The Fourth Queen (Om)

 
9780141016597: The Fourth Queen (Om)

A lush historical epic, The Fourth Queen is the story of one woman’s struggle for power and love in the court of the eighteenth-century Emperor of Morocco. Poetically intense and sensual, it marks the debut of a gifted new author.

Beautiful Helen Gloag is determined to escape the cycle of poverty and early death that has destroyed so many women in her native Scotland. Barely out of her teens, she flees her hometown and sets sail for the Colonies on a ship bound for Boston. But the ship falls prey to a band of corsairs—pirates from the Barbary coast of Africa. Helen is taken captive and sent to a procuress in Morocco, where women are sold into the slave markets of the nobility. In the procuress’s house, she is discovered by the witty, soft-hearted dwarf Microphilus, who oversees the Harem of the Emperor himself. Knowing her red hair and milky skin will enthrall his master, he takes her to Marrakech, and the imperial palace.

The Harem of the Emperor is a mysterious, voluptuous, and forbidding place, a hive of dangerous political tensions and unlikely friendships. Microphilus, himself a Scot captured by pirates as a young man, has found his fortune in the Emperor’s Harem, where he serves the Queens, including the charismatic, amazonian African empress Batoom, who is his lover. With Microphilus’s help, Helen learns to negotiate the politics of the Harem and compete for the Emperor’s favor.

Cast into the luxurious but sinister world of the Harem, Helen is at first terrified of the godlike and often cruel Emperor, but she soon becomes his favorite. Eventually, out of all the Harem women, she is chosen to become his fourth wife—the greatest of honors, since the Emperor may have hundreds of concubines but only four official wives. With her marriage, however, comes the greatest danger. Helen’s predecessor, the other “White Queen,” has succumbed to a mysterious, disfiguring illness and is slowly wasting away. Poison is the most likely cause, and Microphilus knows that Helen is destined to be the next victim.

In the Harem, hundreds of women are vying to be one of the four queens, thus setting the scene for the tragic power struggle and love story that ensue.

"synopsis" may belong to another edition of this title.

About the Author:

DEBBIE TAYLOR lives in Newcastle, England.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Helen lowered the bundle she was carrying onto the floor and stared around the ship's passenger cabin. It was crammed with people, blundering about in the semidarkness, tripping over one anothers' belongings, laying claim to the strange cloth beds that hung like strings of onions from the walls.

She sank back against the wall. She'd imagined little round windows, splashed with saltwater; perhaps a few neat partitions to separate family groups. Not this creaking barn, with its slimy, swaying floor.

To stop herself crying, she closed her hands into fists and forced her nails into the flesh of her palms. She'd no one to blame but herself. If she hadn't run away, what's the worst that could have happened? Meg couldn't have stayed angry with her forever. She thought of her old box bed at home, the blankets smelling of sweet hay and woodsmoke. If she left now she'd be back at Muthill in less than a fortnight.

Below water level the only daylight came from two trapdoors with ladders leading up to the main deck. She could smell rancid butter and rotting fish, and a midden stink was already seeping from the close-stools behind the screen in the corner. Vomit nudged at the back of her throat. She had to spend the next twelve weeks in this place, buried with a hundred other souls like worms in a coffin.

She squeezed her fists tighter and her nails bit deeper. Why did she never think before she did things? Going to John Bayne's house in the middle of the night, barefoot, like a hussy. Did she expect to be treated like a lady? No wonder he'd taken her to his servants' quarters. Retching into her shawl, she blundered toward a ladder and scrambled back up toward the light.

Outside there was shouting everywhere. Men were rolling barrels toward holes in the deck or spidering high overhead in a web of ropes and poles. Others leaned over the side hauling sacks up from the skiffs bobbing far below in the water. A man with porridge skin spied her standing there, young and dazed and pretty, and started toward her grinning like a dog. Stumbling over a coil of rope, she turned and fled toward the side of the ship.

There was still time. She could persuade one of the skiffs to take her back to the Greenock quay. Leaning over the railings, she looked down at the unruly flotilla nudging at the ship's belly like puppies. She thought of hailing one and scrambling. down a rope ladder. Then what? She'd no money for the stagecoach to Perth, and no one to go with. Her traveling companions, Betty and Dougie, were still in the cabin; they'd never go back with her. There was nothing back at Muthill for them but digging neeps for a pittance for the rest of their lives: this journey to the Colonies was their only hope.

Pressed against the ship's railings, Helen felt cornered. She thought of the sturdy, well-ordered cottage she'd left behind; of her father, Muthill's blacksmith, his big kind hands and leather apron; of the gray kirk school; of the river skipping over clean pebbles by the mill. How could she have run away from all that? And the weans; and Meg, her stepmother, for all her fierceness. Meg was right to be angry with her, sneaking home with bruised lips at five in the morning. But she'd have calmed down eventually--if Helen hadn't slammed out of the cottage. And seen Betty and Dougie in the distance, setting off on the first stage of their journey to America. Now it was too late. Now she was trapped on this ship and there was no going back. Her chest tightened and panic clogged her throat.

She needed somewhere to cry; somewhere no one could see her. Climbing over a pile of lumpy sacks, she squeezed behind a stack of hen coops and crouched down out of sight. The hens jostled and pecked at one another in their cramped quarters. Helen watched a smashed egg ooze slowly out between the bars and began to feel calmer.

After a while she knelt up and peered cautiously out. Soon she noticed a small group of people boarding the ship. They must have come on a special boat because they were far too well dressed to have been ferried out with the pea sacks and cheese barrels like the other passengers. She counted five men; but it was the one woman, in a vivid green cloak, that caught her attention.

