around Soraya. “Dearest, why do you torture yourself
and your motherthis way?”
She shook off his grip and took the chair Marouz had
vacated, to sit gazing down at her mother, fingers driv-
ing their nails deep into her palms as though to share her
mother’s suffering by self-inflicted pain.
“Shall I sell her like a yorb?” she snapped. “You know
as I do that but for the payment we’d never have let a
single person go from this town to the Receivers! It may
be well enough for towns where they don’t teach love
for one’s parents, but it disgusts me.”
“Can you do more for her than the Receivers?”
“What do they do?” Soraya demanded. “No one will
tell me that! What becomes of those committed to their
“You should ask Marouz.”
“I did, the first rime he made this suggestion. And he
could only say that he didn’t doubt’didn’t doubt’!that
their fate was better than we ignorant folk could offer.”
“Wouldn’t almost anything be better than this?”
Firdausi argued. “Lying helpless among others equally
He dropped to his knees, face pleading. “I admire you
for your wish to keep your mother with you, believe
me! But looking at her, knowing there’s nothing we can
dohow can you condemn her to it any longer? Look,
why don’t you ask her views when she’s able to talk
Soraya’s face was very pale as she murmured, “I did.”
“What did she say?” Firdausi pressed.
“That the paymentif the Receivers accept her
would be dowry for me and I could marry you and in-
herit the house.” She formed the words as though each
tasted bad in her mouth.
“But in that case!” Firdausi rocked back on his heels.
“If it’s her own wish, what holds you back?”
“They might not accept her,” Soraya whispered.
“They don’t take everyone, do they?”
“But it’s a chance, don’t you see? What chance has she
here of any other fate but a lingering, unpleasant death?”
Soraya delayed her answer for long moments. Finally
she said, “Firdausi, all you care about is freeing me to
marry you. Suppose I say that ifif1 take my mother
to the Receivers, this does not mean I intend to marry
It was Firdausi’s turn to hesitate.
“I think,” he said slowly, “that the way you’re keeping
your mother here, suffering needlessly, is likely to make
me less eager to have you for my wife.”
She flinched as though from a physical blow, and fresh
tears gathered in her eyes. Seeing his advantage, Firdausi
“There’s something almost selfish about it. You’ve just
told me what her own desires are, yet you insist on go-
ing against them. If that’s not pandering to your own
self-esteem, I don’t know what is.”
She bit down on her lower lip to stop it quivering, and
was only able to speak after a further pause. The words
came like leaden footfalls.
“Very well. Go to Marouz and find out when the Re-
ceivers are due, and where. And I’ll try and borrow a
wagon and a yorb to take her.”
Firdausi’s jubilation showed in his face, although his
voice was sober enough as he said, “I do really think it’s
the wisest course.”
He turned and went out.
So I’ll do it, Soraya thought bitterly. But I won’t
marry you or anyone eke in this horrible town. If they
take her, I’ll burn the house and we the pay to go some-
where I can hide from my shame.
Abruptly she turned to the water-bucket and began to
rinse her hands, over and over, as though to remove
some clinging invisible foulness.
Maddalena and Langenschmidt ate their evening meal
together in the main base restaurant. Under the influence
of the nearest approach to civilised luxury she had en-
joyed for many yearsthe Corps base where she had
been most recently was as spartan as any of the other
outlying stations Maddalena’s mood of exhaustion and
apathy faded. The music, food and wine made her ex-
pand like a flower to the sun, so that even before she
took the course of cosmetic treatment she was due for