Mäga hovers over the glade.
Her arrival is unexpected. Her presence in my home behind the moonbow an auger of failure: mine.
I bow. “The Cloud Goddess herself. To what do I owe this honor?”
The jewel particles of Mäga’s cloud-cover glitter. “When chaos threatens, who must I turn to but the Keeper of Harmony?”
“And what part of this miserable world is about to succumb to chaos?”
“The Heavenly Kingdom of the Great Phoenix.”
The Heavenly Kingdom of the Great Phoenix — a sliver of a land that is neither heavenly nor frequented by phoenixes, great or otherwise.
My mind spreads out, feeling for disharmonious chords. There is none.
If that land has a problem, it’s not chaos; it’s stupor.
“The Cloud Goddess is mistaken.” I say. “That misnamed land is as calm as a puddle.”
Mäga’s glance is lightning. “The land is not calm. It is stagnant. Work is scarce, harvests are failing and taxes onerous. Hunger spreads. Poverty afflicts all but a handful at the very top. People are desperate. Stagnation will end in chaos.”
I shrug. “That miserable kingdom is too insignificant to matter. Let it sink into chaos.”
Mäga’s voice rolls in peals of thunder. “It won’t sink into chaos alone. Imagine thousands of families pouring into neighboring lands, hungry, despairing, clinging to anger because they have nothing else to cling to. Chaos is contagious. One unsafe land breeds other unsafe lands. Surely the Keeper of Harmony knows this?”
I feel the first twinges of anxiety. “Tell me how it happened.”
The storm subsides. Mäga settles above a gardenia arbor. “A dysfunctional prince.”
“What is his particular folly?”
“Gold. He wants gold.”
“Most kings are obsessed with gold. If harmony depended on good rulers alone, there’ll be no harmonious states in the world.”
Mäga’s cloud-cover darkens again. “This king lives for gold. He is beggaring the kingdom to acquire more gold. People are sunk in misery and hopelessness.”
“The situation does seem dire. But the Cloud Goddess knows the rules. I can intervene only when all internal remedies have failed.”
“The ministers and the generals are too craven to mount a palace coup. The people are too beaten down to rebel. Many will flee, carrying with them the contagion of chaos. Those who stay will turn on each other, snatching a scrap from a neighbor’s child to feed their own.”
Mäga’s eyes brim with rain. “If you fail to intervene, the land will awaken from its stupor into bloodshed. And I will have to watch the carnage.”
Where hands were idle and hunger was rife, rumor was a winged thing.
Who began the story? None knew. But almost everyone heard it and almost everyone repeated it to someone else.
Kolee had no intimation that she had become the talk of the kingdom. The rumors didn’t reach the low stone house, until one warm summer morning.
Nana, Kolee’s old nurse, brought the news to the workroom, her voice trembling in tandem with her body.
Kolee’s father, Chayan, had been summoned to the palace, by the king himself.
Kolee too trembled, but with joy. Perhaps the king had realized the importance of their work, how it could alleviate suffering and save lives.
If gold was the defining characteristic of a palace, this one more than qualified. There was more gold on the walls, the floor and the vaulted roof of the audience hall than there was in the possession of all the people in the kingdom.
King Banshoii blended with his surroundings . His robe would have put the sun to shame. His crown was a miniature mountain of gold.
A functionary boomed, “Chayan, the Alchemist.”
Chayan sank to his knees. He had spent some minutes in an antechamber, being grilled in court etiquette by a richly clad minister.
There was some regal mumbling, which another functionary rendered loud and comprehensible.
“You have a daughter?”
Chayan bowed and bowed until his wispy white beard trailed upon the golden carpet. The mention of his daughter made him forget the throbbing pain in his back and the shooting agony in his kneecaps. “I do indeed, Most Gracious Celestial Son.”
“It has come to the august ears of our Celestial Lord,” the translator of regal-mumblings proclaimed, “that she is possessed of an unusual talent.”
Chayan glowed. He had always been proud of his girl.
“A talent our Celestial Lord is most interested in,” the voice continued. “It is said that she can turn pebbles into gold nuggets.”
Chayan considered this pronouncement on its merits, as he did with everything he read or heard. “Most Gracious Celestial Son, many alchemists believe such a transformation is possible. I think otherwise. My daughter and I have conducted…”
Words flew like poison arrows from the royal mouth: traitor, hang; vermin, crush; pig, castrate.
Chayan’s mind, one of the best in the world, tried to understand what his ears were hearing, and failed.
What the Celestial Son was demanding made no sense, not in this mortal reality.
Kolee closed the door behind her and walked into the room.
The silken-robed functionary, the room’s only occupant, rose from his chair.
“My lady, allow me to present my humble self. I am Penda, a lowly chamberlain in the service of our most gracious Celestial Lord.”
“My father walked out of this house a healthy man in possession of his faculties. He re-entered it, a human wreck. I believe I’m owed an explanation.”
Penda bowed, studying Kolee through hooded eyes. He knew her history. Twenty-six years of age; married but soon separated from a husband who had expected his new wife to pay more attention to him than to minerals; living with her alchemist father since that time.
