I was in good humor as I led the hooded sex slave up the road to the sultan’s harem, enjoying the unseasonably comfortable weather and threatening her gently as we strolled beneath a row of palms. For a moment everything was right with the world. It’s days like this, I thought, that make the hectic life of a workaday slaver worth living.
She was a fresh import and I’d had no time to train her, but years of experience had taught me the phrases most effective for inspiring the prompt and even willing submission of young Occidental girls, and I deployed them with facility born from long practice. Such persuasive rhetoric was not purely expedient, but had a higher motivation as well. My integrity as a small businessman morally opposed me to the use of whips and chains on virgin females: blemishes to their pale skin reduce profit margins considerably. To persuade a fresh Occidental to serve her new master with the appropriate devotion, I find guilt-inducing lies work best. And who knows? Perhaps such a tactic would control them equally well after an invasion and occupation, should the occasion ever arise.
I told her I knew she had come from a family of fishermen, and had been raised on the torment of gentle creatures of the sea, helplessly wriggling in her father’s nets day after day, until their scales were stripped from their flesh and their bodies were mashed by her own greedy teeth.
“Why, did I not see you eat two fish only yesterday, heads and all, and lick your lips after you squeezed their endearing little eyes into your mouth and down your gluttonous gullet? Picture those eyes, my dear: black and bottomless, like the unfathomable depths of your own sins.”
Since her face was concealed in the bag, I was unable to register her reaction; but traditionally at this stage in an Occidental girl’s instruction, her eyes become troubled and confused, and her pale face blanches further still while she ashamedly directs her attention inward and backward, even beginning to doubt the good intentions of her parents and forebears. All at the instigation of a teacher who had robbed them of all they owned, abducted her from her home, and would soon give her every excuse to prostitute the young and fertile body that was her only remaining earthly possession! That’s the power of education, my dear readers.
“So you see,” I continued, “it is your good fortune to be caught in our nets and brought here as a slave at the whim of the sultan: an opportunity to atone for a lifetime of sin by suffering in turn—though to a much lesser degree than the victims of your own iniquitous carnivory; for you may be nibbled, yet not likely eaten outright.”
To rebrand slavery as atonement is the achievement of a master marketer, a prevaricating promoter, an invidious impresario—or a simple yet spaciously skulled slave trader such as the musical magician who now recollects these verbal feats for the edification of his dear and probably insufficiently grateful readers.
Would she resist the learned lies I let loose with such professorial ease? A faltering step signaled that her certainty had evaporated like spilt goat’s milk in the noonday sun. She was becoming uncomfortably aware of latent contradictions in the foundations upon which her morals were built, and was ill-equipped to repair them during the short walk that preceded her new career as an erotic entertainer. I could see fissures appear in the previously thick walls of virtuous sentiment that had until today protected her mortal soul from fates like the very one to which she was about to succumb on account of my almost instantaneously corruptive tutelage.
“Nothing in this life will give you a greater feeling of power,” I told the innocent girl, “than to dance naked before the sultan and win his favor; to see his eunuchs driven before you and hear the lamentations of his women. Would you turn from the glorious calling of sex work to live as a common fishwife, to grow old raising a family by the Occidental seaside, watching the seasons pass one after another, drinking the bittersweet draught of a thousand golden sunsets beside your husband and children until the gentle soughing of the cedars beckons you onward to heaven, when instead your self-regard could be elevated above your highest flights of fancy in the extravagant harem at the end of this very road?”
She didn’t respond, but I knew she couldn’t help weighing the proposal. To complete her abbreviated reeducation, I introduced a complementary threat.
“A stubborn local girl refused a pasha’s attentions quite recently, and would no doubt tearfully confess to you the error of her ways if she weren’t even now pining for food at the bottom of a deep well whence the loudest screams are no more audible than the cuddly meows of a drowning but still very cute kitten.
“Not to scare you, my dear.”
I prodded her onward as she had at that moment forgotten to operate her legs.
“The obstinate odalisque I mention was thrown into the well by someone else entirely: the practice runs against company policy. I would never impose the externalities of my small family-owned slaving business on this city by fouling the sustainable purity of our water with foreign feet, however deserving of such uncreative but still fairly horrible punishment the owner of those feet may be. You see, the interests of the slaving industry are aligned with those of the people: for if my fellow citizens are dying of thirst, how can they afford to buy the Occidental slave girls I import from pirates at such great expense?”
