by RJ Astruc
It is a strange procession that arrives at the gates of Himakayla City, New Persia.
First come a dozen men of west Nubia, sleek foreign princelings with red clay-paint marking their brows and cheeks. They walk barefoot, and most are bare-chested, their necks heavy with braided necklaces that hang almost to their waists. Behind them is a wide wooden cart led by four dappled horses, and on the cart sit an assortment of youths, most of them sturdy fair-skinned norns, their faces rugged and chapped from the desert sun. Then there are three wagons covered in fine printed fabric from the Far East and pulled by black oxen; and lastly there is an open-roofed carriage occupied by a woman and handsome youth with long dark hair that falls like a cowl to his sandaled feet.
The woman is Gansheik el-Gorath, the merchant, and the youth is the sullen, spoilt Pahkeba of Ethiopia, rumored to be her lover. The men that precede them are Gansheik’s merchandise.
From the balcony of her tower, the Lady of Himakayla watches the merchant and her charges through the convex lens of a houpglas. The sun is bright and it is difficult to see them clearly, especially at such a distance, but the Lady fancies that young Pahkeba is sulking. His wiry body is slouched forward and his wide mouth protrudes in a pout. He tosses his hair, this way, that way, like a reined horse fighting its rider.
“Do you think he is handsome?” the Lady asks her maid, lowering the houpglas.
“Lady?” The maid, a copper-haired eunuch, is busy fastening the Lady’s vest, its quick hands sliding over the beaded purple buttons with the skill of a luteist.
“Pahkeba. Do you think him handsome?”
The maid flushes. “Lady, he is.”
“Are looks enough to charm a woman like Gansheik?” the Lady wonders, leaning over the tower’s balcony. The smells of Himakayla rise up to her like plumes of musky smoke—the sweetness of meats cooked in spices, burning incense from street-side temples, the dusky perfumes of Himakayla’s rich and royal, and under it all the hot dry heat-stink of the desert itself. But the Lady fancies that she can smell something else now, too—the smell of men, men who have traveled a long way to be here, to be sold and bartered by the women of the Lady’s court.
“I will receive Gansheik in my chambers,” she tells her maid. “Tell her to bring her best man to me.”
A crowd of Persians are waiting within the city’s walls to receive Gansheik and her men. Most are women, who giggle and whisper amongst themselves, hiding their blushes behind silk shawls. Dark Raosin, the caravan leader, guides the men into the city’s market square, and they stand there, uncertain and unhurried as milling sheep.
In her carriage Gansheik presses her fingers against her eyes and takes a deep breath. She is uneasy here in the city of the Lady. It was the Lady’s armies who chased the Bharan—Gansheik’s tribe, her people—from the territories of the Great Continent many years ago. Gansheik has never been here before, and doubts she ever will again; already her stomach feels like a hard knot that will not unwind.
A market is a market, she reminds herself, as she descends from the carriage. This is one of her mother’s mottos. A market is a market.
Every sale is the same as every other sale.
A eunuch is waiting for her below the carriage’s helm. It is dressed in crisp white linen and its long hair is bound in crisp ringlets like a young god. Its face is painted with kohl and oil and cherry-meat. It stoops to one knee and Gansheik follows suit, remembering the strange customs of the Persians.
“The Lady of Himakayla welcomes you to her city, Gansheik,” says the eunuch in a sing-song voice, sweet as the smell of its perfume. “She is curious about you, for she has heard many stories of your exploits across the Great Continent. She therefore extends to you a formal invitation: she asks that you come to her in her tower.” It pauses and its bright eyes seek out Pahkeba’s long black shape against the carriage’s plush cushions. “She requires also that you bring Pahkeba.”
Pahkeba sits up at the sound of his name. His body is a ribbon of sinew and velvet. Gansheik cannot help but look at him; and she senses, too, that the eyes of all Himakayla’s giggling women are drawn to him. He is beautiful. He is perfect–or at least he appears to be perfect, although Gansheik, knowing him, knows better. He curls his lip and swings down from the carriage, shirtless, his hair uncoiling and silken. Gansheik glimpses a flash of silver at his waist; but just as fast it vanishes again into the loose cloth.
