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The Oriental Isle: chapter three

Enter Milady

After bathing, I rested, allowing Lady Emma to get ready for the banquet, and letting Flora and Molly, my two maids, set out my garments for the evening.

As it was a State occasion, I wore my most elaborate iç entari (silk inner robe) with its decorated golden cevberi (belt) and a bejeweled dagger. Over that, I wore my best red silk kaftan, with golden embroidery patterned into it. My trousers were of the finest silk, gathered in at the ankle, and I wore my red boots of Spanish leather. Donning my kaşbastı (a diadem embellished with a stone at the centre, which sits on the forehead), I looked in the glass - and there stared back a figure who was every inch the Sultan's Vizier. Appearances, especially first ones, mattered, and one only got one chance at that. I was determined to do my Court and my Sultan proud.

Lady Emma accompanied me to the Great Banqueting Hall, and from the look on her face, she approved.

'You look like a Princess, Lady Rehab.' She smiled.

'Well, Lady Emma, you look like a statue of feminine beauty. Tell me, who will be there?'

'Everyone, Princess. The French and Spanish Ambassadors, who have no love for us, or you. Lord Burleigh will be there, as will an old friend of yours, Mr. Shakespeare.'

'Oh, dear, darling Will, how splendid!'

'His plays are very popular now, and his last one on the Moor of Venice was loved by the Queen herself. Did you meet him when my Lord Oxford went to your City?'

'Yes. I am glad his plays are a success; I like him a great deal.'

'Yes, he amuses the Queen, who rewards him handsomely. You would not think him a man of no breeding.'

I forbore to mention my own want of breeding, or, indeed the fact that technically and legally I was a slave of the Sultan. The English, I saw, placed great emphasis on breeding, and imagined it conferred on a person some quality which made up for their want of intelligence. I was content with the Ottoman system, where, although one was a slave, one could rise to the highest position by talent alone. In England, I should have been lucky to have had any position higher than a maid. And they were proud and foolish enough to look down on our civilization!

The hall was brilliantly lit by hundreds of candles, and from behind an arras, there was the sound of lutes. As I entered, I felt all eyes turn on me. I bore myself as I hoped my Master would have liked, conscious that despite my diminutive stature, I represented the greatest Empire the world had seen since Rome.

The Queen graciously bowed, and I bowed to her. There was a vacant seat next to her, and I could see in the seat next to that, a smallish figure in black, with a silvery beard, whom, correctly, I took to be Lord Burleigh, the great Lord Chancellor, and a man with whose influence I should have to contend. His face was sphinxlike, and, showing two could play at that game, so was mine; although I was careful to smile at the Queen.

The table was a scene of artistry. There was a centerpiece, which represented a green lawn, surrounded with large peacocks' feathers and green branches, to which were tied violets and other sweet-smelling flowers.

In the middle of this lawn, a model of the Hagia Sophia was placed, covered with silver. This was hollow and formed a sort of cage, in which several live birds were shut up, their tufts and feet were gilded. On the great dome were two banners, bearing the arms of England and the Ottomans. I was touched, as, no doubt, I was meant to be. The two grandees I took to be the ambassadors of Spain and France seemed less enamoured of the efforts taken.

That the English liked their meat became quite evident during the five-course, no fewer of which three were meat based. Fortunately, there were some jellies and strawberries, so I did manage to eat something for which I cared. How they were not all fat as eunuchs, I never worked out.

During the first course of jugged hare (of which I refused to take more than a mouthful), after greeting the Queen, I turned to talk to Burleigh. There was an interpreter to hand, but frankly, he was next door to useless, except for the fact that he gave me extra time to think, and disguised from Burleigh how much English I understood. Knowing few foreign languages, the English seem to imagine others are as ignorant; that prejudice served me well with Lord Burleigh.

I let him engage me in small talk, telling him I had seen little enough of his country to comment. He kept turning to the man next to him, as the translator did his work, and I picked up some snatches of the conversation.

'God knows what this little Trollope does for the Sultan to be given this position,' Burleigh said.

'She's a pretty enough little thing, wouldn't mind riding her myself,' said the rather cadaverous figure next to him/

'You know what the Turks are like, he probably takes her up the arse.'

I let them rattle on in between the stilted formalities of the translated discourse.

'God knows how she thinks she's going to persuade us to do business with her heathen master. I may not like the Catholics, or even trust them, but at least they are only heretics.'

'William, you know I've little time for all that nonsense, and I think we need to examine what the wench says.'

