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Habibullah
at the Ottoman Court

The Stefano di Firenze Memoirs

Translated by A.J. Kenglo (deceased)
J. Marvin Masters, Editor


Who is Habibullah?
Editor's Preface

Debut episode
The Great Cannon Caper

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January 1601 anno Christi --
Constantinople caput mundi

When I was still quite young I began to develop a fondness for lifeís special offerings. And though itís hard to say where I got my penchant for dangerous encounters and rahatlatmalar, itís sure my blessed Italian mother, Maria, taught me to esteem the niceties, and my sainted Anatolian father, Haydar, gave me his logical bent.

So, when it comes to the affection I hold for a Cellini saltcellar (the silver one he made privately for me as a token of our friendship, ranks among my most prized possessions), or for a rhythmic (perhaps slightly off-color) passage from Chaucer (the feel of my leather bound volume of ĎTalesí still causes a rising flush of desire in memory of the adolescent Anne Bullen), or for a nice veal cutlet in red wine sauce -- then itís my mother whom I credit. But when I recall how I first worked out the structure of the Turkish language, or when I succeeded in deciphering the encrypted messages of the evil-doer Cardinal Wolsey at the Field of the Cloth of Gold (though sadly, in the end, he outsmarted me), or, when, unassisted, I untangled the mystery of how Prince Cem was poisoned almost 40 years after the fact Ė then itís my daddy that I thank.

Not surprisingly, these sides of me have often come into conflict, so I was of two minds when Ibrahim Pasha informed me that I (only just turned 20 years of age at the time) was his choice as Chief Dragoman for Sultan Süleymanís military campaign that wet spring of 1529 AC. Yes, it was indeed a great honor. My father would be proud of the recognition of my budding intellect. But, the idea of living in the rough for four months on the trail of war was an affront to my finer senses, those attributable to my Florentine mother. And mother was right when, just before I mounted Yaramaz (my mangy stunted cob) to join the fray, she intoned that I would come back a different, less optimistic man.

But there were bright spots...

"Interpreter, come!"

Sultan Süleyman called out for me just as I was dozing off (to dreams of the fair Albena tugging at my loins) after a slow afternoon on kitchen detail. (When there was nothing else to do on the campaign trail, I translated European and Persian recipes for Süleymanís field kitchen.) So, I rose quickly, slipped on my kaftan, adjusted my turban, and stepped over to his grandiose command tent -- just adjacent to the simpler one-poster of mine. (Süleyman expected his mission interpreter to be within earshot at all times.)

"Ah, there you are Habibullah," the sultan greeted me. "Join us." (In those early years, Süleyman always called me by my Ottoman name -- only using Stefano, my Florentine birth name, after our relationship had matured. And only then in private.)

I scanned the group slowly, and felt my spine stiffen slightly. The gathering included several of the Ottoman Empireís most powerful men (men with whom I would have frequent, often perilous dealings in the coming years). There was, of course, Süleymanís Grand Vizier (and my ultimate padrone), Ibrahim Pasha -- who, as usual, made slight effort to hide the self-satisfied air that lay just beneath the surface of his conspicuous good looks. Next to him was his ambitious confidential advisor Celalzade (a florid, sweaty fellow) who also controlled the tugra. Then came the State Treasurer, Iskender Celebi (long, lean and intense Ė with darting suspicious eyes) and, lastly the ranking Bektashi warrior-chaplain, Salmani (he of the small hands and the pinched mouth) -- all gathered round the trembling figure of what appeared to be an old Christian tramp.

Süleyman himself sat majestically on his field throne apart from the others, in front of his tent -- if you could call it that. More a splendiferous field palace, Iíd say. This one was a four-posted affair Ė each post more than ten arshun high and as thick as the tree trunk from which it was made locally, stripped and painted black. The tentís rough canvas walls were almost completely hidden by handsome tapestries of embroidered arabesques and flowers Ė and they were suspended from the posts by thick silken cords. There was a stout gilded pole just in front the tentís flapped entrance. Flying from it was a large Ottoman crescent, together with the sultanís battle standard -- an arrangement of six black horsetails.

The Sultan certainly looked his part -- in a styled, cream-colored silk tunic draped with a red velvet cape that reached the ground and lay in folds at the back of his throne. And at the front of his white ceremonial turban, were the three dark-feathered sprigs Ė two up on the sides, one down in the middle, that denoted his singular rank. He was a wiry well-muscled man -- and his full beard (which was already beginning to gray) emphasized his robust manliness. But his eyes belied a warm-hearted sensitivity that I had already seen him display on a couple of notable occasions.

"Come help us interrogate this Christian knave, will you, Habi? He was caught sneaking round our pair of cannon... And as puny as they are, Iíd rather they remain our little secret. Whatís he doing here?"

I sat down on the low stool next to the sultan and looked into the frightened eyes of an aged derelict who had no business sneaking about inside the battle camp of Süleyman The Magnificent in broad daylight. I tried to greet him in Serbo-Croatian, "Zdravo," ... and got a blank stare. But his face brightened at once when I said "Szervusz." So I continued in a Hungarian dialect I know.

"Whatís your name," I started slowly.

"Oh Praise Jesus! You speak my tongue! My name is Mikos, sire. Please help me. These men mean to kill me Iím sure, but I was just following orders. It was that or face Fat Antoineís stretching-rack. The castle provost said I had to find out about the sultanís cannon or else."

"And so you sneaked in here, and what do you think you found...?"

"You know very well what I found," he exclaimed excitedly. "The sultan has only got those two small personnel cannon. And theyíre not powerful enough to breach our castle walls, except in a very few places... Besides, help is on the way from King Ferdinandís Austrian guard, we hear. So Castle Drago will be able to hold off the sultan until they arrive..."

