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The Marriage of Nitokris

There were two sisters, She and Din. She was a reader of books, and Din a reader of people. She read histories, legends, rumors and fairy-tales from scrolls and books and tablets of stone; Din spoke with merchants, noblemen and common palace-laborers. Both grew very wise, though they were still young.

Their father was a vizier to Shah Shahryar the Magnificent. She knew a vizier, also vazir or vesir, was a political advisor of a high rank; the old word in Arabic had been wazir, meaning viceroy; and this particular vizier father of theirs was the third from their family, and had been better regarded by Shahryar's father than by Shahryar himself. Din knew, for she had heard so, that Shahryar was an impetuous young man, driven by his loins and his dark suspicions of other people; and ever since Shahryar's wife, a noted princess of Africa, had died under mysterious circumstances three years ago, something awful had been happening in the constantly white-bannered palace, something so awful their father the vizier would not tell them; and the pale-faced men and women that went into the palace and sometimes came out would not tell the sisters. Perhaps they feared their words might reach the Shah's ears, and the Shah's scimitar then their ears.

One day She was reading a book when she jumped up, slapped her forehead and cried a very rude and antique word.

Din raised an inquiring eyebrow, terminated her discussion with the librarian's assistant, who was an intriguing girl from Cathay, and asked her sister what scroll had incensed her so.

She pointed at a scroll — an amusingly error-laden copy of the foreign-devil written Manners of the People of the Shahs — and read out loud:

And when the Shah takes a wife, the palace is festooned with white on the lower parts of the towers for a day, to resemble a garden of white flowers, purity and innocence; and when the wife dies, the tops of the towers are bannered in white for a day, to symbolise the wife's spiritual transformation into a dove, and rise into the arms of the Almighty.

“Oh”, Din said, for though they both had known these two facts for years, they never had considered the meaning of the Shah's palace being all adorned in white, the stem and the tops both, for three whole years.

That evening, as the vizier returned from the palace to the much lesser palace he lived in, on the hill opposite from the hill of the great and white palace of the Shah, in a place where the ground was less venerable and august, but the winds brisker and more filled with scents of the orange-gardens — he found his two daughters at the door, offering to take his cloak and boots, and giving him slippers and a draught of cool water, as servants usually would.

The dearth of servants was continued inside; and having relaxed and eaten a light meal prepared with filial love and some basic cooking mistakes, the vizier sighed and asked his daughters what was up.

She offered him a scroll, with a frame of gold and ebony set to frame certain sentences on the festooning of the palace. The vizier but glanced at these, and sighed again, this time with a greater concern.

He then related the marriage of Shah Shahryar to Nitokris, the youngest child of the Emir of Luxor. Nitokris was the epitome of feminine beauty, full of youth and wit, beloved of the Emir and all of the Emir's people. The marriage had been of Shahryar's own making, for he had heard of Nitokris's immense beauty, youth and wit, and grown hot and blind with desire. He had lavished the Emir of Luxor with gifts, and sent emissaries bearing images of himself in gold and ivory; and eventually had shamed the Emir into offering his youngest to Shahryar. Now it would have been within Shahryar's power to take Nitokris as a mere concubine, but he was so besotted with tales and dreams that he had the Luxorite elevated and declared to be the future mother of his heirs, a mistress of the palace under his own personal seal and sigil, and not those of the Shah's throne.

Thus, the vizier told, the lower parts of the towers had been garlanded in cloths and streamers of white, and Shah Shahryar and Nitokris had retired to the Shah's private chambers.

“Oh, that sounds nice”, Din said.

The vizier sighed, and told her that come the morning Nitokris was dead.

Dead how, nobody knew, for the Shah's mute privacy-slaves bore away the body and buried it in an unknown place. Dead why, nobody knew, for the Shah was wrathful, full of some great and desperate frustration.

The garlands were pulled up to the tops of the towers, as was the proper display when the Shah's wife and consort had died.

As the day turned towards night, he motioned one of his viziers to him, and whispered an order. The vizier — not the girls' father, but an old, fat man called Othman — blanched, and then made arrangements. Older, lesser fabrics were brought out, and wrapped round the bases of the towers of the great palace, and unfurled over its mighty walls; and a woman, Othman's oldest daughter, was brought to the Shah.

