Author's Note: Deshret, as mentioned in this story as the primary country, means 'The Red Land'. It was also what Egypt was called. I'm sorry. I admit it. I stole the name. Please note that in this story, Deshret is not Egypt.
"Beautiful!" the auctioneer called loudly. "Do I have fifty gold? Fifty gold? Ah yes….Fifty-five gold! Do I have—? Sixty-five! Gentlemen we have sixty-five—wait seventy! Seventy gold!"
With one hand, the man wiped away the droplets of sweat hanging dangerously on his brow.
"Wait! Ei-Eighty gold!" he called, his voice drumming with excitement. "Please! Eighty gold for this beautiful slave? Gentlemen, these hands—!" He took one of my arms and jerked it up in the air, "These hands are made for work! Strong, nimble fingers! And look at this exquisite skin!" He gestured to my body. "Skin the color of dusty cinnamon! Has anyone seen such a wonder? Surely this special little slave deserves more than eight—Ah yes! What? What is it? One hundred and fifty gold!"
He paused for a moment, too choked with emotions to speak. With trembling fingers, he roughly mopped his sweat dripping face and chest with a thin rag. Rivulets of sweat were running down his dark, tanned body. They reached as far as his navel before being absorbed by the band of his loose, muslin trousers that were graying from overuse.
"One hundred and fifty gold!" he exclaimed to himself as if confirming the reality of the situation. The moment was fleeting. He cleared his throat and regained his composure before continuing. "Surely-surely there must be higher offers, gentlemen!"
"Three hundred!" a lone voice cried from the crowds.
Silence. The crowds were melting under the sun, but the fervency was undeniable.
"Th-th-three hundred!" the auctioneer exclaimed with a zealous wave. "Well—SOLD! Three hundred! This young slave girl sold for three hundred gold!"
His palm slammed onto the top of my cage. With that simple sound, my price was sealed. I was sold for three hundred gold coins.
My cage was later moved to a canopy. Two men were examining me from outside my cage. One, the bald one, was my buyer. The other was the auctioneer.
"Her hair…" the buyer muttered. "It is too short. And the cut is uneven. Did a demented barber attack her head?"
"She is a slave," the auctioneer replied smoothly. "Hair will just get in the way of her work." His thick lips were forcefully pulled in a toothy smile. My buyer had not paid yet. That was all too obvious.
My new master observed me thoughtfully. One hand was placed on his shaven head. I remember that he reminded me oddly of a monkey that was gazing at a human from inside its cage. For that moment, I felt as if I was outside and he was the one locked inside.
"Does she talk?" he asked curiously. Absently, he reached a hand through the bars of my cage. I looked at it with displeasure. Did he have to penetrate my only sanctuary? What, did he expect me to lick it like a pet?
"Oh, she talks," the auctioneer told him. His bronzed flesh was looking darker in comparison to my fair skinned buyer. "Tell this gentleman your name, Aliana."
I did not protest that he had already said my name. "My name is Aliana," I replied obediently, letting the accented words roll off my tongue heavily.
The buyer frowned. "She does not speak well…" he observes with a hint of dissatisfaction.
The auctioneer was about to protest, but my new master put up a silencing hand, almost smacking the auctioneer in the face. "It does not matter as long as she can understand commands. She can, can't she?"
"Of course," the auctioneer told him indignantly. "Why would I sell you a useless slave girl?"
My buyer peered at me. "Turn around," he ordered.
My cage was too low for me to stand. Still crouching, I turned as he ordered me to. I sighed. Now I felt like the monkey and he the human. However, his shiny, bald scalp still fits on his head like an exotic cap, I thought with some satisfaction.
He nodded. "I will take her. The money will be sent in three days," he told the auctioneer.
The auctioneer proceeded to argue. Finally, my buyer snapped, "I will not cheat you out of your petty money! How do you expect me to pay now? Do I look like I am carrying three hundred gold coins on me?" He, like every other man, was sweating in a pair of loose, cotton trousers. The heat was making both men irritable. Tempers were rising as well.
Finally, the auctioneer backed down. They compromised and the auctioneer turned to go. I barely bothered to watch him leave. He was another temporary master that only added to my generous collection.
My new master crouched next to the cage so that he was eyelevel to me. "Pitiful little creature, aren't you?" he asked with a slight smile. He opened my lock and the cage swung open. I stared at it in wonder. "No, I'm not granting you freedom," he told me. He stood up and stepped away, allowing me to come out of the cage. "I simply don't like to see animals in cages, is all," he explained.
I climbed out with a bit of difficulty. My muscles were cramped and aching. Once outside my cage, I stood up and felt my back straighten out for the first time in days.
He looked at me appreciatively. "Your skin is indeed exquisite," he told me. "This terra-cotta coloring…I've never seen anything like it. Surely you are not from Deshret."
"I don't know where I am from," I told him in response. "I cannot remember."
"That's understandable," he nodded. "You must have been sold young." He looked at me a second more. "You need a bath," he told me.
