Thursday, December 14, 2006

The Bloody Rose


Disclaimer: This is a story. My way of relieving stress before finals. Thanks.

Old, musty brick covered in the dust of cement and construction-work, a brown dilapidated building doing its best to stay tall and strong. I admired it for that as I ducked beneath an ancient clothes-line which mysteriously contained long shreds of what had once been long underwear flapping in the wind. I knocked at the door, peered through the dusty glass plate, and made out the figure of a kind-looking man with bewildered brown eyes. He carefully walked toward the door and opened it.

“Hello. What can I do for you?” he asked politely.

“I understand this is a shop?”

He swept his hand toward the cluttered shelves behind him. I noticed a stuffed parakeet, an emerald ring, a spread of various stained fabrics, a shiny red India rubber ball, a distinguished-looking Bible, and several other odds and ends on the one immediately to his right. I smiled.

“Yes, this is perfect,” I answered. He stepped aside to let me enter. Settling his pince-nez back onto his nose, he sat down at the bench, studying the cluttered table in search of an important manuscript. I heard him shuffling papers and coughing softly under his breath; the crackling sound of paper as he ran his hands over the aged parchment.

I decided to explore.

Clutter and disorder, scattered papers, gifts, shiny new or terribly old. This was a treasure trove of opportunities; so many things were hiding here! I found a treasure chest which contained a single glass plate, a mousetrap that shimmered iridescently, a bag of marbles, several pairs of dentures, old bottles of expired pills, a glass slipper residing on top of a mound of feathers, several dried peas, seven-league boots, various wands and scepters imposing and impressive books, and finally the costumes.

The costumes were just as rich and varied as the other items. The golden armor of the doomed Joan d’Arc, the mysterious snakes that made up Medusa’s coiffure, the single sandal of Jason, the rich robes of various kings and queens, all nestled together in a single mahogany closet. I nearly tripped over a pile of rags, only to realize that they were actually a pauper’s garments. I found five robes for the Virgin Mary, Joseph’s coat of many colors, Cinderella’s breathtaking gown, Jasmine’s sexy outfit and even several masks of beaten gold, apparently taken by tomb-robbers. I fingered the clothing, velvets and rags, the rich, sensual plush feeling as opposed to the scratchy, rough cloth that chafed my fingertips. I held the clothes close, bundled them into a kind of pillow as I thought how strange it was, how completely ludicrous, that I should have the opportunity and privilege to lie upon all the figures of history at once in this relaxed fashion. Tears prickled in my eyes, but did not fall. I was not, after all, that sentimental.

I sat upon the floor, surrounded by shoes, crowns, hats, wigs, and clothes. I was the queen apparent, ruling over my departed subjects, issuing orders to the knight who knelt beside me, smiling graciously at the leper who begged admission to my presence. I found a gown of rare beauty with intricate buckles, only to discover these were the very buckles with which Oedipus had blinded himself. I danced through the clothing and ran pieces of fabric through my fingers, wore scarves of washerwomen and ‘girls with pearl earrings’ in my hair. I fingered my earlobe as I looked at the blue and yellow confection that held my hair back, and I laughed, laughing and laughing at the beauty that was mine.

The kindly old gentleman heard my laughter and entered the back part of the store, where I was delightedly gazing at my reflection in the gothic, fantastically designed mirror. The mirror’s sides held images of deer and game running, the hunters in hot pursuit. There was a beautiful woman with a unicorn on one panel. I spared no gazes for them; I was concerned with myself and my finery; the borrowed plumage that turned the raven to a peacock.

I saw him come toward me in the reflection of the mirror. Laughing, I spoke to the mirror, and thus to him-“How I love all of this!”

His answering smile seemed to say, And how I love you, child.

“How did you come to have all this?”

“O,” he said, his craggy face splitting into a kind of smile. “I was not always as old as I now seem.”

“Were you a wizard?” I asked excitedly, tempted to believe in the miraculous, in that which defied reality.

“Not quite a wizard,” he said sadly. “Though perhaps a little like. I loved a woman, the daughter of a wizard.”

I stopped suddenly, compelled by his sadness. “Oh,” I said, and gently took his hand, creased with lines and cares; his skin worn thin and grandfatherly.

“Don’t worry, child,” he smiled at me. “It was a long time ago.”

“Do tell me!” I said, fascinated. “I’m an avid listener.”

He laughed. “Well, I suppose you are,” he said. “Perhaps I shall tell you. Perhaps I shall.”

He bid me be seated on the cushions that scattered the floor, though I pulled several of the costumes toward me as well. I was wearing a ballerina’s costume, a delicate creation all of white, with a large tutu made of tulle. The bodice was speckled with small diamonds, and the leotard was sleeveless. I had attached the crown of white flowers to my hair, and I looked like a lost princess in my finery. Beautiful white ballet slippers encased my feet, though they did not hurt as I had decided not to be en pointe.

I smiled up at him with my large brown eyes, my brown curls tumbling down my back, and he looked at me thoughtfully, sadly, as though touched by tragedy. “I knew that ballerina,” he said. “You do her honor by wearing that costume.”

“Tell me!” I cried, breathless with anticipation. “Tell me your story?”

“I believe I shall,” he said. After pouring himself a mug of tea, and settling himself in a convenient rocking-chair, he began to tell me.

*

I was not always as old as you see me, child. I was once a young man, foolish, naïve, infatuated with the world and all that it meant to me, a prince of the realm. For I was a prince. A prince of the ancient world, a prince of Atlantis, that lost city that disappeared into the darkness of the water. In the days that Atlantis existed- o! There was no city to compare to it; no island half as beautiful. We were the pinnacle of existence, of society, of beauty. I had been raised with all the qualities of the learned man- raised to read, to speak, to dress, to converse, to act in all ways the gentleman. I was a prince and a man, and though raised with all these delicate graces, I was not satisfied. I am a man, as I have said, and so I lusted after things- lusted after knowledge that was forbidden me, lusted after that which could not be mine.

