Chapter 8 – City on the Waves
Sharley fingered the carved shell amulet hanging around his neck on a cord. The Nomads' witch said I'd have a teacher. She'd said other things too, things that that sounded like another stanza of his father's prophecy.
The fleet's refuge had not been an old Sea Nomad harbor at all; it was very much still in use. Their main anchorage was on the west side of the island facing the open ocean, but a few of their brightly painted ships had ridden out the storm with the refugee fleet and several strangely shaped dhows of the Desert People. Sharley had heard that Sea Nomads, even the merchants, weren't to be trusted. Most clans traded, but some had found crime more lucrative and joined with other raiders to form the pirate fleets called Zephyrs, Corsairs and Island Buccaneers. These fleets had no central power, but often a powerful captain or clan head arose to sway decisions. The Empire had made alliances with – paid off – certain key figures and could count on a substantial number of pirates-turned-privateers to menace the Icemark's coast, assist the Imperial Navy in its blockade and threaten the refugee fleet. After which, Sharley assumed, they would go immediately back to hunting and hanging them.
He had not been idle for the almost two weeks it took for the remains of the refugee fleet to complete their repairs. Ships of all nations had used the harbor as shelter from the storm, and he had taken the opportunity to make the acquaintance of the other captains – flexing his diplomatic muscles, as Maggie called it, and beating off the gnawing feeling that by losing several ships in the storm he had failed his people before he'd even begun. He and Maggie had been rowed across to the largest of the dhows – as all of the crafts had borne the same merchant's insignia, they assumed that the man in charge of the entire convoy would be on board. Sharley remembered how he had wished to sink straight through the deck and into the sea as the foreign sailors stared at what to them was bizarre and unusual coloring, but he grit his teeth and pressed on. He would be making many such state visits.
The convoy was owned by a Captain Hafez Al-Khatib of the ruined city of Algeras. He had invited Sharley and Maggie to his cabin for pomegranate juice, and they had initially made fairly harmless small talk before inevitably moving to discuss the war. The entire meeting had been conducted in the tongue of the Southern Continent, but Sharley had quickly picked up the language of the Desert in the following weeks as he made other visits to the dhows. He had told himself that his sudden interest in the new language and culture was simply a product of his boredom as he waited for the voyage to get underway. But certain things the captain had mentioned in their first meeting– the fighting methods of the Desert Kingdom, their hatred of the Empire, and great leaders with disabilities like his own – had planted the smallest seed of an idea in his head.
Sharley had been so deep in thought as their small boat cast off from Al-Khatib's ship that he hadn't noticed Maggie directing the rowers toward the groups of Sea Nomad ships floating near the harbor's mouth. "We should meet with the Nomads as well. Though they don't own land, this is their place," Maggie had mused.
"They haven't got power, not like the Desert Kingdom used to. An alliance with one clan or even a few won't do us much, if that's what you're thinking. And I thought we weren't supposed to trust them."
"Charlemagne. Don't write them off because they aren't a conventional nation. No, they do not have the same power as the Desert Kingdom. But they could bring you information and trade, and they rule the far ocean. Not to mention we are in a bit of a tight spot, let's not judge all Sea Nomads on the actions of the pirate clans."
"Do you think we'll need to go out there? To hide? Is that why you want to establish diplomatic relations with them?''
''It's a good practice to get into,'' Maggie had risen in his seat and squinted, 'Are they sending a launch to meet us? How extroverted. That's a Clan Dalmas sail, if I'm not mistaken.'' The sail in question had been blue and red striped, and the ship the launch hailed from painted in the same colors, weathered but still vibrant.
A man in the bow of the launch had stood and called out to them. ''Our mother guide has asked us to escort you on board, Prince Charlemagne. If you would please follow?''
''Dáy útmutató. Mother guide is the literal translation, but there's a bit more significance than that. She's a weather witch, usually, and the spiritual leader of each clan,'' Maggie had explained quietly, in full lecture mode even then, ''Show her due respect.'' They had fallen in alongside the Nomads' boat and Sharley had taken the opportunity to examine the rowers. The men had been of similar complexion to Maggie and had addressed them in Talian, though the speaker's unfamiliar accent indicated that it was not his first language. They had worn flowing tunics cinched with bright woven belts, and wide-brimmed straw hats on their heads. As they approached the guide mother's ship, Sharley had noticed several of the men stealing glances at him and began to wonder what exactly she had said that would give them this welcome.
