I never realized I wasn’t like other children because there really weren’t other children I could compare myself to, at least not that I knew well. There were the servants’ sons and daughters, but I wasn’t allowed to play with them, and I wouldn’t know how if I tried. Once I snuck to the kitchens to play with Dhalit, the cook’s daughter at our summer palace, but she was so in awe of me that we never got beyond greetings. My handmaidens would invent games that were meant to prepare me for my future as Amirah. I would play judge and ambassador, and sometimes when I begged they would let me play priestess. I liked priestess best because she got the most interesting costumes and could command the floods to rise and fall. There were no actual floods, of course, but blue silk curtains would flutter around the stool I used for the river altar.
After Faisal was killed, there was no more of this playing. The games were all very serious and quite real as I sat at Father’s right hand and gave my advice, such as it was. I felt myself very grown up indeed at the ripe old age of eleven and eager to grow up faster still. The young have no way of seeing how young they are, I think, and when everyone is anxious for you to be adult, you try very hard to become what your family wishes.
I am given to understand now that it is very odd for someone so young to consider metaphysical philosophy relaxing, but I think that even in the softer childhood of a Northern girl I would still enjoy such things. My nurse always said I was the most serious baby she had ever raised. Nevertheless, Firstmother and my tutors were kind to me in these last days of my childhood, and I always had my evenings free for reading. A curtained chair would carry me to the Temple of Knowledge by the sanctuary of Toth and the librarians would let me read whatever I wanted. I still remember the first time I encountered the philosophy of Al-Toringal the Northman. I don’t know if that’s the name given him by his own people, for I’ve yet to find an edition here in the Breelands, or even in Rivendell. He is thought by my people to be from Dul’Amruth. My lord informs me that it is properly spelled ‘Dol Amroth’, but that is what we know it as. Regardless, this man wrote in the form of a conversation between two people in which questions and more questions were used to show the weakness of words for describing Truth. Or so it seemed to me. “What is honor” or “What is friendship”? These were questions I had never heard posed, and I was caught with all the passionate fervor of a woman at the threshold of adult life. I think I made myself quite a pest as I tracked down anyone who would stand still and proceeded to torture them with semantics. This to me was fun, and even in my steadier years, I still find it so. How useful it is to me now to be able to question and observe! How kind Fate was to give me a way to understand the foreigners who are now my family! Perhaps understanding comes slowly, but this faith in the immutability of a larger truth and the humanity of all thinking creatures is of immeasurable comfort to the exile.
But on now to the next test Fate had devised for me. I was twelve, and nearing womanhood, and the Amirah of a house badly in need of male succession. I have read the laws of some of the Northmen, and I know this is one thing we do very differently. We allow women to own property in their own name and to exercise rule in the absence of male issue. The private lives of women are strictly circumscribed by Northern standards, yes, but our public lives do exist, and even flourish. Women are doctors, lawyers, philosophers, and even tradesmen. Among the lower class, so long as they are covered, they may do many of the things their brothers also do. It is not equality in the absolute sense, and there are many, many laws that are still unfair to girls. Nevertheless, the areas of our freedom are different from the freedoms given Northwomen. So I could rule as sole Amirah, and moreover I was expected to do so while I produced and raised a son to adulthood. This is rare, but not unheard of. However, until there was a son, we were vulnerable to assassinations and raids on our lands and our people. Behd’ad has several ruling families under the Caliph, and among themselves they have tendencies toward vicious strife.
And so for the good of my people, I must marry. I must marry and produce as son, and I must do it as soon as feasible. Even by the standards of my people, I was young for this. I know this is a thing the Northerners find abhorrent in our people, that older husbands take wives who have barely begun to bleed. I now agree that I was far too young, but I also still think it was necessary. I was not forced, save by the way we are all forced to bow before necessity. My people needed a line of succession, and I was capable of providing it. So we began to look for my husband.
There were practicalities. I could not be a first wife, because I would have no time for running a private household. It was better I marry a man with a son, because my son would be my heir, and not his. I could not marry among my own rank because my husband might use it as an opportunity to take over what was mine. I could not marry too low, because that would disgrace the House. The match should add to our people’s well-being, and should avoid further connections to Umbar or Mordor. We had not forgotten the contempt of the ambassador. Finally, I wished a good man who was kind to his people, and who would be kind to me. It was this last thing that proved most difficult.
Father, Firstmother, and I spent days poring over petitions from prospective husbands. A list was made, and audiences granted to a final four. None of them thrilled me, but I thought myself too practical to be thrilled. Then one day, Fate again intervened in the form of Abdul ibn’Farquad.
