Year 76 CE
“Ahha! Look who’s here,” mocked a shrill voice at the back.
“Welcome bitch,” hissed another.
Okayyy. Good to know what we are dealing with. I squinted to appraise my surroundings. The place reeked of rotting carpets and broken dreams.
The metal gate slammed behind me and the key grated in the lock. The guard and his flaming torch retreated as I started to walk deeper into the cavern.
Thhhhoooh. A gob of spit landed inches from me. It was Maja, the pretty Macedonian, sitting against the wall, resentment flaring in her eyes. She’d be easy, when the time comes.
The tittering around me grew, as I advanced. The little voice in my head, commanded me to be strong. I was the hornet in a beehive. The next few minutes would be crucial in establishing the power dynamic.
“Well, well, well. Joanna of Thrace, wearing a cheap cotton caftan like the rest of us,” jabbed a fair woman with big breasts, arms akimbo.
Her face was vaguely familiar but her name escaped me. I held her gaze and fought a frown from forming on my forehead. I sauntered past her, through a narrow shaft of light, filtering from a latticed window in the ceiling. Seven pair of eyes drilled into me, even as the coarse caftan chafed at my underarms.
These are the vaults beneath the palace of King Ardeshir, the Shahanshah of the Persian realms. The eight of us, held here, are the ones he is undecided about. The concubines, that he finds decisively boring, are promptly extinguished. Ostensibly, we are the lucky ones who could potentially be called back, some day. No one ever has. The King has a kingdom to run, military campaigns to wage and dozens of fresh girls to choose from, unless, unless someone/something reminds him.
I spotted a clean stretch by a pillar and sat myself down. So far so good. Almost immediately, one of them marched up to me. She looked the pliable Persian kind.
“That’s my spot,” she growled.
I ignored her.
“Didn’t you hear me, BITCH?”
I pretended to study my fingernails, my pulse racing.
She turned briefly, to look back at the rest and then kicked me, just a little too hesitantly. That was my cue. In a flash, I grabbed her leg and flipped with all my might, flooring her. I leapt on her back, pinning her with my weight and twisted her arm, till she screamed. The others, who had advanced rapidly in our direction, froze.
“I’ll break her fucking arm, if you don’t back off,” I said icily, in an even tone.
They withdrew. They knew better than to battle with a Thracian. The blood of Spartacus coursed through my veins. The pitiable Persian, started whimpering. I gradually released my hold.
“What’s your name?”
I let go of her arm and stretched myself to full height, as she gathered herself.
“I will find another place for myself,” I declared, extending my hand to hoist her. Her narrowed eyes sizzled with hatred but she was too much in shock. She absentmindedly grasped my arm. I smiled, as kind a smile as I could muster, and helped her up to her feet. Then I walked to the far corner of the dungeon, to settle myself in. I’d proved my point; didn’t need to rub it in.
Till yesterday, I was wearing gossamer robes of the finest silk and was being plied with handpicked fruits and the sweetest wines. I had maids to bathe and massage me. I had allowed myself to dream that I could be a queen. I very nearly had him, or so I thought. But then Ardeshir was suddenly called away to the western provinces, to subdue a revolt and I was sent here.
For all his toughness in public, he was remarkably tender while intimate.
“I love the way you smell. So different from everyone else,” he had gushed on our first night.
In the two weeks, that I was with him, he bedded me thrice. On each occasion he flattered me about my scent, inhaling me deeply as lovers do. I would just smile coyly and tell him the things, men like him, want to hear.
“You are so strong my Lord; Your kindness is a legend throughout the empire; I admire you because you don’t tolerate sycophants.”
Men are easy to manipulate, be they farmers or noblemen, Thracian, Roman or Persian. There was no merit in revealing to him that my enduring fragrance came from my necklace of myrrh beads. It had taken me months to find the purest drops of myrrh sap. It was my only worldly possession, when I was sold into the royal harem, by my vile uncle.
While I was in the King’s palace, the chamber maids would divest me of my necklace, when preparing me for him. I would don the royal finery and ornaments but the scent of my Thracian myrrh, stayed on me for days. The Persians despite their evolution in poetry and art, strangely remained a foul smelling people.
“All people east of Cappadocia are barbarians,” my mother used to say. “They stink like a stable sewer.”
Now I can attest to it. It’s the warm climate and the excessive consumption of red meat. Then there is the beef tallow they use for their lamps. The stench is pervasive.
I saw the big breasted one, ambling towards me.
“Food” she stuttered, placing a malodorous lamp and a plate of rice and camel meat, in front of me.
“Thank you.” Her accent was Armenian, so I gambled. “Aren’t you Sofiya the Armenian?”
Her eyes brightened a bit but she remained impassive. “So you remember, Joanna. Yes I’m Armenian. Name is Seda.”
I reached out and touched her arm. “Of course, Seda.”
I toyed with the myrrh beads around my neck and allowed myself a moment of quiet contemplation. I had been childishly curt, to nearly everyone, during my days in the harem. I foolishly believed that they would all be executed anyway, so there was little incentive to expend emotion. Now, I had to win them over, for my survival. Time to deploy the vulnerable and caring Joanna.
