It must have been a week later. It was just about dawn. Karen had become used to the first glimmer of light that gave them their last few moments of peace before the efforts of the day began, the short period of cool before the cold of the night gave way to the dayís unremitting heat.
She looked across at the others. Miyako and Natsumi were frailer than ever. They had found yesterdayís tasks almost too much. Their faces had taken on a blank, empty look suggesting that they had withdrawn somewhere deep inside themselves. Anouk was still strong, maybe as strong as Karen was. She seemed determined not to show that she could be broken, though all of them knew that they could stand little more of the treatment they were receiving and the lack of food.
Karen wondered how many women had been through here; used until they could do no more and then left to die or killed when the work they could do no longer repaid the food that they needed to keep them alive. It was more brutal than anything she had seen on her trips into Kushtia in the past. She wondered if she would ever see anything more, ever again.
This time though the pink glimmer of dawn came with another light; the bright white light of a magnesium flare and the sharp detonation of explosives. Anouk was suddenly awake startled from her sleep by the noise. Karen and the others pressed closer together hoping against hope that this was a rescue.
There was the chatter of automatic weapon fire. A single booming gunshot in response -- Karen assumed it was the old manís rifle, a rusted weapon she had seen him carrying one day while she was trudging around harnessed to the pump. More automatic fire answered it. More thumps and bangs. The four girls tried to huddle together, terrified in case they should be hit in the exchange of fire.
And then Karen realised the shed was burning. Fire had broken out in the straw bales piled against one wall. Already acrid smoke was starting to fill the shed. She grabbed Anoukís shoulder and pointed to the smouldering bales. The two of them tried to pull at the chains that held them prisoner in the shed. They were no more able to break themselves free than they had been when they first arrived. The chains were as strong as ever before and the girls, if anything, were weaker. Karen looked down at her wrists, now the bruises from her shackles were made raw and bloody by her efforts to free herself. Miyako and Natsumi were screaming, pulling at their own chains. Anouk had been able to reach a log. She tried to lever the ring that held her chain from its fixing in the wall. The almost rotten wood split and splintered without effect. The smoke was getting thicker. All four girls were choking and coughing as the air got hotter, sparks and stalks of burning straw whirling as the draft of the fire scooped up the air in the shed.
It was then that the door to the shed burst open. Two figures in combat fatigues carrying machine pistols were silhouetted against the smoke and flames and daylight beyond. They ran into the room. Taking an axe, one of them smashed the ring that their chains were fixed to and grabbing Miyako by the arm pulled the four of them from the shed as it began to collapse in flames around them.
They ran, still chained together, through the smoke and flames, as quickly as the shackles on their ankles would allow, stumbling and falling as they tried to keep up with their rescuers. Karen looked back over her shoulder to see the corrugated iron roof of the shed collapse as the flames consumed the timbers that had held it up. She stumbled as she missed her footing on a petrol can discarded in the path. Two other soldiers were still firing into the homestead, lobbing grenades into the smoke and flames. The shed where they had been kept was now well ablaze, a pillar of smoke and sparks reaching up into the dawn sky. Other buildings in the farmstead were flaming or in ruins. Sticking out from beneath a heap of planks and timbers that had been the shed housing the pump, Karen saw the legs of the old man; his rifle beside him. Whether heíd been killed by gunshots or the collapse of the shed she couldnít tell but there was no doubt he was dead. Beyond him the younger man lay, on his back eyes open, staring at the sky, as dead as his father, blood trickling from the corner of his mouth, wounds stitched across in his chest by automatic fire. Karen saw the old women run out from one of the buildings waving her arms above her head, her shawl smouldering, face streaked with dirt. A single shot caught her and stopped her. A look of surprise came over her face as she fell to her knees. A burst of fire followed, hitting her in the chest. She fell back.
The four girls were pulled past the gruesome scene, out of the compound and towards a low rise in the ground. Behind it sat a dung brown, camouflaged, half track vehicle sat, its engine throbbing impatiently. Their two rescuers pushed the four girls inside and climbed in after them. Karen could see only smoke and rubble where the farmstead had once been. Two goats, confused by the noise and flames bounded across the ground, bleating disconsolately. The two other soldiers climbed into the half track. As they sat down and the truck moved off, one of their rescuers pulled off their combat helmet and shook out a cascade of long black hair.
"Youíre a woman," gasped Karen in surprise.
"Does that mean youíd rather go back?" she asked in a heavy Kushtian accent.
"Oh, no," said Karen. "No. Of course, no. Itís just that I didnít think there were any women in the Kushtian armed forces."
"You are right," the woman said. "There arenít." She lapsed into silence as the truck ground on, the tracks clattering as they propelled them forward, the engine roaring insistently as it took each hill and dip in turn. It was hot in the truck, the sweat of the girls and their rescuers mingled with the stink of diesel as they drove on. They were heading west, the light of the rising sun streaming in through the back of the truck, dazzling Karen. She looked around at her fellow prisoners. They were all asleep, exhausted by the relief of rescue.
Karen wasnít so sure.
Their destination turned out to be another cluster of sheds, little more impressive than the ones that they had left. But at least when they arrived they seemed to be welcomed by a cheering group.
All women, Karen thought as she peered out from the truck, about twenty of them. Mostly in combat fatigues, a few wearing western style skirts or jeans, two veiled in the traditional Kushtian chanoosh. Whoever they were, Karen could see that they werenít part of the Kushtian army or any regular troops. Their rescuers helped them down from the truck and led them across to one of the sheds. A woman appeared clutching a set of bolt cutters and sheered through the hasps of the padlocks that closed each of the four girlís shackles. As their chains fell away the four could not contain their relief and gratitude, hugging one another and the woman with the bolt cutters in turn. Other women arrived; one with a bundle of clothing, two more carrying bowls of steaming water, soap and towels. Anouk, Karen, Miyako and Natsumi, grabbed at the soap, splashing water from the bowl and cleaning themselves as best they could. They had seen no hot water since their capture.
They dried themselves, picked clothes from the heap and dressed. Karen found a shirt that was long enough to serve as a dress, Anouk a tee-shirt and shorts, the two Japanese girls found jeans and sweat shirts that werenít too large for their small build. "Thank you," Karen said to the women that had brought them the things. "Thaknarish. From all of us," she waved at her colleagues, "thaknarish."
Another woman appeared with a tray carrying four bowls of the hot, spiced lentil, soup and a pile of the simple flat breads that were a common staple in the uplands. The girls grabbed at their first real meal in two weeks.
Karen was sitting on the floor scooping at the last of the soup with a piece of bread when the dark haired soldier that had been one of her rescuers returned in the company of an older woman of maybe forty, her own dark hair starting to grey, her face lined. She wore an immaculately white tee shirt, khaki combat trousers and desert boots. She looked at the four girls and then spoke briefly to the soldier, muttering quietly in Kushtian that Karen could not really make out. She seemed to nod in agreement with whatever the soldier was saying. Three other armed women had appeared in the door. "Aargn," the older woman said, waving the three others in, "Laringi!"
"Laringi?" thought Karen first of all thinking she had misheard. "Lock them up? That canít be..." Her puzzlement was cut off by the clatter as each of the soldiers pulled back the bolt on their AK47ís and strode towards them. Karen put her hand up to fend off the grip of the first soldier that grabbed at the sleeve of her shirt. She was rewarded with a blow from the butt of the womanís rifle. Winded, Karen felt herself dragged to her feet. With the gunís barrel against her ribs she was pushed from the shed and across the courtyard. Behind her she could here the others being dragged out as well. There was another shed, smaller, barely ten feet square. Karen was pushed through the door. Disorientated by the dark she stumbled and slammed into the opposite wall. Winded, she sank to the floor as the three other girls were pushed in behind her. The door to the shed slammed shut behind them, cutting off the light from outside. She heard the familiar clack of a padlock closing. They were prisoners again.††††††††††††††††
"Whatís happening?" Anoukís voice in the darkness. "Why have they locked us up? Who are these people?"
Karenís eyes became accustomed to the gloom. She could see Anouk sitting against the opposite wall, Miyako and Natsumi beside her.
"I donít know," said Karen. "It doesnít make any sense. Theyíre not government troops. They must be some sort of militia, I suppose."
The door opened again. One soldier stood beside it, weapon cocked. One other came in, grabbing Miyako and pulling her to her feet. Natsumi tried to pull her back and was rewarded with a cuff to the head. Miyako was pulled outside, yelling in Japanese to her friend. The door was locked again. Natsumi was hammering at the door.
"Are they going to kill us?" Anouk asked.
"I donít know," Karen said slowly. "I really donít know."
All three girls sat straining their ears hoping to hear something hoping not to hear other things. It was perhaps an hour. The door opened again. Miyako was pushed back into the cell. Apparently unharmed she sank down beside her friend. "Pro-hram," she said with a puzzled look on her face. "Pro-hram?"
