Standing beside the altar of the huge cathedral, Marco watched as Brother Gerard, dressed in a heavy green cloak, made the sign of the cross and lifted a golden lamp from the marble table. There it is; the lamp of Jerusalem. Marco's father crossed himself, then rose and came forward, glass bottle in hand, bowing graciously as the old priest prepared to pour oil from the lamp into Matteo's green receptacle, which he accepted with a prayer, then corked and slipped into the inside pocket of his red tunic.
"Tell the Khan that this is holy water." Brother Gerard said, a serious look on his face. "First she'll receive the vision of the mother and child, then she'll be cured of—" Brother Gerard hesitated and looked around the room. "Of her disease."
"The Khan sends his sincerest thanks," said Marco's father. From underneath his crimson tunic poked dirty white slippers, and white leggings. On his face was the most solemn of frowns, but as soon he turned to hand Marco the bottle, he swore he had an impish look, like he was concealing a smile. I don't even know my own father. Marco thought.
Though he was already seventeen, he'd only known his father for two months. As he waited for Brother Gerard to finish the blessing, his mind raced over the weird course of events his life had taken in that time. Just in April he'd been working at his uncle's store, counting money, selling spices, and generally sitting on his ass for most of the day. It was demanding intellectual work, and Marco's head for figures was razor sharp; but at seventeen he'd started thinking the life of a merchant wasn't all it was cracked up to be. In fact, he hated it. He'd been living with his Aunt Giani and Uncle Timon ever since his mom had died twelve years ago. The Gianis were fair people, and successful, but Aunt Giani, who'd inherited the Balotelli family business, was a ruthless spice merchant, and worked the two of them—Marco and Timon, twenty-four seven, always invoking the same maxims like make hay while the sun shines and a lira saved is a lira earned.
Looking back, Marco couldn't believe that was his life only two months ago.
He had come on a clear blue Sunday in the spice market: a short, crippled little man who jaunted up with Uncle Timon, laughing and slapping him on the back. He had on a red beaded shirt with weathered, pointy-looking shoes the likes of which Marco had never seen and woolen pants that seemed very expensive to Marco's well-trained eye. Everything about this man suggested the exotic and the rare; in short, everything Marco had ever wanted.
"So this is my boy…" His face was round and craggy, with a scar across one side of his face. When he smiled a gold tooth twinkled. "When I left you you were no bigger than a Saipan jackfruit. And look at you now." Although he was actually shorter than the gangly-limbed Marco, he had a presense about him that seemed to fill the little stall. "Tonight we feast!"
That night at dinner Niccolo had raised a toast, and honored his son by giving him a prize; a lens to appraise jewels, like a magnifying glass, but instead of a handle it folded into a gold case engraved with the initials MP.
"Does anyone have a stone to test it out on?" said Marco's father, looking to Maffeo, then Marco's uncle Timon. As they shrugged, a grin slowly formed on Niccolo's face, and he pulled out a milky-colored, pebbly stone from his ruffled blouse. "You never know what you might find the couch cushions, eh?"
Marco was already an expert jewel appraiser, having dealt in goods translatable to hundreds of thousands of dollars per month. He could spot an imperfection faster than a Hebrew diamond-seller could say top quality, but he could find value too, and under his new hand lens he peered through the rough exterior and saw into the purest diamond he had ever laid eyes on.
"Hmmm," Marco said with flat expression. "You say you found this in your couch cushions?"
"What would you pay for it?"
"If you were so simple as to pull out an S2 clarity diamon of your couch cushions without knowing it…I'd probably pay you about two lira."
Niccolo roared with laughter. "I think this boy may have some Polo in him after all!" Niccolo chewed on a drumstick as he talked. They say that the Polo side of the family has the weaker genes. We're short and ugly. But you know what we do have? Wits." He gave his son a head to toe glance. "Now I can see you have the Gianini type: arms of bamboo and head like a watermelon!"
Marco noticed that aunt Giona was frowning at his dad, who took a large drink from his wine glass.
"And from the looks of it you also have their weak constitution. But we'll train you up alright. Now, let me ask you." He set down a drumstick and smiled, gold tooth glinting. "Are you ready to go on the adventure of a lifetime?"
"Why—you just only got back!" Giani said. "You still owe the concern five thousand lira." She scowled as Uncle Timon picked up the plates from the table and began washing. "You're not going anywhere until you pay back the family!" By the family, she meant the Giani family, who since the death of Maria Giani had become a bette noire of the family. "You better start selling whatever you brought from down Asia way, cuz you have a long ways to go, buster. I don't even see you with some much as a bag of spices to take to market. Have you two just blown it all away on diamonds and hookers and camel rides?"
