The English Courtesan - Chapter 12

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Topkapi Palace, Constantinople
1542

A day that began as tranquil as any other quickly rapidly degenerated into chaos, leaving the Harem in an uproar, the Haseki Hürrem Sultan in a foul mood, Alev banished to her apartments, and wild rumors flying. It all began as most things in the Harem did, with little more than an innocent whisper. On this day the source was Ceren, who let slip that she was looking forward to accompanying Alev on their coming journey as she was dressing a girl who all knew was not truly a girl, yet accepted as such least they incur the Haseki Hürrem Sultan’s wrath.

Alev’s response to the revelation that she would soon be exiled from the palace was immediate and reflexive, little different than the way a body involuntarily responds when a raw nerve has been touched. Horrified by the very thought of leaving, she pulled away from her maid and in a swirl of satin and silk, spun around. Realizing what she had done, Ceren instinctively dropped to her knees before Alev, blowing so rapidly that there was an audible thud when her forehead hit the floor.

“Forgive me,” the fair-haired repeatedly implored between sobs. “Forgive me.”

Regaining some semblance of reason, but not much, Alev appreciated it would be pointless to question the pathetic wretch groveling at her feet. Only one person would tell her why she was about to be sent away from a place that had become more than a sanctuary for her. Without first waiting to calm herself and think, Alev flew from the private apartment she’d been given, through the length of the Harem, and into the Haseki Hürrem Sultan’s presence without bothering to seek permission to enter, be announced, or render due obeisance.

Having clawed her way to a position few women had the courage to aspire to and the cunning to achieve, Hürrem was ever vigilant, for she knew it was not a question of if, but when a day of reckoning would come. Still, both she and the black eunuchs who guarded her were caught off guard when a red-haired fury stormed into her presence.

Startled by this sudden intrusion, Hürrem’s eyes shot up from a letter she had been writing. She was astonished as much by this most unusual breech of decorum as she was by the sight of the red faced girl rapidly advancing on her, paying no heed to the way a pair of stone faced guards stepped out of the shadows with swords drawn.

With fists so tightly clenched at her side that her nails were drawing blood, Alev did her best to hold back her tears as she stared at Hürrem who returned the girl’s pitiful expression with one that betrayed a mix of astonishment and anger. “What have I done?” Alev took to pleading in a most pitifully manner before Hürrem was able to recover from her shock. “Why am I being banished?”

In an instant Hürrem understood what was behind this most heinous breach of decorum. Without bothering to look behind her, she threw up a hand in order to check her guards. Only when she’d heard the sound of swords being sheathed did she turned her attention to setting aside the indignation she felt at being interrupted in such a manner by someone she had treated with nothing but kindness and favor. Rising slowly from the table she’d been seated at, Hürrem made her way to where the girl was standing, using the time this took to formulate an appropriate response.

Appreciating lashing out at the girl would only serve to further aggravate passions that were already enflamed, Hürrem sought to calm the girl by speaking in a low, soft voice. “Let me explain,” she murmured.

Having been used as if she were of no account time and time again by others, Alev was unable to check the rage this latest act of betrayal had incited. “What have I done to be punished so?” she growled menacingly through clenched teeth.

Realizing any attempt to discipline Alev by treating her as if she were a common odalisques would only enflame an already enraged girl, leaving in its wake a schism that could very well doom all her well laid plans. Ever so slowly, with more caution than such a simple gesture required, Hürrem reaches out and pried Alev’s hands away from her side. “You have done nothing,” she declared as calmly as she could manage.

Having no wish to pass through the Carriage Gates, for she knew what the world that lay beyond them could do to those who did not conform to the dictates of culture and the wishes of those who governed the day-to-day affairs of men, Alev pressed Hürrem for an answer. “Then why are you sending me away?”

Knowing a well thought out answer, one carefully coached in logic and her designs would not do in the heat of the moment, Hürrem allowed herself to do something she only did with those she trusted, she spoke openly of her own feelings and desires. “As long as I draw breath, I shall never leave this place. My eyes will never behold the many wondrous places we have often spoken of. I shall not dine in the Wawel Castle, mingle with the artisans who freely roam the streets of Venice, or behold the many wondrous sights travelers along the Amber Road have described in the chronicles and journals they kept. But you can,” she declared, emphasizing her point by giving by gently squeezing the hands she was holding.

