A Thousand Glass Flowers cont’d… (7)
Taut with expectation, Lalita hurried behind a persistently verbose Salah and the eunuchs. She ignored the beauty that surrounded her as her feet clacked on the tiles in hard-soled little slippers and her fingers clenched tight. Her throat choked and she wanted to scream at Salah to stop his inane chatter. The one saving grace was that the afrit was nowhere to be seen.
She retraced her steps to the Door of a Thousand Promises and wished with all her heart that she could keep walking when the gates swept open, to leave with her uncle, to resume a normal, plebeian life. Chance would be a fine thing and she was well aware the Sultan had made his desires obvious. After this gift of a visit, she knew it was only a matter of time before the summons came. A cold nose pushed into her hand and she stopped for a minute to bend and hug the warm body of Phaeton, the gesture giving her time to collect herself as she took a steadying breath.
Salah and the eunuchs led her to a small patio off the main colonnade to the side of the great gates and she stood biting the inside of her cheek, flanked on either side by the enormous djinn-like men. Salah sat indolently on a bench behind her, his graceful leg swinging up and down as he crossed it over a girlish knee. She had no doubt he would be monitoring her every spoken word, that one hint of disloyalty and her future would be as short as the fringe on his robe.
Almost immediately she heard the locks grind and turn, one after another, and imagined the spider, the snake and the scorpion advancing and retreating. What does Uncle think of this? Then there he was, his robes shadowed and plain, his graying hair drifting in a soft breeze.
Phaeton bounded to him with a bark of joy, jumping up and resting his paws against Imran’s chest. Lalita walked forward, tears falling, then ran into the circle of her uncle’s arms. A violent jerk dragged her apart from him and she looked up in dismay as a scimitar swept between them.
‘No touching, Lalita!’ Salah called out. ‘You are the Sultan’s property and none but His Bright Light and those within the Seraglio may touch you.’
‘Oh my little niece,’ Imran’s voice cracked and his own eyes, so reminiscent of his nephew Kholi’s, liquefied. ‘That Kurdeesh should have brought you to this.’
‘Uncle, no!’ Lalita butted in, aware of her uncle’s violent emotion and of the law of treason, and she prayed to Aine that he understood the subtle subtext of her words. ‘I am well looked after and Phaeton and I have our own apartment. I work hard, Uncle, you would be proud of the book. I dedicate it to you and to my aunt.’
Imran looked at her for a moment and she met him glance for glance, intuition drifting between the two. ‘I am glad that you do well, my child. You look better than I have yet seen you. Your aunt will be delighted you have finally come into the beauty she could see hidden under paper and ink. She is an opinionated woman your aunt, as you know, and asked that I give you all the love she has and to tell you that she no longer cares for Kurdeesh. That he has left our home.’
‘Truly? Where has he gone?’ She couldn’t help her delight. May you suffer, you devil spawn. Starve and suffer!
‘Mahmoud’s father saw you leave between the rows of janissaries and told us what had happened and Kurdeesh has apparently shouted his success from the rooftops. Thus now I believe he tries his fortune on the streets, my niece. Perhaps with jackals and curs. I know not, nor care and we have we not seen him since the day we returned from our business.’
More subtext. Lalita understood her uncle had thrown Kurdeesh out. That he hoped with a passion the man would be killed on the streets by the merciless djinn, Had al’ Khorine, and then eaten by carrion for all he cared because he would never be forgiven by Lalita’s diminutive family. She could imagine Mahmoud’s heartache and the horror and dismay of his family as they watched she and Phaeton walk away. What must it have been like for them as they relayed the tidings to Imran and Soraya?
‘Lalita, you have five minutes left,’ Salah called from the bench seat. ‘Use them wisely.’
Imran’s questioning eyes flicked to the youth.
‘He is Salah. He cares for the interests of . . . those within in the Seraglio.’
‘I am often left alone, Uncle. The commission is an enormous one and the book must be finished and bound by the end of the week, when the Venichese Ambassador returns to his home.’
Lalita looked at him and there was no need for any subtext between either of them.
His eyes glistened but no tears fell and Lalita was grateful. ‘My dearest child,’ he said softly, ‘we have so little time. Let me wish you a happy birthday and give you this.’
