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A King's Duty

 
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Safiya Teliran
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PostPosted: Fri Jun 22, 2018 3:26 am    Post subject: A King's Duty Reply with quote

June, 1617

"All reverence to Nasir, first of his name, King of Valentia!"

The palace square in Iska rang with the herald's words, announcing the ascension of the exiled nephew to the former king's empty throne. The people, wary of repercussions following the mob's behavior within the palace itself on the night of the old king's death, sang the new king's praises with as much hope and joy as they dared. Would he punish, or pardon? How long would they have to wait until they knew for sure?

Curious eyes turned to the balcony high above, a place that was known to be close to the king's own chambers; other eyes turned toward the Palace of Pearls, in which the harem had been gathered once again. They all knew the new king's mother had taken charge, had repopulated the harem after the attack. They all knew Lady Shahista would have more than a little influence on the policies her son implemented in the days and weeks to come. Yet more were curious about the presence of Carib Horse Lords, and the High King's son, Prince Felipe. Pomerania's hand stretched across the continent, reinforcing their king's place on his new throne, reminding Valentia of their former fealty and of the strength of the Goddess through her Church. It would be a fool who pushed back, especially after watching the way Carib had been brought to heel.

Within the palace itself, in the grand hall where court was held and governance took place, Prince Felipe stood behind the throne of the new king, one hand resting lightly on the sword at his hip. His eyes scanned the room, noting those who seemed nervous, those who seemed too bold. There were too many men here, he thought, grateful for the presence of the eight Horse Lords who stood guard alongside the Valentin guardsmen. Too many men whose allegiance was unclear. They had to discover the heretics here in the palace in short order, or Nasir would not long be in control of his own land.

Without realizing it, Felipe found himself glancing upward, toward the screened gallery above, behind which Lady Shahista and her lady-companion watched the court below. Yes, if she could surround her son with men loyal to him and to the Church, then Felipe would feel confident to leave. He had faith in Nasir, despite the man's lack of training for the role he now filled. There was a certain fire in him that reminded the Pomeran prince of his older brothers.

As for Nasir, though he might look the part, he did not so much feel it; and though he might look confident sitting there on what had until recently been his uncle's throne, he did not feel confident. If it were not for the guards and the Horse Lords flanking him, he would feel naked. Though he could not say he grieved his uncle's death, he had been told of the atrocities that had followed and could not help but wonder how far the heretics were willing to go to secure control of Valentia. Would they dare raise a hand against him or his mother? Not now, perhaps, but later? He had come to know Felipe during the journey here, as well as in Carib, and was happy to call him friend, but how were they going to root out the traitors and bring them to justice? That was the first problem at hand. Once they solved that, perhaps there could be peace. Perhaps he could learn to be a good king to his people. Perhaps.

Aaron Shanin, one of the few men Nasir could be absolutely confident of, approached the throne, bowing low before his king as the murmur of voices came to a halt.

"Majesty," he intoned, his voice low but piercing, "the people fear reprisals for the attack on the palace. What are your orders, that they may be told who must fear and who must not?"

Nasir frowned at the question, not because he was not sure how to answer but because he needed his people to know that he took the attacks seriously and that he would not tolerate any further such violence in the future.

"Attack is not a strong enough word for the atrocities which took place here in Iska." He moved slowly to his feet, so that he could look out on his people and have them know that he was not someone to be trifled with, no matter how inexperienced he might be. "Let it be known that I, King Nasir of Valentia, will not tolerate such violence against my people. Only those who are guilty of such atrocities need fear reprisal, but let them be warned - we will find those responsible and they will receive their just punishments."

Felipe was watching the nervous men of the government as Nasir spoke. Several of them blanched, glanced tellingly toward the bolder men. He caught the eye of Erkan Fehr, and the older man nodded. He'd seen it, too. Those men would be questioned, later.

"It shall be proclaimed, majesty," Aaron Shanin declared, bowing to the king before turning to pass word to the herald outside.

Felipe bent to speak quietly to Nasir. "There are too many enemies in here," he murmured. "Do what needs to be done and return to the security of your quarters, or the Palace of Pearls. Your loyalists know who to target next."

Perhaps it was foolish to make such a declaration in public so soon after being crowned King, but Nasir needed his enemies to know that he would not tolerate any further violence. He needed them to know that the guilty parties would be found and dealt with, whether that put his own life in danger or not. He had put his life in the hands of those he trusted in order to flush out the heretics, and it seemed from the looks on a few faces in the crowd, they had accomplished just that.

Nasir's expression remained stoic as Felipe whispered in his ear. "Close the palace gates!" he ordered with an outward sweep of his hand. "No one leaves until the guilty parties are found," he said, in no uncertain terms.

There was an outcry from the men in the hall, a surge of movement toward the throne, but the guards, at least, were loyal to their king. The Valentin men drew their swords to hold back the surge as the Horse Lords blocked the way to the king; the sound of doors slamming open betrayed that other guards were moving to obey.

"Good," Felipe murmured. "They need to be separated and watched."

Nasir murmured an assent with a short nod of his head, but remained where he was, refusing to appear alarmed at the surge of movement toward the throne, confident those loyal to the throne would protect him. He had not been so brave or confident when he'd been exiled a few years ago, but he had been a different man then.

"This is dangerous, Felipe," he murmured quietly to his friend and ally. "We may have stirred a hornet's nest."