While that was going on, I asked the Queen who the gentleman next to Burleigh might be; she told me.

'Well, my Lord,' I said in my accented, but decent English, 'I'd listen to Sir Francis, he may have a point. Oh, and by the way, no, my Master does not take me in the way your English seem obsessed with!'

He nearly choked on the roast beef of old England. I offered him a goblet of wine, which he took.

Sir Francis Walsingham laughed.

'The wench has you there William!'

'It seemed unkind, Sir Francis, to let you two gentlemen discuss my sexual proclivities without making you aware I could understand you both!'

By that time, Burleigh had stopped choking.

'I underestimated you, Madam, I shall not do so again.'

'Oh, you will, Lord Burleigh, you will, but not so easily, or, indeed, with such a good excuse, and, back to where we started, underestimating me also involves dismissing my ideas without a hearing. After all, you know that the Spaniards would invade you given half a chance, which we certainly should never do. Appeasing the unappeasable is never a good idea. I am sure your Saxon ancestor could have told you the problem with paying Danegeld; you run out of geld before you run out of Danes!'

Walsingham laughed, as did the Queen, who had been listening.

'She has you there, William, by George, she has you,' Elizabeth chimed in.

'Your Highness, Sir Francis, it would not do to consign my Lord to perdition because he thought that a woman was less than a man, for, by that token, perdition would be full, and Paradise full of women.'

'Ah, Lady Rahab, that might indeed be Paradise!' The Queen laughed at her own witticism. But there was a warning in her words, which I am not sure Burleigh picked up; Walsingham certainly had done so.

Perhaps I should have kept quiet? Burleigh sulked for the rest of the meal, and it might have been thought unwise of me to have offended him, but if my reading was correct, there was nothing to be gained from appeasing him. He would bend where he thought his interests were best served in any event, and it was good that he had a taste of my steel. That I had also won Walsingham's approval was a bonus.

At the end of the final course, the Queen gave a short address, welcoming the 'Vizier of the Sultan,' and praising the 'enlightened' attitude of the Ottomans who, 'unlike some,' could, she said, 'recognise the ability of women to do more than breed.' She was scrupulous to say nothing about anything that mattered, but for those with a taste for riddles, there was much to be read from those words.

Burleigh kissed my hand in a sulky fashion, Walsingham with more enthusiasm, and with that, Lady Emma came to escort me to the private audience with the Queen and her chosen ladies.

The Great Queen bade me sit next to her, which I was glad to do. Lady Emma seemed distracted, and then I saw why. She was tall, I would have said a foot or so taller than me. Her blonde hair cascaded in elaborate ringlets down her back and over her shoulders, which were otherwise bare. The décolletage was, mildly put, spectacular, her breasts were large, firm, high, and on show, which was why Emm was distracted.

'And who is the possessor of those breasts you want so badly, Emm?' I teased her.

'Oh, what, oh, I'm confused. Who? What?'

'That woman, who is she, Emm?'

'Oh, Lady de Winter, she is attached in some way to the French Embassy.'

'Which,' I teased, 'is more than can be said for the top half of her dress. How on earth does it stay up?'

But Emm was off with the fairies. I should be lucky to get any sense out of her while Lady de Winter was there.

'Lady Rahab,' said the Queen, do meet Lady de Winter. Barbara, this is our Turkish Vizier.'

In heavily accented English, she responded:

'She is no more Turkish than I am, Bess, she's a Jewess, aren't you, precious? And such a darling one!'

Piqued by her obvious interest, I flirted back, and speaking in perfect French, said:

'And you, Milady, are the very portrait of Venus on the crest of the foam of the sea.'

Her smile was thanks enough; it was like an invitation to an erotic intimacy which promised untellable delights. No wonder Emm was stunned. If I had not long trained myself to restraint, so would I have been. But she was French, and I doubted she was here simply for her own pleasure, which meant I could not be for mine; let Emm have her, I thought.

She and Emm moved into a close embrace.

The Queen smiled at me and beckoned me closer.

'Are they not the picture of what the world classes as beauty?' She gave me a quizzical look.

'The world, Highness, judges but superficially. Present mirth hath present laughter, but what's to come is still unsure.'

She smiled.

'So, then come kiss me, sweet and twenty.'

'Youth's a stuff will not endure.' I finished the quotation.

'My Lady Rahab, I forgot, you know Master Will, and clearly some of his work.'

'He has said those words to me, Highness, and they stuck.'

'His words have that habit, so, come and kiss me, sweet and not yet twenty.' Those eyes, those hands.

I did.



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