Much Fall Of Blood — Snippet 28

Benito drained his glass and stood up. “Drink up,” he said. “Let’s go down to the ship and meet your Mongol envoy. As acting governor, it falls within the realms of my duty to offer him and the Knights of the Holy Trinity the hospitality of the citadel.”

“Excellent.” Manfred rubbed his hands. “That means they’ll be accommodated and drinking at your expense.”

Erik laughed. “You know, I don’t think the Godar Hohenstauffen realized just what a great thing he was doing for Manfred’s education when he insisted to the abbot of the order that Manfred should be suitably accompanied — and then gave Manfred a fixed budget.”

“And gave me a minder,” said Manfred sourly, “to make sure that I didn’t settle accounts in the traditional knightly fashion.”

They went down to where the knights were disembarking their mounts off the vessels, and giving the animals some much-needed exercise. Benito was cheered by the enthusiastic greeting he got from the Knights. He was also soon being overwhelmed with advice on how to capture a vast wealthy city.

“The biggest weakness of the Byzantine Empire is that it is heavily dependent on mercenaries. Buying the emperor Alexis is an expensive waste of time,” said Von Gherens. “Buy his army out from under him.”

That was an idea that had not even occurred to Benito. Of course, some of the emperor’s troops would be torn from levies from within the eastern Roman empire. Very possibly, he would have a mercenary but intensely loyal personal guard. Petro would know all of these details, but it was an avenue that was still worth following up.

The discussion centered on the weaknesses and strengths of Constantinople and the Bosphorus and Dardanelles. Siegecraft was something the Knights were expert in, and, as they had taken to Benito during the siege of Corfu, they were all to willing to teach him as much about it as they could. A number of them had been to Constantinople and had looked on it with very professional eyes.

Eventually, Benito was able to make his escape and be introduced to the tarkhan Borshar. The man was reclining on some satin cushions under a makeshift awning on the deck, while one of his servitors fanned him. Several of the Mongols lounged about. The air was full of the scent of some form of burning herbage. Perhaps the tarkhan found the odor pleasant. To Benitoi, it smelled like a weedy field being burnt off.

Borshar rose slowly to his feet, when one of his honor guard announced their presence. He wore his hair in the Mongol fashion — shaved except for long forelock, but that was where the similarity with the Mongol guard ended. Borshar had a bony and slightly hooked nose, a long face, and heavy eyebrows like two straight bars that sloped slightly downward towards his large ears. His eyes were deep set, brown, and, it appeared to Benito, a little out of focus.

The tarkhan bowed, a mere inclination of the head. “Prince Manfred, how can I assist you?”

“The boot hopefully is on the other foot, Tarkhan,” said Manfred. “Let me introduce you to his Excellency, Milor’ Benito Valdosta. He is the acting governor and military commander of this charming island. He has, we hope, a way in which you may fulfill your mission.”

Benito bowed politely. He could see just how the man had gotten under Manfred’s skin. Still, perhaps it was just a foreign culture. The way things were done among the Mongol. “I am honored to meet you,” he said, in his best attempt at the tongue-mangle that Erik had taught him on their way down to the ship.

This did get a reaction. It drew an incredulous smile from the Mongol warrior who had announced them, and it made the envoy’s mouth drop open for an instant. He closed it, but looked considerably more alert now. “I am afraid,” said Benito, holding up a hand to stem a flood of incomprehensibilities, “that is all of your language that I speak.”

“Your greeting,” said the tarkhan, “is surprising. So… Why did you tell me that my mother was a tortoise?” His eyes narrowed.

The Mongol guard seemed to find the situation utterly hilarious. He had dropped his spear and was clutching his knees, doubled up with laughter. It did not seem that the tarkhan found it quite as funny. On the other hand, neither did Erik or, right then, Benito. Several of the other Mongol had stood up, and the joke was repeated, when the Mongol guard had enough spare breath. It was apparent by the reaction of the others, that however affronted the envoy himself might be, his entourage thought it a capital joke.

“I do apologize,” said Benito. “I was told that it meant that I was honored to meet you.” Inwardly he wondered furiously how the hell he could get out of this situation? Had he started a major diplomatic incident? Was the man going to try and kill him? Manfred was laughing as hard as the Mongols by now, and would be scant use in any defense. Erik looked ready to kill someone — which also was not what they needed right now. “It would seem that I was gravely misinformed.”

“And your informant is going to wish that he was never born,” grated Erik.

The tarkhan tugged his moustache. It was short, black and bristly, unlike his companions’ luxuriant affairs. Then he smiled. It did not extend to his eyes, but at least he smiled. “Perhaps we should confine ourselves to speaking in Frankish.”

“I think so,” said Benito with relief. “Anyway, other than that… um… useful phrase, I don’t know any Mongol. It’s not a phrase that I think I will have the opportunity to use again. What I had come to say is that we have concluded an agreement with our neighbors across on the mainland. I believe we can arrange for you to travel across Illyria, to the lands of the Golden Horde. The matter must however be discussed with our contacts in Illyria. Would that however be an acceptable solution for you? You could arrive within weeks. If you wait for a sea passage, it could be many months.”

The envoy stood impassively, not even blinking, for a few long moments. Benito decided that it would be very dangerous to gamble with this man. It was almost impossible to tell what he was thinking. Then the tarkhan said, “I will have to consider this. You will allow me time to think. You are proposing a somewhat different route and method than the one which I was instructed to follow.”

“Certainly,” said Benito. “I will need to establish that you can be granted safe passage. That will take me a few days. We will meet again formally and officially soon, hopefully without any more such interesting incidents. In the meanwhile, can we possibly sit and have a glass of wine together? I’m sure that we have much to discuss of mutual interest to the Ilkhan Mongol and the people of Venice.” Benito gave the tarkhan the benefit of his most winning smile. “It is sometimes easier to discuss these things informally over a few glasses first and then to deal with them in the full light of protocol.”

“I have not been given the authority to reach agreements with the Republic of Venice,” said the tarkhan disinterestedly. “And I do not drink alcohol. I will let you know what decision I reach as to the possibilities of traveling across land to the Khanate of the Golden Horde.” He waved as dismissively as any emperor, and they were left with little choice but to bow and leave.