Sunday, September 19, 2010
One of the reasons I haven't posted too much recently is that I've been working on my novel, Lilitu. You may remember the title character from the Zancharthus books...well, she's the star in this one...it's all about the way in which she became such a twisted little tart, and how she got to Khymir. I just finished the final draft; the book should be out in weeks from Infinity Publishing; an excerpt follows. I might post more...hope you like it.
Chewing a horn of his moustache, his stomach intensely sour, Hamid Ben-Babd paced in exquisite suspense, praying that prayer wouldn't prove necessary, and that if---God forbid--- it did, the Almighty would make him, retroactively, the father of the child who was about to be born.
He couldn't, or so he told himself, be absolutely certain the baby wasn't his. It was entirely possible (though hardly probable) that his seed had won out over so many others. Someone's had done the trick; it could've been his. Stranger things had happened. Miracles happened. After all, he was praying---on and off--- for one now.
But as the vile feeling in his stomach intensified, his supplications faltered. Deep inside, he knew perfectly well that his seed had been bested, and that the King of the Universe had more on His mind than making Hamid Ben-Babd the father-after-the-fact.
In his desperation, Hamid decided on a much more modest request, begging merely that the child wouldn't be so obviously unsired by him that anyone could tell just by looking at it. But when the door opened, and the midwife stuck her head out, and he saw that anxious expression on her face, he knew immediately that God hadn't listened even to that very small, reasonable plea. Fighting the urge to say something blasphemous, he settled instead for a weak little "Oh damn," and entered the room.
Hands folded on their stomachs, the other midwives were all standing along one wall; their chins were down, although they were eyeing Hamid from under their brows, about as nervously as the woman who'd looked out.
His wife Rahminah, on the other hand, looked like she didn't have a care in the world, indeed, as though she'd just awakened from a pleasant little nap. She wasn't pale, her slightly smiling lips were deep red, there were no dark circles under those lovely dark almond eyes, and her hair was neither lank nor tangled; he couldn't even see any sweat on her forehead. She looked wonderful. Staring Hamid right in the eyes without the least visible trace of guilt, she drew back the covers to reveal, suckling on her breast, a baby who was virtually a signed letter from God mocking Hamid's entreaties.
To begin with...The child was extremely white. Hamid wasn't dark for a Kadjafi, but he was...Kadjafi. Half Mirkut, Rahminah was lighter, but nowhere near so light as the babe. And the slant of the child's eyes (which were a most outlandish grey) far exceeded the slant of the mother's. Given all that, Hamid thought he knew who the father was---a Naiman called Urugtai who'd blown in off the desert a year ago. Wondering what to do, Hamid stared at his wife.
You'll be a complete laughing-stock, he told himself.
She watched him mildly.
You should have her stoned
"It's a girl," she said.
Should've had her stoned a long time ago…
But as he stood there looking at the adulteress, her beauty reminded him most poignantly of why he hadn't exposed her to the law; he couldn't have her and have her stoned as well.
She seemed to be aware of his thoughts; her smile broadened, just a bit.
That's it, he thought. Taunt me. Rub my nose in it…
"Nothing to say, My Love?" she asked.
He averted his gaze, asking himself:
How much of this are you going to take? She's using you for a chamber-pot...You're a Babd, the son of a noble family, titled for generations…
But being a Babd was nothing special. His ancestors had indeed been titled for generations, and had very little to show for it. Having risen to the lowest rank of Kadjafi nobility, they'd languished on that ledge ever since; just like his father and grandfather and great- grandfather, Hamid was a Protector of Figs, and he expected his son, if he ever had one (undoubtedly it would be some other man's child) would be a Protector of Figs too.
Title or no, Rahminah had betrayed him. Even a commoner could assert his rights, have an adulterous wife duly killed.
"Hamid?" Rahminah asked. "Husband?"
He looked back at her, but his attention was drawn to the baby, who was suckling as though she thought she might never have another meal, slanted grey eyes very serious, brow furrowed. The child looked at once so worried and so very pretty that Hamid's resolve, what there was of it, completely melted. Rahminah might deserve death. But what would become of this tiny, beautiful innocent?
"Husband?" Rahminah asked again. "I apologize.''
"For what?" he asked, never shifting his gaze from the infant.
"Next time I'll give you a son,'' she said.
"Next time," the Protector of Figs replied.
