A few years later, on the Mediterranean Sea…
The ship rocked dreadfully. Sancha didn't know how she survived for so long, but she did.
The moment the Tartar raiders took one look at her, she was sure she was going to be raped. But apparently with a face like hers she would fetch a very high price.
Oh, the irony! Sancha could laugh if she had the energy. She had fought so hard to be noticed, to be worth something to someone, and now of all times, she would have died to have been worth nothing. To be left for dead or worthless. Better than this hell.
Sancha had grown. She had been stunning as an adolescent but now she was of dazzling, beyond mortal beauty. Like her cousin Isabella. My sweet sister...
Her sister in all but name whom she would never see again. Life was cruel to Sancha, but it had never been this cruel.
But her beauty had afforded her some worth. Otherwise, her father would never have acknowledged her as his own child. And the confirmed-bastard girl of a Spanish duke and a Gypsy mother would never have had any rights unless her father was powerful and could afford to give her rights. He did, but not at all much, and not at all out the goodness of his heart. The gossip turned out to be true: Rodrigo had ripped the infant Sancha from her screaming, pleading mother's arms just to spite the mistress he had grown tired of. Who had dared approached him, pleading for help to raise the child after she had been shunned for being a whore. She wondered what became of the woman. Or Isabella and Inez.
Sancha looked made of the costliest, most dazzling Baltic amber. A beautiful shade with flawless, silky loveliest and most dazzling luminescent shade of richest amber, seemingly glowing with a rich sheen in shifting shades of amber, honey, copper, bronze and molten gold. Her dark hair glistened like it was coated with dew-drops, capturing and reflected light: a deep, rich, reddish-gold-brown colour, thick and rich as honeyed silk. Her eyes were the deepest, luminous, clearest, haunting shade of amber-gold and honey-brown, almond-shaped and fringed with thick, long black and curling lashes, the colour of her hair. With rosy-hued cheeks, her lips were full, and her face and features delicately shaped and moulded. The plain, stained shift clung to her beautiful form, and displayed her dismayingly attractive legs. A temptation for her captors, but someone- perhaps kinder or more cunning in the amount they would receive- had covered her legs with linen.
Sancha's eyes closed. She wanted to die.
Isabella drifted before her eyes. Her sister pleading, begging, just as Inez, crying out for her, tears shining as she held her arms out for her.
She would never see either of them again. Never find out what became of her mother.
Sancha tried to cry out, felt the tears course down her face, tried to reach out for her, but she never could. They were so close and yet so far apart. As always
The ship jolted terribly but Sancha kept her eyes closed. Normally these raiders would think nothing of binding them with the coarsest ropes or chains, but the girls would fetch a high price, none higher than the amber-hued maid. They covered her wrists in linen before binding her so as to not mar her lovely skin.
"How much do you think she would cost?" One of them whispered, at least that was what they probably said. They kept glancing at her, eagerly and excitedly. Sancha didn't understand them. She had taken language lessons with Isabella who secretly practiced every lesson she had with her tutors with her cousin, so Sancha's spiteful father would not find out and punish her. Yet this language was unknown to her.
"Food!" One of them called out in Greek. "Food!"
Now that was something she understood. Isabella had had a Greek grandmother so she had spoken the language with Sancha since childhood- of course, El Duque could never find out.
The captive girls of Cyprus stood, a few kind ones helping each other to stand. They went with hands bound in chains and a clay bowls were taken to them. A sludge of millet porridge was poured in each girl's portion. One of them knelt before Sancha.
"You must eat."
Sancha opened her eyes. The girl was momentarily struck by the beauty of those clear, luminous amber eyes, like purest molten gold when the light touched it. "I cannot."
She shook her head. "You must. They will force it down your throat if they could."
"Which will cause me to suffocate and die," Sancha replied, lifeless as a dead leaf. "A much kinder fate than this, don't you think?"
The dark-haired girl kept shaking her head. But she was frantic, and it was clear that the slavers had ordered her to make Sancha eat. So Sancha accepted the bowl and ate but tasted nothing.
