I woke to a fine, bright morning, and lingered in bed watching sunlight filter through my thin curtains, contemplating the beautiful rugs on my walls, and idly plotting to win the sultan’s confidence, become his evil vizier, and gain de facto control of his almost endless empire.
After last night’s brilliant success at passing off a sun-starved local girl as a genuine Occidental redhead, I decided to take a holiday to enjoy the warm glow of victory and recover the peace of mind so necessary for the highest level of ambitious plotting. It was an indulgence I rarely granted myself, for a true slaver is stamped with a solid work ethic down to the deepest sediments of his mental mulch. Pretenders who think they can break into the industry just by kidnapping a few virgins and setting up an auction block—after which they expect dinars will flower from the sand—are always quickly disappointed, and retreat to easier careers in the management of actresses, prostitutes, and singers.
I put up a sign that read “SLAVER ON HOLIDAY,” and was silently vowing to do no business from sunrise to sunset, suppressing my productive impulses as if I’d been arrested and dragged away from the bazaar by force, when I remembered an important odalisque whose delivery was pending.
I’d been contracted to inflate her to an embonpoint that satisfied the buyer’s extravagant tastes, for which daily feeding was required. So I mixed some water into a pail of bespoke couscous—ground up to simulate the texture of those inedible “porridges” prepared in her homeland, and then sugared to create the illusion it was worth consuming in large quantities—and brought the resulting breakfast to her storage compartment, along with a large ladle, whose use I mimed for her in case she was incapable of keeping pace with my fluent command of the Occidental tongue. Naturally, I didn’t allow any of the gruel to pass between my lips. The other girls, I decided, could wait till evening.
There were only two activities capable of enjoyably diverting my mind from the thousand and one tasks I had to accomplish if I were to fulfill my destiny and become the evil vizier of an empire as vast as the desert itself: first, instructing my pre-owned odalisques in a variety of novel sexual positions, and second, tinkering with my collection of fine painted pottery.
I considered bringing some of my inventory out of storage for a practice session, but decided the day was too young to invite the kind of lethargy that was the usual aftermath of such activities. So I spent an hour in the reception lounge polishing my pottery collection by the morning light—a pleasant task I rarely had time to undertake myself. If I could just abduct a few more Occidental virgins and sell them to lustful despots, I reflected, I might be able to commission a true masterpiece—perhaps even afford a famous antique, or a pot inhabited by some beneficent household djinn. It was an encouraging thought, and reassured me that all my hard work slaving wasn’t in vain.
I rearranged the pots several times until I found a position that was both original and aesthetically appealing, then went out the back door, heading for a coffee shop situated on a side street in the direction of the palace and away from the shouting and braying that was already beginning to overwhelm the bazaar.
As I walked I thought over what I might do with the payment I was about to receive for Mala’s sale. An antique pot was tempting; but for many years I’d wanted to own a magic carpet. Financial prudence had always held me back, so instead of a carpet itself, I’d contented myself with a few shares in an index fund of major magic carpet weaving workshops, on account of which I indirectly owned fractional threads of very many carpets, and at much lower risk. As my father had always told me, “A wise merchant never puts all his camels in one caravan.”
Yet circumstances had changed. I was on the verge of an important achievement, namely, formal recognition as the premier supplier of the sultan’s harem; and it made sense to display some material evidence of my success to burnish the aura of my rising luxury slaving brand, thereby increasing profit margins on every Occidental virgin I’d enslave, import, and sell in the future. Sadly, my income from the initial installment in the sultan’s premium odalisque subscription payment plan would be almost entirely consumed by the high-interest debt I’d taken on to effectuate it, and despite the rush of dinars that would soon inundate my coffers like the silt-rich floodwaters of the Great River, at present I could barely afford necessary business expenses like frankincense and turquoise-tinted toenail polish.
In truth I did possess the means to pay the debt outright, had I been willing to part with my most valuable family heirlooms—a cache of relics passed down from some illustrious ancestor whose exact title was lost in the sands of time. But we’d long held this legacy to be a priceless boon that guaranteed our good fortune in business, and loyalty to my forefathers forbade me from betraying the family tradition. I’d signed for an usurious loan using only the least significant treasure in my chest as collateral: a ruby ring that was my share of the inanimate booty from a piracy expedition I’d underwritten the previous year (which had also netted two virgins and an old maid I'd traded to the city lion tamer for a set of season tickets to his show—very useful for entertaining clients).
Up to that point in my life I’d never missed a contractual deadline, and I was certain I could meet the necessary repayments with timely regularity. But even so, I needed to delay any major purchases for a few more weeks. As soon as I’d delivered the next scheduled redhead and cleared my debt, I’d make a public and extravagant—yet tastefully understated—display of my success.
I was skirting the edge of the bazaar to avoid being seen by any overenthusiastic clients who might spoil my rare holiday with demands I satisfy an urgent need for virgins (which are, in the strictest sense of the word, single-use items even the wealthiest pasha can run short of, and in a better world would be sold at corner stores along with other basic necessities like lamp oil, camel linament, and slipper repair kits) when I caught snatches of the morning gossip that was multiplying through the market like locusts through a field of ripe couscous singled out by the unerring finger of divine wrath.