He had scrambled up the rope ladder expecting a crew of helping hands like the one on Al-Khatib's vessel, but the Nomads had afforded him a wide berth. Sharley became acutely aware of his limp and wanted to fold in on himself. Men and women, children and elders had all watched almost reverently as the escort led him and Maggiore to a cabin at the bow.
It had taken a moment for Sharley's eyes to adjust to the darkness. All the portholes were wide open, allowing in the sea breeze and sunlight, but the depths of the cabin were in shadow. Strings of charms and elaborately knotted colorful rope had hung from the ceiling joists. Sitting statue-like in the center of the cabin had been a small woman, her waist-length hair braided with yet more charms. Sharley realized with awkward shock that she was naked but for a patterned wrap skirt, allowing the wind to play over her sun-brown skin. He had flushed beet red and backed up into Maggie instinctively before composing himself, reminding himself that it was a different culture than the one he knew.
''Welcome,'' the guide mother had said as he entered, turning to face him, ''I heard of your coming on the north wind. There is no need to bow to me, though I appreciate your respect. In time to come, I would bow to you.''
''Why? If – I may ask. Your clan looked at me like I was – my mother, or someone," Sharley had stammered.
''They look at you because I have heard of you, Charlemagne of the north. You carry greatness in your bones and your name," she had whispered, turning a whorled piece of driftwood between her wrinkled hands, "And ahead, if you see the way to it. Putting things to rights when they are broken. You're small yet, but what I see in you will be. I'm rarely wrong." She smiled a toothless grin and pressed an intricately carved piece of seashell into his hand. "Take it. It is favor and luck of Szélanya, the Mother or the Wind. May she speed you on your way. You'll need it, you and your teacher. There must be two. There were two before, and there will be two again.''
"Venezzia! Venezzia ho!" lookouts shouted, calling Sharley out of his recollection.
"Sharley. Sharley, we're here," Maggie tapped his shoulder. The Prince Regent watched spellbound as the city coalesced around him into colorful marbles, gilded domes, and bronze cupolas. Every wall was either decorated with fine tile or breathtakingly real statues. And the boats – the boats were everywhere, rowing boats, large seafaring vessels, ornate barges and thin black craft piloted by a single man in the stern. He hardly realized he was grinning until Maggie acknowledged it with a smile of his own, "I'm glad you feel happy when you look upon my city."
"Why wouldn't I? It's – it's beautiful, and dirty, and so alive!"
"And more. Look over there, the arsenal shipyards. The Republic's fleets have been built and repaired there for over five hundred years, Sharley. The fleet's less than a quarter of the size it was at its height, but perhaps in the future Venezzia's galleys will once again strike out at its enemies." There was something more meaningful in the old scholar's tone than simply background information.
"Do you mean the Empire, Maggie?" Sharley asked suspiciously, knowing full well that Maggiore Totus would only divulge his thoughts when he believed the time is right.
"I mean any country that threatens the interests of the Republic," he responded airily, "but look, we're already at Sancta Markus." The already huge canal they had been sailing broadened onto a basin of deep teal water teeming with all manner of watercraft whose noise and bustle hit Sharley like a wall. Dominating the skyline was a massive column, capped with a bronze statue of a lion with its paw on an outward facing book. And I saw a statue; it was some kind of big cat, not a leopard, with its paw on a book. It was on a column, and there was some kind of craft crumpled around the base, like it had fallen on the statue and been stabbed through. Sharley spun away; his eyes filling with tears and his gut with fear as he remembered his father describe his vision.
Wreckage of a thing, Sharley thought, the war will follow me here. The war.
Otho Vitellius did not look dangerous. Short and white-haired with a pair of reading spectacles perched on his nose, he could easily pass as an archivist or schoolteacher. The Director of Imperial Intelligence found it rather amusing. He sat now surrounded by Deputy Director Felix and the Agency's high command at the morning briefing, the unassuming spider at the center of a web that spanned the known world. The table before them was spread with folders of reports from Analysis on events at all points of the globe – the Vindhyan Raj was pursuing a new tax policy unpopular among his vassals, the Tienjingyi trade minister had apparently suffered a fatal stroke, and the Icemark's refugee fleet was overcoming every trial and continuing on its journey south.
"The prince not only survived the storm, but met with the Dalmas Sea Nomads and a Desert Kingdom merchant. This is from a Rabaan clansman who shared the harbor with what's left of the refugee fleet and observed the prince's movement, but was unable to provide any details of the conversations. He may have simply been paying visits of courtesy, but we cannot ignore the fact that he now has a contact in Haifolex. And the Sultan favors the merchants immensely, anyone with their ear has an easier in at court."
