Sweet Liberation, Chapter One

One

 

Bentley House, Mayfair

September 1781

“Get your filthy hands off me.” Joanna gritted her teeth, kicked harder and tried to twist free of the black-hearted brute holding her prisoner. Her boot met with a chair—not the man for whom she’d aimed. A pair of hands attempted to corral her legs. Panic crawled up her spine.

Her bedside lamp hit the floor, glass shards skittered across the polished wood, oil fumes permeated the air.

She dug her teeth into the hand over her mouth, gaining a moment to ground out, “Why?”

“Well, well, Joanna.” Her step-uncle’s gruff voice stopped her struggles. “Surprising to find you have somewhat of a spine after all, though little help it does you.” His hand whipped dismissively through the air. “Gag and tie her up. It appears my niece isn’t anxious to meet her intended.”

This couldn’t be happening. “For the love of God, Uncle Horace, tell me why?”

He turned back, his expression of utter contempt visible in the glow cast by the flickering hall light. “Your grandfather owed me more than the pittance he left. I’m taking my share.”

“How could you expect to inherit something to which you have no right?” A sob of pure terror threatened to choke her.

A jagged streak of lightning split the night sky through the bedchamber window, its earsplitting thunder vibrated within Joanna’s breastbone. Her step-uncle started at the sudden noise. He wouldn’t answer. He knew she was right. Horace Pecklewhite narrowed his bulging bloodshot eyes. “Her prince awaits. Take her away.” He sneered.

One man shoved a wad of linen sheeting into her mouth and tied a strip of material around her head to hold it in place. The other man trussed her like an animal. Wild desperation, abject fear, utter despair sank in as they hauled her through the darkened halls and out the stately double doors of Bentley House. Rain soaked her navy blue riding habit, mixing with the tears trickling down her cheeks. Her back hit the bench when they tossed her in the waiting coach, pain radiated down her legs. She struggled to sit up and watched her home disappear from view. None of the servants, sleeping peacefully and tucked away under the eaves on the fourth floor, could’ve heard her brief cries for help before she was silenced.

Elizabeth! Dear God, how she needed her sister’s help. Surely her brother-in-law Robert could put a stop to this, but they had no clue this devious plot was afoot.

Tears coursed down her cheeks and soaked the cloth. Pain screamed through her arms wrenched at an awkward angle behind her back. She slid and bounced on her bench in the hack as it careened wildly through the streets of London. The two men across from her never once tried to keep her from tossing about, nor did they utter a sound. Their expressionless faces remained averted. She caught glimpses of their profiles in the passing street lamps and the last bit of hope of convincing them to free her died.

Joanna eyed them with alarm, noting their odd clothing and turban-wrapped heads. They wore over-long beards and were swarthy complexioned. Unnerved by their blatant disregard, she closed her eyes and laid her head on the cracked leather seat. The moment she had retired for the night and heard the key turn in the lock of her bedchamber door she knew something dreadful was underway. It all made sense now. All the clues to her impending demise had been there if she’d only understood the significance of her step-uncle’s newfound preoccupation with all things Turkish.

The ominous clink of the key as Joanna slipped beneath the covers of her bed sent warning bells clanging through her mind. She should’ve left off the dratted stays, the tangled knots of the lacing dug into the small of her back even now. Five minutes more and she would’ve been out her window and down the ivy-covered trellis. Five minutes more and she would’ve had her beloved Annan saddled. A stinking five minutes more and she would’ve been on her way to Elizabeth in Cornwall.

No one could save her now from Horace’s evil plan to sell her to a Turkish prince. Robert had tried and failed to win the court’s guardianship appointment. Joanna silently railed at the corrupt British judicial system. No doubt her uncle easily bribed the judge presiding over her stewardship.

