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Continuing his reluctant odyssey, the storyteller Jafar al-Sharif must cope with fiendish assassins, a city of apes, the King of the Winds, the Isle of Illusions and a mysterious long-vanished underwater city as he attempts to save the life of his beloved daughter.
This is Book 3 of the Parsina Saga, following SHRINE OF THE DESERT MAGE and THE STORYTELLER AND THE JANN. It is a journey through a world of djinni, flying carpets and high adventure...
Continuing his reluctant odyssey, the storyteller Jafar al-Sharif must cope with fiendish assassins, a city of apes, the King of the Winds, the Isle of Illusions and a mysterious long-vanished underwater city as he attempts to save the life of his beloved daughter.
This is Book 3 of the Parsina Saga, following SHRINE OF THE DESERT MAGE and THE STORYTELLER AND THE JANN. It is a journey through a world of djinni, flying carpets and high adventure in exotic realms -- with the fate of the world at stake.
The Royal Nuptials
The tale is told of Shammara the plotter, the queen of corruption, the woman who betrayed good Prince Ahmad and despoiled the fabled sacred city of Ravan, holiest city in Parsina; Shammara, whose name drips like a curse from the lips; Shammara, who trailed misery and destruction in her wake; Shammara, who, from her position of ultimate power within the City of a Hundred Temples, strove for still more power by traveling secretly into the mountains to traffic with the dreaded rimahniya, those worshipers of darkness and the lie.
There in those frigid caverns did she bargain with Abdel ibn Zaid, high priest of evil, and make him swear his strongest vow to kill Prince Ahmad wherever the exiled prince might be. Then, satisfied with her unholy compact, did she return to her palace, with no one knowing of her absence but the trusted servants who guarded her secrets with their lives.
Having the personal oath of Abdel ibn Zaid to kill Prince Ahmad, she could now put all thoughts of the prince aside and concentrate on the business of ruling Ravan. She found much work yet before her. Prince Ahmad's coronation plans had already been under way when he left Ravan on his ill-fated journey to Marakh to wed his intended bride; those plans could now be modified to accommodate the new heir instead. In a few more months her son, the prince Haroun, would be officially crowned king of Ravan.
Her most immediate concern, however, was the imminent wedding of Prince Haroun and Princess Oma of Marakh. Shammara's agent Rabah -- concubine of King Basir and confidant to Princess Oma -- had sent many messages explaining that the princess was vehementlyopposed to marrying Haroun; Shammara, though, knew how to manage a headstrong princess. King Basir was actually the weakest link in the chain of her plan, being so indecisive that the wrong gust of wind could always change his mind.
Under intense prodding from his wazirs -- most of whom had long since been bribed by Shammara -- King Basir would certainly carry out his pledge to send his daughter to Ravan for the wedding. Princess Oma might be a spoiled brat, but she was also intelligent; she wouldn't run away from her wedding procession once it had left the gates of Marakh, for she had no experience in surviving the common world without a handful of servants, and would soon starve left to her own devices.
Then, once Princess Oma was safely in Ravan, Shammara could keep her in line long enough to have the wedding consummated. After that, the future queen of Ravan would be of little consequence. Shammara knew from Rabah's reports that the princess had little interest in politics and would not challenge Shammara for control of the city. Rabah had also stressed that there were ways to distract Oma should she show any inclination to politics. Shammara would let the sybaritic princess do as she pleased once she'd performed her official responsibility of marrying Prince Haroun.
• • •
In Marakh, the beautiful Princess Oma kicked and screamed, sulked and pouted, but her efforts were to no avail. Though her father wavered a bit in his determination and had to be reconvinced by his wazirs, all the court insisted that she marry the prince of Ravan. Nothing she did could sway their decision.
The servants and chatelaines of the palace spent three weeks preparing Princess Oma's train and wedding party, weeks in which Oma herself kept to her rooms and refused all company except that of her father's favorite concubine, Rabah. King Basir, heartbroken that his beloved daughter should be so unhappy over an unavoidable situation, ordered Rabah to do everything in her power to console the princess and ease her grief in these trying days. Rabah obeyed the king's command, and though many sounds were heard to emanate from the princess's chambers while the two were together, rarely were they the sounds of sobbing.
