A gift for all those who over the year have become friends and who take the time to read just another blog among millions. It’s a bit of a long blog if you can bear it. Stick with it friends, let’s face it, this is a time of year, with blizzards in the Northern Hemisphere and dust/rain in the Southern Hemisphere, when we all should just be sitting with a good book. Please enjoy and Happy Season to you all! See you after Christmas!
Chapter One from The Millefiore Paperweights (working title)
By Prue Batten
A hammering on her chamber door in the house of her guardians was enough to wake even the most solid sleeper and the profound timbre settled in her brain like the sounds from an ironmonger’s.
‘Lalita Khatoun! Bestir yourself, my angel niece! We have much to do before the Grand Vizier graces our shop.’
We have much to do? You think, Uncle? Where were you yesterday? She wished her guardians were here for this day because to have this uncle witness it was to tarnish it. She heard him walk away because Uncle Kurdeesh was a big man who made the floor tremble and his bloated ego was insufferable. She had seen it in play as he swaggered about, the loud winner of a shatranj game, an opinionated man at the coffee-table. And yet it seemed to Aunt and Uncle, her guardians, that he was merely the jovial fat brother, the absent-minded drinker everyone found inoffensive and lovable. But Lalita had caught him with a look of cool envy in his eyes when Uncle Imran clinched a deal and she had even seen him pocket coins slyly from the counter and had thought she surely misread malicious satisfaction in his expression. He touched her indelicately and always when they were alone and she would swiftly turn from him and walk away, barring her door at night. And when she was left in his care, she heard the door latch rattle and had been glad for the smithy’s heavy bar.
Sometimes Kurdeesh would say to her, as his wattles of fat joggled and the huge white turban swayed in time to his shaking head, ‘My little desert flower, you have become known as troublesome in the souks. The young men turn away because they think you will ignore them. Do you want to be a costly old maid to Imran and Soraya?’
She would say no in the hope and belief that he would cease his foolish line of talk but knowing at the same time that those young men would be the sons of the rich and indolent and that it was not her wellbeing Kurdeesh minded so much as his own. If he could marry her into a rich house, his pockets would be lined. Ah yes, Uncle. I know what you are like. You frighten me and disgust me in one.
But now she had little time to mull over Uncle’s failings and pushed him away to a less busy part of her mind as she washed and dressed. As she looped a scarf around her neck, she noticed the dark shadow of an ultramarine stain on her fingers from her last illumination. But does it matter? After all, it’s my skill that attracts the attention of the Grand Vizier from the Court of Mohun, not my face nor my appearance. So surely a stain on my fingers would be expected?
Lalita mused on the other scribes in the city and sighed with content that she was the only one who had the patience to illuminate in the elegant style of the Veniche scribes and on linen paper, a rarity in the Raj and imported at great cost from the canal province. Her work had begun as an exercise of enjoyment one day when Uncle Imran bought her an illustrated herbal from Veniche. She had copied it with care, scraping down old parchment and scoring it, using cheap quills and making her own less exceptional inks. Slowly she improved the technique, moving to scraps of flimsy cotton paper and then finally, when she knew there was little difference between her work and the Veniche scribes, to quality linen paper. She perfected a Book of Hours for her aunt and tailored to Aunt’s life. Soraya had taken it to a womens’ morning at a neighbour’s and the other wives had instantly wanted one each and then more women placed orders as word spread like ripples in a fountain and finally she was scribing and binding the most perfect palm-sized books for sale. She had been surprised the Raji wives should wish to emulate their less exotic neighbours by collecting her work because the Raji culture was filled with superb illustrative design and word in its own right. But she fed this latest fashion and was admired because of it and thus, along with sales of papers, parchments, vellum and inks, quills, brushes and precious gold leaf, she worked for Imran creating Veniche styled documents and journals and psalters full of illustrated charms and herbals. Oh Uncle and Aunt, I wish you were here. How proud you would be of the shop, of my work. If today happens the way I hope, your life will be made, Uncle Imran, and I shall be content that I had a role to play.
