It is your mother who sends you to the Lady’s shores.
Truth be told, you are uninterested in maids with skin so fair they would catch alight if for a moment in the sun – true sun, the sun that shines over the deserts you left behind for a chance to woo a woman you had never even met before.
You are uninterested in fair-skinned maidens, you tell your manservant, Kassim. He does not stop washing your back, but a quiet exhale on your neck tells you that he heard.
The boat rocks gently; the weeks on the ocean have brined your royal skin more than you care to admit. If anything, it pleases you. Your mother can no longer coat you in oils and parade you like a mannequin for your father’s concubines. Look what I have made, her eyes proclaim, as she presents you to the rivals she had so clearly bested. She sneers at young Khadija with her five daughters. Look what I have done.
Yes, your son is heir now, Sultani, you think to yourself. You always had turned your ears away when she spoke proudly of the poisons that killed your half-brothers. You have only sisters now. You try to treat them well, but your mother barely lets you see them. I will not have a whore enter your rooms with an incestuous agenda, she hisses. Now that their brothers are gone, they will try to seize the throne any way they can.
If you were to be honest with her (and you never have been) you would not mind if your sisters wanted to rule.
Kassim speaks. The Sultani only wishes for you to have a respectable wife, he says. Even if she is a strange foreigner. I am sure she thinks that you will be a much beloved ruler if you are courteous towards a woman as strange as she.
You laugh. He always says the most outlandish things – they border on heresy; a man with more pride and love for his mother might have snatched the insinuation that his mother was as strange as a foreigner and wielded it as deftly as a scimitar to have your manservant sent to his execution.
But you enjoy his company and his charm is not lost on you. He amuses you, so you keep him.
You have kept him for five years now.
You hope his family does not mind.
(You can hear your mother’s screeching voice clear in your mind: Why would you need to think of this slave’s family? They are blessed beyond their wildest dreams to have their son and brother as my son’s manservant! If anything, they should beg you to keep him! We all know where his wages are going, a filial boy like him…)
You will keep him a little bit longer.
You hope his family does not mind.
I have heard she is a very rich woman, Kassim says.
I have no need of riches, you say.
I never said you did, he says.
You smile despite yourself. Kassim, you say, if the Lady will not wed me, would you present yourself to her? I may not need the money but I’m not sure the same can be said for you.
His exhale is deeper this time; it near dries the skin as he works the muscles on your right shoulder blade. You grunt involuntarily; the tension has been building without your realising it.
This ship is lavish, but it is small. Not nearly enough space to practice the swordsmanship your father has enforced upon you since you were a boy. Especially not with the dozen soldiers he sent with you.
I would not wed the Lady, your manservant says.
Oh why not, you tease. I have heard her to be quite a beauty, despite her pallid tone.
I have my doubts about whether the Lady should want to wed a man of my station, he says, pushing harder into your flesh, kneading the angle where shoulder and neck meet. And even if she is a maid of strange taste, he says, I doubt a married woman would approve of her husband sailing away again to continue to pay due diligence to his master.
You would be released from me if you wed her, you know, you say. I would not keep you sewn to my shadow if you had a wife, especially not one as powerful as the Lady.
I know, Kassim says, but elaborates no further.
You arrive on the shores of Belmont, a name that tastes strange on your tongue as sand on a viper’s.
You wish for the soldiers to remain upon the decks, but on your father’s orders, they nip at your heels. He has told them that the Lady is a rich woman indeed, rich enough to buy out an entire legion of mercenaries to dispatch any unwanted suitors.
You shake your head. You cannot tell if he is a fool, a tyrant, or simply means well.
Perhaps it is because you cannot order your soldiers to leave you be, but Kassim stays on the ship. He gives you a wry smile as you grasp his hands in yours, I will not keep you sewn to my shadow when you are in search of a wife. Fear not, the Lady will not have me.
A handmaiden greets you at the docks and leads you to the Lady’s halls. It would take a blind man not to realise how she trembles at your blackness when she herself is so pale. Nigh darker than parchment.
You step foot onto marble and the handmaiden makes herself scarce with but a hasty bow. She scurries off; your soldiers watch her warily. You sigh. Had you left without such a fanfare, had you left under the cover of night, perhaps then you would have evaded your father’s overbearing contingency plan.
But they are here, so you must do what you can to not seem like a boy-prince being escorted by the Sultan’s troops and not his own. You fasten a mask of courage and chivalry over your features and stride towards the open chamber the terrified girl had pointed you to.
