A Harem Fantasy Ch. 03bymadam_noe©
Over the next four days it happened five times again. Then we reached the city and all thoughts of anything else flew out my head.
Caldor was huge. The buildings had as many as ten floors, how they did it I had no idea, but in the middle of it all was a giant pyramid, the royal palace. We arrived two hours after dusk and rode through town. I suffered many stares and points at my hair as everyone here had the browns typical of the south lands, a few blondes like Cassipe wandered in, from the north, even a few westerners with their jet black hair. I stared at them as they did me having never seen one, and I guess they had never seen one of me either.
The palace was guarded heavily not just by women with long swords and spears, their chests covered in metal plates of armor, but behind them men. The men were all massive and muscled, their own armor heavy, their swords impossibly large.
Cassipe stopped us outside the gate and made me bade my maids goodbye. We hugged tearfully as he waited impassively in the setting sun, and then I was alone with him and three cases of our clothing.
It was strange, as we walked the official looking women kept their eyes lowered at me, as Cassipe kept his lowered to them. My suspicions had been confirmed, he was lower than I, but I supposed it didn't matter.
The stones here were medium golden, like shiny sand, and every inch that could be was lined with actual gold. Every hall and door was framed with torches and the effect was glowing. It made Cassipe blend in, like most of these southern people with their tanned skin. I stuck out like a white candle taper, both by my white robes and my skin, my hair a deeper red than any flame.
An official gatekeeper read the scroll Cassipe presented and brought forth a young woman in scholar's robes.
"Welcome to the palace, I am Halfath. Cassipe, you have been summoned by Dracus." She waited as did we. "Cassipe? Do you not remember where it is? Have the years changed your memory so much?"
"Will she be all right?"
Halfath stepped closer to me. "Your charge has been excellently executed. She is safe, and she is home. Do show more care to hide your feelings, Cassipe."
I'd never seen him chastised, but this did it. He nodded, bowed to her and then me, and turned to leave. I twisted my head to follow him and Halfath put a hand on my shoulder. "You too. His life depends on the fact that all he is to you is a teacher, that and nothing more." She looked side to side but no one was close enough to listen, and she bent to my ear. "He will return to the harem if all is well, and you'll see him again." She stood up with a smile, though her eyes did not meet mine. "Come now, let's get you settled."
She turned to lead me down the deeply colored hall and through others, taking twists and turns until we were deep in the pyramid. And then we began to climb. When at last we stopped I saw we were higher than the other buildings, almost to the top. The stairs continued up or there was a door, flanked by two female guards, and two male ones.
They nodded to Halfath and opened the doors, and we stepped into another world. We were on a platform that wrapped around the stairwell and looked down over a huge room. One side was all blue and green walls, the other all gold and red. Halfath wound me towards the golden side and we descended past more guards into the section.
The walls did not reach to the ceiling, instead they rose ten feet and wound like a maze. On this side women lounged or walked, mostly in groupings of two or three, some slept on beds somehow through the light din of conversation and laughter.
From somewhere music flowed and I caught the sound of a waterfall. A waterfall, indoors! My eyes were wide and I felt quite the country mouse as I walked further down. I noticed the women were all young, most of them priestesses, a few even knights like myself, and they were all staring at me.
"Why do they stare?" I whispered to my guide.
"Your hair. Unless you prove to be...unworthy, you are to be second to the queen."
I don't think anything she could have said would have shocked me more than that. My feet followed automatically, one hand on a case of clothes, the other nervously toying with my sword. Halfath carried my other case as she led me through twists and turns to the back of the pyramid.
Here the walls were taller, the colors more soothing, the women taller. All off them priestesses and knights, all of them dark or blonde, tanned by the southern sun, and all of them watched me.
Halfath stopped me at the last room before a set of white stairs. At the top more guards waited, also watching. The door to this cell was gauzy and shimmery gold, and Halfath held it aloft. I stepped through into a strange world.
At home I was given few luxuries. Clothes, yes, but my bed was meager, my room large enough to house a chest, my bed, a dressing screen, and two beds for my maids.