In truth, despite the calm confidence of her demeanor, Rahminah hadn't been sure that Hamid's will would break. She knew he knew of some of her indiscretions and had let them pass, but she hadn't presented him with a baby manifestly sired by someone else. Appearances to the contrary, she actually felt quite guilty; she believed in God, and knew adultery was a sin, and was well aware that up until now, Hamid had treated her with astonishing lenience.
She'd given some thought to aborting the baby, but, unable to go through with it, had clung to the hope that it was actually Hamid's. It was, after all, her recollection that Hamid had had her after Urugtai that night, before Urugtai had her again; it wasn't entirely wishful thinking on her part.
If she'd been forced to bet, she would've put her money on the Naiman---if seed took after the man who sowed it, Hamid's had been defeated from the start. And once the child arrived, one glance had settled the question; after that, it all came down to Hamid's reaction, which had been characteristically cowardly. It was really sort of a pity he was so spineless; Rahminah would've preferred to have loved him. But he was the sort of fellow who, given the present circumstances, would refuse to have her stoned. She couldn't imagine loving a man like that.
How did you get into this situation? she asked herself, once he and the midwives had left. But really, she knew perfectly well. She had a very amorous nature, and it had gotten her into difficulties from the beginning. Back in Thangura, she'd been deflowered, very willingly, at the age of twelve, by her fourteen-year old cousin; soon after her fifteenth birthday, her father, after learning of several other episodes, had thrown her out of the house.
She'd been fortunate enough to find work as a maid at an inn, and had taken up with a troupe of dancing-girls, who'd taught her their trade, for which she demonstrated a genuine aptitude.
Indeed, she soon came to outshine them all, earning their jealousy for that alone; but worse still, she eventually became involved with each and every one of their men. When the breaking point came, the innkeeper decided to retain her and let the other girls go, whereupon they burned the place, and made several determined efforts to kill her.
Deciding it was high time to leave Thangura, she headed East along one of the caravan routes, soon losing the man she'd departed with in a brawl which had erupted over her; as she continued eastward, there was no shortage of work for a tavern-dancer, but she rarely stayed anywhere for more than a few months before she had to flee.
Ultimately she'd reached Hamid's protectorate, the oasis of Sawaliyeh; once she was installed in the local hostel, Hamid had discovered her in short order, and was soon showering gifts on her, much to the consternation of his friends and family, who suspected that, despite her spectacular looks, she was a consummate slut. Their warnings, however, fell on deaf ears, and Hamid proposed to her, and she accepted at once---he wasn't good to look at, or a good lover, but he had a great deal of money, and better still, men-at-arms. She didn't know if any cut-throats would come looking for her, but since she'd left a particularly atrocious mess at the last oasis, she resigned herself to wedlock with the Fig-Protector.
Not that she resigned herself to being faithful. The possibility never even entered her head. She wasn't happy with her own tendencies, but experience had taught her to respect them. If she went more than a few days without satisfaction, she simply couldn't think; she grew irritable, and unpleasant, and made others miserable, and so, for everyone's sake, she strayed---that is, if such purposeful pursuit of gratification could be described as straying.
When Urugtai swept in from the desert and joined the household guard, he seemed the veritable answer to a prayer, although, knowing God's attitude about adultery, Rahminah rarely asked Him to supply her with lovers, and only when she was in a very bad way. Urugtai was short and not particularly handsome, but he was remarkably intelligent for a barbarian, was uncannily good with languages (he knew a dozen at least), and spoke Kadjafi better than she did; he was extremely funny and could turn a phrase more skilfully than anyone she'd ever met. Best of all, he was a splendid lover, so endowed with sheer animal spirit that he'd even succeeded---as she now knew---in getting a child on her, despite the drugs she'd been taking. She thought it very likely that, given her own nature and his, their child would be remarkably lascivious.
But, watching the baby on her breast---the infant was asleep now---Raminah hoped desperately that the girl would turn out, as children so often did, very unlike her parents.
"Please Lord," she said softly, "don't despise my prayers because I'm a sinner. I can't control myself, I wish I was other than I am, and I'm most unhappy. Don't condemn my daughter to the kind of life I've led."
At that, the baby woke, or, at least, those lovely grey eyes opened, regarding Rahminah sleepily.
"Be good," Rahminah said.
The babe's eyelids slid slowly shut. Rahminah smiled, watching the child's small round face.
What shall we call you? she thought.
