Bud89: Thanks for the review and the encouragement. Hehe.. I suffered a writer's block and stopped writing for abt a year, I guess. I've been doing some serious thinking recently about where I should take story and I've got a pretty good idea now. So, I'm gonna re-write Chapter 8 a bit.. Jus a few paragraphs to make it easier for me to get on with the tale. So, here I go... :) Keep reading and reviewing... Thanks a LOT! :)
Chapter 8 : Sacrilege!
Tamina heard the rhythmic clashing of swords in her dreams. The sounds grew louder and louder until they drummed in her ears. The grating clamor of steel against steel. The Princess flinched in her eyebrows knitted tightly together in agitation, causing her forehead to crease. Her eyes were shut tight.
"Such a strange dream." she kept mumbling to herself.
Tamina was tensed. But she didn't know why. She saw Prince Dastan. He was standing there by the window. Just the way he had stood last night. He looked handsome and strong. His face and form was caught between the interplay of the dark shadows and the moonlight. The Prince was staring directly at her. Tamina could not discern the expression on his face. "It must be shadows." she decided and approached him as easily as one approaches a friend. Then suddenly the darkness parted and she recoiled in fear. Dastan was in reality the enemy. He was as white as a specter. He charged forward and before she could scream, large swords appeared in a violent dance, raging one against the other until the moment... whatever it was... had been spoilt forever.
Tamina jolted awake. She half-angrily sat up and stumbled to her feet. Her mind drowsily refused to succumb to reality. Her thoughts kept adamantly clinging to the strange dream to find absolution but Tamina had had enough. "It was only a queer dream." She assured herself. But no sooner than she did, she heard the sounds of swordplay coming through her window. The sounds were real!. Tamina jumped in surprise. "Swordplay in Visshuddi?" she cried, pulling on her cloak and rushing out of the room for a better look. "Impossible!"
"A curse?" Dastan took a deep breath as if steeling himself for the worst to come."What kind of a curse?"
Aliyeh pursed her chapped lips.
"Dastan, you remember this feeling you get when you want something so badly. something that is not good for you-yet still, because of pride or anger, you desire it, your body and soul crave for it while you remain confused. You feel like you are torn by two different people.. one being good and pure.. and the other.. evil-"
"Yes. I have known the feeling many times. Our conscience-"
"Conscience!", said Aliyeh, with a soft smile. "That's right. The conscience we have , reasons with us, counsels us , and guides us"
"It stops most of us from hurting others"
"Exactly! Now, evil is free when the conscience is killed. It becomes dangerous, true.. but it becomes free. No one can reason with that kind of evil, it is foolish yet deadly, it blinds the heart, turns it into stone, destroys logic and fuels strength"
Aliyeh stared at Dastan, her eyes round with fear. Sweat starting to glisten once more on her forehead. Her fever was starting to shoot once again. She said in a voice, barely a whisper, "What if.. you could do this?"
Dastan's heart beat faster. He could sense that what Aliyeh was about to say could be something terribly important.
Aliyeh's hands dug into Dastan's shirt. She pulled herself up, for fear that her words would not reach Dastan's ears. "What if you could create evil without a conscience.. seperate it from your being?"
Dastan struggled under the weight of Aliyeh's arms as she began to breathe harder and faster.
"Sister, lie down.. Let me get you more water"
"Listen to me.. Dastan!" Dastan stared right into Aliyeh's pertrified eyes. Her fingers painfully dug into his shoulders. Dastan grimaced. "If your evil nature was seperate, you wouldnt have to struggle to choose. Your conscience couldnt reach it. It couldnt confuse or limit your capabilities. Freedom to act just as you pleased would be yours. No more second thoughts. No more worries. You would be free"
A shiver of fear ran down Dastan's spine. He tried to push Aliyeh down, but she had incredible strength. She clawed onto him, breathing harder and harder.
