I searched everywhere: behind the bags of couscous and neatly hung tools of torture in my closet, under the elaborately decorated cushions of my sales reception room’s couches, and even in the large iron dog cage where I sometimes held intractable new arrivals, but the missing slave was nowhere to be found.
I need hardly explain 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 others as well. My assistant, upon hearing of my disgrace, might conclude that the high esteem in which he likely held my person was unfounded, undergo a shattering crisis of faith culminating in suicide, and herald his departure from this earth with a note slandering my name, thereby disturbing the erotic frolicking of my father, peace be upon him, in the gardens of paradise somewhere far overhead. True, his knowledge of writing was limited to the numerals we used for quarterly slave sales calculations; but what if the defamatory intention of his scribblings came through nonetheless?
In this self-sacrificial spirit of concern for my fellow man I vowed to find Mala before evening, whatever the cost. My search uncovered only one clue to her whereabouts: someone had disturbed my chest of odalisque outfits. Since Occidental girls are typically wearing unfashionable and indeed 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, proud to achieve higher profit margins with more modest capital resources, had decided not to expand our business beyond a size where we could know each customer in the luxury upmarket sector personally.)
Further inspection revealed the absence of a ruffled pink blouse and a matching veil which had lain at the bottom of the chest. If the 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. The blame, then, surely fell to Mala herself.
Yet where could she go? There’d be no refuge for a runaway odalisque in the Orient. Nor could she find any marriage more luxurious than concubinage to our sultan—and indeed, what woman wouldn’t offer herself up to a sex slaver for the smallest chance at the pampered life now awaiting her in the world’s most magnificent palace? As for fleeing to the Occident, that seemed more improbable still. The abstemious ideals, drab fashions, and gloomy weather there drove the best men to fight mock battles with the giant pinwheels they’d erected to ease the monotony of their mold-colored landscapes (so my tutor had informed me long ago), or else to try their luck testing the ocean’s unmapped extremities that they might thus escape the dull domesticity of their frigid females, who required the heat and color of the Orient to come alive. It was a region that could hardly be recommended for seasonal tourism, let alone permanent habitation. Nevertheless, since the low capacity for reason allotted to females of even the most notable cranial dimensions was no secret to a man of my experience, these logical objections failed to dissuade me from the counterintuitive conviction that Mala had fled slavery entirely 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 palpate my merchandise gently, the fervid manual inspection he was carrying out on her toes struck me as an excessive imposition from someone who was yet to make a purchase in my shoppe. So I bid him mind the sign my father had mounted above our slave display (“To bruise is to buy”: rather ineloquent, but nostalgia barred me from removing it), smiled jovially and made some friendly remarks to take the sting off the rebuke, pointed out the straight teeth of the third odalisque, and then excused myself on pressing business.
I left the office and went directly to the nearest bathhouse. 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. I waited for him impatiently on a damp stone bench in the small but clean marble-tiled room I was assigned. Mostly serviced by Occidental youths (known for their disobedient dispositions) it was nevertheless an admirably orderly operation. The thought filled me with pride in our industrious middle class.
The boy had come into my possession last year when my pirate partners threw him in as a free bonus to a disappointing shipment of odalisques; and since I only trade in sex slaves of the weaker sex, I’d immediately sold him to another slaver, who’d auctioned him in turn to this venerable establishment. The proprietor guided him to my bench and gave me a professional smile and wink before departing. As soon as we were alone with 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 with whom 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 muffled by its stone walls rushed back: innumerable dirty faces were pressing past. I pretended to inspect the 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 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 him the best banana and a second for myself, and then turned my turban south. The fruit in question felt, in fact, of perfect ripeness, and it was only with reluctance and in a spirit of invention that I destined it for a non-culinary purpose.
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 sun is directly overhead, and one never grows entirely accustomed to the result. So I normally preferred to pass the afternoon on the couch in the shade of my customer reception lounge, instructing my newest slaves in the appropriate techniques for cooling their owner with ostrich and peacock feather fans, sometimes supplemented with recently removed items of their own clothing (even simple skills such as these are unfamiliar to newly captured Occidental girls, though the duty of instruction is perhaps not a professional sex slaver’s most onerous responsibility). To make today’s unpleasant deviation from my routine more tolerable, 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 given advance orders to filch my fruit, I reached my destination. 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,” “Juanita,” “Jeanne,” “Johanna,” and so forth—with appellations that are more amenable to our civilized tongue, such as “Crystal,” “Amber,” “Gemma,” and “Ruby,” 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 on that particular day.
