From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

“The Story of Love” from Salt of the Air

We’re proud to present “The Story of Love” by Vera Nazarian, from the pages of Salt of the Air, a story which has been recently nominated in the Nebula short fiction category!

THE STORY OF LOVE
Vera Nazarian

It is such an easy thing; all stories are the same. They are histories of the act of taming with love. Men tame women, women tame men; fathers and mothers mold daughters and sons; siblings twist each other; children temper parents; strangers weld bonds with those who are nameless in the wilderness. There is bending, breaking, twisting, and contortion.

But the end result is always the same. One yields a part of the self to the other. And in the process the tamer is also remade. Some become two complacent beasts, two intertwined halves. But it is more often that they acquire custom-shaped notches and edges that can be made to fit not just one but several others; often there are more than one such, so that individuals can come together in groupings, united from different angles and directions, their surfaces roiling with receptivity . . .

In the end, they are all weakened and strengthened as tempered steel—which is both soft and hard, unbreakable and flexible, a thing wrought of disparate materials that have undergone unifying change. Steel is love, its product on the physical plane.

He who has allowed the change that is steel is the God of Love.

This is one such story.

* * *

“If he says that about you once more, if he strikes you again, then you should run away, child,” said the old nurse. She spoke thus every time, then immediately apologized for her impertinence, as though her words could be swallowed back.

Crea shook her slender wrist, so that her fingers swept back and forth past her swollen lips. She did not dare move her neck or face, because the blood streamed from her nose with each breath; movement would make it worse. She gestured to the old woman for silence, since the nurse was hard of hearing and had to be reminded to keep her voice down. “No, please,” Crea whispered. “It is all right. I need to keep my thoughts to myself, and to curb my tongue . . . ”

The nurse sighed loudly. “Your father is a cruel man, may the gods forgive me for saying it. What he says and does is not right.”

Crea shuddered, and said nothing. Her thoughts painted the monster, images coming in fragments, how he taunted, how—vampiric—he fed on her outbursts of emotion, and how his hand and his leather belt rose over her while the blows came like strikes of lighting, never predictable, always finding the place most vulnerable to pain . . . . He was very careful not to damage her face or body directly, since she was a beautiful girl—extraordinarily so, some people in the household said—and she would bring a great bridal payment. Only this last time he lost his mind in a more distant place than usual and forgot to find reason, forgot to be careful, forgot to use a cloth between his tools of punishment and her skin.

Crea’s nose was bleeding and there were streaks against her cheeks where his hands had made contact as he slapped her at least three times before sanity returned and he restrained himself. Her neck had been scratched with the edge of the brass buckle. He had just barely missed her eye.

“He drinks and becomes an animal . . . ” muttered the nurse, her voice again ending on a loud note.

“Animals are wronged when you say this, Na-Ma. And he is the same without drink.” Crea spoke with her gaze averted, but her voice was clear and cold as a razor’s edge. Always such a polite child, patient, receptive, pliable child. Such clarity, hard as diamond, was a first.

The nurse missed the fine nuances, the difference in her charge. Instead she pulled the girl—nay, a young woman, soon—behind her, to clean her up and put unguents on her wounds.

“Old drunken beast,” she repeated, accustomed to blaming wine to excuse and mollify most flavors of wrongdoing.

“Even when he goes without a drop,” Crea whispered.

* * *

Nahad Eri-Devi was a wealthy merchant, having made his fortune by selling leather goods and other fine merchandize. His caravans traversed all the routes of the great deserts of the Compass Rose, from city to city, from oasis to the very edge of land where the port cities rimmed the earth like jewels on a string of coastline. With years his belongings compounded; he built himself several fine homes in at least three cities, and in each he had a wife who held her own court over a small harem of concubines, and knew little of the others.

Nahad was the father of three large healthy sons and a brood of daughters, and he visited them frequently at first. But then with time he settled in one of the cities and stopped driving his caravans himself, handing this task over to his sons.

Here, in the port city of Wahadia, perched between the verdant coast of paradise and the edge of the desert called Hell, where date and olive trees grew in abundance and the climate was mild, he sat in his gardens and ate and drank to his content, while his wife of this house grew sickly and finally the gods chose to take her away to the next layer of the world.

Nahad grieved for her.

