I searched everywhere: behind the bags of couscous and neatly stacked implements of torture in my closet, under the elaborately decorated cushions of my sales reception room’s couches, and even in the large metal dog cage where I sometimes kept intractable new arrivals, but the missing slave was nowhere to be found.
I need hardly tell you that the personal consequences of failing to keep the same-day-delivery promise I’d just made the sultan were dire; but as the proprietor of a family-owned small business, I had to think of other people as well. My employees, upon hearing of my disgrace, might conclude the well-deserved high esteem in which they held my person was unfounded, undergo a shattering crisis of faith—likely culminating in suicide—and herald their departure from this earth with a note slandering my name, thereby disturbing the cherubic erotic frolicking of my father, peace be upon him, in the gardens of paradise somewhere far overhead. None of them could write much beyond the figures we used for quarterly slave sales calculations; but what if the defamatory intention of their scribblings came through nonetheless? In this self-sacrificial spirit of concern for my fellow men, I vowed to find Mala before evening, whatever the cost.
My search did uncover one clue to the missing slave’s whereabouts: someone had disturbed my chest of odalisque outfits. Since Occidental girls are frequently wearing unfashionable and deplorably tasteless clothing when they’re captured by pirates, I keep a stock of spare veils, pantaloons, and transparent blouses on hand in various sizes and colors in case I’ve no time to hire a seamstress—for instance, when I receive a bulk shipment from a large raid and need to schedule a quick auction to ease the crowding of my limited slave storage space. (Larger traders can afford to rent warehouses in such circumstances, but my family decided not to expand our business beyond a size where we could know each customer in the luxury upmarket sector personally, and we proudly achieve higher profit margins with more modest capital resources.)
Further inspection revealed a ruffled pink blouse and a matching veil that had lain at the bottom of the chest were missing. If the well-wishing slaver from whom I’d stolen Mala had broken in to retrieve her, he wouldn’t have dawdled in my office long enough to paw through the stack of clothing for matching colors to complement her complexion, as this thief apparently had. The blame, then, surely fell to Mala herself.
Yet where could she go? There was no future for a runaway odalisque in the Orient, and as for fleeing to the Occident, that was less likely still: the gloomy weather, drab fashions, and stiff and abstemious personalities of that inhospitable region drove their best men to fight mock battles with the giant pinwheels they’d erected to ease the monotony of their mold-colored landscapes (as the enslaved writer my father acquired had taught me in my childhood), or to try their luck testing the ocean’s unmapped extremities to avoid dull the dull domesticity of their frigid females, who needed the sun and space of the Orient to come alive. Nor could Mala find any marriage more luxurious than concubinage to our sultan; indeed, many women would willingly sell themselves to the royal slaver just for a small chance at life in the palace. Nevertheless, since the low capacity for reason allotted to even young women of notable cranial capacity was not a secret to one of my profession, these logical objections failed to dissuade me from the counterintuitive conviction that she’d fled servitude of her own accord.
After changing into a clean but less resplendent turban that would allow me to cross the bazaar with greater anonymity, I attended to the customer at my doorstep, who was still kneeling below one of the display odalisques. While I’ve never seen any harm in allowing a potential patron to squeeze my merchandise gently, the fervid manual inspection he was carrying out on her toes struck me as rather imposing for someone who had not yet made a purchase. So I bid him mind the sign my father had mounted above our slave display. (“To bruise is to buy:” not very eloquent, perhaps, but nostalgia for his warm heart barred me from removing it.) Then I smiled jovially and made some friendly remarks to take the sting off the rebuke, pointed out the straight teeth of the third odalisque, and excused myself on pressing business.
After leaving the office I went directly to the nearest bathhouse, and though urgency precluded using it for its nominal purpose, or even to relieve the muscular tension that so frequently inflicted my overburdened neck, I entered and paid for a massage, with an extra emolument to ensure it was privately delivered by a particular blond slave boy, then waited for him impatiently on a damp stone bench in the small but clean marble-tiled room the proprietor assigned me. Though mostly serviced by Occidental youths, known for their disobedient dispositions, it was an admirably orderly operation. The thought filled me with a sense of pride at the productive middle class of our fine city.
The boy had come into my possession last year when my pirate partners threw him in as a bonus to a disappointing shipment of odalisques; and since I only deal in sex slaves of the weaker gender, lacking either the taste or the discernment for boys that seems to afflict some men, I’d immediately sold him to another slaver, who had in turn auctioned him to this popular establishment—a pillar of the community in operation for at least two centuries.
The proprietor led him in with smile and wink, which he delivered with a professional charm. As soon as we were alone amid the humid air and the muffled sound of groans from adjoining rooms, I addressed the boy in the Occidental tongue. He seemed relieved by the nature of my request, which required him neither to do nor to be done to, but only to solicit, among the gangs of youth that roam the bazaar and with which I’d often seen him playing, information about an unfamiliar woman in a pink veil, for which I promised to pay him handsomely enough to balance out the whipping he’d likely receive for absconding before the day’s end.
After waiting long enough to conceal the true reason for my visit, I left the bathhouse through a cloud of steam. Outside, the roaring and bleating that had been muffled by its stone walls rushed back; innumerable dirty faces were pressing past.
I pretended to inspect the dates and bananas on display in a nearby market stall, examining each with the minute care I usually reserve for human flesh. Happily, I didn’t have to wait long for an answer. The boy raced up beside me, his curly blond hair strikingly bright in the crowd of dark men, and traded his gossip for my gold: a woman matching Mala’s description had been spotted around noon, departing the bazaar toward Jewelers’ Row.
