Story!

Jul. 2nd, 2012 08:20 pm
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[personal profile] darkluna

Ayisha ran.

Past the stalls with silks and velvets, past the urns of olive oil, past the stand with fruits and dried meat, darting out a hand to grab a handful of figs without even thinking to.

She ran for the sheer joy of it as much as for the knowledge that if she were caught she would be put into proper attire and made to sit docilely with the other girls.

She didn't get caught often. She was small enough to hide in the bustling market crowd, and quick enough to dodge between shoppers, merchants, and animals before they even saw her.

The crowd began to thin, and the stalls were sparser now. Ayisha wheeled a few corners, changed direction a few times. No one seemed to be following.

She slowed to a walk and studied her surroundings. She had come to an emptier part of the town, where high white walls enclosed narrow streets and hid any inhabitants. Ayisha relaxed a bit, munching figs from her sticky hand and admiring the unfamiliarity of it all. She had not consciously been running any direction but away, and she realized now she had reached the western edge of the city, near the palace.

She heard people approaching, and slipped into an alley where she could spy without being seen.

It was a procession snaking through the narrow clean streets, headed for the palace. Men on prancing black chargers, followed by somber-faced officers of state, then servants bearing a litter.

As Ayisha watched, wide-eyed, one of the silk curtains lifted, and a face peeked out. A boy, close to her own age, with a jewel set in his turban, and deep black eyes. Ayisha stared at him, and he stared back.

Then the most sour-looking official noticed the boy looking out and berated him, and he disappeared back behind the curtain.

***

It was a magical city, one of the last.

Ayisha had never traveled very far, but she eavesdropped on the caravan masters, and the traders who went as far as the mountains and the sea. They said there had once been cities of gold, where djinns walked the streets and the people could change into birds or snakes. But these stories were no more than legend now, memories embellished or invented. Every once in a while a very old wanderer would claim to have seen such wonders himself, but no one really believed those men; Ayisha could tell.

The magic of her city, with its shifting streets, was more subtle. You would miss it if you weren't paying attention. You would think you had taken a wrong turn, or expect to go your everyday way home, when suddenly a square would open up before you, and you would see dancers, fire-eaters, the face of someone you had been seeking without even knowing it.

Wishes came true in this city, much more often than was normal.

Ayisha's wishes were small, and easily granted, and it never seemed odd to her that she should want a sweet and happen upon an old merchant willing to give her one for a penny or a smile.

She missed her parents, but usually only at night. During the day there were too many adventures to have—linens to dirty by using them as ceremonial robes, lessons to miss, and the whole of the city to get lost enough in to run back to the school barely in time for dinner.

Headmistress Jacinth took pride in teaching the girls their letters and mathematics, in molding them into pleasant, docile women.

She despaired, loudly and often, of Ayisha ever learning any of that.

Docility did not come easily to Ayisha; in fact, it came not at all. She was not docile, she was not biddable, and she sewed abominably. In short, though she was only nine, the headmistress had already declared her unsuitable to be anyone's wife.

So she grew, Headmistress Jacinth lamenting all the while her lack of womanly curves; grew straight as a western blade and sharp, too, contrary.

She never did learn to sew in a straight line.

She could run, though, faster than most boys. She had nimble pickpocket fingers and a wit even more agile.

None of this was good for anything she would be permitted to do.

Thus she was swathed in veils before her time, while she was yet more child than woman, and put in charge of one of the dormitories, where she would be out of the way. Where her learning would not go to her head.

The smaller girls liked her. If one of them cried in the night, missing the family who had given her up in the hope she would be trained and chosen for court life, Ayisha would hug her and sing nonsense to her until she could sleep again.

She understood the girls. Ayisha's family had been very poor. She had two older brothers. Mahrud had run away when Ayisha was barely walking, and she couldn't remember him at all. Samir was only two years older than Ayisha, and she remembered very well how he had loved to pick her up, though he was not much bigger than she, and how they had played together, inventing games in the sand with pebbles and sticks. But Samir died of the same sickness that left Ayisha's father weak and tired all the time, and soon after that her mother sent her away to the school, and Ayisha never saw her family again.

When she was younger, she had, as some of the girls did even now, wondered what she had done to make them hate her. Over the years, though, after thinking about it long, after seeing the faces of the women who brought their daughters to the school, she accepted that her family had tried their best to send her to a better life.

***

"You there!"

Ayisha instinctively turned to see who was shouting. For once, it wasn't at her. A robed man had a boy by the arm. Years had passed, but she knew him at once as the boy she had seen peeking out of the litter.

