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The tale is told of a time when Hakem Rafi the accursed, the thief, the blackhearted, when this nefarious infidel violated the Temple of the Faith in the fabled city of Ravan and stole the golden jeweled urn of Aeshma from before the Bahram fire itself. The tale recounts how he escaped from the Holy City disguised as a soldier in Prince Ahmad's own wedding procession, only to be trapped in the ambush of the treacherous King Basir--and how, to save his own life, he smashed the urn and released Aeshma upon the unsuspecting world of Parsina once again.
Aeshma, the king of the daevas. Aeshma, satrap of the Pits of Torment. Aeshma, the personification of Rimahn upon the face of the earth. The power of pure evil had been bottled up for so many centuries within the Holy City--and now, in one earthshaking minute, this force exploded back into the world with devastating consequences for all who came near it, for all whose lives were touched by it. And the Cycles of the world ground on in their inevitable course, as one Cycle lay dying while another screamed in its birth contractions.
It was after receiving a hurried pledge of servitude, and with great fear in his heart, that Hakem Rafi the thief watched the release of Aeshma from his golden urn. Never one for bravery, only the certainty of his death at the hands of the brigands gave him the desperation that apes courage and allowed him to smash the holy urn. From his ancient prison Aeshma burst forth as an enormous black whirlwind. The king of the daevas spat out lightning that, at Hakem Rafi's command, destroyed the brigands who'd attacked Prince Ahmad'sprocession.
With that task completed, the whirlwind that was Aeshma transformed itself into the semblance of a rukh, a huge bird with sharp, curved bill and wings so powerful the wind from their beating could knock over a strong man. The rukh surveyed the scene with eyes of blue flame and reached down one massive claw, capable of clutching an elephant the way a hawk would clutch a field mouse. Picking up the startled Hakem Rafi in its ferocious talon, the rukh beat its wings and flew off into the sky, away from the forest where the ambush had occured.
Hakem Rafi was a small man in his forty-second year, wiry and quick. He had a swarthy face with a coarse black beard and mustache, and the nervous disposition of a mouse invading a granary, constantly alert for the local cats. Since he was far smaller than an elephant there was plenty of room for him to rest comfortably within the rukh's grasp--but Hakem Rafi was far from comfortable.
The thief was now terrified he'd unleashed more power than he could possibly control. Aeshma had sworn in the name of his master Rimahn, the god of evil, that he would not harm Hakem Rafi--but when faced with the immensity of the being he'd released from captivity, Hakem Rafi wondered whether a few well-chosen words, spoken in haste, would be sufficient to bind this daeva to his service. With one tiny contraction of his monstrous scaly claw, Aeshma could rip the thief apart and be forever free of his obligations to the puny human he'd promised to obey. It would be typical, too, Hakem Rafi thought. Everyone betrayed him. It just wasn't fair.
But Aeshma did not kill him. The rukh flew on, covering in fifteen minutes almost that many parasangs. With each passing minute, Hakem Rafi's terror eased a little more. Surely if the daeva wished to kill him, he would have done so by now. The old tales must be true, then, that a daeva who swears in his master's name is bound by the oath to fulfill his promises. Aeshma would be his slave, after all. Hakem Rafi began to relax and enjoy his flight.
Once he learned to accept it, the flight was actually pleasant. Their path took them southwest, past the city of Ravan--though the rukh skirted widely around it to avoid passing over its charmed walls--and onward in that direction. They crossed the Zaind River and flew over fields, mountains, and deserts. They passed the city of Durkhash and continued southwest, into the vast desert south of Sudarr. Hakem Rafi derived a particular enjoyment from peering down at the landscape beneath him and seeing how vast lands and important people all seemed tiny and insignificant from this altitude. Hakem Rafi had never had much chance in his life to look down on others, though he always felt he should, and he relished the opportunity now that it was his.
He flew for hours, it seemed, in the claw of this bird before he began to wonder where Aeshma was taking him. The only order he'd given was to get him safely away from the scene of the battle, and Aeshma was obviously interpreting that order liberally. Since Aeshma was bound by oath not to harm him, Hakem Rafi did not worry that they might be going someplace dangerous--but at the same time, he didn't want to travel to the ends of the world, away from all other human contact.
"Where are we going?" he finally asked the rukh.
Aeshma's voice rumbled back to him in tones like distant thunder. "With your permission, O master, I am taking you to the palace of Rashwenath."
