Dissatisfactory grunting was quickly becoming Issac’s favorite expression. It possessed a boundless utility, implying any number of things, positive or negative, without having to put forth any thought whatsoever. Simply fantastic as far as Issac was concerned.
“How did you sleep, Herr Schultz?”
“How was your breakfast, Herr Schultz?”
“Herr, Schultz, How are you enjoying Venice so far?”
“I’ll just have the car brought around, Herr Schultz.”
The lack of thought put into the conversation freed him to think about the meetings he’d be attending today at the Palazzo Ducale. He’d already drawn a few conclusions over breakfast. Issac was no politician, but he had been reading diplomatic dispatches to and from Berlin long enough to have a basic understanding of the game. It made sense that the Italians would want meetings over control of the Adriatic to take place in Venice, particularly at the Palazzo Ducale, from which Doges had dominated that sea for hundreds of years. A move meant to put the Turks on the defensive from the beginning of the summit, certainly.
Regardless, Issac had to look to his own staff. The Kaiser’s Ambassador to the Italian court, Baldrik Frey, he had met the previous evening. A wide, balding man with an enviable mustache, Baldrik had been in Venice for a week already, awaiting Issac’s (or at least the special envoy’s) arrival. He was a man who like to talk, smiled easily, and Issac found him pleasant enough, if a bit vapid at times. Baldrik had lived in Italy for the last 15 years, though he’d spent only the last five as ambassador. Issac had read in his dossier that he had come to Bologna as boy for schooling, and had fallen in love with the country. He was a good friend of nearly everyone at the Italian King’s court (including the King) which made it very likely he would favor Italian interests at this summit. This was a part of the reason for the special envoy, no doubt. His secretary, some cousin of his named Johan, was the opposite. Quiet, dower, and vaguely off-putting in his mannerisms. The military attache, who had arrived with Baldrik, was an old Colonel named Gertrude Stein. She was a woman of discipline, that much was clear as day. Her hair had gone grey and her face had wrinkled, but her spine was straight and her body was lean. Many old officers allowed themselves to grow fat and soft, such was the benefit of cushy political assignments, but Stein had clearly kept herself in tip-top condition. She smiled as easily as the Ambassador, but Issac found her gaze just as unsettling as Johan’s.
Issac had been asked several times by the ambassador and his staff what the Kaiser’s official stance on the subject, “Just keep them talking for now, until I have a good sense of who our true friends at the table are. Officially the Kaiser doesn’t play favorites, and that will be the strategy for the day.”
“Surely we aren’t expected to treat these Turks as we would our Italian friends?” Baldrik bellowed, incredulous, “The kingdoms of Italy have been closely tied to our people since the days of the Holy Roman Empire. These Turks on the other hand…I’ve too many friends in old Austria to trust these heathens, good sir.”
“That is why I’m here,” Issac growled, very much into his character at this point, “And you will not offend our allies. Is that clear?”
Baldrik sulked but did not protest. Colonel Stein said nothing, but Issac was almost certain he saw the hint of a smile pass over her lips.
The Turks worried him as well. British Intelligence on the Turkish military was woefully inadequate. Issac had been given the names and ranks of those in their delegation, but that was just about it. Very few specifics had made it into the Dossier. Their Ambassador to Italy was well known at least. Aleksander Gavrilović. He was a Serb whose family had supported the Reclamation, collaborating with the Janissary to secure the Turks position there. It was assumed that he was not very well liked at home, because he had not returned to Serbia in almost ten years. Issac thought it might be just as likely that he fell in love with Italy just as Baldrik had, but it was easy to assume dire circumstances when dealing with the Turkish Empire. The military advisor with him though was almost entirely unknown. Parushta Youssef, the name was Egyptian, and his rank was listed as equivalent to Lieutenant Colonel, but MI’s dossier had no family history, not personal politics, just a sparse list of battles. Very few for someone of his rank especially. Perhaps a battlefield promotion?
When the cars came around to the embassy gates, and the delegation began disembarking for the Palazzo Ducale, Issac found himself riding with Colonel Stein. She lounged in her seat across from Issac, crossing her legs and smiling openly once inside the car. She looked like a fox about to greet a wayward chicken on a dark night. Issac resisted the urge to shudder.
“You seem nervous, Herr Schultz,” Stein mused.
