Here’s the first chapter of The Sultan’s Enchanter, the historical fantasy currently in need of beta-readers! Comment below if you’re interested.
The ropes around his wrists and ankles pulled tight. Bursalı Turhan stiffened his muscles, breathed past the pain in his shoulders, and thanked All-Merciful God the smugglers had been too stupid to kill him.
Or put a gag in my mouth.
“He’s awake,” said Shorty from somewhere behind Turhan.
Skinny stepped over Turhan and turned to face his prisoner, knife out. “Not for long.”
Skinny was the tallest, most violent, and stupidest of the three smugglers. Shafts of morning light pierced the gaps between the boards, and his knife flashed through them like a hungry fish. “I’m going to kill you, you fucking spy.”
Turhan, hog-tied on the dirt floor of the shack, licked his lips and summoned his music. The tune would need to be something upbeat.
Not to mention loud, in order to achieve any kind of charm over the city noise. Out there in the wider world of the least fashionable docks of Istanbul, seagulls cried, dogs barked, men and women noisily loved, robbed, and murdered each other. The air clung like wet silk. Every sight, sound, and smell seemed deliberately orchestrated to compel a man to despair. Dark magic by civic planning. Turhan would have to remember to tell Mustafa about that.
“Well? Say something!” Skinny knelt and pressed the knife against Turhan’s throat. The smuggler stank even worse than the floor. “Tell us who you’re fucking working for.”
“Naples, obviously.” Shorty’s voice was deep and placid as sewage water in a sink-hole. “The damn dons want to cut out the middleman.” He slapped the third smuggler. “Eh?”
“No can be. I no hear of it,” said the Neapolitan, the last member of this doomed trio.
Turhan decided on a marching song. The tune would be simple enough to catch the attention of these swine. He summoned the beat in his mind.
“So he’s from Abdullah’s gang,” said Shorty as Skinny’s knife hand twitched and Turhan’s Adam’s apple bled. “I knew that dog-fucker had got wind of our deal with the magistrate.”
Turhan’s teeth clenched, not at the pressure of the blade at his throat, but from frustrated will. This mythical “magistrate” was the only member of this wretched little smuggling ring that he hadn’t yet been able to track down and destroy. Yet.
“Interrogating or trying to shave me?” said Turhan, just a hint of rhythm in his voice. “You excel at neither, my friend.”
Listen to my music.
The knife jumped. “Tell us who you fucking work for,” shrieked Skinny.
And yes, his voice had taken on some of the cadence of the march in Turhan’s mind. Oh, I am a bad, bad man for enjoying this so much.
“My master, my friends, is yours as well. The master of us all. The focus of our loyalty.”
Enjoy my voice.
“I no like this,” said the Neapolitan, but Skinny was smiling now, eyes glassy, swaying in time to Turhan’s beat.
“‘Master of us all?’ What does he mean?” asked Shorty.
Skinny shook his head and sprayed angry spittle down on Turhan. “What do you mean? Are you a policeman?”
Turhan grinned. “Your trouble is so much worse than that.” He was nearly singing now, and the music in his voice compelled.
Open your minds to me.
“Who is he talking about? Shit! Not the Sultan!” Shorty’s speech had also fallen into step with Turhan’s march.
“Surprised, my friends! Why? This is treason!”
“We – ” Shorty began, but Turhan sang over him.
“Did you think we wouldn’t find you? Traitors, evil fools! You all stuff yourselves at the table of your sovereign, then you turn and you give aid to his foes?” March to this beat, Turhan compelled. “The Sultan takes you to his heart and you slide your dagger through. Now I ask you. I ask you why?”
Answer my question.
“Money money money,” mumbled Skinny. The smuggler was fully upright now, marching in place, knife forgotten by his side.
“He offered us money,” Shorty confirmed, the shack clattering with the rhythm of his stomping feet.
“Who? Tell me who. Who offered you money?” Answer.
“What?” Growled the Neapolitan. “What happen?” As Shorty and Skinny chorused. “The magistrate! The magistrate!”
Turhan knew that, too. The mysterious magistrate had given the smugglers money in exchange for works of art from the Sultan’s own armories. That was what had begun this whole smelly operation. There was only one piece of the puzzle Turhan didn’t yet hold, which was why he’d kept the smugglers alive this long.
“The magistrate. The magistrate” Turhan chanted. “Where may he be found? Tell me, fools, his residence and I’ll know whom to kill.”
Listen to me. March with me. Sing with me. Answer.
“Gyulovo,” Shorty and Skinny whispered simultaneously, just exactly on the downbeat of Turhan’s march. “The magistrate of Gyulovo.”
