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Zarifa's fertile young mind was not at a loss for ideas, however. "Please, Madam," she said to her aunt when the latter had acknowledged her, "we have heard much and seen nothing of the dancing girls the Emir gave His Majesty yesterday. How did they fare during the troubles of last night? Are they well? Perhaps if they escaped injury, they would dance for us too."
Everyone seemed to think that a splendid suggestion, but when the messenger returned, it was to say that no trace of the women had been found in the quarters allotted to them. However, neither did the quarters appear to be infested, so perhaps the King and the Emir had sent for them.
Thereupon, the Sultana beckoned to Aster, and said, "I was most concerned by what you told me earlier. The Emir appears a cultivated and superior sort of man, a valuable subject, whereas the man you spoke of as your protector appears to be a scoundrel, and we have yet to see this husband of yours. I confess I am most confused by all this, but I really shall try to be fair. Please finish your tale and leave nothing out."
"Ill.u.s.trious Madam," Aster said, taking a deep breath, "your goodness and kindness in hearing such unworthy strangers speaks highly of the justice available to the helpless in this, my newly adopted land. My co-wives and I are grateful for your mercy and hospitality, and your willingness to be informed of the wrongs done to ourselves, humblest among your subjects." She licked her lips and watched the Sultana's face, to see if the flattery promised her a better hearing. The Sultana discreetly scratched her knee.
Aster took another deep breath and began, "As I recall, I was relating to you how after leaving the wise woman," and she wisely refrained from mentioning the name of Fatima this time, "and leaving our husband's mother in her charge, we ventured forth into the village where we rented from a certain man a certain elephant, and upon the back of this beast made our way into the jungle."
The Sultana settled back into her cushions, her mouth still wrinkled with irritation at one corner but her eyes now upon the face of Aster, whose graceful gestures and expressive voice began once more to capture the attention of the court.
Once our co-wife was properly warmed up, no one noticed Amollia and me any longer. Amollia tapped my arm, and as un.o.btrusively as possible, she, her cat and I slipped behind the fountain and onto the steps leading down into the garden.
"We must warn Aman Akbar," she said, and her jewelry jingled slightly because in spite of the heat she was shivering.
"A very good idea," I agreed. "We have only to find him. Why do I feel that we won't be permitted to leave?"
"I don't know. No one has accused us of anything, but I too feel that this place is less wholesome for us than before. Perhaps they want us to give evidence in Marid Khan's trial?"
"Perhaps they want us to share his execution," I said. "Any ideas?"
We sat in silence for a fair time. The drone of Aster's voice and the occasional gust of laughter or talk from inside harmonized with the tinkling of the fountains and the songs of the many varieties of birds inhabiting the gardens. Once in a while one of the guards shifted at his post, and I heard one swear. The gardener was visible in the far end of the garden, on his hands and knees, weeding a bed of marigolds.
"We may not be able to leave, but I think they would not be able to stop Kalimba," Amollia said. "If we use the cloth to speak to her, she could warn Aman Akbar."
"Only if we send the cloth along so that they can understand each other." She stared at me sternly, and I realized that I was reluctant to give up the power of the cloth. I shrugged, and started to pull it from my sash. "I suppose there aren't that many beasts with which to use it here."
"It is in my mind that we must send him another thing," Amollia continued carefully. "That charm given to Aster by Fatima to give to the King. I cannot help but wonder if the King is not the baby from whom Fatima was separated. If the charm has significance for him, then our husband should be the one to benefit from its influence."
It was a lot to ask of an animal, to bear two treasures through a crowded city and track one man. In the wild, perhaps, the cat would have had little trouble finding Aman's scent among the others, but in the reek of a city? Amollia's eyes steadily met mine, her mouth set in a determined line. I handed her the cloth.
When she returned to the balcony to wait for Aster, I sat staring across the garden, watching the water splash, the lilies and lotuses bob in the pools. Ranks of pillars supported an outcropping of roof on three sides of the garden, and from between two of these pillars in the section directly across from me emerged three figures-one of the eunuch guards, a huge man, and two women, both heavily veiled. One of these was Um Aman: I recognized her at once despite the veils, since even within the folds of the veil her characteristic way of arranging herself identified her. The other, almost as certainly, was Hyaganoosh, from the way my mother-in-law was bullying her.
