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The Parsina Saga is an exciting, romantic Arabian Nights fantasy adventure.In Volume II, the storyteller Jafar al-Sharif must impersonate a mighty wizard as he joins forces with disinherited Prince Ahmad. They must escape from the powerful king of an underground realm and defeat an army of re-animated corpses in their quest to gather the pieces of the fabled Crystal of Oromasd and bring peace to the world of Parsina.
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Volume II of The Parsina Saga:
THE STORYTELLER AND THE JANN
The Storyteller and the Jann. Copyright 1988 by Stephen Goldin. All Rights Reserved.
Map of Parsina
Chapter 1: The Palace of Rashwenath
Chapter 2: The Princess
Chapter 3: The Wizard’s Wrath
Chapter 4: The Purge
Chapter 5: The Mission
Chapter 6: The Journal
Chapter 7: The Widow
Chapter 8: The Badawi
Chapter 9: The Sand Jinn
Chapter 10: The Sand Jinn’s Cave
Chapter 11: The Temple of the Assassins
Chapter 12: The King of Khmeria
Chapter 13: The Duel of Sorcery
Chapter 14: The Pits of Punjar
Chapter 15: The Council of the Righteous Jann
Chapter 16: The Hairy Demons
Chapter 17: The Cloak of Invisibility
Chapter 18: The Assassin and the Prophet
Chapter 19: The Warrior
Chapter 20: The Army of the Dead
The Parsine Pantheon
The Good Deities
The Evil Deities
About Stephen Goldin
Other Books by Stephen Goldin
Connect with Stephen Goldin
This book is dedicated to
Melissa Ann Singer
for all the time, effort, and love she put into it.
There is a map of Parsina online at the author’s Web site at http://stephengoldin.com/parsinamap.html.
The tale is told of a time when Hakem Rafi the accursed, the thief, the blackhearted, when this nefarious infidel violated the Temple of the Faith in the fabled city of Ravan and stole the golden jeweled urn of Aeshma from before the Bahram fire itself. The tale recounts how he escaped from the Holy City disguised as a soldier in Prince Ahmad’s own wedding procession, only to be trapped in the ambush of the treacherous King Basir—and how, to save his own life, he smashed the urn and released Aeshma upon the unsuspecting world of Parsina once again.
Aeshma, the king of the daevas. Aeshma, satrap of the Pits of Torment. Aeshma, the personification of Rimahn upon the face of the earth. The power of pure evil had been bottled up for so many centuries within the Holy City—and now, in one earthshaking minute, this force exploded back into the world with devastating consequences for all who came near it, for all whose lives were touched by it. And the Cycles of the world ground on in their inevitable course, as one Cycle lay dying while another screamed in its birth contractions.
It was after receiving a hurried pledge of servitude, and with great fear in his heart, that Hakem Rafi the thief watched the release of Aeshma from his golden urn. Never one for bravery, only the certainty of his death at the hands of the brigands gave him the desperation that apes courage and allowed him to smash the holy urn. From his ancient prison Aeshma burst forth as an enormous black whirlwind. The king of the daevas spat out lightning that, at Hakem Rafi’s command, destroyed the brigands who’d attacked Prince Ahmad’s procession.
With that task completed, the whirlwind that was Aeshma transformed itself into the semblance of a rukh, a huge bird with sharp, curved bill and wings so powerful the wind from their beating could knock over a strong man. The rukh surveyed the scene with eyes of blue flame and reached down one massive claw, capable of clutching an elephant the way a hawk would clutch a field mouse. Picking up the startled Hakem Rafi in its ferocious talon, the rukh beat its wings and flew off into the sky, away from the forest where the ambush had occured.
Hakem Rafi was a small man in his forty-second year, wiry and quick. He had a swarthy face with a coarse black beard and mustache, and the nervous disposition of a mouse invading a granary, constantly alert for the local cats. Since he was far smaller than an elephant there was plenty of room for him to rest comfortably within the rukh’s grasp—but Hakem Rafi was far from comfortable.
The thief was now terrified he’d unleashed more power than he could possibly control. Aeshma had sworn in the name of his master Rimahn, the god of evil, that he would not harm Hakem Rafi—but when faced with the immensity of the being he’d released from captivity, Hakem Rafi wondered whether a few well-chosen words, spoken in haste, would be sufficient to bind this daeva to his service. With one tiny contraction of his monstrous scaly claw, Aeshma could rip the thief apart and be forever free of his obligations to the puny human he’d promised to obey. It would be typical, too, Hakem Rafi thought. Everyone betrayed him. It just wasn’t fair.
But Aeshma did not kill him. The rukh flew on, covering in fifteen minutes almost that many parasangs. With each passing minute, Hakem Rafi’s terror eased a little more. Surely if the daeva wished to kill him, he would have done so by now. The old tales must be true, then, that a daeva who swears in his master’s name is bound by the oath to fulfill his promises. Aeshma would be his slave, after all. Hakem Rafi began to relax and enjoy his flight.
Once he learned to accept it, the flight was actually pleasant. Their path took them southwest, past the city of Ravan—though the rukh skirted widely around it to avoid passing over its charmed walls—and onward in that direction. They crossed the Zaind River and flew over fields, mountains, and deserts. They passed the city of Durkhash and continued southwest, into the vast desert south of Sudarr. Hakem Rafi derived a particular enjoyment from peering down at the landscape beneath him and seeing how vast lands and important people all seemed tiny and insignificant from this altitude. Hakem Rafi had never had much chance in his life to look down on others, though he always felt he should, and he relished the opportunity now that it was his.
He flew for hours, it seemed, in the claw of this bird before he began to wonder where Aeshma was taking him. The only order he’d given was to get him safely away from the scene of the battle, and Aeshma was obviously interpreting that order liberally. Since Aeshma was bound by oath not to harm him, Hakem Rafi did not worry that they might be going someplace dangerous—but at the same time, he didn’t want to travel to the ends of the world, away from all other human contact.
