Córdoba, Al-Andalus, 954 CE
Soon, if she followed through with her training, Dima would need to find another singer to assist her performances. If such people even existed in Pamplona, the kingdom far North and nestled in the mountains of her beautiful country. It was in a place she had never been permitted to travel to because they had been locked in war with the cousins of the Caliph, her shrewd, fearless leader. How strange it was to Dima that men bound by blood and desire, yet separated by kingdom, could unleash fire and steel, arrows and destruction upon those caught in the middle. She said a silent prayer of thanks then while she thought about the years of worry she had already navigated. Worry for her lord Jalal, her benefactor, and the men he commanded. She had been hard-pressed to watch him depart.
Now, things were calm again in the city. They had been victorious and would maintain that balance in another way if Dima could follow through with this blasted audition. She sighed at the thought of missing a note, or stuttering, or — worst of all, tripping in front of everyone and disgracing herself completely.
“Enough, Dima,” she grumbled to herself. “You have done this in practice and in practical application. This is no different than when you performed for the Caliph himself, and he smiled. You can surely handle his —”
Dima’s grumblings were interrupted by two swift knocks upon her door. Odd, she thought at this hour, before the palace rose to action. It might be Yasmin, the eldest princess and her best pupil, come to go over her questions for today’s lesson. She rose and wrapped herself in a shawl, finally taking notice of the chill in the air of the rapidly approaching dawn. The call to prayer would soon sound, and then she would be off to prepare for her audition.
Dima felt her heart clench at the thought — soon, Yasmin would have to continue her studies on her own. The duty of training the younger girls would also fall to Yasmin. Her hand stilled upon the handle of the door. Would life continue on without her, she wondered, if she ignored the call on the other side? Or could things pause – just for a moment or two – to afford her a little more time? She shook away the thought. Waiting never did anyone any good in her world. So, she opened the door with a sight that almost toppled her over into a scream.
“Azad, what are you doing here?” Dima hissed.
He had the audacity to smirk at the look of panic clouding her features. He leaned against the frame looking as devilish as ever, wearing a simple linen tunic over cream-colored trousers, holding a bag full of something Dima couldn’t see. And he wasn’t wearing shoes. However, the most suspicious thing of all was how early he was awake. Azad rarely got up before her, and never looked human before their morning prayers and meal. Dima’s hand went to her hip as it often did with the prince, and he smiled even wider. She was already on guard and he hadn’t even spoken yet.
“Whatever it is, I don’t want to help,” she said, trying not to alert anyone that he was at her door.
“Is that all you think of me, Dima? I’ll have you know I do much more than cause trouble,” he smirked.
Dima could tell he was lying and thought of slamming the door in his face, but she could not get her hand to follow the direction of her mind. Taking note of her hesitation, Azad pressed on before she could turn him away and go back to her warm bed where she was safe from his dastardly machinations.
“I have a surprise for you, that’s all. Mother has you busy with many tasks, preparing for the arrival of our guests, and I merely wanted to give you a gift before your… departure.”
There was something in the way his breath hitched when he said that word — departure. Would he miss her, she wondered? Dima groaned at his manipulative tactics. She was aware that he knew how much she loved spending time with him, and she shouldn’t have been surprised he would use her devotion to him against her. Still, he had a point — their time having fun had all but come to a halt as of late, with her training, and duties as a tutor. Most days they both went to sleep without even seeing one another, ghosts floating just out of reach of one another. She pulled her bottom lip between her teeth while she debated the possible outcomes. None of them were bad enough to keep her away from Azad, especially when he looked at her with his earnest eyes and wiggling brow.
“Alright. But you have to promise we will come straight back here without incident! I still feel guilty for what we did to Hasdai last year,” she clipped.
