The Chancellor, Heinrich, Count Ostenburg cleared his throat. “I fear he is, Your Grace. When the letter arrived from Vienna I took the precaution of consulting with the resident Professor of Oriental Studies at the university. He was quite adamant that the Vizier is the true power behind the throne. When he decides upon action, the Sublime Porte will move.”
The Duke furrowed his brow. “I hope you impressed upon the Professor that this matter is to be kept strictly confidential?”
The Chancellor bowed his head. “Indeed I did, Your Grace. In fact, he is waiting outside now should you wish to consult him.”
“Very well. Bring the gentleman in and let’s hear what he has to say.”
The Chancellor gestured to the chamberlain, who opened the doors to the council chamber and addressed someone beyond. “The Council will see you now, sir.”
A moment later a small, sprightly man in sub-fusculum robes entered and bowed to the assembly, removing his mortarboard hat to expose a shock of white hair as the chamberlain announced him. “Your Grace, Gentlemen of the Council, Professor Strabismus from the University of Hetzenberg.”
The Duke gestured for him to approach. “Come, Professor. Stand at the head of the table. This Council would like to hear your opinion on this extraordinary matter. Give us a précis of the Ottoman Empire’s governance.”
A footman moved the Duke’s chair aside to make room for the Professor. The Duke sat and gestured for silence.
“Your Grace, gentlemen.” The Professor bowed again then replaced his hat. He took up a tutorial stance at the head of the table, tucking his thumbs into the lapels of his gown and pursing his lips. Long memories were triggered by the Professor’s stance. As one the assembled councillors sat up straight and stopped fidgeting.
The Professor began. “At the head of the Empire is the Sultan, resident in his palace in Constantinople. He is the supreme ruler of a vast tract of territory in his own right. Furthermore he has nominal suzerainty if not considerable influence over a portion of the world that stretches across North Africa from the Pillars of Hercules in the West, and across the Orient to the borders of Far Cathay in the East.”
The Council members stirred and looked at each other. Educated men one and all, they nevertheless were centered on their own sphere of existence, and had only been aware of these facts in a kind of nebulous way. Now the Professor’s incisive account was painting detail on that broad canvas in a way that reminded them sharply just what kind of potential power lay on the threshold of Urope. They listened with close attention as the Professor continued.
“That is not to say the Caliphate is a monobloc, a homogenized body.” He shook his head. “Oh no, no, no. There are many Khedives, Sheiks, Beys, Deys and petty Emirs, lords who look upon the Sultan with no kind of favor and pay only lip service to the Sublime Porte. I can see little prospect in current events and from my contacts and correspondents in those Oriental lands to show there will be a mass assault against the Christian world.”
“Then for that we must give thanks!” The Duke murmured, to a chorus of Amen! from the Council.
“Indeed, Your Grace. That is not to say there will be no danger.” He gestured at the letter that still lay upon the table. “As you can see from this correspondence it most certainly exists.
“As I mentioned, the Sultan is a powerful lord, commander of a numerous host in his own right. Many of those other lords will follow should he call them to arms. The question is; who will spur him to action?”
“This Vizier Evidya?” asked the Duke.
“Possibly; I would say probably. You must understand also, Your Grace, gentlemen, that the Ottoman Sultan is a powerful man, but there are many factions that sway his opinions. The Seraglio, ah, that’s the harem if you prefer to call it that, is the domain of the Sultan’s mother, his wives, and his numerous concubines, not to mention the offspring from his loins.” He smiled. “We all know what influence our wives can have on us.” The Council nodded and smiled as one.
“Just so. That is one major faction, but they tend not to take much interest in foreign affairs. Then there are the Janissaries, the Sultan’s bodyguard. They are a considerable body of professional soldiers composed of forcibly-conscripted boys from the Empire’s Christian families -- of which there are a considerable number -- brought up in the Islamic faith to be totally loyal to the Sultan.”
A general growl of disapprobation greeted this and the Professor nodded. “Yes, it’s one thing to conscript a soldier, quite another to kidnap a boy and forcibly convert him to another faith. Our own lands saw quite enough of that in the centuries preceding this. The effects of those unhappy times are still with us.
“That is not to say the Janissaries are perfectly loyal. They are good soldiers, but they tend to be… pampered. Spoilt. If they don’t get their way they are quite happy to mutiny, which they symbolize by overturning the massive kettles they use to cook their food. They refuse their rations, they therefore refuse to accept commands until their demands are met.”
General Rauppen-Schlepper, the army representative on the Council, snorted in derision. “Brittle! I’ve seen that in other armies. Press troops like that hard enough and they’ll break.”
“I bow to your knowledge, General,” the Professor said. “I’m sure the prospect of routing some twenty thousand troops as one body will be a delightful one.”
The General looked thoughtful at the words twenty thousand. “Our army in its entirety numbers less than a quarter of that sum,” he said in a low voice.
