May in Mebeda was often the beginning of the end. It was the last month whose temperatures were not exceedingly torturous, and thus was the last month during which crops could be grown and picked before the dry season began. Seemingly designed by Vhal to be optimal for relaxation, May was truly a month meant for leisure.
In late May of 1424, Nimet Acevedo, who was already the mother of three bey-born children, was pregnant with her fourth child for what had appeared to be and felt like ages. Nimet's swollen belly sat painfully near to her hips and the infant inside of this belly often kicked its mother in her sleep, as if to remind her of its intention to never leave her tired body. At one point, within the final days of the child's gestation, Nimet had sworn off the institution of pregnancy in its entirety. After this one was out, the padisah would simply have to busy himself in the beds belonging to the ladies of his harem, for Nimet wished for nothing more than a solid night's sleep and no more children. Of course, after Faisal had finally decided to allow his mother to give birth to him, she was with child again hardly before he had learned to pull up his own trousers. In fact, there was scarcely a time during Faisal's childhood that Nimet hadn't been pregnant for.
Over the years, the horde of bey-born Acevedo children grew from four to seven, and Faisal was often lost in the slew of them. When his little brother was born, he was no longer the youngest, and as they grew older it became clear that Faisal was not the brightest, nor the most athletic or creative, and he was certainly not the most well-liked. He was not the tallest, nor the shortest, nor the most or least handsome of them all. Indeed, Faisal was a good listener—though Safiyya was better, despite her terrible inclination to gossip. He got on quite well with animals, but Pelayo had a rather unique way of bonding with them that Faisal simply couldn't compete with. He was always just a hair short of remarkability, and as such showed great promise in the field of absolutely nothing but complete and utter ordinariness. This was not the life Vhal could have willed for him, nor the life he willed for himself.
Faisal spent many an adolescent afternoon locked away in his study, desperately reading pages after pages of books written by the Mercian forefathers of Mebeda who had been conquered by Nis long, long ago. Their language was halfway foreign, simply unintelligible to him, but Faisal didn't mind. There was something rewarding to be found in knowing useless things, in reading ancient texts. Though Faisal's siblings and tutors often disagreed, he believed within that very study he had become a learned scholar of philosophy. His knowledge, however meager it may have been, made Faisal special; an example of fierce determination for knowledge, despite lacking a natural gift for it.
Between Faisal's studies and seemingly endless nights of merrymaking, the days of his boyhood quickly passed him by. When the youth was not reading about the societal hedonism of Mercia and Nis, he was simply living it. The bey would organize marvelous affairs for almost any thinkable occasion at Ahmar'Qasr, and he was sure to invite anyone of importance to join him and his siblings in celebration. Together, they would drink wine imported from Mercia's finest vineyards, feast upon the most exquisite delicacies Nis had to offer and enjoyed the company of Mebeda's most beautiful inhabitants.
A pleasant, early nighttime summer breeze made its way in from Ahmar'Qasr's open windows. A yellowish hue from the candlelight flickered upon the dancing, linen curtains as they blew in the wind. The southernmost wing of Ahmar'Qasr had always been Faisal's favorite place to entertain. There was nowhere more lovely in Mebeda. The wing's dome-like, ornate ceilings were outfitted with shining silks of Acevedo colors. Its tables were meticulously and masterfully carved from Mercian bloodwood and engraved with the Acevedo sigil, and even its colorful, patterned seats were overstuffed with goose feathers.
Faisal was drinking wine from a golden, bejeweled chalice upon which his initials had been engraved. He had had perhaps one cup too many, though Faisal had always just one cup too many. He sat in his favorite seat, the first seat at the first table on the western side of the wing, laughing with a black haired young man who had a long face and an uncomfortably large smile.
"Zayas Tahir, you are quite the storyteller!"
"Acevedo Faisal agha, I tell no stories! Only facts! And haven't we been brothers long enough for you to call me Tahir?"
"If you say so, brother Tahir," Faisal said. Tahir had come to every celebration Faisal had ever thrown and there had been quite a few of them, most of which were purposeless but undeniably enjoyable. It occurred to Faisal that this exact instance could have taken place at any point in his life within the last five years. Some of the time, he'd have been shorter and perhaps a bit slimmer, or more or less hairy, but he would have been in the exact same place, feeling the exact same way. Even this very thought couldn't have been original—no, Faisal could swear he had had it before!
"More wine!" Tahir shouted.
A woman with braided, waist-length dreadlocks and dark, reddish skin refilled both of their chalices. The men drank together, watching her join the other dancing ladies. The women all wore Avecedo colors and pants that were decorated with tiny bells and were snug at the hips, which swung seemingly in rhythmic unison to the beat of the tablah. Two of the dancing women were Faisal's older sisters, though he paid them no mind.
