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 sediment of his mental matter. 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, and to suppress 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 in the morning light—a pleasant task I rarely had time to undertake myself. If I could just enslave a few more Occidental virgins and sell them to lustful despots, I reflected, I might be able to commission a true masterpiece of hollow clay sculpture—perhaps even afford a famous antique, or a pot inhabited by some beneficent household djinn. It was an encouraging thought, and assured me that all my hard work slaving was not 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, 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 from the palace 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. Instead of a carpet itself, I’d contented myself with a few shares in an index fund of major magic carpet weaving workshops, since a wise merchant never indulges in unnecessary speculation.
But 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 subliminally burnish the aura of my rising luxury slaving brand, thereby increasing profit margins on every Occidental virgin I imported, enslaved, and sold 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 first heavy rains of the wet season, at the present moment I could barely afford necessary business expenses like frankincense and turquoise-tinted toenail polish.
In fact, I did already possess the means to pay the debt outright, had I been willing to part with my most valuable family heirlooms—a cache of gold and jewels passed down from some illustrious ancestor whose exact title was lost in the sands of time. But we’d long held his material 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. Instead I’d signed for an usurious loan, with the least significant treasure in my chest of valuables as collateral: a ruby ring that was my share of the inanimate booty from a piracy expedition I underwrote the previous year (which had also netted two virgins and an old maid I traded to the city lion tamer for a set of free tickets to his show—useful for entertaining clients).
Up to that point in my life I’d never yet 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. Once I’d delivered the next scheduled redhead and cleared the debt, then I would make a public—yet tastefully understated—display of my financial 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 that I satisfy an urgent need for Occidental 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), and approaching my intended exit from a plaza overpopulated with market stalls, when I caught snatches of the morning gossip that was multiplying through the market like locusts through a field of ripe grain singled out by the unerring finger of divine wrath. I stopped to hearken.
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 when it was moored in the harbor one morning, and caught her husband dallying therein 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, which tore off her scalp and toppled her into the sea. Through some unknown magic she’d climbed into the harbor yesterday to vengefully terrorize the cheapest whores in the harbor brothel, undoubtedly murdering several of them—including one who intended to retire the very next day, but now would never know the wedded bliss she’d just coaxed out of a half-blind pearl diver who was perpetually high on hashish.
Others claimed that the sultan had at last grown tired of redheads, and in the immensity of his royal boredom—for surely he had already enjoyed all the most beautiful women in his almost endless empire as well as the parts of the Occident easily accessible from the sea—had turned to scalping them, tasting each one a final time while their thought-worms’ vital juices dribbled 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 believed that a watchful djinn, observing the sad plight of the discarded former redheads while taking an afternoon rest beneath the gardens’ ornamental trees, raised them from the earth and strengthened their flesh with dark magic, then urged them to wreak havoc on the entire capital, barring only sanctified mosques, and descend together on the sultan as he slept his nightly sleep in the harem. There was much speculation on the scheduled day for this culminating horror.
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 most likely 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 zombie odalisques roaming the city, and that young women should think twice about traveling anywhere alone, especially at night, when these creatures were said to increase their numbers through a conversion process initiated by their canine teeth.
While I felt a certain possessive pride regarding my own version of the story, it was ultimately irrelevant which tale won out: the dramatic crash landing of the half-headless Occidental virgin had created such a stir 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 laying peacefully at the sultan’s side.
Thus glutted on the delicious flavor of so much gossip favorable to my grand designs, and forgetting momentarily the looming shadow of debt that was beginning to obscure the rising sun of my earthly power like a vast malevolent djinn who appeared overhead in the form of a bank of blue-gray storm clouds, I strolled down the road to the coffee shop, contemplating the brilliance of my achievements with a deep feeling of satisfaction.