It was going to be a cold day in Baghdad before the timorous Ferdinand sent help to this oppressed castle, but the pitiable old spy was right in one respect. Our artillery was meager. All we had in camp were two light battery cannon. Our legendary Great Cannon Brigade, that featured the massive Constantinople Cannon, was stuck in the mud somewhere to our rear -- days behind this fast moving expeditionary force that Süleyman commanded personally.

We had set out in May from Constantinople with 200,000 troops, provisions for a full 3 months, our greatly feared, wall-collapsing artillery brigade Ė and a plan to arrive at the gates of Vienna no later than mid-August. But, it rained from the outset as if being emptied out of glasses, and our supplies and heavy weaponry bogged down everywhere along the supply line. The result, predictably, was that it was already mid-August and we werenít even in reach of Buda...

And in the here and now, my translation of the old spyís remarks brought fire to the Sultanís eyes..."Tell him Iíll have Chef prepare his entrails for breakfast, if he doesnít do as I command. I want him to draw me a map that shows the weakest points in the castle walls. Maybe we can breach them, even with these small cannon..."

The spy listened to my translation, yellowed visibly and then with a quiver, signaled that he would comply. But he was smart enough to try to add a condition, that the sultan spare his life. He looked Süleyman pleadingly in the eye, chopped at his neck, then shrugged his shoulders. The sultan didnít need my translation.

"So, the old serseri wants his life in return for the map, eh?"

"Agaca çiksa pabucu yerde kalmaz, SultanIm."

"Well, I suppose itís a deal then. Tell him that Iíll grant his wish in return for the map."

Mikosí whole body relaxed in a spasm of relief at the news. And, upon recovering, he asked for some parchment and drawing charcoal -- ready to start the map at once. Süleyman smiled at the old manís enthusiasm, but because of the approach of evening prayer, he told him (through me) to present the map early next morning. Then Süleyman turned to Ibrahim Pasha...

"Ibo, have someone provide this man with drawing materials and arrange a private accommodation for him. And, bismillâh, make sure heís well guarded. I donít want some over-zealous gazi laying heavy hands on him." Süleyman shot Salmani a grave, squint-eyed warning. And when the soldier-chaplain couldnít meet his gaze, the Sultan went on, "I want my map. We may just be able to conclude this little foray quickly and get back on schedule for Vienna.

"Yes, Padisham. Iíll see to it immediately." But, despite Ibrahimís quick affirmation, you could see he didnít like being given such mundane orders in the presence of the others. Iskender Celebi held a slight smirk only barely in check and Salmani, now gloating silently, murmured an oath to the trinity of Allah, Muhammad, and Ali as he gazed skyward in unholy thought. Iskender had always resented Ibrahimís rapid rise to power and the Salmani was more than a little suspicious of his Greek heritage. Only the toad-eating Celalzade blushed and bowed his head in embarrassment for his master (and, by association, for himself).

I took my leave with the sultanís permission and returned to my tent to resume my nap. But, I'd no sooner put my head down on the headrest again when Ibrahim Pasha (with Celalzade on his heels) swished in, hissing angrily.

"Iím fed up with this nonsense, Habibullah. Süleyman is wasting my time here. The histories will recall when I take Vienna, not that useless castle yonder. We should be done with this pathetic spy and his idiotic map and set out at once." Then he gave me his best come-hither smile and continued, "Look Habi, old son, you go back in there -- now that the others have cleared out -- and tell the Sultan that the old man is lying about his knowledge of the castle walls, just to save his life. Tell him it's clear from all the contradictions in his story."

With that, Celalzade proceeded to give me a short course -- on how to concoct the lie. And as I listened I began to sweat, profusely. When he'd finished, Ibrahim nodded approval (as though the game of ĎDupe the Sultaní was a campground pre-battle requisite), and added:

"Yes. Thatís perfect, Celalzade. Weíll go along with Habi -- and take up the story when he gets in over his head."

And they both turned to get my reaction...

I was terrified. Not so much because Ibrahim had once again boldly criticized the Sultan in my presence -- that had become a regular practice by now.

There was no longer much pretense between the two men. Their lifelong friendship (including the boyhood romance) was badly frayed -- thanks mostly to the jealous wiles of Süleymanís Ďfavoriteí concubine, Khürrem. Only Ibrahimís close relationship with Süleymanís aging mother, Hafsa Sultan, kept him safe and gave him latitude -- for the time being...

But, this was the first time that Ibrahim had wanted me to help him frustrate the Sultanís wishes, deliberately. And I just wasn't up to the task. Many years would have to pass before I became really adept at subterfuge in high places, and even then, where the Sultan was concerned, I never managed it well -- except that one time (when I wish I hadnít), after his capricious and bushy-tailed Ďfavoriteí had become the licentious and calculating Roxelana, his legal wife...

But just then, I was saved from deciding how to reply to these two plotters (at least temporarily), when a horseman came thundering up to the Sultanís neighboring tent. Ibrahim perked his ear, scowled -- and furiously signaled me to keep quiet. I obliged him, gladly.

Shouts indicated that the rider would be ushered passed the guards to speak with Süleyman. Ibrahim shoved me aside and rushed outside with Celalzade to see what was happening, and I positioned myself close to my tent flap where I could hear better -- and maybe catch a glimpse of the goings on.

I recognized the horseman as Çetin Çavush, an aging Janissary -- just returned from a rear-guard mission to determine the whereabouts of the Great Cannon Brigade, still delayed along the Danube. (The squat, bandy-legged sergeant was moderately old for field duty -- nearly sixty, Iíd have guessed, and he had an unfortunate reputation for rather loose lips. Heíd told his life story in camp to anyone whoíd listen, several times over. From what heíd said, heíd been a teacher of botany in his previous life, before heíd been recruited into the Janissary Corps.)

