Waiting for the Barbarians

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The Barbarian Girl Character Analysis

Captured (along with her father and several others) by Colonel Joll’s men during the first days of their military campaign against the nomads, the nameless barbarian girl comes to play a central role in the magistrate’s life. After undergoing the torture tactics of Joll’s interrogation, the girl’s vision is permanently impaired and her ankles brutally disfigured, while her father is killed. After the magistrate discovers her begging on the street, he takes her under his wing, employing her as a cook and maid. But the professional relationship quickly turns sexual, and the girl frustrates the magistrate with her elusive personality, characterized by a coldness which makes her seemingly impenetrable to any attempts at connecting with her. The barbarian girl therefore exposes a distance between herself and the magistrate, a distance which might be interpreted as representing the collision of two disparate cultures: that of the nomads and that of the Empire. The opacity of the girl’s personality and the poor vision that plagues her eyes render her as a force which cannot be entirely comprehended—which cannot be assimilated to the magistrate’s understanding in a totally coherent manner. She represents a radical difference from the magistrate’s perception of the world. Ironically, even though she’s blind, the girl makes the magistrate feel more exposed and visible, since he sees himself reflected in her eyes—not taken in and received. Further, the fact that she needs to look sideways in order to catch a glimpse of the magistrate symbolizes the fact that he and she, with different ways of perceiving or filtering the world resulting from their different cultural backgrounds, can never see eye-to-eye.

The Barbarian Girl Quotes in Waiting for the Barbarians

The Waiting for the Barbarians quotes below are all either spoken by The Barbarian Girl or refer to The Barbarian Girl. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
The Empire and Fear of the Other Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Penguin Books edition of Waiting for the Barbarians published in 2010.
Chapter 2 Quotes

“But more often in the very act of caressing her I am overcome with sleep as if polelaxed, fall into oblivion sprawled upon her body, and wake an hour or two later dizzy, confused, thirsty. These dreamless spells are like death to me, or enchantment, black, outside time.”

Related Characters: The Magistrate (speaker), The Barbarian Girl
Page Number: 35
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote occurs during one of the magistrate’s massaging rituals with the barbarian girl; this takes place shortly after Joll has left the settlement to rejoin his expedition, after interrogating the barbarian prisoners.

Here we begin to see the conflicts arising around the magistrate’s relationship with the barbarian girl in a concrete form. Perhaps what’s most significant about this passage is the magistrate’s ambiguous association of death, and a simultaneous “enchantment” characterized by blackness and timelessness, to his experience of these sexualized spells. The magistrate’s entrance into these spells, these lulls of “oblivion” brought about by his sexualized massaging ritual with the girl, mark for him an exit from all ordinary experience. It’s as if the magistrate falls asleep while retaining the most minimal degree of consciousness necessary to have self-awareness, such that he goes into the deepest depths of his sleeping mind while still a tiny bit awake.

The magistrate therefore enters a mental state that is totally other to his ordinary experience. It’s significant that this state is triggered by his encounters with the barbarian girl. It speaks to the fact that the magistrate, through his sexualization of the barbarian girl—through his turning the caretaking of her injuries into a less than strictly medical enterprise—is beginning to enter a relationship with her where she’s somehow othered, or made into a figure that he finds himself unable or unwilling to identify with in a way that suggests the presence of empathy. Though this conflict is still in its initial stages at this point in the book, and its relation to the barbarian girl not yet explicit, this moment—where the magistrate notes this radically altered state of experience—signals that there’s something very peculiar about how his engagement with her affects him psychologically.

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“It always pained me in the old days to see these people fall victim to the guile of shopkeepers, exchanging their goods for trinkets, lying drunk in the gutter, and confirming thereby the settlers’ litany of prejudice: that barbarians are lazy, immoral, filthy, stupid. Where civilization entailed the corruption of barbarian virtues and the creation of a dependent people, I decided, I was opposed to civilization; and upon this resolution I based the conduct of my administration. (I say this who now keeps a barbarian girl for my bed!)”

Related Characters: The Magistrate (speaker), The Barbarian Girl
Page Number: 43
Explanation and Analysis:

Joll has recently left the settlement to rejoin his expedition after torturing the barbarian prisoners he’d captured, and the magistrate has just noted that winter is settling in.