I looked at his clean face and body with a bit of shame. I had not washed in weeks. I was covered with grime and reeked of sweat. But then again, everyone reeked of sweat. The sun held no mercy for us. His rays did not care for class. From men to animals, everyone was flushed and burning.
"Yes," he continued, "a bath would unmask your full potential. Then I'll just see what to do with you, won't I?"
I did not answer, but neither did he wait for one. My buyer turned and walked away, waving for me to follow him.
After a short time, we reached the market square. The main street ran in front of us. Farmer carted their mules along. Peddlers who could not afford a space in the marketplace sold their wares along this street. Horses stumbled with their masters, both drooping in the unforgiving sun. A litter rested on the side of the dusty road. A small crowd of servants surrounded the litter, lounging around and examining the herbs from a near by stall.
As soon as we emerged from the forest of booths, the servants rushed to my master. They put the litter on their shoulders and brought it to him, laying it low on the ground.
He ducked inside. A sigh escaped his lips as he sat down on the soft seat. "Home," he said tiredly. The servants lifted the heavy wood on their shoulders once more and headed for the center of the city. Not knowing what else to do, I followed.
Before this, I have never been inside the Privilege. The Privilege stood in the middle of the city. It was a city in itself. Tall walls of stone marked its borders. The entrance was heavily watched by the Royal Guards. I had heard rumors of the splendid houses inside, of course. In the very middle of the Privilege stands the royal palace. That's where the mortal gods live. Surrounding it are the estates of the favored courtiers.
Once inside the Privilege, my eyes eagerly picked up the sights around me. Everywhere was green. Everywhere were small grooves of date trees. There were water ponds where exotic birds swam freely. I had never seen so much green before.
And around me were houses. I hardly knew whether or not to call them houses. They were so big. I had always worked in houses of good fortune. Only the rich could afford slaves and servants, after all. But their houses could not even come close to these grand estates.
We eventually stopped in front of a red mud dwelling. The stacked bricks rose together in a beautiful masterpiece of architecture. The litter was carried into the courtyard and I follow as well, letting my eyes drink in the delights.
A fountain planted itself in the middle of the courtyard. Water shot high into the air before returning to the marble basin. Naked children were running and screaming inside the yard, splattering water and mud at each other.
The litter was lowered and my master stepped out. As the children spotted him, they came running, holding out their stout arms in welcome. "Father! Father's home!" they shouted in ecstasy.
The man laughed and allowed the children to hug him. He picked up a little girl and threw her in the air causing her to giggle unstoppably.
Suddenly, their attentions to their father were diverted as one of the boys pointed at me. "Woah…" he said in amazement. "Father, her skin is red."
"No, she's brown," a girl told him bossily. "Not red. You never get anything right, Tai."
"I say she's redbrown," another giggled, falling to the ground. "How queer!"
I recoiled and hugged my arms to myself, looking away.
Eventually, the children lost interest me as one of the boys cried, "Look, a lizard! Let's tug its legs off!"
My new master laughed and shook his head in amusement. He took a moment to watch his children attempt to capture the lizard before he addressed me. "Come," he ordered me. With a dismissive gesture, he allowed the rest of the servants to go.
I followed him, keeping my eyes down. It was hard as I kept on wanting to look around at the grandeur. My bare feet pattered on the cool, tiled floor. We walked deeper into the household and soon, we arrived inside a bathing chamber.
The bathroom was large enough to fit in half a house! Well, of course not the houses in Privilege. I meant the houses on the outside of this gated heaven.
My eyes still kept on the ground, I wondered if he wanted me to clean the bathing chamber. But it looked as if it could not be cleaner. Perhaps his expectations were different?
"Take a bath," he told me. "The robes are over there. And once you're done, there will be someone outside this chamber to escort you to me."
"Where?" I asked.
"Where do you want me to take a bath?" I mumbled to my feet.
"In here," he answered as if stating the obvious.
My dark eyes widened and I couldn't help but look up, confirming his sanity. Washing was a treat already, seeing as that water could not be wasted on slaves. I usually washed by scrubbing myself with a rough rag and rising in a bucket of dirty water.
"In…here?" I asked him. "In the tub?"
"Yes," he nodded. "In the tub. In this bathing chamber. The oil is on the edge of the tub. The wooden scraper is there as well. Towels are folded over there." He pointed to the various objects in the room.
A slow smile spread across my face. "Really?" I asked, my voice squeaking out of my throat.
"Yes, really. Now just take a bath and stop pestering me with these questions," he told me not unkindly. He smiled at me before leaving and closing the gilded doors behind him.
As I was left inside the room, my smile broadened. "Thank you," I said after him, although I knew he couldn't hear it.
As I came out of the bathing chamber, the air was suddenly cold against my skin. I shivered against my soft cotton robe. I held the towel to me. After I had used it, I didn't know quite what to do with it. There wasn't enough time to dry it and I did not want to leave it in the bathing chamber, making a mess.