Salmani came running up to join the gathering dignitaries Ė and Iskender seemed to appear from nowhere, just a few seconds later, looking all in a pique. Someone called for hot lambís broth to be served and they all settled around the sultan on his throne to hear the sergeantís report.

Süleyman spoke first..."How many days before the brigade can reach us, Çetin Çavush?"

"At least ten, Padisham. Theyíve got it out of the mud and moving again, but the road conditions are still pretty rugged."

"Hmmm. Thatís not good enough. When I see a tempting target like Drago, itís hard for me to pass by. But I can't wait ten days. Weíve got to move on to Buda."

The weather was beginning to thicken again. The wind whipped up and dark thunderclouds gathered menacingly. Here and there, camp slaves delivered ablution water for use at evening prayer. And for a while, the Janissary sergeant continued, tiresomely, to relate the minute detail of his findings. Süleyman listened half-heartedly, with his eyes on the castle...and when the others noticed, they followed his eyes looking there. For a pregnant moment, all six men watched together quietly -- as lights along the castle walls started to blink through the gathering mist. They all seemed lost in thoughts of some grand scheme...

"It shouldnít take more than a month to capture them," Süleyman muttered, interrupting the silence.

The sultanís remark broke my reverie -- and Salmani, who was also startled by it, spoke up, "'Them', m'lord? More besides this one? A month? For --"

"Steady, dear fellow... This one is no more than a couple of days' work. Especially if the weather will provide me the cloud cover, without the damned rain. There are four-five castles between here and Vienna -- with Buda being the next biggest prize. Iím talking about all of them."

"One month for four or five castles? Thatíll be difficult, Padisham," said the sergeant.

"What makes you think so?"

"The men told me while I was dismounting that the old spy found out about our light battery cannon. How long can we hide the fact?"

"The map heíll draw me tonight should remedy that weakness -- here at least. Still, given the right circumstances, I might take Drago without firing a shot."

"How, Padisham?"

"Merdivende bastIgIn basmaga dikkat et, yukarIsIna gŲz atma," replied the Sultan Ė causing the sergeantís face to turn a shade of watermelon red.

"But at this point," Ibrahim broke in, "the plan is to attack Drago without the Great Cannon Brigade. With just the two light cannon we have in camp. Right?"

"Not without the map the old spy is preparing."

"Suppose the light cannon are insufficient, even with the map? What will you do?" asked Iskender.

"Let me worry about that," the sultan said. Then he turned, walked inside his tent, motioning for the flap to be drawn...

His remark seemed a fine idea to me so I rolled over on my cot, sniffed a little of the Anatolian Ancient, closed my eyes in a state of grace, and returned to my dozy, carnal dreams.

I had just reached a particularly steamy sequence (Albena had been joined now by Latife and Nurcihan -- and the three of them were doing their best to bring me to a boil) when someone began to shake me violently -- in the world outside the dream. The disturbing sound of my own rattling teeth (and the menacing look on the face pressing down on me) began to alert my senses finally. Iskender Celebi was seething -- and had just finished a diatribe of some sort that ended in, "...you worthless, young cur," as I came fully awake. He was clearly angry about something -- and it apparently involved me.

"What is it, aga. Calm down," I tried to soothe him.

"Before the sergeant showed up," he growled, "what were the vizier and his piyon plotting with you in here?"

I was still a little groggy, but I guessed heíd seen Ibrahim and Celalzade enter my tent earlier. And because of his heated rivalry with Ibrahim, Iskender always wanted to know what his foe was up to.

But that was none of my affair. Ibrahim was still my padrone (even though I might wish it otherwise, with all my heart) and it was unseemly for me to expose his flank to an attack by an Ďoutsiderí. Besides, as father always said, "Bildigin ayranI bilmedigin yogurda degisme." So, I parried...

"Oh, it was nothing really. They were just clarifying some points on the translation Iíd made for the old spy."

"Donít try that with me, you damned acemi," he barked.

(Now do you see?! I told you I wasnít any good at deceiving my elders at court, in the early days.)

"I overheard part of the conversation through your tent wall. Iíll have you before the Sultan this moment, if you donít speak the truth."

Well, if he did that, I was in deep trouble. First of all, Süleyman wasnít going to be fooled by my deception any more than Iskender was. On top of that, the Sultan was going to think Iíd been a willing partner in an attempt to obstruct him -- which wasnít true of course, but how could I explain my way out of it?

So, I caved in and told him everything he wanted to know. More than that, actually... I told him everything I thought he wanted to hear. And while I stuck to the basic structure of the truth (I would have bungled badly otherwise), I also played to his own view of me as a novice. So, when it came to the part about the vileness of Ibrahimís plot, I embellished it. And, when it came to the part about my wide-eyed terror at the thought of acting against Süleymanís interests, I exaggerated it. And I must say that it seemed to strike the right chords with my audience -- for by the time Iíd finished, Iskender was fairly beaming with vengeful pleasure.

"Hah! I thought so...That scoundrel. Two can play at such games, he'll find. Now you listen to this, my young tyro. But remember that your body will float off Seraglio Point if you breath a word of it to my enemies."

His anger at being passed over as SŁleyman's Grand Vizier in favor of Ibrahim (who he considered an arrogant opportunist) was deep-seated, and flared brightly now. And he proceeded, on the fly, to propose a course of action far more sinister than Ibrahimís -- that made my skin-feathers shudder. There were quite a few loose ends to his 'plan', and it might easily lead to bloodshed, but it had a significant advantage -- in that it didnít require my participation, at all. So I raised no objection to it, even nodding my head once or twice...