He held out a tissue wrapped gift for inspection and Lalita waited. Finally one of the eunuchs nodded his gleaming head and she reached forward and allowed her hand to touch her uncle’s as the weighty little gift rolled into her palm. Never had she realized that just a finger grazing across one’s skin could convey a universe of emotions. Her eyes prickled as her uncle continued.
‘We chose it in Fahsi in the souk. There is an antiquarian there. He said, no disrespect intended to His Bright Light, that it could be worth a Sultan’s fortune and I thought, value notwithstanding, that something from your family to convey the momentous nature of this day of your eighteenth birthday and of your skill as a calligrapher would not go astray.’
Another subtext. A gift weighted with love and pain and pride, my uncle. Every time she felt ground down by circumstance she would look at it, hold it, whatever it was, and know that her family were beside her as if they were Hadduok Ennass themselves.
‘One minute only, Lalita!’
Desperation filled her as she looked at her uncle but he shook his head.
‘Say nothing my child, it is here.’ He tapped his chest with two unsteady fingers. ‘And listen while I tell you this next. I beg your forgiveness for what I must convey on your special day. My dear Lalita, Kholi . . .’
‘I know, Uncle. He is dead.’ She brought a hand up to her forehead and rubbed.
‘For many months. As you say,’ tears misted her sight. ‘It is here.’ She tapped her own chest.
‘The antiquarian in Fahsi said he heard it from a noblewoman– a lady who preceded me by an hour to purchase something akin to your own gift. And she was of a mind to tell the merchant most gently of what she had heard. He, perhaps not so gently, passed the awful details to me, saying the woman was odd. Almost Other.’
‘Fifty seconds, Lalita.’
She shifted closer to her uncle but one of the eunuchs checked her back.
‘He was murdered.’ Her uncle’s words thudded between them. ‘But his murderers were caught by Others and it is believed just punishment was meted out. It is a curious tale Lalita, and whilst my heart breaks for your brother, the tale has the sound of a romance and the scope of a legend and he one of the heroes. I tell you child, that is how I want to remember him.’
Don’t Salah, don’t. Be silent and let this be my moment. Mine and my uncle’s. ‘Uncle, I care only that he is missed by those who love him. It’s done now and we must grieve as best we can.’
‘Time, Lalita.’ Salah appeared by her side and took her arm, the eunuchs lining up on either side of Imran, their vast white robes flapping in a desert breeze. To Lalita the cracking folds were curtains closing on her old life. Imran walked backward, touching his forehead and his chest.
‘Salaam alaykam, Lalita. Go well, my child.’
‘Alaykem as salaam, Uncle. Thank you.’ She needed him to know that her look spoke volumes and that even then there would never have been enough pages to contain the words. Her eyes were blinded with tears as Imran turned and left through the Door of a Thousand Promises and Phaeton ran toward the empty space and back to Lalita barking. Finally he stood at the huge gates as they closed, his whines almost subsumed by the noise of the locking mechanism. He returned to his mistress’s side and filled Lalita’s hands with his nose and comfort, but Salah jerked at her sleeve to lead her away.
‘Well, little flower,’ he prattled. ‘It seems they have taught you much in a short time within these walls. You conveyed yourself with great dignity and it serves only to underline what I have been thinking. You stand to make an enormous impression here. Take some advice from me, however,’ he tapped her on the arm. ‘You must lock your doors and admit no one without just cause, Lalita. Many will be threatened by the brightness of your star.’
She heard nothing in the journey back to her apartments, her hand round the tissue wrapped object in her pocket. Salah gossiped and snickered and she was deaf to it all, lost in the wave of grief that threatened to break over her head and drown her. Loss of monumental proportions towered above – loss of her family, her freedom, happiness – and loss of the brother with whom she could almost have been a twin, so linked were they by the chains of kin. She tried to rationalize Kholi’s death in her mind. That he had been a successful merchant, handsome and adored by women, that he had been erudite and valorous. And that in her heart she knew he had experienced the love of his life on that last fatal trip and that he had died with the knowledge he had found a true kindred spirit. She pushed away the overt fear that cut her throat in half and caused her to stop breathing. That was not how she wanted to remember her brother, it may well have been the way he died but it had no place in the hall of her memories.