"The veliahd has excellent form," Tahir said, observing Faisal's eldest sister, Safiyya.
"I would hope so," Faisal said. "She's been taking private lessons with a tutor for her entire life."
"Pity," Tahir said. "If only she'd take lessons with me."
Faisal grunted and took another drink from his cup. Tahir would always drunkenly admit his feelings for Safiyya to Faisal, as if Faisal would be the one to orchestrate their courtship. He sometimes wondered how Tahir behaved around people with whom he had more casual relationships, as Faisal hadn't even given Tahir permission to use informal titles with him. "And what would you teach her?" he snickered.
"Oh, I'd teach her lots of things," Tahir said.
"I'd bet forty gold pieces you couldn't even convince her to attend your class."
"Would you now?"
"Yes, and I'd shake on it too, brother," Faisal said with an outstretched hand. Tahir shook it eagerly.
Not long afterward, Faisal had become distracted by his own paramours and the thought of Tahir and Safiyya disappeared from his dizzied mind. He could recall only one thing from that evening: a vision of green pants with shining, miniature golden bells being followed by Tahir into the corridor which lead back to the siblings' quarters.
Five months passed, and Faisal had thrown several parties Tahir had not shown up for. Coincidentally, Safiyya had decided not to attend as well. She had become more interested in her studies. She was even present for lessons in weeks during which the sisters were menstruating, which was a time they were allowed to elect against attendance. Faisal had simply assumed she was beginning to accept her responsibilities as a leader, and found himself feeling quite proud of her dedication. He was certain she would one day become a great padisah, just like his father had always been.
Faisal's father was the sort of man who was sometimes very much like a sheet of skin that had been stitched together over the crumpled pages of law books. He was shorter than most of his children, especially the boys, and even still possessed an unwavering imperious attitude over the lot of them. Faisal revered him, as they all did. He was also a little afraid of his father, though he would never dare tell a soul.
Faisal had been especially afraid when one of his father's men summoned him out of his quarters and accompanied him to the private study of the padisah, where Faisal's father had been waiting for him. The study was rather modest, especially for someone of his father's status. Its walls bore only two paintings, each of a nude man or woman. Upon his father's bookshelves were perhaps one hundred books, each of which appeared to be well read. There was one small carpet on the floor and one lily in a vase upon his father's desk. As always, the padisah was dressed in the traditional robes of Nis, the belled sleeves of which concealed his broad, brown fists. He did not look very pleased.
"Ah'salen, my son," the padisah said. "Issa, you may leave us now. Take a seat, child."
Faisal, who was twenty, bearded, hardly a child and terribly embarrassed to be called one in front of a guard, did as he was told. "Ah'salen, father," he said. "Why have you summoned me? I have been keeping up with my studies, no?"
The padisah hesitated.
"In the name of Nasira, it would benefit you to be less presumptuous, Faisal. I have not summoned you to discuss your studies."
Faisal was relieved. "So then, why have you summoned me?"
"I would like you to recall a party you hosted in May. It was a more intimate event; it did not cost nearly as much as your celebrations often do," his father said. "Did you see your sister Safiyya with a man that night, Faisal?"
"That was months ago, Father, and Safiyya is often with a man, so—"
"But was she with a man that night, child?"
"She might have been—"
"Yes or no?"
"What does it matter, Father? Safiyya is a woman, not a girl. She can lie with whom she pleases—"
"Yes or no, Faisal?"
"Your sister is with child."
Faisal's words were paused in midair. He stared blankly at his father, believing momentarily that he was merely a boy, indeed, and that he was not quite old enough to be informed of this. Though the pregnancy on its own merit would have no consequences upon Safiyya's status within the family, knowing about it felt intrusive and unjust.
"These things happen," said the padisah. "You are all still so young, and you make mistakes...It is only natural. I should not have waited this long to find her a suitable match. She has gone out and found her own, and now we must deal with her choice."
"Why are you telling me this?"
"Your sister refuses to disclose the identity of her child's father to me."
"And is that not of her personal concern?"
"It is of her personal concern. But as her father and her mentor, it is of mine as well. The first child of our veliahd cannot be mahzi-born. That does nothing good for our reputation, Faisal."
Faisal watched his father saunter over to an open window, from which the unforgiving flatland sun was shining into the study. The padisah looked out of the window, observing his endless reach. Their land stretched as far as the eye could see, and then even further into the expansive grasslands of Nis. "I see you are much like the others. If you will be of no use, Faisal, you may—"
"I am not like the others," Faisal said.
"Very well," said his father. Faisal could not see the padisah's face, but he was somehow certain that his father was not wearing a pleasant expression. "You may go now, child."
Faisal stayed where he was. His father turned to him. "Have you more to say?" said the padisah with an inquisitive glimmer in his eye.
