The nubile girls would be sold in January 1859. It was the wish of the matriarch of the Finjanjian family, Finjanjian Hanim. She was one of Viddin’s top licensed dealers in white slaves and prided herself on her merchandise. Finjanjian Hanim had an uncanny ability to spot a promising girl at a very early age, train her for the harem, and then sell her at puberty for a top price.
Admittedly, Viddin was not the site of a major trade in white slaves, even within the Ottoman Empire in Europe. Men who were sent to Viddin as pasha, or governor, were being punished for some misdeed. The hanim had not the stature of the members of the Slave Traders Guild in Constantinople or Cairo, who might manage to place a girl in the Imperial Harem. Viddin had no equivalent of the incredible Topkapi Palace with its extensive harem. However, Finjanjian Hanim had succeeded in producing some girls of excellent quality who had gone into large and prestigious harems, enhancing the wealth and social standing of the Finjanjian family. They had climbed far from the days when they were simple porcelain sellers, the trade that gave them their family name.
January was the usual time for selling the most attractive girls, and the hanim now had a girl of exceptional quality to sell: Florenz. A young blond beauty, Florenz had been raised and trained most carefully for ten years. She took lessons in mathematics, reading and writing, geography, music, and all the womanly arts alongside the hanim’s own granddaughters in the harem. Finjanjian Hanim had taken great care to see that Florenz retained her knowledge of Hungarian and German, the languages of her natal family, as well as learning Arabic, the lingua franca of the harem. Knowing European languages was a highly prized accomplishment in girls these days. Watching the girl with a critical eye in the hamman, the baths, the hanim was sure Florenz had reached puberty and the height of her attractiveness. It was time for her to put on the veil in public.
Another year might put a fuller bosom and a more womanly shape on the girl, but Finjanjian Hanim had another reason for deciding to sell Florenz now. A new immigration law had been passed in Constantinople, which offered highly favorable terms to those who would immigrate to the Ottoman Empire. As long as the immigrants pledged their loyalty to the empire, they would even be permitted to practice their own religions freely. Finjanjian Hanim feared that this opportunity would tempt a flood of immigrants from Circassia and Georgia, where ethnic Russians were harassing the natives and trying to drive them out.
As concubines, Circassian and Georgian girls were always much sought after because of their fair coloring and beauty. Sometimes they were kidnapped for the harem trade, abducted in raids, or taken as trophies of war. Circassian or Georgian girls were also sold by their parents, which carried no dishonor. A life in the harem was much easier and more luxurious than the ceaseless work that awaited girls as the wives of poor farmers. And if such families came into the province in numbers, what better way was there for them to raise cash for a new start than to offer a fair daughter to a slave trader? The market in white slave girls could be ruined by an influx of Circassians and Georgians; better to sell Florenz now than wait.
She notified the other members of the Slave Traders Guild first of all, in case they wanted to enter girls of their own into the sale. A number of girls of lesser quality would fatten the audience and make Florenz look better by comparison. Discreet notices were placed in the newspapers in Constantinople, Sofia, Viddin, and Vienna. Brochures were sent to poten
tial buyers, and gossip carried the news farther into Europe. Finjanjian Hanim fantasized happily about the possible attendees and the money she would make.
As the mother of the master of the household, Finjanjian Hanim ruled over the haremlik, the secluded part of the house where all the women and children lived in cloistered isolation. Her title in the harem was Sultana Validé, and she was esteemed more highly than anyone else, even the master’s first wife. A favorite Turkish proverb said “A man has but one mother but might have many wives.” She decided who would be sold and when. She decided who lived where in the haremlik and who got an extra supplement to her paşmalik, or “slipper money.” Now she thought that Florenz should be allowed the great privilege of new and expensive clothes for the auction.
Florenz did not know why she was being so favored, but some of the other girls of the harem were given clothes too. Her friend, the Sultana Validé’s granddaughter, had been given beautiful new garments only a few weeks earlier before she received a visit from a goruçu, one of the older women who acted as marriage brokers. Florenz wondered if she too would soon receive a visit from a goruçu. She did not much like the idea, but she had to marry, she supposed, and that was how it was done. Her only hope was that the husband the Finjanjians found for her would be a kind and lovable man. The Sultana Validé, a woman of some perception, never mentioned the upcoming sale to Florenz, thinking the girl might make trouble.
As soon as the date of the sale was announced, the kitchen slaves began working extra hours, preparing pastries and other delicacies, squeezing fruits for juice and sherbet concoctions. The finest coffee sets were taken out of storage and cleaned meticulously, the supply of delicately embroidered silk napkins refreshed. Silver utensils were polished to a high shine. Musicians practiced frantically, as they would be stationed discreetly in the main reception room of the selamlik, the public area of the household where men might go, to fill the room with music.
