Guest of the House of Shahira

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It has been many years since I first passed through the Obsidian Gate. All has changed since that day. New Gods came with their followers’ swords. They threw down the Sultan and beheaded him. Everything they remade in their image. What was once a temple is now a brothel for the powerful, a place where contempt finds expression in flesh. It was not always so. In those days of my Goddess, it was a place of joy, of relaxation. It was a place where stature and wealth meant nothing, where titles did not exist, where nothing existed the company you kept and the companionship and pleasure shared in Her name. Our Goddess Shahira was always there though never in the flesh. And though wicked men and Gods have overrun it, I hope that a piece of her still dwells within, waiting for the triumph of Light over Darkness. This manuscript will betray confidences long held. But I fear I will soon leave this world and those of whom I write of have already left. I hope they will forgive me when we share kisses again in one of Shahira’s Gardens. My name is Nikkor bar-Telannin, and I was born in the land of Theos where he War-Lord Vraag God holds sway. Today much of the world has fallen beneath the swords forged upon His anvil. My brother was a warrior and my sister a priestess, but I was less interested in elevating myself than others and thus became a disappointment to a family and nation where soldiers are prized above all. And so it was I came to the land of Peace upon my graduation from the University. Through hard work and fortunate circumstance I was elevated until I ran the city’s orphanage. My people had done well, for the harvests had been good and the bazaaris were happy to share the foods that would soon spoil, but remained fresh. A few of my staff and I would go every night to glean, and with better food our children studied better. More freedom inspired our teachers. After a few seasons our students rivaled the products of many private academies. Somehow the Sultan heard of this and I was invited to dine with him at the palace at his own table. The dinner was sumptuous and extravagant. They served more than I could eat and at the end I asked him if I could take his scraps back to my students. The Sultan smiled and promised that from that day forward, they would have their excess be brought to my schools. I would not have to fetch them. I thanked him profusely. And then the Sultana asked me why I had not brought my wife. Red faced, I explained that I had never found one. She reached out to touch my cheek, slowly holding her fingers there. “And have you never known love.” “I fell in love once. My beloved preferred another.” “She chose poorly.” “Coming from you lady, that is high praise.” And it was high praise, and not just because of her title. She was petite, slim yet shapely with long hair the color of stained oak, and deep blue eyes beneath arching eyebrows. Her skin was fair and her smile soft and while she was not the most beautiful woman in this room, she was far from the least. She smiled at me then leaned over to whisper something in the ear of her husband the Sultan. He nodded and turned to share a kiss with her. Soon thereafter the royal coach returned me to my home and I heard nothing more of this until two nights later, when my assistant and I were about to set out for the bazaar. Four royal guardsmen came in their crimson uniforms to fetch me. “The Sultan sent us to fetch you, bar-Telannin,” announced their sergeant, bowing low. “I beg your pardon, the bazaar closes soon. I must go and gather food for my orphans, or it will go to waste.” The sergeant nodded. “I will take your place. The Sultan ordered it for he knew you would not come otherwise. But I do not mind. Gleaning for the poor is honorable work. Corporal Adjanian there will lead you where you are wanted.” And so I stepped once again into a royal carriage. “I hope I have not displeased His Majesty.” The Corporal laughed and when he did the loose skin beneath in his chin flapped like laundry hung in a spring breeze. “You couldn’t be more wrong, Sir. But you’ll see soon enough.” That wasn’t the way I saw it. My first Royal audience had proven nerve wracking, though the Sultan and Sultana could not have been more courteous. There is something about standing before one’s sovereign that quakes the stomach. But I could hardly refuse. “I will do my best to honor Their Majesties. But I am dressed for an errand, not an audience.” “Where you’re going clothes won’t mean a thing, if you know what I mean.” And then he winked at me as if we were in on some great conspiratorial secret. I pondered his words until as we passed through the barbican, across the drawbridge and under the portcullis into the castle of the Sultan. We dismounted and he led me across the gate and east into the palace, down low barrel-vaulted corridors, and out to the eastern lake. In the center sat a rectangular building formed of white marble. Its sides were smooth as glass. I saw only one shiny, black door. A narrow footbridge of white marble, wide enough for a carriage led to