Much Fall Of Blood — Snippet 40

Chapter 22

Duke Enrico Dell’este stood and pored over the layer of maps that almost entirely covered the vast expanse of table that he had commandeered. So far the only final strategic decision that he had been able to reach was that he needed a bigger table.

“As I said to Lodovico, it’s all very well,” he grumbled to Petro Dorma when the Doge came down to inquire how his planning was going, “to talk of strategies and of how we will deal with various obstacles. But you cannot plan in a void of information. We have so little knowledge of what is actually happening in Byzantium, let alone the Black Sea. We don’t know for sure quite what Genoa will bring to the conflict. We don’t know if the other states appealed to will contribute any forces at all.”

“I have here a digest of some of the latest reports to come in from our various agents,” said Petro. “Some ships just got in, bearing word.”

“I would appreciate it still more if they would bring that jackanapes of a grandson of mine back here. What have they to say?”

“The most interesting one comes from Puglia, of all places. It would seem that Emperor Alexis is trying very hard to recruit some mercenary commanders. Fortunately for us, his reputation precedes him. His promises are worthless. And he has very little hard cash to offer.”

“I can think of a few that it might be worth our while to pay to have go to his ‘rescue’,” said the old fox. “Most of the condottieri are not worth half the money they are paid. And what else, Doge Dorma? You have asked me to help with your strategy. I cannot do this without information. In northern Italy I have a fine network of spies and agents. I know who is buying supplies to outfit campaigns. I know who is moving where. But I really cannot afford to do the same for Byzantium and places further afield. My pouch is not as deep as that of Venice.”

“And I wish that the Council of Ten would agree to let me spend quite as lavishly there, as you do here,” said Petro. “But for what it is worth, now that we know what we are looking for, we have confirmation from Odessa. Some of Jagiellon’s troops are building up in a camp outside the city. And although the agent I have there has not been able to leave the city, he has some rumors of a fleet. Several shipwrights have disappeared from the city, taken in the early morning by soldiers of the voivode. On the other hand we have no news from the Golden Horde, except via the same agent. They were due to hold their kurultai — that’s essentially a vast electoral meeting to choose a new khan — in a week’s time. The kurultai typically go on for a while, but even so, they must have a new khan soon. Other than that, Alexis prepares himself for conflict, but is trying to do so in secret. We have a great deal of detail about that, and about the defenses prepared for Constantinople.”

“I truly hate trying to plan a campaign with such extended lines of supply and communication. By and large the fleets are going to have to operate completely independently. The Black Sea fleet is still sitting in Trebizond. We could have used their strength. I am not even sure just when they will be able to sail. I cannot get a straight answer from Admiral Douro.”

Petro laughed. “Benito will get answers out of him, or if not from him then from the masters at the Arsenal, as I found last time. Benito was good at it.”

“I am glad to hear that I am good at something, anyway,” said Benito Valdosta, from the doorway.

“Benito!” bellowed Enrico Dell’este. “You hell-born boy! What has taken you so long, eh?”

The gruff comment was completely at variance with his beam of pleasure. He had spent most of his life carefully distancing himself from his two grandsons, for their own safety. It was likely that Marco Valdosta would succeed him. The boy would do well, would be much beloved by the populace — the root of Dell’este power. But there was no doubt that the younger brother — as much a devil as the older one was a saint — filled a larger place in Enrico’s heart. True, given half an opportunity, Enrico would kill the man who had fathered the boy, for what he had done to his errant daughter. But that was not Benito’s fault. Enrico had moved far past any feelings of that kind. The boy had proved himself every inch a Dell’este!

He wore the colors of the house of Dell’este on the tassels of his sword-scabbard, Enrico noted with pride. He hugged him, fiercely. “I ask again, what has kept you so long? Petro, let us have some good wine!”

“Lodovico kept me. And some good wine. Quite a lot of good wine. If I have any more I will be awash, and I will want to see the town, instead of concentrating on these maps. Lodovico sent me here, eventually. I have yet to find my brother. Lodovico has gone in search of his daughter and son-in-law for me.”

“As far as I know,” said Petro, “he is treating patients at the St. Raphaella chapel.”

“I should have guessed,” said Benito. He pointed at the table. “I have been collecting maps myself. But you have a few more than I do.”

“Still not enough, and not enough information either,” said Dell’este grumpily.

“Well, I have some more. And I have taken some steps.” Benito bowed to the Doge. “Which I hope you’ll approve of. Time being of the essence, I did these on my own cognizance.”

“Why am I suddenly afraid?” asked Petro Dorma with a small smile. “What have you done?”

“You know the letter that I sent you about Iskander Beg? About reaching an agreement to reopen the Via Egnata to trade.”

Enrico raised his eyebrows. “You did not tell me about that, Petro.”

“It is a commercial possibility,” said the doge. “The problem lies with the Bulgars, if we wish to use that route to access the Black Sea. Otherwise, it is probably cheaper and easier to move cargoes by sea rather than overland to Constantinople.”

“You should occasionally see things in other terms besides commerce,” said Enrico dryly. “If it is possible to cross the Lord of the Mountains’ lands with a decently large land army…”