French Ambassador's Residence, Pera.
September 30th 1638
The clattering of glasses and the babel of conversation in many languages came to an abrupt halt as the first fusillade of cannonshot boomed out over the heights above Pera. All the guests present automatically moved to the garden's balcony edge in time to catch the second salute. An intensely burning incendiary shot lit the night sky with phosphorescent trails before fizzling out in chaotic spurts on the waters of the Bosphorous below.
Ambassador de Cesy beamed as a collective cheer greeted the display and as the orchestra struck up a fanfare he turned back towards the large ballroom. Two men were standing in one of the open doorways. He stopped in front of them. “Well young O’Driscoll. That will cause the whores of the Sultan’s harem to moisten their pantaloons. Will it not? ”He roared out laughing while at the same time turning a full circle to ensure he had a bigger audience. A few appreciative snorts and schoolgirl giggles satisfied his humour.
“Indeed Count de Cesy. It was a fine display. Guaranteed to capture their attention.” The Frenchman smiled but lingered somewhat impatiently for the expected introduction to O’Driscoll’s companion, a handsome raven-haired man whose skin was almost ebony from sun and sea. Dermico O’ Driscoll stepped aside a little. “Count de Cesy, Ambassador of His Great Majesty, Louis of France, may I present Dom Djivo Slavujovic, Knight of Sant’Iago and head of the Republic of Ragusa’s tribute delegation.”
The Frenchman’s eyes appeared to flicker with recognition of the name and Djivo noted this as he bowed stiffly. “I am honoured to make your acquaintance Count de Cesy.”
Dermico O’Driscoll took Djivo, possessively, by the arm. “Dom Djivo here is a remarkable man. These past years he has been a captive of the Algerian pirates but very recently managed to effect an escape.”
De Cesy pursed his lips and nodded his head vigorously. “Congratulations Sir. Most bravely done. You are most welcome. Come . . .” The Frenchman linked Djivo’s other arm and almost wrenching him from O’Driscoll’s grasp herded him through the door and across the ballroom floor. “You must give me a full account of your escapades. It will make a fine story for my dinner guests.”
Dermico began to follow but de Cesy turned and held up his free hand. “Young O’Driscoll, go and amuse some of the ladies present. They will no doubt fall for that quick wit of yours. I will return your friend to your company in a short while.”
Djivo and de Cesy moved across the ballroom and left through the guilded doors at the far end. Their arms no longer linked Djivo followed the Frenchman up a marble staircase to the next floor where he was shown into what was obviously de Cesy’s private office. De Cesy’s exquisitely tailored silk waistcoat - a local copy of the height of French Court fashion - struggled to contain his ample girth.
“Take a seat Slavujovic. Would you like a cognac.”
Djivo nodded, and watched de Cesy pour them both drinks from a large flat-bottomed decanter. “You do me great honour Count de Cesy, but if you will forgive my ignorance, pray tell me what is the occasion of tonight’s festivities.”
De Cesy looked somewhat taken aback and glared at Djivo to see if his question was serious. “What? You do not know? ”
Djivo shook his head slowly, and then lowered it slightly, embarrassed as he accepted the cognac. “My apologies Count de Cesy. I only docked in Constantinople late this afternoon and having fortuitously met Dom Dermico at the quay he asked me to meet him here. I had just arrived when you chanced upon us and had not asked him about the occasion.”
De Cesy relaxed, accepting the explanation. “I will reprimand that young brigand for his poor manners later. Tonight, mon ami, we are celebrating the birth of the next King of France. All seven marks weight of him and with four fully formed teeth as well. It is a good omen.” He raised his glass. “A toast to their glorious Majesties and the new prince.”
Djivo raised his glass also and responded. “The new Prince. May God protect his childhood and grant him the skills of Kingship.”
De Cesy accepted the toast and after refilling their glasses indicated for Djivo to take a seat. The Frenchman sat on the opposite side of a large bureau and began to study Djivo intently, saying nothing. Djivo found the silence awkward. “I am keen to repay your hospitality, Count de Cesy. What can I tell you of my time in captivity? I have some splendid stories.”
De Cesy continued to stare, mute, before eventually breaking the silence with a sneering snort. “Slavujovic, do not flatter yourself. I have little time for any of your tales. Indeed another captive story would bore me beyond belief. My days here are filled with negotiations trying to rescue stupid and pathetic countrymen of mine and paying well over the odds to do so. Most deserve to rot. No Sir, your story is of no interest to me.”
Djivo, caught by surprise, reddened as his anger flared at the pompous and bilious heckle of the Frenchman. “And why Sir, the apparent generosity of your welcome if my presence irritates you so? ”
De Cesy stood up. “Don’t prickle young man. Certainly I rejoice in your escape, and particularly because you are alive. Your whereabouts and well-being has occupied the thoughts of many of us for some time.”
Djivo did not know how to react. What did this bloated toad mean. “I do not understand what you mean, Sir.”