“Why Pahkeba?” Gansheik whispers.
“I do not feign to know the Lady’s will, Ganshiek,” says the eunuch. “Will you come, Gansheik? She awaits your presence.”
“I can organize the stall,” Dark Raosin tells Gansheik.
“I don’t know if I can do this,” Gansheik says.
Dark Raosin smiles encouragingly. Pahkeba only looks annoyed.
“I will go,” says Gansheik, determined now. Remembering her pride. Her skills. And her beautiful consort, prickling and impatient in the hot Persian sun. “Pahkeba. Come.”
She follows the eunuch to the Lady’s tower, and is followed in turn by Pahkeba, the young Memnon with black-fire eyes.
“Gansheik. I have heard so much about you,” the Lady of Himakayla declares. “I travel, you know. Not as widely as you, of course—how could I? But I travel and I listen and my friends always talk to me about Gansheik and her beautiful men.”
“Your friends are generous,” says Gansheik.
They stand in the tower’s bell-shaped upper chamber. Its walls are hidden behind rows of folding screens that are painted yellow and black and flaked with gold. A long trestle is laden with fresh meats and fruits from the breadth of the Great Continent and beyond: spiky haika and white-grapes and the freckled orange root-vegetables of the norns. Up here the air tastes clearer and fresher and yet Gansheik feels each breath catching in her throat.
The Lady is smaller than Gansheik expected, and dumpy, her round face frosted with the curious cosmetics of the Asiatiks. Her skirts are long and purple, their cut unflattering. But Gansheik supposes that a woman with the Lady’s power does not need to be flattered.
“They say that you are a great merchant,” says the Lady. “That you have a great eye for talent. Also, that you are honest—which is unusual in a merchant. You have never sold a man without worth, and your terms of trade are fair.”
“Yes,” says Gansheik.
“But I have never understood you, Gansheik,” says the Lady. “Rather, I have never understood Pahkeba. You complain to people that he is too loud, too unruly, too unsuitable, to be sold. I would have thought a clever businesswoman would leap at the chance to get rid of such clearly defective stock.”
Gansheik says nothing and her smile tenses, slightly. It is an expression she has practiced in her mirror. “Pahkeba’s temperament may not be pleasant,” she says evenly, “but you cannot deny his beauty. And beauty is valuable too—and more easily quantified than docility. A clever businesswoman knows better than to disappoint her customers. Over all things, I value my reputation.”
She turns to look at him. Pahkeba is eating sweetmeats from the trestle, and as Gansheik watches he crushes a small sugared fruit against his lips and lets the juice drip down his chin and into a cupped palm. A plum, or perhaps a slice of peach. She can smell its sweetness but can’t identify the particulars of its flavor. Pahkeba sucks his fingers; he kisses his fingertips; he touches his neck and the hollow line of his collarbone; and Gansheik senses suddenly that the Lady’s gaze is fixed not on Pahkeba and his shamelessness but on her.
There is a certain skill to distraction and Pahkeba, who was a whore before he was a slave, is an artisan of fakery.
“Surely you don’t love him,” says the Lady, and laughs, lightly, jokingly. “It would be a terrible thing to admit, for a woman of your standing. Of your reputation.”
“Sometimes it is a good thing for a merchant to admit weakness,” says Gansheik.
She imagines Dark Raosin beside her, saying: Be strong, be strong.
“Is that what you’re doing, my little slave-merchant?” the Lady enquires, and there is a sudden edge to her voice. The Lady, Gansheik knows, is a woman of secret knives, of daggers-in-the-dark. Gansheik still finds it hard to reconcile the woman who exiled her people with the pampered princess who stands before her—but at the same time she recognizes that there is a foreign coldness in the Lady’s brown eyes, something cruel and inhuman. “Are you telling me that you are weak, Gansheik? That you are weak for this… this black-eyed Ethiop?”
Suddenly the Lady is tall and Gansheik is small and worthless beside and below her finery.
“I came here only to sell my men,” Gansheik whispers. “I am a simple merchant, Lady Himakayla. If you ask it of me, I will leave now and never return.”
