Break the Gilded Cage Ch. 02byElenia26©
Two weeks later, Julian entered the hot city of Merrakath by boat. In his possession were visitors' passes to the palace. He was met at the docks by a delegation of the palace, which escorted him into a carriage.
As he rode through the city, he watched out of the windows. The people seemed fairly happy and content for such a cruel-seeming lord. He kept the words of his friend in mind though, and reserved judgement.
They arrived at the palace and he was immediately taken to a private room to freshen up and change. His things were unpacked for him by a heavily veiled maid, and then he was whisked away to meet the caliph.
He entered the huge throne room with some awe. There were silk tapestries hanging on the walls, and veiled girls with beautiful eyes everywhere. Everyone was dressed in silk, and while the city was well over 100 degrees in the shade, the palace was cool. They had brought him lemonade to drink to cool himself off. He was wearing one of his best suits.
He entered the throne room behind the advisor and kowtowed properly as he had learned years ago, when he entered the eastern lands before. He was grateful for that time, since he had also learned to speak the local language. He knelt at the last position and waited for the summons.
"Rise, Julian Alexander." The voice was deep and cultured, with no trace of an accent. It continued, "Your family is well-known and respected here. Your father did my father a service once that has not been forgotten."
"What can the court of Fadjlan ibn Ahmed do for you?"
Julian rose, and looked at the caliph for the first time. He was about fifty or so years old, with a beard so black and glossy it had to have been dyed. At his feet sat his four wives, all heavily veiled…
Wait a minute, four wives! Inside Julian cursed him. The bastard must have gotten remarried. To gain time, he launched into the florid compliments expected by the lords here. "Most merciful lord of the east, I have come to beg your mercy on something that is important to me. If my lord could spare but a moment of his time I would state my case."
The caliph nodded. "Proceed."
Julian hesitated, but not for long. Best to just get the question out in the opening right away.
"I come with a message from your esteemed brother-in-law, Sir James Roenall the Third." Did the skin around the caliph's eyes tighten ever so slightly? Julian couldn't be sure. But he plunged on anyway with the story James had arranged.
"Sir Roenall has recently been informed that his niece has just turned sixteen. As you know, it is the custom in both your culture and his for marriage proposals to be considered at this age. Sir Roenall understands you have already received a worthy proposal. However, Sir Roenall wishes to delay the marriage by a few months so that he may get to know his niece." James had thought only to get the girl out of his clutches. Later they would figure out what there was to be done.
"Sir Roenall wishes his niece to come and visit him for a period of three months. Then she may return and be married in the customs of your people." Julian heard a tiny gasp, so soft that if he hadn't been honed by years of adventuring he certainly wouldn't have heard it. He flicked his eyes to the right and saw a gaggle of veiled women. It was from amongst these the gasp had come. He wondered if Roenall's niece was among them.
He stopped then, and bowed to appear polite. Out of the corner of his eye he watched the caliph. He was tapping his chin, thinking. That was a good sign, that he had not been rejected outright.
Suddenly the caliph beamed. "How honored we are, to receive such a proposal. However, I will need some time to think it over."
He clapped his hands before Julian could protest. "You will be my guest. I will need twenty-four hours to decide. Until then you will be my…honored guest."
Julian began to speak but the caliph waved a heavily bejeweled hand expansively. "You needn't worry about imposing, my friend. We are more than welcome to have you." His smile did not reach his eyes, though, and Julian thought he'd better drop it.
That night he was wined and dined to the best of their ability. The caliph himself entertained him, which was a great honor, but he would not let Roenall's niece be discussed at all. Julian was finally able to retire to his room.
To his surprise, there was someone waiting there for him. A servant girl rushed to him as soon as he entered and knelt at his feet.
"I am yours to command, my Lord." She spoke in heavily accent common. He started to wave her away, but she lifted her head and looked directly into his eyes and said softly, "The Princess herself sent me for your comfort, my Lord. I am her slave girl."