I could tell she was unconvinced and even perplexed by this proof of my trustworthy good will, for she was cowering slightly and leaning away from me. Afraid I would lose my as yet imperfect grip on her soul, I returned to the matter at hand. “In short, you should consider yourself a liberated woman. You may freely choose between the glamorous and star-like existence of a sultanate sex worker; or an as-yet-undecided but definitely miserable punishment roughly equivalent to solitary starvation at the bottom of a very deep well.”
After I combine the inducement of guilt with subtle threats of bodily harm like this one, Occidental girls’ resistance invariably collapses, and my most outrageous whim then rings in their crania like a divine command, obeyed without examination as penitence for imagined sins. For as the proverb says, “Those who train women in the habit of self-flagellation need not remember the whip.” In this fashion the strong moral sensibility cultivated over years, by means of a whole panoply of rituals, sacraments, and vows, can be overturned in days; just as a monument laboriously erected atop a hill can be cast down with a few well-placed ropes held by a mob of angry monkeys, or humans of even less imposing intellectual capacity.
As my hypnotically edifying excursus poured past the porches of her powerless ears, she became completely docile, and soon followed my lead with no resistance. She was beaten, but needed time to reinterpret her new position as an involuntary erotic entertainer in a positive light. So I followed a circuitous path to the palace, walking past a luxury magic carpet dealership that I intended to visit after the Chief Eunuch’s Secretary’s Assistant supplied the quantity of dinars indicated on the overleaf of my odalisque invoice.
By the time we arrived at the harem gate, her shoulders had straightened and there was a glow in her eye.
Probably: she was still wearing the moneylender’s bag over her head.
The guard led me directly to the Chief Eunuch’s Secretary’s Assistant, a more significant personage than anyone I had hitherto encountered. I’d spent the morning meditating on the best way to conduct this important conversation, for though I was still a young and innocent slave trader, the first fires of ambition had begun to smolder in my heart from the moment the sultan’s proxy placed his odalisque order. I could no longer accept a humdrum middle-class existence importing exotic virgin sex slaves and reselling them at an admittedly extravagant but no doubt celestially justified markup like my father before me. There had to be something more to life than enslaving women and collecting fine pottery.
Passing a brunette off as a redhead, or even a camel as a dromedary, is child’s play for one of a capacious cranial capacity noticeable even from the back end of the bazaar. It should go without saying that my plans were grander than these trifles; for the shortage of evil viziers in this province was disturbingly apparent even to mentally challenged mendicants who, dozing habitually in the shadow of coconut trees, have been repeatedly concussed in precisely the manner their lack of foresight makes inevitable. From my earliest childhood, I’d always enjoyed tales of these avaricious advisers, and lamented there were in truth so few of them—reality is always disappointing, isn’t it? But my mother quashed my lofty and heartfelt career ambitions, saying I should be content to facilitate the plundering and abasement of Occidentals for my own financial gain, and not hope to make any greater contribution to the world. In obedience to her wishes, I’d set political aspirations aside, and as youth became adulthood, forgot them entirely. So it is with the dreams of children!
Even that afternoon, when my well-tailored robes first swished across the polished marble doorstep of the maintenance entrance behind the sultan’s seraglio, I believed I wanted very little: only to escape the dust and heat of the bazaar, and perhaps, if fate should smile on me, to possess a modestly sized palace with a harem of less than a dozen women—certainly no more than a dozen—and a matching complement of slaves who would fan me in tandem on hot days while serving sugared dates and rare liqueurs. In short, I had simple, quotidian aims, like any other slave trader.
So when I reached the Chief Eunuch’s Secretary’s Assistant’s inner office and adopted a slightly but perceptibly untrustworthy air, and praised the turn of his turban with a subliminally annoying dusting of faintness that would irk the sensitive forebrain of a cultured man like a few grains of sand trapped between forehead and fez, it was not on account of an inability to master the intricate formalities of bureaucratic pleasantries, but a premeditated plan to conceal the motivating prickle of a desert-dwelling plant beneath the mellifluous tones of my well-selected and irreproachably polite verbiage.
My plan was the rhetorical equivalent of walking a tightrope between two minarets. By inspiring the anticipation of a punishment that would be enjoyable for the Chief Eunuch’s underlings, I would create an opportunity to meet the sultan in person, whereby my own scintillating aura could increase the memorable renown of my slaving brand and generate almost unimaginable future profits. To accomplish this I’d make use of a unique skill known in the upper echelons of my industry as doubt calibration.
