All The Plagues Of Hell – Snippet 35
The Sea of Marmara
“Finally,” said Benito Valdosta, looking over the stern-rail, taking enormous pleasure in the sight of the great city at the Gate between East and West. He had a superb view of the great wall of the Hippodrome, from his current position in the Sea of Marmara.
All the more superb in that he was looking back at it and he sailed away–which was, in his considered and now well-informed opinion, the very best way to see Constantinople. And definitely the best way to deal with the petty bickering still going on there.
“Yes,” said his grandfather, sounding amused. “But I daresay we’ll be back in a twelve-month with Alexis back on the throne, or something worse.”
“I should think that the people of Constantinople would welcome him back. He was depraved, murderous, treacherous, but at least he is not Admiral Borana.”
“They’re certainly alienating the Greeks and will, in the fullness of time, lost the city,” said Duke Enrico Dell’este, speaking of the triumvirate of rulers left to govern the conquered city. “With any luck your man will retain the Venetian quarter, if the fellow is wise and keeps out of the machinations of the eunuchs, as ordered. He seemed fairly level headed.”
“If the Golden Horn’s survivors will let him,” said Benito. The foreign traders in Constantinople, many of whom had been there for generations and had taken local wives, had been made the emperor’s scapegoats, and had been enslaved and suffered murder and rape as well as having their assets looted. When the tables turned…
Benito thought the only answer now was for them to leave the city forever. They had been far more vicious in their revenge, and restrictive in the demands they placed on the Greeks than the conquerors. It had to go badly, as they were outnumbered by five to one, and the countryside that surrounded and fed the city was entirely Greek. Benito understood the bitterness, but he also understood the need for a degree of pragmatism that didn’t really exist on either side.
“Well, never mind. I dare say that there be some fresh wars and skullduggery going on in Italy. I just want to get back to Corfu and my wife and my baby daughter, and rot there, peacefully, sorting out fights between people who drink terrible wine and grow good olives. I understand entirely how Guiliano Lozza feels now.”
“Somehow I suspect that will not happen for long,” said Enrico. “Besides, that island of yours is too far from Ferrara, young man. We need to talk about your long-term future there, too. I intend to name you as my heir, you know. I’m not getting any younger.”
Benito stared at him. Enrico Dell’este, the Old Fox of Ferrara, was nearly as much of a fixture in Benito’s life as his brother and Maria. Rather like the iron he would go and hammer, working as a swordsmith and binding himself to his people and his city by doing so. He had always seemed indestructible.
Yes, Benito had known that he must die, one day. But surely that was long and far way off? And his iron-like nature had meant that Benito had never considered what the duke’s line of succession was. There had been uncles… His mother’s brothers. But they too had died, without heirs.
He bit his lip, shook his head. “Marco is your heir, Grandfather. Not me, um, I’m…”
“Carlo Sforza’s bastard son. And the finest grandson a grandfather could ever desire, and what the city of Ferrara needs. I will talk to Marco, Petro Dorma, and of course my own nobles, and the leaders of my people. But Marco is bound to Venice. And while we’re on good terms with that city, Ferrara stands on its own. I am fond of your older brother and proud of him, but he belongs to La Serenissima, and will probably end up as its doge, in the fullness of time. Ferrara… it’s an iron-worker’s city, a place where we make swords and use them to hold our own. We are not serene, we have no lagoon to guard us, and no magical guardian. We only have our swords, our courage and our heads. We need you, grandson.”
“I don’t… know quite what to say.”
“Nothing is best in that case,” said his grandfather, cheerfully. “But you and Maria and your daughter must come to my city, and soon.”
“Maria… that’s going to be interesting.” He meant because the church refused to marry them. And because Maria was a Venetian canaler at heart. But then she’d taken well to Corfu.
“The city has been there a long time. It’ll probably survive the experience,” said his grandfather. “Ah. Good day, Prince Manfred.”
Prince Manfred of Brittany, Baron Eberhard of Brunswick and some ten of the other surviving Knights of the Holy Trinity were aboard the Venetian flagship. Almost half of rest of the Knights that had been on the diplomatic mission to the Lands of Golden Horde, bordering the Black Sea, were scattered through the fleet. The other half were with Erik Hakkonsen.
