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At the mention of Fatima's name, however, the atmosphere in the audience chamber cooled considerably. With only a brief last glance at the marvelous carpet, the Sultana indicated with a flick of her finger that it should be rerolled.
"This is a most amusing tale," she said, rising. Her jaw was set and her voice was hard. She sounded anything but amused. "However, I fear the rest of it must be delayed until tomorrow. I am weary, and need to rest before my nephew visits me this evening. Leave me."
We were escorted back to the Princess Zarifa's quarters, and refrained from speech until we were alone.
"I don't understand!" Aster said. "I had them in the palm of my hand!"
"You spread the sap too thick," I said. "Why not just tell the Sultana the truth? You didn't even ask that she send someone to rescue Um Aman and Hyaganoosh."
"It's too bad about the old woman, but she probably was killed right away. And when did Hyaganoosh ever worry you or me? A person has to look out for herself in this world. What I'd like to know is why the mention of Fatima's name should cause such a fuss."
Amollia stretched out on a ruby-colored cushion beside Kalimba and flexed her fingers over her head. "I have a notion about that, Aster, and I would not tell you what it is while within these walls. But I think we must bear in mind Fatima's injunction to give her other gifts to the King personally, and not through any of these women."
"But we won't be allowed to speak to the King personally!" Aster protested.
"Perhaps we should get the treasures to Aman then. I wish while the djinn was tampering with our wishes to protect us from our own immoral impulses by landing us in the Kings harem rather than one of our own, he would have thought to protect us as well by providing us with calling cards or credentials instead of merely plopping us down in here like vagrants. Our social connections don't seem to have impressed our hostess in the right way."
The young Princess was much cooler toward us that evening. From this I gathered she had taken the blame for our awkward presence. It seemed only civil to apologize, and I could see that that was what Amollia wished to do too, but we couldn't attract her attention long enough to speak to her. She and the maids had billowed into her chambers chattering about a gift an exalted subject prince had sent before him to announce his presence and implore an audience the following day. The gift consisted of a troupe of three dozen nautch girls, all of extraordinary beauty, grace, suppleness, voluptuousness and accomplishment. They had suddenly danced into the audience chamber and undulated greetings to the King from the prince. The King, young enough to be charmed and old enough to be_ inflamed by their charms, had not had the intrusion punished, but had installed the dancers in the rooms vacated by the former maids of his late mother. Zarifa had seen the dancers. She and her women spent some time enbroiled in a discussion of what sort of beauty treatments it would take for them to look like those dancers.
Finally the child settled down to have her hair brushed, and Amollia and I were able to tender our apologies. The girl shrugged, smiled a precociously false smile and began slyly to interrogate us about Fatima. We told her the truth. That Fatima was a holy woman who had befriended us, had given us gifts to deliver to the King and that she kept the shrine of Saint Selima.
"These holy persons are very wise, of course," Zarifa said with a yawn which probably was not feigned. "But they can be a little crazy sometimes too. She never mentioned, for instance, that she wanted to send gifts here because she used to live here?"
Aster was not to be outdone in slyness by a chit like the Princess. "She mentioned living in a palace somewhere once but didn't think much of it. She seems much to prefer monkeys and holy relics. Palace life can't have been pleasant for her. She was little more than a slave, from what she told us."
"Ah, is that what she told you? That she was a slave? She didn't say how she came to leave the palace?"
"To follow her saint, I believe she said," I interjected. I saw no reason to mention the baby. That was obviously a personal matter and painful one for Fatima. No need to confide it to a stranger too young to know from whence babies come.
Zarifa's expression softened and some of her former friendliness returned. "Don't worry about this too much. My aunt was interested in your story, but she is unaccustomed to as much responsibility as she has now and tires easily. She'll hear the rest tomorrow. Be sure and give her all of these fascinating details you have told me. We do love hearing about new people here. Those dancers for instance-"
For my part I was irritated by the arrival of these dancers and the man who had donated them, whoever he was. He would no doubt manage to occupy the King all day and thus interfere with Aman's ability to receive an audience. Nice clothing and perhaps a fine horse or two could not compete with three dozen dancers, a royal t.i.tle, and the G.o.ds only knew what else.
