian quarter with a message from the ambassador, he says.”

Admiral Lemnossa looked at his Genoese guest. Shrugged. They were in trouble together. “Bring him up.”

“I could leave, M’lord.”

“I’d probably just have to get someone to row me over to your vessel to tell you about it.”

The man who came up was a fairly hard looking fellow, who walked like a sailor, not like the messenger of an ambassador. He handed over a sealed parchment. “Had to come down the wall on a rope, M’lord. Signor Porchelli is bit old for it.”

“Can we take a few hundred men back that way and go and hang the emperor in his own throne-room?” asked the Genoese captain.

The messenger did not take it as a jest. “No, M’lord. We had to bribe the guards on the wall to let me get up there. There are some schifos tied alongside the quays and I took a small one, muffled the oars, and rowed out here. The Venetian quarter is sealed off. Guards on the outside, barricades in the streets. We’re expecting trouble. It’s been building up for a while. The emperor blamed it on the demoi — the street-gangs. The blues, the reds and greens…but it’s more than that. We were told the guards were for our safety, but they don’t stop them. It’s us they’re guarding, stopping people defending themselves and stopping us escaping, or at least escaping with any of our goods.”

“Do you mind if I read this, Captain?” asked Lemnossa, cracking the seal.

“Of course not, Admiral.”

Lemnossa reflected that a few cannonballs and pirates, and the emperor Alexis had done more for Venetian-Genovese relations than a hundred years of diplomacy had. The letter was brief and to the point: the Venetian merchants in the city had suffered depredations and violence, and if reliable informants were to be believed, crippling taxation was about to be enforced on them. As the Venetian quarter was Venetian territory, that was not something that it had been subject to before: a fact that embittered a series of emperors. The ambassador had approached the emperor on hearing that the fleet was in the Bosphorus, as to opening the wall-gates to allow normal trade. He had been lucky to escape with his life. The fleet must proceed without delay to Venice and lay these matters before the Senate and the Doge. The city lacked as adequate a defense as it might have, as there was a revolt underway in the Opiskon theme, the region that faced onto the Hellespont. Once the ships had passed Constantinople, they were unlikely to be interfered with.

Only they were on the wrong side of the chain. Lemnossa sucked breath through his teeth. There had to be a way of salvaging as much as possible from this wreck. “I think,” he said slowly, “we’ll need some leads-men on the bow. We need to move these vessels deeper into the Golden Horn. Then they can’t bring cannon bear on us from both sides, and, if we fire back, we won’t hit the Venetian quarter.” He looked at his companion. “Or the Genoese. It is closer to the chain, anyway.”

“The Genoese are in big trouble,” volunteered the messenger with some satisfaction. “They tried to protest about the control of their gate. Alexis had five of their leading merchants crucified.”

Captain di Tharra of Genoa stood up. “I thought it might just be pique, that we’d sailed in company and could not be turned against each other. But it goes deeper than that, M’lord. I’ll move our vessels with yours, although we lack the sweeps to move them easily.”

“We’ll see to taking lines across. Your round ships are good for defense, with those castles of theirs. We’ll get ourselves into as good a negotiating position as possible. Make co-operation contingent on access to our people.” He grimaced. “It’s likely that Alexis plans a wholesale looting of both Venetian and Genoese storehouses and assets, given his actions here. If we negotiate wisely we can let him believe we plan to replenish those. He’s mad enough to think he can get away with robbing us there too. If we play it right, we can do the opposite. It’ll not help our crews and our investors, but my Senate and your duke should be grateful. And we’d be no worse off for doing it.”

“You’re a master strategist, Admiral,” said the senior captain respectfully.

“I wish I was. We would not be here if that was the case. Now let us use the night-hours.”

*   *   *

The morning found the fleet lying at anchor nearly a mile further up the great Golden Horn, anchored bow and stern to offer their narrowest, strongest profile to the seawall and effectively out of range of the cannon on Galatea. The Byzantines could hardly have been unaware of it, but had taken no action. The day was well advanced before a Byzantine fusta came out to the fleet.