After he'd left (to refine the details of his plan before initiating it), I tried to figure why Iskender had Ďtaken me into his confidenceí, so to speak. Was it to frighten me? To insure my silence about his reconnoitering visit? (It could certainly have that effect, I acknowledged to myself.) But, whatever the reason, I couldnít help feeling that the rivalry between these two powerful men was going of lead to the destruction of one or both of them sometime very soon. (And while I might have been a little off about the timing, I was absolutely right about the result.)

I awoke the next morning to a great commotion -- which in an Ottoman battle camp is quite uncommon. Ottoman troops pride themselves on their training, their first-rate commissary -- and the orderliness of their campgrounds. But what I was hearing, verged on chaos... Elite Janissary officers bickered back and forth, Sipahi cavalrymen screamed enmities at each other, and above it all, the voice of an enraged sultan bellowed loud and strong.

A snippet of Süleymanís tirade Ďwaftedí through the adjacent tent wall..."You stinking rogues. You wretched worthless infidels! And, you especially...you...you pompous hiyar!" he roared. As suggested by the breadth and richness of sultanís tone, Ibrahim Pasha was getting his share of The Magnificentís wrath.

It didnít take long to learn the reason for the sultanís anger. The first person I stopped outside my tent, the teenaged kitchen aide, Thin Ali, explained it quickly in fearful, breathless whispers. Against the sultanís strict orders, the old Christian spy had been murdered in his sleep. His throat had been cut and heíd bled to death on the cot where he lay. And, the map that heíd been working on was nowhere to be found. I felt a pang of sadness. The fragile old man had found himself in the wrong place once too often. One of lifeís tavla chips. Such a brutal end was unwarrantable and grievous.

"The sultan is livid," the boy spoke the obvious. "Iíd stay clear of him, if I were you," he added.

Without the spyís map, I was sure (at the time) that Süleymanís plan to capture Castle Drago was stillborn. For, if there was any more delay in these parts, heíd have some damned difficult decisions to make further down the line nearer Vienna. And with the campaign season drawing to an end, his hope of taking that big prize was already in jeopardy.

I ignored Thin Aliís warning and approached the entrance of the sultanís tent. Epithets flew like bullets as I entered. The sultan stood in the middle, gesticulating and roaring like a stuck lion at Ibrahim. The Grand Vizierís personal aides, including Celalzade, cowered around him. Iskender and Salmani were doing their best to fade into the shadows.

"I pray your skins all roast in hell, Ibrahim...ĎKeep the old man safe from harmí, I said -- a clear as water order. And now what? If I had that map, Iíd be advancing on Drago this moment. Under your care, itís disappeared -- like that! By God, youíd better not be up to your old gururlu tricks again..."

Ibrahim Pasha blinked at the reference but recovered quickly...

"Padisham, he was a worthless old man. We donít need him. He may even have been lying." (He shot me a quick leading look, but I wasnít having any Ė and I stared right through him. With an imperceptible frown, he gave the subject up Ė though I was sure to hear more about it, later. And he set out on a different track.) "But no matter. Just give me command of the troops as Iíve said before. I can take the castle with the cannons we have."

"And if their shot canít penetrate the walls?"

"Iíll storm them!
My men will swarm over them like ---"

"Yes. And youíll leave half those men dead or wounded in the process. Your vanity possesses your good sense, again. Weíll need those men when we get to Buda, not to mention Vienna."

"And besides... thereís still a murderer on the loose -- someone who killed the spy to keep the map out of my hands. Only a traitor would commit such a crime against my direct orders. And, this army will remain firmly under my command until I have his head rolling at my feet." The Sultan looked deeply into his Grand Vizierís eyes. Then he swept the tent with his terrible gaze so that the other dignitaries got the message too. You could have cut the gloom with a scimitar.

He turned to me, "Habibullah, Iíve got to reconsider my plans. And I want you to find out whoís at the bottom of this mess." Iíd been useful to the Sultan once before -- when Iíd demonstrated some skill with ciphers and helped unmask a ring of palace diamond thieves...But this murder probe would be the first real test of my abilities -- under pressure -- on a matter of solemn consequence.

"I must know whoís responsible as soon as possible," he paused for effect, "no matter to whose doorstep the bloody trail may lead." A palpable silence filled the air. I confirmed his order with a nod.

He turned back to his Grand Vizier. "Ibrahim, I want you to leave instanter to see if you canít at least move the Constantinople Cannon up here from the brigade today -- or tomorrow at the latest. If you can, my problem is solved. If not, Iíll have to fall back on... Well, thatís what Iíve got to reconsider. And leave Celalzade here -- I may need him. You just get moving. Now!"

"Yes, Padisham," Ibrahim replied petulantly... And he and Celalzade slinked off dejectedly. About an hour later according to my wondrous egg, Ibrahim departed on his own...leaving a decidedly dispirited Celalzade behind -- unprotected, as it were...

I spent the next couple of hours before the noon meal questioning the younger Janissary recruits Iíd come to know from the Palace schools -- where I frequently provided translation instruction. But they only confirmed what I already suspected -- that if any of the several men under suspicion had felt the urge, they could have found a way to commit the crime.

I skipped the noon-meal and spent the time cogitating, and organizing my notes. When I was done, I went over to the provincial cavalry encampment -- my contacts among the Sipahi riders were blood-relatives on my fatherís side. And they were anxious to help me out. But it was much the same as it had been with the Janissaries Ė no one provided more than I couldnít have reasoned out by myself, from what I already knew.