The gossip was dominated by several conflicting explanations for the inexplicable zombie terror that had afflicted the city yesterday, though no one correctly guessed that a single corpse, animated by a magic carpet cleaner infused with patent pending levitation factors, had floated most of the way to the ocean before falling on some hapless fishmongers.
Some held that a captain’s wife had snuck onto his ship one morning whilst it was moored in the harbor, and therein caught her husband dallying with a cheap prostitute whose deficient beauty and rough manners were hardly worthy of his midshipmen, after which, during a fit of rage witnessed by all the seamen, and in the midst of excoriating his shamefully poor taste in terms that could hardly be denied by anyone present, she’d been struck by a lanyard that came loose in a sudden gust of strong wind, tore off her scalp, and toppled her into the sea. Through some unknown magic possibly involving a lamp long ago dropped to its bottom, she’d climbed from the harbor yesterday to terrorize the lowest-priced whores in the dockside brothel, undoubtedly murdering several of them—including one who’d intended to retire the very next day, but would sadly never know the wedded bliss she’d coaxed out of a pustulent pearl diver high on hashish.
Others claimed the sultan had at last grown tired of redheads, and in the immensity of his royal boredom—for surely he had already enjoyed the most beautiful women in his almost endless empire as well as those parts of the Occident easily accessible by sea—had turned to scalping them, tasting each one a final time as their thought-worms slid down their brows before he ordered them buried in the palace gardens as fertilizer for the rows of imported red tulips that now fascinated him more than women. It was further said that a watchful djinn, observing the sad plight of these discarded former redheads as he took his afternoon rest in the shade beneath the gardens’ ornamental trees, raised them from the earth and fortified their flesh with black magic, then urged them to wreak havoc on the entire capital (barring only mosques and other sanctified places) before finally descending on the sleeping sultan at the stroke of midnight. There was much speculation on the scheduled day for this culminating horror, but none felt confident enough to name it with certainty.
My version of the story, involving the dying wish of a new odalisque mercilessly slaughtered by her jealous co-workers, was repeated as well, and while the relative lack of salacious details gave it less weight with the crowd, it was held among more sober minds to be the likeliest explanation, being both more humble in proportion than the others, and in conformity with the known facts about feminine nature. Nearly everyone agreed, however, that there were now zombie odalisques roaming the city, and that young women should think twice about traveling anywhere alone at night, when these creatures were said to increase their numbers through a forcible conversion process similar to that enacted by our conquering armies, but accomplished much more quickly and by means of the teeth.
While I felt a certain possessive pride regarding my own tale, it was ultimately irrelevant which won out: the dramatic crash-landing of the half-headless Occidental virgin had made such a splash that no one would suspect the true motives behind Mala’s disappearance from the dry well, nor least of all guess that—far from joining an army of zombie odalisques whose size would steadily multiply under the laws of non-conservation governing such rumors until the whole story was abruptly forgotten in a few weeks’ time—she was even now lying peacefully at the sultan’s side.
Thus glutted on the delicious flavor of gossip favorable to my grand designs, and forgetting momentarily the dark cloud of debt that was just beginning to creep over the horizon into my clear Oriental skies, I strolled down the road to the coffee shop contemplating the brilliance of my achievements with a feeling of deep satisfaction.
Before I’d taken twenty paces, a uniformed guard marching through the traffic that flowed from the palace toward the bazaar paused to scrutinize me, then altered course to intersect my leisurely amble—which I’d slowed artificially to put myself in the mood I imagined a less driven merchant, deprived of the manic energy that lifted me inexorably toward high office, must feel at the start of his holiday. As he neared I noticed two more guards trailing, and heard my name, pronounced tentatively, escaping from the approximate area covered by a large mustache.
I acknowledged it with a slight downward tip of my turban, then asked how he’d come to know me; for although he appeared to be an unmemorable person too poorly remunerated to purchase any female worthy of my shoppe—the selective execution of his duties could at most garner a sufficient quantity of bribes to afford a heavily used odalisque on an extended repayment plan (an arrangement my own business, in point of fact, never offered)—I still had an excellent capacity for recalling irrelevant faces, and I was quite confident I’d not encountered his under any circumstance.
“I was,” he replied steadily, as if suppressing some emotion, “instructed to find a man with ‘a hook nose, a beard trimmed to conceal a weak chin, bulbous and shifty eyes that are rarely oriented in the same direction, and an unusually verbose manner of speech whose self-satisfied pomp is unjustified by his modest height,’” —he recited these words as if he had memorized them— “and should I fail to spot him by sight, to circulate his description through the bazaar until one of the merchants directed me to the distinctive individual in question.”
“Hm,” I replied. “You were lucky to cross me here alone on an almost entirely empty street, for the sorry inaccuracy of this verbal portrait would have doomed you to an endless maze of confusion as soon as you reached the bazaar.”
