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PART I
July, 1540 a.d.

Chapter 1

Sitting back in his chair in his office in the Castel a terra of the Citadel of Corfu, Benito Valdosta raised his eyebrows. "And you want me to come out to your estate for some hunting but not to tell anyone. Giuliano, how stupid do you think I am?"


Giuliano Lozza had begun to acquire a little layer of comfortable plumpness again that had made the recruits in Venetian Corfiote irregulars call him Loukoúmia. Marriage to Thalia, and with a babe on the way, had eased some of the bitter lines that the murder of his wife and child had brought to the face of the former guerilla-captain. Giuliano had turned down the offer of the job of captain-general of the island without a second thought. He was more interested in his olives, his grapes and the possibility of a pack of plump children to spoil. It would be easy for a fool to forget that the Loukoúmia was a master swordsman and strategist.


Benito was only a fool some of the time, and this wasn't one of them. Giuliano smiled. "Spiro told me I might as well be direct with you. It's a dangerous business, Benito. One I wish I was not involved in."


"Then why are you involved, Giuliano? Just what is going on?"


"Listening ears, Benito," said Giuliano quietly. "Trust me. For old time's sake."


Benito sighed. "I've got responsibilities, Giuliano."


"She—they'll do without you for a day, Benito," said the swordsman-turned-olive-grower, understandingly.


Benito looked at the crib in the corner of his office. Times changed. He now had an office, not to mention the crib. "But will I do without them?" he asked wryly. "Very well. Tomorrow."


Giuliano shook his head. "Tonight. It must be tonight. The wind is right," he said, cryptically, "for the kind of game we're after."


The wind was setting westerly. Good for Albania, if not wild boar. The hairs on Benito's neck prickled. "I'll be there."


"So will our old friends, Taki and Spiro."


That confirmed his suspicions. Every second local male was called Spiro, and every fourth, Taki. The conversation would mean nothing to a listener who was not aware that their mutual friends Taki and Spiro were the skipper and the mate of a small fishing boat. They were principally fishermen, anyway, although it could be argued that they were actually principally drinkers of mediocre to bad wine, and incidentally extremely good seamen and fisherman. Like all skippers around these parts, Taki fished for some targets that were best fished for on moonless nights, landing goods when and where duties were not collected on cargoes. Benito would have trusted them with his life. He'd had to before.


Whatever was going on, it had forced a man who would rather grow olives to mess with politics. A man who would rather farm than adorn the most powerful military and second most powerful political office of the island. It had to be worth looking into. Corfu was a Venetian possession, but it was also a small island close to Byzantine Greece and the wild mountainous tribal lands of the Balkans. As much as the tribal clans up in Albania and the hinterland accepted any one leader, it was Iskander Beg, the Lord of the Mountains. Iskander Beg had held off both the Byzantines and Hungary—no small feat.


Some of the tribes had occasionally raided Corfu in the past. Corfu was a soft place compared to their iron hills. The Venetians, and the local magic, had made that an expensive exercise—but the cost had been counted by both sides. As the temporary deputy governor, Benito wanted to avoid any more attacks again. Corfu needed a time at peace to recover and grow. An enemy might see this as a good opportunity to attack.


Benito had put out feelers to Iskander Beg, with those who did a little legitimate trade with southern Illyria. He had not expected a reply from this source. He smiled ruefully to himself. He should have. He'd learned a great deal about politics in the two months he'd waited for Venice to send out a new governor, much of which he hadn't wanted to know. The underlying principle seemed to be that nothing in politics was ever straight or direct.


He sighed and looked at the clock. He had yet another meeting with the surviving Libri di Oro, the aristocratic landlord parasites that Venice had created from the Corfiote nobility. Created, and then made rotten and idle. They would pour platitudes on him, when what most of the ticks wanted was for him to drop dead, and the opportunity to get their old lives back, with as much extra land-loot as they could steal added to their wealth. Benito would be polite in return, although he wanted to break them. Going off in the dark with Lozza would be a relief. He hoped that it would be to do something stupid and dangerous. At least he would be more in control then.