The Lady shakes her head and laughs, and her mood seems suddenly bright. “You came here only to sell your men,” she echoes. “And perhaps I shall buy one.”
This Spring Gansheik has sold twenty-eight men.
Most of these are flat-faced mountain norns, snapped up by widowed farmers and fisherwomen, who choose the norns for their broad shoulders and short, solid legs, a build ideal for physical labor. A few, including a pair of olive-skinned twins with arched, inquisitive eyebrows and plush pink lips, have gone to the whorehouses of west Nubia. Others she has sold privately to her regular clients, those ageing, dissolute spinsters of Egypt who celebrate each new year with a new man, and each new man younger than the last. Only a handful—four, to be exact—have been sold for breheda, for a love-match, and Gansheik has been careful to ensure her customers understand that such a transaction is both ill-witted and non-refundable.
At every market, in every auction house, Pahkeba remains sullen and unsold, the centerpiece of Gansheik’s collection. There are enquiries, of course—many enquiries, in fact, because despite his moodiness Pahkeba is beautiful and wild and somehow poetic in the way that some angry young things just are–but Gansheik easily deflects her customers’ interest. “Too expensive,” she tells them, as Pahkeba scowls down from his plinth, “but perhaps you would like to meet my Hausphet, a gentle Egyptian who may be more to your liking…”
Gansheik el-Gorath is of Bharan blood and has the large, homely features that are common amongst her kin. It is an honest face, she has been told—a fortunate thing, because the tribes of Bharan have always been merchants. Her earliest memories are of her mother selling seashells to the Nubian pilgrims who flocked to the beaches of the Caspian to attend their sea gods. “See this shell,” her mother would say, holding out a conch with a frilled, flesh-colored lip. “It has been kissed by the Goddess Wati; put it to your ear and you can still hear her breath.”
The beach is covered with conch shells—they lie along the tide line like glistening white flowers. Gansheik knows that you can hear that strange whistling noise, the goddess kiss, echoing inside any of them. But the Nubians still buy her mother’s shells, and only her shells, though they are standing amidst and even on others just as fine, their elegant leather sandals squashing them into the sand.
From this Gansheik learns two things: that you can sell anything to anyone, and that it is the story that people buy, not the thing itself.
When it comes time for her to choose her trade, she chooses men. Spare men are easy to come by, easy to transport, easy to feed and easy to manage. Men are eager, too; they actually want to be sold. A camel will spit in the face of a buyer, but a man will pose patiently and willingly on his trestle; he will show his teeth and nails on command; he will demonstrate his strength or virility without question. He will hold out his cock for inspection while the buyers cluck around it like birds at seed.
But what is most important is that men make easy stories; and easy sales.
Pahkeba is peeling an apple. His sharp knife runs along the peel from base to stem. Each slice he eats from the knife—barely chewing, just sucking the skin, savoring it. His mouth is distractingly moist and Gansheik feels herself reddening; her cheeks and ears are suddenly hot. Her obvious discomfort is a beacon, she knows, to the Lady, and so she is not surprised by the woman’s next question.
“What price do you put on love?”
“Love has no price. I do not sell love.”
“Let me rephrase, Gansheik. What price do you put on Pahkeba?”
“I… I do not.”
“He is for sale, surely? He is one of your men.”
Gansheik can’t meet the Lady’s eyes. She has lost so many men to the Lady already. Her brothers and father were slaughtered by the Lady’s armies. They were not soldiers, just simple merchants—they died with silk and pottery in their hands.
But in a way she has already lost Pahkeba; lost him the day she found him.
“I know where you come from, Gansheik,” says the Lady. “I know what you are. A Bharan. A Bharan in my city. Years ago I would have had you killed the second you stepped through the gates—but age has mellowed me. And I understand that, amongst your people, you are something of a hero. A heroine, perhaps.”
“I don’t talk to my people,” says Gansheik.
“You survived my war. Where other Bharan fell, you rose to the challenge. It was your men that reopened Egypt to the Bharan. It was your trade that gave your people back their freedom in the desert nations, that made the Bharan acceptable guests in the countries of royalty.”