This room was three times as large, the stone floor covered in soft animal skins and thick rugs. The bed was tall and soft looking, the sheets white, the wood dark, four posts rose from the corners and a canopy hung over, draped with more white cloth. Very private.
In the corner a dressing screen of rich silk partitioned off a corner next to a soft couch. There was a large chest with drawers, and a small desk topped with a mirror was crammed with jars. One fifth of the room was hidden behind another wall, this one did go to the ceiling.
I peaked inside and found a bowl with a seat, a small washbasin with flowing water at about waist height, and a lager washbasin I could fit myself and three other inside.
Halfath smiled and set my suitcase on the chest of drawers before taking the one I held and setting it there as well. "This is your home. The queen's quarters are up the stairs, and this section is for the first tier. Everyone here is a high priestess and a knight, so you'll be in good company."
She clapped her hands and two women appeared, both short and dark, their skin so bronzed it was hard to tell the original color. "Chas and Lile here will unpack your things. I will give you one hour to freshen up and redress, and then we will take a tour."
She left me then and the women had bowed and set to unpacking. "Freshen up?" I asked the nearest one.
She bowed and opened a drawer, passing me a bar of soap and a vial of liquid, passing them to me. "The water runs here like a fountain. In the large basin you can plug the drain until it fills. Simply unplug it and twist the knob to turn off the flow. The vial is for your hair."
I opened my mouth and she smiled. "The pedestal seat is where you..." She made vague gestures and I understood. How advanced!
It took half of the hour to bathe the trail dust off and then the maids dressed me in a white down with blue-green trim. They dried my hair with a complicated bellows and set to braiding it.
To my shock they approached me with the jars and brushes as I sat at the mirrored desk, and when I protested, they laughed. My eyes were lined with kohl, the lids brushed with a light color reflecting the blue-green of my eyes. My lips were lined and filled in with a pouty red rouge.
When they were done I looked magnificent. I wore much less makeup than any of the women I'd seen outside had, but I looked just as polished.
I was not allowed to clasp my sword, was told I did no need it, and instead hammered gold bands designed like snakes were wound around my left upper arm and my right wrist. A gold snake with green eyes fashioned into a diadem was settled into my hair.
I did not look like myself, I looked...
The maids chuckled as I thanked them. Country mouse manners, I guessed, but I could not let them go without a word of thanks.
"You look amazing, as you should," Halfath said behind me. I stood, turned to her, and she bowed. "Are you ready?"
She led me out and down the line of cells, the women were lined up next to the doors. Halfath nodded to them as we went, introducing them by name. I was so excited I could not keep them straight, but I did notice who looked friendly and who did not.
The rows were arranged by tiers, the top tier was women who were knights and priestesses, the second knights, the third priestesses, the fourth highborn women of no distinction, the fifth and last lowborn women. There were fifty women and I was told there were twice as many men, but seeing them would come later.
I was shown the gym, the heated pool baths, the library, the training room, the private study rooms, and a myriad of parlors. There were three dining halls, all serviced by dumbwaiters leading to the kitchens below.
The women of the harem were all tall, only the servants were short, and I was the only one with red hair. I wasn't surprised, my mother had strawberry blonde hair and of my six siblings I was the only one to inherit the red. Still, I always had a hard time believing the prophecies in the Caldorian religion, that my hair was a mark of leadership and spiritual harmony that inclined me to leadership. I was only a cloistered eighteen year old who felt like a twelve year old country hick, and it felt strange that no one there would meet me in the eyes.
The men's quarters were laid out the same way but I was not yet given a tour, only had Halfath wave her hand over it. Instead she brought me to a small room off the dining room and had me seated with the five other women that were priestesses and knights.
I sat at the head of the table and to my right were two brunettes, to my left two blondes, and at the foot another brunette with the most striking eyes I'd ever seen. They were large and lavender, dominating her doll-like face.
Halfath reintroduced them all. Lavender was Mystrike, the brunettes were Morganna and Gorgent, the blondes were Missiply and Annist, twins of the same face. No one spoke as we ate formally and it was all I could do to remember my manners. Missiply, Annist, and Morganna snuck looks at me, while Mystrike gave me a hard look, and Gorgent looked at her.
