2. The Prince's Search
Prince Lassok, meanwhile, having been dispatched from the palace by the slave, made his way toward the bazaar. He was more than a little apprehensive about meeting Jaseloris again, but had faith decorum would be followed. Trusting the irreproachable nature of his position to ward off curses and tears, he strode into the gem merchant's tent.
A strange odor assailed his nostrils, one the rich sandalwood incense could not conceal. Jaseloris greeted him in a revealing black robe, a smoky gem burning on her brow. "My Lord," she said, respectfully lowering her eyes in the way that had formerly excited him to heights of lust. Her petrified hand she concealed with a silk bandage, and her eyes, with their malachite-green lids, were wide and alluring with the opium she had taken to dull the pain.
The prince frowned at what he interpreted was a seduction. "My Lady," the prince said stiffly, formally, not addressing her by the endearments he had chosen to give to another, "I was to meet my fiancee, Princess Zairbhreena, here to discuss her nuptial purchases. I observe she is not present. Has she left me a message or given some indication of her present whereabouts?"
Jaseloris shook her head, A malicious smile stretched the poppy-red crease of her lips. "I do not know, my Lord. She made her purchase, and left the tent. The last I heard, she had spoken of buying some fine vases and bowls. She is no doubt immersing herself in that endeavor as we speak. Let me pour you some wine."
"I want no wine, woman," the prince said, his voice stern. "If you cannot give me any information, I will seek her myself." He turned to go.
"How cruel you are," Jaseloris said in throaty agony. "How thoughtless. That you would love me for six months and woo me with marriage, then leave me when a sweeter fruit appears. I will tell you what happened to your callow princess. She told me she was your wife to be, which came as a shock to me, for up to now I thought I was your future wife. Therefore I mentioned this fact to her. Then I told her of our love, when it was sweet and flowing like precious honey, or short and sharp like lightning, and finally when it was like the currents of a might river that swept us away in its passion. I told her those things, and she summarily wept and denounced you, vowing she would never look upon you again, and swore she was leaving the city to become a celibate priestess in the temple of Yinderay. She withdraws her love, Lassok, and as for passion, well, I know you never had that with her. She leaves you this as a symbol of her love withdrawn." And Jaseloris showed him, with her left hand, the Princess's engagement ring, set round with emerald and diamonds, that she had pried off the stone hand of the statue.
The prince clenched the ring in his fist angrily. "I could have your head for the trouble you have made, Jaseloris," he said.
Jaseloris swiftly knelt at the prince's feet, her forehead touching the carpet. The sable ink of her hair pooled over the taut leather of his polished boots. "If that is what you wish, take it," she said quietly. "I was ever yours, to become what you desired. My body, my will, have always existed for your jurisdiction, my prince, and no one else's. For the love of Amori Sumi, the Goddess of Love, accept that offering still." She kissed the toe of his boot and looked up at him, passionate tears filming the opaque windows of her eyes. "I love you still, Lassok."
The prince looked down on her. Various emotions danced through his mind. Pity for the girl he had once loved, anger at her manipulations, a spurt of lust for the abject picture she made, prostrate on the carpet with her night-black hair spilled around her, her head bowed. He looked down on her, and if he had given her then a kind word then, an acknowledgment of their broken union, she might have confessed her deed and begged for his mercy. But he did not.
He extracted his boot out from under her tear-stained cheek and said coldly, "I believe I had recompensed your father adequately for the broken engagement. It appears I have not." He threw a purse of coins at her. It thumped down on the carpet. "Take this, and trouble me no further." He strode out of the tent.
Jaseloris swept the coins aside, wild sobs racking her throat. She wept upon the carpets, and the gods may have had pity on her for what she had done, because she had acted out of the noble sickness of love.
But the prince was searching the bazaar, calling Zairbhreena's name, making inquiries of the traders and merchants. For he supposed, knowing the princess, that her threat to become a priestesses was an empty one and that she was merely sulking about somewhere, and that a few words of entreaty whispered in her ear would set things right. So he continued to call as the afternoon progressed, but the princess did not answer, and neither had anyone seen her.
Finally he stood scratching his head, utterly defeated. He decided Zairbhreena must be back in her uncle's palace, pouring out her tale of woe to her slave girls, and that she would be found there.
Before he could leave a market urchin caught his sleeve. "Sir," the waif said. "You are the son of a mighty Caliph and I am but a lowly beggar-child. But I beg you to listen to what I have observed this morning at the tent of Mejneed the gem merchant, for it may have some relevance to your search."
"Tell me your story," the prince said, tossing him a gold coin.
