The Nuri slave girl led us down an empty hallway. I tried not to think too much while we walked. Now that I no longer had to butt heads with the unbelievably arrogant Eze of Nuri, I found myself suddenly exhausted, without the rush of adrenaline that kept me up this long. I leaned heavily on my spear, letting the dull echo of its thud against the hard ground chase away my uneaseness at Tiwo’s annoying fondness for the Eze of Nuri.
Luckily, it wasn’t a long walk.
The slave girl dropped to her knees in front of a door. I hadn’t noticed before, what with her back turned to me, a slight I couldn’t really blame her for, but I hadn’t noticed how pretty she was. Her features were traditional Nuri. Traditional low cut, curly hair, and traditional honey brown skin. I’d always found the Nuri contradictions intriguing. Like how Nuri free women covered every inch of their bodies, in public, but the slave women were practically naked.
“This is your bath, revered,” she said in soft, melodious, Isan.
“Thank you,” I replied without thinking. I wouldn’t have given my words another thought if it didn’t immediately prompt a sharp jerk of her head. She looked up at me, with wide shimmering eyes, her plump pink lips gaping open. She stayed that way, frozen, gazing at me as if I had suddenly turned inhuman, a mami wata spirit, something ethereal, she’d never before seen.
Then Tiwo reached for the handle and her trance broke. She dropped her gaze back to the ground.
“I will help you,” Tiwo said, holding the door open for me.
I shook my head. I didn’t need his help, but we needed to talk, and unlike the Eze, just thinking about the insufferable man made my blood boil…I lost my train of thought for a moment, I was exhausted, but I needed to speak with my brother.
“I will lead you to the male bath, Obi.” The slave girl said. “This is just for females.”
How very Nuri, to have separate baths for the different genders.
“Is anyone else making use of the bath?” My voice was soft and strained, strange to my own ears.
She shook her head. “Igwe ordered it be cleared for you revered.”
“Then I will share it with my brother.”
Again her head popped up, and again she stared at me with incomprehensible awe, as if I was a strange creature invading her simple world. “You cannot, revered.”
I frowned at her. I was tired, hungry, annoyed, confused and a whole mix of other emotions I couldn’t begin to name, so I wasn’t in perfect control of my mood. Still, I hadn’t meant to scare her. She dropped her forehead to the ground, so quickly after I spoke that even I was taken aback. I knew I could be scary, but usually not that scary. Then again, my interaction with slaves was with Isan slaves, not with Nuri. Our slaves had rights, protections guaranteed them by the masquerade. Still, surely a single frown could not be enough to make the girl shiver as hard as she did.
“P-please forgive me revered, I do not mean to displease you, but it is not done. Only women and eunuchs may enter the female bath. Please.” Her voice quivered, as if she was holding back a sob.
I leaned my spear against the wall. And lowered to my knees beside her. She was shaking uncontrollably, muttering ‘forgive me’. How could a single frown make someone so scared? My mind trailed back to that room, to the girl that had walked in carrying the tray with the knife. The emptiness in her eyes. The smell of Nuri spices returned. I forced my mind to stay in the present.
“Shh,” I stroked my hand down her back, “it’s okay.” She gentled. “Look at me,” I beckoned, I kept my voice soft, entreating, with just the slightest sense of an order behind it.
She knelt upright and began shaking her head.
“Why are you so scared?” I asked, before she could speak, “you did nothing wrong. You were only telling me the rules of the palace.”
She blinked away tears. “I was ordered to please you, revered.”
The more I talked the more tired I felt. I wanted to lie down, to close my eyes for a minute, maybe longer. But I couldn’t leave a slave in such distress. I managed a smile and thanked the masquerades when the smile calmed her. “You’ve done as you were bid.”
“Really?” She was young. Not too young for service, even by Isan standards, but young. I guessed she was nineteen, twenty at the most. I nodded.
She smiled and ducked her head.
“What would happen if you did not please me?” I asked softly, and made sure that when she looked up at me, all she saw was amused curiosity.
“I would be punished,” she shivered.
“By the Eze?” I pushed slightly, eager for any truths I could gleam from any source. A slave this terrified of their owner did not reflect well on the owner.
“No,” she said wistfully, with an expression that stunned me. It was almost as if she would welcome it. She didn’t say it, but the implied, ‘I wish’, was clear. I was careful not to show any adverse reactions, I didn’t want her petrified again, but her reply surprised me, and not in a way I liked.
“You love him,” I said, startled.
