A Thousand Glass Flowers cont’d… (5)
‘Lalita the Mad. Lalita the Confused.’ The afrit grabbed his toes and rocked back and forth. ‘They think you’re insane. And do you know, little scribe, the odalisques are scared of you. They pass by your apartments in threes and fours or with a eunuch to guard them for they think you will come leaping from your room, frothing at the mouth.’
Lalita tried hard to ignore the little Other who seemed to spring out of the lattice work at his leisure, an edge to his manner, like the sharp bite at the end of mouthful of sherbet. She had never forgiven him for the cruel mention of her brother and yet she was sure he underlined what she knew. As he rocked on the windowsill above her worktable, he knocked her pens and they cascaded over a quire of papers, narrowly missing the sheet on which she currently worked.
‘Mind, afrit.’ She grabbed at the quills and placed them back in their jar, her hands gentle with the goose-feathers. Unlike her fellow scribes who preferred swan-feathers, she persisted in the use of the domestic feather because she felt swans represented something distinctly Other and should be respected as such.
‘Would you like to know my name?’ The afrit gave a sly grin.
‘Name-giving means obligation and I have no wish to be obliged to you or any Other.’ She spoke quietly, her attention on the sliver of gold leaf she lay over the letter that began the story of Abu’l Fawaris and the Pearl Merchant.
For a week she had worked. On that first day, the day she sat in front of the initial leaf of paper, she closed her eyes and breathed in the fragrance of the sheet, running her palm over its surface, allowing the touch to settle her sensibilities, waiting for the inevitable connection between herself and the fibre. She could barely wait to begin so that her work could transport her away from the reality of her predicament. As though she traveled on some magic carpet with Aladdin.
Her only time away from her table in subsequent days was when Phaeton needed walking and then she had kept to the outer reaches of the gardens, away from the sarcenets and silks. Her happiest times were when she was with the dog or when she had her head bent over a piece of paper, her mind lost in the text or the rendition of a design. She thanked the djinns of good fortune and Aine the Mother that she had a friend in her dog and a task that directed her emotions away and allowed her to accept the unacceptable.
The Sultan had demanded the book be octavo, a smallish but very fat book that would ultimately be bound in the most exquisite red leather. Lalita had ruled each page, meticulously pricking each quire with a braddle so the rules were perfectly aligned. Her ink lay waiting for her, mixed in stoppered glass bottles. She preferred the dark gall ink made from oak apple and vitriol, so black that her heart beat faster as the ink burned into the papery surface and then darkened as the air settled over it. Even now she caught a glimpse of it out of the corner of her eye, thinking it hovered on the shelf like a dark and angry cloud.
The afrit stared at the lustrous goldleaf, reaching to press his finger on a tiny fragment that had broken off to float to the side of her work, turning it this way and that in the light. ‘Lalita the Confused should remember it is bad fortune to offend an Other. Watch your tone with me, woman. I can make you life as uncomfortable as those lemon-sherbets outside can. Maybe worse, because I am Other.’
Lalita sighed. ‘I’m a waste of your time and energy. I have endless days and nights with a pen in my hand and no conversation. Why do you not seek out the lemon-sherbets as you call them, and partake of their company?’ She grasped the burnisher with its ivory tooth-shaped end and began to rub gently into the gold, polishing and brightening even more, flattening out the airbubbles until it looked as if the paper and the gold were one.
‘Because they surround themselves with all manner of protection and it is difficult to get near. You however, are gloriously and naïvely unprotected and as vulnerable as a newborn kid. Watch yourself, Lalita Khatoun, I can hurt you.’
Lalita blew over the ‘A’ and laid down her burnisher. ‘I am aware of that. But can you hurt me anymore than I have already been damaged or worse than any kind of punishment the Sultan should command? Indeed, little afrit, the very knowledge,’ she stopped as an image of houries and sultans filled her head, ‘the very knowledge that at some point, my body will be offered up to the lust of a man who can do whatever he wants with me, touch me anywhere he wishes and expect me to touch him back is worse than anything you could do.’ Explicit images filled her mind so that she had to breathe deep to remain calm. There was a heartbeat of silence and then, ‘Again I ask you, why should you want to?’
‘I don’t at the moment,’ the afrit sulked. ‘ As it happens. But it takes only one slip. Be warned.’ With that he was gone through the lattice as if it were an open door and she covertly thanked the Lady that she should finally be on her own.
She had patiently ground the minerals for her paints – azurite, lapis lazuli and verdigris along with turnsole, saffron and brazilwood. Most times she considered herself a scribe, but often as she patiently worked with mortar and pestle, she thought she could be an apothecary. But no, I am an alchemist, she would think as colours emerged magically from combination with glair or gum.