With a blasé expression Nicollo pulled out a bag from his undershorts; a leather, beat-up bag, and emptied a small pile of stones onto the tabled. They weren't precious stones; they were world-beating stones. An astonishing array of diamonds and rubies piled up on the tabletop like a mound of shiny, trapezoidal beads.
"Would you like that payment in diamonds or rubies?"
Turns out, Niccolo and his brother Maffeo, who had gone on south to Rome, had made a fortune in Constantinople. The Venetians had help invade the city some years in the past and were part of the occupying forces there. But when the native people had rose up and thrown the allied forces out, Niccolo and Maffeo had gone north, to Russia, and then on East where they met the Kublai Khan; the ruler of the Golden Horde.
"It's the largest empire the world has ever known, and the largest that will ever be," said Niccolo. "The wealth there is astonishing; the natural beauty sublime; and the women—" he looked at Marco and winked. "Will make you toss in your dreams."
"Niccolo!" Giani screeched. "I don't think you have any place even taking this boy. I've said it once, and I'll say it again. You will led this boy astray. They need structure and discipline, boys do, and here you come like the pide piper!"
Niccolo sniffed, and with a chuckle to himself he rose from the dinner table, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. "Marco, meet me at Santa Maria Pier at sunrise, the day after they announce the new pope." And with that he was off.
Niccolo would go to Rome for a few weeks, invest his jewels, and wait with Maffeo for a new pope to be named. Everyone knew that it was going to be Berno Natale, the Papal Legate to Egypt, but they had to wait through endless formalities nonetheless. It would all be worth it. Niccolo had been milking Natale for months, offering exotic bribes, just in anticipation of getting the Papal seal.
Because with the Papal Seal would come the oil…
It was an unusually warm night, as Marco listened for the ringing of the bells in the distance and making preparations in his mind. Beside him he had all his possesions, tucked into a bag inside his briefs. Yesterday, after the announcement (bells clanging in the square; huge smoke signals sent off from city to city across the country, drunkenness everywhere) he secretly pawned the encyclopedias Giani had given him for an ounce of gold, which he kept in his pocket, ready for flight. This is it. He sat at his window pane, contemplating his choices. Now or never.
On one hand he had aunt Giani, who had given him a stake in the business, responsibility, and the chance for standing in the community. It wasn't too late to buy back those encyclopedias, and after all, she loved Marco so much that he knew it'd break her heart. On the other hand, his father. Reckless, immoral, negligent. These were the words Marco had heard him described as, the perjoratives piling with each passing year and no father figure (Giani's words).
But good God, anything had to be better than this. In Aunt Giani's and Uncle Timon's the atmosphere was as stifling as a wet camel blanket. He could hear uncle Timon snoring in the other room. Soon Aunt Giani would wake up and start doing her exercises. Then it would be too late.
As the bells sounded five the eastern horizon started glowing; the blue hour was on the way.
Fuck it. Marco hopped down the window and trotted toward the pier, with nothing but his jewel lens, diamond, and sack of potatoes on a stick slung over his shoulder.
Niccolo and Maffeo had come running up the pier to meet the Marco, singing "To Jerusalem we Go!" Any doubts Marco had were quickly put to rest when they pushed off at first light, sharing a jug of ale. They'd headed due east for the isles of Greece. "And then to Jerusalem!" said Niccolo as set themselves to a breakfast of nuts and cheese. "You'll like life at sea, boy," Niccolo said. "It'll make a man out of you!"
Now here they were, one month later, in the inner sanctum of the Knights Hospitalier's Cathedral of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Over that time Marco had watched time and again as his stout, mischevious, ugly little father had opened one door after another which seemed impenetrably shut to them, sometimes with the sprinkling of "moon dust"; Niccolo's brand of powdered diamonds. But more often then not only a few choice words were needed. "We're not the pirates you're looking for," he'd intoned to the soldiers at Sudank, and it was all that was needed. The only thing Niccolo had made clear was that they'd been working as a some sort of foreign agents.
"We are on an official mission in the capacity of emissaries for his magesty the fourth Khan of Asia," he'd said their first night in port, unclasping a box made of cedar, lined with whale skin, then unfurling a gold-leaf scroll held within. Strange black runic scored the surface; a majestic seal stamped one corner red. "This will give us safe passage through the tent cities of the Golden Horde, so that we may get back with the holy oil in time to save the Khan's daughter."
Over the next two weeks they'd made for Jerusalem as fast as possible, Niccolo teaching Marco about ships and filling him in more with the story of the Khan's daughter. She'd fallen ill with a mysterious disease—"carried by wild animals," which could only be cured by the oil of the lamp of Jerusalem. But when Niccolo said it there was little concern or pity in his voice-only excitement at getting his hands on the oil…
Now, here in the inner sanctum of The Pope's outpost in the holy land, Niccolo had gotten his oil. The tall, stern chief of the Knights Hospitalier was dangling a smoking incense holder from the end of a chain, warning them. "Let no one know that you have this oil." His voice was grim. "Whatever the cost, keep it out of…" Again he glanced at innocent Marco. "Of the wrong hands. Giacomo will help you disguise yourselves as beggars. Keep your costumes on til you leave the city, to avoid robbers."