It was in petitioner’s court that I first saw him. His family had made a name for itself as skilled drovers and traders of rare spices. I recognized him from the friends of Khassan who used to ride with Faisal, and found his face a comfortingly familiar sight from better days. With the loss of Khassan, we were badly in need of caravans to take the silk and cashmere from our lands North to Umbar and Mordor. Farquad’s family also had connections among the Harondorim, the border folk who roamed the deserts dividing us from Gondor-may-Fate-curse-her (that was what we called it then, and might still call it now. The war was not going well.) It was then that I first got the notion of trading not with the despots of Umbar or the misshapen efreets of Mordor, but with Northerners who certainly had less access to our goods and might pay dearly for them. I will admit that I was less motivated by friendly feelings toward Gondor than I was by a wish to make them pay dearly for the blood of my relatives. So I made enquiries.
Abdul was a second son. His first wife had conceived many children, but none had lived past a second year. Still, as a second son, he needed no heir. Indeed, and heir might split his family’s holdings. His wife had never been beaten and was reputed a good, virtuous woman of capable hands and generous character. She was of Abdul’s own class, they said, and industrious. She could handle her own household without need of help. Abdul himself wasn’t quite as old as many of the men I considered. He was in his early 30s and was a proficient swordsman who kept his oaths and gave appropriate honor to the gods. He was not educated in the way my class was, but he could read and write, and his words were always well-chosen and intelligent. Added to this, he was charming. For all my determination to be rational, I was mostly taken by his charm and his kind face. My mind weighed practicalities, but my frightened heart wanted kindness.
The negotiations took quite some time and were delicate webs of careful contracts and oaths between his family and mine. We never spoke, but our agents carries messages back and forth, all very proper, but I would pore over them for clues that I had judged correctly. The betrothal was hot, I remember. My dress and veils were so heavy that I had to be carried. Gold and silk was exchanged by the basketful! I tried very hard to be dutiful and attentive, but I dozed every so often. The wedding was even worse. We had to visit the temples of the four winds, then sail to the tombs of our ancestors on the North bank. By the time I returned to my new suite in the palace, I was so exhausted that I could barely summon the energy for nerves.
My handmaids fussed with kohl and rouge, and I tried very hard to look older and grown. My woman’s body was a new thing of a few months, and I still looked like a girl in her mother’s clothes, even in my own eyes.
Abdul and I spoke our first private words to each other that night. He looked as uncomfortable as I felt, and I had to laugh a little. He grinned at me with those white teeth in his dark face, and I knew I had chosen well.
“Do I call you Amirah?”
“I think you’re supposed to, but it does seem a little silly.”
“Hah! I can see why they named you Aminah. Are you always this direct?”
His smiles provoked mine, and I forgot that I was supposed to be grand and grown-up. “Sometimes I’m even more direct. I may even, on occasion, disagree with you.”
“Hah! The kitten has claws. Would you like to know a secret?”
I nodded, cross-legged now and hugging a golden silk pillow to my chest.
“I want you to disagree with me, sometimes. I want to be able to talk to my wives like people, and not have us be always afraid of each other. I know you’re noble, and that I must seem ancient to you, but your brother always said you were bright and in need of friends. Shall we be friends?”
This wasn’t how I’d imagined this going. That is, when I imagined such things at all. I had thought of my future husband as perhaps a convenience and necessity, but not as a source of companionship. But then, hadn’t my parents been something more than parties to a treaty? Abdul made me begin to think I might derive some personal satisfaction from this new life. So I nodded my agreement to this, and we spent our wedding night just talking, and only that.
I wonder whether it was as difficult for him as it was for me to contemplate making love to a stranger. I must have looked far too much like a child to him, custom or no custom. We spent our month of seclusion as brother and sister, and it never seemed burdensome for him. He taught me to play running games and hiding games. We would spend entire mornings in the garden stalking one another or tossing balls. He had brought senet, a game played with sticks on a raised board, and we even gambled for rose petals. It all felt so deliciously forbidden that I would giggle and giggle like some deranged person. At the beginning, he was more like an older brother to me than a husband, and even when he finally took me to his bed, I still felt less like a wife and more like a beloved playmate. He was never cross with me when I acted my age, and I quickly came to admire him. He taught me to laugh, and to be kind to myself, and I found pleasure in his patient embraces.
Fate was kind to me in him, and though I will not allow my own daughters to marry so young, it isn’t something I look back to with regret. I was given new respect by my own people as if marriage had magically transformed me into a proper adult. I would laugh behind my veils at just how childish adulthood had made me in private. But my opinions were heard with greater weight, and my father began to give me more responsibilities on my own. By day, I was crown Amirah and master of estates. By night, I played hide-and-find in the gardens, barefoot and bareheaded.