10. Aurum Nirvana
Down she went.
Down, down, down.
She sank like a stone, feet-first, through the clear frigid blue of the mountain lake, a scarf of silver bubbles trailing from her hair. Fish darted like needles from her toes; darker shapes hovered, curious, noting her descent, but she was too surprised to feel much fear. Turquoise to ultramarine, ultramarine to sapphire...and finally shadow, as she landed, with a soft jar, on the barren plain of the lakebed, sunk up to her hips in grayish-brown muck.
Debris wafted up around her, dissipated, and finally came to rest. After the awful thrill of the landslide and the descent, all was quiet. Tiny blind fish, bottom-feeders, came to nose at her, nibbling at her crevices. She realized that these fish would be her only companions for the time being...and perhaps forever as well.
The scream was silent, but even if it had been audible, no one would have heard her.
It was dark where she was, and very, very cold. Somewhere above her was Prince Lassok, the only one who could save her from an awful existence trapped in gold, trapped under hundreds of feet of water...trapped forever, if he could not find a way to rescue her. But how could he hope to extract her from this watery grave?
So close they had come to happiness, so close...
She wailed again, in horror and frustration.
What a man will not do for love.
The prince watched Zairbhreena sink into the cold blue of the lake. He was surprised, but oddly, not shocked. By now he was accustomed to disasters. And though as a youth he had suffered, as a man, he would not let them dominate him, though his suffering was no less. Zairbhreena needed to be turned to flesh, Zairbhreena was at the bottom of the lake. The lake was too cold for divers, too deep for a dragnet. Therefore, the only thing to be done was to drain the lake.
He returned to Carsimbad and swiftly put together a team of engineers, masons, and stonecutters. He announced he would be building a new basin for the lake and the channels to drain it, the overflow carried by aqueducts to the city. The people thought he was merely improving the water system. But his own advisors, the ones he brought with him from Lakthira, knew otherwise. But they kept silent, for what would the populace say of a ruler who casually drains a lake as some might empty a pitcher, for the sake of a single, albeit expensive, statue of a girl?
Work commenced. A small town took shape on the lakeshore as men and animals labored day and night. The sound of picks rang out constantly on the hard reddish-brown sandstone. Wagons of wood were brought from distant kingdoms to construct dams and dredges. The workers were well paid, for the prince was rich from the booty of Lakthira. But the scope of the project was enormous, and the progress painfully slow. They were soon telling the tale of Lassok the Mad.
One year passed, two, three. There were delays. Rock proved unexpectedly hard, and certain channels had to abandoned. Rock proved unexpectedly soft, and there were collapses and cave-ins. Rock proved stubborn, and the courses meandered. In all of these, an echo of a man's seduction, a woman's reluctance.
The desert added its own obstacles. Heat, dust storms, rains out of season. There was a mild earthquake one year, the next, an epidemic among the workers. The prince's coffers grew steadily smaller. Like water in the desert, his wealth was not easily renewed.
Five years, ten. A network of canals spidered towards the city, workers chipping away at the hard rock that blocked the main channel, the one that would carry the water out of the lake. They worked at both ends, keeping a dam of loose boulders in the middle that might be easily dislodged to let the water pass.
Meanwhile, Zairbhreena lay below in the murk and the darkness.
Only her long burial beneath the sand dunes could she compare it to. Then, sealed in darkness, she had no choice but to sleep. But in the lake she had light, albeit of a depressing sort, and the mute company of fish, and at first, far above her, the efforts of Lassok and his men to plumb the depths and determine her location. But after a few days of that, nothing.
She tried to stay hopeful. Surely Lassok would not abandon her after all his efforts; he must be doing *something.* But her recovery seemed hopeless. Should she sleep, or should she stay awake, alert for the first sign of rescue?
But the dullness of the lakebed made minutes pass like years. To preserve her sanity, her mind turned inward...to dreams of auric splendor on a bed of brassy gold, gilded flesh burning in the furnace of long-frustrated passion.
But as languorous and erotic as the dreams were, true consummation never came, and she would snap out of them only to see the dull mud of the lakebed, and realize again where she was and that she could be there forever. Every time this happened, her spirit detached a little more from her body. Gradually she realized she might choose not to wake up, and her soul might fly free from the statue and into the arms of Ahrez, to be reborn as human in another place and time, leaving only a cold golden husk on the bottom of the lake.
But she could not do that. As long as hope still existed, she would wait. And burn.
Look! Was the amount of light in the water becoming greater? That might mean they were draining the lake. Surely the prince had found a way to do that; his people had been skilled engineers ever since antiquity. Carsimbad itself boasted a system of covered canals to carry water from its wells. Surely they had constructed some means to drain this lake!
Listen! Were those voices above her? She woke from a gilded dream to see a fisherman's net weighted with stones drag over the bed of the lake as if to capture her. But the rough rope drifted over her head and did not snag her.
