The bay window high up in the wall of the Seragla looked out across the palace courtyard. Karen sat in the bay on a pile of velvet cushions, busy with her embroidery making the best of the light that came through the iron grilled window to see her stitches of black thread on black cloth.. The concubines had few tasks apart from entertaining the men but the creation and care of their costumes was one of them. On the cushions beside her were her materials, the squares of black silken cloth, the black silk thread, the gold wire and cords.
Each square was to become a new veil. New concubines, Karen assumed. Twenty squares, twenty veils, twenty more slaves.
Karen stitched the lighter gold cord along the top edge of the veil, the heavier along the bottom so that the veil would hang as it should. She took a length of the gold wire stitching it to form the inverted fleur-de-lis that marked the centre of the veil. When the veil was in place the gold embroidery would point downwards from the bridge of the nose directing the eye of the observer down towards the woman’s breasts and belly.
Karen twisted to change her position on the cushions, the chains from her anklets, clinked as she did so. She was wearing her own veil - seated where she was she could be seen from the courtyard and so it was possible she could be seen by one of the men in the palace. To be caught without the veil, she knew, would only invite punishment. Today, though, there were only the comings and goings of the doenyes as they went about their domestic duties.
Karen finished stitching the veil she was working on, folded it neatly and added to the pile of her completed work. She took another square of silk so that she could start on the next. As she did so, there were sounds of commotion from the courtyard. Dogs were barking and men were shouting orders in Kushtian.
A naked woman was being pushed across the courtyard by two of the palace guards. Her arms securely bound with think rope, a sacking cloth tied across her head and shackles on her ankles meant she could offer little resistance although she struggled against her guards as they pushed her along. As the guards and their prisoner passed below her window Karen saw the intertwined K’s tattooed on the woman’s naked thigh and she realised that the captive woman was Alana.
Now Karen knew the cause of the noise the previous night after Alana had left. She watched miserably as the captive woman was pushed towards the door in the courtyard that led to the small palace prison where she herself had been confined the day before. As she did so, she decided to see what she could do to help her lover. And to achieve that she knew she had to get to where Alana was being held.
To get to the cells where Alana was being held captive took longer than she planned. As she was about to make her way there, one of Kustanki’s entourage had insisted she amuse him with a game of tavla. She played backgammon well and she would have found it easy to beat him even if his play hadn’t been hampered. He’d allowed himself to be distracted by her cleavage and he found himself with two of his pieces on the bar as Karen began to bear off. When his hand moved from the dice to her thigh, though, Karen thought that tavla probably wasn’t his main interest. It was only a call from one of the palace guards that Kustanki was looking for him that took him away from Karen and the gaming board.
Once the man left Karen was free to go in search of Alana. As she turned the corner into the cells, carrying a jug of cold herb tea ostensibly to refresh the guards, she saw that Alana had gone. The cage was empty; the door standing ajar. As Karen put down the jug, the chief guard was complaining. “They bring her in. Keep her here they say. Then she has to go, his Excellency wants her, then he doesn’t, then he does. Do they think I have nothing better to do?”
Karen said nothing. She knew he wasn’t interested in her views. She poured some of the tea into a small tin drinking bowl on the guard’s desk. She nodded, gave a curtsey and left. Now she had to get into the palace apartments if she wanted to help Alana. She dreaded what Kustanki might be doing to her but felt she must do what she could to find her and try to help.
Back in the Seragla, Karen had enlisted the help of Suzie. Now, Karen watched as Suzie did as she had promised. At the doorway from the Seragla to the palace staterooms Suzie tried to engage the young guard in conversation. As she knew no Kushtian and the guard no English, the discussion was a little stilted but the guard was soon engrossed, his eyes drawn to Suzie’s own, and of course, her cleavage.
As the guard’s attention was focused on Suzie, Karen slipped past the pair of them and into the corridors of the palace. Walking as though she had every right to be there, she stepped out along the corridors towards the rooms that Kolani Kustanki and his guests occupied. The women from the Seragla were only permitted to be in this part of the palace with the express permission of one of the males. Karen just hoped that no one would ask who she was there to see.
The corridor got wider, the rooms more grandly decorated, the couches and tables that lined the corridor became more and more sumptuous. A guard walking the other way along the corridor looked suspiciously at her. She dropped her eyes to the floor in the approved manner of respect and he passed her by without comment. She passed a room from within which came the sounds of animated love making; the squeals of a concubine and the grunts of her Kushtian lover.
Karen had almost reached the end of the corridor when she came to an enormous double door that stretched the full height of the corridor. From beyond the door he heard the sound of Kushtian voices. A man and a woman in animated conversation.
The voices were those of Kolani Kustanki and a woman. Karen was sure it was Alana.
Karen knelt beside the door, her head bowed, her hands clasped behind her back in the way that she had been taught to wait when summoned to any of the palace rooms. No one would think it odd that a concubine was waiting there like that but it did mean she could hear what was being said in the room. A group of doenyes, carrying cleaning things, passed her by without comment. Karen concentrated trying to hear what was being said in the room.
“And the UN Ambassador?” the woman said.
“He is happy. He does not see beyond their simple ideas about heritage. He has little understanding of the political realities,” Kustanki explained. “He will continue to support the programme with Geneva. It is mainly British and Americans that are participating anyway. Their governments seem to believe that their nationals can make their own minds up about these things. A convenience of the western democracies as far as we are concerned.”
“And Karench? What of her group?” You know they are the greatest threat to you. To us.”
“My friend the Minister for Security and Internal Affairs is most anxious to ensure that any elements that might be involved in revolutionary activities are prevented from causing trouble. I do not think you need worry about them. Your help has been most useful.”
Karen, horrified by the apparent betrayal of Kalassa by Alana, edged closer to the door and peered around the edge at the two people within. Sure enough Alana was deep in discussion with Kolani Kustanki. Kustanki wore his traditional robes but Alana was wearing western dress, a dazzling white linen trouser suit over a pale chocolate coloured blouse. Most scandalous of all was that there was no sign of the veil that Kustanki insisted every other woman wore in his presence.
“And when does the Minister for Security expect to act?” Alana asked
Karen, desperately clinging to the idea that somehow Alana was tricking Kustanki into revealing his plans in some way, listened all the closer.
“I do believe,” Kustanki said looking at his watch, “that things are already in hand. Beside I think you have seen something of the efficiency of my own guards. How was your time in the cells?”
