“Are you sure about this?” Safiya asked me while helping me into the small wood cart hitched to two grey mules.
“Yes, khaviss will end the diseases of the women here and make them barren. It will make the house a better place.” I adjusted my scimitar so I could sit on the single bench in the back of the cart. There was no way I was going back to the fortress without it.
“Motish is on my side,” I assured her.
She stepped away from the cart and eyed me. “Okay,” she replied. “May the goddess be with you.” And then she hollered to the extravagant, white haired driver wearing purple and turquoise. “Take care of her, Polo!” He was one of Safiya’s rich clients. I’d been surprised to learn that, besides running the house, she also had her own clients. Though, not many could afford her services. This man was one who could. Apparently he transported all kinds of people around the island. He was driving me to the fortress as a favour to Safiya.
The cart jolted forward, and we were off. It didn’t take long to reach the fortress. By late afternoon, I stared up at the daunting structure surrounded by golden sand and stone.
Polo helped me out of the cart, the wind blowing his long white hair into his face. I thanked him and made my way to the great stairway that led to the main entrance. Of course I was met by a pair of burly guards.
“Gentlemen,” I greeted them. “I need to speak with Khadji’s mother, Nenet.”
One of them looked me up and down, his eyes settling on my scimitar. “Not with that, you’re not.”
I crossed my arms. “I’m not giving up my weapon. I’m a lone woman entering the home of a cruel leader full of armed men. Do you think I’m stupid?”
Neither of them replied; both stood sturdy… unmoving.
I let out an exasperated sigh. “How flattering it is that you believe I could take down a whole fortress fully guarded with tons of big scary men. Have someone escort me then.” I tapped my foot and waited.
The guards looked at one another. Obviously, they were unsure what to do with me. I didn’t have the patience for this nonsense. I reached over my head with both arms and pulled my scimitar out. I impaled the guard who hadn’t said a word through the throat before they could even discern what I was doing. I pulled my weapon free from the guard’s body. He fell to the side just as the other guard pulled out his own blade and blocked my swing. I parried with him for a few moments before growing bored of the whole ordeal. I dropped my scimitar, pulled my dagger from my waist and threw myself to the ground between his legs. I came back up behind him with a twist and planted the dagger into the back of his neck. I pulled the dagger free, and a spray of crimson blood shot from the wound. The element of surprise really does work. Lucky, I only wore black now. The stains wouldn’t show on my clothing.
I picked up my scimitar and put it back in its scabbard, cleaned the blood from my dagger off on my trousers, and wiped the red liquid from my skin. I put the dagger away and focused my attention on the stairs. I climbed them and went through the entrance of the fortress. They really should have this place guarded better, I thought as I reached the first corridor.
I passed a few guards along the way. Some I recognized, others I didn’t. They all gave me suspicious glances. My heart dropped when a familiar face appeared.
“Malyi, what a nice surprise.”
“Jehvad, I can’t say the same.” I tried to step around him, but he moved in my way.
“Why are you armed?” he asked, rubbing his freshly tattooed neck. He now wore the mark all warriors wore… Torin’s.
“I feel safer travelling this way these days.” I didn’t have the patience for small talk. “I’m here to see Nenet. Where is she?”
“I believe she’s in the pit with Khadji. I’m headed there now. Khadji is assessing our fighting skills. Those of us he’s impressed with get to go with him to Fraisha. They’re rebelling against the uniting of the islands,” he informed me as I strode towards the pit with him in tow. His lips were loose around me. Too bad I didn’t care what Khadji’s plans were.
I didn’t bother answering him, hoping he would stop talking. He didn’t.
He grabbed my arm and spun me so I was facing him. “You know we could never be together now that you’re marked with Motish’s symbol, right? We could never have a family. Not now that death follows you—but you are still the most beautiful woman I’ve ever known.” He leaned in, running a piece of my hair between his fingers and whispered, “And you smell delightfully like cinnamon.”
I jabbed him in the stomach with my fist. “Save your honeyed words for someone else.”
He bent over, sputtering… unable to speak. Good.
I walked on without him, but he caught up to me before I reached the pit.
“I can’t let you in there with that weapon. You can’t be armed in the presence of our leader.”
I paused, chewing on my lip. “Fine, but I want it back when I leave.” I handed him my scimitar. I still had my dagger anyways.
