The morning was clear the visitors to the kingdom arrived. From high up in a palace window Helena watched as the risen sun steadily warmed the city spread out below her. Presently in the distance, far out over the northern city wall, Helena noticed a cloud of dust rising up from the road and shimmering in the emerging heat of the day. She ran to tell the others.
By mid morning the welcoming party was assembled in the Sultan's court. Diplomats, Advisors, Generals and The Elite Guard, as well as the Sultan's Harem - amongst whom Helena stood - all struggling to appear completely at ease. Even the Sultan, despite his regal facade as he sat upon the throne, could not help but betray some glimmer of increasing impatience.
Presently a blast of trumpets was heard from outside the great hall and a pair of soldiers darted from their positions flanking the court's great gates and pulled the heavy wooden doors open to reveal a group of decoratively dressed, momentarily anxious looking men. Their forerunner smiled generously and bowed his head as he moved through the great doorway. His companions followed - a half dozen similarly dressed men and perhaps two dozen soldiers, bearing between them many solid wooden chests, pieces of ornately carved furniture and a long, narrow, brightly painted cabinet about the width and length of a burial casket. The entourage advanced purposefully toward the steps below the throne, then their leader spread his hands and bowed low.
"Greetings, oh Sultan Malhat, from My Lord and Master, Emperor Potanthet." the prostrate ambassador intoned richly, "My Master sends good tidings and prayers for a life both long and abundant."
The Sultan nodded graciously.
"Likewise, good tidings be unto Your Master and all His servants."
The visitor pressed his hands to his chest earnestly as he remained bowed.
"This humble servant is Al'Kasha, Chief Courtier to Emperor Potanthet, Treasurer of The Holy Riches and Keeper of The Forgotten Things. May you know Him simply as The Magi."
"Arise Magi, you are among equals." the Sultan commanded. The Magi arose and gestured broadly again, his hands sweeping out to his sides.
"As evidence of My Master's benevolence, I am sent bearing gifts." he began, and on cue the soldiers moved forward, still weighed down with their burdens. In turn, each chest was opened and the Sultan was presented with golden urns, jewels and priceless artifacts. The Sultan nodded appreciatively and The Magi enlightened him as to the significance of each piece as it was paraded before him. The furniture was then presented and again The Magi intoned in time, praising the unsurpassed skills of the artisans until finally the garishly decorated cabinet remained solely un-presented. Four soldiers brought the casket forward and placed it on one end beside The Magi, so that it stood taller even than he.
"And finally, the most valuable gift My Master could offer. The gift of eternal youth." The Magi nodded at the soldiers and a pair of them pulled feverishly at the front panel of the cabinet. Presently it came away in their grasp and, as they moved it aside, Helena and the rest of the court were intrigued to see within the cabinet an extremely attractive woman. Her eyes were closed, her expression serene as if in a deep slumber, yet somehow her shapely legs kept her body upright within the padded cabinet.A soldier handed The Magi a small suede pouch, then he and the other soldiers rejoined the ranks gathered behind the ambassador. The Sultan and indeed the whole court looked on curiously.
The breathtakingly beautiful woman had olive skin and jet-black hair - the long shining locks arranged decoratively over her head in a form not unlike that of an opening flower. Amongst the delicately arranged tresses, her head was surmounted by a tall silver shining tiara, adorned with a single glittering sapphire and decorated - strangely, it seemed to Helena - with two sets of four downward strokes - slitted holes cut away from the surface of the silver head-dress, to either side of the central shimmering stone. Though her eyes remained closed, Helena could see that they had been flawlessly prepared. The lashes were long and dark, a mauve tint spread over the eyelids up to serenely arched brows. The lower portion of her face was obscured slightly under a thin veil, though Helena could make out a fine narrow nose, steeply angled cheekbones and full, generous lips. At her neck a solid silver necklace or collar, likewise adorned with another glistening azure stone. The woman's bosom was covered only in a thin veil which seemed held in place by only a fine silver chain that looped from the upper corners of the thin fabric, around the back of the woman's slender neck. Though slightly obscured, Helena could see that the woman's bust was full and firm; rivaling even the hewn statues she had seen in the Harem. Below this rather enviable bust, a flat abdomen and narrow waist led down to broadly curved hips, covered in another veil of shimmering fabric. Within the veil, Helena could see that the woman's chastity seemed protected by an extremely slight silver belt - though it hardly warranted such a name, having been crafted so finely. The scant silver undergarment scarcely concealed the woman's most private place but was decorated with yet another sapphire, glistening less brightly than the others from beneath it's veil. The veil draped down to the woman's knees where those long shapely legs exposed themselves completely. The woman's slender hands were poised delicately at her sides, the wrists clasped in wide bands of tightly fitting silver. Finally, Helena noticed the woman's feet were also clad in silver - fine toeless slippers with slightly raised heels.
"Behold!" The Magi exclaimed, "Saphira!"
The ambassador bowed low once again, his hands raised up over his prostrate head, holding aloft the suede pouch. The Sultan's countenance darkened somewhat as he surveyed both the idle woman and the prostrate ambassador. Shortly he rose slowly from his throne and descended the steps to the court floor. He gingerly received the pouch offered to him and The Magi stood upright once more, smiling benevolently. A solid silver key was withdrawn from the small purse and the Sultan examined it, his expression wavering darkly almost to suspicion. The key was almost as wide as his hand though no longer than a finger. It was comprised of a short narrow shaft and a pair of circular wings at the one end, the other end of the shaft widening to perhaps the width of the Sultans thumb, though with eight quite distinct sides. The Sultan surveyed the piece for some time, his face still clouded in consternation. Presently The Magi cleared his throat politely and offered his hand in assistance.
