Vizier had seen her at the bazaar. He had not known then of her dancing, since
the unexpected contours of her flesh had been enough to prompt a purchase.
These, together with the beauty of her movements, meant that the ruler soon had
her dancing for him once a night instead of once a week. And the musicians
continued to look on with undisguised longing.
should have them blindfolded when they play for you - when the girl dances.’
need,’ the King of Kings had replied. The Vizier had not understood. Not then,
enough the King of Kings decided that he must take special possession of the
girl from the East. He owned her anyway, but seemed to feel that more was
needed. He did not want her to be merely one of his whores; not even merely one
of his concubines; she would be one of his wives.
Sir?’ the Vizier asked.
I wish it.’
night before the wedding he told the two musicians to play as they had never
played before, to stare as they had never stared before. The following day she
would be the wife of the King of Kings, and no one could then expect to look
openly upon such a body with impunity. Everyone knew that. She danced and
smiled and they played and smiled. And the King of Kings sat on his throne and
looked upon them all, expressionless.
next day, one hour before he married the slave-girl from the East, the King of
Kings ordered both musicians to be blinded.
her fascination for him faded. So he placed her in the North Tower, and
billeted the two musicians on the same floor.
can dance each night as you used to,’ he told her, almost smiling.
musicians can play as they used to. They have no eyes now, but they have other
senses. Like most men, they have more senses than they know what to do with.’
it came about that on certain winter evenings, when the rest of the palace was
sometimes silent as if in mourning, the Vizier would walk past the windows of
the North Tower blazing with light, and hear the merriment within. He never
went inside himself but heard from courtiers and servants how wine and sherbert
were delivered; how the music and the dancing went on, sometimes till long
after midnight. He heard other things too: how the slave girl from the East had
learnt to forget the King of Kings, and all the attentions she had once
received between his silken sheets. How they said she danced now as she had
never danced before, not even for the mightiest in the land.
the King of Kings went hunting; even attended, from time to time, his own small
wars. The Vizier could always see from the expression on his face when he
returned if he’d had a good day out widow-making. Mostly, his other wives, his
concubines, even the whores who came and went, seemed sullen once more in his
company: it seemed to the Vizier that his Lord was a small disease, loving its victims.
August battle tally
men dead: 130.
and children dead: uncounted.
King of Kings had once again grown bored with wars. He had a gleeman summoned.
He wished to hear tales of other lands, other warriors, other men and other
women. He wanted to know how men who lived nearer the sun believed the heavens
awaited them, and with what ceremonies and royal palavers time was meant to
cease when a great one travelled on from this kingdom to that.
heard a tale of a young orphan boy in a basket floating down a river. An
Egyptian princess found him and raised him as her own.
he royal blood then?’
the gleeman said.
she would surely have watched him drown. Tell me something else. Something I
can believe, if only for a moment.’
gleeman told how in one tradition when God made light, it was so potent and
pellucid that a man could see from one side of the world to the other. But then
He had realised the danger. Wicked men would use it for treachery and theft. So
the Almighty decreed that only the righteous at the time of the Messiah’s
coming would ever be able to see with a light so strong, so clear.
can see from one end of the world to the other,’ the King of Kings said,
without emotion. ‘Last night I dreamed a dragon to death. He knew every second
of what was to come for the next two centuries. He was riddled with words the
way an ancient cheese is riddled with maggots. And it didn’t help at all,
neither the hanged man nor the hangman. I killed him with kingly concentration.
Whenever I concentrate on anyone for long enough…Well, let’s just say, you
people here today should be grateful for my indifference.’
gleeman smiled weakly. The King of Kings no longer liked smiles. It seemed to
him that they had changed. Since the birth of the smile, at the time of the
first slaughters, the expression had altered its contours. Women in particular
had started wearing smiles like items of jewellery, something silver to glitter
on their faces. In truth he hated all novelty, but knew that so many of his own
courtiers were no more than quidnuncs and noncemen; searchers after
he was intrigued to hear the gleeman’s tale of crucifixion, and enquired into
the details. A contraption that provided for both torture and execution, while
also supplying a public spectacle, struck him as an exemplary invention.