And slowly she realized the water was changing hue. Sapphire, then aquamarine, then a resplendent soft turquoise, and she saw the sun again!
Then the last temporary dam was dislodged, and the lake, slowly draining over many years, smashed through the flimsy barrier to drain in earnest. The noise was thunder, the sight staggering: a lake the size of a city draining slowly and completely as a bathing tub.
The prince -- now the Caliph of Carsimbad -- watched the water level fall. He was no longer young. Much gray was in his hair and beard, lines added character to his face. His body was fit, but no longer had the suppleness, or the smooth clear skin, of youth. He had less energy, but more wisdom. Yet the raging water was a perfect echo of what he felt inside.
The workers cheered as the water fell. Some had worked twenty years, the project spanning two generations.
Slowly the lake gave up its secrets. Ribs of boats long sunk came into view, their ancient cargoes spilled around them. Trunks of trees from a forest long drowned, rounded boulders like the heads of giants. And finally, the muddy bed of the lake in which fish flopped about, gasping, and larger, stranger creatures slithered for shelter.
But where was Zairbhreena?
And then he saw her, emerging in the middle of the lake as the last of the waters drained. First her head, her shoulders, then her firm luscious breasts, from which water drained like a maiden at her bath, running in rivulets down her belly and thighs. Her face pointed towards the east, gleaming like newly minted gold in the morning sun. Even after thirty years of petrification her expression remained still and sweet.
It was a bit of trouble to wade out into the muck and extract her, but compared to work of draining the lake, nothing.
The prince washed her tenderly and polished her until she shone like the sun. No corrosion had come to her in the lake, the spell she was under, he supposed, preventing it. Again and again he rubbed her heavy golden curves. She was whole and sound, and she was his. The princess would have been writhing in ecstasy, could she have moved. And soon, she prayed, to be flesh again, her long internment having only made her fires hotter.
They had their triumphant entry into the city in a grand gilded wagon, white flowers frosting them like icing on a cake. Drums boomed, silk banners fluttered in flashes of purple and gold. The prince sat next to his aurified bride, she propped up with pieces of wood like a proud obelisk beside him, as wedding horns bleated and the people tossed rose petals in their path. "So at last Lassok found his statue, he is marrying it!" they whispered. "The old rumors are true!" Yet they were not displeased. If Lassok was mad, it was a prosperous madness, for the city had a fine new aqueduct, and in all other ways it was faring well. If he wanted to marry a statue, so what? When it came to produce an heir, he would turn to real women soon enough.
To the temple they went, to be wedded before the stone idol of Ahrez himself. Zairbhreena wore a sheer white veil to indicate her virginity, but nothing else. The priests might have been amused. They might have been outraged. But because the prince was now the Caliph, they let neither emotion show.
Consecrated at last, Lassok kissed his new wife on her mute, shapely mouth, relishing the feel of gold, its hardness, its faint earthy, sweet taste. Incense burned, adding other odors to the mix: the resins of the desert, the piney astringence of mountain air. Gongs rang out, reverberating, and the god seemed to smile in approval.
Now man and wife, they went on the palace. Lassok was determined to treat his new wife as flesh and blood, so, rather than smuggling her into his bedchambers to effect the transformation in secrecy, he chose instead to announce his preference to the world, because of the pride he took in his love for her; and so Zairbhreena had a full wedding feast. The grand hall of the palace was hung with cloth of gold in her honor, and the food, too, was gold: roast meats basted with honey, yellow plums and raisins, spicy curries swimming in saffron, yellow-gold pumpkins and gold-yellow gourds. Melons the color of canaries were scooped of their flesh, served with rich chutneys and candied lemon peel. The wines ranged from pale chartreuse to thick and sweetened mead, drunk in golden goblets set with topaz gems. And each plate was gold, each eating-knife, each finger-dish and saltcellar, from a frosted primrose pale as moonlight to the rich hues of brass and bronze and rosy copper.
Zairbhreena could not eat, of course; but even if she could have, she would have been too excited to do little more than taste. Her heart's desire was reflected all around her, and this time the gold signified not cruel entrapment but celebration and release. Her parents had long since passed on, but her sisters had married, and they and her nieces and nephews had come from Abroum to stare in wonder at their statuefied aunt. She wondered what they thought of her, if they realized she was gaping at them just as nakedly as they gaped at her. So many years had passed! Could she ever make up for them?
Candles, hundreds of them, lit the hall in golden splendor. Tame, tawny lions wandered about and golden pheasants cried raucously at odd times, spreading their plumes. In the fountains the waters were colored with dyes so it seemed molten gold splashed and played in the basins. Bards commissioned for the occasion sung the story of Prince Lassok's quest and Zairbhreena's recovery, so that all would hear it and remember...which is how this humble storyteller who speaks now has remembered it to this day, from a chain of bards stretching back into antiquity, back when both the world and man's innocence was new.