“As you say, effendi; but I’ve orders to bring you quietly to the palace. These men will ensure you’re not tempted by an opportunity to flee.” His two companions had in fact positioned themselves behind me while he spoke.
“And how do you propose to justify,” I raised my chin to a commanding angle, “such an insult to a man who is not only the Imperial Odalisque Supplier,” I casually invented a title, “but also serves in an occasional semi-official capacity as expert advisor to His Majesty on vital matters of feminine beauty?” I ought to spend more time practicing such intimidating faces in the mirror, I thought; for my day job as a slave salesman had trained me too well in the welcoming, subservient expressions that were necessary to put customers at ease, but useless for ruling over the type of military men I’d need to cow in my future position. On this particular occasion my attempt to pull rank seemed to have fallen flat, perhaps because it didn’t exist.
“I’m only to tell you there was a sudden death at the palace this morning, and that it’s best your arrest attract no undue attention.”
While it would certainly provide me with an excuse to leave the office for the day, and perhaps forever, this wasn’t the restful holiday I’d hoped for; and from the perspective of an aspiring evil vizier, the romantic aura of dungeons had more to do with throwing people into them than spending the night there oneself.
“If you’ll come along quietly, please.”
He gave a signal, not to me but to the men behind me, who now began to approach. Their hard gazes said they wouldn’t hesitate to tousle a trader’s turban, and I was forced to choose between acquiescing and making a highly visible spectacle out of my unwilling propulsion to the very same destination. So I brushed past their leader, ordered him to come along, and then strode ahead as if they were a detail of bodyguards assigned to protect me on my way to counsel the sultan about important affairs of state. It was the first time I’d profit from such a public relations coup, but not the last.
In retrospect this nonviolent arrest was an unusual show of professionalism from a class of men who habitually treat anyone without a name ending in “Pasha” or “Bey” as if their lives are as worthless and transient as the Occidental males destined for our galleys. But while it was happening my opinion was quite to the contrary; and I spent the first half of our march glaring at the three two at a time with my recently maligned but still unusually adept eyes; and the second half, after they learned to ignore me and ceased exchanging bewildered glances, wondering what could have possibly happened in the harem, and whether my oncoming fate would save me from the trouble of repaying my debts at the price of a premature conclusion to my material existence.
Had Mala been the one to die—at the hands, perhaps, of jealous favorites who felt threatened by a newcomer’s superior beauty, just as in the zombie tale I’d spun yesterday? Or had she, in a fit of spite at some untoward remark, nudged an unsuspecting eunuch off one of the palace’s delicately carved balconies into a reflecting pool never designed for diving? Or had the sultan himself discovered our fraud, and suffocated Mala under one of the beautifully embroidered turquoise and gold pillows fabricated exclusively for his harem by craftsmen trained from infancy in that admirable art? These and many other guesses streamed through my mind, without any standing out as more persuasive than the rest.
Though the weather at that hour was still pleasant and moderate, and indeed perfect for the holiday I’d planned, the method of transport left something to be desired. As I pressed ahead, periodically striking authoritative poses to create the illusion I’d arrested the guards rather than the other way around (I decided this had more appeal than my initial plan to portray them as hired muscle), I began to experience a type of nervous tension I’d rarely endured in my life as a small-business owner, but which would become more and more frequent as I continued my ascent to the kiosks of power.
Those called to great deeds from a humble station often pay a physical price for their lofty aspirations, since the pressures exerted on the extraordinarily sensitive mental matter of one gifted enough to attain high office by dint of effort rather than birthright—and especially the pressures exerted by unpredictable events threatening the safety of one’s person—damage over time the bile ducts, dysregulating their capacity to smooth and balance the flow of humors ascending the neck. In my case this manifested as a nervous tic, where one or both of my ocular organs would briefly spin—the right clockwise, the left counterclockwise—without any intention on my part to execute such a difficult maneuver. The involuntary googling would increasingly afflict me in moments of extreme excitement, whether positive or negative, and sometimes at inconvenient intervals, with the useful side-effect of confusing and intimidating whoever happened to be watching.
If my eyes did execute a double-inverse-half-spin somewhere between the bazaar and the palace, however, my ostensible prisoners took no notice, for fatigue with the more modest visual fireworks of my intentional rapid eye motions had already caused them to look away from my face, monitoring me only indirectly. Our journey thus passed uneventfully until, to my surprise and growing suspicion, they turned aside before we came within sight of the Peerless Portal. Our detour circled the palace walls, then terminated not at the guardhouse, but at the familiar harem maintenance entrance I’d departed in a triumphant mood just the previous night.
Thenceforth my questions were ignored with even greater impassivity than before, and all pretense of conviviality was dropped, for we had left the curious city crowds behind; and while I studied the guards ominously to ensure their faces were fixed in my skull for an as yet undetermined punishment which, though extremely dire, would necessarily be delayed until after I’d won the sultan’s ear, I was pushed inside and downstairs, to an empty room near the end of a long hallway on an underground level somewhere below the eunuchs’ quarters, and unceremoniously tossed behind a heavy door.