This woman could be hung, drawn and quartered in three days, Penda thought. Or in three days she could become queen. It would be sensible to play safe.
“My lady, as your estimable father would have explained to you…”
“My father, thanks to whatever he experienced in the palace, is beyond saying anything intelligible. He stares and gibbers. And your soldiers are all over the house carrying sacks. I’m told they are sacks of pebble. This is an outrage.”
Penda bowed again. “It has been brought to the ears of our Celestial Lord that you, my lady, can transform pebbles into gold nuggets. It is His earnest desire that you use this ability to promote the well-being of the kingdom.”
Kolee said slowly, as if talking to herself, “My father’s ravings are then true. The king has ordered that I turn his pebbles into gold. If I succeed, he will marry me. If I fail, he will kill me, together with my father.”
She fixed her eyes on Penda. “Am I right?”
Penda’s bows were increasing in depth. This woman was nothing much to look at: tall, thin and pale, black hair gathered into an unfashionable knot, dressed in a much-mended robe of indeterminate color. But her mind was brighter than gold. There would be no need to tell her that she and her father had become prisoners in their own home.
In his silence, Kolee heard everything she needed to hear. “The king can’t be stupid enough to believe such a preposterous rumor.”
Stupid doesn’t come even close, Penda thought, as he bowed one more time. “I wish you all the luck in the world, my lady. May I make so bold to say the kingdom would be fortunate to have you as its queen.” It was flattery; but he also meant it.
In her bedroom, now packed from floor to rafters with sacks of pebbles, Kolee tossed and turned, eyes shut tight, waiting for the last dawn.
She and her father had this night to live. In a few hours, death would claim them, slow, lingering, painful and public.
When sleep possessed her at last, it offered no relief; only nightmares, images of gallows and executioners, of red-hot irons, thick ropes and serrated knives, of blood and gore, of endless pain and unbearable humiliation—
She awoke, shivering.
A figure stood by the bed.
She tried to sit up, but her body refused to obey her.
The voice was deep. “I can turn pebbles into gold.”
She peered, but in the lightless room all she could see was one more shadow, taller and thicker than the others.
“Who are you? How did you come in?” she asked.
“That doesn’t matter. Do you want me to turn these pebbles into gold?”
Kolee tried to sit up again and failed. Her limbs were frozen, but her mind wasn’t. “What if the king sends more pebbles and demands I turn them too into gold?”
“Tell him that your powers of transformation can work only once a year.”
“What happens when the year is over and he makes the demand again?”
The voice carried a hint of laughter. “Before you worry about what can happen to you in one year, you should worry about what will happen to you in a few hours.”
She still hesitated. “Why are you offering to help me?”
The teeth flashed, sharp enough to penetrate the darkness. “Because you can give me something in return. You will marry the king and bear him a child. If you can discover my name before your child’s tenth birthday, the child is yours. If you fail, the child is mine.”
An image came into her mind, as clear as daylight. A woman and a child, weeping and clinging to each other. A taloned hand reaching out to pluck the child from the mother’s arms.
“No!” she cried.
The voice was like the ice on top of the Cone Mountain, eons old and stone hard. “You’d rather watch your father naked, branded as a traitor, castrated, hung but taken down before the last breath goes, disemboweled while still alive…”
“No,” the cry was a sob. “Not that; anything but that.” She paused and added, so low, it was almost a whisper. “I agree.”
The smile was slow, the teeth were fangs. “I knew you would.”
The Celestial Son arrived in the old stone house just after dawn and was escorted ceremoniously to Kolee’s room.
Kolee had undone a few sacks. The gold nuggets had spilled out. She had not bothered to put them back.
The Celestial Son fell on his knees by the spilled gold. He touched them, caressed them, smelled them and kissed them. He groveled to the next sack and tugged it open. More gold spilled out. He laughed and buried his face in the shining heap. When he glanced at her finally, she realized he didn’t see a woman; just a contraption which could turn pebbles into gold.
“I will send more pebbles—”
She cut him short. “I can do it only once a year.”
He licked his lips, trying to smile. “We will marry tomorrow.”
She bowed, knowing that he wouldn’t notice the shudder. He had eyes only for his gold.
The wedding was a glowing affair. Everyone glittered with gold, except the bride.
The right to pick her own wedding attire had been Kolee’s first condition. The Celestial Son had agreed. He would have agreed to anything she asked for. His mind was filled with images of the gold that would be his the next year, the year after, and the year after.
Kolee reached out for some wine. Her cup-bearer handed her the gold goblet, kneeling by her chair, head bowed.
She thanked him. He looked up for a second, as if shocked by such courtesy.
She smiled a little, before turning away.
Never had she seen a man with such kind eyes.
Kolee’s daughter was born eleven months and six days later.
The kingdom rejoiced at the birth of an heiress. Kolee nursed the baby, wondering what she should do when the year was over, and the king locked her up in a room full of pebbles.
But when the year ended, there was no one to order that she turn pebbles into gold. The Celestial Son had departed the mortal world. A common cold had entered his lungs and carried him off to his celestial abode faster than the wind.
Penda, the chief minister to queen-regent Kolee, lifted his eyes from the document he was perusing.
