PUBLISHERS OF LITERARY FICTION SINCE 1983
Cover illustration: Lise Weisgerber
As we neared Venice, Brother Lodovico had a chest brought up from the hold. We had all seen it before, but not its contents. It was large, and iron-bound, and it took four men to heave it through the hatch, and two to slide it along the deck. When it stood before him, Lodovico produced a key from the folds of his habit, unlocked the chest, and reached into it. He pulled out a long gown of flimsy muslin, looked at it, shook his head sadly, then dropped it back in the chest. Then he tugged out a short jacket of figured silk, then a long brocade coat, then a fur hat trimmed with a feather. He dropped those on the deck, muttering to himself.
The dozen men who lounged on deck left aside their cards and dice, or nudged each other awake, pointing at the friar. Soon we were all watching. He called back the men who had brought up the trunk, and had them upend it, tipping its contents onto the deck. A rich cascade of slithering silk, soft velvet, striped cotton, flowered satin and stiff, white linen spread about the friar's callused feet, joined by tumbling hats, slippers, belts and boots.
'Ambassadors!' he said, looking up at us at last. 'It is time to get ready.'
We gathered round, looking, curiously but without enthusiasm, at the heap of gaudy clothing.
'You know your characters,' Lodovico said. 'You know your countries and the kings and princes you represent. Now you must dress like the men you are supposed to be. And remember! The rulers of the West will not take kindly to impostors. We must convince, all of us!'
There was a murmur from the men, but whether of agreement or dissent, I could not tell. Lodovico stooped, and reached into the pile.
'This is the sort of thing,' he said, lifting an embroidered robe and holding it against his grey habit. 'Anything fancy will make you look Eastern.' We held back. He waved the robe. 'Come on! Dress yourselves! Do you want the Venetians to see you for what you are?'
A few men shuffled forward and began to inspect the clothes. They tugged garments from the pile and held them up, feeling the rich fabrics. Some of them smiled, remembering, perhaps, the adage that a man is made what he is by the clothes he wears. By putting on those clothes they would make themselves better than they were. With luck, there might be no need to return to what they had been. A few of them discarded their own ragged and travel-stained clothes, and stood naked, or nearly so.
'Wait!' Lodovico said. 'Ambassadors should not smell like goats. You had better wash yourselves before dressing.' He called for buckets to be lowered over the side, and watched while the men sluiced each other then dried off, shivering in the breeze. 'Pay particular attention to your hands,' he said. 'They will be seen, and you should not look as though you have done manual work.'
I looked at my hands. They were scarred and grazed, with knobbly, swollen joints. Some of the marks were war wounds, which need not dishonour an ambassador, but much of the damage was done by the hard labour I did at Constantinople.
After washing, the Trapezuntine, who was at least Greek, put on some loose trousers and struggled into a tight silk coat with wide red and green stripes. His friend, representing Sinope, was a huge man with a full black beard. He put on a similar coat, which would not button up, and added a red hat, domed and trimmed with fur. The Trapezuntine snatched up an even grander hat, garnished with fluttering pheasant feathers. They capered and twirled, each mocking the other's pretensions, while Lodovico scowled.
'You may look the part,' he said. 'But you cannot play it. Ambassadors are grave men, they do not mince or prance!'
The two Greeks puffed out their chests, held their arms stiffly and attempted a dignified stroll along the deck.
'Ridiculous!' shouted Lodovico. 'Even the prostitutes in Venice could teach you a lesson in dignity!' The Greeks smirked. 'Not that I know anything of Venetian prostitutes,' Lodovico said. 'And nor should you. Steer clear of anything of that sort. Women will have the secrets out of you before you've had what you want out of them. Keep away from women. Remember who you are supposed to be. Be grave! Be noble! Practise!'
The Sinopite took the Trapezuntine's arm and led him, bowing and gesticulating, to the stern-castle. They would need all the dignity they could muster. Even in the West it was known that Sinope and Trebizond were all but lost to the Turks, and could deliver little, whatever their ambassadors might promise.
