4. Peril on Peril
The wooden donkey cart knocked Zairbhreena from side to side as it trundled over the rough cobblestones, every turn of the wheels taking her further and further away from the prince. Her heart, if she had one, would have been thudding like a gong. It was tortuous being treated like a thing, a mute, mindless statue with no say over her disposal. What lay in store for her at fate's next turn?
Finally the cart stopped its creaky motion. The sculptor and his servant lifted the canvas and carried her from the stable. Zairbhreena still wasn't used to being handled like a stiff board. She was acutely aware that one misstep on the part of her handlers could cause her to fall and perhaps lose her nose--or even her head--on the hard stones of the courtyard.
The two carried her through the grounds of a wealthy merchant's home to the large outbuilding in the back where the sculptor kept his studio. Her new owner had rich patrons, it seemed. A silent audience came to life in the oil lamps he lit, their eyes blank and innocent: alabaster maidens, proud generals of bronze, laughing cherubs duplicated a dozen times over, looking no less fine even though they were plaster. What drew her eye more, however, was the ornate marble fountain in the center of the room. It was a marvelous work, with a basin in the shape of a many-petaled lotus blossom, and at each corner four creatures squirted thin arcs of water: a toad, an otter, a half-submerged fish, and a turtle. The streams made a pleasant tinkling noise as they hit the pool. At the center stood a short fluted column clearly designed to hold another figure.
"There is her new home," the sculptor said, pointing to the stand. "Imagine what she will look like with water spurting from those pert young breasts. Fetch me my drill."
Zairbhreena screamed yet again. He was going to drill her...to fit in a length of copper pipe!
"Where is the fountain to go?" the servant asked, handing him the instrument.
"The mens' baths at the Temple of Ahrez. An appropriate ornament, don't you think?"
The servant laughed loudly. "I would not mind rinsing my arse in such a fine spray!"
Being a statue was bad enough, but to have leering men ogle her, bathing in the water squirting from her nipples...the humiliation sent her to new heights of protest. But the sculptor merely ignored her screams (as all her other captors had) and laid her on his workbench, strapping her down so she lay on her back. The sharp point of the drill descended on her helpless nipple to core it out.
A loud banging sounded from the door. The sculptor jumped, jerking the drill away from Zairbhreena's breast. "See who it is," he said urgently.
The servant went away to have words with whoever was at the door. Again the drill descended upon Zairbhreena's nipple. The point rested lightly yet firmly on the erect marble nub as the sculptor's other hand gripped the wooden handle, preparing to give it a swift, hard, crank...
"I'm sorry, but he says he must speak to you now, master," the servant said, shrugging.
The sculptor cursed, laying down his tool. "Who is it?"
"Abdi Wadeq Suheer. He says his mother has waited long enough for her statue to be complete. He wants to claim it now or he will not pay!"
The sculptor cursed again. "The balls of Ahrez!" He ran his hands through his hair, glancing guiltily at the half-finished statue in the corner...a white chalk maiden who stood with her hands at her sides, a benevolent expression on her face. "Send him away! Tell him it will be ready tomorrow."
"He brought his bravos with him," the servant said. "If you do not give him what he ordered now, he says your hands will pay the price."
Panic washed over the sculptor's face, though Zairbhreena thanked the gods for the diversion. Anything not to be a marble fountain! "Tell him it will be a few minutes," the sculptor said. Then, to Zairbhreena's shock, he threw a bucket of quick-drying whitewash over her, using a brush to reach all her crevices.
"You just bought that!" the servant said in amazement.
"Don't remind me," the sculptor snapped. "But I would rather not lose the use of my fingers. Go quickly, tell him I'm giving his statue the final touches."
Zairbhreena's golden marble form slowly changed to chalk white under several coatings of lime. When the sculptor was finished she gleamed white as salt, disguising her value. The sculptor propped her against the wall so she could dry, fetching several firepots to aid the process. Her vision dimmed under the paint; she now saw the world through a mask of white gauze. Though she was saved from being turned into a fountain, what was to happen to her now?
