In this second excerpt from my Nanowrimo novel, Enter, the main character Eliora arrives in the harem of King Xerxes in Susa. Please feel free to let me know what you think. 🙂
The first glimpse of a future home is always fraught with meaning. Which room would be mine? What would become my new favourite place? Who out of the women watching us enter would be my friend?
I could not think of the alternative—that some of these might consider me their rival, and therefore their enemy. I wanted none of the fame of being queen. In fact, I wanted that least of any of the girls.
The maidens who thronged the court of the virgins were an even wider sampling of the diversity of Woman than our little group from Babylon. From every province of the empire they came, from the farthest eastern bounds of India to the western unknown beyond Macedonia and Thrace, from the hot southern sun of Egypt and Cush to the cold northern reaches of the Caucasus mountains.
At the gate, once again, the official handed us over to the care of a eunuch—a great hulking man with an incongruously soft voice important enough to have attendants of his own.
“Welcome to the harem of King Xerxes—may he live forever. My name is Hegai, and I am overseer of all his majesty’s wives, concubines, and virgins. If you should ever lack for anything, I will see to it. I hope you will consider this your home.”
I couldn’t help but smile at his kindly welcome. He seemed like the sort of man I could consider an ally.
“That being said, there are certain customs here in the women’s rooms that you will quickly learn. Certain rooms are assigned to certain ladies according to the favour they have won. Earn my favour, and I may reward you. Earn my disfavour, and you will soon find yourself serving your peers.”
His brief warnings dispensed, the momentary dark cloud seemed to pass from his face and the sun of his broad, bright smile emerged again. “I have no doubt that you will all get along well. Please, follow the maids, and they will bring you to your rooms.
For the time being, we were placed together in a large, luxurious room much like our place in the satrap’s palace in Babylon, yet much more opulent. Where there the cushions had been made of fine woven wool, here the wool was woven with threads of gold and silver. Where there the floor had been of polished stone, here the floor was an intricate mosaic of many kinds of inlaid stone. The baths here were larger, the fountains more numerous, the gardens more abundant, the food more exotic, the linens and wools finer—indeed everything was more lavish than anything I had ever seen.
Hegai assigned us a pair of handmaidens who attended us like shadows. “These maids will assist you with your beauty treatments.”
I remembered beauty treatments. I remembered the rasp of pumice and the slick of oil and the heady resins of spikenard and myrrh. I remembered the feel of soft skin, of white, clean hands unsullied by work, of the whisper of brushed hair across my back. I remembered the wedding for which I was beautified.
A ghost of scented oil floated through my memory and I fought the urge to gag.
This will be different, I told myself. I won’t be going to Daon this time. This time I go to the king, and I belong to him. I am safe here, in the harem. I am safe.