The Ottoman Empire. 1453.
The first time Herakles met Sadiq formally, it was from behind bars.
The cramped area was cold, or at least the floor under his rump was, and the bars against his back was even through his clothes. He could hear Sadiq coming from down the hallway, along with extra footsteps, four people it sounded like, with clicks at the door to indicate the unlocking of an intricately padlocked system. The door opened with a soft pop and a swing of the hinge, and Sadiq entered the cavernous corridor dressed in robes that looked expensive but roughed up, no doubt from the siege recently laid against Herakles's sister, Cyprus; even with the rough edges, the man still looked clean and opulent, much like the palace itself, self-satisfied in his jaunting step and smirking mouth.
Lighting was minimal, just the traces of what he got through the small window, and that light wasn't enough to tell the time of day. All he could really see at the moment was this man, this... well, he would say "impossibly tall" if it weren't for his mother's close relationship to the Roman Empire during her living years, so "intimidating" fit well enough for now. Sadiq's hands ran along the bars of the cages down the row from his own, strumming with a hum in his own voice, and Herakles looked up as the guards he'd heard previously stood on either side of his own bars.
Sadiq clucked his tongue and an oil lantern was immediately brought to him, though the light for now illuminated only the gilded sword at Sadiq's prominent belt, and no doubt dimly illuminating Herakles as well.
"Ey, brat," Sadiq said in a low but smug timer of a voice. The first words he'd ever spoken to the child. If Herakles had his way, they would be his last; however, he could do little good from behind bars. Sadiq kicked the bar so that it rumbled dully, hollowly echoing down the halls with his rich voice, gruff as he tilted his head. "You feel like finally being a good kid now? Admit that you've fallen, blah blah blah..."
Leaning down beside the bars, Sadiq's face was basked in the wan light of the lamp. The slight smirk was visible but not much else - he wore a headdress and an alabaster mask so white it nearly hurt Herakles's light-deprived eyes to look at. The eyes and most of the upper face were nothing but a blank, stony, unblinking facade - and a fearful one at that.
"Kid, I'm tellin' ya, the food's mighty nicer in the main halls." Sadiq's voice came in a drawl now. "Plus, you can look at the pretty ladies... if that does anything for ya. Man, you area twiggy thing, aren't you?"
Herakles's body was sore from sitting in his cramped position, but he didn't react to the words for a long while as he stared unblinkingly at the terrifying white mask before him. Finally he scraped the hair out of his eyes with thin hands, leaned forward as though he was going to comply, slowly untangling his skinny arms from around his bruised shins, eyes wide and seemingly innocent; but then he hocked a large mouthful of spit directly into the emotionless mask, and a twiggy arm snapped out to knock the lantern out of his grasp.
"Eat. Shit," he hissed coldly, and felt a chill when Sadiq just gave a very calm sigh in return.
Slowly, Sadiq picked up the lantern again and said, "A sad, sad day." He turned his head toward the statue-like guards, made a hand-gesture, and the taller darker-skinned guard handed him a pale rag which Sadiq used to wipe the saliva from his mask with a leisurely dab. "You hear that? The poor kid used to eat shit. Aren't I nice, taking in these orphans... no wonder he's so gangly and wan. Eating shit- that's not a new one, nope."
Then a chuckle, and the man turned back to Herakles with a shake of his head, conversationally waving back to the guards, whose faces remained stony and emotionless. "Why'm I even talking to 'em? They're deaf-mute. It's why I clack my tongue like that. A great system of language down there. Just smacks and pops. They're great guys," he assured, hooking a thumb over his shoulder, "but they've got big spears, too. And as much as I love kids... them? Not so much. Kids like you, they skewer with their throwing knives. Obedience is a biggie in their culture. But here? Yeah. Only, I'm real nice..."
Herakles remained deathly quiet. He had seen his mother die at the hands of men like this, and knew that above all, silence would keep him alive. Sadiq, however, sighed again as he flicked the spit from his fingertips, and Herakles felt the small droplets meet the skin of his cheek.
