A Thousand Glass Flowers… Chapter 9
*A sample of the book to be published in full for e-book and POD in August-September 2011*
‘Little damsel, you must eat something or at least drink. You cannot go on like this.’ The afrit pleaded with her but she had only a care beyond reason for the quality of her work, not for herself, refusing the trays of delectables the Other laid out.
She dipped her pens and brushes, laying gold leaf and burnishing, intent on her task and not wishing to engage. Go away little afrit, for I am poor company and your chatter buzzes in my head like a bee. She heard him say, ‘I tried, but she won’t, do you see? Her reason slips.’ Why do you say that, tiny afrit, and to whom? Maybe you speak your own thoughts aloud or maybe your own reason slips. Honestly, who really cares? She found it necessary as she thought of care and love and its corollary of loss, to pick up her finest brush, dip it in green made from ground malachite, and draw acanthus leaves at the base of the capital letter heading the story. Her dry tongue began to cleave to the roof of her mouth so she poked it between her teeth as she guided the brush to pick out the folds on the leaf surface. Perhaps she might even put in a ladybird or a bee. A ladybird would be better, the red would counter the green . . .
If she let her mind move through the rhythms of the craft, there was no room left for more cataclysmic rumination because rumination meant ruination, this she knew.
The moon and the afrit were the only accompaniments to her desperate, solitary mood as the night progressed, neither noticed by her in her distrait. She burnished each illustration with a delicate gold leaf frame, flicks and finials in each corner, the gentle pressure she exerted at odds with the torrents of pain that flooded every bit of her being. Finally she wrote the last word, gave the page its number and leaned back. The afrit had sat quietly, passing her tools like a physician’s assistant and she believed her thoughts were her own. She said nothing to him, as silent as a graven image, as though the revelations of that awful day had cut out her tongue and she had become as one with the big men who guarded her door and the Sultan’s secrets.
Her mind now began to work beyond the page, the feverishness with which she had scribed doused with a crisp coldness, like the barren wastes of Oighear Dubh or the sweeping glaciers of the Goti Range. She picked up her most recent leaves and put them in order with the others, knocked them up so the edges ran straight, placed them between sheets of washi paper and then inside a large clam-shell box which she tied with a red cord. She tidied her work area and smoothed the coverings on her divan, her eyes filling but not overflowing as they fastened on the faded evidence of Phaeton’s blood. She was conscious only that she moved with precision and nothing more.
She took her harem clothes and sifted them through her fingers as she folded them, putting them in a neat pile on the divan, reaching under her hair to undo the chain holding the black pearl. This she laid almost as an offering on top of the silky garments. A sense of purpose filled her as she turned and walked to the latticed door into the tower, reaching for the paperweight on the worktable. Calling back over her shoulder, she strained to speak above a whisper. ‘Thank you afrit, for your kindnesses.’
‘Lalita’, he called, ‘where do you go?’
But she closed the door behind her and locked it with the key. The afrit passed through speedily, muttering, ‘Disaster, damsel, disaster.’ And then, ‘Do something,’ more loudly.
She heard him but pain cut through her, blinding her. There was nothing to divert her, her work was done and loss and grief began to smother her. Kholi. My mother and father, Phaeton. The night wind moaned around the top of the tower and she sucked it in, relishing the harsh desert cold as it slid down into her chest. Imran and Soraya . . . she knew who had killed them. Often enough she had seen the look of envy on Kurdeesh’s face; slitted eyes, mouth scowling underneath its hirsute layers. And then it would swiftly change, for to be caught in jealousy and bitterness would have been to upset his comfortable existence. She thought of his eyes as she stepped onto the parapet of the tower – they were as green as the malachite she used for her paints – green with envy, green with jealousy . . . green for grief.
‘Lalita, no! What do you do?’ The afrit appeared by her side, hovering in the air like a hummingbird. ‘You’ll kill yourself!’
She looked at him but said nothing. Yes, afrit, I will. But why should I live? To be perfumed and powdered in a hideously circumscribed life? Beside her two doves huddled, fluffed and cosy behind the shelter of an ornate corbel at the edge of the parapet. They burbled, angry at her for disturbing them in their connubial corner. They have each other to cling to, to love, to care for. I have no one. Only the summons to crawl up the Sultan’s bed from his toes to his testicles.
