Authors: Colin Falconer
The Spiders Web
Silence, but for the steady rhythm of the rain, splashing into blood-stained pools. Camels trudged through the mud; even the beasts of burden coughed at the stench of sick men and poor sanitation. The worst was the reek from the moat.
It encompassed the fortress, sixty feet deep and one hundred and forty feet wide, and was almost filled with the bloated bodies of the dead. The smell of putrefying corpses pervaded everything, it seeped into clothes and hair and skin, was pungent even in the silken sanctum of the Sultan's tent, despite the incense burners.
The assembled generals held perfumed handkerchiefs to their noses and stared at the ground. The young man on the mother of pearl throne looked as if he could murder every one of them. His lips were drawn back from his teeth in a snarl as he listened to the mumbled obeisance of his second vizier, Mustapha.
'How many of your Sultan's men did you lose today?' he said, referring to himself, as he always did in public, as if he were a separate person.
The second vizier's face and beard was crusted with black blood from a sword slash yet untended on his forehead. A dozen times that day he had led the charge against the breach in the wall below the towers of St. Michael and St. John, while the grizzled veterans of the Cross cut down his
with their broadswords and arrows. Even their women and children had torn up cobblestones from the street and hurled them down on their heads from the ramparts. He had even seen one pale priest take a turn at upending a vat of boiling pitch. Some of his men had run, it was true, their nerve broken. He had hacked them down himself with his sword.
But now, for the first time that day, he was truly afraid.
'How many men?' the young sultan repeated.
Mustapha dared raise his head to look into the Sultan's eyes. 'Twenty thousand, lord,' he whispered.
'Twenty thousand!' The Sultan leaped to his feet and every man in the room - except one - took a step back.
In the long silence that followed several of the generals in the room thought they heard Mustapha trying to swallow.
When Sultan Suleiman spoke again, his voice sounded like the death rattle in a dying man's throat. 'You advocated this expedition to me. For three centuries these infidels have taunted us from this fortress. Even the Fatih and my own father could not dislodge them. But you promised me this would be different.'
Mustapha knew there was no excuse for failure.
The silk of Suleiman's robes rippled in the light of the oil lamps. A froth of spittle had formed at the corners of his mouth.' Another twenty thousand of your Sultan's army lie in the mud at the foot of this accursed rock, the rest are afflicted with pestilence, and still the walls stand! Winter is coming, the storms are boiling there out to sea, ready to shatter our fleet and leave us stranded here. Yet if Suleiman turns away now, he must drag the banner of Islam in the dirt. You brought your Sultan to Rhodes. What will you have him do now?'
Mustapha was silent.
'You advised this!' he screamed, and stabbed his finger at his second vizier as if it were an iron spike. He turned to the
who waited in the shadows. He made a quick motion of his hands to give the order for execution. His butcher was a deaf mute, so he could not be swayed by screams of pain or supplications for mercy.
The Nubian strode forward and shoved Mustapha to his knees with one expert motion of his leg and arm. The bands of his muscle on his naked back tensed as he brought his
above his head to strike.
Old Piri Pasha, the Grand Vizier, stepped forward, both hands held up in supplication, distracting the executioner. The killing blade glittered in the light of the oil lamps.
'Great Lord, please! A moment. Misguided this man may be, but he has fought like a lion for you in front of these walls.'
'Quiet!' Suleiman shouted at him. 'If you think him so worthy, then perhaps you should join him in Paradise.'
A swift intake of breath from every man, like a wind guttering the lamps. Not Piri Pasha! He was an old man, the Vizier who survived Selim the Grim, had been Suleiman's own tutor as a child. He was one of the few dissenters against the attack on Rhodes. The assembled generals and counsellors fell on their knees in front of the young Sultan, put their foreheads to the carpets, and begged for his forbearance.
Only Ibrahim, his falconer, dared approach him. 'Great Lord,' he murmured and took Suleiman's hand. He knelt and kissed the ruby on his finger. 'There is another way.'
Suleiman tried to pull away but Ibrahim held his hand firmly in both of his.
'Tell it, then.'
'The histories tell us the Greeks besieged Troy for fourteen years for the sake of a woman. Will not the Turk, then, oppressed by piracies and invasions from this rock for over three centuries, endure one winter's siege?'
shifted his weight, waited for the final signal form the sultan.