I was deciding whether it would be more prudent to rise and greet them or to slink back inside and see what happened when the columns of darkness inside the pillared recesses shifted. For a moment their shapes resembled those carved temptresses on the walls of the temple-impossibly full-bosomed, narrow-waisted, full-hipped and supple in movement, for they were moving, and then, as the trio neared the center of the garden, the shapes altered, dropped, lengthened and crawled forward, the blackness brightening to brown as they whispered through the tall gra.s.s and bright flowers. Near the far wall, the gardener whooped and waved his arms, and one of the shapes turned back upon him.
Snakes. More d.a.m.ned snakes. Who had let them loose in the garden? I hollered a warning to the eunuch and he looked stupidly about him, eyes scanning columns and fountains and missing entirely the menace no higher than his ankles.
Hyaganoosh, whose eyes were downcast because she was still being scolded, was more apt and screamed as if already bitten, pointing. Whereupon the eunuch saw the snakes, or some of them, and drew his scimitar. Hyaganoosh and Um Aman, noisily but with a sort of well-accustomed calmness, began shaking their veils, hollering, stamping their feet, clapping their hands and making all the noise they could to frighten the serpents away. This struck me at that time as being very brave and rather foolish, but since then I frequently have seen snakes dispersed with such racket. Country women such as Um Aman and her niece were doing what they ordinarily would do. The snakes, however, were not.
Rather than fleeing, they were attacking, and those at the forefront coiled and reared, their hoods spread, two or three serpents focused on each of the people. The gardener was also creating a racket, but it cut off abruptly and turned into a cry of terror.
I'd been so busy watching the figures in the distance, I hadn't noticed the movement on the steps in front of me, but a pair of slitted eyes fixed mine, and a red tongue flickered in and out. I swung my legs out of range without wondering whether I was faster than the snake, s.n.a.t.c.hed up the nearest object, which was an ornamental bronze urn, and smashed at the hooded head, which sank with a final sharp hiss, and a surprisingly hard clunk as the jaws. .h.i.t the marble step.
Behind me came other cries and gasps but as the ladies peered over the balcony and ran to the head of the steps, I plunged into the garden, braining any serpent I saw. The eunuch cut circles around himself, but Hyaganoosh and Um Aman, in the necessity for staying out of range of his blade, were apart from him and unprotected. I laid about me with my urn and those I didn't kill seemed by my efforts discouraged, for they slunk away toward the pillars again. By now the gate guards, or some of them, had joined us, and pieces of cobra and spurts of cold blood flew about the garden. The gardener stood howling among his marigolds, his trowel lying uselessly beside him. I crossed the distance between us in three leaps spanning four snakes and parts of two more. The gardener's face was whiter than the marble steps and two long streaks ran down his right leg-one the jerking body of the cobra whose teeth were embedded in his calf and the other a stream of blood seeping from the wound. I had to pull the living snake's head out of him before I could behead it with the trowel. When the tail whipped around me and the b.l.o.o.d.y mouth snapped I thought I would be killed before I got the job done, but in the end it was pieces of snake lying before a whole Rasa, upon whom the body of the gardener flopped for support.
No more snakes menaced any of us. The eunuchs, Hyaganoosh and Um Aman all stood staring around them. The pieces of cobra seemed to evaporate before our eyes while the others twisted into shadows similar to those I had seen at the beginning, and shrank further-one I am sure became a spider and crawled away, but with the gardener leaning against me I couldn't very well pursue it.
