1. The Chair of Uncertainty
There was a king in the east, in the city of Zojad; his name was Zorashad. He liked to raise armies, he had a talent for it. He seemed indeed to grow armies, as a field grows weeds. And strong weeds they were, of bronze and iron, and terrifying they looked when the sun flashed on their brazen marching and on their machines of war and the clouds of dust that rose before and behind. And terrifying they sounded when the clash of their metal was heard, the tramp of feet and rumble of wheels, and the bellow of bulls’ horns and trumpets. The bravest kings and princes and their staunchest captains felt their battle-anger dilute to confusion in the vicinity. And certainly, Zorashad did not lose one battle, and sometimes had no need to fight at all. Great lords would genuflect before him in surrender without a blow exchanged. Not merely the armies, but he himself seemed to carry with him a huge sense of mastery—he was impervious and ruthless. Those who knelt at once he spared and took as vassals; those who resisted he would mercilessly overcome, and then he would put entire families to the sword, burn the royal palaces, raze the cities and lay waste to the land. He was like a dragon in his fury, rending and unreasonable. His passion was vainglory, but he was also rumored to be a magician.
This rumor was because of a mysterious amulet. No one knew how Zorashad had come by it; some said he found it in the desert in the desolate hall of a ruin beneath a fallen column, some that he got it from a spirit by means of a trick, others that one night, many years before, he had come across a dead animal on a lonely road, a creature that was like no other beast ever seen on earth and, guided by some instinct or prophecy, he had slit open the monster’s gall bladder and found there the amulet, in the form of a blue stone, smooth and hard as jade. Whatever its source, however, the king took to wearing the amulet about his neck, and who could deny its efficacy? He was presently the ruler of seventeen lands, an empire stretching hither and thither, this way and that, till it reached on all sides the blue acres of the sea. It was related that even the lion would step out of his way.
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As Zorashad grew in years, so his vainglory grew, and perhaps, weighted down by it, he became also a little mad. He levied massive tribute from his vassals, and had built for himself a temple, and here all his subjects were obliged to come and worship him as a god.
Golden statues of Zorashad were erected in Zojad and in every one of the conquered cities, and inscriptions in gold set in panels of snow-white marble beneath them. This is what the inscriptions said: “Behold with terror Zorashad, Mightiest of the Mighty, Ruler of Men and Brother of the Gods, whose equal is not to be found under Heaven.”
The people marveled at this, and trembled, expecting any moment for the gods to strike the cities with plague or thunderbolt because of this blasphemy. But the gods, in those days, regarded the deeds of men much as men have always regarded the antics of very small children. So there was little danger from the serene country of Upperearth, where sublime indifference no doubt continued. Danger there was, but it had another shape.
It had become a whim of Zorashad’s, when he sat and feasted at night with his lords, to have brought in and set facing him at the table, a tall chair carved from bone. This he called the Chair of Uncertainty. Anyone might sit in it, rich man, prince or beggar, freeman or slave, even the murderer and the thief might sit down at the king’s table, eat the choicest fare off plates of gold and drink the finest of wines from crystal cups, and no one could restrain them or bring them to justice. That was Zorashad’s decree. But at the end of the feast Zorashad would do to them whatever he wished—either good or evil, according to his mood; for this resembled, Zorashad declared, the uncertainty that the gods visited on man during his life, not to know whether pleasure or hurt, humiliation or triumph or annihilation was his lot. Some who sat in the bone chair might be fortunate; the god-king would give them precious metal or gems to take away. They would go out blessing him, glad they had risked their luck. A few Zorashad might have sewn up in the skin of a wild ass and driven braying through the streets under the lash till dawn. Others he would condemn to the axe. It made no difference what the guest’s status might be, or his deserts. Sometimes the high-born or the virtuous died horribly while the murderer ran off laughing, with a cap full of emeralds. It was a chair to gamble in, and most of the gamblers were desperate men, who considered anything better than life as they were forced under their circumstances to live it. Yet occasionally, a sage would come, thinking he could outwit the king and so grow famous in the land. Several were the heads they left behind, spiked on his gate. Generally, it may be supposed, the chair of bone stood empty.
One evening, just after sunset, a stranger entered the city of Zojad, a tall man, shrouded in a black cloak. He passed as quietly as a shadow through the streets, but when he came to the doors of the palace where the guards stood with crossed spears, the king’s hounds began to howl from their kennels, the horses to stamp and whinny in the stables and the falcons to screech in the mews. The guards, alarmed, glanced about them hurriedly; when they looked back at the street, the stranger had vanished.
He was in Zorashad’s splendid hall. The brilliance of two thousand candles played over his cloak and could not pierce it. He came up the room, and the minstrel girls fell quiet to watch him pass, even the gorgeous birds in their cages of gold stopped singing: they put their heads under their wings as if they felt the approach of winter. The stranger halted before King Zorashad’s table.
“I ask a boon, O king,” said he. “To sit in the Uncertain Chair.”
Zorashad laughed. He was pleased at this unexpected diversion.
“Sit and welcome,” he said. And he called for basins of rosewater for the guest to dip his hands, and for the best roasts and vegetables to be given him, and for wines like ruby or topaz to be poured in his goblet.
Then the stranger drew back the fold of the cloak which had concealed his face. There was not one who saw him who did not wonder at his extraordinary handsomeness. His hair was blue-black like the night, his eyes like two black suns. He smiled, but the smile was somehow unpleasing. He lightly caressed the head of the king’s favorite hound and it slunk away and fell down in a corner.
“O king,” he said in his voice that was like dark music, “I had heard men risked their lives to taste the fare of your table. Do you mock me?”