Everything and everyone was washed and beautified. All of the girls took especial care with their hair and dress on the great day. The Sultana Validé had suggested to Florenz that she might select pale, delicate colors for her new clothing—perhaps shades of light blue and lavender—but
Florenz had different ideas. With the help of the ikbal,
the master’s favorite concubine, Florenz selected a gorgeous costume in rich blues and greens, with bright yellow patterns to set off her hair, and new yellow boots that fitted tightly about her dainty ankles.
The main reception room was readied to receive the distinguished visitors. Its walls, covered in subtle blue and green tile work, were washed, and the gilt work on the intricately decorated and arched ceiling was touched up. The chandeliers were polished until they glittered. The low divans were recovered, some European chairs taken out of storage and brushed or reupholstered, and carpets cleaned and arranged. At the back of the room was a newly constructed latticework screen, lined with thin fabric. The screen enclosed an area where the girls would wait until they were called out to be exhibited. The scribe prepared bottles of fresh ink and a new book in which to mark down the winning bids and record the tax payments; he prepared receipts to be filled out for those who had acquired a new slave girl. The accountant would receive the monies from the buyers and validate the bill of sale. The black eunuch Ali was given the responsibility of guarding the girls against intruders throughout the
proceedings. He would also ensure that each girl was handed over to the correct buyer only after he had paid his money and obtained the proper papers.
Although Finjanjian Hanim’s son, Finjanjian Effendi, allowed his seal to be used on the receipts, his role was primarily ceremonial: greeting the visitors, allocating them seats according to status and wealth, making sure everyone had refreshments. Finjanjian Hanim was much in evidence too, to make sure everyone knew who should receive the credit for the fine girls who were up for auction. She was gorgeously attired in a fine, gauzy, white gomlek, or chemise, left open at the throat and then buttoned below down to her knees. With the gomlek she wore full trousers, shalwar, that were made of the finest silk with a green-and-blue pattern. Pearls, gold thread, and lace were sewn onto the shalwar, and around her waist she wore a thick, folded girdle, a kuşak, with an intricate design in bright yellow, red, and blue. Over the top she wore a long sleeveless gown, or anteri, of blue-and-gold brocade that fitted closely at the back. It was fastened across the bosom with a gorgeous, jeweled brooch and fell open to trail on the ground when she walked. Ropes of pearls surrounded her wrinkled throat, and numerous pairs of gold bangles decorated her plump arms. Her dark, oiled hair was elaborately braided and coiled and decorated with ornaments that were shaped like flowers; they were made of sparkling gems that trembled on fine gold stems.
A male slave trader had been hired to describe each girl as she was presented and to recognize the bids. In premium sales, girls were presented singly and fully clothed in their finest gowns. Virgins, unlike ordinary slave girls, or cariyes, were never exhibited naked and could not be fondled or intimately examined by potential buyers. Certificates of virginity signed by a midwife were provided for each girl because an untouched status constituted a large part of the girl’s value.
As the potential buyers filed into the reception room, the girls tittered nervously, peeking through the screen to evaluate the men. There was an avid and unceasing appraisal of the attire, physical characteristics, and apparent personality of the buyers. These men would control their fates, their future lives. They might be kind or cruel, handsome or ugly, generous or stingy: these attributes mattered a great deal. Besides, these were
the first men outside of their natal families and the master that most of them had ever seen.
It was not until the bidding began on the first girl, Fatima, that Florenz finally understood what was going on. She was horrified.
When she had first arrived in the harem, Ali had been assigned to be her lala. For ten years now he had been her protector, her nursemaid, her guardian, and the emotional mainstay of her life in the harem. He loved her devotedly. He had never before been appointed a lala. Of course, he had no children and no wife of his own. He had not even any good friends. The harem was a closed world full of schemes and intrigues, and someone was always maneuvering for status or money or favor. A high-ranking eunuch like Ali must keep himself aloof from others, lest a confidence be used against him. He was accustomed to dealing with people who connived and conspired for their own selfish ends.
Florenz could not have been more different. As she grew up, she was like an innocent flower blossoming in the sun. She never seemed to consider improving her position; in fact, she seemed oddly immune to jealousy. She had a gift for joy and laughter. For the first time
in many, many years—since his own childhood—Ali had someone to love. When Florenz missed her family, he put his arms around her and told her stories from Africa, ones that his own mother had told him when he was small. When she asked yearningly why her father didn’t come for her, he comforted her gently, “I don’t know, little blossom. I am sure he loves you and would come if he could.” She was too young to realize that, even if her father came for her, he would have no idea where to find her. When she awoke in the night, frightened by memories of flames and blood, Ali was always there to sing her a song and rock her back to sleep. When she was sick, he bathed her forehead and brought her special foods to eat or potions to drink. And when she was bored, he played tunes for her on a little flute and she danced like a gazelle in the long grass of the garden.
