This is a continuation of my blog of October 19, in which I told you about an extraordinary event that occurred in the Topkai Palace in Istanbul on 16 January 1595, the night the sultan, Murad III died. You will recall that this shocking event inspired me to write the book. Enjoy!
‘It’s done,’ said Gazanfer Ağa as the first rays of the morning
sun banished the darkness, giving the still waters of the harbour below the palace a pinkish glow. Safiye smiled. With her son’s accession now safe and assured, she had just become the valide sultan, the most powerful woman in the empire.
Two dwarfs entered the secret underground chamber. ‘Where are you?’ whispered one of them. ‘Over here,’ mumbled Osman. Still a little weak and feeling disorientated from the effects of the powerful drug, he began to wriggle inside the sack.
One of the dwarfs untied the rope at the top and helped Osman crawl out. ‘Here, put this on,’ he said, handing Osman clothes usually worn by the cooks in the kitchens. ‘Quickly! Everything is ready.’
Safiye Sultan sat in the walled courtyard garden which only a few days ago had been the late sultan’s favourite place in the entire palace. Elated, she looked thoughtfully across the still waters of the Golden Horn and contemplated the dawn of a new era in which she and her son, Mehmed, would rule one of the largest empires of their time. Immeasurable wealth and absolute power were at last within her grasp and years of careful, dangerous plotting were about to bear fruit. The thought of her rivals cowering in fear as they awaited their fate which she, as the new valide, now held in her tiny hands, made her heart beat faster.
She was about to close her eyes to savour the moment, when one of Gazanfer Ağa’s dwarfs approached. At Safiye’s signal, the dwarf walked over to his mistress and whispered something into her ear. Safiye paled. ‘Get Gazanfer Ağa; quickly!’ she commanded and hurried inside. If what the dwarf had just told her was true, her new world was under serious threat and could collapse at any moment, burying her dreams forever.
Gazanfer Ağa stood in the secret underground chamber and counted the sacks containing the bodies of the murdered princes. 19, he thought, it can’t be! and counted them again. ‘Open them!’ he barked at last. Two dwarfs stepped forward and opened the sacks. Gazanfer Ağa walked slowly along the row of bodies lined up on the stone floor and carefully looked at each of the faces. Some—with sightless, glassy eyes bulging like the eyes of a curious fish and tongues hanging out of mouths wide open in silent terror—were so contorted by a sudden, violent death, that Gazanfer Ağa had to look twice before he could recognise the once familiar features. One is missing, he thought. Osman isn’t here!
When Safiye heard the dreaded news, she knew exactly who had to be behind it all; Fatma, Osman’s mother. She also realised that Fatma could not have acted alone. This was a carefully planned conspiracy involving officials at the highest level. Safiye knew that there were many at the palace who despised her and Mehmed with a passion, and would prefer another sultan. She also realised that Fatma’s plan was as simple as it was brilliant. By having removed all of Murad’s sons except Osman, Safiye had unwittingly placed Osman next in line after Mehmed. Should something happen to Mehmed, Osman would become sultan. That was the law. Safiye’s head began to spin as one word throbbed through her aching brain and refused to go away: assassination! Her son was in serious danger!
‘How could this have happened?’ demanded Safiye, seething.
‘We’ll know soon enough,’ replied Gazanfer Ağa calmly.
‘You have a plan?’
‘Yes. Osman must be hiding somewhere inside the palace, so much is clear. I have already alerted the guards, and my most trusted deaf-mutes are searching every corner of the Harem right now. We’ll find him. Not even a mouse can leave this place without being discovered.’
‘The three deaf-mutes who carried out the executions are in irons …’
‘Being interrogated right now; persuasively. It won’t be long before we know everything.’
‘Good. I don’t have to remind you that we are not safe as long as Osman lives. Mehmed is in great danger. We must protect him!’
‘Already taken care of.’
Not entirely convinced, but feeling better, Safiye looked at Gazanfer Ağa. He’s the most ruthless and ambitious man I know, she thought, and therefore my best protection. He knows exactly what will happen if he fails … And so do I …’
Gazanfer Ağa’s janissaries—the sultan’s bodyguards—searched the palace with ruthlessly efficiency, interrogating anyone without mercy, suspected of having information about Prince Osman’s whereabouts. Soon, a trail of torture-blood led to the palace kitchens. There, in one of the huge, vaulted chambers, they discovered something ominous.
‘We’ve found something,’ said the captain of the bodyguards, ‘come.’
Surprised, Gazanfer Ağa followed the captain to the massive kitchens. ‘Good news, I hope,’ he said. The captain did not reply. Instead he pointed to a wretch lying in a pool of blood on the stone floor. Barely alive, the man—a cook—was staring at Gazanfer Ağa with his remaining eye, blood oozing out of the empty socket of the other which had been gouged out earlier.
‘What did you find?’ demanded Gazanfer Ağa impatiently.
‘This,’ said the captain and pointed to a rope dangling from a hook in the vaulted ceiling next to a chimney high above the kitchen floor.
Gazanfer Ağa looked up at the tall ceiling and the open chimney at the top—just wide enough for a man to crawl through—a shiver of unfamiliar fear tingling down his spine. ‘Do you think he could have …?’ he asked, shaking his head.
The captain pointed to the man on the floor. ‘He just confirmed it,’ said the janissary.
‘Two hours ago.’
‘The roof’s been searched?’
‘We found another rope.’
‘On top of the palace roof, near the main gate.’
‘To help scale the wall leading outside?’
‘It would appear so.’