I had been betrothed, you see, to a maiden whom I thought I could never love. I was a sulky, petulant boy, a prince of a boy, and as I’ve said, my graces were to some extent a sham. Moody, cynical, opinionated, I could not think well of my parent’s views. I was certain they had chosen some pitiful flower of a princess for me; that I would suffer for it. She came to meet me and greet me. She was exquisite. Black hair, black hair swept upward and pinned to her hair with a glittering butterfly. Her eyes were fiery, persuasive, passionate. I hated her. I thought at once that she was a fool, that for all her beauty I would have to court and woo a fool.

Of course she was not. In fact, she played a great trick on me- I will never forgive her for it! She had a maid, also beautiful, a girl with a grace and art that escapes most women. Her hair was golden and her eyes blue, and she worked in the scullery. Of course, I did not know this girl was her creature. I thought, as all would think, that she was a mere scullery maid. As a prince, I decided I would have her- to defy my parents, to defy the realm, to defy any and all who would have me marry a woman I knew I could not love. It is easy to win the love of a scullery maid. Flowers, chocolates, roses and the like- what else could she desire? But she tormented me! Oh, she would evade me; she played the elusive flirt. I would corner her in flowerbeds and she would smile monstrously up at me with her golden hair and grace, turn on her heel and flee. I swore I would have her. At last, tired of waiting, I commanded her to attend me in my bedroom that night. She paled, but agreed.

Of course, this entire time, I believed that I had been making a fool of my betrothed, perhaps had forced her to realize that I could never love or respect her, and hence she had best leave. I had no idea that my scullery maid was in her employ. That night, I left the door to my chamber unlocked. I stood near the tower window, the picture of a moody prince. O’ how I laugh to remember it now! My long hair blowing in the wind, my eyes dark, my brows furrowed, staring into the darkness. I heard the creak as the door opened. I did not turn. At last she stood behind me, her tender hands upon my shoulders. I smiled. “You capitulate, then?” I asked without turning.

“No.”

The voice was queenly, beautiful, deeply rich and throaty. I turned to see my scullery maid, only to realize it was my betrothed who had entered the room. Her hair was unbound, long and black, trailing down her back. She was in a night-dress, all in white. She was tall and regal and proud; all that I was not. She would never have tried to shame me in front of her people. I stood chastised.

“Madame,” I said, and bowed low to her.

“Sir,” she answered, but did not curtsy.

“What, Madame,” I said, turning back to the window, “is the meaning of this?”

“Why,” she said coyly, “I believe you invited my lady-in-waiting to attend you tonight, and I came to explain why that could not be.”

Your lady-in-waiting?” I exclaimed.

Her smile was beautiful. “Of course. You did not know?”

“I should bloody well think not!” I said, embarrassed, my face flushed in the light of my own stupidity.

“Ah,” she said, and moved closer to the window. “Perhaps you could explain to me what you find so distasteful about the prospect of our union?”

“Distasteful!” I spluttered. “Why, Madame, you have the nerve to ask that while you attend me- here-in my bedchamber- when we are not yet wed!”

“At your command,” she pointedly said. “Rather, to defend my maidservant.”

I blushed a deeper red. “It is no sin to woo a maidservant.”

“Even when your betrothed is in the castle?”

I heard her voice falter a little. Could it be? Perhaps she was not made of stone. I looked into her eyes, fiery eyes that flamed as though she were the blood of fae-creatures, and noticed a little crack, a little shard of hurt. In an instant, all the remorse and regret in the world flooded through me, and I fell at her feet.

“I have hurt you, my lady,” I said. “I see that I have hurt you.”

“It is no matter,” she said, her hand lightly brushing away my apologies.

“No, no, it matters-“ I said. “I am- I was- not less than a moment ago I was a boy, with all a boy’s stupidities and confidences. Now I am a man, and I am sorry for your hurt- I am sorry for what I have done you.” I drew myself up, confident, and reached for my sword, the sword that stood ever-ready near my bed. “I pledge to you,” I swore, “upon this sword, that I will wed, marry and love you should you allow me the honor, and never think of anyone but you.”

It should have been ridiculous; I in my night-shirt, a raw youth, she in her night-dress. But the gesture was made with honorable intentions, and she accepted it as such. She bent and kissed the blade. “With this kiss I do mark thee true,” she said, looking at the blade, but I knew she meant me.

She glided out of the room and left me to a sleepless night as I thought over what I had done and said and what I ought to have done. The next day I resolved to treat her with all the kindness I had sworn to give her. She was, after all, mine. No one else would have her or touch her. With this possessive thought, I turned upon my pillow and fell promptly asleep.

I awoke to the sun’s rays across my face, an uncomfortable sensation rather than an accustomed pleasant one. My immediate thought was of the night before, and as my servants attended me, I looked upon my sword, musing on the promise I had made. I thought I would amuse my betrothed today, perhaps take her to the gardens, show her the wonders of Atlantis. For this day, I would endeavor to be everything that I should have been to her from the moment she arrived.

As I lightly stepped down the stairs, I heard an urgent voice calling for me. “My lord Prince!” a messenger cried, urgently running up the stairs, panting as he did so. “My lord Prince!”

“Stay!” I commanded, and bid him be seated, although I yet stood. He sat upon the steps and struggled to catch his breath. When he was not yet recovered he stood up and with great agitation exclaimed, “Your brother, my Prince!”

“What of him?” I asked, scornful. My younger brother was a willful, capricious man, someone whose actions did not generally impress or concern me.

“He has claimed the kingdom! He makes war on you now- he does not call it war, but war it is. His servants run before him in the streets and proclaim him king. He scatters largess and the crowds follow in his wake, suffused in admiration. He claims your betrothed as his own. No one has dared inform the king and queen of his actions- we are terrified, my lord.”

I had stood in a kind of stupor while I heard these words. Only when he mentioned that my brother desired my betrothed did I stir, anger growing in my heart. “He claims what is mine so that he may destroy it!” I exclaimed, then paused. “He claims my bride.”

“My lord, I fear it is so,” the messenger answered. “I grieve to have brought you such news.”

“Do not grieve,” I said absently. “I must go to my lord Father and lady Mother. They must be informed of what is to come.”

I quickly started outside, walking through the jewel-encrusted pillars and past the bazaar. Hawkers, peddlers and merchants mingled there; the stink of sweat and the aroma of spices mixed enticingly in the air. I heard shouts and cries, saw the rich fabric that covered their booths and tents, observed our beautiful women dancing in the streets for coin. And yet none of this held pleasure for me. I walked steadily, my mind racing. What to do? What action to take? How to defend against my brother?

