Note: I am combining my previously written story into one chapter for reader convenience, next part will be out next week!
Her Royal Highness, Princess Anousheh Farhia Gulbahar Ehsan Khan was currently flat on her back on the Royal dias in the middle of her Royal Wedding. What had not started as a good day was turning into a complete nightmare full of humiliation and pain.
It seemed just a moment ago when her esteemed royal Father had announced that he had betrothed her to Sultan Mehmed of Ghayyur. However, many months had passed since then, all of spent in a flurry of preparations. Such had been the amount of work to complete that she had not had a moment to slow down and think. Her mother and aunts had led her from one event and pre-marriage preparation ritual to another, with no room for doubts or contemplation.
It was not that Gul didn’t want to get married, or even that she was unprepared for the eventuality, it was just that even after a year had passed, she had still not seen so much as hide nor hair of her husband to be. She knew most women did not get the chance to meet their suitors beforehand, however, it was a tradition of the Royal family to invite the potential husband to spend a month with his in-laws. Her father had gone to stay in Lord Arshad’s lands for a month before wedding her mother and Gul had always thought that the same would be the case for her husband.
She had been informed that Sultan Mehmed had flat out refused the invitation, for he was too busy with matters of State. Scandalously, he had offered to host her for the month instead. It was dreadfully improper, even more so due to the fact that the Sultan had no female currently running his Palace as his mother had passed away the year before.
She had accepted his refusal graciously and even tried to make up for the lack by sending him a letter. She spent days editing and rewriting until she was satisfied with the results. When his reply came she was pleasantly surprised…
His reply had been everything she was hoping for, sweet and charming, yet witty and a little irreverent at the same time. But at the same time he had not offered to form a regular correspondence like she had hinted at in her letter so she was confused.
Dear Princess Anousheh
It was an honour to receive your letter, and a very admirable endeavour on your behalf. I apologize heartily for not being able to accept your father’s invitation, as tension on our North borders is at an all time high and I must travel there to settle the dispute with our neighbouring nation.
I realise that you must be concerned about my safety, however I believe that a ruler who hides behind his subjects to be unworthy of his title, so I must go and resolve in person. After all, what’s the worst that could happen? Besides war and death that is… My apologies, I have drifted rather off the point, what meant to say was please accept my humble excuses and forgive me for my transgression. I would have loved to visit your nation and get to know you better in person.
In response to your query about my health, the days I am suffering from mild headaches that are an inconvenience to all my serving staff as they make me rather irritable. However, contrary to my servant’s advice, I have deemed them not serious enough to warrant summoning a physician….
The letter went on for a whole extra 12 inches of parchment, answering all her questions and leaving her pleasantly surprised as well as puzzled at the flashes of his personality that she had managed to gather. He was kind, considerate, with a high sense of responsibility and a strange lack of arrogance, given the unmistakably self-deprecating tone the letter sometimes took on. All in all, it was amazingly refreshing, and she was even more curious about this to be spouse of hers.
A few days later a palace hawk could be seen carrying a reply from her back to the King.
Their correspondence continued in this vein for many days. She would send inquiries and he would reply with sweet and witty words. Slowly, she came to admire him, his bravery, dedication and humbleness, made her happy and she started looking forward to meeting and getting to know him in person. In one letter she had asked after his journey to north of his kingdom, inquiring how the situation was being resolved.Her letter went like this:
Dear Sultan Mehmed,
I was delighted to hear back from you so promptly after our last exchange. Does this mean that you are back in your capital now? I don’t mean to pry into the affairs of your nation, but I have been concerned about the situation in the northern regions. In any case I am glad to hear from you, the wedding preparations here are driving me nearly insane with tedium.
There seems to be an endless amount of minute details that I must personally preside over; from the colours of the drapings in the west wing, to the number of flower petals that must be dried and pressed to make sachets, it is an unending list of the most minor details! So i thought I would inquire as to the opinion of my groom: What do you think, cream or blue for the dining plates in the reception?
This time his reply took a week and a half to arrive promptly and was sent by rider instead of hawk. The rider came bearing not only a letter, but also a small velvet box, which he presented to the princess, along with the letter. “His Majesty, Sultan Mehmed sends his regards and has sent a gift for the Princess to show his admiration and respect for her.” said the rider, bowing to the royal family. He also carried correspondence from the Sultan to her father, no doubt discussing matters of State.
Gul could not describe the feelings of excitement and anticipation that she felt, as she hastily took her leave of her family, trying not to look too eager or undignified. Her maid followed her, holding the package. As soon as she reached her chambers, Gul dismissed the maid, her hands going first to the gift, before halting and moving towards the letter instead. She wanted to know what he said, more than see her present. His letter read:
I was really happy to receive your last letter, but somewhat more puzzled by the contents. Of course you may “pry into the affairs of my nation” as you stated, it will be your nation as well soon enough. In fact my friends and advisors would be appalled if you were not given due deference.