The guards closed it, and then all was quiet and I was alone.
Six faces of unpolished stone, with a slit at the edge of the ceiling intended to serve as a window, or rather a breathing hole, and no decoration apart from a few wooden chairs ill-matched to the palace’s elaborately ornamental style—and indeed so plainly functional they might be mistaken for Occidental furniture. When I was at the sultan’s side, I thought, I’d recommend a new interior decorator for such locations, and explain that even the lowliest cell in the palace should remind the undeserving prisoners awaiting execution of his magnanimous generosity.
For many hours no one came, and I watched the sliver of sun move across the floor. Such solitude was disconcerting and unfamiliar. I’d grown up in the human resources industry, perpetually surrounded by people, or at least chattel. In the blank silence my mind raced along several tracks at once, none reaching a useful end. But if my absent captors expected to mix up my mental matter by canceling an exceedingly rare holiday and then prolonging the uncertainty surrounding my probably unjustified imprisonment in an interrogation chamber that wasn’t hung with a single carpet, they’d chosen the wrong slaver to toy with. Their petty waiting game implied that whatever case they had against me lacked the kind of hard evidence that could convict me without the need to induce a verbal misstep; and implied too that the sultan, whose absolute power required no recourse to such underhanded tactics, knew nothing of my predicament.
As soon as I reached this conclusion my agitation subsided into a type of alertness conducive to plotting, whereupon I devoted the noontime and the afternoon to this delightful activity, which flew by with remarkable speed. The daily habit of scheming for power, beyond its obvious practical utility, elevates the aspiring vizier above the common run of mortals—protecting him from the vicissitudes of the present by tethering him, with the invisible threads of thought, to the distant yet gloriously evil future that one day awaits him. Whether he stands at the summit of a dune or lies at the bottom of a dungeon, such meditation is a protective talisman for his soul, radiating black flames that ward off despair and self-doubt.
Eventually, at a time I calculated to be late afternoon by the lengthening light, the door opened. Through it ducked the Chief Eunuch’s Secretary—the same man who, a few nights earlier, had questioned me outside the harem performance kiosk’s turquoise windows about the terminal late onset seasickness that hadn’t provably not afflicted my original false redhead. He was followed by a uniformed guard around the age of fifty, whose bearing exuded considerably more gravitas than my escorts from the bazaar this morning. Since I then understood nothing of military or police insignia, I was unable to identify his precise rank, but guessed—correctly as it later turned out—that he was the captain of the palace guard, known formally as the “Chief Gardener,” since by tradition it included the groundskeepers as well (this term causes no end of confusion for foreigners). I sat calmly as they entered, and instead of greeting them with the histrionic outrage my abduction merited, merely raised a single expressive eyebrow.
During my years in the luxury sex slave trade I’d discovered that men whose pretensions exceed their intelligence are sometimes so taken with the delights of minimalism that they voluntarily overlook a breathtakingly voluptuous and dazzlingly bejewelled female in favor of an underdeveloped waif with an upturned nose. To flatter such customers when their financial resources justify a degree of pandering that would otherwise lead even the most dedicated slave salesman to turn up his own nose in turn, I communicate with simple phrases specially selected to conjure a mirage of profundity (some of which I’ve adapted from messages hidden inside the complimentary cookies our long-haul caravans bring back with large shipments of fine silk), such as “An expert carpet weaver needs but one color of thread,” or “A painter’s mastery is visible in a single brushstroke on a very lightweight clay pot,” or “Words left unspoken are more meaningful than long and florid poems—especially if the latter contain adverbs.” After loosening their thought-worms with these well-loved lies and misdirections, I praise the perspicaciousness of their efficiently sized crania, and close by quoting an exceedingly non-minimal price for an exceedingly minimal female, imported at below-average shipping cost and sold “tastefully unadorned”—thereby abusing their self-regard to further reduce clothing expenses. My plan for escaping the palace dungeons, then, was to similarly outclass my interrogators with the lapidary concision of my responses, amplified by my noble visage and the confident authority evident in my bearing, until they acknowledged the untenability of their position and, after profuse apologies, set me free to finish my holiday.
Unfortunately the nervous tension I’d built up earlier in the day hadn’t entirely passed out of my organs, and my quickening pulse as they entered caused my eyes to whirl two or three times, simultaneously but poorly synchronized and in opposing directions, in the manner I indicated previously. Executed by some lesser individual, this unfamiliar ocular gesture might have hampered any attempt to bedazzle and intimidate them with personal charisma. Instead, bolstered by my nascent aura of dark power, it confused and unbalanced my interrogators in a highly propitious fashion, causing them to begin their questioning from a position of uncertainty and weakness.
They took the remaining two chairs, then the Chief Eunuch’s Secretary, already a little distracted, asked haltingly: “Where were you this morning . . . in the small hours preceding sunrise?” He had a high pitched but not completely feminine voice and a tendency to emphasize certain slightly mispronounced vowels.
“Where? I was asleep at home, dreaming of . . .”