She'd already given some thought to the question, ignoring Hamid's suggestions. She was partial to Avvah, Zuleika, and Yasmina, but had been leaning more and more to a name which she thought she'd made up, Lilitu. In reality, she'd overheard a conversation between two scholars at her father's house when she was four; the name had stuck, but she recalled nothing else. Had she been a delver into useless facts and ancient texts inscribed on clay tablets, she might have discovered that the name was extremely ill-omened, indeed, that it had belonged to a particular class of female demon. But Rahminah knew only that she liked the sound of it, and was determined to bestow it on her daughter no matter what her hapless husband thought.
As the years passed, there was much talk about her and her child. Rahminah's very considerable wiles, which had received much honing through the years, remained of necessity very sharp, and whenever Hamid seemed to have heard something (there were a number of signs) she went to even greater lengths than usual to make herself alluring, and to create difficulties between him and whoever was repeating the gossip.
Moreover, she found herself less willing to betray him. In part it was because Urugtai was gone, and she kept comparing prospective lovers, unfavorably, to him; in part it was mere prudence. But also, she had a child now, one that would soon be old enough to make some sense of the gossip, and to see that her mother, indeed, behaved in a very suspect manner. And so, by the time Lilitu was four, Rahminah had put aside much of her adultery, unless the opportunity was unusually good, and a very handsome partner presented himself; by the time Lilitu was five, it was all over, and though Rahminah missed it, she was no longer willing.
It was at that time that she developed a desire to learn letters, so that she might read the scriptures; after some prodding, Hamid procured a tutor for her, a retired schoolteacher named Zufir, and Rahminah proved a quick study. But her daughter, sitting on her mother's lap, or standing behind her on the chair, looking over her shoulder, soon proved even quicker.
One day, Zufir, amused by Lilitu's silence and expression of extreme concentration, prodded her in the side with his fingertip and said:
"Always so quiet."
Lilitu had been studying the word-list that her mother was copying. "Just being polite.''
"Is that so?" Zufir answered.
"You're here for mother, not me," she said.
She went on: "I can't imagine you want me pestering you with questions."
He laughed. "I don't know. You express yourself so nicely."
"Thank you," she replied.
"Do you have any questions, Lilitu?" Rahminah asked. "I'm sure Master Zufir would be happy to answer them."
"I was wondering," Lilitu said.
"Yes?" Zufir asked.
"Father has a foreign book. The letters look like ours, but not entirely."
Amused by her precocity, Zufir laughed.
"What's so funny?" Lilitu asked.
"Nothing. What's your question, exactly?"
"Did we get our letters from the foreigners, and change them, or did the foreigners get their letters from us?"
Zufir replied: "I'm not sure what foreigners you're referring to...''
''They got the alphabet from us and changed it over time."
"To suit themselves?" Lilitu asked. "I listen to foreigners, and they make sounds that we don't."
"That's very true," Zufir said.
"But if their sounds aren't the same as ours," Lilitu said, "they couldn't use our alphabet unless they changed it."
"Yes," Zufir said. "But they wouldn't have to change the way the letters looked. They could just use the same letters...''
"And match them to different sounds," Lilitu answered, nodding. "I understand." She was silent for a few moments. "I still don't know why the letters changed then. Could you find out for me?"
"I'll see what I can do," Zufir replied, exchanging a smile with Rahminah.
With the scholarly resources he had at Sawaliyeh, he was unable to find the answer to Lilitu's question, but he did allow her, from that point on, to participate in her mother's lessons. Having paid very close attention while Zufir was teaching her the letters, Lilitu knew all the shapes that needed to be made, and was very adept at writing them, much more so than Rahminah; and since Rahminah was still reading at a fairly elementary level, Lilitu had no difficulty in jumping right in. Within a few weeks, Zufir began giving Lilitu separate sessions, so that her mother wouldn't be at too much of a disadvantage.
For his part, Hamid was delighted by Lilitu's progress; she was a splendid daughter, very good company, charming, beautiful and, in spite of a slight mischievous streak, well behaved for the most part. Hamid would go for months without remembering that she was someone else's child, and even when his memory was jogged, Lilitu would say something so clever that all thought of the outrage that had created her was driven from his mind. One day he dropped in on her and Zufir just as she was writing some sort of composition.
"And what's that you're up to?" he asked.
"Some verse," she answered.
"You're a poet now?"
"Poetess," she replied.
"Pardon me. What's your poem about?"