There was a time when the name Rashwenath would have set such a man as Hakem Rafi quaking in his boots, for Rashwenath was the mightiest king ever to dwell upon the earth. His empire spanned half the vast continent of Fricaz, and his subjects numbered tens of millions. Ten thousand slaves had he merely to serve him in his palace, and tens of thousands more would do his bidding throughout his vast empire. If his enormous army could ever have been assembled in one place, it could have marched past his parade post in double file for three days and three nights without its end being seen, and the stomping of the soldiers' feet would have set the ground trembling for parasangs around. King Rashwenath ruled an empire greater than Parsina had ever seen before or since--greater by far than the meager lands governed by King Shahriyan, the great hero who defeated Aeshma and founded the holy city of Ravan.
But Rashwenath had lived many millennia ago, in the Third Cycle of the world. As great as his power had been, it was now all for naught. Rashwenath was dead and dust, his name forgotten even by the storytellers, his history recounted only in the most obscure tomes. Hakem Rafi had never heard of the name, nor had anyone of his acquaintance. So when the thief asked Aeshma who Rashwenath was, it was pointless for the daeva to recount the magnificent history of this one -time emperor. Instead, Aeshma replied, "He was a great king many years ago. His palace stands empty now, and it is there I take you. Only that magnificent structure is grand enough to suit a man of your power and importance."
"If Rashwenath was such a great king, why does his palace stand empty?" Hakem Rafi asked suspiciously. He was not going to let Aeshma pull any tricks on him.
Aeshma could have told a story of political intrigues, of treachery, corruption, decay, and a rebellion that seethed across three continents--a rebellion in which he and his daevas played no small role--but he chose to keep the tale simple for the simple mind of a common thief. "Rashwenath died," he answered curtly. "His sons fought over the lands, and soon the empire was torn apart by civil wars. No one could afford to maintain such a magnificent palace, so it was abandoned and the empire soon disintegrated. No one has occupied the palace for thousands of years. But soon, if you so desire it, the palace will live again, a tribute to the power and majesty of my new master, Hakem Rafi."
Hakem Rafi had never been in even a small palace, let alone such a wonderful structure as the daeva was describing. He was intrigued by the possibilities. He reminded himself to start behaving like a man of wealth and property, for any riches he could imagine would soon be his for the asking. It was only right that he should occupy the grandest palace in the world and have an army of slaves to do his bidding. He felt he'd worked hard to steal Aeshma's urn and spirit it out of Ravan against all odds; he'd earned the right to live in lavish splendor.
They flew at great height and speed over the barren desert below, and Hakem Rafi's anticipation grew till he could barely wait to see this promised palace. On the horizon a chain of mountains came into view and began to grow as the two approached. The rukh descended now, making it apparent that their destination lay within those mountains.
Hakem Rafi's sharp eyes spotted something at the base of those hills, and as they drew closer he could see it looked like a vast city stretched out along the desert floor. Then, as they came closer still, the thief's eyes widened when he realized it was not a city he saw, but a single vast building stretching defiantly from the base of the mountains well into the desert. A single roof covered the grounds, with numerous small breaks for courtyards, gardens, and solaria; domes, towers, and minarets reached upward from its surface toward the sky. The stones of its walls were only slightly eroded after all this time, though the brightly colored facade and fabrics that had once graced its exterior had worn away. The structure was so huge that all of Yazed, Hakem Rafi's native town, could be hidden within the building's perimeter with yet room for a few minor country villages.
The rukh descended toward the roof of the palace. Setting Hakem Rafi down most gently, the rukh alit beside him and transformed itself once more. It became a cloud of oily black smoke, sulfurous and impenetrable, and shrank somewhat in size. As it shrank it condensed from a bird to a more vertical shape, until at last it took the features that could be called most natural for it--but for Hakem Rafi the new shape was far more frightening than the rukh.
Aeshma's form was an enormous obscene parody of a man. He stood well over five cubits tall and his skin was black as tar. His eyes glowed like red coals in his sockets and his teeth were a sharp set of fangs, upper and lower. Coarse, stringy black hair twined down to his powerfully muscled shoulders, and his arms and legs ended in twisted claws with razor-sharp nails. He was totally naked, and his grotesque penis was easily a cubit long with a barbed tip.
Hakem Rafi once again knew the fear that he might not be able to control this powerful being, yet even as he stood trembling the daeva made a proper salaam and said, "Welcome to your new home, O my master, if you will accept it as such."
"I ... I'll have to look it over first."
"Certainly. There are stairs this way." So saying, Aeshma led the way to a staircase that descended from the roof into the center of the palace. The gigantic daeva had to stoop to avoid hitting his head on some of the entranceways, but in general the ceilings were high enough that he could walk upright with no problem. In Aeshma's hand appeared a large lamp with five wicks that lit the way for the thief. Behind Aeshma, Hakem Rafi followed cautiously, still fearing the power of his nominal slave.
