Welcome to Andre Norton's

 

Reading Corner

 

andre norton storyteller 1948

Andre the Librarian hosting "Story Time" at the Cleveland Public Library ~ 1948

 

"Come on In! . . .Take a Seat! . . . and Settle Down! . . ."

As we share with you a tale by one of the leading story tellers of the past century.

 

Twice a Month (on the 1st and the 16th) We are going to post an original story by Andre Norton

During the showcase period you will be able to read it here free of charge.

 

Many were only published once.

So it's a sure thing that there's going to be a few you have never heard of.

The order will be rather random in hopes you return often.

 

Happy Reading!




 

 

The Dowry of the Rag Picker's Daughter

by Andre Norton

 

all.cats.are.gray.1953 fantastic universe

(2002) Published by DAW, PB, 0-756-40081-3, $6.99, 319pg ~ cover by Judy York

 

1st PublishedArabesques: More Tales of the Arabian Nights (1988) Edited by Susan Shwartz, Published by AvoNova, PB, 0-380-75319-7, $3.50, 258pg ~ cover by James Warhola

 

Available NowTales from High Hallack vol. 1 (2014) Published by Premier Digital Publishing, DM & TP, 1-624-67189-6, $22.95, 450pg ~ cover by Kib Prestridge

 

Bibliography Page - Dowry of the Rag Picker's Daughter, The (andre-norton-books.com)




 

The Way of the Limping Camel was six houses long and one wide—if mounds of tumbled earthen bricks could still be termed houses. Yet they were indeed inhabited by the very least and lowest of those who vowed allegiance to Caliph Ras el Fada, whose own dwelling at the other side of the city proudly showed a blazing watchtower striped with gold leaf.

The least of the houses on the way had been claimed by the rag picker Muledowa. He was always careful to thank the Great One of the Many Names for his great luck in finding it when his former roof had nearly landed on his head and had put an end to two ragged hens which were the care of his daughter Zoradeh. Well had he used his cane on her, too, for not foreseeing such a catastrophe and being prepared against it.

He sighed as he slip-slapped along on his worn sandals, for no one looking upon Zoradeh's unveiled face would ever come brideseeking—nor could he ever put her up for sale in the Market of Slaves, for again her djinn-given face would put an end to any hope of sale.

Deliberately he pushed Zoradeh out of his mind as he wished he could pull the whole of her misbegotten face and skinny body out of his life as well. At least this day the Compassionate and All-Powerful had smiled in his direction. His grip about the edge of the collection bag tightened as he trudged along.

Caliph Ras el Fada might be the ruler of Nid and at least ten surrounding territories. But he was not the ruler of his own harem; and he frowned blackly every time he thought about that. He too had a daughter, the veriest rose of a daughter, in whose person and face no man could find fault. The trouble was no longer hidden—and it was one often found among women—love of power and a hot temper. Better such a one be bagged and left in the waste to trouble mankind no more, than introduced into the company of any foolish man. For Jalnar had a strong will and a sharp mind of her own. All smiling eyes and cooing lips could she be until she got her will—then, like some warrior female of the djinn, she became a force with whom no man could deal. Willing indeed was Caliph Ras ready to get rid of her. However, gossip was gossip and spread from the harem even into the marketplace. Since rumor had near a thousand tongues he could not cut out every one of them.

Also there was the matter of the future rule of his town. Though he had taken four wives, and been served by a variety of eager and willing concubines, he had unaccountably no other child who had lived past the fifth year save Jalnar. So he could not leave any heir save her husband—and he had yet to find one willing to accept, no matter how large a dowry he might offer; none for three years at least, until now. He ran his fingers through his beard, trying to put out of mind all else about this self-styled wizard Kamar, save the fact he had not only made an offer for Jalnar but had already gifted her with one of the dresses for her bridal viewing—all of silvery stuff, so sewn with pearls as to be worth a fortune.