Slavers of the second or third rank feign honesty to ensure profitable deals, often with admirable effectiveness. But the appearance of trustworthiness in a prosperous salesman awakens the well-justified skepticism of intelligent clients; and so a slaver of the first rank learns instead to feign untrustworthiness to a very precise degree. Enough to be noticed, but not so much that the oasis of his exaggerated promises will be assumed an entirely waterless mirage. In this way he grants inquisitive minds a false sense of security, for they believe their jaded inferences ensure them the upper hand over a merchant who in truth holds them in the palm of his own.
“Many thanks for welcoming a humble slave trader to your office on behalf of the sultan,” I said; “I rejoice that the admirable narrowness of your window will prevent those recently magnificent carpets displayed on your wall from fading very much further.”
The Chief Eunuch’s Secretary’s Assistant frowned at this, greeted me with a few customary formulae, and asked me to remove the elaborate packing material encasing the new slave (by which he meant the bag over her head and other assorted clothing); for while it was commendable from the perspective of breakage reduction during the shipping and handling process, it now had the irritating side-effect of inconveniencing his ability to examine the delivery and confirm that it indeed met the specifications ticked on his copy of the odalisque order form.
“I must apologize for my regrettable incapacity to reveal the hooded odalisque beside me in any detail,” I replied, “she being promised to the sultan as a visual virgin, but I presume that you will change into an inoffensive turban soon enough to assist him with her formal unveiling, and thereby enjoy the first impulse of his memorable reaction from very close quarters.” I continued on with an appearance of nervous impatience. “I have business elsewhere which will require me to reposition myself at a notable distance from the ceremony, and thus have no choice but to depart forthwith, depositing the remainder of the arrangements in your clumsy-looking but presumably well-intentioned hands.”
Before I could pass through the door he called me back, requiring me to clarify what I meant when I said “visual virgin,” as, inspecting the form signed by both parties, he found no mention of the term.
“It seems that you’re less familiar with recent developments in the luxury slave trade than I had reason to expect from one of your not-quite-entry-level rank in the harem administration,” I said, “unless, that is, you were recently demoted to this position from a particularly undemanding sinecure after a display of incompetence unacceptable even within the tolerant ranks of our imperial government; in which case you need only tip your turban in my direction, and I will become to you like the gushing fount of knowledge that babbles unlapped in the proximity of a deranged and infirm camel—to draw an analogy with a proverb that is likely unfamiliar to someone of your abbreviated educational attainments. But the long and short of it is that the ordered odalisque cannot be previewed before the unveiling ceremony this evening.”
The small muscles in his forehead began working furiously, bending hither and thither as if distorted by an inefficient system of wheels and pulleys wedged into the cramped space behind his brow. It had occurred to him that, should the face of the odalisque not live up to its promise—entirely probable given the shifty mannerisms of her seller—, he might be beheaded for accepting her; and yet, should he inspect her face to confirm its alignment with the demanding standards of the imperial harem, he might be beheaded for violating her visual virginity. Presented with such a dilemma, the traditional bureaucratic ritual known as the shirking of duties was the only logical course—hampered solely because, for this highly anticipated delivery, the duties definitely had to be shirked onto some other individual.
Indeed; but whom?
The poor tolerances of his mental machinery, to extend the metaphor, delayed an answer’s arrival indefinitely. I therefore reminded him of the power he held over me—by asking for money.
At this signal, the illusion that a brilliant and original idea had germinated unassisted in his brain overwhelmed him, and he replied: “Due to the irregular nature of your delivery, and the absence of the ‘visual virgin’ specification on our signed and dated copy of the odalisque order form, I’m afraid you’ll be required to attend the unveiling ceremony if you wish to receive the agreed payment. A great and undeserved honor, for you’ll take a position closer to His Highness than even the self-effacing individual who now stands between you and his well-dyed carpet collection, speculating on the possible contents of your unnaturally lightweight-seeming turban.”