"Your Eminence, if you would allow this humble servant to demonstrate...." he suggested. The Sultan hesitated for a moment then relinquished the key. The Magi moved quickly to the immobile woman. He clasped the octagonal end of the key over the azure stone set in the woman's collar and turned the piece slowly clockwise. As he did so there came a gentle clicking sound, as of a finely crafted time-piece being wound. The woman failed even to appear to notice, remaining in her oblivious serene slumber. As The Magi gave the key at her neck several more turns, the sound seemed to become more increasingly pronounced and resistant. Eventually he retreated from the woman once more and, with a sweeping gesture indicating the key protruding there from her silver necklace, bowed his head to the Sultan yet again. The Sultan's bewilderment lay completely unmasked as he stood looking the woman up and down.
"Your Eminence, yours is the honour of removing the key." The Magi prompted after a time. Without looking away from the motionless woman, The Sultan nodded stiffly, acknowledging The Magi and advanced cautiously, reaching out gingerly and then suddenly plucking the key back into his grasp. Immediately there came the sound of slowly spinning clockworks, increasing steadily in speed. Yet still the woman remained motionless. The jewel to which the key had been fastened seemed to begin to sparkle faintly from within as the sounds of delicate machinery simultaneously sped and softened to a barely discernable whirring. Suddenly there came a brief crackling, as of the stirred embers of a cooling fire and finally the woman's heavy eyelashes parted slightly. Cool, shimmering azure irises rose to meet the Sultan's own eyes as the woman's head rose slightly and turned smoothly toward him. Her poised hands swung into motion and her hips swayed as she stepped elegantly down out of the cabinet. As the toe of her silver slipper met the stones of the court it chimed brightly and for a moment she seemed to pause, then the silvery melodious tone was followed shortly by another as her other foot likewise descended. Then within the veil at her face, those generous lips parted.
"Hi leave chew sarve my Mahstare." the woman breathed, an alluringly thick foreign timbre in her voice immediately apparent. That steady blue gaze never shifted from the Sultan as she slowly approached, hands and hips swaying, silver shoes chiming with each step. Though her movements were poised and precise, there seemed something strangely mechanical about the way the striking woman paused between each step. Finally she stopped before him and that icy azure gaze was downcast to the floor, her head bowed slightly.
"Hi jyam jyewer ombel zarvand." Though the angelic, enchanting voice was heavy with breath, the veil at those moving lips remained strangely still. The Sultan just looked on, dumbfounded, as the faint sounds of steadily whirring clockworks continued, still just barely audible in the near silence of the court. His expression no less troubled, he looked eventually to The Magi once more.
"She is......" the Sultan began, but seemed at a loss to continue. The Magi bowed his head slowly in confirmation.
"Conceived and constructed by the finest craftsmen in my Master's kingdom." he explained. The Sultan looked back to the woman then to the key in his grasp, then he addressed The Magi once more.
"Surely there is some form of trickery involved here." he insisted. The Magi smiled graciously.
"With deepest respect Your Eminence, indeed there is no deception. " he affirmed, "If His Eminence would but instruct Saphira to turn away from him, I will disprove his most honourable suspicions."
The Sultan's dumbfounded expression remained unmoved. The Magi smiled diplomatically and continued.
"Saphira lives by your command alone Your Eminence. If you would kindly request that she turn her back to us, I may demonstrate the manner of her living."
The Sultan frowned uneasily, but then turned to the once more idle woman.
"Saphira. Turn away from me." he commanded firmly, as if for the whole court to obey. Immediately the woman's head bowed still lower.
"Hi jhear han hobey." she breathed, then she turned smoothly, revealing her flawless, bare back to both the Sultan and The Magi. The Magi nodded his thanks to the Sultan then reached out toward the woman, one hand reaching up to the back of her silver collar, the other down to the rear of her scant shining undergarment, both hands pressing at clasps there which sat almost flush with her silver adornments. There came a distinct click and suddenly a narrow seam appeared down the length of the woman's naked back. The Sultan, and the whole court besides, gasped in alarm as The Magi grasped either edge of this gap and pulled open the woman's back as like a pair of hinged doors. Within, there lay a network of spinning cogs, fine ratchets and silver springs, all whirring and clicking busily. The Sultan stared wildly, his mouth opening and closing several times as alarm spread across the court and then gradually faded to murmurs of astonished disbelief.
"This is a powerful magic your craftsmen have mastered." he muttered eventually, still glancing feverishly here and there at the plethora of spinning mechanisms.
"With respect, it is neither magic, nor deception. If His Eminence will look here, he will see the secret to Saphira's living." All but concealed amidst the mechanical ballet surrounding it, The Magi was indicating a solid looking iron box, set deeply within the mechanical woman. The box featured on its outward face several small round pieces of coloured glass, which flickered brightly in steady continuing succession. Out from the top of this box, arranged carefully amongst the spinning clockworks, there led what appeared to be several ropes. Though the darkly woven pattern of the ropes was extremely fine, they seemed unnecessarily broad, suggesting to the Sultan that perhaps the cords were hollow, or perhaps filled with some substance of magical origin. The Magi continued as, with his eyes, the Sultan tracked each cord as far as he could amongst the busy clockworks.
"From here Saphira is given her movement. I am told it is a forgotten science from the Old Age known as Eltrenics. I am told the clockworks provide the force by which the Eltrenics are allowed to course throughout the body." The Magi concluded with a flourishing gesture. The Sultan seemed still lost in another world, then appeared to notice that The Magi had concluded his explanation.
"A forgotten science? You say it is known as El....?" the Sultan pressed.
"Eltrenics, Your Eminence." The Magi repeated and he leaned forward and returned the panels of the woman's back to their closed position where they locked with another distinct click, the seam all but invisible.
"Turn toward me, Saphira." the Sultan ordered gently.
"Jyewer weesh his my coahman, Mahstare." the woman immediately replied, turning back toward the Sultan smoothly, her gaze still cast down at the floor.
"Look up at me, beautiful one." the Sultan commanded softly.
