The next morning I rose very early and shook the invalid odalisque awake before I’d even finished tying my turban: she was deep in what appeared to be the best part of a peaceful healing sleep, and I couldn’t take the risk she’d recover her health before I convinced everyone from the harbor to the harem that she was the undead harbinger of a full-blown small zombie apocalypse. Perhaps I should have tied a hungry rodent near her toes so its nibbling and gnawing would prevent her from sleeping, but I’d been too busy planning our apocalypse simulation itinerary to invent and deploy a non-lethal rat-catching device before bedtime.
I no longer detected the heat of fever on her forehead. However, to my great relief, she groaned weakly and struggled to sit up, and overall seemed very ill indeed. The evident stiffness of her joints would add an endearing touch to her upcoming paranormal portrayal.
“There is no time to waste, my dear odalisque; we must act before your bedazzling beauty is once again in its fullest flower.” Lest ebbing spirits hamper her performance, I’d resolved to maintain the fiction that disease had only subtly and transiently disfigured her. This form of flattery was one I’d never before directed toward my slaves—not only because I had no reason to flatter them, but because I always separated any blemished products from my active inventory and sold them immediately and at a heavy discount to an overstock odalisque outlet. Nevertheless, I’d sharpened the golden tip of my ingratiating tongue to a fine point while waggling it in the presence of my customers, and on at least one occasion I’d even complimented the shriveled and decrepit appearance of a wealthy mother (shopping for a slave capable of weakening her disobedient daughter-in-law’s grip on her favorite son’s affections), so the appropriate verbiage came easily.
“Let me schleep,” Mala said into the cushion where she’d buried her face. The pearlescent orb of her shaven scalp shone softly in the moonlight that seeped through my windows, which I’d thrown open to cleanse the air.
“There’s plenty of time to sleep when you’re dead,” I said, “but very little when you’re undead.” I kept my voice low enough that it wouldn’t carry into the alley outside.
“But I’m not really undead,” she told the cushion.
“The wrong attitude, my dear odalisque! Though a respectable slave trader like myself rarely has cause to exchange words with actresses, singers, musicians, and other unworthy denizens of the demi-monde, I’ve heard tell that those of the first group strive to maintain at all times the manners and mannerisms of the characters they represent on stage, until they lose the ability to distinguish themselves from their roles, believing this pretension will permit them to perform their parts with unshakable conviction. So from this moment forward you must convince yourself that you’ve truly died and risen again, forsaking both heavenly pardons and heavenly gardens to instead slice all those who’ve wronged you with the long and elegantly painted nails of your righteous vengeance.”
“Vengeance?” she hissed, abruptly abandoning her cushion.
“Will be yours,” I replied, “but only if you wake up this instant.”
For the first time since she’d plunged through my window, Mala rose to her feet—and almost collapsed. I caught her in my arms and helped her to steady herself. She’d lost a great deal of weight, and my hand touched bone where there’d once been flesh. When I let go again she swayed precariously, but didn’t tip.
“Excellent,” I said, backing away with my arms still poised to prevent a second fall. “Your uncoordinated yet strangely seductive swaying will turn the heads of the many males soon to believe you herald the first sortie of an unstoppable unearthly invasion; and if you gyrate your feminine parts with a similar erratic jerkiness as you walk, you may trigger a new fetish for zombification that less sickly sex slaves will struggle to satisfy.”
Mala was too busy standing to respond to such unique praise. While she became accustomed to her new posture, I contemplated the red wig, still lying where she’d thrown it nearly three weeks ago. I felt as if it were gazing back at me with some strange, occult malevolence. I’d never heard of evil spirits inhabiting a wig—they normally require more durable containers: lamps, bottles, and the like, perhaps in some cases very large rings—but there was no reason not to be cautious. I dug an old slipper box out of my closet and scooped the wig inside without touching it.
Wedging the box between my arm and torso, I lit the mundane but still very stylish lamp I kept on a decorative table near the door and led Mala into the office, then down the hall to the odalisque dressing room at the back. The sky hadn’t yet begun to pale, and all my odalisques were still in storage. Just as I’d hoped, her gait was disturbingly unsteady: she lurched as if she could topple at any moment. But with soft lamplight to smooth and blend her ruined skin, her silhouette, though certainly too lean, still retained some of the charm that had won her a night at the sultan’s side.
