Sunday, January 2, 2011
#SampleSunday: Sultana Chapter Twelve
CHAPTER TWELVE – A DELICATE PEACE
GHARNATAH, AL-ANDALUS: RAMADAN 671 AH (GRANADA, ANDALUSIA: APRIL AD 1273)
On a cool spring day just before dawn, Faraj sat brooding on the steps of the southern terrace at his house. Memories of the past tortured his rambling mind, the thoughts of his birthplace at Malaka and the happiness he once enjoyed there. All of it lost because of the Ashqilula. His mother’s clan. They had murdered her, and his father.
Faraj had never returned home since that terrible night. Yet, Malaka remained unchanged in his thoughts. Even know, he recalled the craggy landscape with perfect clarity, a series of undulating brown hills. Under the sapphire skies that dominated his memories, the sandstone walls of the castle and citadel glowed atop two promontories. Golden beaches fanned out from the base of the slope and greeted the azure-colored waters of the sea. All of it belonged to the Ashqilula. They had stolen it from him.
He gritted his teeth as a memory of the chieftain Abu Muhammad blazed in his mind. He had first seen the chieftain at Gharnatah upon his arrival as a bloodied and frightened boy, one of five refugees escaping the carnage at Malaka.
Abu Muhammad, only son of the Sultan’s sister, Princess Faridah, strongly resembled his maternal uncle. The hawkish nose and brown-gray eyes were the same. The Ashqilula chieftain had come to Gharnatah with many supporters, and received the honor of Malaka. He had taken Faraj’s birthright.
Faraj could hardly fathom it, but the truth overwhelmed him. He had looked on the face of the man who murdered his parents just before that bright morning of the Ashqilula’s triumph. Abu Muhammad bore the full responsibility for everything he had lost that night.
For five years he had not spoken of his discovery, not even to the Sultan, whose hatred for the Ashqilula knew no bounds. Faraj had even more reason to hate them than his master did. He deserved the right of revenge alone. No one would take it away from him, not even his uncle. Yet, he had not moved against his enemy and the knowledge of his failure and lack of action gnawed at him. The blood of his parents demanded justice, but he only wanted retribution. He imagined thick globs of blood pouring from Abu Muhammad’s throat, ripped from ear to ear, as his parents had suffered.
Slaves interrupted the crimson haze of his reverie, clanging porcelain on the low table beside him. When he snapped at them, they scurried like frightened rats. An idle hour later, flies buzzed noisily over a platter of cold, uneaten flatbread and boiled eggs.
Marzuq approached with a rolled parchment. “An invitation to break the fast of Ramadan with the Sultan and his entire family. Princess Fatima will also be there for the celebration of Eid al-Futr.”
“I’m not in the mood!” Faraj growled at his steward.
Marzuq bowed low. “I’ll send your regrets to the Sultan’s household, my master.”
When he was alone again, Faraj muttered a curse under his breath and went to his stables. He ordered a horse saddled, and rode out of Gharnatah, into the hills above al-Qal’at al-Hamra. Showers burst from the morning clouds, catching him by surprise. He turned the beast back, down the sloping hills and entered the courtyard of the citadel.
Thunder rolled before a steady rain soaked him to the bone. With a shudder, he dismounted and found shelter under the redbrick Gate of the Merchants, where he found four other people, including Fatima.
The stick-thin, elfin girl had changed in the seven years since they wed. She stood just shy of his shoulder now. An opaque blue-black veil hid her dark copper-colored hair. Tiny dirhams with holes drilled at the center of each silver coin decorated the fringe of the veil.
“It’s a terrible time to be riding your horse, my prince. The poor animal is soaked.” She rolled her eyes at him and pulled her multicolored linen wrap tighter about her shoulders.
He groaned, in no mood for her droll observations. “I’m pleased you care so much for the beast’s welfare, even if you think so little of mine. Besides, it wasn’t raining when I left home. Why are you outdoors?” He paused and glanced at the slaves sheltering behind her. “And why has your escort not gone onward to arrange for your safe conduct?”
The eunuch edged closer, and cast a baleful stare full of insolence at him, before he bent and whispered to Fatima. She hushed the slave, her fingers alighting on his forearm. “Remain at my side, Niranjan. There is no need for you to be drenched on my behalf.”
The eunuch dared glance at Faraj, who tightened his fingers into a fist, stifling a fervent urge against striking the impertinent wretch. Or, was it the girl who stimulated such a violent reaction in him?
“I had hoped to reach home sooner than this, my prince.” Fatima waved a slim, bejeweled hand toward the gathering puddles at their feet. “My astronomy lesson was not finished until late.”
“Humph. Aren’t you past the age where princesses are tutored?”
She shook her head, mumbling something under her breath. Then she said, “I am fifteen but Father has given permission for the continuation of my lessons.”
He sneered, eyeing her steadily. “How generous the Crown Prince is. Do you enjoy your studies?”
“Just because you didn’t like the princes’ school doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate Ibn Ali’s teachings.”
“How did you know I didn’t like my lessons with Ibn Ali?”
“I asked him about you. He said you were the worst student he had ever had.”
“You questioned the royal tutor about me?”
“You’re my husband. Isn’t it right that I should want to know about you?”
He clenched his fists. “If you want to know anything, I’d prefer if you asked me. I’d never hide anything from you.”
“Humph. I don’t believe you.”
“Are you calling your husband a liar?”