She closed her eyes tightly, the faces of the loved and lost floating before her. Opening them again, she gazed ahead, directly east to the horizon where a fine line of peach and gold dawn lay as if stitched by an embroiderer.
The Amritsands were like no other desert – sand flowing to valleys of shale with rocky escarpments, then falling into waterfalls of sand again. And all the while the moaning of the Symmer wind, sometimes a gentle sough but in the Symmer season later in the year, like the wail of a banshee. How I would love to wail like the banshee – to scream my sorrows from this tower.
The afrit grabbed at her hand. ‘Look at me, little desert flower, look at me. Don’t play silly games. I can help you. Come little petal,’ he pulled her gently,’ the pain will go and I can be there until it does.’
But she slid her palm from beneath his as if she hadn’t heard him at all.
In front of her, the Amritsands glimmered and waved in the ever-brightening light that spread like watercolour from the horizon up into the night sky. Momentarily Lalita fancied she could see Mogu, her brother’s camel, advancing ponderously, one calloused hoof in front of the other but it was a mirage of the mind and her heart cracked.
She grasped the paperweight, holding it as if it were indeed a heart, perhaps the heart of her whole family and as she felt its smoothness, its unblemished and complete roundness, she took a step into the air . . .
She fell straight down, the afrit’s voice yelling in some Other language, furious screaming as if he attempted to insult her. Her mind emptied itself, leaving a trail of thoughts behind, every one a fleeting memory of all that had meant something in her life. She wanted the end to be brutally quick– the snuffing out of a lamp flame, light to deepest dark.
The sensation of air rushing past her cheeks changed in an instant and her eyes flew open as her body was scooped up. Her heart thumped, fists balling to push herself away from the firm grip around her. The paperweight slipped from her grasp and it fell away, rolling, sparkling in the dawn light to hit the rocks and smash into shards. Like a bird, Lalita was carried down to land feather-light amongst the cullet about her feet.
‘No!’ Shouting, she found her feet and whipped around to her saviour as tears streamed down her cheeks. She attempted to scrub them away to stare at the tall djinn before her and his partner, the afrit. The enormity of their actions, the fact that she must now think again, deal with life’s bitter cards, feel pain and suffering, it all erupted with no care for offence. ‘Damn you both to hell, I want to die. I DO.’ She screamed. ‘How dare you stop me! What have I left? Nothing but suffering. I HATE YOU.’
‘Lalita Khatoun, all life is suffering but there are better ways for life to end than smashed into cullet like your glass there.’ The tall djinn before her spoke kindly.
She followed his glance to where her uncle’s gift, the only thing that could have sustained her, glittered on the rocks. She subsided against the nearest boulders, looking up at the sheer walls of the pink tower from which she had leaped, thinking how easy it would have been to be lifeless and drifting like flotsam in the river’s flow. The ochre Ahmad slid by her feet, pulling fretfully at the pieces of the paperweight and the afrit bent and quickly grabbed at a dot of yellow glass before it was sucked away. He offered it to Lalita and she grabbed it, his small fingers repulsing her. ‘How dare you? HOW DARE YOU? Is this your idea of an Other game, to let me live with nothing but the brutal memories of death and damnation. Can you imagine? No, you can’t, how could you?’ She walked in an agitated circle. ‘All that is left now is to be the Sultan’s plaything, to feel him touch any private part of me, for me to have to touch him. When he tires of me, to live with his treacherous odalisques seeking my demise, those same women who tried to poison me last week and killed Phaeton.’ She sobbed for a moment. ‘KILLED I tell you.’
She held the tiny shard of glass in her fingers, speaking more quietly, almost as if she spoke to the piece of cullet. ‘I wanted to end it all, I haven’t the courage to cope with the hurt any longer.’ She closed her tired eyes but the pictures drifting through her mind merely sharpened and she quickly opened them again, a hand rubbing to erase the memories.
