My room is dark. The servants haven’t been in yet to draw open the heavy embroidered curtains or throw wide the red shutters carved with acanthus leaves. So why am I awake?
Bang, Bang, Bang!
I usually like to be woken naturally. I let the sun gently bring me back into the world. This thumping rousing jars me.
Bang, bang, bang!
They knock again hammering on my door and my nerves. Why can’t they just leave me alone? I pull the bed sheets up around me so that only my nose pokes out like a dorsal fin.
Bang, bang, bang.
The knocks are sharp and precise. They are authoritarian, hammered out by somebody used to command. Briefly anger cuts through my cowardice. How dare somebody wake me in this way? It’s not one of my servants. They enter the room by the side door and more importantly they know that I am not to be woken at this hour.
I tremble. Shameful for a prince, I think but it doesn't stop the cold sweat from forming on my brow.
Bang, bang, bang.
This could be it. The assassin I’ve been waiting for. The blood vessels in my temples thump and a headache cuts across my brain.
Bang, bang, bang.
“Prince Kutlu Müneccim Han.” Ahh so my demonic drummer has a voice not just a fist. “It’s I, Murat, your brother Crown Prince Nazim Neme Lazim’s servant.” At the mention of my brother’s name I instinctively reach up and touch the wrecked mess that once was my left eye. “Please open the door gracious prince your servants will not unlock it.”
Gingerly I get out of bed trying to make as little noise as possible. I slip on my green silk robe and black slippers both with delicate patterns of sliver thread running through them.
I sneak across the bedroom. My slippered feet barely touch the geometric patterns of black and white tiles beneath them. This room used to be an observatory. The decoration was kept relatively simple to avoid distracting my grandfather’s astronomers. I had it made it my own personal apartment within my sanctum. It has one of the best views of the stars and that's important for my work.
Somehow I’ve made it across the dark room without tripping on a chart, a pile of papers or labyrinthine piece of brass stargazing equipment.
I keep the heavy iron key in the lock. It’s more symbolic than practical. The servants’ door is always kept open. I turn the key, the door unlocks with an ominous clunk and I open it a crack.
Will this be it? The door opens and I take a scimitar to the gut? A dagger in the eye? That would have a certain irony. I close my eye and open the door fully.
Chaos spills into my quiet room. Four servants charge in. Two eunuchs rush round the room opening up the windows at record speed. Two of my handmaidens bustle round me. One grabs the hems of my robe and draws them across my waist while the other ties it shut with a long cotton belt. With the gown tied, one of the women ducks down to rearrange my slippers and the other goes up onto exaggerated tiptoes to tie a silk sash round the milky white grape I used to call an eye.
The eunuchs finish their work and the morning light works its way into the room accompanied by the sea breeze and the harsh challenges of the gulls.
Murat, my brother’s servant, bows deep before me. He’s handsome with a neat military haircut and a fashionable moustache. He’s dressed in the purple uniform of the Lilac Officers, the servants in charge of the new palace by the sea, built to show that we too can build on the scale of the new empires across the sea.
I maintain my composure. Or I try to. He’s just a servant. I try to channel my father’s natural majesty, to glare at him like he was nothing. I’ve seen my father stark naked in his bathhouse silence generals with a well-timed frown. It doesn't work I fear. A single eye just doesn't have the same impact.
“My prince.” He speaks like a drill sergeant “I’m sorry for disturbing you. I wouldn't normally even think of interrupting your sleep but I come with an important message.”
“Say it then.”
“Your brother The Crown Prince Nazim Neme Lazim will pay a visit to you, today.”
I resist the urge to reach up and touch my eye. My hand twitches like a boxer’s. “When can I expect my brother the crown prince?”
“Today within two hours.”
I snap my fingers and two of the servants scamper out of the room to wake up the rest of my sanctum and start preparation.
“Why do I have the honour?” I ask. I try to sound disinterested.
“It’s not my place to say my prince.”
But you know why, and you want me to know that you know, don't you? Bastard.
“Thank you for your message. You may return to my brother The Crown Price Nazim Neme Lazim and tell him I am expecting him.”
“Thank you my prince Kutlu Müneccim Han. He will be most glad.”
He stands. Bows again then exits the room. Rushing back to the new palace. Bastard.
My strength fails me and I slump into a chair. This has got to be it. The doom that's been so long in the coming.
