Oh, My Beloved

 

A plant, an iris perhaps, thrust its slim green sword through a clod of earth at the base of the outer wall— a doughty gesture for such a tiny and fragile weapon in the shadow of such immensity. For centuries, the very sight of these walls had leached hope from the hearts of would-be conquerors and instilled it in those whom they held in their embrace.  'Til this day in May they had been vulnerable only to deceit and the greed of European allies.  The saddle of his horse creaked and his ceremonial robes rustled amid  the strangely quiet bustling of  silent  men of war preparing their order of march.  His eye roved  the walls.   Turning his back to the ruin and carnage north of the gate, he took them in as they dwarfed the mute procession and marched in a double course, unbroken, unmarred, invincible down to the sea.   Even northward where  sections had been undermined by  sappers or pounded to rubble by the massive stone shot fired from the great dragon-mouth cannon, the avalanche-choked valleys of their ruin formed  ramparts that a few could defend long against many.  

 

Even his terrible old men had quailed before these walls.  Constantinople is a dying city, the spies had said.  The population has dwindled, its defenders are precious few and the Italians, merchants to the end, seek a high price for coming to its rescue.  Yet the old men quailed,  they who terrified him still as walls and warfare and  stench of death never could.  The city is impregnable, they said; wait, bargain, they will give anything to save their city…  And  even when he decided, against the advice of his most powerful viziers, to assault those walls, Halil Pasha, the most terrible of old men, continued to bargain with his counterparts in the city.   Old men they were, all of them,  who clung to power and wealth and the bitter ends of life amid webs of bargain,  treachery, and cruel pragmatisms…  He knew them well.  Princes, emperors, sultans purchased the precious wisdom of these men by ever so gently allowing the possibility of monumental betrayal to seed itself in the soil of their most intimate and helpless moments.

 

After his father, who was more the tale of a father than a presence, the first of his terrible old men was Güranî.  Ah, Güranî!  The hennaed beard, which always seemed like a froth of dried, red-brown blood  about  his grim mouth, spilling down his chest, the stick…no more than a thumb's girth, but author of such pain!  Until he was going on twelve, life had been lived at his own whim; never again would he know such power though he now ruled kings and kingdoms on two continents.  He had done as he pleased.  Servants, tutors, the women of the harem could do nothing with him, nor cared to it seemed on looking back.  By this time he knows the whole story with the cruel clarity that wielding power requires, but then it was bewildering.  The sudden news, the impossible news… Alaeddin Ali is dead.  His older brother, huge, powerful, who could toss a boy high in the air and catch him with one hand, the pupil of his father's eye.  The gazis loved him. He had marched from Amasya to join his father, Murat, in putting down the rebellion of  Ibrahim Bey, the Karamanid.  They had been gloriously victorious, the father and his magnificent son.  Or so the reports ran that dribbled into the private quarters of the young prince who, in name at least, governed Manisa.  One day surely  Ali would be sultan and lead the Ottoman armies to conquest after conquest.       

 

And then a spate of garbled rumors:  Ali had returned to Amasya, shining brilliant in the radiance of victory and his father's love but in his wake came Kara Hizir Pasha, Black Hizir.  What an irony.  Mehmet's young mind was already attuned to ironies, double meanings through the portals of which one could glimpse the really real.  The mythic Hizir, as everyone knew, was the mystical, magical green-man, who drank from the waters of eternal life and so roamed the world eternally young, restoring to life the fallen heroes of tale and legend…and this other Hizir, his dark counterpart in this transitory world where the only inexorable rule is that of death.  His errand's origins were obscure.   Why he came no one could be sure but of that visit's  consequence  there was no doubt.  In a night, the soft serpent of the executioner's velvet garrote took the lives of prince Ali and his baby sons as well.   It was so quickly done.  And his father, inconsolable, they said, wept bitter tears for his favorite son.  Yet who but this father could have ordered such a monstrous act?  What was the crime, what the need?  The mist of unanswered questions reeked of  terror and revealed only shadowy premonitions of death.  He would learn.