She hadn’t a clue what awaited her. A shiver of fear rippled down her back. The stench of rotting fish gagged her behind the rag stuffed in her mouth. The unmistakable sound of lapping water indicated the Thames nearby. She tugged at the rope binding her wrists, but the rough hemp scraped her flesh raw. There has to be some way out, some way to save myself.

The carriage came to a rocking halt on its squeaky springs. The smaller man flung the door open and stepped out while the other hauled her from the bench. He slung Joanna over his shoulder and carried her onto a wharf where the masts of large ships loomed like an eerie forest of giant straight-limbed trees. She twisted her head from side to side trying to spy anyone who might help her. None but a few drunken sailors stumbled aimlessly in the rain. Her whimpers were lost in the whipping wind and waves lashing against the hulls.

They carried her onto the deck of a mid-sized ship then down to a dark cabin. Her captor dropped her onto a soft bed. He lit a hurricane lamp swinging on a pivot affixed to the wall. The yellow glow of light illuminated her captor’s black eyes and shaggy beard. She stiffened when his rough hands touched her ankles. A moment of relief flooded through her whilst the rope binding them was cut and he released her bound wrists. The pain of stabbing needles struck when she attempted to bring her numb arms back to her front. Joanna spat on the man the moment he removed her gag. “Filthy pig. May you rot in hell for your part in this evil deed.”

A lecherous grin, revealing a row of perfect white teeth, split his face. Joanna recoiled and breathed a quick prayer of thanks as he spun on his heel and left. The cabin door shut and a key turned in the lock. She was left cold, wet, and alone. Within moments the loud clatter of the heavy anchor rose and the creaking ship moved.

Blood returned to her tortured extremities. Joanna rolled off the bed and tried to lift the door latch, even knowing it was useless. She ran to the bank of windows at the rear of the cabin, opened one pane and stuck her head out. Nausea roiled in her belly at the great distance between her and the water below. ‘Twouldn’t do any good to jump unless she was ready to commit suicide—she didn’t know how to swim. She looked upward and gasped. A row of men stared down at her, no doubt prepared to recover her if she dared to take her chances in the river.

Deflated, Joanna pulled her head in and latched the window. There wasn’t anything for it but to wait until they reached land to find a way off the ship. She crossed the cabin and curled up on the bed, shocked at how easy it was for her loathsome step-uncle to sell her. If only her mother and father hadn’t died…if only Elizabeth and Robert had succeeded in gaining her guardianship…if only she had thought to escape through her bedchamber window a few minutes sooner.

If only…

Instead, she was now bound for a foreign land to wed a prince she despised with her whole being. If not for that one fateful dance with the exotic stranger, she’d never have come to his attention, nor would Horace have thought up this dastardly exchange. Somehow, some way she had to save herself.

* * * *

Trevor Morgan, the Marquess of Westhaven, impatiently paced outside of the privy chamber while awaiting an audience with the king. He hoped His Majesty wouldn’t give him a difficult time for rudely waking him at eight-thirty in the morn—long ere his usual rising.

Trevor fell in step with a servant sent to escort him into the monarch’s inner sanctum. He also prayed the king would be of good cheer. The weight of political intrigues or the king’s unusual interest in botany sometimes kept him up until the wee hours.

King George sat in a chair by the fireplace in a plush purple robe, his face framed by a white fur collar and his slippered feet propped on a footstool. Wisps of his gray hair stood upon his balding pate in wild disarray. The glow of the roaring flames in the magnificent fireplace lent a healthy hue to the king’s pallid complexion. Trevor glimpsed the sovereign’s frown before he bowed low and remained in a subservient pose.

“Enough, Westhaven. Have a seat.” He signaled his servant to pour Trevor a cup of coffee. “We hope you have a very good reason for waking us at this ungodly hour.”

“Forgive me for the intrusion, Sire. I am here on a mission of mercy on behalf of the Lady Joanna Bentley.” He took a sip of the dark fragrant brew as tendrils of steam curled lazily above the hot liquid.

“We have not met the lady. She has not been presented at court, has she?”

