9. Fate Kind and Cruel
Zairbhreena stared with blank golden eyes over the mountainous vistas of her temple home. Offerings were left before her daily: flowers, plates of rich food, the occasional slaughtered animal; incense covered up the worst of the smells. Her worshippers swooned in excitement when a flicker of sunlight seemed to make her change expression. Portents were read from the shine of her eyes; the reputations of prophets rose and fell on the imaginary quirks of her lips. She could do nothing to answer their prayers, of course. Neither could any deity answer hers.
Where was the prince? Why hadn't he come to her rescue? The thought tortured her night and day.
Ennui set in as weeks passed, then months. Gradually she realized she might remain here for centuries, a mute golden statue in golden bondage. The finality of it lulled her into a hopeless torpor. After a few years, she stopped thinking altogether. But the candles still burned, the monks chanted, ignorant of the sleeping girl in the coffin of gold.
As for the prince, his past remained a naggingly blank slate. At first Abrimel tried to jog his memory, but after the upteenth repetition of the tale of the stony princess the prince told him to stop. He told Abrimel that if he wanted a wife he would marry a real girl, not a statue, however luscious and pleasing. After all he was no longer a wandering stranger but a God-king, and as such he had a city to order. He didn't have time for fairy tales.
So Abrimel desisted. Meanwhile, wealth from the dragon's cave was revitalizing the city. Craftsmen, stonemasons, and carpenters flocked to the area to share in the rebuilding. Rivers were dammed, fields terraced; trade caravans began to call. In all of these projects the prince worked very hard. Indeed a year had passed before the Prince noticed he didn't even have a crown, so Abrimel was sent to the city's marketplace to find a suitable goldsmith and jeweler.
He returned with good news. "Two skilled artisans, your Majesty," he said. "May I introduce Mitric Nusraar, who forged ninety-nine golden collars for the concubines of Sultan Faruq al-Nasir." The pudgy yet dignified man on Abrimel's right smiled and bowed. By his hands, which were nimble yet scarred at their tips, the prince knew he was a skilled goldsmith.
Abrimel then indicated a slim quiet woman in dark blue robes at his left, who was veiled completely but for her eyes. "And this fair flower is Lady Raphez, a gem cutter and trader from the west."
And Jaseloris Raphez, the gem merchant's daughter from Carsimbad, lifted her smoky blue veil and smiled at the prince.
She knew it was Prince Lassok; it could be no other. She had known since coming to the city two weeks before after hearing the strange story of the dragon. Gossip said the new God-king, though just, was bewitched, for he never spoke of his past. She had confirmed her suspicions of amnesia by bedding the innocent Abrimel and milking him--in more ways than one--for the true story, for she had lost none of her carnal skills on the long road to Lakthira.
The prince brightened when he saw her face and leaned forward from his throne in a captivated way. As Jaseloris suspected, he did not know her. Even better, there was no Zairbhreena around to distract him. She intended to take full advantage of her rival's absence and displayed herself accordingly.
The prince noted with appreciation the firm female curves the robes--which marked her a desert woman still, for women in the mountains did not go veiled--did not fully conceal. It seemed to him that he knew her, and she him; yet he remembered nothing. He knew the monks spoke of past lives, so that must be the reason for the nagging familiarity. "Let us see your wares, Lady Raphez."
Jaseloris opened her tray, revealing a galaxy of jewels for his inspection. "The finest, your Majesty," she said, her dark eyes beckoning. "Come closer to see them. Pearls from the Bitter Sea, rubies pried from the cliffs of the Great Rift, a yellow diamond from Thorzaan."
The prince stepped down from the throne. As a blank slate he was practically a virgin, and very vulnerable to the experienced.
The electricity that had been sparked between them flashed again. Jaseloris smoldered as he stroked the dark, glistening rubies, imagining them her lips. When he fondled the pearls, she felt her nipples rolling between his fingers; and when he touched the yellow diamond, she gave a small gasp of pleasure, a release. "Your Majesty," she said in a silky voice, "these gems will shine more brightly in a darkened room, under candlelight."
The prince concurred. They went away together. Abrimel was rueful, but not really surprised, when they reappeared cooing arm-in-arm the next morning. The prince had been celibate for the past year; it was about time he found a woman, stony princess or no stony princess.
