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The tale is told of Prince Ahmad, the rightful heir to the Holy City of Ravan, whose power and authority were usurped by his father's widow Shammara in favor of her blood son, Prince Haroun. The tale tells how Prince Ahmad narrowly escaped death at the hands of Shammara's plot, and how he traveled to the shrine of Sarafiq, where he and his advisor, the high priest Umar bin Ibrahim, were united with the storyteller-cum-wizard Jafar al-Sharif in the quest for the four pieces of the Crystal of Oromasd. The party of travelers, joined by Jafar's tragically bewitched daughter Selima, Cari the Jann, slave to Jafar, the blond, statuesque Leila, and the mysterious monkey Verethran, traveled the length and breadth of Parsina in search of the pieces of the Crystal until kismet brought them unto El-Hadar, captain of Hauvarta's Shield, on which they journeyed into the uncharted waters of the Western Sea to find the legendary sunken city of Atluri.
It was Jafar al-Sharif, driven by love of his daughter, who had to journey alone beneath the waves and explore the sunken city on his own, aided by the magical bark he'd obtained from the tree Raffiliz -- the bark which the mysterious journal of Ali Maimun claimed would allow him to live under the water for two days. But as the heroic band nervously watched him disappear into the ocean, each was each was courageously trying to hide their doubts about whether they'd ever see their comrade again.
The quickly-fading Selima was the most concerned, for she loved her father very deeply and knew what he was risking to save her. Only by gathering and using all four pieces of the Crystal could her father remove the cursethat the vengeful wizard Akar had placed on her, leaving her unable to touch this world or be touched. Time was fast escaping, and no one dared guess how little of it was left to her. She could scarcely see her own body at nighttime, and she was having to speak ever more loudly to make any of this world hear her. She was increasingly fatigued, near exhaustion; though she would never burden others with this knowledge, it made it clear her life could now be measured only in weeks. Selima wondered whether she would even last until the first floods of spring, when Prince Ahmad had to lead the armies of mankind against the demon legions commanded by Aeshma, king of the daevas. She only hoped she could be on the Leewahr Plains to watch Ahmad, so smart, young and brave, win -- as her pure heart trusted Oromasd would grant -- his inevitable victory.
Selima stood at the side of the ship watching the spot where her father had disappeared. At last even the ripples died away, and the surface of the water became calm and indistinguishable from the ocean around them. Beside the translucent Selima stood Leila, only slightly less worried about Jafar's fate. In the few months since he and the others had rescued her from the underground country of Punjar, she had come to love this man as she'd loved no other in all her life. Even though she knew him to be a fraud as a wizard, she also knew him to be a man of integrity and good will, a man whose overwhelming love for his daughter compelled him time after time to risk his life for her sake. She was, in truth, following him to the ends of the world, and would go even farther if he demanded it of her.
When she could stand no more to look at the vast expanse of sea, Leila said, "I am still not fully recovered from the rimahniya poison. Come with me, little one, as I go below to rest. We can do as much for your father in the hold as we can here on deck."
And Selima agreed with a sigh to accompany the older woman down into the hold, where the bow section had been partitioned off by a blanket to give them at least an illusion of privacy aboard the small vessel. They would make some tea, or pour wine, or do something to keep their hands busy and their minds off their fears.
"The time has come, I think, for us to talk," Leila said as she settled herself with a grimace on the uncomfortable pallet allotted her.
"We have talked many times, O--"
"We have spoken many times, but never since that first meeting in my room in Punjar have we talked heart-to-heart as one woman to another -- and not even then, really, for you were too scared and worried to speak honestly."
"Of what should we talk, then?" Selima asked.
"Why not the topic common to all women, love? You know that I love your father, don't you?"
"I have guessed it."
"It's not uncommon for a daughter to resent the woman who would take her mother's place -- and possibly her own -- in her father's affections. I could not bear the thought of splitting your father's loyalties and forcing him to choose between us. I would not war with you."
"Thank you. Let me try to explain. I loved my mother very much. No one ever can or ever will take her place in my heart. But I will not become a slave to her memory. I watched my father do that, and it nearly destroyed him as a man. For years he was the most popular storyteller in all Durkhash. After my mother's death he fell to pieces, and it was all I could do to push him forward. Now, once more, he is finally the father I knew. My...curse has brought him alive as a father, and you have brought him alive as a man. I give a daughter's blessing on your love, and hope it warms you both for many years to come."
"You are your father's daughter," Leila said with a wry smile. "More than ever, I wish I could embrace you."