Lodovico turned from the Greeks and shouted to the rest of us in a language I did not understand. The other men put on the clothes they had chosen. I watched while the Persian, a small, dark man, wrapped himself in a spangled silk robe, then put on an embroidered waistcoat and a conical felt hat. The Mesopotamian pulled on a muslin shift trimmed with silk and gold thread, then wound a saffron-coloured turban round his shaven head, leaving a gap for his plaited topknot. The Mingrelian and Iberian, having little idea of what they were supposed to be, dressed themselves in whatever they could find. The Georgian, dressed in bright pantaloons and a short jacket, resumed his chess game with the grey-bearded Armenian, while the other ambassadors squabbled over the remaining clothes.
I held back, reluctant to dress up like a fool, though aware that the longer I delayed, the more absurd my costume would be. Lodovico approached me.
'You, too, must get ready,' he said, in his Tuscan Italian. He was fluent, and persuasive, in many languages, though not English. 'You must look like a Scythian.'
'How can I do that?' I asked. 'Scythia is just a name to me, a distant place of romances and legends.'
'That is its advantage. No one else will know anything of it either. Besides,' he said, pointing at the men clustered around the chest. 'Do you think they know their countries?'
'Some of them do.'
'Remember your oath,' Lodovico said, stroking his wooden crucifix. Though I knew him to be trickster, he played the simple friar when it suited him, and an oath was an oath, whomever it was made to. 'You promised,' he said. 'And I have done my part.' He pointed towards the bows, where a sailor was peering ahead, shading his eyes with a hand. 'We are nearly there, nearly at Venice.'
'You are to play the Scythian ambassador, as you agreed. You are to carry yourself gravely, and promise troops for the new crusade against the sultan.'
'In what language?'
'Any language you like, as long as no one understands it. I would not recommend English. But you know some Turkish?'
'Then speak in Turkish. Add some nonsense if you need to. I will translate everything you say. No one will know the difference.'
'He will,' I said, nodding towards the Karaman Turk who stood apart, glaring at the impostors with whom he had been obliged to associate himself. He alone was genuine.
'He won't give us away. He is in a difficult position. His master, the Emir of the Karamans, has rebelled against Sultan Mehmet, and is desperate for Western help. If he reveals our imposture his mission will fail, and I would not like to return to the emir under those circumstances. Or to the sultan, if he defeats the emir. The Turks use some very cruel punishments.'
'I know.' While we spoke the sky had filled with thin cloud and the wind had risen.
'Then you know how much you owe me,' he said. 'I got you away from them, and I brought you here.' He turned and gestured at the empty horizon, as though a wave of his arm could make Venice appear from beneath the sea.
'I got away from the Turks myself. You got me away from Trebizond.'
He turned back to me, touching his crucifix again. 'All you have to do is remember your oath and play your part.'
'For how long?'
'Until I am made patriarch.'
'You will be free to go.'
He walked away, reeling slightly as the ship pitched. Recovering his balance, he kicked a hat towards the chest with the skill of a Shrovetide footballer. The wind tugged at my clothes, reminding me that I should soon take them off. But what would I be without them? I had been a soldier, and fancied myself a gentleman, fitted out accordingly. I had been a pilgrim, penitent and humbly dressed. I had been a slave, and still wore the clothes I had escaped in. If I put on the dregs of Lodovico's clothes-chest, I would be no better than an actor, playing King Herod in one scene and Rumour in the next. But even actors are themselves, afterwards, in the tavern. Dressed as a Scythian, speaking Turkish mixed with nonsense, known by no one, I would be nothing.
I gripped the ship's side and watched the grey sea slip past the hull. The sky was growing darker. I shut my eyes and listened to the sea slapping against tarred planks, and the wind whistling through ropes and stays. Each time the ship slid slowly from wave to trough I felt the deck drop gently beneath my feet. With each fall, the timbers shuddered, groaning like a sick man lowered into bed. The ship's frame was twisting and creaking, fitting itself to the shifting shape of the sea. I knew that sound of warping wood. I had heard it before. It was in my father's house, where, each night, as a child, I had fallen asleep to the sound of green oak settling and drying, shifting in the wind.
I felt sick, but it was not the sickness the sea brings. It was the sickness of a man who longs for home, and knows that he will not see it without much trouble and danger.