‘But Lalita, you need not cope alone.’ The djinn, a pleasant man with a smile of light and eyes as dark as shadow, touched her arm. ‘Rajeeb,’ he bowed, ‘will help where he can. As will the afrit. Take a breath. Slowly. There. And another. You see? When you feel your breath, you are neither in your dreadful past or your unknown future. Be heartened, Flower, it is not your time. Fate has decreed otherwise. Keep breathing, that’s it.’
The confidence in the djinn’s tone anchored Lalita and for a second she grasped at his words, ‘Fate has decreed otherwise’ but then she let them slide away.
Rajeeb placed an arm along her shoulders. She sat straighter with the sensation of comfort and listened more carefully. ‘Others know these things better than mortals,’ he said. ‘I can tell you, your destiny is not to be smashed like a paperweight on rocks.’
‘Then what is my destiny? For if I am found outside the Seraglio, I will be tossed off one of the towers again and this time you’ll not be able to save me.’
‘He could if he wanted.’ The little afrit sat on a boulder in front of her, hands balled on his knees, lifting his lips to an innocuous sneer. ‘It appears he can do anything he likes, controlling even the wind or afrits.’
‘It won’t be necessary,’ Rajeeb shifted his arm. ‘The Seraglio will think you are dead, fallen to your death as you planned. And you will be free to begin a new life. There is a new life waiting, Lalita, despite what you might believe.’
‘A new life?’ A life of revenge. I would kill Kurdeesh if I happened on him, have no doubt. ‘How? I have but one skill and am known for it. I should soon be hunted down. The Raj is not so big.’ Lalita stood, sadness and grief at the periphery of her soul and waiting to swoop on her like the vultures that soared overhead. She opened her palm and looked at the tiny yellow glass stud.
Something rolled and exigous had poked an end out of the hollow.
She picked away at it as she thought of the strangeness of standing here, pulled from the brink of death by Others. Her fingers began to form the Horn but she stopped their curl and continued to poke and prod at the miniature shard with a fingernail, her mind trying to sift through chances and choices. The roll pulled free and almost blew away in the puff of air blowing over the riverbank.
‘What’s that, Flower? What is it?’ The afrit, ever curious and more pleasant in an instant, jumped from rock to rock until he stood behind her and looked over her shoulder. She carefully pressed the delicate paper out flat where it lay like a tiny skeleton leaf imprinted with a spider scrawl of writing.
‘It’s Færan. Look, Rajeeb, what does it say?’ The afrit hopped from foot to foot. ‘It’s an important message, why else would it be hidden? By Diff Erebi, do you . . . could it?’
‘Quiet afrit, let me see?’ Rajeeb didn’t attempt to take the scroll from Lalita’s palm but his eyes widened and something cold passed down Lalita’s spine.
‘Ah, Lalita, Fate is a funny thing. There you were attempting to put an end to your existence and here you stand on the precipice of a life that you could never imagine. In your fingers is one of the most sought after things in Eirie and suddenly by virtue of its possession, you have become as valuable. A tiny secret shattered like glass by a simple accident.’
‘It is,’ the afrit whooped.
‘What?’ Lalita let the scroll roll upon itself and closed her palm. ‘What does it say? It looks like two words.’
‘Indeed. And if spoken, could spell calamity or even worse.’
‘And calamity is valuable? Then I am valuable. The afrit has been telling me for weeks now that calamity and myself belong together. What are the words?’ Lalita opened her palm again, her thumb pressing the scroll. ‘Can you say?’
Rajeeb shifted on the rocks. ‘What you hold is a cantrip, one of four. The charm that bestowed immortality was destroyed not long since, but there are three others, three that can take life,’ he snapped his fingers, ‘just like that. The one in your hand reveals two words. I cannot speak them but if I were unprincipled and uttered the charm, then I could effectively kill any who live within a hundred miles. A foul charm, a devastating charm. Lalita, I cannot underestimate the value of this for it speaks of our earth, our land,’ he spoke with emphasis, ‘and worse still, the dust we could become, a speck in the air we breathe.’