This passage reveals the sense of compassion which the magistrate has for the barbarians, and his willingness to criticize “civilization” when it only means corruption and prejudice. The magistrate isn’t unquestioningly devoted to the Empire, and is capable of seeing past the glittering surface of civility and observing its underlying evils. Further, he’s willing to forge his administration around opposing those evils—a political move which, on his part, is a risk to his own status, since those in power around him are involved in upholding such evils. The magistrate’s ability to see how the barbarians get cast as “lazy, immoral, filthy, and stupid” highlights his insights into the settlers’ racism, how they con the barbarians they trade with only to then blame them for how it impacts their lives. And yet at the same time the magistrate acknowledges his hypocrisy, for he himself “keeps a barbarian girl in his bed,” dehumanizing and “othering” her in his own way.

“Is this how her torturers felt hunting their secret, whatever they thought it was? For the first time I feel a dry pity for them: how natural a mistake to believe that you can burn or tear or hack your way into the secret body of the other. The girl lies in my bed, but there is no good reason why it should be a bed. I behave in some ways like a lover—but I might equally well tie her to a chair and beat her, it would be no less intimate.”

Related Characters: The Magistrate (speaker), The Barbarian Girl
Page Number: 49
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote occurs after the magistrate, having just paid a visit to the girl at the inn, returns to his apartment to rejoin the sleeping barbarian girl.

Here, the magistrate unearths a parallel between how he treats the barbarian girl and the way he thinks her torturers viewed her. It’s as if, through applying various techniques of torture to gain entry “into the secret body of the other”—into some hidden truth the girl was withholding about potential barbarian invasion plans—that the torturers were engaging in a process no less intimate than the magistrate’s own way of relating to and sexualizing the girl. Frustrated and disappointed by the girl’s constant elusiveness, by her enigmatic nature which refuses to yield to his sexual expectations, the magistrate feels a “dry pity” for the torturers’ belief that they could enter the girl’s mind absolutely. For he, like the torturers, engages in a similarly futile quest to enter and unravel the mind of the girl—to achieve a state of perfect understanding where the girl’s strange nature can be explained, and even manipulated in a way to conform with his desires.

In this way, the magistrate displays a violence analogous to that of the girl’s torturers. Though disguised as the proceedings of romantic and sexual desire, the magistrate’s relationship with the girl is one characterized by a violent, narcissistic drive to break open her lackluster outer personality and unveil a more desirable cluster of animate passions within. As such, the magistrate thinks that beating the girl would be no less intimate than wooing her, since both are essentially brutal.

“It is I who am seducing myself, out of vanity, into these meanings and correspondences. What depravity is it that is creeping upon me? I search for secrets and answers, no matter how bizarre, like an old woman reading tea-leaves. There is nothing to link me with torturers, people who sit waiting like beetles in dark cellars. How can I believe that a bed is anything but a bed, a woman’s body anything but a site of joy? I must assert my distance from Colonel Joll! I will not suffer for his crimes!”

Related Characters: The Magistrate (speaker), The Barbarian Girl, Colonel Joll
Page Number: 50
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote occurs shortly after the last one; the magistrate has returned to his apartment from a visit to the girl at the inn, rejoining the barbarian girl in bed.

The magistrate is beginning to feel like Joll’s merciless sense of entitlement and belief in having unadulterated access to the minds of his torture victims has infected his own mind. This brutish way of approaching the world—of standing before the world as if its people held hidden truths and secrets which one was owed and could ascertain with the right method and rigor—is the “depravity” the magistrate is wary has befallen him. For the magistrate now finds himself reading into the external world as if it were a “tea-leaf” possessing a secret, prophetic truth. But how, the magistrate questions here, could he possibly believe there to be some hidden, self-involved meaning behind the surface of things—how could a bed be something more profound than itself, or the body of the barbarian girl a haven of concealed, deeper truths, and not merely a zone of sexual pleasure? Thus, the magistrate feels compelled to assert his distance from Joll in order to “not suffer for his crimes”—to not suffer from the criminal, evil ways he views his relationship to things external to and different from him.

“I have hitherto liked to think that she cannot fail to see me as a man in the grip of a passion, however perverted and obscure that passion may be, that in the bated silences which make up so much of our intercourse she cannot but feel my gaze pressing in upon her with the weight of a body. I prefer not to dwell on the possibility that what a barbarian upbringing teaches a girl may be not to accommodate a man’s every whim, including the whim of neglect, but to see sexual passion, whether in horse or goat or man or woman, as a simple fact of life with the clearest of means and the clearest of ends; so that the confused actions of an aging foreigner who picks her up off the streets and installs her in his apartment so that he can now kiss her feet, now browbeat her, now anoint her with exotic oils, now ignore her, now sleep in her arms all night, now moodily sleep apart, may seem nothing but evidences of impotence, indecisiveness, alienation from his own desires.”

