Across the next few days it became clear that you could, indeed, not step into the same river twice. Calliope’s death had altered the balance of power in the Seraglio – and not in my favour.
With Irene’s son as the most likely heir, the Sultana, Roxanne, was also sidelined, and though it should have suited her purpose to ally with me, she was too bovine so to do. Irene had taken care to reassure her that if she behaved she would be looked after; in the event she was – strangled and dumped in the Bosphorus.
The Grand Vizier was happy. My mission had ensured that the Empire would not face a Christian crusade, but it had failed to deliver an active alliance against the Catholic Powers, which had paved the way for his non-aggression treaties with them. The Empire was at peace, and money that should have been spent on renewing our equipment and training our armies, was spent on palaces and donations to the Janissaries.
The Janissaries had once been the male equivalent of the tribute of which I had been a part. Women went to the Seraglio or the slave market, men to train as fighters. Owning no allegiance to anyone save the Sultan, the Janissaries had established themselves as the most effective fighting force in the Empire, and grown rich on its conquests.
But now the great age of expansion was over, they were still hungry for money, and being based in Istanbul, they increasingly posed a threat to the power of the Sultan, who, like the old Roman Emperors, found themselves buying off the threat with ‘donations.’ Mehmet was a strong enough ruler to be able to control them, but peace did not suit them; money did.
I wondered what would happen in the event of his death?
Peace did not really suit him either.
In the year I had been gone, he had put on weight, and the delights of the flesh and the vine had been enjoyed to the full. He was grateful to me for my service, but I knew things had changed; I wondered about my future.
It was Lebanon, once more, which gave me fresh hope.
The deal brokered with the al-Shibabs had not lasted. Bashir had been unable to restrain his clansmen’s greed, and the Sultan sent for me to discuss possible solutions.
‘My little Vizier, I am grateful for what you have done for me, but I see you are saddened by the death of my mother. How would it be if I made you Viceroy of our Syrian provinces?’
His habit of coming up with the unexpected was never more in evidence than at that moment.
‘But Highness, a woman ruler?’
‘They are not unknown in that region, and it is known that you have my favour and act in my name. To be serious little one, we both know that your old place here is gone, and in these times I have need of your services elsewhere. You will be royally rewarded.’
It was a nice way of dismissing me; but he was right.
I had a habit of underestimating him. When he was not thinking with his cock, his mind was acute and far-seeing.
Before I went, I had feared, as I told Calliope, that my long absence would diminish me in his favour, but she had dismissed that, saying that as long as she held sway, so would I. But she was gone, and with her my patron. I could not compete with Irene. Her long blonde hair, full breasts and fertile belly gave Mehmet what he wanted, and whilst my stories amused him, his love of the flesh had increased and would increase more. I could not compete there, even had I wanted to. Svetlana was safe. Irene did not see her as a rival. I was not safe, as she knew I could be one.
My Master had seen all of this, and had made dispositions to solve the problem.
I looked at him. He was still in his prime, strong, virile, if beginning to run to fat a little. I hoped he had many years yet, but my heart told me otherwise. I might survive for a while here while he lived, but if he died etimesgut escort I would assuredly be one of those to whom the bow-string would be sent: the sign of imminent death. It was better to go now, and to another occupation.
‘My Lord,’ I said, kneeling and bowing low, ‘you do me great honour, and I shall try to live up to your expectations. You have been kind to me.’
He smiled. He loved being generous, and loved even more the recipient acknowledging that fact.
He held out his arms.
‘My little one, you have been as a daughter to me, and you have saved my life, I would give you what you need. We both know your time here is up; I would not see you diminished or harmed. Beside, by going to Beirut and Syria you may yet be able to look into this Jewish business you mention.’
Typical. He had not mentioned it in the four days I had been back, but he had noted it, knew it meant something to me, and used it to sweeten the sour wine of exile. Make no mistake, it was exile. Gilded, garlanded with lavish praise, riches, and position; but exile all the same.
For a while I could rely on the knowledge that I was the Sultan’s favourite to secure my position in the Syrian Vilayets, but I would stand or fall there on my own efforts. Failure would mean the bowstring as it had for Bashir. Ottoman viceroys were given a good deal of rope, but it was often used to hang them in the event of failure.
So it was, a week later, that I took the ship south, once more.
My farewells were short.