Gerard dismissed the three Polo men, and two knights of the order who had stood perfectly still through the service stepped forward to lead the three Polo men (if you could call Marco a man) into a sort of waiting room. There the three of them donned the disguises that they'd worn in—dirty rags the kind worn by beggars, and left the Cathedral, walking heads down through the pilgrims outside and into the noon-day Jerusalem street filled with merchants and beggars and soldiers.
"We've got it!" cried Niccolo with a laugh. With a little jig-step he let down his dejected, beggarly façade. "If you'd have told Maria Polo that her son held oil of the Holy Sepulcher, she'd tell you the devil must be sitting with Jesus…" He had a mischevious look in his eyes as he made his way through the bustling, dirty market area, walking backwards as he talked to his boy. "
" Crism oil," he said, lowering his voie, "Whoever anoints it on his sense organs will receive…" Maffeo's angry eyes caught Niccolo's, who changed to a more sober tone. "Will receive favors from on high."
"But I thought it was for healing," said Marco. "The Khan's daughter on death door and all that." said Marco.
"Oh, we'll heal the Khan's daughter." There was a twinkle in Niccolo's eye. "But first we're going to use this for a different purpose. We're taking this to…to a friend of mine first." Niccolo rubbed his beard. "It's like a loaf of bread. If you have a loaf, and your friend is starving. Then you break him off a piece. That's what we're doing; this oil is like a loaf of bread. You hear that Maffeo?" In his voice was laughter. "Our friend is in dire need of some medicine."
Matteo just scowled, and with a rich chuckle Niccolo led on through the narrow streets. They walked into a colorful square that was surrounded by bleached-out, clay buildings with high facades, over which flags from the seven nations flied. Across the square The Golden Dome of David twinkled in the hot sun, as a woman bleated out prices for cotton shirts, and a dog battled a rat for some food…
That night inside their hotel room it was dank and dark. Maffeo sat up reading, drinking a cup of steaming hot water mixed with mint leaves, as Niccolo lay on a straw mattress, his shoulders leaned against the adobe wall, a clay jug of wine in hand.
"Marco, how old are you?"
"You're old enough to be a man, but you've got the wits of an infant." He took a slug of wine. "You've never even left Venice before this, haven't you?" His eyes were amused, but also a little condescending.
"I was always working at the spice shop. Uncle Timon and Aunt Gianini—they just worked all the time."
"And business was very, very good."
Marco shrugged. "I wouldn't know. They worked so hard the whole time you wouldn't have known that they'd made it."
Niccolo threw his head back and laughed, gold tooth gleaming. "The famous Giani work ethic—Ha!" He waved a hand. "If there's one thing I can't stand it's drudge work; counting spices, making trades, nickle and diming yourself toward a fortune. Oh no, my boy—that's not the life for me. I may not have been the best father, but stick with me and you'll never waste a day of your life. Maffeo, have some wine!
But Maffeo just turned a shoulder to Niccolo and kept on reading like his life depended on it…
With a soft step Marco walked over to the window. He sprinkled some oil on the windown and eased it open without a sound. Don't let anyone even see you on the street. His dad's warning still His beggar-child rags disguise was in the corner, but since there was no one on the streets he decided to just slip out in his shorts and shirt.
As he walked through the deserted night streets—stray dogs picking through mounds of trash, people sleeping under burlap sacks, nestled into their stalls in the market district, the stars shined brightly over Jerusalem. Is my dad some sort of thief? That would explain all of the jewels, Marco thought. There was something going on that he wasn't telling him about, and Marco didn't feel comfortable about it. But something else about Niccolo—his verve—had won over Marco, and he was ready to follow despite any fears.
As he breasted a hill overlooking the market district he could see small campfires rising smoke over the city; so silent that he heard the bleating of a ewe in the distance. Everything felt foreign to him, especially the smells. Myrhh, Jasmine, and the smell of juniper filled the night air. Well, whatever happens, I'm not going back to Aunt Timon's and Giani. Marco rubbed the jewel scope for good luck. If this is what fate had in store for him, then he was going to go along no matter what.
But at some point, he was going to want to know more about his father. And what about Maffeo? He'd hardly said anything this whole trip so far. Sometimes Marco would catch Maffeo with a certain look in his eyes; a dark look, like he was thinking of heavy things. They'd hadn't spoken more than four sentences of conversation at once since meeting two months ago. It almost seemed like he was hiding something…
"You see boy, when you live the life of an explorer, you can be anything you want." It was only noon the next day, but they were already well on their way to the coast, and a boat to Constantinople. "I'm not living out anyone elses dreams or wishes for me. My mother, she wanted me to be a shopkeeer. She saw my crippled foot and said, 'you're never making it out there.' But we set out to become merchants and grew rich with the city of Venice. I've never let anyone tell me what to do with my life; all my wishes and desires are my own; I chose my own environment."
