The Ninety-Ninth Bride by Catherine F. King
Published 12/16/2014 | 9,560 Words
“When the Sultan has arrived and is at ease, ask that I tell you a story. Do you like stories?”
Dunya is just fifteen years of age when her father, the Grand Vizier, gives her over to the mad Sultan for his bride. Ninety-eight Sultanas before Dunya have been executed, slaughtered at the break of dawn following their first night with their new husband. But on her own wedding night, the ninety-ninth bride finds help from the mysterious and beautiful Zahra, who proposes to tell the Sultan a story…
Once there was a little girl, born at midnight during the Feast of the Sacrifice, in a certain city of Arabia. The baby’s mother, sighing, named her Dunya. Dunya means “the world,” but what her mother meant by that, no one ever knew, for her mother died that very night.
Dunya’s father did not grieve much; she had not been his favorite wife.
He left Dunya in his mother’s care, and did not give the girl a second thought. His mother, at first stunned by the intrusion of a new life in her secluded estate, soon grew to love her grandchild. So it was that Dunya grew up among the aged, among her grandmother’s friends and sisters-in-law. There, she listened to their stories and squabbles, and learned from them.
Like her aged teachers, she was frequently sick and never strong, and her father, when he visited, tut-tutted that she would not live very long.
Before Dunya grew to be very old at all, Death took away the first of her aged companions. Year by year, one after another of her friends laid down to rest, some in peace, some in pain. The last to hang on was Dunya’s grandmother herself, for she had her young charge to live for, but before Dunya’s thirteenth birthday even her grandmother succumbed.
Before dying, she called Dunya to her side, and gave the girl her final instructions.
“Dunya,” said the grandmother, “Do not be afraid for me, and do not weep; Death and I are old friends. Whatever place you reach in the world, you too must accept its embrace.”
And so, the old woman died.
After the funeral, Dunya was taken to her father’s house. There, no one listened to her or cared about what she had to say. There were six brothers and six sisters, all jostling for attention. There were three wives in constant competition. Looming above them all was the father, who served as the Grand Vizier to a powerful Sultan, and who was always occupied with his work.
The family lived a grand life in the capital of their sand-swept country. The Vizier, Dunya’s father, ordered manuscripts on medicine, astronomy, and theology from all corners of the world, though only his sons were allowed to touch them. He hosted banquets which drew the greatest and richest in the land. His eldest wife hired the finest musicians and reciters to perform at his home. From time to time, even the Sultan would deign to visit them.
When he did visit, he would bring his Sultana. She was unlike any other woman in the city, a pearl from the far North, with pale skin, vigilantly guarded from the sun, and hair that fell down her back like a river of gold and silver. But to Dunya, the woman’s most marvelous grace was her kindness. When they sat in the women’s quarters to dine, the Sultana listened to every woman like a sister, from the servants to the Vizier’s first wife, and she was always especially kind to Dunya. And so Dunya was happy when they visited.
When Dunya was fifteen, the Sultana died suddenly, and the Sultan went mad.
For once, her stepmothers were afraid to gossip. In their silence, Dunya heard the echo of fear. The Vizier prepared to send his family into the countryside without him.
“To better attend to my duties here,” he said, when they asked.
One night, Dunya came upon her father, bent with worry. He looked haggard and worn. Dunya was shy of him, but she could not let him sit there, so melancholy, without helping. She brought him a glass of sharbat and a plate of flaky pastries, and while he ate, she ventured to ask him what made him so afraid.
“I am only a daughter,” she said, “and I know little, but perhaps I can help.”
Her father spoke as if to himself, or to the empty air, as if he could not believe the words he was saying. “The Sultan has gone mad. His madness would destroy a lesser man; in him, it may destroy our Kingdom, too. He demands a gift from each of his viziers, to show our heartfelt loyalty to him.”
“Is there anything I could do?” Dunya asked.
As she said that, her father looked up at her. His eyes were ringed with dark circles, but a cunning look, the look of a politician, gleamed within them. “What would you do,” he asked, “to help your father?”
“Anything,” Dunya said. “I only want to help.”
He stared somewhere past her, beyond her. “I must prove my loyalty to the Sultan,” he said. “And you, with more filial piety than any other child of mine… you will help me.”
He did not answer her question of how, but sent her to bed. The next morning he bade her don her veils to go out, and he took her to the palace.
He led her through the gates, past the main palace with its screened windows, past the fountains and the glorious gardens. She was brought to a pavilion set apart from the main palace, small and ivory-colored among the roses. Inside, the air was heavily perfumed, the sounds muffled by damask curtains and pillows. In the gloom Dunya glimpsed women with painted faces, pleading with her father for help.
Her father did not heed their cries, any more than he would have if he were made of stone. He found an aged woman sitting on a couch, playing chess. He sat Dunya next to the woman, forcibly.
“Now be good,” he told her, “and obey the guards, and listen to this woman here. Remember, you are doing your family, and your father, a great favor.”
Dunya was so stunned she could not speak. She watched her father leave.
When the door shut, Dunya looked around. The women had fallen silent, and were staring at her. Dunya drew her veil closer around her, and grew very afraid. She didn’t belong here: she felt little and lost. She looked at the woman that her father had given her to. She was the oldest woman in the place, her hair gone gray, streaked with black.
“Please, Grandmother, where am I?” Dunya asked.
The old woman laughed. “Grandmother! Am I as old as all that? You may call me Morgiana. And you are in the palace harem.”
“The harem?” Dunya repeated. “Why would my father leave me in the harem?”
“Was that really your father?” asked the woman across the chessboard from Morgiana. “The Grand Vizier? I thought you were a girl he pulled in off the street.”
“Now, now,” said Morgiana. She fetched tea, while other women gathered around, inspecting Dunya with cold, dark eyes. When Morgiana returned, Dunya said, “Last night, my father said that the Sultan had gone mad. Today he brought me here. Someone, please tell me what is going on.”
