|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: 22 - Words: 63,735 - Reviews: 116 - Favs: 31 - Follows: 52 - Updated: 04-16-13 - Published: 03-03-08 - id: 2483692
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
A/n: Happy New Year everyone! As is becoming custom, sorry again for the long gap in between updates. Y'all may remember that I started law school this past year and I've also been dealing with some health stuff, so between the two it's easy for things to slip between the cracks. Anyways, here's to a happy and healthy new year for all of us!
The Caliph leads me on a path beside the Tigris. In the setting sun, the river runs as red as the Plague bloody Nile. The way is largely abandoned and my skin would have been pricking uneasily had it not been for Bahram's presence. For the first time, I am thankful for him and look over my shoulder and smile. His eyes narrow in suspicion and my smile drops.
There was once a woman, entrapped by two snakes twined around her arms. She was afraid to shake them, lest the agitation move them to strike and so their muscular bodies curled further and further up. Her hands slicked with cold sweat as their dry, smooth bodies wound tighter around her arms, slithered closer to her heart. The snake on her left moved to to sink his fangs into her, when the snake on the right hissed, "Stop! By what right do you claim her blood?"
This close to the Tigris, the air is almost cold although a mere hours before it had been hot and heavy with the river's wetness. The high-pitched wail of mosquitos fills my ears. I look across the river, to where the sun dips behind the mud-brick houses of the Al-Kurayyah quarter and sight a low-lying garden at the mouth of a canal. It is larger than Caliph Kahir's and lush with palms and fruit trees. A small palace peeks out from behind an overgrowth of vines. "What is that?"
"The Gardens of Rakkah, pleasure grounds of the Caliph." His eyes flicker over me appraisingly. "If you wish to see it, I could summon a boat to row us across..."
I can just imagine how well Shahryar would like that. I snort incredulously. Afraid that I have offended an-Nasir, I glance up, but he is appraising Bahram, who is far enough away that he is ignorant of what is passing. "Well, perhaps someday, when certain hedges have been trimmed, a time may come..."
I move away from an-Nasir and crook a finger. Bahram is promptly at my shoulder, his bulk a comforting shield against the Caliph. How often does he proposition the wives of his guests, his nobles—and how often is he refused?
An-Nasir shrugs with an ironic ruefulness. I have no doubt this offer was thrown out on a whim and one rejection from a startled to girl does little to dint his ego. "For all your cleverness, you are still very young in the ways of the world, aren't you? A bona fide innocent. One wonders where Shahryar found you—and how he intends to keep you so." Something cruel bubbles beneath his chuckle.
You are still the innocent child you ever were, aren't you, little Shaherazade?
"What do you wish to show me, your Illustriousness?" I slap at a mosquito that has landed onto my cheek.
He remains silent as we pass through a baked brick gate and into the courtyard of a palace. A line of carved horsemen surrounds a pool of clear water, which reflects spreading branches that stretch like the twisted fingers of a spinner. My eyes follow upwards, along the shaft of an immense tree, cast in silver. A small intake of breath. It towers to the second level of the palace, delicate silver branches blushing pink in the fading sun. Silver and gold leaves chime as they flash in the breeze. The beaks of aureate and argentate birds open with mechanical rigidity, piping birdsong that pierces the ear like arrow tips.
He sweeps his hands wide. "The Dar ash-Shajarah."
The Abode of the Tree.
It is so strange, so extravagant, that I would not have thought something like this could have existed in this world, that anyone's mind could have produced something so...nonsensical, inessential, but breathtaking and overwhelming because of it. "It is all...?"
"Yes, silver and gold—ah..."
A man strides up to the Caliph, and for a moment, I take him for a servant, but no—his linen is too fine and his turban is tall and held in place by a ruby the size of a chicken's egg. His hair is greying, his eyes are lined, and he gives me a curious look before speaking quietly to the Caliph. Although I cannot make out what he says, his voice sounds pleading. The Caliph shakes his head firmly no and the man slumps away.
"A cousin," he explains without prompting. "They are kept here, honorably, with every luxury and comfort they could want." He shakes his head. "Still, someone always wants more."
"Can they leave?" I cannot help but asking. I think I already know the answer.
"It is death for them to leave the confines of the Palace of the Tree."
I feel eyes on me as we walk out.
Tonight's dinner proved just as lavish as the rest of Baghdad. Gold platters inlaid with mother of pearl held roasted kid garnished with mint and tarragon, cumin-marinated fish wrapped in grape leaves, carrots cut like dinars and sprinkled with galangal and rue, fattened goat cooked with milk, cassia, and white beans, sand grouse sliced with juniper berries and sumac, lamb stew soured with vinegar and spiced with cilantro and caraway, chicken roasted with watercress and seasoned with musk and black pepper, and fish roasted with mustard oil and asafetida leaves.
For much of the banquet, one of the Caliph's array of wives, a pinch-faced woman named Ulayya, lectured me on the humoral properties of fruit. (Plum removes yellow bile, rhubarb quenches yellow bile and blood and so on) For a woman who could only be a few years my senior, she has the interests of a well-settled matron.
Just as the steward had sought to lord his superiority over us, so did Ulayya."Surely you know the poem Ibrahim ibn al-Mahdi, who was once a caliph, composed on the soured meat stew? Oh no? 'Pearls of skinned onion alternating with emerald gourd, immaculate and pure. Delicate carrots in it, too, like sheets of the purest gold of girdles.' You do not recognize it? Well, you horsemen were never much for poetry, for all that you conquered Persia."
I had wanted to retort that I was too busy memorizing Firdausi and reading Attar, learning stories of love and war, to waste my time with a poet who devoted himself to carrots, but I bit my tongue in the name of politesse.