Looking up, Alev met Hürrem’s steady gaze.

“You will be my eyes,” Hürrem continued once she saw she had Alev’s full attention. “You will go where I cannot, speak to people of note I will never meet, and explore a world I wish to reach out to.”

Having gained a degree of control over her emotions, Alev was able to put forth her next question in a manner she hoped was not accusatory. “Am I to be your spy?”

Unable to help herself, Hürrem laughed.

Thrown by the woman’s response, Alev pulled away from her, dismayed that she had, once more, been betrayed, this time by a person she had not only put her unguarded faith into, but had followed her every dictate, without question, by assuming a role that was at odds with her true nature.

Realizing she had erred by responding as she had, Hürrem let go of Alev’s hands, taking her by shoulders in an effort to keep her from fleeing. “You know better than most how tenuous my position is,” she explained as quickly as she could in a manner she hoped the girl would understand. “There are many within the walls of this palace who would be glad to see me brought low, if for no other reason than to advance their own petty ambitions. In order to maintain the precarious perch I occupy, I must prove my worth to the Sultan by whatever means I can each and every day. One way I have been able to do so is by advising him on matters of state. I am able to do this wisely and in a timely manner because I have sources that keep me informed of what is happening in the world that lays beyond the walls of this palace.”

The bewilderment and shock Alev had felt upon hearing she was to be banished subsided enough for Hürrem to release her hold on the girl and continue in a more measured tone. “As I said, I cannot leave this place,” she stated in a voice that betrayed a hint of sorrow. “But you can. You can go where I cannot, mingle with foreign princes and their advisors, listening in on what they are saying, what they are planning and, perhaps even sway their decisions in ways that will be of benefit to the Empire and, by extension, me. Your letters to me that inform me of all you see and hear will be invaluable.”

The look on the girl’s face, and the sense she was mentally withdrawing into herself, told Hürrem logic alone was failing. When she reached out this time, she grasped one of Alev’s hands between hers and gave it a squeeze, causing Alev to look up. “As important a those services will be to me, you shall be doing so much more,” Hürrem murmured reassuringly. “You shall be the guardian of my spirit and soul, taking it where I long to go and, through your letters, returning them to me, bit by bit.”

It was not so much the words she was hearing that convinced Alev of the true nature of her charter. Rather, it was what she saw in the eyes of the Haseki Hürrem Sultan. For a brief moment, Hürrem had pulled aside the mask she used to hide the only thing she had total domain over, her soul.

As much as she would miss what she had found here, within the confines of the Harem, and fear of what she would need to endure once she had passed back through the Carriage Gate, Alev knew she could not say no. Besides, despite the manner with which she had been treated, she did not belong here. Like the assumed persona and attire she used to mask all traces of her past, the belief she did was just that, an illusion that would never hold up in the naked, bright light of day.

As the last of her anger slowly ebbed away, Alev dropped her gaze. “I will pray each morning, and again in the evening, that my courage will match the trust you are placing in me,” she whispered mournfully.

Pleased and relieved, Hürrem smiled as she released Alev’s left hand in order to gently place cup upon the girl’s unblemished cheek in her. No further words passed between the two for the longest time. There was no need for them. All that needed to be said, and all that needed to be understood, was conveyed with that touch and the gaze with which each held the other.

~

Alev was far less forgiving of Ceren than the Haseki Hürrem Sultan had been with her. It was two days before anything resembling a coherent conversation passed between the two of them. The only time the fair-haired Hungarian girl who attended to Alev’s every need did break this strained silence was when she entered Alev’s apartment bearing a sheaf of letters. “Hürrem has instructed me to inform you she wished you to study these,” Ceren declared in a voice that barely rose above a whisper.

By way of acknowledgement, Alev pointed toward a table covered with books and writing material, indicating that was where she wished Ceren to leave the letters before dismissing the girl with a simple, contemptuous flick of her hand. Having no wish to linger and risk reawaking the wrath of a girl who was now her mistress, Ceren bowed deeply and took a step back before pivoting about on her heels and quickly scurrying out of the room.

