The Contest

1

My chest feels near to bursting but I must not give in. I must outlast Afya or I will not hear the end of it. So I swallow my mouthful of air and increase my resolve despite my agony.

My vision is imperfect but I can just see Afya under the water across from me. Yasmeen pushes upon her shoulders to help keep her down, just as Haifa pushes upon mine. But I know she is determined to defeat me and I must be strong if I am to triumph.

The other maidens in the harem cheer us on as they wager on the contest. I detect more voices in support of Afya but I am not surprised. It just causes my beloved Haifa to cheer me on all the louder… “Stay strong, Jamilah; you can do it! She is tiring!”

“She is NOT!” Yasmeen responds angrily. “She will outlast Jamilah; you will see! You will ALL see!”

My chest heaves and I feel a growing dizziness inside me. Bubbles escape my lips and nose; I cannot help it. My stomach heaves as though something inside wants out. I cannot last much longer.

I see a sudden burst of bubbles where Afya kneels. We are near the edge of the harem pool facing each other, thankfully not in deeper water. But the shallows are more than sufficient for our contest, a contest that is about to come to an end one way or another.

I lose another burst of bubbles and I feel a fire in my chest. I cannot continue much longer; I will need to rise out of the water in mere moments. I am defeated and a heaviness settles upon me.

Just once I wish I could defeat Afya at a contest and silence her many derisions upon me. Just once I wish to be something worthy in her eyes. In desperation I shoot up a silent prayer.

…and just like that I witness a great burst of bubbles. Afya flails her arms in desperation to push her closest ally off. Yasmeen cries out, “Afya; NO!” but it is too late. Afya bursts up out of the pool and I hear her loud gasps.

Allah be praised.

“Jamilah, you have WON!” Haifa declares proudly and she releases me. But a great dizziness engulfs me. I am suddenly too weakened to rise up. Haifa grasps my arms and pulls me up until my head is out of the water and I am coughing greatly.

I hear murmurs of surprise from the gathered harem; my victory is unexpected. “Pay your wager!” Haifa declares to a sullen Yasmeen. She reluctantly parts with a treasured ornament, slapping it angrily into Haifa’s palm. Then Haifa turns to me, all smiles.

“Jamilah, I KNEW you could do it!” she declares proudly. I am still shaking water out of my eyes, still coughing so that I may recover. Then I peer over at Afya.

I am surprised to see newfound respect in her eyes…

2

With the victory comes a change in Afya’s treatment of me. She has special favor with the King and receives many gifts from him, one of which she gives to me as a sign of her great respect. She includes me in her inner circle and even seeks my wisdom from time to time, something she has never done before.

More importantly to me, she treats my beloved Haifa with more respect. Haifa has always been wary of the shadowy Afya. In private she tells me that she still does not totally trust the King’s favorite. But I see Haifa is slowly warming up to her.

Soon Afya begins speaking to me about a man outside the palace named Ghazi. She tells me she is in love with him and tries to see him as often as she can. She tells me her heart is torn because her life in the palace forbids such things and she seeks my wisdom on the matter. I feel it is a great honor that she seeks my counsel.

Once I actually accompanied her outside the palace walls so that she could see her Ghazi. I witnessed them together and they seemed to have a great fondness for each other. He is a young man, a strong-looking man, and he was quite eager to see her.

I become her closest companion; it happens so quickly. We bathe and play in the harem pool together and we share many things. It is a good life, one I could not possibly have imagined before the contest in the pool.

It is so subtle that I do not see it. I am so thrilled to be close to Afya that I fail to notice she is slowly weaning me away from my beloved Haifa. A certain sadness develops in Haifa’s eyes, a sadness I am too blind to detect. I am so close to Afya now that all I see in Haifa’s eyes is the green monster of jealousy. And I fail to see that Afya’s treatment of Haifa has now returned to the days before the contest…

3

One evening Afya comes to me alone. She is greatly distressed, for the King has detected a plot against the throne. He has issued a decree that there be no more journeys outside the palace walls for the harem and the guards.

“Jamilah, whatever shall I do?” she tells me, appearing as though her heart will break. “I cannot set foot outside the palace until the King rescinds his decree. I must see Ghazi!”

“There is nothing to be done but to obey the King’s command,” I tell her, sighing heavily. But she shakes her head, telling me there is another way.