“Where? What sort of a name is Gyulovo?” Turhan wondered aloud, and not quite in rhythm.
“Why he ask questions?” demanded the Neapolitan, “kill him.”
“I feel very odd.” Skinny looked down at Turhan, feet still drumming. “Shouldn’t we…march?”
Damn. Well, it was unlikely these smugglers knew anything more of use.
“March,” he sang, squeezing his enchantment around his captors. “March!” Step back.
Skinny lurched backward on stiff legs.
“Kill him!” said the Neapolitan again. “He sing! Incanta!”
Damn infidel foreigner, thought Turhan. Wouldn’t recognize a good marching tune if it burrowed into his ear and laid eggs in his brain.
But he had planned for this. Turhan was ready with his next move, even as the Neapolitan grabbed the rope that bound Turhan’s wrists to his ankles. He filled his lungs, pursed his lips, and whistled.
The tune was light and airy. Toe-tapping. Ear-catching. Compelling.
Kill each other, Turhan compelled.
Skinny’s mind bent to the compulsion first. His knife twitched up and his legs carried him in a lunge over Turhan’s body. There was a meaty thwack and Shorty cried out in pain.
Which leaves one. Turhan turned his head away from the splash of blood and kept whistling.
Now kill the Neapolitan.
Skinny hopped back into view, his dagger darting up, dancing as if possessed by its own will, not merely a tool of a man who was a tool himself.
Listen to my music. Kill the Neapolitan.
Eyes wide, smiling at the beauty of Turhan’s music, Skinny lunged again.
Another thwack and, damn it! That was Skinny crying out and, hell! Dropping on top of Turhan in a greasy, bloody lump. And the damn Neapolitan was still alive.
Turhan whistled a frottola, hoping it would to appeal the barbarian’s tastes. Cut my ropes. Get this corpse off me.
Nothing. The foreigner’s language and artistic mores would give him some immunity to Turhan’s enchantment, but not this much. Is he another artisan or what?
Kill yourself. Turhan was singing now, wriggling around under Skinny’s body.
The Neapolitan came into view. He was frozen in place, not obeying Turhan’s compulsion, but unable to attack or flee. The knuckles stood out white on the fist that held his dagger as the foreigner pulled with his teeth at the wrist of his other hand, eyes fixed on whatever was hidden under the cloth.
Look away. But the foreigner’s gaze was locked on the skin under his sleeve.
Damn the blasphemous wretch! Some idolatrous Christian hedge-wizard had picked a tattoo – a protective enpiction – into the Neapolitan’s skin. A Madonna and Child, it looked like, probably loaded with a compulsion to ignore art.
It was working. Turhan sang, but the the remaining smuggler kept his eyes on his tattoo and raised his dagger.
Skinny, you might finally be able to do me some good. Turhan twisted his body, rolling the corpse on top of him, positioning it between him and the Neapolitan’s blade.
The smuggler swore in his own language and the dagger punched into the corpse.
Turhan’s song choked off. Skinny wasn’t quite dead yet. God is great, indeed!
Turhan sang now, full-throated, deep-chested.
Grab the Neapolitan’s left wrist.
Skinny obeyed, and the Neapolitan screamed at the death grip, eyes wide, cut off from the protection of his idols.
Bursalı Turhan, cavalier and Battle Enchanter to the Sultan, sang.
Listen to me. Enjoy my music. Open your mind. Cut that tattoo out of your skin.
Oak branches striped her hands with shadow as Elena Kalinina cast the rings.
Silver reflections tumbled across the carved surfaces of the little wooden loops. Elena took her bowl in two hands and lifted it, calling, “Who will be married this year?”
“She will be married!” The others chanted the response.
It was the Day of Saint Lazarus and the girls of Gyulovo had prepared themselves for spring. The freshly-bleached shawls around their heads were hung with snowdrops and rooster feathers, and red embroidery extended like geometrical vines down the bodices of their undershirts and the handkerchiefs hanging from their belts. A few girls had enough talent with needle and thread that their work even carried some charm.
Be happy, the patterns compelled. Be happy today.
The compulsion was almost enough to make Elena smile. Her reason, however, told her that this ritual would do nothing to heal the sickness that was killing her town.
The rings bobbed around her fingertips, wooden, oiled to gleaming, and incised with the notches and grooves of her craft. One ring, and one matrimonial fate, per girl.
If any of them survive to marry. Elena and Father Bozhidar had worked all winter crafting the charms they would use to protect the town from its insane magistrate, the kadiya.