As well, perhaps in the meantime we could contrive a way to send Aman the gifts Fatima wished to bestow upon the King. With that responsibility dispatched, we should be able to wait in relative comfort until matters were resolved one way or the other. We had only to be very cautious in what we said about Fatima.
Like Amollia, I had my own suspicions about why the holy woman was a touchy topic, for evidently this was the very harem in which she had dwelt before leaving to follow Selima. Some scandal no doubt lingered because of the baby, though how it could blacken Fatima's name when she was the one victimized escaped me. But no matter what the problem was between Fatima and the King's ladies, surely the Sultana would be able to see, if Aster could manage to work in the rest of our story without contradicting the lies she had already told, that we were only interested in justice and in having our family restored. Perhaps she'd even intervene with the King to have the Emir punished for abusing his governorship.
With such an enemy still at large, I belatedly felt almost thankful that the djinn had sent us to a place where we were so well defended both by men-at-arms and by the King's position. If only Aman Akbar were as safe, I would have wanted for nothing.
The attack began gradually, while the palace was still and no one was vigilant enough to help until the worst of the damage was done. It began for me when I jerked awake kicking, the top of my foot aflame with a burning itch. All ten nails of both hands did I rake across the area in an attempt to end that jangling itch, but it burned all the harder for that, and was at once joined by another, on my ankle, and yet another, on the other foot, so that I could not move fast enough to scratch both at once. To my right Aster cursed incomprehensibly and sat straight up, clutching at her midsection, digging herself with her nails. Amollia sat up too, scratching furiously.
Aster cursed again. "What kind of country is this that the harem of the very King is infested with bedbugs?"
From the adjoining apartment, Zarifa whimpered and her snuffling and scratching joined ours, as did the tinkling of her bell as she rang for her maid. Ringing did not produce fast enough results, so she screeched, "Jamila! Jameeela!"
I did not note when the maid arrived, for I was too busy trying to douse the verminous fires lighted in my own flesh. Accustomed as I was to the pests dwelling among my own people, never had I experienced such itching. Now, indeed, I could not discern which fires were from the bites and which from the self-inflicted scratches. The maid came, half rolling into the apartment, digging at herself and crying. Weeping and lamentations in a choir of female voices erupted around her as she pushed open the door, backing up against the edge of it to scratch a place on her back, rubbing up against it like a vastly irritated cat.
"M-my lady," she stammered.
"Attend me!" Zarifa screamed. "Do something!"
"I am, Lady, but it isn't helping. Could you scratch there please?"
I freed a hand long enough to minister to the shoulder blade in question and drew the woman into the room, shoving her toward Zarifa as I stumbled into the hall. It is hard to walk when you must stop in mid-step at each step to scratch your foot so it will function without twitching.
The volume of the moans and wails and the steady scritch-scritching of a thousand hennaed and manicured nails upon carefully tended flesh told me of the monstrous magnitude of this attack. I wished to question the other occupants, but even could I have formed intelligible questions in spite of my agony, I felt the other women of the harem were not entirely kindly disposed to we who belonged to Aman Akbar. Therefore I hobbled back inside. Amollia had made her way to the niches containing cosmetics and unguents and was frantically daubing anything moist all over her body. The maid, no doubt wearied of Zarifa screeching at her, now took the opportunity to screech at someone else.
"Filth! Excrement! Don't defile the Princess's ointments by placing them upon your own wretched skin. Give them to me-ah, G.o.d, how it itches!"
Amollia bypa.s.sed the maid and, once somewhat relieved, began slathering perfume, ointment, bath oil, henna, whatever was handy, upon the rosy welts and b.u.mps covering Zarifa's body. The child flailed about so trying to expose all of her hurts for treatment at once that she hindered Amollia's aim. I went to aid them and also to acquire some of the ointments for myself. Aster had found another jar and was contorting herself every which way trying to reach parts of herself that no human is fashioned to reach.
Amollia turned to the maid, "Surely there must be more supplies of these. Where are they?"