"Soon we will be at the centre of their world," someone warned. As far away from Isabella and Inez as possible. She wanted to sink into despair and die, but something or someone above would not let her.
Why?! Why was God so cruel as to allow this to happen? She did not choose to be born illegitimate! Why must she be shunned and hated in the land of her birth, enough to be sent away and then captured? Why were parents expected to be honoured and respected, but were given the license to do with their children in whatever way they wished?! Her father always hated to admit the fact that he had an illegitimate daughter. But he had always insisted the right to be respected and obeyed as her father and as the duke.
Sancha's thoughts railed, despite the fact that Inez and Isabella would have been horrified at such blasphemy.
But it appeared that no light could be seen anymore.
When the ship neared port, the girls peeked out of the portholes. A huge docking bay for ships from all corners of the world, buildings of stone and marble rose shining to the sky in graceful spires and domes set with jewel-coloured enamelled inlays. It was larger than any settlement she had ever laid eyes on in Spain, Larger than anything.
The girl was right: this truly was the centre of their world. Sancha believed it.
"Hurry up girls," one slaver announced in Greek. He was bringing a box which he set out in front of them. "One of each for each girl. Make yourselves pretty for this will determine the worth for the rest of your lives."
Sancha wanted to give a harsh laugh.
Instead she took the wooden comb, a vial of perfume- rosewater by the looks of it- and a bowl of water and clean cloth to gently wipe her face. The comb ran through her hair, un-knotting and smoothing out the tangles until it rippled luxuriantly like thick layers of silk. She bathed her face in cool, clear water, cleaned it with linen and anointed herself with perfume.
Why was she doing this? Sancha didn't know. Only that she needed this.
"You." To her surprise, a slaver came forwards. He pointed at Sancha. "Come with me."
Sancha stiffened. A densely-built man and a nubile girl... She didn't need to have seen the risks of what could happen. But she had no choice as her chains were tugged and she followed him.
She had been wearing these chains for so long, they seemed a part of her. But she had always hoped that she would not die in captivity.
Sancha was startled when the slaver draped a thick cloth- a veil- over her face. "Someone wishes to see you and has paid good money to inspect the prettiest one before they all come out."
Someone... Who? Sancha didn't have any high hopes. Knowing her luck, it would probably be the owner of a successful brothel or a tavern. She would probably be a courtesan. Or a concubine.
She couldn't even see the way as the slaver led her from the bowels of the ship until her feet- now clad in sandals, stumbled on stone beneath them. They ground to a stop.
A woman's imperiously cold voice asked: "Is this she?"
"Yes, my Sultana." The slaver replied in Turkish, unaware that Sancha had been taught some Turkish by Isabella. "Take off the veil, I wish to inspect her."
The veil was lifted from Sancha's face and eyes and suddenly she could see. She heard a gasp. That gasp came from a younger girl, in a cotton dress and shawl covering her head. She was standing behind an older woman, dressed in richly-embroidered dark blue, with a fine veil of gauze hanging from her head and trailing behind her.
Several bald guards with tunics and sabres stood at attention. The woman took a step forwards and eyed Sancha up and down. She waved her hand.
Another woman came. She grabbed Sancha by the arm, and raked her eyes across her skin to see if there were any marks. Sancha nearly lost her temper, when the impudent wench dropped to her knees and examined her legs through the skirt. "We can only find out for sure if she is completely flawless, sultana, during the baths." She explained as she allowed Sancha's skirt to fall in place and began to take measurements. "Granted though, she has a willowy yet tantalizingly voluptuous figure," she said grudgingly.
"Is she worthy?" The senior lady's eyes shot to the slavers. "Has she been giving you trouble?
Sancha clamped her teeth together to keep from snarling.
"At first she fought with fire, but then she became docile, like a lamb," the slaver replied, pasting what he thought was a winning smile onto his face.
"Only time can tell if she makes a good meal, but first we need to roast her," the woman conceded. The inspecting woman smirked at that and Sancha fought the urge to kick her in the face.
Finally, the middle-aged woman finished inspecting her and stood back. "We'll take this one." The lady announced. Her young maid scurried forwards and handed the slaver a large pouch, likely heavy with gold coins. His eyes shone with greed. "And as agreed," she beckoned again and one of the shaven guards, who wore kohl around his eyes, handed him another pouch- smaller. "For your silence."
