I was shivering. My long blonde hair was almost the only protection I had from the biting cold, but the high wind was blowing it into my face, so I had to take my arms away from my body to keep my eyes clear of the unwelcome strands. I had to see what was happening. The rest of my life depended on these next few minutes.
I was on the block, the central platform of the slave market. It was a position I had seen hundreds of girls in; dark-skinned, russet-eyed Syrians, they were the most common. Then there were the Nubians, their dull looks attracting only the basest of curs, those who could spare no more than a few hours. I, the fair-skinned daughter of a wealthy merchant, had never expected to be up here myself, but I would fetch the highest price of all. I had always pitied the girls, all wide-eyed and frightened, clutching the short robes which marked them as soon-to-be slaves around their often emaciated bodies, watching as hard-faced men bid for the use of their flesh. But now it was I who held my own coarse robe tightly, trying to prevent it from blowing up and revealing my nakedness to the group of hecklers, bidders and leering onlookers. Apart from myself, there were few other women in the crowd. I caught the eye of one, dark-haired and elegantly dressed. She gave me a secret smile. I wondered briefly who she was before the horror of my situation wiped any further thoughts from my mind.
A sudden gust of wind caught me off guard, and for an instant, I could not prevent my robe from blowing upwards, exposing me to hundreds of eyes. There were roars of appreciation, and I blushed fiercely, almost sobbing in anger and humiliation.
Just a week ago I had been living a comfortable life. My baba was a kind, cheerful man, although he was away a lot, travelling across Anatolia to buy and sell goods, sometimes even further, across the whole of the Ottoman Empire. When he was away, I had my own slave to protect me. Poor Abdullah, he had defended me to the last, but with his throat slit and his blood spilt over our plush white carpet, he was now in a safer place than I was.
My father had always returned from his adventures with a smile on his face and a gift for his only daughter, some trinket or novelty from the far reaches of the Empire. Some ornament for the finest jewel in Anatolia, he always said. On his last trip I had eagerly waited his return, my anxiety building as the day for his return came and went. Finally, I heard feet downstairs, late one night, and rose with joy from my bedchamber. Baba was back. But then I heard the shouts, the voice of Abdullah warning me to stay above stairs, to flee if I could, the soft vibration of metal being pulled from a sheath. I should have concealed myself. I should have run. But my fear and my confusion prevented me from keeping hidden – I rushed downstairs in time to see Abdullah crumpling to the ground, scarlet blood coursing from his ruined throat. A band of rogues was at the ready, grabbing me roughly before I could so much as scream, and taking me to their master. My father had lost the merchandise entrusted to him by a wealthy fur merchant, and the merchant, furious at the loss, had taken his vengeance with murder. Now he had come to claim his compensation.
“A lovely girl of such good breeding,” leered my father’s murder, “would make a fine ornament for my bedchamber. But you will make an even finer lining for my purse. Tell me, girl. How do you fancy being the plaything of Sultan Selim?”
Sultan Selim. I could see him amid this filthy crowd as I squinted through my unruly hair, his fat hand, clogged with thick gold rings, raised in yet another bid. I had heard rumors about him. Everyone had. Almost every girl of good blood and breeding who was sold into slavery found her way into his greasy embrace. And I had heard more than one story of the cruelty they suffered at his hands. Whips, ropes, even cold, hard steel; from the arrogant twist of his thick lips I could tell that he already thought I was his. Worse still, considering the amounts he was bidding, the horrible lurch in my stomach told me that those stubby fingers would soon be creeping over my naked skin. The thought was almost enough to make me retch.
“The bid is one thousand kurus for the fair-haired slave. Handsome price – any more takers? No? Well, then the prize goes to Sultan S-“
“I bid two thousand kurus.”
The voice which had spoken was clear and authoritative, a slight southern lilt to its accents. Everyone in the crowd strained to see who had spoken. It was the elegant woman, tall and confident, that small, slightly enigmatic smile still hovering around her lips. I barely heard the words which sold me into her service; the relief coursing through me was too strong. But once the first joy of being saved from the clutches of the cruel Selim had worn off, the worry began to build in the back of my mind. Who was this mysterious woman, and what fate did she have in store for me?
I quickly learnt I was the property of Nar Hatun, or Madame Nar, the owner of one of the city’s many pleasure houses. Of course, I had heard the name before. Madame Nar’s girls were infamous. Only the most promising of girls were bought my Madame Nar. My panic rose again to dizzying heights as I realized I was to be a concubine, but anything was better than being sold to Sultan Selim. Wasn’t it?
As soon as I entered the house, richly furnished with colored silks and plush cushions, escorted by two tight-lipped eunuchs, I was greeted by two girls. They were breath-taking; honey-skinned, ebony-haired, and with liquid amber eyes. They could have been sisters. Both were dressed in loose, gauzy trousers of a fluid and beautiful material, coral red and shimmering. Apart from these, though, they were naked, their full breasts exposed, only thick-plated golden necklaces clothing their throats.
“Don’t look so terrified,” one of the girls said, smiling at me with full, glossy lips, showing perfect white teeth; she was obviously well bred, like me. “You won’t have to wear something like this just yet. Not unless you’re a very fast learner. My name is Emine, this is Fatima. Welcome to Madame Nar’s house. Now let’s get you out of that horrible robe and into a bath.
“Don’t worry,” Fatima said, her voice gentler and quieter than Emine’s. “It’s really not a bad life. You’ll learn to enjoy it. We’ll make sure of that.”
I was led to a wide chamber, laid with soft carpet and draped in silk. In the middle of the room was a golden tub, both wide and deep. I could see the steam rising from the warm water, and smell the heady fragrance of oils. I was so eager to sink luxuriantly into that warm, soothing water that I barely registered as the two girls began to undress me, unfastening my scanty robe and letting it fall from my shoulders.
“Why don’t you get into the water?” invited Emine, her voice seductive.
“O-ok,” I stammered.