My beloved Svetlana cried, and we loved one final time. Irene walked around with a smile like the silver plate on a Christian coffin lid; her only regret was that I was not in the coffin. For the rest, there were protestations of love and regret, but we all knew what was happening. That the Sultan did not see me again before I went was my one regret. But then again, as he might have wanted to use me as he did his other women, that was some consolation, as was a sweet note and a trunk of gold. I never saw him again. He was the founder of my fortunes, but having used me, he wanted me out of the way with no fuss; that was his way.
I was offered my choice of bodyguard to take with me, as was traditional, and I could not resist my own private joke by responding to the query ‘what do you want,’ with the riposte, ‘Mustapha Kunt.’ No one, except Svetlana, who had picked up Danegyth’s word from me, knew it was slang for the female genitalia; but I relished my little jest. Besides, Master Kunt had shown himself a safe pair of hands on the long journey south from Moscow, and seemed a resourceful fellow. I would need someone of his calibre. I had brains enough to spare, but brawn would be needed, and he had that.
And so it was that just before mid-summer’s day, I left Istanbul for what may yet prove to be the last time; I have no sense that it will again be my lot to see it. Indeed, in view of what has happened since Mehmet’s death, I have no desire to. I am safe enough here, and the bowstring, should it come, may yet arrive too late.
On the familiar journey I was overwhelmed by a sense of melancholy.
My visit to my old home had been bitter-sweet. There was no going back there. But it was the exile from the Seraglio which cut the deepest. I had not realised how dependent I had become on Calliope, and I missed her. I should have loved to have been able to say my goodbyes to her; but that was not to be. My new home had become an unwelcoming place without her. A year’s Mission had been enough to make me a stranger; new patterns, new women, new dynamics had all rendered me obsolete. Now, in my twentieth year, I was cast adrift, and any new life would be mine to make.
I realised this on the journey. Gilded exile was still exile. That thought haunted me.
What otele gelen escort if I could not make it work? Could a young woman not yet twenty-one really be an Ottoman Viceroy? I felt an utter imposter. I should be found out and – and then what? That was the other thought that haunted my nightmares – and my waking dreams. I was leaving behind everything, and everyone I knew, and beginning again – on my own.
Then, the night before we arrived, I snapped out of it. I had been told there would be trials, but I had been told I would be given strength. In any case, my reasoning mind kicked in, what friends? The Seraglio was a snake-pit, and one of my only two real friends was dead. I knew Beirut, and I had friends there. Maybe, and here I hardly dared hope, my beloved Anastasia, my Ana, would still be there, and somehow she would contact me? That thought somehow reset my sensibilities. I had done what I had done at eighteen, so why should I not be able to do more now? Besides, I had power now, and not just influence.
The smells of the port aided the recovery of my spirits. I loved the mix of sea salt and spices. I was, of course, received with great honour as the new Governor, and my bodyguard did me proud. Master Kunt had everything gleaming. I had a sense he had grown fond of me, and of course, this was his chance to make good too. I was glad to have him with me, even if my reasons for choosing him had been entirely frivolous.
Perhaps it is the eating of Royal Jelly which makes the Queen Bee what she is? I found the act of the homage of the local governors almost intoxicating. I had seen enough of the Sultan’s grand manner to ape it, and began to realise what Protocol was for. It created an image and a distance; the ruler was on a higher level than the ruled; it inculcated habits of mind – on both sides. Maybe power was all an illusion?
The journey to Beirut had two advantages: I was off the ship; and I was on Roman roads. It was, unlike some of my journeys in that region, uneventful, and we arrived in the Grand Serail just after noon on a hot July day.
I was received with all the honours due to a new Viceroy. I could, I thought, get used to this.
Pomegranate juice and fruit was set before me, and I refreshed myself, before retiring to the baths. How I had borne my time in England and Russia without proper bathing faculties, I could no longer imagine. I love to sit, relaxing, and then be massaged afterwards. As the girls worked on me, I relaxed, secure in the knowledge that my guards would keep me safe. My maids dressed me when I was ready, and I retired to my bureau to begin my labours.
My Vizier was waiting, he was a small man, light-complexioned, almost European looking.
‘I am Ahmed al-Shibab, Highness, and at your favour I am your Vizier.’
‘A relative of Bashir’s?’ I asked.