“I pronounce us a Shah and wife”, the Shah had sighed, then gestured. He retired to his rooms; his mutes carried the protesting new wife after him.

Come the new morning Othman's daughter was dead, and the top-festoonments stayed in place. So did those of the lower parts, for Shah Shahryar gestured at a different vizier and grunted, “Get me a virgin of high birth. Lovely and desirable.”

For three years, for a thousand days, this melancholy slaughter had went on. That very day, the vizier told, the vizier Othman's younger daughter had been chosen; Othman was inconsolate, yet incapable of resisting the command of his lord and ruler. Come morning, the daughter would no doubt be dead; come morning, the vizier confessed, it would be likely Othman would be dead as well.

“That is unjust!” She cried.

“It is the will of the Shah”, the vizier sighed. “And we are not sworn to do justice, but the Shah's command; for in ancient days it was thought the two would be the same.”

“Not even in ancient days was it so”, muttered book-wise She.

The vizier went and slept, his sleep troubled by memories of white banners and procured virgins. She and Din did not sleep, not for a while, for they held their heads together and plotted.

Come morning, the vizier busied his servants for breakfast, clothes and a draught of cool water, and left for the palace. He wished his daughters had been there to wish him a good day, but he understood they might not have wanted to do so.

Upon arriving in the great palace, he left his horse-train and his guards at the great stables, and went to the seneschal of the palace, a man with a magnificent beard and a lifetime of sad secrets within him.

“How is the Shah?” the vizier asked.

“The mutes have been summoned”, the seneschal said, eyes downcast.

“How is vizier Othman?”

“He also is no more.”

The vizier sighed, then went to prepare for the court.

At midday, the Shah appeared to the court and took position on his throne. His viziers were in attendance, save Othman, as were other ministers and advisors, magicians and soothsayers, and some of his favorite concubines — though it was well known within the palace that the Shah had not touched any of his lesser wives for the three years since Nitokris. Also in attendance were a variety of functionaries: the chief merchant of fabrics, mostly white ones; the chief procurer of flower-garlands and other wedding decorations; the master foodtaster, pale and sick for the overabundance of wedding treats; and the smiling chief of the city's slavemasters, sure that sooner or later the court would run out of noble virgins, save those he had imported from war-torn exotic lands at a great cost.

Shah Shahryar was still a young man, tall and slender, and handsome but for his cold, restless eyes. He was dressed in white from head to toe, and stroked the dagger at his belt even as his restless eyes went over the court like a chill wind.

A vizier stepped to the lowest step of the steps on top of which the throne of the Shah was, and various functionaries and petitioners each in turn addressed the vizier; and the vizier spoke in the voice and the will of the Shah, and the Shah did not see anything on which to correct the vizier's words. Taxes were considered, and irrigation-canals, and the import permits of new types of tent-cloth — the Shah watched all this with restless distaste, stroked his dagger, and observed the crowd.

Most of the crowd, the court, stood in attention, straight but not so straight that they would have challenged the Shah with their stiffness. Each smiled as the Shah's gaze passed over that particular person, smiled as sweat bloomed on foreheads and under clothes, for the Shah is the Sun: there is no life without the Sun, but an excess of its attention brings trouble and death.

Now, as a vizier — the sisters' father — was bringing to a harsh close the audience of a disputatious wine-merchant, a figure moved forward from the back of the court. For a moment the Shah stiffened, for the figure was clad all in black, cloaked and hooded, and thoughts of hashish-eating assassins with poisoned knives leapt unbidden into his mind — but the figure raised a knifeless hand, and cried: “I volunteer as the Shah's next wife!”

The vizier's answer died in his throat, and the Shah rose half off his throne, as the figure stepped forward and lowered the hood — it was She, made up as a bride, with gold on her throat and ivory at her ears.

“What madness is this?” the vizier cried in mortal anguish.

“I volunteer as the Shah's next wife!” She cried, again, taking the place of the wine-merchant, who had seen it fit to scurry away.