"Your humble servant as always, Sultana," the slaver purred as he retreated. So that was it, that was done. She had been spared the humiliation of being auctioned off to the masses. But she was sold nevertheless.
"Come," the lady flicked a finger. Sancha hissed when the middle-aged woman and one of the bald guards took her bound hands and dragged her.
An ornate box was there, covered in rich, heavy brocaded damask, and with a domed roof. The windows were shut with sliding screens. Two long poles were attached to the sides, from each end a man stood. It was a litter or a palanquin. One of the guards pulled the door open and unfolded some steps and another guard helped the lady inside. "Bring the girl," she called out without looking back at Sancha.
And with that, she was shoved forwards and the guard grabbed her by the waist. She squirmed and hissed, kicking, but he simply thrust her inside the palanquin.
The lady turned cool eyes towards her. Her eyes were grey and her hair was dark. "You understand our language," she noted. "I could tell. Your lovely eyes give you away."
Sancha stubbornly said nothing. "If you wish to survive, you must be subtle," the lady remarked. Her young maid turned to the side and Sancha heard liquid pouring. "Do you think enemy commanders leave out their battle plans for their opponents to see? They will die if they do." The maid turned and handed the lady a steaming enamelled cup of tea.
She didn't know how the lady could drink as the palanquin rose and the litter-bearers had already started moving.
And was Sancha supposed to care?
"I might as well be dead, my lady." She said evenly with a cool glare. "I never asked for this."
The middle-aged woman who had searched Sancha beforehand moved forwards as if to strike her. But the lady stopped her. "No." Her eyes scanned Sancha. "Do you know who I am girl?"
She gazed at the heart-shaped face with the most delicate, finely-shaped, exquisite features: delicate up-turned and pointed nose; high, fine cheekbones; delicately-cut jawline and chin and those lush rosebud lips. They looked made from rose petals. No man would be able to resist her, not with her looks and the training and grooming they would provide. The lady felt triumphant.
"Stop here." The lady announced. "Esmeray, Hatice, make sure there is no one about." The two maids obeyed when the palanquin halted and lowered.
"Do you know who I am, child?" She asked. "I am Fatma Sultan, half-sister of Padişah-sultan Mustafa Han, ruler of the Ottoman Empire."
Sancha froze. The breath caught in her throat, and her heart filled with icy fear, before pounding frantically.
This was the sister of her uncle's greatest nemesis. An Ottoman princess.
Save for her the emperor, uncle, aunt and El Duque, this was the highest-ranking person she had ever come face-to-face with.
Fatma Sultan smirked above her tea cup. "Yes, I am the sultan's sister." She said bored. "Yes. You see, it may have crossed your mind to kill me, did it not?
Sancha did not answer. Of course, it crossed her mind, but to do so would be pointless and foolish. She would find no freedom and only a terrible ending.
Maybe she wasn't ready to die? Or she wanted to die quickly.
"So, you may think that you would rather die, but you have had plenty of opportunities to get yourself killed in order to spare you from the fate you believe lies ahead, am I correct? But then, why have you not done so?"
Silence. But it was clear the sultan's sister was expecting a response. Aside from Isabella, this was the first time anyone of such high rank paid such attention to her. "You want something," Fatma Sultan said slowly, softly.
Sancha stared at her. "So why did you not try your captors to kill you?" The Ottoman princess asked again.
Sancha managed to speak. "I... I do not know."
"I think you do," she replied. "You just do not wish to admit it." She handed Sancha a cup of steaming tea. "It's not poisoned, I assure you," the princess took a sip from her own cup.
Sancha sipped the steaming liquid cautiously. She tasted herbs, steeped in hot water and flowers. It eased all the tensions in her body, despite her better judgement.
"Would you be willing to consider an alternative fate?" Fatma Sultan asked. "The road to freedom, perhaps?"
Sancha stared. Her large, deep eyes showed that she did not believe it.