 

The first lesson was Güranî.  When they brought the young prince, now eldest heir, to Edirne and his father's palace, no one rejoiced.  The prince was suddenly bereft of close companions and an easy life; the sultan was less than pleased to be  confronted by a headstrong boy who had refused to be taught.  So one morning he was called to a spare room where stood the stern mullah with hennaed beard and stout switch.  "Your father has commanded that I instruct you," he said harshly and with no preliminaries.  "And if you will not, he has given leave for me to beat you until you change your mind."  The boy could only laugh as he had for years at all such empty threats.  Then Güranî  thrashed him, beat him with the stick on the back, on the legs, and later, with the help of a servant, who  resolutely restrained any show of satisfaction, on the tender soles of his feet.   Even when he cried out that he was dying from the pain, the mullah only gasped hoarsely  amid his exertions, "No!  For you dying will be much less painful.  I am teaching you how to live!" 

 

Only later did he understand.   As he sat his horse, during a brief lull, around noon on this late May morning in the year 857 of the Hijra, 1453 in the Christian calendar,  he reflected on the easy days of his childhood and his magical princedom in Manisa.  I was free, life seemed easy because the hand of death hovered close above me and warded off the admonitory blows of life.  Had Ali lived and prospered, one day still in my youth, in the midst of who knows what pleasures or what dream of pleasures, they would have come with the velvet cord and in an instant, without warning or even pain, I would have been dead.  They all knew this and respected the gentle protectorate of death.  They only beat me when it became clear that I must live and be enlisted in the harsh service of life.

 

Oh, he did learn.  He memorized the Quran in less than a year and took in much besides.   There were a thousand lessons to learn, most harsh and cruel, few tender.  And there was little time.  He was still but twelve when his father , who could feel his own prodigious strength waning,  conceived a dangerous gambit.  The Byzantine Emperor John held, in Constantinople, a pretender to the Ottoman sultanate.  Whether or not this Orhan was indeed of the Ottoman line no one could be sure, but there were many who would flock to his banner, if for no other reason than to break the unity of Ottoman domination and recreate the Ottomans as vassals of the Byzantines.  

 

Lesson:  When power, authority, rule are granted to a family by the traditions, loyalty, faith and general consensus of thousands upon thousands of people, each family member is potentially a deadly danger to every other member.  A living sibling is a constant threat to bring the whole fragile structure of sovereignty to ruin.  A son is always a danger to his father, but a brother is a danger to the very foundations of the state.

 

Murat had pounded the Balkans into submission, subdued his Muslim rivals in the East.  But they were restless, waiting…just a moment's weakness would be enough.  The Byzantine Emperor cowered behind his invincible walls, reduced to threatening that he would unleash his tame Orhan with a rival "Ottoman" army.  This they would surely do  the moment they learned of Murat's death.  In the instant of uncertainty that surrounds a death and accession, the European provinces would boil up, the Anatolian princes would be emboldened, Rome would move decisively, and the Italians would seek every advantage.  Both West and East were already astir.  Perhaps, they thought,  the waning of the Byzantines could indeed be stemmed or a Latin hegemony could be reestablished in the East?  But there was a way out, or so it seemed to Murat. 

 

Who can know a father's motives?  The lesson of Ali, the favored son and heir, was a dark and ambiguous one.  Was it a concern for the future of the dynasty?  Was it a trap?  And the bait…?

 

One day his lalas—at once mentors, tutors, councilors, protectors—came to him:  Ibrahim, a gentle scholarly man, and his foremost lala Zaganos Pasha, a Greek by origin, a soldier first and last, warlike, loyal, honest.   They brought with them the grand vizier, Chandarli Halil Pasha, among the most cunning, astute, and cautious of men,  a scholar by training and master of political manipulation;  a man who, for all his famed deviousness, was Murat's most trusted and powerful servant.  He was perhaps the most dangerous and terrible  old man young Mehmet would ever face in such a vulnerable state.

 

He was still watching.  As the horse stirred restlessly under him,  he could see Halil gazing at him through lidded eyes.   The unbelievable victory  was a defeat for Halil Pasha.  He had not wanted this battle.  It was surely too risky.  Did he even want the victory?   Now the scales of power hung lopsided in favor of the young sultan.  The army was flush with plunder.  From the lowest sailor or foot soldier to the loftiest of the janissary corps they had been enriched far beyond their meager dreams.  The grace of God and the hand of fortune had touched this young man and they would follow him in every enterprise.  He was the Conqueror, Father of Conquest, at that moment and forever.

