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This Rough Magic: Chapter Twenty Seven

       Last updated: Sunday, October 12, 2003 13:54 EDT



    The outcomes of great ventures often hinge on small things. In this case it hinged on a southerly wind, and the price crates of cuttlefish were fetching at the fish-market at Kérkira. A few copper pennies increase in price had formed the basis of Taki Temperades' decision. The best time to catch cuttlefish, in these parts, was the twilight and the predawn, and the best place was the bay of Vlores some ninety miles north of Corfu.

    The southerly wind had delayed Emeric's carracks. The galleys were forced to anchor in the bay of Vlores and wait.

    Captain Taki left Corfu with four crewmen, some cheap wine, a lot of cuttlefish jigs and a sail-full of southerly wind in the late afternoon. The moon was full and the run simple. The wine was bad, but not that bad. The wind was dropping towards early morning. Taki was pleased by that. It meant it would swing to the north by dawn.

    Taki's ratty little fishing boat rounded Cape Gjuhezes. The Corfiote skipper looked at the town of vessels lying there, in the sea-mist.

    "Bloody Illyrian sons of bitches!" slurred the captain. He'd had quite a lot of that wine. "Stealing my fishing..." He shook his fist at the multitude of ships.

    Spiro looked up from where he'd been busy with his horse-hair lines. "Well, the cuttlefish must be as thick as flies on horse-shit for so many vessels."

    They sailed silently towards the ships, ghosting in on the last breaths of the wind. It had been dying and turning to westerly anyway or there would have been no wind here at all. The moon was nearly down. On one of the ships a horse snorted. Someone said something to someone else. Across the water the voice carried clearly. It wasn't Greek. Or Italian Frankish.

    "Turn, Taki. Turn now," whispered Spiro. His eyes were wide, taking in the size of the vessels they were now nearly between. "Those aren't fishing boats."

    Taki didn't need telling. He swung the rudder hard across. The sail flapped lazily. "Pull it down!" he whispered urgently. "I'll get the others up. We start rowing, quietly." Taki wasn't drunk any more. Just scared.

    As quietly as they could, expecting yells behind them at any moment, the fishermen eased themselves out past the cape, out of direct sight. Taki slumped against the tiller. "Saint Spirodon preserve us! That's the last time I drink that terrible Kakotrigi of Yani's. We nearly sailed into them! Let's get that sail up and get out of here!"

    "Who the hell are they?" asked Kosti, the youngest of the fishermen, hauling on the coarse rope to pull the single patched sail up again.

    "Byzantine-style galleys," said Spiro, also hauling, for once not being sarcastic.

    "And Narenta galliots," added Taki, shortly. Like Spiro and most of the islanders, Taki had done a stint or two as crew on Venetian ships. It was hard work, but the money was good, if you could hang onto it. He knew a pirate galliot's looks from close up. That was why he'd come home and become a fisherman. A fishing boat was such a poor target, with so little loot, most pirates wouldn't bother. Mostly, as a fisherman, you didn't go hungry, and the wine—so long as you didn't set your standards too high—was cheap on Corfu.

    "But horses!" exclaimed Kosti! "And what did that person say? It wasn't Greek."

    "I don't know. I reckon it was trouble, though. And that's our catch gone," said Taki, sourly.



    Up on the headland a Serb guard stamped his feet in the cold. The bay behind him was shrouded in sea-mist. But what was that out there on the dark water? It could be a sail. He squinted at it for a while and then went off to call the guard commander. Make it that son-of-a bitch's decision whether to wake someone else.



    Emeric stared at the shivering Serbs, guard and commander. "A small vessel. Why didn't you report it earlier? Where had it come from?"

    "Y-Your Majesty." The guard pointed out of the tent mouth. "The mist. I just saw it. I called Micholovich... "

    The man looked like he was going to soil himself. But what he'd said was true; you couldn't see far in this. And the man had at least reported it.