“No. She was to have been the day before her come-out, but Your Majesty was indisposed. Two days past her debut her parents were killed in a carriage accident. Her year of mourning ended two weeks ago.”

“Are you the lady’s guardian?” The king frowned, clearly trying to ascertain why Trevor was concerning himself with the lady.

He sat the cup on the table beside him then leaned forward with arms propped across his knees. “No, Sire, I am not. Her step-uncle Horace Pecklewhite, Viscount Holcomb is, and…”

The king interrupted. “Then why is Pecklewhite not here petitioning on her behalf?”

“Because, Sire, he is the source of Lady Joanna’s difficulty. He betrothed the lady against her will to Prince Ahmed of Istanbul and hid it from her sister, Elizabeth, and brother-in-law, Robert Whicker, Viscount Halseton. We don’t know how the arrangements were made or how Pecklewhite knew of the prince’s desire to possess the lady, but she’s to board an Ottoman ship bound for Turkey.”

“How do you know this?”

“Robert hired an investigator to discover the means by which Pecklewhite was able to retain Joanna’s guardianship. The investigator followed Horace to a dockside tavern and overheard a conversation he had with a Turk.”

The king whistled slowly through his front teeth. He stared into the crackling fire as he spoke. “She will be forced to accept Islam. Live in a harem. One of four wives to the Prince along with his three hundred or so other concubines.” Anger suffused the king’s face, his protruding eyes seemed to bulge even further when the full implication dawned. “How dare the man! No one forges such an alliance without royal permission. When and where is the marriage to take place?”

“In Istanbul upon her arrival. The prince’s ship is due to leave port at London Bridge at nine this morning with Lady Joanna aboard unless Your Majesty orders it stopped.”

“Why is Halseton not her guardian?”

“Robert petitioned the court, but was denied. Apparently Pecklewhite has greased someone’s palm.”

The king’s eyes narrowed. “We shall get to the bottom of this.”

Trevor sighed. “Robert will share his investigator’s findings. In the meantime…”

“Even if wedding the prince would help strengthen our relations with the Ottoman Empire, the union is absolutely untenable. Protestant ladies do not become Islamic concubines. We cannot abide a member of the peerage callously using an innocent lady for personal gain—especially with total disregard for the wishes of her family.” The king slightly shook his head. “Why is the Duke of Whittington not her guardian? He is her uncle, is he not?”

“The Duke is out of the country. Since Pecklewhite was here in London, and a step-uncle, the court awarded him guardianship. When Pecklewhite insisted Robert and Lady Elizabeth, Joanna’s elder sister, marry before her year of mourning was over, Robert sent the Duke a letter, but has not heard from him. Neither Robert, nor Elizabeth, knew Pecklewhite had a villainous plan afoot to profit from the betrothal of the younger sister at the time. I believe they assumed Robert would easily obtain guardianship of his sister-in-law once he wed Elizabeth.”

“Demn, what a mess. We do not like having to put a nobleman, no matter his rank, in the Tower, but we have no choice. Where is the man?”

“Sire, Lady Joanna will be on a ship bound for Istanbul within half an hour unless a decree is sent to detain its departure.”

The king inclined his head in agreement then bellowed for his secretary waiting outside for such a summons.

The wiry built little man bowed his way in with his writing case. He set out his implements on a writing stand and placed his spectacles on the bridge of his beaked nose.

“Send an order for the ship…” He looked to Trevor for the name.

“I don’t know the name, but it’s an Ottoman vessel preparing to depart.”

“Dispatch guards to find the ship and have it detained. We want the Lady Joanna Bentley escorted to the palace. We will have speech with her at three this afternoon. Send an order for Horace Pecklewhite, Viscount Holcomb, to be placed in the Tower immediately.” He turned to Trevor again. “Where can he be found?”

“At Bentley House, Sire.”

