Would it have been any different to leave my home if I had known I was looking my last on the growing fields and deep, flowing waters of the Siresha? Truly, I don’t think I could have left it. Even now in my mind’s eye I see the South Bank of Behd’ad as the barge bearing our carts and camels pulled away from the gleaming marble docks of the Upper Harbor. The buildings were white in the blinding dry-season sun with their gypsum wash that sparkled in the light. The white dazzle was tinted by the shadows from bright-dyed awnings, and the clothing of the people teeming around the streets leading up to the market courts looked like a garden of every hue. In the distance my own house was a jewel among jewels with the colors of the carved crenelations vibrant against the copper-chased archways. The leaves of the roof-top gardens were a faint smear of green. My home was beautiful. Beautiful.
But I didn’t take care to look too closely because I was busy keeping my son from bothering the camels and trying very, very hard not to order my handmaiden to poison Shamhat’s supper. I was tearful from my final farewells to Fatimah and Nafisah. Had I known how long it would be until I saw them again, I never would have left. Fatimah was feeble from another of her fevers and I could see how she shook with the effort of walking to the docks. Nafisah hid between her and my cheetah Imhotep as she always did in company. Dear little Nafisah. I should have paid more attention.
Let me say how I remember my daughter. She was nearing her third year when we left for Gondor, and already she looked very much like me. Her father would joke with her, pretending to mistakenly call her “Aminah” and she would giggle as she told him that no, Secondmother is only a little taller than she. Our daughter was intelligent and sensitive and shy. Meritt had already taught her to read simple texts and to cipher. She wouldn’t speak to strangers at all, and behaved so perfectly that Fatimah would worry she wasn’t normal. Fatimah let her play with other children, and I turned a blind eye to it; what could it hurt? She had a brother who, I was determined, would never go to war. I wish I had spent more time telling her how proud I was, but then I was careful not to step between Fatimah and her daughter. I had my son. He was my darling.
Amir was an outgoing, energetic whirlwind of a boy. He reminded me painfully of Faisal sometimes when he would pretend not to see his sister following him around the halls. When the other children made her cry, he would push them into the fountains. When he had trouble with his lessons, he would let her help him, for he was not so astonishingly quick as his sister in those things. He was a normal boy. He had tantrums and sulked, he was naughty and broke things. He would be brought to kneel in my office and confess some youthful wrongdoing at least once a week. But he was a good boy even so, willing to do right and make up for the worst of his misdeeds. But I was speaking of Nafisah, not Amir.
So this day, she was clinging to her mother’s skirts and crying while she watched as the pile of baggage on the dock grew smaller and the barge filled. Her father picked her up and tugged on the glittery fringe beading her light pink scarf. Nafisah adored pink.
“Three months, Aminah. How many is that?”
She was distracted from her tears to correct him, “Honored father, I am Nafisah.”
He made a show of contrition. “Oh! Nafisah I am sorry! I become so confused, Fatimah.”
She was giggling now. “Mother is Fatimah! I’m Nafisah, Abi! Secondmother is right there! But she’s got her veils on.”
He teased, “When you grow up, I’ll never know which lady I’m speaking to. I should paint your names onto you, like we did with the bales.”
“No!” She was grinning now as he held her securely against his chest, careful of the scimitars crossed through his sash. “You’ll mess up my dresses!”
“I’ll paint it in pink!”
“No you won’t!”
Fatimah said, with laughter in her voice, “I will keep your father from painting your name on your dresses. If you are very good while he’s gone.”
Abdul’s smile gentled, as it always did around Fatimah. Fatimah could gentle a herd of stampeding mumakul. It is not our way to touch in public, but the way he handed Nafisah back to her was a thing of greater meaning than many a kiss I have seen in the streets of the North. “We won’t be longer than we can help,” he said. “If we are late returning, send Khassan, and only Khassan. Sitt Merrit will look after you.”
“And my lord’s father will as well,” purred Shamhat as she sidled up to him. She had a way of walking that made her veils seem more like a dancer’s costume than decent clothing. “Perhaps Fatimah should stay with him, and not trouble the house of the Amirah.”
Fatimah fell silent, and Abdul wavered, though we had discussed in detail why his father and brother should not be involved, lest they find out what exactly it was we were planning to do. His brother Jamil had taken work as a tax collector for Umbar, and though his father disapproved, he did nothing to stop it. I said, taking in a moment of emergency the tone I generally reserved for the audience chamber, “Fatimah has accepted the hospitality of my house and my people, and the priest of Bes has blessed it. Surely you do not wish to offend Bes?”
