FOR TWO MONTHS, the Kapi Aga had known, by turns, abject terror, tremulous anticipation and delirious pleasure.
He was a man with vivid imagination and he knew what they would do to him if his secret was discovered. But he could not stop now, even if one of God’s angels had descended to earth to give him a written promise, signed in gold by God Himself, that he would be caught. The sexual pleasure – and she was a beautiful woman, made doubly so by being forbidden – was only part of it. It was the confirmation of a manhood he thought he had lost. He told himself he could endure any death, as long as he died a man.
Each Thursday afternoon, an hour before dusk, she would come to the garden to read her Qur’an. His whole week was precariously constructed around that dreadful, exquisite moment when he would turn the key in that rusted lock and enter the garden. Each time he pushed open the door he could never be sure if he would find Meylissa and her kittenish smile or his own soldiers, their razor-edged killic drawn. Even as Head of the Palace Guard and Keeper of the Girls, he could not pull off his own dogs if he were discovered.
The iron-framed door creaked open – Merciful God it sounded like a cannon shot in the silence of the Harem! – and he crept through, locking it behind him. He glanced up at the north tower. The only way they might be seen was from the room at the very top – it was from there he had first seen Meylissa himself – but he had just locked the door to those two rooms himself.
Then why did he feel as if every member of the Divan was watching him, while they sharpened the iron hooks that would tear him apart?
The garden was shaded by high walls, the paths flanked by columns of white Paros marble and overhung with cypress and willow. It was always twilight here, though above the trees he could see the late afternoon sun catch the tiles on the minaret of the Harem mosque, turning them rose pink.
He looked around for Meylissa, thought to find her hunched over her Qur’an as usual on a marble seat beneath the colonnades; but there was no sign. He felt a thrill of fear. He held his breath and listened; the only sound was a lone nightingale calling softly in the willow branches above his head.
Why wasn’t she here?
“She cannot come today.”
The voice came from behind him. He jerked around, instinctively drawing his killic from its leather scabbard.
The girl crossed her arms and laughed at him.
He did not recognize her, but then there were so many new ones. She was tall and slim with flaming red hair and green eyes. She wore a yellow cotton kaftan with a gold brocade jacket and a little green cap – a taplock – on her head. There was a single pearl tied at the cap’s tassel.
She was so tiny a breath of wind might blow her away. Yet she had scared him badly and he could not stop shaking. “Where is Meylissa?” he said.
“In the Harem of course, safe from the attentions of men.”
“What are you laughing at?”
“You are as white as your turban. It’s all right, as you can see, I’m not one of the Sultan’s yeniçeris. What are you so frightened of? I’m just a sewing girl. Look, I’m unarmed. I don’t even have my needle.”
“Who do you think you’re talking to, girl? I’ll have you put to the bastinado …” He grabbed her by the arm, put his sword point to her eyes to intimidate her. Hürrem smiled back and her fingers closed around his groin.
“Meylissa says they still work. I’m just an innocent little sewing girl, but I thought they weren’t supposed to.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Meylissa is going to have your baby.”
She might as well have told him she had the pestilence. He took a step backward and his sword slipped from his fingers and clattered onto the marble. His eyes were as wide as a horse bolting from a fire. He tried to say something and couldn’t. A thread of saliva spilled from his bottom lip.
“You are thinking it’s not possible? That’s what she thought, too. But I promise you, Kapi Aga, you have defied their efforts to unman you.”
“Who are you? What do you want?”
“I’m Meylissa’s friend.” She looked at the killic lying on the marble. “Pick it up,” she said, for no other reason than to test her advantage.
He bent to do as he was told. “What do you want?”
“I want to help you.”
“I remember you now. You’re the Russian girl. We bought you from the Tatars.”
She watched him with amusement; each question, each calculation was written there on his face as plain as if it was an illuminated page from the Qur’an.
“Who else knows?” he said.
“It would be so easy to toss us both in the Bosporus in the middle of the night and be done with the whole thing. That’s what you’re thinking, isn’t it? That’s why we have told one other. Someone whose name you will never know.”
“I know you. The Kiaya calls you her little minx.”
“I am my own minx. I belong to no one.”
He sheathed his sword. He had the look of a trapped animal about him, cowed but still dangerous. “So, you want to help me?”
“I want to help Meylissa, but it will help you too. Or perhaps you do not wish my help. You could marry her and raise a family together.”
“Do not mock me!” He took a step towards her, bold again. “How do I know this is true?”
“You do not. You might never know for certain until it is too late. One night the Sultan will appear in your quarters with two sacks. One for my friend Meylissa when they throw her in the Bosporus. The other sack will be to collect the pieces of his former Kapi Aga after the bostanji-basha has finished cutting him into small pieces.”
“You’re just a houri. What can you do?”
“I can eliminate your problem for you.”
“There is a witch in here who knows how to do this?”
“In return you will do something for me.”
“How do I know you are telling me the truth?”
“How can you be sure I’m not?”
He wanted to throttle her, that was plain, but that would not do him any good. He puffed out his cheeks and then, to her astonishment, stamped his foot. “All right,” he said, at last. “What is it you want? A better position? Clothes? Money?”
“You value your life so cheap?”
The sun was low in the sky now, and the minaret had turned blood-red. He should be reaching the sublime moment there in the shadows not bargaining with this impudent little slave girl. “What is it you are after?”
“I want you to get me into the Sultan’s bed.”
“What? But I cannot do that. It’s impossible!”
“Then you must make it possible. Or else it is very possible indeed that the Sultan will discover your perfidy and have you hung on a hook and leave you to turn black in the sun. You know the punishment.”
“The Sultan never sleeps with any woman but Gülbehar, you know that! What you are asking is not in my power!”
For the first time Hürrem stopped smiling. “Enjoy your death. I believe the will give you plenty of time to savor it.”
She walked away. The shadows crept across the garden and the Kapi Aga watched them come, frozen with terror.
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