On a balcony, overlooking the sparkling harbor of Avlonya, Mehmed-beg Ahmed Pasha sat quietly, regarding his hydrangea waving gently in the warm breeze. When the flowers tired him, he looked beyond, at the lemon grove, where the wind twisted the leaves, reminding him of the twinkling of stars. The sun soaked sandstone of his balcony warmed him gently.
All was well. The Sanjakate was quiet (or at least the bandits, brigands and pirates who were active had paid the appropriate bakhsheesh, as carefully calculated by his private secretary, Faisal, based with remarkable diligence upon each group’s takings, overheads, and profit margins, allowing for support of both retired bandits and degree of markup of the arms and munitions supplied by the Sanjak), the weather was good, and his gardens looked well. What more could a man look forward to in his old age?
A servant quietly approached and informed him that Baker Pasha, the commander of the Sanjakate’s rather perfunctory effort at a military force, was awaiting an interview. Mehmeg-beg asked that the Pasha be admitted, and asked for coffee to be brought.
As the salaaming servant departed, Mehmed contemplated Baker Pasha. A man of remarkable military efficiency (especially for the Ottoman Empire) he was a pleasure to deal with (again especially as a foreigner he did not have real ambitions of filling the cushions the Sanjak currently occupied). A trifle, umm… enthusiastic, possibly, but that was a young man’s vice. Baker had ended up in Ottoman service after an “unfortunate incident” involving a young lady in a stagecoach. He had been cashiered (the Sanjak thought that the right term; he though inquiring of Baker might be a bit much) by the English and ended up in Ottoman service, where illicit activity with a lady in a stagecoach made him some sort of paragon of virtue among his new peers. The Sanjak was known for his tolerance of western infidels, but the thought of an army where one could get promoted for losing thousands of troops through incompetence, and thrown out for some dodgy business in a stagecoach still completely baffled him. Never mind, here was the man himself.
Baker bowed, and the coffee that arrived with him was served. Both men made themselves comfortable and sipped until the appropriate time had passed, and business could be discussed. Mehmed-beg happily recognized the waste of time, cheerfully accepting it as postponement of actual effort.
“Your excellency,” Baker started, “I have news from the eastern frontier.”
They conversed in italian, which both had picked up in their (in the Sanjak’s case, thoroughly mis-spent, youth; he did not know about Baker Pasha, he must ask) youth. News from the east? What could that be? Could Abdulaziz in the next province be up to something? If so, it did not really matter, because the man needed a team of experts to assist him getting his slippers on the correct feet. Even if that was the case, though, his spies should have informed him rather than Baker Pasha, who, due to his background, was as much part of the local information network as a sheep was part of a pack of wolves; briefly, and only as a victim. Some disciplining was clearly necessary, one could not let the information service get slack; he would have a couple tightened up nicely on a rack if something important had been missed, as an example.
“Really,” answered Mehmed-beg, still not really that interested, “what passes?”
“The Aga of the Janissaries approaches, he should be here tomorrow.”
That was more interesting. Mehmed-beg surveyed the harbor. Only a cluster of fishing boats, and one galliot of the local
pirates ummm.. local indpendent entrepreneurs , whose crew seemed to be taking longer than usual to recover from the previous night’s entertainment. A notable absence of ships suitable for carrying men of importance…
“Is his ship delayed?” The Aga could only be coming here on his way to somewhere else…
“No, Excellency, he is coming here, with a large force of troops.”
It is reasonably hard to shatter a small coffee cup in one hand, especially as the Sanjak’s staff did not favor tiny porcelain dishes. Mehmed-beg managed it withotu apparent effort.
“Here. The Aga is bring an army HERE?”
