Much Fall Of Blood — Snippet 37

Much Fall Of Blood — Snippet 37

Chapter 20

“So, Benito, you want to send a column of Knights of the Holy Trinity down the Via Egnata,” said Iskander, as the two of them sat on a log looking out toward Corfu. “Do you want to start several wars?”

Benito thought carefully before replying. “I suspect that knowing they could be flanked might also restrict certain ambitions. If I were Alexis, I would make haste to open the sea route, before the principal source of my income dried up. But then I am not Alexis.”

“I would have reason to know fear, if you were,” said Iskander. “But there is also Emeric of Hungary, to say nothing of the Grand Duke of Lithuania.”

Benito shrugged. “Seen from your point of view, King Emeric is at war with you and will remain at war with you for as long as he lives. The fact that you may be allying with some of his enemies is hardly going to change that. If anything, it may make him a little more wary. As for Jagiellon, the Mongols are at the moment a buffer between you and him. I have explained why we are escorting these envoys from the Ilkhan to the Golden Horde. If we fail, you will have Jagiellon’s proxies on your doorstep. If we succeed, you will have a buffer zone.”

“That is a better argument than all the rest,” admitted Iskander. “But there is no need surely for the Knights to accompany them. I tell you truthfully, some of my people will be very uneasy about that party, so large and heavily armed.”

“By all means, match them with an equal number. The truth is, and I am being frank here, we dare not have anything go wrong in getting those envoys to the lands of the Golden Horde. We are honor bound to see that they get there. If we fail in any way, we will have acquired a powerful enemy. And to be honest again, some of the tribesmen in these hills are, by your own admission, barely under your control. They might try their luck with a small party of Mongols, no matter who they were escorted by. They’re not going to — not one little tribe by itself — try it against the Knights. I think the Knights’ reputation has penetrated even here.” He smiled at Iskander’s slightly troubled face. “If at a later date some tribesmen raid a caravan the matter can be dealt with without destroying any chance of other traders using the Via Egnata. But this first journey must succeed.”

Iskander stood up, and took a deep breath. “I risk my own standing among the tribes. Have I your word, as a kinsman, that the Knights of the Holy Trinity do not come as a reconnoitering force? That they will, unless attacked, refrain from conflict?”

Benito did not smile, even though he wanted to. This was serious. “I have never been as happy to give my word. You don’t know them as I do, Iskander Beg. They are monks in armor. They will serve where their abbots tell them to serve. And they will obey orders, even to the death. They are a bit boneheaded, to be honest, but one gets used to them.” He said the last with a disarming grin.

Iskander laughed. “Well, there are a fair number among my own tribe that would fit the boneheaded part, but they’re not much good at taking orders. We tend to go our own way up here. Where there are two of us, there are three different opinions. I will provide an escort and scouts.”

“And I will see that they pay, and pay handsomely, for food and lodging where it is available. We will have to discuss this, Lord of the Mountains. If possible they do not want have to take a baggage train with them. It will not be easy to get it over the mountains in a hurry.”

Iskander smiled. “As it happens I have a number of very fine Hungarian tents that I could have set up along the way. Their previous owners had to abandon them.”

“So sad for them. I think that we could decide on a mutually agreeable fee for this. There really isn’t much of a market for second-hand tents.”

Iskander laughed. “Maybe not on Corfu. But they are promising material for fine cloth up here in the mountains. Delicate blouses for the ladies, and things like that.”

“Probably linen for the Lord of the Mountains’ bed too.”

Iskander shook his head. “The canvas is a little too soft for that. It might make me soft too. To avoid it I will have them put up for a traveling band of Knights. No one will want to use them after that.”

“Well, seeing as we would doing you a public service, you wouldn’t want us to pay for the use of them then, would you?”

“You chaffer like a Venetian, Benito. Not a member of my tribe,” said Iskander shaking his head, with his brow wrinkled in sorrow, and his mouth held prim. “Just think of the poor women who will lose fine blouses.”

“Well, it’s the duty of the king to help to guide them away from vanity and vainglory. But, before we get to serious dickering, I need to make sure this journey is going to happen.”