“Where are we going?” he finally asked the rukh.
Aeshma’s voice rumbled back to him in tones like distant thunder. “With your permission, O master, I am taking you to the palace of Rashwenath.”
There was a time when the name Rashwenath would have set such a man as Hakem Rafi quaking in his boots, for Rashwenath was the mightiest king ever to dwell upon the earth. His empire spanned half the vast continent of Fricaz, and his subjects numbered tens of millions. Ten thousand slaves had he merely to serve him in his palace, and tens of thousands more would do his bidding throughout his vast empire. If his enormous army could ever have been assembled in one place, it could have marched past his parade post in double file for three days and three nights without its end being seen, and the stomping of the soldiers’ feet would have set the ground trembling for parasangs around. King Rashwenath ruled an empire greater than Parsina had ever seen before or since—greater by far than the meager lands governed by King Shahriyan, the great hero who defeated Aeshma and founded the holy city of Ravan.
But Rashwenath had lived many millennia ago, in the Third Cycle of the world. As great as his power had been, it was now all for naught. Rashwenath was dead and dust, his name forgotten even by the storytellers, his history recounted only in the most obscure tomes. Hakem Rafi had never heard of the name, nor had anyone of his acquaintance. So when the thief asked Aeshma who Rashwenath was, it was pointless for the daeva to recount the magnificent history of this one -time emperor. Instead, Aeshma replied, “He was a great king many years ago. His palace stands empty now, and it is there I take you. Only that magnificent structure is grand enough to suit a man of your power and importance.”
“If Rashwenath was such a great king, why does his palace stand empty?” Hakem Rafi asked suspiciously. He was not going to let Aeshma pull any tricks on him.
Aeshma could have told a story of political intrigues, of treachery, corruption, decay, and a rebellion that seethed across three continents—a rebellion in which he and his daevas played no small role—but he chose to keep the tale simple for the simple mind of a common thief. “Rashwenath died,” he answered curtly. “His sons fought over the lands, and soon the empire was torn apart by civil wars. No one could afford to maintain such a magnificent palace, so it was abandoned and the empire soon disintegrated. No one has occupied the palace for thousands of years. But soon, if you so desire it, the palace will live again, a tribute to the power and majesty of my new master, Hakem Rafi.”
Hakem Rafi had never been in even a small palace, let alone such a wonderful structure as the daeva was describing. He was intrigued by the possibilities. He reminded himself to start behaving like a man of wealth and property, for any riches he could imagine would soon be his for the asking. It was only right that he should occupy the grandest palace in the world and have an army of slaves to do his bidding. He felt he’d worked hard to steal Aeshma’s urn and spirit it out of Ravan against all odds; he’d earned the right to live in lavish splendor.
They flew at great height and speed over the barren desert below, and Hakem Rafi’s anticipation grew till he could barely wait to see this promised palace. On the horizon a chain of mountains came into view and began to grow as the two approached. The rukh descended now, making it apparent that their destination lay within those mountains.
Hakem Rafi’s sharp eyes spotted something at the base of those hills, and as they drew closer he could see it looked like a vast city stretched out along the desert floor. Then, as they came closer still, the thief’s eyes widened when he realized it was not a city he saw, but a single vast building stretching defiantly from the base of the mountains well into the desert. A single roof covered the grounds, with numerous small breaks for courtyards, gardens, and solaria; domes, towers, and minarets reached upward from its surface toward the sky. The stones of its walls were only slightly eroded after all this time, though the brightly colored facade and fabrics that had once graced its exterior had worn away. The structure was so huge that all of Yazed, Hakem Rafi’s native town, could be hidden within the building’s perimeter with yet room for a few minor country villages.
The rukh descended toward the roof of the palace. Setting Hakem Rafi down most gently, the rukh alit beside him and transformed itself once more. It became a cloud of oily black smoke, sulfurous and impenetrable, and shrank somewhat in size. As it shrank it condensed from a bird to a more vertical shape, until at last it took the features that could be called most natural for it—but for Hakem Rafi the new shape was far more frightening than the rukh.
Aeshma’s form was an enormous obscene parody of a man. He stood well over five cubits tall and his skin was black as tar. His eyes glowed like red coals in his sockets and his teeth were a sharp set of fangs, upper and lower. Coarse, stringy black hair twined down to his powerfully muscled shoulders, and his arms and legs ended in twisted claws with razor-sharp nails. He was totally naked, and his grotesque penis was easily a cubit long with a barbed tip.
Hakem Rafi once again knew the fear that he might not be able to control this powerful being, yet even as he stood trembling the daeva made a proper salaam and said, “Welcome to your new home, O my master, if you will accept it as such.”
“I…I’ll have to look it over first.”
“Certainly. There are stairs this way.” So saying, Aeshma led the way to a staircase that descended from the roof into the center of the palace. The gigantic daeva had to stoop to avoid hitting his head on some of the entranceways, but in general the ceilings were high enough that he could walk upright with no problem. In Aeshma’s hand appeared a large lamp with five wicks that lit the way for the thief. Behind Aeshma, Hakem Rafi followed cautiously, still fearing the power of his nominal slave.
At the bottom of the stairs they reached a central hall with arched ceilings high enough for three Aeshmas to have stood, one on another’s shoulders. The open area of the floor was larger than the maidan in Ravan and corridors branched off from it in several directions. The smallest corridor could have accomodated five men walking abreast, while the largest was wider than most houses. Hakem Rafi looked down these diverging hallways and could see no end to any of them.
Through these hallways had once moved the commerce of three continents. Once the walls rang with the din of many different tongues crying in untold numbers of voices. Once ambassadors brought their legations here, and merchants their wares, and musicians their instruments. Once the air had been alive with the scent of spices and sweat, with the sound of bells and hawkers’ cries, with the tang of oranges and wine, with the sight of camels and horses, and even elephants. Once these walls had known life and excitement, the intrigues of an empire, the lusts of a king alive with power.
