The English Courtesan - Chapter 8

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Topkapı Palace, Constantinople

After dismissing the Italian boy he had entrusted to the old Ukrainian, Lütfi Pasha came to his feet, made his way over to the balcony, and stepped out onto it. Without being told, Tilki knew he was expected to follow. The two stood there for the longest time as the new Grand Vizier gazed out over the opulent courtyard of a palace in which he was now second only to the Sultan himself while the boy’s tutor awaited to hear the man’s decision on how he was to proceed now that he had fulfilled his initial charter.

“You have done well,” Lütfi Pasha declared without bothering to look back at Tilki.

As comforting as those words were, the Ukrainian appreciated the Grand Vizier wasn’t in the habit of spending time personally testing the knowledge of students such as the Italian boy, not without some reason he had yet to reveal.

“Tell me, how is his command of Ukrainian?”

“Though he still betrays a hint of an accent, particularly when being pressed to respond quickly, or it has been a long, trying day and he is tied, the boy’s command of the language is impressive.”

There then followed protracted silence, stirred only by the faint sound of a nightingale’s song. “Can the boy sing?” the Vizier finally asked.

Taken aback by the question, Tilki frowned. “I do not know. It is something I have had no need to delve into.”

Coming about sharply, the Vizier regarded the tutor but for a moment before making his way over to the divan he sat upon when holding court. “You are to teach him songs of your homeland,” he commanded once he was settled.

“What kind of songs?”

“Songs that will bring tears to the eyes of a young woman who longs for a home and family she has not seen for a very long time.”

Like a thunderclap, the old Ukrainian understood all. The diplomatic missions the Italian boy would be sent on did not involve voyages to foreign capitals or meetings here in the place with the representatives of other nations. His purpose in life would be that of worming his way into a world no man worthy of that title was allowed to enter. The boy was to serve as a ambassador through which the newly appointed Grand Vizier would be able to sound out, and perhaps influence Roxelana, the Hürrem Sultan herself who, like Tilki, was a Ukrainian who had been taken from her homeland as a child.

This revelation brought a song to Tilki’s heart, for he was being drawn into in the great games that were played between two of the most important centers of power within the court of Suleiman the Magnificent. Success in preparing the boy properly would be rewarded, failure…

He would not fail, Tilki concluded as he gave his head a quick shake in order to vanish the gruesome images that suddenly flashed before his mind’s eye. The boy would learn to sing like the nightingale perched just below the Vizier’s balcony. Of that, the old Ukrainian was sure as he bowed and slowly backed away from a man who harbored the very real fear his voice would not be heard, drowned out by the whispers of a rival he would never be free to confront.


Standing before the Carriage Gate, Paolo stopped and watched as the young eunuch who often tended to his needs stepped aside. That boy could go no further. Though he was a European like Paolo, when the boy had been castrated he had been left with some semblance of his manhood, a distinction that separated Paolo from the other white eunuchs being trained to serve the Sultan. In the eyes of those who mattered, this made him unsuitable to be of use on this side of the portal that separated the Harem from the rest of the Topkapı Palace. Black sandal, African eunuchs who had had all their genitalia removed were the only males allowed though the Carriage gate, past the Tower of Justice, and into the Harem where countless women lived their entire lives, from the day they were taken through these very gates until they died and were unceremoniously carted away through another few bothered with.

The more he thought about the task Lütfi Pasha had commissioned him with and Tilki had prepared him for, the more Paolo found himself wondering if he was truly ready for what lay behind the ornate gates. What he knew of women was derived solely from the writings of men who spoke of their role in society and, from time to time, brief, fleeting glimpses of those who were invited to attend services in the monastery’s chapel or spied through tiny cracks he and the other boys had found in monastery’s wall that separated them from the world outside. Even that limited exposure to a segment of the human race that was as alien to him as the American Indians Spanish explorers were encountering in the New World did precious little to prepare him for what he expected he would actually find. If anything, it added to the mystery and, in turn, his apprehensions.

The black eunuch who stepped forward to lead Paolo regarded him but for a second. The man’s expression was all Paolo needed to see to know his new guide knew more about him than he did of the world that lay just beyond the gates he stood before and the woman he was being taken to. It’s not that he was totally ignorant of Haseki Hürrem Sultan. There were, after all, no real secrets in the Topkapi Palace, a place where everyone of power and position, as well as those who served them, sought to advance their own position by listening carefully to everything that was said by those they considered to be their rivals or, like Paolo, had come to the attention of the men who were players in the Great Game. That was why, he imagined, the black eunuch he was following had taken the time to study him. The man, such as he was, was doubtlessly curious as to what he was doing there. For his part Paolo had no need to ask such a foolish question. As it had been at the monastery, he was nothing but a pawn being moved about by a man he was beholden to.