“The tunnel to the harem pool goes outside the palace,” she whispers in hushed tones. “When they fill the pool it flows in from the river. And when they drain the pool it flows back. We can take the tunnel.”

“Afya, that is madness!” I declare in horror. “The tunnels are too long to make that distance under the water! And we must not go outside the palace walls!”

“But I must see Ghazi!” she insists. “Surely he is worried about me!” Then she looks at me with great determination.

“I will swim the tunnel, Jamilah. And I want you to swim with me. Your victory in the contest means you can be under longer than I. You can help me make it to the river; I know you can. And Ghazi will be waiting for me.”

My heart leaps in my chest in alarm; what she is proposing is sheer folly! “Afya!” I tell her anxiously. “If we are caught we will be executed!”

“We will not be caught!” she replies, sounding exceedingly desperate. “All I require is that you see me through to the outside. Please, Jamilah, I have learned to trust you in many things. Please allow me to trust you now in this matter.”

There is a flicker of something in my ear… like a feather in the wind. It is the faint voice of Haifa, quietly whispering to me of a time so long ago when she was not sure how much she could trust Afya. Even now she still harbors her doubts. But my closeness to Afya is something I cannot risk breaking.

Once I agree to the tunnel swim, Haifa’s warning in my ear goes away like fleeing clouds after a great storm. But I am still unsettled…

4

There is no one around when we enter the room and creep toward the harem pool. It is dark save for two torches and we are clothed with only a thin tunic so as not to hinder our journey. All of this adds to my unsettled state and my heart beats loudly.

“Are you sure of this?” I ask Afya. “If the journey is too long we will not survive in the tunnel.”

“There is a break in the tunnel for the servants to gather water inside the palace,” she tells me. Then she smiles confidently in the faint glow of the two torches.

“We can make it, Jamilah!” she declares. “Remember how you bested me in the pool? Together we shall breach the palace wall.” Then she grabs my shoulders, pulls me to her and hugs me. How can I refuse with such an intimate gesture on her part?

We quietly enter the pool, making our way toward the tunnel entrance. I do not know how much of the tunnel is underwater, nor do I know where that break in the tunnel lies. I can only hope Afya knows what she speaks of. With our recent change in relationship, I am fully committed to her.

“It is so dark,” I whisper quietly.

“That is good,” she replies in a soft voice. “We must not be seen. Come, Jamilah; we must go now.” Then she pushes me forward as though I must go first.

I gasp, swelling my chest as much as I am able. Then under I go for the tunnel entrance in the pool. I have seen it many times before and have even gone under and through for a very short distance just to see what is there. But this swim will be so much more.

I use my arms and kick with my legs, all the while questioning what I am doing. The tunnel is dark as night and I use my arms to feel my way forward. Sometimes I feel a hand on my foot and I know it is Afya close behind. I am afraid, but I must make sure neither of us dies in here.

The tunnel goes on and on and there seems to be no change of darkness. Soon my chest begins to heave as bubbles leak out of my mouth, and I spur myself onward. I know we cannot remain under the water’s surface much longer.

I hear Afya grunt, a troubling sound that matches my own grunts. I feel my way forward, pushing off the sides of the tunnel from time to time. We must be near that break in the tunnel ahead or we will surely be found here come morning.

I peer forward, the water interfering with my vision. But I think I see something up ahead. Is it getting lighter?

Hope springs within me and I kick as hard as I can, using my arms to move forward. My chest strains and I feel a growing fire inside as more bubbles slip out of my mouth. If we do not reach that break in the tunnel soon…

I cannot stay down much longer and I become greatly afraid. I swim even harder until I see a glow before me. I swim for it until I am forced to go up, tunnel or no.

My head comes out of the water and I gasp loudly. We are in the break in the tunnel and a single torch shines down upon me. Then I turn for Afya only to hear her come up beside me, her gasps matching my own.

It was a long swim, and we struggle to calm ourselves and remain quiet. But soon we have recovered and are no longer gasping in agony. “I told you we could do it, Jamilah,” she whispers confidently. “Just a little more and we will be outside the palace.”

“Madness,” I mutter under my breath. Haifa’s warning voice returns to my ear, louder and more insistent. But I brush it aside like brushing away flies buzzing around my face. I am too committed to Afya to stop now.

“Quickly!” she hisses into my ear. “We must go NOW!” I nod in the near darkness, wishing we could take the torch along to light our way. Then I gasp as I go under toward the rest of the tunnel that awaits our passage.

