King of Kings, by Alan Wall
artwork by Laura Carter

The beautiful young girl danced the Dance of the Bee first, then the Dance of the Seven Veils. Her movements were as fluent as a fish through water. The two musicians played and stared. If vision were an unguent, their eyes would surely have stuck to her flesh with an adhesive power equal to their desire. When it was over they looked at him and smiled, as if to say: ‘This at least we have shared with the King of Kings.’

His 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.

‘You should have them blindfolded when they play for you - when the girl dances.’

‘No need,’ the King of Kings had replied. The Vizier had not understood. Not then, anyway.

Soon 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.

‘Why, Sir?’ the Vizier asked.

‘Because I wish it.’

The 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.

*

The next day, one hour before he married the slave-girl from the East, the King of Kings ordered both musicians to be blinded.


2

Gradually, her fascination for him faded. So he placed her in the North Tower, and billeted the two musicians on the same floor.

‘You can dance each night as you used to,’ he told her, almost smiling.

‘The 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.’

So 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.

And 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.


3

August battle tally

Men dead: 87.

Enemy men dead: 130.

Women and children dead: uncounted.


4

The 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.

He 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.

‘Had he royal blood then?’

‘No,’ the gleeman said.

‘Then she would surely have watched him drown. Tell me something else. Something I can believe, if only for a moment.’

The 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.

‘I 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.’

The 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 newfangledness.

But 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.

‘How long?’ The gleeman appeared non-plussed at the question. ‘How long do they spend dying?’

‘Anything between three hours and three days.’

‘Get 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?’

The gleeman was afraid to answer and simply bowed very gently.

‘Because 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.’    


5

He 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.

So 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.

‘There are no perfect maps, Sir,’ the Vizier said to him one day.

‘Then why make them at all?’  


6

Her 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.

Early one morning the King of Kings stepped in silence into the North Tower. Only the Vizier accompanied him.

She 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.


7

The 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.

The 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.’  

Three of his wives had given birth to girls in six months. This he took as a sign of contamination.

The 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 activities.

‘Kill the musicians first, one at a time. She can see them die; they wouldn’t be able to see her.’

Afterwards 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.    

Then, 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.

‘Go to the bazaar once more.’

‘You would like another dancer?’

‘No, 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.

‘I 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.’


8

The 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.





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