At first he did not know it, but when he drank and the empty place inside remained empty, he understood that he grieved and that she was gone forever.

Grieving was inexplicable. She was merely a wife and he had two others. Mostly, he knew, it was akin to the loss of property, doubly bitter that he could never see or possess it again, not in this world.

Out of reach.

Nahad’s only daughter of the departed wife in this house, was a lovely child, an ethereal peri, one of the bright angels, called Crea. Nahad wanted to love her, but all he could think of was that her mother was gone. And all he could do when he saw her was fly into a rage.

Nahad spoke dark evil words, prickling, biting. He had always used words to lash out at others before, but now it had become a particularly bitter and flavorful pastime, like savoring a wine that had gone past well-aged richness into the realm of vinegar, and it was painful to consume, yet he must, for it still had in it a ghost of sweet. His words wounded and were skillful in finding the exact weaknesses—for he was an astute, intelligent man with a sharp eye for human character. Thus, he knew exactly how to tear apart his daughter.

At first it was only words.

But as his drinking increased and his solitude deepened, he started to use the belt and the strap to strike her. The sons—her brothers were always away with the caravans, and they neither would nor could do anything to interfere. And the other daughters of the house, daughters of the concubines, did not feel charitable toward Crea, the offspring of the one wife, simply because they could not have her legal place and thus could not offer simple mercy past the curtain of rank and status.

Crea had no one to turn to, no one to stand between her and the maddened inexplicable rages of her father which grew in frequency. There was only old Na-Ma, her nurse, and she could do nothing against the lord of the household. Na-Ma, whose name was Biseli, could take her away afterwards and minister to her hurts in her small servant’s chamber. Na-Ma Biseli was her mother now, and as such, she was all Crea had.

* * *

Nahad Eri-Devi had high-ranking visitors. Shiar Muetal Gedar and his sons were here, upon the recommendation of the ruler of Wahadia, to discuss an extravagant caravan venture to the farthest East. And Nahad received them with a feast worthy of the highest.

Dishes of gold were brought out and polished, servants raced to the markets to return with the freshest succulent pheasant and lamb, fruits, and delicacies, and the kitchen roared to life. The daughters of the household were hurried to the baths and maids went to work scrubbing stone tile and precious sandalwood inlay.

Crea was told to attend her father and his guests in royal garb, and to make herself a vision.

When her father’s servant left, Crea, whose facial swelling had subsided but whose neck still bore a slow-healing scar, stood and laughed, then shook with weeping. Na-Ma stood at her side, patting her back, then started to run about and open clothes chests and rummage through jewelry boxes that had once belonged to the deceased wife, Crea’s mother.

“Wear the white and gold dress of your mother, child,” said the nurse. Make yourself into a proud queen. Make them see you and want you. It is one way for you to escape.”

Crea nodded. She then gathered fresh linen and vials of scented herbs and entered the bathing chamber. As the water ran from the height of heaven into the stone pool, she scrubbed her ankle-long dark hair and anointed it with myrrh, so that it shone like threads of black steel in the sun, and reflected secret red fire. She polished her skin and teeth and nails with pumice and sponge and camel hair, so that only clean flesh remained, and she dried herself in whiteness of sheets that had been soaked in rose water.

Na-Ma brushed Crea’s hair unto crackle of dryness while a skilled kohl-artist drew lines on Crea’s eyelids. Crea herself took out a fine powder-box and applied white dust upon her face and neck to cover up any traces of punishment. She then stood while two women lifted the white and gold dress above her head and guided her to the sleeve-holes and adjusted the layers of fabric laden with jewels and pearls. She stood while veils were wound and ropes of pearl braided through her heavy rivulets of hair. A pearl and jewel netted headdress was lowered over her forehead and her earlobes received rubies and chains of gold. A thick choker of intertwined carnelian, rubies and amethyst covered the scar on her neck that even the powder could not conceal.

In the end, she was a queen, an immortal, and as she entered the feast hall of her father, the silence that met her was of worship and awe.

Crea stood like a column of shimmering gold light before four seated men at a feast table. One of the four reposing on cushions was her father, and he looked grim and satisfied and smiled formally at her. The other three were the Shiar and his two eldest sons. The Shiar stared in unabashed appreciation, and laughed openly, saying to Nahad, “You have a goddess for a daughter, my friend!”