I’d never had cause to visit the dressing room in the dark, and it was filled not only with every variety of veil, sash, slipper, and pantaloon, but now too, as I extended the light before me, with the kind of shifting and unfamiliar shadows known to form the natural habitat of an evil vizier, just as the shifting, wind-swept slopes of sun-scorched dunes form the natural habitat of sidewinders and dust devils. When I set the lamp on the vanity, shadows loomed up high above the hanging dresses like headless specters welcoming me to my work. It was, as you can imagine, a heartening sight.
Mala, however, hesitated at the threshold, her eyes wide and her lips slightly parted. In a few short hours her compelling yet conveniently low-maintenance zombie disguise would terrify the capital; but she quailed at the sight of a shadowy and unfamiliar room like a torturer afraid of his own whips and chains. Puzzling timidity, if that’s indeed what it was.
By then I’d begun to notice a pattern in Mala’s behavior. Moments of stress sometimes induced a fracture in her usual acerbic armor so abrupt and disconcerting it made one believe the feminine fragility thus revealed—as, for instance, in the incongruous fear she now exposed—was merely an act intended to play on the emotions of those around her, eliciting a show of unguarded sympathy she could abuse by striking later with redoubled venom. A more generous analysis of the same phenomenon might conclude quite the reverse: all along she’d merely been pretending to combine the stubbornness of a mule with the gnashing foreteeth of a wild she-dog, and displayed her unfeigned feelings only in these moments of weakness. However, I’d long been inoculated against the manipulative tricks of the weaker sex, having taught them myself to its more innocent members, and as I studied her flinching and fidgeting in the doorway, both explanations seemed equally facile. Even granting, as I did, the assumption that Mala’s spells of girlish weakness were at least partially genuine, it was hard to be certain whether they were an inevitable side-effect of some sustained emotional tension affecting her liver, or merely the aftermath of a periodic population crash interrupting the normal equilibrium of her thought-worms’ erratic ecology. Her present behavior offered no clear evidence on either side; and though I could imagine ways to answer the question conclusively, they all involved drilling observational cracks in her cranium that would have severely hindered her acting ability. The pressing need to simulate a small zombie apocalypse meant my curiosity would have to go unsatisfied.
“My dear ex-odalisque,” I said to her in a gentle and soothing voice, “you must stop seeing the world through the eyes of a vulnerable young human woman, afraid of strangers, shadows, and having your reputation destroyed by your friends’ dishonest gossip, and instead think of yourself as a dark creature of the night, gifted by fate with the power to strike fear into the hearts of the strongest soldiers. Henceforth it is you who shall do the scaring and the scarring; so you must never show the slightest doubt in the overwhelming strength of your otherworldly powers. You may be weak, diseased, bald, and dressed in the tattered remnants of river-reeking rags, but you shall enter this dressing room with the casual menace of a malign ifrita summoned to witness an obligatory albeit cosmically irrelevant ritual disembowelment.”
Her reaction to my inspirational exhortation was muted, but she did enter and take the chair I offered her at the vanity. I belatedly realized she could see its mirror, so before she took advantage of the opportunity to study her reflection, I directed her attention toward a glittering gown hung beside the walk-in closet—the dearest garment in the room, intended as a special bonus accessory for the first customer of an upcoming “Double Deal Odalisque Offer” that I hoped would combat the recent spate of slow sales exacerbating my lack of liquidity—then scooped up a spare pair of pantaloons and draped it over the glass.
“If you had a dress stitched with gold thread,” she asked, “why didn’t you give it to your best odalisque before her date with the sultan, instead of reserving it for the bizarre and probably disastrous spectacle in which you’ve forcibly enrolled me today?” As self-absorbed complaints from young women run, this one was more than averagely coherent; despite her hoarseness, I concluded that her cranial contents were again cogitating normally.