De Cesy removed his velvet coat and loosened the tight neck cravat. Waves of sweat had stained the collar and armpit of the silk shirt he wore underneath. “Dom Djivo you will soon realise that I am a very direct person, preferring to show my hand than shroud its movements in calico. There is intelligence abroad that you have been searching for some very important ancient manuscripts and that you are close to the person who possibly holds the key to their recovery.”
Djivo sat silently. “That person, a fellow captive of yours in Algiers, is an Irishwoman called Cullen, who is, God forbid, a surgeon here in Constantinople. It is rumoured that she was in favour with the Patriarch Loukaris, before his recent, and well deserved, departure from this world. It is also rumoured that he told her where to recover the documents.”
Djivo tried to remain impassive as de Cesy studied his reactions. He knew he had to say something. “Yes I know Senora Cullen. I am glad to hear she is alive. She is a very able surgeon. But, I am not sure I understand the connection. What documents do you speak of? ”
De Cesy’s face pinched with irritation. “Slavujovic do not take me for a fool. I have some intelligence of your mission for the Sant’Iago Order. Why do you think I steered you away from O’Driscoll so brusquely? Incidentally, his meeting you was no accident. We all had news of your impending arrival almost a week ago. He has been hanging about the Ragusan warehouse like a panting whore every day since. And not the only one by all accounts.”
Disarmed by the Frenchman’s directness, Djivo stuttered, “What . . . what do you mean ?”
De Cesy laughed. He was a rasping cobra waiting to strike. “Well apart from O’Driscoll of Sant’Iago, there is Comneno of the Angelicks and also Pococke, a heretic cleric dispatched by Laud and the Garters. In addition the Austrians and the Patriarch of Jerusalem, who is determined to succeed Loukaris, also want the documents.”
“And Cardinal Richelieu as well, it seems!” Djivo realised immediately that this comment would confirm there were documents and he added quickly, “I still do not understand what documents you speak of and why this extraordinary interest in me.”
De Cesy circled the bureau and moved across the room, taking up a position behind Djivo. He placed a hand on his shoulder. “I will ignore your feigned ignorance. It is my understanding that the ancient manuscripts relate to the events surrounding the death of Christ and could prove most useful in the current conflict between Catholic and Protestant interests. For this reason France and Cardinal Richelieu would like to appeal to your Catholic beliefs, and your pocket, to try and obtain those documents for us.”
Djivo shrugged his shoulder trying to dislodge de Cesy’s hand. He could feel the sweat soaking through his light tunic. “If this is all so certain why have you not dealt with Senora Cullen directly? I am sure you have the resources?”
De Cesy released his hand and moved around to face Djivo. “She is a witch. I am certain of that. In a short time here she has made powerful friends and also has the patronage of the Valide Sultana. She is untouchable.”
Djivo relaxed, and smiled for the first time. “She is a very fine surgeon you know.”
De Cesy fumed. “A witch I say. In any event what do you say to the proposal?”
Djivo knew he had to try and minimise his involvement, it would be the only way to help Catherine. However the arrogance of the Frenchman had undermined his tact. “Ambassador Count de Cesy, if I meet Signorina Cullen, I will be sure to mention your kindness to me and relay France’s proposition. For my part I owe my life to her skill and to repay that debt will defend her safety and honour to my death if necessary. I will now take my leave. Good night to you.” Djivo stormed through the door and down the staircase to be met at the bottom by the loitering O’Driscoll. He brushed past him.
“Djivo where are you going?”
Djivo stopped to look back at his comrade Knight. There was venom in his voice. “O’Driscoll if you come near me again, I will not be responsible for my actions! Return to the quay and wait for another fool to arrive. Good night.”
Dermico O’Driscoll stood still for a moment before rushing after Djivo. “Djivo stop! Djivo, do not be so hasty. Listen to what I have to say. I must report back to the Order.”
Djivo stopped suddenly and reaching inside his cloak ripped the Espada of the Order from his tunic. Turning to face O’Driscoll he threw it on the ground in front of him. “Take that back to your precious Order. You never lifted a hand to save me from imprisonment and now you want to put somebody I care about in danger. Rot in hell!”
With that he barked an order to one of the servants to fetch his horse. Mounting he galloped from the residence at a furious pace. He knew he had to find, to warn Catherine – both their lives were at risk.
Dermico O’Driscoll had wanted to follow him but was stopped by a shout from de Cesy, who had watched the events from halfway down the stairs. “Hold on O’Driscoll. It looks like both of us have lost our quarry. For the moment!” De Cesy completed his descent of the stairs and came close to whisper in O’Driscoll’s ear. “If we are discreet we can help each other. Richelieu will always be a better bet than Olivares and your Sant’Iago puppet masters. Now seek out Marco Comneno and meet me in my study. I fear we must act in concert and with urgency as our prey has a head start.”