Drama Historical Fiction Adventure

1200 A.D. , Near the Ural mountains: 

Princess Emzadokht paced up and down, inside a pristine white tent, clenching her fist and crumpling a piece of paper. It was her first ever attempt at poetry. The opening of the tent, embroidered with dragons and djinns, fluttered slightly. She was relieved that they had finally left the treacherous desert behind and had camped near a turquoise blue lake, nestled between the grey-green undulating hills.

“How is my Lady feeling today?” Rubina, her chambermaid, stooped in a low curtsey and stood at the entrance. She was carrying Emza’s peacock blue ceremonial robes in one hand and a wooden box of jewels in another. Her entire demeanor was that of subservience and humility, save for a slightly curved mouth and her cheeks pulling up near her large, hooked nose.

“Aargh, Rubina, you infernal pest. How can you taunt me like this, today? You know very well that my nerves are a mess.” Emza sprang from her cushioned seat and marched towards her childhood friend.

Emza was the eldest daughter born to the Grand Vizier of Cicylus, the Great. At 16 years of age, she possessed one of the quickest minds and sharpest swords in the kingdom and had travelled far and wide, on some of the finest horses ever bred--her favourite being her chestnut brown mare, Nasim.

But her father's growing influence over the emperor had sparked a deadly court conspiracy. Fleeing the Emperor's soldiers, the Vizier's entire household disappeared just in time before their arrest and eventual execution. Making their way out of the citadel, they had travelled two weeks in the harsh, desolate desert, fighting poisonous snakes, hunger and thirst. 

Emza took comfort in the fact that her childhood companion, Rubina was not among the people she had to leave behind.

“How have I erred? I was only obey--” Before Rubina could complete her sentence, Emza had grabbed her by the arm and pulled her inside.

“Is it true? Has the neighbouring kingdom agreed to include Father in their court in exchange for my hand in marriage?” Emza picked at the fraying ends of the long sleeve of her camel-skin cloak.

The Vizier’s household had reached one end of the desert that brushed up with the prosperous town of Umshbeg. Taking two of his guards with him, the Vizier visited the city, hoping to make a favorable impression. Not only was he treated with due respect, but was also offered a prospective position in Umshbeg’s royal court, by virtue of being the new Queen’s father.

The only catch was that Umshbeg was a cultural hotbed of poets, writers, artists and architects. The King was known to be a great patron of arts and would only marry someone with an equally refined taste. While princess Emza had many talents, art and poetry were not among them. Her royal tutors had given up after a basic level of education and Emza had happily complied, as well. She always thought that with a sword in her hand and Nasim on her command, she could rule the world. What difference did a few rhyming words make?

All the difference, it turned out. With Nasim locked up in the royal stables thousands of miles away, her mother sick and infirm and hands that were too weak to lift a sword, Emza found that she only had one chance at poetry to survive, along with the rest of her family.

Emza’s hand shivered as she took out a parchment of paper and read out to Rubina, her immature attempt at a poem. “Listen I wrote this last night. It isn’t great but I think it will do for a good first impression.” 

"I come from the land of a million snakes- sorry that was supposed to be lakes," Emza hunched over the paper, scratching furiously with her ebony tipped pen. 

"From the land of a million lakes

I come with gifts of pearls and itr

Bowing before the ruler of Umshbeg

Whose greatness knows no bounds, whatsoever."

She nervously glanced up to see Rubina calmly sowing a brooch on her blue robe. On hearing the princess stop her recital, Rubina looked up for a moment.

"I would suggest leaving out ‘Umshbeg’. The King is going to send in his ministers first, and then we will be granted permission to enter the court. The person testing you might assume that you are mocking the King for being a mere chieftain." Then she went back to her work.

Emza considered abusing her for a second. Then her thoughts turned to the crisis at hand and her stomach churned. The exhaustion of their desert exile and the uncertainty of the future had made her temper more volatile and her voice more brittle.

"You must be exceptionally stupid, Rubina. Do you not understand the brevity of the situation? If this match is not successful, all of us will die here and now. They will probably arrive with their troops in tow, and if they measure us as savage, desert nomads, we will be burnt to ashes."

"Are you saying that you will give up without a fight?" Rubina asked, this time without lifting up her eyes.