“According to my eunuch liaison, you were to be given fresh clothes on your arrival at the harem in a style that suited his highness’ mood,” I replied. “It was only by whim that he selected the humble garb of an Occidental schoolteacher, instead of, for example, the sapphire-encrusted tiara his great-grandfather captured from an enemy princess, or the brassiere with two rubies the size of elephants’ eyes recently unearthed from the treasure cache of an extinct snake-goddess cult—either of which rare articles would be far beyond the respectable means of a humble luxury sex slave importer. On other occasions the sultan has called for the garb of a shepherdess, a duchess, or a street harlot, and once the headdress of a reindeer—a creature that frolics abundantly in the humid darkness beneath the giant trees of Occidental forests, and which he dearly regrets being unable to hunt; though the weight of its many-pronged horns reportedly caused lasting injury to the odalisque who wore them for a particularly vigorous deflowering, in light of which you, my dear, should be thankful for the simplicity of your assigned attire.”
“If the sultan had seen me beforehand he’d have realized more regal raiment was suitable for such an important occasion. I imagine he’s now regretting his error—petting his tigers sadly and envisioning the afterimage of my striptease in the sinuous ripples of his reflecting pools,” said Mala, trying to maintain the nonchalant air of one reminiscing about distant and unimportant events, but failing to filter the undertone of disappointed anger from her words. “However, since I understand it’s the best you can offer, I won’t blame you too harshly for consoling me with this gown,” she finished, her gaze returning to the aforementioned garment with what appeared to be a glimmer of anticipatory vanity at the expectation she’d soon be strutting about in gold.
“Ah . . . I’m afraid not. That is—” I improvised, wary of breaking her spirit so early in the day, “—the reason I drew your attention to the gown is that I’ve . . . selected it as a special bonus award if you achieve more than a thousand and one scares during our excursion.”
“A bonus award?”
“Contingent on good performance. The power of incentives—”
“You plan, I expect, to once again fool me with fine print, as you did in my coercive and legally unenforceable voluntary enslavement contract; or else with some narrow and unattainable definition of terms: what, for instance, counts as a scare?”
The opportunity to be argumentative evidently sharpened Mala’s mind, but if she went on objecting to my every word, I feared she might exhaust her limited reserve of stamina before we arrived at the main event. Provided today went well, I could stand to sacrifice a gold gown; the debt into which such an extra expense would further sink me was assuredly temporary, and would be washed away as soon as the palace reimbursed me (an obligation the harem management was still delaying under various pretexts, despite their inability to specify precisely how my two dead deliveries had failed to honor my contractual odalisque obligations). So I affected an even and measured tone to evince my commitment to fair play. “If a person runs or crawls away from you while screaming, whimpering, or gibbering, or backs away slowly with a look of dawning horror, or leaps into a body of water and stays submerged there for a considerable time before resurfacing at some distance while coughing and spluttering, I shall count that as a scare.”
“What about apoplexy, begging for mercy, clawing at the eyes, and other forms of self-harm that can only be ascribed to mortal dread?” she asked, looking up into the air as if she were imagining specific victims of these injuries.
“I suppose I can include those in your tally as well, provided the damage is significant and undeniable. But mere nibbling of the lips and biting of the nails cannot possibly qualify.”
“Very well. I suppose you have some still more flattering costume prepared for my performance,” she said, her mind then returning to more important matters: “But if not this golden gown, what exactly am I to wear?”
“A chronically stressful question for many females,” I said, “since every day and hour seems to bring a perceived shift in the shape of a woman’s body that twists those with a large wardrobe and no skilled sex slaver to command them into a continual tizzy of indecision. Happily there’s no need to exhaust your mental matter meditating on today’s sartorial selection, as circumstances have already done the choosing for us: to complete the illusion that you’re a risen zombie, you must, of course, wear the very same clothes you wore on the day you supposedly met your doom.
“I’ve done you the favor of not removing the ragged remnants of whatever unidentifiable garment clung to your flesh upon your retreat to the safety of my slaving office, since it’s filthy and torn to a degree that would be difficult to duplicate on short notice; the swampy stink of decaying reeds that assaults my nose when you lift your arms is especially convincing. And, since you were stripped before being imprisoned in the well, it won’t be necessary to wear anything at all for your second public appearance—as the Oriental maiden you were in that much less exciting life before I awarded you a new name and freed you into bondage.”
Mala’s expression waxed (to coat the entirely untoward configuration of her features in the proverbial drippings of dates and thus render it more palatable to sensitive spirits) distinctly displeased. “Are you admitting your quackish medical methods nearly delivered me up to the eternal gardens in soiled clothes,” her voice rose as she spoke and now became a kind of hoarse screech, “and that you now expect me to wear these very same soiled clothes for my highly anticipated second debut in high society?!”