I couldn’t possibly tell him I’d been invading the Occident, having in the earlier part of my dream achieved de facto dominion over our almost endless empire.
“I was asleep at home, dreaming of . . . four houris belly-dancing on an unstable and indeed quickly crashing magic carpet, who competed with the onrushing earth for my rapt attention,” I almost said—but stopped myself before my mouth opened, recalling the guiding maxims of minimalism: any rich and evocative response, however compelling it might seem to an active nest of thought-worms, had to be rejected outright if I were to impress the targeted tier of mediocre minds.
Finally, after a long pause pregnant with meaning, I intoned:
“I dreamt of . . . houris.”
“Houris. And can anyone confirm that you were indeed at home last night, dreaming these alleged dreams of houris?” the Chief Gardener asked in a skeptical tone.
“Don’t you mean ‘dreaming these dreams of alleged houris?’” interrupted the eunuch.
“No I do not,” the gardener replied dourly. “Since the divinity would never staff the heavenly gardens with the same manner of revolting women found in brothels and at the edges of bazaars, the existence of houris isn’t in question. Whereas this man’s word that he was, in fact, dreaming last night is dubious at best. But in any case,” he turned back to me, “can someone confirm that you were indeed at home last night, dreaming these alleged dreams of alleged houris?” he asked this time, to the eunuch’s visible satisfaction.
“Yes, and . . . no,” I said—a reply that was only three words too long to be deemed an unsurpassably pithy show of brevity.
“Yes and no? Can they or can’t they?”
“Indeed, there are nearly a dozen sex slaves on my premises that can confirm I fed them yesterday evening; but who can say what another man might dream?”
“An evasive answer. This is starting to become a pattern.” The Chief Gardener, it seemed, was unaware that a pattern requires repeated elements, and we were, strictly speaking, still on the first question.
The eunuch nodded in agreement with his colleague, though he was still looking at me. “A pattern of evasive answers—duly noted.” He didn’t note anything in the physical sense, not having brought papyrus or pen, but seemed to feel his authority magnified by the implication that our interview was being recorded for posterity—which it was, dear readers; though not by him.
The Chief Gardener watched me for a while—another delay intended to weaken my resolve, but soon abandoned as hopeless—and then asked, “Why were you caught fleeing the bazaar this morning?”
I doubted these mundane questions were the ones he really wanted answered. Instead he was weighing my reactions so when he finally broached the topic that had motivated my abduction, whatever it might be, he could gauge my guilt by comparing the irregularities of my responses. Thence followed two further conclusions: first, even he couldn't be entirely confident I was to blame; and second, the crime in question had been very serious indeed—for why else would he have secretly imprisoned a respectable slave trader on the basis of mere suspicion?
Reassured by my logic, I continued concisely but in an exaggerated tone of breezy relaxation. “I was out for a peaceful morning stroll.”
“A morning stroll?”
“Even the foremost luxury slaver in our fine city is permitted an occasional holiday. After all, studies funded by the Imperial Association of Slavers show that regular leisure time increases the productivity of our slaving force.” Soft-livered nonsense that didn’t persuade me in the slightest, but I agreed with the IAS that it was important to keep the two meanings of “slaving” distinct in the mind of the public.
“This ‘Slavers’ Association’ was likely abetting his escape,” the guard told the eunuch. The latter surely knew better, but nodded anyway, then scrutinized my expression before beginning the next question.
“What,” he asked, “is the provenance of your redheads? And specifically the two redheaded odalisques you’ve sold to the palace?”
Ah, I thought; so there was trouble with Mala. But what manner of trouble?
“The Occident, of course—as specified in the contract.”
“We want more specific answers,” said the Chief Gardener. “Where in the Occident; who is the importer? Have you yourself ever traveled there for acquisitions, exchanges, or international slaving conferences? Have you had any personal contact with Occidental officials?”
“No to which question?” asked the eunuch.
The expressions now creeping over both of their faces persuaded me that the high-minded purity of my dedication to minimalism, as impressive as it might be to susceptibly educated victims, flew over the skulls of these more earthy individuals, and that some compromise was in order. So I interrupted their spluttering as if I’d always intended to provide further detail.
“For reasons that remain unclear—perhaps inadequate enthusiasm for the free market—Occidentals have shown little interest in enslaving us in recent centuries, and exchanges are thus less common than ransoms, which are themselves quite rare given the cost of my merchandise, and in any event require no direct personal contact with infidel officials. My imports are made through respectable and experienced pirate intermediaries who rely solely on traditional harvesting methods, minimizing environmental impact to ensure the sustainability of our empire’s slaving ecosystem, so future generations can enjoy the same quality and number of kidnapped Occidental virgins that we do. They land, rape and pillage, then sail away with the best young women, taking care not to burn any fields or granaries that might reduce the size of future harvests. It’s all very above-board.”
“And what, then, is your rate of faulty or otherwise defective odalisques? Surely with such ecologically sustainable slave raiding you must sacrifice the quality, price, or basic functionality of your Occidental imports?”