"A puppy," she answered. "You'll like it."
"I don't like dogs."
"That's why you'll like it."
"What's it called?"
"Bad Puppy," Lilitu said. "Would you like to hear it?"
Hamid folded his arms on his chest. "By all means."
"My friend Sami loves him
But I can't think why;
If I didn't care about making her cry,
I'd swing him into the wall by the tail---"
At this, Hamid gave a shocked laugh, but she continued:
"He yaps and yaps all day,
And even though I can't tell what he's saying,
I'm sure it must be rude, and worse yet,
Even a baby can be toilet trained,
But this puppy goes everywhere, and never learns.
True, he's cute, but that's not enough---
I think I'll swing him anyway."
"Lilitu!" Hamid cried.
"Don't worry," Lilitu said.
"There's no puppy. I don't know anyone named Sami."
"Thank God," he said.
"It's an exercise," Lilitu said. "Master Zufir told me to make something up."
"I didn't tell her to imagine a puppy she'd like to kill," Zufir said.
"Are we finished, Master?" she asked.
"Go and play," he said.
She ran out.
"How did you settle on the name Lilitu, by the way?" he asked Hamid.
"Rahminah made it up," Hamid answered.
"No, I don't believe so," Zufir replied.
"What's wrong with it?"
"Nothing," Zufir said. There was a short silence.
"Are you having any difficulties with her?" Hamid asked.
"Not really," Zufir said. "Aside from the fact that it's a bit humbling, teaching someone who's so much more intelligent than I am. Occasionally she makes fun of me, just a bit, but it's not genuine disrespect, I think. And her little jabs are so funny that it's hard to get angry---"
"Would you like me to talk to her?" Hamid asked.
"No. I'd find her less entertaining if she stopped. But you should keep an eye on her. I could imagine her getting into trouble when she's older. She has a lot of questions about...er...embarrassing matters."
"Animals mating, things like that. She's very observant. I tell her I'm not a specialist in natural philosophy, but she clearly suspects I know more than I'm letting on."
"I see," Hamid answered. He thought for a few moments. "If she comes to you with those sort of questions, perhaps you should direct her to her mother---"
He broke off, suddenly wondering if this was a good idea.
"She says her mother doesn't want to talk about such things," Zufir said.
"Ah," Hamid replied.
Lilitu read everything in Zufir's small library several times; then Rahminah and the tutor persuaded Hamid to start buying more books, and before long, every caravan that came to Sawaliyeh brought some for the child. After mastering her own language to a very great degree, Lilitu indicated an interest in other tongues, and Zufir was allowed to bring in a second man, named Zeyd, to teach her classical Numalian. Zeyd also knew several eastern languages, and imparted those as well; her tutors took to bringing her to the place where the caravans stopped, a great open space beside the spring, so she could listen and speak to the interesting foreigners, particularly the children.
Once when she was just eight years old, Zeyd took her there late in the afternoon and, as had lately become his habit, went to flirt with a pretty woman who sold dates to the travellers; told to stay close, Lilitu wandered about in his general proximity, and soon attempted to strike up a conversation with a dark little boy she guessed was from Aryanastan. She knew enough of his tongue for them to get on, and she picked up some new words; he seemed to like her a great deal, and he smiled quite a bit, his teeth very bright against his dark skin, but presently his mother came and got him, dragging him off into a tent.
Lilitu looked about, but there didn't seem to be any other children around, at least in the vicinity of Master Zeyd and that woman he liked; preferring not to talk to adults---generally, they weren't convinced by her claim that she just wanted to listen to them, and plainly thought she was up to no good---she decided to look for lizards, which she was most interested in.
They lived under the scrubby trees that bordered the big open space; if the sun was high in the sky, they stayed in the latticed shadows, but late in the afternoon, they'd venture out a bit, and it was easier to catch them. Lilitu looked about to see if Master Zeyd was still sufficiently near, then went on the hunt. Sometimes the lizards ran, but if they were on their own property---it was her studied opinion that they regarded certain patches of dirt as theirs---- they actually stood their ground. Repeatedly dipping their heads, they changed colors, and swelled their bodies up; she guessed they were trying to scare her, a thought she found extremely comical, and she loved to watch them at it. Some were so confident of their own scariness that they let her get very close, which was very foolish, or would've been if she'd meant them harm---if one of the little blustering fools let her within arm's length, she got him, as she was very quick. Catching a half-dozen, she acquired some inconsequential bites, let the lizards go after she'd examined them. Just when she was tiring of this and about ready to go over to Master Zeyd and see if she couldn't put an end to his conversation with the date-seller, she spotted an especially big lizard which she really needed to show the tutor, who hated crawly things.
