There is a power in the telling of things, and so Scheherazade decides to make up her own story. It is late and her husband is well asleep by now, head couched against the twin swells on her chest. He snores a steady rhythm, and she decides to make it the pace of her story.
Breathe in. Begin.
Once upon a time there was a noble lady, dearest child in a clutch of young princesses. She was the favorite of her father, and he showered her with attention. Also dresses. And gifts from foreign lands.
She had scrolls from distant Nippon and Roman statuettes, Greek verses and Chinese jade. She had a brightly feathered bird of paradise that sat on a perch by her bed, gently crooning her to sleep every night. One day she asked her father what would happen to her things when she married, and was moved from his household. He told her, with a promise, that she would never have to marry unless she wished it.
The promises of kings are easily broken. Soon enough, her father's court fell on hard times. A famine gripped the land in clammy claws, and so her father petitioned to a neighboring prince for help. He agreed, but conditionally.
"Give me your fairest daughter to wed, and it will be a symbol of our cooperation in this time of need."
Her father, the king, hesitated. It was well known that the prince was a temperamental man. He had wed before, and all that remained of his wives were whispered stories. And official tales of tragic accidents that happened where no one could see them.
The king was agonized by this decision, drawn apart on the rack of his own conscience, and so decided to put his emotions aside. He weighed the logic of the bargain carefully: the lives of his people against his own desire to keep his daughter safe. Being a good man in the end, he found that he could not condemn his own people to suffer for the sake of his own happiness. Being a stupid man, he never once considered his daughter's happiness.
The telling is interrupted with a murmur. The sleeping man curls and rolls, drawing his hand up by his mouth. It hangs their hesitantly, thumb resting by his lips. All men are babies in their sleep.
Scheherazade stops speaking for a moment and concentrates on breathing. Regular, even gusts of air roll in and out of her lungs. Her chest rises and falls in steady motion. Her husband relaxes again and passes back into complete, dreamless sleep.
She waits for a moment, to make sure that he's unconscious, then burrows back against the hard mattress, making herself as comfortable as she can. When she resumes the telling, it's in a whisper.
She was not content to go. She had heard all the same rumors as her father, the king, and she had heard his promises besides. She was seventeen years old, resting squarely atop the balancing point in life, and now forces outside of her reach—outside of her pretty, soft room—wanted to give her in captivity to a man she had never met. There was nothing else for her to do but run away.
On the night before her marriage, her prospective husband was invited to a great feast in the king's palace. There, he was to meet his bride. In the hours before she would be called down to dine, she tied up all her bed sheets into a long cord. This she wrapped around an ornamental stand of armor, from distant England, and threw out the window.
She had always been athletic. Her father did not bar her from riding, hunting, dancing, or other pursuits unfit for women. It was the work of a moment to scrabble down the long, silken cord into the ornamental garden below.
There she stopped for a moment, catching her breath and tasting in the air the magnitude of what she had done. Tasting freedom. It came through her in a heady rush, electrifying nerves and widening her eyes in the dusky half-light. The gentle dusk that hung over the garden was suddenly ripe with mysteries.
She started forward, picking her was between beds of roses and the softer patches of other, tamer flowers. The garden path wound out towards the castle's inner walls. At this hour, especially with the feast so near, there would be few guards patrolling them. All she had to do was slip…
"Good evening, miss." The voice was low and intense. It issued from a tall man, with light brown skin who stood quite still, examining a patch of roses.
She flinched. Everyone was supposed to be getting ready for the feast.
"I've found that gardens are at their most beautiful when everyone else is somewhere else. There's no babbling gossip to disturb the flowers, and they blush all the brighter for an audience of one." Something in his tone arrested her. Kept her from politely curtsying and dashing away.
"I didn't know that," she said. "I've only ever been out here with company."
"Well, you're hardly alone now. But, how did the garden feel before you noticed me? I bet there was a differentness in the air." She nodded, dumbly. "It was the same for me."
"Oh," she nearly squeaked. Something in her didn't want to leave the man and his talk of mysteries and flowers, but the longer she stayed, the better the chance that someone would notice she was gone. "I should be going, then."
"No," his voice was firm, "stay. As beautiful as the twilight is, truth be told, I've been waiting here for someone. I wasn't sure she'd show, but just a few minutes ago she climbed down that rope over there." A grin spread across his face, the backwards reflection of the look of horror on hers. "Now, I believe that there is a dinner we should both be getting to." He reached out and caught her unresisting shoulder with one hand, and led her away across the flower beds.
A bead of sweat slides slowly down the orbit of her face, and she disentangles a hand from the covers to wipe it away. The air in the bedroom is close and hot. It bears down around her and she wishes that she lived somewhere else, in one of the better parts of the city. She weaves this wish into her story.
He lived in a palace, luxurious and grand. Walls made of smoothest alabaster, pure and white. Immense, satin drapes to swing across every window. And such windows. Yawning great as the mouths of giants, they drank in the dry, cool outside air in thirsty gulps.
There was a quiet kind of peacefulness in all of the rooms. No unnecessary noise. The servants were all unobtrusive to the point of being invisible. When she entered a room, they would either scuttle away or blend seamlessly into the décor. But whenever she wanted for something, they seemed to sense it right away, and would go running for a glass of cold water, or a mango, or a favorite book.
