Orhan Mutlu and John Savage stood on a balcony above the Bosphorus on the Asian side when Elif’s fear reached out for them over the water.
“The future of Turkey lies in Asia.” Orhan’s hand rested on the grip of his holstered pistol. “We should stick with the winners.”
“Istanbul grew up European,” Savage said. “Look where it started.”
Shrieking seagulls circled over the white-capped waves. A rust- streaked bulk-carrier, holds piled high with Ukrainian grain, steamed past the Golden Horn. On the European side, the morning sun painted pink the domes, minarets, palaces, and towers of the Old City of Istanbul, still girt by the walls of the Roman Emperor Theodosius. Out to sea, a vast military vessel steamed towards the city, flanked by two destroyers bristling with weaponry.
“Look at that aircraft carrier,” the burly Turk said. “The Gerald R Ford. The United States of America bringing one hundred thousand tons of its most concentrated killing power into the heart of Istanbul. Outside powers always try to dominate Turkey. But we are fighting back. As you know, to your cost.”
“I don’t want to dominate your bloody sister.” The sun shone hot on Savage’s neck. “What fool would even try?”
“A Turkish woman is a match for any man. Except for a Turk.” Orhan squared his shoulders.
“Elif and I were together. Now we are apart. End of story.”
“She will do better without you.”
Savage wiped a trickle of sweat from his forehead. Across the water, Elif would be in her tunnel, excavating ancient relics. On site she wore shorts and a baggy shirt, her hair tangled, her bare calves flecked with sweat and dust. He smiled as the tune to Sam Cooke’s Working on a Chain Gang came into his head.
“She is racing to find the famous Palladium,” Orhan went on. “Arzu Pasha has threatened to bury her in concrete.”
“The Palladium is a Greek myth. Elif told that US journalist she would be more likely to find Achilles down in a catacomb, polishing his sword.”
“You imperialist powers pretend arguments are won by logic. In reality, strength decides everything.” Without warning, Orhan slapped Savage on the back. “That is why tonight, we shall teach you a lesson you will never forget.”
Savage whirled round and seized the Turk’s wrist. “Don’t hit me.”
Orhan stepped back, cradling his arm. “Elif told me you were crazy. I was only talking about the soccer.”
Inside the room, two managers faced a battery of TV cameras.
“We expect two thousand fans for tonight’s game,” the Liverpool boss said. “I know the Turkish police will keep them safe.”
Orhan shook his head. “Still no news of terrorist threats from your secret channels?” he said to Savage. “Or are you keeping the best stuff for yourself, as usual? Excuse me.” He pulled out his phone.
“What is it?” Savage said
“It is a message from Elif. I must go.” Orhan signalled to his deputy, who was watching the press conference with a sour expression. “Call me if anything comes up. My sister needs me.”
“Show me.” Savage tried to grab the phone, but the intelligence cop shook him off and strode towards the exit.
“Nothing frightens Elif,” Orhan said. “Something nasty must have happened.”
Savage stepped beyond the Turk, his body braced in the doorway. “You want to leave? Show me the bloody text.”
Orhan’s eyes narrowed. “You really are a psycho.” He held up the screen.
Come quickly. Elif’s text was in Turkish. I am afraid.
Savage looked up to meet Orhan’s dark gaze. “I’m going too,” he said.
“Oh, yes? I thought you had Liverpool supporters to look after?”
“Elif needs help,” Savage said. “I don’t trust you to protect her.”
The commander, Yusuf, led his men in single file along the hidden path through the darkness. All along the land-walls of Byzantium, from the Blachernae palace to the north, past the Mesoteichion, down to the Golden Gate and the Marble Tower where the stone ramparts plunged into the Sea of Marmara, tens of thousands of bashi-bazouks fought their way up the mounds of rubble beneath the battered walls.
High on the battlements, Genoese and Venetian archers rained arrows and crossbow bolts on the attackers. Catapults hurled jagged rocks into the massed ranks of the advancing troops. Yet still the bashi-bazouks trudged on up the ramp of broken stone, adding their bodies to those over which they climbed. As men fell dead, more rushed forward to fill their places, shields held over their heads, drawing the defenders’ fire down on themselves.
Further back, out of range, the main force of the Sultan’s crack Janissary regiments massed in the darkness, harbouring their strength for the final assault at dawn. Yusuf’s friend, Hasan, waited with them – a giant of a man, and a master of satranç, the game of tactics also known as chess. Hasan had sworn to win the Sultan’s prize for the first soldier to penetrate the stockade and plant the Ottoman colours within the city.
Around the sea-walls too, the Sultan’s fleets fought their way towards the shore, harassing the defenders, firing cannon, and landing troops to divert the city’s defenders from the land assault.
But unless Yusuf succeeded in his mission, all these attempts to penetrate the city would fail; and Hasan, and every other soldier in the Sultan’s vast army, would go unrewarded.
Yusuf lifted his arm, one finger raised.
One finger meant move ahead, in silence. A fist, stop. An arm thrown forward, an all-out assault.
Like Yusuf, the eleven Janissaries in his team uttered no battle cries. Their feet and armour were wrapped in cloth, their bright Venetian blades greased and sheathed. They moved like wraiths across the marshy ground through the shadows at the foot of the walls.
Together, they turned north towards the tumult of the assault.