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5. A Love Story



The palace had fallen somewhat into disrepair. The source of the wealth of this house had been the diamonds, and they had been the luck of it too. Now leaves blew about the marble floors, and mice ran up from the granaries where the grain had become low and of poor sort. The landworkers had left the green fringe of the river, fearing poverty to come, and the fields ran to rank seed and the winds destroyed the good crop. Many of the precious things of the palace had been sold, and the stables of fine horses were empty, so Mirrash must travel on foot to the city.

He took no one with him on the long hard bitter road. He drank from rock fountains and little streams, and ate the dry fruits of the valleys like a common vagabond. No robbers molested him, he looked too wretched to be worth their trouble. He carried only two things with him: the hidden jewel and a little cake of salt.

After some days he reached Zojad and walked there through the broad streets and between the great statues till he came to Zorayas palace.

At first they would not let him in, travel-worn as he was.

How dares a vile beggar disturb the courtyard of our peerless queen?

Only tell her, said Mirrash grimly, that the brother of Jurim is here, from the diamond house.

When these words were relayed to Zorayas she had him brought immediately before her. Not only for his talk of diamonds, either, but because she was curious to observe him, this prince who wisely had kept away from her till now. She wore a dress sewn all over with diamonds, and diamonds in her ears, but the headdress on her copper hair was made from the skull of a lynx.

Well, come close, and look at me at last, she said. But Mirrash had not been idle as he waited at the door. He had rubbed the cake of salt into his eyes to make them smart and water, so that still he should not be able to see her.

When she noted this, she was peeved at his intelligence, for she liked well the effect of her beauty, and would have been interested in its action upon Mirrash.

What ails your eyes, Prince?

Tears, shed for my brother who is almost dead of you.

I do not require his death. I do not ask it.

No, lady. You ask for diamonds, of which, I hear, there were already plenty in your halls before you sought our house.

True, she said, but I will be denied nothing. I wanted your jewels because they were reckoned hard to get. And besides, they are the best gems I have ever come on for clarity and lustre. Nor any curse with them, either, since every one was a gift.

A gift given by a young man in the prime of his youth, fair and vigorous, as you should know. He offered you all he had, of his wealth and of himself.

It was not enough. As to his looks, I have been honored by the Prince of Demons, after whom all men seem only as ships without sails. But you mentioned diamonds?

Yes, said Mirrash. I have one here. See, and he showed her the blue gem from the tomb. This last jewel is mine, and I do not mean you to have it, lady, for you are already adamant and transparent enough.

Well, one more or less is nothing, said Zorayas, with princes as with jewels.

As I thought, Mirrash answered, you have no charity in you.

Go ask the snow and the wind for charity, you will get none from me. Go and put out the sun with your salt-cake tears.

***

Walking from the mandragoran presence of Zorayas, Mirrash believed his brother as good as dead. But he went, nevertheless, and sought a much-respected sage in Zojad. He told him everything, and how Jurim would leave hold of life when he heard of Zorayas ultimate indifference. But the much-respected sage merely blinked his vague proud eyes and said: Every man dies soon or late. Bow to your destiny. You must accept the burden and the grave. My fee for this advice is one silver piece.

The only fee you will get is my fist between your eyes, said Mirrash, and you may take your advice and eat it, and he went instead to a temple and there told his story to the priests. They listened solemnly, but when he was done they only narrowed their hard greedy eyes and said: Bring us a piece of gold and we will pray for your brother to our god.

I have no gold with me, said Mirrash, and if you will not pray without, your god is welcome to you and you to him. And he went away.

He walked the streets till dusk. Then he sat down for very weariness outside the door of a shoddy little tavern.

As he sat there the stars danced out like blue fire-flowers in the sky with a slender moon, and presently a man come shuffling down the street with a red lantern.

Pausing before the inn, this man began to shake his lantern and call for custom. He was muffled up but clearly was an old storyteller, and his price was a black penny.

No one came out of the inn to him, and he seemed about to turn away, when Mirrash stayed him and gave a piece of money to him.

