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The wind blew from the north, from Siberia, and the clatter of hail on his shutters woke the captain. He had only been in bed for an hour, but land noises disturbed him. He grunted, considered, then dragged on his robe and, without taking a lamp, made his way to the leeward side of the villa. He had built this one only last year, and put in a brick chimney-wall: warmth from the stove below mellowed the air and his mood, although his throat was wrung dry, and he was still wearing his wrinkled day shirt and hose, as when he had dropped -- or been dropped -- on his bed. The sleeping rooms creaked and groaned as he passed them: his house was always full. Only the single chamber, as he half expected, was empty; the door ajar, the window unshuttered. Through it he could see a paring of moon, coarse as pomegranate. He walked over and looked down below, at the blood on the snow. Then he looked beyond his gates, at the city in which his fine house was set. At the walls, the watchtowers and the icy huddle of dwellings, above which reared the stiff-necked herd of her churches, scanning the west. Danzig, at four hours after midnight in the deep cold of January, 1474.
There were others awake. Beneath the congealed thatches there glimmered jointed hair-lines of light, fine as lettering. A squat figure, forced by the wind, plunged across a cake of pink light and disappeared. Here, the alleys were snow-filled and crooked. In the New Town, there were more lamps than shrines. In the New Town, the streets built by the Knights drove across and down to the river like prison-grilles, their crowns rutted and black with wheeled traffic. The Knights, the bastards. He was still celebrating Danzig's victory over the Knights. Everyone was celebrating.
Within the room, the quality of the air underwent a change. He smiled. He said, his back to the door, 'So, how was she?'
'Whetting her claws,' Colà said. He was the only man known to the captain who could move as silently as himself, despite his height. They engaged in these exercises sometimes, stalking one another, testing, deceiving. It was part of the return the captain compelled from his guests. In winter, a seaman required to be entertained. Der harte Seevogel, Tough Seabird, they called him.
Colà said, 'Is there some problem? You need a friend to help with your buttons?' He had picked up tinder, and was lighting the lamp by his bed. Paúel closed the shutters and turned.
'I was contemplating the scene of the slaughter. You look as if the girl got to you first, then the father.'
Colà blinked. His eyes were like pewter platters, and his real name was not Colà. The captain knew what it was, and had called him by it throughout the campaign in the north, where they had met. Then, after the better part of two years, a merchant's train coming in from the west had insisted on bringing their friend to the guild hall, even though they had only just met him in Lübeck two weeks ago -- such a lively, remarkable fellow was he. Name of Colà z Brugge. A one-time merchant who had decided to let his business go hang and see the world. And Captain Paúel Benecke, looking up at this bland, bristle-chinned figure, had said slowly, 'Oh, yes? Decided to give up your business?'
'Yes,' had said the newcomer meekly.
'And come to Poland?'
'Why not?' had said the big man in a reasonable voice. 'I could see, from the little experience I had, that its people needed advice. Some hints about etiquette. A touch of help as to manners and culture. A bit of --'
Here, he had been forced to desist by the pack of genial, hard-fisted arms that rose and fell on him: it had evidently happened often before, and he accepted it amiably. When, at last, the two were alone, the captain had set himself to pin the newcomer down in another way. 'So, what's the point of all this? Of course they will find out who you are. You have an agent here, haven't you?'
'Straube, yes. He's gone to Portugal for the winter. Oh, they'll find out,' said the man they called Colà. 'But they'll also know by the time he comes back that he isn't my agent any more. I've retired from my company.'
'Why?' had said Benecke. He remembered trying to kill this man once. He remembered that the first time they met, this man had broken his arm, and later his leg.
'Why do you think?' the newcomer had said.
Benecke considered. So far as he knew, the fellow had been good at his job. The business had prospered. If he'd cheated, he hadn't been found out. That left only women. There had been two: a harridan of a wife, so he'd heard, and a little virgin who thought she was a boy. That is, there had been a lot more than two, but none spoken of seriously. The captain said, 'I think you just wanted some fun. But since you ask, I'll guess you killed the wife and raped the little girl-brother Kathi. I liked her,' said the captain with a catch in his voice. 'If you've raped her, I'll kill you.' They were both, by this time, quite full of ale.