 


The water was black, nearly as dark as the mood on the boat. Even the wisecracking Spiro was less than himself.


"You realize," said Giuliano, "that if this goes wrong, Maria will kill all of us tomorrow." He was being perfectly literal. She would, and Giuliano understood Maria's "wifely" role with Aidoneus better than most Venetians. His wife believed firmly in the Goddess, and had told him where things stood.


Spiro looked at the dark mass that was Illyria, straight ahead. "If it doesn't go right, there won't be a tomorrow."


Taki, sitting at the tiller-bar snorted. "The Lord of the Mountains keeps his word. Relax. And give me some more wine."


"You've had enough," said Thalia. She'd refused to remain behind.


"I'm still upright. So how can that be true?" asked Taki cheerfully.


"If we sail back, then I have every intention of not being upright," said Spiro. "So we need to save a half a cask."


"Never put off drinking until afterwards, just in case there is no afterwards," said Taki. But he didn't insist on more wine. Instead he guided the fishing boat toward a pair of lanterns set up in a dark cove, lining them up very carefully.


A little later Benito Valdosta sat at a rough oak table in a small shepherd's hut, facing the beak-nosed lord of southern Illyria. The humble setting did not seem to bother the man. Lesser men might need regal trappings so that one did not confuse the king with a hill-shepherd. Iskander Beg claimed descent from Alexander the Great of Macedon, and he didn't need fine clothes or a rich hall to tell you who he was. All Iskander needed was enough light for a man to see his eyes.


They burned. And looking at them, Benito knew that he had found a kindred spirit, albeit one reared in even harsher soil than he had sprung from. This was not a man who would be cowed by threats or worried by the odds against him. On the other hand, he looked very shrewd indeed. This was a good thing, Benito decided, because what Benito had in mind was more like commerce than devilry.


"Once," Benito said, "there was a road from here to the Adriatic."


"The Via Egnatia. From Phillipi or Christopolis to Appolonia or to Dyrrachium. Durazzo, as the Venetians call it. Days past. A route for conquerors," said the Lord of the Mountains, dismissively. Yet . . . was that a hint of a smile under his moustache? And, whatever else he was, ignorant of history he was not. Iskander also spoke good Frankish for a hill-chieftain in a remote, mountainous piece of nowhere.


"The Romans built it to conquer Illyria. Did they succeed?" asked Benito airily.


Iskander gave a snort of laughter. "Oh, for a little while. You can never really conquer the land of the eagles. People try."


"The Byzantines are that foolish," said Benito idly.


Teeth gleamed through the moustache. "Not often. The emperor tells them to be. The field commanders do not, in reality, try very hard any more. We've discouraged them."


Benito grinned back. "Then why worry? I gather we share a love for Emeric of Hungary."


The Lord of the Mountains nodded. "He does seem to have had a sharp lesson from you in Kérkira. And another for crossing my land without my permission."


Benito clicked his tongue. "A pity he succeeded."


Iskander Beg shook his head. "Not really a pity. He's a fool. And it is better to have the fool we know for an enemy, than to have him succeeded by man of competence. Emeric's mouth and vanity are worth a good thousand soldiers to us." Iskander's eyes narrowed a little. "On the other hand, I have been told that your death would be worth a great deal of gold, besides several thousand warriors."


Benito smiled urbanely at the Lord of the Mountains, showing no sign of the tension he felt. "You don't have to flatter me."


The Lord of Mountains beamed. "I like you, boy. And I have just upped the value that was put on you."


"You gave your word," said Giuliano.


"And my word is good," said Iskander Beg. "Even if we stand to eliminate two dangerous enemies at one stroke."


"We do not have to be enemies," said Benito.


"You are not Illyrian. You are not of my tribe. Therefore you are my enemy."


Benito was beginning to get a feel for the way the man thought now. This was more than just a declaration of Illyria's superiority and isolation. It was a subtly worded invitation. "And how does one join your tribe?"


