It took Gruff and Woof, the two guard dogs at the castle gate, some time to recognize the ragged girl running up the path towards them. For several minutes of pleading, Cassima tried to convince them that it was her, and not some “peasant impostor,” as they called her. Finally, she remembered what Graham had given her to earn her trust. She pulled the golden locket out of the front of her patchwork skirt and held it before the noses of the guards.
“I am Princess Cassima,” she said in the most regal of voices, “And the wizard who kidnapped me is now dead. I request that you let me in, guards.”
Blinking in surprise, the guards were so startled that at first they didn’t open the doors for her.
“Princess!” cried Woof, “How did you escape and return so swiftly?”
“Why are you dressed in rags?” asked Gruff.
“Does anyone else know you’re here?” Woof queried again.
“Just let me in, please, guards,” Cassima said. “I’ll tell you everything once I meet everybody and get freshened up.”
The guards withdrew their spears and opened the heavy castle doors. Gruff rushed inside, obviously to tell Saladin and everyone else that their princess had returned. Cassima stepped within, the familiar air of the inside of the palace in her nose, and the smooth, glassy tile floors under her bare feet.
It was just as she remembered it: the two large vases standing like sentinels beside the twin staircases, which wound their ways up to the second story. The doors to the throne room were a few paces in front of her, and in the two walls leading up to it were two wooden doors, one on each side. The left one led to the servants’ quarters and the kitchens, the right one led down to the basement and the guardroom.
As Cassima was absorbing her familiar home’s surroundings, the right door opened and Captain Saladin strode out, clad in his dark green outfit and plated with his lightweight, steel, plated armor. His sword clanked slightly in his sheath as he walked. He was, like most of the guards of the castle, a half-human, half-dog creature, his face resembling a noble collie’s, with a long, pointed nose and a streak of white down the muzzle. His mouth turned into a broad smile as he noticed Cassima, and his large, serious, black eyes became softer and happier.
“Princess Cassima,” he said in his gentle, yet strong voice, knelling down and grasping one of the princess’s hands in his gloved paws. “I cannot tell you how thankful I am that you are with us again, after so many months…we have suffered so, I can’t begin to describe…”
“It’s all right, Saladin,” Cassima said. “You don’t need to perform such formalities. I’m just glad to be home.”
Saladin smiled, but not as much as he had when he first saw her. As he rose to his feet, she continued:
“If you don’t mind, I’d like to go to my room and change into new clothes before I start meeting everybody. But you are free to tell them that I’m back. I just can’t stand being in these awful clothes anymore.”
“Yes…” began Saladin, but Cassima kept on talking:
“Tell my parents that Mordack is no longer a threat. He is dead, and he was destroyed by the King of Daventry! A normal king against such a wizard! Imagine that!”
“Cassima…” began Saladin again, but it was too late. Cassima had raced up the right flight of stairs, on her way to her room. The loyal guard dog sighed deeply, and lowered his head against his chest.
“Majesties,” he prayed quietly, “I hope that you can hear me, and I hope you know your daughter has returned. I will try to tell her…”
Cassima’s walk to her room was a difficult one, for the news of her return had traveled so swiftly through the castle that a group of servants was waiting for her in the upstairs hall, welcoming her home, saying how wonderful it was to see her alive and asking her countless questions. She tried her best to squeeze through the crowd, but it wasn’t easy.
If she were wearing one of her ordinary princess’s dresses, she would have blended right in with the rest of the brightly colored robes and outfits of the rest of the castle staff, but since what she had on was the shabby, gray skirt made of rags, her plainness made her stand out like a black seagull. Her dirty skin and face also made people notice her and recognize her at once.
When Cassima finally got to her room and closed the door, she gratefully flew to her dresser, pulled out one of her favorite dresses, light blue with dark green sleeves, knelt down on her bed and pulled the curtains around, giving her privacy that her unlocked door wouldn’t allow.
The patchy dress was the only thing she had worn during her stay at Mordack’s island, and consequently, she had never taken it off. It took some time for her to peel off the stiff, chafing, disgusting example of a garment and lay it on the sheets before her, careful not to rip her locket from its chain as she did.
The dress looked even worse off her than it did on her, but that was probably because she could see all of it from this angle. Soot-stained, smeared with dirt and who-knows-what, frayed hems and uneven stitching all over it. Patches of all sorts of dull, unappealing colors dotted it all over, and the rope that had served as her belt lay atop it, adding an interesting touch.
Cassima was about to open the curtains of her bed and toss the thing out to be taken out as garbage, but she remembered how she kept so many things in all those little pockets and began to search the dress to see if she could find anything worth keeping, which, of course, she doubted.
There were those few long bits of string that she used to navigate the labyrinth the first time she visited it…keep those, as a souvenir…
An old piece of celery that she had taken from the wizard’s kitchen and intended to eat several weeks ago…no thank you…
A small bag that she discovered in the back of the pantry that she thought would come in handy…nah…I don’t think so…
A few scraps of paper…no, maybe not – wait!
Cassima was about to set the pieces of parchment aside but she noticed that something was written on one of them. She turned it over and scanned it briefly. Yes. It was the poem that she had written from memory, the one that her mother had originally read to her out of that old volume of stories…the one about the girl who had challenged everything to survive…Scherazad.
It was the poem that she had read shortly before Shamir captured her and took her to the beach and before she tried to escape Mordack. Now, as she read it again, safe in her own castle once more, she wondered if the poem’s mystic lines were somehow tied in with her own life. Could it be? Was she the proverbial piece in a huge game, being played? Could this poem the list of rules?
Placing the piece of paper under her pillow and throwing the ragged dress through the curtains and on the floor, Cassima quickly changed into the clean, beautiful, comfortable outfit she had chosen. The silk felt like the breath of heaven on her skin compared to the burlap texture of those rags. Even though her body was still dirty on the outside, she felt pure and cleansed inside. After so many months of hardship and cruelty, she was finally starting to feel how wonderful her life truly was.
An abrupt knock at the door made her turn her head around with a nervous feeling. Perhaps her stay at Mordack’s castle had left her with a case of minor paranoia. Even though she hadn’t washed her face yet, she politely said, “Come in” to whoever was outside her room. She drew back the curtains and sat on the edge of the bed, waiting for the person to enter.
It was Jollo, one of her closest friends in the castle besides her parents, the one that always made her laugh when she was at her lowest. Surprisingly, the normally smiling clown had a look of extreme anxiety and worry on his round face, and his shoes hardly jingled as he shuffled into Cassima’s room, nearly tripping over her rag-dress as he did.
“Cassima,” he said in a strained voice, shuffling over to the bed and hugging her affectionately. “I’m so glad to see you home again, safe and sound.”
“I’m glad to see you too, Jollo,” Cassima said, grinning. “Now that I’ve changed out of that awful skirt, I want to see my parents. Are they away on a journey? Why haven’t I seen them, Jollo?”
Jollo looked more crestfallen than ever as he sat down on the bed next to Cassima. Then he removed the little red fez perched on his head and placed it over his chest, bowing his head.
“What’s wrong?” Cassima asked, starting to become more alarmed. “Has something happened?” Jollo raised his eyes to her, which were starting to fill with tears.
“Your…your parents became quite distraught when you were stolen, princess,” he said.
“Are they ill?” Cassima asked. “What has happened to them?”
“Well…it was several months ago…no one wants to remember…what happened…it’s…it’s…”
She sat still, her heart racing, trying to brace herself for the terrible news that she felt was coming.
”Your…your parents died in your sleep, Cassima…They’re gone.”
For a moment, Cassima couldn’t think. All she could hear were those few words echoing in her brain…”Your parents died in their sleep…they’re gone…they died in their sleep…” Something inside her felt shattered, the jagged edges penetrating her lungs, preventing her from speaking, and making any attempts so painful it was almost like experiencing death. After several moments of suffocating silence and Cassima’s tries to break it, she finally managed to whisper:
“No…How could they…they were still…No…They couldn’t…”
Then suddenly her dumb state shattered, and Cassima collapsed on the bed, crying as she never had before, with Jollo stroking her back sympathetically. She beat her fists on the soft pillows, screaming words of “No,” “Gone” and “Why,” her emotions rising to such a high, fiery level that Jollo eventually stopped massaging her and gazed sadly at the insane creature that Cassima had become in the space of only a few seconds.
“Why did they have to die?” she screamed. “Why? Why? Why?? They were still young! Was it because I was kidnapped? Is it my fault my parents are gone? No, no, no, no…”
Her trembling abruptly subsided, and her breathing became slow and scratchy. Jollo cautiously placed a hand upon her back again, but this time she pulled away from him and glared at him with her reddened eyes with a look of fear and rage, a look that one would give to a wild animal. Then her face softened and she quietly fell into her friend’s lap, sobbing and quivering like a frightened hare. Jollo gently embraced her, crying himself at the sight of the princess in such grief.
The thoughts that flooded through Cassima were impossible to clearly put into words. The injustice of it all. Her poor parents dying when they were still young, while she was far away, ignorant to everything that was happening at home. To think that her absence had caused their deaths, the realization that she had tried so hard to find a way to return home to them, and now that her rescue had just happened, so simply and so easily, she was confronted with the news that she had arrived too late, that her parents had died several weeks before her return…
It wasn’t fair. All her efforts to escape the island, all her searches of the castle and the island, only to discover months later that she would have returned home to such awful news if she had succeeded. Why couldn’t her rescue have come sooner, soon enough that she would at least get to say good-bye to them? But then…how would Graham or Crispin have known? It was Mordack’s fault, she realized. His stupidity and his denseness. If he had realized that he had to kidnap Alexander and his family sooner, then the king and her rescue would have consequently come sooner. But then…what was she thinking? She wanted what already happened to come sooner, just for her sake? That was just as cruel as Mordack’s twisted ideas. Why was she thinking this? It already happened, she told herself. Stop mourning over what could’ve been.
But they’re gone now, she said to herself. I could’ve said goodbye before it happened…I could’ve been in the same castle when they died. It isn’t fair. They’re gone forever. I’ll never see them again. I’ll never hear father laughing. I’ll never hear mother read a story. I’ll never be able to sit with them out in the gardens after nightfall and listen to them tell me the names of the constellations. I won’t be able to sit on my father’s lap or be lulled to sleep by her mother’s songs…
But these were all things that she had experienced as a child. Why was she longing for them now, when she was almost grown up and of age to be married? For years she had been trying to break away from her parents and govern her own life, but now she was longing for them, longing for their kind advice and their curt admonishments, everything that they represented: her security, her kin, her life…
Everything she had taken for granted had vanished, told to her by the person who always used to make her laugh. Now the news he brought made her cry like a helpless infant. Whoever said “you never know what you have until it’s gone” was truer than ever in Cassima’s heart. All those months, loving with only the memory of her parents, she never thought that a memory was all she would be left with when she came home…
But there was the locket that King Graham had returned to her. She lifted it up and held it before her, the light of the late afternoon sun dancing off it like the light of the fire in Mordack’s kitchen had when the king first held it before her. The crown and the intricate designs carved into the gold encircled the heart like threads or veins, an exact representation of her own heart, and how it was suddenly enclosed by bars like an imprisoned bird, bound by chains of grief and despair.
Lifting her other hand, she carefully opened the locket and examined the portraits inside. The faces of Allaria and Caliphim stared back, clad in regal attire and wearing peaceful looks. The portraits seemed so detailed now, so real to Cassima. She examined the tiny pictures for several minutes, absorbing every iota of their features, the minute brushstrokes, the little dots and shaded garments. She had always thought of the pictures as beautiful, but now they seemed so wonderful, so amazingly lovely to her that she could not get enough. Now that her parents were gone, these little representations were all she had left of them, the only physical thing to remind her of them, just as it had been on Mordack’s island.
It was painfully ironic that the locket still was the only thing left of her parents, even though she was home on the Isle of the Crown and had expected them to be there to greet her. But the only thing that greeted her was the news that they had both died. Such a cruel word, die. Why does it have to hurt so much?
A soft twitter at the window made Cassima put the locket away and look in the direction of the sound. It was Sing-Sing the nightingale, perched on the windowsill with a small flower in her beak. Cassima extended her hand and the little gray bird fluttered into the room and landed on her outstretched fingers. With her other hand, Cassima took the small flower from her pet’s beak and examined it closely through her sore eyes.
The petals of the blossom were white and narrow, radiating from a round, saffron center. A daisy, Cassima recalled. It represents innocence, doesn’t it? She glanced at Sing-Sing and nodded, acknowledging the gift the bird had brought her. The nightingale chirped mournfully and hopped onto Cassima’s shoulder, nuzzling her under the chin with its little head. She turned the daisy over and over in her hand, examining the beauty of the small plant with its symmetrical petals and its slender green stem.
Still, she could not help but realize that what the flower represented had been destroyed in only a few minutes before. Her innocence had been shattered with the news of her parent’s deaths, and though the flower would wither and die, others of its kind would still bloom, and even with the approaching winter, spring would always bring more to the light. But there was no way Cassima would regain her innocence. Not after this. Not after this awful, awful news. Never.
Placing the flower in her lap, Cassima held Sing-Sing tightly to her breast, still crying without any noise or sobbing. She didn’t even notice Jollo saying that he was going to leave her alone until he had disappeared out the door and left an aura of cold and grief in the once-happy room.
For the next few hours, Cassima lay facedown on her bed, nearly insane with grief. Sing-Sing sat on her bedside table, warbling in a piteous voice every now and then. The princess could hardly think with the weight of the news pressing against her head and heart. It couldn’t be. How could the absence of just one person cause two others to perish? How could it be? Was it all her fault that they had died? Were all her struggles to escape the island in vain? She was only fighting to clean a castle, her parents were fighting to rule an entire, divided kingdom while battling their terrible loss.
How selfish Cassima had been. Her imprisonment was nothing compared to what Caliphim and Allaria had gone through. How could she have known, though? That Mordack probably knew it since the night they died, but of course, he wouldn’t tell as much as a word to his bride-to-be-turned-scullery-girl. Some husband he would’ve become. As if he would.
Cassima’s blame of herself was rising to a point where she felt nauseous and her head ached. Rising to her feet, she began pacing the room, trying to clear her mind. Perhaps it was her hunger that was causing her pain. She hadn’t eaten since she was at Mordack’s, and she couldn’t tell whether dinner had already begun or was yet to start. The moon was visible through her window, a narrow, milky crescent. Cassima couldn’t bear to go down to the dining hall, though. It would be too much. She would probably collapse before she was through with her meal, either that or burst into tears again, even though she had cried her eyes dry hours ago. Even though she was almost starving, she didn’t want to eat anything. It would only make her sicker than she already was.
She stopped her pacing and stopped beside her bedside table. A large book lay open on it, looking as if it had been that way for several months. Then she remembered: it was the book of poems and stories that contained that poem about Sheherazad…the one that her mother read to her so long ago…
Brushing the dust off the facing pages, Cassima lifted the book gently, the spine cracking softly as she did. Sing-Sing looked at her with curiosity and blinked a few times, ruffling her gray feathers. The princess scanned the familiar lines of text, then tried reading them aloud. The poem didn’t have the same, hypnotic effect it had on her before when she read it. Was it because her grief had destroyed the magic of the verse? Was it because her mother was no longer there to read it to her? Or was it because she was no longer the carefree teenager she once was, listening to myths and stories and reading to her heart’s content, not thinking about what was happening in the real world beyond?
Cassima tried reading it aloud.
“’She-har-a-zad’…no…’Sha-har-i-za’…no, that’s not it…’She-her-iz…’”
She tried pronouncing the complicated name several times, but for some reason, even when she was certain she had gotten it right, she still wasn’t convinced. She lifted her pillow and retrieved the poem on the piece of parchment and compared the two verses, the original and the copy. They were remarkably similar, with only a few flaws except for the name…she had spelled it “Schaherezade,” and the book had spelled it “Scheherazade.” That is, if the poem was actually part of the book…the mystical swirls of blue ink and the brilliant arabesque-like designs were so out of place amidst the yellow, faded pages that filled the rest of the tome. When she first saw it, she imagined that some wandering spirit had placed it in the book, a typical practical joke for a creature like that…but where did this poem really come from…
Again, Cassima tried to pronounce Sheherazade’s name, but finally gave up in frustration. She couldn’t remember how Ulrica pronounced it, or even how her mother pronounced it…her mother…Grief seized her again. Her mother knew how to pronounce the long, flowing name with its multiple syllables. She read it to Cassima without a slip of the tongue. But now she was gone forever…Cassima would never know how to say the beautiful name that began the poem that Allaria had read to her so many months before.
The anguish of the moment made Cassima throw the book to the floor in anger and kick it under the bed, not wanting to see it and be reminded of her past again, the past that she had taken for granted and now was gone for eternity. She groaned in sorrow and sank to the bed, crying once more as Sing-Sing chirped mournfully.
You’re becoming obsessed with that poem, she told herself, wringing her hands in frustration. Just like that Mordack was obsessed with getting his brother back in his own form. It’s stupid, to be so worked up over a silly poem. What use is a few words anyway? Like those fairy tales. They have nothing to do with what really happens in life! When will I learn to grow up? When will I learn…
Presently, a thumping noise began coming from down the hall outside Cassima’s door. She stopped weeping and listened intently, wondering what it was. The thumping drew nearer, and Cassima realized that it was heavy footsteps made by someone carrying a lot of weight and walking slowly. When the steps neared the door, she expected the familiar knock and request for entry to come from whoever was there, but instead, the door slowly creaked open and a stooped, round figure waddled through, carrying a large, square tray.
It was Ulrica. She had left her little closet in the guardroom and climbed the several flights of stairs up to Cassima’s room. This surprised the princess, since she had rarely seen the old dog anywhere but the guardroom, she preferred to have her meals brought down to her. Sometimes Cassima would bring Ulrica food as an excuse to talk with her about a personal problem or just to hear what she had to say.
When she asked the nurse about why she didn’t climb the stairs to the dining hall like everyone else did at dinnertime, she told Cassima that her age would not allow it. Cassima was a very young girl when Ulrica told her this, and naturally didn’t understand why being old meant that one couldn’t climb a few flights of stairs, which the princess at one time did daily, usually racing up and down them, pursued by her parents or one of her tutors. But now that she was a young adult, Cassima realized that Ulrica was indeed getting on in years, and her stiff joints would not permit her to ascend the stairs anymore.
Naturally, she was surprised at the sight of the ancient, panting animal walking in through her door and resting against the wall in exhaustion, still keeping a firm grip on the tray she was carrying.
“Good evening, Princess Cassima,” she said, still sounding out of breath. “I brought you your meal. Alhazred didn’t tell the cooks of your return, they found out themselves and prepared a special dish for you. It’s roast beef and carrots, with a special blend of spices from the other islands. Trade is uncommon nowadays, Cassima, so this is a rare treat.”
“Ulrica,” said Cassima, finally gathering up enough strength to speak. “Why did you come up here? Why did you leave your room? I thought you said you couldn’t climb those stairs.”
Ulrica looked concerned for a moment, then replied, Many of the servants wanted to take this up to you, but Alhazred kept them too busy. I don’t know if he wanted you to starve or if he really was that busy. Anyway, I heard from the guards that you hadn’t come to dinner and your meal was still sitting out, and when they were called away, I decided to bring it to you. You’ve brought me my dinner so many times, and you’ve been through so much I feel I owe you.”
“Thank you, Ulrica,” said Cassima. “But you’re so old…don’t you think it’s unsafe to try climbing all those stairs at your age?”
Ulrica straightened her plump body up and scratched her patchy fur.
“I don’t think of anything else when it comes to you, dear,” she said proudly. “I’ve been sitting down there for who knows how many years, waiting for a real reason too come out. The death of your great, great parents only weighed me down, and made me want to die myself, but the news of your return was something that made me sit up and take notice. You rekindled my old strength, girl. Thank you.”
Cassima would have smiled if her heart weren’t so shattered and her mind bulging with uncomfortable thoughts. “You’re welcome, Ulrica. And thank you for bringing me dinner.”
“You can thank me even more by eating it,” said Ulrica, walking over to Cassima’s bed, sitting down on the side and sliding the tray of food to her.
“I’m…I’m so sorry, Ulrica,” Cassima stuttered, realizing that she had forgotten her depleted appetite. “I’m not very hungry…”
“Oh yes you are,” said Ulrica, with a sudden edge to her normally passive voice. “I can smell starvation in you. You may not feel hungry, but I’m certain you are. I doubt that Mordack kept you on a stable diet. Here. Eat.”
Though she still felt terrible, Cassima brightened at the sight of the stubborn little nurse urging her to eat, just Ulrica had when she was a little child. The dog raised a forkful of food in front of the princess’s face, and Cassima willingly bit into the warm morsel.
After she finished her dinner, Cassima was so tired that she nearly fell asleep in Ulrica’s lap. The old dog arose and said good-night to her, then slowly trod out of the room, taking the tray and the empty plate with her. Minutes after her footsteps faded out, Cassima was asleep, sprawled across the bed at an awkward diagonal, still wearing her dress.
It was a long sleep, but not an empty one. Her unconscious mind was flooded with images and dreams, memories of her imprisonment and the times she spent with her mother and father. One scene was of her and Allaria sitting on the bed, reading the book of stories and poems to each other. It was the same book, but some of the pictures were not pictures of classic heroes and fairy tales, but images of her own life. There was an elaborate painting of Cassima looking at Castle Daventry imprisoned in a glass bottle, a black-and-white etching of Mordack’s face, a drawing of the wizard’s island…the strange thing was that they were moving…Mordack was leering and snarling at her, and Alexander and his family were moving about in the gardens of the miniaturized castle…
As they continued reading, Allaria’s eyelids suddenly began to droop and her head began tilting forward. Cassima asked her what was wrong in a voice that sounded like the one she had as a little girl, high-pitched and confused, asking her as if she didn’t know what was happening. Her mother then fell forward on the floor, barely moving, but the book still lay open on the bed. Then Caliphim came staggering into the room, standing for only a few moments before also falling to the floor, where he too became as lifeless as a statue.
Before Cassima could say another word, the beautiful, embroidered dress she was wearing vanished, and she was wearing that ragged potato-sack dress again, her hair was tangled and her skin was caked with filth. She called out her parent’s names, repeating the same words over and over again, her voice growing more high-pitched. Then Mordack poofed into the room and Sing-Sing flew in from the window, looking just as ragged as Cassima. The wizard pointed his wand at the bird as it flew between him and the princess and a beam of white shot out of the end and Sing-Sing fell to the ground as well, dead as Cedric appeared hours before. Cassima shrieked as Mordack laughed coldly, kicking the feathered body away.
She turned away from him and her parent’s bodies and looked at the storybook. Not only was it still open, but the pages were turning by themselves, and a voice was reading the text, a voice that sounded like her mother’s, as if she was still alive and just reading to her daughter like she always did. Then the voice began to slow down, and the turning of the pages grew less regular. Finally, the book had nearly reached the last page. Whatever force was turning the pages gave one last heave and pulled the final leaf over, revealing the last page, which was devoid of writing and had only one small drawing in the center, which Cassima couldn’t see from where she sat. She dragged her body closer to the book, which took a strangely long period of time, as if she was becoming rooted to the bed, and looked at the page and gasped when she saw that it was a painting of Alexander’s face, smiling at her and blinking his clear blue eyes.
Then there was a strange, silent explosion and the room seemed to come apart, leaving her in the blackness of her unconscious. Cassima would have awakened then, but she no longer had the strength to do something like that. Instead she still lay there, watching the terrible, discomforting images float past her mind, hoping she would have the strength to wake up soon.
She heard voices coming from outside her room more than once. Whether they were real or just voices inside her mind that seemed real, she couldn’t tell. Once it was one of the guard dogs, the one named Bay, Cassima realized. He was talking to another of his companions, obviously discussing if he should enter the princess’s room or not. A raspy, low voice, the voice of Gruff, said that Cassima was probably still sleeping and it would be cruel to disturb her in her present condition.
Cassima couldn’t hear the dogs’ exact words, in fact, later she doubted if she heard anything at all. Perhaps it was the tone of their conversation that hinted to what they were talking about, or perhaps Cassima had overheard their exchange of words and forgot about them as she slumbered on. Dreams, ideas, and other creations of the world of sleep are so easily forgotten, even over short periods. It’s there one moment, and the next moment it’s vanished. Can’t even remember where it started or ended. It’s so sad…It’s even more sad when you forget such beautiful dreams in a single night, but just can’t forget these terrible, terrible thoughts and those awful nightmares, not even after days…weeks…months…years…Wait…how long have I been asleep?
Cassima strained to open her eyes, which were agonizingly sore and heavy with dried tears and exhaustion. For a minute, all she could see was a white, pastel blur no matter which way she looked. Then Cassima blinked and focused her eyes, trying to make out her surroundings. Naturally, she was still in her room, lying face-up on her canopied bed, staring up at the painted ceiling of her bed, tracing the creases and folds of the fabric. The bed sheets were twisted and undone, revealing the true chaos of her past dreams. Her hands were still shaking and her vision was unclear as she glanced around the room like a wild animal that had just wandered in.
She could not remember what she had dreamed about even if she wanted to. Her mind was pounding with thoughts the previous night, but now it was almost totally blank, unable to grasp any new thoughts without becoming befuddled. Feeling like an undead creature from Samhain’s Kingdom of Death, Cassima rose to a sitting position on the bed. Sing-Sing was gone, probably off to another island…how Cassima wished she could fly too, away from this place of sadness, away from…
But she couldn’t do that. Not only was she unable to run away from her troubles, but she simply couldn’t. She was the princess of the Green Isles, and the only heir her parents had. If she disappeared again, the kingdom would be without a ruler and would eventually die, just like her poor parents. She couldn’t let her homeland slip away. She had to carry on the legacy her parents had shaped for her and trained her so faithfully for.
Cassima quickly rose to her feet and immediately regretted her action. She hadn’t allowed her body to adjust long enough to being in an upright position, and as a result, the blood supply to her brain was temporarily cut off, her vision blurred and became dark, and she couldn’t keep her balance. Falling back to the bed, Cassima patiently waited for her sight to become normal again, and wondered if it was her thoughts that had made her dizzy. Could it be that some force was telling her that she wouldn’t be able to carry on as Queen of the Green Isles? My parents are gone, I have to be their successor, Cassima thought. There’s no other choice…
But she had no husband, no one to be the king and help her rule the kingdom. There was no one in the village who had the capabilities to rule the Isles, and the lands that could provide such a man were so far away…How could she carry on the legacy that her ancestors and predecessors had fought so hard to keep stable? How?
These questions briefly left Cassima’s mind as new thoughts moved in to replace them. Alhazred. What does he think of all this, the girl that he tried to get rid of in the most foolproof of ways coming back alive and well? What’s the next scheme in that never-ending book of twisted ambitions? I’ll have to talk with that man, the sooner the better…
Suddenly the ringing sound of the gong interrupted her thoughts. It was the gong that one of the servants rang every hour, a convenient way of telling time that had been patented several decades before Cassima was born. The number of notes equaled the time of day, but because of the sleep requirements of not only the one servant but all the castle’s inhabitants, the gong was only rung during the day, never after dark.
Cassima carefully counted the chimes as they rag out, one by one, through the echoing hallways. However, as soon as the first two chimes rang out, the ringing stopped, indicating that it was two o’clock in the afternoon.
Two of the clock? How could I have slept this long? Cassima wondered. Then she remembered her distraught night and concluded that her grief probably fueled her somnolence, along with her chronic lack of sleep during her captivity in Mordack’s castle. In fact, for all she knew, that night could’ve been two nights ago instead of one. Nevertheless, it was one of the longest periods of time she had slept, and she was determined not to sleep anymore. Slowly rising to her feet, she looked around the room once more, ready to live again.
Cassima looked around the room casually, trying not to let her pressing thoughts interfere. It appeared no less different than the night with Ulrica, except that the ragged dress she had dropped near the door was gone and a large pitcher of water and a large basin were in its place. Cassima then looked in the mirror that hung over her dressing table.
It was the same face that stared back at her out of every reflective surface she looked into, but this time it was different. The green eyes were swollen and red, and the pale skin was smudged and dirty. The black hair was tousled and wild, the tresses that a wild horse or an Amazon would have.
Yes, it was she the princess of the Land of the Green Isles, but it was not the same face that Cassima had seen months before, preparing herself for the evening meal. It was a face that had experienced hardships and injustices beyond the thoughts of a normal person. The expression was not one of a carefree maiden, safe within a beautiful castle, but rather one of a worried, anxious young girl not yet ready to take her place, the face of a peasant who worked like a beast of burden every day of the year just to earn enough food and water to live by.
Cassima turned her sore eyes away, shocked at the ragged creature that she had become. If she had looked at her reflection the previous afternoon, before Jollo told her the terrible news of her parents’ passing, her face would not be one of a frightened young woman. In spite of the smears and grime, it would still be a happy, joyful expression, a girl relieved to be home again, amongst her friends and familiars.
But the news about her parents had destroyed all the happiness her homecoming had generated in the short time she was oblivious to their deaths. It was as if she was a prisoner once again, though not within the walls of a fortress on an isolated island, but inside her own head, tripping over the troubled emotions and trying to find a way out of the tangled web of thoughts that kept her bound and distraught.
What made it even worse was the fact that there was no way out, no way to escape herself, nothing more to look forward to. Everyone in the castle knew about the death of the king and queen, and she couldn’t walk about, acting as if it wasn’t real. Each person would immediately remind her before she could walk away, not letting her forget the painful truth, the truth that she was alone and orphaned, still too young to understand why her parents had to die now, when they were still healthy and young themselves.
Cassima looked at the white, water-filled porcelain pitcher and the basin by the door, and the feeling of dirt on her skin grew suffocating. She hadn’t bathed in months, and the other servants who had confronted her as she made her way to her room were probably also aware of the fact. Now was an ideal time to bathe herself. Perhaps the water will make me feel better, Cassima decided. It seemed silly, pushing these terrible thoughts out of her mind to make the menial chore of cleaning herself more enjoyable, but feeling better was the only thin on her mind at the moment.
She picked up the basin and the pitcher, and slowly walked to the right corner of her room, careful not to spill any water on the carpeted floor. There she found the plain, brown, bathing screen that ensured her privacy from anyone who happened to enter her room without warning. Cassima unfolded the accordion-like screen and stood it up, adjusting it so that it formed a semi-circle around her corner.
She pulled back a corner of the red rug to reveal the small, discreetly placed drain in the stone floor. The drain led to a network of pipes and ducts that ran throughout the castle, an ingenious plumbing system that had been perfected several generations ago. It was certainly more convenient and sanitary than throwing dirty water out of windows, Cassima said when this system was first explained fully to her when she was eleven. It seemed that no matter how simple the castle appeared, there was always some complex puzzle holding it all together, with very few people actually aware of its existence.