Baker Pasha appeared excited and pleased by the prospect, which showed how much he knew. There could be no good outcome for this, the Sanjak thought. Casting his mind over his activities over the last few years he could think of nothing he had done worthy of worse than a reprimand. Could it be possible that his inactivity had caused annoyance? No, they would have to start with the bureaucracy in Istanbul and work their way out if inactivity was a problem; they would not get here for years, maybe decades then. Enemies in the palace? No, he had outlived his enemies by his advanced age, and by thorough and complete application of daggers, poison, and in one interesting case, a burmese python. So why was he being visited? No, this could only be bad.
Concealing his well founded, yet abject, terror the Sanjak asked Baker Pasha to prepare an appropriate reception for the Aga, and camps for his troops, and returned to his contemplation of his garden. But it really was not the same….
Mehmed-beg and Baker Pasha watched the Aga arrive, surrounded by troops. Years of watching Imperial armies gave the Sanjak some insights. The first was that there was no conceivable way this was to displace him, or if it was it was a terrible waste of effort. The assembled brigands and bandits (or those who bothered to show up) that comprised his military force would run away at the very sight of this lot. So it was for some other purpose. But there were no ships in the harbor and Avlonya was a dead end (possibly in more ways than one, thought thought the Sanjak, considering the lances of the sipahi and swallowing) ; where on earth could they be going.
They watched each group of troops as they passed; the sipahi and deli were the usual mishmash; a certain percentage of them clearly knew their business (which probably involved robbery with violence and GBH) the rest were having problems managing complicated things like “all these sharp pointy objects” and “which way does the horse actually go”. The majority of the horseflesh, indeed, looked well overdue for the local glue works and their almost catatonic state was the only reason their riders were on their backs, not the ground.
The bright uniforms and plumes of the janisaries looked excellent, until one got a
better look at the men wearing them. Their drill, obedience, and martial skills appeared to equal that of a flock of chickens (domestic, not feral) and a good proportion of them appeared to have taken the culinary titles in use among the janissaries altogether too seriously. Each unit was followed by a number of carts, carrying not baggage, but soldiers for whom the slow march in good weather across friendly country had proved altogether too taxing. Mehmed-beg remembered the Janissaries of his youth, and winced. There was one infantry unit, one of the Nizam-i cedit of which he had heard, which looked to be in good order, and earned an approving glance and salute from Baker Pasha. The Sanjak made a note to point out the difference between the new troops and the Janissaries that the Aga was responsible for to the Aga if he was especially annoying. Maybe the man would have an apoplexy and relieve him of one of his problems.
The artillery train was very VERY large, but on closer examination appeared to include weapons which had been in service at the siege of Constantinople, and were probably of not that much current use. The wagons containing stone, rather than modern metal, cannonballs rather confirmed the gun’s antique status. Another mental note was made, on the importance of keeping a respectful distance from the artillery if it ever fired.
The Sanjak and Baker Pasha greeted the Aga on his approach with as much effusiveness and charm as they could muster, hampered only by Mehmed-beg’s crippling anxiety and Baker’s lack of command of any mutual language (his sallies of “Good show, what” followed by a guffaw being greeted with an uncomprehending smile and a discreet movement away, much as one might act on being approached by an unknown lunatic). The Aga proved terribly uninformative, gloatingly indicating that he would let them know the purpose of his visit after the welcoming banquet, clearly enjoying both the prospect of food and the thought that someone else would be spending the day in bowel clenching terror.
As they retired, the Sanjak noted to Baker that the oysters might best be avoided at the meal that evening, as he feared they might be a little “aged”. And that reminded him, he needed to tell the kitchen staff to give the barrel of oysters that had been opened and left in the afternoon sun a good stir, so that they all “aged” evenly.
For an average person in the empire, the Sanjak though, the Aga of the Janissaries was beyond corpulent, though for a high ranking member of the Imperial administration he was quite svelte. The amount he had just consumed at the welcoming feast (hitting the oysters heavily, Mehmed-beg was quietly pleased to note) made this no particular surprise, and the Sanjak and Baker Pasha had waited for the meal to be complete before business could be attended to. Baker in patience, Mehmed-beg by now in terrified resignation.