She felt in her pocket for the apples she had taken from the school kitchen.

The first missed the official, but distracted him. The second hit him squarely in the back.

Ayisha rushed up and grabbed the boy's hand. "Come on!"

He ran with her, keeping up pretty well, toward the bazaar and the cover of the crowds.

Ayisha glanced back and saw the officials behind them. She pulled the boy with her around the next corner.

"Where are we going?" he said.

"I know a place."

She couldn't always find it, but she was certain she would today. In the wall, where it only appeared sometimes, a violet curtain fluttered. Close behind her, the boy followed Ayisha into the passageway behind it without question.

The cool hallway opened onto a bridge in the open air, over a narrow but rushing-white river. Though the bridge seemed old, it was wide and firm, evenly paved, with sturdy railings seemingly made for resting one's elbows on. Ayisha stopped, proud of how she was barely out of breath, and looked back at the boy.

"I know this place!" he said.

Ayisha stared at him.

"It's a good hiding place," he said, looking away as if embarrassed.

"But—" Ayisha began, and had to stop. The bridge was hers. "How did you find it?" she demanded.

"What do you mean? I went through the curtain. Wait. That curtain..."

"Right," Ayisha said.

"Is there ever anyone else here?"

"I don't think so. I've never seen anyone."

"Me neither." He looked up at her and smiled shyly. "Do you mind sharing? I don't."

"It's all right," Ayisha said, a little surprised at feeling that way, but sure that he wouldn't be able to get here if he weren't a friend.

His smile widened, less shy now. "I didn't thank you for helping me," he said. "Thanks."

"What did he want with you?" Ayisha said.

"To take me back," he said. "To the court. My father... he works there. As a, a scribe. I'm not supposed to be out alone."

Ayisha narrowed her eyes. "When I saw you before, what were you doing in such a procession?" She meant, Why is the son of a court scribe traveling borne on a litter?

"I was with the prince," he said. "We're the same age. We play together."

"What's your name?"

"Kasim. What's yours?"

"Ayisha."

"You're not supposed to be out alone either, are you?" he said, grinning.

"I do what I want."

She hadn't said it to impress him, but she was happy all the same when his eyes widened.

"What's the palace like?" she said.

"It's pretty. But I get bored."

"Really?" She couldn't imagine not being able to have fun there. So much space, so many treasures, and people to watch or hide from. "How many rooms are there? Is there gold? What do you and the prince do?"

He laughed. "It has a hundred rooms, and one of them is made of gold."

"No it isn't!"

"I have seen it," he said.

She gave him a dubious look, not sure if he was making fun of her or not.

He looked calmly back, a smile seeming to hide at one corner of his mouth. "I should go," he said. "I think it's safe to sneak back now."

The river was beginning to run gold with late-afternoon light. "I need to get home, too."

"Will we meet again?"

She smiled. "Wait and see."

***

She didn't run anymore when she wanted to flee the school—a young woman swathed in her long dress and veil would attract entirely too much attention pelting through the city streets. Now Ayisha slipped away quietly instead of outright bolting. It was easier now that the headmistress had conceded that yes, even the girl who had once been the wildest of her changes could learn her duty.

Ayisha cared for the girls well, still close enough to being one of them to understand them, to quietly make allowances for their temper tantrums and occasional sadnesses.

They had no choice in their own lives, and neither did she.

A few women lucky enough to be born to wealth were taught to keep the books and help run the family finances. Ayisha sometimes still winced at a pang of envy when she passed the confectioner's shop, where the three sisters sold their cakes and candied fruit and creations of spun sugar shaped into palaces and animals. The sisters walked freely in the world, and if they were not as highly respected as businessmen, at least they were not hidden from view and shut away at night.

One afternoon, when the students were safely napping, Ayisha left the school and walked through the courtyard, into the streets where the merchants lived above their shops, and out the other side, near the city wall.

She was alone, and she smiled, though she knew it was only a brief solitude.

This was a quiet neighborhood; she saw no one else about. All the gates and doors were brightly painted, here a green door with gilded calligraphy marking a scribe's shop; farther on, a gate painted red, the iron shaped like the pattern on a fine rug. Even though it was quiet, Ayisha could sense activity humming behind the closed doors.

She saw the flutter of a violet drape ahead in the wall.

The bridge seemed to be there only when she needed it—to help Kasim escape, and a few times when she felt so cramped and restless that she must surely fly apart if she could not get away for a little while.

