Viking 3: King’s Man, page 20
Her death broke the only real link that I had with the Great City, and persuaded me that Odinn had other plans for the remaining years of my life.
Pelagia’s family gathered to settle her affairs, and from them I learned that she had been very astute in investing my guardsman’s salary for me. Thanks to her I was now reasonably wealthy, even without my secret share of the emir’s ransom and the salvage of the Arab pirate galea, most of which had already been carried northward in Harald’s ships returning from the Sicilian campaign. The following week I went discreetly to see the financier, a member of the banker’s guild, to whom Pelagia had entrusted the safekeeping of my funds and asked him if I could withdraw the money as I was thinking of travelling abroad.
‘No need to do that,’ he replied. ‘If you carry too much coin, you might be waylaid and robbed. I can arrange for you to collect your money at your destination from my fellow bankers, if the place is not too distant.’
‘Would the city of Kiev be too far?’ I asked.
‘Not at all. I could manage to have your funds made available to you in Kiev. We have been doing an increasing amount of business there these past few years, transferring money for the Rus traders who come annually to this city. Not all of them want to travel back burdened with trade goods, struggling to haul them back upstream over the portages. They get notes of credit from me, which they redeem in Kiev.’
The banker’s assurance removed my worry that Harald’s departure from Constantinople might be hampered by financial complications. He too could use the bankers to move his assets from Constantinople. Now everything depended on Psellus to come up with some scheme whereby we could escape.
His cryptogram, when it finally arrived in late May, was so terse that there were just six words. It read, ‘Two ousiai, Neiron, peach silk, Nativity.’
The first part was clear to me. Ousiai are small dromons, about the size of our Norse ships. Each normally carries a crew of about fifty men and they serve as fast escort vessels. The Neiron was the naval arsenal on the Golden Horn, so presumably the two ousiai would be docked there at the time of the feast of the Nativity. But I was puzzled and disappointed by Psellus’s mention of the Nativity. If this was the date when he thought Harald and his men would have their chance to leave Constantinople, then my friend was more of a cloistered bureaucrat than I thought. The Nativity, the birth of the White Christ, occurs in mid-winter, and surely, I told myself, Psellus knew that December was far too late for a departure from Constantinople. The sailing weather was atrocious, and by the time we reached the river leading towards Kiev it would be in flood or frozen over. We had to leave in the summer or early autumn at the latest.
The reference to peach silk was a complete enigma. I could see no connection with warships at the arsenal.
So I went to the House of Lights. This was the most luxurious shopping emporium in the capital. Occupying a prime site on the most fashionable stretch of the Mese, it stayed open day and night, its arcades lit by hundreds upon hundreds of candles. Only one item was on sale – silk. The precious fabric was available in every grade and style and colour, whether as lengths of cloth, as complete garments, or cut and part-finished ready to be sewn together. In all the known world the House of Lights was the largest single market for silk, and the market dealers there were among the wealthiest merchants in the city, as well as the most rigorously controlled. They were obliged to report every single transaction over ten nomisma in value to the eparch of the city so that his officials knew exactly where each length of material came from and to whom it went. If a foreigner wished to buy silk, the dealer was only allowed to offer the lower grades of fabric, and he was obliged to report his customer’s departure from Constantinople so that his baggage could be searched for contraband. Failure to do so would mean that the silk merchant was flogged, his head shaved in public humiliation, and all his goods confiscated.
Mindful of this strict regime, I chose the most discreet of the silk merchants’ shops in the House of Lights and asked to speak with the owner. A white-haired man with a sleek, prosperous appearance came out from a back room, and the moment he saw I was a foreigner suggested that we discuss our business in private, in a back alcove.
‘I’m enquiring about the price and availability of good quality silks for export,’ I explained.
He complimented me on my excellent Greek and asked where I had learned to speak the language with such fluency.
‘In trade,’ I answered evasively. ‘Mostly the shipping business.’
‘Then you will already be familiar with the restrictions forbidding me to sell certain categories of silk to those who are not resident in this city,’ he murmured, ‘but alternative arrangements can sometimes be made. Did you have any particular goods in mind?’
‘Highly coloured silks make more profit for me when I sell them on. It depends what is available.’
‘At this moment I have good stocks of dark green and yellow in half-tint.’
‘What about other colours? Orange, for example? That’s popular where I come from.’
‘It depends on the depth of the hue. I can probably find a pale lemon orange, close to the yellow I have. But the more dye stuff used in colouring the material, the more difficult it is to obtain. And, of course, more expensive.’
‘If I placed an order for a specific colour, could you prepare it for me?’
He shook his head. ‘The law forbids silk dealers from exercising the craft of dyeing silk. That is a separate craft. Nor can I handle raw silk. That too is a separate profession.’
I adopted a disappointed look. ‘I had particularly hoped to find peach-coloured silk, for a very special client. And I could pay a premium price.’
‘Let me send someone to check.’
He called a servant, gave him his instructions, and while we waited for the man to return from his errand, he showed me various samples of his stock.
