It was after their meal that Aoife was truly tested. Gunnar did not proposition her for anything she might have truly desired. In fact, if anything Gunnar did not proposition her at all. He was simply continuing his act. He had made sure she was well fed and watered. He had dampened the embers of frustration that emerged in her before they took and blazed an inferno. He had, to put it crudely, made sure Aoife was as happy as a pig in shit, before offering her Gamzhe’s masterpiece, and Ashelia’s greatest claim to fame to those who moved in the right circles.
Known as Ashelia’s Nectar, it was a substance not all that dissimilar to honey. Viscous and sticky, it bore the same delicious, golden colour, and rumour had it the first Queen had raised her six royal babes on it instead of mother’s milk. While its appearance was almost identical to honey, it’s taste was not. Ashelia’s Nectar had a taste that could not be described. Not for divine reasons; its taste was not so heavenly that it defied the senses. No, Nectar simply tasted different depending on the person consuming it and, perhaps most importantly, the mood they were in upon consumption.
An angry upper class gentleman might taste the scent of foreign cologne on his wife’s neck, while a blissed out impoverished woman might taste the rare glimpse of wine the church granted her on her wedding day. The possibilities were truly endless, and that was part of the magic of it. That each taste of Nectar could be entirely different to the one before it. That one could spend one’s life consuming it and never experience the same taste twice.
For Aoife, the taste was Sister Ciara’s blackberry tart. Sister Briallen had made a rare trip back to her home in the Riverlands and had returned with a small picking of blackberries. Most had been made into jam, some to be stored and some to be sold, but Sister Ciara had managed to save just a few—just enough—to make the orphans under her charge a small treat. They hadn’t had any spare sugar or cream, and the blackberries themselves were a little sour, but Aoife had never been happier. Though it was a memory now tinged with sadness, as she recalled Niamh stealing a blackberry for them both.
She would not realise it then, for it was passed out as freely as water, but Ashelia’s Nectar was, at its core, a potent drug. Its pros were also its cons. Nectar would elevate the mood of the happy, but send those with a more negative emotion spiralling further downwards. And while it wasn’t truly addictive, each mouthful left one wanting more.
From that moment, with her first taste of Nectar settling in her stomach and slowly, delicately sinking its teeth in, she and Gunnar were inseparable, perhaps on Aoife’s part more than Gunnar’s. Upon their first meeting, when some of his personal guard had found the trio unconscious and near death in the Sands and had rushed them to Gamzhe to seek the aid of a physician, Gunnar had not been able to deny the beauty behind the malnutrition. She was a very plain girl, but he had room in his life for a plain wife. Now that she and her friends had been in the care of Gamzhe—and its best physician, Dr. Fivel Arazi—and had a little more meat on her bones, she was proving to be quite a comely young woman but something about her still screamed average. He had supposed she could have been a diamond in the rough, akin to a chunk of unrefined gold ore, and he had set his wives’ best seamstresses and stylists to work on her. The East suited her, even with her pale complexion—even sunburn couldn’t hide her real skin colour from him. The scant display of skin at her midriff between the hem of her blouse and the waist of her petticoat should have been enough to drive any man mad, but he was able to look upon her without feeling the maddening fires of lust as he did when he looked upon his brides. It was strange to think there could be a woman who did not catch his eye; he could admire beauty in all forms, such is the way of the Sandsmen, but he could not imagine an encounter between the two of them.
His wives, however, were less impressed by her as they had seen this little game play out many times before. Every once in a while some silly little foreign girl would take a liking to Gunnar, or to his money, or to the prospect of one day inheriting Medara and its gold mines, or any combination of the three, and their charming husband would cater to her every need and whim until she left the city or he broke her fragile, impressionable little heart. They could excuse themselves from the pretense if they so wished and spend time with their other spouses, or any of the other brides who did not wish to take part in Gunnar’s game. Those that did partake would be at the girl’s side, whispering threats and insults in their native tongue as if they were sweet nothings and honeyed words. It wasn’t that they were jealous or threatened by her—being married to a man with nine other spouses tended to remove one’s ability to be jealous of other women. If anything, it was more of a cultural survival instinct that had them seeking to alienate the foreign floozies.
