A few more steps brought them to the Imperial Laundry. Perizade went in to find Orkhan a clean robe. He caught a glimpse of vast vats and mangles and of hefty women using great wooden paddles to stir the vats. There was a stale reek of damp clothes. When Perizade re-emerged with the robe, Anadil said,
‘Say goodbye to Perizade. She has to go back to her work now.’
But Orkhan took her in his arms,
‘Do not leave me, Perizade. I need you.’
And, blushing, she whispered back,
‘I know that I am queen of your heart, for it is written on the folds of my cunt.’
And they kissed.
Anadil was furious,
‘You have to come with me! The ladies of the Harem are waiting for you. Go back to work, Perizade!’ And, as Perizade reluctantly re-entered the laundry, Anadil continued, ‘Perizade is too stupid to understand our mysteries. That is why she is a washerwoman and not a concubine. Now, it is time to clean you up.’
The laundry and the hammam were next door to one another, for they both drew on the same system of hot-water pipes. The approach to the hammam was lined by a corps of eunuchs bearing scimitars.
‘It is time you were washed and perfumed. We cannot let your mother see you looking like this.’
Emerald and the deaf mutes joined the other guards at the door of the hammam, as if the place was about to become Orkhan’s prison. Anadil took him by the hand and together they descended into the changing room. First Anadil undressed Orkhan. He hated to see how his cock stiffened in response to her delicate fingers, for by now he knew that he detested Anadil. And, as she looked into his eyes, it was clear that she knew it too, but she licked her lips and turned to press her flank against his groin, before asking him to unhook her dress.
A little black girl entered and served them wine. Anadil drew Orkhan down onto the cushions and pressed cup after cup on him, saying that he would find it easier to face what was coming if he had drunk a little.
‘First there will be an opportunity to practise the Dolorous Gaze on ordinary girls,’ she said. ‘You may look, but not touch, for in that way your desire will be intensified. We need to intensify your desire. Have some more wine and watch me.’
Like a serpent uncoiling, she rose from the cushions and began to dance. He heard the slap of her feet on the stone and the jangle of her anklets as she moved, but she seemed to dance to a music that was inaudible to ordinary mortals. Orkhan thought with regret of Perizade. He now knew that he hated Anadil, yet at the same time, as he watched Anadil dance, he was aware that she had drawn him into her thrall once more. Swivel-hipped, she came up close and stood over him and thrust her belly at his face and made its muscles roll and ripple. She turned and shook her bottom, so that its flesh seemed to shimmer before his eyes. Then she retreated and, with her head at an angle, she undulated and arched her back and rose on her toes, as if she were making love standing up to a creature made of air. She was glowing and sweating gently and her face was soft and dreamy. Then she seemed to remember Orkhan and moved in a serpentine glide towards him once more and drew her hands up over her thighs and hips. He thought that he might choke in the clouds of her bitter perfume.
‘I want to hear that you worship me,’ she said. ‘I want to hear that you will do anything I ask of you.’
Orkhan was trembling. Simultaneously, crazed and sane, he knew that some mad thing must follow her request, but at the same time, he knew that his lust for her was such that there was no power in him to refuse her anything she might ask for.
He threw himself forward to kiss her feet and, having done so, heard himself saying,
‘I worship you, Anadil. I am your slave and will do anything you require of me.’
Anadil had her hands on her hips. She had been dancing as if her life had depended on it, but now she looked coolly down on him and replied,
‘But I remember that only yesterday you were ready to have me executed. Now you have learnt something, have you not? You want me so much… As I stand here, I could urinate all over you. Would you dare stop me?’
‘If my mistress pleases… ’
‘Well as it happens, I prefer to urinate in private and I am not accustomed to pee over men. Orkhan, my business with you is all but finished. I will kiss you once more, but that will only be when you are dead. Now pick up my clothes and deliver them to one of the slaves outside, so that they can be taken off to the laundry. Then it is time for you to be washed, perfumed and massaged.’
Orkhan did as he was told. Then she took him by the hand and led him through a series of small cells, flagged and furnished in marble. The wet floors were treacherous underfoot. They passed through a slightly larger room, a tepidarium, where a couple of women lay on stone slabs sweating into their towels and from there they passed into the calidarium.