"I need to be free, little Prince. I need-"
Aliyeh shot out her hand and dashed the cup on her bed-stand. She gripped Dastan in one hand and raised the largest ceramic shard with the other hand.
"No!", cried out Dastan. He struggled harder now, throwing himself this way and that, trying to jerk himself free. "Let me go.. SISTER PLEASE.. LET ME GO..!"
"I need to be free.. don't you see.. I-"
Dastan dashed against the cabinet and the tall candle on the top, lost its balance and fell onto the sheets. Aliyeh screamed and in the distraction, Dastan scrambled away and climbed up the window sill.
Aliyeh screamed long and hard again. The sheets near her feet were burning up. She rolled out of the bed but she fell facedown. That's when Dastan saw the large chains binding her ankles to the bedposts. With quick thinking, he tipped a large brass pot near the window such that it fell with a loud clang. All the incense inside split out in a smelly heap. Dastan withdrew behind the curtains. The door was thrown open and many servants rushed inside. They put out the fire and restrained Aliyeh. "Lock up all the windows. Perhaps the wind pushed down the candle", said the main servant. Dastan clung onto the strong vine and remained as still as a mouse. He heard the windows being drawn in and firmly bolted. The reality of what had happened finally sank in as Dastan's frame shook with tears He slowly made his solitary descent down the straggling vine.
Tamina raced along the gray-stone colonnade. She bounded up the double flight of stairs which converged to a magnificent audience hall of fluted columns. Dastan's spirited cries tore through the stout ebony doors. Tamina angrily flew inside but found herself at the very edge of a frenzied spectator ring. "What is all this?!",cried Tamina, struggling to push past the people. No one would even acknowledge her presence. They were all Vishhuddians and they all seemed to relish the swordplay! Tamina desperately sought for a better vantage point. Suddenly with loud hoops, the entire crowd rushed backwards for the two fighters had changed location and Tamina was nearly crushed against the enameled brick walls. The fine gold wire that secured the emerald beads on the Princess's bracelet, broke and a few of the beads spilled into the cracks in the floor.
By good fortune, Jhavir, the leader of the initial welcome party spotted her. He leapt out from amongst the crowds and forced enough space for Tamina to stumble out to the stairs.
"Perhaps the Princess would enjoy a better view from the upper galleries-"
"A better view?!", seethed Tamina in fury. "-to witness this abomination.. this sacrilege!"
The Princess struggled to regain her composure. "Base and barbaric-", she spluttered, breathing hard. "Does Roshtam know of this?"
Jhavir raised an eyebrow and nodded towards the hall.
"It was the decision of the Council to transform several halls of the Palace to indoor arenas. To inspire a crop of warriors to defend and safeguard the purity of Vishhuddi, the price must be paid."
"Inspire warriors-", echoed Tamina in a daze. Her throat seemed to dry up. She felt light-headed and gripped the ivory baluster tight. Another wave of rambunctious applause arose. Jhavir bowed to make his leave. Tamina remained despondently on the stairs. In another part of the grand Palace complex, the chanting had begun. The Council would have gathered at the Temple to pray. Tamina had meant to join them but now she was not quite sure. She felt confused and upset.
Then, she had an idea.
The fight ended. Dastan's challenger was sprawled on the floor. His sword was in Dastan's hand. The victor's prize. The Prince straightened up and raised his arms to acknowledge the crowd's warm applause. Some of the young girls, brought jugs of water. Dastan eagerly drank some and poured the rest over his head. His opponent tottered up on unsteady feet. He could not believe that he had lost the contest. He thought he was winning. Then he heard the Prince say, "That's all you've got?!" and before he knew it, he was flat on the floor! From the start, the Prince had made him do all the work in the fight. He had charged, flourished his blade, swung this way and that, whirled in style and finally ran out of strength. A small side-step and a painful blow to the shoulder and he was defeated. Navid shook his head in shame.
"Don't feel too bad.", said the Prince, with a mischievous smile.