"Also, you know, those guys... they don't have balls." A pause as the man looked at his nails for a quick moment and then back to Herakles. "You know why?"
With a dry swallow, Herakles replied, "Eunuchs."
"Oh, good, you're smart too." There was a more serious look about him now as the Turk edged on. "Then hopefully you're smart enough to understand this: if you spit at me again, I clack my tongue the right away... they don't mind scraping off more." Herakles froze under that look, just a gaunt child with the heart of a hoplite in him. "Even if yours are under-developed and malnutritioned. The spears get dull sometimes. Only so many guards without genitalia... gotta make income somehow with the boys who don't want to get along with my hospitality. And maybe they can castrate you again and again- It's sort of a never-ending cycle, with nations."
Herakles tried to remain calm and with a strong emotional wall between him and the obvious psychopath on the other side of the bars, but despite himself, he did instinctively pull his legs a bit closer to his chest, fingers forming claws against himself as his heart pounded like an excited kitten's. He imagined what he'd practiced saying in the back of his mind again and again since his capture, but when he tried to speak, his voice gave that distinct waver that he hoped wasn't noticeable.
"I-I'm not afraid of you," he said, glaring at Sadiq through a curtain of tangled brown hair with a look he hoped could peel paint. He would have loved to get out of his cage; his legs were cramping up from sitting like that and he was so hungry, so insatiably hungry, but everything his mother had taught him about being a warrior fought against surrender. "Threaten me all you want, asafí geneiáda. I'd rather starve than eat your shit food."
But despite his words, his stomach gave a demanding growl at the exact wrong time. Herakles winced a bit and bit hard on the inside of his cheek to keep from making his hunger too obvious. A dark chuckle met his ears and Sadiq just asked, "Would you?" with an all-knowing tone, passed the lantern to the other hand and twirled the hook on the tip of his finger as he curled it closer and out, the lantern swaying and casting light in a moving flutter in the shadowy cell. "Oh, I don't think so."
The embodiment of Ottoman Turkey smirked, stroked his chin and nodded, then let his fingers slacked and held his face in thought, staring into Herakles's eyes. Then he just sighed again, rolled his shoulders in, hunkering in a stance that meant he was getting more serious.
"Look," he began. "Here's the deal. Stay here, for all I care. Die here, as a cell-dwelling rat to a great empire... leave your people in this majestic time, keep them here forever in my beautiful care." Just as a feral look came to that smile, Herakles's stomach twisted. "Or you can stay in the quarters I've provided you. Work your ass off, but eat well and be strong. Well, stronger, anyway... so strong that maybe I can teach you to pick up a sword, fight, parry and attack. Give you a chance, perhaps, in the long run, to maybe be a bit of a challenge for me."
His mother's people. That's what he was used to; he was still so very used to all of the Greeks being his mother's people. In lovely white robes and dresses, with olive branches and sandals and radiating peace when they weren't under attack. Now they were suddenly his, and he was so young, the human equivalent of perhaps eight, too young to have to deal with this on his own.
"People fall in love with me every day, kid. You'd be surprised. That's the game - I, myself, enjoy games." Sadiq leaned back then, the light still on him in its dimmest rays. "But..." He stood lowly, cracked his neck softly with a satisfied small hum, swung the lantern over in a loop and caught it skillfully with his other hand. "If you're just a little chicken shit who wants to wither away like the pathetic thing you are..."
Sadiq turned on his heel and began to walk, carefully and slowly, down the hall. Herakles knew that if he didn't speak up, he could be left down here for weeks with little to eat but drops of water and crusts of bread. The snap of those fingers and the guards were moving too, and that tall, shadowy man was nearly at the door, Herakles in crippling indecision.
It wasn't that he didn't want out, he mused as his breath quickened. No, of course he wanted out. His mother's people- his people, he reminded himself, his people were meant to be Greek, whatever that meant. He growled in frustration with himself, gripping the bars, chewing his lip in thought; stay here and die or get out and be humiliated but at least survive. Finally, he just thought "screw pride" and shouted just as Sadiq reached the door.