The Lady is waiting for you when you arrive. You kiss her hand, as is customary in these foreign countries, and she bids you welcome with a voice like wine and a smile like ivory.
You wonder how many beast-like men she has had to slaughter to earn such white teeth.
She introduces herself as Portia, the Lady of Belmont after her late father.
You do not want to say her name. You call her Lady.
You think to your brothers, how they were before their murders. Ahmed always had a way with words; you imitate him today.
This is who you are: you are a shell for the lost princes to fill. You are only lucky that your memories of your brothers do not waver.
You call her a goddess, speak of heaven and other white things. She is not a woman, but a jewel. It is easier this way. Not a woman, not a woman. An angel perhaps. You are a god-fearing son; you would not refuse the whims of something so divine.
You speak a single word of victory, not meaning anything by it, but you hear the whisper of steel and quickly draw your sword as if toasting a triumph, as if it were your idea all along, and not your troops bolstering your words with their weapons.
There are gasps, the woman in the green dress standing by the Lady moves in front of her as if preparing to shield her from some fatal attack. You cringe inwardly. You wish nothing more than to apologise, but your façade will not allow it. You must persevere.
You stow your sword and your shame must have bled through, for once she sees that you are no longer threatening her ward, the Lady’s aide glares with the hatred of a thousand suns. The expression quickly falls away though; she too is one tasked with hiding her emotions.
You try not to look at her so that she can hate you and you will not see.
It is obvious to you that she loves her. If she did not, she would not glare at you so.
But if you were to give up asking for her Lady’s hand just because of something you thought you saw, well. You can hear your mother’s ridicule already. You must see this to its completion, whether you sail back to Morocco with or without a bride. (You silently hope the latter.)
You already know the terms. This is more a wager of sorts than a true proposal. Choose a casket, one of three. If you are correct, you win her hand. If not, you shall never speak of it again. If not, you shall never marry.
Your mother will not be pleased if you come home empty-handed. She thinks you intelligent, far wiser than your brothers.
(But you do not want a wife. Perhaps this is a wager you wish to lose.)
Your eyes skim over the three caskets. Gold, silver, lead.
You will not touch the lead, no, not on your life. Your father’s team of alchemists have discovered that consuming lead is death. It is outlawed to sell lead in your country now. But you are not foolish enough to think that just because it is outlawed that it does not happen.
You think upon the silver, but no. If your mother and father were here, you know what they’d want you to choose.
But what would you choose?
You are silent as you ponder.
Those around you must think you are lost in thought, trying to identify the casket which holds the Lady’s portrait, the Lady’s hand.
What would you choose?
You realise it does not matter. It is not a sudden realisation, nor a slow one. It is one that was already there. Your mother sent you here, your father armed you with soldiers you did not want or need. This wife is not for you, it is for your country. This decision has never been yours.
You say a few more empty words and open the golden casket.
You almost weep from relief when you see that it is empty.
The woman in the green dress purses her lips, triumph dancing in her eyes.
The Lady’s face is blank; it is clear she never expected anything from this encounter.
You bow and take your leave.
Kassim is waiting at the docks. You grasp his hands in yours and tell him the Lady would not have you either. His face is stoic; you wish he would smile.
You are free a little while longer.
You sit on the bed in your cabin and undress from your fineries. Now that there is no longer any reason to bear their magnificence, they weigh on you, heavy and dulled. You remove your turban and Kassim takes off your boots, bringing you sandals to wear instead. They are all you will need; the decks have been sanded by your father’s finest carpenters. You do not fear a flesh wound.
Was she beautiful, Kassim asks you quietly.
As they all say, you reply quickly, wrestling with a sleeve of your outer garment.
Hold still, he says, and you oblige. He pulls and tugs and it slides off with barely an issue.
You have the hands of a weaver, Kassim, you say, smiling. What would I do without you.
He finally smiles too. Kassim’s smile is like his speech – soft, quiet, but ever rewarding when you do see it. You’d be crying out for help at the bottom of a well.
You lie back on the cushions and bask in his smile. If it takes me falling down a well again to make you smile, I’ll do it. Allah knows I have the time. At least until the Sultani tries to find me another wife.
His smile falters, but you do not notice as you close your eyes.
Do you ever wish you had a wife, Kassim?
You do not wait for an answer.