It was evidently Anoukís turn. The guard pointed her weapon at her and gestured for her to get to her feet. With the barrel of the guardís AK47 against her ribs she was pushed out of the cell. The door closed and locked again. Karen ran to it and managed to find a crack at one edge. She watched as Anouk was prodded across the compound to the largest building on the far side.
Another hour or more passed. Again the clunk of a key in the cellís padlocked door heralded the return of the guards. Anouk was pushed back in and Karen was grabbed. As she was pulled to her feet, Anouk said, "They want to know about something called ĎThe Programmeí. When did we join it?† Where did we come from to it? I didnít understand what they were talking about."
Karen was hustled away. It was getting late in the day now. The sun was starting to set, shadows lengthened across the compound as the peaks of surrounding hills cut off the sun light sooner than it would otherwise have gone. Karen followed the same path that Anouk had been taken along, up some creaking wooden steps, across a veranda and into the building.
From the corridor a wooden door opened into an office. Behind the desk sat the same old woman that had ordered their imprisonment. Another woman similarly dressed in tee shirt and combat trousers stood beside her. An empty chair stood in front of the desk. Karen was pushed across to sit.
"Please," the woman behind the desk gestured to the chair. "Please sit down."
Karen did so warily. "Who are you? Why are you keeping us here? I am an American citizen; I demand to be put in contact with the American Embassy in Kolin."
"Kolin is a long way from here," the woman said. "Not perhaps as far as from your last accommodation, but a long way. You ask so many questions. You donít say, ĎThank you for rescuing us.í Isnít that a little ungrateful?"
"Yes, yes, I guess so," Karen seemed chastened by her captorís accusation. "But you have locked us up and..."†
"Or perhaps you regret being rescued, being taken away from your dream?"
"Dream? Nightmare more like! Your people saw how we were being kept. Like animals. How could that be a dream?"
"I donít know," the woman replied. "But then I havenít subscribed to the programme, Iím not a participant."
"When did you join the programme?" the woman standing beside the desk cut in, conversationally.
"What programme? Iím not part of any programme. I was kidnapped, brought over the border into Kushtia, sold in a market somewhere and dragged off to where you found us."
"Your colleagues tell a similar story." The woman behind the desk looked directly at Karen.
"Iím not surprised. For my part itís true. Who are you?"
The women ignored her question. The woman standing spoke again. "So did you sign up for the programme in America or when you travelled to Kolin?"
"Iíve told you Iím not part of any programme. Iíve not been to Kolin. Well not recently. Iím an American citizen, you must tell the American Ambassador."
The woman behind the desk shrugged her shoulders. "Communication is difficult," she said. "We need to be sure what is going on first. Thank you. That will do for now."
The guard gripped Karen by the arm and pulled her to her feet. The two women in tee-shirts turned to one another and began talking quietly in Kushtian. The guard pulled Karen away. As she was hustled out of the office she called over her shoulder, "Iím Dr Karen Armstrong, from the University of Michigan. Iím an American citizen you must call the American Ambassador. Call him!" They seemed to take no notice as she was taken outside, back across the compound and into the cells. They took Natsumi after that. She came back muttering about the "Pro-hram" just as Miyako had done.
It was dark. The four girls sat waiting. The cell door opened once more. A guard ushered in a figure clad in the traditional chanoosh, the all enveloping robe and veil of the unmarried Kushtian woman. She carried a tray with four more bowls of food, bread, some fruit and four cups of a creamy yogurt based drink. She set it down in the centre of the cell. Kneeling beside it she beckoned to the girls forward. "Daraghl, eskedi," she said. "It is good. A lentil dish. Eat. Please."
Karen crouched down beside her looking over her shoulder concerned that the guard might prevent them talking. "You speak English?"
"Some," the veiled woman said, "Not well." She lowered the lids of her eyes in the sign of submission that Karen had observed so many times from the veiled women of Kushtia. The girls reached for the food, scooping up the dahl like mixture eagerly.
"Where are we? What are these people?" Karen asked of the girl.
"I should not say. The guard," she nodded to the door. "They oppose the programme; that much you must know. But you are safe here. They will not harm you, I think."
"What is this Ďprogrammeí that everyone talks of? We donít understand."
"It is all right," the girl said lowering her eyes again. "I see why you want to be like us. They think it is harmful though. That it will hold back change. They see a different future for Kushtia."
The guard appeared again at the door and gestured to the girl. "I must go," she said, collecting up the empty bowls and cups. With that she left them and the door was padlocked shut behind her.
"Do you have the first idea of the trouble that you have caused, Doctor Armstrong?"
It was morning. Karen was back in the office. The guards had come for her after the veiled girl had brought them a breakfast of yoghurt, grains and oats. This time though as they had pulled her to her feet they had wrenched her hands behind her back and cuffed her wrists together. She was sitting in the same chair that she had been in before but this time the mood of her captors seemed uglier.
"This has been the cause of our problems," the older woman gestured to a dog-eared copy of the edition of National Geographic that had carried Karenís article, "Veiled and in Chains". She scowled across at Karen. "This caused the Programme. This started it all. Those pigs in Kolin."
Karen protested. "I donít understand what you are talking about. That article was published a year ago. I have been out of America for six months. I only came back to Kushtia two months ago -- Iíve been living in hill villages and just over the border. Iíve not been anywhere near Kolin and I donít know anything about a programme."
The woman seated behind the desk turned to her colleague and nodded. She turned back to Karen. "The curious thing, Ms Armstrong, is that I believe you. Iím not sure that it changes anything but I believe you. Let me explain." Her colleague seemed to lean forward to object but the woman behind the desk waved her back. "Since you have been good enough to identify yourself, I should do the same. It is polite. I am Kalasa Karench, my husband is a Council member so I suppose you could say I am, or have been, part of the Kushtian elite. I believe passionately in our culture and values but I know they must change. For women especially, Kushtia is not an easy country in which to live. Unless you have seen nothing else."
"I know," Karen interrupted, "thatís what my work has shown. Isnít it?"
"Yes, yes," Kalasa nodded, "but it is not the truth that we are looking at here. It is the consequences."
"Consequences? Some academics were interested in that article. There was some hoo-hah in the popular press. Some lascivious comment on television. I stopped doing chat shows about it -- I found the undercurrent of innuendo unpleasant. But it will all have been forgotten now. The public has a short memory."†††
"You would think so. But it is not the case in this instance. There were many who saw your article as a romantic dream. An idyllic society in which men are men and women are grateful. There are always those women for whom such a society has its attractions."
"But surely the fantasies of a few western women cannot affect Kushtian society? Change will happen here. I said so in my article. As Kushtia becomes more open. The United Nations, for example..."
"Yes, the United Nations. Part of the problem, I fear, not part of the solution. Many women responded to your article. The Kushtian Foreign Ministry had many applications from women wanting to immigrate, to be part of this imagined ideal society. They didnít see the sort of conditions that you and your friends were being held in. They only saw the romantic idyll."
"And how has that changed things here?"
"The Council is wary of change in the ways of men and women. Council members have many wives and concubines. Why should they want things to change? They see as you did that pressures would come upon them. To enfranchise women. To allow them to own property or make contracts. To choose in the matter of their husbands or lovers. They feared that outsiders might take a different view of human rights to that of their own. And then one of them had a very clever idea. They are not stupid or backward. They are politically very clever. Their ambassador to the United Nations met with a representative of UNESCO. How interesting, he said, that the UN supports world heritage sites, that the buildings and environment of important places are protected. Should the same protection not be extended to cultures -- they ways that people live? The UNESCO representative thinks this is a good idea, that it will give them a way to increase their influence. They make a proposal to create ĎWorld Heritage Culturesí in which the way of life of an indigenous people can be protected from outside influences and under which the UN will fund education activities to promote cultural understanding in the world outside. It is seen as non-controversial, something on which the Russians Americans, Chinese and British can agree for once, and is passed. The Kushtian culture is declared as the first World Heritage Culture."
"And makes change difficult within Kushtia. Change that you believe is needed."
"Worse than that. UNESCO funding is being used to run the programme."
"You keep talking about this Ďprogrammeí. I still donít understand it." Karen wriggled her wrists against the handcuffs. "Can you take these things off?"
Kalasa shook her head. "The programme is the ĎKushtian Cultural Experience Programmeí, women from all over the world coming to experience Kushtian life and culture."
"Isnít that good? Bringing in outside ideas? Wonít that make change easier?"
"No. Thatís not how it works. This programme attracts a certain sort of woman; one that finds the ideals of traditional Kushtian society attractive. They come to live in households as servants or concubines. To be treated as chattels of the household. You know how women live in Kushtia, Dr Armstrong. As virtual slaves. There are many in the programme. A hundred or more. The Council is claiming this is a validation of Kushtian culture, that western women are seeking something not found in their own societies. That is not the case. In truth, they are sex tourists, validating the regime. Itís a reason for not giving way to change."††††††
"Change that you want to make happen?"