“Make haste with the first order, Thomas. The ship is due to sail in less than twenty minutes.”

The secretary sanded the order, impressed the king’s seal in the hot wax he dripped onto the bottom of the parchment, then rolled and tied it with a length of black ribbon.

The man scurried from the room and Trevor heaved a sigh of relief. He rose to his feet then bent down on one knee. “Thank you, Sire. I’m forever your faithful servant.”

“Enough of the knee-bending, Westhaven. You know you are always welcome here, as few people are. We expect to see you anon for a good game of chess. Every other opponent lets us win, which we hate.” He chuckled. “But make sure ’tis well past noon when you return!”

Trevor stepped out of the king’s inner sanctum and knew the worst had occurred. His wife Katie, Robert, and Elizabeth were supposed to thwart Horace at Bentley House by whatever means necessary. If they were here pacing the palace corridor then their plan had gone awry.

“The ship has set sail.” Robert scowled fiercely. “I should’ve laid Pecklewhite flat instead of simply ordering him out of Bentley House.” His eyes narrowed. “He had the unmitigated gall to strut with glee when he informed us Joanna sailed in the night.”

Trevor ran his hand through his hair. He walked down the long passageway toward the front entrance to the royal edifice, Robert by his side and their wives following. His groom, waiting at the palace entrance with the coach, held the door open and pulled down the step to assist the ladies in, then shut it behind the men after Trevor directed him to Morgan House on Berkeley.

“Only one person we know can save her now.” Trevor caught Robert’s eye.

“I considered him, myself, but how ever will we find him?”

“It so happens I received a letter from him a month ago. He was preparing to leave Havana.”

“Will he never give up that life?” Robert shook his head.

“He said he had plans for the castle, but I doubt that will hold his attention for long. Nothing does. Hopefully he’ll accept this as one of those challenges he always craves.” Trevor leaned his head back and closed his tired eyes.

* * * *

The sound of a key rattling in the lock woke Joanna at once. She swung her legs over the edge of the overstuffed featherbed and a brightly dressed Negro man entered with a large tray. He placed it on an intricately carved dining table surrounded by six matching chairs set in the center of her prison. The exact opposite of the man last night, this one smiled rather benignly at her.

He turned and bowed low. “Good morning, Vali Ahad Zevcesi. Welcome aboard the Seven Winds.” His voice was melodic and heavily accented. “I am Akbar. Mahamet or I will serve you and see to your needs. Jani will arrive shortly to see to your personal care. Whatever you desire, ask and we will provide—if possible.” He bowed then started to back out of the cabin.

Vali Ahad Zevcesi? Joanna ignored whatever he’d just called her. She had no clue what it meant. “Wait! Will I be allowed out of this prison?” She wasted her scowl upon the man, for his eyes focused with apparent distaste on her wrinkled riding habit.

“This is not your prison, Vali Ahad Zevcesi. Your husband, Vali Ahad-i-Sultanat Ahmed, has provided his private ship and personal cabin for your comfort. You will be allowed on deck to take the air whenever you wish. He has also provided the finest clothing for you in the wardrobe. Mahamet is bringing bath water. Please eat while the food is hot.” He backed out of the room bowing again then shut the door.

No matter what they chose to call it, it was still a prison. She looked around with a jaundiced eye. Everything was opulently appointed in a decadent sort of way. Red and black sheer curtains draped the bed on which she sat and piles of tasseled silk pillows littered every nook and cranny around the cabin. Billows of white and blue silk reminiscent of clouds and sky draped the low ceiling. A majestic desk held court in front of a bank of windows, a wooden tray holding a few knickknacks and a mounted brass hurricane lamp decorated its gleaming surface. The wardrobe and a beautifully carved privacy screen sat opposite the bed. The top of a door was visible behind the divider. All the furniture in the room was anchored to the floor.

She slid from the bed and her boots sank into thick, fluffy black carpet. A pattern she couldn’t quite make out surrounded its border, mayhap some sort of maze woven in shimmering gold. Many such carpets were scattered around the large room.

