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Autumn's Fruit Bitter and Sweet

Chapter Text

***

How sad, a heart that does not know how to love,
That does not know what it is to be drunk with love.
If you are not in love, how can you enjoy
The blinding light of the sun,
The soft light of the moon?

-Omar Khayyam

***

"Crispy rice! Crispy rice!" Salsabil and Anwar cry out in unison as they rush into the kitchen from underneath Zahra's arm.

"I am so sorry, master," Zahra groans and wipes sweat from her brow. "They caught me unawares." She had just been pulling bread out of the tannur with a long peel, and had not been able to set it down quick enough to stop the children from storming in.

For Jaffar had forbidden the children from coming into the kitchen whenever he was engrossed in the preparation of larger, more complex meals--some of them involved procedures as demanding as any alchemical experiment--but trust them to rush in the moment he and Zahra had turned their backs.

And it is no wonder. The scents of the kitchen are heavenly tonight, as Jaffar and Zahra prepare sweet delicacies for Mehregan: marzipans flavoured with flower extracts, sweet and crisp pastries filled with herbs and spices, rich syrups and jellies from this autumn's fresh fruit.

"It's all right, Zahra," Jaffar sighs and wipes the knife he's been using to chop up a veritable mountain of herbs. "Even Fadl's Turks would not be able to stop these two devils when they set their minds on something." That's what he gets for marrying a Babylonian demoness, he thinks; yet, he loves both little fiends dearly. "What is it that you want, my little imps?" he asks, ruffling both little heads with his herb-flecked hands, exactly because he knows that will send the children spluttering and groaning, like they do now.

"Crispy rice!" Anwar cries, shaking coriander out of his shoulder-length hair like a horse tosses its mane.

"Tie your hair up when you're in the kitchen!" Salsabil says and starts rummaging around in her pockets for pieces of string. She always carries useful things like these in her pockets; it's for her experiments, she says, having inherited her father's engineering nature. And lately, she has been obsessed with binding things. For this, she had pleaded for her parents to give her a ball of string and a pair of scissors to carry about herself, so that she could keep on conducting these experiments without always having to fetch them from the harem. Yassamin, however, had refused to give a six-year-old child a pair of scissors to run around with, no matter how precocious the child, so they had reached a compromise: now, Salsabil carries about herself a wide selection of pieces of string, cut to different lengths for different purposes.

Finally, she finds one long enough to tie her brother's hair back with, Anwar so used to this kind of thing that he does not even put up a fight. "There," Salsabil says and lets go of his ponytail. "I don't want your hair in my crispy rice."

"Ah, but we haven't started on the rice yet," Jaffar says. "Sweets and pastries first, meats and heavy stews last, and with them, the rice." He looks at Salsabil and then Anwar. "And why do we do that, do you know?"

For any civilised courtier, male or female, should be well-versed in all the arts and sciences, including the culinary ones; a prince is no prince and a princess is no princess if they don't know at least ten complex recipes to entertain high-born guests with. And to know cuisine is to know medicine, Jaffar's own tutors had told him as a child: it's how they had started him on the path to knowledge about the human body and its inner workings, and this is what he means to do with his own children as well.

Salsabil looks at the bunch of coriander Jaffar is still holding in one hand, then at his face. "Is this the humours again? That first you should start with... light things, so that the stomach wakes up?"

Jaffar sets the coriander down and wipes his hands on a towel. "That's partially correct. But that's the eating, not the cooking. Zahra, you are the expert pastry chef. You tell them," Jaffar says as he rearranges things on his counter, making sure anything sharp or fragile is well out of the children's reach.

"Well," Zahra says, covering the last of the flatbreads with a damp cloth, leaving them on the side of the oven to stay warm. "You know how the house smells all over after we have used a lot of cardamom or asafoetida, don't you? And if we have been preparing organ meats? Or those fancy perfumed treats your aunts and uncles are so fond of--yes, that's right," Zahra laughs as Anwar sticks his tongue out in disgust. "Uncle Fadl's stinky meatballs, now you remember. You begin by greasing the whole pot with the musk and the ambergris, then fry the spices in them, and then add the rest of the ingredients. And that will stink up the pots and the pans for a long while, no matter how well you scrub them. So it's best to do the baking and the desserts first, so that they will not take upon the scents of the richer foods and flavourings. You wouldn't want your marzipan to smell of fish-liver, now would you?"

Salsabil wrinkles her nose. "Ick!"

Jaffar laughs. "Exactly; ick."

"So when do we get to the crispy rice?" Anwar asks, a little forlorn.