But back to the feast. Night had fallen, the three moons rising together in a perfect triad, an auspicious sign. It was time to consummate the union. Lassok took his leave, whispering a few words to his attendants, who lifted the nude, statuephied form of Zairbhreena and bore her away in a stately procession behind him. Down the silent halls they went, the sounds of celebration growing dim behind them.
Zairbhreena's thoughts pounded with suspense, with dread, with a bright and brutal joy, with nags of doubt. Would Lassok truly be able to turn her back into flesh? Though she had not aged, he had; and though she loved him in spite of it, nay, for it, he no longer had the stamina of youth. Suppose he could not? Suppose she would reign not as Queen, but a silent statue of a Queen?
They came to the nuptial chamber. It, too, was gold, a heavy gilded bed specially made to bear her weight, with a golden canopy above. Designs had been stitched into the fabric with silver thread: intertwined dragons, witches, goddesses and gods. Through the arched windows she caught a glimpse of a reflecting pool, three stripes of moonlight rippling upon it. Tenderly the attendants laid her on the platform, leaving her covered with the wispy veil. They lit the lamps and left, closing the door softly behind them.
Eyes trained on the canopy, Zairbhreena waited. Never before was she more aware of her heaviness, the passive precious object she was. Her mind was tense and spinning, but her body felt at ease, a sensation she had not experienced in years. She felt she could lay there forever. Even if she had been flesh, she could not have moved, nor would she have wanted to.
She heard another door open and shut, and footsteps approached the bed. Her veil was lifted.
And above her she saw the face of Lassok, her one and only love, smiling down on her like a gilded god. He cupped her still, frozen face in his hands and kissed her sculpted lips. He was older, true, but so was she. She had suffered so much, experienced so many states of being, she felt the wisdom of the ancients suffuse her; no mortal virgin could have claimed such a passion, and she felt a long-dormant heat rise within in her.
"We are together at last," he whispered. "I am sorry, Zairbhreena, if I have ever acted foolishly or selfishly. I was younger then, rash. I did not know the harm my actions would cause." He laid his head against her breasts.
*I forgive you,* Zairbhreena thought, though it was only a formality. She had forgiven him long ago.
He smiled and continued to stroke her heavy golden curves as if he could not get enough of the feel of her. Zairbhreena felt her skin sing beneath his hands. He cupped her breasts like two pears, each filling his work-worn hands as if created for them, and gently squeezed her nipples between his fingers. Zairbhreena felt -- was it possible? -- a slight pressure, and her passion quickened. Lassok bent his head to kiss them, take them in his mouth, and she felt more...a warm flush, a faint feel of wetness, on the hard puckered flesh. It was akin to the feeling she had, long ago, when the tilemaker's son had molested her on the way to the market, but this time the feeling was much stronger.
"Yes, my golden girl, my beautiful Zairbhreena..." Lassok murmured, running his hands over her smooth, flat belly. "So rich and precious, and you belong to me."
*Take me,* Zairbhreena thought. She felt she was on the verge of movement, but could not move just yet, and as pleasurable as Lassok's touch was, she wanted him to touch a second, more sensitive place that was hidden inside her, between her sealed thighs. She moaned in frustration as his fingers stopped at the cleft between her legs, stymied by their solidity. If only she could part her legs and give him entrance...
The core of heat inside her flushed slowly towards her skin. Lassok stroked the sensitive juncture, tracing the frozen curls of hair he found there. Zairbhreena whimpered as sensation returned in full force. Never had she imagined their reunion would lead to such sweet torture. Yet she still could not move. Pleasure burned like a star inside her unresponsive flesh. If it did not find egress soon, she would explode!
She tried to moan, thrash, writhe, anything. Lassok covered her with hungry kisses, worshipping her completely.
Magic took form in the still, perfumed air, hovering above them like watching spirits. Zairbhreena felt her flesh soften and swell, and a low moan escaped her throat as her vocal cords unfroze. She felt the soft pillow cushioning her head and the weight of Lassok above her, his strong hands and the soft crinkle of the hair on his naked chest. Her arms went around him, sealing him to her flesh, and her legs spread themselves for that hard part of him that was bumping her so insistently.
"Yes, my love..." she whispered, her voice frail after thirty years of silence. "My lion, my desert prince. Fill me, Lassok, make me complete!"
He entered her. She was hot inside as molten gold, as deliciously snug as well-fitting gold ring. She cried out in pain, in pleasure, as he took her maidenhead in one swift stroke.
"Oh, Lassok..." and her cries went beyond words, becoming more musical as long-delayed passion took them over.
