Trigger warnings: rape, drug use, murder
Night fifty one saw Sharkan and Abriza arrive in the territory of Sharkan’s father, the notoriously warlike king ‘Umar ibn al-Nu’man. As prince and princess ride towards Baghdad, they are met Dandan and an escort of soldiers. When they reach the palace, Sharkan greets his father and reports on the unexpected events that – for once in this family! – averted a war. Thanks to Abriza, the king now knows his concubine Sophia (mother and educator of his young twins) is an emperor’s daughter. Sharkan gushes a bit about his girlfriend’s bravery, and the king wants to meet her. He sends away his son and courtiers so they can talk in private, at which she uncovers her face and he reacts the same way Sharkan did the first time he met Abriza, with blatant staring.
Because he’s a king and can give away whatever he wants at a whim, ‘Umar promises Abriza a palace of her own and an allowance for each of her warrior girls. He then brings up the gems that ignited his interest in this conflict in the first place. Abriza hands them over with calm ceremony and departs, leaving him worryingly infatuated.
Okay, at this point I think it is worth a reminder – Sharkan knows he has a little sister, Nuzhat al-Zaman, who is now six years old, but is still unaware of her twin Dau’ al-Makan, because this family is only good at conquering places and shocking at communication. ‘Umar wanted the gems to protect his three children. He gives Sharkan one and explains his intentions for the other two. Sharkan is appalled to learn he has a male rival for his father’s throne, and casts his gemstone aside. ‘Umar reminds him he’s still the heir, not to mention leader of the army. A little embarrassed but still insecure, Sharkan reclaims the gem and goes over to Abriza’s new palace. He shares his fears, not only that he has a contender for power but that his father is so taken with Abriza that he might demand she marry him.
“You must know, Sharkan,” Abriza tells him calmly, “that your father has no authority over me and cannot take me against my will, while if he were to take me by force, I would kill myself. As for the three gems, it had not occurred to me that he would give any of them to any one of his children, for I thought that he would store them among his treasures.” If Sharkan really doesn’t want his gem, she would like it back. Once she has it, she shares her own concerns. Now that her father has common ground with the Byzantine emperor – both have lost their daughters to Sharkan’s family, though under radically different circumstances – it’s probable they’ll cast aside their personal enmity and unite against King ‘Umar. Sharkan tells her not to worry, she can stay as long as she wants.
“If you treat me well,” she replies, “I shall stay with you, while if you treat me badly, I shall leave.” I so much hope that’s true. Sharkan leaves still stewing over succession issues, while his father goes to bestow the other two gems on the royal twins. They are thrilled with their pretty presents and go to show their mother. The king, however, has a bone to pick with her. “Why, in all this time, did you not tell me that you were the daughter of Afridun, emperor of Constantinople, so that I might have honoured you more, as well as being more liberal to you and giving you higher rank?” It’s a good question. Sophia tells him she doesn’t need any more than she has, with her comfortable place in the palace and her beloved children. I don’t know whether that’s sincere or not, but it pleases the king to hear and he gives her a palace too. How many does he have, that he can just toss them out like sweets? She gets a full household too, with everyone from attendants to doctors to astronomers.
Unfortunately ‘Umar still obsessed with Princess Abriza and gives her no peace. She patiently responds to all his overtures with the same statement, “King of the age, at this time there is nothing that I want from men.” Her polite refusals only make him more determined to win her over, because he’s a horrible person who doesn’t understand the word ‘no’. He summons his vizier to complain about being friend-zoned and Dandan, who I shall now HATE FOREVER, suggests that ‘Umar drug and rape her.
The king likes the idea. Of course he does. He gets the strongest sleeping agent he can find and that night, while he is drinking wine with the unsuspecting princess, he drugs her wine. Within less than an hour she’s out cold. The story would like us to believe ‘the devil tempted him’, but no, he’s a man accustomed to having whatever he wants and taking it no matter what. He rapes Abriza. When he leaves, he sends in one of Abriza’s maids to clean up, not even ashamed of what he’s done. I cannot describe how utterly heartbroken I am at the direction this story has taken, or how enraged I feel.
Marjana does what she can for her unconscious mistress, then waits with her the rest of the night. As Abriza comes to, she vomits up the sleeping agent and demands to know what happened to her. Realising what ‘Umar did, Abriza locks herself away and refuses all visitors – hearing the rumour that she’s ill, the king has the fucking gall to send her medicines, there are not enough profanities in the world to describe the wrongness of it. Having got what he wanted, he finally leaves her alone.
Abriza, it turns out, is pregnant. Humiliated and despairing, she tells Marjana how helpless she feels, how badly she wants to go home but how she now doubts her welcome there. Marjana, unable to comfort her, can only offer her full support. “I want to leave at once in secret,” Abriza says. “No one is to know of this except you. I shall go to my father and mother, for when flesh is putrid, no one but the family can help.” “What you are doing is good, princess,” Marjana agrees.
In another humiliating blow, Abriza is no longer strong enough to defend herself now she’s so close to labour and has to hire a guard for the journey. Marjana suggests one of the slaves assigned to guard their palace. His name is Ghadban and he’s black, as so many slaves in these stories are. Marjana vouches for his bravery. If he agrees to serve Abriza, he’s promised a solid financial reward and the freedom to marry whoever he likes. She doesn’t take to him at their first meeting, but makes her offer regardless. He, like every other man she encounters, is immediately obsessed and agrees at once.
Because the layers of awful in this story are many and varied, he’s treacherous underneath it all and plans to kill the two women if they don’t make good on their promises, taking their money for himself. In the meantime, he brings mounts for them all and the journey commences.
Abriza is within a day’s journey of her own lands when she goes into labour. She has Marjana help her from her horse and act as midwife, but in a spectacularly stupid, racist, disgusting turn of events, Ghadban chooses this moment to demand she have sex with him. That wakes the rage Abriza has been without for so long. As night fifty two begins, she tells him that she will give birth and afterwards, if he can overcome her in battle, he can do what he likes. If he doesn’t shut up right now, she’ll kill herself. Ghadban doesn’t give her the chance. He cuts off her head, takes her money and rides away, leaving Marjana to hold the motherless newborn beside her mistress’s corpse.
I…don’t know where to begin. I am so angry and upset right now that it’s probably best I don’t. Right now, I’m reconsidering whether to continue with this project at all – if that’s the kind of story I’ll get, it’s not worth my time. I intend to conclude this story cycle before making that decision. Feel free to offer your perspectives in the comments.