Now the dust of the ages hung thickly in the air, making Hakem Rafi sneeze and cough. Insects buzzed unconcerned through the air, and the rats that fed on them chittered quietly in the corners. The air smelled musty and dry, and felt warm from the heat of the afternoon sun.
Hakem Rafi took a couple of steps as he looked around, and the sound of his boots on the tiled floor echoed through the chamber and down the corridors. His voice, when he spoke, echoed like a drum in the still air, frightening some of the rats back into their holes. “It’s all so dead,” he said. “I’m not sure I like that.”
“With my help, O master, you will make it live again and restore the palace of Rashwenath to its former grandeur.”
“It’d take an army of slaves a year to clean this up,” the thief said, looking at the dust.
“It is but the work of a single night. When you awake in the morning, the palace shall gleam as it did on the day it was built. Just leave everything to me.”
“Very well. First rid this room of its choking dust. But if I don’t like the place when you’re all done will you take me elsewhere and build me a new palace?”
“You are my master, and I am yours to command.”
“Don’t forget that,” Hakem Rafi said.
“Of all the facts in all the world, that is one I never shall forget,” the daeva replied, and added, “Is there anything you wish right now? Food and drink, perhaps?”
The mere mention of food reminded Hakem Rafi that he hadn’t eaten since breakfast in the prince’s camp early that morning. He’d become so used to going hungry during these last few weeks that he routinely ignored the insistent urges of his stomach—but there was no longer any reason to deprive himself of what he wanted.
“Yes,” he said, “some food and drink sounds wonderful. Bring me some immediately.”
“Do you have any preferences, O master?”
Hakem Rafi had so seldom been in a position where he had a choice that it was difficult to think. “Bring me a feast worthy of the wealthiest merchant in Ravan,” he said with an arrogant wave of his hand.
“I hear and I obey,” Aeshma acknowledged.
At Hakem Rafi’s feet appeared a fine carpet of cerise, gold, black, and dark cedar green, so deep a man’s fingers would sink into its pile up to the second knuckle, spread out invitingly with comfortable pillows around it. At the corners were several tall stands with silver inlaid brass lamps that illuminated the area around the rug, though the rest of the huge room was dim and the corners were lost in darkness. A leather sofreh covered the carpet’s center and a white cloth sofreh was placed over that for æsthetic effect. On top of the cloth was a series of golden plates containing the largest feast Hakem Rafi had ever had served for himself alone. The scents exploded in his nostrils, filling them as the dust had done before. As the aromas of meat, fruit, and herbs wafted through the room, they seemed to drive the dust and rat droppings before them, till the faded dim hall at least was clean.
On the sofreh were a mixed herb plate served with feta cheese; an eggplant salad as well as a mixed green salad of romaine lettuce, cucumbers, tomatos, radishes, and herbs; a dish of peach pickles; a plate of duck in walnut and pomegranate sauce served over chelo; a bowl of quince soup; a plate of nan-e lavash; a large pitcher of abdug; a bowl of apricots and plums; and an enormous platter heaped high with rahat lakhoum. Hakem Rafi had been fortunate enough to sample rahat lakhoum only twice before in his life, and never had he seen it piled in such generous quantities—and certainly never for one individual.
As a man with an eye toward the value of property—particularly other people’s—Hakem Rafi was impressed at the quality of the materials Aeshma could produce; at the same time, as a man of ravenous appetite, he did not long ponder the supplementary details. He ate and drank heartily of this sumptuous repast, especially gorging on the rahat lakhoum, until even his monstrous appetite was sated and he sat on one velvet cushion feeling his stomach was about to burst.
The food had taken the edge off his fear, and the rahat lakhoum had made him bolder. He was no longer terrified of the daeva king who’d sworn to serve his wishes, and he was just beginning to realize exactly what all this could mean for him. Ever since stealing the urn and learning of its contents he’d dreamed of unlimited wealth—but dreams were one thing, and the fulfillment of them was something else entirely. The fact that he could become the richest, most powerful man in all Parsina, and that anything he wanted was his for the taking, was just starting to dawn in his simple mind. Hakem Rafi grinned and lay back on the carpeted floor, wallowing in the concept.
“Is there anything else my master wishes?” Aeshma asked smoothly.
With the hashish from the rahat lakhoum bubbling his thoughts, Hakem Rafi put his hands behind his head for a pillow and stared up at the high domed ceiling, lost in shadows overhead, considering the matter. “Yes,” he said at last. “I’d like a woman to spend the night with me.”
“Any particular woman?”
“A beautiful woman. The most beautiful woman in the world.”
“I hear and—”
“No, wait,” Hakem Rafi said, sitting up suddenly as an idea occured to him. A wicked smile broadened on his face as he turned the idea over in his mind. The incorruptible new wali of police in Yazed had been responsible for Hakem Rafi’s abrupt departure from that city, and for his subsequent suffering in Ravan. A little revenge was called for here, and Hakem Rafi’s devious imagination conjured up a subtle form of retribution.
“Go to the home of the wali of police in Yazed. Bring me his most beautiful wife or concubine and make sure no one knows she’s gone. Make her be passionately in love with me and bring her here before me. Tonight I shall beget a son by her. In the morning, return her with no memory of what has happened here and let the wali think the boy is his and raise him as his own. In this way will I cuckold the fool who drove me from my home and avenge myself upon his line. But before you go, fashion me a golden bed studded with gems, piled high with the softest silk pillows and filled with swan’s down, that I might welcome my guest properly. Oh yes, and leave me some good silk ropes.”
“I hear and I obey.” The bed appeared in one corner of the room exactly as Hakem Rafi had described it, and Aeshma vanished, leaving the thief chuckling to himself.
The daeva returned shortly with the most attractive of the wali’s wives, and she was a beauty indeed. Her long black hair flowed like silk down her back to the waist, and her dark brown skin was soft and pure. Thick eyebrows topped her almond-shaped eyes that burned with passion as she spied Hakem Rafi. She walked boldly up to him, her slender hips swaying sensuously with each stride. She knelt before him and unfastened her milfa, then kissed the palms of his hands and touched them to her body. Her lips were trembling with her naked desire as she fell to her knees caressing him.
