Sunday, August 9, 2009

A Khazar Love Story

The following story is taken from my book Blood Royale with permission. ( Being my own book makes granting permission easy to acquire. It represents a chapter from what was a very turbulent time period in the history of my ancestors. Three cousins were raised and removed from the position of Exilarch in Baghdad in a matter of years. They were the pawns of the Caliphs and the rabbanites which had gained a position of power. The book primarily follows the adventures of one of these cousins as he makes his way to France in 769 but in the meantime other major events were taking place in the land of the Tartars. As mentioned in the other blogs regarding the Khazars there was a major conversion to Judaism by this Tartar Kingdom. Whereas there are numerous versions to explain through a variety of reasons why this occurred, several of them hint at the presence of a beautiful princess who was instrumental in the event. In my family's tales this princess had a name. It was Thaliah and this was her story.

Crimea 769 A.D.

From her perch between the two great rocks, Thaliah watched the procession of leather and steel plated riders saddled proudly upon their stocky steppes ponies; short maned and swift legged horses that were legendary for their ability to cross vast expanses without tiring or thirsting. The riders too had become the subject of many legends as they carved out an empire from the inhospitable wastelands between the two great inland seas. Long curved swords swung unerringly above their crested helms, slicing deadly swaths through imagined and long dead enemies that now hovered somewhere between heaven and earth.

Around and around they circled their mighty king as he posed triumphantly at the center of their spiraling masses, standing firmly upon a mountain of corpses heaped one upon the other as a stele to their victorious army.

"Savages! Barbarians!" she cursed under her breath. The thought of turning and fleeing back to whence she came crossed her mind repeatedly. How could the redemption of her people lie in the hands of this uncivilized people? If not for her promise she would have given the order for her servants to mount immediately and turn south upon the road back to Sura.

The king, bejeweled and crowned with a gold coronet encircling the low, flat cap he wore over braided black locks, began a merry little dance, balancing precariously upon the back of his slain enemies, much to the acclaim and applause of his men. Then, without a moment's hesitation he somersaulted into a forward twist, landing safely in the outstretched arms of his followers.

An order was given, and several men rushed forward, splashing naphtha over the mound of human flesh, all the while, dancing dervishly, and spinning wildly out of control. The king was presented with a flaming brand, and with a leisurely arc of his arm, the torch sailed through the air, turning end over end until it came to rest upon the crest of the pyre. At first, only the crackling and spitting of oil could be heard, but then suddenly, the entire pile erupted into a hissing pillar of flame. With each sputter of searing flesh, the army roared and cheered once more. Their nostrils flared as the black smoke spiraled in its path heavenward.

The horrific sights and sounds were too overpowering for Thaliah. Every now and then a faint, yet audible scream of sheer terror would surface from beneath the pyre, from the choking voices of the wounded and almost dead. The smoke churned faster and faster in the circling winds that raced about the foothills. The tears welled in her eyes and she was even more convinced her presence here had definitely been an error in judgment.

She felt the reassuring arm of her servant Eli come to rest upon her shoulder. "Come away mistress. This is no place for you." Thaliah let her eyes drop and turn from the foul desecration of human life. She looked into the soft brown eyes of her guardian. Eli held twenty years more than her and to his credit he appeared to those that saw them together to be barely a few years older. His hair had not grayed and his skin was still smooth to the touch. When she was a little girl, she had often fantasized that Eli would come in the dark of night, cast her over his broad shoulders and carry her off into the distant lands where they would live happily ever after. But all along she knew that it would never be more than a childish dream. Their castes were worlds apart. Royalty and servitude could never mix, only co-exist. No, her destiny had already been predetermined and here she was, in some nameless land, fulfilling a dream fueled by royal decree.

"Oh Eli, what have I've gotten myself into?" Her chest heaved with a sigh of defeat.

"Come mistress. The king's messenger awaits us. It is best he receives you before he and his men begin to celebrate too heartily." He flashed a smile that put her troubled heart at ease for the moment. Eli and Thaliah walked towards her entourage and the envoy that waited impatiently for her return.