At last the royal train was prepared and the time for final parting came. Princess Oma emerged from her rooms dressed in her finest silken robes of gold and white, and surrounded by the handmaidens who would accompany her to Ravan. As Oma left her rooms, Rabah threw over her a red embroidered sharshaf. This shawl traditionally symbolized the protection of her parents' home, and would totally engulf her until she entered her husband's. In a sulk Oma started to throw it off, but Rabah restored it with a caressing gesture and a plea for Oma to remember her regal duties. Oma left it on as custom dictated, but her mouth could be seen pursed in a tiny pout behind her sheer milfa.
Oma walked stiffly through the women's section of the palace with Rabah and the rest of her train. When she reached the end of the last corridor and Rabah could accompany her no farther, the princess broke through her air of reserve and embraced her dear friend. There was much weeping and wailing, and each woman promised the other to write often.
With this emotional display out of her system, Princess Oma remained coldly aloof as she passed through the outer court, ignoring all the wazirs who had conspired to send her to this horrid fate. King Basir wept at the thought he might never see his daughter again. He embraced her warmly with tearstained cheeks, while the princess returned the gesture with a formal and passionless embrace of her own. Then, with the farewells over and the speeches made, the princess's expedition went forth from Marakh with a loud blaring of horns, beating of drums, and flying of pennants.
Throughout the journey to Ravan, Princess Oma rode on a gilded palanquin with embroidered purple satin curtains to conceal her from public view. Her retinue comprised more than two hundred of her father's finest soldiers, since the king was willing to risk no repeat of the ambush that overtook Prince Ahmad. In addition to the soldiers there were fifty slaves and twenty maidservants to attend exclusively to Princess Oma's wishes, plus a small herd of asses to carry all the supplies needed to clothe, house, and feed this contingent upon the road.
Princess Oma sulked and complained throughout the journey. Nothing was ever quite right: the slaves carrying the palanquin jostled it too much, the dust from the road sent her into coughing spasms, the food was ill-prepared and tasteless, the sanitary provisions were barbaric, the days were hot, the nights were cold, the insects were a plague, the nighttime noises were too loud, the horses smelled bad, the soldiers were insolent, there was no privacy -- the list of complaints went on endlessly. The princess's piercing voice became familiar, if unappreciated, music throughout the trip, and more than one member of the retinue harbored the wish to silence it permanently if only he could be sure of escaping King Basir's wrath.
With the only threat to the princess's safety coming from her own retinue, the expedition passed an uneventful time upon the road, making the long journey from Marakh to Ravan in just over two weeks. Their arrival at the Palace Gate of Ravan was widely heralded, and throngs of people were on hand to provide the princess with a welcome even more elaborate than her sendoff had been.
Prince Haroun and the regent Kateb bin Salih came personally out of the palace to welcome the princess to her new home. Using the excuse of maidenly modesty, Princess Oma remained within the palanquin and peered cautiously through the curtains at her intended spouse. She was not greatly impressed by what she saw.
Prince Haroun was a paunchy young man, flabby and slackjawed. His complexion was oily and his beard looked as though it had spawned like mold randomly around his jaw. His stance was slouched, and he had the irritating habit of shifting his weight awkwardly from one foot to the other while standing, never quite remaining still. His clothes were of the richest fabrics and the finest styles, but his poor posture defeated even the noblest tailor's ambitions. Everything hung at wrong lengths and odd angles, making him appear a poor parody of a prince rather than the genuine article.
The regent, Kateb bin Salih, was an old man with a high, frail voice and a perpetually perplexed look in his eyes. He gave the princess a welcoming speech that rambled aimlessly for more than half an hour before finally trailing off into nothingness without ever having made its point. Then Prince Haroun gave a speech in croaky, uncertain tones. While his speech was more coherent than the regent's, and mercifully much shorter, it nonetheless filled Oma with a tremendous despair that she, a royal princess of acknowledged beauty and wit, would have to submit to the sexual advances of such a nothing of a man.
Finally the ceremonies were over. Princess Oma's palanquin was carried to a side entrance of the palace where she entered and was escorted to the chambers that had been prepared for her within the harem. So relieved was she to be in properly luxurious quarters once again, far from the rigors of the road, that she did not bother to find fault with her new accommodations.
