Stay With Me
It was unheard of for a palace to thrive without a queen mother. Each time the topic was brought to Baba by the ministers, his face would contort into a frown. It didn’t matter if he was smiling and joking with all of us at the table a few seconds before, hearing the suggestion of remarriage was guaranteed to turn the atmosphere sour.
Yet they did it.
Mama has been dead for twenty-one years. As long as I have been alive, but I feel her presence around me every day. Her favourite flowers are cut every morning from the garden and placed around the palace on Baba’s instructions. I think it gives him peace to have a piece of her around, much like our dance in the morning.
Baba comes to my quarters every morning, knocks on the door three times to announce his presence and waits for my response before he comes in. Sometimes I tease him, make him wait a bit longer before I answer. He is usually at my door by the time I’m finished with wrapping my braids in a turban and all that’s left of the royal attire are the crown beads. He picks them up from the bedside and carefully arranges them around my neck and draws my head forward for a kiss.
“May you always be protected,’ he says every morning. And I reply, ‘Ameen’. Then he smiles and leads the way to the dining room where we have breakfast together.
I was told the the tradition to eat breakfast with the palace staff in the dining room started when Mama married into the kingdom. They all describe her presence as the light that fills the heaven. Whatever time she spent away from her husband was with them. After her passing, he held unto the tradition, much to the dismay of some of the ministers who occasionally join the feast.
We pass away the morning eating together and telling stories. The palace staff’s favourite past time is to remind me of the menace I was as a baby. Their favourite story to tell is of when I was a baby, no more than a few months old. Scared of me leaving his sight, Baba brought me to his council meetings. He would place me in a cot a few metres away from him as he handled the kingdom’s affairs. Whenever I started crying, he would halt his meeting and sprint to where I was, carry me in his arms and whisper my name Ayah over and over again.
He chuckles this morning as he retells the way I would smile at the sound of my name and when he returned to the throne carrying me in his arms, I entertained myself by playing with his beard.
Our kingdom is known both for our warriors and our story tellers. But Baba is the best story teller I have ever met. It is one of the reasons our kingdom has thrived in the midst of conflict. His way with words enchants every one he meets.
We finish breakfast and walk side by side to the council meeting on the far end of the palace. A waft of heat hits me in the face when he opens the door. The ministers all greet him and I take my place by his side on the left. We discuss today’s agenda of settling a rift between two major traders in the market and organising an envoy to a neighbouring kingdom as a show of peace. We are about to close the meeting when the finance minister clears her throat.
“King Suleiman, if I may add an additional point to our agenda today?” she begins and smiles. Baba waves his hand to motion her to continue. “Forgive me but some of the ministers and I were talking yesterday, and, though we don’t want to overstep our mark…” she pauses again like a horse hesitant to move. “We all feel that the subject of Ayah’s marriage needs to be discussed as a matter of urgency.”
She clears her throat deliberately again before proceeding gently, “It is not that we want her to be forced into marriage. Not at all!” She looks around the table as some of the ministers nod in agreement. “But surely the future of our kingdom is a matter of concern even for the King? It’s high time the Princess takes this seriously.”
Emboldened by Minister Amina, the Minister for Security, joins in, “There are many eligible bachelors from neighbouring kingdoms waiting for her hand in marriage. If she doesn’t want to go outside, we have men in this kingdom. Men who are strong and able, men who command respect, men who would die to be married to her.”
“I am not a piece of jewellery to be battered for the kingdom’s future.” I retorted.
Before the ministers can respond, Baba got up from his throne and left a room filled with shocked faces.
I reach out to the tablet on the table in front of us and read out the words of tradition that declares the meeting closed.
I found him in his room staring outside the window into the high mountains that shielded the kingdom. It troubled me to see worry etched into the sides of his face. His eyebrows sagged, but most of all he looked forlorn with sadness. There was a big sigh from him before he noticed I was in the room.
Rule number one of combat: Never let your guard now. He taught me that when I was ten and it bothers me that my father is seemingly without his.
He gave me a wry smile when he turned around and noticed me.
“Baba,” I went around and sat next to him on the bed. He gives me a knowing look that tells me everything he has not said. Long before the ministers became insistent on using me as barter to secure our fragile position in the region, Baba was already speaking to me about it.