"I am not tricking you," Fatma chuckled softly. "I swear upon Allah the Almighty, and the throne of my fathers that I do not deceive, not to you, not when I am offering this option. It is not a doorway to immediate freedom, but a road to freedom. You see, freedom must be earned. As well as wealth, prestige and numerous things besides."
"Nothing is ever earned," Sancha said suddenly. "Everyone is either born lucky, or not."
That was the most bitter thing she had learnt in her life, but the clearest lesson.
"Perhaps in some circles, and in your previous life. But yesterday may be clouds, thunder and rain, tomorrow may see the sun. Or the other way around. I have the authority to beat you senseless, but apart from marring your perfect skin, what does it do?" She sounded as if it was distasteful. "Will it break you? Perhaps, but to survive what you have been through, you must have been strong. And I do not wish to break you. Will it earn your obedience if I beat you like a mule?" She scoffed. "Or would you prefer the road to freedom? Tell me, what was your life before you were captured?"
Aching, choking sorrow, threatened to drown her like the waves as she remembered Isabella. Oh, merciful God, would she never see Isabella again? She had wept the whole way, tears leaking silently through her eyes, aching sobs tearing through her throat for days. Heartbreak threatened to overwhelm her for the family she had been closest to, the one family member whose love, comfort and presence she had not been denied of. Her sister. And Inez. The only mother she had ever known. The one who taught her to say, 'Our Father' how to sew, spin and knit, how to cook a dainty dish of sweetmeats, who had sewn a doll of cloth for her when she cried from nightmares and soothed her with a cup of hot tea. Gone. Her only mother, the one whose presence she had craved at night as a tiny child, ripped away from her forever.
Sancha fell silent as her memories took her back mere weeks before.
In Spain, people often whispered, breathed and uttered words of awe about Isabella- and Sancha. Isabella was widely the public talk of society, and so was Sancha. As such, although Rodrigo could not care less for his bastard child, both were kept under a tight leash under the strict eye of Doña Anita. After all, Sancha was treated as a poisoned thorn in his side, or a rusty nail pinning his foot to the ground, but there was a chance that she could be worth something. With looks like hers, she could have fetched a merchant at least.
It was only Isabella whom Rodrigo felt protective over- for the wrong reasons. Her luck in her birth status meant that her beauty was simply an added bonus- not a staple of her worth. Her blood, training and wealth meant that many willing to drive more interest and cause bride-prices to go higher. Sancha could not fetch the same price. She certainly wasn't worth much for a dowry, though Princess Estela had added some of her personal funds.
It was hard to keep her hidden away when people talked about the duke's bastard daughter, as compared to the prince's very legitimate heiress the great source of pride and prospects as compared to the bastard girl whose greatest hope was to be a courtesan as no decent person of wealth could ever marry a bastard. And no peasant could be good enough for a duke's daughter. Yet Sancha knew that El Duque was determined to be rid of her.
So, it wasn't a surprise that Sancha's father Duke Rodrigo summoned her to his private office one morning.
His eyes were normally cold, but they seemed hard as solid gold now as they stared at his daughter up and down.
Duke Rodrigo's own marriage had not been a happy one. His wife, the late duchess was a stick-thin thing with bulging eyes and thinning, mousy hair. Together, they had had three stillbirths despite the best medical care in the country, and her husband's disappointment turned into outright hatred. He sought comfort in the arms of Sancha's mother, not merely as an escape, but to spite his hated wife even more than he had with his coldness and revulsion. Their last pregnancy had ended with the death of both mother and child, and seen all nobles appalled and un-eager to give their daughters to this man. Some said he had her killed. This dashed all hopes of Rodrigo having a legitimate child, but Sancha's mother's pregnancy had ended in a live birth. This would have been cause for rejoicing had the baby not been a bastard. So, Alfonso's and Estela's daughter Isabella was sent to inherit, while Rodrigo was reminded of his failure to provide a legitimate child as compared to the illegitimate bastard whose existence seemed to mock his very efforts. He seethed, but in an ice-cold way.
"Sancha," he said icily. "You have grown very beautiful and I am in understanding that it is near the end of your adolescence." He remarked. "As such, despite the fact that you are too young to be married, I cannot condone you gallivanting around, glued to your cousin's side as a legitimate child, it may dull her prospects if they ever see her associating with a bastard."
