A Royal Audience
Bouncing over the desert in the back of an enclosed jeep, Sophia did not feel in imminent danger except from the driver, the same goon-cum-functionary who had pulled the gun on Tex, driving as if he was just learning how. His companions were stoic in their acceptance of his performance, staring ahead without expression. The one in the suit turned to her.
"I apologize for the ride. Hamad is new at this."
"Then why is he driving?"
"It's his job. He's a relative of the King. My name is Yasir, by the way."
"Are you really taking me to see the King?"
Yasir looked at Sophia in surprise. "Of course. Where else?"
"Why does the King want to see me so badly?"
"Do you remember a movie you made called 'It's Him, Yes, Yes!'?"
Sophia did. It was a French farce she had done a few years ago before she had become a star. She had had a very small role. "I remember it. Why?"
"The King saw your performance. He was most impressed, especially with the harem scene, in which you bared your breasts along with several other actresses."
Sophia remembered. At the last moment, the director had urged them to take off their tops for the scene and she had agreed along with the other girls. What could she do? Then she had just been a struggling young actress trying to catch a break. She looked at Yasir. "So, the King means to have his way with me?"
"Not exactly. He just needs your help."
"As you may or may not know, Muslim law permits us four wives. The King's first wife is the beloved Queen Fatima, who unfortunately, Allah's will, has been unable to bear him a son. This has caused a crisis. As a solution, the minister of palace affairs el-Shali, no pun intended, offered one of his daughters to be the King's wife, but that only prompted his assassination by one of Queen Fatima's nephews, who took exception to el-Shali's presumption. Then two years ago the King married again, an Egyptian woman, now our adored Queen Lamlum, but unfortunately that union too has not been blessed. You see, the King is an older man, almost seventy, and his vital energies are not what they once were, though they were never over abundant, the King always having more of a spiritual nature than physical as befits his holy status as the Grand Senussi. Anyway, the last time he remembers being aroused to full manhood was upon seeing you in that movie."
"Are you sure it was me who aroused him?" asked Sophia. "There were other attractive women in that harem scene as undressed as I."
"The King is sure. He would not be wrong about something like that."
"What do you expect me to do? Take off my clothes and get him excited?"
"Something of that nature. We are hoping to recreate the scene from the movie, except this time the King will be present watching in person. Queen Lamlum will be nearby in case the King is sufficiently stimulated. Queen Fatima is also here to make sure things go smoothly and to indicate her approval. We all know that this is a lot to ask of you, Miss Loren, but the fate of our infant country may depend on your charms."
Sophia mulled things over. "What if I arouse the King and he decides to bestow his favors on me instead of Queen Lamlum?"
"I can guarantee that that will not happen. The King is a man of unparalleled moral integrity. He will only place his seed where he means to place his seed. However, he does have an opening for another wife. Would you be interested?"
"Just remember, Miss Loren, as an Italian you owe us much."
"I refer to your country's occupation of us from the Tripolitan War of 1911 until almost the end of WWII. You exploited us most cruelly, especially after Mussolini, Il Duce, took power, and crushed our rebellion against your tyranny by slaughtering thousands. Now is your chance to make some small amends."
"I had nothing to do with that! I had no use for Mussolini or the fascists either."
"All the more reason for you to help us, then."
The jeep jerked to an abrupt halt, its headlights illuminating a large tent. "The King is inside," said Yasir. "Along with Queen Fatima and Queen Lamlum. They would at least like to talk to you personally. Miss Loren?"
What choice did she have? Sophia climbed out of the jeep gratefully and was escorted to the tent. Hamad held open a flap and Sophia entered a spacious interior well-lit by several lanterns. The floor was covered by a number of rugs, on which were scattered several large pillows on the outer edge. At least a dozen Arab men in robes and headdresses were standing around, one of whom in particular caught Sophia's eye, an older man with a neatly trimmed beard holding a teacup. Everyone else in the tent seemed to be attending him, including two scarfed, bejeweled women standing on either side.
"Your highness, Miss Sophia Loren," Yasir announced behind her, bowing.
King Idris, the man Sophia had noticed, came forward, handing off his teacup and trailed by the others. Somehow he was shorter than Sophia had expected, not physically impressive at all. She wondered how she should behave, though considering the circumstances, did it make any difference?