'You think you could?' Colà said; and ducked as the captain got out his knife. Someone took it from him quite soon, and they settled to drink again. Eventually Paúel had to ask. 'So what happened?'
'You weren't far wrong,' Colà had said. 'The wife flung me out, and the girl married somebody else. So I thought I'd get out.'
'So why here?'
'I thought I'd get out to where somebody owed me a favour. Are you busy this winter?'
The captain sat up. 'You want a job?' There were no jobs in winter. Danzig was sealed in by ice. There would be no ships in the port until March.
'No,' said Colà. 'Or not until spring. Or not until I decide where I'm going. I just want to pass an entertaining winter with my inferiors.'
Ten minutes later, picking themselves up from the snow outside the Artushof: 'They'll never let you back in,' Benecke said.
'Yes, they will. Anyway, you started the fight, and they'll forgive you. Do I get a bed?'
'No,' had said Paúel Benecke. 'You'd spoil my winter complaining about your women.'
'I shouldn't,' said Colà.
'You'd get into bed with my women.'
'Of course,' had said Colà. 'You couldn't stop me. That's why you don't want me to come.'
That time, no one separated them, and it was three days before either of them could talk without lisping. Colà had been living in his house ever since, and Danzig would never forget him, nor would Paúel Benecke. He would never have to forget him. He was going to keep him in Danzig for the rest of his life. Despite the blood on the snow.
Now he said, 'So where have you left her?'
'Never mind. Anyway, she's not yours, she's mine. I got a doctor to see to the boy.'
'I thought his arm was going to come off. You ought to be chained up and put in a lazar house.'
'Come on,' Colà said. 'I'm going to tame her. Then I'm going to sell her to you.'
'Before or after you pay me for your lodging?' Paúel Benecke said. He gazed with fascination at the scratches all over the other man's neck and arms. He said, 'What if she's diseased?'
'No,' said Benecke. 'But I'm thirsty, and the look of you is spoiling my thirst. Good night, fool.'
He left, slamming the door. You found a man you could enjoy winters with, and he still behaved, at times, like an idiot. In their first weeks together, he had discovered it. Ingenuity, yes; lunacy even, to a degree -- those were acceptable, those were what the merchants from Lübeck had enjoyed. But these escapades led by Colà were suicidal.
Three weeks after he came, the situation had come to a head over the bison hunt. Then they had been out of the city, travelling over snow to the forests, with their dogs, their nets, their spears and arrows. Colà had learned, God knew from where, that the beasts were enraged by red cloth, and had brought some. It had ended with the death of two men, while Colà cavorted round one of the animals in snow-crusted boots, whirling the fabric round his fur hat and calling and whistling.
It had been funny, all right. In the midst of the extreme danger that threatened them all, it was still funny to see the big man addressing the bison in prose, song and verse, while two thousand pounds of massive beast lowered its horns and skittered backwards and forth, its eyes red as lamps and the snow flying in clods from its coat as the cloth whisked about, almost touching. Then a dog got tossed in the air, and a man; and after the second man died, Paúel gave the order and they all ran in with their spears and took the beast, to the risk of their own lives. Paúel had led the party that harnessed the big man to a sledge and whipped him back to their lodge; he ran them into a tree on the way, and was arranging to hang Paúel with the harness when they got hold of him again. They were none of them sober.
That was close to being all right. Winters were spent in rough play and rough punishment. But when they were back home, and had broken the news to the two men's wives, and had the bison taken off to be jointed, Benecke had got hold of Colà and sat him down by the stove and said, 'Stop it, or get out. I'm not sick of life yet. Neither were my two lads.'
'I'm culling them for you,' Colà said. 'I thought it was a tough life at sea.'
'Some seamen need to be tougher than others,' Benecke said. 'He was a pilot, one of those boys. But I notice they're all the same to you, anyway.' He waited. Then he said, 'Why don't you want to go home, my big man? Perhaps you are more of a poltroon than any of us.'
A moment passed. 'That's unlikely,' said the other man. His gaze had fallen on his own arms and hands: a bloody rut on one forearm ran into another similar gouge long-since healed. 'The bolting Bonasus,' he said thoughtfully, 'whose fart can cover three acres, and set a whole forest on fire.'
'What?' said Benecke.
