“How may I please you, Master?”
It was the traditional question he asked each of his masters in greeting. Noori had spoken as he knelt, sending his silken trousers to billowing. The lights glinted off of the gold bands that circled his arms, set off by the sheen of his pale skin.
The man waved a hand absently toward the carafe of wine sitting to one side, not pulling his attention away from the papers that covered the table in front of him. He frowned and made a notation.
Noori made himself useful, standing gracefully, reaching for the carafe, and pouring the sheikh a portion in a crystal goblet that waited on the side table. He knelt and held the goblet up, letting the pale skin of his forearms show suggestively.
It was long minutes before the tall man noticed, so focused was his attention on the papers. When he looked up, it was almost a double take as he saw the exotic white skin. Eyes narrowing, he gestured to the goblet. Noori obediently sipped the wine, and after a long moment, the man took the goblet, looking over the servant with a critical eye. “You are a foreigner,” he said, his thick accent obvious.
Noori nodded, eyes lowered out of respect for the powerful man who sat watching him. He knelt with his fingers laced behind him, posture straight, as he murmured, “From the land far across the northern sea, Master.” His people were quite fair, with lighter hair, as well. His was a dark blond, near the color of the sand of this desert land, and his blue eyes were definitely exotic. He was also slighter than the people here, with finer bones and features that ironically served him well as a pleasure slave.
With a soft harrumph, the sheikh looked him over and gestured for him to turn around. Noori was well aware that all that white skin—and on a man to boot—was quite exotic. He could guess why the master of this castle had sent him here to dance.
His graceful body turned, light continuing to gleam off the oiled skin. Noori knew, as he showed himself to his best advantage, that this man might be an escape from his life as a pleasure slave. That was the way of life here; he was no more than chattel meant to entertain, to please, to satiate. As a slave, whatever social or religious mores applied to the upper caste had no bearing upon his life—he could be treated as a man, as a woman, even as an animal. He had in his time suffered all three.
He had served man after man, hoping to be bought as part of a household. He had met men cut from all sorts of cloth: Some men were cruel, like the castle’s master. Some were indifferent. Others took advantage of the opportunity of his body to quench certain urges that they dared not reveal at their homes. Still others, rarer others, came from more enlightened tribes and treated him as a servant rather than a slave. He had hoped against hope to find a home with one of those rare few, but it had not happened, to his despair.
But this man was not just any man. He was a sheikh, king of a desert kingdom. He had arrived with an entourage; his guards stood outside the door to this room. He had the wherewithal to buy one slave, and perhaps he would not be so cruel….
Grunting again, the sheikh looked back down at his papers after a dismissive twitch of his hand. Noori winced. The man did not want to be bothered, which was surely his master’s intention, thereby sending this interesting choice of distraction. His master would be very displeased that Noori had failed to keep the sheikh’s attention.
Noori watched as the man frowned and patted his robe. Guessing what the man searched for, he offered, “If I may be so bold, Master… they rest on top of Master’s head.”
“Hmm? Oh. Yes.” The sheikh pulled the glasses from where they perched on his head wrap, and with a sound of annoyance, he pulled the whole wrap and scarf off, better revealing a tanned face with stark cheekbones, full lips, and a strong chin. Dark, mussed hair fell to scatter over his broad shoulders as he slid on the spectacles and looked down at the papers again.
Noori’s blue eyes widened as the sheikh’s entire visage was exposed. Of course, the man’s swarthy skin, hair, and eyes were typical of his ancestry and ethnicity, but the arrangement of features on the strong face was intensely striking and young. Surprisingly young—sheikhs were called out of respect for their power, their knowledge, and their revered age. Noori would guess this man at no more than forty. He must certainly be a man of great power to hold such a title at his age. As Noori catalogued the features surreptitiously, his hopes sank. A man of this caliber had no need for a pleasure slave.
The sheikh mumbled to himself, ignoring him, soon emptying the goblet although his attention remained on the papers. He did not demand a refill; he just set the glass to one side, within easy reach. Noori refilled the goblet immediately, filling it halfway. He returned the carafe to the silver platter, taking his place at the knees of the sheikh. He rested his hands on his knees and bowed his head submissively.
Minutes whiled away as Noori waited, and finally the sheikh harrumphed again and pulled off his glasses, tossing them on the table. “Are you educated?” he asked abruptly.
Noori knew he was expected to answer promptly. “That would depend on Master’s definition of education. If Master means attending school, then yes—I am educated. If Master means in the finer arts, then I am most definitely educated.” He kept his voice low and maintained a pleasant lilt as he spoke.
“Tell me of your schooling,” the sheikh ordered, sprawling back from the low table covered with papers.
Noori dared to glance at the sheikh. Lowering his eyes again, he answered, “In my homeland above the northern sea, Master, I was trained as any free man’s male child would be. I studied numbers and words and sciences. After my father died, I was sold to cover his debts. Amir Qutaibah bought me, and his harem master dictated my education in the finer arts of art, dance, and pleasure.”