It had been an interesting argument–to be on the sidelines of. Hakkonsen was coming back across the Balkans, along the old Via Egnata, with the remaining Knights, his bride the Princess Bortai, who was sister to Kildai, the Great Khan, and her personal retainers–about fifty or so, and her dowry. Some of it, anyway. The part that could not easily be transported by ship. Horse transports were few and far between. And Princess Bortai came with a lot of horses. Some of the finest bloodstock Manfred had ever seen, certainly for horses ideal for light cavalry. They had sufficient sheep, too, but merely as food.
They would travel under the shelter of Iskander Beg’s hand–not that that group needed very much shelter. By the looks of those Mongols any horse-thief might as well commit suicide. They would meet again in Corfu, where Manfred and the other Knights would join them to be transported to Venice. By then, between his ample purse and imperial augustness–he was, after all, second in line to the throne of the Holy Roman Empire, preceded only by his brother Conrad–Manfred should be able to assemble the vessels they’d need for the voyage.
Then, from Venice, by any one of several possible routes, they’d go north to Mainz. That would be the end of Erik and Manfred’s service as confrere knights of the Holy Trinity, and the end of Erik Hakkonsen’s period of service to the Hauhenstaffen.
Benito wondered if Europe was any more ready for Erik and a small tribe of elite Mongol warriors, and a large number of horses, than Manfred was for his loyal bodyguard and close friend’s departure. Hakkonsen was headed for Vinland, across the Atlantic, to where Erik and his new bride planned to settle,
“I’m very disappointed in the fittings on this ship, Benito Valdosta,” said Manfred, slapping him on the back with a huge, meaty hand. “I thought you’d improve matters while we were in Constantinople, but there are no bridges, and still a serious lack of exotic dancers on board. I know, I have just searched it from stern to stem. The wine is of mediocre quality, too. It can barely compete with qumiss.”
“If only I had known how much you liked qumiss, I would have gotten a couple of mares for you to milk, and the barrels to ferment it in,” said Benito, thinking his shoulder might recover one day.
Manfred shuddered. “Erik must be deeply in love. He says he is getting used to it. The qumiss, I mean, not the being in love with the pretty bear-wrestler.”
“He is, you know. And I am glad for him.”
Manfred nodded. “But rather him than me.”
“Well, she’s quite a girl, but I do understand that the qumiss could put one off,” said Benito, reading a great deal into the light-hearted banter. Manfred was not wearing the loss of his friend and bodyguard easily, and was determined to make light of it. Benito thought he was probably still missing Francesca, as well.
“Barbaric stuff. I should think they’ll be very happy on the plains of Vinland. It’s a fairly barbaric place.”
“If Kari was anything to judge by, yes. And I should think it’ll stay barbaric for about a week after Erik, Bortai and the Mongols get there.”
“That long?” said Manfred. “I may have to go and check this out for myself. After all, Vinland is part of the League of Armagh, and so is Brittany. Anyway, it’s cold out here, and I came to tell you Falkenberg is preparing some hot mulled wine in our cabin.”
Maria Verrier, in the comfortable quarters of the Casa Montescue, found herself with both the time and need to reflect on the latest happenings and the situation she found herself in. There were sufficient servants that she never needed to lift a finger in the Casa, and it upset them very much when she did. Alessia, of course, took a fair amount of time and energy, and there was no way on Earth or below it, that she would let that child out of her ambit again.
Alessia did play by herself, and slept for hours longer than Maria did, and of course she spent time with Marco, and Kat, if she got half a chance. Children seemed to know Marco was a good toy, just by looking at him. Kat–Maria had to laugh. Kat could take on the darkness, smuggling, and shoot someone calmly with a wheel-lock hand cannon if there was need. She’d fought for family and her Casa with cool courage. But she was still wary and a little nervous around small children. She’d get used to them with one of her own, Maria reflected.
But she had too much time for that reflection. Venice’s Streghira had made clear they did not want her, and then had betrayed her. Venice’s canalers were fond of her, but they–and she–had moved apart. Corfu, and the Mother Goddess, and the service of the women there were not something she could really do any longer.
Effectively trapped in the Casa, she turned to something the Casa had quite a lot of, by Casa Longi standards, and a vast amount of by anyone else’s standards. Books. She started reading. Reading and writing she had learned later in life than most, and hadn’t enjoyed very much, either.
But now, as she practiced more, that changed too.