I knew who would like me, I knew who hated me. This was the inner circle and I wished all of us could like each other, but as long as I knew where we all stood I was fine.
After the meal Halfath returned just as Annist was asking me about my life, only to take me to the white stairs. I trembled under the hot torches and bronze bowls, surrounded by dark golds and bright reds, and women wearing all manner so colors, still feeling like a white candle amidst a fire.
The guards held us at the stairs while one went inside to announce my arrival. Then both tall doors were opened and I stepped into a jungle. I knew jungles existed further south, but someone had made one in the pyramid palace.
Green plants were everywhere and the soft call of animals rang out. We walked a path behind a guard and emerged in a large room open to the night. Brightly colored birds sat on perches or the railings, the couches were all red with gold trim. Silks hung from the walls and everywhere I looked it was gold.
Behind a large desk sat the queen, and I realized the color preference. Her hair wasn't really red, it was auburn, and her skin was olive and deeply tanned, her eyes large and green. Her own gown was gold, the perfect color, and the red set off her skin well.
As Halfath did I lowered onto one knee until her cool voice ordered me to rise. I looked at her and saw she really was young. I knew her to be twenty four but she looked even younger, her body lithe and long even if she was petite. Goddess help me, I thought I was prettier, and in the back of my mind I knew that if she did not find me attractive, if she thought me a rival, I was dead.
She smiled and I felt relief wash over me.
"You are Virtal of the Northlands, yes?"
I bowed and spoke softly, "Yes."
"You are to be my second. Come and meet your counterpart."
She walked to me and clasped my hands within hers. I was not foolish enough to look her in the eyes or relax, but I walked with her as she brought me fully out of the foliage and into the room. Seated on a couch reading a map was a man of inscribable beauty.
He was tall, perfectly muscled, bronze skinned, his hair long, curled, and black as pitch. His eyes were large and blue, a startling color for a southerner. I estimated his age at perhaps nine Vernals above my own. His body was shown to perfection as he wore only a bathrobe and sandals, not unusual for a man, but strange for a male knight. Such people did exist, and when she said equal that's what I assumed. Perhaps he was also a rare priest of Caldor.
"He is my consort Marxim," she said, and I realized she meant equal in the harem.
He I could look in the eye and he me, and I saw surprise quickly masked into cool friendship. He stood and bowed as I did and we turned to the queen, waiting.
"What do you think of Virtal of the North?" The queen asked Marxim sweetly.
"I know nothing of her, my lady," he answered with measured correctness.
"How old are you Virtal?"
"I have seen eighteen Vernals, my lady."
"A mere child. I didn't want a child, how could her teacher not know this?" Marxim and I snuck a look at each other in confusion. This question was not meant to be answered, but it could lead down a dangerous path.
"Virtal, know you the ways of man and woman?"
I did not want to lie but I could not tell the truth, not if Cassipe wanted to live. "This last Vernal I was initiated as I should have been."
"I do not want anyone in my harem until they are of age. Eighteen! And her teacher comes to me, tells me the priest I sent was murdered and he fears for her safety. Not my problem! More to the point, if she carries danger on her back, why bring her to my doorstep?"
I felt fear suddenly. I had been in danger? Why had Cassipe not told me anything?
"My lady, perhaps she can be allowed to remain here finish her education in Caldor until she is of age." Marxim said quietly.
The queen began to pace. "I need an heir. I need one now, but she must be everything a queen can be. Not a slip of a girl who knows nothing of battle, of love."
I held my tongue, wondering if the queen was always such a dramatic person, or if she knew something I did not about her fate. "I have no time now, and I don't even think I like her."
She didn't know me! I stiffened and felt the slight touch of Marxim's elbow against my arm, somehow reassuring. It seemed this queen was of high temper, but surely she had been raised as I had, made to work hard and live without, to learn patience and the benefit of thought?
"Do you even know how to give pleasure?" She whirled about at me, stepping close, and I realized I was nearly a foot taller.
"Yes," I said simply, confused.
She looked me up and down in an assessing manner and snorted. "It will not do. Marxim?"
"Yes?" he responded softly.