Elena managed to hook a ring with her little finger, careful not to touch its charmed outer surface.
“Blood sausage on the shelf,” she recited the first line of the chant. “Who is mine? Who will I marry this year?”
“A swineherd!” the other girls spoke their part.
By the color of the thread tied to it, this ring belonged to Grozdana, whose face fell not at all when she found out her smelly fate. For the moment, at least, she believed there would be swine in Gyulovo next year, and men to herd them.
A current of cold air tugged at Elena’s shawl and teased the hem of her woolen skirt-vest. If only we had another five winters. If only the kadiya had never robbed that tomb. If only I could depend on any of these foolish girls for help.
“She must like sausage,” whispered Selime. The kadiya’s round-faced daughter stood just as much apart from her age-mates as Elena, and got just as many fearful glances. Or perhaps the girls were afraid of the two huge men who stood, grinning behind their mistress.
Elena spoke to the future swineherd’s wife. “Don’t touch the carved parts. I ensensed them.”
Grozdana grasped the ring anyway, and shivered in pleasure and terror as the ensensation took her.
“Budala,” muttered Selime.
Fool, that meant, and Elena couldn’t help but agree. They shy away from my fingers, but play with the works of art I carve for them as if they were just wood. They fear the ensensoress and ignore the ensensations. Curses. How could she protect people like that? How did Father Bozhidar manage it?
The other girls were watching her. Elena looked down at the little wooden rings floating helplessly in the water. She gave them a splash and fished out the second one. “A blue-tit pecks at the mill,” went the second verse. “Who is mine?”
The next girl managed to retrieve her ring without accidentally ensensing herself, which was something.
“Sparks fly in the fireplace,” chanted Elena. “Who is mine?”
“A dog crouched on a white rock. Who is mine?”
Elena fished for the next ring and tried to remember the next verse in the song. Ah, yes. “Through the hollows he runs, tightening his sandals. Who is mine?”
“A bandit!” sang the other girls, but their giggles choked off when they saw the color of the ring’s identifying thread. Or silver wire, in this case.
“A bandit?” Selime stepped out from between her mindlessly grinning bodyguards and put out a hand. “Allah, beni bağışla! You think you’re just so clever, don’t you?”
Elena shrugged. “Your ring just came to my fingers like all the other girls’. Blame your fate, not me.”
Selime’s expression as she took the ring was faintly amused, but her agitation showed in the way she tugged at her plate-sized, silver belt clasps. Shadows and light chased across silver filigree and gold thread, catching the eye, ensnaring the mind.
Heed Selime, her clothing compelled, far more powerfully than anything in the other girls’ costumes. Bow your head to the daughter of the kadiya.
Elena’s neck bent, but her hand went to her own belt-clasps. They were smaller, brass, comma-shaped, and more subtle in their charm. Elena had made them herself. Trust yourself, they compelled.
“Your bandit won’t know what hit him,” she said, and Selime snorted as if she couldn’t imagine such a thing as an outlaw lover. As if Elena hadn’t tempted the young hanama out here with a promise to meet Ivan of the Woods.
Elena plucked up the final ring and slid it onto the third finger of her right hand. Turning her palm up, she raised her voice. “Touch this pattern to your man’s skin and he will desire you.” She rotated her hand. “Touch this pattern to his skin, and he will fear you. You can control him with a slap, or,” she mimed the motion, “a caress.”
The other girls looked down at their rings with expressions of calculation.
“A most efficient addition to the ritual.” Selime said. “Although it strikes me as a little controlling, perhaps?”
“Would you like your sex to be out of control?”
Elena had hoped to shock her aristocratic friend, but the kadiya’s daughter only pursed her lips. “Of course. Why else love a bandit?” And before Elena could come up with a response to that, Selime said. “But it seems that you have not sung the verse for your own ring, Elena-m.”
“Oh.” Elena searched her memory as the other girls giggled. “Well of course it’s ‘You were sewing your wedding dress, but did not finish it.'” The verse for staying unmarried.
“No,” said Grozdana, the one fated to marry a swineherd. “That’s the next verse after this one.”
There was some discussion about what that verse should be until the answer emerged: “Yours is ‘Quiet water over stones. Who is mine?'”
“A gentle man,” Elena chanted the response. “Well, if I manage to find one, I won’t have much need of the ensensation I put on the ring, will I?”
“Why would you even need a ring, when you can use your own fingers on a boy?”
Elena looked at the ground. Why would I need a ring when no one, boy, man, woman, or child, would let me get within arm’s reach of them? Not even Selime would put a comforting hand on Elena’s shoulder.