Before I’d taken twenty paces, a uniformed guard, marching through the traffic that flowed from the direction of the palace toward the bazaar, paused to stare at me, then altered course to intersect my leisurely amble—which I’d slowed artificially to put myself in the mood that I imagined a less driven merchant, deprived of the mad energy that drove me inexorably toward high office, might feel on holiday. Two more guards trailed behind. As he neared, I heard my name, pronounced with a hint of uncertainty, escaping from the area hidden under a large mustache.
I acknowledged him with a slight downward tip of my turban, then asked how it was that he knew me; for while he was a particularly unmemorable person who looked too poorly remunerated to purchase a luxury imported odalisque, even if the selective execution of his official duties garnered a number of bribes consequential enough to afford a heavily used Occidental female on an extended repayment plan (an arrangement my own business had, in point of fact, never offered), I had an excellent capacity for recalling faces—as he could infer from a very cursory inspection of my uppermost parts—and I was quite confident I’d never encountered his.
“I was,” he replied steadily, as if suppressing some emotion, “instructed to find a man with ‘a hook nose, a pointed 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 verbatim, “and if I failed to spot him, I was to circulate his description through the bazaar until one of the merchants led me to the distinctive man in question.”
“Hm, yes,” I replied. “You were lucky to cross me here alone on an almost entirely empty street, for the sorry inaccuracy of such a description 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 on either side of, and slightly behind me, while he spoke.
“And what justification do you offer for this insult?” I said haughtily, raising my chin to a more commanding angle. I ought to spend more time practicing such intimidating poses in the mirror, I thought; for my day job as a slave salesman had trained me too well in the subservient and welcoming expressions that were necessary to put my customers at ease, but were useless for ruling over the military men I would need to cow in my elevated future position.
“I’m only to tell you that there was a sudden death at the palace this morning, and that your arrest is to attract no undue attention.”
“Arrest?” 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 palace dungeons had more to do with throwing people into them than spending the night there oneself.
“If you’ll come along quietly, please.”
At his signal, the men behind me moved closer, and I had to choose between following as if I’d intended to go to the palace all along, and enduring a forced and highly visible propulsion to the very same destination by six uncouth hands that wouldn’t hesitate to tousle a trader’s turban. Rather than drag my feet, I walked ahead, as if they were my assigned bodyguards, protecting me on my way to counsel the sultan regarding vital affairs of state.
In retrospect this nonviolent arrest was an unusual show of professionalism from the palace guard, who typically treat anyone without a name ending in “pasha” or “bey” as if their lives are as worthless and transient as the captured Occidental males destined for our galleys. But as it was happening my opinion was quite to the contrary; and I spent the first half of our march to the palace glaring at the three soldiers in turn—usually two at a time—with my recently maligned but still unusually adept eyes, and the second part, 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 expense of a premature conclusion to my material existence.
Had Mala been the one to die—murdered, perhaps, by the jealous redhead favorites who might feel threatened by a newcomer’s superior beauty and novelty, 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 and into the famous harem reflecting pool—insufficiently deep for a human to dive head first, yet exempt from the city ordnance requiring warning signs be placed near any water more than a handsbreadth deep, given the inexperience of the local population regarding liquid bodies other than the ocean? Or—should I admit the possibility—had the sultan himself discovered our fraud, and suffocated Mala under one of the beautifully embroidered turquoise and gold pillows made exclusively for his harem by a eunuch craftsman raised from infancy to devote his life to their perfected creation? 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, perfect for the holiday I’d planned, arrest was not my favorite method of transport to the palace; and as I pressed ahead, periodically striking authoritative poses to create the illusion that I had arrested the guards rather than the other way around (I decided this narrative was more appealing than my initial intention to treat them as my own hired muscle), I began to experience a type of nervous tension I’d rarely endured in my life as a small business owner and involuntary human resource manager.
