Uproar is a good word. Furore is another one. Now mix them with disbelief, shock and hissed whispers you might have an idea of wake left behind me as I was taken through the corridors of the palace all the way to the seraglio. In a side-room crowded with women and functionaries arguments took place in voices so low they were mostly carried out in facial tics and angry nods. Moshen held his ground; he had done his job, he had gone to World’s End and returned with their virgin for the Laird. Whatever was said, however he did it, I was finally ushered into a dormitory set aside for the candidates and a wall of silence as thirteen young women stopped what they were doing to see the new arrival.
Thankfully, Moshen followed me in, carrying my bag and dropping it on one of the empty beds as if a male presence was an everyday occurrence. He introduced me to the group of dumbfounded girls and gave me a tour of the quarters that were to be ours until someone was chosen. I was thankful he‘d already told me what to expect and I’d worked on memorising all the girls before we got there. To be honest, even with different hair colours and complexions they all kind of looked the same to me, stacks of ambition but not a lot of character to differentiate them at first meeting.
Moshen couldn’t stay, he said, he had been given a last pick up to make. He was certain that I would be safe; my very uniqueness would protect me from the outrage of the court and there was also his mystery contact to consider. He had a parting gift for me – a tightly rolled package had been added to the sparse contents of my bag. It was something that Maoilios had passed to him as I had been saying my goodbyes. So much faith on the part of my father, he’d insisted it was for me to wear at my audience with the Laird. His voice soft, and careful to face away from any of the girls who might be watching us too carefully, Moshen admitted that he had opened the parcel and that, though he didn’t know how my father had made his guess, he couldn’t agree more on the effect it would have. Our public goodbyes were formal, the real parting had happened that morning.
The girls had arrived, one by one, over the last couple of months as news had gone out and arrangements made. They had been left to work out their own pecking order. Sophia had arrived first from one of the local estates. She acted like the alpha but, following Moshen’s information, I caught the eye of the reserved strawberry blond standing behind her as I walked over to them and gave her an almost imperceptible nod. She saw the move and nodded back. Having made appropriate deference I made my greeting to Sophia, promised I’d be no trouble for them and would keep to myself if it would make them all feel more comfortable.
There was little chance of keeping to myself. The girls, young women – whatever – had been secluded within the palace and declared themselves, as a group, bored with the unglamorous waiting game. Moshen had been the only man they had seen since arriving in the dormitory, his visits the highlight of their stay. Like spoiled children with a new toy I was unwrapped and inspected and played with until they realised I didn’t seem to have working parts. Sophia led the exploration of this uncharted territory while the quieter ones held back and watched. Eventually she declared herself convinced that I really had no interest in women, she’d just wanted to make certain I was no wolf.
Amana, the strawberry blond stayed away from the fray and fumble of female hands. Smart girl came over to sit on my bed the next day and quietly complemented me on my self control. Not for my lack of hardness, which she thought was commendable, but for submitting to the ordeal in such a docile manner. She’d seen the outrage flare in my eyes and then be locked away again without even making fists of my hands. A new friend made. It was good to have someone sensible to pass the time with as we waited for the arrival of the final candidate.
The other girls didn’t leave me entirely alone. Singly, or as pairs of friends, they would watch me exercise and shyly approach when they thought no one else would notice. Sometimes one would watch me shower. I made sure I spent a lot of time in the shower so any who wanted to could see me. Being polite young ladies it seemed that most of them had never seen a man naked. I didn’t hide away, and I didn’t make an issue of it. I would not belittle their bashfulness. They were apprehensive, they had questions – though none of them would admit this openly to the group, which seemed to behave as a completely different creature compared to its constituent individuals. I did my best to answer honestly, giving examples drawn from what I’d seen and what Hannah had shared with me. To the shock of the girls from the more restricted backgrounds I explained, as gently as I could, that, yes, it was possible for a man to take another man.
Amana didn’t have questions for me. One of the older candidates (I think she was twenty?) she had seen men before, had seen what sex could look like and declared herself disinterested in the whole matter. Always staying one step back, she was the cool head in the dormitory and had done a good job of calming the nerves of the younger and more fearful girls. She hadn’t gone with hopes of marrying the Laird but, like me, had been looking for a way from her previous life and hidebound father – a minor noble from the south of our country. I said she was a clever girl, we both knew what she was doing the evening she slipped up and was ‘caught’ trying to get me in a clinch in the steam room.
Sophia didn’t have questions for me. Not that she had any more experience than the other girls, just that she wouldn’t admit to ignorance or fears. Bravado or stupidity. I wasn’t sure which at the time but it was easy to see that the aggressive, man-eating, swagger was as much of a pose as Amana’s manufactured heterosexuality. Convinced I could be no kind of threat to the self-proclaimed prettiest girl in the room Sophia had blanked me out as an automatic also-ran. Fine by me, I don’t think I could have got through that time if she’d decided to be my best friend.
Moshen’s return was without fanfare, the timing unexpected. The main doors opened onto the room and there he was, this time accompanied by a fleshy brunette. We smiled across the room to each other but I didn’t rush over to greet him. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to, I couldn’t. I was lay back on my bed with Amana straddled across my hips, continuing with Hannah’s massage regime. She said nothing but her eyes widened at the sudden pressure of my reaction to seeing him again. Coolly, we stayed as we were while I fought to get back to a presentable condition, excessively thankful that Amana was who she was. By the time introductions were over and the brunette had been shown around our quarters I was in control of myself and able to greet my friend without embarrassing either of us.
Nearing the endgame, there was little that could be said in public and our hello was mostly a goodbye with undertones conveyed in a handshake and the tilt of our heads. Amana stopped his retreat as he turned to leave, stretched up to whisper something and planted a long kiss on his surprised lips. Her rejoinder to the shocked onlookers as the door closed behind the flustered aide was that everyone had been thinking it; they might not see him again so why not try it just once? Briefly alone together later that evening she whispered that she had only done it to pass on the message she had felt beneath her.
All the candidates together, it was time to move on to the next stage. The girls fussed over their choice of attire. I finally unrolled the extra package that Moshen had left for me and puzzled over a muddle of straps and ties until Amana took an interest and worked out how to wear what she called a skirt. I’d never seen anything like it; she said it had roots in ancient Roman armour. Wherever the design had come from it looked more like a strange belt than a skirt to me, but it did have the effect of drawing the eye of everyone in the room.