As she walked down the stairs to the small emporium, she remembered back to her childhood. She had read the most beautiful words when she was young. Sitting with a book in her lap, gently turning the pages as if they represented the holiest of scripts, the text had seduced her in the most unholy way and set her on her path, tantalizing her with its aptness. She mouthed the comforting prose as she rubbed nervously at the blue stain: ‘Do not underestimate the humble page. Without it where would we be . . . on its flatness, its blankness and sometimes its whiteness . . . the word lands like a swan. Paper is the lake upon which birds come to rest.’ And year after year, words landed upon her papery lakes, populating them with an artful beauty full of grace and elegance. She knew she was good at her work, she acknowledged the fact without arrogance. Each time she laid down a sheet of paper or parchment, she would determine that this would be even better scribing than the last and that with each commission she would improve and perfect her artistry and her hand. Even if she was labeled the best in the land, she vowed to continue to learn and to grow.
Perhaps the Vizier would commission her. He wished to see her work because the Sultan was to send the gift of a book to the people of Veniche and there was talk this manuscript would be an illustrated copy of One Thousand and One Nights. For days she dreamed of how she would lay out the figurative work, the colours she would use and how she would copy the text and now she scrutinised the shop display, eager it should represent her well. She opened the door to the street and the townsfolk bustled past, calling to her, and she answered them back with a smile and butterflies in her belly.
Turning back, she tried to survey the shop with the objective eye of a lordly customer. It was such a simple space but she had made much of the contents of the shop. Light glanced off the pure colours of the illuminations and seductive goldleaf glistened. Pots of inks were shelved with precision, the quills, pens and burnishers lying below them, evenly spaced according to size. Lalita walked to an open book displayed on a polished cedar lectern, the page turned to a workday illustration of some bucolic scene, rich in blues and viridians. Some instinct made her fingers flick the page over and there was the illustration of a room of houries in transparent garb, their skin lustrous and draped with silk organza and she wanted badly to believe the painterly touch of such sheer fabric was the touch of a master.
Kurdeesh bustled into the shop tying a vast green sash around his middle. His turban gleamed white and his ancient moustache was waxed and trimmed to fly up in two handles on either side of his face. ‘You’ve done well, child,’ he grunted and as he reached to touch her, the door flung wide, the Grand Vizier stepped inside and the air crackled with his presence. Lalita’s knees sagged as she became at once diminished and nervous, briefly unsure of the quality of her work.
The noble examined the odoriferous papers and the tools of her trade, but his eyes lingered longest on the page of houries. At one point he turned cold eyes toward her and skimmed them over her person, quickly at first and then more slowly, examining every inch of her being until a blush burned its way to her cheeks. The abuse tainted the excitement of her day and as she glanced at Kurdeesh, she was horrified to see a look of complicity in his eyes. The word trust danced before her as surely as if she had picked up a reed pen, dipped it in ink and written it on a piece of blank parchment, so startling was it in its intensity. She could never trust him for he was the man who moved against her in the passage or ran a hand over her hips, even slid his fingers down off her shoulder to her breast.
‘Lalita,’ Kurdeesh ordered her as if he were the Sultan himself. ‘Go to the inn and get the best wine available. His Excellency and I have business to discuss. And we shall do it over a repast.’
Why am I not a part of this discussion, Kurdeesh? If I am to be the scribe then I should be briefed. Lalita frowned at him but he had turned away and fingered some of the blank sheets she had piled up and suddenly she wanted to walk out and keep walking because some intuition told her something abhorrent was going to happen, something that would alter her life forever. Don’t be ridiculous! There can be nothing but good business at stake, that’s all. Please Aine, let it be the Sultan’s commission, nothing less.