"Wait!" Herakles leaned forward in order to be heard better, his grip tightening around the bars, and he couldn't believe he was about to do this, but he would make up for it later when he killed this son of a bitch. He just needed the food, maybe would just half-ass whatever work Sadiq needed him to do, just squeak by so that he could get out of this place with a bit of his childish dignity intact.
Sadiq stopped in his tracks after a moment and spoke loudly as he turned: "Hm? Was that our little rat swallowing his pride?"
Casually, the man strolled back toward the cage, stared at him with amusement clear over what features were visible. He was loving this. The bastard was loving jerking his chain around and getting him to squeal. Herakles wondered if Sadiq would try to get him to cry, and decided then and there that it wasn't going to happen. Herakles hadn't cried at all since his mother's death; he remembered giving her the proper burial that she would have wanted, because the burial in his mother's religion was really like the final step of the journey of life. He had watched her be buried with her sword, her shield, her armor and chariot, a small basket of fruit for her journey to Styx, and gold coins heavy on her eyelids to help pay Charon for her way across.
He hadn't cried at all since then. He wouldn't cry at all for this son of a bitch, period. Never would Sadiq see him so weak as to cry.
"You want out of your cagey-wagey?" Sadiq cooed in a belittling tone as though talking to a petulant child. Herakles's face flared hotly with shame and he nearly bared his teeth in a snarl but held it in. "Then repeat after me: I, Herakles the Greek, submit my soul, body, mind, and ability to that of the great Ottoman Empire, as a slave of the great Ottoman Empire, and I, Herakles the Greek, will do his bidding, hold obedience to his will, and serve my role in his history so generously given to me... or lest face the consequences and punishments ahead of me."
Herakles stammered out, "I... I..." and then paused, took an almost pouting breath of air. Every fiber of his being screamed to not give in, but he forced himself to go on. "I, Herakles the Greek, submit my soul, body..." And mind. The most important thing to him, philosophy and art and all of the beautiful things he'd inherited from his mother; he closed his eyes tight against the word. "...mind. And ability. To the Ottoman Empire." He'd skipped the part about being a slave on purpose, hands forming tight fists around the bars of the cage. "I, Herakles the Greek, will do his bidding... hold obedience... s-serve my role..."
That was all he could remember of it, he realized. Most of it was a blur of words he'd only half paid attention to to begin with. He struggled to recall what was said but grew increasingly more distracted by how dirty the bars were, grimy against his palms, and he released them to wipe them carelessly on his pants.
"Just let me out of the damn cage already."
Sadiq made a 'tsk' sound in annoyance and shook his head. "Oh no, no. That won't do." He held his chin in a scholarly manner, looked down upon him and spoke as though Sadiq were literally the only person in the room. "Perhaps this is a better thing to recite when I have my paper and quill..." Then he looked him up and down, smirked, and reached to poke the tip of his nose with a small chuckle. "You won't forget you're a slave once you're out of here. No, you won't."
A rustle as the man removed his keys, elegantly selecting one-by-one until he came across a tiny skull with an inscribed marking, no doubt for the appropriate cell. Herakles watched intently but knew he would forget it come morning, or Hades, even an hour from now. His memory was terrible, no matter how many times his mother had begged him to keep up with his studies. Sadiq certainly took his sweet time with the key, fitting it in and about to turn it when he stopped in the fluid movement and flashed him an alarmingly big smile.
"Oh... and another thing. You try anything funny-" The smile abruptly dropped, making Herakles narrow his eyes at him. "-and I will chuck you back in here with no second chances, got it?" The smile was back, smaller and softer now. "Imagine I'm your God, and theses are the gates to your heaven... you don't stab God in the ass, now do you? I gotta say I know a little about your paganism... but respect me..."