“Men are a currency,” says Gansheik. “Nothing more. They are incidental.”
“That’s what I tell people!” the Lady cries, clapping her hands. “I say—this woman is just a merchant, like all the others. If your head can be swayed by her merchandise… well, you have no business in politics!”
The Lady laughs. Gansheik doesn’t. She is aware in a distant way that Pahkeba is listening, his long body frozen in the act of reaching for grapes.
“What if I said I wanted him, Gansheik?”
And to that Gansheik has no answer.
It is Dark Raosin who finds Pahkeba.
For months their caravan has been hearing stories of a beautiful prostitute, a man so handsome that every husband for miles around wants his head on a pike. His eyes are reputed to be the colour of Egyptian gold; his skin the night-black of an Ethiop. He is a dancer; he is an actor; he moves like a snake across hot sand. He is known as a wizard of sex, able to arouse passions in even the most chaste of matrons.
At first the story seems embellished, almost mythological; but they hear the same story from so many different people, in so many different villages, that Gansheik begins to believe it. The prostitute’s name, the villagers say, is Pahkeba—it means ‘gentle one’.
“A gentle lover as beautiful as Memnon,” says Gansheik. “He would fit in well with us.”
“You’d get too attached,” Dark Raosin complains. “You always do. Sometimes you’re more a mother to them than a master.”
One day the caravan has barely started moving when Dark Raosin calls the caravan to a halt. Without explanation he directs the men to pull the caravan off the road and into the jungle. Gansheik, who has long trusted Dark Raosin’s instincts, follows his lead. Soon they are all hidden in the trees by the road’s edge, flat on their stomachs, waiting. Only Dark Raosin sits up, straight-backed as a hunting dog, as if he is actually scenting the air for danger.
It doesn’t take long for that danger to arrive. It’s an army. Sixty men, maybe seventy. Off-duty, from the sounds of ;it they’re laughing and smoking as they walk. They smell like blood and sweat and urine—pungently, enough to leave some of Gansheik’s men gagging. The language they speak is foreign but somehow familiar. Now and then they slash at the earth with their swords and spit. Gansheik presses her face into the earth and wills them to pass by without noticing her caravan; and, amazingly, they do.
“A lucky escape,” says Dark Raosin afterward—and Gansheik finds herself agreeing with him, even though she still doesn’t know who the soldiers were.
Two days later the caravan comes across the remains of a village. It has been burned to the ground—and recently, because the area still smells like smoke and the paths are scarred with the marks of hooves. Bodies are piled up in a small field by what must once have been a healer’s house. The men are naked and unmanned; the women and children sliced apart.
“I recognize this,” says Gansheik.
“The Lady?” Dark Raosin asks.
“I came home from the markets and there was no home,” says Gansheik, a hand at her throat. “Only ashes and corpses. Those soldiers… they came from here.”
“There might be someone yet alive. I’ll look. You should wait here.” Dark Raosin’s gaze is on the caravan, the men moving nervously as unsettled horses. “They may need you.”
He returns an hour later and catches Gansheik by the hand. “I’ve found him,” he whispers.
“Come and see.”
He leads her to the place a house once was. All that remains are ashes and the shattered stack of a wide chimney. At first Gansheik can see nothing in the chimney’s hollow—how do you spot darkness amidst darkness?—but then slowly there is movement, the motion of a hand and a head.
“Come out,” says Dark Raosin. “It’s safe now. The soldiers are gone.”
Slowly a man emerges from the dust, crawling forward on his hands and knees, a bottle held in one hand. Looking upon him, Gansheik feels sick. Even covered in dirt, this man is the most perfect thing she has ever seen. No wonder the soldiers did not kill him, could not kill him. Who would dare?
“Pahkeba,” she says.
“No,” says Pahkeba, cradling his bottle as if it were a child. His voice is low and smooth and breaks Gansheik’s heart. “Once, maybe. Once I was a man called Pahkeba. Not anymore. I am something else. I am a thing that they broke and left behind.”
Gansheik bends down in the dirt and puts her arms around him.
