Buda, Ottoman Hungary
8 Safar 1008
(20 August 1599 Old Style)
Yasamin watched the pillar of wax dwindle until it could no longer nourish the tiny flame dancing atop. Sunrise would not come for several more hours, but she couldn’t sleep. She cracked the door and slipped out of the room. The light from the waning moon dusted the silent passageways in pallid light, enough for her to make her way, though twice she became lost in the unfamiliar corridors and had to retrace her steps.
Cool air brushed her face as she stepped onto one of the many narrow dirt paths threading through the haremlık garden. She breathed deeply and smiled. Though the palace’s stone façades would not allow her to forget she was still confined to the haremlık, the open air relieved the immediate feeling that she might at any moment suffocate.
The other women had tried to make her room as welcoming and comfortable as they could. Stuffed with silk and satin pillows, her chambers were larger than her old room in her uncle’s house in Salonica. She even brought with her the tapestry her mother had made of the little mosque in the woods, but no matter what anyone did, she would never call Buda home.
The path led to the same place as all the others, a central clearing dominated by an ancient oak tree. It was so wide it took four people touching fingertip to fingertip to reach all the way around. Yasamin sat with her back to its immense trunk and stared into the still blackness of the small pond next to the tree.
The tears surprised her when they came. She should have been happy. Her fondest wish had come true, the one she had made so many times, to leave Salonica and be the wife of an important man, not just the only niece of an unimportant public official. As she sat under the old oak she wanted more than anything to take that wish back.
She cried until her tears dried up. She rose to return to her room, but froze when a pebble went skittering down the opposite bank of the pond toward the glassy smooth water that mirrored the clear night sky. With a small splash, the tiny stone sent silver ripples across the surface of the pond, shattering the moon’s reflection.
Yasamin stared across the water to find someone standing on the path. Her heart leapt into her throat, but it took Yasamin a mere second to recognize Ayla, another resident of the haremlık. Yasamin was certain the relief on Ayla’s face reflected her own. She motioned for Ayla to join her, though truth be told, she wanted nothing more than to be left alone.
“You scared me nearly to death,” Yasamin whispered once the two of them were seated under the oak tree together.
“My apologies,” Ayla replied. “I didn’t mean to frighten you. I didn’t expect anyone else to be out here in the middle of the night.”
“I couldn’t sleep. I thought it would be a good place to come and think.”
Yasamin paused, struggling for something more to say. She had met Ayla only once before in passing and was unsure what etiquette demanded in the current situation. She knew Ayla was around seventeen, a year younger than she was, and that she was the daughter or niece of one of the chief advisors to Ahmed Pasha, Buda’s governor. Beyond those paltry facts, she knew nothing.
Such matters of decorum, however, didn’t seem to worry Ayla. “So, what is it you’ve come here to think about?”
Yasamin could have chosen not to answer. She could have demurred or told Ayla it was none of her business, but instead she told the truth.
“I’m not happy here.”
“But you’re about to marry Murad Pashazade,” Ayla protested. “How could you not be happy to marry the son of a Pasha?”
“It’s not him.” Yasamin motioned around. “It’s this place. I’m not happy here. It’s nothing like where I came from. I wanted for so long to leave, to be away from my aunt and her rules. Now I find myself actually missing Salonica. I miss the smell of the sea and the blue of the water on a clear day, the most beautiful blue you could imagine. There, at least I had my pick of satins and silks, or if I wanted I could sit in the afternoon sun and eat citrons until they made me sick.”
The relief at saying it all out loud passed over Yasamin like a fresh breeze. She wanted to tell Ayla everything.
“Tonight is not the first time I’ve slipped out of my room,” she continued. “On the first night I was here I came to the garden. These pomegranate trees are from Greece. We had ones like them in our garden at home. I thought if I closed my eyes and touched the bark, or held a bunch of flowers in my hand, I could forget where I was.” Yasamin sighed. “I was wrong.”
“I couldn’t plug my ears to the night noises. The wind that blows through the trees is coarse, not like the gentle breezes off the sea. The insects drone at a pitch that seems off to my ears. The wolves howl closer. I should be in Izmir, or even Istanbul, but instead, I’m here, marrying a man I know nothing about.”
“I hear Murad Pashazade is a good man.”
“Then you’ve heard more than I have.”
Yasamin’s soon-to-be husband remained an enigma to her. She gleaned from the gossip within the haremlık that he tended to shut himself up in his room for days on end, that he usually refused to speak but a few words whenever he did present himself, and that often those words were poorly chosen. In one story he embarrassed a guest of his father, a celebrated general, by pointing out mistakes the general had made in a particular battle. Even Murad’s own mother spoke of him as an idea or a notion, rather than a man.
On the other hand, the stories of Murad’s younger half-brother Selim were universal in their praise. He was an accomplished horseman and swordsman, and as young as he was, he had already led soldiers to victory in battle against the Christian armies threatening Buda. By all accounts, Selim was also a swaggering boor, but everyone knew he was a swaggering boor, and he didn’t pretend to be otherwise. If she had to be trapped in Buda, Yasamin thought she would prefer Selim to Murad.
She almost told Ayla so, but before she could, she heard a noise. As one, she and Ayla turned toward the sound. Someone else approached on the path. The two of them rounded the oak tree and crouched as deeply into the darkness as they could. Still, as the figure drew nearer, Yasamin couldn’t resist peeking around the trunk of the tree.
A tall, lanky man taking long, swift strides passed by on the path. He had tucked his robes into his belt, revealing his baggy trousers. He wore only a mustache, not the beard Yasamin was accustomed to seeing on most men. A fabric-draped, cylindrical hat adorned with a feather rested on his head. He didn’t notice Yasamin or Ayla as he passed by.
“A janissary,” Yasamin said after he was a safe distance away.
“How do you know?” Ayla asked.
“I’ve watched them walking down the street outside my home in Salonica countless times,” Yasamin replied.
“What is he doing in the haremlık? He should know he’s not allowed.”
Yasamin shrugged. She knew members of the janissary corps were supposed to remain celibate, thinking only of fighting for the Sultan, but underneath the uniform, they were still men. She herself had been tempted more than once to try to catch the eye of one passing by. If some young girl had caught this janissary’s attention, he could very well have considered the risk of being found within the haremlık to be worth the reward.
“Let it be his problem,” she said. “We should go back. It will be light soon.”
As they stepped back onto the path, Yasamin’s eyes briefly came to rest on a spot across he pond’s glassy water. She thought she saw a flicker of a shadow, but when she looked again, the pale moonlight illuminated only the trees and the flowers and the grassy banks of the black pond, nothing more.