(After a gap of so many years, I no longer have a clear recollection of this particular bureaucrat, nor of several similarly undistinguished persons who abused their petty offices to interrupt my rise to power, and therefore feature transiently but unavoidably in these memoirs. To alleviate the boredom my dear readers would feel if confronted with the banal reality of his ineloquence, I’ve taken the liberty of embroidering his language to more closely resemble the sequence of words he might have uttered if the circumference of his cranial dome had permitted him to express his opinions in a more capable fashion than the tree-dwelling creatures who are said to wail rudimentary vowels on the wrong side of the Great Desert.)
I put on a display of fear by crossing my eyebrows and plucking a few hairs from a portion of my beard which would later be little missed, and asserted that I had other and very imminent obligations of an unspecified nature; but this only made him repeat his fabricated requirement with more confidence, undergirded by a triumphant feeling of relief that his ritual bureaucratic shirking had found the required indirect object. I would be responsible for presenting the new slave, and therefore I would be the victim of the sultan’s wrath should her duly revealed facial features fail to tantalize his taste.
My eyes smiled a little then (they often do), for I thought my tactic had succeeded. I’d arranged a priceless opportunity to both meet the sultan and usefully associate my inimitable visage with the redheads to which he was addicted. But my interlocutor was looking past my shoulder—toward a man at least a head taller than both of us.
It was the Chief Eunuch’s Secretary himself.
The two conferred inaudibly; then the newcomer, already primed to suspicion by a feigned lazy eye I directed at the air slightly to the left of his face, inspected all the visible organs of the bald brunette like a doctor examining a leprous but strangely attractive patient. They conferred again. I looked on with the sly patience of a chameleon.
To ensure an audience with the sultan, I had to fix in their brains not only the suspicion that this new odalisque was either less or more than she seemed, but also the amusing prospect of my head flying from my body and continuing to wink at them from the floor an unpredictable number of times—a common event in the wake of the sultan’s disappointment, and one which could form the subject of a very enjoyable wager. Swiveling my eyes independently while blinking them at random intervals was, in my view, the most likely way to inspire these considerations, increasing both the uncertainty of the wager and the salience of its subject; and so I engaged myself in such a display with considerable energy.
While my eyes were thus turning to and fro I discovered that the odalisque was sweating and shivering. Though she had no way to see their scrutiny through the bag that covered her head, nor understand their words through the Occidental grammar that muddied her cranial currents, she must have sensed the danger she was in and reacted to the limits of her current power—namely by squeezing a few droplets of salty liquid through her skin.
The officials’ quiet conversation wore on, and in boredom I found myself straining to read the labels of several bottles of magic carpet cleaner that were tucked away on the back of a high shelf, though unceasing ocular motion limited my comprehension to a few ingredients and snatches of marketing slogans, whose promises were rendered doubly unbelievable by the sorry state of the surrounding carpets.
My eye sockets were by now beginning to ache from an excessive number of rotations. But fortunately the two officials concluded their conference, and the Chief Eunuch’s Secretary’s Assistant informed me that the Chief Eunuch’s Secretary concurred, his decision bearing the full authority of the Chief Eunuch, and thus, indirectly, the seal of the sultan himself: I was required to attend the unveiling ceremony in close proximity to His Highness before the payment for my services would be remitted.
I arranged my handsome brows into the caricature of a displeased expression (an excess necessary given the interpretive insensitivity of these two officials), rejoicing inwardly at my easy success. I told them I would accept their conditions, provided they left me a few minutes alone with the new odalisque to coach her in the rituals of the upcoming ceremony. As they could see, virgin that she was, nerves and inexperience had set her to trembling quite uncontrollably.
They assented, and stood outside the dim office while I whispered through the bag in the Occidental tongue. A few strands of red hair were poking through the fabric; my breath caused them to waggle whimsically.
“Be calm and listen, my dear.
“It’s essential to the continuation of your heretofore uninspiring existence that the florid and gradual removal of this hood please the sultan so greatly that he fails to notice the red scalp glued to your shaven pate, which is almost, but not entirely, devoid of the human flesh of its very unfortunate previous owner. To maintain a mood appropriate for the scheduled striptease, you must never entertain the petty thought that you are betraying your ancestors, your family, and your people by enthusiastically offering your virgin body to an evil foreign monarch, or at any rate one remarkably indifferent to human suffering and, to your unrefined Occidental perceptions, essentially indistinguishable from some lesser individual who is actually evil. Instead you must remember that by embracing the admirable calling of sex work, involuntary and unpaid though this internship may be, you are establishing your independence as a woman. After all, what could prove a female’s independence more thoroughly than allowing herself to be used like a pretty but easily replaceable embroidered rag that a rich man might carry to gently wipe his genitals following a long and uncomfortable camel-ride in the afternoon sun? The task is not always easy, but, as your parents surely taught you, an honest day’s work ought to be wearing.”