My cropped, black hair was plastered on my head in wet strands. A smile was still lingering on my lips. Without that layer of grime on my skin, I felt a lot lighter. My skin was smooth instead of sticky now and for that, I was glad.
A boy stood in front of the chamber. He was dressed like a servant, his pants only reaching just below the knee. He was pacing as I came out, but now he was frozen in place, his mouth hanging slightly open. I held the towel tighter and looked down at my feet.
He seemed to regain his senses enough to say, "Come with me, Master Illan is waiting in the dining room."
I followed a step behind him as we walked. "He is waiting for me?" I asked, horrified.
"Don't worry. Master Illan's not mad," the boy replied, looking at me with a smile.
After awhile, we passed through an archway that led to the dining room. As promised, my buyer was sitting there, idly eating dates from a bowl.
He was sitting cross legged on the ground. He seemed to have freshened up. A thin robe hung on his shoulders, exposing the curls on his chest. His trousers were loose and gauzy, stirring as a slight wind swept through the room. He beckoned me to him and I went forward a few tentative steps. The servant boy bowed and left the room.
"Why are you holding that towel?" he asked curiously.
"I didn't want to leave a mess in the bathroom," I explained to him feebly.
He laughed, "I suppose you're not used to any of this, are you?"
I shook my head in response.
He smiled at me again. "Well, come forward a bit more so that I can look at you properly." He pointed to the spot right beside him.
I looked at him with uncertainty at first. He voiced his consent in the firm nod of his head. Still hesitant, I walked up next to him.
"You'll have to learn to be less shy," he told me and I took no notice of his words. With his dark, shrewd eyes, he looked me over. "Your hair will have to grow out. That is a must. And you have a few spots on your face—but that is fixable. You are young, of course, so the youth spots are only natural. And…how many years are you?"
"Thirteen," I replied, fixing my gaze on his shoulder.
"Thirteen," he echoed, nodding. Then, he asked me, "And do you play any instruments? The alud? The fault? The hearpe?"
I shook my head, not even understanding half the instruments he just named.
He sighed. "You'll have to learn. And quickly, too. Can you sing at all?"
I nodded. "A bit of the Old Hymns," I replied. "But not well."
"Sing for me," he commanded.
I bit my lip. I hated singing in front of people. I opened my mouth, letting the familiar tunes take my throat. In my nervousness, my voice sounded weak too my own ears.
"Sing," he told me. "Pretend there is no one here to listen."
But he was there and I could not pretend to not see him. Straightening my shoulders, I let my voice flow out a bit more.
"Stop," he commanded, his face looking a bit pained. "You will need a voice coach as well, it seems."
I looked away. "I'm sorry," I mumbled.
"It is fine," he told me, waving a hand. "What you lack in talent you make up in beauty. Except for those youth spots on your face. Those will have to go. I'll have to ask some of the women in court about how to rid of them. Now, can you read?" he asked.
This time, I smiled. "Yes," I told him, glad that I could at least do something.
He pointed to the statue that stood in the middle of the room. "Read the plaque," he said.
"Most Glorious Goddess of Fortune, Istum. May all who pass this room receive her good favor in five years of plenty. But beware that greed is-," I read, squinting my eyes to see the gold inscription below the figure of Istum.
"That's good," he interrupted me, smiling. "You have an accent, however. Perhaps the voice tutor can correct that as well."
"Why do I need one?" I finally ask, unable to surpass the question any longer. "Why would I, a slave—?"
"You will know that in time," he told me sharply. "And you are right. You are a slave. So are you to do all that you are told to. I will find a moderate room for you in my household. I will find a woman to be your Eema. From now on, you are to do strictly what I tell you to do." He smiled and then added, "By the end of this, you will be fit to be a fine woman of the court."
Back then, I laughed at this, thinking it was a joke. However, everything went exactly as he had planned. It always did. So for the next three years, I stayed under Master Illan's care. Everyday, I met with tutors that instructed me in playing the alud, fault, and hearpe. That taught me to sing. That taught me etiquette. That taught me how to dress, sew, ride, recite, flirt…
I took a bath in cow's milk every week. My Eema brushed by hair with a thousand strokes every night. My riding instructor took me out riding every morning to keep my figure. My food consisted mostly of fruits and greens. Finally, my youth spots went away. My hair grew out. And I was accomplished in all topics. If you talked about politics, I could offer you my opinions based on the philosophy of Haiton. If you talked about art, I could tell you my reflections on the masterpieces. If you talked about sky, I could recite a poem. If you talked about earth, I could tell a witty joke about Deshret's state of agriculture.
I suppose I was too naïve back then to realize that my good fortune did not come freely. But never did I think that to qualify in the harem, you had to be so multitalented. I thought my talent would be used for other, more worthy purposes. I thought Master Illan wanted me to support his sons in watching over his affairs after he passed on. I thought it was something…anything but to pleasure the second son of the mortal gods. But as I said, I was naïve back then.