Knowing I had a way with languages, she looked at me to translate; from the label on the dress, I assumed the girl spoke French.
"What is your name, how old are you, and where are you from?" I asked.
"My name is Aimee du Buc de Rivery," she answered in a quiet voice, making me strain to hear her. "I am thirteen, and I am French from Martinique."
"And how is it that you are here?"
"My father is the owner of a great sugar plantation. He sent me to school in Nantes. I had been there for three years when he ordered me home. But I never reached my destination. My ship was seized by pirates, I was taken to Algiers, and then brought here." Her voice was a little stronger now and I began to hear the melodic rhythm of the Creole. "My father is a rich man. He will pay you whatever you want to have me sent home." The head mistress ignored the offer.
"Have you any talents? Can you dance or sew? All the girls here must sew," I added.
She smiled a tiny smile and pulled a small embroidered cloth from inside her entari. "Here is something I hid when the pirates came on board my ship." She raised her head and I could see defiance in her eyes. "It is my favorite handkerchief and I keep it for luck. I sewed it myself at school."
She held it out but the mistress refused to touch it. Standing closer, I could see the stitches and knew the girl was able. "What about music? Do you play an instrument?"
"But, of course," she answered. Using her slender hands to show how she held a violin and a bow, she pretended to play. "Bach, Mozart," she said.
A few more words from the head mistress and the girl was dismissed, brushed off like a bothersome fly. Once again she was put in my charge, and I took her through a hallway, down a narrow flight of stairs, and into the dank basement where the novices slept. I opened the door of the windowless room, and when she saw the divans lining the walls, I could tell she wanted to sit, but I threw my head back, raised my eyebrows, and clucked my tongue to tell her no.
She grabbed my arm. Her voice was as sweet as a nightingale's. "I cannot tell you how pleased I was to hear you speak my language," she said. "It has been a long time since I have conversed with anyone, and my heart twinges at the thought."
"You are not to speak French any longer," I ordered. "You are to forget the name Aimee, and who your family is and where you come from. You are in the harem now. You will learn Arabic and Turkish; you will study Islam; you will become a Muslim."
Excerpted from Seraglio by Janet Wallach Copyright© 2003 by Janet Wallach. Excerpted by permission of Nan A. Talese, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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