So Morgiana explained.
“The Sultana betrayed the Sultan. He found her in the arms of another man– her bodyguard. He slew her on the spot.”
“I heard tell,” said the chess-playing concubine, toying with a rook, “that the Vizier found the Sultan drenched in blood. I heard that the Sultan’s only words to him were, ‘It was over too quickly.’”
“Hush, Shirin,” said Morgiana. “The Sultan has gone mad indeed. Having killed his first wife, he now picks his way through the women of the harem. He takes one of us to be his Sultana each day; the concubine chosen is imprisoned in his bedchamber, until he visits her. At the next dawn, the Sultan leaves his chamber and orders his Sultana executed.”
“But why?” Dunya asked.
“Because he is the Sultan,” answered Shirin.
Morgiana said, “Because he wants to continue punishing his wife.”
“Because we are all the same to him,” Shirin added.
“Because he is enamored of death,” Morgiana finished. “He has taken eighty-seven of us for Sultanas so far, including poor Yasmeen, taken just an hour hence. Before her it was Lironi, the prize of Jerusalem, and before that, Zumurrud, of Samarkand. If the Sultan trusts his concubines so little, he must be demanding great shows of loyalty from his viziers.”
“You’ve just become a show of good faith, little girl,” Shirin said, capturing a pawn.
In a small voice, Dunya said, “I am sorry for your plight.” She looked around at the harem women. There were exactly twelve left, including herself.
“Do not be sorry for me,” Morgiana replied. “I am not afraid. I am only sorry that your father used you in such a way.”
“At this rate,” Shirin observed, “you will be the ninety-ninth of the Sultan’s brides. How auspicious!”
Dunya started to cry. She would be sixteen in a month’s time, and her own father had given her over to be a prisoner in the keep of a madman. None in the Sultan’s harem told her to stop crying, or to be brave. They offered what kindnesses they could, but each woman was held fast within their own fear.
Fortunately, they were given a reprieve. The next day, after executing Yasmeen, the Sultan announced that he was going on a hunting trip, leaving the palace—and his marriages—for two weeks. Shirin, ever sharp, said that when he was hunting he slaked his thirst to kill. Morgiana said that she hoped the time spent in nature would soothe his soul.
Two weeks passed. Dunya had learned the names of all of the concubines, and was learning chess from them, when the Sultan returned to the Capital.
Four of his bodyguards came to the harem. They frightened Dunya, these tall men with black skin and sharp eyes. Their gleaming swords separated Shirin from the rest of them, as an attendant covered her with veils of red and white. They led her away. She was glimmering and beautiful, and her jaw clamped shut, lest she curse the Sultan and his entire revered ancestry.
From then on there was no reprieve. After ten days, the only ones left in the harem were Morgiana and Dunya, and then, on the eve of Dunya’s sixteenth birthday, Morgiana was summoned out.
Dunya was prepared to cry herself to exhaustion for the rest of the day, but to her surprise, Sultana Morgiana called Dunya to the royal bedchamber. Dunya went there, escorted by guards, and rejoiced to see her friend still living.
“The Sultan thinks himself a merciful man,” Morgiana said by way of greeting, “for he always grants his wives the mercy of spending their last hours with a friend. And I understand it is your birthday?”
Dunya said that it was, and Morgiana ordered the palace servants to bring out pastries and wine, as haughtily as if she had been doing this all her life. She relaxed onto the cushions of silk from distant China, and gestured through the cedar screen to the palace gardens.
“Look at this splendor. Such glory and grandeur! Would you believe that all these years, my fondest wish has been to escape?”
Dunya shook her head, awed.
“I’ve walked every inch of these grounds. I have found many marvels. In the garden there are trees whose leaves murmur and sing lullabies to themselves, and a fountain that spurts water as cold as ice. In the palace’s basement, there is a carpet, woven in red and black. It has a great magic in it… though I’ve never been able to name what that magic is. A scholar would dream of finding such a menagerie of wonders. But I have never wanted anything more than freedom.”
She continued, as the evening went on, “I was brought here from a faraway land, a country that bordered the sea. Have you ever seen the sea? Can you imagine how vast it is? Ah, I sometimes think that even I have forgotten what it was really like.”
“How did you come to be here?” Dunya asked.
“I was captured. A prisoner of war. I was brought here to grace the bed of the previous Sultan, but instead he left me to languish and wait. Like thieves, forty years have taken away bits of my life. But I am not afraid. Come tomorrow, I will be at last free. I hope you will have a pleasant Festival of Sacrifices, and a wonderful birthday.”
After that, the Sultan was announced. He entered the bedchamber, tall and forbidding, and sent Dunya away without even looking at her. Two of the Sultan’s bodyguards escorted her back to the empty harem.
She did not sleep that night.
At sunrise, Morgiana died, though Dunya did not witness this.
At noon, attendants came to the harem, and wrapped Dunya in the red and white veils. Trembling like a rose in a storm, she was brought before the Sultan, and a holy man. Some prayers and promises were said, and just like that, she was Dunya, the little Sultana.
With the title of Sultana came immediate responsibilities. To fulfil her spiritual obligations, she was guided to the royal mosque under armed guard, to honor the Feast of the Sacrifice.
Prayer, that was still within her power. Listening to the imam, that was a skill she had long since mastered. She listened to his words, and prayed as well as she could, while trying to order her tormented soul to be peaceful.
The imam in his prayer recounted the day when Abraham bound his beloved son Ismail to the altar rock to be sacrificed before Allah. At the last moment, Allah sent an angel to stay Abraham’s knife. But Dunya’s mind lingered on the image of the ram with its horns tangled in thorns. Did the ram think that was fair? Was the ram grateful to Allah?
