Set in The Empire’s Corps universe, introducing a very important character.
“Good work, Sameena.”
Sameena beamed with pride at her father’s words. It was unusual for a girl to receive any formal education on Islamabad, let alone be granted the chance to use it, but her father had recognised her talent from a very early age. The family business would be passed down to her brother Abdul – a girl running a business was unheard of – yet he’d already promised her that she could continue to work behind the scenes. Her brother had no talent for business and knew it.
“Thank you, father,” she said, as she looked down at the figures. Honestly, they weren’t very complicated at all. “I could do the next set right now.”
Her father made a show of stroking his beard in contemplation, then shook his head. “Your mother will want help in the kitchen,” he reminded her dryly. “Or we will have no food tonight.”
Sameena rolled her eyes. “I burn water, father,” she said, hoping that he would change his mind. “You should put Abdul in the kitchen.”
Her father’s eyes twinkled with amusement. The only male cooks on the planet were the ones who cooked in the mosques, feeding the men who travelled from town to town spreading the word of Islam. It was unlikely, to say the least, that Abdul would ever join them. He was simply too fond of games to take up a career in the mosque.
“Cheeky brat,” he said. He reached out and patted her on the head. “Go help your mother while I check the figures. You can do more sums tonight.”
Sameena stood up and bowed, then walked out of her father’s study and down towards the kitchen, where the smell of cooked meat was already starting to waft through the house. Her mother was a wonderful cook, she knew, but Sameena knew that she had no talent for cooking. In her fanciful moments, she wondered if she had inherited the gene for trading from her father, rather than the gene for cooking she should have had. Most of her friends saw nothing wrong with spending most of their time in the kitchen.
She stopped in front of the kitchen door and hesitated, catching sight of her own reflection in the mirror her mother had hung on the door. A dark-skinned face looked back at her, surrounded by long dark hair that fell down over her shoulders. She looked almost mannish, her mother had said, apart from her hair. The doctor they’d taken her to had said that she was simply a late developer. Shaking her head, Sameena pulled her hair into a ponytail and pushed open the door to the kitchen. Her mother was standing in front of the stove, boiling a piece of beef in a large pan.
“There you are,” her mother said, crossly. A strict traditionalist, her mother had little time for the work she did with her father. Only the tradition of female obedience had stopped her from making more of a fuss. “Go wash the pots and pans.”
Sameena sighed. “Yes, mother,” she said, as she walked over to the sink. As always, her mother seemed to have gone out of her way to use as many different pans and utensils as possible. “Why don’t you get Abdul to do it?”
Her mother gave her a sharp look. “Because he is at study,” she said, sharply. It was her latest scheme to make something of her son and she’d nagged her husband until he’d agreed to pay for it. “And because men don’t work in the kitchen.”
It hardly seemed fair to Sameena. She was better at maths than her brother, better at reading … why did she have to get married and spend her life in the kitchen? If her father had wanted to marry her off, he could have done so from the moment she’d become a woman. She’d been lucky. Some of her girlfriends had already been married, or had been practically chained to the kitchen inside their houses, permanently supervised by their mothers. But why was it that way?
She pushed the thought aside and started to work on the pots and pans. Her mother kept adding to the pile, or scooping up items she’d washed and using them again, forcing Sameena to wash them again and again. She just wanted to walk away, but there was no point in leaving. Her mother would be angry and her father would be disappointed in her. Where could she go if she left?
“Take this out to the dining room,” her mother ordered. “And then come straight back.”
Sameena took the dish of curry gratefully and carried it out of the kitchen, down towards the dining room. It was the largest room in the house; her father used it to entertain his business partners or the bureaucrats from Abdullah every few weeks. Sameena had been allowed to listen to some of the discussions – although she hadn’t been allowed to speak – and she’d learned more about how the world worked than she’d learned from her mother, or the tutor her father had hired for her education. They hadn’t bothered to conceal anything from her.
Her father was already sitting on the floor. “Put it down there,” he ordered, tiredly. “And then you …”
There was a crash as someone opened the front door. Sameena looked up to see Abdul as he stepped into the room, grinning from ear to ear. Her brother was handsome, some of her girlfriends had said, but Sameena didn’t see it herself. But then, he’d been two years old when she’d been born and they’d practically grown up together. She’d been very lucky in her bother as well.
“You’re late,” her father said, sternly.
“I had to talk to the teacher,” Abdul said. He was still grinning. “Can you believe that he got something wrong?”
Their father stared at him. “… What?”
