Gharnatah, al-Andalus: Rabi ath-Thani 677 AH (Granada, Andalusia: September AD 1278)
Fatima endured seven weeks of bitter silence, during which she received no word from Faraj. Her father shared the daily dispatches on the reclamation of the port at al-Jazirah al-Khadra and the defense against the Castillans. Still, no word arrived of her husband’s fate. She retreated into a shell of suffering, filled with self-recrimination. The remembrance of his final words offered little comfort in the emptiness of their bedchamber at night.
“Too often we have stood upon this point. I leave, and you wonder what will become of me. Keep the peace of my house. I shall return soon. Wherever I am, you are in my thoughts and my heart, always.”
On the first cool day of the waning summer, Sultana Shams ed-Duna insisted she accompany her, and the kadin Nur al-Sabah, to the souk of Gharnatah. The queen of Gharnatah would not accept Fatima’s initial refusal.
After prayers, the trio, in the company of Niranjan, the palace guard and some servants, took the route down the Sabika hill and across the bridge of the Hadarro River. The Qaysariyya marketplace spread across the dun-brown plain at the south of the city, extending from the foot of the Sabika hill to the red brick walls of Gharnatah. Jewish and Christian merchants plied their trade alongside their Moorish counterparts, the local goldsmiths, armories, shoemakers, blacksmiths, and textile makers.
The Sultan’s guards jostled everyone and made a clear path for the women. Fatima shrank from the resentful gazes of those displaced by the guards' rough handling. She kept close to Shams ed-Duna and Nur al-Sabah, who doggedly haggled with the market sellers, while their slaves idled alongside the narrow streets and alleyways. Merchants offered slaves for faraway lands, bartering away their lives as easily as the silk, leather goods, brocades and ivory, and olive oil sold in the souk.
The stench of piss and offal vied with ambergris, musk and incense from a nearby stall. Fatima gripped her stomach, as a wave of dizziness overcame her.
The kadin frowned at her. “Are you unwell?”
“I hadn’t expected it to be so crowded, or smell so bad.”
“Look, it’s a symbol of the Nauar.” Shams pointed to a burnished copper wheel dangling from the tent post under a faded, blue awning. “I have not seen one since I left Fés el-Bali.”
Nur al-Sabah peered over her shoulder. “Hmm, the Gypsies. Is it true they foretell the future?”
Fatima shook her head. “What nonsense they must teach in Christian households. The Nauar speak only in riddles to confuse and delude the mind.”
Shams asked, “How can you be so certain? Have you ever been to one?”
Fatima replied, “I wouldn’t dare. Sorcery and divination is the work of the court astrologer. Ask him anything you’d like. I’m sure Father wouldn’t object.”
Then, a heavily veiled woman followed by two eunuchs exited the shop. One of the slaves pressed two silver dirhams into the olive brown hand of a little girl with bulging, black eyes. She took the coins and disappeared into the tent. The other eunuch handed his mistress a silken kerchief. She dabbed at the corners of her eyes, before bustling through the marketplace, her slaves following.
“I’d like to go in.” Nur al-Sabah cupped the roundness of her belly jutting beneath the green silk robe. “The court astrologer has promised another girl, but I know the Sultan wants a son. Perhaps the Nauar will know for certain.”
Fatima sniffed at this and looked away momentarily. She did not resent Nur al-Sabah’s desire, but what did her father need with more sons, when he already had her brother Muhammad and now Shams ed-Duna’s boy?
Shams ed-Duna tugged at her hand. “Come with us, Fatima. What harm can there be?”
She pulled away. “Absolutely not! I forbid it.”
Shams ed-Duna chuckled and Nur al-Sabah rolled her eyes.
Fatima gritted her teeth together, and then expelled a sighing breath. “Very well, I’ll indulge you both in this foolishness. Come, let us see this fraud.”
They crossed the street, avoiding refuse and excrement, while a cadre of the guards and their servants surrounded the stall. Niranjan held aside the low curtain hanging over the entryway. Fatima glanced at him briefly, but he averted his eyes from her. She entered first and asked the little girl with black eyes for the fortune-teller. She led them behind a cloth curtain and gestured to the lone seat at a table.
Behind it, a shriveled figure with lips drawn tight over her teeth peered at them in silence. A ring of seashells, all oddly shaped, encompassed the edge of the table, with one black pebble in the center. Fatima grinned at this at this poor mockery of mystic symbolism, but Shams ed-Duna urged her forward.
The gypsy woman bowed her head. “Peace be with you.”
Fatima asked, “And with you. Are you the one who speaks of the future?”
“Do you wish to know the future, noble one?”
Ignoring Nur al-Sabah’s gasp, Fatima leaned forward. “Why do you call me that, ‘noble one’?”
“It is what you are.” The woman turned to the girl hovering at her side. Whispering in some language other than Arabic, she waved the girl away. The child soon returned with a cup of fragrant tea, which the woman offered to Fatima. “It will not harm you.”
Fatima glared at her companions, both of whom nodded. She drank the brew, bitter to the tongue at first, but sweeter as she continued. She finished and handed the cup to the woman, who said, “If you would swirl the cup, noble one?"
Fatima gritted her teeth, but complied. She set the vessel down with an abrupt clank. A few of the ground leaves clung to the sides and bottom. Her gaze fixed on the woman who nodded. “We must wait for the tea leaves to settle.”
Shams pressed a hand against Fatima's arm. “Be patient.”
After an interim, the gypsy asked, “What it is you wish to know, noble one?”
“Tell me what you see,” Fatima countered.
The woman stared into the cup, and after a brief interval, she pronounced, “The future of Gharnatah lies within you.”
Fatima smiled at her companions. “You see? An answer, if I can call it such, without meaning. Just as I expected.” She stood and looked down her nose at the gypsy. “Can your leaves tell you anything about me?”
“Nothing you would believe, princess of Gharnatah,” the woman stated.
Nur al-Sabah pecked at her arm, but Fatima stilled her and leaned toward the gypsy. “Why do you call me a princess?”
“It is what you are. The future of Gharnatah lies within you. Already you carry one of its heirs in your womb, your son, who will become the Sultan of Gharnatah.”
Shams ed-Duna pressed her hand against Fatima’s shoulder, but she shrugged her stepmother off. “If you knew anything of me, you would know that no child of mine could ever be Sultan. It’s treason to suggest it, when the Sultan already has an heir. Besides, I should know if I am with child before anyone else.”
“I speak only of what I see, noble one. You are a princess of Gharnatah. You carry a son. One day, he will become the Sultan. Such is the fate that awaits you, whether you would wish it or not.”
As always, feel free to leave a comment or re-tweet if you liked this excerpt. Thank you for visiting the blog. I hope you've enjoyed these scenes from Sultana as much as I've enjoyed writing them. I've used them to show how my heroine Fatima has a great destiny before her. The final flowering of the last Moorish Dynasty to rule in Spain owes some of its remarkable longevity to her actions. Previous excerpts are available here, here and here. Join me next week for another #SampleSunday, with excerpts from the sequel, Sultana's Legacy.