Personally, Sancha thought that nothing could ever come even close to dimming Isabella's lustre.
"As such, the family has decided that Isabella will have a bright future ahead of hers," Rodrigo said frostily. "A greater one than we can ever imagine beforehand. But to reach the stars she cannot carry the weight of sin chaining her to the ground. Therefore, you Sancha, must also be married, for she cannot be seen with you soon after. Not anymore."
Sancha felt as if she had been stabbed. She went pale. "Excelentísimo Señor..." She breathed. "Please...You can't-"
"Can't?" He raised an elegant brow. "What do you mean, I can't?" He asked mockingly. "To my knowledge, I am a duke, Isabella is my heiress and you are my bastard..
Sancha bit her lips struggling to hold a moan and while her eyes, now in combined shades of amber, gold, bronze and honey, filled with tears. She forgot all composure, but the man in front of her preyed on perceived weakness. "Please." She begged. "Por favor... Let me stay with her... As a serving maid, a Maid of Honour, a Lady-in-Waiting- anything."
"A Maid of Honour!" The duke scoffed. "As if a bastard can be anything like that! Honour!" He laughed mockingly, one of the few times he had actually laughed. "And to have you so close to her..." He scowled. "No. You know perfectly well you cannot be seen with her in public or anywhere her potential husband's family would see her. Even after marriage. Therefore, it is imperative that I separate you both. Permanently"
"No!" Sancha gasped. "Señor- please!"
The duke relished her pain and fear and continued:
"Isabella is old enough to travel throughout Europe, providing the security is adequate. A tour will see the princes of Europe fall at her feet. She has pleaded- countless times-" He grimaced at that. "To have you accompany her, but I cannot have that. Her parents will be with her, in any case, but you girl, will go to a convent in Venice. You will not become a nun, but good faith, repentance and a humble existence may groom you to be suited for marriage. Your wedding is to be prepared and commenced before your cousin arrives back home. To an honourable man who has chosen to forgive the insult of your birth, Señor Juan Manuel Garcia."
Sancha bit her lip fiercely to hold back her tears. She swore she would never break down.
"You are dismissed." The duke informed her. "Inez will see that your wedding gown and trousseau is made." For all his disdain of her, he knew she needed new clothes. "You will be married as soon as you return."
Sancha choked in a sob, and felt rage.
If she could only just grab the sword that hung ceremoniously over the mantelpiece, Rodrigo, Duke of Alba, would be dead in no time.
But instead, she hung her head as she was led away.
"I am Spanish by birth," Sancha managed.
"Then how came you to speak the Greek language?" Fatma Sultan asked.
"I was taught by my cousin who is part-Greek," she replied. Images of Isabella and she as children passed before her eyes. "We were inseparable companions and often used it as a language to go between when no one was to listen."
Fatma Sultan nodded. "Go on." She seemed to take the news that the slave she purchased was Spanish, from the heart of Christian Europe, with surprising ease.
"My father was a wealthy nobleman," Sancha paused. If she told this woman- the Ottoman Sultan's sister, an Ottoman princess who her father was, she could easily deduce who Sancha's uncle-by-marriage would have been. Prince Alfonso had been the Turk's most fearsome enemy on the battlefield and whom their janissaries had harboured a most disagreeable terror. "My mother… I do not even know who she was. She was not his wife."
Fatma Sultan's eyes glinted. "A concubine?"
Sancha blinked. "There are no concubines in Christian Europe."
"No, but if she was not a tavern girl, a whore in a brothel or a courtesan, and if he kept her, then she was considered a concubine, according to our laws."
"He kept her," Sancha admitted. "But that was because he hated his wife and found her disagreeable. She was also barren. He did it to spite her."
Fatma Sultan's eyes darkened as she absorbed this. "Continue," she ordered.
