The Undistinguished Prince

Ab-lukam Ahmed was born third in King Ahmed's line, with absolutely nothing to distinguish him—his face was not beautiful and did not grow a fulsome beard; his voice did not ease, persuade, or command; he had no genius with the sword and shield; and his father's voice did not overflow with joy whenever Ab-lukam walked in the room.

The King only said, "Oh. It's you, Ab. Go fetch your first brother Babil, he simply must meet the Sultan, His Eminence El-Budur," and Ab-lukam fetched his brother, whose face shone like the moon on Ramadan.

The next time his father saw him, "Ah it is Ab. My son, go fetch your second brother Zemanda, for he must speak to my assembled sages. I wish them to hear his wit and hone his tongue," and Ab-lukam fetched his brother, whose voice could stop a Damas deer in flight and coax it near.

It was no surprise the next time his father remarked, "Ab, I did not see you there. Heed me and fetch your fourth brother Es-Ṣámit, for despite his age, I wish for my generals to know his skill," and Ab-lukam dutifully fetched his brother. Even his younger brother, whose skill in war was unmatched, found favor where Ab-lukam found none.

Ab-lukam brooded on this frequently, lying late into the morning on his bed, staring up at the red silk brocades hanging from his ceiling. After Babil ascended to the throne, he would probably lose this bed, lose the ceiling, and lose the door that bore his name.

The sole glimmer in Ab-lukam's life was a budding romance. He had met a beautiful villager in the nearby town. She didn't have a high-ranking family or courtly sophistication, but he did not care. One look at her and his heart was enflamed, and thoughts of her wove into his dreams. When he proposed, his father offered a paltry wedding gift: one noncommittal sigh and one humble cottage near the palace grounds. On the night of his wedding, as Ab-lukam gazed out from their small cottage window, he stared up at the huge dome in the center of the palace; it glowed in the moonlight. His heart was desolate with envy, and he made an oath to himself that he would find his way to the throne.

After that day, Ab-lukam distinguished himself in the shadows as utterly ruthless. In the daylight, he was a perfect sycophant, cozying up to his eldest brother with great flattery: "Your eyes are greener than emeralds, Babil. Such eyes must truly see wide and far."

Babil was much pleased by this, as was his father. No one noticed that Ab-lukam's face could turn from congenial to contemptuous as easily as he turned a corner. When in the royal chambers, he was as obsequious and emminently biddable, but in his humble cottage he practiced skill with poisons, and in his bed he dreamed of sitting upon the throne. By the time that Midsummer feast arrived, Ab-lukam had devised his plan.

As the meal began, Ab-lukam pretended to drink excessively. He encouraged the rest of them to drink as well, applying everyone to endless toasts by calling the party to "Raise thy glasses!" and in turn toasting each of his family members. At first, they were honored, but as the night went on and as Ab-lukam got sloppier and careless, his father grew embarrassed. His brothers were delighted when the King stood (more than a little drunk himself) and roared, "Ab-lukam! You have fooled yourself with liquor and allowed your mind to grow soft. I conjure you by Allah, take not another sip! Leave now lest you test my displeasure."

Ab-lukam looked chagrined as he stood. "Excuse me father…I forget myself. I would not have your displeasure at any price. I will repair to my chambers for sleep." He stumbled out, tripping to the ground as he left, but when the door closed, his face sobered instantly. He leapt up and deftly stole into the kitchen, unseen, where he dashed poison into the open wine cask. He retraced his steps, laid down, and feigned that he'd fallen asleep in the hallway outside, where he listened to his family laughing at the feast. They toasted each other, raising their glasses many times.

And so King Ahmed died, slumped over with Ab-lukam's more successful brothers, leaving Ab-lukam distinguished as the only remaining Prince. One week later he ascended to the throne by claim of birthright. Noone in the palace suspected anything, except that this was yet more proof that Fortune favored only idiots and drunks. So Ab-lukam and his wife moved from their humble cottage back into the palace, and his heart rejoice exceedingly.

Until one day, Ab-lukam awoke to find a small parcel wrapped in brown paper and sealed with twine, placed outside of his bedchambers.

He unwrapped it. Inside was a small scroll, inscribed with this poem:

The wicked man sows his own destruction.

A King who poisoned his own father,

Will never trust his own sons.

How many physicians die of an illness?

How many swordsmen are fatally stabbed?

How many astrologers fail to predict their own doom?

We live and die, O King, by our own trade and traffic,

Trade therefore in kindness, in charity, in loyal friendship.

Ab-lukam grew incensed by this, and his heart was troubled far more than he would admit. How dare this—fool—criticize him?! And who could know of his poisonous plot? He raged against his staff, demanding to know whom had put the message by his door, but none knew. He crumpled the poem and threw it into the trash.