His sons stared also—Ayal the younger with a gaping mouth, nearly salivating at the sight of her, and the older son, Belam, in stricken silence.

Crea did not move her gaze from one to the other once she had glanced at them all in a single sweep of the room. But as she stood, receiving their examination, she knew that the gaze of the eldest son was the most intense, was the one that scalded and burned with cold fierce need.

“My daughter, Crea, come and serve my guests the perfumed elixir of roses,” her father said to her.

Crea approached the side table and lifted a tall metallic decanter with a slim neck encrusted with jewels. It had been filled with the most expensive sweetest liqueur, a prize among drinks, for it was steeped with rose petals and honey and had retained the scent of sun drowning in a blooming garden. Crea moved as a gliding swan, her slippers silent, her veils and chains of gold gently slithering and metal tinkling. She stopped before the Shiar first, bowing to her waist, the decanter extended before her. When she straightened, she took an empty dessert goblet from him and filled it with a thread of crimson, slowly, watching the viscous liquid rise to the brim.

While she stood pouring, the robust but already greying Shiar examined her closely. He noted her waterfall of hair, the extravagant eyes which did not require kohl to burn like coals, an impossible fragility of her arms and fingers, the perfect mold of her face and delicate lips, the asp waist in contrast to the rounded hips and abundant breasts resisting the confines of a golden bodice. In all his sixty years he had not seen such striking female beauty.

His sons had not seen such glorious charms either, for they were silent and motionless with discomfort and amazement while she came to fill their goblets, lingering only for as much as could be deemed proper before each.

Crea’s thoughts came hard as blades as she performed the task. This son, or the other, maybe? The father? If they find me pleasing enough, if they choose to discuss my bridal worth . . .

She considered the possibilities as she moved, and her thoughts guided her veils and delicate raven filaments of her hair to sweep along and caress the frozen eldest son in passing, for she thought he was the most petrified by her, and hence the most affected. He held the goblet she had filled for him and watched her move away, and his lack of motion contained a bottomless well of promise.

She felt his gaze burning her, cutting her from the back, and there came a corresponding chill deep inside of her, electric currents running, of waters beginning to boil . . .

And she had not even noticed what he looked like, or what had been the true color of his eyes.

None of it mattered, if he would take her away.

* * *

After the feast had ended, Nahad called his daughter to him. He stared at her unreadable perfect face, still decorated with kohl, and her dress of gold and white that he remembered another wearing.

A bolt of fury came to him at the thought, at the association. But he only said, “Shiar Muetal was taken with you and asked for you. And the bride payment is acceptable.”

“He asked . . . for himself?”

“No, for his son.”

Crea began to tremble.

“Which son?”

“The eldest,” her father replied, vacillating between fury and a good mood. “I am considering now whether to accept his offer. I don’t know if you would bring in more if we wait, or if this is the best anyone could give. Three hundred coffers of mixed precious stones, gold, sandalwood, and salt. Maybe I should tell them ‘no?’”

He mused sarcastically, watching the girl’s reaction, knowing the offer was generous beyond belief and that he had already said yes to the Shiar. He paused, waiting for her.

“My Lord Father,” Crea said, “if I asked you one way or another, would it make a difference to your decision?”

“Of course, petulant child—of course . . . not.”

He did not smile; she knew this was exactly what he would do and say—whatever she preferred, he would commonly do the opposite. And because this one particular thing was so important to her fate, she replied, “In that case, Father, I bow to your will, and leave the decision to you.”

“Good. You are a wise daughter, and now, indeed, a blessed and fortunate one. And you wear this dress for the first and last time.”

* * *

The Shiar’s eldest son, Belam Gedar, married the impossibly beautiful daughter of Nahad Eri-Devi, and took her from her father’s house into his own, in a distant city that lay somewhere deep inside the desert called Hell.

For a week they traveled by caravan route, accompanied by several small chests of her belongings. Crea’s Na-Ma was allowed to continue with her longtime charge, and the old woman rode inside a smaller covered wagon behind her mistress and her new husband.

From the start, Belam treated Crea as though she were not of this earth, an ethereal creature of heaven. He did not touch her on their wedding night, lying next to her like a dead man, stiff and hurting with need, but terrified to sully the perfect maiden at his side. Crea lay motionless and lifeless also, waiting for something to take place, knowing what to expect, and yet the night deepened and she remained alone except for his faint breathing, quiet and tense. She knew he did not sleep.