“The Queen will be pleased. The finances have made a remarkable improvement in just one year.”
The treasurer, a rotund man grown old before this time, beamed.
“Not having to spend every available coin buying gold helps.”
“Indeed,” Penda said.
“Of course, she wants books, rare manuscripts…”
“They are cheaper than gold,” Penda’s voice was cold.
“Of course. Of course. It was a happy day for the land when our late king made his third marriage. I shudder at the chaos that would have befallen us, if he had not left us a child.”
Penda waited. His sobriquet was not ‘the clam’ for nothing.
“A daughter, of course.”
Penda raised an eyebrow. “The law does not preclude a princess from the throne, as our gracious lady pointed out to the royal council.”
Kolee closed her burning eyes. She had had no sleep for days and her body was beginning to rebel against her will. But it was the eve of her daughter’s tenth birthday. In a few hours the creature would come.
She picked up another scroll and began to read. Now and then she paused to write a word on a piece of paper by her side.
Time passed. The pen fell from Kolee’s hand. Her eyes closed. She tried to open them, but they wouldn’t obey her.
A memory awoke her. Her eyes flew to the clock. Midnight was thirty-five minutes away.
Her desperate fingers searched among the mounds of manuscripts until they found what they wanted; an old and frayed palm-frond, an ancient musical treatise.
She read the first sentence.
“If the note Kung is disturbed, then there is disorganization, the Prince is arrogant.”[i]
She paused. In the silence that followed, she could hear the quickening of her own heart. She read on. Once she was done, she knew the name she sought.
She hurried to her bed chamber, sat down on her bed wondering what she should do when he arrived.
The clock struck midnight.
He appeared, a taller, thicker shadow in a room full of shadows.
He didn’t bother with preambles. “Do you know my name?”
She didn’t bother with prevarications. If her surmise was right, he was a busy creature. “Your name is Rum-pal-stilt-Zen.”
There was a silence. Then he gave a shriek of rage and vanished.
She got up and went to her daughter’s room. Suddii was fast asleep, her hand still clutching the book she had been reading. Kolee removed the book carefully and put it with its fellows on the tall book rack, her eyes lingering on the title, The Weaver’s Daughter and Rum-pal-stilt-Zen: A Parable of Statecraft.
Suddii had inherited her mother’s mind and her father’s looks. She would grow up to be the most intelligent woman in the kingdom, and the comeliest.
I see her but she can’t see me.
The soldiers finish putting up the tent as near the waterfall as possible. They are reluctant to leave her alone, in this lonely place.
When they leave, she sits on a stone and stares at the rushing water. She stays that way until the night arrives and the moonbow is visible. Then she gets up and calls out.
“I know you are there, beyond the moonbow.”
Shock silences me.
She continues to speak. “I would have come earlier. But I had to wait until my daughter attained her majority. I’ve taught her to abandon divine pretensions and to be the best mortal ruler she can. She will be not the Celestial Daughter but a human queen. Hopefully she will be more human than queen. Now I plan to retire to my father’s house and continue with the work we were engaged in, when our lives were upended.”
I say nothing. My mind is too stormy for me to think clearly.
“I always wondered where that rumor sprang from, that I could turn pebbles into gold.” Her voice hardens. “My father never recovered from his first encounter with the Celestial Son. He lived for six more years, but his mind was gone. He remembered nothing and recognized no one… Not even me.”
I emerge. A taller thicker shadow in a night full of shadows.
“I’m sorry about your father,” I say. I am. What happened to him was never part of my plan.
Her smile is as faint as the night breeze. “Does the fate of one mortal matter to the gods?”
“You do me an injustice.” I mean to sound remote, but there is a note of pleading in my voice. “I might have destroyed two lives, but I saved many more. If I didn’t intervene, your kingdom would have descended into chaos long ago.”
She shrugs a thin shoulder, thinner than I remember.
“How did you uncover my secret?”
Her eyes are turned away from me. There is a dreamy quality in her voice. “The night before my daughter’ tenth birthday I read an old scroll, a lengthy disquisition on cosmic harmony. That was where I learned about the music of the world, how too many disharmonious notes can unleash chaos.” Suddenly her eyes are on me, catching me and holding me, the way they always could. “Of the many names you have, the one that matters most to my story is The Keeper of Harmony.”
I blink. “If you knew who I was, why didn’t you give me my true name that night? Why did you risk your daughter?”
She flashes a smile, one I remember from a flower-scented night when a rebellious queen broke every tradition and sought an hour of passion in the arms of her loyal cup-bearer.
“There was no risk,” she says. Her eyes glint. Her smile mocks me. “I knew you would never harm your own daughter.”
[i] The sentence is from an actual Chinese manuscript belonging to the second century BCE, quoted in Joseph Campbell’s Primitive Mythology: The Masks of God.
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Sam Muller is an emerging writer. Her work has appeared in Deep Magic, Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores, and the Pedestal Magazine among others. She is also a finalist in the 2019 Baen Fantasy Adventure Awards.
Sam says: “This is a retelling of Rumpelstiltskin combined with an ancient Chinese treatise on music.”