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Authors: Fiona McIntosh

Odalisque

BOOK: Odalisque
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For Ian…
who gave me an old dusty book one evening
to browse through, knowing the Topkapi Palace
and its harem would prove irresistible
to this writer.

Maps

PROLOGUE

The prisoners, chained together, shuffled awkwardly into the main square of the slave market of Percheron; six men, all strangers and all captives of a trader called Varanz, who had a reputation for securing the more intriguing product for sale. And this group on offer was no exception, although most onlookers’ attention was helplessly drawn to the tall man whose searing, pale-eyed stare, at odds with his long dark hair, seemed to challenge everyone brave enough to lock gazes with him.

Varanz knew it too; knew this one was special and he sensed a good price coming for the handsome foreigner he had ensnared, although it had taken the help of six of his henchmen to firstly bring the man down and then rope him securely. It puzzled him why the man had been travelling across the desert of all places—that in itself a perilous journey but moving alone meant almost certain trouble, particularly from slavers renowned in the region.

But Varanz had a policy of not enquiring into the background of his captives; perhaps to ease
his conscience he didn’t want to know anything about them, save what was obvious to his own eye. And this one, who refused to name himself, or indeed mutter much more than curses, was clearly in good health. That was enough for this merchant.

Trading for this cluster of slaves opened at the sound of the gong. The Master of the Market called the milling crowd of buyers to order. ‘Brothers, this is Varanz Set Number Eight.’ His voice droned on extolling the virtues of each on offer but already the majority of potential buyers were in the thrall of the angry-eyed man, the pick of the bunch and the only one of the six who held his head defiantly high. When it came to his turn, the Master of the Market, also sensing a lively auction, decided to state more than the obvious of healthy appearance, strong structure, good teeth and so on. ‘He was found emerging from the golden sands of our desert alone, not even a camel for company. Brothers, I’d hazard this one will make a fine bodyguard. If he’s canny enough to travel our wasteland and remain as well as he looks, then I imagine he has excellent survival skills.’

‘Can he fight?’ one buyer called out.

Varanz arched an eyebrow and looked towards the slave, wondering whether he’d finally get something out of the man. His instincts were right.

‘I can fight,’ the man replied. ‘In fact I demand to fight for my freedom,’ he challenged.

This set up a fresh murmuring amongst the
crowd. An oddity in Percheron’s slave market was its ancient and somewhat quaint rule that a slave who was captured as a free person could agree to a death fight that would, if they survived it, buy their freedom. The Crown covered the cost of his loss, either way, to the trader. It was one of the Market’s oldest customs, set up by a Zar many centuries previous who understood that such a contest from time to time would provide entertainment for the otherwise tedious business of trading in human cargo.

Such fights were rare, of course, as most prisoners took their chances with a new life as a slave. But now and then one would risk death in the bid to win back their independence.

Varanz strolled over to the man now that he knew his tongue was loosened. ‘You understand what you ask for?’

‘I do. It was explained to us on the journey here by one of your aides. I wish to fight for my freedom. I also wish to speak with your Zar.’

At this Varanz smirked. ‘I can’t imagine he will want to speak with you.’

‘He might after he watches me fight. He will probably enjoy the spectacle of witnessing me best twelve of his finest warriors.’

Varanz was speechless at the man’s arrogance. He shook his head and walked to the Master, briefly explaining in a quiet mutter what the slave was proposing. Now both of them returned to stand before the man.

‘Don’t try and talk me out of it. I want my freedom back. I will pay the price if I fail to win it,’ he warned them.

The Master had no intention of attempting to thwart the proposition of some sport after an already long and wearying day in the market. He could see that Varanz was unfazed, knowing that he would get a good price either way.

‘What is your reserve, Varanz?’ he asked.

‘No less than 200 karels for this one.’

He nodded. ‘I will send a message to the palace for authorisation,’ he said, now turning to the man. ‘You must give us your name,’ the Master insisted.

He knifed them with a cold gaze. ‘My name is Lazar.’

The palace did more than give authorisation. A runner returned swiftly with the news that Zar Joreb, his interest piqued, would be in attendance for this contest. Varanz was not as surprised as the Master of the Market at this news but he understood how unusual it was for the Zar of Percheron to visit the slave traders. He mentioned as much to Lazar.

The foreigner was unmoved. ‘I wish to speak with him if I succeed.’

Varanz nodded. ‘That is up to our Zar. We have told him twelve of his men will fight you to the death. This is no doubt why he is coming to witness the contest.’