Well that's great, but what about your kids? thanks to this philosophy of self-determinism, or whatever you'd call it. Marco had grown up without a father. While Niccolo changed his enviroment, Marco had grown up under aunt Giani's scolding face and canings. Were you late for work today Marco? You know what we say about lazybones in the Giani family…they break, Marco—they break hard.
"No, my son, you're going to learn some new ways now." Niccolo slung an arm around Marco's bony shoulder. "Now I want you to unlearn all the advice the Giani's have ever given you. That advice won't help you where we're going."
"Alright, alright, move along!" Niccolo shouted to the camel in front of him, whipping its ass. He hobbled along on his bad foot. "We need to get into port by sun up if we want to set sail."
Marco grumbled to himself as he trudged along toward Tabriz, his lidded, sleepy eyes barely open to the pre-dawn splendor of morning stars. Forty eight hours and just eight hours of sleep. Two hours ago, in the middle of the night Marco had been jolted awoke by Niccolo's loud, almost shrill voice. "Mount up!" his dad had shouted into the tent, leaving the entrance open to the cold dark air.
They'd walked almost three miles in the dark, then the countryside had begun to come alive with singing birds, and now it was the blue hour.
"The Santa Ana sets sail at sun-up…hurry!" Niccolo's jovial excited, jovial exterior lightened the mood of the zombie-like travelers, but on the inside he was nervous. In the middle of the night Niccolo had seen him: the dark man. The man out of space.
It had been in the middle of the night. Niccolo's bad leg was acting up; whenever he woke up with his leg aching he knew that something bad was about to happen; a bad premonition. In fact his leg had gotten him out of more than one encounter with the death before.
He had been on top a black and white spotted horse, wearing a black top hat, and a black cape, with an axe dangling from a heavy-looking leather holster around the chest of his huge chestnut horse. Oh God no, please God, Niccolo had thought to himself. When he'd woken up, he'd realized, it was just a dream.
He crept outside of the tent and scanned the horizon. There were no signs that they were being followed. Just a small camp fire about half a mile up the hills; could be one of them, tracking us, Niccolo's subconscious told him. But that's fear talking, Nickie. We'll be fine, fine. Just like that groovy Prometheus in the story. Didn't he get away in the end?
Or was he the one that got his eyeballs pecked out for stealing the fire of the Gods? Dread threatened to wash over him, and for a moment he wanted to go in his tent and hide. Bear up, Nickie. The boy can't see you nervous. The dark man had his agents all over the holy land, and Niccolo knew he would love to get his hands on the oil…
Now they were well on their way to Tabriz, and in another few miles sea salt would fill the air. They would get to Tabriz, find a ship, and get the hell out of the Canaan. They'd set a beeline for the Bosporous Straight and then through the black sea to Crimea, where they'd reunite with the Golden Horde and be on their way…
As dawn came they approached the huge drop-off where the plateau of Tabriz fell off to the ocean, and the Meditterannean sea stretched out as far as the eye could see, a pale blue haze over the line where sea and sky meet. Steep steps led the way down to sea level and the city of Tabriz, the sky over the sea now white, and the waves a dark blue. Cargo ships dotted the bay, small as specks in the distance.
As they descended the cliff Niccolo replayed the image in his mind of the man out of space: the bearded hunter. How would he tell young Marco? You're gonna have to explain things to him at some point. Tomorrow, he told himself. Tomorrow I'll come clean with the boy.
When they got to the port city Maffeo led them through the streets, as if he knew the city well. "We shouldn't be seen the three of us together, but we shouldn't split up, either. Maffeo, you take the boy and get us a ship. I'll wait at a table in the squae."
How the tall, dark-haired, silent Maffeo was related to the stooped, pallid, garrulous Niccolo was a mystery to Marco. He just seemed to blend into the scenary; yet he carried himself well, and managed to communicate with the shipping agent.
The shipping agent was a man by the name of Vespuccio who was wearing sandals with leather straps that wound all the way up to his knobby kneecaps, and shifted his feet back and forth as he talked. When he came back Matteo had a concerned, nervous look on his face. He passed Marco a note that said:
Pier 3, slot 4.
Go reserve three berths while N and I attend to business
Maffeo disappeared up the alleyway, and moments later Marco noticed Niccolo hobbling briskly along behind him, disguised as a beggar.