I chose The Serpent Buck room to host my brother in. It’s one of the grandest rooms in my sanctum. It has curved floor to ceiling windows that open up to a view of the sea stretching far away in all directions. The room gets its name from the old imperial mosaic on the floor. A herd of deer stands to the side panicked by a serpent fighting the buck. He has the snake tangled up and bloody in its horns. An old teacher of mine told me that if you looked carefully at the mosaic you could see that the buck has been bitten and will soon die from the venom. When we were children and still living in the same sanctum, my brothers and I searched for hours trying to find the puncture wounds but never had any luck. The mosaic is ancient. By all accounts it was old even when my ancestors took this palace, stormed the city of Bashkent and conquered the empire half a millennium ago.
I have a low table set in the middle of the room between two divans piled high with rich goose feather cushions. The sanctum servants set up a samovar of good Trezont tea on a small cabinet of dark wood studded with mother of pearl. Finally the shutters are thrown open letting the sea wind roll into the chamber mixing with the steam from the samovar.
I instruct the servants to dress me in deep blue robes with white sashes all unadorned but with subtle patterns put into the weave. I put on a new pair of slippers and the servants tie the Büyük Ruby Sash round my face covering my broken eye. After I lost my eye and while my mother still thought that I would rise to the position of Emperor she’d had the legendary stone taken from her tiara and had it attached to a bolt of the finest silk.
Before her death she told me that “One day my son they’ll call you The Daemon Eye Emperor.” I wear no other jewels out of respect for her.
I sit down on one of the divans and look out at the sea. The palace was built on a rocky acropolis above Bashkent. The waves far below break on the jagged rocks. When my ancestors took the city they sent soldiers free climbing up the rock face trying to get into the palace through these very windows. The soldier poet Cenk wrote the epic poem ‘The Climb of The Insect Warriors’ referring to the glint of their armour and their bravery as they climbed the cliffs, watching their comrades drop to the rocks and surf below.
I look down on the city and try to regain control of my breathing.
My brother’s herald announces his arrival to my chief eunuch who opens the door for him with the four ceremonial keys. The same doors that will never be opened for me are flung open at my brother’s command I try to not think about the freedom that could have been mine.
He is then escorted through the narrow network of outdoor corridors; small, tiled honeycomb rooms and shady courtyards that make up my sanctum.
I try to think of something to say to him. But my mind comes up short. I can’t think of anything he’d want to say to me. Except to announce my death sentence that is.
He comes into the serpent buck room without the regal flourish that I was expecting. He almost looks a little shy as he walks across the mosaic. His slippers make almost no sound, quieter even than the waves breaking on the rocks far below. He still looks relatively young. His deep brown eyes still gaze out curiously from under a curtain of dark brown hair.
I think I expected him to look more like father, for his soft round feature to have hardened, for the pressure of rule to have solidified on his brow and in the line of his eyes. But it hasn't. He still looks young. The wispy moustache he’s trying to cultivate makes him look even more childish and sweet.
“Crown Prince Nazim Neme Lazim ” I say in greeting, “it’s an honour to host you this morning.”
“Older brother Kutlu Müneccim Han it is generous beyond words for you to host me at this time. So unexpected.”
“It’s nothing. The pleasure is all mine.” We kiss each other on the cheek. He does it tenderly almost like a woman or a shy child. The way we used to kiss father when he returned from campaign. “Please sit.” I wave him towards the sofa.
He thanks me, then tucks his robes up around his knees and lies down on the sofa. He is clad in deep imperial green. His belt is studded with pearls and he has a small dagger with a large emerald forming the pommel.
He politely enquires about the health of my sister Mualla Cemile Efsunlu. My sister, his half sister. I tell him that she is well and will come to visit me soon. We talk about music and he asks about my harp playing, then admits that he doesn't have much time to practice the drum anymore.
“Is new palace comfortable enough for you?” I ask.
He has the grace to look guilty. “It’s nice. The rooms are huge. We have imported master craftsmen from the new empires across the sea; the same men of renown that built the palaces for their monarchies and republics. Our father, The Emperor, says that if we are to impress them let them know that we are still one of the great powers in the world. That we have rooms as grand as theirs.” He pauses looking at me trying to gauge my reaction. I give him nothing. “It doesn't have a view like this though.” He says nodding towards the open windows.
“No. I suppose it wouldn’t.” I reply.
He takes another look out the window then jumps up. “Ah” he exclaims, “I'd forgotten the ships from above.” He smiles. “Like gulls.”
“We get more steam ships than sailing boats these days.”
He doesn't hear me. Caught up in his memories, he says: “Do you remember? We use to sit here and watch them for hours. Whenever we didn't know the flags we would ask old Alp. We used to have such a good time before …” he dragged out of the past by the present.