"Jyass Mahstare." The woman's glistening jewel-like eyes met the Sultan's again and he smiled as he examined her once more. Yet suddenly he frowned, having noticed in the shade of her veil a tiny dark blemish on her right cheek.
"And yet here a subtle flaw." he pointed out curiously, gesturing toward the small mark, "Why tarnish a face so otherwise flawless?"
The Magi smiled as if repressing a laugh.
"If Your Eminence will excuse the craftsmens' superstitions..." he began, "Though crafted in the light of re-emerging sciences, they believe their creation so utterly flawless that they fear the Gods themselves might think one of their own has been cast down to Earth, and thusly fetch her back up to the heavens. Saphira was marked in such a way to prevent the Gods making so understandable an error."
The Sultan nodded.
"It is true. Never have I seen one so fair." he agreed, continuing with a chuckle, "I am tempted to think similarly, mark or no."
Something else seemed to take the Sultan's attention. He gestured up to the woman's silver head-dress.
"And here, what meaning is there to these marks?" he demanded, indicating the dark slitted holes in the surface of the decoration. For a moment The Magi seemed uncharacteristically lost for words and he cleared his throat hesitantly. Presently he smiled.
"I have been told that Saphira has a great deal of warmth within her and these decorations allow her to share that warmth with everyone she meets." he explained smoothly. The Sultan considered this for a few moments and then laughed heartily.
"Poetically told indeed!" he chuckled, "but I understand your meaning." He turned back to the serenely waiting woman and seemed about to speak to her, but then was lost once again in his thoughts as he gazed into those glistening blue eyes. Shortly, the Sultan turned suddenly to the Magi.
"I must let it be known that I approve of the gifts your Master has presented and invite you and your associates to feast with me now. Later we will discuss the purpose of your visit."
The Magi bowed slowly still yet again.
"And Saphira?" he inquired, gesturing toward the immobile woman. The Sultan frowned, looking her over again.
"She will be taken to my chambers. I am intrigued to speak with her in private, and to ascertain if she is so sound of character as to be welcomed into the Royal Harem." The Sultan looked away for a moment and clicked his fingers twice. An advisor approached briskly. Then the Sultan addressed the passive woman, "Saphira, this is Fal-Halosh. You will accompany him to my chambers and wait for me there."
"Hi leave chew sarve my Mahstare." the stunning woman intoned huskily. The Sultan passed the silver key and pouch to the advisor and nodded that he should proceed as directed. Fal-Halosh gestured to Saphira for her to follow him.
"Ma'am" he murmured. That icy gaze swung to meet his own eyes and he hesitated for a moment, before striding off in the direction of the main doors. The curvaceous mechanised woman turned smoothly and followed him, pausing once again with each poised step, her shoes chiming brightly, her hands swaying at her sides like hypnotised serpents. As she proceeded slowly across the court, her head turned slightly from side to side in time with her steps, her expression utterly content as if acknowledging the admiration of those watching. Indeed, the whole court was silent, seemingly captivated with the woman's serene, elegant motion. To Helena she seemed to take an eternity to cross the hall, Fal-Halosh waiting patiently at the gate. The Sultan watched her depart, likewise enthralled in the flawless ballet of her motion, then - only once the curvaceous chiming creation was completely out of view- did he address the court, calling for the banquet to begin......
"Why me?" Helena protested, though somewhat meekly, doubting her words would count for much.
"Because you are the youngest." Balhalm insisted, "Now go up there and invite her to meet us. She must be made to feel welcome among us."
Helena bowed under the stern gaze of Balhalm and all the others.
"As you wish." she sighed, and she turned and set off for the Sultan's chambers......
There was no reply to Helena's tentative knock. Presently, and against her better judgment, she tried the door. The handle swung freely and the door opened inward, revealing a lavishly decorated chamber within. Helena called out, but still received no reply. She stepped gingerly through the doorway and immediately noticed Saphira standing off to her left, with that flawless bare back toward her. She approached briskly and bowed her head.
"Most gracious Saphira, I am sent to welcome you on behalf of the Sultan's Harem. We wish to invite you to meet those with whom you will be serving." Helena explained hurriedly. She waited, but still no reply came. Shortly she raised her head. The mechanical woman was utterly motionless, still standing with her back to Helena.
"Saphira?" Helena murmured nervously. She reached out and touched her gently on the shoulder. The immobile woman remained silent. Helena moved around to the front of the stunning woman and found that her eyes were closed, her expression serene as if once again in a deep slumber. Helena glanced at the glistening jewel in the woman's collar noticing that the key was absent and then looked about the room. Almost immediately she spied the suede pouch, laid on a nearby table, and went to it. She retrieved the key from within and returned to the immobile woman, key in her somewhat quivering grasp. She clasped the key over the azure stone as she had seen The Magi demonstrate and twisted it clockwise slowly. As she turned the key, there came a delicate clicking sound - and again, as she turned the silver key several more times. Then she removed it from over the stone. Delicate rasping sounds emanated from within the motionless woman. Slowly they sped and faded to a gentle whirring sound. Helena noticed the sapphire at the woman's silver collar begin to glow with a shimmering, flickering light, then there came a faint crackle from within the woman's curvaceous torso. Her eyes opened smoothly and those icy irises regarded Helena aloofly before the lips parted and she spoke.
"Hi leave chew sarve my Mahstare."
Helena bowed again.
"Most gracious Saphira, I am sent to welcome you on behalf of the Sultan's Harem. We wish to invite you to meet those with whom you will be serving."
"Hi halon can plays my Mahstare." the faintly whirring woman replied immediately. Helena looked up again into those shimmering blue eyes.
"But surely you wish to meet those with whom you will be serving...." she pressed.
"Hi halon can plays my Mahstare." the striking woman repeated coldly. Helena frowned. The divinely conceived woman just stared steadily back at her through long, heavy lashes.
"You mean to say that......But......." Helena was dumbfounded, "How could but one woman keep the Sultan happy?" she managed finally.
