Two brothers sat at chess in a high palace tower, while beyond the jasper lattice of the window, a vermilion sun went down.
The sun dyed everything with a soft blush, the crags and dunes of the desert country, the shining river with its tree-tasselled banks, the walls and high towers of the palace. Even the faces of the two young men were painted with its color, lending them a superficial likeness. For, though brothers, they were dissimilar, Jurim, the younger, being fair and yellow haired, the elder, Mirrash, of a stern and smoky darkness. Nor were their temperaments matched. Jurim was a poet and a dreamer, Mirrash a strategist who did not trust the world. Their father, an aristocrat of ancient family, had died and left his lands jointly to both sons, that each might contribute, from his opposite values, a complementary whole, since, differences apart, they loved each other well. Into their joint keeping also he had put the astounding hoard of diamonds which had been the source of his fame and wealth; half the hoard to each of them.
These diamonds. They were everywhere in evidence about the palace; upon the handles of chests and doors, inlaid in the mosaic paving. The cornices of the roof were set with diamonds, and the eyes of the twenty amber lions that mounted up the stairs between the cedars, and diamonds as small as peas flashed in the fountains, brighter than the water.
Indeed, it was a curious sight, to come from the barren desert to the shining river, and see reflected there and going up beyond the bank, an equally shining house of many towers, sparkling with gold and priceless jewels, night behind it and its face to the sinking sun.
Tempting to robbers, one might suppose, such a house in the midst of the wilderness. Not so. The diamonds, renowned for their flawless beauty, also possessed a curse. Whosoever stole them would perish. It was this simple. The thief would discover the gem burning his pocket, his pouch, his coffer, his hand. The fine white daggers of its radiance would alter to the murky hue of old blood. In the night, the thief would feel strangling fingers at his throat, the gripe of poison in his belly, a stabbing like a blade in his heart. He would die with a blue face and many regrets. So the story ran. A few had disbelieved it, put it to the test, wished they had not, and were buried. Only as a sincere gift might the diamonds be received in safety and enjoyed.
Jurim had pondered sometimes on the gift of diamonds he would hang upon his bride, when he found her. There had been many beautiful girls, round breasts, antelope eyes, heavy silken tresses, but for a wife he would have one who was, to these wayside lilies, an orchid. He had heard a name whispered, he had not dared think of it too long. She was a queen, ruler of twenty lands, more lovely than loveliness, who paved her road with the broken hearts and bones of men—Zorayas, who, they said, had lain with a Demon in a starry pavilion. Zorayas, who could not be as maleficent as men asserted, for men’s pictures of women were always too much of one thing, too little of another. Jurim, mere prince of a desert estate, could not aspire to an empress-queen, but to think of her, it amused and pleasantly pained him, like the dreams forgotten with dawn that left, nevertheless, their shadows behind upon his brain.
The sun was almost gone, a pink glimmer at the edge of a blue night. Then it seemed to be rising again.
“Look,” said Jurim to his brother Mirrash, “either the day is coming back, or those are the lights of a caravan.”
“A caravan which has lost the way, then,” said Mirrash.
Soon enough, they heard the music, the silver bells, saw the fringed swinging canopies, the flower decked beasts drawing the chariots, the warm lamps glowing in the dust, and they smelled the rising scent of incense and jasmin.
“It is more like a bridal procession than a caravan,” said Jurim wonderingly, and his heart beat fast remembering his dream.
Presently the unusual caravan reached the gates. The servants and guards there seemed struck with amazement. A man ran into the tower, bowed low and cried:
“My lords, a strange thing. It is a lady from a far city. Her entourage has lost the road and begs for shelter until morning.”
Jurim stood in silence, but Mirrash frowned.
“Who is she, this lady from the desert?”
“She prefers you do not ask her name,” the servant said.
“And have you seen her face?”
“No, lord. She is veiled in a milky gauze down to her knees, but her robe is fringed with lapis lazuli and gold and her hands have emeralds on them, and she speaks as a lady does, as if she had silver in her mouth. Truly she is neither a robber nor a lewd.”
“I think I guess what she is,” said Mirrash. “For some while I have been expecting her. I wish we might turn her away, but she is cunning and a sorceress. No, let her in. Give her royal chambers and find food, but, for your own sake, avoid her eyes. For my brother and myself, we are away on business, you understand, and cannot greet the lady.”
The servant went out, plainly afraid.
Jurim said; “Forbid yourself if you like, my brother, but not me. I am intrigued by her veil. What can she be hiding? Perhaps she is ugly and deserves our kindness.”
