It’s a lake, this one; an oval of the finest Venetian silver-coated glass, framed in white and yellow gold, which twists and turns into the patterns of grass, leaves, delicate flower-stems topped with gemstones – petals – of every colour. An oasis, for his desert princess.
The Persian Queen looks at it, for a moment, and then rolls her shoulders.
‘You’ll find space for it, somewhere’, she says, to the seven poor servants tasked with bringing her her new mirror.
The Persian Queen lives in a chamber of mirrors, each more elaborate than the last and all hung on crowded walls; from the tiniest convex make-up mirrors of her youth, to the grand looking-glasses of later years. Never an inch of space between them. And each and every one is draped in dusty silk cloth so as to obscure its frame and itssurface. It’s a tradition between them; every year, since they were engaged, her husband, the King, delivers her a mirror. And, every year, the Persian Queen smothers said mirror in silk, never again to reflect her or her palace.
He’s obsessed with her. ‘Arab women’, he says, ‘are by far the loveliest.’ To which she replies: ‘I’m Persian now, sweetheart.’
But she’s beginning to think that to him she will always be the exotic ‘other’.
Eventually, by re-arranging the two-dozen mirrors already on the walls, the Queen’s servants manage to clear a patch large enough for her gold oasis, which they hang, lengthways, shifting this way and that so as to make it balance. In the lake is reflected last year’s offering; a long, mauve drapery under which is concealed an ancient Anatolian creation with a thick gold frame patterned with mythical creatures. ‘It tells a story’, the King told her. The Persian Queen loved stories.Nevertheless, she shrugged, made love to him once, before it, and then covered it in a now-dusty silk sheet, like the others.
Like the lake-mirror, which the Persian Queen orders her servants to cover-up immediately.
‘Use my bedsheets, if you must’, she says to them, reclining into the plush, satin cushions laid out on thelow chair in the chamber full of mirrors.
The servants obey, procuring step-ladders from her closet, removing her sheets from her bed and proceeding to cover the newest mirror. She catches a glimpse of her reflection in it. She is very beautiful, still, after all these years. A woman, not a girl. Fast approaching forty. Yet still her skin is smooth; brown; almost unblemished. Her waist cinched. Her figure curvaceous. And, at the start of it all, she found it flattering, to be reminded. Of her rose-petal lips. Of her green-brown eyes. Of her shimmering night-black ringlets. But now she just finds it tiresome. Does he see nothing else in her?
Tonight she’d show him. Tonight, the King was to host a feast, in honour of his and his bride’s twentieth wedding anniversary. And, as with all the King’s feasts, the women of the palace were not invited. So, as the men made merry with rich food and rich wine, the Persian Queen would host a second banquet, for the women, and, through them, bend their husbands’ – and fathers’ and sons’and brothers’ – wishes to her King’s desires. She’d be a master strategist, whether or nother husband would allow it.
The servants finish covering up the lake-which-was-a-mirror, bow deeply, and then leave the Persian Queen alone in her chamber. The second they’re gone, she stands up, languidly strips off her garments, and begins to prepare for the day ahead.
First, I’ll bathe, she thinks to herself, before tip-toeing, naked, towards the cast-iron tub in the corner of her chambers.
Upon the mantelpiece, at the centre of the chamber sits a coronet – her crown – encrusted with shards of broken glass, arranged like petals, in a swirl, like an ice-blue flower. Too simple to be a rose. Too elegant to be anything else. And too sharp to pick up with her bare hands, although the inwards-facing part was smooth, golden, and perfect.
The shards of glass from which it was made had once belonged to her predecessor’s one-and-only mirror.
‘Nothing reflects the soul as purely as a mirror’, says the Persian King, to his confidant, as he sips wine from a golden chalice. ‘The eyes can be deceived by beauty or by grace – by feigned innocence – but nothing ever deceives a good mirror. That’s how I know my bride to still be who she says she is. I can see it, in the mirrors I buy her.’
He’s sitting at the head of a lavish banqueting-table, one of seven laid out in his great hall, all overburdened with wines, pies, meats and sweets, as well as the odd elegantly arranged fruit-bowl, untouched by his guests, of which there are several dozen; nobles, neighbouring Kings, fabulously wealthy merchants from both west and east, all filling the enormous domed roof with the boisterous chatter and exuberance. At either side of him sit the King’s confidants, ears poised at the ready, soaking up the King’s words like weak wine (which they also soak up, in abundance).
