I’m beginning this week’s segment with very mixed feelings. On the one hand, I’m besotted with the lady wrestler in this story and want to read more about her; on the other, the Thousand and One Nights do not exactly have a good track record with female characters, and I’m dreading something bad befalling her. Fingers crossed it doesn’t.
As night forty eight kicks off, the unpleasant warrior prince Sharkan is concealing his true identity from the currently nameless champion who beat him three times at wrestling and is quite confident she could take on his army too. He tells himself he would totally fight her and win if she wasn’t so beautiful, and stares at her ass a lot. She leads him into a richly decorated hall, at the centre of which a magnificent fountain rises from a large pool. The girl directs him to sit upon a throne-like chair and leaves him there for quite some time. He’s well attended by servants but is restless, thinking of the army he left behind. Dawn has broken and by now he will definitely be missed.
Suddenly the champion returns, dressed like a queen and accompanied by a procession of beautiful young women. Sharkan promptly forgets about all his responsibilities in favour of unsubtle ogling. She meets him with a long, flat stare. “Lying is a shameful defect among rulers,” she says at last. “You are Sharkan, son of King ‘Umar ibn al-Nu’man. Do not hide the secret of your rank, and after this let me hear nothing from you but the truth, as lying leaves a legacy of hatred and enmity.” He acknowledges his true identity and tells her to do as she will with him.
The champion considers that for a while but she takes the matter of hospitality seriously, and as he’s her guest, she assures him he’ll come to no harm. Sitting beside him, she talks and jokes cheerfully. When she sees how wary he is of the food her servants offer, she reminds him she could have killed him already if she wanted and eats a little of each dish to prove they are not poisoned or drugged. Next the servants bring wine.
By the time night forty nine begins, Sharkan is a bit drunk. The champion is not. She asks for her maids to bring instruments and takes up a lute herself, singing a song that contains too many references to love and ownership for my liking. It seems she returns Sharkan’s interest and it’s so depressing, he doesn’t deserve her in the least. At least he seems to know it; he passes out from the shock, or possibly an excess of wine. They drink and talk all day. When night falls, the champion withdraws to her bedroom and in the morning, summons Sharkan to her presence.
Her room is a marvel. Within lie ‘lifelike images’ that are animated by the wind, seeming to speak. The champion has Sharkan sit beside her to swap love poetry in what comes across more like a test than a romantic moment, but one he appears to pass. They pass the hours drinking and talking. The next day Sharkan is shown into a hall of statues and pictures, where the champion waits with a chess board. He plays dreadfully, distracted as always by her beauty. She beats him five times.
On the third day the convent is unexpectedly invaded by heavily armed men. Sharkan is quick to assume betrayal; the girl, for all her hatred of lies, is equally quick to deny any knowledge of his true identity. These are knights of the Byzantium emperor, so…why are they so happy to capture him, I thought they were on the same side, fighting the lord of Caesarea? It turns out the girl is a princess, daughter of King Hardub, who was alerted to Sharkan’s presence by the elderly lady Dhat al-Dawahi, whom the princess defeated at wrestling the same night she showed up Sharkan. The leader of the knights is Masura, son of one of the girl’s slaves, and so was permitted entry without question. He’s been tasked with bringing Sharkan before the king for execution.
The princess insists her guest is not Sharkan, and to allow him to be dragged off and killed would be a betrayal of her hospitality. She wants Masura to placate her father. “Princess Abriza,” Masura replies (she has a NAME! Finally!) “I cannot go back to the king without taking his enemy with me.” He will not be swayed. She more or less admits that it is Sharkan, but tells Masura that the only honorable way to settle this is for all Masura’s men to face Sharkan one at a time, in single combat.
Night fifty begins. Masura not only agrees with Sharazad’s suggestion, he offers to be Sharkan’s first challenger. Sharkan, perpetual show-off that he is, wants to take on the soldiers in groups of ten. “It’s a mistake to be too clever,” Abriza retorts tartly. “It must be one to one.” Sharkan races out whirling his sword, killing Masura at the first blow. I am disappointed, I liked him. The next sentence takes a steep downhill slide as Abriza re-evaluates Sharkan’s abilities and considers the possibility her beauty factored into her wins against him. YOU ARE BETTER THAN THAT, ABRIZA. DON’T DOUBT YOURSELF.