Silently, Dunya the Sultana prayed for the souls of Morgiana, Shirin, and the others; she prayed for her family; but in her most honest heart, she prayed that Allah would send a way to save her.
Night fell, and after presiding at a feast where she could not eat a morsel, the Sultana had to retire to her rooms. Dunya entered the bedchamber, just as luxurious and beautiful and perfect as it had been the night before.
She sat in the same place as Morgiana, looking out the window restlessly.
It had been a long day, and she was very tired. She laid her head down on the pillow and slept as the stars came out.
She woke up suddenly. The lanterns were dim, the starlight was bright in the room, and there was a strange woman in the bedchamber with her.
“Do not be afraid,” the woman said, before Dunya could cry out. “I am here to help you.”
And Dunya, looking at the woman, was not afraid. The woman was very beautiful. She was tall and strong beneath rich black robes glinting with silver. Her hair was black and glossy, and her eyes were as brilliant as diamonds.
“Who are you?” Dunya asked.
“I have been watching over you since the day you were born, young Dunya,” said the woman, with a gentle smile.
“What is your name?” Dunya was now quite confused.
“You may call me Zahra,” the woman answered. “May I presume to make a request?”
Dunya, bewildered and wondering if the woman could have possibly scaled the palace walls, nodded.
“When the Sultan has arrived and is at ease, ask that I tell you a story. Do you like stories?” Zahra asked.
Before Dunya could answer (or ask another question), the Sultan entered. His eyes were full of anger, despite the sanctity of the night. He shed his robes of state like a snake shedding his skin. As he passed into the bedchamber, he looked around for his bride.
Dunya shrank back, afraid of him, but Zahra stepped forward, greeted him, and called him “Husband.” The Sultan looked suspicious, perhaps comparing the tall figure before him with the diminutive form he had married that morning. He pointed to Dunya, curled up against the screen.
“Who is that?” He demanded.
“You don’t recognize her?” Zahra answered. “She is my little sister, come to keep me company in my last hours. We are the daughters of your faithful Vizier.” She was so graceful, so elegant, that the man forgot the small lady in the corner entirely.
After a time, when Zahra’s charms failed to move him any longer, the Sultan took himself to a table, set against the western wall. He pulled a cloth away to uncover a tray full of silver blades, all shapes and sizes, glinting in the lamplight. He picked the instruments up, one by one, and toyed with them.
Dunya started to breathe too quickly, fear stealing her breath, but Zahra seemed not perturbed at all. She called for wine to be poured, and asked Dunya to sit at her knee. As Dunya settled herself comfortably, she looked up at Zahra—uncertain if she looked at a blessing from Allah, or a cunning thief, or maybe both—and asked, “Sister, would you please tell me a story?”
“If the Sultan does not object,” Zahra answered.
The Sultan did not object, but waved his hand in a generous gesture. He turned to them, now sharpening a blade with a whetstone.
“Dunya,” Zahra looked at the girl with a sly and curious expression, “do you know the story of Ali Baba, the forty thieves, and the slave girl?”
Dunya shook her head. And Zahra began her story.
She began to tell Dunya about a poor woodcutter named Ali Baba, who chanced upon a bandit’s treasure trove. Ali Baba stole their gold with the help of the magic words, “Open, Sesame!”
But what had seemed like a marvelous boon turned into a deadly threat. Ali Baba told his brother, Caseem, about the treasure, and against Ali Baba’s warning, Caseem sought out the cave himself. In his delight at finding more gold than he could fit into his saddlebags, Caseem forgot the spell to leave the cave, “Close, Sesame!”
Well, Caseem reasoned, in his gold-filled prison, he could fight off the cave’s owner. He was a strong man, he could take a cowardly bandit or two. But when he heard the words “Open, Sesame!” the door opened to reveal forty thieves. They stared in surprise at an intruder in their treasury—but they weren’t surprised for long.
After three days, Ali Baba sought out Caseem at the cave, and found his elder brother murdered in a manner most gruesome for his greed. Ali Baba retrieved his brother’s body, took him home for burial, and put out the word that Caseem had died of a sudden illness. All that had been the brother’s now belonged to Ali Baba—and first among these assets was a slave girl, known to be both brave and clever, whose name was Morgiana.
Dunya lost her breath, but the Sultan did not react in any visible way. And Zahra continued her tale.
Ali Baba grieved for his brother, but he also knew that the bandits would want to track down whoever had taken away Caseem’s body and stolen their gold. Though his grief was terrible, he noticed that the dead man’s slave had dry eyes and a clear head. So Ali Baba took Morgiana into his counsel, explained their dire situation in full, and trusted her to choose the best course to outwit the bandits.
The thieves’ leader, eager to reclaim his stolen loot, asked for a volunteer to trace the man who had found his way into their stronghold. The bravest of the thieves eagerly accepted the task. The young man traced the gold to Ali Baba’s house, and under the noonday sun marked Ali Baba’s door with chalk, so that the thieves could find it again at night. But clever Morgiana, who shirked from no task, outwitted the thieves by marking every door in the district with chalk. The bravest of the thieves was executed for his stupidity.
That thief’s brother, eager to restore the family honor, volunteered next to find Ali Baba’s house, and the stolen gold. He successfully retraced his brother’s route, and chipped away a piece of the stone stair leading to Ali Baba’s door. But Morgiana saw him, and she had tools of her own. She wasted no time, chipping away at the stones of every house in the neighborhood, and a few others besides. The thief tasked with finding the door was also executed, and presumably joined his brother in eternal frustration.
But on the third time, the bandit leader took the task on himself. He found Ali Baba’s house, and he memorized every part of the door and its location, so he would not forget it. And on that very night…
At that very moment, the rising sun entered the chamber. Zahra fell silent.