She brushed her belt-buckles for confidence and said, “that doesn’t matter. Now, which of you will come with me to Father Bozhidar so we can teach you to make art?”
She’d lost them before she completed the sentence. The girls cast furtive glances at Selime and her two grinning guards, and turned away.
Elena pushed on. “Do you want your brothers and fathers turned into mindless puppets like those two?” Some of them already were. “The kadiya will come for you next. Selime knows that. That’s why she’s on our side.”
That only scared them more. The girls scurried off in twos and threes, out of the forest and back into town, where they had maybe three weeks left to pretend everything was normal.
Elena wished she had thought to ensense those rings with more compulsion than simply fear and pleasure. What if she had added something to the inner surface? Stand up for yourself. Or even just listen to sense.
It wouldn’t be hard. Elena made people’s decisions for them all the time, ensensing jugs that made angry drunks spill their alcohol, ladders that made climbers cautious of heights, rings that encouraged love with the right sort of man.
“To the devils with me,” Elena hissed. “I should have compelled them to obey me. Instead I brought the kadiya’s daughter and her mindless bodyguards to a voluntary recruitment meeting for the rebellion against the kadiya and his mindless army. “Why am I so stupid?” She rubbed her belt buckles. “Why are they?”
“They believe that staying helpless will keep them safe,” said Selime.
“What sort of idiot would want to be helpless?” Elena dumped out her silver bowl and stuffed it back into the pouch that hung from her belt. “What do they expect me and Father Bozhidar to do, just the two of us?”
“There’s also me,” said Selime, “and Ivan.”
Elena wagged her head in agreement, thinking you and your outlaw lover, my lady, have no artistic skills at all. It wouldn’t be Selime who broke into the kadiya’s bedchamber and took control of his mind, and nor would it be Ivan, no matter how good he was with a dagger. Father Bozhidar was a frail old man. No, the task of saving Gyulovo fell on Elena’s shoulders, not to mention the prospect of failure and death. Or worse than death.
Elena clenched her fingers around her own ring, letting its ensensation compel her. Feel fear.
“And, Elena-m,” Selime continued, totally oblivious to Elena’s dread. “This meeting had nothing to do with rebellions or bandit lovers. It was a harmless Bulgarian ritual to celebrate the bloom of spring and maidenhood. Otherwise my father would not have allowed me to attend, and I could not share with you what I know.” And, because even a well-brought-up young hanama couldn’t keep her impatience in check forever. “So where is Ivan?”
Elena sighed. “Here, probably.” She called into the surrounding forest, “Spying on us!” And in a lower voice to Selime, “Keep an eye on your valuables.”
“Hey,” said the pine tree next to her, “I wasn’t spying. And only a lying witch would suggest that I would steal anything from my own heart, Selime-hanama, the rose-lipped daughter of the kadiya.” Ivan thumped down from his hiding place with a shower of last year’s pine needles.
The grinning guards heard him. Smiles still fixed on their faces, their heads twisted to target the bandit. In the same voice, they sounded the alarm: “erkek!” – a man! And in Turkish-accented Bulgarian: “You are too close to the hanama.”
Ivan gave Selime’s bodygaurds a look of sad disgust and put his hand to the dagger hilt sticking out of his sash. “My heart, would you stop these poor bastards before I have to hurt them?”
“İptal et!” Selime shouted, “you useless lumbering things,” followed by a long word in a language Elena didn’t know – the key-word.
The grinning guards went back into parade-rest, ignoring their standing orders to keep men away from their mistress.
Selime smirked and smoothed her vest down over her chest. “So you were here this whole time, Ivan?”
“Watching Lazarus Day girls cast their rings,” said Elena, much less amused. “Like some disgusting pervert.”
With his dagger jutting from his rust-colored sash, brushing forest detritus out of his hair, Ivan reminded Elena of an unusually well-armed squirrel. His small, wiry body was bunched as if to flee, and his large eyes flickered around the clearing, searching for threats and avenues of escape. His nose even seemed to twitch. At least his vest and breeches were clean. Or they had been, before their time in that tree.
“Why shouldn’t I watch you?” said Gyulovo’s last bandit. “You girls didn’t dance around naked or perform unspeakable acts at all. You just chanted and teased each other.”
Selime giggled and Elena resolved to carve an amulet for herself that would compel patience with fools.
“I tried to recruit them to help us save the town,” she said in a tone that she hoped conveyed the message this is not a lover’s tryst, “although I should have known better than to try. Selime, you’ll need to give me the key-word you use to change the orders of your grinning guards.”