Most of the ladies on the balcony fled back inside but a few braver ones, including Amollia and one of the Sultana's servants, rushed forward to help. Four women surrounded Um Aman and Hyaganoosh, and I dragged the gardener toward them. Amollia met us, and started to speak to me. But, glancing at the gardener's leg, she dropped to her knees, demanded and very surprisingly received, a knife, I didn't see from where, whereupon she cut away the fabric and sliced the poor man's leg where the snake had bit him. She proceeded to kiss him on the leg and I tried to pull her away, thinking that surely if these people frown at a woman being seen by a strange man without a veil, they'd have fits to see her kissing his knees. I kept forgetting the men in the harem supposedly weren't true men. When Amollia raised her bloodstained mouth, I recoiled momentarily, and wondered fleetingly if the woman I'd come to regard as a friend wasn't after all a monster like the drinkers of blood I had heard of from pa.s.sing tellers of tales. But Um Aman slapped my hand away when I would have restrained Amollia, who spat out that blood and went back for a second taste.
"She's drawing the poison. Don't interfere. She also could easily die but it is the only way."
But I had to look away, while everyone else watched, and the gardener's fellows supported him against them while Amollia worked over him. That is why, I suppose, I alone saw the spotted cat with the rag around its neck leap to the roof of the palace and pad away, something golden glinting in its fur.
Though Hyaganoosh and Um Aman were now the King's slaves, whereas Amollia, Aster and I were still supposedly "guests," even while being watched like prisoners, everyone seemed too preoccupied by the topic of how the cobras had entered the garden and what would have happened if they'd gotten onto the balcony or into the women's sleeping quarters to pay us much attention. Zarifa gave us a small, tired, but quite deliberately friendly smile and left us alone, and several of the others seemed to have softened in att.i.tude toward us. I also overheard a group of women trying the idea out on each other that we were the cause of the snakes and the bedbugs and were bearers of the evil eye and should be driven out or, better yet, killed.
We were able to visit with Hyaganoosh and Um Aman briefly, through the intervention of Zarifa, who had them brought to her quarters and then had the grace to leave us alone together. Um Aman looked drawn and tired, but quite unexpectedly embraced each of us. "Poor old mother," Aster said. "That Div King doesn't seem to know who he's mad at. I thought it was us, last night, but today he went straight for you."
Hyaganoosh edged forward slightly, and offered in the tone of an expert sharing her knowledge, "Divs do change, you know. It's what they're for. They're in charge charge of change, which is what makes them so fearsome. Just when you have things the way you like them, the Divs get bored and change everything around. They'd bother people more if only they could make up their minds quicker, you know. That's why the Peri woman had so much power over Sani. Peris aren't as fickle-minded as Divs." of change, which is what makes them so fearsome. Just when you have things the way you like them, the Divs get bored and change everything around. They'd bother people more if only they could make up their minds quicker, you know. That's why the Peri woman had so much power over Sani. Peris aren't as fickle-minded as Divs."
"They change too, though," I said drily.
"Well, yes, I guess it must seem that way to you," Hyaganoosh said. "But naturally she was much nicer to you than to me. I'm sure she's ever so glad you took me away from Sani. I am too, now that I'm here and have seen how awfully jealous he can be. My goodness, sending snakes after a person! And it wasn't even my fault."
We told them of the vermin of the night before, and the warning on my stomach.
Hyaganoosh was unimpressed. "That Peri is so two-faced. She may have warned you, but who do you think told him where you were? Though I'm sure she thought I was here too last night."
"And so we would have been," Um Aman said. "For the Emir possesses magic that can make his horses run three times faster than ordinarily. But halfway here, we came upon a rogue elephant."
"Oh, it wasn't really," Hyaganoosh said. "It was just lost and it didn't like men. It took a real liking to you though, Aunt Samira."
Um Aman shook her head hopelessly. "Vermin, snakes. What next? I wish to G.o.d Aman had never found that accursed bottle. Because of it he was turned to an animal, you, my daughters, may die in a foreign land far from your people and I, too, far from my friends and home. My niece," she glared at Hyaganoosh, "is corrupted, the honorable Marid Khan, for attempting to defend Hyaganoosh and me from the Emir's men, is captive and scheduled for execution and his people will lose a fine leader." We all had gained her approval, it seemed, now that she deemed us doomed.
Amollia was sick the next morning, vomiting and shaking, and remembering Um Aman's caution, I feared the poison from the gardener's leg had crept into her system. But everyone else agreed that the poison would have acted faster.