At that my patience flagged, and I was unwilling to continue mincing words to the usual fine consistency. “Quiet yourself, dear Mala, before someone wonders why I’m strangling an ostrich with such agonizing slowness a full hour before any civilized slaver calls for coffee. We haven’t time to argue over trifles. I shouldn’t need to remind you it’s by virtue of my medical miracles that you’re healthy and hale enough to spend the day convincingly impersonating the walking dead. As folk wisdom advises, a hungry man should eat his couscous before he cavils at the cook. In truth I intended to wrap your corpse in a worn-out carpet for convenient disposal if your departing spirit had the ill manners to leave it on my favorite cushions; but whether, as you assert, that usually non-wearable article could really travel with you to the afterlife, even under the theoretical framework of your own inept cosmology, is difficult to say.”
Mala looked doubly disgusted, and also furious, and it was perhaps only her persistent physical weakness that braked a violent eruption.
“Need I recall,” I reasoned—a dangerous thing to do with any female, let alone an angry one, and hardly recommendable to inexperienced sex slavers whose mastery of inventory management is not yet absolute—“this brief acting adventure is but the tiny toll you must pay for your freedom, whose glorious and resplendent promise should encourage you to wear your filth with determination, if not genuinely heartfelt enthusiasm. Surely you would make far greater efforts for such a victory?” The two bedazzling adjectives I deployed in advance of the word ‘promise’ served as a useful distraction from the difficulty of describing said promise in any concrete terms, given a woman who was certain to be stripped of all friends, family, and means of support regardless of the outcome—a sales technique aspiring slavers would do well to remember.
“But why,” Mala demanded, her native skeptical obstinacy now heavily reinforced by aversion to the stipulated costume, “would a few rags and a jot of makeup on a single remarkably attractive odalisque be sufficient to convince anyone at all that a zombie apocalypse was about to commence?”
“Ah, dear, dear Mala, you reveal your ignorance of the mind-molding magnificence granted to one who reaches the highest pinnacles of salesmanship. When was the last time you left your well to converse with the common run of men? The zombie apocalypse, you see, already happened long ago; we shall only take advantage of an accomplished fact. Certainly, men’s skulls are of different sizes, and it’s tempting to rank them purely by their varying ability to calculate how many grains are in a dune given only a cup of its sand and the number of camel-paces it measures in each dimension, to cite a proverbial puzzle. Yet if a panel of illustrious pashas is assembled to evaluate a gaggle of odalisques, and they deliver their verdicts of praise or blame in unison, how few are the crania, be they ever so large or small, capable of looking past this authoritative chorus to select one entirely by their own taste! Very few indeed; and frank dissent is found no more often in the large-skulled than the small. The zombies who surround us stumble and mumble as one; the master salesman who best conjures the mirage of consensus guides them withersoever he pleases, and should the matter in question be less visceral than erotic intuition, his task is all the easier. Thus your performance today, dear Mala, is but the trigger. The preparatory seeding of tales, the extras added to the crowd, these are the true springs of the trap; and when, in my father’s day, we still deigned to hold the public auctions since given up as beneath our rarefied slaving brand, such devices never failed to increase our profits.”
Interpreting, quite correctly, my enthusiasm for the topic of slave salesmanship as an unmistakable sign that poorly considered objections to my grand designs would get her nowhere, Mala held in her anger and changed tactics—now tilting her chin up winsomely. Rare and clever restraint; and how sad it was that she’d lost her chance to thus slap scimitars with the sultan, rather than turning her womanly wiles on a slaver whose jaded odalisque expertise was so far beyond her ken!
“If I am already to play two roles,” she said sweetly, “it would of course make sense for me to play a third or fourth as well, to increase the apparent number of zombie odalisques participating in this miniature apocalypse. And, for the sake of contrast, these third and fourth zombies might have died in very cute clothes. Furthermore, have you considered the possibility that the smelly rags which grip my coveted flesh with such insolent familiarity might be rather too realistic? After all, actresses wear heavier makeup than strictly suits their roles, gesticulate with more than the usual range of motion, and often declaim in flowery language far removed from their purported station. You should be well aware that appealing to the masculine lust of my victims will leave a stronger impression than imitating a decaying corpse with perfect realism; so much so that the benefits of fresher attire would entirely justify exchanging the latter for the former.” She smiled at me again after she finished: a rather gruesome sight in her current state, but unaware of the decay afflicting her features, it was natural for her to continue behaving as if they could provide the effortless victories they had to the earliest limits of her memory.