Before our brother Metruk Vahit Can put my eye out. Before he tried to kill me with a toy scimitar. That's what you mean isn’t it? I keep the words to myself. He is my guest and I will not waste the hosting skills my mother taught me on this rare opportunity to use them.
“You must be hungry. We should eat. Would you like some tea?”
“Yes please.” He says sitting back down.
One of my women rushes forward with two small glass cups full of dark rich tea.
Other servants of the sanctum bustle around us placing breakfast down on the table between us: a platter of different cheeses from across the empire, black, red and green olives, sweet tahini with pomegranate syrup, honey with cold fresh curds, a plate of fresh tomatoes, cucumber and green peppers, and finally a personal favourite of mine, spicy beef sausage fried with egg. All served with bread fresh from my sanctum’s kitchen.
“I’m sorry I couldn't provide a better spread. My cooks must have been as surprised by your visit as I was. But please eat as much as you want. If there is anything else that you want, I can send somebody down to the market to try to get it.”
“It’s more than enough for me, thank you.” He says popping a green olive into his mouth and spitting the stone out into the gold dish provided for that purpose. One of my women dashes up and spirits the stone away. They must be excited to be hosting, it happens so rarely, I realise. Only my sister comes to see me with any regularity and she has been busy with her own growing family of late.
I load up a piece of bread with cheese and put a little honey onto it.
“May I ask crown prince why I have the pleasure of entertaining you today?” I try to make the question as casual as possible but I want to get to the meat of it. Is this the day I die? I chew my bread and wait for the answer.
“Ah. Yes. I have some unfortunate news.”
This is it.
“You know that father is away on campaign. Fighting the lion riders’ rebellion. Trying to bring the Immortal Lord Sheer back to heel.”
I nod. I can’t speak.
“Well he has taken to his sick bead.”
All the gods be damned. This is it. I knew it.
I pull myself to gather and say in a small voice. “I’m very sorry to hear that. He is strong and with our prayers I’m sure that he will recover.”
“We have no accurate reports, but my doctors tell me that in that part of the world there are many aliments that can strike even the strongest man down.”
Is it going to happen now? Is one of the servants is going to step behind me and wrap a silk cord round my neck and pull. Just like they did with brother Metruk Vahit Can. I reach up and touch the gemstone where my eye should be. Is Nazim going to do it himself? Is that dagger more than ornamental?
“I will pray for him too. He is in danger now,” Nazim says looking distracted by his slippers. “I thought you’d want to know.”
We both know what my father’s death will mean. There can only be one emperor and no rival will be allowed. Back when the emperors’ sons were sent out into the empire to be governors or generals they had spawned a civil war almost every time the emperor died. My great grandfather put and end to that practice by locking his sons in the safety of the palace, within easy reach.
His eyes try to connect with mine. Looking for forgiveness. I’m sure that those bleary eyes get anything you want out of your sanctum’s women but not from me. I’m happy to let the silence sit in the air like pollution, poisoning everything.
He twirls one of the rings on his fingers and looks out of the window.
“I’ve bought a gift for you” he says, changing the subject.
“Oh?” I say interested. A gift probably means I’m not going to die. Today.
He claps his hands and a girl trips into the room, carrying a long cotton case with autumn leaves sewn onto it. She has black hair that runs in pleasing waves, with fine features, a strong nose and a pair of dark eyes that shine out of her olive skin. I don't dwell on her beauty. I’ve taught myself to ignore these details. They are forbidden to me, I can’t be producing unwanted heirs.
“She’s my gift to you. She’s a foreigner from the north-western mountains; so a little stupid but she plays the whistle more beautiful than any other I’ve encountered. I hear you lost your flutist.” He says eagerly waiting for my answer.
“It’s true, Fatma married into a wealthy family out on the islands not two months ago.”
“She plays beautifully.” He says again.
“Thank you. An overwhelmingly kind gift.” I mean it; it’s a thoughtful gift.
“Come play us something.” He says. There is a slight note of the lash in his voice. He’s got used to giving orders.
The woman unfastens the toggles at the top of the bag and pulls out a wooden flute. Is undecorated and is slightly longer that the ones I’m used to. She wraps her fingers round the interment and fingers a quick scale as a warm-up.
Then she plays, long and beautiful. A note hangs in the air like anti-silence before the next one comes in to fill me up with happiness.