Following a polite introduction wherein I employed sophisticated verbiage to exhibit my respectable standing 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 would say no more until I explained the motivation for my inquiry.
I could hardly acknowledge the missing person was my odalisque without risking irreparable harm to my reputation. After all, what kind of slaver is so careless as to allow a genuine escape, let alone the escape of an insufferably loud-mouthed sex slave who might gallivant about imprinting her master’s embarrassment on the mind of every upstanding citizen in the bazaar? I decided it best to thoroughly conceal my identity by adopting the air of a confused but good-natured husband.
“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 in a fashion highly damaging to their complexions if I’d not separated them 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, the seemingly endless caloric requirements of your slaves, and seasonal updates to your interior decorating mercilessly oblige you to achieve high sales figures, 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 look 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 a thickly coiffed chin and an unusually rotund cranium, beg their fathers to arrange our marriage; and being a generous fellow, it’s hard for me to turn them away.”
The jeweler must have felt satisfied by an explanation that fit the observable facts so closely, for he replied, “Well, then. It seems your wife did pass through my store. But only to sell a ring; she didn’t mention anything about earrings.”
“Ah, indeed. Did she tell you anything else? Where she was headed next, perhaps?”
“I’m afraid not. She 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 select her clothes for such 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 effortlessly villainous gestures require 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 inflicting psychological pain that visitors to my own shop often used to vent their envy of my professional success. But today I was pressed for time, and had no choice but to leave before punishing his insolence with more refined means of demoralization than he merited.
The sultan’s sex slave subscription had brought me no end of headaches, as well as 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 such a troublesome odalisque once and for all. Provided I could find her before tonight’s scheduled delivery. Indeed, such was my longing for freedom (a common emotion for any hard-working slaver burdened with a recalcitrant slave, or worse still, forced to chase an escaped one) that I would have rushed past her, standing as she did 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 shopping 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 turned a bulky bag swung on her shoulder. How much had she already bought?
Everyone on the street stopped to watch. 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 means 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,” “dried date,” “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.”
“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. We mustn’t draw attention, lest the sultan hear rumors of the elaborately devious deception behind my sex slave substitution stratagem and discover that not all exotic imports are imported, nor even exotic. Your stake in this subterfuge is as great as mine. What if your high-pitched haggling had allowed someone to recognize your voice?”
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. Though 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. I decided to drive him off with an intimidating display of my upright habits, causing him to feel ashamed that he’d been seen by a respectable sex-slave trader whilst roaming the bazaar during business hours in the manner of an underemployed camel drover; after which embarrassment would surely 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 because I happened, at that moment, to be standing 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 voice who was standing beside and very slightly above me.
Faced with a familiar acquaintance who knew me for the eligible bachelor I was, I could hardly maintain the pretense of being a husband of average wit maneuvered by his wives into an unpleasantly long shopping trip; so I informed him instead that she was my cousin, visiting from the countryside to catch up on the latest fashion trends—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.”
“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 Oriental slave trade with scarcely any reward beyond his own untimely demise at the hands (metaphorically speaking) of one 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 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 widening of his eyes accompanied his goodbyes.
As soon as he was out of view, I confiscated her shopping 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 as soon as 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 from any buyer appraised of your true hair color, let alone one afflicted by the waggings of your untiring tongue. Yet your foolhardy flight from my beneficent clutches suggests that you passed those weeks 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 dined), in the hope 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 odalisque 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 even non-precious navel rings forced me to flee 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 more 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 a perverse preference for glabrous girls that you take, for very good reason, special pains to conceal.”
“An empty accusation, made out of spite,” I replied with labored patience, for the type of correction she merited would cause too much damage to her skin in such close proximity to her delivery, “and no doubt to conceal your growing attachment to my person; for if you believed I’d no intention to sell you, why would you bother with a dangerous excursion whose sole purpose was 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 storage space—and not, as you should have stopped to consider, protective garments certified to meet the applicable workplace safety requirements for outdoor sex slavery, nor in any other way capable of absolving you from the need to promenade in the shelter of shade during our journey home. Depending on my pirate partners’ fortunes, I’ve even been known to house cariyes, masseurs, and galley slaves for brief intervals; and these too must exchange the filth they arrive in for simple local garments before being passed on to more appropriate retailers. 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. Each female 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 crucifix—my own innovation, and a source of perennial delight for my customers.”