Her pining gaze cleared. She flashed a worried look my way and shook her head. “I would not dare, it is not my place, forgive me…”
“Shh, I am not scolding you.” I winked at her, inserting a playful note intended to remind her that I was about the same age as her, lowering her defenses enough to confide in me.
“He is an easy man to love, revered.”
I did not believe that for a second, but I kept the playful smile on my face. “And how many times have you been in his bed?” I teased.
She giggled. “Never,” again I heard that wishful longing in her voice.
“How long have you served here?” I asked.
“A year, revered.”
“How long have you been a slave?”
“I was born a slave, revered.”
I nodded, then turned to Tiwo. “We will follow the Nuri norms, but only for Prisca’s sake,” I turned back to her and winked. She smiled at me. Tiwo frowned. “We will talk after.”
He cocked an eyebrow. “Are you sure, Tan, I don’t think you should be alone, not after…”
I cut him off. “I’ll be fine. I’ll have Prisca for company.” I was intrigued. I wanted to hear about the Eze of Nuri from her. What kind of man was he? How could she live in this palace and love that man? Did he keep his real self hidden from her as he’d obviously done with my brother? I could get her to tell me the truth.
I placed my hand on the ground and was shocked when there wasn’t enough strength in my arm to push me back up. Tiwo had to help me to my feet. I grabbed onto my spear and used it as a crutch for support.
“Are you sure Tan?” He sounded worried.
“I’ll be fine, I promise.”
I pushed the door he’d opened further apart and then shuffled in.
I almost choked on the fumes. They were obviously opium free, but they were so thick that all I could do was take a step in, and then stop. I couldn’t see a thing.
Then the fumes parted, and an older woman approached me. She was dressed in a simple sleeveless tunic, and had two big, naked, male slaves accompanying her. A glance down showed they were both eunuchs.
The woman curtsied to me. “I greet you, revered,” she said in flawless Isan, “Igwe sent me to see to you. I am a healer. Will you come with me?”
“My slaves cannot speak. Is it okay if they lend you their support?” I nodded again.
She made signs with her fingers and they both bowed and came towards me. “They cannot hear as well,” she explained.
I released my spear reluctantly to one, and almost snapped out a curse when the other picked me off my feet. He was deaf and dumb, he wouldn’t hear me. I stayed stiffly, annoyed by the move, irritated by the healer who’d obviously ordered it, and filled with a sudden urge to punch the Eze in his arrogant face. No doubt he’d ordered them to do this. I took a breath and forced myself to face the facts that he probably had nothing to do with this. The woman walked beside me, she never turned her back to me, and the other slave didn’t either, she acted in deference to my nation. I found it hard to fault her after that, but I felt better when they led me to a curtained enclosure that wasn’t filled with fumes.
It was a simple marbled space with a cushioned bed and a high stool filled with jars and ointments. The slave placed me on the ground beside the bed. I nodded a reluctant thanks to the slave, whose eyebrows furrowed in confusion. He turned to his mistress who simply shook her head.
“He thinks you are trying to give him an order.” She made signs with her hands and the men left. “I bought them when I first came to Nuri, from an Owerri chief, who’d had their tongues cut off and their eardrums burnt because he’d thought it would be intriguing to have slaves who would never share his secrets.” She moved around the room as she spoke, never once turning her back to me. She glanced up at me and I saw a look of revulsion on her face that matched mine. “The chief is dead now. A bad heart…at least that’s what my autopsy report said.” She chuckled. “No one seemed to appreciate the irony of it.”
I smiled at her.
“Can I take off your dress, revered?”
“Give me a knife and I’ll do it myself.”
She picked up a knife from her stool and brought it over to me. “You are weak, revered. Too weak. Nnadi should have brought you to me as soon as he found you.” She shook her head. “That boy,” she tsked, but in that way mother’s did when they cooed over children they thought were incorrigible.
I took perverse pleasure in shearing off the cloth and imagining that it was someone else I was cutting into. The material fell.
I placed the knife back into her open palm. “Will you let me help you up?” she asked. I could climb unto the bed myself and I did. She chuckled. “You are just as stubborn as he is.”
“You know the Igwe well?”
She walked over to her stool and prepared her herbs facing me. I observed the effort she made to never turn her back on me. Coming from a Nuri, it intrigued me. She intrigued me.
She smiled without looking up. “I was one of the healers at his birth. Poor child, his mother died in childbirth,” she explained, “his father died not too long after.” She shook her head.
“How did he die?”
“No,” I said, “the Owerri chief.”
“A slave killed him.”
“I can see why, if he went around mutilating his slaves.”
Her expression saddened. “The slave woman that killed him wasn’t his slave. Please lay down revered.”