 

But nine years earlier, he was a twelve year old boy, an uncomprehending  pawn on a crowded and violent chessboard pondered over by terrible old men.  "Your father, the Fortune-blessed Sultan, is marching with his army once again to engage Ibrahim the Karamanid in Anatolia," Halil said.  "And he has named you as his regent in the European provinces.  You are to be sultan in your father's absence…with the understanding that I am here to provide advice and counsel as you require it."  As he said the latter, he thrust a sharp and cogent glance at Zaganos, who stood at Mehmet's side with arms respectfully folded.  The first thrust in what would be a long and bitter battle.

 

As regent-sultan the twelve year old was a disaster.  (How this disaster fit the father's plans no one knows for sure, but subsequent events are suggestive.)  Halil Pasha was determined to keep the young prince under his thumb and in this he had the support of the new lala, the formidable Molla Husrev, who at times made Güranî seem positively gentle.  But when a dervish from Persia made his way to Edirne to spread the arcane mysticism of the hurufis, Mehmet was enamored.  Could the true, esoteric meaning of the Holy Book—and, indeed, of all holy books and even of the world itself— be understood from the shapes and numerical values of the letters?  Orthodoxy said no, but the young prince had listened with the stubborn independence no beating could entirely erase.

 

The old men rid themselves of the dervish.  Yet the palace was set to humming like a hive of bees.  And the janissaries, the elite slave-troops that formed the core of the Ottoman army, were suddenly restless, goaded by whisperings that he was now sure had emanated subtly, like the scent of roses on the breeze, from  the retinue of Halil Pasha.  Before long the tremors of discontent that rocked Edirne were sensed by eager ears in Europe and the time was deemed ripe for a crusade to preserve Christian rule in Hungary,   to break the strangle-hold on Constantinople  and drive the Turks from European soil.  After all, Murat was campaigning in Anatolia with the bulk of the Ottoman army, lulled into heedlessness—or so they thought—by the signing of a ten-year truce.

 

He learned early that the Christians could not be trusted.  In fact, he worked hard to understand them and their predecessors, to know why and how the Romans and Alexander and ancient Byzantium had succeeded so spectacularly.  But they remained an enigma.  Constantinople should have surrendered to his vastly superior forces.  The slaughter, pillaging and ruination of the city could have been prevented or minimized at the very worst.  These walls, so violently breached here and there, were now his walls, the empty houses and desolate buildings his buildings.  This would be the center of his dominions and in the short hours since his great victory he had come swiftly to regret the inevitable damage to what now belonged to him. 

 

Now and again his nostrils caught the sweet and foul scent of rotting meat—the smell of battlefields.  For days after the corpses were hauled off, after the foxes and carrion crows had snatched up the remaining scraps of flesh, the ground, soaked with blood, would smell of rotting meat, as if the earth itself were a corpse, dead and decaying.  So it is with this world.  They call it the world of being, and coming-into-being, of dying and decay, the world of impermanence and change.  Only the Other World, the World of Ideal Forms,  does not stink of rotting meat.

 

The young regent-sultan had tried desperately to sift through the rumors and reports that poured into the palace.  The pretender, Orhan, launched a bid to win over the Ottoman march-lords and take Edirne for his own.  A Christian crusade led by Vladislav, King  of Hungary and Poland, and captained by the renown Hunyadi had traveled down the Danube to the Black Sea and was marching along the coast toward the center of Ottoman power.  He and Zaganos had plotted late into the nights seeking a response.  But the response, when it came, was not Mehmet's but his father's and Halil Pasha's.  Suddenly, despite Venetian attempts to hold them up,  Murat and the Anatolian army crossed the straits with Genoese help and marched on the crusaders, crushing them in a great battle at Varna.  Thence Murat returned to retirement in Amasya, once again leaving Mehmet as sultan—a sultan still very much under the control of a dubious Chandarli Halil Pasha.

 

In two years, Halil's machinations would return Murat to the sultanate and retire the fourteen year-old Mehmet to a liminal (and indeterminate) existence in Manisa.   There, in the twilight of semi-exile with Zaganos and a retinue that still considered him to be the sultan, he waited and grew.