“Irrelevant. It was the simplest way to get to see you,” Alana snapped, irritated by his manner. “As for your colleague, I hope that he is as efficient as you claim,” she said in return. “Failure could make things difficult for me. And of course there is the matter of the programme members that she holds.”
“Do not worry, young lady,” Kustanki said patronisingly. “I have high confidence. The girls of the Seragla are already working on the costumes for those that will join them. I am certain that their efforts will not have been wasted. I would hardly have them spend their time on other things than my own amusement unnecessarily.”
Karen thought of the work she had been doing that very morning on the costumes.
“Well, we shall know shortly,” said Alana. “Now if you’ll excuse me, there is one of your concubines that I need to talk to.”
Outside the door of the room, Karen realised that Alana was almost certainly talking about her. She turned and fled along the corridor as quickly as her long skirt would allow. The guard showed no interest in her as she left the palace apartments and made her way back to the Seragla. He was used to seeing distressed women passing that way.
Suzie was sitting in the great communal hall of the Seragla when Karen returned. She saw Karen’s eyes, reddened by tears, and ran towards her. “Whatever’s the matter?” she urged, hugging Karen.
Karen shook her head. “I’m not sure,” she said. “I think that something terrible is going to happen to Kalasa Karench and that Alana – the woman that came to our cubicle – is behind it.”
As Karen finished speaking, the door to the hall opened and in came Alana, now dressed in the robes of one of the palace doenyes. Seeing Karen she came across to her. “You’re upset, yankee,” she said, seeing Karen’s tears. She turned towards Suzie. “Lover’s tiff?” she asked. Karen said nothing. Suzie kept quiet as well. Alana shrugged. “I need to know what you have found out,” she said.
“Why?” Karen responded, sullenly. “What difference could it make?”
“I thought you wanted to free your friends? I thought you wanted to help us?”
“Yes to the first; who knows about the second?”
“You can’t tell me that you approve of the programme. I thought you wanted to help end it.”
“Is that what you are trying to do Alana?” Karen’s voice was quiet and determined. “Is that why you were talking to Kustanki just now? Just how is betraying Kalasa going to end the programme?”
Alana looked discomforted for only a moment. “What sharp little ears, you have yankee. I do believe you have been listening at doors. Well, no matter, things are moving in any case. I doubt I need your help for now. Don’t judge me too harshly. You’ll see. What I am doing will build a stronger place for women in Kushtia. The first woman in government. The first with her own Seragla. That will mark a change. You will be part of it, Yankee, part of my Seragla, wearing my properta.” She looked across at Suzie who had listened to Alana’s rant with a dumbfounded expression. “And you too, my sweet.”
It was preposterous, Karen thought. The men would never let it happen. How could Alana let herself believe that they would? In one way she didn’t care; any feelings that she had for Alana had been crushed by what she had heard outside the door of Kustanki’s room. But, on the other hand there was still the question of how she could help the others and how she would get herself home. She looked at Alana with a defiant glare. “Do you think that you will make things better for women by becoming a man? By having your own Seragla? Your own properta? And even if you do, do you really think they will let you?”
“Of course,” said Alana, “they could not have done this without me. They would never have suppressed Kalassa and her group. She would have carried on her irrelevant campaign. Women would have been diverted from their real goal. You can’t break the system; you have to make the system work for you. They know that I can solve the problem. There are not many like me. It is easier for the men to let the few like me have their wish. They can seem generous. Other women will see what has been done; they will be content. There is little to threaten the established order. No danger of insurrection or rebellion.”
“Is that what you call betrayal; ’making the system work for you’?” Karen’s distaste for Alana’s behaviour was clear on her face.
“Be careful yankee, you are earning some time in a moaungf. You’ll find my Seragla less comfortable than this if you defy me.”
Karen turned her back on Alana, took Suzie by the arm and walked away. Behind her, she heard the slam of the outer door of the hall as Alana left. Suzie spoke at last. “Can she do it?” she asked.
Karen shook her head. “It’s impossible,” she said, “Kustanki wouldn’t let it happen and even if he did he’d soon find himself thrown off the governing council. They won’t see it as Alana does. To them it’s not ‘let in a few women, they won’t cause much trouble’; to them it’s overturning their entire history. That’s why they constructed the whole cultural heritage programme. I can’t imagine that they are going to turn that upside down for anything. Certainly not because of Kalassa’s activities. They are just pinpricks to the likes of Kustanki. He knows he could ride out any criticism with the backing of the UN and the claim that it’s part of the ‘rich cultural heritage of Kushtia’. But if they start changing things maybe other people will want to see changes. No, they’ll be planning to hold the line. Alana won’t get her way.”
Suzie and Karen did not have to wait long to discover whether Karen was right. That evening, when the palace overseer came to select the concubines to entertain that evening, Suzie and Karen were taken out from the Seragla to Kustanki’s quarters.
Kustanki was dining with Alana in one of the large salons, Kustanki in traditional Kushtian elders robes, Alana in her western trouser suit. The two of them were sprawled on cushions beside a low table. A procession of doenyes were bringing food on platters to place on the table in front of them. Kustanki beckoned to Suzie and Karen to sit with him; Karen to kneel at one side holding a tray with a wine jug and goblet, Suzie to the other holding a bowl into which Kustanki tossed the chicken bones, fruit skins and stones as he finished with each morsel. Alana was managing to eat her meal without assistance.
“I hope you won’t mind our evening being interrupted,” Kustanki announced.
Alana looked at him with a mistrustful expression. “Why?” she asked.
“I thought you might like to see my new concubines,” he said. A moment later one of the palace guard appeared. Kustanki waved for him to approach and the guard whispered something to Kustanki before he nodded and the guard dashed out. Moments later the guard reappeared with two Kushtian soldiers. Behind them, being dragged by a rope that linked them together by the necks, were five of Kalasa’s militia.
They looked in a sorry state. All five wore the same white tee shirts and combat fatigues that Alana had been wearing when Karen first encountered. Now they all showed signs of fighting. All looked bruised and bloodied; all five had rips torn in their clothing; all were bound helplessly; all five were gagged; all five were glowering at Alana. Kustanki smiled. “Welcome, ladies,” he said. “I hope you haven’t come alone.”
