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Garlands of Sapphires, Fountains of Joy

Chapter Text

***

Her buttocks like a dune
Over which a rain shower falls
Matting the sand
As it sprinkles down...

--Dhu al-Rúmma

***

Samarkand is the emerald of Persia's sultanates, a city of orchards, forests and fountains. Yassamin has never seen as much greenery in her life, and with great enthusiasm, she sets out to explore all the area's natural riches during the first few weeks of their time there. Latifa is only glad to take her on a tour of the city and its surroundings, and they spend many a pleasant picnic and hunting trip in the forests and gardens on either side of the Sogd.

Yassamin feels life returning to all of her limbs, feels more well-nourished than she ever had been as a queen; all this exercise, fresh fruit and game have done wonders for her health. And she is sure it has to be the fresh air, the fertility of the ground itself and not merely the promise of a new life in her belly that makes her feel so replenished. For the people here are glowing with health, even in the lowest classes: the trees bear fruit in every season and there's a garden and running water in every house; as a consequence, she has seen hardly any cases of scurvy and dysentery is rare.

Yet despite all their civilisation, most of the people here still worship idols, revere the Three Jewels even if their rulers are good Muslims. There are hundreds of temples here, many monks, many golden idols of the Buddha, of goddesses riding on lions, and Yassamin mumbles a prayer every time she has to pass them by. However, Latifa is not bothered by such things, having lived nearly her entire life here: she tells Yassamin that her husband tolerates these practices if only because heathens will have to pay higher taxes. In fact, she tells Yassamin, the majority of those who have converted to Islam are wretched climbers, people out to grab power for themselves; Latifa says she would rather trust an honest pagan than a false Muslim.

Jaffar, in turn, falls in love with the city because of its heritage of learning, the vast libraries housed in its temples. At first, the saffron-robed monks look upon him with suspicion, but he has always known how to charm his way anywhere: in perfectly enunciated Sanskrit, he offers them the secret of papermaking and a share in the profits of his paper mills, the construction of which he had initiated their very first week here. It is an offer even the proudest of abbots cannot refuse, and thus, Jaffar is allowed even into the inner sanctums to go through their manuscripts.

And when he isn't too busy devouring books, he is busy putting all his scientific knowledge to good use: he had taken one look at the plumbing in Mohammad's palace and said he could improve it vastly in but a few weeks' time. He'd been developing a new system of showers in Baghdad, far more reliable and less likely to grow cold right in the middle of one's bath. He has found a way to pump water out with enough pressure to cleanse every pore after a steam bath, enough to scrub even an Ethiope white, he boasts.

Mohammad rolls his eyes and slumps upon his cushions. "Where do you get the energy for all this, my brother?" he asks. He is all of fifteen years younger than Jaffar himself, and already suffering from gout and growing a paunch besides. "Have you harnessed djinn to do your work for you?"

Mohammad means it as a joke, but--well. Jaffar glances at Yassamin over the scrolls of the plans he has just been demonstrating to his brother. "You could say that," he grins, for it is exactly that; but Mohammad and Latifa need not know.

Of course, to Yassamin's chagrin, Jaffar decides to test his new plumbing inventions in their house at first, promising to have them all done by the time it's their third wedding anniversary. She has to use the public baths for a week before Jaffar's rebuilt all the aqueducts and pipes, installed furnaces to heat up the water and calibrated all the valves and levers by which one can adjust the temperature and the volume of the water. Without djinn, the work would have taken several months, she supposes, even as she shudders as she sees the last of them vanishing through a drain in a flurry of blue fire.

She clutches her towel more tightly about herself, her clogs loud on the enamelled floor--the floor itself so reminiscent of the surface of water it gives her vertigo. Jaffar, now even more in love with the myth of Solomon than ever before, had wanted to create the same effect Solomon's palace floors had had on Bilqis: to make them so clear and shining that she had taken her shoes off before entering, thinking she was going to dip her toes into a pool.