Dunya had leaned close to the storyteller, hanging onto every word, and, now that the words had ceased, hanging on to silence. Even the Sultan was sitting on the side of the bed, his eyes wide and staring.
“What?” the Sultan said. “Go on! What happened next?”
“My Lord, I do not have time,” Zahra replied, dropping her eyes. The bold elocutionist had vanished, replaced by a meek, obedient, perfect wife. “The sun has risen. It is time for my execution.”
And so it was. Already the guards to the bedchamber were assembling to escort the Sultana to her doom.
The Sultan strode to Zahra and, seizing her by the shoulders, shook her. “You will finish the story! I am the Sultan! I command it!”
“But Sultan, the story will take hours. You have many duties that await you. Even now, I hear the call to prayer.” Zahra’s voice was reverent, pious, and quiet. “You will likely need breakfast, and a short rest. My lord, I assure you, I would rather die than cause you the slightest inconvenience.”
They stood there, at a stalemate, until Dunya had an idea. She said, “My lord? You could spare her—my sister, that is—for today. And she can finish the story tonight.”
She dearly wanted to know what became of Morgiana and the forty (now thirty-seven) thieves.
The Sultan paused, then leapt upon the idea. “Spare her? Yes. Yes! I will spare her. Guards!”
The guards, and the Grand Vizier, entered the chamber, much surprised when the Sultan pointed to Zahra. He commanded, “Keep a watch on this wife of mine. See to it that no man enters and that she does not leave this chamber.”
“But what about the sentence of execution?” the Vizier asked, cautiously.
“For today, it is suspended. But only for today.”
The Sultan left at once. The Grand Vizier, Dunya’s father, remained. He looked to Zahra, and then to Dunya. “Who is this woman?” he asked his daughter.
“She arrived in the night. She’s saved my life; that’s enough for me to trust her.”
The Vizier looked at Zahra.
“Do not be afraid,” she told him.
But the Vizier seemed to be quite afraid. He followed after his Sultan.
When the men left, Dunya breathed easily again. She took breakfast, and promptly fell asleep.
She woke up in the afternoon, wondering where she was. Then she remembered Morgiana, and her heart ached, but Zahra was in the bedroom with her, standing by the window. So Dunya forced herself awake, to face the day. She ventured past the door of the bedroom, past the tall black guards. She stepped slowly and fearfully, but they did not stop her. So she found her way to the kitchens, and politely asked the chef for food.
The chef, charmed by her manners, let her take whatever she liked. So she piled a plate high with her favorites—nuts and dates, spiced lamb pies and pickled beets. She had had a very trying few days, she told herself, and deserved something nice.
She took her food back to the bedchamber, and offered some to Zahra.
Zahra was reading a scroll, and did not appear to have rested at all, but she was still as beautiful as ever. She took two dates and two almonds, but refused any more, thanking Dunya for her kindness.
When the sun set, the Sultan returned. He threw himself on the bed and commanded Zahra, “Now, you will finish the story!”
“Of course,” Zahra said, smiling again.
She resumed the tale, and Dunya listened, rapt, as Zahra told how Morgiana outwitted the bandit leader yet again. The leader prepared an ambush, setting thirty-seven vast oil jugs in Ali Baba’s house, each jug holding a bloodthirsty thief. But Morgiana heated olive oil until it was boiling, and, with no mercy or hesitation, filled the jugs, one by one, with the oil. The bandit leader caught the stench of burning flesh and fled in terror, never to bother Ali Baba again.
To honor Morgiana’s guile and courage, Ali Baba set her free—but, Zahra added, Morgiana still worked in the household of Ali Baba, for after all, how could a slave possibly expect to navigate the wide world, with the sudden gift of freedom?
“Quite so, quite so,” the Sultan said, nodding at the addition. “Slaves and dogs are kept close, for their own protection.”
But the story wasn’t yet finished. With a rich costume for disguise and a dagger at his waist, the bandit leader returned to Ali Baba’s house, with revenge on his mind. Ali Baba, giddy with his new wealth, welcomed the man, but Morgiana recognized the bandit leader. She dressed as a dancer, with a dagger of her own tucked away. After dinner, she presented herself as the evening’s entertainment. With a simpering smile, she spun and twirled closer to Ali Baba and his guest of honor, while the music rose and the flames flickered, until, with a gleam and a short cry, her dagger found its place in the bandit leader’s heart. Morgiana ceased her dance and, with a bow to Ali Baba, drew off the bandit leader’s disguise.
In awe and in gratitude, Ali Baba embraced Morgiana as his daughter, and gave her a daughter’s share of his fortune. And they all lived quite happily ever after.
The Sultan thought that to be a needlessly romantic ending, but Dunya was almost ready to cry. She was so happy to hear that Morgiana—even a Morgiana within a tale—had won her freedom, and a high place in the world. And Dunya’s heart eased, a little, from its grief.
“Would you like to hear another tale?” Zahra asked.
“Yes!” said Dunya and the Sultan at once.
And so Zahra began another tale. This tale was about a fisherman of Sri Lanka, a man named Kharoush, whose wife was never happy. His wife’s name was Shirin.
One day, the couple met a talking fish, which promised them three wishes if they would grant the fish three favors in return. And those favors involved seeking revenge on a djinn, and giving a sword to a princess, and finding a tree that was an enchanted woman… each leading to more adventures and stories. And Shirin’s cleverness and sharp tongue got her into trouble as often as it got her out of it, but she learned to temper her anger, and her husband learned to curb his greed, and before the story was over, they had learned to live together in love and respect. And so they did, Zahra assured them, for many years.
Except, this story did not take a night. Right when the djinn swore it would kill Kharoush and Shirin, the sun rose. Again Zahra halted the story, pleading that it was time for her death. Again, the Sultan delayed her death, and hastened, in an evil mood, to the affairs of his Kingdom. It took three nights to complete the tale of Shirin, Kharoush, and the Talking Fish, and by then Dunya had an understanding of Zahra’s plan.