I forget myself and gawp as the walls of the serpent buck room hum to the beauty of her music, complex with the delicious illusion of simplicity. When her song finishes I leap to my feet and applaud.
“Like you said Nazim, a rare talent.” I exclaim.
He is smiling at me. When he does I see the young boy that I used to watch ships with in this very room and I smile at him. Then I remember why he came here today, what he told me and my smile drifts away.
The woman bows to us.
“What’s your name?” I ask her.
“Aybike” she says in a strong accent, hard but not unpleasant on the ear.
After my brother’s departure I feel restless. I walk along the narrow alleyways with their ancient cobbles so well trodden that in some places it can be difficult to walk. . I cross the small hexagonal family rooms with their large fireplaces, geometric tiles and rich carpets. They feel dark and claustrophobic to me. I have heard that the new palace has a ceiling ten meters tall. That would be a thing to see. I doubt I ever will now. My father’s guards at the door are his constant reminder that the world outside my sanctum is not for me. That I will die within these walls. Probably soon.
My sanctum’s women bring me a light fish soup for lunch. I eat it in the rose room followed by a cup of coffee and tobacco in my little olive wood pipe. I watch them closely as they serve me. Any one of them could be a poisoner now. I try to distract myself by focusing on my star charts, by planning out the work that I will need to do during the night but my mind keeps drifting like a dead ship.
My sanctum’s chief eunuch comes to talk to me. It could be him. He’s strong enough to choke the life out of me if he wanted to. He might have done it to brother Metruk Vahit Can too for all I know. I wouldn't hold it against him. After father separated us they say brother Metruk Vahit Can went mad and raped one of the women of his sanctum. Father had him killed after that. I found out a year later when it was all done and dusted. I reach up and push my finger up under my blindfold and touch my broken eye.
It was so easy for father. He didn't have any brothers to contest his succession, only sisters. I wonder not for the first time if this is true. He could have had many brothers squirreled away in quiet corners of the empire ready to be butchered when he ascended to The Throne of two seas.
I sleep in the afternoon. My brother’s visit has overly stressed me and I need to regain my strength so I can work during the night. Time is against me. I eat a light dinner of fresh minced beef pasta served with a yogurt sauce. My sanctum’s dwarves try to entertain me with their tumbling. I wonder if it could be one of them. I’ve seen them juggling daggers before at frightening speeds. In a huff I send them away and retire to my room. The servant’s door doesn't have a lock, so I jam a chair under it then set to work.
First I crank the leavers on the wall. Built into my roof is a complex mechanism of well-oiled gears. The room is called the blue lotus room for the way that it opens up to the sky. The engineer Nurettin Kalfa designed it, the same man that designed the New Hydra gates at the entrance to the city. The mechanisms are so well crafted and balanced that a man can open it alone.
With the roof open the night sky is all at my disposal. ‘Majesty beyond metaphor’ the Ozolidid poet Cyrus of Güldiyar once called it.
I pull out my notes, gathered meticulously over ten years. I still read the first ones that I wrote when I was sixteen. I set up my charts, telescopes, astronomical calendars, an array of measuring devices, my quadrant and my astrolabe. I set my eye to a telescope and my hand to a pen.
I’m not sure how long I work for but I eventually have to force myself to stop. If I over fatigue myself the work won’t be good and the precious time I have will be wasted. I stop and light my pipe. I look at the night’s work, letting out thoughtful belches of smoke, a single page with a few lines of symbols on it.
I de-chair the door and pull on the cord at the edge of the room to summon a servant. Zahide arrives, one of the elderly women of my sanctum. She used to be my grandfather’s courtesan, a great beauty once by all accounts.
“I need you to bring up that new girl. Tell her to bring her flute.”
“As you wish my prince.” She says and disappears back out of the servant’s door.
I smoke nervously and fiddle with my fingers as I wait. Cut up by hours of harp practice. Not well suited to the flute.
Zahide returns with Aybike. She looks tired and red-eyed. Her arms clutch the flute to her chest.
Zahide settles herself in the corner on a stool. Prudish witch. Does she think I’ve forgotten my brother’s fate? Does she think I’m like that mad dog? … Maybe she thinks I have nothing left to lose now.
“Can you read music?” I ask Aybike?,
“Yes I can.” She replies quiet but not fearful.
I hold up the piece of paper, the night’s work. “Can you read this?”
She takes it in her fingers and runs her eyes over it. “I’m sorry I can’t read this. I can only read. Oxtonalad style.”
That makes sense I suppose. She is from that part of the empire. I grab up a fresh piece of paper and convert it. “How about now?” She nods as she studies the music.