She didn't feel that way now, though, and it was curiosity that carried her into the passageway and into the open air.

The bridge seemed unchanged, and as deserted as ever. Ayisha looked out over the river. In the distance, it passed under a gate in the city wall, rushing somewhere she could only guess at. The gate cast a long, filigreed shadow on the sand, a trick of the light making it seem to reach almost to the horizon.

A breeze lifted her veil, cool, though it blew in across empty desert. Ayisha smelled on it the freshness of water, and a hint of a tang that might have carried all the way from the sea.

She pulled the veil off and shook her hair with a sigh of relief.

And heard a step at the doorway.

A young man stood there, eyes glued to her. He was far enough away that Ayisha couldn't tell if he looked shocked, but she hurried to cover her head again.

He took a few steps closer and held up a hand. Not shocked. Intrigued, more like. "There's no need," he said.

Ayisha let her hands fall still holding the veil. The breeze in her hair felt unfamiliar, and wild. She smiled at the young man. He seemed like someone she might have once known.

She did know him.

It must have been longer than she realized since she and the boy from court had been here. Now she had to look up to meet his eyes. What little chubbiness his face had possessed had melted away. The boy was gone, his restless energy transformed into the quieter determination of this young man. His clothes were plain, dark browns and greens, and dusty, but the lift of his chin was almost arrogant.

“Kasim,” she said. “You’ve changed.”

“As have you.”

"Does court life agree with you more now?" she said.

He began to answer, but stopped himself. "I'm often there, but it doesn't interest me. My business requires me to stay at the palace."

"Are you a scribe like your father?" She doubted it even as she asked. He seemed no more a scribe than he had a prince's tagalong playmate years ago.

"No, I work for my uncle," he said. "A very large, very esteemed... very boring company."

Ayisha laughed.

"And you? You never told me where you live, or what you do," he said.

"I'm a chaperone," she said, "at the court school."

"So young?" he asked.

"I'm not as young as all that—I'm nearly nineteen."

He frowned slightly at that.

"I was given to the school," Ayisha explained. "But I'm..." she shrugged. "Unsuitable. So I teach, and watch the girls. Until they go away."

His frown deepened. "An archaic custom," he said quietly. Ayisha thought he seemed to be recalling old arguments. Perhaps his esteemed, boring family forced him to serve a court he did not fully support.

She understood that.

He moved a bit closer, so that his arm rested against hers on the railing. Together they watched the slanting sunlight ripple along with the water beneath them.

When he spoke, his voice was gentle. "So you won't marry?"

"Some teachers have," she pointed out, but it was rare. Men rarely even visited the school—indeed, this was the longest conversation Ayisha had ever had with a man.

He looked down at her, sad and wondering at once. "You're very beautiful," he said.

She couldn't catch her breath for a moment. "No," she said.

There was a smile in his eyes. He reached out and brushed a wisp of hair back from her face.

She waited, heartbeat fierce in her throat, absolutely certain of him, for all that she had never even come close to being kissed before.

When he leaned close, his mouth on hers was careful, almost hesitant. Ayisha went up on tiptoe, tilted her chin up, and he slipped his arms around her. He kissed her softly once, twice, then looked down at her, still toying with her hair.

"I should not have done that," he said. He didn't sound sorry at all.

"No. That was very... Um..."

"Rude," he supplied, clearly trying not to smile.

"Yes. You are very rude."

He kissed her forehead and stepped back. "I'm also headstrong," he said.

"So am I. And flighty, and disrespectful of my elders."

He smiled, looking out toward the gate at the dunes beyond, where the light was beginning to fade. "I wish," he said, then stopped himself and shook his head.

In the distance, a bell tolled six times.

"I have to go!" he said, and with the briefest of touches on her arm, he fled before she could ask him anything at all.

She tried to follow him, but though she had stood surprised and confused for only a moment, it had been long enough for him to vanish by the time Ayisha stepped back through the curtained doorway.

She made sure her veil was secure, and walked slowly back toward the school.

***

The chaperones took the girls to the square for the announcement, of course. Prince Akim rarely appeared in public, and most of the girls had never even seen the man their parents hoped they might someday serve.

The crowd in the square was enormous, and it was difficult to see the raised platform, let alone the few people seated there. The highest chair was still empty.

Finally, a tall, thin man in dark robes came to the podium. The babbling crowd gradually fell silent as they recognized the prime minister. He had a severe face, and held a scroll in his bony hands. He waited until no one was even stirring in the square below him, and then unrolled the parchment with a flourish. "Prince Akim may take the throne upon his twenty-first birthday if, and only if, he has married by then. So his father dictated to me before his sad passing."