'What is your counsel, Ibrahim?'
'They say that when one of the Roman Caesars invaded an island, he would burn his fleet on the beach. Great Lord, perhaps if you were to build a villa on this hill, in full view of the castle, the defenders will know there is to be no reprieve until the fortress is ours. It will crush their spirit. And if our soldiers know your conviction also, it will give them heart.'
Suleiman sighed, and eased himself back onto his throne. He caressed a turquoise stone that was inlaid on the arm with his forefinger. 'And what of them?' he said, nodding at the two men who knelt, heads bowed, below the
. Only now did he realize that one of them was old Piri Pasha. He winced. How could he have contemplated such a thing?
'There has been too much Turkish blood spilled today already,' Ibrahim said.
An almost imperceptible shake of the head and the
moved silently again into the shadows.
'Very well,' Suleiman said. 'Perhaps you are right, Ibrahim. It is wise counsel. We shall build the villa. Let winter come - the Sultan stays.'
The Eski Saraya (the old palace),
The hawk rode the currents high above the city, its serrated wingtips tilting to each updraft and sheer. Two hundred feet below were the great sea walls of Stamboul and its squalid, cobbled streets, where legless beggars pleaded for alms and flies hovered in black clouds above the melon rinds. The domes of the mosques had turned rose-grey in the settling dusk.
Its golden eye focused on a young woman standing on the terrace of the Eski Saraya.
She was a striking figure, conspicuous even among the three hundred women of the Harem for the two braids, tied with satin, that hung halfway down her back. Her hair was the colour of fire, burnished yellows and golds and reds that shimmered in the sunlight, a stunning contrast to her green eyes and pale Tatar complexion.
Her face was turned to the north-east, towards the distant hills of Rumelia, to a place far beyond the violet horizon. Although it was out of sight, she saw it clearly; the dry grass reached so high in summer that it almost touched the rider's girdle, and you could ride three days and nights and not see another living soul. Salt marshes that gleamed silver in the moonlight.
She let out a small cry that startled the nightingale that lived under the eaves, trapped like her in an elaborate cage.
'I could spend my whole life locked up in here,' she whispered, to the little bird. 'They keep me for my pretty colours and my song, and one day my youth will be withered and gone, like a flower pressed inside a book. But I will find a way out.'
There was really only one escape; but he was still at Rhodes, where they said he was building a new villa on Mount Philermus. She was his, he possessed her, even though she had never laid eyes on him and she had been in his dark and pretty prison for two seasons.
Well, there had to be some way. She would not spend her days idly dreaming of the miracle that might bring her to his bed. She would wake the Devil himself and light all the fires of Hell under this palace, but she would find a way to displace the Montenegran and get out of here.
They would rue the day they allowed this hell-cat into their cage of pretty birds.
the Feast of Saint Nicholas
As he rode through the towns of St Nicholas and St. Angelo, three generations of Osmanli sultans rode with him. These old walls had been the cherished prize of his father, and his father before him, and his father, too - Fatih, the Conqueror. Already at twenty-eight years, he had achieved what they had only dreamed of. He had wrested the mighty fortress at Rhodes from the Knights of Saint John.
'They say the Colossus once stood here. Now here stands another.'
Suleiman turned; it was Ibrahim, grinning, his Arab stallion prancing and fighting for its head.
'It was your wise counsel that prevailed.'
'It is the Christian holy day! Do you think they will be celebrating our feat of arms in Rome?'
On the other side of the square a group of bearded knights were praying on their knees outside their chapel. They were scarred without exception, one with a pink cicatrix on his face, the skin smeared like mud around the place where his eye had been; another had a seeping bloody bandage on an arm without a hand. They mumbled their prayers together, oblivious to the
as they marched past with their banners fluttering green and white, ignored the cannon booming victory outside the gates. After all, they had not been the ones to surrender; it was the merchants who had sued for truce.
'Look at them. Did they not fight well?'
Ibrahim reined his horse closer, dropped his voice to a whisper. 'My Lord, you perplex me. You have won the greatest victory for the House of Osmanli since the Fatih took Constantinople. Do you not rejoice?'
'It is our duty to Islam to conquer. We do not need to revel in it.'
Ibrahim turned to the ranks of white plumed soldiers, distinctive with their long moustaches and harquebuses slung over their shoulders. 'You will let the
have their day?'