"No!" Emza blurted out. But she was not sure anymore. "This is not just about me. There are 10 of us. At the most I can fight for 2 people. Do I not have the responsibility of protecting all those who have been faithful to my father?"

Her handiwork completed, Rubina laid out the robe which sparkled in the crystal clear sunlight of the mountains. "Those who choose loyalty are not afraid of death. They are afraid of their trust being broken." Her hooded eyes glimmered with resolution.

A trumpet blew up loudly at a distance and the thin air carried the sharp, jarring sound faithfully to the two women inside the tent. 

"That must be the Umshbeg ruler and his troops. Listen carefully, how many horses do you hear?" 

Both of them placed their ears to the ground, listening to the thudding noises getting louder and louder. They looked each other in the eye.

"I would say not more than fifteen." Emza's sun-burnt brown face hardened into its sharp angles.

Rubina nodded in agreement. "Twenty at the most."

A long, hefty shadow approached towards Princess Emza's tent, reaching deeper and deeper into it. Both the women scuttled off into their appropriate positions--Emza claiming the entire cushioned seat of her own and Rubina sitting on the granite floor, head bowed.

It was Dastafur Mimli, the only member of the eunuch guard who had accompanied them, deserting his royal position. "The ruler of Umshbeg has sent an envoy of his wisest Ministers to greet us. The princess' presence will be requested. I humbly ask her to greet them with the full glory of her father's name."

"Send the message that I am willing." Emza forgot to add the necessary courtesies and forms of address that she had been taught in the court of Cicylus the Great. Mimli bowed out without complaint.The man's six feet 7 frame was probably the only one that had not been broken down by the intensity of their misfortune. She had vague memories of riding horseback on his now stooped back, but was too intimidated to talk informally to him like she did with Rubina.

Emza stepped out, draped in a shimmering veil with honeysuckle flowers embroidered on delicate twirls of gold thread. With Dastafur Mimli in the lead and Rubina trooping behind her, she walked with a heavy heart, dreading the moment when her disastrous poetry would upset the Umshbeg ruler and everything would be lost. As the trio marched down the jagged granite face of the mountain, Emza saw the Umshbeg’s royal procession, winding their way up with flags of red and gold, fluttering boldly.

Had this been war, Emza realised, their position higher up in the mountains would have given them advantage over the people from the plateau. But with just 10 people, any idea of mounting an attack was suicide. Nevertheless, she quickened her pace and inched closer to Mimli. Addressing him properly this time, she spoke out, “Chief Mimli, you must have considered all other options of negotiating with these city people, haven’t you?”

“My ladyship, your father, the Grand Vizier is a very intelligent man. His powers of observation and strategy won him the respect of the Emperor and what made me and many others pledge our life long devotion to him. Trust his decisions and you will never have to worry.”

Emza thought about her mother and her sisters, in the other tents. They, who had never known any food except for the most delicious fruits and the softest of breads, were writhing in hunger and pain. 

“But his knowledge and wisdom couldn’t save him from being stabbed in the back, could they? If he was indeed so wise, why would his household be begging around for a place to live when his enemies enjoy the luxuries of the royal court?” Mimli did not reply and Emza wished she had her tunic and boots instead of the suffocating bridal robe. “I think we should kidnap this convoy and hold them hostage. When the ministers of Umshbeg plead for their lives, we can strike a useful bargain.”

Finally, Dastafur Mimli answered. “Princess Emza, have you forgotten the virtues of your life so easily? Have a few days of the desert sun warped all your ideas of right and wrong? The Umshbeg people have arrived in peace and they trust us to give them their future queen. When we ourselves are hurting from the poison sting of treachery, how can you think of such base cunningness?” He had not raised his voice by even half a note. But his reproach, not unlike the hard glint of the neighbouring mountains, was enough to command silence and bring a few tears into Emza’s eyes. She thought of her mother, suffering from the heat and bedridden. Of Nasim, her lost companion. A few more tears glistened in her eyes but never made their way down. 