Related Characters: The Magistrate (speaker), The Barbarian Girl
Related Symbols: Blindness and Joll’s Sunglasses
Page Number: 63-4
Explanation and Analysis:

The magistrate has recently persuaded the officer he dined with not long ago to send out a party of men to retrieve the corpses of two soldiers who deserted his party. After saying that he wrote home to the soldier’s families informing them of their loss, the magistrate’s narration shifts to another massaging ritual with the girl.

The tension ushered into the magistrate’s sexuality by the barbarian girl’s enigmatic personality comes to a pinnacle here. The magistrate has liked to think that the tumult and confusion of his passion for the girl was hidden from her injured eyes; he’s considered her to be fully visible, susceptible to his every investigation, and therefore capable of being fully comprehended and understood, despite her ongoing elusiveness. At the same time, while he’s considered himself as looking upon her from this privileged view, he’s thought her to have no such special access to his own body and mind—he’s thought of her as a body which is only looked upon, but doesn’t look back. This habit of viewing the barbarian girl’s blindness, however, is buckling under a new doubt: that the girl, in fact, can see the confusion and weakness of the magistrate—that she can sense, through his actions, his “impotence” and “alienation.”

This doubt, therefore, marks a pivotal moment in the magistrate’s psychology. Instead of viewing himself as something completely whole, distinct from, and inaccessible to the girl, yet still capable of accessing the hidden depths of her personality for his own enjoyment and intellection, the magistrate at this moment finds what once was his sense of wholeness fractured and de-completed in a new way, by a troubling prospect: that the girl has more access to his mind, more wit to observe his motivations, than he previously thought.

At this moment, the girl ceases to have the status of a frustrating Other who ceaselessly resists what the magistrate thinks to be his piercing power of comprehension. Instead, she becomes something even more frustrating: an Other who still cannot be comprehended, but who herself comprehends the magistrate almost entirely, and has much more access into his psychology than he has heretofore liked to imagine.

Chapter 3 Quotes

“ . . . it has not escaped me that in bed in the dark the marks her torturers have left upon her, the twisted feet, the half-blind eyes, are easily forgotten. Is it then the case that it is the woman I want, that my pleasure in her is spoiled until these marks on her are erased and she is restored to herself; or is it the case (I am not stupid, let me say these things) that it is the marks on her which drew me to her but which, to my disappointment, I find, do not go deep enough? Too much or too little: is it she I want or the traces of a history her body bears?”

Related Characters: The Magistrate (speaker), The Barbarian Girl
Related Symbols: Blindness and Joll’s Sunglasses
Page Number: 73
Explanation and Analysis:

The magistrate has embarked on his trip to return the barbarian girl to her people, and this quote occurs in the early morning of the eighth day. The magistrate sleeps in the same tent with the girl, and they’ve just had sexual intercourse.

Here, as the magistrate continues to grapple with his inability to dig beneath the surface the barbarian girl—his failure to discover a hidden vitality within her—he wonders whether he’s seeking a depth within her that’s concealed by the marks of her torture, or a depth within the marks of torture themselves. Was he truly attracted to her in the first place, or rather to her scars? The ultimate question, perhaps, is whether the magistrate has dehumanized the girl to the extent that he’s merely using her to uncover “the traces of a history her body bears.” If the latter is the case, then the magistrate’s earlier worries about becoming infected with Joll’s tendency to approach his victims as if they bore a “truth” he was looking for were legitimate.

In approaching the girl’s marks as if they bear a deeper history, the magistrate not only reflects Joll’s obsession with the truth, but also the magistrate’s own earlier claim to tarry with the pain of the past, and not merely sweep it under the rug of history in order to form a “new” Empire supposedly divorced from its past. In remaining fixated on the girl’s wounds, the magistrate reflects this prior vow to keep the past in the view of the presented, but in a perverted form. Whereas the magistrate’s philosophy about remembering the past is divested of personal interest, the magistrate’s desire to uncover the girl’s particular past marks his desire to possess her and assimilate her enigmatic nature to his own understanding.

Chapter 4 Quotes

“Nevertheless, I should never have allowed the gates of the town to be opened to people who assert that there are higher considerations than those of decency. They exposed her father to her naked and made him quiver with pain; they hurt her and he could not stop them (on a day I spent occupied with the ledgers in my office). Thereafter she was no longer fully human, sister to all of us. Certain sympathies died, certain movements of the heart became no longer possible to her. I, too, if I live long enough in this cell with its ghosts not only of the father and the daughter but of the man who even by lamplight did not remove the black discs from his eyes and the subordinate whose work it was to keep the brazier fed, will be touched with the contagion and turned into a creature that believes in nothing.”