The pit was filled with men’s cheers and the clashing of weapons. I spotted Nenet standing beside her son. They both watched the two warriors battle in the center of the circle. Two women with sleek, black hair pulled back with wide, scarlet ribbons stood on either side of them. They waved giant, silk, white fans to keep their leader and his mother cool.
Nenet was partially blind so I knew there was no chance of her spotting me. I pushed my way through the crowd to her side. I touched her shoulder softly and yelled over the cheering, “Nenet, it’s me. It’s Malyi.”
Her mouth opened and closed, and she turned to face me. “Malyi? What are you doing here?”
“I need to speak with you… in private.” I set my eyes on Khadji. I saw him watching me, but then he turned his focus back to the pair of fighters, not giving me another thought.
I helped Nenet out of the pit and scanned the area to make sure no one was listening. “Nenet, I need more khaviss.”
The wrinkles on her forehead deepened. “Whatever for?”
“I’ve been staying at the House of Minyota. It’s—the conditions there are horrid. Women sick with sexual disease, many of them pregnant. They make the women who have boys get rid of them.”
She gasped, “They kill boy infants?”
“No, nothing like that. They make the mothers find them new families, but if they can’t, they have to figure life out on their own… I’m sure some die as a result. The House of Minyota is no place for infants, regardless. Please help them. Khaviss would solve so many problems.”
Her milky eyes stared at nothing. “This place is important to you.”
“It is. They took me in when I had nothing. I care about the women there. No one deserves to live like that, especially not those who serve a goddess.”
She reached out with stiff fingers and touched my mark. “Like you. You sympathize with them because you also serve a goddess.”
I pursed my lips. “I didn’t choose to serve Motish, but I’ve accepted my fate. I believe these women have to live with theirs too.”
She took a step back, leaning on her walking stick. Her shoulders sagged. “I want to help. I do, but I don’t have the kind of funds or power to move as much khaviss as you need. You’ll have to ask my son for this favour.”
I stiffed, a pit formed in my gut. Khadji would never do something out of the kindness of his heart. I doubted he even had one. “Thank you for hearing my plea, Nenet. I’ll see myself out.” I turned to leave.
The elderly woman caught my arm. “You must at least try. I know he’s cruel, but if you make it seem like he’s getting something out of this, he just might help you.”
“And how am I supposed to accomplish that?”
“You’ll think of something. You’re an intelligent woman.” She gave me a wink.
A new pair of fighters battled in the center of the pit when we returned. I followed behind Nenet as she hobbled with her walking stick back to Khadji’s side. She said something to him, and he held up a hand and shouted, “Halt!”
The fighters froze, and everyone went silent at his command. Khadji turned to me and tucked his braided hair behind one ear. “My mother tells me you wish to ask me something.”
I dropped my gaze to the ground in front of his feet. “I do.”
“Well, out with it. I’ve got warriors to choose.”
I decided to take the submissive route. “Your Greatness, I’ve been staying at the House of Minyota, and it’s come to my attention they’re in need of the potion called khaviss to cure their ailments.” I decided not to mention the pregnancies.
He crossed his burly arms in front of his chest and leaned back into the carved wooden throne on which he sat. “Alright, you may take a couple bottles back with you, but tell them it’s from Khadji.”
I chewed on the inside of my cheek, buying myself time to think. “That’s not enough, sir. We need about a barrel sent every cycle of the moon.”
“Every cycle of the moon!” he repeated. “What do they need so much for?”
I felt everyone’s eyes on us. The only sound was the shuffling of feet and wind howling through the outside walls of the fortress. I glanced at Nenet. She urged me on with a nod.
I cleared my throat. “The khaviss will keep the women sterile if they drink it regularly. It’ll allow them to work more.”
Khadji stroked his chin. I knew from experience this meant he was thinking. When he spoke, the words weren’t what I’d expected. “I will do this for the mistresses of Minyota, but I will take half of their earnings.”
I thought for a moment before I nodded. “That’s fair.” I couldn’t believe this was happening. He didn’t make the connection. “I will tell the head mistress. Thank you, Your Greatness.”
“Wait!” He held up his hand again, and I felt obligated to obey. “The khaviss…that’s why you were never able to have my child.” The look on his face dared me to deny it.
I couldn’t come up with an explanation, so I remained silent.