"Any idea of the Desert captain's name?" inquired the Southern Continent Chief of Analysis, "We should get an exact map of this man's web of connections, see what assets the prince could draw upon."
"The source wasn't clear, he said it might have been, quote 'Khattash, Kasim, Khatib or something like that.' He was much more specific on the ship's name, Qarn al-Katra. I have an asset searching for the captain's name through that, but as the Desert Kingdom has no central registry it will take time."
"And we all know time is of the essence. Machiavelli won't do anything unless he's certain to profit, and there'd be no profit in attacking us without the Sultan to back him up. It all hinges on what the barbarian prince does with respect to the Desert Kingdom. If he leaves Venezzia, we have no choice but to eliminate him. He must not be allowed to inspire them," Felix spun her quill idly, "Ideas are much harder to kill – regaining their place in the world order, glory for the One God, vengeance – he doesn't even need to be alive to pose a threat."
"I agree. We should operate under the assumption that he has greater plans than simply caring for the peasant rabble, at least then there will be no surprises," the Director said thoughtfully, "It is exactly as you said, Felix. The minute he expresses interest in contacting the Sultan he becomes much more dangerous; limiting the damage from this barbarian must be our first priority. Now, the Tienjing operation…"
Sharley wondered why they were taking such a roundabout route to the Doge's palace, through the labyrinth of twisting and dim waterways off the city's main canals. Maggie sat beside him, faced by the two Venezzian courtiers given the duty of hosting them. There were no Icemark guards, but Maggie had reluctantly secreted the pistol in his robe. Sharley could only trust that the boat's pilot knew the way, because the closeness made his skin crawl and he didn't want to stay here any longer than necessary. So many places for assassins to hide, such easy shots, one and done – already he was becoming attuned to the dangers of war with the Empire. The route drew less attention. That must be it. The Grand Canal was likely watched.
The galley nosed out onto a broader waterway lined with the back docks of enormous buildings. Sharley noted immediately that the canal was a dead end, tiny war galleys patrolled the waters and each dock was lined with soldiers watching the entrances and inspecting incoming goods, and concluded that this must be the rear approach to the Doge's palace. "His Eminence the Doge begs the pardon of your Royal Highness in asking you to enter his humble establishment through the trade and kitchen quarters, but he is sure that your supreme intelligence will have informed you of the need for discretion," said Signor Permino, the more senior of their guides, with a sweeping bow.
Sharley and Maggie disembarked and the party of four was whisked up the stairs, through a set of enormous doors and into the kitchen. A nearly solid wall of heat slammed Sharley in the face, and sweat almost immediately broke out on his brow. They moved quickly, giving him little time to observe, but what he could see was organized chaos as cauldrons seethed, ovens flared and servants rushed every which way. Their escorts ushered them into a series of quieter and winding corridors and eventually to a passageway lined with elaborately carved wood paneling. After making doubly sure the hall was empty, Permino pressed a specific carved flower and an entire section of paneling slid open.
A secret passageway! Rather than let them think him an excitable and easily impressed barbarian boy, Sharley smiled knowingly and stepped inside. In less than a minute Permino was knocking at another set of paneling, which opened to reveal a sumptuously decorated drawing room overlooking the Grand Canal. No throne – this must be the Doge's apartments. This is secret. It took Sharley a few moments to notice the tall man gazing out of the huge windows.
"Ah, Prince Regent Charlemagne. I can at last look upon the features of the young man I have heard so much about. And who could bring so much trouble," the Doge's voice was elegant and cultured, with a cold and calculating undertone. Silk hiding steel.
"Your Eminence Doge Machiavelli, I am honored and gratified," Sharley replied, feeling his weak leg threatening to give out beneath him.
The Doge crossed from the window to a small round table set for three, smiling briefly in welcome. "I see the reports were not an exaggeration, you are fluent in Vennezian. Shall we sit?" Signor Permino took up a position behind the Doge's chair, while Signor Gabraldi melted into the shadows at the corner of the room. "Please forgive the elaborate secrecy. The Empire's spies will have reported your presence as soon as you arrived in our fair city; a fleet of such size is impossible to hide. But if the Intelligence Agency believes you are making contacts in the Southern Continent or doing anything more than shepherding your civilians, make no mistake, it will be dangerous. To all of us. Signor Totus, how soon can you begin your journey?"
"Whenever a ship is made available, Your Eminence. We have already made first contact, by happy accident," Maggie replied. Journey? To where? We're supposed to stay here, Sharley was completely thrown by this turn of the conversation but kept his face polite and neutral.