The slow, deliberate pace with which they proceeded, mirroring the way everything within the walls of the palace was done, gave Paolo’s imagination an opportunity to run riot. Despite the moniker Hürrem, which in Turkish meant the laughing one, the woman also known as Roxelana he was being taken to was held in great awe by those who revered her and feared by her many enemies. Paolo understood there was good reason why men like the Grand Vizier distrusted a woman who had been taken by raiders, much as he had been, sold in a slave market, and brought here to the Harem. In what was for the Turk a shockingly short period of time, she had risen from being little more than an odalisque, an ordinary female slave, to being one of the most influential advisors to the Sultan. Not only had she been able to convince Suleiman to break two hundred years of tradition by marrying her, the former Ukrainian slave had usurped control of the Harem from the Sultan’s own mother, stunning the empire’s ruling elite by convincing him to send both his mother and his first born son off to a distant province, thus demonstrating the totality of her power and influence for all to see. Because of this, Paolo was able to discount the stated reason Lütfi Pasha was sending him to her. Merely amusing the Haseki Hürrem Sultan with folk songs and music was something any number of slave girls could do far better than he ever would be able to. His true mission on this day, the boy concluded as he waited to be led into the room where he was expected to perform, was as opaque as the delicately fashioned lattice work that was found throughout the palace, beautiful works of art used by those who wished to observe without being observed.

Despite being painstakingly groomed by his tutor and an entire troop of music teachers to make the subterfuge Lütfi Pasha was counting on credible, nothing during his training leading up to this moment had prepared him for what he found as the door to the room he had been led to was finally opened and he stepped forward into the light.

It was a library, but unlike any library Paolo had seen before, either in Italy or here, within the Palace. Books and scrolls were not crammed together on dark shelves reaching up to the ceilings with little regard to their relative importance. Instead, manuscripts with covers as ornate and colorful as the art that graced the walls of the room were carefully arranged in small groups on low tables, or sat nestled in alabaster alcoves as if each was being accorded the respect it so richly deserved. It took all of Paolo’s considerable will power to set aside his wish to examine several works that caught his eye and focus on the reason he had been brought there. It was during this struggle that his eyes fell upon Roxelana.

Nothing could have prepared him for this moment. While the scene before him bore some similarities to the manner with which he had been introduced to Lütfi Pasha, there was no comparing the two. The woman was seated before a tall window open to the sun, allowing the morning breeze that caught her unbound coppery red hair and causing it to gently flutter and glow as if aflame as she casually leafed through a book in her lap.

Paolo stood there spell bounded. All the salutations he had been taught and rehearsed until he had thought them second nature were forgotten as he gazed upon the woman whose calm expression and self-satisfied smile spoke of a tranquility so at odds with the power and influence all on the other side of the Carriage Gate attributed to her. Only when she looked up from her page and fixed him in a steady, penetrating gaze that caused his heart to skip a beat was he able to recall the instructions his tutor had drilled him in. Dropping to his knees, he did his best to recover from his momentary lapse as he paid obeisance to the most powerful woman in the world.

Everything about the boy before her, from the way his eyes had lit up on entering her library, to the desperate struggle he was in the throws of as he stumbled his way through a greeting he’d been taught by rote brought a small smile Roxelana’s lips. Unable to stick to the script she had been adhering to up until that moment, she set aside her original thoughts on how to manage this new ploy the Grand Vizier had introduced to the game of power he had foolishly entered into and instead, beckoned him to rise.

When the young boy with hair as red as hers and downcast blue eyes that shone as brightly as sapphires stood, Roxelana found herself inexplicably dumbstruck, recovering her pose only when she saw the way his eyes flickering towards the book on her lap. With the same unhesitant decisiveness she relied on to navigate the political maze that lay at the center of the world’s greatest empire, Roxelana took to chartering a new course for the gift that had unexpectedly fallen into her lap. “Come child, I would have you read to me.”

Paolo paused uncertainly. His mission, as he had been told repeatedly, was to sing and entertain the Haseki Hürrem Sultan, not read to her. Yet, as he looked into her eyes, he found he could not ignore the woman. It was not her title or the power she wielded that caused him to abandon his charter without a second thought. Rather, it was the kindly smile he saw on her lips, the inviting gaze with which she held him, and the book being held out towards him.

Hesitantly he received the book from her hand, noting the beautifully tooled leather binding of the cover and the milky white paper on which it had been printed. He scanned the page that Roxelana’s finger had held open, instantly recognizing the work with a surge of excitement as Machiavelli’s ‘Dell'Arte della Guerra’, a book he knew the monks would never have allowed to grace their shelves.

“Sit child,” Roxelana commanded in a way that did not come across as being such. Again it was the small smile that caught his attention and compelled him to obey without hesitation as Roxelana patted a pile of cushions at her feet.

Once settle, Paolo started to read aloud, his clear, sweet voice at odds with the dry military discourse. Occasionally Roxelana interrupted to asked for his views on the ideas that Machiavelli had proposed.

Paolo was at first dumbstruck, shocked that anyone would bother to ask his opinion on this, or anything else, let alone solicit it. At first he was took his time as he weighted his answers, searching for what he hoped was one that would please the enchanting woman before him. Only when she accepted each response he rendered with little more than a reflective nod did his answers come more readily and with greater honesty.