“My daughter”, the vizier cried, “my beloved daughter, what madness is this? Come not here, say not those words—”

“Silence.”

At the Shah's single word, the vizier and the court fell silent.

The Shah sat straight on his throne, a frown on his face. “Who are you?”

“I am She”, She said, addressing the vizier for it would be intolerable blasphemy to address the Shah directly. “My sister is Din, and this is my father. I am a virgin of high birth. I am lovely and desirable, as you can see, your Almighty-kissed highness. I have the intimation that you require a wife of my qualifications, and seeing no other better qualified to this task than myself, I have taken it upon myself to offer myself for the task.”

The Shah's mouth twisted in distaste, but there was a flicker of curiosity in his eyes. “Bold words, these. Do you rate yourself over Othman's daughters?”

A plague of whispers ran over the crowd; the vizier covered his eyes. She spoke, her voice flat. “Given that they are both dead, I rank the living over the dead.”

The Shah hesitated, as if surprised, or related a fact he had known but momentarily forgotten. “She will do, then.” He glanced at the vizier, the girl's father. “Make the arrangements.”

Having said this, and spoken more than it was customary for a Shah at court to spoke in a span of days, he rose and shuffled back to his rooms. The vizier stood in place, raised his arms to his daughter's direction, and fell to the floor in a dead faint.

She divested herself of the cloak and hood, using them as cushions for her father, and sat next to him, her face unreadable.

After a while a second figure in black approached, and likewise disrobed, and showed itself to be Din, who had watched the spectacle from the back of the crowd. With palm leaves and a draught of cool water the two teased their father back to consciousness, and bid him to not worry, nor protest what had been their own decision.

“But”, the vizier wheezed, tears in his eyes, reaching out his arms at She, “why you? Why, of all the noble girls, why must it be you?”

Din smiled, placed a cold cloth on her father's brow, and said: “Dear father, it must be She, for the Shah requires a virgin.”

At this, the vizier fainted again. In his absence and the absence of Othman, the wedding of the evening was brief and badly budgeted, costing more than many better planned and more entertaining events of the past three years.

Thus then She and the Shah retired to his private chambers, and to a bedroom whose bed was fresh sandalwood, with pillows and sheets that had never known a sleeper's touch — and this did not comfort She, and nor did the stone floor of the bedchamber, which gleamed mirror-bright from the daily cleanings of three long years, each morning scrubbing out some terrible, red, sticky remainder of the night that had went before.

The Shah disrobed; She averted her eyes, as was proper, and then likewise disrobed.

For a while, both busied themselves with their own anxieties, until they were side by side on the bed and the Shah turned his restless, hard eyes on his new wife.

With a shudder, She noticed the Shah had brought his dagger to bed with him, and like the Shah, it too was shorn of its sheath.

The Shah noticed her noticing, and said: “You no doubt wonder the fate of those who came before you.”

She nodded in gentle acknowledgment.

The Shah gave her a mirthless smile. “Other have volunteered, before you, driven by a similar curiosity. They have bought that knowledge with a dear price. Some have volunteered knowing what ails me, but they have all been mistaken.”

She nodded in gentle acknowledgment of this also, and said: “Oh Sun of the Faithful, I pretend no such knowledge, and my curiosity is a trifling thing. I come, and volunteer, in the place of my sister, who is superior to me in beauty and wit, but is not suitable to be your wife.”

The Shah frowned. “Explain yourself. If she is She's superior, and She is enough for the Shah, how can she not be suitable?”

“Ah! Sad to say, but she is not a virgin; she is too skilled in such sport as this bed is for.”

“I do not think so”, the Shah sighed, “but I do not gainsay you knowledge of your sister, even if you yourself are innocent on the matter. But how should your presence here be of any comfort to her?”

“Not a comfort to her, but to the Sun of the Faithful, for though Din is familiar to every traveller that comes to the markets and the stalls of the Great Bazaar, She is second only to her in the knowledge of such knowledge as a wife should know, and the wife of the Shah above all other wives.”

“What would that be?”

“Why, every tale that smoothens the troubled brow, and ensnares the preoccupied soul. Breathtaking tales of Zothique, weird stories of Hyperborea before the Prophet; such legends as only the oldest scrolls hold, and jealously guard; such tellings as are in languages men no longer speak, and only women bother to learn.”