The soldiers herded the five militia across to one side of the room and another soldier appeared. This one had Kalassa Karench with him. Her neck and wrists were locked in a heavy wooden yoke. Her mouth filled with a maoungf of a size intended to cause extreme discomfort in addition to its muffling qualities. The soldier pulled her forward by jerking a chain that was linked to the lock of one side of the yoke. Kalassa looked defiant but Karen could see that her contempt for her captors was unlikely to improve her position.
“Hello, Kalassani,” Kustanki greeted his captive.
Kalassani”, Karen thought, “the bastard!” The Kushtians added “ni” to names when they were talking to children. It was probably the most insulting thing Kustanki could have said to Kalassa. She scowled at Kustanki in response.
“I’m pleased you do not appear to have been hurt. I know that our military can sometimes be a little heavy handed. I’m told by my friend the Interior Minister that you will have to be brought to trial. I had hoped that you would be able to join my Seragla but, I suppose I cannot stand in the way of due process of law. We must, after all, rid our society of those elements that seek to overturn our traditions and our heritage.”
Karen looked at Alana, She was smiling triumphantly. Karen couldn’t understand why Alana didn’t see what Kustanki’s words implied for her plans too. Kalassa growled through her gag.
“Your militia will face charges too, of course. But I know that you will be pleased that others will not suffer. Your associate here,” Kustanki gestured at Alana, “has behaved in a public spirited manner, bringing the attention of the authorities to your activities. She will form part of the evidence at your trial.” Karen thought the use of the word evidence was odd, why not witness. Then she remembered that of course women had no standing in Kushtian courts. They could not speak or be cross examined. Only a written deposition could be admitted. Not, Karen thought, that it would make much difference to the outcome of the case that Kalassa would face. Kalassa tried to lunge forward at Alana. Her guard jerked her to a halt with the chain from her yoke. “No, Kalassani, no,” said Kustanki. He turned to the palace guard. “Where are the others?” he asked. The guard disappeared. In a few moments her returned ushering in a large group of young women all wearing manuses around their wrists and ancluses at their ankles.
Karen saw Anouk, Natsumi and Miyako at once. They failed to recognise her behind her veil. There were six others; the five already “liberated” by Kalassa’s group from the programme and Lucy Baildon. Karen saw her, standing at the back of the group her mousey hair long and loose, her eyes filled with fear and confusion.
“Now, these young ladies, will not need to come before the court. Foreign nationals, innocent of your corrupting influences, Kalassa. They will rejoin the programme. They should not be prevented from what they came to do. They will have the privilege of joining my Seragla, wearing my properta.” The girls looked dismayed. If they had thought that they were being rescued or repatriated they now knew this was not to be. Karench turned to the troops. “You can take Kalassa and what’s left of her militia. If you feel the need to amuse yourselves, I am sure the Minister for Internal Security will not mind, providing they are fit to stand trial.” The guard grinned as he jerked Kalassa’s chain to drag her out.
Kustanki walked across to the six abducted programme members, taking stock of his new acquisitions. Karen watched him assessing each in turn, fondling their breasts, feeling their buttocks and thighs, ignoring their protests and struggles as worked his way around the group. He beckoned to one of the palace guards. “The Seragla,” he said. “Have them join the others but keep them chained for now.” He returned to his couch and watched as the guards took the dismayed and distressed women away.
Kustanki looked satisfied. Alana did too. “So you have what you wanted,” she said.
Kustanki nodded. “I’m pleased,” he said. “In the end they were little trouble but your help was useful.” He reached out to either side placing one hand on Suzi’s thigh, the other on Karen’s neck. “And now you want to play with these two. Take them. I have other things to do tonight. I assume you’d like them shackled.” Alana looked lustfully at Karen and nodded. Kustanki gestured to Karen and Suzie to turn around, cuffing Karen around the head when she was slow to obey. He secured their wrists in manuses before tossing the keys to Alana. Kustanki got to his feet. “Enjoy them,” he said as he left.
Alana slipped onto the couch that Kustanki had occupied, sprawling between the helpless Karen and Suzie. She turned towards Karen unfastening her top by slipping the catch between her breasts. Karen struggled to avoid Alana’s attentions earning a slap across the face for her troubles. “Keep still,” Alana snapped, “you’ll serve me the same way you’d have served Kustanki. You’ll wear my properta. I’ll keep you veiled. And to make sure you know your place,” Alana reached down behind the couch and brought up an intimidating dildo with its strap on harness. “I’ll make sure you get fucked regularly. She laughed at Karen’s response and turned towards Suzie. “But don’t you worry. I’ll save some for you, too.” Alana got to her feet, stripped off her trousers and tossed them across the end of one of the other couches. Looking down in amusement at Suzie and Karen’s distress, she strapped the dildo harness on. She turned to Suzie. “Kustanki tells me you’ve learned about sucking cock,” she said. “Let’s see.” Alana gripped Suzie by the hair and pulled her veil to one side. She pushed the dildo toward Suzie’s mouth. “Take it,” she said, pulling at Suzie’s hair until she yelped and opened her mouth. Alana pushed her hips forward, forcing the dildo into Suzie’s mouth as she moaned and choked on the rubber.
Alana twisted herself around, reaching out with her free hand for the cord of Karen’s properta. Twisting her hand she tightened the cord around Karen’s neck until she felt it might strangle her. She pulled Karen towards her. “I’d really like you to suck on my tits, Yankee,” she said. “Would you like that?” Karen shook her head but Alana ignored her and laughed. She dealt Suzie a cuff around the head to remind her to keep sucking and then reached up to unbutton her blouse, pushing one cup of her bra from her breast and then pulling Karen’s face up to press against her. “Suck it, Yankee, suck it,” she whispered into Karen’s ear.
Karen coughed, the cord cutting into her neck. Suzie groaned as she tried to cope with the press of the dildo against the back of her throat. Alana pushed Suzie away and climbed up onto the couch to kneel astride Karen’s belly. “Guess what’s next, Yankee,” she laughed, pulling on the dildo.
“No, no,” protested Karen, knowing that it would make no difference. Alana cut off her cries by clamping her hand down across Karen’s mouth, pushing the cloth of her veil down across her face and making it hard for her to breathe. Karen’s struggles only served to arouse Alana further. The Kushtian bent her head to bite at Karen’s nipples and then reached down to push the dildo home into Karen’s cunt. Alana’s laughter was punctuated by Karen’s moans and whimpers.
