From Chapter Four of the first book in the "Hannibal's Elephant Girl" series
At the top of the hill, we went to the right, the way I should have gone earlier. After a while, we came upon a tent made of a fine, thin material. The red, yellow, and blue colors of the striped fabric glowed in the twilight. Shadows flickered from a lamp burning inside. A fringed awning stood before it, supported by two metal spears driven into the earth. A black man sat cross-legged beneath the awning.
“Go to that slave.”
Tendao stopped me some distance away, then told me what to say to the man. I repeated the instructions back to him, making sure I understood.
“But he looks so mean, Tendao. Will you go with me?”
“No. You must do this by yourself.”
The slave watched me intently as I trudged toward him, my feet dragging in the dirt, reluctant to take me where I didn’t want to go.
Ten paces away, I stopped and said, “Lotaz.”
He didn’t respond; only stared at me until I lowered my eyes to the ground. Finally, he spoke.
“This is the tent of Lotaz. What business do you have here?”
“I’m about Tendao’s business.”
The slave jumped to his feet and hurried inside. A moment later, a slim woman came out.
She was illuminated from both sides by a pair of oil lamps swinging from the spear-supports. Lotaz was beautiful in a silk robe of pale blue and pair of matching slippers. A wide scarlet belt of woven cords cinched her narrow waist, and a fine gold chain held the scabbard of a jeweled dagger. The small weapon swung across her thighs with her movement. Her lips were painted red and her cheeks colored rosebud pink, making a soft contrast with her creamy complexion. A silver and gold necklace ran snugly across her throat.
The slave came out to stand behind her, with his arms folded across his bare chest. He loomed like a huge, dark shadow, contrasting sharply with the woman’s white skin.
“What do you know of Tendao?” she asked me.
“I’m to tell you that he will do as you requested.”
She glanced beyond me, scanning the dark trail in both directions. I looked that way, too, but Tendao wasn’t in sight.
“Why did he send you?”
I shook my head, not knowing how to respond.
“When will the task be completed?” Lotaz’s voice sounded sharp and demanding.
“Tomorrow, before sundown,” I answered with the words Tendao had told me to say.
She seemed reluctant to deal with me in this transaction. Nor did I understand why I’d come to Lotaz on Tendao’s behalf.
After a moment, she said, “Very well. Wait here.”
Lotaz went inside and soon returned. In one hand, she carried a jug of wine almost identical to the one I’d lost. Her other hand remained closed, the fingers clenched tight. Many decorated bracelets jingled down her wrist when she made a motion to hand over the jug of wine. But then she stopped.
“Why do you come to me in such a dirty condition?”
I looked at my outstretched hands; they were caked with dried mud. When I tried to wipe them off, the slave disappeared behind the tent and came back with a clay basin of water, then placed it at my feet. I knelt to wash, my face burning with humiliation. I washed quickly, stood up, and wiped my hands on my cape.
The slave gave me a quick smile and winked when he stepped between me and the woman. He picked up the basin and moved back to his place. I didn’t know if he felt sorry for me or only tried to be friendly to a fellow slave. Lotaz certainly made me feel like a slave.
She handed me the jug, and I took it in my arms—I wouldn’t drop this one.
“This wine is payment for the work Tendao will do for me,” Lotaz said. “I will pay him no more than that.”
She held out her other hand and slowly uncurled her fingers. Two perfectly matched pearls, large and very beautiful, rested in the woman’s palm. All I could do was stare at the lustrous sheen of the precious gems glowing in the yellow light of the lamps.
“Take them,” Lotaz commanded. “And make certain the pearls go to Tendao immediately. They will be used to do the work. Do you understand me?”
I nodded, shifting the wine to free my right hand so I could snatch the pearls from Lotaz. I stood still, staring up at the woman, not knowing what to do next.
“Go on!” she said with a wave of her hand, shooing me away like a bothersome gnat.