In the workshops of the palace the royal crown took form. Each knock of the hammer, each tiny gem, formed another artifact in a second place, a heavy length of gold chain that would hold the aurified Zairbhreena in stasis forever, though she did not know it. Hope had died and fossilized for her long ago. There was no question of her preventing the wedding. Even if she could have commanded her legs to move she would have collapsed of her own golden weight before she even left the altar.
When the crown was finished the new God-king had his coronation, with a proud new Queen standing at his side. Jaseloris had triumphed at last, and she would make sure the prince's memories of his past life remained vague.
Years passed. The city grew and became more prosperous. Ziggurats of gold brick and white marble were erected; broad-squared marketplaces, townhouses, and pleasure gardens created checkerboard vistas of luxury. Temple spires stretched like gilded fingernails to the sky, threatening to pierce the scudding clouds. The prince became known for his judiciousness and accessibility. He was a solemn man, not given to display; his dark-haired Queen was regarded as more loquacious and charming then he. She was a clever woman, crafty and sly in her business deals, yet a patroness of the arts and an able administrator of the throne's acts of charity: orphanages, public clinics, food banks for the poor. She was beautiful and dutiful; she had grace and dignity. Overall she had only one fault, and it was physical.
She wore always a glove upon her left hand. Years ago, she explained, she had burned it horribly in a fire, which had scarred and then toughened it like boiled leather, and rather than nauseate others she had chosen to conceal it. Even the slightest touch to it pained her still. The injury caused not a few problems in areas like lovemaking and bathing, but in time the prince grew used to his new wife's injury. A few times when she was sleeping, though, he had inadvertently brushed against the soft-gloved hand and found what it protected heavy and hard to the touch...almost as if it was carved from stone and not flesh and blood.
Jaseloris had servants to dress her and ones to help her bathe and arrange her hair, so the handicap was not as much as a liability as the prince first thought. She even had a wardrobe of gloves for it which she changed according to her costume. One day gold brocade might sheathe her useless hand; the next, a smart black velvet glovelet with a cuff of embroidered peacock feathers. The women of the city, seeking to imitate her, soon made the wearing of a single glove into a fashion fad.
Abrimel never spoke of Zairbhreena again, guessing--rightly--that the prince was weary of the story and that Jaseloris wouldn't want to hear it either. In fact, she seemed to have an anathema for female sculpture. On becoming Queen she had ordered all such statues removed from the palace. Gossip said she didn't want her husband distracted. Only Jaseloris knew there was another reason.
Eight years after becoming God-king the prince had everything he wanted. He was king of realm far richer than Carsimbad and had a beautiful wife and Queen. Only one thing niggled him. It was the failure of Jaseloris to conceive a child.
As it turned out, the evil wand had affected Jaseloris' female organs as well as her hand, though she did not know it. Stunned by her failure to perpetuate the royal line, she did everything she could to become pregnant. Mineral baths, the eating of strange foods, exercise and the lack of exercise; on advice from wise women she tried various athletic positions and different times and places for lovemaking. But her stone womb remained empty.
The proper thing to do, of course, was for the prince to take on a concubine or two to give him an heir. But this Jaseloris took protest to. She ran screaming and crying to lock herself in her rooms, and the prince, not wanting to further upset his wife, wondered if the fault might lie with him. He submitted himself to the doctors, but they could find nothing wrong.
"Perhaps a visit to Palampang monastery would help," the chief physician said hopefully. "They have a statue of the sun goddess there which has miraculous powers. You are of her lineage, so she may take favor to you."
The prince thought it sounded like a good idea--he didn't have that many options at that point--and went to see Jaseloris.
He knocked lightly on the door with his knuckles. "Oh my wife and the light of my eyes, am I permitted to enter?"
"What is it?" Jaseloris said in a voice dull with sniffling.
"A solution, dear heart. If you would but receive me."
Jaseloris sent her plump dark-skinned maid to let the prince in, and she received him in her rumpled silk robe (for she had wept long and hard on her luxurious quilted bed.) The prince launched straighteaway into his speech. "Since the learned men and physicians cannot give us a child," he said, "we have no recourse but to apply to the gods. They tell me the Golden Virgin of the Sun will listen to our prayers, but we must go to the monastery. It is three days' journey from here."
Jaseloris did not hold faith in the gods; she put all her stock in herself. But these days, her body was failing her; could her wiles fail soon as well? "All right," she said, conceding out of practicality. "Am I to go as well?"
"No," the prince said diplomatically, for he knew she would be only be peevish there. "I alone make the journey."