“Such tradeoffs only apply down-market. I am a luxury dealer. Whether peasants—who refer to me, in their vulgar but not wholly inaccurate way, as ‘pimp to the pashas’—can afford the environmentally friendly sex slaves that ought to be mandated by law but are currently only available from socially conscientious dealers like myself is hardly my concern.”
“Another evasive answer,” said the gardener. “Do you or do you not sell any faulty or otherwise defective odalisques?”
Ah, now we were arriving at the questions they truly wanted answered; and these boded ill for Mala—and for me.
“Defective odalisques? Almost never; and I do offer a limited warranty with every purchase. I only recall one in recent memory, a victim of terminal late-onset seasickness—two if you count the girl with the missing legs last year, but that was a special order, and the buyer was extremely satisfied.”
“Let me come to the point,” the eunuch said testily, beginning to speak before my last word had quite finished, and then enunciating with a kind of delicate sneer. “There’s been a . . . problem with your recently delivered redhead. The second problematic odalisque you’ve delivered to this palace, might I remind you. Would you care to guess what that particularly problematic problem might be?”
I blinked slowly to forestall another googling of my eyes. Had they learned the secret behind my redheads? Certainly not; for if they’d found the wig, they’d have no need for so much circumlocution. Something rather more ambiguous had happened. The only logical response was to maintain that my odalisques were genuine imported gingers—young Occidental virgins who were until very recently frolicking among the seashells, waiting for pirates to snatch them away to a better life here in the Orient.
“Destiny comes in threes,” I replied. “Two unfortunate sexual encounters is therefore merely bad luck, and can happen to any camel driver who tarries too long at the wrong hookah bar. As for the specifics of what may have eventuated, if indeed anything did eventuate, I’m afraid I haven’t the slightest. Indeed, the girl I delivered was exceptionally fine and in perfect health, full of enthusiasm for her new duties, as if she wanted nothing more in life than to offer her virginity to the despotic ruler of a foreign people sworn to conquer her fatherland. Perhaps her excessive willingness bored the sultan—a fault easily remedied in future installments of his sex slave subscription now that I’ve been made aware of his tastes.”
“The odalisque’s enthusiasm may have been real,” said the eunuch, “but upon her awakening this morning even a hired harem hagiographer would’ve been hard-pressed to endorse the rest of your flattering description, which subsequent events have revealed to be the kind of flagrant false advertising that could jeopardize your membership in the aforementioned Imperial Association of Slavers, should I choose to report it to that august body.”
“Sabotage, perhaps, by the jealous older odalisques she would have blotted from the sultan’s mind in just a single passionate night—a common occurrence in harems unaccustomed to my Luxury Odalisque Shoppe’s high quality product range. And yet—” I went on before he could ask another question, “There’s a still more likely cause. One from which your baseless accusations are intended to divert attention.” The idea of putting my fumbling interrogators on the defensive had just then tickled up to the topmost tip of my skull. “Let us recount the verified course of events. To satisfy the sultan’s urgent plea for erotic assistance, I provided a bespoke odalisque that surpassed even the royal harem’s demanding standards, and did so well before the originally agreed odalisque delivery due date. When my polite proposal to present her to the sultan in person was refused, I left her in the care of the eunuch notary, and departed that night with an official seal confirming my conformity to contract. But in less than a single day, the harem administrators”—I gestured toward them with an open and upturned hand—“mere intermediaries between my imported redhead and the royal bedchamber, managed to foul the immaculate creature with which I’d naively entrusted them, treasonously frustrating the sexual satisfaction of our illustrious ruler. Their incompetence may even have compelled His Highness to entertain the prospect of intercourse with one of the several hundred women in the harem he had already used! Inflicting such an affront on the royal person is akin to forcing a peasant to vomit up his daily portion of couscous and consume it a second time tomorrow!” I raised my voice, my eyes beginning to spin slightly. “I should be the one to curtail your holiday for an unjustified interrogation in a very poorly upholstered basement such as the one that now squeezes in on us like the dried-out feminine parts of a twice-tasted concubine’s corpse!” I gestured dramatically at the bare stone walls.
“Sit down!” cried the eunuch. Caught up in the irrepressible joy of false accusation, I’d unconciously risen from my chair.
“Our motives regarding the sultan’s sex slaves are entirely pure,” the Chief Gardener said, a little defensively. I settled back into my seat.
“Our spies in the Occident have sent word that a plot against His Highness is in progress,” the eunuch added. “The specifics are . . . unclear.”
“I fail to see the connection,” I replied smoothly, “between this purported plot and the fruit of my honest labors.”
The gardener paused to exchange glances with the eunuch. Then he explained, “Come breakfast this morning, your new odalisque wasn’t herself.”