'A classical allusion. Ignore it. I mean that I am staying; I wish to stay; I have no immediate plans to get rid of you, unless you start preaching three times a day, in which case your own men will drown you before I do. Is there no ale, or are you drinking nothing but buttermilk now?'
And from that time, although their pastimes had been wild enough, they had been tempered with some sort of reason. The ritual of girl-hunting played its part as the winter progressed, and days became heavy and dark. Then, the young gallants would assemble their sleighs and bowl their way over the snow in a sparkling chain, bearing pasties and sweetmeats and flasks from one great timber dwór to another, and bringing out pretty captives, smothered in furs, to be returned flushed at dusk. Every red-blooded man enjoyed that, and the homeward course through the snowfields by night, when flickering brands danced in the void, and the throb of deep voices in harmony was matched with the far, surfing trill of the bells.
Colà had, it seemed, learned some sort of lesson. And even today, although he had been reckless, it had not been quite without reason, the exploit he had proposed. The boy's hurt could not have been avoided. Unless, of course, they had been more sensible still, and killed instead of bringing back their beautiful captive. But only Colà would propose to tame a live lynx.
The captain went to see him while he was at work in a half-empty warehouse. A cage had been made, and the big man was hunkered quietly outside it, speaking at intervals. He had some meat on a stick. His voice, of an exceptional richness, kept the rhythm and cadence of song; Benecke could not make out the words. When the speaker broke off at his step, Benecke gave way to a bellow of mirth. 'Crooning, by God! Are ye taming it or giving it suckle?'
Colà jerked up his chin. Squealing, the animal flung itself back, its ruff stiff. The bars thrummed. Paúel waited, loosening his shoulders, his hand hanging close to his dagger. The would-be tamer, instead of whirling about, thoughtfully brought up the rod and, detaching the meat, dropped it inside the cage without speaking. Then he rose and turned mildly. His face, though manufacturing anger, held the vanishing trace of another, less likely expression. Behind, the cat glared, a growl in her throat.
'A woman would be easier,' Benecke pointed out.
'Some women,' said Colà. His composure, if lost, had returned. 'What is it?' Recently, he had become more observant.
The rest of the warehouse was empty. Benecke said, 'Do you know that they say you are a spy?'
'At the Artushof, the taverns, the wharves. They say you are an agent of Germany, planning to bring the Knights back.'
The Order of the Teutonic Knights, once so holy, had just been prised free of Danzig. Danzig and all her wealthy cluster of satellite towns was now part of Royal Prussia, and hence Poland. The King had come once to Danzig.
Colà laid the bar on his shoulder. He said, 'Well, I'm not. Haven't they noticed the agents of Germany, watching me? The King's agents as well. I don't mind. I'm not going back. I'm betraying no secrets, stealing no business. They'll see.'
'You could pass secrets on,' Benecke said.
'In winter?' Every movement was noticed in winter. From a bustling, free-flowing port, Danzig in winter was a snug Germanised town, its few foreigners remarked on and counted; its astute, inquisitive gaze, its rumbustious merriment all turned in on itself. Because it was winter, Danzig had had time to study Colà and reach an opinion. That it liked him was something quite separate.
'In spring,' said Benecke. 'There's to be a Burgundian mission passing through Poland in spring. Someone you know. The aristocratic uncle of your married, seraphic virgin, and a patriarch sent by the Pope.'
Colà's eyes were sharp as the cat's, but bigger, and grey. 'Why?' he said. And then, 'Because of what you did? Because you seized a Burgundian ship and its cargo?'
'Among other things.' Paúel Benecke gave a prosaic answer to a prosaic question. He was a pirate. That was his career. He was a sea-borne mercenary leader of skill and renown, whose highly paid interventions might change the fate of a crusade, or a duchy, or a group of powerful towns like the Hanse. He sailed under letters of marque, empowered by kings, and his booty paid for cropland, and castles, and villas.
The coming summer might turn out to be different, for the Hanse war with England was ending. But there would be other quarrels; other vindictive men who wished to hire their own bullies. Next summer, unless some idiot babbled, this maniac Colà was going to agree to turn pirate and join him. Paúel said, 'So keep clear of these envoys, I'd say. Or men will assume you are passing them secrets.' He made a considering pause.'If you ask me nicely, I might even rescue you. You could come south in the spring, and help float my grain down to market. None of us conscious for weeks.'