By the time Dunya had been married to the Sultan for three weeks—and he still paid her little heed—her father, with the Sultan’s other advisors, approached her to congratulate her on living so long.
“That cunning woman may not be the rightful Sultana,” Dunya’s father said to her, “but her stories, of which you told us, seem to be doing no harm. But they are not doing any good, either.”
Dunya asked her father what he meant by that.
“The Sultan is growing more distracted,” he explained. “He is paying less and less notice to the affairs of his Kingdom. If you could persuade him, as his wife, to talk to us, his council of viziers, that would do a great deal of good…”
“He barely notices me,” Dunya told them. “He sees Zahra as his wife.”
But her father waved a hand, already turning away. “You have kept your head this long; you’ll find a way to bring it up to him.”
That night, when they were hearing the tale of Yasmeen (a bawdy and comic tale, when Dunya heard the Sultan laugh for the first time), Dunya broke into the action by timidly asking the Sultan if he could consider turning his attention to the affairs of state.
The Sultan grew wrathful. He cursed her in every way he knew for daring to interrupt. By the time he was finished, Dunya was trembling and pale and certain she would die. He finished with, “If you are so intent on the affairs of the Kingdom, you can run them, you presumptuous worm!” He turned his back to her, and commanded Zahra to proceed.
So she did. Dunya, meanwhile, recovered from her fear, bit by bit. In the morning, she sought out the viziers, and told them that the Sultan had given her permission to judge on his behalf.
The other viziers did not quite believe the diminutive Sultana, but her father reminded them that she had survived being married to the Sultan for a month.
So they confided in her the secrets of state.
Dunya had no idea how a country should be run, but she remembered her grandmother’s wisdom. This was the place she had reached in the world, however briefly, and she must grow to meet it. She listened to her advisors, and learned all that she could from them. But she wondered, privately, was that truly enough?
After she had finished the tale of Yasmeen, Zahra began another tale. This was about a king who liked to disguise his royal station, and wander among the people of his city. He was visiting the poorest, dirtiest section—the Jewish ghetto—when he heard a song of joy coming from a humble shack. Inside he found a shoemaker named Lironi, whose faith and joy in her God were great, and who trusted in her God to carry her day by day—
“Why is it always a woman?” the Sultan demanded. “Your stories are always about women. Why can’t you tell a story about a man, for once? Or can’t you think of someone unlike yourself for a full minute?”
“But this story does have a man in it,” Zahra explained, so meek and mild. “It has the King.”
The Sultan continued to argue, before eventually capitulating and letting her resume her story, but Dunya had had an idea.
The next day, after her by-now-habitual morning nap, Dunya shed her royal garments and disguised herself as a peasant. She slipped into the kitchen, told the chef of her plan, and followed the man into the city as he shopped for the day’s food. Dunya fancied herself very like the Sultan within Zahra’s story. She trod carefully, and followed the chef closely, but did not find out enough for her liking. So, the next day, she went back.
Over the course of many days, she went back into the city, visiting slum and ghetto, fountain and park, learning more and more about the people, and how they lived and thought. Long after the Jewish shoemaker Lironi had won out against adversity, and she and the King had gone off singing, arm-in-arm, Dunya continued to roam the city undetected. In the palace, her new knowledge informed her decisions. Now her ideas frankly alarmed the viziers, but she held fast to them, and owned to whatever consequences resulted, good or bad.
When Dunya asked questions of the common folk, she received sound common sense in return, and was treated to long histories of neighborhoods and neighborly disputes. When she listened closely to their words, (and noticing when they were silent), she heard whispers of fear, fear of the Sultan. All that Dunya heard, she kept to her heart.
She learned almost as much from the common people as she did from Zahra. Zahra’s tales enchanted Dunya, repeating themselves in her head when she was awake. She found more to learn from them, and more to wonder at, the more she thought of them.
What had begun as tenuous days turned into weeks, then months. After a year, her father and the other viziers were quite used to reporting to Dunya instead.
All the while, Zahra never left the royal bedchamber but continued to invent incredible stories. She allowed the Sultan to take her, but never seemed dimmed by his violence, although she always sent Dunya away before those encounters.
As for the Sultan…
If a person had met him, and not realized whom they met, they would have thought him a man most distracted. A child unaware that they were in the presence of the Radiant Keeper of the Kingdom, might ask their mother why the strange man had so many dark circles under his eyes. If a person did not know who he was, they might have thought him mad.
But he was the Sultan, so no one thought him mad.
“Eccentric,” his viziers explained.
“Passionately devoted to his new wife,” the courtiers assured themselves.
“As prime and fit as ever!” boasted the generals and officers. “As keen as a lion!”
The Sultan, although he had technically given permission for Dunya to make judgments in his stead, never quite recognized her presence. When he was awake enough, he would stumble into the meetings of his viziers, banning this visit, or vetoing that military action. Anything that would take him from the Capital must be avoided, he said. He would not miss a single one of his wife’s stories.
After Zahra told her three hundredth tale, the Sultan was finally persuaded to take a hunting trip. The courtiers missed the countryside, and he needed to unwind. He departed, giving a list of terrible edicts towards his wife. If she left her bedchambers, she died. If she talked to any man, she died. If she was heard laughing from outside the bedchamber, she died.
Zahra only smiled her enigmatic smile when the rules were explained to her. She lowered her head and murmured that her only wish was the Sultan’s command.
The seventh night after the Sultan was away, and Dunya was enjoying having the run of the bedroom to herself, Zahra stood up, wrapped her black veil around herself, and vanished. Dunya went from room to room but lost sight of her. She curled up on the bed, very alone and starting to be afraid again.
She awoke when Zahra re-entered the bedchamber.