‘I’m sorry to say,’ reported the silk merchant when his servant came back with the information he needed, ‘that peach-coloured silk will be impossible to obtain, at least for some time.’ He looked knowing, and continued, ‘There’s a rumour that the Augusta Zoë is due to get married again . . . for the third time, can you imagine! The royal workshops are working at full stretch to produce all the garments and hangings needed for the ceremony, and peach-coloured silk is a major item on their list of requirements.’
‘But I thought purple was the imperial colour?’
‘It is,’ said the silk merchant, ‘and so too is deep red and those shades of violet which border on purple. All those hues are strictly reserved for the palace. Anyone making or selling such material would be in serious trouble. Peach-coloured silk is made with the same dyestuff that produces the forbidden shades. It is a matter of precisely how much of the dye is mixed with certain tinting herbs, the temperature in the dyer’s vat, and other craft secrets. Because of this association, peach is considered to be very exclusive and is customarily sent as a present to foreign rulers to inform them of important palace events such as weddings or coronations.’
I sighed. ‘How very disappointing. I don’t suppose it is worth my waiting in the city for peach-coloured silk to become available again?’
‘Preparing the gifts for the foreign potentates will not be a high priority,’ the silk dealer said. ‘The royal workshops will want to get all the ceremonial material out of the way first, then use up the last stocks of dye to make the peach silk for shipment.’
‘And when might that be? I need to leave well before the celebration of the Nativity.’
‘It depends which Nativity you mean,’ he replied. ‘I presume you are from Venice, or Genoa perhaps. In the west you celebrate the Nativity of our Lord, and so do we. But this city celebrates another very special Nativity, that of Mary, our protectress. And her Nativity falls in September.’
My sudden intake of breath must have puzzled the silk merchant, for I saw that I had given Psellus too little credit for his secret intelligence
IT COST ME five nomisma to bribe a clerk working in the dromos to keep me supplied with further details of the silk shipment as they emerged. Psellus must have had an excellent contact in the royal silk factory, because on June the eleventh Zoë did get married again – to a patrician by the name of Constantine who was acclaimed as the new Basileus the next day – and it was a little less than three months later that the corrupt clerk in the dromos informed me that the thirty bolts of peach-coloured silk were ready for despatch as gifts to the Caliph of Egypt. The silk was to be taken there by the imperial envoy carrying the official news of the acclamation of a new Basileus.
‘According to my information,’ I told Harald, ‘two ousiai have been ordered to the Neiron to pick up the silk and other gifts. They are on standby to receive the imperial ambassador. He will come aboard as soon as the chancery has prepared the official letters announcing the coronation of the new Basileus.’
‘You suggest that we seize the vessels?’
‘Yes, my lord. They would suit your purpose. Ousiai are fast and manoeuvrable, and they can carry you and your men up to the Pontic Sea.’
‘And how do you propose that we acquire these vessels? The arsenal is heavily guarded.’
‘My lord, you remember your mission to the Holy Land as an escort for the architect Trdat?’
‘I suggest that you and your men present yourselves at the gates of the Neiron as the escort for this new ambassador.’
I could see that Harald immediately liked the idea of this deception. ‘And what makes you think that the authorities in the dockyard will be tricked?’
‘Leave that to me, my lord. All I ask is that you and your men act like a formal escort, and that you are ready to seize the two dromons when the time is right.’
‘That part of the plan will not be a problem.’
Never before had I forged an official document, but I had retained the official orders I received when we had accompanied Trdat, and now I used them as my model. I found myself thanking the Irish monks who had taught me penmanship in my youth as I drew up an official-looking document stating that Harald and his men were to escort the envoy bearing gifts to the Caliph of Egypt. For paper I used a sheet of parchment which I purchased from my contact in the dromos. I paid him another two nomisma extra for the right colour ink – black for the text, red for the invocation to the Holy Trinity which is placed at the beginning of every official order. The ministerial signature I copied from my genuine original, and the seal with its grey silk ribbon I merely cut off and transferred. Finally I carefully folded the fake document with exactly the same creases, as I had heard that this was a secret method by which the clerks guaranteed the authenticity of a document.
Then, on the day before the feast of the Nativity of Mary, Harald, the remainder of his war band and I arrived at the main gate of the Neiron and requested permission to stow our gear aboard the two dromons. Fortunately the archon, the director of the dockyard, was absent as he was preparing for the feast day, and his deputy was too nervous to question why so many men were needed as an embassy escort. Also, Harald’s imperious manner cowed him. The official barely glanced at the forged orders before handing us over to a junior assistant to take us to the dromons. We made our way past the shipwrights, riggers and painters, who glanced at us curiously, surprised to see so many foreigners within the arsenal, and eventually came to a short wooden pier where the two ousiai were moored. As I had anticipated, their crews had been given leave to prepare for the festival, and they had left their vessels in care of the dockyard. There was no one aboard.
‘Sweeps and sails left on deck, thank the Gods,’ muttered Halldor, looking around the vessels, and I realised that in my enthusiasm as a forger I had forgotten that the dromons might not be fully ready for sea.
