Burdens Of The Dead – Snippet 28
Â PART III
November, 1540 A.D.
Â Chapter 20
Â Benito had long since decided that he could deal with almost anything better than goodbyes. This one was far worse than any other. Yet there was no way he could leave without saying goodbye to Maria and Alessia. Life was too short and fragile and precious for that. He knew that the task ahead was fraught and that Maria would be going to Aidoneus’ shadowy kingdom soon. It was almost enough to make him put his daughter on the ship with him. But at least there was Marco here in Venice, and Katerina as well. Marco and the spirit of the lion of St. Mark. And although there were differences between the brothers, there was no-one Benito knew he could trust more, and a child would not be safe on the ship. Not where he was going. And she would be even less safe alone in Corfu. The time was coming.
The fleet was almost ready. The fast galleys that had sailed out of the gates of Hercules had returned and were in the final stages of refitting. Word was in from Genoa that their vessels were ready to sail within three weeks for the meeting at Corfu, along with the Aragonese. Little did they know that they would not be overwintering there. A winter expedition was madnessâ€¦but such was the reputation that sailed with the fleets, that there was no shortage of madmen willing to gamble on the weather. The first relief had come to Corfu in winter despite the weather.
Benito had no intention of gambling. He had instead the intent of gathering some aid. Reluctant aid, maybe. But aid anyway. He went in search of Marco. He expected to find him in the Church of St. Raphaella, which was fine as it was where they needed to go. Instead he ran into him, smiling, on the stairs leading up to the Doge’s palace. “The fleet’s been sighted. The fleet from the Black Sea. Maybe there will be no need of all this.”
Marco always hoped to avoid war. Well, the part of Marco that was Marco-the-healer did. The part that was Marco-the-lion did not. Benito had decided, when he was still a boy, that if a fight was inevitable anyway, you might as well get over and done with, on your own terms. He doubted if the fleet’s return meant anything good. But there was no sense in dampening Marco’s hopes. He’d bet the news from the fleet would do that anyway.
And Benito was not disappointed; a wise man had once told him, “a pessimist is never unpleasantly surprised,” and when it came to war, he supposed he must be a pessimist. He was allowed — a rare and doubtful privilege — to sit quietly behind a screen in a discrete private salon in the Doge’s palace while the admiral of the Eastern Fleet reported to the Council of Ten.
“Monsignors, Doge Petro,” said the admiral. “We have two thirds-empty holds, and we have several vessels barely fit to sail. We abandoned two at the little Arsenal in Corfu — although we have brought home a few prizes from the attack we suffered. They’re not worth much, though. There’s trouble brewing, big trouble, with the eastern trade. Emperor Alexis demanded a high toll for our passage. Half our cargo, and the vessels were less than full anyway.”
“That’s a direct contravention of the treaty of Tarsus,” said one of the Council members. They were masked, as usual. But Benito had a good idea who it was by the voice and intonation.
“The Venetian ambassador, Signor Porchelli, made representation to the emperor. He was lucky to get away with his life, Monsignors. The emperor has gone completely mad, we think. He said he did not care. We could pay and go or stay and be sunk. He said that he has no need to fear Venice any more. Constantinople is restive and afraid. They prepare for war. The Venetian quarter is sealed off. Our people there fear a massacre.”
“They surely would not dare.”
The Eastern Fleet admiral shook his head. “I think the Byzantine generals are reluctant, Monsignors, but Alexis’s mercenariesâ€¦they see the prospect of rich loot. We paid and brought many of the women and children with us. Also some of the reserves of goods and gold our traders there held for their houses.”
Benito knew what that meant: very, very scared merchants. Without much gold, or stock, their ability to trade would be severely curtailed, and for a Venetian merchant house, death was almost preferable.
“The fleet is early, and you left Trebizond early. Without full holds, to judge by your statements.” That was Petro. Benito knew the voice too well to be mistaken.
“Yes Monsignors. We had little choice. The Venetian podesta there made the decision, and it was a wise one, as events proved.”
Peering from behind the screen in the dimly-lit room — the Council preferred it so to preserve their anonymity, which kept them from undue influence and of course, assassination — Benito could see the admiral of the Eastern Fleet tugging his beard nervously. The council did not like rash admirals. They liked over-cautious ones even less. Lemnossa was a wily old bird by all reports, but the Council could be judgmental and vindictive. And the Venetian Republic had lost money.
“We have had trouble in Trebizond, Monsignors. The Baitini have moved against the local satrap. So far the Ilkhan has done nothing.”
“A sect of the worshippers of Mahomet, considered by many of their co-religionists to be heretical. A dangerous sect the Ilkhan all but crushed nearly a century ago. They were the last major force to stand against the Mongol in Damascus and their other secretive great fortress, Alamut. They ruled by fear and assassination, rather than by overt power. They were the power behind the throne. They believe they have a special relationship with God.”
“Don’t all sects?” said someone.
“These are very fanatical, Monsignors. They were suppressed, but lately the Venetian merchants in Trebizond say that they have become more open in their extortion and murder. The city is in ferment. The Venetian quarter is an armed camp. Trade is severely curtailed, with caravans from Hind reported as going to other ports. A small fleet left early, as some do every year. They never returned.”
“It appears they were attacked by another fleet, Monsignors. A fleet of galleys coming from Odessa, judging by sail-setting and their garb. Two sailors survived, clinging to some flotsam, and made their way overland, back to Trebizond. One of them was murdered, in the streets of Trebizond. The Baitini are working in concert with these raiders. They tried to kill both of the sailors, and it is only by the grace of God that one escaped the murderers to tell us his story. But even given that the man who survived was traumatized and just a common sailor, we knew that the size of the rover-fleet was substantial.”
“It appears that the duke of Genoa will have his pirate problem.”
“Yes, Monsignors. I had not got there yet, but seven vessels of the State of Genoa — well, we met them several day’s sail from the port of Sinope. They signaled us, and as we outnumbered them and outgunned them, we allowed a small boat to come across to us. They sought to join our fleet, seeking protection as fellow Christians from the pirate fleet that had barred their way. They had been driven out of Theodosia, and lost five vessels, and suffered considerable loss of life. We — out of Christian charity and to swell our numbers — allowed them to join our fleet. We encountered their attackers in some force a day out of Herculea. We were prepared and ready for the conflict, and they wereâ€¦shall we say, unskilled, Monsignors. Bloodthirsty but unskilled. There were only some thirty galleys, and so with our allies we outnumbered them, and they were tricked into allowing us to fire broadsides at them. Their ships are merely equipped with bow and stern chasers, and they’re poor gunners. The long and the short it is we beat them off with some loss of life and damage on our part, but not a vessel lost. We sank seven of them, and captured four, although we scuttled one as she was in no state to be sailed at any speed.”