Giggling at the thought of scaring him, she closed in on the creature and caught it; big fat squirming reptile in hand, its scales raspy against her palm, she was still giggling as she started back towards the tents, but she hadn't gone too far when she heard strange shrieking and humming sounds behind her, and paused and turned. She saw a faint intermittent glow rising beyond the scrub; there came several cries of pain, and a brushy sound, as though someone were running through the trees. Presently a man appeared, running clumsily, weaving between them; reaching the fringe of the vegetation, he stopped and turned. He was dressed normally enough, but bald except for a topknot bound with metal rings at the base; Lilitu could hear someone else coming up on the far side of him.
Suddenly there was one of those screaming sounds, so near and loud that the lizard flinched and clawed her before she dropped it and clapped her hands to her head. Not even aware that she'd blinked, she saw the man much closer now, flying backwards towards her in a cloud of leaves and snapped-off bits of branch, his robes whipping with a thudding sound, his head tilted forward, topknot trailing over the front of it.
He landed with a thump right beside her, dust flying up all around around him. Gasping for breath, he was gripping the center of his chest, but still got to his feet; that terrible screaming noise came again, and she was aware of something barely visible---it made the landscape behind it wriggle slightly and go yellowish--- that shot right into him and blew him back off his feet again, some of whatever it was apparently splashing off him and knocking her back too. She didn't quite fall, but immediately squatted down, hands still over her ears.
It was a few seconds before she realized that another man had come out of the scrub, also bald but for a topknot, but much much bigger than the first man, and dressed all in flowing black robes; there were metal sleeves on his forearms, and he was adjusting them as he walked. A curved sword was tucked into his belt, along with some kind of big hook with a wooden handle. His mouth was set, and his head was tilted slightly downwards, so that his eyes were in shadow. He didn't seem to be in a hurry, and didn't even appear to be aware of Lilitu, for which she was thankful---until he stopped beside her and turned his face towards her, and she got a good clear look at his eyes at last. They were the stuff of evil dreams, pale blue and horribly hard; barely keeping from wetting herself, she squatted even lower, and looked away. Going to the man on the ground, he stopped long enough to stamp once on the fellow's chest---there was a splintery sound which Lilitu didn't realize was ribs breaking until years later----and continued forward.
Trembling, she remained where she was, watching him. Directly ahead of him there was a big tent, and men were shouting inside; all at once three came out, once again with topknots. Immediately the man in black halted and assumed a strange angry-looking pose, one foot well back, right arm raised, left arm down at his side, the fingers of both hands spread wide but curved like claws; again there was that screaming sound, and his robes lashed backwards as if in a gust of wind. Between him and the tent, a fog of dust rose from the air; suddenly the last man to come out---he stood between the other two, directly in front of the flap---went flying back into the tent. The last Lilitu saw of him was the soles of his bare feet---he'd come out of his boots.
His friends had already assumed poses of their own; they were standing in the shadow of the tent, and Lilitu saw the side of it flash with red and green light. There was a whoosh, and a vicious crack, and dust lifted from the ground once more; Lilitu thought the blast would've blown her away like a little leaf. But the man in black just stood there and took it; he might as well have been made of steel. An instant later, he unleashed another of his screaming strikes, which caught one of his opponents and hurled him back against the tent with such force that several of the tent-pegs were pulled, the ropes flying up over shelter's top. Arms folded over his chest, the victim slid partway down along the fabric with a peculiar movement that told Lilitu he was dead, although she wasn't sure why.
Howling, the third man hurled himself prostrate, digging his face into the dust, quivering hands locked together.
But this wasn't good enough for the man in black. Rushing forward, he brought his heel down behind the wretch's head, did it again---then vanished inside the tent.
