The Cage

By John C. Hamilton

At the heart of the palace there is a cage.

Know, oh wise one, that the compassionate God made this world one of breathtaking beauty and abundance. The seas are plentiful with fish and other strange treasures, that all may eat. The plains teem with animals, and are green and gold with the grain to make bread. Yet in all things some must be higher, some lower, and at the center of all the lands of the world is a great empire.

Osmanlı Devleti, the Ottoman Empire: ancient and vast, rich in the prosperity and health of its people. Nowhere under the sky is there a realm equal to this realm of the Turks, flourishing under the House of Osman’s protection. Yet in all things some must be higher and some lower: at the heart of this splendid empire lies a city.

Where the kingdoms of the north, east, west and south come together, where the inner seas meet – that is the place of the city, Istanbul. Istanbul’s spires, vast bazaars, and tall mansions overwhelm even the proudest men. To see Istanbul is to become humble. It is the largest, most beautiful city in Creation. Yet in all things some must be higher, and some lower. In the heart of Istanbul, Istanbul the Magnificent, there lies a palace.

Know, oh wise one, that this palace dwarfs all other palaces with its breadth and shames them with its opulence. Yeni Saray, the “New Palace,” has already seen two centuries parade by, and grows only more resplendent. Its walls shine clean and white, the tops of its domes glitter with bright stone and precious metal. Within, light passes through jewel and crystal, and reflects from gold, silver, and brass. This privileged radiance caresses nothing but silk, or plush fur, or the most ornate rugs. It shines on the most beautiful women, with perfect, smooth skins and lambent, knowing, eyes. The viziers and lesser servants of the palace are the most wise, the most accomplished of men. The warriors, many slaves of the Sultan, have the fiercest aspects and the strongest, most skilled arms. Yet in all things some must be higher, and some lower.

At the heart of the palace there is a cage.

*

Şehzades Suleiman rested on his couch. The wood of its arms and legs glowed, polished by expert hands. The elaborately woven cloth of yellow, red, and pale green covered a cushion of the best curled horse hair. This couch was less a piece of furniture than work of art, or a fantastic jewel. It was a couch exalting not only repose, but also the labor that brought one to seek repose.

The şehzades, “princeling,” rested not from riding, or study, or travel, but from a long day of resting.

Even if the couch was not a jewel, the şehzades’ chamber was very much a jewelry box. Vivid colors brightened each wall, paints dividing the surfaces into rows and columns of images, mainly of birds. Birds of every kind, in every hue. Further decoration set off the alcoves, shining with nacre and turquoise.

A boy of less than twenty years, Suleiman had the broad cheekbones of his Serbian mother, but possessed in full measure the long, proud nose of his ancestor Osman, the empire’s founder. It was a nose, said the Greeks, that had broken Rome. The rest of Suleiman’s face did not live up to his progenitor’s. Eyes that could have been challenging were restless. Lips that might have been shaped by laughter or determination were instead turned down by ennui. The boy had a plumpness encouraged by inactivity, but controlled by anxiety. Anxiety regarding bowstrings.

The bow was the weapon of his people. Whether hunting or in war, boys must excel with the bow before they became men. Not Suleiman, though. He worried about bowstrings for an entirely different reason.

Yet … today he did not worry. Today had been one of the better days. The Valide Sultan, the Queen Mother, the mother of his half-brother Sultan Mehmed IV, had turned her attention from Suleiman’s world, the world of the harem. She was merely the co-ruler of the Empire at large, but in the harem her word was law. The shadow cast by every Black Eunuch walking the halls, watching the doors, was the shadow of the Valide Sultan.

Rumor said there had been a plot to unseat Suleiman’s half-brother. The plot included many viziers, and was led by the Grand Mufti himself. There was certainly to be a new Grand Vizier, the Albanian Köprülü Mehmed Pasha. That intelligence could be trusted, since word came from the Valide Sultan herself. Suleiman didn’t know what to think of the other rumors. It was hard to think of the world beyond his part of the harem, the Kafes, as real. But it was real, he knew: if the bowstring came, it would come due to events beyond the Kafes.

Nothing real happened in the Kafes. Nothing but the bowstring.

Suleiman shook his head in denial and lay back upon his couch. He shouldn’t think of conspiracies, they had nothing to do with him. The Valide Sultan must know that. It was the Kafes’ purpose.