"Far better to sort the wheat from the chaff before it has a chance to take root," Felipe assured his friend. "Things will be tense for a week, perhaps a little longer. There will be executions. And while you and I are cleaning house in the palace and government, my brother's agents will be doing the same in the city." Stephan and Maksim's letter crinkled in his belt as he bowed a little lower. "We need you surrounded by friends and allies, and we will do it," he promised his friend. "Although your mother seems a little more determined that you breed as many of the concubines in the harem as you can."

"The sooner I produce an heir, the sooner we secure the throne," Nasir explained, though the thought of choosing from all the women his mother had chosen for him did very little to excite him. It was the way of his people, but the thought of impregnating as many of the harem as he could sounded exhausting.

"Let us hope Lady Shahista is as discerning with the harem as your people are with your court," Felipe murmured, watching as the hall finally began to calm. "Will you be visiting her in the Palace of Pearls now?" he asked softly. That was the one place he could not accompany the king - nor could any of the king's guards. Even the armed guards in the harem palace were female.

"If I do not, she will be offended. Do you know the saying, 'Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned'?" he asked, watching as the people in the hall calmed and quieted. "One does not scorn my mother and escape retribution, but she misses me. Perhaps she will go soft on me," he said, turning his head slightly toward Felipe with the faintest of smiles on his face.

"That does sound familiar," Felipe mused softly, a faint smile of his own showing in his eyes. "But then, my mother is your aunt, after all. They obviously learned it from the same woman."

"That they did," Nasir said, turning to Felipe and laying a hand on his shoulder, demonstrating to all who were paying attention his trust in this young man who not only his friend and ally, but his cousin. "I will leave you to it then, and see what intrigues my mother has planned," he said with a hint of amusement in his eyes, despite the gravity of the situation.
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Safiya Teliran
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PostPosted: Fri Jun 22, 2018 3:26 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Felipe's hand wrapped about the wrist of the hand Nasir placed on his shoulder, squeezing reassuringly. "Try to relax," he suggested. "I will not let anyone harm you."

"I am not as helpless as I seem, cousin," Nasir replied, though he appreciated both Felipe's concern and his attempt at reassurance. "And I am not afraid to do what must be done."

"Neither am I." Felipe's smile was understanding, though. Having to stand back and let others take action in his place would chafe him, too. "When the palace is secure, you can rest easier and I will step back, but for now, let them try to target me if they dare."

"I do not think your brothers would be very happy if they dared harm you," Nasir pointed out, purposely not taking a worried glance around as he turned to leave. Surrounded by loyal guards and Horse Lords, there was little fear of attack, and he needed to show his enemies he was not afraid.

"Which is why I'm here," Felipe told him, bowing to the king as he turned to leave. He, personally, intended to get out of the sealed palace and coordinate with Maksim's people in the city proper, but he didn't think Nasir needed to know that. At least, not until after it was done. Lady Shahista could distract the new king for a while, with luck.

It was probably a good thing Nasir didn't know what Felipe had planned, but he'd come to trust his cousin's judgment and didn't see any reason to ask. Confident the heretics would be dealt with, he made his way through the palace, but not before giving up the crown and robes into the safekeeping of a servant. That done, he went in search of his mother.

There were certain things about being the king he was going to have to get used to. Like being annouced every time he entered an area of the palace where anyone was, even his own mother. Admittedly, she was in the Palace of Pearls, where only he, as the king, was permitted - no other man could enter; even male children of the women there were evicted once they reached the age of sixteen. But it was the most secure part of the palace in Iska right now, and his mother had gone out of her way to make her rooms inviting and comfortable for her son.

She smiled as he entered, rising to curtsy before offering him her hands. "You look tired, Nasir."

Nasir frowned, not wanting her to see just how all of this was wearing on his nerves, but unable to hide it from the one person who knew him better than any other. "You needn't bow on my account, Mother," he said, taking her hands. It had been several years since he'd seen her, and though he didn't look much different than he had when he'd left, he had left a boy and returned a man.

"You are my king," she reminded him, raising her hand to his cheek affectionately. "And you will always be my beloved son." She opened her arms, hoping he would embrace her. Life under Clovis had not been easy, and they had endured the executions of his father and brothers together. She would forever be grateful that her youngest had been exiled instead.

Like the dutiful son he was, he accepted her embrace, offering one of his own, careful and guarded but with sincere affection. A lot had changed in three years, and though they hadn't been able to talk face-to-face, they had kept in touch via private courier without his uncle's knowledge. "I am alive and well, Mother. No need for worry."

"I will always worry," Shahista told him. "Come, sit, be comfortable." She nodded to her servant, who stepped back and began to lay small plates of enticing treats on the low table by the cushioned couches. "The guards will be busy in the main palace for some time. You have leisure, for now."

"Felipe is handling things there. He has become a good friend to me these past years," Nasir said, settling himself against the cushions to relax for perhaps the first time since his arrival.

"I am glad that Fate conspired to give you family close at hand," Shahista murmured, moving to sit beside him. "Everything has been tasted," she added, just to allay any concern about the food she offered. "Nasir ... a man alone presents a tempting target to his enemies."

He sighed, not because of the danger that could be posed simply by eating, but at the veiled hint that he produce an heir. "Mother, I have not been back more than a day. Perhaps I could have a few minutes to catch my breath before you have me impregnating half the harem? It does take effort, you know."

She smiled, shaking her head. "The harem exists to be a place of calm and safety for the king," she told him gently. "I am not proposing you line them up and do your duty in a single afternoon, nor even that you must begin today. But at least look at them; invite them to entertain you with music and dancing. Allow them to prove to you, if they can, that they have more to offer than their fertility."

