Now the dust of the ages hung thickly in the air, making Hakem Rafi sneeze and cough. Insects buzzed unconcerned through the air, and the rats that fed on them chittered quietly in the corners. The air smelled musty and dry, and felt warm from the heat of the afternoon sun.
Hakem Rafi took a couple of steps as he looked around, and the sound of his boots on the tiled floor echoed through the chamber and down the corridors. His voice, when he spoke, echoed like a drum in the still air, frightening some of the rats back into their holes. “It’s all so dead,” he said. “I’m not sure I like that.”
“With my help, O master, you will make it live again and restore the palace of Rashwenath to its former grandeur.”
“It’d take an army of slaves a year to clean this up,” the thief said, looking at the dust.
“It is but the work of a single night. When you awake in the morning, the palace shall gleam as it did on the day it was built. Just leave everything to me.”
“Very well. First rid this room of its choking dust. But if I don’t like the place when you’re all done will you take me elsewhere and build me a new palace?”
“You are my master, and I am yours to command.”
“Don’t forget that,” Hakem Rafi said.
“Of all the facts in all the world, that is one I never shall forget,” the daeva replied, and added, “Is there anything you wish right now? Food and drink, perhaps?”
The mere mention of food reminded Hakem Rafi that he hadn’t eaten since breakfast in the prince’s camp early that morning. He’d become so used to going hungry during these last few weeks that he routinely ignored the insistent urges of his stomach—but there was no longer any reason to deprive himself of what he wanted.
“Yes,” he said, “some food and drink sounds wonderful. Bring me some immediately.”
“Do you have any preferences, O master?”
Hakem Rafi had so seldom been in a position where he had a choice that it was difficult to think. “Bring me a feast worthy of the wealthiest merchant in Ravan,” he said with an arrogant wave of his hand.
“I hear and I obey,” Aeshma acknowledged.
At Hakem Rafi’s feet appeared a fine carpet of cerise, gold, black, and dark cedar green, so deep a man’s fingers would sink into its pile up to the second knuckle, spread out invitingly with comfortable pillows around it. At the corners were several tall stands with silver inlaid brass lamps that illuminated the area around the rug, though the rest of the huge room was dim and the corners were lost in darkness. A leather sofreh covered the carpet’s center and a white cloth sofreh was placed over that for æsthetic effect. On top of the cloth was a series of golden plates containing the largest feast Hakem Rafi had ever had served for himself alone. The scents exploded in his nostrils, filling them as the dust had done before. As the aromas of meat, fruit, and herbs wafted through the room, they seemed to drive the dust and rat droppings before them, till the faded dim hall at least was clean.
On the sofreh were a mixed herb plate served with feta cheese; an eggplant salad as well as a mixed green salad of romaine lettuce, cucumbers, tomatos, radishes, and herbs; a dish of peach pickles; a plate of duck in walnut and pomegranate sauce served over chelo; a bowl of quince soup; a plate of nan-e lavash; a large pitcher of abdug; a bowl of apricots and plums; and an enormous platter heaped high with rahat lakhoum. Hakem Rafi had been fortunate enough to sample rahat lakhoum only twice before in his life, and never had he seen it piled in such generous quantities—and certainly never for one individual.
As a man with an eye toward the value of property—particularly other people’s—Hakem Rafi was impressed at the quality of the materials Aeshma could produce; at the same time, as a man of ravenous appetite, he did not long ponder the supplementary details. He ate and drank heartily of this sumptuous repast, especially gorging on the rahat lakhoum, until even his monstrous appetite was sated and he sat on one velvet cushion feeling his stomach was about to burst.
The food had taken the edge off his fear, and the rahat lakhoum had made him bolder. He was no longer terrified of the daeva king who’d sworn to serve his wishes, and he was just beginning to realize exactly what all this could mean for him. Ever since stealing the urn and learning of its contents he’d dreamed of unlimited wealth—but dreams were one thing, and the fulfillment of them was something else entirely. The fact that he could become the richest, most powerful man in all Parsina, and that anything he wanted was his for the taking, was just starting to dawn in his simple mind. Hakem Rafi grinned and lay back on the carpeted floor, wallowing in the concept.
“Is there anything else my master wishes?” Aeshma asked smoothly.
