Much Fall Of Blood — Snippet 05
Sitting back in his chair in his office in the Castel a Terra of the Citadel of Corfu, Benito Valdosta raised his eyebrows. “And you want me to come out to your estate for some hunting but not to tell anyone. Guiliano, how stupid do you think I am?”
Guiliano Lozza had begun to acquire a little layer of comfortable plumpness again that had made the recruits in Venetian Corfiote irregulars call him Loukoumia. Marriage to Thalia, and with a babe on the way, had eased some of the bitter lines that the murder of his wife and child had brought to the face of the former guerilla-captain. Guiliano had turned down offer of the job of Captain-General of the island without a second thought. He was more interested in his olives, his grapes and the possibility of a pack of plump children to spoil. It would be easy for a fool to forget that the Loukoumia was a master swordsman and strategist.
Benito was only a fool some of the times, and this wasn’t one of them. Guiliano smiled. “Spiro told me I might as well be direct with you. It’s a dangerous business, Benito. One I wish I was not involved in.”
“Then why are you involved, Guiliano? Just what is going on?”
“Listening ears, Benito,” said Guiliano quietly. “Trust me. For old time’s sake.”
Benito sighed. “I’ve got responsibilities, Guiliano.”
“She — they’ll do without you for a day, Benito,” said swordsman-turned-olive-grower, understandingly.
Benito looked at the crib in the corner of his office. Times changed. He now had an office, not to mention the crib. “But will I do without them?” he asked wryly. “Very well. Tomorrow.”
Guiliano shook his head. “Tonight. It must be tonight. The wind is right,” he said, cryptically, “for the kind of game we’re after.”
The wind was setting westerly. Good for Albania, if not wild boar. The hairs on Benito’s neck prickled. “I’ll be there.”
“So will our old friends, Taki and Spiro.”
That confirmed his suspicions. Every second local male was called Spiro, and every fourth, Taki. The conversation would mean nothing to a listener who was not aware that their mutual friends Taki and Spiro — referred to together — were the skipper and the mate of a small fishing boat. They were principally fishermen, anyway, although it could be argued that they were actually principally drinkers of mediocre to bad wine, and incidentally extremely good seamen and fisherman. Like all skippers around these parts, Taki fished for some targets that were best fished for on moonless nights, landing goods when and where duties were not collected on cargoes. Benito would have trusted them with his life. He’d had to before.
Whatever was going on, it had forced a man who would rather grow olives to mess with politics. A man who would rather farm than adorn the most powerful military and second most powerful political office of the island. It had to be worth looking into. Corfu was a Venetian possession, but it was also a small island close to Byzantine Greece and the wild mountainous tribal lands of the Balkans. As much as the tribal clans up in Albania and the hinterland accepted any one leader, it was Iskander Beg, the Lord of the Mountains. Iskander Beg had held off both the Byzantines and Hungary — no small feat.
Some of the tribes had occasionally raided Corfu in the past. Corfu was a soft place compared to their iron hills. The Venetians, and the local magic, had made that an expensive exercise — but the cost had been counted by both sides. As the temporary Deputy Governor, Benito wanted to avoid any more attacks again. Corfu needed a time at peace to recover and grow. An enemy might see this as a good opportunity to attack.
Benito had put out feelers to Iskander Beg, with those who did a little legitimate trade with southern Illyria. He had not expected a reply from this source. He smiled ruefully to himself. He should have. He’d learned a great deal about politics in the two months he’d waited for Venice to send out a new governor, much of which he hadn’t wanted to know. The underlying principle seemed to be that nothing in politics was ever straight or direct.
He sighed and looked at the clock. He had yet another meeting with the surviving Libri di Oro, the aristocratic landlord parasites that Venice had created from the Corfiote nobility. Created, and then made rotten and idle. They would pour platitudes on him, when what most of the ticks wanted was for him to drop dead, and the opportunity to get their old lives back, with as much extra land-loot as they could steal added to their wealth. Benito would be polite in return, although he wanted to break them. Going off in the dark with Lozza would be a relief. He hoped that it would be to do something stupid and dangerous. At least he would be more in control then.
The water was black, nearly as dark as the mood on the boat. Even the wise-cracking Spiro was less than himself.
“You realize,” said Guiliano, “that if this goes wrong, Maria will kill all of us tomorrow.” He was being perfectly literal. She would, and Guiliano understood Maria’s “wifely” role with Aidoneus better than most Venetians. His wife believed firmly in the Goddess, and had told him where things stood.
Spiro looked at the dark mass that was Illyria, straight ahead. “If it doesn’t go right, there won’t be a tomorrow.”
Taki, sitting at the tiller-bar snorted. “The Lord of the Mountains keeps his word. Relax. And give me some more wine.”
“You’ve had enough,” said Thalia. She’d refused to remain behind.
“I’m still upright. So how can that be true?” asked Taki cheerfully.
“If we sail back, then I have every intention of not being upright,” said Spiro. “So we need to save a half a cask.”
“Never put off drinking until afterwards, just in case there is no afterwards,” said Taki. But he didn’t insist on more wine. Instead he guided the fishing boat toward a pair of lanterns set up in a dark cove, lining them up very carefully.
A little later Benito Valdosta sat at a rough oak table in a small shepherd’s hut, facing the beak-nosed lord of southern Illyria. The humble setting did not seem to bother the man. Lesser men might need regal trappings so that one did not confuse the king with a hill-shepherd. Iskander Beg claimed descent from Alexander the Great of Macedon, and he didn’t need fine clothes or a rich hall to tell you who he was. All Iskander needed was enough light for a man to see his eyes.
They burned. And looking at them, Benito knew that he had found a kindred spirit, albeit one reared in even harsher soil than he had sprung from. This was not a man who would be cowed by threats or worried by the odds against him. On the other hand, he looked very shrewd indeed. This was a good thing, Benito decided, because what Benito had in mind was more like commerce than devilry.
“Once,” Benito said, “there was a road from here to the Adriatic.”
“The Via Egnata. From Phillipi or Christopolis to Appolonia or to Dyrrachium. Durazzo, as the Venetians call it. Days past. A route for conquerors,” said the Lord of the Mountains, dismissively…. yet… was that a hint of a smile under his moustache? And, whatever else he was, ignorant of history he was not. Iskander also spoke good Frankish for a hill-chieftain in a remote, mountainous piece of nowhere.
“The Romans built it to conquer Illyria. Did they succeed?” asked Benito airily.
Iskander gave a snort of laughter. “Oh, for a little while. You can never really conquer the land of the eagles. People try.”
“The Byzantines are that foolish,” said Benito idly.
Teeth gleamed through the moustache. “Not often. The emperor tells them to be. The field commanders do not, in reality, try very hard any more. We’ve discouraged them.”
Benito grinned back. “Then why worry? I gather we share a love for Emeric of Hungary.”
The Lord of the Mountains nodded. “He does seem to have had a sharp lesson from you in Kerkira. And another for crossing my land without my permission.”