He had a doubtful expression on his face, and yet, he knew that as king, it was his duty to provide at least one heir, preferably several. The thought of one of them becoming primary wife and queen wasn't an unpleasant one, but with so many to choose from, he had no idea where to start. "Perhaps you should tell me which ones you favor," he said, as he plucked a grape from the vine. It would save them both a lot of time and trouble if she just told him who she preferred.

Her eyes narrowed slightly. She knew he was attempting to lower the odds of choosing someone truly at random, but there would be real trouble if he chose only from her favorites in the harem. Women who considered themselves scorned or overlooked could be very difficult to control.

"No," she told her son calmly, but nodded toward the shuttered internal window on the wall. "That aperture is screened and overlooks the harem floor, however. If you wish to look upon them without their knowing the king is observing them, you may find some pretty face to catch your eye."

"You are not going to make this easy for me, are you?" he asked with another sigh. In truth, it wasn't the prospect of choosing a queen or even of producing an heir that bothered him so much as the jealousy it might insight.

"Whoever told you that living life with a harem was easy, was lying," she told him in amusement. "But conflicts within the harem are not your concern, they are mine, or the concern of whichever you may choose eventually to wed, though you need not marry any of them. Any concubine who complains to you of harem concerns is not doing her duty to make your life smooth."

"I would like to choose a wife," he said as he rose from the couch and started toward the window that looked out on the harem. "But I do not wish to make life difficult for her." Then again, if he did choose a wife, her status would be elevated and she would be put in charge of the harem. Whatever decision he made, he had to choose carefully.

At a nod, Shahista's maid opened the shutter, allowing Nasir a clear view into the harem below through a golden-mesh screen. At first glance, it seemed a strange mix of calm and chaos down there, a riot of bright colors and the sound of female voices raised in conversation and laughter. As the eye grew used to the angle and motion, it became easier to pick out individuals among the thirty or so young women gathered there. Shahista came to his side, watching him for a moment before turning her eyes to the girls below.

"You have no obligation to wed before you have an heir," she reminded her son, "and you do not have to wed the mother of your firstborn son. Choose a wife for what she gives you, not what she represents for the country."

"There is more to picking a wife than choosing a pretty face," Nasir remarked as he looked the women over, one pretty face at a time. All chosen for their beauty, it would prove difficult for him to decide based only on their appearance. Each was as different as the flowers in his mother's garden, and yet, just as lovely. Of course, certain faces appealed more than others, but that was only a matter of personal preference. What he wanted in a wife might not be what he wanted in a lover. He needed to find a woman who was warm and soft and charming, not to coquettish, but not too brazen either. Someone who was kind and caring and wise beyond her years. This was the kind of companion he wished for, but he was not sure he would find her among the women of his harem.
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Safiya Teliran
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PostPosted: Fri Jun 22, 2018 3:27 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

"To gain an heir, you need only want the woman," Shaista said gently. "To choose a wife, you must know her, and that can only happen if you spend time with her. To do that, you must choose a companion for tonight, and another for tomorrow night, until you find one you wish to know more of."

He frowned thoughtfully, already understanding what his mother was telling him. "I did not ask to be king," he said quietly, mostly to himself. There was some irony in that his uncle had exiled him for fear he'd usurp the throne, and here he was, the reluctant king. This was not how he thought his life would be, but he was loyal enough to his country to do his duty, and right now, that duty was producing an heir.

His mother's hand stroked over his hair for a moment. "No, my love, you did not," she said sadly. "And had my brother not been insane, you would never have needed to take on this duty. But, my son, you would still have had a harem, and the opportunity to choose a companion for your life from among them. This is a difficulty every man of wealth and nobility in Valentia must traverse."

"But I would not have been pressured to produce an heir," he pointed out, letting her stroke his hair, just as she'd done when he'd been a boy. As the youngest of three sons, she had always favored him, though now he was the only son left. It had been heart-wrenching for both of them to witness his brothers' deaths - a betrayal for which he had never forgiven his uncle. He owed her nothing less than his life for convincing her brother - his uncle - to spare him.

"No," she agreed softly. "But you will be a great king, a better king than many who went before you. Clovis tried to break you, to break all of us, but instead he hardened you into diamond, precious and strong. And your sons will know you for the good man you are."

She spoke to something deep inside him - a sense of pride and a desire to do better than those who'd gone before him. It wasn't just about vengeance or justice anymore; it was about proving his own worth and being a good king for all his people. He had to blink away tears for a moment as memories of the day they'd both lost everything and everyone they cared about replayed in his mind and he found himself reaching for her hand. "Do you think Father would be proud?" he asked, his voice hushed.

Shahista's perfect composure crumbled for a brief moment at the mention of the man who had never married her, but had loved her exclusively since the day she had borne his first son. She swallowed, her hand squeezing Nasir's shoulder tight for a brief moment. "He would have been honored to know that you are his son."

He gave her hand a gentle squeeze, as if to remind her that he was there - home at last and not about to let anyone hurt her again. It was because of her he had not suffered the same fate as his father and brothers, but she already knew how grateful he was to her for it. "I suppose I should greet them," he said, as if entering his harem was such a chore.

Shahista laughed unexpectedly. "If you walk down there, you will be inviting every one of them to tear your first companion to pieces," she warned him in amusement. "You are very handsome, my son. They do not yet know this." She smiled at her son fondly. "I would like to invite four here to this room, to dance for you as you eat and relax. You may find a face you wish to see more of without causing a riot."

He turned his head to arch a brow at her, a little surprised to hear her compliment him a second time. Of course, she was biased because he was her son. The women of the harem would likely be more interested in him for his position than his looks, or so he assumed. "Very well," he agreed. "Shall I choose or would you like to choose for me?"

