Bismillah, ar-Rahman, ar-Rahim, the emperor huffed under his breath as he brought the wine to his lips, tipping it slightly from the porcelain cup and allowing it to trickle down the caverns of his semi-rotted mouth. Khurram had mastered the art of wine drinking so much so that not a single drop splashed onto his black and silver mustache. He was slightly built, taller than most other emperors of his time, and kept a sharply-trimmed beard jutted out just inches from his chin.
He was hiding away from his royal household in a secret quarter unknown to his wife, Sakina. He groaned quietly as the forbidden drink hit the back of his throat, swirling down as it slid into the smooth lining of his stomach.
He extended his right arm, revealing the light blue floral print of his peshwaz. He had recently issued a decree requiring the floral pattern to appear on all garments bought and sold within the kingdom. He was very fond of the floral print, as it reminded him of Sakina’s luscious flower garden that covered the family grounds. “No poppies,” he could hear her scolding the servants in the courtyard every springtime, “No pink or white, he is not to have any of it.” Khurram understood that she was referring to him. Sakina hated the emperor’s love for drinking wine and consuming opium, common pastimes amongst his generals. She went to great lengths to remove his access to them in her household.
Khurram’s hand hovered over a long plate lined with small, round clusters. He plucked off the first cluster, which stuck stubbornly to the tray, and observed as it began to melt between the ridges of his pudgy index finger and thumb.
Khurram pulled the sticky orb to the base of his cracked lips, opening his mouth once again as he neatly tucked the mixture of ghee, opium, and sugar into the corner of his cheek. He sat back slowly as he felt the mix of bitter, sweet, and salt slowly puddle out onto his tongue.
He closed his eyes, sitting still in the darkness. The air hung dryly around his face. The monsoon season had cleared, leaving the land parched and thirsty. This did not bother Khurram, who preferred changing seasons over non-stop days of rain and flood. He inhaled deeply, taking in the musky, sweet scent as he began fantasizing about his wife.
A familiar figure suddenly emerged from the entryway, disrupting the emperor’s broody high.
“Hiding away like a child unable to face the sober truth of an unforgiving Universe,” an old man called out steadily. Khurram’s ears widened slightly in response to the familiar voice. He peeked through his right eyelid, trying to focus on the man as the drowsiness began to percolate from his insides. It was none other than the infamous Mian Mir, the emperor’s spiritual confidante. Khurram furrowed his eyebrows in confusion. He had not remembered a time that he had disclosed his secret enclave to the sahib.
Mian walked with a distinctive hunch: he was a frail type wrapped in white sheets, sprouting a white beard, and using a cane to pull himself slowly and intentionally towards the stoned emperor.
Khurram fell back hard into his chair, his eyes rolling into his head. His arms fell out beside him. He was at the center of the chewy, sweet clusters on his dessert tray.
The paralyzed royal struggled to focus on a white blurb forming over him. The old man had reached his desk.
Mian cleared his throat.
“Stay close, my heart, to the one who knows your ways;
Come into the shade of the tree that bears sweet lemons.
Don’t stroll idly through the bazaar of the poppy farmers:
For he who goes astray will surely lose his crown.”
Khurram’s smile widened as he listened to the old man sing his poetry, pulling himself deeper into the lush folds of the sweet chew and melting into a state of tranquility. He squinted both of his eyes, making out a little more of the white blurb towering over him.
“I’m drunk muhtasib. Chastise me on a day you find me sober,” he laughed.
The old man stared hard at the royal, his eyes widening with surprise. “This is no laughing matter boy, your sinful fixations are drawing you away from Allah,” he snapped, raising his ivory cane up to the emperor’s desk and waving it wildly over the tray of opiate chews. “The Beloved has made it clear to me that you will either grow your family and your kingdom, or spend an eternity in hell if you remain astray. Choose wisely, for Allah is all-knowing of the unseen and the witnessed.”
Khurram sat up in his chair. He tensed as he struggled to follow the cane with his blood-shot eyes. It suddenly came crashing down on the tray, shattering the porcelain and smashing the chews against the wood. Khurram gasped as he grabbed the armrests of his chair. He felt a wave of nausea wash up from his stomach and into the back of his throat.