Slowly, but surely they made it to the meeting point where the grand vizier was welcoming the envoy. He ushered their leader into his own brown tent and Emza was sent in with a final word from her father. “Emzadokht, do not let us down.” Before she was sent to the other side of a hand-painted paper screen, she caught a glimpse of the envoy head. He was an old man dressed in carmine red robes, his long white beard tied up in beads of lapis lazuli, near his chest. As she sat down, Emza wondered whether it was a good thing or bad that the ruler of Umshbeg had not decided to meet her in person.

“Beautiful Princess Emzadokht, I bring you greetings from the prosperous land of Umshbeg. The news of your dizzying beauty has spread like wildfire in the royal court. I assure you, at this very moment, our royal poets are comparing your slightly swaying hips to filled wine pitchers and your firm breasts to the sweetest pomegranates that grow in our farms.”

It was true that Emza’s mother, the Grand Vizier’s third wife, was a stunning beauty but she had inherited none of that. While she wasn’t ugly, she resembled her father more. With a towering frame, broad shoulders and sinewy limbs, Emza could not really be described as a ‘dizzying beauty’. She neither had swaying hips nor pomegranate breasts. She was more likely to be carved in stone than immortalized in soft watercolors. 

‘I would have to be really good with the verses’, Emza hoped fervently.

“From the land of a m-m-million snakes--” Emza bit her tongue to stop her stammering.

“Did the beautiful princess speak to me?” The court minister has an annoyingly musical voice which further mocked Emza’s absolute ineptitude in this war of words.

Her father’s last words echoed in her head and she bravely started out on a second attempt. She was not going to let her people down. “From the land--”

“Aargh!” A man’s guttural shriek pierced the silence like a thousand daggers. Emza’s hand automatically went to her waistband. To her great surprise, she found her faithful sword hidden under her purple robes. Almost instantly, the paper screen in front of her was slashed apart and the court minister burst through, charging at her like a mad elephant.

“Stop!” Emza shrieked, throwing off her veil. By the time her sword was halfway out, the minister had clambered on top of her and wrestled her to the ground. His putrid, sweet smell poisoned the fresh mountain air as he breathed down her neck. 

“I am not looking for a wife anymore, I have enough of those. You…...are so much more enticing.” He laughed sickeningly, and pressing himself down on her further, he rasped, “Mine.”

With a mad neigh, one of the ponies from the convoy rushed into the tent, uprooting it from its pegs. Emza seized the moment and pulled out from beneath the man. With a swift sharp kick on his nose, she brought him down. Grabbing him by the beard, she slammed his head three times in succession on the hard, abrasive floor. The pony kicked her in the chest, making her head swim for a moment but she did not let loose her hold. As shouts and screams echoed around her, she felt a heat flood her. The man beneath her was grimacing and thrashing.

“You are the ruler of Umshbeg? You rotting, piece of scum from the Tigris river bed?” Emza’s voice broke. When the man murmured against the floor, she vented all the rage of the past three weeks by slicing her sword across his back. “Answer me or die!” 

“Aaargh,” he screamed, “Yes. Forgive me, this was just a joke.” The man was now bleeding and sobbing. “W-We thought it was a good joke to play…. on a Vizier thrown out of his ruler’s court. Th-this was just a joke. I promise you many many treasures if you let me go, I s-swear on my royal throne.”

Somebody had tamed the pony and the madness outside had subsided. Emza bound up her ex-suitor and dragged him outside. Mimli was standing near a dozen corpses, most of which looked like his handiwork, alone. Her father was crouching and looking around nervously, waiting for more soldiers to arrive. Rubina walked up to her, her face, weather beaten and sliced across the forehead. “How is my Lady doing?”

Emza looked over to her prisoner, and said, “We have been duped. They were never planning to marry me to the Umshbeg king. In fact, this is the Umshbeg king.” She and Rubina finally tied him up to one of the bare tent poles.

“Not anymore,” Mimli hobbled up to Emza’s father. “In my humble opinion, we have found not only a royal court but also the royalty.” He leaned slightly on his sword and looked at Emza. “But my views don’t count for anything if his Highness, the Vizier doesn’t agree.”

Rubina edged closer to Emza and whispered into her ear, “I think you would make a rather blood-thirsty ruler.” 

“Beats poetry anyday.” Emza smirked as heat throbbed in her veins, melting the metal of the sword on her hand and she felt one with her destiny.

July 17, 2020 04:41

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