Earlier on the day of the wedding, still in her father’s house, Crea had at last taken a good look at Belam and found him to be not particularly handsome but pleasing, with dark hair and expressive kind eyes. Belam was a tall and large man, not given to fat but muscular and thickset, and his mannerisms were gentle. As many men of greater size he compensated by making himself smaller, stooping slightly as he walked, and subduing his voice and gestures. He was different as night from day, compared to the desiccated wiry slenderness of her saturnine father. His tone was soft and Crea found it like balm after the sarcastic barbs that she was used to receiving.

And now, as they lay next to each other yet miles apart, she almost wished that Belam would do with her what it is that husbands did with their wives.

The next day, the second feast day of the wedding, they remained strangers, woken by late morning sun and smiling servants and the festivities continued. During the day Belam was attentive and soft-spoken, never quite meeting her eyes, always anticipating all her needs—except for the one—and in all other ways acting the perfect besotted groom. But the night of the second day was a repeat of the first.

They woke on the third day and Crea felt a small seed of anxiety take root in her. All the care and kindness of her new husband for the rest of the third feast day did not alleviate the worry. At last when the evening torches were extinguished and the bedside candles snuffed out, the two of them lay next to each other, Crea with her heart pounding loudly, and Belam—he was like the distant abyss.

After long moments of breaths taken and deafening silence, Crea opened her mouth and said, “My husband, is there something wrong with me?”

The man barely breathing at her side suddenly stopped. It was as if he had died. And then, she saw his body shudder and he half rose in the darkness, and leaned over her. “My wife . . . ” he said, taking a deep breath, “you are so beyond me in perfection, that I do not dare impose on you.”

In the darkness Crea felt herself going hot as the sun in zenith. She turned her face to his darkness and said, “I am no different than you, my husband. Please . . . do not fear to break me. I can withstand the same flames that forge steel. And I am yours willingly.”

The darkness around her became warm, as though indeed embers of night started to burn with a black fire, and the air itself was simmering on the verge of boil. Belam shuddered, taking in a deep breath, then reached out to her, and she was enveloped in his touch and his need.

That night Crea learned the selfless sensation of becoming steel, as it is tempered—but first, consumed—in the flames.

* * *

After the third night, the morning of the fourth and last day in her father’s house, the sun saw them wake, entwined and at peace, to the prospect of the journey that lay ahead. The journey itself was a monotonous stretch of sun-dazzle in the desert, punctuated by feverish nights in the marriage tent during which Crea and Belam discovered what is meant by the human mortal struggle to become one. The impossibility, the urge to reach out past one’s skin was fueled by the sense of always something more to come. And they loved and burned together, finding no end beyond each end, only a collapse of edges, of lines of separation . . .

Such was their distraction that the journey was over before either one of them expected.

Belam’s native city filled out the horizon, first as a shimmering mirage, then a conglomeration of turrets and domes, all one incandescent mass of white and gold. Past the gates the caravan entered a splendid and teeming place of bazaars and walled gardens and in the center a lofty palace of the Shiar—a pinned butterfly with upswept wings upon a spread of verdigris velvet.

Crea observed it all with silent wonder. And indeed, after her first joining with Belam her husband, Crea often felt silence overcome her, a sort of blissful state that required no communication, no expression of outward needs, no speech. She was brimming with peace and contentment, and freedom had been achieved for her, freedom from self-pain. There was no longer a vampire feeding off her soul. The physical hurts had been secondary; it was the words that poisoned and sucked her dry.

But now—here and now was a balm of oasis in the desert. She smiled sometimes, to herself, as she felt the wind caress her face, and when Belam came to her, she simply looked at him, and her eyes were wide open and receptive. She almost always said nothing while her gaze continued to recite words that hung transparent in the air between them.

It did not take them long to fall into a fair routine. Days and weeks flowed into months, and Crea was feeling herself grow abundant with life, as a child formed in her womb. She met her husband’s caresses with warm selfless abandon, letting him love her, and basking in his desire, simmering like warm creamery butter upon a skillet, burning, dissolving, gone . . .