    Most likely a coaster or a fishing boat, Emeric decided. As likely as not the mist had hidden the fleet too. There was not much use in sending a galley. If the mist was this thick at sea they'd never find it. But it was a sign: Waiting would not do. Sooner or later vessels would find them, and he wanted to strike an unguarded target. One more day, and carracks or no carracks, they'd launch the attack.



    By the next day when the story got home to Kérkira, it had grown somewhat. By afternoon, the story was all over the streets of the town. By sunset, the commander of the garrison had Captain Taki Temperades in his office.

    Taki had a good memory—at least when fueled by fear. He remembered fairly closely the foreign words he'd heard, even if he hadn't understood them. And the garrison commander had been stationed in Istria. Commander Leopoldo knew a little Hungarian. Enough to recognize one swear-word.

    The detachment on Corfu was a relatively small one, doing little more than policing work. Nine hundred men, some mercenaries, some Venetian marines. Fifty cavalrymen, nominally under the command of Captain-General Tomaselli. In practice, Leopoldo saw to the day-to-day running of most things, not just the garrison itself. This was Gino Leopoldo's first command post and he was determined to do well. Rumor had it that this could be Tomaselli's last command, and he might be able to replace him.

    The Commander had the Capi of the Cavalry in his office, before the sweating fisherman was going to be allowed to depart.

    The cavalryman was skeptical. "I don't know, Captain. These Greeks exaggerate. Probably one vessel with a horse on her."

    Taki wrung his hat. "Your honor. It was a lot of ships. I don't count too well, your honor. But Narenta galliots I know. And Greek Imperial ships. My cousin Dimitri did service on one. I went to see him when he was stationed at Levkas. I saw them in Constantinople too."

    "And there is no way he makes up Hungarian blasphemy," said Leopoldo. "I want some men stationed on the slopes of Pantocrator. I don't know if this man was seeing things, I don't know if they're coming here, but I'm not taking a chance. We have to start preparing for siege."

    He pulled a face. "I'll have to go and talk to the Captain-General and the Podesta. If people are going to be called into the citadel, he has to authorize it."

    "And stationing my men on the mountain? It's a waste of time. You should talk to Tomaselli about that."

    The young commander looked at him in absolute silence. Eventually the Capi said: "All right, then. It'll be done. But it is a waste of time."

    Commander Leopoldo looked at Taki. "And you stay here before you chase the prices up in the market."

    Taki leaned against the wall. "I think you're too late. The Capi may not believe me, but the peasants do. You'll find the peasants are driving their flocks up into the hills, and sending their wives and children up too."

    The garrison commander snorted. "You stay in that corner."



    The table, King Emeric thought, reflected his genius. There, molded in damp sand, was a reasonable scale model of Corfu and the Albanian coast. He'd studied the island from the Albanian shore. He'd assessed it from the sea-side nearly two months prior to that.

    "It will be a three-pronged attack," said the King, pointing to his model. "Count Ladislas, you will disembark with your men, three hundred of your finest, here on the western side of the island directly in line with Corfu-town—Kérkira, as the Greeks call it. You will proceed with as much speed as you can overland. Seize a few locals for guides. Make sure that they give no warning. You should arrive at Kérkira about dawn. They have a habit of opening the gates at that time to allow inside the women of the town who work in the fortress. If possible you are simply to occupy the fortress. Admiral Volos, you will be in charge of the galley fleet coming around from the south. Should my flag be flying over the fortress, you will have a holiday."

    There was polite laughter. "See that you enter the strait between the mainland and the island at dawn. Not before. If we have not taken the fortress, your men are to land and join the assault. The few cannon we have already will be landed with you." He turned on the chieftain of the Narenta pirates. "Chief Rappalli. You and yours will sail through the strait from the north. You are going to carry the Croats. Set them ashore to the north of the town. You will then take up the positions assigned to you in the North Channel. Sink any vessels attempting to flee the island. I warn you. If I find your men ashore, looting, while boats flee and spread the word..." Emeric drew his finger across his throat.

    "Now. We are undermanned for this. The carracks with the bulk of our men have not yet been sighted. The 48-pound siege cannon are still coming, behind them. If we need to put the island under siege... well, the men and the cannon will be here. But in this, speed and surprise are our allies. We still outnumber the garrison five to one. If my Magyar cavalry can strike at the fort as it opens at dawn... we're in."



