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Authors: Marina Fiorato

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At length Feyra could ease the dreadful pressure on her body, and look about her. In the quarter-light she began to examine the sacks and barrels, looking for insignia, searching for the deadly cargo that her father was to carry – anything to do with a horse, anything black. There was another strange thing: the supplies that crowded around her were good firm cheeses, quarters of meat, fine white flour, quite different to the usual shipboard fare of pemmican and ship’s biscuits. She extended her hand to the aft side and pushed
through the sacks, the grain below the canvas whispering as she pushed her fingers through.

As she watched the sailors come and go, she stayed as silent as she could, trying to still even her breathing. But it was not, it seemed, enough; one of the loaders set down his barrel and straightened up, holding out a hand, high and fingers splayed, to quiet his fellow.

‘What’s amiss?’ said the second, setting down his barrel likewise.

‘I heard a noise,’ hissed the sharp-eared one. ‘From the stack.’ He pointed to the barrels behind which Feyra lay. Her pulse thudded in her ears. The sweat from her fingertips clumped the grain.

‘Just a rat,’ said the second. ‘You’re hearing things.’

‘Just a rat? You should pin back your ears of cloth. Did you not hear our captain’s directions?
No animals aboard
– there’s not even a ship’s cat. So we’ll have to find it ourselves.’

‘Why no animals?’


I
don’t know. Something to do with the cargo.’

‘All right. Let’s look if we must, but the main payload’s still for loading.’

They came so perilously close that Feyra could smell a strong aroma of goat – one of the sailors was clearly a herder by day. The second, whose eyes were evidently better than his ears, looked directly at her. ‘Found it! Come ’ere, yer stowaway!’

Feyra shrunk back, but the fellow held high an enormous rat, black and slick as oil and shrieking in fright. The shipman snapped his neck for him and all was silence. He slung the long body over his shoulder like a draftsack and carried him out to the night, followed by his sharp-eared friend.

Feyra lay back burning with relief, heart thumping fit to leap out of her chest.

Then a thump and shuffle and a curse alerted her; the sailors had one more item of cargo to load. And it was heavy. She watched as they manoeuvred their burden, four men now carrying something on their shoulders like pallbearers.

A sarcophagus.

All the pallbearers were veiled. Feyra might have thought that they were showing respect for what they carried, but for their demeanour and language. The bearers heaved and bumped the box, moaning and uttering oaths in a way that convinced her that they could not possibly be carrying a body. The sarcophagus seemed to be made of silver or pewter, some metal that gleamed low and grey. It was enamelled all over with curling designs picked out in colour, and was taken, with much groaning and shuffling and instruction and counter-instruction, to the muslin curtain. The curtain was drawn back, the burden taken beyond, and placed on the planks with a thud.

The bearers retreated in somewhat of a hurry, taking the torch with them. In their wake, there was a sudden, intense silence. Feyra could still see the white glow of the closed curtain, white as a Dervish’s skirt, which had settled back into its fold.

Same as before, different than before.

For now Feyra felt the almost palpable menace emanating from the box behind it, somehow more terrifying and unsettling than anything she had witnessed that day. She looked at the drape, the colour of death, and at the rough, empty expanse of planks between her and it, and listened to the silence. It was pierced, brutally and suddenly, by the
high, unmistakable voice of the Kizlar Agha as he retreated down the gangplank.

Then there was a great shove and a cry, the splash of an immense rope into the wash, and the smell of burning hemp as the ship yanked from its moorings. Feyra’s stomach gave a lurch and a heave. There was no going back.

She was at sea.

Chapter 7

F
or the first few hours of the voyage Feyra stayed as still as she could.

She was aided in this by the pitch and roll of the ship for she was not sure she could have moved if she had wanted to. She had never been on a voyage before, never even been at sea for more than a pleasure cruise on Nur Banu’s gilded barge, never left the golden basin of the Bosphorus. It was all so utterly strange, this rhythm, this rise and fall of the seas.

At the fall of the hull her body felt weightless, and at the rise her back was pressed into the sacks with such pressure that her medicine belt pained her once more. She felt unsettled and panicky, finding the movement almost unbearable, the anticipation of each rise and fall nearly intolerable. The suspension of balance at the top of each arc, just before the drop, made her queasy. Now, for the first time, Feyra understood her father’s bearing when he returned from a long voyage. Little wonder that he was pale and sick for a few days after, his face the greeny-white of bone, his hands shaky, and he could not cross a room without pitching and stumbling over.

Feyra was a pragmatist. As her father had said many times, ‘It takes a day and a night aboard to get my sea legs.
It takes as long ashore to rid me of them again.’ She tried to regulate her breathing and in time she learned to make tiny adjustments with her body, to become used to the motion of the ship. She remembered the first time she had ridden a horse. Nur Banu’s own Mistress of the Horse had taught Feyra to rise and fall with the trot so that her body could compensate to make the ride smooth. And so it was here in this alien place.

After a while she felt able to sit, and push the heavy sacks above her away from her face and to either side. Then she noiselessly proceeded to make herself a nest among the freight. Below her was a mattress of canvas; on one side of her was the aft of the ship, a rough camber of clinker-built, overlapping planks; on the other a rank of barrels. The curve of the barrel bellies made a gap though which she could clearly see the hold and the distant curtain, while at the same time completely hiding her from view. Feyra calculated from the packing of the hold that she would be safe from discovery for a number of days, perhaps weeks; for there were numerous sacks, boxes and barrels between her hiding place and the deck hatch above. The seamen would take those first for their sustenance.

