Much Fall Of Blood — Snippet 26
Manfred chuckled. “When you finished sorting them out I think my uncle could use your help in Mainz. No wonder Icelanders are known to be such prudent traders. It’s the way they keep records. Now let us go and find some wine. We’ve got quite a lot to tell you. And you might as well enjoy your kakotrigi now because I have a feeling that you are going to be joining the Venetian fleet shortly.”
Benito gaped at him. “How in heaven’ s name did you know that?”
Manfred nodded to Erik. “See? It seems that Eneko Lopez got a message through after all.”
Erik scowled at Benito. “You had to say that, didn’t you? Now he’ll think he’s an expert at manipulating the likes of Eneko Lopez.”
Benito snorted with laughter. “There are some people that it just doesn’t pay to try and fool. And he is one of them.”
“Now you’re making his head even bigger. Let us go and find this wine. I dare say you have some in your quarters. It’s more likely to be private than a dockside tavern.”
“Besides, I’ll get to make eyes at that pretty wife of his,” said Manfred with a grin. “I like to live dangerously.”
“And she is the dangerous one,” said Erik.
“I knew that,” said Manfred. He punched Benito on the shoulder, in what he probably thought was a gentle manner. “You didn’t think I was afraid of the hero of Corfu?”
“It’s my wine, and my wife,” said Benito, rubbing his shoulder, and leading them off. Privately, he found it heartwarming that they thought of Maria as his wife. That was more than the church was prepared to do.
“How did you know that they were coming?” asked Benito, looking at the wine goblets and the platter of pickled squid, olives and wedges of frittata.
“Who cares?” Manfred cheerfully ambled forward and bowed to his hostess, gesturing at the food and bottles. “You should be grateful, you dog. It matters not if she consulted the entrails of a seagull, or received a divine visitation. She has provided wine and food. And, as usual, I’m starving.”
Erik came forward too and bowed and kissed her hand. Maria blushed slightly. It was a far cry from the canals where a friend would have given her a hug, and kissed her on both cheeks. She knew just what he had been through, and decided that it was time he learned some canal manners. She stepped forward and hugged him. He hesitated a moment and then hugged her back. “Gently,” she gasped. “I’m not a bear that you have to squeeze to death, Sir.”
It was his turn to blush. Manfred pushed him aside. “I should have gotten Francesca to give you lessons. This is how you do it.” He enclosed Maria in an embrace only fractionally less bear-like, but also with a kiss on each cheek. “Better?” he said cheerfully. “Mind you, he’s a braver man than I am, is Erik. I was more wary about hugging young Benito’s wife. At his age men are very possessive.”
“Well,” said Benito, “I would be jealous except that Erik told me that you were starting to become senile and not really responsible for your own actions anymore.”
Maria laughed. “Don’t worry, Benito. If they become too familiar, I will make them hold Alessia. I have found that she controls most men better than I ever will.”
“And how is the young charmer?” asked Manfred, looking at the rocking crib.
“She likes to be moving when she goes to sleep,” explained Benito.
“Like her father, she has restless bones,” said Maria. “She sleeps best if she is very tired and we are traveling.”
“Of course it could just be that she likes the rocking motion,” said Benito, “but that does not allow it to be all my fault.” He grinned and assumed a posture of deep dignity. “We fathers have our responsibilities.”
“We have a few of those too,” said Manfred. “Currently, in the shape of a group of Mongols from the Ilkhan that we are supposed to do something useful with. We’re hoping to put them on a ship heading for the Black Sea. We thought you’d be the best person to deliver them.”
Benito blinked. “What?”
“So,” said Manfred, “we are relying on you to get these Mongols to the lands of the Golden Horde. Hopefully, that will stop Erik muttering incomprehensibilities at our rather useless horseboy.”
“What?” said Benito again.
“I was trying to learn some of the Mongol tongue,” explained Erik. “The horseboy is supposed to be teaching me. In exchange, he avoids doing any work. He’s better at that than at teaching, I’m afraid.”
“Ah!” Benito rubbed his forehead thoughtfully. “I think I may be able to deliver your Mongol emissary, and possibly without mobilizing a fleet and subduing Constantinople.”
“Don’t tell me,” said Manfred, grinning. “You have a new plan which avoids ships entirely. You’re going to disguise us as Magyar and persuade Emeric of Hungary to send us there with a personal escort.”
“Well,” said Benito, “That’s not a bad idea, but not quite the one I had in mind.”
“No doubt something worse. Why do we always fall in with these lunatics, Erik?” asked Manfred plaintively, helping himself to more wine. “I mean, he’s better than that mad bastard up in Telemark. The Turk would have attached all of us by leashes to the feet of well-trained eagles and flown us across. Screaming, because that’s what we did mostly when involved with his clever ‘solutions’. I suppose we should be grateful. With Benito, at least we just end up as nervous wrecks, shaking a lot.”
Benito had heard about their misadventures with a certain Jarl Cair in Telemark. They sounded a little too magical to him, and far too involved in matters he understood less well than warfare or thievery. Cair was a problem he’d rather not face, by the bits that Erik had left unsaid. Fortunately, he wasn’t likely to be his problem. Telemark was a long way from Corfu or Venice. “While it does involve crossing the land of the white eagles, I hadn’t yet decided to attach you to any of them. I cannot say that it isn’t tempting though, as an idea.”
“And where are you going to find enough eagles to carry something that size, especially in armor?” asked Erik, jabbing a thumb at Manfred.
“He means Illyria,” said Maria. “The land of the white eagles.”
“I see he hasn’t gotten any less crazy since we met him,” said Erik. “It would probably be easier to disguise us as Magyar. From what I’ve heard, it would take a fairly large land army to fight its way across the Balkans. And the terrain is hell. Straight up-and-down, apparently. Rough on anything except the locals. Bad for a big slow-moving field army.”
Benito smiled. “There used to be a road, a Roman road across. As it happens I have been in… ah, negotiations with Iskander Beg. The Lord of the Mountains, as they call him.”
“What he means is that he went and did more crazy things, and got himself accepted into one of their tribes,” said Maria tartly. “I was very angry with him, and he’s been trying to persuade me ever since that there are great advantages to us being close friends with our ancient enemy.”
“Well, there are some advantages, if they have stopped trying to kill you,” said Erik.
Benito laughed. “I wouldn’t go that far. Illyrian ideas of hospitality are enough to kill most people. But I do think it would be possible to have them take your party of Mongols off your hands and escort them across the mountains. That would solve one of the tactical issues that’s really been bothering me. Forcing our way through the Bosphorus is going to be tricky enough. If we find that the Byzantines have been reinforced while we’re in the Black Sea, things could become very awkward indeed — especially if we’ve suffered losses.”