The unguents were exhausted, bottles, vials, and jars scattered like old leaves across the rich carpets and all of us exhausted. Zarifa wept as only a child injured and betrayed without explanation can weep, her eyes as red as her scratches, Amollia's eyes drooped and her fingers curled convulsively, Aster still scratching. The maid ran from the room, daubing herself with the dregs from a discarded jar. She seemed long in returning, which may have been only my imagination, but probably, from the look of relief upon her face, was because the faithless creature had taken time to treat herself before bringing further succor to her mistress.
No sooner had she arrived, however, than she began criticizing our efforts. "Dolt! What do you mean using henna on the lady's skin! Why, she'll be dyed that way forever! I shudder to think what the Aga of Girls will say when he sees this! None of the others are so bad as we, but all are afflicted."
"If the place is so infested, why hasn't something been done?" Aster said. "Ladies of quality in my country take more pride in their complexions than to allow such sloppiness in housekeeping."
"How dare you!" the maid said. "Think you this is a typical night? Why, even the Princess Zarifa would look like a hag if each night were as this one. It is a plague I tell you, brought on by you evil women. My mistress, my child, have I not warned you your trusting nature would bring calamity upon your head? And now upon all of ours?"
"Don't be a fool, Jamila," Her Highness sniffed. "Calamity doesn't itch like this." She scratched her scalp, which immediately provoked the same response in the rest of us, and so in unison did we scratch that Zarifa began to laugh even as she wept.
My bites were lessening as the maids ran to fetch water and more unguents, and I thought the incident over, until suddenly a new wretchedness itched its way across my stomach and I jerked my gown up, scratching. Amollia held my hands, and Aster smeared some ointment across the area.
"G.o.ds, what is it?" I moaned, still trying to scratch. No nit, no flea, had ever had such a bite.
"It-it looks like a b.u.t.terfly," Aster said, plucking something from me and holding it up to examine. The wings were tinged with as many colors as the Peri's hair, but the creature's beauty didn't prevent me from wishing to grind it beneath my heel. Aster dropped it, thinking it dead, but astonishingly it had survived all my scratching and pounding and flew away. Now both Aster and Amollia stared at my poor stomach. Before I was able to look too, Amollia s.n.a.t.c.hed my gown down.
"What is it?" I asked. "Did I eviscerate myself?"
"There's a message there," she said.
"Scratched into your skin."
"What does it say?"
"Beware the Revenge of Sani," Amollia answered.
"And the b.u.t.terfly?"
"The Peri Queen did us one last turn."
"I wish she had been a little more direct in her methods," I said, smearing on some more ointment.
"And a little more prompt," Amollia added.
We women were gathered in the Sultana's audience chambers while the eunuchs fumigated the quarters. We spent much of the morning rubbing lotion on each other and scratching ourselves. The Sultana announced that by G.o.d's mercy, the King had been spared our nocturnal tribulation. Neither had the men's quarters been affected. To compensate us somewhat for our suffering, the King was going to allow us to attend the elephant fights he customarily held at noon. I had trouble working up any enthusiasm. I felt like fighting something myself.
The heat grew as morning waned and made the itching worse, despite new applications of medicine, and some of the children cried and quarreled. I sat on my rump with my knees drawn up to my chest and my chin upon them, wondering why the Sultana, once her preparations had been made, retired behind the curtains of her dais and left the rest of us to our scratching. Why not have Aster finish her story? The diversion might be welcome to those who had not heard it-or her version of it anyway. But the occasional sidelong looks I spied on faces that rapidly turned away as I confronted them and the amount of s.p.a.ce on all sides of us in that crowded place told me that drawing attention to our difference that morning might not be such a good idea. As outsiders we were suspect, although our welts and b.u.mps were as evident as everyone else's-more so on me, with my fair skin, no longer fair but ruddy with the ruts of my nails. It was a very good thing for us that our hostesses, whom King Sani had punished for harboring us even as he avenged himself upon us, had not yet heard about our encounter with the Div King, nor been close enough to read the warning scratched into my skin.
