The Sea of Marmara was like a sheet of blue glass as the Venetian Trader skimmed over the water towards the harbour like a graceful swan.
Hassan felt a surge of excitement as the city of Constantine loomed up before him, its walls high and seemingly unbreachable. It had been four years since his first visit and then he had been a child, fleeing from the country of his birth and its new ruler. He recalled hearing once that, like Rome, the city was built on seven hills, and that it had vied with the Eternal City for centuries as capital of the Christian empire, but his memories were otherwise hazy. In any case, the details mattered little as he would not be remaining here long.
The voyage had been nearly uneventful. Favourable weather had speeded the Venetian Trader through the Adriatic and round the Peloponnese. A sudden storm in the Cyclades had driven the vessel off course and caused some damage to the bowsprit and mainsail rigging. However, it had been quickly repaired in the lee of an island, a Venetian protectorate, and the voyage resumed with the loss of only six days.
The ship was approaching its moorings and most of the sails had been furled. Hassan could see the statuesque watchers on the city walls, black silhouettes against the blue sky. Occasionally one would move and there would be a flash of brightness as the sun caught the metal of his armour or the tip of his spear. Several small boats had put out from the shore, either local merchants anxious to inspect their goods before they were unpacked, agents to make inventories and present their accounts to the ship’s master, or simply curious townsfolk, eager to see the vessel close at hand. On the shore, bronzed bodies were unloading crates of merchandise or hauling them along the quayside in readiness for loading them on the Venetian Trader for the next stage of its voyage along the Black Sea coast.
Hassan was not going with it. Tomorrow, he would cross the Hellespont to Asia Minor and continue his journey on horseback along the southern Silk Road to the Persian province of Rum. He could hardly wait. He inspected his merchant’s attire, the red-buttoned tunic, the knee-length black surcoat and the neat grey stockings he had purchased shortly before his embarkation at Venice. His shoes were leather, one of two pairs he had brought with him from the Montecervino villa. He tucked his thumbs in his belt and slid them along it, feeling for the hilt of the plain short sword that hung at his left hip and for the narrow-bladed dagger behind his right. Both were in place. He felt for the outline of his treasured gold talisman, the gammadion – a present from his mother – that he wore beneath the tunic.
The adventure had begun and it was time to leave his regrets behind. He was a young, well-educated Venetian gentleman who spoke Italian and Persian perfectly and who could read and converse adequately in both Greek and Arabic. He was proficient at swordplay and competent as a bowman. Indeed, in his luggage was a small bow of Italian construction, made on Giovanni’s orders to the three-layered Mongol formula of sinew, wood and horn, and accurate to almost two hundred paces.
He had also a full purse and personal supply of jewels which he could trade for gold at any city bazaar. The whole world lay before him, to be explored and conquered. He was fifteen years old and therefore immortal.
Giovanni had come with him as far as Venice and there they had spent a week with Maffeo Polo finalising plans. The old jeweller was a member of the merchant syndicate with a share in the ownership of the Venetian Trader and had been only too willing to arrange Hassan’s passage in exchange for a small favour, to make contact with his agent in Constantinople and settle some business on his behalf.
They had also discussed the merchant’s sons and grandson, absent from Venice for more than twenty years on a visit to the court of the Great Khan in China. Hassan had promised to send news of them out of Persia, but it was a promise he now regretted making. From a letter in his mother’s possession he had learned it was more than three years since the Venetians left China by sea, bound for Hormuz by way of Java and Ceylon. The ships must have floundered and their passengers drowned, he thought, but he had shared neither his knowledge nor his fears with Maffeo and his family.
The deck swayed and the Venetian Trader shuddered as her port side collided with the quay. Hassan, intent on watching the sailors performing their final duties before a well-earned shore leave, was thrown against the gunwale. He recovered his balance, adjusted his cap and prepared for his first taste of land for eight days.
His leave-taking of Venice, following so closely on the emotional parting from his mother, had been more painful than expected, and embarrassing too. For two days he had enjoyed the company of Luciana Polo, Maffeo’s fourteen-year-old granddaughter, adopted following the early death of her parents.
Hassan had known Lucy for about two years, since Giovanni had suggested a visit to the jewel merchant. She had been a small girl then, with a chubby face and unusually thin arms. It was the month of June. They had gone for a boat trip on the Gran Canale and she had sat with him in the stern plying him with questions about Genghis Khan and the Persian court. She had discovered that he had once been in a battle and wanted to know about all the men he had killed. Hassan had grown tired of her chattering and had been glad to escape her company.
He had seen her again in October and on the following February. On the latter occasion, she had invited him to explore the Polos’ waterside home. It was full of tiny rooms with bare, uneven floors and low ceilings. Many of the upper ones had no doors and were connected together through open archways. Narrow twisting staircases led from one storey to the next, more resembling the secret corners of Tabriz Castle than the open, airy spaces and tiled corridors of the Montecervino villa. While they stood at the topmost window looking out across the lagoon, Lucy had pursed her lips and kissed him on the mouth.
Hassan had felt no excitement. Lucy’s lips were cool and wet and, as he pulled his mouth away from the kiss, he felt her saliva trickle down his chin. He had not wanted to kiss her again.
It was several months before he had the opportunity. Summer had arrived, a hot and humid Italian August. He had travelled alone to Venice hoping for some news of Persia – if his grandfather, the governor of Kerman, was alive and well, and if the chaos that had followed Gaikatu’s election as Il-khan’ had abated or grown worse.
