Burdens Of The Dead – Snippet 33
The Venetian fleet sailed on the first day of November. Not a good season for sailing, but Benito had his weather information. All he had to do was persuade the nervous sailors, and particularly the ship’s officers, that he was right. The sailors…well, word had got around that he had help. The sailors of Venice had a rather ambivalent relationship with the mer-people. There was a fair amount of fear. But a grudging respect too. There were stories of those who been helped, or struck deals or friendships with the dwellers in the deeps. There were a few interesting sexual fantasies too. At least, Benito hoped they were fantasies. You never could tell with the nonhumans.
The sea was cold, wet, and tossed with small whitecaps. But there were, so far, no winter storms.
Still Benito was grateful to see Pantocrator looming on the horizon. At the same time it cut him to the quick to know that Maria and ‘Lessi were not there, waiting in a world that had become his.
Neither was the other thing he had been hoping for: word out of the lands of the Golden Horde. “Your kinsman send word that Prince Manfred and Erik arrived safely, and left under a Mongol escort. With the envoy flags a-flying,” said Guiliano Lozza. “But nothing has come back out.”
Benito swore colorfully. Lozza shook his head. “It’s consorting with sailors, Benito. Now, a man dealing with olives and grapes has to learn to moderate his tongue. By the way, I was told by my dear wife to give you this invitation to come and dine with us, to celebrate our harvest. She wrote it herself,” he said proudly, handing Benito a small roll of parchment.
Thalia had been illiterate, a peasant woman, and had felt her station precluded her marriage to the swordsman landowner. So she was taking steps, was she? Well and good. Being able to read and write broke a lot of other chains. He’d seen it with Maria. One day, perhaps, all children could be taught.
He unrolled the parchment. The care — and a slight unsteadiness still in one or two of the letters shone out of the script — a simply worded invitation in a childlike round hand. With the seal of the house Lozza and two thin strands of silk in the colors of the tassels on Benito’s sword scabbard. The colors of Ferrara.
“Thank you,” said Benito, looking at the script again. “I will be there. And I will treasure this,” he said, touching the invitation.
“And so you should, “said Lozza gruffly. “She only did it fifteen times.”
“You must be proud.”
“More than you can imagine, my friend. And more than grateful to you for pushing us to take that last step.” He paused. “We’ll name that first boy for you. And we have reason to believe,” he said, beaming, “that that may happen as soon as the springtime.”
Benito clapped him on the shoulder. And then embraced him. Lozza had been scarred by the murder of his wife and babe. Thalia had started the healing process. This, he hoped, would continue it. Some men are naturally suited to leadership and deeds of war. Guiliano Lozza was naturally suited to growing olives, and raising children. He also happened to be good at leading men and using a sword, but those skills were irrelevant asides so far as he was concerned.
“You do realize that my name may lead him into trouble and fighting?” said Benito, grinning and flattered.
Guiliano nodded and tried — and failed — to assume a serious expression. “Ah, but not as badly as the second boy. It will be hard for a good Corfiote boy to be called Erik. We will see you tonight, then M’Lord.”
That left Benito several hours at his desk to try and catch up on the work that had accumulated in his absence, and to wonder about the message in those threads of silk. It was not the expected place or a suspected place. Therefore…
He was hardly surprised that evening to be taken to the family chapel to meet a non-descript monk praying there. A man who had a passing resemblance to the House of Ferrara’s chief agent, Antimo Bartelozzi. The one who dealt with Family matters. “Convey my respects to Duke Enrico. I thought it would create undue suspicion to meet both him and you. I had heard you speak of Lozza, and I knew his father well. I have news from Constantinople.”
Antimo had more than news. He had a detailed report to send to Duke Enrico. Reports of troop numbers, of supplies, of amounts of gunpowder, and maps. Detailed measured maps. Most of the maps Benito had seen were little more than drawings from memory. These had been done to scale with a great deal of precision. Looking at them, Benito understood just how his Grandfather had acquired such a towering reputation for strategy. Good staff work was obviously a major part of it. There was also a sealed package. “For the duke’s eyes only, M’Lord Valdosta,” he said apologetically. “Money matters. And contacts. If you would pass on to the duke that I shall shortly be returning to Constantinople, overland. I will attempt to be outside the walls when you arrive.” He coughed—more clearing his throat than anything else. “M’Lord…” there was an odd tentativeness to his voice. “I have reason to believe you’ll…um, have a lot of influence with both the soldiery and the sailors. A sack is always a grim thing. I…I have a request to make. If you could advise…tell the troops there is a woman in the city, always accompanied by two large hunting dogs with red ears. She’s been of help to us. To me.”
“There are lots of women in every city,” said Benito gently, thinking he understood, and being a little surprised. “I’d get her out, Antimo. Troops…well, they get out of hand.”
“There are no other women who always have those two dogs with them. I tried to get her to leave, M’Lord. She’s…strange. She’s no leman of mine,” he said hastily. “Just a very strange woman, with very strange dogs. Her name is Hekate.”
* * *
Benito sat with his grandfather and then, once he was seated, and armed with a glass of wine, handed over the parcel from the duke’s spy. Considering just what the agent had told him, he was intensely curious about that flat little parcel.
The Old Fox raised his eyebrows. “Antimo. Well, well.”
“He was afraid you’d be watched.”
“That’s not stopped him in the past,” said Duke Enrico, looking just like a wary fox for a moment. “He is…unusually good. He nearly killed me once, you know.”
“You’ve mentioned that.” Normally Benito would have pressed for the story. He’d yet to get it out of his grandfather, but they had become closer with time spent together during the voyage and in Venice. “What’s in the parcel? He gave me a detailed report of the situation in Constantinople and of the areas of Byzantium he crossed, and quite a few exceptional maps of the city and its surrounds.”
The Old Fox smiled. “You don’t even want me to keep a few secrets, boy?”
“No. My curiosity has been killing me for half the night. He was out at Lozza’s estate.”
The duke laughed and opened the packet. It appeared to be nothing more than a tangle of string. The duke shook it out carefully. It now appeared to be a shawl of knotted strings, all hanging down from a single cord. “Now you know. And not a bit of use feeling it through the covering has been to you, young man. Usually he attaches it to a carpet.”
“A code in string?”
“The knots are numbers. It’ll take me a while to read it, but they correspond to letters, and the letters give us the names of the mercenaries within Constantinople we have reached an accommodation with.”
His grandfather scowled. “And the amounts of course.”
“Ah. Cheaper than a long campaign though.”
“So, where is Antimo? I’d have preferred to talk this through with him.”
“He said he was going back. He would see us there, hopefully outside the walls.” Benito hesitated for a moment. “I think he’s involved with some woman there.”
“Antimo?” Enrico was plainly surprised and intrigued…and perhaps a little perturbed. “It would be the first time I’ve seen any signs of it. He pays more attention to dogs than to women.”
Benito shrugged. “This woman, it appears, has the dogs. Two of them with red ears. The only other thing I know about her is that her name is Hekate, and he’s worried about her. Now, I’d better finish this wine and go and chase a few people down at the little Arsenal. They may not really believe we plan to sail within the week.”