Lassok lifted her from the bed so her head tilted back, her hair, free at last, tumbling behind her. Oddly, her skin still glimmered like gold in the candlelight, and she felt heavy as gold, too, though her form was as slim as it had been thirty years ago. But this did not disappoint him. It only meant she was sturdy, solid enough to receive many hours of a man's pleasure, and return it in force. He kissed the arch of her throat, her shoulders, her breasts. The thought they had been gold mere moments before, treasure enough to buy half a kingdom, sent new passion through him, and her tight little nipples hardened like coins, almost as hard as the gold they had been.
Zairbhreena moaned. They kissed deeply and passionately, a heart-shaped silhouette in the triple light of the moons. Lassok cupped her buttocks, lifting her so she moved more freely upon him. He kneeling, she impaled upon him, legs clasped about his waist, their lovemaking began in earnest.
Who can say what thoughts were running through their minds? Thirty years is a long time...long enough for unquenched passion to harden into illusion, so that no climax, no matter how deep and satisfying, would live up to the anticipation of it...the illusions which once strengthened the original love, now obscuring it. Ah, but this did not occur. Staring into each other's eyes, both Lassok and Zairbhreena saw only their heart's fulfillment, no more and no less, and their passion only built.
Back and forth the two rocked in the rhythm of love. Zairbhreena had never known such ecstasy could exist. When she opened her eyes, gold was all around her: the bed platform, the hangings, the candlelight gleaming on the furniture...even the carpets looked woven out of golden sheep. All of it, a reflection of her desire. Even Lassok looked gilded, as if coated in gold powder. Was it illusion? Or something else?
Her eyes closed with heavy lids, the sense of sight too intrusive for what she felt. She crushed Lassok's head to her breasts, her fingers tangling in his hair. A strange sensation was building inside of her...huge as a mountain, pitiless as a sandstorm. She could only gasp, helpless, as it took her over, and she shook, quaked, froze, her passion gold, then white-gold, then beyond all color at all as the two of them became one. She would have gladly been frozen forever in this act, when the pleasure was at its height, and she was sure Lassok felt the same way.
Magic buzzed inside her, reflecting her secret thoughts. Traces of the stone gorgon's wand, or the dragon's blood, still lingered, brought to life by the sexual energy they created. At that very moment of climax it exploded within her, rendering her again into pure, soft gold, in the space of time between one breath and the next.
Lassok gasped as Zairbhreena became heavy in his arms, squeezing his spurting organ inside her aurifying flesh. Perhaps he could have pulled away in time, escaped the transformation that overcame his new wife. But he chose not to.
He had little time to react, anyway. A strange, buzzing warmth suffused his stiff organ, rendering it into gold, and traveled swiftly up the center of his body to his head, and down below to the soles of his feet. An electric sensation occurred as he stiffened all over. He had no regrets. The last thing he saw was the ecstatic countenance of his wife, head thrown back, eyes shut, her mouth open in a cry of pure pleasure. Then gold sealed his eyes, his ears, and the two were at last together forever.
This story could end here, but there is more, of course. I would not be a good storyteller if I did not tell you the rest of it.
The Caliph and his new wife stayed a long time in their rooms, which was, of course, not unusual for a man on his wedding night. But when he did not appear by early afternoon, the court grew worried. There were state functions the Caliph had to attend, dignitaries and ambassadors to receive. Servants were dispatched to knock on the gilded door of his bedchamber. Receiving no response after many minutes, they pushed the door open. It was not locked, moving easily on its hinges. Thinking foul play was involved, or perhaps intrigue, they stepped fearfully into the chamber.
Even the most romantic of them expected only to see the Caliph asleep, beside him the stiff form of the statue he had married in his eccentricity. But in the gilded bed was a pair of statues, of such detail and perfection the servants could only stare in wonder. A man and a woman preserved at the climax of love, he kneeling, she on his lap, her legs clasped about his waist, holding his head to her hungry breasts. Her head was flung back and she was crying out in pleasure...and from the contorted yet passionate expression on the man's face, he was experiencing the same thing. Still and silent they waited. But the most wondrous thing was that they were both of hard, gleaming gold, and the male statue was definitely the Caliph.
The servants searched the chamber. No trace of the Caliph or the golden statue was found. Only the two figures on the bed. What could they conclude but that magic was involved?
Some said that the statue had been bewitched, trapping the Caliph somehow to join her gilded fate. Others said the gods had turned them into gold as a blessing, to show the populace the faith of their devotion. Two schools of thought, both wrong.
Who ruled in the Caliph's place, or what befell the city after his disappearance, I do not know. But the statue was considered sacred and moved to a position of honor in the temple of Ahrez, where it remains to this day.
So now you know the tale of Lassok and Zairbhreena. Go now, if you will,
to the temple, if you will, to gaze upon it, and remember the love shared
between the two. Share also their passion, and if you dare, and make love
on the altar steps before them...and perhaps one day, you too will share
their final fate.
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