"And what, dear sir, is the Gateway to Ecstasy?"
The old man beamed, eyes-half slit in pleasure at being able to impart a piece of local lore to a stranger. "Ah, young man, you must truly be a stranger here in Carsimbad. Everyone knows it is a statue, a man and woman frozen in the very act of love, so lifelike you can almost hear their gasps and sighs. It lies in a white temple a stone's throw from here. The acolytes charge a small fee to view it and remain in its presence. Just a glimpse of the statue is a cure for the most extreme cases impotence. To see more than that...well, you can imagine."
"Pray, tell us the story of this statue," the girl said, her small hand curling about her companion's.
The storyteller settled onto his straw mat, jaws blandly working on a wad of betel-gum. "There are those who say the First Caliph, the founder of this city, commissioned the statue to celebrate the great love he had for his wife. Then there are those who swear by the gods it was made for Sultan of Keshrood, whose harem numbered in the hundreds but was so grossly corpulent none of his concubines would receive him...unless they were stimulated by viewing the statue, which drove them wild with lust. Many also believe the statue is actually the transmuted forms of two lovers, both mages, who, surrounded by their enemies and facing certain death, transformed themselves into gold so they would remain together forever, their sculpted bodies entwined, gleaming.
"But the real story is much, much stranger. The real story is this..."
1. The Caliph's Son
A great many years ago this city was ruled by a caliph named Teshmin. His only son was Prince Lassok, who was in the full bloom of young manhood when this story begins. Handsome he was, olive of skin, sable of hair and eyes, with heavy lashes and brows black as soot. His first beard was newly in evidence, silky as the down of a desert hawk, and hawkline he was in mien, too, with a proud nose and a prouder temperament.
When he turned twenty the Caliph decided his son should have a wife. He arranged a banquet at which the prince could observe the eligible young ladies of the city as they dined with their chaperones, to see whom he might like to pay court.
Of all the young woman there the most beautiful was Jaseloris. The prince was taken with her long black hair, her dark, cunning eyes. She was the daughter of Mejneed the gem merchant, and if there was a malicious tilt to her lips as she laughed, or the flicker of cruelty in her kohl-smudged eyes...well, the prince did not notice. After the banquet he gave notice to her father he would be calling upon her. The gem merchant was a wily individual who saw the advantage of having a royal son-in-law, and he quickly agreed.
Formal meetings were arranged, then intimate trysts, then secret encounters where the two would silently thrust and grapple in the moonlit corner of the garden, and those passing by would hear soft high cries and the declarations of love.
Before the rains came again, the two were betrothed.
Jaseloris was much pleased with herself. She had never thought she would become a Caliph's wife, a Princess. She was not naive, the merchant's daughter. When the prince came to call, and her father discretely exited, they would fall upon each other. Sometimes she would kneel on the soft woolen carpet to take his organ in her mouth, his fingers wound urgently in her thick, sloe-black hair, and suckle him as if he was the most exquisite candy. Other times she would sit on his lap as he took her, her slim thighs spread over his powerful ones, and rock herself upon him as he kneaded her high, exquisite breasts, and her cries would set the houses' tame parrots to screeching. Most often, however, they would lay on the velvet divan, he spread over her like a hawk with his prey, to pump his seed into her as she in turn squirmed like that prey.
As a proper daughter Jaseloris knew she was supposed to remain virgin until marriage, but when dealing with a prince, such a plan was not always feasible. He would have what he wanted, and Jaseloris was more than happy to give it to him. Shrewdness on her part gradually grew to be only a small part of it, as she slowly fell deeply in love with the prince.
A few weeks before the marriage the prince idly perused the Mejian bazaar for some gift to take his wife to be. While strolling he saw an ornate jeweled palanquin carried by four muscular slaves. It stopped in front of the perfumery. The slaves lowered the litter and one extended a hand so his mistress could step out. The prince saw a tiny high-arched foot, white as fine silk and decorated with toe-rings and tassels, emerge from the parted mouth of the curtains. Then came a slim ankle locked in a gold bangle and the diaphanous pink ruffle of a lady's pantaloon sparkling with silver brocade. Then the rest of the body bowed out, clad in the shapeless dark robe women of the deserts wore when in public view. The girl adjusted her cowl and veil to hide her face as any modest maiden should, but not before the prince saw a lock of burnished peach-gold hair and a single eye as blue as the Solezion sea.