“Does my master require anything else?” Aeshma asked discreetly.
Hakem Rafi could hardly take his eyes from the woman kneeling before him. No woman had ever looked at him with desire that way. “Uh, no, this will suffice. Go clean the palace as you promised. Leave me in privacy until the morning.”
“I hear and I obey,” Aeshma said, and disappeared to another part of the palace. So besotted with hashish and desire was Hakem Rafi that he didn’t even hear the daeva laughing.
The light of morning shone into the palace of Rashwenath through cleverly disguised skylights in the ceiling. Hakem Rafi woke slowly as his mind cleared of the hashish and lovemaking of the previous night. Beside him, the wali’s wife still lay naked and asleep, her body spent from the energy of their union. Hakem Rafi sat up slowly, then stared about him at the wonder that had occured.
True to his word, the king of the daevas had restored the palace to its former glory. The cobwebs were cleared from the corners, and not a speck of dust lay anywhere about. The rats had vanished, their holes were plugged and plastered over, the insects were gone, and the air smelled lightly of lemon blossoms.
The hall he was in contained three fountains, each over five cubits in diameter, whose water was scented with citrus blossoms. Above each was a dome of paper-thin alabaster, allowing the softest filtered light of peach hue to color the creamy marble floor below. The marble was patterned in cream and gray in an intricate basket weave. At certain points on either side it became denser, outlining shallow pits filled with soft rugs and huge pillows.
The tapestries that were faded and dust filled the night before, now were bright depictions of erotic events. The largest and finest of these showed Hakem Rafi in the embrace of the wali’s wife, as she was obviously straining to pull him to her. The portraiture was very flattering, and Hakem Rafi resolved to have the daeva make him similarly endowed as soon as possible.
The delicious bubbling sound of the fountains mingled with the songs of many birds in golden cages suspended from the carved onyx ceiling panels. They swayed gently in the breeze cooled by the fountains, and made the palace seem full of life. On the walls and stands were inlaid lamps that, come the night, would give the soft, sensual light shed by burning the finest oils.
Hakem Rafi stood up, gawking at the beauty of the building around him, until he realized suddenly that he was naked. He quickly donned the uniform he’d been wearing when Aeshma snatched him from the forest, and walked about the hallway to admire his new home. Everywhere he looked was beauty compounded on beauty—pictures, carpets, tiles, furniture, fixtures. And every bit of it was his. It was true. He was the richest, most powerful man in Parsina.
A sudden thought brought him up short. One man had possessed all this wealth before, and where was he now? Dead and dust, and his memory totally forgotten. Great though he was, Rashwenath was mortal and his name had died centuries ago. All he’d strived for was gone, all he’d built evaporated. Hakem Rafi was mortal, too; he’d never given the matter much thought before, but now it seemed suddenly of vital concern.
“Aeshma!” he called, and his voice echoed down the empty hallways, muffled only slightly by the restored tapestries.
The daeva’s huge form materialized out of smoke before him. “Ever at my master’s call,” Aeshma said with surprising softness.
“I want you to make me immortal,” the thief said brusquely.
For the first time, the daeva hesitated. “That I cannot do, O my master.”
“You swore to obey all my commands,” Hakem Rafi said in a petulant whine.
“And so I shall, in everything within my ability. My powers are unequaled upon the face of the earth, but power over death is not mine. Death was created by my lord Rimahn to inflict upon the creatures of Oromasd. I have not the ability to undo what my own lord and creator has done. I shall obey you in all things, save that I am powerless to forestall your eventual and inevitable death. As I promised you, I will not cause it—but neither can I stop it from happening some day.”
Hakem Rafi the thief turned away from Aeshma to hide the bitterness in his soul. He had seldom thought about death before, merely tried to avoid it; he’d always thought himself too clever to be caught and executed, too skilled to lose any fight he didn’t dodge. But now that he had everything, now that the world could be his if he chose, the irony that he could lose it all was a painful one. In a thousand years, would he be as forgotten as the great Rashwenath, a name never spoken, a presence never felt? What, then, would be the point of living at all, if everything was to vanish from him?
He must have voiced the question aloud without realizing it, for Aeshma answered in soft, seductive tones, “The answer, O my master, is to live as fully and as best you can. If it is all destined to vanish tomorrow, then enjoy it to the utmost today. At your command I can shower you with a thousand, thousand pleasures, with wealth beyond imagining, so when death does come it will find you with not a moment wasted, not a second left unenjoyed. Your days will be filled with delight and your nights will be rich with satisfactions most men dare not even dream of. Rashwenath is dead, and his glory with him, but it is said he never regretted a single moment of the life he lived. So let it be with you.”
Hakem Rafi listened to the daeva’s arguments, and they struck a chord in the thief’s greedy soul. It was true that no man was granted immortality—but he, Hakem Rafi, had been granted more than any man could wish. Yes, he would bury himself in sensual pleasure and live as Aeshma suggested. He would have food, wine, women, power, and revenge on all those who’d belittled or insulted him, and he would not think of death again. It would come—but the object of life, as Aeshma had explained, was to have no regrets, no sorrows. When death did come, it would find Hakem Rafi happy and contented. No man could ask for more than that.
“Yes,” he said aloud. “You’re right, my wise slave. I’ll wear you down in your efforts to please me.”
“Whatever you command shall be yours,” Aeshma replied.
“First prepare a feast of a breakfast, then take the woman back to the wali before she is missed,” Hakem Rafi said. “Perhaps I’ll enjoy her again sometime to beget more sons. When you return, we’ll talk in more detail about the pleasures you can provide me.”
“I hear and I obey.”