The caliph clapped hands and summoned his favorite mamluk, sending him to the harem with a message for the head eunuch. But still he was too ill at ease to retire to his gold-embroidered cushions, and his hand gave such a hard tug to his beard that the tweak brought smarting tears to his eyes and words to his lips which were hardly those of a sublime ruler and respected Commander of the Faithful.

Down the Way of the Limping Camel came Muledowa. Zoradeh moved closer to the wall, waited to feel his digging stick laid hard about her shoulders, though she could remember no recent fault which would arouse her father's ire. To her great surprise he squirmed past the tall pile of broken mud bricks which served as a door without any greeting curse. To her even greater astonishment, he stooped to gather up the chunk of crumbling masonry which sealed the door and thumped it home, keeping his gathering bag still tight-pressed to him under his other arm. For the first time she could recall, there was an upturn to his lips within the thick beard which might be almost taken for a smile.

The shadow smile still lingered as he looked at her.

"Fortune sometimes aids the worthy man after all." With great care he placed the bag on the pavement between them. "I am at a turning of the road now, and soon I shall mount a fine she-mule and have a slave to run before me. Nor shall I grub among foul things for bread to fill the mouth."

She eyed him warily, afraid to ask any questions for fear he might well slide back into that other whom she had always known. But he had gone down on his knees and was tugging at the fastening of the bag. Still paying her no attention, he brought out something which caused her to cry out when she saw it.

Creased, and possessing a ragged tear down the front as if its last wearer had ripped it or had it torn from her body, was such a dress as she could not believe ever existed except in some tale. It was silver, shimmering, seeming to reflect the light here and there; and there were small and large pearls cunningly sewn in pattern on it. It was such a garment as only an houri would wear.

Her father was holding it up to the light, turning it carefully. He lifted the torn portion and held it in its place. Then for the first time he spoke to her. "Loathsome thou art, but still there is some use for you. Bring out your needle and the right kind of thread and make this as perfect as can be done. And"—he looked to the bucket of water she had brought from the well in the street—"wash your hands twice—thrice, before you lay hand on this. A princess' ransom might be in your hold."

Zoradeh reached out a hand to the shimmering pile of beauty. Then she leaned far forward and kissed the dusty pavement at her father's feet.

"On my head and hands be this done," she said as she gathered the bag around the treasure. She had myriad questions but dared voice none of them. She could only fear in silence that her father had in some manner stolen the robe.

"Aye, on your head, your hands, and your eyes." He went back to the broken door before he turned with infinite malice in both the look he directed at her and in his voice as he answered, "Good fortune seldom pays two visits to a man, and this is mine!"

He looked back at the shimmering heap and then went out. Zoradeh listened to the slap of his worn sandals. He was going down the street toward the small inn where he would drink minted tea and strive to outlie his two rivals for the rest of the afternoon.

She followed orders and washed her hands three times, daring to put in the rinse water of the last immersion a bit of well-shaved cinnamon bark, so that its fragrance warred against all the other, fouler odors in the wash that had once been a courtyard. Then, taking up the bag that was still half-wrapped about the wonder her father had brought home, she scrambled up to the part of the house which she had made her own, her father not choosing to follow her over the loose brick which often started sliding under one's feet. Once this must have been the harem of a noble house, for there were still fading pictures painted in flaring designs on the wall, or what was left of it. But now it was Zoradeh's own place of hiding. She spread out the bag as far as she could and stood up to shake free the robe.

Carefully the girl examined the tear across the front of the robe. It was a jagged opening apparently made by a knife, and, as she moved, pearls dripped from broken threads. Hastily she folded it tear-side-up and explored the bag and the floor about until she had near a full palm of the gleaming gems. How many had been lost along the way, or still lay near to where her father had found it? Find it he must have done, for Muledowa was the last man in the city to put his right hand into jeopardy for theft.

Ofttimes before she had mended thrown-away things her father had found in the trash and done so well that he was able to sell them to a dealer in old clothes in the market.

But she had never set fingers to such as this before. Bringing forth her packet of needles, she chose the smallest, and, using ravellings of the material itself, she set to work.