“My dear, I meant nothing of the sort! Only it is the right of the father’s house to care for a son’s wives. Surely it is important to uphold tradition, for the children’s sake.”
I could not kill her where she stood, so instead I resorted to diplomacy. “When my husband’s honored third wife has her own children, she may raise them as she wishes. But it is my house to which the house of Abdul owes allegiance, and my house has the responsibility to care for all its retainers. Including you.” I could not resist making a face at her. We were veiled. Who would know?
Her honeyed voice replied, “I am merely concerned. I meant no offense.”
Poor Abdul. We were making his life difficult, and his expression showed it as he stepped away from Fatimah and Nafisah, both of them silent as Shamhat and I crossed swords yet again as we had every day since Shamhat talked her way onto our caravan. He said, with some relief, “All is ready, honored ones. Shamhati, Aminahli, please go to the barge.”
And that was that. I met the eyes of my handmaiden, a girl named Lakshmi and perhaps ten years my senior. She was newly come to my service for reasons other than her skill at embroidery and scribe work. With a gesture, she asked if Shamhat should suffer an accident now, before she could do damage on the road. And I considered.
I would not order Shamhat dead. To do so would offend against ma’at, for she had done nothing deserving of death. She had taken no lives and betrayed no secrets; she was merely untrustworthy and, I suspected, an agent of Abdul’s brother. No, she was safer here where I could keep my eyes on her and where she could be kept out of communication with her keepers, if she had any. Or perhaps she was just an unpleasant, scheming woman designing to rule my husband. Such things were done. But all that aside, I could not kill her, and I could not leave her behind. To Lakshmi, I gave a two-fingered sweep of my left hand. “Eyes on her,” it said. Silently, Lakshmi bowed and set her cushion where she could do just that.
The barge cast off, and I watched Fatimah and my daughter shrink to blue and pink shimmers on the sparkling horizon. Amir paused in his running about to come to my side, leaning against me. He was a child. It was permitted to put my arm around him still.
“Omi? Why does Behd’ad float?” And indeed it did float in the heat-shimmering mirage like some secret city peopled by dreams and efreets.
“It only seems to, Amiri. You must ask Sitt Merrit why when we get back.”
“No lessons, then?” He looked awfully hopeful on this point.
I laughed, “Lessons of a new kind. Now that you’re a big boy, your father will teach you how men of the caravans live.”
“But I’m to be an Emir. Why do I need to know about caravans?”
“Why, an Emir must know everything about what his people do and meet as many as he can. He is to be their judge and their protector as they go into danger to bring him profit, and on their backs rest the honor of his house.”
“Is this why you are going?”
“Yes. And for other reasons. All of this, I do so that when you rule, you will be a wise and good king.”
“And will you be my Pashima?”
Could my heart have grown any bigger at that moment? My anger at Shamhat melted like ice brought to a valley feast. “Like Pashima, I will watch over you and help you as long as I live. And I am young, so you will have plenty of time to learn from watching me.”
He said, with the ease of a youthful mind, “I’ll be a good Emir like you, and a good man like Abi. But now I want to look for crocodiles!” His bare feet rang hollow on the barge’s boards, and his father gamely held him over the rail as they both speculated on whether they saw crocodiles, or fish, or perhaps a hippopotamus. I watched them, still a little stunned and humbled. Only moments earlier I had contemplated taking the life of my Jaara for something so small as insulting words and a disrespectful attitude. And yet, my son thought me a good amirah. I prayed then to Horus, who is god-king of kings, that I would someday be worthy of my son’s respect.
I conceived my son in order to have a heir, but before that moment, I don’t think I ever really understood in my heart what it was that I had done. He was a person who was watching me rule. My failures would no longer be my own. How stunning that a six year old boy could be a living, breathing manifestation of my own conscience. How humbling to see how short I fell of my own standards.
A.N. ‘Abi‘ is (the internet tells me) Arabic for ‘daddy’ and ‘Omi‘ for ‘mommy’. Thank you, internet. Ma’at is the ancient Egyptian concept of balance – that principle that rulers were especially responsible for guarding. It is from this concept of divine balance that the ancient Egyptians derived the concept of Shai/shait (there’s a god of it) or divine will. It isn’t fate in the strictest sense, but rather refers to the conscious ordering of the world by the command of the gods. Aminah translates it as ‘fate’, but it carries a more active and dynamic meaning since one’s shai depends on the gods reactions to your own choices. That’s about to become important.