After thanking and bidding my uncles good-day, I began to regret skipping the noon-meal, and so headed for the field kitchen to see what leftovers I could muster. Iíd just walked in when the Ateshbaz, Aziz Bey sighted me through the hanging pots and pans. He broke into a broad smile -- and, approaching with outstretched arms, he pulled me to his enormous body and planted kisses on both my cheeks.

"My dear boy. How are you! Please sit down and let us make you a nice plate. Alper, come! Give this lad some of our 30-to-a-spoon mantih. Look, heís starving canít you see!"

I guessed my translated recipes had been helpful to the chefs -- and Aziz confirmed it graciously, "The sultan sent us his high compliments today -- and a small bonus. I wanted to thank you personally. Weíre really most grateful." The other chefs and under chefs had gathered round, nodding approvingly, patting my back, and tousling my hair. It felt good to be among friends that Iíd earned on my own.

After the others had dispersed (to resume preparation of the evening meal) Aziz and I chatted about food a while longer. But, when Iíd finished my third plateful of the delicious mantih, he wasted little time...

"Howís your investigation going, Habi?" I suppose I wasnít really surprised that Aziz had already heard about all the events of the morning. And because I didnít see any harm in it, I gave him a complete summary of my findings and my conjectures so far...

When Iíd finished, he reflected thoughtfully before responding.

"Hmmm. Thatís all very interesting.... And, naturally, I respect your Janissary and Sipahi sources... But, maybe I can help, Habi -- Iíve got quite a wide range of experience with personal connections of my own, you know. Food is a subject that interests everyone," he smiled. And he proceeded to share his thoughts from a perspective that the others hadnít Ė from a civilianís point of view. And he taught me a lesson that Iíve never forgotten -- that no matter what grand purpose we mortals may espouse in the public forum, most of us are driven in our daily lives by the common needs of the body -- and the ordinary emotions of the heart. And it started me thinking...about a simpler explanation of recent events than the ones my active mind had so far conceived...

Aziz had done me an enormous amount of good -- to inspire fresh thinking. Nonetheless, when all was said and done, I had asked a lot of questions, and all I had to show for them, in real terms, were a bunch of apparently unrelated answers that needed rigorous appraisal. So I began to meditate upon them, one at a time -- and, slowly, some earlier suspicions fell away, and newer ones began to take shape like ghosts from the past.

Heading back towards the sultanís command post to deliver him an interim report on my findings, I stopped counting the number of tents I passed along the way Ė each with itís own distinctive markings and banners fluttering in the light wind -- at 1,000.

As I approached Süleymanís tent, I could see Himself lounging on his field throne encircled by the usual entourage of luminaries (minus Ibrahim, of course Ė but plus the sergeant, who had a good knowledge of the surrounding countryside). He was talking aimlessly -- or so it would seem. (The sultan rarely talked aimlessly. It was his way of thinking out loud, and exploring the thoughts of his audience...)

I arrived just as Salmani asked, "Are we going to attack soon, Padisham?"

"Patience, man...Weíll see what the weather holds in store..." Then, he noticed that I had joined the group, and waved for me to meet him alone inside his tent.

"What have you learned, Habi," he began.

So I gave him my report -- no holds barred, and no titled-man excluded. When Iíd finished, he thought quietly for a few moments, then nodded his head, and bade me sit beside him...

"Well, stay on it Habi, but lend an ear now -- because Iím going to need your help on another matter..." And with growing interest, I listened for more than an hour -- as he explained the details of his plan to take the castle Drago -- on the morrow. By the time I left him to return to my tent for the night, I couldnít decide whether heíd gone mad or was divinely inspired...

Forewarned of the Sultanís stratagem, I abstained from my usual nightly draught of Egyptian Sunset, so my eyes popped wide-open at the first sound of reveille the next morning. Outside, the camp was alive with the sound of battle preparations. My blood surged and I stuck my head from my tent -- into a dense fog that covered everything.... Hurriedly, I did my toilet (including the defecation that father advised before battle [or after a hard-drinking night] to set oneís body on a good course) -- and got myself dressed. Iíd just belted my Big Ali Usta dagger and concealed my cudgel when I heard the sultanís call.

"Whereís Habibullah, damn it. I told him to be ready."

"Coming, Padisham," I bleated.

As I drew near he was just mounting up, throwing his armored torso with spirited authority onto the back of his full-blooded Arabian. It was a sight to see. The Sultan in full battle dress on that fine steed, prancing and dancing in front of the assembled officers and sergeants -- all with eyes ablaze in anticipation of the attack. He unsheathed his mighty sword and raised it skyward. The men responded in a frenzy as if they were hitched to a lightening bolt -- jabbing at the sky with their own weapons and blaring out a deafening roar of approval.

"Today we take the castle, men." The roar went up again, even louder Ė and in the distance the enlisted troops and the cavalry answered the chorus. The sultan listened and watched the display with aristocratic favor. When the noise finally began to abate, he raised his hand to quiet them further Ė and then he let loose his surprise.

"But youíll have to be a little patient... Iíve got some things to attend to, back along the supply line Ė and Iíll be back before noon.

A grumble of disappointment arose..."Can I start the bombardment if youíre not back on time, Padisham?" It was Black Arif, our venerable senior artillery-man, asking the question. "With these small cannon, it may take me a while before I can dent those walls..." The men around him burst out laughing.

Süleyman laughed too, but replied, "I donít think weíll need your sharp shooting talents today, old friend. But I will ask you to raise a ruckus for me..."

There was a murmuring of perplexed voices. "A ruckus, Padisham? What kind of a ruckus?"

The Sultan didnít waver a second..."When you hear the command, I want you all to form phalanxes -- and move straight on toward the castle. As you approach, strike your weapons together in unison and shake the heavens with your war cries, I want lots of noise...Let those Christians know weíre coming...Do you understand?" The discontented murmuring resumed, at first -- but then with a wave of the sultanís hand, it stopped instantly.

