Read The Lake of Sorrows Online

Authors: Rovena Cumani,Thomas Hauge

Tags: #romance, #drama, #historical

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BOOK: The Lake of Sorrows
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The men, the half-dozen devout Muslims among the Pasha’s inner circle, smiled with relief, mounted rapidly and galloped off - almost colliding with Vajas the advisor, who came cantering up in the opposite direction.

Alhi had already joined the remaining hunters. “As for us, we shall feast out here and toast the spirit of a grand enemy, while I eat his heart to win his courage!”

Their delighted huzzahs were interrupted by Vajas’ voice, piping up behind them. “The French general Chambeaux’ adjutant has just arrived in Yannina, my Pasha and requests an audience.”

“Damn you, Vajas, not
now!
Have you no eyes? I have brought down the finest boar of the season. We shall feast like men today. You, too!”

Vajas froze. He had as little religion as his master, but, born and raised in a town, he had never acquired the Pasha’s love of hunting - or the savage feasting that was sure to follow when the Pasha had made a good kill.

Nervously, he glanced at the servants, already rushing to build a fire, and at the Pasha now kneeling beside the boar with several grisly-looking knives at the ready. He weighed both in his hands, then chose the largest, and decapitated the boar with three swift, precise cuts.

“I … I really think we should be getting back to the palace, my Pasha.” Vajas’ breakfast stirred uneasily within him, but he dared not look away from his master’s handiwork. “It is obvious that this emissary’s orders are to make your highness side with the French after the Campo-Formio agreement made by this hotspur, Bonaparte.” With a slash of the mighty knife, Alhi laid open the boar’s belly, and the sight of its entrails spilling out gave Vajas the courage to look determinedly at the horizon and press on with his recital like an anxious supplicant praying for deliverance. “Austria gave him everything they could find in Venice’s pockets — islands in the Ionian and waterfront towns in mainland Greece. We should consider how the replacement of the Venetians by the French will affect us, and — “

Alhi gruffly cut him off. “Yes, yes, I have read your reports, Vajas. I am not one of those fool Pashas who keeps an advisor to be spared the burdens of thinking. But what we should consider is not a few islands in the Ionian sea or a few towns on its shores. We should look at the French themselves and ask us what they
want.

Vajas swallowed, and swallowed again, as his Pasha groped inside the boar for its heart, carelessly ruining his fine deerskin gloves. The advisor’s voice was very thin when he answered. “The … the old France was even more weakened and decayed than the Ottoman empire, so they wanted the same as the Sultan, I think — to be left alone to enjoy the waning splendor while they could. But the new France keeps its generals ever-hungry for victory with the threat of their decapitating machines.”

“The
guillotines.
” Alhi spoke the odd French word slowly and carefully. “Such a soft-sounding name for such a harsh creation.” He did not sound at all disapproving, though. “In my own plain words, Vajas, I see that France can transform those four towns around us to a serious threat of naval bases. To be used as a springboard. And
that
is the interesting question — a springboard to
where?

Vajas nodded as un-vigorously as he could, his rebelling insides made him want to stand very still. “You are a far-sighted man, my Pasha. They have defeated all of Italy, so they will need new enemies for new victories. But our Sultan is too big an enemy, so the French will want friends that will keep the Sultan at ease - and away.”

“Indeed.” Alhi was cutting inside the boar’s hulk. “You see, I wrote to this young whippersnapper general of theirs, Bonaparte, to congratulate him on his continuous success and advancements. But, clever fox that the lad is, realizing I admire him, he has obviously asked the French emissary to woo me to be his ally. Just in case. What did you say his name was, Tahir?”

“Rose. His name is Rose, my Pasha. What a name for a man!” The captain of the guard snorted with disdain, watching the butcher’s and servants’ work with a look of anticipation, as did the rest of the Pasha’s retinue — except for those openly smirking at Vajas’ pallor.

Alhi added a smirk of his own, as he triumphantly lifted the boar’s heart. “I gather his name is differently pronounced in his own language, but never mind. Get this Rose, Rouge, Ross or whatever to the palace tomorrow and keep your eyes open.”

Vajas dared to break in — anything to distract himself from his insides. “His correct name is Roche. But Rose would suit him too, from what I hear. Your spies are right, he is said to be a dashing soldier, but also unable to keep his eyes off the fine women of Yannina. He is indeed a lover of female beauty.”