By now Orkhan was beyond surprise. The calidarium was vast and sulphorous and shafts of sunlight from the leaded widows in the roof streamed down between the clouds of steam and incense which rose from the water. Orkhan had never seen so much water before. The place was full of naked women who appeared and disappeared in those clouds. A few of the women splashed about in the water or sported round the central fountain which was fashioned in the form of a trio of entwined serpents. Another gang of women were running a race around the pool’s edge, their breasts flapping wildly as they ran. Others at the far end of the calidarium were dancing and singing as they danced. These women paid no attention to Orkhan and Anadil, but others seated and sprawled around the edge of the calidarium turned to look at them as they entered. Some hunched over the incense braziers, drinking wine or braiding each other’s hair. Bowls of cucumbers and hard-boiled eggs had been placed here and there throughout the hammam and some women picnicked on these. A couple of elderly concubines smoked long chibouk pipes. One was at work with a depilatory brush. So many naked bodies, running, sitting, lying, fondling, squatting, standing, bending, caressing, writhing, imploring — it ought to have been Paradise, yet to Orkhan, who longed to escape from it, it was more like a vision of the Last Judgement.
Then in between the surges of the women’s singing, Orkhan heard a man’s voice,
‘I would not say that my wife is ugly but… ’
It was the Vizier. Like everyone else he was naked. He stood near the edge of the pool, surrounded by a group of young concubines and he was juggling eggs and cucumbers as he continued to describe his wife.
‘…but she is an acceptable substitute for masturbation, if I concentrate and use my imagination.’
‘What is the Vizier doing here?’
‘Oh Orkhan, don’t be such a bore. Surely you must have guessed by now? He’s not the real Vizier. The real Vizier would never be allowed to set foot in the Harem. That little man is just one of the Harem’s buffoons. We appointed him to play the Vizier. He is, like most of what you have encountered, just part of our charade.’
Anadil summoned over a dark-skinned young woman.
‘This is Afsana. She invents the stories for us to play out. She gives us our roles and makes sure we know our lines.’
Afsana looked modestly down.
‘It would be so boring otherwise, just sitting around in the Harem, waiting for a man to appear. We all take turns at playing the different parts. Otherwise, even the masquerade would get dull. But now the time for games is almost over,’ concluded Anadil regretfully.
‘So the Prayer-Cushion cult is all just a game you have invented to while away your captivity?’
Anadil looked shocked,
‘Holy Mother, no! No, the way of the Prayer-Cushion is sacred truth. All our masques and games are part of our service as Prayer-Cushions — part of our the quest for the Holy Rapture and an expression of our desire to serve you.’
Anadil might have said more, but at that moment, three young concubines, who had been running round the edge of the pool, came trotting up to Orkhan.
‘Would you like to race with us?’ asked the first concubine breathlessly. ‘My name is Gulanar.’
‘And I am Najma.’
‘And I Parvana.’
They crowded round Orkhan.
‘If you catch one of us, you can do with her as you please,’ said Najma.
‘I can do with you as I please already,’ said Orkhan.
‘Well, you will have to catch us first,’ said Parvana and with that she tweaked at his penis. At that same moment, Najma pulled his nose and Gulanar slapped at his bottom. Then they turned and, like startled deer, broke into a run. Without thinking, Orkhan started to run after them. The marble floor was hot and slippery and he was somewhat drunk. The shrieks of the other concubines who sat and watched the runners echoed and re-echoed in the muffled acoustics of the hammam. As Parvana, who led the running concubines, pushed past the Vizier, the circle of boiled eggs and cucumbers that the latter had been keeping going in the air fell to the ground and were trampled underfoot.
Gulanar was an ungainly runner and soon fell behind the others and, when she looked back, this slowed her yet further. Orkhan was almost upon her and ready to lunge and catch at her waist when, with a squeal of alarm, she leapt sideways and hurled herself into the water. Najma and Parvana now stopped running and waited until Orkhan was almost upon them before following Gulanar into the pool. The breasts of the trio of concubines seemed to float on the water and the sunlight rippled over their bodies in quavering patterns. They splashed up at Orkhan.
‘You have not caught us yet!’ taunted Najma. ‘You will have to join us in the water.
‘Please come and play with us here,’ added Gulanar.
And then the three maidens began to sing a strange, senseless song of enchantment,
‘Wagala Weia! Wagala, weiala weia!
Wallala! Wallala! Heia! Ha ha!’
As they sang, they swam towards the pool’s edge where Orkhan was standing.
‘It is better under water,’ said Parvana and she pulled at Orkhan’s ankles so that he toppled in.
They swam around him, splashing water in his face. They were laughing at him, but he stood terrified and hesitating, for he had never been in a pool of water before. Their soft bellies and thighs trembled in the water’s movement. He made a lunge for Najma. She dived below the surface and, after hesitating an instant, he followed. He had his hands around her hips, but then he was being pulled back by one of the other concubines, and eel-like Najma slithered free of his embrace. Orkhan turned to confront Gulanar who continued to undulate seductively beneath the surface and baited him with her breasts. He waded towards her and then plunged beneath the surface. He felt something nip at his inner thigh. It was Parvana who nibbled at the insides of his legs with her teeth. He was about to turn on her when a pair of hands closed over his eyes. He had to break free and surface for air.