Julian hesitated, then nodded. "You may stay." He closed the door, and sat on the bed, watching the girl. After a few minutes, she spoke.
"May I speak my Lord?"
He nodded. "Speak freely."
"My lady has sent me here for other reasons than pleasure, though if you wish it I am available for that as well."
"Speak," he commanded gruffly.
She bowed until her head reached the ground. Her voice was soft but obviously that of a peasant. "My Lady heard you speaking to the caliph in the throne room. She wishes to know if you truly wish to take her to see her Uncle."
Julian nodded. "Does your lady wish this?"
The slave girl smiled for the first time, lifting her head. "Very much, my Lord. She is most grateful to you."
"But there will be trouble. The caliph will not give her up so easily. He will demand something of you. My lady says, if you are still willing to help, she will lend all the assistance she can. Her power is slight but she is willing."
Julian considered. "Tell your lady thank you. Tell her I do not wish her to endanger herself but I will be most grateful for any and all help she can offer."
The slave girl bowed again. "My lady wishes to also say one thing. But this must not be spoken aloud. She has written a letter, if my Lord wishes..." she trailed off.
"Give it to me." The slave girl took from her sleeve a small piece of rolled paper. As he brought it close he realized it was scented of jasmine. He carefully unrolled it and was surprised to see a brief note in Latin. He looked at the slave girl.
"How did she know I could read and write Latin?"
The slave girl bowed again. "Truthfully, my Lord, she did not know. It is a language that not many people in the palace know, however. My lady is only aware of herself and her tutor in this country. She hoped an obviously educated man like yourself would have learned the dead languages."
"Smart girl. I mean, Princess." He answered her slightly shocked look, and turned his gaze to the paper. The handwriting was neat and elegant, but somehow girlish all the same. It said simply:
My Lord Alexander:
Providence has brought you to me. I wish you to know as flatly as possible that I do not want the life my father has planned for me. My tutor tells me you are here to take me away from all this. I am willing to go to any lengths to escape it. I believe the caliph has a plan for you. I believe I may know what it is. I do not wish to state it if it does not come to pass but please, if you have no hesitations then I do not.
Daughter of Fadjlan ibn Ahmed
He finished reading it, and the slave girl spoke up. "My lady asks you to destroy the note, my lord, for your own sake."
"Do you know what this note says?" She shook her head.
"Very well. What is your name?"
"Jasmine, my lord."
"Jasmine. Will you be punished if I send you away from here – ah no, forget it." For he had already seen the fear spring into her eyes. "You may sleep here. Not in the bed. The divan will do for you. I am afraid I am not interested in anything more, but thank you. As for the note - " he crumpled up the piece of paper and swallowed it.
That night Julian thought about this unexpected development. If the girl was willing to help him it would be an added bonus. He had been wondering how to convince the girl to travel with him. He slept easily though, and arose the first thing next morning.
The caliph was gone until evening, but he was permitted to travel everywhere but the seraglio. He spent the day exploring the grounds. He was given a male servant to spend the day with him. Jasmine was gone, presumably back to her mistress.
That evening the caliph summoned him back to the throne room. Julian went with some trepidation. The caliph welcomed him warmly though, and would allow no discussion to take place until they had supped on fine lamb and biryani.
Then the caliph sat back. "So, my brother-in-law wishes my niece to visit him, yes?"
Julian nodded. "He would be most honored."
"But I cannot let my niece travel in the company of an unmarried man, now can I?"
Julian started to speak, but the caliph waved his hand dismissively. "Let me offer you a counter-proposal, my friend. More wine?" A servant refilled Julian's cup.
"You see, my daughter is marrying a very rich and powerful man. I wish to make him an ally. However the wedding is not yet set. I have many allies in my own country, and the suitor will no doubt accept another daughter.
"What I do not have is many allies outside of this realm." Here he paused to take a drink. Julian wondered what he was getting at. Did the caliph expect him to find the girl a husband? The point, when it came, however, nailed him to the floor.