"If there are any who have caught your eye, then you should tell me," she assured him, but she knew who she would call for if he had not made that decision yet.

Nasir paused as his gaze moved over the women in the harem. There were some who were strikingly more beautiful than the others, but he was wise enough to know that beauty was not everything he needed in a wife. As for a concubine, all he needed was someone who he found desirable. He was about to choose at random when he took a harder look, not only noting the forms and faces of the women but their expressions, their mannerisms, the way they interacted with each other. Did they appear haughty or friendly; shy or outgoing; withdrawn or inviting?

Perhaps a few faces stood out, or perhaps they didn't. Shahista watched her son in amusement for a moment, seeing the indecision weighing on him, conflicting with his desire to take care not to choose any woman who might be subject to unworthy influences. She laid a hand on his shoulder.

"Come and sit, I will call for some of them to entertain you as you relax," she told him.

Admittedly, they were all attractive, but it was a relief not to have to choose one over the others. He rubbed at a temple before turning and letting his mother lead him back to the couch. It had been a long journey from Carib, and he'd had little time to rest before being crowned king. Everything was happening so fast, he'd had little time to absorb it all.

"Very well," he agreed, allowing his mother to decide for him. Whoever won his attention tonight was likely to be disappointed, as he was too tired and too worried to give her all his attention.

Shahista took a moment to speak with her maid, who slipped from the room to gather the desired girls from the harem. Shahista herself closed the shutter, muting the chatter from below, before moving to sit with her son, encouraging him to eat.

"Your health is most important, my love," she told him firmly. "You must look after yourself."

"I have managed to look after myself quite well these past three years," Nasir pointed out, a little defensively. He knew she was only speaking as a mother who cared about her son, but he had become a man long ago without anyone else's help. He sighed, as he realized his words probably sounded a little too harsh. "I'm sorry. It has been a long day," he told her gently.

"And I am fussing," she accepted with a gentle smile of her own. "Please ... eat." As she spoke, a soft knock on the door announced the arrival of the entertainment. "Come!"

A trio of musicians filed in, taking their place out of the way, as four young women followed, curtsying to their king. One blonde, one raven-haired, the others chestnut brunettes, they each carried themselves with quiet confidence, but there was a boldness in the way the blonde girl met his gaze invitingly before lowering her eyes once again. Behind her, the black-haired girl rolled her eyes at the floor.

Nasir made himself as comfortable as he could on the couch, munching on various finger foods and sipping at wine - all of it tasted in advance to ensure there was no poison. The women his mother had chosen for him were pleasing to the eye, each as different from the other as night and day, but just as lovely. He found himself smirking a little at the blonde's boldness, but even more so at the raven-haired girl's eyeroll. He didn't say a word, except to offer a smile, as was expected.

At his mother's nod, the musicians began to play, a gentle melody that leant itself to calm and relaxation. As the women began to dance, their movements were slow and smooth, equally relaxing to watch, their faces offering a fascinating array of shyness and boldness in the smiles they dared to offer to their king as they performed for him.

Shahista sipped from her cup as she watched her son. "How long do you propose to keep the palace sealed?" she asked him curiously.

"A few days," he replied, somewhat distracted by the almost hypnotic beat of the music and dancing. He was already tired, and the more he relaxed, the more likely it was he might fall asleep before he had a chance to choose which one he found the most pleasing. There was no right or wrong in the choosing, and he was free to enjoy as many of his harem as he wished; but three years in Carib had played a part in shaping him, and he had grown envious of the love shared between king and queen.

"And no one is permitted to leave or enter?" Shahista pressed gently. She was very curious about how he was impressing his authority on the palace and the populace but, she reflected, if he wasn't asleep before the dance ended, he soon would be.

She glanced up at the dancers, watching as the blonde - a former slave girl named Raya - gave up her position in the forefront reluctantly to the raven-haired girl behind her. Given the foreground, for a few moments anyway, this one raised hazel-brown eyes to Nasir as arms and hips moved hypnotically to the rhythm, a smile hidden there that was only his to see. Shahista glanced at her son. That one was one of her own favorites from the harem.
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Safiya Teliran
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PostPosted: Fri Jun 22, 2018 3:27 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Nasir frowned, wondering why his mother was choosing to question him about this. "Mother, do you really wish to speak of this right now?" he asked, wondering if she was only trying to keep him awake or if he was really interested in learning how he and Felipe planned on rooting out the heretics. Even as he spoke, his gaze followed the movement of the women, almost as if he was entranced by the hypnotic movement of arms and hips, eyes and smiles beseeching him to take notice. There was something entrancing about each one, but how was he to choose?

Shahista smiled at his mild annoyance with her questions, glad the young ladies had the ability to draw his attention and hold it, at the very least. She sat back, lowering her gaze to sip from her cup.

The moment the Queen-Mother's eyes were not on them, noting the king's gaze passing away from her, Raya reached out in mid-sway, and yanked hard on Safiya's black hair. The raven-haired girl's head jerked back painfully, but she refused to make a sound, sashaying backward to give the blonde girl the foreground once again. Her gaze flickered to Lady Shahista, making sure she wasn't looking before setting one foot delicately but firmly on the trailing hem of Raya's gown. The next full turn came with the ominous sound of fabric tearing.

Tired or not, none of this happened without Nasir noticing. He arched a brow as two of the women seemed in conflict with the other, almost as he had feared. Whatever assurances he might have been given him regarding jealousies in the harem it seemed the women were proving him right. They could not even finish one dance without fighting over him. He had noticed which of the pair had started it, but his only visible reaction was to press his lips together in mild annoyance. While some men might be amused by the conflict between the two women, he found himself only irritated, already tired and not wanting to deal with female jealousy.