The Lord of the Mountains tugged his moustache. "Three ways. By birth. By marriage. And by challenge."


"It's a little late in the day for the first two. So what is the challenge? The usual thing, eh?" Benito's smile was all teeth, and did not reach his eyes. "To drink a bottle of slivovitz, kill a bear and make love to the most beautiful woman in the village. And later the challenger staggers into the village terribly scratched and says: 'Now where is this woman I have to kill?' "


The Lord of the Mountains laughed. "You'd do better to take your chances with the bear than trying your charms on our women. No, it is a simple challenge." He pointed out of the door into the darkness. "A test of stealth to start with. I will put my men on the hill. I will go to the summit. You must join me, without being caught."


Benito's heart fell. Even after the time he'd spent with the Corfiote irregulars, Erik Hakkonsen had rated him almost as silent a woodsman as a blind horse with bells on its harness. But what did he have to lose, beside face? "Surely. Send your men out."


"They'll try to cut you rather than kill you. I'd do the same if I were you. No point in being part of the tribe with a gyak on your head."


Benito looked at the men he would have to avoid. Looked at their knives. Wished it could have been the bear that he had to cuddle. The twenty or so of them slipping away into the forest had longer claws. Erik should be doing this, not him. This was not the thick Mediterranean scrub of Corfu or the lowlands of Illyria, but an actual forest in the steep limestone gully that led down to the river. Or bare, open rock and thin heath that wouldn't hide a field-mouse.


"I will go up there," said the Lord of the Mountains, standing up lithely and setting off without a backward glance.


"Benito, you are crazy," said Thalia. "The Kyria Maria will kill me if I let you go."


Benito shrugged. "You have to understand the man, Thalia. He is testing us. Testing Corfu. To fail will be bad. To not even try will say that we are soft." As quietly as he could he slipped away into the woods.


It wasn't quietly enough. He never even saw the man, just saw the flash of steel.


They might be able to move like ghosts, but no one had taught them how to use the blade. Being fair, it could have been that the man had wanted to cut, not kill. The Illyrian hadn't expected to have his blade pushed into a tree, and to have himself thrown hard over Benito's hip. Iskander Beg's man had the breath knocked out of him—but the weak cry and the crashing were enough. Others were coming. So Benito stepped around the vast boled tree and swung up into it.


He hadn't been as unobserved as he'd hoped. There were five of them coming out of the shadows. They sounded cheerful enough as they helped his victim to his feet.


And then they started climbing after him. Benito moved higher, farther out among the spreading branches. Dawn was not that far off and visibility up here was better. They were good woodsmen, but terrible climbers. For this business, a childhood spent scrambling over the roofs of Venice was far better training than woods and mountains.


Benito waited until the closest man was within a nervous two yards of him. The branch cracked and Benito dropped to a lower branch, with a laugh. The backspring had the pursuer grasping branches frantically. Benito moved out on the lower branch.


Another three men. He waited as they climbed the tree too. And Benito jumped.


As roof jumps went it was a small one—not more than four yards and to a lower branch. It was a branch in another tree, however. Moving fast now, Benito went down that tree, leaving the swearing Illyrians behind him. Someone fell, by the sounds of it.


That had cleared at least eight of them out of his path. Benito abandoned stealth and ran, uphill, cursing tree-roots. He had about three hundred yards to cover.


Fortunately, he saw and heard the pursuit—and climbed the next tree. He repeated the trick—not waiting for the fellow to get high before dropping into another tree. And down. And then a few yards on. Up again, unseen.


He watched as one of the Illyrians passed below. It was tempting to drop on the fellow and teach him to also look up occasionally, but he was here to get up the slope, not to have fun. And Benito had to admit that he was having fun. He had missed this.


Better not to let fun distract him too much. The trouble was that treed gullies inevitably got narrower and steeper at the top.


He found a nice weighty dead branch, and, climbing up to where he could at least see the crescent moon, he flung it down slope. That done, he dropped out of the tree and began moving laterally, out of the forested gully. There was no cover out there.