"This group share my ideals. But it is hard for women to take action. Because we cannot own property, everything we need we must steal. We have learned to be hard, to fight, to fend for ourselves. Many women in the programme are not happy. The romantic ideal is not as they thought. We try to help them. We wish to give them a voice. We thought that you four were like that. Programme participants in appalling conditions. You would be an important voice for us, speaking out against the evils of the programme. Like the others will."
"The others? You have already brought others out of the programme?"
"Oh yes. There are five. Women that have been freed from the programme."
"But if they have returned home, they will be speaking out, change will happen."
"No. They have not returned yet. They are still here. We have to keep them here until we are ready to speak out."
"Imprisoned as much as if they were still in their households?"
Kalasa shrugged. "Sometimes immoral acts are needed in a moral cause."
"And is our imprisonment an immoral act in pursuit of your moral cause?"
"I havenít decided yet. Your friends are inconvenient. Evidence of slavery in Kushtia is not something I wish to present, that might create too great a call for international intervention. It confuses things. And you, you Dr Armstrong, are even more of a problem. It might be dangerous for you if people in Kolin knew you were in the country. Or it might be dangerous for us if those in Kolin knew you were here. We will decide. But until then you will have to be handcuffed, I think. Iím sorry."
"I accept your apology," Karen said with irony, "but youíll excuse me if I donít applaud your caution."
Kalasa nodded and turned to her colleague, "Donít put her back with the others for now, Alana." She gestured to the guard and Karen was pulled to her feet. "Use the guard room." She left the room more worried than when she had entered it and was marched towards the back of the building.
Karen was sitting alone in the cell that she had been taken to. Her hands were still cuffed behind her; she had tried flexing her wrists in the cuffs but it was clear that she wasnít going to be able to free herself. She sat on the iron frame bedstead that was the only piece of furniture in the cell and looked up at the barred window and then across at the heavy wooden door. It was starting to get dark.
She heard the clattering sounds of a key in the lock and the door to the cell opened.† Framed in the door stood Alana, the guard. Karen watched as she stepped into the cell and pushed the door shut behind her. In spite of herself and her situation, Karen found the confident air of the dark skinned woman alluring. Her own sexual drives were as likely to favour women as men and the bright white of Alanaís tee shirt tight against her well formed body, contrasting with the dark brown of her skin, together with the womanís confident air at a time when Karenís own resources were at such a low ebb, triggered a response that Karen found all too familiar. The lock crashed home. "I thought you might like some company," Alana said. She pulled a pack of cigarettes from the back pocket of her shorts, took one for herself and offered one to the handcuffed Karen. She shook her head, rejecting the offer.
Alana took a deep drag on her cigarette and exhaled, blowing a stream of smoke across the cell. "Youíre an attractive woman, Doctor Armstrong," she said, smiling as she looked down at Karen. "I could make your time here much less uncomfortable." Alana reached out and ran her hands up the back of Karenís head, toying briefly with the short, soft hairs she found there.
Karen moved her head, trying to escape Alanaís attentions. "Arenít you supposed to wait a while for the Stockholm Syndrome to kick in?" she asked intending to discourage the guard but instead revealing her own feelings with a lick of the lips and a coy look in her eyes.†
Alana gripped Karen by the hair tightly and twisted throwing her back on the bed. As she fell back with a soft "Ohh!" the guard knelt across her. Alana reached behind her back and unclipped her riot baton from her belt. Karen tried to wriggle free but Alanaís weight on her belly made sure she could not. "Get off me, you, gruunggfh," she tried to call out but her cries were cut off by the side grip of the baton as Alana pushed it into Karenís mouth. Alana gripped either end of the nightstick, pushing Karenís head back against the bed. Karen groaned as the baton cut into either side of her mouth. With all of Alanaís weight behind her grip on the stick, Karen couldnít move.
"You be good or that stick will choke you," Alana spat. "Now, you gonna behave, yankee?"
Karen helplessly handcuffed could only grunt compliance.
"Thatís a good girl. Thatís good," Alana smiled. The guard took her hands off the stick. Karen caught her breath, freed from the risk of choking. "Now you just suck on that like it was your boyfriendís piece." Karen needed no encouragement; she had a strong oral response to sexual arousal and was already sucking and gnawing on the batonís grip. Alana was fumbling at the buttons of Karenís shirt. Eventually she lost patience with trying to unfasten them and wrenched the shirt open. She greeted the sight of Karenís breasts with a sigh of approval. Immediately her hands were on them pinching and squeezing at Karenís nipples. As she saw Karenís reaction in the stiffening of her nipples and the increased rate of her breathing, Alana bent her mouth to Karenís breasts and set to nipping at each in turn with her teeth.
Karenís response was to mmmph and groan ever more loudly mouthing her passion around the grip of the baton. Alana sat up and pulled the stick clear of Karenís mouth, watching her bright eyed look of arousal as she reached back with one hand to squeeze one of Karenís tits. "Decadent Yankee," Alana teased.
"Preverse Kushtian," Karen responded. Alana chuckled in return. She picked up her riot baton and slid the tip of it along the inside of Karenís thigh. She gasped quietly spreading her legs to welcome the intruding ebony stick. "Mmm," Karen whimpered as the tip of the stick came closer to her vulva. Her muttered appreciation changed to a moan as Alana moved her head down to substitute her tongue for the probing rigidity of the riot baton.
The two women tumbled together in a tangle of desire until in time each was sated.
Karen sank back, exhausted. "How did you know?" she asked Alana.
The guard grinned. "I didnít," she said. "I just fancied fucking you. You werenít in any position to stop me." She traced a finger along the one of the steel cuffs that secured Karenís wrists. "You still arenít."
Karen groaned. "Canít you take those things off me?"
"No, I donít think so," Alana responded. "You get some sleep. We can talk in the morning." She got up from the bed and pulled a blanket up over Karen as she lay back.
Curiously liberated by the guardís attentions, Karen watched as Alana left her, studying the womanís smooth tanned skin, noticing the tattoo of two intertwined Kís on the side of her thigh as she picked up her clothes. Exhausted by their lovemaking, Karen was asleep by the time that Alana reached the door of the cell.
It was light again before Alana came back to Karenís cell. Karen was just stirring from a nightís sleep made fitful by her shackles. She struggled to sit up, shrugging off the blanket, infuriated by Alanaís look of amusement as she twisted herself around, wrenching her shoulders as she tried to sit herself upright. "Huna!" she snapped. "Bitch!"
Alana wagged a finger in response. "You donít have to be kept like that," she said.
"I know. You can undo these anytime you choose," she turned her back on Alana, offering her the opportunity to unlock her handcuffs.
Alana sat down on the bed beside her. Karenís shirt had pulled from her left shoulder as she had tossed and turned in her sleep. Alana slid it back into place. Karen responded to her gentle touch. "You can help us," Alana said. "Help us expose the Programme. Help us change things."
"Why should I do that?" Karen replied.
"So you can go home," Alana grinned as she watched Karenís attempt to look relaxed. "But, if that doesnít matter to you, so can Miyako and Natsumi and Anouk too. They donít need to be kept like this," Alana tapped Karenís wrists cuffs, "either."
Karen started at the mention of the girlsí names. "But they should go, theyíre no use to you and they know nothing abut the programme."
"You are right Yankee. They donít understand Kushtian society. You do. They donít speak our language. You do. They do not even know how they came to be here. But they do have one important thing about them." Karen looked at Alana with a puzzled expression. "You care enough about them to think they should go home and you can do the things we need done," Alana said coolly. "Help us and they can go home."
"Huna!" Karen spat.
Alana gripped her by the shoulders and spun her around pushing her back on the bed. "I thought you liked me like that." Alana lay across her pressing her hand down across Karenís mouth to silence her. "Now, keep quiet, Yankee and listen. Iím gong to tell you what this Huna wants you to do." Karen tried to struggle under Alanaís grip. "Youíre going to help us abduct one of the programme members and then youíll take her place. Youíll be inside the programme. Youíll help us to break it." Karen stopped struggling her eyes wide with disbelief as she looked up at Alana over the hand that was clamped over her lips
Alana slid her hand away. "You must be mad," Karen said. "You must be mad and you must think that I am mad. Youíre a mad huna!"
"Maybe but Iím the mad huna that can help your friends get home." Alana knew what Karenís response would be.
Sometimes patience is the only option.
Karen kept on quietly pushing the broom across the dusty floor of the luggage claim hall of Kolin airport. A woman cleaning, dressed in a chanoosh, attracted no attention even though there were few others there. Two security guards lazing in a corner, sucking on hand rolled cigarettes under a Ďno smokingí sign, apparently deep in debate about some abstruse aspect of the performance of the Kushtian national football team, ignored her and everything else around them.
