But King Basir did not likewise underestimate Shammara’s critical abilities. “What if Prince Ahmad returns and claims his rights?” he asked.
“Then you denounce him as an impostor and deal with him accordingly. That’s why you must send your daughter to Ravan and have the marriage take place as quickly as possible. Once the union’s been consummated it will be in Shammara’s best interest to have Ahmad declared a fraud. With the combined armies of Marakh and Ravan aligned against him, Prince Ahmad would have no chance of victory—and I’m sure he’s wise enough to know that and not even try.”
King Basir mused on his wazir’s words. It was often true, he knew, that a good bluster could get a monarch through the most embarrassing of circumstances. He’d lived up to his part of the bargain with Shammara; it wasn’t his fault the prince escaped. With any luck at all, Prince Ahmad would flee to distant parts of Parsina and never be heard from again, and King Basir’s word on the story would never be challenged. And if Ahmad did show up trying to reclaim his bride and his throne, what choice did Shammara have but to back Basir’s story that the young man was just a clever impostor and the real prince died at the hands of brigands on the road to Marakh?
“Very well,” he commanded, trying to make his voice sound authoritative. “Have my scribe prepare a message that the prince was killed in the woods by brigands and Princess Oma, grief-stricken though she is by the death of her fiancé, will travel to Ravan to fulfill the marriage contract by marrying Prince Haroun. We’ll send the note to Ravan by the fastest messenger, and Princess Oma’s party shall follow within a few weeks.”
He paused. “We’ll give Oma a full military escort, of course. Travel along the roads these days is full of hazards, as the poor departed Prince Ahmad found out, and nothing untoward is going to happen to my daughter on the way to her wedding.”
One of the servants who had brought stomach-soothing pilau to the king during the council session was in the direct employ of Princess Oma. As soon as he was dismissed from his duties he reported directly to her all that had occured and the decisions that had been made. The princess thanked him, paid him a generous bonus, and sent him off to find what else he could learn about the plans for her future. Then she sat down to ponder what she herself must do about the situation.
Princess Oma was one of those unfortunate women cursed with an abundance of blessings, and therefore never realized she was cursed. Though not quite seventeen her beauty was already fabled throughout the land—and in truth her long, silken black hair, her large, clear eyes, her smooth white skin and her supple figure fully justified any praise she could receive. She was smarter than anyone in the palace except a few of her teachers, and the training she’d received from them only sharpened her mental skills. She had a melodious voice coupled with grace and a smile that could have charmed Rimahn himself, so it was said. She was possessed of a driving energy and a passion for living that burned deep within her soul.
Few indeed were the people who could say no to her. This was the single great tragedy of Princess Oma.
She sat alone in her private bedroom, thinking what to do. The room was not large, but well appointed. Richly woven peacock green and white tapestries hung upon the walls, and the floor was heaped with sheepskin rugs. The large, carved oak bed was overhung by a canopy, from which draped a pale silver gauze that floated sensuously to the floor or wafted in the occasional breeze. From the garden below, hidden by an extra screen, women musicians played Oma’s favorite music so that her days were filled with songs. An ebony closet with ivory inlay stood in one corner, and a full-length mirror, framed with electrum and set with diamonds, stood in another. Huge bowls of flowers, cut each morning in her own garden, filled the air with the sweet scent of jasmine.
Princess Oma watched her reflection carefully in the glass as she practiced her pout. She wondered whether it would be worth starting a tantrum to make her father cancel his plans to send her to Ravan, but realized that move would fail now as it had before, because her father was more desperate now than ever. She would only end up looking silly, and she hated looking silly.
She walked to the door and told her slave, “Find Rabah and tell her I want to see her immediately.” Rabah was her friend; Rabah always knew what to do. Rabah would give her the advice she needed.
When Rabah arrived a short time later, she found Princess Oma lying prone and naked on her bed. The slave was dismissed, leaving the two women alone, and Princess Oma said, “Oh Rabah, my angel, could you rub my back for me? The skin feels so dry and coarse.”
“As you wish, O my princess,” Rabah said with a slight smile. Rabah was a tall, willowy woman in her early thirties, with short brown hair and strangely intense eyes, one blue and one green. Her facial expressions were always controlled so it was impossible to tell her thoughts, and she moved with the springy gracefulness of a tigress on a casual prowl. Now she lightly crossed the room to the closet, where a vial of massage oil was kept in a bottom drawer. She warmed the oil on her own palms and then began rubbing it into the princess’s back. Rabah’s touch was gentle, but there was a reserved strength in her hands that could have made her dangerous had she chosen to be. This gave a touch of spice to the experience that the princess savored.
As Rabah’s fingers sensuously explored the silken skin of Oma’s back, the princess confided to her all that had transpired in her father’s council chamber. “I will not be passed from hand to hand, a jewel going to the highest bidder,” she said stubbornly.
“That is ever the lot of women,” Rabah said.
“Well, it won’t be that way for me. I shall control my own destiny. I’ll love whom I please and take my pleasure where I like. No man will control me.”
“Brave words, Your Highness.”
“But you disapprove, is that it?” Princess Oma said, reading the older woman’s tone.
