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'YOUR Exaltedness, he is alive!'
The ragged man came recklessly out of the crowd,smiling a foolish smile of good will, and approached Juliba's swaying litter.
The footmen were astonished, and looked for aguard to take the man away. But having almost reached the foot of the palace steps, the guards had already deployed themselves in ceremonial rank. They were too far away to act, intent on facing inwards to receive the procession, thrusting out their chests and staring straight ahead in front of them.
Kites circled high in the sky, as though inscribing sentences of tribute upon invisible domes. A dog barked.
The man came nearer, putting out his hand. The crowd collectively drew in its breath, as at the climax of the birthday fireworks, or when Dibl seized the headless goat over his shoulder and galloped with it the full length of the field. Those too far away to see his idiot smile thought he was an assassin. Those near enough to hear him were curious about his words.
Juliba turned to face him from the litter, and her eyes looked down over her veil superb as the two towers on the dam at Sarapa which keeps back the fullpower of the spring waters.
'He is alive! Be assured!' the man repeated. And in his eagerness to bring such news and to be believed, his fingers for a moment touched the queen's arm asit rested on the door of the litter.
Now the crowd groaned, fearing the outcome ofthis scandalous contact.
Juliba looked about her.
'Surely it is apparent', she said, 'that I do not need the blessings of a beggar?'
The footmen had put the litter down. In her haste to leave it and to mount the palace steps, her robes twisted about her as she stood up and defined for a moment the fullness of her belly. The footmen themselves took hold of the man, who was grinning and nodding vigorously, and handed him over to the guards, amid the press of the wondering crowd.
And Juliba mounted the steps with dignity, and entered the palace with her attendants, and the doors of her apartments were closed upon her.
The man was brought before the ruling Akond, in-Blemim, who was troubled when he heard what had happened.
'How is it', he thought, 'that our actions cannot be perfectly controlled? That however well-intended, they return to haunt us with their unforeseen consequences? That sometimes the good intended by others is the very worst thing that we wish to hear?'
He took the ragged man to be a creature of his Wazir, Ininin, come to trade secrets for favours. Alive, was it, when ordered destroyed? Well, then, Ininin should deal with the matter, and silence this madman.
And so the Akond ordered the man, who was acarpenter named 'm Ezla, to be taken to the Wazir's court for judgement.
'How can it be tolerated', he thought to himself, 'that a carpenter, touching the least hem of my wife's robe, should pronounce the blessing of life wherethere is none? Neither in the born who are dead, nor in the unborn who are not yet alive? Why, it is a Christian nonsense, and the people will see it to be so.'
The Akond went in to Juliba, his queen, and was relieved to find that it was so with her, and he put his own hand freely on the shape that would be his heir, measuring the child's vigour in protesting at further confinement by comparing his kicks to those motions necessary to goad the girth of a great horse into a gallop. He was disappointed to find them sluggish.
But he smiled at Juliba in encouragement, his teeth showing white within the majesty of his black beard and his eyes gleaming like polished a gate.
The crowd had not dispersed, and it was notthought likely that it would disperse until the fate of 'm Ezla was announced. It moved in the square like bees over the comb, sharing opinion until it might take the perfect sweetness and structure of fact.
The Wazir Ininin was seated with his officials behind a marble table. Not his beard, nor his small derisive mouth struck fear into those who were brought before him, but his immense nose that jutted above those features like the beak of an eagle. It was a symbol of his power to probe and rend.
But the Wazir's heart sank when 'm Ezla came before him, for he knew him to be the brother of the wife of Bagril, his agent in the villages, and knew him, too, as a fool who might wittingly or unwittingly unravel any delicate scheme with no profit tohimself or any sensible forethought of the outcome. So foolish, in fact, as to be quite without the necessary fear of civilised men.
'You touched the queen's arm?' asked the Wazir Ininin.
'Excellence, the child -' began 'm Ezla, with the eagerness of someone who knows himself to bealmost dignified by the possession of astounding news.
'Enough,' said Ininin. 'We do not wish to hear of it.'
'But, Excellence, it is a miracle!'