The Lord of the Mountains raised his eyebrows. “Surely,” he said, “they can see your impeccable logic?”

“It’s hard to tell quite what the envoy is thinking. We did not exactly get off on the right foot.”

Benito told Iskander just how the horseboy had misled Erik, and just what had followed. Iskander’s teeth gleamed white through his moustache. “This boy will go far, if he lives long enough.”

Benito laughed. “Right now all he wants to do is get off my God-forsaken island, and gets back to his nice safe Jerusalem, where he is apparently counted one of the biggest rogues. Or thinks he is. Anyway, just as soon as I hear from our Mongol envoy, I will send you word.”

Iskander Beg nodded. “I will arrange it all. It is possible that I may decide to accompany this caravan myself. I will of course expect you, kinsman, not to tell them who I am. You’re quite right. Much rests on this first caravan succeeding. But I would not have word of my presence get out. You are not the only one whom enemies would like to see dead.”

“A good idea, I think. There have not been many caravans of such value. At least, not ones where several great powers would pay so much just for the heads of the people on it.”

“I know,” said Iskander. “I think you should put it about that the Knights are outfitting to go overland to Rome. That might be best. You have my word, and you have my honor: they will get through my territories alive, while I remain alive to see that they do. You may tell the Knights and the envoy that. Even outside of Illyria, my honor is known.”

Benito took his hand firmly. “I am proud to be adopted into your clan for that reason. It is a reputation that goes back many centuries.”

Iskander smiled wryly. “Centuries… One day I will tell you the entire story, Benito Valdosta. It is much more complicated than you realize. But let us just say that there are few enough men of honor. We should stand together, because, clan or no clan, we are brothers of a kind.”

“I know,” said Benito simply. He felt an affinity with the man, and with his tiny beleaguered quarrelsome people, who still — against the odds — defied great powers both to the north and the south. It was clear that the liking cut both ways. He felt almost as if he was dealing with the elder brother Marco might have been, if they’d shared the same father. It might not be logical, but Benito knew that he could trust Iskander. He also knew why Iskander was Lord of the Mountains. Men would follow him, even these fractious hill-tribesmen.

****

The Mongol envoy’s eyes looked sharp and slightly hooded. But at least he was smiling, which was an improvement on anger. “Of course, I will require certain guarantees. It was with such contingencies in mind that I asked that Prince Manfred and his Knights be accorded the status that was given to them by Bashar Ahmbien. But I believe that as long as he accompanies us the Ilkhan would not take it as an affront. I would be able to complete my mission. Thus all our parties would be satisfied.”

Eberhart looked doubtful. “It is still fraught with some risks, Borshar Tarkhan. The person of Prince Manfred, for all that he thinks this is a good idea, is not one the Holy Roman Emperor is likely to put in harm’s way again.”

Borshar looked mulish. “It is a point of honor, Ritter. Either we are accorded the appropriate escort, to which you agreed, or we do not go.”

“Let us have no further discussion on this matter,” said Manfred firmly. “I have decided, and I am authorized to speak for the emperor. In this case I will speak for him about myself. The risks you speak of are small. Iskander Beg is known to be a man of his word. So are the Mongols, especially on matters of diplomatic protocol, and the safety and treatment of envoys. That, I believe, covers us. We will accompany you.”

Borshar bowed respectfully. “You conduct yourself with honor, Prince.”

“I hope so,” said Manfred. “It is the hallmark by which my mentor,” he gave an ironic smile at Erik, “says great men and great nations are known. He sets a high standard for us.”

“I shall see that meetings are arranged between yourself and the new khan of the Golden Horde,” said the tarkhan. “As you are a man of rank and honor. If we can talk now of practicalities, we speak of a journey, overland, of some sixty leagues, I believe.”

“More,” said Falkenberg. “It’s mountain country. But part of the route follows an old Roman road, and Benito has arranged provisioning and accommodation. We should, even estimating conservatively, have you there in twenty days. We are preparing for the journey with some extra packhorses. It has been set about that we will make a landing at Bari and that we will proceed overland to Rome and then on to Venice.”

“That is slow travel by Mongol standards.”

Von Gherens eyed him frostily, but said nothing.

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