by Freddie Clegg
This tale is set in the imaginary country of Trisban, the brainchild of Freddie Clegg. Before reading the tale it is recommended that you read the introduction to Trisban so that you comprehend fully just what it is all about.
An Introduction to Trisban
Ninoki peered through the gap in the wall. “It’s all right. Nobody there. Come on, let’s look!” Ninoki clambered through. Katsimi was close behind. It wasn’t very easy in the almost ground sweeping kimonos and clogs that they were wearing. Although this was their everyday dress at home, practical for level, well maintained ground, it wasn’t really suitable for exploring. Their traditional Vipponese dress conformed to the strict veiling requirements for women in Trisban, too, but it didn’t take into account that the climate in Trisban was much warmer. Ninoki was already sweating under the knitted hood that covered her entire head and neck, leaving only her eyes exposed.
Her friend, Katsimi, followed her reluctantly. Clambering over fallen debris in her clogs and constrained by her kimono, she almost fell twice but in the end succeeded.
Their holiday in Trisban was only just starting but already Ninoki seemed determined to get off the beaten track. Katsimi had wanted to stay in the hotel, enjoy the pool and maybe the spa too but Ninoki had insisted that they go in search of the old town. Now the two girls were exploring some old buildings near to the docks.
The two found themselves in a large stone courtyard, the paving slabs worn smooth by long use. In the centre stood a row of five fine marble columns spaced evenly along the long axis of the courtyard. At one end was a low platform or stage, flanked on either side by grandly cased doors. The whole arena had an air of sometime opulence that had now faded, the decoration on the columns and around the doors old fashioned but imposing nonetheless.
“What is it?” Katsimi asked.”I can’t think of anything like this back home.”
Ninoki shook her head. “No. The buildings here in Trisban are very different from our home. Of course here in Trisban they have much stone. We in Vippon are better served with wood but even so the form of the building is strange. It seems like a theatre or a stadium but is too small. And there are all these small rooms too.” Ninoki pushed back a heavy door, one of half a dozen or so on each side of the hall, to reveal a small, windowless space beyond. “Very odd.”
“Can I help you young ladies?” A voice speaking in slow guttural Trisbanian called from the stage as the figure of a grizzled, grey bearded man appeared.
Startled by the sudden arrival, Ninoki and Katsimi looked around. Ninoki, recovering her calm, took time to pick her words in Trisbanian carefully. “I’m sorry, Sir, if we are somewhere we should not be. We simply wished to see this interesting old building. If we cause any problem we will go at once.”
“Tourists?” the old man said, looking at the girls’ simple black burkahs, the kind that were issued to visitors by the airlines when they landed. “From Vippon, by your accents and dress, if I am right?”
“Yes Sir.” Katsimi joined in, becoming bolder as it was obvious that the man was not annoyed with them.
“Well, you are welcome to look around. These old buildings have their stories to tell and they have no other purpose now.”
“This is abandoned then?”
“Yes, some two years since. The new one is out by the airport. More convenient they say. All concrete and chrome. Very, ah, modern.” The pause before the word ‘modern’ made it clear what the old man thought about the new building.
“But what is it? It’s not a theatre or a stadium, is it?” Katsimi peered at the pillars in the centre of the courtyard.
The man chuckled. “No,” he said, “not a theatre, although there were many on show here. This was the old slave market. Women from across the world were bought and sold here.”
“Oh,” Katsimi reacted in shock, backing away as if the man would suddenly seize her.
“Don’t worry, little one,” the old man said. “It’s a long time since I had any dealings in that trade. But, if you care to take some coffee, I will tell you something of the place. I stay here to keep an eye on it. It is a lonely task and I would be grateful for the company.”
“Our friends at the hotel will expect us back there soon,” Ninoki said, carefully, suddenly aware of how vulnerable they were, alone in this part of town.
“Of course. You do not have to stay. But it would please me and I can tell you much of this place.” The man was reassuring. He pointed to some cushions on one side of the stage. “See, over there, I have some coffee let us sit and talk a while.”