“Well, can you play it?”
“Yes but … it’s strange, like no music I’ve ever …”
“Don't worry about that. Try. Please.” I beg.
She pulls her flute out and lets her fingers rest on it.
She tries, but the notes come out wrong. The sound is clear but disjointed.
She looks at me. “Sorry my prince. It doesn't work. It can’t.”
“You’re thinking too much.” It can work, it must. I’m not wrong “take a minute to memorise it then try again.”
She does as I ask.
“Yes. I remember. But the note order doesn't work. They’re not in any order.”
“That's fine. Now look, look up; see the stars above their beauty greater than anything on earth. Keep the music in your mind.” I might be imagining it but I think I can see the faintest smile forming round the flute.
“Look up and try again.”
The first notes don't work. Like a hammer breaking the tranquillity of the wind. Maybe I’m wrong. The possibility has never crossed my mind before.
But then like the first drops of rain falling on the city, the atmosphere changes. Her eyes shine with starlight. The notes that before seemed random and harsh now sound connected, floating in void but connected none the less.
Praise the gods.
Even old Zahide is roused from the stool where she fell asleep. In a passion I grab up my harp and pluck the strings. I try to fill the void to attach the points of flute to each other. Though my improvisation is poor, it works. Harp of earth, flute of heaven blended together.
The music ends abruptly. But I am not thrown out of the moment by something as trivial as that. Who could be?
I throw my harp onto my bed and I dance a pre-imperial dance with my head held low and my arms outstretched snapping my fingers.
Aybike looks a little shocked and I grab her and kiss her on the cheeks like I would a man. Like I kissed brother Nazim that morning.
“What music was that?”
“It's success. Thank you so much. Zahide wake up.” I snap at the old woman. She nods drowsily “Is Sezai Efendi still in the city?” I inquire after my old music teacher.
“He is my prince.” She confirms.
“Good. Have him brought to my sanctum and take her to him. Have him teach her to read music properly in our style. Tell him no liquor.” If the saintly old music teacher has one weakness it’s a glass of good wine.
I spent the first part of the next day idling. The previous day took a lot out of me and the night’s success had left me with a shortage of energy. I try to not think too much. I try to not guess which of my servants might assassinate me. I don't think about the music from the night before. I’m worried that too much analysis will shatter it. I try to divert myself with a volume of poetry. But even Abd al Hakim’s vivid description of clouds sundered by fighting dragons does not distract me. Eventually I resign myself to the music and pick up my harp and spend the rest of the day trying to fill in the balance of perfect flute music with my below muster harp. When I can compose no more I have a simple dinner of lamb served with Balnat rice and with my excitement rising in my chest I watch the sun set and the stars come out.
When I was younger I’d often ask my father to let me move my sanctum to my grandfather’s observatory proper in Yildizköy. Where they have an Armillary sphere the size of a building, telescopes the size of castle towers and teams of scholars to consult with. He refused stating that the village was not a secure enough place to house a prince. I didn't complain. That was before I lost my eye. Back when I was destined to be emperor and there was going to be plenty of time to travel as I pleased and study the stars at my leisure.
I work through the night not even stopping to smoke. Aybike comes to my chamber at two in the morning. She’s dressed more properly this time not in a nightgown but simple linen robes. Her long hair has been tied back although a few rebellious strands spring out as they please. She is accompanied by Hatice, another old courtesan of the sanctum who elected to not marry some provincial lord or join a religious institute but remain in the sanctum as a senior servant.
“How were your classes?” I ask as friendly as I can.
“All is well my prince.” She says, “It’s not so complex and Sezai Efendi is a kind teacher.”
“He is,” I say happily remembering my lessons with him when I was a boy. “Well play me something.” I root around in the piles of music that stand around my room and grab a piece at random. “Here try this.” It’s an old romance song. She plays it well enough and I’m impressed at how quickly she has mastered our written music.
“Good.” I say, “Now try your hand at this.” I hand her the bit of paper with the night’s work written on it.
“I still don't understand what music this is.” She says after casting her eyes over it.
“Like no music on earth.” I reply. “Come, come, try.”
She pulls the flute up to her lips. The song is different tonight; the notes are closer together creating a quicker tempo. It takes her a few attempts to get the timing exactly right but when she does I join in weaving order out of chaos with my harp, like mathematics bringing logic to the cosmos.
We play the new work and practice the one from the previous night. I’m happier with my harp part but it’s still not good yet. I have more work to do. I think.
