Death and Fortune: Book One of 1526

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Chapter 14: The Princess and the Courtesan

A Few Days Later

The 17th of September, Day of the Moon, Year of the Lord 1526

Asra

As Asra walked through the harem gate, escorted by the black eunuch, she gave thanks to Allah that she was no longer held captive within its walls. She walked past the eunuch dormitories and a royal bathroom, then along the Court Yard of slaves girls. Each of these places held memories, memories of waiting, years of waiting. It was the harem that had made her what she was. Time was one thing that a harem girl had in abundance, and Asra had used it to master the myriad tongues. The slaves of the harem came from all across the world, and of their old lives they carried with them their languages and Asra had learned them and hoarded them.

At length she came to the Harem Garden. And to the presence of Sultan Suleiman the Lawgiver, Emperor of the Turks, Caliph of Islam, most powerful man in the world and Asra’s occasional lover. He sat on a cushioned rug, listening to the flutes of the harem girls. He drank Chinese black tea from an Arab-glass teacup, sweetened with a spoon of Indian cane sugar. When Asra had first been called on to attend the sultan, it had been nothing more than a lucky chance. Asra had known that her chance for freedom would not come again. So she had challenged the sultan to a wager, if she could outperform him in the number of languages in which she could say the name of God he would grant her a boon, if she lost she would kill herself. Asra was not fool enough to allow herself to win, but she had sufficiently impressed the emperor to ask her boon, freedom.

Asra prostrated herself before the sultan, kissing the carpet at his feet.

“Rise,” said Suleiman.

“How may I serve you, Prince of the Faithful?” When she had left the harem she had been employed as a spy, where she had put to use her skill in languages, and trained in weapon craft and disguise. She had become the mastermind of a network of female informants, among brothels and slaves girls across Rumalia and had earned the ear of the sultan. She had risen high indeed for a slave girl orphaned at the sack Durres.

Suleiman indicated that she should eat from a bowl of Persian dates. “What can you tell me about Nuray, Bright Moon?”

“Ibrahim Pasha’s disappearing wife? I doubtless know nothing that your majesty does not already know, that she has been kidnapped. By who I know not. Other than that, I have only women’s gossip that she was wishing herself to be captured out of boredom. The Nine Holy Nights during which men and women must not lie together, Ibrahim barely took the time to look at her.”

“Nuray is my kinswoman,” said Suleiman. “She must be brought back, willing or not. My scouts report that the kidnapper is a German mercenary, from the northern frontier. You can speak the Germanic tongue?”

Asra nodded.

“I’m sending you to the northern frontier. I want you to bring me back Nuray and find out what you can about those mountainous borderlands. I’ll give you a thousand silver akce and an escort of soldiers led by Mustafa Khan.”

“Mustafa,” asked Asra, “Mustafa the Tartar lord?”

“Yes.”

“Mustafa treats women like they’re goats, to he herded around with shouts and sticks, and locked inside at night so they don’t runaway. How can I work with a man like that?”

Suleyman held up his hand, “He’s a great warrior, horseman and tracker. His people have been raiding deep into the Christian lands for many years. There is no one I trust more to take you swiftly and safely on your errand. And I trust you shall not fail me.”

Asra bowed and kissed his feet. “I shall not, Prince of the Faithful.”

Peter

Peter watched Nuray as she rode in the supply wagon sitting on top of the bales of straw, sacking and booty. Nuray struggled to keep her composure with every bump and swing of the wagon as it rolled along the forest road. Her eyes and cheeks were red from weeping. But the way she held her head, the way she washed her hands and feet and prayed at every stop, spoke of a woman whose spirit was unbroken.

Peter was not a man overly given to lust, or to love. He had like every soldier milled his grain in a brothel, but he did not live for it the way that Krum had. The truth was he felt for his wife Greta and guilt plagued him when he took another woman. But Nuray had kindled something different in him, something he had not felt in a long time, if ever. He found he could think of little else and his heart smouldered with constant yearning. She was so beautiful, so proud, so different. She was like a wild falcon caught on a leather thong, elegant like a young doe in flight, yet fierce like a jackal.

Nuray became aware that Peter was staring at her. She began to scream and curse him in her own language. She spat at him and strained against the knots that tied her to the wagon. She had tried to run away but having thrice been brought back wet, miserable and hungry, she no longer bothered, settling instead on vocal grieving and cursing. She had tried to kill herself but did not seem to have the stomach to cut deeply enough. In all, it had seemed prudent to keep her bound.

Captain Sokol drew up beside Peter. “If you take her,” he said, “it’ll drop her ransom value, drop it by a lot.”

Peter winced. Were his thoughts that obvious?

Sokol pointed north along the flat road toward the horizon, where billowing black clouds were forming. “Rain is coming and thunder too by the look of it. No man is that keen to spend another night outside. The scout says there is manor house only an hour or so march from here. Should we billet ourselves there? There are now no lords of Hungaria and we might find victuals and warm beds.”

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