3. Zairbhreena's Peril
But what of the princess? The last thing she remembered was standing in front of the mirror in the gem merchant's tent when, without warning, she was attacked by a fiery stream of light that fizzed like a soda-drink. She would have screamed aloud, but it held her immobile. Then came another flash of light and she fell into blackness.
When she came to her senses she was mute and paralyzed, lying on her back. She felt oddly insensate. She could not feel the carpet below her, or smell the heavy smoke that hung in the air. The gem merchant's daughter, so helpful earlier, now squatted beside her and rudely poked her breast. Zairbhreena tried to snap at her, but she couldn't open her mouth. The girls' fingernail made a strange scraping sound. Zairbhreena thought she had fallen ill and wondered why Jaseloris seemed so unconcerned. Couldn't she see she needed help?
Jaseloris looked into her eyes, and Zairbhreena saw a small, evil smile bloom on her lips. She stood and called for her guards.
"Take this statue," she said, "and sell it to Jendrik the potter. Crushed into lime, it will make a fine addition to the clay of his wares."
The princess wondered what statue she had meant, for she had seen no statue in the tent. But the guards seemed to understand he was ill, for they lifted her off the floor, grunting as if she was a heavy trunk and not a slim girl. Her body felt weirdly rigid. Turning her in their grip, they passed before the silver mirror. And Zairbhreena saw that she was the statue. She had been turned into stone, and they were taking her to the potter's to be crushed.
She screamed, and screamed, and screamed! She screamed as they strapped her onto the protesting camel, she screamed as they swatted it through the bazaar, she screamed they reached the potter's yard and unloaded her like a lump of mute stone. And no one could hear her, or attend to her plight, for her jaws remained motionless. She was totally paralyzed, and totally helpless.
They propped her against the potter's shed, balancing her on the tips of her toes as she could no longer stand flat on her feet. Her eyes were frozen in their sockets, unable to look away from the activities before her. Two well-muscled slaves attacked a block of stone with heavy mallets, while a third gathered the chunks in a basket and placed them on a table that rotated under a giant grindstone, which crushed them further as it rolled over them. Another slave then swept the powder into a wooden bowl and poured it into a vat of wet clay an apprentice was stirring. Elsewhere more apprentices threw clay onto their wheels and shaped it, then placed the jars onto paddles of stone and fed into the fiery hell of the kilns.
The princess paid particular attention to this last part, and whimpered.
The two guards stood with the potter in a far part of the yard. She supposed they were haggling over price.
She sent a silent prayer to the gods for rescue. Would she feel pain as her body was crushed? More importantly, would her soul depart from the statue when it was broken? Would it fly to the gods as if she had died, or would it stubbornly cling to every shard and grain of dust? She began to whimper again, thinking of the mallets, the grinding wheel, the kilns--her agonized consciousness trapped forever in the form of dozens of bowls scattered throughout the city.
Meanwhile, the elder guard had left the yard. The younger came to an agreement with the potter and strapped her on the camel again, to take her somewhere else. Zairbhreena wept in relief, but no tears crossed the frozen features of her face.
The guard took her to a house she judged belonged to a tilemaker, going by the colorful riles that adorned its walls and roof. He went inside the yard and came out with a pouch of coins. He smiled and pinched her petrified cheek as he walked by, then led the camel away without giving her a backwards glance. She had been sold. But to who? And for what?
A wiry, elderly man with thick white hair came up to inspect her. He had with him his handsome young son, who looked to be her own age. The boy stared at her, much taken. "What will you do with this lovely statue, father?" he asked.
"She is to be a wedding gift for Prince Lassok," the older man--the tilemaker, she guessed--said. "Here, help me carry it into the yard."
The heart of the princess leapt with joy. The prince was sure to recognize her on being presented to him. His kiss would release her from this evil spell and transform her back to flesh, for that was what always happened in the fairy-stories of her childhood.