“Once she was ugly, if the legend is true,” answered Mirrash. “Now, few may look at her and keep a whole mind. She is Zorayas, the witch queen of Zojad, the doxy of demons and a scourge of men. No doubt she has heard of diamonds, too.”
“Zorayas,” murmured Jurim, and he paled.
He knew it fruitless to argue further, but in the quick soil of the romantic, his brother’s warning put down no root. Zorayas and the dream were already in blossom there. In Jurim’s life there had come, so far, no huge calamity, no accident which would have shown him the nature of evil, and that Mirrash was wiser than he.
The lights and pipes of the entourage poured into the palace. A harp began to play a wistful melody in a chamber hung with silks that had diamonds stitched upon them. Here a veiled woman sat, all in white. toying with a rosy pomegranate and a golden knife.
Jurim entered the chamber, bowed low, and sent the servants out. He smelled the scent of sandalwood, jasmin and musk. He trembled, explained who he was, tried to see through the veil. The stranger laughed. One white arm appeared, its bones and flesh seeming sheathed in a skin of velvet. A gold bangle sang as it struck another of jade. Above was a white shoulder, burnished and succulent as a fruit, its pallor emphasized by one serpent of dark copper hair that slid back and forth. sometimes dipping again within the veil.
“Come and sit by me, lord prince,” said the woman. “Should you like me to unveil? I will, if you desire it.”
Jurim sat by her and requested that she would, and the woman brushed off the veil like smoke from her face and body.
Such a vision seared out upon Jurim, it was like lightning shattering a cloud. The blood drained from his heart and left him half dead and barely sensible. Her beauty was like death. It ate him away and filled him with itself. He could think of nothing but her beauty, see nothing else.
She touched his lips with hers. He tried to seize her. She pushed his hands gently away, and he could not resist her.
“I am Zorayas,” she said, “and you are very handsome. But if we are to be friends, you must give me a gift.”
“Anything I possess is yours,” he said.
“The diamonds in this room,” she said, “I counted them, there are fifty. Give me those.”
Jurim ran to the walls. He tore the diamonds from the silks and heaped them in her lap. She drew his head to her breasts and caressed him, and presently she kissed his burning forehead, and she sighed: “How I love your hair, which is like gold, and your body which is strong like a stag’s. How eager you are, but first, will you give me the diamonds that hang like grapes from the ceiling of the hall?”
Jurim ran to the hall. He was blind and deaf to all but her, could only smell the scent of her, feel the cool rounded litheness of her. He cut the diamonds from the ceiling, and brought them to her. He let them fall about her in a rain and buried his face in her hair.
She drew him down. He arrowed through the torrent of her, foundered in the deep sea-cave of her loins. But there was no end to the lure, no depth to the cave. The tide returned him to the mouth of Zorayas like flotsam.
Mirrash, meantime, had looked for him and found him gone.
At the stroke of midnight, Mirrash went down silently and listened at the door of the stranger’s chamber. And there he heard the voice of Jurim, pleading and promising. And every so often another would whisper, and then at length Jurim groaned with pleasure and could not keep back a cry like a woman’s.
Mirrash waited in the shadow. After a while, the chamber doors were opened, and Jurim and Zorayas came out, walking softly as lovers. The face of Jurim was white, and his eyes swam in blue hollows. But Mirrash averted his head quickly, so that he should not see the appalling beauty of the woman’s face.
They went about the darkened rooms as if about a market, and Zorayas selected what she would have, diamonds large as cups, and little faceted diamonds that blazed even in the shade, and Jurim would tear and dig them from their places and put them in the apron she had made of her skirt, and they would laugh as if at some childish game. Eventually they reached a room where the diamonds were clustered thick as bees.
Mirrash stood outside the doors.
“Brother,” he called, “remember. The hoard is only half yours. You cannot take my half without my consent, and your treasury is almost empty.”
Jurim started, like a man waking from a dream.
Zorayas called sharply:
“Who is that scratching at the threshold? Is it a pet dog or cat that dares not come in? If it be a man, let him put terror aside. I am only a woman and will do him no hurt.”
But Mirrash knew the danger too well, and kept out.
“Your pardon, lady, I cannot stay. I seek only to remind my brother that any gem he gives you that is not his to give will carry the curse to you as surely as if you had stolen it. And now, goodnight.”
“These are sensible words,” said Zorayas, though her voice was cold. “Pray keep tally, Jurim. I dislike the diamond curse. Give me nothing that is not yours.”
Mirrash went to the great library, and puzzled there over books of sorcery and ancient writings, to no avail. He heard Zorayas’ laughter like bright birds in the palace. And near dawn another of those despairing cries of sensuality that filled his heart with angry dread.
