Demon Child Ch. 17byXantu©
Chapter 17: A gilded cage.
Aylanna stood swaying, overcome with fear and confusion. One of the amazons stared at her frowning, "What is it?"
The first guard shrugged, "They called it a demon."
Somehow their words reduced her to the status of an animal or a thing, triggering Aylanna's temper. She stood straighter, her eyes narrowing, but she held her words and refused to dignify their statements with a protest. They took no notice of her expression. One of the large female guards gripped her arm and pushed her along in front. Again there was a series of corridors, and rooms. Aylanna found herself urged into a room and was presented to a stern looking elderly woman seated on a soft couch, looking at a scroll covered with the endless small black marks that Aylanna recognized as writing. She was Bak, her creased black skin contrasting with her white braids and the mass of gold and gems of her necklaces. She wore a simple cream colored shift that covered her thickened body from neck to ankles.
The guard spoke in a respectful tone, "Miss Mallinika, we were directed to bring this new acquisition to you."
The older woman looked surprised.
"What have we here? Our Khan has not acquired a new courtesan in nearly a year. I made no requests for new staff." She looked at Aylanna curiously, "Though, I can see what caught his eye. This one is different, lovely but very different. What is her story?"
The guard nodded, "The guard who brought her called her a demon."
The older woman's eyes narrowed thoughtfully, speaking directly to Aylanna for the first time, "You are the demon that the Twisted Dagger brought back from the northern lands."
Aylanna nodded grudgingly.
The woman raised a brow, "So you understand me when I speak?"
Again Aylanna nodded, looking about the room warily. Other than the guard, they appeared to be alone. The room was not large, but richly furnished and hung with rich fabrics. An open window looked out over a small courtyard, letting in what little light filtered through falling rain. Many other windows and balconies looked out onto the misty garden and Aylanna had a sense that they were being watched.
Mallinika made an exasperated sound, "And can you speak?"
Aylanna's eyes flashed down at her, and pressing her lips together, she nodded again.
The woman chuckled softly, "A stubborn one! Well, you are not the first to come here filled with anger and protest." Her voice softened, "I remember a girl brought here so very long ago, both frightened and angry. She refused to speak too. If it serves your purpose, feel free to keep your silence." The older woman spoke thoughtfully, half to herself, "It is a skill many could benefit from in this cursed place." She paused and shook her head ruefully, "Myself included." She stood up and walked gracefully out of the room, the guard following closely. "Come along then, let me show you your new home."
Mallinika spoke as she led the way, "On this lower level are the rooms for the courtesans, above us are the rooms of the Khan's wives. You will have no reason to go up there for the time being."
She led the way past a number of empty rooms with archways but no doors. Aylanna couldn't help but notice the numbers of large female guards they passed as they walked in the halls. The armed, muscular women stood at nearly every corner, watching them with suspicious eyes as they passed. Mallinika did not seem aware of the guards at all, pointing at an empty room, she observed, "There are not so many of us now, which is just as well..." Her voice trailed off not finishing the thought. She stopped by an empty cubical.
"This will be your room. I will have some furnishings moved in later." Mallinika walked in and opened the windows leading out onto the courtyard. "Remember which room is yours, third room on the outside wall. Come along I will show you where the common room, latrine and bathing room are, then it will be time for the evening meal."
The latrine was a fascinating series of holes in a smooth stone bench, when Aylanna peered down into one she made a soft surprised sound to see a swift moving stream of water flowing down below.
Mallinika laughed, "It is good to know you have a voice. Do you have a name?"
Aylanna looked at her warily, her voice was low, "Aylanna." She touched her arm, "Aylanna ha'akh Bak Tai Twisted Dagger."
Mallinika smiled sympathetically, pointing at the two faded scars on her arm, "I was ha'akh Bak Tai Twisted Dagger once, long ago. But Aylanna, you are no longer ha'akh or Twisted Dagger." She touched another brand, above the other. "Soon you will be marked with the brand of Broken Spear; your new name will be Aylanna Courtesan to the Court of the Aga Khan." At Aylanna's stricken look, Mallinika tried to touch her, reassure her but Aylanna dodged back, her eyes narrowing once again.
