Ghalib stepped back and melted into the alcove when he saw the group of slaves coming toward him. They didn’t notice him as they passed, talking amongst themselves. He watched them as they walked down the hall, unable to look away.
They were pleasure slaves, property of the malik and amir. They were attractive, graceful, and fascinating to Ghalib.
Part of their allure was the inner beauty they all seemed to possess. Despite being slaves, despite having their choices taken away, they all held themselves with a quiet grace Ghalib couldn’t seem to stop thinking about. After spending time with one of the slaves—a gypsy named Teman—Ghalib had started to question the common assumptions made about these slaves.
Most assumed them arrogant because they commanded the attention of the nobles even more than the higher-born servants did. Many of his fellow pages looked at the slaves with disdain for what they did, which Ghalib thought was awfully hypocritical—most of the other pages wouldn’t hesitate to lure a scullery or laundry maid into a dark alcove to take advantage of her. Yet, those same pages would look down their noses at someone whose job it was to provide company to others.
When the slaves turned the corner at the end of the hall, Ghalib forced himself out of the alcove to continue on his way. He held a message for a visitor of the malik—a man who made a point of knowing Ghalib’s name when most nobles couldn’t be bothered to—and he was anxious to deliver it. The visitor was none other than the mother of the malik’s own personal pleasure slave. Some said the malik and his slave were in love. Ghalib could believe it, having seen them together.
The same pages that held the distain for the slaves, however, were not so willing to accept that particular rumor.
Ghalib knew why, as the love between two men or two women of equal rank was rarely discussed, and never openly. He’d seen the nobles who visited the malik’s court or attended the lavish court dinners choose slaves of the same gender often. But when it came to matches made within their own ranks, they were always with someone of the opposite sex.
That was, in part, due to the need to secure heirs, Ghalib was sure. But he also had heard the whispers of things that were simply unacceptable in “polite company,” as Sayla, the kitchen mistress, called it. Among those unacceptable items were things like the love two of the shayks seemed to have for each other, despite the fact that each had a wife. Or that certain other nobles never seemed to touch the female slaves.
It was simply not discussed. Only whispered about behind hands or closed doors.
And, as such, the idea that the malik would eschew a marriage with a woman for his personal slave and male lover was just not possible. At least, to those willing to say so. Even if it was in whispers.
Ghalib pulled himself out of his musings to properly address the visiting woman. He hurried into the room, bowed quickly, and held out the paper. “My Lady.”
“Oh aren’t you a sweet one, but I don’t need that,” she said, smiling. “Just call me Kaya, everyone else does… except those that call me Ommah.”
Ghalib blinked at her and stuttered out something completely incoherent, his cheeks red.
She chuckled as she opened the paper and read. He waited to see if she would need something else. “Oh, good. Thank you so much.”
Ghalib bit his lip and told himself he was supposed to just go. The footmen and guards would have a thing or three to say about him not leaving immediately, but he couldn’t resist. “You are Teman’s mother, yes?”
She smiled widely. “I am. Do you know him?”
Ghalib nodded. “I sometimes work in the malik’s chambers. He… he is very lucky and very good… um, nice.”
Kaya raised her eyebrows at him. “I agree, he is.”
Ghalib blinked. He hadn’t really expected that answer and didn’t know how to reply.
She smiled widely. “I couldn’t have picked a better mate for my son than Bathasar.”
“I… do… do the gypsies not care about that, then?”
“About what?” She asked, puzzled. “The slavery? We do not normally abide it, but in Teman’s case, the clan understands.”
“Oh, no, I meant… uh, I’m sorry,” he muttered, changing his mind. “Thank you, My L—err, Kaya.” He bowed again and started toward the door.
“Ghalib?” she called.
He turned in surprise. He’d told her his name once and she’d remembered it. “Yes, uh, Kaya?”
“What were you asking about?”
He frowned and came back to stand near her. He tried to find the best way to present it, but everything he came up with sounded horrible. Finally, he blurted, “Teman is with a man.”
Kaya laughed, and Ghalib felt his cheeks burn. But before he could back away, she reached out to touch him. “I’m sorry. I’m not laughing at you.” She appeared to fight with herself for a moment, then finally had control. “Though the number of men within our clan who are attracted to men—or women who like women—are very few, we tend not to worry too much about it.”
Ghalib nodded, frowning. “Thank you,” he said quietly, then bowed one more time before making his escape.
His walk to the kitchens was slow, his mind turning things over. He wondered what it would have been like to grow up with the gypsies, to be free as they were.
Despite his station in life, there were still things that weren’t done, weren’t discussed. It wasn’t the freedom to leave or travel—he could do that, if he really wanted. His sister was in good care, he had nothing holding him here.
No, it was something else.
The nobles had their slaves and were only barely hiding their attractions. The slavescouldn’t choose who they were with, but in that, they were freer than many others. There were no strictures on who they “should” or “shouldn’t” be with, as long as they followed the orders of their masters.
But, even among the other servants, Ghalib knew that who they were attracted to was not up for discussion. He’d seen the footmen and pages go after one too many maids, or talk about who they could lure into the closet or who Ghalib should try to attract.
Except, he didn’t want any of them.
He hadn’t heard of anyone being punished, specifically, for taking a lover of the same gender. But perhaps that was more because people simply didn’t. The very few who were outward about it were more or less above the law, anyway.
The rumors were, however, that anyone found guilty of it would find themselves in the dungeon. The death penalty was rare in Neyem, but that was because the dungeons were usually just as bad—or worse. At least with the death penalty, it was over quickly. The dungeons were a horrid place from what he’d heard, though thankfully, he’d never seen them himself.
Ghalib had no wish to, either.
Instead, he gave forced smiles and came up with another excuse to be somewhere else when the other pages tried to hook him up with one of the maids. He dodged the questions about when he was going to settle down and find a wife. He worked very hard to keep his eyes off of the other pages he was attracted to.
And he kept his mouth shut.
And he watched the slaves and envied their freedom, the irony of which was not lost on him. They were bound to the palace, owned by someone else. And yet freer than Ghalib in the one thing he wished, above all else, he could be free about.
As he approached the kitchens, he took a deep breath. He carefully tucked away his wishes, his longing, his needs, and passed through the door, his face concealing it all yet again.