He’s a handsome man, for his age, paler by far than his wife, with flecks of greying hair in his well-trimmed beard, and threaded throughout his mane which is only now beginning to thin at the scalp.
He’s the kind of man who doesn’t take kindly to people mentioning this.
‘And this year?’ asks his confidant, already forgetting his place in the merriment of the banquet.
‘I assure you’, says the Persian King, taking the bait hook, line and sinker, ‘she’s still as beautiful now as she was last year; in real life, as in the mirrors I buy her.’
This wasn’t true, thinks the King to himself, without saying a word; she has a few more crows-feet than this time last year. But his guests weren’t to know that.
Across the hall from him, a Venetian merchant – the very same merchant, in fact, who had supplied the Queen with her mirror-which-was-a-lake – speaks up, pressed to it by several nobles, and fellow-traders. He drains the remaining wine from his glass, sharply setting it down upon the King’s banqueting table, before uttering four words, selected especially for this moment:
‘I don’t believe it.’
The chamber of mirrors is filled with Queens, noblewomen, merchant’s wives and merchant’s daughters. The odd Princess. The odd prostitute. All dressed up in their finery. All stood up, chatting, nibbling on delicate snacks, sipping wine from elegant glasses.
The Persian Queen meanders between guests, like a serpent. To some, she pays carefully-worded compliments. To others, she talks politics, and the running of nations. To yet others, she talks of clothes; of material goods she herself has no love for.
And, to some, she tells stories.
‘This crown? Oh. It belonged to my predecessor. Once upon a time, almost thirty years ago, when my husband, the King, was barely out of his boyhood, he sought a bride, and found, for himself, the loveliest woman in all of Persia. It was said, that she’d been proposed to, a thousand times over, by the time our King discovered her. And, despite his being a King, she refused him also. It was only when he made a gift to her, of an elegant golden crown, encrusted with diamonds and with sapphires that she agreed to be wed to him, and to come and live with him in his palace.
‘She was a peasant girl, you see, and, whilst at first she had humble wants, she soon became greedy and selfish. She never came to love the King, as, as a girl on her wedding-day, she’d expected. Instead, she brought other men to sleep with her in her chambers, whilst the King faithfully awaited her interest.
‘Then, one night, the King grew impatient. Without so much as a warning – although the servant women, hearing the King coming, did try to warn her – the King left his chambers for his bride’s and burst in on her, seemingly alone, in bed. When he accused her of adultery, she protested her innocence. Yet, something caught the King’s eye above the headboard where was placed the chambers one and only mirror.
‘It was a man, hidden from his sight by the careful wrapping of the bedsheets. What’s more, it wasn’t just a man, but the King’s very own brother.
‘In his rage, our King punched – and smashed – the mirror, taking a piece from the rubble and slicing his brother’s throat with it, drenching his adulterous wife in the blood of her lover, before banishing her from his kingdom, forever.’
To some of her guests the Persian Queen offered up a different version; where the husband slashed his wife’s throat, and banished his brother forever.
To others she’d tell yet another version, where the King was a possessive man, unduly suspicious, and, despite not loving him, the Queen never thought to sleep with another. Then, one day, the Queen’s brother came, without warning, to visit. Upon hearing from her servants that the King was headed their way, and knowing very well her husband’s temperament, the Queen hid her brother beneath the sheets, unwittingly confirming to her husband’s mind that this man was her lover. Bathed in her brother’s blood, the Queen fled the kingdom and, unwilling to admit that he had done wrong, the King maintained the story of his adulterous first bride.
Nevertheless, the story ends the same:
‘Later that day the King told his servants to collect the shattered mirror; melt down the golden crown; remove the diamonds and the sapphires and, instead, adorn the coronet with unfiled broken glass, to serve as an eternal reminder to any woman who’d become Queen hereafter.’
‘Is it true?’ asks one of the Persian Queen’s guests, in awe.
‘All of it’, says the Queen, with a smile, before adding:
‘Except the bits that are made-up.’
The Persian King orders his servants to bring forth a mirror. Any mirror. So they bring him the small, plain, head-to-toe mirror from the King’s own bedchambers. The King commands they hold it up, above the banquet table, tilted slightly forward, as his guests gossip.
‘Tell her to come’, he says to another of his servants.
Behind him, a well-dressed Chinese merchant jabs a Persian nobleman in the ribs, and says, in a purposefully loud whisper:
‘I’ve heard that, beneath those fine silk clothes that I myself provided, our lady Queen has –shall I say – a tail.’