 

The procession had taken form as he mused.   He was in the center, flanked by Halil Pasha on his left and on the right, his confidant, the Jewish physician Ya'kub, known as Iacopo to the Italians and Jacob to the English.    Behind him were his generals, the nearest, Zaganos Pasha who, as always, watched his back and kept a suspicious eye on Halil, and behind them a gaggle of scholars, high judges, and a brace of poets.  To the front and flanking him were his solaks, his ceremonial escort, long young men stretched cypress-high by tall formal hats, each bearing a bow and each a master archer.  Trailing the procession was an honor-guard of feudal cavalry, the sipahi resplendent in formal outfits hastily donned, as with all the soldiery in this procession, over bodies worn and often wounded in the great battle that preceded this triumphal entry by only a few hours.  Before anyone moved, he drew his great sword, brandished it aloft, and raising himself on his stirrups,  shouted,  "All praises and all thanks to God, for this victory, and to you, my army,  our felicitations.   This day and forever more you will be known as the Conquerors of Constantinople!"  Those who could hear would carry these words to the rest of the army.  Henceforth they would be his to command.  The day of the terrible old men was on the wane.

 

As the procession passed in a ponderous and awesome silence through the outer wall and crossed the fosse toward the San Romano Gate—what the Ottomans would call the Top Kapı or Cannon Gate in honor of the great cannon that had proved its undoing—his mind, caught up in the rush of events, bounced and swirled from topic to topic like a desperate leaf pursued by a brisk wind.

 

In Manisa he had grown into his adult body and the mind of a man.  At sixteen he had fallen in love.  All other loves would hark back to this.  Gülbahar!—Flower-spring—slave,  concubine of no special birth—although when he clung to her unexpectedly through the vast upheavals of his life, some would whisper it about that she was the captive daughter of a King of the Franks.  He was still sixteen when she bore him a son.   He was in love then, with all the anguish and longing of adolescence.  He knew freshly and poignantly the truth of a million poems, the inner fire, the hot sighs that issuing through the chimney of the throat and the portal of the mouth, blotting out the sun in a smoky cloud from which pours a torrent of tears.  He knew then the secret of rosebuds and the miracle of spring.

 

Oh Saki, give me wine,

                        for one day the poppy-field will be gone

When the autumn season comes

                        both garden and springtime will be gone

 

No matter how my mind inclines

                        toward piety and doing what's good

When I see that picture-pretty face,

                        it's out of my hands, all choice is gone

 

So wholly am I turned to dust,

                        that my heart fears to sigh

Surely with such an east wind

                        the dust will all be blown and gone

 

(Sultan Mehmet II, the Conqueror as the poet Avnî)

 

 

At sixteen he came also to know the thrill and horror of great battles.  He was with his father on the field of Kossova when Murat broke the Serbs and Hungarians for good amid rivers of blood and lifeless bodies in tens of thousands.  In the long marches,  the sanguinary days, the nights feasting with comrades in the great tent pavilion of the monarch, he came to understand another kind of love.  Love in the sanctuary, the harem, was one thing:  a warm, moist, secure love, like the long-remembered embrace of a mother or wet-nurse.  Love-in-the-world, he learned, was something other.

 

The procession wound its way along a great avenue, first bending to the south and then due east toward the center of the city.  The desolation that gaped at them from empty windows and fire-scarred districts never re-built bespoke a fall that began long before the siege, the conquest, and the pillaging that followed.  Oh city of cities!  Bazaar of the world, nexus of the Four Quarters and the Seven Climes!  You are a poorly tended garden. 

 

"The realm is a garden", one of his lalas had said, “And the sultan  is like Rizvan, the gardener of Paradise.  To the ruler is entrusted the planting and tending, and the harsher labors: the tearing up of weeds and rank growth, keeping watch on the walls against those who would steal his fruits.  The ruler keeps order in the garden of this world.  Each flower must be in its place, each rose-bed nurtured and protected.  No single plant can be allowed to dominate and crowd out its neighbors.  The gardener is both master of the garden and slave to the Garden's Owner.

 