I thanked him, bought the best banana for myself and a second for him, and then turned my turban south.
The fruit in question seemed, in fact, a perfect banana, and it was only with reluctance and in a spirit of invention that I destined it for a non-culinary purpose.
Normally I preferred to pass the afternoon on the couch in my customer reception lounge, instructing my newest slaves on the appropriate techniques for cooling their owner with ostrich and peacock feather fans, sometimes supplemented with recently removed items of their own clothing. Such skills, while rather straightforward, are unfamiliar to recently captured Occidental girls; though I admit this professorial duty is not the most onerous responsibility in a slaver’s life. But today dire necessity had forced me to deviate from my routine. Every human and animal who rubs flanks and sweaty shoulders in the milling crowd of mammals traversing the bazaar ripens through the heat-saturated hours when the sky-flame is directly overhead, and one never grows entirely accustomed to the result. So I peeled the banana’s upper half, then wove through the afternoon stink, holding its tip before my nose as I walked to disguise the intensifying smell.
This improvised scent-guard is one of many innovations that other aspiring evil viziers lack the occipital opulence to imitate, let alone invent.
After losing most of my banana to the tongue of a particularly adept dromedary, whose rider smirked at me before the offending lick as if he’d made advance plans to filch my fruit, I reached Jewelers’ Row. It was comparatively quiet, and situated just outside of the bazaar proper: in fact, the first shop I entered was empty, except for an old man who sat behind the counter peering through a lens.
What a restful profession, I thought. While I often replaced new odalisques’ unpronounceable Occidental names—“Jane,” “Jeanne,” “Juanita,” and so forth—with appellations that are more amenable to our civilized tongue, like “Emerald,” “Sapphire,” and “Pearl,” I imagined it would be easier still to work directly with gems and avoid the recurrent stress of managing a perishable inventory—an irritation that continually disturbed my peace, and never more than at that particular moment.
Following a polite but anonymous introduction wherein I employed sophisticated verbiage to exhibit my respectable social class without actually providing any personally identifying details, I asked whether he’d seen a woman in a pink veil. For once, fortune favored me. He replied in the affirmative without the slightest hesitation. But despite the commanding nobility of my features and the strong impression he surely had that my name should end in “Pasha,” he would say no more until I explained the motivation for my inquiry.
I could hardly admit the missing woman was a slave without risking irreparable harm to my reputable brand. What kind of slaver is so careless as to allow a genuine escape, let alone the escape of a loud-mouthed stolen odalisque who would gallivant about the bazaar, taunting her master and imprinting his embarrassment on the mind of every upstanding citizen in the capital? So I decided to adopt the air of a confused husband, possessed of material means, but with no particular need to special-order his turbans and fezzes.
“Last night I invited my first two wives to dine with my third fiancee for the fourth time,” I lied to the jeweler, turning my skull in half-profile to conceal its true girth, “and her beautiful opal earrings drew their attention as much as my own. On the way home my wives broke into a heated row, each claiming she had the loveliest earlobes; and they would have compared the sharpness of their fingernails if I’d not pulled them apart by force. Now my second wife has disappeared, and I believe she intends to buy a new set of earrings to outshine the other pair. The other pair of wives, that is.” I sighed theatrically. “Sometimes I wish I’d simply bought a few more odalisques. Wives really aren’t worth the trouble, you know.”
When bazaar property taxes, maintenance fees, and the seemingly endless caloric requirements of your slaves mercilessly oblige you to achieve a certain yearly sales figure, it’s never the wrong time to promote your product. “Because Wives Aren’t Worth the Trouble” was the International Slavers’ Association’s slogan for a marketing campaign to expand our middlebrow clientele that dated to my grandfather’s time; veteran slavers claimed it had been responsible for a huge surge in revenue.
“You seem rather young to be on your third wife,” replied the jeweler.
“Ah. It’s the beard, you see. The fairest maidens, overwhelmed by the combination of an elegantly coiffed chin and an unusually rotund cranium, beg their fathers to approve our marriage; and being a generous fellow, it’s hard for me to decline.”
“Well,” said the jeweler, “your wife did pass through my store, but only to sell a ring; she didn’t mention anything about earrings.”
“Ah, indeed,” I said. “Did she tell you anything else? About where she was headed next, perhaps?”
“No, she only said she ‘wouldn’t let a man with a thin, pointy beard and a stuffed turban who regularly does neck exercises to conceal the low cranial weight borne by his reedy spine choose her clothes for an important event,’ then went out the door and turned right.”
“Did she now.”
“Yes; in fact, she repeated it twice, and asked me to remember her words, in case anyone came looking for her, she said.”
“Well, perhaps that wasn’t my wife after all; the description hardly fits, wouldn’t you agree?” I tilted my beard in a menacing way that seemed appropriate for a future evil vizier, but the old jeweler didn’t react. Perhaps such effortlessly villainous gestures need practice, I reflected; or perhaps one needs to behead a certain number of barbers to find the perfect trim.
As I was still, at least for a few more days, unable to execute imperial subjects at my whim, I felt tempted to stay the afternoon and torture the shopkeeper by pestering him with a long series of questions comparing more and less expensive variations on the same item, only to later back away from buying anything at all—a subtle method of inducing psychological pain that visitors to my own shop sometimes inflicted to vent their envy of my professional success. But today I was pressed for time, and had no choice but to leave without punishing his insolence with more refined methods of demoralization than he merited.