You are the first in this city who does not want diamonds or silver or gold from me, said Mirrash, and your wares are dreams, of which never before did I have any need. But now I could surely do with a dream, a tale where all ends happily, or at least justly. Do you have such a one?

The storyteller squatted down, set his lantern between them, and opening the lid, threw in a pinch of incense. He tapped his shadowy bearded chin with his bony finger.

I will tell you the story, said he, of Taki the Drin and the lady snake.

Lulled by the pleasing incense, the warmth of the lamp and the presence of the old man, Mirrash leaned his tired back against the inn wall, and listened.

***

Down in the Underearth, said the storyteller, where the sun or moon never shine, yet where it is always as bright as day, there lived a little Drin in a house of rock. His name was Taki, and he was very ugly, as indeed all the Drin take a pride in being. He was a maker of jeweled images, which sometimes he would give to the Vazdru princes, but mostly he left them in his house where he could look at them and speak to them. It is a known fact that there are no feminine demons of the class of the Drin, they are the spawn of stones and the whims of the demon lords. Sometimes a beautiful Eshva demoness will consent to lie with a Drin in exchange for some necklace or ring he has made, or a mortal woman who is ugly herself. But generally the Drin conduct their loving among the reptiles and insects of the Underearth. Taki, however, preferred the company of his images, for he loved most the glint and glimmer of gems and fine enamelwork.

Then, one day, as Taki was walking through the forest of silver trees that lie to the north of Druhim Vanashta, the city of Demons, he saw a snakess sunning herself in the sunless air upon a bank of crystal poppies. This lady snake was like no other he had ever seen. Not creeping and dull, but slinking and mellifluous, and all her skin was like the marvelous layers of a cameo, now agate black, now emerald, now smoky shining pearl, and her eyes were like two topazes, and her tongue thrust like a flickering sword from the red velvet sheath of her mouth. Taki stared in wonder at this new glint and glimmer; from a wobbling of his joints and a beating of his heart and a dryness of his mouth he was aware he loved her. Beauteous lady snake, said Taki, you are all I have ever dreamed of. Come to my house of rock with me and I will give you silk to lie on and dishes of cream to eat, and a ruby to wear about your long throat that a queen once wore. But the snakess grimaced and turned her jeweled head. Be off, foul dwarf. Everything you say is a lie. No, I assure you, cried Taki. And he ran home and, filling his arms with silk and satin, gems and metal, he bore them to the snakess in the forest. Is that all you offer me? the snakess snapped. Taki rushed at once to bring her more. At last, when the riches were piled as high as the trees, the snakess nodded, and permitted Taki to carry his gifts inside her burrow in the dark soil, and here she instructed him to crawl about, hanging up drapes and fixing gold pendants into the walls. When this was done and Taki turned to her eagerly, she said she was faint with hunger, so Taki ran out again and fetched a dish of honey and cream and another of fine black wine. When the snakess had appeased her hunger and thirst, she leered at the Drin, and told him to wait in the antechamber of her burrow while she prepared herself for the night. With a joyous heart and urgent loins, Taki paced about the antechamber (bent double all the while, for the roof was low), until suddenly an enormous black cobra entered. What oaf is cluttering up my mistresss apartment? demanded the cobra, and seizing Taki in his jaws, he bit him terribly and thrashed him with his tail and soon slung him from the burrow and slammed the door.

Taki crept away, and was for a long while very ill from the cobras venom and his beating. When, after much time had elapsed, he returned to seek his love, certain there had been some mistake, he found the lady snake and the cobra entwined in the forest in a most definite fashion, and, looking up from their slitted eyes and pausing in their labor, they laughed at Taki and called him names until he fled.

A frightful thing is love. Taki mourned and pined in his house of rock, his tears flooded the floors and his groans were so powerful they assumed the form of bats and flapped about the place in swarms. Finally, a miserable artistry took hold of him, and he began to make an image of his beloved, exactly life size, and resembling her in every detail. The image was of ivory and heavy silver, and decked with emeralds and jet. In the eyes he put topazes and garnets in the mouth. It weighed a great deal.