When I feel there is no more to be done I send her back to bed. With instructions for her to practice with the music master again and a gift one of my rings a small gold band with semi precious stones set in from my own hand.
I don't sleep that night. I spend it in the company of my notebooks and my pipe puffing like an aged dragon. My harp part is still not good enough and as I keep forgetting and remembering like a nightmare, my time is limited now. So limited
I let the next day drip past. Not thinking too much, eating a little and dozing. I feel that if my father dies today they probably won’t kill me until the day after so I have at least tonight to work.
The night comes and again I turn my eyes to the heavens.
Aybike comes to play music accompanied by the old woman Zahide. Who sits herself down on a stool in the corner and pulls out her knitting.
“What are you doing?” I ask her sharply.
“Making some socks my prince.” She replies.
Something about the old woman’s attitude irks me; that she is happy to make socks while we create music the like of which the world has never seen before, that our creation is not worthy of her stopping her little remedial chores. “Then get out.” I snap. “Go take your socks and make them somewhere else. Is the sanctum not big enough? It’s big enough for me.”
For the faintest of seconds she looks like she is about to challenge me then thinks better of it. “As you wish my prince.” She says as she retreats from the room.
I feel a lot fresher with Zahide gone. Now Aybike and I can play undisturbed.
Aybike works the very breath out of herself. Pulling her eyebrows together trying to get the notes out perfectly. I join in with the harp and together the two streams of music start to merge as I always hoped it could.
When we can play no more she asks me in her heavy accent. “Where does this strange music come from? You write it don't you?”
“It comes from the stars.” I say.
“Don't be cruel. I ask you an honest question and you turn me aside.”
She looks upset “I’m not trying to tease you. I respect you too much. Look up. Those are not random points of light scattered by some mad titan. When you study astronomy you see that the heavens are in motion. Complex patterns of forces that we barely understand.” I look across at her to see if she understands., you can tellshe is by the glint in her eyes. No wonder she understood our music system so quick. Seeing an eager student I keep going. “Mathematics and music are linked like two hands clapping. So is mathematics and astronomy, does it not then stand to reason that music and astronomy should be linked too?”
“So…” she says thinking aloud, “you take an area of sky, measure it with your devices and plot it in your musical writing?”
“Well there’s a little more to it than that but, basically.”
“Which stars are we playing?”
“Those ones. That cluster to the left of the moon.” I spin a telescope round so she can look for herself.
“The shepherds of my home say that the stars move. I suppose you have to use your devices to keep track of those movements through the night and compensate for them. Or the notes of the music will be wrong as well.”
I nod. Too smart by far to spend her life stuck as a slave in a sanctuary.
She fingers one of my compositions on her flute. “A beautiful idea.”
“I’m glad that you agree. For as long as humans have walked on the world they have used the stars. Cartographers, navigators, horologists, priests, augers, and wizards all find their uses for the heavens. But for me it’s always been music. How can anybody look into the night and not think of music?”
“As I said, a beautiful vision my prince.”
“Call me Müneccim” I say, she has earned that right. She leaves as the sun rises. With what looks like sadness on her handsome features. Has she been gossiping with the other women? Does she know my fate? I fall asleep on the sofa, listening to the sea breaking on the rocks below and not really caring if one of the eunuchs cuts my throat.
“I dance to the sound of your Guclu bow
I sing to the sound of your curved sword
I die to the beat of your glorious conquest”
I wake with the sound of this old soldier’s poem in my head. Today will be a portentous day.
Somebody is in my room I realise.
From my place on the sofa I crack my good eye open. Assassin. Fear tightens its hold on me. No, no, no! I’m not finished yet; just give me a few more days that's all I ask.
I look round the room. There is a woman there with her back to me. Anger spikes in me. They send a woman to try and kill me.
“Who is there? Speak quickly”
Aybike turns round to face me and for a second the direst of theories comes to me. Maybe it is her. Maybe that's why my brother sent her to me. Distracted me with music, as he knew I would be. She faintly smiles and I burn this theory out of my skull. I will not believe this dark hypothesis of mine even if it turns out to be true.
“I’m sorry I woke you my prince. I was ordered to open up the palace windows.”
“I also have a message. Your sister will come to visit you today.”
“Ah yes I remember.” It's the day of her bimonthly trip.
Her sleeves are rolled back and her brown skin looks red and angry.
“What’s the matter with your arm, have you contracted some rash in the bath house?”
“It's nothing.” She says and rolls down her sleeve.
I will not tolerate lies from my sanctum staff. “Tell me what’s the matter?”