The lock popped open clean and the gate swung open, and with a graceful step backward and a dramatic gesture, Sadiq seemed to be welcoming him into the rest of the palace.
"...and I'll treat you somewhat well."
Resisting the urge to snort a laugh, Herakles bit his tongue and stayed still for a long moment before moving forward. He even made to stand - that is, before his legs shook so much that he couldn't hold his own weight and it sent him tumbling clumsily to the floor. He just huffed and struggled upward again as though nothing had happened, arms crossed like a small child coming out of a grounding, which honestly wasn't too far off.
He muttered something darkly to himself before falling quiet again, eyes flicking up at Sadiq, over to the guards who kept an eerily close watch on him, and then back. Scraping the hair out of his eyes with his nails again, he said, "Respect. Right," and adjusted his baggy clothing.
"Hah!" Sadiq barked out a laugh and smacked Herakles so hard on the back that he nearly fell again, but he caught him by the tattered neck of his shirt. "You're on the right track."
Quickly - too quickly for Herakles to catch, Sadiq drew a sash from his back and bagged it over Herakles's head, leading him out of the corridor. The sunlight as they stepped outside (he could tell from the ground he felt on his bare toes that they had left the dwelling where the cages were kept) was midsummer through the sash, and in the more artistic part of his brain, he imagined it deep-velvety peach across the sky, the palace grounds winding out below them in a manicured and beautiful fashion; imagined large tortoises moving on the pathways with candles strapped to their backs, imagined an array of cared-for flowers flourishing amongst the architectural arches that of course had to be shaped like tears in that distinct Ottoman style that even a boy like himself was familiar with.
As they walked, the air became more and more engulfed with Sadiq's scent of spice and musk and jasmine.
"See how pretty it is up here?" Sadiq babbled even when he knew Herakles couldn't. "So much better, if I do say so myself." There was a patch of steps that he tripped down until Sadiq caught him by his clothes again, and the air changed as he stepped through what felt like a door. "Stick by me, kid. The place works like a labyrinth... I'm sure you're familiar with the concept. No minotaur, but the guards will gut you if they catch you. Be thankful I know what you're saying- sort of. You kinda mumble. Must be the nerves," he joked with a harsh pat on the back. Herakles winced underneath the sash.
Finally, finally some pulled the blinder from his face. Herakles felt his jaw drop in awe of the beauty of the room, a spired dome with jewel-colored mosaics over the walls, the windows cut holes with breezy and translucent curtains, divans lying about the place for comfort purposes.
Sadiq pointed to the center of a spiralling mosaic of the sun, beckoning Herakles to stop. "Stay," he ordered as though ordering a dog. Sadiq kept walking over to the nicest divan in the foremost of the Harem palace, and soon enough, women were filing in after catching sight of him. Some were definitely more clothed than others, but Herakles was used to nudity, finding it almost sacred, like an art form. The women positioned themselves around the cushions, some taking seats close to him or hanging off of his arm or lying their head to rest on his knee; others were more sullen, without choice, scowling as they sat themselves. Sadiq himself seemed to be whispering to them, and he murmured something against the jaw of a woman with lovely honey-brown hair, a woman who tried immediately to elbow him in the face but he only caught her and cradled her joint tightly enough for her to cease.
These were lands once, he realizes, recognizing some of them from portraits or brief meetings with his mother. The honey-brunette, her name was Hungary; he didn't know the name she went by day to day, but Hungary was the nation, and she was giving him a look of clear pity that made him flush and turn his face away. There was another girl too, a woman who blushed docilely when Sadiq ran his hand through her hair, and Herakles recognized her as Albania. Most of the women were anonymous to him, though, just familiar faces amongst unfamiliar territory.
"You'll be staying here," the Empire finally addressed him with a wide swoop of his arm. "Amongst your fellow conquered peoples in the harem sect until you grow old enough to be relocated as a man... but this, the harem, as you can see-" He gestured again, languidly at east in those soft cushions that Herakles fantasized suffocating him with for a moment. "-is very lovely. And you can't leave it, though, it's no matter, because you wouldn't know how." With a darker tone to his honey-dripping voice, he went on, "Nobody knows the way out of here but yours truly. So we'll just cut straight to the nitty-gritty: are you ready to recite your vows as a slave, Herakles the Greek?"
