Maram wasn't sure she could think of any creature she disliked quite as much as a camel. They smelled like a carpet some drunkard had mistaken for a toilet, were about as comfortable to ride on as a bag of rocks, and they made noises reminiscent of a rutting man in the throes of the most violent lust imaginable. Actually, they were exactly like a lust-crazed man. The same hard muscle, the same sounds, and after a particularly energetic night, they didn't smell much better than a camel.
But the camel's look of disgust and habit of spitting in front of her made it less attractive than a well-muscled, naked man, who would give her some pleasure, while the camel only made her backside ache. And the matted carpet of fur upon its back seemed to drink the desert sands and rub it into her clothing when she wasn't watching. Thank the heavens it was a short journey from the port to the city, where her father's palace was waiting.
And a bath, an unheard-of luxury in some of the places she'd visited this trip. Oh, they'd had tubs and water and knew how to wash, but a bathhouse where a lady might immerse her whole body, or share that space with her lover? They'd looked at her like she was mad.
Perhaps she was, Maram reflected. Normal princesses stayed in their fathers' palaces until they reached an age to marry, when they meekly accepted the husband their fathers chose for them. They spent most of the rest of their lives on their backs, conceiving or giving birth to children to ensure the succession of their husband's line. A life spent in bed, their every need seen to by a host of servants. No need to travel or sit on a camel. Or even lift an eyebrow to seduce their husbands, who came to their beds every night without fail.
A small smile found its way onto Maram's face. Well, most nights they went to their wives. Some nights, they fell under the spell of a foreign princess and spent a glorious night trying to please the princess instead. Skills they could then use on their wives, or at least Maram hoped they would. Just because those married princesses lived an easy life, didn't mean they shouldn't enjoy their husbands' attentions. Childbirth wasn't an easy matter, or so she'd heard, never having experienced it for herself. So if she borrowed their husbands for a night – willingly, always willingly, for men were weak, and weaker still when subject to the strength of her seductive magic – she returned them with improvements she hoped their wives appreciated.
An enchantment of her own design, that ensured they gave pleasure to any woman they bedded. She had not yet worked out how to eliminate the faint blue glow that enveloped their man parts while the spell was active, but perhaps it did not matter, for surely their wives had seen enough of them not to need to look too closely. Maram had certainly not heard any complaints from her lovers, or their wives.
And her father reaped the benefits, in strategic trade agreements, alliances and other political favours his ambassadors asked for, but she ensured. She lifted her hood so that she could see Elcin, the ambassador she'd accompanied on this trip. He rode at the front of the camel train, of course, proud of his successful mission. Maram didn't begrudge him his pride, even if his success was mostly due to her. Other ambassadors had made her job more difficult – Hasan, the first ambassador she'd accompanied, had tried to force himself on her more than once, refusing to allow her to do what her father had sent her to do. Elcin had been a delight in comparison, and she would tell her father so.
Desert dust smudged the horizon now, and she knew she was close to home and the end of this interminable camel ride.
Sure enough, the city gates soon rose out of the golden brown sand, sentinels standing straight and tall to welcome her home.
Maram passed between them without glancing to either side, though she inclined her head to the bowing guards and peasants who lined the road to her father's palace. Even veiled and hooded as she was, covered in travel dust, her clothing marked her as the Sultan's daughter.
The Sultan who would demand her report before she could take that much-needed bath. She sighed as she glimpsed her favourite bathhouse, but she could not stop. Later, she promised herself. Along with all of Elcin's good news, she brought urgent tidings her father needed to know more than she needed to bathe. Even if she did smell of camel.
Her father was in his audience chamber, waiting for them, when they arrived. Elcin prostrated himself, but Maram merely stood back, inclining her head to the Sultan when he turned his enquiring gaze on her.
"So, tell me what new alliances you have made for me," the Sultan said to Elcin.
Not for the first time, Maram was glad for the veil that hid her face and her boredom from her father's court as Elcin recounted her political victories.
"And what of Beacon Isle?" Father asked.
Here Elcin hesitated. Not because his news was bad, but how close it had come to being so. "Beacon Isle is ruled by a woman, who calls herself a queen. Most unusual."