Once ensconced in her new quarters she continued to brood over her dismal fate as her maidservants bustled about unpacking her belongings and setting up a new order within her rooms. Although she knew the rules of diplomacy, Princess Oma had never really believed they applied to her; she made her complaints known loud and long that Prince Haroun was uglier than a camel's testicles and less desirable than a Malembari ape. She explained in great detail to anyone who would listen that under no circumstances would she let herself be forced into a marriage with such a despicable and worthless lump of humanity, no matter what contracts her father had signed.
That evening, as the palace was getting ready for sleep, Shammara paid a call on Princess Oma's chambers. The young woman was surrounded by attendants laying out her sleeping silks, perfuming her sheets, and combing out her long, beautiful tresses -- but at a glance from Shammara the servants all vanished quickly, leaving Shammara alone with the recalcitrant princess.
"Welcome to Ravan, O beautiful princess," Shammara said with deceptive gentleness. "May your days here blossom like the flowers in the royal gardens. I am Shammara, mother of Prince Haroun. I've come to personally offer you the hospitality of the harem."
Princess Oma had heard many tales of Shammara, and was uncertain how to reply. On one level she was frightened by this slender, darkhaired woman who wore her age with power and dignity, and her mature beauty like a cloak of ice; but other parts of her knew no fear. Having been raised as a princess with no serious challenges to her authority, she found it hard to believe anyone could threaten her. She tried to steer a safe middle course. "Thank you for your fine welcome, O noble lady. This palace is most beautiful."
"It's only fitting that a beautiful palace should house a beautiful queen, as you shall become."
"That's most flattering, but I shall not become queen in Ravan. I find I cannot marry your son."
Shammara moved in two long, graceful steps to the princess's side and picked up a hair brush one of the servants had set down beside Oma's chair. Standing over her from behind, the older woman began brushing her young rival's hair with an experienced touch.
"I'm afraid you must marry him, my dear," Shammara said very quietly. "The arrangements have all been made, the contracts have all been signed, the dowry has been paid. A failure now would be an intolerable breach of both etiquette and diplomacy."
"I mean no disrespect to you, O noble lady, but I find your son as unappealing as week-old fish. He is unsightly, ungainly, and unkempt. I'd sooner give my maidenhead to the lowliest camel driver than...."
Shammara gathered a large handful of the princess's long hair and yanked down on it hard. Princess Oma's head was jerked back so she looked straight up into Shammara's eyes with her throat completely exposed. She started to cry out, but stopped when she saw the cold glare of Shammara above her.
"Now you will listen to me, O pampered cat of a mixed litter," Shammara said in the same quiet, icy tones. "Your opinion of my son is your own affair, though it could scarcely be lower than mine of you. Your lower-class, harping complaints and petty tyranny show a lack of intelligence and breeding which I trust you'll correct. Whether you love him or not, whether you honor him as a husband, is your concern and I will not interfere. But I've worked long and hard to arrange this marriage, and it will come about. You will wed my son and the union will be consummated, and thus will our two nations be allied. After the wedding night you can sleep with the asses in the stables if that's your desire, but you will become queen and you will sit beside Haroun on the throne."
Princess Oma was whimpering from both pain and fear, but from some unknown depth she found a tiny fragment of courage. "What if I spoil your plans and refuse to go through with the ceremony?" she asked. It was hard to talk with her head pulled back, but she choked the words out as best she could.
Shammara gave a sharp tug on the girl's hair, pulling her head even farther back, and Oma had to grasp the seat of her chair to keep from spilling on the floor and breaking her neck. "You'll marry him," Shammara said. "You may have to be carried into the temple with both legs and both arms broken, and you may have to nod your head in response to the vows because your tongue has been cut out, but the ceremony will take place. Your condition depends purely on your cooperation. After the wedding and the coronation, you will be queen. It's not so terrible a thing, to be queen of Ravan; there are many who will envy you. You can even look forward to a lengthy and prosperous reign, just as long as you don't interfere with my plans for the city. But you will live only so long as you mind your own business and don't displease me. Is my point understood?"
Princess Oma couldn't nod, and she could barely gag out a noise that sounded vaguely affirmative. Shammara smiled down into the princess's beautiful face and released her hold on the hair. Princess Oma leaned forward in her chair, coughing spasmodically.
"I'm so glad we understand one another," Shammara said as she glided across the room and out the door again.