"Do not look so frightened. The pain will be brief, and a courtesan to the Court of the Aga Khan is a status of notoriety and power few ever have hope of achieving."
Aylanna's voice was clipped, "I do not fear pain."
Mallinika raised a brow and nodded, "Good. Come along then, we have more to see."
The bathing room was large and opened up onto the central courtyard. It was made up of a number of smaller pools and one the size of a small pond. In the center of the large pool, a steady stream of water fell in an arc from a statue of a nude woman, the fountain arching out from the palm of her hand, the music of the falling water muted by the falling rain. A trio of nude women cavorted in the far end of the large rectangular pool, splashing and laughing in the downpour. One caught sight of them and pointed, they fell silent as Mallinika stood watching.
Her voice was cool, "Do not be late for your duties. It is almost time for the evening meal; I do not want to hear any more complaints from the wives about late or sloppy service." Aylanna watched curiously as the three women quickly climbed from the pool and hurried away. Mallinika made a sour face, "It seems the less they have to do, the lazier they get."
Mallinika pointed around the bathing room, "The smaller baths are for cleaning your body. Always wash thoroughly before going into the larger pool, if you want to swim." Mallinika looked at her critically and wrinkled her nose slightly, "You will bathe after the meal. I will get you something to change into, something more suitable."
As they walked back Aylanna wondered to herself what she meant by novice. The common room was wide and with a low ceilinged. Luxuriant carpets, cushions and upholstered couches were arranged in casual groupings. From one corner there was the soft sound of conversation and a soft laugh.
Mallinika waved her hand around, "This is where the courtesans spend their free time, where we dine, study and practice the arts of our craft." At Aylanna's look of confusion, she raised a brow, "You are a member of the Aga Khan's household. A courtesan's entire existence is to serve and entertain. We learn the arts of music, dance, games, service, sexuality," Mallinika raised a sardonic brow, "and, yes even conversation."
Mallinika called, "Balla, come here, I have a task for you."
A tiny brown skinned girl not much older than Aylanna stood up from where she had been sitting. She approached and when she stood before Mallinika, she paused and dipped in a small graceful curtsy, "Yes, Miss?" The tiny Ramaldi girl stared at Aylanna with large doe eyes. Her expression was curious and for some inexplicable reason overjoyed.
"I want to introduce you to Aylanna."
Mallinika turned to Aylanna, "This is Balla. She was brought to us by the Broken Spear only a year ago. She has just completed her first year's novice training and will be your guide during your first year. She will teach you about your duties and help you as you study." Mallinika smiled at the two girls as they stared at each other. Balla's smile was curious, enquiring. Aylanna's face was guarded. "It is good practice for her to review her knowledge. Hopefully you two will become friends."
Balla nodded eagerly, her voice soft and rapid fire, "Welcome, my name is Balla... well, I guess you know that all ready, and you are Aylanna? Did you just get here? Well, I guess that is obvious. Come on; let me introduce you to Meriam and Tindy." Balla reached down, grabbing at Aylanna's hand and would have if Aylanna had not instinctively snatched her arm back, putting her hands behind her back and taking a step back.
Mallinika clucked softly, "Balla, slow down, your busy tongue has gotten ahead of your thoughts once again. Remember how you felt the first day you arrived, confused, unsure of what will happen next. Don't try and teach her everything all in the first day. Help her learn how to find her way around this rodent's maze. Answer her questions. Make sure she is fed, visits the bath after dining and has a clean dress to put on. First lessons will be held here in the morning."
"Yes, Miss; sorry, I keep forgetting."
Mallinika affectionately patted the bubbly girl's head, "You have improved remarkably, my dear, and your habit of speaking can be endearing. But you must either learn to think faster or take small breaks so your mind can catch up."
The older woman's voice was patient, even loving and Balla smiled ruefully and nodded her head at this gentle censure, "Yes, Miss."
Balla truly never seemed to stop speaking, her voice soft and high pitched, her hands darting, embroidering the air as she spoke. She vibrated with energy. It was easy for Aylanna to maintain her silence with the girl, fluttering about her like a chirping bird. The meaning of Mallinika's words was obvious; Balla hardly ever completed one thought before beginning another. Yet, her words were not empty, in fact, Aylanna found herself almost overwhelmed with bits and pieces of information.