“Is it obvious?” Issac attempted his own smile, not sure how convincing it was yet.
“Not terribly,” she straightened a seam on her trousers with her long fingers, “You become quite tense whenever Herr Frey asks you about strategy for the conference, or the Kaiser’s orders. I hope there are no surprises in store.”
“Surprises?” Issac raised an eyebrow.
“Baldrik will be most cross if Berlin plans to pivot to Istanbul on this matter. It may affect his duties if that is what you plan to order him to do.” The Colonel’s face was stone, only her fingers moved, nails tapping slowly against her knee.
Issac decided to seize on that, “That is what has me worried, Colonel. As I said, the Kaiser doesn’t wish to play favorites between allies.”
Stein nodded, her eyes relaxed, allowing her smile to spread to her whole expression, “I hope you have a plan then. Baldrik may not be capable of putting aside his love for the land of Caesar.”
Issac smiled himself, chuckling, “Rest assured, there is a plan. I just hope I know what I’m doing.”
Stein put a hand on Issac’s knee, “I’m sure you’ll do well. The Foreign Minister must have thought you up to the task at least.”
“Thank you, madam.”
“Not at all.”
The Palazzo Ducale adjoined the Basilica of St. Mark, a great cathedral topped with massive domes, the outside adorned with bright paintings and dynamic statues of saints. It was a decoratively busy and complicated building, and made the simple lines and blue tiled roof of the palace look plain by comparison. The pillars and arches of the ground level were architecturally impressive, but lacked the gravitas of the basilica next door. Issac couldn’t help but wonder if this was deliberate. If the Doges of Venice had built something that was impressive technically, but paled in comparison to the beauty and wonder of god. Or had the palace been here before the Republic? Issac did not know off hand.
The German motorcade arrived just as the Turkish delegation was disembarking from their own. Issac spotted the Turkish ambassador right away. Aleksander Gavrilović was a shorter man than he had expected. He was clean shaven, dark haired, with skin a healthy olive complexion, he had a look more mediterranean than slavic. Issac wondered if he had family in Italy. Behind him came his military advisor, Lieutenant Colonel Parushta Youssef. Tall, pinched, with a long, stern face and prosthetic eye. The connections of the eye to his skull seemed a bit crude and grotesque, nothing like the polished work that one normally saw coming out of the East, particularly among the Turkish aristocracy.
“Herr Gavrilović, a pleasure to finally meet you,” Issac said as he exited the car.
“Herr Schultz, I presume?” the Ambassador replied, bounding over to Issac’s car with an energy Issac had not expected, “The pleasure is all mine.”
Issac was about to extend the Kaiser’s good wishes when he saw the hulk coming up behind Gavrilović, and his words died in his throat. This had not been in the dossier. Of course, Issac had heard stories about the Janissary, but he had not expected to see one here.
The metal creature was eight feet tall at least, but the shoulders appeared hunched so that the thing’s almost featureless face was on a level with 0sc4r’s (at a mere seven feet). The janissary’s chest and limbs were an almost beautiful network of interlocking bronze colored plates that seemed to catch fire in the morning light.
Issac watched the thing as it followed Gavrilović to the doors of the palace, where the Italian guards objected, immediately and strongly, to the janissary’s presence.
“Not to worry, ladies and gentlemen, Zoraster is merely here as my bodyguard. I assure you, he has been disarmed of all his usual weapons. I will not say he is harmless, but he is certainly not here to fight you.”
A smile crept across Youssef’s face.
Issac could have laughed.
So much for the Turks being on the defensive.
Round one to them.
It took almost a quarter hour before the Italians could get a man in charge on the scene. A rotund Sicilian man whom the others addressed as Signor Baroncelli came out eventually to speak with Gavrilović and Youssef about perhaps leaving the janissary outside the hall, so as not to disrupt the proceedings.
While this was happening, Issac had time to study the automata, though he knew it wasn’t a true automata. There was a human pilot…of sorts.
The new janissary was actually a major reason for strife between the Turks and the other great powers. Several nations were willing to arm automata for use in battle. Several more were willing to allow the addition of mechanical parts to human bodies to make up for an injury or deficiency. A colleague of Issac’s at Cambridge had been given a mechanical lung to replace a cancerous one, and the Kaiser himself had taken a mechanical arm to replace one that had been withered since birth. This was considered well and proper, but the Janissary Corp was something wholly unacceptable to the civilized nations of Europe.