“It all sounds rather generic.” But curiosity got the better of her before she could continue with a more memorable dismissal. “So . . . where exactly will you say I’m from?”
“Wherever you like, provided it’s distant enough to be properly exotic.”
“Oh," she said, suddenly warming to the subject, "I adore exotic. Somewhere cloudy and cold, with terrible weather and even worse food, inhabited by miserable peasants, many and various species of mollusks, and nobles who live in big tubes made out of gray blocks like 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, happy to jump on anything that might encourage her to embrace her new role with more than her typical enthusiasm before the sultan’s rapidly approaching inspection put my scheme to a demanding test. “There’s a famous pirate’s sea chanty about the region that best fits your description; though I’ve yet to make any sense of the lines ‘where peasants do crimes / to be shipped to sunnier climes.’”
“They make perfect sense. How would you feel if it were cloudy several days in a row?”
“Quite right. At any rate, these matters are of little importance; it’s clear 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 not a moment to waste. Your delivery has been rescheduled for this very evening.”
I resumed a brisk walk, finding that the declining sun had already left the bricks beneath my slippers. This time she matched my pace uncomplainingly. Perhaps identification with her role 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 liver.
“It’s just as well I bought new clothes. In fact, my shopping trip showed foresight 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 it’s safe to set my pale little feet in that ramshackle rented office of yours a second time?”
“‘Valuable’ imitation imported odalisque—and I own not only that office, my dear, but for the next several hours—” I began to remind her with less than fully compelling menace; but abruptly interrupted my admonition to grasp her by the waist and spin her off the street—a cart was careening through in a cloud of dust, the cursing driver displaying a singular lack of respect for my future eminence.
I pressed her protectively between myself and the peach plaster of a riad’s outer wall until it was gone. She wasn’t breathless for long. In place of thanks I was accused of arranging excuses to sample my finest merchandise before selling it as new; and when we resumed our journey she showed herself entirely uncowed by my usual suite of threats.
It was becoming apparent she’d noticed, despite being still technically my slave and therefore fully at the command of my slightest whim, that my need for her willing cooperation severely limited my options for coercion, and that, in point of fact, her position this afternoon was essentially invulnerable.
“Only you and I know that I’m not a real Occidental,” she said with a sly and playful lightness once we had resumed walking; “and after I put on this 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 any harm coming to you from my clientele,” I said brusquely while dodging a wagon of waterskins; then went on, “I am, in the first place, rather stronger than I look, having exercised myself on a regular basis, as part of a slaver’s basic fitness regime, in the repetitive use of the cat-of-nine-tails; I am frequently compelled to restrain the multiple nude, wet odalisques who mob me with all their jiggling and wiggling whenever I compel them to bathe (for Occidentals regard cleanliness with a superstitious fear); and above all I bear the constant burden of this expansive cranium, which you can’t help but regard in amazement 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 revolting fetishes my clients may evince 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 admit I sometimes suffered from the same hepatic gag reflex in my callow youth, believing, for example, interest in sodomy to be restricted to those unable to afford beauty, who therefore distract themselves from the rotten teeth of their half-price harlots and withered wives by means of unnatural oddities best left to those who linger overlong in our hammams; and I dreamt of selling only the finest and subtlest specimens of genuine feminine beauty to an undeserving but also extremely wealthy collection of discerning customers. Yet just as the promise of reward gradually inspires even the lowest street walker to learn the most lucrative use of her tongue, so too do dinars teach the trader to treat every potential customer with equanimity. Thanks to this undiscriminating lens of profit, it’s of no consequence to me which perversions a client indulges (barring the over-age girls strictly forbidden by law), what trade he plies, who his parents are, how small his cranium is, how high one can estimate his statistical likelihood of engaging in violent crime on the basis of superficial but still very well correlated physical characteristics, whom he murders, which devil he sells his soul to, nor even whether he knows how to properly tie his turban—though, in the last case the leveling force of avarice sometimes fails to restrain my deepest instincts, and at the sight of a bedraggled headdress I have to force down the acrid phlegm of disgust before I can finalize a contract.”