My royal odalisque contract had brought me no end of headaches, and a non-negligible risk of ending those headaches with excessive permanence, and during the time it took to travel from Jewelers’ Row to the Clothiers’ Quarter I found myself grateful for the pressing need—or opportunity, rather—to rid myself of a troublesome odalisque once and for all this very night. Provided I could find her. Indeed, such was my longing for freedom (so common when a hard-working slaver is burdened with a recalcitrant slave, or worse still, forced to chase an escaped one) that I would have walked past her, standing as she was under a wide awning that tinted her pink clothes mauve, had she not set herself to haggling with sufficient volubility to draw the attention of every passerby, and many people who were stationary as well.
“Sweet pomegranate of my heart,” I sang out in the tone of a devoted but impatient husband embarked on a clothing adventure whose duration greatly exceeded his wives’ promises. “Are you sure that scarf will still be in style by the time you’ve finished choosing a color?”
“Sweet pomegranate… of your heart?” She’d stopped her harangue mid-sentence to face me, and now said ominously, “Sweet pomegranate?” As she spun around a bulky bag swung on her shoulder. How much had she already bought?
Everyone on the street now stopped to watch us. Perhaps they were curious whether a husband knew how to douse his fiery female with mere words, or whether he would have recourse to the punishments that are traditional in such circumstances.
“Why, at least once a month you bleed a similar red, and at such times parts of you closely resemble the interior of….” Somehow the intimation that my reply failed to strike the best note to soothe her mind reached me even through her veil. Surely I’d heard husbands use “sweet pomegranate,” “seedless lemon,” “little coconuts,” and other similarly affectionate epithets for their wives in the past?
Concluding that the role I’d chosen to hide this slave re-abduction from the public was too unfamiliar for me to play effectively, I cut directly to the point. “We have,” I told her, “an unexpected and pressing social appointment tonight, for which your tardiness could have far more severe consequences than your failure to correctly choose between a purple scarf and a violet one.”
“Nonsense,” she said, “I’m not—
“It’s the kind of occasion for which the only appropriate color is red,” I cut in, giving special emphasis to the word.
“Oh,” she said. I tugged insistently at her elbow.
“Now,” I said.
“They’re overpriced anyway,” she called back to the merchant as I pulled her down the road.
After we left the small crowd of chuckling onlookers I noticed she seemed taller than usual—perhaps even taller than I was. She tried to keep pace with my impatiently accelerating stride, and I glimpsed, peeking out from under her voluminous pant legs, an unusual pair of shoes.
“Your shoes appear to be on stilts,” I said.
“You don’t seriously believe your prettiest wife should dirty her toes in this muck, do you ‘dear?‘” she said with mock sweetness and an ingratiatingly false smile.
“Enough of that,” I said, “we mustn’t draw attention to ourselves, lest the sultan hear rumors of the elaborate deviousness of my odalisque substitution stratagem and discover that my exotic imports are not entirely imported, nor always exotic. Your stake in this deception is no smaller than mine. What if this overenthusiastic errand reveals your identity to someone you know?”
But she didn’t respond, because just then a man hailed me from the other side of the road.
It was the perfume-monger, whose cramped little shop lay only a few hundred paces from my office. While we crossed paths frequently enough, I hadn’t expected him to visit this quarter at an hour when most honest citizens are hard at work. Perhaps I could drive him off with an intimidating display of my upright habits: surely he should feel ashamed to be seen by a respectable sex-slave trader while roaming the bazaar during working hours like some underemployed degenerate. Embarrassment would turn his turban in the opposite direction.
But the admirably aristocratic angle of my nose lost some of its effect on account of my feminine companion’s newfound stature, which was further magnified, as I happened to be standing, at that particular moment, in the dip of a dusty gutter. My gregarious assailant’s eyes were already endeavoring to pierce her veil when he approached and asked in a jolly but irritatingly curious tone who was standing beside and very slightly above me.
Faced with a familiar acquaintance who knew me for the brilliant bachelor I was, I could hardly maintain the pretense of being a husband of average wits trapped on an extended shopping adventure; so I told him instead that she was my cousin, visiting from the countryside to catch up on the latest urban fashion trends—a topic which, like any good luxury odalisque dealer, I followed assiduously (although new styles for the dry season this year had been very disappointing indeed).
“Oh, she’s your cousin? You’ve never spoken of a cousin before,” pried the perfume-monger, still trying to peer through her veil. “Do you two intend to marry?”
“No no,” I said, “she’s only my second cousin; it would hardly be appropriate.”
“Ah yes, very true,” he said.
“But I’m afraid I have a pressing appointment today; and while I can’t speak for your own line of work, reverent memories of my father, a man content to selflessly dedicate the best years of his life to expanding the luxury slave trade in this city with scarcely any reward beyond his own untimely demise at the metaphorical hands of that deservedly beaten odalisque whose unexpected resilience precipitated his stroke, would never allow me to dally here idly yammering with you during business hours.”
“You sell perfume?” Mala asked before he could reply. “Oh, I’ve been looking for a—”
“Cousin,” I cut in, “I’m delighted that you’ve shown so much enthusiasm on this humdrum excursion to buy essential office supplies like open-top blouses, jeweled sashes, navel rings and skimpy but elaborately ornamented undergarments; but as I’m already fully stocked with frankincense and many less valuable scents as well, we’ll have to visit my fellow merchant here on a more appropriate occasion.”
I gave the perfume-monger a nod and a tight-lipped smile, and prodded Mala onward as discreetly as I could; a bewildered crinkle around his eyes accompanied his goodbyes.
As soon as he was out of view, I confiscated her bag and pointed into a narrow alley.