“Qutaibah does indeed travel far and wide. I have not seen the northern sea, much less the land beyond,” the sheikh rumbled. “And so easily you speak of being sold. Were you a second son?”
Noori knew that in the desert tribes, younger sons were occasionally sold or traded to settle debts, so it wasn’t totally unheard of. But those sons were maintained as servants who could earn their freedom. As a slave, he had no such chance. “I was an only child, Master,” he answered. “My mother could not keep me. My father had gambled too often, and luck was not with him at most times,” Noori murmured.
The sheikh frowned, for some reason dissatisfied. “And now, Qutaibah uses you as an exotic diversion,” he murmured, looking back down at his neglected paperwork.
“Yes, Master,” Noori whispered, more in shame than in submission. He was a foreigner here, as the sheikh had said, and lower than the lowest caste in any tribe. He now addressed every man as Master every time words passed his lips, for to fail in expressing such proper respect would mean a harsh and painful punishment.
Pulling one of the many papers toward him, the sheikh made a face at it. “How are your eyes?” he asked, rather peevishly.
A confused expression crossed Noori’s face. “My eyesight, Master? Perfect, Master.”
A flapping paper waved in front of his face. “Tell me what you make of these figures. They are supposed to equate four seasons of herd counts.”
Noori took the paper, staring intently at each column of figures. “First season, 1,392 heads. Second season, 1,583 heads. Third season, 1,216 heads. Fourth season, 1,304 heads. I count a net loss, Master, of eighty-eight head.”
The sheikh’s eyes narrowed, and he handed the servant another sheet, nodding at it. “Grain supplies.”
Noori checked and then rechecked the figures in his head. “This cannot be correct, Master.” He lifted blue eyes to those of his master. “By my count, a loss of four thousand bushels.” Before he thought it through, he continued to speak. “I do not see how that could happen, considering the harvest, Master. Even I know there was much bounty this year.”
Lips twitching, the sheikh considered the servant a goodly while, silent, and then he nodded. “Fetch us some sort of repast,” he ordered quietly, looking back down at the papers. His face tightened, and his lips flattened into an unhappy line.
Noori bowed and left the chambers, returning shortly with a tray of dried meat, bread, and several exotic fruits. He sat the tray before the sheikh and resumed his position on the floor. The sheikh had not seemed to have moved a muscle while caught up in his ruminations.
Shifting on the pillow, he spoke up. “Here, fill a bowl for yourself and eat,” he said gruffly.
Noori had eaten earlier in the servants’ quarters, but he knew better than to refuse an order. He filled a small bowl and began to nibble on the food. “Has Master traveled far?” he ventured as the silence lengthened. He had been instructed to engage the man’s attention; he could not ignore those orders. There were eyes everywhere, even in this castle built into the side of a desert canyon.
The sheikh grunted in acknowledgment, pulling apart a sweetbread. “A journey of nearly a fortnight, on horseback,” he murmured, also selecting some fruit.
Noori’s eyes widened. “Master must be tired,” he stated. Such a distance! “I have been instructed to see to Master’s every comfort. Is there some way I may help Master to relax?”
Tilting his head, the sheikh’s amber-flecked eyes danced in amusement, though Noori could not fathom why. “A bath, then. None of those scented soaps,” he said congenially.
Noori hurried to do the sheikh’s bidding, thankful for the task. It would pacify his keepers.
Once the basin was delivered to the antechamber and filled with steaming water by other slaves, Noori poured a small amount of unscented oil into the water, watching it pool and swirl on the surface, reminding him of a time when his dreams were as whimsical. He laughed harshly and swiped his hand through the water, disrupting the patterns.
Returning to the main chamber where the sheikh still worked, Noori stopped at the portal and knelt. “Master’s bath awaits.”
Again buried in the papers with his glasses perched on his nose, the sheikh made a noise of assent, frowning at a paper fiercely before setting it down with a growl. The spectacles were tossed onto the papers, and he fluidly stood from the scattered pillows and stalked across the room.
“Does Master wish assistance with the removal of Master’s robes?” Noori asked as the sheikh pushed past him. The sheikh stopped, and after a pause, he lifted his arms, revealing fabric ties down the side of his over-robe.
Noori moved closer and knelt again as his fingers nimbly untied the right side of the garment before moving to the left side. He then stood in front of the sheikh, lifting the heavy garment over his head. The removal of the thick cloth revealed a leaner form swathed in rough cotton, linen, and leather.
Stretching with a tired sigh, the sheikh lifted his foot to a low stool so Noori could unbuckle his riding boots. At the same time he lazily untied the leather straps that held on his half-gloves.
Kneeling before the sheikh, Noori unfastened the long row of buckles on the tall boot before pulling it off. He then pulled off the short stocking, exposing crisp hairs that decorated the top of the dark foot. Switching feet, the sheikh tossed his gloves to the side and started untying the knotted belt holding the overshirt in place as Noori removed the second boot and stocking, daring to brush his fingertips across the unruly hairs he found.
