Fiona McIntosh's trilogy The Percheron Saga contains the novels Odalisque, Emissary, and Goddess. The first book is set in the royal harem in the imaginary city of Percheron, which is a fantasy version of the Turkish harem in Constantinople. In her acknowledgments, McIntosh writes that she based her fictional world on the old account of a travel writer (though she doesn't say which one). Palace eunuchs feature in the story and, in particular, the head eunuch, Salmeo, is a quintessential example of the "evil eunuch" trope. Everything he does is pure cruelty and manipulation, which is explained as owed to his frustration over his castration, on top of which he is described as being physically repulsive. He has no redeeming characteristics or moments whatsoever. As the most influential person in the harem, he controls the sequence of events in the novel.
This post contains spoilers about Odalisque. in the process of revealing Salmeo's character.
Salmeo in 'Odalisque'
As Grand Master Eunuch, apart from the Zar (the Percherese word for the Sultan), he is "the most powerful man within the palace," rich and influential, fearing no one except the Valide [the Zar's widow]. He authorizes all activity, significant and insignificant, within the harem. He buys clothes for the harem women and gives individual permission to female merchants to trade their goods. He orders individual eunuchs to perform physical tasks. He keeps track of when the Zar consorts with any concubine. After the death of the Zar, the Valide indicates that his young heir's private conversation with a harem girl "terribly incensed Salmeo," and when the heir asks Salmeo to leave the room, Salmeo "bristled." The young Zar acknowledges who really has power: "I don't have as much say as everyone seems to think. Salmeo and the Valide are the King and Queen of the harem."
Salmeo's body repulses the other characters. His cheek is scarred. The scar has the shape of a rope and it sometimes twitches or "lifted with the man's sly grin." His face is "normally unreadable," sometimes "blank," though sometimes he "smirks" or is "sour-looking." He "flounced in confidently," acknowledges the Zar with a "soft, bouncing bow" and speaks in an "effeminate, lisping way" that, despite being "gentle," is used to intimidate. Only when necessary, he "bellowed." Even the simplest, smallest act of taking a bite of food is described grotesquely: "He bit down on the grape, enjoying the explosion of juice, letting it trickle down his throat as he considered his position. He spat the seeds out." Even his attempt at hygiene with a signature scent is disgusting: He sweetens his breath with violet perfume that he "habitually blew over all those he spoke with."
His obesity is frequently pointed out. His body is described as "bulk" multiple times. He is a "silent mountain of black flesh," "huge," "enormous," affecting people with his "sheer size," "his folds of loose, flabby skin...that had to be lifted away in order for him to be cleaned," "flesh wobbling tremulously," and, when the Zar appears, "Salmeo took longer than anyone to kneel" and requires "much grunting." Sometimes he is just "the fat black eunuch," "the fat eunuch," or "the fat man." His "flabby face wobbled with the effort of holding back his own rage."
He is intimidating.
- "He put the fear of a thousand angry gods into most people around the palace..."
- "Now Salmeo did allow the broad smile to break across his wide face, revealing the cavernous gap in his front teeth. His tongue flicked into and out of the hole like a snake tasting vibrations in the air. He saw the girl's flinch of disgust, fed on it."
- "He matched his revolting looks with a vicious demeanor..." It seems that "intimidation was always his intention despite his avuncular tone." "He enjoyed it too — enjoyed it especially because he knew she could never win."
- "He was also cruelty personified...but then you didn't become Grand Master of the Eunuchs without taking a perverse pleasure in punishment." He believes that "everyone could be bought if you threatened those they loved. That's why no one could ever compromise the Grand Master Eunuch — he loved none but himself."
- "Salmeo obviously intended to crush Ana's spirit well before she acquired any delusions that she might survive the harem with her integrity and personality intact."
He is negative to the core, down to his anatomical heart: "Salmeo's heart was pumping hard and it was not only pushing blood around his body. Anger throbbed in tandem. The eunuch hated to reveal when his emotions were being stirred; he preferred that no one know what he was thinking or how he was reacting to a situation."