The yard was full of blocks of rare stone in all shades of earth and gem. Stacked here and there were columns of tiles that had been cut from that stone, some neat as coins, others teetering like drunks. A heavy wooden table buzzed loudly in the center, the strange noise made by a circular saw that two slaves turned with handles.
The saw was slicing through a block of granite.
To Zairbhreena's surprise the tilemaker measured her waist with a piece of string. "Twenty inches," he said. "Perfect."
"Why is that father?" the young man asked.
"Prince Lassok wants eighty gold tiles to adorn the floor of his nuptial chamber," the tilemaker said. "This fair beauty shall easily yield that amount."
NOOOO!!! the princess screamed. But no one heard her.
"Are you sure about that father?" the young man said, a note of entreaty in his voice. "It is such a beautiful statue. Surely the prince would appreciate it as a gift."
"The prince ordered some tiles, not a stone representation of some nobleman's sweet-meat," the tilemaker said peevishly, marking the princess's torso with a wax stylus. "Besides, if there are to be any statues in his palace, he would want one of his wife, not some anonymous young pretty."
With a shock the princess realized they did not recognize without her veil and robe. They would not have recognized her even with them. All veiled women looked alike in the city of Carsimbad.
"It is unseemly, too, to keep a nude statue about the house; it might arouse passions that are better kept confined to the bedroom. Take note of what I say, young man."
"Yes, father," the son said sheepishly. He looked like he wanted to argue it further, but nonetheless obeyed the gestures of his father to help him lift Zairbhreena's petrified form onto the table, positioning her crosswise. The slaves began to turn the saw.
Zairbhreena struggled like a panther, vainly commanding her frozen limbs to move, but she remained mute and immobile. The saw began to travel toward her on an inset metal track, the sharp teeth a solid blur. She began to pray. Please, almighty gods, free me from this fate! She could not become the tiled floor of her own nuptial chamber, accepting the slap and shuffle of indifferent feet as the prince mourned her disappearance...or, even worse, took another wife in the bed made for her!
The saw crept an arm's length's, a hand's length, then finally a fingernail's length away. Zairbhreena's prayer became a high-pitched babble of fear.
Perhaps some god heard and took pity, for at that moment the leather belt driving the saw snapped in two. The saw had stopped a hair length's away from her hard stony waist.
The tilemaker swore and beat his slaves, for, as he loudly declared, he had spent the last of his money on the statue and must sell it now to repair his saw. With angry words he bade his son to take the statue to Jafit the statuer and sell it, making sure he received a good price.
Zairbhreena wept with relief.
The tilemaker's son harnessed the work-horse to the cart, glancing shyly at Zairbhreena in the shadowed privacy of the alleyway. A familiar warmth smoldered in his eyes. "You are so lovely," he said. "I wish I could keep you for myself. I have never had a girl before who stood still as you, listening to everything I had to say." He stroked the cool stone of Zairbhreena's cheek. "Or one who gazed at me with no distractions, and showed her flesh with no coyness or censure, as you do now." He kissed Zairbhreena on the lips, which of course she could not feel.
But, alas, a mere kiss could not break so severe a spell. The princess remained a stone statue.
She had no chance to feel disappointment, for the tilemaker's son initiated other, more intimate, actions. His mouth pressed against her fine-carved smile, then tenderly mouthed each stony breast, kissing each tiny nipple. His fingers explored the hidden crevices of her body in a heat so raw and urgent it seemed, to the princess, that he was starving and had found a roast fowl. Never had the prince acted this way towards her!
A warm, melting feeling came over her, a core of heat in her belly that flushed slowly outward towards her skin. Her head swam with new and interesting thoughts. The young man's tongue made a glistening track down the smooth stone of her stomach, then lingered on the stony curls at her loins. The princess felt...pleasure? Was it possible?
The young man cupped her hard marble buttocks in his hands, his fingers pressing deep within the cool crack that cleaved them. The princess moaned, a moan as silent as her screams. Her fused legs strained to part for the probing fingers of the youth, her arms to rise and embrace him. If any had been observing the pair, he would have seen the statue lighten in color and move slightly. For that was the secret of stone to flesh; not a kiss, as the princess had supposed, but the carnal act performed to its climax.