‘So I was right. It’s as I said. Disaster is your shadow.’
Lalita glimpsed the afrit walking backward in front of her, Salah completely oblivious. The self-satisfied tone in the Other’s voice cut her to the quick and she felt a scream welling up in her throat. She stopped dead so that it flew forth, her eyes closing and her mouth opening wide, her fists clenched by her side. One word which became a wail. ‘NO.’
Salah grabbed her as the afrit vanished, and dragged her the last few feet to her door. ‘I shall tell everyone you cry because of the death of your brother, Lalita. But in truth I believe you are on the verge of one of your episodes.’ He pushed her inside, Phaeton dragging his lips back and growling. ‘There will be a tray in your workroom. It has all been deemed safe. The Kisla Agha ordered you have a taster.’
‘Get out,’ Lalita’s voice whispered, her voice rising so that Salah beat a hasty retreat. ‘Get out!’ She took her slippers off and threw them at the door, followed by a brass ewer close at hand, then a ceramic vase. ‘Get out!’ But Salah had gone and as a mode of venting, it did nothing for her mood, only inflamed it more.
She wanted no food and pushed the tray away, watching briefly that it did not spill on her work. But the carafe wobbled and then toppled before she could grab it. It clattered onto the tiles and she gazed at the mess on the floor, the tea soaking like ink, burning, burning, into loose sheets of paper at the foot of the table legs. Phaeton edged close to sniff.
‘NO, Phaeton. No.’ She pulled him away by the collar. ‘Stay away. Don’t touch.’ She crouched down and watched the liquid etching itself into the papery surface to form a dark butterfly pattern. She could smell acrid vitriol.
Someone had sought to poison her.
Someone had poured vitriol into her tea and had no qualms about burning her throat, her windpipe, her stomach, and killing her in the most agonizing manner.
She stood up and backed away to the stair leading to the tower, calling Phaeton. He leaped after her as she fled up the steps, round and round past latticed windows that offered differing views from each of its four sides. The heavy door at the top gave way to her urgent pushing and she leaned against it, her chest heaving, feeling as if she teetered on the brink of . . . she heard the afrit’s voice . . . ‘disaster’.
The wind had unkind fingers, finding every inch of exposed skin and biting and then tunneling under the silk to bite again. Lalita’s eyes watered and she burrowed to the other side where the roof of the tower provided shelter. The keening reminded her of the widows by the cremation biers further downstream on the river Ahmad. The goddess of rivers flowed and bent and tunneled through the sand and rock of the Amritsands, alternately trickling and roaring to Fahsi, and even now she could see the gold sheen of the water disappearing between the slopes of the undulating horizon. Thinking of Fahsi she fingered her pocket, her hands cold, her mind unwilling to deal with the truth of Salah’s warnings.
The small parcel crackled as she untied the string and pulled the indigo tissue away from the gift. Layer upon layer of dyed paper fell open like petals until a glistening dome lay in her hand.
This then, was the Sultan’s fortune – a millefiori paperweight. It glittered as a ray of light hit the convex curve and she held it up and moved it around. The glass flowerheads reflected up the side of the glass so the design could be viewed with a glance from the side as much as overhead. As she examined it, she understood why the Venichese glassmakers were famous for their art and why they made spectacles for all those in Eirie who must see and how the world valued every piece of glass that emerged from every fabricca in the hidden calli and rii of the city.
Her paperweight consisted of a diminutive seven-petalled glass flower head. A circlet of blue and white flowers danced around it, then yellow and white and finally a large circle of blue, yellow and white flowers. All shaped from blown glass and cut and placed by the hand of an artisan who appreciated beauty and design. If she looked carefully she could see a tiny piece of yellow glass tubing had been slipped into the perfect hollow at the center of the main flower. The weight of the object settled comfortingly in her palm, reminding her of Imran’s unspoken words: Hold it, Lalita and think of us. Feel that we are with you and shall never forget you. Do not despair. Look at the field of flowers and imagine you are amongst them.
‘A simple gift.’ The afrit chose to materialize and added, ‘but pretty enough and a loving gesture.’
‘Yes.’ He sat beside her, the size of a small boy, and put his arms around black clad legs and was mercifully silent. This more than his abrasive chatter, drew her attention. ‘My brother is dead.’