Something in the prime minister's voice made Ayisha uneasy and squirmy, as if she had only just avoided stepping on a scorpion. She tried to see the prince in his high seat, but her view was blocked.

"Three months remain," the prime minister continued. "To ensure that the prince's bride is worthy, there are certain conditions, set by the king." He paused to consult the parchment, though an unwholesome glee had crept into his voice, and Ayisha was sure he knew the conditions by heart.

"She must climb the tower, best the master-at-arms, and, finally, convince the prince to have her." The prime minister paused, and smiled at the uproar.

Babble everywhere, cries of "Impossible!", angry and awed murmurs. Headmistress Jacinth was aghast, Ayisha saw. Then she looked back at the platform as the prime minister stepped down, and the crowd shifted, so that she saw Prince Akim for the first time.

She caught herself before she gasped aloud.

She knew the prince. He just hadn't told her his real name.

***

She wasn't looking for him. She was, in fact, doing her best not to look too closely at the faces of any of the men she passed, trying to pretend by force of will that he didn't exist.

It seemed the city had other ideas, though.

Ayisha walked toward the market the way she always had, but the cobbled streets twisted and shifted, and she found herself at the wall.

"No," she said, and turned around to go back the way she had come.

But it had all changed again; the turns were unfamiliar, the streets steep where they should have been flat, dead-end alleys where there should have been open plazas.

Ayisha stopped, put her hands on her hips. "Stop it," she said. "I don't want this."

She didn't expect an answer, and none came. But no matter which way she turned or how far she walked, she could not get out of sight of the wall.

Fine, she thought, and went through the curtain.

It was brighter here; the white stone of the bridge dazzled. Ayisha was alone.

Now that she'd been forced to come here, had resigned herself to seeing Akim, she almost wished she had found him after all. If she must confront him, better to do it now.

She slouched over the railing. Surely Akim had known about the conditions. Kissing her had been a promise he couldn't keep.

She heard steps echoing in the passageway, and Akim came out onto the bridge, looking nearly as annoyed as Ayisha had felt. She almost smiled at that—at least she wasn't the only one.

He looked at her and gave a half-shrug, obviously not surprised.

"You should have told me," she said.

He spread his hands in a gesture that might have been apology. "I know. It just never seemed like the right moment."

It was true, Ayisha thought, that being royalty was not exactly the sort of thing one could casually mention. She wanted to stay angry, but she couldn't. "I understand," she said.

"I'm glad," he said.

He came over and stood close enough that she could touch him if she wished, and after a moment, she leaned against him.

"You do understand me," he said. "You love the city as I do. The world is changing. Soon, it will become a place we wouldn't even recognize."

Ayisha nodded. She had sensed the change in the traveler's stories. It had begun even in her own lifetime. Magic was leaving the world, or else people were losing the ability to see it.

Akim seemed to be sharing the course of her thoughts. "We can't stop the change," he said. "But we—you and I—can help our world last for a little longer, here, in one of the last enchanted places. When are you going to come to the tower?"

It took her a moment to realize he was talking about the tests.

"I wish I could help you with the challenge," he said, quite calmly, as if he hadn't noticed her silence and was simply thinking aloud. "There aren't any rules about that—I'd tell you how to win if I knew."

Ayisha stared up at him. "You can't bypass the conditions?"

He shook his head.

"But if anyone can change things, you can."

"I'm just as subject to tradition as you."

"But you said yourself that it's a silly tradition." She took a step back.

"But you can do it," he said.

"I don't know that! And neither do you." She felt jangled, ringing like a gong or chittering like a bauble on a dancer's ankle. Her hands clasped each other; her eyes felt too bright. She didn't think she could do it.

"Even if I could change it, I would not. The tradition is part of my family. It's part of the city. I thought you would understand that, Ayisha. And if you can't—"

She spun and walked away before he could finish, and she told herself that the prickling in her eyes was just the salt in the air.

***

Climb the tower, best the master-at-arms, and convince the prince to have her. The words ran through Ayisha's mind almost constantly, try as she might to drown them out while going about her daily routine.

She read the lessons to the girls, and in the back of her mind imagined the white tower and tried to guess how tall it might be. She tidied the dormitory and sent the linens to the launderers, and wondered how the master-at-arms would fight, with what weapon and what technique.

As sometimes happens, the memory of Akim pierced her heart more surely than being with him had. She had time to regret her harshness, and to understand his dilemma.

