Vittoriosa, 1487. Long before the Knights of St John found hospice on the island of Malta, long before the Ottomans found a threat in the tiny rock and decided to attack. A harbor city, used by merchants and terrified of pirates, particularly the dreaded Dogs of Islam.
The church of San Lorenzo a Mare rang its bulls dully, the tower one of the only things to be seen for miles. Life at its foot started to rumble into existence, as doors creaked open and men left the warmth of the fireplace for winter air and the living they had on the docks or building new structures. Boys watched their fathers go, the teenagers knowing that one day it would be them walking towards the job that would define them for the rest of their lives. Girls sat with their mothers in the kitchen – or in the tiny part of the one-room home they called the kitchen – and started to follow her instructions: “Kneed the dough, shape it right, put it in the oven to make bread!” And do it over and over again…this is what you’ll be doing for the rest of your life as you try to feed ten hungry mouths.
Antonio De Bono strolled down to the docks leisurely. Today, a multitude of flags coloured the sky: new merchandise had crawled its way into the port, and his imgħallem would need him to help unload and sort all the boxes before they went through customs. Antonio was strong; he was young, the priest told him that he was seventeen. He trusted what the priest said: he had no knowledge of numbers; he had no idea when his birthday was and he didn’t care. He was old enough to have a job, and next year he would get married, and then he would have money from this job to keep a family. And he would be happy. Well, he thought, as happy as I’m supposed to be.
He shook his head and decided to focus on the job at hand: he had to move a lot of boxes today to the warehouse before they were put through customs, and he was almost at the port. He walked up to his boss, Salvatore Selvaggi, and stood behind him, waiting for orders. Salvatore had come to Malta from Italy, and had taught Antonio all he knew. Antonio had been working at the docks for a few months, and in those months he had learnt the necessary Italian, courtesy of his master. And even with his limited knowledge he knew that what he was hearing was a rant.
“So he’s coming in early? But I only have two of my usual workers here!” the angry Italian man shouted at a nervous looking Moor. For a short man, the Italian was still very violent and very scary when he wanted to be. He had a rather hairy body, making him look almost like a were-rat, however bald his head was. Completely and utterly bald. Antonio scratched at his head of black hair beneath the red cap his mother had sewn for him. He was glad he still had hair.
Salvatore sighed and glared at Antonio. He breathed in deeply before starting to speak in his broken version of Maltese. “You, strong boy, go help, right?” Antonio nodded, eager to show his master he meant business – maybe he could get a higher position than just a broken-backed-mule. Salvatore nodded back and walked off, the other worker following eager behind. Antonio looked at the moor, who grabbed his arm and pulled him along.
“My master, his Maestro is coming in right now! You must help us!”
“Does he want me to take off merchandise? Or does he have something waiting for him here?”
“He has very important boxes waiting for him on land!”
“What is your master’s name?”
“That’s not very important, is it?” the Moor seemed nervous, almost as if he was afraid of even thinking about his master’s name.
“I need to refer to somebody by name if I’m going to get the boxes from the warehouse, sir…” Antonio nervously retorted, sensing that something here wasn’t right, something like this wasn’t normal.
“All will be clear to you in time, all right? Just come up on board with me!” the Moor dragged him up the gang plank and onto the ship’s deck. Antonio looked around, at the motley crew and termite-free wood, at the well constructed vessel and boxes of merchandise already on the deck, and then turned his eyes back to the Moor. But he wasn’t alone.
A man wearing purple stood next to him, his face partially covered by the hood from his cloak. His hands were gauntleted, fine brown leather, and his legs were clad in what Antonio took to be the finest boots a man could buy in this time and age. The man nodded at the young Maltese and came forward, holding a piece of parchment out to him. “Can you read?”
“No worries. One of my crew members will come with you to the warehouse. I have…very valuable information in there for me to take with me to Istanbul. Be careful with these boxes, right?”
Antonio took the piece of parchment and, as the merchant called over yet another Moor, Antonio searched his memory for the information Selvaggi had once given him. There is a man, he had said, who is an enemy of this island. He is giving away information to the Dogs of Islam. When he comes, you will know him. He will have no name, only a majestic ship, filled with royal colours. And you, you are to tell me as soon as you know about this man.
Upon arriving back on land, the Maltese boy told the Moor to go to the warehouse, and wait for him there. He ran to the West side of the harbour, hoping to spot Salvatore on time.
Back on the ship, the Merchant stood in the crow’s nest, observing the tiny island before him. He had come here years before, but it never failed to captivate him, the way the church stood out or the way the people knew so many languages because of their life so close to the harbours. He looked below him at the crew, and then at the warehouse which he could see clearly. His Maestro, as he liked to call his ship, had been built especially for him, with a very large hold (though it may not show it) so as to keep all the important things away from sight of the eager thief. He did have silk, maybe a bit of metal and a lot of leather, but his real cargo was more precious than that…
As the merchant gazed on, his mind wandering to thoughts of the next port, the next country he would gather cargo from, a crowd was beginning to form near his gang plank. His crew started to shout at them to stay away, but figures carrying swords soon came onto the deck, brandishing the metal to scare away anybody close to them. One of them, a nimble man, climbed up to the crow’s nest and caught the merchant’s attention.
“Did you really think you could get away with this?”
Antonio, back on land, quickly kicked open a box that should have been loaded onto the merchant’s ship. Papers lay inside, papers filled with what looked like drawings and diagrams of forts and harbours. Antonio turned to Salvatore, who pointed at the scribble at the top of the page. “That says Birgu. And that’s the name of this town. That scum was going to sell this to pirates in Istanbul, probably was going to get a fine sum of money for it too.”
The so-called scum was dragged onto land, his hands held behind his back, his face exposed to the world. Antonio never knew a face so Maltese: it looked too much like any other man on the island. What’s more, he was screaming in Maltese, his curses falling on deaf ears. Antonio sighed and looked down at the map in his hand, rubbing the fine parchment between his dirty, stubby fingers.
How much was he going to be paid, to betray his country? It must have been a delightful sum of money…
“You did a good thing today, Antonio.”
“Thank you, Sir.”
Salvatore handed the boy a small cloth bag that jingled with pleasure. “Here is your payment. You are done for the day.” Antonio nodded and smiled at his master. He looked at the man passing by him, the man who was sure to be taken to the court now that he had been found out. And as he passed, the man looked at Selvaggi and growled.
Antonio wasn’t sure, but he could have sworn that at that time, the man had uttered the word ‘traitor’ at Salvatore.
Now wasn’t that odd?
But then again…how did Salvatore know that this man would be coming into the port anyways?
He shrugged it off. It didn’t matter. He was just a simple boy working on the docks, who needed money so that next year, he could get married, and live a happy life. Or as happy a life as he was supposed to live.