The daeva escorted Hakem Rafi into an ornate dining hall where a breakfast meal as sumptuous as last night’s dinner was spread before him. Then Aeshma vanished and scooped up the still-sleeping woman to fly her safely back to her home. He could not help a deep -throated chuckle as he went, thinking of how completely this foolish mortal was falling under his control.
Aeshma was a prideful being, and it chafed him sorely to be bound by oath to anyone but his lord Rimahn, let alone a petty mortal like Hakem Rafi. But bad though that was, being trapped and impotent in a golden urn before the fires of Oromasd for thousands of years had been even worse, a constant, searing torment that he was now relieved of.
Hakem Rafi was a mortal. Even without Aeshma’s killing him, he would die. At most, he could be expected to live another forty years. If, at Aeshma’s gentle insistence, he overindulged in food, wine, drugs, and sex, his life span might be diminished that much further. What were a few more decades to a creature who’d waited millennia for his freedom?
When Hakem Rafi died, Aeshma would be totally free—free to regain all his lost power, free to war against mankind, free to avenge himself on the enemy in the name of his lord Rimahn. There would be no others to stand in his way; when Aeshma was totally free, the world would quake and Oromasd’s ally, mankind, would vanish from the face of the earth.
King Basir of Marakh, who called himself “the Blessed,” was a man who worried. He was a short, plump man. Years of ruling Marakh had turned his hair prematurely gray and furrowed his wide forehead. His balding head could be hidden beneath his turban, but his gray beard, which grew in uneven patches on his face, was visible for all the world to see. The doctors told him its irregular growth was due to his constant worrying—but rather than setting his mind at ease, that only made him worry more that his appearance was less than regal and his subjects would not respect him.
King Basir wanted to be a great monarch. He wanted his people to love and respect him. He wanted his enemies to fear and respect him. He wanted his allies merely to respect him. But inspiring those emotions in others was never easy. There were so many decisions to be made all the time, and he was never sure what the right answers were. If he ruled harshly he was called a tyrant; if he showed mercy he was labeled weak. Worst of all, if he tried to take some middle position he was accused of being indecisive and everyone ended up despising him.
He knew what a good king, a strong king, should be. He grew up with a living example. His father, King Alnath, was universally regarded as a powerful monarch. It was King Alnath who expanded Marakh’s hegemony south and west across the Shiraz Plains, and east well into neighboring Formistan. King Alnath was a feared warrior and a stern ruler who’d commanded respect from friend and foe alike. Even now, with King Alnath dead these past twenty-seven years, the neighboring lands still respected the power of Marakh even though King Basir had added nothing to the kingdom since taking the throne. Thus does a good reputation stand its holders in good stead long after its basis has vanished.
King Alnath tried to instill in his son the lessons of power. He would hold mock councils in which young Prince Basir had to make decisions of state. Every time the prince made the wrong decision, King Alnath would publicly mock him before his wazirs. Often the prince was beaten as well. In this way did King Alnath seek to ensure that his successor would be a man who thought carefully and made no bad decisions. His son, he vowed, would be an even better king than he was, because he would have learned from his father’s mistakes.
It was with these high expectations of him that King Basir ascended to the throne of Marakh. But with his father always held up to him as an example of what a king should be, Basir knew he could never be strong enough, never be wise enough, never be brave enough to meet those demanding standards. He also knew he never dared admit those self-doubts publicly. Each decision, however small, was an agony to him, until he worked himself into such a state that his stomach was in constant pain and he could eat only the blandest of foods.
As a further disappointment in his life he produced four daughters, but no sons. He was certain, somehow, that the fault lay with him, that he was not strong enough to sire sons, and out of guilt he lavished attention on the princesses—and particularly on Oma, his oldest daughter.
From an early age she had the finest tutors and was given the best education any woman could expect. She could read and write, and she debated well with the best scholars in the land. She played backgammon and chess, danced with a grace to make gazelles jealous, and composed poetry of beauty and perception. She sang with a voice to rival the nightingale, and played excellently upon the lute, flute, and drum. To top it all off, she was a pearl of matchless beauty, a girl of such exquisite features and pale white skin, of long black hair and large black eyes, of delicate figure and pleasing speech, that all who saw or heard her fell instantly in love.
Little wonder she became the prize of King Basir’s otherwise harried life. He could deny her nothing. If he even tried to say no to her, she would pout and call him a failure as a father, and that would remind him of his many failures as a king. He would feel guilty for being so unreasonable, and always he would relent and give Princess Oma exactly what she wanted, no matter how exorbitant the price.
On one point alone did King Basir remain resolved against his daughter. Knowing that he might never have a male heir and wanting to secure the best marriage for her and his kingdom, he made a contract when she was just a girl to wed her to the equally young Prince Ahmad of Ravan. Princess Oma cried and screamed and pouted that she was being treated like a slave, and that she would never marry a man she’d never met and didn’t love, but on this matter the king remained adamant. The future of the kingdom must be assured to prevent chaos after King Basir’s death, and an alliance with Ravan would solidify Marakh’s stature among the world’s nations.
Yet even on this important matter King Basir could not remain constant. After the death of King Shunnar of Ravan, Shunnar’s widow, Shammara, sent King Basir the gift of a lovely and enticing concubine named Rabah, who worked unstintingly to convince the king that Shammara’s son, Prince Haroun—rather than Prince Ahmad, son of a concubine—would be the better marriage choice. Rabah became intimate friends with the young Princess Oma and tried to convince her of Haroun’s desirability as well. At the same time one of the king’s most trusted advisers, Tabib abu Saar, was also subverted to Shammara’s cause and began counseling King Basir to betray his solemn contract regarding Prince Ahmad. Against pressure from all these sides, King Basir’s resolve, never strong to begin with, could not stand up, and he agreed to betray the prince and wed his precious Oma to Prince Haroun instead.
Thus, with Shammara’s aid, was the plan devised to lure Prince Ahmad out of Ravan by insisting he travel to Marakh to wed his bride. In a forest along the road, King Basir stationed two hundred of his best soldiers, outnumbering the wedding party by four to one. Once Ahmad was dead, Princess Oma could marry Prince Haroun and the two lands would be united as had always been the plan, with just a slight change of names in the leading roles.