In the tree-shadowed court of the harem which formed nearly a third of the Caliph's palace, Jalnar lay soft and at ease on a pile of silken rugs while a slave rubbed her feet and ankles with sweet-smelling cream. She held up her silver hand mirror and studied her reflection in the polished surface critically. Nor did she turn her head as she spoke to the blowsy bundle of shawls and faceveil who squatted a few feet away.

"They say that there be only two lots for a woman—marriage or the grave. To me it seems that these be equal choices and there should be a third—a hidden rule, which we will find within the hour. You did as was told to you, Mirza? The thing will never again see the light of day?"

"Hearing was doing, Flower of All Flowers. It was thrust deep amid the foul refuse of the city—no one would go delving for profit there."

"In a way, Old One, it is a pity, for I have never seen its like. But then I have never been courted by a wizard before, and who knows what tricks of magic he bound around it—what tricks he might use against me when I went among his womenfolk. Wizards claim great powers, and they may be right. Better not yield to such a one.

"It is the duty of the caliph to provide me with at least seven bride dresses so that when I am shown to my lord, he sees me in full beauty. Why should this Kamar present one, thus breaking custom? Perhaps he would so bind me to some ifrit who would be ever with me that I may not in anything have my will."

The bundle of shawls shook. "Precious as Water in the Desert, speak not of such horrors. It is said that some may be summoned merely by thinking on them. It could well be that the wizard wishes only to do you honor, and that such affairs are arranged differently in his country. I have heard it ever said that foreigners have queer customs."

Jalnar slapped down the fan on her knee and kicked out at one of the girls who were soothing her feet. "Be gone, it is done as well as your awkward hands can do so. And you, Mirza, forget such foolishness. Has not the mighty Orban himself laid upon this castle and all it contains a protecting shell? All have heard of Orban—who has raised a voice to cry aloud the deeds of Kamar? Only by his own words do we know that he claims to be a wizard at all.

"If he is one, and has striven to burden me with some fate of his own devising—well, we have taken care of that, have we not, Old One?"

"Hearing and obeying, Great Lady," came her servant's answer, so softly that Jalnar had to strain to hear it, and her ears were the keenest ever known in Nid.

"Go now, all of you, I would sleep away the hot hours that I may appear at my best at the second showing—"

There was a grunt from the shawls and Jalnar laughed.

"So it has been said that Kamar wanted his gift shown tonight. Now you will whisper in the halls and kitchen that he misjudged my size—that my workers of needlecraft need to make some changes in it. Since he cannot come into the harem to search and ask, he needs must accept my words for that if he ask outright. You may tell all your old gossips that I shall wear it on the seventh night when the contract is to be signed, which will make me one to answer his slightest whim. That will bring us time and we can plan—" Her voice slid down into a hissing whisper as she waved all those with her away.

Zoradeh had feared the task her father had set her, for the stuff of its making was so fragile she thought that even handling might bring more destruction. Yet her needle slipped through the gauzy material as if there were holes there already awaiting it. She made fast each pearl with interweaving. It would seem that the rent was less than it looked at first, and she finished well before sundown. Standing up on the scrap of wall left to the house she allowed the faint breeze tug it out to the full. Truly a robe for a princess. How had her father come upon such a thing?

She held it close to her and wondered how it would feel to go so bravely clad through the days with maids aplenty, eunuchs and mamluks to obey and guard her. Now she looked carefully down along the street and then it was but a moment's work to undo her trousers which were patch upon patch, and her faded, much-mended shirt. Over her head went the robe; and it settled down about her, seeming to cling to her as might another, fairer skin. Zoradeh drew a deep breath and brought forward the water pail, waiting for the slopping of its contents to end so that she could use it as a mirror. Then she whipped the end of the headveil worn modestly about the lower part of her djinn-given face and looked.