For that matter, I did not feel entirely fit myself. I was out of practice fighting anything, and whanging a bra.s.s pot on the heads of vipers is a strenuous business. My right arm ached, my shoulders and neck throbbed, and I felt a little sick remembering the cobra taking its supper out of the gardener's leg. I had not had vast experience with snakes before, especially of this variety, but was beginning to consider them untrustworthy. I shivered just thinking of the look in the eyes of the one on the marble steps.
By that time, the entire harem was quite a lot worse for the wear. My sleep had been disturbed not only by my own troubled dreams, but by the mumblings and occasional cries of Zarifa and her maids. From down the long hallway the sound of bodies turning from right to left, stomach to back, curling and uncurling, trying to get comfortable, trying to kick off the snake phantoms in their nightmares.
Thus I was more than grateful when Zarifa's nurse offered to sit with Amollia while Aster and I joined the others in the baths.
"The Sultana feels the taking thereof will be most efficacious for all today," the nurse, Sula, said politely. But a hint of something else was in her voice and eyes as she added, "And naturally, it being the third day of your stay and you being in need of returning to your own homes and duties, you will want to be clean to start your journey."
Um Aman and Hyaganoosh fell in with us as we strolled along behind the others through the west garden to the bathing pavilion. I mentioned the nurse's remark and Um Aman nodded gravely.
"Three days is the customary length of a visit, though by no means a hard and fast rule." Her black eyes snapped as a group of tardy women rustled past, swinging wide of the path to avoid us, pulling their skirts close to their legs and turning their heads away until they had joined others farther up the path. Two made small spread-handed gestures as they pa.s.sed us.
Aster spit after them and grumbled, "If Aman doesn't speak to the King soon, we will leave here only to join Marid Khan in the dungeon guest-house. In trying to explain to these ninnies the intricacies of our situation, I'm afraid I may, in some small insignificant way which will be blown all out of proportion by our enemies, have implicated us."
"Besides which, you would naturally not rejoin Aman without me," Um Aman said. "What would be the good to him of regaining all he owns if he should lose his mother in the process?"
Aster dropped back a step and made a face to me that indicated she was biting her tongue. Hyaganoosh covered her face from nose down with her sleeve and made a choked noise that could have been, but was not, a sob.
The steam rising from the baths was scented with perfume, sweat and the pungence of the green mossy growth lining the pool's sides and bottom. Servants wandered around the edges carrying their trays of oils and unguents, bearing pitchers of fresh water for rinsing hair. The pool seemed more crowded to me than it had been initially, and I also thought there were more adult figures than before. Quite a few of them, in fact. Leaving Aster in fervent discussion with Hyaganoosh, I allowed myself to wade and drift over to the corner most occupied by taller figures. Even from the middle of the pool, I could see that these were strangers, and judging from the unusually voluptuous aspect of each, I knew which strangers. These were the Emir's dancers. My curiosity satisfied, I started to drift back to my companions, but one of the women caught my eye and waved at me to stop. She glided toward me, bearing something in her fingers.
"You are Rasa, the foreigner who fought those dreadful snakes yesterday?" she asked. Her voice was strangely husky and her eyes were odd, though no man would have found anything odd about the rest of her. She and her group were the first flesh-and-blood women I had ever seen who came close to matching the temple carvings in beauty. I suddenly wanted to find a robe and hide myself. As if reading my mind, she said, "I thought that was the most wonderful thing I have ever seen anyone do. We are all of us so sheltered, having been raised in the Emir's harem since we were children, and we are most dreadfully afraid of snakes. It occurred to me that all of that fighting you did might have made you a little sore today, so I thought-that is, my sisters and I thought-we would like to share with you some of this liniment we dancers use for sore muscles."
I took the little vial from her and thanked her, feeling that I was too quick to judge against someone just because her eyes were different and she was so beautiful she made me feel like a boy. The gesture seemed the kindest anyone had made toward any of my party since we arrived and I dipped my head briefly and mumbled thanks and turned away, embarra.s.sed.
