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The Woman Who Watches the King

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Asha lay in a room. Sometimes she got up to eat or use the bathroom, but afterward she lay down again. Sometimes people came in and talked to her, but she closed her eyes until they went away.

The room had become her world. Probably she would never leave the room, except by dying. She didn’t care. After what had been done to her, there was no point in continuing to live. After what she had done, it was best for her to be kept away from other people. The room was her refuge and her punishment. The room was what she deserved.

One day a man came in. He had to edge through the door to avoid getting caught by the bulky pack strapped to his back.

“Get up,” he said, not unkindly. “You’re leaving this room now.”

“Are you taking me away to die?” she asked.

He winced slightly. People didn’t like it when she spoke frankly, but what was the point in pretending? “I’m taking you to another place.”

Asha noted the careful way he had chosen his words, and that he hadn’t said no.

At last, she thought. Good.

She stood up, then straightened her back and ran her palms over her hair. As soon as she registered what she had done, she recognized how meaningless it was. What did she care what she looked like? She could remember caring, but couldn’t connect that feeling to herself. Those recollections were like watching some stranger who loosely resembled herself.

The man took her hand. Strangely, it felt like a gesture of kindness. Or maybe it wasn’t strange. For her death would be a kindness, and perhaps he knew it. She closed her fingers around his.

A way opened up before them. Cool air blew through it, smelling of the sea. She only had time for a confused glimpse of white and gray before he stepped through, pulling her with him.

The way led to another room. It was vast, made entirely of white marble, with life-sized statues everywhere. She could hear waves lapping, and the sea-scent was stronger. There was a chill in the air. The place was so big and grand, it could only be a seaside palace, though she had never seen such a thing.

Asha could no longer see her own room. For the first time in… it felt like a very long time… she was curious. “How did we get here? What is this place?”

A brief smile flickered across the man’s face. “It’s difficult to explain. I can tell you more later. For now, the important thing is that you’ll be living here for a while.”

Her curiosity drained away. There would be no merciful death, then. This was just another room.

He put his pack down on the floor, removed blankets, a thin sleeping pad, warm clothes, sturdy shoes, and other items she couldn’t keep track of, and set them out neatly.

“This place will provide everything you need, but you have to get it yourself,” he said. “I’ll teach you how.”

He took her up a flight of stairs to another grand room with marble statues, and showed her how to catch the rainwater that trickled down the walls. He took her downstairs to a room that was partially flooded with seawater, and showed her how to pluck seaweed, how to net fish, and how to pull shellfish from the statues and walls. He walked her back to the room they had first come to, and taught her how to dry the seaweed, clean the fish, shell the mussels, and cook them.

“I’ll never be able to remember all this,” she said. Nor could she imagine having the energy to do any of it.

“I know,” he said. “I’ll help you until you can do it by yourself.”

He walked her back down to the flooded room to wash her cooking and eating vessels, and then back to the place with her bed. She lay down. When she looked around again, he was gone.

She hoped that was the last she’d see of him. But he returned and made her get up, collect more food and water, cook it, and rinse her vessels. It was so tiresome to have to eat every day. She didn’t understand how she had ever managed it. But she didn’t have the energy to refuse either.

The sound of the sea was ever-present. Sometimes she saw birds, but the only animals she saw were statues. Her bed was beside a statue of a small antelope with four short horns. It had a shy, quizzical expression.

The man watched her while she collected water and food, started a fire, and cooked her meal. She offered him some.

“Thank you,” he said. They ate together, and then he bid her a good night and left.

She woke up in the night, overly warm, and pushed off one of her blankets before going back to sleep. A lightening of the gray, along with the twittering of birds, woke her. A flock of sparrows was in the room, with one perched on the head of the four-horned antelope. It cocked its head, regarding her with bright black eyes, and chirped.

“Are you hungry?” she asked.

The sparrow flew a short distance away when she sat up, landing at the feet of a statue of a kneeling woman drawing something very fine and thin through a ring. Asha had disposed of the remnants of her last meal, but she had some dried seaweed that she hadn’t eaten yet. She broke it up into small pieces and tossed one to the sparrow. The little bird hopped forward and pecked it up.

