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The guards led Berouna to a long, low building that, from the delectable smells and curls of smoke escaping from it, must have been a dining-hall. They flung open the heavy wooden doors and Berouna beheld an enormous chamber, as richly-appointed as everywhere else in the Harem: painted walls, potted trees, thick carpeting strewn with pillows and cushions. Many of these cushions were occupied by women. They sat cross-legged or leaned on their sides at long, low tables in rows as neat and straight as a garden plot.

How many women were there? Three hundred? Four? Berouna gasped at the sight. It was as diverse a group as she had ever seen on the busiest market-day in Khebbet: gathered together were women tall and short, fair and dark, shapely maidens and dignified matrons and scampering little girls. The only thing they had in common was that every last one was beautiful, or had been once. Of course, Berouna thought, remembering the plain faces of the odalisques who had bathed and dressed her. It was clear there were two possible paths for a female slave once she reached the Palace of the Sun, and how the choice between them was made.

Intisar--the Hanarite--was seated at one of the tables. She gave Berouna a smile and a nod, which Berouna returned hesitantly, blushing with embarrassment. A hush came over the room as Berouna stepped forwards, flanked by her silent guards. Women had stared and whispered while she bathed, but now there was no steam to shelter her from their curiosity. She had been naked in the bathhouse; she felt moreso now.

The black-beaded widow’s garb she had been given was elegant in its simplicity, but Berouna still felt self-conscious. Around her, gems hung from every neck, feathered aigrettes rose from every head, and every body was swathed in some priceless fabric, not only silk but white sealskin, cloth-of-gold, even the frivolous, transparent oil-silk, so fine it moved more like smoke than fabric. Eyeing the splendor of the Harem women, Berouna touched her earlobe, where a hole had long-since closed from lack of use. There was a time when she had taken pleasure in such ornaments. Tears had fallen from her face not only on the day her husband died, but the next day, when she had to smash her few paltry bangles and don the black veil.

Here and there among the crowd Berouna noted that some of the ladies were in mourning garb themselves. Still mourning the former Sultan? She counted nine. She tried to read their stories in their faces, but each face was the same: utterly blank. Numb. These empty-eyed women filled Berouna with dread, especially when they sat beside others who laughed and smiled and clinked glasses of sharbat with one another. What has happened to the poor things? Berouna thought. Oh God, what is going to happen to me?

An unseen bell rang a single high, clear note, and the ladies of the Harem rose to their feet.

Berouna’s heart pounded. Everywhere around her heads were bowing, clothes were being rearranged. The Madari, she thought. She got down on her knees, lowered her eyes and draped herself in her veil, hoping to portray the very image of modesty, humility. Innocence.

A pair of boots spattered with mud appeared in Berouna’s field of vision. They looked much the same as Kaligali’s, and for a mad moment she thought he had escaped. What is a man doing in the Harem? Berouna thought. A eunuch, it must be, like the strange silent ones who had escorted her here.

“You may stand, Prisoner,” said a gentle female voice from the direction of the shoes.

Berouna had heard Braheem Sultan was quite young, so of course it made sense his sister would be young as well. But as she rose to her feet, she was not prepared for the sight of the delicate figure who bore the title of “Mother of the Sultan.” God, Berouna thought. She can’t be much more than twenty. Mihrimah Sultanah was very fair, almost as pale as the girl at the Dovecote called Alabaster. Her hair, tied back in a simple bun, was brown, but her eyes were a striking and unusual blue. She would be quite beautiful if she took more care over her appearance, Berouna found herself thinking. A strange thought to have about the most powerful woman in the Empire.

“Honorable Madari Sultan--,” Berouna began, but the young Madari stopped her, placing her hand gently on her arm.

“Mihrimah is fine,” she said. “I ask all the ladies to call me by name. What is yours?”

“Berouna Berousha, affandinah,” Berouna stammered. Regardless of the girl’s age and stature, she did not forsee herself calling the Sultan’s daughter Mihrimah.

“You must be wondering when I will take your testimony,” said Mihrimah with a gentle smile. “That will come tomorrow. For now, the cooks have prepared us a fine meal.” She gestured to the table at which Intisar sat, where two places had been left empty. Merciful Heaven, Berouna thought. The Madari Sultan means me to sit beside her.

