Compared to the upper room, the residence below was luxurious. The walls and floors were decorated with fine oriental carpets and tapestries. The chairs were skilfully carved and upholstered with silk cushions, while on cabinets and small tables were displayed colourful porcelain plates, vases and ampullae. The beds were draped with satin covers.
In an alcove between living room and kitchen was a long, oaken and highly polished table which was already laid for a meal. Sitting at it were two passengers from the Venetian Trader along with a man Hassan did not recognise, a coarsely dressed fellow who seemed out of place in such surroundings. All three had their plates piled high with food.
‘Well, Master Assano,’ said the younger of the two merchants of Hassan’s acquaintance. ‘Are you still determined to shun our company for the rest of the voyage?’
‘I have no objection to your company, Master Vittorio, or to yours, Mario,’ Hassan rejoined, seeing that his plans were a secret no longer. ‘It is only that my business takes me to Maragha.’
‘Then you would be well advised to travel with us and approach Persia from the north,’ advised Mario, the elder of the two Venetians, a pale, nervous man of about forty years of age.
‘Why is that?’
‘The roads through Anatolia are no longer safe, it appears.’
‘No, Assano – according to our friend here.’ Vittorio turned to the coarsely dressed man.
The stranger nodded brusquely. He had a pockmarked face but was otherwise not unlike Kallergis in appearance. ‘It’s all due to the accursed Seljuks,’ he said. ‘Fewer travellers dare risk the road to Trebizond since half a year or more. Even Muslim merchants are less inclined to take the route from Bursa without an armed escort. And few enough mercenaries are willing to risk their lives against Ertugrul’s Raiders.’
‘Ertugrul’s Raiders,’ echoed Vittorio. ‘The name has a dangerous ring to it.’
‘And their dangerous reputation is well deserved,’ said the coarsely dressed man.
‘There you go again, Brother,’ interposed Kallergis. ‘Frightening my guests with your tales of bandits and outlaws. There have always been bandits in Anatolia.’
‘You may laugh if you like, Aris,’ the other retorted, ‘but it’s no longer a laughing matter. These Raiders are more than just bandits. Not content with assaulting caravans, they now engage in piracy in the northern Aegean.’
‘The Venetian Trader encountered no pirates,’ said Mario doubtfully.
‘Then you were fortunate,’ replied the other. ‘That doesn’t mean they’re a myth!’
‘But who are these raiders and pirates? Who is this Ertugrul, and why is it none of us has heard of him?’ Vittorio asked.
‘It has all happened within the space of a few months,’ the banker answered. ‘Ertugrul rules a tiny emirate west of the border with Mongol Persia. He has ambitions. He cannot expand his territory eastwards, so he does so westwards. But my brother Alexius exaggerates as usual. These Raiders are no threat to Byzantium.’
‘Don’t you believe it,’ said Alexius Kallergis viciously. ‘This Ertugrul and his son Osman are dangerous fanatics who hate Christians. The travellers’ route does not pass through their lands, but it’s close enough for them to demand tribute at spear and sword point. Those that refuse have their throats slit.’
‘Then I’m glad I’m sailing with the Trader,’ said Mario nervously. He began picking at his food as if he had lost his appetite.
‘But what about the Mongols?’ Vittorio asked. ‘Do the troops of the Il-khan no longer patrol the corridor.’
‘The Mongols have retreated east,’ said Alexius. He at least was not put off by his own talk of bandits and drained a goblet of wine. ‘There are rumours of civil war. Persia is descending into chaos once again. Some say it’s worse than in the days of Genghis Khan.’
Hassan listened with interest. The talk of pirates and raiders stirred his blood. He had crossed the seas in the hope of adventure and it seemed there might be adventure in plenty ahead. There was something too that touched him on a personal level.
‘Civil war, sir?’
‘Gaikatu Khan’s dead, or so I heard,’ Alexius said. His tone was hostile. ‘Slain by his own generals. These Mongols murder one another for sport. Now it seems a brother or a cousin is trying to take over.’
‘Baidu,’ cried Hassan. Much as he loved his mother and respected her wisdom, he had not taken her warnings too seriously, though he knew her strange visions could indeed sometimes afford her tiny glimpses of things to come. So it was true, what she had guessed. Gaikatu was dead.
Four pairs of eyes turned towards him.
‘Aye, Baidu. And he is more deviant than the last!’ Alexius frowned and spat out the words. ‘Devil take him and the Mongols, and all Persians and Seljuks. Would that there were a new crusade to wipe these unbelievers from the earth!’
Hassan’s neck prickled and he felt the blood flooding into his cheeks. In his four years in Venice, he had had no inclination to adopt the Christian faith. Even Giovanni, who might have pressed him into a conversion, had not done so, saying that faith was a matter a man should decide for himself. It was one thing for Nadia, married to an Italian nobleman, to be baptised into the religion of her husband; it was quite another for him to discard the beliefs of his forefathers, even when there were some he did not share.
Though he had heard Venetians occasionally express anti-Muslim sentiments, their voices were never filled with the same venom as he had just heard in the words of the banker’s brother. He had instinctively disliked Alexius and the twisted hatred in the scarred face only fuelled his prejudice. Could he leave unanswered such an insult to his whole people?
Without thinking of what he was doing, his hand strayed to the hilt of his sword. However, he felt another hand restrain him and, looking down, he saw that Aris Kallergis had taken hold of his wrist. The merchant banker was beaming as usual but Hassan saw that through the smile, his eyes were serious.
