The Tiger and the Cauldron(ch10)

Chapter 10

Hassan waited, trying to calm his racing heart, until the last faint sound of her footsteps had died away. He did not know whether to be glad or sorry at her reaction, whether to be proud or ashamed by his forbearance. When all seemed quiet, he made his way to the door and having made sure there was no one outside, quit the chamber. To his embarrassment, he encountered Giovanni on the stairs leading to his own room. They were barely wide enough for two and he squeezed past rudely without a word of explanation or greeting.

On the morning of his departure, Lucy was absent from breakfast, claiming to be unwell, and he did not see her again. Giovanni accompanied him to the Arsenal where he apologised for his rude behaviour. He was not asked for an explanation nor did he offer one. They had embraced and he had gone aboard ship.

*

Suddenly the Venetian Trader was a bustle of activity as the men who had boarded from the small boats were joined by others. Hassan’s objective was to find the merchant banker for whom he carried a letter of introduction, but he had no idea how to go about it. He was surrounded by a miscellany of races – Italian, Greek, Turkish and Slav – and a babble of tongues and dialects, most of which he understood poorly or not at all. The banker, he had been told, did business with more than one commercial house and would be certain to present himself to the ship’s master or supercargo. However, in the present turmoil, Hassan could see neither of the two officers, nor anyone who might fit the description of businessman.

He had been used in his childhood to the cosmopolitan nature of Tabriz, with its mixed population of Persian, Arab, Jew and Mongol, and to its bazaars where Western traders dealt with Indian, or Africans with Chinese. However, though he had often ventured into the city alone and had been thrilled by the excitement around him, he had always been a mere spectator and never truly a part of the community itself. He was a boy filled with wonder, but one secure in the knowledge that he was the adopted son of the country’s ruler.

Alone now in a strange port, his confidence began to evaporate. He could not remain indefinitely on board, and, if the person he sought had not come to meet the ship, how was he to find him in such a large city? As he moved towards the gangplank, looking around frantically for a familiar face, he caught sight of the supercargo among the crowd of people on the quayside. He called out, but his voice was drowned amidst the creaking of the ship’s woodwork and the shouts of the strangers around him.

Just as he was beginning to panic, he felt a hand on his arm. Thinking it might be someone trying to steal his purse, Hassan gripped his sword hilt. He turned sharply with the weapon half drawn. Behind him was a little stout man who beamed up at him from a cherubic face. He wore oriental clothing – a plain brown jubbah and a brown cloth turban.

‘Please, signor, replace your sword,’ he said in very bad Italian. ‘I mean no offence.’

‘What can I do for you, sir,’ said Hassan. He slid his sword back into his belt and bowed politely.

‘One of my associates pointed you out to me,’ said the man. ‘You are on the business of one of my principals, il signor Maffeo Polo?’

‘That is true,’ said Hassan, much relieved. ‘My name is Assano di Montecervino.’

‘Aristides Kallergis, at your service, signor,’ rejoined the other. ‘Perhaps you will know the name. You have some means of identifying yourself?’

Hassan drew Maffeo’s letter from beneath his tunic but hesitated a moment before handing it over. He knew the name Kallergis, and in truth the little man’s smile inspired trust, but in his short life Hassan had learned to be cautious. A thief might easily impersonate a genuine contact.

Kallergis seemed to understand his predicament.

‘I see you are indeed wise for a young man, Master Assano,’ he said. ‘But you need not be concerned. Any dozen about you here on the main deck or on the shore will vouch for me.’

Hassan’s grip on the letter relaxed.

The little man took it from him, broke the seal and quickly perused the contents. ‘My place of business is but a short walk,’ he said after a moment. ‘There we can break bread together, and you may inspect the ledgers. After we have settled our outstanding affairs, I have others to see – some of your companions on the voyage. Tomorrow it will be my honour to show our city to you. You have not been here before?’

‘Once, with my mother and stepfather,’ said Hassan, ‘but I was very young.’

‘And of course you are an old man now!’ Kallergis beamed again. ‘But come, and you can tell a really old Venetian about life in the Serene City.’

‘Venetian?’ said Hassan. ‘Your pardon, sir, but I took you for Greek, or Turkish.’

The other glanced down at his plain jubbah. He adjusted the turban.

‘My pardon is unnecessary. This is Byzantium! It is once again a Greek city, but there are many races here. You will have heard of the Crusade, when Constantinople fell to the Latins. It was before my time, naturally, but many families are descended from those who occupied the city as well as from those who fell. I myself was born on the island of Crete, a Venetian dominion, and spent many years in Venice before settling in business here. It’s all very confusing, I know. For a time, we were a Roman province, but now we are Byzantine again! This clothing I wear from choice. It is comfortable in warm weather.’

‘I do not know all your history,’ Hassan apologised, ‘and if time permitted I would be happy for you to explain it to me. But I am anxious to be on my way, and can spare no more than a day or two for sightseeing.’

He realised he had made an error. He had not intended to divulge his plans so soon and to a stranger. The Venetian Trader would be remaining in port for a week. If he were travelling with it, there would be plenty of time to see the city. Now he had hinted that he intended to do otherwise, to travel by land across Anatolia.

He had come to no firm decision about what he would do on reaching Persia. Should he go to Ghazan and offer him his services, or rather seek out the rest of Arghun’s family? Oljeitu would be nearly sixteen, old enough to command a squadron; and little Doquz, older still, who had been the gentle though often stubborn playmate of his early childhood – what had been her fate, he wondered –  married perhaps to some officer in the militia, or to a rich emir’s son, bearing children before she had even lived?