“Breakfast? Am I indeed hearing you correctly? My dear lieutenant, I understand, of course, that this isn’t your line of work, and that the civil service scarcely pays those of your rank enough to afford a single local wife for each arm, let alone a complement capable of satisfying the normal range of masculine desires; but I inform you as an experienced professional that the slaving industry is already overburdened with a glut of used women, and that a virgin odalisque loses a fifth of her value the moment she steps off the auction block, and fully three fifths again before the next dawn. If the royal harem wants to return an item because she was out of sorts at breakfast, I can at best refund one fifth of the original price (minus a twenty percent restocking fee), the reasons for which should be obvious even to one of your—”
“Cease that infernal yammering,” the Chief Gardener almost shouted, his stern military demeanor failing for the first time, “and hold those damned eyes in one place while you listen.”
I directed them both to the tip of his nose, which he swatted as if it had been tickled by a fly. Then I arched an eyebrow, and smiled the slightly incredulous smile I might show to an unreasonable customer I was obliged, for the sake of propriety, to halfheartedly humor. I was starting to drive him mad—but of course that was all part of my scheme.
“At first,” he said, “the girl only showed a poor appetite and mild signs of weakness. The eunuchs assumed overuse on her inaugural night had sapped her stamina. She told her cariyes she felt ill, and asked for a mirror, which she employed to examine herself, pressing here and there against her skin. As she reached the region where the arm joins the shoulder, she screamed.
“Everyone in earshot—concubines and cariyes and eunuchs alike—rushed to help her. Your redhead wouldn’t stop wailing. She shoved past them onto the verandah, and then continued all the way through the garden that overlooks the river. According to one eunuch eyewitness—known for the poetic exaggeration of harem gossip but more lucid than the odalisques on this occasion—she ‘stumbled like an ibis trying to lift off with a broken wing, her cheeks even more sickly white than is usual among her kind.’ Indeed the eunuch guards, rushing through the garden, were looking on at the very moment she tripped and tumbled into the water. By the time they reached the edge all traces had disappeared.
“We’ve sent out the River Guard to search for her body. As yet they’ve found nothing but papyrus and grinning crocodiles.”
“But . . . whatever did she see in the mirror?” I asked, confused and even slightly aghast, with no need, for once, to feign concern.
“The cariye who fetched the mirror claims there was a discolored lump where her arm met her shoulder,” he said. “It was bulbous, and sensitive; she screamed when she saw it, or when she touched it, or both—the girl wasn’t sure. Another concubine—the one she shoved aside when she fled—also thought she saw a patch of bruised or blackened flesh. Everything happened too quickly for her to be sure.”
“We’re concerned,” said the eunuch, “that these recent odalisque errors, admittedly rather inexplicable and, if the case were to come to court, hard to pin conclusively on the dealer”—he gave me the distinct impression that such proceedings would be superfluous where harem security was at stake—“are part of a sophisticated Crusader plot.
“Their scheme is as crafty as it is wicked. A simple assassination would only result in a new, and . . . potentially more competent despot sitting on the Immaculate Couch. But further destabilizing the current sultan’s already rather muddled mental matter without actually removing him might weaken our almost endless empire considerably—enough for the Occident to regain control of the seas, and perhaps to organize a Seventeeth Crusade.”
“Eighteenth,” interrupted the Chief Gardener. “The last Crusader army turned back after sacking their own cities again.”
“Ah yes. Eighteenth. Now, slaver, you understand the seriousness of the situation, and the reason, despite your protestations, that we continue to regard you with very great suspicion; for of all the outsiders who have access to the court your position brings with it the greatest influence over our sultan’s sensitive liver.”
I took a moment to consider this news. “I sympathize, certainly, with your patriotic zeal,” I finally replied. “But not with the ill-chosen direction of your suspicion, however unsurprising it may be, emitting as it does from the cramped crania of the very same palace eunuchs who allowed the imperial harem to fall into such disarray in the first place. It’s hardly in my self-interest as a slaver to allow Occidentals the naval superiority they’d need to halt our raids on their shoreline and ships. If they could control the seas well enough to provision colonies on our own coasts, they might even be able to end our centuries-long tradition of enslaving their most beautiful daughters—and then what would happen to my family business?”
“It’s entirely possible,” said the gardener, quite unfazed by my apologia, “that they’ve offered you extraordinary rewards to sabotage the sultan’s erotic recreation. Successful colonialism might spell the end for our slave trade, certainly. But what if they made you the figurehead ‘governor’ of our former provinces, or promised you a satrapy on one of the coconut-laden desert islands that understandable fatigue with their gloomy weather causes them to covet? A tempting offer for a mere merchant, even if it does allow them to protect their daughters.”
“There’s a vast and uncrossable gulf between a figurehead ‘governor’ and a genuine evil vizier,” I blurted; but they only looked at me with blank expressions, so I quickly continued, “What I mean to say is, for centuries my family has devoted itself to our small business acquiring and trading Occidental odalisques (setting aside the occasional necessary forays, during lean times, into disposables like galley and quarry slaves), sweating blood to ensure the wealthiest Orientals have unfettered access to the palest flesh. I could never betray the empire that made our slaving success possible, lest my ancestors in paradise, peace be upon them, spit down on me from that high and pure realm whence terminal velocity dare not apply, thus concussing me in a uniquely humbling fashion.