A minute later her new owner burst in, followed by two thugs. The scars on his face, as well as missing eye, convinced her he was a criminal. The leader of a group of criminals, in fact, by the gaudy nature of his dress and the half-dozen gold earrings he wore. At his side he wore a scimitar so long it threatened to amputate the tips of his pearl-encrusted slippers.
"Ah, Abdi Suheer," the sculptor said, bowing obsequiously. "Here is you mother's statue, as I have promised."
The enormous scowl beneath the crimelord's beard gave way to awe. "You are a genius!" he said. He touched Zairbhreena's painted cheek. "To create a work so fine, in the fragile medium of chalk...you truly honor my mother's memory."
"Thank you, Abdi," the sculptor said, though the tightness of his smile betrayed his regret. He did not want to lose his prize. Zairbhreena, however, was more than happy to leave him.
The two thugs put her in a cart and conveyed her down the hill, past the marketplace and palace. Again Zairbhreena bumped about under her canvas cover. At least they could have thrown in some straw to cushion me, she thought.
They stopped at the city gates, the crimelord giving a loud curse. "What is this line?"
"The Caliphate guards have blocked the gates, Abdi," one of the thugs answered. "They're searching every cart that goes out."
Zairbhreena's hopes rose. Could they be searching for her? Had the prince finally realized her fate?
The crimelord shrugged; this Zairbhreena could see through a tear in the cloth that covered her. His ugly face betrayed no fear. "Let them search. We have done nothing wrong."
That's what you think, Zairbhreena thought. She grew more and more buoyant as the wagon came closer to the gate. Horses snorted, merchants muttered as their carts and wagons were searched. She knew the line would be shorter during the day, as the blistering heat made night travel more practical.
"No statue here," she heard one of the guards say. The wagon ahead of them moved on, its wooden wheels crunching over the gravel. Then it was their turn.
"You are looking for something?" Abdi Suheer asked conversationally, his tone dripping icy politeness.
"You should know, Abdi Suheer," the guard said in an accusatory tone, as if he had dealings with the crimelord before. "Prince Lassok is searching every cart and caravan that leaves the city to find the stolen marble statue of his wife-to-be. He assures the thieves will be most punished most severely." Yes, Zairbhreena thought in jubilation. Let them tear off the cloth, let them see! "Let's have a look in your cart."
Abdi Suheer gave a careless shrug. "If you must. I am no thief. I have a statue, yes, but I bought it from Faroun the sculptor not an hour ago. It certainly is not the prince's intended wife, for I doubt a noble lady would pose nude."
The cover! Zairbhreena commanded, trying by will alone to make her presence noticed. Lift the cover!
"I'll have a look anyway," the guard said. Zairbhreena saw a momentary flash of torchlight as he lifted the canvas and stared inside. His eyes swept over her form.
He replaced the canvas.
And walked away.
"Go on," he said grudgingly, disappointed. To his comrades, "It's only chalk."
NO!! Zairbhreena wailed. NO!!!
The horse's hooves thudded dully on the sand as the crimelord drove the wagon on. Zairbhreena heard him spit in contempt. "You should be ashamed of yourselves," he said fiercely. "This statue goes to decorate my mother's tomb. Your foolishness may have delayed her final rest!"
Tomb? Zairbhreena thought. Final rest? Dear gods, no, not that...
She had plenty of time to think about it as the cart left the city, carrying her towards the wastelands. There was a rocky cleft in the earth there, a canyon of sorts, which over the centuries had become a necropolis. Families buried their dead in the natural caves at first, then excavated artificial ones; when subterranean space ran out, they built tombs, obelisks and columns spelling out each generation of dead. Stone horses reared, stone patriarchs presided sternly. Here and there was a more unusual monument--an alabaster courtesan arranged on a billowy cushion, smiling forever in sexual temptation--or a stony feast cast in bronze, made to commemorate a master chef. All graced pallid houses in the city of the dead.
Though a crimelord, thief, and killer, Abdi Suheer loved his mother, and when she had sickened he commissioned the finest artisans in the city to build a grand tomb for her. She deserved no finer, she who had supported him, even encouraged him, all these years, from bravo to thief to assassin. She would have the finest in death he could afford, and that included this statue of Despra, the blesser of souls, which he had commissioned from the most talented sculptor in the city.