Mihrimah sat down unceremoniously on one of the cushions, beckoning Berouna to join her. She is treating me less like a captive criminal than a favorite aunt, thought Berouna, but she was numb by now to the strangeness of her situation. Lifting the jet-beaded flounces of her skirts, she sat down beside the Sultan’s sister.

“I hope you will be comfortable here,” said Mihirmah with a sincerity that seemed genuine. “I know what you have been accused of, but we will not speak of such things tonight. Tonight, you are our guest.”

A curious word for one who is not permitted to leave, Berouna thought. She wanted to trust the Madari, but it was impossible to feel at ease when there were still so many eyes on her. These women were flowers with thorns, bright birds with razor talons, pythons with glimmering scales. Berouna smiled graciously, bowed her head and resolved to remain silent for the rest of the meal.
Berouna took quiet pride in her skill in the kitchen. The women at the Dovecote had spoken well of her cooking, as had her husband and father-in-law before their deaths; even her mother-in-law could find little in Berouna’s meals to criticise, hard though she tried. But she could have never attempted the profusion of dishes that the odalisques now brought before the diners, many of which she could not even name. Here were moon-shaped spinach pies wrapped in a crust of many layers, each so fine that the flakes that fell from it were translucent. Here was a milky-white pudding that smelled of cardamom and sugar but tasted of boiled chicken. One dish was topped with a bright green sauce so heavily spiced it made Berouna’s eyes water, while another had a dark and savory sauce whose flavor Berouna could not place, until Mihrimah told her, quite calmly, that it was made from drowned locusts fermented in the sun for a hundred days.

Berouna found herself clinging to Mihrimah’s every word. The young princess was so confident and assured, and it was she who kept the conversation flowing. She did not ask Berouna about herself, but asked after her comfort frequently. Did she enjoy the food, and did her new clothes fit well? Was the room too hot, or would she like a servant to fan her? Berouna noted that the dark-swathed, stony-faced women who had so frightened her did not sit near the Madari. The nearest places were occupied by a group of merry young women, some of whom had a slight resemblance to Mihrimah herself; half-sisters, perhaps. These ladies ignored Berouna for the most part, but they turned to Mihrimah often with questions and anecdotes that Berouna could make little sense of.

“Nargis, sweeting, have you acquired that translation of the Analects of Gyauthen?”

“My dealer sent it out six weeks ago, but there’s been a dreadful delay in my shipment. Blasted pirates. Until then, I’ve resolved to work through the Inquiries of Rhatanactes. I’ve only just finished the sixth scroll.”

“Ah, the sixth is my favorite! I particularly love his description of the Sibyl of the Forest in her seaside cave--although I’ve heard it has little basis in fact…”

Berouna gathered after a time that they were mainly speaking of books. She almost opened her mouth to join in when she caught a reference to a verse of the Kheb, but this was quickly followed by a string of names she had never heard, and she lost the thread of the conversation once again. At one point Mihrimah even quoted something in a thorn-prickling language that might have been Winish or Attharoun, and the nearby concubines nodded in understanding. Berouna kept eating, and prayed silently that as long as her mouth was chewing she would be excused from having to speak.

“These women are my closest friends,” said Mihrimah, gesturing to the five or six nearest ladies. “Do you know what some call us? The Ink-Maidens. Because we are forever writing and reading.” She laughed. “It’s the only way we have to learn about the world beyond the Celadon Gate. Do you read much, out in the city?”

“Yes, how is the city?” one of the Ink-Maidens asked, as though Mihrimah’s question had enabled their own. They suddenly turned towards her with great interest, and Berouna felt panic as she scrambled to think of what to say. Be like Kaligali, she thought. Loquacious Kaligali, at ease in every situation, who knew more about the city than any man alive.

“I think you’d be better off asking Intisar,” sniffed the woman named Nargis. Berouna gave Mihrimah a puzzled expression.

“Intisar is my go-between,” Mihrimah explained. “We employ Hanarite women to travel to and from the city as a Khebbite woman cannot. They manage our accounts, buy our books, and bring us news. The Wardens know their faces; they are the only women allowed to pass out of the Gate once they have entered.” Berouna swallowed, thinking of her own situation. She dared not question the ways of the Harem, but she was puzzled by the idea of Khebbites and Hanarites cooperating in such a manner. Was it not forbidden by the Sultan? Yes, of course; but had that stopped her and Kaligali?