    Taki had sat quietly in the corner of Garrison Commander Leopoldo's office. It was a big, dim room. Officers and officials had come and gone. The scruffy Greek fisherman went on sitting in his corner. It was cool and comfortable. It was only when the Garrison Commander was finally ready to call it a night that Taki cleared his throat and asked, "Can I go home now?"

    The Commander had started in surprise. "I forgot you were here," he said gruffly. "Yes, get along with you. You've heard all sorts of things you shouldn't have. On the other hand, I don't suppose it makes much difference."

    So Taki had found his way to his cottage on the western shore late, and, for a change, sober. He'd done a fair amount of thinking, sitting there in the corner. Early the next morning he'd gone around to the houses of his crew.

    "I'm not going fishing anywhere," grumbled Kosti. "We might meet those galleys. I thought I'd go and visit some relations in the mountains."

    "We're not going fishing, " said Taki. "We're just making sure that we've got a boat to go fishing in, when all of this is over. Now get up. We'll need Spiro and my cousin Yani."

    "Yani?" Kosti asked curiously stirring himself into an upright position. 'What do you want him for?"

    "He's got a dingy," said Taki shortly. "We'll need it to get home."

    Kosti pulled his shirt on. He pointed up the hill. "He's off burying his wine. I think it can only improve that last vintage."

    Taki snorted. "I wouldn't bother putting it underground myself."

    Kosti chuckled. "Spiro offered to drink it all for him. He reckoned it would end up in the ground that way. anyway."

    Taki shook his head. "Spiro would drink anything."

    Kosti laughed. "That's what he says about you, skipper."

    "It is, is it? Well, I'll go and wake him up, " said Taki. "I went to bed sober last night. I hope he's got a sore head on him this morning. You go and see if you can find Yani. Ask him to pick us up on the place we collect firewood from."



    Together they sailed the old boat out to a little rocky islet off-shore. The current side of the islet was piled high with driftwood and debris from the winter storms. Taki made a habit of coming out here in the summer every year when it had dried out nicely, to load up with firewood.

    "You reckon they're definitely coming? " Spiro asked, holding his head. "I don't feel like doing a whole lot of heavy labor for nothing. The last time I felt like this I was in Venice. I got beaten-up and nearly killed by a Casa Vecchie kid who turned out to be a lot tougher than he looked. This time it was just the wine."

    Taki shrugged. "Where else could they be going? Once this is done I'm going to spend a few days up in the hills. Once they get over their looting and burning we can come back and get the old boat in the water again. They'll want fish, whoever wins."

    Using some logs as rollers, they began to haul the fishing boat up onto the islet.

    "Do you think the Venetians stand a chance? " asked Kosti.

    Taki shrugged again. "What difference does it make to us? Or any fisherman or peasant?"

    Spiro grimaced. "According to my grandfather, they're not the worst landlords."

    "But they're not Greeks," said Kosti. "At least it would be a Greek island again."

    Spiro grunted with effort, and the boat moved up some more. "You should hear what sorts of taxes some of my mother's people on Ithaca pay. So little they have to eat roots and bark to pretend they're being starved."

    "Uh-huh. Is that the people you said were no better than—"

    "Shut up, Kosti!" said Taki, hastily. Young Kosti still hadn't learned that it was all very well for a man to insult his own relatives, but you'd better not do it for him. Even if he had said it to you earlier. "Let's cover the old scow up with this driftwood. I want it to look like it's all part of it."

    "That shouldn't be hard." said Kosti.

    Taki gritted his teeth and set about stepping the mast. Kosti really had better learn to watch that mouth of his. Spiro was as sarcastic as a man could be, but somehow you always knew that he was joking.

    Yani came along in his dingy at about midday. "Hurry up, Taki. I've still got some wine to move out."

    With the four of them in the dingy, water had been slopping over the gunwales. Still, they made it back to the shore without throwing Kosti overboard. Then Yani and Taki loaded a few limestone boulders into the boat, took the dingy back out into the cove Taki launched out of. Having firmly anchored it with some rocks in a net-bag...