Other sparrows flew down. Asha fed them on dried seaweed till there was none left. She wondered if they liked fish. She would save some from her dinner that night instead of tossing the remnants back into the sea.

She went downstairs to wash up and catch her dinner. The flood that had inundated the room must have been slow and gentle rather than sudden, for few of the statues had been tumbled over. She could see many of them underwater, graceful celestial maidens with long streamers of seaweed for hair, kings crowned with coral, a goddess accepting a sea anemone offering. Silvery fish swam fearlessly between the paws of prowling tigers. She plucked mussels from the thighs of a handsome archer, his gaze fixed on an unseen target, and wondered if she was cleaning him or stripping away his armor.

A man came and watched her, then left without speaking. Perhaps he intended to slip in and get his own food after she was gone. She didn’t mind. There was more than enough for them both.

The sparrows liked fish better than seaweed. So did the crows. So did the petrels. She began netting more, so she could feed them without going hungry herself.

The days and nights grew warmer. Golden sunlight flooded the room where she collected water, gilding the weapons of the ten-armed goddess and the laddoo guarded by the giant rat. She saw more birds there, including some that never came to the lower levels: sleek small birds with black backs and brilliant orange bellies, shiny black birds with long forked tails, and flocks of cooing pigeons.

The water supply grew scarce. Sometimes she saw a man watching her as she collected water, though he quickly left, and she wondered if he needed water too. But he never asked, and always vanished before she could offer him any.

She decided to explore some other rooms. Even if it was raining less often everywhere, she could leave bowls in multiple rooms and so collect more water that way. She had only four bowls, so she needed to place them in the four wettest spots.

Some areas were impassable, with parts of the floor fallen out or the doorways filled with rubble. Others would have served, but it wouldn’t be practical for her to go so far to collect her daily water, especially as her bowls were large and she could only carry one at a time.

As she wandered about, choosing her spots, she entered a room that didn’t serve for water, having no marks of rain at all. She would have strode straight through it, except for the statue placed near the end. Strangely, it was in the midst of other statues, not set apart in a place of honor as it clearly ought to be.

Though the man carved in white marble wore no crown, he was clearly a king. He was a handsome man, perhaps in his thirties, with a fine moustache and abundant wavy hair. He wore an embroidered kurta, held a long curved sword in his hand, and carried a corpse slung over his left shoulder with its arms hanging down his back. The sculptor had caught the king in mid-stride, glancing over his shoulder. His expression was one of wariness, weariness, and above all, determination; he was in exhausted and danger, but nothing would deter him from his chosen path.

Every detail of the king was finely carved, from the lines around his eyes to the nails on his fingers. The corpse was less detailed. The rough-hewn figure was clearly a man wearing a loincloth, but its face was nothing more than shapes and suggestions, its hands lacking lines on their palms. It was enough to know that the man was dead and heavy; the king’s thigh muscles strained under the burden.

She wondered who the dead man was and why the king was carrying him. Had the king murdered him and was going to hide the body? Was he a comrade who had died in his lord’s defense and the king was bearing his body home?

It was impossible to tell from the king’s expression how he felt about his burden. If it was an enemy, he bore him no more rancor. If it was a friend, his journey had been so wearisome already that all he could care about was completing it, not the reason why he had begun.

The light faded from gold to pink, reminding her of her errand. She fulfilled it, but marked the way back to the hall of the king.

As she grew more confident exploring the rooms, she found other statues that intrigued her or that she particularly liked: the waddling duck followed by a line of mice, the sisters applying henna to each other’s bare feet, the scholar writing in a book with a quill pen, the child acrobat, the hummingbird seeming to fly unsupported with only one wingtip connected to the wall. But it was the king she always came back to, day after day. He was on such a hard journey, with no beginning and no end. How could he bear it?

A few of the crows and sparrows became tame, though none of the other birds did, and would perch on her wrists and take bits of fish from her fingers. Some of the orange and black birds wove nests out of seaweed, high above the ground atop the heads of giants, and raised their peeping young in marble hair.

