The Bird King

The Bird King

G. Willow Wilson

For my daughter Safeya, who fought and lived.

Though you have struggled, wandered, traveled far, It is yourselves you see, and what you are.

—Farid ud-Din Al Attar,

The Conference of the Birds

Chapter 1

29 August 1491 AD / 23 Shawwal 896 AH

Hassan was deep in prayer.

He was not on his knees, however, nor bowing toward the gold-painted medallion in the southeast corner of his workroom that marked the direction of Mecca: instead, he sat on a cushion in the sun with his legs crossed and a string of wooden prayer beads slack in his hand, his eyes focused on something Fatima could not see. She had no way of knowing how long he had been in this attitude when she slipped into his room from the shaded path she had taken through the Court of Myrtles. Sweat glowed on Hassan’s brow where the sun struck it, and when she stepped on his shadow with her bare foot, the marble tiles beneath were cold. He might have been there for hours, so lost in God that he had trouble finding his way out again. His lips were parted as if he had gone silent in midconversation. A holy name had been upon them, but which?

“Hayy,” whispered Fatima, guessing. Yet that syllable fell on the wrong part of the palate.

“Hu,” she guessed again.

There was a door in the western wall that hadn’t been there on Fatima’s last visit to Hassan’s workroom. It stood innocently ajar in its frame of white plaster, a simple rectangle of wood dotted with iron fastenings, its edges cracked and dry, as if it had been there as long as the Alhambra itself. Fatima stood on one foot and leaned sideways to peek around the door, shielding her body behind its solid bulk to protect herself from whatever might lie beyond it.

Her worry proved needless. Through the doorway was the familiar lantern-shaped interior of the Mexuar. Fatima could see the outline of its low balcony and the wood-paneled ceiling above, the small dais at the end of the chamber where the sultan sat to hear lawyers argue and listen to the complaints of his viziers. It was empty now, though it still smelled of incense, as if the men who spent their days in its rich gloom had only just left.

It was certainly the Mexuar, yet the Mexuar was on the far side of the Court of Myrtles, in the opposite direction.

“It was convenient to have a door there.”

Startled, Fatima turned and shut the door abruptly behind her. Hassan was alert now, smiling, his velvet brown eyes lucid and unperturbed, as though falling into trances and summoning passageways out of solid walls were ordinary late summer occupations.

“I got tired of walking back and forth across the courtyard in this heat,” he continued, getting to his feet. “Why should the royal mapmaker burn to a crisp when all the other viziers and secretaries sit inside all day? Anyway, it doesn’t matter. I can easily make another.”

Fatima looked over her shoulder and saw only the chalky plaster wall she had seen a hundred times before, uninterrupted by passages of any kind.

“I didn’t mean to close it,” she said. “It’s just that you startled me.”

“I said it doesn’t matter.” Hassan, yawning, shuffled to the stone balustrade that ran the sunny length of his workroom. It looked out through a series of slender wooden arches onto the green hedge-ways that gave the Court of Myrtles its name, separating Hassan’s quarters from the courtyard in the briefest and most ceremonial way. Maps drawn on parchment and vellum and linen were piled along its length and weighted with stones, their edges curling in the heat while the ink upon them dried. Hassan teased one out from under a chunk of quartz and held it up critically. A grid of streets traversed its length, terminating in what to Fatima’s eyes looked like a river.

Fatima went to her favorite spot along the balustrade, yawning herself as Hassan’s indolence grew contagious. She pushed aside a pile of paper and sat on the sun-warmed stone, allowing herself, finally, to relax.

The golden hour bloomed around them, yellowing the myrtle hedge, the grass, the marble paths, the long reflecting pool that pointed through the courtyard toward the administrative wing of the palace. It was in this vaporous time of day, when Lady Aisha liked to doze, that Fatima would often slip away from her mistress, leaving the harem through an unguarded door used primarily by the washerwoman and the unfortunate pox-scarred girl whose job it was to empty the stool chamber. It led to a windowless corridor which was entirely dark when the doors at either end were closed, and emerged, by Hassan’s benevolent wizardry, in the Court of Myrtles, allowing Fatima to come and go without being seen, provided she kept her wits.

“You’re fond of that spot,” said Hassan. He threw the map he was holding at his worktable, where it unrolled only a little, and picking up a small lead compass, began to clean his fingernails with the sharp end. “But you’d better get down from there before someone sees you.”

“Why must I?” Fatima countered.

“You know very well why. You’re not allowed to be here unchaperoned, let alone sprawled languidly across the railing of my terrace. The poor dear sultan looks weak enough as it is without you thwarting his authority as well. The Castilians and the Aragonese surround us on all sides, the Egyptians have abandoned us, and the Turks have swallowed all of Anatolia in one gulp. Our Abu Abdullah is master of an empire that no longer exists. His own mother overrules him when it suits her. Who is left to take him seriously if not his concubine? I pity the fellow.”

Fatima sighed in irritation. She swung her legs over the edge of the balustrade and sat up, shaking the hem of her loose linen trousers to free the belled bracelets that lay in the hollows below her ankles.

Hassan chewed at a tuft of beard beneath his lower lip. His hair, another of his perversities, was reddish, the legacy of a Breton grandmother taken hostage in some war or other. Fatima was not sure he was handsome—his nose was too sharp, his eyes were too small, his complexion was too hectic, apt to turn red and blotchy on the frequent occasions when he was flustered. No, he was not handsome, yet he was the only man she had ever come across who did not desire her, and for that, she forgave him many things.

“Have you brought me anything?” he asked now, his voice boyish and pleading.

Fatima pointed to his worktable: in a handkerchief was a small, sticky pile of orange-scented sweets.

“Bless you,” said Hassan fervently. He picked up the handkerchief and began to shovel its contents into his mouth.

“Slow down,” said Fatima, laughing at the droplets of honey that clung to his beard. Hassan made a face at her.

“I forget you aren’t starving,” he said. “You live in the harem eating honey and playing the lute and mincing around in silk slippers all day, while the rest of us are chewing old shoe leather. You might at least have the grace to pretend to suffer. We’re under siege, after all. The sultan will be forced to accept terms from King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella at any moment.”

“Would you trade, then?” asked Fatima, her lip only a little curled. “I’ll happily do your job and starve if you’d like to do mine and eat well. You can listen to Lady Aisha insult people all morning, mend dresses all afternoon, and then—” Here her voice caught in her throat. Hassan studied her with one ruddy eyebrow raised.

“And then lie with the sultan all night? I’d trade you in a flash, Fa, in an absolute instant. My God! Those melancholy lips. What? Don’t you think he’s handsome?”

Fatima thought nothing. Her body felt suddenly heavy and sluggish, like some unfamiliar borrowed thing growing damp in the heat. She hung above it in the air, tethered to it only loosely, and wondered whether she would find the sultan as handsome as Hassan did if she had a choice in the matter.

“Fa? I’m sorry, my love. Don’t look like that. I didn’t mean to upset you. Fa—” Hassan pressed an anxious kiss into her palm.

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