The steam room has remained unchanged, but as Yassamin steps into the frigidarium, it greets her in the most brilliant new hues of copper and blue: Jaffar has had hundreds of thin brass pipes arranged into a row of tall willow trees set into the blue-tiled walls. The pipes swirl and curl out of the wall to form canopies, opening out over their heads into clusters of jasmine blossoms, these in turn being the shower-heads. It is as if they have stepped into a tunnel of the most beautiful flowering trees, the flowers ready to offer their rain to anyone who should wish to bathe.

"Well, what do you think?" Jaffar asks and swats her buttocks.

"It's beautiful," she murmurs.

He comes to embrace her from behind and kisses her shoulder. "I got the idea from our lovemaking, you know. That first time you took me a woman," he says, sighing happily.

She remembers that day as if it were yesterday: how she had risen and flown like gold up him and through him, had rained down upon him and sluiced down his veins, he the living forest nourished by her love.

"The wellspring and the jasmine," she laughs, tears springing into her eyes. "Jaffar, I--"

He chuckles and rocks her in his arms. "Happy anniversary, beloved. I had heard of kings creating gardens and palaces for their loved ones, but I had never heard of baths dedicated to queens. You're the first," he chuckles.

"And no longer a queen," she says and pokes him in the ribs. "Thank the Almighty. But come, show me. How do you operate it?"

"Watch," he says, whisking her towel off her, making her squeak; he tosses both their towels onto one of the benches lining the walls and steps underneath one of the showers. "There is a little valve here," he says and starts to turn a metal wheel in his hands. "Turn it clockwise and--" but his words are interrupted as a huge spray of water splashes onto his face, blasting him at full volume. "I'll have to fine-tune that," he coughs, spitting water from his mouth, grumbling as Yassamin bursts into laughter. "You try it."

She steps underneath the copper tree next to him, but stands aside from the cluster of brass flowers. She turns the valve and the water bursts out of the flowers with a more reasonable volume; after testing the temperature of the water, she steps underneath the spray. "But this is marvellous!" she exclaims, working the water into her hair. "It's like standing underneath a waterfall!"

"That was what I was trying to approximate," he says and turns off his own shower, stepping in underneath hers, pressing against her back. "I had to build an entire new room for the pumps," he says as he begins to soap her back. "Can you hear the machinery? Underneath us?"

So that's where the humming noise had come from. "It's not unpleasant," she says and turns around. "But if we have the entire river at our disposal, there's no need to save water," she teases him, nudging at his erection with her hip. "Besides, they will be scandalised if they find us bathing together."

"I gave the servants the day off," he says and splashes down onto his knees, pressing a kiss to her thigh and rustling in his washing bag. "Besides, it looks to me as if the gates of Paradise are a little overgrown and in need of a trim," he says and brushes his thumb across the short bush of hair that has now sprung up on her cunny. "And we can't have that."

But as he presses his lips to her cleft, kissing her clitoris, she moans in frustration. "Oh--Jaffar--"

"I know, I know. 'Don't harm the babe, Jaffar.' Only the pleasures of the hand and the mouth, I promise." He presses his ear to her belly. "Has it quickened yet?"

"No," she says and shakes her head. "That's what worries me. It's the twelfth week beginning today."

"We should be hearing from him any minute now, then. I am told it can take longer when it's a woman's first time; that it sometimes takes eighteen weeks before the soul arrives."

"How do you know it's a boy?" she says and sits down on the bench, spreading her legs for his attentions, her belly already making it a little more difficult for her to move.

"I don't," he says and begins to shave her tenderly. "But trust that I will love a daughter just as much."

"You are the strangest of men, my wicked wizard," she sighs and ruffles his hair. "What have I done to deserve a husband like you?"

"Whatever it is, I forgive you," he grins, and as he begins to suck her cunny in earnest, she can think no more.

***

"Merciful God!" Jaffar says as he takes his ear off Yassamin's belly. Immediately, he draws two runes of protection over it and recites the bismillah twice over her womb.

"What is it?" Yassamin says and moves further back on the bed where Jaffar has been inspecting her; even that little movement exhausts her. She is now in her seventh month; she had never expected childbearing to be so difficult that she would be completely confined to the bed. That's what had been worrying her and Jaffar, and thus, he had set out to perform a thorough examination, using methods medical and magical to find out the exact causes of her fatigue.

"But a moment."

