Hatred is a strange thing of many layers, like a baklava flavored with peppers and glass. It entices with promises of delicious satisfaction, and you don’t notice until it is far too late that your mouth is bleeding and on fire.
In the days when I awaited the birth of my daughter, my mood was black as the rainy Southern mountains. I had inherited my emirate at a time in which Umbar relied on the wealthy, fertile South to fund its inexplicably urgent forays to the North, and I inherited two centuries’ worth of treaties that must be honored without giving away the homeland to the ravening maw of the Pale Kings, or the bottomless pit of the Eye. Every day there was some new maneuver to be met with a counter-move of my own, and every day each of us lost a little ground.
My equals reacted each in his (I was only one of two Amira-Regents) own fashion. Some gave more than asked in hopes of favored treatment when another great house fell: they fell often enough to keep such crocodiles waiting anxiously in every reed-bed. Some gave just what they must, made florid promises for the future, and delayed the process to a standstill. Some – and this was my approach also – made a great show of poverty when possible, moved resources into legal loopholes and somewhat legal caches, and engaged in varying degrees of sabotage and smuggling. It was houses such as ours whom the crocodiles watched.
Now, with the great wisdom of two decades or so, I think I might have been more careful. Certainly I risked many, many vulnerable lives by doing what I did, even if my last desperate move has finally and irrevocably guarded the core of the House of Aziz from seizure and slavery. But perhaps I might not have aided the conspiracy to murder Lord Ur-Phrazain when he came to order the dissolution of House Hiran, and it was definitely too much of a risk to provide sanctuary to the wives of Emir Pashan of House Zarbin. I was young. I was angry. I had a son who might very well be forced to fight as had my brother if I failed to act aggressively. He could have been forced to fight had I not; but aggression suited my mood. I never turned on my own, though had I been brought to it, I very well might have. The young have a fearless ferocity untempered by experience.
In this time when business kept me in the hot, breathless valley long past the season of withdrawal to the mountains, and in which I was again pregnant and ill eating anything but mangoes, it was my hatred for Umbar that won over my hatred for Gondor. Gondor was almost an imaginary land to me where far-off white-faced daemons killed our men. Umbar… Umbar was the place that forced us to send our sons to be eaten by monsters. It was one last outrage that set me upon a course that would, at last, lead me to the great trial of my life, and to the strange fate that now rewards me in long exile.
I had many advisers, most of them women and eunuchs after the incident with the scribe. Among them was my seer, a priestess of Shu named Tefnut. You Northmen would call her a ‘sorceress’ I think, but we make finer distinctions. We are, as I have said, a land in which the winds are free-blowing and the elements unmixed. In such lands, I think, it is easier to touch the powers of magic. Priestesses of Shu can see and hear as the winds blow. Their god Shu is King of Winds and adviser to Toth, god of learning. He directs them and gathers them in as they go about the business of watching the hearts of mortals and assuring that Fate – the balance of Ma’at – is maintained. On this day, a day on which I wanted nothing more than to crawl into the shade with a bowl of mangoes and be left alone to mope, she came to me to say that Abdul’s caravan had been stopped as it returned from Umbar, and all our profits confiscated for the use of the war. I believed her, for when she saw, she saw clearly. Her acolyte, a young man who rode now with Abdul, made sure that we would have accurate information quickly.
To say I was angry is to understate the matter. I broke things. I did not act with dignity. I snapped at my handmaiden, even; a thing I have been trained from youth never, ever to do. And then, when I had made myself quite ill and tired, but still could not sleep, I called Khassan, Merrit, and the foreigner who had taught me the tongue of the Gondorians. And here was born our plan.
We had been smuggling small items for quite some time through the Harondorim and had returned tidy profits for our lesser goods. I felt great satisfaction at this gold. It felt to me like a small payment of the great reserve of blood-money I longed for from the death of Faisal and the slavery of Khassan. I knew no actual Gondorians besides my old tutor, and this made my anger particularly keen and unblunted. I stopped short of wishing them agony to equal mine, since even I could realize that they too were losing kin in this war over… what? Harondor! Who would want Harondor? But every day I continued to lose the wealth that fed and clothed my retainers, servants, dependents, and slaves. Had Faisal lived, I reasoned, Umbar would not be so eager to press a ruling Emir as they were a regent Amira. And so, I further reasoned, Gondor owed me money, and Umbar deserved nothing from us but grief.