“Intriguing. Entertain me with one of these stories, She.”

And She entertained, and began telling from raw memory the story-cycle of Zothique, the last world, the world of necromancers and hopeless soldiers, torturers and wizards, the land of the dying sun and a wan moon; and she told and told, and the Shah's taut body went limp and his eyes lost their focus and hardness, and his soul was ensnared and his brow smoothened. And after an unmeasured eternity of enchantment in words, She stopped mid-sentence and lowered her eyes.

“Pardon me, Sun of the Faithful.”

The Shah blinked, and came awake from the land of storytellers, and demanded to hear the end of the tale, and the true identity of the terrible abbot of Puthuum, who had been the subject of that particular twist of the tale.

She turned her eyes towards the window, where a sunrise was peeking in, turning the room's walls red with light; and the same moment there was a knock on the door, and a servant entered to present the Shah his morning clothes and his first draught of cool water of the day.

“I have run out of time, your Almighty-kissed highness; I fear this wife must leave you even less satisfied than those who came before.”

The Shah stood up and paced back and forth in indecision. He snatched his dagger off the bed, glanced at the servant, then She, then the window. “I...” He hesitated. “Is there much left of the tale?”

She raised her shoulders, then let them fall. “Some. But there are some more stories left of Zothique, and one must not speak of Zothique unless one speaks of Averoigne as well, a land distant in space and time, a werewolf-haunted land of dour priests and dark magic—”

“Very well then”, the Shah grunted. “We shall consider those when the sun has set once more.”

The next night She told the Shah the remaining stories of Zothique, and some of Averoigne; but when She had but breathed the first lines of the story of the Enchantress of Sylaire, sunrise was again upon them; and the Shah, in an agony of curiosity, spared her life for another day.

So days and nights went by. She told stories, the ten dozen stories of Malygris, the greatest of wizards of antiquity; the nine stories of the cunning thefts of Satampra Zeiros, and the nigh unspeakable secret fables of Zhoth­aq­quah; and every night ended in a red sunrise, and a tale left half untold. The court was a more restive place now that there was no need for a daily wife, though the procurers of wedding supplies grumbled and grew lean. As the Shah slept not an eyeblink each night, he slept most of the days; and this too added to the relaxation of the court, and the smooth running of its affairs.

So days and nights went by: one thousand nights, and one thousand days, until the thousand-and-first night came, and She told the story called the End of the Story, and at the end of it closed her mouth, for there were no more stories to tell.

“Now”, She said, “Sun of the Faithful, the stories are told. There is naught but silence, or worse, until the sun rises — unless you have a tale to tell.”

The Shah gazed at She's features, which had grown familiar to him, and more alluring with each passing night spent denying pleasure for the sake of the tale.

“Tell me of Nitokris”, She breathed.

The Shah gazed at She, and something broke in those hard eyes. He closed his eyes, and buried his face in her breast to hide the tears.

“Tell me why a thousand virgins had to die”, She whispered.

He told her.

Great had been the trepidation and fear in the breast of the young Shah, as his veiled-in-white bride Nitokris approached the palace; greater still as the veil-hidden bride mutely nodded her assent, and stood next to him at the feast, unseen and unheard, for such shyness was the custom of the Shahs. Then the evening had been over, and it had been time for the night. The bedchamber had been lowly lit, the bed a bower of shadows and bare skin. And Nitokris had been as lovely as the rumor had told; as witty in banter and teasing as the rumor had told; as lovely and comely and soft-skinned and dexterous as the young Shah's fever dreams had foreseen. More pleasant and pleasing had Nitokris been than any woman; and at the end of the night, in dark despair, the Shah had taken a dagger and plunged it into Nitokris's breast.

After Nitokris (sweet Nitokris! how that name lingered!) the Shah had felt compelled to swiftly marry again, but the first girl, the virgin older daughter of Othman, had been crude, unskilled and unwilling; a disappointment of many and troubling implications; and in a mad, sad rage the dagger had again plunged into a chest, and red lips had grown redder, and then colder.

