The Steel Seraglio

The Steel Seraglio


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“A confident One Thousand and One Nights for our present . . . Furious pop entertainment—full of sex, passion, violence, and magic.” —Slant magazine
This is the story of the legendary City of Women, told through the tales of those who founded it, championed it, and made it flourish. When the city of Bessa undergoes a violent coup, its lazy, laissez-faire ruler, Bokhari Al-Bokhari, is replaced by the religious zealot Hakkim Mehdad. With little use for the pleasures of the flesh, Hakkim sends his predecessor’s 365 concubines to a neighboring sultan as a gift.
But when the new sultan discovers the concubines are harboring Al-Bokhari’s youngest son—a child who might grow up to challenge his rule—he repents of his mercy and sends his soldiers to slaughter the seraglio down to the last woman and child. What he doesn’t count on is a concubine trained in the art of murder—or the courage and fortitude of the women who will rise up with her to forge their own city out of the unforgiving desert.
It’s an undertaking beset with challenges: hunger and thirst, Hakkim’s relentless hate, and the struggle to make a place for themselves in a world determined to underestimate and undermine them. Through a mosaic of voices and tales, we learn of the women’s miraculous rise, their time of prosperity—and how they carried with them the seed of their own destruction.
“A thrilling tale.” —Publishers Weekly
“A masterful, engaging and utterly fascinating story by three wonderful writers.” —
The Steel Seraglio brings its alternate world of struggle, politics and magic very much to life.” —Locus

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781504065504
Publisher: Open Road Media
Publication date: 03/02/2021
Pages: 368
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)
Age Range: 16 Years

About the Author

Mike Carey has written extensively in the comics field, where his credits include Lucifer, Hellblazer, X-Men,and The Unwritten, which was nominated for both the Eisner and Hugo Awards. He is also the author of the Felix Castor series, and has coauthored two fantasy novels, The Steel Seraglio and The House of War and Witness,with his wife, Linda, and daughter, Louise. Carey is also the author of the novel The Girl with All the Gifts under the name M. R. Carey. He is currently writing a screenplay, Silent War,for Slingshot Studios and Intrepid Pictures.

Linda Carey is a teacher, writer, and fantasy enthusiast. She taught in schools for twenty years and is currently the head of education at Keats House in Hampstead. She has coauthored two fantasy novels, The Steel Seraglio and The House of War and Witness,with her husband, Mike, and daughter, Louise. She has also written a young adult trilogy, Darkest Age, under the pseudonym A. J. Lake.

Louise Carey read English at University College, Oxford, and holds a master’s degree in psychology from Oxford Brookes. She has been writing since the age of fifteen, when she coauthored the graphic novel Confessions of a Blabbermouth with her father, Mike. She has since cowritten two fantasy novels with her parents, The Steel Seraglio and The House of War and Witness. She currently works as a writer and editor, dividing her time between freelance projects and the Dungeons & Dragons blog Tabletop Tales, which she runs with her partner. Her debut trilogy of novels has just been commissioned by Gollancz, with the first installment, Inscape, due out in January 2021.

Read an Excerpt


Book the First

Bokhari Al-Bokhari and His Three-Hundredand-Sixty-Five Concubines

Once, long ago — so long ago, indeed, that historical records of any accuracy are almost impossible to come by — in a land of endless desert where water was scarcer than gold and truth scarcer than water, there was a city.

The name of the city was Bessa, and its ruler, the sultan Bokhari Al-Bokhari, was a man of no account at all. Al-Bokhari was strong neither in virtue nor in vice: he used his position primarily to gratify his sensual appetites, and left the running of the city to his viziers and other court officials.

These latter were a mixed bag, as such people tend to be. Some enriched themselves from the public coffers, flourishing in the sultan's benign inattention like flowers that grow best in shady corners. Others lay back and let the current carry them through an easy and unreflective life. Some few did their job to the best of their ability, setting up oases of justice and good governance in the city's general ruck of disorder.

It should not be assumed, by the way, that this was widely lamented. Bessa had had its share of tyrants, and most people who had an opinion on such things felt that a lazy hedonist was a comparatively light burden to bear. The risk of being flogged or beheaded for a minor misdemeanour was greatly lessened: heterodoxy in matters of faith and pluralism in the arts were alike tolerated, if not exactly celebrated. There was even a move afoot to allow women to officiate in the temples of the Increate, but this was unlikely to succeed. Who would follow a woman in prayer? Dogs? Camels? Other women?