The other two girls were smirking as Raya was forced to return to the back of the formation or risk displaying more of herself than was seemly, but Nasir might have been surprised to see that Safiya, the black-haired young woman, simply stepped to the side to allow the other two to take the foremost spots. It seemed not so much jealousy as a sense of fair play on her part, and was answered with a grateful smile from at least one of the others as Raya scowled.

A scowl that evaporated as Shahista raised her eyes to her son. "Something displeases you, Nasir?"

"This is ridiculous, Mother," he said, gesturing with a hand toward the circle of young women. "Why not just let them fight and see who is the victor?" he asked, though it was obviously a preposterous question. Watching them dance was obviously designed to seduce him into wanting one of them, which was fine for one night's fornication, but what if he wanted more?

Shahista sighed softly. Clearly, she had missed something. She snapped her fingers, and the dancers stopped, stepping back with lowered eyes and folded hands. Then the raven-haired Safiya stepped forward without being asked, curtsying as she spoke.

"It is my fault, queen-mother," she apologized softly, despite the fact that her head must have been aching from the vicious pull Raya had given her hair. "With your permission, I will withdraw."

Shahista frowned, disappointed, but looked to Nasir. "Would you prefer they left you in peace?"

Nasir sighed again, unsure what he preferred in that moment. He rubbed once again at his temple, the food and the wine and the dancing doing very little to relieve the tension of the last few days and threatening to give him a headache. He looked from one hopeful face to the other, knowing he must have disappointed them, but it was they who were supposed to please him, not the other way around. "It is not your fault," he said, looking between the dark-haired one and the blonde. "Is this what goes on regularly in the harem, or is it only because of me?"

Safiya's eyes widened, her gaze dropping to her hands as she stepped back into the line. None of the girls dared offer answer, though Raya was now smirking in triumph as she lifted her head to meet the king's eyes boldly once again. She opened her mouth ... and one of the brunette girls suddenly spoke.

"With reverence, your majesty," she said, blurting before the golden-haired Raya could speak, "it is not good to ask us such things in front of one another."

"So, I should ask you individually, then?" Nasir replied, arching both brows. "Let me make myself perfectly clear, in case my mother has not already done so ... You have all been chosen to please the king, but the king is not pleased when his women are fighting amongst themselves, for whatever reason. I want a peaceful, content home, and that includes my harem. If any of my women are deemed to be creating dissension, they may find themselves removed from the harem. Is that clear?" he asked, with a pointed look at the blonde, who seemed to have been the one who'd created the conflict.

"Yes, majesty," three voices chorused, but Raya's eyes were suddenly blazing with fury. She whipped around, pointing a finger directly at Safiya.

"You attacked me, you tore my dress!" she declared furiously. "You want me to fail because of your jealousy!"

There was a shocked silence. Safiya's expression was wide-eyed again, warning the other girl to shut her mouth fast.

"I am sorry for my actions, Raya," she said softly, mortified that the harem disagreements were being brought out in front of the king when he had explicitly declared he did not want them to happen.

"You are a snake," Raya hissed at Safiya. Her hand lashed out, catching the raven-haired girl's cheek with a clawed hand, drawing blood.

"Enough!" Shahista rose from where she stood to loom over the angry girl. "Bulba!"

The door opened to admit the harem mistress.

"Remove Raya to the old palace at once," Shahista ordered sternly. "The rest of you, back to the harem. This is disgraceful!"

Scolded, the four girls turned to leave the room.

"Wait!" Nasir ordered, raising a hand and moving to his feet. Standing, he was taller than they might have expected and not quite as drowsy. He moved over to the raven-haired girl first, removing a cloth from inside his own robes and touching it to her cheek to stanch the blood. "Look at me," he said, ordering her to meet his gaze.

Safiya obeyed, wincing as he touched the cloth to her cheek. Her cool confidence had been shredded by the unexpectedly vicious attack from Raya, it seemed, pain and shame mingling in her gaze, along with what might even have been fear. She truly did not know what the king would do to her for provoking the other girl, saddened to know that the mark on her cheek would have her status lowered to that of harem servant and never again allow her the chance to be his companion should it scar.

"Tell me, has this happened before?" he asked, obviously not referring to the injury but the jealousy between the two women. Which was more to blame? Was Raya truly as vindictive as she seemed? Despite his warning, he did not truly want to throw anyone out of the harem if they did not deserve it. Was it too much to ask that they co-existed in peace with each other?

Safiya seemed to hesitate, her eyes darting to where she knew Raya was listening closely. Was telling the whole truth worth what Raya might do to her later? Probably not. "Not ... not to such an extreme, majesty," she said softly, though it was likely he could see she was more fearful of repercussions from the harem than of being sent to the old palace herself. "We are sleeping where our sisters died. It-it is not a settling feeling."
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PostPosted: Fri Jun 22, 2018 3:28 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

"That is no reason to lash out at each other," Nasir said, but his statement was directed more to Raya than to the others. He sighed again, gently dabbing at the blood on the girl's cheek, close enough that she could see the signs of weariness in him, close enough that he could see how shaken she was. "Very well. I will not challenge my mother's wisdom in this matter," he said, looking again from one to the other. Raya's fate was in Shahista's hands now.

Raya visibly snarled, but her way to Safiya was blocked by the harem mistress who, by custom, carried a large heavy staff. Shahista frowned, but did not take back her orders, gesturing for the girls to leave. She paused, studying the way Nasir was tending to the little injury with his own hands.