Climbing the tower and beating the master-at-arms seemed easier than convincing Akim to have her.

Two young women from nearby cities had already tried it. One was unable to make a decent start at all. The other had come with rope, a net, and spikes, and had gotten almost as far as the first narrow window before falling. She wasn't hurt, but she was thoroughly discouraged, and packed up her supplies and departed, muttering what were clearly profanities in her language. Many people watched the attempts, but Ayisha was not among them.

***

The next challenger arrived with more pomp than any of the others had. She came from the east, in a procession with elephants, and she wore jewels and silk.

Ayisha waited with the others. She had come to the plaza as soon as the word spread that the woman from the eastern kingdom had made it up the tower. She had reached the window at the top, the man beside Ayisha reported, and had gone in nearly a half-hour ago.

How long could it take? Ayisha wondered.

She heard some word start to spread from the part of the crowd nearest the palace, murmurs rippling outward and growing, like a wave beginning to crest. Finally the murmur came close enough for Ayisha to understand. The challenger had beaten the master-at-arms.

"She fought brilliantly," someone said. "She wore him down."

Ayisha didn't want to hear how brilliant the woman from the east was, nor how graceful, nor how the prince would be a fool to refuse such a woman. But, with everyone else, she waited, half-expecting and half-dreading that someone would appear on the balcony and announce the wedding date.

They waited for a long time. The afternoon light faded until only the tall white tower glowed. The stars began to come out, when at last a small door opened at the foot of the tower, and the woman from the east came out. Someone brought her horse, and the crowd parted to let her through. The scowl on her face told all.

Ayisha felt almost light-headed with relief as the challenger passed by in stony silence. Akim had not accepted her.

***

Then she knew that she had to accept the challenge.

She went the next day to look at the tower. It was perfectly smooth, and so white it seemed to glow. Ayisha shaded her eyes and stared up, and up, and up, blinking away the tears that sprang to her eyes from so much brightness.

Ayisha didn't know how the woman from the east had climbed it, but the second challenger had brought netting, and that had saved her from getting hurt when she fell. Having to start all over again must have been too daunting, and that was why she had given up. What if she had placed nets beneath her as she climbed, so as not to fall too far? It would have been a kind of ladder up the tower…

Or, the thought suddenly struck Ayisha, like a spiderweb.

One of the many times Ayisha had gotten in trouble for wandering too far, she'd found herself outside the city walls. She had a knack for going down passages that didn't go where they were supposed to, and for stumbling upon hidden doors. One minute, she'd been walking toward the bazaar, and the next she'd been outside, near the abandoned oasis. Strung between two trees there, thick as rope, almost, had been the web of a giant sand spider. Ayisha remembered it very well, and her feeling of being too far from home this time, near real danger.

She wasn't sure she could find the place when she was trying to.

Maybe the trick was not to try.

Ayisha put all thoughts of the oasis out of her mind and let her feet take her where they would. It had been a long time since she wandered like this, giving herself up to whatever adventure waited around the next corner.

Back then, she had trusted the magic so completely that she hadn't realized she could do otherwise.

She walked into the bazaar, but nothing there called to her except the path leading out the other side. After a while, and realized she was in the part of town where she had first seen Akim. These streets were always cool and empty, here in the shade of the tallest buildings in the city, but as Ayisha went on, the air grew warmer, and the sky brighter, so that she blinked and lifted a hand to shield her eyes.

When her vision cleared and she looked around, the street and buildings were gone.

The oasis was not quite as she remembered it. There was a tent there, almost buried in drifted sand, and some scattered jars that might have held olive oil. The water had long since dried up; the palm trees were dying.

The web was still there, as huge as before. Ayisha looked around nervously, but the creature that had spun it was nowhere to be seen.

Hurrying, she collected some of the sticky web-stuff as best she could. It coated her hands and sleeves, and wouldn't ball up to be easily gathered. Ayisha scrubbed her hands with sand, and that made it easier. Soon she had formed a mass of the web and rolled it in sand so she could carry it.

After she walked back to the city, she didn't make an announcement or boast the way the other challengers had. She simply went straight to the tower, for she knew that if she delayed, she would lose what little nerve she had.

She didn't let herself think about the climb, either; she just began.

It wasn't easy, but it wasn't impossible. Ayisha fought off vertigo a few times when it felt too much as if the ground and sky were in the wrong places and might move any second. The web held her fast to the tower wall, and after the first few minutes, she didn't fear falling.