Ninoki and Katsimi looked at each other and decided that, after all, they were safe enough. The three sat down. The old man poured each of them a small cup of thick, syrupy, coffee from a brass jug that stood on a warmer; it was very different from the pale, green tea that they usually drank. “You will have heard of Trisban’s trading past,” he said.
Katsimi nodded. “The harbour here was one of the largest, they told us in school. Nobody ever said that Trisban had slavery though. Surely it was illegal everywhere? Why would there be a slave market here?”
“You are right. We are a small country and have never really had the need of slaves. I would like to pretend it was from some high moral sense but I don’t think that is the case. I think Trisbanians have always just been interested in making money. That is why the market is here. Slave keeping was illegal – as it was, and is, everywhere. Running the market was not. Vipponese brought their slaves, Nordker merchants wanted to purchase, Himbayan pirates sold. We were just in a convenient place and provided the market.”
“And took the commission….”
“You have understood exactly, young lady. That is why I claim no moral position. Here is where the trade was carried out, at least for the women. The male slave market was separate. It was demolished when they built the new markets but this one survives.”
“So, what was this courtyard?”
“This was the auction area where the sales were held. Slaves were brought here onto the platform, the auctioneer would stand to one side, extolling the virtues of whatever lot he was offering; a fine blonde Nordker wench; a dark and sultry Himbayan, two pretty young Vipponese girls…”
“Oh!” Katsimi, exclaimed putting her hands to her face in fright.
The old man smiled at the effects of his teasing and went on. “The women might be naked or in provocative costumes to entice the buyers. One reason why our markets are so successful is because of the skill of our auctioneers – presenting the goods and driving up the bidding. Sellers know they will get a good price, buyers know they will get the best slaves.”
“You make the poor slaves sound like animals.” Ninoki’s voice was filled with disapproval.
“Perhaps, but we simply provided the market. We do not capture these women, we do not keep them. Those that pay well for a slave are perhaps better motivated to keep them well. That is perhaps one point in our favour but, as I said, we make no moral claims.”
“It must have been frightening for the girls. To be brought out here in front of many men, all looking for one thing.”
“I am sure it was but it would not just be men looking for sexual slaves. There would be women buying too; perhaps seeking a child nurse or a house servant or a sexual plaything.” Katsimi and Ninoki seemed shocked. “Oh yes, believe me, women have just the same appetites as men and some choose partners of their own sex. But come and see the other parts of the market.”
The old man got to his feet and beckoned the girls forward. “You see these doors here. The one on the right takes the slaves on to where they will wait for their new owners, the one on the left is where they came into the auction hall from where they were kept awaiting the sale. See.” He showed the girls through into a long corridor. On either side of it, lockable metal grilles closed off small, bare, stone-floored, spaces. Within each space could be seen collections of rusting fetters where one or more slaves could be chained up. “The slaves might be here for a few weeks between arriving and sale. The traders trust us to keep them in good condition until the time for auction arrives. There are facilities for the slaves to be washed and fed, to use the toilet and to dress. Some might need to be trained to show themselves to their best advantage at the sale, a few might earn punishment for misbehaviour,” he pointed to a rack on the wall holding an array of dusty, cobwebbed whips and canes, “but there was no incentive to be brutal. A badly marked slave would never fetch a good price. Care was taken.”
“In Vippon slavery is not legal as you suggest. This seems barbarous. That seems to be the way in Trisban, if you don’t mind me saying. If there is coin to be made from something then it will be done. You made your living from this trade?”
The old man looked at Ninoki for a moment and shrugged. “I am sorry if you disapprove but that to me is a compliment. Yes, I made my living here. It was my task to see that none escaped. I did that to my best ability. That is all any of us can do.” Behind him the clock on the wall over the platform struck the hour. The old man looked up at it, realising that he could spare no more time. “I’m sorry,” he said, “I must go now. There is not much more to see. I hope you have found this interesting, even if you disapprove. Of course slavery is not legal in Vippon, but not everyone obeys the law either. Much is possible in a country where privacy is well regarded.”