"An hour or two," Jaffar says. "I promise to save you the best parts. But in the meantime, can you remember what we call that type of crispy rice, my little friends?" Jaffar asks the children. "The specific name for it, the sort that's caramelised at the bottom of the pot?" He makes a rolling, scooping motion with his hand. "You will have to know these things when you grow up. When Fadl and I were young, the Caliph asked us to take part in cooking competitions, and the competition was fierce. Perhaps, one day, you'll be asked to take part in a competition, too, and you know they'd laugh you out of the room if you did not even know the proper names for different types of rice." He leans back against the counter; the children are gazing at him with such serious looks on their little faces that Jaffar knows he now has their full attention. "So. Tell me. What is the crispy rice called?"

When Anwar still thinks, Salsabil makes to answer, but Jaffar raises his hand to stop her. "I know you know what it's called, Salsabil; don't tell him." Unlike his bookworm of a sister, Anwar's been slacking in his lessons, so Jaffar has been trying to teach him through example instead. "We talked about this yesterday, Anwar, remember?"

Anwar looks around, frowning. Then, finally, his face brightens. "Tahdig!"

"Well done!" Jaffar cries and picks Anwar up, kissing him and spinning him around, lifting him high into the air. "You'll get served the crispiest sort tonight."

"That's unfair!" Salsabil sulks as Jaffar sets Anwar down, looking like she is about to cry. "I knew it all along, but he had to think harder."

For that, Jaffar picks up Salsabil, too, also with a kiss, lifting her even higher with a mighty cry, spinning her around and around until she shrieks, until they are both dizzy. Her plaits take down some of the herbs hung from the ceiling, and soon Jaffar and the children are spitting five different types of mint from their mouths, spluttering and laughing.

"I promise--" Jaffar says and spits another mint leaf out, "I promise that you'll get to split the crispiest parts. There, is that fair enough for you?"

"I think you all need to get out of my kitchen," Zahra says and shakes her head, picking up whatever she can salvage from the herbs. "Now look what you've done."

But at that, Jaffar lifts Zahra up and spins her, too--only a few inches from the ground, as she is heavier than Jaffar himself--and plants a big, wet kiss onto her mouth. "There! Accept my apologies."

"Master!" Zahra says, staggering when Jaffar lets her go; even from underneath the dark hue of her skin, Jaffar can tell she is flushed, now smiling like a flustered maiden. "You've never--"

"Come, little ones," Jaffar laughs, for he is in a good mood tonight, ready to kiss the whole world should it come to that. "Let's go before she chases us out with a saucepan," he says and winks at Zahra, taking the children by the hand.

***

"What have you been doing with Zahra?" Yassamin asks Jaffar when they finally sit down to dine in the garden on one of the large wooden platforms built for picnicking. Zahra and the other servants have just retreated beyond the apricot trees, and the children are too busy fighting over the tahdig to pay attention to their parents.

Jaffar shrugs and sprinkles some sumac and olive oil onto a flatbread, then hands it to Yassamin. "I just gave her a kiss to thank her for all her hard work, that's all."

Yassamin shakes her head. It's scandalous enough that Jaffar should associate so freely with freedwomen, but touching them at will as well, women not his wives or slaves? There are reasons why such things are forbidden. "That you should forget about your attractiveness, husband! She's been walking around in this dreamy haze--you know, I wouldn't be surprised if our jade friend went missing at this rate. Do you plan to do anything about it?"

Jaffar tilts his head. "Well, she is not unattractive." He has known Zahra for as long as he has known Yassamin; she had been one of the handmaidens he had purchased for Yassamin as a wedding present, the same age as Yassamin herself. "But were she to fall in love with me--"

"You started it!"

"I wouldn't want us to lose the crown jewel of our staff, should she begin to hate me for some reason or another, or grow jealous of you," he mumbles and looks at his knees, only now starting to realise the potential consequences of his actions. They both know how it is--when masters tire of their female slaves, they sell them on. But Zahra is no longer a slave: upon their move to Samarkand, Jaffar and Yassamin had manumitted all their slaves and only the most loyal of them had joined them in their exile, now as paid servants. And Zahra deserves more than this for her service, having risen in the ranks from handmaiden to trusted housekeeper in but a few years' time: she is a pious woman, kind and skilled, endlessly patient with Jaffar's quirks and the children's antics.

"It's odd," Yassamin says and sips from her bowl of sugar-milk. "She has never asked me to let her marry, either. At first, I thought she was one of Halima's mistresses, but she did not like Halima any more than I did."