Elcin had not understood Queen Margareta's power until it was almost too late. Instead, he'd addressed his proposals to the queen's young grandson, Vardan, until Maram had intervened. The boy...nay, young man, for he'd proved himself more than capable in the bedchamber, had happily surrendered to her charms and left the great hall to his grandmother and Elcin.
Maram had whispered a warning to Elcin that if he did not show the grandmother proper respect, her not-quite-of-age grandson would never be allowed to accept her father's proposals. Elcin had showed the woman more than respect, judging by his blushes the following morning. The newly widowed Queen Margareta had required Elcin to show her some favours, too, before she granted him any.
Politics was a game best played in bedchambers, Maram reflected. Or bathhouses.
"But do we have access to their harbour?" the Sultan rumbled.
Elcin bowed so low his forehead pressed against the floor. "Yes, Your Majesty. Queen Margareta was most insistent about that. She would have us forsake all other ports in the region to trade solely with Beacon Isle."
Maram's veil hid her broad smile. Margareta knew a good bargain when she saw one; she'd toyed with Elcin until she had what she wanted. Only then had she conceded to the trade agreement with the Sultan. In her place, Maram might have done the same. Instead, she'd educated the prince who would one day make some girl a charming husband.
Something Maram herself would probably never have. Ah, but what did she need a husband for? She was a princess, and her father or his heirs would provide for her until the day she died. If she needed a man for anything, she could take a lover. Someone she chose for her own pleasure, and not just to satisfy her father's political aspirations.
Maram jolted out of her reverie. "Yes, Your Majesty?" she asked.
"Do you need to rest after your journey, or will you share the evening meal with me?" Father asked.
Maram bowed. "My father does me great honour. I am quite refreshed at the thought of sharing a meal with our esteemed Sultan."
Father made a sound deep in his throat that told her he saw through her flattery, but he knew what she really meant – that she had news to share that she could not repeat in front of his court. News that would not wait, or she would not have appeared in court so travel-worn.
Her father's attendants dismissed the court, while the Sultan himself led the way to his private chambers. Chambers that overlooked the harem gardens, where his wives spent most of their lives.
As Maram herself might have, if it weren't for her mother's treason. Her mother's crime gave her a freedom she was grateful for, every day, though it had cost her mother everything.
"I keep thinking I might see your mother among them, but then I must remind myself that she is gone," Father said, settling beside a well-laid table.
"You can't blame yourself," Maram said quickly. "Yours was a political marriage. You were not to know that Mother's heart lay elsewhere. Perhaps she and her lover are now reunited in the afterlife."
Father spat out his wine. "There will be no afterlife for either of them. They are not dead, Maram, no matter what you may have been told. An enchantress or enchanter who commits treason is not put to death. They face a worse fate – a lifetime of enslavement, apart."
Maram's mouth dropped open. "You mean Mother is alive?"
Father nodded. "Alive, but enslaved to a magical object. She must do the bidding of its owner until she is freed. As long as she is enslaved, she cannot age or die."
"What of her lover?" Maram asked. She remembered Amani, a kind man who had conjured flowers and sweet treats for her. It wasn't until much later that she'd realised the man was her mother's lover.
Father shrugged. "Enslaved to an old lamp I once owned. He was supposed to do my bidding, but I grew tired of seeing his face, so I got rid of it."
Poor Amani, condemned to an eternity of slavery for the crime of falling in love with the wrong woman.
"But I do not want to think of that man, and I try not to think of your mother. Though I believe you are more beautiful now than she ever was," Father said. "We are alone now. No need to cover your face."
Finally. She'd grown so used to baring her face while they travelled that wearing a veil once more was irritating, though it had kept the worst of the sand out while they trekked through the desert. Maram peeled off the layers of linen and dropped them in a dusty heap on the floor. She shook out her hair, and gritted her teeth as it released a small cloud of sand. "The desert will not let me rest until I have told you my news," she said. "Word in the port and at every oasis between there and the city is that Sheikh Basit wants to expand his territory. He has attacked several camps, sending slaves to market through the port. From what I can gather, the camps may have been in your territory at the time. That makes the slaves he's taken your people. If it is true, we cannot afford to ignore this."