She had not seen her husband-to-be in days. He was always barricaded high up in his study, or wandering the gardens, or somewhere she was not. She had no desire to seek him out. Peace was well and good, even if it was no replacement for the noisy warmth of her father's palace.
This could not last, of course. She knew that with impending certainty, just as she knew that in the evening, she would be married. She would be forced to confront her abducting husband, and to try and work out the tangle of emotions within her before he pulled them any tighter.
And then there were the rumors to contend with. She had heard them in the days before she left her father in a final, mute betrayal. They said that he took wives out of necessity, to fill a cold space inside of him, but that he couldn't stand company. Something terrible had happened to his first wife, purely by accident, and he didn't dare to let himself close to anyone any more. But he couldn't bear to be alone, either, left with the haunting memories of people he had cared about. So he would take a wife and then, when the guilt and pain crashed in on him like a tidal wave, she would disappear.
She had heard the rumors, and she was afraid.
Scheherazade does not feel tired, but there is a slight ache in her neck. Trying as hard as possible to keep the rest of her body still, she rolls it this way and that. Finally there is a sharp crack—sounding for all the world like a gunshot—but her husband does not wake. She stares down at his features, and the sleepy smile on his face. He will never be beautiful, and she does not love him, but he is a warm body, and a pair of strong hands that makes pretty pots for a little money. That is all she is supposed to expect from life.
Her husband was beautiful. Fearsomely so. He wore it about him like a lion. Or more appropriately a lioness, who was the more dangerous of the pair. A lion was content to bask in the sun and be resplendent in its light. A lioness was driven by instinct to catch and kill her prey. Sometimes, when the sun was down over her father's palace, she heard stories of lionesses prowling the surrounding city.
Now one of them stood before her, in careful human form, and they exchanged vows. He promised, keeping a tight rein on his voice, to keep and cherish her. She promised to belong to him. Then he picked her up and carried her away, the ceremony at an end.
That night, they lay at opposite sides of a majestic four-poster bed. A great silken expanse of blankets rolled between them, yawning silent like the ocean. Since he had carried her there, and deposited her firmly upon the fabric, they had not touched.
They did not speak for a long time. Still, she did not fall asleep. Fear was electric in her, and it forced the tiredness away. At long last, he said "I know you've heard the stories."
"What stories?" She managed.
"The ones about me. About what I've done. About my other wives."
She swallowed carefully, then answered "Yes."
"I will be honest with you, but I have a request to make first."
"You are my husband. You are entitled to make requests." The words felt alien in her mouth.
"My request is simple. Tell me a story. Please."
It was not what she had expected, but she was well-read. Her head swam with stories, even when her tongue was dried by fear. "I can do that." Then she asked, "And the truth is?"
"The truth is that my other wives were cast out. Stripped of their rank and privileges. Made into commoners by my fits of envy. Because they could not be the only woman I ever loved." Emotion caught his face in a vice, and his careful, calm mask crumpled. It was only for a moment, but raw sorrow shone in his eyes. "But I can't be alone. It torments me when I sleep. I can't lay down and rest when I will. I wander the gardens at night, waiting until I am completely exhausted. Then oblivion overtakes me, and I collapse." He paused for a moment. She said nothing, letting the silence slide past. After a while, he picked up his words again. "That's why I asked for you. Not as a wife—though that was the only way your father would part with you—but in the hopes that you could drive off the loneliness. That you could talk me to sleep." He smiled slightly. "That's not what many men look for in a woman, I know."
She felt her fear sliding aside, ever so slightly. For just a moment, he had seemed so vulnerable that she had to clamp down on her heart to keep it from going out to him. "What if I cannot?"
He considered. "I can't very well give you back to your father. That would shatter our agreement, and he would have to find some other compensation. He has little left, and I could not take another of his daughters. So, instead, you will disappear. Into town. With just enough money to scrape by, you will find a trade. In time you will marry a common man, and we will not meet again."
She nodded. Not affirmative. Just considering.
"You don't have much of a choice in this," he said.
"I was thinking of what kind of story I would like to tell," she replied. "Perhaps it will begin with a cave. In the desert. And a handful of men. Brigands. Thieves. Picture it, if you will. The high, cavernous ceiling studded with twisting stalactites. The rhythmic drip of water in the gloom. The bickering echoes of men, and the glimmer of gold coins."
The prince leaned back, and she began to spin her tale.
Scheherazade's, meanwhile, is almost at an end. No, not an end. A stopping point for the night. She feels the magic in her words. Latent. Powerful. Incomplete. She knows that there is a power in the telling of things, and sometimes it can re-shape the world. It can build alabaster palaces and silent servants around her, given enough time.
She looks around the room, eyes darting in the dark. Where once bare walls stood, now there are a handful of paintings. The air is a little cooler, and there is a window at one end of the room. Cotton curtains flutter in a late night breeze. Her husband still lies across her, but somehow his features are softer. His hair is a little lighter in color. His snores have become deep, even breaths, washing hot on her stomach. She runs a hand through his hair and is surprised by the texture. He does not wake.
It will be morning soon, she tells herself softly. Somewhere outside, the sun is already beginning to warm the horizon. But there will be other nights, and other stories, and gradually she will teach the world of how it should be, whispering dreams in its ear while everything else sleeps.