“I’m sorry if we seemed rude,” Ninoki apologised. “We are grateful for you showing us this. Really, we are. It has been most interesting but you will understand it is something quite unusual to us. We had not imagined such places existed.”
“Yes,” added Katsimi. “Perhaps you should open it up for tourists. I’m sure others would find it as interesting as we have.”
The old man looked at the young Vipponese girl. Her suggestion was certainly worth thinking about. Perhaps there was money to be made from the old derelict buildings after all.
“The old buildings? Why on earth would anyone be interested in those, Hasaan?”
“I told you. For tourists it is a curiosity. They may have heard of the slave trade but have no real understanding of it. These girls did not believe such things still go on.” Hasaan had thought about what the girls had said and decided that there was a business opportunity in it.
“Two intelligent Vipponese girls! They were lucky they didn’t meet a Himbayan catcher. Then they’d have had some understanding of it.” Vanesh Buchan was Hasaan’s successor at the new market but where Hasaan had walked the corridors of cages to supervise his charges, Vanesh sat in a comfortable office viewing them through a series of display units. “It’s not the romantic thing it once was though.”
Hasaan looked out from the office across the courtyard. Vanesh was certainly right. Bright lights, polished wood, chrome and metal fittings, it was all a far cry from the old market.
The same thing was true of the occupants. Whereas Hasaan had needed to make sure that his “merchandise” hadn’t been marked by their metal fetters, Vanesh was able to use medical restraints of broad soft leather. They were every bit as secure but much less likely to bruise or cut his captives. More humane, the market’s owners claimed.
“I remember the girls being brought in from the ships,” Hasaan said, wistfully. “Lines of them, chained by the neck, fettered ankles. We’d all be wondering what we’d have that week, Himbayan concubines, Nordker house slaves. There was some excitement then, herding them into their cages finding their weaknesses, working out what their valuable qualities might be.”
“Nothing like that now!” Vanesh responded. “They use those great airfreight containers now. They just wheel them in; drugged and unconscious half the time, not much for us to do. They’re all boxed up, blondes in one crate, brunettes in another. It makes you cry.” A light on the panel in front of Vanesh flickered from green to amber. He leant forward, peered at one of the displays and pressed a button. The light turned back to green. “That’s all the job is now. Pressing buttons.”
Hassaan gave a sympathetic grunt and peered across at Vanesh’s work-station feeling that he was glad he hadn’t had to learn all this new technology. “I thought you had some fun last week, though. Those pirates?” he said.
“Oh sure. That was like you talk about – the old times. They turned up brandishing cutlasses and with some of the oldest firearms you could imagine. Half a dozen slaves they brought in, roped together. Wanted paying up front! And in coin! Can you imagine the management reaction? That was a laugh in itself. And you should have seen the women while all this was going on. Some of them were wealthy; taken on a big yacht off Cape Hassnish. They’re used to ordering other people around and here they are having to wait around while people are bickering about how they’re going to be paid for. I think some of them were more annoyed by that than scared of a life of slavery.”
“They’ll have got over it.”
“”They sure did; just about the time that one of them had her clothes cut off by one of the pirates trying to demonstrate the quality of his goods.” Vanesh laughed.
“Apart from that, how’s business?”
“OK, I guess,” Vanesh nodded to the display board on the wall that carried a flickering ticker of codes and numbers. Hasaan didn’t understand any of it. “Nordker prices have firmed up a bit, now that the glut from last year’s captures has worked its way through. The Vipponese are buying more now that their economy is recovering. Most of buyers seem bullish. I just wish they’d legalise slave keeping here. That would be a real boost.”
“Can you see that happening?”
“Not a chance with this liberal lot in the Trisnette. It’s just as well international trade comes under the Trisarch or they’d have closed this down years ago.”
