She came to her particular station in life in some proverbial once upon a time, in the realm of some ancient king (perhaps one of the trio of Biblical lore—for, certainly, each of the three had such a retinue with them, even though it was necessary to soft-pedal their presence—though more likely in the compound of some minor caliph or sultan whose name has been lost to the dustbin of history.) Inas was young, younger than most of her compatriots; she had only been in this particular duty for a short time but had already seen that the women who shared her lot were no more than peacocks, making absurd colorful shows of themselves while being as likely as those noisome birds to peck and bite at a finger or eye; indeed, she’d witnessed two of her ilk claw each other bloody in a jealous fury over a cheap brooch given to one of them by a minor member of the king’s guard.
Inas had been brought to the king’s compound just days before she was to marry Abdul-Wakil, an unprepossessing young farmer from her village. While such an interruption was almost unprecedented, it was essentially taken in stride: a king, after all, can do more or less as he pleases, and, all in all, being a courtesan to a ruler was a preferable life to the drudgery of a farm wife. Such was Inas’ view, certainly; her mother had been a great beauty at one time, possibly even more so than her daughter (who was breathtakingly beautiful, that was beyond debate), but the burden of wife and mother on a small subsistence patch of land was sufficient to rob her of her beauty—the constant cycle of work, pregnancy, childbirth, and the subsequent incrementally increased work brought by additional mouths to feed made her mother bent and withered before her time, an aging made more pronounced by the awful fury of Inas’ father, whose fists had given her mother an aquiline profile which nature had not seen fit to bestow upon her. The life of a bed-mate to a regent was not without its demands and hardships; the days were tedium-filled with little actual toil (the courtesans’ sole tasks were submitting their bodies to the demands of the king and doing what maintenance was required to remain sufficiently attractive to be retained), yet when the king called upon the women, there were to be no excuses permitted, be it a raging headache, a stomach malady, even women’s complaints (excusable, yes, but such claims were investigated—in a most humiliating fashion—by one of the king’s ancient rheumy-eyed and trembling physicians, and the one or two women who had made such claims falsely had been removed from their quarters immediately.) The master’s absence from his compound was no time of rest for the women, as they were bound to the servicing of any man who the king had permitted their use to: aged, feeble visiting rulers who simply wanted to see the women dance as their virility was no more than a bittersweet memory, soldiers—dirty, unwashed, their bodies reeking of mud and blood—claiming further spoils of war, high-level associates of the king (Inas was grateful she had been spared the ministrations of his pig-eyed brother-in-law, whose tastes allegedly ran to practices more suitable to the stable than the bedroom.) Still, the odd nasty and brutish episode in the king’s service was preferable to the back-breaking and lifeblood-depleting existence of a wife on some sandy, sterile patch of land where the malevolence was more or less uninterrupted.
Inas had no illusions concerning the ephemeral nature of her time in these quarters, nor concerning her eventual turning-out and what lie beyond that. She only spoke to one other woman in the quarters, a petite, taciturn woman called Nawar with splendid red hair (though now expertly and surreptitiously augmented by henna) and a comely small-breasted slimness that she maintained through sparse meals and the occasional self-induced vomiting episode. One more than one occasion, Nawar had confided to Inas (her voice betraying sadness, perhaps a touch of fear, but mostly resignation) that she knew the day when one of the royal guard would, without a word of warning, grab her and lead her away from the quarters and (perhaps stopping in some deserted alcove to take his pleasure of her, as she no longer enjoyed royal protection) out of the compound, never to return, was coming soon, if it was not imminent. There were signs, of course: the king himself had not come to her in weeks, perhaps months, and she was generally consigned to aged and infirm visitors or, more frequently, the unfortunate and bestial brother-in-law. And what then, she had asked of Inas, I am certainly not fit to be a wife for any man. All that is left for me is to sell myself on the market until such time I starve or am stabbed or beaten, to be kicked into some dark spot until the dogs find me, or until such time as my stench forces someone to dispose of what is left. Inas began to try to comfort her, but the older woman waved her hand. It is no matter. We live, we die, we rot, we can expect nothing else. Nawar then laughed curtly, Even kings are not immune from such things, she said, shaking her head lightly, You know, I believe I was once our master’s favorite—oh, I know, girl, every one of us thinks the same thing whether we speak it out loud or not—but in the early days he would actually linger after he had spent himself within me. She paused to nibble on a single grape she had plucked from a bunch. One time he was speaking about how his father had seemed to be in a great rush, almost a panic, any time he was with him. His father was not a young man when our master was born—it was said that the silver in his hair had long since taken precedence over the black—and he’d had heirs from previous queens who had died before they had ever taken their first steps. Our lord said it seemed that he never had time to be a child, that he had so much to learn, that his father had so much to impart, that there was little time for anything else. Nawar laughed once more, I’ll never forget what he said—‘I knew that I must be a king, as that was my duty, but I would have liked to have been a son as well.’ He left me straightaway after that, and did not return to me for several weeks. The woman stared at her feet, and did not speak again for several moments. Now the old king is dust, and I will be dust sooner than I know, and even someday you, my dark young beauty, will be dust, and we shall all be one with the streets and fields and the vast and never-ending deserts. At that, Nawar tittered softly one final time. What a foolish world we live in, a wasteland made up of the remains of kings and whores.