“The şifre for my automatons, you mean? My father changes it every week.”
“And we may have to attack this week.”
Selime winced and Ivan cast a frightened glance at the ‘automatons.’ The word was Greek, and sounded sacrilegious when applied to those grinning slabs of walking meat.
“Is it safe to talk in front of those things? I didn’t even like those guys even when they were alive.”
“My automatons aren’t dead,” said Selime. “They just obey orders.”
“Sounds like death to me.”
Elena cracked her knuckles and the bandit took an involuntary step back. Selime didn’t, but her expression sobered at least.
“Are you sure those things can’t hear us?” Elena asked.
Selime shook her head in the Turkish gesture for negation. “As I understand it, they hear and are delighted by everything. Human speech, birdsong, the wind in the leaves – it all enchants them equally.”
“What if your father commands them to repeat to him what they heard?”
Another head-shake. “They would repeat hours of birdsong and other ambient nonsense. He could tell them to listen for key words…” she looked at her felted shoes, “…’treachery,’ perhaps, or ‘charm,’ but he hasn’t. Not with these two. They haven’t been out of my sight since they were,” she swallowed, “automated.”
Since these two bandits had been captured, Selime meant, and somehow the kadiya had completely overwritten their personalities. The same fate was in store for Ivan, if he was ever caught. And what of Elena, with her treasonous plotting? Father Bozhidar, her mentor? Selime, the kadiya’s own daughter, who worked to stop his madness before it consumed their town.
Elena’s hands went to her sash, tracing the outlines of her wooden plugs, metal wire, tiny knife. The ensensoress in her wanted desperately to find out how the kadiya had wrought such permanent mind control, but the rest of her just wanted her town spared.
The young lovers were gazing at each other again. “I’ll need that cipher, too,” said Ivan, “if you want me to get past your guards and see you tonight.”
“Well then, I suppose I should whisper it too you.” Selime leaned toward Ivan, lips pursed.
Nobody had whispered anything to Elena in years, much less kissed her. She brushed her belt clasps and realized that of course it was stupid to be jealous of Selime. Elena was the best ensensoress she knew of. She could make a man do whatever she wanted, whether or not she was within touching distance.
“Selime,” she snapped. “What’s your news about your father?”
The hanama jumped, those rosebud lips pursed guiltily. “Well! That is…” she smoothed her shawl over her hair. “He doesn’t suspect you – or me for that matter – of…” Selime swallowed, now guilty for more reasons than one, “…of betraying him. “He told me himself that we’re expecting…I mean he is expecting a delegation from Istanbul. From the court of the Sultan himself! A whole platoon of janissary soldiers, and maybe more. Maybe battle-artisans.”
Ivan’s eyes went wide. “Son of a she-wolf,” he said. “Do you think he has support from the Sultan?”
“Of course not,” said Selime. “My father must have…” she trailed off miserably.
“He must have lured imperial troops into his treasonous plot,” Elena finished. She tried to keep her voice gentle. “Which doesn’t make our position any better.”
“The kadiya is going to make grinners of all of us.” Ivan rubbed the red thread around his right wrist, warding off evil.
“And soon,” said Elena. “We can’t let him get his hands” or whatever he’s using to brainwash people, “on those new janissaries. He’ll absorb them into his … what does he call it?”
“His Automatic Army,” said Selime.
“Right. Then attack the nearest garrison and absorb them, and so on.”
“Pausing along the way to wipe out any local resistance that might spring up.” Ivan’s face was white. “Selime, what if we just ran away?”
Selime gave a panicked shake of her head.
“She won’t leave,” said Elena. “She’s no coward.”
Ivan glared at her. “I’m still here, aren’t I? I stayed in the woods even after the kadiya rounded up all my brothers.”
“You’re only here because of Selime,” said Elena.
“Just hear me out,” he said. “What if you made everyone run away? Like, evacuated the town? The passes are open again. You could take us to Sofia.”
“And let the kadiya steal the mind of everyone else in Gyulovo?” said Elena. “No. And I won’t let you leave either.”
Selime and Ivan shared a look. As if they could conspire against Elena. In less time than it took to boil a pot of water, I could create an amulet that would force you two to march into the konak ahead of me. You could absorb the kadiya’s defenses and die while I save Gyulovo. But what would Father Bozhidar say about that?
“We have to talk to the priest,” Elena decided. “Tell him there’s no more time to prepare. We attack the kadiya tonight.”
“Not attack,” pleaded Selime. “We only have to…make him see reason.”
“Right.” Elena rubbed her hands together. “One way or another.”