"The day after tomorrow. You will leave from the Fisherman's Quay and the ship will be crewed by Hellenic mercenaries, none of whom will know they are in the pay of the Republic," Machiavelli's flinty eyes locked on to Maggie's, "It will remain that way. You will send no messages or reports of your progress while you are away, and if you are intercepted, the Venezzian Republic knows nothing about your mission. Do you understand?"
"Perfectly, Your Eminence."
Sharley felt as if he'd become invisible, or died and returned as a ghost, to find people talking over him as if he didn't exist at all. How dare they ignore him? He was Prince Regent! If plans were being finalized, let alone made, especially if they involved him, he had a right to know what they were! "Excuse me," he said sassily, "Have I died?"
Maggie looked aghast, somewhat akin to a gasping bearded fish. "I'll explain later, calm down."
"I'm not going to calm down, and you'll explain now! Are you trying to make me look like some stupid young nobody whom you control? I'm no puppet, Signor Totus, I see two rulers and three servants here, and you're one of the servants. Perhaps you have forgotten that."
Machiavelli sat back, narrowing his eyes as he reevaluated the young prince before him. The boy's tone had started out confused and hurt, a petulant child, but he'd changed in the course of his outburst and become more…forceful. More regal. He needed practice, of course, he was young and inexperienced and far too impulsive, but not hopeless. This gamble might well pay off. Watching the prince and his advisor bicker back and forth, the Doge held up his hand. "Prince Charlemagne. I had assumed you were already informed and had approved the plan."
"Your Eminence…Your Highness, Charlemagne, the negotiations have been delicate and complex, and I did not think it prudent to raise false hopes, or burden you or your lady mother with details before I had something definite to tell," Maggie explained quietly, but Sharley wasn't near done.
"Didn't think it right to tell the Queen? Did you think yourself above her? How dare you make plans regarding the Icemark without telling her, whatever they are?"
Maggie suddenly felt old beyond his considerable years. He knew he was at fault here, and could not even really feel angry with Sharley for his tantrum. It was justifiable. He had miscalculated, and the only solution seemed to be complete honesty. He would explain everything, right here, and hope Sharley gave it his royal blessing.
He took a deep breath. "Your Majesty, when the threat from the Polypontus was renewed I realized that Scipio Bellorum would never have contemplated another invasion, and the Emperor and Senate never have cleared it, unless he was absolutely certain of his success. Not just confident, but objectively certain. He would have calculated all the odds, allowed for the abilities and effect of every ally and all contingencies he could reasonably expect, and concluded that not only could he win but that he definitely would win. And then there would be nothing left. So the only way we could have a chance at winning would be to upset his calculations – to introduce a factor or factors that would render them null and void, something so wildly unexpected that it wasn't present in his models. Namely, new allies, from farther afield."
He went on to outline how he had contacted the Doge under the pretense of asking asylum for the refugees, and although Venezzia was in no position to help openly and directly, Machiavelli had proposed he make contact with the Desert People. "If we could persuade them to join our struggle, it could be enough to upset the model. An unknown unknown, in Imperial parlance, in contrast to the known unknown of longer-range ballistae or a better-trained fyrd."
"So…have they agreed to join the Alliance?"
"No. Not yet. They're very secretive, very reserved, and cautious to move against the Empire. But they hate it, and they hate Bellorum especially, and they have heard of your mother's victory twenty years ago. The diplomatic work, however, has yet to begin. That was to be your job, Your Majesty, provided you agree."
"Agree to what?" Sharley asked nervously.
"To a diplomatic mission to Haifolex, the capitol of the Desert Kingdom, to place our proposal directly before Sultan Haroun Nasrid himself. You would be a Royal Ambassador, like your mother before you."
Sharley swallowed. That was not what he'd expected when he set sail from Old Haven. He had resigned himself to a dull existence in the refugee town, sitting by the fire with old and infirm, waiting for news from the front. He wasn't sure he could do it, not after the disaster that this meeting had been. He was a gawky, crippled boy with about as much diplomatic skill as a clown at a funeral – after all, he had just verbally attacked Maggie in front of the Doge and made fools of them both. I can't do it, I can't.
But I have to.
"Then I'd best review my lugha al-Badiya."
"Bene," the Doge broke in, "Then, Your Majesty, we have an agreement. In two days' time you will have left our territorial waters and you will be travelers on a private journey to the Desert Kingdom. I wish you success, for all our sakes." He sat back in his chair and closed his eyes, making it clear that the meeting was at an end.
