“When you enter the Sultan’s presence, remember not to speak unless spoken to, do not look him directly in the eyes, and never, ever mention his father,” the chamberlain says to me as I’m rushed from the carriage, through the palace halls, pushing onwards to the throne room.
I’m scared; no denying the shaking of my heart as the chamberlain spoke in a rushed tone.
“Once you have been introduced to the Sultan, you can take meals with the servants and no one will question it. The director of your sector will give you jobs relating to your abilities. If you are unable to complete any job, you director will be responsible for you punishment. Right now, your director is Sayf al-Dawla Fahd Bin Kadir. It would be wise not to anger him, as his temper is rather legendary.”
Yes, I know of him. The ‘Sword of the State’ Fahd Bin Kadir. He’s scary, or so I heard from my brother; Fatin used to work for him.
Until Fahd broke my brother’s arm.
I shiver; I really do not want to work for this man. Never mind Fahd, I don’t want to work in the palace! Really, I don’t want to work anywhere the Sultan can find me. Not where he can see me…
The chamberlain glances back at me and clears his throat; I didn’t realize I stopped, so I quicken to a fast walk to catch up with him.
“I’m guessing you have heard of Sayf al-Dawla, yes?”
“Good. I won’t ask what you’ve heard about him; none of it is good, I’m sure. Now, what I will ask is, what do you think you will be doing here?”
I don’t say anything, just pause; Brother told me not to answer quickly at this point.
“I’m not sure, actually,” I respond quietly, “I guess anything that needs to get done.”
The chamberlain nods. “I see you’ve been told what to expect. Good. The kids sent here these days normally think they get to lead luxurious lives.” He pauses and spits off to the side. “They get a real shock when they’re put to work before the sun rises.”
I wince internally. Before the sun rises? I moan quietly, not wanting the chamberlain to take notice.
“Alright, I hope you don’t blow it,” the chamberlain continues, pausing before two enormous—no, behemoth—doors. “I told you what to expect; I told you how to act. Now don’t prove me wrong, boy.”
I nod, feeling like an ant before the doors. Slowly, the doors wince open, creaking on unseen hinges.
The chamberlain enters before me, striding with a confidence I wish I felt. Trying not to crawl inside myself, I follow the chamberlain, half hiding myself behind his tall back. The room is bright, painfully so, but the chamberlain doesn’t even pause as he walks to the raised dais housing the throne.
The giant throne.
I don’t think thrones are supposed to be that big and made out of crystal at the same time. And it’s covered with gold-embroidered cushions. Spilling off the throne. Without a care.
Actually, if I wanted to be accurate, I could say the dais is covered with the plush cushions, and some just tossed onto the throne.
But I’m sure that’s how the Sultan wanted it. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be so.
I try staying behind the chamberlain as much as possible as we make our way up to the crystal throne. I’m pretty sure it doesn’t work, seeing as my eyes meet the Sultan’s—
Almost immediately, I tear my eyes away, staring pointedly at the tiled floor.
Idiot. I can’t believe I did that. The second thing the chamberlain said was not to look the Sultan in the eyes! Bumbling buffoon!
I keep up the insults to myself until the chamberlain stops and bows, myself bowing as well, but not looking up. Not daring to.
The chamberlain introduced me, informed the Sultan who I would be serving under, the Sultan said something in a way of a greeting…I think. I’m not sure if he was actually paying attention to what the chamberlain was saying.
I think…I felt eyes on my bowed head. But I dare not raise my head.
Then I feel an elbow in my gut and I glance at the chamberlain. It’s time to go and meet Sayf al-Dawla. We bow to the Sultan again, then exit the throne room. The chamberlain leads me along another corridor, out of the newest part of the palace and into the old palace, and into the servant’s quarters.
All the while, he says nothing. He doesn’t comment about my conduct, he doesn’t yell at me for meeting the eyes of the Sultan, he doesn’t even say ‘good job’.
I’m kinda glad. I don’t think I would survive getting yelled at, not right now.
I caught the Sultan’s eye, and that is all that runs through my head, turning my blood cold with fear.
It’s been a few months since I saw the Sultan on his crystal throne. I haven’t been in the throne room since, thank Allah.
But I’m working to the bone. I don’t know why Master al-Dawla (as he wants us to call him) is working me so hard. I see how he works the other boys; I know he’s giving me ‘special’ treatment.
Hearing slippers in the hall, I get back to work cleaning one of the guest rooms in the new wing of the palace. I hope it’s not Master al-Dawla; I’m supposed to be done with this room, but I just got to dusting the furniture. I work as fast as I can, trying not to damage anything or knock anything over. I saw what happened to the last boy who didn’t.
A shiver runs up my spine as the incident passes through my memory, but I quickly quench the though. I’m not going to end up like that.
Dust flies into the air as I reach a vase near the door. I can’t help but go into a fit of coughing and sneezing. My eyes water as I try to regain control of myself—
Just as the door to the room opens.
I send up a silent prayer to Allah for it not to be Master al-Dawla.