Ah! with her face thus covered she looked like someone out of a fair dream and she straightened her back, aching from many hours of being bent above a task, giving her head a proud little toss… princess! So did clothes make the woman. Were she to venture forth with some guards and a bevy of maids, would her passage not have them talking about a princess very quickly indeed?

"Pearl among Pearls!" The voice startled her so that she nearly lost her precarious footing and fell down into the courtyard. There was a man in the outer lane, mounted on a fine black horse which seemed to dance with eagerness under his hand. And he wore the red scarf of the caliph's own guard looped about the rim of his helm.

"Fortune's Own Daughter!" He smiled gaily and raised his spear in salute. "Foolish is your lord to allow such a treasure to be seen. How came you here to glow like a lily under the full moon, but set in a marsh of muck so hard to reach and pluck forth—"

She must rid herself of this stranger before the return of her father, and what better way to do so than to prove to him what ugliness could be seen as a woman's face? Deliberately she jerked the wedge of the shawl from the veiling of her face, and waited for him to show distaste and dislike of the tooth-gnashing wrinkled mask as all the rest had done. Yet he did not turn away his head, spit out some charm against ifrit or demon. Instead he brought his horse closer to the crumbling wall and called up to her.

"Are you wed, Pearl of Great Price? If this be so I shall search out your husband and ask him to try blade against blade with me—and I am counted a mighty swordsman. If the Uniter of Souls has decreed that you are not so tied to another, tell me then your name and that of your father that I may make him an offer—"

She had backed away from the edge of the wall. Now sure that she spoke with a man whose wits were awry, she answered:

"Master, why do you make me the butt of your cruel pleasure? You see me clearly—and so seeing you view what no man would bargain for." Then she scrambled down the rude pile of bricks that led from her perch, not listening to aught he called after her, rubbing the tears from her eyes. So she stayed in hiding until she heard him ride away, and was able to reach for her own clothing and fold away the mended pearl dress in the bag.

She could hope that he might forget his foolishness and that he could not indeed set forth on a hunt for Muledowa, for the latter would indeed deem the guard mad—as would any in this quarter hearing him speak so of the rag picker's daughter, easily the most foul of countenance of any who drew water from the public well and went openly unveiled, for who would do her any dishonor? She wrapped the dress carefully in her father's collection bag and hid it under his sleep mat, hoping he would take it away soon. For within her, long-buried hope awakened; and she would not be so hurt again.

In the palace of the caliph there was much to do, for the seventh-day bride feast had yet three nights to go. Jalnar bathed and then had her smooth, pale skin anointed with a scent made of many herbs, so that it would seem that a whole garden had broken into the bathing chamber. Her dark hair was smoothed until there was the look of fine satin to its length; and the maid had just finished with that when Mirza scurried into the room and bent her shoulder the more so that she might kiss the ground before her mistress's feet.

There was such a look on her much-wrinkled face as made Jalnar wave her attendants away and lean towards her with a whisper for a voice.

"Old One, what trouble does Fate or ifrit lay upon us? You look like one on the way to the beheading block, with no chance of any mercy at the end of that journey."

"Well, my lady, do you choose such a description." Plainly there was both fear and anger to make her voice like the croak of carrion crown. "Our caliph, the great lord, the Prophet-descended one, has given an order—already he must be close to the guarded doorway—and he said with all men hearing him that this night you shall do proper honor to Kamar after the fashion of his own people, and wear for his viewing the robe which he brought—"

"It is too tight, too small, it was damaged in the chest in which it came to me—I would do him greater honor if I wear it on the final night after it is repaired."

Mirza began to shake her head—first slowly, and then with greater vigor. "Lady, the Companion of djinn will see through such excuses, even if it is you who speak them."

Jalnar caught a lock of her hair and held it between her teeth. The plan she had thought was so simple—how could she have hoped to use it against a wizard?

"What shall I do then, Mother of Maids?"

"You have the robe brought forth and then perhaps it may be repaired in time. For those at the banquet sit long over such delicacies as your honored father has set before him. He is, thank the Compassionate, one who is not easily disturbed from any meal."

