Carnassa, city of a thousand lights. It glittered in the darkness as though a million fireflies had given up their light to its radiance. Alchemical beacons glowed sun-bright atop the tallest towers while windows glowed in numberless profusion. Thousands thronged the streets by torch and candlelight, paying homage or penance at the new-risen shrines of the Shah of Five Thousand Years, Glorious Son of Heaven. Two million souls called Carnassa home, but to Alice le Fleur it was just another prison wall built up around her. On the seat beside her bedroom window she sat watching smoke rise from the foundries by the Gate of Glory where the Son of Heaven had commanded the bellfounders to forge new weapons for his endless mad wars. The skeletons of his half-built temples to the Twin Gods, the Two That Were One, bulked high above the city.
The servants' door, a little oaken portal hidden by a tapestry, opened and a slave girl dressed in black stepped into the lavish room. “Nabez imi nita?” said the slave.
“I hadn't any idea what you were saying when I arrived in this dreadful place to marry Daud Khan,” said Alice. “Now he's dead, I'm a madman's concubine and I still haven't any idea what you're fucking saying.”
“Shadi imi, lyita,” admonished the slave. She stepped aside and four half-nude eunuchs, fat brown men with quick eyes and muscle-roped arms filed into the room past her, bearing between them a brass bath filled with steaming milk.
Alice regarded the bath with trepidation and anger. “Again with this idiocy? You have realized I'm not a pig for stewing, haven't you?”
The eunuchs set down the bath in the center of the room, then bowed their heads to the carpet and knelt motionless as the slave girl stepped forward and put a hand on Alice's sleeve. “Nissi,” said the girl, plucking at the fabric.
“Mysteries abound,” said Alice, offering a limp hand for the slave's consideration. “How you Machi savages mastered the wheel is surely the greatest of them. Do you want me to strip, slave? I should parade myself before you? Is that it?” Lazily, she slid from her seat, her sheer silk gown slithering after her, and spread her arms. “Undress me, then. Let the half-men watch.”
Cautiously, as though Alice were a wild animal caught in a trap, the slave girl removed her black samite robe and began to undo the clasps of her heron-patterned underrobe with dark, nimble fingers. Alice smirked at the kneeling eunuchs as the slave undressed her. Naked, white in a room full of shit-colored skin, she admired herself in the mirror set along the north wall. Twenty-six and she still had her figure. Hips a bit wider, the start of lines at the corners of her eyes, but the war was progressing well. Oh, joyous day. She would retain for another year the affections of her tyrannical captor. Alice allowed herself to be led to the bath which, knowing the pointlessness of rebellion, she climbed into. The thick, grassy smell of the milk filled her nostrils and her skin reddened as she sank into the creamy liquid. The slave girl began to brush out her long black hair with a bone comb.
“Wine!” cried Alice, lolling back against the bath's smooth rim. She flung a hand into the air, splashing the slave with droplets of milk. “Poppy! Hashish! Bring me something, you ignorant cow.” She glared at the younger woman, who dropped her eyes, and then slumped back into the bath and let the child continue brushing out her hair. “I expect you hate me,” she mused.
The girl said nothing. When the milk bath was finished she washed Alice with cold water, patted her dry and dressed her in a flowing robe of bright blue silk. She bound Alice's hair up in an elaborate knot held in place by two of the long, narrow bamboo spines the Machi used to eat the rice they grew in their miasmal paddies. Then, after prostrating herself on the carpet, the slave departed and took the eunuchs with her. One chanced a backward glance at Alice. She winked at him, making him flinch, and then he was gone and the door slammed shut behind him. Alice sighed. She stood at the center of a room luxurious enough to stun a King. The walls were paneled in graven jade, decorated with fanciful depictions of spirits and ancient warriors. The ceiling was gilt oak set with alchemical lamps cunningly concealed in wooden frameworks latticed in patterns of mind-bending complexity. The light that leaked through them smeared the walls and floor with stars. Her bed was soft and deep, shrouded with hanging tapestries. Rich cushions padded the corners and jewelry draped her night-table like hanging moss. But no books, no paper, no quills or charcoal. Alice's hands curled into fists of their own volition at the old wrong. Her long, painted nails dug into her smooth palms.
