Trigger warning: references to rape and incest
As we enter night eighty six, Dhat al-Dawahi’s plan to revenge herself on King ‘Umar for the rape and death of her granddaughter Princess Abriza is entering its final stages. She has convinced him to fast for a month in exchange for her beautiful quintet of philosopher/ assassin slave girls, she has declared association with mystical ‘unseen men’ who are probably spirits (if they exist at all), she has convinced ‘Umar to send the mother of his twins, Sophia, to gain these unseen men’s blessing. Before the group of women set off, Dhat al-Dawahi brings the king a sealed glass. He is instructed to drink it in private on the thirtieth day of his fast. Giving him her blessing, she then departs with Sophia and the five girls.
At the end of his fast, the king drinks as instructed. When he doesn’t emerge from his chambers, his people assume at first he’s simply exhausted by the demands of the month, but when a second day passes and he doesn’t respond to their concerned shouting, they take his door off its hinges. He’s in a dreadful state, skin torn and bones crushed, quite definitely dead. By him is a note of explanation.
“Evil-doers are not missed when they die,” it reads, bluntly. “This is the reward of those who scheme against the daughters of kings and rob them of their virtue. Whoever reads this should know that when Sharkan came to our country, he seduced our princess, Abriza. Not content with that, he took her from us and brought her to you and then sent her off with a black slave who killed her. We found her murdered body in the desert, thrown on to the ground. Such is not the action of a king and this is the reward of one who acts like this. Accuse no one else of the king’s death, for no one else killed him but the cunning mistress of mischief, whose name is Dhat al-Dawahi. I have taken the king’s wife, Sophia, and brought her to her father, Afridun, emperor of Constantinople. We shall now attack you, kill you and take your lands. Every last one of you will perish; you will have no lands left and the only inhabitants that remain will be worshippers of the Cross.”
Okay, so the holy war bit is terrible and unnecessary, but I’ve been waiting for someone to go into a screaming rage about Abriza’s death for SO LONG now and that this is her grandmother – who didn’t even like her that much – gives the retribution a particular poignancy. Ignoring the accusations of rape and murder levelled against their recently deceased monarch, ‘Umar’s advisors fall straight into arguing about succession.
The winner of that dispute was, of course, Dau’ al-Makan. Upon hearing his vizier Dandan’s story, he and his sister Nuzhat al-Zaman start sobbing. So does the latter’s husband, the chamberlain, though it’s likely he never actually met ‘Umar. He follows up the shared grief session by instructing his new king, “Tears will do you no good. The only useful thing is for you to harden your heart, strengthen your resolve and take firm control of your kingdom.” He softens a little and adds, “For whoever leaves behind a son like you has not died.” Dau’ al-Makan pulls it together, orders a parade of his troops and has Dandan go through the contents of the royal treasuries so that he can distribute largesse. Included among his bounty is the tribute from Damascus, the goods of which are handed out to the troops.
Night eighty seven takes us to Baghdad, where the city welcomes its new king and Dau’ al-Makan takes up his place on the throne. He has a secretary write to Sharkan, informing him of recent events and ordering him to bring an army to avenge their father. This is the unfortunate side-effect of vengeance: it never actually ends. The letter is carried by Dandan, who has instructions to promise the kingdom if Sharkan wants it.
Finally, Dau’ al-Makan has the emotional space to remember his old friend the furnace man, who has been dragged along in his wake since the young king’s rapid return to power. Dau’ al-Makan grants him a lovely house as thanks for all his kindness, then zips off hunting and hooks up with a beautiful slave girl. She falls pregnant on that same night, as women in these stories tend to do.
Dandan eventually returns with the news that Sharkan is headed for Baghdad, and Dau’ al-Makan sets up a campsite to greet him about a day’s ride from the city. Sharkan is about twenty years older, a battle-hardened leader with equally seasoned troops. He arrives in a cloud of dust. When he gets down from his horse, Dau’ al-Makan ditches protocol and throws himself into his brother’s arms, weeping. Sharkan bursts into tears too and they share a rare moment of fraternal amity in their mutual grief.
More soldiers come in from across the country as word of the upcoming holy war spreads. While they wait for their army to grow, Sharkan asks Dau’ al-Makan for his story and hears praise for the furnace man, who has not yet received all the favours the grateful young king intends to bestow. That will have to wait until after the war. Sharkan remembers what his sister and ex-wife Nuzhat al-Zaman told him about her own miseries and sends greetings to her and her new husband. She replies with inquiries about her daughter’s health. Satisfied that his familial duties are discharged – let’s be honest, this is the most decent behaviour we’ve ever seen from him – Sharkan goes back to drumming up soldiers.
Dau’ al-Makan, meanwhile, has married the pregnant slave girl and gifted her with a household of philosophers and mathematicians. Probably he needs the mathematicians more than she does, what with calculating the provisions for a massive army and all, but it’s the thought that counts. When all troops have arrived, Dau’ al-Makan rides out with Sharkan at his right and the chamberlain at his left.
Personally, I wouldn’t trust either as far as I could throw them, but we shall see.