It is a long swim – a hard swim – a swim made much more difficult at night. I am pushed by my desire not to be found in the tunnel at sunrise. That would be a great humiliation, a betrayal to the King and a failure to keep Afya safe.

The tunnel is dark, seemingly never-ending. I feel my chest begin to hurt again and the fear grows within me as more bubbles escape my mouth. Like the contest, my stomach soon feels as though something inside wishes to burst forth. It feels like flames are burning within my chest and I fear we will never make it. Then I see a glow ahead.

Is it another torch? I do not know. All I know is that I must get out of this water… that WE must get out of this water.

I push hard, sometimes feeling Afya’s hand brush against my feet. I hope I have not kicked her as I force myself forward, telling myself we will be outside the wall if only I will push myself on a bit more. Then the glow gets stronger and I sense the opening to the tunnel is near.

I grunt in growing alarm; Afya’s grunts behind me fail to comfort me. Then with one last, hard kick I see a surface above me. I go up and am greatly relieved to be able to stick my head up and gasp aloud. Afya comes up right next to me and her gasps unite with mine.

We look around and I discover we can see by the light of the moon, the light I saw while swimming forward. We are beyond the palace walls. But toward the river I see a man waiting and I stiffen in alarm. Thankfully it is only Ghazi and he rushes toward us.

He pulls Afya out of the water channel and holds her tight. She wraps her arms around him and they rejoice that she is unharmed. Then she comes over to me and I see a serious look in her face. It is as though her behavior toward me has changed.

“Go back now, Jamilah. You got me here and for that I am grateful. You will be rewarded. Now go! Go back and go to sleep. I will be well.”

I look at her in confusion, surprised to be dismissed from her presence so casually. Something does not feel right, but I cannot put my finger on it. “Will you be ok?” I ask, still feeling responsible for her safety.

“I will see to her care,” Ghazi tells me. “You should go back now. We are in your debt.”

“Yes, go,” Afya tells me. “You should not be here should someone see us together. Do not worry; I will be well.”

“As you wish,” I reply uncertainly. Then I start gasping for breath to prepare myself for the return trip. I have no idea why I suddenly sense it is much safer within the palace walls. But I fervently wish to return there as soon as possible and I gasp one last time before I go under…

5

I arrive back at the harem pool exhausted. The room is empty and I quickly dry myself off. Then I slip into the room with the other sleeping maidens.

I try to sleep but it does me no good; my mind is troubled. I see Afya has not returned; where could she be? I toss and turn, sensing something is not right. I finally drift off to sleep, dreaming of the agony of being in the tunnel for so long.

Sometime during the early morning I am awakened by a disturbance within the palace walls. I hear faint voices… and is that the clash of sword upon sword? It is the sound of battle and it awakens us all, causing everyone to sit up and take notice with anxious murmurings.

I look around, only to see that Afya has still not returned. In the faint light of the sunrise I see Haifa’s anxious expression. She is worried; we all are.

The sounds die off and we look around at each other in curiosity. The commotion has ended; what do we do now? There is no one who summons us so one by one we lie back down and drift off to sleep…

6

It is a troubling dream…

I am below the surface of the water in the harem pool, straining with all my might. I sense I am being held down; is this another contest? Then I realize it is no contest at all, not with the other maidens pushing me down and refusing to allow me back up.

I am almost about to give up and succumb when the Queen’s guards burst in, ordering us all to awaken. I am grateful for my horrible dream to be interrupted. But the King has summoned us to the courtyard at once and I am alarmed. What could this possibly be?

We dress quickly in our tunics and head down the passage to the courtyard. Afya is still not with us and I worry about her now more than ever. Haifa gives me an anxious look, one that mirrors my own.

We assemble in the courtyard where many of the palace guards have also gathered. There is blood upon the ground; a battle has been waged here not so long ago. And several of the guards who are normally here are now missing; I know not why.

This is often used as a place of judgment, and I see it is to be so this morning. The King and Queen sit upon their chairs, both appearing somewhat shaken. Several guards bear wounds and bandages. Something has happened, although we dare not speak aloud to ask questions.

The King looks at us and he no longer appears to be shaken. Fury has filled his features. For some reason I am frightened now more than ever.

“There was an attempt upon our lives this morning!” he declares, rousing horrified gasps from among us maidens. “The Queen was nearly killed and I suffered a glancing blow. Several palace guards died to protect us. But the rebellion has been defeated. Now the leaders shall suffer punishment.”