Armenia - Herakles recognized her too, with her quill ready in her hands. Beside her was Romania, recognizable by her familiar eyes, and with a child of perhaps three years old in her arms. A boy, he realized. His brain scrambled to come up with who that boy could be.
"Vows?" Herakles repeated. "You mean a contract?" He wasn't sure if he was comfortable with that, promising things that would be empty anyway because in the back of his mind, he was already planning his escape. This whole charade was just for food anyway. "Am..." Shyly, he cleared his throat, and spoke a little louder. "Am I going to have to do what they do?" he asked, motioning to the women, pink-faced and quiet.
Sadiq's lips curled up in a thoroughly entertained smirk. "You? Don't flatter yourself, kid." He signaled and Armenia took up her quill again to begin penning. Herakles guessed it was customary for the man to just look at someone and feel a swell a of victory. Not for long. "Alright. Recite: I, Herakles the Greek, submit my soul, body, mind, and ability to that of the great Ottoman Empire..." A pause to give him time, though it did no good. The words were trickling from his memory like water through cupped hands. "As a slave of the great Ottoman Empire, and I, Herakles the Greek, will do his bidding, hold his obedience to his will, and serve my role in his history so generously given to me, or lest face the consequences and punishments ahead of me."
Normally, Herakles would just be grateful not to have to perform anything sexual. After all, homosexuality was no new concept to him, since his mother's scholars slept with their students all the time, sort of a manner of consummating the deal made between pupil and teacher. Instead, he just felt offended by the vow he was being forced to recite, and tried to commit it to memory as best he could.
"I, Herakles the Greek, submit my soul, mind, body, and ability to that of the great Ottoman Empire as-" He faltered a moment, almost grumbled this next part in frustration. "-as a slaveto the Ottoman Empire..." That childish pout was overcoming him again, arms crossing once more. "And I, Herakles the Greek, will do his bidding... bidding, hold..." His eyebrows furrowed, something about obedience and consequences, but he couldn't remember the last part at all. "...hold obedience or... face the consequences ahead of me?"
There was a chilling pause, a heart-stopping quiet moment where the entire atmosphere seemed stagnant and fearful of what Sadiq would say. Most of the women looked to him out of morbid curiosity, and as the Empire looked at him, watched him, Herakles felt his heart almost stop too. Then, finally:
"You must be some kind of idiot."
Herakles sensed a lot of very long, very detailed tasks in his future.
After an annoyed sound, Sadiq went back to stroking Albania's hair, and the harem's atmosphere dropped back to normalcy. No smirk on Sadiq's face, just quiet and mulling things over. The room remained silent like that for a while, that mask blocking any expression from his face as he looked to the right at Hungary, and tilted his head so she grudgingly gave him a kiss on the cheek. Finally, Sadiq waved him off.
"The guards will show you your quarters," he said absently. "Tomorrow, you will be awoken at dawn to begin your tasks... and your attitude will determine how you live in this sect. Or, rather, if you live in it at all."
The eunuch guards came on either side of Herakles, and he turned to follow them down the corridor with his cheeks puffed out. Only when Sadiq was out of earshot did he mutter to himself, "Not an idiot... don't give me such long monologues and I'll remember it easier, stupid hairy bastard."
But then the thought came to him if he would be able to sleep at all tonight. He wondered what his bed would feel like, wondered what sort of work he would have to do in order to eat. His stomach gave another hungry growl, and he pushed his fist into it until it hurt, but at least it kept it quiet.
Herakles wondered all sorts of things, but eventually he just stifled a yawn and decided to save the questions for tomorrow. Tonight he would try to get a good night's sleep; he would need the rest, after all, in order to plan his liberation.