When she was worried or troubled, as she was now, she always called for Ali and he always came to her immediately.
Now he leaned down slightly, putting his large, black face close to hers so as not to be overheard, and asked, “Yes, little one? What is it?”
“The men are bidding on Fatima,” she said accusingly. “They are going to buy her like a cow or a length of cloth!”
“Yes, my child, that is so,” Ali replied soothingly. “She is a slave and it is time for her to go to a new harem. You have seen girls come and go before; you knew they were sold. Of course, we have never before had such an important sale in the household during your time.”
“But”—Florenz stammered, hardly able to articulate the realization that had just come to her—“but that was them, not me. Are we all to be sold, then? All of us?”
“Perhaps one or two of the girls will not sell,” Ali conceded. “Some of them are rather plain and lack graces. But you,” he continued proudly, looking at his dear charge, “you will surely sell for a fine price. You will be the central jewel of the entire auction.”
“But I am not a slave! I am not like the other girls!” Florenz protested so vehemently that some of the others shushed her. The audience did not want to hear angry voices from behind the screen.
Putting his large hand upon her cheek in a caress, Ali told his beloved Florenz the fact that she had apparently never comprehended. “My jewel, my shining star, you are
a slave, as I am. You have been a slave since you
came here, since you first came to Ali. Do you remember? You were so small and so afraid then, even of me. But you have been raised with great care by the Sultana Validé, side by side with her own granddaughters, so you can be taken into a great household and live in comfort. Today you will probably bring one of the highest prices ever recorded in Viddin, and you will go in glory to your new home. I cannot come with you,” he added sadly, “not unless you persuade your new master to buy your ugly old lala,
with his black skin and his scarred cheeks. When you are the ikbal
and the master is dizzy with your charms, you can beg him and perhaps I can come to look after you once again.”
Florenz was dumb with outrage and shock. She had been so young when she came to the harem that she never understood herself to be a slave. She had been treated very much like the Sultana Validé’s own granddaughters; she did everything they did and slept alongside them. In a vague, unconsidered way, she had supposed herself to be a sort of adopted child. All these years, had everyone else known she was only a slave to be bought and sold? Why hadn’t anyone told her? In her fury and embarrassment, she looked at Ali for explanation and comfort and he discerned her problem.
He was astonished. “Did you not know, my Florenz? Did you not see you were a slave—not just any slave, but the best of the girls in training?” She shook her head violently, no, and he put his long arms around her and held her. “Oh, my child, my child,” he murmured. “I thought you understood our ways, I thought you knew.” She wept bitter tears that spotted his vibrant yellow chemise like raindrops.
When it was time for Florenz to go out, Ali wiped her face tenderly with his brilliant red sash and tucked a stray piece of hair into her elaborate braided coiffure. “I am very proud of you,” he told her. “You are my own girl, the most beautiful one of all. Remember what you have been taught, and fetch a good price!”
Following the other girls, Florenz was indeed outstanding. Her hair was pale and silky, her long braids set off by tiny pearls; her vibrant clothes caught the eye; and her fine features and graceful carriage caused murmurs of appreciation throughout the audience of potential buyers. Here was a very fine girl of the best quality. As the slave trader extolled her vir
tues and accomplishments—“a certified virgin from Hungary who speaks not one, but two European languages, an excellent dancer and horsewoman”—Florenz’s rage came to the fore. She would not be treated like a cow at auction. She would stand there and turn and exhibit herself—she had no choice—but she would not be demure. She would not be a slave.
Her chin came up, her cheeks reddened becomingly, and she turned her blue eyes, burning with anger, directly on the audience. Her eyes raked the assortment of middle-aged Turks and Bulgarians whose clothes and manner reeked of wealth and privilege. She despised them.
Her gaze settled on one man, an oddity in that crowd. He was a square-shouldered, fair-skinned European with curly reddish brown hair, large sideburns, and a moustache. He wore a wool tweed suit that, judging from the way it fitted his barrel chest and powerful arms, had been tailor-made for him. His companion, sitting in the next armchair, was a slender man of dark complexion who wore elegant silk robes and a satin turban, ornamented with a large stone and a plume. He was bedecked with more ropes of pearls than even the Sultana Validé. They made a peculiar pair, the burly European and the young maharajah, for such was the latter’s title, and they were out of place among the men from the Ottoman Empire.
As Florenz focused on the face of the European, his blue eyes met hers. Something extrao...