Gulanar stood a few feet away from him,
‘Over here my lover! Over here!’ I can give you what you want, but, as he waded towards her, she slipped under the surface and skimmed away.
‘Choose me! I am prettier than her,’ sang out Parvana now behind him.
And so it continued. At last, Orkhan confessed himself defeated and pulled himself out of the pool and he lay on its edge, finding it difficult to get his breath back in the sulphur-laden air. With a start, he saw reflected in the water what he took to be a white spectre hunched behind him on the edge of the pool. Among so many naked women, this figure shrouded in damp, clinging white cloths seemed like an annunciation of death.
Turning round, he saw that Anadil had arrived to stand beside the spectral figure.
‘Surely you recognise Mihrimah?’ asked Anadil. ‘However much she covers herself up, her shape gives her away. But I am afraid her arrival signals that our time for games is almost over. It only remains for us to massage and perfume you in preparation for the final ritual.’
Then sensing Orkhan’s apprehension and hostility, she continued,
‘I know that these last two days have been hard for you. But all your ordeals are going to end very soon. Trust me. Trust us. It is very important for you to be relaxed now. That is why we are going to massage you.’
And Anadil and Mihrimah led him to a large stone slab set on brass feet, surrounded by braziers of burning spikenard. They began with him lying on his front, while she walked up and down his back, digging her toes into his back as she did so. He felt his body buckle and slowly soften under her feet. By the time she had finished this exercise and clambered down, Parvana, Najma and Gulanar had clustered round the slab and together the four of them set to pummelling and kneading the body of Orkhan with their hands. Mihrimah stood looking on. Anadil, as she worked, kept whispering to Orkhan about how important it was that he relax himself utterly, that he feel himself to be soft and weak.
‘For the seducer always seduces from a position of weakness.’
The concubines rolled him over and the fingers of the women moved inexorably towards his groin, probing and exploring. His testicles were gently squeezed by Parvana while Anadil anointed his penis with a yellowish unguent. He entertained the fantasy that he was floating in the air, his body being kept up by thousands of tiny butterflies trapped inside him, which flapped and beat their wings.
Finally Mihrimah raised her wide sleeved arms, so that she looked like a great white cormorant about to fly. It was a signal that the massage could be prolonged no further.
‘There is just barely time to show you the Rapturous Chamber,’ said Anadil. ‘It will be best if you see it first, for the unknown is always so frightening, is it not? But if you have seen the place, it will be easier for you to envisage what is going to happen in it.’
Orkhan walked shakily between Anadil and Mihrimah back into the tepidarium. Here he was handed a plain white cotton robe which he slipped on. Then from the tepidarium they passed through a door he had not noticed before into a reception chamber, and without pausing, the three of them entered the Rapturous Chamber.
The walls and vaulted ceiling of the Rapturous Chamber were covered in mirror-mosaic, whose glass fragments were framed in intricate tendrils of silver arabesque. Hundreds of candles burned and glittered in niches set into the walls. The floor was surfaced in porphyry. Most of the surface, however, was occupied by a great pool of quicksilver on which floated an inflated mattress, covered in silk and tethered at its corners by silken cords. So silver burned on silver and it was some moments before Orkhan, dazzled, realised that a woman stood at the far end of the quicksilver pool. The woman wore a plumed turban and was sheathed in a tight silver dress whose long train fanned out over the porphyry. The woman, seeing Orkhan stare at her, made an exultant gesture with her raised and clenched fist.
It was Roxelana. Orkhan turned to Anadil.
‘Oh Orkhan! How can you be so boring and stupid?’ Anadil was pouting in exasperation. ‘Of course it is Roxelana. It just happened to be her turn to play the animal girl. We all take turns at the different parts. Sometimes I am the one who laughs; sometimes I am the one who sheds tears. Otherwise it would be too boring… though it is true that Babur seems to like Roxelana best. She, like the rest of us, is a masquerader — part of the Harem’s spiritual theatre. As a Prayer-Cushion, however, she is on a lower level than Mihrimah, so, after you failed your night of vigil with Mihrimah, we realised that you could not have been ready for such an exalted sexual experience and we chose Roxelana to take you through something lower and more physical. It was my fault. I thought that you might have been ready for Mihrimah, when clearly you were not. Still Roxelana probably gave you what you needed… ’
She looked as though she was going to say a lot more, but at that moment a ragged fanfare of shawms accompanied by cymbals sounded outside the Rapturous Chamber.
‘The Valide Sultan has arrived,’ said Anadil, looking apprehensive. ‘I only hope we are not approaching the final ritual performance too quickly.’