The way they saw it, inviting a foreigner to join their established relationship risked their culture and their heritage. Gunnar would never allow anyone to diminish his culture, but the longer his paramours remained, the more Southern-oriented their requests would become. Requests to try local delicacies—lamb slow-roasted on a spit until flesh fell from bone as if the Maker Himself willed it, sugared apricots filled with clotted cream and dusted with crushed hazelnuts, dumplings filled with spiced meat and drenched in garlic infused yoghurt and spices native only to the Sands—soon became demands for food from her homeland. Interest in Eastern fashion and culture would wane, and on several occasions girls had been known to don their old frocks and corsets and sweat themselves to exhaustion in the desert sun. Was it really so difficult to tolerate Eastern clothing for the entire duration of their stay?
It was rare for these arrangements to be consummated. Gunnar was a Sandsman at heart—true Ramelan blood ran through his veins on his mother’s side—but he had visited the South frequently enough to know the societal implications of relations out of wedlock. Maker have mercy on him if any of his temporary consorts had husbands or fiances waiting back home for them. But in the incredibly rare event that Gunnar gave into his paramour’s demands and took them to bed, a great spectacle was made of the affair. The brides that had not excused themselves from the charade, while free to refuse, were encouraged to take part in the bedroom antics of their husband and his latest arm candy. The East, after all, was supposed to be the home of all things exotic and taboo. One simply couldn’t leave satisfied without experiencing one of Gamzhe’s famed orgies firsthand. Most of the women that trailed after Gunnar had only known a man’s touch and a man’s affections; Gamzhe gave them a chance to explore other avenues of pleasure without fear of being ostracised. The same could be said for men, though the South did not seem to hunt them as voraciously.
It wasn’t particularly well known to foreigners—most didn’t ask and simply assumed it was all part of the city’s allure—but the orgies of Gamzhe was famed for, along with the gambling houses spread throughout the city like grains of sand on the breeze—were steeped in Ramelan tradition. It was an old custom, dating back as far as their culture could remember, but it was a sacred rite. A priest, for the Ramela had their own equivalent, would preside over the event and communicate his or her congregation’s prayers to Ayşe, the Ramelan goddess of fertility. This communication was achieved mostly through extensive use of a drug called afya but it served its purpose well enough. The rite was said to make women more fertile and men more virile, and for the most part it seemed to work. The rite would last all night; men that had otherwise had issues with longevity would go toe to toe with their peers with the greatest stamina and both would come out victorious, and any women struggling to conceive would soon find themselves with child. Those that were truly blessed by Ayşe would conceive multiples; mostly twins but there had been a few triplets in the Ramela’s history. Very rarely did mothers survive triplets before the days of physicians.
While Gunnar lacked faith in any God, he still did not enjoy tempting fate with the bedroom affairs of his people, even without a priest of Ayşe presiding. He was married, and being in his mid-twenties it was high time he began to think about truly settling down, but in all truth he was not ready to be a father. He wasn’t ready to pass on the Merenis legacy to his son; he was certain he would have a son, as not a single girl had been born to the Merenis line, excluding those born with mingled Valenara blood, since its matriarch, Ashelia. Her wild sons had only ever birthed more sons, as if their bloodline was enchanted to ensure it never became anything but the Merenis line. Gunnar had almost been tempted to take his first wife’s surname in protest, but he knew it wouldn’t really change anything. He and Satine would still have had a son. He could have a child with each and every one of his wives and all he would ever have was sons. In a world that still favoured men, there was nothing he wanted more than a daughter. Maker’s Eye, he’d even name her Ashelia after her progenitor, if it pleased the gods.
But even if his wish was granted, he still was not ready. Perhaps, at its core, it was a fear of growing older rather than a reluctance to shed the title of youngest of the Merenis line. His parents had doted on him since birth. They had pampered him as only an upper class only child could be pampered. They had spoiled him even as he reached adulthood and began to stand on his own two feet. He knew he was an adult, but with his parents still at his back and ready to throw him whatever he asked for—money, wine, women—he didn’t feel grown up. Moving out of home was the first rite of passage of growing older, and he had done that. Marriage came next, and he had done that more times than most men would their entire lives. The last piece of the puzzle was reproduction, and the longer he put it off, the longer he could put off getting older. He had even gone to such lengths as procuring all manner of contraception—penile sheaths made from sheep intestines, various pills and pastes that were supposed to inhibit a woman’s ability to conceive, contraceptive sponges for his brides to insert before intercourse.
