|The Ascending Dawn: The Tale of the Arabian Nights
Author: l. fayette PM
Over 1001 nights, across Persian courts and Crusade battlefields, Shaherazade spins a volatile web of seduction and stories to restrain the mad course of Sultan Shahryar's vengeance.Rated: Fiction T - English - Drama/Romance - Chapters: 23 - Words: 65,420 - Reviews: 117 - Favs: 31 - Follows: 52 - Updated: 06-11-13 - Published: 03-03-08 - id: 2483692
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
We passed Esfahan and through the Zagros Mountains some weeks ago and it has been more than a month since we departed Bam. We are perhaps a week away from Baghdad, the seat of the 'Abbasid caliphs, where we will be stopping for several days to pay our respects to the Caliph an-Nasir.
Long grass and pockets of palm fronds wave languorously. Traveling along the verdant banks of the Tigris, we pass mud brick fishing villages and farms with radiant green fields. I pull open the palanquin's curtain, revealing more water than I have ever seen in my life. There are small rivers and streams in Persia, but nothing quite as vast and deep. The water flows placidly, the filigree ripples, the dazzling green and white sunshine shimmer mesmerize. In this summer heat, I long to leap in and let it take me where it will—unfortunately, it flows opposite from our destination.
I peer around the curtain. Asif is riding to the litter on his black stallion, a checked scarf wrapped around his hair and face, just as it had been the day he found me in the Dasht-e-Lut. His hands are wrapped around Andalib's reins.
"Emir Asif," I say formally, but my stomach lurches. It's a brief fancy, a madness, something of even less importance than Dunya's infatuation with Nuruddin, and I will ignore the flickering flame until it dies on its own.
"Malik Shahryar has requested your presence."
The sun still sparkles on the river and we are a long ways from stopping for the night. I have not attended Shahryar since the night in the caravanserai, although if he passes my tent or palanquin, he still stop briefly and inquire after me.
I hop from the palanquin onto Andalib, keeping a respectable distance between myself and Asif. I glance at my trail of mamluks and meet Bahram's gaze. I drop my eyes quickly, but I fear the gesture looks guilty.
Shahryar converses with a grey-haired nobleman near the head of the carvan. He sits tall and straight on his white Arabian, with all the sureness of our horsemen ancestors. Seeing me, he dismisses his companion and beckons me close.
I swallow my nervousness and let Andalib canter beside him. My rose gauze veil flies furiously over my face, stuffing my mouth, harried by the breeze sweeping off of the river. I try to bind it back, but it slips from my fingers and flutters away, leaving my long braids covered only by a diadem. I mutter an oath.
To my surprise, Shahryar chuckles. "Let it be."
"Oh, but it is not proper," I protest. The adult daughter of a vizier, the wife of a malik, to ride bareheaded before a military caravan! To expose myself indecently before all these men— what does Shahryar take me for?
I cannot read his expression, but he unwinds the cotton scarf from around his own neck and covers my hair with it, tying it beneath my braids so it does not blow in my face. Heat pricks where his fingers brush my neck.
"There. Now you look like a desert warrior and some village boy will find your silk veil and gift it to his sweetheart." He smiles and it fills his face with all the warmth and lightness that I have missed, that I extinguished with my note. It fades quickly, but my heart still drums in my throat.
"I remember you as a little girl, playing with Dunyazade. Do you remember how you leapt at my wedding? Sometimes, I think of you still as a child and then I remember you are my wife and that we are years away from the day you cheeked me at my wedding."
I can hear the unspoken question: How did we come so far from that?
And I am on the brink of confessing, the words are on my lips, how I discovered Fataneh, how I slipped him the note, how it was my hand that had pushed us the present with half a dozen dead wives behind us. But he speaks again and the madness passes like the glimmer of a firefly.
"It came from placing my heart in the unworthy, deceitful hands of a woman. But you are not a woman, are you? For all that your body has matured, you are still the innocent child you ever were, aren't you little Shaherazade?" He tugs a braid as if I were a girl in truth, and his eyes soften with patronizing kindness.
My skin crawls and I say nothing. Unwillingly, my mind darts to Asif, who was never cold, who has never seen me as the nine-year old child I was long ago. Perhaps it is safer if Shahryar decides to view me as nothing more than a girl—but what of the good influence I wished to have on him? His view of women remains poisonous as ever; he has simply decided that I am not one.
He smiles. "Will you spin a tale for me?"
I bite my lip. "Should you like me to continue the last one?"
His stallion's white head jerks up; Shahryar's knuckles are tight on its reins, and the veins stand out on his arms. He masters himself and says, "Whatever you wish," and for all that he has decided to think of me as little more than a child, I register a note of warning.
Well, I will give him no cause to come up with a suitable punishment for a little girl. Bed without supper? Sent to my litter and forbidden to speak to Dunya or Marjan? Suddenly, I can appreciate the advantage—although I cannot imagine what Fataneh would have said had Shahryar suddenly declared her to be a child. I think it would have been impossible, like calling the night day.
I shift on Andalib's begin and start. "The parrot continued his tale: 'The sorcerer arrived, a wizened old man, gnarled as the wood of his staff, bent and beaten with the evils of the magic he wielded—that is a stuff that was forbidden to humans with good reason. It corrupts the soul, like rot spoiling good meat.
"Upon entering Aminata's home, the man sensed me immediately, opposite sensing opposite, the way a bat finds its way in the dark. 'Ah,' he said, 'it is a good thing you have summoned me, for this spirit is evil indeed and it desecrates your home with its presence.' And I,' the parrot said, 'longed to laugh at the irony. I, a creature created of light and goodness called a spirit of evil by a man whose soul had been so twisted and corroded.'
