Malaka, al-Andalus: Dhu al-Qa`da 693 AH (Malaga, Andalusia: October AD 1294)
Waves washed ashore at Malaka on an otherwise quiet late morning. Fatima’s gray Andalusi mare shied away whenever the tide surged inward. As sea spray billowed, the horse snorted loudly. With a steady hand, Fatima held the mare’s reins and soothed her mount.
Her peripheral gaze lingered on the sinewy young man who sat his black stallion with comfortable ease. Whenever she looked at her Ismail, she saw her father and grandfather. After nearly fourteen years, a wiry frame had replaced her son’s fat creases and folds. The autumn wind picked up along the shore, rippling through strands of his once-auburn hair, now the dark, russet-tipped color of her father’s own. His keen eyes and placid, intelligent expression evoked her father’s image. The same hawkish nose sniffed at the sea. A smile and drawn-sigh sigh eased the composure of his angular features.
“Whenever you stare at me, Ummi, especially when you think I do not notice, I often wonder whether you are seeing me or someone else.”
Ismail’s deepening, lowered tone, more a man’s own than that of a boy, startled her. Her mare shied away. She tugged the reins and calmed the horse. When her gaze returned to Ismail, he offered her a sly grin.
He possessed the same innate understanding and curiosity she had shown as a child. However, she suspected the pride and instincts that ruled his father dominated him, too. He held himself ramrod straight in the saddle, pride emanating in his elegant though rigid bearing. He always observed in silent prudence like her, studying people and situations, perceiving their nature with his keen glance. Yet, he reminded her of the men in their family, with his innate predatory instincts, always cutting to the heart of a matter and finding the underlying vulnerabilities. She did not doubt he would become a formidable governor of Malaka someday. Yet, she hoped that would not occur for many years to come.
She swallowed against a sudden lump in her throat, thwarting speech momentarily. “Who else would I see except my fine son?”
He flashed her a knowing smile. “Your father, perhaps. Certainly not mine.”
His gaze tracked the course of the undulating coastline and her gaze followed his. Even at a vast distance, the rocky promontory at Jabal Tarik dominated the southwestern landscape. Beyond it lay Tarif and her husband. Did he yet live? When she clutched at her chest at the painful thought, Ismail’s stare flitted back to hers with hawk-eyed precision. She rubbed at some imaginary ache above her breast with two fingers. Beneath her, the mare danced on the sand again, signaling the return of the tide.
“Does he live, Ummi?”
She nodded. “I would feel it if he did not. Your father lives.”
He did not question her certainty. His gaze alighted on the coastline again. A sigh of relief rippled through her. She sagged in the saddle, which creaked beneath her.
Worry had plagued her for weeks after Faraj’s departure, but speaking such words to her son comforted her now. She sighed and palmed her rounded belly beneath the loose folds of her tunic.
“Why haven’t you written to my father about the child you carry?”
She glared at Ismail. “A mother is allowed some secrets, is she not? You forget yourself at times, my son. Or, perhaps I have indulged you too much.”
His lazy smile faded and he inclined his head, his gaze falling away. “Forgive me, Ummi.”
His outward sign of contrition did not fool her. A little smile teased at the corners of his mouth though he strove against it.
“I have not told Faraj of this child because he would return home, when my father needs him at Tarif.”
Ismail protested, “But you need him too! The Sultan would agree, if you only asked him….”
She shook her head and reached for his shoulder, patting it. “The governor of Malaka must be loyal to the Sultan’s cause, even above the wishes of his own heart and his family. Your father may return in due time. The siege cannot last forever.”
His lips pressed in a thin line, he made no reply. She chuckled at his stubbornness and clutched his hand, pulling it to her abdomen. “Here, feel. Your brother or sister kicks as hard as you once did.”
His hand settled on her stomach too briefly before he pulled it back and stared at his fingers with something akin to awe. “How…how did the baby get inside you?”
She laughed, throwing back her head. A billowing wind carried the sound out to sea. “Ask your father when he returns.”
“I intend to.”
She did not doubt him. “Come, my son, let us return.”
