Laughter brought me back from that vision of the deep, and from the memory of the Saracen at the market, back to the stinking hot afternoon and the company of my three fellow fishermen at the tavern. They were taking turns at mocking the admiral up on the harbour walls. It came to Gerontus’ turn. ‘The mighty Droungarios Stylianos – so brave he needs five hundred galleys to tackle a handful of pirates!’ He roared at his own joke and the others snorted and cackled too. But he noticed I was not laughing.
‘Kalliades? Are my jokes not good enough for you?’ he said with a sneer.
I was gazing into the dark unknown of my wine cup, unable to fully let go of memories of the storm at sea and the deep, inky whirlpool… the Saracen’s words. When one great power falls, it leaves a void. A chasm of great danger. And then I recalled what he had gone on to say.
‘It’s not just a band of pirates,’ I said.
All the laughter faded. ‘What?’ Lascaris said, his tone clipped, as if I had just told him there was no more wine left in all Byzantium.
‘There is a foreign fleet at large in the southern seas. Not pirates. An empire.’
Bardanes issued a hoot. ‘Too much wine for Kalliades.’
But I ignored him, my mind trawling over the Saracen’s words. ‘An Empire of God.’ I only realised I had spoken the words aloud when all three of my companions craned back in their seats, as if a red hawk had just flown from my mouth. With perfect timing, a heavy bell pealed from the huge dome of the Hagia Sophia, the sound tolling across the city’s seven hills. The sound of cantillating priest song arose from within the great church’s cavernous halls.
Lascaris clutched the Chi-Rho pendant hanging from his necklace. ‘Byzantium is the Empire of God,’ he said with something of a snarl.
I did not argue with him. For I too had been raised in this sacred city – an ancient capital where the Emperor of Byzantium was said to be God’s appointee on earth. As a child, I had been as devoted to the teachings of faith as any other.
‘And may God protect Byzantium, always,’ the tavern keeper interrupted, coming over to refill our wine cups, ‘but Kalliades here is right – it’s not pirates out there, it’s an empire, bonded by faith, more united than the Persians ever were. That’s why the fleet is being assembled in full. I’ve heard that the emperor himself is to join the expedition, and he’s bringing his elite Excubitors with him.’
‘The imperial guard?’ Gerontus cooed, one eyebrow arched.
‘And every legion that can be spared,’ the tavern keeper nodded towards the wharf side, where more regiments were shuffling through an archway to emerge onto the already-crammed wharfside. He chuckled as he mopped sweat from his neck with a filthy rag. ‘Only trouble is there’s been an outbreak of illness amongst the sailors. Hundreds of them are laid low with a foul gut-disease.’ He jabbed a thumb over his shoulder towards the stone latrine hut beside the tavern. ‘I was just in there and one of them was sitting across from me. My eyes were stinging, I tell you. It smelt like he had been eating thousand year old cabbages.’ He shook his head as if to scatter the memory. ‘Anyway, the fleet can’t sail until they have enough sailors.’
As the tavern keeper wandered off to pour wine for others, Gerontus lifted his freshly-filled cup in a toast. ‘Not our problem,’ he grinned then took a deep slurp. ‘Aaah!’ he sighed in contentment.
Bardanes pulled out a small wooden tavli board and laid it on the crate. ‘Who’s for a game?’ he said, laying out the polished stones on the board carefully.
Lascaris smirked, flicking his head towards me. ‘Kalliades will play you. Just try not to break his nose again when you catch him cheating like the last…’ he stopped talking, his eyes looking past my shoulder as if he had just seen the Virgin Mary walking. Gerontus too had turned ashen.
Bardanes and I shared a confused glance, then twisted to look behind us. There, at the bottom of the stony steps that linked the wharfside to the battlements, stood Droungarios Stylianos. He approached our table, flashing a grin of iron. ‘You four are fishermen, I hear? Sailors?’
I gulped, feeling my Adam’s Apple plunge and then shoot up again.