"It's past time our house knew peace. I will make that happen."
|Written for "The Midnight Traveler's Contest" by Gaby
October 2016 : word count 2365
featured in "The Power of Doubt" by Jay (away for a while)
Sometimes there is no reasoning with yourself as a writer, and that's only the half of it. What do you do then? (Short Stories Newsletter - March 28, 2018)
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The balcony above the palace doorway overlooked the hill upon which it sat and afforded Nadir full view of the road all the way down to the paddocks. Despite the humidity of the afternoon creeping down his spine, the young man held vigil from this eyrie for the king's return. It occurred to the prince that patience, like courage, was a matter of enduring anticipation and that he should be as capable of the one as the other.
Nadir declined to acknowledge the person approaching him until the footsteps ended in silence. Then Nadir looked over his shoulder to find his brother at his side. Stony Arash folded his thick arms and frowned at the view beneath the two princes. Of either son, Arash better resembled their father - taller and broader - where Nadir favoured their mother's side and had more of their uncle's looks.
"You have been quiet today," the towering teenager observed.
"I've dedicated myself to humility," Nadir replied.
Arash raised an eyebrow, knowing full well his elder brother had done no such thing.
"You mean you are planning something. Something you do not want to tell me."
"I mean I'm working on my patience as you and Mother counsel me to do. Is it strange to imagine me listening to our mother's advice?" Nadir asked.
Arash's frown deepened so his blocky forehead seemed to fissure.
"You always keep your own counsel. What-"
Nadir clapped a hand on the younger son's shoulder and Arash flinched. Nadir steeled his expression and with cold blood squeezed the fresh bruise hidden beneath his brother's kaftan. Arash endured it without a sound as he had when their father first inflicted it.
"I am done fighting, Arash. It is past time our house knew peace. I will do anything to make that happen."
"Do you mean it this time?" Though he stood taller and broader, Arash's age showed in his eyes when he pleaded with his big brother.
"I have always meant it." Nadir mussed Arash's hair. "I've asked for supper to be laid out for Father's return. I'll share my resolution with him and put an end to our arguments today."
"I should dress then."
"No, you should rest. " Nadir folded his arms tight and looked away to the road. "After this morning- it will be easier without you. Forgive me for saying so."
"You don't trust your temper." Arash sighed.
"I don't trust his. I won't have you used to punish me again. It will best for me to speak to him alone."
"Take care, Nadir."
"Every care," the elder son promised.
At the first glimpse of King Piruz al-Asbistan's entourage returning from the plain to the paddocks, Nadir forewarned the servants to prepare the hall for supper and returned to his room. The prince redressed with care to best please his father with a suitably masculine appearance. He drew on a coat of deep green silk and tied his dark hair up in his scarf to evade any accusations of vanity. His hands shook so badly on the first attempt, Nadir pressed them to the wall and measured his breathing to restore his self-control.
When he looked every bit the gracious and obedient heir the king demanded, Nadir crossed to the window and retrieved from above the upper sill a modest case. The magician's instructions were as simple as they were vital. In the gloomy shack at the far edge of the city, he had impressed their importance on Nadir and made the prince recite his words before surrendering the box into his care.
In the first, never must the lid be opened. The casket is sealed with wax. Should this break the box must be burned immediately.
Nadir opened the outer case and examined his lethal package, stroking the seams with his fingertip. Satisfied the seals remained intact, he returned it to the larger box to conceal the black enamel shell and the gemstones set into its surface.
In the second, never must another touch the casket or look upon it. Its allure will be your undoing.
The young prince closed the lid over the top of the casket and sat a moment with death in his lap.
"Either this is a common box and I have made a fool of myself to a liar or You are here with me," he whispered. "If the magician spoke true and if God's will against this action, I will heed His word. If I am to cease and endure, show me."
Nadir waited, hearing only his aching heart until startled by a tap on the door frame.
Esmail did not comment on his nephew's flinch, but said "the shah is arriving in the great hall".
The prince stood, carrying the package with him as far as the door where the warrior obstructed his path. Esmail did not fill the doorway as the king did and held Nadir with words and posture in place of brawn.
"Keep your peace or keep out of sight, Nadir," Esmail warned. "It took long enough to distract him and bring him back into good spirits."
"Silence suits you better than me, Uncle. I don't have your talent for idleness."
"You can be sharp with me if it helps you to mind yourself in front of your father, but do not be foolish. You have a mind as keen as your tongue, Nadir, if only you will apply yourself to accommodating him. The man you know as your father is not the man we know as our king. He leads well."
"I know he must," the prince replied. "There is not one of you who will speak against the way he rules his home. Who could think it right that he battered his child because I refused to ride with the king today? I believe better of you than that."
"There-" Esmail sighed and his expression softened. "He will not listen. You cannot break him as you would a colt. I pray he will not break you, but he will try, if you do not do as he requires. Nadir, he beats your brother because you would let him kill you before you relented. Give him what he wants and you will both have peace."
Nadir's grip tightened on the casket until a tremor started in his arms. He choked back a flood of spite as he steadied himself. Esmail waited for the sake of the young man's dignity.
"It is easier for you to please your king than for me to please my father," the prince said carefully.
"I know it." Esmail cupped the back of Nadir's head, "But will you try?"
"I will try anything, uncle."
The buzz of kamancheh strings carried down the hall. Graceful Zinat sat prettily to the far left of the king, drawing music from the fiddle with her clever hands. The musician cast her large eyes at Nadir briefly as he entered, but did not interrupt her art for anything but the king's command. Shah Piruz's favourite mistress had not become so without discipline.
