It was the custom of the Sultan to take a new bride every evening, chosen by his advisers from among the young women of his people, to enjoy his carnal rights with her that evening, and to release her from his service in the morning. If the woman pleased him, he would favor her with a gift. Because of this, the women chosen would try to beguile the sultan with all of the charms they had, and they would play the part of coy ingenue, or sultry seductress, or wanton harlot, depending on their inclination and experience, and try to tickle the jaded palate of the Sultan’s lust.
But one night, the woman chosen as his bride displayed an attitude unknown to him. She did not show fear or shyness, nor did she fawn and flatter, nor did she strut and pose. She did not resist when he led her to his bed, and she followed his commands to take off her clothing, and to wash his feet and stroke his beard, but she did not speak, and she showed no sign of either pleasure or happiness. She did not gaze down, as if weary or ashamed, but looked forward with no expression. Her touch had neither tenderness or hesitation.
The Sultan was disturbed by this. He enjoyed the game of courting, of responding to his bride’s chosen pose with one of his own, answering coyness with firm authority, a vulgar comment with paternalistic indulgence, a whispered request with a vigorous thrust.
He asked her if she was ready to make love, and she replied yes, as one might answer a shopkeeper who asked if you would like an orange. He made love to her three times, both tenderly and fiercely, using all of the arts of pleasure he knew to try to make her gasp, or cry out, or swoon, but she was as passive as a stone. She yielded freely, and moved her body as directed, but she made no sound, did not breathe hard, or flush, or squirm. When the Sultan was finally exhausted, he lay on his back, and she lay on her back beside him, and they slept lightly and briefly, for it was nearly morning.
When the dawn came, the Sultan’s mind was like a boiling kettle. He felt that the woman had bested him, but he could not say how, and this was not a feeling he was used to. He sat up and turned to the woman lying next to him on the bed.
“I suppose you’ll want some trinket of appreciation, like the others of your kind before you” he said.
“No, I want nothing” she said, her voice still calm.
The Sultan’s rage exploded like a bomb. “Then nothing you shall have!” he shouted, and he called for his guard, and told them to take the woman away and have her beheaded.
The next night, the Sultan did not take a woman to his bed for the first time in a long time. He lay in his bed all night, thinking about the woman and her impassive face, her torpid limbs, and he shook with rage, then was quiet and brooding again. He lay like this til dawn.
The next night, he took a woman as usual, aware that his advisers were whispering to each other about the disturbance in his routine and the execution. He made only the most perfunctory love to his latest bride that night, thinking instead about the silent woman, her uncaring body taunting him, the exaggerated sighs and coos of the woman beneath him drowned out by the memory of her slow, untroubled breathing and faraway gaze. In the morning, he waved the woman away without asking her what gift she wanted. He sat in his bed for a long time afterward.
The next night was much the same. The woman chosen for him was strong-willed and seductive. She fluttered her eyelashes, and flaunted her body, but he was still under the spell of the silent woman and these temptations meant nothing to him. As the woman, who was very beautiful, danced and swooned for him, he found himself growing angry rather than lustful, and he pushed the woman onto his bed and took her, frightening her into quiet submission with his roughness. Her quiet compliance made him think of the other woman even more, and he climaxed, he thought to himself, perhaps I should have this one beheaded too. In the morning, he sent her away without speaking, like before.
The change in the Sultan’s actions did not go unnoticed in the court or the town. And the Sultan could not fail to notice the whispering of those around him, although he thought nothing of the reaction of the people in the town to the sudden lack of gifts. The whispers did nothing to improve his mood, and he went on in the same way for weeks. He was unable to find any pleasure for himself in his nightly trysts, and because his new lack of generosity was known to all, his brides became less and less eager to please him, until most of them showed the same passive acceptance of their circumstance as the woman who had started the whole chain of events. This irony was lost on the Sultan, however. His nights had become a grim mission for him whose purpose he could no longer explain.
Then one morning, his bride for the night, upon being dismissed from his bed, screwed up her courage and said that her father had told her to ask the Sultan for a gift, as they were recently made quite poor and she had heard that gifts were sometimes presented to brides who had pleased him, and she hoped very much that she had pleased her majesty, if he would forgive her boldness.
“Forgive your boldness? No, I shall not” he said icily, and he called for his guard and had her taken away and beheaded.
That day, he found himself stirred as he had not been for quite some time, as if a great weight had been lifted off his mind. Everything seemed clearer and more meaningful, and he went about his duties and ordered about his advisers with more vigor than he had in quite some time. That night, he made love to his new bride with passion, seduced her and made her swoon and cry out with pleasure, and in the morning, he had her taken away and beheaded.
And this became the way of things in the kingdom, for as long as the kingdom endured. Which was not very much longer.