Related Characters: The Magistrate (speaker), The Barbarian Girl, Colonel Joll, The barbarian girl's father
Related Symbols: Blindness and Joll’s Sunglasses
Page Number: 94
Explanation and Analysis:

This important quote occurs after the magistrate has been arrested (by Mandel) upon returning from his trip to return the barbarian girl to her people. In his cell, he’s ruminating about the girl. Finally, the magistrate is coming to terms with the enigmatically stoic nature of the barbarian girl’s personality—her lack of animated emotion and her seemingly depthless surface, devoid of passion. As he now begins to attribute her distant persona to the effects of being tortured, the magistrate comes to think: how could the girl be otherwise? Losing her humanity after the trauma of torture, she came to lose “certain movements of the heart.” What, then, might become of the magistrate himself? Under the dehumanizing strain of imprisonment, the magistrate fears that he, too, might soon devolve into the blankness which shrouded the girl’s life. He, too, might be infected by the mad actions of Joll’s men and be “turned into a creature,” not a ‘human’ per se, but a “creature that believes in nothing.”

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The Barbarian Girl Character Timeline in Waiting for the Barbarians

The timeline below shows where the character The Barbarian Girl appears in Waiting for the Barbarians. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 2
The Empire and Fear of the Other Theme Icon
Torture, Inhumanity, and Civility Theme Icon
Truth, Power, and Recorded Reputation Theme Icon
History and Time Theme Icon
The magistrate notices that a barbarian woman is in the town begging; after giving her a coin, he tells her that it’s... (full context)
Sexuality, Anxiety, and Old Age Theme Icon
The magistrate then tells the barbarian woman that they don’t allow vagrants in the town, and that, with winter approaching, she must... (full context)
The Empire and Fear of the Other Theme Icon
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After a day passes, the magistrate finds the barbarian girl (he no longer calls her a woman) again and tells her to come with him.... (full context)
Torture, Inhumanity, and Civility Theme Icon
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The magistrate’s narration shifts to presumably the next day; he watches the barbarian girl eat, still unconvinced that she can see. The girl explains that, while she can’t see... (full context)
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The magistrate describes another instance of washing the barbarian girl ’s feet. This time, the encounter is more sexual: he runs his hands up and... (full context)
The Empire and Fear of the Other Theme Icon
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...the procedure as a “ritual.” The process is now explicitly sexualized. He washes not only the barbarian girl ’s feet, but now her legs, buttocks, belly, breasts, and neck. He then rubs her... (full context)
The Empire and Fear of the Other Theme Icon
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The magistrate says that he’s hired the barbarian girl as a scullery-maid in the kitchen, and mentions that their relationship is no secret in... (full context)
Torture, Inhumanity, and Civility Theme Icon
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...who were on duty when the prisoners were interrogated (to find out what happened to the barbarian girl ), but they each say the same thing: they barely spoke to the prisoners, and... (full context)
Torture, Inhumanity, and Civility Theme Icon
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...magistrate then asks what happened to the man’s daughter, acknowledging that it’s no secret that the barbarian girl has been staying with him. But the guard insists he doesn’t know anything, nervously adding... (full context)
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...time. After this encounter with the buck—who runs off unharmed—the magistrate describes the scene to the barbarian girl . She’s unable to empathize with the situation, however. While the magistrate tries to explain... (full context)
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The magistrate awkwardly decides to interrogate the barbarian girl about why she’s with him, but she only says that there’s nowhere else for her... (full context)
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The magistrate describes how he’s grown weary of his attachment to the ritual of massaging the barbarian girl . He says that, one night after he’s gone through the ritual and the girl’s... (full context)
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...inn, the magistrate goes back to his apartment at the barracks. Returning to bed with the barbarian girl , he mentions that, as opposed to the girl at the inn, he can’t say... (full context)
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...when he comes back on the fourth night, he has an internal mental fit about the barbarian girl . He still cannot understand what he ever saw in her—what about her could have... (full context)
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...falling snow,” and the snow-laden ground slows his approach. The magistrate notices that the girl—now the barbarian girl —is building an intricate snow castle of the entire settlement, despite having her mittens on.... (full context)
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...life of his sleep—it’s now a nightly event. He says that every time he approaches the barbarian girl , it’s reconfirmed that she’s building a town “empty of life.” The magistrate also asks... (full context)
The Empire and Fear of the Other Theme Icon
Torture, Inhumanity, and Civility Theme Icon
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...are retrieved and buried, the magistrate’s narration shifts to another moment of intimate massaging with the barbarian girl . This time, the girl asks the magistrate if he’d like to do something else—something... (full context)
Chapter 3
The Empire and Fear of the Other Theme Icon
Truth, Power, and Recorded Reputation Theme Icon
History and Time Theme Icon
Independence, Duty, and Betrayal Theme Icon