I fingered the bracelet on my wrist, made of overlapping links of gold. It shone against my brown, sun-kissed skin. It was the bracelet of authority, the mark of the true prince. It was both a bracelet and a chain, for it was meant to suggest the yoke of authority and responsibility I bore, the responsibility I must have for my people. All my decisions must be for their good.

I knew my brother would not care for the people. He desired only power, the trappings of kingship without the responsibilities. He was the kind of man who would take from the people but would not give back, would order all that was lush and beautiful and golden to be given to him, offer promises and repay them with harsh, cruel actions. I dared not allow him command of my kingdom. He would not have my bride.

Startled from my reverie, I awoke to the sound of trumpets as I was announced and introduced. I knelt before my lord Father. “Father,” I said gravely. I turned to my Mother and bowed. “Mother. I bring ill news.”

My father looked shaken and torn, suddenly old, the simple gold circlet he wore a heavy burden upon his head. My mother looked frightened. “We know the news, son. It is worse than we thought.”

She motioned me forward. I could then see the scroll of parchment they held, fine parchment with beautiful blue writing. I leaned over my father’s shoulder in order to see the words better.

‘The True King, Adonijah, bids Atlasian to submit to his will and bring him his betrothed to make his, Adonijah’s, own bride. The True King, Adonijah, commands his father and mother to offer their support and love in all his endeavors, and to anoint and accept him as king. He has something very precious to offer them should they join him in this endeavor.”

My mother’s face was white. “He has Sarai.”

“Sarai!” I exclaimed, and my face darkened. “She is only a child! Our sister!”

“He has threatened,” my father continued brokenly, “to kill her if we do not submit.”

“Surely he will not make good that threat,” I countered. “All the realm would know him for a child-killer. No one would accept a child-killer as king. We will rescue Sarai.” I looked at their faces and read their fear. “We must try,” I said firmly. “We cannot abandon our people into Adonijah’s hands.”

“Atlasian,” my mother said, and her hands shook, “they have chosen him over us.”

“It cannot be!” I said, shocked. “It cannot be!”

I looked around the room for a moment. Then I saw it, what I had not seen before- how abandoned it was. The room was in disorder, but I had set that down to the news of the moment; perhaps my father had become angry and thrown the objects about or anxiously juggled them from hand to hand, frustrated. I had not noticed the dust on the walls, the darkened look, the lack of fresh flowers or rushes.

“What is the meaning of this?” I asked, my tone dark.

“The servants have left us for him,” my mother answered.

“The servants?” I asked, wholly confused. “What use has Adonijah for servants? What use can he have for our people? What of the messenger who came for me?”

“That messenger,” my father answered, “is one of the few men yet loyal to us. Adonijah has taken our servants, our guards, our very people. It is a well-planned move; no rash or stupid action. He has thought this over, determined the best way to bribe men, to promise them riches and lavish feasts beyond our dreams. We cannot win them back.”

“Are you telling me,” I asked in horror, “that we must submit?”

“I would not tell you this,” my father answered, tears forming in his eyes, “but for the fact that he has Sarai.”

Sarai was a darling child, a golden girl. Her hair was long and thick, curly and beautiful, her eyes brown and shaped like almonds. Her skin was dewy, touched by the sun. Her laugh was young and sweet; her hands and feet small and delicate. She was a precious child, had done no wrong. Surely she must have trusted her brother when he asked her to come with him. She may not even know that anything is wrong. And yet, he threatens to kill her.

“Have you considered an assassin?” I asked calmly.

“He is surrounded,” my father answered. “Besides, I will not have them kill my son.”

“It is your son or your daughter,” I answered firmly.

His eyes were lit with a strange glow. “It will not be my son.”

My mother began to weep, and I realized that all was lost. “Submit if you must,” I said, my face growing warm with anger at their lack of courage, “but give me time. I must take those few men who are still loyal to me and plan an attack, some way to infiltrate his castle and overthrow him. Buy me time.” My voice was pointed, sharp like a dagger. I was angry, but I tried not to show it. “And I must keep Yasmine safe. Where is she?”

“Here,” she answered, and padded softly into the room. She wore the garb of an Arabian princess in the style of our women; the shining embroidery glittering on her otherwise white trousers, her shoes pointed upward and made of gold. Her eyes were lined with kohl; her lips red, and a small diadem rested on her head. She had bound her long black hair up so that it formed a circular crown about her head. A golden sash was cinched around her waist; there was a small sheath for a dagger, and she wore the traditional ring on her finger, the one which held the original poison with which our first princess had drugged the evil Vizier.

“Yasmine,” I said, and bowed. “Please walk with me.”

“I will be honored, Atlasian.” She dipped her head low, then signaled her maidservants. “Follow me at a distance,” she commanded.

I took her to the golden gardens, where I paced as I looked at the sparkling fountains, the cool water playfully jumping from one basin to the next. “You have heard,” I said, and bowed my head.

“I have heard,” she said, and gently raised my chin so that she looked into my eyes. “I have heard, and I have planned.”

“Planned?” I asked, astonished. “What could you possibly have planned?”

“You will take me to Adonijah,” she said quietly. “I will be your sacrifice.” She stilled my lips with a finger as I began to protest. “He will imagine he is safe with me. How could a woman disarm him? I will play the part. He will find me obedient, serviceable, willing and docile. I shall await my opportunity. I will help Sarai escape. And I will assassinate your brother.”

I looked at her, admiration in my gaze. “A brave plan, Yasmine,” I answered, “but I will not let you do it. You underestimate my brother if you think he will be so easily swayed. You cannot know him as I do. He will force you to prove your devotion, and prove it again and again and again.”

“Yes,” she answered, agreeing with me. “And that will be your torment. But it must be.”

I nearly choked. She understood- she understood what she was saying. “You are telling me you will let my brother wed you.” My tone was dangerous.

She was silent, her eyes simply looking into mine, neither confirming nor denying that it was true.