At the bottom of the stairs they reached a central hall with arched ceilings high enough for three Aeshmas to have stood, one on another's shoulders. The open area of the floor was larger than the maidan in Ravan and corridors branched off from it in several directions. The smallest corridor could have accomodated five men walking abreast, while the largest was wider than most houses. Hakem Rafi looked down these diverging hallways and could see no end to any of them.
Through these hallways had once moved the commerce of three continents. Once the walls rang with the din of many different tongues crying in untold numbers of voices. Once ambassadors brought their legations here, and merchants their wares, and musicians their instruments. Once the air had been alive with the scent of spices and sweat, with the sound of bells and hawkers' cries, with the tang of oranges and wine, with the sight of camels and horses, and even elephants. Once these walls had known life and excitement, the intrigues of an empire, the lusts of a king alive with power.
Now the dust of the ages hung thickly in the air, making Hakem Rafi sneeze and cough. Insects buzzed unconcerned through the air, and the rats that fed on them chittered quietly in the corners. The air smelled musty and dry, and felt warm from the heat of the afternoon sun.
Hakem Rafi took a couple of steps as he looked around, and the sound of his boots on the tiled floor echoed through the chamber and down the corridors. His voice, when he spoke, echoed like a drum in the still air, frightening some of the rats back into their holes. "It's all so dead," he said. "I'm not sure I like that."
"With my help, O master, you will make it live again and restore the palace of Rashwenath to its former grandeur."
"It'd take an army of slaves a year to clean this up," the thief said, looking at the dust.
"It is but the work of a single night. When you awake in the morning, the palace shall gleam as it did on the day it was built. Just leave everything to me."
"Very well. First rid this room of its choking dust. But if I don't like the place when you're all done will you take me elsewhere and build me a new palace?"
"You are my master, and I am yours to command."
"Don't forget that," Hakem Rafi said.
"Of all the facts in all the world, that is one I never shall forget," the daeva replied, and added, "Is there anything you wish right now? Food and drink, perhaps?"
The mere mention of food reminded Hakem Rafi that he hadn't eaten since breakfast in the prince's camp early that morning. He'd become so used to going hungry during these last few weeks that he routinely ignored the insistent urges of his stomach--but there was no longer any reason to deprive himself of what he wanted.
"Yes," he said, "some food and drink sounds wonderful. Bring me some immediately."
"Do you have any preferences, O master?"
Hakem Rafi had so seldom been in a position where he had a choice that it was difficult to think. "Bring me a feast worthy of the wealthiest merchant in Ravan," he said with an arrogant wave of his hand.
"I hear and I obey," Aeshma acknowledged.
At Hakem Rafi's feet appeared a fine carpet of cerise, gold, black, and dark cedar green, so deep a man's fingers would sink into its pile up to the second knuckle, spread out invitingly with comfortable pillows around it. At the corners were several tall stands with silver inlaid brass lamps that illuminated the area around the rug, though the rest of the huge room was dim and the corners were lost in darkness. A leather sofreh covered the carpet's center and a white cloth sofreh was placed over that for æsthetic effect. On top of the cloth was a series of golden plates containing the largest feast Hakem Rafi had ever had served for himself alone. The scents exploded in his nostrils, filling them as the dust had done before. As the aromas of meat, fruit, and herbs wafted through the room, they seemed to drive the dust and rat droppings before them, till the faded dim hall at least was clean.
On the sofreh were a mixed herb plate served with feta cheese; an eggplant salad as well as a mixed green salad of romaine lettuce, cucumbers, tomatos, radishes, and herbs; a dish of peach pickles; a plate of duck in walnut and pomegranate sauce served over chelo; a bowl of quince soup; a plate of nan-e lavash; a large pitcher of abdug; a bowl of apricots and plums; and an enormous platter heaped high with rahat lakhoum. Hakem Rafi had been fortunate enough to sample rahat lakhoum only twice before in his life, and never had he seen it piled in such generous quantities--and certainly never for one individual.
As a man with an eye toward the value of property--particularly other people's--Hakem Rafi was impressed at the quality of the materials Aeshma could produce; at the same time, as a man of ravenous appetite, he did not long ponder the supplementary details. He ate and drank heartily of this sumptuous repast, especially gorging on the rahat lakhoum, until even his monstrous appetite was sated and he sat on one velvet cushion feeling his stomach was about to burst.