The flight from London had arrived not long before. A steady stream of passengers that had known better than to trust their belongings to the whims of Kushtian Baggage Handling were leaving the hall clutching cases that tested the limits of the concept of hand luggage. A few, less experienced travellers were waiting in the hall. One, Karen could see, was the one that they were looking for.
She was standing not far from the trolley that would eventually be towed away to be replaced with another containing the bags from the London flight.
She was wearing a loose beige skirt and a comfortable silk top, she held a light coat over one arm, a handbag over the other. Her long straight hair was tied back with a paisley patterned scarf, sunglasses perched on the top of her head.
Most important of all though, she was clutching the blue and white folder that singled her out as a participant in the programme.
Karen hadnít believed it at first when they had explained to her how things worked. Participants coming into Kushtia were cleared through Immigration. There an official explained to them that they would be met by their hosts after they had collected their baggage. Immigration explained that they would retain the participantís passport for the duration of their stay and in return they issued a card which held the participantís name and reference number, together with a welcome pack and details of the host that they should expect. Then they were simply waved through and left to collect their baggage and find their hosts.
Karen could see how that reduced work for Kushtian Immigration. "But," she said, "doesnít that mean that unless someone gets the passport and the participant together again at some later stage, thereís no way of knowing that the person leaving the airport is the person that came in on the flight?"
"Exactly," said Alana, "and with security so poor in the luggage reclaim, almost anyone could swap with an incoming participant once they have their welcome pack but have yet to meet their hosts." Alana waved a picture of one of the blue and white folders. "But why would they want to do that?" she said with a wink.††
Karen waited for a while to see if the girl would do as they had expected. She was looking at her watch impatiently wondering where her cases were. She noticed the sign for the washrooms and headed off towards them. Karen was pleased. It had saved her suggesting that the girl used them before she left.
Karen swept her way across the hall and followed the girl inside after dropping an out of order sign on the washroom door. Shortly after her, two other women followed, one pushing the other in a wheelchair, both wearing the all concealing chanoosh.
It only took a matter of moments.
Karen was first to emerge, wearing the girlís clothes and clutching her welcome pack. Sheíd pulled her sunglasses down but the security guards would only have noticed her if sheíd been wearing the Kushtian football teamís new strip. She walked over to where the luggage trolley had now appeared. There were only three bags left on it now, the others had all been claimed. She checked the flight ticket sheíd found in the girlís handbag. Baggage receipts tallied with two of the bags on the trolley. She lifted them off and headed for the exit.
It was only as she reached the exit that the guards seemed to notice her but only to leer at her legs as she passed them by. They didnít take any notice at all of the veiled woman in a wheelchair being pushed by another as Alana took the unconscious Lucy out of the luggage hall and across to a parked van.
Karen saw a man holding up a card saying "Lucy Baildon", the name that tallied with the one on the welcome pack she was holding. She walked across to him and showed him her welcome pack. "Aaargn," he grunted approving and gestured to a battered Mercedes that stood outside the terminal building. He didnít offer to take either of Karenís bags. She followed him out.
He let her put her own cases in the boot of the car. She clambered in to the back sinking down onto the seat, its plastic covering hot and sticky against her thighs. It sagged discouragingly beneath her. The car stank of cigarette smoke and other smells that Karen, even with all her experience of the Kushtian way of life, could not identify. Her driver turned around -- gesticulating, pointing to her face and then to the seat beside her. She found a small parcel and unwrapped it. It contained a simple veil. Obviously the driver was concerned at the impropriety of being seen with an unveiled young woman in his car.†
Karen took it out and draped it across the lower part of her face. Somehow her sunglasses seemed wildly inappropriate. She took them off. The driver looked up at his rear view mirror, evidently inspecting her. "Aaargn," he said, turning the key in the ignition and starting off.
Karen had worn a veil many times in the past but somehow this felt particularly odd. To be sitting there, in normal clothes, especially someone elseís, but with her face obscured from view, felt strange. Added to that, the fact that the veil concealed not only herself but also her assumed identity, felt even more curious.
The driver seemed unconcerned as the car bounced through the suburbs of Kolin. It slid to a dusty halt outside a large wooden door. He turned around, pointed to Karen and then to the door and waved for her to get out. He made no attempt to get out to help her with her luggage so she pulled the cases from the boot. No sooner were they out and she had closed the lid than the car roared off, leaving her standing in the gravel and dust beside the door. On the side of the door was a battered enamel sign that read in Kushtian script, "The Household of Keshren Kerrich."
There didnít seem to be a bell or knocker so she just made a fist and hit against it. Almost at once there was a sound of Kushtian voices from inside. She reached up to ensure that her veil still gave her an appropriately modest look and waited for the door to be opened.††
The door was opened by a man she took to be the household overseer, the one charged with keeping good order amongst the servants and ensuring that the tasks needed to keep the house running smoothly were carried out. She showed him her blue and white folder. He grunted in recognition and showed her in, muttering a greeting in Kushtian. Karen thought it not a good idea to show that she spoke and understood, Kushtian. After all, the real Lucy Baildon almost certainly didnít. She showed the overseer her folder, pointing to the name on its cover and then to herself, saying "Lucy, Lucy."
He looked at her, seemingly uninterested and pointed her to a small room where other women of the household were sat. Some were working at a loom, others mending clothes, others still folding clothes that had evidently just been laundered. Her arrival caused something of a stir, the women clustered around her, plucking at her clothes, unfastening her veil, taking her by the hand and gesturing for her to sit down all the while, muttering the Kushtian welcome greeting, "Venesh. Venesh."†
Karen smiled in response nodding her head, keen to make friends with the women of the household as soon as she could.† One of them offered her a small clay cup of steaming liquid and Karen took it gratefully. She pulled the small phrase book given to all programme participants from her bag and thumbed through it. "Thaknarish. Thank you," she said haltingly trying to not to let her grasp of Kushtian pronunciation appear too competent. She pointed to the book as if not confident that she was being understood. "Thaknarish." She smiled again and held up the cup, taking a drink of the strong black tea.
Two of the other women clapped approvingly. "Thaknarish. Thaknarish." They nodded, showing Karen that they understood. They took her by the hand, led her to a range of cushions alongside one wall and indicated for her to sit. Karen did so. As she did so another woman appeared in the room. She was younger than any of the others, barely twenty Karen thought, and her pale skin marked her out from the others. As soon as she saw Karen she rushed across to her.
"Are you English?" she asked. "Here as part of the programme?" Karen nodded. "Oh, thank goodness. Iíve been so lonely, itís been so strange. Not at all like I thought it would be. I so want to go home and..." she stopped as suddenly as she had started, conscious that all the other women in the room were looking at her. "Please," she said, "please help me."
A moment later the Overseer appeared and barked some orders at one of the elder women. Karen managed to make out some of it. "The young English woman. She is for concubine tonight. For the first son. She will dance for him. Then he will dance with her. Dress her. And manuses."
The girl obviously understood little of what was said apart from the last word. Manuses† - the shackles worn as a symbol of a womanís dependence on her household.† She shook her head. "No manuses," she said, "no manuses." The other women clustered around her, ignoring her protests, pulling her to a large chest in the corner of the room.
"You dance," the oldest one said slowly in stumbling English. "Dance for Kesrentic." The girl looked worried. The other women were helping her take off her dark brown robes; one of the others was rummaging through the contents of the chest. "Shake bosom. Make Kesrentic happy. He like that."
Karen had a pretty good idea of what "dancing" for Kesrentic would mean. It was common practice to select one of the women of the household to give the eldest boy of the family his first sexual experience. Whatever dancing skills the girl had, dancing would not be all she was expected to do tonight. The girl stood naked, shivering but not from cold. The women had found a costume for her. The silver, sparkling, halter neck top was adorned with silver coins stitched to it like monetary chain mail. The grey silken skirt was trimmed in silver wire embroidery and cut in panels so that as she moved it exposed her legs. Silver slippers and a heavy, broad, coin-hung, belt to sit around her hips were brought from the chest as well. They fastened bangles around her arms. They put rings on each of her fingers, with fine silver chains linking one to another. The oldest women brought out a fine grey silk veil, draping it carefully across her face, and fastening it to her hair with pins. In spite of the reassuring clucking and fussing of the women, the girlís eyes were still wide with fright and her fear became worse as they brought the heavy iron manacles, the "manuses", for her wrists.