As she approached, the messenger bowed courteously. "I hope that your highness found the view quite spectacular?"

Thaliah knew well enough not to answer truthfully. She glanced quickly at Eli, to reassure him that she would maintain proper protocol and decorum, and then trained her eyes upon the king's richly robed courtesan. "Your king was a most impressive figure and surely his victory shall be exalted and praised by the singers of far off lands. You may tell your king that this princess has truthfully never beheld such a spectacle as this in all her life."

"His majesty, Bosiah, thanks you warmly and requests the presence of your company at his tent, accompanied by your servants, of course."

"I am most grateful for your king's hospitality. Please inform him that I will attend his tent as soon as I am properly attired in clothes more deserving of this honor."

"A word of wisdom your highness,” the messenger overstepped the bounds of his position. “When the king makes a request, it is considered to mean immediately." Another bow, followed by a graceful leap onto the back of his horse and the envoy was ready to proceed back to the camp.

“Then the king will have to receive me as I am,” she shouted at the envoy’s back. “How dare they treat me in this manner!” she muttered as she turned to face her servant.

Eli helped his mistress into the ornate silver and leather saddle that nestled between the humps on her camel's back. Her mount had been the gift of the Caliph of Baghdad. He probably would have reconsidered his generosity had he known that his prized animal would now be making its way towards the camp of a most hated enemy. Thaliah handed the reins over to the messenger who had turned and coached his horse along side. Demonstrating his gifted horsemanship, he walked the beast slowly down the side of the hill towards the encampment. Camel and horse pacing side by side was no mean feat and he did it expertly.

Her caravan of camels and donkeys followed a respectful distance behind, framed by the glow of the setting sun as she glanced back towards them. A glance that in some way said, this would be the last time she would see any of her family again.

"He's fascinated with you."

The sound of the envoy's voice caught her by surprise as she turned her head forward in response. "Pardon me. What was that you said?"

"You fascinate him. The king does not quite know what to make of your visit."

Thaliah cocked her head slightly, a look of bemusement crossing the lines of her face. Such forwardness by a servant was quite unusual. "How so?"

"Well, your highness. Firstly you must understand, we don't receive many visitors, let alone royal caravans in these parts. The mountainous regions of the Caucasus are treacherous and are not part of any established trade route. Those that do make it this far from the normal trade routes, we usually attack, not welcome." The messenger flashed a warm, jocular grin. "Secondly, not many women lead a caravan into parts unknown. One might say that you are either very brave or very, how should I say this kindly, stupid. Please pardon my openness but it is what he himself had said. "

Squinting her pale hazel eyes, she looked him squarely in the face. "For a mere courtesan, you would appear to know a lot of what the king has to say! And which one do you think I am?"

The messenger cleared his throat, his face flushed by the question. After a slight pause he responded. "I think that you are very beautiful. Therefore the other question does not matter."

Now it was Thaliah's turn to blush. She laughed. Perhaps this land populated by savages was not as bad as she had originally thought. They did have a natural charm about them. "Do you often pay such compliments to visiting princesses who have come specifically to see your king? I would think you could be put to death for such brashness."

"I have a certain amount of latitude as you might have guessed with Bosiah," his perfect white teeth flashed a devilish grin. "As his brother, he has grown use to my lack of decorum. I should have introduced myself sooner. I am Yusef, the son of Marzuk and inheritor of the kingdom of the eastern steppes. But I prefer to stay in my brother's court. He has more interesting visitors." Yusef winked.

The caravan quickly drew into a line circling the outside perimeter of the camp. Gray billowing smoke had replaced much of the fierce flames that had been so apparent but mere minutes ago. The sickly sweet smell of charred flesh filled their nostrils. Thaliah fought desperately to force the bile from the back of her throat. This was not the way of her people or the Arabians. It was forbidden to burn a corpse except under dire conditions. But even in that case, no one living in Sura could remember the last time such a detestable act had to be performed. She prayed that the pyre would quickly extinguish itself, in fear that she would embarrass herself before the king. As if in response, the breeze shifted to the east, blowing the smoke away from the camels and their riders. Thaliah wiped the sweat from her brow, thankful for the instantaneous relief.