“When I dragged you out of the dry well wherein you were wasting your youth slowly dying,” I hissed after barrels of rubbish hid us from the road, “I had the impression, by the clumsiness with which you mounted the levitating odalisque-corpse-lift that enabled our escape, that your cranium was less petite than those of the Occidental odalisques I habitually sell for a much higher price than you would merit to any buyer who was appraised of your true identity, let alone one afflicted by the waggings of your untiring tongue. Yet today’s inadvisable flight from such a beneficent enslavement contract suggests that you passed those ten days in solitary confinement arranging your hair to create the illusion of volume (perhaps with the aid of slime gathered from the well-dwelling mollusks on which you surely dined), in the hope that I’d assume the continual stream of biting remarks emitted by your upper orifice to be founded in some semblance of perceptive consciousness. The reality—”
“My naturally voluminous hair,” she said, passing her hand suggestively around her occipital area, “which you’ve suspiciously fabricated an excuse to remove, has little to do with the matter. In fact, this morning’s events were entirely the fault of your own low standards. The spare odalisque outfits I found in your chest—which I first dismissed as a threadbare heap of your ancestors’ overused undergarments—put your claim to run a luxury sex-slave dealership on dubious ground. The dearth of fashionable accessories in your dilapidated office, the poor quality of your pantaloons and transparent blouses, and the total absence of navel rings simply forced me to escape on this shopping spree against my will. In point of fact, judging by the customer I saw manhandling the display models, your business caters to foot fetishists who lack any appreciation for vestimentary refinements positioned above the ankles. With such a deviant clientele, how can I even be certain you intend to sell me to the sultan?
“I find it likely,” she concluded, now abandoning her insistent tone and speaking at an inappropriately leisurely pace, and with an aloof, vaguely feline condescension, “that your tale of redheads and wigs is nothing more than an elaborate ploy to trick me into shaving my own hair, thereby gratifying whatever perverse preference for voluntarily glabrous girls led you to speculate suggestively on the alleged recent rearrangement of my coiffure.”
“An empty accusation, made out of spite,” I replied with labored patience, for the type of correction she merited was too visually risky for her unblemished skin in such close proximity to her delivery, “no doubt to conceal your growing attachment to my person; for if you believed I had no intention to sell you, and cared only for the baldness of your exposed cranium, why would you bother with a dangerous shopping adventure intended to render your fairly commonplace form marginally more attractive?
“As for your other allegations: the odalisque outfits in my storage chest, while of undeniable quality, are ready-to-wear items intended to clothe overstock imports who must be auctioned in short order to conserve inventory space. Products in my flagship luxury line, on the other hand—in which dire necessity compels me to include you—are clothed in bespoke high-fashion garments matched to their skin undertones and tailored to their precise proportions. In addition, each girl is delivered with a certificate of ownership signed by myself, a complimentary sachet of sandalwood, and a vellum map indicating her hometown in the Occident with a crimson cross—my own brilliant innovation, and a source of perennial delight for my customers.”
“It all sounds rather generic. But… where will you say I’m from?” she asked with what sounded like genuine curiosity.
“Wherever you like, provided it’s distant enough to be properly exotic.”
“Oh, that’s easy: I adore exotic. Somewhere cloudy and cold, ruled by women, with terrible weather, bland food, inhabited by many and various species of mollusks, miserable peasants, and nobles that live in big tubes made of stone blocks, as we hear about in travelers’ stories. What could be more romantic than acting the part of a bossy redhead princess abducted by dashing pirates mostly against her will?”
“That’s the spirit,” I said, ready to jump on anything that might encourage her to embrace the role of a plundered foreigner with more than her typical enthusiasm before the sultan’s rapidly approaching inspection put my scheme to a demanding test. “The northwest is said to fit your description. In fact, pirates have a saying about the region: ‘where peasants do crimes to be shipped off to sunnier climes,’ though I’ve yet to make any sense of it.
“At any rate, these matters are of little importance; it’s clear that you’ve bowed to reason, or at least to a sudden upwelling of irrational feminine enthusiasm for the trappings of romance and unfamiliar snails. But we’ve no time to waste. Your delivery is scheduled for this very night.”
I resumed a brisk walk; this time she matched my pace. Perhaps preemptive method acting had flushed her with the giddy abandon said to overcome Occidental females on their first visit to the Orient, or perhaps the feeling that she herself would now be seen as exotic, rare, and precious had worked some more fundamental change on her heart.
“It’s just as well I bought new clothes,” she said. “In fact, my shopping trip showed foresight more than worthy of the sultan’s favorite, since your seamstress can’t possibly make me new pantaloons before I’m due at the palace. Even so, you’ve failed to reassure me about your clientele. How can a valuable imported odalisque such as myself be sure that my delicately desirable feet are safe setting foot in that ramshackle rented office of yours a second time?”
“’Valuable’ imitation imported odalisque. And I own not only that office, my dear, but you too,” I reminded her with less than fully compelling menace—for before I reached the end of my admonition I had to grasp her by the waist and pull her off the street and against a wall to avoid a wide cart that passed through in a cloud of dust—the driver showing a singular lack of respect for my obvious future eminence.
When we resumed walking she seemed entirely uncowed. It was becoming apparent she’d noticed, despite being technically a slave, that my need for her willing cooperation severely limited my options for coercion, and, in fact, her position today was almost invulnerable.
“Only you and I know that I’m not a real Occidental,” she said with a sly lightness once we had resumed walking; “and once I put on this magical red wig of yours, neither of us can acknowledge the illusion on pain of death. So what’s the difference really? Either way, you’re evading my question.”