Time passed, and a slave brought food. Suleiman went to the table placed by his chamber’s east wall. A set of windows, each with a shining bronze grill, faced a sea out of sight somewhere beyond the harem’s wall. Suleiman ate to the music of voice, tanbur, and flute spilling from the courtyard. He left his table when eunuchs in the courtyard, obeying the night, closed the shutters over his windows. Suleiman moved to the south side of his room. A brazier, a craftsman’s fantasy of intricately worked metal, had been lit.

Suleiman sat in a chair almost as fine as his couch. He sat, stared at the book in his lap, and sat – just staring – until he dozed off.

*

On Rhodes, in the afternoon of the one hundred and fortieth day, Cordt Bodeghe took off his tabard.

It was scarlet, with the white cross of his order dividing it into quarters. Cordt gently kissed the cloth, set it on his cot, and unbuckled the scabbard of his sword. He did not pause when the dull boom of a distant cannon was followed by a crash that shook his monastic cell. Cordt listened for screams or cries for help, but otherwise ignored the cannon. Nearly five months of siege left him no energy to squander on irrational panic.

He knew, though, when panic was the trial God offered. Cordt been on the Bastion of England when Turkish miners triggered explosions throwing down a wall. The Ottoman horde surged at the breach, surged and gained a foothold into the fortress. A great shout had gone up as Cordt and his brother knights rushed toward the Mahometans. At the time, Cordt could think only of how much greater the wails of the people of Rhodes, the city within the walls, would be if he failed.

The Grand Master himself had gathered English and German brothers in the counter-attack that repelled the Turks. He led with the cry that had moved Christendom forward for the last five hundred years:

“Deus vult!”

“God wills it,” whispered Cordt, fumbling with the ties of his plate cuirass. He admired the armor’s workmanship before dropping the front and back pieces atop his tabard, then traced the durable metal’s arc with a finger. How had the smith created such a smooth curve? Cordt, dressed now only in shirt and hose, stretched and took a moment to enjoy the coolness of his cell. He was a tall man, just shy of his third decade, fit and well muscled by constant training and fighting. Still, he was stiff. The melees, rationing, and constant apprehension of the siege had left Cordt chronically sore. It was an ache that went to the bone.

The knight lifted the jerkin he’d been issued from the chair by his cot. The leather was thick and coarse, but sturdy. Cordt touched the white-on-red cross sewn on the jerkin’s breast, then shrugged into it. He took a small axe from the chair. A sapper’s best tool, its haft was cut down for use in tight spaces. Too tight for a sword. He’d carry his long dagger.

Cordt was the veteran of a dozen sea-battles. He had taken part in a raid on the Anatolian mainland. He’d wandered on his own through old, wrecked Acre, haggling with the Ottoman subjects there for his meals. He could face armed Turks, with their sharp steel and fierce grins and rushing cannon balls. He’d volunteered for the tunnels because he dreaded the pressure, the ceaseless pressure, of the defenseless people of Rhodes.

The Knights of St. John were the shield of all of Europe. Cordt left his cell. He feared the Order could no longer protect a single island from the Mahometans. Not the inhabitants of this single city.

At the entrance to the tunnels, Cordt collected a crowbar, a coil of rope, torches, tinderbox, a wrapped meal, and a water skin. He might be underground all day. The Grand Master required men stop the Turkish miners: The Hospitallers couldn’t allow another breach like the one at the Bastion of England.

The tunnels were loathsome. Cordt hated clawing through the mud, hacking around the rocks of the island’s underworld, all in a night without stars or moon. The recent firings and detonations collapsed many of the tunnels. They were cold, wet, full of debris, and he lost his meal after encountering the body of a trapped miner. It wasn’t long before the water Cordt carried tasted of mud and grit. At least at the end of the day there’d be a slightly-longer tunnel, not just another corpse. It would be something real. An accomplishment.

Cordt went deeper than the others, as he’d been bidden, seeking long-buried Greek culverts that would allow for quicker counter-mining. All sounds of the sunlit world were left behind, and Cordt became lost. His breath came in short gasps and any sense of time abandoned him. He wasn’t sure if he was awake or trapped in a nightmare, and didn’t care if he’d gone so far he’d come up behind the Turkish lines. He had to come up.

The Hospitaller worked his way up from the coldest water, toward what he hoped was the surface. At last, at the end of a canal of mud and knife-edge rocks, he found himself beneath what felt like ceramic tile. Hands pressed against the tile, he slowed his breathing. Where else could he be but within the city, under an abandoned home behind the walls? Still, he took care to be as quiet as possible when he broke through the floor.