Marco was remembering his mother. She had blond hair and came from Germany, and was beautiful. she had a lovely smile, and bright white teeth and straight blond hair, and a warm, large body to cradle up to. He didn't have all that many memories of her, but one stood out among the others: sitting in a park as she was about to go off. She went off every day and came back every night, but one day she got sick and went away for good. He thought about her when he started to feel homesick. He still kept that feeling deep within him. He was thinking about his mother and how much he missed her as Niccolo hobbled grimly up those steps, not even glancing Marco's way.
What's with all the secrecy? Business to attend to? Marco was beginning to think maybe his dad was dealing in some of those magic potions that he'd heard about: you took it and it gave you the second sight, only you felt like you were dreaming, and could travel on astral projections or something like that…
Yeah, maybe that's it. Marco imagined an asian man with hooded, crescent-moon eyes opening a wooden case packed with silk and peanut shells. Here is the cargo you've been waiting for, Polo-san. Were they going to use the Khan's holy oil? Marco could imagine that, too.Maybe he could just run now, actually…
The steep dusty streets led down past two blocks of nondescript clay facades, then the waterfront. The town looked over a long, remarkably calm section of the eastern Meditteranean Coast. With a hot vapor hovering above it the water looked as still as a cesspool.
"If anyone asks, tell them you're from Napoli," Niccolo had said. Seventeen years of Venetian dominance had calmed down the Holy Land quite a bit, but ever since Constantinople had revolted and they'd burned the Venetian quarter, citizens of the world's richest city had reason to worry when they traveled abroad.
The sun was just peeking over the horizon as Marco came down and felt his way around the pier. There were huge wooden piles that formed a steep bridge over the water, and it was flat as the eye could see. WHAT DOES THE PIER LOOK LIKE? (RESEARCH GOOGLE IMAGES TABRIZ PORT).
He went up to a young man wearing a turban and a sparse, pale beard was coating the bottom of a boat with black pitch. "Santa Maria aqui?" said Marco.
The young man stood up; dressed in white rags like a loincloth, with dusky skin almost as dark as one of the slaves that Drogo Berloscotti kept at the Venice gardens. Only this guy was flabby looking, with a soft, blackhaired beard, and shorter than Marco by a good six inches.
"It's over there, mate," the fellow had an Indian accent; his voice was weary, as if something bad had happened. It was then that Niccolo noticed the giant gash in the side of the pale skin Indian's boat: it had been smashed open like a butternut squash. "And from the looks of it she didn't fare better than my boat last night."
Marco laid eyes on the large red sailboat at the end of the pier. From a distance it seemed to be bobbing oddly on the surface of the water, keeled over a bit on one side. When the reached the end of the pier they could see it clearly as one of those goldleaf surgery textbooks Giani had given him: the was stern gaping with a smashed hole and filled with water. This boat wasn't going anywhere fast. In fact, it was probably totaled.
The fellow in the turban gotten up from his work and offered them a spot in the shade by small tea stand. "They say it's the curse of the aswang, come back again from five years ago on this day." The rising sun seemed harsh and glaring, as they hid from the harsh morning light in the cool of the shadow. "They say that something is happening out of the North, up Mongol way."
"Did that man…Did he say that the horseman destroyed all the boats?"
He shrugged. "He said that he slept here the whole night, and woke up around 2 in the morning to a great smashing noise. To his astonishment he watched as a cloaked figure proceeded to calmly destroy the hulls of ten different ships. A man was sleeping in one of the boats, and set upon the stranger, who smashed the unwitting slumberer's skull."
"Wait—he destroyed how many boats?"
"Everyone one of them is unseaworthy."
"Where were you headed, stranger?" said Marco. May as well make the best of a bad situation. Lord knew Niccolo was gonna be pissed.
"Oh, I was actually, uh…I was—I was—"
Well, say it, stranger. What was this guy so nervous about? He had suddenly pursed his brow, and was touching his lower lip with his thumb and forefinger. "I was headed back home just about now, out east."
Marco looked the young man up and down. What what this guy hiding? He was wearing a white, dirty, robe, wrapped around his legs, and what looked like a sleeveless tunic down to his knees. "Why, I was just headed back Kerala way."
"Kerala? Where's that?"
"Oh, it's uh…it's east of here, quite a ways, actually. I uh, I just delivered a load of cashews, and I'm headed back to Cochin. Gonna head back south to the Red Sea, and then catch a boat home."
"The Red Sea? How far is that?"
The fellow closed up his jar of black tar. "Say, who are you anyway, kid? I oughta be asking you the question."
"I'm Marco Polo. I'm Nick Polo's—" Oh shit. I probably shouldn't be telling a stranger this. "Uh...I'm his valet, yeah. We're just headed out west to Cadiz. Got a load of cardomom seeds.What's your name, stranger?"
"Name's Dugan. Harvinder Dugan. You said your name was Polo?"