The urchin deftly caught the coin and bit it to assess its authenticity, then hid it in his loincloth. "As I was sitting in my usual begging-spot across from the merchant's tent, I observed the Princess Zairbhreena enter the tent with her slave. An hour later, the slave departed. Shortly after that I observed a brilliant flash of light from inside the tent, and saw faint wisps of smoke curl out from between its seams. Then I heard a shriek. Some seconds after that I heard the gem merchant's daughter call for her guards, who entered the tent in haste from their station behind it. They came out carrying a beautiful statue carved from yellow marble, of a young woman it seemed, which they strapped to the side of the jeweler's camel and drove off towards the potter's district. I waited until they had left, then slipped over to the tent to peek inside. I surprised the merchant's daughter as she was tidying the carpets. When she saw me she shrieked and struck me a blow to the face with a hand as hard and heavy as stone it seemed, which is how I came by these bruises. She ordered me away with the most vile threats and I fled in terror, sir, to where I sit now."
"The princess never left the tent?"
"No sir, she did not," the urchin replied. "though my eyes have not left it all afternoon."
"You have been most helpful," the prince said, tossing him another coin. "Report to the palace tomorrow, and we shall see about educating you as a palace page."
"Thank you sir," the waif said, bowing. "My name is Yezdeesh." And he ran off to buy food for his starving belly.
The prince pondered the waif's tale, but he made no connection between the missing princess, the taint of magery, and the swift removal of the statue as evidence of that magery. Such spells were unknown in the desert kingdoms at that time. His suspicions had been roused, however, and he went to question Jaseloris further.
On his way he saw the two guards and their camel, who were returning from their errand. He quickly stepped in front of them. The guards bowed and began to murmur honorifics but the prince stopped them with a glare. "Tell me about the statue you took from the gem merchant's tent this morning."
The guard blinked at him, obviously puzzled, but realizing he was the prince, he replied truthfully. "A fine sculpture that was, my Prince, and a strange one. We were polishing our weapons this morning when we smelled a most noxious odor, and then heard our mistress shouting for us. The tent was in a shambles, but we never question our mistress's business. She pointed to a statue lying on the floor and told us to remove it. We had never seen it before. It was a fine work, my prince, almost lifelike, the likeness of a pert girl in the ripest part of maidenhood, composed as if for peaceful slumber. We could not understand why Jaseloris wanted rid of it. But her orders were most insistent and aggravated, so we strapped it to the camel and drove it off."
A dreadful realization began to dawn on the prince. Something so horrible he dared not think it to himself. In a soft voice he said, "And what became of this statue?"
The guard cringed, sensing the prince was not pleased with his story. "We did as our mistress asked, my prince. We sold it to Jendrik the potter, who pulverized it for the lime. It now forms two dozen of his finest vases, which are firing in the kiln as we speak."
The prince gave a loud cry of agony and drew his sword, seizing the terrified man by the hair to strike his head off.
"Wait, my prince!" the second guard shouted. "Do not punish my partner for what is my fault!" The prince stayed his strike, though he did not release his grip on his sword, or on the other guard's hair. "We did take the statue to the potter's, but he had more than enough lime already and said that pulverizing it was more trouble than it was worth. I thought we should sell it to another, to someone who would appreciate its beauty. My partner said no; our mistress gave us instructions to sell it to a potter. I pretended to agree; then, as he went off to quoff a beer, I took it away and sold it to Semlok the tiler for 12 dinar. He said he intended to make of it a wedding gift for you, my prince."
The true treachery of Jaseloris revealed itself. So she had enspelled the princess, then would have her body powdered to conceal her crime. The prince smiled grimly. He would deal with Jaseloris soon enough, but first, the princess.
He quickly summoned the Caliphate guards, who were stationed at the four corners of the bazaar and began to issue orders. "Take this man," he said, pointing to the guard who had saved the princess, "and take him to the royal treasury. Make sure he fills his turban with gold. This man--" he indicated the obedient guard, who cowered before him, "who would sell a valuable statue as if it was worth no more than a lump of lime, chop him at once into fifty pieces, and burn the remains in the potter's kiln." Then he rushed off to the Semlok the tiler to rescue his beloved, leaving behind him noisy havoc as the guards were separated and rewarded in their various ways.
The tilemaker was off a long alley in the artisan's quarter of the city. He lived, like most of his class, in a small house with a large work yard in the back where he practiced his trade. The prince found him wearing a heavy leather work apron, staring in frustration at his wheel-saw. Two slaves, whose job it was to turn the saw by means of handles, loitered idly by. The prince quickly glanced around the yard. He saw no gold marble statue...but there were many stacks of stone tiles. Each was piled to the height of a young girl.
Through tight lips he said, "Not long ago a sentry of Mejneed the gem merchant came here and sold you a statue. What became of it?"