So Bessa enjoyed its minor efflorescence, while the sultan enjoyed the rights and privileges of his exalted position. Chief among these was his seraglio.

The seraglio numbered three-hundred-and-sixty-five concubines, most of whom were young and comely. They had all been young and comely when they first arrived, but time takes its toll, and the complaisant sultan did not trouble to weed out from the throng those women who had declined in the vale of years. He just wasn't that efficient — and furthermore he knew that in the great game of hanky-panky, youth was far from being the ace of trumps. Some of the older concubines were still very definitely on Al-Bokhari's things-to-do list, while the Lady Gursoon was like an unofficial vizier, routinely consulted by the sultan on matters of state, up to and including treaties and trade negotiations.

Oh, he had wives, too, to be sure. Only ten of those, but because they were wives, with contracts and nuptial oaths to their credit, they had rank and privilege far above mere concubines. Their children were legitimate, and stood in line for the throne. They stood in line for a lot of other things, too, because there were dozens of them and the palace was only a modest two-hundred-up-and-two-hundred-down number with a view of the artisans' quarter and the Street of Cymbals.

The seraglio was a separate establishment within the same walls, and by and large was a fairly cheerful one. The concubines were allowed to keep their children with them, and they lived in luxury, with storytellers and musicians to attend them. Their sole responsibility was a little light sexual putting-out from time to time, and for most of them that chore did not come more often than once in five or six years.

The concubines' children, of course, were not legitimate and stood in line for nothing. But the girls were assured of a good dowry when they came of age, and the boys of a leg up in any reasonable career they chose so long as they took their leave of Bessa once their height topped four feet. Bokhari Al-Bokhari wanted no arguments about the succession, and bastards can sometimes complicate the issue without even meaning to.

There is more to tell about the sultan, which might be of some trifling interest, but I will forebear to tell it because he's going to be dead very shortly, and thereafter plays no part whatsoever in our story.

In Bessa, as has already been said, there was a fair degree of religious tolerance. The Jidur, the garden of voices, was a proud institution in that city, and anyone was allowed to preach there. This was not Bokhari Al-Bokhari's innovation — he inherited it from his father — but it was his downfall.

Among the holy men in the Jidur there sprang up one Hakkim Mehdad, a humourless and driven Ascetic, who regarded the sultan's womanizing and loose living as direct affronts to the Increate. Hakkim Mehdad preached a sermon so sharp you could trim your beard on it, and every day that he rose to his feet in the Jidur, his followers grew in number, until one day they stormed the palace and in an excess of homicidal devotion effected a regime change.

The sultan himself was beheaded, and his head mounted on a stake in the centre of the Jidur. Hakkim preached upon it, unable to resist such a potent illustration of the hollow, fleeting nature of earthly pleasures. Afterwards, inspired by his own eloquence, he ordered the sultan's wives and children similarly slaughtered, and their bodies burned upon a pyre.

The man charged with carrying out this order was one Ashraf, a fervent follower of Hakkim's now suddenly raised to the status of captain of the guard. There were no chinks in the armour of Ashraf's righteousness, and the atrocity caused him no pangs of conscience. Withal, he was something of a misogynist, and felt that the world would probably be a better place if the Increate had not put women in it in the first place.

But for all his faults he was punctilious and obedient, and also logical and methodical in his thinking. He did not stretch his brief into a wholesale slaughter of the royal household. The wives were to die, and the legitimate children: that was only sensible. The wives shared the husband's fate, as chattels wholly dependent upon him and wholly subsumed to his will. The children had to die because living heirs might someday challenge for the throne. The concubines, however, along with their bastard offspring, were outside Captain Ashraf's remit, and he told the men under his command to let them be.

Because of this forbearance, something happened which — though seemingly small — would have a profound effect on the lives of all the actors in this narrative. It was, veritably, the pebble that swells to avalanche; the feather that tips the scales; the fluttering wing of the butterfly that begets the mother of tempests.

Unlike the concubines, the wives were mostly of an age with the sultan himself: they had done their wifely duty long before, and the children they had borne the sultan, now grown to adulthood, had their own rooms spread throughout the palace. But there was one, Oosa, who was younger than the rest, and she had borne Jamal, the son of the sultan's old age. Jamal was but twelve years old, and since he had not been given rooms of his own, he lived alternately in his mother's chambers and in the seraglio with his illegitimate brothers and sisters.

On the day of the coup, when the sultan was dragged from his bed and beheaded, and armed men stationed themselves on all the stairwells and external gateways of the palace to prevent anyone from entering or leaving, Oosa saw which way the wind was blowing. She called her maid, Sharissia, to her, and with hot tears in her eyes, spoke thusly.