He denied her everything while showering her in gifts. At the court of Maturin she had been better-treated, even as a nobleman's bastard; she had been educated, groomed for polite society if not for royal circles. Here she was a vain, feckless monster's sometimes plaything. When he bored of her, she languished. When he desired her she lived in fear of his mad temper. As though her keeper's vile gods had read her mind, the porcelain bell beside the gilt-painted Master's Door rang twice, its steel clapper clanging tinnily back and forth, back and forth before finally falling still. Ahmad wanted her tonight. He would come to her chambers before sunset. Alice's fists unclenched. She went to her window and sat, wishing it were large enough to accommodate a fatal plunge.
She was still sitting there when Ahmad arrived, heralded by the creak of the Master's Door opening. The glimpse of the torchlit hall outside was enough to bring tears to Alice's eyes before it was shut away with a thud of wood on wood. The Son of Heaven padded barefoot across the carpets to where Alice sat. He cupped her jaw in his hand. “Why so sorrowful, my jewel?” His other hand slid beneath her dressing gown to grip her breast. He smelled of sandalwood and jasmine and his skin was the color of oiled teak. “I like it better when you smile.”
He used her roughly, like a huntsman beating his horse, and when at last his seed ran down her thighs he rolled off of her, left the bed and dressed himself in his long white robe. Alice watched him from where she lay. His every motion was smooth and practiced, every line of his body chiseled. His golden eyes flitted around the room. He said something in Machi, chuckled ruefully to himself and then sat down in her seat by the window. A flash of irrational anger pricked Alice's breast. He had everything. Why did he have to usurp her fucking chair on top of it all? She sat up, clutching the sheets against her bruised and red-marked breasts.
Ahmad gazed wistfully out at his city, seized in fire and blood less than a year past. “My daughter fled the Palace today,” he said in his clipped, heavily-accented Maturi. “A skillful Captain of the city watch recovered her, or else she might have left Carnassa. How long would she have lasted alone on the road?”
Alice said nothing. Tears stung her eyes at the thought of all the other women suffering bondage at Ahmad's whim. How many were there?
“Such a willful child,” said Ahmad, shaking his shaven head. “She must be punished, but how am I to punish her? No hand save mine can touch her without despoiling her sacred blood, and I would sooner beat myself than my dear child.”
“His Holiness could grant her the freedom of the city.”
The words left Alice's lips without warning, as though someone else had conceived of them in secret and spat them out of her mouth in proxy. Ahmad turned to regard her incredulously, one thin eyebrow rising. “I am the only son of the Two-Part God,” he said, his voice quiet. “My daughter bears the purest issue of my blood, for in her it might be refined and passed on. My sons are but imperfect vessels, incapable of anything but inferior transmission. What would happen if she were despoiled? What wrath might the Two Who Are One bring down upon Machen, upon all of Cthun, if my line were damaged or extinguished? Think before you open that cunt in your face you call a mouth, woman.” He spat his last words at her, already on his feet and trembling with rage.
Alice looked down at her hands. Her nails were painted midnight blue with little knotted filigrees of gold across them. “This unworthy one abases herself before you, Holiness. I spoke without thought, and so erred.” Tears curved down her cheeks to meet beneath her chin.
“Don't weep, child.” He was at her side, his hand stroking her cheek. “I am forgiveness, and I absolve you of your sin.”
And then he was gone and the room was full of billowing dust. Alice scrambled out of bed, choking and coughing, and stumbled across the room to throw open the window. It was stuck fast and resisted her curses and exertions both with equal impunity. She looked down, squinting through the dust. Ahmad had transmuted the window's iron latch into solid bone while he'd sat beside it. Alice stared dumbly at the latch for a long moment, and then she sat down naked in the middle of the floor and sobbed until her throat was dry and her eyes were red and swollen.
It wasn't fair. It just wasn't fair.