"You should ask if she has had any young men in mind," Jaffar says, lost in thought. But the people here are terrible about blacks; they should find her another man of her hue so that he would not think less of her. And Zahra, having grown up at court, would not be happy with anyone below her own station; she deserves a husband civilised. Yet here in Samarkand, most black freedmen are of a lower class, working as tanners, washers; they're the lowest of the low, not being allowed to advance the way anyone--regardless of colour--could do in Baghdad, were they determined enough. The only refined black men he knows here are the eunuchs serving at Mohammad's court, and he presumes Zahra would rather marry a man intact. Yes, in Baghdad, the situation would be different, the court full of people of all colours in even the highest of classes; but here, Zahra is a lone dark princess without a prince to match. If only old Masrur and his family had not been put to death by Harun; not a week goes by that Jaffar does not miss the man who had been his best friend growing up. Even Masrur's son would be in his thirties, now; God, how time flies--

But it is then that his reverie is pierced by a despairing shriek.

"Zumurrud!" Anwar screams at the cat as she pats at his plate. But it's too late: in a flash, Zumurrud has snatched a big piece of roast chicken-skin--Anwar's favourite--from his plate and dashed off to savour it in private.

Anwar's eyes fill with tears. "I waited for that chicken skin all day!"

"But what about your crispy rice?" Jaffar asks and points to it. "Look, I got you the best part."

"Salsabil, can you give your brother some of your chicken skin?" Yassamin asks, diplomatically. "You have plenty."

"Why is it always me?" Salsabil cries, deeply upset. "Why is it that I always have to help Anwar, just because he's stupid?" she yells right in his face, and now Anwar bursts into hopeless sobs. Uncaring of her brother's feelings, Salsabil--who has a point, it must be said--moves her plate further away from Anwar, pointedly. "It's always 'Salsabil, give your brother this, give your brother that,'" she shouts. "Why is it that he never has to share his things with me? Why is it never 'Anwar, give Salsabil that?'" she rages, tears filling her eyes now as well, her little frame shaking with anger.

"That's not true! You always steal my swords and shields!" Anwar wails. "And you break them!"

"Children, children!" Jaffar says, spreading his hands in a placating gesture. "It is supposed to be the feast of friendship tomorrow, of kindness, of brotherhood."

But it is to no avail: Anwar throws himself down on the platform in a full hysterical fit, curling up on his side with his sobs, while Salsabil weeps and pounds the platform with her fists so hard that the entire structure creaks.

Yassamin steps off the platform and calls out in the direction of the kitchen. "Zahra? Is there any more chicken left?"

"I'm afraid that's all we have," Zahra says. "We roasted six. Two for you and two for the master, one for each child."

"You didn't ask them to make more?" Yassamin asks Jaffar, astounded. "That's only one little pullet for each child. You should have had them roast at least two!"

"What, now it's my fault?" Jaffar blurts. "It's you who insist on letting the cats wander about everywhere! Even if they steal the food from your children's mouths!"

"Mistress, I could go to the night market and get something," Zahra offers.

"No, it's too late;" Yassamin says and pinches her brow. "Get a few more birds in tomorrow. But make sure that the cats are fed and kept away from the banqueting areas. Lock them in the cellar if you must, but this can not happen tomorrow, not with the guests."

"I understand, mistr--" but now Zahra is interrupted by little Anwar toddling over to her and clinging to her legs, weeping into her apron.

"Take me away, Zahra. You're my only friend," Anwar whimpers, sobbing hopelessly. "Mother hates me, Salsabil hates me, and Father does not care! He never tells them off for it, so he must hate me as well."

There is a moment of silence, and within it, even if he is not psychically linked with her, Jaffar can hear Yassamin's heart breaking.

"Now, that's not true," Zahra says, clearly embarrassed, trying to extricate Anwar. "Come, Anwar. To your mother, you go."

But Anwar stays. Now, Jaffar feels Yassamin's pain as his own, and even as Salsabil climbs into his lap, he is stiff from Yassamin's anguish, hurt from it, his body as cold as stone. He knows how often Yassamin worries that she is neglecting the children, and it is the most awful thing for him to see her clenching her fists, standing alone there in the courtyard, between the platform and her son now clinging to his nursemaid's feet. In this very moment, Yassamin's nightmares become realities: she has always feared that the children do prefer Zahra and think of her as their true mother. What more proof could she have than this?

"Excuse me," Yassamin says and pulls her veil over her face, all the way down to her chest, then throws its end over her shoulder. "I am not feeling very well, and would retire early."

"Yassamin--" Jaffar says, reaching out for her with his hand, and his mind, too, with it.

But she is not listening, deafened by her grief.

Jaffar stares at her retreating figure for a long while, her pink silks swallowed up by the darkness of the doorway and the corridor, and she is gone.

He feels something sticky against his lips.

"Father?"

He looks down, and realises Salsabil is looking at him with worry in her eyes, projecting her emotions to him freely, even if she cannot yet tell he can read them. With her child's mind, with her engineer's mind, she, too, is looking for answers, looking to restore lost happiness. And she remembers what had made her father so happy earlier that day, hoping against hope that this magic word will help.

Therefore, she lifts the best, the crispiest golden rice to her father's mouth.

"Tahdig?"