Trigger warning: references to rape and murder, violent language against women
I started this story cycle with a lot of hope. Last week, the heroine was raped and killed and I started wondering if it’s worth continuing this project at all. I haven’t made up my mind about that yet, but I’m finishing this cycle either way, so back we go to the border where Abriza is lying dead and her loyal maid Marjana is holding Abriza’s newborn son. At this moment, an army comes thundering up, sent by Abriza’s father King Hardub. Somehow he heard that she had fled Baghdad and went to seek her out, only to find her corpse. He faints with the shock and grief. Congrats, story, you managed to make a hideous storyline that little bit worse!
When the king comes to, Marjana tells him what happened. He takes his daughter’s body home to his lands and, as her murderer is long gone, starts planning his vengeance on the man who raped her. He turns to his mother, Dhat al-Dawahi, for help. Abriza never liked her grandmother and it becomes immediately clear why, when Dhat al-Dawahi accuses Marjana of killing Abriza. Still, she’s on board with making King ‘Umar suffer. Insisting her son follow her orders to the letter, she sets her plan into motion.
Step one: acquire a group of beautiful virgins and the top Muslim scholars in the land to educate them. “‘Umar is naturally disposed towards loving girls,” Dhat al-Dawahi, by which I believe she means ‘he is a remorseless lecher who doesn’t give a damn about consent’. “He has three hundred and sixty six of them, to which were added a hundred whom you picked to accompany your daughter.” (Which means Abriza’s wonderful warrior girls are still there; this story just keeps going downhill.) “When the ones I want have been trained as I told you,” Dhat al-Dawahi concludes, “I shall take them and go off with them myself.”
When night fifty three begins, King Hardub has arranged the classes and settled in for his mother’s long game. Meanwhile, in Baghdad, King ‘Umar returns from a hunting trip to find Abriza gone. He throws a fit about it. When Sharkan gets home from his own journey, he’s simply told that Abriza ran away. However, he’s less worried about the girlfriend he professed to love and more preoccupied with the enormous amount of time ‘Umar is spending with his younger children. Sharkan makes himself sick with anger and jealousy. The following statement he makes to his father summarises this family perfectly: “Every time I see you showing close affection for my brother and sister and favouring them, I am filled with jealousy. I’m afraid that this may grow worse until it leads me to kill them, in return for which you will kill me…So, of your kindness, I would like you to give me one of your more distant castles, where I can stay for the rest of my life.”
He says those things. Out loud. His father thinks it’s a reasonable problem to have and gives him Damascus. Sharkan takes ‘Umar’s advisor Dandan – that guy who suggested ‘Umar use date rape drugs – and goes to rule his newly granted city. It’s probably lucky he leaves, because the younger children are now both fourteen years old, learning fast and taking Baghdad by storm. They are also developing a very promising rebellious streak. Prince Dau’ al-Makan decides he wants to go on pilgrimage to visit the Prophet’s grave, and when his father says he has to wait, he goes straight to his twin Nuzhat al-Zaman so the two of them can plan a getaway. The princess dresses as a man, gathers some money and sets off with her brother. They join a group of pilgrims on the way to Mecca, and once they’ve paid their respects there, Dau’ al-Makan takes a fancy to visiting Jerusalem. Nuzhat al-Zaman likes the idea, so off they go.
They continue travelling with a caravan of fellow pilgrims. Nuzhat al-Zaman falls sick with a fever but recovers; Dau al-Makan does not bounce back so easily. Despite his sister’s care, he grows weaker and weaker. She spends all her money on him until there is nothing left. Swallowing her pride and fear, she goes out to find work as a servant, so that she can support them both.
She does not come back. After two days, Dau al-Makan manages to leave the house and get to a marketplace, where his beauty and pathetic state inspire generosity in the local merchants. They offer him food and drink, then do a whipround to pay for his admittance to hospital. They entrust his care to the wrong man; the camel driver takes their money then tosses the half-dead boy on a rubbish heap. HOW DOES THIS STORY KEEP GETTING WORSE?
The rubbish heap is beside a bath-house – a furnace man working there finds Dau al-Makan the next morning and mistakes him for a drug addict. Then he sees how young the boy is, and how beautiful, and conveniently remembers that good religious people are supposed to protect sick strangers. He takes the boy home to his wife, who is a competent nurse. Dau al-Makan begins to recover.
Night fifty four sees him rapidly regaining strength. His host and hostess certainly put in enough effort and expense, from copious quantities of chicken broth to sugary concoctions flavoured with violets and rosewater. They are spending two fifths of their daily income on keeping Dau’ al-Makan comfortable, and paragraph after paragraph is dedicated to Dau’ al-Makan’s diet. After a month of recuperation, he’s well enough to visit the baths. When they get home, the furnace man asks for his guest’s story. Tearful, Dau’ al-Makan explains everything and asks for help returning to Damascus. The furnace man insists on coming too, and his wife agrees to join them.