Cassima dipped her fingers in the basin and was pleased to find that the water was still warm. When fuel in the castle became scarce, her bathwater would often be ice cold and would remain that way until more firewood was collected from the nearby groves of trees. Finding a small cloth draped over the bathing screen, Cassima retrieved it and slipped out of her clothes. The afternoon air felt warm, yet chilling on her bare skin. Her waist was slender, but not nearly as thin as the elegantly clothed empresses she saw depicted in her storybooks. She was only a little bit plump, but none of the chubby fat of her childhood had stayed with her through her teenage years. In spite of her regal status and her virtually unlimited access to food and drink, she never ate much, probably because she was a very active person as well as one with who never became possessed with too strong an appetite.
Cassima dipped the cloth in the water and began to vigorously scrub at her dirty skin. The feeling of clean water was like heaven to her, and she sighed with contentedness as she continued to bathe herself. It was a task that had been taught to her years ago by her mother, who would clean her every week, making sure that Cassima enjoyed it and realized the importance of it. When Cassima reached her preteen years, she began to bathe alone, and refusing to let her mother see her unclothed. Allaria willingly left her daughter alone, satisfied that her years of teaching had finally paid off.
These years of associating bathing with happiness had a definite effect on Cassima, but she never imagined that she would like it this much. It was like she hadn’t bathed in decades, and she couldn’t remember ever wanting to do something so badly. Finally, after several minutes of scrubbing, she quickly rubbed her face with the cloth and poured the contents of the pitcher through her hair. The warm liquid touched her scalp with a gentle tickling sensation as it ran down her neck and back, finally reaching the stone floor, where it seeped out of sight through the drain.
Now that the warmth of the water had left her, Cassima was standing drenched and cold, feeling very much like she did on the day she tried to escape Mordack’s island in her makeshift dinghy and was forced to swim ashore. Her eyes fell upon a folded white towel on the floor near the screen, untouched by the water and slightly dusty. Apparently it had been there since the night she was kidnapped, carried in by one of the servants, no doubt. Kneeling down, Cassima unfolded the towel and shook it out, then gratefully wrapped it around her, using another rag to wring out her hair. Folding the bathing screen back up and propping it against the wall, the princess picked up the dress she had slipped out of minutes before, then walked across the room, keeping the towel tightly wound around her like a Greek toga, knelt down before her dresser and opened one of the drawers.
The first thing she noticed was another beautiful dress made of silk, a plain lavender hue with loose, tapering sleeves. She lifted the garment out of the drawer and held it before her. The red afternoon sun shone through the fine weaving and created shimmering shadows of pink on her white skin. Smiling, she lay the dress down by her feet and placed the blue dress (the one she had already worn) by her door. The feeling of changing into an unclean dress (no matter how unclean) was not one Cassima preferred to experience, yet again a lesson taught to her by her mother and branded into her mind as an essential rule to living a healthy life. Once again, Cassima climbed onto her bed and drew the curtains around her, her need for privacy not being fulfilled sitting out in the open.
Quickly changing into the lavender dress, Cassima got to her feet and pulled on the heavy brass door handle that led to the rest of the castle. She wanted to see the rest of this fortress that had always been her home, and for all she knew, always would be.
Before she ventured into the hallway, Cassima cautiously peered around the edge of the door, searching for anything suspicious. Perhaps her life in Mordack’s castle had left her with a paranoid demeanor, but still something seemed awry in the castle. Perhaps it was the air of death that lingered so long after someone passed on…or perhaps it was something more sinister…Cassima couldn’t say.
Quietly opening the door, the princess stepped out, her feet still bare on the carpeted floors. The carpet felt strangely pleasing as it tickled the calloused soles of her feet, a sensation that she hadn’t felt since she was a child and ran barefoot all the time before her parents had forced her to wear shoes outside her room.
Her parents…had their bedroom changed? She had seldom visited it before she was kidnapped, unlike her early childhood, when she slept in a cradle by her parents’ bed until she was old enough to have a room of her own. But even then she would venture into her parents’ room in the dead of night, asking for her mother to comfort her or her father to sing to her. Now it had been so long since she last visited the bedroom that she could hardly remember which door it was.
All the doors on the second floor of the Castle of the Crown looked the same in general, dark, polished wood with brass handles and intricately shaped hinges. Ahead of her in the hallway and to her right was the door to Alhazred’s study, and further down, the door to his room, which remained locked and accessible only to the vizier, who obviously carried a key with him…or perhaps even a whole chain of keys, when one considered all the secrets that he was forced to keep locked away from the rest of the world.
To Cassima’s left, the hall led down to a larger, more ornate door, the hinges inlaid with gold and copper, as was the large handle. This door led to the east tower, the largest tower in the Castle of the Crown. The interior of the tower was like a greenhouse, since the domes ceiling, floor and wall were all coated with an almost translucent, green stone. Tall windows ran down the walls, making it a lovely place to enjoy the morning sunlight. A flight of stairs spiraled down from the east wall and down two more stories and to another door that led to the throne room on the main floor of the castle. It was such a beautiful place, and Cassima felt sorry that Ulrica could never see it, with her joints and muscles the way they were.
But Cassima wasn’t going into the tower. The room she was looking for was only a few steps away from her own, the room where her parents had slept and rested when they weren’t seated upon their thrones or spending time with their daughter. Cassima stepped over to the door, lifted the brass latch and pulled it open.
There was a gentle gust of wind that met her from the open window. At the same time the white curtains rippled across the red carpet and the delicately embroidered rug that lay in the room’s center. It was just as she remembered it: the large, canopy bed, almost identical to hers but made for two people instead of one, the sheets a fiery crimson. Embroidered in the center with gold thread was an insignia of two leaping dolphins, their heads bending towards each other, almost forming the shape of a heart. It was probably a royal crest, but Cassima would never know now. She couldn’t ask her parents and nobody else in the castle could answer her question.
The edge of the thick top sheet was bordered with the same gold thread, which glowed with warmth in the late afternoon sunlight, which dappled the room and spread out like water when the silk curtains were blown out by the wind that came through the open window. Cassima’s eyes took in the rest of the room’s features.
There was a tall, mahogany bookshelf against one wall, and nearly all of the shelves were packed with thick, leather-bound volumes, but on some shelves there were statuettes carved out of marble and crystal, sculptures of mythical creatures and beings. Statues of tall humans with downy wings, great winged serpents and creatures that were human above but fish-tailed below. Cassima remembered the sculptures frightening her at one time, when she was very young, her words being that they scared her because they were “different.” But then her mother took her in her arms and told her that every creature in the world is different and unique, and something ugly in one’s eyes could be beautiful in another’s. In the weeks, months and years that followed that short lecture, Cassima never looked upon the sculptures with loathing again. Instead she marveled at the exotic might of the serpent, the subtle beauty of the fish-human, and the majestic splendor of the winged being.
It was the same in the stories her mother read to her. She saw the fierce monsters and beasts not only for their bad qualities, but also for their remarkable traits that set them apart from “ordinary” creatures. Her mother always had the ability to help her see the good side of everything, of evil, of wrongdoing, of sin…Even death…
But she could see no good side to this experience. All her parents’ deaths had done was bring out more tears than she had ever shed in her lifetime, leave her alone in a suddenly strange world and destroy what innocence remained in her heart. What made everything worse was that this pain wouldn’t go away. It was deeper and more infectious than any physical wound she had experienced before.
Now as she looked at the slowly familiar features of the room, the massive dresser, the twin bedside tables, the dressing table with her mother’s perfume and makeup brushes still there, the gold-framed mirror above the dressing table, and the wood and glass shutters of the window that hung ajar, a pain deep inside her began swelling to a high point that almost suffocated her. It was as though her umbilical cord had suddenly become part of her body again, trailing out from her navel, trying in vain to pull her to her mother and consequently both her parents. The pulling that could only be in her mind strained at her body, every nerve, every blood vessel, every facet of her being was affected by this ache that would not subside. The white curtains blithely fluttered before her, oblivious to the irony of the situation.
Tears coming to her eyes, Cassima crossed the room, closed the heavy shutters and latched them. The curtains fell back, limp and devoid of life, hanging like wilted leaves. Turning her back on the room that had once been a place of comfort for her, now a place of mourning, the princess slowly walked the length of floor that lay between her and the door, lifted the heavy, cold brass handle and stepped outside.
No sooner had she done so than she found herself standing face to face with the one person that had until the moment been the farthest from her mind and the one she least wanted to meet: Alhazred.
His appearance startled her so much that she nearly backed up against the wall. Instead, though, she stood examining him with a feigned interest, something that one would expect from a girl held hostage for several months and then suddenly returning, hardly remembering anyone from her home. Alhazred also looked her over, his lips curled into a hint of a smile that Cassima couldn’t tell was genuine or not.
“Welcome back, Cassima dear,” he purred, his voice imprinting into her memory of his last spoken words like a stick of hot wire, not changed in the least. “We are all so relieved that you have returned, alive and well.”
“Of course,” said Cassima, playing along with his familiar string of words that generally opened a friendly conversation. This time, however, the circumstances were different. No one else in the castle ever addressed her in this sickly, honey-coated style of speech. Alhazred was the only one who spoke to her like the humblest of servants kneeling at the feet of the ruler of an entire world.
Not only that, but the last time she had seen this man, he was waving farewell to her as she was being kidnapped by Mordack, a wizard that Alhazred had apparently befriended several months, or even years before. This vizier that her father had trusted eternally had planned for her abduction from the Isles and then imprisoned, and hopefully killed on that God-forsaken rock in the middle of the ocean. It now seemed obvious that Mordack would never go to so much trouble just for the hand of a beautiful princess, especially a stubborn one like Cassima.
His tolerating her presence had to be part of some deal he had arranged with his companion, a delicately interwoven plot, twisted and contorted, like all of the vizier’s thoughts and ideas. Surely, Alhazred’s sense of accomplishment had been deflated with the news of Cassima’s return, and now actually meeting her in person, no different in appearance from the night they parted would probably make him feel quite low.
Cassima could only hope that the reason they hadn’t met any sooner was because he spent the last few days cursing his failed plans in his room, perhaps even insulting his genie, Shamir, who he blamed for almost everything that went wrong in his personal life. Oftentimes, in the years before she left the castle, Cassima would overhear Alhazred bellowing like a wounded bull at Shamir, apparently throwing vases, small objects and other things at the genie, either for a benign practical joke (which the vizier loathed) or for some unintentional mistake.
Shamir, however, never seemed to get hit with any of the projectiles thrown by his master, since he never yelped in pain or made any indication of his being struck. This was either because of his supernatural qualities and possible invulnerable body, or perhaps he managed to dodge the objects amazingly well. Cassima regretted never getting to actually see one of these small-scale battles.
But even so, if Alhazred had been in such aggravation over the past few days, he was doing an amazing job of hiding his emotions. Since he was normally a very bland, emotionless man, this was no great challenge for him.
“Thank you for welcoming me home,” said Cassima, even though his “welcome” was no more different to the several dozen flattering greetings he gave her in the hallways every week. For many years he had attempted to gain her trust through his soft words and flattery, but naturally, he never succeeded. Still, he never saw a reason to stop trying.
“I am truly amazed that you were able to return home, princess,” he continued. “The knowledge your parents taught you must have helped you greatly.”
“Amazed?” Yes, you would find it amazing, Cassima wished she could say to his face, but it was still to early to assume that he was still plotting against her. Perhaps he had finally stopped his scheming and plotting against her, and if she said anything to remind him of his evil past deeds, the old flame could just be reignited, and then the whole dirty business would start again.
On the other hand, she was still unclear if this could really be a possibility. In the nearly ten years she had known him, he had appeared to her as nothing but a person who would remain as unchanged and unchangeable as a stone brick through his entire existence. No new mode of conduct could sway him, and no great master could conform him. If he was still the man he once was, Cassima would be ready to believe it.
“Well,” said Cassima, attempting to answer his last question, “Not exactly. I was liberated from my prison by a benevolent wizard. He was probably even an archrival of the one who imprisoned me.”
“You were imprisoned by a wizard?” asked Alhazred with sudden surprise, acting as if he wasn’t there at all on that night when Cassima was snatched from the tiny beach by Mordack, as if he never knew that a wizard could be motivated to steal such a precious princess. He was either playing innocent in hopes that the princess’s trauma had destroyed all her memory of the kidnapping, or just pretending to be unaware of the circumstances of her theft just in case someone was listening to their conversation. But to Cassima, whose memory of the incident was just as vivid as it was when it occurred, Alhazred’s words made him sound like a complete half-wit.
“Yes,” said Cassima, playing along with his game, “A wizard named Mordack. Apparently it was part of some plot involving a society of dark wizards called the Black Cloak.”
“Goodness, Princess Cassima, are you certain about this ‘Black Cloak’ cult? Anything that evil in the Isles would be eliminated immediately by the Royal Court!”
Cassima, who had been looking at the vizier’s feet until he spoke these last words, slowly raised her head and met his sharp blue eyes with her luminous, cat-like irises. Her eyes were narrowed, and her eyebrows made small shadows beneath them, making her eyes almost shine like someone in a trance, silently accusing Alhazred, searching for a weakness in his soul or an untruth in his tale.
Indeed, Alhazred did feel a slight uneasiness as he looked into Cassima’s angry eyes. Perhaps she had remembered what happened on the beach…perhaps if he hadn’t been there, he could have blamed her kidnapping entirely on Shamir, up to his usual pranks…but what kind of prank would delivering the princess to a sorcerer? The worst thing Alhazred could remember his genie doing was putting a large rat in one of Cassima’s dresser drawers when she was a preteen, but no normal person or supernatural being would hand her over to a wizard…so it hadn’t made any difference…And he had to be there to assure that Mordack took her away, otherwise the girl would have escaped and alerted the whole castle that there was a traitor in their midst…
Cassima was still staring into his face, her expression unchanged and her eyes unfaltering. Could it be that she suspected him of killing Allaria and Caliphim? Impossible. Alhazred had informed everyone in the castle that the royal couple was dead the dawn after his task was completed. The dagger he used for the job was small and reliable. The cuts he made were small and imperceptible, even to the middle-aged physician, and of course he didn’t ask Ulrica to hobble her way up the many flights of stairs to inspect the corpses. That mangy mongrel had a nose that was too sharp for her own good, and fortunately many of the servants that examined the king and queen’s bodies never brought up the possibility of summoning Ulrica.
His disposal of the dagger was also clean and uninterrupted. After wiping the light smear of blood from the blade, he had thrown it out of the couple’s window and into a small bay beneath it, where it would undoubtedly be carried out to deeper waters, where no one but the fishes would see it again. Since there was no moon on that night, no light reflected off the dagger as it spun rapidly through the air, diving into the water like a tiny dolphin. No one lived near enough to the bay besides the inhabitants of the castle to see him throwing the weapon, and no one in the castle itself was awake at the time he did.
But Cassima was not one to be easily fooled by a lie, perhaps a clever, well thought-out one or a carefully planned one, but definitely not a spur-of-the-moment, totally unexpected fib. Still, Alhazred still had to play innocent, acting as if he knew nothing of any factors concerning the girl’s kidnapping or her parents’ unexpected deaths. What he had to tell her was something that he had formulated the previous evening…she would undoubtedly resent the idea, but, as the ancient books said, it was tradition. Nobody but the most unruly and unorthodox defied traditions, and Cassima would surely not want to wedge herself into that unsavory profile…at least, not now.
“Cassima, dear…” he began, “You are aware that your parents are dead, I assume?”
“Yes,” said Cassima flatly.
“I understand that this has been a heartbreaking experience for you.”
“You understand the old tradition of allowing the deceased’s loved ones a period of mourning, yes?”
“Yes, I am aware of that, Alhazred.”
“Since you were the closest relative and the closest to Allaria and Caliphim emotionally, I have arranged that you spend an extended period of time in your chamber as part of the mourning ritual. When you have composed yourself, you will begin lessons on your new responsibilities from your tutor, Kateb. He is quite knowledgeable in such topics. You may return to your room now, Cassima.”
“I…I’m sorry, Alhazred,” Cassima said, startled at his sudden ideas for her future, “But I think I’d rather look around the castle for a short while longer before…”
“You are given permission to return to your room,” said Alhazred, with a sudden edge to his cool voice. “I am only doing what your parents would have you do if a relative passed away. I’m sure you are not the one to go against tradition, young princess. Now please return to your room.”
Cassima glanced at her door, then back at the vizier’s face, which bore a look of definite dislike and perhaps even malice. She glimpsed something in his eyes that she had never seen before, something that made her shy away from him and back up until she was level with her door, which she swiftly opened and darted inside her room, where she flung herself upon the bed, gazing at the ceiling through the transparent canopy.
Did they really die all because of me?
For the rest of the evening, Cassima remained in her room, her dinner given to her by a servant at her door, who informed her that he understood that she was granted a mourning period, and would henceforth be delivering her meals to her. Cassima nodded in acknowledgement as the servant slowly closed the door, allowing her to eat her food in peace. She was still shocked by her conversation with Alhazred, and the thought that she would have to remain inside her room for who could say how long had rendered her numb to all the stimuli outside her mind.
Of course she was aware of the period of mourning, her parents and tutors discussed it with her countless times, but now that Alhazred had suddenly announced that she was to be quarantined in her room for several weeks, unexpectedly and out of the blue like a gigantic tidal wave, it was like something she had never heard mention of before. How could she possibly spend such a long time indoors, without the sensation of being outdoors with grass under her feet? How could she remain separated from the ocean and the trees in the garden, and after so many months away from them?
Then something started to burn inside her: had that vizier taken advantage of the tradition to keep her in here, out of his plans and schemes? What could he be plotting that required her to be imprisoned in her own room, the place that she had been longing to see again every day of her captivity on Mordack’s island? She dared not to speculate on what the answers to these questions could be, instead, she decided to concentrate on her dinner.
It was fish, something that had appealed to her in the past, but her recent experience in Mordack’s scullery, preparing and cooking carcass after carcass of the slimy, gray, aquatic creatures, the dish seemed slightly less enticing. Still, she hadn’t eaten for at least a day, and she had yet to experience a full day of meals in her home, so she started eating the tender food.
Cutting a small piece with her fork, she lifted it to her lips, taking in the delicate aroma. Holding the fork was something she hadn’t done in some time, and she took a few seconds to get used to the feeling; most of the meager food she ate in Mordack’s castle she ate with her fingers. The flesh of the fish was a delicate pink, and warm and sweet in Cassima’s mouth. The flavor was subtle, yet adequate to please her tastes, and the texture of the meat was something she hadn’t savored in a long while.
Trying not to remember the stale bread and moldy vegetables she had lived on during the time she was under the wizard’s power, Cassima proceeded to consume the entirety of her dinner, along with the goblet of water that the servant had also brought. Placing the empty dish and cup by the door, she sullenly trudged over to her dresser, opened a drawer, and lifted out one of her pale, silk nightgowns and quickly changed into it, not bothering to retreat to within the safety of the bed’s curtains or to duck behind the bathing screen that stood against the wall.
Flinging her dress on the floor, Cassima slowly climbed into her bed and drew the white sheets around her. Even though it wasn’t cold, she felt a need for security, and the blankets provided her with the same sense of integrity they had when she was little. Perhaps it was because of her deprivation of blankets in Mordack’s castle, or perhaps sleeping on a hard floor every night…or not sleeping at all, in some cases…
Enough, Cassima said to herself. I have to stop thinking about that place every minute of my life. I’m not there now. I’m home. I’m inside my castle. I’m in my room…I’m…in here for…how long?
She paused her thoughts temporarily. Ulrica had once told her that she could smell distrust and deception inside the castle walls, whether it was in a person or in an area that they frequented. It could have been all in her mind, but Cassima could almost sense something wrong in the air. Something that wasn’t there before. Something evil…
These last thoughts drifted into oblivion as she fell into a deep slumber, her last thoughts being:
What is going on…?
Alhazred was agitatedly pacing his bedroom, the thick walls muffling his curses and hissed expletives. Every few seconds his hands would contort, as if pulled by an unseen puppeteer, contorted into blotched collections of bone and sinew, quivering madly as he avoided the urge to tear something apart. The noise would surely attract a guard.
“That damnable son of a dog! I trust that Mordack with all I have and he lets this pitiful excuse for a princess slip through his hands! And the rumor everyone’s spreading through the castle is that he’s dead! Dead by a common man, a king, surely, but still a human, no match for a wizard of such power and he allows himself to be defeated!!”
Wiping a fleck of spit from his mouth, Alhazred snatched one of the heavy pillows off the bed and flung it across the room, where it thudded silently against the opposite wall.
“If that fool were still alive, I would kill him myself! I should’ve known not to leave the wretch with him when he said he couldn’t even teleport with another person! Worthless creature!”
Alhazred seized the drapery that hung from the canopy of his bed and yanked them tenaciously, but stopping short of ripping them down.
“Now that princess is back in the Isles! I should’ve known my plans were getting too good to be taken for granted!”
He slumped down upon his bed, his thick brow beaded with perspiration.
“At least I took care of the little blabbermouth before she told everyone in the castle. Still, there’s no saying that she’ll stay in that room long enough…that tradition was a lifesaver, that’s certain…”
Pausing again, Alhazred nervously glanced around the bedroom, expecting a guard to be crouched in the shadows, listening to his spoken thoughts, but there was nobody he could see. Quickly, he rose from his bed, strode over to the door and opened it silently. After stepping through to the other side, he locked it carefully behind him, walked to the door to his study, only a few paces away, and unlocked the door silently as the key would allow. Stepping inside, he beheld his desk, with the wooden, silk-covered chair seated in front of it. Above Alhazred’s head and to the left of the doorway was an enormous head that once belonged to an exotic creature named (as Alhazred recalled) a rhinoceros.
At first it seemed out of place in the plain, unfurnished room, but a closer look at the pensive expression on the beast’s wrinkled face gave one the impression that the rhino was deep in thought, just as the room’s most frequent occupant usually was. The sense of another being’s eyes fixed upon his back also gave Alhazred a perpetually alert frame of mind, so that he occasionally turned around in his seat to make sure no one was peering through the door’s keyhole or had managed to open the door.
Apparently, his guard was off on that unfortunate day that Cassima had snuck in behind him and had gotten to close for Alhazred to believe she was only wondering what he was up to. Again, the vizier clenched his fists and cursed silently under his breath.
Quickly, he strode up to his desk and glanced at the oblong, green-blue glass bottle that sat upon the corner of his desk. He had moved it there after his assassination of Allaria and Caliphim, deciding that his study was a safer and more appropriate place than his room. He raised his thin finger and tapped the side of the bottle gently. Nothing happened.
If this were any normal container, he wouldn’t have given this a second thought, but the lack of response to his tap meant something important: it meant that his genie, Shamir, had not yet returned from delivering the message that Alhazred had written just after he learned of Cassima’s return and only recently had requested Shamir to deliver it to the vizier’s most advisory correspondent of the Black Cloak. It was uncertain what the wizard’s true name was, but the name he always went by was Shadrack. Though he wasn’t the most frequent of Alhazred’s correspondents (and Alhazred couldn’t risk frequent letters anyway, for fear of detection), Shadrack had given him some of the most useful information that the vizier rarely ignored.
It was Shadrack that had given Alhazred the suggestion of creating a perpetual tension within the Isles to deter the royal couple’s attention and to get rid of the princess safely and quickly. But now that that maneuver had failed, Alhazred had hastily penned a long, frustrated letter explaining all of the events that had taken place, Mordack’s death, the princess’s return, even including all the omnipresent rumors and stories that were rapidly spreading through the castle and the nearby town. Alhazred was uncertain how long it would take Shamir to deliver the letter, and her tension increased with the thought that Shadrack might not have any immediate advice to send back, and even if he did, it would take at least a day for him to get his ideas on paper. He was a slow thinker, Shadrack. It showed in his handwriting, which was written out slowly and carefully, as if the writer were a child just learning the style.
And even more troubles aroused in Alhazred’s mind when he remembered what mode of letter-carrying Shadrack possessed. He had a single, old, decrepit crow that usually took several days to find the addressee, even when he knew where the receiver lived, which didn’t happen often. And there was always the chance of that rook dying or getting caught by a wild beast…but surely Shadrack would know…he undoubtedly kept a crystal ball or some other mode of seeing beyond whatever fortress he resided in….
But no time to muse, Alhazred decided. Before waiting for Shadrack’s reply, I must work with the good material he has already delivered to me. Surely there is something I can use in there…
The vizier unlocked the top drawer of his desk and peered inside. The light of the waning moon through the single window in the room eliminated his desire to light the small lamp that rested on the corner of his desk. According to the local superstition, almost all activities done during a waning moon would turn out bad, fingernails, plants and hair wouldn’t grow if they were cut during this time, marriage and childbirth were omens of bad luck…Alhazred dared not contemplate the possibility of his failed attempt to find a way to settle the kingdom and prevent a protest.
After all, as divided as the land was, the passing of the king and queen would not go unnoticed. Questions would soon arise and would find their ways to the palace, even with the Isles’ only mode of transportation out of commission, namely the local ferry. The ferry’s owner, a sharp young man named Hassan, had dry-docked the boat several years before when the tension between the Isles had grown to such a high degree that it was obvious that Hassan would go out of business unless he halted his service.
This, along with the many other factors leading to the islands’ breakup, helped, but not enough. There had to be a way to create a large enough rift between the lands that would draw attention away from the Crown and allow Alhazred to plan his next move in peace and, most importantly, in plenty of time.
Reaching inside the open drawer, Alhazred removed several of the letters. Most of them were from Shadrack, the more recent ones that the vizier hadn’t had time to relocate to the large trunk in his bedroom. They dealt primarily with the kidnapping of Cassima, and Shadrack’s own philosophies and ideas on how Alhazred should handle the problems, as well as critiquing the vizier’s proposed schemes. “You have an excellent plan growing,” said one letter. “There are several minor flaws, but I’m certain you can identify them by your own means. I am glad that you have taken my suggestion to write to Mordack, he is young, but full of original ambitions and ways to keep that princess you describe so vividly under control. If you proceed, I need not advise you further. You have pretty much planned your own future, and very well, I might add.”
Smiling slightly, Alhazred replaced the letter and read a few lines at random from the next one:
“Camarthi is a powerful old mage, but he is quite ancient, and has a memory bad enough to rival that of the benevolent, weak-brained sorcerer, Crispinophur. I suggest placing your princess in the hands of a strong wizard…”
Typical advice. Alhazred had already used it. Next letter:
“Remember what I said in my previous correspondence: faith is placed in the smallest things, though they may appear simple and worthless at first…”
Hmmm…That sounded interesting…
“The Princess Cassima is indeed the most precious thing to the Island of the Crown and even more so to her parents. Removing her will create enough of a disturbance to execute your plans. In many cases, this is the most trustworthy maneuver to use. Take away what is most precious to any person or thing, and they will be at the mercy of your power.“
Alhazred scanned and rescanned the last lines of the letter. Suddenly it made sense…”what is most precious”…”Removing her will create enough of a disturbance to execute your plans”…Yes! It all fit now! The Achilles’ heel of every one of the islands was more obvious than anything else! The thing that was most precious to each island…surely it was something noticeable…a crest or a trophy of some historical significance…but what were they…?
Already, Alhazred was coming up with answers to his questions before they were even fully formed. As soon as Shamir returned, the vizier had some important things to take care of.
The next day was a slow one for Cassima. Her breakfast was already at her door, even though she had risen at an early hour. She ate it willingly, then walked over to her bad and sat down upon the rumpled sheets. The thoughts of her parents’ deaths and now her proposed period or mourning were heavy in her mind, leaving her little to do that day besides gaze out the window and look at some of the books that still rested on the shelves upon her walls, just as clean and dustless as they had been when she was kidnapped.
Her absence hadn’t deterred the servants from leaving the unoccupied room alone. Of course, perhaps they were just sticking to the duties that had been with them since they became employed by Cassima’s father. They were very noble people, the servants. Cassima rarely took the time to realize how important they were, keeping all the surfaces in the castle shiny and pristine and preparing all the meals for everyone else in the castle. They worked hard just to feed and support themselves. But they were far luckier than she was now. They didn’t have parents to grieve over, they didn’t have to remain locked in a room for an unsaid number of days. Even though she had barely been in her quarters for a day, dread was already beginning to sink in.
That evening, as she sat on her bed with a book opened on her knees, she heard her door open quietly, and she turned just in time to see the hand of a servant retrieve her breakfast dishes and replace them with her supper: a leg of mutton and several thick slices of warm bread. Cassima didn’t rise to retrieve her food just yet. She was finishing her reading of the multi-line poem in the heavy volume she had open.
He of the noble heart will never forget his love
He may not grieve or cry for her, but he will recall
The day when first he met her, the day her eyes met his
They may not meet, but they still will be
With one another, from sea to sea.
When someone is in turmoil, all romantic poetry has a connection to her life, Cassima thought. Before she even finished the poem, she remembered the young man she met in Mordack’s castle. Prince Alexander. It means “defender of humanity.” I wonder if people are always true to their names, she pondered. She remembered the blue of his young eyes, the same color as his father’s and sister’s eyes. The same color as the sky at noon, the sky that shone above the Isles, not the wretched, dusty gray of the sky around Mordack’s castle. And his face…Alexander’s face was a pale color, yet strong and sensitive, with fine features and a childlike air to it.
Cassima’s face, like the rest of her skin, was light and delicate. In the days before her kidnapping, it had a light suntan to it, not very visible because she stayed indoors frequently for her studies and leisure reading, and even outdoors as a child she enjoyed staying in the shade of the palm trees near the west end of the isle, near the dock.
Her imprisonment in the dark fortress surrounded by perpetual smog, however, had robbed her skin of much of its pigment and mean color tones, leaving it a fragile white. This wasn’t entirely obvious because of her unclean condition at the time, but now that she had scrubbed the filth and grime away, she looked almost ghostlike in her paleness. Then, her skin was naturally light in color, much like her mother’s, and the fact that it barely darkened in a tropical climate such as the one she was born in hinted that it was even lighter than she knew.
Since Alexander came from Daventry, and Daventry was a temperate country, it was natural for his skin to be so light in color. From what Cassima had learned, the color of a person’s skin can say much about their origin. People from colder regions usually had extremely pale bodies, whereas people from warmer countries had dark skin. But then…something caught her attention: what about Mordack? Serenia was a temperate country, and Mordack’s island was quite near Serenia, so she expected that the people from that land would have middling skin tones, but why, then did Mordack have such a terribly dark complexion, especially on his face?