“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 simply rob my office with impunity?”
“Why yes,” she said. “But I considered it beneath my dignity to filch the few pennies you manage to earn selling poxy prostitutes who’ve outstayed their welcome at the brothel to a clientele of blind bargain-hunters.” She began this phrase in her usual cutting tone, yet for a few brief words she sounded less than honestly demeaning—almost as if she were enjoying herself. Since her veil obscured the details of her expression, there was no way to be sure.
“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, having been trained in purse-snatching during the ignoble childhood your previous slaver wisely concealed with a counterfeit certificate of provenance: had I suspected the truth I’d have found a very different well from which to draw my fraudulent Occidental. As the ancient proverb records, ‘For every virtuous slave there are three shirkers plotting to slaughter their master, steal all his possessions, and flee to a foreign land where they can spend the rest of their lives sipping fine wine from the navels of concubines.’”
“I don’t think that’s actually a proverb,” she replied easily. “And your speculations about my provenance are so far from the truth as to make the preceding stream of comical claims seem insufficiently foolish in comparison. My family was altogether respectable before my father, a skilled 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 repossessed 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 however, my dear, did you acquire that bag of new clothes—not to mention the unusually tall shoes you purchased 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 feeble but still extremely 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 a surprising oversight,” I replied, “since neither I nor your less capable former slaver remarked a ring of any kind even when you were quite thoroughly naked. If your story is true—which remains unlikely—you surely wound it into that voluminous head of dark hair on which you, lacking any other striking attributes, so vocally pride yourself.”
“Certainly not. I would never risk split ends just for a rare 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.”
“Are you astonished that your slight shoulders don’t support the only brain in this bazaar, or are you simply more squeamish than one would expect from a used-concubine salesman with regular experience concealing the signs of venereal disease?” she asked. “I admit it was often uncomfortable, and continually threatened to fall out at the most inopportune times: I was more than happy to be rid of it. I’ve already decided to request a large pearl from my next owner instead.”
“You’ll have more than one pearl if you please the sultan, my dear, and no need to conceal it in a passage 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 unstable 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 said with an artificial laugh, as if 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 find yourself inclined to acknowledge your true identity and again face a slow death at the bottom of a deep well, or perhaps a less creative torment administered by the officials responsible for reprimanding escaped slaves—typically, guards sacked from our city dungeons for excessive and unwarranted brutality. An impressive accomplishment given the standards in place there, though from the perspective of a commercial slaver who prides himself on the unblemished surface of every product in his showroom, their enthusiasm doesn’t justify their lack of finesse. Would you, then, like to register a complaint, dear Mala?” I inquired obligingly. “The appropriate offices are not far from our destination.”
“That’s not my name,” she said with distinct displeasure; and despite her dangerous footwear, which she managed with surprising agility, she adopted a still brisker pace and refused to look at me for some way.
As this was the sole retort she could muster, I let it pass uncorrected.
After such a persuasive warning I intended to follow my usual habit and remind Mala of the immeasurably shiny future sex slavery opens to all the sultan’s odalisques, without, of course, mentioning the innumerable other conniving beauties also striving for elevation to his small circle of favorites (the pride born from their steady diet of flattery ever prevents young women from guessing the depth of this competitive challenge before their first fortnight in the harem), when a half-overheard phrase caught my attention instead.
We had entered at last 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 which included the merchant of olive oil and the seller of seals, 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 brunette.
“. . . 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”—he illustrated by waving his hands over his head—“and landed on the awning over the fish market”—he drew one hand down before him and then slapped the other’s back into its palm. “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 big 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 some woman . . . appeared out of a cloud and fell on the fish market?” one of the tradesmen asked, smiling and ribbing the fellow on his left as if he was about to say something very clever. “Even water hasn’t done that this year!”
“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 tellin’ 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 voice pitched to carry through the little circle of listeners and off into the bazaar.