When I told the others, Um Aman sniffed and said some people who sold the wrong things for a good profit could afford to be generous, but since I could partake of the baths and Amollia couldn't, perhaps I should save some of the liniment for her instead of hogging it all to myself. For once I felt the reprimand was warranted. I felt so ashamed that I decided to dress again and take the liniment back to Amollia immediately, so that she might be somewhat relieved by the time the rest of us returned from bathing. I was also still not entirely convinced that the poison was not responsible for her condition and now that Um Aman had mentioned her again, I felt I needed to check on her.
Or at least that was what I thought was the source of uneasiness gnawing at me.
The rain-damp morning air, freshened with gra.s.s and flower smells, was welcome after the cloying miasma of the baths. I strode briskly away from the pavilion toward the sleeping chambers with a stride determined enough to discourage questioning or interference.
I got both, but not from the guards or other harem authorities.
For I had taken but two or three of these brisk, discouraging steps when the great willow tree standing between pathway and wall jumped, showering me with enough water that it appeared I had been bathing with my clothing on. I whirled, dripping and angry, feeling half ridiculous when I saw two pairs of eyes glittering down at me from among the leaves and I cursed inwardly that I was unarmed.
"Rasa-" Aman said from the tree.
"Aman? My Lord? What are you doing up there?" I asked, whispering and parting dripping stems to try to see him. He lay on an upper branch. Kalimba stretched comfortably on the branch above him. He did not look comfortable at all and his new djinn-manufactured brocade clothing was soaked and soiled.
"Trying to gather my family, what else? Have you been here all along? I suppose it was too much to hope the djinn would keep you safe where I could actually find find you. I was beside myself with worry until Amollia's cat sought me out and-er-explained the situation." you. I was beside myself with worry until Amollia's cat sought me out and-er-explained the situation."
"Yes," I said excitedly. "On, Aman, I am so glad you've found us. The Div King has sent snakes and fleas to torment us and the G.o.ds only know what he'll try next. Amollia is ill and your mother and cousin were captured and given as slaves to the King and-"
"Yes, yes, I know all that. And that poor Marid Khan, who isn't a bad sort of fellow at all when he's not after one's womenfolk, is to be executed today for trying to help us. I was in the crowd the other day when the Emir preempted not only my turn but that of all the other common folk seeking justice from the King to present my my family as tribute. Oh, Rasa, what am I to do?" family as tribute. Oh, Rasa, what am I to do?"
"Do?" I asked, as dumbfounded at being consulted in the matter as I was at a loss for an answer. "Do? Why-why-you should give the King the charm, I suppose, and tell him the story and explain how the Emir had no right to enslave your mother and Hyaganoosh and-"
"Be sensible, will you? I cannot very well do that if I can't even see the King, and I have already told you I cannot. No, I must help you all escape and we must flee the country and start anew elsewhere."
Though I had not really expected him to follow any suggestion of mine, I was irritated by his immediate dismissal, but strove for patience. "Very well, My Lord, if you insist that is what we must do, then I suppose we must. However, the charm was given to us by a holy woman to give to the King and we are under an obligation to do so. Therefore, if you can find no way to give it to him, give it to me and I will attempt to see that he receives it before we leave."
"A holy woman, you say? It wouldn't do to offend her along with everyone else I've managed to offend lately, would it? Just a moment." He fumbled on the tree limb, using both hands and ducking his head to try to pull the pendant off over it. The branch wobbled.
"Aman-" I began.
"I have it, I have it," he replied impatiently, and he would have had, except that the first scream, burst from the bath pavilion then and the great lizard-the crocodile-slid out the door, snapping its jaws and looking around, its nasty little eyes gleaming with triumph when it spotted me.
