Authors: Marina Fiorato
He knew that Feyra was sister to him, and he did not care.
Timurhan walked through the precincts of the Topkapi palace, aware that he was never likely to walk those courts again. As he passed the Harem, he wondered as he often did, if
was within. Always, the door was closed to his eyes, and the black eunuchs guarding it.
Except for today.
The outer doors were thrown open and the inner doors too. Reluctantly, as if even his male gaze were as intrusion in this place, he looked through the doors across a small courtyard to where another door lay open too. Beyond those second doors a woman was propped on her pillow. She was motionless, her flesh discoloured, and it seemed that she was dead. But as he looked she opened her eyes, eyes that were the colour of the sea.
Suddenly he was back twenty-one years, to the moment those same eyes had bewitched him at a masque at Paros. Those eyes had held his, and persuaded him to take her away, ride with her to his ship and steal her away to Constantinople. He held those eyes again now, for a last moment and then, realizing what he was witnessing – an ending, not a beginning – he turned away.
eyra could not remember, afterwards, what they had for dinner that evening.
She had prepared the various dishes, and carried them to the table, she had lit the brass lamps when the sun fell, she had laid out the knives and cups. She had carried different morsels to her lips, but tasted nothing.
While she’d prepared the food she had trodden over and over the pathways open to her. She could reveal everything to her father, and break the confidence of her dying mother. Or she could keep her counsel and say nothing at all. She had still not decided when she took her place opposite her father at the table. The one thing she was sure of was that she was not about to leave Constantinople. If her mother was gone and her father was leaving, the city was all she had.
Feyra studied Timurhan carefully. He seemed distracted. She gazed at his face, tanned and weatherbeaten by the four winds for four decades at sea – the beard, oiled to a point and now flecked with grey, the amber eyes, just like hers. He sat where he always did when he was home, at the head of their polished table, before the latticed window which pricked out his form with crosses and diamonds of light. He was silent, and he ate little more than she did.
Feyra respected her father, was obedient to him as all good daughters should be; she loved him, and, what was more, she liked him. But she was still a little afraid of him.
He was stern. He was jealous of her chastity and as such approved of her careful dressing. He beat her when she crossed him – for which she held him no grudge, for what father did not beat his daughters? – and kissed her when she pleased him. But lately, just lately, there had been a subtle, tiny change. Just now and again, when she uttered some remark at dinner, or spoke of her work, she noticed a change as imperceptible as an alteration of tide when the waters begin to turn and favour the converse direction. She’d begun to see some respect in her father’s eyes, and, what was more, a modicum of fear.
Knowledge was the source of this new power of hers. Once or twice he asked her opinion on medical matters, and sometimes he would defer to her, even in the company of his crew. Only last night, when their dinner was just an evening meal, he had asked her several questions about the care of an infected person, about how to contain a serious illness when a patient was in the close company of others. But he did so grudgingly. She could see that he did not like the change, that he felt like something was lost.
Feyra decided to tell her father something that would not break her mother’s trust but something that would help her decide what to do. ‘My mistress is dead.’
The words dropped and rolled between him and her in the silence, like marbles cast on the table.
Her father’s eyes flickered a little. ‘I am sorry,’ he said.
From those few words Feyra realized he already knew. And moreover, he
sorry, and sad and still in love. It was enough. Feyra dropped her platter with a clash and fell to
her knees beside him. ‘Father, what should I do? She was raving at the end, she said all manner of strange things – should I return there tomorrow?’
He cupped her face. ‘Feyra. I am to go on a voyage tomorrow. And you are to return to the Harem, but as
to the Sultan.’ He could not meet her eyes.
The blood beat in Feyra’s head. A thousand emotions crowded her brain and the overriding one was anger. All the effort that she had gone to, day after day since she reached adulthood, had been for nothing.
The Sultan had seen through the veils.
To repeat her mother’s history would be dreadful enough, but Feyra’s fate was worse: she would be wived to her brother, an offence against nature as well as womanhood. She grasped the hand that held her cheek. ‘No, Father,’ she said firmly, and then softened her voice for an appeal. ‘You will not let it happen, will you?’
He relaxed, and met her eyes now, as the answer was revealed to him. His fealty to the Sultan had been given in exchange for this dearest of daughters. If he was to lose Feyra anyway, what use was his fealty or his life? He would not go on this fool’s errand. He would take Feyra, take the ship without its cargo, and sail away, anywhere, where the Sultan could not follow him.
Perhaps they would go to Paros, a place that would always be paradise to him. He could still smell the lemon trees as he had swept past on that warm night when he had ridden after beautiful Cecilia Baffo, down to the sea. It had thrilled him that she was faster than he. He saw her now, turning back, laughing at him, terrified and adventurous and sick with love all at once.
He looked down at the face that he now held, a matchless
face that he rarely saw uncovered. Feyra, so like her mother, yet so unlike her. On the hand that held his, he recognized Cecilia’s ring. There was so much for him to ask, and so much for her to tell; but there was no time. ‘I cannot let you go. Get your things. We must go now, before sundown.’
Feyra stood and fetched her cloak and buckled on her medicine belt. It was the work of a moment. ‘Ready,’ she said. There was no need to cover herself tonight, to apply those painstaking, useless disguises. She looked at her father and they shared a rare smile.
Timurhan opened the door and their smiles died.