To this, the Persian nobleman – and a few other guests who caught the remark – snicker.
By ‘tail’ the merchant means, of course, ‘penis’.
That did it.
‘Tell her to come’, says the Persian King whom, since his boyhood, has been subjected to such rumours. ‘Tell her to come; and to wear her crown; and to wear nothing else besides it!’
And he reclines into his chair as his servants, once more, fill up his chalice. He doesn’t know which of his guests made that last remark. He wishes he did. He is not a vindictive man, the King, only, he wants to see the man’s face…
When his wife takes off her ‘fine silk clothes’ and they all see that she is, indeed, the loveliest woman in all of Persia.
And that they can’t have her.
The Persian Queen chooses her words like weapons for a battle; sometimes graceful, sometimes blunt; is she charging against an army, or taking out a single opponent in close-combat? She speaks accordingly. Bends truths lies. Makes things up. Tells stories; some fanciful, some not. Tells of her childhood as a dethroned princess under the Ottoman Empire. In one version she’s a gift, from King to King, to right past wrongs, in spite of the circumstances. In another she’s a war orphan, brought home as a trophy, and only just come-off-age when the King’s first bride died/fled/was banished.
In another she’s an illegitimate child. Shhhhh. Don’t tell the others.
And in another she’s half-European. Yes. Even with this skin colour.
The Persian Queen has taken time to get to know her guests. Far far longer than they’ve had time to know her. And now, she reaps her rewards, bending them to her will like wet clay figures.
‘…it’s such a shame isn’t it? If only we could have open trade between us…’
‘…our God frowns on such acts of aggression, even against those who so blatantly deserve it…’
Of course, it will take more than one banquet to steer things to her advantage; the Persian Queen knows this. So she invites them back; Queens and whores alike, so long as they have the right man’s ear. The right man’s heart.
The door swings open. Bejewelled heads swivel upon elegant shoulders. Murmurs sweep like waves through the chamber of mirrors.
‘My Queen, the King demands your presence!’
The Persian Queen sighs; politely ends her conversation; adjusts her crown upon her head and makes for the door. The servant stands stoic between her and it.
‘Your majesty, wait-
‘What do you mean to say that the Queen refuses?’ bellows the Persian King, shattering his guests’ eardrums in the process.
This time the whispers are louder. No opinions are held back. Does the Queen have a disease? Is she unnaturally aged? Is she mutilated? Is she a man, after all? Could she be a hermaphrodite?
‘Does she have no respect for her King?’
‘Surely, this is treason?’
‘Surely, she must be banished!’
The King now slowly drains his chalice, as his guests eagerly await his next decree. Some of them look nervous.
I wonder, thinks the Chinese merchant to himself, how the Persian King takes to those who so callously destroy his marriage. For he cannot lose face. Nor can he force his wife to acquiesce without coming out looking like a savage. Why, whatever shall he do? And who shall he blame when he inevitably comes to regret it?
Others, less so. They still hold out hope of seeing the lady Queen naked.
‘This sets a precedent’, says the King’s confidant, in a barely-audible whisper; the one all King’s confidants practise. ‘If your wife is seen to disobey you, what example does that then set for these men’s wives, and all the other wives of Persia?’
‘Need I not remind you’, says the King’s second confidant who, less than an hour before, set this whole mess in motion, ‘that the Queen in hosting her own banquet, in her own chambers, and that, at this very moment, she’s in the company of these men’s wives; daughters; servants.’
‘Even if your men here can be persuaded; this cannot be kept quiet!’
The King’s head is swimming now. He knows not what to do nor how to do it. Instead, he does nothing, and hopes this whole situation soon defuses.
The sun sets upon the desert.
In her chamber full of mirrors the Persian Queen lights candles, as the chill of the night descends like a spell upon the Persian King’s palace. The shock of her husband’s request still lays heavy upon her shoulders. She tries to shrug it off. To get back to the plan but, thanks to her husband’s idiocy the plan is shattered. Still, she stands tall, regal, wears her crown with pride and makes polite small talk. She’s nothing, if not a diplomat.
Inside she wonders why she puts up with it.
The Persian King stews in alcohol and in misery, sat at the head of the banquet table at the heart of his palace. Does he even love her? Things which were once so crisp in his mind have now become blurred; out-of-focus. Thoughts. Feelings. Even memories. Did his last wife really cheat on him? Or was the man in her bed really her brother? Had she ever even said it was her brother? Or had he been told the story so many timesthat the truth could no-longer be remembered?