So, then, for a thousand nights, he had sought purification and forgiveness, a new fire for his heart, a fire which he could name; some sign of a woman the equal of Nitokris, for surely there should be one.

There had been none such, and no relief, until olden tales seduced the Shah to the land of dreams, and such fantastic dream-thoughts that the pain of Nitokris faded, and was no more, leaving only a sad guilt, brought forth by the considering of this sad history from the vantage-point of manifold other sad crimes of fantasy, and this law from the perspective of the wreck of millennial customs lost to the long aeons of time.

To this She replied with that one word of Arabic which means such speechlessness as is known only to the speechless Djinni of the Empty Quarter, and those in such horrified wonder as She: “Wat.

“Do not make me say it”, the Shah sobbed — the man, named Shahryar, sobbed — with a soul as black as the outside night. “If I do not name it, I do not need to admit it. It is not fit the Sun of the Faithful, not for one Almighty-kissed.”

“Yet”, She said in a low voice, “is the Almighty not a man, also?”

With sunrise, mute servants came summoned to the bedchamber of Shah Shahryar, and found it empty save for a body with a dagger in its breast, cooling and cold since the darkest hour of midnight; and they took this and buried it where a thousand and one other bodies had been buried.

And the vizier, She's father, sang phrases of loss and grief at the court, and the court cringed in fear and dismay; and the vizier stepped up to the throne atop the steps, and sat there in the Shah's place, and called her two daughters to her side: She, the widow of the previous Shah (who was now dead and heirless), and Din, who (knowing people, not tales) could have much sooner divined the needless denial which had been the source of the Shah's sick, murderous reign.

And from that day on, no banner nor flag or hanging at the great palace was ever again of pure and undecorated white.

In other books a different end is given for this tale. Those other books say the dead body was She's, and the next wife was Din, and the vizier died of grief as Othman had died, and for years and years the Shah ground down the highborn girls of his wide and broad domain, each thrust of the dagger making it more impossible to consider the first a mistake. So years passed, and then decades: wars were fought on the borders, and rebellions put down in the interior; but no tumult reached the White Palace, where every day a girl of the white-lipped nobility stood trembling next to a hard-eyed man, and each morning mute servants carried a cooling body to some hidden place.

After Shahryar died of great age and sadness, his cousin ruled; and it was not until the time of Shahryar's cousin's son that a great darkness of horse-men came from the northeast and overthrew the realm, and reduced its capital to smoking ruins. It was then told that the White Palace, blazing, made a reek of burning flesh much greater than could be accounted for by the number of the courtiers trapped inside; but nobody had the temerity to move those stones stained by soot and grease even after they had long cooled and been covered by moss.

One thin and disreputable book tells that in those late days the mute descendants of those mute servants tended the wild gardens round the ruins, and gladly if silently guided all visitors round the palace's circular ruin; but if any approached clad in white, top and bottom, they took big sticks and beat that person to death for such lack of tact.

One book — written by a philosopher — observes at the end of the tale the universal truth that any belief, no matter how wrong and wicked, no matter how doubted and disproven in the dark hours of the night, will be adamantly held as long as the holder has sacrificed much for it: and with each sacrifice, each evil deed done in its name, the conviction will grow. Thus none scoff so loudly at book-learning as those who had a chance at it, and threw it away; thus none are so eager to cheer armies as those who have lost limbs and sons to war; for who would want to admit so much blood has been shed for nothing? In the words of the people's poet, suffering ennobles, but nobles are no good.

One book, in latter times much copied, says She and the Shah both survived that final night, and fell in love, and lived happily ever after; but that is palpable nonsense, for though love can redeem much, it cannot undo the deaths of a thousand maidens, and the grief of twice that parents. And She herself — what calumny to say she was besotted by the mere proximity of that murderous tyrant! That, on that bed a thousand times rebuilt because of the red stains of her predecessors, she would love their killer! One suspects the book was written by some shameful latter-day descendant of Shahryar's pestilential line.

And, finally, there is a pamphlet by a mad poet which, very much missing the point of the tale, asks if She survived one thousand nights with the madman because She was, nude on the bed, the exact image of Nitokris.