“I would counsel wisdom to back up the bravery,” Rabah said as her hands soothed the tension of anger from Oma’s lithe body. “It’s the way of the world that men believe they have control. To defy that would be to stand against the current of a powerful river; if one but swims the river instead, it’s easier to reach one’s destination.”
“I don’t want to marry Haroun. I hear he’s perfectly awful, and he does cruel things to slave girls.”
“Yet you helped me convince your father to betray his agreement with Ahmad.”
“I didn’t want to marry Ahmad, either,” Princess Oma said with a pout. “I don’t want to marry anyone. Why should I be shackled to only one lover all my life when my husband can have many wives and concubines? I want the freedom to love whom I choose, when I choose, how I choose. Is that so terrible?”
“Not at all,” Rabah said. “But in the world as it is, we women must practice a little caution.” She hesitated a moment. “Could it be that Your Highness is afraid of a man’s love?” Rabah knew that Oma had been raised among women; the only men she saw were eunuchs, some of her tutors, and her father. Some trepidation on her part would be perfectly natural.
“I’ve never tried any men, of course,” Oma said. “A princess’s maidenhead is a valuable commodity, and I’m not going to throw it away on a whim.”
“If you’ll accept my word for now, the love of a man can be just as exciting as the love of a woman,” Rabah told her.
“Thank you. I’ll look forward to it. But may Oromasd grant that my first experience not be with Prince Haroun.”
Rabah’s strong hands manipulated the muscles of Oma’s back, relaxing the last of the tension beneath the taut young flesh. For several moments the two drifted in silence. Then Oma spoke again.
“They say Ahmad used powerful sorcery to escape my father’s trap. Do you believe that?”
“Many things are possible.”
“Ahmad, a sorcerer. Why, he could swoop into the room this very minute and cast a spell on us so neither of us could move. We’d be helpless before him and he could ravish us both on the spot if he chose, don’t you think?”
“If that frightens you, all the more reason to go to Ravan. No magic can touch you in the Holy City.”
“Frighten? Rabah, that would be the most exciting thing that ever happened to me.” She sighed. “But it won’t. They all say Ahmad’s much too noble to do anything like that. Do you really want me to go to Ravan?”
“I think you should go,” Rabah said carefully. “Marriage to Haroun is a price to pay, but in a few months he’ll attain his majority and be crowned king of Ravan. That will make you queen. Haroun is a cipher, easily ignored. As long as you don’t interfere with his mother’s political rule, you’ll be able to do as you wish. You’ll have the freedom you say you want so badly. The price is your maidenhead.”
“Haroun may get that from me, but he certainly won’t get much else.”
Princess Oma lay silent again for a while as Rabah’s fingers kneaded her flesh. Then she said, “Rabah, if I go to Ravan, will you come with me?”
“I can’t, O my princess, you know that. I’m your father’s concubine; I belong here with him.”
“I could make him give you to me as a servant. You know he’d do it if I asked him the right way.”
“No.” For just the faintest instant Rabah’s fingers tightened on the muscles in the princess’s neck. The pressure was gone again almost before Oma realized it was there. “I belong here with your father,” Rabah continued emphatically.
“But I’ll be alone and friendless in a strange city,” Oma protested.
“You’ll make new friends quickly enough, of that I have no doubt,” Rabah smiled knowingly. “Once you’re queen you can have friends of both sexes.”
“But I want a familiar face to remind me of home.”
“Why not take your handmaiden Hinda? You like her, and she’ll remind you of home.”
“Hinda has buck teeth and a hairy lip.”
“But she also has very talented fingers.” Rabah tickled the princess in a particularly sensitive place, and was rewarded with a delightful squeal.
Princess Oma turned over onto her back and looked up at the older woman. “I’ll miss you, Rabah,” she said, peering straight into the other’s eyes.
“And I’ll miss you, O my princess,” Rabah said, returning the gaze. “Perhaps kismet will decree a short separation and we can be reunited again after all.”
The princess reached up and wrapped her arms around her friend’s neck. “Kiss me, Rabah,” she whispered. “Give me something to remember if the nights in Ravan prove too long and lonely.”
She pulled Rabah down on top of her and Rabah did indeed give her something to remember for many weeks to come.
Later, in the middle of the night when the young princess lay snoring gently from exhaustion, Rabah stole quietly from the room and returned to her own chambers. There she spent an hour composing two long, detailed letters on the thinnest rice paper from Sinjin. When they were done she sealed them and, donning her long black burga and thawb, she slipped silently down the deserted halls and through the secret door out of the palace.
Under the darkness of night she moved like a cat’s shadow through the streets of Marakh to the home of a certain rug merchant. He answered the door after a few minutes of her soft but insistent knocking, and she gave him the letters along with her instructions. The merchant nodded and Rabah returned to the palace without ever having been seen by unintended eyes.
Taking the letters, the merchant climbed the stairs to his roof where, in a secret compartment, he kept some specially trained pigeons. Folding the missives compactly, he tied each inside a special pouch attached to a different bird’s leg. In the first light of morning he lifted the birds into the air and let them go. The birds flew high above the roof, circled a few times to get their bearings, and then flew off for their true homes more than a hundred parasangs away—one to a cave in the Tirghiz Mountains and the other to a coop atop the north tower of the palace of Ravan.