Once, in a land that may or may not have existed, a stranger arrived in the royal court and stood before a throng of merchants, respected tradesmen and entertainers who had travelled long and far to stand at the side of the King. It was the day of the Celebration of Life; a festival held in the Golden City once every four years, a birthday of sorts, where all were invited to show thanks for the days of prosperity given to them by the King, a man so great that he had driven evil from the world many years before, with a single army. There was much rejoicing, and the people were intoxicated by their own good spirits. Only the King’s son, Prince Tansen was unhappy, but he remained silent out of respect for his father, whom the people greatly adored.
The stranger had come, like so many others it seemed, to please the ruler’s eye in the hopes that he might take her as his wife and show her a life no other woman could know. A life filled with riches and adoration, fawning servants and the good grace of the sun god and all his prophets. But unlike the women who came from the towns and villages bringing gifts of food harvested from their father’s farms and flower’s grown in beautiful sun kissed gardens, the mysterious traveller came from foreign lands and she brought no gift that any guest could see, save for her black robes and her teasing veil.
She had arrived in the city on horseback. The journey had taken three days from the border crossing where she had acquired her steed from a young carpenter. The boy had just become a man and had made a business from travelling the land teaching his trade to others. He was a loyal disciple of the sun god and had been taught by local monks. He discovered the woman when he stopped to rest at the lake. She had camped there by night and approached him from the pale, still waters, unclothed and unashamed. He gawked at her feral beauty and momentarily forgot his religious disposition.
There was a stirring in his loins, the likes of which he had not experienced. Such a sight he had never seen, and he wondered if any man within these borders ever had, or would again. His body seemed to lunge toward her, though he couldn’t move from where he knelt, and he was overcome with a need to surrender to this uncensored beauty, to give up his worldly possessions and commit himself to unlocking the secret of her body.
‘Lady,’ he fawned, ‘a woman such as you deserves a man such as me to worship and provide for her. May you never travel alone again?’
‘And are you that man?’ she answered softly. ‘Are you the man who can give me what I want?’
‘I am, and anything I cannot give I will make, and that which cannot be made shall be willed into existence and given to you.’
She dabbed herself in perfume and the sweet odour overwhelmed him. The boy beheld her fair skin shimmer and her wild hair cling to her face. She bent and kissed him on his lips, lightly, and all his strength gave out. He lay on the damp ground and watched as she wrapped her dark robes around her.
‘I will take this horse as tribute for the kiss,’ she said, ‘and I thank you for your kind words. But a man such as you could not claim me for your own, I’m afraid I have the King in my sights.’
And with that she rode away, taking his horse and leaving him on the bank of the lake, hurt, confused and still wildly aroused.
From the lake she passed along the road to the Golden City, though the towns and villages, absorbing their contented rituals and provincial beliefs. Such people would place every fibre of their trust in those who were prepared to lead them. They had known prosperity for so long that their minds had closed off to threats and their bodies had forgotten how to fight. She knew much about the stirrings of the world beyond these borders and understood that the days of affluence and good health were numbered; she herself was a harbinger of such times to come, a mysterious stranger clad in black with the power of seduction. She was corrupting and untamed, yet their serenity had left them blind to it.
She scoffed at the ploughing farmers and the women tending gardens. She watched the faithful as they entered the temple led by chanting monks in yellow robes and hair that could not be cut, and saw that the only traces of poverty wherever she looked were mendicant men, who had chosen to leave their material lives behind in the hopes that the sun god would free them from their human existence. There was good grace at every turn, and she wondered how many of these delusional supplicants knew the real story of their seamless King, and what had happened to that single army that figured so highly in their estimations. Did anyone in this Kingdom really know how to fight, or know what the world beyond the borders looked like?
She did not think they did.
On the evening of the celebration she arrived at the court and spoke to the usher of some of her thoughts.
‘I wish to show the King a real queen in the making, a woman who can snap this country out of its fatal trance.’
The usher, who was a short and dramatic man, fell instantly under the spell of this enchanting woman. The air about her was sweet and warm, a perfumed aura that seemed to soften and dull the senses.
‘I will make passage for you right away,’ he answered, ‘the King must see you before he wastes his decision on some plain smelling girl from the pastures.’
With that he disappeared and the woman was left to bask in the grandeur of the palace.
The walls were made of polished sandstone, and in a certain light, appeared to be laced with streams of pure gold. The palace was great indeed, with statues and gargoyles and marble underfoot, even in the four courtyards with their murals and meticulous sculptures. The grounds teemed with market sellers and entertainers; music filled the air, soft and melancholic, the only hint of sadness in this otherwise blissful land. More travelling monks and mendicants preached the words of the prophets to groups of affected citizens from all over and children played out mock battles that lacked all semblance of realism, battles concocted in coddled imaginations. The people were dressed in their finery and the guards wore ceremonial garbs. The Celebration of Life was in full parade around her and it was beginning to leave a bitter taste in her mouth.
She became aware of her own jaded outlook. She loathed these people for their obliviousness. They were living in a paradise on earth, the perfect society that had been built, she imagined (for the product of labour and the low rate of taxes was too insufficient to sustain such a grandiose empire) on unfathomable riches, but none of them had the means to protect it. Instead they placed it all in the hands of the King. In her lifetime she had seen everything, from raging barbarian hordes to power hungry men who consumed people’s lives like crop fires in a high wind. She had felt the belligerent force of armies that seek to murder the faith of the innocent, so that they are too weak to retaliate, and she had learned to fight and protect what was precious to her. She envied these people’s contentment, and their faith, but the world had revealed too much of itself for her to feign ignorance now.