"I will have the female physician see to her," she told her son, scowling at Safiya, who lowered her eyes once again, ashamed of the scene that had been created.

"Stay," Nasir said, one hand touching Safiya's arm to keep her from leaving. "Bring the physician here," he told his mother, ignorant of the fact that this one was secretly her favorite. He hardly noticed Raya now, or the fuss she was making. If his mother decided to exile her to the old palace, he deemed she had good reason to do so.

Shahista nodded, though she was clearly furious at the poor behavior. She marched through the door herself, calling for her own secretary to fetch the female physician. The last remaining young woman swallowed uncertainly - this was not how she had expected her first meeting with the king to go.

Left alone with the raven-haired young woman, Nasir took her hand and drew her toward the couch. "Sit," he told her gently with a wave of his hand toward the couch. Whatever anger he'd been feeling was diminished in his concern for the girl's well-being, and now that his mother and the other women had departed, he felt they could speak freely. "Has she always hated you like this?"

Easing down to sit on the couch, Safiya glanced worriedly toward the door, knowing that the Queen-Mother would return soon. "Raya is ..." She sighed, shaking her head. "Raya is very beautiful, and she is very proud of that," she said softly. "She has always been very sure that she would be your first choice of companion, and will bear your majesty's first son. She is ... perhaps a little arrogant."

Nasir frowned, even as he poured a second glass of wine and handed it to her. "My desire is for a peaceful kingdom, and that peace should extend to my harem," he explained, so very different from his uncle. "I am sorry about your sisters," he continued, setting himself beside her and leaning in to take another look at her cheek. "I do not like violence, though sometimes it is necessary," he confessed.

Surprised to find herself taking a glass from the hand of her king, Safiya almost smiled, but for the sting in her cheek. "Where women live together closely and are expected to compete for the love of one man, there will always be arguments," she told him quietly. "It is in our nature. But when argument becomes harm done to others, that is when the peace is threatened. In truth, Raya will not let this rest, even in the old palace. She will blame me for destroying her chance."

"She has no one to blame but herself," Nasir pointed out, but he did not want to argue. He wasn't sure what could be done about Raya; that was a matter for his mother to decide. He sighed again and moved to his feet, pacing the room idly, hands behind his back, a troubled frown upon his face. "There is no reason for the women to compete for my attention, except where their own ego is concerned. They are safe and well cared for. They have their sisters for companions. Is it only that they wish to have a child, or is it because they wish to have the child of a king?" he asked.

"Our purpose is to satisfy you, to provide you with sons," she said, still speaking quietly. She hesitated before continuing. "And the only means we have of having our voices heard is to earn your trust, and hope that you may listen to us someday. Everyone hopes to become queen, though we know we should not expect it. I was raised in the harem; so was Raya. So were many of our sisters. You are our king, but more than that, you are ours. We are encouraged to hope that someday ours will become ... mine."

"Sons," Nasir echoed, giving her a pointed look. "But not daughters?" he asked. He had spent some years in the harem as a boy, but much of what went on there had been beyond his understanding. Even now, as a grown man and newly-crowned King of Valentia, the harem was still something of a mystery to him. He sighed again as he sank down on the cushions, folding his hands in his lap. "I have spent the last three years in exile in Carib. I have seen what a man and woman can mean to each other. I have seen the kind of bond that can develop between them, a bond so strong that no one can break. My mother wishes me to have many sons, many heirs, but I only wish for one woman who might try to understand me and take me into her heart. I am not sure I can please all the women in my harem. Most men would envy my position, but I find the thought of pleasing so many women ... exhausting."

"The mother of your heir, if she lives to his accession, will have influence still even once you are gone," she tried to explain, though it was a little uncomfortable. She couldn't help smiling a little wistfully at his description of the bonds between men and women in another land. "Valentia is very different from the rest of the world," she agreed. "Perhaps you can begin to change it, in some small way. But it is not your duty to please the women in your harem. It is our duty, and our privilege, to please you."

Those gentle eyes found his for a long moment, her hand hesitating before she reached out to touch his hand. "We are not taught to hope for love, majesty," she said, her voice almost a whisper.

The doors opened, and she snatched her hand back, rising to curtsy to Lady Shahista as she re-entered with the physician.

Shahista barely glanced at the girl, gesturing for the physician to check her over as she turned her attention to her son. "You are well, Nasir?"

Nasir met the girl's gaze with an expression that seemed almost sad. He had not yet admitted to anyone everything that was troubling him, not even his mother. He had to be strong if he was going to be king, if he was going to bring peace to his people and rid them of the heretics. His thoughts turned again to his cousins and their wives, wishing he could find such a woman for himself - a woman who didn't just want to give him an heir so that she could elevate her own station. He might have told her as much if his mother hadn't interrupted, bringing the physician along with her.

"I am tired, Mother," he admitted, letting her see a little of his frustration.

Shahista touched his shoulder gently. "You have not been sleeping," she said quietly. "Company will tire your body, force your mind to sleep." She glanced across the room at the physician and the girl, her expression darkening. "Someone less problematic, perhaps."

"I see no problem," Nasir contradicted his mother, despite the scratches on the young woman's cheek, which she had suffered through no fault of her own.

Shahista looked back at him, her brows relaxing as she considered his thoughts on the matter. "Very well," she agreed. "I will give orders for her to be prepared and brought to you when you retire."

"It would help to know her name," he said, his gaze drifting from that of his mother to the dark-haired woman in their presence.

"Her name is Safiya," his mother told him quietly, watching him as he watched the girl tilt her head to let the physician clean the little scratch and stroke a thin layer of salve over it to help the wound heal. "She knows nothing of life beyond the harem. Queen Maria's people found her in the dock markets of Seles when she was four years old, and brought her here."