Suddenly Karen felt a sudden blow as Alana fell to one side across her. Suzie, although her hands were cuffed behind her, had charged at Alana, catching her off balance and knocking her away from her friend. Karen sat up ready for the beating that Alana was certain to hand out but then looked down at the woman who had been raping her to see her laying unconscious as a result of hitting her head on the leg of the couch as she fell.
Karen realised that they had a chance to escape. She got down from the couch and fumbled in Alana’s jacket for the keys to the manuses. Alana was starting to recover as she managed to free herself and then Suzie. “Quick,” she urged. “Handcuff her.” Suzie rolled the slowly recovering Alana on to her face and snatched her hands behind her, snapping the cuffs of her manuses around her wrists. Karen used her manuses to fasten Alana’s ankles together so that the chain went around the one between her wrists. She pulled off her veil knotting it to make a gag for her assailant. By the time Alana was fully conscious she was also completely helpless; hog tied and growling through her gag.
Suzie said, “Now what?”
Karen looked down at Alana and then at Suzie. “I really don’t know,” she responded.
“Come on,” said Suzie, “we can get away. Kustanki and his men will be worrying about the others. We have to get out and find some way to get help for the others.”
Karen sat on the edge of the couch, the helpless Alana struggling at her feet. She looked at Suzie and then down at the costume she was wearing. “We won’t get far like this,” she said, holding out the loose panels of her divided skirt and then clutching her torn top about herself. “And I can’t see who is going to help us. None of the Kushtians, that’s for sure.”
“Well the British embassy then, or the American embassy.” Suzie took Karen by the hand. “Let’s go. We can work it out as we go. Let’s get out of the palace and worry about anything else after that.”
Realising that Suzie was right, Karen nodded. She took strength from Suzie’s determination and got to her feet. “OK,” she said, “you’re right. We have to try.” Karen bent down and checked that Alana’s gag was secure. Alana responded with a muffled grunt of complaint.
Karen peered around the door of the room and out into the corridor. It was deserted as Suzie had said it would be. They edged along the corridor and as they came to a window that looked down into the courtyard they saw why. The soldiers, the palace guards, the overseer and his men were all gathered there. Even Kustanki was there with two of his wives and three of his concubines. A large bonfire had been built at one end of the courtyard. A small group of doenyes were busily roasting meat over a pit of hot coals.
In the middle of the courtyard was the focus of the men’s attention. Kalassa Karench had been led out and locked into a pillory. Karen could see clearly from the window that her robe had been torn open at the back from hem to collar leaving her back naked. From the raw wheals across her back it was clear that she had already suffered a beating. In front of her two of her militia had been staked out in a way that was obviously intended to amuse the soldiers and humiliate their captives. One was laying on her back, her legs spread wide, her ankles fixed to pegs in the ground. The other had been tied so that she was kneeling with her naked buttocks in the air and her face pressed against the first girl’s crotch.
Karen watched in disgust as the men took turns either at beating Kalassa or at forcing the kneeling girl to lick and kiss at the other’s sex. It wouldn’t be long, she knew before the two girls were being raped in front of Kalassa, even if she herself escaped that ordeal. Suzie pulled her away form the window. “Come on,” she said, “they’ll all be watching that. There’s nothing we can do about it but we can get away and get help.”
With the attentions of the guards distracted by what was going on in the courtyard, Karen and Suzie found it easy to make their way through the palace. As they did so a plan came together in Karen’s mind. As they passed the overseer’s rooms she saw a pile of clothes left out to be collected for laundry by the doenyes. Rummaging in it she found a pair of breeches, a tunic and a heavy long jacket. A further search brought out a head scarf and soon she had improvised the look of a young Kushtian man, just as she had when she had started her work in Kushtia so many days before. Suzie was astonished at the success of the transformation. “Can you do the same for me?” she said.
Karen shook her head. “No, that wouldn’t be safe. It’s better for you to remain a woman. I can speak some Kushtian, you can’t but as a woman it won’t seem strange if you stay silent. What we do need though is something that makes you look more like a provincial wife and less like the concubine of a high official.” She found another tunic in the pile. Long and grey, it could be worn by either sex without remark. “Here, get rid of that skirt and put this on,” Karen urged. And find something that will do as a headscarf and veil. That one is far too grand.”
By the time the two of them found their way to a small gateway at the back of the palace building, the couple that emerged could pass as a Kushtian man and his wife. From the battered road signs nearby Karen managed to work out where they were. It would be an eight hour walk to the outskirts of Kolin, the capital of Kushtia, and then another four into the centre to where the Embassies were. First, though, she thought, they had to get clear of the palace area. There was no knowing how long it would be until Alana was discovered and they were missed.
The two of them kept walking towards Kolin, moving clear of the road whenever they saw the lights of a car. They kept walking until the first glow of dawn began to tint the horizon pink and Karen led the way off the road and into a small patch of scrubby bush. Threading their way through the thorny branches the two girls made their way into the centre of the clump and settled down to wait out the day. The two of them spent a frightening day; trying to catch some sleep; sharing the last drips of water from the flask that Karen had stolen from the palace; taking it in turns to keep a look out; terrified even to speak because of women working in the field alongside the copse they were hiding in. Karen thought they had another four hour’s walk in the countryside before they would have a chance to lose themselves in the maze of alleyways in the suburbs of Kolin.
As dusk fell they started to move again. They skirted a small ramshackle building where a bunch of men were sitting arguing, drinking tea and playing tavla. Beside the building two mules were tethered, saddle bags slung across their backs. Karen, desperate to find some food slipped up to the mules to search the bags. Finding two small loaves and a water flask, she slipped them into her own bag. Then she found something that was likely to be even more valuable. Clutching her prize she scuttled back to where Suzie was waiting. “Come on,“ she said. “Let’s keep going this is really good.”
Suzie looked at the stale bread that Karen had given her. “You could have fooled me,” she said., trying to chew on it with little success.
“Not that,” said Karen waving a bundle of papers, “this.” Suzie looked puzzled. “Identity papers. These will let me pass wherever I want in the city even if there are police checkpoints. You are OK because as a wife travelling with her husband you don’t need separate identity papers. They don’t carry a photo but just by carrying them we should be OK as long as no one guesses we are foreigners.”
Karen and Suzie trudged on towards Kolin.