The woman was swaying slightly, as if she were going to swoon, holding onto one of the men's arms with a lace-gloved hand. The other men clustered anxiously around her and one barked an order to a passing sailor, who ran off to fetch a small folding chair.

The woman hesitated, looking down at the chair. It was a rickety little thing, with thongs strung through it for a seat. Even at this distance, Helen could tell she'd never sat on such a crude thing in her life. The woman laughed and shook her head, clearly protesting that she felt much better. Then, in a sudden change of mood, she was tugging on her husband's arm and pointing, urging him to check on the sailors who were lugging their bags onto the ship.

Kneeling in her filthy skirt, Helen watched transfixed as grown men scurried to serve the pale-haired woman in her emerald-green cloak. What must it be like to be cared for like that? After a while, the man who'd ordered the chair bowed to the group and gestured toward the upper part of the ship, clearly offering to conduct them to their quarters. Quite forgetting her distress, Helen slipped out of her hiding place and hurried across the deck after them.

"Helen! Thank God! We were afeared you'd gone over the side!" It was Betty, red-cheeked and breathless, running toward her. "Listen, we've to go down the stores with our tickets. One of they sailors said we've to get our names set down on a list before we can get our food. He said the food's not that good, but if we talk sweet to the steward, he'll maybe let us have some of what they keep for the captain's guests."

Helen started, as though jolted from sleep. She looked at Betty's scabby chin and rabbit teeth, her stained armpits and stringy hair. With a wee thump of shame, she saw the two of them on the deck together: a pair of flea-bitten peasant girls plotting for rich folks' tidbits.

Letting herself be dragged back to the rear of the ship, she ducked in through a low doorway and followed Betty along a narrow corridor and down two ladders into the very belly of the ship. It gurgled like intestines at this depth, creaking and rocking, lit here and there by lanterns that spilled unsteady stains of yellow light on the dank boards.

"Phew! It smells worse than a tinker's knob down here." Betty wrinkled her nose and squinted down the passage. "Look, down the end where those folks are waiting. That must be the steward. Here, you're the bonny one. Take these tickets and show him a bit of titty--" And she thrust three wooden tickets into Helen's hand and gave her a shove.

The steward was sitting in a pool of lamplight, unshaven and grunting. He licked a stubby forefinger and riffled through a ledger on a small table wedged between his fat knees. His wig perched on a barrel beside him and a few long, gray hairs clung to his greasy scalp. His small eyes flicked across the faces in the queue.

A few minutes later Helen was standing in front of him, holding out the tickets. At Betty's urging, she'd loosened the front of her blouse and shaken her copper curls around her face.

"Name," he grunted, dipping his quill.

"There are three of us," she said and spelled out their names while he printed them laboriously on his ledger. A fly landed on his head and staggered over the shiny skin as he wrote.

"Two lassies and a lad, eh?" He looked up and his eyes narrowed. "And is Master Douglas your sweetheart, Miss Helen?" His eyes were level with her crotch. For a split second Helen saw herself running headlong down the passageway, running and climbing into the sunlight, running and diving into clean, bright water.

"I haven't got a sweetheart." She forced her lips into a smile and swayed her hips. "I'm still looking for the right man."

"And what kind of man would that be?" He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.

"We-e-ell," she pretended to consider. "It'd have to be a generous kind of man, one who'd take care of me and my friends. Do you know anyone like that?"

Now he was grinning broadly up at her. She could smell raw onion on his breath, see tufts of hair bristling from his nostrils. "Well, Miss Helen, I may know someone exactly fitting that description. Why don't you come back later this evening, so I can introduce you to him?"
"YOU DON'T HAVE TO RADGE HIM," whispered Betty excitedly on the way back to the cabin. "Just let him squeeze your arse, and suck on your paps a wee bit."

Helen shuddered: "I can't, Betty. Did you see his teeth? I couldn't bear to let him kiss me with that mouth of rotten pebbles."

"It won't kill you." Betty rounded on Helen. "You owe us at least that much for bringing you with us. I don't know what you're moaning on about anyway. It's only a wee cuddle."

"But I've never done anything like that before--"

"Well, aren't you the lucky one, Helen Gloag? Maybe it's about time you learned what it's like. Maybe it's about time you had to waggle your arse like the rest of us for a bit of something decent to eat!"

"I'm not whoring for anybody's vittals."

"So, I'm a whore now, am I? And what makes you think you're any better? Do you think you're the only lass as ever canoodled with John Bayne?"

"What do you mean?" Helen's forehead felt clammy.

"I mean I've seen him giving money to a lassie in Crieff--and he wasn't paying for conversation. What's the matter? Did you let him have it for nothing?"

But Helen didn't wait to hear any more. She was running down dark passages and up ladders, elbowing past people, not caring where she was going. She saw a door half-open to her left and rushed through it, slamming it behind her. And suddenly she was in a different part of the ship--quieter, cleaner--and she was standing, panting, facing three narrow doors with polished brass handles. As she stood there, one of the doors opened and a tall man stepped out.

She recognized him immediately. It was the husband of the elegant woman on the deck. "I knew I'd heard something!" he said. Then, over his shoulder to his wife: "It's just some lassie--lost her way by the looks of it. I thought you were the cabin boy with our tea," he explained to Helen with a smile.

Then a thought struck him and he took a coin from his waistcoat. "Could you go and hurry him up? My wife claims she's dying of thirst." And he put the coin into her hand and closed the door in her face.
BETTY FOUND HER, HOURS LATER, shivering, wedged again behind the hen coops on the deck. A sea mist had risen and the timbers were dark and wet.

"They've pulled up the anchor," said Betty, taking her hand. "D'ye want to say good-bye to Scotland?"

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