The cart picked out a lonely path between the stone edifices. No one went willingly to the necropolis save the dead or their mourners; it was considered a haunted place, unlucky for the living to go. The tomb stood on a slight rise of ground that overlooked all the others. Leaving one of the thugs to take care of the horse, the crimelord ordered several of the artisans to carry the statue inside. He had kept them working day and night, as there was no telling when his ailing mother would pass on.
It was the first time Zairbhreena had really seen where she was. Of course she screamed.
The fact the tomb was beautiful made no mark on her. The alabaster walls, which glowed like living flesh in the light of the moon, did not move her. Nor did the fine stonework, or the inset designs of semiprecious stone--pale green, chilly gold, a soft red that was barely a blush. The columns did not impress her with their stateliness, nor did the fine workmanship of the cast iron doors. None of it made any impression, because it was going to bury her alive.
They came to the innermost chamber. A slab of marble stood in the center to receive the elderly lady's gilded coffin. On the walls were finely painted frescoes of Paradise that the local artists were still working on. Before the slab, at the head of where the coffin would go, was a tall niche in the wall.
A heavyset gray-haired man turned to face them with a plastering trowel in his hand. He was the master architect of the tomb.
"Here it is," the crimelord said wearily. "Despra herself. Plaster her into the wall, there, so she may look over my mother in her final sleep."
NO!!! Zairbhreena wailed. I am not a statue! My name is Zairbhreena! But no one heard her. The architect only stood her against the wall and began slapping trowel after trowel of white plaster into the niche. She would be inset like a plaque into a temple wall, only her front side visible...trapped and motionless for eternity with only a decaying corpse for company. No one would ever know she was there. No one would free her, not even tomb robbers, for she would merely look like part of the wall. That is, if they could even get in. When the family had finished their grieving the entrance would be blocked up with bricks and mortar, sealing her and the coffin in darkness forever.
The only thing she could do was wait for the inevitable, sobbing in growing terror as the fresco painters finished their work. Please Lassok, she thought desperately. Wherever you are, help me! Come to my rescue!
The architect finished his work. He called an assistant to help him raise her, to press her into the warm sticky mass and smooth out the creamy surface around her. Zairbhreena wailed a high keen of despair. If any glass had been in the tomb it would have shattered.
The pair turned their heads as a messenger ran into the tomb. "Abdi Suheer orders you to stop work immediately!"
They lowered Zairbhreena, leaning her against the wall. "Why?"
"His mother has taken a turn for the better. She rises from her bed, and calls for her son! The tomb is not needed."
The architect cursed. "What of my salary, and those of my men?"
"He will pay you in full, but orders you to stop work now, as it would be unlucky for the lady's newfound health. Pick up your tools and go back to the city."
The architect sighed, looking around at what he had already created. Though he took no loss, it had been wasted effort. "All right, let's go home," he said heavily. His men began to pack up their tools. "It seems a shame to leave that statue here, though."
"Why don't you take it back to the city?" the messenger suggested. "It's yours now. You might be able to sell it."
"I will do that," the architect said. To his men, "Help me carry it out. We may be able to hit the markets before sunrise."
Zairbhreena gave thanks to the gods as the men carried her outside, a statue of fine marble disguised as white chalk. She saw the glow of dawn in the distance. Please, let Lassok find her when she returned to the city!
It was early morning when they came back to the city gates. The Caliphate guards did not bother to search them. They were only looking for statues going out of the city. Again Zairbhreena wailed.
All that morning they carted her from place to place looking for a buyer. But recent events in the city had made the market for sculpture somewhat dangerous. The Prince was seizing statues right and left without regard for either owner or crafter and he had showed no hesitancy about killing those who stood in his way. All this Zairbhreena heard from beneath her canvas cover. Fear and excitement skittered inside her. Excitement, for the prince knew what had happened to her; and fear, for he didn't know she was hidden in this cart. Oh, it was agony being unable to have a say in her fate!
Morning grew into afternoon, but no one wanted to buy a strange statue. Finally the last curio dealer they saw made a suggestion. "A new slave market is being built on the other side of the city. Perhaps they might have a place for it."
