As I wound up the rope, I leant against the ship’s rail and gazed out across the fleet, each craft packed with regiments, the masts and spars studded with more diligent sailors than me. The foremost galleys were almost ethereal in the haze, shimmering in the sunlight, dipping and rising in the cobalt waters. I noticed dolphins leaping and playing near the fleet, as if travelling with us. Then I spotted a telltale flash of silver under the surface. A shoal of mackerel! I realised. But my spirits quickly sagged as I remembered where I was. You’re not a fisherman now, Kalliades.
Briny spray flecked my skin as we rode a few gentle swells, and the wind cast my hair across my face. I spotted him then, on the flagship – Emperor Constans. Like his glorious vessel, he was not difficult to pick out, clad in white armour and a purple cloak, his long golden hair flowing in the breeze, surrounded by his crack corps of Excubitors, armoured brightly, dripping with decorative pteruges and ostentatious plumes. He was to lead the galleys while Stylianos was to command these cargo vessels. Constans was a young man. Some said he was destined to be the greatest emperor ever to have lived. It was a stirring thought. But then who would not strive to be a great emperor, given the alternative? Constans predecessor had been deemed a failure. A mob had set upon him in Constantinople, sliced off his nose and slit the tongue of his wife – disfiguring both so horribly that neither would be able to return to power, for emperors must be physically perfect. After that, he and his wife were shipped off into exile on Rhodos. Some said the deposed emperor shambled around on his island prison wearing a false nose made of gold, wittering endlessly to himself – for his wife was now mute.
I managed to get through the first four days of our voyage like that. Taking up the easiest tasks on the ship. Hiding, pretending to be the thing Stylianos had asked me to be. At night, I would sigh and roll my shoulders, pretending to be as exhausted as the others. When the hard tack and wine ration was passed around, I always took more than my share. When I slept on deck, wrapped in a rough woollen blanket, I dreamt of what I would do when this was over. Back to the taverns, wine, women. On that fourth night I slept deeply. It was only in the depths of slumber that I began to dream of the storm at sea and the dark, cold void. But there was something different about it this time. A voice, terse, laden with terror. I awoke with a start.
‘Ships on the horizon!’ A sailor cried again from somewhere above.
I squinted up through sleep-encrusted eyes, seeing the fellow on the spar, peering into the dawn light. My blanket slid off as I rose shakily to my feet. It was freezing this early. Lascaris, Gerontus and Bardanes rose too, as did the other sleeping crewmembers.
I blinked, eyes still bleary as I stared into the half-risen sun, seeing the shapes emerging from it. Blotches… getting sharper. Ships.
‘Shalandi,’ one of the crew whispered to himself.
I had heard the term before. War galleys, but different from the Byzantine dromons. These were higher sided, like floating castles. Five of them, slicing towards us. Each sported a golden pole at the prow, bedecked with bright banners whipping in the wind. The triangular sails were decorated with strange script and patterns. The decks were packed with men, glints of iron. And then I realised the full horror of the situation.
All around our fat, awkward Pamphylos, was empty sea. Just six other Byzantine vessels were nearby: four other cargo ships and two war dromons.
‘Where is the rest of the fleet?’ Lascaris wailed.