It is your right to know about the nation you will be ruling alongside me,so I have sent you a compiled account of my rule, with some history and background to make it comprehensible. It should be enough to give you a fair idea of the Empires’ politics; and you can ask me any questions you deem necessary. I am looking forward to the days when you will sit on a throne beside me and be able to freely advise me on matters of State.
Now as for your inquiries as to my preference of china, I have been told on the best of authority that the bridegroom’s role in these sort of decisions is to steadfastly agree to anything the bride likes. Do not fret so much about it, my dear, I am absolutely certain that when I arrive for the wedding I will be far too preoccupied by gazing lovingly at my fiance to even notice the decorations. As to these people haranguing you for the minutest details, why not redirect them to your mother? I’m sure she would be happy to take them off your hands.
Also, I should ask you before I forget, did you like the necklace I sent? I had it made while I was in the north, the jewelers there are renowned for their work in lapis lazuli bonded with white gold. I know that it is a little unusual in design, but I wanted to have something made that combined your crest and mine. If you prefer a more classical design, I will have the palace jewelers make it according to your specifications. I know it’s a little late for a betrothal gift, but I hope you shall accept it anyway.
This letter made her alternatively beam with happiness, flush with pleasure and glow with pride. He has actually said that he expected her to rule beside him as an equal! She knew how rare it was for Kings to take their wives seriously. They were usually expected to be demure and run the household, throw parties and play hostess, but their advice in the matter of politics was seldom welcomed.
Even her own father, though he loved and respected her mother, did not allow his wife any say in the important decisions. The world’s of the household and the court were strictly divided. Of course Gul had received all the same education in statecraft as her brothers, however, this was because her father believes in being prepared for any circumstance, not because she was ever expected to rule a nation. He believed that a princess must know as much as possible in order to be a proper companion to a man of high status.
Now however, Gul put the letter aside, finally turning to look at the parcel Mehmed had sent her. The box was larger than it had seemed originally, with blue velvet embossed on the outside. She had indicated her servant to place it on her table and sitting down, she opened the small clasps, looking inside; she found about 4 to five scrolls stacked neatly on one side, on the other was a small silver box, that was likely to be the necklace. As she lifted out the scrolls and silver box she discovered that the bottom of the box contained a large rectangular item wrapped in in intricately carved leather.
Curious, she moved the items she was completely sure of to the side and pulled out the large rectangular item. Unwrapping the item she discovered to her surprised delight that it was a book, a historical account of the Ghayyur Empire. She was astonished that Mehmed had sent her such a gift as books were rare and prized items, guarded jealously by their owners, and looking further, this was bound to be an important and expensive book. It seemed to have been written by a person who had lived in the court, a man named Abdullah bin Hasim and was deeply involved in the politics of the nation. As she opened the cover, she discovered a short note hidden within, in Mehmed handwriting.
For Her Royal Highness, Princess Anousheh, it said on the outside. She opened it and read:
I have sent you a copy of my dear friend’s work. He has been my boon companion for many years and has compiled this history of the kingdom after many years of hard work. I ordered this copy made for you as a gift a few months ago and it is finally ready to be delivered, I hope you enjoy learning about our nation and will send to me any questions you have regarding what you read.
It had been written by his friend? Gul wondered, turning the ornamentally decorated boo over in her hands. It was obvious by his warm tone that Mehmed trusted and admired this friend very much. It was the first Gul had really heard of Mehmed’s companions, and she was curious as to the type of man he was. She was eager to read the work.
However, now she turned her gaze to the small silver box, it was no larger than the palm of her hand, with delicate carvings and small jewels inlaid in the cover. She lifted the lid gently, anticipation buzzing beneath her skin. Inside was a necklace curled upon light blue silk. Lifting it out she arrayed it on the table in front of her; it was gleaming in the sunlight from her window, and it had a very unusual design, it seemed as if a blue dragon was curled around a white mare. The design was worked delicately into thin flat circles of white gold inlaid with lapiz lazuli and darker gold to add artistic shading. It was a very delicate piece of work, it must have taken considerable skill and time to accomplish.
She traced the design with her fingers, simultaneously delighted and hit with an acute sense of apprehension, suddenly realizing that her fiance really expected her to rule the nation by his side. She felt all at once unsure and completely unprepared for this burden, having expected all her life that she would have no say in the greater decisions. She realized now that even though she had resented the restrictions, she had never expected anything to be different and now that the chance to do something really important lay before her she felt overwhelmed. She was also awed at her fiance, the way he already considered her his equal, demonstrated that she was on his mind by giving her gifts for no reason…
Because even though he had said it was a betrothal gift, she had already received the official betrothal gifts months ago; huge caskets full of gold, jewels, silks and brocades, each more precious than the previous one. No, this was a gift that he had designed personally and commissioned himself, not something that had been selected by his officials to impress the princess of another nation.
