It starts with Yasmin.
She thinks it’s a dream, at first. It’s not really her fault. It’s so misty and quiet, the long path to the palace, and the palace itself is so dim and yet so distant and regal that she really doesn’t think it could be something real.
The freedom to move, to dance, is forbidden in her home. It’s too hot, too noisy, too uncouth, too dangerous. She must be good and make music for her father's parties, or even more importantly beguile the men who hope to inherit her money, to give her father the power he so craves. To fill the bellies of his empty warships with men.
There are no further choices. She will grow to be a mother and a wife, to secure another section of her father’s kingdom. Other options – other sensations – are not permitted.
So she believes it’s only her mind causing the cool, sweet leaves to tickle the soles of her feet. Her mind conjures the bright marble floor, and the walls that glittered like abalone shells. She believes that the princesses who come every night to pay her attention are fantasies, delusions she’s brought to life with a shrug and a wave of her arm. Her father has told her as much – said that her imagination is just another form of ‘female hysteria’ that should be held to mastery.
Their smiles, their courtly carriages, their way of offering her cups after dizzying cup of wine until she falls to her knees laughing with merriment.
Then Fairuza appears, and she knows it is no fantasy at all.
Fairuza spends her life in her books. It’s studying her father says will go to waste. If she’d been born a son, then her head for figures wouldn’t be seen as some strange abnormality but a sign of a strong leader. In her, unmarried as she nears thirty, it is some evil aberration that must be dealt with, blasted off of the face of the earth.
No wonder the maidens she dances with each night, sweet-natured and comely, tender of foot and of gaze, don't reprimand her for her curiosity. They laugh at her jokes and smile at her ungainly footfalls and never, but never, make comment about how she’s different, unlike them, unlike the girl her father always dreamed she’d be.
She is no outcast among them. Is it any wonder she dreams herself here even in her waking hours?
For Nousha, the girls and princes don’t even matter. She’s Fairuza’s partner in education, and they often make excuses and cover for one another so they can consume reams of books in the royal library. So many of them are forbidden, so many facts are regularly kept from them – Nousha feels nothing if not unjustly imprisoned. If her father could hear her thoughts, he would have her married to a merchant; sent off to England with a minor lord, taken away and off of his property and out of his hair forever. As long as her little sisters are here, Nousha can never allow that to happen. It’s her job to take care of everyone, but she never, ever wants to marry, to bear children, to enrich her father through her body. “You’re meant for marriage and breeding,” he’s said flatly. “It’s not necessary that you learn this frippery.”
Nousha tries to be good, for being good is her only ticket out of the palace. But it feels as if her mind is dying, collapsing in on itself like a lost star. When she sees her sister’s worn shoes and tired eyes, she follows them in the spirit of adventure.
At first she mostly lingers on the sidelines, moving awkwardly with the music. She is not social, not romantic – she cannot giggle with the ease her sister shows with these other princes and princess. Nousha feels lost and adrift in this romantic scene, only responding to the wild beat of a rhythm her feet can make by themselves.
She’ d begun staying home while the ventured out. Until , on a chance trip, she took an oil lamp with her to explore the mansion while the balls were going on. To her amazement she discovered an enormous library on the top floor of the palace.
So every evening she dances her dance, then flees to the sanctity of the palace’s library and learns something new from its enormous ream of books. Settling in a comfortable high chair, she balance a volume on her knee and reads slowly, savoring the pages, as if taking nourishing broth into her body, letting it infuse every single inch of herself.
Richer than champagne, it fills her head. Downstairs they talk and flirt and giggle – but here, alone, she is content to learn of the anatomy and breeding habits of the zebra.
The others come for their own reasons in time. For the dream of feeling wanted, for the hope of being understood. They come with eager words on their lips and the shoes glimmering on their feet, and limp away, their muscles exhausted, a certain weary satisfaction in their step and a huge smile on their faces, smelling of new perfumes or colognes.
They barely manage to sleep. Sleep seems unimportant, in the light of fulfillment. It is as if they are brides to the dancing, married to the men and women who come to bid them hello, living for the caress of soft hands and the smell of tobacco freely smoked. Here they’re free to sweat and curse, to gamble and dance, to laugh in the face of all that troubles them, to give no quarter to the abuses and evils that haunt them. They belong to themselves on that floor, dancing til their feet ache and swell and bleed, dancing until they require new slippers every evening and laze through their days, listlessly answering queries in the schoolroom, taking suitors, sewing samplers and mending bandages together.
They invent the palace as a way to escape the world around them, as a way to give shelter to the unique, the fearful, the bold. It grows as they grow, strong as the trees, fat and enormous and unnaturally full, that loom over their heads.
It waits for you, as it waits for them. And they wait – humbly and eagerly – for your sworn agreement to stay.