To anyone outside of his inner circle it must have seemed incredibly eccentric, but each of his wives understood.They were all married to other men, and as empowering as the experience was, it made the issue of childbirth an all too problematic one. For those that were only married to one other spouse and wished to have children, there was no real issue. But for women like Fatima who had more spouses than was sensible, if she were to have a child with one spouse, the rest would expect a child too. And if all ten of his wives had children by their other spouses and none by Gunnar, gossip would spread around the Eastern aristocracy like wildfire. No matter what they chose, it would result in a difficult situation for someone.
As a result of his reluctance, however, the young Lord had developed a keen sense in regards to women, and could usually tell when his ploy would have to end with sex. Aoife, plain as she was, set all of those alarm bells ringing. She was at his side constantly, and while he did not let it show, her actions were beginning to annoy him. Docile women were fun in short bursts, but aggravating when they hung off his arm like lichen. The doe-eyed young woman he had laid eyes on in his drawing room had become little more than a doe-eyed menace. Even his wives began to tire of the game after Aoife asked Gunnar to teach her words in Ramel. They didn’t expect her to understand their insults, but common links were too dangerous to risk.
The lawless nature of Gamzhe, in turn, began to tire Aoife. Rarely were crimes committed, something Gunnar had explained in full on their tour of the city.
“Gamzhe has no laws,” the Sandsman had said as he led them through what he had described as the ‘rougher’ district of Gamzhe.
The Hacilkan district, while a little shabby in comparison with the rest of the Golden City, was leagues above anything Shay would call rough. The external walls of the buildings, though dull and quite obviously in need of replacing, were clad in the same gold tiles as the rest of the city. Aoife was sure that when the sun hit the domed roofs of Gunnar’s estate and the gambling dens styled in its image, from a distance the city must have looked like a blazing inferno.
“Laws restrict men,” Gunnar continued, leading them through a sandy courtyard.
A small fountain sat at its heart though no water ran through it. In the warmer months, mid-spring through to early autumn, water was saved for home use and the albiniar only. In the colder months, a great many water features stretched across the city, as both a means of entertainment and a source of hydration for those too inebriated to procure water otherwise. This fountain, also clad in gold though clearly carved from marble or something similar, depicted the goddess Ayşe and her concubinus Imran. It was common custom to depict Ayşe and Imran in the throes of passion, but the sculpture in Hacilkan was different. Ayşe was naked—she was always naked—and at the feet of her and her lover was a great swarm of lotus flowers. When there was water flowing through the fountain, water lilies would bloom in the pool at its base in homage to the goddess’ patron flower. She and Imran were almost innocently holding hands, and were the Ramela to see it, they would call it sacrilege to depict the goddess doing anything but what she was famed for—if the legend was to be believed, Ayşe and Imran birthed more than half the world’s population—but the fountain had not been erected as a beacon of fertility. When the Hacilkan district had first been populated, there had been a turf war so violent that years later tensions were still high enough that another war loomed on the horizon. The two eldest children, in a bold and dangerous move, had decided to marry to remedy the bad blood between their families and the statue had been placed as a permanent reminder of their selflessness, a quality Ayşe was less remembered for.
“Laws challenge men,” said Gunnar, coming to a halt beside the fountain. “The law tells a man he cannot steal, and so it challenges him to try and steal without being caught. Remove the challenge and you remove the reward.”
“And the punishment,” Rin argued civilly.
“What fun is there in stealing a man’s horse, when he can steal it right back from you? What reward is there for vandalising property when that property will simply be replaced or repaired?” Gunnar asked, his question more rhetoric than anything.
“What good is there in murdering someone you hate in a city that won’t punish you for it? Oh wait,” Shay said sarcastically.
“Murder is different.” Gunnar’s tone was serious. The light heartedness had fled his voice. “It has no punishment, but those that murder within the city often find they do not leave the city. My cükadın make sure of that.”
“So there is a punishment?” Rin asked.
“Not officially. The same can be said of rapists. If you had plans to commit either, I would undo them sooner rather than later.”
The young Lord regained his composure then, his mood returning to its usual joviality. "But why take my word for it, the proof is in our streets. I am sure the cükadın would be happy to take you on patrol with them one night."
"What's a cükadın?" Shay asked, only a little curious.
He couldn't care less about learning Gunnar’s language, but these cükadın sounded important. If they were the closest thing Gamzhe had to a security force, he needed to know who they were and what they looked like, so he knew to avoid them. Lawless city or not, police presence put him on edge. He’d racked up too many criminal offences in Olmaea to ever be comfortable around them.
“Something you need not concern yourself with,” Gunnar said brightly. “Now, shall we continue the tour?”