Even his eyes were dark, almost as if he wasn’t entirely human…could wizards be nonhuman? Or was he an animal disguised as a human? Perhaps all that darkness inside him had built up to such an extreme that it oozed out through his pores and showed through his skin…Cassima would have had no surprise if that was the case. But still, he was gone, and there was no point thinking ill thoughts about a person that had already died, no matter how evil he or she was.
Then her thoughts traveled back to Alexander. His hair was the same color as hers: a thick, deep black, dark as the coat of the legendary Steed of Death. He had probably inherited from his father, Graham, since his mother’s hair was a burnt red. Though the king’s hair was a dull, slate-hued gray, Cassima could imagine the man in his younger days quite clearly, almost identical to his son…
And his voice…she had only heard it once, but Alexander’s voice was one she couldn’t forget easily. It was soft, yet strong; gentle yet mighty. No one in the castle had a voice like his. Many of the servants had scratchy, imperfect tongues, with obscure accents that she never could place. Many of the guard dogs had gruff, hard voices, even Saladin’s gentle speech wasn’t like Alexander’s.
Everything about his appearance seemed perfect, or as far as her definition of “perfect” went. He was also kind, and now that she remembered, his hands were rough in her own when he asked to visit her. That meant that he was a hard worker, or had labored exceedingly at one time in his past.
But what was the use of thinking about him now? Sure, he had asked to visit her, but how would he know where the Isles were? She suddenly realized, for the first time, that she hadn’t even given him a general idea of where she lived. And very few foreigners knew of the islands, so how could he know? Cassima cursed herself for not telling him, and an even greater despair settled upon her.
The chances of Alexander finding her kingdom were close to nil, and if he didn’t find it, he would probably be caught in one of the violent storms that frequently occurred around the islands. She should’ve told him not to risk his life when she had the chance…but should she have? Should she have told him to forget her and be granted that she would never see him or even hear from him again for the rest of her life? And how would Alexander feel? He might die of heartbreak, like her parents had. At least there was still a slim chance that she would see him again…no matter what the odds were, at least there was still hope…
But now that she thought of it, she wasn’t sure why she wanted to see the prince again so desperately. Could it be that she was in love with him? But how could that be? Her parents knew each other for years before they married…how could she have fallen in love with Alexander after only meeting him once? Could it be the proverbial “love at first sight?” She had never felt such a longing before, an emptiness that cried out to be replenished ached inside her. Perhaps that was the feeling all people felt when they met someone so kind and beautiful…but what if it was just infatuation? What if Alexander forgot about her and fell in love with another maiden?
She dared not consider of the possibility. Instead of going over all the memories she had of the young man that had touched her life like every prince in her fairy tales had touched the life of their brides-to-be, she decided to put the book she was reading away and start on her dinner, which was already becoming cold.
For the next few weeks, Cassima did little inside her room, which seemed smaller and smaller to her with every day. She couldn’t tell if it was the grief of the loss of her parents or the fear of what Alhazred would do to her if he caught her outside her room. Every day she would hear his soft sandals padding up to her door, stopping, then turning and walking back to his quarters or his study. She never was sure which one he went to.
Every now and then she would hear muffled conversations between the guards. Even through she couldn’t see them, she could tell who was who by their voices and the exchange of words. Bay had a childish voice, like an overgrown puppy’s, Gruff and Woof had rough, growling tones, both similar, except Gruff’s was slightly deeper. Rowlf had a light, gentler voice that matched his noble hound’s nose and brow, and Saladin (who she heard very rarely) had a tone that was impossible to forget. It was strong, yet merciful, the voice of a hardened warrior that had seen and experienced much.
He was so different than the other dogs and so much more disciplined and loyal that Cassima often wondered about his lineage, but she never had the courage to ask him. Whenever she asked one of the other dogs, they merely shrugged and turned away. However, when she asked Ulrica (and she had only asked once), the old mutt looked at her with a pair of eyes that looked almost sad, then looked away from Cassima and refused to speak again.
During the first few days of her confinement, the princess had to remind herself of what her regular routine was, since it had been so long since she last wore a pair of shoes or brushed her hair. It took a long time for her to brush and comb out all the snarls in her ragged black mane, and she was forced to use scissors to eliminate some of the knots that refused to untangle. However, her hair was so thick and fluffy that it would be hard to notice any missing patches of it.
She was so relieved to have access to bathing again that she washed herself almost every day, even though she never went outdoors. After about two weeks, though, she fell back into her routine of bathing every three days. She was also happy to be back in her room, which had all the sensations that she associated with it: the smell of flowers that floated in from the gardens, the brightness of the sun shining through the open window, the feeling of the soft carpet beneath her feet (even when she had her shoes on), the songs of the birds (sometimes including the voice of her own bird, Sing-Sing) coming from the trees near the village, and the sweet taste of the tropical air, which was so thick that she could sense it in her mouth.
In spite of being among all the things that comforted her, she was not entirely happy. The memory of her parents made her cry sometimes, and she had to force herself to read whenever this started. She also felt angry towards Alhazred and the way he had more or less forced her into her quarters. She was still concerned that the man was plotting something, like he had been doing before with that Mordack. But she hadn’t been put out of the way then. What was he doing that required her to be fenced up?
Cassima repeatedly tried to avoid delving into this thought. She was home, like she had wanted to be since the first minute she set foot in Mordack’s castle, but what a price to pay. To be released from the duties of a prisoner to become one again…in your own castle! The idea was terrible, but Cassima realized it was true.
Still, as powerful as all these thoughts were, she couldn’t ignore her favorite hobby that she had been almost completely robbed of during her imprisonment: reading. There were dozens of books packed in many of the shelves that lined her room, books of stories, books of ancient heroes, books of plays and dramas, some old scrapbooks that she had kept when she was younger, containing drawings and pressed leaves, flowers and spore-prints of fungi, and countless books of poetry.
Nearly all the books had been read or at least looked at once, with very few exceptions. Many of the pages were torn or dog-eared, some spattered with food, water or even tears, especially in the tragedies and the love poems. Many of the books had been passed down from her mother or her father, and even a servant gave her a book as a christening gift, it being his only prized possession he felt was worthy to give the newborn princess.
She learned many lessons from the books of fables, and learned what choices were best and what choices were worst in her stories of heroes and heroines in pursuit of adventure. She learned how to trust people and how to act like royalty should act. When her parents read to her out of the heavy volumes, it was just like they were lecturing her or teaching her, but she never realized his fact until she was older. Yet still she listened to the stories, often falling asleep and dreaming the stories, sometimes with herself as the heroine, fighting dragons and riding enchanted horses.
Perhaps it was the memory of those stories that made her continue her reading. If they had taught her so much about life in the past, they could probably tell her how to deal with her sorrow and anxiety for her home now.
But the stories held her interest less now. If the experience she had in Mordack’s castle, when the wizard caught her in his library and bellowed a diatribe of insults to both her and the tales she treasured so dearly was connected to her sudden detachment, she would willingly accept the fact as true. Or perhaps she had overindulged in those stories, and eventually realized that she wasn’t the child that she used to be, that she was now a young woman and she had to put those memories behind her, but yet…she couldn’t forget them. No matter how much she tried, she couldn’t put those long, intricate stories out of her mind. However, in her sudden grief, she doubted if she could ever read another fairy tale or a myth of ancient Greece again. But there was still a hint of magic, fantasy and even innocence in the poems.
She had been drawn to the poems since the day she recovered from the sudden shock of her parents and was able to get out of her bed. She had almost forgotten about the heavy book containing the poem about Scheherazade, which still lay under her bed, where she had unceremoniously kicked it several days before. There were several volumes of poetry on her shelves, and she had selected a few at random and started leafing though them, with nothing more to do than sit and read, and hope that Alhazred wasn’t up to his old schemes.
On nights when she couldn’t sleep, she would light a small candle and read by its light until she became drowsy. Sometimes it worked, sometimes she never nodded off and spent the whole night thinking about the poems.
Searching for a place to land
It flies, it soars, it dives
Betwixt the nimbi and the sand
‘Tis hope that alights in all our lives
Yes, that poem is beautiful, Cassima thought as she read it one evening four days after her mourning period was announced. The sun had set, but night was still darkening the horizon outside her open window. I wish what it said was true, though. I can’t see any hope here. I wonder if anyone else can…
As she pondered over the lines, she heard a soft scuffling outside her room, accompanied with the jingling of a pair of bells. She looked up from her book as a soft knocking came from the other side of her door.
“Princess Cassima,” whispered a familiar male voice. “May I come in?”
The voice belonged to Jollo. Surprised, Cassima quietly replied, “Yes,” and the door opened slowly and the short, pudgy clown tiptoed inside and shut the door behind him.
“Jollo,” Cassima hissed. “What are you doing here?”
“I had to see you, princess,” explained Jollo, taking off his fez and bowing exuberantly. “I knew Alhazred wouldn’t give me permission, and I could never trust that man if he said you were too ill to see anyone. I know you too well, princess. Ever since you were a baby, I could see that you were a strong one. Much stronger than that vizier, that’s for sure.”
Cassima hesitated before speaking again, amazed by the clown’s words. Then she almost laughed.
“I’m grateful that you could come, Jollo,” she said. “Here, come away from the door. I don’t want anyone to hear you.”
“Certainly, Cassima,” said Jollo, walking as quietly as his jangling shoes would allow over to her white bed and sitting down next to her.
“I can’t tell you how amazed everyone is at seeing you home alive and unharmed,” Jollo whispered. “But still…you were so changed, too…what happened to you, princess?”
“It’s a long story,” Cassima sighed, reluctant to speak of what she had endured for so long, even to as close a friend as Jollo.
“You don’t need to tell me everything, Cassima,” encouraged Jollo. “Just please tell me how you were kidnapped and how you returned. Those surely are the most important, for both you and me.”
Cassima grinned slightly at his words. For a simple-looking court jester, he sometimes spoke things of such depth that one would wonder if he truly was what he said he was. Perhaps the simplicity of his profession gave him copious time for gathering wisdom. Even though he hadn’t asked for her to do so, Cassima decided to tell him everything she could remember, not wanting to hold anything back to one of the closest companions she had now.
“Very well,” she said, and she slowly began retelling the story of the events that had happened from the night she was taken from the Isles to the day she was returned. Jollo frequently stopped her and asked her a question, to either get an answer or her thoughts on what the answer could be. These questions were mostly about the vizier and Shamir Shamazel, and since she was in the presence of someone she knew she could trust, Cassima told him everything that she suspected of Alhazred and his genie, and Jollo seemed to agree with all her words.
Jollo looked intensely sorry for her when she described the wizard’s harsh words and the punishments that he inflicted upon her. He smiled and almost laughed when Cassima described her spying on Mordack through the crystal ball and discovering that his brother had been turned into a cat. But when Cassima came near the end of her story, when she started telling Jollo how the prince named Alexander had requested a visit to the Land of the Green Isles, the clown’s face took on a more pensive, curious expression that grew more pronounced as Cassima talked.
“What is it?” she finally asked.
“It’s the way you’re describing this Prince Alexander,” Jollo said, putting a hand to his chin. “The way you talk about every piece of him in such detail…describing how you felt when he knelt in front of you and held your hand…”
Jollo paused again and thought for several seconds before turning and looking Cassima straight in the face with his bright, blue eyes.
“Do you think you love him, Cassima?”
The question came so unexpectedly, Cassima couldn’t think. Then, when her thoughts had fallen into place again, she began running possible answers to Jollo’s query through her mind. Sure, I thought he was a handsome fellow, but I don’t know if I actually…I only met him once, so I can’t really…How would I know what love is, I’ve never loved a man before…Maybe if you saw him yourself, you would know…Maybe…How can I be sure…What do you mean, “in love?”…I don’t understand…
“Er…” said Cassima, her mind still trying to find a stable place to settle as she searched for the words to reply. “Well…I…why do you ask, Jollo?”
“I don’t know,” shrugged Jollo. “Something seemed different about you…I just wanted to know how you felt.”
“Well,” said Cassima again, “If you really want to know…I would say that I do…in a way, I suppose…”
Jollo’s round face suddenly split into a broad grin.
“What?” asked the princess, wondering what had humored him, if that was humor his smile was conveying.
“I thought so!” he chucked gently. “It was your eyes. That’s what was different about you when I first saw you up close. There was something in your eyes…something almost magical, I daresay. A bright spark that wasn’t there before…I must confess it isn’t as bright now as it was before, but I swear I saw it. It was just like the look in your parents’ eyes on their wedding day…I was a young man then, and my mind never forgot the way they both looked…so free…so happy…just like you were, Cassima…before…before I told you…”
Jollo bowed his head sadly, and sighed deeply. Cassima, also feeling sad for her friend, touched his back gently and tried to console him.
“It’s all right, Jollo,” she whispered. “It could’ve been worse. Much worse. That’s what my mother always told me when I was little.”
Jollo looked up, with tears glistening in his dark, dewy eyes.
“I wish I could forget what you told me,” Cassima continued, “But I can’t. I never will. I would be cold not to remember how long I cried for them, and how kind you were to me when I did, or how Ulrica brought me my food when no one else would. We can’t forget what has happened, but we can try to make do with what is now.”
Jollo smiled and suddenly embraced Cassima, the force of his arms almost forcing the tears that had been unknowingly building up inside her. She tried not to cry out loud, for fear of alerting a guard or anyone else nearby, but she couldn’t restrain the tears from sliding down the sides of her face as she hugged Jollo. It was a playful, “best friends” hug that had originated when she was very young. Even as a teenager, she still used that old expression of affection with her companion, no matter how childish it was, it was always something Cassima associated with happiness and love. But with Jollo’s claim that she was probably in love with a foreign prince, she began suspecting that what she was feeling was a different kind of love.
Finally, Jollo unlocked his arms and resumed his seat on the edge of the bed, looking at Cassima, still smiling through his tears. The great gong sounded the last hour of the day with nine echoing notes as Jollo spoke.
“You talk just like your mother used to,” he sobbed, trying not to be too loud. “She and Caliphim were so wise…I sometimes wonder if they themselves came up with all those beautiful words and ideas…I’m so sorry, Cassima. I know you can’t forgive me, but I’m so sorry I had to be the one to tell you. Everyone else was too afraid.”
“You were the only one brave enough?” Cassima asked, calm in spite of her tears.
“Yes, if you put it that way,” Jollo sniffed. “Forgive me, dear Cassima. I’m sorry I reminded you. That was so heartless of me…I already caused enough trouble for you, poor, young princess…I should’ve known better…”
Cassima gently shushed him and asked him if he felt he should leave. Jollo nodded sadly, got up and slowly shuffled towards the door.
“Please don’t punish yourself, Jollo,” Cassima pleaded. “I would hate to be the cause of someone else’s misery. I thank you for coming here and talking to me very much.”
Jollo looked back at her and forced another of his blithe smiles.
“And if you would, tell Ulrica that I am well. I know I was in a bad way when she last saw me, so I’m sure she would appreciate the knowledge that I am better.”
“Yes, majesty,” said Jollo as he opened the door. “Good-night.”
“Good-night,” Cassima said as the door clicked shut. As the jingling of her friend’s footsteps slowly faded away, she reflected on what he had seen in her eyes when she first returned home. Did she really look like a person in love? Sure, in the stories that she had often read, lovers had a spark of passion in their eyes when they first met, but could such a thing really exist? And, more importantly, could her love for Alexander really exist?
We are all artists
We shape our worlds
We shape the earthly objects
That please us
But what we cannot shape
Is still not out of reach
The following days grew even more tense and anxious for the princess as she spent more and more time shut up in her room. At times, she felt almost claustrophobic and felt like leaping out her window, but her common sense was too strong to let her do a thing like that. She began to hear the guards and servants outside her door more often, either that or her ears were growing more sensitive in the silent place she was always situated.
Alhazred continued his irregular visits to her quarters, but his attitude seemed to be changing slowly, with each day of seeing the princess more and more at his mercy. Once, while Cassima was standing at her dresser rubbing a small amount of rose extract on her hands, the door opened and the vizier poked his small, greasy head inside and looked at her.
Cassima stepped away from her dresser sharply and stood facing the vizier haughtily. He smiled at her irritated expression.
“How do you fare, my dear Cassima?” he crooned.
“Oh, quite well. Quite well, Abdul,” said Cassima sarcastically. “I’m just fine.”
“I am glad to hear that, my little flower,” said Alhazred, opening the door and stepping into her room. Cassima backed away from him slightly.
“And how much your smell reminds me of a flower too,” he said dreamily, lifting his head and sniffing the air.
“Don’t talk that way about me,” Cassima snapped, stepping backwards again.
“I daresay this confinement has made you a tad irritable, young princess,” said Alhazred. “But don’t fret. You’ll be over it soon enough. I hope I can trust you to not go mad and try to escape the only place you feel is safe. Good-bye, my jewel.”
And with that, the vizier turned on his heel and strutted out of the room, shutting the door behind him. Cassima, still trying to grasp what he had just said and at the same time wondering if throwing the small bottle of rose extract would be worth Abdul’s angry shout, trembled with anger and frustration that she could not find out what the vizier was up to.
She wished she could talk to Jollo again, or even Ulrica, but she knew that if she asked to see either of them, the vizier would first tell her that such an idea was out of the question and then double the guard to make sure she didn’t try to sneak down to see them herself. She had to keep quiet and not tell Alhazred anything that might arouse his interest or suspicions. She knew she could never trust him.
After several weeks, the moon had reached its zenith in size, and was again dwindling. Surprisingly, Cassima had grown less stressed about being caged in, but she dared not think Alhazred’s prediction of her behavior was right. But still, the anger and frustrations that still boiled inside her often made her want to scream, but she never permitted herself to do such an act. Perhaps she had been born with a relatively fearless nature or had a life with little to frighten her more than a spider in a dark corner of her room, but she seldom screamed from fright or anguish, but she came very close to shrieking until the walls fell in upon her several times.
She had discovered several ways to filter the strong feelings out. One, of course, was reading those books of poetry and sonnets, but sometimes the words made her worse off than before.
The other was writing her own poetry. She had always possessed a talent for shaping words into vivid scenes or feelings, and her writing was best when she was overtaken by a strong emotion, positive or negative. However, the feeling she felt imprisoned in her own castle was unlike anything she had experienced in the past, and most of her poems were either so illegible with her rapid, jagged hand that she couldn’t read them or even remember what was on her mind when she wrote them, and others were either so nonsensical or graphic that she tore them to shreds. The few that she actually appreciated she kept locked in the top drawer of her dresser, afraid that Alhazred would, for some reason, enter her room at night and search the whole place. Or perhaps he would bid Shamir to do it.
When Cassima wasn’t feeling as trapped and broken as she usually did, she would try to write pleasant, light-hearted poetry, but her words always seemed to twist themselves towards the darker side of the scene they were supposed to be shaping, no matter how beautiful the scene was.
The grass flows like a scroll of life
Covers what lies underneath
The fur of a giant, sleeping creature
That yet listens as we build upon its back
Almost all of her poems were like this, with a grotesque or death-like side to it, none of them purely joyful or innocent. It was as if she was seeing the other side of everything, good or bad. It had to have something to do with her feelings about Alhazred and her parents. Could there be anything good about that vizier? And was there anything good about her parents dying? Perhaps the poems were merely evidence of her struggle to find what was currently hidden from her sight, or a prediction of her awareness of seeing everything black and white. No matter what it was, Cassima still wrote the strange poems, crumpling up and ripping them up, and writing them again.
She even began sketching with a collection of charcoal sticks her parents had given to her when she was twelve years old. Not only was she a good poet, but she was also a fine artist, however amateur her work looked when placed against the detailed, masterly paintings in her room and the rest of the castle. She tried shaping the beautiful sunset that always happened through her window, but the black, greasy charcoal couldn’t capture the ethereal glory with all its colors of pink, peach, gold and red, which faded into lavender, indigo and finally deep blue as the sun vanished into the blinding horizon formed by the sea.
Though the sunset would surely blind a foreigner with its fantastic beauty, it always appeared normal to a lifelong inhabitant, such as Cassima. True, she always felt touched by the magic as the sun became red and faded out of sight behind the streaked clouds, but she often wondered if the event was any different in different countries…like Daventry, for example. Prince Alexander’s homeland. She wondered if her tropical sunset could match the one he looked at every evening, if it was inferior or superior to her land’s. She would probably never know, but she always had time to wonder.
Drawing wasn’t as easy as writing during the night, but she did no nonetheless. She drew sketches of her parents as she remembered them, occasionally looking at the tiny pictures inside her locket for reference. Once Jollo knocked on her door again, and they had a brief conversation about what they thought Alhazred could be scheming, though neither of them could come up with any good ideas. Cassima showed him some of her poems and drawings, and the little man smiled and cried at the sight of them, particularly the portraits of Allaria and Caliphim.
The princess asked about Ulrica, and Jollo sadly confessed that the old dog wasn’t doing very well, perhaps it was loneliness of being separated from Cassima, he hypothesized. Cassima was immediately seized with fear at the thought that the aged nurse was going to suffer the same fate as her parents, only this time the princess knew Ulrica was ailing, but was still helpless to do anything. She groaned in guilt and sorrow and slumped against one of her bedposts, fighting back tears. Jollo tried to comfort her and promised her that he would tell Ulrica how she felt, then quickly departed.
Cassima began cursing herself and praying that her old friend wouldn’t die, but exhaustion finally set in, and she fell asleep, sprawled across the bed.
As the days dragged by, she wished she could see Jollo more often than once every week and a half, but she knew that he couldn’t risk getting caught by a guard, and she was lucky to see him at all. Still, she wished she had more friends to talk to besides Sing-Sing, who, although was a pleasant roommate to talk to and also filled her chamber with sweet songs and trilling melodies, wasn’t the same as someone that could actually talk back, human or not.
Her worries about poor Ulrica’s health became stronger and more taxing, disturbing her sleep and plaguing her with nights of insomnia, during which she stared at the ceiling of her bed and wondered how the aged dog was faring. She dreaded the next knock that sounded at her door, fearing that it would be Saladin or one of the other guards, announcing that Ulrica was dead. Sometimes she stayed up all night, tears running down her cheeks but her screams of anguish never coming out and smoldering within her.
It was on one of these sleepless nights that she nearly jumped out of her skin at the sound of a noise at her door. It wasn’t a knock or a scuffle of shoes or slippers; it was more of a scratching, clawing sound, like an animal trying to break into her room. Before she could even react to that thought, she noticed that the clawing wasn’t as noisy and frantic as a true beast’s attempts to break in and attack her. These noises were quiet, controlled, and not only that, but they seemed to have a definite pattern – scratch, scratch, scratch…scratch, scratch, scratch…
Cassima rose from her bed, trembling with excitement and hesitation. What if it was Alhazred clawing at her door, pretending to sound like the one she thought was there? Was he planning to catch her red-handed, like Mordack had with his guises of supposed “rescuers?”
Throwing caution aside, Cassima flew to the door and flung it open, and there, crouched before her threshold with one paw about to gently drag down the right side of the doorframe again was the ancient canine nursemaid, looking just as strong as ever, staring into Cassima’s eyes as if she had just endured a thunderstorm and was pleading to be let in. Ulrica…
He who knew the sprout before the seed
To whom the future was as clear as present day
And used his gift to help all those in need
Was as great as any hero in the fray.
Before Cassima could draw breath for a word, the old dog had darted inside and began slowly rising to her hind legs with trembling knees.
“By Saturn! Ulrica!” Cassima whispered in amazement, softly closing the door. “What are you doing here? Jollo said you were ailing!”
“That is what I told him and all the other guards who questioned me about my sluggish behavior. I told them I wasn’t feeling right.”
“But…you seem well now,” Cassima sputtered. “Well enough to ascend those stairs again for the second time in…what, a month?”
“One month, fifteen days,” said Ulrica. “I was lying, princess. I knew what Alhazred knew, that I was the closest friend to you besides Jollo and your dear parents. If he received word that I was ill, he wouldn’t be constantly poking his head in my closet to see if I was there or not. I assume, that he has been keeping an eye on you, though?”
“Yes,” said Cassima, amazed at the nurse’s cunning scheme. “But only during the day, though. Speaking of which, just how did you know I was awake now?”
“I sensed you were awake,” said Ulrica, with a cryptic air to her words. “I could tell you were worried about me, even when I was still in the basement. We guard dogs haven’t lost our keen senses in exchange for our human characteristics.”
“I guess not,” said Cassima, still amazed that Ulrica was standing before her in the princess’s room, as they had been only once before. She moved towards the bed and pointed to a spot beside her as she sat down on the covers.
“Please come and sit, though. Your hike up the steps must’ve been tiring.”
“It was,” said Ulrica, stepping slowly over to the bed and plopping down, nearly toppling over onto Cassima’s shoulder. “But I knew you were in a far worse state than me, age or not. I told myself that I had to see you to find out what you thought was going on, and that thought pushed me forward until I got to your door. Jollo has told me fragments of your story, but not all. He was afraid that Alhazred or Shamir were be close by. But I’m sure we can talk safely in here.”
“Well,” began Cassima, hesitant to start her long tale like she had for Jollo. “Basically, Alhazred befriended a wizard named Mordack, who kidnapped me and took me to his island, where he asked me to marry him. Of course, I refused, so he enslaved me and made me work as a scullery girl until…”
She paused, the fascination in Ulrica’s eyes growing to a zenith.
“…Until this king came….King Graham of Daventry, I recall, and he arrived at the castle to save his family…you see, Mordack had captured the king’s wife and two children…I think it had something to do with revenge…”
Ulrica nodded, silently urging her to continue.
“Anyway, when King Graham got thrown in a dungeon by one of the wizard’s beasts, I rescued him, since he was the only hope I had…then he and the wizard had a magical duel until the wizard was killed…then a benevolent wizard appeared and made everything back to normal…and I met Graham’s son…a very handsome man…his name was Alexander.”
“’Defender of humankind…’” said Ulrica dreamily, as if she were remembering a love that she herself had in her youth.
“Yes. And he asked if he could come and visit me…I consented.”
“A kind and thoughtful gesture, Cassima,” said Ulrica. “But did you tell him anything about the location of the Isles?”
“No,” said Cassima. “I knew you would ask me if I did. And I didn’t. I may never see him again.”
“There, there, princess,” said Ulrica, seeing the sadness in Cassima’s face. “Surely you’ve met men like this before that you meet once, then never see again…”
“No,” said Cassima again. “This was different. I think…I think I love him.”
The last five words tumbled out of her mouth like marbles and she turned away from Ulrica, afraid to look at her face.
“Truly, Cassima?” asked Ulrica, still retaining that gentle, motherly tone. “You truly feel that you love this stranger?”
“Don’t call him a stranger,” said Cassima. “He’s a prince of Daventry. I’ve been to Daventry.”
“I don’t recall you ever leaving this land, Cassima,” said Ulrica. “Or was I ill on the day you left…”
“In stories,” explained Cassima. “And dreams. Poems. Songs. I haven’t physically been there but I know almost as much about it as I do my homeland.”
“You are quite a young sage,” sighed Ulrica. “I wish I could think the way you do. But back to this Alexander: Why do you think you love him, Cassima?”
“I don’t think I know…”
“I know you don’t. I’m just asking what you think it is about him that makes you love him?”
“Well,” said Cassima, “He’s courteous…he has a gentle face…he has a soft voice…he has beautiful eyes, too…”
“Enough said!” Ulrica laughed. “That is the sound of one in love. Your mother spoke that way about Caliphim before they were married. And even after. I can see it in your face. I can tell you admire him, but as an equal, not as one above you or below you. If he ever does come here, I would love to meet this young man.”
“I know,” Cassima said woefully, staring out her window at the stars and the thin, fading moon. “I don’t know how he could find this place, though.”
Turning back to Ulrica, she changed the subject to avoid diving into that black pit of memories.
“What did you mean when you said you ‘saw it in my face’? Are you saying that you could see my love for Alexander in my eyes? That’s what Jollo said…”
“Partly that,” said Ulrica, suddenly smirking. “But it was the most obvious in your cheeks.”
“What do you mean?”
“When you were describing this man’s eyes, you blushed like a foreigner under the hottest midday sun. I didn’t know you blushed like that, Cassima…”
“I never blush, Ulrica,” said Cassima.
“Oh, if only I had a mirror when you did,” continued Ulrica, heedless of Cassima’s remark. “I wish I remembered what true love was like…but no…I’m too old to savor such thoughts.”
The dog slowly rose from the bed, grunting heavily. “I’d better be going now. I don’t want to wake anyone up or arouse suspicion. Please don’t tell Jollo or anyone else that I was here, or else I’ll probably never get a second chance to see you.”
“Very well,” said Cassima. “And thank you very much for visiting, Ulrica.”
“Anything for my favorite princess,” said Ulrica. Then the grinned broadly, exposing her long canine teeth and fleshy gums. Her dark, beady eyes sparkled as she turned and waddled out the door, her floppy ears bobbing slightly with each step. Somehow that grin made Cassima uneasy as the nurse tread out the door, her bare paws making little sound on the carpeted floors.
After silently closing the door after Ulrica had left, Cassima tried to figure out why the old dog’s smile had shaken her, even though it was a small surprise. Perhaps it was the sight of those long, pointed teeth that separated humans from the beasts, or those sparkling eyes…both of those traits were comparable to the expression of a wolf before attacking its prey.
All these years Cassima had thought of Ulrica as nothing more than a kind, compassionate, caring friend, but the sight of that almost savage grin had changed everything in a single second. Cassima remembered that she had learned long ago but had filed it away and nearly forgotten until the moment, the fact that the guard dogs were not entirely human, in fact, they weren’t human at all, except for their intelligence, upright stance and long life spans.
But then, when Cassima was still a child, they were hardly different than humans in dogs’ clothing to her. But that was because they never barked or growled or showed their teeth to her, they always wore gloves and boots so she couldn’t see their blunt claws. And she rarely got close enough to any of them to see any of their telltale canine traits. Why hadn’t she noticed any in Ulrica, the one dog that she had been the closest to since the princess was a toddler? Maybe her thick fur hid her claws, or perhaps she kept them trimmed so that no one could feel them…It was a concept that Cassima had never run through her mind, and the realization that the other half of Ulrica’s gentle, motherly nature was a formerly wild beast was staggering.
