5. Into the Desert
Prince Lassok, meanwhile, had not been idle. In fact he had been quite busy.
Under his orders the Caliphate guards were searching every dwelling in the city, seizing marble statues of nude maidens and kidnapping them, carting them off to the Summer Court where they were aligned in neat rows for the prince's inspection. At least one arrived every minute and he walked up and down among the graceful torsos, the gesturing limbs, searching for the face of his beloved. But he did not find her.
The Caliph watched all this from the courtyard balcony, shaking his silk- turbaned head in consternation. "My son, what is it with this foolishness? Do you realize the chaos you are creating in my city?"
"I must find her," the prince said tightly, reaching the end of one row and turning down another. The statues who were not Zairbhreena were quickly removed so new ones could be inserted in their place. Outside the gate a long line of citizens waited irately to collect their purloined property.
"But this is madness!" the Caliph said. He went to join his son, walking beside him as a fat little quail might accompany a panther. "I know the scandal embarrasses you, that such a nude statue of Zairbhreena should exist, but for Ahrez's sake, let it go! Attend to your fiancee, not her image."
"My fiancee is the statue," the prince said through gritted teeth. "Have you not listened to what I said about magic?"
The Caliph shook his head. As with most of his people he thought magic belonged only in a child's tale. "You must be feeling ill, Lassok. Come let Tanabor the Court physician have a look at you."
"No!" Lassok snarled, resisting the fatherly fingers that clutched at his sleeve. "There was magic involved, and it came from Jaseloris, the gem merchant's daughter."
The Caliph sighed. "My son and the light of my aged, extremely agitated heart, what reason have you to accuse the daughter of such an upstanding citizen to be a dabbler in the black arts? Her father has proven her innocence."
"He lies!" said the prince.
"We searched his home and found no evidence to prove your claims...that is, if such a thing as magic truly exists, which it does not. Please come and rest, Lassok, and have Tanabor mix a medicine to refresh you."
"Later," the prince said vaguely. "And search his workplace! That is where the evidence will be found." And he continued to search among the rows.
Jaseloris, meanwhile, gloated down on her captive, whom she had carried to a bricklayer's yard.
Zairbhreena looked no different from the last time they had met: nude and petrified. Her arms were still sealed to her sides and her legs to each other, so she formed a vaguely girl-shaped spindle of stone. Her blank stone eyes remained serene, fixed forever on some distant point before her.
Jaseloris hated her with complete and utter venom. Zairbhreena had cost her the prince, a royal station, and the use of her hand; now she was going to cost her a home as well.
Her men, whom she had hired with a handful of gems swiped from her father, waited restlessly for her orders. She knew it was only a matter of time before the prince discovered her involvement and acted accordingly. Luckily, the nomads found the statue before the prince had. Now all Jaseloris had to do was dispose of it and enact her own escape from the city, for she was sure neither Lassok nor her father would show her mercy for her deeds.
Ordinarily disposal would be no problem, but the current environment in the city was much too dangerous to be carting a statue around. Glancing at the Zairbhreena again, Jaseloris noticed the princess's nipples were erect as two pieces of writing-chalk. They hadn't been erect when the princess was petrified. How had that happened? She flicked them with her thumb and forefinger, but the change was no illusion.
No matter, she decided. The important thing now was that the princess wasn't going anywhere unless it was where Jaseloris wanted her to go.
She smiled as a plan came to her. She would take the petrified princess to the city of Rahiz and auction her off as if she were a slave. The statue would fetch a high price in that art-lover's capitol, not to mention a delicious revenge; the money would help finance Jaseloris as a gem merchant in her own right. But first, she had to smuggle the statue out of Carsimbad.
"Take the statue to the yard," she commanded, and gave some other orders to her men.
Rows of earthen bricks baked in the noonday sun, shielded from the street by high stone walls. In the center lay a wooden frame the approximate width and height of a human body. The nomads began to pack it with mud, fortifying the clay with chopped pieces of straw. When it was half full they placed the princess into it, pressing her firmly into the mixture so it lapped her chin and nearly covered her breasts. Then they packed in the rest of the mud.
Jaseloris seethed wickedly as her rival's features slowly disappeared under the applications of mud. When the nomads finished not a trace of her could be seen. They smoothed the top with a metal trowel and removed the wooden frame, letting the clay bake to rocklike hardness in the afternoon sun. The princess was no longer a statue...only a large, rather plebeian, brick. In such a state she would be smuggled out of the city with no one the wiser.