He turns to one of the guards standing near a doorway. “Bring them in!” he commands and the guard disappears. When he returns I am horrified to see Afya and Ghazi escorted in with two executioners in black hoods on either side, both brandishing scimitars.

Both are bloodied; it looks as though they have been wounded. There is rage on their faces and a gasp of shock fills the courtyard at this unexpected betrayal. Haifa glances at me in alarm as I feel a sickness rise up from my stomach.

“These two have led a rebellion!” the King proclaims. “They would have succeeded were it not for the providence of Allah! All of their conspirators are dead save for these two! Now they shall suffer punishment for their sins!”

My stomach churns as Afya and Ghazi are forced to kneel facing away from the King and Queen. Their tunics are torn away, leaving them to be executed naked and in shame. Their bodies are bloodied and it makes me wonder if their executions have been hastily arranged before they can die from their wounds.

Even with her breasts exposed, Afya kneels proudly. I await her accusation of my complicity in the plot by swimming her outside the palace walls. But she says nothing; she just looks forward as though accepting her fate.

Both executioners lift their scimitars in preparation. Ghazi’s strikes first and his aim is true. Ghazi’s head flies across the courtyard as blood spurts out of his severed neck to add to the crimson stains upon the floor. He slowly slumps over, no more to be able to start a rebellion.

There is only a pause before Afya’s executioner swings his scimitar as well. She has just enough time to see the head of her Ghazi fly before it passes right through her neck, causing her head to fly forward as well and to roll upon the courtyard floor. Her body shakes before it too topples over onto its side.

“Post the heads!” the King declares and I understand immediately what he means. Both heads will be impaled on pikes and posted outside the palace for all the citizens of the city to see. Then he tells the guards to take the bodies beyond the city gate and leave them for the birds to feast upon.

Haifa looks at me aghast and I read her fearful gaze. My stomach churns and I feel deathly pale. But there are no more executions and the King dismisses us for the day.

I cannot help but sense I am now living moment by moment… as though each one might be my last…

7

I tell no one of my swim in the tunnels with Afya, not even to Haifa. But for the rest of the day I feel a heavy weight upon me. It is as though Allah has looked down upon me with disfavor.

Every time a guard approaches I steel myself for the worst. But each time his duties take him away from me. My nerves are frayed and I am always on edge.

Later in the day Haifa takes me aside and asks me about Afya. I tell her I know nothing, that I was aware of nothing. But it all makes sense to me now. She needed someone to make the swim with her to be reunited with her fellow conspirator. I feel like a marked woman.

The Queen makes an unexpected appearance in our quarters at sundown. Two of her guards flank her and I feel that churning in the pit of my stomach again. Then she walks right up to me.

She stares at me, not speaking so much as a word. Then her face contorts in a rage as her hand flies. I receive a stinging slap to the face, a loud slap.

The girls around me gasp in shock and horror. But I fully understand its purpose and with a broken heart I accept it in silence. With a nod her guards then step on either side of me and escort me away.

I’m actually relieved the waiting is finally over…

8

The only light in the cavern is what comes from the torch on the wall outside my cell. I’m given no food or water, just the tunic upon my back. It’s cold and I’m all alone.

I tell myself there is no one else to blame for my misfortune. Haifa had it right all along; Afya was not to be trusted. But I allowed her to draw me in and now I shall pay for submitting to her rebellious whims with my life.

My biggest regret is that I’m going to miss Haifa. Already I’m missing her warmth and comfort, especially the way she consoles me when I am sad. But I willingly gave up that warmth and special attention when I threw my lot in with Afya. It was a poor decision… and a costly one.

There is a clank at the cell door and I peer intently. But it is so dark I cannot see anyone. Then I hear a familiar voice…

“Jamilah?”

“Haifa? Is that you?”

“I am here, Jamilah. Speak out in the darkness and I shall draw near to you.”

Tears fill my eyes, tears of sadness and regret. Then a new fear fills me, a terror that grips my soul…

“No, Haifa! You must not be here! I do not wish you to suffer for my sins!”

“Hush, my beloved.” Then she is right here with me, her hands caressing me.

“No,” I sob. “You mustn’t. The guard…”

“…has done me a favor, Jamilah,” she whispers tenderly. Then her lips find mine. My tears flow like rain as I succumb, allowing her to embrace me.