I lay on my back, watching as the woman moved around. The sadness that had falling on her remained. She hummed a tune. If I wasn’t so tired, it wouldn’t have taken as much time as it did for me to realize it was an Isan tune. It wasn’t a common one either, it was from the heart of the Bini Isles, a river dirge that healers learned while they trained for their calling. I’d only heard my mother sing it once, and that was at father’s funeral.
I sprang up. “How do you know that tune?”
“I am your subject, revered, or at least I used to be. I am Isan.”
“I am losing Isan healers to the Nuri now?” I kept my tone light, mocking, but a weight had lifted in my chest. I felt better knowing that it was an Isan with me now.
“Not enough,” she said, but her smile belied the sadness in the words.
I did not like it. “Explain yourself.”
She mixed the herbs into a cup and poured palm wine into it. She brought it to me. “Drink this, revered, it will make you sleep.”
I frowned at her. “Why would I want to sleep?”
“So you can stop badgering me with questions.” She teased.
I shook my head. “Take it away.”
She took a step back. “The Owerri chief married a young Adaobi. Do you know what that is revered?”
I nodded. She’d pronounced it as ada-obi, which was separate from the adobi pronunciation that followed the honorific for the wife of an Oza, which meant she was referring to the daughter of an Oza.
“The Adaobi was the only child of Oza Owerri. She inherited a great fortune. If it was in Isan, she would have inherited her father’s land and title. In Nuri, such a thing is impossible. Her fortune of course was only hers in name. It was her father’s till she got married and passed to her husband after.” I frowned wondering what the point of her story was. But I did not interrupt, I held Isan healers in much too high regard to do so. “They swore to a love bond, which as you know, once consummated, is completely indissoluble. A year into their marriage her husband had squandered her entire fortune. Her father gave them more. He squandered that too. After her father passed, his land and titled was held in trust for her son. She had three miscarriages. Really, I should say she lost three children to her husband’s abuse. She finally managed to carry one to term, but she lost that one too, during labor. Nuri healers declared she was impotent, and her father’s lands and title passed to her nearest male cousin. Her husband, being the spendthrift that he was, gambled himself deeply into debt. Then he devised a plan to save himself from being thrown in debtor’s jail. He sold his wife into slavery. An adaobi fetches a handsome price in Nuri.”
I gasped, horrified. “It’s not possible. It cannot be.”
“It is in Nuri, revered. He sold his wife into slavery, paid off his debts and married another woman. His former wife, now a slave, returned with her master on a visit and killed him. She stabbed him twenty three times. I wasn’t there to help her through her labor, but I was there to help her cover up the murder. Any Nuri slave who kills a free person is killed.” She took a deep breath and released it. “You asked me to explain myself. Here it is revered. Every year we send ten Nuri healers to Bono to train their healers and accept twenty aspiring Bono healers in training. We do not do the same with the Nuri. The adaobi I told you about, the child she carried to term was breached. Any half-trained Isan healer could have delivered the baby safely. It was a boy revered. If she’d had that child, not only would an innocent life have been saved, she would also have been the mother of Oza Owerri. She would have been protected. She did not deserve the fate she got. That is why I said not enough Isan healers are coming to Nuri.”
She backed away. “Please lie down revered.”
I lay back down.
“I will clean you, and rub ointments to make sure you heal properly.” She walked to the tail of the bed and I spread my legs open without prompting, closing my eyes as she attended to me. The tale she’d told me kept my thoughts away from drifting to the room, to the man who’d pretended to be the Eze of Nuri, the assault. Her poking brought back the memories and I couldn’t help flinching from her touch. Then she started singing an Isan healing tune, it was a lulling song, relaxing, it chased the memories away. I sagged in relief when the smell of spices faded.
By the time she was done I felt better. So much better. The pain was completely gone. I knew it would return when the herbs faded, but for now it felt good. She applied ointments and herbs to the rest of my body, her healing fingers gently soothing over the cuts from his knife.
“The witch doctor can take the memories away,” she spoke softly, “his experiments with the Eyo mami wata herbs have been quite successful. He can make it so that you won’t remember anything from after you were taken.”
I shook my head. I wouldn’t trust the eunuch healer with my shoes not to talk of my memories.
“Drink the herbs I mixed for you revered, please, you will sleep, and it will make healing better. When you wake, you will feel much stronger. I promise you.”
She smiled. “I took several classes from your mother, revered, can I ask how she is?”
“She is well.”
“That makes me glad, she is a great healer.”
“Thank you,” I said, taking the cup from her hand. I sipped the liquid and then gulped it down. It tasted like chalk. “What happened to the adaobi after she killed her husband?”