Azad let out a deep chuckle at the memory. They had strung honey along the poor man’s door, floor, and chair in his office, much to their amusement, but not his. Dima had been forced to practice writing in Greek for hours on end until he was satisfied that she truly felt sorry. As per usual, Azad got away with minimal punishment, if one could call it that. Dima still bristled at the thought of Azad getting to spend a day cataloging a shipment of exotic animals.
“I promise you,” he soothed and reached out to squeeze her hand.
And that was her undoing. That sweet contact, his warm palm. She swallowed hard, pushing down the feelings swirling in her belly. It was only a gift, after all, not a proposal.
“Let me get dressed, then we can go. And you had better make this quick! I’ve got to have your sisters up and dressed in a few hours, and I still need to prepare myself for my audition today,” she said.
“Yes, my lady,” he smirked, bowing with flair at her authoritative tone. “I’ll have you back with time to spare. And don’t wear shoes,” he added. “Someone might hear your stomping.”
Dima rolled her eyes at his teasing, then closed the door. The way he made her feel was becoming more and more inconvenient as they neared the end of youth and the beginning of life outside the palace. Even when they went days without contact, she still felt a rush in her bones at the simple mention of his name. Dima would never understand how one person could at once tangle and straighten the strings of her heart, and yet there he stood.
“Steady, Dima,” she warned herself. This was no time for her to lose her wits.
Five minutes later, after throwing on her scarf, trousers, and tunic, then checking her reflection in her mirror, Dima found herself walking as lightly as possible next to Azad. The hallways were lit by suspended candlelight, which danced off the white stone floors. Each flicker of light curved across their bodies, casting long shadows down the corridor, sending a shiver across Dima’s neck. As they passed through the columns of the palace something caught her eye, stalling her steps. She peered through the darkness in the direction of the shadow that disappeared, certain she had seen someone. When Azad tugged at her sleeve, pulling her from the trance, she followed behind him.
The prince led her through his father’s palace to the south end, where a team of architects had been working in the library for days to produce plans for the ruler’s newest expansion project. Dima could tell it had been quite the undertaking, as she had witnessed a few of the architects stumbling about the palace, exhausted and barely coherent. She might have laughed if not for her own weary body. They were all, it seemed, on edge.
“So,” she finally spoke once she was certain no one was near, “what do you have in the bag?”
Azad smiled without looking at her and kept walking. She noticed him switch the bag from his right arm, where she was, to his left and out of her view.
“Just a little surprise.”
“Hmm,” Dima hummed, doing her best to hide the misgivings tightening her spine. “Two surprises in one morning? Wherever did you find the time for such planning?”
His secrecy rarely bode well for her in the past, yet she trusted him despite their brushes with disaster. Through it all, Dima was determined to forgive Azad. That loyalty mystified her and often left her feeling foolish. Eulie called it childhood love, her lord Jalal called it a death wish. Dima thought the answer lay somewhere in the middle, near insanity. For all her learning and devotion to education, this was one puzzle she had yet to crack. Perhaps the reason had something to do with the way the light hit his eyes in springtime, or his habit of nail-biting carried over from their youth. If Dima were willing to investigate deeper, she might find a reason most uncomfortable, rooted in her own loneliness. Best not to go down that road, she thought.
“Well, I hope the surprise isn’t going to get me exiled this time,” she added after a beat.
He didn’t answer one way or the other, which made Dima more nervous. Still, she followed him past the courtyard and around the palace. They walked in silence until they rounded a corner and stumbled upon a pair of guards struggling to stay awake. Azad pushed Dima back against the wall in a hurry, holding a finger to his lips to silence her gasp. She held her breath while they watched the two young men leaning against the shining stone pillars of their post, jolting here and there after a snore.
“What now?” Dima mouthed to Azad.
He held up his hand, signaling for her to wait, then crouched down low pulling Dima along with him. She frowned at his poor planning and her poor judgment.
“I should have stayed in bed,”she grumbled.