She slowly removes my tunic, lifting it above my head. Then her lips are all over my body, all over my heaving breasts. She comforts me as only she can.

After a time of caresses and tenderness she pauses, allowing me to catch my breath. I feel so much better now. But the news she brings is just as I suspected.

“Yasmeen told the Queen about your swim,” she says quietly. “She says she witnessed it but I do not believe her. I suspect Afya told her the plans she had set in motion in case something were to go wrong. I suppose it is my payment for taking that ornament from her during our wager at your contest.”

“You are in grave peril visiting me this way,” I whisper. “Haifa, you must go now!” But she shushes me, kissing me tenderly before speaking once more…

“She dare not risk speaking out against me for fear I will retaliate, Jamilah. And I would, you know. I will say she was in on the plot to kill the King and Queen the whole time if she dares go against me.” I smile at Haifa’s cleverness.

“Jamilah, the Queen is angry,” Haifa quietly explains. “Yasmeen’s words have condemned you; I dare not speak out. Everyone knows of your relationship with Afya.”

“And I would not want you to speak out,” I tell her firmly. I pause as I consider the matter before the truth dawns upon me…

“I curse myself for having entered into that contest. It was her plan all along. You are far wiser than I, Haifa; I should have seen it.”

“She was a crafty one,” Haifa agrees. “But she will do no more harm. Her body is food to the birds and the vultures now.”

She pauses and I sense she has something difficult to tell me. Then she sighs heavily. “Jamilah, I fear it will be bad for you.”

“It is my responsibility and I will bear it,” I tell her firmly. “I do not wish for you to come to any harm over this matter.”

“Do not worry, my beloved; I won’t.” Then she kisses me again. Tears of love and sadness fill my eyes as she begins to comfort me all over again…

9

Haifa leaves before the Queen’s guards come for me at dawn. I’m taken to the harem room and made to undress in front of one and all. I glance over at Haifa and am relieved to see she is not showing any emotion that would give her away.

The Queen is there and she points out four maidens, Haifa and Yasmeen among them. They are instructed to take me into the pool. I gasp anxiously as my worst fears come to light.

My punishment is to fit my sins.

“This is how we deal with traitors in the palace!” she declares. Then she points… “Submerge her!” I gasp just in time before Haifa, Yasmeen and the others push me down into the water. It is to be my final bath, but at least Haifa will be safe.

I am pushed under for the last time, reminding me of the contest with Afya. I should willingly release the bubbles but I cannot fight what is natural to my body. So I try to remain calm and accept what must be. It is only right.

Time passes and my chest begins to strain. It is a struggle but I still cannot make myself open my mouth to succumb. My only hope is that my suffering and death will satisfy the Queen’s anger.

It gets harder and harder and I feel the strain. My stomach reacts once more; it fights and churns and bulges like something wants out. Bubbles escape my mouth and a fire settles in my chest as I start to get dizzy. The end is near.

I try to force myself to go for as long as possible; my body will not permit me otherwise. But in the end I cannot hold out. And I cannot control myself.

I am ashamed when my body suddenly bursts forth with a violent struggle. The four maidens are forced to hold me down with strong hands and I fight even harder. Then more bubbles burst out of my mouth and nose as I swallow water.

The agony is far worse than I could ever have imagined. I find myself envying Afya who was beheaded quickly. But somewhere a voice inside me says this is my penance to Allah for my part in the treachery to the King and Queen.

I fight and struggle as a new agony fills my chest. I wish to see Haifa’s face one last time. But the water is churned up too much. Then my head feels like it swells until something terrible and violent happens inside my mind and I am no more…

EPILOGUE

The water is drained out of the harem pool. Jamilah’s body flows with it into the river where it is never seen again. Haifa successfully hides her emotions until after the Queen and her guards have departed. Then she goes off alone and weeps bitterly.

Months later there is a second attempt on the lives of the King and Queen. Haifa in a last act of bravery throws herself between several attackers and the Queen, taking two arrows full in the chest. She actually smiles as she slumps mortally wounded, knowing she will soon rejoin her beloved Jamilah in death. The Queen is granted just enough time to appreciate the noble sacrifice of one of her harem girls before she is cut down by a flashing sword.

A new King and Queen are installed… and a new age of palace intrigue begins all over again…

(written for Hitomi May 20 ’14 by riwa)

(Inspired by a scene from the movie The Devil of the Desert against the Sons of Hercules.)

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