This is the first novel from Amie O’Brien, but she would tell you her characters are constantly nagging her for their future installments. Madly in love with her husband and children, she hopes to spend more time petting horses, reading books, and pursuing her addiction with world travel.
I had very deep convictions when I wrote this story. I honestly believe the novel came out of my own questions about the great contradiction in life to the morals of love, freedom, and faithfulness.
My characters created this dialogue that helped me express my anger toward the injustice of not only slavery, but how women are looked upon and treated. Hard convictions about how we're so often forced to find our worth in only the parts of ourselves that society tells us is valuable. Only those parts of us can never really satisfy others, right? Sexual desires often become heightened only to then plateau, even with the most enticing lovers of the world.
Emre's character is not only a sounding board for those expressed convictions through Leila, he also creates a view of the other side. Through Emre we see how difficult it is to be a man living in a sexually-charged culture. How hard it is embody faithfulness or to challenge a system that has been in place since the beginning of time.
The Merchant’s Pearl
I grinned and he seemed suddenly in his element, as if he was somehow winning.
“Did you know about my great grandmother?” he casually asked, pausing our game.
“Yes, of course. Everyone knows of Nakshidil. She was heroic and generous. Everyone respects her memory, greatly.”
“Yes. She definitely had quite a life. My father tells me she belonged to not one, but two Sultans, Abdulhamid and Selim.”
“Well, that part I don’t envy. But I was told that she set many of her slaves free before her death.” I looked him in the eye. “And that was honorable—for a valide.”
“Yes, but many didn’t wish to go. They stayed on, you know.”
“I would’ve gone.” I frowned guiltily.
“I’m sure you would,” he encouraged me. “But, Leila, you do realize how they received their freedom from the palace?”
I was quiet, pensive. “She would’ve given them permission to receive their stipend early—to retire and leave the palace as a member of the family. They didn’t have to wait their nine years in waiting. Am I right?”
“Yes and no. Not exactly how it happened.”
“Her head eunuch found them all husbands, upstanding men in society—military officers, governors. It’s somewhat like how my sister would be placed in marriage. Only, for a princess, at least, a contract that states that her husband cannot take another wife is strictly enforced.”
“They were not free?” I asked, the statement said as more of a confirmation than a question.
I thought about it for a moment and it all made sense. I didn’t know why I was so naïve to ever think otherwise. We were not autonomous beings. We were simply highly prized property. It was a transfer of ownership, just like what had happened to the handful of girls before me in the Sultan’s chamber. I felt sick as I realized I would never fully get out, never be my own. There was not a drop of hope for me.
“I know what you’re thinking, but you’re safer here, Leila. The girls who are here have the protection and oversight of the Valide. You have a secure home and privileges that others don’t. You’ll be cared for and no one will ever set a hand against you, that I can promise.” He paused. “And you cannot really call yourself a slave, you know, when you can rise—”
“I do not wish to rise. I could not be…” My eyes rose to meet his. “I couldn’t be like your grandmother. I couldn’t assign young girls to a life like this. I wouldn’t wish this on another—ever.”
“Is it so truly bad?”
“Why is it so bad?”
“I cannot define precisely what it is,” I said, slowly shaking my head and continuing to squeeze my palms, which were beginning to tremble.
“Is it the other girls?”
“No. That’s only a small part of it.”
“Is it the uncertainty—the inability to choose for yourself?”
“Yes.” I looked at him surprised. “Yes, I cannot choose anything. I cannot choose what I shall speak or how I shall say it. I cannot choose what I shall eat, who I shall worship, where I should walk, or whom I should bed…” My words trailed off to a mumble by the end. “I know I shouldn’t think that I should be able to do these things, my desires go against everything I have been taught here.” I paused. “But, something inside of me tells me that this is not life, that what I am being presented with is a lie.”
I took a deep breath as my hands fell loose in my lap. “The other girls…they see it as truth. They accept it and they’re ready to give themselves away. But I…I can’t be their puppet.”
“I think I understand.”
“How can you?”
“I know it will sound backwards to you, Leila, but I actually feel the same.”
“But you are free. You are one of them,” I said, wiping away a single tear with my back of my wrist.
“No. I am not one of them. I’m no less of a prisoner than you. I merely have the potential to be a sultan…and even that is to be their grand puppet.”
“Your father is not their puppet?”
“No. He was, but now that he has shown that he has a mind of his own they distrust him. Some even hate him.”
“And you are like your father? You would make the same judgments?”
“No,” he choked out. “No, I’m nothing like my father. But, at the same time, I wouldn’t want to be in his position either. It’s an impossible place to be. You cannot make one side happy without the other despising you and seeking your head.”
Another loud pop and a fiery ember landed on the bottom portion of my blanket. Emre quickly moved to my aide.
“See, and you thought Aster and Zarina were hard to please,” he added with a wry smile. “Imagine trying to keep real civil war at bay.”
“Truth?” I asked, resuming my end of the game.
“You really don’t desire to be Padishah? You really don’t want to rule the single greatest empire in the world?”
“How long have you been here, Leila? At the palace, that is?”
“A while.” I pursed my lips, then, freeing them, added, “Seven years and forty something days. I think.”
He grinned at my honesty then returned to his seat. “We’re not the most powerful empire. We’re only a shell of what we used to be. The British, they call us ‘the Sick Man of Europe.’ They, everyone actually,” he corrected himself. “They’re waiting for us to fall. They’re all taking their place in line to divide us—take the parts they most want. It’s like buzzards watching something dying.”
“Is it too much to fix? Could you…with the right people, I mean?” I couldn’t share his possession of this place by saying ‘we.’
“I’m not a leader. Let alone a powerful one.” He paused. “The truth is, I could no more fix this empire than I have the ability to set you free. I’m just the son of my father.”
He turned away and stared at an ember for a while.
“Well, I have to say…” He finally sighed. “This game was certainly more fun with my brothers. They tend to be fairly one-dimensional and trivial in their responses, you know.”
“I’m glad to hear. I’ve never played such a depressing game before in my life.”