Princess Oma had never been so frightened in all her life. For the next ten minutes she sat silently in her chair, her body trembling uncontrollably. No one had ever threatened her or abused her this way, and there was a touch of rage mixed in with the fear, anger that Shammara would so boldly insult her this way. Oma knew she dared not challenge Shammara's authority again if she valued her health, but she vowed to do everything she could to thwart the woman's will.
Every day she dispatched a letter to her father, pleading with him to void the marriage contract and declare war on Ravan for slights against her person. Shammara routinely intercepted and destroyed each missive. When Princess Oma realized there would be no help coming to her from Marakh, she closeted herself with her handmaid Hinda to help ease her mind. She gave great thought to Shammara's words and started to make some plans of her own as the days passed and the date of her wedding drew nearer.
• • •
The Holy City of Ravan, City of a Hundred Temples, was a city that rejoiced in celebrations -- and a royal wedding was one of the greatest and most joyful that could occur. Catching the festive spirit, the citizens bedecked the outer walls of their homes with fabrics of the brightest colors. Women sewed gifts for the bride-to-be, and the city's artisans fashioned wedding presents of the highest quality.
Word of the royal wedding spread with the royal messengers Shammara dispatched to the neighboring kingdoms, and from these lands came gifts and ambassadors from royal houses, and common people flocking into Ravan to witness one of the foremost events of their age. The bazaars did a brisk trade and the many caravanserais were filled beyond their capacity. Seldom since the days of its founding had Ravan known greater splendor.
Admitted through Merchant's Gate with a large group of other pilgrims was a certain priest from the far kingdom of Khmeria. All about him as he walked through the city were merchants hawking their wares, jugglers and street magicians playing to the crowds, brightly colored streamers blowing in the afternoon breeze, the dialects of a dozen different regions being shouted, spoken, and sung. A man could easily lose himself in the gaiety of the moment and not recover his senses for a week.
But the priest paid no attention to the festivities around him. At the first temple he reached, he entered and asked for directions to the Royal Temple, then made his way purposefully through the city until he reached it. At the Royal Temple he asked to speak to Alhena, wife of Umar bin Ibrahim. He was directed to Alhena's home, where he introduced himself to the servant answering the door as a man who knew Umar bin Ibrahim. The servant ushered him into the qa'a and went to announce his presence to Alhena.
After a few moments Alhena joined him in this beautiful room with its arched recesses, high ceiling, and wooden screens. A tall woman with intelligent, if sad, eyes, she bade him welcome to her husband's home and offered him the hospitality of her kitchen. A servant brought in a plate of dates and figs, and the priest gratefully accepted a date. Alhena sat crosslegged on one of the mats beside the durqa across from this stranger, and asked him what he had known of her late husband.
The priest did not reply aloud but instead took from his sleeve the letter he'd been told to deliver to no other hand but hers. He walked around the durqa and handed it to her. Alhena had but to look at the writing on the outside to recognize it as her husband's, and swooned back on her mat in shocked surprise.
The priest called for a servant, and together they brought her around within a few moments. Once the initial surprise was over, Alhena became her clear, rational self again and dismissed the servant so she could read the letter solely in the company of the priest who'd brought it. The priest guided her to a diwan in one of the arched recesses, where Alhena could sit more comfortably, then stepped back a few paces so the lady could read her note in privacy.
Alhena opened the letter with utmost delicacy, as though it were made of spiderwebs instead of sturdy parchment. She read the words with the glisten of a tear ever in the corners of her eyes and with the faintest tremble of her lips, scarcely daring to believe what had been placed before her.
In concise terms, the letter told how Prince Ahmad's wedding party had been ambushed upon the road by minions of King Basir dressed as brigands, and how they had learned that this perfidy was inspired by the treacherous Shammara; how the miraculous appearance of the daeva Aeshma had saved them from certain doom, and how they had chosen to travel to the oasis of Sarafiq; how they had encountered the wizard Jafar al-Sharif, and how the prophet Muhmad's strange vision was now sending them around the world on a dangerous quest for the pieces of the Crystal of Oromasd. Umar concluded the letter by telling Alhena to trust in his love for her and in Oromasd's wisdom that goodness would yet prevail in Ravan.