...magistrate notes that spring is on its way, and says that he’s decided to take the barbarian girl back to her people. He writes a document to the provincial governor saying that, “To... (full context)
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Independence, Duty, and Betrayal Theme Icon
...is constant, and gusts of sand bite at everyone’s skin and interfere with eating. The barbarian girl , however, doesn’t complain, and seems used to the conditions of desert travel. On the... (full context)
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...men dig into the soil and find good water. At night, the magistrate notes that the barbarian girl is at ease conversing with the other men, who make their first gesture of friendship... (full context)
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Later, when the magistrate and the barbarian girl are in their tent asleep, the magistrate wakes up to find the girl fondling him,... (full context)
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...deeply wrong—but it’s just that he’s surprised to find that the wind has ceased. He, the barbarian girl , and the men from the other tent all meet outside and watch snowflakes descend—“the... (full context)
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...tents and secure the horses. Rapidly, the storm is upon them, and the magistrate and barbarian girl ’s tent is taken by the storm. Then, for five hours, the group huddles behind... (full context)
The Empire and Fear of the Other Theme Icon
Torture, Inhumanity, and Civility Theme Icon
...his group, he says they must simply ignore the barbarians. The magistrate then mentions that the barbarian girl has begun her period, and—believing in a superstition that “a woman’s flux is bad luck”—the... (full context)
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The magistrate tells the barbarian girl that he’ll help her up the slope to the horsemen, and asks her to speak... (full context)
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The barbarian girl tells the magistrate that the horsemen would like to take the girl’s horse, but the... (full context)
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...as the group gets closer to home, the magistrate says he finds the face of the barbarian girl “hardening over in [his] memory, becoming opaque, impermeable, as though secreting a shell over itself.”... (full context)
Chapter 4
The Empire and Fear of the Other Theme Icon
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...he turns his attention to others—to those who were imprisoned and tortured by Joll, like the barbarian girl and her murdered father. No wonder her father grew detached and hopeless and wanted to... (full context)
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The magistrate then says that, by offering the barbarian girl protection, he was, in a way, taking over the role of her father. He says... (full context)
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...his expedition to the barbarians. He’s accused of forming a bond with a streetwoman ( the barbarian girl ) to the “detriment of his official duties,” and who had a “demoralizing effect on... (full context)
The Empire and Fear of the Other Theme Icon
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The magistrate continues to contemplate the barbarian girl —he can no longer remember exactly what she looks like. When he tries to recall... (full context)
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...ever be perceived as doing right when the whole town is against his escapade with the barbarian girl and would be infuriated with him if, seen as a result of his communication with... (full context)
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...will be as much part of me as breathing.” He then has another dream of the barbarian girl ; she’s once again kneeling before the snow castle with her back to the magistrate,... (full context)
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...and the barbarians concerning military matters. It was a private affair.” He wanted to return the barbarian girl to her people—with no other agenda. He further says that he believes that no one... (full context)
Chapter 5
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...is now. As the magistrate rambles about how he became a fool in love over the barbarian girl —that it was simply common sense to return her to her family—she “listens to these... (full context)
The Empire and Fear of the Other Theme Icon
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...continues with this theme, wondering if, when he would engage in his massaging rituals with the barbarian girl , all he really wanted to do was “engrave” himself on her in a very... (full context)
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Continuing on his tangent about the barbarian girl , the magistrate says that she will be forever marked “for life as the property... (full context)
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...hut, the magistrate experiences yet again his recurring dream. He dreams that he’s heading towards the barbarian girl in the same snow-laden town square. While he walks towards her at first, he starts... (full context)
Chapter 6
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...that he hasn’t slept with a woman since he returned from his expedition to return the barbarian girl to her people. He tries to invoke memories of his massaging rituals—and, though he’s successful... (full context)
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The magistrate and Mai discuss the barbarian girl . Mai says that she—and everyone else who knew the girl—liked the girl very much,... (full context)
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...please him during sex—she can always sense that he’s “somewhere else.” Mai then says that the barbarian girl told her the same thing about the magistrate—that he was always “somewhere else.” Mai adds... (full context)
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...that she doesn’t understand—that there’s a whole side of the story she doesn’t know, since the barbarian girl could never have told her it since she didn’t know it herself. The two are... (full context)