In my mind’s eye, Faisal will always be tall and strong with his hair curling boyishly up from the edges of his turban and straight-backed. He struck a handsome figure riding his horse from our villa at the sparkling river into the gates of Behd’ad and the places of learning at the temple of the East wind. Though he was heir, my father had him educated as a second son. He thought that just as his knowledge of history and philosophy had aided him as Emir, so too would Faisal be harder for enemies to fool, calmer in the face of adversity, and more humble in the face of success. Others remember him as rather small and weedy with an adolescent ranginess even into his twenties. To me, he was everything a man should be.
I remember after he first married how his wife Sostris and I would watch him from the dappled view of the screened balconies above as he trained with our house guard. When she came to us she was fourteen and I was eight, and I thought her very fine and grown up indeed in her hair with the red-painted part of a married woman and her embroidered veils. She would help me practice applying kohl and ochre, and she would giggle when my efforts yielded a clumsy, crooked face with eyes ringed like a sand fox. She’d let me dress up in her fine, gauzy clothing. Her beaded slippers would slide around my feet like boats.
Together we would watch Faisal as he practiced his sword. Sometimes he would exchange fierce blows from horseback, other times he and Khassan, his bodyguard, would spar. Khassan was much better, but we never told Faisal. I think he knew. Sostris and I would muffle giggles as the men banged into each other in a manner we thought hysterical for some reason, and we would applaud at any little success Faisal had. Khassan would make faces at the bit of screen where he knew we watched, and we’d giggle at that too. Khassan came from our people leading desert caravans from the valley to Umbar, and he had the large teeth and tall stature of his plainsman kin. Then, he was a brash young man whose bravery fighting bandits and skill routing assassins had earned him great honor with my family. His wives were simple desert women, but they giggled along with Sostris and I as our men showed off for us. I don’t know why it was that we didn’t see a serious purpose to the blades and grappling. We were hardly kept sheltered in the way some girls were.
Sostris and I spent a great deal of time sitting behind screens and listening. Every morning when mother and father sat to hear petitions and greet their dependents, we were there paying very close attention. Our handmaidens sat with pots of chilled atai and little cakes, and we listened, knowing that mother would later ask us to comment on what we had seen and require that we quote for her what laws from what year were being invoked. We learned the names of the families who depended on the House founded by Aziz the One-eyed six centuries ago, and we saw many of them in person coming and going from our house. Peasant women went bare-faced as their men, but even the poorest of our silk-growers wore good fabric in bright colors and none of their slaves (I do not deny we had them, nor will I pretend I thought much of it at the time) were underfed that I could see. The trader-men of the deserts wore billowing robes and turbans with long tails that could be used at a moment’s notice to keep sand out of their lungs. The fierce warriors of the steppes wore felted hats of yak hair, and those coming from the jungles wore hardly anything at all, to our eyes. The whole world seemed to come and go from our visiting hall and it was hard to ever be bored.
Father wore the green and gold of our house over his white shirt and billowing trousers. His turban wound around a small hat in the way of the upper Sirayn, and his vest, sash, and boots were woven in the most glorious brocades from our own silk. Mother too wore green outer robes in a shade exactly matching father’s with the edges framing her eyes stitched in fine gold and tiny beryl gems. They looked vibrant sitting on silk cushions of every color in our hall in front of the mosaics of river animals and a pale summer sky. Mother sat to father’s right and a little behind, as was proper, and at intervals he would incline his head to listen to what she had to say. Her murmurs were too quiet to float beyond the dias, but Sostris and I could both hear everything. Every fourth day it was women’s court and father would go to other mens’ houses while mother heard the petitions of wives, widows, daughters, and the occasional courtesan affiliated with our family. I was young, and I liked the courtesans the best because they wore the most outlandish things. Half a mine would hang from their bangled wrists and although they wore as many veils as noble women, the fabric would be almost transparent in an effect somehow less decent than a peasant woman with only a wrap for her hair. They looked like little dolls against the mosaics of our hall.
I asked mother once why such women bothered to cover at all, and she said, “Men would far rather almost see beauty than have it always available. They want to expend effort in the hunt, be it women or the lions of the desert.” This made no sense to me at the time, but it served me well in the years to come.
But to return to Faisal, and Sostris, and these court days, even a child like I was could see that things were changing. More women complained of problems that never would have happened had their sons and husbands been close to home. The men coming on mens’ days were either very young, or very old, or missing parts of their bodies. More and more problems were caused by a lack of workers. Even our slaves and those owned by our people were suffering from want and overwork as more jobs fell to them, and they demanded more coin so that they could earn freedom more quickly. Those who had to hire them from their owners could not pay, so father must. Women were doing the jobs of men, and it was a great shame on our house. I didn’t know until I had some whispered conversations with the other girls at my dancing lessons that this shame was on every major house of Behd’ad. The levies of Umbar had come.
One day a man arrived at father’s morning court. We stared because he was pale, pale like Death in the stories, and in truth he may as well have been a servant of the Caliph of the Otherworld. Had he been Death’s hand, he would have weighed our lives with greater fairness. He spoke a language I had learned only in books, and he spoke so quickly that I could barely follow at all. Father pretended he could not understand, and in that way the pale man’s interpreter could not know that his mistranslations were noticed. There were many. The Pale Man was not polite and often insulting.
He had come for Faisal, as we had all feared. “He is my only son and heir,” said father. “You owe us your obedience,” said the Pale Man. “Al-Hruzain respectfully reminds you of your treaty obligations,” said the interpreter. Father’s face showed those of us who knew him how angry he was, and how powerless to have this man whipped for speaking to an emir as if he were a slave.
Faisal was terrified on that day when he mounted his horse in the courtyard for the last time. His wife clung to his leg and begged that she might go with him if he couldn’t stay by her. But no, he said, war was no place for a woman. “It’s only four years,” he told us all, lying as much as we were lying about glory and honor and a warrior’s pride. “I will return a man with the banners of vanquished Gondorians.”
My father said nothing as Khassan checked over the pack-camels with the bags and bags of things we hoped would keep Faisal safe and living. He looked old as he had never looked before. At last he told my brother, “Come back alive. Remember that you are a human being and not an animal. Fight with honor. Defend the weak. Obey those whom Fate has placed over you. But my son, we would have you alive over a thousand Gondorian banners.”
My mother only cried. She cried as Faisal kissed her (as was proper for a grown man) and hugged her close (as was not). She cried as she made the gestures of blessing, and her tears smoked on the Altar of the South wind every night.
Sostris and I clung to each other’s hands as Faisal, Khassan, and the honor guard of ten retired warriors – all our House could spare from our dwindling supply of men – rode forth to join in a war few of us understood or cared to fight. There was news for a time, then silence, then Faisal’s sword returned broken from his first battle. Khassan was a prisoner of war, and my brother was dead. My mother never cried again.
Sostris mourned only a few months before her father made a new match and I saw her only at women’s gatherings. And I? I began to learn the talk of Gondor from a tutor. He was a who had been a trader when things between us and the North were better and who had married a woman of our city. He sat on one side of the screen, I sat on the other, and I applied myself to becoming less ignorant. Everything I did from that point on would spell life and death to my people. I was the heir of Aziz.