"If anyone resents you," Selima continued, "it is Cari. I don't envy you, having a Jann as an adversary."
"I know." Leila's smile turned quickly to a frown. "I think I'm lucky she's of the righteous Jann, or my bones would long ago have graced some foreign dahkma and I'd have gingerly trod the Bridge of Shinvar. I know I must make some move in her direction, but her power does scare me."
Leila shrugged. "Well, that is a matter for another day's worry. Meanwhile, we have not yet finished talking of love."
"What do you mean? Oh, of course -- your wedding. But--"
"No!" Leila said most emphatically. "I've had enough weddings for a lifetime, thank you. I speak of you, my dear. Don't you know your own heart? I've seen your eyes glow when they rest on Prince Ahmad, and I watched your agony when you thought he might form a liaison with Princess Rida. I don't need my special gifts to know your feelings for him."
"I love him as a subject should love her ruler--"
Leila laughed. "If that were so, there wouldn't be an unhappy monarch in the world. Your feelings for him are far from patriotic."
"And if I do love him, what good does it bring me?" Selima snapped suddenly, the weeks of silence and swallowed frustration building to a near-shout. Then, as quickly as they were released, the feelings were buried again -- but tears were pouring down her face like clear glass beads on a tinted glass vase. "For all my father's valiant efforts, I know I'm going to die. Why should I continue to yearn for the sweet orange that forever will be beyond my grasp?"
"And suppose our mutually beloved Jafar does succeed in saving you. What will your heart say then?"
"If Ahmad wins his battle against the forces of Aeshma, he will be proclaimed among the mightiest kings of the world. Ravan will be his again, and whatever else he wants, besides. He'll have no further use for me."
"Are you so sure of that?"
"He is of the highest birth. I'm just a commoner--"
"He thinks you're the daughter of a powerful wizard."
"Which is why he treats me with respect instead of ignoring me," Selima said finally catching her breath. She went on more in sorrow than in anger. "When he regains his crown, he'll have his pick of princesses. If not Princess Rida, it will be some other lady of high birth and fine breeding."
"You think it's impossible, then, for a prince to love a commoner?"
"Well, not impossible," Selima admitted reluctantly. "A prince may often take a commoner as a concubine."
"Ahmad's own mother was a concubine of common birth," Leila said.
"That is true," Selima said, and her face took on a faraway look. "Perhaps there might be some chance, then, that he'd condescend to take me as a concubine. I could be with him then, at least occasionally. Perhaps once or twice a year I'd have his arms around me. That might almost be enough, to have a taste of his love --
"No!" she said with sudden vehemence. "If I didn't know you better, Leila, I'd say you were a cruel and callous woman to torment me so this way. I will never know the touch of his arms, or anyone else's. I will die a noble virgin and receive my reward in the House of Song. Or, if kismet should grant that my father succeeds, I will have to tell Ahmad about my past. He thinks me so honest and pure now; when he learns I've deceived him all this time, he'll surely spurn me for the liar I am. My future cannot lie with his."
Leila opened her mouth to say something, but Selima cut her off. "I will hear no more talk of love. I may be divorced from physical pain, but my heart is as breakable as any woman's. I will take what pleasure I can in his company and let my soul settle for that. It's more than many women get, so I'm told. And when our lord Oromasd questions me in the House of Song about my life on earth, I will tell him that I was doubly blessed -- first, to serve in his cause, and second, to love so good a man as Prince Ahmad."
And with that, Selima turned and left the area, leaving Leila to lie back alone on her pallet and muse on the intensity and self-delusion of young love -- and rejoice she wasn't that young any more.
• • •
Morning faded into afternoon as the sun crossed the cloudless sky, and Jafar did not emerge from the water. Afternoon dwindled and the sun reddened the sea with its setting, linking the day past with the coming night, and still there was no sign of Jafar. The stars slipped one by one into the darkening heavens, and still the storyteller/wizard did not return.
Selima took up a vigil on the side of the boat where her father had gone into the water. As the night passed and the waning moon rose, Selima envisioned all sorts of horrific creatures lurking within the shimmering sea, any one of which was capable of devouring her father in a single gulp.
Nor was she the only one watching the waves. Though the sailors aboard Hauvarta's Shield could not grasp the full import of their passengers' mission, they nevertheless knew that something most magical was happening. Having a powerful wizard aboard, directing them to mysterious islands and even more remote tracts within the Western Sea and then diving beneath the water for hours, possibly days, at a time -- all of this made them distinctly uncomfortable. Jafar al-Sharif and his companions had done nothing to harm either the ship or its crew, but still the men were nervous that, even with a wizard's best intentions, evil influences would be drawn to them in any case.