“I only meant that the poor thing’s likely been secluded as long as we have,” said Nargis. Poor thing? Berouna gave Nargis a sidelong glance as the Ink-Maiden picked up a cluster of candied nuts and crunched them in her elegant white teeth. “She is a Khebbite, same as all of us; probably she has seen very little of the city beyond her husband’s door.”

“Actually, I believe things are quite different for Khebbite women of the lower classes,” said another Ink-Maiden--Lasraleen, Berouna thought she was called. “Every able body must contribute to a household without the luxury of odalisques. Such women often leave the home and may even do business directly with men, the veil functioning as a mobile extension of the harem curtain. You may recall Baqeel’s touching portrait of the urban poor in The Soul’s Return.” The urban poor? Berouna felt her cheeks flush with anger. Had the circumstances been different, she would have pointed out that she could read, write and do sums, that she and her mother-in-law had run a successful business for years without a man’s help and managed their own house besides. Lasraleen was very pretty, and no doubt very well-read; but could she say the jewels around her neck were her own? Outside in the city, she longed to say, I slept behind a locked gate, just as you do. I could not come and go, no more freely than you can. But my breath did not catch in my throat waiting for a Sultan’s footsteps, and everything I had was mine.

“Let us not speak of the woman as though she were not present,” said Intisar icily. Berouna felt the tension in the air like a shimmer of heat.

Desperate for a change of subject, Berouna cast about and could not help but notice the mailed guards standing half in shadow at the edges of the courtyard. She eyed their visored helmets uneasily. There was something deeply troubling about their unnatural stillness, their extreme height. “Tell me, where are these eunuchs from?” she asked, gesturing towards the guards. “Oundraswah, perhaps? I have never seen men of such stature. And they are so quiet. Tales say the Sultans of old were served by armies of mutes. Is this still the case here in the Harem?”

Nargis and a few other Ink-Maidens chuckled, but a look from Mihrimah silenced them. “I don’t know why anyone is laughing, myself,” said the Madari Sultan sternly. “But the guards are from Alektekton, and they are not men.”

Berouna raised her eyebrows. “Then what are they?” she asked.

“Automata,” said Mihrimah. It was not a word Berouna had ever heard before, and it sounded foreign. “Look inside their armor and you will find nothing but greasy cogs and wires and a clockwork heart, and a strange stone mined in the Wine Islands, which is their fuel. The Artificer’s Guild in Alektekton builds them custom for the Sultan--and at no small cost, I might add. They are eerie, I admit. Even I am frightened of them at times. But they are marvels of technology.” She took a sip of cucumber-water from the crystal goblet at her side.

“Then eunuchs do not protect the Harem women after all?” Berouna asked. There really were two worlds in Khebbet, or more than two. It was becoming more and more clear how little she knew about things inside the Palace. I break bread with Hanarites, only to be watched over by clockwork monsters.

“Whether they protect, or whether they guard, is a question worth considering,” said Lasraleen darkly.

Ignoring her, Mihrimah spoke again. “It was eunuchs, at first. You know the old tales of the founding of Khebbet? How our ancestors descended on the city of Pnax--Binnash--and rebuilt it in their image? It was the Pnaxtilli--the Binnasheen--who built the Porcelain Gates, long before the coming of Shurak-Meen. So when the early Khebbites rebuilt the city, they centered it around the twin Gates, positioning the enslaved builders there in parallel roles. Whole men guarded prostitutes at the Nacarat Gate, which was always kept open, while eunuchs guarded the Imperial Harem at the Celadon Gate, which opened only for the Sultan. Over time, the office of the Janissaries as morality police would develop from the Nacarat Guards. They continue to keep their manhood as a display of willpower and commitment to the Kheb, just as the solareen do.

As for the eunuchs, they started to be replaced by automata during my grandfather’s reign, so that only one eunuch position remains: the Agha of the House of Felicity, who holds the words to the Celadon Gate. This is by necessity, as no automata can speak. But the Sultans have never been keen on having men in the Harem, even half-men. In the old days there were eunuchs who could still function, in a man’s way, or still had a man’s feelings. But these automata have never been men, and never will be. Mute and obedient, with strong bodies and stronger wills. They have no appetites whatsoever, you see. They neither eat nor sleep, they care naught for money, and they would never molest a woman or take her as a lover.”

