Father’s funeral rites, from beginning to end, took fifty days. Forty of those were the days of waiting while the priests of Anubis sang their wailing songs to keep away efreets while his body was made ready to hold his place in eternity. Firstmother and I had little to do beyond our daily prayers to Isis-of-the-bank. We sat, she remembering his love, and I lost and frightened. She was waiting patiently until she could join him forever in the Otherworld. I was looking forward to a long life in which I was no longer playing Amirah at his side.
Abdul was on caravan. To me in those days he was always on caravan. The mind of a young woman is a strange thing in which thought and emotion function as if the ka were a divided thing living in two different worlds. I knew he would be home for months when the rains made the Northward passage a thing of sudden floods and sucking sands where the Mumakul mated and fought in battles of monsters. In those months, he lavished us with attention and gifts from abroad. He played with his small son and sought me in the gardens. Every year I knew I would have these months, and besides that I would have weeks here and there between caravans. Three trips a year made three visits and a rainy season. Abdul came with the growing of things and the thundering mountains.
To that other part of me, he was never present and I was the lover of an absent shadow of memory. My son would ask again and again when he would see his father until I forbid the question. He paid me little heed, and the question remained. “Even when he is here,” this part of me would whine, “He is not wholly yours. He must be shared, always shared, and not only with Fatimah but with his own family and his own concerns. How often do you yearn for his arms only to find he cannot be had?”
When father died, it was sudden. One moment he was with his books and Firstmother, and the next he was stepping out of himself to greet the jackal of the North. There were no last words of advice and no final commands; one moment I was his right hand, the next I was sole Amirah. The very day he died I had to listen to petitions. I signed three decrees. I am still not sure exactly what they were. I hope they were just.
In the days of waiting, I had a scribe from the temple of Toth by my side. He had been father’s, and now he was mine. When I forgot a law, he would remind me. When I needed a precedent found, he would already have it. Is it little wonder that the half of me that wanted its own way found itself quickly besotted with the man?
We are told, as women of the blood, that love is the most dangerous thing to us of all the winds of the heart. It comes, it goes, and it knows neither honor nor prudence. So we are told. Love – that which pulls men and women together – causes blindness and selfishness. It is fine, we are told, for common folk to be pulled by reckless love. Their honor is their own, and only theirs. Their decisions are their own affair and if they are pulled into dishonorable treason, the Emir can pull them back. But who can command an Emir blinded by love? Who can stop him when his passions make him selfish? We were allowed many, many things. Sometimes, Hathor who nourishes marriage would send love to our honorable alliances. But to act on love? This was among treachery and injustice in our accounting of things forbidden.
Forbidden things pull at the young like a crocodile pulls its prey under the waters. The me-of-the-mind was fully aware of this, and all the obligations she had to fulfill. The me-of-the-heart was angry, I think. She wanted her father to be Emir, and for her brother to be there to be the next Emir. She wanted to be held, and adored, and safe in the ignorance of childhood. She hated her duties and her worries and the echoing solitude of her life. I think now – no, I know now! – that I was far, far too young to carry so much weight. I lived in lonely luxury, a child pretending to be a woman. I hadn’t lived enough to know my own strength, or my own good fortune.
But now, to return to the days of mourning, and to this scribe whose name I cloak for the shame of what came after. He was young too, and of a scribe’s family. He could talk to me, as Abdul never could, of philosophy and art. I was sixteen; my heart lay very near the surface and I was as easily dazzled by him as he must have been by me. Male and female scribes never talk, but an Amirah and her adviser may do so at leisure. He never saw my face and there was always a table between us as we sorted through documents and documents. But we began… no. I began it. Our hands brushed, and held, and our fingers made love to each other as we talked.
Northern women would, I think, find my indiscretion a tiny thing indeed. Some Southern wives have been killed for less. It is not right, but it is true. I was not a woman in danger in such a way. My status was so high that I could have taken a lover quietly, or so I told myself. Emirs did so all the time. Regularly! They had courtesans as often as they liked when their wives proved insufficient company. Wives were for children, courtesans for love. Did I not deserve what those who were my equals could have? Why must my honor be different from theirs? All of these things I would say to myself, even as I burned incense to soothe my father’s ka as it waited to have its body embalmed. My body was dutiful, but my rebelling spirit began to consume my very reason with its madness.
I had decided that I would have my ‘courtesan’. Already our closed conferences ended with furtive touching and embraces in the safety of the dim evening office. After father’s boat bore him to his tomb, and after my hands performed the final enlivening of the body I would grasp my happiness and sate my passion. Whom would it hurt? Did I not deserve something of my own? I was both excited and horrified by myself.
It did not come to pass. It was Khassan who was the innocent bearer of this scribe’s doom, bringing in hand a boy from our kitchens whom he had seen sneaking into the House of Beni. This other House had sought and failed to bring suit to claim some of our silk-land in the Caliph’s court, for it was in dire straights after having supported Umbar. Umbar does not repay debts. The boy’s words could have been fabricated, but the messages he carried were written in a hand I knew as well as my own. “She burns for me,” it said. “Soon she will be eating from my hand.”
My shame knew no bounds, and was not lessened for coming before I had committed the final betrayal of my husband. My honest, loyal husband who had never asked for more than a son and a comfortable life. My husband who did not keep courtesans, so far as I knew, and who was nothing but kind to his wives and his child. I have never felt so wretched or so sick to my heart, knowing then the depths of my own capacity for treachery and dishonor. I must confess, the thought of what might have become of my people due to my weakness was secondary to more selfish concern for what Abdul would think of me. I knew I would tell him. Honor demanded I tell him.
The scribe was not wholly evil, just as few people are wholly evil. Emir Beni had his mother and his sister hostage, and he had paid for my scribe’s training, and such training is not cheap. My scribe was owned, as surely as a slave is owned. Another Amirah would have sent the scribe’s head in a pot of honey, and that would have been that. I was not that Amirah, though I was told often enough I was a fool to show weakness by letting him live. Instead, I pretended I had seen nothing. I told my scribe that my honor forbid me to keep such temptation close, but that his service had been invaluable in a difficult time. I offered to Emir Beni a marriage for the scribe’s sister, and on such public terms that he could not refuse to accept. Her mother must, of course, go with her into her new household, and Emir Beni could expect to benefit in the form of trade concessions. I acquired cashmere goats, and he was given an annuity of silks for his weaving houses to use. In time, we formed a comfortable alliance that saved his people further poverty. But the scribe was never allowed into my household again.
Abdul was a wise man. I cannot say enough how wise a man Abdul was, for all his small learning. I gave him no excuses for my lapse, and he was hurt and angry for a time. But in the end, he was holding me as I cried for my father and promising to send another in his stead when the next caravan left. “You are young,” he said. And that was the last he ever said on the matter. I am sure this was the night that gave us Nafisah, though Merrit says there is no way of saying for sure. I like to think of her as coming to seal this new step in my marriage to Abdul, a blessing on the night that my soul reconciled duty and desire, and the night Abdul chose compassion for a lonely woman over anger at a fickle wife. Before, we had been chosen for each other. Now, it was we who chose to build together what love was allowed to us.