“All my women,” the prostitute moans. “Dead, now. They tore apart the villages and burned the crops. I loved them, truly. I was not born a slave but I would be one, I think, for all the world’s women. Now I am nothing.”
“Why did they spare you?”
Pahkeba begins to sob.
Dark Raosin says, carefully, his hand on her shoulder: “Gansheik, do you not understand what they did to him?”
In the Lady’s tower, the Lady is bargaining. She does so inelegantly, cruelly; and each word she speaks makes Gansheik smaller and the Lady greater.
“I can fetch gold,” the Lady tells Ganshiek. “I have only to click my fingers. What is his price, Gansheik? A hundred? Two hundred? What would you do with two hundred talents?”
“I… I could buy many things…”
“Do you want to know something, Gansheik?” says the Lady, smelling weakness. “Do you want to know why I hate the Bharan? It is because you do not believe in anything. As a people you are weak. Your actions here prove that. You love a man—this man, this beautiful man—and yet you can stand here as a merchant and attempt to put a price on your affection. The Bharan are soulless.”
“Men are a… Men are a currency,” Gansheik repeats, her eyes on the floor.
“I have two hundred talents waiting for you outside in a chest,” says the Lady. “You could take it now. You could take it and walk out of Himakayla and I would not stop you.”
Gansheik is not looking at Pahkeba, although she senses his closeness, his shadow at the edge of her vision. The brightness of the knife in his hands. He is present but incidental. This conversation is not about Pahkeba, not really; it is about power and the Lady’s pride.
“I’ll take the chest,” Gansheik says.
“Just like that? No protests? I expected…well, I will be honest. I expected you to act like your kind, no more, no less. You have not surprised me, Gansheik. You are a plain, simple merchant. I could find a hundred women like you scrounging for coin in the gutters of any city.”
“No? What do you mean, no?”
“I am… I am good at what I do,” says Gansheik, her face burning. “I sell different things to different women. That is the trick of my trade, the lesson my mother taught me long ago. Each customer comes to me looking for a different story, you see, a different pitch. Each sale I make is personal. I sell muscles and strong knees to farmers. I sell soulful eyes and delicate constitutions to artists and poets. I sell sexuality and virility to old widows; I sell scholarship and experience to the young. I sell stories of wild lands and foreign tribes to the untraveled; and to the world-weary woman I sell a promise of security and simple pleasures.”
“And to me, Gansheik?” asks the Lady, smiling. “What would you sell to me, a woman who has everything?”
“You are cruel, my Lady. To you, I would sell the reputation of a heroine. I would sell the pride of my people. I would sell you the opportunity to destroy something beautiful.”
The Lady smiles again, confused.
“Love,” says Gansheik. “I would sell you my broken heart. I would sell you an opportunity to ruin me forever.”
“And have I?” the Lady asks.
Gansheik’s gaze meets Pahkeba’s over the Lady’s shoulder. What does she see in his eyes? Not shame or anger, just a frank acceptance of the inevitable. Pahkeba was always meant to be the Lady’s. His story–of a pure love, of a failed businesswoman, of an inaccessible beauty–was tailor-made for her.
“You’ve ruined many of us,” says Gansheik.
She leaves the Lady in the tower with Pahkeba and his knife.
Later, in the Lady’s private chambers, she knows he will use it.
Years later, Gansheik will tell the story of the Lady and Pahkeba at the slave markets. It the story of a man unmanned who, with the help of a simple slave merchant, gets his revenge on a tyrant. Pahkeba becomes more beautiful with every retelling but the Lady never changes–she is always terrible and always irredeemable.
“There is no happy ending,” Gansheik will say to her audience. “Yes, the Lady dies. But Pahkeba dies too, eventually. He is caught and hung for the Lady’s assassination, although the women of the city weep and plead for his life. The Bharan people–the Bharan who are left–are never again allowed within the walls of Himakayla. But it is still,” Gansheik stresses, “an ending. If this is a story about sales, about trade, then I am satisfied that the Lady’s debts have been repaid.”
And then, the story over, Gansheik–who is a merchant, has never been more than a merchant–sells her men.
With Dark Raosin, faithful to the last, at her side.