"Do not forget Notaras, oh fortunate monarch."  Halil Pasha's harsh whisper brought his mind back to the procession as it ponderously wormed its way into the core of the city.  He turned to the Pasha with an uncomprehending stare.  But, in truth, he comprehended well enough.  Of late he had derived a certain pleasure from  disconcerting the Pasha, who prided himself on his ability to manipulate people and events by knowing everything and everyone's price.  That Halil had been in contact with Lukas Notaras was a certainty.  Mehmet's spies were convinced and, in any case, it fit the Pasha's pattern.  Notaras was the High Admiral and Grand Duke of Constantinople,  the Emperor Constantine's right-hand (or left, depending on where one placed Sphrantzes).  If Halil had been a Byzantine, he would have been Notaras.  Just as Halil came from the old Turkish nobility, so the Grand Duke's father and grandfather  had long been in the service of the Byzantine Emperors.  The father had been a court functionary and envoy for Manuel II  Palaelologus and the son had already been  an ambassador to Murat's court  eight years before Mehmet's birth.  The Ottomans were well acquainted with him.   In the present crisis he had covered all possible avenues and all eventualities.  He held Genoese and Venetian citizenship, kept a good part of his vast fortune in Italian banks, and had sent his daughters to live in Venice, where they would wait out the siege in safety and comfort.  As the Ottoman noose tightened around the city,  he had served his Emperor's interests by mediating between the Unionists, who, in return for a crusader army,  would have healed the Great Schism and welcomed the authority of the Roman Pope in the East, and the Anti-unionists, who would have died first (and in many cases did).  It was rumored that he had won over the Anti-unionists by crying out, "Better the Sultan's turban than the Latin mitre."   Ridiculous!   He would have sold the whole city, turbans, mitres and all,  to Rome for a few boatloads of defenders and worried about handing it over when the siege was lifted.  Had the chance arisen, he might even  have bargained with the devil.  And Halil Pasha was not quite the devil.

 

Notaras had commanded the defense of the San Romano Gate  but  escaped the slaughter around the breaches as the Ottoman armies poured in striking down everyone they encountered, thinking they might be the vanguard of the large reserve force which the Turkish commanders feared and the Byzantines had longed for in vain.  Mehmet suspected that he had withdrawn to his home by some previous arrangement under the protection of  Halil's household troops.  He was aware that Halil Pasha had made similar bargains with other powerful Byzantines, bargains against all turns of fortune.  If the siege had failed, Halil would have been vastly richer and vastly more powerful.  He knew and Halil knew that he knew.

 

One day they had been inspecting the troops who had invested the land walls, when they noticed that some of the common foot-soldiers had captured a fox.  Mehmet turned to Ya'kub, the physician and said, in a light and jesting tone but loud enough to reach the ears of Halil,  "Oh wretched fox, were you not wise enough to bargain with Halil for your deliverance?"

 

When he was seventeen, his father and Halil decided that he needed a wife of noble birth to replace, or  at least, counterbalance his adolescent obsession with Gülbahar.  They sent the wife of the governor of Amasya as emissary and marriage broker to the court of S†leyman Bey of the Dhu'lkadir tribe, who ruled vast lands in the East of Anatolia.   She brought back with her the lady Sitt, said to be the most beautiful of Süleyman's daughters and the two were married in Edirne amid great pomp and ceremony.  It was a marriage that produced no heirs, no happiness for either wife or husband, and no apparent diminution in his attraction to Gülbahar.

 

Lesson:  love-in-the-sanctuary, in the private world of women and children, is very much a mundane love elevated to a great mystery by the unfathomable ways of women.  It is  a love ever touched by births and deaths, great alliances and petty plots, sons of whom many will die young, daughters meted out to the sanctuaries of powerful husbands.  Tender moments, swelling turgid with desire,  shy endearments in the simple, untutored Turkish of foreign concubines, sweet release, drowsy hours in which one could almost imagine a life unclouded by mortal terror…

 

Love takes on a different meaning in the world of men.  It speaks in the words of poets, rides  on the backs of  poems by the Arab and Persian masters of old.  It rings with mighty words in a tongue of tongues, entices in hints and glances and misdirections, encompasses all the inchoate longings that impel men from glory to defeat and back.   It binds all loves into one great unquenchable obsession: Father, brother, comrade, ruler, God…  His eye strayed to the young solaks who flanked the procession.  It is one such as these who is the Beloved, the witness to  God's ultimate beauty.  About one of these the Prophet said, "I saw Him in the best of forms…"  How can one not be drawn to a slender, handsome youth, whose body resembles the graceful vertical stroke of the letter "alef": first in the alphabet, the number "one", initial in the Arabic word "ahad", single/unitary, and in the name of God?  "In the name of Allah, the compassionate, the merciful.  Say that he is God, the One…"  Love in This World, they say, is a metaphor that draws one to know the eternal allure of the Divine.   It is a love, purified in furnaces of longing, among those who speak its language, who share a life and thoughts, aspirations and fears, who also know the addictive thrill of war and the yearning for power.  How  unlike the gentler love of women…

 