* * *
Dawn rose from the desert and turned the river to wine.
Zorayas stood upon the balcony and summoned a shadow from the air which gathered up her store of diamonds and bore them away in a curl of fire.
“Your gifts to me will soon be safe in Zojad, and I must follow them at once,” Zorayas said to Jurim, stroking his hair. “Give me a lock of this gold too to take with me. I shall not want to forget you too quickly.”
“And I cannot bear it if you forget me,” Jurim said. “Stay with me. For one more day, if no longer. Just one day. What is a day to you that means so much to me? One day and one night.” And he embraced her.
“Ah, no,” said Zorayas, “I must return to my city. I fear I have wearied you too long.”
“No, No—” cried Jurim, holding her fast with a look of anguish.
“Yes and yes,” said Zorayas. “Besides, I am unwelcome. Your brother is in a rage and spurns me. He denies you access to his share of the diamonds, and all yours are gone.”
“I will entreat them from him. He will not refuse.”
“Go, then, entreat him, my golden stag. But be hasty.”
Jurim ran to Mirrash’s chamber; he flung himself on his knees before Mirrash.
“Loan me a portion of your store of jewels, my brother, or she will leave me.”
A look of loathing and distaste passed across the face of Mirrash, but he put the look aside.
“She will leave you in any event. Let her go, and thank the gods for her departure. She is a demon.”
“I cannot bear that she should go.”
“She has unmanned you,” Mirrash said. “But, in truth, it is her common practice. You are no worse than the rest, Oh, my brother,” he said, raising Jurim to his feet, “tell her to be gone. The wound will heal. She is slow poison, lady death—”
Jurim said: “You refuse me then? It is your right. Only say.”
“Yes, for your life I refuse you.”
Zorayas only smiled when she heard.
“Well, I have half the prize. If you would see me again, sweet, you must send me all of it. And my kisses will be the dearer for delay.”
She stood upon the parapet and a gilded chariot appeared from behind the sun, drawn by black dogs with wings. The sorceress stepped in the chariot and was borne away, and her entourage after her.
The grief that took Jurim then was terrible to see. He grew, in less than a month, pale and thin, a shrivelled grasshopper, who had been handsome and strong. He could not eat or sleep or rest, but paced about the palace all day and all night, and leaned on the pillars and walls from weakness and wept. He did not reproach Mirrash for withholding his share of their father’s treasure, but Mirrash felt his brother’s despair and illness as though they had been his own, and finally his resolve broke down.
“Come then, my poor brother, take all I have and all the palace has and give it to her, and ask her to come back to you.” But his heart was cold iron in his breast, for he knew she had no pity, and her favor would only last a little while.
It did not even last so long.
Jurim went with a great caravan to Zojad; Zorayas took the gift from his hands, three hundred diamonds of many sizes. Then she bade him return to his desert, she would visit him presently. Jurim pleaded with her and she grew angry. She said he was not as she remembered but shrunken and ugly. Her soldiers were set upon him. He came home beaten and bloody upon a bier and, catching hold of Mirrash’s hand at the gate, he gasped: “Is she here before me?” and later, as he lay on his bed: “will she never come?”
“If her face matched her nature, she would not be fair,” said Mirrash.
When he was a little recovered, Jurim would lie by the jasper lattice of the high tower, staring westward, watching for her. Sometimes the dust would swirl and take on the color of the sunset, and he would lift himself and cry that she was near.
There were no diamonds left to Jurim or to Mirrash, Zorayas had them all, all but one single blue diamond that was the ornament on the gate to their father’s tomb.
As he lay by the jasper window, this diamond began to haunt Jurim. At last he begged Mirrash to take the gem and go to Zojad with it and request Zorayas to take pity on him.
“Our father will forgive me. He would not have me die of this love, which will otherwise kill me.”
“Can you not try to fight this malignant spell?” Mirrash said. “She will give you nothing of herself any more, but she will bleed us dry of all our wealth—has she not reduced us sufficiently already?”
But he saw it was a sickness and a spell indeed, a worm in the heart of his brother. Jurim had grown so frail now, he would surely die. If this last action would comfort him, maybe give him strength to survive a little longer, then Mirrash could not deny him. And perhaps, though he had searched his father’s library in vain, he might find some clever mage in the witch’s city who would discover a cure for this malady of deadly love.
Mirrash took his brother’s hand and pressed it, and told him he would do as he wished and to trust in the gods. Then Mirrash dug out the diamond from the tomb gate and hid it in a cloth bag about his neck.
* * *