In this household, you must 'earn' a proper name. The main character hasn't been assigned one yet, so her nickname here is 'Steady One'.
“Can you do this? Can you do that?” The dance teachers started each new lesson with movement. We imitated monkeys, birds and double-tusked elephants. We laughed as we imagined long-legged river herons and jumping toads. The most awkward of the shekka forgot their self-consciousness and joined in the fun.
There was a method to the madness, for those movements were the basis for new dances. Once we perfected a particular step, we used it for courtly and Festival dances. This made it possible to progress rapidly within the ranks. The teachers kept a close eye on who thrived on dancing.
The local chieftains from around Karamanthore visited Lord Kidoshu every moon-cycle. They sat in private consultation for a whole day. The Fourth Wife told us that these chieftains served Lord Kidoshu's outlying districts. They collected the taxes and served minor duties. Their ranks, like the household, changed constantly.
“We cannot have one of the chieftains get too ambitious,” the Fourth Wife commented. “If they have it in their minds that they are better than Lord Kidoshu, there could be problems in Karamanthore, and that wouldn't be good for the people.”
Calm One nodded in a wise way and said, “There can be many helpers in the cause, but only one leader. There are many aspects of the Goddess, but only one Being over all.”
“Exactly so,” agreed the Fourth Wife, who stroked Calm One's hair with a gentle hand. “There are many variations to the dance, but one original set of steps that began it.”
“Variations are a way of life, as long as we don't forget where we came from.”
I rolled my eyes as the platitudes were volleyed to and fro. The Wives and their favorite ones constantly reminded us about the virtues of our household and how to uphold them. I honestly wondered if they even knew about what they talked, much less understood it.
There was one saying that came from the most cynical of the Handmaidens: “ Do as I say, don't do as I do.” Our lives was one whole contradiction of good intentions with good actions. I wondered whether or not the Shinwai had this problem.
“Steady One, I have a task for you,” the dance teacher said. “Silkhair and Bold One already have the solo pieces, but we need someone for an equally important part.”
I made a gesture of acceptance. Yes, Silkhair and Bold One were the favored among the dance teachers. I had long ceased to feel any jealousy towards them, although I wished that I was better.
“The younger girls of the third shekka are having problems with their parts in the ceremony, and the Sixth Wife has trouble keeping instructors. Will you spare a morning and show them what to do? It should not be an inconvenience, for their parts are much simpler than ours.”
I stifled a groan of dismay and bowed instead. “Of course, madrana.”
Unfortunately, I discovered just why the other instructors had left Sixth Wife's employment. The woman possessed a waspish temper, with a tongue to match. Her cutting criticism reduced her Handmaidens to tears. I watched as she upbraided her shekka because a single table arrangement was not perfect. The shekka lived in complete fear of her.
“You can deal with them; I cannot seem to get through their thick skulls,” she complained. With that ominous statement, she turned and left the room. I glared at her back and thought, You evil witch. Perhaps if you learned patience, you might see more progress.
I sighed and took pity on the Handmaidens. They crouched down low before me, trembling in abject fear of punishment. This was unacceptable. I cleared my throat and clapped my hands, just like I had seen the Second Wife do. They jumped up to their feet as if I had whipped them.
“Show me what you know,” I said calmly and gestured to the marble-tiled tables behind me. “Let us assume the Caliph and his household is visiting. Arrange the seating with that in mind.”
The Handmaidens scrambled to obey. They moved gracefully from table to table, placing water pitchers and lighting incense burners. Others set golden and scarlet cushions and blankets on the floor, and followed the complicated rules of hospitality. I narrowed my eyes at their efforts; to my eyes, all seemed in order. This was what the third shekka was trained for, and they seemed to do it well.
I walked among the seats and scrutinized the placements. The colors and fabrics matched, and the girls had filled the water pitchers to the correct level. I nodded and said, “Yes, that will do. Now, let me give you another test.”
With a flourish, I glided to the main table and sat in the Caliph's wife's place. The Handmaidens' eyes bulged with shock and surprise at such audacity. I bit back a smile and lounged against the cushions. “I would like to see the Ritual of Hospitality, if you please. The Sultana, wife of the Caliph, wishes it.”
They giggled nervously at my overacting, but the tension dissipated like smoke. They assembled into a small choir and began a song of welcome. I listened to the harmony and tapped the beat with my fingers. Again, their training served them well, for no one missed a note or a rhythm.
It became clearer to me that the problem did not lie with the girls of the third shekka. The problem lay with the Sixth Wife's attitude towards her girls. I posed different scenarios to the Handmaidens and acted the part of the particular honored guest in question. They quickly adapted to the changing circumstances by switching the color schemes to match the colors of the guest's household. They arranged the seating from high rank to low, and they changed the theoretical menu to one appropriate for the occasion.
“I see that the problems have been quite exaggerated.”
We all jumped at the sound of the First Wife's voice and immediately bowed in response. She stood just within my line of vision, her hands hidden within her robes and her face shadowed within her hood. I saw her as an imposing Priestess of Blessed Suraya, then the Vision disappeared.
The First Wife walked among the ranks, then stopped in front of me. “You inspired them to do their best, Steady One, even though you aren't even in their shekka. I am impressed at your fortitude. Don't you agree, Lady Shalali?”
The Sixth Wife flinched at the informal address, said so casually in front of her shekka. “Yes,” she said shortly.
“A mere Handmaiden has accomplished this in half a day. You, a Wife, needed most of a season to do the same, and she still managed to do more.” The First Wife's tone took on a hard edge. “Pathetic.”
I swallowed hard at the First Wife's praise, for it wasn't as uplifting as it sounded. It only served to highlight just how incompetent the Sixth Wife had been in her duties. I had just earned myself another enemy in the household, and one of the Wives, no less!
Then the First Wife did something unprecedented. “Girls, look at what I am about to do and remember it.”
We followed the order and gaped as she reached over to the Sixth Wife's robe. With a sharp tug, she ripped the costly golden flilagree necklace from the Sixth Wife's neck. The matching earrings followed, then the single bronze circlet in the Sixth Wife's hair. The First Wife tossed these precious pieces of jewelry over her shoulder without even looking at them.
“You are dismissed. Go back to your former family in disgrace. Your rank as Sixth Wife no longer exists; your true name will be spoken with disgust...Shalali.” We gasped at the sarcastic tone; the First Wife hadn't even bothered with the title of 'Lady'. “Your former shekka will be administered by the Eighth Wife. Get out of my sight, get out of my household. I know you no longer.”
Shalali—the former Sixth Wife of Lord Kidoshu—gulped down a sob, turned and fled out of the room. The only signs of her presence were the slight blood stains on the floor, where drops had fallen from her ripped ears and scratched skin.
I stared in appalled silence. Of course, we had all heard of the Ritual of Outcasting, but no one had ever seen it invoked. Considering her attitude towards her shekka, I couldn't feel too sorry for Shalali. But still...to outcast a Wife with no warning...
“Girls, retire back to your rooms in the Handmaiden's Hall, and wait for the Eighth Wife to arrive. Steady One--” she looked at me with a look of pleased poison over ice, “--return to your shekka. Advise Governess what has happened here and make sure all know the consequences of failing me.”
We all bowed and did as she ordered. I ran back through the halls, holding back tears of shame. I had believed I was helping the third shekka, but instead, the First Wife had used me as a tool in her punishment of the Sixth.
All original writing and art copyright A. Dameron 2000-2012