In the Cities of the South
by Andrew Crumey
From D'Alembert's Principle (1996)
In the Cities of the South, the King and his wife had as their only child a daughter, who cared little for the splendour of the palace. Instead, the Princess preferred to spend her time in an annexe more fit for servants, where she would pass her days reading, or gazing down into the garden below.
In this way she soon came to notice the young gardener. One evening he sang beneath her open window, she went down to join him, and they spent the night together beneath the stars. They continued meeting every night in the garden where they would exchange furtive caresses, until the occasion when they were discovered by a palace guard.
The King, being just and merciful, agreed to spare the life of the gardener, commanding instead that he be flogged and banished. The Princess, meanwhile, swore never to leave her simple home in the annexe, and so the King ordered the window to be bricked up, so that she would remain unseen by men.
The following morning, she watched while the workman set about his task, piling bricks and mortar where her window had been, and she heard the cruel lash of the whip down below. As soon as the workman was gone, she began to scrape with her fingers at the sticky mortar around one of the bricks, until she was able to get a good grip. Then she gradually worked it from its place, until she could look out again; but the garden was empty now. She wiped the brick clean, so that it would remain loose, and pushed it back into position.
Later that day, her maidservant came and handed her a note:
They have given me a good horse and enough food and water to get across the desert. Now I must go. I shall love you always.
The first few weeks were particularly miserable. The Princess would speak to no-one, remaining in the gloomy seclusion of her cell while the maidservant brought meals which went uneaten, and messages from the King and Queen which she left unanswered. Every evening the Princess would slide the loose brick from its place and look down sorrowfully at the quiet garden. Then one day there was another message, a note which had been found pinned to a tree outside the palace gate:
I rode far today, but now I have stopped for the night to rest my horse. I am following the caravan route to the Cities of the North. I shall leave this letter here with instructions to whoever may find it that it if he is travelling south he should take it and fix it on the tree by the palace. Perhaps one day you will read this. If so, then expect further word from me. Good night.
When the Princess read this it made her very happy. Then afterwards she felt even worse than before, so she read it again. She spent the rest of the day studying the words, the handwriting, the folds in the paper, the patterns of dirt and smudges. In the middle of the night, she awoke to check a part about which her memory was imprecise.
The maidservant was given instructions to go out every day to the tree by the gate; at first being ordered to carry out the inspection seven or eight times a day, then gradually less. After a few weeks a routine was settled into; the maid went first at sunrise, and then again at sunset. No messages were found.
Six months after the beginning of the Princess's self-imposed incarceration, the maid came one morning with a tattered scrap of paper:
My love, the second day has passed. Today I have seen more of the desert; an endless, unchanging and terrible place. The way ahead seems no different from what lies behind me, and vultures have been my only companions. But tomorrow I should come within sight of the Cities of the North, and my sorrow is eased by hope. Now I shall leave this note in the hope that some trader may one day find and deliver it.
As the months passed, the visits from the Princess's mother grew more infrequent, while those from her father ceased altogether. The first year went slowly, the second was much quicker, and many more soon passed, hurried on by the emptiness of the days. Beyond the Palace walls, rumours and stories spread about the strange hermit. Some said she was a wise and saintly person who had shunned the sins of the world in preparation for the end, others that she was a witch who had been locked up because she could not be killed. The Princess's isolation eventually caused her mother to lapse into an incurable sorrow which brought her life to an early end, and then the Princess was left in peace, regarded as deranged by all except her maid, who still continued her twice daily visits to the tree, and found nothing.
Twenty years passed. The Princess, alone and forgotten, drew wisdom from her reading, as she watched her body blossom and fade. Then word reached the Palace that in the Cities of the North there had been a bloody revolt; members of the royal guard had killed the king and seized power. Now a great army had been assembled, which was marching south across the desert intent on conquest. The faithful maid brought ample supplies of food, and joined the Princess in her cell, barricading the door as best she could.
A few days later the attack began. In their dark prison, they listened to the battle outside. The Palace walls were breached; they heard horses and the war-cries of the enemy. They could only guess at the fate of the King and his court. Meanwhile they themselves went unnoticed, and unharmed.