But it was now several days after the ambush was supposed to occur, and King Basir had received no word from his men. His captain in the field had been given strict instructions to send a messenger back to Marakh on their fastest horse to bring the news of the mission’s success. Even a failure should have merited some word, though that was unlikely considering the relative size of the two forces involved. But days passed and no word came. King Basir worried and the fire in his stomach flamed like a blacksmith’s furnace.
All sorts of horrible contingencies raced through his mind. Prince Ahmad could have defeated the ambush, returned to Ravan, killed Shammara, and even now be assembling an army to march in revenge against Marakh. Or Shammara could have double -crossed both sides to play out a subtle game of her own design. Scores of alternatives, each of them disastrous, danced through King Basir’s mind, haunting his sleep and ruining his digestion. He considered sending out spies, but was too afraid of what they might find.
After a week and a half, the two retainers who’d gone to Ravan with Tabib abu Saar as King Basir’s legation returned to Marakh via a most circuitous route. They were taken immediately before the king, where it was obvious they were frightened out of their wits—not by being in the king’s presence, but by what had happened to them upon the road. Under stern questioning by the king and his wazirs, they told their eerie tale.
At first, they said, all had gone as planned. The prince’s party had walked into the ambush unprepared for battle. Tabib abu Saar and his retainers retreated from the scene the instant the fighting started and watched the skirmish from a safe distance down the road. The Marakhi soldiers far outnumbered Prince Ahmad’s troops, and the battle was going well when suddenly a supernatural manifestation appeared.
An enormous black whirlwind arose from nowhere, towering above the treetops, and from it streaked bolts of lightning that struck the Marakhi warriors and burned them instantly like so many lumps of coal. The whirlwind did not harm the prince’s men, and abu Saar’s retainers speculated the prince must have had strong magic on his side to defeat the opposing force.
So fearsome was the whirlwind that abu Saar’s horse reared in terror, spilling the Marakhi ambassador on the hard ground and breaking both his legs. The servants’ asses were braver, but still would not approach the whirlwind, and the servants were afraid to dismount and help their master, lest the asses run off and leave them stranded in the forest.
Then the whirlwind transformed itself into a giant rukh, grabbed one of the prince’s soldiers, and flew off into the sky. The retainers didn’t know what to make of that, but thought perhaps the soldier might have been a sacrifice by the prince to the evil powers he’d summoned to defeat the ambushers.
Abu Saar had lain on the ground in pain, pleading with his servants to help him, but they were afraid and didn’t know how. When some of the prince’s men came looking for them, they turned and fled, taking a long and devious route back to their native city to avoid being followed and captured. They knew nothing more of what had happened to Tabib abu Saar and Prince Ahmad’s party.
This news sent the king into profound fits of anxiety, and he pulled out even more of his sparse beard. Shammara would be awaiting word from him about the success of his raid. Though he had never met the woman, her reputation was that she was not a person to cross casually. Even though the ambush’s failure was due to supernatural intervention and was no fault of King Basir’s, Shammara might well take strong action that was bound to be unpleasant. She was even rumored to have connections with the rimahniya, the secret religious cult of fanatical assassins. King Basir did not wish to die from one of their poisoned daggers stuck between his ribs.
With his stomach aflame he dismissed the gibbering servants and discussed the matter with his wazirs. He thoroughly regretted letting himself be talked into betraying his contract with Prince Ahmad, but nothing could rectify that now. He had to evaluate the situation given but the flimsiest of evidence and make new plans based on events as he understood them.
They had to assume Tabib abu Saar was captured and questioned by Prince Ahmad. With both legs broken he would not put up much resistance under interrogation, and thus would tell Prince Ahmad all about the secret alliance between Shammara and King Basir. The prince was known as a well-trained, but inexperienced, fighter, and it was conceivable that his anger at the betrayal would lead him to take some action against Marakh.
“Is it too late to apologize to him and offer him help against Shammara?” King Basir asked.
“Do you think he’d believe it after what happened?” his first wazir countered.
“No, no, I guess not,” the king said weakly.
“Besides, Your Majesty, Prince Ahmad has but a handful of men. Marakh has one of the strongest armies in all Parsina. Any fight against us would mean his certain death.”
“But he obviously has some powerful sorcerer working for him. That whirlwind—the rukh—”
“All the more reason to maintain your strong alliance with Shammara. We’ll need help from the Holy City if we face a threat from magic.”
“Shammara!” King Basir went suddenly cold at the thought of his powerful ally. “What will I do about her? What will I tell her? How can I explain…?”
“You will explain nothing,” the wazir said. “Are you not king of Marakh, ruler of the two rivers? A king need explain to no one. You will send her a message saying that, as agreed upon, your army attacked the prince’s party on the road and prevented them from reaching Marakh. You will prepare Princess Oma’s bridal party as quickly as possible and send her off to Ravan to marry Prince Haroun and further cement the alliance between Marakh and Ravan. When all is completed, how can Shammara complain?”
But King Basir did not likewise underestimate Shammara’s critical abilities. “What if Prince Ahmad returns and claims his rights?” he asked.
“Then you denounce him as an impostor and deal with him accordingly. That’s why you must send your daughter to Ravan and have the marriage take place as quickly as possible. Once the union’s been consummated it will be in Shammara’s best interest to have Ahmad declared a fraud. With the combined armies of Marakh and Ravan aligned against him, Prince Ahmad would have no chance of victory—and I’m sure he’s wise enough to know that and not even try.”
King Basir mused on his wazir’s words. It was often true, he knew, that a good bluster could get a monarch through the most embarrassing of circumstances. He’d lived up to his part of the bargain with Shammara; it wasn’t his fault the prince escaped. With any luck at all, Prince Ahmad would flee to distant parts of Parsina and never be heard from again, and King Basir’s word on the story would never be challenged. And if Ahmad did show up trying to reclaim his bride and his throne, what choice did Shammara have but to back Basir’s story that the young man was just a clever impostor and the real prince died at the hands of brigands on the road to Marakh?