A near-silence fell upon the chamber, broken only by gentle ticking of the clock and the scratching of the secretary’s quill pen as he took the minutes. An extra charge of tension began to be felt in the air.
The Professor cleared his throat. “Quite. That is not to say the majority of the Sultan’s army is as good, or even half as good as the Janissaries. The military sphere is not my field of study.” He bowed to the General. “I leave that concern to far more capable minds than mine.” The General returned the bow.
“And then we come to the Vizier, the real power behind the Imperial throne. Vizier Evidya is a man known for his intelligence and cunning, his long experience in the manifold power plays and shifting alliances within the palace and the Empire as a whole. He has held the post for a number of years, quite an achievement in a world where assassination and indeed mass-murder are perfectly acceptable political tactics. The… gentleman is not above using those tactics against other powers either, if there is a strategic benefit to be gained.”
“There were those rumors of arsonists attempting to fire Paris last year…” a Councillor said.
“Just so. There are pockets of Muslims in most major cities throughout the continent. The Vizier’s writ holds sway in a surprising number of them. It would not be a surprise to me to learn the Parisian matter can be laid at the feet of the Vizier. In any case, it can be assumed with a degree of certainty that he has an efficient spy network in the diverse lands of Urope.”
“Here, too?” the Chief of Police asked.
The Duke shot him a look that spoke volumes. “It’s something that must be addressed,” he said.
“Yes, Your Grace,” the man replied, chastened.
“Thank you, Professor.” The Duke stood up and addressed the Council. “It is plain that we must debate this matter further. General Rauppen-Schlepper can give us an appreciation of the military status.”
The General rose to his feet with a faint clicking of joints. “Your Grace, gentlemen. It wouldn’t be inaccurate to describe the Ottoman army as one belonging to the early Renaissance, with equipment and tactics to match.” He gave them a wintery smile. “They reached their high tide before the walls of Vienna in the last age. And the armies of the West are better now than they were then. We have moved with the times. The Sultan’s army has not.”
“So what is your appreciation of the danger?”
“I would say the direct threat to Hetzenberg is slight, Your Grace. After all, there is the Austrian Empire and numerous other states between us and the Ottomans, not to mention the might of Prussia and of course, Russia. Although I have little experience in naval matters, I doubt the Sultan’s fleets will be any better than his army. The Gallican navy is a powerful one; in the event of war it will dominate the Mediterranean. Should the Ottoman fleet manage to pass the Pillars of Hercules, they’ll have Britannia to contend with too.”
“Just so.” The Duke turned to the Professor. “Professor Strabismus, your talk on this subject has been most illuminating. You may return to the University now, with our thanks. Perhaps you will hold yourself in readiness to answer further questions on this matter should they arise?”
“Of course, Your Grace.” The Professor bowed and withdrew.
Once more the Duke leaned on the table and addressed his Council. “So, gentlemen, what is to be done?”
“I would suggest a watching brief, Your Grace,” the Chancellor said slowly. “We should send an ambassador to the Viennese court as soon as possible to monitor the events as they unfold. That is where the first crisis will come – if it comes.”
“Yes, Your Grace.” The Chancellor’s expression cleared as a small crumb of comfort came to his mind. “This whole business may be nothing more than saber-rattling on the part of this Vizier for purposes of his own.”
“Even so, we can’t be certain nothing will come of this.”
“Indeed not, Your Grace. As the good Professor said, there are several factions within the Ottoman Court. The same can be said of the Court of Vienna. Some of those are less than enthusiastic for military adventures.” The Chancellor shrugged.
“Who knows what may happen?”
“Who indeed. And what of our own bête noir, the Markgraaf?”
“He knows of the unfolding events, Your Grace. Our agent said as much earlier last week. A copy of this general letter from Vienna will have reached him too.”
“Yes, of course.” The Duke paced up and down several times, deep in thought, before walking over to stand before a window. He gazed out over the grounds of the palace for a while then nodded and turned back to face the Council. “Very well, here is my intent.
“An ambassador shall be sent to Vienna as you recommended, Count Ostenburg.” The Chancellor bowed. “He will be tasked with maintaining a watching brief on the situation. He is to learn all he can of the Austrians’ appreciation of the Ottoman army’s strength and abilities.
“A letter shall be sent to the Markgraaf of Dunkeldorf-Pfühl. He knows as well as we do that there will be war between us unless he acknowledges our claims to the towns and lands in the County of Waldorf-Salle-Adse. We shall proceed with our military build-up with that intent in mind. However, our letter shall ask him for an understanding that in the event of a major incursion by the Ottoman Empire into the lands of Urope all hostilities between us shall cease with immediate effect.” The Duke looked grim. “In the face of a major threat to our very way of life, even that superannuated dolt should see he must join us for the greater good!”
“United we stand, divided we fall,” the Chancellor murmured.
The clock ticked; the secretary’s quill scratched then fell silent. “Indeed,” said the Duke. “Indeed.”
* * * *