Doricha folded herself against the cold, crumbling mudbrick of the small room's inner wall. She pulled her knees up to her chest, wrapping her arms around thin legs. Her shin bones pressed hard against the tender flesh of her inner forearms—bones near as sharp as knife blades, cutting with the force of her hunger. The threadbare cloth of her tunic was stiff with grime and soot, but a stab of fear went through her on the tunic’s behalf. Suddenly she feared that the grimy scrap, like every other good thing she had once had, would soon be taken away from her—and beneath her only garment she felt very naked, very frail. Doricha rested her chin on her knobby knees and listened.
The voices came from beyond the frayed yellow curtain, a stained and moth-eaten thing that separated one end of the single-room apartment from the other. On Doricha’s side lay the family’s lone sleeping mat—one hard, flea-specked pallet for all five of them—and above the cold patch of shadow where Doricha crouched, the apartment’s only window. Shutterless, its ripped drapery pulled back to let in the sour-smelling air of back-district Tanis, the window also admitted the sounds of the crowded alley outside: the loud clatter of an ass’s hooves on the hard-packed lane; gruff shouts of men haggling over some cheap, shoddy wares; a child screaming shrilly as its mother scolded and whipped it. Doricha furrowed her brow, concentrating on the voices beyond the curtain—her mother’s voice, and that of the silky, erudite man, a perfect stranger who had appeared incongruously in the back district, asking directions to the stacked, leaning row of hovels where Doricha and her family now lived.
“She hasn’t yet begun to bleed,” Melaina said. Doricha could hear pain in her mother’s words—a now-familiar thickness that had first appeared six months prior, when Doricha’s father had been killed by bandits. “And that’s why it must be now. If it’s now… if I do this thing now, the gods forgive me, then she’ll have time to be trained, won’t she? Trained up proper and cultured, like, so she’ll know what to expect. So she can have a chance.”
“And that’s what you want, isn’t it?” the strange man said in his smooth, rich voice. “You want her to have a chance.”
“Isn’t that what every mother wants?” Melaina choked on the words. “The gods forgive me.”
“You needn’t take on so,” the man said. “You’re right to make the transaction now, while she is still a child. The training she will receive at this young age will—”
“What they talking about, then?” Aella piped up. Sitting on the sleeping mat, each arm wrapped around their twin brothers to keep the little boys silent and still, Doricha’s six-year-old sister looked as solemn as a priestess of Isis. Aella’s once-golden hair was dull and stringy, her small body thin as a twig, her eyes glazed by hunger. But she managed to keep Bolin and Belos quiet, and for that Doricha was grateful.
“Hush,” Doricha whispered. “I can’t hear ’em if you’re talking, can I?”
She caught the tail end of the man’s words. “—I do have a reputation, madam, and I uphold it with pride. I am well known throughout Egypt—and beyond, I dare say—for producing and managing the finest pornae in the land.”
Doricha’s breath caught in her throat. She hugged her legs tighter still, but she felt more exposed than ever. So it’s come to this, then. The man was a trader of pornae. Street-walkers. Whores. Doricha knew she had no cause to feel surprised or hurt. This was a sensible progression, a natural bend in the hard, rocky road their lives had taken ever since her father’s death.
A wave of nausea swelled in her gut; she squeezed her eyes shut, blocking out the sight of the small, dirty room that was their home—for how much longer, without Father to earn the few hedj per week this rough shelter cost them? She tried to take solace in the darkness behind her eyelids, but she couldn’t shut out the stink of back-district Tanis, the piss and rotting refuse in the alleys, the close, cloying smell of unwashed bodies and hunger and despair. With her eyes closed, even over the din outside and the smooth voice of the silk-draped pimp, over her mother’s stifled sobs, Doricha imagined she could hear the breaths and heartbeats of little Aella and the twins. Such tiny things, all three of them. Small and brave and uncomplaining. Mother’s only goal after Father died was to get her family back to Thrace. To keep moving north, to find some way across the sea, until at last her family stood once more on Thracian soil. Thrace—their homeland, where once life had been good, where once, when Doricha was a little girl, they had wanted for nothing. Those sunny, contented days of her early childhood seemed a thousand years in the past.
I’m all Mother has left to barter—my family’s last remaining asset. She listened again to the soft murmur of her imagination—Aella and the little boys breathing in and out, in and out, their thready pulses beating in time with her own. For after all, they were one family, one blood.
Most of us will get back to Thrace, and that must be enough for you, Mother. It will be enough for me.
Melaina spoke up loud and indignant beyond the curtain, and Doricha’s eyes snapped open. “You would think, sir, that the Pharaoh would do more to help people like us, so it wouldn’t come to this.”