"There is wisdom in your speech, Old One. Go and have out that rag, and my best sewing maid, to whom the All-Seeing has given a great gift with the needle, shall see what she can do. It might be well that I wear the robe from the far eastern nation which was gifted to me three years ago, and then have the wizard's rag brought in to show and say that I would keep the honor of its wearing to the last night of all, when my father gives me to this hunter of stars and teller of strange tales, despite all his present urging."

"To hear is to obey," mumbled Mirza. She once more padded away. But when she sought the hole into which she had thrust the robe there was nothing there—save a number of date seeds, and the rind of a melon. For a moment or two she looked about her wildly, thinking surely she must have been mistaken. Only, she remembered so well other points of reference to that hidey-hole and they were still about.

"Grub you for the kitchen leavings, Old One?" A boy who wore only a ragged loincloth and who was grey with the grime of the dump looked down upon her from a neighboring mound of refuse. "There will be naught worth the having there, for old Muledowa has already been here. Though his bones may be so old he cannot scramble around well, he has never lost what may bring him any sort of a bargain. Even the ifrit would welcome such skill as he has."

"Muledowa?" Mirza raised her voice a little. "He is known to you, quick one, and he has been here today?"

"As the sun weighs upon us with its heat, so it is true. Also his find here must have been a fine one, for he turned and went toward his home, looking no more this day. I strove to see what he held, but he rolled it so quickly into his collecting bag that I got no sight of it, and when I asked him a question he spat at me as if we were strange cats made foes over a choice morsel of baked camel."

Jalnar twisted the lock of hair fiercely between her hands upon Mirza's return, as she said,

"Go you to Raschman of the guard and say to him that one of my maids stole out at night and buried something among the rubbish where it was later found by this Muledowa and taken away—that it must be a plot between the two of them, and"—she hesitated a moment and then added—"say that it was Dalikah who did this—for all know that I have had her beaten for breaking my bottle of scent and she has good reason so to play, having ill thoughts against me. Tell the guardsman that you have heard of this rag picker who lives in the refuse of the town, and to send there to obtain the bag. Only warn him not to open it or look upon its contents, for it is doubtless true that it has been overlooked and magicked by the djinn."

"And Muledowa and those who live under his roof, who may have already seen what lies within that bag, my lady? What do we with them?"

"I do not think," Jalnar replied with a small cruel smile, "that he will have shared such a secret with many—they would be on him as a hawk upon a desert snake if he had. But if he does have other of his own blood—let that one or all others be brought also."

Mirza struck her head three times against the floor at the princess's feet. "Hearing is doing, lady."

So she left Jalnar to be swathed in the green gown of her choice and slipped away through the gates, for all the guards knew her well and she often ran errands for this or that of the ladies of the inner rooms.

Though she had never invaded this before she went to the outer palace, where she huddled by the door of the guards' room, trying to catch the eye of the man who was making swooping motions in the air and talking loudly.

"—fair as the moon in full glory, she moves like swallows a-wing, her skin like the softest satin such as those in the forbidden palace lie upon for sleeping. Ah, I have seen beauties a-many in my day—"

Two of the listeners laughed and the man's hand went to his sword hilt, his face frowning in warning.

"Brother by the sword," one of the listeners spoke. "Is it not true that many times you have seen maids of surpassing beauty, only later to find some irredeemable flaw in them? Let us go then to the ruin by the outer wall and test whether your story be right or whether some djinni has ensorcelled your eyes—"

But the young man had already seen Mirza, and now he came to her with some relief in his expression. "Why do you seek us out, Mother?" he asked with some respect and a tone of courtesy.

"My lady has been grievously despoiled of a treasure." She told her story quickly. "One of the slave girls took ill her punishment for a fault and stole a robe of great price. She hid this in the mound of refuse beyond the palace and there it was picked up by one Muledowa, a picker of rags, and carried home. My lady would have back her belongings and with them the rag picker and all else under his roof who might have seen this thing—for she fears it all be a piece of sport by those ifrits who dislike all mankind. Of this she wishes to be sure before she tells her father of it—lest he, too, be drawn into some devlish sorcery."