Let love reduce your heart to rubble  

                        and you'll not want rebuilding

Let it make you woeful

                        and you'll not want a moment's joy

(Avnî, Sultan Mehmet II)

 

 

His mind snapped back to the present in which his saddle creaked and the May sun was warm on his back.  "Yes, I am thinking of Notaras, my Lala," he replied after the long silence.  And he was.  He would need some of the old Byzantine nobility to legitimate his reign among the Greeks who remained in his dominions.   If he could find Gennadius the monk, voice of the anti-Unionists, who really did prefer the turban to the mitre, he would make him Patriarch of the Eastern Church and a compliant Notaras could manage the secular affairs of the Greek community in the City of the Turks, Istanbul, which was no longer the City of either Constantine, first or last.    Yes, he would see Notaras soon and woo him to his side—or at least know which way the  winds were blowing.  Even now the great train of wagons that provisioned his army was proceeding by another route toward the great square of the Hippodrome.  This night he would feast with his army in the heart of the city, against the backdrop of  Hagia Sophia's great dome.  They would put death and a bloody day behind them; on bellies filled in peace for the first time in a long while, they would transmute a thousand thousand tragedies into the honeyed words of poets and dreams of a brilliant morrow.

 

********

I saw an angel, a sun-face

                        or this world's moon

Black hyacinth curls,

                         smoky sighs of lovers

 

An alluring cypress,

clad in black, the moon

in night, or the Franks

                        whom his beauty rules

 

If your heart is not bound

                        in the knot of his heathen belt

You're no true believer,

                         but a lost soul among lovers

 

His lips give life anew

                        to those whom his glances kill

Just so, for that giver-of-life

                        follows the way of Jesus

 

Avnî, have no doubt,

                        that beauty will one day be tame

For you are ruler of Istanbul

                        and he Lord of Galata

 

(Avnî, Sultan Mehmet II)

 

He paused for a moment on the great acropolis of the Byzantines, which jutted its prow out into the convergence of the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn.  Over waters glistening in the sunlight, white gulls wheeled and cried—a deceptive contrast to the city where flocks of carrion crows, black and gray as death or the garb of Christian monks,  croaked their way through a thin haze of smoke from feast to feast, disturbed only by tired soldiers leading forlorn bands of captives into a cloudy future.  But the gulls, now shining pure as shards of shattered diamond in the bright sky,  would also stoop to the same grisly supper.  Tonight brave men would feast and brave men would be feasted upon…the way of this transitory world.

 

It was now time for Notaras.  Mehmet had sealed his unbelievable victory with prayers beneath the awesome dome of the Hagia Sophia, now the grandest mosque in all Islamdom.  Zaganos had been sent to Galata, across the Golden Horn, to calm the skittish Italians by assuring them that their economic interests—ever foremost in their minds—would continue to be served (and far better served) by the city's new masters.  It was time for the first steps in waging a successful peace and creating the eternal capital of the Ottomans on the ruins of Byzantium.

 

Notaras' house was not far from the great square of the Hippodrome.  When Mehmet arrived, accompanied only by Ya'kub the physician and  a modest escort of his household janissaries, he found the house guarded—as he had predicted—by two sipahis attached to Halil Pasha's family lands.  One of them beat on the door with the butt of a dagger and Ya'kub, who had dismounted, spoke briefly in Greek to a red-eyed and trembling servant who emerged from the gloomy interior.  After a moment, the master of the house, accompanied by his two sons and a son-in-law, all dressed in formal robes and conspicuously unarmed, appeared in the doorway and ushered the  royal party into a large room. 

 

He was shown with exaggerated courtesy to a backless sofa set upon a dais which extended from wall to wall at one end of the room, whereupon the Grand Duke and his sons prostrated themselves before him under the stern gaze of the silent janissaries standing vigilant at his side.  When Notaras proffered a coffer brimming with gems and strands of pearl and said, in a grave yet fearless voice,  "This and all that is mine are at your service, my lord the Sultan,"  he waited for Ya'kub to translate, even though, having learned some Greek at his mother's knee, he understood every word.  (Lesson: It never hurts to keep something in reserve and to appear less aware than one really is.)  He accepted the gift with a nod to one of the janissaries who took it from the Grand Duke's hand.  Without looking at the coffer, he spoke to his physician-translator, "You might tell him that such a gift should have been given to his Emperor, who had more need of it than I.  Or you might tell him whatever you think fitting."   The physician turned to Notaras and, with laconic brevity, said, "The Sovereign appreciates your gift."   Both physician and Sultan were certain that the Grand Duke, on his part, held in reserve more knowledge of Turkish than he let on;  the reproof and its embedded threat would not go unremarked.  Let him not mistake who is in charge here;  let him not rely too much on the protection of Halil.

