Burdens Of The Dead – Snippet 29


He paused and took a long drink from the goblet of wine that was given to him. “We had no trouble from there to until we entered the Bosphorus, although vessels were sighted. We were a goodly company. And we were glad of it, Monsignors. It’s time the pirates and Byzantines were taught to respect the ships of Venice.”

“And, by the sounds of it, of Genoa.”

The fleet admiral laughed. “You should have heard the Genoese senior captain’s reaction when the emperor demanded half of the Genoese vessels’ cargo too. They’re used to Byzantines trying to play them off against us, not being treated like us. Alexis would have it that if they’d sail with our fleet, they could be taxed with us. I hear he was uninterested in their suggestion that he deploy his navy — not that it’s up to much — against the pirates in the Black sea. They’re too organized, Monsignor, just to be a rabble fleet. We need to take steps to see to our trade.”

“We plan to, Admiral. We plan to return to Constantinople long before spring with a sharp rebuke for a little emperor for breaching the terms of our treaty. It’s a pity that the rebellion in Opiskon appears to have fizzled out.”

Peering around the screen again Benito saw the Eastern Fleet admiral nod approvingly. “Not a moment too soon, Monsignors. You’ll find our crews keen enough to join the expedition. Emperor Alexis hurt our pride, and worse, our profits. Many’s the colleganza that’ll be cursing him tonight. Give the men a week ashore…”

That was what Benito needed to hear: The admiral’s assessment of the response of the men. Benito realized he should have guessed how far astray Emperor Alexius would let his greed lead him. It was not just the wealthy of Venice who traded Outremer. Even the lowliest seaman had a small share in a colleganza — a trading collective. A canny man could make himself a good profit — five times his investment — if he chose his goods and traders well. Those ordinary seamen would have lost money. Their retirement money for the older men, their weddings for the younger. The populi minuta would be angry and ready to put to sea again, despite the fact that it would be cold and wet at this season. He made a mental note to see what he could do to improve conditions on board. Half-frozen rowers on the galleys would not help their need for speed at all. Petro would complain about the money for oilskins and woolen hats, but not too much. Swords, powder and ball, arrows…no one quibbled about the need for those. But Benito had already heard Admiral Douro in the Arsenal, who skimped nothing for his own comfort, attempting to cut corners on the well-being of his crews. That would not stand, not on Benito’s watch.

The interview with the admiral of the Eastern Fleet continued for some time, refining details and clearing up points. Benito listened. And began to calculate on how many ships Venice could put at sea. He was pretty sure the lists in the Piazza San Marco would filling up within the next few days. Men would be signing up to join Venice on a punitive expedition to Constantinople. Benito had his name at the head of those lists. That would be popular. He also — and this would be a lot less popular — did not want to cripple and loot Constantinople. By the sounds of it they might need a bulwark against the east if these Baitini succeeded in their plans to subvert the Ilkhan’s empire from within. That sort of thinking was not likely to appeal to men who had just lost the little they had.

Later he set off in search of Marco. One look at his brother’s face told him that the admiral of the Eastern Fleet’s news was being carried along by hundreds of lesser channels. He also had that impatient, almost fevered Marcus-the-healer look. So the ships had brought more than just bad news.

“What is it, Benito? I need to get down to Fondamenta Zattere Ponto Lungo. There are some sick children. They have been very crowded on the Eastern Fleet vessels, with everyone trying to get out of Constantinople and Trebizond. They left some at Negroponte and at Corfu, but they were still crowded.”

Benito came straight to the point. “I need you and Brother Mascoli to take me down to the water chapel. Where you took me to meet the water-people.”

Marco nodded, quite as if he had expected this. Perhaps he had; who knew what the Lion whispered in his thoughts? “This evening? I really must go right now. I’d rather treat sick children immediately than let them scatter into the city and spread diseases around far and wide. Bring your daughter with you. Her godmother should see her.”

That, Benito had not expected. “I want to ask them for aid — again — in getting a fleet to Constantinople. Do you really think I should bring Alessia?”

Marco nodded. “It will do no harm to remind them of the bond between you.”

Benito pulled a face. “I don’t think they take very well to blackmail.”

But none-the-less he had her and Maria with him that evening when they made their way down to the consecrated water-chapel below the chapel of St. Raphaella. The undine Juliette and the triton Androcles came, as they waited. Benito saw the raised eyebrows of Juliette the undine, as she saw him holding Alessia “I see she has found her father. We’d heard about that.” Then she saw Maria, who had stayed back a little. She bowed with profound respect, disturbing the hair that cloaked her ample bare breasts. “I could wish we met again in better times, Lady of the Dead.”

*   *   *

Maria had wanted to properly thank the mer-woman who had stood in for Umberto’s sister at the christening of her daughter. She still had some of the canal-woman’s fear of the below-water dwellers, but her time as an acolyte of the Mother Goddess had broadened her perspectives a little.

But she still had not expected this non-human, so far away from little Corfu to know that much, or to call her by a title she did not really relish. “What? How –”

“He follows you,” said Juliette. “We can see. He longs for you, and for your strength. He comes. Soon.”

Maria felt the tears prick her eyelids, and fear gnaw at her belly. Fear of leaving her daughter. Fear of leaving the man she loved. Not fear for herself…but also fear because the last time she’d felt this sick she’d been pregnant. And she was just a little late. She hadn’t told Benito this small fact yet. He had enough to contend with.

She looked at Benito. He was studying the merpeople in a way that she’d learned meant he was looking for an angle to use with them. And plainly not finding it as easy as he usually did. “I need help,” he finally said.

A direct admission from Benito? He must be more worried than he’d let on.

The mer-folks’ eyes narrowed, but not with dislike, more in the manner of a shrewd merchant about to bargain. The triton spoke, “Not something we give easily or for no reason. Or for free, fire-spirit.”

Benito nodded. “I thought that would be the case. You remember the magical creature that tried to kill Marco. That attacked the ships.”

“Lamprey. Magical. Something we’d rather stay away from,” said Androcles, sinking back down into the water.

Benito spoke quickly, before he could move too far away. “I think more are coming. Or at least the monster’s master comes. He likes using the water for his servants.” That arrested the two merpeople, who had plainly been about to depart.

Now their eyes narrowed again, but with slow anger. Not for Benito but…yes. He had them. “What do you want?” Juliette asked.