“The admirable ambition of your proposal to take on the extra roles of a third and fourth undead odalisque is duly noted, but too many sequels to a good spectacle only squeeze out more profits at the expense of originality and quality; as the owner of a small exclusive boutique luxury slaving business, it’s an approach I abhor in principle. At any rate, enough is enough: we must leave before the luminous upper curve of the celestial lamp touches the horizon, lest our departure from this respectable retail location attract notice, and you, my dear Mala, have already yammered far too long for an actress obliged to preserve her voice for the performance. Sit still while I apply your makeup.”
“I’m quite capable of doing that myself,” Mala said crossly, “and I am not the one yammering. And, to remind you a second time, I am still a virgin.” She turned to the vanity and reached out to remove the pantaloons from the mirror.
“No!” I grabbed her hand rather too abruptly, then hesitated with her fingers in my palm, fumbling for an effective excuse. “Your face is far too important to rely on do-it-yourself cosmetology,” I said at last. I folded both of her hands in her lap and patted them, then kept speaking to forestall any curiosity.
“These days I delegate most of the work and only touch up the finer points before an important sale, but cosmetology is a foundational discipline in the education of an apprentice sex slaver. When I was a young man my studies entailed the application of kohl far more often than physical chastisement. Of course, whenever possible my father volunteered the same odalisques to serve as subjects for both tutorials, so I had ample opportunity to practice obscuring any visible residues of punishment.” I opened a drawer and removed a brush, and then a jar of foundation. “It was the most useful kind of practice. Relax and turn your face upward. In fact,” I continued, having adopted a mellifluous and understanding voice I knew would facilitate the work, “this is a good time to explain exactly why you are still a virgin—provided you hold your jaw still and speak very gently and quietly. If I recall, you failed to properly execute the erotic wigglings and jigglings necessary to interest a man as jaded by the inexhaustible supply of flawless females as our dear sultan. Alas, in such cases beauty alone is not enough, and I am forced to provide remedial education in sexual gyrology to my ignorant Occidental imports at my own expense.”
“Nonsense,” said Mala. “I was instructed in the wigglings and jigglings you mention by my former slaver, and in the application of makeup as well, long before I ever fell into the clutches of your devious and undersized fingers” —she glared at the hand that had just interrupted her reach for the mirror. “I executed them with perfect form and in precisely the manner the sultan requested: that of a shy Occidental schoolmarm, secretly lusting for his highness yet too timid to reveal her interest. I let down my red hair, which had been primly pinned up in a style matched to this theme, lock by lock, with an erotically charged reticence that would tempt any healthy male.”
“In that case, you must have erred at some other step of the seduction process,” I said with overt but sympathetic skepticism. “Don’t move your head.” I needed to keep Mala distracted, and the most effective method was to cast doubt on her feminine charm, causing her thought-worms to spin at double the usual pace in search of comforting self-justifications and slowing her other perceptions proportionately.
Since she’d begun her tale I’d already replaced the jar of foundation with a jar of water I kept in the vanity drawer as a cleanser. In truth, Mala’s disfigured flesh resembled a zombie’s so closely that no cosmetic assistance was required. I’d arranged this mock makeup application purely to reinforce the belief that her undead appearance was the result of artificial intervention rather than decay; for her starring role in my small zombie apocalypse simulation would be exhausting even for an ambitious young actress in vigorous health, let alone a nearly dead one struggling to come to terms with her sudden worthlessness.
“I erred in no wise: my seduction technique was flawless,” she replied, and closed her eyes as she recalled the scene.
“I began my striptease just inside the enormous arched double doors to the sultan’s bedchamber. My eunuch guide closed them behind me with a small thump that echoed across the domed ceiling and marble floors. That single room could nearly contain my previous owner’s palace. Its walls were decorated with gold filigrees that shimmered softly in the light of a thousand and one lamps, all dimmed to frail flickers that produced the perfect mood lighting. The sultan reclined at the opposite end in a bed large enough for ten odalisques. But he was alone: even his personal guard had retreated into the corridor. The atmosphere was unsurpassably romantic.” She sighed, then continued a few moments later: “I thanked my good fortune that I would be the favorite who won the sultan’s heart, and even had a tender, though very brief and insouciant, thought for the slaver who’d sold me to His Highness. Immediately recanted as naive and unmerited generosity, I need hardly add.