Faisal told the padisah about his only memory from the evening of the party. When he was finished, his father smiled and held him by the shoulder as they walked to the doorway of the study. "Ash'kren, my son. Ash'kren," the padisah said. "Do not look so worried! Your honesty will be rewarded in due time; I promise you."
Still, Faisal wasn't certain he had done the right thing. He had been very drunk when he saw what he saw, and the face of the woman was obscured in his mind.
Within just a few days, all Acevedos, of both bey and mahzi birth, had somehow been informed of Safiyya's state. Not many were surprised she was pregnant. What was surprising was her attempt to conceal the father's name from the padisah and speculation spread quickly that this lapse of trust between father and daughter would lead to her ruination. Hearing them all speak that way made Faisal grow weary with guilt. He pretended to have nothing to do with the matter, though everyone knew it had been him who told their father about Safiyya and "the Zayas boy".
Six months into Safiyya's pregnancy, Faisal awoke in the dry, hot night to a sensation of something cool being pressed against his neck. When he opened his eyes, he felt as if he might have been in the midst of a nightmare. Above Faisal was his sister, Safiyya, and she was looking down at him as she held a knife to his throat. The Safiyya he saw now was different from the one he had known and loved well for all of his life. Her hair, which had always been so well kept, dangled from atop her head in a frizzy, frantic mess. She had wild glint in her brown eyes that Faisal knew better than to mistrust, but before he had time to decide what to do next, she whispered to him: "Do not make a sound."
Faisal did as he was told. He looked up at her, helplessly.
"Why did you do it, brother?"
Safiyya pulled the knife away from him and Faisal could hear in her voice that she was crying. He was relieved; she would not kill him tonight. The moonlight from his open window silhouetted her as she moved across his room. Carefully, so as not to startle her, Faisal sat up in bed to watch. "I beg you, brother! Why?" she said, her voice barely a sigh.
"My child, Faisal! My child! My body and my future," she said. She was looking at him, though the darkness of the evening masked her expression. "You have taken these things from me!"
"I'm sorry," Faisal said, unable to think of anything else.
"Are you? How could you be, brother, when you are father's favorite now?"
There was a long moment of silence, during which Faisal got out of bed. Safiyya was no longer looking at him, but she had been listening to his footsteps as he approached to stand beside her in front of the window. They looked out into the night together, peering into the vast, sea-like blackness their land became as the city slept. "I did not mean to hurt you like this," Faisal said.
"Then you are a fucking fool," Safiyya replied. "Father has chosen you to replace me."
Faisal fell to his knees. "I will not accept it then," he said.
"You are pathetic, Faisal. You will take the offer, and if you do not, you will have taken our family's dignity instead."
"The title belongs to you—"
"It belonged to me and now it is yours. Do not complicate it further," Safiyya said. She was no longer crying and paid Faisal no mind where he knelt at her bare feet. She looked disgusted with him.
"Did you come here to hurt me, sister?"
"I do not know why I came here."
Safiyya set the knife upon the windowsill. "You were wrong, Faisal," she said, and left him alone on the floor. "Vhal Hudanum."
When Faisal saw that Safiyya was gone and the door had been shut, he began to weep. He quickly closed his window and grabbed the knife, holding it against his face as he looked at his reflection in the luminescence. Without thinking, he began to glide the sharpened blade downward across his brown skin. He watched his blood slowly seep out of the self-inflicted wound, wishing he had kept quiet.
The next morning, when the padisah summoned Faisal to his study once again, Faisal emerged from his room with an ugly, jagged scab forming over his brow. His father had not acknowledged it when he informed Faisal that he was the new veliahd.
The early years of learning statecraft and administration were difficult ones during which Faisal felt like he didn't learn very much. Under his father's mentorship, Faisal did not feel much closer to him or his studies than he had been before and somehow, the padisah was even more intimidating. He was not hesitant to inform Faisal that Safiyya had been a much better candidate for veliahd on paper than Faisal had ever been, which made Faisal question why he had been chosen over her in the first place. Surely he had been honest, but how was his father to know that he had done so for the right reasons when Faisal himself could not be certain? It was uncomfortable for him to feel so trusted.
As Faisal grew older, he only became more preoccupied with the complexities of his own decision making, which forced his studies to become somehow even more arduous. When allowed to go on about his personal philosophies, he could talk and argue with himself for hours and still be untired. He slowly became a leader who overthought and overtried, though Faisal did not dislike this version of himself. This Faisal was hardly regular—or so he believed—and possessed virtues that made him stand out not only at court, but among his siblings.
For the first time in Faisal's life, he was fully in control and all eyes were fixed upon him. He does not quite know how to please those eyes, but one day he just might. For now, the veliahd can attempt to please only himself.