Now, he presses an ear-horn to Yassamin's belly and listens; she can feel he is reaching inside of her body with his mind, sending out a psychic call and waiting for an echo. He had told her that this was how bats found their way in dark: that they made certain noises in order to assess the size and shape of caverns by the strength of the echoes that issued back from the rock surface. Thus, by sending a psychic wave through her womb, he hopes to chart the shape nestled inside of it: to find out whether the babe is malformed or not, or whether it sits within her in an awkward position, pressing on her organs more than it should. He cups her belly on the right side of it and hums, listens; he repeats the same procedure on the left.

"Two heartbeats. I swear. Yours can be heard behind them, so it cannot be an echo." He drops the horn from his hand and rests his head over her belly. "Twins."

"Oh, God." She covers her face with her hands.

She is going to die. It is her first time, and very few women survive giving birth to twins if they have not borne children before. She is going to die. Their children are going to die. And then Jaffar will die of grief. Just like his first wife had died, just like his first child had died, and now she is wailing, howling--

"Yassamin," he whispers and moves to embrace her tight, tight, kissing her tears. "Hush."

"Don't you dare hush me!" she cries, hysterical, now. She can feel a kick in her womb, and now it does indeed feel like there are two pairs of feet--she had previously thought it but a very active child, beating her with its fists as well as its feet. But now the beats come from slightly different directions, and that has to be two pairs of feet, has to be. Feet that will rip her apart, tear her apart, and if the babes will not kill her, they will maim her forever, forever. She cries uncontrollably, pushing him away from her arms. "I should never have let you put your seed inside of me! Never, ever! If I survive this, I will never sleep with you again, I--"

"Yassamin!" he is shocked, again embracing her despite her protests, now swallowing back tears himself. "Don't say things like that. If you had seen what I had seen--"

And he begins to send her the memory of Fatima dying in child-bed, but she screams at him and pushes him away from bed. "No! That is the worst thing you could show me right now! Get out of my head!"

Stubbornly, he sits back on the bed and embraces her once more. "Trust me in that I will do everything in my power to arrange for a safe delivery. I have told you before: I now possess far more knowledge and skill than I did then. You could not possibly be in better hands; there is no physician, no midwife in all of Persia who would be as powerful a sorcerer as I. Do you remember the tale of Zal and the Simurgh?"

She wipes her tears on her sleeve. "I do." The Simurgh, the patroness of all physicians had come to Zal's aid when his wife, Rudaba, was about to die in childbirth. The Simurgh had taught him how to perform a Caesarean section, a procedure so dangerous it was rarely attempted, a procedure that still usually meant the death of the mother. "But do you possess a Simurgh's feather?" she asks. "If not, how would you call her for help?"

"I have my books," he says and kisses her hand, "and I will consult with doctors and midwives; the main temple had an extensive medical library. That itself should count as one Simurgh feather."

"And pray, do not forget."

"I already am. Right now," he says, reciting yet another prayer for each child over her belly, then one over her heart. "We will find a way."

"I am so scared, Jaffar," she says, searching his eyes. "How long would I have to wait in the afterlife to be united with you?" she whispers, tears rolling down her temples. "I don't want you among those pagan idols," she sobs; "if it means God will cast you into Hell and set us forever apart. Perhaps this is his punishment for all our sins, Jaffar, perhaps--"

"Don't say that!" he cries and holds her, his tears mixing with hers. "I cannot believe such a thing. He has been merciful to us, so merciful; it would not make sense for him to withdraw his mercy now. Have we not become better people day by day?"

It is true: she has become less vain and more humble; he genuinely sweeter, gentler now that he does not have to watch for backstabbers and poisoners when ruling over an entire empire. If anything, their exile has softened them both, made them more grateful for what they have. But still... God sees into all hearts, yet Yassamin is not sure whether she and Jaffar can see into their own hearts as well as God does, see whether they still have stains on their souls that would count against them.

"We must not become vainglorious about our piety either, my love," she murmurs. "I will hire hafizas to recite the holy verses here day and night, I--"

Jaffar winces. "Don't. Zubayda did that, and she was the wickedest bitch that ever lived. I'd rather recite the entire Qur'an every day myself."