She took the cup from my hand. “I ruled the death natural, from a bad heart, then burnt the body. But there was too much blood and she was the last one seen with him. There was suspicion.”
My heart twisted. “Please don’t tell me she was killed.”
“No,” she shook her head, “no. The Igwe sent his witch doctor to back up my finding. She is his slave now, she serves here, and she lives a much happier life now than she had as the wife of a Chief.”
My jaw clenched. I had to fight to pry my gritted teeth apart. “He should have freed her, given her her life back!”
“That is not the Nuri way. The Nuri follow the tenet of strata. For a slave to be freed, the slave must perform a duty befitting a change of stratum, as determined by an oracle of the Ijele masquerade.”
“And this is why I do not like the Nuri, and why I do my best to keep my people away.”
She smiled at me. “There are good people in Nuri too. Women who fight hard for others regardless of how little true power they have, and men, kind men, who struggle to do good things within the strict confines of their culture and religion. You should not judge an entire nation so harshly, revered, it goes against the calling of guidance that you were born with.”
I couldn’t believe her audacity. She just smiled at me, as if it was normal for people to speak to me that way. I could feel the effects of her herbs starting to kick in. I had just enough lucidity for one final question. But I was at the edge of consciousness. “And what is Nnadi?” My eyelids drooped close as I realized I’d done it again, I’d slipped and called him by his name.
Her soft reply, prodded me into oblivion. “A great man that could do good things if the right person reached through to him.” Just before the darkness fell on me, I had the strangest feeling that the ‘right person’ she referred to, was me. But then I fell asleep, and forgot all about my final sleepy question, and the odd reply the healer had given.
When I woke up, it was to the sight of a pretty slave girl, standing beside me, swinging a large fan. Ayisha. She’d done this before. In the last month before she was set to end her service to me and return to her father. She’d taken her slavery beyond just sexual. She’d tried to dress me, which had been terrible, but cute in how hard she tried. Then she’d settled for things on the periphery. ‘Real acts of slavery’, she’d called them. Holding my lamp up for me while I worked at my desk. Carrying whatever objects she saw in my hands. And fanning me. The fanning she’d done naked.
“My love,” I turned towards her.
My eyes snapped open, and the cobwebs of drowsiness faded. It wasn’t my Ayisha. It was Prisca, the Eze of Nuri’s slave. I was in his palace.
I sat up. I remembered this room. It was where the healer had brought me. I stood, feeling much stronger than I’d felt before. And ravenous. I could eat an entire cow. But I needed to bathe first. I turned around to face the naked slave girl. She’d shed her clothes since the last time I saw her. “I wish to bathe,” I said, “will you attend me?”
She beamed at me. “Yes, revered.”
The smile grew. She led the way. She might speak Isan, but she was not well versed in our culture. I did not mind though, I liked the view. The bathing pool was large, as large as mine, back in Isan. Just thinking of my pool, stirred a deep longing in me I hadn’t known I felt. The thoughts of Ayisha were still fresh in my head. Ayisha and I had had so many great times in that pool. All over my suite really. Where was my girl? Was the Eze being honest, did he truly not have her? He’d managed to convince my brother that he didn’t, and Tiwo was in love with Ayisha. I walked down the steps into the shallow pool after Prisca. We were alone.
“Is this a communal bath?” I asked.
“It is now, or rather it was, before you came. This is part of the Adaeze’s suite, revered. But since the Igwe isn’t married, his favorites share it. He had them moved back to the slave quarters while you’re here, revered.”
“May I wash you, revered?”
I smiled at the eagerness in her voice. “Please.” It had been some time since I’d had a proper bath, complete with a bath attendant.
“There are more attendants, revered, many more, but the Igwe didn’t want to overwhelm you.”
“How caring of him,” I drawled, sardonically.
“Yes revered, he is the most caring man alive!” She squeaked, obviously not catching my sarcasm.
“And why is that, pretty Prisca?”
She giggled. “We’ve had few interactions. I do not know him well, and I have not served him personally before this, but all those who serve him personally love him. And he takes care of us. The current task master,” I could here the shiver in her voice when she mentioned him, “is fair. He is strict, very strict, but he is fair. Once, I walked past him, the Igwe, and he saw a whip mark on my body. He stopped, he actually stopped, to ask me what had happened. Can you believe that revered? Even though he’d never seen me before, he stopped to ask about it.”
She was beautiful so, yes, I could very easily believe that he would stop to ask about it. That didn’t make him a saint in my book, but apparently it did in hers.