Nadir bowed inside the doorway and passed along the low table to stop on the king's right. Esmail made his bow there and took his seat.
"I understand this excellent greeting is your doing, Nadir," the king said. Shah Piruz set down his bread and wiped his hands, affording his son his full attention.
"I advised the house of your arrival, my shah. It is our staff who excel."
"Prettily said. Your humour seems to have improved since this morning. I am glad to see it."
Esmail looked from the king to Nadir with a tight jaw, but the prince did not blush and politely answered "I endeavour to improve in all ways I may".
"Well I will not have you standing throughout the entire meal. What have you there, Nadir?"
"A gift delivered for your consideration."
"Is this gift from anyone in particular, or did it fall from the sky?" Shah Piruz smirked.
"She did not care to share her name, my shah."
"How discreet!" The king cackled and set off his court laughing. Even Nadir allowed himself a smile. Though for a very different reason.
"Set it down and set yourself down," Shah Piruz commanded.
The king waved at the man next to Esmail to make room for his son and Nadir placed the box at the end of the table. The prince turned his cushion and sat down beside his uncle, holding his cup so Esmail could fill it for him. Nadir accepted rice and bread and meat as dishes were passed to him, leaving the food on his plate and occupying his hands elsewise.
In the third, never must your hands pass food or drink to your lips between touching the casket and cleansing in blessed water.
The king opened the outer case and lifted the beautiful box onto the table. Nadir watched his examinations of the delicate ornaments and pinched his tongue with his teeth to wet it. Shah Piruz rolled his cup while he considered the peculiar casket and its wax seal, then looked to Esmail.
"It is fine work, my shah, if curious. Does it please you?"
"It puzzles me and that rarely pleases. A black box closed to prying eyes, but very fine work. I have to believe it a compliment, whether she wishes me to share it or not." The king slid his gaze across to his son who tilted his head in query.
"Are you planning on emptying that plate before it leaves the table?"
"Intrigue outruns my appetite," Nadir replied. He turned his attention to the food however, taking a boiled egg in one hand and cracking it on the edge of his plate.
A pale tuft burst from the shell and Nadir dropped it, snatching his hands into his lap. Esmail turned the crushed egg and more fragments broke off, but the prince looked away before the half-formed and fully boiled chick dropped to the table.
Nadir fixed his gaze on the wall, closing and opening his hands against the numbness clutching his fingers. Was this his warning at the last threshold? A few words spoken now would undo his work and just as surely undo the prince.
Nadir's uncle grimaced. "An ill omen to land in your hands."
"It's an egg." Shah Piruz scowled. "I can send for my mother, if I want the superstitions of old women."
That too provoked a spate of chuckling, this one thinner than the last. The king slammed his hand on the table, bringing Nadir's eyes up.
"Pull yourself together. You are not a child to be startled by ghost stories."
"No, I am not," Nadir agreed. He tossed the pathetic mess into the middle of the table and cracked another egg. The prince shed the shell from only half this one, keeping his touch carefully off the white flesh to take a bite untainted.
Shah Piruz huffed and returned to the casket, running his thumb nail along the seam of the lid to split the wax. He lifted the lid and cried out in horror.
Esmail lunged forward to grasp the small snake behind the head. It wriggled desperately as he pulled its teeth from his brother-in-law's arm. The king scrambled back from the table and failed in trying to find his feet. He fell to the floor in violent convulsions. Nadir's heart hammered louder than the shouts of the court and louder than Zinat screaming for control of the room, but the prince's attention was on the asp dangling in his uncle's hand. Black sand streamed from the snake's tail until it collapsed in a fatal spray of dust. The musician gathered up her skirts and ran from the room, but no physician can cure black magic.
In the fourth, never must you speak Her name or of how Her gift came into your possession. The Black Angel will not bear Her secrets to be told and you will bear Her only price for betrayal.
Esmail ushered his nephew out before the late shah's wife arrived in the hall. His jaw popped as he swung the prince against the wall and searched his face.
"Where did that box come from?"
"It was a gift."
"From who, Nadir?" Esmail demanded.
The prince raised a finger to his lips. Recognising the name of Death Herself, never to be spoken, Esmail snatched himself away from his nephew as if the prince's very skin were poison. Some feeling Nadir could not quite define flitted through his uncle's expression. He hoped it was shame.
"Do you understand what you have done? Your father is dead, Nadir. Your father."
"Are you going to accuse me to the court, or are you going to wait for someone else to speak first, as you always have?" The words flowed from Nadir's lips calmly. It surprised the prince how easily his breath came, how little Esmail's grip troubled him, how quiet the pit of venom in his spirit had fallen. In the absence of rage he felt… still, vacant.
"Have a care! This could cost you your life."
"I'm prepared for that. I don't pretend this is justice. I could not suffer him any longer."
"You're monstrous," Esmail said in awe.
"I am the monster my father made me and the one you allowed him to make me. My father? Your sister! Her sons! How much more beating was Arash to survive before you stopped him? How much more hate was I supposed to carry?" Nadir lifted his hands to show them free of tremors. "I am steady, uncle. I can breathe. I promised that I would make my home safe and I have done that."
The warrior wiped his face with his palms.
"Who can be safe from a man who murders his father with magic? You will regret this, Nadir. God have mercy, I will not give them your name, but you will regret today before you are finished in this life."
"I've brought peace to this house. I won't regret that," Nadir said.
Esmail shook his head and walked back toward the great hall.
"There will be no peace for you after this."