By the time she finished, Alhena's eyes were so filled with tears she could no longer distinguish the words on the page. She walked slowly to the small altar with the Dadgah fire always kept burning there, knelt before it, and thanked Oromasd and all the Bounteous Immortals, one by one, for the kindness and mercy they'd shown to her and her beloved Umar.
When she'd finished her prayers and regained some of her composure, she returned to the kind priest who had brought her the blessed news. The man had stood silently all this time, respecting the woman's emotions; now he asked whether there was any other service he could perform. Alhena said no and offered him a reward for all he had done already, but the man would accept nothing from her but her blessing. He merely smiled and said he was pleased to do Oromasd's work, which this obviously was.
Alhena offered him hospitality and a place to stay, but again the priest demurred. He would spend this night, he said, praying in the Temple of the Faith, something he had never expected to do in his lifetime. In the morning he would begin his travels back to his native Khmeria. Alhena showered him with her blessings as he departed the house, and for the next several months said extra prayers every day for the welfare of this kind and generous priest.
Being a wise woman, Alhena knew the value of keeping confidences. She knew she could tell no one else in Ravan of this news; to do so would mean their death as well as her own, and would merely alert Shammara to the truth of what was happening in the world beyond the city's walls. Better to let Ravan's evil, uncrowned queen gloat in ignorance over her petty triumph; it would give Umar and the prince more time to work their own triumphs in the world. The silence would be a heavy burden, but she could bear it better knowing her beloved Umar was yet alive and carrying out the will of Oromasd.
She reread her husband's letter many times, until she'd memorized every line and every word of its pages, extracting from it all the love he had mixed with the ink of his pen. Then she placed it in a small dish and set it alight, letting the sacred flame of Oromasd consume it so there would be no evidence of its existence to warn Shammara of the forces gathering against her.
• • •
The day of the royal wedding came at last, amid much noise and merriment. Handmaidens from the palace strewed petals of roses, orangeblossoms, and desert lilies throughout the bazaars of Ravan, while billowing stretches of colorful silk and linen cloth were draped from building to building so the sun shone through to the ground in a variety of colors and patterns. Hundreds of musicians paraded through the streets, playing their festive tunes on lyres and lutes, on cymbals and tymbals, tempting the citizens irresistibly to dance. Street vendors sold stuffed dates, garlic-flavored lamb wrapped in flat bread, melons, and hundreds of delicacies to the waiting crowds. Children ran and played in and out among spectators' legs, men smiled, and women came out of their homes to line the paths in hopes of catching a glimpse of the wedding procession. Evidence of the dyers' trade was everywhere as people wore their brightest clothes, and household gardens were stripped bare of flowers to add to the festive atmosphere.
Princess Oma was carried on a litter through the main bazaars of the city surrounded by her handmaidens dressed in all colors of the rainbow. The princess's gown was in the traditional cerise, adorned with other colors of Oromasd as befit a bride in the Holy City. Her kaftan was white silk shot with gold. Heavy gold, cerise, and sapphire embroidery in the intertwined symbols of Marakh and Ravan bordered the hem and sleeves. Over this was a cerise abaaya with gold, white, and sapphire cord edging it and tassels of the gold and white accenting the edges. Floating over this, lifted by the slightest breeze, was a silk gossamer thawb; it gave a rosy fog that kept the technical layer of modesty while showing the beauty of the princess to her soon-to-be subjects. From its edges dangled a thousand tiny antique gold coins that chimed and glinted with every move. Little bells dangled from the servants' clothing, and the women beat on tambourines, dancing in high spirits around their mistress as she was borne on the shoulders of six priests, symbols of her purity.
Prince Haroun wasn't nearly as spectacular as his bride-to-be, and rode his horse through King's Bazaar accompanied by an elite honor guard of soldiers all dressed in their finest armor with their horses groomed to perfection. Haroun's outfit was mostly white and gold, with touches of sapphire blue embroidery. His cloth-of-gold hizam held a saif in a gem-encrusted scabbard. The sunlight threw prismatic reflections from these jewels onto his clothes and face. He squinted to avoid the reflections, and this only made him seem more loutish.
Even though Haroun was less well loved by the populace than his half-brother Ahmad, a royal wedding was a time when such minor matters were put aside, and the people cheered him as though he were the most popular man in Ravan. The roar along the length of the bazaar was deafening, making it impossible to carry on normal conversations several streets away.