“You are telling me that you will allow my brother to have you, to make you happy, to act as a husband to you in all the ways that he desires. As well give him the kingdom! Are you mad? Do you mean to ingratiate yourself with me by perpetrating this humiliation, this treason? Do you think I can stand it?”

“You must stand it,” she answered. “You will stand it because you will realize I am betrothed only to you. No matter what I must say, or am forced to do, I am yours.”

I was pacing now, my hands angry and moving, twisting at the air. “This is not a woman’s war,” I said. “I will not allow you to do it. I will not have you used. I will not have you sacrificed.”

“You have no other hope.”

Frantically, I wracked my brains. It could not be. It must not be. She could not be his, his, to lie with him, to run her fingers through his hair, to smile at him and dance for him, to act as his agent and his queen. I would not have it. “I could summon a force and march on him-“

“You know that will not work.”

“We can flee.” It went against my pride to admit this. “We can flee Atlantis, flee the island, take one of the ships with the few who remain loyal to us.”

“If we leave in disgrace, you will not forget it.”

“Oh, and this I will forget?” I looked at her again. “I cannot allow it.”

“Atlasian. You have no choice.”

I did not have a choice. I could not see another way. “What will you do if there is no opportunity? What will you do if he bids you wed him, and you cannot find a way to kill him?”
“Why, I suppose I shall live with him for a time, and then I shall die.”

“Die?” I pounced on the word, anxious for hope.

“Certainly. I would not live if I did not keep my word.” She turned away, the sun glittering on her hair. “Come. Arrange for my retinue.”

Wordlessly, I followed.

I am ashamed to admit it to you, but in a way I was relieved. I knew I did not have the men to face my brother, and I thought that perhaps she would succeed in her mission. I personally brought her to my brother. When he saw me, he laughed. My sister Sarai knelt at his throne, bathing his feet and laughing. She did not understand the danger she was in. Yasmine entered, all elegance, fire and steel and mystery. She breathed a kind of calm that I knew to be dangerous, but my brother took for submission.

“Oh, and you are come, are you!” he exclaimed, running his hand over his black beard. He was a strong man, muscular and well-built. “Well, Atlasian, I am glad you see the sense in this. Come forward, my beautiful bride.”

Yasmine took a step toward him, and knelt coolly at his feet. I struggled to keep the grimace from my face.

“Up, my sweet,” Adonijah said, motioning her upwards. “Come closer.” He looked upon her face, her exquisite eyes, stroked her hair. “Ah, you’ll do,” he said, and smiled, a wolf’s smile, possessive and covetous. “You’ll do very well.” He laughed appreciatively as he motioned to his guards. “What do you think of your Queen?”

The men smiled. I saw their eyes as they looked at her, and I wanted to kill them.

“Yasmine,” he said, and her name sounded strange on his tongue. “Yasmine, you are mine now. What have you to say to that?”

“I am pleased my lord is satisfied with me,” she answered coolly and correctly.

“Did you ever hear such an answer!” he exclaimed in wonder. “Why, I am not satisfied with you, I am madly in love with you.” He looked once again toward his guards. “Am I not, my men?” and smiled. Oh, Adonijah was the darling of the people, a brave and handsome man, a man of power and strength. I felt bitter as I witnessed the power of their regard for him.

“She’s a beautiful Queen, my lord,” one of the men said boldly, and Adonijah laughed.

“That she is,” he answered. “Perhaps one day I shall have you look upon her charms, so that you may judge them and see that she is fairer than any other.” I gritted my teeth. “But that day is not yet come, my sweet,” he said, slyly looking at Yasmine to see if he had shocked her. She had not reacted at all. Her face was calm, controlled, expressionless.

“I know we are not yet married,” he said, “but I desire for you to give me a favor.”

“A favor, my lord?” Yasmine answered thoughtfully. She offered up one wrist and her handmaiden began to untie the golden ribbons that laced around it.

“No, no, not that kind of favor,” Adonijah answered. “I desire a kiss.”

In public? I almost roared. We did not shame our women that way, never demonstrated intimacy in public. I watched as Yasmine stepped forward and Adonijah swept her into his lap. He kissed her soundly, and I was forced to watch. If this was feigned, it was artfully done. I could not tell. My insides roiled as I watched her, and I struggled to be calm when Adonijah released her. I knew this was part of his show of power. She was truly his.

I cursed myself for acceding to her plan, and wondered how to extricate myself from it.

“Atlasian,” he commanded. “I ought to arrest you and imprison you. But as you have no men,” he laughed, “I see no purpose to it. You may, if you like, enjoy my hospitality here, or, if you desire, you may return to comfort our parents.”

“I would remain with my parents.” I would not call him ‘lord.’

“Atlasian, I am king now. Kindly refer to me as such.”

“I would remain with my parents, king.” It cost me to say it. Perhaps it cost too much.

“Very well.” He clapped his hands. “Let no one say the king is not benevolent.” A servant stepped forward with a small chest, filled to the brim with priceless treasures, rubies and emeralds, ropes of silver and gold. “A small token of my thanks,” he said. “You have made this decidedly less bloody than it could have been, and prevented me from engaging in the act of fratricide, cursed by the gods.”

I bowed stiffly.

“You may go, brother,” he said, and turned back to Yasmine. I saw him caress her, his arm slowly moving along her shoulder, his hand resting lightly on the arch of her back. I turned away and shuddered.

After at time, I grew accustomed to them. I saw Adonijah and Yasmine walking, arm in arm, giving each other looks that spoke of a love that ought to have been mine. I saw Sarai running playfully in their wake, dancing through the streets. I saw him court her; I saw him woo the bride who was mine. I saw it all, and I remained silent, thinking, as ever, that she would keep her word, that she would slay him.

I remained with my parents in the other castle, and did what I could to govern the realm. As Adonijah had not yet completely assumed leadership, he left this largely to us. His plan now was to make an exhibit of himself, to parade proudly through the city with Yasmine on his arm, dangerous and beautiful. He allowed her to walk armed because it pleased him to say that he did not fear a woman. He permitted Sarai to see our parents, but only in his presence. He would not allow them to keep her.

I tried once to whisper to her that she must try to escape if she could. Her eyes became very wide and she looked up at me sorrowfully. “How can you say such a thing, Atlasian!” she exclaimed. “To run from my brother, the True King!”