With the hashish from the rahat lakhoum bubbling his thoughts, Hakem Rafi put his hands behind his head for a pillow and stared up at the high domed ceiling, lost in shadows overhead, considering the matter. “Yes,” he said at last. “I’d like a woman to spend the night with me.”
“Any particular woman?”
“A beautiful woman. The most beautiful woman in the world.”
“I hear and—”
“No, wait,” Hakem Rafi said, sitting up suddenly as an idea occured to him. A wicked smile broadened on his face as he turned the idea over in his mind. The incorruptible new wali of police in Yazed had been responsible for Hakem Rafi’s abrupt departure from that city, and for his subsequent suffering in Ravan. A little revenge was called for here, and Hakem Rafi’s devious imagination conjured up a subtle form of retribution.
“Go to the home of the wali of police in Yazed. Bring me his most beautiful wife or concubine and make sure no one knows she’s gone. Make her be passionately in love with me and bring her here before me. Tonight I shall beget a son by her. In the morning, return her with no memory of what has happened here and let the wali think the boy is his and raise him as his own. In this way will I cuckold the fool who drove me from my home and avenge myself upon his line. But before you go, fashion me a golden bed studded with gems, piled high with the softest silk pillows and filled with swan’s down, that I might welcome my guest properly. Oh yes, and leave me some good silk ropes.”
“I hear and I obey.” The bed appeared in one corner of the room exactly as Hakem Rafi had described it, and Aeshma vanished, leaving the thief chuckling to himself.
The daeva returned shortly with the most attractive of the wali’s wives, and she was a beauty indeed. Her long black hair flowed like silk down her back to the waist, and her dark brown skin was soft and pure. Thick eyebrows topped her almond-shaped eyes that burned with passion as she spied Hakem Rafi. She walked boldly up to him, her slender hips swaying sensuously with each stride. She knelt before him and unfastened her milfa, then kissed the palms of his hands and touched them to her body. Her lips were trembling with her naked desire as she fell to her knees caressing him.
“Does my master require anything else?” Aeshma asked discreetly.
Hakem Rafi could hardly take his eyes from the woman kneeling before him. No woman had ever looked at him with desire that way. “Uh, no, this will suffice. Go clean the palace as you promised. Leave me in privacy until the morning.”
“I hear and I obey,” Aeshma said, and disappeared to another part of the palace. So besotted with hashish and desire was Hakem Rafi that he didn’t even hear the daeva laughing.
The light of morning shone into the palace of Rashwenath through cleverly disguised skylights in the ceiling. Hakem Rafi woke slowly as his mind cleared of the hashish and lovemaking of the previous night. Beside him, the wali’s wife still lay naked and asleep, her body spent from the energy of their union. Hakem Rafi sat up slowly, then stared about him at the wonder that had occured.
True to his word, the king of the daevas had restored the palace to its former glory. The cobwebs were cleared from the corners, and not a speck of dust lay anywhere about. The rats had vanished, their holes were plugged and plastered over, the insects were gone, and the air smelled lightly of lemon blossoms.
The hall he was in contained three fountains, each over five cubits in diameter, whose water was scented with citrus blossoms. Above each was a dome of paper-thin alabaster, allowing the softest filtered light of peach hue to color the creamy marble floor below. The marble was patterned in cream and gray in an intricate basket weave. At certain points on either side it became denser, outlining shallow pits filled with soft rugs and huge pillows.
The tapestries that were faded and dust filled the night before, now were bright depictions of erotic events. The largest and finest of these showed Hakem Rafi in the embrace of the wali’s wife, as she was obviously straining to pull him to her. The portraiture was very flattering, and Hakem Rafi resolved to have the daeva make him similarly endowed as soon as possible.
The delicious bubbling sound of the fountains mingled with the songs of many birds in golden cages suspended from the carved onyx ceiling panels. They swayed gently in the breeze cooled by the fountains, and made the palace seem full of life. On the walls and stands were inlaid lamps that, come the night, would give the soft, sensual light shed by burning the finest oils.
Hakem Rafi stood up, gawking at the beauty of the building around him, until he realized suddenly that he was naked. He quickly donned the uniform he’d been wearing when Aeshma snatched him from the forest, and walked about the hallway to admire his new home. Everywhere he looked was beauty compounded on beauty—pictures, carpets, tiles, furniture, fixtures. And every bit of it was his. It was true. He was the richest, most powerful man in Parsina.