Aman fell out of the tree and Kalimba sprang down after him. The crocodile slid toward me, snapping, its powerful tail whipping the gra.s.s, smashing the tiled path. One shrill scream after another split the air. Aman drew his sword and hacked at the crocodile. The sword broke on the animal's h.o.r.n.y back. The broken end clattered across the tiles. The lizard forgot about me momentarily and snapped its great jaws shut where Aman's leg would have been had he not danced backward. I dove for the broken sword piece as Aman flew back up the tree. He was unable to gain even the lowest solid branch, and clung to the trunk, his eyes wide. The crocodile, taking its time, climbed halfway up the trunk with its stubby front legs, jaws snapping, tail thrashing. I timed the tail. When it thrashed to the left I dove in from the right and drove the blade into the beast's belly, cutting my hand with the raw edge but also doing enough damage to the lizard that it fell from the tree and rolled over. Dodging tail, claws and jaws, I padded my bleeding hand with a wad of my gown and shoved the blade upward, finishing the animal off.
Aman's hands were shaking as he climbed back down, but when I turned and raced for the bath house, he was right behind me.
We were prevented from entering by all of the naked ladies now scampering and screaming out of the pavilion. I saw that some of them were bleeding already. I feared to see what I would find inside.
Aman was at his masterful best slipping along the side of the pool behind me, shouting orders and picking up girls and women bodily and flinging them out of the range of snapping jaws and toward the door. Most of the women were out of the pool but no less than five crocodiles in the water had Um Aman, Aster and Hyaganoosh trapped against the edge while beyond us, not even interested in the remainder of the fleeing women, three others slunk-slid-waddled around the edge of the pool to separate the three trapped women from that avenue of escape.
Aman pushed the last slippery back end out the door and shoved the b.u.t.t of his blade in a crocodile's mouth.
"Aman, your knife!" I cried, for I had nothing and could spot no potential weapon amid the steam and water flying from the booming lizard tails.
"I-it's in my other clothes!" he wailed, and the crocodile's mouth closed on his broken sword and it disappeared even as the animal splashed dead back into the pool.
The three crocodiles heading for Um Aman, Aster and Hyaganoosh, turned and advanced on us as Aman backed away from his other adversary. The five in the middle stopped lolling in the water and advanced in earnest upon Um Aman, who was calling down curses upon them, Aster, who was alternately hiding her face against Um Aman's hair and hollering something unintelligible at the crocodiles, and Hyaganoosh, whose head lolled listlessly upon her neck, her hair streaming over her face.
I would like to say I attacked the lizards and saved my friends but that is not what happened. Two of the lizards from the edge slithered toward me at once and in trying to leap aside, I succeeded in avoiding being devoured for the moment but the body of one of the beasts knocked my feet out from under me and I plunged into the pool.
The five crocodiles who formerly menaced Um Aman and company now menaced me. My hand was bleeding copiously. My sword was gone. I was half-drowned. The only hard object I had at hand was the little liniment bottle the Emir's dancer had given me and this I pulled from my sash and threw awkwardly at the beasts, hoping wildly that one of them at least would choke on it. It bounced on their backs, the stopper flew out, and sizzling liquid spread all across their warty hides. Wave after wave of oily water engulfed me, as the middle of the pool churned with cooking, thrashing crocodile. When the forms changed I do not know, nor did I hear the voices of the guards as they burst in and killed the remaining crocodiles. I was pulled half dead from the pool by one guard, bundled in a robe, and delivered with all of the others to the Sultana's court. I saw only in a daze that the crocodile bodies shifted and shrank briefly into the bodies of human women, the dancers, into the bodies of cobras, into human form again, to disappear briefly and reappear as something neither animal nor human but more like the combination of forms a.s.sumed by the guards of Sani the Ever-Changing. I looked away as I was carried through the door, but glanced once more over the shoulder of my rescuer and this time it seemed to me that there were no bodies inside at all.
The King wanted to have Aman Akbar gelded on the spot, before he was tortured or executed or any of the other things the King considered it proper to do to the man who had illegally entered his harem and viewed the nude bodies of his women. The Sultana and Zarifa, who had been in the baths when the crocodiles appeared seemingly from nowhere, and who had been saved by Aman's rescue efforts, convinced the King that such an action was unnecessary cruelty. Being stomped to death by elephants along with the other criminal, Marid Khan, seemed to them more than sufficient punishment. The King didn't like it, but Zarifa, of whom he was fond, said she would never speak to him again and the Sultana said that she didn't like to go against him of course but really, in this case, she felt that there were extenuating circ.u.mstances he had not heard such as the fact that the man was clearly there only to find his own wives.