For no good reason, Lilitu began to lower her hands, but a series of noises that were terrifying even by recent standards had her clapping her palms back to her ears; the tent billowed up and strained violently at its pegs, its flap flapping, flashes of multihued light visible through the opening, the tent-walls glowing; the sounds got steadily more frightening and the lights brighter until the tent simply burst. As the rags and strings floated down, Lilitu saw two silhouettes amid the settling fragments, facing each other. One stood rock-still and was much bigger, and was adjusting things on his forearms; the other, who might or might not have been the fellow who was blown back through the flap, was tottering, and soon fell over, whereupon the victor went over to him, and crouched down, then rose up again, dragging something behind him. There were still enough twists of torn fabric lying about to conceal the nature of this something until the man in black stepped out from among them, but Lilitu had already concluded it was his last victim before she saw that that was indeed the case; still squatting, not daring to move, she watched as the man in black dragged him over the ground.
As they came closer, she realized for the first time that he wasn't gripping his prey, but had that big hook of his in the fellow's shoulder.
All at once the snagged man began to stir and shriek, fighting and kicking, grabbing at the hook; never pausing, his captor shook him savagely twice, and the struggling stopped. Coming alongside Lilitu, the big man paused once more, regarding her with those cold hard eyes.
Shivering, she cried: "I'm sorry!"
"Have you been bad?" he asked.
"I don't know!" she cried.
He laughed through his nostrils and continued on his way, dragging his prize into the scrub and disappearing.
At once, there came a chorus of shouts; Lilitu stood up to see people rushing over to the tent and the dead bodies. The date-lady was with them, but Lilitu heard footsteps coming up behind her, and saw Zeyd running towards her.
"All you all right?" he cried.
"Did he say anything to you?" Zeyd asked.
"He asked if I'd been bad," she replied. "Who was he?"
"A wizard," Zeyd replied. "Black Anarite. They shave their heads like that."
"Then they were all Anarites," Lilitu said, wondering why they'd been fighting each other.
"Yes," Zeyd said, clearly puzzled too.
The date lady came up and stroked Lilitu's head. "You poor dear," she said. "Look at you shaking like that."
"He had terrible eyes," Lilitu said.
Later that night, while her mother was washing her, Lilitu, leaning over the side of the sunken bath, said: "I thought I'd never stop shaking."
Scrubbing her shoulders, Rahminah replied: "You have, though."
"I'm going to have nightmares."
"I shouldn't wonder."
"I don't think I'm ever going back by those caravans," Lilitu went on.
"I can see how you wouldn't want to," Rahminah said. "And we won't make you, of course."
After a long pause, Lilitu said: "Kind of a shame, though."
"I did enjoy talking to those foreign children, and learning all the words."
"Well," Rahminah said, "I'd be very surprised if we had any more wizard's duels anytime soon."
"Master Zeyd told me that the Anarites live far away, in the mountains. And that they sell slaves."
"They're very bad men," Rahminah said.
"Because they sell slaves?''
''We have slaves."
"But we don't sell them."
"Father does, sometimes."
"But that's not his trade. In fact, he doesn't have a trade.''
"He's a Protector of Figs."
"Who does he protect the figs from?"
"Do bandits steal figs?"
Rahminah laughed. "If they're hungry enough."
"Is fig a dirty word?" Lilitu asked, having heard something to that effect.
"Not exactly," Rahminah answered. "But it can be used in dirty ways."
"You ask too many questions," Rahminah said.
"Can I sleep with you tonight?"
"Father won't mind?"
"I think not. He loves you very much. He was very upset when he heard what happened, as you know. And besides...''
"He'll do what you say?"
"He's no match for mommy," mommy said, a trifle sadly.
Lilitu did indeed have bad dreams that night, and for the next several weeks, but once they faded, she felt somewhat braver, and after repeated assurances by her mother and everyone else that she had very little chance of ever finding herself in the middle of another wizard's duel, she began visiting the caravans again, with Zeyd and Zufir. Between her lessons and her books, and listening and speaking with the foreigners, she learned tongue after tongue; eventually Hamid came to rely on her as an interpreter. With all the traffic through the oasis, there was no shortage of work for her, but she found it all consistently fascinating, and was thrilled to be doing such important things for her father.
By then, however, she'd reached the ripe age of twelve; in spite of her value as a translator, Hamid began to think about finding a husband for her, preferably one from a family that outranked his own. His chance came when Sawaliyeh was visited by a company of horsemen commanded by Fahrd Al-Fahrdoun, lord of the much larger oasis of Aqarrah and a Protector of Figs and Dates. Having been out pursuing one Toghril Toqta, a Naiman brigand who was beginning to earn quite a name for himself, Fahrd had had the eminent good fortune of never catching up with him, the pursuit cut short by physical complaints from Fahrd Junior, who hadn't wanted to come in the first place; Hamid insisted that Fahrd sample his hospitality.