A fierce want filled her then, she wanted to see him in person, though she had no idea of what he looked like, she wanted him to be here and to put this necklace on her with his own hands. At that moment she felt impatient to see him, the months before their wedding seeming to stretch out endlesslessly. At that moment she knew that though she had never once laid eyes upon him, though she did not know whether he was fat or bald or short, though she did not know his good or bad habits beyond what the letters had told her, his words and actions had already won her heart.
In the week that followed her receipt of the gift, she spent the majority of her time reading through the book and the accompanying scrolls. The book was interesting in a way that she had not anticipated at all. The writing style was different from any other history book she had read before; each chapter detailing a different period of time. The author made the writing engrossing by including stories, first hand accounts and political analyses. The chapter about the rein of Sultan Selim, Mehmed’s father was the longest and most engrossing, because it touched upon current politics and situations. She made a lot of notes and had many questions, her latest letter getting longer and longer, the further she read.
Finally, after a week of obsessive reading she had gone through the entire book, having accumulated about five feet of parchment worth of thoughts and questions. She sent off her letter with the awaiting rider, who had been instructed by Mehmed to await her response. She had agonised about whether or not to send a gift to Mehmed in exchange for the necklace, and ultimately decided to wait until she had time to find the perfect gift.
While she awaited his response, the wedding preparations were going full steam ahead. Because she had shirked her duties in order to read, the previous week, this week she was extremely busy. She was dragged from one dress fitting to another, to a luncheon with the court ladies, to welcoming the guests which had started arriving. It was in this hectic atmosphere that one guest arrived who she had been waiting impatiently. Her elder brother Ahmer and his wife Afshan were here. Ahmer, being the crown prince had been touring the nation for the last two years, building alliances and gathering support while also getting to know his people. His wife Afshan, Gul’s dearest friend had of course accompanied him.
She had known Afshan for 12 years, ever since she came to serve as a handmaiden to the princess. They had not got along that well at first, Afshan was always the first to finish her embroidery plates, the first to understand a new concept in political theory lessons, the first to complete any assigned work and generally she had been intimidating perfect and cold. She was praised by all the adults and held up as an example for the rest of us, while shunned by the other girls for her serious demeanor.
Gul on the other hand had been constantly surrounded by sycophants, whom she escaped in order to keep company with her brother and his friends. She had always made friends with boys more easily and after her lessons, Gul tended to give the sycophants the slip, joining the boys in their mock sword fights. It so happened that one day Gul had disappeared a little earlier than usual eager to join the boys in a horse race, and the Governess had been looking for her to discuss her latest needlepoint.
The Governess sent the impeccable Afshan to find the princess, and Afshan being rather intelligent and not unobservant, had realized that Gul was usually with the Prince’s retinue. Afshan made short work of finding the princess, but she was afraid of horses and unwilling to approach her directly. She turned to the nearest boy and said politely, “Dear Sir, if you would be kind enough to assist me, I would be most grateful if you would alert the Princess Anousheh that one of her household requires her presence.”
The Prince snorted at her formality and looking her up and down,ignored her contemptuously, having no patience for what he saw as brown-nosing. Afshan was a little bewildered and annoyed at this obvious dismissal, and tried to gain his attention once more.
“My good sir, if I may, it is a matter of the utmost importance that I speak to the princess at once.” She addressed him.
The Prince turned his steely gaze on her once more, unused to even his non verbal orders being gainsaid. “No you may not, if you want to speak with Gul, you’ll have to step on the field yourself.” he sneered.
“But Sir-”, tried Afshan, having never been met with such hostility in return for politeness before.
“But nothing,it is not my duty to help you if you are too lazy to do your own work. How can you expect others to jump to do your bidding, I don’t understand. I wonder how such an arrogant, presumptuous, lazy and incompetent bootlicker, ever got invited the palace in the first place.” he retorted scathingly.
Now, Afshan, having never met or even seen the Prince up close, had not realized to whom she was speaking. After hearing this, her face reddened in a mixture of anger and embarrassment, and recalling all the taunts she received from what she considered similarly annoying bullies as this boy, her patience snapped. She forgot all of her vaunted civility and straightening her spine, she brought to bear the full weight of her scorn and her intelligence on this boy;
“You Sir, are an over-privileged spiteful bully. Judging by your attitude and attire you have lived in the palace your entire life in circumstances not far from those which brought me here. Unlike me, I can well believe that you have never once in your life been faced with the underprivileged, never walked among them and felt the fruitlessness of your efforts. You have never borne their suffering in your heart and you are the worse for it. You do not understand that these petty court games are as inconsequential and pathetic as the person who plays them.” so saying, Afshan left the Prince standing on the side of the field with his mouth hanging open in shock. Never in his life had anyone dared to address him so!
