|The Snake Charmer's Woman
Author: Munro PM
In a country where conversation is illicit, it is a great honour to have your tongue cut out. With marriage looming a princess- they always are aren't they?- escapes her repressive cloistering to live by the seaside. And make poisons. FF.Rated: Fiction M - English - Fantasy - Chapters: 2 - Words: 5,328 - Reviews: 2 - Favs: 2 - Follows: 2 - Updated: 09-08-08 - Published: 09-04-08 - id: 2567734
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You may meet all sorts of men by the docks at night- the saying goes- but only one type of woman.
The palace is so high above the city that you can't see the docks at all, just a thin streak of purple sea behind the squat yellow houses. Even at night the city shimmers under heat haze. In the pleasure gardens the air smelt of jasmine and steam, the palace smelt cool and empty. I couldn't have told you what the city smelt like, any more than I could have told you the smell of my own body, since for all the ten years I spent in the Spring Palace I had never been further than its walls.
The palace itself has been hewn out of the cliff face. It is the work of three generations continuous labour. Most of the workmen died in the process; they either dropped down dead and fell to the ground or fell to their deaths and died there. There is a boneyard in the scrubby woodland below the palace, full of white smiling skulls. At the height of building the bodies heaped as high as saplings. But it's small for a palace- not even a sixth of the size Royal Palace in Kur the jewel in the centre of its own empire. There the bodies piled so high that in the end they covered them in plaster and let them form the city walls. In the Spring Palace the walls are covered in friezes of virgin deities and scenes from domestic life, the colours are muted- befitting the status of a woman.
I live here, until I marry. Until I marry I live here alone.
I had sixteen handmaids, twenty four eunuchs, five tutors, ten cooks and seven scullery maids. Except for the eunuchs my staff were entirely female. The eunuchs guard the doors and tend the gardens. They are small gardens on seven layers cut into the rock; they built the gardens before they even started the palace. On what had been virgin rock they have planted olive trees, chrysanthemum and jasmine. The irrigation system is a wonder of engineering and in the highest garden there is a deep pond and high fountain. In this oppressively hot place in the middle of the day when the sun is so low in the sky it looks like an egg yolk on the horizon the fountain appears to be a mirage. The air is heavier than the water, it seems, in the middle of the day.
All my staff were mute, except of course the tutors who stayed only for a month at a time and were kept locked like honoured prisoners in their rooms in between lessons. In my country some of our most honoured citizens are prisoners. Some are born mute; others, on joining the royal household, agree to have their tongues cut out. They are considered most loyal of all; the extracted tongues are cured like salted meat and pinned to the lapels of their uniform. It is a great honour to have your tongue cut out.
But this is a story about the docks.
One day, as I sat idly -all my days I spent mostly sitting, always idle- in the seventh pleasure garden by the side of the deep pond, a green snake came along to kill me.
"If you're looking for the princess" I said, "she's in the water. I'm just her reflection"
So thanking me it slithered into the deep pond and drowned.
Once it was as drowned as it could be, the dead snake floated to the surface. I wrapped it in a silk scarf and took it to my chamber where I slit it length to length with a sharp knife and wrung the venom into a glass bottle. Delicately I reached into its belly (it was warm and smelt of bloody sulphur) and groped around for an emerald. I found several and five sapphires too, and wrapped them in a handkerchief, because I was escaping that night.
Pre-empting just that eventuality I had been installed here with very little treasure or at least nothing easy to carry down a mountain. So I packed three skeins of silk, a book of love poetry, a treatise of warfare, a guide to poison making, the snake venom, the emeralds and sewed five hundred ceremonial diamonds into the hem of my skirts which I had pried from the eyes of the twenty two virgin gods in the temple. I also carried three sharp knives, two in my belt and one on my thigh.
I cut the throats of three guards, it was regrettable but I could tell they understood it was necessary although they didn't like it much. They were there to keep me in as much as to keep others out. It took me the rest of the night to follow the path down to the outskirts of the town.
The sky was dusty, as if the day had exhausted it. The stars I saw were deeply mysterious.