While Hamid's physician saw to the younger Fahrd, the Protector of the Figs and the Protector of the Figs and Dates went leopard hunting in the rocky hills northeast of Sawaliyeh; after a week of being eluded, they were drinking and laughing under the stars when Fahrd mentioned that his son needed a wife, and Hamid concluded that Fahrd would make an excellent father in-law for Lilitu, in spite of the fact that his son was such a dubious excuse for a young man.
"What do you think of my daughter?" Hamid asked, looking up at the constellation known as Abdullah's Leg.
"Beautiful child," Fahrd replied, then laughed: "Certainly doesn't take after you!"
Hamid had, of course, heard that many times. "But what do you think?"
"Of my Fahrd marrying her?"
The elder Fahrd laughed. "Do you have something against her?"
"I'm very fond of her," Hamid said. "Don't you like your son?"
"He'd make a good doorstop."
"He's not that bad."
Fahrd took a gulp of wine. "If you say so."
"It would be a good union, your family and mine. Aqarrah and Sawaliyeh, both in the same hands.''
"A tempting thought," Fahrd said. "Let me sleep on it."
"Take your time," Hamid said.
The following day, the hunting-party, leopardless, said farewell to the hills, heading southwest towards the oasis, over the dunes; even as they reached the road that led to Hamid's fortified mansion, Fahrd agreed to the marriage.
Hamid held a great feast that night, having ordered his servants to make the preparations before departing. The banquet was held in the mansion's main courtyard, with the guests seated on cushions around tinned copper trays six feet across, rimmed at the edges and filled with buttered rice mixed with pieces of succulent lamb; tucked down between the rice and rims were medallions of round flatbread. There were also pastries and small honeyed fowl, and to wash everything down, an abundance of excellent wine, all of this accompanied by spirited work from musicians Hamid had hired from the local inn, although Rahminah, loathe to remind everyone of her past, had drawn the line at dancing-girls.
At length, Hamid stood up and toasted his guests, then announced he had an announcement to make.
"I'm not an eloquent man, so I'll keep it short," he said, tottering a bit---he had already drunk a great deal. "Fahrd Al-Fahrdoun is a splendid fellow, of excellent lineage, and a peerless huntsman. We never lost the trail. Why, with these very eyes---" He indicated them with two fingers. "---I saw leopard-spoor that couldn't have been more than a day old...'' He paused, swaying. "Where was I?"
"I don't know," said Rahminah beside him. In truth, she had no idea of where he was going with this.
"Ah yes," he went on at last. "No more beating about the bush. I feel I've found a brother in Fahrd Al-Fahrdoun---we should all be part of one splendid family, hunting leopards and admiring constellations. Anyway, Fahrd the Younger needs a wife, and my daughter is of a very marriageable age...''
Rahminah reached up and tugged Hamid's sleeve. He bent down towards her, and she whispered in his ear:
"What are you saying?"
He pulled loose and straightened, declaring: "What I'm saying is that Fahrd and I have agreed to the union of our great houses...''
Rahminah looked at Fahrd the younger, wincing at the sight of him. The youth was an eyesore pure and simple, tall but scrawny, slope-shouldered, pigeon-breasted, chinless and hook-nosed, his face generously speckled with whiteheads; she practically expected him to start drooling.
"Mother," said Lilitu.
Hearing the shock and grief in her voice, Rahminah couldn't even bring herself to turn, and instead, tugged on Hamid's sleeve again. This time he fell down next to her.
"You didn't discuss this with me," she whispered.
"It's settled," he replied.
She thrust her face almost up against his. "No."
On the other side of him, Fahrd leaned into view. "What's wrong?"
"I need to speak with my wife," Hamid replied.
"Does she have some say in this?" Fahrd asked.
"Of course not," Hamid answered.
"Come on," Rahminah answered, standing, pulling Hamid up off the cushions.
"What sort of family do you have here?" Fahrd called as Rahminah dragged her husband from the courtyard.
As Lilitu, filled with horror at the thought of marrying Fahrd Ben-Fahrd, trailed at a distance, Hamid shook free of Rahminah's grip once more, demanding:
"Where are we going, exactly?"
"Upstairs," Rahminah replied.