Azad looked around until his eyes fell on a stray pebble against the wall and smirked in triumph. He seized the stone and, looking around the corner to see his target, threw the rock as far as he could until it clattered down the hallway. The sleepy guards snapped to attention, clambering over each other to rush toward the noise.
“Hurry, we won’t have much time now.”
He pulled Dima toward their goal: the entrance to the royal library. His smug look of satisfaction that they hadn’t been seen might have annoyed Dima if he weren’t so dashing when he did it.
“Alright, Dima, on the count of three I want you to open the door. Got it?” He instructed.
Dima nodded and grabbed hold of the handles to the large double wooden doors with her back to Azad.
“One,” he began counting, reaching into the bag to grab a handful of what he’d hidden, “two, three!”
Dima hadn’t been able to decipher what Azad carried before, but once the doors were thrown open and she saw the eggs he let loose, her stomach fell. He had lied, again, and to her face. Her world began to spin as the men inside yelled and ducked down, frantic in their attempts to protect their work. Azad had finally done it. He had ruined her life with his duplicity.
“Run! Dima, come on!”
Azad hollered out to his companion, then turned to run around a pillar.
Dima ran down the corridor as fast as her bare feet could carry her. The nervous sweat on her brow caught in the wind of her movement and whipped off in streams; her lady-in-waiting would kill her once she discovered how her charge had decided to spend the morning. The glow of dawn light was beginning to cut through the stained glass of the hallway in blue and golden tones, meant to relax those who walked the path, but she felt no sense of calm as she fled.
It had taken years for Dima to earn the status of a respected member of the court, no thanks to the young man who had tricked her out of bed. Years of work, of mending, of duty, became irrelevant with every frantic step she let fall behind Azad. Dima was supposed to be setting a good example for the younger girls. Instead, she had decided to listen to him. And he had lied to her.
“I am such a fool!” She chastised herself as she strained to keep pace with Azad’s longer strides.
Her youth was spent getting roped into intrigue with Azad. He was always getting her into some sort of trouble when she was too young to decline his charms and devilish plans. His face had excited her once, the way he smirked after a good prank. Now, Dima wished she had listened to her instincts when he appeared at her door, barefoot and wearing a warm smile. His dark, curly hair flopped around his head as they darted down a side corridor. Dima kept her eyes trained on the flutter of his linen tunic. Under normal circumstances, he wore silken robes in blue tones, embroidered with golden birds and trees along the hem and sleeves, that hypnotized Dima. In that moment, she was thankful for the plain clothes he wore that couldn’t distract her.
The breeze he created pushed his scent into her nostrils and, although she fought to keep breathing normally, it knocked her senses all around. Azad smelled of warm tea and ink — her favorite smells in the whole world. She was certain he was smiling as he ran. His honey-colored eyes shone the brightest when he caught someone unaware, which they had just done to a room full of scribes. Despite being a few short paces behind him, Dima knew without a doubt that he was smiling bright enough to keep her agreeing to whatever he wanted for the foreseeable future. Try as she might, it seemed she could only refuse his schemes so often.
“You two, stop at once!”
Dima turned back to see three men in royal garb chasing them — the two who had been struggling to stay awake as they crept through the palace, and a third who had joined the chase. Azad spun around, circled behind Dima, and threw a handful of eggs at the men with an athletic flourish that would have made anyone with a pulse swoon. His throw caught one in the jaw, another in the eye, and the youngest was cracked in the nose.
“Ow, oi, ah!” The three shrieked in pain.
They slipped on the yolks of the cracked eggs, flailing and spinning into one another before crashing into the white stone floors.
Dima stopped dead in her tracks to stare at the three men rolling about on the ground, painted over in yellow mush. She covered her mouth in absolute horror at the mess Azad had made of the hallway and her morning. When the prince turned to her with a devilish grin, she narrowed her eyes at him in a rage that he recognized all too well. Yet, Azad shrugged, unbothered by what he had done, and reached out for her ebony hand. He yanked her forward before she could scold him, running off to the exit they hoped would set them on the path to freedom: his brother, al-Hakam — the next in line to the throne.