The air was sweeter than he’d expected, lacking the stink of five months of siege. Instead, there came the scents of camphor and coffee, accompanying the dim blush of a smoldering fire, and an unexpected silence. Where was he?

Cordt drew his dagger, slipped from his hole, and came face to face with a Turk.

*

The ruddy glow of his brazier was the only illumination when Suleiman, sleeping with the book in his lap, was awakened by a loud crack. A grinding noise, stone on stone, directed his attention downward.

Suleiman couldn’t imagine what it was. Bemused, he fumbled with a lantern while more cracking and grinding issued from the floor. The sounds stopped before he had the lantern lit. When yellow light at last filled the room, Suleiman was confronted by a man fully out of a hole in the tiled floor. A man with strange features, as pale as the şehzades’ mother, and wearing outlandish clothing, torn and covered with the mud of digging. A man with a knife pointed at Suleiman’s heart.

Skin suddenly chill, Suleiman kept himself motionless. The man and circumstances were too strange, too frightening. His own resources for coping with the unexpected, too meager. He didn’t call for help. All those within earshot were slaves of either the Valide Sultan, or the Sultan.

The slaves were Suleiman’s jailers or servants, carrying out the orders necessary to their tasks and positions. They were sources of food and clothing, domestic service and occasional lessons. Not sources of aid. Of help. For that there was only his mother, and he didn’t want her help. It was Suleiman’s firm opinion that none of the şehzades in the Cage wanted their mothers’ help.

The strange man raised the knife to Suleiman’s eyes and said something – a question, from the tone – in a language Suleiman didn’t understand. Still at a loss, Suleiman said nothing. He feared violence, but he didn’t fear the knife. He’d worried too long about bowstrings.

The man took a step toward him and spoke again. Whether in the same language or a different one, Suleiman had no idea. In addition to Turkish, he spoke Persian and Arabic. He could understand a little Greek, and some Serbian from his mother. He recognized other languages of the Empire by their sound. This didn’t seem to be any of them.

In halting, strongly-accented Turkish, the man said, “Who are you? Where am I?”

The stranger speaking intelligibly convinced Suleiman he was awake. He eyed the knife with a new awareness, but didn’t shrink from it. He was, after all, a prince. He lifted his head and stared the man in the eye. “Who are you?”

The intruder shook his head. “How far are we from the walls?”

With a boy’s easy recklessness, Suleiman said, “What an odd question!”

“Tell me!”

Suleiman shrugged. “Which walls? The nearest harem walls are a dozen or so ells beyond my windows. The palace walls farther yet, and the old city walls … I don’t know. Why should a thief want to know? That is what you are, isn’t it? A thief?”

The man scowled, his hand tightened around the knife. He opened his mouth to speak when Suleiman, ears forever tuned to the sound, recognized the faint, slippered footfall of a servant’s approach.

Abruptly terrified, Suleiman hissed, “They’re coming! Be swift, back under the floor!”

*

Responding more to the fear in the boy’s voice than anything else, Cordt lunged across the room and back into his hole. Crawling as quickly as he could, bloodying his knees, the exhausted knight retreated down the narrow tunnel.

By the Virgin, where the hell had he been? Cordt stopped. He’d taken the boy for a Turk when he first saw him. But, by his features, the boy could have been one of the island’s natives. A Greek, probably. That certainly hadn’t been a Turkish army tent. Cordt doubted there were any buildings standing beyond the walls of Rhodes. Not in range of the Hospitaller mortars.

He must be within the city after all. How had he gotten so lost? Cordt knew one could spend all day in the tunnels, yet never move more than a dozen feet from the walls. He hadn’t been in the boy’s room long, but surely he would have heard, or smelled, something of the armies lined up for slaughter on either side of the fortress’ great walls.

Cordt turned himself around in the tunnel.

It was hardly a miracle he’d become lost. He must have found one of the old Greek culverts after all, but followed it into the heart of the city. Some rich merchant’s house, surely. A trader. Perhaps with a wife from the mainland – that’d explain the boy’s countenance.

Cutting his hand on the sharp edge of a protruding rock, Cordt nevertheless smiled. He started up the tunnel toward the opening. He’d be able to walk back to the bastion.