Outside the door, blocking the dying light with his massive bulk, was the Kizlar Agha.
‘Captain Yunus Murad,’ he said in his strangely high voice, ‘I am to escort you to your ship where your crew awaits you. Lady –’ he turned to Feyra. ‘Take your rest. My deputies will guard your door and take you to the Harem at dawn.’
There was nothing for Feyra to do but say her farewells, to press her cheek to her father’s so hard that their tears mingled, and to wave and wave until he and the Kizlar Agha had turned the corner. She managed to stand until he was out of sight, then collapsed at the feet of the guards on to the pavings before her door.
The pavings where she’d once spun a top.
eyra lay in the dark, twisting the crystal ring.
She was no longer racked by indecision; she knew exactly what to do. She was merely waiting for her moment. She waited, and she twisted the circle on her finger, as if counting down the heartbeats until she could act.
The ring had only been hers for four hours and yet it already felt like part of her. She would twist the crystal band a quarter-turn so each time a different horse was uppermost – black horse, white horse, red horse, pale horse. She wondered if she shared the habit with her mother.
Nur Banu had been a mother to Feyra in all but name. She would grieve for her, yes, when the shock was past; but she had no need to place their relationship in a different perspective. There was love and respect given and received, embraces, encouragement, hours of time spent in each other’s company; more than any other daughter could expect. Feyra did not torture herself with things unsaid. All needful things had been told in those last awful hours, and the rest unspoken in the twenty years before them. Feyra’s one regret was that her mother had not been able to say more about the horsemen. About the black horse her father was to carry to Venice, about what she herself had to do.
The street outside fell quiet at last. It was time.
Feyra rose, quiet as a cat. She did not need to dress for she had never disrobed; she did, however, place a full veil under her hat. She was not hiding her beauty, now, but her identity.
Noiselessly she opened the casement and the filigree shutters where she had stood that morning. Kizlar Agha had not thought it necessary to post guards at the back of the house. She dropped silently down on to the roof of the outhouse where the neighbours shut up their goats at night. The wretched creatures began to bleat, and she breathed in their stink with an involuntary gasp of terror, before climbing down into the dark alley below. Creeping to the corner, she saw the street was deserted and ran as fast as she could down to the docks. There, heart beating in her throat, she saw the hundreds of crowded wooden hulls and spars and the cluster of masts standing like a rank of enemy pikes in the moonlight, preventing her escape. How would she ever know which vessel her father would take? He was given a different ship for each voyage. And what if he had already sailed?
She wandered the harbour in despair, reading the rash, bombastic names that men gave their ships, foolish boasts of certain victory. Should she stow away on a boat, any boat, and take her chances with whichever crew she had thrown in her lot with, or return home unseen, wake in her own bed and be taken in the Harem? Feyra was not ignorant of the ways of men. She knew what her fate would be, as the only woman on board a strange ship of men without her father to protect her. But was this worse than the fate that awaited her in the Harem? She would be the plaything of one man as opposed to twenty, but that man was her brother, and a monster to boot. It was hardly a choice.
Just as she was about to turn back for the last time, she spotted a name painted in gold on a ship that looked different to the rest. With its straight timber cambers and decorated forecastle it seemed foreign, and the name, painted in gold, read
. Nur Banu had not neglected to teach her letters – this name in Venetian meant simply ‘the horseman’.
Feyra hid behind a stack of barrels and watched. The gangplank was down, and a sequence of torches set into the harbour wall illuminated the comings and goings. She watched two sailors, shipmen of her father’s, going back and forth to the ship with various equipment and supplies that they took from a wharfhouse on the dock. She toyed with the idea of identifying herself to them and asking to be taken to the captain’s quarters, but the knowledge that he would be in the presence of the Kizlar Agha prevented her.
Instead she studied the sailors and their rhythm, back and forth, back and forth. Ships had been her playhouses since she was small, and she had explored many a hold in her time, fascinated by the barrels and boxes of freight that she found there. Usually the hold was reached from a hatch on deck, but she did not ever remember seeing one that was built quite like this. In this Venetian merchant ship, the gantry doors from the hold opened right to the air, so the cargo could be loaded directly from the dock, through double doors that closed and sealed watertight well above the waterline. A gangplank led directly into the dark doorway.
In the Harem, when Feyra had been treating the concubines, she was fond of saying that the solution to a problem was often the simplest. So it was here. She simply waited
and then sneaked like a slip-shadow up the gantry and into the dark belly of the ship.
She dropped down into the cavernous, dark space, rolled herself small behind some grain sacks and settled herself to wait. Over the next hour more sacks were dropped on top of her so that she became hot and pressed. Her medicine belt, her old friend that she’d worn so long that she felt it was part of her body, dug painfully into her waist and ribs. She considered the consequences of one of the bottles cracking and the shards of glass puncturing her skin, and, what was worse, some of those compounds seeping into her flesh; compounds that, in their nature, could be curative in the right amounts; but in the wrong amounts, fatal.
Beyond this the harsh canvas crushed her face. A new fear was born: that she would suffocate, so in the short absences of the sailors she began to shift her body weight and dig herself an airhole. In the glow of a single lamp hanging from a bracket she could begin to understand that she was crushed because all of the supplies for the voyage were being piled into one side of the hold only. At the fore of the hold was a space cornered off by a muslin curtain, with yards of empty rough floor planks between the curtain and the rest of the supplies.