Ah what the hell. The guy seemed dumb as a stork, and Marco was pretty sure he was good at heart. "Yeah—that's right, Marco Polo. But don't tell anyone that. My dad would probably thrash me for it. I'm not supposed to tell anyone."
The dusky-skinned fellow gave a confused look, and Marco changed the subject. "Seriously though. What happened here last night?"
He lowered his voice. "The aswang. It's a sort of local legend. They say he comes for the blood of the righteous. He's thirsty for something. That's what I think, at least."
"So what are you going to do now?"
"I guess I'll deliver the cashews myself, and head east overland."
Maybe I could just go with this guy right now, Marco thought. Then I would be able to get out of whatever this aswang had in mind for my dad.
I'll show you the world, boy. You can be whatever you want to be! His father's image came clouding into his mind, and he had a soft thump in his chest. He couldn't do that, but he wanted to help this guy.
"Well, why don't you come with us?"
The pudgy turbanned lad looked surprised. "Where are you going?"
"Just between you and me, we're headed north, to the Golden Horde, up Crimea way." Marco figured this guy could help them. Maybe he'd kinda take the curse off of having his father around, and if he wanted to, they could take off and deal the cashew nuts themselves.
"I don't speak any of the languages besides Spanish," the traveler said.
"Como aprendi espanol?"
He said he learned it from a trader in Cochin, a Jewish spice trader.
"Tenemos un mudo y un trogo," Marco said. "It doesn't matter if they understand you or not." He figured that he could use his salesmanship to deal the cashews. Clearly this guy's one fault was his lack of salesmanship. He was a great farmer—he clearly had some of the best product in India, and seemed like he had great "camel legs" as Niccolo called overland traveling-but without his connect his product was about to go stale, and he didn't even speak the language of the locals here...
"Sure, we'll team up. I'll help you pawn those cashews and you help me in case I wanna ditch my old man. Kinda like my insurance, you know?"
Harvinder shrugged. "If you really think there's a market for this stuff up north, then so be it…"
"Alright, but I've still got to find a way on this ship…"
The Indian fellow frowned. "I've only got one birth left. You can come, but there's no space for two more people."
For half a second Marco stood there transfixed. Room for one more. He could take his out right now, and never return to his father and Maffeo. He couldn't blame himself the way his dad had been acting—so sketchy that Marco subconsciously felt like they were thieving gypsies on the run, and the costumes were more accurate than reality.
A hopeful, naieve voice told him to stick with dad. You'll find everything out in time. This could be a bigger adventure than you'll ever have the opporutnity for the rest of your life! And besides, what would do when he reached Constantinople? Venetians were hated there, and without Niccolo as guide, Marco could meet his doom by a lynch-mob. Just like that story in the Bible that aunt Giani told him: the shibboleth. They made them say "sire," and if the said it, shire, they cut out their tongues and killed them, cuz that meant they spoke the Pharisee tongue. So, Constantinople was out…
This traveler, maybe he could go east with him. Explore the east on his own, just like he always wanted to do…
All his life, Marco had wanted to be a trader, just like his father. He wanted to smell the marketplaces of Crimea and possess the rarest goods found in the world. He wanted to see the top of Judea Hill in Jerusalem and cross the straight of Bosporous to the Black Sea. His father presented him that chance, but his father was also kind of sketchy…Marco felt really uneasy about the way he'd been looking over his shoulder, and just had a general feeling like aunt Giani might have been right about Niccolo…
He remembered one day ago…
They had been in a bar, in Samara, halfway between here and Jerusalem. They'd gotten in at night, and tied their camels to the post outside of the low-slung roof of the clay hovel.
"I'll give you a choice, my boy." His breath reeked of garlic and beer. "In my left hand is the diamond of Laurent Saint-blanc, and in my right is a speck of coal. If you get it right then you get to keep the prize."
This is a joke, right?
"If you answer the riddle then you get the diamond but if you miss you have to be the dishwallah for the rest of the month."
Dishwallah? What's that, Marco asked.
"You have to carry all our stuff."
Marco shrugged. "Whatever. I'll go with the one on the left."
"Are you sure?" Niccolo's eye peaked, a grin forming on his face.
"The left side is the cleft side," said Marco with a laugh. "I don't know. But you're gonna make me play anyway. So, yes. That's my final answer."
Niccolo frowned, as if Marco had the totally wrong idea. He pursed his lips, closed his eyes. After a moment he shook his head slightly, as if he'd made a resolution. "I tell you what—"
"No. I'll tell you what!" Before Niccolo could finish a booming voice cut him off. A broad-shouldered, black, shirtless dude strode into the bar. He had straps across his chest and a blonde mohawk, thin as a broom bottom. He came right up to Niccolo's table and with a deft, powerful lift he upended the entire table of cards.
