Whispered words and the soft rustle of silk. Familiar sounds in the night. Aisha bint Muhammad stirred and looked up from her pallet in the encroaching gloom. At the entrance to the small chamber of the harem, Rania al-Hurra stood beneath bright torchlight and cupped a speckled hand over her mouth. She spoke to a silver-collared slave in a low murmur before dismissing the servile younger woman.
A different servant came to Rania every night, but always received the same order. “Bring me the poppy and the pipe before the next sentry call.”
“Yes, my lady.” As the young slave withdrew, years of toil reflected in her shuffling gait and stooped posture. Rania would have chided the observation from Aisha. According to Rania, a Sultana of Gharnatah should not concern herself with the state of menials. Considering the source, Aisha rejected the opinion.
Before Rania could also turn away, Aisha rose on her elbows and asked, “You’re going to her, aren’t you?”
Rania gripped the doorpost, long nails painted with henna raking the wood. Her hoarsened voice shattered the quietude of the harem. “Willful girl! Why aren’t you asleep like your sister?”
Aisha looked to where her elder twin, Fatima, curled beneath a wool blanket on her pallet. Black curls spilled over damask pillows. Fatima murmured something in her stupor. Let her forgo the night hours in a haze of dreams. The less Fatima understood of the turmoil surrounding her, the better.
Aisha sat up and pushed back her coverlet. “I want to come with you.”
Her Nubian eunuch rasped, “Little mistress, why do you always make the same demand almost every night? It is impossible. Your father’s decree.”
In the near darkness, Aisha found her loyal guard. Kissenga stood adjacent a lattice-covered window, from where he oft watched over the sisters and Rania, their persistent companion. The brazier opposite Kissenga emitted a dull orange glow, along with the fragrant aroma of aloes wood.
Aisha lifted her chin and addressed her tormentor rather than their protector. “I have the right to see her.”
The resultant booming laughter echoed on the night breeze through the faded walls of the harem, once brilliant and beautiful, as Rania might have been in her youth when a Sultan of Gharnatah loved her. As she had aged, so had the luster of once brilliant tiles within the palace of Al-Qal’at al-Hamra faded each year.
Rania turned to Aisha in full. “You have few rights, my Sultana, no more than your father the Sultan may grant. Content yourself with your silks and dolls. Leave the business of the harem to me.”
“Why would I trust you when you have taken to drugging my father’s queen each night with essence of the poppy?”
Rania shook her head. A row of silver dirhams, each coin pierced and sewn to the veil at her forehead, clinked against each other. “How little you comprehend of life in your father’s domain, dear child.”
Aisha reclined again and fingered her khamsa worn on a necklace. The hand-shaped jewel encrusted with emeralds, opals, and diamonds had come to her, despite her elder sister’s tantrums and resentment, from their great-grandmother Jazirah. Fatima already possessed Jazirah’s ruby. Why should the firstborn of their mother have everything by virtue of the twins’ birth order?
Aisha peeked at Rania, still huddled in the doorway. “I know more than you think. If you understood anything, you would have seen how I haven’t touched my dolls since my thirteenth birthday. Go, Rania. Hide your secrets if you must. But know this. You will not keep me from the Sultana in the tower forever.”
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