I had not realized how much he had influenced her, and made her swear, though it pained her, to keep this conversation from Adonijah. She thought perhaps to reunite us; she could not realize what he had done. Her eyes were wide with astonishment and disillusionment, and it angered me that I was the one who had brought this to her; that to her, as to everyone else, Adonijah was the golden man, the one who could do no wrong.

It pained me to see him with Yasmine. I think he knew it, though I struggled to hide it. He would come near me; if he saw me in the market he would hail me and bid me pay my respects. I would kneel to him and simultaneously swear to release Yasmine, somehow, some way. He was driving me mad.

I was forced to attend their wedding. It was a magnificent affair, involving the whole of the kingdom and many foreigners who came, bearing rich gifts and royal promises. The wedding was held outside, in the crystal gardens. Each leaf was carved of crystal, glittering and sparkling in the sun. All was translucent, transparent, tinged with the rainbow light that was its beauty. Amidst this grandeur, all would have been near-blinded, if not for the beautiful canopy that had been specially constructed to house the guests. Made of cloth interwoven with crystal and gems, it was supported by four black pillars, made of the most precious obsidian. There was a podium, where the King and Queen would meet and seal the marriage.

We were seated in chairs of stone, inlaid with mother-of-pearl and opal. I shifted uncomfortably in my seat. Someone had seen to it that I was near the front of the room, able to bear witness to all. I heard an unearthly choir, the sounds of the angels perhaps, singing in terrible unison. The musicians played, and the King emerged.

Adonijah wore cloth-of-gold and black, the traditional marriage garments. He carried a tiara and a ring, each of which were made of three types of gold- the white color, the yellow, and the dark, brassy one. The three were united to demonstrate the strength of the marriage. He stood, serious, impressive, a grave expression on his face, looking to the crowd. Cheers and shouts went up and he smiled for a moment, then turned back in deference to his queen.
When she entered, I caught my breath. Adorned head to foot in vivid red cloth, she was an enchantress, her hair unbound and wavy, a single ruby around her throat. Her maidens had placed small rubies at the corners of her eyes as well, almost as though she wept blood. Her hands were bare but for one large ring, also with a ruby in the center, but her anklets were of gold. She wore only thin golden slippers as she walked, staidly and sedately, toward Adonijah, who was visibly moved.

They began the ceremony. I was fascinated, felt that I must watch although it hurt me, pained me beyond expression. I watched them seal the marriage. I watched as she raised the cup of ceremonial wine to her lips. And then, quicker than could have been expected, so that I was the only one who saw, she twisted her ruby ring for a moment. I saw a small stream of powder slip inside the cup. Of course. If he died now, she could claim the gods themselves had struck him down, had prevented the marriage. She kissed the rim of the cup and handed it to Adonijah.

He raised it to his lips, smiling—then dashed it to the ground. His eyes were cruel for a moment, and I knew, I knew, that despite the care she had taken, he had seen it too. “I find that I need no wine to dizzy me with desire,” he announced sweetly, but I saw his lips curve as he contemplated his savage revenge. I knew I had to save her.

I stepped forward. Her eyes were on me, quick as a cat’s, savage. Her lips formed a single word, quickly, quickly, but it was clear- No. She forbade it. She had failed, but she would find another way.

I did not care. I stepped forward. “I protest this marriage,” I exclaimed. “I protest it.” I was half-mad by now, too frightened for Yasmine to care what I did next. I drew my sword and made for my brother. “To me!” I heard him call, saw him clutch Yasmine closer to him. I felt strong arms around me, and then I could not see, could not think, could not breathe. I continued to move forward but felt another person reach for my hands. I stabbed upward and felt the blade connect. I heard a horrible groan. Then darkness, and I knew no more.

*

“Well, brother.”

I awoke in chains, inside of a cold dungeon. My brother looked at me malevolently, still in all his finery. “So she was your accomplice, was she?” He smiled. “Oh, I suspected you. I knew she would not be this fickle. I knew what you were.”

I looked at him with eyes like daggers.

“No matter,” he said. “She is mine now, mine in every way that matters. And to torment you, I will bring her here. She has been told she must do whatever pleases me—or I will kill you.”

I writhed in my chains, my eyes unforgiving.

“If you close your eyes for a single moment, I will have you killed.” He clapped his hands. Yasmine entered. They had stripped her of her finery, given her only a sheet to cover her nakedness. My brother advanced on her. I thought he would hit her, and strained to prevent the blow. Instead he kissed her. I tried to turn my head away, and received a powerful slap across the face.

“You will watch,” he commanded, and his voice was icy with contempt and rage.

He forced me to act as an unwilling viewer. In my naïve, innocent manner, I told Yasmine I would rather die, begged her to stop. She did not. I told her that I hated her, that I knew she could not love me and simultaneously act as she was acting. I accused her, called her vile names. Something broke within me when I saw her so obedient, so subservient to my brother. I wanted to weep.

It was a kind of torture unlike any other. He did not physically hurt me- oh, I was bruised, but that was not the pain I felt. He did not even hurt her. He made me hate her- hate her and love her simultaneously, so that I was mad with pain and anger. I could not watch, yet I must watch. I must live. I could not live.

At last, I closed my eyes.

He laughed. “I have broken you,” he said, his voice barbaric. “Remember that I have broken you.”

He dismissed Yasmine, then turned back to me.

“I have heard rumors,” he said softly. “Disquieting rumors. I have heard that Atlantis is to be destroyed, that an ocean will come and flood the island. I have heard there is a mad prophet in Athania who preaches this.”

I shook my head dumbly. This was what concerned him? The mad prophets of the world?

“I will release you. You are to go to Athania and discover this prophet. You will find out the truth of this prophecy, and what must be done to stop it. Before you go, I will brand you, so that all will know that you are mine, my emissary, a lowly servant. I will strip you of your finery. You must return to me after the period of a year, as I will ensorcell you; it is part of the brand. The brand will call to me, and to Atlantis. You are not free.”

I was too weary to think, too pained to concentrate.

He took one of my chained hands, and ordered a small table be brought. He forced my hand upon the table.

Then he reached for the brand.

