Much Fall Of Blood — Snippet 31
“The complexities of the situation,” said Eberhart of Brunswick, “are such that I wish you had brought me into it earlier. Yes, Benito Valdosta, I accept the point that you’re making about the vulnerability of a fleet in the Black Sea without control of the Dardanelles and Bosphorus. In my youth, I too served with the Knights of the Holy Trinity, in the Swedish campaigns. I have some grasp of military matters, even if I admit that I lack the depth of perception that you seem to have. But it is of enormous diplomatic importance to use the leverage that we now have with the Ilkhan, especially when it comes to the opportunity to visit and treat with the Golden Horde. Prince Manfred is in the unusual — and, I might say, unprecedented — position of being accredited as part of a Mongol diplomatic mission.” He sighed. “I had hoped to prevail on his Imperial Majesty to let the Prince and the Mongol party be part of the fleet. It’s not a negotiating position we are likely to be in again. The Mongols have some strong ideas about the necessary status of envoys.”
Manfred sat down with complete unconcern about the effect that his bulk might have on the spindly furniture in Eberhart’s cabin. He put his hands together, steeling fingers. “Of course,” he said, “there is one simple possibility. I am empowered to act in my uncle’s name. I carry his seal. Instead of trying to hold on to the Mongol envoy and his party so that we can accompany them on what will be the sort of naval engagement that delights Benito, we could simply accompany them across the Balkans. That way, we could very possibly achieve Benito’s end and what you say would be my uncle’s purpose.”
“That is an entirely ridiculous suggestion, my Lord Prince!” exclaimed Eberhart, for once shocked out of his normal diplomatic speech. “Uh, with all due respect. The risks to your person…”
“Are considerably less than the risks I faced in Venice, Telemark and later in Corfu,” said Manfred bluntly. “Not only do the Mongols have rather demanding requirements as to the status of envoys from non-Mongols, they are also famous for the courtesy and sanctity they require others to accord to their envoys. I am in the enviable position where the Ilkhan would be obliged to go to war against the Golden Horde if anyone touched a hair on my little head.”
“It is only so little,” said Erik, “because it contains so little of the stuff required to think inside it. There is the small matter of the Balkans. We are down to fewer than two hundred knights. One hundred and seventy-four, to be precise. That is insufficient even by their own delusions of prowess to cross those mountains.”
Benito coughed. “If you think you are safe in Mongol hands… well, I think the one thing no one will argue about is that Iskander Beg is also a man of his word. True, the word — short phrase, rather — is usually ‘I will kill you if you cross my lands.’ If he decided that you would not cross the mountains of his kingdom, you would not. But it isn’t. He has agreed to let at least one convoy take the old Roman Road. If that works out, there will be more. The Illyrian was honest enough to say that there might still be trouble from bandits or a chieftain who decided to do his own independent raid. But even fifty of the Knights would be more than a match for that.”
Erik frowned and said thoughtfully: “And we are as much honor bound to see that the Ilkhan envoy gets to the lands of Golden Horde, as they are to treat us as diplomatic envoys. We promised to get them there. There are only ten of them. Not enough for the crossing without us.”
“They did rather trick us into it, didn’t they?” said Manfred, grinning at Eberhart.
“I concede that it is possible that the compliment that they paid us by giving us such status could have been for an ulterior motive,” said Eberhart. “But we stood to benefit so much from the status in any dealings that we had with the Golden Horde…”
“I see this as a way of turning it to our benefit, now,” said Manfred.
“I still think the idea is fraught with danger,” said Eberhart. “Erik, tell him it would be folly.”
Erik stood there sucking his cheek. Eventually he shook his head. “No, Ritter.” He looked at Benito. “You forget that I have been involved in several of this young madman’s crazy solutions. He has a way of seeing solutions, solutions that will work, where other people would charge in blindly and lose. I see a great deal of danger in a sea assault on Constantinople. I see even more danger in getting Manfred back from the Black Sea, if Constantinople is reinforced. I also see no benefit to the Empire in this envoy arriving after the election of a new Khan. It seems to me that that is very likely to happen.”
“Besides,” said Manfred quietly, “this has the potential to seriously damage two of our greatest foes. I think there is little else that I could do which would help the Empire as much. I have decided.”
Once Manfred had actually taken that kind of decision, Benito knew that there was little point in anyone arguing. And no one did. Discussion then moved to practicalities — how to feed and provision the expedition, and how to pay for it. After listening for a while, Benito cleared his throat. “If you will all excuse me,” he said, “I had better go and see about contacting Iskander Beg. Of course, it is entirely possible that the man whose mother is a tortoise may decide that it’s a bad idea.”
Erik scowled. “I’d forgotten about that horseboy.”
Benito grinned. “I may tell you, as the acting governor of the island, that the murder of horseboys is not permitted. It was a damn fine trick. It’s just a pity that he had to catch me with it instead of you.”
“Death would be far too fast,” said Erik. “In fact, I think that I will go and look for him right now. As Benito has just pointed out, our planning is premature.”
He stood up, blonde, lean and very deadly looking. Benito wondered if he would ever have tried playing such a practical joke on the man. Possibly — when he’d been thirteen and convinced that he would live forever. He had to feel some sympathy for the horseboy.
The horseboy was not there.
David was already making his way through the streets of Corfu town. He had had no intention of being anywhere close to the blonde foreigner when he found out that he had been taught some choice Mongol insults and not the useful phrases he’d thought he was learning. As luck would have it, David had been lazing and listening in to talk of the tarkhan and his Mongol guards when it had happened. If he had not realized just how serious the trouble was that would result, it would have been one of the finest bits of revenge of his life. And now…
Now he was back in familiar territory, even if this was a town still scarred by the battle they had apparently had here over the last winter. He only wished that it was a larger town. But a town was still better than all the miles of emptiness — both of water and on land — that he had come to discover the world outside Jerusalem held. That was a lot of emptiness, and he wanted none of it. He would have to somehow get on a boat and go back home. Jerusalem must be missing him.