"You will see to her education, a proper education. Do not return her to me until she knows of our ways. All of our ways."
He bowed deeply. "Yes, my lady. Come with me," he said to me and took my arm.
I followed him back outside, past the guards, and across the balcony to the green stairs. "Where are we going?"
"To begin your education. Your first lesson; when the queen orders something she expects it to be immediately carried out."
I followed him down into a row of rooms much like the row I now lived in. At the sound of his footsteps men stepped out and lined up much as the women had.
"This is my room," he motioned to the one that shared a wall with mine. "The men on this level are all priests and knights, that is why there are so few."
There were three.
"This is Uloga," he stopped at the first. Uloga was my height, his hair sandy blonde, his skin a light gold, his eyes a brown so deep they looked black. He was bare-chested and there were tattoos and battle scars on his frame underlying his age which I put at thirty five Vernals. He nodded, but kept his eyes down.
"This is Markal," Marxim said of the next. He was an inch shorter than I, his hair a deep rich brown, his skin olive like the queens but darker. He had the same tattoos, the equivalent I surmised of what my ankles bore, and his muscles were smooth. His chest had a thick smattering of hair and to me he smelled like cinnamon. Markal's eyes did not meet mine but he smiled as he nodded.
"And this is Lucius," Marxim said of the last. He was almost as tall as Marxim, several inches over myself, and had the light blonde hair of a far Northerner. His eyes were a green I'd never seen before, the same shade as the queen's jungle, and what stood out most to me was that he seemed to be my age.
He met my eyes and for that I smiled.
"Come along and meet the priests," Marxim said, and took me to the stairs down. The priests were four, men of distinction and variegated coloring, one even the rarest of our people, an ebony warrior priest from the small island of Tropalica.
From there Marxim took me to a green paneled study, lined with shelves crammed with books. It was a warm place, and he set me on a couch before sitting on one across from me.
"Cassipe is a good man, but he no doubt taught you of the way it was under the old queen. Things are different under the new queen."
"How so?" I asked with great curiosity.
"As the Queen's second, under her rule, you will be expected to follow her behavior."
He shifted uncomfortably, reminding me somehow of my eldest brother. "You must take another member of the harem to your bed every night while in residence. Never the same two nights in a row, never the same more than once in a week save your consort.
"You will choose your consort of Uloga, Markal, or Lucius. They will see to your needs as required, and they will be exempt from the limits on visits. And, Virtal, you must take at least one woman to your bed every week."
I swallowed at that but had been expecting such. "You may only choose from the top two tiers of the harem as the Queen's second," he continued. "That's fifteen women and eight men."
"Eight?" I asked as he made nine.
"As queen's consort I can touch no other. Be aware the same will be true of your consort."
"How cruel!" I said without thinking, and he cast his blue eyes down.
"Yes," Marxim agreed, bitterly. "In town as you well know we sleep in the day, live in the night. Under the queen you will assist her in greeting the moons each night while she is in town. You will accompany her to functions as needed. Halfarth will direct you in those matters; in the harem I will be your teacher. It is late and I am needed back with the queen. Which man should I send to you?"
Shock rolled through me. "T-tonight?"
He nodded. "It happens all so fast when you arrive, but that is the will of the queen."
My head swam and I wondered if I should pick the least threatening or the most experienced. "I don't know who."
He smiled. "I have an excellent idea. Wait here, Virtal."
He touched my shoulder in a comforting way as if he knew how scared I was. I knew nothing truly in the ways of men and women and I was not to know about pleasure, though what Cassipe had given me was wonderful.
I was alone for long minutes, listening to the sounds of late night in the harem. There was people talking, people yelling, people...screaming as I had with pleasure, men grunting. From somewhere came the soft music, moving with a steady beat that I heard squeaks moving to.
I moved to the floor where a fur rug stretched out, and it was soft. I stroked it with my fingertips, feeling how wonderful the beast had been.
"Oh," a man said behind me and I looked over my shoulder.
All I could do was gasp. Lucius, Uloga, and Markal were all standing in the doorway watching me. They were handsome, all in their own way, and my heart pounded. Just what did this mean?