With a grunt of satisfaction, Alhi slapped the sizeable boar’s heart into the hands of a somewhat pale-faced servant who placed it on a spit and took it to the fire.

Alhi’s eyes sparkled at the sight. “Such appetites are always a great advantage for a man’s enemies. It makes our work child’s play.” He smiled, not quite like a Pasha. “Put a pretty and vivacious woman in a lecherous man’s bed and you can ask in the morning all the privileges any ally could ever want. He will give them to you. And are we going to ask!”

With the skill of a man who had hunted since he learned to walk, Alhi was swiftly and expertly skinning and slicing up the choice parts of the boar, the servants rushing them to the fire for roasting. Alhi sniffed the air, beaming. “But beware and keep your eyes open, however.” Satisfied that there was ample meat for everyone, Alhi rose to his feet and looked with mock gravitas at his captain and his advisor in turn. “Do not allow the degenerate ways of the West to fool you. All they want is to take advantage of us, nothing else. It is up to us to take advantage of
them.
Keep that in mind, both of you, at all times. And Tahir. You will answer for the safety of this Roche during his stay in Yannina. You will start your preparations immediately -
after
you have enjoyed this boar with us, that is. How could I be so cruel as to deny any man a part of this?”

Soon, the hunters were gorging themselves on rare meat, standing in a circle around the dismembered boar, its severed head gazing emptily up at them. Vajas twisted and turned the fine cut of meat he had been giving, until a stern glance from Tahir - seasoned with a telling, sideways glance at the Pasha - made the advisor haltingly sink his teeth into his blood-dripping food.

“Wondrous, eh?” Gobbling down boar’s heart with relish, Alhi slapped his young advisor on the shoulder, and Vajas’ first, hard-fought bite went down the wrong way. The youth coughed explosively, to a chorus of hearty laughs from the feasting hunters.

“Eat up, Vajas, you will not enjoy such fine fresh food for a long time to come. You will handle all that tedious formal negotiating and paper-writing with the French, I have no patience for prattle and pen-pushing. Keep in mind that the price of our friendship must be that the French send us western artillery — Bonaparte’s tools of victory.”

Vajas unenthusiastically took a large bite of meat and chewed valiantly, hoping this would buy him forgiveness for his next words. “Forgive my, my Pasha, but is it really wise? Alliance with the French, yes — but cannon? The Sultan
is
most stingy with cannon for his … vassals. Because some of them have given him good reason to be so.”

Alhi chuckled, then sighed, as he sat down heavily with his back leaning against a tree, slapping his stout belly. Finally free to do likewise, his companions sank down onto rocks and against trees, the older ones grunting and creaking as they stretched their well-worn limbs. “Oh, yes, and he has been more stingy towards me than most. I suppose I should consider it a compliment.” Alhi chuckled again, let out a hearty, contemptuous belch. “But those French guns are everything the Sultan has denied me, at half the weight, too. And our army’s forte is movement, Vajas, speed. Like Bonaparte’s. Now is the time to begin extricating myself from the Sultan’s embrace. I have the men, this Roche will give me the tools.”

Suddenly, the unpredictable pendulum of his mood swung to the opposite side, and he stretched an aching leg, groaning. “I do all I can to make Hyperus stronger than ever, and yet my own son betrays me. His mind is on women instead of being here to plan strategy with me!”

“He is young, my Pasha.” Vajas spoke in his most soothing, compliant voice. He was not surprised by the sudden change of subject, but the Pasha had been especially irritable of late whenever he spoke of his son; and even a trusted advisor disliked being with Alhi Pasha when he was in a foul mood. Vajas could not help noting that, to a man, the hunters and servants around them had become positively entranced with their food, hearing absolutely nothing, and most carefully not looking in the direction of the Pasha and his advisor.

“Young?” Alhi was almost in a rage now. “At his age I was ruling all of Thessaly already!” He waved his arms furiously to indicate the countryside around them. “Now I am Pasha. Foreign emissaries come and go in my palace. The affairs of state are at a crucial point. Yet Muhtar could not care less! He would much rather chase after this Froshenie woman like a child after a toy.”

He banged his fist into his own palm and growled, his eyes distant. “I will bet you half my
Pashalik
he is already launching a campaign to eventually put him in her bed, or her in his.” Alhi stabbed a finger at his advisor. “But he will not make that Christian filly part of his harem, Vajas. I will not tolerate that!”