He touched his turban-wreathed helm with both hands and said,

"Having heard, it is as done."

Zoradeh was kneeling in the ruined courtyard of her home, washing her father's feet and listening with growing fear to his mumbling speech, for he was talking, if not to her, then to some djinni who had accompanied him.

"Orbasan will pay me much for this treasure." He stretched out an arm so he could finger the bag which held the robe. "Then I shall buy a donkey and, with the aid of that creature, be able to carry twice as much from the refuse heaps. For I am an old man and now it hurts my back to stretch and strain, to kneel and stand erect again all for some bit I may take. There is much greater profit to be made with things I cannot carry. Eh, girl," for the first time he looked directly at her with a cruel snarl twisting his lips, "how then has the work gone? Let me look upon your handiwork. If you have erred then you shall taste of my stick until each breath shall cost you sore—"

Zoradeh brought the bag quickly and spread it out before him, taking care that she not touch the wondrous thing with her own hands, damp and dusty as they were. For a long moment her father stared down at the fine silk and the moonlike pearls. His hand went out as if to touch and then he drew it back quickly with a deep-drawn breath.

"Aye, worth a wazir's ransom at least, that must be. We shall get but a third, a fifth, nearly an eighth portion of its price in gain. Yet I know no one else—" His hand went to his beard as he ran his nails through the crisp, age-sullied grey of it. "No," he added as one who had just made a decision of great import, "not yet shall I go to Orbasan with this. We shall put it away in secret and think more of the matter—"

But even as he spoke, they heard the clatter of horse hooves on the uneven pavement without, and Zoradeh clasped the robe tightly; while her father lost all his sly, cunning look in a rush of fear—for no one rode horses within the city save the guard of the caliph or that protector of the city himself. Her father got swiftly to his feet and hissed at her:

"Get you inside with that and put it upon you; they will think it is some foreign trash discarded by a trader. Best stay in open sight and not try to conceal it lest it show that we believe ourselves at fault!"

She hurried into the single of the lower rooms which was walled and ceilinged and so might be considered a home. There she tore hurriedly out of her own rags, wondering the while if her father had lost his wits—or was pulled into some djinni's plot and did as his master bade him. The robe slid easily across her body and she had just given the last fastening to a breast buckle when her father's voice, raised high, reached her ears.

"Come, my daughter, and show this brave rider what manner of luck I did have this morning—"

She pulled the throat scarf up about her chin, though that would in no way hide better her devil face, and made herself walk out into the wrecked courtyard of the building. There her father stood in company with three of the guard—one of those being the young officer who had so teased her earlier in the day. All three stood silent, facing her as if she were some evil ifrit ready to suck the flesh from their bones.

"Lady—where got you this robe of great beauty?" The captain found his tongue first and she, believing only the truth might save them from whatever vengeance might strike now, dared to say in return:

"Lord, my father brought it and it was torn and of no value to any. See—do you see here the stitches I, myself, set to make it whole again?"

Hurriedly she gathered up a portion of the skirt and held it out—though so perfect had been her repairs that none might see the work and swear an oath that it was indeed secondhand goods, that which was thrown away because it was damaged.

"That is my lady's robe," grated a sour voice from the door as Mirza pushed through the opening to join them. She was panting and red-faced from her effort to join them. "These are thieves whom that misbegotten she-ass of my lady's following got to come to her aid."

Muledowa had fallen to his knees, and now he gathered up a palmful of sand to throw over his dirty headcloth.

"Lord of Many, Commander of Archers, I have made no pact with any—woman or ifrit or djinni. It is my way of life to sift out that which others have thrown away—things which can be resold in the Second Market which our great lord, the caliph himself, has decreed be established for those of lean purses. This I found torn asunder and thrust into the pile of refuse before the Gate of the Nine-Headed Naga at the palace."