'Are you certain a mission is coming?' Colà said. But he was surely convinced because, as he spoke, he gripped the rod like a whip and threw it, hard. It cartwheeled twice, giving tongue like a tocsin. The lynx, her pointed ears flat, ricocheted round her cage, squealing.
Benecke said kindly, 'You've undone all your good work. Go and croon to her.'
The other man did not even glance over. He said, 'No. You were right. Get some keeper to train her.'
Jingling its way round the shores of the Baltic, the cut-price Mission to Persia intended to enter Danzig in March, having been entertained on its way by the civic leaders of Lübeck, Wisenar, Rostock and Stralsund, and survived the unstinted goodwill of their clubs.
The two leaders were not, of course, unknown to their hosts. Every merchant who had conducted business in Bruges remembered the courtly Anselm Adorne, envoy now of the Duke who ruled Flanders. Others, wincing, had met Adorne's unforgettable companion, the Papal and Imperial Legate. The Patriarch of Antioch had been this way before. Indeed, the unsavoury sandals of Father Ludovico da Bologna had tramped every byway in Europe, raising gold to fight Turkey. Between them, this powerful pair represented the three richest lords in the world, and their retinue, anywhere else, would have been gorgeous. But here, instead of silken banners and servants, soldiers and sumpter wagons of silver and mattresses, the train of the mission to Persia consisted of a number of packmules, eleven stoutly dressed men and, on sufferance, Anselm Adorne's twenty-year-old niece and her bridegroom of three months.
The presence of Katelijne Sersanders and her very young husband had not been part of Adorne's plan. Barely married, newly settled into a delightful small house of her uncle's, Katelijne herself had been equally far from contemplating an immediate journey. Then, on the eve of the mission's departure, Ludovico da Bologna had trotted his mule into Bruges and, before so much as calling on Anselm Adorne, had banged on her door to congratulate her on her marriage.
The Patriarch was over sixty years old, and he and Kathi Sersanders had known each other, off and on, for four years. Skipping out to receive him, Katelijne recognised in his manner the same sardonic detachment which had always coloured their dealings. To say she liked him meant nothing: she liked almost everyone. It was a pity that her uncle, tied to the Patriarch for the forthcoming mission, felt differently.
In the meantime, however, she had to admit that she was desperately pleased to see the old ruffian for reasons which Robin would share. She began, however, by laying meat and water before him, the first essential when entertaining Ludovico da Bologna, and only after that did she send for her husband. When he arrived he was scarlet, and she had to pull him down beside her for fear that he would start firing questions at once. Last winter, a man they both knew had vanished. And the last person for certain to see him, so far as they heard, was this priest.
Typically, if the Patriarch noticed their anxiety, he ignored it. Instead, devouring his chops, Father Ludovico put some questions himself. So why, girl, had she decided to marry? And to a Scots lad? (Well, Robin, you've done well out of this, haven't you?) The Patriarch supposed it was because of the gossip: she should never have gone to Iceland, of course, with de Fleury. But there it was, and he supposed they'd do as well as any other silly young couple. Then (switching subjects as Robin showed signs of exploding), how was her uncle? Stiff-necked as ever? Looking forward to five years on the road patronising the natives?
'You'd better find out for yourself,' Kathi had said, kicking Robin. She didn't mind putting up with the Patriarch. She had learned patience the hard way, as maid of honour at the Scots Court, where she had come across the great mercantile family of Berecrofts, and her good-hearted Robin, of the fair hair and fresh skin and compact, athletic build (silly young couple, indeed). Her uncle, elegant aristocrat that he was, approved of her husband. Adorne, although his home was in Bruges, maintained close connections with Scotland, and had been honoured with land by its King. It was land he would not see for some time.
She knew he didn't mind that: after the death of his wife, Anselm Adorne had wanted this mission. Certainly, he disliked being leagued with the Patriarch, whose identical remit he saw as an insult to his own ducal lord. The Patriarch, on the other hand, was engaged on his own private scheme for mustering aid against the Ottoman Turks, and didn't care what Adorne thought, or indeed the Pope, or the Emperor he was supposed to be working for. Ludovico de Severi da Bologna made use of anybody he could find, including brilliant bankers who abandoned their families and vanished.