Ismail followed as she nudged her mare up the sandy steep incline from the beach below their home. They rode in silence along the worn track and entered through the southwestern gate, watched by guardsmen who patrolled the high battlements above their heads. The effects of the sea had weathered the gray walls, which had protected Malaka for many centuries. The men averted their eyes as Fatima rode past. Cresting the hill, she and Ismail turned eastward and cantered toward the stables.
He dismounted first and helped her down. “I shall rub down the horses and feed them.”
“We have grooms for that.”
“I know. I like to work with my hands.”
Ismail loved horses as much as she loved hunting birds. He had learned to ride on his own at six years of age, despite Fatima’s useless protests to Faraj. Since his departure, she had taken to riding with Ismail. If she could not stop him, at least she could be with him.
Her hand rested against his cool cheek. Beneath her palm, the prickly beginnings of facial hair that would soon cover his angular cheeks scraped her delicate flesh. “Do not tarry for long. I am always at my happiest when you are beside me.”
Ismail smiled. He had not lost the childhood dimples. “I thought you only felt that way about Father.”
She caressed his cheek and returned his generous smile. He bowed before her and attended both horses. She lingered before turning from the pungent scent from the stables carried on the wind. She rounded the outlying buildings that surrounded her home. The red-roofed arsenal dominated on the left, its polished marble walls echoing with the sounds of the workers inside. One of the men stepped out and upon seeing her, immediately turned to the wall with his head bowed. Laughter bubbled up inside of her, but she pulled the folds of her hijab closer around her face.
Heat and smoke from the firing chambers of the kilns escaped directly into the open air. The workers paid her progress no heed, their attention devoted to glazed and gilded ceramics. In the previous year, a Persian fleeing the onslaught of the Mongols in the east had sought refuge at Malaka. He worked fine technique of luster faience for the benefit of her household.
Fatima drifted beyond the confines of the industrial quarter into the orchards. A light wind rustled the bare tops of pomegranate, almond and fig trees. Malaka produced the best figs in all al-Andalus. Earlier in the year, merchants had exported them as far as Baghdad and Damascus.
Columns graced the entryway to the governor’s castle. As Fatima crossed the threshold, rows of decorative tin objects gleamed on shelves fitted on either side of an elongated chamber. Some glistened in a turquoise color, with the addition of cobalt oxide by the Persian’s skillful hand.
The room led to an inner garden courtyard, where the sounds of a child at play beckoned. Fatima leaned against a column and watched.
“Look, Aunt Baraka, I have more star thistles for my crown,” six-year old Mumina said, as she scrambled up the steps to the alabaster-colored woman.
The concubine attended the little princess, tousling the dark hair tumbling down her back in thick curls. A slight smile curved Baraka’s lips while she strung flowers together into a diadem. She placed the delicate circlet on Mumina’s head.
She said, “There now, you look like a proper princess.”
“But I am a proper princess!” Mumina insisted, stamping her tiny feet in that imperious nature she had developed of late.
“Yes,” Baraka replied, “and a pretty one at that.”
Mumina spied Fatima beside the column. “Ummi!”
She skipped toward her, her silken tunic bunched around her knobby knees. “Look, Ummi, Aunt Baraka made me a crown.”
Fatima picked her up and kissed her soundly on both cheeks. “You are very beautiful, my sweetness.”
“I know,” Mumina said, fingering the green jasper brooch that held Fatima’s tunic closed at the neck. When Fatima set her down, she scrambled back to Baraka, kissed her cheek and then played among the rows of flowers. At the opposite end of the garden, her governess Amoda sat feeding the youngest child of the family, baby Saliha, who was in her second year. When Amoda saw Fatima, she inclined her head and offered a smile, which Fatima returned.
Then she greeted the concubine quietly. Baraka clasped her hands together and returned the acknowledgment. Now in her forty-sixth year, Baraka and the other women had been Faraj’s companions from his youth, although he never visited them now.
Since the family had lived at Malaka, Fatima witnessed Baraka’s increasing care and devotion to Faraj’s children, without comment. While the concubine did not interact often with the boys Ismail and Muhammad, she seemed to delight in the seven girls Fatima had borne. She had kissed bruised knees and fingers, or mediated the little quarrels that often sprang up between the girls. At first, Baraka’s attentions unnerved Fatima. She worried for her children’s safety. Yet, she soon saw how her daughters responded to Baraka’s kind gestures. They referred to her as their aunt, with an affection they reserved for no one else, even Fatima’s sister Alimah who resided with them.