On the other side of the city, Prince Lassok was ready to give up. The parade of nude statues had slowed down to a trickle, then nothing at all. All places in the city had been searched, even the wine cellars and catacombs. There was not a statue left that he had not seen. That left only the chilling possibility that Zairbhreena had been smashed into rubble or buried somewhere.
He turned on his heel, intending to seek solace with an opium pipe, but Yezdeesh the street urchin ran into his path. The scrappy youngster had lost no time in using his reward to outfit himself in silk pantaloons and a miniature turban with an ostrich plume in it. "Prince Lassok!" he cried, his piping voice echoing off the walls of the inner court. "I have some news you may be interested in."
"What is it, Yezdeesh?" the prince asked, his heart heavy and dull.
"I was passing by the Southern Gate when I saw a strange sight. A group of nomads was leaving the city with a cart of bricks."
"Nomads have no use for bricks, my Prince. They have their tents."
A presentiment pricked the Prince behind his eyelids. "Go on."
"The leader of the nomads had an injured hand, for he could not control his mount. He kept turning it round and slapping it with his reins. Though he was robed and hooded he had the delicacy of a woman's build and the faintest trace of kohl around his eyes, as if he had scrubbed it off only a few minutes before. I suggest to you, my prince, that this nomad was none other than your former fiancee Jaseloris."
"Jaseloris," the Prince breathed in an astonished whisper. She had escaped from the city, right out from under the noses of his men! "Did my soldiers search the cart?"
"They did, but they found nothing but bricks. I postulate, however, that they could have hidden anything--even a statue--beneath them."
Determination crossed the young prince's face like a thunderstorm . "Saddle my fastest horse!" he barked to the nearest servant. "And fetch ten of my best soldiers, and outfit them with the rest of my desert chargers! We must ride out of the city, to catch the nomads before it is too late!"
It took some time, despite the urgency of the order, to gather a pursuit party together. Over yet more protests from the Caliph the prince and his men rode out of the city in midafternoon, taking the southern road towards Rahiz, where Yezdeesh said the false nomads were headed.
Forty-four pairs of hooves thudded on the sand as the riders galloped. Manes flew, bitted mouths gasped for air. Though the prince and his men had a late start, they soon came within sight of Jaseloris and her nomads. The prince grasped his scimitar and swung it over his head. "There!" he roared. "The black-robed bitch and her cargo!"
Jaseloris glanced over her shoulder and paled beneath her black veil. She kicked the flanks of her own horse with her heels. "Ride!" she ordered. "It's the prince and his guards!"
The nomads disliked the Caliph and his offspring for imposing the restrictions of civilization on them, and if they had been in the majority, they might have turned and fought. But they were not. They followed the example of Jaseloris and spurred their mounts down the dusty yellow road. The cart with Zairbhreena inside jounced along unmercifully in their wake. The two horses pulling it trotted along much faster than a mule or an ox would. But while their driver whipped them into a smart clip, they still lagged behind the nomads.
"We should cut their traces, my Lady, and abandon the cart to the prince!" the driver cried. "He will surely catch us!"
"No!" Jaseloris snapped. She was so close to triumph. Why did the Prince have to discover her ruse? She could escape more elegantly without the cart, true, but it would deprive her of the revenge she desired...revenge both on the princess and on the unfaithful prince who had discarded her.
The prince and his men galloped closer, so that she could the swaying red tassels that decorated their bridles.
Her eyes hardened. She would gain her revenge. She leaned in close to the cart horses and smacked them hard with her sword. On the upstroke she severed their reins, then kicked the astonished driver with her foot, sending him tumbling to his doom under the wheels. Driverless and already maddened by the fast pace, the pair thundered away across the open desert, pulling the cart of bricks behind them.
"There she goes, Lassok!" Jaseloris cried. "There goes your precious princess! Catch her...if you can!" Laughing, she wheeled her stallion round and galloped on.
Grim-faced, Lassok turned his horse to follow the runaway cart, which was headed directly toward the cliffs overlooking the dry sea of Quraz. "Follow Jaseloris, and stop her," he told his captain. "I'm going after the cart." And he galloped away, following the fresh cloud of dust smoking from the wheels. If he didn't stop the cart in time, it, the horses, and the princess could sail over the stony ledge, to smash into pieces on the hard salt pans below.