Those called to absolute power from a humble station often pay a physical price for the accomplishment of their lofty aspirations, for the pressures exerted on the extraordinarily sensitive mental matter of anyone gifted enough to attain high office by dint of effort rather than birthright—and especially the pressures exerted by unpredictable events implicating the safety of one’s person—can cause defects in the proper functioning of the liver, that precious intermediary between the thought-worms nestled in our crania and the movements of our bodies. Fortunately this price can be abrogated through the effective application of necromantic rituals; but the secrets of that field were still unknown to me when I approached the palace that day, with my mind whirring and my body only imprecisely obeying my intentions.
Indeed, it was around then that I first began to develop 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. This tic would increasingly appear in moments of extreme excitement, whether positive or negative, and sometimes at inconvenient intervals, but had the useful side-effect of confusing and intimidating anyone around me.
But if my eyes executed a double-inverse-half-spin at some point between the bazaar and the palace, my ostensible prisoners showed no notice, for fatigue with the more modest visual fireworks of my intentional rapid eye motions had already caused them to look slightly away from my face, monitoring me only indirectly. Our journey passed otherwise uneventfully until, to my surprise and growing suspicion, the guards turned aside before we came within sight of the main portal. Our detour circled the walls, then terminated not at the guardhouse or garden, but at the familiar harem maintenance entrance I’d departed in a triumphant mood just the previous night.
After that 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 walked with my neck twisted backwards and studied the guards ominously to ensure their faces were fixed in my skull for an as yet undetermined punishment which, while 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 through the door.
The guards closed it, and then all was quiet and I was alone.
The room was of unpolished stone, with a thin slit in the ceiling intended to be either a window or a breathing hole, and no decoration nor furnishing apart from a few plain wooden chairs that were ill-matched to the palace’s traditional elaborate style. When I was at the sultan’s side, I thought, I would suggest a new interior decorator for such locations, and recall that even the lowliest prison cell in the palace should remind the undeserving prisoners awaiting execution of his magnanimous generosity; the deserving prisoners more still.
For many hours no one came, and I watched the sliver of light cast on the floor move across the room, and then slide up the opposite wall. Such solitude was disconcerting and unfamiliar. I was a man who had grown up in the involuntary human resources industry, ever surrounded by people, or at least chattel; and in that blank silence my mind raced along several tracks at once, none finding its 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 unexplained imprisonment in an interrogation chamber that wasn’t even hung with a single carpet, they’d chosen the wrong slaver to toy with. Their petty waiting game had unintentionally revealed that whatever case they had against me was feeble, and lacking the kind of hard evidence that would convict me without some verbal misstep; and implied too that the sultan, whose absolute power required no recourse to such underhanded tactics, knew nothing of my treatment.
As soon as I reached this conclusion, my agitation subsided to a type of alertness conducive to scheming, to which I then devoted the noontime and the afternoon, which flew by with remarkable speed.
The daily practice of scheming for power, beyond its obvious 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 top of a mountain or lies at the bottom of a dungeon, such meditation is like 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 position of the shaft of light on the wall, the door opened. In it appeared the Chief Eunuch’s Secretary—the same man who, that night outside the harem performance kiosk’s turquoise windows, had questioned me 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 still 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 he commanded the groundskeepers as well. I sat calmly as they entered; and instead of greeting them with the histrionic outrage my abduction merited, merely raised a single expressive eyebrow.
My years in the luxury sex slave trade had taught me that men whose pretensions exceed their intelligence—a category which usually includes those in the highest tier of lackeys, like my interrogators—are often so taken with minimalism that they voluntarily pass by a breathtakingly voluptuous odalisque in favor of a little waif with an upturned nose. To flatter such customers in cases where their financial resources justify a degree of pandering that would be beyond the pale in less professional circumstances, I restrict myself to communicating in short and simple sentences that evoke a false aura of profundity, especially widely admired lies and misdirections, such as “a master carpet weaver needs but one color of thread” and “an expert painter reveals himself with a single brushstroke on a very lightweight clay pot” and “the lines a poet never intones signify more than his most florid phrases” and, less concise but more to the point, “to prefer a female whose feminine parts are almost imperceptible is the surest sign of perspicaciousness; the second surest being to accept an extravagant markup by the refined resellers of such tastefully unadorned creatures as the odalisque that I now display to the enlightened simplicity of your very efficiently-sized cranium.”