The food had taken the edge off his fear, and the rahat lakhoum had made him bolder. He was no longer terrified of the daeva king who'd sworn to serve his wishes, and he was just beginning to realize exactly what all this could mean for him. Ever since stealing the urn and learning of its contents he'd dreamed of unlimited wealth--but dreams were one thing, and the fulfillment of them was something else entirely. The fact that he could become the richest, most powerful man in all Parsina, and that anything he wanted was his for the taking, was just starting to dawn in his simple mind. Hakem Rafi grinned and lay back on the carpeted floor, wallowing in the concept.
"Is there anything else my master wishes?" Aeshma asked smoothly.
With the hashish from the rahat lakhoum bubbling his thoughts, Hakem Rafi put his hands behind his head for a pillow and stared up at the high domed ceiling, lost in shadows overhead, considering the matter. "Yes," he said at last. "I'd like a woman to spend the night with me."
"Any particular woman?"
"A beautiful woman. The most beautiful woman in the world."
"I hear and--"
"No, wait," Hakem Rafi said, sitting up suddenly as an idea occured to him. A wicked smile broadened on his face as he turned the idea over in his mind. The incorruptible new wali of police in Yazed had been responsible for Hakem Rafi's abrupt departure from that city, and for his subsequent suffering in Ravan. A little revenge was called for here, and Hakem Rafi's devious imagination conjured up a subtle form of retribution.
"Go to the home of the wali of police in Yazed. Bring me his most beautiful wife or concubine and make sure no one knows she's gone. Make her be passionately in love with me and bring her here before me. Tonight I shall beget a son by her. In the morning, return her with no memory of what has happened here and let the wali think the boy is his and raise him as his own. In this way will I cuckold the fool who drove me from my home and avenge myself upon his line. But before you go, fashion me a golden bed studded with gems, piled high with the softest silk pillows and filled with swan's down, that I might welcome my guest properly. Oh yes, and leave me some good silk ropes."
"I hear and I obey." The bed appeared in one corner of the room exactly as Hakem Rafi had described it, and Aeshma vanished, leaving the thief chuckling to himself.
The daeva returned shortly with the most attractive of the wali's wives, and she was a beauty indeed. Her long black hair flowed like silk down her back to the waist, and her dark brown skin was soft and pure. Thick eyebrows topped her almond-shaped eyes that burned with passion as she spied Hakem Rafi. She walked boldly up to him, her slender hips swaying sensuously with each stride. She knelt before him and unfastened her milfa, then kissed the palms of his hands and touched them to her body. Her lips were trembling with her naked desire as she fell to her knees caressing him.
"Does my master require anything else?" Aeshma asked discreetly.
Hakem Rafi could hardly take his eyes from the woman kneeling before him. No woman had ever looked at him with desire that way. "Uh, no, this will suffice. Go clean the palace as you promised. Leave me in privacy until the morning."
"I hear and I obey," Aeshma said, and disappeared to another part of the palace. So besotted with hashish and desire was Hakem Rafi that he didn't even hear the daeva laughing.
The light of morning shone into the palace of Rashwenath through cleverly disguised skylights in the ceiling. Hakem Rafi woke slowly as his mind cleared of the hashish and lovemaking of the previous night. Beside him, the wali's wife still lay naked and asleep, her body spent from the energy of their union. Hakem Rafi sat up slowly, then stared about him at the wonder that had occured.
True to his word, the king of the daevas had restored the palace to its former glory. The cobwebs were cleared from the corners, and not a speck of dust lay anywhere about. The rats had vanished, their holes were plugged and plastered over, the insects were gone, and the air smelled lightly of lemon blossoms.
The hall he was in contained three fountains, each over five cubits in diameter, whose water was scented with citrus blossoms. Above each was a dome of paper-thin alabaster, allowing the softest filtered light of peach hue to color the creamy marble floor below. The marble was patterned in cream and gray in an intricate basket weave. At certain points on either side it became denser, outlining shallow pits filled with soft rugs and huge pillows.
The tapestries that were faded and dust filled the night before, now were bright depictions of erotic events. The largest and finest of these showed Hakem Rafi in the embrace of the wali's wife, as she was obviously straining to pull him to her. The portraiture was very flattering, and Hakem Rafi resolved to have the daeva make him similarly endowed as soon as possible.
The delicious bubbling sound of the fountains mingled with the songs of many birds in golden cages suspended from the carved onyx ceiling panels. They swayed gently in the breeze cooled by the fountains, and made the palace seem full of life. On the walls and stands were inlaid lamps that, come the night, would give the soft, sensual light shed by burning the finest oils.