It was in the shape of a rose. An iron rose that he would press against my flesh, burn upon my hand so that it would remain there forever, a rose spelled with magic so that I must return, could not control my own body. I screamed as I saw the iron, hot with fire, press against my skin. I screamed and screamed and heard his diabolical laughter as he spoke words, words I could not hear or understand. At last, I fainted.

When I awoke all I could think of was the pain. The pain, the dead heat, the scorching smell of flesh, the ruined hand. It was cruel to make it a rose, the symbol of so much beauty. I saw that he had made it beautiful; his tattoo artists had come whilst I had fainted- perhaps they had drugged me or spelled me to remain asleep- and they had made it beautiful, its petals inked deep with red, red hues. A needle had been at work within my flesh, and all I could feel was the shards of pain that remained to me, the horror that was this rose. I saw it shimmer and felt how much it longed for Atlantis. I would always feel pain upon being far from my home.

He saw me off. He gave me a beautiful ship, sea-worthy and spry, rich and spelled so that I could sail it myself. He would not give me men, for fear that I would turn them to me. People were told that I was desirous of exploring the world; none of them informed of the prophecy that spelled the end of their lives.

I was many days at sea. Tossed by the storms, the gails, the rage and wrath that was Poseidon’s anger, I existed in a half-dazed, half-dead dream state. I could feel the call for home constantly, felt the pain prickle within my flesh. I stared at my hand and hated myself, hated myself for my lack of courage, for abandoning Yasmine, for having allowed her her plan. I hated the lust for power that my brother displayed, and even hated the fact that he had spared me when I closed my eyes.

At last I reached a port. I did not know where I was, but pulled into the dock. I had grown a beard and was wearing travel-stained, grimy clothes. No one would know me for a prince. I was a fool, the son of a fool, a wandering man with little to no profession.

“Who ye be?” a gruff voice asked as I disembarked.

“I am—“ my voice was rusty with disuse. “I am Ulysses,” I answered, “son of pain.” It was the name that I had decided upon, the only name that truly fit my damned state. Ulysses, Odysseus, men of pain, a man who was parted from his wife, though she remained constant. Yasmine had not that ability, I thought, and stiffened.

“Ulysses?” he asked, and his voice was cynical. “Why, have you left your Penelope?”

“Perhaps I have, at that,” I answered, “though that’s none of your concern. Is there a tavern hereabouts?”

His wrinkled face looked up at me, cunning. “Oh, there’s a tavern, but you don’t want to be going there.”

“And why not?” I questioned.

“Why, because them who goes there is most frequently robbed and plundered, that’s why,” he answered. “My lord Atlasian.”

“You know me!” I gasped, horrified. “You know me in these rags!”

“Why, sure I know you,” he said, and stood up, throwing off his rags and cloak, revealing himself to be a strong, true man. I realized then that the wrinkles were painted on; that it was merely Ben, aged, it is true, but not nearly as old as the man who had first appeared, who had utilized these cosmetics. I saw a sword’s jeweled hilt winking at his belt, and could not help but laugh.

“Oh Ben, sweet Ben, best bard that ever was!” I exclaimed. “You know of my misfortunes?”

“That I do,” he answered, “though not of the details. I wonder what you seek?”

“I seek a man,” I answered, “a man who prophecies the destruction of Atlantis.”

“Ah,” Ben nodded sagely. “Yes, such a man I have seen, but he wanders far and wide. Come home, sup with me, my lord, though I have little. Perhaps I will be able to help you.”

“You have little?” I questioned, looking pointedly at his sword-hilt.

“Oh, that?” he laughed. He pulled out the sword, and I was shocked to realize it was merely made of wood. “Paint and gaudy jewels,” he answered. “I work in a theater now. Bard I once was, but the wandering life has grown too harsh for me, so now I work at designing costumes and practicing plays, applying myself to art. And with such a muse as I have, how could I not succeed!”

By this time we were walking; he quickly and I rapidly, striding through a town made of drab wooden houses and small cottages. “A muse?” I asked politely.

“Yes, my daughter Vanessa. You have never seen a prettier maiden,” he beheld proudly. “She is the pride of my life, my every joy. She sings and acts, but her talent is in her feet. Her dancing is…well, I need not praise her. She will, of course, perform for you.”

“Ben?” I reached forward and caught his sleeve before the door. “I do not want anyone to know who I am. I am ashamed.”

“Your brother is a wretched man,” he answered. “He ought never to have seized the throne. It will only bring him grief.”

“Grief?” I questioned in wonder.

“Come, come in,” he said, and opened the door to the wooden house. “Be seated.”

I entered. It was plain, and simply furnished, but serviceable. A single lamp hung from the ceiling, and the walls were decorated only with amateur drawings and paintings, but they were very beautiful and spoke of talent. I saw animals leaping about, hinds and harts cavorting with gazelles, trees as though in a forgotten wood, a small hut ensconced within. I was mesmerized by the paintings.

“They are beautifully rendered,” I said as he took my cloak, and sat down to his table. “You are talented.”

“Me?” he laughed. “Why, my lord, I can but sing, as you know- if you recall. You were only a lad of twelve at the time, I believe. These paintings are my daughter’s work.”

“Your daughter?” I asked, and rose to inspect them. “They are very fine,” I told him. “Very fine indeed. She has a gift.”

I heard a light step on the stairs and turned. This was Vanessa, a lithe, slender, tall woman; her hair a deep brown, soft tendrils framing her heart-shaped face. Her eyes were wonderfully expressive, deep brown as well, while her lips were full and tender. Her air was one of contemplation; as though she sought a kind of fulfillment, but did not know what it was she looked for. She wore a beautiful white leotard and white slippers; a tutu of white tulle. She was utterly unself-conscious. She was enchanting.

When she saw me she stopped in shock and I realized how I must appear- an old, sea-ravaged man, with the grime upon me and my beard, a long shock of hair framing my face. I saw her stop in dismay, her eyes turn toward Ben for assurance.

“This is my dear friend, Vanessa. He has come to dine with us.”

She smiled, a clear, delighted smile. “Then I shall be happy to have him here.” Her voice was light and musical, tinkling as a brook does when it trickles over pebbles and stones.