“Do not be afraid,” the woman said. She hurried to the brazier and began to draw off her veils. A soft cry filled the room. Dunya drew closer and saw a baby, colored blue as marble, but growing warmer by the fire, taking on a human color, and beginning to squirm and cry.
“What have you done?” Dunya asked.
“I have given the Sultan a son,” Zahra replied.
“I do not think that is the usual way that Sultans acquire sons,” Dunya said, now very confused.
“Nor is this the usual fate for a stillborn child of the steppes,” Zahra replied, “yet here we are.”
And Dunya did not ask any more questions.
After seven days, the Sultan returned, and he was proud to find a son in his wife’s arms. The son was named after his own father, and the baby thrived.
The Kingdom celebrated, the viziers breathed a sigh of relief, and the succession was secure.
The baby grew, and Dunya attended to him with what spare time she had, but that was not much. She was very busy, for she continued to go into the city and listen, and in the afternoons she attended to the affairs of the Kingdom. She was beginning to learn to manage her responsibilities quite well.
Zahra’s tales continued, growing ever more wondrous. Now she told of Sinbad the Sailor, who told the stories of his seven adventures to his doting but doubtful mother, Zammurud.
Every day the Sultan delayed Zahra’s execution, and every night he continued to speak to her as if she could be killed for the first impetuous word. But her words were never impetuous; they were elegant and beautiful, and her tone was always perfectly meek.
After two years, Dunya was still afraid of the Sultan, but some other emotion frequently eclipsed her fear. It took some time for her to name it as annoyance. The Sultan thought only of himself; he never had a kind word, even for his son; was impatient about the meanest trifles, and was petty and belittling in his speech. Aside from the threat he posed to her life and the life of Zahra, whom she counted as a dear friend, he was simply an aggravating man to live with. Gradually, irritation began to win over her fear.
One morning, after the Sultan had left them, Zahra looked at Dunya very keenly, and said, “You are not very happy, are you?”
“No,” Dunya admitted. “How should I be? Every minute my life, or yours, is in grave danger, relying on the whims of a violent and small-minded man. The Crown Prince grows daily, but I do not have enough time to attend to him and to the Kingdom. Which is more important? The city and the Kingdom, or the happiness of one little boy?”
“That is a good question,” Zahra replied, smoothing back Dunya’s hair. “The little boy is happy. He is in the care of kind people who love him, and he is learning fast. I think that I shall give the Sultan another child.”
Soon after this, the Sultan went on another hunting trip, and again Zahra vanished by night.
Dunya still was not peaceful. She began to wonder about who Zahra really was, and why she had been sent to help her. When Zahra returned, she did not hurry to the brazier, as she had done before. Instead she went to the ewer of cold water, and began to wash something.
Dunya, when she approached, found another baby, a second boy, who smelled strongly of smoke and coughed up a storm. Dunya observed, “I see you have given the Sultan another son.”
“Another son of the steppes?” Dunya asked.
“This boy comes from the seaside. But even cities by water must beware fire.” Zahra continued to wash the boy.
“Does he come from the same city as Morgiana?” Dunya asked.
“That matters no longer. Now, he is a Prince.”
The Sultan was equally pleased with the gift of a second son. Another feast was announced, another celebration held throughout the land, for the succession was doubly secure.
All this time, Zahra’s stories spun out, linking each night to the next one with magic and poetry.
The seasons turned and the round of festivals never ceased. Soon it was the Feast of the Sacrifice once again, three years to the day that Dunya and Zahra had wed the Sultan.
Dunya arranged the festivities, from the feast to be shared with the poor, to the fireworks imported from China, to dance in the night sky. On the day of the festival itself, the Sultan’s two sons were presented to him, in his wives’ presence. Dunya was glad to see how they thrived. The Sultan, for his part, greeted them stiffly.
After midnight, when they retired to the bedchamber, the Sultan spoke of the little boys, but not with affection.
“I looked for sons and found milksops,” he said to his wife. “I’ll see them become soldiers, mark my words, not boys clinging to their nurse’s skirts.”
Dunya could not keep silent at this. She interrupted, saying, “All of their maids and tutors say that they’re both clever and loving. Surely, my lord, you can let them remain children for a little time?”
He dismissed her with a wave of his hand, still scowling. Gracefully Zahra changed the subject.
“My lord,” she said, “by my tally, today is a great anniversary. The moon sees the one thousand and first night since we were wed, and I began my tales. Excluding, of course, your excursions to hunt lions.” She drew out, from an ebony chest, a bottle of green glass, and showed it to the Sultan.
“I presume to offer,” she said, “A vintage that I laid down the night that we were wed.”
The Sultan laughed darkly. “You thought you should live to see another day? Not one in a hundred of my Sultanas had such happy odds.”
Zahra quietly said, “I do not forget. Not even one of them. I clung to hope, my lord. As I do now.”
The Sultan laughed and bade her never run out of tricks.
Zahra poured two glasses of wine, and sipped at hers. As the Sultan drank, Zahra finished the tale that she had begun a week prior, a strange and dream-like tale of a woman who escaped the gaze of a basilisk by smoking powdered poppy seed and looking into a black mirror.
Then, Zahra proposed another tale.
“Tell it, by all means,” said the Sultan, “If your head likes the neck on which it sits.”
“Once,” Zahra began, “there was a princess whose hair was like gold and silver as it cascaded down her back. Her smile was the smile of the rose, and her heart was as a lotus, overflowing and offering to all. Her name was Farizad.”
The Sultan almost choked on his wine.
Dunya kept her composure, despite her fear. For Farizad was the name of the Sultan’s first wife, the wife who had betrayed him, the wife who had always been kind to Dunya when she was nothing but a neglected daughter.
“Farizad had all the learning that befits a princess, she had all the graces that befit a woman, but she lacked one thing: parents who loved her. Her parents instead had a mind for fortunes, and for titles, and for how much gold they could amass to line their coffins when they died. They sought to acquire more, unaware of the gift they already possessed.