“Furthermore,” I continued, “as a lifelong merchant and a son of merchants’ sons’ sons, I’m honor-bound to oppose the subsidies, tariffs, embargoes, and other barriers to free trade Occidentals would surely impose if they were to colonize our lands. Any law that inhibits businesses from importing plundered virgins and reselling them for a fair market value would diminish the beautiful efficiency of our economy: in the long run, everyone would suffer. Imagine our best pashas reduced to bedding local girls simply because foreign legislators indulge their economically illiterate theories of protectionism! The reduced incentives for high office here in the Orient would have disastrous systemic effects, impoverishing camel drivers and kalandars alike. It would only be a matter of time before our Occidental masters were force-feeding us swine; and when you consider the matter philosophically, what human right is more fundamental than the right to enslave beautiful and very poorly defended young women?”
“Your logic is irrefutable. But even a true patriot’s judgment can be corrupted should large enough debts burden his back,” said the eunuch. “If we were to examine your balance sheet—which our agents will do very soon—would we find any unusually large recent credits, or perhaps liabilities that exceed your assets by some considerable margin?”
As the eunuch spoke the Chief Gardener glanced at the floor for a brief instant. When he looked up, he caught me studying his face, which immediately assumed an even more impassive expression than before. “No more evasions,” he said forcefully. “Answer the question.”
Surely, I thought, the Imperial Harem Administration had no authority to carry out a financial investigation of my private holdings, especially when the terms of the already signed odalisque order explicitly excluded any such invasive measures as a recourse for customer dissatisfaction. I’d resolved to lie about my debts and deal with the consequences later when a knock at the door interrupted the interrogation. It was a eunuch, an underassistant errand boy of some kind whom I’d never met before, and he appeared to be in a terrible hurry.
“The other odalisque is dying,” he said. “Maybe dead—she’s laid out on the examination table right now.”
“A second poisoned odalisque?!” I exclaimed melodramatically. “All along you’ve been withholding the true facts about Mala’s murder”—I insinuated for the first time a term that, if accepted, would absolve me from any liability for her unexpected early expiry—“just for the perverse pleasure of accusing an innocent slaver!”
The Chief Gardener ignored me and said to the Chief Eunuch’s Secretary, “We’d best be there before she breathes her last.” The two stood up and made to leave.
Now was my chance. “Surely you intend to invite me to this . . . odalisque autopsy,” I called out before they could reach the door. “I have, after all, seen more dead slaves than anyone else in this palace—Occidentals often die at the toss of a turban when they first arrive in the Orient, some even before customs can record their entry.”
The gardener, who’d apparently taken a disliking to my respectable person, dismissed me with an uncreative string of words I won’t deign to transmute into worthier prose.
“Come, come,” I retorted. “You can’t possibly still believe I’m to blame for vandalism of the sultan’s erotic chattel when this string of murders, in a harem you’re charged with protecting, has spread to females I’ve never once laid eyes on, and who would almost certainly fail the stringent quality control inspections at my Luxury Odalisque Shoppe—all the more so now that they’re dead.”
“She’s not dead yet, but she will be if we continue to dally here listening to you prattle,” the Chief Gardener snapped.
“Nor,” I went on regardless, for I could tell I’d awakened the eunuch’s interest, “do you know any other high-end luxury slaver who can bring you a sufficient number of replacement redheads to save the sultan’s sanity on such short notice.” I doubted I could do it either, but a baseless claim that let me out of this cell immediately might keep me out indefinitely; whereas the longer I lingered, the more excuses might be found to keep me imprisoned until the mystery was solved: considering the investigative powers my captors had evinced thus far, never.
They stepped out. I believed my plea had fallen on deaf ears with very little between them; but voices echoed in the corridor, and soon the eunuch returned.
“Follow me. You are only to observe. Nothing more. Hold your tongue unless we solicit your opinion.”
The gardener had already gone ahead. As the two of us walked down corridors and up stairs I reflected on my holiday, which had been altogether less enjoyable than my usual work routine chatting up customers in the comfort of my slaving office lounge. When next I took time off, I decided, instead of trying to relax in a quiet local coffee shop, I’d travel far away, beyond the reach of any clients, auditors, or eunuchs—perhaps to one of those towns in the Occident where visitors purportedly tie wooden slats to their slippers and slide precariously from very tall dunes of pure white sand with little regard for the likely consequences; and not silenced by even the most exotic vacation plans, my entrepreneurial instincts began to calculate the costs and revenues of a proposed theme park built on the same concept, which (setting aside for the moment reasonable doubts that Orientals were foolish enough to tempt the cranial insults which would result from such antics, not to mention the public embarrassment of flailing about on a pair of boards) could easily be transposed to our local dunes. As an elegant counterbalance to a rotund turban, I considered, perhaps a single board would be a worthy innovation . . .
Such were my thoughts as we reached the ground level and passed outside and inside and outside again, until we stood, at the opposite corner of the palace complex, before the Examination and Autopsy Kiosk.
Continued in Chapter VIII – Odalisque Autopsy