The two processions met at the main entrance to the Temple of the Faith, where they were admitted among a crowd of well-wishing nobility, all of whom had arrived early to assure themselves of a good place in the sahn. Prince Haroun dismounted his horse and Princess Oma stepped down from her litter. Bride and bridegroom walked down opposite sides of the riwaq to the front of the temple. They stopped and knelt before the minbar, and Princess Oma was unveiled before her husband for the first time. Prince Haroun was pleased by what he saw, while the princess was dreading her ordeal to come. Nevertheless, heeding Shammara's warning, she was prepared to be brave and make her painful sacrifice -- at least for this one night.
As newly appointed high priest, Yusef bin Nard officiated at the ceremony. He was resplendent in his priestly robes of gleaming white delicately accented with silver threads, shining with dazzling brightness in the midday sun. Behind him, in a temporary altar, burned the Dadgah fire to symbolize the purity of Oromasd, which it was hoped would sanctify this royal marriage. Yusef bin Nard read the ancient wedding ceremony in his deepest tones, and Princess Oma responded appropriately -- but through clenched teeth.
In little more than an hour it was over and Princess Oma was now the official wife of Prince Haroun. A cheer went up in the sahn and was echoed through the streets of the Holy City. Wine began flowing freely in all the taverns while the singing and dancing intensified. By sundown there was hardly a soul in the city who was not either drunk, dizzy from dancing, or at least hoarse from all the cheering throughout the day.
The bride and groom were escorted from the Temple of the Faith into the palace, where a banquet had been spread in their honor. Musicians played their finest compositions and poets recited their rhymes of love, both tender and erotic. Gifts were presented to the honored couple, so many they couldn't all be seen or counted in an afternoon, as the heads of neighboring states made contributions to the new couple's welfare. The horses, falcons, hunting cats, and other exotic animals raised a din, and there were problems getting them through the crowds safely. The jewels, coins, clothes, and luxuries were heaped in the hall; it would take several scribes weeks to inventory it all. Goblets were refilled liberally, until there was scarcely a person in the wedding party capable of standing without assistance. Finally, when the sun was well down and the stars were glittering like wedding jewels in the black night sky, the prince and princess were led with great ceremony to their official bedchamber.
The next morning Prince Haroun emerged from the room in a foul mood. His face, shoulders, and back were covered with scratches and bite marks, and he walked with a noticeable limp. While both prince and princess agreed that the marriage had been consummated, Prince Haroun declared loudly to all who'd listen that he'd have no more to do with the woman he'd married, and would sire his children by lesser wives and concubines instead. Shammara bought him a few new slave girls as consolation and his spirits were eased.
When Shammara next passed Princess Oma in the palace corridor, she gave a curt nod to acknowledge that their uneasy bargain had been made and kept. As long as the princess stayed out of Shammara's hair, she'd be free to do as she wished within the palace. Shammara even assigned a pair of twin, young, lovely, and specially trained handmaidens to her as earnest of their agreement.
Three weeks later, news came to Ravan that King Basir was dead. He had been sleeping that night with his favorite concubine, Rabah, who woke up in the morning screaming that the king had died in his sleep. There were no signs of violence or traces of poison, so the doctors certified the death as being natural. There was certainly no reason to suspect foul play from Rabah. She was only a concubine, she had slept with the king many times before, and she had nothing to gain from his death. The pillow she'd used to smother King Basir left no marks.
The king's death left the succession to the throne of Marakh very much in doubt. There were no sons. Princess Oma was his oldest child, and there were three more daughters entirely too young for either marriage or rule. The wazirs of the realm argued and debated, each trying to grab the crown for himself, but the solution came imposed upon them from Ravan.
Since Prince Haroun was married to King Basir's eldest daughter and would soon become a king in his own right, Ravan's ruler seized the opportunity to claim the kingdom of Marakh as well. An army was sent from Ravan to quell any signs of nervousness on the part of the Marakhi. The wazirs couldn't unite effectively enough to dispute Haroun's claim, and the most powerful of them were quickly dispatched by agents in Shammara's employ.
In due course, young Prince Haroun was declared king of Marakh even before he attained his majority and the kingship of Ravan -- and Shammara was well on her path of dominion and conquest in the name of her son.
Copyright © 1969, 1989 by Stephen Goldin
Posted July 10, 2010
No text was provided for this review.