Feyra knew that it was imperative that she keep her presence hidden until a very particular moment in the voyage was safely past. She had seen her father mark this point on the maps and charts that he kept rolled in their map chest at home. As a girl she would watch as her father unrolled the great parchments on their table, took out his silver callipers and marked the path of his voyage. Feyra liked watching the callipers under her father’s hand, striding across the seas like a little silver manikin with pins for toes. At a certain point in his promenade the manikin would stop, one leg suspended
in the air, poised like a dancer. Timurhan would then press the downward point hard into the parchment, take the callipers away and mark the place with a neat cross. ‘There,’ he’d say, ‘the point of no return.’

The point of no return, she understood then and now, was the point at which you could not go back, but had to go forth. It was one of the most important seamarks in maritime faring; for if supplies were low, or battle broke out, or pirates gave chase, it was imperative to know if a ship could still turn about or if it were better to go forth. If Feyra could only be secret until halfway to Venice, they could not, then, turn the ship about. She would be on the voyage for better or worse, and share her father’s fate, whatever it was.

Dawnlight was bleeding through the cracks of the clinkers. Feyra applied her eye to the largest crack, and the salt spray and the winds stung her gaze. But she could see nothing beyond a heaving dun mass. The waters were no longer the deep blue of lapis and sapphires but dragon grey, humped like a beast, deep and dangerous. Even the sea was changed here. She had left behind everything she had ever known. Feyra suddenly wanted her father very badly.

Tears mingled with the brine but she blinked them away with lids suddenly heavy with fatigue. Once more the doctor, she counselled herself to rest. She had been awake since that last sunrise, a day away, a world away, when she had dressed herself so carefully before her mirror. As she sank down into sleep, her last conscious thought was that in the morning she would cross the rolling hold and draw back the white curtain.

And see what malign thing crouched behind it.

 

 

When Feyra woke she was aware of a terrible thirst, but could not, at first, lift her head for it banged like a drum. She raised herself to sit with an effort, in a repeat of her struggle to rise last night. Then the sea had sickened her. Today something was amiss with her body.

Her flesh was burning, her eyes unfocused, her head bursting. She had to drink. She remembered the fragment of an image, seemingly misty and far away, of a crescent of rainwater lying on the top of a barrel. With an enormous effort of will she forced her right hand to crawl along the sack, and raised it with difficulty to the top of the barrel beside her. She curled her fingers round the cooper’s band on the top into the blessed little pool. She trailed the fingers back to her lips and sucked the few precious drops of moisture.

When she took her fingers away she noted the tips were black. In the sliver of gilded morning light from the cracks in the shipboard she saw they were stained and dark, as though she had been using a quill and ink. There must have been tar in the barrel. Feyra sucked her fingertips again but the colour did not change.

It was the fingers themselves that were black as pitch.

Feyra was familiar with the symptoms of gangrene, but she had had no wound, no injury to invite the contagion in. No longer able to hold the hand before her face, she let it drop; and as she did so felt a searing pain in her armpit. With her other hand she felt above her breast in her armpit, and met a large swelling, round and swollen as a fig.

Feyra’s fiery skin grew cold with horror. She examined the lump with desperate searching movements, each touch the sting of a knife. Could she have a canker, such as some of the concubines had in their breasts? No – for she had never known such a malignancy develop overnight, and
besides, the peculiar menace of canker stones was that they gave no pain.

What then? Feyra knew that the pits and groin and throat swelled during illness, for the humours collected there like rainwater butts, but she had known nothing like this. She fell back, weakened by the shock, her body on fire again, her sweat running into the sacks beneath. From then on she knew little else.

She was dimly aware, in her more lucid moments over the course of the next few days, that people came and went. A lamp was brought to the hold each night to hang from a bracket so the quartermaster could see his supplies, and the lamp was gone again each morning. But soon Feyra became insensible of these changes, and lost track of how many times it happened, how many days had passed.

From time to time she heard herself crying out – talking, babbling, even singing. To begin with she was conscious of the need to be quiet when the deck hatch opened, and clamped her aching jaw closed. As time went on even this consciousness left her, and she cared not, wanting now only to be found; to be helped and cured and carried to her father, lest she die here alone and rot until the supplies grew low enough for her discovery.

Tears of self-pity ran into her ears and in time, after many lonely hours and days of vacillating between burning hot and freezing cold, she began to wish for death. She could no longer remember what it was like to feel well; health seemed another country, one she would never visit again. To will her recovery seemed far too great an effort. It was easier to die. She had finally reached the point of no return. She closed her eyes, hoping it was for the final time, and let herself drift …

Feyra found herself alone in a huge and airy room, mosaicked with milk white tiles smooth as an egg. In the centre of the room stood a coffin, clear as glass. She walked to it and knelt; leaning over she could see the old Sultan Selim encased in ice, dead, his eyes staring, his skin a watery blue. She placed her hands on the ice and they moistened and chilled at once. She was freezing. She had to warm her hands. She rose and crossed to the windowsill; a golden box lay there, winking at her in the sun. She took the box and was suddenly outside.

BOOK: The Venetian Contract
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