'No, I gave my word. Not this time.'
'They are like dogs feeding on scraps. You know what happens to a hungry dog if you take his scraps away.'
'They must go hungry a while longer. There will be no looting here.'
'You forget, we faced humiliation four short months ago, my Lord. You are extraordinarily compassionate.'
Ibrahim was wrong. He had not forgotten what had happened here; how could he forget the reek of blood, the nauseating smell of corpses rotting in the mud, men dying in hedgerows? In the end God's will had prevailed. He had done his duty, but he hoped it would not be required of him again.
'What now, my Lord?' Ibrahim said.
Suleiman thought of the Eski Saraya, and Gülbehar. A woman's soothing voice and soft touch could help a man forget such nightmares. Perhaps she could help him forget the moment when he had discovered his own father in himself; if it were not for Ibrahim he would executed his first and second viziers together. Even Selim had never done that.
So the Beast was in him too, he owned that same mindless spite. Without Ibrahim he would have unleashed it, blindly, on the two men who served him most faithfully and least deserved his rage.
He shuddered. 'Let us go home,' he said.
the Eski Saraya
When a new slave girl was brought to the Harem, she immediately received instruction in the language of the Osmanli court and the Qur'an; she was also assigned to one of the Harem functionaries for training in a specific duty.
Hürrem had been given to the Mistress - the
- of the Silk Room, an embittered Circassian with skin the colour of leather. She was an old woman now but she still clung to the memory of one fruitless night spent with Sultan Bayezid, Suleiman's grandfather. She had spent every day since as the harem dressmaker, lost among the bolts of brocade and damask and satin, taffetas and velvet. Her temper was short.
Hürrem enjoyed her position; at least, she had decided to make the best of it, for now. She had nimble fingers and a good eye, and her handkerchiefs had evinced approving murmurs from the Sultan Valide, the Sultan's mother, the pre-eminent power in the Harem.
She hummed a tune as she worked, embroidering a square of green Diba satin - the best satin in the world, the
told her, from right here in Stamboul. She used gold and silver thread, sewing an intricate pattern of leaves and flowers into the cloth.
The tune she hummed was one she had learned from her father, a Tatar song about the steppes and the north wind.
She did not hear the
enter the room behind her, but she felt the stinging slap to her ear. She started with shock and dropped her silver needle to the floor.
She jumped to her feet and raised her hand to strike back. The
's eyes gleamed. 'Go on, hit me, you little minx! I'll have the Kapi Aga put you to the bastinado!'
Hürrem flushed beet red to the roots of her hair and lowered her hand.
'You do not sing in here, I have told you before. This is the Harem, and there is always silence.'
'I like to sing.'
'What you like does not matter. It is what the Great Lord wants.'
'He isn't even here. We could discharge a cannon in the courtyard and he would be none the wiser!'
Insolent little minx!' The
slapped her again, but this time Hürrem was braced for the blow. Her mouth twisted into a mocking smile, even though the
's open hand had left a pink imprint on her cheek.
'It is the law!' the
Hürrem leaned close and whispered, 'Keep your voice down. The Sultan might hear! You are supposed to be silent.'
picked up the handkerchief she had been embroidering and looked for fault. Finding none, she dropped it back on the bench in disgust. 'Get on with your work.'
Hürrem shared the sewing room with a raven-haired Jewish girl who had been bought from slave traders in Alexandria. 'Market meat,' the
called her. Her name was Meylissa and she had long legs, thin wrists and the quick, nervous movements of a sparrow. Hürrem watched her out of the corner of her eye, bent over her needlework, trying to make herself invisible behind the chemises and veils piled on the table in front of her. But she was too tempting a target for the
in her present mood.
'Let me see that,' the
said and snatched her work from Meylissa's fingers. 'Look at this! The finest Bursa brocade and you have ruined it!' She slapped her around the head. 'What were you thinking? Look at these stitches! A child could have done better!'
Meylissa bowed her head and said nothing. The
threw the piece of material on the floor. 'Undo all these stitches and start again! And no supper until it's finished. Do you hear?'
She turned and swept from the room.
'Fat old hindbreath of a camel!' Hürrem hissed when she was gone. She sat down at her bench and started humming again, louder than before. Silence is the Law! What nonsense!