"This is no sight for a Babylonian," Yusef commented as he watched the princess's face change from the white contorted illness back to its healthy glow. "My brother should have known better. Our ways sometimes appear brutal, but the cleansing flames prevent the spread of disease. There is some foresight behind our actions. I hope you understand."

"Please...," Thaliah apologized. "There is no need to make excuses. This is your land, your customs. I am merely a visitor. Do not feel that I have the right to judge you and your people."

"I don't,” he dismissed her concerns. “I'm just trying to explain our differences. We are primarily a nomadic people. We have our cities but they are few. Burying of the dead would serve no purpose if you never return to the grave site. Not to overlook that the winds and the rains on the steppes would uncover their bodies in very little time. Cremation is the only logical solution. But I understand that your beliefs do not permit you to cremate."

"The body is a gift of God." Looking away from the pyre in the distance, Thaliah waited for her lungs to clear once and for all. "That which God has given us we have no right to destroy. As we come into this world, so shall we leave it. And if you knew all this, then why did you ask me if I found the view spectacular?" She looked into his azure eyes, waiting, searching for a response. His chestnut hair fell in ringlets about his bronzed features.

"No," she repeated over and over in her mind as she studied his handsome features. "This cannot happen. I cannot let it happen." She felt a strange heaviness fall upon her chest, her nostrils sucking back deep breaths as she struggled to calm herself. She quickly averted her eyes from his, breaking the spell in which he had enthralled her.

Yusef saw that the situation called for an abrupt change. He had seen that look in a woman's eyes before. Most often it would have been a signal for him to press the advantage, but this woman was very different. Not just because she was a princess of a people whom he had only heard of through the vaguest rumors, but she had been betrothed to his brother. Silence would be their downfall; an open invitation to think the impossible.

"Ah, yes, your God, of which we have heard so much about." It was a little lie. Like her people, her God was but one more tale heard told over a roaring fire, with eyes half closed after a night of heavy drinking. His people knew all the tales of all the great religions but chose instead to worship the almighty skyfather. "Though we have a belief in a creator, there are those amongst us that claim there are many gods, and even those which say there are none at all. Living in the steppes, it makes very little difference whether we believe or not. Life here holds its own rewards. You live, you die, and it’s as simple as that. As for the spectacle, the term is without reference to good or evil. In your case, you've seen us at our worst. Our relationship can only improve from here."

Thaliah waved a finger of disapproval. "Then you have nothing to look forward to. Life is nothing more than a string of momentary pleasures and pains, leading nowhere. Our beliefs are very different. I shall have to tell you of them at some time." Her lips remained thin and taut, turned down ever so slightly at the corners.

"Our beliefs perhaps differ but our faith that tomorrow the sun will rise again are the same. That alone sustains us." Yusef looked satisfied with his answer.

"In Babylon, so little to look forward to would be considered depressing." She lowered her eyes, her lips now formed into a beguiling pout.

"In Khazaria, we consider Babylon depressing," he huffed.

She narrowed her eyes. Perhaps he wasn't as enchanting as she first thought. "My, you do have a tongue on you. Do you despise all of civilization or just Babylon?" Her arms were now subconsciously drawn tight into her body.

They had ridden wide around the smoldering pyre of fleshless bones. "Have you thought at all about how these bones came hence? That is what remains of civilization's threats." Yusef's response was very calm, his voice carefully modulated so as not to upset the princess. "The Magyars considered us no more than barbarians. Why? Because we would not accept their Christian faith and by so doing, they declared war upon us. A blight upon their plans to expand their empire. Our way of life was unimaginable to them. Where they build roads, we know no boundaries. Why should we feel forced to become as they are?

