6. The Sand Gorgon
For six months the prince searched the desert.
He refused to go back to the city, refused to accept his princess was buried forever under the dunes.
The Caliph sent advisors, then missives, then direct orders to him, to no success. The Sultan of Abroum had other daughters, he said: twenty-nine others, in fact. Surely one of them could replace the missing Zairbhreena? The princess also had two sisters, one a little older, one a little younger than herself, with the same blue eyes and peachy-gold hair, the same delicate white skin. Surely one of them would suit him?
But the prince refused to listen. He asked only for a small tent to live in and a shovel. In time a small village grew up around the tent, hosting dozens of laborers and dozens more slaves, whose job it was to go out each day with him and move mountains of sand from one place to another. It was a hopeless task, for whenever another sandstorm blew up the configuration of dunes would change, and all their hard work went for nothing.
But the prince never complained. He worked steadily and patiently as an ox or pitching each spadeful of sand into a skin-lined basket for the others to carry away one by one. The sun burnt him as brown as the slaves, and his muscles grew as wiry and prominent as theirs. He rarely spoke. He did not take another woman. He merely worked.
The Caliph despaired that his son would ever regain his wits. He consulted astrologers, numerologists, diviners of animal entrails. But nothing could coax the prince back to the city. Nothing would keep him from his task, except the monumental hopelessness of it.
A year passed.
The prince's resolution remained strong, but his memories of Zairbhreena grew dim, a reflection on a pool broken by the ripples of time. He could no longer recall the pitch of her laugh, the graceful passage of her walk. Were he eyes as blue as lapis lazuli, or the paler blue of the summer sky? Or perhaps they had been a blueish-gray, or a grayish-blue. And had her hair been the peachy- gold of sunrise, or the reddish-gold of sunset?
One particularly hot morning he reflected that he was, in fact, very hot and uncomfortable. He gazed over the desert. A year he had searched. As much as he hated to admit it, the sand had won. He admitted his defeat.
"You have beaten me," he whispered to the empty dunes, the sapphire-blue sky, the swollen orange eye of the sun. "Jaseloris, you're made me miserable. For one year I've wept and searched and chastised myself, to no effect. I've put my life on hold; I've become little more than a statue myself that cannot feel or enjoy life. You've had your revenge, you've had more than your revenge. You will not have it any longer." He stood and shouted into the sweltering sky. "Do you hear me? You will not destroy me! I still have my life!"
He struck his shovel into the sharp-edged curve of a dune, intending to abandon it there.
The impact started a small avalanche in the side of the dune. A tiny trickle of sand began to cascade down the slope, the grains skittering over each other in their skittering rush to the bottom. They fell in a smooth, unbroken stream that suddenly bisected in two. The point of their division was the tip of an arched, stony foot, toes pointed coquettishly.
The prince stared as the sand continued to trickle. The flow slowed, then stopped. But the toes remained--polished gold marble, very fine, with subtle veins of cream and rose. They glittered with tiny silver specks like mica in the desert sun.
With a cry the prince tore into the sand, flinging handfuls behind him as he dug. Within minutes the statue--Zairbhreena--was free after a years' burial beneath the shifting sand. The prince clasped her to his chest and wept. The relief he felt so strong he thought he might die from it, as men sometimes did after hearing tragic news.
When the relief had abated he examined his petrified love, having not seen her before in statue form. Her pose was modest and compact--arms at her sides, her legs close together, head looking forward, toes pointed. Her eyes were wide and blank, her lips poised on the verge of speech, as if she wanted to question why he had taken so long. Her hair tumbled over her shoulders, every stony lock exquisitely rendered. The same went for all the other details--her eyebrows and eyelashes, the saucily erect nipples on her breasts, even the fine mass of curls between her stony thighs. She was a statue, and she was beautiful as she had been in life. He clasped her a second time, wondering how he could ever let go of her again.
Zairbhreena, too, was filled with a wild joy. She had spent a year entombed in darkness, wondering if she would be lost forever until the sands themselves ground her away to nothing. She had wept long and hard, thinking of her lost life, her lost prince, then finally ceased weeping and entered a stasis where she neither thought nor remembered she had thought, becoming as much a statue as her appearance suggested. Only the touch of the prince had brought her to life again, made her feel there was hope in the world after all. How she ached to touch him, talk to him! But her arms remained sealed to her sides, her lips remained sealed to her teeth, and she could only stare joyfully to her heart's fulfillment.
Others had come running up when they heard the prince shouting, and they were surprised to see he now clasped the statue which had eluded him for a year.
"Make ready a cart," the prince said. His arms did not leave the princess's stony form. "We are going back to the city."