The usher returned and beckoned her into the hall; she bowed and made her entrance. The room was filled with five hundred men and a procession of young girls wearing decorated wreaths and pure white linen shawls. There was music here too, the same melodic ballads telling bittersweet stories she heard in the grounds, and at night, during her journey.
Large bowls overflowed with fruits and vegetables and meats. Lush green vines climbed the pillars at the stage where the King and his closest aids sat and the young Prince, Tansen, sat at his father’s side dressed in royal reds and wore light armour. There was a sword at his side, and the woman regarded him with a curious hope – hope that there was strength here after all.
The great King of the Golden City watched the stranger approach. She was different to all these other women, clothed in her dusty black robes and hiding her face behind a veil. She was mysterious. Her slow approach bordered on defiance, but the King – and many of his men – allowed it to pass. Maybe it was respect for her bravado, or maybe it was the captivating scent that filled the air around her. Either way, the King was beguiled and a little intrigued. Who was this stranger in his court, this temptress from a foreign land?
‘You have a lot to say for yourself my dear,’ the King spoke. ‘Maybe you have too much to say.’
The stranger knelt before the King and bowed her head, but she did not answer.
‘So, you say you are a queen in the making? That you can rouse my people from their – what was it? – fatal slumber?’
He was goading her, and the men that filled the hall joined in the fun, laughing and pointing and applauding the King’s good humour. The sad music had stopped and all eyes were on this stranger.
But that was what she wanted.
He watched for some telling reaction but received nothing.
‘These people – this kingdom – have never been more alive! Who are you to question them, or worse yet, to question me? That is not the making of a queen in my book, gods be damned.’
Once again she did not answer. She listened to the chuckles and the guttural exclamations of the men. She could sense their amusement; imagine a woman coming into the court and speaking words that are fit for a warrior? To these men, women should tend the garden, prepare the food and mind the children, not proclaim to the rulers of prosperous kingdoms that they are need of – putting it bluntly – a wake up call. Only the Prince seemed immune to this, but from his corner she did not sense pity, as from the merchants and tradesmen, or intrigue, as from the King; no, from the Prince she sensed something more troublesome.
Yet the King should have been the suspicious one. This was not the first time he had seen a woman such as her. Could it be that in promoting the opulence of his rule, and indoctrinating (so brilliantly) the citizenry who praised him, he had forgotten the crimes of his past? The escapades carried out with his ‘single army’ in the days of ‘driving evil from the world?’
Had he gone blind too?
‘You want to be my queen,’ the King said, ‘yet you have brought no gift to woo me? Are you expecting to get a result by your charm alone? These words you speak, I’m afraid, are not doing you any good!’
‘I have brought you a gift,’ she answered. ‘A message’
‘A message? From who?’
‘A woman from your past’
‘An old girlfriend ay?’ the King roared and the men roared with him. Every man joined in with the knee slapping and the obsequious laughter, even the girls giggled together behind their weathered fingers, save for the Prince. Tansen remained in his seat, watching all that was happening.
‘Tell me,’ the King said coming closer. ‘What is this message?’
The stranger spoke, and afterwards, when the prince had commanded that everyone leave, and the guards had recovered their poise, the tale was told many times, but not without a period of stunned silence, and each time it was repeated it remained perfectly intact; there was no need to embellish, the truth was startling enough.
The woman rose like a preying animal, they said, her black robes and her veil fell away into a heap on the ground, and she stood before the king naked, naked like a miserable harlot, and in her hand there was a curved blade, the likes of which these merchants and tradesmen had never seen, and with a swift and practised strike she thrust the blade into the throat of the king, who was already gaping at her with a certain hunger in his eyes, a certain lust, and his blood poured onto the ground and spread like a scarlet pool of endless depth, and the guards were too surprised to act, so she took the blade and struck again and again, until the young prince, they said with emotion sticking like blades in their own throats, leapt forward through the crowd and stuck that wretched, feral whore with his own sword!
When the news had fully landed with the people, the Prince was confronted with a hundred thousand angry farmers, accompanied by their hysterical wives, all livid and crying out for revenge.
‘Find the ones who sent her’ they cried. ‘Stick them all like the shameless bastards they are!’
Tansen watched the need for retribution spread like a ripple from this one corrupted stone, and he was sad. He knew of his father’s ventures in the years before the Golden City was built, all the men and women he had flayed and murdered to gather his riches and thought about how easy it was for people to change. He could see that these people, who had never understood violence or hate, now wanted blood in return for this ghastly attack.
He addressed them from the high balcony of the former King’s rooms and told them that he was going to war, and the people rejoiced. But where, the young Prince wondered, will I find an army in this innocuous land?
But what of the message? What of the final exchange of words between that sour veiled slut and the greatest King to ever live?
The King leaned towards the woman with a wry grin upon his face. His hot breath smelled of liquor and spices. ‘Tell me…’ he said
She removed her veil and looked him in the eyes. Hers burned with a ferocious intensity and the grin on her face was not made of humour, but of desire.
‘Your time is up,’ she cried for all to hear. ‘The goddess lives once more…’