Joanna walked to the tray to investigate the offering under the silver lid. Coddled eggs, kippered herring, crumpets and a cup of tea. She replaced the dome. She peered behind the screen and found a washstand, vanity with mirror, and a bath. Her chin dropped when, looking closely at the enameled details, she discovered nude females in various poses covering the tub inside and out. Joanna had to pry her fascinated regard from the indecent masterpiece. She should’ve been shocked, but it was really quite beautiful.

A painful longing for the simplistic life she once led made her heart ache. What was she going to do? There had to be a way to gain her freedom. Elizabeth would be beside herself with worry and sadness. Robert, as a viscount, could surely petition the king to demand her return, but how would they even know what had happened to her? Could he force Horace to confess he sold her to Prince Ahmed?

Joanna glanced past the screen to the cabin door. Akbar had left it unlocked. The realization did little good since they were now miles from shore. When they reached land she would plan her escape and find whatever transport she could to Cornwall. There wasn’t a thing to be done at this moment other than find a change of clothes and fill her empty belly.

Another man, presumably Mahamet, entered without a knock. Joanna’s jaw dropped. “What is the meaning of this? ‘Tis unacceptable to enter a lady’s chamber without warning.”

He bowed. “It is not customary for a servant to knock before entering a room when no shoes are at its entrance, Vali Ahad Zevcesi. You will become accustomed to the intrusion by the end of the voyage to Istanbul.”

“Then your customs are absurd. What if I had been undressed or indisposed?”

He had the unmitigated gall to ignore her. How dare he!

“Are you listening to me?”

Mahamet carried two buckets of steaming water to the bathtub then returned to the companionway several times, retrieving more. “Yes, Vali Ahad Zevcesi, but your outrage over this is meaningless. It is the way of the harem and so you will become accustomed.” He opened the wardrobe and removed several items of clothing, laying them on the bed, then disappeared behind the screen with a thick towel.

A very young boy garbed in the same garish livery slipped in and quietly shut the door behind him. He wore a red turban over his curly black hair, a pair of bright red taffeta pants, a white heavily embroidered shirt, a gold sash tied about his waist, and red pointy-toed slippers. He was possessed of features so soft and delicate, Joanna first believed him a girl. He appeared around two-and-ten years old. He stood beside the screen with his hands clasped before him and his head erect. Mahamet came from behind the room divider.

“Jani will help you with your clothing and bath. He is also trained to arrange your hair and apply your henna and kohl.”

Joanna stared at the two, uncomprehending for a moment. “A boy is to help me in my bath? You must be daft.” Both males simply stared back. A snort of incredulity escaped her nose. Everything seemed surreal. So bizarre in fact, she could almost convince herself she was snug in her bed at Bentley House and this was but a dream.

“You have nothing to fear. Jani is a full eunuch and has been since the age of ten.”

“How does his nationality figure into this?” These people and their customs were unfathomable.

Mahamet’s eyebrows rose. “A eunuch is male who has been castrated.”

“Castrated? Like a gelding?” That’s it. These Turks were absolutely insane. “Why? Why would a man do that to himself?”

“He did not do it. His master had it done to him so that he would have no urges of a sexual nature and therefore could be trained to serve in Prince Ahmed’s harem as a personal servant. You must treat him as you would your own personal lady’s maid. Akbar and I are also eunuchs.”

Joanna shook her head, trying to understand such a barbaric practice and the unnecessary reason behind it. “Why not just have female servants see to the personal needs of the women?”

“They also serve the women, but male eunuchs are stronger and more capable of protecting the odalisques from defilement should an invader breach the security of the harem.”

Joanna breathed deeply through her nostrils to calm her rising angst. If she didn’t escape, how on earth could she reconcile her life to such an untenable existence? How many women were in this harem place and what was their purpose? The threat of defilement must be great to have to resort to castrating men to use as ladies’ maids. “Then send in a woman to see to my needs.”