He watched as she flounced off, in such a rage that she forgot all about her fear of horses and marched up to the Princess, relaying her message. Gul, on receiving her governess’ request, abandoned her plans for riding and accompanied Afshan back inside the palace. On the way Gul struck up a conversation, and Afshan, still fuming from her encounter with the Prince, replied without the usual censorship she applied to all her interactions with royalty. Thus it was that Gul, delighted at the refreshing honesty in Afshan’s conversation sought her out for companionship more often.
Gradually they became friends and Afshan started appearing during the princess’ escapades with her brother and his retinue. Ahmer was surprised to be introduced to the fiery tempered lady from whom he had received such a cutting set down, and who had been in his thoughts constantly since then. He attempted to be his most charming, but apart from Afshan’s mortification at discovering that he was royalty, all he received was a stiff apology from her for overstepping her bounds. Later when he was sitting in his room thinking over his encounter, he realized that though her apology had been long, courtly and scrupulously polite, she had not actually apologized for her words, instead she had said that she was sorry for not treating him with the courtesy required by his rank.
His fascination with Afshan only grew, the more he came to know her, and the prince applied his considerable charm upon her in order to earn her friendship. He did not succeed. Afshan was the type of person who, while slow to anger, once angered, was extremely slow to relent. She snubbed all his advances, for a good three years, before finally accepting an overture from him. From there, slowly but inevitably, the more the Prince got to know her, the more he fell in love. In the end they both loved each other and their engagement was announced to court. For Gul, their love story was her benchmark, her ideal of romantic relationships. She did not believe in love at first sight, but instead, love through friendship and devotion to be the ultimate in romance.
This was partly why she had been so determined to get to know her Sultan. She believed fervently with all her heart, that a friendship built over time yields a happy marriage, and may even turn into true love. Her letters to Mehmed carried her fierce hopes for a happy and fulfilling life. She set herself the task of getting to know her future husband with a determination stemming from hope and yearning.
As she welcomed her brother and his wife back to court, it seemed as if no time at all had passed between the times when she used to run wild with Ahmer, Afshan trailing behind them, the sole voice of reason.However, her trip to the past was but a momentary daydream in the face of reality. Nowadays, her brother was a much more serious man, fully focused on his duties and obligations, so while he greeted her with smiles and hugs, he was soon ensconced within the council chambers with their father and his ministers.
She hardly saw him, even now, busy being swept along on the hurricane of wedding preparations on her end, and royal obligations on his. She managed to spend more time with Afshan, who had taken her duties as sister-in-law of the bride, as seriously as she handled all her other responsibilities, therefore the time they spent together, was spent mostly carrying out their duties.
With Afshan back in the capital, Gul was relieved of an extra duty that she had been handling in her Sister-in-Law’s stead; the control of the city’s charities and orphanages. Her mother used to handle them, but it was tradition that the charities were handed to the Crown Prince’s wife upon his wedding. When she had gone on the tour, Afshan had entrusted her work to Gul, and now she needed to catch up on the details in order to get back in the groove of it. Gul led Afshan on a tour of the properties and handed over the paperwork, while introducing her to the multitudes of her subordinates.
Theses responsibilities kept both of them busy enough that they only saw Ahmer at night during the Formal Court dinners. The royal family didn’t normally have dinner in State every eve but due to Gul’s wedding, new Dignitaries arrived every day, and they had to be careful not to give any insult to anyone.
Just yestereve, her royal father had had to settle a dispute amongst the representatives of Nihaar and Zanbeel; neighboring nations with a long history of feuding. Ahmer had of course been present, and afterwards he had collaborated with his wife to expertly pull the two men apart. Ahmer leading away the Zabeeli Ambassador into the Gardens and Afshan using a combination of charm and political astuteness had pulled aside the Nihaai Ambassador and distracted him quite thoroughly.
It had been evident that over time her brother and his wife had spent touring the nation, they had become a single unit; working in tandem without any need of planning or preparation. She had been struck by a stab of envy; before they had left, it used to be Gul that both of them orbited around, both of them in love, but uncertain around the other; they used her as their connecting point, but now it seemed that they had managed to create a new balance in their relationship which did not include her. But, seeing them like this also brought her hope; maybe someday she and Mehmed would have the same ease around each other.
It seemed these days, that whatever she did, her thoughts would inevitably end up on him. Though she had never met him he was always present in her thoughts. Anywhere she turned, reminders of her upcoming nuptials stared her in the face. From renovation and decorations, to courtly guests and an endless parade of seamstresses; everything seemed set to remind her of him. Sometimes waiting for his next letter was excruciating, the anticipation rising in her throat and almost choking her with its intensity. So she was very relieved when a servant came to inform her that a letter had arrived for her and was waiting in her chambers.
To be continued…