Ab-lukam continued his reign for some time until the weather grew dry, the crops withered, and a famine settled across his domain. He feared a food shortage, so he withheld rations and ordered that the grain storehouses be closed "For Royal Usage Only". While his own sycophants praised his caution and planning, peasants died by the hundreds. Whereupon, another brown paper package was found outside his bedchamber. In it, another scroll.

The miserly man pays for his own ruination.

A King who eats before his own farmers,

Will never again receive first harvest.

The praise for your "prudence" dies on ravenous lips.

The notion of your "necessity" is belied by spring rains.

The applause for your "abundance of caution" is mocked by royal feasting.

Discontent, O King, is what you have saved up,

Open therefore your storehouses, your feasting halls, the doors to your heart.

Ab-lukam became insensate, losing control of rational thought. He ranted, he raved, then he screamed for his Vizier. He ordered that all of his staff must write a poem by their own hand, telling the Vizier that if the culprit was not discovered or if another scroll were to arrive, the punishment would be upon the Vizier's own head. The Vizier passed along the command, all of the staff wrote their poem, and the Vizier found four hands among them that were similar(one being the Vizier's own brother), though none were a perfect match to the original scroll, and none would confess. So, being greatly fearful, the Vizier commanded that all be executed.

The day of their execution, another brown package arrived, only this time Ab-lukam found it underneath his very own pillow.

The suspicious man encourages friends to conspiracy.

A King who broods upon unspoken words,

Will never hear an authentic word spoken.

Your staff pretend to illiteracy, lest their script displease your whims.

Your subjects whisper in corners, lest their jokes ever find your ears.

Your vizier kill even his own blood, lest he fail to match your zeal.

Conspiracy flowers around you like spring dandelions,

Yet you hunt these notes like a gardener after weeds?

There is, O King, a better way to silence me.

Upon this, Ab-lukam was amazed and fearful. He said within himself, "By Allah, who is so powerful that they may access even my own bedchambers?" He looked around the window ledge for footprints, but its dust was undisturbed. He searched his apartments like a man who'd lost a ring, looking for evidence but his apartments were undisturbed. Until at last he came to his wife's desk. It was undisturbed. He examined the blank parchment there, then the raven-feathered quill. The tip was still wet.

His heart darkened, and he ordered a servant to fetch his wife. She entered, and he entreated her, "My dear wife, I wish you to write for me a letter of romantic passion, for I long to read your poetry."

"My king, I do not need pen nor delay, I will tell you straight from the heart, thereby giving full passion to words which a page cannot match. Your hair, my darling, is like—"

Ab-lukam saw through this deception, "—wife, I conjure thee by Allah, do not speak. Write, O Keeper of my heart."

He watched her keenly, and even as she wrote the first Arabic letter he knew her to be the author. His rage captivated him as love once had, and he drew his sword and plunged it through her. She gasped, spasmed, then clutched forwards over the sword. She groaned, "Why, O King, do you lay your sword upon your own family tree?"

"Is this another hectoring verse then? It will be your last," he said with a mad laugh, and then spat, "What need have I of your opinions, you quivering peasant?"

His wife was quiet, then she managed one final breath, "Then reap the silence."

His heart was shaken by this, and every moment that passed beyond his cooling rage disturbed him further. He announced to the Vizier that he'd found the scroll's author and dealt with them, and then he closed his apartments and refused all visitors. Days passed, and Ab-lukam could not eat (for it tasted of ash), nor drink (for it smelled of poison), nor bear company (for he grieved to see her again). The quiet gnawed at him for he could hear her final words in it, and so he picked up her raven-feathered pen. He began writing his Final Will, except he found that no matter how he started, his sentences would curl and roll back against him, chastising and accusing, but somehow this did not bother him. The words seared him, like a burning fire that might consume everything.

On the fifth day, the royal Vizier commanded the soldiers to break the King's barricaded door, and they entered his apartments to find the King dead on his table, with a small brown package in front of him. They wondered greatly, and they opened it to find a scroll. A poem was inscribed there, along with a simple Will, that instructed the Vizier to chisel his wife's poems along with his last words upon his grave.

All that I conquered lies worthless at my feet.

All that I cared for is lifeless by my hand.

I poisoned success, that I might finally succeed;

I spurned correction, that I might always be correct.

I piled up sins, kept evil company, and treasured iniquity,

but I could never claim the one all-forgiving vice: Ignorance.

I hated her words for illuminating dark motives,

they echoed,

they still echo,

loud within my heart's deep halls.

She was trying to adjust my crooked ways,

I've wondered,

I still wonder,

Did she write them out of injured affection or simply out of disgust?

Now the harvest comes, and though I distinguished myself

first among men, all I reap is a narrow coffin.

Hear, O Reader, the truth and grow wise.

Here, O Reader, lies the King.

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