There were the visits he had to pay for his mother’s sake – to his grandfather in Kerman, to the old priest who had sheltered them during their flight from Tabriz and, of course, to his Uncle Shirazi of Maragha. Perhaps he would spend six months at the Observatory. His years there as a scholar had been among the happiest of his childhood, and there was so much about the world, its history and its peoples he still had to learn, so many sciences he had only begun to wonder at. Afterwards, he would travel – to Persepolis and Ctesiphon, capitals of the ancient empires, to Baghdad and the Fertile Crescent, and to Hormuz and the Great Arabian Sea. Then, at the end of two years, he would return to Venice.

These were his thoughts, yet more than once he had asked himself why he had left the family he loved to go on a quest with no foreseeable end. Was it that the Kuh-e-Sahand, in some mystical way, held her sons in her power so that no matter how far they travelled they were always drawn back? If that were so, free choice was an illusion and he was helpless in the arms of Fate.

He snapped out of his reverie to see Kallergis looking at him strangely.

‘It is your business alone,’ the merchant banker was saying. He shrugged. ‘Young men are always in too much of a hurry, if I may say so. I pray you, make no more decisions on an empty belly. You will need fresh food after that long sea voyage, and I have the very place where we can enjoy some together. Perhaps even a jug or two of wine.’

He took Hassan by the arm before he could protest and led him to the gangplank. They disembarked into the noisy, hustling crowds.

Seen from close up, the walls of Constantinople were indeed forbidding, and Hassan wondered that they had ever been breached. As they passed through the gate, he caught his first glimpse of the great church of St Sophia. Though he had been raised a Muslim and had not embraced the Christian faith despite his four years in Venice, he had learned to respect Christian beliefs. He had marvelled at the monuments that Christians had raised to their faith and their God, both in Venice and in Rome, but this building took his breath away.

‘You mentioned fellow passengers,’ he ventured as he stopped to admire the structure. ‘Should we not wait for them?’

‘They are attending to their cargo, and will follow shortly. They know the way. In any case, I suspect more than one has a mistress in Constantinople. We may have to wait for them a little longer.’

‘And there is my luggage.’

‘That has been taken care of and will be brought to my house. You are my guest!’

*

Kallergis’s place of business was in the upper floor of an old house with flaking plaster walls and a plain door that had sunk on its hinges so that it pressed down on the threshold. It opened with difficulty.

A spiral stone staircase of well-trodden steps led from the living quarters to a room that, though scarcely more than a garret, was at least clean. The ceiling was in one section, of plastered brickwork and slightly domed, with none of the low wooden beams that formed the structure of Venetian buildings. Three or four volumes bound in tattered leather were piled one on top of the other on the floor. A single chair and lectern were the only furniture. In one wall was a door of shoulder height. There were two keyholes.

Though the room was open with no outer door, Hassan felt shut in. It reminded him of the cell in which he had once kept his toys and games. The single tiny window opened onto a view of the roofs of the surrounding buildings.

Kallergis did not seem to notice his discomfort. He casually turned over the ledgers until he came to the third, which he opened and placed on the lectern.

‘You will see that everything is in order,’ he said.

Hassan, who had had merely one hasty lesson in bookkeeping before leaving Venice, followed the agent’s finger as he ran it down the page. As far as he could tell, the addition in both columns was correct and, certainly, the sum shown as the balance to the right was the one he had been told to expect. He reached for his purse and counted out the amount in Venetian coin.

‘Now, if you’re satisfied,’ the little merchant banker said, beaming up at him once more, ‘I believe you have something else to show me.’

He started back as Hassan drew his sword, but then laughed heartily. Hassan twisted the pommel to the right. It came away in his hand to reveal a small cavity from which he withdrew a brilliant blue stone.

‘Young and hasty perhaps, but careful too.’ Kallergis took the jewel and studied it. ‘Mmm … excellent,’ he muttered. He reached below his robe and produced a brass ring from which hung two heavy keys. He inserted them one after the other in the locks of the low door and swung it open to reveal a closet filled with boxes. Open bags of silver and gold coins lay all around. Hassan recognised among them Persian dinars and royals, as well as the currencies of Venice and Rome. There was also a flat tray on which several small jewels glistened – diamonds, sapphires, opals and some others that were unfamiliar.

‘Your sapphire is a fine example,’ smiled the banker, ‘worth four gold pieces of our money.’

‘Eight, sir, if I’m not mistaken.’

‘There is more about you than meets the eye, signor,’ said Kallergis. ‘There will be little profit for me but I’ll give you five. Gold pieces are gold pieces anywhere, and you won’t need to exchange. What do you think of that?’

‘I think it is worth more,’ Hassan rejoined. ‘Perhaps I should take it back.’

‘You would drive a hard bargain,’ the banker said jovially, but Hassan noticed there had been a slight narrowing of his eyes. ‘No one in the whole world will give you eight for it, and Constantinople thinks the whole world is mad! I’ll offer six.’

Hassan considered. Six royals was a good price, and the money would be of more use to him than the stone, yet Giovanni had always impressed upon him the value of bartering.

‘I will take seven.’

‘You have a good head for business, Assano,’ said Kallergis after a pause during which he rubbed his chin and looked very pensive. ‘Suppose we agree six in gold and half the difference in Persian silver?’

Trying not to betray his satisfaction at the success of his tactics, Hassan held out his hand as a gesture of acceptance. Kallergis shook the hand enthusiastically. He laid the sapphire in the tray beside his other stones, then counted six royals into his palm. These he gave to Hassan who pushed them into his own purse. Next he picked up a handful of silver dinars and counted fifty into an empty canvas bag.

‘That should settle matters between us,’ he remarked. ‘And now, once I have made up the ledger, we should have something to eat.’

[to be continued]

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