LAURE

When I look back on my time in Persia, I reflect on the fact that I seduced a powerful man. Not the bizarre and twisted murders that the same man carried out, but the fact that I seduced him. I-the lonely and pathetic wretch of a girl who had been stolen from the shores of my home on the Island of Corsica not a year and a half before. Long before I arrived, Erik was there. Long before I heard his name whispered in the harem did I feel a tremor when I saw his commanding presence in the courtyard below the khanum.

I was to be an odalisque for the time being. I often displeased the evil woman who controlled the harem with an iron fist and a raw fury that still caught me by surprise weeks after I had been under her reign.

The first time I ever saw his face, I had stared transfixed. The ugliness and beauty were a strange combination, as if the paintbrush had momentarily slipped from the artists grasp, and marred half of his masculine features. The khanum, or Olia as we called her inside the harem, would not permit Erik to wear his mask in her presence. The angry lash of her tongue was enough to quell the audible dismay the other women felt when he would appear.

He had been there for some time now, and had been perhaps around twenty years of age. I often studied his features, and decided that with his mannerism and occasional references to my own culture, he had to be French. It was a tool I would use ruthlessly to gain my freedom, and my life.

I was born in Ajaccio, on the island of Corsica. I find it ironic that someone as important as Napoleon came from the same island as I. I-who would never know anything other than my small island, and the year and a half I spent in Mazanderan. The island was a simple and beautiful place, and my mind wandered there often as I attended the ladies of the harem. I cannot describe the mortification I felt when I first entered and was descended on by a hoard of naked women. It was nothing though, to the complete terror of being kidnapped by pirates.

Pirates! Yes, the barbarians that still roamed the seas then, and I'm told do so to this day. I no longer venture onto the coast at night, and have moved inland away from such danger and beauty as the cold and unfeeling sea.

My first love, and only so far, was Pascal Messere. He was Italian through and through, but my parents approved of him with great passion. Since I was far too young for marriage, they allowed us to court in secret, with a firm promise that nothing was to transpire during those stolen moments. I promised, and we both obeyed the gentle and firm commands of my father. I loved my parents, and I would have done nothing to shame them.

Pascal was educated, only slightly handsome, but wonderfully romantic. There was nothing more he loved to do than stroll along the moonlit beach in front of the sprawling manor my father had built from the wealth and esteem of shipbuilding, his greatest passion. Indeed, had I not already been acclimated to the rough waters of the Mediterranean, I probably would have heartedly pitched myself overboard once I had discovered my Fate upon that hideous thing that they had named a ship.

The city was protected by the peninsula, but our house was on the opposite side of the majestic hills, and was quite secluded. The small cove we often sat near, talking, had never been occupied before that night. In a sudden and blinding rush, they had attacked. Pascal had died quickly, that much I could see.

Run through by the blade of the rapier from a vile and disgusting man, who had then turned his attentions on me.

"Yes," he said softly, running the blade still dripping with Pascal's blood over my fourteen year old body, "You will fetch a nice price. I assume, you are still virginal?"

I had begun to cry by then, and it had made him laugh. The maniacal laughter still haunts me to this day, even though the only thing that ever happened to me during my time with them, was that I was first kidnapped, then sold. Of course, there had also been a humiliating inspection, to ensure my chasteness.

In my mind, I cannot conjure up what twisted thread of Fate led me to Olia. In doing so, I was bound on a crash collision course with Erik.

He displeased her at almost every turn. He was constantly making her angry with his snide comments, his unfailing criticism of her and her boring and childish ways. Only, there had never been a child inside this insane woman. She would have fit right in with Vlad Dracul, or Elizabeth Bathory, because nothing pleased her more than when someone died. I was disgusted by her. How could I not?

I was fourteen when I arrived in the harem, and knew nothing of the sick and perverted world that she had embraced. Looking back, I think she must have been the epitome of 'absolute power corrupts absolutely'. Although she was only the mother of the shah, she wielded more influence in some areas of the government than he did.

Erik hated her. So did I. I guess in that simple and consuming emotion, somehow we found a bond. I wonder if he knew that it was I who relayed information to Nadir. I was the one who listened with discreet intensity to everything he had to say, and I divulged it to one of the eunuchs in the compound, sharing with him an enormous profit. It was regrettable that I was never allowed to spend it. I could not even allow it to be seen. I tucked it away, hoping that someday I would be rescued, hoping it would be before I entered the harem not as a servant to the women, but an unwilling body to the men.

Erik provided Olia with amusement and death, but soon I could tell he was weary with her idle threats and useless toys. She wanted an endless parade of blood before her, I think that at times she would have bathed in it, just like Lady Bathory. I saw shame in his eyes when he entered the harem, and a weariness and sadness that I couldn't comprehend. He was barely older than I! How could he bear so much misery? His face was tragic, but I knew that it was his heart that suffered the most.

It was never more apparent than the morning after Aysel had been sent to Erik's chambers. She had returned the night before, the same age as me, and had been terrified. She knew that when she returned untouched she would be executed. She told me that he had dared her to remove his mask, and that she had been immobilized by fear.

"Nothing could have prepared me for that. I couldn't bear it. I would rather die!"

I was shocked by the petulance and ignorance in her statement. He was European, certainly, and she had been sent by her parents in hopes that she would be a bride to the shah. She hadn't wanted to shame them by becoming a prostitute at the khanum's whims. She would be a wife of the shah, or she would die.

It was her Fate, I suppose. Yet I had never seen Erik so angry or cold toward the khanum. He looked at Aysel in that little room, and turned away in disgust. He left without her approval, and we all felt the chill the rest of the day, long after we heard the dying screams inside the room as Aysel went up in flames.

Little did I know, I was to be next. I close my eyes now, resting my head upon the chair in my dim library. My guest clears his throat, but I ignore him. My mind is already miles away, back to my one night of passion, the night I granted a dangerous and lonely man absolution from a life of misery and bitterness.

The night I surrendered myself to Erik.