Navid grunted and removed his turban-mask. Dastan's smile vanished when he saw that it was the man with the matte of pure white hair. The one who had spied on him from the hedge.
"Who are you?", asked Dastan.
"My name is Navid, Prince Dastan. I must speak with you. It is vital.. of great importance." Navid drew closer to the Prince and continued in a confidential whisper. "I know about Aliyeh. I know that you have come here to avenge her death."
The Persian slaves that worked at the Siyah-Chal dungeons were dark and muscular men. At the command from Prince Tus, they lifted the iron hatch from the dungeon roof to reveal the dirtiest, smelliest, vermin-infested cell in all of Persia. The Siyah-Chal was a dreaded jail indeed! Prisoners often died during their incarceration from disease and starvation than beheading. Not a ray of light was allowed into the blackness of the fetid cell. That was how the name came to be. Siyah-Chal - The Black Pit!
"Please...", begged Farooq's voice from within the gloomy deep. "An audience with Prince Dastan. That is all I ask. Why is my request constantly being ignored? In the King's name, I swear-"
"You swear nothing, you traitor!", bellowed Tus, in fury. "How dare you call on the King's name?! Should the unthinkable happen, I promise you that you will not die easily. I will have you eaten alive by insects. By the end of the month, they will be swarming freely through your wasted frame, into your mouth and eyes while you lie there screaming for death-"
"Prince Tus,have mercy- Every hour, I have prayed for the safe revival of Prince Garsiv. No water has passed my lips. I am on a fast in these heavy chains. Have mercy-"
Tus sought confirmtion of this claim from the surly guard who kept watch over the dungeon. He ventured closer to the open hole and peered inside. The reeking odour made him reel backwards almost instantly. He caught the sight of Farooq chained in heavy shackles on the floor with a huge neck chain that must have weighed atleast a hundred pounds! Tus knew that in a week's time, Farooq would lose the full movement of his neck and shoulder blades. A satisfactory punishment for now. "Prince Dastan is in the kingdom of Vishhuddi. He cannot see you" "Vishhuddi?!", paled Farooq in utter surprise. "Impossible! No one goes to Vishhuddi. The path to the Kingdom is revealed only to a few-" Tus smirked at this. "Dastan was specially invited by the leader of Vishhuddi. Farooq, my Father trusted you. Yet you betrayed that trust. You were our most revered
teacher and friend. Yet you threw it all away in one cowardly act. Do you feel no remorse? Does not your heart ache with guilt for the wrong you have done?!" "My Prince, I have indeed wronged King Sharaman. Oh, if only I could beg his forgiveness. All morning, madness threatens to take over my senses and at night, nightmares haunt me. Have mercy. If only I could have the chance to warn the King of the danger yet to come!" "What are you blabbering, Farooq?", humored Tus with an inward smile. "What danger could you possibly inflict from that coffin of yours?!" The guards pulled at the chain that engulfed Farooq's neck from the opening such that Farooq was off his feet by a few inches. He kicked out, rasping for air. They let go and he fell down in a heap. He coughed. Loud, ragged coughs that triggered laughter from above. "Well?!", inquired Tus, with mock impatience. "What dangers do you wish to warn us of?" "The Astra's has left Persia, your Highness.", wheezed Farooq, summoning his last ounce of strength. "Now it is time for the Leviathan to fulfill his duty and this time, he will not return without his reward!" The guards reached for the chain again but this time Tus stopped them. He frowned. "What about the Leviathan? Cryptic riddles will not save you!" "It is no riddle,Sire. The young Prince and Princess have set a disaster in motion. Too terrible to even speak of. When the Leviathan comes, he will not return without his reward!" "That's enough. Cover the pit.", ordered Tus. He climbed down the steep was a strange coincidence the way Farooq mentioned the
coming of the Leviathan. Tus had consulted his diaries just at the beginning of the month and remembered marking off the page where there was the mention of the
Leviathan. He remembered he'd wanted to be out in the seas to witness the arrival of that sea beast. Strange that Farooq should mention it too!
