The city of Athens is never treated well by foreign invaders. The Persians destroyed it, the Romans sacked it, and everybody after them merely used it as a tool for their own purposes. So in 1419, it was the city of Florence that was taking its turn in history to oppress Athens.
It wasn’t all that bad. At least we enjoyed the protection of their military against the Byzantine Empire.
So it was on the Second of January 1419, at about 9 o’clock, that I was answering an urgent call by a firm I work for, called the “Fish shop”.
And the reason for such a silly name? Well, Athens is nearly next to the sea. The firm is based in the port of Piraeus, Athens access to the sea. The ancient Athenians had once built a set of walls to connect the city with the port, so that their access to the sea was not severed. But they had long since been destroyed.
The Fish shop was a cover for what we really were. An organisation run by Florence, recruiting private soldiers to fight a secret war against any enemies or potential enemies. And that is what I do.
Finding the fish shop is quite a difficult task. Most Athenian’s fished, or traded, Piraesus was simply awash with shipyards and boats.
I walked through the narrow streets, narrowly missing being run over by the many horses and traps that run through the streets. The smell of fish and spice drifted through the port, and a dense fog of the morning hung over. I finally got to ‘Acropolis Road’, the main road through Piraesus, and where most the fishing salt houses were.
I remembered that it was the seventh salting house down. The smell of fish was unusually bad around here. Nobody would ever suspect that the salting house was anything but what it looked like, especially (or hopefully) our enemies.
I went to the door and knocked four times, leaving three seconds between each knock. That was how we knocked so that somebody inside knew we were friendly. Three quick knocks meant that there was danger, or somebody was holding a knife against my neck.
The door opened, and I entered.
Inside, stood a boy, who probably was no older than twelve. Without warning, he stomped on the floor four times, the same way I had knocked on the door. After fifteen seconds, a section of the floor suddenly folded out, revealing a staircase.
I walked down the staircase. A few seconds later, the staircase folded back in behind me, worked by some secret mechanism. Following the staircase, I came into a small circular room. In the middle of the circular room was a long table, with three, well-dressed military men behind it. They looked up. The man in the centre did the talking. Hence, the name of our boss was the centre man.
“Private Eurilis Hellas of the Athenian Tenth, your goodness.”
“Twenty-three, your goodness.”
That’s another thing, you call your superiors your “goodness”.
The centre man looked down for a second, shuffling though a few papers, then he picked them up and handed them to me.
“Your assignment. Your commander has told me you are one of the best.”
“Well, the basic thing is, a Byzantine ambassador is visiting the city in the next few days. He is joining in the parade of the Epiphany, down the Panathenaic way. Florence wishes to go to war with the Byzantine’s, but understands that the citizens of Florence won’t be happy with it. If we succeed in assassinating their ambassador, and making it look like it was committed by us, but against our will, then the Byzantine’s may be pushed into declaring war themselves, but with our stability and reputation intact.”
I nodded. If I was caught, or failed, either way, I would be spending the rest of my life in Constantinople, being tortured in a cell. The centre man would make sure of that. If I succeeded, and escaped without being recognised, I would get a large pay packet.
“How am I supposed to make it look like it’s against our will?”
He looked into my eyes for a few seconds.
“Work it out.”
I left the way I came, memorizing what was on the sheets of paper, and throwing them in a fireplace on the ground floor. The boy opened the door for me to let me out.