‘Yes, a cousin, Highness, but he failed to bring my clan into line with the plans of the Sultan and paid the price.’
The region was a hotbed of clan loyalties. The Al-Shibabs had a history of disloyalty, and the last but one governor, an Al-Shibab, had revolted, but been deposed as the result of a plot master-minded by men using his cousin by marriage, Bashir, and the Druze Princess, Damila Al-Amadin. But the Shibabs and the Amadins had been unable to share power – which was why I had been sent. I made it clear to Ahmed that I was there because of the failure of the local clans to agree. The Bashirs, I added, though a minor clan and an off-shoot of the Al-Shibabs, would have to have a place and a share of the spoils. He looked at me sourly.
‘Do not underestimate me, Ahmed, I would rather work with you all, but it takes two to make a team, and anyone who does not wish to share will get precisely nothing. I have spoken.’
He looked at me.
‘Do kızılay escort not think I do not know this area, or its politics. There are other forces in play here too, and I will not hesitate to bring them in. The Al-Amadins have a big appetite, and with the Bashirs, and other allies, they can take the place of the Al-Shibabs, and your country will know you no more. That is my way of war. The Al-Shibabs can acknowledge the part of others here and share wealth and power. That is my way of peace. I suggest you convey that to the head of your clan today. Go!’
He looked astonished; but he went.
There were three dispatches awaiting me, one marked for my eyes only.
The first, to my delight, was from Princess Damila, my Druze friend. She welcomed me to my new position and proposed herself as one of my first visitors. My first official act was to dictate a note to my secretary, inviting her.
The second was from the Al-Shibab Amir, inviting me to his residence. I responded by inviting him to the palace. He was not getting away with that.
The third, the personal one, I sent the secretary away in order to read. The hand was cursive.
‘Rahab, darling one, I did not dare believe what I heard, but if it be true you will get this. On the Sunday after your arrival there will be a messenger from me at your official residence. Send a note and I will attend on you. Ana.’
My heart melted. My Ana, she had heard! Well, of course she had. The Bodyguard, a secret Amazon regiment of female warriors who guarded the hidden tomb of the Marble King, had spies everywhere. They were, and Ahmed knew it, my ‘other power.’ I loved her, and she loved me, and we were bound by the strongest of bonds. We worked together in the greater cause of the Blessed Virgin. My heart was at peace now. I wrote a note in my own hand and sealed it with my own seal.
‘Ana, my Ana,’ I wrote, ‘I had feared we would not meet again, but my heart told me otherwise. I am here for as long as it pleases the Sultan. I am here to please you for longer. I will not willingly leave here again,’
That was all I wrote, and I have it here by me as I write this. It brings a smile to my lips. Suddenly exile ceased to have any fears.
She came to me the night after she received it.
Tall, blonde, every inch the warrior maiden, the very sight of Ana made my heart sing.
She looked at me as I looked at her.
‘It is you my Rahab. I knew you would return. I know, too that you will stay here.’
She had the vision, and I knew she spoke truly.
She came to me. So tall, so strong. Standing on tiptoe, I reached up, pressing my body against hers, my arms around her neck as she picked me up. Ana held me easily, taking me to my bed. By the time I was there my clothing had found its way to the floor. I melted into her strong arms. I was hers, utterly and forever; a great peace descended on my soul.
To be placed on the bed by her was such an erotic feeling. I lay there, naked, legs apart, staring at her as she removed her tunic, revealing those firm high breasts with their thick stiff nipples, which to my mind cried out to be sucked. Her triangle of trimmed hair covering her mound drew my tongue to my lips; she smiled.
‘Is that what my little Rehab wants?’
Knowing it was, she straddled my face.
Her scent, her taste, her texture all engulfed me. I gripped her firm, tight buttocks, my hands kneading them, gripping them, as she rode my face. I wanted her, needed her. As her juices cascaded down onto my face, I lapped all the more urgently. Her cream became thicker, tastier, and I moaned loudly into her cunt as she climaxed, riding her through her orgasm and into a second. She screamed my name as she came a second time, collapsing backwards onto my body, then rolling over and coming up to taste herself on my lips.
We kissed, sharing her taste, and I caressed her breasts, showering her with affection. She held me. Our hearts were pounding.
‘It is good to have you back,’ she laughed.
‘It is good to be back,’ I smiled, wet-faced and happy.
And so it was.