"Ah," the white-haired artisan said, preparing to begin a most loquacious explanation, but when he saw the look on the prince's face, he swallowed and launched straightaway into the meat of it. "A most delicate work of art, my Prince, but as we all know a nude statue, unless of one's doxie, is a scandalous thing indeed. I bought it for the value of its stone, which is of a quality I have never seen before, a pale orange gold like petrified sunlight, with areas of rich cream and peach. I had planned to saw it into tiles as a wedding gift for you, my Prince, to adorn the floor of your nuptial chamber. But as you can see, the band on my wheel-saw broke before I could make the first cut. I was forced to sell the statue to Jafit the statuer to get the money for its repair."
A strange look came over the face of the prince. What irony, that his future wife would grace the floor of her own bridal chamber. To his guards, a dozen of which were grouped behind him, he said. "I issue an edict. There is to be no stone in my wedding chamber, and any existing tile there is to be stripped out and replaced with wood." The guards looked astonished, but nodded their consent. "Take the tiler and throw him into chains; he will be a slave and for the rest of his life he will scrub the tiled floors in the Caliph's palace. As for these two men--" he pointed at the lounging slaves, who suddenly straightened up like nervous mules, "who were operating the saw when it broke, I grant them their freedom and as much gold as they can carry and an invitation to be trained as the members of my elite guard, should they wish" And he left behind the guards to deal with the tiler and slaves, who were already celebrating their freedom, and rushed with the remainder of his men to the statuary.
It was late afternoon by now, and the westering sun stained the city like biscuit dipped in honey. Their journey had brought them back to the Mejium bazaar, the same place where it had begun. The statuer's shop faced the busy marketplace, fronted with a courtyard where its merchandise was kept. Stone gods and goddesses, soldiers forever at alert, fabulous horned and winged beasts--all stood or gestured or clawed the air, vying for attention under a red canopy of silk. But there was no golden princess among them.
The prince stormed into workroom where the statuer did his carving. There he saw the statuer and one of his clients leaning over a bench which supported a naked female torso of creamiest yellow. A heavy chisel was pointed at her navel, the statuer about to give it a sound blow with his hammer.
"Stop!" the prince commanded. "Don't touch her!" The statuer froze, and recognizing the prince, fell to his knees on the floor. His client, a wealthy woman from another city, did not.
"Who is this ruffian?" she demanded. "I purchased this statue with my own hard-won money, and I intend to have its legs struck off to better fit on the plinth I have prepared for it. How dare he interfere with the business of a free citizen!"
The statuer whispered to her, and she paled and quickly joined him on the floor.
The prince rushed eagerly to the bench. But it was a different maiden who lay there, one whose bland countenance smiled insipidly as her fingers plied a stony harp. His heart fell from the combination of fear and dashed expectations. He put to the statuer the same question he put to the tiler: "Earlier a statue was sold to you, a figure of a beautiful young girl carved from golden stone. What became of it?"
The statuer started to tremble, sensing, perhaps, the fate that had come to the tiler and the potter. Carefully he said, "My Prince, it was sold to me by the tiler's apprentice, a thing of such exquisite beauty and delight I gave it the care and display due to an artwork of its quality. I stood it outside next to that winged lion for the perusal of wealthy collectors. But alas, this being a modest city, the naked loveliness of the statue aroused much unwanted attention, and soon one of your own guards--the tall one in the back, with the mustache and beard--bade me to remove it and levied a fine upon me for displaying it in public, which as we know goes against the pious and modest principles upon which our city was founded. I was bitter about this, for it meant I might not sell it as quick as I like, or receive the price I knew it was worth. Fortunately, not ten minutes before you arrived, a young man fell in love with it. He bought it from me for 30 dinar, and put it in a donkey cart and drove it off to the upper city."
"Who was this young man?"
"He did not give me his name, my lord, but he said he was an sculptor." The statuer's knees were knocking together. "A noble's third son, perhaps."
Crushed, the prince realized the futility of his chase and the inescapable conclusion that the trail had gone cold. He issued another edict. To the captain of his guard he said, "As of this moment, naked statues may be displayed in public, whether they are male or female, lewd or chaste. I also command you to summon the rest of the guards and seal the city off. No one is to leave without a thorough inspection of their goods. Search the city, and confiscate all life-sized nude statues of women, and take them to the Summer Court of the Caliph's palace, where I may look upon them."
He then said, indicating the statuer, "This man has done no wrong and has tried to safeguard a valuable statue in keeping with the ethos of his profession. Therefore no harm will come to him. This woman," he indicated the customer, "for disregarding the skill and artistry of a sculptor by capriciously defacing his work for reasons of convenience, I sentenced her to be tied to this bench to have her own legs cut off. And this guard--" he pointed a third time, "who issued the summons to this worthy statuer, I sentence him to be coated in lime and displayed, as naked and immobile as a statue, in the middle of the public square tomorrow at noon, to the jeers and abuse of the crowds, then stripped of his rank and driven from the city. You have heard my edicts. Now carry them out."
And with a heavy heart the prince returned to the palace as the Caliphate
guards began to turn the city upside down.