“You’re silence condemns you. Guards!” he called out, and two men in red uniforms on duty stepped forward. “I will send the khaviss to the House of Minyota because it is good for me, but you on the other hand… you will pay for your crimes against the goddess, Bati… against me.”
The guards each grabbed ahold of my arms.
“No!” Nenet threw her stick to the ground. “No! You’ll take my life instead.”
Khadji cringed. “Mother—”
“I was the one who gave her the khaviss. I knew of its other effects long ago. It was me who went against one of the goddesses.”
I was shocked by her confession. I didn’t understand why she would save me, a woman who’d only been in her life for a short time—a woman I’d thought she didn’t give a damn about.
As the guards let me go to apprehend her I asked, “Nenet, why?”
She gave me a yellow toothed smile. “You’re still young, mistress. The time has come for me to pay for my actions.”
“But your son…” I wanted to ask how she would stop him from having children now, but I realized it didn’t matter. He knew about the khaviss.
“This is more important.” She clasped my hands and squeezed. “Take care of those women.”
I nodded and blinked back tears.
“Enough.” Khadji stood up and stepped away from his throne. He wore the red vest he favoured. Gold rings decorated almost all of his fingers, which matched the earring he never took off. “I will accept my mother’s life in exchange for yours, being that she is also guilty. However,” he stepped so close to me I could feel his breath on my cheek. His dark eyes looked into my own. I saw no emotion there. “You will do any job I ask of you, Malyi. I. Own. You. Understood?”
I held my ground, but nodded in agreement. “Understood.” I could have refused, but he would have just killed me too. I needed to stay alive. Those women needed me, whether they realized it or not yet.
Khadji stepped away from me, and in one swift move, drove a golden dagger into his mother’s heart. A cry of pain escaped her lips. She sunk to the ground as Khadji freed his knife from her chest. Blood bubbled out from the wound like a brook. Hers was the first death I’d felt sorrow for. I thought she’d only cared about her own agenda, but she’d given her life for mine. I could never repay her.
“Jehvad.” I’d forgotten my former lover was there until Khadji said his name.
“Yes, Master?” It made me sick, the way he looked at Khadji with so much admiration.
“You will be in charge of collecting the funds and ensuring everything at the House of Minyota is to my liking.”
Panic crossed Jehvad’s face. “But, Master, I haven’t had the chance to serve you in battle yet.”
“Do you refuse me?”
Jehvad crumpled. “No, of course not. I will do as you say.”
“Good. I plan to travel across the sea to a land called Sarantoa. I’m sure the wealthier citizens of this island would pay a good sum for a night with a foreign beauty.”
I was thrilled that Jehvad wouldn’t have his dreams of being a warrior come true, but I knew these foreign beauties wouldn’t come willingly. The House of Minyota was a refuge for women. Women who could fend for themselves while serving their goddess. Not a prison for women who didn’t even believe in our gods. I couldn’t help but argue that fact. “Enslaving faithless women and making them serve Minyota is a bad idea.”
“You don’t decide what’s good for this island and its gods. I’ll have someone brought from Sarantoa to teach you their language. That’s your first job. You and the rest of the house will learn to communicate with them.”
If I couldn’t change his mind, I promised myself I would at least offer a comfortable place to those who were taken from their home. It was all I could do. “Yes, Your Greatness.” I tried to sound pleasant, but failed.
“You’re dismissed.” He turned his back to me and shouted at his warriors to continue their match.
As I passed Jehvad, I wrenched my scimitar from his grip. I left the pit and the fortress behind me. I prayed I’d never have to return to that place again.
Polo was nowhere in sight. I guessed witnessing me kill two guards scared him away.
I didn’t make it back to the House of Minyota until dawn. My feet ached, I was tired, and I was annoyed. I opened the door to the house that had quickly become my home and found Affie asleep on the floor. She opened bleary eyes and smiled at me. “You came back.”
“Of course I did.”
“We heard you killed two guards. Safiya said you’d be taken prisoner.”
“I’m far too sly for that.” I chuckled and nudged her with my elbow, which earned me a giggle.
Some of the women were just turning in for the night. Their tired, kohl-painted eyes studied me carefully. I wondered if Safiya had told them about the khaviss, or if they’d also heard about my difficulties with the guards.
“Safiya’s in her room. She’ll want to see you,” Affie told me.
I gave her a kiss on the top of the head and told her to go to bed.