"I will look into it," the architect said, and they made the long journey across the city. He must have been successful, for after a brief pause Zairbhreena was carried from the cart again and stood against the wall.
She examined her new surroundings with interest. That is, the scene immediately before her face, as she could not move her eyes. She stood propped against a beam in a medium-sized pavilion, the ribs of its ceiling just going up. A solid stone wall came up to her waist, then a number of slim columns, each about five feet tall. extended up to where the ceiling would be. The stone was as white as she was. There should have been forty columns, ten on each side, but the last one, in the corner farthest from her, was missing.
The stonecrafter--for he could be no other--regarded her with his hands on his hips. He was massively muscled individual who was deeply tanned by the sun. Behind him was a heavy lathe on a table. His assistants waited by the treadle that turned it, dressed in heavy leather aprons, as was he. "I hate to waste such a fine statue," he said with regret, stroking Zairbhreena's arm from shoulder to wrist. "But the last column needs to go into place, and we haven't any matching stone."
Zairbhreena wailed; this was her sixth peril since being petrified, and it might be her last. This time, she was not going to be treated as a work of art at all, or even a valuable piece of marble. She was merely a handy piece of stone.
They placed her in the lathe, which held her horizontally over the table by means of clamps at the top of her skull and the tips of her toes. Secured this way, she would spin at high velocity when the stonecrafter's apprentices worked the treadle, enabling the stonecrafter to rasp her features away with his heavy iron files. Face, breasts, limbs and buttocks...all would gone. When they finished, only a slim white column would remain.
How she screamed! But no rescue came, and events turned hopeless. The apprentices cranked up the lathe. Slowly she turned like a roast on a spit, gradually increasing in speed. Images flashed like lightning before her terrified eyes. Table, sky, stonecrafter. Table, sky, stonecrafter. She began to pick up speed, and the images became an indistinguishable blur, then finally smeared together in a whorl of white. The stonecrafter lifted up the heaviest of his rasps, his heavy-muscled arms maneuvering it into position. The fine points glinted like tiny teeth, sharp as diamonds. He would begin at the ends, he decided, and work his way in. An apprentice waited with a bucket of water to sluice away the inevitable chalk dust.
The rasp came closer and closer, an eyelash away from making contact with her nose. Please, merciful gods! she begged. Do something!
The apprentice sneezed just then, jarring his bucket. A dollop of water spilled down on the painted marble flesh of the princess, revealing the gold skin of the statue beneath.
"Stop the lathe!" the stonecrafter bellowed. Slowly the princess came to a stop, half-mad with dizziness, not to mention fear. One breast was white, the other streaked with gold. "Bring that bucket closer, and pour it out." Water gushed over the princess's breasts, sluicing the area between them. The whitewash melted away in a milky stream. To everyone's amazement, the stone beneath was fine golden marble.
The stonecrafter laid his palm on the smooth, slick stone. "Gods!" he swore. "Fetch some more water. If I'm not mistaken, this is the statue sought by the prince!"
The assistants began talking excitedly. Intrigue like this rarely touched their mundane lives. They picked up a large washbasin and some rags and hurried to the cistern.
The stonecrafter wiped his forehead in relief. "I wonder who was responsible for this disguise! No matter. The statue is safe now. I will tell the palace as soon as my boys return."
Zairbhreena, meanwhile, was on fire with wild jubilation. Yes, yes! At last, she was on her way to prince!
Then her elation turned to terror yet again.
As the stonecrafter leaned over his lathe, sopping up the spilled water, a tall figure muffled in nomad's robes crept up behind him holding a brick. Zairbhreena could only stare blankly, powerless to prevent the assault. The stranger bashed the stonecrafter over the head, and he fell limply across the table. The stranger looked down on him briefly, then gave a quick signal. Four more robed and hooded nomads emerged from the bushes; all Zairbhreena could see of them were their eyes.
The veil of the first nomad blew aside, revealing the features of Jaseloris, the gem merchant's daughter. "Quickly!" she said, pointing with her stiff, bandaged hand. "Take the statue and meet me back at the warehouse!"