Arabia, September 1801
‘Who will bid five hundred? Yes! Six hundred. Now seven.’
It was the suppressed excitement in the man’s voice as much as the sums of money involved which roused Prince Zafar al-Zuhr’s curiosity and distracted him from his careful inspection of a magnificent snowy-white camel. His interest in the animal had been half-hearted, founded rather in a desire to be seen to spend generously and thus spread goodwill in his neighbour’s kingdom, than a desire to purchase yet another beast to add to his already impressive herd. Having no wish to risk causing offence however, Prince Zafar al-Zuhr summoned Firas, his man of business, to commence the bartering process without which the camel seller would be insulted, and headed off in the direction of the excited bidding which had floated over the marketplace and piqued his curiosity.
The market was a busy one, situated as it was on the Red Sea. Merchants from as far away as India traded here, selling silks and exotic spices. There were carpets and camels for sale, expensive oils and rich unguents, even some ancient artefacts from the tombs of pharaohs, though the trade in such things had largely migrated north, as first the French and then the British had moved into Egypt. If such trade existed in Prince Zafar’s kingdom of Kharidja, it was kept very much under cover, for his people knew how much he frowned upon the loss of their cultural heritage to foreigners.
Zafar came to a halt at the edge of the crowd which filled the palm-tree-shaded square.
The air was redolent with the smell of unwashed bodies, acrid with the palpable smell of fear emanating from the small group of African men who were huddled together for protection. Manacled and half-naked, their ebony skin glistening with perspiration, they awaited their turn on the rostrum, terrified and bewildered. Zafar’s fists clenched automatically. Common as these markets were all the way along the Red Sea coast, accepted practice as it was, he could not help his natural repugnance at the sight of human bondage. He had banned such slave-markets from Kharidja. Zafar turned, anxious to be gone.
The exorbitant sum stopped him in his tracks. The throng melted before him as he pushed his way roughly to the front, intimidated by the fury on his face as much as the trappings of power which were apparent in the pristine white of his robes, the glinting gold of his sabre and dagger hilts. In the centre of the dusty space stood the slave trader, a Turk, and long-travelled if the condition of his clothes were an indication. Beside him, striving to keep herself upright, her arms crossed over her bared breasts, her eyes glistening with a mixture of terror and defiance, was a woman. A foreign woman. European, by the look of her, her pale skin raw with sunburn, her hair, the colour of chocolate, streaming down her back.
The urge to yank his sabre from its sheath and to set about clearing the crowd was almost irresistible. Zafar’s hand was already on the hilt, his other on the dagger he wore strapped across his chest.
‘One thousand and fifty. And one hundred. One thousand two hundred.’
There were three competing bidders. He knew, without a doubt, the horrors which awaited this woman whose eyes darted between each of the men who held her fate in their hands. In their purses.
She was trembling. He could see, from the way she clenched her jaw, from the tightening of the muscles on her neck, the effort it took her to stay upright. The dress she wore had been ripped from her upper body, the bodice with its empty sleeves hanging in tatters at her waist. Though she seemed to have escaped the whip or any obvious molestation, her bare feet were filthy and bloody. French or English, most likely, left behind when their respective armies left Egypt. He could not imagine what travails she had already suffered. He had witnessed the indignities she would have been put through as potential buyers examined her.
Zafar’s hand tightened on his sabre, but it had been a long road, this bloody battle towards a lasting peace, too long and too hard-fought for him to risk such a provocative action now, despite the still-raw horrors the situation invoked. Yet there was something about the woman that drew him. She was perhaps twenty-four or five, slim in the way some Western women were, her waist narrow, her breasts small. Her face had a remote beauty about it in the sculpted cheek bones and finely-drawn brows. In contrast, her lips were full. Despite her terror, it was her determined aloofness, the way she refused to cower or to shrink, which earned his admiration. There was defiance in those surprisingly blue eyes of hers, and courage too.
A ripple of excitement greeted Zafar’s bid.
Two of the three contenders shook their heads, but the third remained in the game. ‘Four thousand,’ he growled.
Zafar did not recognise the man, but he recognised his intentions. ‘Five.’
‘Highness, this is madness. What use can you possibly have for such a scrawny specimen?’
Zafar, now grimly determined, ignored Firas, who had appeared at his shoulder. ‘Ten thousand for the girl and the men,’ he said.
An audible gasp greeted this bid. Behind him, his man of business groaned. His opponent hesitated for a painful moment, then he muttered something vicious under his breath and turned away. The slave trader nodded jubilantly. No doubt he would now retire on his profits, but Zafar did not care. He allowed himself a small, triumphant smile. A victory, and bloodless to boot. It was worth every gold coin in his considerable purse to spare this woman. He turned to Firas. ‘Have the men freed from their manacles. Give them food and water, and get the caravan ready.’
‘Highness, why?’ Firas expostulated. ‘You could have purchased a herd of prize camels for such a sum.’
Zafar, who was just beginning to ask himself the same question, eyed his man haughtily. ‘You dare question my judgment?’
Firas did not flinch. ‘No, Highness. I have no need, for I understand very well why you acted as you did,’ he said quietly.
‘Then you should also understand that I will not have that matter discussed.’ The menace in his voice was unmistakable. Though he allowed Firas much latitude, this was one topic upon which he would not be questioned. His man bowed low, and scuttled off to do his master’s bidding.
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