Presented with a series of plausible-sounding and never-before-heard arguments proving enslavement is atonement and sexual subjection is liberation, her mind was not slow enough to push them all away in dumb befuddlement. A single one of these sophistical claims in isolation would have little effect; but this concatenation of so many in such a dense column of utterances struck her with the force of a club to the head. She stood unsteadily beside me, blind and bewildered, and broke her brain on my logic like an old man breaking his tooth on a nut.
I paused for a moment while a tiny insect circled her head.
“Your silence is a clear enough indication of assent. But if you begin to question your resolve when the chimes ring and the ceremony commences, you should further remind yourself that the current distance between your head and body is only the best of many possible distances, and the others, extremely uncomfortable though they may be, are well within the sultan’s powers to effect should you allow him to discover our subterfuge.
“Use the intervening hours to meditate on the joyous independence and freedom your poorly remunerated striptease might grant you. And clean the sweat from your body with this sponge prior to the act: your continued timid shivering is unbecoming even for one of your tender age.”
I told the bureaucrats to arrange a private bath for their new charge, then left the palace to loiter among the magic carpet dealerships while I awaited a ceremony that would launch my slaving career to new heights.
Before I continue, I should tell you something about my friend the sultan, for our first encounter may give you an incomplete impression of his character.
The sultan was a man who, born into other circumstances, might have been admirable, respectable, or at least decent. But his keen emotional sensitivity, which made him alive to every nuance of woman’s smile and every flutter of the spring breeze through a lemon tree’s leaves, also made him vulnerable to the endless delights it was his royal privilege to enjoy. When I met him that evening his decline was already well underway, though he was only a decade older than I. But he had hours and sometimes days of perfect lucidity, and was capable of experiencing earthly enjoyments with a perceptive consciousness that few men possess and even fewer men have the opportunity to exercise. He was a musician, though a bad one, and a poet—reputedly the best of our age.
As for myself, I’ve never been quite convinced of his talent. I thought the poems overwrought, sentimental, sometimes vulgar. Others might have called the sultan sensual and gifted with rare aesthetic perception. Perhaps knowing his character flaws so intimately has diminished my appreciation for his art. Here is one of the last verses, which captures his waning days with remarkable concision.
A peacock’s tail
Wavered above the women like
Blue opium smoke
While I watched time dance and drank
The same draught I gave to them.
The following poem was written not long after I met him. I remember courtiers sighing over the romantic lines; I only rolled my eyes, having never known him to pine after local women.
Through the lemon trees
And thinning gauze of morning fog,
Half-hidden by leaves,
I glimpsed her supple girlish arms
Plucking down the fruit with ease.
It was only later, after I’d earned the sultana’s confidence, that she explained to me the sultan’s life before their marriage and the sad meaning behind the poem. The more I knew about him, the more I pitied the sultan. But that’s a tale for another day, I’m afraid. Suffice it to say that the sultan was a complex and perspicacious man, but irretrievably prone to the weaknesses of the flesh—and of the soul.
I returned to the palace having profited from a few hours’ leisure in the luxury shopping district by settling on a uniquely embroidered and almost new magic carpet I intended to purchase as soon as I delivered the remainder of the odalisques, received my payment, and cleared my debt to the moneylender.
The sun had already fallen behind the grand dome that capped the palace. There were no lights on the path to the harem’s maintenance entrance when I presented myself again, but the doorway’s voluptuous shape, a copy of the dome itself, was outlined from within by the ruddy glow of oil lamps.
A eunuch guard met me at the threshold. Despite my normally unflappable demeanor, I was suddenly overwhelmed by doubt that an afternoon’s coaching could turn my plundered Occidental virgin into the sultry sex worker the world—or the sultan and myself, which amounts to almost the same thing—truly needed her to be. Had my boundless ambition blinded me to the vertiginous risks of a plan into which I’d thrust my turban too deeply to escape without leaving behind so much of my magnificent skull as to make a professional autopsy redundant? I prayed her parents had brought her up on the toxic Occidental brew of self-sacrifice and individualism my persuasive tricks depended on; if not, all might be lost.