“Do you still get the Minister down?”
“Oh yes, just to ‘check things over’ you understand. Do you know what he calls the women? Fields!”
“Yes, they’re just there to be ploughed as far as he’s concerned.”
Hasaan shook his head. “No respect for the dignity of trade! He should remember how much the government gets from its tax take on the sales. Not to mention the foreign currency it brings in.”
Vanesh nodded in agreement. “It’s all part of the same thing. The country’s going to the dogs.”
Hasaan nodded towards the picture of the head of the Trisnette that hung on the wall alongside her opposite number at the Trisarch. “Or to the bitches,” he laughed.
It always puzzled Hasaan. While there were often men and women visitors to The Old Slave Market it was always women that joined the guided tours. As usual he found himself looking out at a dozen veiled faces, explaining the history of the building that they were about to tour.
“Before we start, though,” Hasaan said, “I’d like you to take one of these tokens. Each one represents a slave that was traded through this market. By the end of the tour you will all learn something about which ever of them you pick out.”
Keen to be involved, the women thronged forward to take a token.
There had been some debate when they’d asked for planning permission to turn the buildings into a tourist attraction. The people living in the vicinity had been keen, hoping that visitors would revitalise the docklands area. They were keen to reverse the downward trend that had come with the shrinking ocean going trade. Representatives in the Trisnette had spoken out against it, saying that no-on should celebrated this aspect of Trisbanian commerce. In the end lobbying by the Trisarch Department of Trade had encouraged the local authority to allow it and had offered Hasaan a business start-up loan to purchase the buildings and fit them out. Hasaan suspected it was as much a political gesture to the Trisnette as a well considered business investment but he wasn’t concerned.
So far the venture was looking like a success. Hasaan’s visitors included local schools eager to provide insights into Trisbanian heritage, visitors from Trisban itself and from other countries. A favourable entry in the latest “Rough Guide to Trisban” – “provides a fascinating insight into the barbarous practices of an earlier time” – had also helped a lot.
“Now if you will put on your collars; we will start the tour as you would have if you’d arrived here all those years ago….”
Hasaan waited while the group picked up the heavy neck collars. It had been a great idea to have the group chain themselves together as a group of slaves might have been. It made the tour much more interactive. And it made it easier to make sure that no one got lost as they went around the buildings.
Visitors were never sure which part of their tour they enjoyed most. There was the reception area where they saw where slaves were stripped and hosed clean before being allowed into the facility. Then there was the tableau of slaves naked except for their veils – the traditional garb of the slave awaiting sale. Another favourite was where all of the visitors were told to kneel and wait while their guide was engaged in some discussion or other, making them feel as ignored as some of their predecessors had; for some of the visitors this brought home how it must have felt to be treated as nothing more than an inconvenience. The array of discipline restraint and humiliation aids always brought a strong reaction too; visitors muttering to one another behind their veils while staring at the whips, chains, dildoes and gags.
Finally the group was assembled in the sale room; shown the auction platform, the pillars where slaves were chained to be examined and assessed by buyers. Then Hasaan led them to the centre of the room and fixed the chain that held them together to a ring in the centre of the stage with a padlock.
“This was the room where a slaves fate was determined,” started Hasaan. “Buyers around the sides of the room, merchandise,” the term all brought a wince from the audience, “chained to these pillars or on the platform. The auctioneer over there ready to conduct the sale. Can you imagine what it would have been like? You’d have been standing in front of perhaps thirty or more buyers. Some may have been to asses you in the holding pens. Do you remember I told you that private viewings could be organised to allow buyers to see slaves unrobed. Not unveiled of course, that would have been immodest, but otherwise naked. Others would be bidding just on the basis of the details in the sale catalogue, such and such an age, from such a place, with such weight and measurements, with such skills. They would have one eye on the indicator up there.”
Hasann pointed to one of the walls and the eyes of the group followed. There a panel held boards that could be slid in and out to change the information shown. In the left hand column a series of pictures showed just a pair of eyes framed in a black rectangle. In the centre column a series of dates and in the right a number.