“Your family and your kingdom, or an eternity in Hell. The choice is yours,” Mian shouted as he placed his cane back down on the marble floor. He turned back towards the entryway, this time walking furiously while clicking the cane against the marble.
“Mi-an sa-hib, mian sahib? A s-s-son?”
“Sahib?” he called out again, staring at the dark entryway.
The old man was gone.
Sakina screamed in pain from her bed. “Khurram, where is Khurram? Please, where is my husband?” the woman wailed as she clung tightly to her stomach. “And where is Mian Mir? Bring the sahib to me,” she cried out. Servants scattered left and right as they disbanded from the woman’s bedroom and in search of the emperor and the priest. While men were forbidden from entering the harem, Sakina’s state had temporarily disbanded the royal palace’s rules.
“Peace, ma, peace,” her daughter cooed as she entered the bedroom in a cream-colored dress that swiveled above the marble floor. “How many of us have you born life to already? Surely this one is no different,” she added as she sat herself down on the bed.
Sakina felt her daughter’s cool fingertips brush lightly against her sweaty forehead.
The old man appeared at her door, leaning heavily on his ivory cane. He stared out at the two women. Jahanara turned to him, keeping her mother’s head cradled in her hands. “Mian sahib,” Jahanara exclaimed. “Mian sahib, please come. My mother is unwell,” she added as she gently released her mother and stood up next to the bed. The old man nodded, approaching the bed slowly as he maneuvered his cane front to back with each step.
When he finally reached Sakina, he cleared his throat and leaned over her ailing body.
“I should not make any promises right now,
But I know if you
Pray, child, pray,
He will absolve all of their sins.”
Mian hung onto the last word of his prayer as he wavered slightly with his eyes closed. Sakina wept, clenching her teeth to steady the pain radiating from every bone in her body.
“Something is not right, Mian sahib,” she sobbed. “Where is Khurram? Where is my husband?”
The old man sighed, struggling to straighten his posture as he turned to walk back towards the door. Reaching the entrance, Khurram stumbled past him, grasping the door-frame to steady his walk. Behind the drunken royal stood two guards, eunuchs of considerably younger age, who were pushing him forward so that he would not collapse. The old man stared briefly, shaking his head, and moving past the trio as he disappeared down the hallway.
Sakina screamed again as she watched her husband jolt out of his high. “Sakina,” he cried out as he ran to her, pushing his eldest daughter aside and embracing the sweat-soaked mother-to-be. Sakina felt her lungs settle as she felt her husband’s arms slide underneath her plump body.
Jahanara observed wearily as her parents embraced. Her father had taken majoun again.
“Where have you been? She’s been screaming for hours,” Jahanara interrupted. Her father slowly unclasped his hands from around his wife, turning to his eldest. She noticed that the hairs on his forearms were wet with sweat and tears.
“I’ve been right here.”
“Papa,” Jahanara warned in a whisper. “This has to stop.”
Khurram clenched his teeth, causing his temples to bulge out. His body was slumped between the two women. He exhaled deeply, closing his eyes and struggling to visualize the soft folds of his sweet chews. “What are you talking about?” he snapped back quietly, careful not to startle his wife, who had finally stopped her wailing.
Jahanara shook her head as she extended out her arms and soothed the crinkles in her cream-colored dress. “I must go, but please, for Ma,” she added as she hurried off towards the door and disappeared. Her father watched in silence, feeling a sudden wave of shame come over him. He grabbed his wife’s hand, squeezing it as he watched her drift off to sleep. He laid his head down on her stomach, feeling kicks push up against his right cheek.
“We’re having a son,” he whispered to her, “Mian sahib said we’re having a son.”
He felt his wife wrap her fingers around his open palms. He closed his eyes, feeling a sudden rush come over him as the last of the chew loosened from his cheek and trickled down his parched throat.
Khurram stared at the naked woman. It was Sakina. She was floating on a cloud, which caused her skin to look soft and supple. He smiled as he reached for her. She smiled back at him.
He noticed that her belly was no longer round, and he felt his heart sink. “Sakina, what has happened? Where is the baby?” he cried out.
She started crying.