“I crossed the fifty paces to the sultan without hurry, swaying seductively, sometimes pausing to turn left and right so he could admire my body from all angles, and discarding a new article of clothing every few steps. Eventually I reached the foot of his great bed and let the last undergarment fall.
“I stood there as I’d been instructed, feigning timidity, brandishing an apple, a small slate, and a stick of chalk—I was told these props would increase the realism of my Occidental redhead schoolmistress roleplay—and waiting for his signal.”
While Mala was absorbed in the telling of her tale I wet the tip of a brush in the jar of water and rubbed it over her face as if I were applying some type of thick liquid foundation for theatrical makeup; she relived the events in the sultan’s bedchamber so vividly that she never noticed anything amiss. Then I began liberally adding kohl to enhance the deep black circles that were already under her eyes. Overdone, but it needed to be effective from a distance.
“During the intense and uncountable minutes I’d been strutting across the room, I’d felt his gaze caressing me,” Mala was saying. “Bluish smoke curled from his pipe up toward the ceiling far above, where it drew halos around each little flame in the chandelier. I felt as if we were sharing a dream. But poised there before his bed, scratching random numbers on the slate as one minute and then another passed without being called out on the inaccuracy of my attempts at long division, I realized his eyes had no focus. They were merely drifting in my direction.
“Whether he was unaware of my presence or simply indifferent to it, I didn’t know. And that uncertainty was all the more infuriating. The striptease on which I’d lavished such ambitious care—the striptease I’d believed the most important in my life—had failed to fire a single drop of royal blood with unquenchable lust. The sultan was gone, lost in oblivion, and all along, the thousand and one little flames around us had been dancing in silent laughter.
“I crawled into bed beside him, wondering what to do, and as I sat there thinking, I began to feel not only doubt, but trepidation. If my first night in the palace passed unconsummated, I wouldn’t simply fail to be recognized as the sultan’s favorite; I might live out the rest of my life as a spinster at the bottom of the harem pecking order—not even a lonely pampered jewel, but just . . . lonely.
“Knowing the stakes, I ignored the eunuch’s advice and reached out unprompted. But even in my delicate, dextrous hands the sultan’s masculine parts were as limp as an empty waterskin on a returning traveler’s belt. Everything about him had gone soft and slack, except for the pipe itself. I briefly considered using it to simulate the event that was not to pass, bloodying the sheets as evidence of a consummation I could later claim he’d forgotten in the thick of whatever haze enveloped his mind, but I didn’t recognize the drug he smoked, and feared his wrath if I should draw the pipe from his hands.
“I endured the remainder of the night without sleep, and in the morning one of the eunuchs came. Ever since the death of the first sultana long ago, he explained as he led me to the Hall of Concubines, the sultan hasn’t shared his bed with the same woman twice. I might never again approach close enough to touch him. But I’m not sure the eunuchs understand the full effects of his torpor: it’s possible that many of the harem girls remain virgins, concealing their purity out of shame.”
As she finished her tale I put the brush down and returned the jars to the vanity drawer.
“Wait,” she said, restoring her neck to its usual angle. “What about lipstick?” She pulled the drawer further open and rummaged around.
“I am a partisan of red, but adding a lively color to your lips would be counterproductive when our purpose is to convince onlookers you’re—”
“Undead,” she interjected, still searching through the drawer.
Mala ignored my objection and brought out a little dish of lipstick, a small brush, and the kohl. As I reached out to put them back in the drawer, she pulled down the pantaloons covering the vanity mirror with her left hand.
“Oh my.” She stared directly into the mirror, her mouth agape.