And yet, Belam was such a passionate man that sometimes he looked at her with a small worry, searched her face for something, seeing a lack of a thing that he could not express.

She had told him she loved him as much as he spoke, sang, drank, exuded love to her. And yet, something was not quite there. She was like a stopped-up subterranean well, where the waters are building at the other end, while only a small trickle is allowed to come forth between the piled rocks.

She was unfinished steel.

Months and seasons went by, and the child’s time of arrival had come. Crea gave birth to a daughter, a tiny being as perfect in beauty as herself, with skin of rosy peach and hair as dark as a garden at midnight. Belam was ecstatic, and so was the old Shiar, even though this was not a boy-child. There will be enough time for that. Now, was a time of exultation in the joy of being.

In the meantime, Crea’s father sent occasional news from home, and every missive from her native Wahadia brought by messenger was a bile-churning potion to her. She never opened the scrolls immediately, always set them aside on the table in her chamber and pondered the golden crinkled parchment.

Inside, her father wrote in a dry sarcastic tone of daily happenings, his caravans, a word here and there of her brothers, and his general business news. He never asked how she was, only told her of his side of things. And his side was like sand in the desert.

Not once did he tell her things of the heart, only concrete happenings of the world.

The letters came regularly, every season, and Crea’s daughter grew to be a lusty infant. Her name was Cozaat, given in honor of her mother’s mother, and Crea wrote of her existence in brief emotionless terms echoing his own, saying that she hoped her father was satisfied with the outcome.

She expected at least a sentence of pleased acknowledgement.

Instead, the next letter from Wahadia contained an angry rant in which her father blamed her for shaming him and their family by not providing the Shiar’s son with an infant boy and heir, but a useless girl child like herself.

Crea read the letter, growing cold as the deepest part of a stone well, even though it was the height of noon and the air rippled with heat. She then crumpled the parchment and took it to the nearest hearth, where she cast it in the fire.

She did not send a reply to her father.

From that moment on, he was like a lump of ancient forgotten evil, and she thought of him not at all, only in the merest tiny moments of passing. With time, her father’s formal letters became less frequent also, and then ceased altogether.

By then, Crea had conceived and dutifully given birth to two healthy sons, and her daughter, Cozaat, was now a girl child of seven.

* * *

“Look, my dear, a letter from Wahadia!” wheezed and panted old Na-Ma, now shrivelled and ancient, hobbling into the room with three children in tow.

Crea, graceful as befitting a future queen, and yet somber, as was her habit these days, lifted her serious face from her sewing task at hand.

She was still beautiful, radiant with early autumn’s glow—brushed satin of the palest cream of persimmon—and somehow even more ethereal, despite having borne three children. And as she looked at her wizened old Na-Ma, she suddenly felt her heart constrict with old agony, as she heard the name out of the past, “Wahadia.” Stitches of silk halted, while a needle pierced her finger with sharpness.

It was a letter from him. It had to be.

The old beast was still reaching out his claws toward her.

“What does the letter say?” Na-Ma said impatiently, unable to hide a wrinkled smile of anticipation, for she missed their old home despite all things.

Crea paused for a fraction of a breath before she set aside her needlework and took the parchment. Inhaled the air of heat and her new home. Then she looked at what was rolled inside.

After moments of slow comprehension dawning, she looked up. “My father has lost everything . . . ” she whispered. “Na-Ma. Our family is ruined. He is . . . he is asking that I go back . . . that we must speak. That I come to him.”

Na-Ma’s face was stricken. “What happened? What will you do?”

“First, I must speak to my husband.”

* * *

Belam read the scroll, then was silent while Crea watched his beloved large features, so expressive of emotion. This time they were deep and motionless, like the first time he had seen her.

Her father’s whole fleet of caravans had perished, together with two of her brothers and all of their cargo. It was a combination of great sand storms that winter season in the stretch of merciless desert, and the fact that the ships that were supposed to bring back additional goods never arrived at the port city. Nahad Eri-Devi was now a pauper, with two less sons, and only debts were his consolation. In his letter he addressed both his daughter and the son of the Shiar, asking for assistance, for mercy, and—without words, but implying—forgiveness.

Crea stood motionless as Belam her husband began to pace the room, and then, she was silent for long moments after he came to her and took her in his great enveloping embrace.