Before my cranium cleared I’d left the harem maintenance complex and arrived at a kiosk just outside the harem proper, whereon a male could only trespass if he first became other than a male by means of an extraordinarily painful ritual that none acceded to willingly. The eunuchs to which I refer were already present in the room when I entered, and looked at me kindly, which could only mean one thing: they expected my imminent execution.
Though the sultan had not yet arrived, his new odalisque was standing at the center of the room, her feet rooted to the ground like twin ostrich heads stuck in the sand, and her legs bent into a resemblance of those inelegant birds’ long and awkward necks, while the bag, still covering her skull, turned every which way with the blind twitching of a stumpy avian tail. It also emitted a sound, perhaps a feminine cough, but indistinct due to the harem women’s noisy chatter—these were spread along a row of cushions beside the sultan’s currently empty dais, a cloud-trail of veils. All in all, the ex-brunette’s disoccidented and sweaty wobbling boded quite ill for the continued presence of my soul in this earthly body.
After directing me where to stand—nearer the sultan than the odalisque herself, on a patch of floor lacking carpets of any kind and therefore ideal for beheading an irritating subject without staining the kiosk’s valuable foot-textiles—the eunuch guards gave me a wide berth.
The critical moment for my brand was approaching. When I tried to turn away from the girls and eunuchs and look toward the stained-glass windows, then overhead at the astonishing array of filigrees and figurations on the domed ceiling, I felt queasy and unsettled from the excess of color. That’s why I assumed the trickle of red I noticed above the odalisque’s decolletage was only my imagination. Before I thought to track down the cause of this stain, silence settled around me: the royal retinue had reached the room.
My first impression of the sultan was dominated by his eyes, which were dark and hypnotic, almost feminine, and counterbalanced by thick, angular brows that reasserted a passionate masculine character. The matching beard was neatly trimmed. He was rather slim, younger than I’d expected: women would have found him very attractive, though bedecked in such magnificently gaudy garments he couldn’t quite match my own debonair charm.
They carried him in on a chair. He was smiling with an unhurried grace that should have put us at ease, and leaning back in an extremity of relaxation—except for one hand that waved lazily, as if tracing the languid flight of a large butterfly.
It was only after he drew closer that I noticed those beautiful eyes lacked any focus.
Sheltered and unfamiliar with the ways of genuine royalty as I then was, the contradiction between his vivid, compelling features and the apparently far more tenuous presence of his mind thrummed like an uncomfortable dissonance against the solid middle-class morals I’d inherited from a multi-generational slaving family. My father had told me that obscene wealth bestows an ability to behave in ways that could never earn it; but while it’s one thing to read a proverb about stampeding elephants, it’s quite another to be run over by them.
As soon as the sultan was settled into place, the bald brunette surprised us all by starting her dance unbidden, swaying with the slow shimmy of experienced belly dancers. I felt an immense relief: my plan would work after all. I’d transformed a well-raised teen to a trollop in just a single week of higher education.
Perhaps one day, I thought to myself, I could start a new business devoted to such transformations. But how would it possibly make money? I couldn’t imagine parents paying me to ruin their daughters, let alone paying for their board and lodging during the process, which, in the most intractable cases, might take as many as four years. No, I was a very good salesman, but not that good.
Though she had no finger cymbals to punctuate her movements, she swayed so seductively, it was almost as if her limbs were moving of their own accord. At least that’s what the onlookers must have thought. When I ignored for a moment the undeniable appeal of her supple abdomen, I began to suspect she was weaving out of weakness, not agility. In fact—was she even dancing at all?
The dribble of red had descended to her bare belly; mingled with sweat, it drew a vertical pink line down from her navel. Probably her sighing audience believed this was some suggestive new cosmetic fashion, but I was gifted with an uncommon degree of expertise in the field of feminine artifices: I sensed approaching disaster.
Inside my extensive cranial cavity, my mental matter raced and rattled like a string of bells dragged behind a runaway camel over extremely rough ground and without any regard for the nocturnal desert critters that might be peacefully sleeping under its surface. I looked at the sultan. His nose was pointed toward the dance and his expression blissful; but his eyes were glazed, and his pupils black moons.