Mumina squealed with delight and Baraka’s gaze sought her under hooded eyelids. Silent yearning flushed her face and glittered in the depths of her eyes. Then she glared at Fatima.
“I did not mean you to find me here, Sultana. I thought you would still be out riding with Prince Ismail until midday.”
“You are a part of this family, Baraka. My girls adore you. You do not need my permission to be with them.”
“I did not ask for it!”
Baraka’s emerald gaze pinned Fatima for a moment before it fell away. “Still, I thank you for allowing me to be of use to them.”
A cool wind encircled the women and Fatima rubbed at her arms beneath the silken tunic. “I see the ache in your eyes when you are with my daughters. You once wanted children of your own.”
“Your husband did not wish it. He wanted to sire children only with you. I would not have been so foolish as to give him sons to rival your own.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Do you think I would allow any child of mine to be at the mercy of your offspring in the succession? No. It is better this way.”
Vehemence embittered her tone.
Fatima sighed. “Baraka, my sons would never hurt any child of their father’s blood. I had hoped you also understood that I would never do such a thing. Faraj may not love you, but he….”
“Is it enough that you have the master’s love?” The concubine’s voice descended to a husky murmur. “The great Sultana must take every opportunity to remind me.”
“Baraka, I did not mean….wait! Baraka, come back!”
Fatima’s words floated on the empty silence in the place where Baraka had stood. Her sobs echoed as she faded into the recesses of the house.
Dual calls echoed from the opposite ends of the house. Amoda’s twin sister Leeta came from the family quarters while Fatima’s loyal eunuch, Niranjan, their brother, entered from the narrow chamber that preceded the garden courtyard. Both bowed as they approached.
Leeta whipped her graying braid over a thin shoulder. “My Sultana, I believe the silk merchant has arrived this morning. I shall go to him.”
“Perhaps the Sultana would wish to see the merchant’s wares for herself?”
Fatima’s gaze turned from Leeta to Niranjan, who nodded. His dark eyes glittered above crinkles in the leathery, sun-bronzed skin. She sensed hidden purpose behind his words. Behind her, Leeta looked over Fatima’s shoulder at him.
“Brother, it has long been custom that I oversee the purchases of silk for this household.”
“I am not suggesting someone else usurp your authority, my sister, but surely the Sultana can judge the quality of the merchant’s silk for herself.”
Fatima turned to Leeta and stroked her arm. “How does Marzuq fare this morning?”
Leeta stopped glaring at Niranjan long enough to answer. “His fever has abated. He is still abed. I can summon him if you….”
Fatima’s hold tightened. “Summon my sick steward from his pallet? Leeta, you must think me heartless. Tend to your husband this morning. I shall see the silk merchant.”
Leeta inhaled sharply at this and shot a dark look toward her brother, before she sighed and bowed. “As the Sultana wishes.”
Fatima chuckled. “Is Marzuq still such a trial when he is ailing?”
Leeta rolled her eyes heavenward. “You could not understand.”
Her shoulders sagged. She disappeared into the family quarters again, where she and Marzuq shared a room.
“Come, my Sultana.” Niranjan gestured toward the entrance.
Fatima led the way and he followed. A groom held the reins of two horses, already saddled. Niranjan rounded Fatima and cupped his hands, offering her aid as she mounted. She grabbed the reins.
“He has returned, hasn’t he? Is he hurt, Niranjan?”
The eunuch avoided her gaze. “I cannot say, my Sultana.”
They left the grounds together by way of the bridge between Fatima’s home and Al-Jabal Faro. Guardsmen at the citadel averted their eyes from her as she rode past, a flurry of dust billowing around the base of the rectangular towers and massive walls. She and Niranjan rode in silence down the summit of a steep hill, whitewashed and red-roofed houses all a blur on either side of the cobblestones. They entered the bustling souk and neared the precincts of the silk market. Each section of Malaka’s souk, allotted to a special area of commerce, reminded Fatima of the crowded, stinking Qaysariyya at Gharnatah.