The sheikh removed his hands from the belt, letting Noori take over. He rubbed his eyes, and dust and grime came away from his face. Noori unfastened the belt and pulled it free from the slim waist. He was then bold enough to put his hands on narrow hips and slide them upward, gathering fabric in his wake.
Raising his arms, the sheikh ducked his head to pull free of the overshirt, leaving him in his leather trousers and a thin linen undershirt that he pulled off as well, tossing it to the floor. He bent over to test the water’s temperature, grunting in approval. Stretching again and tilting his neck, bones popped audibly, gaining a soft sigh from the tall man. With another yawn he unfastened his trousers and pushed them down, stepping out of them and slowly into the tub, settling down in the hot water with a quiet hiss.
Noori provided a thick, soft cloth for cleansing as well as a patty of soap. “I will wash Master’s hair, if Master wishes,” he murmured.
Nodding tiredly, the sheikh leaned forward, using the cloth to wipe at his face, clearing away dirt and dust to reveal sun-bronzed rather than swarthy skin and dark rather than gray-dusted whiskers.
Lifting a nearby pitcher, Noori filled it with water, which he poured carefully over the sheikh’s head. He took the soap into his hands and lathered the silky hair, his fingertips massaging and cleansing the other man’s scalp. Slopping a bit of water over the side, the sheikh laid the cloth over the edge of the tub and relaxed back into Noori’s hands.
Noori normally hated this part of his duties, feeling lower than the dirt that was left in the bottom of the tub, but for this man, who had so far been kind, he put forth a greater effort. He wanted the sheikh to enjoy this service and remember him in a positive light. The sheikh groaned his pleasure, clearly enjoying the impromptu massage. Without opening his eyes, he took up the cloth and held it up for the servant to take.
Noori took the cloth, not knowing exactly what the sheikh had intended, but hazarding a guess that he wished to be washed. He lowered the soft fabric into the water before sliding it along the trail of bubbles that led from sopping hair down over a muscular chest. Noori’s hand slid around the sheikh’s sides, gliding cloth over smooth skin. He closed his eyes and imagined doing this by choice, doing it out of love instead of duty. Such daydreams kept him hopeful for the future. “If Master would lean forward, I can better reach Master’s back in that manner.”
After a pause, the sheikh shifted and leaned forward, settling his cheek on his knee, hooded eyes peering out into the candlelit room.
Noori washed every bit of skin within reach before wringing the cloth dry and draping it over the tub. He then ran fresh water and poured it over the sheikh, rinsing the bubbles from his skin and hair. Not quite hiding a soft chuckle over Noori’s careful maneuverings, the sheikh stood to let the water cascade off of him before he stepped out of the tub onto the thick carpet. Noori scurried to wrap the sheikh in a large white bath sheet. The sheikh rubbed off the worst of the water, dropped the bath sheet to the floor, and wandered back over to the table, unconcerned about his nudity.
Considering his position in Amir Qutaibah’s household, the nudity should not have affected Noori at all, but in a rare occurrence, he found himself desiring one of his masters, and his thin trousers did little to hide the fact. He moved to the other side of the low table, dropping to his knees once more. It had happened before, only twice; they were men such as this sheikh, men who took advantage of his services but without abuse.
Taking a last swallow of wine, the tall man left the goblet at the table. “Extinguish all but the candles at the door,” he said, walking over to the bed and pulling back the layers of silk and linen.
Noori rose nervously, uncertain as to whether his services would be required. He cast a longing glance at the sheikh as he snuffed the candles around the perimeter of the room before returning to kneel at the foot of the bed. Noori knew that though already sprawled under the linen, mostly on his belly, the sheikh still watched Noori move about the room through barely open eyes.
After a long pause, the sheikh folded down the sheet next to him.
At the unspoken invitation, pale blue silk pooled around slim ankles as Noori slid into the sheikh’s bed. As the situation grew familiar once more, he could feel some of his previous confidence returning to him despite the growing disappointment. This was his element: a plaything for the powerful. He laid a hand on the base of the sheikh’s spine, fingers teasing lightly up the indention in the center of the muscular back until he reached the sheikh’s neck. “How may I please you, Master?” he whispered into the dark.
Reaching up to one shoulder, the sheikh pulled Noori down to lie next to him. He curled his arm over Noori’s trim waist and rested his chin upon Noori’s shoulder, settling quietly as if to sleep, just holding him.
Noori was stunned. Was the sheikh refusing his body after ordering him into his bed? The action was unlike that of any man he had ever known. As he lay quietly in the sheikh’s arms, he began to relax. And deep inside him, a new appreciation for the other man began to grow. After some minutes, the sheikh pulled Noori closer, but he immediately stilled, mostly asleep, just drawn by the heat of the other body.
As the sheikh’s breathing evened out, Noori finally relaxed completely, realizing he would not be used for base pleasure. He felt strangely disappointed, because this had been one man he desired. But simply being held endeared the sheikh to Noori’s ravaged heart. He fell asleep for the first time in years with a smile on his face.