But then…are we not beasts ourselves, Cassima thought, remembering a lesson taught by one of her tutors. We have built these fortresses to shelter us and learned to tame the land, but we were once wild and uncivilized. Just like the guards…and Sing-Sing…We don’t like to admit it, but if we look deep enough…
Cassima lit the lamp on her bedside table and stood up. She walked across the room to her mirror, which hung on a wall above her dressing table. By the dim light of the lamp, she examined her face, that face that all the servants told her was beautiful, the face that she had inherited from her mother, fair and unblemished, no longer blotchy with constellations of acne from her preteen years, no longer chubby and undefined, as it had been in her childhood. It was the face of a young woman. A young human female. But below the surface…
Cassima set the lamp down on the table and looked closely into the glass. Her eyes were shadowed in the flickering light, but she could just make out the dark green irises, the color of the meadows beyond the castle, the color of the scales of a green snake. The rare color combined with the slight slant and the deep shadows made them seem more like the eyes of such a reptile than they would in the daytime…the time that snakes lie basking, waiting for nightfall…
And the lips…full and symmetrical, a rose-hued pink. How strange that the part in the middle pointed downwards slightly…almost like a bird’s beak. Cassima ran her fingers over the fleshy knob, and in doing so touched the front teeth of her upper jaw. Her teeth were straight and pearly white, something that she often took for granted but was occasionally reminded as being a gift when she saw the yellow, meager stubs in the mouths of some of the servants. The guard dogs had white teeth, though…but they weren’t anything like hers in terms of shape…were they?
Cassima opened her mouth and inspected her teeth gently with her fingers. Most of them were flat, yet bumpy, the molars large and irregular, but near the front were two slightly pointed ones that she could see clearly in the mirror, one on each side of her narrow incisors. They weren’t nearly as sharp as Ulrica’s long, aptly named canines, but in ancient times, at the dawn of the human species, they were sharp. Sharp enough to rip flesh and wood, sharp enough to be used in place of tools…As ordinary as they appeared, Cassima couldn’t deny the fact that they were once the weapons of a beast, a savage, a wild animal.
If she looked closely enough, she could see parallels not only with Ulrica and the other guards, but with all the creatures of the animal kingdom. The hair that grew on her head was like the mane of a lion or a horse, and she could barely make out the glistening, tiny hairs that sprouted on the backs of her hands and on her pale arms. Just as nearly all animals were coated with hair, she was not one to be excused from the fact, no matter how beautiful everyone said she was.
Her nails…if they were longer and narrower, they would be called claws…and there was the generic pattern of two arms and two legs, nothing odd about that…and what about her palms? She turned her right hand over to see if she could find any more reminders of her beastly roots. But as she scanned the hand, with its thin lines and creases, she found nothing that she could identify as a parallel with an animal. Even Ulrica didn’t have five long, tapering fingers and so many crisscrossing lines that fortune tellers read futures from. There were three distinct lines on her palm…the heart line, the head line and the life line, she recalled…
There was a slight recess near the end of one of the lines, lacking any ridges or grooves, an old scar where a crab had pinched her when she was six years of age and playing near the northern bay…with Ulrica close by, of course. She had remembered the incident and the pain the wound had caused her for years afterwards, and she vowed never to bother such a creature again.
Cassima then realized that was something that was truly human. Learning from a mistake and learning not to bother other creatures, animal or otherwise. In spite of her suddenly recognized animal ancestry, she knew that she wasn’t any more fierce than Ulrica had been when she grinned and showed her dagger-like teeth. That was merely a sign of affection, something any friend would do to show they understood.
She would not forget what she had felt at that moment easily, but as she blew out the lamp and lay down on her bed to go to sleep, she felt a true sense of peace, and the comforting thought that everything was right with her and the world.
The tree weeps for the sky,
Whose clouds once touched their leaves
They stretch their branches towards her,
Their screams but whispers to human ears.
“Abdul, you inconsiderate monster!” Cassima roared, wrapping the blankets around herself with lightning speed. “What is the meaning of this prank?”
She had been making her bed wearing only one of her thin underskirts when the vizier knocked promptly on her door, asking permission to enter. When Cassima responded with the words “Please don’t come in now,” Alhazred had opened the door before she even finished her sentence, and strode into her room as if she had spoken the exact opposite of the command.
“I didn’t expect you to be this bare,” Alhazred said indifferently. “I would think you would be more cautious about exposing so much of yourself.”
“Why you – I told you not to come in!” Cassima yelled, her upper lip quivering as she backed away from the man and sat down on her bed.
“Did you?” asked Alhazred, in that same liquid tone that always irritated Cassima until she was on the verge of screaming. “I recall you inviting me in graciously, the way any princess as beautiful as you would treat her father’s trusted advisor.”
“An advisor that walks in on me when I tell him not to? I’m surprised you could even humble yourself to knock first!”
Alhazred remained just as cool as ever, his arms crossed, with one hand’s fingers thrumming rhythmically in the crook of his elbow.
“You are as beautiful angry as you are when you are happy,” he smiled. “These last few days haven’t taken any of your splendor away.”
If it were from any other person, Cassima would have thanked the giver of the compliment and given one in return, but Alhazred was someone who never gave such praise without something hidden up his sleeve. She snorted angrily and glared at him, silently yelling at him to leave her room.
Telepathy or not, the vizier smiled with a faux sweetness, turned on his heel and left the room, leaving the door open behind him, as if he were tempting Cassima to run after him and grab his neck. She restrained her desire to do such an act, and fell upon her bed, still breathing heavily in fury.
That vizier had been butting into her room too often to be excused, and in spite of his courteous ways, never so much as hinted letting her outside for at least once and breathe fresh air and feel grass beneath her feet. He was keeping her shut up for some reason she couldn’t fathom, but whatever it was, she didn’t feel it was pleasant. In many ways, he was even worse than Mordack, in that he never showed his anger and he did all his planning in a place well away from any intruders. But Mordack was a powerful wizard. Abdul was only a vizier, and she couldn’t accurately measure the extent of his evil yet.
As the days dragged on, she became more and more furious with the vizier, and still he remained gentle and calm, as if waiting for the day when she burned out her last reserve of anger. But what would he do with her then? What would he do with a trapped princess with the guilt of her parent’s deaths hanging over her? Cassima feared that if she surrendered to his words of false affection, he would do whatever he wished with her. She would probably become his servant, like that peevish Shamir, never asking why and only doing his bidding without question.
The irony of this thought hit her as she pondered it over a volume of sonnets one midmorning. Who said that she hadn’t been doing that man’s bidding since she first met him upon her return? He had told her to go to her room and stay there for an undisclosed time, and she had done that. She didn’t ask, and he didn’t threaten her…at least, not directly…but something in his voice almost pushed her to obey him, and she had made no effort to go against him.
That was when the thought of escape came to her. There was no telling how long Alhazred planned to have her imprisoned and unable to know what he was doing, and since the guards and servants obeyed him as the only member of the royal family available to them, literally the whole palace was against her.
So what would be the point of trying to escape? Where could she go? Surely there would be a family in the village that would welcome her…but they had probably received word of her period of isolation and would inform Alhazred of her escape…She couldn’t get to any of the other islands with the ferry dry-docked and in need of repairs…perhaps the ferryman, Hassan, would take her in…they had been friends in the past, when he took the princess and her parents to other islands…if she offered to help him fix the boat…that was, if the damage wasn’t so great…the bookshop owner’s store had an upper story, the stairs to which were accessible through a concealed door…and who could say what secret rooms and compartments lurked inside the pawnshop? Sure, there were many potential hiding places where she could plan her next move, but there were too many flaws that refused to reveal themselves to Cassima. In all her years on the island, she had taken in all the beautiful open spaces and places she could play where Ulrica or her mother could see her, but now it seemed that there were absolutely no places where she could be that no one could find her or see her.
She had two choices now: stay in her room for several months and let Alhazred do what he pleased with her kingdom that her parents had left her in charge of, or escape and try to find a hiding place and possible allies. For the rest of the day she pondered the choices, over warm, sliced mangoes and spiced cinnamon tea, and hours later over roast beef and goat’s milk, but no decision came to her.
Later that night, she tried to turn her feelings away from the taxing situation by writing a brief poem on a scrap of paper:
Ocean of my dreams,
Ocean of the Earth,
You both hold so many possibilities
So many islands of wonder
So many places of amazement
What difference is there between you?
As she scanned the sweeping cursive of her lines, she heard a familiar soft scratching at the door. Even though she had heard it but once before, there was no mistaking the noise. She placed the poem on her bedside table and flew to the door, opening it with equal swiftness. Ulrica wasn’t crouched, as she had been before, but was standing – or barely standing – near the threshold, panting heavily but trying to keep her exhalations at a low volume. She was near collapsing, judging by the way she leaned against the doorframe, and as soon as Cassima opened the door, the old nurse barged past her and wobbled across the floor until she came to the princess’s bed, where she almost fainted, sprawling across the rumpled white sheets.
“What happened?” Cassima whispered, closing her door and rushing to her friend’s side. “Why did you come here again? You’re going to wear your body out if you keep on climbing those stairs, Ulrica…”
“Had to come, child…“ heaved the dog, her off-color tongue hanging over her sagging jaw. “Very…important…heard it just this eve…had to come…”
“What is it?” Cassima asked. “What is important?”
“Knew…something was going…on…” Ulrica choked. “Knew he…was…up to…”
“Oh, forgive me, Ulrica,” Cassima said, realizing her selfishness. “Catch your breath before you tell me anything. You must have come up here quickly. I can wait…”
“No…” said Ulrica, quickly regaining her breath as she spoke, as if her need to tell Cassima what she knew was controlling her lungs. “You must know it…now, Cassima. I heard it from a couple of the guards several days ago.”
“But you said you just heard it this evening…”
“I didn’t think it was true until this evening. I heard the vizier talking with Shamir in the cellar when all of the guards were on duty elsewhere.”
“Well, what did you hear?” Cassima whispered anxiously.
Ulrica paused for several seconds before finally drawing a deep breath and saying in a low voice:
“Alhazred is planning to marry you, Cassima.”
There is so much beyond
The clouds and stars
So much that few can
Ever look beyond the
World that fences them in
It wasn’t a combination of words that particularly shocked her, nothing would be nearly as shocking as the news of her parents’ departure, but it surprised her nonetheless.
She looked down at her hands, trying to distract her mind and prevent herself from screaming. The lines ran thickly over her palms, the skin of them a pale beige in the dim light of the lamp that flickered miles away from her confused mind. Their exteriors felt smooth and thin, fully recovered from several months of slavery that not one part of her being would forget. It was as if her skin had a dark memory buried beneath it that made it feel harder than it really was. She couldn’t tell for certain.
Her fingers quivered slightly as she looked closely at them, the tapered nails, the smooth, unknotted joints. She could barely see the river-like veins that wrapped around the base of her thumb and her wrist.
As she continued staring at the familiar lines, creases and textures of her two hands, she noticed the skin gradually growing blotchy and non-uniform in color. After a few seconds of pondering, she realized that her emotions were building up to the point that they affected her physical body. Her heart was racing, her wrists were trembling, and she was unconsciously flexing her hands, making the blood congeal in some areas from the pressure.
Many different feelings were washing over her. Anger, fury, fear and disbelief. She had suspected Alhazred of being up to something, but marrying her was something she hadn’t anticipated at all. She was ready to ask Ulrica why this was happening, why this man who was old enough to be her father wanted to marry her, if he had been planning this for a long while, if anyone else in the castle knew it, if she was certain that this was true and not a rumor. It could be a rumor, there was no evidence that the vizier was intent on marrying the princess…
But wait…there was more than enough evidence. His sympathetic words, his frequent visits, his treating her like a daughter, his using the tradition of the mourning period to keep her safe from danger (if there was any to fear)…it all made sense now, but Cassima was still bewildered and mute with shock for several moments until she gathered enough breath for a response:
“Yes, Cassima,” said Ulrica sadly. “I knew that snake was plotting something, but I dared not guess what…”
“What date is he planning this marriage for?”
“I don’t know,” Ulrica whispered. “I’m still trying to tell myself it was only a rumor, but I can’t even think such a thing. We dogs have a natural instinct to expect the worst of anything.”
“Do any of the other dogs know about this?”
“Yes…maybe…I’m not certain…they’re all young of judgment, those guards…except for Saladin, and with you shut up in here, he is always faithful to the vizier, since Alhazred was very close to Caliphim before he and Allaria died. I can’t tell you what is truly going on, Cassima, please forgive me for not being able to.”
“Don’t ask for my apology, Ulrica,” Cassima said gently. “I owe far more apologies to you for risking being seen visiting me when no one is allowed to and half-breaking your body just to get here and back. I only wish we could talk without risking you getting caught. If only I could find out what Alhazred is really planning. He can’t be marrying me merely out of tradition, he used the same loophole to imprison me in my room…he wasn’t following the tradition because he felt it was proper…he did it just to keep me out of his schemes…if it’s something that requires him to do something as drastic as this, then there must be…”
As Cassima spoke, she suddenly stopped when Ulrica’s shaggy head slumped on her shoulder, the dog’s eyes closed and a purring snore coming from her nose.
“Ulrica?” Cassima asked, surprised that the nurse had dozed off in such a short time. “Are you all right?”
Ulrica jerked back up into a sitting position, blinking rapidly.
“Eh? Oh, I jus’ fine, Cassandra,” she slurred, her voice sounding strained and tired. “Jus’ haven’t had much sleep lately. Stayed up most of the night, hoping that there would be a time when you were awake and the guards and servants were all asleep. Wouldn’t recommend staying up all night, though…”
“Ulrica, you’re exhausted,” Cassima said. “You shouldn’t keep coming here if it deprives you of sleep as well as drain so much of your strength! You might get caught on the stairs somewhere and I’m sure the guards would start asking questions. I doubt if any of them have seen you outside your closet. But please understand that I’m not ungrateful for your telling me about Abdul’s plan to marry me. Perhaps I can find out more on my own. But for now, you had best leave here before the sun starts rising.”
“It won’t rise for another five hours at least, dear,” said Ulrica, turning her head towards the open window. “But if you insist, I shall leave. Goodnight, child.”
“Goodnight Ulrica,” Cassima said as the old animal limped across the room, opened the door and trudged out into the dark hallway and down the long path to the guardroom in the basement and her secluded closet where everyone but Cassima had never seen her elsewhere.
It was then that she remembered what Ulrica had just called her…”Cassandra?” Sure, it was just a distortion of her own name, but it was a name that Cassima had heard before, something that she wondered why Ulrica had called her that. She couldn’t recall where the name came from, partly because she was very tired, and partly because she had far more important things on her mind.
Her worst fears had proved themselves, as they always did, far worse than she had anticipated. Alhazred? Marrying her? She grew nauseous at the thought of it. She had no excuse not to do it now. Though her plans had only grown in her mind, she felt that she was now ready to transplant them into her history, her history that was still being written and of which she was the main author.
She was ready to attempt her escape.
It was a risk she was determined to take. With all that Ulrica had told her and even hinted to her was enough to make her throw common sense and caution away and try to find someone in the village, or even find a way off the island to find succor elsewhere in the archipelago. Despite all she had heard and experienced, the feuding between the isles and the hostility between the rulers of each, she had to do more than stagnate inside her room.
Not immediately, she decided. She was still awake and the night was nearly over. But she didn’t want to wait too long, else she would lose the determined state she was in and face many more weeks in isolation. She quickly made her plans and ran them through her mind several times before finally nodding off and sleeping through the remainder of the night.
She would save several pieces of food from her two meals, some bread from her breakfast and some meat from her supper, and pack them in a large napkin. She wouldn’t need much else if she was only aiming for the village, but a nagging impulse told her that she had to be a little prepared, at least. She would leave her room three hours after the last bell of the day, near the middle of the night, when the moon was high in the stars.
She would then sneak down the stairs, open the castle doors as quietly as she could and then make a dash towards the village. It was a flawed plan, a plan where anything could go wrong, but she couldn’t think that. She couldn’t think of anything but a successful escape from the home that had become her prison.
All during the following day she paced her room, anxiously going over her plan and trying to picture what she would do if the bookshop keeper didn’t believe her claim that Alhazred was plotting something, or if Hassan the ferryman didn’t think the princess could help him repair his craft. She would occasionally pore over her stash of bread, making sure that she had taken enough for her short journey. She didn’t want to be an unwelcome, irresponsible houseguest to any of the people she would run to, begging for food that she knew they had little of. She was determined to show them that she could take care of herself, but how Alhazred’s power was something she couldn’t overcome without assistance from the outside.
As evening approached, the same servant that had delivered Cassima her breakfast took her plate and placed a platter of beef stew inside her door. She carefully fished out some of the morsels with her spoon and tucked them inside the napkin she had taken from her first meal, alongside the bread. It probably wouldn’t be enough to last her several days outside the castle, but by the time she finished her food, she hoped to be friendly enough with the villagers that they willingly shared their meals with her.
After quickly eating the stew, she climbed into her bed, still fully clothed except for her shoes, covering as much of her body as possible so that Alhazred didn’t happen to “accidentally” look inside and ask her why she was sleeping that way. She didn’t have time to change her clothes, and she was naturally too excited to sleep. She nervously glanced around her room, watching the stars grow brighter outside her open window and watching the curtains ripple silently, the shadows cast by them oozing across the floor like waves on a calm sea.
After several endless hours, Cassima silently got out of her bed and listened carefully. There was no sound but her breath and the rustle of trees and bushes below. She cautiously moved across the floor, her bundle of food clutched tightly to her breast. She lifted the handle of her door pulled it gently towards her, careful not to make any sudden noises that could waken anyone who happened to be nearby. Then she quickly stepped outside and closed it again, then stopping all movement and listening intently, trying not to even breathe in her paranoid state. She could hear nothing but the soft hiss of her garments on her body as she turned her head from left to right and the thumping pulsation of her blood.
Deciding that the coast was clear, Cassima began walking down the corridor, which went past the vizier’s room and study. Even before she reached the door that led to the former, she could hear Alhazred’s drawn out, rattling snores that she used to hear when she was younger and sleepless in her room. She was sleepless now, but it wasn’t because of an outside distraction. She had a mission that she was determined to accomplish, an ambition of her own making. It wasn’t a planned scheme, not like Alhazred’s plan to marry her or her required tutoring to learn about how to rule a kingdom, it was her own task, and she alone would attempt it, win or lose.
She walked with trepidation, putting the ball of her foot down first, then cautiously setting her heel on the cold floor. It would have been easier and quieter if she had left her shoes behind, but she didn’t know what lay ahead for her. If it was rough rocks and splintered wood floors, she would be ready. If it wasn’t anything of the sort, she would still feel satisfied that she had planned for worse things.
Her breath was slow and deep, almost like a heavy sigh every time she inhaled. The atmosphere was so cold that she could see her exhalations as they formed transparent clouds of vapor, then dissolved into nothingness. What’s so amazing about a steam-hissing dragon when we humans can do the same thing when the weather’s right, Cassima thought to herself, smiling slightly at the humor. In spite of the thick walls of the castle, the cold from the night seeped into all the rooms and gripped her skin. She couldn’t remember a time when it had been as cold as it was that frigid midnight, as she tiptoed down the red carpet, which was jet black in the crypt of darkness that shrouded the land.
Just as she was starting to feel secure about herself and was about to place her foot on the top step of the left flight of stairs that led to the main floor, a sudden noise struck her heart and kicked it into a rapid, pounding rhythm. She turned around quickly, her breath springing into a series of quick, shallow gasps. She had nearly choked when she heard the sound, and was now struggling to not only catch her breath, but to keep the noise of it down, so that whoever or whatever made the sound wouldn’t hear her.
Before she had time to do either, however, she heard a loud poof behind her, and she turned her head just in time to see Shamir Shamazel grab her neck, his golden eyes glittering without any light source for them to reflect. Cassima couldn’t speak, her heart was caught in the way of her voice, making her as mute as she had been when Shamir had temporarily removed her speech on the night she was kidnapped.
Shamir smiled impishly, as if he could read her thoughts, and in the next second, they were standing in her room, beside her bed, the genie still gripping her throat tightly.
“Not nice to try and escape, princess,” he said softly. “Master won’t be happy, no, no.”
“Let me go, Shamir,” Cassima hissed. “You master is plotting something and my absence won’t interfere with his plan a bit!”
“Ah, but Master won’t like his bride running off,” Shamir sighed with fake sympathy. “I’d best get to him and tell him to make sure you don’t try such a thing again.”
Shamir suddenly touched Cassima’s forehead with his fingers, and her muscles suddenly grew slack. Her vision became blurred as she tried to break out of the genie’s hold, but her struggles were useless. In her last moment of consciousness, Shamir let her go and she fell forward, still wondering why she had allowed herself to be caught for endless seconds before landing on her bed, where she knew no more.
Thou hast no room for kindness, none at all
Though all young minds are free from hate and fear
Time always makes the hopes and dreamers fall
And no one lets an unknown stranger near
The gentle monarchs always seen as weak
Rarely understood by those they rule o’er
One whose trust is gone, no more heart to speak
Cannot comprehend the babe and his mother
Why she devotes her life to him alone
And why so many others do the same
These people, to hopelessness are so prone
Can they find but a drop of compassion?
The answer, which still has yet to appear
Is something not one soul can’t bear to hear
When Cassima awakened, her head was throbbing and she had a nebulous recollection of how she had come to be back in her room when she was certain she had been outside it the night before. Despite the pain in her skull, she struggled to think back to what had happened before she had passed out – or so she thought.
It gradually came trickling back into her river of memories: her escape. Shamir intercepting her. His admonishments and his intention to tell his master…Alhazred…
Cassima propped herself up on her elbow and noted with surprise her position on the bed. Then she remembered that that was how Shamir had let her fall. She shakily rose to her feet, wondering how the genie had done such a thing to her. Of course, he was an average, run-of-the-mill supernatural being, and his subduing her in that manner was probably a simple trick up his sleeve…not that he ever wore a shirt.
The princess walked carefully to her door and tried the handle. It wouldn’t budge. She tried again, to make sure it wasn’t stuck, and got the same result. As she shook the metal latch, she heard the rattle of what seemed to be a chain on the outside of the door. She realized what she was dreading more than anything at the moment: she was locked in.
She immediately began pounding on the door, not caring if Shamir appeared and told her to be quiet, not caring if she bruised her knuckles until they bled, she needed to tell someone about what was going on. As she beat mercilessly on the unyielding wood, she wondered what excuse Alhazred had given the rest of them for locking her door without her consent, and if anyone had doubted this man that was only royalty because of her father’s trust in him. Tears began streaming down her face as she continued hammering against the surface, screaming for someone to come.
Eventually, someone did come, and it was the person she expected the most and wanted the least.
“You are growing stressed, Cassima,” crooned Alhazred’s voice from the other side of the door. Cassima lowered her fists, panting heavily. “I am sorry for putting a lock on your door, but I did not want to go against your wishes, princess.”
After several seconds of blankness, she responded:
“My words? What do you mean, Abdul?”
“You told me on my last visit to your quarters that you were feeling vulnerable and exposed with all these people so close to your door, and able to turn the handle and burst in upon your privacy at any given time. And not only that, but your current unstable mental condition made it necessary to…”
“My unstable what?” Cassima snarled, beginning to bristle at the vizier’s voice.
“It may be some time yet before you get over this mad period of grief, princess,” said Alhazred. “I stated this before the castle staff, and they all agreed that they wanted what was best for you and them as well. So what else could I do but keep you in this manner?”
“You locked me up because you don’t want me escaping!” Cassima yelled, so loudly that a flock of birds in a tree outside her window took flight. “You don’t want your future bride-to-be intruding on your private schemes!”
“So you’ve heard,” Alhazred cooed. “It is the only way for us to restore order and create a stable future for the royal family, isn’t it? But in spite of your instability, I would advise against telling anyone else about it.”
Cassima fumed silently, infuriated at Alhazred, and wishing the door were open so she could hit him.
“I am leaving now, Cassima,” said the vizier in a lilting drawl. “Remember what I said.”
The vizier’s footsteps sounded outside the door, and gradually grew fainter until a door opened somewhere in the distance and he exited through it. With a roaring wail of defeat, Cassima backed away from the door and threw herself down on her bed, heaving in rage and sadness. How could this pitiful little man do such things to her and get away with it? Had he charmed the guards to only hear his words of concern and affection towards her and ignore all the details that he gave her of his nefarious scheme? And why couldn’t she do anything about it? She had almost escaped from an island surrounded by a deadly sea and battled a sea creature before, why couldn’t she get out of her own castle?
It wasn’t fair. Alhazred was nothing more than he had always been in the Isles: her father’s advisor. Now that her father was gone, what role did he have? Did he really think he was going to become king? What experience did he have? Cassima’s knowledge, however limited, was far more extensive than his, and he had no royal blood in him to make him even a distant second cousin.
But what could she do about that? Yell the facts to any guards that were standing near her door, obviously under Abdul’s orders? With him telling everyone who had ears that Cassima was in an “unstable condition,” who would believe her? The only two she knew would probably listen to her for more than a minute were the court clown and the old nurse. And what were the odds of them speaking to her now, with guards everywhere and a heavy lock on her door that Alhazred probably had the only key to?
Cassima rose from her bed, walked over to her door and tried the handle again. It was as rigid as it had been a few minutes before, and all she got for her efforts was a small rattle of chains on the other side. Sighing deeply, the princess turned and walked to a small red couch that sat beside her bed, which she slumped down upon and stared silently at the closed door as tears silently flowed from her eyes.
We change my skin and inner psyche
Every day we breathe
The question is, what changes us?
Is it all within our minds?
Cassima’s sudden imprisonment hurt her far more dramatically than her previous sentence, which was only keeping her in her room and prohibiting any visitors besides Alhazred. It later struck her as strange that a few pounds of chain and a heavy lock were all it took to make her so upset and devoid of hope.
She wondered how the servants would deliver her food to her, now that there was no direct way into her quarters, but her question was answered that evening, when Shamir Shamazel materialized into her room with a tray of fish and fried coconut slices, then disappeared, leaving the tray on the floor. Early the next morning, the genie appeared again with a bowl of porridge, then set it down, picked up the empty tray and vanished with an impish grin at Cassima, who was still lying in her bed listlessly.
During the days and nights that she didn’t spend crying and feeling mournful, both for her parents and her kingdom, she attempted to scrawl out what she thought were feeble poems, pale imitations of the beautiful sonnets and ballads that she had read in her books.
She could never tell for sure what provoked her to write them besides her grief and her need to channel her emotions. Perhaps it was the memory of Alexander and the happiness and pride she felt when his father told his family that Cassima saved his life. But when she reread the lines she had written, she could always see the pleas for help that cried out from the paper, a telekinetic message from the author that pulled at the mind of the reader and asked for succor from the confines of the writer’s prison.
One such poem was this:
She sleeps within a nest of gold
Belaced with silk within
She’s safe from rain and aching cold
But parted from her kin
And in the cutting, pulsing silence
No one sees the inner violence
Unspoken screams are unsuppressed
The heart still in her shattered chest
Cassima’s sadness felt even greater as she read it, her tears splattered the damp ink and made it congeal into swirling, black pools. Perhaps it was good that she had gotten the feelings out of her before they ate her away, but at the moment, she could not feel any relief or gladness that she had written the two verses.
When she was younger and just learning how to write poetry, she would show her finished works to her parents, who would read them and praise her work and ask what inspired her to write them. But now there was no one to show them to, no one who would understand what she was feeling and pouring onto paper for others to interpret.
She would sometimes awaken from a nightmare in the middle of the night, shaking and perspiring and write down her thoughts as quickly as the process of fetching a pen and dipping it into a flask of ink would allow.
As the weeks dragged on, her poems became more frequent during the night, when her mind was the most active and alert, since she had no desire to sleep and wake up early the next day. What was worth looking forward to now?
Sometimes she became inspired during the day and couldn’t think of what to put into words, so instead she shaped her thoughts into pictures. She had a small set of oil paints that her parents had given to her many years ago, when trade was still common in the Isles and she was old enough to value such precious materials.
Though Cassima was indeed a potentially great artist, it had been many years since she had last painted, but now, with nothing better to do, she pulled the old bottles of pigment out of one of her cabinets and began practicing on a sheet of parchment. Painting was indeed much freer than writing. There were no letters that required an exact form, there were no invisible lines that she was forced to write along. The flexibility of the horsehair brush that she held loosely in her hand gave her a sense of freedom that she hadn’t felt in all the time that she had been imprisoned.
Before she had received the oils, she had been allowed to draw with charcoal, which was easy to obtain and perfect for a beginning artist. However, there were no pieces left in her room, the last stub scribbled into nothing with one of her last sketches of her parents’ faces…or was it the picture of the sunset? It was too difficult to remember now.
Cassima wondered why she hadn’t thought of using oils to capture that sunset that she had seen so many weeks or possibly months before. Perhaps it was the shock of the more recent news of her parents’ departure and her sudden confinement, or perhaps it was her lack of familiarity with her room. She couldn’t tell for certain, but at least she hadn’t forgotten entirely.
After she had assembled the many different colored paints one warm day, she pondered over what she could paint. She couldn’t persuade herself to paint a still life of anything in her room, they only reminded her of her captivity and of Alhazred. She could paint a likeness of Sing-Sing, but she always felt sad whenever she saw the little bird fly to her window or fly off to unknown places on other islands, places that Cassima would probably never see again.
Then she had an idea. She would paint Alexander, the young man that was probably the first that had touched her in a way that made her fear forgetting him. She would try to shape his features as she remembered him, creating him as words would never be able to. That way she wouldn’t have to worry about forgetting him. Even though looking at the finished picture would make her sad, it would at the same time bring her relief that she at least had a two-dimensional reminder of the prince to keep with her.
After determining where she would put the image on the paper that lay before her, she carefully began outlining what would be Alexander’s face. Delicate, yet firm jawbones, unblemished, fair skin. She mixed peach with white several times until she produced the perfect color for the skin and began filling in the large, light areas with swirling movements of her brush as she worked.
Then she dipped her brush in the bottle that was labeled “black” and began painting in the smooth, dark hair, the same color as hers, but shorter and straighter. After finishing, she rinsed out her brush in a pitcher of water that Shamir had delivered to her earlier in the week, meant for her bathwater, she determined. She then added a white highlight to the prince’s pate, a subtle lightness, but definite enough to make the hair appear real.
She then proceeded to paint darker areas to the face and neck, adding the spiraling crevices and folds to the ears, carefully painting the line that was the mouth, and the dark shadows under the eyebrows.
For two soundings from the great gong rung by a servant every hour, Cassima worked on the painting, perfecting every flaw and mistake she spotted, little by little creating a lifelike image that rose from the paper and seemed to look directly into her eyes. Darkness was starting to move in, and the first stars began burning in the sky.