“I am sorry, Vali Ahad Zevcesi, but you are the only female on this ship. The female slaves of the harem must remain in the harem. We have each been chosen for our special areas of expertise in training the new wives for the prense. He especially selected Jani for his unique skills in teaching the art of seduction. He will show you exactly the ways to please your husband.”

“Cease calling him my husband.” Joanna closed her eyes in frustration.

“Yes, Vali Ahad Zevcesi.”

“What does that even mean?” She growled.

“That is your title as the wife of Prense Ahmed.”

“I’m not his wife and I never agreed to the betrothal. Are women in your society so disrespected? Are women allowed no rights in your country? I’ll never willingly marry with Prince Ahmed. Never.”

“I understand this was not your choice, but women in our culture have their lives decided for them. I have heard in your country daughters have always had their husbands chosen for them, also, so in this respect we are no different.”

Joanna rubbed her aching temples. She silently railed against fate, mankind, God for doing this to her. She was Lady Joanna Amelia Marie Bentley, daughter of the late Earl and Countess of Bentley, and heiress to a large fortune. How could this happen to her? She gritted her teeth.

Apparently, no man alive considered what a woman wanted. Arguing with the servant availed her nothing. Their lives weren’t their own to rule, as hers wasn’t. From her perspective, however, a huge difference existed. She would somehow gain control of her own life. If eunuchs chose to be subjugated by someone else it was their choice. A mind with a strong enough volition could find a way. Desperation and determination coursed through Joanna’s breast.

Defeated for the nonce, she sighed. “Address me as my lady in whatever language you choose. I want no part of his title.”

Mahamet bowed. “Very well, benim leydi.” He left the cabin with a sigh of his own while Jani came forward and led her to the vanity bench to remove her footwear.

Joanna sucked in her breath when her pin money she’d secreted in her boot fell out. Jani chuckled. He scooped it up and deposited it on the vanity tray. She blushed as he proceeded to remove her riding habit and she grabbed at the pouch of her jewelry tied to her waist as Jani whisked it away. “Give that back.” She stood and twisted to reach for her precious possessions.

“No worry. You will keep your jewels.” He placed the bag on the tray with her coins.

The contents of the pouch was all she had left of her mother and father. Jani reached down to grab the hem of her shift and she swatted his hands away. “I’m not helpless. I can bathe myself.”

“It is my duty, benim leydi. This is my task in the harem, to care for the one I am assigned.” The young eunuch’s jaw set at an obstinate angle as he reached for her hem again. Joanna twisted away and bumped into the edge of the tub and fell in with a splash. Jani almost fell on top of her, gasping as he caught the opposite rim. Water dripped from his eyelashes, nose, and chin.

The eunuch scrambled to stand up then took a towel and dried his face. He crossed his arms over his wet shirt and drew in a loud breath through his nose. Joanna narrowed her eyes and twirled her finger in a circle. He turned his back on her and she righted herself in the tub and drew off her soaked shift. It landed with a plop when she dropped it over the edge. She hugged her knees to her chest. Jani picked up a soft cloth and soap and she yanked them out of his hands. A battle of wills ensued—he refused to leave and she refused to relinquish the items.

Was this battle one worth fighting? Joanna had an inkling this was a minor skirmish compared to what was to come from Mahamet and Akbar. How they intended to prepare her for the prince was a truly frightening prospect. She stared Jani down until he turned his back. Joanna smiled in triumph then scrunched her face, puzzled, when he sat on a three-legged stool and constantly agitated the water with the fingers of one hand.

“How old are you, Jani?” Joanna tried to relax, but it was nigh impossible. She hurried through her bath, even though the water’s warmth beckoned her to merely lie back and relax.

“I am seven-and-ten summers, benim leydi.”