So the next day, with her begrudged blessings, he set out for Palampang monastery on his favorite horse, with only his closest advisors, for he was not going as a king but a penitent. Outside the city switchbacked up steep cliffs past overhangs of ice and snow, emerging from clouds like torn paper to a bowl-shaped sky bluer than hyacinth, bluer than cornflower, and their breath grew short and steamed from the mouth. For two days they climbed. Finally, on the afternoon of the third day, they sighted the monastery. It was a small, walled complex built of grim iron-gray stone, with a roofline of interlocked spires and stupas. Under the pitiless mountain sun, it seemed like a fortress.
The monks welcomed them and showed them to their rooms. After settling into his cell, the prince asked to be shown to the Temple of the Virgin.
The monastery had been clean but rough; the temple, however, was far older and rougher. From within came the soft sound of monks chanting at their prayers and the click of prayer beads. Incense sizzled out of brass braziers, making the prince blink and discretely pinch his nose. Then he blinked again as he beheld the Golden Virgin of the Sun herself, who stood in imperial, auric splendor behind the altar where the incense burned and flowers moldered.
Entranced, he stepped closer, leaving his monk guides behind. The statue was the loveliest thing he had ever seen. She was nude, a serene young girl with heavy-lidded eyes dreaming of secrets. Her nipples were pert and erect, her proud pubic bush richly detailed with thousands of tiny, solidly compacted hairs. Indeed, she looked less sculpture than a gilded maiden standing there. But the monks had told him she was solid gold. He wondered what it would feel like to caress her, rub his hands and fingers over the fortunes of a hundred kings, absorbing the heavy, sensual richness of the yellow metal through his fingertips.
The prince felt a strange taste come to the back of his mouth, a scratching sensation in his eyes. His breath became more rapid. It seemed to him this statue meant something more to him, something more important than even divine favor. He had a vague recollection of a young girl's face, the lifting of a veil, a stolen kiss. His head hurt with the effort of remembering. If only the monks would be quiet!
Even more startling, he had the feeling the idol was aware of him somehow...as if intelligence lurked the opaque splendor of her eyes. Not as a goddess looking down from heaven, but as a sentient being who might step down from the altar and start to converse with him.
Not knowing how else to ease his confusion, he sank down on a hard, chilly cushion and began to formulate a prayer. Dutifully, he asked that Jaseloris might have the child she wanted.
But his mind kept wandering. Now he thought of dizzying carnal delights, not with his wife but with the statue herself, as her golden flesh shimmered with light...
*You know me,* the statue seemed to say. *Look closely, Prince Lassok, look truly deeply, and you will understand.*
The monks stopped their chanting. The prince raised his head slightly, wondering why, but then he felt it himself. The temple was shaking! It was jolting side to side like a mule on a mountain track, shaking loose crumbs of stone from the ceiling above. The monks shouted with fear, stumbling for the door as the floor rolled in sickening waves. Earthquakes were dangerous in this mountain land, as the loose stone of the peaks had a tendency to avalanche.
But the prince remained rooted, his eyes locked with goddess's. Realization slowly dawned on him. First all was crepuscular murkiness, then the light of knowledge came, so rich and clear and apparent he could not remember what it felt like to be without it.
*I know you,* he thought in growing excitement. *You are...you are... Zairbhreena!*
At that moment the temple roof collapsed, and so did the altar, and the golden form of Zairbhreena herself. But she fell in such a way to shield the prince from the stone and tile that fell from above, so that, hours later, when the monks dug him out of the ruin, he was unhurt. Indeed, he was glowing, as if burnished all over with gold himself.
The prince clasped the Golden Virgin to his breast like a lover. "The Goddess," he declared with solemn joy, "has saved me from certain death. Ready my horse and caravan. I am Prince Lassok of Carsimbad, and I am going home, truly home, to the kingdom where I was born." He looked tenderly at the statue. "And she will be my wife."
Ordinarily his advisors would think he'd gone mad, but the earthquake, and his miraculous survival, truly spoke of another divine miracle. It was clear to all that the goddess, in the vessel of her idol, had saved him yet again; if he said he now wanted to marry her, well, who had the power to stop him?
The prince remembered all now. And Zairbhreena, free of last from her long stupor, did as well. She could not show her joy as he did, but she glowed from inside so she seemed a piece of the sun herself. At long last she had her prince back, she would be flesh once again! Trembling with happiness, she awaited the means, molten metal seeming to seethe inside her.
