Another prompt from Black Ship Books - remember to leave a comment!
The day has finally arrived, the day when they will sacrifice my little darling. This is the day she was born for; this is the day I have dreaded all her life. Today, they will sacrifice her youth and beauty, her mind and soul for political gain. The younger daughter of a minor wife in the harem of the Grand Vizier, she is not even of royal blood, strictly speaking. But she has been given an education equal to any princess; today she will put it to full use.
She has lived her whole life within the cloistered walls of the Grand Vizier's palace, but she has learned to swim and ride, mathematics and astrology, to speak many languages, and to sing and dance. Her understanding of history and politics would rival the Caliph's! Does all this seem a waste of time and effort for a mere girl, a girl whose destiny is to be at best a pawn and at worst a decoration? Perhaps.
But the Grand Vizier has held his position for a long time, not least because he understands the importance of always being prepared. This situation has brought the importance of preparation to the fore. A new tribe has risen to prominence in the wilderness beyond our beloved city and an alliance is required, a political marriage. However, the Caliph is young and only recently married; he and the Calipha have no children as yet.
So it became necessary to cast the net a little wider. The Grand Vizier is the most important man at court, after the Caliph, of course, and he just happens to have a daughter who can supply the place of a princess if there is no real princess to be had. Messengers went between the Caliph and the tribal chief and the offer was found to be acceptable.
And now it is my job to prepare my darling for the most important day of her life, to oversee the maids as they bathe her, arrange her hair, dress her in bridal finery and her mother's jewels. I make my way to her room with a heavy heart. She is so young, so beautiful – and all the reports of the chief describe him as old and ugly, with all the finesse of a warthog and the intellect to match. My fellow eunuch, Tadir, points out that he must have some level of intelligence to have risen to the position that he has, but sometimes I prefer to listen to nasty rumours than to ugly logic.
Dawn has not yet broken and the harem is almost silent. Most of the women are still asleep and will not rise for several hours, yet. For my little darling, however, the day must start early. The marriage ceremony will begin two hours before noon, followed by an enormous banquet. Afterwards, the chief and his new bride will set out for her new home. Before the sun sets today, I will have seen my darling for the last time.
Mildi, my darling's personal maid, is waiting outside her room. “Good morning, Master Sheplath,” she says with a smile. And smile she may; she will go with her mistress and escape this gilded prison. I hope that she will find a desert tent as comfortable.
I give a stately nod in her direction but do not deign to answer. Instead, I position myself in front of the door of carved cedar wood, behind which lies the bed chamber of Masalda, daughter of the Grand Vizier, bride-to-be of a tribal chief. Suppressing the shudder that these titles cause, I raise my ceremonial staff and tap on the door three times. Then I stand aside and Mildi hurries inside.
A few moments later, Masalda emerges, clothed in a simple robe, with her raven-black hair hanging loose down her back. I bow to her and then precede her to the baths. There, I hand her over to the bath slaves, experts in scrubbing, scraping and oiling her into a state of readiness. I wait patiently for over an hour; what else am I good for, except to wait?
The earliest risers amongst the harem's residents are beginning to move about, now. As they pass Masalda, they bow and call out their good wishes. She smiles her acceptance, exchanging a word or two with some.
After the baths, we proceed to the harem hair-dresser. He is over weight and over flamboyant and seems to take three times longer than necessary. Mildi is chattering to one of the hair-dresser's assistants but I am watching my darling. She is quiet, too quiet, her face a mask, carefully free of emotion. I wonder what life she would choose for herself, if that power was given to her? But what power do any of us have? We slaves, of course, have only to obey our orders. At least the Grand Vizier's daughters have a chance to leave their father's house and forge a new life elsewhere. The main purpose of his sons is to provide warriors for the Caliph's army, with all the danger that entails.
Two of the hair-dresser's assistants are working on Masalda's nails and eyebrows. It is now more than two hours since I woke her and she has not yet eaten. But there is no time for such frivolities, today. Now we return to her bed chamber and I am shut out as Mildi and one of the general harem maids dress my darling. Her clothes are made of the finest silk, cuffs and hems hand embroidered in gold. Then they will adorn her with gems whose sparkle is nothing compared to her eyes, earrings, necklaces, bracelets, rings – I am unsure whether their purpose is to enhance or disguise her natural beauty. Certainly, she will not be able to move easily under their weight.
I hear a voice calling me and look up. Tadir is hurrying towards me, panting under the weight of his robes. “Sheplath! Sheplath! I have just consulted with the time-keeper; there is just under an hour to go before the Grand Vizier will arrive.”
“Thank you, Tadir. I shall inform Mildi.”
I tap on the cedar wood door again, this time with my knuckles, and pass the message on to the maid who opens it. “We'll be ready in time,” she says, and then disappears inside again.
It feels as if I have waited an eternity outside this door. Tadir has just reappeared at the end of the corridor, meaning that the Grand Vizier is here. I am about to knock again when the door opens and she appears, my little darling, yet a stranger. She is so buried beneath layers of clothes and jewels and cosmetics that I can barely recognise her.
“Sheplath,” she says with a smile, and suddenly she is my own little darling again. “Do not grieve for me.”
I try to smile back but my eyes are too full of tears. “How can I do other than grieve when the light of my eyes is being buried in sand and ashes?”
“Because light will always triumph, my friend. Now, please take me to my father.'