"My father saw my live birth as a mockery, as he had longed for a legitimate child," Sancha confessed. "Especially as I was born months after his wife died in childbirth delivering a stillborn child. All his wealth, estates and titles would go to his sister's offspring. He was very bitter and treated me as a poison thorn imbedded into his side. My mother was cast out, and I was ripped from her arms as an infant. We never knew what became of her. I was raised by a servant and trained to be one to my father's heir. He hated the reminder of my existence and if my aunt, uncle or grandparents intervened or sought to treat me as part of the family, he would punish me straight afterwards. He hated me, which was why he sent me away."
"He sent you away to where?"
"Venice, to a convent."
"He must hate you."
Sancha nodded mutely. "Our ship was attacked by pirates in the Mediterranean. I was captured and I thought I would be violated, but the captain decided I would fetch them a high price."
Fatma Sultan scoffed. "I cannot disagree. I was lucky to intercede with and bribe those corsairs before they put you to auction. Everyone would have competed, putting in the highest prices." She muttered in disgust. "And I do not travel the slave market myself."
Sancha hesitated. "That is what happened to me."
"I see." Fatma stood. "Drink your tea, girl before it gets cold."
Sancha knew better than to disobey an Ottoman princess in the heart of her territory especially as she was now her slave. She sipped her tea.
"What do you know about the imperial harem?" She asked.
Sancha hesitated. Could she say anything without offending the princess.
"Not much although I have heard from traders that it is a place where concubines are kept, secluded from the outside world."
"Not just concubines," the sultan's sister corrected. "The royal princesses- daughters, sisters, even an aunt or two of my brother. Eunuchs- men who have been gelded as boys serve as guards. The harem, more properly known as a haremlik, stands separate from the selamlik or the men's court, at the very heart of the Topkapi Palace. It comprises of a maze of buildings connected together by courtyards, walkways and corridors. The Daires or apartments, were strictly guarded by African eunuchs who along with the younger sons of His Majesty, are the only males allowed in the harem. The princes of course, are reared by their mothers, and once they reach twelve they leave and are given their own quarters and once deemed old enough, they and their mothers are assigned and sent to a province so that the prince may learn governance and their mothers may advise them and manage their households the way my brother's mother manages the harem and palace. The closer they are to Istanbul, the faster it is upon the death of the padişah- Allah grant that it not be for many years- for the favoured prince to return to claim his birthright. Which is why the most favoured son, the one whom everyone believes is most likely to rule someday, is governor of Manisa." Fatma took another sip from her cup.
"But as I was saying, the Valide Sultan- the sovereign's mother- resides in the harem. She is the one who manages the place with the help of the kalfa- the harem administrator, the harem overseer and the chief black eunuch. She is also the most powerful woman in this empire." The Turkish princess leaned forwards. "And therefore, the most powerful woman in Islam. Mothers are advisors, the greatest and most trusted ally Allah has granted a son. Therefore, she is the one he listens to the most. She corresponds with powerful queens, empresses, princesses, great noble ladies and queen mothers of Christian Europe and Islamic kingdoms, caliphates and empires, and all defer and bow to her in this empire and beyond, and seek her influence and support. She has great sway in diplomatic matters in foreign policy, supports and gives strength and advises her son in war, chooses which hatun or Sultana shall be married off to which bey, pasha or high-ranking officer." Fatma paused. "Can you imagine wielding such power in such a powerful empire?"
In truth, Sancha could not. She was a bastard, noble perhaps, but trying to reach for or dream of grasping something such as higher status, which she would never have in Spain, was useless. It was the realm of trueborn nobles.
"Unless a Haseki Sultan is the one to be as such." Fatma smiled slowly.
Sancha blinked. "As you might have guessed, concubines live within the harem. But they are not all for my brother's personal pleasure. As a matter of fact, very few concubines, whose numbers can be counted by the fingers of one hand, are lucky enough to be chosen to go to my brother's bed. They always bring shipments of fresh slaves for the imperial harem. Some are chosen to remain slaves, to do the cooking and cleaning, everything. Others are selected to become odalisques. They do chores. Some are assigned the task of cleaning, polishing and maintaining his coffee service, others wash his garments. They make their beds, eat their meals, go to lessons, bathe and sleep under strict guard within the harem, always watched to make sure there is no mischief, no misbehaviour, and certainly it is a place of purity and chastity. There is absolutely no debauchery in the harem, that is forbidden. Those who enter are virgins, and unless they are selected- by the Valide Sultan, I might add- to enter the bed of the padişah, to bear his child, then they remain virgins. Or there might be some khan prince to appease. Or a distinguished officer to reward. Or a rich pasha or bey. In which case, one would be freed and selected to become the man's wife and live a comfortable life in ease." Fatma smiled.