Then the girl covered the lower portion of her face and dipped into the perfumer's tent.
The prince stood transfixed.
He rode back to the court and made inquiries.
The peachy-haired girl, not yet 18 years of age, was Princess Zairbhreena, daughter of the Sultan of Abroum, a city that lay many leagues to the north. Her mother had been a northern slave purchased as novel addition to her father's harem. She had been sent to the city to serve in the court of the Sultan's cousin until a suitable marriage could be arranged for her in her native city.
The prince forgot about Jaseloris the gem merchant's daughter. In truth he had never really loved her. Though he had been besotted with her beauty and carnal skills, and approved of her wit and intelligence--fine qualities for the wife of a ruler--her other personality traits did not interest him. He began to spend all his spare time hanging about the palace of the Sultan's cousin, hoping for a glimpse of Princess Zairbhreena.
Though besotted, he knew he had to use tact and delicacy in claiming this foreign-born flower. When she came out onto the terraces he wooed her with his songs, coaxing her out of hiding with his gestures and smiles. She was a shy girl, not having much experience with males before, but his charm began to melt her. Bit by bit he gained the princess's confidence and then her love.
Jaseloris tried to be understanding of the prince's increasing absences. But her spirit began to sour, like a date soaked in pickling brine, and her sharp black glances, once full of passion, took on the glower of a lioness as she questioned the prince's excuses. Like a lioness, she had scented a rival. But one did not make accusations of a prince or lecture him about inconstancy.
The prince's love for Zairbhreena, meanwhile, continued to grow. She was sweet and malleable, intelligent yet easily guided, and had a sunny disposition that birthed love in whoever saw her. She would be his bride, he decided Conveniently forgetting about Jaseloris, he sent a letter to the Sultan of Abroum asking for his daughter's hand in marriage. The Sultan agreed, realizing the advantages of a union with the Caliph of Carsimbad, and also the advantage of having one less daughter about the house, as he had thirty-nine already.
The Caliph was surprised at his son's change of mind, but soon came around. A royal bride was much more fortuitous than a commoner, no matter how crafty and beautiful. It was too bad the merchant would be disappointed, but a commission for him to design a set of royal crowns would make up for it.
As for the feelings of Jaseloris, they were of no consequence.
The Caliph sent a message to the gem merchant to call off the wedding and announced the betrothal of Prince Lassok and Princess Zairbhreena at court. The prince removed the pink slip of her veil to kiss her, the first time they had kissed (he had not pressed his physical ardor, figuring there would be plenty of time for that.) She stood revealed to him as a young goddess of ice and fire, her yellow-orange hair, the blue of glaciers in her eyes, and whispering softly into each other's mouths, they announced their love for each other.
With part of her bride-price locked in an embroidered purse beneath her veil, the young princess went with a joyful heart into Mejium bazaar to purchase the jewelry she would wear for her wedding. Her favorite slave accompanied her, shielding her white skin from the sun with a silk umbrella.
She stopped at the tent of Mejneed the gem merchant.
Jaseloris smiled at her when she came in. Her father, wishing to protect her, had not told her the news about the wedding. Zairbhreena was to her no more than a young courtier come down from the palace to buy some new playthings.
Zairbhreena removed her heavy mantle and veil (for there were only women here) and Jaseloris opened case after case of jewelry for her inspection: pearls from the Bitter sea, blue-white diamonds, topaz as yellow as leopard's eyes...combs, bracelets, bangles, necklaces, pendants, rings, collars. Zairbhreena tried on piece after piece before the great silver mirror, which was itself a marvel; a span of glass so flawless was a rarity in the desert lands. A slave brewed mint tea for them to sip as they congenially discussed the purchases.