"I see," Nasir quietly replied, watching as the physician spread salve against the young woman's cheek. He remained quiet a moment, his thoughts his own, before turning back to his mother. "With your leave, I am going to retire to my rooms," he told his mother, offering a small respectful bow, despite the fact that he was now king.
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PostPosted: Fri Jun 22, 2018 3:28 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

"Of course." Shahista curtsied to him by custom, touching a kiss to his cheek. "I will have her sent to you."

Across the room, the physician had stepped away, leaving Safiya standing with silent patience where she had been left.

"You will be kind to her, Mother," Nasir whispered as he leaned close to touch an answering kiss to her cheek. Later, he would ask what would become of Raya, but now was not the time. He offered a nod of his head to Safiya, as well, before striding from the room.

The only indication that Shahista had heard him was in the flicker of her eyes, but he could trust that she would at least not mistreat the girl. When the knock came to his door in the main palace an hour later, Safiya was allowed in and showed no sign of mistreatment. She had clearly been prepared with a very specific event in mind; her dark hair left loose to brush the soft warm silk of a robe belted over a nightgown, perfectly presentable but clearly more intimate than a simple gown.

She curtsied, her hands folded at her waist. "Majesty."

Nasir, too, had changed into something more comfortable, though he was not quite dressed for bed. She found him at the window, looking out on the city as it quieted, people settling in for the night. He turned to extend his hand in invitation to her, a warm smile on his face. "Come," he told her, drawing her toward him.

Alone, Safiya was more inclined to smile, it seemed, moving to join him at the window to look out at the city. There were torches still burning in the streets near the palace, and would no doubt stay burning while the situation was so tense. "You have not been to Iska for some time, majesty?"

"No," he replied, though he'd already told her as much a short while before. If there was anything he'd learned during his time in exile, it was how to school his expression and hide his feelings from those around him. There were things he knew, things he was keeping to himself that he was hesitant to reveal just yet, until he was sure Safiya was what she seemed. "And you have spent your whole life in the harem. Have you never seen anything beyond the palace walls?"

"I came to the harem when I was very small, majesty," she told him, easily repeating what his mother had told him. "I do not remember my life before the harem. I have left it once, to go to the old palace when Lady Shahista was sent there by her brother. Her choice of me may well have saved my life, though we could not have known what would happen here."

"Are you happy there, in the harem?" he asked further, drawing her closer so that she could stand beside him on the balcony, her arm tucked between him as they watched the city settle down for the night.

Her hands folded at his elbow as he drew her to his side, leaning into him just enough to show that she would welcome being closer if he chose to allow her. "I know nothing else," she admitted quietly. "I ... I am content. But I feel that something is missing. I do not know what it is."

He frowned a little at her confession. It wasn't so hard to figure out what it was she was missing, but he wasn't sure if it was his place to tell her. "I am sorry for what happened to your sisters. I am sorry I was not here to prevent it," he confessed abruptly, needing to make her understand that, first and foremost.

Her expression grew sad, pained with memory. "We could hear the screams from the old palace," she said softly, her eyes turning to that place. Though its halls marked it as separate from the corridors of power, it was not so very far away in the crush of the city. "The guards feared that the mob would come to us, too, but we were delivered by the hand of the Goddess. I lost friends that night, and the babes that I might have helped to raise."

He grew quiet, like the calm before the storm, his only reaction to what she was telling him a clenching of his jaw and curling of a fist. He closed his eyes a moment as though he was struggling to maintain his composure. He didn't want her to see his anger and his hatred, when what she needed was comfort and sympathy. "Those who are responsible will pay for what they've done, I promise you that," he told her quietly, through clenched teeth.

She raised her eyes to his face, saddened to see that she had caused anger in him. Unwinding one hand from his elbow, she reached up, stroking soft fingertips over his temple and cheek. "You will do what is right," she said softly. "But it is not a thought for the night, when you need to sleep soundly without anger or fear."

His gaze softened as he turned his face toward her, away from the view of the darkening night and quieting city. "I am afraid that will prove easier said than done," he told her with a frown that was not just for him, but for what she and her sisters - both alive and dead - had suffered at the hands of the heretics. He paused a moment, lifting a hand to trace his fingertips against her cheek, as he searched her face and eyes. "You do not remember me, do you?"

Safiya's smile warmed as he touched her cheek. "How could I forget you?" she asked him in turn. "But I do not believe you remember me. I was still small when you left the harem."

"Your name is the same and your eyes have not changed," he replied, his fingers sifting through her hair. "Nor your hair," he quietly murmured. "Forgive me for not noticing sooner," he said with a slight nod of his head.

"Do you remember Teres?" she asked then, curiously delighted that a man she hadn't seen in a decade remembered her still. "She is still in the harem, too." Her smile made it clear that she considered Teres the closest thing to family she would ever have, no thought of jealousy in bringing another woman's name to his attention.

Nasir furrowed his brows at the mention of that name, which sparked a fuzzy memory in his mind. "I think so, yes. Brown hair and eyes?" he asked, knowing that was not a very specific description. "You two were close, even then. Like sisters."

She nodded. "We still are," she told him. "There are many newer faces in the harem since our return to the royal palace, but Teres has always been my friend." She blinked, realizing she was singing the praises of someone else. "Ah ... forgive me, majesty. I am sure you do not wish me to tell you of all the women in the harem."