Azad knew if he could get them to his brother before they were apprehended the punishment would be far less severe, if anything at all. Al-Hakam would reprimand him, surely, but later on, in the privacy of his study, he would have Azad recount the prank and they would laugh over tea at the silliness of it all. Their father, the Caliph, would be none the wiser. Besides, al-Hakam had often told Azad how much he reminded him of his own younger years, and he seemed proud that his baby brother possessed so much spirit and mischief.
“He will protect us,” Azad told himself as he dragged Dima further down the hall towards their safe haven.
Dima, on the other hand, knew that Azad had gone a step too far. Their prank was not something his brother would be able to overlook and hide from the Caliph as he had done time and time again. Today would be a real shock to Azad, she was sure of it.
“This is,” Dima gasped between steps as she ran beside Azad, “the very last time I will listen to you!”
Azad let out a wild laugh in his rumbling baritone with such force that it echoed through the glistening hallway. She might have throttled him if not for the fear and exhaustion coursing through every muscle in her body.
“No, it isn’t, Dima!” He shouted over the sound of their feet slamming beneath them. “You love getting into trouble with me!”
The pair rounded another turn in the hallway, where they finally saw the exit. The arched entryway was illuminated by the light of the rising morning sun, the palm trees just beyond the steps were swaying in the warm breeze, and the birds chirped lovely tunes from branch to branch. The rest of the world, Dima noticed, moved on without little care for their certain doom.
“Stop! Prince Azad, lady Dima!”
Dima whipped her head around to see the young guard who had regained his footing gaining on them, red-faced and sweating, with a glint of exhaustion in his eyes. Had she not been so out of breath she would have sighed at the young guard’s persistence. They were but a few paces from the exit into the courtyard, then they would be at the mercy of al-Hakam. Just a few more steps…
“That is quite enough,” called the only voice Dima knew Azad was wise enough to fear: his mother, Ghada. The two came to a quick halt a hair’s length from the most powerful woman in their little world. They both said a secret prayer for their heads to remain attached to their shoulders as she fumed at the trouble they had caused so early in her day.
The young guard who had managed to keep pace with Dima and Azad up to that point knelt in Ghada’s presence. Azad spared him a quick smirk before snapping back to attention before his mother. She looked from Azad to Dima, then back again without blinking.
“It is alright, Hatim,” Ghada motioned for the guard to stand. “I’ll take these two. You and the others can go back to your posts. There will be no more distractions,” she said.
The other two guards jogged up to join Hatim, disheveled and out of breath. Hatim turned to them with a sigh and put a hand on the elder guard’s shoulder. The man’s salt and pepper beard and brow were drenched with sweat from the chase. He dropped his head and turned back to follow Hatim along the corridor. Dima felt a pang of embarrassment mixed with the distinct taste of rage beginning to simmer in her throat. Azad had not delivered her to a gift, or a well-thought-out surprise; as usual, Azad had ruined her life, she was sure of it. If not for Ghada, she might have throttled him herself.
The tall, regal woman stood still as a pole, blocking the entrance to the courtyard. Her lovely features were pulled into a tight glare, full of enough rage to make any warrior crumble in shame. The morning breeze wafted through her white tunic and rustled the fabric of the golden silk veil covering her deep brown locks. Dima had never seen the woman’s body ratcheted up so severely, which worked to drain all the blood from her own dark face. Ghada was a woman few would challenge, a person everyone in the women’s quarters respected for her calm decisiveness, and who was second only to the Caliph’s principal wife, Murjan. Thanks to the two hellions before her, she appeared to be closer than ever to losing her carefully crafted composure. Where al-Hakam was forgiving of their exploits, Ghada stood firm. Dima knew without a doubt that their days of skating by with a light sentence were over and that only one of them would be prepared for it.
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