For her part Roxelana found she was content to simply allow the boy to revel in the joy he felt for the text he was reciting even as her mind took to weaving possible uses for the clever child the Vizier had so thoughtful delivered into her hands.

Having become so lost in a book he had never read before, Paolo barely noticed the lengthening shadows creeping across the pages before him until he found himself straining the read. With a start, Paolo looked over his shoulder toward the window behind them. Upon seeing the sun dropping behind the palace walls, he panicked. Hastily he slammed the book shut and set it aside before dropping to his knees once more, apologizing as he did. “My lady, I beg you, forgive my presumption and neglectfulness. I was ordered to entertain you.”

“You did, child,” Roxelana murmured softly as a small secret smile lit lips. “Your efforts this afternoon were far more delightful than the maudlin songs I expect you were tutored in by the servants of your master.”

In that instant Paolo realized that she not only knew exactly what the Lufti Pasha had planned, she understood far better than he the game that was being played.

“You will return to me tomorrow, here, in the library, and read, should you wish it,” she continued as this realization took hold.

She watched, quietly amused, as the shock and longing that warred with each other was betrayed by child’s unchecked expression. It was obvious to her no one had ever bothered to given him an opportunity to chose before. This appreciation was the key she would use to bind him to her.

Paolo’s reply, when he was finally able to make one, was little more than a whisper. “I would like nothing more than to serve you, my lady.”

“Good.” Roxelana declared crisply before coming to her feet as the last slivers of the sun once again caught her hair to set it ablaze in copper and gold. She paused when she saw the boy was still on his knees, staring up at her as if lost in a trance. A raised, quizzical brow caused him to avert his gaze. Once more his voice was little more than a gentle whisper. “Forgive me, my lady for staring so, but your hair, it’s… beautiful.”

Surprised and delighted at the child’s heartfelt compliment, Roxelana laughed, a liquid chime of pleasure that amply showed why she had been given the moniker ‘the laughing one.’

“And so is yours little red, so is yours,” she proclaimed brightly as she reached out and playfully ruffled his own coppery curls affectionately.


With so many thoughts swirling about in his head, sleep was not possible that night. His attempt to lose himself in the books and manuscripts he was allowed to keep in his well appointed chamber proved to be just as futile. Unable to remain in bed, tossing and turning, or sit for more than a few minutes at a desk piled high with books, Paolo took to pacing, going over in his head, again and again, the events that had led up to a most troubling day and the way it had played out.

Stopping in front of an open window that overlooked one of the many gardens scattered throughout the palace’s grounds, Paolo gazed up at the waxing moon that shone brightly in the clear night sky, then down at the garden below. Its light, though pale and weak in comparison to the sun that would soon banish it from sight, made all it fell upon clearly visible. It was the shadows created by the brightly lit trees and scrubs that drew his attention, for they were a perfect analogy for the way the men who had thus far dominated his life went about manipulating him in much the same way a master plays a pawn in chess. That which is so clearly visible in the inescapable brilliance of the moon’s light hid what lay behind it in an impenetrable darkness. That the Haseki Hürrem Sultan also used the brilliance that was as natural to her as that cast off by the moon to hide her true purposes had become painfully obvious to Paolo in the short time he had spent with her.

The question Paolo found himself returning to as he once more looked up at the moon, was how best to respond to the way he was being played by both a woman who was tempting him and a man who, for the moment, held dominion over him. Only slowly did it begin to dawn on the boy that the answer actually lay in the question itself. For when the dawn of a new day began to make its presence known, casting aside the shadows that had hidden so much from him, Paolo began to appreciate he was no longer a hapless waif adrift on a storm tossed sea, blown hither and yon by forces he had no control over.

As he took to rolling out his prayer rug and kneeling upon it, rather than muttering words that had little meaning to him to a God who had brought nothing but misery and pain to him, Paolo began to plot how he could turn the opportunity that was now within his grasp to his advantage. It would be dangerous to play the Grand Vizier off against the Haseki Hürrem Sultan by doing his best to create the illusion he was bending to the wishes of each. Of course, doing nothing, simply allowing others to push and pull him about in whatever direction they wished in order to serve their purpose had proven to be no less dangerous. At least if he failed, he finally concluded as he touched his head to the floor as he had been taught by an imam who was as uncompromising in his demands that he bend to the will of the scriptures he put his faith into as Brother Dominic had been, his demise would be the result of decisions he had had a hand in making. For if Paolo had learned nothing else from his studies of Machiavelli, it was that a man was either a hammer or a nail. Having endured the poundings of others for as long as he could remember, he decided the time had come for him to become the driving force in his life.

~ ~ ~

Historical Notes;

Roxelana, also known as Hürrem Sultan, was the favorite and later the chief consort and legal wife of Ottoman Sultant Suleiman the Magnificent. She became one of the most powerful and influential women in Ottoman history and a prominent and controversial figure during the era known as the Sultanate of the Women, influencing the politics of the Ottoman Empire through her husband and playing an active role in state affairs of the Empire.

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