After noon prayers we were collected by six of the eunuchs, the unmanned men who were deemed safe to guard women. With their scimitars swinging from their sashes and not entirely ceremonial pikes clutched in their fists, they conducted us through a maze of tunnels, corridors and secret staircases interconnecting in such a way that we might travel from the harem to the main portion of the palace without meeting or being seen by outsiders.
The balcony onto which we crowded was topped by a silken canopy from which hung an all but transparent veil. To our right was yet another balcony from which the King would view the entertainment. I could not see him since the other women crowded back and I thought it rude to do as I wished and elbow them out of the way. Aster, however, had no such compunctions, and used her elbows and hard little head liberally. Following her, I peered over her head at the young man on the throne. In his cloth of gold jacket, trousers and turban, all embroidered with pearls and topazes, topped with a pair of enormous red plumes, he looked rather like a richly set ring from which the central jewel is missing. He could have been no more than twelve years old, but his face showed no childishness, except in the pout of his mouth and the puffiness of his cheeks and hands. On either side of his richly carpeted and cushioned dais two servants fanned him with fans of peac.o.c.k feathers whose handles were gold and whose eyes were set with sapphires, turquoises and emeralds.
The courtyard spread wide and flat for a s.p.a.ce about as large as that of the Sultana's inner court before terracing in marble steps down to the river. Everything was colored vaguely pink by the veil billowing stickily against us as the hot wind, struck it, but the pinkness did not wholly disguise the gray of the skies, swollen with the impending afternoon rains. The bright raiment of the courtiers, the golden canopies, the vermillion rugs, looked brave indeed in the face of such skies and the sluggish dirty river.
The people below were a blur-so many turbans and sumptuous robes, a few spears sticking up, a flash of jewelry. People stood still for the most part, making only small movements when they swatted flies or straightened an errant drapery. A low murmur had rippled through the crowd, but suddenly stopped. A gong struck and two elephants marched from separate gateways into the courtyard.
That one of them was far from well was immediately evident. While the one on the left pranced with high pudgy knees and an uplifted trunk, the one on the right drooped, big feet scuffling the half-dried mud, ears dangling, trunk dragging. As both beasts turned to salute the monarch, this second beast gave up and toppled over onto its side without so much as a groan. The mahouts-or elephant keepers-ran forward, prodding the poor beast with their sticks, trembling all the while-from where I stood, even through the veil, I could see the gooseflesh and the hairs standing upon their necks.
After several minutes of futile activity, the eldest of the mahouts, a man with the aspect of one who has spent many years watching and listening for danger signs in creatures who might crush him, sank to his hands and knees and crawled to the balcony.
The King's voice was impatient, pitched low as if he were trying to sound more manly. "Speak, Keeper of Elephants. What ails the beast?"
"It is dead, Your Majesty."
"Obviously it is dead. What I wish to know is why it is dead. Two live fighting elephants were ordered, not one live and one moribund."
The man's spine twitched as if he could already feel a lash and he said something in a choked voice.
"Hmph," Aster said. "You'd think as august a personage as the King would have someone else handle a matter like that."
One of the younger girls replied, sniffing a little at the implied criticism, "His Majesty takes a special interest in his elephants and besides, he had the most recent vizier beheaded last week. He "hasn't chosen a new one yet."
The mahout mumbled something so low one might have thought he could now feel his head already disconnected from his body.
"What was that?" the King demanded. "Speak up."
"I said, Majesty, that the elephant became ill only as it walked through the gate. When I selected it, it was as fit as the other beast."
Beside me, one of the older women stuck the fingers of her hand straight out in the gesture against the evil eye.
With mock patience the King said, "Elephants do not perish for no reason twixt gate and courtyard." The man before him simply shook harder. "Very well, remove the body and return the other beast to its stall."
From the back of the crowd, a subtle stirring arose, and as the mahouts and the army of slaves that suddenly appeared began swarming around the great gray corpse like so many large flies, a brace of soldiers in the King's purple livery marched forward, followed by several in depressingly familiar uniforms. Two of these soldiers carried a litter and at the proper distance from the King's balcony, set it down. The Emir of Kharristan crawled out onto the ground, and forward, genuflecting before the throne."