As the girl wriggled in her manacles, prepared by the women of the house for her fate, the Overseer returned. Smiling with approval he took the girl by the arm, quelling her struggles with a violent shake. "Come," he said. "Dance." He dragged her away. Behind her veil, it was clear she was sobbing in distress.††
Karen stared after her. She had a good idea of the fate that awaited the girl. "Dancing" was a common euphemism for copulation in Kushtian and it was usual practice for a young girl from the household to be selected as the initiation partner for any male of the household at their coming of age. "At least," Karen thought, "it will be short if not sweet." At best Kushtian lovemaking was fairly perfunctory; for a male just coming of age she would be unlucky if it took more than a few moments. Frightening, yes, degrading, yes, but Karen could imagine far worse forms of forced sexual encounter.
The other women took Karen and set her to work, cleaning pots and dishes. She listened to their chatter as she worked away at the tub of grimy water, hearing the gossip of the household of how the Overseer was cheating on his two wives; of how the chief wife of the house had discovered that her husband had a new concubine that she had not been told of; of the price of rice in the market and poor quality chickens that had been brought for the week-endís meals. As the sun began to set the women drifted away to different corners of the room. There was no artificial light and the onset of night meant there was nothing to do but sleep. Karen found her own corner, pushing a sack of rice to the floor as a pillow and dragging a strip of worn carpet across to cover her as she slept.
She was woken by the return of the girl. In the gloom of the room she watched as the girl was pushed back into the room. She looked around her before she saw where Karen was and made her way towards her, crouching down alongside her. "Please," the girl said, "please help."
Karen sat up. The girl fell into her arms. Karen could see that her costume was torn, that there were scratches across her shoulders and chest. Her veil hung loosely from the pins in her hair but no longer covered her face. Karen just held on to her, the girl sobbing quietly. "Did he rape you?" she asked quietly.
The girl looked at her. "Yes -- no -- well, no, not really. He tried but heís not been with a woman before. He was just violent. Rough, brutal and he made me, well, no...."
"Its all right," said Karen. "Come here and rest. Weíll make things right in the morning." She took the girl in her arms and the two of them lay back against the sack of rice, both sleeping fitfully beneath their carpet blanket, Karen still in the street clothes she had stolen from Lucy, the girl in her torn dancing costume, her wrists still locked in their manuses.†
Karen was woken by the quiet sobbing of her companion. A pink flush at the barred window of the room announced the imminent arrival of dawn. The other women were already stirring busying themselves at lighting the cooking fires and heating water. One of the overseerís men walked up to their couch, pushed Suzie over onto her face and unfastened her manuses. The girl sat up, rubbed her wrists and pushed the hair away from her tear streaked face. "Iím sorry," she said, you must think me so foolish. To have got into this and then to complain so."†
Karen smiled sympathetically. "No," she said reassuringly, "of course not. Itís frightening." The girl gave a grateful grin. "Look, Iím Lucy Baildon," she said. "Perhaps we can help each other?"
The girl nodded. "Suzie," she said, "Suzie Barwick. The women here are all right really. Theyíve been kind. Itís just... well, itís just all so strange. In the programme they said I would be a part of the household, a doenya?"
"Mmm," said Karen, "like a servant. I think thatís what I am to be too."
"And that is fine. The work is hard but the other women have helped me a lot. They are all very kind. But the men! They are far worse than I thought. They see any woman and they think of sex. I was cleaning in the bathrooms yesterday with one of the other doenyes. The head of the household came in -- Keshren Kerrich -- he told the other girl to suck his... his thing .. his cock. And he told me to stand and watch. To learn. So I would know how the head of the household needed to be treated. And she just did it. And he said nothing to her. He didnít touch her. He just... well stood there. She didnít even pause. She just dropped to her knees and did it. Right there. Just as he asked."
"Of course," said Karen. "She would see it as an honour." Suzie looked startled. "For a doenya to be asked by the head of the household. That is a matter of status for her. She will have boasted of it to her friends."
"Itís true. There was a lot of talk when we got back to the doenyes hall. I couldnít follow it."
"Iím sure thatís what it was. I know it must seem very strange." Karen wanted to do what she could to reassure Suzie, but he knew from her studies that Kushtian men viewed sex as something to be taken when desire arose. The only good thing was that they were usually satisfied fairly swiftly. "Just think yourself lucky youíre not a concubine! At least as a doenya anything like that is going to be occasional. Concubines are expected to be on hand for the head of household at any time, day or night. And they are supposed to amuse and entertain him, playing music, joining in games. Iíd rather be working in the kitchen!"
"Me too," said Suzie with a smile, evidently pleased to have found an ally in Karen. "But why didnít they give a concubine to Kesrentic? Why me? He hurt me. Look." Suzie showed Karen the scratch marks on her shoulder.††
"Itís a tradition," Karen said. "A young man is considered too inexperienced to go with a concubine. They are only for someone that has achieved some experience in the Ďartí as they see it. So they use a servant. Itís the usual way."
"Oh," said Suzie. "You know a lot about this, Lucy. I donít remember seeing that in the programme guide. But then the programme guide doesnít really prepare you for this does it?"
Karen shook her head. "No it doesnít, does it? But Iím determined to learn from this what I can. Thatís why I came on the programme."
Suzie nodded, "Well, yes. Mostly itís not so bad. As I say, the other women are kind and not all of the men are brutes. Itís a simple life here and somehow the work lets you think, Itís quite -- well -- peaceful in some ways."
Karen looked sympathetically at Suzie. "I can imagine it is. Thatís what I hoped to find here."
Suzie seemed to gather herself together. "Well, Miss Lucy Baildon," she said with new found confidence, "Iíd better show you around. Just let me change." She shrugged off the tatters of her dance costume and pulled on a simple one piece robe that covered her from neck to ankle. She reached out a hand to Karen. "Come on," she said. "I canít take your manuses off, though. The overseer will have to do that." Suzie led the way across the doenyes hall. A large bowl of water stood on a table. She splashed her face and then turned to Karen before picking up a cloth to dry herself. "Here," she said, "we might get hot water for a wash later but this is all there is for now."
Karen nodded and followed Suzieís example. She had barely finished when she became aware that the women in the hall had fallen silent. She looked around. All of them, Suzie included, had drawn their veils across their faces. Standing in the door to the hall was a heavily built man that Karen took to be Keshren Kerrichís overseer. Karen pulled her own veil into place. The overseer beckoned her forward. As she responded to his gesture, one of the other† women went forward with her. The overseer grunted out a stream of instructions in Kushtian. Even though Karen understood most of it, the woman translated slowly into broken English.
"He says you are here as a doenya in the household of Keshren Kerrich. Kerrich say you are to be freed of your manuses so that you can take up your duties. Hold out your hands." As Karen obeyed the overseerís instructions he took a key from his belt and unlocked the cuffs from around her wrists. Another stream of Kushtian followed. "Now you must take off those western clothes. Here a doenya wears Kushtian dress." Karen looked around. The other women were all watching her as she stepped out of the skirt and pulled off her silk top and the overseer was staring appreciatively as she stood there in her underwear. The woman who was translating passed Karen a robe like the one Suzie had put on and Karen put it on over her head. The overseer grunted his approval as she allowed the robe to fall loosely into place and then reached into the pocket of his tunic. He took out a metal disk that carried the same design that had appeared on the door plate of the household. Karen knew what it was -- a properta, the symbol worn by all women showing the household to which they belonged.
The overseer hung the disk on its cord around Karenís neck and muttered some further words. "He says, this is your properta as part of the household of Keshren Kerrich. Remember to follow the traditions of our household. You will follow our rules and the household will care for you." Karen nodded her head in acknowledgement. The overseer nodded in response and left without a further word.
As soon as the overseer left the other women clustered around Karen. They had thrown off their veils now and were smiling and laughing, welcoming her to the household. Suzie stood by on one side. "You see," she said, "they are pleased we are here."
The woman who had translated for the overseer said, "Now for some work. Then some food. You bring water. She," the woman pointed to Suzie, "she will show you where."
Karen followed Suzieís lead. The two of them worked hard for an hour or more, both fetching water from the well, emptying the pottery jars they carried into the great stone cisterns to one side of the kitchen area. After a dozen loads, the older woman signalled that they should take a rest and brought them each a bowl of tea. Karen felt as though every one of her muscles was aching already. The two of them sat quietly enjoying their tea. Karen looked up and saw two of the overseerís men approaching. Instinctively she pulled her veil across her face and lowered her eyes in the way she knew Kushtian women were expected to.† It was only when she heard the chatter of voices beside her that she turned to see the two young men attempting to flirt with Suzie. "Hello lovely lady," the taller of the young men was saying. "Donít work too hard, you come play with us," the other said. Karen wasnít worried by the conversation -- these two would be under as strict supervision by the overseer as the women were in the doenyesí hall, this would be just an amusing way for them to pass a few moments in their busy day. It was only when Suzie turned towards her that she realised the reason for their flirtation; surprised by their approach, Suzie had forgotten to pull her veil up over her face and was now enjoying their attention, not registering the fascinated stares on the young menís face as they stared into the face of an unveiled woman for what was probably the first time.