She was finally near completion, putting the final touches on Alexander’s eyes. She was trying to remember what they looked like, what kind of blue they most resembled, and how she could recreate that shade. Cassima could only compare them to the eyes of her father, who she could hardly remember herself. The time she had last seen him was farther in the past than her encounter with Alexander had been. She strained to come up with a metaphor of how blue the prince’s eyes were, how similar they were to another far greater blue that already existed.
She struggled to shape the perfect blue that she was thinking of, but eventually she mixed blue and white together and came up with what she was aiming for without even realizing it. It was halfway between seawater and sea foam, a light color with a hint of gray mixed in with it. It was the blue of a sky after a fierce storm. It was also the blue of a person that had changed her somehow. Exactly how she couldn’t say, but all she knew now was that her painting was nearly complete. She colored in the blue circles, then painted in the black pupils.
Cassima stepped back and looked at her finished work. It wasn’t a large painting at all, though it appeared large when she was working on it, bent over like a hunchback in her concentrated state. The oils were still wet, and would remain that way for at least three days, so she had learned the hard way in the past, when she picked up a painting that she presumed was dry and ended up smearing it so badly that she had to start over.
There were several errors that someone other than her would overlook, but nearly all flaws in a work of art were visible only to the one who created it. Her painting was no exception. Some of the features of the face were too large or deformed in one way or another, one eye seemed to be looking in a different direction than its brother, but even Cassima had to admit that it was a beautiful masterpiece. She wished that there was someone besides herself that could observe it, but the only creature that entered her room at all was Shamir, and he had no more interest in oil paintings than Alhazred had an interest in letting the princess out of her quarters.
But it didn’t seem to matter now. If the stories about the dead she remembered were true, Cassima’s parents could have been by her side at that very moment, looking at their daughter’s work that still flourished without their encouragement and praise. Of course, perhaps she was just as invisible to them as they were to her, if indeed life did exist after death.
It was only a myth that had twisted itself through time, but Cassima wanted to believe it more than ever. She wanted her parents to see what trouble she was in. She wanted them to see this image of the only man she felt an ache in her soul for, she wanted them to somehow guide him to her homeland that she had granted permission for him to visit.
Cassima washed her hands in the pitcher of water and gazed out her open window at the stars. Were her parents up there with all the other souls of the dead, watching her and yearning to be with her again, just as she was? Was Alexander somewhere in the land of Daventry, watching the same night sky, thinking of her? Or was he thinking of her at all?
She slowly walked across the moon-swept floor to her window and stared out at the night, her chin on her elbows as tears began creeping out of the corners of her eyes. Everything seemed to be falling apart around her. She had never felt such isolation from the world and her friends, and this man who she had only met once before...but was somehow different...And what can I do about it?
Her trembling lips slowly parted.
“Alexander…I feel so alone…I don’t know what to do…Alexander, I wish you were here…Alexander…”
A small gust of wind ruffled her hair and a strange pulsation seemed to pass through the air. For a moment, her eyes felt as clear and unclouded as an eagle’s, then it passed, and she was standing at her window, looking out at the stars.
I am everything that can be
In the space of but one minute.
When open, I am the wild sea
And all the life within it
When closed, I am a lifeless stone
With nothing in or out
A creature that has never known
A life that has no doubt
When fierce, I am the wild beast
Things free and untamed
An ancient spirit now released
And I, the fury, can’t be named
“Little Rose…Little Rose, open up for me…”
The voice was coming from outside her door, hoarse but distinct, urgent yet patient.
“Little Rose…please spread your petals and let me see you…”
Cassima opened her eyes and listened to the strange, scratchy noise. It was unfamiliar to her, but as she listened, she realized that it was a voice that she knew, but well disguised by its owner.
“Please, my Little Rose…”
Cassima cautiously got out of her bed and tiptoed to her door and placed her ear against the wood.
“Are you there, Little Rose?”
“Yes, Ulrica, I am,” whispered Cassima. “But why do you call me that?”
“You don’t remember?” the old dog asked, her voice still muffled by the heavy door.
“No, I don’t,” said Cassima, kneeling down so that her voice was nearer to the opening between the door and the floor.
“It was the name that I and your dear mother called you when you were but an infant,” Ulrica sighed, the nostalgia of the memory making her sound light and airy like a being in a trance. “Little Cassima…Little Rose...I didn’t want Alhazred or anyone nearby to hear me calling you by name…they might discover me…like what happened to Jollo…”
“Why have you come?” Cassima asked. “What is going on in the castle? Is Jollo well?”
“As Alhazred grows more and more protective of you, so my strength grows greater and greater with my instinct to make sure you are all right. Cassima, Jollo tried to visit you a few days ago, but he was stopped by Gruff and Bay. He made a few excuses and managed to lie his way out of the predicament, but the guards have grown suspicious of him, and the he only leaves his room if Alhazred orders him to now.”
“What about you?” Cassima queried, feeling uneasy that her friend had nearly been thrown into a bout of serious trouble because of her imprisonment. “Are you not concerned about the guards catching you as well?”
“You forget, I am not a human,” Ulrica explained. “I am a dog, just like the rest of them. I am sure that the reason they caught Jollo was because they smelled him. A guard dog does not prick up his ears when he senses the presence of another of his kind, male or female.”
“I see,” Cassima said softly.
“And what about you? What have you been doing since that great boar put these ghastly chains on your door?” Ulrica growled, rattling the metal links slightly to assert her anger.
“Not much. I have been talking with Sing-Sing and writing poetry and painting a little.”
“As taxing as this situation is,” Ulrica said, “I would like to see what you have created, Cassima. I always looked at it when you were ten. There is no reason I shouldn’t look at it now, when you are a few months from your second decade.”
Cassima smiled and quietly walked across the room to her bedside table, where rested several newly written poems she had created earlier that evening, as well as the painting of Prince Alexander that she had completed several nights before. The most recent poem was impossible to read in the darkness, but she could still remember the lines she had inscribed on the parchment:
Can a bird that never flew know of the sky?
Can a fish within a pond know of the sea?
Can a human who has never died know paradise,
And can all there is to know be inside me?
I never felt this sense of true believing
That this man I glimpsed but once was meant for me
Yet now I am enclosed within this gilded cage
And hoping help will come to set me free.
She gathered up the painting, which was now dry, and several of the poems. Then she moved back to the door and slid the papers under it.
“Oh,” she gasped in surprise. “I forgot that there aren’t any lamps burning outside my room, Ulrica…”
“That’s fine, child,” said Ulrica calmly. “We can see in the dark, and the moon is large and round tonight.”
For several minutes the dog filed through the papers that Cassima had given to her, occasionally making a grunt of approval or a pensive “hmm” as she read. Finally, she spoke:
“These are very beautiful works, Cassima. I may not be as literate as most of the servants here, but I can tell that you are feeling terrible.”
“Of course. You were crying when you wrote this one,” Ulrica said, pushing one of the poems back under the door. “And I can see that you are crying out for freedom from your prison.”
“Yes. That’s right.”
“And this one,” Ulrica continued, pushing Cassima’s most recent poem towards her. “You must be thinking about that young man that you told me about a month or so ago. Perhaps I should have thought twice before being so humoring towards you. You truly feel affection for this man, especially to do something as masterly as this,” she said, pushing the princess’s painting under the door.
“You like the painting?” Cassima asked.
“Do I?” Ulrica said. “It’s the most beautiful work of art I’ve seen come from you! It is so real, and without a single model to pose for you…”
“Thank you. I don’t think it’s that good, though.”
“Nonsense! I’m sure some of the creators of the old paintings in this castle would feel jealous if they were alive to see this!”
“His nose is too large,” Cassima said.
“So, what’s the use of punishing yourself over an oversized nose?” Ulrica said, almost laughing. “I think that it’s quite small, especially from the point of view of someone with a nose that’s about as large as your fist, Cassima!”
“Not so loud, Ulrica. Someone might hear you.”
“Quite right, princess, quite right.”
“So anyway,” Cassima said, trying to pick up on where their conversation had left off, “You say that I must truly love Alexander, even if I’ve only met him once? How can that be? I thought that two people had to know each other for months, perhaps even years before they knew they were really in love! How can one encounter with a complete stranger be enough to determine my feelings towards this prince?”
“One question at a time, Cassima,” Ulrica said. “Perhaps my hunch is just a guess. Perhaps there may be but a grain of truth in my claim. But I have this much to say to you:
“Love is different for everyone, Cassima. It can make people do things a mad person wouldn’t do, it can change the way you see the world, it can turn a beast into a kitten, it can turn a lamb into a lion. But you will know when you are feeling it, Cassima. You will know.”
For several moments, there was complete silence on both sides of the door and the conversation, but finally it was broken by the sound of the old nurse rising to her feet with a drawn-out groan and a grunt of relief.
“I’d best be leaving now, my little Rose,” she said. “Don’t let that man beat you down, my child. Be strong and unbreakable, like you always have been to me. Good-bye, then, Cassima.”
“Good-bye, Ulrica,” the princess whispered.
All who climb the Ladder of Ambition
Wish to know what hovers near the top
And the many that descend it very slowly
Are torn between triumph and sadness
For what the found there wasn’t what they sought
Such endless days and nights, such secrets kept locked away from her, such power that now controlled her, Princess of the Land of the Green Isles, imprisoned inside her own room in the east tower, while the vizier schemed away in his own room, allowed to come and go as he pleased! Separated from all her friends, saddled with the grief of her parents’ deaths, with all the guards of the castle now assigned the task of “guarding” her from any danger that might come!
Such ironic events. Such anger. Such sadness. Cassima was sometimes too depressed to rise from her bed, even when Shamir appeared and prodded her with his finger and sang mocking rhymes to her to make her rise.
Sometimes it got to be too much for the princess and she resorted to banging on her door and screaming to be let out. But no one ever came, not even Alhazred or Shamir. She would always pound on the hard wood until her fists throbbed and her strength had been exhausted.
Even though a part of her knew that this was just what the vizier wanted, for her to use up all her strength and become docile enough to do whatever he wished, she could never restrain herself from those occasional outbursts of rage, which always began in the same way (her flying at the door and beating on it as if trying to break it down) and ended in the same way (her sinking down to the ground and crying in frustration and pain).
Abdul seldom came to her door now, perhaps he had discovered that her isolation was the one thing that would break her down eventually, and that was probably the reason that none of the guards ever spoke to her through her door.
So much pain and separation. So many frustrated outbursts to deaf ears. So many pointless periods of alertness and so many sleepless nights.
It was during one of these nights, as Cassima lay, twisting her body and straining to find a comfortable position, that she overheard a conversation so strange and so vague that she assumed it was a dream, but months later she thought differently.
The moon was no more than a sliver outside her window, and the sun had yet to rise, although the first gong of the day was close to sounding. Cassima stared at the ceiling, trying to find a good reason not to lay awake during the last few minutes of the night when she heard a familiar, lilting voice coming from outside her room.
“My dear, you know you shouldn’t be up at this hour.”
It was Alhazred. Before the princess could wonder why he would be up at such an early hour, she heard another voice that she couldn’t place, yet it sounded so familiar to her ears that she couldn’t believe what she was hearing.
“I am sorry, Abdul. I couldn’t sleep. I have such terrible dreams. I need you to calm them for me.”
“I’m afraid we can’t risk that, my jewel,” replied Alhazred. “You must be kept safe. You don’t want to violate the custom, do you?”
“Of course not,” said the voice, the peculiar flatness of its tone making Cassima wonder who the voice came from.
“Then come with me. I will take you back. Rowlf?”
A sleepy grunt came from somewhere further down the hallway, indicating the presence of a guard dog.
“Please leave me and the lady alone while I escort her to her room. I’m sure she would appreciate some privacy as much as I would.”
“Yes sir,” grumbled Rowlf. His heavy boots began clunking down the hallway and the west staircase. Cassima’s insomnia began to finally ebb and she fell into a restless sleep. When she awakened, she remembered very little of the previous night’s conversation. This was unfortunate for her, because in the months that followed, a similar conversation between the vizier and the strange voice would occur at least once every week, either early in the morning or near the waning of the night.
What little she did remember of the events remained in her unconscious. Sometimes she would dream about what might have happened between the two individuals if she could see them, but naturally the images were twisted around and distorted, and discarded as most of her dreams usually were. Still, she could never entirely forge those strange nighttime happenings…whatever they really were.
Alhazred, meanwhile, was growing tense with both excitement and anxiety. He would frequently ask Shamir how Cassima was faring, as well as if she was eating all that Shamir brought her, sleeping well and not trying to kill herself.
The vizier’s plans seemed to be going exceedingly well. The princess was safely tucked away, he had convinced the guards that she was mentally unstable and should not be disturbed, even when she threw such fits as the ones he had been hearing from his room lately. Even Saladin trusted him just as he had trusted Caliphim. And with Alhazred the only person left to trust with Cassima’s condition, why shouldn’t that dog trust him?
The longer Alhazred lived among the guards, the more he realized that the creatures were more like ordinary dogs than half-human, half-dog species, as everyone else in the castle repeatedly claimed. Appearances are always misleading, Abdul decided. Especially with dumb mutts such as those.
But he had no time for gloating over his luck. He knew all too well that it was as fleeting as a raindrop falling from the heavens. He had to contact his most trusted correspondent and see if he agreed with the vizier’s plan.
It was night, the time that Alhazred felt the most protected from prying eyes, especially the beady black eyes of the guards. It had been nearly a month since he had wound the sturdy chains around the handle of Cassima’s door, and except for occasional shouts and pounding on the door from the girl, he had encountered no problems.
During the day, he summoned Jollo from his room in the basement to entertain him. As simple as the clown’s sleight-of-hand tricks were, they provided him with adequate entertainment and humor to keep his mind off the taxing thoughts that clouded his head.
These thoughts were growing stronger than ever now, as the vizier paced his room, talking to himself.
“Of course I should write to Shadrack, but who else? Should I write to that young sorceress, Nuathla? Surely she has had enough experience in revenge to give me good enough advice…but like Shadrack said, she is young and foolish…hmmm…Perhaps that mage Kirato? He has had experience as well, and he has a larger ratio of brains to muscle…not unlike me…perhaps it is best that I write only to Shadrack after all. It may take some time, but I have plenty of it. I’ve got all the facts in my mind. If that letter doesn’t reach him, then at least I can create another one easily enough.”
The vizier opened his door and stepped out into the corridor. He quickly closed and locked the door behind him, a routine that he had been practicing frequently since Shamir informed him of the princess’s failed escape. Three wide strides across the hallway and he had reached the locked door to his study. Key in the lock, turn, click, withdraw, pull handle. The door opened and Abdul stepped inside.
After relocking the door behind him, he stepped over to his desk in a flurry of robes and garments and unlocked the middle, topmost drawer from yet another key from the metal ring he now carried with him. He then opened the drawer, lit the lamp on the desk and adjusted the glow so that only a faint light radiated from it, and retrieved the most recent letter from the drawer.
Appalling news from my kingdom, I am afraid. I followed your advice on delivering the girl Cassima to Brother Mordack. During her absence, I dealt with the royal couple in accordance to your ideas as well. However, after but a few months, the most impossible of events occurred. As I told you in my previous letter, Cassima returned alive and well, announcing that the great wizard is dead. At first I thought this was just a ploy of her own invention, but I sent Shamir to his island several times and he reported that there was no sign of Mordack.
There are rumors that Cassima herself defeated the wizard, even though she claimed that a foreign king did the deed. Some of the villagers are concerned that this creature might be the ghost of the princess, returned from the Land of the Dead, but this is a typical product of those superstitious people.
My first response to the princess’s return was to put her in a place that would keep her out of my private affairs. The tradition of a mourning period after the death of one or more close relatives was the perfect match. She has remained quiet so far, but I am concerned that her stubborn demeanor might cause some problems yet.
The letter ceased here, where Alhazred had stopped writing, on the night after he had informed Cassima that she had to stay in her room. Now numerous happenings had taken place, and Alhazred was ready to add more to the letter. Perhaps it was the fact that Shadrack had such an unreliable, slow crow that delivered letters from his home, and he himself would probably take a very long time merely thinking of what to write in response to the vizier’s letter.
Nevertheless, Alhazred had a feeling that he didn’t have much time left and now was an ideal time to get all the recent events that had occurred down on paper. He dipped his pen in a bottle of ink and began writing:
Alas, my fears have been realized. Cassima attempted escape through the castle, but my faithful Shamir caught her before she could reach the main doors. Now I have placed a heavy lock and numerous chains on her door (an action that I should have done the moment I ordered her into that room), and she, in response to this, has become as wild as a caged beast, and frequently makes me concerned about the guards’ feelings towards her.
I am afraid she has received the news of my plans to wed her, though I am not certain how. As soon as conditions are favorable, I will marry her, but afterwards, I am doubtful about what exactly to do to her. Several of your previous letters suggested killing her, but I am not certain if I should do that. As irritating as the princess is, it would be a daring move to kill her and make it seem as if her death was an accident. Please tell me what your thoughts are on these matters and any others that I haven’t mentioned.
Alhazred paused for a moment, the dipped his pen in the ink and smirked in satisfaction as he wrote the last three words:
Ulrica came to her door yet again on a dark, moonless night, at least three weeks after her last visit. Cassima knelt down by her door again and began the usual drill of asking as many questions as she could while they were still on the surface. She told the old dog about the conversations she had heard between Alhazred and the strange voice outside her room, and to her surprise, Ulrica growled slightly, not very loudly, but loud enough for Cassima to hear it from her side of the door.
“Ulrica, what is it?”
“Child, I have heard conversations like those from my corner as well! I am certain that man is plotting something, and whatever it is, he wants the guards to think that he has nothing to hide.”
“I can never remember who owns that other voice,” Cassima explained. “Could you tell who it was?”
“As sharp as my old ears still are, I can’t,” muttered Ulrica. “I’d think that the guards would tell me what their true feelings about your imprisonment are, but they follow that vizier’s word like a mouse following a piece of cheese.”
“Perhaps if you asked Saladin…”
“My dear, I have this much to say to you about Saladin: he is loyal to the crown no matter what, even if it means going against his own morals and ethical issues. With you imprisoned, the only thing he can do to remain in his current position is obey Alhazred’s orders and support him in every way possible. There’s nothing in my abilities that I can do to make him tell me what he truly thinks of Abdul.”
“Goodness, Ulrica, I never realized that Captain Saladin was that faithful to the Crown. What on earth compelled him to be so dedicated to our family?”
The old dog said nothing for a minute. Cassima had the feeling that she was on the verge of revealing something dark and hidden, something that she had been holding secret for years. Just as Cassima was beginning to suspect that the dog had either left her door or decided to change the subject entirely, Ulrica softly whispered:
“I believe it had something to do with his sister.”
Cassima blinked her eyes and lay confused for a short moment.
“His sister? Saladin has a sister?”
“More likely he had a sister, Cassima. It’s a long story and I don’t think I should tell you…One can trust so few people nowadays with Alhazred and his genie spying on everyone…”
“I swear on my parents’ graves that I will never tell another soul, Ulrica,” Cassima urged. “And if, by chance, anyone catches us, I will tell them that you were just telling me a fairy tale. Please tell me. I want to know.”
“Very well,” replied Ulrica, taking in a deep breath of air. “I will tell you.”
“It was many years ago, when Saladin was a younger dog, barely out of his adolescence. Your parents, Caliphim and Allaria, were just married and had began setting the up the new laws of the Isles, as is the tradition with new rulers.
“One of the propositions that your father made was to employ a stricter mode of security against any foes that tried to invade the castle. Back then, you see, there were only human servants within the castle walls, and the guard dogs had yet to be employed by Caliphim.”
“Where did the dogs come from?” asked Cassima. “I don’t recall seeing any on this or any of the other three islands.”
“That is because the dogs didn’t come from any of the three islands inhabited by humans,” said Ulrica. “The didn’t even come from the fabled fifth island always shrouded in mists. No, the island that all the guard dogs, including myself, originated from a sixth island inhabited only by animals and visible only to those who are brave and wise enough to set foot or paw upon its sands. Do you recall the tales of the last sorcerer of the Green Isles, who was told to have poofed himself into an aardvark?”
“Well, another variation of that tale says that he simply vanished into thin air, but I think both of those tales tell the truth of what happened to that poor fellow. First he transfigured himself into an animal, then he was able to see the island with the untainted eyes of a beast, and it would probably be a simple matter of swimming to get him there, where no humans would be able to tease and taunt him…”
“Excuse me for interrupting, Ulrica,” said Cassima, “But could you tell me more about this sister you’re saying Saladin had?”
“Ah yes,” said Ulrica. “She was wilder than the sea during a hurricane, and just as fierce and untamed as her pure canine side was. It was said that she and Saladin were the first of the race of guard dogs, and thus were not as equally divided. Saladin was more human and bound by morals than beast, and his sister was more wild and beastly than human.”
“What was her name?” Cassima asked in curiosity.
“I am not certain what her true name is or was, but the name that everyone called her by was Suhad. The sleepless one, ever searching for a weak spot to attack.”
“Why was she called by that name?”
“Suhad felt that your father’s proposition was an insult to her unruly ancestors. The king’s word reached the island by birds that overheard the news or read the printed proclamations on walls. You see, the animals of that island were not stupid beasts at all. They were very intelligent, and capable of speaking the human language and reading human writing, even writing themselves if they are taught.
So many of the dogs on the island were interested in becoming workers for the king. Perhaps they wanted to become human and not be looked down upon by any humans that happened to land on their isle. But Suhad didn’t. She refused to become civilized, and even though she had no one that would support her, she planned to launch an attack on the Castle of the Crown.”
“By the Fates!” Cassima gasped.
“The exact words of your mother when she heard the news, Little Rose. Saladin and the many young guards that had arrived at the castle by that time were alarmed that one of their race would think differently when given the opportunity to become like the humans that ruled the Isles. But Caliphim and his wife weren’t about to surrender their new guardians to this ragged, wild creature. The guards were quickly told what their tasks would be, and were fitted with armor and weapons and given quick lessons on how to tell friend from foe, and at that moment, the only enemy they were told to look out for was Suhad.
“Saladin was greatly alarmed by all this, and he was torn between his sibling’s side and the Crown’s side. But eventually, he took your parents’ side and stood ready to go into combat against his own sister.”
“It was. Very awful, indeed. I am thankful every day I breathe that you weren’t born during that terrible time.”
“He didn’t…Saladin…well, he didn’t…”
“No,” said Ulrica promptly. “He didn’t kill Suhad, but he could have with one move of his sword. I was there when she came running up the beach, running on all fours, this great, muscular creature with the face of a collie, with nothing on her but her own coat of fur, snarling and screaming with rage, bolting up the road, her claws digging out chunks of earth as she ran.
“The many new guards of the castle were standing at the gates, with the few that were afraid to face Suhad guarding the windows and other places that she could possibly climb up.
“As you can imagine, the dogs were inexperienced with their weapons, and many turned and fled, possibly to the sea where they swam back to the sixth isle (which was how I believe Suhad arrived on the Isle of the Crown). The king and queen were so worried that they were just about ready to fight the intruder themselves – yes, your mother, your own dear, innocent mother ready to unsheathe a sword and spill blood to save her kingdom – but then Saladin stepped forward…and oh, it was a scene which my rusty memory will never forget.
“The great, young, heavily armored Saladin, his jaws clenched, wearing heavy leather boots and gloves, his right paw on the hilt of his glittering sword, and disgraceful, wild, bare Suhad, down on all fours, pawing the dirt, panting and salivating like she was going mad, her eyes rolling in her skull as she looked at the noble, nearly human creature that was her brother…”
Ulrica paused again, the emotions she obviously felt during that event slowly trickling back and resurfacing in her mind. Cassima felt swollen with compassion at the old dog’s words. Saladin? The iron-hearted captain of the guards faced with killing his own sister? It seemed too impossible to be true, but yet…
“The fight was very brief, Cassima. Suhad simply flew at Saladin and tried to tear his ear off and get his guard down, but he easily threw her off with his elbow and hit her on the snout with the handle of his sword when she charged him again. Still, she kept on attacking him, as the semicircle of guards behind Saladin crept farther and farther away from Suhad, but Saladin never backed away. He stood his ground, the pain showing in his face as he kicked his savage of a sister away with his boot, struck her with a clenched fist and once I think he even bit her when she tried to bite him.
“Finally, it all stopped. Suhad was crouched and ready to spring again, but she never did. Instead she turned and limped away from the Castle of the Crown, her raspy breath audible even from my place behind the thick wall of guards. She kept going until she reached the crest of the hill near the large oak tree, where the path forks. There she turned around and looked back at us (though I’m certain it was Saladin who felt her gaze the most). Then she kept on walking until she was out of sight.
“The guards naturally were overjoyed with their victory, and everyone was congratulating Saladin and saying how brave he was, and then Caliphim and Allaria came out through the castle doors, and right there, right in front of all the guards, he gave Saladin the position of Captain of the Guards.
“After that, he gave each of the lesser dogs a station in the castle, and I’m quite certain that I was the last to be assigned a duty, and Caliphim was naturally a little confused about what to do with me, but dear Allaria suggested that I could be a nurse and a nanny to their child, if by chance, they ever had one. I wasn’t nearly as young and spry as Saladin was that day, in fact, I am certain that all the guards were at least two decades younger…”
“Excuse me again, Ulrica, but I don’t understand how this all could have happened so long ago. I thought dogs only lived about ten years before…”
“Again, Cassima, I must remind you that we are not typical, run-of-the-mill dogs. We live just about as long as humans do. Saladin is probably in his late thirties by now, and most of the guards are about ten years below him. That is why I suspect that even if Suhad had escaped attack from the village that was more than close enough to see her and finish her off, she would probably have died of old age years ago. She was at least five years older than Saladin, didn’t I tell you that? Or perhaps they were from the same litter…it’s so hard to remember now…
“But one thing is for certain, Cassima: no guard dog or human has seen that island since. We have neither smelled the smell of our fellow beasts or heard their call. It may have sunk into the sea, like many things are said to do after great defeats, or it may have drifted off and become part of another archipelago. But this land is a strange one, child, and if you glimpse a sixth island in your lifetime, you may well consider yourself a special being indeed.”
“So,” said Cassima quietly, “That is the reason Saladin is so loyal to the Crown? Because of his own sister he obeyed my parents…and now obeys Alhazred?”
“It is the only reason I can see with my failing eyes,” muttered Ulrica.
“And you don’t think Saladin actually trusts Alhazred, do you?”
“That deceitful male? I think not,” Ulrica said with a sudden edge in her voice. “Even if he does, it is obviously out of respect to your parents and the Crown. I’m sure that it is pride that makes him unable to say a single bad word about Alhazred, no matter how evil he may actually be.”
“You don’t trust him,” Cassima pointed out. “And you are around the guards much more than I am. Why don’t you tell them about Suhad and Saladin? Surely they would understand…”
“I’m certain that many of the guards erased that terrible memory form their brains, intentionally or not. All they know now is that Saladin rules over them, and the Crown rules over Saladin. They cannot oppose either, no matter what their morals tell them.”
“But what about you, Ulrica?” Cassima asked, sliding her hand under the door in hopes that Ulrica would touch it. “Don’t mention the guards. Just talk about you. You are certainly wiser than most of the guards and careful enough to have lived this long. I’m sure you’re even more morally strong than Saladin is. I’ve told you that I am not what Alhazred tells everyone that I am, in words and in writing.
“I want to be let out of this place. I don’t want to be imprisoned like I was on Mordack’s Island. I want to know what Alhazred is up to. I am the heir to the throne and it’s my right to know. I also don’t want to marry him, even if it was my parents’ wish, which I truly doubt. Please, Ulrica. Why can’t you speak up to your fellow dogs and tell them what I feel?”
Ulrica’s leathery paw touched Cassima’s hand gently. “My poor Little Rose,” she said. “If you were in my body for even an hour, you would understand why I can’t do anything to help you. I am so old that I sometimes doubt if what I say if the truth. All the guards know that, and they have a tendency to not believe me, even if I swear its authenticity.
“But you are kind and compassionate. You know that in spite of my scatterbrained ways, I am truly wise underneath. I have memories of great events that have probably been marked down in a book of records that may one day be a part of history. I am probably just as intelligent and knowledgeable of information as three average humans my age, but there is a price for this. No one believes me anymore. I can’t convince people that I am speaking the truth. Whatever is on my mind comes out as rubbish. The few that do believe me, such as you, are either too young or too shut off from the rest of the world to spread my knowledge. What I have, Cassima, is a blessing and a curse.”
“A blessing and a curse, Cassima. I have knowledge but I cannot put it in words. A powerful horse without legs. A nail without a head. A book without pages.”
“Forgive me for saying this Ulrica, but I would think that what you have would have to be one or the other. I don’t see how being wise and unable to express it is both a blessing and a curse. If I were like you and not able to speak my knowledge, I’d think of that as just a curse, not a curse and a blessing. How can such a thing exist?”
“”They can, Cassima. They can. I hope we haven’t been overheard, girl…”
“I’m sure we haven’t Ulrica…” began Cassima, but suddenly the weight of the heavy paw on her hand vanished and a brief scuffling outside her door made her prick up her ears and listen intently.
“Ulrica?” she whispered cautiously. “Are you there?”
For a moment, she heard nothing, but then she heard a door open and a sound of sandals on a carpeted floor. Then a low grunt confirmed that it was Alhazred. She heard him mutter something about guard dogs, then his sandals flopped back across the hall, followed by the opening, closing, and locking of a door.
War before peace,
Weakness before strength,
Slavery before ruling,
Hate before love.
Cassima’s frequent fits of rage and pounding on her door had ceased entirely after Ulrica’s story about Saladin and Suhad. Part of her wondered if such a thing had actually happened, and she yearned to ask whoever would listen, but she remembered her oath to Ulrica, the oath that she would never tell another person about Suhad, so she kept quiet, in spite of the deafening shouts coming from inside her.
She remembered what Ulrica had unintentionally called her that time several weeks before: Cassandra. Not only was it a contortion of her own name, but Cassima now remembered where she had heard it before. Cassandra was a prophetess that refused the love of the god Apollo and was consequently cursed with the fate of her predictions never being believed by anyone.
How much it reminded Cassima of her present predicament. She told Ulrica and Jollo, the only two people she could truly talk to about what she felt was going on, but they were powerless to help her or tell anyone else about what she believed. It was no different than telling them the same thing and their putting her words off as untruthful or impossible for them to believe. She was just like poor Cassandra. She had refused Alhazred’s so-called love, and now she was suffering the consequences, and it was getting worse every day she thought about it.
