One Thousand and One Nights
Shah closed the heavy ornate door with a final bang and stood facing it, still as a statue.
The Sultan came closer and said, “Turn around.”
Stubbornly, Shah remained rooted in her place and despite the balmy air, her fingers felt numb and cold.
The Sultan came closer still and placed both hands on her shoulders. “Turn around Shah, let me look at you.”
Shah gazed down blindly at the glistening marble floor, its pearl-white mocking her reflection, and slowly shook her head. Undeterred, the Sultan pushed aside the silk emerald veil covering her long black hair and began kissing her slender neck. His lips tracing its gentle curve.
A small gasp escaped her mouth and Shah turned to stop the Sultan. With all her might she began to push his chest with her palms and caught the look in the Sultan’s eyes, they travelled up and down her dress, noticing the layers of fine coloured silk that hid little. It was clear that in his eyes her fate this evening was his to play with.
Shah cursed herself for not having changed from the dance costume before she received him. Then again, he was already there waiting for her when she returned from the class.
“Dance, for me,” said the Sultan, “perform the veil dance – the palace lead dancer told me you are a fine student.”
“But you were the one who ordered her to teach me!” cried Shah, embarrassed.
“I knew you were warring with yourself whether you would ask her. I saw your hungry eyes following her every gesture, consuming her every step and trying to commit the dance to memory. Hence I asked her for you, not ordered it.”
“Now dance!” The Sultan dismissed her questioning with a wave of one heavily-ringed hand and turned abruptly towards the plush velvet cushions. He laid down on his side in anticipation, absently rubbing the stubbles on his face.
Shah looked at the Sultan in disbelief. A part of her wanting to escape the room and run, but to where? The furthest would be the harem’s iron gate but Kareem would be there, faithfully guarding.
Either in defiance or resignation – Shah herself did not know which – she decided to dance. And just as suddenly as the arrival of her decision came the memory of a long forgotten tune. So faint its beginning that she had to strain to hear it in her mind.
Shah could not recall where she had heard the music before but the melody was smooth. Thick and dark, like the desert night outside. Imitating the dusty wind roiling across the vast expense, the drumbeats gathered and dispersed in a cycle that seemed to go on forever. Deluding herself that time was hers to savour, Shah slowly lifted her bare arms above her shoulders, and higher still, as if reaching to pluck the evening stars down.
With a deft flick of her tiny wrists, Shah began moving her hands and then her whole arms to the beat of the oriental drums only she could hear. It was the Sultan’s turn to remain frozen, his left elbow firmly fixed to the floor, fearing that dared he to move the make-shift crutch his whole tense body would collapse onto the pile of cushions beneath him.
Shah’s shoulders began to move in bold harmony, balancing the weight of all good things and all beautiful things, swaying the coloured veils in a hypnotic dance of their own across her chest. One slim ankle lifted and balancing on sturdy toes, Shah whirled like the Semazens in the town hall. The veils lifted around her like flower petals blown by a decided wind. Faster, and faster she spun, losing herself to the seduction of the dance, ignoring the intensity of the Sultan’s gaze as it grew hotter and hotter. Beads of sweat began to trickle down Shah’s skin, moistening the flimsy veils into darker colours that clung to her lithe form.
Shah gradually stilled her whirling and with measured steps like the wary palace cats, she approached the Sultan where he laid. The Sultan’s eyes widened with the up-close view of her dark twin roses but Shah immediately flicked one, then two of her veils, moving swiftly backwards and leaving the Sultan blinded by the veils wrapped around his face. The Sultan let out a hearty laugh and removed the veils. He laughed again, but this time, with a glint in his eyes that was not there before.
The palace lead dancer would be scowling at her right now for breaking the discipline of the dance but a tiny smile began curving at the edge of Shah’s full, red lips. She couldn’t help herself, the Sultan was laughing like a carefree youth again. Shah unfastened one veil pinned to her left shoulder and with an arching movement, used the scarf to circle the floor of her low-lit bedroom. She noticed the Sultan’s fixation on her firm back every time she bent to the melodious song she now recalled hearing from the bazaar. Sad and jubilant, praising a won war but with too many fallen bodies as a reward.
The lilting hum in her mind called for her body to embrace the floor and make a circle with both hands, once to the right, and once to the left, like the pagan worship of the sun, except that it was midnight and love was the only myth praised in this room. With her back turned to the Sultan, Shah was unaware when he reached out and smoothed his palm over her back, as if to reassure himself that she was not a mirage. Surprised, Shah turned swiftly. With the veil she had been using, she deftly twirled it around the Sultan’s wrist, his left hand arrested in mid-air.
“What are you doing?” Shah whispered, trembling and out of breath, still holding one of the Sultan’s wrists tightly captive with the thin veil.
“Temptation. You are temptation.”
The Sultan bent down like a hawk that had spotted its prey and snatched a kiss from Shah’s rosebud lips. Shah blinked, and released the veil around his wrist. As if in a trance, she stepped back and continued the well-learnt dance. Fewer veils adorned her pliant body now, all the limbs a feast for the Sultan’s greedy eyes. Shah dropped another veil, her hips still swaying to the unforgiving rhythm and gave a quick glance at the Sultan, her eyes refusing to give away the mystery of her thoughts. The Sultan was no longer reclining but sitting-up straight. Like someone who had seen the flash of lightning and was waiting for the boom of thunder. Yet outside the palace, the sky kept still its pitch-black silence.
The storm playing in Shah’s mind rose to a pitch and Shah danced with merry abandonment, echoing the wildness within her, the white marble floor littered with an array of coloured silk. Veil-less, she fell into the Sultan’s lap, drunk and fatigued by the unfinished dance. Shah reached her palm up to the Sultan’s face and softly, she touched him.