A barked order from behind Karen disturbed the two men and Suzie. The overseer pushed Karen aside as he jerked Suzie to her feet. The two men scuttled away. The overseer dealt Suzie a hard slap to the face before he pulled her veil up, snarling at her all the time that she was immodest, little better than a whore, seducing his workers. Suzie was sobbing as she tried to break free of the overseerís grasp. Karen knew better than tot try to help her. By failing to cover her face she would give offence to any traditionally minded man. Even the most licentious of concubines was expected to offer at least the pretence of covering her face.
The overseer was dragging Suzie by her wrist. He was shouting at the woman that had translated for Karen earlier. She in turn was remonstrating with him but eventually shaking her head went off to the side of the room, only to return with a pair of manuses. The overseer locked them onto Suzieís wrists and held her by the chain that linked them. With a twist if his wrist he forced Suzie to her knees. The girl was yelling in fear as he twisted his grip again and dragged her down to the floor. Placing his boot on her neck to keep her from moving he reached out to unfasten a rope from its cleat on the wall. As he loosened, it a large hook lowered from the ceiling. He pushed the tip of the hook through the links of Suzieís manuses and hauled on the rope. Suzie was dragged back to her knees, then to her feet and finally onto the tips of her toes her arms stretching up towards the roof.
"Whore," he spat at Suzie as he pulled a large knife from his belt. She began screaming again in terror as he advanced towards her. Karen looked to see if there was anything she could do to save the girl, deciding that the only thing to hand was one of the pots she had been fetching water with. The overseer however, seeing that Karen might intervene turned towards her and threatened her with the knife before turning back to Suzie and using his knife to slice her robe from her, leaving her naked except for her veil. He looked at her as she tried to ease the pain from her arms, stretched upwards as they were. He gave a nod of satisfaction and then spoke again to the translator before stalking from the room. "Da huna batradi," Karen heard him say. "Beat the bitch."
"Oh, please let me down," begged Suzie. "My arms... itís so painful."
The translator shook her head. "You must stay there," she said. "To be seen without your veil is a great offence. You must stay there to think about your mistake."
"But my arms..."
"That pain is not so great," the translator said. "But the pain from the beating will be."
"No! No!" called Suzie as she saw the woman pick up a bunch of willow wands used to beat the dust from carpets. "Please you donít have to beat me."
"We must do this. The overseer insists that we doenyes carry out our own punishments. I must punish you or I will be punished."
Karen knew that there was no escape for Suzie. This was how the household managed its affairs. The overseer let it be known what was needed and it happened. He didnít have to do anything, they all knew how the household had to work and they all acted to see that order was maintained. She could do nothing but watch as the woman cracked the canes across Suzieís naked thighs, buttocks and back. After a dozen strokes or more Suzieís cries of pain at each blow had combined into one continuing wail that went on even after the woman stopped beating her and loosened the rope to allow Suzie down from her tip-toes. She collapsed to the floor. The woman crouched beside her. "You must stay naked except for your veil for the rest of the day," she said, "and you wear the manuses too. Now please get back to your work as soon as you can." She walked away returning the bundle of canes to the rack on the wall.
Karen ran across to the sobbing Suzie and tried to comfort her but one of the other women waved her away. "Your work," she said, "do your work. She must work as soon as she can too." Karen looked down at the sobbing Suzie and then across at the defiant Kushtian woman. She reached the conclusion that there was nothing to be gained from making more trouble and went to fetch another pitcher of water.
In time Suzie recovered sufficiently to start her own work again and the two of them worked on into the afternoon until the sun began to slip down towards the horizon.
Karen had finished her tasks for the evening meal. Much of the wood she had gathered for the stove was piled neatly beside it; some was burning with a sweet smelling smoke within. On top, a large cauldron filled with water Karen had brought from the well was slowly heating. Suzie, moving slowly because of the pain of her beating, was working to mix the dough for the flat breads that would be baked in the side oven. She worked steadily, not speaking, embarrassed by the stupidity that had led to her punishment. Two of the other women were supervising her efforts, nodding or shaking their heads as she kneaded the dough and then teased out the flat fingers of the mixture that would go into the oven. Once she was finished she was sent to kneel naked in one corner of the room
Karen stood back from the heat of the stove pushing her hair back from her face and wiping sweat from her forehead. As she did so she saw the overseer gesture from the far door, beckoning to her. She looked around, decided that it was indeed she the man was summoning, and went across towards him. "A visitor," he said, demonstrating that he spoke at least some English. "Not long to talk though -- soon supper."
Karen nodded wondering who could have come to see her. A veiled woman in long grey robes came into the room. The overseer, not interested in womenís talk, left them. As he disappeared, the woman drew back her veil, revealing herself as Alana.†† "Hello decadent Yankee," she said with a smile. She reached out for the disk hanging from the cord around Karenís neck. "I see you are wearing the properta of Keshren Kerrich. I had thought you might save yourself for me."
"I had no choice, even if I wanted otherwise." Karen scowled at Alanaís flirtatious remark. "I am here in the household as part of the programme Lucy would wear Kerrichís properta. What choice do I have?" Karen looked at Alana and saw her put her head to one side. "Besides, what makes you think I should wear your properta? Doesnít that just mean you are accepting the same standards as Kerrich? As all the other men?"
"Perhaps," Alana said. "But enough of that for now. I wanted to see how you were getting on. Have you made contact with others from the programme? Are there others here?"
Karen nodded. "Yes," she said, "one. An English girl. She is distressed. Abused. She wishes to return home. I have seen much of how she is mistreated. Help us to get away from here."
Alana shook her head. "No, you want to stay here for longer yet."
"I think youíre wrong."
"I know Iím right. You know you must stay here for Natsumi and Miyako. For Anouk. They donít understand why they are being kept as they are. Anouk, she doesnít understand why she must submit to the Kushtian guard that is her captor. She was not as ready for my attentions as you were, Yankee."
"Bitch," hissed Karen but Alana just smiled in response and drew a finger along Karenís robe where it draped across her thigh. Karen bit her lip as Alanaís stroking hand swept upwards to her hip. She turned to the Kushtian. "What do you want?"
"Stay longer. Find more. We need longer to be ready. Make the English girl ready to speak against her owner, not just the overseer, she must be ready to speak against Kerrich. If you do well then Anouk will be happy. And Natsumi and Miyako."
Karen scowled at the implied threats. She folded her arms, looking sullenly at Alana who smiled back, content that she had made her point.
"You must not be unhappy with me, Yankee," Alana said, her hand now trailing up to the side of Karenís face. She watched as Karen bit her lip attempting to hide her reaction to the brush of Alanaís fingers across her cheek. "But, I see you are not." Alanaís fingers burrowed into Karenís hair, stroking and squeezing at the nape of Karenís neck, bring forth a quiet moan from the American. "Stay here, learn more. Then we will see."
She dropped her hand from Karenís neck. Karen could only watch wordlessly as Alana left her.
Karen was woken by the sound of noisy debate in the kitchen. The overseer and one of the older women were arguing. About what Karen could not tell. The overseer seemed to have his way. He stamped out with an angry shout. A few minutes later the woman came to the room that Karen and Suzie shared. By now Suzie was awake as well. The woman came in carrying clothes; western style clothes. She pushed them towards Suzie and Karen. "Habilish," she said. "Get dressed."
Suzie and Karen shrugged off their night shirts and pulled on the clothes that the woman had brought. After weeks spent in the all encompassing Kushtian robes, wearing these new clothes felt strange. Suzie pulled on a green dress with a skirt that reached only just below her knees and short sleeves, wildly immodest by Kushtian standards. Karen took a pale brown suit, its square jacket buttoned to the neck, its skirt straight, skimming her hips. There were veils for each of them too, they found, and gloves as well. They had only just finished dressing when the overseer reappeared pushing past the old woman. He was followed by one of his juniors, the men told the old woman to leave. As soon as she had done so the two men seized Karen and Suzie, pushing them against the wall and wrestling their arms behind them. In spite of their struggles the two were soon locked into manuses, their wrists firmly fixed behind their backs.
Karen felt the overseer pulling at her veil and then something soft and bulky being pushed between her lips. A moaungf, she thought, a leather padded plug gag used as a form of silencer for centuries in Kushtian households. She groaned as a strap was buckled behind her head, forcing the plug deep into her mouth. Suzieís muffled squeals indicated that she was being treated in the same way.
The two women were pushed out of the room still struggling. Karen watched Suzie trying ineffectually to break free as she was dragged off, Suzieís eyes were wide with terror over her veil. In the next room the head of the household, Keshren Kerrich, was standing, watching impassively as the two women were brought in, another bearded Kushtian man standing beside him. Karen recognised him at once. It was Kolani Kustanki, the Kushtian Minister of Culture. Karen had seen his photograph in Lucy Baildonís copy of the programme participantsí guide but she knew him by reputation. Heíd written an official letter to her following the publication of her National Geographic article. At the time heíd protested strongly that she had presented a distorted view of Kushtian culture, although now he seemed keen to reinforce all the features that Karenís reporting had highlighted.