*

As soon as the stranger disappeared, Suleiman covered the hole with a carpet.

He didn’t know why he felt such panic. Surely panic was appropriate when a lunatic thief broke into the harem? Or an assassin! A Greek or Venetian, there to kill Kızlar Ağası, the Chief Black Eunuch, or the Valide Sultan. The assassin could be seeking the Grand Vizier or the Sultan himself! Or, perhaps, he sought to slay as many members of the imperial family as possible. In which case he should have already killed Suleiman.

“Şehzades? Is everything well?”

It was the eunuch whose approach he’d heard. Keeping his voice calm, Suleiman said, “Yes, everything is well. What do you want?”

“I heard a noise …”

“I’m just awake. Is there some commandment of the Quran that I must sleep?”

“No, Şehzades. May I bring you something? Food or drink or–”

“Just go!”

Buyurun, Şehzades.” The eunuch made a brief obeisance and left.

So that he might uncover the hole, Suleiman crouched and gripped the carpet in each hand. Then he froze.

What was he doing? No, why? Why was he so eager to see a thief or assassin? That the man might be a thief meant nothing to him … but an assassin? He didn’t want to die. Yet the man had not seemed an assassin. Suleiman had heard tales. Cold, wild-eyed killers, assassins were the monsters of his childhood. Was that it? That an assassin was a figure from a story? A man who, with a scream of vengeance, would strike down a vizier on the street, but was no threat to to a mere şehzades here in the Kafes?

The man from the hole hadn’t screamed or shouted. He’d threatened, but he’d asked questions.

The man had talked to him.

Suleiman blinked and spared the back of one hand for a brief swipe across each eye, then moved the carpet.

*

Cordt reached up and, for the second time, pushed himself from the hole in the floor. The boy didn’t look threatening. Nor should he, as a citizen of Rhodes. What had frightened him?

“Who passed?” asked Cordt.

“One of the black eunuchs. They serve and guard the harem.”

Cordt frowned. “You are a Mahometan?”

“A what?”

“A worshiper of Mahomet.”

The boy looked puzzled. “Do you mean a follower of the Prophet, Muḥammad, upon whom be peace? Of course I am.”

“I didn’t think there were any of you in the city. At least not dwelling in a place of such wealth. A harem!”

Cordt peered around the chamber with quickened interest.

Now Suleiman frowned. “Istanbul is seat of the caliph. My brother! Of course we are followers of the Prophet.”

“What?”

“You are a madman. I thought you must be, to dig into the heart of the harem.” Suleiman attempted a smile. “How long did it take you? Ten years, twenty?”

Cordt’s confusion turned to pity. The boy didn’t sound like an idiot, so he must be mad. The son of a wealthy merchant, almost certainly, and kept from the world. Such strange, blasphemous beliefs! He feared for the boy’s soul.

“God grant you rest,” said Cordt. “What is your name?”

“I am Suleiman!”

Cordt shook is head. Such pride! And a Mahometan name if there ever was one. Well, God kept a special mercy for the mad. Especially if they were young. He’d ask Father de Brancion to look in on the boy … once he established where he was.

“How do I get out of here, Suleiman?”

“Back down your hole, I suppose. But you need not leave yet.” Suleiman stepped toward Cordt, reaching out. Cordt backed away and raised his dagger.

Suleiman retreated. “Wait. If we are quiet the slaves will not come. I have–”

Cordt interrupted, “No, I must return to the battle.”

“Battle?”

“Never mind, boy. Just show me the way out.”

Suleiman’s mouth dropped open in surprise, then he laughed bitterly. “There is no way out. This is the Kafes.”

Kafes? What does that mean?”

“The Cage.”

*

Cordt left the boy’s chamber, stalking down a hallway of closed doors. Behind the doors, so far as Cordt could tell, there was darkness and silence. The hallway was lit by only by some sort of flame in the room at the far end. Presumably it kept company with a guard.

There were rumors that secret-Mahometans lived within the city, cooperating with the besieging Ottoman army. Cordt had ignored them – sieges were always full of rumors. Yet, guided by either the Holy Spirit or a devil, why couldn’t he have dug his way into the harem of a secret Mahometan?

Cordt stopped to listen. He’d expect to hear something of the ongoing battle anywhere in the city, day or night. Nothing. If he were underground, somewhere well behind the walls, the lack of battle-sounds wasn’t so strange. He might still be quite deep – perhaps in a great vault created by the Greeks.