She purchased the wine and made a tray of pleasant things for the Grand Vizier and her uncle to nibble on and then removed herself to the back patio where she sat hugging her dog, Phaeton. He licked her chin as she went to bury her face in his velvet-smooth neck and she was reminded of him as a puppy, laid in her lap by her older brother, Kholi Khatoun. Kholi had seen the pup at one of the camel fairs and brought him to her rolled in a little kilim. She had unfurled the bundle and a sand coloured dog with black muzzle and legs had squirmed onto her lap, looking immediately into her eyes with his own, as if he had all the answers to everything she should ever want to know. And from that day the two had become inseparable, he her guard, she his charge. ‘Phaeton, do you think the Sultan shall want to commission me? I tell you, it would be such a coup.’ He turned and pushed against her hand as she murmured on. ‘I have seen a copy of A Thousand and One Nights in the Academia Library, and I tell you, I can do it so much better. It would be the pinnacle for any scribe.’ She sat for a minute, allowing the humming of the bees in the oleander flowers to fill the peace of the arbor. ‘But it’s odd the Vizier has not yet questioned me. He talks to the snake, not to me. Do they have some sort of protocol, do you think, that women are not spoken to directly? It’d be a strange thing to always have to go through an intermediary, worse still if that should be Kurdeesh. I hate him Phaeton, hate him beyond belief! I cannot believe he emerged from the same womb as my father and Uncle Imran for there is not a vestige of goodness in the rolls of his body. I feel something odd all about, as if he could spoil my chances through his covetousness.’
The doves cooed on the roof and the sun dropped golden coins between the shadows of the grapevine as Kurdeesh called her. Every single thing at that moment engraved itself upon her mind as if she used the purest ink gall. Kurdeesh was tucking a vast wad of gelt into his sash as she entered the shop and he coloured when his eyes met Lalita’s, blinking as if he had a guilty secret. He turned away to pour a goblet of wine. ‘Lalita Khatoun’ the fat man said. ‘Pack your equipment and anything personal. The Grand Vizier will escort you back to the Seraglio.’
‘Of course, but I need nothing personal, only my pens and inks and if I miss anything I can take it back tomorrow.’ The Grand Vizier is impressed, I am to do the work. How . . .
‘No, Lalita Khatoun,’ the eminent official’s voice scoured the air. ‘Once you are in the Seraglio, you stay. If you need anything it will be sent for.’
An unbelievable notion began to fill her head but she pushed it away. ‘How long am I to be employed at the Seraglio?’
The Grand Vizier gave a glimmer of a smile, an oily lift of a mouth that would brook no disagreement. ‘You are not employed to work at the Seraglio, woman,’ the words dripped on her from a lofty height. ‘You are to be one of the harem. Your uncle here has sold you. It is fortunate you are so talented as it will bring you to the notice of the Sultan that much earlier.’ He flipped a flywhisk against his thigh with impatient fingers. Tap tap, tap tap, the sound dripped like water torture over Lalita. ‘Get your things, the guard waits.’
A djinn may as well have grasped her in the circle of his wicked arms and squeezed, so breathless was she for air. No! You cannot take me! But she knew he could and asked only one question. ‘My dog?’ He and I are each other’s lives, don’t take me from him! She would have fallen to her knees to beg.
‘Bring him. There is a kennels for the harem’s dogs. Five minutes please.’ And the man walked out the door, taking her life with him.
Kurdeesh bustled around thanking the man and bowing and scraping and she knew she would have killed him with the paper knife that winked at her from the counter if she had not been so numb. She unfroze her limbs and with dignity that she knew was only skin-deep, for inside she screamed like a banshee, she packed a satchel, called Phaeton and left.
NB: ‘Do not underestimate the humble page . . .’ from ‘The Troubadour’s Testament by James Cowan Shambhala Publications USA 1998
What a gorgeous present! Thank you, Prue, for this glimpse at The Millefiore Paperweights. You pulled me right in to poor Lalita’s life and I so want to know more. (I could stab Uncle Kurdeesh myself.) Can’t wait for the book to come out.
Fantastic Prue. Just excellent.
Thank you SJAT and Rebecca, for taking the time to read a long blog. Does Kurdeesh get his come-uppance? Hmm! Time will tell.