Sunday, December 26, 2010

#SampleSunday: Sultana Chapter One, part two

Welcome to another Sample Sunday, where I'm posting the chapters of my next novel, Sultana, set in thirteenth century Spain. Missed the first half of Chaper One? Click here. Otherwise, I invite you to read on...

CHAPTER ONE – PAWNS IN THE GAME

GHARNATAH, AL-ANDALUS: MUHARRAM 664 AH (GRANADA, ANDALUSIA: OCTOBER 1265 AD)

PRINCE FARAJ

Brass lanterns sputtered in an orange haze of fading light. Evening shadows lengthened as defeat cast its grim pall over Prince Faraj. He faced his opponent on a familiar battlefield. The Sultan of Gharnatah leaned toward him and smiled a predatory grin, before he delivered the deathblow. “Do you yield, nephew?”

Faraj surveyed an ebony wood chessboard, inlaid with mother-of-pearl, his father’s last gift to the Sultan. Despite the passing of several years, Faraj still admired this fine piece of handiwork. A wall of his white pawns now lined the other side of the board. He shook his head in dismay, recognizing how the earlier, reckless positioning of his cavalier had heralded his downfall. He rubbed at the corners of his burning eyes and wracked his mind for a counter-move. Yet, he could not deny the truth. As in all other things, his uncle held the advantage.

He barely recalled the time when he had not lived by the Sultan’s whim and desire. After his arrival in Gharnatah nine years ago, a wearied and bloodied boy, the old man raised him alongside his own royal sons. At nearly seventy-four, the sovereign’s mind remained formidable. Despite his advanced years, he appeared rested and focused, but then, he probably slept well most nights.

For his part, Faraj could not remember the peace that sleep had once brought. The memory evaded him, just as easily as contented slumber had for nearly ten years.

“Do not succumb to idle thoughts, nephew. You have already lost pawns, as a result.”

“I do not have my father’s skill. How was it that he was able to best you every time?”

The Sultan chuckled. “Is that what he told you? Your father’s talent for exaggeration was always incomparable, but perhaps in this, he did not lie. You may not have his talent, but each day you grow more in his image. If he had lived, my brother would be very proud of you. My only regret is that he was unable to witness your union with my granddaughter today.”

Faraj kept his stare fixed on the board. He dared not raise his gaze for his uncle’s eager scrutiny. Otherwise, the hawk-eyed glint in his expression would pierce the heart of him, and reveal the turmoil brewing inside.

Throughout the day, unrelenting fear had roiled in his guts, warning him against the path he now trod. As before, the same concerns that had plagued him earlier returned now. He pushed them aside, but swallowed audibly before daring an answer. He prayed his voice would not betray him.

Jaw clenched tightly, he muttered, “I share the same regret, my Sultan.”

The sovereign leaned forward in his cedar chair, as though he had not clearly heard Faraj. “Your father would say of both us that regrets are best left in the past. In that, as in other things, he would be right. Still, I believe he would have been proud that you have attained your manhood, and taken a royal bride.”

Faraj nodded, though he believed his father would have viewed the marriage with the same circumspect opinion he once held of his own wedding: a means to an end. As with his father, Faraj had not chosen his own wife. At least his father had made a better bargain, with an alliance that benefitted their family. Faraj was not certain how his own marriage gave him any advantage. Likely, it would bring about a quick death.

The Sultan showed no awareness of his companion’s discomfort. “Your union with Fatima surely surprised many people. I suspect it has angered others, particularly the Ashqilula family, but they shall accept it.”

“And if the Ashqilula do not accept this marriage?” Faraj gasped at his own carelessness, and gripped the edge of the chessboard until the nail bed of his thumb whitened. He chided himself. Only a fool revealed his fears so easily, especially before another inclined to play upon them.

As he anticipated, the Sultan paused and cocked his head. Faraj perceived the change in him instantly, like a hawk sighting prey, and he knew their game of chess was at an end. He released the side of the gaming board and steeled himself, feigning courage he did not feel.

“Do your ties to the Ashqilula family still burden you, nephew?”

The attack came sharp and swift, tearing at his heart to the core of him. The roughened nails of his hands cut into the palms, unseen by the Sultan’s persistent gaze. How dare the old man even ask about burdens? Faraj cursed him inwardly, for having burdened his family generation after generation. Likely, the Sultan’s machinations had brought them to the brink of ruin.

Still, Faraj waved a trembling hand over his chest, as though flicking away dinner crumbs from his black tunic. He controlled the fluttering at his breast with even breaths, before he glanced at the Sultan. He hated and loved this old man, who always pierced to the heart of a matter. Faraj could almost admire the skill, if it had not been turned against him in this instant.

“Why should old ties impede me?” He despised the unsteady warbling in his voice, but the unbreakable cord still encumbered him – blood ties to the Ashqilula family.

Their blood coursed in his veins by virtue of his mother, an Ashqilula chieftain’s daughter, who had wed the Sultan’s brother and loved him until her death. Faraj shuddered at his last memory of her, bloodied and ruined, and drew a deep breath before continuing.

He forced the words from a dry throat. “I could care less about my ties to them. The Ashqilula mean nothing to me.”