He was making a great gamble, but was confident enough that it would turn out in his favor. He was about to commit his small country to helping an enemy of the Polypontian Empire, and if he miscalculated then the wrath of Scipio Bellorum would almost certainly fall upon him. The general would relish the opportunity to gain a foothold in the Southern Continent, the Senate was all too eager to own the Republic's shipping connections and cut out the middleman that habitually overcharged their allies in the business sphere. The Empire had made it abundantly clear that it viewed the Venezzians as arms dealers responsible for prolonging the civil war, and Machiavelli knew that the Commander in the canyon lands harbored a particular hatred.
But despite the considerable dangers, he was willing to go through with it. If the northern prince succeeded against all the odds, the political applecart would almost certainly be upset, and perhaps Venezzia would rise to fill the vacuum. It was a risk, but he liked taking risks, and there was much to be gained.
The servant stepped back from her listening post and made her final notes in coded shorthand. Tucking the paper and quill into her pocket and taking up a feather duster, she slipped seamlessly back into the bustle that kept the Doge's palace in order. When she returned to the servants' quarters at the end of the day, she transferred the papers to a letter addressed to her fictitious mother in the countryside and brought it to the storefront of a nearby messenger service. As it was after their closing time, she slid the letter into the drop-off box and returned to her assignment.
Early the next morning, an employee of the messenger service sorted through the last night's letters, checking each address. The servant's letter he secreted away, brought back to his rooms at the end of his shift and transferred to a small leather cylinder, which he affixed to the leg of a homing pigeon. Unnoticed among the myriad birds over the seaside city, the transcript of Prince Charlemagne's meeting with Doge Machiavelli made its way to Romula. In the Analysis offices it was categorized, read, summarized and copied, and the original document was marked with a red tag for priority and sent up the chain of command until it eventually reached a silver tray on the desk of Director Vitellius himself.
"Lord Director, Deputy Felix is outside," his secretary poked her head through the door.
"Send her in," Vitellius replied. This barbarian was nothing but trouble, if only that monitor had succeeded in sinking his ship before for he even reached the Doge. But the encounter with the monitor had been utterly random, and then it had been forced to make for safe harbor in the Barrier Islands before that unseasonable storm. "Welcome, Deputy, have a seat. I'm sure you've read the Venezzia transcript?"
"Of course, Director. It is just as we expected. Operations had everything in place and they are in motion as we speak."
"Good. Felix, although Operation Charybdis seems to be moving like clockwork at the moment, I need you to travel to Melita and oversee," Vitellius said, and waited for his second-in-command's inevitable confusion at the unexpected order.
"My Lord, while I am honored by this assignment, the Southern Continent was not my region -"
"And you're in administration, not operations, yes, but administration is precisely what I need. I would go myself if I could. You wouldn't be taking command, but instead acting as my proxy. Already this operation spans two regions, and I need someone to coordinate both departments and allocate resources – effectively, you will be a very localized Director of only Charybdis. With so much at stake for the Empire, I do not want the lag time it would take to contact Agency headquarters if something entirely unexpected were to occur. You have authorization to do whatever you deem necessary to ensure the success of the operation."
Felix took the briefest of moment to absorb and compute this new development in her career and hid the tiniest of proud smirks. "I understand, sir. I can assure you, Charybdis will not fail."
"I admire your confidence, Deputy. And there is another reason I'm sending you and not any administration underling; I want you there to lay the groundwork for something extra, beyond the scope of apprehending this barbarian princeling. Another Ayutthaya - if we can fully neutralize the Desert Kingdom without involving our good friend the Lord Protector – oh, but I'm just brainstorming."
Felix raised her eyebrows, knowing a forceful hint when she heard one. "An operation of that size and delicacy would need Director's approval every step of the way."
"You have it. In Melita, Director's approval is your approval. Time is of the essence – work quickly, take every opportunity, and work independently of home. Of course, I expect weekly reports, but asset placement and orders are up to you. Consider it a side project – our main focus must be the Lindenshield's immediate threat – but if you have the opportunity."
"It would be my pleasure."
Vitellius fished a bottle of wine and two goblets from the bottom drawer of his desk. After pouring for himself and Felix, he raised his goblet in a toast. "To Operation Charybdis," he said, echoed by the Deputy Director, and they both drank deep.
A/N: Spies, amirite?
*(Desert Kingdom words are straight-up Arabic, Nomads I have speaking a mix of languages including Romany and Hungarian)