Prince Ahmad and Umar bin Ibrahim also watched the spot where Jafar al-Sharif had disappeared under the water. The prince was chafing at his inability to help in this situation, despite assurances from his mentor that his own time of action would come to him altogether too soon. "There are things to be done," the prince complained. "What if Jafar needs my help? I am unable to give it to him."
"Think, then, how frustrating the situation must be for the wizard's daughter," Umar pointed out. "She is a girl of intelligence and courage, yet she is forced to stand idly by while the rest of us risk our lives."
Both men looked over to their right, where Selima stood beyond the range of their voices, staring into the ocean's night. She was becoming so faint that, in the unrelieved darkness, it was almost impossible to see her. It would not be long, they knew, before she vanished from the world entirely.
"And yet, as insubstantial as she is, her wit has saved me several times," the prince said. "I wish--" He stopped abruptly.
"Go on, Your Highness," Umar said.
"A prince, even an exiled one, is blessed of Oromasd and has no right to make wishes for himself," Prince Ahmad said. "However, I suppose I can make wishes to benefit others."
"The unselfish wish is the truest sign of nobility."
"Whether or not I'm successful in leading the armies of men against the forces of Rimahn, I wish we are successful enough that Jafar can cure his daughter's condition. She's a very special person, and I've never known anyone like her before."
Umar was glad that both the darkness and his long white beard hid his smile from the prince. "Yes, I've noticed. I'm not yet so old I can't recognize love when I see it."
Prince Ahmad could feel his face flushing, even as he said, "I forbid you to speak of such things. In our situation, with the safety of the world weighing on our shoulders, we cannot afford such frivolities as love."
"As Your Highness wishes," Umar said quietly.
Ahmad was silent for a few moments longer. "Besides, what would be the point of love? Kismet may decree her an early death -- and if it doesn't, what have I to offer her? I'm a prince without a realm, a walking paradox. What wealth I had left has mostly been spent on our journey. I can bring her no titles, no land, no money."
"Need I remind you of the late Muhmad's prophecy, that you will gain more than you ever dreamed possible?"
"And that same prophecy said that Jafar would lose his daughter. If I accept the one, I must accept the other."
He fell silent yet again, and then spoke some more. "Besides, even if Muhmad's prophecy is slightly flawed and we all succeed, I still will not be the man for her. She is the daughter of, and apprentice to, one of the mightiest wizards in all Parsina. Her birthright is the world of magic and spirits, and she cannot be tied down to an impostor like me. It would be wrong for me to ask, and wrong for her to consider me. No, my friend, if we live beyond this adventure, we will go our separate ways -- and if we think of one another at all in future years, it will be as pleasant companions on a hazardous journey, nothing more. No matter how I would wish it otherwise, it's not to be."
"I suppose that's ever the difference between royalty and clergy," Umar said with a sigh. "You must confront the world of men, as petty, grimy, and deceitful as it can sometimes be. You must make allowances for the worst in people and guide your actions by that. I deal with the world of the soul, the world of light and of perpetual hope. I know that all good things are possible in the sight of Oromasd, and so I'm the hopeless romantic. I pray for only the best for you in this imperfect world."
"I wouldn't want to be left out of your prayers," Ahmad said. He turned away from the railing and, without looking further at the nearly invisible figure of Selima, headed down to his bed in the hold.
"And though it may reveal my ignobility, I include myself in my prayers," the high priest whispered as he leaned over the rail. "I pray for me and I pray for Alhena, and, O lord Oromasd, I pray you'll reunite us sometime in the near future with the uncertainties of these times behind us." Umar stared out into the darkness, conjuring up the beauty of his wife's face and the warm sweetness of her voice.
• • •
The sun rose, and still there was no sign of Jafar. His companions watched the water and prayed for his return, but it did not come. The sun traversed the sky from eastern horizon to meridian and down to the western horizon, and still the surface of the sea remained unbroken. As darkness fell, so did the travelers' spirits, and the gloom of their depression echoed the gloom of the moonless night sky.
"El-Hadar said the water was too deep to anchor in," Prince Ahmad said. "What if we've drifted ever so slightly from the spot where we left Jafar? He might come up and never find us."
"There are no landmarks in the ocean," Leila added. "If he travels greatly beneath the sea, how can he expect to find this exact spot again, even if our ship hasn't moved?"