Atanas carefully placed the mouth of the clay pot against the flat base of a long brass vase. He gripped it steady for a few minutes and then gingerly released his hold. He observed the result and rubbed his hands with a curious giggle. "Marvellous! Simple marvellous!" He next took a wooden stool and pressed that at the bottom of the pot. Without removing his hand, he placed a large metal helmet, crumbling with rust, upside down underneath the stool. He stepped back and burst into a giggling fit once again. "Ecstatic!" In all his merriment, he failed to notice that some of the sticky liquid he had splattered so generously on the stool had split on his palms. He tugged and pulled. He couldn't get his fingers loose. Frowning in concentration, his tongue firmly between his teeth, he leaned back and tugged hard. Nothing happened.
"Now this is a predicament!",he sighed.
Just then he heard the sound of the door to his house being cautiously nugged open.
"Who's there?", he called.
"Atanas? Where are you?", came the reply.
"It is not often that I am presented with the honor of entertaining royalty in my humble home. Come in, my child."
Tamina grinned as she walked up to the kindly Atanas. "Still as officious as ever. You know you are only five years older than me. Still you call me a child-"
"You were quite a child when you last visited this kingdom. A impetuous child, awe-struck in every way by your hero, Roshtam. You used to follow him around everywhere, even around places where you were not meant to go"
"You have the memory of an elephant", retorted Tamina, drily.
"That famous pout." Atanas laughed. "But now, you are a Princess of Persia! Daughter-in-law to the great King Sharaman-. Well, well.. it was quite a surprise to hear the news. And even more so when you brought the Astra into Vishhuddi. Does Prince Dastan share our kingdom's secrets now?"
"Of course not!", snapped Tamina, instantly. Then she turned away to hide her emotions. "He has different principles. He might make mockery of our way of life."
Atanas became thoughtful. "He did not find the Astra a curiousity? After all, it has left the King's Treasury. Aliyeh's half of the gemstone-"
"The Astra belongs to Roshtam!"
"It was entrusted to Aliyeh by Afshar - the oldest member of the Vishhuddian Council"
"Aliyeh was too young to receive such a responsibility. The most decent thing to do would be to entrust the stone to her own brother Roshtam!"
"What does Prince Dastan have to say about this?"
"Why all this interest in the Persian Prince?! What does it matter if he knows or not?"
"He is here with you. He must have his reasons. Child, a man does not meekly follow his wife miles across an arid desert , cold mountains and valleys unless he has good reasons. Besides he must have known Aliyeh. She paid several visits to the King of Persia as the representative from Vishhuddi."
"Are you asking me all these questions on behalf of Afshar?"
"Afshar is dead." Tamina looked surprised. "Roshtam never mentioned of his death to me. Who has taken Afshar's place in his clan?"
"How can that be? There would be an empty seat in the Council table"
"There are several empty seats now, my child"
"Perhaps we can talk as we set off on our way to find Giv?"
"Giv is here too?"
"Oh, yes. I know just where to find him."
Tamina smiled and then studied Atanas with new interest. "Why are you standing in that particular fashion hugging a helmet to your chest?"
"Look up!", said Atanas,his eyes shining. Tamina gazed at the ceiling and found a stack of the oddest collection of objects piled one on top of the other and reaching to the very frames of the house. "Now give the tower a push" She poked gently the brass vase. It didn't move. She gave it a firm nudge.
"It's been nailed!"
"Not nailed!", said Atanas. "I have combined the seeds within the brass with the seeds within the clay and created a hybrid substance that holds them firmly in place. Some of the substance is there within that pot on the table" Tamina peeped into the pot. Her nose wrinkled from inhaling the unpleasant odor. "Same old Atanas, still the humble genius, I know of-" "Now if you would be so kind as to fetch the other pot standing right beside it and paint some of its contents on my hand. You see, I have made an unfortunate error in contributing my hands to this discovery. I'm stuck!"
