Normally, the moment his buttocks touched his throne, his mind would wander... but not this evening. The throne dominated the room. Embroidered vines and flowers seemed to chase each other across the upholstery. Gold leaf gave the carved legs a rich glow. It was long enough to allow a man to recline and that is what he was doing. The flowing silk of his evening regalia spilled around him and enhanced the image of disinterest he was trying so hard to project. The sultan lay on his side, propped up on an elbow, pretending to follow the patterns in the tiles that covered the walls of the room. A last few rays of the sun streamed through windows on his right to splash on the parquet wood floor. In the squares of orange light, he could pick out the silhouettes of the concubines who lounged on cushions under the windows. The women generated a distinctly female buzz. It happened whenever you got enough of them together. They were subdued now in front of their ruler, but he had heard their raucous babble many times in the courtyards. The first time he'd heard it as a boy, he thought of seagulls fighting over a morsel. He enjoyed overhearing their chatter, listening to their hopes and concerns. The women's gossip always gave him a better view on his empire than his observation tower in the harem.
Now he thought of the first time he had seen her. His head had been full of troublesome thoughts. Emissaries from the west had been attempting to dictate a treaty to him, as if he were a barbarian or a child. He had watched his kuhzlahra'asuh closely, trying to take a cue from the old man's body. The ancient eunuch, his skin as black as night, his beard a stark white cloud, did not even flinch in the storm of condescending words. Not one muscle tensed. Years of statesmanship had left the old man a blank slate. Meanwhile, the sultan thought he was going to explode, or throttle the idiots, or do something equally impolitic. After a few terse words with his advisors, he left to find some peace in the Bird Gate and its garden aviary. Halfway there he stormed through a doorway and crashed into a concubine. She let out a squeak as she skidded across the floor.
Shocked out of his fury, the Sultan rushed to the now moaning jumble of arms and legs and fabric. He took an outstretched hand and helped her up.
His eyes cataloged her features one by one as she stood up: a fine face unveiled and auburn hair uncovered here in the harem, maybe a little short, but well-proportioned, and finally her blue eyes. She was beautiful, the kind of beauty grown only in Circassia.
Now it was her turn to be shocked. He could tell that her Turkish was fine even as she stammered and flustered. He found that her voice was surprisingly low and pleasing. All he could do was stand, watch, and smile.
Finally, she reached some internal threshold of embarrassment and darted down the hallway. He turned to watch her. He followed the curves moving and sliding under her wrap. Even her hurried scramble had a kind of womanly grace.
Of course, he thought now, he had been smitten. At that moment, she could have been squatting over a toilet hole and he would have seen a poem of movement. The sultan allowed his gaze to wander towards the concubines. In the dying light he could seen a flash of auburn hair.
His household supported 276 women in luxury at last count. New girls walked through the gates of the palace every day, their parents happy with the exchange of a daughter for hard cash. He had known the feel of Circassian skin under his hand many times before. What was it about this girl?
An echoing clank fractured his musing. The whispering stopped. A eunuch stepped aside and the doors in the far wall opened. The valide sultan strode into the room, her brilliant green silks wrapping her like woven emerald. Footsteps clacked with confidence on the wood floor. Without a glance to either side, she approached the sultan, stopping directly in front of the throne.
He could see grey at her temples. A few creased lined her face. Life and politics had weighed on her, but he could still see how beautiful she must have been.
The valide sultan nodded her head and greeted him.
"Your highness," she said to the room.
"Mother." replied, letting his eyelids droop ever so slightly.
"It's time that I make the evening's choice." Her voice was deadened by protocol.
"So which one is it to be tonight?" he asked. He hoped he had been able to strike the right note of ennui. If his mother caught even the slightest hint of his anxiety she would root out the cause. Then he wouldn't be able to even watch the girl lounge on her cushion. She would be sent to the kitchens or the laundry. He knew his mother had plans and he was sure that they did not include his desires. His mother always had plans. One doesn't become the mother of a sultan without a strong dose of wit and intrigue.
"It has been a quiet week, my son."
Her sudden familiarity threw him off balance. She knew something. He forced the muscles in his legs to relax.
"Yes, Mother. The harvest has been good and the foreign emissaries have been few."
"I think you could use a taste of something different..." She cocked her head thoughtfully.
He didn't like this toying. He felt like he was being led somewhere he didn't want to go.
"What would you suggest?"
"Maybe a good, healthy serving of chichek would satisfy your needs."
He knew she meant the Egyptian, dark and voluptuous like chichek honey. His spirits dipped. That one was always too eager, always giggling and thrusting and screaming. In fact, he heard a giggle come from under the windows.
The sultan concentrated on appearing nonchalant.
"Or possibly a spoonful of inky siyah jam baluh..."
Now she was referring to the Ethiopian. He felt his jaw clench against his will. His mother knew he enjoyed his black African concubines, but this one's hair scratched him in sensitive places. He was beginning to despair.
The valide sultan snapped her head upright and crossed her arms. She had made her decision. She smiled. His bowels sank.
"No. Tonight it is to be o'uhl baluh: sweet and virgin."
She lifted her hand and snapped her fingers with a crack.
He watched the Circassian girl rise from her cushion and pad out onto the floor next to his mother. The young woman's hair sparked like flame in the remaining light of the room.
The sultan felt as if the executioner had decided at the last instant to give him a shave rather than chop off his head. He didn't even care that everyone in the room could see his smile.
His mother spoke to the girl without turning: "Go to the bedchamber and have yourself prepared, girl."
The young Circassian hurried off with flanking eunuch escorts. The sultan looked past his mother to watch the hypnotizing sway of her hips.
The valide sultan bent towards her son and took his chin in her hand. His eyes met hers. He thought that her smile looked almost genuine.
She moved closer, almost whispering: "You owe me one, my boy."