Khurram watched as the sky filled with thousands of lemons, showering down around their warm bodies. He peered over his cloud, watching each fruit hit the ground and expel rivers of lemon sherbet into the neighboring lands. The splashes stung his eyes like sharp daggers. Turning away from the rains, he looked over his cloud again to see fields of pink and white poppies emerging over bighas of land. He stared in disbelief, mesmerized by the pastel swirls. A piercing scream from his wife startled him. He stared back at her. The lemons had transformed into droplets of red wine, which fell upon her like acid, eating her skin as she began to dissolve in agony.
Khurram stood up, steadying himself on his cloud to jump towards his wife. He squeezed his eyes shut to block out the scenes of the mesmerizing poppy fields beneath his feet. He jumped towards Sakina. Landing softly next to her badly burned body, he quickly embraced her to shield her from more harm. Looking over their cloud, he saw that the poppy fields had been replaced with lemon trees. He stared again in disbelief. Looking over at his wife, he noticed she was smiling, this time enveloped in a cream-colored floral print cloth and cradling a small newborn.
“Is that our son?” he cried out in a dazed state.
Sakina extended out her arms, revealing the new babe to his father.
Khurram heard another crash. He swung his head away from the baby and found himself sitting at his desk. The frail, white figure was emerging from the entryway again.
“I had a strange dream,” Khurram’s voice trembled. The old man nodded and smiled as he continued walking. “A love letter from the Universe,” he replied as he studied the troubled royal. Khurram turned away from the old man’s gaze and glared at the tray of opiate chews. They had returned to his desk.
“My boy, I’ve been informed by the architects that there is a fountain to be filled with wine. It’s empty and waiting for the arrival of the new babe,” the old man interrupted his stare. “Perhaps you might consider filling it with something else.”
Khurram turned to the priest. His eyes fixed on the old man’s cloudy irises.
“Lemon sherbet,” Khurram proclaimed. “I will fill it with lemon sherbet.”
Khurram tapped his fingers nervously against his armrest. Sakina sat next to him, smiling as she gently rocked her pregnant body. Several weeks had passed, and the emperor had stood by his decree. He had not drunk wine or consumed any opium, instead committing his time to the royal household’s political affairs and day-to-day tasks. But he could not sit still, often waking at night drenched in sweat. At times, his wife would gently place her hand over her husband’s in an attempt to calm him.
Sakina went into labor that summer. Khurram remained by her side as she pushed and screamed for thirty hours, finally producing their only son. The couple named the child Aurengzeb. Mian Mir declared the child’s birthday a holy day, and the kingdom began a week-long procession to celebrate.
Khurram cradled the child in his arms as Sakina looked on from the confines of her bed. He watched as her eyes fluttered into a deep state of sleep. Seizing the opportunity, the emperor gently placed the baby next to her and quickly exited the harem. He made his way to the secret quarter, which had visibly collected dust since he had last visited it. He sat down excitedly in his chair, eyeing the tray of opiate chews that had gone untouched for several weeks. He plucked a second chew off of the tray, bringing it to his mouth.
“Now I have my son and my wife,” he whispered gleefully to himself as he placed the chew into a corner of his mouth. “He may be all-knowing, but I am the cleverest.” Khurram could taste the familiar flood of salt, sweetness, and bitterness creeping over his tongue. He collapsed back into his chair, welcoming the high.
A frail, white figure was emerging from the entryway again.
“What have you done?” Mian Mir cried, exasperated by the speed of his walk. “What have you done?” Khurram pushed himself back up, staring dumbfounded at the old man.
“She’s dead,” the old man cried, “She’s bled to death.”
Khurram could feel a tight knot forming in his throat. He felt a shock of electrical waves stun his heart. The old man stood, staring tearfully at the stoned emperor as he tried to steady his balance with his ivory cane.
“Sakina,” Khurram cried out as he stood up, pushing his desk away violently and causing the tray of chews to fall and shatter on the marble floor.
“Let Aurengzeb taste only the fruits of the lemon trees,” Mian Mir bellowed as he turned away from widowed father and began walking back towards the entryway.
Maha Kamal is currently a 2020-2021 fellow of the Lighthouse Writer’s Workshop Book Project in Denver, Colorado. She is also a full-time attorney, meaning that she writes these stories late at night. Her website is www.mahakamal.com.