"I'm dead, Shari. We're all dead, and cannot be saved. But if I have been kind to you, and if you think of me as a friend as well as a mistress, take these jewels as a gift, and do me one final favour!"

Sharissia burst into tears in her turn. Through gulping breaths, she assured the queen (and perhaps herself) that nobody would die. Surely the new ruler would need queens! And servants! Why start from scratch, when you could inherit a whole household?

By this time the followers of Hakkim were already moving through the royal quarters, threshing their inhabitants with swords and knives. Screams ironically undercut Sharissia's words. She pressed her fist to her mouth and moaned. "Oh, the Increate preserve me!"

"And so he might, if you do as I say," Oosa said urgently. "My son, Jamal — take him to the seraglio, and give him to the Lady Gursoon. She's wise, and knows how to keep her own counsel. Let my son hide among the bastards. No one will look for him there, and I hope that no one will trouble to count corpses when this terrible day is over. Help me in this, Shari, that your own children may live long, and I will look down on you from Heaven and heap further blessings on you! In the meantime, this ruby alone is worth two hundred in gold, and here's a necklace, too. I think the white stones are diamonds...."

Oosa thrust Jamal upon the maid as she spoke. That put four hands at her disposal, so to speak, and she piled absurd quantities of jewellery into the trembling grip of both Sharissia and her beloved son as they made their progress across the ransacked room. Finally she hustled them down a back staircase whose entrance on this floor was concealed by a tapestry (erotic scenes from the Mufaddaliyat — you don't want to know). Jamal's scream of "Mother!" echoed in her ears as she slammed the door closed.

As soon as the tapestry was tugged back into place, the queen turned to see a swordsman striding towards her, grim-faced and black-robed. It was that same Captain Ashraf mentioned earlier: he slew Oosa with a single horizontal stroke of the blade across her throat even as she opened her mouth to speak. The queen fell before the tapestry, pinning it in place with her body — but in any case, Ashraf gave the intertwined figures on the golden cloth only a single disgusted glance before turning away and striding off in search of new victims.

It's hard to pray with a slit throat, but in her heart Oosa thanked the All-Merciful that he had seen fit to save her child in this wise.

Sharissia ran to the seraglio, found the Lady Gursoon and gave her both the boy and the garbled explanation that pertained to him. Gursoon soothed the younger woman and reassured her, questioned her gently and patiently about the slaughter of the wives and legitimate princes and princesses, and considered what she and the other concubines should do next.

Some were in favour of fleeing, while flight was still an option — before the loathed Hakkim gave order for their deaths, too. Gursoon counselled against this. The seraglio was inside the palace walls, after all, and there was no entry or exit save through the main gates, which would be guarded. They were at the usurper's mercy, and could only hope that his thirst for blood would be sated by the atrocities already committed.

Knowing more than a little about how the minds of men work, Gursoon ordered the eunuchs to leave all doors unbarred and to retreat, themselves, into the inner rooms of the seraglio. Meanwhile, she asked those among the concubines who could play instruments to fetch them now, and to play gently in the great communal room where the women were wont to meet. In like wise, she burned sticks of sandalwood and oil of myrrh, and placed screens of coloured glass across the windows to diffuse and tint the sunlight that streamed in. Sharissia was mystified by these proceedings: she couldn't see how sweet perfume was going to hold back a sword. Her errand accomplished, she gave the prince Jamal one last tearful kiss, and fled.

When the men with reeking, dripping swords came loping across the doorsills of the seraglio, some four or five minutes later, they slowed to a halt, outfaced and stymied by the beauty and harmony they met there. The air was full of scents and sounds impossible to describe — a synaesthetic spiderweb that might be broken with a gesture and yet still held them fast. Women of inconceivable beauty offered them cool water from goblets of silver and pewter. The men drank, and realised too late how hard it is to disappoint someone who has offered you a courtesy. They were overstepping their orders in any case, carried here by the momentum of their own unleashed bloodlust. That tide abated now, and the killers retreated, checkmated by some dialogue between their hearts and this room that they hadn't consciously been party to.

Hakkim Mehdad took formal possession of the palace and its contents some hours later, and was publically proclaimed sultan of Bessa on the following morning. Captain Ashraf asked him, in the afternoon of that second day, what should be done with Bokhari Al-Bokhari's concubines.

Hakkim considered. The women were of no value in themselves, and certainly they could not remain in the palace: the idea was utterly repugnant to him. Killing them was a practical and economical solution. And yet ...