‘You’ll forgive my brother,’ he said with a warning glance at the sword. ‘He sees everything in black and white. With him it’s all Greeks and Turks, Muslims and Christians.’
‘There speaks the merchants’ wisdom,’ Alexius scoffed. ‘But you’ll see, Aris. Come the day, Ertugrul’s heirs will rule Constantinople, and much beyond.’
‘I still say you exaggerate,’ the banker said calmly. ‘Perhaps the Turkish emirs exact a few dinars as payment for free passage, but these other tales are just hearsay.’
Alexius shrugged. ‘Hearsay or not, it’s nothing to me,’ he said. ‘I’m too used to the comforts of the city to exchange them for the perils of the wilderness. But I could name at least two honest Christians who will vouch for the stories’ truth!’ He turned to his plate and began wolfing down the mountain of food on it.
Taking this as a cue, Mario and Vittorio too returned to their meal, though the former at any rate seemed half-hearted in his appetite. The banker took his place at the head of the table and motioned Hassan to sit beside him.
Hassan’s anger cooled. The food was plentiful and he was hungry. He helped himself to a selection of meats, half a loaf of bread and some dates. From time to time, as he ate, he could sense Alexius watching him intently. Kallergis’s brother had finished his meal before any of the others and sat with both elbows on the table, his broad face resting in the palms of his hands.
‘So you intend to journey across Anatolia, young man?’ The voice had lost some of its hatred.
‘That is indeed my plan, sir, and it seems now I am likely to have to make it alone.’
‘Take my advice,’ said Alexius. ‘Accept my brother’s hospitality for a week, then travel on by ship.’
‘Thank you for your good advice, sir,’ Hassan said as politely as he could. ‘But I am determined.’
‘Then it’s entirely your business,’ said Alexius sourly.
Hassan retired early to a room the banker had prepared for him. His box had already been brought there from the ship. He unfastened it and took out the item that lay on top of his clothing and other effects – his Mongol bow. He strung it, fitted the thumb ring and drew the string several times to test its tautness. As he was doing so, there was a tap on the door. He hastily stowed the weapon back in the box, undid the latch and opened the door to reveal Kallergis himself.
The little banker’s familiar beam was present but there was something new in his manner, a kind of furtiveness which Hassan thought inappropriate for a man who is master in his own house. With a hasty glance to left and right, he slipped inside the room.
‘Is everything to your satisfaction, Assano?’ he enquired pleasantly.
‘Yes, sir. Thank you.’
‘And you will forgive my brother’s outspokenness? You would have quarrelled with him, I think.’
‘I thank you for restraining me. I am the guest here.’
‘Yet your reaction was understandable. It must be difficult to hear your people insulted in that way.’ The banker tapped the side of his nose. ‘Oh yes, I know who you are, Assano. If your complexion and my principal’s letter was not enough, there was the advice of Master Umid Malikshah.’
‘You are acquainted with Umid?’
‘There are few along the Silk Road and beyond who are not,’ said Kallergis. ‘Of course, I mean among men of business. And I count it an honour to be one of his best customers.’ He gave one of his more expansive beams and indicated the colourful rug that lay between bed and lavatory. ‘There are many fine carpet-makers among the Turks and Kurds, but they cannot surpass in my opinion the work of Kerman. I have a few of Umid’s samples about the house.’
To hear his mother’s friend spoken of in such complimentary terms made Hassan lose the last vestiges of his annoyance at Alexius’s savage outburst. He had already decided that the banker was an honest man and that his bonhomie was genuine, and it was a relief to learn he no longer needed to keep up a pretence in his company. For the first time in weeks he was able to smile.
‘And what did Master Umid say of me, sir?’ he asked.
‘I wonder if I should tell you that!’ replied Kallergis good-humouredly. ‘It is maybe three years since he told me the tale of your flight from Persia. Then twelve months later he was back in Constantinople. ‘You’ll meet the boy one day, I feel sure, Aris,’ he said. ‘He has been adopted by an Italian gentleman, but Persia is in his blood. Do not mistake his mild, solemn appearance. He is sharp-witted and fierce as any Tartar when roused.’ It was meant as a compliment, I’m sure.’
‘I take no offence,’ said Hassan, laughing at the other’s attempt at mimicry. Even allowing for translation, Umid would never have expressed himself in such a way.
‘But your secret is safe,’ the banker went on, touching his nose again, ‘ … even from my brother. He’s not a bad man, you know, but he endured the siege of Acre by Sultan Ashraf. That has shaped his outlook, I fear. Now, as to your plans …’
‘You can assist me?’
‘Alexius is right in one respect, Assano,’ said Kallergis. ‘Robbers do waylay travellers; no journey is without risk. But, equally, ships are caught in storms and sink. There are caravans. Some weeks, more than one. They travel with escorts, many of them Crusaders who have fallen on hard times, and anyone who can use a sword is doubly welcome. There’s one leaving the day after tomorrow for Herat – from the Square of St Sophia. Among the guides will be an Englishman, Robert Brackley. He’s a rogue, I fancy, but has a good reputation hereabouts.’
‘Then I’ll join this caravan.’
‘You may stay with me until then, Assano. Tomorrow I will show you part of Constantinople. We can both have our wish – for you a speedy departure, for myself an opportunity to boast of my city.’
‘Believe me, the fears are exaggerated. Nevertheless, one piece of advice I hope you will take, my young friend. Guard your money well. Thieves come in all guises and you may have learned already that a man’s honesty is not always determined by his faith.’
[There will be another instalment of The Tiger and the Cauldron in a few days]