Mehmed stood motionless, his arms hung relaxed at his sides, his posture betraying no hint of unease as he watched the wild animal circling him. Mustafa carefully stepped one foot over the other as he moved sideways around the room. His narrowed eyes trained on the tall, lean, graceful figure of his brother standing in the middle of the chamber. His distorted shadow flitted across the opulent blue and white tiled walls behind him, illuminated by the dull flickering candlelight. Mustafa’s size was reminiscent of a bear but his delicate movement was that of a wolf silently stalking its prey.
“Did this come as a surprise to you?” He taunted. His lips thinned and widened with a smile that didn’t reach his eyes. “Surely not, Mehmed. Surely you knew this day would come.” He raised the blade brandished in both his hands vertically between his eyes. The polished metal glinted in the candlelight.
“Oh brother!” Mehmed said. “Did I expect this from you? Of all of you, brother, I hoped it would not be you.” His chest rose and fell with a laboured sigh.
Mustafa spat out a laugh as he continued his slow, murderous dance. Sweat beaded on his upper lip despite the cool winter air that permeated the palace walls.
Mehmed turned to the table strewn with royal business, burning incense sticks arranged in small pots emanated smoke tendrils into the air. He sat down on the edge of the table and trained his eyes on the menacing figure of his brother. He seemed immune to the peril of his situation, as if he regarded his brother’s threat as nothing more than a childish tantrum.
“It was meant to be me!” Mustafa said. “I was the chosen one. It is destined in my name. Son of the first, the rightful, Valide Sultan. You took my destiny from me.” His voice lowered to a menacing growl, whispering the words that he had never spoken but had eaten away at his soul for most of his adult life.
Mehmed dropped his gaze to the floor, his hands resting by his hips.
“Ah, brother.” He sighed. “Here we have it at last. I did not take from you what you did not have.”
“But now is the time!” Countered Mustafa. “Now is the time for me to take it from you. Father is dead and now is the time to settle this.” Still the glinting blade brandished menacingly between his eyes, ready for action.
“Brother, I beseech you.” Mehmed unfurled his tall limbs as he rose from the table. “Do not attempt this. It can come to no good. There are ways we can make this work. We can rule together.”
He took a step towards his brother, his intelligent eyes sparkling with passion.
“You and I, Mustafa. We could take on this empire and the world together. Your military prowess with my political acumen. We could do this together. You and I. Remember how we used to strategise as boys. In the gardens. No one could outdo us. No one could catch us. We could change tradition. Change these laws. Create a new era of Ottoman rule. A stronger, unified future. You and me, Mustafa my brother, do you remember? Do you remember how we used to be?” His eyes were bright with fond memories, and hope for the future.
He had been forming this vision for years: the empire strong and unified instead of ravaged by hereditary unrest; his brothers by his side instead of fighting each other for supremacy. Mustafa, the eldest brother, had always been key to Mehmed’s vision; strong and deadly, reeking terror and fear through the hearts of their enemies.
His eyes searched his brothers for a glimmer of their shared childhood memory. They had been so much more than brothers in those early years before the tension that had arisen with manhood when they had realised their places in the family. After all these years he was desperate for a glimmer of hope that Mustafa too shared his dream of unity.
A wry smile spread across Mustafa’s lips.
“Ha… “ he spat. “Oh yes my brother, I remember. I remember protecting you. I remember defending you from the others. They would have killed you then. But I protected you. You’ve never thanked me for that. And that whore of a mother of yours, charmed her way into fathers arms... These lands you’ve held. These acres that have made your riches. These should have been mine. Mine!”
Mustafa thumped his chest with his finger to emphasise his words, revealing the long held resentment in the force of the blows.
Mehmed’s look hardened at the mention of his mother. His beautiful mother. The wise woman who had stolen the heart of the Sultan and held it until his dying breath. Their only child, Mehmed, had been favoured since birth. He’d been bestowed the richest lands closest to the capital to ensure he earned his place as the Sultan heir. Mustafa and his brothers had to make do with lesser riches, harder lives.
The Sultan had made sure Mehmed had the best education, the best servants, the best of everything to set him up to one day rule the empire. His mother had schooled him in the art of diplomacy and the ways of future royalty, his advisors had been only the best and he had excelled. He had proved himself a man of intelligence, guile and wit. He could hold his own in any roomful of scholars and debate with the best of them. He was loved by the people, and respected by most. Mustafa in comparison had barely set foot in the capital since the birth of his favoured younger brother.
“But I’ve made my mark.” Mustafa continued. “I’ve made my riches. I’ve fought and won battles. I’ve led the army to victory and secured the empire’s territories. And tonight I will take what is rightfully mine.”
Noise echoed through the stone walls from the corridor outside the chamber. Male voices bellowed commands, whilst others shouted in confusion. Running feet slapped on the tiled floors. Metal collided with metal. Female voices screamed in terror.
Mehmed glanced in horror at Mustafa as he moved towards the door. Mustafa was stronger & physically quicker. He lowered the point of the blade to Mehmed’s chest as he blocked his path. Mustafa’s smile widened with a menacing laugh. A look of triumph and disdain spreading across his features.
“You thought I only came for you?” Mustafa said. “Oh come my brother! Surely you credit me with more intelligence than that. There will be no trace of you, your whore mother or any of those women you favour.”
Mehmed stared at his brother in disbelief. A fearful urgency quivered through his body as he calculated his next steps. He had not feared for his own life but the thought of his harem being violated was too much to bear. Mustafa had known his weakness. The noise outside the chamber was growing more distant as it moved through the corridors of the palace but the terror in the screams could still be heard.
“Mustafa! Don’t do this!”