This time when I turned back to the dancer I was certain something was wrong. Her feet stuttered and jerked; her head lolled ghoulishly, as if it belonged to a fallen houri haunting an unmarked grave. My mind spun through every possible intervention—tossing a rat amongst the concubines, sounding a fire alarm, announcing that it was raining for the first time this year—but before I could act, the debutante odalisque crumpled into a heap and became completely still.
There was a mad hubbub from the women; the eunuchs rushed in around the limp dancer, and then I could see no more.
The sultan’s gaze drifted toward me.
Aided by my earlier practice session in the Chief Eunuch’s Secretary’s Assistant’s office, my own chameleon-like eyeballs were darting around the room independently, each searching for a way out, though I kept my head completely still so as not to give away my intention. They sped clockwise and then counterclockwise as if engaged in a race; but neither was succeeding in the hunt for an anonymous path out of the palace, or at least out of the sultan’s sight.
By now he was staring directly at me, unblinking. Yet his failure to display the slightest reaction to the chaos in the room meant either that he was a man of extraordinary poise and confidence—or else that he perceived nothing outside the fascinating bone pavilion his malfunctioning cranial fauna called home. While the other eunuchs were surrounding the potentially deceased body of a former sex slave whose career was even shorter than that profession’s typically uninspiring average, the Chief Eunuch’s Secretary noticed my innocuously immobile head and, assuming I was frozen dumbly in place, dragged my more efficiently sized body away from the sultan, and then outside the kiosk.
After the worst of the chaos was behind us, he stood in the cooling night air before one of the windows, his features obscured by shadow. The glass would have been turquoise in the daylight; while he spoke, muted light flickered through it in strange undulations of blue and green. The high-pitched chittering of concubines spilled out the open door like the cacophony of novice flutists forced to play in double-time.
“You expected to pass this creature off as an odalisque worthy of the imperial harem?!” His voice was at once a shout and a whisper, for it seemed his somewhat intense anger was held in check by fear our conversation would be overheard. “The Imperial Association of Slavers’ bylaws clearly stipulate that odalisques must be capable of both fornication and ambulation; and even judging the question by a very low standard, encompassing the tastes of necrophiliacs and related deviants, she” —he gestured inside— “is at best capable of one of these two.
“My assistant had previously informed me that your turban must be stuffed with lightweight wadding, due to the lack of inertia that becomes apparent when you unpersuasively angle your head during business negotiations, but I assumed his observations were exaggerated by the disdain he must have conceived when forced to gaze in the direction of your unpleasantly hooked nose for a distressingly interminable time while sorting the irregularities in your company’s odalisque delivery process. Nevertheless, even one whose cranium could scarcely house the spherical creations of a single lazy and stunted dung beetle would know better than to bring a sick slave into this harem.
“I personally directed my assistant’s messenger to solicit you for the palace harem’s lucrative redhead contract, having heard yours was the most reliable slave dealership in the bazaar—and in return you shame your sainted father’s name by falsifying the reputation for upright slave dealing earned by his many years of honorable conduct! Truly the proverb is right that, just as a deep well can be fouled by the pustulent corpse of a single annoying street urchin shoved in by the dutifully hurried retinue of a passing pasha, a reputation built up over generations can be destroyed in an ignominious evening by one scion’s undersized thought organ, controlling nothing more than four limbs and a tongue!”
(The Chief Eunuch’s Secretary did not in fact have time to speak in so many words at that juncture in our tale, nor the forebrain fortitude to maunder with such careful attention to detail, but the impolitely concise phrases he did utter, some of which fell short of the standards of decency to which I hold these memoirs, conveyed approximately the same meaning as the words I’ve indicated above.)
Having seen the dirty underbelly of human misdeeds too often in the course of my work—for instance, when my slaves attempt to escape their lawful captivity through iniquitous feats of deception and misdirection (and what could be more sacred than the rule of law?)—I’d cited the same proverb many times, though never in reference to my own unrelenting labor in the slave industry, which was always undertaken with the glorious reputation of my ancestors in mind. Hence the essential accuracy of his loudly whispered allegations might have caused me to feel a keen embarrassment, if the ambitious arc of my master plan hadn’t preemptively ennobled every action connected to its successful execution. Other aspiring evil viziers, I reasoned, must have felt the same way.
In rhetoric the best defense is often a good attack; but I was unable to settle on an effective angle, being more than completely in the wrong on this occasion and lacking sufficient time to conceal the fact with an appropriately salacious accusation (for instance, consorting with overage women), and lacking too the veneer of spurious evidence that must necessarily accompany it. Instead I tendered an excuse that was brash enough to bewilder the hapless eunuch, if somewhat short of my usual standards.