But the prince was not going to risk a deflowering here, to be foiled as he had been before. This time, he would make sure the princess got safely back to Carsimbad, the city they had set out from all those years ago, where a proper nuptial bed would be prepared. Running his fingers over her heavy golden curves, he could only relish what lay before him.
And the princess could only relish it too, though of course she not speak.
Zairbhreena was carefully packed and made ready for the journey, and the caravan set off for Lakthira to provision themselves before returning to the desert. The prince knew he was going to have to abandon his kingdom. Still, he wished its continuing prosperity, and that meant squaring things off with Jaseloris, his soon to be ex-wife. Though he was fully aware of her machinations she could not be blamed for his memory loss, and in fact she had been a good queen. To remove her from power might cast the Lakthira into chaos. A plan began to form in his mind.
Jaseloris leapt up with joy when she saw him. supposing he had found some miraculous cure. But the prince slammed the chamber doors behind him and ripped the glove from her hand, exposing the stony symbol of guilt to the air at last. "I know what you've done, woman," he said. "I am Prince Lassok of Carsimbad once again."
Jaseloris fell to her knees, overcome; never had she expected his memory would return. Trembling, she waited for him to summon the palace guards, so she could be beheaded or worse.
"Stand up," the prince said. "You are still Queen of Lakthira. I resign my throne, for I am going back to Carsimbad. But you shall reign here in my place."
Her heart racing like a cornered deer's, Jaseloris could only stammer "Why?" She had expected revenge, not a reward.
"Unlike some parts of your body, my heart is not stone," he said. "There has been too much revenge in my life, too much scheming. Your hand is forever stone, and you cannot bear a child -- the kharma, I suppose, from the suffering you brought on Zairbhreena and myself. But neither was I innocent in causing *your* suffering. For that reason, you shall continue to be Queen of this city, and reign in my place."
"Thank you my lord," Jaseloris whispered. And in truth, she did rule well and long, and though she could have no child, she designated the wily Abrimel to be her heir, and he ruled long and well also. But that is another tale.
After that the prince left the city forever. His well-guarded caravan that wound down through the passes to the foothills, then to the canyonlands, wastes, and deserts, winding its way back to the city he had once called home. How slowly they moved! But no brigand would attack them, no marauding monster or fell pack of beasts; they were too well armed for that.
Every night, as he lay in his tent, the prince would caress Zairbhreena's soft curves, anticipating the way they would share their marriage bed. She would answer him with her eyes, as the air grew drier and the sands began to blow.
After many weeks they crossed the dry sea, approaching Carsimbad from the east. Their route took them through the low hills where the city's reservoir lay. The prince surveyed the placid blue waters of the lake, wondering if his father was still alive. What would he say when his son came home at last, in stranger wits than even when he left?
He glanced at Zairbhreena as she lay in the cart. Since he had recovered his memory he could not bear to be more than a few feet away from her again, fearing another disaster would befall them. However, scouts had to be sent ahead to gauge the city's temperament, and the animals needed watering; so, reluctantly, he drew the caravan to a halt on the narrow cliffside road and went to confer with his men.
Some say the gods are merciful; others believe we are merely their toys. Still others say they do not exist at all, for how else can men account for the randomness of the world? What else explains the unexplained triumph saved from the jaws of defeat, or the dark irony of the last-minute reprieve that tries, but fails, to stave off the order of death?
The road was old and ill-maintained. The slope was steep, the season dry. Gravel began to skitter out from the edges of the roadbed, ten feet from where Zairbhreena's cart lay, to tumble down the steep slope the lake four hundred feet below.
In the stillness of the hills, the sound was very loud. It was a clear warning, and the prince took it that way. From his position up the road, he turned to look. He cursed, and ran.
But he was too late. The cliffside road collapsed in on the caravan with a hissing rush, sending bleating animals, carts, and wagons funneling downward in a brownish haze of dust. Including the statuefied Zairbhreena.
The prince watched in numb, betrayed horror as the caravan free-fell down the cliff, then hit a rocky promontory that splintered it into pieces. Zairbhreena was launched from her cart like a golden missile that flew, in an impossibly long and graceful trajectory, to the center of the mountain lake. There she fell, with a distant splash, into the azure-blue waters, making a little blur of white foam that soon vanished. The ripples spread out from the point of impact for a short while, then ceased.
She was gone, this time so irrevocably she had almost ceased to be. The lake was a giant blue mouth that swallowed her whole, with a gullet and stomach three times as deep as the dry brown hills above.
If there were gods in the world, they were laughing cruelly at their
To be continued...
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