"I am sorry," she says. Zubayda, Harun's queen, rumoured to have poisoned Jaffar's father--there are enough ghosts haunting this house without bringing hers in to join them. "You'll have to translate some of these medical books for me. Maybe they would help me as well."

"I shall," he says and kisses her hand. "I'm going to prepare you something to soothe your nerves and the womb."

And he takes to his task, disappearing into the small cooking alcove. Since this is Jaffar's grand bedroom, even this alcove has been turned into a laboratory, and she thinks of making some joke about how she hopes he won't mix poisons into her tonic by accident, but she is out of light humours tonight. So she lets him work his magic, lets him mix his herbs and mutter his incantations, knowing it helps him to make himself useful.

And as she sips his soothing tea, as he rubs his soothing ointment onto her belly, her tears turn into those of joy and fragile hope. Even if these might be the last weeks she will ever spend with him, she will not have regretted a day: she has had a good life, has been blessed with the most loving of husbands, a hero greater than any she has read of in legend. And even if she should not survive childbirth, she would know Jaffar--the man who is half woman--would take good care of their children, to be the best of fathers, of mothers in her stead.

And she is so exposed, so raw now that he can hear her every thought, can feel them tremulous against his mind: gently, he wipes his hands and takes her free hand in both of his.

"Dare to hope for the best, my sweet," he says. "Look at me. I have seen the worst that could happen, and I still dare hope," he laughs, a little sardonically. "It would be impious of me not to, so I will stubbornly choose to believe the best while preparing for the worst. And so should you."

She sets down her cup and clasps his hands. "I know. I am trying."

He closes his eyes and sighs against her cheek. "Let us pray."

And they do, there on the bed as she is too heavy to perform the prostrations, reciting the prayers as one mouth, one heart, one soul.

***

"I mean it, Jaffar," Yassamin slurs as the midwife mops sweat from her brow. "I am never going to let you inside of me again."

Jaffar focuses on inspecting the stitches on her lower belly instead: the sharp scent of cypress oil stings her nostrils as he rubs it over the incision to staunch bleeding.

"You were lucky," the midwife says. "Most women suffer far longer, but you were asleep for most of it. What was that drug you used, so that I might mix some of my own?" she asks Jaffar, looking him in the eye boldly, used to speaking to strange men.

"Magic," he smiles at her, then at Yassamin and at the two babes now suckling at her breasts. "Look at them; drinking like Christians at a tavern. Speaking of which, old mother," he says and takes the midwife by the shoulder. "I have set a bottle aside for you in the guest room. Go and have a few hours' rest; you've earned it."

She takes a few pouches of herbs out of her bag and sets them on the bedside table. "Don't forget these. Change the poultice every hour, and let her drink that as soon as she is able. Will help the womb shrink down."

"I shall," Jaffar says, not looking at the midwife as she leaves, too busy smiling at Yassamin instead.

"I still mean it," Yassamin groans as she lifts the vile potion to her lips; at least the stomach-turning bitterness means it has plenty of opium in it. She forces the liquid down her throat even if it makes her gag; the drugs Jaffar had given her had made her nauseous enough, but she is still in terrible amounts of pain. "I am never going to let you inside of me again."

Jaffar pretends to sulk, but soon his pout breaks out into a grin. "Not even sodomy?"

"I'll think about it," she groans and feels for the children, but her hands flop onto the bed. "Please. If you have any pain-relieving spells, use them. It's as if a fleet of warships has passed through my body."

He clasps her belly with both hands and whispers a soothing spell. "Is that better?"

"A little."

"If I recite it any louder than that," he murmurs, "it will put you under again."

"I should like that."

Uncaring of the stench of cold sweat, of all the filth of the child-bed, he climbs in next to Yassamin and holds her, gently cradling the children against her bosom as well. Already he has recited the call to prayer in both little ears--it had been hard for him to do it through his joyful weeping--and now he caresses the thick, dark hair on the firstborn's head. "Do you think Anwar will lose it as fast as I?"

"I hope not," she murmurs. "She has your eyes," she says of the girl-child. "As blue as a wellspring. Tell me," she asks, too groggy to remember, "What was the name of that fountain in Paradise?"