Mirza came forward a step or two, thrusting her face close to Muledowa, and spat forth her words as might a cat who finds another within its hunting place. "Find it you did, provider of filth and evil. But first you had notice of the place from Dalikah, who has already tasted of my lady's justice." She turned to the guardsmen. "Take you this fool of a thief and also his ugly daughter to the left wing of the palace where lies the screen through which my peerless lady views the world. Since this crime was committed against her she would have the judging of it."

Thus with a rope around his throat, fastened to the saddle of a guardsman, Muledowa was pulled at a pace hard for his old bones to make. Mirza took off the topmost of her swathing of grimy and too-well-worn shawls which she tugged around Zoradeh, forcing the girl's arms against her body as tightly as if they were bound, and keeping the head veil well over her head.

So they set off across the city, while behind them gathered a crowd of idlers and lesser merchants and craftsmen who were all agog to see and hear what must be the story behind such a sight.

They came into the courtyard that Mirza had described, but to Mirza's discomfort she found there the caliph himself and the wizard Kamar who had come to see the fair white pigeons which were one of the joys of the caliph's heart.

Seeing the caliph and thinking that perhaps one fate might be better than another, for the Lord of Many Towers was reputed to discern truth from lies when spoken before him, the ragpicker jerked on the rope about his neck and fell upon his knees, giving forth that wail with which the honest meet with misfortune. The caliph made a gesture with his hand so that the guards left Muledowa alone.

"Wretched man," he said, "what misfortune or ill wish by an ifrit brought you to this place, and in such a sorry state?"

"Only the lawful enterprise of my business, Great One." Muledowa upon his knees reached forward to touch the pavement before the caliph three times with his dust-covered lips. "I have no evil within me which wishes danger to you or any under this roof. It was this way—" and with one word tumbling over the other in his eagerness he told his story.

"Now that be a marvelous tale," the caliph commented when he was done. "Child"—he beckoned to Zoradeh—"stand forth and let us see this treasure which your father found."

Trembling, and with shaking hands, Zoradeh dropped the shawl from her shoulders and stood in the bright sunlight of the courtyard, her head hanging and her hands knotted together before her.

"Where is this tear over which so much has been made?" asked the caliph.

Timidly she passed her hand over that part which she had so laboriously stitched and rewoven. Then Kamar, who had stood silent all the while, looking first to those gathered in the courtyard and then at the pierced marble screen as if he knew who sheltered behind that, spoke:

"You have a deft needle, girl," he commented. "She who is to wear this will thank you. My lord," he turned to the Caliph then and said: "My lord, as you know this robe was gifted to me by the Fira Flowers. Let her who lightens this city now put it on and I shall pronounce on both robe and the enhanced beauty of she who rightly wears it such a spell as will never more part them."

The Caliph considered for a moment and then answered: "Let it be as you will, Kamar. It seems that by odd chance alone it has been returned to us. You"—he pointed to Mirza—"do you take this maiden behind the screen and let her change garments again—this time with that flower of my house—Jalnar."

The tall lady wearing the shimmering green was not the only one waiting behind the screen. There was also a gaggle of maids reaching into the shadows behind her, and it seemed to Zoradeh that every time one of those moved, if only for so little, there followed a breeze of the finest scent set wandering. She gasped, but Mirza had already dragged the face veil from her and now she waited to see the disgust of the princess and the loathing of her maidens rise. Yet, and she marveled at this, they had gathered around her at a distance and none of them showed the old loathing her djinn-like face had always roused in all she met.

Two of the maids hurried to disrobe the princess while Mirza's dry and leathery hands were busied about her own body. The shimmering robe of moonlike pearls was handled by the old hag, while in turn she took a dull grey slave robe and threw it to Zoradeh, leaving her to fasten it about her as best she could.

But the princess—!