As much as Alev wanted to ignore the collection of letters the girl had left by going back to a book she’d been trying to lose herself in, she couldn’t. At sixteen she was no longer a child. Behaving like one was not only unseemly, but a poor way or repaying the kindnesses and privileges Hürrem had so freely lavished upon her she’d done nothing to deserve. Still, the very thought that she was about to be cast out of what had become, for her, the first safe haven she had known since…

Well, since she could remember, Alev concluded as she closed the book she’d been reading, set it aside, and sat upright on the divan she’d been lounging on. Even when she’d been under the benevolent tutelage of Brother Francis he, like the other monks, had done nothing to keep the boys they were responsible for in check when they’d been left to their own devices. It wasn’t as if Alev had been singled out for the sort of abuse that came naturally to young males eager to demonstrate their growing physical prowess or dominance within the pack they were associated with. She had been just as quick to join in as any of her peers had on those occasion when they found it necessary to make an example of one of their own, another child no different than she who had either strayed too far from the unwritten code they lived by, or was seen as being far too different to be tolerated, pummeling the offender with their fists, or pelting him with mockery and scorn. Even now she did not regret having done so, for her actions had been necessary to survive, just as her acceptance of the strange role in which she had been cast had become.

This caused her to wonder what she would need to do in order to survive the new, coming ordeal, one she had no wish to embark upon despite Hürrem’s efforts to present the coming journey as an unrivaled opportunity. With this thought in mind, Alev rose from her divan, and made her way to the desk. Standing before it, she took to leafing through the stack of correspondence and reports Ceren had left behind. All concerned Poland and the court politics surrounding its rulers. With a sigh, she set aside her stubbornness, accepted the inevitable, and settled down at the table where she began to study material she hoped would prepare her for the next chapter in her life.

~

It was a further two days before Hürrem sent word that Alev was to present herself to her. Having conducted herself in a most shameful manner the last time she had appeared before her benefactor, Alev took great care to properly prepare for this coming audience. After being bathed, Ceren took to removing every vestige of hair, save that on Alev’s head. It was a ritual that was practiced universally within the Harem that always left Alev unsettled and humiliated, for it reminded her in a most personal way she was different than the women around her, and always would be.

It wasn’t until she had been dressed in an apple green chemise and crimson pantaloons and while she was having her hair arranged by Ceren that Alev was able to set aside her embarrassment and do something she had needed to do for days, apologize to the fair-haired Hungarian. “I am sorry for the way I have behaved toward you of late,” she stated with a sincerity that caused the girl to stop what she’d been doing.

“You have no need to do so,” Ceren blurted once she’d managed to recover from her surprise and find her voice. “It is I who should be begging you for your forgiveness, my lady.”

It was not the heartfelt words of contrition that caused Alev to look over her shoulder and stare at Ceren questioningly. Rather, it was the honorific the girl had used.

When she saw the expression on Alev’s face, Ceren realized she had inadvertently erred again, causing her to quickly step away, drop to her knees, bow her head until it touched the floor, and take to pleading in a most pitiful manner. “Forgive me, my lady. Forgive me.”
“Why do you keep saying my lady?”

Ceren hesitated for the longest time as she wondered how best to answer Alev. Finally, after screwing up her courage, she peeked up at her. “It would be best if Hürrem explained,” she replied plaintively.

Deciding there was no point in pressing the girl who had once more let slip something she should not have for further clarification, Alev sighed. “Yes, I expect that would be best. But first, you need to finish. It would not be wise to keep Hürrem waiting, not today.”

~

At the appointed hour, Alev presented herself before the Haseki Hürrem Sultan. With a well honed grace that now came as easy to her as breathing, she took to formally playing homage to the Sultan’s wife and lover by dropping to her knees and touching her forehead to the floor, just as Ceren had done earlier. And, like the fair-haired Hungarian girl, took to pleading for forgiveness.