“One day, a terrible creature came to their house. This creature promised the parents precious metals and as many titles as they could wish, if they would give him their daughter, with gold and silver hair.
“I am sad to say, the parents did not hesitate an instant before handing her over. Farizad’s mother told her to bear the creature’s wrath with grace; her father told her to bear sons.
“There was a grand wedding, but Farizad quaked when she sat beside her new husband, for he could…”
“Halt, halt!” the Sultan said. “I know this tale. She came to love the creature after seeing the way he tended to his garden of roses. With her love the spell came undone, and the creature was revealed to be a handsome prince. I am grown wise to your tricks, wife—you’ve told this story before!”
“This is not that kind of story,” Zahra replied, her voice flat. Her eyes dared the Sultan to interrupt again.
The Sultan, taken aback, said nothing. Finally it was Dunya who asked Zahra to continue.
“The creature that had claimed Farizad for his bride was most terrifying, for only she could see his true shape. He had the power to disguise himself and take human form. To all others, he appeared the very zenith of courtly manners and valiant courage. He appeared, in fact, as a Sultan.”
“What filth are you uttering?” the Sultan demanded. But Zahra did not stop.
“Farizad toiled, day and night, to be kind, to be patient, to be obedient, as her mother had told her. She tried to calm her husband, to nurture some seed of goodness within him, but she met with nothing but wrath and greed, and a delight in the pain of others. The people loved her, for she was kind to all, even to unwanted step-daughters, but the walls of her bedchamber echoed with weeping, more nights than I care to tell.
“One day an embassy arrived from an African empire. The empire was rich with gold, and its emperor was eager to forge alliances with other nations, especially those that heed the word of our beloved Prophet. To this end, he gifted a squadron of soldiers to the monster-Sultan as a token of friendship, delivering men as though they were animals. Twelve soldiers, drilled to perfection, and brave as steel, became part of the Sultan’s household. Proud of them, the monster made half of them his own bodyguards, and half of them his wife’s.
“These soldiers were each well-favored, with skin like flawless ebony and eyes keen with intelligence. But one soldier, assigned to Farizad’s protection, was kind-hearted as well. Over time, Farizad began to welcome him as a friend, and then fell in love with him.
“Despite their wisdom, the worries of Farizad’s ladies-in-waiting, and the warnings of the man’s brothers-in-arms, the two indulged in their love, seeing it as a gift from Allah, sent to relieve their sorrow. The exiled soldier, the miserable Sultana. But they were careless, and one night Farizad’s husband, the monster, found them making love. He raised his claw and—”
“Slew them!” the Sultan cried, getting to his feet. “He slew them like the animals that they were, the ungrateful swine, the scum of the earth! He granted her a clean death, better than she deserved! How dare you speak that woman’s name in my presence? How dare you?”
“I only tell the tale, your Majesty,” Zahra replied.
“You understand nothing, you feeble-minded, simpering woman. Your bag of tricks is emptied at the last. See me as a monster…” The Sultan strode across the room, pacing it like a caged animal, glaring at Zahra with eyes full of fury. “I am merciful to you, am I not? I stay my hand, I spare your life. From one border to another my subjects proclaim my piety!”
For the first time, Dunya raised her voice to the Sultan. She said to him, “Your name is uttered in fear and hatred by your subjects. Be quiet again, and let Zahra finish.” She turned to Zahra, and asked, “What happened to them? To Farizad and the soldier?”
Zahra waited a few moments before answering as she re-arranged her veils around her. Finally she said, “I took them.”
Dunya was nearly as confused as the Sultan was. When asked to explain, Zahra said, “I took them. You cut Farizad through her heart, and you beheaded the soldier, Chemharu, on the spot, and I took them away to where you could never hurt them again. That is as far as their story goes; I can tell no more. Sultan, why not have more wine?”
In the silence that followed, Dunya asked, “Zahra, who are you?”
The Sultan said, “The Sultana must not utter blasphemies.”
Zahra looked up at him and said, “What blasphemy?”
“What blasphemy? It must be blasphemy, to lie to a Sultan, to tell him one distracting story after another, and for what? To save your head? And what do you mean, you took them away?”
“I was sent here,” Zahra answered. “I was sent here by the Judge. I hovered long over this Kingdom, taking bride after bride. I took women who wept, women who forgave the men ordered to kill them, brides who dared Allah to claim their fiery souls. On and on, until the Merciful One sent me to you in this form, to stop the sacrifice, and see if my wisdom could calm your heart. One thousand and one chances have you had. I hoped for your salvation; if your heart softened, my eyes would be keenest to find it. But, I grieve to say, your heart is not calmed. I have been to you a loving, faithful wife, yet still you hold the sword above my head.”
“But who are you?” the Sultan cried. Dunya, her soul filled with awe, had already guessed. She knelt, silent, and watched.
Zahra’s black veils lifted around her, carried up as if in a great wind, until they seemed to flap and stretch of their own volition. And the threads of silver in the black glinted, and the glints widened until they became eyes, blinking in the smoke of the brazier. Zahra seemed to grow taller and lovelier still, until the eye hurt to behold her.
“I am an Angel of Allah, the Watchful, the Judge,” she said, “I am the Angel of Death. And I pass sentence upon you.”
Dunya bowed to the floor, hiding her eyes. There was a roaring like a mighty wind, and a feeling of terror and awe and wonder… and then silence. When Dunya raised her head, Zahra was gone. The Sultan lay stretched on the bed. His body was unmarked but completely still. His eyes, open, stared at nothing, with no anger or life.
Dunya reached over and closed his eyes, and then, not having a better choice, called for the guards.