Once they were like us, but the lure of civilization turned them on a different path and now they despise us because we remind them of their origins. Civilization is nothing more than a chasm of hates and prejudices. What's there for us to envy?"

"Forgive me," Thaliah bowed her head. "It is not my place to make comment on your ways. I overstepped myself. I am your guest and I have behaved improperly once again." A shadow fell upon her countenance.

"Take heart, fair lady, there is nothing to forgive. I am not here to judge you either. You may possess your beliefs without fear of retribution. But I would suggest that you don't discuss your concept of civilization with my brother. There is no love for Babylon there either.

Know this, that you are welcome here not as a courtesan of the Caliph's court but as a princess of a dethroned people. A once ancient kingdom held captive by a brutal regime that spreads itself through terror. Bosiah empathizes with your plight, though you may not consider yourself to have one." Extending his arm in supplication, Yusef warned, "I suggest that you do."

"I am grateful for your suggestion, Yusef. Contrary to appearances, my family has certainly fallen into disfavor at the Caliph's court. The king is very astute to see the truth of our situation.”

“We have had our own disagreements with the Caliphate,” Yusef clarified his standpoint. His reduction of three major wars to nothing more than disagreements proved that he was a master of the understatement.

“And here I am now,” She explained, “Because one cousin has been sent into the unknowns of the Western sea and another has spent five years in prison. We are at the twilight of our existence and my family truly does seek your brother's aid. I don’t know how we are to survive without his protection."

The words had stolen some of the fire from her eyes. Suddenly, Yusef saw not the obstreperous, proud royal princess as he imagined nestled in the lap of luxury in Babylon, but instead a true damsel in distress. His heart went out to her and her obvious need.

"My lady, I am truly sorry. I have misjudged your circumstances. I did not intend to upset you."

Thaliah suddenly bolted upright on the camel's back, reassuming her proud and majestic airs that she had originally displayed. "Well, was that humble and beseeching enough for you," she inquired. "Will that be convincing enough for the mighty Bosiah? Never underestimate us, Yusef. We are a captive people but we are also a proud one. I come not begging but offering!"

Yusef clapped his hands in obvious delight. "A wonderful performance," he lauded. "Truly an effort worthy of myself I admit. I am afraid your highness that I am falling rapturously in love with you." The words rolled effortlessly across his tongue. He waved his index finger naughtily at her, entertained by the deception she had played upon him.

If only he had looked deeper, further into the limpid pools of her silver hued eyes, he would have seen the effect those words had upon her. She whispered unspoken psalms of the enduring warmth which engulfed her whenever she looked upon his handsome, rugged features. Love at first sight? A childish notion and yet she knew there was no other explanation for the feelings she was experiencing. There was an instantaneous bond that existed between them and she knew he felt it too. It had been there the first time they exchanged greetings. As he led her towards the king’s tent she had but one plaguing thought, “What was she going to do?”

The tent that served as both domicile and great hall for the king of the Khazars was enormous. It had been designed with all the best materials that the trade routes had to offer. Silks from the East, flowed from ceiling to floor, bestowing a rainbow of hues and colors that seemed to dance and change with the slightest breeze. It was a truly magnificent structure, rimmed in gold brocade and silver tassels. Huge brass candelabrums hung from the towering cedar poles, illuminating the interior with the brightness of an afternoon sun.

Thaliah let her mind wander back to the stories she had heard as a child about the Tabernacle that the prophet Moses had erected in the desert. Could it have been possibly as ornate or even as large as the house of Bosiah? She doubted it. A kingdom of tents, she mused, and this one truly befitting of an emperor. What would the wives’ tent look like? Like so many other Eastern despots, Bosiah would have a separate tent to house his wives, concubines and children. Would she have her own or would she merely take her place in his harem?

Just as it was traditional in her homeland, every inch of the floor was concealed by the artistry of hand knotted carpets. Only in this case they hid the earthen floor beneath rather than the marbled halls of Babylon. There were only few pieces of furniture, and those that were present were dwarfed by the immensity of the tent’s chambers.