She had started reading her fairy tales again. Perhaps it was the emotions that the love poems had produced in her heart that had convinced her to start reading less serious material, or possibly her promise to tell anyone who had accidentally overheard her talk with Ulrica that the old dog was only telling her a fairy tale. Whatever the reason, she had once again fallen into that magical realm where supernatural beings lived alongside humans and paradise was a stone’s throw from home. Cassima wished this could be true in her present predicament desperately, and between writing her poems and contemplating if she should attempt sleep or not during endless, dark nights, she continued her following of the great heroes and heroines in their pursuit of fame and fortune.
Once, in a search for new books under her bed, she found the old volume of stories and poems that contained the eleven-line verse that had been haunting her from the day she first heard it. She never actually read the poem in her brief search through the book, but she could sense its ominous presence, and it so uneased her that she closed it and pushed it back under her bed only a few minutes after she opened it.
She wasn’t ready to read those mystic lines of text again. Who could say what insane inspirations they might conjure up. Like the last time she had read it before her intrepid escape attempt from Mordack which naturally ended in disaster. She had taken that turn of events as an evil omen, and she was nervous about opening up the Pandora’s box that she had made that poem out to be.
Still, something in her was urging her to attempt escape again. Even though half of her was pleading with this other side to reconsider, she eventually gave in to the latter. Escape through her door was out of the question, naturally, but there was another opening in her room: the large window that looked out over the gardens of the castle. It was indeed large enough for her to fit her body through, but the problem of the distance between the window and the ground below was a more pressing matter.
There was at least one hundred feet of air that separated her from the earth that now seemed so far from her, and she would certainly not survive such a fall. Not only that, but she lacked any ropelike material that she could use to lower herself down. She couldn’t enlarge a bit of string into a rope like she did at Mordack’s Island, and she couldn’t ask Shamir for a few hundred feet of it and expect to get any.
She pondered this problem for days without success, until one afternoon, as she was rereading the story of Rapunzel. It seemed that the prince that visited the girl Rapunzel in her tower was not about to leave her without her own means of escape (his mode of escape, obviously, was climbing down her long tresses). Whenever he visited her, he gave her several yards of silk to weave into rope, the very thing she needed to free herself from her prison.
But he was careful. He never left her more than three yards at one time, since the girl’s witch guardian would detect it. For nearly a month he delivered silk to Rapunzel until they were both ready to escape together. Cassima’s mind was prickling with inspiration as she read the plot that the two lovers were weaving together along with the silk. And though it wasn’t successful, the princess knew that she could do such a thing as well, and on her own, too. She had nearly escaped from a powerful wizard and freed a king from certain death, and the matter of lowering herself out of her window was nothing she couldn’t do.
Though she couldn’t obtain silk, she knew she could try for something else. The next morning, when Shamir appeared with her breakfast, she said to him:
“Shamir Shamazel? I have been having difficulty sleeping lately. I am too cold. Could you please bring me some extra blankets the next time you come here?”
The genie was surprised for a moment, then he nodded and vanished. Cassima hoped that he hadn’t reported her request to Alhazred, who would undoubtedly be suspicious of her need for extra blankets, but that evening, Shamir returned with three woolen blankets, which he placed beside her dinner and promptly disappeared without a question or comment.
Cassima unfolded the sheets and examined them. When tied together, they would make about nine feet of rope, she calculated. And since her bed was some distance from the window, she would need at least ten feet more than what she needed to get from the window to the ground. She wanted to ask Shamir to fetch her more blankets the next morning, but she realized that she had to be subtle. If she asked for too much in too short a time, suspicions would undoubtedly arise.
She had to wait at least two days between requests, no matter how impatient she was to escape her room. She also had to use the blankets for their supposed purpose. As hot and sweaty as sleeping under the scratchy wool made her, it was better than facing awkward questions from the vizier. But since she had been experiencing regular periods of insomnia, she didn’t have to worry about being deprived of sleep very much. Sometimes she would fall asleep over fiery, passionate poems, unable to keep up with the burning in her mind that channeled through her pen and onto the paper.
One night, several weeks after she had first asked Shamir to bring her some extra blankets, she awakened in such a situation, her lamp still burning, the pen still in her hand. She had ink on her cheek, and the paper she had been writing on was also smeared, but she could still make out the words, which became more and more illegible as the poem progressed:
Give me wings of stone
Let me leap from the highest mountain
Let me fall and die free
Make me a beast
That can rive these chains
Let me become fierce
Let me be with the one I seek
The one I seek is –
The last word was hardly more than a crooked line, if it was indeed meant to be a word. She had probably nodded off just as she reached it, and her blurry memory couldn’t answer what that word was supposed to be. She could see that her urge to be free was growing stronger as it worked its way into her poems and her dreams.
She now had about nine sheets, and Shamir had yet to question her desire for warmth. They were very large and thick enough to get her down far enough to jump and reach the ground without injury. She would probably sprain an ankle or scrape a palm, but that was a price she was willing to pay. She wouldn’t pack anything this time except for a few gold coins in her pocket, not wanting to throw herself off balance while she was climbing down her rope made of sheets.
She looked at the scrawled-out poem again, and at the unreadable last word, and her lips formed what she felt belonged in that empty space:
It probably wasn’t the right word at all. Perhaps it was completely the opposite of what truly fit in that space, but Cassima couldn’t think of anything else. It was definitely “the one she sought.”
Cassima decided to start constructing her rope near the end of the following night. The sooner she escaped the better. With everyone in the castle disbelieving her and the only two that she trusted in the same situation or worse, she couldn’t spend any more time locked in the tower.
Though she was quite exhausted that night, she couldn’t sleep. Her will seemed to overpower her body’s cries for rest, and she kept herself awake and alert until she detected a faint glimmer of daylight out her window. Since the window faced west, she knew the sun was brighter than she took it to be, and had to move swiftly if she was going to make it out before Shamir appeared with her morning meal. In case the genie did appear after she had escaped, she decided to fool the creature into believing that she was still asleep. She balled up one of the sheets and stuffed it under the covers. She also placed a large pillow where her head would be, giving an onlooker the idea that a person was indeed asleep in the large bed. She sincerely hoped that the ruse would work.
She then quickly spread out the nine sheets she had accumulated and tied them together, using knot designs that a couple of the servants had taught her when she was little. At the time, she never thought she would have any use for them, but now she was putting all the energy her mind had left to remember the intricate, interwoven designs. How beautiful knots were when they were looked upon in such a manner.
When she finished knotting the blankets, she had a rope ladder that seemed to be long enough to get her far enough to the ground to fall and land safely. Still, the tower was high and her climbing skills weren’t exactly comparable to a squirrel’s. But Cassima was prepared to take a risk, no matter what it entailed. She securely tied one end of the long string of sheets to one of her bedposts and gave it a tug with all her might. As she expected, the bed didn’t budge an inch. Even though it may have been obvious that that piece of furniture wouldn’t move at all, no matter how much force she exerted on it, she knew it was always safe to make certain that her assumption was true.
Like her previous escape attempt had forced her to do, Cassima had slept in her clothes, and all she really had to do to get ready was slip on her shoes and place the gold coins she had decided on bringing in her pocket. Then she faced her window with determination and a slight quiver of nausea. There was no turning back now.
She gripped her rope tightly in her hands. Both were soft and without much friction to keep her from slipping, but she would manage. The princess wrapped one of the sheets around her right wrist, not tight, but firmly enough to prevent her from loosing her grip.
She then began backing towards the window, testing the strength of the blankets every few feet, not wanting any error she happened to make to be the cause of her falling and possible death. The rope bit into her arm slightly, but the burning didn’t cause her much discomfort. She had endured much greater pains during her stay with Mordack.
Finally, Cassima reached the window itself. She sat on the stone ledge, looking nervously over her shoulder at the sky and the sea and the ground far below. Again, she tested the strength of her rope, and again felt the strength of the knots and the materials that the sheets and blankets were made of. In spite of these assuring pieces of evidence that she kept experiencing, she couldn’t help feeling very insecure. The only thing that kept her from falling to the earth below was one simple rope. If it broke, if she didn’t kill herself she would find herself in trouble a thousand times worse than before. She dared not think of what would happen.
Gripping the fabric tenaciously and praying to her parents and the Fates for help, she shakily rose to her feet and began stepping backwards, off the sill. Her arms trembled from holding the rope so tightly. Her teeth were clenched and she was almost certain that her hair was becoming a lighter shade of black. She tentatively placed her right foot against the cold stone wall outside her window, hoping that neither the dampness of the night nor the dampness of her sweat would make her slip.
Her foot didn’t slip. Heart pounding and chest heaving, Cassima lifted her left foot off the sill and planted it against the wall, and this too remained where she placed it. So the Arab tradition of walking into a room right foot first is true after all, she thought, trying to keep herself from looking down, which wouldn’t have made much of a difference because it was still so dark she could see very little.
She kept on moving down the wall as far as she could until her feet couldn’t move any farther. The sheet would around her right hand was preventing any more movement on her part. She knew what she had to do but her grappling mind was trying to find a comfortable, yet safe place to land just as her feet and hands were. Then she remembered that Shamir could be appearing in her room any moment and see her ladder, then look out the window and see her. She had to keep going.
With trepidation, Cassima grabbed the rope with her left hand and began to slowly unwind the sheet from her right. She then let it slide down a few feet, then stop. With lightning speed, she swooped down with her left hand and yanked the sheet tightly around her hand once again. She now had several more feet of slack and was ready to continue her descent.
It was an experience that made her heart slam against her chest every time she did it on her slow climb. Once or twice she nearly fell, and her mouth became suddenly dry and her legs felt like they had melted away. But she managed to regain her grip both times and never completely let go of the rope as she continued descending.
The sun was climbing higher as she was climbing lower. Her window became smaller and smaller, and finally she reached a point that she determined was about halfway between it and the ground. Still, she had some way to go yet. Perhaps she hadn’t gone more than a few yards, but it seemed like a much greater distance to her. She continued climbing down the stone wall, gradually growing less tense with each time she lowered her hand and retightened the sheet around it.
Suddenly, her rope went slack. She instinctually grabbed it and tried to eliminate the slackness, but something had happened up above. Either one of her knots had come loose or Shamir had untied one of them. No matter what it was, she realized that she was falling and there was nothing she could do about it. It went too fast for her to think.
All that passed through her mind as she fell towards the unforgiving earth were images of Alhazred’s angry eyes, Ulrica’s sad expression, her parents’ welcoming smiles of seeing their daughter again and Sing-Sing circling above her, watching her plummet to the ground. Unable to hold her fear inside, Cassima was able to let out a single, brief, echoing scream before she collided with the ground. The impact on the back of her skull caused her to lose all consciousness, and there she lay, spread-eagled on the ground, hair unruly and wild, a ladder made of blankets lying beside her, alone and helpless to everything around her.
“Cassima? Are you awake?”
It was Ulrica’s face that was staring into hers, the large brown eyes looking concerned and sad. As Cassima’s eyes focused, she looked around her and saw that she was in the little corner of the guardroom that the old nurse lived in. It was the first time she had been inside it in nearly five months. The princess looked up at Ulrica again and struggled to speak.
“Poor Little Rose,” Ulrica whispered. “I examined you while you were unconscious – please forgive me for it – and I discovered your left arm has been fractured.”
“Broken?” Cassima asked, still delirious from her stupor. “Completely broken?”
“No, no, not completely,” said the dog. “Just splintered slightly in the upper part.”
Cassima groaned and tried to turn over, but she seemed to be lying on a small cot of some sort, and Ulrica gently restrained her before she could move any further.
“Don’t move, Cassima,” she said. “I don’t want you to hurt yourself any more. That was a terrible fall you had.”
“How…how did you find me?”
“I heard your cries as you fell. I moved as quickly as I could to the main doors, and fortunately Jollo heard you and came too. He hasn’t been sleeping well these days with the thought of you locked up in your room all alone.”
“You took me here?”
“Jollo helped me, and fortunately no other guards saw us. They were all asleep, you see. Sometimes it is a good thing to live in a room that hardly anyone looks in. Why, it’s just like having a heavy steel lock on the door…”
Cassima suddenly remembered how she had only recently been in such a predicament, and she emitted an anguished moan and tried to roll away from Ulrica.
“Oh, my heavens! I’m so sorry, Cassima! I had my foot in my mouth when I said that! Please don’t cry, little child! Please…”
Cassima looked at the nurse quietly, but there were tears in her green eyes.
“Ulrica,” she asked, “How will you get me back up to my room all alone? The door’s locked and Jollo still isn’t allowed to leave his room without the vizier’s consent, is he?”
“Too true, Cassima. But he kissed you when you were still unconscious and told you that he missed you. I’m sure that Alhazred has become more lenient in the rules Jollo is forced to abide by. In fact, from what I’ve heard, Jollo is now permitted to go anywhere as long as it is nowhere near your door. Abdul still suspects that he was on his way to you when he was caught that one night.”
“But how will you explain everything? How will you find an excuse for me ending up outside my room without opening the door?”
“It is now ten of the clock,” said Ulrica, “And I have informed the guards that you tried to commit suicide by jumping from your window. It seems that Captain Saladin has a key to the lock on your door after all, and hopefully we can get you back inside your room before Alhazred wakes up. He always sleeps late, as you know.”
“Why Ulrica,” gasped Cassima, amazed by the old dog’s intricate plan just to keep the princess from getting into trouble. “I…I…”
“Hush,” warned Ulrica. “Saladin might be coming in here any minute to take you back to your room. No one but Jollo and you know that I can leave this room, and I told him to come by here as soon as you were awake. Keep quiet now, Cassima. With luck, he won’t ask any questions.”
“But how do you know he won’t tell Alhazred?” Cassima asked. Then she lowered her voice and asked: “You didn’t tell him that you told me about his sister, did you?”
“No, I didn’t,” said Ulrica, also in a low voice. “But remember: Saladin cares for you more than that Alhazred. He probably sensed that you didn’t try to kill yourself on purpose and he knows you well enough that you won’t try to do it again. I must admit, you were very brave to try such a feat, Cassima, but Alhazred doesn’t want you escaping this castle. Besides, all of the nearby villages are under his control, and obey his every word. If you escaped to one of them, he would probably order each and every one of them to find you and return you to him. I hate to say this, but I don’t think there’s any point in you trying to escape, Cassima. Especially with a broken arm.”
Fire within the heart
Can consume the soul,
Burn others to the bone,
Or warm all who are near
Though the princess’s injury was not major, it was necessary for Ulrica to bind it in a sling and order her not to use it for several weeks, which was how long it would take for it to heal. The fracture still didn’t stop her from beating against her door and pleading to be let out, but all she got from her efforts this time was the voice of Alhazred kindly asking her to stop her noisemaking and relax.
Relax? How could she relax, with her kingdom in deceitful hands and all her friends separated form her? The only friend she had now was Sing-Sing, who now visited her frequently from the outside world that Cassima would probably never experience again, doomed to stare at it through an open window.
How long had she been imprisoned in this place that she had once thought was a place of security and peace? It had been nearly half a year, as far as she could gather. She had seen six full moons since the day Alhazred ordered her to go into her room and not attempt to leave, and since then she had tried to do that twice, and each time had turned out to be a failure. It wasn’t right. Her parents wouldn’t have allowed this to happen to her…but they were dead, and how would she know what their feelings for her were now.
Her heart still yearned to see Prince Alexander again every time she looked at the picture she had painted of him and read the volumes of love poetry that had accumulated beside her bed. How strange that this little, fist-sized organ that beat every second of her young life in her chest, the one thing that her brain could not control, was associated with her feelings of affection and compassion for a person that she had only seen once before.
Perhaps the feelings weren’t coming from her heart at all, but that was the place that all the poets through the ages had written from, had woven delicate words describing how it beat quickly whenever the name of a loved one was spoken. How odd that she should feel like those words written on paper, those words that had once made no sense at all to her, yet now they meant the world to her.
As the weeks inside her room dragged on, she began hearing the peculiar conversations outside her door again. Alhazred was always speaking gently to his companion, and his companion was always speaking in a lilting voice that was so familiar to Cassima that she was amazed that she couldn’t place it. Sometimes a guard dog would pass by, and Alhazred would always ask him to leave, then Cassima would fall asleep again. She still remembered very little from the dreamlike dialogue, but as time passed, her memory began growing stronger, and her suspicions were also growing.
After a few weeks that were slightly less idle than usual, Cassima’s arm stopped hurting, and even though she didn’t know when exactly it was safe to take it out of the sling, she removed the sling just the same. She didn’t want to wait until Ulrica risked herself yet again in coming up to her door. The princess cursed herself for attempting such a risky escape, which now seemed more ridiculous than ever in her mind. Why did she do it? Why did she climb out her window and grant herself a near death just as certainly as a bird would if it cut off its wings? It made no sense to her at all now, though it had made perfect sense when she was formulating it in the first place.
It was those fairy tales, she realized. Those fanciful stories that Mordack told me not to read because they would never happen…but…they almost did, didn’t they? Yes…almost, she thought mournfully. But will they ever come true? Mother said that if one believed strongly enough, they would…but if this isn’t strongly enough, then what is?
She stared out her window at the fading daylight. It had been three months since she had gazed out at the stars and called out to Alexander, wherever he was, and prayed to her parents and whatever ancestors could see her to guide him to the islands. Would something like that ever happen? It was impossible, for certain, but she couldn’t stop wishing that it would.
The sunset was dimmer than its usual rainbow glory. As Cassima stared at it, she noticed that there were heavy clouds moving in from the west, black and foreboding. She had only seen those kinds of clouds once before, but she knew what they were all too well. Storm clouds. There’s going to be a storm…
It seemed to be happening right before her eyes: the sun was blotted out by the great gray beasts that stampeded across the darkening sky. A gust of wind knifed up from the ground below and blew her hair out like the crown of a tree. Nervously, Cassima stepped away from her window. The clouds were growing denser and night was quickly moving in. A faint moon shone from somewhere out of her field of vision, outlining the rippling fields of grass far below her and the billowing trees beyond them.
Then the first few drops of rain came pouring down, sharp, cold drops, some of which were blown into Cassima’s room by the increasing winds. Her curtains rippled wildly, and suddenly, Sing-Sing was half-blown, half-thrown through the window, landing upon the floor. Cassima quickly picked up the irritated, sodden ball of feathers and held her tightly to her chest, watching the storm grow fiercer and hungrier.
The last time she had seen such a wild spectacle of weather was in her childhood. She had closed her window and latched it tightly in her fright, and Allaria had come in to comfort her as the thunder boomed and the lighting flashed from the outside. Cassima had never closed her window before, no matter how cold the nights were or how hot the days were, but her first storm was enough to change her attitudes toward nature in a single night.
Her childhood nightmares about the wind howling like a phantom and blinding light coming through her window came seeping back into her mind. Cassima shut and latched the window in fear, the hinges rusty from years of idleness. She groped her way through the darkness to her bed, and she sat down on it, shivering from the cold and from terror of what the storm would bring. She lit a lamp and warmed her hands, as well as allowing Sing-Sing to preen herself and dry her plumage.
After several tense minutes, the first splash of lightning and the first roar of thunder came from the brooding clouds. Cassima shuddered, remembering how those two raw manifestations of nature had scared her when she had first heard them. Storms such as these were rare in the Green Isles, in spite of the kingdom’s vulnerability to such disasters. Cold gusts of wind kept nipping at her from the spaces between the shutters and the windowsill, and the stinging rain felt just as painful on her skin as it would if she were standing outside.
Night seemed to have come much more rapidly than it usually did. The sun seemed to have gone for good. Cassima thought of the little villages that dotted the Isle of the Crown and hoped that her people would survive the terrible storm. She knew that everything was harder for them. No matter how much she suffered, she had to bear in mind that the villagers were suffering even more. She wished that she could somehow help them get through all the troubles that she knew that they had to endure, but in her present predicament, she was as helpless as they were. She forced herself to accept that fact as the winds began howling around the castle and the thunder began rumbling like a distant monster taut to spring. Once she thought she heard a crunch of breaking wood, and prayed that the ferry hadn’t been destroyed. But what else could it be, she wondered.
The occasional flashes of lightning lit the entire room, throwing everything into sharp contrast with everything else. Sometimes Cassima would see the whiteness of the end of her bed or the blood red of the couch near her. Once she saw the portrait of Alexander that she had propped up against her mirror. The eyes seemed to be staring into hers like daggers. She felt uneasy at their appearance, and wondered what was happening to the prince now, while her world was locked in a tempest that threatened to rip the islands loose from their foundations upon the seabed.
She couldn’t help remembering all the previous times that she had tried escaping her prison. For reasons that she couldn’t fathom, she felt like she was reliving that terrifying moment when she was facing the sea serpent in her escape from Mordack, the second in which she realized Shamir had caught her trying to escape from her room before it was locked, and the shock of the instant that she realized she was falling from her rope ladder the third time she had attempted freeing herself. The first time, water had betrayed her. The second time, her breath had betrayed her. Shamir must have heard her or seen the white puffs made by her exhaled air. And the third time, earth had beaten her. So what would it be the fourth time she tried yet another feeble attempt? Would the castle catch on fire and burn to the ground, taking her with it? Would she happen to be near the huge oak tree when lightning struck it?
Water, air, earth, fire…it all seemed to fit, but Cassima couldn’t bear to think of what would happen to her the next time she tried to break her bonds…if there was a next time. But what could possibly be worse than what was going on now?
The storm finally subsided as the sun was rising. Cassima had slept little and was drearily gazing out her window. Sing-Sing had flown off earlier, and the princess was wondering why her friend had left her. Perhaps it was the fresh worms that had crawled out of the earth because of the rain, she thought. Or perhaps she likes the damp weather. It certainly is humid enough as it is.
Cassima glanced at her bedside table, the place where she did most of her writing. Many of the papers had been scattered from the fierce winds, and some of them had even been splattered with rouge raindrops. Sighing at the damage that the storm had wrought, no matter how slight, she began picking up the stray documents, occasionally stopping to read one and think of how her life had so much in common with whichever poem or piece of writing it was. All of the works were hers, of course, but some of them seemed so much like some of the poems she had read that she had to admit that she had copied someone else’s writing.
She thought of the poem about Scheherazade, and the encouraging lines advising the reader to never give up and follow what was true, and she wondered if she could read that poem again and still be mystified with the unknown qualities it contained. With all that had happened to her in the past few weeks, it hardly seemed possible. All she could think of doing now was waiting at the window for Sing-Sing to return. She casually tied a small red ribbon in her hair, moved to her window and gazed wistfully at the passing clouds.
Several hours passed. The gong struck one, and the sun had risen high in the crystal blue of the sky. The air was rich and humid, just as it always was in the early afternoon. One would hardly believe that a violent storm had just plagued the land the night before.
Suddenly, Cassima spied a familiar figure speeding towards her through the air, small, gray and feathered, with a magenta crest and little black eyes. The princess smiled in excitement and outstretched her hand. Sing-Sing alighted on Cassima’s hand, with something small, round and metallic in her beak.
“Sing-Sing!” Cassima exclaimed, happy to see her pet again. “What have you got in your mouth, my pretty?”
The princess gently took the object from the bird’s beak and examined it closely. It was a small, metal ring. It felt heavy in her fingers, and as she looked at it, she discovered not only that it was made of pure gold, but there was an elaborate insignia carved on the front. Cassima gasped.
“A gold ring? Sing-Sing, where did you get this?”
Studying the beautiful trinket carefully, she could make out the design of a lion and a unicorn standing opposite to each other on their hind legs, with a crown above them. Encircling the creatures was a series of words that were so small Cassima could hardly read them. But by squinting her eyes and holding the ring as still as she could, she was able to make out what they said:
“’Realm of Daventry…’” As she spoke the words aloud, something made her blink. She had heard that name before, in stories, songs, and even in the title of a person she met only once but remembered all too well.
“Why, this is Alexander’s ring!” she realized. Her amazement grew as she tried to comprehend how Sing-Sing had gotten the ring. She never flew anywhere beyond the Isles, let alone to whole other country…It couldn’t be true…but Cassima’s heart wouldn’t let her mind think that.
Had Alexander been wearing a ring when he touched her hand? Could she remember? Yes…she did feel a sensation of warm metal when he held her hand…her worn, calloused, scullery maid’s hand…though it was so fleeting, it was true. There was no doubt in her mind now.
“Oh…my soul…he must be here!”
She looked at Sing-Sing, who was still perched on her hand and looking at her curiously.
“Sing-Sing, I wish you could tell me what you’ve seen! Is he really here, then; on this very isle?” Cassima raised her eyes and looked out at the azure skies and clouds that floated in it.
”Oh,” she sighed woefully, “If only I could leave this castle as easily as you!”
Again, she glanced at the gold ring and smiled to herself. Alexander hadn’t forgotten her after all. She hadn’t told him anything about her kingdom’s location, yet he had somehow gotten to the Isles without help. And that storm the previous night…he had gotten through even that alive. That crashing sound she had heard must have been his ship crashing against the treacherous reefs she had been told about. Her heart was being truthful when it told her that she loved him.
The ring must have been very close to his heart, just like Cassima’s locket was. For a moment she thought of sending Sing-Sing back to him with it, but she decided not to. The locket was too close to her now. Her mother had once owned it, and the pictures of her parents inside it were the only images she had of them to remember, and if the ring Alexander gave her once belonged to his mother, his feelings for it weren’t the same. His parents (she assumed) were still alive and well, hers had died because of her absence. If she were heartless enough to take it from around her neck, the guilt she would feel would haunt her for the rest of her days.
The thought made her shudder, and she decided to give Alexander something to assure him that Sing-Sing had given the ring to her (since he probably had no idea of where the bird had flown). Running her fingers through her hair in thought, Cassima found the piece of red silk that she had used to tie her tresses up with. Carefully, she pulled the thread out, and held it before her winged companion.
“Take this ribbon, Sing-Sing. If you know where he is, return it to him.”
As the bird willingly took the ribbon and flew towards the south of the island, Cassima whispered softly:
“Please be careful, Alexander. It is so dangerous, and yet…I couldn’t wish you away.”
When the little creature had finally vanished from view, Cassima tried to contemplate what she had just experienced. Was the ring truly Alexander’s? Had a foreign ship crashed on a reef during the previous night’s storm and carried the ring to the shore, on a plank or in a box? Still, it didn’t smell too strongly of sand or seawater, and Cassima remembered that when she had first touched it, it was still warm, as if someone had already worn it shortly before giving it to Sing-Sing…but still…
Cassima stopped thinking and told herself that in spite of all the odds, Alexander had arrived on the Isle of the Crown. What a coincidence. At least five islands and he arrives at the one I’m on, she thought musingly. I just don’t know why I feel so safe knowing he’s here…maybe it was like that time that Ulrica became so ill she couldn’t treat anyone…that was only a few weeks, but…no, this is different. Could what Ulrica said be true? Could it be that I actually love him?
But she couldn’t ponder this question without remembering what was going on outside their relationship to each other. Alhazred was planning to marry her, she was locked in her room, and judging by the fact that she had seen no ships arriving at the docks, she assumed that Alexander had been shipwrecked, and was probably in need of help that she couldn’t give him.
But…she could give him help. She could tell him about Alhazred and Shamir and her own perils as well…If only she could see his face. She could tell him everything she knew…but she had no such luck. She would have to resort to the most typical form of communication in her country.
Cassima swiftly grabbed a pen and a sheet of paper from one of her shelves, and, after a moment of thought, began writing a letter to the person she hoped Sing-Sing would deliver it to if and when she returned.
I cannot believe you are here, my friend! Please, please be careful! Abdul isn’t about to let anyone interfere with his plans. Watch out for Abdul’s genie, Alexander, and do not do anything rash. I am not without resources, and I will prevail if I can just find some small means of defense. Do not try to get to me. You must not be endangered again for my sake.
Greatly in your family’s debt,
Though her finished document included everything she wanted to tell him, it didn’t include anything that she knew he wanted to know from her. Surely Alexander was uncertain about her feelings towards him, just as Cassima herself had been. But it would take far too much thought and energy, and, most importantly, writing material to tell the prince how she had been imprisoned and how Alhazred intended to wed her and how she had tried to escape her prison and failed, how her parents had died mysterious deaths that she had a suspicion Alhazred had a part in…
Cassima shut out the thoughts that crowded her mind as she signed the letter. It wasn’t the formal signature that she had been taught to write by her strict tutor, it didn’t have the extended “Princess Cassima, Daughter of King Caliphim and Queen Allaria of the Land of the Green Isles” add-on, it was simply her own name. The one identity that everyone had, even peasants and homeless people. If one didn’t have an occupation or a profession, or even a family, she still had her name, the one thing that proved she was human. The thought made her tremble at the depth of the concept.
Folding the letter lengthwise, Cassima returned to her window, hoping that her pet would return soon.
Shortly before Sing-Sing returned, Cassima overheard a loud shouting outside her door. It was Alhazred, and apparently he was yelling at his genie about something too incoherently for Cassima to understand. She feared that perhaps the vizier had heard of Alexander’s presence in the Isles, and with a nose as probing as his, it was no surprise to her. However, she was as unable to help Alexander as ever, and the only thing she could do was hope that he was safe.
A few minutes later, Sing-Sing returned. This time she was gripping a sheet of paper in her beak.
“Sing-Sing, my sweet, you bring another present!” exclaimed Cassima as the bird landed in her palm and dropped the object. “Let’s see…”
The parchment was weathered and smelled vaguely of an old book, but it wasn’t prose written on the page.
“It’s a poem, Sing-Sing!” Cassima said, amazed that Alexander would send her something so kind as it. She had no idea how he knew that she was currently obsessed with poetry and writing it herself, but the incredibility of the coincidence didn’t grip her until after she had read it:
What was it when I looked at you?
What power has chained me through and through
And binds my heart with links so tight
I cannot live without the sight
What nameless thing has captured me?
And made me powerless to flee
What thing is it without a name,
That brings my mind ever back the same
The name of “love” cannot apply,
Its commonness does not descry
The haunted, hunted, painful cry
That my heart makes for you.
That ever my soul eternal makes for you.
“Oh, Alexander!” she sighed. She felt her cheeks grow hot with embarrassment, she the unshakable princess of the Green Isles, the one that claimed that she never blushed, now looking as pink as a rose petal. Finally, she managed to regain her composure. “I was hoping he’d return to you. Take this to him while he waits. Hurry, my fleet one!”
The princess grabbed the letter she had written to Alexander a few minutes prior and held it before Sing-Sing, who obediently picked it up and flew off, towards the south side of the island.
As Cassima was watching her friend fly off, she heard a loud rattling from the other side of her door and a man’s voice bellowing her name. She reluctantly drew closer to the door and asked who it was, though she already knew it was the vizier.
“It is Abdul, my dear,” warbled the familiar, nauseating voice through her door. “I have some news for you, Cassima.”
“What is it?” she asked, her voice flat with disinterest.