No cover for the solitary guarding Illyrian either. The fellow was staring at the forest, sitting on a rock cleaning his fingernails with his knife. Benito had less than seventy yards to the top. There were times for subtlety and times for speed—and a good solid branch he found lying on the ground.


Benito tossed a loose rock downhill and to his left, and started running as soon as he heard it clattering. The momentary distraction gave him twenty yards before the Illyrian saw him and ran at him, yelling. There were other shouts from behind him. Benito didn't look back. He just used the branch like a lance, and the moment's shock of impact to sidestep. And then to keep running for the last twenty yards.


Where a rude shock awaited him.


He might even have been caught right there, if it had not shocked his pursuer just as much. There was no one there.


Benito simply turned and ran the other way. He swore quite a lot, too. There was a perfectly good path down the slope to the hut that took him a few minutes, instead of the half hour he'd spend in blundering through the woods.


The Lord of the Mountains was sitting on the bench outside the hut, with one of his own men, and the other Corfiotes. Benito had had the hill to help him get over his bad temper at being so neatly gulled.


Iskander hadn't actually said he would be at the top of the hill. He'd just said that he'd go there. Well, if the Illyrian thought he could teach a Venetian how to make deals with weasel words . . . 


"Giuliano," he said conversationally, panting just a little, "disarm that bodyguard."


The bodyguard was undoubtedly one of the finest fighters in all Illyria. Giuliano Lozza was still easily his master, especially since the bodyguard plainly wasn't expecting such a command.


While the distraction occurred, Benito stepped up to Iskander and touched his shoulder. "Reached you," he said. "But I think I will leave you alive, because you are more trouble to Byzantium and to King Emeric than I'd realized you would be."


Iskander Beg smiled. "The blood feud you'd cause by killing your own kinsman and chieftain would hardly be worth it."


He stood up, planted his hands on his hips, and watched the panting band straggling up to the hut. "Well? Do you still think the Venetians are soft? And that we should raid now while Kérkira is war-weary and weak?"


The remark provoked a fair storm of laughter. Knives were sheathed. Benito found himself surrounded by the group that had tried to catch him, grinning and backslapping. Iskander joined them. "Come. Now we will talk. And drink slivovitz, kinsman."


Sitting and drinking the clear plum liquor at dawn was not something that Benito wanted to do every day, but today it seemed fitting. "I rule at least in part by guile," explained Iskander, sitting a little apart and talking to him. "The tribes are fiercely independent. But they will follow a clever leader who has won their respect. This story will go around. It will grow in the telling. People will say how cunning the Lord of Mountains was . . . and that this Venetian was a match for him. Like a fox, but with honor. That is important here. There were some that said it would be the right time now to attack Kérkira. In spite of the magic."


"It's not something I would attack. That magic destroyed Emeric," said Benito, keen to reinforce the idea, as little as he approved of the Goddess and her cult.


Iskander Beg shrugged. "The Illyrians drove the Pelasgian mother-worshippers from this land to Kérkira. They have long memories in these mountains. They remember the land moving and the sea coming and killing their ancestors. They remember that magic, and saw that it was still active. Now my people have two reasons to keep away—magic and a leader they can respect. So: Tell me now what you plan for the Via Egnatia. It would not be good for the trade of Kérkira for it to operate again."


"I think it can be made good for Corfu," said Benito, "for Venice, and also Illyria. Ships, especially round ships carry more cargo. But . . . if I am right, the Byzantines will seek to bar us from the Bosphorus. From the Black Sea trade. Trade is like the muscles of your hand. If you don't keep using it the hand grows weak. It loses its cunning. It's what happened to Via Egnatia. Once a little part of every caravan that passed along it stayed here in Illyria. Most of the bulk went on to be sold, but enough remained here—paid by travelers, to be a goodly amount of wealth. Still, it was a small part of every rich load. Some chieftains saw profit in robbing travelers, taking the entire load rather than just a little. So fewer travelers risked the road. So it became less friendly—and now no one uses the old trail. I want to open it up again. If we can reach some agreement with the Bulgars or the Golden Horde, Venice could still move cargoes of silk and spices from the east through Trebizond, even if Constantinople is closed to Venetian shipping. Raiding is fun, but the real profit lies in trading."