A small, low table, made from a black wood that she had never seen before, stood in one area, surrounded by an ocean of pillows, some tasseled, and others cross-stitched with beautifully designed animal motifs. But it was the table that held her enthralled. Its top was carefully carved and painted with scenes from the daily life of a people she had also never seen before. There was a noticeable resemblance to the Tartars but the features of that particular heathenish tribe seemed to lie somewhere between her own and those that were carved into the table. But most striking of all was the serenity that seemed to surround this unknown race. There existed a gracefulness and placidity etched into every knitted brow and almond eye. There was so much of the world she did not know and having been forbidden by religious law to have any images of people within her home meant that her knowledge of mankind was limited to only those she met at her family’s estate. Though she hated to admit it, as much as she thought of her visit to the Khazarim as a journey to a lesser civilized corner of the world, she now realized that Bosiah and his people had a far broader perspective of the globe than she had ever known. They were a doorway to unknown worlds that lived in the lands far beyond. Yusef may have been right; civilization can build walls within the mind just as easily as it does from mortar and clay.

The princess stood in awe of the elaborate surroundings and had become so preoccupied that she was oblivious to the movement coming from behind, as Bosiah and his advisors took their positions in the great hall. "I take it that the Princess Thaliah is comfortable with her arrangements," the king interrupted, causing her to jump to the impact of the unexpected voice.

"The Princess has not yet had the opportunity to visit her tent but knowing of the King’s generosity I can assure you that she is most grateful and delighted with her accommodations," Eli replied, recovering quickly.

“Do you always answer the questions directed to the princess?” the King’s voice crackled with a hint of disapproval.

“Forgive me your Majesty,” Eli immediately apologized. “We are used to the Caliph’s court where he does not expect women to speak at all.”

“Hah!” the laugh burst from the King’s lips. “The Caliph is more of a fool than I thought. How does he think you can silence the chirping of birds? Is not a woman’s voice like the sounds of the birds in the treetops? You must let them sing because it is the natural way of the world. But only when you ask them to, otherwise they will sing constantly.” Bosiah bid the princess and Eli to sit around the low table while dismissing the rest of the attendants with a wave of his hand to seat themselves elsewhere in the chamber. Demonstrating how to pile the pillows properly, Bosiah adopted a reclining position. “I must ask the princess to forgive my lack of consideration of not even allowing her an opportunity to settle her belongings before my summons.” The guests all followed the king’s example, reposing around the table of carved figures of a people from unknown lands.

Staring at the king, the princess noticed how much he resembled his younger brother Yusef, and yet how dissimilar they were as well. Bosiah was heavier set, built like a bull, much thicker browed and definitely hairier. Thick tufts of his mane flowed down the back of his neck and across his shoulders. The same sparkle glinted in his eyes as those of Yusef, but where Yusef appeared the mischievous scholar, Bosiah was most definitely a tactful and skilful warrior. And where Yusef's smile flashed warmth, Bosiah’s smile could be cold; as frigid as ice.

"As King of Khazaria, I can tell you how pleased we are to have you as our honored guest. Your father's letter and offerings were most welcome. I send warmest regards to King Judah Zakkai, exilarch of the Jewish nation. May his days be long and honored."

"His majesty, King Judah, extends his warmest regards and appreciation to the great King Bosiah and entrusts the care of his most favored daughter to the great king's care and mercies.", Eli responded. All the guests sitting at the table nodded in affirmation.

"Tell your good King Judah Zakkai, that the king of the Khazars is most pleased with his offering and shall welcome his daughter into my household with open arms."

Eli bowed his head in gratitude. "Speaking for the King of the Jews, I can tell the great King Bosiah how grateful we are that he is pleased with our gifts. The princess's dowry shall be found on the back of seven golden camels, all which are given freely to the great king in appreciation of his acceptance and ratification of a treaty between us.”