Further propitiated by beef and dumplings and pudding, the priest was quite ready to talk, in the end, when Katelijne, lady of Berecrofts, carefully opened that particular topic. 'Where's Nicholas de Fleury of Beltrees? Ask the Emperor. I left them both at Cologne in November.'
Robin glanced at her. He was still flushed. He said, 'But M. de . . . But my lord of Beltrees isn't in Germany now. That is, he can't be working for anyone now. He has nothing to offer.'
'De Fleury? Why not? He hasn't got a Bank any more, but he could advise. He could spy. He'd need to, wouldn't he? He has no income, or none that I know of.' The Patriarch lowered his tankard of water. A touch of grease swam on the top.
Robin said, 'But where would he be, if he couldn't work for the Emperor? You were with him. Didn't he tell you his plans?' He sounded angry, for Robin. The Patriarch remained calm.
'No, he didn't. One, he was sick. Two, he didn't mention he was about to disappear. Three, I don't know what he's done to make you so nervous. He had caused, it would seem, some catastrophe, but whatever it was, I can't see our busy friend overwhelmed by remorse. No. He'll have an uncomfortable winter, and get himself a job in the spring. He may even think he can come back and start again.'
'No!' said Kathi.
'Really? As bad as that? People would learn what he had done, or his friends would be compelled to denounce him? Torture, lopped limbs, execution? You wouldn't like to tell me what he has done?'
'No,' said Robin. 'But he knows he can never go back. No one would stand for it. And his wife and son would be dragged into it too. All the same . . .'
'Yes?' said the priest. He put down his spoon. 'All the same what? I must go.'
'Take the tart,' Kathi said. Her hands with her new rings felt cold.
'All the same,' Robin repeated, 'I wish I knew where he was. Can't you make a guess?'
'If you have a napkin. Now that is kind,' said the priest. 'Can't I guess what? Where Nicholas is? I don't need to. Wherever it is, I'll find out before we get beyond Poland. Every friar in the land is looking out for him. And if you want to know where he's going, I'll tell you that, too. To Tabriz. Because that's where I shall be sending him.'
At last, Robin looked at his wife and Kathi drew a short breath and spoke with no patience at all. 'And you imagine he'll go? Has Nicholas de Fleury ever done what you told him before?'
'No,' the Patriarch said. 'But his friends have never flung him out before, have they? What else should he do?'
She sat, watching him lick and holster his knife, and then proceed, with some deftness, to parcel up the thick, sticky tart. He got out his satchel. Robin said, 'If Kathi's uncle allowed it, would you mind if I came on this mission?'
The priest got to his feet, satchel in hand. 'To Persia? Really? Through Poland, round the Black Sea, across the land of the Crimean Tartars, south through Georgia and into Tabriz? My dear boy, what a glutton for travel!'
Robin was not put off by mockery. 'Not so far. At least I hope not so far. To wherever M. de Fleury has stopped.'
'And what good will it do if you find him? You'll hand him pretty notes from the child, and he'll pine, or come back and be killed.'
'It is not for him,' Robin said. 'It is for me.'
The Patriarch's eyes, under their spirited brows, relaxed their stare. He said, 'Well, that's frank enough. I tell you what, then.' Father Ludovico bent and lifted his satchel. 'Adorne may not agree. But I'd take you to hunt for de Fleury. You might shame the brute into repentance. He needs to take a look at what's happening in Caffa. He needs to be frightened into doing God's work in Tabriz. You come and tell him, my boy.' And baring a set of frightening teeth, he departed.
Alone with Robin that night, Kathi returned again to the argument they had been having all evening, and which she knew she would win in the end. 'If you go, so do I. Nicholas won't forget what he has done, but you might.' She spoke wryly. Despite what the Patriarch rightly called the catastrophe, she could not expect Robin to throw aside years of hero-worship; to dismiss this unpredictable, this extraordinary man who would choose, if he felt like it, to risk his own life for theirs, and yet would destroy, they now knew, just as wantonly.
'You think he should be induced to go east?' Robin said. 'For the sake of the Patriarch and the Church? Into a porridge of Ruthenians and Tartars and Mongols, Turcoman bandits and Turks who have four wives apiece and eat horses?'