"Joonod my hies sheemar has shewels hin the zon? Hjis nod my boozahm fool han farm? Joo hi nod leave chew sarve my Mahstare? Hjis nod my boady parfec hin hevry whay?"
"But you are still but one woman." Helena reiterated, "We must all serve the Sultan together."
"Hi jyam parfec. Jyew har nod. Jyew can honly brang sorrow chew my Mahstare. Theez hi cannod hallow." Saphira explained. Helena's brown eyes widened.
"But we are his Harem. Chosen to serve him." she insisted.
"Jyew whill hall bhe hreplazed." the serenely staring woman replied.
"Replaced? With whom?" Helena asked, but prior even to receiving a reply, the grim answer occurred to her and her bewildered expression sank steadily to shock.
"Mhy seeztars whill com. Whee whall sarve hour Mahstare. Whee halon can plays hjeem." the mechanical woman confirmed.
Suddenly out in the hall Helena heard approaching footsteps and recognised the voice of the Sultan. Saphira too seemed to notice this and turned smoothly as, in a panic, Helena reached out to replace the key over the jewel in the mechanical woman's collar.
"Hi leave chew sarve my Mah...." Saphira began, but as she finished her sentence, the key clicked into place. Immediately the gentle whirring within her clattered and clicked, slowing down rapidly. Her breathy sultry voice seemed suddenly inhuman, stopping and starting mechanically and as the slowing mechanical clamour within her ground quickly to a halt, her voice faded. Her eyelids closed slowly and she stood motionless once again, her mouth hanging slightly open. Helena reached out quickly to push the jaw closed and it yielded, though only with some force and in several ratcheted steps. She then darted toward a nearby ornately carved wardrobe and hid within, pulling the door closed after her.
Almost immediately, the Magi appeared through the still open door to the chamber.
"And here she waits for you, as instructed." the Magi explained, gesturing and bowing generously once more as the Sultan swept into the room accompanied by a pair of elite guards and his chief advisors. Helena found she could see out into the room through the many tiny holes in the carved door. The Magi moved up to the inanimate mechanical woman and gave the key clasped at her collar a generous turn. Helena could faintly hear that familiar delicate clicking as he did so. Then in a typically lavish gesture, he plucked away the key and bowed. From within the wardrobe, Helena could only just make out the steady whirring she had heard just a few moments earlier, then it faded. A moment later there came the crackling sound from within the mechanical woman and Saphira's eyes opened once more and focused longingly on the Sultan.
"Hi Leave chew sarve my Mahstare." she breathed. The Sultan smiled.
"Saphira, I wish to ask you some questions to ascertain if you are fit to be welcomed formally into the Royal Harem." he began, but was then interrupted by the attractive woman.
"Hi halon can plays jyou Mahstare." the woman replied in a purling breath, her cerulean gaze still fixed steadily on him. The Sultan frowned andlooked to The Magi for explanation. The Magi smiled uncomfortably.
"As His Eminence will no doubt come to know, Saphira is so supremely confident of her ability to pleasure her Master, she believes that were He then to accept the crude pleasures of a lesser woman, they would be as burning hot coals to His lips. She wishes simply for Him to be eternally happy, and to have Him experience such bitterness would cause her great grief. With deepest respect, it is this conviction that causes her to desire to serve Him solely."
The Sultan pondered this and nodded slowly, a wry smile spreading at his lips.
"Indeed you are well called to the office of diplomacy, Magi. But is it not true that what one woman lacks yet it will appear in another?"
The Sultan's advisors nodded appreciatively as The Magi bowed his head.
"It has indeed been said, but with deepest respect, I speak as one who has seen proofs of heaven. My Master, Emperor Potanthet but three years ago was first pleasured by a woman such as the lovely Saphira here, and today His entire harem consists of such exquisite creations."
Wide eyed, the Sultan once more surveyed the motionless woman.
"His entire harem, you say?"
The Magi nodded again and smiled, spreading his hands.
"The melodious chimes of their feet and the soothing sounds of their most delicate movements are a constant blessing to his soul. He never wants for affection and confidence, and has yet to find nuisance or displeasure among them, as so often he did before."
"Yet if each woman wants to serve her Master solely, how then can there be peace between them?" the Sultan inquired.
"With respect, as I have said, my Master's entire harem consists of such beacons of perfection, each as beautiful and capable as the next. Therefore there is not a lesser woman among them and they are each content to allow all to serve and pleasure their Master."
The Magi seemed to notice how captivated the Sultan seemed with Saphira, and added, with a wry smile, "Do you not deserve a demonstration your eminence?"
The Sultan seemed to consider this for a moment, then nodded solemnly, still surveying the shapely mechanical woman standing before him. Immediately she stepped toward him, hips and hands swaying elegantly, that soft, busy whirring continuing from within. As she approached, her left hand rose smoothly to the side of her face and unclasped the small chain holding the thin veil at her lips. Then both hands rose up to the Sultan's own face and caressed him, drawing his face down toward her own where their lips finally met. The Magi smiled as the kiss lingered. Shortly the Sultan's hands began gently caressing the mechanical woman's back and while the Sultan's advisors began to look increasingly uncomfortable, the Magi continued.
"And I am instructed to inform you that my Master offers the skills of His craftsmen to allow His new ally to share in such joys of heaven." the Magi explained, hovering now at the Sultan's right ear as the increasingly impassioned embrace continued still. Helena felt suddenly tempted to warn the Sultan of some impending danger, but what that danger was she was not sure, and her better judgment prevented her. The Magi was continuing still.
"And all my Master asks in return is one member of your Harem per exquisite, flawless creation. And after all, what use will your Harem be to you once you have tasted of fruit so ripe and sweet as those Saphira and her kind will provide for you?"
With that the embrace ended, and the Sultan was almost gasping for breath. Saphira took a single step backwards as she reattached the veil to the clasp over her ear. The Sultan nodded somewhat stiffly, as if still lost in a daydream.