She valued her solitude, knew it was priceless in a place such as this which bubbled with a potent mix of snarking women. When she was required in the hammams, Salah escorted her, his conversation spiked with cruel anecdote and barbed with threat. He commented on her lack of looks, her dull skin, her marked fingers, her lacklustre hair, until she wondered why the Grand Vizier and the Kisla Agha had thought she might ever have a place in this hornets’ nest. She answered mostly in monosyllables, her image of herself cracked and broken, and having no energy or interest to engage in reaction.
The bath mistresses ordered her around as if she was a child and she noticed there was always a large eunuch armed with a whip nearby. It suited her, this fear they had of her. They were quick to do what they must and then she would return by Salah’s poisonous side, coiffured and perfumed and clothed in softest oyster or grey silk and always with pearls entwined in her black hair. This latest day though, he took a step back when he collected her from the hammam, the detestable golden head on the side, calculating, assessing.
‘It is a pity you are considered so unstable, Lalita, for you are very beautiful. But the bath mistresses have told the Kisla Agha about your performance on that first day and some of the odalisques hear you talking to your imaginary afrit when they are brave enough to stop at your door. In many ways, perceived instability may save your life, because this new beauty would arouse all sorts of jealousies in the harem. Better the Kisla Agha believes you are too dangerous to meet the Sultan. But I tell you this little flower, I would take a long time to finish your work because being ‘useless’ in the Sultan’s bed means His Bright Light may number your days accordingly.’ He laughed, the high-pitched giggle grating on Lalita’s nerves. ‘What a difficult future for you. Dead by the hand of a jealous odalisque or retired to some cobwebbed corner of the Seraglio with the Valide Sultan. For sure they won’t release you.’
When he left her, his words went round and round in her head as she lay on her divan hugging Phaeton. She found surprisingly that she could be reconciled to her death. Freedom would only eventuate that way. She would never walk back out of the Door of a Thousand Promises. But she would make sure she had accomplished one thing to leave behind.
Her book, rendered to the best of her highly skilled ability, would be the most coveted in the whole world of Eirie, something scholars from afar would want to see at least once in their lives. The name of Khatoun would live in people’s memory, her father’s name, her loved Uncle Imran’s name. How that will annoy you, Kurdeesh. And thus it was that she took inordinate pleasure in her work, every stroke of the brush or pen creating something of immense and far-reaching value. Just occasionally a little thought would emerge from the corner of her darkened mind that she could barter for her freedom with the completed work, the Sultan so impressed he would grant her anything. But it’s a fool’s dream and I am surely a fool, for doesn’t everyone think so?
‘Lalita, Lalita, open the door. You have an appointment. Quickly.’
Wiping paint-covered fingers back over her forehead as she sought to push falling hair from her face, she pulled the door ajar to greet the impatient Salah.
‘By afrits and djinns, Lalita, we must get you to the hammam. Quickly now.’
‘Why? With whom do I have an appointment that is so important I must leave just in the middle of a transcription?’
‘With the Sultan no less. You must hurry.’
Lalita’s heart thudded. ‘The Sultan? Why?’
Salah sighed with a roll of his eyes. ‘I am Salah the Eunuch. If it was thought I should know they would tell me. As it is we must hurry faster than the sun setting over the Amritsands. You must be polished up as you look disgraceful.’
He left her to the bath mistresses and they pulled off her clothes. She was becoming used to being naked in front of others and being treated merely as a commodity, turning increasingly passive, moved around like one of the pieces on a shatranj board. They twirled a cotton gauze sheet around her body before thrusting her into a gardenia-scented bath to soak up the fragrance into the most intimate parts of her body. She fretted with nerves, her concern pinpointed on her dog. Without me what will happen to Phaeton? Why am I to see the Sultan, what can I have done wrong?
‘Apart from being considered mad do you mean?’
She groaned as the afrit swung down from his acanthus-leaf platform. ‘So you can read my mind, I take it.’
‘Perhaps. Perhaps not. Leastways, I can see you are worried. And well you should be. I have never met any mortal who attracts trouble like you. You are like a magnet. And it all began when you were a babe in arms and your parents died in the avalanche.’
‘Don’t talk of my parents, afrit. Their memory need not be sullied in this place.’
He stood above her, his coffee-coloured skin disappearing and reappearing through the steam. ‘I have said before, Lady, beware how you speak or I shall truly hurt you.’
‘Then I shall not speak at all.’ As she turned her back on the afrit, the bath mistresses re-appeared, ordering her into the massage room where she allowed the smoothing of oils and creams to erase her anxiety for just a minute. She fidgeted in front of the mirror as they pinned her hair into a cloud, trailing curls on her bare shoulder. They strung the ubiquitous pearls through and then made up her face with the finest maquillage and she submitted to their blandishments with growing anxiety. Finally as her tension climbed higher, she stood and they slipped transparent silks over her body until she was almost completely covered by a peach kaftan. The silks rested on her lightly and she became conscious that this was what houries wore, these nonchalant garments that paid only passing respect to decency. At that moment she hated the disgrace, feeling unclean despite the work of the hammam mistresses.