"I will let my daughter go with you on one condition. That you take her not as friend or companion or even protected Princess but that you take her to wife."
There was silence in the room. Julian didn't even dare to glance toward the group of his daughters. His mouth opened, but no sound came out. He had never been married in his life.
"I see you hesitate. Well I will give you even more reason to hesitate then, and perhaps you will leave this foolish business and go away. You see, all my sons-in-law must sign a contract with me. Within this contract it says they are to repay the bride price to their father-in-law, myself, within five years or the bride will be reclaimed."
Julian listened, stunned. Marry? The girl was sixteen and he was fifty years old. Oh, thanks to the potion of rejuvenation his body looked and acted like the body of a 25-year old, but his mind had indeed lived for fifty years.
Repaying the bride price wasn't a bother, either. He was sure it would be quite high, but he had quite a bit of money saved away over the years.
But it wasn't the provocative tone of the caliph that convinced him. It was the shielded desperation in the note he had read, and the unshielded declaration that she was amenable to anything. After all, the wedding could always be annulled. He inhaled deeply.
"Very well, this is acceptable to me." Now he definitely heard a few gasps from the assembled nobles. "I accept your proviso, my lord. Truthfully I had not thought to marry but as you said strong alliances are all-powerful and to ally with your house would be truly a great honor." He tried not to wince as he delivered that whopper of a lie.
The caliph looked impressed. "I see. Very well, my friend. Then go and rest. Tomorrow is a new day and day after tomorrow is the wedding. The servants will care for you."
Julian lay awake that night, thinking of what the tasks could possibly be. Before he drifted off to sleep, he heard a soft tap at the door. He hurried to open it.
At the door stood a familiar servant girl. She bowed, and said, "You summoned me, my Lord?" Julian had done no such thing, but he was grateful to see her nonetheless. "Come in," he said curtly, and shut the door.
As soon as the door was shut Jasmine hurried into the room and closed the heavy drapes leading between the main room and his bed. She slipped inside the drapes and beckoned for him to follow.
"I do not wish for them to even hear through the door, my lord."
He nodded. She continued, "My lady wishes to inquire about my lord's health. She is worried."
In spite of himself Julian actually smiled. "Your lady is very kind. Please tell her I am coping in spite of the worry over this contract."
Jasmine bowed. "That is why I have come here. My lady has sent me with a copy of the contract for you to peruse. That way you will know exactly what the caliph has in store for you."
Julian eyed the girl. "Your lady, is she getting in trouble by getting this kind of information?"
Jasmine shook her head. "My lady's childhood tutor is a foreigner. While he has lived here his loyalties still lie elsewhere. But he loves the Princess and is helping her with this information. It is he who devises the contracts, and they are not easy to read. However, he has included notes to explain himself. "
The next day dawned bright, and hot. Julian had wondered what they would do today, and the answer came in the form of a tailor at seven AM. Then came the silkmakers, the turban-makers, the shoemakers, in a stream. Following that came the caliph's chief financial advisor to hammer out the contract. Having read it ahead of time, Julian was able to suggest some unexpected changes to make it more to his benefit. He was careful not to push to hard, but he managed to get the interest down to a reasonable level. The day was spent thusly, fitting clothes, items, whatever he may need.
Later that evening they took him to see his bride-price. No less than twenty goats would be sold, and the money be given to him in a purse at the wedding. Her own jewelry would come with her, as well as silks, clothes, and perfumes. He was amazed at the caliph's riches.
That night in bed, however, he could only think of his impending marriage. With a start he realized he didn't even know what she looked like. Was she beautiful? Perhaps she was hideous. Perhaps he would be saddled with an ugly wife. Worse, perhaps she was shrewish and unkind.
But the letter seemed to belay that. The letter seemed to be of an intelligent, bright young girl. He sighed, and eventually fell asleep.