"That is one way to freedom."
Sancha could have sworn her jaw dropped. "I thought… How-"
"The Valide Sultan and the padişah, the emperor my brother are the ones who can grant you your freedom." The princess remarked. "That is one way. A marriage which the shunned and despised daughter of a horrid nobleman can never rise high enough to achieve. Unless your husband goes bankrupt or is killed, you will assuredly live a very comfortable life and want for nothing. Or you may rise even higher. As kadınefendi or even a Haseki Sultan.
"Once you are deemed appropriate and ready by the Valide, you may be sent to the sultan's bed. There, you will no longer be an odalisque, but a hatun- meaning, a lady of the court. You will be given your own apartments, your own servants and if you bear a son you will be considered a member of the sultan's own family, responsible for training and raising the young prince. Your son might become the next emperor, which means you are the Valide Sultan of his reign. But to assure his position you must be chosen to become kadınefendi, or more preferably, Haseki Sultan- which would make you a counterpart and an equal to the empresses of Persia, Mughal India- and the Habsburg Empire. This would effectively ensure you outrank many queens and princesses, much less noblewomen. If you are a Haseki, you will have the power to ensure that it is your son who sits upon the throne someday. In the absence of the Valide, you will be the greatest advisor to padişah and the most powerful and influential woman in this empire, who performs the same duties as the Valide whom I have mentioned."
Fatma sounded satisfied amidst all of this, but Sancha was only trying to absorb such information.
"From a slave to an empress, and an emperor's mother… Your birth does not matter, the past is the past, it has been washed clean from you, your previous allegiances have been severed and now belong entirely to the House of Osman, your husband and your son."
Sancha managed to speak again. "Does… your highness mean for me to become the sultan's concubine?" She choked, repulsed, unable to breathe.
"Heavens, no! My brother Mustafa already has four consorts, none of which are Haseki nor kadınefendi, but all of whom have borne him sons. His favour is even more fickle than the winds and they fight hotly over which son may gain his favour and remain as such- so he would sit upon the throne someday. In the court, men and women's alike, assassinations such as through poison, blackmail, bribery, threats and framing others for treason is not beneath individual courtiers."
Sancha knew this. In Spain, it was no different, nor in any other part of this world, she suspected.
"Even if you gain Mustafa's favour and bear his son, the other concubines will stamp you out. Their sons are already grown and ready to take the throne when the time comes. They will seek to remove your son and yourself before he could pose a threat to their well-laid plans, even as a child. It would be a bad idea to give you to Mustafa."
"No, not until it becomes clear as crystal which prince will inherit," Fatma continued. "Şehzade Bayezid is dead- suspected of treason. Şehzade Asim and Şehzade Bayezid was born from the same mother: Esin Hatun. Asim might be the favourite, if he isn't constantly outshone by his half-brother, Mehmed.
"Şehzade Ibrahim, born to Yildiz Hatun, is a drunkard and a sot. Şehzade Ismail, born to Nilüfer Hatun, is mentally impaired. So, it is safe to say they will not be chosen to succeed. On the other hand, Şehzade Mehmed was born to Gülistan Hatun. He is the firstborn, but most importantly, he is his father's favourite, and was made the governor of Manisa to prove it. For now. He could be removed. He could be framed for treason. Esin Hatun could whisper sweet things into my brother's ear which would make him suspicious of Mehmed and look more favourably to Asim. It is always dangerous if a prince, even the son of the monarch, is too popular, and too-supported by the janissaries. His father would not be able to sleep at night, so she has that to use for her advantage. All Esin has to do is drop a rumour or a fabricated piece of evidence, and it could be enough for Mustafa to believe that his favourite son is conspiring against him, and planning to crown himself sultan before his father is dead. Or it could be Gülistan Hatun, Mehmed's mother, who does so for her own son. Esin is currently out of favour, as her son Bayezid was suspected of such things and promptly executed." Sancha felt utterly sick to hear of that. Even in the most unscrupulous courts, no one would ever dream of killing one's own child.
