The Last Grand Tour


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Chapter 1

A city never truly sleeps.

Constantinople was no exception. Despite bombed out streets, a war still raging and foreign soldiers on every street corner, it persevered. Business as usual. Industrious shopkeepers improvised the best way they could. Barter was the order of the day. If one didn't have what you wanted, they knew someone who did. If you wanted something you could be damn sure they'd want something back. Supply and demand went without saying. The more unobtainable something was, the higher its value.

Naturally in a city where east met west, the metropolis was a melting pot of a hundred tongues. Shepherds from the Caucasus, nomads from the Arabian peninsula, soldiers from fifty territories of the occupying imperial powers, all and sundry mingled under the baking heat and haggled in every form of pidgin and creole to mutual satisfaction in the bazaar.

The flags of a dozen powers now flew proudly along the Bosphorous. Steel leviathans bearing the colours of Britain, France, Russia, Italy and more were docked inside the Golden Horn. Drunken soldiers wandered in bands along the streets, moving from drinking den to whorehouse. Sober ones patrolled in sections, keeping the peace. For the moment, order had returned.

Just a few hundred feet from Istiklal Avenue, a young man sat drinking coffee outside a cafe. Half the street had been bombed while some enterprising looters had done for the rest until the provosts had enforced martial law. Opportunistic entrepreneurs had swept up the broken glass to sell to artisans and with the return of residents, life was beginning to appear normal once again. 

The owner had rigged up an awning to shade and the man sat there where an old barrel stood in for a table. The cup and saucer seemed at odds with the ad hoc furnishing, being of delicate manufacture, preserved miraculously by the proprietor who now harangued both customer and family alike. His wife was less than pleased with their firstborn's bartering at the market (though naturally his fault and wasn't he working hard everyday to place food on the table for her and their lazy offspring) and he let everyone within earshot know about it.

The coffee drinker ignored the domestic dispute and took a slow drag on a crudely-rolled cigarette. His Turkish was passable enough to get the gist though the cant of Istanbul had a sophistication to it that sounded strange to the ears of one who'd bartered in Anatolian villages and endured bayonet charges from provincials in the Dardanelles.

His uniform was British standard khaki. The Sam Browne belt and revolver holster marked him as an officer while an Éire badge marked him as an Irish regular. His hand quivered slightly as he tipped ash into the saucer before a loud crash made him jump, his free hand reaching for the revolver.

The cafe owner made a placating gesture with his hands, forcing a smile on his face before roaring back at his son. One who has endured siege, famine and bombardment is not likely to look kindly on being shot by some bomb-happy officer startled by a sound. The meaning if not the words were clear as he strode to the back room. You clumsy dolt!

A pocket watch was left on the table and the officer looked idly to it. Half an hour to one. Still time. The invitation lay open on the table, the address and time written clearly on it. The signature said only a friend.

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Chapter 2

The night sky was clear with a feeling about the air one would call crisp. The sort that was cold enough to  make your breath steam but not to make one shudder. The light from the stars and moon was enough to illuminate the moored fleet that stretched out from the docks in all directions. Predatory grey hulled silhouettes that came in all shapes and sizes. There was an unsettling majesty about the gathered armada, one that the few could enjoy. Only war had brought them here.

The general feeling was one of a calm before the storm. The Llanitos were determined to weather it as best they could, which meant bracing to handle the hundreds of sailors and soldiers who'd been granted shore leave. Throngs of drunks waylaid the streets, keenly watched by armed provosts and hastily called up Gibraltar Home Guards. Troublemakers were being dealt with violently, either tossed straight to the stockade or else being marched back to their troopships at bayonet point. 

And there was plenty of it. Soldiers brawled with sailors. Marines brawled with both. All would unite to brawl with another nationality. Regulars found territorials and reservists. Colonials drank in tight knit groups, eyeing up dangerously any home troops looking for trouble. 

"I could have sworn Spain was meant to be warm" swore one stumbling figure, held upright by his friend. For once inebriation wasn't to blame. The streets had been blacked out for fear of air raids and he'd been overly enthusiastic in descending a flight of stairs. "I've always tended to notice it's colder at night" remarked another voice companionably. 