“The teacher, the one who came all the way from Abdullah,” Abdul said. “He was basing his arguments on a discredited hadith, so I had to tell him …”
Sameena looked at her father and saw the blood draining from his face. “What did you tell him …?”
Abdul dropped into classical Arabic and started to explain. Sameena scowled at him – girls were not encouraged to learn classical Arabic and she could barely follow one word in ten – before looking at their father. He’d gone very pale.
“You utter idiot,” he said, when Abdul had finished. “You … you’ve ruined us all!”
“But I was right,” Abdul protested. “I …”
“Fool of a boy,” their father thundered. “Do you really think that matters?”
He started to pace around the room. “He will have complained about you to the Guardians of Public Morality,” he snapped. “You will come to their attention. And anyone who comes to their attention is lost forever.”
Abruptly, he turned and headed towards the door. “Eat your dinner, then stay in your room,” he ordered. “And don’t talk about it with your mother.”
His gaze moved to Sameena. “You too,” he added. “Don’t talk to your mother about anything.”
Sameena watched him leave, unable to suppress the nervous feeling in her chest. She’d seen the Guardians of Public Morality – dark men in dark robes, carrying staffs – from a distance, but she’d never spoken to one. And yet she’d heard the rumours of what they did to people who stepped too far outside the lines drawn for Islamabad’s population. Those who came to their attention always regretted it.
She would have asked Abdul, but their mother bustled just after their father left and started putting the rice and bread down on the mat. Instead, she ate and worried.
Two days passed before her father returned to the house. He must have said something to her mother, Sameena had decided, if only because she didn’t seem worried by his absence. But then, he’d often had to make business trips, either to Abdullah or to the spaceport out in the desert. Having to leave at short notice wasn’t uncommon. Even so, she couldn’t help worrying about what was going on. Abdul hadn’t been very talkative and had spent most of his time in his room.
Sameena was sitting in her room, reading a book, when her father opened the door and came inside. As master of the house, he could go anywhere without bothering to ask permission, but he normally respected her private space and knocked before entering her room. It was so out of character for him to barge inside that she almost panicked. Just what was going on?
“I have arranged for you to marry,” her father said, without preamble. The look in his eyes chilled her to the bone. “You will marry Judge Al-Haran and …”
Sameena gaped at him. “Father,” she protested. “He’s married! He has two wives!”
“You will be his third,” her father said. He put a small purse of gold coins on her bedside table. “He has agreed to take you. It is a very great honour.”
Sameena felt her world crashing down around her. She had known that she would be married, sooner or later; it was very rare for a woman to remain unmarried past her late teens. Even those whose morals had been called into question were married off; they just had to become second or third wives. But she …
Her father had promised her – promised her – that she wouldn’t be married off unless she approved of the groom. And her brother, who would become her guardian if her father died before she married, had made her the same promise. She’d trusted them – and yet now they were selling her off to the highest bidder. How could she be a third wife? She’d heard the older women chatting, when they thought their children couldn’t hear, and she knew what it would be like. The third wife was a slave, in all but name. She would be bullied by the senior wives as well as her husband.
And she’d met the Judge, once. He hadn’t impressed her.
“Father,” she said, gathering herself as best as she could, “I will not marry the Judge. He’s fifty years old, and smelly, and …”
Her father slapped her.
Sameena fell backwards, more shocked then hurt. Her father never hit her. She’d been slapped by her mother more than once when she’d been disobedient, but her father never hit her – or Abdul. Her cheek hurt … she lifted a hand to it and touched her skin, feeling it throbbing in pain. She’d never been scared of her father before.
But when she met his eyes, she realised that he was scared too.
“Your idiot of a brother has made powerful enemies,” her father said, very quietly. “I have it on good authority that the Guardians of Public Morality have already been alerted and that they’re just waiting for permission to act. No matter what bribes I offer, I cannot save my son, or my wife, or myself. You know how many enemies merchants have on this world.”
Sameena nodded. Merchants kept the world going, yet the local governments often disapproved of them. She’d done the sums and knew how much money her father had to pay out in taxes – or bribes – just to keep going. A charge of disbelief, of unorthodoxy, might be impossible to bury underneath a mass of bribes. Even their friends might back away if they realised that the fallout might land on them as well.
And all it took to unleash the Guardians of Public Morality was a brief dispute in a mosque between a young man and a teacher …
“But I can save you,” her father insisted. “You’ll go to the Judge, you will become his wife and they won’t be able to touch you. We can go to his house and he can perform the ceremony … don’t you understand? There is nothing he can do to you that is worse than what the Guardians of Public Morality will do, if they get their hands on you.”