“You needn’t worry about my clientele,” I said brusquely; then went on, “I am, in the first place, rather stronger than I look, having exercised myself on a regular basis for many years in the repetitive use of heavy whips; I am frequently compelled to restrain multiple nude, wet odalisques, who mob me with all their jiggling and wiggling when I force them to bathe (Occidentals regard cleanliness with a superstitious fear, you know); and above all I bear the constant burden of this expansive cranium, which you can’t help but regard when you believe I’m not looking—unaware, like most people, that I’ve trained my chameleon-like eyes to rotate independently and in several directions, in order to accurately register any motion that occurs in my general vicinity. Normally I keep them a secret, of course.”
“They don’t look very secret,” she said.
“As for your bigoted and backward attitude regarding the various disgusting fetishes my clients may flaunt during their product selection process,” I continued, ignoring her interruption, “I suppose that’s to be expected from a female, naturally lacking in entrepreneurial flair.
“I will admit, I sometimes suffered from the same emotional gag reflex when I was a youth; but just as the promise of rich rewards gradually inspires even the lowest street walker to learn the proper use of her throat, however hideous her client, so does a worthy lust for profit teach the trader to swallow his instinctive reactions and treat every paying pervert with equanimity. Thanks to this undiscriminating lens of profit, it’s of no consequence to me how many wives a paying client has, what perversions he indulges, how often he cheats at backgammon, how much money he stole from his grandmother, who he murdered, which demon he sold his soul to, or even whether he knows how to properly tie his turban—though, in the last case, I will admit that the civilizing force of avarice sometimes fails to restrain my more primitive moral instincts, and at the sight of bedraggled or poorly tied headdress I have to force down the bitter phlegm of disgust before I can finalize the contract. (‘Tie your turban for treasure,’ my father always used to say.)”
“Are you suggesting you’d deal fairly even with an Occidental client?” she asked.
“There are reasonable limits to every rule,” I replied. “But where,” I changed the topic abruptly, “did you find the money to buy all those clothes? Do you believe you can just rob my office with impunity?” I gesticulated with both arms as I spoke, causing my robes to unfold dramatically—a look that I thought would be quite compelling if it were performed in the Chamber of Petitions.
“Why yes,” she said. “I believe I could. But I considered it beneath my dignity to filch the few pennies you manage to earn reselling poxy prostitutes who’ve outstayed their welcome at the brothel to blind widowers desperate for a bargain.” She began this phrase in her usual cutting tone, but for a few brief words she sounded less than honestly demeaning–almost as if she were enjoying herself. There was no way to be sure: her expression was hidden beneath her veil.
“Luxury imported odalisques,” I corrected her. “And the only remaining possibility is that you stole your shopping money from the innocent citizens in our fine bazaar, enabled by the ignoble childhood of a born and raised cutpurse that your first owner wisely hid even from the old wives who devote themselves to spreading uncertainties about business not their own: had I suspected the truth I would have found a different well from which to draw my fraudulent Occidental.
“In fact, I should have known that the casually immoral attitude you have about escaping from an enslavement sanctified by one of the legal contracts on whose inviolability the honest traders of our almost-endless empire depend has its origin in a sordid history of crime. As the ancient proverb says, ‘for every virtuous slave who sacrifices his spine to raise a pyramid, there are two shirkers plotting to slaughter their foreman, raid the tombs, and flee to a distant land where they can live in wealth and ease and nibble dates from the fingers of their beautiful wives.’”
“I don’t think that’s actually a proverb,” she said, turning back to me. “And your speculations about my provenance are so far from the truth as to make your other statements seem insufficiently foolish in comparison.
“My family was altogether respectable before my father, a painter of decorative ceramic tiles whose understanding of mathematics doesn’t extend beyond simple arithmetic and sometimes not even that far, unwisely signed for a debt that expanded much faster than his ability to repay it. He was grateful when the state enslaved me in punishment for his delinquent taxes, for otherwise the moneylender might have confiscated me along with our house.”
“Hm, yes, the moneylender,” I said, recalling my own recent debt, but not deviating from the matter in question to mention that my mathematical prowess made it completely impossible for me to fall into the same quicksand of debt that had swallowed her father. “Yet how, my dear, did you acquire that bag of new clothes—not to mention the incredibly tall shoes you bought for the sole purpose of gazing down on my immaculately wound turban from above?”
“I sold a ring, given to me by that half-impotent pasha who, when I threatened to announce his deficiencies high and low in retaliation for the shamefully effeminate but still very unpleasant beating he inflicted on my hindparts, returned me to the slave market at my express request, without noticing it was still in my possession.”
“Hardly surprising,” I said, “as neither I nor your less capable former slaver remarked a ring of any kind, even when you were powerless and thoroughly naked. If your story is true—which remains highly questionable—you wound the ring into that voluminous head of hair on which you, lacking any other striking attributes, so vocally pride yourself.”
“Certainly not; I would never risk split ends just to keep a remarkably valuable piece of jewelry. In truth I had no choice but to sell the ring today. I could hardly keep it in the same place during my first night with the sultan.”
“Oh. You can’t be serious,” I said.
“Are you astonished that your slight shoulders don’t support the only brain in this bazaar, or are you more squeamish than your professional exposure to venereal disease would suggest?” she asked. “I admit it was often uncomfortable, and continually threatened to fall out at the most inopportune times. I was glad to be rid of it; from my next owner I shall request a large pearl instead.”
“You’ll have more than one pearl if you please the sultan, my dear, and no need to conceal it in a location that’s regularly flushed with fluids. But I shall have to ask you to submit a receipt for all the items in your bag, as well as the dangerously destabilizing pair of shoes on which your feet are now perched.”