Hürrem understood the red-haired girl’s behavior was more than an effort on her part to let it be known she was keenly aware she had behaved in a most disrespectful manner earlier that week. The elaborate display of contraction was the girl’s way of letting her know she was submitting to the fate she, the Haseki Hürrem Sultan, had been ever so carefully preparing her for. Satisfied, but determined not to let on least the girl conclude all was forgiven, Hürrem ordered her to rise. Even after Alev had come to her feet, Hürrem said nothing for the longest time. When she finally did, she did so in a tone of voice bereft of the amicable intimacy the two had shared on previous occasions. “What have you learned from the accounts concerning the Polish Kingdom I sent to you to study?”

The sharpness of Hürrem’s voice and the way she had framed her questions alerted Alev this was a test meant to see if her acceptance of her fate was sincere. Determine to meet the challenge as she had so many others, Alev drew herself up and began to put forth her thoughts in the same manner she had used to respond whenever her former tutors had felt the need to test her knowledge. “The Kingdom Poland is a land besieged by many problems, a fair number of which are due to the way it is governed.”

With nothing more than a nod, and without letting on that she was pleased Alev had managed to set aside her anger and taken on the task she’d been given, Hürrem indicated she was to continue.

“Poland has few natural barriers that protect it from its enemies. To the southeast are Tartars, the people who took you and sold you into slavery. While they are not a threat to Poland’s heartland, their raids cannot be ignored. The Russians are an entirely different matter,” Alev continued when she was sure Hürrem was satisfied with the way she was proceeding. “In addition to Russia’s interest in controlling Livonia, an area Poland and Lithuania both consider to be key to their interests, Ivan IV, who has declared he was appointed to rule by God himself, has, by his actions, made it clear he intends to continue expanding his holdings westward once he has secured his southern frontier by defeating the Kazan Khanate, either through intrigue, relying on the Qasim Tartars as they did in 1540, or direct through military action.”

“As you can see, unchecked the Russians can easily become as much a threat to us as they are to the Poles,” Hürrem pointed out when Alev paused.

Nodding in agreement, Alev continued. “At present we are of greater concern to the Poles. If our current war in Hungry is a success…”

“When,” Hürrem interjected crisply.

“Yes, of course, forgive me. When our current war in Hungry succeeds,” Alev stated, making it clear by her tone of voice she had not misspoken.

The temptation to make it known she was not pleased by this show of defiance was reined in. The tasks she would be setting the young woman to, for that is how Hürrem had come to think of her, would require someone who was confident, resolute and self assured, qualities she herself had relied on to achieve her current position.

It was Alev’s turn to check an urge to smirk when she saw Hürrem was not going to lash out at her for the manner with which she had corrected herself. Instead, she continued with her assessment of Poland’s strategic concerns. “At present, Sigismund I, the Polish King, favors the Holy Roman Emperor’s efforts to keep Hungry from being defeated, if for no other reason than to keep the Hapsburgs from casting their gaze north. Unfortunately for Charles V, Sigismund is old and rumored to be senile, leaving the Queen, the daughter of Glan Galeazzo Sforza of Milan and very much opposed to the Hapsburgs, to pursue a policy that has the potential of being favorable to us.”

This time Hürrem made no effort to hide the pleasure she felt over the way Alev was ever so gently hinting at her understanding of what her real mission would be.

“Only to the west and north is Poland safe from a major threat,” Alev pointed out as she continued. “The fragmented nature of Germany present little danger to the Poles. If anything, it is from there that many of the artists, skilled artisans, and intellectuals that are the underpinning of the Polish Renaissance come from. Though they are, to some degree, being supplemented by Italians the Queen has brought to Kraków, the Germans still dominate the cultural development of the Kingdom.”

As she had when being examined by Tilki in order to allow him to ask questions concerning her response, Alev paused, waiting for Hürrem to either comment on her assessment, or indicate she was to continue.

Realizing the girl was waiting for her to say something, Hürrem drew herself up. “You stated that the greatest danger Poland faces is from its own institutions. Explain.”

“As daunting as the external threats to Poland are, it is my belief the greatest danger they face is from those who govern it, for they are not only distracted by internal squabbling between factions, the nobles who comprise the sejm, a parliament that must approve all laws proposed by their King, are all too often unable to overcome their own petty concerns and interests. This, in itself, hampers the ability of the King to rule effectively. The King’s authority is further undercut, not only by the onset of senility, but by a queen who is at odds with the nobility. They view her as being too autocratic and…”

For the first time Alev found herself needing exercise care in what and how she made her point. Like many of the Polish nobles, men who held a western view as to the roles men and women were expected to adhere to, there were many within the Topkapi who felt that the influence the Haseki Hürrem Sultan wielded was a threat to the Empire. Badly stated, Alev suspected her own words could easily put an end to a relationship she had come to cherish.