She had smiled, showing crooked teeth, and I wondered if she were exacting her own toll for an-Nasir staying his hand from attacking Bam, for my walk with her husband through the gardens at sunset.
In the bedroom that I share with Shahryar, Gulnar is helping me out of my violet robe and turquoise gown and into a plain cotton night gown. "Baghdad is marvelous, is it not so, Shahrezade khatun? I have spent the day walking the palace and it is all so grand." She sighs dreamily, her expression jarringly sweet for a woman well into middle age.
"It is hard to deny that, but the Baghdadis do put on such airs."
She chuckles. "Come now. If you lived here, you too would have airs. It would be hard not to."
"Still. They need not make us feel like barbarians at every turn."
"They were under Seljuk control for a very long time. I think they are just trying to make sure that we know that they are masters here now," she says sagely.
I roll my eyes. "With the Khwarezmids harrying the Sultanate at the behest of the Caliph, that is a very hard thing to forget."
The door cracks open and my hands fly to my chest, which is covered only by a sheer linen terinchek. But it is only Shahryar, who carelessly tosses his malachite green turban onto a table and strips off his violet brocade farajiyya. Gulnar, who has never warmed to my husband, finishes undressing me in cold silence. She bends a knee and bids me good night.
Shahryar pours a glass of wine, sniffing deeply before swallowing. "You were with the Caliph for a long while."
My heart pounds and I hope he does not misread the blush on my cheeks. "Yes. He wished to show me some gardens."
He takes another sip of wine and looks at the goblet distastefully. "It's too warm." He hurls it against the wall, where the chalice rings against the marble, spattering grape-red on the walls, on the carpets. "What did you speak of?"
I shake my head and his eyes narrow with dangerous suspicion. "What do you hide from me, little Shaherazade?" His voice is coaxing, silky and threatening.
I climb into the bed, lay my hand on his shoulder, and whisper into his ear, "I cannot tell you here. Do you not think these walls hear everything?" My voice resumes its normal volume. "I should very much like to see the Bait al-Hikma and the Papersellers' Street tomorrow. Will you accompany me, husband? The House of Wisdom is perhaps one of the few places in the world where every query stands a chance at finding an answer." It is clumsily done, but understanding sparks in his eye, and he seems satisfied.
"Well," he growls, "give these walls a story to listen to, will you?"
The quiet grumble of his voice sends a pleasurable jolt through my stomach and once more, I find myself flushing. I move to my customary sitting position (the palaces, the colleges, the trees of silver can all burn—this bed is Baghdad's greatest wonder, feather-stuffed and cold), but Shahryar stops me. "Douse the lamps and lie beside me. Speak me to sleep."
It is a strange intimacy to lie beside a man in the absolute dark, the sound of his breathing, the pound of his heart your only links to the space around you. My fingers hesitate, itching to pull myself closer to him, to nestle my cheek against his arm. Instead, I curl on my side and prop my head on my fist.
"Zainab and the parrot had traveled through high mountain passes, where snow and mica cast blinding reflections against the sun, where they were as close to the sky as any man had ever been, where the air was cold and clean and thin. The lake curled and coved, the turbid turquoise water reflecting back the black-and-white mountains that rimmed them, the green grass they stood on, the sliced glacier above.
"She peered into the water, seeing her face for the first time in months: it was narrower, the chin more pointed than she had remembered, her hair less lustrous. Her skin was no longer the careful, polished ivory borne of a lifetime spent in the confines of a palace, but a gleaming bronze, marked by rays of the sun, sweeps of wind.
"She turned to the parrot. 'Do you see any fish?' she asked.
"The parrot took wing and carefully circled the lake, hovering over thin reeds and pale blue sheets of ice that floated in the shade. His dark green feathers brushing softly against her cheek as he landed on her shoulder. "There are purple and green fish all around the edges, but the red fish swim only in the center or beneath the ice."
"Zainab squared her shoulders. "Right." Determinedly, she strode to a glazed corner of the lake, shivering as cold mountain shadow enveloped her. Falling to her knees, she examined the ice. Tell-tale glimmers of red pulsed beneath. Unfurling a rose and teal pashmina from her neck, Zainab bunched the two ends in her fists, dipped it into the water, and knocked on the ice soundly. Dozens of fish flickered forth and with a loud 'Aha!' Zainab pulled her shawl out. Eagerly, she poured out its contents onto the grass: cold water and scraggles of weeds. Her face fell. Red fish darted towards the center, impossibly out of reach.
"The parrot fluttered before Zainab. 'Perhaps I might be of assistance.' As she wrung out her shawl, the parrot flew to the center of the lake and dived once, twice, thrice. On the fourth try, Zainab saw something crimson flopping in his mouth. He dropped the cold wriggling fish into her open palms. The girl and the parrot watched with discomfort while the fish writhed, gasping and shuddering its gills until it finally stilled.
"She put the fish to steam on a lit mound of dried reeds and when its scarlet skin began to crack, she picked it off the flame and bit into it. She gagged as the flesh slipped down her throat. Blood dribbled down her chin. What I would give for a few slivers of garlic, she thought. Finished, she threw the skeleton into the fire where it smoked in a tall spiral. It started to spark: first yellow, and then green, blue, violet.
"Then, a voice boomed down on the parrot and Zainab, echoing in the circle of mountains, shaking against the glacier, sending wide ripples through the water. 'Who seeks my counsel?'"
Shahryar's breathing is slow and even. I trail off. "Are you awake?" I whisper, but between us, there is only silence. As his soft breaths rattle the air, the whispers of contented sleep, I cannot help but think: Why does he sleep? Does this story truly bore him so?