He wasn’t speaking Ottoman Turkish, the official language of the empire since its inception. It wasn’t Persian either, a language the educated upper echelon of society could speak and read, mostly used for literature and poetry. No, the man was using an unusual dialect of Arabic, a language the sultan only used when reading and discussing religious verse.
‘But before you do,’ he continued, ‘I need you to believe.’
The man held the sultan’s gaze, then dropped his chin and shut his eyes. He mumbled some words the sultan couldn’t make out. Then he vanished.
He simply disappeared.
The sultan’s head snapped left, right, scanning the vast room in utter panic. What kind of magic was this? Then, a few seconds later, the man reappeared again, without any warning, standing at the far side of the chamber by the two- tiered marble fountain.
‘I’m here to help you, Your Eminence’ the man told the sultan. ‘But in order for that to happen, I need you to believe what I say.’
Another mumble, then he disappeared again.
The sultan was now sitting up, rigid with paralysis. His breathing was frantic, his heart galloping furiously inside his chest. He thought of calling out for his guards. One scream and a dozen of his most trusted janissaries would come charging through the door, sabres drawn. But he hesitated. In part, he was too shocked, too terrified to react. He also thought they might take him for a fool if the intruder wasn’t there.
He could also see that the man’s chest was covered with strange markings. Tattoos of words and numbers and drawings and diagrams, all over his torso.
Before he could ponder things too much, the man was back, where he’d first appeared, right by the sultan’s bed, mere inches from him. Only this time, the intruder reached down to the floor and raised a yataghan, a short sabre with a curved blade that was so sharp it could lop off a man’s head with a single flick. The sultan recognized it as one he kept in a display cabinet by the divan, only it wasn’t there anymore. It was now pressed against his neck.
‘If I wanted to kill you, you would have already died a thousand deaths,’ the man said. ‘But as I said, I’m here to be of service. More importantly, I’m here to save you and Kara Mustafa Pasha from a catastrophic defeat.’
Then he disappeared again, and the dagger fell to the ground and clattered against the marble flooring.
Almost instantly, the man appeared again, at the foot of the bed.
The sultan lurched back and slammed against the bed’s gilded headboard. His breath was coming short and fast, and he was overcome with violent shivers.
What was this creature, and how did it know about his plans?
He studied the intruder. ‘Who are you?’ he asked. ‘What are you? Are you’— he hesitated, then asked—‘a djinn?’
The stranger’s face cracked under the hint of a smile.
Unlike his father, Mehmed wasn’t mentally unstable or degenerate. He was a quiet and melancholy man, but he had one obsession: the legacy of his conquering ancestors. He was immersed in the mystique of the dynasty to which he belonged, and hungered to mimic his ancestors’ exploits. Lately, he had thrown himself into research to prepare for the coming summer’s offensive, carefully studying the chronicles of past military campaigns that lined the shelves of the imperial archives. But Mehmed was also a pious man, and, as such, was very familiar with the djinns, the supernatural creatures of Islamic mythology romanticized as ‘genies’. They enjoyed free will and could be agents of good and evil.
Without flinching, the intruder watched him in silence. ‘I am a friend who wants to help you achieve success beyond anything you’ve dreamed of,’ he finally told him. ‘And if you heed my words and allow me to assist you, I can promise you that the Golden Apple will only be the beginning of your great and most glorious legacy.’
His words caught the sultan’s breath.
How could this intruder know what they were planning?
Two months earlier, the sultan’s gardeners had planted the imperial tug outside the palace gates - out in the open, for all to see. The meaning of the ancient war banners— tall, elabor ately carved crimson poles topped by a flurry of horses’ tails— was well known, as it was a ritual that dated back to the days of the sultan’s steppe warrior ancestors: the Commander of the Faithful would be going to war.
The objective of the campaign, however, was a closely guarded secret.
‘Oh, yes, your eminence. I know all about your meeting with Kara Mustafa last week,’ the tattooed man continued, referring to the sultan’s grand vizier. ‘I know that once the winter snows melt, your army will be marching west. I also know its target won’t be the piddling fortified towns that pepper the lands west of Belgrade. No, your army will be marching on Vienna itself and on Leopold, the usurper who dares call himself Holy Roman Emperor.’
Leopold. The mere mention of the man’s name made Mehmed’s blood boil.
The sultan nursed a hatred for Leopold I that was far more severe than that for his other enemies in Russia or Poland. Mehmed, as the occupier of the old imperial Byzantine throne in Constantinople, considered himself the rightful Kayser-i-Rum— the Caesar of the Roman Empire. To him, the Habsburg monarch was a false claimant to the throne, one who ruled from a distant city that had no historical significance to the old empire. Stripping him of his capital and converting his people to the one true faith would be a most fitting end to his brazen delusions.
He was a quiet and melancholy man, but he had one obsession: the legacy of his conquering ancestors. He was immersed in the mystique of the dynasty to which he belonged, and hungered to mimic his ancestors’ exploits
‘Listen to me,’ the intruder continued, ‘and you’ll fly the flag of Islam over the Golden Apple and turn its great cathedral into a mosque. And that’ll only be the beginning. Listen to me, and you won’t be known as avci any more. Even fatih won’t be enough.
They’ll need a stronger word to describe your conquests.’ Avci. Oh, how he hated that word.
It was as if the strange, naked man was peering into his very soul.
Under previous sultans, the Ottomans had reached the gates of Vienna twice. Both times, they had failed to take the city. And although the empire’s territorial expansion in Africa and Europe during Mehmed’s reign had reached its peak, he couldn’t really claim credit for these triumphs. Those conquests were the work of his grand viziers. Mehmed himself was more renowned for his abilities at hunting down stags and bears in the forests around his palace at Edirne— a far cry from the exploits of his legendary uncle, the sultan Murad IV, who had taken Erivan and Baghdad, and his namesake and illustrious ancestor Mehmed II, who had conquered Constantinople and toppled the Byzantine Empire at the ripe old age of twenty-one. Both sultans had fully earned their epithets of fatih— the conqueror. Mehmed IV, however, had to content himself with avci— the hunter.
Taking Vienna would change all that.
A barrage of questions assaulted the sultan’s mind. He was scared, beyond any fear he’d ever known. But he was also intrigued.
He calmed his breathing and, after one final internal debate, nodded.
‘Tell me more.’