My plan, then, was to outclass them with the lapidary concision of my responses, which would be amplified by my noble visage and the confident authority evident in my bearing, until my interrogators acknowledged the untenability of their position and, after many 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 liver, and a quickening pulse as they entered caused my eyes to whirl two or three times, simultaneously but poorly synchronized and toward opposing directions, in the manner I indicated earlier. Executed by some lesser individual, this 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 served to confuse and unbalance my interrogators in a most propitious fashion, forcing 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 draw out his s’s that was especially evident in this first question.
“Where? I was asleep at home, dreaming of….”
I couldn’t possibly tell him I’d dreamt of invading the Occident, having in the earlier part of my dream already achieved dominion over the entirety of our almost endless empire.
“I was asleep at home, dreaming of… four houris, belly dancing on an unstable and imminently crashing magic carpet, who competed with the onrushing earth for my rapt attention,” I almost said—but stopped myself before my mouth opened, recalling my minimalist maxims. Any interesting and evocative response, whether true or false, had to be rejected outright if I were to impress the proper tier of mediocre minds.
Then, finally, after a long pause pregnant with meaning, I intoned:
“I dreamt… of 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. The existence of houris belly dancing on crashing magic carpets strikes me as far less questionable than this man’s word that he was, in fact, dreaming last night. But in any case,” he turned back to me, “can anyone 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 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,” said the guard. “This is starting to become a pattern.”
The Chief Gardener, it seemed, was unaware that a pattern required repeated elements, and we were, strictly speaking, still on the first question.
The eunuch nodded for his colleague, though he was still facing me. “A pattern of evasive answers—duly noted.” Of course, he didn’t note anything in the physical sense, not having brought paper 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?”
“Why was I fleeing?” I doubted that these mundane questions were the ones he really wanted answered. Instead, he was weighing my reactions, so that when he finally broached the topic that had motivated my abduction, he could gauge my guilt from the comparative irregularities of my response. Thence followed two further conclusions: first, even he was not entirely certain 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 responded in an exaggerated tone of breezy relaxation. “Why, I wasn’t fleeing the bazaar at all, but merely taking a peaceful morning stroll to my favorite coffee shop.”
“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-hearted 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 nodded, then scrutinized my expression before beginning the next question.
“What,” he asked, “is the provenance of your redheads—and specifically the two redhead odalisques you’ve sold to the palace?”
Ah, I thought; so there was trouble with Mala. But what manner of trouble?
“Why, the Occident, of course, just as specified in the contract,” I said.
“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?”
“For reasons that are unclear—perhaps insufficient enthusiasm for the free market—Occidentals have shown little interest in enslaving us; and exchanges are less common than ransoms, which I rarely have cause to accept. All of my imports are made through respectable and experienced pirate intermediaries who rely solely on traditional methods of harvesting, 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.”
“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 the peasants—who call me, in their vulgar and not wholly accurate way, “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 guard. “Do you or do you not sell any faulty or otherwise defective odalisques?”
Ah, so now we were getting to the questions they really wanted answered. And things were starting to sound bad 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 problem might be?”