The carpet merchant, his mother’s friend Umid, whom he had seen during his last visit, was the only link with his old life. Umid’s merchant brotherhood, as close and secret as any spy network, was always a fount of information, and the house of Maffeo Polo was a popular meeting place.
Lucy had changed. Her face had lost its chubbiness and, though her arms were still thin, the rest of her body had filled out. Her hips were gently rounded and the bodice of her gowns tight round her breasts. Hassan had bowed and taken her hand, and she had blushed and welcomed him with a curtsey.
Late one evening, they had walked in the square of St Mark, he and Lucy in front, Maffeo and his wife thirty or forty paces behind. Dusk was falling and the piazza was almost deserted. Lucy’s conversation was intelligent and stimulating, and her eyes were bright and animated. Her hair smelled of perfume. As they passed the cathedral of St Mark, she pulled him into the shadow of the portico, threw her arms about his neck and kissed him for the second time. As their lips met, her mouth opened and he felt her tongue push against his teeth.
He was unsure how to respond. He liked Lucy and knew she liked him but, though her kiss was not unpleasant, he still felt no strong kindling of emotion. He tried to pull away, but her arms held him firmly.
‘I love you, ‘Sano,’ she breathed in his ear. ‘I love you so much. Would you like to touch me?’
‘Lucy …..’ He wanted to tell her not to be childish, that he was not ready to love anyone, but he began to feel an unfamiliar tingling in his limbs at her proximity.
She released him at last, took his hands and placed the palms against the bodice of her gown. ‘Quickly now,’ she urged, ‘before Granmama reaches the corner.’
Hassan allowed his fingers to stray over the dress, exploring her awkwardly through the material. ‘Is this what you want, Lucy?’ he asked.
Lucy did not reply. She merely heaved a great sigh, pressed herself against him and laid her head on his shoulder.
Hassan could feel her heartbeat. The rumples of her skirt enfolded his legs. Aroused despite himself, but uncertain whether she desired more of him, he continued to hold her while she renewed her assault on his lips, pausing only to murmur his name between hurried inhalations of breath.
The spell was broken by the sound of approaching voices. Lucy snatched his hands away. She smoothed her skirt and, leaving him flushed and embarrassed, ran off towards the piazza and into the arms of her adoptive parents.
He had not known how to greet her on his last visit. Despite denying to Giovanni that they were more than friends, he had thought of her often, recalling the touch of her lips, the motion of her tongue, and the feel of her breasts through the silk gown. He had wondered several times whether, had they not been interrupted, their caresses would have led to full intimacy. More than once she had filled his dreams and fantasies. However, he did not love Lucy the way she seemed to love him and did not know the words to tell her so. He had lived his life in a man’s world and felt trapped between his inexperience as a lover and his sensitivity as a friend.
In the event, Lucy had welcomed him as before, and for two days they had done no more than talk. However, as they sat together at supper on his final evening, she had twice entwined her leg round his. When the meal was over, she rose and whispered something in her grandfather’s ear.
‘Lucy has a present for you,’ said the old merchant, ‘something you can take with you on your travels.’
‘May I show it to you, ‘Sano?’ the maiden asked.
Hassan bowed stiffly.
‘Come then,’ she said, taking his hand and pulling him towards the door. She led him along the corridor, up the twisting staircase and into one of the tiny rooms on the top floor. It was furnished with only a table. On a ledge below the narrow window was a small wooden box.
‘Open it,’ Lucy instructed him. Hassan did so. Inside was a piece of silk fabric.
‘I cut it from the hem of my best gown,’ said she. ‘To remind you.’
‘To remind me?’ stammered Hassan. She had come very close to him and he could feel her breath on his cheek.
‘To remind you of my true present,’ Lucy answered. ‘Have I not said I love you?’
‘But Lucy …’
‘I love you, ‘Sano,’ Lucy interrupted, ‘and if you love me in return you will prove it. My bedroom is the first place they will look if we do not return soon, but even the servants rarely come here.’ She reached up and kissed him. ‘You remember that evening at St Mark’s,’ she whispered. ‘We had to stop because of Granmama, but now there is no one.’
She undid the fastenings of her bodice and pulled it down. Hassan cupped his palms and touched her. Her skin seemed very white against the light brown of his hands. Lucy raised herself on tiptoe and thrust her pelvis forward against him. Hassan felt the tightness in his groin. His heart pounded in his chest and he could feel the hot blood surge through his temples.
He reached down, fumbled for a hold on the material of her skirts and began pulling it upwards. Lucy did not resist, rather she encouraged him, her small fingers gripping his hands and dragging them over the contours of her hips. She backed towards the table and leaned against it with the garment bunched up around her waist. Her cheeks and forehead glowed with light perspiration. At the apex of her thighs, the hair wisped and curled in a dark triangle that was a magnet to his eyes.
‘Oh ‘Sano.’ She was breathing heavily. ‘You know I want you.’
Hassan wanted to touch her, but he hesitated. He was in the grip of feelings he could neither understand nor control, and it frightened him. His instincts were driving him to satisfy his passion but his reason was pulling him back. What if he gave her a child? Lucy was no woman of the streets and if she conceived he would be bound in honour to marry her whether he loved her or not.
She was clinging to him so fiercely that he had difficulty unfastening her hands from his tunic.
‘No, Lucy,’ he stammered. ‘Forgive me. This is not the time.’
For a few seconds Lucy gazed at him perplexed. Then her eyes filled with tears. She slid away from the table, rearranged her skirts and, clutching her untied bodice to her chest, fled in a flood of weeping from the room.
[to be continued]