The City of Maj’Dul was founded by its first Sultan, Ahkari. Over time, Ahkari displayed a restless energy that no one could trace, though his Second Wife’s tale gives us one glimpse into his turmoil.
Hot, so hot. Heat roiling off the edges of the world, rendering the horizon an endless sea. Ahkari’s hands trembled as he grasped the goblet of water offered to him, but when he held it to his lips, only sand poured forth. He retched, choking on the burning grit.
“You cannot make me drink this!” the Sultan cried, his lips cracking. “I am the ruler of Maj’Dul and will not be treated this way!”
“Hush, hush,” whispered his Second Wife, whose turn it was to watch over him this night. “You are dreaming; close your eyes and rest.” She wet a cloth with watered wine and touched his broken lips with it, dabbing away the blood.
How many nights had he been this way? The Second Wife sang a lullaby, massaging Ahkari’s temples until his breathing evened and he seemed to be deep in sleep again. She stood, stretched, and closed the curtains around his bed before going to the arched window to study the landscape. Beyond the soft yellow walls, somewhere in the velvet night, her people wandered while she lived in luxury. Glancing at the silk curtains around the bed, the Second Wife smiled. Luxury came with a price.
As Second Wife, she no longer used her own name but rather that of her position so as not to arouse the anger of the First Wife. And since Ahkari’s nights has become so troubled, she too lost sleep for the First Wife would no longer share his chamber and had sent her instead. She could hear Ahkari’s thin voice through the curtains, begging to be left along. “My poor lord,” she whispered to herself, withdrawing to her own chamber.
Still, Ahkari was a kind man. Before the madness struck him, she had seen him infrequently as he doted upon the First Wife. Now that he was used to the Second Wife’s presence, he showered her with jewels, exotic perfumes and best of all, his attention. Then they would sleep and the terrors began. What pursued him through the oasis of the night, she wondered, and kept him from refreshing himself at its pool of dreams?
In the morning, Ahkari was better, though his lips were still dry and chapped. He guzzled water so greedily that the Second Wife cautioned him, “To drink so much at once can kill you, my lord, as it kills the deer who thirsts in the wilds.”
“I am no deer,” he laughed, but his voice was edged with an unfamiliar note. “Do not worry,” he added, patting her hand. “I will not drink myself to death with water.”
The Second Wife kept to herself while Ahkari was busy with his sons, none of them hers, and the business of ruling the city. Maj’Dul was Ahkari’s city; he had planned its rise from the harsh desert rocks and now ruled as its Sultan. His sons were cordial, but they discounted her presence as did the other officials of the city. She was Second and while the First Wife lived, had no authority.
And yet, watching Ahkari through the gilt screens that separated the large council chamber from the gallery, she wondered what it would be like to be the First Wife. Would she too have summoned a lesser attendant in order to avoid the unpleasantness that visited the Sultan in the night? Or, the Second Wife’s eyes grew wide as she considered the idea, was the First Wife somehow responsible for his illness?
“No, never,” the Second Wife whispered to herself. No one would wish pain on this man. And such pain! For now, Ahkari was screaming at the top of his lungs for his eldest son Ahkarem and accusing everyone around him of treason. A froth grew at the corners of the Sultan’s mouth before Ahkarem was finally located and brought before his father.
“Your son stands humbly before you, Sultan,” cried Ahkarem, his voice ringing through the hall and capturing his father’s attention.
“Ahkarem,” the Sultan sobbed, “You must know these dates are poisoned! Take them away and kill the one who brought them!”
With a glance, Ahkarem stayed the guards from acting upon the Sultan’s commands. He gently took his father’s arm and said firmly, “You should not jest this way, my lord, for your word is our command.”
The Second Wife would not bear to see Ahkari in such a state and fled the room. Behind her, she could hear Ahkari’s voice returning to normal as he laughed loudly and said, “Ahkarem is wise to see though my joke. The dates are fine but very rich; take them away.” The voices, thankfully normal, of father and son echoed through the chamber.
How much longer would Ahkari be able to keep his position, with four healthy sons of an age to take his place? Hadn’t the guards done Ahkarem’s bidding rather than his father’s? The Second Wife hurried to the sanctuary of the Sultan’s room, calling for her maid. “Draw my bath,” she commanded, “And use the rose oil favored by my lord.”
This night, Ahkari had planned a banquet and all the wives were to attend. His sons and First Wife would sit on the dais with him. As Second Wife, she would be seated elsewhere with Ahkari’s grandchildren. Still, she wanted to be beautiful, for it pleased her to see his face light up when he recognized a scent or bracelet that he had given her. She heard the doors to the chamber slam open as the Sultan entered.
“Those robes are not fit for my camel to wear!” Ahkari yelled. “There are purple butterflies on them! Who has ever seen a spotted purple butterfly before? Get it out of my sight or you will be sent to the arena as fodder for my champion!”
The Second Wife hurried toward him. “My lord, you are frightening me. The purple robe was ever your favorite. Do you not wish to wear it, another will be found.”
Ahkari’s eyes focused on the Second Wife for a moment, and it was clear that the madness was fighting for control inside him. “I cannot find my paradise,” he whispered hoarsely, “I am in the desert but there is no oasis for me.”
“My lord, wherever you are, that is my paradise,” she murmured. “Tonight, you will find peace and comfort. And I shall be there also.”
The tension eased in the Sultan’s face. He held the Second Wife against him briefly, kissing her hair. He said, “You cannot follow me, but I know what awaits.”
“My lord?” she asked, puzzled. He kissed her again and said nothing more. That evening as the banquet went on around them, she saw him leave the dais. His steps were proud and strong as of old. When they found him the next dawn, his silent lips were curled in a serene smile, for Ahkari had come to the oasis at last.