“Not long ago a young woman was buried there, you see,” I told them, eliding my aristocratically crisp consonants into the neighborly tone of their friendly local slave dealer. “She’d been purchased 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 the slave salesman, and her unusually prominent 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 an overripe 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 circulated through her quivering cranial fauna held on to life long enough to vow a great vow of vengeance—a 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 recruited the aid of a 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 after she was interred—until a sinister conjunction of planets last night empowered him to raise her from the grave to terrorize our most beautiful females. Though they were scarcely any competition for the deceased, 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.
“Why the harbor?”
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 merciless blows of the jealous incense-holder holders, and are no longer eating their own tails in the normal fashion, but subsisting on ooze and earwax, or even devouring each other—causing severely impaired post-mortem cognition that would be more intuitively grasped by the concerned citizens here assembled than one such as I.”
“Lots of whores there!” said the boy.
“Zombies eat people,” the boy went on, 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, whose purported culinary habits were surely too ridiculous to keep the crowd entranced for long.
“Is this ‘zombie’ who I think it is?” asked Mala.
“I’m quite impressed by the quality of that magic carpet cleaner,” I replied, “though the tale would have been much simpler to tell had she made it all the way into the harbor.”
“Naturally I had to prepare an explanation for the empty grave; all the better if it provides a convenient justification for your disappearance from that dry well as 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 wholly consumed, or at least suborned, by this flying zombie odalisque when she crossed by chance over your well and opted to make a pit-stop for food there on the way from the graveyard to the harbor.”
“You can’t possibly have planned for such an absurd story.”
“I’d hardly tear a corpse out of the ground and risk dirtying the expensive fabric of my well-tailored robes, instead of digging her out with leisurely dips of my spade, if I hadn’t schemed 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’re nearly at my office. You shall wait here, pretending to peruse the stalls that haven’t yet closed. You are not, under any circumstances, to do more shopping. I’ll go in ahead and send my assistant home early. After you see him leave, come to the back entrance. If anyone should notice you, show him the bag of clothes and tell him you’re our seamstress’ new intern, here to make a delivery.”
“Even with a heavy veil and giant couscous-sack-shaped dress, any passerby can see I’m too attractive to be a mere seamstress’ intern. What if they neglect to consider your unfortunate nose and conclude I’ve been lured here for some romantic dalliance?”
“It’s true that your tent-like clothing could inspire great feats of imagination behind the foreheads of the oversexed peasants who roam the bazaar, even if the unremarkable figure it actually conceals would have to gyrate with special suppleness merely to transiently tickle their testes; but since your master is free to sample any of the preowned goods he resells, few would suspect him of such intentions in your regard, just as few would accuse a pasha with rich gardens of pilfering the passed-over dates rolling loosely on a returning merchant’s cart.” In fact, given that a sex slaver’s labors never cease and his odalisque access rights are second only to the sultan’s, I had in those days neither time nor cause to court the free females who, though exhibiting a distinctly intimidated aversion to my Luxury Odalisque Shoppe, undoubtedly took a lively interest in my person.
I turned and went inside without listening to the vainglorious reply my companion began to unroll. Everything went smoothly: I packed away the display odalisques (ignoring their complaints of bruised toes), put up the “CLOSED” sign, admonished my assistant for his predictable failure to sell any of them, and sent him home.
Mala slipped in by the back door. As soon as she saw the building was safely empty she threw off her veil.
“This thing has turned my hair into a matted, ratted mess,” she said.
“No matter,” I held up a razor.
Outside the dressing room windows the tops of the whitewashed buildings had turned pink. I closed the lower shutters, leaving the upper panes uncovered to let in the last of the setting sun, which tinted Mala’s pale skin the same color.
She insisted she was “more capable than the usual victims of your inept cosmetology,” and that her full-body shave would go smoothly if I left her to do it alone. To avoid wasting precious time, I agreed.
I had her slice off a big lock of thick black hair to prove her sincerity. For once she didn’t argue. Instead she 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. I showed none; after cautioning her against scrapes, 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. Any other middle-class merchant would have been worn down by the end of a long day of sweat and chaos, but relentless aspiration to evil vizierdom fueled my heart with an inexhaustible black flame. I changed into my best turban and a saffron-tinted robe in case I should encounter a higher official when I reached the palace, or perhaps even the sultan himself (‘Tie your turban for treasure,’ my father had always enjoyed repeating to me). Then I paced the reception lounge, watching the light on my fine painted pottery collection grow redder and dimmer as the sun sank. It brought out a shifting series of shadows from the ridges ornamenting the pots’ elegant curves, until everything blended into an indistinct gray. It was a sunset I could have savored if Mala’s ill-advised escape hadn’t delayed her delivery. And—what was taking her so long? Surely she hadn’t fled again?
