39 The onset of the crusade - 1228
It was evening; an opale-coloured light, through which a springtime sun shed its golden rays, descended on the blue sea. The heat of the day had gradually decreased and a light breeze arose, which played along the coasts and wafted from shore to shore the fresh smell of saltwater.
A heavy galley, elegant in its form, was gliding amidst the first dew of night over the Mediterranean. In its wake, many more advanced swiftly and gracefully, leaving behind a glittering stretch of foam. Unhurried, the sun disappeared behind the western horizon; its indiscreet rays reappeared on the summit of every wave as the fleet moved on rapidly. Standing on the prow was a tall man of a dark complexion, who saw with dilating eyes that they were approaching a dark mass of land which rose from the midst of the waves. He had perhaps once before seen this island. During a time in his life that he had since long foregone. "Is that Cyprus?" he asked.
"Indeed," the captain said, "we've reached Limassol."
"We have reached it!" repeated Riccardo, shouting towards me as I stood on the main deck, conversing with Auguste. Swiftly, I moved to Riccardo's side. In the forthcoming dark, the cliffs seemed to rise up in an accent of indescribable solemness.
Then Riccardo added in a low tone, upon seeing the fragmented lights, "yes; that is the harbour."
I felt strangely elated. If all went accordingly, I could reassert imperial power within Cyprus before sailing towards the Holy Land.
I looked about the assembled men on the galley. Upon the deck, his figure halfway hidden by the mainmast, the tall build of Louis of Bavaria was elegant in staid blue, with his lustrous eyes and dignified, regal demeanour. Even the unkempt Auguste had a savage and overpowering presence as he briefly exchanged some words with a light-haired sailor. Some others sat on an improvised chairs by the forecastle.
Appearing upon the main deck was Maria Armann, who made straight for the captain. She was a dapper woman in her late thirties, wearing a grey shirt and green coat. The striking figure had shunned her corset and had donned herself in breeches. Leather boots lead up to halfway her calves. She reminded me of Gian del Richo on account of the brown hair that lay braided upon her back; the - depending on the weather - seemingly flecked copper eyes, and something innocent yet brooding in her face.
Next to me stood the mystery man that was Riccardo Travato, Sahar 'Aswad, or, Abu'l-Ghanâ'im al-Marzûbân ibn Khusrawfîrûz, irrespective of what name he claimed was his own. A vision with his full black hair blown back by the wind and gleaming brown skin, as if he had stepped out of a tale of One Thousand And One Night; standing upon the prow, his gaze on the southeastern horizon beyond which lay the lands he used to call home.
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Travato seemed too engrossed in his own thoughts to converse with, hence I left for the bridge. The sounds of the ship resounded through the air as I made my way across the vessel; the creak of wood, the rhythm of the oars thundering under the low rumbling of the giant canvas sails and the persistent crash of waves as they collided with the prow. Lanterns had been lighted. Their flames cast long moving shadows whenever they were passed by the men hustling about the deck.
Though I had long been opposed to personally joining the war in the east, I felt strangely elated. I had opposed the idea, but perhaps it was exactly what I needed to clear my head. War made me a simpler man with a sole objective and fewer thoughts in my head. I felt it working on me already; contemplating war strategies was so much simpler than everyday court life.
"You're smiling. Are you happy about leaving?" Violante had said two weeks before my leave to meet the fleet in Brisinsi.
I couldn't help but be affected by her distraught look. "No, of course not."
"I can come with you."
I had ignored the knot forming in the pit of my stomach at the thought.
Don't think about the fighting, my dear. Smile for me instead.
As if she had heard my thoughts, she did. A kind smile had curled her lips as she said; "when are you leaving?"
Shaking my head as if by such a physical renouncement may forswear the bitter recollection, I breathed in the salted draught in order to gather myself and looked up.
Phillip of Paleria was wearing the long cloak he had worn upon the day of our leave. His back was straightened and his hands leisurely held the balustrade; the brightly painted wood was ever so slightly chipped. Phillip's eyes were fixed on the sky, the lovely incandescent blue of the twilight and the multitude of brilliant stars overhead.
He caught notice of me as I ascended the stairs towards the bridge and said; "never from land do the stars look like that."
Our hair was lofted and strung by the wind as it got caught up in the breeze. I confirmed his melancholic statement, and, following his gaze, studied the horizon, arching my neck gradually in order to perceive the heavens above.
"How are you holding up?" He asked.
"Quite well. What about you?"
"Honestly?" He regarded me for a moment without pretence and turned his gaze back to the stars, "in the past years, we've had to meet no other difficulties than those few who arose among the aristocracy for their own ambitions. Seeing that you may become the master of Jerusalem in a few years, and shall depart whilst it is scarcely settled, it might appear reasonable that the region would rebel. It has been a land of conflict for many generations, and, frankly, I believe it will stay that way for years to come."
"You think you are the one to provide stability?"
"I could be."
"You are aware you are invading a country while claiming you aim for stability within the region."
"The irony isn't lost to me," I leaned myself against the balustrade and focused my eyes upon the horizon beyond Cyprus, "but stability is not our main goal."
"Is it not?" A knowing smile followed his response.
"Not necessarily. But before we discuss such subjects, do tell me again. Their policies, guidelines, stratagem. Tell me of the political sphere."
A deep breath resounded from the elder man beside me.
"The empire is governed around the concept of collective sovereignty; under this arrangement, there is one member of the ruling family who reigns supreme. The other administrators, known as shaykhs, are shifted and changed as the sovereign chooses. The difficulty in seizing such an empire is that a usurper cannot be called in by the princes of the empire, nor can he hope to be assisted in his designs by revolt. The ministers, being all bondmen, can only be corrupted with great difficulty, and one can expect little advantage from them when they have been corrupted. But, if once such an empire has been conquered, and routed in the field in such a way that they cannot replace their armies, there is nothing to fear but the ruling family, and, them being exterminated, there remains no one to fear." He regarded me;
"the contrary happens in empires governed as our own. You find yourself in the midst of an ancient body of lords. One could easily overtake you by gaining support from a part of the aristocracy, where one always finds malcontents and a desire for change in their better interest."
Phillip suddenly fell silent in the midst of his enthusiastic outpouring. Had he let himself get carried away, past the bounds of his habitual reserve? For a few moments, he seemed to be lost. Then his nerves grew calmer, his facial features recovered their usual icy composure, and turning to me:
"Now, your majesty," he said with sudden formality, "if you'd like to put my words to the test, I'm yours to command, as these regions soon will be."
In a few moments, I saw a great silver bay opening before us. The fleet cut their speed as we came closer. Our galley turned ever so slightly to the side and as we drifted on towards the docks, I saw the dim shape of the inns and houses and warehouses of the Limassol harbour and I could hear sailors on the surrounding banks as we berthed. The hundreds of the fleet either followed or lay anchor within the broad bay. Onlookers gathered on the moorages and ringing voices sprang up from them as they stood in the thin evening darkness looking out over the lanterns of the ships. Their language was a mingling of Greek and Turkish, which I understood only partly.
The sails were lowered and the rigs were hidden. The captain thundered his commands. The horses were pulled forth as the children that came running stole glances at us: the heralds of wartime.