“We will go to him, immediately, my love . . . ” he whispered, his face hidden near her earlobe, covered by the waterfall of her still-raven hair.

After a pause, “Yes . . . ” she replied. “We must go. I—must go.”

Belam stood back to look at her face. “What is it?” he said. “There is something else, I know. I know how much pain your father has caused you, and I understand that this meeting may not be your true heart’s desire.”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t matter, my husband. You and I know that I must go to him. It is my duty, even though I do not forgive him—I cannot.”

Belam looked at her with such tenderness that she caught her breath. “He is a hard man, your father,” he said. “I . . . know. He is like raw, unworked iron.”

And Crea felt his mouth cover hers, and she stifled her sobs and let herself be consumed.

She spoke nothing.

* * *

For the first time in a long time, Crea readied herself for a journey back to the place of her earliest beginnings. She steeled herself to it, to the pain and bitterness mixed in one fruit.

Belam watched her, and as always he found one thing lacking in her, one thing for which he had no words.

Finally, on the evening before their journey was to commence, he stopped his wife with a gentle hand. There was something very important he had to ask; something that he wanted to ask her for a long time.

“Crea, my beloved,” Belam said. “As we return to the city of your birth, to Wahadia, I have one thing to request of you . . . ”

“What is it, my husband?”

It was as though he was afraid to speak. “There is,” said Belam, pale and drawn, “there is a temple in Wahadia. I am sure you remember it, a small jewel of a shrine, built of rose stone and white lilies. It is dedicated to the one who is known as the God of Love.”

Crea’s face was focused upon him.

“I ask you,” Belam continued, “to stop there, and to pray to the God of Love. Beseech him, so that he will grant you, in his infinite mercy, the will to . . . love me.”

Crea was stone. And then she exclaimed, “My husband! How can you think that I do not love you? How can you, after all these years and three beloved children of our joining, think such a thing? What is it but that I worship you and kneel before you, and accept your love with all my being?”

Belam’s eyes were filled with pain. “And yet,” he whispered gently, “you do not love me. Oh, you are grateful and you are pliant and gentle and all-accepting of me, but it is only because you are dutiful, and this is how you know to be, to . . . survive. You do not love me in truth, not as I love you.”

“Belam! What you say —”

“It is an easy, small thing I ask of you, my wife,” he interrupted, putting his fingers against her lips, lighter than a kiss of a feather. If you indeed believe you love me, and will do this thing for me, I will be satisfied. Whatever comes of it—ask the God. Ask him for Love, and if he does not grant it, I will be satisfied for the rest of my days to have your affection and your loyalty, as you have always given it to me.”

“Oh, Belam! Oh, my husband!”

But he kissed her, this time furiously, his passion such as though this was their last day together on the mortal plane.

The following day, they started the journey to Wahadia.

* * *

After weeks in the desert called Hell, the sight of the verdant coastline and the port city was a welcome relief. Crea felt her heart pounding, and her shallow hurried breaths echoed in her temples. The arid desert air was suddenly carrying drafts of moisture and the perfume of ripe sweet fig, quince, and black currant. Only an hour, and she would enter the familiar streets, would see her father’s house, and then, him . . .

The old monster.

On the way to the home of her childhood, they passed the sacred place of temples, and true to her word, Crea bowed to her husband, then took a white lily from the vendor at the doors, in exchange for a generous gold piece, and entered the temple of the God of Love.

Inside, the air was lavender twilight, streaming upwards to a skylight. In the niche near one wall stood the life-size God Himself, made of precious metals and wood, and polished marble stone.

Motes of dust whirled in the light cast from the skylight above, and they were like dust falling from heaven, powdering the form of the God with immortality.

Crea knelt upon cold stone.

Sirume . . . Her thoughts cast upon the rain from on high, and she willed them to enter the chamber, to echo in the lavender twilight, to reach the One who was Love.

Sirume, if you hear me, I beseech you to . . . open my heart. My husband, my beloved Belam, believes I do not love him. Show him that I do! And if indeed my heart is not full as it should be, then fill it completely, fill me with your Love! Show me the Love that I must have, give me the Love that is You.

I beseech you with all my being.

Let me love.

