The year is 1546, and Suleiman the Magnificent, the feared Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, issues an invitation to every king in Europe: You are invited to send your finest player to compete in a chess tournament to determine the champion of the known world.
Thousands converge on Constantinople, including the English court’s champion and his guide, the esteemed scholar Roger Ascham. Seeing a chance to enlighten the mind of a student, Ascham brings along Elizabeth Tudor, a brilliant young woman not yet consumed by royal duties in Henry VIII’s court.
Read on to catch a sneak peek of the adventures of young Queen Elizabeth I in this historical thriller by New York Times bestselling author Matthew Reilly, out in paperback on March 29th!
At length our turn came to enter the audience chamber.
“Just stay behind me,” Mr. Ascham said, “and let Mr. Giles do the talking. And if you can, please stifle any gasps of shock this time.”
I nodded vigorously and we stepped inside.
A golden room greeted me—gold thread in the carpet, gold brocade on the walls, every mighty pillar was painted gold, and mounted on a golden podium in the exact center of the chamber stood a magnificent golden throne shaded by a golden awning.
Seated on that throne, dressed in a dazzling high-collared golden gown studded with rubies, was Suleiman the Magnificent, the lawgiver, caliph and all high sultan of the Ottoman Empire. It was said that the sultan usually only appeared to his own councilors as a shadow behind a gauze screen, but clearly that was not his intention today. Now, in front of the world, he was going to appear in all his formidable glory.
He sat in a commanding pose, legs apart, fists on his armrests, glaring down at us imperiously as a herald called in Turkish and then in Greek:
“Sire, from England, representing that land’s most esteemed majesty, King Henry the Eighth, Mr. Gilbert Giles and escorts.”
The men bowed. Elsie and I curtsied.
The sultan cocked his wrist an inch, bidding us rise.
He had an incredibly severe face: downturned eyebrows, high pronounced cheekbones, a sharply hooked nose and a sizeable black mustache that framed his mouth like an inverted U. His dark eyes blazed with intelligence. He wore on his head a white turban with a jewel-encrusted brooch. The high collar of his golden gown glinted in the light of the oil lamps: veins of gold cord ran through its fabric like intertwining snakes.
Flanking the sultan were a dozen men—the kind found in royal courts everywhere—ministers, advisors, clerics, plus a handful of esteemed European ambassadors based in Constantinople (one of whom was a silver-maned cardinal dressed in the scarlet robes of the Holy See, the local ambassador of Pope Paul III himself). The sadrazam stood at the sultan’s right hand, while beside him stood a long-bearded Moslem mullah wearing the simple black turban of the Shiite sect: he was the Imam Ali, the senior cleric who I had been told despised the visiting
And among all these men, there was one woman.
Oddly, she was not of Persian appearance, but rather possessed thepale porcelain skin of a European. This was the famous hürrem sultan or, as she was known in Europe, Roxelana. Her rise from slave girl to concubine to first wife of the sultan was the stuff of legend, a fairy tale come true. She was originally from Ruthenia, but as a girl she had been captured by Tartar raiders and sold into the sultan’s harem. Through beauty, wiles and a fearsome intellect, she now shared the bed and held the ear of one of the most powerful men in the world.
Upon the mention of Mr. Giles’s name, the sultan’s severe countenance transformed into a delighted smile.
“Ah, so this is the famous Mr. Giles!” he said in Greek. “I have heard of you. A formidable player from the University of Cambridge. It is a pleasure to welcome you to my tournament.”
“The honor is mine, Your Majesty,” Mr. Giles said.
As he said this, I suddenly saw an individual among the men gathered around the sultan whom I recognized. I started, almost gasping out loud again, but this time I managed to stifle my astonishment.
It was the rat-faced fellow who had followed us from tavern to tavern in Wallachia. I saw him whisper into the ear of the sadrazam before he melted away into the background. Mr. Ascham had been right: our shadow had been an agent of the sultan.
It did not escape me that someone in the sultan’s employ—perhaps someone in that very chamber—had most likely tried to poison Mr. Giles on the way to Constantinople, and here was the sultan delightedly welcoming him to his tournament. My thoughts, however, were cut off when the herald said loudly and formally: “Mr. Giles! You warrant that you are here to compete in the sultan’s tournament!”
“I do,” Mr. Giles answered equally formally.
“And you warrant that you are here freely and of your own volition!”
“And do you come here with an answer to the sultan’s demand!”
“I have that.” Mr. Giles stepped forward and handed the mysterious red envelope to the grand vizier.
While all this was going on, the sultan’s gaze passed idly over the rest of our party—past me and Elsie (although I think he glanced at her a second time), before coming to rest on Mr. Ascham.
“You, sir,” he said. “I am informed that you are Mr. Roger Ascham, the famous English schoolteacher.”
Mr. Ascham bowed low. “Your Majesty. I am. And I am humbled that you might know of me.”
“A sultan must know many things,” the sultan said as his eyes turned suddenly and locked on to mine.
“For if you are Ascham, then this young lady with the charming red curls must be your charge, Elizabeth, second daughter of Henry, born of Anne Boleyn, his second wife and the cause of Henry’s most unpleasant schism with the Roman Catholic Church.” The sultan threw a knowing glance at the nearby cardinal. “A schism, I might add, which I have followed with considerable amusement.”
He turned back to me. “But since then, this little one has been shunted down the line of succession by a half brother born of Henry’s third wife. Welcome to my kingdom, Princess Elizabeth.”
“It is an honor and a privilege to be here, Your Majesty,” I said in Greek, trying to disguise my surprise that the sultan knew so much about me.
I was thus doubly shocked when he proceeded to address me in German—a language that few others in that room, even the religious men, would know.
“I have spies everywhere, young Bess,” he said, utilizing the shortened form of my name that only those at Hatfield knew and used. “It is a necessary evil of being a great king. Should you ever rule England, I recommend you avail yourself of a competent master of spies. Real knowledge of the state of the world is the greatest treasure any ruler can possess.” He reverted to Greek, and with an oily smile said, “I hope you enjoy the chess.”
And with a nod of dismissal, our audience was over.
Speechless, I was nudged by my teacher out of the golden room.