    They sank it.

    Yani knew his cousin well enough not to doubt what he'd seen off the Albanian coast. And Taki was ready to bet there were a good few carefully sunken boats around the island. A sunken boat can't be burned, be smashed, or be stolen. With a bit of patience and a few oxen—or even enough donkeys or just strong backs—you could haul them out again.



    Maria put the platter of grilled fish on the table in front of Umberto. "The prices in the market-place today are just unbelievable. I wanted some chestnut-flour to make castegnaccio. Apparently, never mind chestnut-flour, there is no flour to be had at all. What's going on, Umberto?"

    The gray-haired man rubbed his eyes tiredly. "There's a rumor about that there is a fleet of ships up the coast. Of course everyone believes they'll come here. It's probably nothing more than a bunch of pirates. They'll not trouble Venetian shipping or Venetian possessions. Put off buying for a few days. The prices will come back down. And maybe I'll be able to get those idle fools in the boatyard to stop begging for news and doing some work instead," he finished irritably.

    "There's no truth in it?" she asked, rocking Alessia's cradle with a foot.

    He shook his head. "I doubt it. Some fisherman came in with the story. The man's a notorious drunkard, to hear the locals tell of it. You'd probably find the ships were pink and crewed by worms if anyone bothered to question him properly."

    Maria nodded. And resolved to go and buy what she could. As a canaler, rather than a guildsman, she had a lot more faith in what fishermen claimed to have seen. She'd already bought basic household supplies in the first days, being pleasantly surprised by the low prices here, this far from Venice, of things like olive oil, honey and wine. She'd been unable to resist the bargain of a huge crock of olive oil. She had ample flour for a month... Salt fish had still been available... dried figs. They'd get used, eventually.

    "I did think we might buy a goat? There is a pen in the back yard. And a chicken coop. I've never kept these things but the goat would be useful for milk and cheese. Chickens lay eggs."

    Umberto nodded. "So long as you don't spend too much on them."

    "Very well. I'll see what I can find. Will you be back for lunch?"

    Umberto shook his head. "No. I'll take something with me. There is a sea of paperwork to catch up on." He sighed. "This is not an easy task. The yard is an unhappy place, full of fighting. And the Greeks and the guildsmen are all as lazy as can be. My predecessor made up for lack of method by ordering huge stocks of everything. So: I have several years worth of stock of cladding timber, some keel and mast timbers we'll likely never use and enough pitch to caulk the entire Venetian fleet—but no brass nails, and barely a handful of tow."

    When he had finished his breakfast and gone back to work, Maria took her largest basket and Alessia, and walked. There was no point in heading for the market, not when she was looking for living things instead of foodstuffs. But this was not such a big place that you couldn't reach a peasant cottage outside town.

    After an hour's walk, Maria was less convinced she'd find what she was after. By the deserted status of the peasant houses, they certainly believed there was trouble coming. She was now away from the coast, and she could see the scallops of azure bay, and Kérkira, white in the morning sunshine. The air was already thick and warm and full of the scent of the fine-leaved shrubs by the roadside. Bees buzzed lazily while collecting their bounty from the flowers. Except for the empty cottages, stripped of everything moveable, it would have been hard to believe there was anything that could go wrong in this Eden.

    Eventually she found a man and his wife struggling to remove an iron bedstead from a cottage. There were a couple of hens in the yard.

    "Good day."

    "Day to you too, Kyria."

    Maria was startled. Kyria? Lady? She'd dressed in an old dress, a relic of her days as a canaler. Then she realized that she spoke Venetian-accented Frankish, not Greek. The Venetians had been here for more than a hundred years and all the islanders she'd met could certainly understand the language. But Maria had rapidly gathered that there was a strong divide between even the lowliest Venetians and the local people. Among the women of the garrison this seemed to be even more of an issue. Greeks were servants! And one had to keep them in their place. You didn't speak to them. You gave them orders. Besides... she wore shoes. That set one apart from peasant women.