The sound of footsteps crossing the dirt floor—a light, confident tread. The man, not Mother. “Do you mean,” he said, “the poor? Egyptian Pharaohs have never done much to succor the poor. Not enough, at any rate.”
He passed the yellow curtain. Through a rip in its cloth, Doricha caught one fleeting glimpse of him: curling black hair, skin of a deep olive tone, a sharp, hooked nose on a face that was still rather young. And his clothing—though he passed across the curtain and its narrow rent in the space of a single heartbeat, Doricha noted the richness of his well-draped tunic, its color as bright as the sun, the careful red embroidery of angular keys crossing one shoulder.
“I don’t mean the poor, sir,” Melaina said. “I mean Greeks. Well—we’re Thracian, of course, but it’s near enough, isn’t it?”
The man, out of sight now, gave a sympathetic chuckle. “It is.”
“It’s said the Pharaoh loves Greeks more than he loves his own Egyptians.”
“I cannot disagree with such a rumor. The king of Egypt admires all things Grecian. His overfondness for the Greeks has given many good Egyptian men cause to speak against him.”
“But he doesn’t admire us enough to help us. So many of us stranded here, after we came down to Egypt for work and found the work all dried up with the river.”
“The river itself isn’t dried up, madam.” The man said it with a hint of amusement in his voice, tolerance for Melaina’s rural ignorance. “Only a few of its arms here in the Delta region. This is not unheard of; many times throughout history the river has silted over its various arms and carved new paths through the soil.”
“That’s as may be, but the change was enough to send my husband and me into poverty. Not enough work to be had in any of the places where we were told to look for it. And four children to feed; what were we to think?”
“And, I presume, by the time you reached Egypt there wasn’t enough coin left to travel south beyond the Delta, to seek out your fortune in places where the river is more reliable.”
“Yes, sir,” Melaina said. Her voice was soft with defeat. “That was the way of it.”
“Madam, I have heard the same sad story many times. Greeks, once hopeful, stranded in Egypt and forced into slums with no way to get back home.”
“It’s not right, that the Pharaoh won’t do a thing to help us.”
“No,” the man said quietly. “It’s not right. On that we agree. But you are fortunate, madam. You have a daughter of the right age. She provides you with a solution to your troubles. A way out.”
Doricha swallowed hard. Her mother maintained that strained, trembling silence.
“Shall we have a look at the girl now?” the man suggested.
Still Melaina did not speak. Doricha could all but see her, one pale hand clutching the neck of her ragged tunic, face turned away, head ducked in shame. She drew a deep breath and pushed herself up from the dirt floor.
“Where you going?” Aella asked. The boys squirmed in her arms, whining softly, struggling to break free and follow Doricha.
“Stay put,” Doricha told her brothers. To Aella she whispered, “Don’t worry. I won’t leave without saying good-bye. But I’ve got to go to Mother now and help her out, you see?”
Aella’s dirt-smeared brow furrowed in confusion. “Leave? What you talking about?”
“Stay put,” Doricha said again. She pushed past the yellow curtain before Melaina could summon her. She would spare her mother that pain, at least—calling her own daughter out to be sold like a donkey in the market.
Melaina made a thin, faint sound as Doricha came through the curtain, somewhere between a sigh and a cry of agony. But the girl did not look at her mother. She kept her eyes on the tall, lavishly dressed man as he turned toward her and stood with chin cupped in hand, assessing her in a stiff, business-like silence. She watched his face as he took stock of her. The narrow, straight frame of a child who was still many months, if not years, from adolescence; the delicate bones that pressed through skin and tunic making awkward angles of her shoulders. The unimpressive height—even had six months of hunger not stunted her growth, Doricha knew she never had been destined to grow tall. Skinny legs with prominent knees, the firm, resilient flesh of youth wasting away. Bare feet, dirt under her toenails. Doricha drew herself up and stood proudly—she hoped she looked proud—though she knew no back-district rat had any cause for arrogance or poise.
The man stepped toward her. At close range, the smell of him overwhelmed Doricha—a rich spice of sandalwood, myrrh, and ginger, like the fine cleansing oil she had once tested at a market stall, rubbing it into her wrist and sniffing deeply until her head was dizzy, and then the oil merchant had lunged at her with a stick and a shower of curses and driven her away. The unfamiliar decadence of the whore-trader’s smell made Doricha feel warm and cautious at the same time. He was from a different world than she, as far apart from her base reality as the Pharaoh was from his Egyptians, or as the gods were from mortal men. Even when her family had been safe in Thrace, so many years ago, they had never been wealthy enough to comb expensive oil into their hair.