She set out bowls with a thin, watery soup, and I was so hungry that any food tasted good to me. I appreciated the warmth of their fire, the sweetness of our conversation. It was only the rose on my hand that called me, and that I took care to hide. Alas, as I bid Vanessa good night and moved to climb up the stairs, my sleeve fell away and she saw it.

She gasped, both in amazement and horror. Her eyes met mine; hers filled with a great deal of compassion and sorrow. “Who did that to you? Or did you do it yourself?”

“My brother,” I answered, and my voice was cold. I turned for the stairs, not caring that I had disturbed her peace, only hating myself for inflicting my presence upon such simple, kind people.

Ben did not allow me to leave, however. He had me stay, telling me that he would seek out news of the prophet. I remained there, and began to heal, began to return to myself as I once was, regain my old strength. I hired myself out for odd jobs, tended sheep, worked in a mill, learned that there was no such thing as demeaning oneself. Sometimes, Ben took me to the theater.

One time I had the privilege of attending a rehearsal. Vanessa was to perform, was to dance in a ballet. I had never seen her dance before.

For her, dancing was more natural than walking. She was exquisite, beautiful, supple and agile, lithe and kind. She floated in the air, leapt lightly and fell, dancing as though dance were her life. She spun and twisted and twirled and allowed her arms to fall beside her with a kind of helpless, terrible grace that moved me. When at last she knelt upon the floor, almost insensible, she raised her head and caught sight of me. Her eyes met mine and I felt a kind of connection, a bond that caught me and held me. I could not let go. Her eyes shone with a kind of glow that I had once known, an innocence and sharp beauty that had been beaten out of me.

I think Ben was aware of how I felt about her, and how much I tried to hide it. One day, I put my foot down, and informed Ben that I was leaving; that I must go, though he could not understand why. He bid me wait until that evening.

I went to his chamber in the evening only to find a sorcerer’s room. Magical items littered his desk; even the covers of his bed seemed to shimmer with an otherworldly sort of quality. I looked upon this in wonder and fear. I saw Ben, but shining, a glowing Ben I had never before beheld.

“Know,” he said, and his voice was both terrible and wonderful, “that I am the prophet you seek.”

At that moment, I did not know him, and stood, transfixed. His voice held power, a power that bound me to the floor and bid me listen.

“For the crimes your brother has committed, Atlantis will fall. Poseidon is angered at his excesses, at the way he sucks the land dry, bleeds his people of their wealth. He has decided to flood Atlantis, to cover it in waves and submerge it beneath the water. The riches of Atlantis, its beauty and jewels, will all be forfeit. There is nothing for you there. Better to remain here.”

At these words, the rose on my hand burned painfully, so that I almost fainted.

“Atlantis will be swallowed up. There is no saving Atlantis from its doom. You will remain here.”

There was an instant darkness that swept the room, and I was forcibly cast out, terrified and amazed. I went back to my room, half-grieving but also wild with joy. My brother, dead! My brother, submerged in the sea!

But what of the people? What of Yasmine, whom I had betrayed? What of the rose on my hand that burned and forced me to return?

I resolved to leave that very night. I began to pack my things. Under the cover of darkness, I would slip out of my room and away, toward the wharf, the pier. I could sail the ship, as it was still charmed so that one man could steer it. It was what I must do.

At dinner that night, my glance was troubled. Vanessa detected it, and rested her slender hand on mine. I felt dirty, unclean, for stealing her trust. She believed me to be good, when I knew I did not warrant that belief. I felt cruel.

It was late at night when I stole from the house. As I slung my pack across my shoulders, dressed once more in my seafaring garb, I heard a light, quick step behind me. I turned, only to see her. She was dressed in a white robe, her dark curls spilling across her shoulders. Her eyes were alive with a strange resignation and determination.

“I know,” she whispered.

“Do not try to stop me, then,” I answered. “I must return.”

“I know it all. I know who you are. I know of your Yasmine, your country, of all that you are and that you have been.”

I looked up at her in wonder, for her eyes still expressed her high regard for me. “I made it my business to know. It was not my father who betrayed you,” she continued.

“Vanessa, if you know—“ I paused. “You must know that I am forced to return.”

“What?” she asked, confused, and I saw she had not found out this piece of information.

“This rose-“ I said, “this rose upon my hand- this rose is spelled so that I must return. I do not think the charm can be broken; I doubt your father has the ability to lift such dark curses. I must, therefore, return, if only to die on Atlantis.”

“And I will go with you.” She raised her chin pointedly. “You must know that I love you.”

I had not wanted to speak the words, to make them true. “You cannot. You must not.”

“But I do.”

She was proud, her back straight and proud beneath her white robe. She had slung a pack over her shoulder and her white hand sought mine. “I love you, and my father knows I love you. I am sure he has foreseen this. He has left the choice to me.” She looked at me, and there was so much tenderness in her eyes that I thought I might break into pieces. “I choose to go with you.”

I opened my mouth to speak but she stopped me. “I know,” she said, and flushed, “that you may never love me. I know, too, that you are a prince—“

“Vanessa,” I said, and took her in my arms, “you are far, far more than I deserve.”

I spent the happiest days of my life aboard that ship. Vanessa sang to me, recited poetry for me, and I amused her in all the ways I was capable. She kissed the rose upon my hand and smoothed my hair. She told me entertaining stories, but was also able to be quiet and grave, to realize when I was moody and what that moodiness meant. She shared herself with me in more ways than I knew possible. I realized that I was being unfaithful, I knew that I had sworn to love Yasmine. And yet- and yet- now that I knew Vanessa, I could no longer value Yasmine as I once had. Her beauty, her pride, the foolish promise of a boy who thought himself a man- her sacrifice- I could not think on it without a sense of humiliation and shame to remember how much she had once hurt me.

I wanted to hide Vanessa. I wanted to steer away from Atlantis. We tried. We fought the storm, but always my tattoo remained, pulling us forward, pulling us closer to our deaths.

When we finally arrived, I bid Vanessa remain on the ship, laughingly handing her a single red rose I bought from a peddler as a token of my love until I returned. I went to confront my brother. Yasmine was twined on his lap, smiling and laughing at him. I caught her eyes, and I smiled, believing that perhaps she had found a kind of love with him. She looked at me in suspicion and tossed her hair, almost as though she wanted to bewitch me. I smiled because of how useless it was.

