Trigger warning: contains torture and mutilation
Last week was a segue within a segue within a segue – the vizier Dandan was telling a story about a prince, who was hearing a story about a merchant – the merchant being ‘Aziz, chronically incapable of keeping it in his pants, now married to his kidnapper and father of her son but visiting his ex-girlfriend Gazelle Girl on his one day out of the house. He hasn’t even gone to check in with his mother. After a year’s unexplained absence.
Gazelle Girl gives every appearance of having missed him, her pallour and mournful look sparking a tiny bit of shame in ‘Aziz, which is frankly a miracle. Her high expectations for lovers also apply to herself, denying her sleep and peace of mind (or at least she denies having had them). ‘Aziz tells her what happened to him and Gazelle Girl seethes. Thwarted by Abduction Girl, she calls on ‘Aziza’s memory again. “She died because of the treatment to which you subjected her, and it is she who protected you from me,” she reminds ‘Aziz. “I thought you loved me and I let you go on your way, although I could have seen to it that you didn’t leave unscathed, or I could have kept you as a prisoner or killed you.” Wow. That’s very…honest? And terrifying. In a bad way. She bursts into angry tears and ‘Aziz realises maybe this visit was a bad idea.
Gazelle Girl summons her slave girls, who quickly pin ‘Aziz to the ground. Then she takes out a knife and starts sharpening it, telling ‘Aziz that a quick death is the least he deserves for the way he has treated her, and ‘Aziza before her. In night 126, she commences the punishment with a severe beating – inflicted by her slave girls while she watches – but just as she leans forward to conclude matters with her knife, ‘Aziz remembers his cousin’s final speech and cries out, “My lady, don’t you know that loyalty is good and treachery is evil?”
Murder is apparently A-OK with Gazelle Girl but crossing the words of Saint ‘Aziza simply cannot be done. She agrees to let her captive live. “But I cannot let you go like this,” she says. “I must leave a mark on you in order to hurt that shameless whore who has kept you away from me.” Ordering her lackeys to tie ‘Aziz up, she cuts off his penis, cauterises the wound and literally kicks him out. The injured man staggers home to his wife, who discovers his condition and likewise has no further use for him. It’s a whirlwind of awful.
Abandoned, ‘Aziz goes home. His mother is overjoyed to see him alive but has to explain that in his time away, his father died. Sobbing desperately, ‘Aziz passes out. As his mother tends him, he tells her everything that has befallen him since that meeting under Gazelle Girl’s window and grieves the loss of his kind-hearted cousin. Grateful just to have her son back, if not quite in one piece then at least with his throat intact, and seeing he genuinely misses his cousin, ‘Aziz’s mother fetches out what ‘Aziza left for him on her deathbed. It is Gazelle Girl’s kerchief with new embroidery from ‘Aziza, spelling out verses on the tragedy of unrequited love. Within the folds there is also a note, absolving him of blame in her death but asking that he keep the kerchief as a reminder of ‘Aziza’s help and to under no circumstances to hook up with its maker. The woman who embroidered the cloth is not Gazelle Girl’s sister at all, as it turns out, she’s the daughter of a king and sends out a sample of her work every year to the world at large.
According to the note, ‘Aziz should avoid her if he can. In fact, ‘Aziza felt he should avoid women altogether. He sinks into a state of tearful contemplation for a year, at the end of which time his mother advises he go travelling with other merchants and maybe start recovering from the bizarre and traumatising events that led him back home.
On the way, he passed the Islands of Camphor and the Crystal Castle. Why is this location significant? ‘Aziza told him that’s where the embroidering princess lives, that’s why. The ruler of the seven islands is Shahriman and his daughter is Dunya. Just the proximity was enough to reduce ‘Aziz to floods of tears.
Thus concludes his tale. What his listener, Prince Taj al-Muluk, got out of all that was: wow, Princess Dunya sounds hot.
In night 129, he convinces himself he’s in love with her. “By God, nothing like this adventure of yours has happened to anyone before,” he tells ‘Aziz, “but you have to live out your own fate…Tell me how you came to see the girl who embroidered this gazelle.” ‘Aziz bribed a gardener into letting him spy on the princess during her regular walk in the orchard, allowing him to see she was indeed exceptionally beautiful. Knowing he didn’t have a chance with her was what really induced ‘Aziz’s misery. The man needs so much counseling.
Anyway, Taj al-Muluk has no such qualms about his worth. He takes the merchant home and tells his father he is totally in love with Princess Dunya. His father points out the distance between kingdoms is a fairly significant obstacle and suggests he looks elsewhere. Like picking one of his mother’s slave girls, because they can’t actually say no. UGH. “I must have her,” Taj al-Muluk insists stubbornly, “or else I shall wander off into the wastes and wildernesses and kill myself because of her.”