 

He motioned for the Greeks to rise.  As they did, he passed his eye over the four with a disconcerting deliberateness.  The Grand Duke and his sons were tall and slender:  the eldest son, a grown man like his graying father, freshly scarred by the battle they had so recently escaped; the younger son, about fourteen years of age, slim and supple as a cypress, with dark eyes and a handsome face as white and glowing as a full moon framed in dark curls—another Jacob by name, by looks another Joseph.  The son-in-law, a Kantakouzenas,  was shorter and stocky, his face bruised on one side by some powerful blow.   With an air of choosing his words carefully, Mehmet addressed his tautly expectant hosts:  "Serve me well from this moment on and I will restore you to the power and position you once held under your late Emperor—nay, I will elevate you to power and position far beyond that, in a city more glorious than you have ever known.  What say you?"  The physician translated, this time in full:

 

"My lord, we are yours to command." replied the Duke.

 

 "And your honored wife, God willing, she is well?"

 

"Unfortunately she lies ill in her bed.  Otherwise she too would have been honored to greet you, my lord."

 

 "Take me to her."

 

An instant of bewildered incomprehension…and then they led him to the bedroom where the Grand Duke's wife lay.  He spoke to her tenderly—he was only twenty-one and had buried his own mother not that long ago— tenderness had not yet been wrung out of him by time and trial, "Be not afraid, mother.  We will watch over you and restore to your family all it has lost.  We will be pleased to see you well again, God willing."

 

The wish was sincere but doubt hung between them like an early-morning mist rising from the abyss of age and faith and culture that separated him from the Grand Duke.  Could they indeed be trusted?  Could they ever know him well enough to be loyal?  Could he know them well enough to rely upon their loyalty?  As these thoughts occupied one part of his mind, with another part he contemplated the young man holding his mother's hand on the other side of the bed. 

 

The shape of the body and lineaments of the face are the outward signs of inner intelligence and character or so the respected sciences of physiognomy tell us.  I would surround myself with such young men; not only would they ever remind me of Divine Beauty, but they would serve me well:  purity of face bespeaks moral purity, beauty and intelligence go hand in hand.  Yes, he could serve, they could serve; fortune has favored me thus far and why not in this also.  I am riding the ascending arc of fortune's wheel, let those who have ridden it to its nadir now rise again with me.

 

They departed in a shower of formalities, the Sultan riding off to feast the flower of his army, the Byzantines left behind to gnaw at the bitter ends of loss.

 

As the long night of feasting began in the ruddy light of sunset on garden-fields of carpets laid in the great tent pavilion set amid the cooking fires and great cauldrons that dotted the Hippodrome square,  Halil, who had been pointedly left out of the earlier visit, asked after Notaras and his family.  "They are in good health," the young Sultan said, "and I have plans for them."  Halil nodded and smiled…which gave him to understand that the Pasha had plans for them as well.  He could not dally;  he must exert himself to win the loyalty of the Grand Duke away from Halil.

 

With an almost imperceptible nod he summoned to his side the Chief Eunuch of his household, a huge man with large, languid eyes set in a preternaturally impassive face, who stood like a shadow in the background, attentive to his every wish.  When the Eunuch bent to receive his command, he whispered:  "Go now to the Notaras house and bring the young man to serve at my feast." 

 

"On my head…" replied the Eunuch and departed in dignified haste with a small contingent of janissaries.

 

It seemed a brilliant ploy.  The young man, with all his beauty and grace and honored in the eyes of all by this invitation, would burn like a bright candle illuminating the gathering.  The poets would be like moths to his flame;  they would die in the incandescence of his charm and dying sing eloquent, impassioned staves of love, like nightingales trilling their longing for the fatal embrace of the rose.  His name would be on all tongues and, thus elevated, he would join the janissaries of  Mehmet's household,  where the most elite of young men were trained for positions of great prestige and power.  In the janissary corps—the "new army"—everyone was a slave, conscripted from the non-Muslim population, and from such conscripts came those who would rule the Empire.  As the son rose in service to the Sultan, the bonds between the father and the Ottomans would grow stronger and each, by serving his own ends and the ends of his family, would ultimately serve the interests of the Sultan.