The princess was particularly taken with an ornate jeweled collar, a breathtaking work of art set with fiery carnelians in buds of lapis, with dangling love-birds of silver and teardrops of sparkling crystal. Jaseloris added her comments. "The blue complements your eyes, my lady, and that shade of gold makes your hair shine yet more brilliantly."
The princess smiled at the flattery, but knew by the height of the sun outside that the morning was growing late and that she soon must return to the palace to be with the prince. She whispered a message to her slave, telling her to inform the prince where she was, and that she would meet him there to discuss the final purchase with him. She then turned her attention to the gilded collar, placing it on her slim neck and admiring herself.
"That collar is meant to be wedding gift, an ornament a new bride might wear," Jaseloris said conversationally. "Whom do you marry, my Lady?"
Zairbhreena turned to her with a smile, unable to contain her happiness. "My husband to be is Prince Lassok, heir to this city and son of the Caliph. We are to be wed tomorrow. He is coming to join me here and you can meet him yourself."
Jaseloris felt as if she had been turned to stone. Here was the explanation for her lover's absences, his inexplicable indifference. Her soul became an empty vessel reverberating with her loss. Why had she not told of this? Had he always meant to wed another and cast her aside this way? Rage and humiliation throbbed in her blood, slowly filling the empty vessel she was with the darkest of poisons.
As the princess stood gazing in the mirror Jaseloris quickly reached for a slim casket she kept hidden in a pocket of her robe. Her father had given it to her years ago, realizing the dangers that could befall his daughter while she bartered valuable gems alone in the bazaar. He had bought it at great expense from a sorceress and told Jaseloris she should only use it in the severest danger, as its affect were permanent.
Jaseloris quickly flipped open the casket. Inside was a slim rod of chrysoprase. She took it firmly in her right hand and pointed it at the princess, muttering the words her father had taught her.
A gout of crackling energy poured from the tip of the wand, jerking Jaseloris backwards. It struck the princess in a blinding flash of light and heat. The princess's cries were strangled as the energy enveloped her, batting her about like a fly in a bottle. Her legs and arms flailed wildly as her clothing burned off and even her hair began to smolder. Yet her flesh was not consumed, though it took on a pale yellow hue.
She began to spin. Around and around she went, like a lump of clay on a potter's wheel. Her nude body went straight as a pin: her arms compressed against her sides and her slim legs pressed tightly together, toes pointed down. Her head and chin lifted to she stared directly in front of her, incredulous fear in her eyes.
She spun faster and faster. Her features were a blur, her figure a spindle. Yet even with the speed of her rotation Jaseloris saw her soft white flesh take on the hard glaze of stone.
There came a second flash of light even more blinding than the first. Jaseloris let out a shrill scream of terror and shielded her eyes. And opened them to see the nude, petrified body of the princess fall with a heavy thump on the soft, bundled carpets below her.
A smell of ozone and burnt cinnamon hung in the air.
At once thrilled and horrified, she gathered her robe and stepped gingerly over to the statue, her heart thumping. The princess lay on her back, a calm and thoughtful expression on her face as if she had just read an interesting passage from a book and was about to speak it out loud. She was no longer flesh but fine marble, a marvelous pale gold in color with subtle veins of pink and ivory. Jaseloris leaned closer and tapped a stony breast. Nothing happened. It was safe to assume the fair princess of Abroum would never walk or talk again.
Jaseloris stood over her rival, triumphant. Then she realized Prince Lassok was coming and might be only minutes from the tent. If he saw the statue, he would knew she had been up to some witchery.
She went to clap her hands and gave a second screech of horror. For some of the wand's discharge had hit her hand as she fell back...and that hand was now as hard and immobile as the stone statue that on the floor.
Cursing, she hid it in the sleeve of her robe and shorted hoarsely for her guards. Two burly men rushed in, scimitars drawn.
"Take this statue," she said, "and sell it to Jendrik the potter. Crushed into powder, it will make a fine addition to the clay of his wares."