Masura’s brother lunges at Sharkan for revenge, only to be run through with similar speed. One after another the soldiers fall to the bloodthirsty prince until they’ve had enough and attack him en masse. Sharkan ‘crushed them as though on a threshing floor’. When the fighting is over, Abriza takes Sharkan back to her apartments, where she dresses herself in armour, takes up a sword and goes back out into the convent to look for survivors. She assures the knights that she means to keep Sharkan and protect him personally if she must. Next, she tells off her doorkeepers for permitting soldiers into her place. They point out they’ve never turned away royal messengers before, and she replies by having them beheaded. What with the wrestling from before and the pitched battles and all, she’s a pretty hellish employer.
Since she’s pretty committed now, she explains who she is to Sharkan. Her father is the king; Dhat al-Dawahi is her grandmother on that side, and today’s attack was undoubtedly all her idea. As she failed, there will be another attempt. “The sensible thing for me to do is leave here while Dhat al-Dawahi is on my heels,” Abriza concludes. “I would like you to repay me the kindness that I did you, as it is thanks to you that to you that I am on hostile terms with my father. So do everything that I say, for you are the cause of all this.” Well, at least she said it.
They make a pact to protect each other. Abriza’s other condition is that he turn that army of his right around and go straight home. That’s my princess. Sharkan protests, complaining about the famous jewels (methinks he did not intend them to end up with the Byzantine emperor) and from this bit of dialogue it appears that Abriza’s father is the lord of Caesarea.
Abriza waves off Sharkan’s argument. There’s more to the story than the emperor’s people were inclined to share. There is apparently a yearly event called the Festival of the Convent, to which kings, merchants and their families come to celebrate for seven days. When the king and the emperor started feuding, Abriza was forbidden to go. Not so the daughter of the emperor, whose name is Sophia. Aha. That’s familiar.
Sophia attended six days of the festival and on the seventh, began the return journey by sea. Unfortunately, a violent wind blew them off course and into the path of piratical Franks (these being an ancient Germanic people, the geography of this story has officially stumped me.) They captured Sophia’s ship, but the same wind drove them into a wreck on Abriza’s father’s shores. The men were killed. Sophia, her maids and her wealth were claimed as the property of the king. There is no chivalry to be found here.
No one realised that Sophia was the emperor’s daughter. The girls were distributed among the king’s favourites (UGH UGH UGH) and Sophia was sent as a gift to Sharkan’s father. At the beginning of this year, the emperor – having been searching for Sophia among the Frankish pirates and hearing a rumour of the wreck – wrote a furious letter to the lord of Caesarea, outraged that his daughter was taken and he was not told. If the king didn’t return Sophia at once, war would be the result.
Of course, he couldn’t return Sophia, he’d already sold her into slavery, and since he knew that she’d given birth to King ‘Uman’s children, it didn’t seem like he could just ask for her back. He sent a weak excuse to the emperor, protesting his ignorance and explaining what happened to his daughter. The emperor, of course, was enraged. “How dared he make a captive of my daughter,” he swore, “so that she became like a slave girl, passed from hand to hand, and given to kings who sleep with her without any marriage contract?” YES. Good question! Asking for King ‘Uman’s help to attack the lord of Caesarea was a little bit of poetic justice. As for the gems, they were stolen by pirates because they were with Sophia, but they were taken when she was recaptured and now belong to Abriza.
So, according to Abriza, this whole thing is a trap and when Sharkan leads his army into enemy territory they will be slaughtered. She knows that the men were told to camp in that valley for three days – how does she know that? Has she got spies in Sharkan’s army? Oh, I hope so – and there’s still time to prevent the march.
Does Sharkan listen to her? Can either princess wring some sense out of her life? Let’s hope so. Find out next week.