“Of course. Since the ring was in your possession at the time you signed your voluntary enslavement contract, it belonged to me—surely you read that stipulation on the lower half of page seventeen—along with any money derived from its sale. It follows that the costs you incurred in the purchase of any erotic garments, ornaments, or accessories today are tax deductible business expenses. Corrupt government officials audit the slave trade with a manifestly unjust frequency in light of our essential social function, so I must maintain fastidious records of every transaction.”
“You believe these auditors would consider an obviously illegal contract signed under duress by an odalisque who was still in the possession of another slaver to be a valid proof of ownership?” she asked with an artificial laugh, as if springing this observation, which should have long been obvious to anyone with a skull larger than a half-ripe mango seed, would surprise me into rethinking her captivity.
“That is one of many questions you are free to ask the auditors if you happen to be interested in acknowledging your true identity and returning to your previous owner to once again face a slow death at the bottom of a well, or perhaps a less creative torment at the clumsy hands of the officials responsible for reprimanding escaped slaves.
“The task is usually assigned to guards sacked from our city dungeons on account of excessive and unwarranted brutality—an impressive accomplishment given the low standards on which the imperial warden prides his domain, and one considered vital for their new line of work—though from the perspective of a commercial slaver who prides himself on the uninjured outer layer of his products, their enthusiasm doesn’t entirely compensate for their lack of finesse.”
After these compelling threats I intended to follow my usual habit and remind her of the immeasurably shiny future that sex slavery opened to all the sultan’s odalisques, provided they could fend off the evil machinations of the innumerable other women also striving for elevation to his small circle of favorites (the depth of that challenge was rarely apparent to them before they spent their first fortnight in the harem), when a half-overheard phrase caught my attention instead.
We had entered the southern end of the bazaar proper, and despite a late hour that normally saw fatigued merchants quietly packing away their wares, it was abuzz with chatter. The phrase of interest came in an enthusiastic juvenile voice that seemed to be narrating the news to a circle of men that included the merchant of olive oil, as well as several local tradesmen I recognized but had no reason to know by name, their wages being insufficient to afford even the severed left toe of a discounted used local odalisque.
“…it’s not a lie—my older brother’s best friend’s nephew saw it happen this afternoon!” the boy was saying. “He works at the harbor. She flew in out of the sky”—the boy illustrated by waving his hands over his head—“and landed on an awning over the fish market”—he pulled one hand down before him and slapped its back into the palm of the other. “She was naked. Except she was done up with red cheeks and earrings and black stuff around her eyes. And—her hair was all missing—her scalp was wide open, totally crusted with blood!” As he said this he shaped his fingers into claws, and positioning them on either side of his head, crooked his fingertips toward his palms repeatedly. “Then she sat on this pile of fish, twitching, but she kept her arms raised like she was casting a curse on everyone in the market! They all ran away.” He demonstrated her gesture, then dropped his arms and added “I would have stayed though, I’m not afraid.”
I knew I’d forgotten something. I should have retrieved those earrings.
“Did she chase after them? What happened to her?” asked someone.
“I don’t know. I bet she ate everyone. My brother says she’s a zombie.”
“Foolishness,” said the olive oil merchant. “And what is a ‘zombie’ anyway?”
“It’s a kind of ghoul,” the boy said, “it eats—”
“He wants us to believe, that some woman… appeared out of the clouds and fell on the fish market today?” one of the tradesmen asked, smiling and ribbing the fellow on his left.
“Naw” –the boy spoke the word with a rising pitch. “Everybody says someone climbed out of the ground last night at the graveyard by the blue mosque. There was dirt thrown all over the place.”
“Doubtful, boy; you shouldn’t believe everything you hear,” said the olive oil merchant in a fatherly tone. “Whose grave is this supposed to be?”
“Nobody knows, the tombstone was torn in two!” He pulled his hands apart violently with a look of extreme admiration glowing on his face, of a variety unique to young boys.
“You’re telling stories, kid,” another man said.
Now was my opportunity.
“Oh no, that much is certainly true; I heard it myself from a client who lives up that way,” I said in a tone designed to carry through the little circle of listeners and off into the bazaar.
“Not long ago a young woman was buried there,” I told them. “She’d been purchased earlier this year by a pasha of modest means, who already owned two redheaded odalisques, and claimed that he would have held back from buying his third if it wasn’t for the sweetly flirtatious disposition she displayed at the dealership, the no-money-down repayment plan proposed to him by an adept slave salesman, and her exceptional bosom. But she so captured the attentions of the pasha that jealousy festered in the hearts of his other odalisques, and late one night, when he was away on business, they stole into her bedroom and beat her about the head with two heavy gold incense holders until she was quite dead.”
By now I had everyone’s attention, including Mala’s, and a handful of shoppers passing through the bazaar stopped to hear me out. “As she lay dying,” I said expansively, spreading my arms, “with her skull opened like a ripe fruit–just as this boy described the animated corpse in the fish market–and her soul ready to fly up to the high realms of paradise above us, whatever liquid machinery still percolated through her quivering brain-tubes held on to life just long enough to pronounce a dire curse—on all the odalisques in our fair city.
“The specifics of this curse were not reported to me. But judging by the boy’s tale, I believe it elicited the assistance of some malign djinn. With her soul, formerly destined for heaven, now dragged downward by the dreadful weight of her dying wish, it was a trivial matter for this djinn to keep it tethered to her body while she was interred—until a fortuitous conjunction of planets last night empowered him to raise her from the grave to terrorize our most beautiful women. Perhaps even your wives are at risk–who can say?”
