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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 andKathi 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
'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.'