Eventually they managed to find their way to the edge of the city centre. Karen sat with Suzie on a low hill looking out over the dried up bed of the river that ran through Kolin. The river banks were perhaps 50 metres apart but most of the river bed was filled with scrubby plants, dusty soil and the rusting remains of rubbish hurled over the river banks. Not far from where they were a bridge stretched from one side to the other. Of its entire length perhaps as little as twenty feet was over water, not much but enough to mean that they had to cross it to enter the city.
Karen looked around to see that they would to be over heard. Over and over again she had drilled Suzie not to speak, to prevent her from giving them away. No one was around apart from themselves. Karen pointed to some buildings on the far side of the bridge. “Over there, to the left, that’s the presidential palace. The parliament building is behind it and the government’s main office blocks beyond that. Over on the right are the embassies. That big building is the Russians then there’s the US. The French and the Brits are just beyond that.”
Suzie looked around just as Karen had and responded in a lowered voice. “So what do we do?”
“Make for the US embassy,” she said. “If we can get in there, neither the Kushtian military nor the police will dare to come after us.”
As they approached the bridge, jostling along with the others headed towards the city, Karen saw that a police car was parked half way across the road blocking it. They joined the queue for the checkpoint. Karen fumbled in her bag for the papers that she had stolen and gave Suzie an encouraging smile. “We’ll be OK,” she whispered. “Just remember, keep quiet. You’re a wife. You’re not expected to speak.” The two of them headed onto the bridge. As they approached the police car an officer held up his hand indicating for them to stop.
“Papisnic!” the policeman snapped in Kushtian.
Karen pulled out the papers and passed them over. The policeman peered at them and then at Suzie. “Mi femnya,” Karen said. “My wife.” The policeman snorted scornfully. Only one wife he was obviously thinking. Suzie kept silent as Karen had advised.
“Wirnit twa dissident serach. Ena americansye en ena anglicisye. Varony sich?”
Karen listened carefully to the policeman, his Kushtian dialect was from the south, easy to tell from the way he lengthened his vowels. “eeenaaa aaameeerikaaansye” he pronounced it. The message though was clear. They were looking for two dissidents, one American, one English. Had they seen them? Karen shook her head. “Nee Americansye. Nee Anglicisye,” she said. The policemen seemed satisfied. He took one more look at Suzie and then passed Karen’s papers back to her. “Thaknarish,” Karen responded in thanks as the policeman stood back to let them pass.
It was only as they went to pass the police car that the policeman called to Karen, “Good luck!”
“Thanks a lot,” she answered, without thinking.
A second later Karen heard the sound of a rifle bolt being slid back from behind her. “Please stand still, and put your hands up,” the policeman called in the same perfect English with which he had wished her good luck. “You are both under arrest.”
Karen, feeling more stupid than she had ever done before in her life, and Suzie, furious at her friend’s carelessness, had no choice but to obey.
Karen and Suzie found themselves cuffed and pushed into the back of the police car. The police officer kicked the door closed as the they shuffled together on the back seat.
“I’m so sorry,” said Karen. “And after everything I’d said too.”
Suzie sat silently, unwilling to forgive Karen’s stupidity.
Outside the car the policeman was talking into his radio microphone. Karen followed the discussion from his side, translating the southern Kushtian dialect for Suzie. “He’s asking what they want done with us. Whether he’s going to take us into the central police station or not. There’s some debate. His dispatcher is getting an officer to talk to. He’s saying hurry up, he doesn’t’ want to stand around here all morning.”
“Great,” said Suzie, ironically, “I didn’t want to sit around here all morning, either.” Karen felt too embarrassed to respond
Eventually the officer climbed back into the car. “Fine, we got that sorted,” he said, turning around in his seat to face the girls.
“You’re letting us go?” Suzie said hopefully.
The policeman laughed. “Sorry lady, no. But I don’t have to take you in. Seems like you’re not dissidents, just runaways. The good news is you wear the properta of Kolani Kustanki and like a responsible citizen he is ready to take you back. I get to play taxi driver. So just sit quiet and we’ll take a drive.”
He picked a cigarette from the pack sitting on the car’s dashboard, lit it and flicked the match out of the car’s open window. The car’s engine coughed into life and the policeman swung it around to head back out of town. Even with the state of the roads and tracks as they got further from the city, it only took them an hour to drive the distance that Karen and Suzie had spent the last two days covering on foot.
When they got to Kustanki’s palace, it was the overseer that emerged to take them inside, putting ankle shackles on the girls before the police officer took off their handcuffs. “Venesh grach, hunes,” the overseer smirked.
“Welcome back, bitches,” thought Karen, guessing that their escape had caused the overseer more problems than he would have wanted. He dragged the two girls into the palace and away to the cage that she and Suzie had occupied before. “Please,” Karen begged the overseer, “please let my friend go. I forced her to come with me. This wasn’t anything to do with her.”
The overseer pushed them into the cage and locked the door behind them. He shook his head, “Stay here until his Excellency can hear you. And keep quiet or we use these.” He waved a moaungf at her. Neither Karen nor Suzie wanted to have their mouths plugged with the leather gag again. They fell silent until the overseer left them.
In the cramped cage, pressed together, the girls waited.
“You don’t need to take all the blame,” Suzie said, speaking for the first time since they’d been re-captured. “It was a stupid mistake but we wouldn’t have even got that far if it hadn’t been for you.”
“But we were so close; and after I’d nagged you so about keeping quiet. Oh, Suzie, I’m just so sorry!” Karen hung her head against Suzie’s shoulder.
“It’s OK,” Suzie said. “We have to look after each other whatever happens.”
Two hours later the overseer returned to unlock their cage. “His Excellency wants to decide on what to do about you,” he said. “There is a hearnich.”
Karen turned to Suzie. “It’s like a court hearing. It’s how a household handles problems or disputes that are more serious than can be dealt with by the usual summary discipline handed out by the overseer.”
“You wear these,” the overseer passed the girls veils and headscarves and watched as they put them on. “… and these.” He produced a pair of manacles for each of the girls, using them to fasten their wrists behind their backs. With Suzie and Karen veiled and helpless, he took out a large knife. As the two girls reacted in fear he reached forward and ripped and cut at their clothes until they were both naked except for their headscarves and veils. “Now you are ready for hearnich,” the overseer said, grabbing each of the girls by one arm and dragging them from the room. “Best to show respect for his Excellency. He was not pleased when you went.”