"A dart of fear went through Zainab's heart. She had tampered with magic; had dabbled with it in ignorance. Was she too so corrupted?
"The parrot said: 'He reached out his hands, uttering a strange word, and I could feel his fingers seize upon me, I who until then had known no corporeal form, nor the touch of this universe. He squeezed and squeezed until the world went black, squeezed until the blackness was lit up by stars, squeezed until the stars turned everything white. When I could see again, I was in the hands of a trader in the form I am in now. I do not know why he let me live. Perhaps they tried to kill me and found that angels are made of more everlasting stuff.
"'I have been passed around from trader to trader, waiting for something. Aminata is long dead now; a century has passed since this enchantment and my lesson has been learned. Now, I wait to be found.'
"Zainab started as the old woman leaned over her shoulder, and she blanched, fearing for the parrot. Her fingers twitched towards it protectively, but it looked on placidly, with an expression so blankly dumb that Zainab wondered if her entire discourse with him had been founded only in her imagination.
"The old woman's lips quirked at the parrot's façade and turned her cataract-silver eyes upon Zainab. 'It is well known that just as all roads led to Rome, all paths, if so desired, lead to the Creator. But a path needs a guide, and you, mistress, perhaps you need a guide.' Those rheumy eyes winked ever so slightly at the parrot. "I know of a wise Sufi who lives in the mountains by the side of an immense glacier lake. Walk north and west for two days and you will find a sliver of a valley just as the sun peaks on the second day. Follow the valley and by sunset, it will open onto an immense glacier and the lake below it. In this lake, you will find gold, purple, and red fish. The red fish are the smallest and rarest among them, and the cleverest too. But you must catch one, eat its flesh, and burn its bones on a fire. Only when you have completed this ritual and are pure of heart will the Sufi come to you.'
"But Zainab could not help but worry that her own heart would be too impure for the Sufi to answer the summons, but she quashed that fear, packed it away into a corner of her mind lest the parrot read it in her. She did not need confirmation of her damnation. 'I will think of it when it comes,' she said to herself.
"She bid the tea woman farewell and headed towards the troupe's camp. 'What do you think?' she asked the parrot in a low whisper. 'Shall we do this?'
"'It is a human way to seek to make your destiny. We angels follow the path we are set on and do not deviate. Forgiveness is not mine to seek out. It will be bestowed or not, but it is not in my nature to ask.'
"'But you asked once. You deviated for Aminata. Why not for yourself?' Zainab asked.
"The parrot cocked his head, the lucent lemon crest flaring. 'Did I deviate? I am a creature entirely of God; I cannot do without his wanting.'
"'Well then, what if God wants you to make your own way to Him, just as you made your own way to Aminata, as you say, with His consent?' Zainab wondered what her philosophy tutor would have thought of that argument, a pang lancing in her heart as she thought of her parents. Sometimes, when she lay in bed, she knew the red hot folly had fled her veins, leaving only remorse behind. But she was too far, far too far, to turn back now and so she would bury the thoughts and renew her conviction that she would rather be nowhere else in the world.
"'You argue well,' and Zainab could hear the smile in the parrot's many-timbered voice. 'To settle the matter, I say this: I shall go wherever you wish. We shall see what Allah wants for me then.'
"'So I am the manifestation of the will of Allah?' Zainab laughed. 'That is a heady potion indeed!'
"It was some hours later that Zainab gathered her few things about her, placed the parrot on her right shoulder and made her way towards the sunset, towards the Sufi, towards salvation."
This was to have been the night's cliffhanger, but it is still day and Shahryar gives me an expectant look. "Well?"
I shake my head. "This is where today's story ends."
His almond eyes against the sun's glare. "Hours of the ride remain ahead of us. I should like to be entertained."
As if I were some pet monkey! "My throat is hoarse and my mouth full of sand, but if you should command it, I will obey. But what of the poets and musicians with you for this very purpose? How can my little stories compare to their accomplishments? Invite them to ride beside us and ply their trade and earn their bread."
He gives me a hard look and although my legs clamp tightly around Andalib I meet his eyes placidly. "Perhaps you are not such a child after all," he remarks grimly as he crooks a finger.
It is strange the effect this comment has. Have I not just been lamenting his taking me for a child? Do I not want him to question that assessment, to accord me the privilege due to me as a grown woman? And yet, if only for a moment, I was safe as a child; being viewed by him as a child gave me the gall to return to the parrot's story.
"As your Grace wishes," I answer meekly, but my response is lost in the slow-wailing symphony of tars and tablas.
A/n: Hello! I come to you with tidings of another work published online for free/$.99 on Kindle (if you want it free on Kindle, you can try, as I have, of informing them of the free price on Nook and Smashwords). This time, it is The Puppet Queen, a politically charged retelling of Sleeping Beauty steeped in Middle Eastern folklore—djinn, pari, and all that good stuff. It's available at the following:
Kindle: www . amazon . (com/) The-Puppet-Queen-Sleeping-ebook/dp/B008DNNALC/ref=sr_1_2?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1340385474&sr=1-2 (no spaces/parentheses)
Nook: www . barnesandnoble . (com/) w/the-puppet-queen-mira-zamin/1112133361 (no space/parentheses)
Smashwords/all formats [including Kindle, .pdf] : www . smashwords . (com/) books/view/174525 (no space/parentheses)
These links (and the ones to Daughter of the Sea's ebooks) are also on my profile in their full, unaltered glory. Happy reading!