It’s all true, after all, except the bits that are made-up.
The Persian King looks up to see a medley of faceless figures. Royals. Nobles. Merchants. All reduced to a flesh-coloured blur, blending in to the brown wooden table, the china plates and wine-filled glasses, the flesh-picked carcasses of the night’s dinner. They dance before him, these fleshy brown-white-pink-no colours. They bend, twist, turn, pulsate; flash in and out of focus like a mirage.
The Persian King is a desert King; he knows all about mirages.
He laughs a drunkard’s laugh.
He stands up, as best he can, as his two confidants sweep in to prop up his lumbering figure which falls forwards, like a long dead-tree in the heart of a hurricane. He staggers. Trips. Falls to his knees. Then rises again, triumphant, his chalice of wine in hand.
‘Bring me to her!’ he commands. Or believes he commands. For, at first, his confidants and his servants do not move but stare at one another, with blank expressions. Fearful. White.
‘Did you not hear me?’ he roars, and, this time, the whole palace hears him, ‘I said: Bring. Me. To. Her!’
Silence has now fallen upon the banqueting hall. They’ve enraged a King. A desert King. A desert King embroiled in the heart of a storm. And now they must see out the consequences.
The Persian King leaves for the chamberof mirrors.
His guests follow suit.
The elegant palace halls are – to the King’s eyes – like a swirling tunnel of nothingness, which twists, turns, changes course unexpectedly and, for a long, long time, seems endless. But it is not. And soon he arrives at the Persian Queen’s chamber, bursting through the doors like gunpowder. Like fireworks.
The Queen’s guests are fewer than the King’s; more carefully selected. And they turn their heads, bird-like, to this second unexpected disturbance. Some of them are quite drunk. Some are – despite the late hour – still in full possession of their senses. But all are alarmed by the arrival of the King and the intrusion of men into a lady’s chambers.
The Persian Queen – seeing her husband hanging off of his confidant’s shoulders, blind drunk – sweeps into action, adjusting her coronet as she worms her way through her guests to the chamber’s entrance.
‘My King! My love!’ she exclaims, cradling her husband’s face within her palms and stooping her own body to meet it. ‘What a joy to see you in my chambers! Would you care for some refreshment?’
But the King won’t play along. The King will have none of it.
‘Why did you not come?’ he asks, recoiling from her touch; making sure his and her guests alike can see how he is disgusted.
The Persian Queen considers, for a moment, as the quivering glow of the chamber’s candles dance upon her face, making her lips seen redder than blood. Then, she answers:
‘Because it is not a respectful thing for a King to ask.’
She looks so old, thinks the King to himself, in candlelight.
They stare at one another, for a moment. And then, regaining his balance, the King staggers past her, and past her guests – who recoil from his mere presence – before grabbing the silk white bedsheets draped over this year’s anniversary present; the lake-which-was-a-mirror; the-mirror-which-was-a-lake. He uncovers it.
‘Look at yourself!’ exclaims the King, whose arms flail about his body as though no longer attached to it. ‘Can you not see yourself? Why do you cover them? Eh? Eh?’
He stumbles across the room like an injured bear; grasping at thin air until he reaches the Anatolian mirror, grabs the mauve sheet, and removes it. The mythical creatures come alive to his sight, for a moment, and the Persian King shrieks. Gasps. Then laughs, like a madman, at himself.
‘What are you afraid of?’
He’s the hurricane now, whooshing around the room, the chamber full of mirrors, uncovering the looking-glasses in his wake. He’s clumsy and he’s careless. The Persian King does not look at where he drops the removed sheets, only forwards, ever forwards, at the mirrors still left to be uncovered.
Nothing reflects the soul as purely as a mirror, thinks the King to himself, try two dozen mirrors! Then we’ll see what you’re made of!
But in them all he sees is the curl of the Persian Queen’s red lower lip, as she swallows her distain for one moment. Just one moment.
The chamber is now filled with candlelight; an endless bouncing of thousands of flames from mirror to mirror, like a sea of stars as, at the very back of the chamber, a carelessly-thrown silk sheet catches light. Standing at the heart of the chamber of mirrors the Persian Queen turns on the spot. She sees herself reflected not two-dozen, but a thousand times over as her reflection is captured, fractured, splintered, parcelled-up, and shone back into another mirror at the other end of the chamber, which is, in turn, shrunk, distorted, and reflected back. Her warm brown skin. Her curly black hair shimmering like coal in the candlelight. Her eyes no-longer green-brown, but aflame in the night.