She glanced at him briefly. “You keep secrets. Always, your eyes watching and observing what others do, yet you remain silent. Something lies hidden in you. You do not speak of it, but sadness, and pain haunts your gaze. What secrets are you hiding, Prince Faraj?”
“If I had any secrets, why should they concern you?”
“As I have said, you are my husband. Everything about you is a matter of interest for me.”
He crossed his arms over his chest. “I wonder, what provokes this wifely concern? You’ve never shown it before.”
“When have I ever had the chance to do so? As I have said, you keep secrets.”
She turned her gaze to the sky. An arc of lightening illuminated the darkening clouds, highlighting the curve of her cheek. As he continued staring, a deepening blush suffused her skin. Suddenly, he wondered at how the softness and texture of her flesh might feel against his.
She asked, “Why did you refuse Grandfather’s invitation this evening?”
Startled at the impulsive thought of touching her, he forced a quick reply. “How did you know I refused?”
“When your answer arrived, I was with the Sultan, just before my lesson.”
“Are you close to him?”
“He’s my grandfather. I love him best in the world, as much as my own father, and my brother and sisters.”
He looked away. He didn’t have the same sentiments about his own family. His father had treated him like his treasured heir, but duties to Malaka and the governorship had occupied his short existence until death. Faraj had three sisters, whom he had not seen for years since each of them married. He and his half-brother loathed each other.
“Aren’t you close to your family, my prince?”
“I’ve never been.” He wondered why he felt so embittered at the admission. Had she asked the question, intent on belittling him for it, or just as a demonstration of her knowledge about his circumstances?
“It’s unfortunate, as you were all orphaned in your youth. Yes, Father told me about your past. Your eyes betray your surprise. Yet, who should you have clung to except each other?”
Her knowledge astonished him, in particular her pertinent observations. His gaze slid away under her insistent scrutiny, as he worried about what else might she have learned of him.
After a time, he inhaled deeply. “My half-brother has no love for me. I share the same views of him. There was always a little rivalry between us. My younger sisters are married. I suppose their duties as wives and mothers keep them to their respective homes. Not every family can be as fortunate to be close, like yours.”
“Have you ever tried to know your family better?”
He shrugged. “They will never have a high opinion of me, so it’s useless.”
She nodded. “I may not know you as well as I should like, but my instincts tell me you don’t avoid a challenge, if you really want something.”
He drew back, flabbergasted. Damned girl, how did she perceive the worst and best of him? She edged too close to the truth, one he could not confront. Not yet.
He forced a smile. “For the moment, I’m focused on improving your opinion of me.”
Her blush returned. “Why do you say that?”
“You have made many assumptions, some true, but most of them unfair. If I don’t take the trouble to correct you, we shall never have a companionable relationship.”
“Is that what you want from me, a companionable relationship?”
She awaited his answer in silence, her gaze stark, piercing to his very soul.
He sucked in a harsh breath, and looked at her companions, who intently followed the conversation. The women exchanged wary glances with him and each other, before they looked away. The eunuch’s black eyes darted to Faraj’s face before he studied the blackened sky.
Faraj nodded to Fatima. “My parents married according to the wishes of the Sultan, as we did. The shared a delicate peace. If we are fortunate to have a small measure of the happiness they did, it would suit me.”
She lowered her eyelids. “Only a small measure would suffice, humph? If that is what you wish, then it is what you shall have.”
Those sparkling eyes which had intrigued and invited a moment ago were shuttered against him. A chill rippled through his body that had nothing to do with the soaking rain.
He looked down at his muddied, sandaled feet. No words passed between them but thoughts swirled in his head, all revolving around the young girl who stood nearby. How had she stirred his anger, curiosity, and now, regret, in such a short span of time?
He began, “Fatima, I….”
“I believe the rain has stopped, my prince. Please, allow me to return to my father’s harim.”
At the sound of her voice, he looked heavenward. As suddenly as the rain begun, it tapered off.
She curtsied before him. “The blessing and the peace of Allah, the Merciful, the Compassionate, be with you.”
Her servants bowed, before they all turned away and left him.
He hung his head and kicked a pebble in his path. Snagging the reins of his sodden, snorting horse, he glanced over his shoulder. Fatima’s silken jubba grew fainter in the distance, the thin material of her robe clinging to her smooth hips.
He arrived at the house just before another abrupt downpour started. He bellowed for Marzuq and gave him terse instructions. The steward bowed and departed.
Faraj handed his wet cloak to a waiting slave, and went to his bedchamber. There, he undressed hastily and changed into a woolen caftan and trousers. Dim light illuminated his way as he crossed the corridor.
Entering the cavernous chamber where his women resided in the harim, Faraj beheld a delectable sight. His jawari waited in the center of the room in various stages of undress, their sheer, pastel silk garments betraying and hiding sensuous curves at the same time.
“Master, Marzuq said you were unsettled. Surely we can improve your mood.” Samara looked up at him beneath hooded eyelids painted with malachite.
The trio smiled invitingly, snaking toward him. Yet, even as Baraka nibbled the curve of his ear and pressed the softness of her pale breast to him, and Hayfa and Samara’s hands undid his garments, he stilled the roving hands and stepped back.
“I…I should not have come. I shall return to my room, unaccompanied.”
Baraka frowned, and slipped her supple limbs about him. The tips of her rouged nipples grazed his chest.
He removed her arms and shook his head. “I said, not now, Baraka.”
He left them, frustrated and puzzled like the women who stared in his wake.
Feel free to leave a comment. The previous chapter is here.
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