“Answer me this,” Bosiah interrupted the introductions, “How is it that your King was able to seek this alliance while under the watchful eye of the Caliph?”

Wise with age, Eli knew immediately that the king of the Khazars was fishing for a hidden trap in the arrangement. There must have been those in his court that were suspicious that the alliance would be taken advantage of by the Caliph of Baghdad. He had already prepared his answer for such suspicions. “There are those that think of my king as a puppet of the Caliph and a servant to the rabbinate but all along he has been an independent ruler, merely abiding his time, waiting for this opportunity to give you his heart and hand in friendship."

“But to do so would make him an enemy of the Caliph and at odds with his own religious leaders,” the King’s curiosity was peaked.


“I would have it no other way,” Bosiah insisted.

“He lied,” Eli confessed. “He assured the Caliph that any trade agreements would be made on his behalf. The Caliph knows that you will not deal with him directly so he desperately wanted to believe that you wished to deal with him through an intermediary in order to save face.”

“Shrewd, but what of these rabbis that have gained control of your people?”

“My king is well aware that they have their own agenda which is to undermine the authority of the House of David and the House of Aaron. He secretly works with his cousin Anan ben David to see that this will never happen. Your acceptance of the Princess Thalia into your household will ensure that this will not occur.”

"Then let us drink to our mutual good fortune and acceptance of the contract between us," Bosiah raised his cup to toast in final acceptance.

At that moment, Thaliah stood defiantly and raised her voice above the conversation between the king and her guardian. "And when do I get a say in all this?"

There was a mutual gasp of disbelief from Bosiah’s cabinet. Never had a woman had the effrontery to interrupt the court in this manner.

Eli tugged at her dress, urging her to sit down. "Please mistress,” he pleaded, “For your own sake, sit down! Do not show disrespect to the Great King." The more he tried to get her to sit, the more adamant she became in saying her piece. "Thaliah, please, in the name of your father, restrain yourself."

"Let her speak!" a familiar voice beckoned from behind.

"This is most unusual," one of the king's advisors commented. "A woman may only address the king in the great hall when spoken to first! This is an insult to our king and not even you, Yusef, can dismiss this act of discourtesy."

"And how many of those women to which this rule applies, also have been of royal birth, Vashni? I say, let her speak. If she truly pleases the king, then he will welcome her words." Yusef strode defiantly forward towards the table. “Is that not so, brother?”

"Yes, Vashni, my brother is right," Bosiah commented, "let her speak. She is a warrior born. I wish to hear what she has to say." The king waved his advisor's concerns away.

"Most unusual," Eli tutted, just audible enough for his mistress to hear. As he relinquished his grip from her dress, she pushed his hand away.

Yusef stood beside the princess in silent support. "Your majesty," she responded. "I am most honored that you are pleased with my father's gifts and his deliverance of his daughter into your hands. I beg you though, please do not lock me away in your harem, never to be seen or heard from again. I could not bear to be shunned from the courts.

What my courtesan has failed to mention was that my father saw our survival not only through my marriage into your household but by a mutual acceptance of our customs so that essentially we become as one people. That is why of all his daughters he picked me as I am well versed in the languages and literature of my people. I can be of great service to you in areas of diplomacy. Though my skills in mathematics and astrology have not been tested in quite a long time, I am certain that they too will be of value if I am given the opportunity. In theology I can provide you with all that is written in the Books of Moses in both Greek and Hebrew. Let me be a teacher to your court and your people.”

Bosiah laughed at the suggestions. "Please Princess; do I look like a scholar?"

All of the King's attendants joined in the mirthful laughter.

"Perhaps not, Great King, but you do look wise to me. And wisdom outshines knowledge in any event. There is no reason that your court could not rival any in the world."

Bosiah nodded with approval. "A good dream Princess and what price am I to pay for your tutelage in my court besides the adoption of your customs?”