When Abdul returned, he was grim and shaken and looked, for the first time, like a man approaching his fortieth year. When I suggested that we turn the bulk of our attention and the best of our goods to smuggling, he was easily convinced. We would still send shell-caravans to Umbar and Mordor, but our best would go due North. And so it was decided. Even as we began to make covert overtures to like-minded houses, the flood waters rose and the air cooled once more. I thought, though I knew it was perhaps an unreasonable assumption, that the gods themselves approved of our disobedience. I was breaking most of our treaties, but they had (in my mind) been broken already.
It was a frightening thing, and we had to hire more priests and magi to cover our trail. Umbar too knows how to read the currents of the elements. We bet against our success to hire drovers and guards with money we didn’t have, and risked execution for us and slavery for our people. As I said, I was angry. I was young.
My daughter came early amidst a meeting in which Khassan and Abdul were sifting through caravan guards and guides. I stayed too long, thinking that I had to keep abreast of every development, and knowing that I would be held accountable first if one of these men decided to sell us all to Umbar. Nafisah was nearly born on a negotiating table before Khassan called a halt to things and Abdul carried me back to my rooms.
I admit, I was annoyed to have to stop in the moment of my revenge’s birth to give life to a single girl-child. I am not proud of this, but it is true. But there are few things more able to distract a woman from plotting to overthrow her treaty obligations than giving birth. By the time Merrit handed me the only child of mine that yet draws breath, I was not thinking of Gondorian wealth or strangling the lords of Umbar with their own belts.
“A girl!” was the first thing I said. I was a little astonished, though the auguries had all indicated that this child would be no sword-arm for Amir.
“And perfectly healthy, chubby little thing.” Merrit continued about her business, and this time I was not so eager to hand the baby away as soon as I could. I was old enough now to feel the pull of motherhood, and to have my heart snatched by the grasping of her tiny, perfect fingers.
Fatimah arrived late, her breath panting from her run across the city. Fatimah was also graying, her body now wan from years of bearing children whom she never was fated to hold. I was young, but just old enough now to see how sadness warred in her expression with relief to see me well, and the baby safe.
I sometimes wonder if it was this moment that saved me from becoming, as some women have, a slave to vengeance and anger. At the time, I felt only that something in my heart remembered how to feel compassion. And then, as if Isis herself whispered into my ear, I knew what Fate asked of me. I looked at my daughter’s tiny brown face as she lay in tired contentment against me, and I felt the anger wrestling with the charge laid on me. Had I not lost enough? Had not enough been taken from me? I then looked to Fatimah, and I saw a woman who knew more of loss than I ever would. I waved her over, uncovered my child, and laid her naked on Fatimah’s knees. She almost dropped the baby in her astonishment, and Merrit’s needle poked me suddenly in an area that did not, I hope, deserve poking.
I said the words over Fatimah’s attempt to hush me, “Today you are a mother, Fatimahli.”
She held the child so the newborn wouldn’t fall and said, shaken, “No, Aminahli. She is too precious a jewel to be given.”
I smiled weakly and said, pushing her away firmly, “And now you have named her. Go show Abdul your Nafisah.”
“A thousand blessings on you, greatest of la…”
“Shh! Enough of that, my sister. All I ask is that you let me, as Secondmother, provide her a worthy tutor.”
I cried later, when I was alone enough to do so without Fatimah feeling that my gift was grudging. But I had a son. Fatimah was not busy trying to plot anything, and so could be the best mother my tiny girl could want. I would still see her and help to raise her, but she would be entered as Fatimah’s child before the gods and the winds. I cried, but even as I did, the anger began to ebb. The wounds of my hatred could heal now, though my course was set and I would not be swayed. But I had remembered compassion for my family and my people, reminded by the silent example of a woman who would never rule more than a household. This was the Amira I wished to be; a mother to my people, and not yet another tyrant. My tears carried my prayers to Fate that I might grow to be better than I was. I was heard. The terms of my great trial were now set in motion.