Sameena remembered the worst of the rumours and went cold. How could their lives have turned upside down so quickly? But there was no point in crying over spilt milk, as her mother had said more than once. If her father was right, she had no other choice. There was no one else who would give her the same protection as the Judge …
A thought struck her. “But father, given what Uncle Muhammad has been doing for the government …”
“They won’t take that into account,” her father assured her, grimly. “He isn’t your real Uncle, after all. If we’re lucky, he won’t be involved at all.”
He tapped the purse of gold. “You won’t be able to take much with you,” he added. “But take that – in a few years, maybe you’ll be able to seek an alternate arrangement. Legally, he has to leave that with you …”
Sameena shook her head in absolute despair. Maybe, just maybe, the Judge would grant her a divorce once the whole affair had died down in a year or two. But if he refused, there was no way that she could find a legal separation. The law wouldn’t be on her side, whatever he did to her. And he could take her gold and no one would be able to stop him.
She looked out of the open window towards the darkening sky and shuddered.
“I can’t do anything else,” her father said. “All I can do is make the best arrangements I can for you. And pray.”
He gave her a hug, then stood up. “I’ll come back in an hour to take you to the Judge’s house,” he told her. He sounded almost as through her were pleading. “Please don’t do anything stupid.”
Sameena felt hot tears prickling at her eyes as he closed the door, leaving her alone. Her thoughts danced in crazy circles through her head. How could he do that to her? But what choice did he have? Abdul had ruined the whole family and her only hope of escaping the coming dragnet was to surrender to a lecherous old man. No doubt the Judge had struck a hard bargain. Everyone thought that merchants were rich, even when they weren’t.
She picked up the purse and counted the coins silently. Nearly five thousand sultans – and, buried at the bottom of the purse, an Imperial Credit Coin. There were only a handful on the entire planet; whatever Imperial Law happened to say, Islamabad rarely used any currencies apart from its own sultans. She doubted that she could find someone who would accept the coin, at least outside the spaceport. Mere possession of the coin would raise suspicions of spiritual contamination by off-worlders.
There was no formal law against women possessing such sums of money, but it was almost unheard of. Her dowry would go to the Judge; if he knew that she had the rest of the money with her, he would be within his rights to take it for himself. All that was hers would become his. She would have to hide it, somehow. And then …
And then what? She asked herself. Her life was utterly ruined.
She heard a dull crash from downstairs. Worried, she stood up and opened the door very quietly. A harsh male voice echoed upstairs, demanding that everyone in the house present themselves for arrest and formal interrogation. Sameena felt her blood run cold as she realised that her father had been too late, after all. The Guardians of Morality had arrived to take them all into custody.
Her mother started to scream. There was the unmistakable sound of a scuffle and the screaming cut off, abruptly. They’d knocked her mother down, she guessed; how long would it be before they searched the house? She’d heard too many rumours to go gently into their custody, but there was no point in fighting. Even if she’d known how to fight, there were just too many of them.
She turned and scooped up the purse of coins and stuffed them into her pocket. At least she’d worn loose trousers rather than a dress; it would have been far harder to escape in one of her dresses, even if her mother did like seeing her in them. She picked up her headscarf a moment later – she normally didn’t wear them in the house – and then slipped over to the window. Was that footsteps she could hear coming up the stairs? She couldn’t tell, but there was no longer any time to hesitate.
It had been five years since she’d last scrambled out of her window and climbed down to the garden below, but her hands and feet still remembered where to go. She was heavier now, she realised, as one of the footholds almost broke under her weight and she slipped, thankfully only a few inches above the ground. As soon as she touched the ground, she turned and fled into the woods behind her house. There were no guards outside to catch her before she could escape.
She and her brother had used to play in the woods and she knew them like the back of her hand. If the Guardians of Public Morality came after her, they’d have problems … she hoped. They’d played hide-and-seek before, but never with adults … catching her breath, she looked back towards the house. No one seemed to be coming after her.
But they would, she knew. Everyone knew that the Guardians of Public Morality never gave up. Give them a day or two and everyone in the town would know that they wanted Sameena, dead or alive. No one would shelter her, not even the Judge. And going to him would mean swapping one kind of captivity and torture for another.
And yet … where could she go?
A thought occurred to her. It wasn’t something that she would ever have considered before, but what did she have to lose? And besides, the Guardians of Public Morality would never expect it, not of a girl.
And if it worked, she would be far outside their reach.