They abandoned the city of tents and shacks to the desert and rode back to Carsimbad. The prince sat in the rude cart like a monarch, the stony princess propped up at his side. With them rode the Caliph's guards with their swords drawn, as the prince was taking no chance of other disasters happening. The people of the city lined the streets to see the return of the man they had called "The Mad Prince" for a year, who as rumor said intended to marry a statue!
The prince paid their comments no heed. Guards, cart, and prince rode into the palace, which sealed its gate shut behind them.
Once inside he gave strict orders to the care of the princess, installing her in a silk-sheeted bed as if she were suffering some sort of sickness. He summoned musicians to play for her and vases of fresh flowers to delight her eyes and nose. He even ordered her food though she could not eat, supposing the aromas might make her happy.
The princess appreciated all this from beneath the luxurious covers; while she could not smell things, she could hear the music and the storytellers he hired. But none of it changed the fact she was statue and not in invalid.
After cleaning himself up--he had the appearance of a ruffian from a year in the desert--the prince summoned the advisors of the court together, the wise men and astrologers and sages, and asked them what could be done.
No one had an answer for him, for they knew nothing of petrification magic. They knew only that it existed, as the prince's loyal captain had returned to the city with a marble horse and a report of Jaseloris's wand. The horse now decorated the palace pleasure gardens along with a surprised-looking nomad and a stone cactus, the three arranged in a strange tableaux at the end of the court.
Herbal tinctures, purifications, and baths by moonlight had no effect. Neither did any of the city's gods. Nothing could be done for Zairbhreena. No one knew how to turn her back to flesh.
No one had any encouragement, except for Yezdeesh.
"My Prince," said the youth--for youth he was now, having grown taller and bolder in a year--"I have heard talk among the superstitious elements of the city about a powerful witch who lives in the mountains far to the east of here. They call her the Sand Gorgon, and say she has the power to change flesh into sand, or whatever material suits her fancy. Perhaps she can help you."
The prince had been kneeling at the side of Zairbhreena's bed with his head bowed in despair. The news made him lift it up. "How far, Yezdeesh?"
"A journey of forty days, my Prince, across the Dry sea, across the Great Erg, across the stony wastes. There she lives in a barren cave, but she will find you before you find her, if your quest is a true one."
"There is no truer quest than this," the prince, standing. "Make provisions for our trip."
They set out a day later, going by camel for this was a long trip. The princess traveled in a covered palanquin as if she was a princess still, the sides and back of it draped with clear spangly veils. The prince wrapped her in silk and ropes of jewels, and when night came he slept with her in his arms, her cold stony breasts pressed against his cheek. In the morning he would wake with her and talk to her as if she was alive, telling her the plans they had for that day, and the princess would smile at him to go on, her serene expression forever encouraging, forever rapt, despite the stony blankness of her eyes.
They crossed the dry sea, then the waterless expanse of the Great Erg, then the stony waste, which was haunted by lions that carried off three of their men. The land grew only stranger as they continued the east. The rocks themselves began to look bewitched. There were arches of stone and contorted giants; palisades and fortresses and many-towered castles, all carved from ruddy sandstone by the incessant howl of the winds. There was water in this wilderness, sometimes, secretive pools filled with blind fish locked forever in the shade of the cliffs. There were fantastic stands of cacti that looked like monsters, when the sun was at the right angle.
Two, three, four days they traveled among the formations, finally reaching the foothills of a mountain range capped with bright snow. By a steep-walled cleft in the rocky hills lay a pool. The prince and his men dismounted to drink.
A sharp *clack!* warned them. Rising from the rocks was the pool's guardian: a bony thing formed of the skull of a goat, the arms and ribcage of a man, and the hips and legs of a dog. It clacked its teeth again, pointing up the cleft, and fixed them with an eyeless stare.
"What is it?" said the captain of the guard.
"I don't know," the prince replied. "A product of sorcery, no doubt. But look! It wants us to follow it."
They began to walk forward, but the thing made a sally at them. The men ran back, dropping their swords. They were used to fighting human enemies, not supernatural ones.
But the thing gave no chase, only continued to point: first to the prince, then to the golden form of the princess in her scarf-draped palanquin. Then it pointed up the cleft.
"I think it wants you to take up the statue and follow it, My Prince," the captain said.
This the prince was loathe to do, but he had no choice, as the thing would not let them proceed further, and who knew if the blows of mortal weapons would affect it or not. So they transferred the princess onto the side of a camel, which the prince took up by the reins. Giving a last glance to his men, he followed the bony thing up the cleft.
His guide looked back at him from time to time to make sure he followed, but otherwise paid him no heed. For most of the afternoon they walked. The cleft turned out to be fertile one. Dates and palms soon came into site, a startling contrast from the harshness of the land outside. Soon they came to a wide- mouthed cave, to which the thing waved them entrance.