When she emerged into daylight, Salah stared. ‘Lalita Khatoun! The other odalisques need to look to themselves and you need to watch your back. Today you have created a monster.’ With these prophetic words, he led her back the way they had come.
‘I thought I was to see the Sultan?’
‘You are. He, most unusually, has come to you, another significant action that your sisters will hate you for. His Bright Light wants to see your work. He waits now in your workroom with the Grand Vizier and the Kisla Agha. Like I said, Lalita, you have created a monster.’
Lalita’s spirit dragged along the ground behind her.
‘What disasters await do you think, little peach blossom?’ The afrit whispered in her ear and she started. ‘He can’t see me, poor ineffectual effete that he is. Out there,’ he nodded in the direction of the Seraglio walls and the city beyond, ‘they all say I am the bearer of disastrous doings, but what is your latest? To have been sold here, do you think? Or,’ he whispered so close to her ear that she felt a tickle, ‘could it be that your brother truly is dead?’
‘No,’ she shouted and stopped dead, the afrit disappearing before her eyes.
Salah turned round and grabbed her, giving her a vicious shake, his long, painted nails digging deep into her skin. ‘DON’T, Lalita. Not now. Pull yourself together. Do you want Phaeton to lose you today?’
She looked at him, feeling tears brimming on her lashes and then something touched her arm, like a breeze or a mother’s gentle touch and a curious sensation of calm flooded the turmoil out of her very soul. She discovered that she could follow Salah into her apartments and be what she must.
She knelt on the floor and made an obeisance. She found it necessary to examine the detail of the tulip-patterned tiles underneath her nose, anything to distract her from the spine-tingling tension of the moment. This man was the Bright Light . . . the power of the Raj. He could end her life in a barbaric minute. Thus it was with astonishment that she felt a strong hand reach for her own and draw her up. A deep voice spoke. ‘Lalita Khatoun, I am pleased with your work.’
She looked into deep brown eyes and a face that would have been pleasant but for the jagged scar winding from the eye to the mouth. It reminded one of battles and of the history of excrescent cruelty of the Raji court. She unwillingly recalled tales of an earlier harem that had been tied into weighted bags, all two hundred and eighty women, and thrown into the river from the very tower above her rooms, and all because one of the odalisques had managed to sustain a relationship with a janissary. She closed the door on her thoughts. ‘Thank you, Exalted One.’
‘So pleased Lalita, at the progress you are making that I am inclined to make you a gift. This is to mark your beauty,’ he nodded to the Kisla Agha who opened a roll of white velvet to reveal a perfect black pearl. Teardrop shaped, it was as black as a shard of obsidian and as big as her thumbnail.
‘I am indeed grateful, sire.’ She hid her resignation, for such valuable gifts came with sexual obligation.
‘And I have had a petition from your uncle, the paper-merchant. Because this work of yours is exemplary and will make a gift beyond the imaginings of even those Venichese infidels, I shall grant you an audience with him.’
Lalita sucked in her breath, her heart swelling at the memory of Imran.
‘It is your eighteenth birthday tomorrow, I believe.’ The Sultan smiled at her, one side of his face handsome and charismatic, the other side so sinister. ‘And I shall grant you ten minutes with him.’
Lalita bent her head. Ten minutes, ten miserable minutes! How does one convey such tempestuous emotions in ten minutes? She could see the Kisla Agha’s toe tapping out of the corner of her eye and the flywhisk of the Grand Vizier and she realized they waited. ‘The Sultan’s generosity is limitless. I am unworthy.’
A finger tilted her chin and the Sultan’s face moved very close to her own, his lips almost grazing the corner of her mouth. ‘On the contrary,’ his hand touched her shoulder and despite the presence of the other two men, maybe even because of it, he let it drift down over her breast so that her skin puckered and a sense of abuse and torment filled her. She wanted to brush his hand away, to hit him, to lift her knee sharply into his groin, but instead she stood frozen, listening to the sweetly dangerous words. ‘You are very worthy, Lalita Khatoun. They told me you were mad but I cannot believe a woman of such beauty, grace and skill can be insane. Enjoy your time tomorrow.’
He walked out, the others falling in behind, leaving a detestable vacuum in his wake.
It wasn’t empty for long.
‘I told you, Disaster Damsel. You are his next hourie. Pity you.’ The afrit sniggered and disappeared through the lattice as Lalita bunched up her peach silk scarf and flung it at him.