“Shamir has told me of a foreign castaway that had been thrown upon this isle and is planning to kill you. Since you are currently in a less than powerful position, I have planned our wedding to be tomorrow at the second gong sounding.”
“What?” Cassima hissed, smashing her fist against the door. “A foreign assassin? I know who that man is, and his father saved me from Mordack!”
“All are not good in a single family,” Alhazred said, oblivious to her words. “It is best that we get married as soon as possible, before you try any more suicide attempts, eh?”
Cassima fell silent for a moment. “You know about that?”
“Had to squeeze it out of a guard dog. That was a very naughty ruse, my little bride-to-be. Can’t risk it happening again.”
“You won’t get away with this!” Cassima snarled, though she presently had no idea how he wouldn’t. “I’ll tell the guards! I’ll tell Jollo! I’ll…”
Suddenly she became aware of the vizier’s footsteps. They were slowly moving away from her door, slowly but surely. She breathed out sharply and sighed. Her exhaustion was raised a notch by her brief outburst, and she knew that she had to sleep, but she couldn’t. Her mind was too active. She had to find a way to escape the wedding. No matter what would happen to her, she needed to think of a way…
Cassima sat down on her bed and began brainstorming possibilities. She couldn’t fight herself out of Alhazred’s arms, nor Shamir’s. They were both too strong and her muscles were thoroughly atrophied from her long isolation. She needed a weapon…but where would I find one, she wondered. All I have in this room are a few sharp pens and a lot of heavy books. Neither of those would get me out of that infernal wedding. And the knives Shamir brings in with my dinner are never sharp enough for anything. I’d need something small but powerful…like one of those ceremonial knives in my parents’ room…or a perfume vial with a sharp point on one end…or a little dagger…or…
Cassima began drifting off to sleep. She fought to stay awake and find a solution to the problem that was drawing nearer to her every hour, but it was no use. She surrendered to Morpheus and drifted off sprawled across her bed, one hand over her heart.
During her sleep she once again heard the strange conversation, this time so close to her door that she felt nervous and was ready to wake up. She even thought she heard her door open, but she didn’t have enough strength to even open her eyes. She was certain that she heard Saladin and at least one other guard, but the voices trailed off and were lost in her dreams, as they always were.
The majority of her sleep was a fitful time. She kept having dreams of Alexander being captured by Alhazred or one of the guards (who, she assumed, had also been told about a “foreign assassin”). When she wasn’t dreaming about the prince, she was experiencing strange visions of places on the other islands that she had never seen before, yet now they seemed so close to her that it made her shudder with astonishment.
She finally managed to shake herself awake after a horrifying dream of a monstrous beast, half man and half bull bearing down on her. She broke out of the spectacle sweaty and breathing hard. It was night outside, and the vision still fresh in her mind sculpted many of the shadows into dark images. Despite this, she rose from her bed and moved to her window. Sing-Sing still hadn’t returned, and Cassima hoped that she hadn’t been caught delivering her note to Alexander. She shuddered at what would happen if Abdul ever found out that she felt that way towards the prince.
She gazed at the waxing moon and wondered where Alexander was now. Had he found a way to any of the other isles? Was he still alive? She prayed that the answer to both of her questions was yes, no matter how impossible she knew they were.
She wondered if old Ulrica could tell that she was pining for Alexander, down in her little corner of the guardroom. Would she come to her door and ask Cassima if the rumors of the wedding coming up the following day were true? Would she tell the princess another story about Suhad’s island, the island of animals that had human traits? Would she tell her about a weakness in Alhazred that might somehow get Cassima out of marrying him?
And what about Jollo? Was he still free to leave his room as long as he didn’t try to get to her door? Had he tried to do such a thing just the same and thrown into a dungeon by the guards?
Cassima stared at the stars and ran the many questions that were brewing in her mind over and over again and tried to find answers that would calm her, no matter how small a comfort that would be. But she couldn’t find a single answer that she felt was right, and her worries continued to grow as she looked at the light-dotted ocean and the dark green fields dappled with moonlight.
“Alexander, I wish you could truly hear me…I don’t want you to die because of me. Alhazred won’t let you get within a stone’s throw of me…but please believe me when I say that I love you…”
The last three words left her with a feeling of shock and surprise. She had never actually said that she loved Alexander before, but now that she had, it was like opening the door to a whole new world of sensations she had towards this foreign stranger.
Everyone who had known her said that she was pure of heart and always true to her word, but for many months she had been doubting both of those expressions of praise. She had done things that a pure person would never have done, and she had said things that she was uncertain of being true. Yes…everyone said I was pure and truthful except me, Cassima thought. I wish at least someone could see what I really am…
Again, she looked at the sliver of the moon. She remembered the brief poem that she had written several nights ago, the one that was missing the final word. She had thought it was “freedom,” but now she realized that it wasn’t. The word that completed the poem…”the one I seek is…love.”
Is that what you seek too, Alexander?
The next morning, Cassima arose early and immediately ran to her window and waited for Sing-Sing’s return. As she could tell that the princess was awake and waiting, Sing-Sing came flapping towards her only a few minutes after Cassima had positioned herself by the window.
The little nightingale was holding a flower in her beak. Cassima gently took it from her and examined it. It was a white rose, a pure white rose with the pearly leaves curled around its spiraled, symmetrical center, where several crystalline dewdrops were still shimmering. The leaves were a full, brilliant green, the stem almost devoid of thorns. Even the normally serrated edges of the leaves seemed softer than a normal rose’s.
Cassima lifted the flower to her nose and breathed in the delicate, sweet aroma. It was a different odor than the perfume that she frequently used, perhaps because the perfume was made from red roses, not white. But the most obvious difference was the fact that she was now breathing the odor of a live flower, not the watery extract, which seemed to be only a shy imitation by contrast.
The rose extract that she had on her dresser was something that she hadn’t touched very often before her imprisonment by Mordack, but several weeks after Alhazred had announced her mourning period, she began applying it to her skin nearly every day. The only reason she could formulate was her separation from the outdoors. She didn’t use the perfume so she would smell beautiful, since she had no one to present herself to, she simply surrounded herself with the sweet, natural aroma because it was the closest she could get to being outdoors.
But now she was holding a piece of nature in her hand. In a way, it seemed even better than the love poem and even the gold ring, both of which were luxuries that she could easily access in her room. This flower was different. It was the first object from the outside that she had touched in nearly six months.
“A white rose! How beautiful!” she sighed. “It must be from Alexander. How I wish I could see him with my own eyes…but Abdul would never allow it!”
She lowered the pale blossom and looked over her shoulder at the love poem that lay on her bedside table, and the gold ring that rested upon it. She sighed heavily.
“He only risks capture by sending me these things, dear to my heart though they are. Fly elsewhere, my pretty friend!” she told Sing-Sing. “Do not endanger Prince Alexander again by taking tokens from his hand!”
The bird obediently turned and took off, heading for the gardens to the north of the castle. Cassima felt a heavy weight in her chest as she realized what feelings she might have caused in Alexander because of her decision to get rid of their only mode of communication.
“Forgive me, Alexander…and forget me. I cannot return your love for fear that I will never leave this castle again.”
Later that morning, her brain began buzzing with the fact that the wedding of her and Alhazred was still going on as scheduled. She kept on trying to formulate a plan to somehow escape, but no ideas came to mind. The one thing she was lacking was a weapon, and though she had no obvious means of obtaining such a thing, she couldn’t force herself to think there was no hope. Perhaps it was the knowledge of Alexander’s presence that kept her hopes high, but no matter what it was, Cassima schemed and schemed as the morning dragged on and the hour of two drew nearer and nearer.
Suddenly, Cassima heard it: Alhazred was talking with the mysterious stranger only a few feet from her door. She flew to the door and pressed her ear against it. This was the first time she had heard the two individuals talking during the day, and her alertness would not let her forget anything now.
“My dear, you seem to be happier than usual today,” said Alhazred.
“Yes, I daresay I am, Abdul,” said the other person. Cassima suddenly realized it was a woman’s voice.
“Are you very nervous about the wedding,”
“Indeed yes, Abdul, but I know we will get through it.”
“You are looking more radiant outside today as well as radiant inside,” said Alhazred.
“Why thank you, my friend.”
“Of course. Well, we’d better be getting you back to your room if you want to be ready in time.”
“All right. Farewell for now, Cassima.”
Cassima’s stomach lurched at the sound of her name being spoken. Her mind spun madly in an effort to fit the pieces together. The stranger Alhazred had been speaking to was someone disguised as her, and he was feigning her love of him by having those conversations in the presence of the guards! He was having most of them during the night so that she wouldn’t be awake to hear them! And Shamir must have been spying on her to make certain she was asleep before a conversation took place!
It all suddenly fit. Cassima was spellbound for a moment, trying to figure out what to do. Finally, she resorted to the last resort in her catalogue of desperate moves. She flung herself against the door and began beating on it with her fists as hard as she could, shouting:
“Let me out! Let me out! Alhazred is plotting something! Let me out!”
For nearly a whole hour she pounded on her door until her fists were sore and burning and her voice was hoarse as the tears streamed down her cheeks. Suddenly a resounding boom came from the other side of her door and Alhazred’s voice rang out:
“Cassima! Either be quiet or I will have Shamir silence you! You have a voice like a harpy and you have as much consideration for others as a lamia has!”
Cassima slumped to the ground, shocked by Alhazred’s sudden outburst.
“Your parents had the right idea to die,” Alhazred yelled. “Anyone would rather die than have a creature like you come home!”
“Don’t talk about my parents like that!” Cassima shrieked. “You won’t get away with this, you selfish boar!”
“Hold your tongue, you pitiful little minx!” Alhazred roared so loudly that Cassima almost felt her door shake. “You have no right to speak to your future husband in that manner! Good-bye!”
Alhazred stomped away, cursing as he did. Cassima, though now full of rage, was filled with sadness that the vizier had said such vile things about her mother and father. She dragged herself over to her red couch and began crying, not caring if Alhazred came and banged on her door again. Her sorrow was about as great as it could get, and it seemed that nothing could save her now. She was powerless and weak, and both of her friends would be unable to help her. Her parents were dead, she was being married against her will, the only man she loved was somewhere else, all the guards were protecting her against her will, and she was spending the last of her strength sobbing in grief over all her miseries and misfortunes.
All her struggles had been in vain, just like Psyche, who performed task after task, only to be presented with more and more until she nearly lost hope. Cassima was past that point. She felt as if she had lost all hope that was left in her spirit. What more did she have to hope for? What miracle could possibly occur to save her now?
“Psst! Princess Cassima!”
Cassima immediately stopped crying and looked around the room. The voice seemed to be coming from somewhere near, but she couldn’t tell…and it also sounded familiar…a voice that she had heard only once before…but it was impossible…she had to be imagining his presence…but still…
“What?” she asked nervously, glancing around the room. “Who’s there?”
“It is I,” said the voice. “Alexander. I’m here – behind this wall!”
Cassima’s heart hit the side of her chest with such impact that she nearly fell forwards. Her voice trembled as she spoke again.
Slowly rising from the couch, she walked across the floor, trying to tell where the voice was coming from…still she couldn’t believe it… Alexander? In the castle? It had to be a dream… but it was so real…where was it coming from?
Her eyes suddenly fell upon the small hole in the wall across the room. Could the prince have found a way inside the space between the walls? She slowly walked towards the hole, praying it wasn’t a dream, but at the same time praying that she wouldn’t get her hopes up over something that had to be an illusion…
As she neared the hole, she squinted through it, expecting to see only darkness and cobwebs, but instead, she found herself looking into a pair of sky-blue eyes and a face that she had remembered every detail of since she last glimpsed it. The dark hair…the kind, gentle face…smeared with dirt and sweat, the clothes in the same disheveled state…but still…it was him. She gaped with wonder.
“It really is you! I knew you were close by, but how did you get inside the castle walls?” she cried. Alexander suddenly appeared tired, and his eyes appeared dark in the thick shadows.
“It’s a long story, and not important now. You did get my ring?”
Cassima lowered her head and felt her face grow hot. As much as she wished she didn’t blush when people said words of love like Alexander just had, she couldn’t prevent herself this time. Finally, she raised her head and replied to his question.
“Oh yes. It has brought me such comfort, Alexander, to know you were close by and had not forgotten…”
Then suddenly the realization of their perils broke upon her. As wonderful as it was to tell him that she loved him, she couldn’t forget what truly mattered at the moment.
“But you shouldn’t be here! You’re only endangering yourself!”
“I’m afraid I’m not the only one in danger,” Alexander said, his voice trembling not with fear, but with something that to Cassima seemed dark and secret, something he was afraid of letting her hear.
“Princess, be brave! I’ve heard such vileness today! Such evil!”
“What is it?” Cassima asked, her voice, although sounding like a child eager to learn something, also quivered with anxiety.
“Alhazred…” said Alexander slowly. “He is not what he appears.”
Cassima rolled her eyes slightly.
“I’ve known that for years, Alexander. But with mother and father gone…” here she paused, the painful memory slowly rising to the surface of her mind, “I’m afraid there’s no stopping him.”
The prince’s face looked as if it were searching for a reason why what Cassima said wasn’t true, but as much as she wanted to know what he thought, she was far more curious about what Alexander knew about Alhazred that she probably didn’t, as ironic as it seemed, he being in the kingdom for about two days and she residing within it for almost her entire life, save a few months.
“But tell me of what evil you speak. I’ve been so afraid for my kingdom, not knowing what he plans!”
“The kingdom is in trouble, but the real threat at the moment is your safety, Princess. Alhazred has such plans…” here he hesitated, his face suddenly growing saddened, “You don’t want to wed Alhazred, do you?”
Cassima blinked in surprise at his question. It was almost as if he was mocking her…but she already knew him well enough to know that he wasn’t jesting with her, and he was being serious.
“How can you ask? Of course not!”
Alexander raised his clenched fist against his side of the wall, adding to the might of the next words he spoke.
“If you do not wish to marry him, Cassima, you shall not! I promise you. But we must get you out of here, now. You are not safe.”
Get out of here…that was something that Cassima had been attempting for nearly as much as she was imprisoned, but all her efforts had been proven futile. How could her friend, who hardly knew the castle and all of the odds that were against her, free her, with only one chance, not the many she found for herself?
As much as she wanted to be free, she couldn’t encourage him to risk his life yet again, after surviving the storm and finding his way into the heavily guarded castle, and who could say what other things he had accomplished to get to her. She had to convince him that she wasn’t worth so many dangers.
“But Abdul would tear the castle apart if I were to disappear from my room!” she objected. “You shall have to do what you can to delay his plans from your end.”
“I can’t just leave you here!” cried Alexander, his face growing frantic.
“Alexander, do not despair for me,” said Cassima, quickly trying to take back what she had just implied him to do, forget the person that he had found and done so much to reach.
“I’ve been safe in this room for nearly six months now. Abdul can be in no hurry, whatever he plans. After all,” she said with a hint of something almost like sarcasm, in spite of the seriousness of the moment, “I’m to be his bride, am I not?”
Alexander silently lowered his hand, looking defeated. Sensing that their time together was limited and a meeting as this would probably never occur again, she decided to tell him proof that she wasn’t intending on sitting idly in her room while he risked his skin trying to rescue her.
“I have been planning too, you see. I believe I can escape if I only get a chance to lay my hands on a weapon. There might be an opportunity in the hustle of the wedding.”
“But, I…” stuttered Alexander.
“Shhh!” said Cassima, thinking she heard a scuffle of footsteps near her door. “Just a moment more, then you must go! Let us not waste time with words. Please, just let me look at you, dear Alexander.”
Cassima looked at her friend’s gentle face through the small opening, studying his eyes and his concerned expression, which seemed to reveal the same dread she was thinking, the thought that they would never see each other again. Even though he had come this far, how could he release her? With two guards pacing the hall outside her heavily locked door, there was no way she could think of that would give Alexander a chance to free her.
It was just like her stories. Pyramus and his lover Thisbe, speaking through the hole in the wall that separated them, forever kept apart, the only contact with each other was through the tiny opening. But they got to see each other more than once. Every few weeks, Cassima recalled. But the way things were going, she would probably never see Alexander again.
She sighed gently, trying not to break down in tears before the only person she could trust. It would only make things worse for the both of them. Raising her head to look through the chink again, she noticed something different in the prince’s face. Something so subtle, that it could easily be overlooked by a normal person, but with such emotions passing from him to her and back again, and with the aura of darkness surrounding him in the dark space he was in and the light that filled Cassima’s room and touched his face, the look was as obvious as if he had smiled at her.
The look in his eyes was still apprehensive, yet more pondering and searching, as if he was still thinking of a way to free her, impossible as that endeavor was. Then realization seemed to dawn on Alexander, and he moved his right hand and appeared to grasp something beyond Cassima’s range of vision. Then he lifted whatever it was up to the hole and gently pushed it towards her. She noticed a flicker of light on the object, as if it were made of metal. It seemed oblong and pointed, like a knife, but larger and heavier…Could it be…?
“Here. Take this dagger,” said Alexander. “It’s not much, but it might come in handy.”
Cassima extended her hand cautiously, carefully grasping the tool’s hilt while trying not to cut herself. Just as her fingers closed around the cool handle, she felt Alexander’s hand (which was still on the dagger) brush hers. The feeling filled her with a strange comfort, as if a surge of energy had just passed through her psyche. Perhaps it was because it was the first time they had touched since he asked to visit her kingdom. Even though he had never asked how to get there or what he should do if some catastrophic event occurred, he had succeeded, and perhaps it was that feeling of amazement that touched Cassima as she touched him.
She shuddered slightly as she withdrew the dagger and held it up to examine it. It was one of the most beautiful of weapons she had ever seen. It was nothing like Alhazred’s ugly, curved scimitar or the guard dog’s masculine, heavy swords. It was small and lighter than it first appeared. The blade was steel but plated with silver, giving it a needlelike texture. The handle was gold, molded into the shape of a winged snake that coiled upwards from a point just below the hilt, the head forming the tip. The outstretched wings formed the two other tips of the handle.
Cassima gripped the thing in her hand, rotating it slightly to the left and to the right, examining every texture and material it was composed of. She suddenly became aware that she had never held a dagger before, the next closest object to one being a kitchen knife. She felt a sense of power flood her as she examined her delicate, slender fingers coiled around the glowing metal.
As the light danced off the small, but potentially powerful dagger, Cassima’s eyes became filled with hope and amazement of the realization that Alexander could have happened upon just the tool she could have hoped for. She was yearning to ask him where he had gotten it, but she couldn’t find the words to ask him. Instead, she exclaimed:
“Why, it’s perfect! It’s just the sort of thing I’ve been looking for! Thank you, Alexander. I’ll keep it close and use it if I must.”
Then she carefully tucked the dagger into the left side of her belt, watching that she didn’t accidentally prick herself or her garments with it. The minuteness of the dagger made its presence nearly undetectable, and she could hardly feel it at her side either. Again, she smiled, but once again, she remembered what was at stake, and concern clouded her face again.
Alexander seemed glad that he had fulfilled her need for a weapon, but he still seemed to have something on his mind. Again, he reached and withdrew something, and as he had done before, lifted it to the opening in the wall, and pushed it towards her face.
“I found this letter in the vizier’s bedroom. I…I think you should know what it says.”
Cassima almost snatched the paper from Alexander’s hands in her eagerness. How he had managed to get into Alhazred’s quarters was beyond her, but she was sure that the vizier was plotting something far more devious than simply marrying her…holding the letter with trembling hands, she slowly read the jagged, angular script written across the page:
To: Abdul Alhazred
From: The Wizard Shadrack
Greetings to a brother of the Black Cloak. I was sorry to hear of great Mordack’s death, though he was a bit of a ninny at chess. It seems the plans for that little kingdom of yours are coming along. I must congratulate you on your handling of the king and queen. Isolating the islands so no protest could develop was another brilliant stroke. It looks like there’s not much left to stand in your way. Do as I recommended with the girl, and you shall have your crown.
Cassima felt the blood drain from her face in fear and her stomach quivered uneasily as she read the last few lines. In fact, she nearly dropped the letter, her hands were shaking so wildly. It all seemed to fit now – her imprisonment…the rising conflict between the isles…her parents’ deaths…and the guards’ talks about a foreign man intending to assassinate her…Alhazred must have meant Alexander…but the last line…”Do as I recommended with the girl”…Cassima knew all too well what this Shadrack was referring to.
“I can’t believe it!” she gasped. “I had my suspicions, but this confirms everything!”
As her terror was subsiding, she glanced back at the letter and winced. She didn’t want to read those grisly details again. She knew all too well what was going on…but she had a weapon now, and didn’t feel so unarmed…but Alexander was in greater need of help than her. With every guard in the castle on the lookout for him, he needed some evidence to prove who the real enemy was. As loyal as the guards were to Alhazred, the letter that Cassima held was the only thing that could sway them.
“Alexander,” she said, handing the document back to him through the gap, “You keep the letter. You might have a chance to show it to someone who can help you stop Alhazred. Just be careful, please…”
Alexander nodded solemnly, then, in spite of all the troubles Cassima knew were upon him, he smiled. Cassima could almost see the tears glistening in his clear, blue eyes, and she was almost sure she felt some in her own. For a few endless seconds, they gazed at each other, not knowing what to say or do, when suddenly a loud clamor behind Cassima made her turn her head.
It sounded like loud footsteps from behind her door…perhaps it was only one of the guards, or Saladin checking on the two that were posted there…but no. The footsteps came closer, and a loud, metallic rattling followed. Someone was trying to force open her door, and whoever it was sounded like he wasn’t delivering her supper.
“Oh no! Someone’s coming!” she gasped as the rattling became louder and more cacophonous. Quickly turning back to the hole in the wall and the prince’s alarmed eyes, she whispered:
“Alexander, hurry! Step away before they see you!”
Immediately, the face that had so briefly comforted her disappeared into the shadows behind the wall.
Alhazred had left his room and was walking swiftly towards the door to the east tower. Suddenly Jollo came jingling up the stairs and stood, blocking his way.
“Vizier Alhazred! I thought I heard a noise from up here! Is that assassin you told me about trying to kill Cassima?”
“He will not be any trouble, clown,” said Alhazred coldly. “Now please step aside.”
The vizier tried to step around Jollo but the short man blocked his path.
“I want to know if the princess is safe, Alhazred,” Jollo said with more seriousness in his voice than usual.
“You have my word that Cassima is as safe as – “
Before Abdul could finish, Jollo clapped his fat hand on the other man’s bony shoulder.
“I don’t trust your word, Alhazred. The word I’ve been hearing from the guards is that the princess has been pounding on her door, begging to be let out. I also heard rumors that you were saying cruel things about Allaria and Caliphim to her…”
“Enough!” snarled Alhazred, trying to push Jollo’s hand away. “The wedding takes place in half an hour and I want to inspect ever nook and cranny to be certain that the palace is secure.”
“Didn’t you just say that the assassin would no longer be a problem?” asked Jollo, prodding the vizier in the ribs with a finger.
“Yes, but there might be other assassins. You never can tell. I want to be certain that Cassima is safe from harm!”
“She’s been ‘safe from harm’ for nearly half a year, Alhazred,” grumbled Jollo, and you’ve been allowing her as much freedom as a caged parrot.”
“Shut up, clown!” snapped Alhazred. “I have superiority over you and the girl, like it or lump it. Perhaps you could find work outside the castle? In a local tavern, perhaps? Where the wage is about a fifth of what you are paid here?”
“Oh no!” cried Jollo with sudden petrified stiffness in his limbs and paleness in his face. “I wouldn’t work anywhere else but here! I’ve been the court jester since I was just a lad!”
The clown placed his hands on both of Alhazred’s shoulders in a friendly gesture that the vizier took with a cold glare.
“Please understand that I don’t mean to rebel against you, sir,” he said, “I’m just concerned for Cassima. We were good friends in the past, you know.”
“A clown and a princess do not make a very nice couple,” snapped Alhazred. “Now step aside before I tell the guards to.”
“Certainly, certainly,” said Jollo, patting the vizier’s shoulder and shaking his hand, which he stuffed into his pocket after doing so. “I didn’t mean to offend you, sire. I’ll be seeing you.”
The clown trotted off and waited until the vizier entered the east tower. Then he reached into his pocket and pulled out a small ring, from which dangled several keys. He smiled with relief. His sleight-of-hand skills had proved useful after all. Still, if he wanted to accomplish what he had promised Prince Alexander had asked of him, he had to move quickly. Not much time remained.
Cassima whirled around, positioning herself so that her back covered the hole and whoever was trying to force open her door wouldn’t see it or Alexander, if he was still there. Her mind raced as she tried to guess who was trying to get inside.
Could it be that the false assassin that Alhazred had claimed Alexander was an actual person, and was now trying to do what all the guards had tried to prevent? If so, why was he making so much noise? Hopefully, it would attract the attention of a guard…or even Alhazred, who wouldn’t allow her to be killed by someone other than himself, lest more rumors should develop.
Her tension was swelling with each rise in the volume of the clamor. Finally, the door burst open and Cassima found herself face to face with something that shocked her so much that she nearly collapsed.
It was her. It was like a perfect reflection of the princess, with the exception that it was alive, breathing, and was coming right for her. At first she was ready to think she was hallucinating, that she was losing her mind in all the chaos that has exploding around her, when she saw a familiar golden flash in the narrowed, mischievous green eyes, and she knew what that creature that looked exactly like her was.
She shrieked and in desperation tried to duck past the figure and out the door, which was open as it hadn’t been in nearly a half-year. But the disguised genie was too quick for her, and grabbed her arm and yanked her back to his body. Before Cassima could try to break free, the room had dissolved, and she and her double were standing in the east tower. The wild greens of the walls and domed ceiling seemed to leer at her like giant dragons as she struggled to break free from her captor’s strong grip, and the huge, decorative sword glistened like a rectangular, golden eye. The huge, star-shaped design painted on the floor dizzied her as her captor gripped her firmly as iron.
“Shamir! What’s going on?? What are you doing?” she screamed, hoping that her voice would be heard by whoever was nearby.
“I’m afraid I can’t tell you, Cassima,” said Shamir, in a voice exactly like hers, but with an accent that made it sound like the voice of someone just using it, like a young child’s, jerky and high-pitched. “Alhazred would not like you to know before it’s over.”
“Before what’s over?” cried Cassima, but even as she spoke, Shamir drew a length of rope out of one of the pockets of his dress and snapped it around Cassima’s left wrist. The rope instantly wound itself around her hand, then whipped out like a cobra and snared her other hand, binding the two together so tightly she could hardly move them.
“Can’t risk you making any mischief, my dear,” said Shamir sadly. “I’d best wait until my master arrives. He may know what to do with you.”
Cassima was ready to throw herself upon this creature mocking her every gesture with his exaggerated steps and drawling, innocent voice. But the two things that she took for granted far too often were now bound and immobile. She could run, but to where? The genie could appear anywhere he wished at will, and he wasn’t about to let her escape.
But still, she couldn’t just stand there. She had almost escaped from the castle several times, and she couldn’t give up. She simply couldn’t. Something in her blood – an instinct, almost – seemed to fuel her adrenaline and put wings on her feet and she sped to the west wall of the circular room.
Just as she was about to try opening the tower door and making a dash for her room, no matter how futile it seemed, it swung open and Alhazred strode into the tower, a long, menacing sword at his side.
“Shamir!” he barked angrily. “I told you to silence the girl before she caught on! Someone might hear her!”
“Sorry, master,” said Shamir, this time talking with his normal voice. “But I can’t stay in this form and cast spells at the same time.”
“What?? Damn you, Shamir!” roared Alhazred. “Stand aside! I’ll take care of her!”
With that, Alhazred grabbed the rope that bound Cassima’s hands and flung her against the wall. Her head collided heavily with the green stone, but she still was conscious, staring with boiling hatred at the vizier and Shamir. For a moment, Alhazred looked surprised, as if the princess didn’t go down as easily as he had anticipated. Perhaps her stay at Mordack’s had hardened her, mentally and bodily, making her stronger than the fragile waif she once was. It seemed that Alhazred had unknowingly strengthened his enemy.
The irony of the event didn’t seem to touch either of them at the moment; Cassima was lying against the wall, panting with anger and hidden terror, and Alhazred was glaring back at her with equal rage, his right hand on the hilt of his sword, looking just as intimidating as Mordack had with his wand. But Mordack was dead and gone, and Abdul Alhazred was alive and well, and not about to surrender to a tied-up soon-to-be ex-Princess Cassima.
“You’ll soon regret every time you’ve interfered with my affairs!” Alhazred growled. “After our wedding is over, you will finally get to see your precious parents again!”
“If you think I’m going to marry you, you’re mad!” Cassima yelled. “My father never wished me to be your bride! Neither did my mother!”
“Oh, but you’re not going to marry me, Cassima,” said Alhazred, bending down so that his nose nearly touched hers.
“What?” She hissed. “But…what…”
She looked behind Alhazred at Shamir, still disguised as her, then she looked at the vizier again and nearly choked with the horror of her realization of what was happening. The conversations. The voice that sounded like hers. Why didn’t she see it before? Why couldn’t she have realized it sooner? Why…
“And before we are married, my dear little princess,” continued Alhazred, “I think it is safe to tell you that your parents didn’t die of heartbreak.”
He leaned even closer, his hands gripping her shoulders, and Cassima prepared herself for what she knew was coming.
“I killed them.”
Before Cassima could react, Alhazred suddenly gripped her shoulders even tighter, pulled her body towards him, then smashed her head against the wall behind her. There was a brief flash of pain, the tower burned in a blaze of vivid colors, then everything faded to black.
Cassima couldn’t remember how long she was unconscious. All she could remember was a strange chain of events one after the other leading up to the point when she awakened. She had a brief dream in which she was running from Alhazred, Shamir, Mordack and Manannan, followed by a swarm of other enemies that she had never seen before. She was running through the castle, up stairs, down corridors, through the cellars, and finally into her room, where there was no way out except for the window. Fearing how she had broken her arm the last time she had tried escaping that way, she hesitated, but then she heard the bellows and animal-like roars coming from her pursuers and in desperation, she leapt out of the window.
For a moment, she seemed to be floating, but then she began to fall. But as she fell, her body began changing. Her chest became lighter, her arms became longer and soft down began sprouting on them. In the space of only a few seconds, she had become a bird. She couldn’t tell if she was a raven or a nightingale, the only thing she saw was a way to flee the castle, just as she had desired to do when Sing-Sing had returned with Alexander’s ring. As she soared upwards, gracefully and fleetly, she heard raucous calls resounding behind her. She turned her head just in time to see Mordack and Alhazred transforming into hideous, monstrous, hairy, demon-like birds, with gaping teeth and curved, knife-like talons. As Cassima turned to try to escape, one of the creatures swooped down on her and sank its claws into her body.