But neither she nor the prince had guessed this.
The youth broke off his embrace at his father's sharp cry. "I thought I told you to take that statue to Jafit!" he scolded.
The youth stood, quickly stuffing his stiff organ back into his trousers. "I was readying the cart, father." And he pushed the petrified princess inside, then threw a dusty canvas cover over her. The princess felt the wheels turn as he led the cart out into the street. The passion she had within her faded; the fleshy core had reverted back to stone. She had no idea of what had happened to her. She supposed it was another form of magic. In a way it was.
The increased level of noise told her they were coming close to the marketplace. Mixed with the shouts and banter was the voice of the prince. "Zairbhreena! Zairbhreena!"
I am here! Turn and look; I am in this cart! Desperately she tried to project her thoughts. But he did not hear her, and continued to call.
The statuer gave the tilemaker's son 15 dinar for her. Well pleased, praising her beauty. he stood her in the front yard of his shop with the dozens of other statues he sold. Pointed toes planted firmly in the sand, Zairbhreena stared unblinkingly out at the busy bazaar. The prince would surely see her here.
But he walked right by her, distracted, and never knew she was there.
The hot sun beat down on the sobbing princess, warming her even though her encasing of stone. What was to become of her? Suppose someone bought her, and took her away from the city forever? They would never know who she was. She could decorate a garden or foyer for many, many lonely years, touched only by the dust rags of disinterested house slaves.
Though the prince did not notice her she attracted other sorts of attention. Market thieves leered at her nakedness and made lewd comments in the crudest manner. The statuer drove them away but they came back again and again to loiter. One of them even tried to carve his name in her thigh. Luckily, Caliph's marketplace guards chased the ruffian off...then handed the statuer a fine for displaying a nude statue in public, which went against the laws of the city.
"What am I to do," the statuer muttered, wiping his sweat-drenched forehead with a square of white silk. "A beautiful young woman like yourself should be displayed properly, to find a good home." He addressed her like a young child or pet, but did not expect her to answer; it was the same way he spoke to all his statues. "I shall have to keep you inside. Ah well."
He went round to fetch his assistant to help him move her. But before they returned another insult was inflicted on the princess: a pack of off-duty shop girls, hardened by long hours of work, scrawled obscene things upon her with their sticks of kohl and pots of lip-paint, barking raucous laughter when the statuer chased them off.
He wiped her off with a wet rag. "Come my pretty," he wheedled. "Back into the shop."
It was almost dusk now, and the princess's hope of rescue were more remote than ever. As the statuer locked up his shop when a young man with curly brown hair burst in. He was thin, with a nervous, ascetic look, and his hands were covered liberally with stone dust. "I must see that statue!" he panted, for he had run all the way across the market. "I've heard talk in the city about her all afternoon!"
"You must mean the golden goddess here," the statuer said. "She has attracted so much attention I was forced to bring her inside, so no one would steal her." Actually that was not true, but the statuer, sensing a sale, embellished on the truth. "Look well, my young man. Such fine craftsmanship, it seems almost alive!"
The young man looked closely at Zairbhreena's face, marveling. Zairbhreena neither moved nor blinked, of course. "How the eyes glisten!" he remarked. "They seem as if full of tears. And those finely carved lips, they almost tremble on the verge of speech!"
"Only thirty denar," the statuer said.
The young man sighed but did not haggle her price. From many pockets he produced a variety of coins and other tender, some marked with the Caliph's seal, others bearing inscriptions from lands to the north and east. "Here is your money, O Cruel One, much more than a humble sculptor like myself can afford, but I shall part with it anyway, as I have fallen in love with this luscious maiden. Shall I owe you the last wezet?"
"A promissory note will be sufficient," the statuer said. "Or you can let me sell your latest work for a commission."
"A deal then," the sculptor said. He loaded the princess in the back of his donkey cart and drove her away towards the upper city, where more adventures awaited her...
...or dusty oblivion.