In the temple there was only silence. She heard the solidity of quiet in the shadows, the flitter of moths and the bird calls from the outside. The God’s hidden face was in shadow—as it always must be, for none of us can ever look upon the true face of Love, only its reflection—and there was nothing out of the ordinary, not a breath of answer in her mind.

Crea took a deep breath of resignation, and stood up, then placed the single white lily at the small altar bowl at the God’s feet.

She then backed out of the temple, careful never to turn her back on Him, and hence, on Love.

Outside, Belam waited for her, and they resumed the journey.

* * *

Her father’s house was the same as she had left it, all those years ago. Crea stepped upon the cool stone of the courtyard, and looked at the old date tree growing toward heaven in the center, casting a long familiar shadow.

And yet, as she walked inside, she saw the difference immediately. There were no servants. No fine draperies covering the windows, no hangings on the walls.

Instead, silence and dust and desolation filled the rooms.

Her sisters and their mothers, the concubines, were all gone too, having left the house of the old father who could no longer maintain them. Indeed, there was no one, a tomb.

Crea took several wooden steps, while her heart thundered in terror, fury, confusion, resentment, and a measure of guilt. Belam followed her quietly. She then walked the long corridors, calling out to her father, and when there was only silence, she too became mute, and continued her search.

She found him at last, on the long terrace, looking out over the abandoned gardens growing wild in the back.

A stooped silhouette of a man, Nahad was seated on a stool, leaning as a wooden puppet against the railing, gazing forward into the white-gold distance.

At first, she did not recognize him, so small and dried out he was. So thin.

And then, as the breeze moved his hair and beard—long white filaments of it where there used to be black—she saw his familiar gesture, a lifting of fingers to balding scalp, as he swept his meager locks back.

She saw his form, hateful and astringent and filled with obstinacy even now.

She saw him, a ghost of himself, and yet, the same man who tortured and abandoned and condemned her.

She stepped forward, meanwhile feeling herself going from hot to cold, to scalding, to incandescent white, as the sun. She stood, burning, while something opened in the air around her and inside her, and she knew at last.

In that instant he turned, looked at her, still silhouetted, and then, as he recognized her—recognized the stately woman as his daughter—he spoke in a shaking voice, brittle with misuse. “Crea? Is that you? Did you bring the dress of white and gold?”

He stood, and in that moment Crea neared him and then took him by the shoulders, and she shook him in remembered fury, only this time he was weightless as an ancient twig, a dried out mantis.

He was dust in her hands. If she only willed it, she could strike him so easily now; it was her turn.

“Father?” she cried, feeling something inside completely rupture, as the wall of waters breached the rocks, and then it came forth, welling, flooding, rushing, the river of time and history and past, present, and future; the possible and the impossible, the what-had-been and the what-could-be.

“Father . . . ” she whispered, choking on the flood, and seeing the sick, the old, the insane, the forgotten in front of her; seeing as she had not seen before, looking as she did through a veil of self. Indeed, pain wove the most opaque, thickest of veils around the self, one that swallowed all light, letting nothing pass through to the other side . . .

But now, the veil was breached, cast aside, ripped by the force of the flood. Pain was an afterthought, an old tossed rag.

The God of Love had granted her this moment of sight; it is nothing more than what love always does. Love—not dim and blind but so far-seeing that it can glimpse around corners, around bends and twists and illusion; instead of overlooking faults love sees through them to the secret inside.

“I have the dress of gold and white, father!” Crea exclaimed, holding on to the old thing—creature, being, man—that was all alone and cold and clammy with self-hatred. “I brought it here for you, to give back to you, so that you could again have her and remember . . . ”

And the old one shook as she held him, so much smaller than she recalled him through her eyes of the past, and she noticed that now he held on to her, reaching out for her with his gnarled claws, holding on so as not to drown, for she alone was there with him, even when he himself was not. “Crea . . . ” he whispered. “My true daughter . . . ”

Behind her, Belam reached out and put his hands upon both of them, enveloping the old man and his beloved in a single embrace of forever.

“He has answered your prayer, my love . . . not as you or I asked it, but as only the Gods know is our true intent.”

It is unclear whether Belam or Crea said those words, or if they spoke them in unison.

But it is clear that many new arms of Love were opened that night—adding to the infinite arms streaming outward in unconditional embrace from the burning center of the Compass Rose.

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