He chuckles and hugs all of them tight. "Salsabil."

"Salsabil," Yassamin murmurs. So often, Jaffar has called Yassamin his Paradise; so often, she has called him her bounteous spring. There could not be a name more perfect for their little surprise, then. "Salsabil it is," she says and kisses her daughter's head.

"Pinch me," he murmurs.

"Hmm?

"I am so happy--" he laughs, choking back tears. "I think I might die if you don't pinch me."

She pinches his nose, sending him howling, howling so loudly both children start crying.

"Now look what you've done!" she sighs.

"What I have done?!" he sputters, helping Anwar to her right breast as she struggles to calm down Salsabil with the left.

"As soon as the midwife's gone, you'll perform the sex-changing spell," she mutters. "So that we can split breastfeeding duties."

"So that's what the tingling in my nipples was." He peeks inside of his robe and feels for his chest. "I could swear I made a stain--"

She rolls her eyes. "I wouldn't be surprised if you had."

But she laughs as she says it, laughs in disbelief, still hovering in that space between absolute elation and death. She might still decline rapidly, might still have complications; he had told her that she would have to stay in bed for the next two weeks at least, preferably a full month. But right now, she does not care; as the children finally grow quiet and settle in to suck, and her giant child of a husband settles into a doze beside her, she can finally drift off to sleep herself.

***

Three years later

***

"Jaffar, what is that awful racket? I told you I have a headache!" Yassamin moans, staggering into the courtyard.

But as she leans against one of the pillars, she knows it is of no use to complain: Jaffar is pretending to be a horse again, carrying both Salsabil and Anwar on his back, neighing and kicking and staggering about until both children are shrieking from laughter.

"Play with each other while I tend to your poorly old mother," he says and gets up, tossing each child a piece of nougat from his pocket.

"You spoil them," she murmurs as he comes to embrace her from behind, panting against her back from exertion.

"That is because I have never been as happy as I am when I see them play. Can you blame me?"

"No," she whispers, leaning back against him. She wonders whether he sees the faces of his lost family when he plays with their children, knows this is his second chance at life, one most men of his position would never get.

"I do," he murmurs. "See their faces. But we should not be mourning the dead. They are in Paradise, waiting for us. I will introduce you when we get there."

"And you think we would get along? All your wives and your concubines?" she smirks.

He kisses her head, still short of breath. "Of course! You would get along splendidly. It would not be Paradise otherwise."

"Yes, well. I am not in a hurry."

"I told you not to think about them," he laughs and hugs her tight.

Suddenly ashamed of her complaining, she turns around and pulls him into a kiss, a kiss fierce, passionate, the kiss of that demoness he once married. "I'm sorry, Jaffar. Let me make it up to you tonight."

"Oh, so that's why you came to fetch me," he leers, rocking his hips a little. "Your stallion."

"You're as incorrigible as ever," she says and slaps his chest. "But yes, my stallion. Send the children to bed early. I have a mind to go riding tonight."

"What happened to your headache?" he grins.

"It's still there; I'm asking you to rub it out of me," she grins back at him. "You usually succeed at that."

But then she can no longer speak as Jaffar picks her up, in a mood to show off, and begins to carry her to his quarters. "Good night, little ones!" he cries over his shoulder.

The children don't even acknowledge their leaving, so absorbed they are in their games. "They'll become engineers, just like their father," Yassamin laughs in Jaffar's ear as the maids rush to tend to the children.

"I was exactly like that at their age," he sighs and groans as they make it to his bedroom; he doesn't manage to carry her all the way to the bed, however, only drops her on the nearest cushions. "I do apologise," he says, collapsing beside her, still chuckling. "But let me catch my breath and I'll soon be ready for whatever game my mistress wishes to play tonight."

"Definitely riding," she says and plays with the buttons of his jacket; how his scent can still drive her mad from desire after all these years, she does not know. "And sodomy always relaxes me so perfectly, so I think we should have a little of that tonight."

"You spoil me," he purrs, his eyes lighting up; he traces the curve of her hip, her thigh.

"Can you blame me?" she grins. "For never have I been as happy as I am when I see you play," she whispers and kisses him on the mouth, sweet and long.