Behind a horseshoe archway, expensive garments of every variety and color beckoned eager hands outstretched, brimming with gold dinars. A long string of camels, each beast held in the croup of its leader, blocked the entrance to an inn. Fatima pulled her hijab over her nose and quelled the stench of the animals. Fatima dismounted without Niranjan’s aid. He led the way up a staircase to the second landing. Loud curses echoed from within. When Niranjan pushed the door open, three merchants rained down violent epithets on each other’s heads.
“Cheaters! Deceivers! I piss on both of you and your wretched silks!”
“I piss on your mother, you filthy dog! You’re the cheat. Your dinars line the pockets of the market inspector. God confound you and your lies! Wait until Governor Faraj returns to the city!”
“You dare call anyone else a liar? You miserable son of a donkey and a whore!”
Niranjan pushed past them and grasped Fatima’s hand, pulling her along behind him. They rounded a raced down the narrow hall. Niranjan scratched at the door at the end. “Master.”
The portal creaked slightly. Fatima rushed inside.
Faraj rose from his crouch on the wooden floor, his eyes widening. Fatima swallowed at the sight of him as he unwound the turban that obscured the lower half of his face. His sun-burnished cheek glistened like copper. He wore a simple tunic, trousers and leather slippers, not the armor she had last seen him don several months ago. She rushed toward him, but he grasped and held her at arms’ length. Behind her, the door snapped shut.
He whispered, “I have the stink of the siege and a hard day’s ride upon me, beloved.”
“I don’t care!” She struggled against him. “Faraj, why won’t you kiss me and hold me? Why are you here at this inn? Why haven’t you come home to us?”
“I cannot, Fatima. I need you to listen to me now.”
She shook her head, her fingers itching for the coarseness of his beard, the angular planes of his cheek. “What has happened? Did the Marinids overcome the Castillans?”
“I do not know. I abandoned the siege.”
Her hands fell away, tears stinging her eyes. She drew back from him. “Why have you betrayed my father? He has ever been good to you. How could you do this?”
He raked sinewy hands over his face. Creases she had not noticed before now encircled his red-rimmed eyes. “Woman, be silent and let me tell you! The siege has continued for months. The Castillans would not surrender. Then the rebel prince, Juan, the brother of King Sancho brought out the son of the defender of Tarif. They boy had been entrusted as page at King Sancho’s court. You should have seen him, Fatima. He could not have been older than our Muhammad. Prince Juan threatened to cut his throat if his father did not surrender. When the commander refused, Prince Juan killed the boy.”
Faraj spat on the floorboards. He lapsed into silence. As Fatima returned his gaze, her fingers tightened into fists, nails cutting in her palms. A scowl knitted and darkened his features.
“Well? Have you nothing to say about this monstrous act?”
“Once, when you defended our home against the Marinids and the Ashqilula, you told me the enemy is the enemy. You swore your sword for my father’s benefit, for the pursuit of his will.”
“Would you have had me raise it on a field dishonored by the blood of a child? By the Prophet’s beard, Fatima, if you think I would sacrifice my principles for your father’s sake, you cannot know me at all!”
She turned from him, shaking. Her hand crept to her belly, where the child inside stirred. She closed her eyes and let the tears fall, her shoulders quaking. She carried a babe who might never know his father.
“Bah! Not your tears, I shall not be unmanned by your tears, woman.”
Even as he railed at her, his hands closed on her arms, his earlier hesitancy long forgotten. She struggled against his hold, but he pulled her close. She leaned into the warmth of his chest, felt his throbbing heart against her back, his lips at her nape. Sweat and smoke filled her nostrils, but she did not recoil.
“Always, these tears of yours. You use them against me, I think.”
She swiped at her cheeks. “You cannot remain here. You must leave al-Andalus.”
His grip loosened and she turned to him. She cupped his face in her hands. Although her heart tore inside her, she rushed on. “The Sultan shall kill you. I cannot allow it. Flee, Faraj, to al-Maghrib el-Aska, to al-Tunisiyah, wherever you can go.”
“To live in exile like a coward? Truly, you do not know me at all, wife.”