After I finished all were silent for a single breath; then half the small crowd erupted with questions that overlapped each other in an indistinct cacophony resembling the sound probably made when a low-flying flock of flamingos collides with a herd of camels in the narrow and echoing ravine leading to a wadi. Only the tradesman’s deep voice was intelligible: “But why on earth would she visit the harbor first?”
I held up my hand, palm outward, and waited for silence. “I can only speculate that the nest of thought-worms squirming under the sheltering arch of her cranial dome was disturbed by the incense-holder insult, and they are no longer eating their own tails in the normal fashion, but subsisting on mold and earwax, or even devouring each other—leading to severely impaired cognition.”
“Lots of whores there!” said the boy.
“Also possible,” I said.
“Zombies bite people,” the boy said, his hands once again engaged in vivid illustrations, “they come up slowly and…”
I eased away as he went on about this rather preposterous variety of ghoul.
“Is this ‘zombie’ who I think it is?” asked Mala.
“I’m rather impressed by the quality of that magic carpet cleaner,” I replied, “though the tale would have required a less detailed explanation had she made it all the way into the harbor.”
“Naturally I had to prepare an explanation for the empty grave—and for your disappearance from that dry well,” I said.
“How does a flailing corpse falling on the fishmarket explain my escape from a well that’s as deep as the palace is high?”
“Why, these bizarre bazaar rumors—now supported, however, by eyewitness evidence as well as my own fabrications, and sure to circulate everywhere through our city—make it obvious that you were eaten, or at least suborned, by this flying zombie odalisque on her way from the graveyard into the city.”
“You can’t possibly have planned such an absurd solution.”
“I would hardly tear a corpse out of the ground and risk dirtying the expensive fabric of my well-tailored robes, instead of digging with a proper spade, if I didn’t plan from the start to create the illusion that supernatural forces enabled her departure from the earth, would I, my dear?
“Now then,” I continued, “We are nearly at my office. You shall wait here, pretending to peruse the stalls that haven’t yet closed. You are not to buy any more clothes. I’ll go in and send my assistant home early. After you see him leave, come in through the back entrance. If anyone should notice you, show him this bag of clothes and tell him you’re our seamstress’ new intern, here to make a delivery.”
“Even wearing a heavy veil and giant couscous-bag-shaped dress, any passerby can see that I’m too attractive to be a mere seamstress’ intern,” she said. “What if they neglect to consider your unfortunate nose and assume that I’ve been lured here for some romantic dalliance?”
“It’s true that your tent-like clothing could inspire great feats of imagination within the crania of the oversexed peasants who roam the bazaar, even if the unremarkable figure it conceals would have to gyrate with special suppleness merely to transiently tickle their testes; but as a sex slave trader is free to sample any of the preowned goods he resells, few would suspect him of adulterous ambitions in your regard, just as few would accuse a well-paid pasha of pilfering the passed-over dates on a returning merchant’s cart.
“Indeed, I rarely invite women here when I’m in the mood for seduction, which is itself a rare thing, given that my odalisque access rights are second only to the sultan’s. After business hours I store the slaves outside the office, in separate compartments of the rear building; but despite the privacy, the tasteful decor, and the excellent evening light in the customer reception lounge, free females still seem to find my Luxury Odalisque Shoppe an unromantic location.”
I showed her my back and went inside without listening to the vainglorious reply that began to emanate from somewhere beneath her veil. Everything went smoothly: soon after I packed away the display odalisques (none of them had sold; I ignored the one complaining about her bruised toes) and put up the “closed” sign, my assistant went home, after which Mala entered through the back door. When she saw the whole building was safely empty, she immediately threw off her veil.
“This thing has turned my hair into a matted, ratted mess,” she said.
“No matter,” I held up a razor.
She insisted she was “more capable than the Occidental virgins who are the usual victims of your inept cosmetology,” and that her full-body shave would go more smoothly if I left her to do it alone. Outside, the upper floors of the whitewashed buildings had turned pink: the sun was beginning to set.
To avoid more time wasted in argument, I agreed, provided she promised to hurry as she could, without risking any clumsy mistakes. I closed the shutters over the lower half of the windows in the dressing room, leaving the upper panes open to let in the last of the daylight. A soft glow filtered down to us and imbued her still-pale skin with a rosy tinge.
I made her slice off a big lock of thick black hair to prove her sincerity. For once she didn’t argue, but made a show of not hesitating, and stared into my eyes as she started the cut, wearing a look of confident determination and studying my reaction.
Or lack of reaction. I set the red wig on a table beside the vanity mirror and shut the door.
The bazaar had grown quiet, and only a few desultory, distant shouts filtered in.
By this time of day, a lesser slaver would have been exhausted, but relentless aspiration to evil-vizierdom caused my heart to burn with an inexhaustible black flame. I changed into my best turban and a clean, saffron-tinted robe in case I should encounter a higher official, or even the sultan himself, when I reached the palace: no one wants to see his new odalisque delivered by a slaver dressed in the threadbare headgear of some drunken dromedary driver. Then I paced the reception lounge, watching the light cast on my fine painted pottery collection grow redder and dimmer as the sun sank. It brought out a shifting series of patterns from the complex designs that ornamented the pots’ elegantly rounded surfaces, until they blended into an indistinct gray, and eventually shadow.
It was a sunset I could have savored if Mala’s ill-advised escape for an unscheduled shopping trip hadn’t delayed her delivery. And–what was taking her so long?
I rapped loudly.
“O odalisque,” I called in a tone that was neither my most patient nor my most friendly attempt at verbally soothing a slave to avoid the tiresome duty of swinging a whip (a source of progressive wear and tear on the shoulder joint that had eventually afflicted my grandfather with a painful dislocation, after which he never ceased to recommend the use of thumb screws).