The dream suddenly faded away, but there was still a pain in her left side. She couldn’t tell what the pain was, and before she could consider it, she faded into another dream. This time she was sitting at an elaborate pipe organ, playing a beautiful piece of music on it. Ulrica sat at her side, humming along with the music.
Again, Cassima began slipping into the conscious realm, and again, she heard the same music in her dream. She couldn’t tell what it was, and once more, she segued into another dream.
This one was different and much longer than the previous two. She was much younger, perhaps only ten or nine years old, lying in her mother’s lap, while her father watched over them both. They were in a green garden, in fact, everything around them seemed green, the ground, the trees, the sky…it was like they were inside an enormous greenhouse. Her mother was telling her a story, and young Cassima was slowly nodding off. The story went on for what seemed like a long time, but soon Allaria began talking more slowly, as if she were growing tired too. But when Cassima saw a dark figure approaching through the green haze. It shimmered, and the darkness it gave off almost bled into the landscape. Caliphim began looking concerned, and Allaria stopped telling her story as she stared at the coming figure.
Suddenly the creature lunged forward like a panther, with one hand gripping a long, black sword. Allaria gasped without making any noise, Cassima’s eyes grew wide, and Caliphim rose to his feet, raised his hand and yelled something at the creature.
Curiously, the moment her father began to speak, the dream dissolved, but the brilliant green remained. She was lying against the wall of the top floor of the east tower, the light of the afternoon sun was pouring through the three tall windows, her head was pounding, and a strangely familiar voice was echoing through the castle. It was the same voice she had heard in her dream, the voice that was her father’s…but no…it couldn’t be his. He and her mother were gone, murdered by that slimy beast, Alhazred…but Cassima wasn’t dead. She was alive…but for how long? The last words Alhazred had told her informed her that she would soon be with her parents again. Had he already killed her? Was that why she was hearing her father’s voice? And there was still that strange music and the pain in her side…what was happening…?
The room was still blurry and unclear. Cassima tried to focus her eyes, but they refused to obey her mind. Had the impact of her head against the wall damaged her eyesight? Was that his plan, to blind her so that she couldn’t escape? It was surely more permanent than knocking her out and tying her hands…
Suddenly a loud yell and an explosion of noise caused her head to snap up and her vision to clear instantly. It sounded like huge waves breaking below her. Then everything began to come together, as if the noise had reignited her wits and her memory of what she had heard and experienced before Alhazred threw her against the wall: the music was wedding music. It had stopped shortly after she heard the voice, which she still had no idea about, and the pain in her side was her dagger. As for everything else, Alhazred was “marrying” Shamir in disguise, Alexander was somewhere in the walls, the guards were guarding every possible location in the castle and Cassima was still sprawled out on the floor. Why should I be lying here when I could be stopping this thing? She thought furiously.
Instinctually, she tried to grab her dagger, which was still stuck in her belt and pricking her hip like a needle, but the ropes were still tight around her wrists, and they prevented her from reaching it. She twisted her torso around, the ropes chafing her skin as she strained to reach the one thing that could free her hands. She had barely grasped it when suddenly, she heard a percussion of running footfalls on the stairs that spiraled up to the top of the tower. Almost certain who it was, Cassima quickly jerked her hands from her belt, and just in time.
Thundering up the stairs came Alhazred, his wrinkled face red, his mouth contorted into a furious snarl, his nostrils flaring spasmodically as he tried to catch his breath. When he noticed that Cassima was awake, however, he stomped towards her, his hand gripping the hilt of his sword as he did. Cassima tried to back away, but since she was as close against the wall as she could get, it didn’t do much good. Alhazred grabbed the front of her dress and yanked her towards him, breathing like a mad wolf.
“You are quite a tricky little fly to squash,” Alhazred growled. “But very few creatures pop back up after being chopped in two with my sword!”
“You will never get away with this!” Cassima screamed, yanking her garments free from his hand. “I heard what happened down there, and I know something went wrong. Someone’s after you!”
Alhazred looked frightened for a moment, then mellowed out slightly.
“That damnable Prince Alexander must have performed some dark, forbidden magic! How else could he have brought them back al – ”
“Alexander?” Cassima asked. “Brought who back? What do you mean? What’s happening?”
Suddenly she heard another sound of someone running up the steps. As he appeared around the banister, she couldn’t see his face because his head was down, but she could see the rest of him: a young, dark-haired man wearing a green tunic with a broad yellow scarf and black trousers. Before he even lifted his face and looked at her, she was certain who it was.
“Alexander! Be careful! Alhazred has a sword!”
“Shut up, wench!” snarled the vizier. Seeing the trouble he was in, he bellowed at the top of his lungs: “Shamir Shamazel! Get in here!”
Instantly, the genie appeared, this time in his own form, looking slightly winded.
“Here I am, master!” he cried.
“It’s about time, you bumbling fool! How could you let him follow me?” said Alhazred, gesturing towards Alexander, who was looking nervous, but prepared for whatever was about to happen.
“Well,” spluttered the genie, “There were the guard dogs, sir, and then…”
“Never mind!” yelled Alhazred, his eyes suddenly narrowing until they became tiny black slits, no larger than a lizard’s. “Just kill him – Kill him now!”
Cassima’s insides froze like ice. For a moment she couldn’t move, couldn’t see anything except the frightened expression on Alexander’s face. Shamir had begun casting the spell that would cause the prince’s demise, which involved doing a crazy dance in place, with sparks of light flashing from his fingers as he chanted a strange mantra that would sound ridiculous in any other situation, but now the nonsensical words were like the roars of wild beasts about to spring upon their prey.
It seemed to be taking the genie a long time to cast his spell, in fact, it had been going on for several seconds, but Cassima hadn’t noticed the time difference. Suddenly she remembered that she wasn’t as helpless as the vizier thought she was. The dagger that Alexander had given her was still tucked in her belt, literally biting at her, as if in pleading to be used. She could quickly cut her bonds, run across the room and tackle Shamir before he finished his incantation…
But before she moved to grasp the hidden handle, she realized that Alhazred was still standing a few feet from where she lay. Although his eyes were on Shamir and Alexander, he was still close enough to her to notice anything she tried to do. If he saw her using the dagger, he would snatch it away in an instant, leaving her no way to free herself. She had to wait until he was distracted…but until then she had to still appear to be struggling…if she didn’t move, Alhazred would grow suspicious and surely question her…Cassima began squirming and trying to free her hands as she thought this.
But then she became aware that what she had thought of stopping was still going on, the genie was becoming more animated and excited, and the light that flew from his hands was growing more brilliant as he spun around.
Then, for the third time, the sound of footsteps came ebbing up from the base of the tower. But these were different. They weren’t stiff sandals, like Alhazred’s, they weren’t leather boots like Alexander’s, in fact, they had hardly any sound at all…except for the bells. Bells?
Cassima listened intently. Yes…they were soft cloth shoes with bells sewn on the tips of the toes…and only one person in the castle owned such an odd pair…
Jollo came running up the stairs, his fez nearly slipping off his cropped, black hair, gripping something tightly in his hands, gasping heavily as he ascended.
“Prince Alexander!” he yelped, “I did it! I swapped the lamps! Here, quick, take it!”
As he spoke these words, he quickly thrust something oblong and blue into Alexander’s hands. From what Cassima could see of it from her position across the room, she identified it as a bottle of some kind, but for some reason, it didn’t appear as normal as a bottle should be. And what was Jollo doing here? Had he met Alexander before? And what did he mean by “I swapped the lamps”? Alhazred didn’t seem to be enlightened any more than the princess did.
“Bless you, Jollo,” said Alexander, speaking for the first time in the tower, his voice calm, yet anxious. “I knew you could do it! Now get clear, my friend!”
“No arguments there, my lord! Good luck!” called Jollo as he turned and scampered down the stairs as quickly as he had come up.
But the genie and his master seemed as indifferent as ever about the events that had just taken place. Shamir kept on winding up for his spell, and Alhazred watched him closely, making sure that the job was done right, but as focused as his gaze was upon his genie, he still watched Cassima out of the corner of his eye. She still could do nothing to stop the death of her friend, which would probably happen in a matter of seconds.
Suddenly Alexander unstoppered the bottle and held it before him like a torch.
“Shamir Shamazel!” he commanded. “Hold your spells! I am your master now. I order you to enter your lamp!”
Cassima suddenly realized why the bottle looked so strange to her. She knew Shamir had a lamp, as most genies did, but she had never actually seen it. Jollo must have somehow stolen it and known of Alexander’s arrival in the Isles…but the only other thing Cassima noticed was that the expressions on both Shamir’s and the vizier’s faces had changed dramatically with the sight of the lamp. Shamir was wearing an ecstatic grin, but Alhazred looked as if he had just stared Death in the eyes.
“How did you get my lamp?” he stammered, his voice becoming pinched and hotter as he spoke. “You thief! You…you…you…You’ve ruined me!”
“My lamp!” shrieked Shamir. “Oh thank Balhalla! I hated working for that loathsome creature! I already feel his nastiness leaving me! How I’ve longed for a master like you!”
It would be hilarious if Cassima hadn’t been so nervous that her nails were digging into her clenched palms. As she watched with trembling eyes, the genie vanished in a flash of light and reappeared at Alexander’s side, where he quickly dissolved into a wisp of smoke and wriggled through the lamp’s narrow opening, as he mockingly chanted:
“I’ve got a new master! I’ve got a new master!”
Alexander quickly placed the cork back in the bottle. As he did so, however, Alhazred had begun stomping towards him, his hand on the hilt of his sword. Cassima could sense what he was about to do. Her heart quivered sickeningly as she looked at the two men, one furious, the other frightened, one facing her, the other with his back to her…
Wait – Alhazred wasn’t keeping an eye on her anymore. He seemed to have forgotten about her entirely as he strode towards the man that had claimed possession of his personal genie. As petrified with terror as Cassima was, she knew that she couldn’t just lie on the floor like a worm and watch the vizier kill Alexander. She still had a chance to stop him, and this would probably be the only chance she got. She would either stop the man who killed her parents from taking the life of another dear to her heart, or die in the attempt.
Shoving her bound hands into the left side of her belt burned painful red friction marks into her flesh, but she couldn’t even feel the pain now. Grabbing the dagger by the hilt, she drew it out, the winged serpent on the silver blade flashing in the late afternoon sun. Her eyes flicked upwards just in time to see the vizier stop about two steps in front of Alexander, unsheathe his sword and deftly knock the blue lamp out of the prince’s hand.
Alexander watched blankly as the lamp bounced down the stairs. When the clattering finally stopped, Alhazred raised his sword menacingly, the tip almost level with his opponent’s throat.
“So you are a thief as well, Alexander?” he growled. “Stealing that lamp was very clever, I grant you, but I am the master thief! Face me if you dare! The man left standing shall have the lamp!”
Cassima was burning with anger and ready to rush at the vizier and slam his skull against the wall like he had done with her…but since her hands were still tightly bound, that wasn’t an option. She had to work quickly. Even though Alhazred’s attention was all on the prince now, he could still turn and see her holding the dagger at any moment. Cassima realized that she had to not only concentrate on slicing through the ropes, but also make sure that the vizier couldn’t see her. It would be a near-impossible feat, but she was ready to try it.
“So it shall be, Alhazred!” said Alexander, his eyes narrowing. “I don’t need the genie to deal with a coward like you!”
As worried as she was how Alexander was going to fight the vizier with no weapon she could see, Cassima ducked her head down and struggled to position the dagger so that she could cut the ropes without cutting herself. Just as she had found a configuration that she deduced would free her in the shortest time possible, she heard a metallic crash that shook the floor and almost made her drop her weapon.
She glanced up and noticed with surprise that Alexander had grabbed the decorative sword from its place upon the wall. The unanticipated weight of the object had caused him to drop it, and now he was partially stooped over, grasping the enormous golden hilt with both hands, the end of the thick blade on the floor. With difficulty, he raised the sword and laid the dull blade across his right shoulder, still looking surprised.
“Zounds!” he exclaimed. “This sword must weigh a ton!”
“Good,” purred Alhazred. “Then you shall only fail sooner, my prince!”
Cassima suddenly realized that she had been unconsciously sawing away at the ropes even though her eyes were on Alexander and Alhazred. She had only gotten through one or two of the cords, but it was better than nothing. Too anxious to look away from the inevitable battle and too desperate to stop the vizier before he killed Alexander, she quickly resorted to glancing up at the two men and down at her work at least once every second. It wasn’t the most efficient way to do such a thing, but it was the only thing she could think of at the moment.
As she quickly cut through a thin strand of rope and sliced her left wrist in the process, she raised her head just in time to see Alexander advance towards the vizier, holding his sword as mightily as he could (which was difficult considering that he still had it slung over his shoulder).
“So!” Alhazred said in feigned surprise and extreme mockery of the prince’s efforts. “The mouse would bite?”
“This mouse shall bite, as you shall soon see – or should I say, soon feel?” replied Alexander.
With that, he lifted his sword and swung it towards Alhazred, who blocked it skillfully and thrust his weapon towards Alexander’s chest. Alexander leapt aside and tried to swing his weapon again, but the weight of the sword that Cassima knew was never meant for anything but decoration was so great that he had to lean forward to achieve maximum momentum. The vizier still had his back to the princess, and even if he wasn’t facing away from her, he would still be too busy with Alexander to notice her, let alone what she was doing.
Cassima was growing so nervous that her hands were starting to convulse. She began cutting her skin in many places, sometimes just a small nick, at other times, drawing blood. She alternated between focusing on freeing herself and focusing on the fight, the scratching of the dagger and the clanging of the swords…
Scheherazade, of hero’s might…
“Hah! You can hardly lift that sword, my ‘prince!’” Alhazred laughed. “Better lay it down now. I promise to dispatch you with little pain.”
“A tempting offer,” Alexander replied, still as calm as ever but the perspiration on his brow visible even from Cassima’s viewpoint. “But I think I’ll wait and see what this sword can do.”
“Suit yourself,” said Alhazred curtly.
Weave your adventures day and night…
Cassima was nearly through her bonds. Only three or so ropes remained. Blood was trickling down her wrists from the places she had cut herself and the chafing from the cords made the pain even more extreme, but she couldn’t feel anything but the need to help Alexander. She felt her heart beating faster as she worked with the knife, her teeth rubbing against each other, her mind becoming an electric, prickly orb of impulses, with the only thoughts running through it were: faster, hurry, help, go, now, and stop him.
It was like the primitive mind of a beast, one that killed to survive or got killed itself. The ancient energy was pulsing through her, burning behind her eyes, making the light of the sun blinding and the shadows as solid as their models. She heard herself breathing heavily and almost snarling as she ripped through the last of her bonds like a panther clawing its way out of a hunter’s net.
Never falter, never fail…
The clashes of the swords were cutting into Cassima’s brain. She bit her tongue to keep herself from screaming. The fight was still raging, both on the tower floor and inside her. She watched as the two moved in circles like planets around a sun, the star-like image inscribed on the floor making the metaphor even more obvious. Once Alexander dropped his sword and Cassima’s throat tightened for but a moment as Alhazred clouted his opponent on the side of his head, but Alexander hit the vizier back, giving him just enough time to retrieve his fallen sword and block Alhazred’s sword before it impaled him.
Cassima quickly and quietly rose to her feet and moved closer to the two fighters. Her legs were trembling, as was the rest of her body. She looked carefully at Alhazred and Alexander. The vizier seemed just as strong as he had when he started, but Alexander was starting to slow down. If Cassima didn’t do something, he was going to die the death that all tragic heroes were fated to suffer.
You’re the one who lives the tale…
Cassima still hesitated on the periphery of the star design, standing on one of the broad, triangular rays. As strong as she had been in the past, she knew she wouldn’t survive a blow from Alhazred’s blade. It wasn’t a magical spell that wore off in a few hours and it wasn’t a locked room that she could try to escape from. If she failed this time, she would be killed. Stabbed through the heart like her parents before her, and like Alexander would be after the vizier finished her.
In the frenzy of the moment, she had totally forgotten the dagger that she still gripped in her right hand. She gazed dumbly at it and the raw, red skin of her wrists and the pieces of rope that she hadn’t bother to cut off. It looked like the hand of a prisoner or a slave, not a princess. But Cassima realized that she was more than just a princess. She had been a hostage, a slave, a captive, a fugitive, an adventurer, a lover…every character that she had wondered about so often when she was young she had been. Every facet of her stories and poems she had lived, breathed and experienced.
Do not fear the unsheathed knife…
In spite of this sudden revelation, Cassima doubted if she could actually defeat this experienced swordsman with only a small dagger that, when placed against Alhazred’s sword, looked like a hummingbird placed against an eagle. She couldn’t possibly kill him…but then, death would probably be too good for Alhazred. After all the crimes he committed, he shouldn’t be allowed to rest in peace yet, Cassima thought.
But still, if he dueled against Alexander any longer, the prince would either faint of exhaustion or become skewered on the vizier’s blade. Cassima cautiously moved to the right as the men began nearing the center of the tower’s floor. The painted circle that encompassed them seemed to spiral around and down with Alexander’s draining strength. The princess noticed that Alhazred’s back was still towards her, his lean, sinewy shoulders like folded bat wings under his tunic.
Suddenly, it was as if she could feel what Alexander was feeling. Her head throbbed painfully, her arms began trembling as she broke out in a beaded sweat. Even though she couldn’t see it in his face she knew that the prince’s strength was almost gone. The vizier, however, seemed to sense this as well, and began moving closer to the prince, his sword raised.
Then, a blinding instinct gripped Cassima’s body. She began running closer to the center of the tower with quick, nimble movements as if she had wings. The light from the windows reflected off her dagger and shot tiny shafts of light off the walls and ceiling. The shimmering canopy of green around her made her move wildly, as if she were trying to find a way to break out. She leapt from one position to another, making sure the vizier didn’t see her. The elaborate star on the floor spun beneath her feet, and seemed to rise above her, up to the conical ceiling and down again.
It was a feeling different than anything she had experienced before. It was as if the winged serpent that encircled her dagger had entered her body, the warmth and magic of the gold giving her the power to move like a beam of light, jumping from one place to the next, her golden wings blinding the eyes of the one she was attempting to reach. The snake’s instincts in her blood made her muscles tense as she prepared to strike. Along with the gold of the dagger, the boiling metal of the golden heart pressed against her own heart seemed to pulse with life, the molten liquid coursing through her body, an invisible fire within her that guided her every move and breath.
She couldn’t stop herself. A strange force had taken over, and she was no longer a bound and helpless young woman. She was one of the ancient heroes prepared to take their stand, she was Perseus treading on air, about to slay the gorgon, she was Theseus, pausing before the threshold before the Minotaur’s lair, she was Antigone, going against the gods for what she knew in her heart as right…she was every hero and heroine that had existed, and she was about to prove that she was.
Your dreams and thoughts become your life…
“Hah! And so it ends!” yelled Alhazred as Alexander began to lose the grip on his sword and slump to the floor with fatigue. Cassima rushed up behind the vizier, her eyes and dagger flashing with equal tenacity.
“Not if I can help it, you murderer!” she shouted, and before Alhazred could turn to see what the strange voice was, Cassima drove the dagger into the vizier’s shoulder up to the hilt. He screamed with pain and fell to his knees.
Even before she attacked him, she could see herself as if her mind had temporarily left her body: an angry, tense young woman, her black hair cascading over her shoulders and back, her sea-green veil with its dark blue gem absorbing the light and glowing with a phosphorescence of their own, her dress rippling around her slim, yet muscular legs, deprived of extreme physical activity for months, yet now they seemed as supple as her arms, her right hand clutching the dagger, her left contorted with tenseness. Though it was so fast, she could see each and every stage of it as it replayed in her mind, the force of the words she said, the flicker of light on the dagger as it shot through the air in a broad arc and hit its target.
Almost instantly, another instinct took hold of her, and she quickly withdrew the weapon and fled, running back to the place she had been tied up. Her blood was pounding in her ears, her lungs were heaving and her heart was beating against her ribcage like a clenched fist.
“You!” roared Alhazred behind her, his voice twisted with pain, rage and embarrassment. “You dare raise a finger to me?! You will regret that, princess!”
Fight demons in and out of you…
Cassima was so focused on getting away from the vizier that she didn’t realize she was wearing such a long dress until one of her feet snagged the front of it and she went sprawling across the floor. Just as she slid to a stop near the tower’s west wall, she heard the sound of a sword hitting something large and nonmetallic, followed by a loud thud.
She snapped her head in the direction of the sound, fearing that Alhazred had won the duel in spite of his wound. But to her amazement, Alexander was standing over the vizier’s unconscious body, holding the heavy sword and breathing heavily. Apparently he had used the weight of the sword to knock the vizier out, which was probably the only thing a sword of that size and weight was good for. A blessing and a curse, Cassima thought. They can exist together, after all.
Alexander let the sword fall to the floor and slowly walked over to where Cassima knelt on the floor, rubbing her injured wrists. She was still clutching the dagger, its silver blade now tinted red. Suddenly realizing how horrifying it looked, she gingerly stuck it back in her belt and looked up at Alexander, who was standing over her with a look of concern and relief in his eyes.
“Cassima! Are you all right?”
Get through your woes and start anew…
Cassima forced a smile in spite of her aching body.
“I’m fine, Alexander,” she replied. “I was just so afraid for you!”
“There’s no need to fear anymore, princess,” Alexander said in that same gentle voice that reassured her that they would meet again so many months ago, when they parted in Mordack’s castle. Cassima bowed her head and looked nonchalantly at the design painted on the tower floor.
“Yes. I know. How can I ever repay you? For myself…for my kingdom…”
Alexander knelt before her. Cassima let him grasp her hands, the same hands that had picked the locks that chained her inside the castle, the hands that held out the golden ring with his insignia that first informed her that he was near, the hands that had wielded the sword that defeated the vizier that had nearly destroyed…
“It was not in me to let harm come to you,” said Alexander. “Can you find it in you, princess, to give me more than your gratitude?”
Cassima raised her head and looked into her savior’s tired, yet hopeful face. She almost knew what he was thinking, yet she couldn’t help asking.
“Alexander! What are you saying?”
The prince’s next words sounded rough and awkward, as if he had never used them before. Cassima looked closely at his face, trying to read what his eyes were saying…
“I love you, Cassima,” he said slowly. “Would you ever consider…do you think you could…marry me?”
Even though she sensed he was going to ask her that question, Cassima was caught completely off-guard. Her face burned but she didn’t hide it from Alexander. It was just like her stories. The prince had rescued her from her captivity, defeated the enemy, and now he was asking if she would be his wife. As much as she had seen it described in words and pictures, Cassima was as unprepared as she was when Shamir entered her bedroom looking exactly like her.
But what else could she do but marry him? He had saved her, her homeland, and who could say what else? He had left his kingdom and his family and set out for a land he didn’t even know where it was. And what had she done in return? She had wished he hadn’t risked the journey, warned him not to try to get to her and indirectly nearly caused his death…
But wait…if she hadn’t rescued his father, Graham, from the dungeon in Mordack’s castle, Alexander would have been killed ages ago. Why, Graham himself told the rest of his family that Cassima saved his life, and Alexander told her that he was in her debt. And only a few minutes ago, she had prevented Alhazred from killing Alexander. When considering all that had happened, she realized that neither she nor her lover owed anything to each other, but still…
There was something else. Why had she done such a thing? She had acted like a savage beast, wounded another person and almost morphed into something dark and primordial that she had never even dreamed of before. Why had she done all these insane things?
Because I love him. That was why. All those poems and stories she read chronicled heroes going beyond their limits because of love. Why, didn’t Melampus race against an incredibly swift maiden that decreed that any man who lost a race against her killed? And didn’t Psyche accomplish each and every one of the impossible deeds that Hera gave her so she could marry Eros?
“Love is different for everyone, Cassima. It can make people do things a mad person wouldn’t do, it can change the way you see the world, it can turn a beast into a kitten, it can turn a lamb into a lion. But you will know when you are feeling it, Cassima. You will know.”
Finally, she raised her eyes and looked into Alexander’s face once again, but this time, with different eyes.
“Could you ever have doubted it, my prince?”
Then he wrapped his arms around her, as she did to him, and they kissed. It wasn’t like the expressions of affection given to her by her mother and father so long ago. It was a feeling of regained innocence. All her bad memories had been washed away in that moment they were together. It was probably the closest possible experience to touching the horn of the unicorn, which was said to cleanse the soul and purify the heart. She was crying again, but the tears that streamed down her cheeks were tears of happiness and joy. It didn’t matter what happened now. She was where she belonged.
When you find love and you are free,
A muffled grumble made both Alexander and Cassima stand up at once, their lips parting as they did. Gruff and Rowlf were standing beside Alhazred, who, although still sprawled out in the middle of the floor, was conscious and writhing in pain.
“Oh!” Cassima said in surprise. “Guards!”
“Princess Cassima!” said Gruff, obviously amazed to see her alive, “Are you well?”
“I am quite well, thank you,” said Cassima. The sight of the vizier lying on the floor as she had only a short while ago gave her a strong sense of power and authority. Quickly, she decided what to do about the vizier. As much as she loathed him for everything he had done, she couldn’t let him suffer like this.
“Please take Abdul and put him in the dungeon,” she said promptly. “See to it that he gets a doctor.”
“Yes, Majesty,” said Gruff. Rowlf turned and began walking back down the steps, his boots making loud, echoing noises as he descended. Cassima wondered why she hadn’t heard the guards ascending the stairs briefly, but her thoughts were distracted as she watched Alhazred rise groggily to his feet.
As he rubbed the side of his head (obviously the side Alexander had hit with his sword), he glanced briefly at Cassima with a mixture of anger and bitter defeat. Then he turned and walked stiffly down after Rowlf. Gruff followed closely behind him, holding the vizier’s sword in his paw, a silent snarl on his face.
Cassima turned and looked at Alexander. He was smiling slightly, and his hand was still clasped in hers.
“Thank you so much, princess,” he said. “I can’t tell you how much you’ve made me happy in this short moment.”
“You don’t need to, Alexander,” Cassima replied. “I think I already know.”
She glanced around the tower slowly. The green of the tower was no longer a sickening gleam, but rather a beautiful, soft jade of a fresh leaf, and the warm sunbeams coming in through the window reminded her of the many childhood afternoons she spent here, playing with her parents and wishing that Ulrica could be there with them.
The light from one of the windows fell directly across the center of the floor, passing over the circle of the painted star. Alexander’s heavy sword lay inside the circle, shining like water, the tip pointing towards the spiral staircase that led down to the throne room.
“Shall we go down?” she asked.
Alexander nodded silently, and they slowly walked across the room, in and out of the three beams of light, and down the narrow, frigid stone steps. As cold as the tower felt, the warmth that passed between them made the air around them as warm as if they were standing outside.
Then Cassima remembered something that had been in her mind ever since her mother first read it to her. She decided to ask the person that was closest to her if he knew.
“Have you heard of…Scheherazade before?”
Alexander blinked in surprise, as if Cassima had awakened a long forgotten memory inside him. “Strange…now that you mention it, I have…”
“Really? Where did you see it, Alexander?”
“It was…well, it’s a long story. I’ll tell you when we have time.”
“She…she was quite a person, wasn’t she?”
“Yes, I think she was.”
Then a hero you will be.
Shards of light bounced off the rolling waves of a tropical archipelago. As wild as the waves were, they seemed to possess a happiness and a peacefulness that had left them for a brief time before. On the second largest island of the group was a Moorish castle with pale stucco walls that gleamed in the midday sun. In the west tower were two women, one young and one older. Also with them was an extraordinary creature, half dog and half human. She was seated before the younger of the two women, braiding her long, black hair and smiling gently.
The girl was still recovering by the amazing miracle that had only recently occurred. Her parents had been brought back from the Realm of the Dead by the man that she loved, her worst enemy had been exiled from her kingdom, and she was going to be married to the son of the man that had freed her from the castle of a dark wizard.
“Ulrica, only braid the locks towards the front,” she said to the old dog behind her.
“I will, Cassima,” replied the dog.
It still seemed strange that one man would bring the two people she loved the most back to life with only his wits and his logic. But then…resurrecting loved ones wasn’t uncommon in myths and legends. Had Orpheus not rescued his beloved Eurydice from Hades? And had Hercules not traveled to the Realm of the Dead to battle for the soul of his friend?
It seemed that every day since she and Alexander were reunited came closer to the fairy tales that she knew and loved. Her life was turning into a fantasy that was real. She would never forget how all those stories affected her. Her struggles had not been in vain after all. She and Alexander had won, and her homeland was safe once more.
Still, even though Cassima had helped Alexander in many small ways, he had helped her far more. She wished that there was a way to repay him. After hearing about his adventures in the Isles, she had a burning desire to prove herself to him and accomplish some deeds that he would be amazed by. But will there ever be a chance for that?
“I knew from the moment I saw him that that young prince would be perfect for you, Cassima,” said the older woman. “And you also loving him made the two of you an excellent match. You and Prince Alexander were meant to be together, like you said.”
“I know, mother,” said Cassima. “But during all the months I was in captivity, it was the memory of the stories and poems you read me that kept me going on and trying to find a way of escape.”
“Was one of these poems the one that you mentioned to me when you cut your finger that one day?” asked Ulrica. “The one about Scheherazade?”
“Why yes…” began Cassima, then she realized what was coming next. “That page wasn’t part of that book. You put it in there, didn’t you, Ulrica?”
“That I did, my Little Rose,” smiled Ulrica, chuckling. “I thought that you would like it.”
“Like it? Ulrica, that poem practically controlled my attitude towards life for almost a year!” Cassima exclaimed. “Not that I’m saying you did something wrong. There’s something truly magical about that poem.”
“Actually,” said Ulrica, “I was inspired by that poem myself some time back. I wrote this little variation of it, and I feel that it truly applies to you.”
The old nurse reached inside a pocket of her dress and took out a crumpled sheet of paper, on which were scrawled childish words…the words of a familiar poem…
“Ulrica! I didn’t know you could write!”
“I couldn’t. But to tell you the truth, Cassima, you convinced me to learn how. Read it out loud for your mother and I. Please?”
Cassima smiled, held the paper in front of her, took a deep breath and began to read.
Wove her adventures day and night
Never faltered, never failed
No matter what her tasks entailed
Never feared the unsheathed knife
Her hopes and dreams became her life
Your journey, though it may seem done
Could be, in secret, just begun
You may have lost, you may have won
But if you’ve found love and you are free,
Then a hero you must be.”