Hakkim Mehdad was not a stupid man. He knew that a violent coup in Bessa would attract a certain degree of attention from the neighbouring cities and their respective potentates. They would wonder whether one city was the summit of Hakkim's aims — and all the more so because he was a religious zealot rather than a man motivated by the usual concerns of avarice and naked ambition.

He decided, therefore, to spare the seraglio and to send the women as a gift to the most Serene and Exalted Kephiz Bin Ezvahoun, Caliph of Perdondaris. Perdondaris was the most powerful among the cities of the plains, by a very long way, and such a gift would do no harm at all. Bin Ezvahoun might not need three-hundred-and-sixty-five beautiful young women, but he could always re-gift them to friends and family, and he would doubtless appreciate the gesture.

At the same time, he would read the deeper meaning contained within it. Look upon me, Hakkim was saying: I cannot be bribed, and I am a stranger to the fleshly weaknesses that most men share. Provoke me, and you may find that you were better to have left me alone.

The newly anointed sultan gave orders, and Captain Ashraf took the matter into his care. He arranged for camels and camel-drivers to be assembled, and chose thirty reliable soldiers to accompany the caravan. All that was needed then was a diplomat to present the gift and carry out whatever ceremonial niceties accompanied it. It didn't occur to the captain to inform the women themselves of their fate: they'd find out when the soldiers came to fetch them.

Finding a diplomat, though, turned out to be the most problematic part of the enterprise. There had been a great deal of looting and rioting on the day of the coup, and inevitably those of Bessa's citizens who had enjoyed the most lavish and opulent lifestyles had come in for the largest share of the Ascetics' crude score-settling. Diplomats as a class had been badly dented.

There was one man, though, who through the remoteness of his dwelling, the great height of his walls and the tenacity of his household soldiery had survived the cull. His name was En-Sadim, and he had several times served the late sultan Bokhari Al-Bokhari as a legate. Upon Ashraf's applying to him, En-Sadim declared that he would be more than happy to serve the new regime in the same capacity. Though not himself an Ascetic, being as fond of a glass of wine and an extramarital tumble as the next man, he believed that with a modicum of goodwill it was always possible to find common ground.

Captain Ashraf told him that his first official duty would be to take a consignment of concubines to the Caliph of Perdondaris.

En-Sadim said that he would be delighted to do so, and only raised an eyebrow at the number of concubines to be transported. "That must be almost the whole seraglio!" he exclaimed.

"It's all of them," Ashraf answered. "The Holy One has no use for female flesh."

For a moment, En-Sadim misunderstood. "Ah!" he began. "Yes, sometimes, indeed, one prefers for a change a good, hard ..." The words died away in his mouth as he met the captain's gaze.

The silence persisted for a second or more.

"The Holy One is to be admired for his great virtue," En- Sadim concluded.


Excerpted from "The Steel Seraglio"
by .
Copyright © 2012 Mike Carey, Linda Carey & Louise Carey.
Excerpted by permission of ChiZine Publications.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Rem Speaks of These Matters,
Bokhari Al-Bokhari and His Three-Hundred-and-Sixty-Five Concubines,
Fireside Story,
The Tale of the Dancing Girl,
The Cup Lands Upright, Part the First,
The Tale of the Girl, Her Father, Her Two Suitors and the King of Assassins,
The Cup Lands Upright, Part the Second,
The Tale of the Librarian of Bessa,
The Tale of the Librarian of Bessa,
How Hakkim Found His Enemy,
The Youth Staked Out in the Desert,
The Fate of Those Who Search for Truth,
In the Mountains of the North,
The Tale of the Assassin Who Became a Concubine,
Tales Whose Application Is Mostly Tactical: Bethi,
The Tale of the Poisoned Touch,
Tales Whose Application is Mostly Tactical: Anwar Das,
The Tale of the Man Who Deserved Death No Fewer Than Three Times,
Reading Lessons, Part the First,
The Council of War,
Givers of Gifts,
Reading Lessons, Part the Second,
The Taking of Bessa, Part the First,
The Cook's Story,
The Taking of Bessa, Part the Second,
Bessa, at Once and Ever,
The Gold of Anwar Das,
The Uses of Diplomacy,
In the Fullness of Time,
The Lion of the Desert,
The Making Ready,
Mushin's Tale,
Seven Days of Siege,
The Storm,
How the City Was Unmade,
The Tale of a Man and a Boy,
The Tale of the Book,
The Tale of Tales,

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