Hakem Rafi stood up, gawking at the beauty of the building around him, until he realized suddenly that he was naked. He quickly donned the uniform he'd been wearing when Aeshma snatched him from the forest, and walked about the hallway to admire his new home. Everywhere he looked was beauty compounded on beauty--pictures, carpets, tiles, furniture, fixtures. And every bit of it was his. It was true. He was the richest, most powerful man in Parsina.
A sudden thought brought him up short. One man had possessed all this wealth before, and where was he now? Dead and dust, and his memory totally forgotten. Great though he was, Rashwenath was mortal and his name had died centuries ago. All he'd strived for was gone, all he'd built evaporated. Hakem Rafi was mortal, too; he'd never given the matter much thought before, but now it seemed suddenly of vital concern.
"Aeshma!" he called, and his voice echoed down the empty hallways, muffled only slightly by the restored tapestries.
The daeva's huge form materialized out of smoke before him. "Ever at my master's call," Aeshma said with surprising softness.
"I want you to make me immortal," the thief said brusquely.
For the first time, the daeva hesitated. "That I cannot do, O my master."
"You swore to obey all my commands," Hakem Rafi said in a petulant whine.
"And so I shall, in everything within my ability. My powers are unequaled upon the face of the earth, but power over death is not mine. Death was created by my lord Rimahn to inflict upon the creatures of Oromasd. I have not the ability to undo what my own lord and creator has done. I shall obey you in all things, save that I am powerless to forestall your eventual and inevitable death. As I promised you, I will not cause it--but neither can I stop it from happening some day."
Hakem Rafi the thief turned away from Aeshma to hide the bitterness in his soul. He had seldom thought about death before, merely tried to avoid it; he'd always thought himself too clever to be caught and executed, too skilled to lose any fight he didn't dodge. But now that he had everything, now that the world could be his if he chose, the irony that he could lose it all was a painful one. In a thousand years, would he be as forgotten as the great Rashwenath, a name never spoken, a presence never felt? What, then, would be the point of living at all, if everything was to vanish from him?
He must have voiced the question aloud without realizing it, for Aeshma answered in soft, seductive tones, "The answer, O my master, is to live as fully and as best you can. If it is all destined to vanish tomorrow, then enjoy it to the utmost today. At your command I can shower you with a thousand, thousand pleasures, with wealth beyond imagining, so when death does come it will find you with not a moment wasted, not a second left unenjoyed. Your days will be filled with delight and your nights will be rich with satisfactions most men dare not even dream of. Rashwenath is dead, and his glory with him, but it is said he never regretted a single moment of the life he lived. So let it be with you."
Hakem Rafi listened to the daeva's arguments, and they struck a chord in the thief's greedy soul. It was true that no man was granted immortality--but he, Hakem Rafi, had been granted more than any man could wish. Yes, he would bury himself in sensual pleasure and live as Aeshma suggested. He would have food, wine, women, power, and revenge on all those who'd belittled or insulted him, and he would not think of death again. It would come--but the object of life, as Aeshma had explained, was to have no regrets, no sorrows. When death did come, it would find Hakem Rafi happy and contented. No man could ask for more than that.
"Yes," he said aloud. "You're right, my wise slave. I'll wear you down in your efforts to please me."
"Whatever you command shall be yours," Aeshma replied.
"First prepare a feast of a breakfast, then take the woman back to the wali before she is missed," Hakem Rafi said. "Perhaps I'll enjoy her again sometime to beget more sons. When you return, we'll talk in more detail about the pleasures you can provide me."
"I hear and I obey."
The daeva escorted Hakem Rafi into an ornate dining hall where a breakfast meal as sumptuous as last night's dinner was spread before him. Then Aeshma vanished and scooped up the still-sleeping woman to fly her safely back to her home. He could not help a deep -throated chuckle as he went, thinking of how completely this foolish mortal was falling under his control.
Aeshma was a prideful being, and it chafed him sorely to be bound by oath to anyone but his lord Rimahn, let alone a petty mortal like Hakem Rafi. But bad though that was, being trapped and impotent in a golden urn before the fires of Oromasd for thousands of years had been even worse, a constant, searing torment that he was now relieved of.
Hakem Rafi was a mortal. Even without Aeshma's killing him, he would die. At most, he could be expected to live another forty years. If, at Aeshma's gentle insistence, he overindulged in food, wine, drugs, and sex, his life span might be diminished that much further. What were a few more decades to a creature who'd waited millennia for his freedom?
When Hakem Rafi died, Aeshma would be totally free--free to regain all his lost power, free to war against mankind, free to avenge himself on the enemy in the name of his lord Rimahn. There would be no others to stand in his way; when Aeshma was totally free, the world would quake and Oromasd's ally, mankind, would vanish from the face of the earth.