"Spoken like a Venetian," said Iskander.


"Yes. It has the advantage of being true, too," said Benito dryly. "Look. We have this night put the final veto on to any Illyrian ideas of war with Venice. You did not want it anyway. Why not use the situation to our mutual advantage as well?"


Iskander Beg was silent for a while and then answered. "Because the chieftains of the Illyrian tribes from here to the edges of Macedonia obey me out of choice. Fractiously. I really have little power over them. And raiding is a way of life here. But I will think about it."


Benito rubbed his chin thoughtfully. It was something that had bothered him once . . . to be his father or his grandfather's offspring, and not to be himself. But since then—now on this hillside, again—he'd proved himself. And a weapon was a weapon. You used it when you needed it, before worrying about where it came from. "You may have heard of my grandfather, Duke Enrico Dell'este of Ferrara."


"The Old Fox," said Iskander. "I have done my best to study his tactics. Just because I live in the mountains of Illyria does not mean that I am ignorant, Benito Valdosta."


Benito was sure by now that wherever this man had lived—and he'd bet it wasn't just in the mountains of Illyria—that he was anything but ignorant. "We talked about the Swiss mercenaries once. He said the greatest warriors came from places where nature shaped and honed the men from birth, and frequent combat had tempered them. Harsh places. He also said that the people of such places win battles, but lose long wars."


Iskander raised his eyebrows. "While I accept the first part of his statement—my people have to be as hard as the rock of our mountains or they would die, and they spend what spare time they have in feuding—I do not intend to lose my wars. All our wars here are long. So why does the Old Fox say that we will lose?"


Benito knew then that he had been right to bring his grandfather into it. Enrico Dell'este would be taken seriously on this subject, by such a man. Benito Valdosta would not be. Not yet.


"Two things. Firstly, numbers. The warrior of the harsh lands can kill five times as many soft lowlander soldiers—but there are fifty men from the fat fertile lowlands to one from the harsh mountains. And the other factor is money. It is hard enough to scrape a living off these bare hills, let alone buy good weapons or keep a large standing army. The second sons of the mountains, and cold northlands too, go off raiding or as mercenaries because there is not enough food or land."


Iskander grunted irritably. "I accept that the Old Fox is right on this. But I have a people and a land to hold, and, yes, to reclaim that which was taken from us. We shape our fighting around harvests and fieldwork. Short sharp raids are our way."


"And you need the grain and cattle and sheep of the lowlands to keep your people alive in winter. But you cannot press your advantage, because the food needs to get home. So, you win each battle . . . and lose the fertile valley lands, because you cannot hold them. Or if the tribe moves to soft lands, they too become soft and lose their battles."


Iskander raised his chin, and stared down at Benito, eyes narrow. "So, Benito. The Old Fox's grandson does not lead me down this path only to tell me that I cannot win. How do we avoid this trap?"


Benito smiled. "I told you. You sit astride a trade route. In the long term, trade will bring your people far more than the loot from one raid, or even from one trade caravan. You can keep the second and even third sons home, as warriors. There will be fighting on the borders."


"More when there is a rich prize like a trade route to be seized, or competition to be blocked," said Iskander.


Benito drank some of the plum liquor. "Nothing is for nothing," he said with a grin.


Iskander nodded. "You speak very persuasively. What does Venice gain from this?"


"A route around Alexius. More traffic. And someone who will lose much trade if they go to war with us," said Benito.


"Clever," said Iskander.


"It's this stuff we are drinking. Enough of it and anything sounds clever." Benito swayed to his feet. "I just hope Taki really does sail better when he's drunk or we may end up in Vinland instead of Corfu."


 


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