Her guests are confused. Befuddled. Some cower in corners. Some stand-up straight, and await for the hurricane to pass. They see themselves reflected too, in the chamber full of mirrors. Their fairness. Their faults. But they don’t comment.
Nobody says a word.
The King has had enough.
‘Do you have nothing’, he bellows, like a beast, sweeping across the room to where his Queen stands, unfazed, in the midst of it: ‘Do you have nothing to say to me tonight?’
He’s standing tall now, on his own two feet, so that the Persian Queen – who is far from a small woman, herself – has to crane back her neck to make her response:
The Persian King laughs to himself as, at the back of the chamber full of mirrors, flames erupt, and slowly, quietly, begin to consume the room.
This is his trump card.
To this the Persian Queen recoils, indignant, the mirror-petal crown upon her head flickering with the flames that nobody has yet noticed. In it, too, is reflected her husband’s red, puffy, inebriated face. If only he was sober enough to see it.
‘Fine’, she says, brushing of his words with a roll of her shoulders, before stepping past him – above him – and addressing her guests: ‘I’m sorry, my ladies’, and then, with a thought for the mess of confused faces beyond the chamber doors, ‘my men; the King has decreed that I am to be banished, so we must now end tonight’s festivities. Our servants will see to it that you collect your things, and then I personally will see you to the gates. I trust you will not think too harshly of our King; it’s not often that he is drunk.’
There is a murmur of assent as the Queen’s words, like poison, take their effect. To some this is an inconvenience; to others it is a relief. The chamber is soon emptied, leaving only the King, slumped in the cushioned chair as, behind him, the flames reachthe curtains, setting the palace alight.
‘You should probably see to that’, the Persian Queen says, as she finishes her night’s duties and begins packing for the journey ahead.
The King doesn’t hear her, though; the King has blacked out.
It took the whole night for the fire to be put out. A fire which illuminated the path of the Persian Queen as, long before dawn, she left the palace at the helm of a merchant’s caravan, headed for the Far East.
She swears to herself that she’ll never come back.
Now, the Persian King sits alone in his chamber full of mirrors, each and every one kissed, licked, gobbled up by the flames and then spat back out. The furthest ones from the door have all-but melted; turned ashen black; unable to reflect any but the brightest of lights. And even then, faintly, like a mirage in a desert. Yet it’s the ones closer to him that disturb the King the most, for they still work. They’ve bent, curled, melted, disfigured and discoloured themselves in the heat of the fire, yet still they work; they reflect. The Persian King stands up.
He turns on the spot.
He’s a handsome man, for his age, isn’t he? Paler by far than his wife?
Except, in the chamber’s mirrors, he’s not.
Nothing reflects the soul as purely as a mirror, thinks the King to himself, as he turns, staggering – for he is still rather drunk – in the centre of his former wife’s chambers.
He laughs a madman’s laugh.
He looks up.
In one mirror he’s a dwarf; squat and wide and bereft of his left arm which – in his reflection – has been burnt off. In one he’s a King, granted, a tall handsome man, except his whole body is copper-red, and his legs have shrivelled up. He looks over his shoulder; he’s headless, completely headless; he’s a hunchback; he’s a devil; he’s a beast. The Persian King turns on the spot in his chamber full of mirrors and sees his own reflection captured, fractured, splintered, distorted, reduced, bounced a thousand times over this way and that.His reflection smiles at him, without the corners of his own lips moving an inch. It laughs.
Nothing reflects the soul as purely as a mirror.
After a moment’s hesitation, the King too laughs.
Upon the charcoaled mantelpiece, at the centre of the chamber sits the Queen’s coronet, melted, like candlewax, over the edge of the table, dribbling, like a frozen waterfall, onto the mosaic floors of the King’s palace. The shards of mirror too, have melted, but not much; far far less than the rest, as they trail down the spine of molten gold waterfall, facing the centre of the room. And in them is reflected a repeat pattern:
A middle-aged man, slumped on the floor in the remains of a once-great palace, perfectly alone, and laughing to himself.
Vashti Kashian-Smith is a Welsh-born, Spanish-raised private tutor currently living in England. She’ll be returning to the University of Cambridge to read English Literature later this year. When not teaching or studying, Vashti writes novelettes, short stories, and plays (of which several have been preformed in amateur settings). She also paints portraits.
This is her first published piece of fiction.
If you enjoyed The Persian Queen, leave a comment and let Vashti know.
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