“Always the clever one! But perhaps this time I’ve outwitted you.” He shifted his weight on his feet and lifted the blade. Cold and calculated intent coursing through his veins as he prepared himself for the inevitable task. This was his destiny.
A panel in the wall behind Mehmed slammed open with force, knocking the incense smoke and candle flames horizontal. Guards silently rushed the room with weapons brandished. Bodies collided, the air filled with sweat and leather. Mustafa staggered backwards, his dropped blade bouncing off the tiled floor. The guards held him immobile, both arms pinned behind him, a small dagger lying across his throat.
“No!” Mehmed shouted, his eyes wild. “The harem! Get to the harem! The women! Protect them!”
As quickly as they had entered, guards filed out of the room, vanishing into the hidden defensive channels within the palace walls. Those holding Mustafa remained, restraining him as he writhed with discomfort. His head tilted awkwardly towards the shadowy domed ceiling, sweat trickling from his forehead, his eyes trained on his brother. Fury and anger flowed from him like a river in spate.
Mehmed, breathing heavily, stood in the middle of the room. His silk covered shoulders rising and falling as he observed his brother with glistening dark eyes.
“Leave him.” The words were no more than a whisper.
The room remained still and silent as a candle wick crackled.
“Leave him!” Mehmed said. “Get out and protect the women… all of you!” He motioned to the hidden wall opening with a sweep of his arm, dropping his head with a long exhale of breath.
Still the guards remained motionless. Apprehension passed across their faces as they looked from Mehmed to one another and back again. Their order was to protect the sultan at any cost. Slowly they extricated their hold on Mustafa, stepped backwards and turned to follow their comrades. One remained, searching the Sultan’s face.
“GO!” Mehmed shouted, his breath laboured as he turned back to the table in the centre of the room.
Mustafa straightened his bulk and roughly slid his hands over his neck where the dagger had left a long thin indentation in his skin. He glanced at the hidden wall opening, shaking his head, one corner of his mouth rising.
“You spare me, my brother?” His laugh was wicked and disdainful. He turned to find his discarded weapon on the floor, stooping to retrieve it from where the guards had kicked it from his reach.
He staggered forward with the sudden impact from behind. Mehmed’s hands grasped the ends of a thin chord wrapped around his brothers neck, his hands pulling it tight. Mustafa gasped for breath in horror but no air reached his lungs. His fingers fumbled over the taught chord but it was too tight, too fine and narrow to grasp with his powerful hands. Mehmed pulled tighter as his brother’s neck began to bulge above the tether, his knee pushed between the shoulder blades. The brothers writhed and staggered in a grotesque dance. Mustafa fell to his knees. His hands desperately dragging at his neck, then fumbling behind him, failing to grasp the red and gold silk of Mehmed’s kaftan. Every fibre and tendon in his body taut, gasping for one more breath.
Mehmed’s face remained emotionless, his glazed eyes fixed on the back of Mustafa’s dark, bare head as his brother continued his struggle for life, inching closer to the floor. Mehmed’s lean strength held his brothers heavy and powerful body in the air, increasing the pressure on his neck with its own sheer weight.
Mustafa’s chokes turned to gurgles, the rasping noise grew laboured.
Mehmed yanked on the ends of the chord as his brothers eyes rolled back in his head, his mouth gaped open as he failed to find the air he needed for this final futile battle. The painful moments of his demise drew out into minutes as his body shuddered and pulsated, his arms falling to his sides. Mehmed’s grip did not loosen until the gurgling ceased and the body was limp.
With a heart rending cry, Mehmed threw the chords and the lifeless body to the floor. He staggered across the room, his hands wiping at his face, groaning through the tears.
“Oh brother!” He sank to his knees on the floor, his body racked with the heavy breaths of exertion and grief. “Oh brother, why did you do this? Why did you leave me no choice?”
He fell forward on his knees, his hands and forehead crashing to the floor. The tears pouring from his eyes, his body racked with convulsions as his own lungs gasped for air. He crawled towards the corpse, lifting his lifeless brother and cradling him in his arms, nuzzling his cheek against the dark, sweat drenched hair. Moments passed as he rocked back and forth, lost in his grief.
With a sharp intake of breath, followed by a slow laboured exhale he sat back on his heels and rose. The composure of a sultan flowed over him like a cloak as he straightened his silks and turban.
“Oh how I loved you, Mustafa.” He gulped back a sob as he spoke to the empty room. “I will change things. I will never let this happen again. This ludicrous means of succession. It weakens us. It weakens the family, the empire. We should be united not fighting amongst ourselves. I could not witness your royal blood spilled on the floor tonight, my brother. It had to be clean. This tradition of favoured succession must end. Another way must be found. This must be the succession feud to end them all. I must be the one to turn the minds of the lawmakers. For the sake of our empire and the sake of my family. Never again must a sultan have to make this choice.”
His gaze dropped as his thoughts turned inwards. His eyes closed, his head bowed. He stood motionless for countless moments until the silhouette of a guard appeared in the hidden wall opening. Mehmed lifted his tired gaze.
“The Valide Sultan, my mother… does she live?”
The guard nodded.
“My wife and son? Do they live?”
The guard nodded again.
“And my brothers. Are my brothers in the palace?”
The guard nodded.
Mehmed moved across the room bent down to the corpse and carefully unwound the chord from the dead man’s neck.
“Find them. Find each one of them.”
He lifted his arm towards the guard, the chord hanging limp from his hand.
“When you find them, take that chord and wrap it around their necks until the last breath is squeezed from their lungs. All of them. Do not spill their royal blood. No trace can be found.”
As the guard dragged the corpse into the hidden wall opening and gently closed it, Mehmed sat motionless, alone, waiting for the morning sun to rise on his future as the sole heir - Sultan of the Ottoman Empire.