“Very well,” he commanded, trying to make his voice sound authoritative. “Have my scribe prepare a message that the prince was killed in the woods by brigands and Princess Oma, grief-stricken though she is by the death of her fiancé, will travel to Ravan to fulfill the marriage contract by marrying Prince Haroun. We’ll send the note to Ravan by the fastest messenger, and Princess Oma’s party shall follow within a few weeks.”
He paused. “We’ll give Oma a full military escort, of course. Travel along the roads these days is full of hazards, as the poor departed Prince Ahmad found out, and nothing untoward is going to happen to my daughter on the way to her wedding.”
One of the servants who had brought stomach-soothing pilau to the king during the council session was in the direct employ of Princess Oma. As soon as he was dismissed from his duties he reported directly to her all that had occured and the decisions that had been made. The princess thanked him, paid him a generous bonus, and sent him off to find what else he could learn about the plans for her future. Then she sat down to ponder what she herself must do about the situation.
Princess Oma was one of those unfortunate women cursed with an abundance of blessings, and therefore never realized she was cursed. Though not quite seventeen her beauty was already fabled throughout the land—and in truth her long, silken black hair, her large, clear eyes, her smooth white skin and her supple figure fully justified any praise she could receive. She was smarter than anyone in the palace except a few of her teachers, and the training she’d received from them only sharpened her mental skills. She had a melodious voice coupled with grace and a smile that could have charmed Rimahn himself, so it was said. She was possessed of a driving energy and a passion for living that burned deep within her soul.
Few indeed were the people who could say no to her. This was the single great tragedy of Princess Oma.
She sat alone in her private bedroom, thinking what to do. The room was not large, but well appointed. Richly woven peacock green and white tapestries hung upon the walls, and the floor was heaped with sheepskin rugs. The large, carved oak bed was overhung by a canopy, from which draped a pale silver gauze that floated sensuously to the floor or wafted in the occasional breeze. From the garden below, hidden by an extra screen, women musicians played Oma’s favorite music so that her days were filled with songs. An ebony closet with ivory inlay stood in one corner, and a full-length mirror, framed with electrum and set with diamonds, stood in another. Huge bowls of flowers, cut each morning in her own garden, filled the air with the sweet scent of jasmine.
Princess Oma watched her reflection carefully in the glass as she practiced her pout. She wondered whether it would be worth starting a tantrum to make her father cancel his plans to send her to Ravan, but realized that move would fail now as it had before, because her father was more desperate now than ever. She would only end up looking silly, and she hated looking silly.
She walked to the door and told her slave, “Find Rabah and tell her I want to see her immediately.” Rabah was her friend; Rabah always knew what to do. Rabah would give her the advice she needed.
When Rabah arrived a short time later, she found Princess Oma lying prone and naked on her bed. The slave was dismissed, leaving the two women alone, and Princess Oma said, “Oh Rabah, my angel, could you rub my back for me? The skin feels so dry and coarse.”
“As you wish, O my princess,” Rabah said with a slight smile. Rabah was a tall, willowy woman in her early thirties, with short brown hair and strangely intense eyes, one blue and one green. Her facial expressions were always controlled so it was impossible to tell her thoughts, and she moved with the springy gracefulness of a tigress on a casual prowl. Now she lightly crossed the room to the closet, where a vial of massage oil was kept in a bottom drawer. She warmed the oil on her own palms and then began rubbing it into the princess’s back. Rabah’s touch was gentle, but there was a reserved strength in her hands that could have made her dangerous had she chosen to be. This gave a touch of spice to the experience that the princess savored.
As Rabah’s fingers sensuously explored the silken skin of Oma’s back, the princess confided to her all that had transpired in her father’s council chamber. “I will not be passed from hand to hand, a jewel going to the highest bidder,” she said stubbornly.
“That is ever the lot of women,” Rabah said.
“Well, it won’t be that way for me. I shall control my own destiny. I’ll love whom I please and take my pleasure where I like. No man will control me.”
“Brave words, Your Highness.”
“But you disapprove, is that it?” Princess Oma said, reading the older woman’s tone.
“I would counsel wisdom to back up the bravery,” Rabah said as her hands soothed the tension of anger from Oma’s lithe body. “It’s the way of the world that men believe they have control. To defy that would be to stand against the current of a powerful river; if one but swims the river instead, it’s easier to reach one’s destination.”
“I don’t want to marry Haroun. I hear he’s perfectly awful, and he does cruel things to slave girls.”
“Yet you helped me convince your father to betray his agreement with Ahmad.”
“I didn’t want to marry Ahmad, either,” Princess Oma said with a pout. “I don’t want to marry anyone. Why should I be shackled to only one lover all my life when my husband can have many wives and concubines? I want the freedom to love whom I choose, when I choose, how I choose. Is that so terrible?”
“Not at all,” Rabah said. “But in the world as it is, we women must practice a little caution.” She hesitated a moment. “Could it be that Your Highness is afraid of a man’s love?” Rabah knew that Oma had been raised among women; the only men she saw were eunuchs, some of her tutors, and her father. Some trepidation on her part would be perfectly natural.
“I’ve never tried any men, of course,” Oma said. “A princess’s maidenhead is a valuable commodity, and I’m not going to throw it away on a whim.”
“If you’ll accept my word for now, the love of a man can be just as exciting as the love of a woman,” Rabah told her.
“Thank you. I’ll look forward to it. But may Oromasd grant that my first experience not be with Prince Haroun.”
Rabah’s strong hands manipulated the muscles of Oma’s back, relaxing the last of the tension beneath the taut young flesh. For several moments the two drifted in silence. Then Oma spoke again.
“They say Ahmad used powerful sorcery to escape my father’s trap. Do you believe that?”
“Many things are possible.”