"Yes. You are quite right. She is......flawless." he murmured. Slowly he caught his breath, his gaze never shifting from the penetrating icy eyes staring passively back at him. Shortly he nodded once again and looked to the Magi.
"Make the appropriate preparations. I accept your Master's most gracious offer."
The Sultan's advisors went to protest, but the Sultan raised a hand and they fell silent. He glanced once more toward the still steadily staring Saphira, smiled somewhat uneasily, and then retreated from the chamber, followed by his entourage.
"As you wish, your Eminence." The Magi called after him. After a moment he nodded to himself then turned to the still passively waiting woman.
"Excellent. You have performed well, oh perfect princess. Soon the Sultan's entire Harem will be in my Master's possession."
From within her hiding place, Helena restrained a gasp as The Magi reattached the large silver key to the jewel at mechanical woman's collar. There came once again the clamorous mechanised clatter of slowing ratchets and then Saphira's eyes closed smoothly. The Magi looked her immobile body up and down appreciatively for a few moments, then swept out of the room. A few moments later Helena burst out of the wardrobe, scampered past the inanimate curvaceous creation and fled.
"Replaced? But with whom?" Balhalm demanded, her voice echoing in the ornate marble halls of the Harem. The others were trying to calm Helena, who herself was gasping for air.
"With more of her kind!" she managed finally, "We are to be given in payment for others like her!"
As one, the Harem gasped incredulously.
"This is outrageous!"
"But WE are the Sultan's Harem."
"Why would the Sultan betray us so?!"
Collecting herself, Helena spoke up once more.
"It was Saphira. She kissed him...."
"Well then, a single kiss from any of us would win him back." Balhalm insisted.
"But the Magi said that after tasting the pleasures of Saphira we would seem as but burning coals to our Master's lips." Helena explained desperately.
"Hah! I'd like to see that clockwork contraption......" Balhalm hesitated, glancing around the group briefly, then indicated a dark-haired woman, seated on a cushion to her left.
".....massage away our Master's worries as well as Ji-olla here...." Balhalm continued, and indicated a tall blond woman, "...or dance as well as Cathina.."
"Or tell stories as well as Diashell!" Cathina lauded eagerly.
"Any of us are a match for her. It is this 'Magi' who is the burning coal. He has filled our Master with hot-headed foolishness, and it is up to us to free him of it...."
There was a pause as Balhalm fell silent, her eyes squinting, deep in thought. Then she smiled wryly and nodded to herself.
"What is it you have planned?" Ji-olla asked curiously, and with some obvious trepidation. Balhalm glanced around at the group once again.
"I will go to our Master and request an opportunity to prove our skills." she explained evasively, apparently still constructing the plan fully. She fell silent once again for a moment, then turned and headed in the direction of the Sultan's chambers, saying only....
"I will return soon...."
...leaving the others to wonder what was in store for them all.
It was almost an hour later when finally Balhalm returned, smiling triumphantly. The others gathered around her once again.
"It is agreed. There is to be a special audience this evening where we will demonstrate our skills and persuade our gracious Sultan to see the error of his decision."
"But what of The Magi? Will he not be angered when he hears of such dealings?" Cathina suggested.
"To the contrary, he was present at my meeting with the Sultan - the silver-clad mechanical one too - and agreed to the contest."
"Contest?" Helena gasped. Balhalm nodded graciously.
"We will entertain the Sultan in any skill we choose, then The Magi's clockwork companion will perform likewise and after three such tests, the Sultan will choose his preference and make his final decision. All we need now do is choose how the Sultan is to be entertained...."
Cathina stepped forward.
"I will dance for him. I shall dance as fast as lightning. The clattering contraption will dance herself into pieces should she try and better me!"
The others agreed. Diashall spoke up next.
"And I feel a tale of trust and betrayal taking shape as yet we speak. What does such a mechanical maid know of human character?"
There was an awkward silence as collectively the group's attention swung to Ji-olla who was still sitting silently.
"Well, I...." she began awkwardly, under the increasingly expectant gaze of all around her, ".....If everyone so desires, I will soothe him with oils and massage...."
A small cheer went up and the women began to talk amongst themselves, offering advice to the three duly elected representatives. Shortly Balhalm clapped, to silence the excited throng and addressed the Harem's chosen trio.
"Very well, it is decided. Now I suggest the three of you spend some time honing your skills in preparation for his evening."
The group broke up quickly, several women accompanying each of their representatives to offer any further assistance. Helena and a few others remained with Balhalm.
"Do you really think we will win back the Sultan?" Helena asked uneasily. Balhalm sighed as she watched the others begin their preparations for that evening.
"We shall see.....We shall see....." she murmured as if only to herself.
In addition to the silvery light of the moon flooding into the arched hall, the Sultan's private audience chamber was lit here and there by oil lamps and candles, suspended on chains at its perimeter. The Sultan himself was lying amongst a set of large cushions positioned at the far end of the hall. To his left and right, standing patiently, a pair of his elite guard, and his advisors.
Helena and the others of the Harem had assembled before him, where the floor of the chamber was lowered, and were now waiting in increasingly awkward silence to one side. Presently, Helena thought she heard a familiar chiming sound. Indeed, a moment later the faint sound rang again....and again, louder and clearer with each step. After several more silvery chimes, the shapely figure of Saphira appeared at the shadowy open doorway to the Sultan's chamber, the silvery-golden light of the moon and lamps reflected here and there on her shining silver adornments. At her side, the still decoratively dressed Magi, his expression, as always, utterly self-satisfied. Likewise, Saphira's serene expression regarded them all aloofly as she approached methodically - the hands and hips swaying with poised precision, the head swinging slightly to the left and right in synchronicity with each chiming step.
Eventually the mechanical woman came to rest before the Sultan and her head bowed slightly.