“My excessive zeal to deliver the sultan’s new redheads with the minimum delay led me to present this particular odalisque before she was vetted with the extremeness our imperial harem deserves,” I said. “Unfortunately there are occasional cases of severe seasickness following long voyages of the very type she undertook, which can manifest with sudden force as much as ten days after disembarkation, and elicit symptoms of imbalance and wooziness, succeeded by unconsciousness. Did you not yourself perceive these very signs in her recent gyrations? Yes, I’m afraid this is little more than a textbook case of clinical, and perhaps terminal, late-onset seasickness. Lamentable, but impossible for me to prevent without lengthy delays in my pre-shipping quality control process that would have elicited vociferous objections from your very office.”
Eunuchs were now carrying my false redhead out of the kiosk, formed into a tight ring and positioning their corpulent bodies to obscure the concubines’ view—although not well enough to prevent us from briefly observing, as they jostled down a few stair-steps, her slack head and open eyes fixed on the empty sky—blank mirroring blank. I now wonder if, as I spoke facing the light from those turquoise windows in the early night, my interlocutor had glimpsed in my own widened pupils the mad flickers of blue and green that must have been reflected therein—and whether it was these or only my confident tone that brought about a fractional capitulation to my rhetoric, and soon opened the door for his retreat.
“You are,” said the Chief Eunuch’s Secretary slowly, “suggesting to me that the first odalisque in our large and expensive order has just died of terminal late-onset seasickness, in the midst of her debut dance for our illustrious sultan, on a floor whose dryness and distance from moving water has been considered extremely apparent for generations without number?”
“Not only that,” I confirmed shamelessly, “but it’s specified in the fine print of the standard odalisque order form that deaths from seasickness and other illnesses resulting from locomotion are not covered by our limited warranty if they occur after the delivery of the odalisque has been confirmed. Now, since neither of us disagree that the odalisque was in fact delivered, and that her symptoms do correspond to those of late-onset seasickness, almost certainly aggravated by the rocking motions inherent in the dance she performed as part of her regular duties for her new owner, it is an act of pure generosity on my part—in light of my immense respect for the sultan’s royal person, and in sympathetic concern for the distress he must have experienced at the expiration of a treasured new possession, or at least would have experienced if his physical state permitted him to do so—to offer a replacement odalisque of nearly identical hair color, free of charge (excepting nominal shipping and handling fees).”
By the time I finished speaking the topic of our conversation was long gone, and the concubines too receding from view, desultory fragments of their shrieking still borne to us on the rising night wind as they returned to the harem proper. The sultan’s retinue was last to leave the kiosk. Although he appeared to be asleep in his chair, my impotent interlocutor redoubled the quietness of his whispering.
“Yes, well. Taking into account the low likelihood of the sultan retaining a clear memory of these events tomorrow, and the not insignificant chance that, were he reminded too quickly thereof, the heads of one or several of the organizers might be held above the ground by their necks alone, and even that only if they land at a fortuitous and fairly improbable angle, the eunuchs collectively believe it would be best if we all agreed to simply pretend that neither this terminal seasickness, nor even the delivery of the odalisque herself, ever occurred; and we request your cooperation in order to ensure a pleasant and non-threatening mood for His Highness on the morrow.”
With the reason behind his clandestine tone now fully explained, an unnoticed tension in my shoulders dissipated, and I felt the advantage was once more my own. I inserted a calculated, confidence-shattering pause before my assent, as if in troubled contemplation of the moral niceties of a proposal that would, in fact, rescue me from almost certain doom. After I’d given him the proper amount of time to worry I agreed with a show of reluctance, and promised to bring a replacement redhead as a special favor to the court eunuchs; the sultan would never notice anything amiss.
The matter was thus settled. But he studied me for a moment before asking a guard to lead me back to the palace exit. He must have sensed that a formidable new player had just entered the great game of harem politics.
It was only after the guard locked the maintenance gate behind me that I realized what I’d forgotten.
At an unknown location deep inside the palace, still glued to the bald pate of the former brunette’s fresh corpse and now sullied by the bodily fluids of a second deceased Occidental virgin, was my indispensable red wig.
Continued in Chapter Three: How to Harvest Buried Ginger