Reader, I take you to a sun-soaked land
'Cross oceans, mountains and deserts of sand.
Through the bazaar where rare wonders are sold
To a man upon a throne of pure gold.
With graven face he ponders kingly cares;
Who among his wives shall carry the heir?
Mansur al-Mahdi rested in the palace of his forefathers, lying on costly Asian silks stuffed with the softest goose down. On the marble walls were ancient tapestries, splendidly woven with gold thread, their scenes contrasting with the colorfully stained glass in the windows. Despite this luxury, the sultan frowned. The people were clamoring for an heir, and while he had several sons, none was yet named his successor. In his twenty-seven years on this earth, he had accumulated many wives and concubines through alliances and other means, but until his dear father, Allah keep his soul, suddenly died, he had not thought to make one his chief wife. Without one, if he died, the country would be thrown into turmoil over which son would become sultan.
But how to choose? They were all equal in his heart, if not in birth, and it troubled him that one might think herself greater than the rest. The sultan did not know what to do, and he sat in the room for a long time, interrupted by the muezzin calling for afternoon prayers. Making ablutions to Allah on his prayer mat, he finally found a solution. The women would prove their own worth.
The next day, they came before him, five of his favorite beauties assembled in the throne room. There was Li Hua, first of his wives, third daughter of the Emperor of China. Deferent and humble, she was a jewel of his court, with pale pink lips and plucked eyebrows that arched over her almond eyes. Her black hair was long and fine, trailing behind her as she walked, or put up on her head in complicated styles. The Chinese woman had been a gift for him, an exchange for peace between the two lands. The sultan could not understand why he could never quite tell how she actually felt. She made no complaints, nor frowned at his orders, but every now and then, something would flicker across her eyes, soon replaced with her gentle smile and the words, "As you wish, husband." It unnerved him, however, she had born him both a son, Tamam, and a daughter, Takiyah, the former eight years old, the latter merely five, so he was willing to forgive some small fault in her.
He had married Jahzara next, a huntress from the great lands to the south, who had wandered into his city one day and never left. She was the one who would bargain with traders from her homeland to keep their business and money flowing into the sultan's coffers. She was as, if not more blunt and outspoken than some of his advisors at court, but her judgment was sound, and hinted at hidden wisdom. As dark as the African night, Jahzara's brown eyes blazed at her target, looking at others as a lioness might look at her prey. However, she was also the most trusted woman in the harem, despite her fearsome appearance, the first one that others came to for help or advice. Her son Khoya seemed to have inherited her astuteness, as even at the tender age of seven, he had already assisted his father in matters of the state.
Smiling Xanthe was his next wife, a princess from a small Grecian island only a few days sailing from his capital. She had a happy demeanor, with an eternal laugh and fascination in everything. Many other women were jealous of her golden hair and eyes blue as sun-touched water, but any hard feelings were pushed aside, since it was nearly impossible to be angry at this charming presence. She was no cosseted, coddled princess, but headstrong, athletic, and very much in charge of her own life. It was she who had suggested to her father a political alliance between their two countries, and gone herself as the new bride of the sultan. Xanthe's easy mirth made her friends quickly in this strange country, and five years ago, she had given birth to a daughter, Hani, who assisted her mother in bringing joy around the harem, with her angelic curls and chubby face.
Mallika was the daughter of the King of India, a lithe, graceful woman with skin like sandalwood, nut-brown eyes, and hair that shone red in the sun. Like many of his other wives, hers had been an arranged marriage, creating a union linking the kingdoms. She still kept many of the customs of her homeland, bearing a painted red mark upon her forehead, and wore so many layers of jewelry that she made a pleasant jangling when she walked. It was her pride to have borne the sultan two fine sons, twins four years of age, Hikal and Kaorim, who had rapidly insured their place as troublemakers. Even though her own father was ruler of a larger domain than any of his other wives, she did not lord over his junior wives, but treated them with the same kindness she did any other. It was this benevolence that set her apart from some of the other women, ensuring her a place among the sultan's favorites.
Lastly was Ahmar, or that is what they called her. She was the newest of his wives, bought from a slave market in the city where the sultan had been entranced by her fiery hair. He had named her "red", taking the shy slave home and marrying her. It was not until she had learned his language that she told him her real name, Aideen, but by then, Ahmar had stuck, and she did not mind this new name. Her green eyes shone as deep as any cavern pool while her red hair tumbled from her shoulders like a waterfall of flames, curling to her waist. Ahmar was quiet, and tried to be unobtrusive, though her companions in the harem doted on the small woman. They all waited with anticipation the coming of the child in her belly, now only perhaps days away from birth. Many talked hopefully of another with her hair and eyes, but Ahmar assured them that as long as the child was healthy, she would not care about appearances.
The five looked puzzled as to why they were here, Xanthe sitting with Ahmar on a couch brought in by two eunuchs while the other three stood. "My wives," the sultan addressed them. "You must be aware that I have not picked one among you to be my chief wife. I now realize that this task must be done soon, but I do not wish to create controversy among yourselves. Here is my proposal: For the next five nights, each of you will take a turn telling me a story from your homeland. Whoever tells the best story shall become my chief wife and her son will become the next sultan."
The women looked among themselves. There were general nods and whispers. Xanthe spoke, "We believe that this is a fair trial, my lord. We shall await your summons on those nights."
A/N: Good so far? I actually have the whole story written (it was for a school project), so I'll be updating it once every few days, just to add some suspense. I'm rather annoyed at how the prologue drags on, but I think the descriptions were pretty good (if I do say so myself) Review and I might be tempted to update sooner. Don't, and I'll still update. Flame, and I'll use it to lower my heating bill.