What the hell? Marco was damn near pissing his nickers for a second. Who the hell was this guy? He towered above them with scars on his face; at last seven feet tall, and a scwol that could have metled stoned. "You thought I wouldn't find you, did you, thief. Khal Drogo bids your attendance—prtono."
The black giant stood bold-faced, and stunned, as if Niccolo were a breed of beast he'd never seen before. Was this guy gonna wreck shop? He had a chain with a spiked iron ball around his belt, which was boiled leather and spotted with brass studs. Meanwhile, Niccolo was seated there as cool as a cucumber, as if he were bored, and waiting for an entrée to come from a watier. "Would you like to have a seat?" He said to the maruading messenger, who frowned and whipped out his iron spiked mace.
"I said, the Drogo request your attendance. You have two choices. Come with me, or come with my ball abd chain, on a blast from the past." He weighted the veaby steel ball in his hand, and dropped it with a taught clink as it dangled over the tile floor of the wine shop.
Niccolo stared as staeadily as it appeared his wits would allow, slouched casually in the stone booth at the wine bar and fish shop there at Galilee. "Now listen here, slave. Drogo knows I'm good for his debt, and Drogo knows me well. He was there with me when I told off the amphibious Skagness, and he owes at least his left arm to me for that. Now I suggest you fuck off and let me go about my gathering of Skag Phineous' debt."
With eyes full of hate the giant hissed, "Need I recite you your rites under the the constitnution of the lord of his Empire?" But Marco could see it. It was already clear: this guy wasn't gonna to jack to his father. You could see it in his uncertain red eyes.
"His Lord of the Empire is bankrupt and full of hoo-ha!" shouted Niccolo. "As soon as his emperor in Constanipole's troops reach Jerusalem, he's as dead as a Greco-Roman God! Good Gawd," he burst into laughter, and Maffeo did too, along with the rest of the bar assembled. "I'll do no harm to the empire as the empire does harm to me!" Niccolo said with a laugh. He unraveled the Khan's golden manuscript, and as the giant read the scroll he screwed up his face in confustion. "This is the Golden Horde's writ of constintutionality. It grants me immunity, guaranteed by the network of the King of the Horde's finest spies. If you hurt me then your head will be on a platter in a matter of days. That's right. You bring me in and Drogo finds out that you detained a messenger of the horde, and he'll whip you till you're covered flies; like a horse he'll whip you, and they'll have to burrow the maggots out of your skin."
The giant gave a frowny, unnerved look, and told Niccolo to stay there while he checked with his superior.
"Quickly!" Niccolo hissed, after the soldier had gone. "Out the back door…
Niccolo had explained that he owed a man so money, and Marco had shrugged it off. But in the next few days he kept looking over his shoulder. "That slave is a wimp, and I wouldn't worry about him one bit," said Niccolo, "But there are other people—thieves, that would love to get their hands on this oil. Hence my skittishness."
It had been the first major confrontaiont in htie first three weeks of traveling, and it was enogh to make Marco reevaluate thigns a bit. True, it was a dream come true to be headed on an overland adventure, but did he really want to be going on it with his father? As far as he could tell Niccolo didn't have any really bad habits, and his wine drinking wasn't as bad as aunt Giani had said it was.
Now with the appearance of this trader from back east, Marco had an opportunity to do the trading and the dealing on his own. If things continued like they were, with Niccolo keeping in the dark, he had a feeling it could be as bad as aunt Giani's. Why had he even brought him along in the first place if he was only going to shout at him not to reveal himself? Was he just going to be some amusement for the Khan? Just another porter to help haul the bags of spices from the market to camels?
Marco didn't entirely like his treatment so far, and in his mind he reserved the right to cut and run.
Marco heard Niccolo's voice; a shrill voice filled the sea air…he hobbled quickly down the steps…
Back on the shore, Harvinder Dugan, squatting on his tar-soaked heels, showed him the damage done to his boat, and Niccolo's forehead broke out in sweat. "Those are axe gashes. "
"A beggar told me that there was a spooky guy here last night; said he had a long, giant club… He woke up and this morning all the ships were busted; holes in the bottoms of them; every one of them unseaworthy…You'd have thought there was a cyclone." He muttered and returned to the cracked boat.
"That doesn't make sense," said Niccolo. "We just talked with the shipping agent. He said—"
"Shipping agent? The shipping agent's gone south to find repairmen."
Oh great. So on top of being stranded without a boat we've been conned as well. "Let that be a lesson to you Marco. When dealing with Israelite, look first and pay later." He was trying to put on a brave front, but it was getting harder.
With dread creeping up his throat like tingly foam, Niccolo gaped up at the cliffs of Tabriz, and the smoldering, steamy city seemed to envelope him. There was no way out. Every boat unseaworthy? Niccollo couldn't believe it. It was as if…as if the stars were aligned against him—no, the stars had nothing to do with it. Someone's fucking with us.