Meanwhile, the beautiful snakess had come to think herself somewhat hasty. After all, no doubt she had not exhausted the treasure hoard of Taki. She would go back and entice him further, till he had no more to give. Then she could laugh at him indeed.

The snakess set out for Takis house with three black mice walking on either side of her to hold a parasol over her head, and a white mouse walking before to throw down paper flowers.

Taki, dearest! cried the snakess at the door, Taki, beloved. I have come to visit you! But Taki was sobbing in a cellar and did not hear. The snake therefore glided into the house, sniffed haughtily at the furnishings and hissed greedily at the chests and boxes, and told the mice to swallow all the jewels they could see and never mind how she would retrieve them later. Inevitably, after wriggling about for an hour, the snakess came into the room where the jeweled image stood which resembled so exactly herself. Now, the image was incredibly lifelike, for the Drin are clever at such things, and as stunningly lovely as its original. The snakess was vain and loved herself before all else. Seeing the image, she gasped and a pang shot right through her, fang to tail. Forgetting everything, she stretched up and, festooning the image with her enamel body, she coaxed and crooned to it in amorous accents. Naturally, it felt as cold as she to the touch, and she was quite convinced it was her double, her sister, her predestined lover. But the image did not, of course, respond. In a paroxysm of frustrated anger, the snakess lashed with her tail, and the image began to topple. In another moment it had fallen smack on the back of the lady snake and crushed her to death.

The three mice, stuffed with pearls and peridots, dashed out, but they met a raven on the way, who questioned them closely, The raven promptly called all his friends to a snake dinner in Takis house, and it earned him the reputation of an immaculate host for many seasons.

As for Taki the Drin, he encountered a centipede in the cellar, a wild young thing with some interesting notions about legs. He emerged from his seclusion much recovered, and swept the strange white bones from his house with a bemused forgetfulness, and put the fallen image away in a closet. He remembered the snakess only occasionally, though the ravens toast her succulence to this night, as they perch on the battlefields of men.

The storyteller, having concluded his tale, added: Maybe not a joyous story, but at least a just one. You should perhaps give it some thought on your long road home.

Mirrash caught the storytellers sleeve and asked him who he was.

A rich man once, said the storyteller, but my two sons gave all my wealth away to a beautiful snakess. Now I expect one of these sons will have to join me on my road, where the mists are thick. The other is stronger metal. But let him recall my story when he puts the diamond back in the gate.

The old man moved about, and was gone up the street before Mirrash could collect himself. To be sure, then he ran to pursue him, but he could not find him at the corner, though the way ahead was straight and the walls of the alley sheer, nor was there any glow from the lamp.

Can it be my dead father who came to advise and to warn me?

It seemed to him also that just at the turning of the street, there had been two figures in the light of the lamp, one old, one young...

***

A servant met Mirrash at dusk some days after, before the palace, and told him Jurim was dead. He bad been lying by the jasper lattice in the tower, looking for his brothers return when a black shadow had squeezed in there, and dropped a single diamond at his feet. And the shadow had cried: My mistress Zorayas is generous. Since you will never look on her again, she returns you a part of your giftbuy a farm with it, and grow fat.

And when Jurim heard these words, he rose as if he were strong again, went to the hall and took down his fathers sword and fell on it.

It was not far to go, only a little way from the wall, to the grave by the river. Mirrash did not weep at the fresh-turned earth and the poor stone marker, although, in the days of their wealth no prince but had a tomb hewn of marble, inlaid with gold and precious gems. Mirrash knelt by the spot. Oh, my brother, he said, oh, my brother, Jurim.

When the night burned its cloak in the sunrise and the day came to show him the desolation of the river fields and his neglected home, he went into the palace, to the library of sorcerous books a second time, and closed the door.

***



4. Diamonds | Night's Master | 6. Love in a Glass