‘But you knew this always, didn’t you?’
‘In my head I always knew but the heart begs otherwise until the truth is revealed. Did you really know as well?’
‘Yes, but you wouldn’t listen.’
‘Your way of telling lacked something, afrit.’ She felt immeasurably lost in life, dwarfed by circumstance. Around her and below, the gold cupolas and white rooftops of the palace stretched far, the city farther still. ‘Do you know they tried to poison me?’
‘No! You say?’ He sat straighter, his interest peaked.
‘It appears I am a threat to the other women and they begin their games.’
‘You sound quite accepting. How odd! Do you want to die and leave your dog behind?’
‘No . . .’
‘But?’ His questions rubbed at her.
‘I am one very ignorant woman who must eat if she wants to live and finish the Sultan’s commission. They have appointed a taster but what is the point? Someone managed to slip in vitriol after the taster had finished.’
‘Vitriol! They are not planning half-measures then. I was right, little disaster-damsel. Why does an afrit create a tumult when Lalita lives in the Seraglio?’
Lalita turned to look at the wight and he returned her stare with a grin. ‘Oh come now. We could be friends, you know. You need someone on your side, that’s for sure. Endless months and years of lonliness and fear. I can give you food that is safe and deal with all that is unsafe that comes through your door.’
Lalita’s eyes welled. Perhaps this was a good day then, even though she had confirmation of Kholi’s passing. This strange little Other, as oft malicious as not, would be her help-meet. I need not give up yet. She sobbed, her backbone sagging just for a moment, just while she had someone to lean on.
‘I thank you, afrit.’ She didn’t care that to thank an Other might speed them away, she had to say it because her heart at this very minute was so close to breaking. But he had gone, leaving her to the wind and the hook-beaked kites and to her watery thoughts as she palmed the paperweight from one hand to another, closing her eyes and remembering good things.
Five days passed and in that time, five meals arrived poisoned. She debated constantly on how to reward the afrit, as he had a way of passing his hand over the food that appeared so appetizing. ‘It’s tainted,’ he would say and waft his hand and it would vanish to be replaced by other food, as delicious and sustaining and safe as she could wish. She walked in the gardens with Phaeton and Salah and always the little afrit was by her side, watching and guarding and her spirits rose.
She noticed her work improved, a standard of text, drawing, painting and gold leaf that exceeded her expectations. The book became corpulent and on that sixth day of the week of the Venichese Ambassador’s departure, she heaved a relieved sigh as she realized she had one story left to detail. This book, this rendition of A Thousand and One Nights should have taken many months. She had accomplished the impossible and almost completed it in four weeks – a solitary time where her only conversation was with an afrit and a eunuch. Rumour had it that the Sultan traveled in the north and for that Lalita was immeasurably grateful, it postponed what she knew was inevitable.
Laughter crept into her life, bubbling through her as she and the afrit walked the grounds. With or without knife-edged Salah, she was conscious of the curious looks that burned almost as much as vitriol as she promenaded with her dog. She was sure the crisp eunuch partnered her so he that he could return to the odalisques and from a position of power deliver snippets of acid information. He would say to her on his return, ‘They gossip, Lalita. You are immortal, Other, a spirit. Those not as fanciful say you are just lucky, insanely lucky and your turn will come.’
She laughed out loud at this and the afrit chortled, Phaeton running ahead, sending a flock of white doves into the sky with a lot of wing-clacking noise. But when she turned her glance on Salah, she saw his eyes had closed to slits as if she found humour at his expense.
The next morning, she went for her daily bath and the ministrations of the ever-cautious mistresses and drifted back on a cloud of gardenia to her apartments, Salah leaving her at the door. The afrit had left the night before, promising her a bowl of strawberries and yoghurt next day. ‘Phaeton,’ she called out as she opened the door, seeing the lattice screen into her sleeping chamber had been shifted. Wonderful afrit. She imagined her favourite fruit glowing red with a bowl of honey-sweetened yogurt close by. ‘Phaeton, here!’