Rajeeb told Lalita a brief history of the enchantments, of their longlasting shadow in the Vale of Kush and she sat with her grief on hold. ‘The power of these charms is monstrous,’ he said. ‘It is rumoured that the malign of the Other world seek them to empower themselves. If the Immortality Charm had not been invoked, it is doubtful anyone should have known the Cantrips had been found. As it is . . .’ he grimaced. ‘But Lalita, there is even more to tell you, so much more, and not here as the town wakes. Hold my hand and we shall move. Not far but far enough.’
The dark mists ceased swirling, Lalita dizzy with vertigo as she took her hands away from Rajeeb’s grasp. The afrit pushed at her shoulders. ‘Sit Desert Flower, sit before you fall.’ He waved an admonishing finger grinned as she turned to brush him away. ‘Now now, remember if you are rude to an Other that calamity will occur. Oh but then this we know, don’t we?’ He chucked her under the chin and she fluttered her hand as if to chase away a mosquito but he laughed and added, ‘Disaster Damsel!’
‘He is frustrating.’ Rajeeb passed Lalita a cup of aromatic tea. ‘But he has watched over you and we must be grateful.’
Lalita blew on the liquid before sipping. ‘I know. He watched from the beginning. I remember walking with Salah from the Door of a Thousand Promises along a colonnade and the afrit touched me like a soft breeze. I was beleaguered beyond belief and he calmed me.’
‘Calmed you?’ Rajeeb snorted. ‘Then it was definitely not the afrit. He didn’t learn to calm you until later and that was because . . .’
‘Because you ordered me to.’ The sulky afrit drew a rune on the dusty ground.
‘Was it you, Rajeeb? I asked the afrit often if it was he and he would say, Maybe, maybe not. I never really knew the truth of it.’
Rajeeb shook his head as he studied the afrit. ‘I’m an odd djinn, Lalita, not given to tease and turmoil like most spirits of the Raj. In another life my father imprisoned me in a lamp for my . . . shall we say my perverse lack of diligence. I was a sore disappointment but that is another story. When I first glimpsed you in the colonnade, walking with such pride against such unbearable odds, I knew you were hurt. I recognized the signs; a palpable hurt that I wanted to cut away. And when I heard your name, I realized Fate had sent you my way. You see, I knew of your brother and thus it suited me to help you.’
Lalita’s heart jumped. ‘My brother? How? Tell me.’
‘It is a long tale and I think we must eat before I talk. We are safe here for now and can rest uninterrupted.’ He pulled jars of spicy pastes and flat breads out of a bag, along with fruit and nuts. The afrit revealed a small bag of nougats and honeyed pastries to add to their small repast.
Despite impatience pulling at her like the Symmer wind, Lalita was hungry and welcomed food, glancing around at the building in which they sat as she ate. Louvred timber slats were shut against the glare of the day and shafts of light pierced the cracks, small motes of dust swirling in some dervish dance. Long racks lined the walls and in the humid gloom she could see greenery lying in piles on the shelves.
‘Silkworms.’ The afrit picked up a leaf, showing her the ivory caterpillar cutting away with scalloped bites. In his other hand he held a silky chrysalis.
‘But there is only one silk house in Ahmadabad and that is behind the palace walls,’ she dropped the flatbread, smearing paste over the thin silk kaftan. ‘Rajeeb, you have magicked me back into my prison.’
‘Not at all. This is as good as any place for the moment. The silkworms were fed earlier, we are safe from prying eyes and I shall only have to move you this evening when the fresh leaves are delivered. When the time comes I shall move you somewhere equally secure, have no fear.’
Despite the easy confidence of the djinn, Lalita’s nerves jangled, tiny wires stretching tight and then loose, tight and loose. ‘Then tell me of Kholi, please.’ She rolled a velvet-soft peach in her hand and her eyes glistened. Tell me of my brother, of my family, because now I have none.
‘Ah Lalita, this is a ballad you could have written in the Sultan’s book – a grand tale of love and loss. I could take the rest of the day to tell it.’
Lalita grabbed his hand. ‘Tell and I promise I shall listen and say nothing.’
‘She’s good at that,’ chuntered the afrit. ‘There were whole days gone by in the Seraglio and she might as well have been a mute like the rest of them.’