Kolani Kustanki was seated behind a large desk. One of his concubines was curled up on the desk, feeding him pieces of locum as the overseer dragged Karen and Suzie into the room. A doenya stood by the desk holding a jug of tea. Kustanki’s scowling expression gave Karen little comfort about the likely outcome of the hearnich. He waved the concubine away and she climbed down from the desk, bowed to Kustanki and scurried out of the room. The doenya put down the tea jug and followed.
Karen stood trying not to convey the embarrassment and fear that she felt as she stood alongside Suzie, her face covered but the rest of her naked. Kustanki looked down at some papers on his desk and then up at the two girls. “This is very unfortunate,” he said. “For two concubines to attack the intended wife of the head of the household. This is a serious offence. If proven this requires serious punishment.” Karen was puzzled wondering what Kustanki meant. Their only action had been against Alana. “So, we must hear our witness.” The overseer nodded and left the room, returning moments later with a women that Karen recognised as Alana in spite of the long white veil she was wearing. Alana was staring at Karen and Suzie with angry eyes. “Wife to be,” Kustanki said, addressing Alana, “are these the women that attacked you?”
Alana made a growling response to the question. Karen realised that behind her veil, Alana had been gagged and could not answer.
“Speak up,” ordered Kustanki. “You have made serious accusations. Now you must give witness to them in front of those you accuse.” Alana growled all the louder but without providing Kustanki with anything he could interpret as an answer to his question. Kustanki waved to the overseer to take her away again. Moments later the overseer returned.
Kustanki turned back to the girls. “It seems that those accusations against you are without foundation,” he said with a smirk. “That you absconded, however, is without dispute. It is my judgement that you will wear the chains, manuses about your wrists, ancluses for your ankles, until it is judged you have come to accept your position here.” He didn’t wait for any response form the girls but looked at the overseer. “Put them back in the Seragla,“ he ordered. “I’m sure our guest would like to meet them.”
Suzie and Karen had no opportunity to say anything before the overseer gripped them each by one arm and pulled them from the room. “You start earning your keep again,” he said as he manhandled them down the corridor. “And show me you’re happy here if you want to lose those chains.”
They were soon back in the Seragla. From one of the side rooms off of the concubine’s hall the grunting sounds of sexual congress could be heard clearly. The overseer pushed the two girls through the curtained doorway. “Two more for you, Sir,” he said letting go the girls and leaving them without waiting for a reply.
Across the room, Karen was confronted with the site of pale skinned buttocks pumping up and down as their owner pressed himself on the girl on the bed. The black cloth of a concubine’s panelled skirt spread across the colourful quilt of the bed on either side. To one side of the bed another concubine knelt, veiled head bowed submissively, holding a tray containing a range of sexual toys. The man on the bed stopped, pulled himself clear of the woman beneath him, and turned around to face Karen and Suzie.
Karen recognised the pale, aesthetic, features of the United Nations Ambassador responsible for the cultural heritage programme. “Ah the absconders,” he said. “You really need to see the programme through. I’m just glad to have the chance to contribute to all these girls’ learning. He leant forward to grip the woman by the hair and drag her head up to his crotch. “Clean me up, girl,” he ordered, pulling her veil to one side and pushing his cock into her mouth. The girl whimpered but did as he ordered. As she licked and sucked at his cock, he turned towards Karen and Suzie. “I hear you two have just joined the programme. I must say I am enjoying my involvement with it. I hope you two will as well.”
Karen and Suzie looked sceptical. “I thought the idea was to learn about Kushtian culture, not the corrupt nature of the United Nations,” Karen responded defiantly.
“Huh, American,” Johansson responded , “what do you understand of culture?” Her waved Karen to stand by the wall, disengaged himself from the girl that had been sucking him. “Our English friend, though, is another matter.” Johansson reached out to run his fingers through Suzie’s hair. “I wonder how experienced she is?” His hand fell from her hair to her breasts, fondling them through the thin fabric of her concubine’s costume. “Let’s see.”
Johansson gripped Suzie by the arm and wrenched her around throwing her down onto the bed. Karen looked on in horror, desperate that her friend should not be faced with losing her virginity in this violent manner. She ran up to Johansson and tried to pull him away from Suzie. “No!” she yelled. “You’ve not right! She didn’t come here to be raped by you!”
Johansson rounded on Karen as she pulled at his jacket. “Perhaps you did,” he snarled, swing a blow that landed on the side of her head, half stunning her and knocking her down to the floor. “Interfering bitch!” The Ambassador aimed a kick at Karen and though she tried to dodge it his boot slammed into her side. The sharp pain of the kick left Karen in fear that she’d broken a rib. Johansson grabbed her with a strength surprising for his light frame. A backhanded slap to the face stunned her again as she looked up she saw in his grinning face the delight in the distress he was causing. “You first then,” he laughed as Karen coughed back into consciousness. He pushed her back onto the bed, laying with his full weight on top of her, she struggling beneath him. He reached down tearing at her skirt and pants. Karen kept on struggling. Suzie was whimpering tearfully, begging Johansson to stop. The Ambassador was erect once more, his arousal intensified by his victim’s struggles and the cries of Suzie and the others. He thrust his cock into Karen, grinding his crotch against hers.
Karen tied to swing her fists against his side. He responded by gripping her wrists and holding them above her head. “Shut up bitch,” he snarled, grabbing her veil and jamming it into her mouth. Karen choked as the cloth pressed into her throat, barely able to breath and struggling for air and against Johansson’s rape. Johansson let go her wrists and tore at the top of her costume, baring her breasts. Laughing as she struggled the more, he bit and pummelled at her breasts. Then, as she tried to turn underneath his weight, he reached up to push the veil further into her mouth and then dragged the loose end of the cloth around her throat. Karen was choking. Suzie terrified that her friend was about to be strangled did the only thing she could think of. She screamed. The piercing shriek cut through the palace. Sounds of distress were not uncommon in the palace but Suzie’s terrified screech carried with it an urgency that told the overseer that something serious was amiss. He appeared at the door.
The Ambassador released his hold on the cloth around Karen’s throat.
“Is everything all right, Sir,” the overseer asked.
Johansson looked around at him. He climbed off the bed. “Of course. There’s no problem,“ he said. “I was just finishing.” With that he gripped the loose end of Karen’s veil and jerked himself off into it. “These girls have been quite amusing.”