"I would like to hear whatever it is you wish to tell me," he said, reaching for her hand to draw her away from the balcony toward the bed. His rooms were not as extravagant as his uncle's had been, but they were comfortable enough, and the bed was large enough for two.

"And what is it you would like me to say, majesty?" she asked, moving easily with him as he drew her back into his rooms, toward the bed. Safiya did not feel the nervous anxiety she had expected to feel at the prospect of being in the king's bed, perhaps because it seemed obvious that he would be doing nothing but sleeping tonight. "I do not know the world, nor even the city. I know only the harem, the palace ... and that my king is handsome and kind, and I am honored to be his first companion."

Or perhaps it was the discovery that they had once known each other that made her more comfortable in his presence. "Would you like to see the city one day, Safiya?" he asked, as he drew her onto the bed with him and settled himself against the pile of cushions at their backs, both of them still dressed.

Careful not to trip or trap herself with the skirt of her robe and gown, she let her slippers slide free from her feet before easing down to sit with him on the silken sheets. "Oh, very much," she admitted hopefully. "I have heard so much of the market, and of the view of the farms from the gates. I have seen only paintings of such things. Are horses truly wild in Carib?"
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PostPosted: Fri Jun 22, 2018 3:28 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

"Yes," he replied. "Until they are caught by the Horse Lords and broken to saddle and bridle. I spent the last three years in Carib. It is an interesting place, but it is not home," he told her, gesturing for her to settle beside him. It was doubtful much would come of this first night, but he welcomed her warmth and companionship.

Invited closer, she slid over the sheets to lie against the cushions with him, her head propped on her hand. "Is it so very different there?" she asked him curiously. "I have heard such strange things - of a queen who fights like a man, of a court where men and women mingle, and women have rank and influence as men do?"

"All those things are true," he confirmed. "But neither the king or queen are originally from Carib," he explained. "Queen Brynhilde is originally from Edessa, where men and women can both learn to fight, and the king's eldest child inherits the throne, whether that child be male or female."

Safiya's eyes lit up. "Edessa is a real place?" she asked in amazement. "I have heard so many stories, but I did not dream to think that it truly existed. Everywhere is so far away from Valentia."

"Carib is not so far," he pointed out, as he lounged against the pile of cushions and pillows, encouraging her to do the same. "Nor is Lotharingia, but I fear it is Lotharingia we have to blame for the heretics in the palace."

She lowered her head onto her arm against the pillows, her other hand coming to rest in the narrow space between them as she watched his face. "They say that Tipora is a rebel stronghold in these times," she said thoughtfully. "That our troubles come from there, because the heretics have such a strong hold on the region around it."

"You should not have to worry about such things, Safiya," he told her, reaching over to touch her cheek, careful of the place where Raya had scratched her. "I should not even speak of such things," he said, worried he might tell her something that could put her in danger. He lifted one arm in invitation for her to nestle against him, though it seemed he was too weary for physical intimacy just yet.

She smiled gently, taking his invitation to nestle against his side, her hand finding a place to rest over his heart as her cheek settled against his shoulder. In other lands, it would be unthinkable for a man to expect a woman to give him such casual affection on the day of their first meeting - worse to invite her to his bedchamber and expect her to spend the night there. But this was Valentia, where it was commonplace for a man to be calm and confident with the gentle affections of his harem women.

"I have no political agenda," she reminded him softly. "No affiliation with anyone but you. It is safe to speak to me of your worries. I will not share them with anyone."

"Not even with my mother or the other women of the harem," he told her, feeling as though he could trust her, though he wasn't sure why. There had been a time when he might have called her friend, but that had been many years ago. "I do not think it would be wise to welcome Raya back into the harem. I want the harem to be a peaceful place, where the women can live in harmony with each other. I suppose that is foolish of me, but I want them to be happy."

Safiya tried not to laugh. It wasn't that his words were particularly funny; more that he didn't seem to understand the real friction in the harem. "There are more than forty of us, majesty," she told him quietly. "Even the most beautiful, even those who believe themselves to have a better chance, know that it is exceptionally rare for the king to lie with all his harem women. At most, there have been twenty concubines at a single time in history. While we are in the royal harem, we are for your enjoyment only; we cannot meet other men, or join their harems. Forty women competing for the attention of a single man will always cause problems."

"Then perhaps there should be fewer women in the harem," he reasoned, logically enough. He did not say how this could come to pass, as he'd have to give it some thought and speak to his mother and perhaps some of his advisers before anything took place, but it seemed absurd to him to keep so many women imprisoned in the harem, when he had no need of them.

She was silent at this, already considering the possible repercussions of his reasoning for her. If she spent tonight at his side, and tomorrow the queen-mother began to clear the harem of most of those who lived there ... the connection would be obvious in many minds. She did have several friends among the women of the harem, but after Raya's departure, that woman's faction would be out for revenge. But this was not something she was going to tell her king. "You need to rest, majesty," she said in her soft way. "Is there anything I can do to help you find sleep?"

It was funny in a way that she was trying to help him sleep when she'd be through so much more than him, or so he thought. "Just stay close," he told her, as he drew an arm around her waist. "Are you very disappointed in me?" he asked, as heavy eyelids drifted closed, his words thick with sleepiness.

Her fingers stroked gently against his chest as he began to sink toward sleep, a soft smile curving her lips. "How could I be disappointed in you, majesty?" she asked him in her quiet way. "You are everything I had hoped for. There will be other nights."

"Sleep well, Safiya," he murmured as his weary mind drifted toward sleep, a soft smile on his lips at her gentle reassurance. Though his exile in Carib had not been altogether unpleasant, he was glad to be home and in the care of a woman he knew he could trust.
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