"Whatever you say, Padisham." It was Black Arif again.

None of these men understood the purpose of his orders, but they would carry them out anyway, unto to the death... "With pleasure, with pleasure," they uttered.

Visibility was only a few paces, so I kept close to be able to catch the sultanís eye. Süleyman, ready to move now, leaned down to Salmani who was holding the halter and, "Take Celalzade, Iskender, Çetin, and Habibullah, and follow me to the Mill Farm. Ibrahim Pasha has returned and weíve got to gather a herd of water buffalo, and drive them back here with the Constantinople Cannon."

"With pleasure," Salmani winced.

The sultan looked at me briefly and nodded. It was my signal to mount Yaramaz and to thereafter be on high alert -- until the final gong. Süleyman himself plunged into the fog at great speed after spurring his steed to a gallop.

By the time the others and I arrived at the farm, Süleyman had already made the buffalo ready with their heavy canvas-shrouded payload. The animals lowed under the oppressive size of it, which was wider than a rich manís waist and longer than four such men in height.

"Whereís my pasha, Ibrahim?" Celalzade whined at the sultan.

"What is it with such an insipid question, man?! Hop in front there before I rearrange your eyeballs -- and help drive this herd back to the battlefront. Iíll remain in the rear to make sure the cannon rigging stays true."

After that it was a direct, albeit slow, slog back to the front. And apart from the loud racket made by the buffalo (as they snorted and puffed against the unfamiliar weight) the only other thing of note was the growing agitation among the drivers -- who kept looking at each other, the sultan, and their animal cortège. Then, at one point the canvas slipped slightly off the payload -- and you should have seen the sets of bulging eyes. Why, Iskender even came near to falling off his horse. But the sultan was so quick to rewrap the covering that, in the haze, one couldnít be sure what one had actually seen...

No sooner had we arrived back at the front than the sultan gave the command to start the advance toward the castle. And, first here, then there, a bizarre cacophonous clamor began to rise up through the fog. The sounds of drums, banging shields, and horns were mixed with whinnying horses, and thousands of voices on all sides.

Our soldiers couldnít see well where they were going, but they advanced as best they could in phalanges. I could hear the voices of the artillery-men on the right yelling, "Praise God, Praise God" and a Turkish war chant rang out from the men on the left. Those in the castle couldnít mistake the meaning of all the surrounding sound. The assault was on. I caught glimpses of Süleyman, diving into the fog and emerging -- up and down the lines, encouraging his men and urging them on. They advanced noisily but slowly for about a quarter of an hour. Finally, still at some distance from the castle, I heard him call them to a halt.

"My brave ones!" he shouted. "As soon as the fog starts to lift, I want you to make ready for the attack. But donít open fire. Iím going to make a proposal to the enemy." Then he gave them leave to rest, and a hush descended upon the well-disciplined ranks. You could hear a nazar boncugu drop.

At high noon the fog started to clear slowly. Castle Drago emerged like a specter from the mist and our troops made ready the attack. At the opposite end of the castle road stood the herd of cannon-carrier water buffalo that we had led from the farm. The canvas covering had been removed halfway from the huge piece -- and all the buffalo drivers were on foot now, pacing nervously in front of it.

Süleyman trotted his mount forward along the road and stopped just out of earshot of the castle -- and called me to his side. He began explaining what he planned to propose to the castle commander -- so that I could be prepared with my translation.

He was just concluding his remarks, when all of a sudden (over Süleymanís shoulder) I saw Çetin Çavush break away from the herd in the distance Ė and begin running stiffly down the road toward us, waving his arms, and shouting out (if my guess were correct) in Hungarian. He was right on schedule. It was just what Iíd expected the old bastard to do.

Süleymanís mouth opened slightly as he turned in his saddle to view the aging sergeantís painful sprint. He didnít quite know what to make of it -- as the Janissary bore down on us, gesticulating and yelling hoarsely, in a foreign tongue -- panting for breath as he came...

"Whatís he up to, Habi?"

When Çetin got a little closer and I could hear him well enough, I began to translate...

"Save me Jesus! Open the gates, brothers. Let me in...Donít believe..."

The sultan began to reach for his sword, but I had the matter under control -- and waved him off. And when the sergeant was almost alongside us, I sidestepped, pulled the concealed ebony cudgel from my sleeve and smacked him with it on the back of his bony skull -- whereupon he slumped to the ground without a whimper. No one on the castle walls had heard a word heíd said...

"Thereís your murderer and your traitor all wrapped in one," I said, turning to Süleyman with a broad grin.

The sultanís eyes bulged for a moment, but he regained his composure quickly. And he returned my grin -- with an exuberant slap to his thigh.

"Well, bless me, Habi! Nice work, son. Just leave him there, weíll discuss the details later -- Black Arif can take charge of him now." He hand-signaled in ixarette for the canon-master to come forward, then:

"Letís move up closer now, so they can hear what I have to say. Weíve got business to conduct!"

We moved to within 100 paces of the walls, with me waving a white envoyís flag...

With a booming voice he shouted out, "Hey you, protectors and civilians of Castle Drago... I am the great grandson of Fatih Mehmed Pasha, The Conqueror... and you have wrongfully taken lands from my grandfather."

I have to admit the man could be pretty ballsy at times. Nonetheless, I translated and shouted out his words in my best imitation of his authoritative voice.

"Now Iím here to take back my rightful property. And when I come to collect, I mean it. Just a few days ago I was forced to take action against the recalcitrants at Osek. In the end, I nearly leveled their fort -- with just two small personnel cannon in support. Not one fighting man survived. Today... Iíve brought my great Constantinople Cannon with me. Think of it!"