Gently, the man lifted Doricha’s chin. He turned her face this way and that, considering the angles of her features.
“Very pale complexion,” he said appraisingly. “Though tender—she is freckled from the sun, I see. Those green eyes will be an asset—exotic. And her hair. Neither golden nor red, but somewhere in between. How would one describe hair like this, I wonder?”
Melaina, turned away and shuddering as she held back her sobs, did not reply.
The man answered his own question. “Rose gold. I’ve seen smiths in the south of Egypt who work with rose gold. Very fine, rich stuff.”
Doricha fought to keep her expression neutral, plain—to keep spite and tears from her eyes.
“My name is Iadmon,” he told her, still holding her chin.
Doricha didn’t know what to say, so she kept her silence. But she held Iadmon’s dark eyes steadily with her own. I am not afraid, she tried to tell him with her unflinching stare. She hoped Iadmon believed her.
“I think she will do nicely,” Iadmon said to Melaina, releasing his grip on Doricha. “She is thin and dirty, but feeding and a bath will take care of that.”
Melaina was huddled in upon herself, back turned to them both. Doricha watched her mother shake rhythmically with her silent weeping. Then she turned to Iadmon and caught him once more by the eye.
“Will I fetch a high enough price that they’ll make it back to Thrace?” she asked.
Melaina gasped and turned toward Doricha, reaching. “No, I can’t,” she burst out. “I’ve changed my mind, sir. I can’t let my girl go!”
Doricha stepped away from her mother’s hand. She did not allow Iadmon’s gaze to slip from her own. “You must pay enough that they can all get back to Thrace—my mother, my sister, and the two little boys. Otherwise I won’t go with you. And if you cheat my family after you take me away, I’ll run off and you’ll have wasted your money.”
For a moment Iadmon did not speak. A slow, amused smile curled one side of his mouth. Bracing hands on hips, Doricha sniffed sharply to make her point, and again the pimp’s rich smell filled her head.
Iadmon leaned close to her, speaking quietly as if the conversation were secret, intimate. “Little girl, how much do you think you’re worth?”
Though his smooth, cultured voice never roughened, there was no mistaking the mockery in his words. Doricha chose to ignore the subtle sting and answered as if he had asked the question honestly. “I guess the only figure that matters is how much you think I’m worth.”
“Clever child,” Iadmon muttered, so softly Doricha couldn’t be sure he was even aware he had spoken. The faint trace of mockery left his eyes and the thin curve of his smile, too. A more contemplative stillness settled over him. His dark brows lowered for a moment. Then he nodded once and held out his hand. “Worth enough to get your family back to Thrace, and then some,” he said. “You have my word on that. No need to run off and waste my money. I’ll see to it that they can leave Tanis tomorrow, if you like.”
Doricha lowered her eyes to Iadmon’s hand. It was soft-skinned, untroubled by work, unlike the cracked palms and callused fingers of her father’s hands. But in its bigness and its confident, untrembling posture, she saw that he was strong despite his ease. Iadmon was a powerful man—maybe a great man. Doricha hoped he would be as good as his word. She slapped her palm against his own, and he caught her fingers in his grip. Warm, hard, unflinchingly certain, his big hand shook her small, frail one.
Doricha knew with sudden force, with a sting of tears in her eyes, that she couldn’t go back through the yellow curtain—couldn’t look at Aella and the twins again. She couldn’t say goodbye, because it would be forever. They would go home to Thrace, but she would remain in Egypt with this tall, rich-smelling man. The famly would be parted now, but as long as Doricha avoided that terrible word—goodbye—then she might still pretend she would see her family again, someday, somehow.
She swallowed the lump in her throat and turned to her mother. Melaina’s eyes were puffy and red, her mouth twisted with a terrible agony. Tears cut shining tracks through the grime on her cheeks.
“Tell the little ones I love them,” Doricha said, startled at the steadiness of her own voice.
Iadmon’s hand landed gently on Doricha’s back, between her thin shoulder blades. He pressed her toward the door.
“No,” Melaina cried again. “I’ve changed my mind, sir!”
“I’ll send my man with your money in less than two hours,” he said. He didn’t look back at Melaina as he propelled Doricha out of the hovel. Doricha didn’t look back, either. “I am as good as my word.”
Melaina’s pitiful weeping filled the single, small room and spilled out after them as they stepped over the threshold. Doricha heard the clatter of wooden rings as the yellow curtain was knocked aside. “Doricha!” Aella cried, and her feet pounded against the earthen floor as she ran.
Iadmon’s hand tightened on the back of Doricha’s neck. “Don’t turn around, child.” His voice was not unkind. “You must keep going.”