The Blushing Sea
What is courage?
It began on a dog-hot August afternoon with those very words whistling through the yellow, peg-like teeth of Lascaris the fisherman. He was not my friend. In fact he was the most spineless rat I had ever known. That he, like me, was fond of wine and easy money made us companions of a kind. We fished for oysters and tunny out in the Propontis and made a fair living out of it: a week at sea followed by the next in the taverns. There were others too: Gerontus, bald and permanently scowling, and Bardanes, an ox of a man just as likely to outwit you at the tavli board as pummel you unconscious with his fists if he were to suspect that you might be cheating. The thing is, we all cheated. That was how we lived… back then.
Under a sun-bleached awning outside a crumbling tavern by the Theodosian Harbour, the four of us sat slouched on stools around an upturned crate that doubled as a table, nursing our cups of wine, watching the goings-on outside in the heat-warped streets. It was always one of the city’s busiest wards, the harbour waters choked with merchant cogs disgorging their cargoes of oil and grain and taking aboard new loads of hides, honey, wax and columns of sweating, bare-backed slaves. Smoke puffed from a meat-roasting spit, globules of fat splashing and sizzling. The harbour waters gurgled and sprayed against the wharfside like some sea creature taking a long time to drown. Bells clanged and traders cried out to the masses. But today was different, for the harbour was more swollen than usual – crammed with the galleys of the Imperial Fleet. Mail and leather-armoured regiments stood along the waterside, while commanders paced around up on the fortified harbour walls, barking down to the boats, and sailors yelled back.
‘Bring the supply ships to the wharf side first,’ one voice boomed above all others.
I squinted up at the harbour turret and the man up there responsible for the din. A bearded officer draped in iron scale and golden cloak, crested with a fine white helm from which jutted five successive spouts of plumage, red and blue in turn, each fluttering in the high breeze. Droungarios Stylianos, Admiral of the Imperial Fleet. There was something about him, not only his harsh voice, that always set me on edge.
‘Fill them before we call the soldiers and rowers to the galleys!’ he went on.
‘Listen to him,’ Gerontus chuckled – a laugh that carried not a trace of warmth. ‘Braying like a mule. The emperor calls the imperial fleet to arms and he thinks that makes him the master of all men, the essence of courage.’
That was when Lascaris uttered those fateful words, kicking back on his stool, toying with a splinter of wood between his hideous teeth. ‘What is courage?’ he mocked, then drained his wine cup and peered into it with one bulging eye and an inane grin. ‘Hold on, I’ve found it – at the bottom of my cup!’
Bardanes roared with laughter, casting a dismissive hand in the direction of the shouting officer. ‘I’d be brave too if I had a suit of steel and thousands of men to put between me and whatever pirates they’re going out there to find and crush.’
I smiled like the others, but while they joked and laughed, I could not help but think of something else. At market the day before, I had met a stranger. A pleasant fellow. But what he said to me, had chilled me to my marrow…