“I ask only that I hold position as a court princess. If I am to aid my people then it is necessary that I have access to the courtesans that pass through this chamber. My father has explained to you how the Caliph has taken control of the Exilarchate, placing my uncle Anan in custody all those years and divesting our inherited power to the rabbinate. In order to preserve our rightful privilege to rule we have sought this alliance with you, great king. But if I have not your ear, then I have failed in my own duty to my family and my people.”

“I do understand, but how am I to explain to my most favored wife, the princess of Cathay, that she is being replaced by another princess? She has sat by my right side for two years now. Her father, the Sian Emperor would find it a great and terrible insult. I do not wish to insult the Emperor. ”

“Then don’t brother. I have a solution that all might find satisfactory.” Yusef leaned over his brother, placing his hand upon his shoulder.

Bosiah reached across his chest to clasp his brother’s hand. “As usual, my younger brother will find a solution.” The king’s cabinet laughed along with their ruler.

“So, Yusef, what would you suggest.”

“I would suggest that it is time I live up to our father’s expectations and rule the land that he gave me. I have been negligent in my duties.”

Bosiah’s hand quickly dropped from his brother’s. “What are you talking about? You belong here with me. Have I not been a good provider and protector to you? Marzuk only said that when it came time for you to establish a royal line was it necessary for you to leave the court. You are my only brother, my only sibling and you have no wife. So of what foolishness do you speak?”

Yusef threw himself to the ground in front of the king and lowered his forehead to the carpeted ground. “Oh Great King Bosiah, I have a request. A request so great that never has a brother asked for such a thing before. Please show me favor in your heart. Though you may be offended by the effrontery of my request, please remember the love in your heart that you hold for me and which I hold for you.”

“Get up brother. You embarrass me to humble yourself thusly. Have I ever denied you in all the years you have lived beneath the roof of my tent? You are blood of Marzuk. Blood of my blood, I can deny you nothing. Quickly rise before you lose face before our guests. So what is this solution you spoke of?”

“I ask that you present me with a royal wife.”

“Brother, do not suggest this! I would gladly provide you with the freedom to select any girl from my harem, but to take from the royal wives, how would I explain such an affront to my allies. They have entrusted their daughters to my care and I would do irreparable harm to cast one out from my household. How could I retain my honor, having broken my sacred pledge to cleave them to me?”

Rising to his feet, Yusef grew in stature, his jaw squared as he stood firm and proud. “I have but one wife in mind, brother, which would solve your present problem and a proposition to solve the dilemma you would encounter. I ask for the princess Thaliah since she is not yet betrothed to you and therefore your break no sacred vows of marriage. But rather than have you give her to me, I would ask for her hand directly and she would choose whether she leaves your court of her own accord.”

“And this solves my problem? Am I to explain to her father that the princess chose to leave the court of the King of the Khazars after he bound our agreement with his honor. Her father would be humiliated and be shamed the rest of his life.”

“She asked for a court in which to reign as a queen but you cannot have the Princess of Sian forfeit her position lest you offend the Great Emperor. She’s requested that you and your court adopt her customs and I know that to do so would also offend those rulers that have added their daughters to your harem. But I can give the Princess Thaliah a court to reign over and I have no courtesans at the moment to take issue if I was to impose my wife’s customs and faith upon them. You wish not to break the promises made between yourself and the kings that have sent their daughters to cement their treaties with you and that is also resolved if the princess and yourself choose to extend the treaty to include a third kingdom within the alliance.

You have the right to use the princess as the bargaining price for that treaty. Her father has placed her fate in your care. Not only shall Khazaria be an ally to the Exilarchate, but so shall be the Tartar Kingdom.”

“Brother, you have been absent from the eastern steppes a very long time. Calling it a kingdom may be an exaggeration. You would seriously want to be king of that unruly mob?”

“If the Princess Thaliah was by my side, I would even rule in Siberia.”

“But the court is a shambles. The Kaghan barely keeps any control. As our governor, he hardly met the task. For you to establish yourself after so many years of absence would be a formidable task.”

