Mamaraeghen had always been very kindly to its visitors. Travellers were treated almost as well as its royalty, though not many were exactly badly treated in this country. Even those counted ‘poor’ wore silk and satin, and most wore golden jewellery around their necks or wrists or ankles. They wore rings and earrings, they pierced jewels into their bellybuttons and noses, gold and precious stones adorned even their faces on a special occasion. And to a special occasion I was going, apparently.
A short while later, on that very same day, a lady came to the outside of the flowing curtains that hung all around the room, like walls, and she called, ‘Mr Alexander?’
I had already dressed, wanting to achieve the Mamaraeghen look without trying too hard not to look like a foreigner, if you understand me, as I have said, it is not always a disadvantage to be a traveller. I wore a pair of light brown trousers and a loose, white collarless shirt. I’d combed my hair to one side (I still wanted to make a good impression) and threw on some of the cologne offered to me on the bedside stand. Ah, I had always loved this country. Vanity was a way of life here, and it was not at all bad.
I went to pull back the curtain. A small woman stood in its wake, olive-skinned, like most, with an interesting plait in her hair. She had some kind of silver thread running through its body. She looked no older than twenty, her face slim and rather timid as she peered up at me.
‘I have come with a message, sir.’ She said in her strange Mamaraeghen accent, that reminded me a little of the sound of running water, pressing her palms together and bowing her head.
I smiled and held up a hand. ‘Call me Alexander. What does this message concern?’
‘It is a message from the King.’ She replied, still craning her neck to look into my face high above her. ‘He invites you to dine with him later this afternoon.’
‘The King?’ I said, incredulously, ‘It would be just the two of us?’
‘No, he is a holding a banquet at the Palace, and you are invited.’ She replied.
‘Ah, yes, that would be great. Thanks.’ I smiled.
‘Thank you, Alexander.’ She said, and she bowed again. ‘Shall I tell the King that you have accepted?’
‘Yeah, please.’ I replied. I looked down at her dress; a long purple kind, a golden thread wound around her waist. And then I noticed she had a small, pale birthmark at the side of her nose.
She nodded and turned to go, but then I asked, ‘Will his family be joining us?’ Well, I had to, didn’t I?
She turned her head around and smiled, ‘Yes, Alexander, she will.’
I frowned as I watched her walk away, until she passed through another curtain and I could see her no longer. Surely it wasn’t that obvious … Perhaps many men take an interest in the Princess. Yes, of course, they all would. My heart dropped for a moment. Everybody in the country must have seen how beautiful she is. The Rich and the Powerful. And what was I? A traveller? I almost snorted as I went back into my exquisite little room and grabbed my white trilby hat and dropped it onto my head before leaving the room.
I reached the front desk after a slightly baffling ordeal with many curtained doorways. The girl with the birthmark stood at one side of the desk and a larger, rounder girl, also in a purple dress, stood beside her. A small man stood in front of the desk, talking to neither. He wore flowing, lightly coloured clothes and held a scroll of paper in one hand. He gazed up at me as I approached and smiled as though he knew who I was. I smiled back, puzzled.
Birthmark girl looked up and saw my advance and smiled. ‘The King is notified. He shall expect you at four o’clock this afternoon.’
‘Thank you.’ I replied.
‘And, meanwhile, this man’ she said, indicating the small man opposite her. ‘has been sent to show you around the city, Alexander.’
‘That is very generous.’ I smiled, nodding my head in the man’s direction. He took a step forwards and held out the paper in his hand.
‘A note from the King, sir.’ He said, bowing his head. I took it from him and opened it out.
Written in flowing, golden script, was a short message and indeed it had been signed by none other than the King. I had known I would have been treated well. Of course, I usually was in foreign districts, being a traveller, but never had I been given an invitation to dine with the Royal family on the very day after my arrival. Nor had I ever been in such good care. A tour of the city? They seemed to be very keen to impress. There was written:
I have been informed of your arrival, and I would like very much to talk with you, as we have not yet had the pleasure to meet.
I would like to extend an invitation to a banquet held at the Palace this afternoon at the fourth hour. It would be wonderful if you were to accept.
I also hope that you are in good care, and have no complaints. If you feel any need or want for anything in particular, just send word and I will have it brought to you immediately.
For your days in the Kingdom of Mamaraeghen, I have assigned Mr. Ayman, a dear servant of the family, to escort you about the city and to tend to your need.
Hope to meet soon,
I frowned down at the paper a little while longer before looking up at Mr Ayman. He stood, smiling politely up at me like an obedient child. I folded the paper and slipped it into my trouser pocket and said, ‘Thank you, Mr. Ayman. I would gladly accept a tour of the city.’
As we departed from the beautiful guest-house and passed through the delicately tended gardens filled with flowers of a kind I had never before seen, and birds chirping above our heads and sitting in trees, larger than any birds I had ever seen, yet I had heard of them, (Garuda, they called them. Large, red, with small black beaks and bright yellow eyes) Mr Ayman said, ‘Have you ever visited this country before, sir?’
I paused for a small moment before answering. The heat hit me as though I had just walked out into an oven. The shade of the curtains really had brought me a surprising efficient cool, yet now the sweltering heat made my shirt stick to my back in just a few steps. I squinted in the bright sun, and I realized that I could barely see anything around me from the light. It was lucky I had a guide.
‘Yes.’ I replied eventually. ‘I have been to Mamaraeghen before, a long time ago.’
‘Oh?’ Ayman said, his eyebrows rose with interest. ‘The King had not mentioned …’
‘No, I had never met the King before.’ I said. ‘And I had never so much as seen him until yesterday. A … beautiful family he has.’
I almost groaned in my own frustration. How obvious did I have to make it, constantly sending out hints that I was in love with his daughter?
In love. I had not used that term before, in my head.
No. Can’t be. This small Ayman man knows more about her than I do, I am sure. Alexander did not fall in love with anybody so easily, what was he thinking? I shook my head, shake out of it, I thought. Pathetic.
But Hhaemphonia wasn’t just anybody. I knew that much too well.