 

The news of this honor came like a cannon-shot to the Notaras household.  Without warning the Chief Eunuch and his retinue appeared at the door.  The summons was relayed and then repeated several times in ever simpler Turkish and then pidgin Greek until the father was sure he understood.  ‘Understood’ is, perhaps, the wrong term;  he knew what was asked but could not fathom what it meant.  After ushering the emissaries into a waiting room, the adult men of the family excused themselves "to prepare the boy" and gathered in one of the private inner rooms.   They had lost so much this day it was inconceivable to them that this new development did not signal yet another and equally terrible loss.  The father and brother sat as if stunned.  The Kantakouzenas son-in-law, his face dark with rage, was the first to speak:  "We know these Turkish dogs, their lust is unbridled by faith or morality or any of the nobler feelings  common to civilized men.  This tyrant wants the boy in order to sate his unquenchable rapaciousness.  Do we send our beautiful and innocent Jacob to be the catamite of this devil?  Do we next send our wives and sisters to be his whores?"

 

"No," the father replied, still pensive, "that we cannot do.  But this Sultan is a young man himself and appeared sincere in his approaches to us.  Could it be that there is more to this summons that we can make out from here?"

 

The son:  "I doubt.  The wolf, I am certain, has appeared to us in sheep's clothing, father.  It is a ploy to humiliate us and all whom we serve, now and in the  annals of history.  We may be lost if we refuse, but are we not lost in either case?  Is it not a question of whether we be lost with honor or without?"

 

The father:  "Just so.  If it is true that these Turks know nothing of love and honor and obey naught but their own foul lusts, then we cannot serve them nor can we live with honor under their yoke.  Would that I knew them better or had more time to learn.  But I do not.  So are we agreed that we cannot comply and are willing to face the most dire consequences?"

 

The Eunuch received them with his accustomed impassivity.  When they made it clear to him that they would not send the boy and were willing to die in defense of their refusal,  he turned without a word and, lacking instructions for this eventuality, made his way back to the square and the Sultan.   When he whispered his news in the Sultan's ear, the young ruler flinched as though struck by a blow  and a flush crept up from his neck into his face.  He turned to Zaganos, who had returned from his mission to Galata and was seated to his left.  "Notaras will not send his son to serve at our feast.  We intended to honor him thus and his family with him; what does this mean?"  Zaganos cast a bitter glance at Halil and in the crudest Turkish replied,

 

"They think you mean to fuck the boy…right here, in front of everyone."  As the Sultan's red turned to purple and his lips parted in disbelief,  Zaganos continued in a more elegant tone, " I know these Christians.  I have myself been to Venice in the guise of a merchant and our spies have  been even to the Golden Apple—Rome—where the Pope has his palaces.  Their heathen lusts are a public disgrace.  If a high-born woman be poor through some mischance, she has no recourse but to sell herself to powerful men.  She is trained in literature, poetry, music, and the arts of conversation and becomes the centerpiece of cultured gatherings where she offers her body to the highest bidder.  Such women throng the streets of Venice and even the Christians' holy city of Rome.  They go about brazenly with faces and breasts exposed, finely clad, with learned men and church officials panting in their train.  These men love neither  their wives, whom they forsake for whores, nor the whores, whom they leave unprotected and subject to multiple rapes and mutilations.  They live in a moral ignorance darker than that of the Arabs before the Prophet (God's prayers and peace be with him).  How can one understand a people who know nothing of either mundane or metaphorical love?

 

"Can one be so ignorant as to know nothing of  love?" asked the Sultan.

 

"They can," answered his most trusted advisor.

 

The headstrong boy become gardener of the realm again summoned his Eunuch.  "Take the Djellad, the Executioner, with you this time and bring them here.  They will come as I bid them, willing or no."

 

They returned their attention to the feast but the young Sultan's mood was dark on what should have been his brightest of nights.   By the time the Executioner and Eunuch arrived back at the pavilion with a terrible old man and his sons in tow, his mind was firmly set.  To the Eunuch he said, "Take the young one back to his mother."  And to the Executioner,  "As for these…A  simple nod was enough.

 

Hours later, when the feasting had ended in the dim glow of the false dawn, the ground outside the tents had already begun to smell of rotting meat.