"It's a pleasure to meet you, Miss Loren," King Idris said in English with a smile. "I am so glad that you could come."
"I didn't have a choice."
The King nodded gravely. "I see. We must talk."
The King dismissed Yasir and the others standing near him with a wave of a dainty, well-manicured hand, then guided Sophia over to a collection of large pillows. "Please, make yourself comfortable," the King suggested.
They sat. Sophia waited, aware of background murmuring. The King sighed, looking down for a moment.
"This is not easy, Miss Loren," said King Idris. "When you are the king, there are many responsibilities. It was not a job I wanted, but when you are a direct descendent of the Prophet, there is little choice. Your path is set, as all paths are. I need your help."
"To have a son?"
"I am glad Yasir told you, it saves time. Yes, I need a male heir. When I learned that you were coming to my country to make a movie, I realized that it was the will of Allah. Surely your presence here is no coincidence. Will you help me, Miss Loren? You are my last resort."
Sophia didn't know what to say. "Just what is it that you want me to do, exactly?"
"I will have this tent cleared. Yasir will give you a package containing a costume similar to the one you wore in 'It's Him, Yes, Yes!', then leave. When I feel that you have had time to become suitably attired, I will come in and by the grace of Allah become aroused on seeing you in your full natural beauty: I will then hasten to my queen, Queen Lamlum, and do my husbandly and kingly duty. If the mere display of your physical charms does not excite me, it may become necessary for you to dance erotically, like a belly dancer, or in whatever way your instincts tell you would be most provocative, I don't presume to instruct you in such matters. You will need music then, won't you? I will summon Yasir, he has talent in that regard. If that doesn't work, then nothing will. My line will be at an end."
"Don't you have other women who could do this for you?" Sophia asked. "A real harem?"
"Alas, no. We don't have those anymore. Well, at least I don't."
"Is it that important for you to have a son?"
The King frowned. "Sometimes I wonder. If everything is the will of Allah, as it is, then why don't I have one already? Because it is meant for me to have a son late in life, after much difficulty? I need a successor, Miss Loren. I am tired of being king, I am old. I want someone to take over for me, if not a son, then at least someone with the same beliefs and attitudes, who will follow the same traditions. Perhaps that is not meant to be, but I cannot worry about that. All we can do is try to fulfill our destiny as we see it, and live the lives that we have been given."
One of the women who had been standing with the King earlier came over. King Idris rose to greet her, as did Sophia.
"This is my first wife, Queen Fatima," introduced the King. "She is and always will be most dear to me."
"So nice to meet you, Miss Loren," the Queen said, a handsome older woman. "You are more beautiful than I had imagined. Allah has smiled upon you indeed. Husband, might I have a word with her in private?"
The King left and the Queen and Sophia sat on the pillows. "Men are such bunglers," Queen Fatima confided. "If it were not for us running things behind the scenes, civilization as we know it never would have gotten started. The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world, as I'm sure you know without being told. Men aren't totally useless, but at times it is hard to think of a better word to describe them."
Queen Fatima glanced in the King's direction, bowing her head and smiling sweetly, affections which were returned by the King. "Look at that old fool," the Queen said, still smiling. "He thinks the world revolves around him, as do all men. Little do they know. It is our fault as mothers showing them too much love when they are children, but we cannot deny our natures. From cradle to grave, at all stages of life, we must support them, defer to them, try to build them up, otherwise they would accomplish nothing. The world would be a much better place if there were only women, but aside from being biologically unfeasible, it would make things too easy. Allah in his wisdom seems to delight in placing obstacles before us, making our road harder, perhaps because how else could we learn to appreciate anything? At any rate, one woman to another, I must ask you to accede to my husband's request to stimulate him in what I assume is your usual manner."
"What's that supposed to mean?" asked Sophia, eyebrows raised.
"I am sorry," the Queen said apologetically. "I did not mean to offend you. I know that you are an actress, but apparently it does not mean what I thought it meant. Forgive me. The important question remains, however, whether or not you can and will help my husband. It is a choice between anarchy and order, continuity or revolution. It is true that change can be good or bad, but as a woman, can you take that risk? Follow your instincts, listen to your heart. Think of my country as a home, a family; what is more important to a family, especially a young one, than to have stability? The King needs a son to carry on his rule and to insure the future of our country. You can help him with this, as is always the role of women, one way or another. We are the ones responsible for holding things together and making sure that they do not fall apart. Pride should not be a factor in your considerations."