"Miss Mallinika, everyone calls her Miss, is responsible for the governing of the courtesans, mostly because she had been here the longest, she been here since the regime of the previous khan or was it the one before? Anyway she's in charge of training and um... everything. Not that there is much training or even any call for courtesans much lately. I can't remember the last time there was a celebration requiring entertainment, and the Khan has not bestowed any of our favors on... well not our; I am not allowed, Miss says my training is not quite complete."
Aylanna found her head swirling with half spoken thoughts hinting at larger issues. It was clear from Balla's words that half the rooms in the courtesan's quarters stood empty, and got a definite impression that was true of the entire palace as well, excepting the guard's quarters. From Balla's words, it was apparent that there were more guards now than ever. There was a deeply hidden fear that rose up to cloud Balla's normally happy spirit when she would speak and she would hesitate and abruptly change the subject, her words hurling on in another direction until she was diverted once more.
Balla continued, interrupting herself to modify, define, and illustrate, "There are eleven courtesans, well twelve now that you've arrived, but then you're a novice and not ready to assume the full duties of a courtesan, that would be a year or more in the future, twelve not counting Miss Mallinika... and four wives," the tiny girl stuttered and swallowed down another spasm of fear, "now." Again she swallowed down the surge of apprehension. "We should go back to the common room. Dinner will be served soon."
Miss Mallinika was already seated on a cushion at the head of a long low table. Four other women were seated on either side of the table near her. The table was long, with room for easily a score or more but only two other cushions were unoccupied. Balla spoke quickly, "Miss, I am sorry, I lost track to time."
Mallinika's voice was cool, "A courtesan must develop the skill timeliness. A courtesan never makes her host wait," she paused and smiled, "unintentionally." She turned to one of the other women, "Tindy, dear, can you tell me an instance when a courtesan may be deliberately late?"
Tindy sat up straighter and matched Mallinika's smile, "When attending a large function, a courtesan my wish to arrive late in order to make an entrance or if she wishes to inflame the senses of her paramour with anticipation."
Mallinika clapped her hands in appreciation and then turned to Balla, "And, Balla dear, can you tell me why it may be an error to arrive late for an assigned duty?"
Balla swallowed and spoke in an almost sing song rote repetition, "It is a courtesan's duty to serve her Khan and his guests promptly. If a courtesan arrives late, it would reflect upon her Khan and you Miss, it would show that I do not take my duties to heart." The girl pressed her lips together and stared down at her hands clasped in her lap and fell into an uncharacteristic silence.
Aylanna listened to this interchange struggling to keep her face neutral. She looked at Tindy and the other three courtesans, seated listening with watchful faces. They were all dressed in similar cream colored shifts, identical to Mallinika's and Balla's. The only adornment they wore was the heavy necklaces of their station. All four were beautiful, older than Balla and Aylanna by many seasons. They held themselves with a mature, haughty aloofness, staring openly at the strange looking newcomer with a mixture of curiosity and suspicion.
Finally one of them smiled icily, "Your dress is very lovely."
Mallinika cleared her throat, her tone cautioning, "Yes, it is a lovely dress. I have not had an opportunity to provide our newest novice with something more fitting of daily wear." She turned to Aylanna, "It is our custom to wear a simple servant's dress around our quarters. I find it serves the function of reminding us that we are all equals here, all servants to the Khan. You will find several in your room when your return there."
Aylanna nodded mutely, staring down at the golden fabric and her exposed breast, feeling her face heat in embarrassment.
A tiny older woman brought out a tray and lay down a series of bowls and platters. Aylanna watched cautiously, waiting to see how the other women served themselves and ate, emulating their movements. The food was varied, a mixture of familiar steamed grain dishes and roast meats, but there were unfamiliar foods as well, fried breads, tangy sauces and some hot peppers that made Aylanna wince and sweat. Balla ate silently.
One of the other women finally spoke, "Mallinika told us your name is Aylanna. I have never heard of a woman named Aylanna before. I wonder if you are so lucky? You do not look like any other woman. What happened to your hair? Have you had a disease?"
Aylanna looked up at the woman in alarm, her eyes widening, and she shook her head and bent back to her meal.