"You give my father little credit," Selima told the doubters. "No matter how lost he is, nor how far separated from us, all he needs to do is rub his ring and call for Cari to bring him to us. He will rejoin us, never fear."
"Ah yes," said Umar, "there is always his clever Jann to help him." And Verethran the monkey jumped up and down, clapping his hands comically and making them all laugh at his antics.
But despite the monkey's best efforts, he could not banish the unspoken thought from all their minds: If Jafar were safe and had the third piece of the Crystal, he would have little trouble rejoining them. He had not rejoined them. The worrisome conclusion was that either he was not safe or he did not have the Crystal. And the worst part of that was there was nothing any of them could do to help him. They had to stay on Hauvarta's Shield and wait, and trust their comrade's health to the whims of Fate and the enchanted people of Atluri.
The sleepless night dragged on, and every slight sloshing of water against the side of the ship sent people scurrying, ready to haul in the returning wizard. And each false alarm dashed their hopes that much further into the abyss of despair. What evil awaited Jafar in the underwater realm? What tricks were the Atlurim playing to thwart his destiny?
The dawning sun found their eyes bleary and their tempers frayed. They spoke but little, mostly in words of single syllables, and ate the breakfast prepared for them by the ship's cook more out of habit than hunger. No one dared remark on the obvious -- that the spell Jafar used to survive under the water was good for two days only. That time had almost expired, and then Jafar would either emerge from the sea or drown. If he returned, it would be soon -- but would it be with the Crystal or without it?
Suddenly there was a splashing sound. The lookout in the mast gave a loud cry, and everyone rushed to the port side of the ship. Bobbing up and down in the waves was Jafar al-Sharif, his head and shoulders above the surface, treading water and holding his right hand high over his head. He was holding some object in it -- and from the triumph on his face, his friends could only assume it was the third piece of the Crystal.
El-Hadar bellowed orders to his crew to launch one of the small boats and pick up their passenger, but Prince Ahmad refused to wait. Clambering up onto the railing, he dived into the ocean and swam energetically toward the storyteller. The two men laughed and splashed at each other, then began swimming back to the ship. The boat met them halfway, and the sailors pulled them in.
The reunion on the main deck of Hauvarta's Shield was nothing less than jubilant. The sore-throated Jafar was peppered with questions from all sides, and finally had to hold up his hands for silence. He had been awake and performing for almost forty-eight consecutive hours, and the elation at having achieved his objective was giving way to a deep, bone-chilling fatigue. The magical bark that had sustained him underwater was now wearing off, and with it went the strength to keep going. Leaning on a very soggy but happy Prince Ahmad, Jafar al-Sharif excused himself and walked down the ladder into the hold for a long and well-deserved sleep -- leaving behind a frustrated but otherwise happy group of friends.
He awoke some twenty hours later, shortly after dawn, to the smell of breakfast cooking on the main deck. He'd had but one meal, albeit a large one, in the undersea city, and his stomach complained loudly of its emptiness. Rising slowly, he went up the ladder, and was joined soon after by the rest of his companions.
Given an audience, he began his tale with fits and starts of one-line comments on Atluri dishes or jewelry, followed by quick bites and another comment. Only when he'd loosened his sash from a full belly did he tell them of his submarine adventure -- of the eerie city and the strange fish-men of Atluri, of how the Atlurim demanded an original story from him in exchange for the Crystal and made him tell the tale of their adventure -- or capture and prophecy and the first two pieces of the Crystal -- over and over again until the entire city had memorized it, and of how they'd played a guessing game with him to make him deduce where they'd hidden the Crystal. When at last he had the Crystal in hand, King Harnex of Atluri pronounced his benediction on the enterprise and sent Jafar back to the surface with an escort of all Atluri's nobility. They had wished him well and returned to their city just before Jafar broke the surface of the water, when they were sure he'd been safely returned to his craft.
The group of travelers reveled in the exhilaration of the moment, but they knew the feeling would not last long. El-Hadar had already set Hauvarta's Shield on an eastward course during the night, aided by the miraculous winds that had blessed them at every juncture of this voyage. They were headed back to the main lands of civilization -- and to the lands controlled by the evil empire of Aeshma and his minions. The final piece of the Crystal, without which all the other pieces were useless, was buried somewhere within the depths of Mount Denavan -- the home of the daevas themselves and, according to legend, the deadliest place in all the world.
Copyright © 2002 by Stephen Goldin