Joanna lifted one lid to eye the man-child. One year younger than she, yet not even the faintest glimpse of manly facial hair, nor the deepening voice that normally appeared by the age of four-and-ten.

“You will become accustomed to us in time, benim leydi. We eunuchs can be your most trusted friends and allies in the harem.”

“Ally? Harem? Both sound rather ominous.”

“Some of the houris can be somewhat spiteful and jealous of the prense’s chosen couch-mate. Especially if he appears to spend an inordinate amount of attention on one more than the others. It is good to have a friend whom you can always count on to keep you safe.”

Not unlike some London seasons filled with new debutants, it seemed. The gossip mills forever churned on the antics of spiteful young ladies. “Do you serve other women in the harem?”

“No. You are my first. I have been sequestered in the eunuch’s wing, learning the ways of pleasure under the tutelage of Jevher, the kizler agasi.”

“This is all wrong, Jani. I don’t believe God made men to become eunuchs to serve women in their private bath and to teach them things that seem sinful.”

“In that, I believe all eunuchs who did not choose this way of life would agree with you, benim leydi.” A wistful note colored his voice.

“Some eunuchs choose to become eunuchs?”

“Yes. For some boys and grown men, becoming a eunuch with the hope of serving in the Grand Seraglio is a far better life than the one to which they were born. Even though we are servants, our life is one of security and comfort many of us would not have any other way.”

Joanna’s heart grew heavy. She couldn’t comprehend a life of such bleak prospects that a person would willingly submit to castration. Although she didn’t know exactly what parts a man had that could be cut out, she knew what she’d read in the equine breeding manuals and it didn’t sound natural to do the same to a human.

* * * *

Scandalous. Just scandalous!

Joanna was clad in a pair of sheer, puffy trousers of bright magenta silk lavishly embroidered with silver stars. No stockings, stays, or chemise to cover her obvious nudity behind the scanty material and a very short sheer white silk blouse left her midriff exposed for all to view. “I can’t sit in this cabin thusly garbed, let alone appear on deck. It’s not even suitable for bedwear.”

“You must grow accustomed, benim leydi, for all the females in the harem must be prepared to be summoned by Prense Ahmed at a moment’s notice. You will not go above without a burqa, or yashmak and feradge covering you from head to toe, but here in the cabin, the prince has instructed Akbar and Mahamet to begin your training so you will be ready to receive him when you arrive at Topkapi Palace.” Jani smiled into her eyes, peering over her shoulder where she sat at the vanity facing the mirror.

He gently pulled a brush through her damp auburn hair, drying the tresses with a soft cotton towel as he worked out the tangles. Joanna frowned at him in the mirror, but clamped her teeth down on her questions regarding a culture she couldn’t begin to understand. He probably wouldn’t understand her culture, either.

Her hair no longer fell down her back. Despite her continued protests, the eunuch artfully arranged her long, auburn tresses into many braids, looping each to the top of her head, securing all with an emerald-encrusted comb. Jani opened a vanity drawer and withdrew a small jeweled case. He flicked a small clasp and the lid popped open. The bristled tip of a small brush was dipped into the container of powdered kohl and drawn around her eyes.

The transformation into an exotic being with sultry green eyes was both fascinating and horrible. The line connecting her brows changed her to into a freakish ghoul. He applied some sort of red dye from a small corked jar to her lips, making them stand out, the color of ripe strawberries.

Jani reached for the low-cut neckline of her transparent silk blouse with his free hand. Joanna swatted it away. The battle over access to her breasts ensued.

“Don’t you dare,” she snarled.

The young boy stepped back, his brows raised in high arcs. “But benim leydi, you must be perfect for his highness. All the women are dyed on their nipples. Mahamet is to come in on the morrow and remove your hair from your female center and apply the henna there as well.”

Joanna knocked over the stool as she shot to her feet. The eunuch’s eyes grew wider.