“Ahmad, a sorcerer. Why, he could swoop into the room this very minute and cast a spell on us so neither of us could move. We’d be helpless before him and he could ravish us both on the spot if he chose, don’t you think?”
“If that frightens you, all the more reason to go to Ravan. No magic can touch you in the Holy City.”
“Frighten? Rabah, that would be the most exciting thing that ever happened to me.” She sighed. “But it won’t. They all say Ahmad’s much too noble to do anything like that. Do you reallywantme to go to Ravan?”
“I think youshouldgo,” Rabah said carefully. “Marriage to Haroun is a price to pay, but in a few months he’ll attain his majority and be crowned king of Ravan. That will make you queen. Haroun is a cipher, easily ignored. As long as you don’t interfere with his mother’s political rule, you’ll be able to do as you wish. You’ll have the freedom you say you want so badly. The price is your maidenhead.”
“Haroun may get that from me, but he certainly won’t get much else.”
Princess Oma lay silent again for a while as Rabah’s fingers kneaded her flesh. Then she said, “Rabah,ifI go to Ravan, will you come with me?”
“I can’t, O my princess, you know that. I’m your father’s concubine; I belong here with him.”
“I could make him give you to me as a servant. You know he’d do it if I asked him the right way.”
“No.” For just the faintest instant Rabah’s fingers tightened on the muscles in the princess’s neck. The pressure was gone again almost before Oma realized it was there. “I belong here with your father,” Rabah continued emphatically.
“But I’ll be alone and friendless in a strange city,” Oma protested.
“You’ll make new friends quickly enough, of that I have no doubt,” Rabah smiled knowingly. “Once you’re queen you can have friends ofbothsexes.”
“But I want a familiar face to remind me of home.”
“Why not take your handmaiden Hinda? You like her, and she’ll remind you of home.”
“Hinda has buck teeth and a hairy lip.”
“But she also has very talented fingers.” Rabah tickled the princess in a particularly sensitive place, and was rewarded with a delightful squeal.
Princess Oma turned over onto her back and looked up at the older woman. “I’ll miss you, Rabah,” she said, peering straight into the other’s eyes.
“And I’ll miss you, O my princess,” Rabah said, returning the gaze. “Perhaps kismet will decree a short separation and we can be reunited again after all.”
The princess reached up and wrapped her arms around her friend’s neck. “Kiss me, Rabah,” she whispered. “Give me something to remember if the nights in Ravan prove too long and lonely.”
She pulled Rabah down on top of her and Rabah did indeed give her something to remember for many weeks to come.
Later, in the middle of the night when the young princess lay snoring gently from exhaustion, Rabah stole quietly from the room and returned to her own chambers. There she spent an hour composing two long, detailed letters on the thinnest rice paper from Sinjin. When they were done she sealed them and, donning her long black burga and thawb, she slipped silently down the deserted halls and through the secret door out of the palace.
Under the darkness of night she moved like a cat’s shadow through the streets of Marakh to the home of a certain rug merchant. He answered the door after a few minutes of her soft but insistent knocking, and she gave him the letters along with her instructions. The merchant nodded and Rabah returned to the palace without ever having been seen by unintended eyes.
Taking the letters, the merchant climbed the stairs to his roof where, in a secret compartment, he kept some specially trained pigeons. Folding the missives compactly, he tied each inside a special pouch attached to a different bird’s leg. In the first light of morning he lifted the birds into the air and let them go. The birds flew high above the roof, circled a few times to get their bearings, and then flew off for their true homes more than a hundred parasangs away—one to a cave in the Tirghiz Mountains and the other to a coop atop the north tower of the palace of Ravan.
At the northeast rim of the world stretch the Himali Mountains, considered by knowledgeable geographers to be the most forbidding peaks in all Parsina. Unscalable cliffs tower over the clouds that float between them, and few are the human eyes that have seen more than a fraction of this inhospitable range. This is one of the places where Rimahn’s handiwork is most apparent, ripping apart the peaceful fabric of Oromasd’s perfect creation and replacing it with jagged, naked rocks. It is not uncommon for the highest summits to have snow on them for ten or eleven months out of the year, and no animals, not even birds, live naturally in the harsh climate except in the summer when the warmth of the sun softens even this monument to the chaos of Rimahn.
Perched atop the highest peak of the world’s foremost mountain chain like a lone sentinel against the infinite was Shahdur Castle, home of the sightless wizard Akar. Carved from the living stone, the castle was an integral part of the very mountain that held it up to the sky. Towers rose at strange angles, defying both gravity and common sense, and the very walls of the castle reeked of magic. Such an aura was inevitable, for the castle had been carved by supernatural means. Working one of his strongest spells, the wizard Akar had summoned an army of Marids from their shadowy realm, bound them to his indomitable will, and forced them to labor for a year, a month, a week, and a day to carve the castle from the mountain’s stone. Only when he was satisfied that the work had been done perfectly to his specifications did he release them from his spell and send them fleeing back to their homes in terror and anger at his power over them.
Though Shahdur Castle was the highest point in the world, it could not be said to overlook its surroundings because, like its master, the castle had no eyes. No windows were cut in its rocky walls, because its sole human inhabitant had no need to look out upon the landscape. Akar the wizard had traded his eyes many years ago for the power to read the hidden names of people and things, and the world was all equally dark to him. For all that, however, he saw into the arcane mysteries of Parsina better than most sighted people ever could.
On this particular day, the day when Aeshma was released from his golden urn to work his wickedness upon the world, Akar stood upon the roof of his castle raging into the gathering darkness of night. For all his wisdom, for all his knowledge, he had been cheated by a pair of ordinary people—Jafar al-Sharif and his daughter Selima. These clever rogues had claimed to be mighty wizards in possession of the urn of Aeshma, and Akar had rescued them from their predicament in Ravan expressly so they could share the urn with him. In return for his favors and hospitality, this pair of swindlers had stolen his priceless flying carpet and the ring that controlled the minor Jann named Cari.
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