King and Emperor by Harry Harrison. Chapter 19, 20, 21, 22

Solomon fell silent, hand going up to his beard as if for comfort. He had forgotten the furious spirit of the Northerners, and of the One King in particular. Was it wise ever to tell them anything? Too late, now, to reconsider.

Chapter Twenty-two

Dimitrios, senior siphonistos to the Greek fleet, listened to the orders of his admiral with doubt tinged with alarm. The orders were, of course, expressed with great care, somewhere between suggestion and persuasion. The siphonistoi were almost a law unto themselves, curators of the ultimate weapon of Byzantium, in their own opinion more important in the last resort even than emperors, let alone admirals. Dimitrios, if he chose, could make a fortune and live like a lord anywhere in the civilized world, Baghdad or Cordova or Rome, simply by selling the information in his head. A wife, a mistress, seven children and two thousand golden hyperpers in the banks of Byzantium stood forfeit to his treachery. But in any case the whole city knew that no siphonistos would ever reach mastery of his trade if there were the slightest doubt about his loyalty to the cause of Church and Empire: loyalty from principle, not compulsion.

That loyalty caused Dimitrios’s doubt. One of his greatest compulsions was to preserving the secrecy of the fire. Better to lose a battle by destroying one’s equipment, he had been told a thousand times, than to risk its capture for a purely temporary victory—all victories, for the beleaguered Empire of the Byzantines, had long been recognized as temporary. Now the admiral wanted him to risk a ship and a projector close inshore, in doubtful battle against Jews and strange heathens. Dimitrios was a brave man, who would take his chance of being sent to the bottom by the strange mule-stones, as the barbarians called them. Risking the fire and the secret were another thing.

“The small boats will go in first,” repeated Georgios cajolingly. “Only if they make a lodgement will we bring up your galley.”

“To do what?”

“If they can detach the booms you may be able to get into the harbor and burn out all the stone-thrower ships at once.”

“They’d sink us as we came in.”

“It will be black night, a thin moon, barely a hundred yards to row to the nearest. After that you can always keep an enemy ship between you and their catapults till you are close enough to pump the fire at them.”

Dimitrios considered. He had indeed been enraged at the sinking of the galley and the butchery of its men in the inconclusive battle at sea weeks before: an act of defiance which had left him for the first time in his career feeling helpless. It would be a delight to avenge that shame by burning every enemy ship to the waterline, as all enemies of Byzantium deserved. To show the devil-worshipers the power of God and his Patriarch. And close range and at night were exactly the right conditions for the use of his weapon.

“What if they don’t get the boom open?”

“You could pull along the stone jetty and sweep it of any resistance. That way you would have the jetty between you and the stone-throwers in the harbor. Clear the jetty and pull out to sea again in the darkness.”

Dimitrios thought carefully. There were risks in this, he could see, but perhaps no more than were justifiable. He would take his own precautions, of course, as the admiral certainly knew he would. Men standing by to fire the tanks, boats in waiting to collect himself and his crew if they had to abandon ship. No need to repeat all that.

Seeing him waver, the admiral added a final dose of flattery to win his supposed subordinate over. “Of course we know that the most important thing in our fleet is yourself. You and the skill you have developed. We dare not lose that to any barbarian. I will myself stand by in the rescue boats, to come in for you if there is any sign of mischance.”

Dimitrios smiled, a little mirthlessly. What the admiral said was true. But he had no idea how true. He himself, Dimitrios, knew the entire process of making the Greek fire from ground to nozzle, as the siphonistoi said. He had been beyond the Black Sea to far Tmutorakan, where the colored oils oozed from the ground. He had seen it in the winter, when the oil ran thin and clear, and in the stifling summer, when it came out like sludge from a foul farmyard. He knew how it was collected, he knew how it was stored. He himself had soldered the copper tanks with precious tin, to be sure there was no leak. He had built his own equipment with his own hands, lank and valves, brazier and bellows, pump and nozzle. Again and again, under the guidance of the old masters of the trade, he had fired up, pumped in the air, seen the flame flow. Three times his masters had made him pump on beyond the safe limit, using small and old devices and condemned criminals as pump-hands, so that he could hear the rising shrillness of the niglaros, the valved pressure-whistle, whose valve was opened to test the vapors within. He had looked with interest at the bodies of the condemned, to see what effect the bursting tanks had had upon them. Not one had ever survived, and Dimitrios thought they had chosen ill to take the siphonistos chance instead of sure but less painful death on the execution ground. He was acutely aware of every difficulty in the whole process, how much easier it was to have it go wrong than go right. Without him, he knew, mere knowledge would not be enough. It was his experience that was vital and precious. Good, at least, that the admiral had recognized it.

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