"Or he could be poisoned, stabbed or worse by someone else." Fatma shrugged. "Someone like Esin. It's the throne or coffin in this world, Sancha. And you are going to play a part in it. Today you are a pawn. But soon enough, perhaps not tomorrow, but soon, if you are clever, cunning, well-trained and charming, you will be a player."
Sancha wanted to vomit. She never… She could never be… To scheme and plot to kill innocent children or young men, even to save her own child… Or to allow her own son to be killed. She could never be-
On the other hand… She could be freed. She could go home. Not to Rodrigo, but to Inez.
To Isabella, her soul-sister.
"I don't have a choice," She found herself murmuring. She was a slave, after all.
"No," came the response of the Ottoman princess whose eyes gazed at Sancha's as she sipped from her cup.
The Ottoman Harem:
For centuries, the House of Osman reproduced through serial concubinage. But not everyone who resided in the harem occupied the bed of the sultan. The harem (which comes from the Arabic word haram, meaning 'forbidden', also known as the selamlik, 'women's court', or in the west, a seraglio) was set aside for female members of the household. It was guarded by eunuchs, but pre-pubescent boys lived their alongside their mothers. There was a rigid hierarchy in the Ottoman harem, and it was a tightly-closed, secretive society, which no outsiders were allowed to glimpse or at least rarely. So western writers, intrigued by the idea of so many beautiful women in one place, of which only one powerful man was allowed entry, allowed their imaginations to run wild. There might have been baths and beauty treatments for these woman, but it was more strict than a boarding school.
The Ottoman harem was the first female educational institute of its day and age. The women who entered the harem were either slaves, captured and sold from non-Muslim countries (the enslavement of freeborn Muslims was forbidden), or gifted by some other noble or royal for the harem. Some families sold their own daughters, and the individual girls sold themselves, either to pay off debts and/or gain some form of education, a good marriage or the sultan's favour and bear the next sultan. As prospective brides given as rewards or alliances to wealthy nobles and distinguished officers (in which case they were freed from slavery), or as mothers to a possible future sultan, they needed to be educated. Foreigners were taught Ottoman Turkish, Persian , possibly even Arabic, literature and poetry, Islamic scripture, the court etiquette, embroidery and possibly other academic subjects. Making love was the last thing they were supposed to do, and they were constantly watched and guarded in the harem. The ones selected to be the sultan's concubine were chosen by his mother. Becoming Haseki Sultan, his favourite, legal wife and consort, meant freedom as well as power.
The Line of Succession and Royal Fratricide:
Under Islamic law, all sons were entitled to an equal share of the inheritance, regardless of birth order. Simply because one prince was the eldest, did not guarantee him the throne. As soon as a monarch died, all his sons would fight amongst themselves for the throne, or carve up the empire or kingdom into equal shares (which no one wanted). As a result, many had to take precautions so as to prevent the nation from undergoing civil Mughal Empire, as well as the Ottoman, also faced this problem.
Mehmed II 'the Conqueror' was the first who started the tradition of royal fratricide. His grandfather had fought a civil war with his brothers and Mehmed was not so keen on allowing it to happen again. He had his half-brothers imprisoned as soon as he produced a male heir and strangled with a silk cord, so as to prevent the spilling of royal blood. This method could also be used for rebellious sons, or ones who seemingly posed a threat, as the sultan in this story has done. It was eventually abolished during the reign of Ahmed I (although his son Murad executed all his brothers, except for the future sultan Ibrahim 'the Mad'). Eventually, due to the growing disapproval within the Ottoman elite, the reluctance of the sultans themselves, and the fear for the dynasty, the House of Osman adopted agnatic seniority in the seventeenth century. This meant that the throne always went to the oldest male in the dynasty, passing from brother to brother, before nephews and sons were considered.