The four eunuch guards who held Aman Akbar down, their knives poised to make him one of their number, relaxed, and he was allowed to do likewise and rise to a merely prostrated rather than totally flattened position. The King pouted, but presently brightened.
"If this man was in my harem because of his wives, they must have let him in. Therefore, they should die with him." That seemed to cheer him to no end. "Oh, yes, that will be wonderful! And you say the Emir's slaves are his cousin and mother? They too, shall die! We will have one-two-three-four-five-six-seven, counting that fellow from yesterday. Yes seven seven executions instead of only one today! Seven! An auspicious number, isn't it, Aunt? Oh, that will be wonderful! People will talk of it for years! Tell the executioner to tell the Keeper of Elephants I want my very biggest and newest elephant to do it-the women first, one at a time, then their husband and then that other fellow-whatsisname?" executions instead of only one today! Seven! An auspicious number, isn't it, Aunt? Oh, that will be wonderful! People will talk of it for years! Tell the executioner to tell the Keeper of Elephants I want my very biggest and newest elephant to do it-the women first, one at a time, then their husband and then that other fellow-whatsisname?"
I must say on behalf of the King's ladies that they were aware of the injustice perpetrated on us and protested bitterly, with lamentations and wailings and farewell zaghareets as we were led off to the dungeons to await our doom. While we were there, one of the eunuchs, who had been early on the scene and actually saw the crocodiles and knew that we spoke the truth, brought a pile of rich clothing and jewels as a parting present from our hostesses, who wanted us to be able to die well-dressed. Hyaganoosh solemnly picked out the richest raiment available, saying a girl should always look her best, but the rest of us found in the pile our old clothing and decked ourselves in that. Um Aman was grateful to find her abayah in the pile, for she intended to die with her veils on.
The executioner was also the gardener, an odd little economy in the midst of so much opulence. Though this was not the same gardener as the one Amollia had attempted to save from the snake bite, he said that he was the man's brother and stood with us, among a circle of guards, commiserating. Personally, I didn't see him as an executioner. He seemed much too sensitive.
He had good news for us women. We would not be stomped to death after all, as the Keeper of Elephants had finally persuaded him and he had been able with great difficulty to persuade the King's chief servant who finally persuaded the King, that seven stompings was too hard on the elephant. Two would get the point across. We women were to endure the traditional death of adulteresses and be sewed into silken bags and tossed into the river instead. What he wanted to know, since we had been so kind to his brother, was what color silk we preferred-he had arranged that we might have our choice.
He also said that it wouldn't hurt too much from what he had seen of the ladies his late brother had done for in the past, and if we went quietly and didn't struggle all would be well and we wouldn't suffer. Well, not for long anyway. I said they might as well have let me drown in the pool among the crocodiles since they were going to do it anyway. He seemed shocked. Without a trial? That would go against G.o.d's law. And I really mustn't go on about those crocodiles. The King was most angry with his women for lying about them, because there were no bodies present in the pool. Perhaps there would be the need of more silken bags later. I glared at him and said he was horrible and he looked offended. He really was grateful that Amollia and I had tried to help his brother and wanted us to like him.
"What do they do in your land, lady?" he asked, and snapped his fingers for the first of the silken bags as the elephant was led onto the field beyond.
"Do? Herd sheep mostly, and fight," I replied.
"I mean about executions. Anything special for adultery? Treason? I'm new at this, you know, and the King is fond of novelty, as boys are."
I felt dazed by the events of the day and the mans att.i.tude, but answered civilly enough. "No, nothing special, just simple cutting-you know, the usual.
"Nothing exotic?" the man asked, disappointed but trying not to sound disapproving.
"Sorry. We're simple people."
"It can't be helped, I suppose. Now then, off with you to watch while the Keeper of Elephants does for your husband. The King wants you to watch, and it is quite a sight. The Keeper, Faisal, always makes such a fine display and he's going to try especially hard today is my guess to make up for yesterday. Ahh, yes. Look at that beast!"