Mother said first impressions are crucial.
She waited, motionless. Her knees dug into the hard marble floor but she must show no discomfort. She must not move at all. Her body was bent over her knees, her legs tucked underneath, and her face planted on the floor as if kissing it. Her arms were splayed wide, the billowing gauzy sleeves looking almost like the lacey wings of a dragonfly.
Must not move …
“I, I, I … I ah assure you, Lord Chancellor, she is a virgin in every sense,” the voice above and behind her trembled.
A deep voice responded. “And I have your assurance, Jarmin? You’ve personally verified this?”
Quiet, rich, hypnotic.
She heard the other stammer. “I … well …”
Still alive. Each moment precious. Every breath, slow, measured, priceless.
“Speak up Jarmin.”
“Not personally, My Lord, but your harem ladies checked her and…”
The Lord Chancellor waved a dismissive hand. The hall fell silent. Searing cramps in her calf muscles made her want to straighten her legs. She clamped her jaws tight.
Must not move. Remain still. It’ll pass
She recalled her mother’s words, “Don’t forget, my precious girl. The Dead don’t care or even tolerate the bodily needs of the living. Remain in control all the time or you will be fed to your Lord’s ghoul servants, and your father, your brothers, sister and I will be made into zombies”
She gritted her teeth harder.
Must not appear to even breathe … Ignore pain.
The deep voice was above her. “She’s a lovely specimen. From the late Lord Ruvio’s harem and untouched? Well done, Jarmin.”
She savored her next breath, a hidden sigh.
The melodious voice was directed down. “You may get up now girl. Stand and let me see your face again.”
She rose graceful, thankful she could stretch her leg out to relieve the cramping. Her robes flowed in wispy trails, made of a fine delicate imported silk. She let it flow about her allowing it to hint at her well-toned dancer’s body underneath. Her hair was in a simple knot at the base of her neck and adorned with but a single hair needle, but brushed till it shone like the golden rays of Sarenrae. Slowly she raised her eyes to meet the Chancellor’s, knowing what it would mean to lock eyes upon one as powerful as he. His black eyes like pools of obsidian held her in their icy grip.
He examined her. She waited patient, quiet, passive, listening to her mother’s voice in her head again, “Be as the willow, Sheralin. Remember, the willow bends under the wind but remains standing after the storm passes. You must endure like the willow. Remember, always remember…
She waited, showing no fear. Passive. Cool. Poised. She looked into his face but did not see it. Her breath was so shallow her chest did not seem to move. Slow… they don’t notice if it’s slow.
The Chancellor blinked and she almost flinched. “She’s fantastic, Jarmin, the best you’ve brought me in a century or two, perhaps ever. Take her to the others.”
Jarmin bowed his head. Being careful not to touch her he took the edge of her sleeve and started to escort her out.
“Wait.” An unseen power froze her. “What’s your name girl?”
“Willow.” She whispered.
“Speak up, girl.”
“Willow, My Lord.” she said louder
He arched his brow and looked her over again. “Willow… An apt name.” His piercing black eyes searched her pale blue eyes, some power holding her gaze.
“It is a very great honor to be chosen by the Lord Chancellor to be taken into his harem, an honor for you and your family. Few among the Quick are ever given this gift. Your family trained you well. See that you do not let them down and they may live long enough to see you honored with immortality and to become one of the elite.”
She looked at but did not see into his eyes. “I will serve you well, my Lord Chancellor.”
“Good. Go with Jarmin and learn your duties.”
Jarmin escorted her to the Chancellor’s harem in his underground summer palace.
Her face remained passive and smooth, her demeanor composed as they walked but in her thoughts … Oh Momma, we did it! I’m inside where few mortals have ever been.
She used her eyes to gawk at the realistic wall friezes along the corridor. One horrific scene caused her to shiver as she drove the images of vampiric rapine from her mind.
They walked and walked through endless corridors until Jarmin stopped at a stone wall. He stepped in front of her, did something and the stone wall slid open revealing a wide oval-shaped hall with doors, some open, some closed, off of a walkway running along the walls. A wide staircase dominated the center of the grand hall and led down to a lounge on a lower level with all manner of chairs, sofas, pillows on the floor and couches. Most were made of soft velvet, smooth silks and deep pile suede leather, all adorned with laces and tassels, but, of course, not a single sequin. Women were seated everywhere, some alone, some applying makeup to others, or fixing other’s hair. They all stopped and looked up at her through Jarmin’s semi-corporeal form as he led Willow into the room.
Jarmin announced, “This is the new girl, Willow. Your Lord commands you teach her the ways of this place.” He pointed to an oval door at the far end of the room. “See that door, Willow? That’s for the Lord Chancellor’s wives. Someday you may become one, but you will be killed if you enter it now. Stay out of there.”
He spun around and left with the stone wall sliding back into place behind him.
Willow assessed him as he left the room, daring at last to think and to observe. “Wraith … no doubt the Lord’s body servant.”
She took a steady breath trying to calm her racing heart. The women around the room kept staring at her, some with pity, some with curiosity and some with aggression painted across their faces. It was the others that disturbed her, the pale faced girls staring wide-eyed at the oval door.
Is that what he does to those who displease him?
A flat voice spoke, “Willow is it? I’m Amber. “I’ll show you to your room in a while. It’s being readied now.”
Amber … she was Amber. Her hair was golden-orange, like Amber. She wore amber necklaces that almost covered the marks on her neck that also accented her amber-like skin tone.
“Come. Sit.” She led Willow to a nearby divan and sat her down.
“Let’s get you something cool to drink.” Amber motioned to a zombie hovering on the room’s fringes and it shuffled off.
Willow sat on the divan’s edge, the awkward stranger. She waited, gripped her fruit juice filled goblet and stared into its contents, sipped and fidgeted. She could not help glancing at that oval door, again and again.
“Willow?” Amber’s voice broke the uncomfortable silence. “Your room is ready.”
Willow followed Amber quietly as she was led up the stairs, to one of the many doors off the upper story balcony, through the door, down a short corridor into a spacious suite.
Except for a few small empty hooks the walls were bare. There was a large oval bed, some chairs, a padded bench and a small wardrobe. The linens were clean and fresh and the under sheets were cream colored silk. Though it appeared spotless she detected the smell of dried blood.
Amber said something but Willow did not hear her. Willow nodded and held herself tight, her ears ringing, pleading inside for Amber to leave, until the door closed and she was alone. Willow collapsed on the bed, finally safe, finally able to let go.
I can’t do this. He’s going to feed me to his wives or maybe have his slaves kill me like they did to the rest of Ruvio’s harem.
She panicked. She’d fallen on the bed hard. She grabbed at her hair knot held in place by a long bone white hair needle. She pulled it out and breathed a sigh.
Undamaged… Thank you, Sarenrae. Thank you.
She fondled it. It was made by her mother and the last thing she gave to Willow, the last connection to her family. It was the only thing truly hers and she almost broke it. She curled into a fetal position around a pillow, wept and shook until spent, and fell into a dreamless sleep.