“Brother,” I said loudly, “I am come to tell you my news.”

He summoned me to a private chamber, where I cheerfully lied to him, informed him that the prophet had been a foolish madman and that I had killed him dutifully. My brother tugged at his beard thoughtfully, then paused.

“The rose on your hand is glowing. You are not telling the truth.”

I gathered my wits and said, “You are quite right. Here is the truth. Your barbaric actions and your tormenting me have caused your own doom. You will all die here, here upon this island, when Atlantis is flooded.’

“If that is so,” he said, “then you will die as well.”

He flung me in his dungeons, certain that I could not escape. But this time I had planned for this, had enclosed pins and masterkeys within the sleeves of my coat. I knew he would be too angry to check me properly; he would think I could not possibly have had the foresight to know my lie would be detected. I picked my locks and carefully left my cell. I made for my ship. Perhaps, perhaps, I would be able to remain a small distance away from the island, if no further, and thus save myself and Vanessa.

I climbed onto my ship. I heard noise, a kind of commotion. Shallow breaths, a gasp, an angry cry. I ran, terrified, my heart pounding. Yasmine blocked my way.

She held a knife high, and it was bloody. Her hair was unbound; her teeth gleaming and white; she wore a red shirt that fastened beneath her breasts, and her pants were black with red dragons embroidered upon them. Her face was terrible to behold, angered beyond measure.

“You swore,” she hissed, and I realized she was mad, driven mad by a bitter jealousy which I could not undo. “You swore to be true to me. You left me to your brother, to his advances and lovemaking. Do you know how he tormented me? He left poison within my reach and dared me to take it. He knew I would not. At first I told myself that it was the right thing to do, that someday I would kill him. But later, I turned cowardly. I had a good life with him. I even, perhaps, began to love him a little. I always knew that you were somewhere in the world, dying for the lack of me, loving me, returning for me.

“But you did not come. You did not come. And when you return, you do not claim me- you care nothing for me. I see it in your eyes; you are happy, happy, and happy without me.

“She-the cause of it, the cause of it! could not live. She could not live.

“What have you done?” I screamed. “Let me pass!”

I struggled with her, tore the dagger from her hand. She laughed, a terrible, high, keening laugh. I ran inside the cabin. I saw her motionless feet, I saw her lying upon the floor. She was wearing the white leotard, the beautiful white slippers. She held the rose I had given her, the single red rose, now red with her blood, the bloody rose. Little gasps escaped her lips. I gave a choked sob and knelt on the floor before her, kissing her and begging her to live. She fluttered her eyes.

“That’s right,” Yasmine jeered from the doorway. “Entreat her. Entreat her to live. Much good may it do you!” she spat.

I went wild. I ran for her and seized her by the throat. She laughed at me as she turned blue in the face, and I let go. I bodily lifted her and threw her, threw her into the sea. She laughed again, a terrible, awful laugh, and I returned to Vanessa.
I laid my hand upon the bloody rose, allowing the thorns to prick me. “Vanessa, Vanessa,” I wept brokenly. I knelt there, insensible.

I awoke to find the rose on my hand had disappeared.

The tattoo, the brand, was gone. New flesh appeared in place of the old, clean, firm skin. I stared at it in amazement, and then at the bloody rose that lay upon Vanessa’s breast. “Her love for me,” I breathed. “Her love for me. She died for me, she died, and her blood coated the rose I gave her. Her rose took the place of mine.”

I could almost see her before me, and knew what she wanted me to do. I was free, and I must get myself away. I turned to the ship and forced it to my will. I made all speed away from the island, far from Atlantis, as far as I could go. I heard a tremendous noise, a sound like thunder and hail and brimstone combined, and trembled. I witnessed the earthquake, the roiling sun. I saw the waters boil and churn, the sea turn against Atlantis. I heard the shouts and screams. I saw Yasmine’s drowned body, saw men who fruitlessly tried to command ships and escape. I watched, horrified, as the water covered my home, my former kingdom. I watched the island disappear from the world. I was present at the greatest act of destruction the world had ever seen; the utter erasure of a country because of Poseidon’s act.

And yet, all my tears were for Vanessa. I could think only of her, of her beauty and goodness, the purity of her heart. I went to her and wept, realizing that I mourned a corpse, a woman who had once lived and was now dead.

I thought perhaps that my tears might resurrect her, that my pain might bring a faint blush to her cheeks, might allow her life. But it was not to be. She had come with me, and given her life, so that I could be free.

*

He sighed. An elderly man in a rocking chair; I a young girl at his feet. Mesmerized, terrified, I knelt before him. “So much suffering,” I said softly. “So much sadness.”

He opened his eyes for a moment and saw me, looked once again upon the leotard I was wearing. “You are a child of her spirit,” he answered me. “You are the only one she has permitted to wear her leotard.”

He raised his eyes wearily to the sky. “I know she watches me. I feel her presence. How much the world has changed since the days she and I knew! I am entrusted with these possessions, these costumes and items that some dismiss as mere junk. I have gathered them from around the world. Oh, some of them are hers and Ben’s. But others…well…I have been many places and many things. Junk, they call these things! Junk! But you and I know better. We know that the costumes hold the past, that it is objects like these that spell our future. We know what it is to love, and to behold magic.”

He smiled. “My dear, I am going to her.” Pure delight crossed his face. “She has given the shop to you, as she has allowed you to wear her costume. Do not worry. You can still live with your parents; you needn’t fear. This shop will always be waiting; it cannot be seen by those who are unworthy. The people who understand, the people like you and me, will come to you.”

My eyes opened wide. I did not know if he could possibly mean what he said. To give the shop to me! For me to own the shop, to meet the people who would enter here, who could enter here…it was too incredible. I opened my eyes wide, and he met them for just a moment, his eyes twinkling. He gave a sigh, and contented, leaned back in his chair. I did not even realize he was dead at first. I thought he was only sleeping.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

Absolutely breathtaking!

Ezzie said...

That was incredible.

Anonymous said...

Extraordinary and exceptional.

-Yair

dovi said...

wow!

Anonymous said...

You should get published. Seriously.

Scraps said...

Can you write a book? Pleeeeeeease?