“Halim, aren’t you done yet?” a familiar voice comes to my ears as the door silently closes behind the intruder. I glance up and confirm my suspicions. It’s only my friend, Kalil al-Bukhari.
I smile at him. “Sorry if I’m still slow, Kalil. I’ll be done in a bit…unless you want to help?” I give him a sly wink.
Kalil laughs. “Not on your life! Master al-Dawla’s been watching me like a hawk all day! I’m too tired to help you’re lazy butt!”
I give him a pout, then laugh, getting back to cleaning. “You’re loss.”
“Hah! Loss of skin, maybe!”
“If you aren’t here to help, why’d you come?” I don’t mean to sound harsh…but even to my ears, it does.
The laughter goes out of Kalil, his smile fading. “No need to bite my head off…” Kalil sniffs defensively, shuffling his feet.
I sigh, but don’t apologize. I’m not in the mood. I want to be done with this room. I don’t want to be in the palace. Kalil doesn’t seem to notice my sour mood, because he perks up and smiles at me. Again.
“Hey, hey, Halim! Did you hear?” I grind my teeth at his excited tone of voice and his smile. A smile the size of the palace stables.
I tilt my head, my eyes half-lidded. “Hear what?”
“The Sultan’s gonna chose a consort soon,” Kalil smiles, his eyebrows bouncing up and down, “and you know what that means!”
“…another room to clean?” I retort.
“No!” he moans, slamming his palm into his forehead dramatically. “Hot, young ladies! Paraded around the palace, for all to see, so that when the Sultan chooses a consort, everyone will know her!”
I sigh; of course that’s why he’s excited. Anyone who is rejected by the Sultan will be free game. For everyone here.
“Kalil, you aren’t even of marrying age,” I stress the last word, trying to show him how frustrated I am.
But of course, he just smiles.
“So?” his boyish grin shines. “I can still dream.”
“Of course you can,” I grunt, dusting off a portrait of the Sultan, “but leave me out of it.”
Finally, finally, Kalil gets the hint. “What’s your problem today, Halim? Master al-Dawla get on your case?”
I sigh. Maybe not.
“No, my friend, that’s not it at all,” I mutter. I can’t tell him that I just want to get out of the palace, though. I know it’s every child’s dream to be chosen to work at the palace.
Not mine, though.
“Then what’s up?” I feel Kalil come up behind me, my instincts telling me he’s going to place a hand on my shoulder. To comfort me, presumably.
“Stop,” I hear myself saying, a low, hollow, almost threatening tone. “There is nothing wrong; I don’t need you pity.”
Kalil actually listens to me. Amazing.
He pauses his hand in mid-contact, then draws back. “Halim…if you want to talk, I’m always open for a conversation with friends.”
I nod mutely. I just want out. But no one can know that. I’ll be punished if they find out.
But I don’t want to be here…
The door closes behind me, softly, so as not to disturb the occupants of the room. Master al-Dawla is in front of me, proceeding me into the large, gaudy room. A young man sits on the windowsill, plush cushions behind his back and beneath him, the window partially opened to the summer breeze.
No one else in the room.
In front of the man sits a table covered in fruits, cheese, and crackers, and a jug of what I presume to be wine. There are only two goblets on the table, one of which is half-filled with a red liquid. Again, most likely wine.
I know who the man is; I want to deny it, but I can’t. He’s been haunting my dreams before I even arrived at the palace. I want to say I’m ignorant of why I’m here, in this room, with only Master al-Dawla and this man. I want to say there’s no reason for me to be here.
But I can’t say any of that, not when I know who it is, not when I know why I’m here.
Not when I know the reason I was summoned by the Sultan.
The young man turns his head, slowly, his long, silken black hair falling past his shoulders, brushing his exposed tan skin. His commanding, stark black eyes gaze at me, through me, straight into my very soul.
Or so it feels like.
The Sultan nods, once, then unfolds himself from the windowsill and stands, barely making a whisper as the fabric of his pants rubs against the fabric of the cushions. His eyes finally leave me, and fall upon Master al-Dawla.
“I trust he hasn’t been touched,” the Sultan’s voice carries like music, drifting to the ears, pushing away all thoughts of how cruel he is, how he—
No! I yell at myself. Don’t go down that road! Just stop! I take a shuddering breath, trying not to succumb to that voice, the same voice everyone else succumbs to eventually.
“He hasn’t, sir, not that I’m aware of,” Master al-Dawla responded, “and I keep a close eye on my boys.”
The Sultan nods, his elegant cheekbones framed perfectly by his hair.
“Then you are free to leave.”
I almost succumb to that voice again, the voice of an angel…but the body of a devil.
Master al-Dawla bows and retreats from the room. Now I’m alone. With the Sultan.
There is a garden in front of the palace, in some obscure desert country. The garden is cultivated and tended by a young maid, for there are not many flowers in this garden.
And there is only one type of flower: a tiger lily.
Each year, the tiger lilies increase in number. In the middle of summer of this year, a new tiger lily entered the garden. It was small, but strong, and now dominates the garden. The Sultan says this tiger lily is his favorite.
He named it Halim.