Who had made the vault, however, did not signify. What mattered was that an actual Mahometan harem would be guarded by eunuchs, men desecrated by a pagan ritual and sworn to kill intruders. They wouldn’t hesitate to dispatch a Christian knight. But, under Rhodes? It sounded mad.

As mad as the boy when Cordt questioned him, then pressed for the truth.

“Go!” he’d finally hissed at Cordt. “Search the harem. Search the palace. Search the city, if you can! The only thing you’ll find is that I am right. Or you’ll find your own madness, madman. But do not let the guards see you. They will not be kind!”

Cordt knew his best course – be the boy moonstruck or somehow truthful – was to seek stairs. Suleiman claimed there was a floor above his. He wasn’t allowed there, he’d said, but had once heard the window lacked grills. Cordt expected shutters he could open quietly … or the basement of some ancient mansion within the city. If it was the former, he had a rope to climb down. If it was the latter, and this was a nest of Mahometans, he had his dagger and the justice of the Lord.

Cordt shook his head. He was the fool, for listening to the boy at all. The hallway aggravated his doubts.

The displayed wealth, even in the gloom, confounded all his theories. The walls were completely covered by well-fit ceramic tile. Tile that, in the light of the sun, would blaze with color. Some of the doorways had semi-precious stones worked into the lintel ornamentation. Cordt thought the grills over the windows painted lead, but, as he carefully eased past each, he saw they gleamed like brass or bronze. The fortune implied by the adornment of this simple hallway was staggering. He hadn’t seen the like anywhere. Not in Rome, or even Venice. Compared to this corridor, every small court he’d seen in his native Bavaria was a grime-covered sty.

It was wonderful. Unexpectedly, distractingly, wonderful. Cordt had enjoyed watching artisans at work ever since he was a boy. He’d always known he would be a knight, but making things – making things with his own hands – wouldn’t be a bad life. The craftsmanship, the imagination, displayed here was awe-inspiring.

All the more reason to know it a dream.

When the knight reached the stairs he climbed them, bracing himself for whatever he might find at their summit. Another hallway, festooned similarly, was a surprise.

The windows were grilled are stoutly as those below. But he felt the movement of air and smelled its freshness. He wasn’t underground.

Cordt paused, listening again. The place felt empty. He set his head around the corner and discovered another vacant hallway. It was exactly the same as the others, but for how it expressed its opulence. That, and two un-shuttered windows.

The windows had grills after all, but faced in different directions. Keeping low, Cordt padded to the near window, then raised his head for a quick glance. He saw a nearby wall, and beyond it the light from open windows. He also caught a glimpse of an armed man in the courtyard below. The knight ducked back down and made his way along the wall to the second window. Raising himself even more cautiously, he set one eye to the grill and looked outside.

*

Suleiman, alone again, waited. He stood looking at the doorway that swallowed the stranger for a time. Soon, he sat. When he stopped staring at the door he contemplated the brazier, considering the addition of more fuel. It occurred to him then that guards might have discovered the intruder. He stared at the doorway again, awaiting an outcry.

At last Suleiman decided the man must have been caught and taken away. Or killed on the spot. Yes, that was it. Suleiman felt a hole opening up in his chest, kin to the one in the floor: the man was dead. He’d never see him again.

Suleiman stared at the doorway and waited. He had nothing else to do.

Eventually the strange man returned.

Suleiman leapt from his couch, “Did–”

Crossing to Suleiman in three great steps the man seized him by the shoulders. Hissing, speaking again in gibberish, he made an angry demand.

The şehzades looked up into the stranger’s face. He looked odder than ever, more like one possessed. The stranger was furious, a jinn inside him cruelly twisting his heart, Suleiman was sure. Face ashen, eyes terrifically wide, the man’s lips were pulled back in a grimace. Sweat, despite the cool night air seeping between shutters, dotted his brow.

Struggling ineffectually, Suleiman said, “What is it? What is it that you want?”

The man stopped shaking him and stood blinking. Then he turned toward the doorway, seeming to listen. When he returned his gaze to Suleiman it was only for an instant, his eyes sliding from Suleiman’s and flickering first to one, then another corner of the room. Suleiman began to become frightened: the man was possessed.

Then the tall madman took a shuddering breath. In Turkish, he said, “Where am I?”

“I told you, the Kafes.”

“Where?”

“The Kafes, in the New Palace!”