Jani confiscated her money and transferred her jewels to a small ornately carved box he tucked in a vanity drawer. He picked up her clothing and boots as he backed out of the cabin, bowing repeatedly before shutting the door in his own face.

Joanna couldn’t move. Couldn’t think. Couldn’t scream.

Frozen in shock, she stared at herself in the mirror. Wanting to do nothing but throw something at it to break it. Anything not to have to see the image before her. Tears rolled down her cheeks leaving streaks of black kohl in their wake.

What am I going to do? I will not submit. Tears of anger once again threatened to spill over her lashes. They will tie me down, but I cannot allow them to spread my legs and turn me into a…a… She couldn’t think of a suitable word, but fumed in silent revolt as she paced barefoot about the cabin in search of a means to escape. Her door creaked open and she whirled about. Akbar and Mahamet both entered with a subdued Jani at their heels.

“We hoped you would not cause us to use force to ready you for our Prense Ahmed, but we have our orders to use whatever means necessary to cleanse and purify you.” Akbar’s sing-song voice grated on Joanna’s high-strung nerves causing her muscles to clench in fight. “I am sorry, benim leydi. Mahamet and I deem it prudent to prepare your body immediately rather than waiting, for fear you will make this more difficult for yourself, and us. Muhammad instructs us to remove all body hair except on your head and eyebrows. As you have lessons from the Qu’ran, you will see that Allah is the only God, all seeing and all knowing, and Muhammad, may peace be upon him, his prophet.”

Who on earth was Muhammad? And how did removing her hair have anything to do with God?

The look of sincere sorrow in Mahamet’s black eyes sent a shaft of sympathy through her, but she couldn’t accept their decision and lie down. She backed away as they advanced on her.

Mahamet’s smile was intended to comfort. “In our religion, benim leydi, female hair on their womanhood is most undesirable. If you will just lie still, it will not take long and will be quite painless when the numbing lotion is applied first. The valide sultana, the Padishah’s first kadin, wishes the wives and odalisques in the harem to be plucked instead of shaved so there will be no accidental cuts, and it will not be necessary to remove your hair daily. Please do not fight us, benim leydi, for it must be done.”

Joanna kicked Akbar in the shin. It hurt her toes, but she continued on, screaming, biting, and lashing out, yet both men subdued her with uncommon ease. They laid her out on the bed, tying her wrists and ankles to the bedposts with lengths of cloth Jani held out to them. Her silk trousers came untied at her ankles and rode up to her knees in her struggles.

Akbar pulled the ribbon at her waist and slipped the delicate fabric down, releasing one leg briefly to pull the trouser off before retying her ankle and doing the same with the other.

Joanna whimpered in shame as her most private area was exposed to their view. Squeezing her eyes shut, tears slipped down her temples.

She cringed at the feel of fingertips massaging a shockingly cold concoction into her pubic hair. No one had ever touched her there before and the violation caused her to feel unclean in the eyes of God. A faint wisp of jasmine reached her nose.

She silently vowed to somehow, some way, make Prince Ahmed and Uncle Horace pay for what they were doing to her. Joanna braced herself for the coming pain. Within moments she felt the quick, jerking movements of the hair on her mons ripped out, but there was no pain.

To her further abasement, her blouse was whisked up and a cold finger dabbed and circled her nipples with the dye. Jani succeeded in coloring the tips bright red.

Never would she be able to look anyone in the face again, her degradation was so complete.

The plucking stopped after what seemed hours, then something cold and wet was applied to her private area. The hair on her legs and under her arms was shaved, rather than plucked. No word was spoken by anyone throughout the entire ordeal. She felt the featherbed rise about her as her torturers left the room, leaving her naked and spread on the bed.

Joanna tugged on her wrist and found her limbs released. She curled into a ball on her side, hiccupping sobs lost amidst the sounds of creaking timbers and waves lashing the ship. She wept until blessed oblivion overtook her.

© Lis’Anne Harris 2012

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