The prince's hand went to the hilt of his sword, but no enemies awaited him here, only a shapeless bundle of dusty brown rags which cackled and lifted its head. "Ah, Prince Lassok! I've been expecting you. My scrying-pool showed me your journey."
"Who are you?" the prince demanded.
"I am the Sand Gorgon," the crone said, gliding toward him like a dancer. The prince quickly shielded his eyes.
"Have no fear of *that,*" the crone reassured him. "I lost that power years ago."
The prince glanced childishly over his forearm at her, but he did not collapse into a pile of sand. He had never seen such an elderly, ugly woman. Her face was as brown and seamed as well-worn leather and her fingers were gnarled as roots. She had only one eye, the other being closed in a squint, and it had a pupil of blood-red surrounded by an iris of dull, lusterless gold. Instead of hair hundreds of scaly, desiccated tails hung from her scalp, the remains of the snakes who had once been alive and hissing.
The Sand Gorgon noted the princess. "A gift for me, oh Prince?"
"She was to be my wife," the prince said, his jaw clenching as the crone ran her hands over Zairbhreena's petrified form. "Magic did this to her, a wand that turned her to stone. I was told you might have a remedy."
"Hmm," she said, one horny-nailed finger tapping on the princess's forehead. "That wand would have been the work of my sister, the Stone Gorgon. She died a year ago."
"There is no remedy, then," the prince said in despair.
"Oh, I didn't say that," the crone said. "There are always remedies, though they might not always be...palatable." She left off her inspection and faced him. "Do you truly love her?"
"Yes," the Prince said. She continued to grin at him, though but four blackened teeth remained in her mouth. "What do you drive at, witch? Have you a cure?"
"Lie with me tonight, my dear young Prince, and I will tell you."
The Prince nearly choked on his indignation. He would not whore himself to this disgusting old crone! "No!" he barked without thinking.
"Then your love remains stone," the crone said implacably.
The Prince glanced at Zairbhreena. As always her expression remained sweet and serene, even as she was hanging off the side of a camel. "There must be something else you want," he said, aware he was begging. "Gold, gems..."
"What need have I for those? I live in a cave in the middle of a desert. It's the pleasures of the flesh I crave." She cackled gleefully at his disgust. "Oh, so I nauseate you, do I?"
He could not deny it, for his reactions had given him away. He stole a glance at Zairbhreena again. For her, he must do this; he *must.* He swallowed, forcing himself to look at the crone's shriveled dugs. "You have your charms," he said haltingly.
"You lie," the Sand Gorgon said. "I know very well what I look like! But I do not have to look this way for tonight." She crossed the floor of the cave and opened a crude wood cabinet, taking out a stone flask. She sipped from it and shrugged off her rags, which slid down to her ankles. "Observe, Prince," she said, and before his eyes her limbs unbent, her wrinkles disappeared. She stood before him as a young woman of twenty with long sandy-brown hair, skin white as bone, and eyes that flashed like two golden coins. Her breasts now bobbed proudly like two luscious melons, while the rest of her was slim and graceful as a gazelle. She stretched her arms. "What do you say now?"
The Prince only stared. He had been without a woman for over a year and had almost forgotten what they looked like. His celibacy had come about through devotion; he could not let his carnal inclinations distract from his search for the princess. But now that he had found her, he no longer had any reason to maintain it. And the Sand Gorgon had promised him a cure...if she did not trick him somehow, as members of her race were wont to do. "You are...most beautiful," he said, aware of a sudden tightness in his trousers.
The Sand Gorgon laughed softly, an echo of her former cackle. She arranged herself on a pile of soft animal skins at the center of the cave and unstopped a carafe of wine. She poured the ruby liquid into two metal cups, one of which she offered to him. "Forget about your marble maiden and lie with me. You will find it most enjoyable."
The Prince was so entranced he did as she said, shedding his clothes in the process. Did the Sand Gorgon enspell him? Or was it his own desire? The teller of this tale cannot say.
Zairbhreena had been left leaning against the wall, a mute witness to their lovemaking. Naively, being a virgin, she had assumed the Prince was, too, yet his antics with the witch put the lie to that. He had never touched or kissed Zairbhreena like so! The princess's unblinking eyes filled with dry tears; she could not look away, nor could she close her ears to the gasps and groans and cries of pleasure they gave. Little by little something died within her. She knew the Prince was trying to save her, but he did not have to betray her with such skill and enthusiasm for servicing another girl.
No, decided, after eighth climax she witnessed. She would rather be stone than love him again!
Her jealous rage banked, then cooled, her heart becoming as cold and hard as the stone she was made of.