An appreciation of the girl’s dilemma by Hürrem spared her from having to explain any further. Coming to her feet, Hürrem made her way toward the entryway that led to her private garden, indicating Alev was to follow with nothing more than a wave of her hand. Only after they’d gone for a while, enjoying the crisp, fragrant air of the garden did Hürrem speak. “A woman who seeks to rise above her station follows a precarious road, one filled with dangers and pitfalls. She must be ever vigilant, taking care that she keeps one eye on the path before her and the other on her goal. Losing sight of either leads to certain ruin.”

Alev listened intently as they slowly made their way along a familiar path that she would soon be leaving behind. In Kraków there would be no dank cell she could hide in as she had at the monastery. Nor would she be protected by a tutor in the way Tilki, then Hürrem had, governing her every move. For the first time in her life she would be on her own, set upon a path not of her choosing. It was one that was made all the more precarious by the fact she would always need to remain on her guard, for she was something very different in a world where being different was more than a curse. It, in itself, was all too often the only excuse needed to punish the offender.

The look on Alev’s face alone told Hürrem the girl had understood what she was saying. Having maintained the pretense she had struggled to keep thus far, and in need of some lighthearted entertainment, she reached out and took Alev’s hand. “Come, let us find the storyteller. I wish to hear him tell of the Meadows of Gold and Mines of Gems.”

For the first time in days’ Alev was able to relax, though she didn’t completely let down her guard. Having come to appreciate the hazards of doing so, she instinctively found herself wondering if there was a reason Hürrem was so keen on hearing the story of Adam and Eve, one both Christians and Muslims often used to justify the way women were treated. Having come to appreciate a person like the Haseki Hürrem Sultan never did anything without first weighing consequences against gain, Alev followed along with her eyes wide open.

***

Historical Notes;

The Amber Road - The Amber Road between Northern and Southern Europe was an ancient trade route for the transfer of amber from coastal areas of the North Sea and the Baltic to the Mediterranean Sea. As an important raw material, sometimes dubbed "the gold of the north", amber was transported from the North Sea and Baltic Sea coasts overland by way of the Vistula and Dnieper rivers to Italy, Greece, the Black Sea and Egypt thousands of years ago, and long after.

Sejm - The parliament of Poland for four centuries from the 15th until the late 18th century. It had evolved from the earlier institution of wiec. It was one of the primary elements of the democratic governance in the Kingdom of Poland and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The sejm was a powerful political institution, and from early 16th century, the Polish king could not pass laws without the approval of that body.

Duration and frequencies of the sejms changed over time, with the six-week sejm session convened every two years being most common. Sejm locations changed throughout history, eventually with the Commonwealth capital of Warsaw emerging as the primary location. The number of sejm deputies and senators grew over time, from about 70 senators and 50 deputies in the 15th century to about 150 senators and 200 deputies in the 18th century. Early sejms have seen mostly majority voting, but beginning in the 17th century, unanimous voting became more common, and 32 sejms were vetoed with the infamous liberum veto, particularly in the first half of the 18th century. This vetoing procedure has been credited with significantly paralyzing the Commonwealth governance. In addition to the regular sessions of the general sejm, in the era of electable kings, beginning in 1573, three special types of sejms handled the process of the royal election in the interregnum period. It is estimated that between 1493 and 1793 sejms were held about 240 times.

Meadows of Gold and Mines of Gems - An historical account in Arabic of the beginning of the world starting with Adam and Eve up to and through the late Abbasid Caliphate by medieval Baghdadi historian Masudi. Written in the "new style" of historical writing of al-Dinawari and al-Ya’qubi, Meadows of Gold is composed in a format that contains both historically documented facts, sayings from reliable sources and stories, anecdotes, poetry and jokes that the author had heard or had read elsewhere. Due to its reliance on and references to Islam this style of history writing makes up an example of what constitutes Islamic Historiography in general.



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