They went to their chamber and closed the door, but the latch didn't catch, and the door opened, just a bit; as she stole along the corridor, Lilitu heard them snarling at each other. Going up to the crack, she looked inside just in time to see Hamid slap her mother across the cheek.
Rahminah staggered; her eyes flared and she looked as though she'd strike him back---Lilitu suspected she might well be able to best him, since he was drunk, far from fit, and rather a coward in her estimation. But Rahminah only put the back of her hand to her cheek and said:
"You should've told me."
"I saw my chance and took it,'' Hamid said. "It's a fine match."
Rahminah laughed scornfully. "Fahrd's son wouldn't be a fine match for a maggot, let alone my daughter."
"He's sickly. If she can get a son by him before he dies---"
"I assure you, "Rahminah said, "Fahrd's packing up even as we speak...''
Hamid cursed and started towards the door. Lilitu flattened herself against the wall. The door swung open, striking her; she heard him rush past. Then, after a few moments, she went out from behind it and into her parents' chamber. Her mother was sitting on the bed; she looked up as Lilitu approached. Lilitu said:
"You're not going to let him marry me to that...that...''
"I think I may have spoiled it for him," Rahminah said. Lilitu sat down next to her, and Rahminah put her arm around her, gathering her close against her side.
Lilitu heard a great deal of shouting; it was some time before her father returned.
"Get out," he said, and she scurried from the room, but paused outside, the door ajar again.
"He's going," He told Rahminah. "He called me an idiot, and said I'll be an even bigger idiot if I don't divorce you."
"I'm sorry," Rahminah said.
"No you're not," Hamid said. "This is just what you wanted, and just what I get for allowing you to keep me under your thumb, you filthy whore."
"Stop it," Rahminah replied.
"I should've had you stoned," he said.
Stoned? Lilitu wondered. For what?
"You don't mean it," Rahminah said.
"You're the one reading the scriptures all the time," Hamid went on. "What do they say?"
"I'm not the same person," she answered.
"Oh yes you are," he said.
"All I did just now was ruin your little plan.''
"I was trying to do her a wonderful favor, and you rubbed my nose in shit in front of fifty people."
"She doesn't need a marriage to a pimply hideous half-wit...''
"She'd be lucky if all she ever got was the crumbs from my table!" Hamid cried. "But she's done far better than that. I've housed her, fed her, loved her. Paid for Master Zufir and that other fellow. And after all that I put into her, you stab me in the back ..."
"I divorce thee," he said.
"You don't want to do that---"
"I divorce thee---"
Before he could say it the third and final time she broke in:
There was a long dead silence.
"You think I humiliated you tonight?" Rahminah asked. "Just wait until everyone hears that she's not your child."
What was that? Lilitu thought. She'd always wondered why she looked so completely unlike Hamid, but her mother had always assured her that she took after certain very-eastern-looking relatives on her side of the family...stunned, Lilitu was vaguely aware of Rahminah continuing:
"Don't give me that look. I'm not a good woman, and you wanted me anyway. It was a bad bargain, but you made it. You swallowed it all, and as nearly as I can tell, you were still happy. Well, you're the weakling in this marriage. If you had a spine, you wouldn't be in this situation. Don't push me. I'll do what I have to do."
Barely breathing, Lilitu sat dumbfounded.
"Go ahead, tell," Hamid said, after a time. "No one will think less of me. Not now. Everyone's known. It was obvious from the start. All you have to do is look at her."
Rahminah was stopped by this at first. But then she rallied: "Oh, but husband, I could tell everything. I didn't just do it with Urugtai. And I didn't stop after Lilitu was born. People will be laughing about you for the next hundred years."
He said quietly: "I should kill you right now."
"Am I to believe you'd do it yourself? All these years, and you never exposed me to the law...what's changed?"
"You humiliated me...''
"You're a master at being humiliated. You've had so much practice. What does it matter if you've gotten a bit more? Things will return to normal. And my daughter will not be married to Fahrd Ben- Fahrd."
There was a heavy finality in her words; it was plain to Lilitu that her mother had the upper hand, decisively, and that Fahrd the Younger was a dead issue.
But Lilitu felt neither relief nor gratitude; there was only shock. She felt cold and weak, as though she were being drained of blood. Her father, whom she truly loved, even if he was a weakling, wasn't her father; her mother, whom she loved a great deal more, was an adulteress.
And you, she told herself, Are a wretched hopeless little bastard…
Eyes brimming, she turned and made for her room.