He paused to let me translate, then, "So, youíd best surrender peacefully and save yourselves a lot of grief. If you do, Iíll grant your civilians freedom with minimum tribute, and Iíll spare the lives of your brave military. Come on, men. Whatís the point in spilling your blood for nothing?" I translated this Ďproposalí to all those listening (intently) inside the castle.

Süleyman prodded his horse and it reared aggressively on its hind legs. He glanced over his shoulder to where Black Arif was pulling Çetin Çavush to his feet -- bound by his wrists, and gagged. Pointing in that direction, the sultan said, "Why, Iíll even return that lost brother of yours, unharmed... except for a sore head." He had mumbled that last bit under his breath and I didnít bother to translate it.

"He murdered the old spy you sent, and I could have had him executed myself. But Iíll leave him to your own justice."

There was a short wait and then a querulous voice wafted over from the tower. I translated to Süleyman...

"What conditions do you offer?"

Süleyman bristled, and with but a momentís hesitation, he fired back his angry answer. I attempted my translation in the same threatening tone...

"There arenít any conditions. Iíll give you until I count to one hundred to surrender. If you donít, Iíll open fire and kill every last one of your soldiers -- and take all your civilians as my personal slaves! Donít you see that great cannon on the road over there?"

"It took fifty water buffalo to haul that cannon here. It was built for my great-grandfather by one of your own ancestors, Urban the Transylvanian. It fires balls the weight of camel-loads more than half a farsah -- leaving 5 arshun divots in anything it hits. This is the same cannon that great-grandfather Mehmed used when he captured Constantinople. With just two shots those great walls came tumbling down -- and because the city dared to resist, blood flowed knee-deep in the streets. Dragoís walls will crumble in one. Neither you nor your castle will survive. If you havenít surrendered by the time Iím finished counting -- Iíll rip the sky asunder."

While I was repeating these words in translation, the Christian soldiers turned their eyes toward the far end of the road. Behind the buffalo they saw a truly awesome artillery piece, at least ten arshun in length -- that seemed to pulsate in the lifting fog like a serpent. On the high walls of the castle we heard a muttering of frightened voices...

During the next several moments, a stern-faced Süleyman pranced his horse back and forth, counting loudly and steadily -- while I stood in place. (There seemed no need for me to translate further.)

Then when the Sultanís measured count had reached just 75 -- I saw Dragoís black and white signature flag come slowly down the castle towerís pole. And gradually, the castleís iron-plated gate cranked open and the Christian military commander (who was quite yellow with fear) came out. A hundred gold-sworded noblemen and an equally large contingent of armored knights followed behind him. One by one, the Christian soldiers piled their weapons in a heap by the side of the road. A mountain of valuables -- peremptory tribute from Dragoís civilians -- grew on the ground beside the weapons pile. Our troops raised the green and white Ottoman flag from the castleís peak, and Salmani ordered his dervishes to issue the call to prayer along the castle walls. Everywhere the victory cry rang out:

"Allahuekber! Allahuekber!"

Süleyman signaled Black Arif to deliver the doleful sergeant to the mayor of Drago. I surveyed the crowd of assembled citizens, looking for a friendly face (which might indicate a sympathy for Çetinís plight) -- but was struck by a blank wall of dumb malice. A hulking, pig-faced peasant (undoubtedly a relative of the murdered man) surged forward, yanked Çetin from the mayorís keeping, and brutally shoved him away toward the castle, to confront a Christian fate. My heart shivered at the thought. Was it to be a simple hangmanís rope for the botany teacher Ė or would they torture him to death? Much depended on the wishes of the victimís family (a family whose senior-memberís throat had been slit in cold blood, by someone dressed in the uniform of a despised enemy) and on the mood of the crowd (a crowd that had just seen its leadership surrender its town and most-prized possessions without a fight)... So, drawing-and-quartering was possible, I supposed. So were dismemberment, boiling-in-oil, and Ďpressingí. But, I never did find out, nor did I ever want to know. Oh, pallida Mors...

Süleyman addressed the surrendered enemy commander (and his senior officers who had gathered protectively around him) -- and I translated, "Donít be afraid... As promised, Iíll spare your lives. Come, if you like, and Iíll show you the weapon that I had brought here with the buffalo."

The commander exchanged looks with his officers. I could feel their rising curiosity. To see this fantastic weapon up close was both frightening and seductive. They joined up behind Süleyman who started walking across the wide plain toward the great cannon, with me trying to keep up alongside. The noblemen, the rest of the knights, and some of the townspeople fell in behind.

As we walked, the Sultan and I talked...

"So it was Çetin Çavush all along, eh Habi?"

"Yes, efendim Ė he lived in an Ottoman skin for almost thirty years but never gave up his hope of returning home. When I was finally able to eliminate the other suspects, he stuck out like an ashure pudding in the middle of the Ramazan fast."

"For example, before he became a Janissary, everyone knew Çetin had been a botany teacher. And when he was almost thirty, heíd been captured with his class on a field trip in these parts. Heíd repeated the story enough times to anyone whoíd listen.

"But Ateshbaz Aziz (who was just a kitchen apprentice at the time) recalled that Çetin adopted his Ottoman name and the Muslim faith as soon as his Ďtroupeí reached Constantinople Ė long before any of the others. Aziz says he was terrified, because of his Ďadvancedí age, that heíd be put to death if he didnít fall into line right away." (A quick look over my shoulder confirmed that our Ďguestsí were having as hard a time keeping up with the sultanís pace as I was. The Christian commanderís face was beginning to glisten.)