She looks shy from a moment then decides to tell me. “It was the other women. They resolved to punish me as I returned to my bed this morning.”
“What, how dare they!” I shout.
“They don't like the time we spend together. They call me whore and foreign bitch. I tell them that it is not true that we just play music. Then accuse me of lying.” She looks sad but not about to cry. “Then they tell me that if I get pregnant the emperor will have me killed and thrown into the sea and that I will deserve it.”
“Tell me who. I will have the witches flogged.” I cry. “How dare they!”
“No.” she cries back. “They will take revenge.”
I scoff. “I'd like to see them try.”
“They will remember. They will wait until after …” she looks shocked at her own words.
“After I’m dead.”
She nods. I see her problem and the dilemma that I’ve put her in.
“I see. I have wronged you and put you within a difficult situation while you are under my roof. A sin that the gods do not easily forgive.” I make my decision in a second. “You do not have to return tonight. I can complete the work on my own.”
“I will not hear such stupidity. I will not give up on our work. I did not choose to come here to this palace to this life but I have decided that your work is important Müneccim and their petty jealousy will not stop me.”
I give her my thanks and tell her to get the women to prepare The Serpent Buck room for my sister’s arrival and my heart dances as I get of the sofa to look out at the sea.
My sister Mualla Cemile Efsunlu was an important figure when I was a child, older than me by a good few years. She doted on me, would go around the sanctum begging sweets from the servants to give to me or carried me round like a cat with her kitten.
She was married when I was eleven to a city noble. The purpose was to secure their loyalty. She is the mistress of a great estate now with a healthy number of children but she still comes to visit me from time to time. Her visits were and are an important lifeline for me, a connection to the real world. When I ask the servants for news from the city or the empire they tell me that the people are happy and that the emperors enemies run fleeing from my honourable father. However I’m no fool, I can see the foreigners’ ships with their advanced engines and increasingly large guns. I know that if the empire was content and at peace father would not be on campaign all year round. My sisters’ accounts are far closer to truth, they tell of the problems in the city, the provincial rebellions and of the foreign powers extending their tendrils into our lands.
I was unhappy that I would miss work time but with my end fast approaching I felt that I had to see her for the last time. The kitchens provide a sumptuous lunch of roasted wild birds for us worthy of such an esteemed lady. I have been dressed in long white robes with the Büyük Ruby sash tied round my eye. She is dressed modestly; her pregnant form artfully disguised but hinted at. Her face is round and healthy and she has some impressive jewels on her rings.
We kiss and she sets to eating and sipping tea. She ignores the olives telling me “every time I get pregnant I lose the taste for them, then get it back after the child is born.” She says.
I don't reply. This is the business of women and I know nothing about it.
I ask how she’s doing and she tells me all about her life in the country house and the transfer to a new, even bigger palace. Built she says on the vast profit they got trading with the new empires. She talks about the wellbeing of her husband the noble Àli Cihanperver, and tells me that we would be great friends if we met.
“The only real friends I’ve ever had were you and my brothers. Look how that turned out.” I point at my eye. Though maybe that's not so true anymore. I think of Aybike. “I’ve been thinking about my brother you know.” I continue.
“That's not surprising Müneccim it must be hard for you now that he is out and about filling the role that should have been yours.”
“No not Nazim, Metruk Vahit Can.”
“Why waste time on that monster.” She snaps. “He ruined your life out of jealousy. Violated a woman of his sanctum. Father was right to put him down.” She sounds so like our mother now, “and don't go thinking you can forgive him or understand him. You can’t Müneccim.” she sips her tea to calm herself.
“I do think about him though, about the pressure building up in him. He was a dangerous boy and violence was the only way he could express himself. But the hopelessness, I’m understanding it more and more. I don't think I will crack like Metruk but I’m reaching my own breaking point.
“On that subject…” she says and switches languages into the growly tones of the new empires. A language we both speak but the servants don't. “Why do you have to die like Metruk Vahit Can?”
We are onto dangerous ground here. “You know why.”
“Father’s order only excludes you from the throne. But you could live on. Survive your doom.”
“How?” I ask only hypothetically, my fate is sealed.
“My husband and I are rich and powerful.” She smiles. “We could give you an estate far from the capital. Live out your life in peace, read your poems, play your music even take a wife…”
Ah there it is. You hide me away in another sanctum. Hope I have a son and then try to get him on the throne. Suddenly Àli Cihanperver is not one of the most powerful men in the empire he is the most. It will probably work too. Nazim is a child raised in the sanctum as a replacement part. He won’t have the ability to out gun the noble Àli Cihanperver. Mualla you are our blessed mother reincarnated with all the ambition and skills that she had.