"I see," said Sophia, somewhat flattered by all the Queen had said, but also confused.
"It is settled, then," the Queen said, rising to her feet with a regal bearing. "I will inform my husband of your decision. You have our eternal gratitude for your selflessness. Can I make you more comfortable? Get you something to drink, some wine, perhaps? We do not indulge ourselves because of our religion, but that is no reason why you should not."
"Thank you," said Sophia, with the attitude that none of this could really be happening, and the Queen withdrew. Had she agreed to attempt to arouse the King? Sophia didn't think so, but it seemed too late to back out now.
Yasir hustled over bearing a silver tray, on which was a wine bottle, a wine glass, and a tiny package wrapped in silk tied with a lavender bow. "Your wine, Miss Loren. And your costume."
"I don't know if I want to do this," said Sophia.
"Your reluctance is understandable."
"Couldn't the King adopt a son?"
"It wouldn't be the same. It has to be his own issue."
"Couldn't the King just watch me in "It's Him, Yes, Yes!' again? I'm sure I could get him a copy."
"The King already has one. It only excited him the first time, and then only partially. His Highness needs something more."
Sophia looked at Yasir. He seemed compassionate, if unhelpful. "Thank you, Yasir."
"You are welcome, Miss Loren."
Yasir put the tray down on a small stool and left. While Sophia wondered what she should do, everyone started filing out of the tent, under the watchful eye of Queen Fatima. No one looked at her, making Sophia feel somewhat like a pariah, except for the King, who glanced at her and smiled, throwing in an encouraging nod as well. At least he wasn't slavering in anticipation. The woman who Sophia assumed was Queen Lamlum also glanced over and smiled once encouragingly. It was hard to tell because of the loose, shapeless robe she was wearing, but Queen Lamlum seemed young and attractive enough to Sophia, if no raving beauty. Just how much inspiration did the King need? And as for older men being unable to perform in the bedroom, Sophia certainly hadn't had that experience with either Carlo or Cary; was it her? She knew men found her attractive, but men seemed to find most women attractive in that way, regardless of age, looks, or any other consideration. Men were goatish, an inescapable fact of life that Sophia saw no reason to ignore. So was she really the only hope of resurrecting King Idris's virility?
Everyone left the tent. Sophia unwrapped the package and found the same costume she had worn for the harem scene in 'It's Him, Yes, Yes!'. A white scarf, tiara, pair of long, dangling earrings, black slippers, and a pair of black pajama bottoms. Did she really want to go through with this? Sophia supposed it was no big deal since she had already played this scene before, but still.
Muttering to herself, Sophia took off her robe, other clothes, and put on the costume. She felt ridiculous, and had already made up her mind that no matter how much the King begged she wasn't going to dance for him erotically or in any other fashion. The mere sight of her naked breasts were going to have to be enough, whatever the fate of his kingdom.
Sophia waited. She pulled her robe around her, chilled. Oddly, she almost looked forward to the role she was about to play. Sometimes it was hell being an actress. Sophia poured herself a glass of wine, hoping that would warm her, wondering if that was the idea, the wine had been provided to loosen her up. Well, it would take more than one glass of wine or even one bottle to do that. The wine tasted bitter: Sophia supposed that she should not be surprised, since what kind of wine could be found out here? She drank a little more. For some reason she started thinking about what Howard Hughes had told her, that everything was part of some plan. This too, her recruitment to inflame the passions of King Idris? Whose plan, then? The Committee's? Drinkwine's? Maybe there was no plan, everything happened by accident without any purpose, a dark thought that Sophia was surprised had occurred to her with such force.
The wine glass dropped from her hand. She realized that she was drunk, which wasn't possible on one glass of wine unless---it had been drugged. The bitter taste. Sophia tried to move, but her limbs were unresponsive. She only succeeded in arranging herself in a grotesquely obscene sprawl, as if that was what had been planned. How could she have been so naive, she should have known of this danger.
As if on cue, King Idris entered. He advanced on Sophia purposefully, then stopped. A look of childlike amazement suffused his features and he looked down, opening his robe and revealing a blood-gorged masculine member in full raging glory, curving upward in sword-like fashion. Sophia was left with this vision implanted on her brain as the King shouted "Allahu Akbar!", then mercifully she saw no more.