“I wonder if those who have loved even as we have can ever know each other. We have always understood each other well, I think. I have always honored my father, far longer than I have ever loved you. But when I seek comfort and the home of my heart, it is in you that I find these things.”
Her hands fell away while he searched her face.
“Faraj, we are so different from when we first married, those days in which we were so uncertain and mistrustful of each other. Your heart is mine and mine is yours, but even that was a vain hope. I was wrong to expect that both of us had altered in every way. I am still my father’s daughter. Your selfish nature remains the same. You would abandon our children and me as easily as you left Tarif. All for your ideals. They mean so much to you, more than the love of your children. More than my love?”
He jerked her towards him, his eyes ablaze. She looked into their centers, unflinching. “Even if you would risk your death, beloved, I cannot allow it. Let me preserve our children’s memories of you as a loyal warrior for the Sultanate. Better that they should believe you fell at Tarif than under the executioner’s blade.”
His fingers bunched in the delicate sleeves of her tunic. “I am no coward.” He ground out every word and pushed her away from him. She stumbled before righting herself. By the time she straightened, he had hidden his features beneath the folds of his turban again. Her belly soured at the thought of their angry parting, and with regret that he would never know of the child she carried. She ignored an impetuous urge to tell him. She would spare him the pain he had not hesitated to inflict upon her.
“It is not too late for you, husband. You can change the course of the events to follow.”
When he chuckled, her belly knotted. “You make sport of my fears in what may be our last moments together. You do not know me either, even after all these years.”
“I laughed only because I said much the same to someone else. We are more alike than you think….”
“In this moment, we are not. I would value my love for you more than my principles. I have done so before.”
His gaze narrowed, hinting that he understood the reference, but she pressed on. “You lied to my father once. You defied his will and killed an Ashqilula governor under the Sultan’s protection. You let me plead for your life before my father, knowing your guilt. He forgave you, as I did.”
He avoided her eyes. “I shall always be grateful for his mercy, and yours. I have repaid the favor to you at Tarif. I spoke to one of the Marinid commanders, who led a third of their forces and convinced him to abandon the siege too. Your mother’s brother, Abdallah of Ashqilula.”
Fatima clutched the prayer beads beneath the neckline of her tunic. “He was at Tarif? By the Prophet’s beard. How does he fare? Did he ask about me?”
“He did, and more. I discovered he knew the circumstances of your mother’s death, had known since his defection to Jumhuriyat Misr fifteen years ago. He understood then and now, as I did, the utter cruelty of those whom he once supported.” Faraj chuckled again. “In that moment as I spoke with him, I thought only of you, beloved. I was not so selfish then.”
She stepped toward him, her hands outstretched, tears stinging her eyes. He shook his head, opened the door and bypassed Niranjan. Fatima stifled a sob behind her hands and whirled away.
Behind her, Niranjan asked, “Shall I follow him?”
She swallowed past the lump in her throat and looked to him. “He would expect it. Who remains trustworthy among my father’s servants in Gharnatah? Someone who would know of the dealings at court and warn us first?”
“Ulayyah’s boy, Faisal. He serves the Sultana Shams ed-Duna. He has corresponded with his sisters Basma and Haniya. He can be trusted.”
Niranjan ducked his head, but not before she noted the heightened color of his cheeks.
“You are fond of this boy?”
“He is a man now. Yes, I am fond of him.”
Fatima swallowed and blinked rapidly, her mind racing with questions she did not voice, for now was not the time. She nodded to Niranjan.
“Then warn him of Faraj’s intent. Tomorrow, we shall follow. I won’t let my husband sacrifice himself.”
“And if we are too late to stop him?”
“We cannot be! Do as I command.”
“It shall be done, my Sultana.” Niranjan bowed at the waist.
Muhammad al-Zaghal, whose sobriquet meant 'the brave' or 'the valiant' lived in the shadow of his elder brother, Sultan A...
All month, learn more about the historical figures in my upcoming release, The Burning Candle . The novel's heroine is the twelfth cent...
Isabel de Vermandois, the heroine of The Burning Candle , lived a controversial life. A descendant of French Kings, she became the wife o...