"No problemo," said Niccolo, "We'll go it overland; Marco, how are your camel legs?" he said with a laugh that barely concealed his fear.
The thing about Niccolo, was that he really did want to get the vessel to the Khan's daughter as quikcly as possible. He was sitting there in their hotel room that night in Tabriz. For all he knew, there was no one following him, but it was uncanny that all the ships in port ahad been destroyed by this—this Aswang.
He calculated that he probably had four more months to get the holy oil to Xanadu; that was about how long Fung Helsing could keep her alive. Then she'd die a horrible death and her body would slowly turn into a mass of liquiefied putresence, even as her voice box made reedy noises and her mind stayed dimly aware of its own bodies horrific decay.
"The Khan is the wisest man, probably in the world," Niccolo started off. They were seated around a fire, and Maffeo was wrapping a strap of leather around an axe head in order to bind them tightly together. Harvinder and Marco were making makeshift weapons, from whatever they could find in the market and at the blacksmith's: Marco had a iron haft, and Harvinder had found a large chain, which he'd hastily tied a blade to, to make a makeshift whip.
"The Aswang live in all parts of the middle east, and in Asia. They say they were the spawn of the devil, and have been banished from all christendom. They lurk on the perimeters of God's country, and feast on the blood of non-believers."
"Well, I don't know about that!" Harvinder said. "What I heard, is that they come from up crimea way, right around hwere you guys were headed with your—say, what whas it that you said you were carrying?"
"It's the Holy Oil of the Sepulchre. It's used to cure vampire bite, and the Khan's daughter needs it. Problem is, it's also used for other things—things which the vampires themselves would like use."
Niccolo said: "I'll tell you a story, boys, are you read?"
"I'm all ears."
"When I was traveling in Crimea, I was stopped over one night around Sudank. Now Sudank is a port city there, west in the Slavic area there. I was delivering a bag of goods to a count there, riding on a horse and buggy. Now, that's where I heard that something strange was going on. There was a blood sucking count, who had been captured by the villagers, and put to death by lynch mob. But they said that others were out there; it was in the blood of the noble families there…"
Three years later while I was in Arabia I saw the same style of sword on a arab soldier there…it short, we're going straight through vampire country, and swarms of them are going to want to get their hands on this holy oil.
It'll cure them of vampirism.
"We're going to steal the oil, and use it to gain the second sight!" Nicollo's eyes were shining and jubilant.
"The second sight? What the…"
"We're taking it to a wizard I know. He has a lamp—a lamp of gold, that if we fill with this liquid, they say, will unloose a mighty gin."
"A gin?" [INS STUFF FROM SONG BAG]
"That's what we're going up against," said Nicollo. "So we have to make haste, and let no one catch us with the oil. The longer we stay in the holy land the more time for those forces of evil to gather against us. We've got to make it North to the black on foot." He hung his head. "It's despicable how far the craft of boatmaking has fallen. But we'll have to go on. I'm pretty sure there will be people following us, but we have no choice. If the Khan's daughter goes four more months then she'll be dead."
They stayed overnight in Tabriz and plotted. Under cover, they went to the main drag of Tabriz and negotiated to trade their camels in for horses. "If we could just get a horse—you ought to see the horses of the Golden Horde! They'd run roughshod over this whole civilization if they weren't already so big."
"First let's go to market and see if can't get some of the local wares. Then we can make a profit when we start heading north. That's the name of the game, boy…profit while hoof it!" [PLOT POINT OF BUYING RARE GOODS/INT DRUG DEN/WHOREHOUSE]
It was sound enough reasoning: if they were going to be traveling they had better look like real merchants. But then again they'd have the advantage of speed.
"We need to find the fastest, quickest, most out of this world kind of conveyance," Nicollo said.
Maffeo scrbbled something on a paper, and Niccolo had a look. He frowned, his scar on his face turning down. "A wizard? Around here? Are you serious?"
"I've got a better idea. Let's get us some horses, lose all this baggage, and just head north. Plus that way we'll get to buy some good stuff along the way. I've been dying to get some cardomom from Damascus."
The rider breasted the hill and below him he made out the three travelers. Two men and a boy. Only the boy was as tall as the other two men. They were riding in the pass. Just like the Grand Master had said. The grandmaster said he had his agents everywhere, even some in very high place, and the rider marveled at how well connected his master must be.
"Alright boy, we have to do business." Niccolo hesitated. "I would let you come with, but Maffeo says no…" They were sitting in the room at the inn, there in the market of Damascus. Below there was a tea stall…
When Niccolo left, Marco decided to follow him. He padded out the door, and made it out into the street well behind the limping Nicollo, who blended into the market goers, then turned a corner up ahead.