Keshren walked across to the two women and unfastened the cords that held the properta disks around their necks. He tossed the disks onto a table. The other man reached into a jacket and pulled out his wallet. He took out a bundle of notes and counted a small pile onto the table beside him. Keshren Kerrich nodded with approval. Kolani Kustanki took two different disks from his pocket, walked up to the girls and hung one about each of their necks. Suzie tried to duck away from him as he did so. He laughed, slapped her face and completed his task. Keshren picked up the pile of notes and muttered an expression of thanks. "Thank you, Minister," Karen heard him say in Kushtian. The other man nodded in response and gripped Karen and Suzie each by the arm and hustled them towards the door.
Outside a large black limousine was waiting, a chauffeur seated in the driving seat. Karen was pushed into the back of the car on one side, the door slammed shut beside her. Kustanki dragged Suzie around to the other side and climbed into the car, pulling Suzie in behind him so that he sat between the two women. The car pulled away. Karen peering out from the back watched as the house of Keshren Kerrich disappeared behind them. As the car bounced across the potholes at the end of the street, a veiled woman in grey was standing beside the road. Karen was sure it was Alana.
"Weredny, Kovash?" called the chauffeur.
"Dvorech," the Minister called in response. ĎWhere to, Sir? - The palace,í thought Karen. ĎIt looks like weíre moving up in the world.í The man sat back as the car lurched over the rutted roads on the outskirts of Kolin. He reached out to either side sliding his hands up Karenís and Suzieís thighs, pushing Suzieís skirt up so that her legs were exposed almost as far as her waist. The social status of their new household might be higher but, Karen noticed, there was no difference in the behaviour of this householder compared with their last. He seemed content to let his attentions go no further, though, as the car managed to pick up some speed on the tarmac of the airport road and then lurched off again onto dirt tracks.
Their final destination turned out to be a complex of low white painted buildings in the low hills to the north of Kolin. The car drove through an arched gateway and slid to a halt. A short blast on its horn brought two heavily built men out from a small room that was built onto the back of the gateway. The taller of the two flicked the stub end of his cigarette down on the ground and opened the door on Suzieís side. He pulled her from the car and the Minister climbed out after her. The other man opened the door on Karenís side and dragged her out too.
"Weredny, Kovach?" said the man holding Karen.
"Seragla," Kustanki responded. Karen knew the word. ĎHarem,í she thought. It would seem that their new position was no longer as doenyes, household servants. It looked as though more was to be expected of them here. The man nodded. Suzie and Karen were half pushed, half dragged across the courtyard towards a flight of steps that led up to an iron grill door. An unsmiling guard opened it and allowed Karen and Suzie with their escorts into the building. Inside, the dull plainness of the exterior gave way to an opulent luxury. Mosaic tiled walls glistened with gold and deep blue geometric patterns.
They were hurried along corridors leading on through a maze like series of rooms. Iron barred grills gave glimpses of courtyards where fountains played. They turned a corner. Karen caught a glimpse of another woman, dressed in a black harem-girlís costume trimmed with gold stitching. The woman in black, startled by their approach, swept her veil across her face and cast her eyes down as they passed. They turned another corner, right, then left. Another corridor. The same woman -- or another dressed identically -- stepped back into an alcove as they went by.
Eventually the men found where Suzie and Karen were to be held. The taller of the two took a large key from his belt and unlocked a heavy wooden door. Karen felt the manuses removed from her wrists but then she and Suzie were pushed inside the room. The door creaked as it was closed behind them. The sound of the doorís lock being turned served only to emphasise their captivity.††
Karen reached up behind her head and unfastened the strap of her gag. She spat out the solid leather covered plug from beneath her veil as Suzie followed suit. "Oh," she groaned in relief before turning to Suzie. "Are you all right?"
The other girl nodded as she took off her own gag. Both girls discarded their veils. "Gach!" Suzie exclaimed in disgust at the plug of material as she threw it to one side. "Yes, I think so. Where are we? Whatís happened to us?"††
"Iím not sure but Iíll tell you what I think," Karen started. "When they changed the disks over -- the properta -- itís so we are transferred from one household to another."
"But this man gave Kerrich money. He canít have sold us? Surely? I mean the programme doesnít allow that? Does it?"
As far as what Karen knew of the customs of Kushtian society it seemed likely and as she thought back over the Programme Participants Guide that sheíd read as part of her briefing, it seemed that the programme did allow participants to be transferred from one household to another. "I think it does," she said, slowly. "Itís a strong part of Kushtian culture that women can be transferred from one household to another."
"But this isnít like the other household. Where are the other doenyes? The other servants like us?"
"There will be doenyes here but this is not their part of the palace. We have not been brought here as doenyes."
Suzie frowned, puzzled by Karenís remarks. "Then what?"
"The Minister means us to serve as concubines, I am sure. This is a palace harem. The other women we saw were almost certainly concubines."
Suzie looked shocked. She lifted her hands to her mouth. "But thatís not why I came here. Not what I wanted from the Programme."
"I think now we are here we must accept whatever the Programme brings," Karen said.††
"But -- concubines?"
"But you must have known? About Kushtian men and their attitudes? I mean itís all in the Guide. Itís pretty explicit. Isnít it? It explains all that."
"Well, yes, but, somehow I didnít really believe that side of it. Iíve never -- well, never been with a man."
Karen held her head in her hands. "Well, whatever you do donít let them know that!"
The lock clattered again and the door opened. A girl in black -- not the same girl Karen thought - came in carrying bundles of the same silky cloth that her costume was made of. The door crashed shut and locked behind her. She gave it no heed but put down her bundles and unfastened her veil, drawing it back from her face.†
"I have your new clothes," she said. "What we must all wear here. Like this." She stood back with open arms showing off the costume she wore. All in black, with gold embroidery around the edges, it was cut from a silk that clung closely to the curves of her body where it covered them. The halter top left her belly naked and emphasised her cleavage The skirt was long and panelled so that it showed her legs with every movement. The heavy belt intended to be hung about the hips, set with tiny panels on glossy black leather and ornamented along its top and bottom edges with a golden cord stitched to it. The sandals of black leather straps were adorned by tiny golden bells. And of course the veil, a long length of the same silken material that hung from the black pillbox hat perched on the back of the girlís head. "You must change. Now. Please."
Suzie looked at Karen. Karen shrugged and began to unfasten her jacket. She turned to the girl. "You speak good English," she said. "Are you here as part of the Programme?"
The girl shook her head. "No. But we should not speak of this. I am one of his Excellencyís concubines. Here we are all alike; it doesnít matter where we come from. Please change."
Suzie followed Karen in undressing and then the two of them put on their identical harem costumes.
"Please. Your veils, we must put them on to go outside. Always when there are men we must wear the veil here. If there is no man we are free not too but outside -- there are the guards. You understand?"
"No," said Suzie. "No, I donít. Where are we? Why are we here?"
"These are questions," the girl said, enigmatically. "There are often questions. Sometimes there are no answers."
Karen put one hand comfortingly on Suzieís arm. "Come on. Weíll have to see what happens." She picked up one corner of her veil and fastened it to the clasp that hung on a short chain from her hat. The cloth draped down covering the lower half of her face. Suzie and the girl did so too, the three women now looking exactly the same.
The girl stepped forward, about to knock on the door to signify that the three of them were ready to be released. Suzie stopped the girl as she reached the door.
"How does he tell the difference?" she said pointing at their three veiled faces and their three identical costumes. "His Excellency; how does he know which of us ..."
"Why would he want to?"††
Karen was trying to work out just how many programme members there were in the Seragla of Kolani Kustanki. It was hard to be sure. All of the women wore identical costumes. Many of the women seemed to be permanently veiled, preferring anonymity to the risk of being caught without their veil by the unannounced arrival of one of the men. To her best reckoning she had seen about thirty women in the Seragla. Of those maybe five or six were Kushtian. As far as Karen could tell the remainder were all of western origin, almost certainly programme members, although of the women she had spoken to only six had confirmed that was indeed how they came to be in Kushtia.
When she joined a large group of women in the grand hall of the Seragla that evening for the communal meal of steeped fruit, nuts and breads, the place was alive with the buzz of gossip. She sat quietly trying to overhear the exchanges between two of the Kushtian girls but Suzie, slid in beside her to interrupt. "Have you heard?" she said. "The UN Ambassador is here. He came for a meeting in Kolin and Kustanki invited him out here. Perhaps I can speak to him. Ask him to have me repatriated from the programme. Kustanki will have to agree he canít afford to make a fuss, can he?"