A crowd slowly gathered in the plaza beneath her, but she noticed them only because of their low rumble of talk. She floated in a detached state, where the only thing that really mattered was lifting one hand, one foot, one hand, one foot. Thoughts of Akim sometimes drifted through her mind, and she smiled, and let them pass, and kept at her task.

She couldn't tell how long the climb took, but suddenly, she had reached the windowsill at the top.

She pulled herself through the window, gasping for breath.

"Ayisha!"

She shot to her feet, exhaustion forgotten. Akim was standing just through the doorway at the far end of the room.

But there was a sound, as of wind, and Ayisha moved barely fast enough to dodge the sword swooping down at her. She fell, scrambled away, and looked for something to use as a weapon.

She was pretty sure she was supposed to get a sword too.

The master-at-arms, a short but thickly built man with a bushy red beard, slowed his advance just enough for Ayisha to grab a sword from its place on the wall and spin to block his swing.

Blocking was the best she could do. The master-at-arms grinned and danced about and flourished with his scimitar, and Ayisha held on grimly and stayed out of his reach, stealing quick glances at Akim whenever she could see into the next room. He watched with silent and intense concentration, eyes narrowed and mouth set, as if trying to send her some of his strength.

She knew she couldn't win.

The master-at-arms clearly knew, as well. He took a step back, as if readying for a final blow, but did not strike. He was still smiling. Ayisha found to her surprise that she liked his face; she felt that he was a good man. He made a gesture with his sword and inclined his head toward Ayisha, more deeply than a nod, but not quite a bow.

“I don’t understand.”

He pointed to his own chest, then the sword. Then pointed to her and raised his eyebrows.

“I never learned to— Oh.” Best him, the conditions said. But not necessarily at swordplay.

What was she better at than anyone else? Her thoughts tumbled over each other. Being contrary. Make-believe. Going places she shouldn’t be.

Going places she shouldn’t be.

She saw that the master-at-arms read the dawning comprehension on her face. He bowed toward a small door in the wall with nearly the grace of Ayisha’s own people.

She darted past him—there was a formality to observe here, after all—and slipped through the door. She was nearly to the bottom of the stairway there before she heard sounds of pursuit.

A door at the bottom opened onto the palace gardens.

Now that Ayisha had remembered the trick of it, it was easy to calm her mind and simply run.

Down the swathe of carefully tended green, past the fountain, looking back to see that no one was behind her, though the door stood open. She didn't slow; ran for the sheer joy of it, into shaded, twisting pathways and out again into sunlight glowing on white stone, into the tower and to the top.

Akim and the prime minister were there, and a moment later the master-at-arms hurried in, panting.

The prime minister cleared his throat. "She will not do," he said.

"I accept her. She fulfilled the conditions," Akim said, and Ayisha wondered at how the prime minister did not cringe at the taut calm of his voice.

"I was with the king when he set the conditions. I know what they were, and no one else."

The master-at-arms stepped up and rapped on the table for attention. The prime minister whirled. "No man can say differently," he said.

The master-at-arms mimed writing.

"This is absurd," the prime minister drawled.

Akim stepped toward him. "Is there," he said, "any particular reason you do not want him to have his say?"

Silence, and a black glare.

Akim handed paper and a quill to the master-at-arms himself. Ayisha met his eyes, nervousness a roaring like water in her ears. But Akim was calm, a true calm now, nothing like the forced stillness of a few moments ago.

In smudged and painstaking, but legible, Arabic, the master-at-arms wrote: Your father said: You must marry for love.

Akim seized the front of the prime minister's robes. "You. I ignored my misgivings about you because my father trusted you. I forced this woman to go through trials meant to be impossible, because I believed you cared for our tradition and only wanted to see it upheld."

He called for guards, who came immediately, and Akim pushed the prime minister toward them. "This creature cares for nothing but his own power. He is stripped of his title and banished. Let him see how well his greed can serve him elsewhere."

They carried him away, aided by the master-at-arms, and Ayisha and the prince were alone.

"You know I am unsuitable," she said, and watched light dance in the depths of Akim's eyes. "I will not obey you. I do not want you to be my master, for I will not submit to you. I want you to be my husband, and love me. As I love you."

He smiled. "I do love you, Ayisha. I would have no other."

***

So they were married, and lived long and happily.

Ayisha opened the court school to all the girls of the city, and gave the poorer ones scholarships, and made sure the students knew more about how to run a shop or manage a caravan than how to be docile and biddable.

The city flourished, and travelers carried tales of its wonders as far as the mountains and the sea, and it passed into legend and finally into myth.
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ellie

March 2014

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