'Do you want to lose more than your fingers?' thundered the Wazir. 'There is nothing that you can tell me that I can possibly want to hear. You touched the queen on the arm with two fingers, with three? The forefinger and the middle finger, I hear? And perhaps also the fourth finger?'
Witnesses were produced among the Akond's servants to swear to the lesser of these charges. One of the footmen, indeed, was of the opinion that perhaps only the middle finger had grazed the queen'sarm, had been in contact for an instant only with the fold of her cloak, even. But this opinion belonged to the minority, and accordingly the carpenter was sentenced.
'm Ezla seemed unconcerned about his punishment, and when later that afternoon he was led before the executioner he made no protest except to reiterate his proclamation of a miracle: 'The child lives!' For this, and to preserve the silence and gravity of the occasion, a scarf was bound about his mouth and he appeared dumb before the crowd in the courtyard.
The executioner, whom the pain of his vocation had turned into a wag, seized 'm Ezla's hand, extending the offending fingers and folding back the rest in a parody of the blessing that Juliba had spurned, and exhibited it on high to the crowd, who laughed and groaned in equal measure. Then he pressed the hand down upon the ebony block with the two fingers extended, and raised his short axe.
The Akond was watching from a high window of the palace, unseen: 'In the necessary chain of command there are many weak links,' he said to himself. 'They must be cut out, so that the pull may be secure.'
The axe descended, and in the hush of the crowd you might almost have heard the tiny doubleness of the blow, the cadence between bone and wood, as the blade finally met the substance that could resist it, and the severed fingers shot across the polished surface and fell into the dust.
'He will speak of it no more,' thought the Akond.'But if the child really lives, it is grotesque, and cannot be allowed.'
And Juliba in her apartments, with her heart pounding, knew that the incident had really given her no grounds to raise the matter again, for whatever was done was done for the best. Whatever her attendants did, they did it for her good and for the good of the country. They did what was expected.
When she had first come to the palace and danced for in-Blemim, she had had vague hopes of finding good reason for a woman to play a meaningful role in the affairs of state, not least in all eviating the conditions of the poor. And she confessed as much touz-Luba, in-Blemim's grandmother, expecting to discover somewhere within the law some such licence for a queen.
'Yes, my beautiful,' uz-Luba had smiled at her. 'So you think, and so have we all thought at this threshold of our life and fortune. And you being both a woman and knowing poverty have a double reason to hope for a rational justice. And for in-Blemim, too, who lives by reason, you have a right to suppose an equal desire. But the Akond rules only through the people and by custom. To live by custom is to live by expectation; laws are generally resented.'
'And if custom does not bring justice to all?'
'Custom should be the happiness of all, as being what can least be resented.'
And uz-Luba had nodded at this with such quiet certainty that Juliba had created no further argument, but hung her arms about her neck and embraced her.
During the night after 'm Ezla lost his fingers, the queen's waters broke and she was delivered of her sluggish son. It was natural after this to forget the incident in front of the palace steps, but occasionally in dreams the carpenter's face would appear to her, eager, shining, complicit, communicating a fact that she had steeled herself to deny.
When the Akond had inspected his heir, he went in to congratulate Juliba.
'Blom is perfect,' he said. 'He has eyes like honey and skin as pale as olives. And he has just the right number of toes - and fingers.'
Juliba and in-Blemim looked at each other with that look of intimate wedded conspiracy which can sometimes exclude a truth. He lolled at her feet,eating dates and reciting lines of poetry that suddenly occurred to him in his happiness, though occasionally he would grimace in pain, for the dates brought on his toothache:
'When the streams of Sarapa meet in the valley,
When the streams of Sarapa brim in the spring,
Hearts must melt in the fullness of water
Thudding like swimmers to whose weary shoulders
The waters cling.
The furthest echo was once a spent volley.
The furthest echo was once a false start
Where the heart was launched in its lightness of being,
Shot from desire like the swimmer for whom
The waters part.
The little swimmer, in his perfect prison!
The little swimmer in the borrowed skin
That bares the heart like the blueness of snow
In the beautiful mountains above Sarapa where
The waters begin!'
This tenderness for the child brought him to a deep and unqualified joy, and he laughed aloud.
The carpenter's fingers were eaten by the dogs.