Karen wasnít sure. All her senses told her that Kustanki was unlikely to take the slightest notice of anyone else. But when Suzie begged her to help her to see the Ambassador she felt she had to.
Two of the palace guards appeared and announced in guttural tones that the girls were to make themselves ready for a visitor. One of the Kushtians translated their instructions into English. The girls were all to behave as they had been taught. They would wear their veils of course and were certainly not to speak to their visitors unless asked. Moments later a roll on the large gong that stood beside the door to the grand hall announced the arrival of the visitors.
The girls snatched their veils across their faces. Those that were standing dropped to their knees. Those already sitting turned towards the door.
Kolani Kustanki led a group of four others into the grand hall. Beside Kustanki the ambassador, a pale looking man, peered around at the group of women. "You see, Ambassador," Kustanki announced, "these are comfortable surroundings. Of course this is not typical for programme participants. Most are doenyes not concubines and few Seragla are as grand as this. My family is old and this palace has been here many years. We have the benefits of the luxury of years."
The ambassador nodded; looking wherever Kustanki directed his attention. "The girls have freedom to do as they please within the Seragla," Kustanki went on. "They are fed and clothed, their duties are light. They serve to entertain the household. Dance. Music. Traditional activities."
"I see," the ambassador said. "This seems most comfortable. "May I look around?"†
"By all means," Kustanki responded expansively, waving his arms as much as to say that the ambassador should go wherever he liked. As the ambassador began to look at the furnishings and the rich dťcor of the grand hall, Karen attracted Suzieís attention.
"Heíll go to look at the fountain court," Karen whispered. "You slip in there behind the curtains and try to talk to him. Iíll try to stop you from being disturbed." Suzie nodded and slipped off towards the corridor that led to the fountain court. Karen walked across in the other direction towards the main entrance to the court.
The ambassador went through. As Kustanki was about to follow him, Karen stepped forward. "Excellency," she said. "I must apologise for speaking without being asked but I felt I had to speak to you." She ran her hand along the base of her veil, ostensibly straightening it but in the process, drawing it more tightly across her features so that the outline of her lips could be clearly seen beneath the veil. Kustankiís gaze was fixed on her. "I have only just arrived here but I had hoped to be able to spend time with your Excellency. I hope you will find it in you to grant me that privilege at some point...." Karenís flirtatious conversation was cut off by Suzieís cry of "No! No!" from within the Fountain Court.
Kustanki pushed Karen aside with a growl and disappeared into the court. Moments later he and the ambassador emerged smiling and laughing. The group of visitors reassembled and left the grand hall as suddenly as they had come.
Karen watched them go and then rushed back to the Fountain Court. Suzie was sitting on the tiled floor propped against one of the great lion headed spouts that gushed water into the channels that led across the court. She was sobbing. Karen bent down beside her to comfort her. "He wouldnít do anything. He said I had to go through with the programme. That all would be well as long as I made up my mind to learn all I could of the Kushtian heritage. He didnít want to listen at all."
Karen tried to sympathise but her soothing words were cut off by barked orders from behind as four palace guards came into the court. Two of them seized the girls and in moments Suzie and Karen were being forced along the corridors of the Seragla and out into the overseerís wing of the palace.
They were pushed through a heavy wooden door into a large stone walled room. Without speaking the guards locked the girlsí wrists behind their backs with manuses and then fitted each of them with leather plug gags, the maoungf.
In the very centre of the room stood a cage; steel bars stretched from floor to ceiling. Only three feet square it was barely large enough to hold the two girls standing up much less allow them the chance to sit down. Then girls were pushed inside.
They stayed in their cramped prison for an hour or more. Pressed up against one another, hardly able to move, their mouths stuffed with the leather plugs, they could only whimper as guards came and went, walking around their cage, able to observe the girls from every side.
As the girls struggled in their cage two of the guards ushered in three of the other concubines. In the same costumes as the prisoners, the group of three stood in front of the cage and confronted Suzie and Karen.
One of the three stepped forward. "You are new here," she said in Kushtian accented English. "We pass judgement on those among us that place the good of us all at risk. You acted in disobedience. That is not the way of Kushtian women. You caused his Excellency embarrassment. You placed at risk his relationship with the ambassador."
The two prisoners moaned in response to the litany of their "crimes". Their judge went on. "You will stay there in the cage for twenty-four hours. Then you will each receive five strokes from the overseerís wand and spend the next week in ancluses." Karen watched as the guards nodded approvingly. The three women nodded to the prisoners and then to the guards before leaving. Karen and Suzie, wedged in their cage could only watch as they were left alone in their distress.
It was the end of the day. Karen was with a group of the other concubines, finishing off the evening meal served by two of the doenyes. The two servants scooped up the tray with their bowls and the remains of their meal upon it. Karen could see them eyeing the leftovers greedily; she guessed that their own meals were less rich, less generous. The doenyes headed back towards the western wing of the palace where they lived. Karen looked around to see if she could see any sign of Suzie but there wasnít.
Karen put her hands together in silent greeting; bowing to the others to take her leave. It was late, her back was sore from her beating, she headed for the cubicle she shared with Suzie, looking forward to her bed, picking her steps carefully, her ankles still linked by the chains of the shackles she had to wear as punishment for her part in Suzieís attempt to talk with the Ambassador.
As Karen pulled back the curtain of their cubicle, she was confronted by the helpless form of a bound and gagged Suzie. She stepped forward to help her. The curtain slid shut behind her. Karen span around. Standing in front of the curtain, clad from head to foot in black, was Alana.
She held her finger to her lips. "Youíre friend didnít want to keep quiet. Iím sorry."
Karen looked down at the helpless Suzie. Her wrists and ankles locked together in a vicious hog tie,† ropes jerking her elbows together until they almost touched, her own veil knotted into a gag that filled her mouth. "So sorry but so thorough," said Karen coldly. She found it hard not to stare at the way Alanaís tightly fitting cat-suit defined every curve of her body.
"Jealous?" Alana smiled. It wasnít clear if she was asking about how she had treated Suzie or how she looked. Perhaps it was both.
Suzie squealed in discomfort as Karen turned to face Alana impatiently. "What do you want?"
"To hear how you are progressing." She paused for a moment. "And to see you, of course." Alana squared up to Karenís look of cynicism. "How many of the women here are from the programme?"
Karen ignored the question. "How are the others? Anouk? Natsumi and Miyako? Lucy Baildon?" Suzie gave a puzzled grunt at Karen for using the name by which she knew her. "Are they still safe?"
"You know that Kalassa will be true to her word. They are all well. Not free to leave, of course, but well. Now to my question; how many of the programme members are here? Have you discovered this?"
Karen felt a sense of resignation, trapped between the demands of the Seragla on one side and those of Alana and Kalasa Karench on the other. "Please," she said, "just let the others go and Iíll get you everything you need. There are twenty women from the programme here. It will take time to learn their stories."
Alana shook her head, "First the stories, then the others are freed. Be ready next week." She nodded to Suzie as she continued to struggle on the couch. "Iíll look forward to seeing your friend too. I enjoyed our tussle."
Karen looked at Alana with distaste. Alana reached up behind her neck and pulled a mask forward over head to cover her face.
"Goodbye until then decadent yankee," she said, slipping through the curtain, out of the cubicle and into the darkened corridor outside.††††
Karen sat back on the bed. Suzieís renewed grunts and mewling dragged Karenís attention back to the cubicle and she started to untie her roommate. "Are you all right?" she asked as she loosened the cloth that gagged the girl. Suzie gave a groan the scarf gag had been far more painful than the plug gags that were used in the palace and Alana had jerked it ruthlessly tight once she had wrestled Suzieís wrists behind her and bound them.
"Yes, yes, I think so," said Suzie, massaging the raw grooves in her wrists and ankles to return the blood to her limbs. "Who is she? That woman?"†
"One of a group of women that may be able to help us. She says she can. Perhaps she is right."
"You talked about Lucy as if she was someone else."
Karen looked embarrassed. "I know," she said. "She is. I took her identity to try to help that woman. Now I donít know who needs more help. Us, or Lucy, or her."
Suzie looked shocked. She sat on the bed quietly, slowly unfastening her costume as she readied herself for sleep. She turned towards Karen. "I want to help," she said, "if I can."
"Thank you," said Karen. "Thank you. Iím not sure how but thank you. We can talk more in the morning." Karen reached over and blew out the little oil lamp that lit their cubicle. She stripped off her own costume in the dark before pulling a blanket over herself and trying to sleep.
She wasnít sure how much later it was when she heard the noise. The barking of the dogs, the shouts of palace guards from beyond the palace courtyard. It didnít last long. Karen fell asleep once more.
© 2007 Freddie Clegg
All characters fictitious.
Dr Armstrong also features briefly in Freddieís story "Market Forces" available here.
Download PDF copies of other Freddie Clegg stories at :