Zoradeh gasped and heard a cry of fright from one of the maids, while another knelt before the princess holding up a mirror of burnished silver so that she might look at herself. The robe covered her skin as tightly as it had Zoradeh, but she had not yet raised the face veil. And—

"Djinn-face—now she bears such—the teeth which are tusks— the skin of old leather," whispered Zoradeh under her breath, glancing quickly about to make sure none had heard her. For if Jalnar was in truth not a djinna, her features were twisted in the same ugliness Zoradeh's had shown all her life long.

The princess screamed and, putting her hands to her face, rubbed hard as if to tear loose a close-fitting mask. At the sound of her cry two armed eunuchs burst in upon them, but seeing the princess they both shivered and drew back, like wise men not daring to question those who have other powers.

But that cry not only brought the eunuchs. For the first time there were visitors to the inner harem which custom and law denied them. The caliph, his curved sword in his hands, was well in the fore of that invasion, but close indeed to his very heels came the guardsmen, one of them still dragging Muledowa on his restraining rope with him. And they halted, too, even as the eunuch guards had done.

For the princess stood a little apart from them all, shaking her misshapen head from side to side and moaning piteously.

"My daughter!" The caliph looked to Kamar, who was the only one who had not drawn a weapon. "Wizard—what has happened to my daughter, who was as the full moon in all its glory and now wears the face of a djinna—even of an ifrit. There is weighty magic here, and to my eyes, it is evil." Without warning he swung his sword at the wizard, but before the blade touched Kamar, it seemed to melt, as if it had passed through some fire, and the blade dripped down to form a hook.

"My Lord." Kamar wore no armament which could be seen, yet he appeared totally unaware of the swords now pointed at him.

Zoradeh thought that surely they would attack him, yet he had no fear at all. "My Lord, this robe was my gift and it has powers of its own. It draws the inner soul into the light." He came a little more forward then and looked to the princess, instead of the men who stood ready to deliver his death.

"What," Kamar asked then as if speaking to all of them, "what does a man wish the most in a bride? Fairness of face sometimes fades quickly, and also it makes its owner proud, vain, and thoughtless of those who serve her. You—" He made a pounce forward and caught at the mirror which the maid had left on the floor. Turning, he held that before Zoradeh and she cried out a plea to save herself from looking at what hung here.

Only she did not see a djinna's twisted face above the grey garment they had given her. Instead—she drew a deep breath of wonder and glanced shyly at the wizard for some answer to this.

"You are also a maid marriageable by age, but none came to seek you out. Is that not so?"

"I was—I had the face of a djinna," she said in a voice hardly above a whisper. "My father is too poor to find me a dowry—thus even a hump-backed beggar did not desire me under his roof. But"—she rubbed her hands down the smooth flesh of her face— "what has happened to me, lord?"

"You have met with truth and it has set you free. Lord of Many Towers," he spoke to the caliph now, "I came hither to have me a wife. I have found the one that fate, which is the great weapon of the All-Compassionate, intended should rule my inner household—"

He held out his hand to Zoradeh, and she, greatly daring, for the first time in her life, allowed her fingers to lie on the rein-callused palm of a man.

"But, my daughter—" The caliph looked at Jalnar.

"In time," answered Kamar, "the Compassionate may bring to her her will and desire, but they must be by her earning and not because she dwelt before her own mirror in admiration for what she sees therein."

Jalnar let out a wail as deep with feeling as that of a newly-made widow, and then, her hands covering her face, she rushed from the room of the screen, her maids following in disorder.

Kamar went now to Muledowa who sat staring as if he did not believe what he had seen. Kamar took a heavy purse from his sash and dropped it before the bound man.

"Let this one go free, Lord of many mercies," he said to the caliph. "For he shall live under my protection from this day forth and what troubles him also troubles me. Now, my lady, we shall go-"

She flung her neck scarf over her head and shoulders, veiling a face which even now she could not believe was hers, and followed Kamar from the room.

It is said among the tellers of tales that they lived long past the lifetimes of others, and that the Divider of Souls and the Archer of the Dark did not come to them in any of the years that those living have tale of. But of Jalnar—ah, there lies another tale.



 

 “Andre Norton's Reading Corner

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