I rapped loudly.
“O odalisque,” I called in a tone that could not be counted among my most patient attempts to substitute verbal coaxing for the tiresome obligation to swing a rod (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.
“No—” she cried in a high-pitched keen. That vulnerable, childlike voice again, the one I’d heard briefly as we were leaving the well.
It was hard to see inside: the fading light of dusk now lit only the tops of the walls, leaving the area where her figure slouched before the mirror veiled in 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 common slaver would rectify such poor behavior by main force, the agile thought-worms rippling against my generously arched occipital dome were aware that any indelicate mishandling of such a fickle female would both fatally delay the all-important impending delivery and dampen the enthusiastic mood she’d need to simulate Occidental prudishness with the appropriate flair. Thus I adopted a gentle and sympathetic attitude that might damage my reputation for stern discipline if word of it ever reached our 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, murmured: “There there, dear. My whip arm’s weary. 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 it was past time to depart: the windows showed full dark. I prayed that whatever combination of lust and narcotic haze addled the sultan’s brains this particular evening would prevent him from remarking the flaws in her presentation. After so many days without a new odalisque, he surely felt a desperate hunger for anything with a mop of red threads attached to it—the details as irrelevant as spices 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, I thought. Perhaps she’d 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. A redhead who needs to redo her makeup at a speed only street harlots accustomed to the rainiest Occidental climes have learnt to achieve with consistency—if, that is, she hopes 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. Tardiness put the usual search for a perfectly complimentary odalisque outfit out of the question, so I let her wear the new clothes she’d bought, which were more stylish than I expected. Then we hurried out.
The night was quiet; the moon a sliver resembling the arc of a woman's closed eyelid. We walked as quickly as the stilt shoes she again insisted on wearing permitted—she held my arm to keep her balance. Rather than slaver and slave, we looked much like a couple running late for a white-turban dinner party.
We said little, for she was nervous about her upcoming deflowering, and I was tormented by the fear that word of this delayed VIP delivery would tarnish my brand’s hard-won reputation for reliability. Eventually I saw, illumined in gold, the familiar shape of the harem’s maintenance entrance archway.
I pulled her to a halt just out of earshot, grasping both shoulders lest she fall from her high heels. She turned and gazed at me steadily, but she couldn’t conceal a hint of fear. Enhanced by her new coloration, the exceptional purity of her features seemed to make the night tremble like a reflecting pool.
“Remember, dear Mala, to imitate the ways of Occidental females. You are burdened with irrational guilt and prudish customs, negligent of your ancestors and cousins, and have been brought up on several equally unpalatable varieties of gruel in a land where ‘dates’ are but a means to count down the dreary months of winter hibernation, and ‘couscous’ a poor imitation of the sounds made by amorous pigeons. You are proudly independent, but desperate to fall under the sway of a rapacious and handsome male who will free you from the burden of responsibilty for your own short-sighted decisions. Seduction by a foreigner will provide a double victory, since you can thereby satisfy your carnal lust without in any way diminishing the perverse loathing you’ve been taught to feel for yourself and your own people. You will alternate between righteously spurning him to admire your self-image of prim chastity, and throwing yourself at his feet to be roughly used as his least valuable chattel—thus orgiastically flagellating yourself in a manner incomprehensible to any man whose profession has not disclosed such a pattern to him with the erosive force of repetition.
“Go now, and be happy,” I finished.
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, nor even the Chief Eunuch, was forthcoming. I looked at Mala. “Remember everything we discussed,” I told her.
She nodded. All fear had disappeared from her face, and she walked toward her new life in the harem as if she'd become the sultana herself.
The night was growing cool, and the elated agitation that had sustained me through the busiest and most significant day on my life’s journey toward the office of evil vizier cooled in turn before I was halfway home. My excitement at having fulfilled an important commission was muted by an unfamiliar sense of regret. It occurred to me 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 never again, for all the rest of her days, would she so much as breathe the same air as the men outside the harem.
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.
I fell into a deep sleep.
Continued in Chapter VII – Slaver on Holiday