"Hi leave chew sarve hmy Mahstare." said that breathy voice, the moving lips barely visible behind their veil. Helena noticed that the Sultan seemed once again utterly enthralled with the raven-haired maiden, his face surveying her as if caught in a trance. There was near silence for a few moments, during which Helena became aware once more of Saphira's faintly whirring innards. The Sultan alone seemed content to wait, still staring down at Saphira with a dreamy, appreciative smile on his face. Eventually it was Balhalm who cleared her throat and stirred him from his thoughts.
"Ah, yes. Balhalm." the Sultan began, somewhat startled, "I believe the evening's proceedings are of your conception. How would you have us begin?"
Balhalm stepped forward.
"With respect my lord, I believe you have been deceived into believing this man-made woman would be of more service to you than we of flesh and blood. As we discussed earlier this day, I request that you behold how sweetly your Harem is able to serve you, and compare our skills with the trinket whom some would have replace us." With this last remark, Balhalm cast a disdainful glance in the Magi's direction.
"Very well, proceed." the Sultan intoned, and Balhalm continued, introducing the Harem's first representative.
Little over an hour later, it seemed to Helena that things were progressing less than favourably. Ji-olla had first comforted the Sultan with fragrant oils and massage, to his seeming pleasure. But then Saphira had likewise comforted him, though as she proceeded she spoke in breathy tones of her own beauty and how she lived to serve him alone. It was Balhalm who interrupted when finally Saphira asked...
"Han now..Shyall hi hundrez far jyew?"
The Sultan had seemed less than impressed with Balhalm's interruption, though agreed somewhat reluctantly that the next representative should beintroduced.
Cathina then danced for the Sultan, and as promised, it was both an elegant and powerfully athletic display. As Cathina danced the Sultan looked on appreciatively, and when the display drew to a close he had clapped excitedly. Cathina bowed, maintaining her elegant poise despite her shortness of breath. Then Saphira had moved forward once again. In contrast to Cathina's balletic energy, the mechanical woman moved with subtle precision, her movements accented by the chiming of her slippers on the stones, and of the silver bands at her wrists against each other. As she danced, she moved forward and ascended the steps toward the Sultan, until finally she stood before him and asked,
"Han now..Shyall hi hundrez far jyew?"
Once again, Balhalm was forced to interrupt proceedings, to the Sultan's apparent displeasure. He reluctantly instructed Saphira to return to the Magi's side.
Next - and finally - it was the turn of Diashall. Balhalm had introduced her as bringing the pleasures of reflection and philosophy to the Sultan. Diashall told the story of a king who, having been concerned at the risk of thieves stealing the royal riches, had taken the advice of a malevolent aide. The aide suggested placing the riches in plain earthenware urns about the palace, and to weigh down the decorative storage urns intended for the royal riches with dirt. The King agreed. Years later the King's daughter was kidnapped and the bandits demanded ransom. The King could only agree to the demands and instructed his aide that a portion of the royal riches should be gathered to accompany him to the agreed point of exchange. The following day, as the King prepared to depart, he saw the decorative storage urns being loaded onto wagons and called for his aide, asking if the urns - though beautiful on the outside - were those filled with worthless dirt. The aide seemed shocked by the King's suggestion and insisted that such finely decorated vessels must surely contain the riches the bandits demanded. Overcome with worry, and pressed for time, the King agreed. After all, they were indeed beautiful vessels. So, the King departed, leaving his aide in command of the palace. It was with great woe however, that the King discovered the vessels he had brought in exchange for his daughter's life were indeed filled with worthless soil. The bandits, outraged that they should be tricked so, slew his daughter there before him and fled once again to the hills, and when the King returned to his capital city, he found no sign of the aide to which the city had been entrusted, nor of the earthenware urns in which he now knew the royal riches had truly been placed. At the completion of Diashall's tale, the Sultan had smiled and nodded knowingly, suggesting he understood Diashall's message to him - That which seems beautiful on the outside might in fact be worthless within, and what is of true value may in fact lie within those! things we see every day. Diashall suggested he take heed before making his final decision that evening.
Then finally, it was the turn of Saphira. Having been instructed to provoke reflection and thought in the Sultan, the mechanical woman stepped smoothly forward once again. The dark-haired woman asked that the Sultan reflect on her beauty and how she lived only to serve him. Once again the Sultan seemed enraptured in the smooth, breathy tone of her voice, and in the poise of her movements. It was the Sultan's complete captivation that now had Helena somewhat concerned.
"Joo nod my hies gleetar has shewels hin the zon?" the mechanical woman asked. The Sultan nodded.
"Indeed they do, oh beautiful one."
Helena heard Balhalm whisper to Cathina...
"See how she tempts him still?"
Cathina nodded, looking on with distain.
"Shoo not hhhmy hhhhies sheeeeemar?" she mimicked in a hoarse whisper, the veil hanging at her face flicking up with each breathy word. Helena frowned and looked to Saphira again. The mechanical woman was once again ascending the steps toward the Sultan, her hips swaying alluringly.
"His nod my boozahm fool han farm?" she breathed longingly, her silver slipper chiming brightly on yet another step as she drew still closer to the Sultan. The Sultan's eyes wandered over her shapely form and he nodded again.
"Indeed it is."
"We are lost." Diashall whispered in Helena's ear. But Helena shook her head slowly, surveying the elegantly moving mechanised woman.
"No, not yet. I have an idea."
She moved stealthily through the group to Balhalm's side and addressed her softly.
"Gracious Balhalm, all is not lost. If our Sultan would grant us but one more trial, I have conceived a test in which I am certain we will prove superior."
Balhalm spoke without taking her eyes off the proceedings before her.
"What is this test?" she whispered desperately.
"I need but two lit candles." Helena explained. For a moment Balhalm's brow furrowed a little. Helena continued.
"And all other lights in the chamber extinguished."
