DeVere House, Bloomsbury- 1784
He finally arrived after what seemed like hours. She rushed to him, kneeling and kissing his hand. "Efendi! You have come at last!"
"But of course," he replied, raising her to her feet. "You must know I would never deny you my aid, Salime."
"But I feared with your marriage… that Khanum …" noting his look of discomfort at the mention of his wife, she sank her teeth into her lower lip.
"As I do not have a complete understanding of it myself, I have yet to explain your situation to Diana," he said, "But I am certain she would not have me turn my back on you."
He took her gently by the elbow. "Come Salime. We will retire to share the hookah. Then you will tell me what is troubling you… and how I might assist."
For a close to an hour in chambers much resembling her own in décor, Salime sat contentedly cross-legged at his feet, tending the pipe while he reclined on a divan, smoking and slowly drawing the story from her— the tale of her second great humiliation at the hand of a bitter rival.
"In the end, you will see it is for the best, my dear," he said, blowing purple-cast smoke rings into the air. "You deserve much better than to be a mere plaything rich and idle men."
"But it is what I was trained for, Efendi, to serve a man's pleasure. It is all I know, and I am not ashamed in this. Where I come from, such skills are not only a woman's sole means to achieve a measure of comfort, but to please the sultan and to be raised to the place of favorite mistress or haseki is the greatest of honors—only exceeded by becoming a kadin."
"Kadin? You mean a wife?"
"One of four wives," she corrected. "In my country, to serve the sultan, whether as mistress or wife, is to ensure a lifetime of ease and security, but the English ways are different. Here a mistress has no security and is as readily cast aside as a worn slipper."
"I wish I could argue the truth of it, but even a shoe can be re-soled before it's cast aside."
"Such is true if one has a protector to pay the debt to the cobbler. I did not."
"What will you do now?" he asked.
"I do not yet know, Efendi." She gazed up at him longingly, almost afraid to voice the question that burned in her heart. "I had hoped…"
He shook his head and she felt a crushing weight in her chest. He stroked her cheek as if endeavoring to lessen the blow. "I'm sorry, my dear. The English ways are different in regard to mistresses and wives."
She arched a brow. "Not so very different, Efendi. Why else would such as King's Place. Exist?"
"Point taken," he said with a tight smile. "What I meant is that not all wives accept a man's philandering ways. There are some who expect, nay, demand, exclusivity…fidelity."
"Khanum, the fiery one, she is such a wife?"
"Aye, Salime. And I have sworn my lasting fidelity. I would not break my vow to her even if I wanted to—which I do not. My desire is only for Diana." He took another long draw on the hookah.
"She is the most fortunate of women, Efendi, to merit such devotion."
"My so-called devotion is perhaps a two-edged sword," he chuckled, but then grew sober at her frown. "Given a choice, Salime, would you not also prefer only one man?"
"You know that choice was taken from me, Efendi," she said sadly. "No man would willingly look daily upon this face." She traced the scar she kept hidden from the world. "Even you who I thought…"
He scowled. "Your scar has nothing to do with my decision to forego a mistress, Salime. I think you already know that. Surely there is a man who can see the true jewel that you are—"
"There is none!" she cried. "Only a woman has eyes to see the beauty beneath the skin."
His lips twisted. He handed her the stem. "You think all men are so shallow?"
She returned a sad smile and then drew again from the pipe.
For a long moment he stared up in silence, seemingly transfixed on the colorful silk draped canopy above them. Then his lips curved at the corners. "What if there was such a man, Salime? One capable of perceiving the greater beauty within?"
She snorted. "What if camels could fly?"
His gaze narrowed. "Salime, I would ask a boon of you."
"You know I would do anything for you, Efendi," she replied.
His smile said he was pleased. The knowledge warmed her.
"Thank you, my dear. But perhaps you would hear me out first?"
"As you wish."
"I have a friend, a very dear friend, with a grave dilemma. It is an affliction which requires a unique kind of healing."
"He is in need of a physician?"
"No. The quacks can do nothing for him. Although he physically suffers, it is not truly a physical ailment."
"You mean he is touched in the head?"
"No." he paused as if struggling to explain what he himself did not fully comprehend. "He may believe himself so, for he experienced a great deal of torment that lasted a number of years, but, I don't think it's as bad as all that. "
"I am no healer. I do not understand what you would ask of me."
"I only wish for you to be his companion, Salime. He is in great want of one who understands a man's deepest needs. I am of the belief that you alone could relieve his distress."
"Me? You have such confidence, Efendi?"
"I have every confidence in you, my dear. Simon means a great deal to me. Should you accept this proposition, I would be exceedingly pleased. Moreover, I would provide you most generous compensation."
"It is not for the money that I accept," Salime said. "It is for you, Efendi. You have asked this of me, so how can I refuse?"
He returned a soft smile. "I pray, Salime, that one day you meet a man who will prove himself worthy of such devotion."