Thursday, March 7, 2013

Meet Characters of Sultana: Two Sisters - Safa and Leila

In the house of the slave merchant Juan Manuel Gomero, his trusted servant Sadiya prepares the captives Esperanza and Miriam for a private auction. Two women will arrive shortly to consider purchasing Esperanza and Miriam as slaves for the royal harem in Granada. They are the Sultanas Leila and Safa, the sister and mother respectively of the ruler Yusuf. Readers of Sultana's Legacy may remember both women as minor figures, but both play major roles in the events that develop in Sultana: Two Sisters. They are the only characters from the earlier books who return in this third installment of the series. When last readers heard of them, Leila as the eldest daughter of Sultan Ismail, Yusuf's father, anticipated a marriage before her father's shocking ending unfolded. Safa, the third of Ismail's wives, devoted herself to her son Yusuf, but her role soon became eclipsed by the presence of Yusuf's honored grandmother, the Sultana Fatima.

Before an encounter with the powerful women of Yusuf's court occurs, the slave dealer cautions Esperanza:

Juan Manuel lifted her chin and framed her face between his long fingers. “I require perfection from you today, for the Sultanas. Can you do this?”
Esperanza answered his question with her own. “Who are these women?”
“They are the relations of Sultan Yusuf, the Sultana Safa and the Sultana Leila. Both share equal power in the harem, but if the gossip is true, theirs is a tenuous peace. The harem can be a dangerous place for those who are not careful. Slaves who pass beyond the walls remain there at the mercy of the royal women, for it is their domain. Believe me when I say these women possess power over life and death. With a few words, they can change your circumstances for better or worse in an instant. You must be cautious and clever. Subdue your impetuous nature and learn from them, if you hope to survive.”
“What will they want from me?”
He shrugged. “They will accept nothing less than your obedience at the start. Perhaps in time, they will demand an heir for Yusuf. The possibilities are limitless, as you shall discover.”
“Who is this Yusuf?”
“He is a son of the Sultan Ismail, a proud and cultured man assassinated by his kinsmen almost eleven years ago. Yusuf is much like his father. He is the seventh ruler of Granada from his family line, the Nasrids. He became the sovereign when his elder brother Muhammad was also murdered, two years past.”
Esperanza sucked in her breath. “You expect me to live among such barbarous people.”
Juan Manuel’s mouth twisted into a wry smile. “I suggest tempering those misguided words. The Nasrids do not forgive easily and none would relish your opinion of them. They have been among my benefactors since the time of Yusuf’s grandmother. Theirs is an illustrious heritage.”
“One also mired in blood.”
He mused, “Perhaps. Perhaps more than their fair share. So, I ask you, tread carefully with these Nasrid Sultanas. They are women of influence and advantage, whose collective will dominates the existence of everyone in the harem. The only person they do not exercise authority over is the Sultan, the master of all.”

Chroniclers of the period have offered scant details about the women of the Nasrid Dynasty, whose husbands, fathers and sons ruled from the Alhambra in Granada. I  have a few notes that claim Yusuf's mother was a pious woman, still alive when he ascended the throne. It's interesting to consider what life for her would have been like when she existed in the shadow of Yusuf 's indomitable grandmother Fatima. At Fatima's death, Yusuf's mother could have finally exercised a dominant role in his life and within the harem. Any sisters Yusuf might have had are never mentioned, so the character of Leila is completely from my own imagination.

In the scene where Esperanza meets the Sultanas for the first time, her perception of both leads to an intuitive understanding of the troubles she may face in Yusuf's harem.

Two women strolled into the room, their footfalls in unison. If Esperanza did not already possess some familiarity with their identities, she would have known them for royal women anywhere. The pair took their seats on the high-backed chairs. Female slaves arranged themselves at the women’s feet, arrayed in bright silks with their faces uncovered, unlike their mistresses.
The slender lady closest to the doorway raised bejeweled, creased fingers painted with intricate patterns in henna. She loosened the white gossamer folds of the veil and tugged it below her pointed chin. Prominent blue-black veins ridged the back of her hand. Her thin eyebrows arched like crescents over large brown eyes, crinkled at the corners. High cheekbones flared in a narrow face. The yellow light cast by braziers caught and reflected in her stare, which flitted to her companion, who also removed an opaque indigo veil from the lower half of her face. The material on her head slipped a little and exposed black curly tendrils at her forehead.
She appeared younger than her counterpart did. Her heavy-lidded gaze, lined with thick kohl, alighted on Esperanza and the eyes widened. Her tapered brows rose for an instant before she leaned forward. Voluptuous lips parted and curved in a smile. Dimples appeared and her olive-brown cheeks became flushed. The elder woman beside her with her sharp features in profile now followed the direction of her stare. Esperanza peered at the carpeted dais, but not before she marked a sudden exchange of glowers between the women. Had the younger woman’s obvious interest sparked some jealousy?
A harsh breath escaped Esperanza’s lips. She fisted her hands in the folds of her delicate robe. Juan Manuel’s caution regarding a possible rivalry between the Sultanas raised concerns. Life among such women would be dangerous. If power resided with them, when they conspired against each other, neither woman would consider the consequences for the harem's occupants least of all her.   
She focused on the present moment and took in their rich garments. Black ankle-length leather boots peeked out from beneath the women’s clothes. Both wore brocaded robes covering them from the neckline downward. Gold thread shot through the blue-green material of the younger Sultana’s dress, dotted with turquoise, emerald and gold beads in bird motifs. The other royal woman wore a black silken robe, turned back to display a red damask lining edged with gold filigree. Where their robes parted at the knees, the same flowing trousers as Sadiya had donned also covered the women’s lower legs to the top of their footwear. All of Juan Manuel’s finery paled in comparison to their attire.                      

A fascinating and treacherous world awaits Esperanza within the Alhambra palace. She is determined to survive, but can she avoid the consequences of the ensuing power struggle between the two most influential women in Yusuf's life? Find out when Sultana: Two Sisters debuts in June.  

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