Familiar with his son’s drama, the king sees there’s no talking him out of this sudden infatuation and agrees to send an envoy. If that fails, he assures his darling little prince that they’ll just conquer the islands and get the girl anyway. The vizier is sent off with ‘Aziz as a guide and appropriate gifts for Dunya’s father. Shahriman is rather less easy to impress than Taj al-Muluk’s grandfather. He makes the envoy wait three days before meeting with them. Princess Dunya, you see, has said before that she doesn’t want to marry. Summoning his daughter, he gets a pretty obvious confirmation when she attacks the messenger with a stick. “If my father forces me to marry,” she declares, “then I shall kill my husband.” Shahriman kind of shrugs and tells the envoy it’s a hopeless cause.
In night 131, Taj al-Muluk’s dad duly prepares for war. The vizier tells him to cool down for a minute, the refusal came from the princess herself and if forced to marry she’ll probably kill herself, which will do no good to anyone at all. Taj al-Muluk is not dissuaded, however. He decides to disguise himself and win her over somehow in person. His father, who can refuse him nothing, hands over a generous travel allowance. His mother gives him some more money and her blessing. Off he goes with the long-suffering vizier and his new bestie ‘Aziz, who recites poetry to distract him from romantic woe. Over two months of travel later, they enter Shahriman’s city disguised as traders. Renting a large house, Taj al-Muluk then waits for his friends to come up with a plan. They go with the vizier’s idea: sell silk, look pretty, hope someone important will eventually notice them.
The other merchants all flutter and stare when the three men arrive in the marketplace. Acting as a guardian towards the prince and his friend, the vizier explains to the superintendent of the market that he plans to stay a full year and allow his young charges to explore. We then get our second canonical gay character with the superintendent described as ‘being someone who was passionately fond of murderous glances and who preferred the love of boys to that of girls’. I’ve no idea what that first bit means, possibly it is a kink? He grants the vizier an excellent booth for displaying the silks and the disguised courtiers move in.
As night 132 begins, the younger men go to the baths and come out to find the superintendent waiting for them. He stares fixedly at their backsides. They insist he bathe too and proceed to wash him. Even the vizier’s presence can’t tamp his enjoyment; he enthuses on the general awesomeness of baths.
That’s it. That’s his part in the story over and done. At least he had fun!
The good looks of both young men soon draw the attention of the townsfolk too. Leaving the boys to sell silk and charm the populace, the vizier goes home to plan Taj al-Muluk’s romantic campaign. Someone has to, since the prince is incapable of thinking of anything other than meeting Dunya.
In night 133 an elderly lady stops at the shop with her two slave girls to ogle him and upon being offered a seat, enquires after his most beautiful goods. Ignoring any possible double entendre, Taj al-Muluk tells her his finest wares will suit only royalty and is ecstatic to hear the old lady intends the silk to go to Dunya. She selects something and openly touches herself throughout the bargaining, returning to the princess in a daze. Upon hearing Dunya’s admiration for the cloth, she raves about Taj al-Muluk’s beauty and thinks he’d make a hot match for her mistress. Dunya is amused by her enthusiasm, but really does like the silk. She sends the old lady back to the booth to see if there’s anything Taj al-Muluk wants.
Well, we know the answer to that. He sends a love letter and pays the old woman for her trouble. “What are things coming to when this trader sends me messages and writes to me?” Dunya cries, and thinks about executing him. The old lady points out she’s about as inaccessible as it is possible to be so what does it matter if this merchant fancies her? Sufficient threats should make him back off. “Deluded man, do you seek union with the moon?” Dunya writes back. “Has anyone got what he wanted from the moon?”
Taj al-Muluk sobs upon receiving her very sharp response. The old lady takes pity on him and agrees to help him win over the princess, delivering a sorrowful second note. Dunya is unmoved. By now passionately shipping the two young royals, the old lady hides a third note in her hair so that it will fall out ‘by accident’, only Dunya is not fooled at all. The old lady was her nurse; she is fond of her, but angry at the trick. She knows her reputation could be damaged by even this one-sided love and grows increasingly furious with Taj al-Muluk for ignoring her orders. “How many verses must I write to hold you back?” she demands, in her note of reply.
Realising AT LAST that the princess is really really not interested, Taj al-Muluk asks the vizier for advice and is told to call down a curse on Dunya. The next note is written by ‘Aziz and much more accusatory. When it is delivered, Dunya has her former nurse beaten and thrown out of the palace. Later the old lady tells Taj al-Muluk what happened, and also why Dunya hates men so much. The princess dreamed once of a hunter catching birds, among them a male and female pigeon; when the male pigeon was caught the female came back to free him but when the pair were netted again shortly afterwards the female was caught and the male abandoned her. Dunya decided this was a sign that all male creatures are faithless. However, despite being sacked, the old lady is more on board the romance train than ever and agrees to give Taj al-Muluk his first look at this girl he’s sure he loves.