I blinked slowly to forestall another goggling 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 this circumlocutory interrogation. 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 merely bad luck, which can happen to any camel driver who tarries too long at the wrong hookah bar. As for the specifics of what may have gone wrong, if indeed anything did go wrong, I’m afraid I haven’t the slightest,” I said urbanely. “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 than to offer her virginity to the absolute monarch of an almost endless empire who also happened to be the sworn enemy of her parents’ nation. It’s likely her very willingness bored the sultan—easily remedied in future installments of his luxury virgin odalisque 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 malleable mind in just a few passionate nights—a common problem in harems unused to my Luxury Odalisque Shoppe’s high quality products. But on the other hand,” I went on before he could ask another question, “I wonder if there isn’t a still more likely cause, from which your accusations intend to divert attention.” The idea of putting my uncertain interrogators on the defensive had by then tickled up to the topmost tip of my occipital orb. “Let us recount the verified course of events. To satisfy the sultan’s desperate request, I delivered a bespoke odalisque that surpassed even the royal harem’s demanding standards, and delivered her well before the originally agreed sex slave due date. When my polite request 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 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 I’d naively entrusted them with, thereby treasonously frustrating the sexual satisfaction of our illustrious ruler and damaging my good reputation. Their incompetence surely compelled his highness to entertain the prospect of intercourse with one of the three hundred women in the harem that he had already used! Inflicting such an affront on the royal testes is more foul than 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 vacation for an unjustified interrogation in a very poorly upholstered basement such as 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,” said 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.
“Our spies in the Occident have sent word that a plot against his highness is in progress,” the eunuch added. “The specifics… are uncertain.”
“I fail to see the connection,” I said more calmly than before, “between this purported plot and my honest odalisque offerings.”
The guard paused to exchange glances with the eunuch, then said “at breakfast this morning, your new odalisque wasn’t herself—”
“At breakfast? My dear lieutenant, the slaving industry is already overburdened with a glut of used women, and a virgin odalisque loses a fifth of her value the moment she steps off the auction block; half again before the next dawn—if the royal harem wants to return her because she was out of sorts at breakfast, I can at best refund a quarter of the original price (minus a twenty percent restocking fee), the reasons for which should be obvious even to one of your—”
“Stop 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 focused them both on 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’d decided to halfheartedly humor. I was starting to drive him mad—but of course that was according to plan.
“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 the maidservants she felt ill, and asked for a mirror. Then she used it to examine herself, pressing here and there against her skin. As she reached the region where the arm joins the shoulder, she suddenly screamed.
“Everyone in earshot—wives and concubines, eunuchs and servants—came to help her. Your redhead didn’t stop wailing. She shoved past them, out into the harem courtyard, and then kept going, all the way through the garden that overlooks the river. According to one witness—apparently known for the poetic exaggeration of court gossip but more lucid than the other odalisques on this occasion—she ‘stumbled like an ibis trying to lift off with a broken wing, her cheeks even more sickly white in the sunlight than is usual among Occidentals; yet some febrile energy carried her to the banks before the panting guards could rescue her.’ Indeed, my men, running through the garden, could see her at the very moment she tripped and tumbled into the water. By the time they reached the edge, any trace had disappeared.
“We’ve sent out river canoes to search for her body, but as yet they’ve found nothing.”
“But… whatever did she see in the mirror?” I said, confused and even slightly aghast, with no need, for once, to feign concern.
“The maidservant who fetched the mirror claims your odalisque saw 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 lump of bruised or blackened flesh. But 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 matters concerning harem security were concerned—“are part of an Occidental 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 sea, if not organize a new crusade.
“Now 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 on our sultan.”
“I sympathize, certainly, with your patriotic zeal,” I said, “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 royal harem to fall into this dangerously chaotic state in the first place. It’s hardly in my self-interest to allow Occidentals the naval superiority they would need to halt our raids on their shoreline and ships. If they could control the sea well enough to establish colonies on our own coast, they might 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 guard, unfazed by the inarguable obviousness of my apologia, “that they’ve offered you extraordinary rewards to sabotage the sultan’s erotic recreation. Colonizing our coastline might end the slave trade, yes; but what if they made you the figurehead ‘governor’ of our former provinces—or, perhaps promised you a satrapy on one of the desert islands frigid foreigners are known to covet? Surely that would be a tempting offer to a mere merchant, even if it did enable them to protect their daughters from involuntary export to your slave market.”