Furthermore, he is "horrid," "vile," just plain bad. Other eunuchs "could feel the hate emanating" from him. He knows: "Fear was power." It is explained that "the chief eunuch took his own cruel form of pleasure at the expense of the harem women." His right index fingernail is always kept sharp, as he uses it to perform physical investigations of girls who join the harem and he likes to hurt and humiliate them when he does it, and he keeps it painted red so that they always see it and remember it. A slave maintains his nails for him. When a girl says, "I hate you, Salmeo," he answers with a grin, "Everyone does."
"No one appreciated the need for absolute supremacy more than Salmeo." The Valide, who has the marvelous epithet First Wife and Absolute Favorite, dislikes eunuchs and refers to them as "half men." She especially "detests" Salmeo, but knows she needs him as an ally.
When the Zar dies unexpectedly, one male heir must be selected, and all other male children are killed at the Valide's orders. Salmeo arranges for the women to be taken to another location and distracted so that their children can be collected, and then tells the boys that they will play a game that involves hiding in sacks, and then has them trampled by elephants and burned. "Salmeo embodied so many unpalatable characteristics, it was hard to imagine how they all came together in one person."
The most complimentary thing ever said about him is that he is smart, but this is only in the service of evil. He is "calculating," with an "agile mind," and is specifically "the cleverest, most sly man she had ever known...as cunning as he was dangerous..."
Salmeo commands a eunuch warrior guard called, in plural, the Elim. Most of them were castrated as adults. They indicate their privilege over other palace eunuchs by wearing red robes. They worship Zarab and believe in an afterlife. In Odalisque, they are not shown fighting, but they perform bodyguard functions such as catching a fainting concubine. In any case, Salmeo manipulates and frames the head of the Elim and an apprentice torturer, and makes the senior torturer lie. Only once, at the end, does he weep, when it seems that he may be about to be caught for a serious crime that would lead to execution, and "to hear him cry was the most uncomfortable moment Boaz [the young Zar] had known in his life." Salmeo tells the head of the Elim: "I need a scapegoat and you're the perfect solution. I can't possibly take the blame myself." He promises the unfortunate man that he will care for his children after his death. "It's how much I value what you will do for me. I pledge it. All this will occur if you'll lie for me...and die for me. You are Elim, after all." When the man pauses while delivering his false confession, Salmeo "nudged [him] with his toe" to get him going again. As for the apprentice torturer, when his mentor asks, weeping, "What will happen to [him]?," Salmeo answers, "Who cares?" ("smiling cruelly," of course), and reminds the man that he'll receive a cash reward to "ease your troubled conscience."
Castration in Percheron
Why is he so evil? Because he was castrated. This is the only explanation given. "Salmeo had been cut at the age of seven...He was an 'almost complete': nothing much was left of his manhood save the painful yearning of desire. No toys, no tricks, no magicks helped ease Salmeo with his frustrations, so he took his pleasures in other ways." This is later defined as "Yerzah," the amputation of only the penis. (Other types of castration in Percheron are "Xarob," the destruction of the testicles, and "Varen," the removal of penis and testicles.)
The Valide remembers Salmeo once ordering a castration and commenting: "the wretch died anyway but it was wonderful to watch a Galinsean's manhood removed...They are the most arrogant of races and the hardest to tame." In the novel, he takes pleasure in castrating a young boy who trespassed in the harem. For this hasty ceremony, the lighting in the room was dimmed and candles were placed around the boy. Salmeo indicated that witnesses were to keep its details secret. "In this rare instance it is being used as punishment," he explained, "but Kett will appreciate in time to come that he is privileged. It is a high honor to serve in this way." The priest throws powder on the candles to cause them to flare. The boy's abdomen and thighs are bound with linen. He is drugged and bathed with an ointment of pepper water and juniper, both for medical sterility and spiritual purity. The Valide chooses the type of castration and says she wants to personally keep the preserved organs. The urethra is plugged for three days until he heals and is allowed to urinate.
Percheron has a legend from centuries previously in which an incompletely castrated "eunuch" managed to impregnate one of the Zar's wives. To save the girl from execution, the eunuch volunteered to die on her behalf. (He was killed by being thrown onto hooks and left to hang on them.) This was the most famous instance of a rule by which someone may volunteer to take another's punishment.