A sudden thought brought him up short. One man had possessed all this wealth before, and where was he now? Dead and dust, and his memory totally forgotten. Great though he was, Rashwenath was mortal and his name had died centuries ago. All he’d strived for was gone, all he’d built evaporated. Hakem Rafi was mortal, too; he’d never given the matter much thought before, but now it seemed suddenly of vital concern.
“Aeshma!” he called, and his voice echoed down the empty hallways, muffled only slightly by the restored tapestries.
The daeva’s huge form materialized out of smoke before him. “Ever at my master’s call,” Aeshma said with surprising softness.
“I want you to make me immortal,” the thief said brusquely.
For the first time, the daeva hesitated. “That I cannot do, O my master.”
“You swore to obey all my commands,” Hakem Rafi said in a petulant whine.
“And so I shall, in everything within my ability. My powers are unequaled upon the face of the earth, but power over death is not mine. Death was created by my lord Rimahn to inflict upon the creatures of Oromasd. I have not the ability to undo what my own lord and creator has done. I shall obey you in all things, save that I am powerless to forestall your eventual and inevitable death. As I promised you, I will not cause it—but neither can I stop it from happening some day.”
Hakem Rafi the thief turned away from Aeshma to hide the bitterness in his soul. He had seldom thought about death before, merely tried to avoid it; he’d always thought himself too clever to be caught and executed, too skilled to lose any fight he didn’t dodge. But now that he had everything, now that the world could be his if he chose, the irony that he could lose it all was a painful one. In a thousand years, would he be as forgotten as the great Rashwenath, a name never spoken, a presence never felt? What, then, would be the point of living at all, if everything was to vanish from him?
He must have voiced the question aloud without realizing it, for Aeshma answered in soft, seductive tones, “The answer, O my master, is to live as fully and as best you can. If it is all destined to vanish tomorrow, then enjoy it to the utmost today. At your command I can shower you with a thousand, thousand pleasures, with wealth beyond imagining, so when death does come it will find you with not a moment wasted, not a second left unenjoyed. Your days will be filled with delight and your nights will be rich with satisfactions most men dare not even dream of. Rashwenath is dead, and his glory with him, but it is said he never regretted a single moment of the life he lived. So let it be with you.”
Hakem Rafi listened to the daeva’s arguments, and they struck a chord in the thief’s greedy soul. It was true that no man was granted immortality—but he, Hakem Rafi, had been granted more than any man could wish. Yes, he would bury himself in sensual pleasure and live as Aeshma suggested. He would have food, wine, women, power, and revenge on all those who’d belittled or insulted him, and he would not think of death again. It would come—but the object of life, as Aeshma had explained, was to have no regrets, no sorrows. When death did come, it would find Hakem Rafi happy and contented. No man could ask for more than that.
“Yes,” he said aloud. “You’re right, my wise slave. I’ll wear you down in your efforts to please me.”
“Whatever you command shall be yours,” Aeshma replied.
“First prepare a feast of a breakfast, then take the woman back to the wali before she is missed,” Hakem Rafi said. “Perhaps I’ll enjoy her again sometime to beget more sons. When you return, we’ll talk in more detail about the pleasures you can provide me.”
“I hear and I obey.”
The daeva escorted Hakem Rafi into an ornate dining hall where a breakfast meal as sumptuous as last night’s dinner was spread before him. Then Aeshma vanished and scooped up the still-sleeping woman to fly her safely back to her home. He could not help a deep -throated chuckle as he went, thinking of how completely this foolish mortal was falling under his control.
Aeshma was a prideful being, and it chafed him sorely to be bound by oath to anyone but his lord Rimahn, let alone a petty mortal like Hakem Rafi. But bad though that was, being trapped and impotent in a golden urn before the fires of Oromasd for thousands of years had been even worse, a constant, searing torment that he was now relieved of.
Hakem Rafi was a mortal. Even without Aeshma’s killing him, he would die. At most, he could be expected to live another forty years. If, at Aeshma’s gentle insistence, he overindulged in food, wine, drugs, and s*x, his life span might be diminished that much further. What were a few more decades to a creature who’d waited millennia for his freedom?
When Hakem Rafi died, Aeshma would be totally free—free to regain all his lost power, free to war against mankind, free to avenge himself on the enemy in the name of his lord Rimahn. There would be no others to stand in his way; when Aeshma was totally free, the world would quake and Oromasd’s ally, mankind, would vanish from the face of the earth.