“Where? What city?”

Suleiman was still frightened, but more frightened of the guards. “Quiet! We’ll be heard! The eunuchs will hear! And I told you already. You’re in Istanbul. Of course you are!”

“When I peered out the window–” The man stopped and shuddered. Suleiman broke away. The man gazed at him with eyes that were still, but made no attempt to seize him again. Then, speaking at a whisper, but firmly, the stranger continued.

“When I looked out the window I saw the city. I was in a high place, and I looked out over a great, well-lit city. A city larger than Rhodes, which has not the spare oil or wood for so many lights, anyway. Or so I thought–”

“Rhodes?”

The man shook his head. Not answering Suleiman’s question, he said, “But perhaps my thinking is wrong. Yet … Yet out the second window I saw down a long slope. The slope had many lit buildings, and went down to the sea. So many buildings! But there were no walls protecting the city, and nothing to protect it from. No Turkish army! And across the sea – far, far too close – was the mainland!”

“What mainland?”

“Anatolia! The Ottomans!”

Softly, but urgently, Suleiman said, “Quiet!”

The man shut his mouth. As if seeking shelter, his eyes again ran from place to place in the room.

The şehzades wanted the man to stay. He spoke and pointed, trying to sound like the Chief Black Eunuch. “Sit.”

Suleiman felt a thrill, a thrill he’d never felt before, when the man obeyed.

*

Suleiman indulged the madman by listening to his tale. He felt wonderfully magnanimous. The madman believed he was a Christian warrior from the siege of Rhodes. Suleiman recalled the island had been won from the Christians in the time of his namesake, Suleiman the Lawgiver. That had been more than a hundred years ago. He told the madman, thinking it might help.

The madman, who claimed his name to be Cordt, shook his head. “It’s clear that I’m still in my hole, dreaming.” He laughed, a little wildly, “Or you are.”

Suleiman shook his head.

Cordt cocked his head in inquiry, but asked nothing. He said, “I’m going back down into that tunnel, waking up, and reclaiming my place on the wall.”

Suleiman clenched the arm of his couch. “Why?”

“What do you mean, ‘Why?'”

“Why leave? Why go back at all? You will be defeated.”

Cordt smiled. “You’re just a dream. I won’t take prophecy from a dream. Especially not a Mahometan dream!”

“But from what you said of the battle, you were losing, were you not?”

“Perhaps. But–”

“No, you were. The Lawgiver had more than a hundred thousand men. How many Christian warriors are left?”

Cordt scowled. “The slaughter among the Ottomans has been terrible.”

Suleiman nodded. “But the Lawgiver wins the island, of this I am sure. And I ask you, are his losses terrible enough? He was the greatest warrior in a thousand years. He will not give up. Did not give up.”

“Neither will I.” Cordt sat straighter in his chair. “He can slaughter us all, and we will not surrender. We will all die first.”

“Yes. But you need not. You–” A look of pain crossed Suleiman’s face.

“What is it, boy?”

“You cannot remain here, I know. You will be found. But you could return to your city, yet leave the battle.”

“No, I couldn’t.”

“You could. You could just walk away.” Suleiman, pleased to have solved the problem, smiled.

“What do you mean, ‘Just walk away’?”

“I would think it easy for a dream: don’t fight. Put down your weapons and go into the city. Join the people there. The Lawgiver was just and merciful. He did not destroy Rhodes.”

“That would sacrifice my honor.” The madman’s face went red. “That would be a betrayal of my oaths to God and my brothers.”

Suleiman shrugged. “What is honor? And since when do oaths matter, even ones taken before God? If you are dead you can do nothing, for ill or good. And you will die if you fight. But if you are alive, you can do …” Suleiman hesitated, looking around his chamber, “anything. If you live, you can do anything.”

Shaking his head in mock dismay, Cordt said, “Such bitter words from one so young, protected by these strong walls. What do you know of it?”

“These walls? Protected?” Suleiman’s lips went thin.

Misunderstanding, thinking the boy’s distress could be only one thing – a thing Cordt had been contemplating – Cordt said, “I’m not going to hurt you, boy. Dream or not. Mahometan or not.”

“No! Not you,” Suleiman snarled, raising a hand as if to strike out. But before Cordt could react, he stilled. “You’re no assassin.” Tone again bitter, Suleiman said, “Besides, assassins hold no terror for me. It’s not the assassin I fear, but the executioner. A soldier or eunuch with no words, not for me, and a bowstring held stretched between his hands.”

