Sirena had spent, by last count, six days in a world predominated by women. Lithe, young, lovely women. Guarded by giant, fleshy black men whose eyes slid to each other in some secret code of conduct that she suspected did include their sexual interest in the women. Sirena suspected her purpose here, though she longed to learn otherwise.
Reality killed her hopes. As a child in her nursery, Sirena had listened to stories read by her governess of a land filled with godless men who ruled the East with no regard for human life. As a young woman, she heard rumors of dissolute Ottoman pashas and their penchant for deflowering female sex slaves and keeping them behind locked walls. Those had always seemed like fables meant to embolden men to travel to exotic lands and to keep English women safely tucked away at home. While Sirena’s desire to see China or sail to Bombay had seemed more dream than possibility, she had never wished to become part of any man’s harem. And this gaggle of females imprisoned was most definitely that. What with the women who did little but eat, drink, bathe and admire themselves in numerous mirrors, Sirena assumed they were the mates of the ruler here. The presence of the men who served as guards confirmed it. And on the third day of her imprisonment, Sirena met a young Spanish woman, Valentina, who told her in broken English that the men were their jailers and to ensure the women’s purity and safety, each man had been castrated.
Sirena shuddered at the idea of such brutality done to one man by another. Yet, you will soon learn what atrocity these pirates have in store for you.
The manner of her days, however, did not presage any harm might come to her. Though she got no inkling of Mark or his men’s condition or whereabouts, she was treated like a precious gem. True, after the Barbaries had climbed aboard Mark’s Water Witch, they had seized her by the wrists, chained her and separated her from Mark and any of his sailors. None had manhandled her, although many had made snide suggestions she could not mistake in any language. But once off the corsairs’ galleon, she was put atop a camel and led through the teaming city up into a gleaming alabaster palace. Though she had asked in vain for the whereabouts of the Americans, she learned nothing in the high-walled sumptuously adorned seraglio except how to be pampered.
Each morning, Sirena was roused by an elderly maid, gnarled and wrinkled like a prune, but kindly. She’d follow her maid to a cool reception room. There, a tall, imperious older woman appeared who directed her to turn about, a doll on display. She complied. What else could she do but fume? At once, the woman led her to a large room, humid with fragrance of jasmine rising from a huge azure pool. Stripped naked by two young women, Sirena quivered in modesty and indignation. But once she was directed to step down into the soothing water, her body melted in the forgiving heat. Ordered up and out of the pool, she’d be led to yet another room, this time filled with oblong copper baths three times the size of any hipbath she’d ever seen at home. Commanded to submerge in one of those tubs, she sank, grateful once more for coverage of her person, until two different women appeared armed with soaps, towels and pumices. Scrubbed, rubbed and submerged time and again in this tub, finally she was told to rise and without a stitch of clothes, she was told to follow her maids to yet one more room. Here, with other women on tables, stark naked as Sirena, she would lie down. For god knew how long, her body was examined, then massaged, oiled, her eyebrows plucked, her hair bathed and scented. Surrounded by dedicated servants who neither spoke nor looked her in the eye, she could not deter them from their goals, nor did she have the strength. In fact, she found herself astonished to submit to their gentle ministrations, primping her for a dreaded exhibition of the most lurid kind. Each morning, as the servants bathed her and refined her looks, she feared how she would be exposed. To whom? When? How? But as they probed into every crevice of her body, denuding her of hair, even to her most private parts which no one, save she, and Mark, had ever touched, she feared to know the answer.
Pampered more like a princess than a slave, she pondered her future each night in her own cozy private room filled with fat feather pillows for her bed. She received pitchers of cool water, oranges, limes and lemons. Each day, she was fed a milky concoction, the consistency of pudding but tart, tasty with nuts and fat sultanas. Each morning, her nightshift of plain linen was taken away for the laundresses. Then she’d be given a garment that made her blush and gasp. Translucent pearl silk, the kaftan had a clasp of two jeweled frogs at the neck, huge sleeves flowing to her wrists, and a flowing drape to her toes.
Aghast at its suggestiveness, she knew at once its intention was to arouse and to titillate. Without any other item to cover her nakedness, she donned it, assuring herself that her appearance did not diminish her inner character. Nor did it represent her person. Only her condition.
Enslavement, she contemplated in those first few hours in the harem, was an astonishing condition for the daughter of a duke of the British Realm. She laughed bitterly at that first thought. Then sobered. She had left her rights and privileges as an aristocrat the minute she had left her home in London. Going to Dover, intent on building a new life for herself, perhaps even learning how Mark Stanhope cared for her, was a liberating stroke. That she was here, imprisoned, seemed a bitter irony.
Where was Mark? Dead? Tortured?
She caught back cries of outrage that that might be true. She had to learn where he was, how he was.
Her resolve bore fruit on the fourth day when her friend Valentina arrived in her room to share news.
“I hear the matron, there,” Valentina nodded to the older woman who was the mistress of the seraglio, “tell our Nubian eunuchs you will go before our pasha, Al Hassan.”
“When?” Her throat went dry as dust. Her stomach rolled in fear.
“After he decides what to do with your man.” Valentina’s cobalt blue eyes snapped as she spoke low to avoid detection. “Your body has been prepared for Hassan but—”
Sirena’s heart stopped. She grabbed Valentina’s hand. “What?”
“You may be given to any man he wishes.”
“As his concubine?” Sirena tried not to let her terror overcome her.
“Of course. It is why we all are here.” Her eyes circumscribed the room filled with lounging, laughing women who, it seemed, had come to terms with their servitude.
“How do you live with that?” Sirena asked, in indignation at such bondage.
“I have been taken up once to Hassan. He is impotent.”
“Do not think thus. He has other ways to make you arouse his flaccid member.”
“Have you ever put your mouth to a man’s tool?” Valentina put her hand to her own mons.
Sirena shook her head, her thoughts drifting to Mark and how she might gladly take him with her lips and tongue that way.
“Hassan likes that.” She waited until the masseuses passed them by with large bowls of steaming honey and creamy depilatories. “He also likes to see men take women from behind. Like animals.”
Serena’s eyes widened. “That’s appealing to men?”
The blue-eyed woman nodded. “It is forbidden, haraam, to take a woman in the ass. These pirates may say they follow the teachings of Mohammed, but they are part-Spanish and French, ex-patriots, criminals who know no law. They follow neither god nor man’s rules. Therefore, remember only one thing.”
“Whatever you are asked to do? Do it and live another day.”
Sirena turned away, filled with desperation to see Mark, know he was safe and to escape this hideous existence. All the sumptuous foibles in the world could not fill the void of heartless existences without law or love.