But the silence was ominous and her heart began to beat as if it were whipped. Salah’s eyes, his vicious words, his warnings flashed in front of her. Never in Phaeton’s life had he reneged on a command from Lalita, springing to her side no matter what. She walked on feather-soft feet to her bedroom, praying she would catch her beloved companion asleep on the divan. She longed to surprise him with a butterfly kiss on the nose that so often plunged its wetness into her palm to give her strength. ‘Oh Phaeton, there you are, you lazy . . .’
He lay on her bed as if he were surrounded in red silk.
Some infinitely evil hand had cut his throat.
She stood shaking, barely able to stand as her door banged open and an armed eunuch followed the Kisla Agha inside. Seeing the dog, he nodded to the guard and the fellow wrapped the body in the silk coverlet and retreated out the door. Lalita followed, wanting to wail, to snatch Phaeton out of the huge arms, hold the body, never let it go. ‘Why?’ she said to the Kisla Agha. ‘My work is good. The Sultan has said so. Why did you kill my dog?’
The official looked back with no attempt at sympathy, indeed with contempt. ‘Be careful how you speak to me, woman. You are not such a favourite of the Sultan’s yet that you are above my discipline.’
But she hardly listened as he continued to speak. She knew her heart, which had suffered blow after blow, was now curling in upon itself. She could feel it, the beats hard and sharp. She too was twisting up, dry and crackling like a dead leaf from a tree. Vaguely she heard the Kisla Agha as he finished.
‘Your pardon, what did you say?’ To wrench the civility from deep inside was almost impossible.
‘Your aunt and uncle have been found dead. The Sultan wishes you to attend him at the bird aviary immediately.’
The sounds of the aviary, chirruping and whistling, tweeting and trilling, slid past her ears. Even the mournful call of the peacocks, reminiscent of grief and sorrow, elicited no response. She could barely manage the obeisance before the Sultan. Her mind seemed as blank as a new pressed page as she reeled from the outrageous turn of events.
‘I understand you have had significant losses today, and I offer my condolences.’
What does he see in me of my distress? He cannot know what it is like. Does he feel the pain I feel, as if I am slowly being disemboweled? Does he feel the emptiness that creeps upon me? The madness? A realization illuminated her mind at that minute. No, he sees my eyes bright with tears, my lips swollen from biting them, my breasts rising and falling as I try to halt the wailing. Her hand crept to her chest to cover it.
‘It is believed your aunt and uncle were murdered in a crime of theft as money and possessions have been taken, and I can assure you the culprit shall be caught. An odalisque in the Sultan’s Seraglio is a member of the Sultan’s family, she is the Sultan’s wife. Her family is the Sultan’s family. A crime against her is a crime against the Sultan. As for your dog, it would appear that one of the odalisques killed him in a jealous rage. She is even now being disposed of.’
The Sultan’s law, Lalita knew, was irredeemably final – the cutting off of hands and subsequent ganching for the murderer or the throwing of the woman off the highest tower into the Ahmad, inside a bag of rocks. But it meant little.
‘I understand you are almost done with the book and I am going to place a guard around you while you finish. When it is done, you shall enter the Valide Sultan’s apartments and my lady mother shall care for you until I need you for further commissions. In her Court, you shall be safe.’
His words were barely intelligible as she swayed on her feet, hearing the river roaring close by. The river? No, it is not the river. It is my head that roars. She realized the Sultan was asking her a question and looked into dark brown eyes sequestered in the face that betrayed goodness so markedly on one side and such cruelty and ugliness on the other.
‘I apologise, sire. I did not hear.’
He repeated himself. ‘Lalita, you have had a vast shock. I understand. I asked about the book. Can it be done? Are you able to finish it by tomorrow, so the bookbinders may finish it?’
Can it be done? Lalita kept her eyes fixed to the floor. If I don’t sleep, don’t have bodily functions and if I don’t allow grief to sweep me along in a muddy current like the Ahmad in flood. ‘Yes, sire. It can be done.’ She heard no reply, just feet moving away and gates closing and then Salah’s voice, as sharp and bitter as ever.
‘Come Lalita, I must take you home.’
‘Home?’ She laughed weakly, the tears overflowing. ‘Yes. Take me home.’
‘Courage,’ she heard the afrit say and felt a familiar breeze like a finger on her cheeks, taking the teardrops away. ‘Courage my dear.’