“Thank you for your offer but my place is here. I know that now.” I think about Aybike and my music. Yes that is my work.
“Mother would be disappointed Devil Eye Emperor.”
“She’s dead. Her opinion doesn't matter any more.” Silence falls. We’ve both gone too far and we both know it. We need to apologise.
“I’m sorry. That was cold. Can you forgive me Mualla?”
“Yes. I was out of order too. But I want you to live Müneccim.”
“You say that but I’m not like Metruk Vahit Can, or like you or like mother. I understand my fate and have accepted it. That kind of resolution can not be broken now.”
She nods. I can tell by her face that she’s decided to forgive me. She told me once that her mother told her never to cry in the presence of men. I wonder if she’s employing that ability now. We share the silence, leave the food uneaten and look out at the sea where the waves break on the rocks far below us.
After we can no longer bear the silence we cautiously reengage in conversation talking about nothing and everything, speaking carefully as a cat on the move, picking its way through a field of broken glass.
The night is upon us and I have to work again. Tonight I will finish my work.
The poet Shair Naci once wrote that ‘to understand something you must chip your love away from it’. I could not disagree more. Every note I’ve made, every measurement has increased my love of the stars, not driven it away. I look down at the sea breaking on the rocks. That too has it’s own music.
When Aybike comes I greet her as warmly as I can, I’m worried about her situation.
If she has had any other problems with the servants she hides it form me. She slips her flute out of the bag and runs her hands over the scales she has learnt so well.
I lay out the fully completed piece before her. She inspects it with her dark eyes. Critically assessing our work.
“It works.” She says. That's all I wanted to hear.
“Not even a small part of the heavens has been recorded here.” I tell her.
“Enough for two humans.” she says.
I nod and pick up my harp.
We play and the notes echo through the sanctum. Points of heaven held together by strings of earth. As we play the music I’m taken back to my childhood, to mothers wisdom, to the words of teachers and to three boys watching ships. They swirl in front of me and drag me back to the moment so that all that remains in my mind is the music. Flowing out of the sanctum, over the sea, and into the sky, back to the stars. When we have finished and the last note is gone returned to nothing. We sit in silence tears on both our cheeks.
“Where did the music take you?” I ask.
“Home.” she says. There is no reply I can give to that. Guilt is an almost unknown feeling to a prince. We do everything we can to inoculate ourselves against it when it gets through ... It stings.
“We are going to part ways now.” I say.
“You will be executed soon?” she asks.
I don't answer. “Aybike, you've more than earned a rewarded for your work here. I don't really own anything so there is not much I can give you of mine to thank you. Except this.” I roll up the music and tuck it into a scroll case. “This is for you.”
She takes it and holds it next to her flute.
“Now take this letter, its sealed by me. Hide it on your person. I will dismiss you soon and you will leave the sanctum to get me some dates. Even at this hour the seller will open his shop to provide for the palace.”
“I’m sure we have some in the kitchen.”
“We don’t.” I threw them out secretly earlier that day. “You will not go to the date seller. You will go to the house of my sister Mualla Cemile Efsunlu, give her this letter. It will show that you come from me. It explains that you’re free now, she will protect you she has the power to do so. I don't.”
“Am I to give her the music?”
I look at her confused. “No, not if you don't want to. It’s yours. Go now. This is the only other thing I can give you.”
She shakes her head.
“Goodbye.” She says as she turns to leave. I listen as she walks away straining my ears until it is beyond impossible to hear the slap of her slippers on the ancient tiles and cobbles.
I ring the cord to get a servant to come. I order some tobacco be prepared. The reasons are two fold. Firstly I want a smoke and secondly Aybike shouldn't be the last person to see me.
Happily puffing away I walk through the dark passages that have been my life to The Serpent Buck room. I tie the Büyük Ruby round my eye. I’m taking it with me.
There is a good chance my father will get better. He’s a tough old bastard. He’ll recover and come back in triumph with giant lion’s heads on spikes and the Immortal Sheer in chains. But I won’t do this again wait with the scimitar kissing my neck. I won’t feel so helpless ever again. Far below the waves are breaking on the rocks. My death will be my own and my work, such as it is, is done.
I walk to the window and look out. The rising sun is shinning on the golden sea, hiding my stars and turning the night sky purple.
I step out of the window into space.
By Luke Frostick