‘It is why I suggested so many.’

Varanz showed exasperation in his expression. ‘How can you best a dozen fighters, man? There’s still time to change your mind and not waste your life. I will ensure a cosy position for you. A fellow like you will find himself in high demand by a rich man to escort his wives, families…take care of their security.’

Lazar snorted. ‘I’m no nursery maid.’

‘All right.’ Varanz tried again. ‘I know I can sell you as a high calibre bodyguard to a man who needs protection whilst he travels. I’ll find you a good owner.’

‘I don’t want to be owned,’ Lazar snarled. ‘I want my freedom.’

The trader shrugged. ‘Well you’ll have it, my friend, but you’ll be carried off in a sack.’

‘So be it. I slave for no-one.’

Their conversation was ended by the Master of the Market hissing for silence—the Zar’s karak was apparently just moments away and he knew this by the arrival of a troop of Percheron’s guard. Varanz nodded to one of his aides to escort the rest of the prisoners away. Trading would resume once this piece of theatre was done with.

‘I wish you luck, brother,’ he said to Lazar and moved away to stand with the Master, who was marshalling all of the other traders into a formal line of welcome. The Zar finally arrived flanked by more of the Percherese Guard, but his karak was carried by six of the red-shrouded Elim the elite guardians of the Zar’s harem. The Elim also
provided bodyguard duties to royalty. The Zar’s entry between the slave market’s carved pillars of two gryphons was heralded by the sound of several of the curled Percherese horns being blown furiously, and everyone who was not attached to this royal retinue instantly humbled themselves.

No-one dared raise their eyes to the Zar until given formal permission.

No-one but Lazar that is.

He was on his knees because he had been pushed into this position but he brazenly watched the Zar being helped out of the karak; their gazes met and held momentarily across the dust of the slave market. Then Lazar dipped his head, just a fraction, but it was enough that the Zar knew the brash young man had acknowledged the person who was the closest thing to the god Zarab that walked this earth. The Zar did not acknowledge him.

A special seat that was brought by the Guard was set up and the Elim unfurled a canopy over it, beneath which Zar Joreb settled himself. He had a wry smile on his face as the Master of the Market followed protocol and made the official announcement that the prisoner, Lazar, captured by Trader Varanz, had opted to fight for his freedom against a dozen of the warriors from the Percherese Guard. No-one watched the Master or even the Zar. All eyes were riveted on the dark foreigner, whose wrists and ankles were now unshackled and who was disrobing down to the
once white, but now dirty loose pants he wore beneath. They watched his measured movements, but mostly they watched him study the twelve men who followed suit before taking some practice swipes with their glinting swords. They all bore smirks, none prepared to take the ridiculously outnumbered opposition seriously.

The gong was once again sounded for silence and the Master outlined what was about to happen. It was a superfluous pronouncement but strict protocol was a way of life for Percheron’s various markets and especially in the hallowed presence of the Zar.

‘…or to the prisoner’s death,’ he finished sombrely. He looked now to Zar Joreb who, with an almost imperceptible nod, gave the signal for combat to begin.

Those who were present at the slave market that day would talk about this fight for years to come. No-one had ever seen anything like it or were likely to again as Lazar accepted the weapon thrown towards him and without so much as a hurried prayer to his god of choice, strode out to meet the first of the warriors. The Guard had decided on one man at a time—it seemed there would be no sport otherwise and the plan presumably was to keep wounding the arrogant prisoner until he begged for mercy and the death blow. However, by the time the first three men were groaning and bleeding on the ground, their most senior man hurriedly sent in four at a time.

It didn’t make much difference to Lazar, who appeared to the audience to be unintimidated by numbers. His face wore the grim countenance of someone who was utterly focused; he made no sound, never once backed away, always threatening his enemy rather than the other way around. It was soon obvious that his sword skills could not be matched by any of the Percherese, not even fighting in tandem. His fighting arm became a blur of silver that weaved a path of wreckage through flesh, turning the dozen men, one after another, into writhing, crying heaps as they gripped torn shoulders, slashed legs, or profusely bleeding fighting arms. To their credit the final two fought superbly but neither could mark Lazar with his own blood, let alone best him. He fought without fear, his focused expression never changing, and his speed only increasing. He finished one off by cutting him down by the ankle and then stomping on his sword wrist, breaking it, to ensure he did not return to the fray, and finally fought the other into exhaustion until the man was on his knees. Lazar flicked the guard’s sword away and gave a calculated slash across his chest. The man fell, almost grateful.

BOOK: Odalisque
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