There was a tiny, muffled sobbing behind her. She turned around. Meylissa was crying, her head cradled on her arms.
'Meylissa .. don't let her upset you! She's an old hag!'
She only shook her head, and the sobs came harder.
'Meylissa?' Hürrem got to her feet, trying to curb her impatience. Really! Hadn't the girl ever been slapped before? She sat at the bench next to her and put an arm around her shoulder. 'Now stop this!'
'It's not her.'
'What then? Meylissa … ? Whatever is wrong?'
And then she saw it, plain in the girl's huge brown eyes. Terror; naked and raw. Whatever it was, it had nothing to do with that old bitch of a seamstress.
Merciful heaven, what had she done?
Meylissa searched her face, looking for reassurance. 'I have to tell someone,' she said.
'You can trust me,' Hürrem said. 'Whatever it is, I won't tell anyone.'
'They'll kill me,' Meylissa whispered. She clutched at the hem of her kaftan, bunching the material into a ball in her fist.
'Speak up! I can't help you if you don't tell me what the problem is!'
'I'm pregnant,' Meylissa said.
Hürrem thought she had misheard. 'That doesn't make any sense,' she said.
'It's true. I missed my bleed.'
Hürrem laughed. Pregnant? In this lady's prison? 'Meylissa, it's all right, it happens. Sometimes they come late, sometimes they don't come at all. It doesn't mean you're pregnant.'
Meylissa shook her head. 'No, it's true.'
'You need a man to make you pregnant!'
Meylissa looked over Hürrem's shoulder to make sure no one could overhear. Until that moment Hürrem had thought herself the more worldly one, but in that unguarded moment her little Jewess was unmasked and she saw a knowing and a cunning in her she had missed until now. 'The Kapi Aga,' Meylissa whispered.
The Kapi Aga! The Captain of the Guards, the Chief White Eunuch! Hürrem's jaw fell open in astonishment. Although he was in charge of the Harem Guard he was supposed never to be alone with any of the girls as he was not rasé - a complete eunuch - like the Negroes. She had heard that most of the white eunuchs had only been partly castrated, their testicles had been tied or crushed, like young lambs. Was it really possible …?
'But he's a eunuch,' she said.
'Of course he's a eunuch! Do you think I would have fucked a whole man? In here?'
Hürrem was stunned. Not only at the word - prim little Meylissa! - but at her own ignorance. While she had been wrestling with the new language, thinking herself so superior to this market meat, as the
called her, this farmer's girl had already found a way to get herself bedded.
Well, at least I am not pregnant, she thought.
'But if he's a eunuch …'
'They say sometimes a man can … well, regenerate. Even the black ones, they check them every year to make sure it hasn't grown back.'
'Nonsense! When you geld a horse, it stays gelded!'
'But the white eunuchs, you know, they are not rasé - their things are not shaved off, like with the Nubians.'
Meylissa was calmer now; talking had helped her. Hürrem stared at her, appalled. Pregnant!
'But where did you … do it?'
Meylissa continued in a whisper. 'There's a courtyard at the northern end of the palace. It's surrounded by high walls and shaded with plane trees. There's a door in the wall but it's always locked and there's never a guard.'
'What were you doing there?'
'I was learning my Qur'an, as we were instructed. He must have seen me, perhaps from the northern tower. I heard a key in the lock. I was going to run away but …'
Hürrem cocked her head, waiting for this 'but'; but Meylissa only shrugged. 'He said I was the most beautiful woman in the whole harem. He said he would help me catch the Sultan's eye.'
'How many times did this happen?'
'Just once. Perhaps twice.' A breath. 'Six times.'
'Six times! Do you know what they would have done if they had caught you?'
'But they have caught me. Haven't they?'
Hürrem pondered this, wondered what she would have done if it had been her sitting in the shaded garden reading the Qur'an. Even mortal danger could be tempting besides the stifling boredom of this dingy palace. And the daily steam baths and massages they made her take had stirred something inside her. Indolence and pampering worked on the body and soul like an aphrodisiac. It was torment, for there was no man to take away the ache.
'What was it like?' Hürrem asked her.
'What was it like? What does it matter what it was like? They are going to kill me! They will tie me in a sack and throw me in the Bosphorus!'
'I'll help you,' Hürrem said.
'How? What can you do?'
'I'll think of something. You'll see.'