Berouna nodded in understanding. “The power to create such beings seems like it could do more harm than good,” she said.

Mihirmah looked amused. “In what way?” she asked.

Berouna spoke cautiously. “Might not our enemies learn the secrets of the Alektektonians, and make an army of the things? Might not the Alektektonians themselves?”

“An excellent point you make,” said Mihirimah. She smiled as though proud of Berouna’s powers of deduction. “Our enemies might make use of them, yes, but the things have so many limitations. The stone that fuels them is surpassingly rare, and the techniques used to produce them known only to a select few, so they are very expensive. This is why they are limited to the Palace, and why you have never seen their like. Why, if it weren’t for the cost, I suspect my brother would even replace the Janissaries with them.”

“Or the concubines,” said another of the Ink-Maidens, laughing into her wine.

Berouna almost felt herself relax. She had dared to speak to these imperious women with their flashing-bright jewels and minds, and she had not made a fool of herself. The Madari even seemed to like her. Perhaps Kaligali had rubbed off on her after all. She chewed a bite of meatball in an orange sauce that did not taste of orange. Fascinating. She would next ask next if the color of the sauce was achieved with saffron or some other spice.

A pair of small girls ran by, laughing, with a red-faced duenna following close behind. “Are there no male children here?” Berouna asked, growing bolder. “I have seen only girls. Or are the boys raised in some other part of the Harem?”

The Ink-Maidens exchanged strange looks, and Mihrimah seemed uncomfortable for the first time. God-be-good, Berouna thought. I never should have said anything. This is what comes from trying to be like Kaligali.

Across the table, Intisar’s face crumpled. “Excuse me,” she said softly. She rose so abruptly that a glass of sharbat in front of her was upended, spilling its rosy contents across the tablecloth. Then she turned and fled the room, her fringed veil whipping behind her as she ran.

Berouna was mortified. Her mouth hung open as she struggled to think of what to say. Hanarite or no, Intisar had defended her, even been kind to her, and she had—what had she done? “Forgive me Madari,” Berouna said at last, inclining her head deeply. “I must have...misspoken.”

The Ink-Maidens were looking off in different directions, some whispering to each other, some wafting themselves with marabou fans or feigning newfound interest in their food. “There is no need to grovel, please,” said Mihrimah, laying her hand on Berouna’s arm for the second time. Berouna looked up and saw that the young Madari was smiling, though her eyes were sad. Berouna had seen a smile like that once before: in the mirror, the day of her own wedding. “We cannot expect you to know, or understand, everything done here,” Mihrimah continued. “We do not always understand it ourselves. The Harem is a world within a world. And like all worlds, both the good and the bad, it has its own rules.”

Lasraleen was studying her empty glass, turning it around in her hands so that the evening light caught the gems inlaid in its rim. When she spoke again, she did not look up, and her voice seemed to come from far away. “A world within a world,” she repeated. “And what do you suppose that world orbits? We Harem ladies are instructed to be as clean as we are chaste, as graceful as we are pious, to never miss a fast or a call to prayer. We learn to express ourselves most beautifully in song and poetry, with ‘oud and double flute, with clapping hands and stomping feet. But the God around whom all this is centered, the sun we flowers turn ourselves towards, is a man. One man.” The glass stopped its revolutions and sat in her palms like a dead thing. “Sometimes when a Sultan wants entertainment, we encircle him, dancing and playing our music. He smiles and claps his hands and around him we sway like rushes, like wheat. And like growing plants, we bask in his glow. He is called Radiance, and I have felt his warmth. Nothing is sweeter than to have it fixed on you.”

Lasraleen met Berouna’s eyes for a moment. Then her gaze moved past Berouna to the mourners poking listlessly at their food at the far tables, the dark-robed women with their faces of ice and flint. “And once you have become accustomed to that warmth,” said Lasraleen, “No bed feels colder than one’s own.”

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About the author

Andrew Coletti

Bio: Food/history/mythology/culture nerd. I blog about food history and write fantasy and historical fiction. My fantasy novella The Knife's Daughter was published by Pink Narcissus Press in 2018.

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