A week later Faruq was still reeling from Thamina’s callous dismissal of Malik, especially since the rest of the family completely sympathized with her. Faruq alone showed any remorse or sense of loss at Malik’s departure. And only Faruq went to the palace to try to find him a few days later, but he was not there.
The family quickly moved on, replacing the guardsman with a puppy some new suitor had given Thamina. She carried the creature with her all around the house, and his mother and even his father went crazy over it. So when Faruq heard the thing whimpering pitifully one evening he frowned and followed the sound. He came upon his mother reclining on a pile of cushions in the lounge with the puppy in her lap. She stared and cooed lovingly at it, and then she flicked it right in its pink nose. The creature shuddered and let out a high, mewling cry, causing his mother to cuddle the puppy into her bosom. Slowly, Faruq stepped into the room.
“Mama…what are you doing?”
“Oh, Faruq, isn’t it cute how he whines?” She cradled the puppy in her arm, beamed warmly at it and flicked it in the nose again.
“But…you’re hurting it.”
“Nevermind that, Faruq, listen to the darling noise it makes!”
The dread seemed to rake his insides. This was very, very strange. His mother used to shout at him if he so much as glared at one of her cats.
“Mama, you should stop,” Faruq said firmly.
He was taken aback by the look of genuine confusion she tossed him, her head cocked to the side like a bird.
“Because…because Thamina will be upset.”
“Nonsense! Thamina is the one showed me how to make it cry so sweetly.”
“Mama, stop. Please.”
“Oh leave me be, Faruq! Let me entertainment myself.”
She flicked the puppy in the nose again, and laughed at its pitiful whine. At a loss Faruq turned and left. He found himself silently praying his mother would soon tire of her amusement.
* * *
A couple weeks later, it was Faruq’s fifteenth birthday, and his family hosted a lavish party. His father invited the sons and daughters of all kinds of rich men, though Faruq didn’t particularly know, or care to know them. There was a snake charmer, a man who ate fire and, as if to mock his foolish dreams from a year before, a mini menagerie with an elephant, a tiger and many birds. His home was crowded with loud and flashy people, draped in silks and jewels and their own self-importance. He just wanted to retreat up to his room, but he knew his mother or father would come looking for him as soon as he was missed, likely to introduce him to some girl or other. Despite the festive occasion, he couldn’t get out from under the cloud of anxiety that tailed him.
“We have a big surprise for you at your party,” his mother had told him a few days before. It was his birthday, this was his family, but a persistent apprehension clung to him, like a stubborn monkey on his back.
A sudden high tinkling filled the air. Servants walked through the manor shaking tiny bells on sticks to get the guests attention, while the master of ceremonies trailed behind them, booming out a summons to the courtyard.
Honored guests, your presence is requested in the courtyard. We have an exciting show in store for you.
His shoulders tensed. Cold sweat slid down the middle of his back. His sister hooked an arm with his and beamed at him, oblivious, and his feet seemed to drag as she led him outside.
Chairs and cushions had been set up in the garden’s central square. Servants helped usher them through the crowd to a sofa at the forefront that was swathed in soft fabric. His parents were already seated and waiting. Faruq eased himself down, tension keeping him upright.
As the sun set the show began. Out came two tall, lithe men with swords, and they began to fight. Almighty Ahura Mazdaa, thought Faruq. Will these two men kill each other for our amusement? Faruq dug his fingers into his seat as the fight intensified. Each clash and tumble and near-death miss drew gasps and shrieks. At last one knocked the other to the ground and pointed the sword at his chest. Faruq barely breathed as he awaited the finishing blow, but then the man with the sword held out a hand to his partner and helped him up. The two bowed and exited the square to thunderous applause, and Faruq’s straining muscles relaxed, the relief sweet.
Next was a beautiful, veiled dancer who undulated and twirled amid a rainbow of silk scarves, a man who did flips on hot coals and finally, once the sun had completely dipped under the horizon, a play. Four tall lanterns tossed flames at the star-strewn sky, casting shadows on the ground. A narrator in a long white robe and matching turban, which reminded Faruq far too much of the wish scribe Muwaffaq, strolled out between the flames.
“Our tale takes place right in this city. It is a new play, based on a story recently circulating the common populace. Tonight, we follow the tragedy of a palace guard so heartbroken he is driven to wishtesting to win back the favor of the girl he loves. Let us find out what happens to our young friend.”
Faruq’s mouth went dry.