Tamina laughed and helped Atanas free himself from his sticky grasp.
He flexed his hands and smiled. "Now we shall be on our way!"
The Queen Mother lifted her eyes from the parchments in her hand. Her face was wrinkled with age but her vision was as sharp as a woman of forty.
The Istandar, waited patiently near the doorway. It was a great honor to be in the presence of the most elegant and elderly royal in the King's Palace.
The Istandar visibly relaxed and nodded at the remark."The satraps of the provinces of Talush and Khalind have requested.."
"Grant them an audience with me in the morning." replied the Queen Mother with a dismissive wave of her hand. "Leave these parchments here with me. You may go."
The Queen Mother selected a particular parchment from the pile on the table and began to study it. Her chair was flanked by two young servant girls who kept up a gentle breeze with their peacock feather fans. Beside her, also, sat a beautiful woman of fifty - the elderly Queen Mother's Queen Mother turned to her with a soft sigh."Oh, how I long to ride in a coach and visit these provinces myself. But, alas, I bend with age"
"Your Most Highness must not utter such words", scolded the consort. "Health and beauty are the Almighty's gift to your Most Highness"
"How wisely she speaks, the noble Farideh", exulted King Sharaman as he strode into the large marble balcony. He bowed low and kissed his mother's hand.
"My dear son, Sharaman.", cried the Queen Mother. "An unexpected surprise!"
"She who triumphantly crossed seventy-five with the strength of a young gazelle must never speak such disheartening words!"
"I do not dare contemplate on speaking further.", replied the Queen Mother. "Not when my dear son is back in my presence once again. How I missed you. Come, sit down by my side. " She hailed the servants nearby. "Fetch us some refreshments. Quickly!"
King Sharaman picked up the parchments as well and began to study them.
"I cherish fond memories of touring the kingdom, meeting the governors, discussing the economy of the provinces, solving petty affairs amongst the people.. I remember I used to have such little time for myself." The Queen Mother paused a moment. "I had been reviewing the revenue details this year. But I fear, that despite appearances, my heart wasn't completely employed in this activity."
"I have been sufficiently distracted by the feats performed by my little grandsons on their horses." She indicated to the view outside the large balcony. This balcony led out to the gardens. A kind of extended portico which filled into the lawns. Just a few spaces ahead, the three Princes were practising their horse-riding skills.
"What fine sons you rides Tus, confident and proud. He would take on the mantle of a leader. But he still has much to prove if he is to please you." The Queen Mother gave a cursory glance to notice the smile on Sharaman's face. "And then, Garsiv, quick-tempered, quick to judge, passionate with a thirst for justice. With good men to serve under him, he would make a powerful conqueror"
The Queen Mother paused and watched the youngest boy on the field.
"What about Dastan?", asked the King.
"Dastan - the boy from the streets whom you chose to be your son- .He is a mystery to me - I cannot predict his fate-"
"Dastan wears his heart on his sleeve. Surely, you must have noted it. He listens to his heart."
"And by making him your son, do you wish with all your heart to take on personal responsibility?"
"I have provided him with the best teachers, the best servants, food, drink and shelter."
"What about his family?"
"He is an orphan"
"Then the responsibility is great!"
King Sharaman seemed pensive.
"Dastan is a child, true, but he has not lived like a child - amongst parents, enjoying festivals, visiting relatives. He is unaccustomed to finery, to have exposure to so many fields such as music, arts, travel, science- He may harbor many secrets in his heart and find it impossible to trust others quickly-" The Queen Mother turned to Sharaman. "Tus tells me that Dastan enjoyed and trusted one person the most, above his brothers and his father. Aliyeh from Vishhuddi-"
"The girl delirous with fever? Why she may die any moment this week", said the King.
"Perhaps. Perhaps, you must talk to him. Being an orphan, it is easy to assume that he is used to loneliness and independance. But,.. he is in a family now- and he does have a father-"