I was afraid she’d grasped the truth. But instead of keening in despair, she said, “I doubted that a man given to such brusque evaluations of feminine beauty, who has repeatedly shown himself both impatient and inconsiderate, could possibly be an expert in the use of cosmetics; but I do look impressively like a zombie—and in less than an hour. The baldness is horrifying on its own; compounded with the infected, bloodied pustules you’ve inscribed at the sides of my cheeks and neck and the black abyss that surrounds my bloodshot eyes, I could frighten the bravest bashi-bazouk. Perhaps,” she said brightly and with incomplete sarcasm, “you should quit selling sex slaves and work for a traveling circus instead. I’m sure they’d have a use for someone whose most notable skills are self-promotion, theatrical cosmetology, and swinging from a fraying rope over a deep pit.”
“My skills are as many and various as the innumerable stars that would fit on the underside of my cranial dome if we could but gouge them from the firmament and relocate them to a more appropriate environment for the incubation of brilliance,” I said while gesturing overhead. “In which case even the most uncultured respect for aesthetic genius would cry out against your impulse to mar my craftsmanship with an inept splotch of red, so please cease manhandling that makeup.”
But Mala wouldn’t be dissuaded, and to my dismay, she began mixing a large quantity of kohl into the lipstick, like a child making a mud pie after the year’s first floodwaters rose. It may have been my first time organizing a zombie apocalypse, but I’d trained hundreds of odalisques in the basics of beautification and never before encountered this particular form of misbehavior, so I was ill-prepared to halt it.
“Mala!” I admonished in the stern but measured tone one would direct toward a child, determined not to be drawn into shouting again.
But the damage was done: the lipstick had turned nearly black, like a sunset blotted out by soot from a burning village.
She applied it to her lips.
I was preparing to dose her with a sleeping draught, wash her face, attach a system of ropes and pulleys to her arms, and then personally take charge of her zombie act in some location—perhaps a large and smoky hookah bar—where I could conceal these stage techniques from a credulous audience, when I noticed, contrary to all reasonable expectations, that the nearly black lipstick made a striking complement to her pallid, ravaged skin and sunken eye-bags.
For a short while I was at a loss for words; then my mental machinery stirred and whirred.
“Ugly—and yet . . . beautiful at the same time.”
I instinctively began to pace the room, but as it was small and cramped I could only take one step before turning back in the opposite direction, and in a few laps the procedure became unintentionally dizzying. “This ‘black lipstick’ could provide an occasion for clever men who can’t afford a truly first-rate odalisque to nevertheless exhibit to one another their discerning taste in feminine faces—separating themselves from both the uncomprehending peasants in the bazaar and the shrunken-skulled heirs too dull to identify beauty beneath unfamiliar colors. Yes,” I mused aloud, “if only there were a way to launch a new fashion trend and profit from your accidental discovery.”
“You were clearly attempting to waste my kohl and my lipstick, a very costly import unsuitable for any odalisques who are either undead or purporting to so be.”
“I’ll have you know that I frequently aided my father in the mixing of paints. And,” she said, pressing her lips together to smooth the texture, “you’ll forgive me after you see my performance today.”
True to her word, the shade she’d created perfectly complemented the dark circles I’d drawn around her eyes.
I wondered how it would look under full sun. Indeed, while Mala had been busy inventing black lipstick, I’d noticed the first hint of light at the windows. I was about to prod her to motion, and to that end contemplated various exhortations and vaguely inspirational promises of freedom, hope, and the like; but in the vanity mirror, where she was making faces at herself to test the effect, her eyes already glittered with enthusiasm.
She stood up of her own accord and looked at me expectantly. Yes, her ravaged face did reveal an unmistakable glow of new life. The full meaning of whatever transformation I’d set in motion was still unclear, but even then I sensed something unsettling about it.
“You seem to be forgetting something,” I told her. “Though baldness does amplify the shock and horror your dread costume inspires, it’s essential that your description recall the sultan’s latest late redhead.” I handed her the slipper box containing the red wig along with a jar of extra-strength wig glue, and then riffled through the rarely worn clothes buried at the back of the walk-in odalisque closet as she attached it to her cranium.
“I swear I’m being bitten by something every time I handle this wig,” she called back to me.
I brought out a pile of black fabric, at which she looked blankly. “These tent-like garments are to conceal your identity between scares,” I explained. “But you must take care not to leave them on for an extended time during the day, lest you succumb to heat stroke under the merciless sun, collapse, and suffocate inside them before those around you notice anything amiss.