She didn’t respond; I opened the door anyway.
“No–” she cried in a high-pitched keen. That vulnerable, childlike voice again, the one I’d heard briefly when we left the well.
It was hard to see inside: the fading twilight only shone against the upper walls, leaving the area where her figure slouched before the mirror cloaked in near darkness.
As I approached she let the razor fall to the table and bent her head, covering her scalp with her hands and sobbing quietly.
While a cranially deficient slaver would rectify such poor behavior by main force, the agile thought-worms rapidly rippling against my generously arched occipital dome made me aware that any indelicate mishandling of such a fickle female would fatally delay the all-important impending delivery, or else induce the sort of blemishes that would be unlikely to heal within the next few hours. Thus I adopted a gentle and sympathetic attitude that might damage my reputation for stern discipline if word ever reached the gossip-prone local slaving community.
I touched her shoulders first, with an extreme gentleness that nevertheless caused her to go stiff and still; and after exerting my powers of invention to compose an unhabitually comforting phrase, whispered: “There there, dear. My whip arm’s weary; my thumbscrews are packed away on a high shelf. You’ve no need to pile worry on mental matter that has already, on several occasions today, been overtaxed by walking and speaking at the same time.”
“Don’t look at me, I’m hideous,” she sobbed.
“Shush, dear.” I patted her shoulders again. “Just keep your head down and breathe; you missed a few spots in the back. Don’t move. I’ll be right back.”
I found a striker and lit a lamp, which I placed beside the mirror. Her scalp was almost bare, but marred by a few small cuts and one tuft of hair that lingered like black hen’s down stuck to a white egg.
“Stay still,” I said, and carefully shaved off the remaining hair. Then I glued the red wig over her scalp. I’d only given it a cursory rinse, and it still bore traces of its previous owners, but there was no time left: the sky outside was full dark. I prayed that whatever combination of lust and opium haze addled the sultan’s brains this particular evening would prevent him from remarking the flaws in her presentation; after so long without a new odalisque, he should feel desperate for anything with a mop of red threads attached to it–the details as irrelevant as spice to a starving man.
“Ouch! Does this wig have fleas?” Her voice was indignant but muffled; she kept her chin to her chest. An improvement in mood, I thought. Perhaps she had returned to normal.
“You’ll have to wash it as soon as you have an opportunity, my dear, but be sure you don’t scrub hard enough to wear the glue off. Everything’s done, you can look now.”
She turned her face up to the mirror. Her eyes were still closed; kohl had painted ashen tears down her cheeks.
She opened them. “Oh my,” she said. “I’m a redhead.” She was surprised, still shaken from her tears, and… pleased.
“Yes,” I said. “A redhead who needs to redo her makeup with a degree of alacrity that only street harlots accustomed to the rainiest Occidental climes have learned to achieve with any consistency—if she wants to survive her first night in the sultan’s harem.”
I brought a damp cloth and she went to work on her face with renewed enthusiasm. I let her put on the new clothes she’d bought, which were more stylish than I expected. Then we left.
We walked as quickly as the absurd stilt shoes she insisted on wearing permitted. The night was quiet; the moon a sliver that resembled the arc of a woman’s closed eyelid: an ivory line on blue-black skin.
We said little. She was nervous, and I was tormented by the worry that tardiness in a VIP delivery would weaken my hold on the luxury odalisque market.
Soon we saw the familiar shape of the harem’s maintenance entrance illuminated in gold. I stopped her just out of earshot: she turned and looked at me steadily, but couldn’t conceal a hint of fear.
“Remember, dear Mala, to imitate the ways of Occidental females: you are afflicted by irrational guilt, negligent of your ancestors and cousins, brought up on prudish customs and several varieties of gruel, in a land where ‘couscous’ is nothing but a poor imitation of the sounds made by amorous pigeons. You are independent, but desperate to fall under the sway of a rapacious yet handsome male who will free you from the psychological burden of being responsible for your own decisions. Seduction at the hands of a foreigner is a double success, since you can thereby satisfy your carnal lust without in any way diminishing the sense of self-loathing you feel for yourself and your own people. You will alternate between righteously spurning him to primly admire your own impulse to chastity, and obliquely throwing yourself at his feet to be treated as his least valuable chattel—thus orgiastically flagellating yourself in a manner incomprehensible to any man whose profession has not revealed such a pattern to him with the erosive force of repetition.
“Go now, and be happy,” I said.
The Chief Eunuch’s Secretary’s assistant was waiting just inside the gate. “You’re late,” he said curtly. “I have instructions to lead the new odalisque directly to the royal bedchamber. You should pray she outlasts her predecessor.”
I waited for him to continue speaking, but no invitation to meet the sultan, or even the Chief Eunuch, was forthcoming. I looked at Mala. “Remember everything we discussed,” I said.
She nodded. All fear had disappeared from her face: she walked toward her new life in the harem as if she were the sultana herself.
The night was growing cool, and the elated agitation that had sustained me through what was heretofore the busiest and most significant day on my life’s journey toward the office of evil vizier cooled in turn, and before I was halfway home: even my excitement at having fulfilled an important commission was muted by an unfamiliar sense of regret. It occurred to me, in passing, that Mala had been far more interesting than any of the true Occidental redheads I was accustomed to selling.
No matter; she was the sultan’s now and till her death, and wouldn’t be seen outside the harem for all the rest of her days.
I entered my rooms behind the office, took off my turban, and lay on my couch.
It was very quiet; a curtain swayed slowly in the moonlight behind a half-open window. I fell into a deep sleep.
Continued in Chapter VII – Slaver on Holiday