The noise went on for three days and nights, and then there was silence. At last the Princess dared to look out, carefully sliding the loose brick from its place. She blinked in the sunlight as she brought her face close to the gap so as to see as much as she could of the garden. Where the trees had been, she saw only corpses picked by birds. Then she heard the sound of broken glass being trodden underfoot, and strange voices. Men were walking down below. The Princess moved back a little so as to hide her face in shadow, and she saw two men walk into view; enemy officers of high rank. The younger one, slightly built, was wearing the robe of her father. The two men inspected the scene; the young commander pointing this way and that, giving orders. Then he raised his eyes towards the bricked-up window with its tiny opening, and the Princess felt his eyes meet hers. She froze in terror, sure that he must have seen her. His face was young, and seemed almost kindly. Despite her terror she knew again, for the briefest moment, a thrill she had felt years earlier, when she had first seen the gardener. Had she been spotted? But then the two walked away out of sight, and she breathed again.
For another three days and nights there was no sign of life outside. The invaders had moved on. At last their food ran out, and the Princess and her maid left the safety of their cell. They went out into the garden of the destroyed Palace, where the Princess had last stood more than twenty years before. They walked through the remains of the town, and joined the survivors who were quietly rooting for scraps of food.
For several weeks there was anarchy and near starvation, until the conqueror sent an official to govern. Rebuilding was commenced, and the Princess and the maid began new lives as washer-women, their past a closely guarded secret. They stayed together in a simple house near the site of the demolished palace, now a wasteland where wild plants grew. A new generation was born to replace those who had perished, and the Great Lion - for so their conqueror was known - died suddenly during one of his campaigns; some said of poisoning.
The rest of their days went peacefully, though their work was hard. The maid died in her eightieth year, leaving the Princess alone with her memories. Shortly before she too passed away, the Princess went to collect some linen from the house of a wealthy official who happened to notice her, and summoned her to his quarters.
"I am writing a chronicle of the Great Campaign. You are old enough to remember that time, and I wondered if you had any stories of heroism which I might be able to use."
The Princess hesitated. "I don't know, sir. It was a long time ago. Thirty years or more."
The official seemed a little impatient. "Look, this is the sort of thing I mean." He lifted an ancient and tattered scrap of paper. "This letter was found recently in the desert. It must have been written by a soldier to his beloved. A simple thing, but it helps bring history to life. Perhaps you were in love with a soldier?"
She was trying to see what was written on the paper. "Ah, yes, sir. Yes, I was in love. With a soldier. After the city was taken I was hiding in the ruins when he saw me. I was frightened at first, but he seemed gentle and kind."
"Very good. Let me fetch some paper to write this down. Wait here."
As soon as the official left, she picked up the letter. The handwriting was faded by half a century of desert heat, but still familiar:
The third day of my journey has ended. Already in the distance I can see my destination. Tomorrow I shall be there. Fate has ordained that our lives shall be spent apart, but in death we will be together again.
When the official returned he found the old woman waiting patiently, as he had left her. "Now," he said, sitting down, "what was this soldier like?"
"He was very brave, sir, and very kind. But he had to go away with the army."
The official scribbled as she spoke. "Yes, go on."
"So he left. But we swore always to remain faithful to each other, until the end."
"Is that it?"
"That's all I have to say."
"I see." The official sounded weary. "Thank you, anyway. You can go now."
She collected the laundry and went on her way. The basket was difficult and heavy, but her heart was light as she walked over the bridge as usual. In the middle she stopped, and emptied the basket into the river below. She watched the bright pieces of linen fold and twist as the current bore them away. Then she went home, lay down, and died peacefully in her sleep.
On the fourth day, the gardener reached the Cities of the North. He rode slowly through the foreign streets, where the strangely clothed people spoke with unfamiliar accents.
The desert had left his throat dry, his stomach empty. He took his fill at an inn where he saw a pretty serving girl, who asked him where he was from, and why he was so sad. He showed her some coins, and she took him upstairs. Later, he wept on her bosom, lamenting the innocent Princess he had left behind, and cursing her father who had punished him so. Then he saddled his horse and set off again, in the direction of the most remote region of the land, where the people live a simple life of agriculture, and he was never heard of again.
But the serving girl was left with something to remember him by. Nine months later she gave birth to a son; a small, weak child, born with the cord around his neck so that everyone thought he would die, or grow up an idiot. Yet the boy survived. First they called him the Sparrow, because of his small stature. Then when he was old enough to join the army they called him the Eagle, for his keen eye and his love of killing. Not content with the high rank and honour he soon gained, he led a plot to murder the King, and afterwards had all his fellow conspirators put to the sword, and then they called him the Great Lion, and he raised a vast army and marched it south, laying waste to everything he found.