“In the far-flung corners of our almost endless empire, women wear such things at all hours, and sometimes survive,” I clarified as she put them on. “You are to ignore anyone who addresses you in the street, or else mumble incoherently about your husband’s goats in an undistinguished provincial accent.” It occurred to me that should she expire in the midst of her act it would severely diminish the illusion that she was undead, thereby putting all of my plans at risk. I would have to check periodically under the garment for signs of exhaustion.
Before we left I deposited a black wig, the bottle of glue remover, and my jeweled dagger in the inner pockets of my robe. I had the nagging feeling I was forgetting something, but if we delayed any longer the sash-seller would witness our departure when he opened his shop.
I slipped out the back door with Mala close behind. Instead of exiting the alley to the bazaar, I turned in the opposite direction, through a cramped residential quarter buffered from the noisy common market by the strip of expensive retail zoning where my luxury sex slaving office had pride of place. In some stretches the tall buildings were set so closely that it was impossible to walk side by side, and the darkness beneath them rendered anyone covered from head to toe with black cloth nearly invisible. Unfortunately, the conditions inside Mala’s veil imposed a similar limitation on her own vision.
“I can’t see,” she whispered.
I held her hand to guide her through the dimmest twists and turns, and told her we’d soon reach a brighter road, but whatever happened she mustn’t remove her veil before I gave the signal.
After that she was unusually silent. Stage fright, I assumed; understandable, considering the magnificence of the scheme in which she played a minor, albeit essential, role.
My destination lay on the bazaar’s opposite periphery and not, in fact, terribly far from my slaving office, but taking the direct route risked discovery. So I wended a circuitous path through the modest specialty manufactories situated in affordable real estate away from the prime retail roads. A few narrow, utilitarian lanes serviced them—all clogged at this hour with empty carts waiting to be laden. We squeezed down one of these, then cut through the alley behind a drum-maker’s workshop, where round, varnished frames in every size hung in the open air—daires, dafs, and riqs that hadn’t yet been fitted with jingles or covered with skins.
I decided that if my zombie apocalypse was a success I’d set aside some time to practice the ney this evening. It was a noble instrument I rarely had time for when I ran my family slaving business from dawn to dusk and then plotted my rise to the vertiginous summit of the imperial hierarchy deep into the night, but the sash-seller’s ill-mannered rebuke of my vocal talent had recalled it to mind, and the sight of these drying drums now whet my appetite for sound. In those days I often told myself that if I hadn’t already devoted my life to the enslavement of Occidental virgins and the relentless pursuit of evil, I’d instead dedicate myself to the making of music. It was only much later, after my retirement from imperial duties, that I could fully indulge my melomania. No doubt the renown of the obscure and widely ignored compositions I am even now in the midst of writing will belatedly surpass that of these memoirs. Like my services to the sultana, the most enduring achievements are ever hidden in the darkest shadows.
By the time we doubled back toward our true target the streets were beginning to fill and wider roads let down more of the predawn light, so I bade Mala follow me from a distance, lest some passerby, unable to forget the striking size of my turban, associate the two of us in the future. I walked on steadily without looking back to verify her progress.
Healed as she was from the worst of her affliction, a lesser slaver might worry she’d take this as an opportunity to flee. But such doubts never crossed my cranium. I already knew Mala had come to me because she’d nowhere else to go. If the eunuchs caught her returning to her family, their lives would be forfeit, one and all. Despite her miraculous recovery, nothing had really changed: I was the only thread on the runaway magic carpet of her life she could cling to, the only man in this city who had both reason and ability to look after her. The only man who could lay claim to her, contract or no.
Such enslavement was in truth a greater boon than the kind of freedom I held out before her like a date before a camel, as if it were a reward. Perhaps at the forefront of her skull she did long for freedom, or told herself she longed for it, without questioning its content. But unlike the common run of new odalisques, I suspect she was clever enough to wonder: what, after all, is a female owned by no one free for?
Then a more important question pressed itself against the inner surface of my cranial crown. One that might determine the directness of my inevitable ascent to almost absolute power. Was Mala also clever enough to persuasively impersonate a rampaging undead odalisque before a live audience of unruly rubes, without even a dress rehearsal to ease her debut?
The answer, like our performance, was coming soon. The large dome of the venue where I’d scheduled our first act had just risen over the riads’ rooftops.