'He might enjoy some of it,' Kathi said. 'Look. He has a life to fill. It may as well have a purpose.'
'And Nicholas is supposed meekly to go wherever the Patriarch wants him?'
'I think,' said Kathi, 'that would be unrealistic. I think the Patriarch's pushing, not pulling, and he wants you as his floppy-eared beater. You're supposed to flush Nicholas out, and drive him painlessly east, at the trot.' She gave an involuntary shiver.
Robin moved, and was still. They had an arrangement; or rather he had, with himself. Kathi put her hand into his. She said, 'We'll go together. I'll speak to my uncle tomorrow . . . My bed looks very cold. Who will warm it?'
It was not easy, that interview the next day. Departure was close, and Anselm Adorne was preoccupied with the needs of his journey, and of the family, grown and half-grown, he was leaving behind. Also, his travelling companion the Patriarch of Antioch had called, unacceptably late and no more agreeable than he had ever been. When Kathi found him, her uncle was grim.
Katelijne Sersanders of Berecrofts might look like a child half her age, but she thought and felt like an adult. In asking her favour, she was conscious of the factors against her. Her abundance of energy (her uncle could say) was deceptive, and her health fragile. She should be settling to marriage, as Robin ought to be fostering his grandfather's business. And lastly, of course, it was outside common decency that Nicholas de Fleury should claim her thoughts or her time. Deceived by the man whom he had watched growing from boyhood, Anselm Adorne was attempting to forget de Fleury, and so she must, too.
Despite all of that, Kathi Sersanders sat by her uncle's desk and put her proposal, and hard man though he could be, her uncle gave her the courtesy of a hearing. A just magistrate, a Flemish-Italian merchant prince with generations of Genoese nobility behind him, Anselm Adorne had not lightly given in, either, when his niece had proposed to marry young Robin. But he was fond of her, and he respected her judgement, and Scotland had offered security. Or so it had seemed to him then. So now, Adorne said, 'It is Robin, not you, who wants to find and speak to de Fleury?'
'I shouldn't stop him,' she said. 'Robin was his page, then his squire. He can't forget. He needs to speak to Nicholas; to satisfy himself over what has happened.'
'And you?' her uncle asked.
She had not been dazzled, like Robin, by the compendium of assorted delights which made Nicholas at first sight so winning. She had been a critical admirer, a fellow lover of music and, latterly, unexpectedly, a friend. Until the catastrophe. She said, 'Now I think Nicholas is best left alone.'
'Certainly, that would be my opinion,' her uncle observed. He did not elaborate, but he was thinking, she knew, of his task. This mission would be thorny enough, without inviting more trouble. Resentful of Adorne, Nicholas might be stirred, if resurrected, to find ways of obstructing the mission. And while he was free to impugn whom he wished, Adorne's hands were tied. For what Nicholas had done had not been made public, and would not be, for the sake of his victims.
She said, 'I want this for Robin, not myself. Nicholas may never appear. He may not want to be found, or he may not be where the Patriarch thinks. I don't intend to wander for ever, but I do want Robin to feel that at least he has tried. And if Nicholas is still alive, I can't believe that he would harm you. Although, of course, no one can be sure.'
'No,' her uncle said. He paused. 'You would not think of letting Robin travel without you?' Then, as she looked at him in silence, he answered his own question. 'No.'
She wondered if he understood, and thought that he probably did. If Robin went, she must go, and not simply because they were newly united. The truth was that she would be twenty-one in November, while Robin was three years her junior. Soon, the difference would fade, and they would live the span of their lives as contemporaries, lovers and friends. But first, they had to secure the form of their union.
It had never been her ambition to wed. She would not have done so, had she not seen within this sweet-tempered man all the promise of just such a future. But, wise as Robin was, it was for her, in these first weeks, to shape from intangibles -- dreams, thoughts, sensations -- the image of the marriage that they were going to have. She was not alone, for he was aware of it, and helped her as he could. There was a precedent.
Adorne said, 'I am not sure that it is wise. But I trust your good sense, and I would not have Robin waste his life mourning a scoundrel. Come with me, then. Let Robin satisfy himself, if he must, and bring you back to your own home, and your own life. Nicholas de Fleury has had his chance, and is worth no one's pain now.'
From the Hardcover edition.