"Hi leave chew sarve honly jyew." came that breathy voice, as Saphira ascended the final step to where the Sultan lay, "Han now, shyall hi hundrez far jyew?"
As the Sultan was about to reply, Balhalm gave a quick surreptitious nod to Helena and stepped forward yet again.
"Gracious Sultan, your Harem would make but one more attempt to win back your affections." she demanded. The Sultan seemed reluctant even to acknowledge her, still all but enraptured in the shapely silver-clad woman before him. Balhalm turned quickly back to Helena.
"Gather what you need quickly." she instructed. Helena nodded and ran off to one side of the chamber, where a pair of candles hung suspended a few feet from the floor.
"Gracious Sultan, will you permit us one more chance to prove our worth?" Balhalm insisted strongly.
The Sultan frowned and glanced away from the elegantly poised Saphira. He sighed.
"Very well. Saphira return to the Magi's side." the Sultan commanded once more.
"Hi jhear han hobey." the olive-skinned woman intoned and she turned smoothly and made her way back down the steps, the delicate chiming of her slippers ringing out across the hall. By this time Helena had returned to Balhalm's side, a flickering candle held in each hand. Balhalm continued.
"We would ask that all lamps and candles, save these two be extinguished." she requested. The Sultan frowned quizzically, but after a moment sighed resolutely, clapped twice and ordered for it to be as Balhalm instructed. A pair of guards circled the chamber quickly, extinguishing the lamps and candles as they went. The chamber darkened, lit only by the full moon which hung low over the city outside and faintly also by the candles in Helena's grasp.
"Very well. All is as you wish." the Sultan prompted. Balhalm nodded graciously and turned to Helena, whispering hoarsely,
"Our fate is in your hands, little one. Please do not fail us."
Helena stepped forward and bowed her head.
"Oh Gracious Sultan, have you not always spoke in wonder of the light of the moon?"
The Sultan, and everyone besides frowned curiously, in consternation at where Helena's line of questioning would take her. The Sultan nodded slowly.
"Indeed I have." he conceded.
"And have you not oft remarked that how on warm summer nights, you like nothing more than to be bathed in it's silver light and it's light alone?"
The Sultan considered this for a few moments, then nodded again.
"Indeed, yet I have."
"Then on such a warm summer night, let me bestow upon you this tiniest of pleasures." Helena offered, and with that she put one candle behind her back and the other near her mouth, extinguishing it in a single puff of breath. Helena smiled and the Sultan's frown deepened.
"Thank you my little one." he praised, somewhat hesitantly.
"Now would not Saphira wish to offer you the same tiny pleasure?" Helena suggested, holding out the still ignited candle toward the immobile mechanical woman. The Sultan nodded and addressed her.
"Very well. Saphira, blow out this candle, that I might be illuminated by the light of the moon alone." the Sultan instructed. Immediately the woman's head bowed slightly.
"Jyewer weesh his my coahman, Mahstare." came that husky recitation, and the woman turned smoothly toward Helena, those icy blue eyes firmly set upon her as she approached. Helena bowed slightly as she offered up the candle and the mechanical woman's left hand rose smoothly to take it delicately from her. Helena bowed still more and backed away as the dark-haired woman held the candle up to her face, it's golden light glistening off her head-dress, and in her shimmering eyes. Behind their veil her lips formed an 'o' shape and for a moment that is how the woman remained - utterly immobile. The veil at her lips failed even to flutter and the candle continued flickering. A moment later, the hand lowered delicately and the mechanical woman's gaze rose once again to the Sultan, her expression utterly content and self-satisfied.
"Han nyow, shyall hi hundrez far jyew?" she suggested. The Sultan frowned.
"And yet the candle is still burning..." he pointed out. Saphira hesitated for a moment then her head turned smoothly to look at the still flickering candle in her grasp. She seemed to survey it curiously for a time before her hand moved it closer to her face once more. Once again her lips formed an 'o' and she leaned forward slightly. There she froze, and Helena could faintly hear a busy whirring coming from inside the woman. As the woman remained motionless, the whirring became more pronounced and steadily slowed. Then suddenly the flickering candle lowered once again and her posture straightened, her confident icy gaze rising to meet the Sultan's yet again.
"Han nyow, shyall hi hundrez far jyew." she intoned smoothly. In addition to the soft, steady whirring coming from inside the woman, Helena thought she could now hear a faint though repetitive metallic squeaking.
"And yet still the candle remains alight...." the Sultan repeated.
Again the mechanical woman hesitated, then her head turned to the candle held daintily in her hand. Immediately the hand rose again to her face, her lips formed an 'o' and her body leaned a little toward the candle in her grasp. That steady whirring sounded again from within her and wound heavily. For some time the curvaceous creation remained motionless, the steely winding continuing with apparent deliberation. Then after a moment her posture straightened, the candle still undisturbed. Helena could now more distinctly hear that repetitive squeaking sound, as if something within the mechanical doll was askew somehow. The curvaceous construction smoothly turned her head to face the Sultan once again and the lips parted to speak, but he interrupted her.
"Yet still, the candle remains burning..." he repeated still more firmly, with some displeasure. The mechanical woman's mouth closed and her head turned yet again to the flickering candle in her grasp. It's golden light reflected in those azure eyes as the mechanical woman surveyed it curiously, then she leaned forward once more, the lips yet again poised as if to blow it out. That same mechanical grinding sounded, winding furiously this time, as the shapely woman remained posed utterly motionless. As she stood immobile, the mechanical doll began to emit a repetitive metallic clattering, softly at first, then more immediately apparent. Helena noticed an expression of concern on the face of the Magi. Suddenly the mechanical woman's posture straightened stiffly and her gaze shifted to the Sultan as the clattering and squeaking continued still inside her.