“Those are the prices that a slave from each territory last sold at. The pictures of the eyes represent the slave’s eyes seen over her veil. You can see the top one there has the pale blue eyes and fair skin of a Nordker. Beneath that the almond shaped eyes and darker skin of a woman from the eastern lands and so on. The dates are when the sales occurred and the last number is the price paid. It let the buyers see how the market was developing.” Some of the visitors shivered in response to this mechanistic view of their fate. Hasaan wondered how much more disturbing they would find the new slave market.
“So,” Hasaan declared, “what was the fate of my string of slaves? Tell me your numbers and I will tell you what became of you….”
There was an uncomfortable giggle across the group. One woman, obviously a tourist from her plain black burkah, called out, “21305.”
Hasaan consulted his clipboard and nodded. “Ah yes,” he said, “bought by a tribal chief in Himbaya to give him the heirs that his wife could not, you bore him five children in seven years, kept shackled when not in use in the bedroom.”
The woman gasped quietly but another stepped forward calling out her number “40311”. This woman, in the finely embroidered robes of a high-born Trisbanian, stood up proudly. Hasaan looked her squarely in the eyes. The carefully applied kohl and mascara accented her eyes in a way that would have been instantly recognisable whether or not she was wearing her veil. Hasaan knew what he was about to tell her, he had heard these numbers many times before. He smiled to himself, knowing the impact that it would have. High borne women often fantasised about themselves as the love slave of an exotic prince, few imagined the fate of so many of those that passed through the market’s portals.
“40311,” Hasaan called out. “This was a wealthy woman, sold into slavery by her faithless husband to allow himself free access to his favourite concubine. She was denying him her favours until he put his wife away. The woman was bought by a lover of the concubine and used as his housemaid. She would wait on her master and his lover as she cuckolded her new husband with him.” Hasaan fancied he could make out a tear in the corners of the woman’s eyes. Perhaps she suspected her own husband of infidelity, feared that his lover was making a fool of him as well. The numbers were the luck of the draw but it was surprising, Hasaan felt, how often the fate of the women struck a chord with the new visitors.
Another woman looked up, conscious that the group had fallen quiet. “My number is 11724. What can you tell me of her?”
Hasaan smiled to himself as the woman now spoke of this one as another woman, no longer identifying herself directly with her slave alter ego. “You were one of three sisters seized in your home by sea raiders and carried off. Your were brought here together but sold as three lots, you were bought by a Nordker trader, your sisters went to other buyers, one a Vipponese war lord, the other also from Vippon who kept women that could be used sexually while a man had sight of their face, a most extraordinary occurrence.”
The woman who had spoken up fell quiet. All of the women seemed subdued as they often did at this point. Hasaan wasn’t going to miss his opportunity to make sure that they understood the reality of the experience for those that had preceded them. He went across to the group and unfastened the pad lock that had chained them to the pillar.
He led them across the room to a new, brightly lit display board. “Please,” Hasaan said, “look at this over there. You will find the details for all your numbers. These details all come from the ledgers and accounts of the market. And remember, this is not some long-gone historical custom. This still goes on today. All of our cultures accept that women will be subservient in some way or other and you all come from societies where women accept the sexual part they play. Do not forget that there are always those that will pay for that; that some men delight in the powers of ownership. Some seek more than the willing compliance of their women folk and try to ensure that they get their way at whatever price. I hope you have found today’s tour of interest. I will of course be happy to answer any questions that you may have.”
The women were quiet as they compared their numbered tags with the display, seeking out the fates of the earlier slaves. Hasaan let them look for a few minutes but then took the chain that linked them and led them out through the door to the right of the stage.
As the visitors were brought into the room Hasaan explained what happened to the slaves after the auction was completed. “Our work was not quite finished then. What remained was to ship the merchandise securely to its destination. Sometimes buyers took their purchases with them but if not, we arranged shipment.”