‘We’ll stow our gear on board and stay the night,’ I told the archon’s assistant.
He looked surprised. ‘Are you not attending the festivities tomorrow?’ he asked.
‘No,’ I said. ‘These men are unbelievers. Also the sekreton of the dromos informs me that the ambassador himself may arrive tomorrow evening, and we could be getting under way without delay.’
‘But the regular crews are on shore leave,’ the man objected.
‘And if they are found to have neglected their duty, they will be reprimanded,’ I added.
The dockyard assistant took the hint. ‘Very well. I will make arrangements for additional fresh water and stores to be brought aboard tomorrow. But as it is a feast day, I cannot guarantee that it will be possible to provide all that is needed. I was not made aware that the ambassador would have such a numerous escort.’
‘Do your best,’ I assured him. ‘We’ve brought enough rations with us to last the next few days.’
By mid-afternoon the activity of the dockyard was already subsiding. The sounds of hammering and sawing and the shouts of workers faded as the shipwrights left their tasks and went home early to prepare for the festival. Soon the only people left in the Neiron were the members of the fire watch, whose duty was to keep an eye on the highly combustible stores, and a night guard of about a dozen men who patrolled the slipways and quays.
Harald’s men made pretence of settling down for the night aboard the two ousiai, but many of us were too nervous to sleep, and I worried that the night guard would become suspicious. Their patrol was random, and there was no way of anticipating their visits, so I told the young officer in charge that we would post our own sentries, as this was our custom, and persuaded him that his own men needed to come no closer than the foot of the jetty.
Everything now depended on the timing of our next move.
At the first glimmer of dawn, Harald quietly gave the order to unmoor our vessel from the quay. Astern of us, the second ousiai followed us. As silently as possible we pushed off from the pier and began to row out into the Golden Horn. We could feel the ripples slapping against the thin wooden hulls of the lightly built dromons. A fresh breeze from the north was raising waves in the straits outside, but in the sheltered waters of the great harbour the waves had little effect.
We were a long bowshot from the shore when a trumpet sounded the alarm from the Neiron behind us. The nightwatch had discovered we were missing.
‘Put your backs into it!’ roared Halldor, who was at the helm. ‘Show those Greeks what real rowing is like.’
Each ousiai had a single bank of oars, identical to a longship, and Harald’s Norsemen, two men to each oar handle, were relishing the return to their old ways. Harald himself was not too proud to seat himself on the oar bench nearest to the helm and row alongside his men.
‘Row your guts out, men!’ urged Halldor. From astern we could hear the shouts of the helmsman of the second ousiai following in our wake. Further in the distance was the clamour of alarm bells and more trumpet calls.
We picked up speed. The light was strengthening, and soon we would be in full view of anyone watching from the harbour walls. If the alarm was passed quickly enough, the signal mirrors on the harbour wall would begin to flash a message to the guard boats in the bay.
Halldor grabbed my arm and pointed ahead. ‘Look!’ he said. ‘The chain is still in place.’
I squinted forward through the grey light of dawn and knew that my plan was in ruins. Directly across our path stretched a line of wooden rafts, evenly spaced, about fifteen paces apart. Low in the water, so that even the smallest wave broke across them, they bobbed and gleamed blackly. Hanging below them was the chain which closed off the Golden Horn each night and turned it into a lake. It was supposed to be removed at first light so that the harbour was open to traffic, and our way to the straits should have been clear, but I had failed to anticipate that, on the feast da
Seeing my dismay, Harald left his oar handle to his neighbour on the bench and stepped up to the stern deck. ‘What’s the trouble?’ he demanded.
There was no need to explain, I pointed at the line of rafts.
Coolly he surveyed the obstacle. ‘How deep does the chain hang?’ he asked.
‘I don’t know. The shoreward end is fastened to land, and it is floated out with the rafts each sunset.’ In the days when I had stayed in Pelagia’s house overlooking the bay, I had often seen the teams of workboats struggling out with the chain at dusk and closing off the harbour.
Harald looked up at the sky. There was enough light for us to see the links of the chain where they crossed each raft. ‘What do you think, Halldor?’ he said, turning to the Icelander.
‘Can’t say to be sure,’ Halldor replied. ‘Must sag a bit between each raft. Stands to reason.’
Again we heard alarm signals from the shore. A fire gong was being beaten, its clangour carrying unmistakably across the water.
Harald stepped to the edge of the steersman’s platform and looked down the length of our ousiai. Ahead of him forty or more Norsemen were rowing steadily. They had the vessel moving sweetly through the water, so they had dropped the rhythm of the oar strokes to a measured beat. To an observer it might have looked as if they were relaxing their effort, but every man aboard knew that it was a waste of effort to tug dramatically at the oar handles. What was needed now was disciplined, powerful rowing to keep our vessel cruising forward.
‘When I give the word,’ called Harald, ‘every man takes twenty oar strokes with all his strength. When I shout a second time, the oarsmen on the first five benches drop their oars, leave their benches and run to the stern. The others are to keep rowing. Is that understood?’
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