I knocked on the door to Safiya’s private room. It was in a different part of the house than the curtained rooms the rest of the mistresses stayed in. Privileges came with being the head mistress.
The door opened a crack, revealing Safiya’s tired face. The creases around her eyes and mouth were deepened with worry. “Malyi! Thank the gods, you’ve returned. Polo told us you ran into trouble.” She opened the door wider for me to enter.
I stepped inside the room with a large, oval-shaped bed, covered in white, and positioned in the center. “It was nothing. The guards didn’t want to let me in while I was armed, but I overcame them.”
She raised her brows. “And no one arrested you for murdering them?”
“No one knew I’d done so before I left. Everyone was too busy watching the warriors combat. I’m sure the entrance will be more heavily guarded from now on.”
“I see.” I could see her mind processing some thought, but she seemed to push it aside. “Well, I’m glad you’re back.”
I took a seat on the bench by the bed. “Khadji has agreed to send khaviss each cycle of the moon.”
“Oh, that’s wonderful!” she exclaimed, putting her hands to her mouth.
“We have to give him half our earnings in exchange.” I continued as I stood and began pacing the room; it was a lovely room… so clean and bright.
“Oh.” Her hands dropped to her sides. “I suppose we don’t have much choice, do we?” She brushed a silver strand of hair off her face.
“No. And he wants to bring women here from other lands—against their will.” I said darkly. I may as well give her all the bad news at once.
“That’s against everything we stand for!” Her face turned a soft shade of red.
I stopped pacing and faced her. “I know—I know! But what can we do? He’s our ruler, and I’m lucky he didn’t kill me. The only thing we can do is make this place as comfortable as we can for these women,” I said, repeating my earlier thoughts.
Safiya nodded and folded her hands in front of her. She spoke her next words carefully. “You must take my position as head mistress.”
A strangled sound caught in my throat. “What? No, I’m too young. The others will never accept me as the head of this house.”
“They will,” she assured me. “You bear the mark of Motish. They respect you.”
“No, they fear me.”
“Fear… respect, they’re two sides of the same coin.” She flicked her wrist.
“But what will you do?”
A smile danced on her lips. “I’m getting too old for this position. I’ve saved enough coin to live comfortably by the sea with Shanah.”
“An amazing woman who I happen to love.”
I couldn’t fault her for wanting to step down, especially with these new changes. “Alright, but please don’t leave yet. I need to learn the ways of this house… get to know the mistresses. And let the others get used to the idea before you hand them over to me.”
“Of course. I have a few things to get in order first anyways.” When I didn’t say anything, she added, “You’re going to make a great head mistress.” Her eyes crinkled in the corners pleasantly. The worry on her face was transformed into new hope.
I left her and climbed into my own bed. I couldn’t believe how fast my life had changed; from poor girl, to Khadji’s woman, to head mistress of a pleasure house. The gods worked in mysterious ways, and I now served two of them.
Safiya told the others about our conversation the next evening. A few seemed uneasy about their mistress leaving, but they all understood… or most of them did. The ones who didn’t would have to get used to it or leave. She’d served them well, and she deserved to live the rest of her life her own way.
The khaviss came before the next full moon. Nenet had said the potion only needed to be drunk every three days, but we didn’t want to lose track, so we added the bitter drink to our daily meals. Shortly after, the women’s afflictions began to disappear. After the last woman had given birth, no one else became pregnant. Safiya left, and I took her room. Even though we had to share our coin with Khadji, we still had enough left for ourselves. I was given jobs from time to time, which involved either lying with someone of high status to gain information, or killing them. I collected the weapons of those I’d slain. My obsession with sharp objects grew. I still refused to wear any colour other than black. I taught the women how to take control of situations with their clients as I had done myself when I was Khadji’s mistress. Some of them did well. Others were never able to grasp the art of control and suffered for it.
The House of Minyota flourished under my care. I had only three rules; no client was to break the skin of any of my mistresses, khaviss was to be drank every day, and no one was to wear green inside the house… ever.
Khadji did manage to convince a woman from Sarantoa to come and teach us their language. She stayed until we could speak it well. She told us she was paid a great sum for her services. Shortly after she returned to her own land, we began getting slaves which Gwon bought from heartless Sarantoans who put a price on human lives.
I made the transition to their new home as painless as I could. If anyone put any of my mistresses’ lives at risk, I took vengeance into my own hands. I was, after all, the Mistress of Motish.