One day she began to cry when she entered the hall of the king. She felt certain that the corpse on his back was a man whom he had loved and killed, and he was bringing the body home even though his own life was over. He was still walking even though he had no reason to walk. He would walk forever, and what was the point of it all?

She still had no answer when she left the hall, but she had to go. The birds expected to be fed at sundown as well as sunrise, and some of them had their own young to feed.

The young birds fledged, learned to fly in awkward starts and stops that brought her no end of amusement, and flew away. The nights grew colder, the rain more frequent. She no longer needed four bowls to catch water, but she did need all three of her blankets.

In the flooded room, she caught her fish, cleaned them and fed the waiting birds the discarded bits, and took the parts she wanted to eat up to the hall she lived in. She made a fire sized for warmth as well as for cooking, sprinkled the fish with a strong-tasting seaweed she had dried and ground to power, and seared it in her cooking pan.

A man stepped into the doorway. “Hello.”

“Hello.” She was surprised, for she didn’t remember seeing any other people here, but not alarmed. He clearly meant her no harm. “Would you like to share my meal?”

“Yes, thank you.”

They sat cross-legged on a blanket and ate the fish. It was hot and good, especially on such a chilly night. When they finished, they rinsed their fingers in a bowl of clean rainwater.

The man pulled his coat tighter around his shoulders. “What do you call this place?”

“The Palace of the King Who Carries a Corpse on his Back.”

“And what do you call yourself?”

A little shyly, for it felt like an intimate question, she said, “The Woman Who Watches the King.”

“The king who carries a corpse?”

“Yes. But the Woman who Watches the King Who Carries a Corpse on his Back is too long to say, even to myself.”

He smiled. “It’s a good name. But you have another one. Do you remember it?”

She shook her head, but didn’t deny it. It always had seemed to her that her name was not a common one, and perhaps she had another which was shorter.

“Do you remember why you’re here?”

It was a strange question. Where else would she be? “I’ve always been here.”

“No. You don’t remember, but you used to live somewhere else. I’ve come to take you back.”

Alarm stirred within her. “What? No. I like it here. And the birds need me.”

“You like the birds,” he corrected her. “And they like you too, I’m sure. But they don’t need you. They know how to survive.”

That too was hard to deny. There were many birds which did not eat either seaweed or fish, and they didn’t die. But she was irritated with him being right, for knowing things she didn’t, and for asking so many questions. He ought to answer some for a change.

“What do you call this place?” she asked.

“We call it the Place of the Bargain.”

We? she thought. There was only one of him. “What bargain?”

“It’s a place that brings healing,” he said. “At least, it can bring healing. It doesn’t always. But that’s why you were brought here. We hoped it would heal you.”

Uneasily, she asked, “But what’s the bargain?”

“The healing has a price. A very high price. It takes all your memories from before you came. You won’t remember, but when I came to bring you here you asked if I was taking you to your death. I didn’t say no, because in a way I was. The woman you were before is gone. You’re someone else.”

“Then who was healed?”

For the first time, the man seemed taken off guard. He didn’t answer, but looked profoundly disturbed.

It pleased her to have unsettled him, as he had unsettled her. But the question she’d asked wasn’t as important to her as it apparently was to him. She was less concerned with a past that she didn’t remember than with a future that had suddenly become unknown. “If I go with you, if I don’t like it where you take me, can I come back?”

His lips twitched. He didn’t seem to like that question either. Finally, he said, “Yes.”

She thought of telling him she wanted to see the king again before she made her decision, and they would have to wait until it was light. But she was the Woman Who Watches the King, and she could call up his image in her mind’s eye, clear in every detail.

The king was glancing backward, but he strode forward. He would always stride forward. He could put down his burden and die beside the dead man if he so chose, but he did not. He continued on, though danger and exhaustion and grief and pain. Perhaps he felt responsible for his kingdom. Perhaps he had birds to feed.

“Yes,” she said. “Yes, I’ll go.”

A way opened up before her. She stepped through.