Re-usable too, and after the initial carpentry only three nails were required.
long?’ The gleeman appeared non-plussed at the question. ‘How long do they
between three hours and three days.’
my foresters to begin selecting likely timbers. Tell me, Storyman, wherever
there is a mystery, is there also a man like you mustering an explanation?’
gleeman was afraid to answer and simply bowed very gently.
if so then the world must be perfectly balanced between the darkness of its
mysteries and the brightness of its explanations. No wonder we go from darkness
to light and back again each day. No wonder.’
devoted a whole year to cartography. He had seen an image of another king in
another land gazing at a map on his wall; the map of all he possessed. He
summoned wise men and counsellors to tell him who could make the finest maps of
his kingdom. Scholars and scribes, explorers with boxes and lenses and
theodolites, arrived from other lands, having heard the promise of riches.
they made him maps, maps of his mighty kingdom. The smaller ones, he thought,
made his possession appear impoverished, inadequate. A mere bauble on the face
of the earth. He had often feared that it might be little more than this, so
these maps he quickly destroyed. The bigger ones appeared to him but a glimpse
of a wilderness, a chaotic straggle of random territories with no coherence and
no centre. This had always been his other bad dream about his kingdom. So these
too he had destroyed.
are no perfect maps, Sir,’ the Vizier said to him one day.
why make them at all?’
father had been blind at the end, and she had often cradled him. So it seemed
right to her, in a way she could not have explained and in fact had no need to,
that she now had two blind men in her bed, one on either side of her. Their
fingers played in her hair some nights as though still entangled in the strings
of their instruments.
one morning the King of Kings stepped in silence into the North Tower. Only the
Vizier accompanied him.
lay asleep in the bed, with one blind musician on either side of her. So many
white limbs he saw as he pulled the black silk sheet away. As though he had
torn up burnt grass to find pale bodies in the earth beneath. Vermiculated.
sun rose in the East and set in the West. Even the King of Kings could not
alter that. But he could place himself and his domicile along its axis. This he
did. His grand chamber had a massive window on the eastern side, and another
opposite. His bed with its silken sheets and painted bells would have been big
enough for twenty sultans to sleep in without overlapping. But only he slept
there now. No smiles to occlude the passing of the hours. No mirrors either.
bed had been built to stand upon perfectly engineered flanges, along which it
could be pushed from East to West and back again. While she was in that bed,
the slave girl from the East had delighted in its silent motion from sunset to
sunrise, then back again to the twilight. Now the King of Kings permitted
himself to slide along the oleaginous axis and raised one finger to signify
that the mighty curtains should be drawn. The first time he had done this with
the slave girl in his bed she had smiled and said, ‘So you own the day as well
as the night.’
of his wives had given birth to girls in six months. This he took as a sign of
scaffold had been built to the East, so that he could witness the three deaths
soon after dawn, leaving the rest of the day free for hunting and other
the musicians first, one at a time. She can see them die; they wouldn’t be able
to see her.’
he commanded that her head be taken down to the deep cave, where it was so cold
that it would last six months or more before rotting. She would be blue but
recognisable. He might visit, but probably wouldn’t. Oblivion was another kingdom
ruled by the King of Kings. There were other heads down there for her to talk
to, anyway. Other young queens who had made the journey before her.
when it was done, he summoned the Vizier, who had seen how the weather in the
mind of his ruler had darkened and changed of late.
to the bazaar once more.’
would like another dancer?’
not a dancer. In fact it would be better if she didn’t dance at all. And not
the same shape of body this time, so small and voluptuous. Perhaps a taller
woman, not from the East but from the other side, with darker skin. High
breasts. One who moves little and says less. With no desire for musicians,
whether sighted or not.
have requisitioned the Yellow House for you. Take as many servants as your
comfort requires. Do not return until you have found a candidate the King of
Kings shall see fit to consider.’
Vizier saw his horse saddled and his bags packed. As he rode out of the palace
gates he wondered, as he always did, if he would return this time.