It was a very different officer aboard her. He saluted respectfully and delivered his message. “My Lord Admiral. My commander, the Megadoux Laskaris wishes to know why you have assumed formations as if for war. You are to proceed to the usual wharves given to the Venetian trade offload, or we will be obliged to take action against you.”

Lemnossa laughed softly. “Oh no, young man. I’m not one to stick his head twice into the same noose. Yes, we’re trapped in your harbor — but that does mean that those masts over there, which are your fleet, are trapped in here with us. And no other vessels to trade or aid are able to come in. The Sea of Marmara coast has currents bad enough to make it a risky landing place, and risk is expense. Now, let us negotiate in good faith. I am reluctant — but willing — to agree to a slightly elevated duty to the value of some small part of our cargo, as the expense of putting down the uprising in Opiskon must be considerable and would endanger us too. There are merchants in Constantinople hungry for our goods. Your Emperor can extract some tariffs from them.”

The officer swallowed. “Ah. Let me carry word of this to my seniors. How did you know about Opiskon?”

The admiral shrugged. It did no harm to sew a bit of disinformation, and perhaps a lieutenant would learn that good manners had value. “Shall we say that I was informed. You think just who I have seen since we entered the Golden Horn.” He waved a hand about. “A naval encounter here in such closed quarters would be messy. Merely a hand-to-hand melee. We’re carrying extra crew as we’ve had pirate trouble. We sank quite a number of their vessels.”

*   *   *

Before the trouble started, Antimo Bartelozzi had moved himself quietly out of the Venetian quarter, into the rundown trading district that had once been granted to the duchy of Amalfi, and was now more or less the whores’ quarter. In a city with such a heavy dependence on mercenaries and the emperor’s two remaining tagmata, it was going to remain the part of town with the freest access. Yes, he might be mistaken for a pimp, but it was better than what he saw coming to the foreign trading quarters. He’d be leaving shortly. He’d hoped to buy a passage on a vessel of the Venetian Eastern Fleet, but if his information was correct, they’d be lucky to sail out of the Golden Horn, let alone be allowed contact with the Venetian quarter.

He knew that the fleet had come in, and at first light had quietly made his way up the third hill to a building with a suitable flat roof. He’d secured the use of it some four months before, and had done considerable mapping from up there. And from here he could see that the Venetians — and by the shape of the vessels — some Genoese ships, had not played the game according to the plans of the Byzantines.

That was good, but he would still make his way overland to a small port further west. Possibly Aenus — a small place far enough away to avoid any shred of suspicion or close examination of the baggage of maps and information he had to transport. He wanted to look at its defenses anyway, although a land-battle across Byzantium was probably a less-than-wise strategy as a way to capture Constantinople.

He went back down the narrow stairs to gather more word from the streets. They got it wrong, as often as not. But put together with the diverse facts at his disposal Antimo could make an educated guess.

He was unaware that he was being watched. That should have been of concern to him. But then Hekate had means denied to Alexius’s spy-catchers. She had understood how he knew she was watching him at their first encounter, and taken steps to counter his powers. She was, after all, a goddess.

*   *   *

It took three days to hammer out a deal, and a great deal of shuttling to-and-fro. But Alexius got less than he’d hoped for, and Admiral Lemnossa got exactly what he hadn’t wanted, but had expected: more refugees. And the relief of putting Constantinople behind him.

It did nothing for the fury of the ship’s crews though. Every man on every vessel had lost money. They’d inevitably clubbed together with their friends and relations to buy a share in one of the colleganzas. Inevitably too, they’d dreamed of the best possible profit — most of which had just disappeared into Alexius’s coffers. And now all they wanted was some of that loss back out of his hide. That played along with the worry and anger of the refugees, who were mostly only going as far as Negroponte, as the next safe Venetian outpost. When the admiral considered how overloaded the ships were with humans and stock from Constantinople, he was glad to be offloading some of this lot there.

The lightening of his vessels could not come soon enough.