    Maria set the basket and Alessia down, and took a hand with the bedstead. It was obviously the poor cottage's pride and joy and the most treasured piece of furniture. A bed and the bedclothes were the one thing that the rent-collectors could not seize for debt, so they were usually the finest piece of furniture in the peasant houses, she'd been told.

    The man and his wife nearly dropped it when Maria came to help. Their jaws certainly dropped.

    The doorway had two broad buttresses outside. Inside, the door to the room that they were trying to take the bedstead out of was at such an angle that the bedstead just couldn't do the corner without hitting the strut. After a few moments of struggle Maria asked: "How did it get in?"

    The man shrugged. "I do not know, lady. My grandfather put it in before I was born. There was only one room then."

    Maria patience was exhausted. Besides, she'd walked a long way carrying a baby on a hot morning. She took charge. There were some advantages to being a lordly foreigner. The peasant wouldn't have taken such instructions from his wife. "Put the end down. It'll have to stand on end to get it out."

    At an angle, stood on end and scraping the white-washed clay, the bedstead came through.

    The peasants grinned. "Lady, you are clever. And strong too," said the man admiringly. "Where do you come from?"


    The peasant shook his head. "Can't be. Eh, Eleni? The women who come to the garrison and villas, they all are weak."

    The wife nodded. "Anastasia is in service at Villa Foiri. She says the woman cannot even pick up a dish for herself."

    Maria laughed. "They aren't weak, just lazy. Too lazy to do for themselves what they can pay someone else to do!"

    This provoked laughter from both. "Why, lady, they say we are the lazy ones!"

    Alessia stirred, and Maria went to her. The peasant wife looked longingly and adoringly at the baby. "She is so beautiful, lady."

    Maria wondered why people always said babies were beautiful. She loved Alessia more than anything, but she wouldn't have called her baby "beautiful". Plump, yes. Soft and tiny, yes. Adorable, yes. "She is very lovely when she's asleep."

    The peasant was plainly keeping out of this women's talk. "Eleni, why don't you bring us some of that young white wine and some food. It has been hot work, but now, thanks to the lady, the worst job is over."

    Eleni nodded. "Sit, lady." She motioned to the bedstead. Her husband had already taken up the important task of supporting a tree, by sitting against it in the shade.

    "I'll give you a hand," Maria offered. "I was brought up to know my way about a kitchen, never mind what the others do."

    They went into the cool, dim cottage. The kitchen was around the back, actually a separate little room—the only light coming either from the hole in the roof or the door. The only "furnishing" was a hearth a few inches high, and a few small soot-blackened shelves. By comparison, Maria realized her little home was a palace.

    The young peasant woman had plainly decided that such a person could be trusted with the innermost secrets of the heart. Questions about pregnancy and birthing followed as she took bread, olives and cheese, and a clay jug of wine from places in her kitchen and loaded these onto a board.

    "I think I am pregnant," she confided in a whisper. "I have not... Yani and I have been married for three years and I have had no children. But this year I have been to the mountains. To the holy place for the dancing." She giggled. "It was very cold without my clothes on. But I will be blessed this year." She touched Alessia with a gentle hand.

    She seemed to assume Maria knew what she was talking about.

    They went outside, and woke her husband. The wine was cool and crisp, the bread crusty. The olives, wrinkled, tiny and black, were flavored with some rosemary. They ate in silence. Peasant table-manners were simple: talk and food did not go together. Maria smiled. Back in the days she'd been trying to learn to be more ladylike to please Caesare, one of the hardest things she'd had to try and master was the idea of eating and talking at the same time. It gave you indigestion. It was pleasant to slip back into the business of taking food seriously and talking later.

    But when the eating was done, then it was time for talk and for business.

    Maria found herself learning a great deal about the fleet that had been spotted at the bay of Vlores. She also found herself walking back to Corfu town leading a kid that did not wish to be led, and with a dozen fresh eggs, a crock of olives and some cheese. And with two disgruntled-looking brown chickens in her basket, their feet tied with twine and attached to the wicker.

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