"Onan Emir, my father's former wazir, what have you to say?" the young sultan demanded. He remained petulant, but though his tone was only slightly more welcoming to the Emir than it had been to the mahout, he strained forward a little on his cushion and his eyes lost some of their fixedness and surveyed the Emir's face with something like eagerness.
The Emir, gorgeously clad in silver pantaloons, a rose-and-silver jacket sashed with violet, and a violet-colored turban plumed with rose-colored feathers held in place with a whopping great amethyst, pressed his face deeper to the ground and then looked up at his King with eyes as sad and melting as if he had just lost his best friend, if indeed he had ever had one. "I am desolated that Your Majesty's pleasure has been interrupted. I was going to request an audience at a later time today to present you with some amusing trifles, but I wonder if perhaps, in view of the sad turn this diversion has taken, Your Majesty would not prefer to receive my presents now."
"Gifts?" the boy king asked, his voice lilting with the greed of any child promised a present. "Aha! You were the one who sent the dancing girls then!"
The Emir looked genuinely confused for a moment and his brow knotted. Then it smoothed and he smiled ingratiatingly and made a complex gesture with his hand. "A trifle, Majesty. I hope they pleased you. What I have today is perhaps of higher quality and more useful than dancing girls. It is some of the tribute due you from your loyal subjects in Kharristan. As you know, Your Majesty, the city was specially entrusted to my care by Late His Majesty, your father. One small portion of the riches I have gathered for your edification do I wish to bring forth now to cheer you. With your permission?"
The crowd parted and a small pavilion I had observed in the distance rose and moved forward. Underneath it was an elephant, its tusks rimmed with jewels, its face and trunk painted with gold and vermillion designs, its back silken clad and ta.s.sled.
"Within the howdah, Majesty, is another small gift. Two female slaves, a beauty I hope you will find worthy of your attention and her old aunt and attendant. Also, this fine fighting elephant to replace the one missing. And, if you care for entertainment yet this afternoon, I have succeeded in capturing a notorious bandit chieftain who has been plaguing your loyal subjects. Perhaps his execution could provide-"
"Is that all?" the King asked, disappointment plain in his voice.
"Oh, no, Your Majesty. There are also jewels and fruits, spices, carpets, silks and brocades, all of the other usual fare. With your permission I will bring forth the bandit-"
The King nodded and, after a brief scuffle, several soldiers marched forward, pushing ahead of them the bedraggled form of Marid Khan, whose turban rolled from his head as they threw him to the ground, well behind the Emir. The curtains of the howdah stirred and from within came a small cry.
"What is this man's name?" the King asked.
"He calls himself Marid Khan, Your Majesty."
The Sultana, enthroned on her own dais two ladies down from Aster, turned to her and asked in a low voice, "Was not Marid Khan the name of your husband?"
Aster bowed as low as she could in the crush of other ladies, "No, Madam. My husband's name is Aman Akbar. Marid Khan, the man accused of being a criminal, was twice our deliverer. The Emir Onan is the brute who has deprived us of family and fortune."
"I see," she said. She did not sound particularly sympathetic. She spoke briefly to one of her servants and the woman wound her way to the back of the balcony.
The King was regarding Marid Khan without much favor. To the Emir he said, "It appears you have all but executed this man yourself. He wouldn't make a very lively show."
The Emir hesitated in his answer and the King sighed, fidgeted, and said, "Perhaps if he rests in the dungeon overnight, and receives a good meal, he'll revive a bit."
"Your Majesty is very wise," the Emir agreed, genuflecting again.
"Yes, yes. We will receive your other gifts later. Now, we are hungry." He snapped his fingers and a servant crawled to his elbow. "The Emir will join us for refreshments."
Sighs of disappointment emitted from the ladies around us, who, from the chatter, found Marid Khan well-favored and were looking forward to watching him die. Instead, we were herded back down the stairs and the corridors and the tunnels to the gardens, which were hot and oppressive.
I tried to ask where the new slaves would be taken but Zarifa, no longer amused at our novelty and worn out from the long night and heat and letdown of the day, snubbed me. We sat and stewed in the heat while the afternoon court began, the Sultana looking as if she hardly knew what to do with so many extra women now that the King had called off the entertainment.