Mallinika spoke up again, "Our newest acquisition is not much of a one for speaking. As to her strange coloration, it does not seem to have disfigured her. She came from the northern demon lands." Mallinika looked directly at Aylanna, "Are all the people in the demon lands like you?"
Aylanna took a deep breath and shook her head, speaking for the first time, her voice low, "There are no people in the demon cities, like me or unlike me. They all fled across the northern sea long, long ago."
Another of the courtesans spoke sweetly, "Did they leave you behind?"
And Tindy laughed answering for her, "Apparently."
Aylanna's voice was icy, "Do not speak lightly of things you know nothing about."
Tindy turned on her, hissing, "And you, you little dirty, freak with calloused hands and feet black with dirt, all dressed up in a dress too fine for you by far, don't you speak to me in that tone, telling me what I know and do not know. You are a novice and know nothing, absolutely nothing, and your first lesson will be to learn your place."
Mallinika's voice was sharp. "Enough, I will not have bickering at this table. If you cannot speak civilly then perhaps we should eat in silence."
Aylanna sat in shock, staring at the fuming Tindy, taking in her outrage and the smug demeanors of the other women. She sat rigidly for many minutes, trembling in anger, fighting the urge to get up and run away.
It was the fact that she had no idea where to go or how to get there that kept her in her place. Her place, they kept saying that, like it meant something important. She lowered her eyes to her hands and took in their appearance; her nails were broken and ragged, her palms stained with dirt and calloused from the daily work of carrying buckets, gathering wood, and all the other things she did as ha'akh. She looked sidelong at Balla's hands, taking in the smooth skin.
The rest of the meal was stiff and Mallinika excused herself first. Not long after the four stood and after shooting venomous looks at Aylanna swept from the room. After they left Balla let out a loud sigh, rolling her eyes, "Well, it could have been worse."
Aylanna's eyes widened and she turned to Balla, and the smaller girl giggled, "Oh, they wanted to do that. They were trying to get you to answer or not answer. They are like that. They want to make sure they can boss you around." The tiny girl's voice was beginning to speed up, "It's all like that, the older ones bossing around us novices." She stood and touched Aylanna's hand, "Don't mind them. Come on, I will take you to the bathing chambers."
Aylanna froze at the touch, her body turning rigid and Balla instantly let go and blurted out, "Sorry."
Again Aylanna felt her face flushing, and for the first time spoke directly to the animated girl, her voice soft and very formal, "No, if it is customary for such contact, than it is I that should apologize."
Balla looked stricken and confused, "Customary? Um... no, I guess not... It's just that, well, I had hoped we could be friends. I mean both of us are new, well, I'm not new exactly, I have been here for almost more than a year, but you know, we are the newest. And the others, they've been sort of mean... I mean you saw them, how they talk. They are always like that to the new ones. I guess if you really look at it, they are like that to most anybody they can get away with it, and us being new, we are the only ones like that... or the servants, of course.
Aylanna wondered if Balla ever stopped talking or if she ever stopped to breathe. She fought down the urge to smile. She pulled herself to stand and headed off toward the baths. Balla trailed close behind, still talking.
"...of course, if you are rude to the servants, you could find a snake in your bed..."
Aylanna stopped and shot back a look of pure horror and amazement at the chattering girl.
"Well, it wasn't poisonous and nobody could prove who'd done it. In the end, it was a pretty funny joke. Annalee must have screamed for hours." Balla giggled, remembering and then she leaned close, standing on tiptoe, whispering conspiratorially into Aylanna's ear, "Though Annalee is such a cold blooded bitch, I would be surprised if she would even notice if a serpent slithered up her venya."
Aylanna continued to stare in shock at the manner of the little girl, at one moment apparently giddy and full of words and then showing a dark, angry, even venomous side without any apparent thought or concern. What kind of place was this, totally devoid of any loyalties? And what kind of friend would Balla make? She blinked and turned away.
They were the only ones in the bathing room and Balla showed her how to rub a scented paste of oil and apparently some kind of sand on her hands and feet, chattering away, "Don't worry about getting all the dirt off right away. My feet and hands looked like a common worker's when I first arrived too. This paste will clean them off after a few days."