Over the next few days, I combed Livia’s hair, de-loused Adriana, slept with Maja, applied liniments to Jazmin’s arm and massaged Seda’s back. I participated in the cooking and cleaning duties, doing a trifle more than my part.
By the third week, I’d broken them all. They began accepting me as one of their own and we spent the days chatting, laughing and swapping tales of our past. I shared that I came from a family of apiarists and chandlers. We raised bees and made candles. Our candles were much sought after, by the Thracian nobility. As was the law of our guild, we never sold our candles to foreign merchants. So most non-Thracian people had never seen one.
“What do you mean it is solid and burns?” chuckled Jazmin.
“Like wood, you mean?” queried Maja, possessively touching my shoulder.
“Nooo, it is a soft solid, like an unripe avocado.”
Livia laughed. “In that case, I will eat your candle when it is ripe.”
Their smirks betrayed their incredulity. Sigh, these worker bees.
“I can make one and show you,” I teased.
They let out a collective whoop, like children at a magic show.
“But I am sworn to secrecy by the Gods, so none of you can look.”
They all agreed but there was still the problem of getting the raw materials.
“I’ll do it,” volunteered Seda, with a mischievous glint in her eyes. We laughed conspiratorially, since she could procure almost anything, from the guards, by leaving few the top buttons of her robe, undone.
“Thank you Seda. I need five large beehives, a double boiler and a fine strainer.”
It took them a few days but eventually the guards delivered. There was a sense of excitement among the girls, as I set to work, in a partitioned part of the kitchen. It had been long since I had last crafted a candle, but thank the Gods for muscle memory. Celestial energies took control of me and guided my hands. I broke the hives into pieces and set them to melt on low heat in the double boiler. It took an hour for the hives to liquefy. I then strained the viscous solution of honey, beeswax and debris into another pot.
I left it to rest, while I triple twisted strands of thread to craft a wick. When I checked back, a beautiful slice of golden wax had formed in the pot, floating on a layer of dark honey. I melted this wax once again, and then set it in a wooden cup with the wick.
The girls were thrilled when I emerged from the kitchen.
I pouted seductively. “Okay, who wants honey?”
They greedily pounced and within minutes they had cleaned out the pot. They were still licking their fingers when I unveiled the candle with dramatic aplomb. The flickering flame had them mesmerized.
“It smells - strange, of nothing,” observed Maja.
“And no smoke. By Gods, she is a witch,” gasped Adriana, in disbelief.
To be honest, I felt like one, as I basked in their giggly adulation. I had given them a new toy.
Despite my insincere attempts at restricting the use of the candle, within a few days, the guards got wind of it. A secret among seven girls is as likely as a virgin in a whorehouse. One afternoon, Jazmin sheepishly lumbered up to me, with others in tow.
“Joanna, I am so, so sorry.”
“Why? What happened my dear girl?”
She was on the verge of tears. “The guards saw me playing with the candle. Pp…please forgive me. I tried to hide it, but theyyy, they confiscated it, for the King’s chamberlain.”
“Oh nooo! They didn’t.” I feigned annoyance but inside, I knew my plan had been set in motion.
“They think, I made it. Now they’ll kill me for witchcraft.” She sobbed.
We all hugged her and consoled her. “If it comes to that, I will confess,” I declared.
“On the contrary, I think you will get a reward, Jazmin,” chimed Seda.
Adriana clapped her hands, “Yesss, and we can all share it.”
I didn’t have to wait long. The next morning the Chamberlain showed up in person, and instructed Jazmin to prepare a fresh candle. It was going to be his gift to the King, who had since returned victorious.
Jazmin secured the raw materials and again, I cloistered myself in the kitchen, to prepare the candle. I fell in a trance, as I refined the wax to perfection, till it gleamed like alabaster. For the final boil, I broke off two of my beloved myrrh beads, from the necklace, and tossed them in the pot. I stirred, like one possessed, until the beads dissolved completely.
The candle smelled divine, fit for the Gods themselves. Jazmin handed it over to the guards in the evening. The Chamberlain sent forth a pitcher of wine for Jazmin and a festive atmosphere ensued. We drank, we danced and ragged Jazmin about her impending good fortune.
Later that night, the guards returned and announced, “Joanna of Thrace, you are summoned by the King.”
- Thrace was a region at the intersection of Greece, Turkey & Bulgaria, in the Roman empire. Thracian women were known to be strong, feisty and beautiful. They were therefore coveted by only the most confident of men. Abducting Thracian women was a lucrative trade along the Silk Route. The King of Persia ensured a couple were always available in his harem, to pick from.
2. Shahanshah is the King of Kings or quite literally the Shah of Shahs.
3. Spartacus was a legendary Thracian gladiator.
4. Myrrh is a resin extracted from the Myrrh tree, used as incense.
5. Caftan is a traditional modest robe for women.