  "Stall on!" said a third from up ahead, waving from where light spilled out from a doorway "There's a spot up here open. Er...bonsoir madamoiselle-" a chorus of jeers stopped him "That's French you gobshite" came a derisive correction. Another took charge and began to speak in accented but clear Spanish. His head popped back out into the street and he gave a curt wave "Right, we can come in but any trouble and she's calling the redcaps on us". "Good on ya Eddie boy!" "That means shut your gob Conor!"

Needing little encouragement, the quartet crowded in fast. The Llanito woman who'd let them in, eyed them carefully before shutting the door, gesturing with her arm to some seats free near the corner. Some of the other patrons eyed them suspiciously, "You won't be causing any trouble now boys?". The challenge came from a cluster of New Worlders who were dicing at another table. 

"Not a bother from us lads" Liam answered easily, casually grabbing the arm of Conor before he could do any more damage. A brawl at odds of two to one was never a good finisher for a night. "We'll just sit here out of yer way" he said diplomatically, steering his friend to the bench.

Kevin and Edward had already settled themselves, the former still clutching at his leg and grimacing. "Not like you'll be needing that in the RFC now" Conor commented carelessly though a stupid grin was still plastered on his face. Kevin spared enough of a moment to glare at him while the waitress brought a jug and cips. Liam risked a whiff.

"Different" was all he managed. Edward's nose wrinkled delicately though he did begin to pour generous portions for each of them. "Brace yourselves, I've a feeling that the quality will drop the closer we get to the front". "Quantity has a quality all of its own" Conor shot back as he reached for his cup. "No matter anyways, sláinte".

This was echoed by the others as the cups clinked. Quickly replaced by coughs and splutters. "Christ" was about all Liam could manage to vocalise. "Jesus, Mary and Joseph" affirmed Kevin who'd abandoned ministering to his foot to thump his chest "What was that?!".

"Some questions are perhaps better unanswered" Edward commented dryly, "Though I've a few of my own, did you get your orders?". Nods all round. "I'm definitely for some part of the Eastern Med anyways" Liam shrugged. "Primers on Ottomans, phrasebooks in Turkish, the works-" "I think we all knew we were going to be getting stuck into the Ottomans if we were deployed here" Kevin cut in. "Ha! Like the Sick Man of Europe can do anything?" Conor jeered.

"I wouldn't be so sure" Edward commented quietly, he sipped slowly at his cup, his face twisting at the taste but he went on. Conor's face indicated that contrary to what had just been said in contradiction of him, yes he was quite sure. "Just gearing up for a lecture?" he sneered.

Edward sighed and moved the jug so the centre of the table was clear. "Remember your geography?" he asked cattily, "How important do you think this front is? Especially with the Germans and Austrians marching west and east on the Continent?"

He spoke quietly but with a calm surety as his words began to paint a picture in all their minds. The cream of Entente forces being formed up in Europe. Spain, France all hamstrung by commitments in Morocco and Algeria where the Riffians, Zaians and Senussi waging their guerilla wars were sure to receive an influx of Central Powers support. The Mediterranean campaign was a sideshow but one they couldn't abandon. Overtly costly for too few gains. One a scratch ad hoc group of second-rate, untried formations would be forced to fight. The glory would be in Europe along with all the eyes of the world. There would be dying aplenty but the campaigning even more brutal away from the western and eastern fronts. Even the New Worlders quietened down to listen.

"So where are you to?" Kevin asked as silence fell. Any sense of festivity  had faded from the small tavern. "Libya" Edward said with grim satisfaction. "The Italians plead they're overstretched on two fronts. Which of course is another way of saying they know they'll fail grabbing for territory without our help. I'm sailing on the morrow. With luck the Senussi haven't got artillery yet".

"Egypt for me" Kevin responded quietly, "Assigned to the Canal Defense Zone, I was afraid I'd miss out on all the fun" he admitted with an embarrassed laugh. "I've a feeling there'll be more than enough for all of us" Liam observed grimly though he forced a smile as he raised his glass. "We're all headed east anyways. All roads lead to Constantinople".

The cups clinked again and they drank, one promise made. Constantinople.

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