Vajas nervously nodded his agreement, as a cheer went up at the sight of riders from Yannina bringing wine. But the advisor could not help wondering just why the Pasha was so opposed to his son conquering this particular woman.

XX

T
hat very night someone knocked on the door to the Vassiliou house and took both Froshenie and Chryssie by unwanted surprise.

“Answer the door Chryssie.” Froshenie’s voice quivered, for the night was dark as ink outside.

“Are you serious? Open the door this late at night?” The Vaya was reluctant to the point of mutiny.

The knocking became louder and more insistent - or desperate.

“Better open it up, before it is broken down, Vaya. Whoever it is, they will not leave.”

Chryssie opened the door like an exorcist waiting to see the devil - outside stood a gentleman she did not know.

“Good evening, my lady.” The gentleman waited to be invited in.

“People are used to saying goodnight at this hour, my good man! Who are you and what do you want in the middle of the night?”

“I am a merchant from Venice. My name is Levandinos and I come to see your lady. I have the most exquisite merchandise and they told me that your lady dresses up with the best and most expensive, but is too ill to leave her house. So I call on her to offer her a look at the splendor of my wares.”

“My lady has more than plenty, so please be on your way to the next house, if you are chasing customers.” Chryssie tried to wave him away and close the door.

“I will not leave until I have seen your lady.” The merchant smiled and advanced a step.

Chryssie’s voice rose to a disdainful roar. “Are you serious?” She attempted to shove the man back, with little success. “Who invited you in? Go away the same way you came.”

No longer able to contain her curiosity, Froshenie appeared at the door. “Let the merchant in, Vaya. We do not want to wake our gossip-happy neighbors and, after all, this seems to be a gentleman.”

Levandinos bowed to her in relief. “I thank you, my lady. It is most urgent that I talk to you privately.”

“I guessed as much. But whatever you have to say, you will say it quickly. My Vaya will be right in the next room.” Froshenie’s reply was fortified with pride and dignity, although her face still held a hint of fear.

Chryssie retired against her better judgment, and Froshenie, seeking the comfort of her favorite armchair, motioned for the merchant to sit down on one of the room’s numerous divans. “I am listening, master Levandinos. Who has sent you?”

“I did not say anyone had sent me, my lady.”

“You seem to be a civilized man, yet you call on a married lady in the middle of the night, forgetting all your manners in your insistence on seeing her. You do not appear to me to be a … Paganino.”

The merchant did not read Italian tales. “Who, my lady?”

She let it pass. “Who sent you, pray tell?”

“Alhi’s first-born, my lady. Muhtar Bey.”

Froshenie failed to suppress a gasp, whether it was of shock - or anticipation. “What for?”

“He asked me to give you this.” The merchant offered her a small velvet pouch.

Froshenie opened it with trembling hands and let the contents fall into her palm. She stared, speechless. It was a small golden crucifix, adorned with tiny precious stones. “Who would expect such a gift from a Muslim?”

The merchant, sensing that the question was directed more at Froshenie herself than at him, bowed his head in silence.

She sat motionless for a long time, gazing at the gift lying in her palm.

XXI

A
t the same time, only a few streets from Froshenie’s house, Muhtar and Tahir had decided to honor with their presence the tavern of Constantine, the most popular place among travelers and men in Yannina.

The rotund Constantine waddled to their table as he recognized Tahir. “Welcome to my humble house, captain. How can I serve you and your company tonight?”

“Bring me a large glass of good, strong Greeek wine - and Turkish coffee, Constantine, the one they say you make so perfectly.”

Constantine gazed at Tahir’s companion. “And you, good — “

He forgot the rest of his words, for he found himself face to face with the Pasha’s son. Muhtar smiled at the man’s surprise. “For me the same.”

Constantine found his voice at last. “It is our honor. A great honor, huge honor that you are here, Muhtar Bey.” Constantine rushed off, calling over his shoulder. “I shall make you the best two Turkish coffees ever served in this house.”

He burst into the kitchen and all but bowled over his father-in-law, Yannos, with whom he ran the tavern. “You will not believe who is out there.” Constantine’s voice was giddy with excitement and fear.

BOOK: The Lake of Sorrows
8.98Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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