Zorashad reddened angrily, but the cries of his lords made him look down at the plate his servants had set before the stranger. And there, where the roast and the tender shoots had lain, was coiled a sinuous slime-green snake.
Zorashad shouted. A slave snatched up the dish and threw its contents in the brazier; certainly he feared his king more than the venom of the snake. A fresh platter was brought, and the servants once more heaped it with aromatic food. Yet, as the stranger took up his knife, a smoke seemed to drift about the table, and suddenly there on the plate writhed a knot of angry scorpions.
“O king,” murmured the stranger, softly and with reproach, “it is true only desperate men will eat in your chair of bone, knowing death may await them in exchange for their meal, but do I seem so starved that I will relish these vermin, sting and all?”
“There is witchcraft in my palace,” bellowed Zorashad, and his court turned pale, all but the stranger.
Dish after dish was brought, but none would the stranger eat and no man blamed him for that. Al1 manner of horrors sprang from the plates, even the sweetmeats changed to pebbles and wasps. As for the wine, the goblet of yellow, upended, spilled stinking urine, the red was unmistakably blood.
“O king,” said the stranger sorrowfully, “I had thought it your custom to mete out fates impartially, but I see it is your habit rather to slay your guests at the board.”
The king leaped up.
“You have spoiled the food yourself. You are a magician!”
“And you, sir, are a god, or so I was told. Cannot a god defend himself from such silly tricks as any poor traveler might have about him?”
Zorashad, overcome with rage, roared out to his guard:
“Seize the man and kill him!”
But before one brazen foot could take a step, or one bronze-gloved hand could grasp a sword, the stranger said, most gently: “Be still,” and not a man or a woman could move, and all sat in their seats as if their limbs were turned to stone.
A deep silence came down on the hall then, like a gigantic bird folding its wings.
The stranger rose, and going to stand by the king as he sat shrinking yet frozen in his chair, bowed deeply and spoke in a caressing tone the words of the inscription.
“Behold with terror Zorashad, Mightiest of the Mighty, Ruler of Men and Brother of the Gods, whose equal is not to be found under Heaven.”
Only the eyes of the petrified king could move. All through the hall only eyes were moving, darting like frantic jeweled fish as they followed the progress of the fearful stranger. He walked about the table smiling.
“I await, magnificent king,” he said, “the axe of your vengeance. Pray get up and deal me my punishment. Am I so much your inferior that you will not deign to humble me further? Am I to endure forever the shame of your pity? Speak.”
Zorashad found then he had once more the ability to do so. He whispered: “I see I have wronged you, mighty one. Only release me and I will worship you, build you a temple to touch the sky—bring you a ton of incense every dawn and dusk, and sacrifice always in your name.”
“My name is Azhrarn, Prince of Demons,” said the stranger, and at the words, the two thousand candles flickered and went out. “I am not worshipped, only feared, by men who are not gods. Under heaven, on earth or beneath it, I and I alone am without equal.” Zorashad whimpered like a dog. In the dim flare of the braziers, which was all the light left burning in the hall, he saw the Prince’s hand come toward him and felt the magic amulet snatched from breast. “This is your power,” Azhrarn said, holding it in palm, “this, and nothing else. This is what made men dread you, this is what made you love yourself.” Then he spat on the stone and let it fall on the table.
At once a silver dancing flame sprang up where he had spat. The flame gnawed at the amulet; it glowed and seemed to grow white-hot and presently shivered in pieces.
There was uproar in the king’s hall. Men, freed from the spell of stone, leaped to their feet and collided. Only the king lay in his chair like an old man sick with fever.
The stranger of course was gone.
* * *
That night there were many wonders. In the palaces of sixteen kings, sixteen omens. Many, lying asleep, woke up with a start to shout for their priests to read a dream. Ten spoke of a huge bird which, flying into their chambers, murmured to them in a musical voice. In five kingdoms a serpent sprang out of the flaming hearth like a coal and called aloud its message. And in the north, a young and very handsome king, walking sleepless in his garden under the moon, met a man in a black cloak, whose bearing was princely and who talked to him like a friend or a brother and kissed him before leaving him, with a touch as fearful and as thrilling as fire. And the substance of all these miracles on the night of the sixteen kings was this: The sorcerous amulet of Zorashad the Tyrant is destroyed, and his power is ended.
Vassalage to Zorashad had not been sweet to them. The heavy tributes had worn them out; their pride ached like an old wound. They banded together and soon fought with Zorashad a colossal battle on an eastern plan. No longer was Zorashad a god. His hand shook, his face was white as paper. His brazen army slunk away and left him and presently he was slain. But his old cruelties were not forgotten. Like vultures the sixteen kings swooped on Zojad and razed it. The palace burned, the treasure chambers were sacked, and the Chair of Uncertainty itself was broken into splinters. The household of Zorashad they put to the sword, as he had put to the sword so many households. Seven sons and twelve daughters and all the wives of Zorashad perished on that night, even his hounds and his horses they slew, even the birds that nested in his trees, such was their hatred and their fear. Afterwards they rejoiced that they had slaughtered every living thing that had belonged to the god-king of Zojad. But one living thing had escaped them.
There was a child born that night, the thirteenth daughter of Zorashad. The mother the soldiers found and slew, but an old woman, a nurse, had snatched up the baby and run out with it. She ran along the great highway which led out of Zojad, between the statues of Zorashad the god. And as she ran, she cursed him. Near dawn her fragile heart cracked inside her and she fell dead. The child dropped from her hands upon the paving of the road. Both its arms were broken at the blow, and its soft face, scarcely formed, was ruined by the sharp stone and the brambles that speared at it as it went rolling down among them. By chance merely, its eyes were spared. It set up a feeble thin scream of agony, but only the wind heard, the wind and the jackals creeping towards the smouldering city.
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