Death and Fortune: Book One of 1526

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Chapter 4: The Watch Tower

That Evening, Many Miles to the South


Peter, count of Eisenberg, led his guest Krum von Gratz up the ladder on to the watchtower’s platform. It was built from fresh pine logs and rose above the seemingly endless swampy plain of Hungaria. A fresh breeze carried summer rain from the south, but this did nothing to ward off the mosquitos.

Peter uncorked a jar of wine, took a swig and handed it to his guest, “There it is” said Peter, “the frontier of Christendom.”

Krum slapped a mosquito and took a swig of wine. “It’s flat as my daughter’s chest and as wet as a whore’s dingle. Small wonder the Turks don’t seem to want it.”

Peter laughed. “But Hungaria’s the richest kingdom east of France.”

“Doesn’t stop it from being a glorified swamp,” said Krum. “Come and join us on the road to Rome. Frundsberg is rallying the landsknecht and he’s promising the emperor’s soft Spanish gold.”

Peter was silent looking south across the plain. He was a count, and the king of Hungaria was his liege lord, but he was no knight. He was the paymaster and commander of a troop of landsknecht mercenaries, swordsmen and musketeers, brightly clothed soldiers of fortune. He had long ago eschewed fighting from horseback and led his men on foot with sword and pistol. Krum was an agent of the emperor and he was urging Peter to break his oath of fealty.

“Come, Peter, how much is the king paying you to guard this stagnant marsh? Tell me you aren’t tired of eating turnips and poaching the king’s deer. I don’t imagine there are many women to speak of in this wilderness. Aren’t you sick of keeping yourself company with your hand while cultivating sinful thoughts about your pageboy? Come with us to Rome. You’ll be eating nothing but honeyed lamb and lying between the thighs of the finest whores in Christendom. You can trust me, as a man who’s done his pilgrimage to the Holy City I can swear that there are no daughters of joy finer than those employed by the Holy Father.”

Peter laughed as he took another swig of wine. “I’ve missed you, Krum, you old sinner. Do you remember Pavia?”

“I remember we showed those French knights what swords and muskets could do.”

“It was Hell,” said Peter. “Smoke everywhere, dead horses, dead people, blood, shit, the very worst of which man is capable.”

Krum knocked back another cup of wine in a single gulp. “But you were good at it. I’ve never seen a man use a short sword to that effect. I know what you felt. And when the passion was gone and you were left shaking with blood on your hands you were showered with gold, clothes, women and wine and the priest forgave your sins. The truth is if you really didn’t like the blood you would be home with your wife. What’s really keeping you here?”

Peter glanced at the ground. He felt a little embarrassed admitting to Krum the true reason he was here. “The priest in Milan I made the confession to after Pavia, I told him, I felt as you said. But I was haunted by the ghosts of all those Christians I had killed. The priest told me I could do good with my killing, that Christendom itself was under threat and I could gain penance for my guilt by fighting a true enemy of God. Do you see that light in the distance? It’s naught but an orange flicker.”

“I see it.”

“That’s Belgrade Castle. It sits on a fork between two rivers. It overlooks the endless plain. Once it was an unassailable fastness. From it the lords of Hungaria ruled in God’s name. The Muslims rule there now. The church has been made into a temple for demons, and many Christians have been taken to the slave markets of Istanbul. Their soldiers are baptised Christians taken as babes, and trained to fight the enemy of their new God.”

Krum spat out his mouthful of wine. “Christ the redeemer. I never took you for a holy fool. You mean you’re hanging around here for the good of your damned immortal soul? I’ll find a priest in Rome to absolve everything for a very reasonable fee. Hungaria has stood for five hundred years. It’ll last a couple more. Come with me Peter. Come with me to wealth and glory.”

After taking a long draft of wine Peter handed the jar back to Krum. “You’ve come a day too late. A herald from the king arrived this morning. The Turks are marching. We must prepare to fight them.” The two men fell silent listening to the yelps of jackals, and the cries of swamp birds.

Ibrahim Pasha

Ibrahim Pasha gasped as he fixed the image of the full moon with his camera obscura. Moons such as this with such brightness, clarity and contour were rare, fleeting, and precious. Ibrahim set to work tracing the moon’s outline onto the paper pinned to the wall. Some might find the work tiresome and finicky, but to Ibrahim it was a passion. As Ibrahim worked filling in the shadow of a crater, he thought about how the surface of the moon seemed so close. It truly was a landscape of bleak, battered rock, a distant world circling Earth. Did it have life?

The cough of Addisu, the black eunuch, interrupted his thoughts.

“What is it?” Ibrahim asked.

“The Lady Nuray would like to know if you are to attend her?”

The Lady Nuray, Ibrahim’s new highborn wife, had travelled from Konya to join him on the frontier. Perhaps it was the political nature of the marriage that caused Ibrahim to feel estranged from her. Perhaps it was that she was from the arrogant Mirza family who disliked Ibrahim’s origins, perhaps it was that he preferred the embrace of his favourite concubine, that surveying the troops with the sultan had made him tired, perhaps he simply wanted to draw the moon. He would not in any case be rushed to bed by the impatience of his wife. “Addisu,” said Ibrahim, “have you seen the moon?”

“Yes I can see it from the harem gardens. It is very beautiful, Great Pasha.”

“No,” Ibrahim became animated pacing around the room, “have you really seen the moon? Do you know what the moon is?”

Addisu sighed, “What should I tell Nuray?”

“Tell her,” said Ibrahim, “that it is the holy day of the prophet Isaac. It is surely best that men and women do not lie together on such a day.”

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