“A bowstring?”

Suleiman looked at the floor. “Past Sultans have secured their ascension by killing all other possible heirs. Brothers. Or nephews. Men, boys, little babies.” He shrugged. “It didn’t matter. They killed them all.”

Cordt spat. “Accursed, devil-ridden pagans. I’ve heard of such, but only half believed it. That men should do such things–”

Suleiman laughed sourly. “Men! I’m sure it was the women, the mothers, as much as the new Sultans. They rule the harem, just as the Valide Sultan now half-rules the empire. Here they keep us, the şehzades, until we are made Sultan in turn, or die. Or are killed.”

“What’s a şehzades“?

“A possible heir. A princeling.”

“You said that such killings were a thing of the past.”

Suleiman looked Cordt in the eye. “They need not be. Every şehzades’ mother would be Valide Sultan.”

Cordt studied Suleiman. “And you?”

“What?”

“What do you want?”

“Does it matter?”

“You could just walk away.”

“You have not been listening. This is the Cage!”

“Keep your voice down, boy. Of course I’ve been listening. Dream or not. But, dream or not, I’ve walked these hallways uncaught.”

“Not far.”

“Far enough. Look here–” Cordt kicked at the items on the floor before him. “Rope and a crowbar. That’s all you need.”

Suleiman looked confused. “Leave the Kafes?”

“Of course.”

Suleiman stared at the knight, then shook his head. “No. How … how would I live, outside the harem?”

“There’s wealth here. Portable wealth. And you had to have had some training.”

“No, not really.”

“Can you read and write?”

“Well, yes–”

“That’s more than most can say. You’ll be fine. Walk away.”

Suleiman kept shaking his head.

“What’s so hard about it? There have got to be plenty of ships at the bottom of this hill.”

“They go everywhere,” Suleiman whispered.

A silence developed between the knight and the şehzades, Cordt looking at Suleiman, Suleiman looking at the floor.

Into that silence there came footsteps.

Cordt jumped from his seat and to the edge of the hole. Before lowering himself, he turned to Suleiman. “I’m leaving you the tools. If you exist, get out of here.” He slipped below the floor.

Suleiman, panicking, looked between the rope and bar and the uncovered hole. He kicked the knight’s tools under his couch and swiftly dragged a carpet over the opening.

Delineated only by the whites of his eyes, his teeth, and a gleam from his oiled skin, a eunuch manifested in the doorway. “Şehzades, you are still awake? Are you sure there’s nothing I can bring you?”

Nothing!” hissed Suleiman. “Leave me!”

The slave bowed and departed. His retreating footsteps filled the silence for a few moments. Then they grew fainter, leaving it empty.

*

Cordt crawled down the tunnel, blindly feeling his way. He thought he was making good progress, but soon realized that, this being a dream, the progress was a delusion. Bone-weary, the knight closed his eyes and willed himself awake.

Of course it worked.

Cordt never returned to the tunnels. All the warrior-brothers were called to the walls as the Ottoman army’s assaults became both stronger and more frequent. The slaughter among the attackers was terrible, as Cordt had boasted, but they were too many, the knights too few. After a full six months of siege, the Hospitallers bowed to the inevitable. The Sultan, Suleiman, known to his people as “The Lawgiver” but called in Europe “The Magnificent,” gave the knights twelve days to evacuate the island. On January 1st, 1523, they sailed from Rhodes with their arms and armor, many icons and valuables, and several thousand Christian islanders. More would follow. The Sultan gave the people of Rhodes three years in which to choose if they would depart, or remain on the island and become Ottoman subjects.

To Cordt, Rhodes marked the eclipse of Christianity’s strongest defenders and the unstoppable rise of Islam. But he had seen and smelled the great, the unthinkable, piles of Mahometan dead. That was not victory. The knights had fought with all their might, day after day, hopelessly outnumbered, calling on God every minute of every one of those days. Yet they had lost. There was no victory anywhere.

Cordt fought on. In Africa and on the sea, Cordt was praised for the strength of his arms, the strength of his faith, and the strength of his purpose. Every time he returned to the Order’s new home on Malta, however, he was chiefly glad to see its walls a little higher, a little thicker.

It amazed Cordt that the craftsmen raising those walls not only contributed to the Order’s defense, but also made tools, furniture, and, for the chapels, objects and images of beauty that glorified God.