The journey begins on night fifty five. The couple have to sell everything they own to pay for a donkey, but are apparently so besotted with their prince they don’t care. It takes them six days to reach Damascus. They have only been there a few days when the furnace man’s wife suddenly falls ill and dies. It’s clear who was the decent caregiver in this trio.
Her husband cheers himself up by going sightseeing with Dau’ al-Makan. They come across a wealthy procession and, upon inquiry, learn it is a gift from the governor of Damascus to King ‘Umar ibn al-Nu’man. Dau’ al-Makan starts crying at the mention of his father’s name; his companion joins in with thoughts of his dead wife. It takes a long time for the two men to pull themselves together – finally, Dau’ al-Makan shares his decision to accompany the gift caravan and tries to bid farewell to his friend, who point blank refuses to leave his side. Well, by now he’s sacrificed every other part of his life in the prince’s service, so that’s fair enough.
But what of Nuzhat al-Zaman? Against my better judgement, I’m getting attached to her. That day when she went out to look for work, she came across an old man accompanying five Bedouin across the desert. Seeing her beauty, he stalks her until she reaches a narrow point in the path, where he ambushes her. His first question is whether she’s a slave. Is it too much to hope he’ll die a horrible death very soon?
“By your life,” she says, “I implore you not to load me with any new sorrows.” Oh, honey. You deserve better than this story. He tells her he had six daughters but somehow has lost five of them, and is seeking a companion for the grief-stricken youngest girl. Nuzhat al-Zaman is in a terrible position – she needs the work, but she also needs to take care of her brother. She tries to explain this to the old man without revealing her identity, and agrees to be his daughter’s companion only if she can return to her brother at night.
Well, it will ASTONISH you to learn that the old man has no daughter, that he merely wants to abduct Nuzhat al-Zaman, and the moment they’re outside Jerusalem that’s precisely what he does. Realising she’s been betrayed, she screams and screams until her captor threatens to kill her. “You ill-omened old man, you greybeard from hell,” she hisses, “how could I have looked for protection from you when you were betraying me and wanting to torture me?” He calls her a whore and hits her. The next day, when she asks where they are going, he beats her so badly she passes out. She whispers desperate poetry to herself and the man relents a little – he tells her the beating was all her own fault for daring to talk, that if she’s lucky he’ll sell her to a man as kind as himself, and gives her a FUCKING SCONE.
Night fifty six brings us to Damascus. All roads lead to Damascus. The slave trader goes to visit his contacts and tells potential buyers they should pretend to be caring for the girl’s brother, to calm her. FUCK THIS STORY. And it gets worse. Once they’ve established her beauty and virginity and the rest of that nonsense, the merchant most interested explains what he wants her for. He has business with Sultan Sharkan – yes, Nuzhat al-Zaman’s older brother, the one who wanted to kill her – and thinks a slave girl will make a nice sweetener.
When she meets her intended buyer, Nuzhat al-Zaman has gone well beyond despair into a kind of frozen resignation. The merchant looks a better bet than her captor, so she speaks politely to him, though she makes no secret of her misery. The merchant offers a sum of money. The slave trader throws a tantrum, saying he’d rather keep the girl for menial farm labour than sell her for that. The merchant soothes him and asks to see the girl’s face; the trader says he can strip her naked for all he cares. Seriously, why has lightning not fried this man by now? If random ifrits can be struck down by the heavens, WHY NOT HIM?
Night fifty seven begins. The merchant asks for the girl’s name and she tells him, though she does not add her title. She also tells him about her sick brother, for whom she holds great fear. Overcome, she starts sobbing and her captor runs up to hit her again, knocking her unconscious. The merchant may not be a particularly good man, but he’s the best rescuer Nuzhat al-Zaman is going to get. As she comes to, she promises the merchant that she will kill herself if she has to stay with her captor another night. The merchant keeps upping the price he’s prepared to pay, but the slave trader wants more. Eventually, the merchant threatens him with unwanted attention from the local officials. The slave trader accepts the terms and returns to Jerusalem to look for the princess’s brother, but thankfully doesn’t find him.
In night fifty eight, the merchant takes Nuzhat al-Zaman home, offering her fine clothes and jewels. In case you think this is out of the goodness of his heart, let me disillusion you. “When I take you to the sultan, the governor of Damascus, you let him know the price for which I bought you,” the merchant tells her, “tiny as this was in relation to your worth. When you come to him and he buys you from me, tell him how I have treated you and ask him to give me an official letter of recommendation which I can take to his father.” The princess bursts into tears. The merchant, realising that Baghdad is a trigger for her, asks if she would like to contact someone there. She tells him that the only person she knows in Baghdad is King ‘Umar; that she was brought up with his daughter, was a favourite of his in fact, and if the merchant wants that recommendation he’d better let her write to the king herself.
She writes the letter, using her real name and telling her father that she’s with the governor of Damascus. I really, really hope her plan works.