Father pounded his fist on the table. "That grasping fool keeps sending envoys here, asking for one of my daughters to be his bride. His ambition knows no bounds. That son of a camel herder!" He let out a stream of less polite insults that were enough to make Maram's ears burn.
"Perhaps you should send him a bride, Father," she said, selecting a slice of melon. She'd missed the fruit of home while travelling.
"Let that camel dung soil one of my daughters?" Father demanded.
Maram smiled. "I was thinking of Anahita."
Father's eyes narrowed. "Do you truly think so?"
Maram nodded. "I think it is the only way to protect your people from him." Her half-sister Anahita liked to play politics as much as Maram, though her style was more direct.
"Very well." Father bowed his head. "Was there anything else of importance that Elcin missed in his report?"
"Not really. Except that I believe he has fallen for the charms of the Mistress of Beacon Isle, Queen Margareta. Either you should send him to the isle regularly to keep the woman sweet, or you should keep him away from her altogether, and see that he finds a bride who will replace that woman in his affections."
"Should I doubt his loyalty?"
Maram thought for a moment, then said, "No, not yet. But she is a powerful enchantress, a fact she keeps hidden from many of her people, though not from me. Perhaps you should keep him away from her, after all. He is a good man. It would be a shame to lose him."
"Who do you recommend?"
"Someone sweet and shy, younger than he is. The opposite of the powerful queen. Perhaps one of my cousins. Hold a celebration feast for his return and see which of the girls cannot keep her eyes off him. A love match would suit him, I think." Maram sipped her tea, feeling the heat sink into her very bones. Oh, she had missed the tastes of home.
"It sounds like you really like this man," Father mused, not meeting her eyes. "Why not you?"
Maram laughed. "Because I am not some doe-eyed innocent who will adore him as he deserves. Besides, what would I do with a husband? I can't imagine he would allow me to travel to foreign countries, negotiating trade agreements for you. Face it, Father. I am no use to you as some man's wife. But as a jewelled courtesan, I can bring the world to your feet."
"You are still my daughter, and you deserve a reward. You have done more than my ambassador, I have no doubt, yet you ask for so little in reward. If you ever wished for a husband, Maram, I would grant your wish."
Maram moistened her lips. "You do not think I would cheat on him as my mother did to you?"
Sadness clouded Father's expression. "You are not Briska. There is too much of me in you. She pursued her passions with no care for the future, but you see as far as I do, and plan for the future you desire. Maram, I swear to you, if you wish for a husband, I will consent to any match you desire."
It was a lie, and they both knew it. Her father would only marry her off for an alliance that brought him more benefit than she did currently as his unofficial ambassador. But her life suited Maram, so she did not say so.
"Father, I promise you, the only man I want is one who will build me a palace that has its own bathhouse, an edifice to rival the grandest bathhouse in the city, but for my very own. And not even you can give me that." Maram smiled sadly. Her father's palace had been built on a plentiful water supply, but her favourite bathhouse had a spring which fed the pools inside, and no other water in the city could compare to it.
Father waved her away. "Of course, you must bathe. You are a dutiful daughter indeed to come to me before you have properly washed away the dust from your journey. I shall see to it that the Firdaus Bathhouse is closed to all but you and your attendants for as long as you like."
Maram inclined her head. "Thank you, Father. It is too late in the day now, so I shall bathe in my chambers tonight, but tomorrow...tomorrow I will accept your offer. A bathhouse to myself for the day is reward enough, I think."
It wasn't, but for now it would do.
What man would want her for a wife, anyway? Most men wanted a virginal bride, the sort Maram wanted for Elcin. They would not want a woman who had taken dozens of lovers to her bed. Lovers who had given her pleasure but nothing else, for her healing skills were sufficient to stave off disease or pregnancy, but still. To most men, that made her unclean and not a fit bride.
Of course, if they met her and fell under her spell, no man could resist her, but she did not want a man by magical means. As a lover, maybe, but not as her life's partner.
Maram sighed. She was destined to go through life alone, taking a series of lovers, but never to truly love. At least she had the freedom to choose her lovers. Not even Anahita could claim that.
And a bath. On the morrow, she would have a bath.
Maram clapped her hands to summon a servant to help her wash in what the palace could provide. Tomorrow she could soak, but today she could at least be clean.