“But not impossible! Not if I was to become Kaghan and therefore all authority still stems from you, their Great King. They say that the blood of the Princess Thaliah’s family has already been intermingled with the dynasties of the East centuries ago. She will be received as a returning monarch. From the ashes a kingdom can be rebuilt.”

Bosiah thought long and hard about the request. “A task suitable for a son of Marzuk, brother. It has its merits. Would the world expect any less of us? Perhaps we have grown too fat in the luxury of Khazaria. Maybe this is the time to re-establish our dominion east of the Caspian?”

“And how say you Princess Thalia? Would you follow my brother on this mad dream of his?”

Eli started to answer. “The princess does not know what to say. This is a very unusual situation. She must consult with her father. This is hardly what King Judah expected when he signed the arrangement.”

“Oh, hush Eli. I can make my own decisions.” Thaliah brushed her advisor aside. “If I was to marry Yusef, would I be recognized as the majestrix of his kingdom? Would I have the right to speak in the court of Bosiah?”

Bosiah leaned over his brother and whispered in his ear. “I think you have met your match with this one brother. The tongue on her is sharp with wit and wisdom. Beware of which one rules and which one is ruled. I like her very much. I'll regret giving her up.” Patting his brother on the back, Bosiah waved the princess closer. “You would be queen of this Tartar kingdom my brother has chosen to take as his rightful possession. He is a king by birth but he refused to rule until he had a proper queen. He has chosen you. As favored wife, actually only wife, you would bear all the rights and honors of that status, including being a most welcome guest in my court. Though he chooses to call himself Kaghan he is still no less than a king.”

Thaliah fell to her knees before Bosiah and stretched out her hands beseechingly, “Great King, you who have wisdom beyond the grasp of most men, I humble myself before you with but one question more to ask.”

“See, it is like I have told you,” the king proclaimed to all in attendance. “A woman is like the birds. If you let them, they will sing endlessly.”

Everyone laughed at the King’s joke.

“Sing away little bird,” Bosiah grinned.

“If you were me, would you accept your brother’s proposal?”

Yusef shot an alarmed glance at his brother. Bosiah smiled warmly at his brother and nodded. “Dear Thaliah. It is not a question that I ever dreamed I would ever be asked. If you are looking for a life without hardship, the comforts of Babylon, the luxurious gardens of the Euphrates, then the eastern steppes are not going to offer you that life. But on the other hand, I can clearly see the future, and in it you and my brother will build a kingdom to rival any other. For my brother to undertake this course of action, for him to seek a wife after having had the opportunity to have had so many in the past, then I know that he has offered you more than a kingdom, he has offered you his heart. Can you give him your heart in return? If your answer is yes, then you do not need my wisdom.”

Thaliah looked towards Yusef and she immediately knew the answer for herself. “I will gladly accept.”

“My princess,” Eli interjected, “I really do believe we should send word to your father.”

Bosiah did not wait for the princess to respond. “Eli, let me extend some of this great wisdom I am rumored to possess. I do not believe that there is anything that you or King Judah Zakkai could say that would change the princess’s decision. My advice to you is to help my staff prepare a wedding like none that has ever been seen before in Khazaria. My little brother is getting married to your charge!”

Eli fell silent. He knew not how he was going to explain any of this to Thaliah’s father.

Thaliah wrapped her arms around her trusted advisor, speaking softly so that none but he could hear. “Do not fret so, dear guardian. My father will be very proud of me. It will be his seed that spawns a new Jewish kingdom in Khazaria.”

Eli urged his princess to take care in what she said. “My child, you may be somewhat premature to speak of Jewish kingdoms. The Khazarim have no state religion. And they have shown no urgent desire in the past to have one. You will only have a small kingdom to the east to start with and no guarantee that Bosiah’s kingdom will follow suit.”

“Oh, but it will, dear friend. My king and I will see that it will.” With a smile she released her advisor and ran into the waiting arms of her future husband.

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