“I’m sure his Excellency will be pleased that you have enjoyed yourself,” the overseer said in a tone that made the girls feel that he certainly did not approve of Johansson’s behaviour and that Kustanki would not either.
The overseer had brought Karen back from the room where she had been abandoned by the Ambassador. He led her to the couch in the cubicle where she had slept the night before.
As Karen looked at him she felt she saw sympathy and concern in his grizzled face. “He does not understand,” he said. “For a woman to give herself is an offering. When the man takes her offering he should recognise what she does for him. That man is only take. He thinks he understands the Kushtian way but all he wants is his own way. He sees women as toys. That is not the Kushtian way. His Excellency will see that does not occur again.”
Karen thought she understood what he meant. Of course Kushtian men saw women’s role as subservient but there was still the sense that they valued the woman. She might be seen as an object but she was a precious one and she was treated that way. It might be that in order to bring her to perfection in her role she would need training or punishment but it was the quest for her perfection that required it. Of course there were abusive Kushtian men but the ways in which the extended Kushtian household had grown up was as a result of an ideal of womanhood with wives, concubines and doenyes each taking their proper place. It might not be a view of society that Karen approved of but it wasn’t about the sort of mindless violence and lust that she had seen from the Ambassador. It wasn't even about the sort of casual sexism that she saw so often from her own colleagues back home. Here women might be subjects but they were respected for what they were. Even so, Karen knew there would be little point in creating a confrontation between Kustanki and the Ambassador.
“It doesn’t matter,” said Karen, clutching the tatters of her costume to herself. “Please don’t say anything. It is hard for me to learn Kushtian ways even when, as a women, it is expected that I need to learn. It is much harder for him. As a man he is expected to understand. An outsider cannot see the light within the Kushtian way.”
“He has still to learn. Like a young man with his first woman.”
“No, it is harder for him than that. A young Kushtian man has seen how his father treats his women. When he comes of age, of course he has his youthful lusts and energy but they are tempered by the lessons learned from his father and from how he has been encouraged to treat his sisters. A Kushtian man grows up a Kushtian. For others it is easy to take a wrong path.”
The overseer looked at Karen in surprise. “You understand this well for a western woman,” he said. “And you speak with a generosity of spirit.”
Karen was flattered by his recognition of the fact. Somehow she felt his approval more important than anything she had found back in the university. She smiled at the overseer and then seeing his look of shock, bowed her head modestly and reached up to refasten her torn veil. As she did so her fingers felt the damp slime of Johansson’s cum and her nose was filled with its powerful smell. She stopped herself reacting and looked down apologetically. “I’m sorry, Sir,” she said. “That was inappropriate.” The reaction was instinctive and, Karen was surprised to admit, felt completely appropriate.
“No matter,” the overseer said with a kindly tone. “Now, you must rest. Recover from your ordeal.”
Karen nodded. She stretched out on the couch as the overseer drew a rug over her.
“I must chain you here.” The overseer seemed almost apologetic.
“Of course,” said Karen. “I understand. Please do so.”
The overseer took a stiff leather collar that carried Kustanki’s properta emblem and fastened it around Karen’s neck. She held her hair up to allow him to fit it. He nodded his thanks as she let her hair fall loose again. The overseer fastened a length of chain from a ring in the wall to the lock of Karen’s collar. “There,” he said. “Now rest.”
As the lock had closed on her collar she suddenly felt curiously reassured; as though the chain would hold her to a place of safety; as though her shackles were as much shields as restraints. In these few minutes she had come to understand more of Kushtian society than she had ever thought possible but not only had she understood more she found herself accepting it, embracing its mores, its views of the world its strictures and the benefits that came from them. She was as surprised by what she next said as the overseer was. “Please,” Karen said, “a moaungf.”
“You are sure?” he said, puzzled by her request. Karen nodded and he picked one of the leather plug gags from a side table. “You wish for this?”
Karen nodded again and took the gag from his hands. Easing the plug between her lips until it filled her mouth she fastened the strap firmly but not tightly behind her head. She nodded in thanks to the overseer. Seeing his answering nod of approval she lay down; stretching out in her shackles; feeling the comforting fill of the leather plug in her mouth.
As she stretched out on the couch each movement of her limbs was touched by her restraints. Even when she was able to move as she wished the weight of the chains and the pull on her manuses and ancluses reminded her every time that she was not free to do as she pleased. In a strange way she welcomed it. Without freedom to act she could only accept her surroundings, submit to her fate.
A deep calm came over her as she felt herself fall into the embrace of her restraints. She gazed out across the concubine’s hall seeing it now not just as a place of repression but one of a curious form of liberation. One in which, freed of the need for independent thought and action, she could abandon herself to fulfilment through servitude.
In the centre of the hall, Miyako and Natsumi were learning an erotic dance from one of the other girls, giggling as their feet failed to find the right spot, tripping over each other in their efforts to mimic the movements of their tutor, laughing as they realised their efforts were only making slow progress. Somehow they seemed to have transformed themselves from the frightened pair that had shared terror with her after they had been bought at the animal market with Karen and Anouk. Now they were alive and happy. Yes, thought Karen, happy. Who would have thought that?
To one side, Lucy Baildon, had been bound tightly to a pillar as punishment for some infraction or other. She was helplessly secured with her wrists behind the post, her ankles bound together and to the pillar, ropes around her waist and across her chest. She was naked apart from her veil and the gag she wore beneath it. Even so, helpless and uncomfortable as she was she seemed to be accepting her punishment with calmness. Some of the other girls from time to time would go across to her and, under the supervision of one of the overseer’s men, would unfasten her gag and allow her to drink. Although her veil covered all of the lower half of her face, Karen could quite clearly see the sparkle in her eyes that betrayed an ecstasy that might have been the subject of some renaissance martyrdom painting. If she had come to lose herself in the programme she seemed to have done so.
Karen shifted her position on the cushions of her couch, letting the rug fall from her, exposing her bruised body and torn costume. She reached up to the maoungf that filled her mouth pressing her hands against it, forcing it further into her mouth, luxuriating in the mouth filling sensation, ignoring the dribble of saliva that ran from the corner of her mouth, out from under the maoungf’s strap. As she gave a quiet moan of pleasure, Suzie appeared at the curtained doorway. “Are you all right?” she asked. “The Ambassador was so brutal and now….”