I don’t. I don’t want to marry, I don’t want to have children, and I never want to be Sultan. I don’t want a wife, I don’t want concubines, I don’t want to be dressed up and ride on elephants for crowds and pretend that our country isn’t one war away from falling.
You open your eyes and stare at the ceiling.
I heard that Khadija is pregnant, you say. Khadija is one of your father’s concubines. I hope it’s a boy, you say. If it’s a boy, then I’m allowed to be a failure and he can rule when he’s old enough instead. But if he’s a boy, you sigh, I have to protect him from my mother.
Kassim speaks as if he were merely dictating a script, The Sultani only wants what’s best for you-
You interrupt him. Did I ever tell you how my brothers died?
The servants say it was illness, he says, tone bland and even. Your gaze shifts from the ceiling to stare at him. He continues, A weakness of the heart. He shrugs. Assassins.
You lie on your side to see him more easily. I trust you, Kassim.
He is silent, but conflict shows on his face.
I trust you, and this is why I will tell you this. My mother killed my brothers. She was not a warrior; she used poison and they fell one by one. All so I could be heir. Not once did she ask me if that was what I wanted. It was what I had to want, since she was barren after me. It was what I had to want, since she’s no longer as beautiful as she once was. My father will not look at her now. She needs me to become Sultan for her to become Queen Mother. For all we call her Sultani, she is not. But she wants to be, desperately wants to, enough to commit murder.
You do not mean to weep.
I loved my brothers, Kassim. And now they’re gone because of me. If I decide to support the rule of one of my siblings, if I stand down, will their sacrifices have been for nothing? Will my mother die cursing my name? Will our country crumble because I could have been a good Sultan but I just didn’t want to? What if-
You are shocked into silence.
Kassim has never raised his voice to you.
Kassim has never called you by your name before.
Lie on your back, he tells you, and you oblige. You feel the mattress sink a little deeper as he lies down next to you.
For a moment, the two of you stare at the ceiling, silent.
No, Kassim says, and at first you are confused. I do not want a wife.
I do not think less of you now that I know how the other princes died. You are not your mother; you do not control her hand.
You feel the back of his hand against yours and the skin tingles slightly.
I am glad that you trust me. If I felt that you did not, I probably would have left you a long time ago. He is silent for a moment. He exhales. I trust you, Amir. Are you sure you trust me completely?
You do not hesitate. Of course.
I need to hear you say it.
I trust you completely.
He sighs again, deep and true, almost grieving. You hear the hitch in his chest and realise: he is afraid.
I trust you, Amir. And it’s because I trust you that I’m telling you this.
You muster up the courage to take his hand in yours and you grip it tightly. I trust you, Kassim, you repeat. There is nothing you can say that will make me think any less of you.
I do not want a wife, Amir. But your sister, your sister Salma, five years ago, before we met, when I was still a slave, your sister Salma…
He trails off, expression contorted. You squeeze his hand and he exhales.
When I was still a slave, your sister called me to her rooms and demanded I sleep with her.
Oh. So this was what he was worried about, you think.
You turn on your side to face him and he is crying.
You have never seen him cry before.
You have seen him angry, you have seen him happy, but you have never seen him sad enough to warrant tears.
Kassim, you say, and he turns his head.
I already knew.
You say it softly so as not to belittle his honesty.
When I asked my father to assign you to be my manservant, Salma pulled me aside and told me that she’d slept with you. She must have thought it would be an incentive to leave you alone, but I know how pushy my sister can be. She could move the world to please her if she wanted it hard enough. You chuckle a little. I do not blame you, not in the slightest.
He’s gripping your hand tighter; he shakes slightly, and his eyes are closed; he’s weeping in earnest now.
I’m not saying that what Salma did is excusable, but I do not blame you, you repeat. I do not blame you for what she did.
He nods, still teary. You try to wipe away the wet from his face, but with no cloth, you just end up smearing it. Kassim laughs a little at your futile efforts, but wipes his own eyes on his sleeve.
You stare at him, still lying on your side.
You’ve never been this close to him before.
Your foreheads are almost touching.
He finishes wiping his face and meets your gaze, unwavering.
What? he says.
You’re still holding his hand. He squeezes slightly as if to remind you of his question.
You say it, barely a murmur whispered past your lips.
I can’t hear you, he says, face still flushed and eyes tinged red.
Can I kiss you? you ask again.
And he’s breathless again.
And a moment later, so are you.