Cordt sometimes found himself merely appreciating an artist’s skill when he should be praying. There were days, weeks even – long voyages, when the results of his labors were the ragged, stinking carcasses of a few Turks – that Cordt wondered if wielding a sword was really what God wanted of him.

Cordt always offered his fears to God. Still, he only had to close his eyes to see the beguiling tile-work of the harem, the glorious colors. The colors had been dim in that first dream, a dream of darkness, but grew more vivid over the years. Cordt visited the Mahometan palace again and again in sleep.

Haunted by this dream, his heart would cry out that he, too, could have created beauty. At those times Cordt knew the devil was looking at him. He would spit, then seek his sword to sharpen. Hate banished uncertainty.

Cordt often despaired, but despair was easier to bear than doubt.

Three decades after Rhodes, as Cordt lay dying in Triploi, he dreamed the dream again. It wasn’t as preternaturally vivid as the first time. It never was, except for the art. The art only became more sublime. This time – this last time – Cordt allowed himself to enjoy his dream, embrace the allure of a place seen but once, and barely. A place that had only grown in artistry and beauty within his fertile, frustrated, imagination.

That day the old knight also thought of the boy in his dream, Suleiman. He wondered if, somehow, Suleiman had been real. Had the princeling found the courage to escape? To make something of his life?

Or had the boy died as he’d feared, after a life wasted in a cage?

*

Suleiman, the night after seeing Cordt, discovered that the hole in his floor was gone. There was nothing but a crack in the tile. He feared looking under his couch. He couldn’t decide if he wanted the crowbar and rope to be there, or not. It was easy to let time pass in the Kafes. A month passed before, waking in an early, cold hour of the morning, he looked under the couch. The knight’s things were gone.

No one ever asked him how they’d come to be there, and he never asked anyone what became of them. Or if they’d been there at all.

At first Suleiman frequently wondered if the Christian had been killed in the battle, or if he’d taken Suleiman’s advice and survived.

Time passed and Suleiman, a good Muslim, loathe to credit magic or pointless miracles, convinced himself that the strange madman had been a dream.

Years went by, and Suleiman was frequently sad. Sometimes he raged against his life of opulent confinement. Occasionally, he was content. At times he had the Valide Sultan’s or the Kızlar Ağası’s favor. Times with better food, more entertainment and companionship – times when he forgot, for awhile, about the bowstring. In those times he thought he might be happy. Could life really be better outside the Kafes?

Suleiman knew death walked the earth in many forms. Starvation, war, simple murder, age, and disease accounted for everyone, şehzades or not. In the Kafes he was safer than most, bowstring or not. And, in time, he might be Sultan.

Indeed.

After four and a half decades in the Kafes, slaves and soldiers came for Suleiman. They came not with a bowstring, in silence. Instead they gave him new clothes and jewels and told him he was Sultan.

Suleiman had long since ceased to think of the man he’d unexpectedly found in his room one night. Now he ruled the palace. Now the greatest slaves in the world were his slaves. The most powerful armies in the world were his armies. Now he spent each day in the Sultan’s chambers of the New Palace. There Köprülü Fazıl Mustafa Pasha, his Grand Vizier, told him all the things he needed to know, or to do. Every day he sat by his favorite window and looked out: out, across the rooftops of lesser buildings within his palace, across that familiar courtyard, and at the Kafes.

Every morning, sunlight washed the grills on the Kafes’ windows with gold and fire. When noon came they glittered brightly under the ascendant sun. Then, on warm evenings, lamps within the Kafes made light dance along the bars and curves of every grill. Suleiman never tired of it.

Now, the Sultan was sure, he was happy. What more could a man want?

Five years after he left the Kafes, on his own deathbed, Suleiman didn’t wonder about the trajectory of his life. It was the only life he could imagine. He did, however, remember Cordt, and think of him one last time.

He’d forgotten Cordt’s name, but he wondered if the knight had wasted his life, or if he’d had the courage to walk away.

“The Cage” is the first place winner of the 2016 Foreign Setting Short Story Contest.

© Copyright 2016 John C. Hamilton

john-c-hamilton

John Cooper Hamilton writes humorous genre fiction, or literary fiction when thinks he can get away with it. His many interests include role playing games, board games, war games, card games, and video games. He lives in Ohio, dividing his time between games and convincing his family to play games. https://johncooperhamilton.com/

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