She knew that it looked irredeemable, herself standing alone over the Sultan’s dead body, but this was her place in the world. If she must die for it, then she would, and hope the Kingdom did not suffer.
But when the bodyguards entered, they saw that the Sultan’s body had no markings, and Dunya had no weapons. They were, she realized, the same black men that had frightened her when she arrived; the men who had lost a brother-in-arms to the Sultan’s wrath.
Perhaps that explained their reluctance to find a murderer, or a weapon, or a cause. The next morning the captain of the guard declared, to the viziers, that the wine must have been poisoned. While the rest of the palace awoke to panic, the captain of the guard knelt before Dunya. His men followed.
“Lady,” the captain said, “we do not presume to know the workings of the Most High, but you have been given to us as a Sultana, delivering our lives from the horror of that man. We pledge our loyalty to you, Dunya-zhade, she who delivers the world.”
Dunya, accepted their fealty, with grace.
Now that the sun rose, she faced Mecca and said her prayers.
She then went to the nursery, where she found the two little Princes, and played with them for a while. Their liveliness relieved her mind of the terrible burden, the memory of the brightness and terror that Zahra had revealed in those last few moments. Dunya was full of wonder, and fear, but being with the two little boys put her at peace.
The nursery door opened, and Dunya’s father entered. She had only seen him look so worried on the night before he had brought her to the palace harem.
“Dunya,” he said to her, “the Sultan is dead, and his other wife—that Zahra—has fled. What do you know of this matter?”
Dunya looked at him, and felt no fear. “I know that she took him.”
“She took him? Talk sense! His body is lying there stinking up the bedroom. Where did she go?”
“Honored father,” Dunya said, “You would not believe me even if I told you.”
The Vizier bowed his head, and Dunya realized, for the first time, how old he was. “The death of the Sultan,” he said to her, “does not grieve me… the succession is clear, there will be no war, and the man was mad. But I am afraid that that woman who murdered him will return, to kill you. And the Kingdom needs you.”
Dunya got to her feet, guided him to look at her, and said to him, “Do not be afraid. Zahra will not return to this palace again.”
Her father wavered, then nodded, accepting her word. He invited her to a meeting of the viziers. Dunya said she would attend as soon as the little princes were bedded for their naps.
When she arrived at the throne room, she found the viziers waiting for her in respectful silence. They discussed the situation of the Sultanate, but not for long. The succession was clear: the throne would pass to the eldest son, with Dunya ruling as his Regent until he came of age. And the viziers followed the oaths of the Mali Empire soldiers with pledges of their own, of loyalty and of peace.
And so, Dunya, the unwanted stepdaughter, became the ruler of the great Arabian Kingdom. As Regent, she took on the name of Dunyazade, given to her by the guardsmen, who remembered their fallen brother, their slain Sultana, and each woman condemned to death.
One night, a few months after the Sultan’s passing, Dunya was reading late into the night, alone in her bedchamber. She enjoyed being alone, away from the courtiers and the never-ending demands of the Kingdom. One day she might invite someone to share her bedchamber, but she was yet young, and her life was long. She could allow herself to enjoy solitude.
A cold wind blew in the window, extinguishing the candles. Dunya took the nearest one to the brazier to re-light it, but there was already someone there.
The dark veils moved away, and Dunya saw Zahra, the Angel of Death. Almost as marvelous were the snowflakes that spiraled off of her veils as she shook them off.
Then, Dunya remembered her courtesy. “It is lovely to see you,” she said. “I did not think we would meet again.”
“Oh, little sister, you should not have lost faith.” Zahra answered, sitting closer to the brazier. “It is lovely to see you, too.”
Dunya thought of all the questions she had, and how many of them were not exactly fitting questions for a mere mortal to ask. But she did have one. “Are you really the Angel of Death?”
Zahra smiled. “I am an Angel of Death. There are many—the world is wide, after all.”
“You’ve really been watching over me since I was born?”
“Since the day I took your mother away.”
After hesitating, Dunya asked, “Do you know what my mother meant, when she named me Dunya?”
Zahra’s smile faded. “The world is a complicated place. It is a complicated name. I hope you know that your mother loved you very much. She was also wise, for her age. She knew that you might not travel far. That your world would be restricted to the men you would marry, and the sons you would bear. But she hoped that, despite the place you were given, your heart and your mind would expand to welcome all, and to be as rich as the world.”
Dunya did not trust herself to speak. Then she remembered something.
“What do you have in your cloak?”
“You are not the only one I watch over.” Zahra drew aside the veils from the bundle she was holding, and Dunya gasped. The Angel of Death carried a living baby, a tiny girl with snowflakes on her hair. She stirred as the angel drew her nearer to the fire.
“Do you think you are ready to be a mother a third time over?” Zahra asked.
“I am not sure I have been a wonderful mother to the first two boys…” Dunya answered. Then the little girl began to cry, and Zahra handed her to Dunya.
“Just calm the child,” Zahra said. Dunya obeyed her, hesitantly but warming to the baby in her arms. “She is a daughter of the mountains. The wind carries stories from all over the world to the peaks; she will crave stories, when she gets a little older. Tell them the stories you hold in your heart.”
“Them?” Dunya asked.
“Yes. Her, and her brothers.”
“Only if you wish.” Zahra sat back and looked at Dunya’s face, with fondness and pride, and then said, “We will meet again.” And she vanished.
Dunya lay the baby on her bed, and re-lit the candles. She held the girl-child in her arms, and wondered whether to name her after her own mother, or after her kind grandmother, or after Morgiana or Shirin or poor Farizad.
First would come the issue of how to explain to the viziers that she had, to the surprise of all, given the little Sultan a sister…
But then, when the children were old enough, to listen and to gain wisdom, she would tell them the stories of her elder sister, Zahrazhade, the clever, the beautiful, the irresistible.
In the meantime… she had to care for her family, her city, and her world.
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