"Hi muz hobey hmy Mahstare." she breathed longingly. Her head turned stiffly back toward the candle, her mouth formed itself again into an 'o' shape and her head leaned forward slightly. For some time the furious mechanised grinding sounded from within the crookedly posed doll and the clattering and squeaking became gradually still more pronounced. Then suddenly there was a single sharp metallic bouncing sound, as of a coiled spring suddenly released. There came some faint tinkling sounds as the mechanical woman's posture straightened stiffly, and Helena realised the squeaking and clattering within her seemed suddenly to be speeding up. Helena also thought she noticed the jewel at the woman's collar glowing more brightly. The shapely automaton turned smoothly toward Helena and the other women of the Harem, her expression utterly serene.
"Hi jyam parfec." the shapely woman assured them all. She stepped forward, though to Helena the formerly flawless ballet of her motion seemed somewhat hurried and unbalanced. As the whirring and squeaking within her sped, there came still more tinkling sounds and amidst the metallic clattering, the occasional mechanical crunch. Her silver slippers rang brightly against the stones as she stepped stiffly forward, pausing ever more briefly between each step.
"Hi jyam bill chew hobey."
There came yet another steely crunch and another coiled spring was released somewhere within her. The jewel at her neck glowed ever more brightly as that mechanical whirring sped still more. Helena thought she noticed smoke appearing from the slitted holes in the mechanical doll'ssilver head-dress as she continued toward them.
"My boady his parfec. Hi halon can plays hmy Mahstare." the faltering mechanised woman insisted, "Hi jyam parfec. Jyew har nod. Hi jyam ay roobod."
Still another mechanical crunch sounded, followed by the sudden release of another internal spring, and the far side of the hall was filled suddenly with flickering multi-coloured light. For the first time Saphira seemed to be smiling, though strangely with only one side of her mouth. Several shining silver springs and cogs clattered to the ground and when the mechanical doll spun around to face the far side of the hall, Helena realised the panels of her bare back had burst open, exposing the frantically whirring mechanisms within. The multi-coloured glass fittings set within her flashed in increasingly rapid succession as she headed back toward the Magi, silver shoes clanging as she walked, ratchets and cogs whirring and spinning ever more quickly within the exposed cavity of her back.
"Hi jyam parfec. Theez his himposable. Hi jyam parfec. Hi jyam jyewer roobod."
As she stepped quickly across the hall and the mechanised whirring and clattering increased in speed, sparks began to flash from the solid iron box nestled deeply amongst the spinning ratchets and cogs within her. Another metallic springing sounded and the jewel at her neck clattered to the ground. Thick smoke billowed up from her back and from her silver head-dress.
"Hi leave chew sarve. Leave chew sarve. Muz hobey."
mechanically grinding woman walked stiffly past the Magi, much to his apparent
alarm, and straight into the pillar of a nearby arch. She spun around again,
the panels of her back bouncing closed and open as she marched ever more
stiffly back across the hall, silver slippers clanging loudly, head swinging
mechanically from side to side with each hurried step.
"Hi muz.....muz hobey. Hoverlod. Hoverlod."
The furious whirring and clattering continued as she lurched awkwardly forward, then with a final frenzy of sparks and several more metallic 'sproings', the shapely mechanised woman's unsteady forward motion ground to a halt near the centre of the hall. The frenetic whirring of ratchets and cogs slowed gradually, as that curvaceous torso tipped inexorably forward.
"H..h..hi hi j..j..jyam par par par f..f...fec.....fec....par.....par....parrrrrrr.......parrrrrrrrrrrrrr............."
That husky breath-heavy voice cut in and out unnaturally as the shapely doll leaned slowly forward at the waist, one panel of her bare back coming to rest mostly closed, the other lying fully open. Finally, the candle was released from the curvaceous machine's delicate grasp and extinguished itself as it fell. The court was utterly silent as the mechanical woman finally wound down, completely motionless, her silver adorned head and arms hanging limply down toward the ground. A pair of twisted springs protruded up from the open panel of her back and a thin trail of smoke spiraled into the air above the exposed cavity.
Presently the Sultan stood and stepped tentatively down to the court room floor. He circled the defunct mechanical woman, stopping at her head and reaching down with one hand toward her silver head-dress. He pulled her head upright gently, with a steely squeak. Those formerly serene azure eyes were wide and vacant. A puff of smoke appeared from her parted lips, flowing up through the thin veil still covering her mouth. Somewhat startled by the sight, the Sultan released the head-dress and the mechanical woman's head swung freely down to face her own legs once again.
He seemed to compose himself and nodded solemnly. Presently he turned to address the Magi.
"Magi, you will depart immediately. Tell your master there will be no exchange of Harems."
The Magi went to protest, but the Sultan continued.
"For that is, I suspect, the nature of your master's plan - to exchange his mechanical Harem for my own, yes? It is sad indeed that he had to learn the value of true life, only in it's absence."
The Magi smiled diplomatically and went to leave, but the Sultan spoke again.
"And take your broken-down perfect princess with you. She will not be needed here."
The Sultan then turned to address Helena.
"Indeed you have made me see the error of my ways, little one. For it is your breath of life that truly I would have lacked and desired."
Helena bowed and the Sultan exchanged glances with Balhalm, then he bowed low and spread his hands.
"My humblest apologies to you all. I pray you can all forgive me."
Balhalm bowed graciously, acknowledging the Sultan's apology.
"Guards! Escort the Magi, his entourage, and this ill-conceived contraption out of my palace." the Sultan suddenly boomed. A pair of his guards tentatively approached the crookedly posed mechanical woman. Presently one guard ducked down under the woman's torso and lifted her up, the lifeless doll draped stiffly over his shoulders. The other collected the few cogs and springs that lay about on the floor, and placed the pieces gingerly in the open cavity of the smouldering doll's back. He then approached the Magi and gestured politely toward the door. The Magi smiled diplomatically and obliged. As the group departed, Helena and the others watched them go, the light of the moon still glinting here and there on the inactive shapely mechanical woman's silver adornments, her silver slippers chiming faintly against each other as she was carried from the great arched hall.