that door. It was then that I realized this man escort avcılar had come to take me to Shahira’s Temple. “There must be some mistake,” I whispered still staring at the tall marble walls, solid and imposing. My guide simply laughed. “You probably aren’t the first person to say that. But there’s no mistake. Believe me, if I could just take people here I’d go myself. Now get going. You’re expected.” And so I began to walk across the bridge, crossing each of the seven spans until I stood before the Obsidian Gate. The Gate shone like glass. I saw no handles, nor anything else that might mar its smooth surface. I heard a winding noise, and the clinking of chains that must have attached it to the weights needed to counter its bulk. Upon a narrow porch behind it stood a man. He was tall, and wore only a scarlet kilt, cinched by wide leather belt. His skin was smooth and his body rippled with muscle. A silver skullcap identified him, as a guard of the Temple of Shahira. “I am Zugar, of the House of Shahira. You are welcomed, bar-Telannin. I guard Her house, and guide those new to it. I will help you prepare for tonight, and answer those questions that occur to you, at least until you pass beyond the vestibule.” He then turned and walked down a flight of stairs that ended in a landing, an intricately carved door on each side. “Here is where the sexes part, to rejoin again in the halls. Men pass through the left door, women only on the right.” I followed Zugar inside an octagonal room lined with marble benches. Bas-reliefs of men and women adorned the walls. The subjects were locked in a lovers embrace in the moments that precede total intimacy. Always they were set in nature, where animals wild and tame were near and unafraid. To the far right a door led to stairway downward. An open service window was to the left where a man waited. Zugar began to disrobe, and I realized I should do the same. He handed his cap and tunic to the attendant, receiving in its stead a small beaded necklace. And I marveled, for he had not been unmanned as I had heard. He noticed my gaze, and I was embarrassed. “I am no eunuch,” he said, ” Nor is pleasure forbidden me, except during my hours of duty. But I must drink the Tea of Inconception every day, thus cannot have a family until after I leave these walls.” “What if you met another inside?” “I already have. You will meet her shortly.” I slid off my cape and my caftan, and handed them to the attendant inside, receiving in my turn another beaded necklace to wear. Once I had received my necklace, Zugar led me down winding stairs into the Bath. The Bath was a long rectangular room, made with red bricks and dominated by a large pool. A fountain in the shape of a flower filled the pool, but I did not see where it drained. Three stones lay upon the bottom, lightly glowing, products of ancient magic. Frescoes adorned every wall. Most were portraits of women in many phases of life, as madonna and harlot, child and granddaughter, worker and dowager. Some were large, others thin as rails and all things in between. But in their eyes I saw warmth and wisdom, mirth and welcome. And I realized that each woman portrayed had her own unique beauty and grace. Their expressions were warm and friendly. But perhaps because he had seen these things often, Zugar simply walked into the water and began to wash. And as he washed he spoke. “There are many baths in the House of Shahira. One comes to the Goddess clean in both body and spirit. This bath is to clean your body.” Zugar stepped in the pool, and began to wash. I followed. He warned me not to approach the three stones whose heat could scald. The water itself was slippery, and thicker than ordinary water, more like a woman’s juices than water from a spring though at that time I had no knowledge of such things. As we washed ourselves a slim, effeminate man approached. His deference suggested a boy though I saw wrinkles at the edge of his eyes. He bowed for us, and held out a silver tray. Upon it sat two cups of silver, both slightly steaming. “This is the Blessed Tea,” he said. “Drink now, and receive the protection of our Goddess, who gives and withholds fertility.” Zugar took his cup and gave the man a shallow bow, and I imitated him as best I could. The attendant smiled briefly at me and then bowed himself before withdrawing. I turned and Zugar had lifted his chalice, his Adam’s apple bobbing as he drank. The Blessed Tea was dark and spicy, and bit bitter like the ale of a good inn. But it was not beer, but a clear green with a hint of curry. I drank it all, despite the bitterness, and though I eventually learned to brew it myself I have never learned to love the flavor. I drained the cup then set the empty chalice near the pool. Zugar motioned me to follow him out of the water and down another passage and into another room. There stood rows of wooden tables covered with thin cotton mats laced with a floral pattern. Two women met us there. They wore long togas slit to the waist and bound over one shoulder by a small broach shaped like a flower. A voluptuous red-haired escort bahcesehir woman with a wide, friendly face and full milky-soft