Karen nodded to show she was content, gave an “Mmmm” through her gag and gestured for Suzie to join her.
She sat down alongside Karen, looking in concern at the cut on the side of Karen’s forehead and the developing bruises on her arms, thighs and side. “Shall I take that off?” she asked pointing to Karen’s gag, but her friend simply shook her head. “I have to thank you,” Suzie said, “for saving me from the Ambassador.”
Karen gave a “don’t mention it” grunt. Suzie reached forward and tried to pull the top of Karen’s costume together for her but it was too badly torn. Seeing that it was ruined beyond repair, Suzie helped her to take off the ripped clothes and then stripped off her own top, pressing Karen to take it from her. Karen accepted gratefully. Suzie did the same with Karen’s torn skirt and veil, taking Karen’s tatters for her own. Karen knew that the only way that Suzie would be able to replace the ruined costume was by persuading one of the overseer’s men to provide her with new and she knew what that persuasion could mean. But perhaps that was it. Perhaps that was the point of it all; caring for each other and taking what pleasure they could. Maybe that was more important than anything in the world that they had left? The longer she stayed here, the less desire she had to return.
When Suzie returned, to Karen’s surprise, she was smiling. She climbed on to the couch alongside her friend and hugged her. “I’ve just met the sweetest man. The overseer’s steward. I had to go to him to get this,” she showed Karen her new costume. “I thought I’d have to – well, you know – but he was so friendly. We talked for ages. He knows so much about the ways of the people here and he was so gentle. I wonder if we haven’t misjudged them; if we haven’t tried to impose our own thought and ideas without waiting to understand theirs.”
Karen grunted in agreement through her moaungf. She was coming to the same conclusion herself. Maybe you couldn’t study a culture by looking at it from the outside. Maybe you could only truly understand it if you gave yourself up to it. Maybe that was what they all should do. Maybe that was what she would do, after all. Maybe that would be her new life.
Karen was surprised at herself – she would never have though that she would give herself up to her circumstances in the way that she now felt she must. As she lay on the couch watching the others, her mouth filled with the gag, her limbs heavy from the chains about her wrists and ankles she found it almost impossible to think straight. It was as if the culmination of all the experiences, of all the sensations of the last few weeks, had completely swamped her judgement, her ability to decide, her sense of self.
She tried to bring herself back to thinking about the situation as she would back in the university, positioning the various aspects of Kushtian culture into the framework she had built up over her years of study, how the men sought to maintain their position relative to the women in their culture, and how they tried to do the same one to another. She thought about the way in which the dynamics of the household seemed to have evolved to both reinforce the position of the men and to protect the women. The more she tried to analyse the cultural experience of being Kushtian, the more she found herself falling back into luxuriating in the sensation of the fine silks against her flesh, the comfort of the padding on the couch, the play of light as it bounced and shimmered on the golden and jewelled lanterns that hung from the ceiling, the sweet, hypnotic, perfume of the incense that wafted through the Seragla.
That was something new, she thought, I didn’t notice it earlier. The thick, musky scent hung in the air, wafting from burners at each corner of the concubine’s hall. The scent seemed to capture the essence of being in the Seragla; luxuriant, calming, almost soporific. The more that the incense bathed her senses, the more relaxed and quiescent she felt and, as she lay back on the couch, she drank in the feeling of tranquillity and the dreamy patterns that her mind conjured as she sank into a rapturous slumber, stretched out in the grasp of her shackles. Somewhere, in the back of her mind, was a memory of how sweet incense was often used in Kushitian Seraglas but its purpose and nature were lost to her.
Unnoticed by Karen through the haze of incense fumes, above the hall, on the gallery that overlooked, it a small group was deep in conversation.
Kolani Kustanki looked across the hall, the blue incense smoke hung like a Kushtian veil across all beneath it. He turned to his overseer. “I see that you are burning hunashif in the hall tonight.”>/p>
“Yes, Excellency. Its vapours have a soothing effect. It spreads calm for your concubines, Excellency. After the difficulties of recent times I felt that a little hunashif would help restore the sense of well being that your Excellency values so highly in those in his service. We have been short of it until now. The harvest last year was so poor but, this year, excellent! We can return to using it regularly.”
“That is good,” Kustanki responded. “It will help our new guests to become more quickly accustomed to our ways, I am sure.”
“Indeed, Excellency,” the overseer responded. “The American woman seems to be most affected. The hunashif seems to have freed her of her drive to return to her past. She finds herself becoming increasingly given over to the ways of the Seragla.”
“Good, good,” said Kustanki. “In which case she will enjoy what I have in mind for her tonight. My new wife to be has been something of a trial today,” he turned to Alana who was standing silently beside him. “Show my good friend here how difficult you have been,” he said.
Alana gave a guttural growl that demonstrated the effectiveness of the moaungf that she evidently wore beneath her veil. Kustanki ignored her protests gripped her by the arm and span her around and tore her gown open so that the overseer could see her back.
The overseer looked closely at the criss-cross pattern of welts that Kustanki had evidently given her for some infraction or other. Kustanki knew of course the shame that Alana would feel being exhibited in this way to one of the household servants. He carefully explained how each blow had been applied and how each was contributing to the correction of Alana’s many faults. “So,” he concluded, “I fear my new wife to be will spend tonight recovering from her punishments. Please have the small hanging cage set up in my rooms, whatever her misdemeanours she should not be apart from her husband before her wedding. She will be confined there but at least she will be with me.”
“Very good, Excellency,” the overseer agreed. It would not take long. The cage was small but it was still heavy with thick bars as though built for some small but extremely powerful bird. It hung from a frame that could be moved on its own wheels, there would be no difficulty in setting it up in Kustanki’s rooms.
“Oh, and one other thing,” Kustanki said. “A man should have the comforts of a woman before his wedding, even if he cannot have them from his wife. Bring the American woman to me. I believe that an evening enjoying the delights of her flesh, abandoned as she is to the hunashif, will bring great fulfilment.”
“Of course, Excellency,” the overseer replied. “I am sure she will be ready to delight you.” He looked down into the hall to where Karen was stretching out on her couch. The hunashif seemed effective. She would be happy to be led to his Excellency's bed chamber tonight.
© Freddie Clegg 2007
All characters fictitious
No posting or reproduction without permission
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