Now that he has an opportunity to see Dunya, the prince loses all interest in being a fake merchant and gives over his goods to ‘Aziz. The two young men and the vizier go to the royal gardens, where they have a picnic while scoping out the land. Noticing a dilapidated pavilion, the vizier bribes the gardener into…letting him renovate it. Including murals from the dream about the pigeons, and an image not from the dream, of the male pigeon in a hawk’s claws. Afterwards they go home where ‘Aziz and the vizier calm down their prince with poetry.
As for Dunya, she’s accustomed to taking her walk with the old lady and so makes peace with her. Alerting Taj al-Muluk, the old lady goes to her. The prince puts on his best robes and hides in the garden, while the old lady convinces Dunya to send away her guards. The princess walks around the garden, unaware that she is being watched. Coming to the pavilion, she is struck by the pictures – it seems the male pigeon was killed before he could save his mate, so maybe men are not evil after all? At this moment of doubt Taj al-Muluk follows the old lady’s signal and walks under the pavilion windows, being ridiculously attractive. Dunya’s attention is caught. Pleased, the old lady gestures for Taj al-Muluk to go home and allow the idea to settle in Dunya’s mind.
It does more than settle. Dunya is determined to meet him and pays the old lady to arrange it. Which she does, dressing him up as a slave girl so as to avoid detection. The chief eunuch is puzzled by the arrival and wants to search ‘her’, as per his orders, but in night 135 the old lady threatens him with the princess’s displeasure and sends Taj al-Muluk off on his own. Upon entering Dunya’s chamber, the two halves of this very strange couple fly into each other’s arms. With the old lady as their lookout, they spend an enthusiastic night together.
For a month they manage to carry on a secret affair. Not once does Taj al-Muluk send a message to his friends, leading them to believe him in grave peril. ‘Aziz and the vizier go back to the prince’s kingdom and tell his father that Taj al-Muluk has vanished into the palace. Immediately, Sulaiman Shah orders his army to set off for the islands.
Six months into their affair, Taj al-Muluk finally tells Dunya who he really is. He wants to ask her father for her hand again; she agrees at once. Unfortunately this is the day they sleep late and the king’s chief eunuch, sent to Dunya with a present, catches them in bed together. He immediately tells the king, who is furious. When his daughter tries to defend her lover, he has her taken back to her room, but Taj al-Muluk announces his identity proudly and assures Shahriman that he will really regret it if he kills him. The king hesitates. His vizier, however, advocates a quick death and Shahriman orders his reluctant executioner to take off the young man’s head.
After one of Sharazad’s best cliffhangers, the story continues in night 136. Just as the executioner is about to swing, screams are heard from outside as the cavalry arrives! Literally, Taj al-Muluk’s father has thousands of horsemen thundering to the rescue. Messengers from Sulaiman Shah demand news of the prince. If he’s safe, so is Shahriman’s kingdom; if he’s been harmed, ‘be assured of the ruin and the devastation of your country, for [the king] will make it a wilderness in which the ravens croak’. Lucky the executioner was so slow! Sulaiman Shah’s vizier recognises Taj al-Muluk, who leaps up to embrace him. The prince assures a very alarmed Shahriman that he bears him no ill will while Dunya is safe and well.
Which isn’t much of a guarantee because she’s acquired a sword from somewhere and is preparing to run herself through. Her father intercepts her, assures her that her boyfriend is very much alive and hey, they can get married any time! Dunya tells him he deserves to die – Shahriman, that is, not the boyfriend – but as it is, she wants to see Taj al-Muluk more than she wants to fight. The lovers fling themselves at each other. Her father leaves them to it. He has a fellow king to appease, an enemy army to calm and a wedding to arrange.
Fortunately, now that he’s not about to kill his son, he gets on very well with Sulaiman Shah. Taj al-Muluk soon reunites with his anxious father, and sends ‘Aziz to his own home with all the riches he could desire. It’s about time. His mother has built a tomb, assuming him dead. She faints at the sight of him but quickly recovers and is delighted to discover their financial future is now one hundred percent assured.
Back in the isles, Dunya marries Taj al-Muluk and packs up her stuff for the trip to his kingdom. Probably for the best, given the breakdown in relations with her father. They arrive in Sulaiman Shah’s city to a joyful reception and a second wedding. Therein they live happily ever after.
Having concluded his tale, the vizier Dandan is praised by his listening king Dau’ al-Makan. And they get back to besieging Constantinople.