Meanwhile, the captain and his men had caught up with Jaseloris and the nomads. Though the nomads had superior riding skills, their horses were not as swift as the Caliph's. "Surrender!" the captain ordered, making his horse rear impressively. "You are all under arrest by the orders of the Caliph of Carsimbad!"
"Is that so?" Jaseloris taunted. She took out her chrysoprase wand and aimed it. The captain found himself riding a stone statue of a rearing horse, which fell over on its side into the sand, spilling him off its back. "Leave us alone, or you will all share a similar fate!" she said.
But the soldiers remained loyal to their ruler despite the unexpected bit of sorcery. One nocked an arrow and let it fly. Jaseloris screeched, bringing her hand up to shield her heart. Luckily, it was her stone hand, and the arrow bounced off after inflicting a slight chip. That was the signal for the melee to begin. The nomads and the soldiers clashed both on horseback and off, and Jaseloris quickly withdrew from the fray. She tried to use her wand again, but the closeness of the battle made it impossible to differentiate between targets. She turned one of her own men and a cactus into marble statues before realizing she was doing more harm than good. Fine bits of sand began to pelt her face, and she realized with terror that a sandstorm was blowing up behind them. Damn the prince! They could have reached the safety already if not for him. Cursing, she turned her horse around and galloped toward Rahiz, leaving her men to their fates.
Prince Lassok had noted the storm too, but his attention was solely on the cart. The horses ran almost as fast as his charger, disoriented by the howling wind and clouds of grit. With their eyes clogged, their eyes blinded, they could very well carry themselves and the cart over the edge of the precipice without missing a beat. Lassok drove his own horse closer, trying to match pace with the buckboard. He tried to find the perfect opportunity to jump, but realized, belatedly, there would be no perfect opportunity. There was only the jump. If he succeeded, he would be in the driver's seat, his hands on the reins. If not, he would be face-down on the ground, and Zairbhreena and the cart would be galloping across the desert and lost forever.
He steeled himself, and jumped.
He caught his balance and righted himself. It had been a poor and haphazard leap, but he was inside the cart. He took up the torn reins and pulled, but he was a prince, not a wagon-driver, and the finer points of controlling a pair of horses were unknown to him. The horses continued to gallop and the edge of the cliff came closer and closer. The air filled with blowing sand. He couldn't steer them, and he couldn't stop. Nevertheless, he pulled hard on their left, keeping the pressure steady. The team made a hard turn, which made the wagon spin sharply; at that moment, the prince cut their traces with his sword. The horses continued on, still yoked together, but the wagon veered off to the side, careening down a boulder-studded slope. The momentum carryed it faster and further than any pair of draft animals could.
The prince hung on for his life, barely able to see through the clouds of sand. Though it had been the middle of the afternoon the sky was as dark as twilight. The wooden wheels of the cart banged over boulders. The bed listed this way, then that, the vehicle threatening to fall apart completely.
The prince prayed to every god he knew that he and Zairbhreena should survive this somehow. He didn't want to die now, not when his beloved was almost safely in his arms!
Inside the cart Zairbhreena bounced around in her clay cocoon; she'd been terrified at being encased and had spent most of the trip delirious with fright. Where are you now, Lassok? she thought. Dear gods have mercy on me! She had no idea what Jaseloris had intended by entombing her in clay, but whatever it was, the current violence of her journey was not a good portent.
The flimsy wagon bounced, jounced, and bucked like a frisky colt in the spring. Finally one wheel hit a boulder the other three could not navigate. The wheel smashed and the cart overturned, spilling its contents onto the hard-packed sand--the prince, dozens of bricks, and a mud-colored coffin of clay that cracked open on impact, revealing the golden treasure hid within.
"Zairbhreena!" the prince cried as he fell. But his cries were drowned by the storm, which swept around him in all its full fury. He could no longer even see her in the gray-brown whirling darkness. Bruised and battered, he tried to crawl to her using his fingers and knees to navigate. But the storm made him loose all sense of direction. Finally he ran into a tall boulder and crouched behind it, shielding himself from the stinging sand. There was nothing he could do but wait.
The storm raged the rest of the day and into the night. The prince fell unconscious from his injuries and the constant hiss of sand.
In the morning, Zairbhreena, bricks, and cart were gone. Tumbled dunes of golden sand lay everywhere, their pure, undulating curves reminiscent of a young girl's figure. Fine-grained, untrammeled sand. Tons of it, burying what once had been a stony plain
"No!" the Prince cried. Flinging himself at the nearest dune, he began to dig.