“There’s a vast, impassable gulf between a second-rate figurehead ‘governor’ and a genuine evil vizier,” I sputtered unintentionally; but they only looked at me with blank expressions, so I quickly continued “what I mean is, my family has devoted itself to our small business trading Occidental odalisques in this city for hundreds of years (setting aside occasional necessary forays, during lean times, into disposables like galley and quarry slaves), sweating blood to ensure that the wealthiest members of our fine city have access to the best innocent young flesh from the Occident. I could never betray the empire that made our slaving success possible, lest my ancestors in paradise, peace be upon them, should spit down on me from that high and pure realm whence earthly terminal velocity doesn’t apply, concussing me in a uniquely humbling fashion.
“Furthermore,” I continued, “as a lifelong merchant and a son of merchants’ sons’ sons, I am honor bound to oppose the subsidies, tariffs, and other barriers to free trade Occidentals would surely impose if they were to conquer or colonize our lands. Any law inhibiting our traders’ ability to import plundered virgins from their shores and resell them here for a fair market value would reduce the beautiful efficiency of our economy, and in the long run, everyone would suffer.
“Imagine our best pashas reduced to bedding local girls, simply because Occidentals impose some arbitrary protectionist law to ban pirates from enslaving their daughters! The reduced incentives for high office here in the Orient would have disastrous systemic effects, impoverishing camel drivers and myrrh-mongers alike. Without the freedom to own their offspring, we’d become the powerless pawns of Occidental masters; and when you consider the matter philosophically, what human right is more fundamental than the right to enslave beautiful and poorly defended girls?”
“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 sheets—which our agents will do very soon—would we find any unusually large recent credits, or perhaps debts 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 confident and impassive expression than before. “No more evasions,” he said. “Answer the question.”
Surely, I thought, the harem administration had no authority to carry out a financial investigation of my private business, especially when the terms of their odalisque order, already signed, explicitly excluded any such invasive measures as 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 my 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 odalisque?” I exclaimed melodramatically. “All this time 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 all 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 get there before she breathes her last.” The two stood up and made to leave.
“Surely you meant to invite me to this… odalisque autopsy,” I called out before they could reach the door. “After all, I’ve seen more dead odalisques than anyone else in this palace: Occidentals often die at the drop of a turban when they first arrive in the Orient.”
The guard, who had apparently taken a disliking to my respectable person, dismissed me with an uncreative string of words that I won’t deign to transmute into worthier prose.
“Come, come,” I said sharply. “You can’t possibly still believe I’m to blame for vandalism of the sultan’s erotic chattel, when this string of deaths, in a harem that you’re charged with protecting, has spread to odalisques 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 your babble,” 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 enough replacement redheads to save the sultan’s sanity on such short notice.” I doubted I could do it either, but any claim that let me out of this cell immediately might keep me out indefinitely; while the longer they left me here, the more excuses they’d discover to keep me imprisoned until the odalisque mystery was solved—which, considering the investigative powers they’d heretofore evinced, was likely never.
They stepped into the hallway, and I thought my plea had fallen on deaf ears with very little between them, but they conferred amongst themselves, and then the guard hurried ahead while the eunuch returned and said, “You may follow me; but you are only to observe, and stay silent until we solicit your opinion.”
As we walked down corridors and up stairs, I reflected on my holiday, which had been altogether less enjoyable than the usual workday chatting up customers in the comfort of my slaving office lounge. The next time I took time off, I decided, instead of trying to relax in a quiet local coffee shop, I’d travel far away from my slaving office, beyond the reach of any clients, auditors, or guards—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. And my entrepreneurial instincts, not silenced by even the most exotic vacation plans, began to calculate the costs and revenues of a potential theme park built on the same concept, which could easily be transposed to our local dunes, setting aside for the moment reasonable doubts that Orientals were foolish enough to tempt the cranial insults which would inevitably result from such antics, not to mention the public embarrassment of flailing about on a pair of boards. As an elegant counterbalance to a rotund turban, perhaps a single board would be better…
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