A favourable wind drew their ship across the clear blue sea, its hull slicing through the waves. As it entered the harbour, a sudden storm descended. The Woman gripped the railing as the deck rocked beneath her, rejoicing in the violence and fury of the tempest, but when Nicolas found her, he forced her back inside the cabin. The crew fought to anchor the vessel by the docks as the tide tried to drag it away.
‘Never seen a storm strike so fast,’ said the Captain afterwards. ‘Came as if from nowhere.’
‘Surely storms are commonplace at sea, Captain,’ replied Nicolas.
‘Aye. But there’s always a warning preceding it. I’ve been at sea for more of my life than on land, and there’re always signs. Gulls fleeing. Choppy waves. Pressure in the air. But this…’ he shook his head. ‘This was unnatural.’
Nicolas dismissed the man as superstitious. In his mind, a storm at sea was perfectly normal. Perhaps the Captain had missed his warning signs as he navigated the ship into the harbour.
He helped his new bride onto the docks where they were escorted to their villa. The building was surrounded by flowering trees, but the storm had left the courtyard littered with petals torn from their flowers. When they were safely indoors, Nicolas instructed the Captain to return in three months’ time.
The following evening was blissfully calm, and a half moon, golden like honey, winked in the sky. He lay on the carpeted floor, watching his bride.
She was beautiful.
Her golden eyes gazed into the distance as she sat there, still as stone.
‘What is it, my love?’ he asked.
She only smiled and poured him a drink. It was a local beverage, strong enough to make a man cough when he took his first sip. They sat together in silence as she refilled his glass over and over. He understood this to be a sign of her own nerves in anticipation of performing her new duties as a wife.
So he let her have her way.
Soon the room began to sway and his eyelids grew heavy. He laid his head down into her lap. She smelled of African violets. Her gentle hands stroked his hair softly, tenderly, in a repetitive motion that made him drowsy.
She looked down at his face.
There was a warm smile on his lips as he dozed off in her lap. For a long time she considered the man who lay there, his head resting on her thighs. The pale eyelids, the thick, girlish lashes, the flawless porcelain of his skin.
He was the pride and joy of his city.
The very image of male perfection.
She felt her resentment grow at the sight of him. She hated his company and his affection. She couldn’t stand the way he spoke to her, as if to a child. She was furious by what he expected from her, as if her body was no longer hers, and her life was just another trinket he had accumulated.
No. She would not submit to her fate.
She would grapple with it as long as she had breath in her body.
She reached behind her, careful not to stir her sleeping husband. Scarcely breathing, she wrapped her fingers around the cool steel handle of a knife. Her hand shook with anticipation. For a moment she refrained, keeping her gaze on Nicolas’ closed eyes.
He groaned in his sleep.
The sound filled her with an uncontrollable terror.
His breathing grew louder and louder, accompanied by the rapid drumming of her heart. The curved blade glinted in the light. With a cry, she sliced down into his throat. His eyes snapped open, and she thought they looked a lot like the eyes of a rabbit finding itself in the jaws of a wolf.
For a split second he recognized his killer.
But the realisation drained from his eyes as his head dropped from her lap onto the floor and a dark pool spread across the carpet.
She felt a smile creep into the corners of her mouth.
The act was so simple, after all.
The marketplace was thrumming with business. Shops filled with exotic spices and rolls of silk bustled with eager customers. And in every possible direction, people paused to examine the treasures.
Ali Muluk, a vizier to the king and a harsh customer, stood quarrelling with a shopkeeper.
‘Last week you sold me three barrels of this wine for forty dinars, and now you have it for sale at half that price,’ he lowered his voice threateningly. ‘How dare you cheat me.’
‘I’m sorry,’ replied the shopkeeper, clearly anxious. ‘But the wine will spoil soon, and the longer I have it, the cheaper the price. Surely you understand…’ he trailed off as Ali’s eyes darkened. ‘Perhaps if I gave you an extra barrel now and two cases of nuts?’ he tried again.
‘Perhaps you will reimburse me the money you stole from me, and I won’t take this matter into my own hands.’ His tone left no room for negotiation.
The shopkeeper, not without some regret, pulled out a bag of coins and counted out nearly the full amount of what the vizier had originally paid.
Ali felt the weight of the gold in his hand. When it was sufficient he dropped it into a pouch in his tunic and turned away, well aware of the man’s eyes burning into his back.
But he didn’t care; he knew the man wouldn’t dare do anything.
As he walked down the street he caught a glimpse of a young woman partially hidden behind a stand of veils.
He paused in dumb confusion, unable to comprehend what he saw.
As she examined each item, her face was veiled by a new colour, fringed with gold and embroidered with elaborate images. Ali was so captivated by the charming vision that for some time he remained frozen, as if in a trance.
The glimpse of her unveiled face burned itself into his memory. The large, sparkling eyes were the colour of Baltic amber, and her rosy lips held a devious curve; in a word, her face was nothing short of perfection.
As a man accustomed to getting his way, Ali approached her directly.
‘I can assure you I have not lost my senses,’ he began, in an authoritative voice, ‘but I want to know your name.’
She smiled beneath her veil. ‘I haven’t one.’
‘How is that possible?’ he laughed. ‘Everyone is gifted a name from the moment of their birth. Why won’t you tell me? What are you afraid of?’
‘The only thing I fear is running out of books to read.’ She lifted her veil, revealing golden eyes that flashed upon him.
He stood breathless for a moment, captivated by the strange sight.