“Thank you for the splendid meal” burbled the Aga “and now I am sure you are interested to hear the plans his Imperial Majesty has for you.”
Mehmed-beg agreed through gritted teeth, while a servant quietly translated for Baker, eliciting a “Good-oh, what” in response that no-one even pretended to understand.
“We were invited to a small convention in Stockholm (Mehmed-beg frowned for a moment, trying to remember where that was, and then decided it did not matter) apparently, according to the Emir of Rumelia, for the express purpose of having a war start. The Russians appear to be interested in causing conflict among the small nations of Central Europe. We do not know why; but then again we always are fairly confused about most of the things the Russians do (and so is everyone else, including the Russians, thought Mehmed-beg). The result was that a war was begun, and the Emir volunteered the Sanjakate of Avlonya to uphold, as a proxy, the honor and interests of the Sublime Porte, as it is clearly below the dignity of the Sultan to become involved with such minor potentates (and besides, we’d probably lose, thought Mehmed-beg, and that would be bad for Selim’s digestion, which is getting a fair old workout as it is).”
“With that in mind ” continued the Aga, who was now looking to be in slight discomfort “his Majesty has provided these superb Imperial troops for the defense of Avlonya, and fully expects you to uphold the empire’s honor and reputation.”
Yes, it was as bad as he expected, thought the Sanjak, barely noticing the Aga’s face progressing though the colors of the rainbow before settling on a pasty, sweaty grey (though the noises of gastrointestinal distress were rather intrusive upon his thought process). He was delighted when the Aga excused himself with his entourage, pleading tiredness from the journey. And, indeed, none of them looked particularly healthy, Mehmed-beg noted amiably.
Seeing the puppylike enthusiasm on Baker’s face, he ordered the local military forces gathered (at least those of the local brigands stupid or slow enough to find themselves unable to avoid a press gang) and told Baker that they would leave in four day’s time.
“Excellency, leave to where, and why so soon?” asked Baker.
“By then, Baker Pasha, some army will be doing something. We will respond.”
We will respond by staying well away from them, thought Mehmed-beg, but did not care to share this slice of enlightenment with Baker, who’s enthusiasm for massive amount of cargnage had clearly not enabled him to make the logical leap that the carnage might include him. Or much more relevant, the Sanjak. And, if he was any judge, in four days the Aga still would be non compos mentis so getting out of sight and supervision before he either recovered or failed to and was replaced was important. He would have to rely on his spies to tell him where the enemy was; unfortunately they were much more focussed on more important and immediate threats, like his underlings and neighboring Ottoman bureaucrats, but they would just have to serve.
Baker bowed and left, with odd mutters of “Good show”, “What-ho”, “The games afoot” and “Tally-ho” streaming in his wake as he gathered his rather alarmed and nervous staff. The Sanjak, remembering the galliot from the last un-alarmed morning he had spent on his balcony shouted a suggestion after him that recruiting in the early morning on the ships in the harbor, armed with some clubs and a stout length of rope might well produce a bumper crop of would-be patriots.
Mehmed-beg was alone, save for the staff clearing up. He thought rapidly. The only plan here was to lose as quickly as possible, minimizing the risk to himself from the enemy, at the same time in a manner that his more dangerous enemies, his fellow Ottoman government officials, would have no egregious errors to point to. They would point to something anyway, but Mehmed-beg needed to ensure that they would have to make them up.. .they could keep reports and investigations bouncing back and forth for years, so long as there was nothing so embarrassing as an actual real witness to an event that occured. And he needed someone to take the blame, if blame was going around; he suspected that Baker Pasha would not serve, being both unimportant and foreign. It was almost a pity that the Aga would be indisposed, because he would have served the purpose admirably.
Oh well. He really was too old for this, so he had better get a good nights sleep. There was a failed campaign to be organized in the morning.