breasts motioned me to lie down upon one of the tables. She shared a kiss with Zugar, who then turned and returned the way he came. “I am Helga. Zugar is my chosen,” she said, toweling my body. “Soon we shall leave this place to begin our lives together.” “If you leave, can you not return?” “Once our children are born. I would not come before then. He is my chosen and inside all drink the Tea.” Her hands and began to knead the muscles in my back. “Relax, I feel the tension in your muscles. You shouldn’t be tense here This is the House of Shahira.” Her fingers were strong yet gentle, and she pulled my muscles, and manipulated my joints. “I trained many years at the Temple,” she said, rotating my arm to stretch it. “I can feel much. You work with children, don’t you?” “Yes,” I admitted. “You were briefed then.” She laughed again, brief and gently. “How is it that you can do the Goddess’ work for so long, yet know so little of Her ways? The skin and body talk to those who would listen. I can feel your love for them, concern over a job that you feel needs doing. One you think you ought to be doing now.” “That much is true.” “You are serious about your work, and that is good. Unfortunately, work can become an excuse to avoid other needs.” “What needs?” “Intimacy.” I wilted. She had me. “Why was I invited here?” “I can only presume that your work brought you to Shahira’s attention. Someone Touched you and found you full of Love, both worthy of and in need of Shahira’s blessings. Your love is rich in a agape, but barren in eros. You were summoned to experience the other side of love. And you shall. Anyone with Touch would want to share with you. Including myself.” I turned and looked up at her, her pretty smile and soft swelling breasts. “Are we to be lovers?” She smiled and slapped me playfully. “Not tonight, I think. I have duty here in the vestibule. But if you come back before Zugar and I exchange vows, well who knows?” And then she continued massaging me. Under the oil and her strong knowing fingers, I began to relax. It occurred to me that she was sincere when she said she would consider me for a lover. To think one so lovely and wholesome might want me made me feel warm for a moment. And then I wondered about Zugar and what he would say. Somehow Helga knew. “Zugar would not mind, if I had not promised this night to him. He too makes his home inside the Obsidian Gate.” I wondered at that, two people bound to each other yet unconcerned about the other’s fidelity. It was not so in the land I came from. Adulteries among men were tolerated and among court ladies, so long as decorum was maintained. Among the peasants such things were forbidden, unless it was to submit to their betters. If Helga felt my dilemma, she said nothing about it. Instead, she continued to massage my muscles. I admit I felt much more relaxed though there were times when she used surprising force, enough to bring about momentary pain. After my massage the other woman came to my table and introduced herself. Together she and Helga began to brush out my hair. They lathered and shaved my beard, and rubbed me with scents and ointments. I felt pampered and prized that such women would fuss over me. I enjoyed the whole experience despite its decadence I lay lost in my reverie when Helga brought me a purple tunic, cut short and clasped over the left shoulder with a single silver hasp. “This is what all men wear inside the Obsidian gate. All women are clad as Marva and I. All possessions must be left outside, to be returned upon your exit. There is no wealth or privilege past this door, not even for the Sultan himself. All use only their given name. No titles, or honorifics beyond those given to a common citizen. You may speak freely, but not to give offense. This is the House of Peace. None will stop you if you speak cruelly, but you will never be permitted to return. Remember these things when you pass through this door.” “Is there anything else?” I asked, not anxious to leave this kind and lovely woman. “Relax. And have fun.” And with a playful squeeze to my bottom she steered me though a bronze door and into the Atrium. The Atrium is the central courtyard of Shahira’s House. This great square is open at the center, and here trees and vines and flowers grow in surprising profusion. The courtyard is lined with balconies, four stories worth, all of stone. The banisters are made of iron, but cleverly wrought with the images of flowers and wild beasts worked into the metal. I found a path through the trees and walked inward, and for a moment the high walls disappeared in a sea of green.I came upon a pond, to be crossed only by a series of stepping-stones. I heard soft voices and turned to my left. A couple sat gently in the pond, water up to their chests. The man was older and thin, his skin weather beaten, the woman younger and full-bodied, her body and skin soft, her breasts heavy. Their arms were wrapped about each other, as if she were beylikdüzü escort sitting upon him. His hands worked through her wet brown hair, and when she smiled her face lit up and I saw real joy in her eyes. I recognized her, a woman I’d often