The lie hung heavy in the room. Faraj gritted his teeth as the weight of it bore down upon him. A burdensome encumbrance, but one he undertook for his own sake. The Sultan expected it. He would never accept anything but unwavering loyalty from his family.

“What are your thoughts on my granddaughter, then?”

Faraj swallowed at the sudden change of the topic’s focus and pronounced a swift reply.

“I hardly know her. We have never met before I married her today.”

“That is common enough. Yet, surely you must feel something about this union. You have barely spoken of it since the oaths made during the ceremony. When my heir congratulated you before all our guests, you did not acknowledge his acclaim beyond a mere polite nod.”

Faraj cursed the old man. Why did he keep pretending that this wedding was anything other than a declaration of war against his enemies? Why did he appear so unconcerned that those enemies would now retaliate against him, and embroil Faraj in their feud?

Still, he steeled himself against showing any further weakness. He began, “My Sultan, I perceive the great honor you have bestowed upon me with this union betwixt myself and the daughter of the Crown Prince.”

“Bah! Do not dissemble. You don’t have your father’s skill for it. Not yet. Tell me, truthfully, what did you think of my granddaughter as you beheld her for the first today?”

Through the haze of his bewilderment, Faraj recalled the image of the pale, stick-thin, elfin girl whom everyone expected him to acknowledge as his wife. She had worn gaudy jewelry, garish cosmetics, and rich robes -- extravagant wastes for such a scrawny, waif-like child, in his opinion. The weight of her finery overwhelmed her, as she had sat on a yellow, damask cushion trimmed with gold filigree apart from everyone. Her features were markedly angular and gaunt, similar to her father’s in appearance, though not as sallow. If the sight of her had not stirred his revulsion for the prospect of marrying a child, he might have pitied her. Except in one instance.

When the evening breeze had filtered in from the open-air courtyard, torchlight flared and cast its glow upon her hair, the color of burnished copper. At that moment, her sharp chin rose and her stark gaze met his, unflinching. Brilliant flecks like the embers of a fire glittered in her brown eyes. The sight took him aback for a moment. Then she looked away. Even now, his lips curled at the memory of how she had turned and ignored him, with the neglect reserved for menials.

He tamped down the abhorrence souring in his belly. “Forgive me, but she is merely a child of eight years. What can I, a man ten years her senior, be expected to feel regarding her?”

After a moment, the Sultan shrugged and nodded, as he had hoped. “I suppose you have years, Faraj, in which you may come to know my granddaughter better. For now, she shall remain in her father’s household, until she is of an age to bear you children. I rely upon her father to protect her.”

“Your plans shall tear the Sultanate apart.”

“Your union with Fatima shall heal the rift. Can I rely upon you?”

Though Faraj doubted how a union with a child might preserve the land, he kept those thoughts to himself.

“You may.” He held the Sultan’s gaze without wavering. Not for the first time, he thought the old man burdened him unduly with inopportune vows.

Raised voiced echoed beyond the closed doors of the chamber. Both the Sultan and Faraj turned toward the sound. At the sovereign’s nod, two sentries stationed beside the door opened it. Faraj stood as torchlight revealed the sallow face of the Crown Prince of Gharnatah.

Abu Abdullah Muhammad sneered at the guardsmen outside the chamber before he approached. He sagged on one knee before the Sultan, his dark leonine head bowed. When his father touched his shoulder, he stood unsteadily. Faraj scratched his thin beard and eyed the men steadily.

A frown marred the Crown Prince’s brow, aging him beyond his thirty-one years. His deep-set eyes, a family trait, were red-rimmed and his mouth was a grim, fixed line. He spoke in low tones with his father. When he finished the Sultan grasped his arms, as though propping him up.

“Are you truly surprised by this betrayal? It is only your wounded pride that cannot accept it.”

“She belongs to me! I shall never give her up.”

The Sultan sighed. “If you insist. There are few places within al-Qal’at Al-Hamra where she can hide.”

“But she is not within the palace!”

The Sultan cocked his head and chuckled. “She possesses a quick wit, even greater than you anticipated. Do not trouble yourself, my son, we shall find her before she leaves Gharnatah.”

“When I have her in my arms again, she shall regret this night.” Thinly veiled rage seethed from the Crown Prince’s embittered lips.

While Faraj wondered at the import of their conversation, the Sultan patted his son’s shoulder. He strolled toward Faraj. Looking down at him, he gestured to the chessboard. “It would seem the pieces are set. The game can begin.”

The last embers within the brass lanterns crackled and died, as Faraj pondered the meaning behind that enigmatic statement. His mind swirled with myriad thoughts. Foremost, he must ensure his uncle’s plans would not threaten his own survival or interests. He was not about to become anyone’s pawn again, not even that of the Sultan.

Comments are welcome. As always, thanks for stopping by the blog.

3 comments:

June G said...

You have a beautiful use of language. It pulls me into the story and I enjoy lyrical sound of it as I read.

Lisa Yarde said...

Thanks June, that's very sweet of you and I appreciate it.

Victoria Dixon said...

I'm enjoying the characterization. Lovely job. I particularly appreciate the tension and affection between the sultan and Faraj.

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