He pointed to a display of various containers in the centre of the room.
“Some of these are many years old but they were typical ways to transport slaves after the auction. A Himbayan shipment jar – hard baked from clay, large enough for a single slave. These holes around the shoulder of the jar allow air in or perhaps the contents to be watered through a straw. The cap is tied on by leather thongs threaded through these piercings around the pot. The decoration is traditional and shows the content. The carvings are a little vulgar to sophisticated eyes but you must remember these jars were packed with wine and oil and vegetables and other goods on board trading vessels. It was safer if it was obvious what was inside.”
Beside the heavy pot sat a low metal cage. The elaborately moulded fittings in the shapes of dragons heads and wolves marked it out as a piece that must have been made in Nordker. “The fittings are of electrum,” Hasaan said, “gold and silver. They probably cost their owner more than the contents of the cage. Imagine how it would have been to be sent in this on board one of their dragon-prowed vessels across the seas, not knowing the life that awaited you at the end of the voyage but still desperate to be freed from the cage.” The women whose number had indicated that she had been bought by a Nordker warrior shivered visibly at the thought of being confined in such a cage on an open deck for weeks on end.
“And is that Vipponese pagoda another example of these shipping containers?” one of the visitors asked pointing to a five feet high, elaborately carved and painted model building.
“Indeed,” said Hasaan as he swung open the front of the pagoda. Inside a mannequin revealed how the slave was confined for her journey, almost suspended from the frame of the building. Her legs were bent up behind her, her arms pulled up above her head and fastened to a ring at the highest point of the pagoda’s elegant roof. The slave was positioned just so that by opening a pair of shutters on the model pagoda’s highest floor the slave’s eyes could be seen while other shutters provided access to the unfortunate occupant’s breasts and crotch. “So her new owner could enjoy his acquisition on their journey home. It is rumoured that this Vipponese lord kept his slaves continually within such models. He had always wanted to be an architect but his mother had forbidden it. When he overthrew his father, he had his mother watch while a high tower was built to his own design. He had the two of them thrown from it and his sisters imprisoned in models like this. He was a very good customer, according to the ledgers, but even I feel sorry for those that were bought by him.”
Hasaan slid the door of the pagoda model shut. The group stood quietly.
“Ladies,” Hasaan said, keen to lift their mood before they left. “I am sure you realise that these barbarities are things of the past. Of course, as I said, slave keeping and trafficking still goes on but the risk of any of you falling into the hands of such people is very small. Please take off your collars, the tour is concluded.”
There was a sigh of relief from the group as they freed themselves from their collars. It was clear that for most of the tour they had never thought of freeing themselves. Hasaan found it amusing. “They are as much enslaved by themselves as any other that would enslave them,” he had told Vanesh.
He pointed to a final door. “Through there,” he said, “freedom awaits. Well, at least a small refreshment room and a souvenir shop. Please go on your way. I hope you have learned something of an important part of our history.”
The women smiled and laughed as they thanked Hasaan for his tour and pressed through into the shop and cafe. It was often the way that the group fell very silent at the end and then became animated as they realised they would be leaving. It was obviously relief. Hasaan watched them go. He thought about the group of robed and veiled women and wondered how they would have looked, stripped and chained in the auction room. He’d spent long enough looking at women to form a good idea of what lay beneath the robes and the eyes gave away as much as any man needed to know of a veiled woman. He saw himself, no longer the slave keeper but standing at the auctioneer’s rostrum as the women were brought in. He gave a satisfied grunt and wondered if any of them would ever find themselves in the hands of Vanesh. It wasn’t likely. The numbers of girls still traded was small these days, but you never knew. He wondered how they would feel about their visit to the old market if that happened. Would they be comforted by discovering their lot was better than those they had learned of here or horrified to discover that they were the latest in a long line of human merchandise?
It was hard to imagine it would be anything but the latter.
(c) Copyright Freddie Clegg 2010 : All characters fictitious : No reposting without permission