The following day, word came from the emperor’s flagship that the enemy had gotten wind of our movements and had taken fright, apparently. Some speculated that it was our skirmish a few days ago that had unnerved them, scattering them back to their desert country. Now the fleet was readying to turn around, to head back to Constantinople.
Home, I thought, feeling lower than at any point in my life before. The sailors would not speak with me, not even Gerontus and Bardanes. Without my few drunken acquaintances, what kind of life waited on me back in the stinking taverns? The wind roared and the sails bulged. Despite the squall, the heat was still fierce, the sun-bleached Lycian coastlands shining and winking with every wave we crested. Horns blared and the fleet began to tack round, drawing past a long rocky cape. Every groan of timbers and creak of ropes sounded like laughter at my expense. Often, I leaned against the rail and peered down into the sea, wondering what it might be like to thrown myself over. After all, what had I achieved in this sorry life? Then the worm in my heart wondered if I might instead leap overboard and swim to the nearby port of Phoenix to live as a drunkard there.
‘Kalliades,’ the boukinator snapped.
I swung round. He said nothing more, just jabbed a finger up towards the spar and a loose rope up there. The sail was free and flapping madly at that point.
Silently, I clambered up the mast and crawled along the timber spar, then when I reached the loose rope I let my legs drop either side of it. I took my time to fix the rope. Perhaps I could languish here for a while and avoid the sour looks of my crewmates? As the fleet passed the rock cape, I gazed into the hazy blur ahead where indigo sea met pastel blue sky. As the fleet turned we – the cargo ships – were in front for a time, and our vessel the foremost of them all. More, I was the only man up on the mast. I tried to imagine if this was what it must feel like for Emperor Constans at the prow of his golden flagship. It almost brought a wry smile to my face…
…and then I saw the Saracen trap.
Shalandiyya warships. Dozens. No, scores. No…hundreds of them. Like fangs the enemy fleet came, emerging from the haze, coming at an oblique angle for our disordered, turning fleet. They had been hiding behind the high rocky cape, waiting for us to pass. My eyes darted across them. My heart pounded like a war drum.
Silence. Horrible buzzing silence in my ears. I could not even hear the whistling sea squall so deafened with shock was I. I realised then that I – Kalliades the despicable drunken coward – was the eyes of the imperial fleet. My jaw flapped, my voice gone. ‘Ships,’ I panted. ‘Enemy galleys,’ I tried again, my voice swallowed by the roaring wind.
Just then another sailor shinned up beside me. A hoary old fellow. He didn’t even notice me there, because he saw what I had seen. At once, his old chest swelled and he boomed in the way I should have done. ‘The enemy fleet! They’re here!’