Beneath the bronze colored armor and mechanisms of movement, behind that featureless face, there was a human mind, but nothing more. A brain, a bit of the skull, perhaps even a few more odds and ends, but that was it, not enough of a person to live outside the metal husk. Never for very long anyway.
Legally, such a creation was not considered a living thing in most places, not even in Germany. The First Nations of the Americas did, but they erroneously considered all automata to be alive. It was rumored that the Chinese were on the cusp of legally recognizing automata as a ‘state of being,’ as absurd as that notion was, and Issac understood that there was a similar notion among the Turks. The Janissary were no longer human, and would never be again, but they were not considered objects like other automata.
And Issac could clearly see that this was indeed not like any other automata he had seen. It moved like a man. Most automata only moved when they needed, and the rest was just the vibrations of engines. Some, like 0sc4r, were coded to appear more human than the common working machine, and so would produce such human gestures as idly looking about, or a mild tic like drumming one’s fingers. The janissary, by contrast, fidgeted constantly, glancing suspiciously at the other attendees, shifting its weight, checking all the lines of escape with, if not nervousness, a tension foreign to automata. Issac could very well believe there was a man under that metal, as ridiculous as that seemed.
Eventually, Gavrilović agreed to keep his bodyguard just outside the hall, and the Turkish delegation was finally allowed through.
Signor Baroncelli waved most of the German party through without incident, including 0sc4r, pausing only to firmly clasp hands with Ambassador Frey, whom it seemed he was well acquainted with. Frey took a moment to introduce Issac.
“…and this is our Kaiser’s special envoy, Herr Schultz. Herr Schultz, this is Signor Baroncelli, Head of Security for this conference.”
“A pleasure to meet you,” the man grabbed Issac’s arm and began a handshake the rippled through Issac’s whole body, “I have been so looking forward to meeting you.”
“Likewise, Signore,” Issac managed through the violent shaking. When Baroncelli finally released him, it was only to gingerly take the hand of Colonel Stein, kiss her fingers lightly and offer his “personal thanks, and the thanks of His Majesty’s government” for joining them here today.
Stein did not return the fat man’s smile, but she kissed him on both cheeks and thanked him for his hospitality.
When Issac made it inside, the Italians and Turks were already shouting at one another. Issac spoke Italian reasonably well, but this argument was going too fast for him to make out all the particulars. Something about the history of Rome, the Crusades, an insult to someone’s mother was definitely delivered but Issac was at a loss to identify whose mother.
The Turks were giving just as good as they received, but there was something to be said for insults hurled in at least three languages. Gavrilović in Serbian, a secretary of his in Turkish, an aide de camp in Arabic. Youssef was silent, though his look of utter disgust could have easily been used by gardeners to kill unwanted flora.
Issac stared at this pandemonium, his heart sinking, wondering how he would ever even get the chance to mislead anyone if this was to be the tone of the conference.
“Hem-hem,” came a small cough at his side. It was Stein. She was looking at Issac intently.
At first, Issac wasn’t sure what she meant to imply, until he realized that Frey was already joining the shouting match on the Italian’s side.
She expected him to call the meeting to order. He was the special envoy after all. They had all been waiting on him.
“Lords and Ladies, shall we come to order?” Issac declared loudly.
There was no change. No one had heard him.
“My lords and ladies, shall we come to order!?” Issac shouted, but still his voice failed to do more than be absorbed into the cacophony.
Issac wasn’t sure what to do. He looked around for a bell, a glass, anything to bang for attention.
His gaze fell on 0sc4r.
“0sc4r?” Issac said quietly.
“Yes, *click* Herr Schultz?” it replied.
“How loud can you whistle?” Issac asked putting his hands over his ears. Stein noticed and did likewise.
A deafening screech pierced the din of the room. Issac all of them had stopped shouting by the time to whistle faded away.
“That loud, *click* sir.”
Issac removed his hands and shook his head. “Very good.”
Issac stepped forward under the gaze of the startled and annoyed glares of the assembled attendees.
“As I was saying, my lords and ladies: shall we come to order?” 0sc4r pulled Issac’s seat out and he took it. He was pleased to note that each and every one of the delegates did likewise.
I’ll be thrice damned, Issac thought to himself, I might actually pull this off.