seen in the lower town, handing out food for the poor. I remembered that she had once brought a child to my door. If she recognized me she said nothing though her smile was warm and welcome. Red faced, I bowed in respect before departing farther down the path that passed through the pond. A rainbow of fish swam beside me, bright as spring flowers, golden brilliant red and blue. I had never seen fish so brilliantly colored, almost as if some artist had splashed them with brilliant dyes. Occasionally the path led me across small ‘islands’, each green with vegetation and offering place to sit with another. I saw two men playing chess, still fully clad. Ahead the path forked. I chose the right branch, and within a few steps found myself at the edge of the Atrium, below the balconies. I spotted a set of double doors to my left and decided to explore there. I entered a hallway that was wide and low with wooden bracing skillfully stained to accent the white stucco. There were doors to the right and left but wooden double doors ahead. Unable to decide, I walked through them, and entered another garden. Here I saw many plants I had never seen before, tall trees with wide leaves like fan blades, and long growing vines. It was very warm in here, and humid. I stopped next to a rock and stood. Butterflies flew about swirling and alighting. I extended my index finger, and one chose to alight, a new experience for me. “He likes you,” called a feminine voice from my left. I turned and saw a woman, older than I, her short dark hair speckled with gray. She was tall and very slim, her body almost boyish. Her face bore a series of small pockmarks, but her smile was wide and lit up her entire face. “What is it?” I asked. “Scholars call them myacopia, but the common name is Cyranos. Notice the blue and yellow spots upon the black wings. The Room of Butterflies has always been my favorite. And I felt her fingers upon my back, gently Touching. “A virgin!” she cooed, eyes wide. “How is that possible at your age? Who was your Docent?” “I am not sure what sort of docent you mean?” My cheeks burned with embarrassment. She touched me again, this time stroking my cheek. “Poor man. You should have come to us years ago. And you carry your torches far too long! Alas you did not grow up here, for we could have guided you through a proper debut. Better late then never though.” My cheeks burned with anger at being shamed so, and she drew back, afraid. And then I felt embarrassment, for frightening her. Speaking truly may wound, but it merits no anger. She saw this and her eyes softened for she touched me again, squeezing my arm. “Forgive me,” she said. “I am old enough to know that some truths are best left unsaid. I did not wish to shame you.” I smiled back at her. “It is the truth.” “Honesty often requires more courage than war. I am Bakkala.” “My name is bar-Telannin but my friends often call me Tel.” “Welcome Tel to the Room of Butterflies. Look overhead.” I looked and saw how the sky was open, yet shielded with glass panes. I shuddered at the expense, and yet understood that without them these butterflies could not live here. I felt her hand in mine, and when I looked her in the eye she said, “Walk with me.” And so I did. Hand in hand we strode through the room. It was long and butterflies flew about us, sometimes alighting. “You entered from the East,” she explained, and this room is to the South.” There are many rooms in Shahira’s House. But if you are hungry go to the bottom floor and head to the West. The kitchens are there. It is where I have my duty.” “You are a cook?” “And a bottle washer, and janitor. We don’t have the Castle staff in here you know. Sometimes I choose the Pillow.” “The Pillow?” “I enjoy the pleasures of love too. Though I prefer women to men.” “Why?” “Why do you love women?” I stopped for a moment, not sure what to say. How could I explain an ache so deep and primal? “Because you are wonderful.” “There you are! Most of my sisters feel the same about men, they talk about your strength and hardness just as you dream of our femininity. Do not question such things. It is the way of Life.” “I have always asked questions even if I only ask myself.” “Some answers must wait until we stand before our Goddess. Why waste a perfectly good day? Mortal questions are trivial compared to a garden in bloom and the soft wings of the butterfly.” “I suppose you are right. I never dreamed of standing in a place like this.” “How did you picture this place?” “Something like a brothel, I suppose. A lot of dissolute women laying around in wait.” “Shahira’s detractors are quick to call her a whore. Perhaps they see Love only as they practice it. Personally, I think Love is too great not to share. ” “There is less coupling than I thought.” “And more, I expect. This is a place of repose, but active repose,” she added with a wink. I heard a rustling and a woman stepped out from the branches. Her hair was straight and gray, and tied back in a ponytail. Her hips were wide, her long breasts swaying beneath her toga. “This is Amy, my dearest in the world,” said Bakkala.

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