"Well, Habi, if youíre suggesting that he lacked Ďsincerityí when he first joined us, so what? Thatís probably true of most yabancI recruits. It takes a while for them to recognize the, ahhh, merit in our ways." He gave me a meaningful glance from the corner of his eye, as if to underscore his point. I felt my face redden (which I guess he noticed) -- but I pressed on...

"Thereís more, Padisham...From the time Çetin became an Acemi Oglan it took him the full six years, before he received his Janissary cap and certificate."

"Nothing much unusual in that, is there? Not everyone is meant to be a star."

"Well, it is when you consider that Aziz remembers him always at the top of his class. And many of his less-qualified classmates got early graduation and prestigious duty assignments Ė but he never complained. And after he did finally graduate, when his promotions also came slow, once again he never complained. He seemed perfectly content, despite being stuck permanently after reaching the middling rank of Áavush."

"Now, thatís unusual. Iíve never known a Janissary who was content about anything! I suppose this Ďcontentmentí is also traceable to his fear."

"It would seem so. That and the fact that he needed to bide his time quietly if he hoped ever to escape back to his wife and child."

"Wife and child, eh?"

"Yes, Padisham. A wife and child to whom heíd been devoted, it seems. Aziz was tipped to that by one of the former students in his botany class, who was captured along with him."

"Well, that certainly explains his yearning to return home. But why did he wait this long to try and why did he feel it necessary to kill the old spy in the process?"

"The answer to your first question is pretty simple, SultanIm. Itís that he never had a real chance until now. As soon as he received his certificate, he got sloughed off to the Chief Doorkeeper, guarding the gates at the palace. And there he remained a virtual nobody, lo these many years -- never venturing much beyond Constantinopleís outer perimeter. But then, he got this assignment, the first battle duty of his career -- and when he realized that your war trail would lead him right passed his homelands, why...he could barely conceal his excitement, they say."

"Yes, I see... And, whatís the answer to the second question? Why the murder?"

"Well, efendim, at this point, I have to move from the realm of fact, into the hazy rooms of conjecture."

"Do so with alacrity, Habibullah. Donít waste my time," he growled. (We had reached the point on the plain where we could hear the muffled lowing of the buffalo by now...The Christian commander seemed to have caught his second wind, but Dragoís mayor had faded to the back of the pack.)

"Sorry, Padisham...Summing up the way I see it, Çetin Çavush had for nearly thirty years secreted his desire to return home, and not just as a bedraggled escapee either -- but as some sort of a hero. And when fate placed him in front of his very own home castle, he saw his dreams about to be fulfilled."

"How do you figure that Drago is his home castle? I didnít see anyone come to his side when we turned him over to the mayor."

"Sadly, nor did I. Who knows what may have happened to his family in 30 years time. But, did you see his eyes when he looked at Drago, that first day when he reported to you about the Great Cannon Brigade?"

"Hmmm. Youíre right. He did get a little dreamy at one point. But then so did we all. It seemed like everyone was sharing the same thought. Apparently not..."

"Thatís right, not everyone. And consider now the spy... whom he saw as a threat to his dream plan. A threat because he wanted himself to defect and reveal the secret of our deficient cannon Ė so that he could take credit for saving the castleís bacon, if youíll pardon the expression. And, in the process heíd earn that heroís welcome. But, if the spy provided you with the map, then you might breach the castle walls. And that would be the end of Çetin Çavushís heroic return, despite thirty years of patient waiting. The murder, he thought, was the only way to preserve his dream."

"Yes...quite. Well, youíve certainly capped all the âís and dotted all the üís, Habi. Thatís the second time youíve served me well. Thanks again, young fellow."

We had almost reached the buffalo herd by then and one of the young Christian knights, who towered over me, leaned down and whispered a question in my ear. Süleyman saw and demanded, "What did he say, Habi?"

"He asked, ĎHow many days did it take to bring this cannon from Constantinople?í"

"Well, you can tell him that it wasnít brought from Constantinople. It was brought from our camp." I translated the sultan's answer for them, and the Christian captives exchanged puzzled glances.

Süleyman approached the herd closer now, and with one powerful motion, removed the remaining canvas cover from the massive piece -- and began to examine it with his hands. By gesture, he offered the Christian commander and his men a closer look. They all gathered curiously round the great Constantinople Cannon.

The sultan smiled faintly, and stepped aside to give them more room. In back, I heard Black Arifís distinctive chuckle, which set some of our other troops to chortling too. The captives groped at the great cannon with their hands, and found it strangely rough to the touch. They searched for the hole in the barrel, and found none. The castle commander slumped to the ground. He shook his head slowly, muttering. I translated for the sultan...

"What is this? What have I done?" A crestfallen gloom settled on the commander and his men, for they saw clearly now that the fear-inspiring Constantinople Cannon -- which might topple Castle Drago with a single blast -- was nothing more than an immense tree-trunk, stripped and painted black. One of the same ones that had, until this morning, been supporting the sultanís palatial tent.

Ibrahim Pasha did finally show up with the real Constantinople Cannon two days later -- just as Süleyman had forecast privately to me. And its arrival was in plenty of time to help us take Buda with ease. But as brilliant as the sultanís military strategy had been along the way, weíd lost too many days against schedule because of those unusual early season rains (and because of the sultanís reluctance to pass up ripe-pickings like Castle Drago). So, we arrived quite late in the autumn at the gates of Vienna and had to return to Constantinople without that prize. Who knows? If that year had offered up a fair-weather spring and summer (or if Süleyman had listened to me regarding old Count von Salmís mistress), I might be writing these memoirs from my study in the eaves of a converted St. Stephens Ďmosqueí in old Vienna -- instead of from here in the loft of my summer home on the Golden Horn.

END


Who is Habibullah?
Editor's Preface

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