“When I told him what had happened, he stopped in the middle of his busy day to talk to the task master. He decided the task master was in the wrong and he fired him. He fired him, for me, revered! Then he sent me off to bed. I was given no work for two whole days, and he never sent for me again. I thought he did it because he wanted to sleep with me, but he didn’t. He smiles at me when I see him in passing, but he’s never touched me. He does the same for all his slaves, male, female,” ‘gorgeous’ I added that to the list in my head. “I have met many men, but I have never met any like him,” she finished.
“Have you ever been out of Nuri?” I asked.
“No revered.” Then that was obviously why she hadn’t met better men. But I left the commentary to myself.
“What is the world like outside Nuri?” she asked. “Is it true that there are no slaves in Bono? And that in Isan, slaves choose slavery and when they want it to end?”
“Yes,” I said, sighing when she dug deep into my back, massaging as she scrubbed. “Yes, to both.”
“Before I came here, and met the Igwe, it baffled me to think that anyone could choose slavery. Now I understand.”
I felt sorry for her. She was lovesick. I understood, there were many in Isan who’d chosen slavery for that same reason. The difference was that after the love faded, they grew their hair and returned to freedom. Prisca would undoubtedly get what she wanted from the Eze soon enough, she was very pretty after all, but when it was over she wouldn’t have the same choices that our slaves had, and that was why I felt sorry for her.
“How do you speak Isan so well?”
“My first master was Isan. He taught me. He told me he moved to Nuri because Isan slaves had too many choices, they weren’t real slaves. He wanted a real slave.”
I wanted to kill him. “Do you know where he is now?”
“Probably in the same village, working his healing arts for Oza Enugu. He gave me to the Oza when the Oza asked for me. I haven’t seen him since.”
I made a note of it. I would find him. He was a disgrace to the entire Isan nation. How could he? For some reason the healer’s words came back to me then, she’d said there were good people in Nuri, just as there were bad people in Isan. But the problem was the Nuri laws allowed those bad people to come here and live their evils out unchecked. If Nuri was not what it was, men like that would be forced to remain in Isan an abide by the letter of our law.
“My first master told me that the Isan capital is a heart in the middle of the river Bini. He said that’s why Isan is so prosperous, because it’s the masquerade’s heart, that the Nulin masquerades love Isan. Is it true, revered?”
“It is true that our capital is heart-shaped and an island. It is true that the Egbabonelimwin masquerade loves Isan. As to the rest, I cannot say.” I sat back on the steps so that she could wash my legs.
“I would love to see that, a heart-shaped island. It sounds beautiful.”
“It is. To me, it is the most beautiful place in the world.”
“I think this palace is the most beautiful place in the world.” She placed her hand high on my thigh and left it there. It was one of the ways they trained Nuri slaves to offer sexual service.
I cringed at the thought of anyone touching me. I’d endured the healer’s touch, but that had been necessary. Sex was the last thing on my mind right now. “No, thank you.”
Her eyes drifted to mine. “Do I not please you?”
“You are very pleasing, but I am not in the mood.” I kept a smile on as I spoke, to keep the words from sounding harsh.
She pulled her hand away. “I am finished, revered.”
I nodded. “Thank you.”
“Your brother is waiting for you in your suite. Shall I have your meal sent up?”
She smiled. “Do you not have any slaves in Isan, revered?” she asked.
“I do. Why?”
“You say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ a lot,” she said shrugging, “there is no need, I am a slave.”
How could I explain this to her? Was there even a point? Nuri slavery had been so abstract to me before. I’d known what it was, heard of how badly they were treated, but I’d never really known for myself. In a single day, all of that had changed. Nuri slavery had a face now, it had a heartbreaking story. I couldn’t help wondering how many Adaobis had been sold into slavery by spendthrift husbands. What demons lurked behind pretty Prisca’s smiles? Nuri slavery was real now. How was I ever going to walk away, knowing what I knew now?
“In Isan, slaves choose to follow their calling to serve. It is an honor. An honor to the masquerade, and an honor to the people they serve. Their service is a gift, one that is beautiful when given, and can be easily taken away. We understand the value of their service and so we say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, and make sure that they understand how much they are treasured, for it is not an easy service.”
She stared at me. “I do not understand, revered. I feel as though I should, but I do not.”
I cupped her cheek in my hand then I pulled away. She wasn’t mine. As much as I wanted to, I could not take her away. I turned and walked out of the pool instead. She followed me. I felt better, cleaner, and ready to eat.
Tiwo and I had a lot to talk about. And after that. I thought of the lurking conversation with the Eze of Nuri and massaged my temple. One thing at a time. Food first.