TALE OF THE MASKED KING

After a notoriously bloody and hard-won campaign lasting almost thirty years, and recorded with necessary rigour in Jungman’s Crossing the Rejd: An Early History (1886) and less so in Mugwell’s Battles of the Plain (1908), the victorious armies of Al-Kubai regrouped at a small oasis somewhere north of the Rejd plains. Survivors limped from the horizon every hour, whittled down to brittle twigs by starvation and the heat of the sun, and when at last no more returned the men numbered only fifty; though two thousand rode out of the Kingdom of Olan.

The mood that night was relaxed, and those who could share stories of loved ones greatly missed and bawdy songs to mourn the dead. Of the high command there remained just King Al-Kubai himself, Defender of the Final Faith; two of his harem; and the Vizier Mureen - a careful and ambitious mage to whose cunning, some say, the ultimate success of the war was owed.

At dawn, before the men were to begin their homeward march, the Vizier Mureen broke into the King’s tent with a cry of dismay. “King of the Desert, Moon-Chosen and Defender of the Final Faith, a vision was revealed to me this night. By a black sun, I saw ranks of fallen infidels rise up and meet in secret with the Bedouin, with whom they conspire to ambush your grace along our journey home.”

“Impossible.” the King swore. “No Bedouin would dare attack us now.”

    “Nonetheless, my king; we are too few to defend you.”

“Let them try!” Al-Kubai declared. “See what has become of their brothers. Their fates will be the same.”

But the Vizier said soothingly, “Let me travel on ahead, Moon-Chosen, dressed in royal garments and riding the King’s steed. The Bedouin may ambush me, and by my failure to return you will know my fate, and wisely take the longer route around the desert.”

The King was perturbed but saw the wisdom in the Vizier’s scheme, whose insights he’d come to rely on. And so it was Mureen set out at noon from the oasis, his horse liveried with the King’s sigil, and wearing the black cloak of royalty. To cinch his disguise, Mureen pierced an empty sack twice and wore it over his head.

He rode west, chasing the sun as it merged with the skyline and smiling as he slept; for there was no Bedouin plot, and the King’s army had cleared the plains of desert tribes and bandits. Thirty years supporting Al-Kubai, whose bravery exceeded any gift for strategy, was enough to convince Mureen that the mantle of King should be worn by the Kingdom’s wisest, not those ordained by birth, and the deep blaze of desert nights only stoked his resolve.

Weeks later the King’s horse reached the city gates of Balagh, a stronghold of the Olan kingdom, and as word spread through the city-state a great crowd assembled to welcome the returning King.

In the figure rode, and seeing the King so disguised, and so alone, the erupting cheers were tempered with confusion. Mureen halted at the palace plaza to climb the stem of the Holy Fountain, which, by magical means, would not flow in the King’s absence.

“Your King is returned!” he announced, “victorious against the scourges of the Rejd!”

Cheers shook the gridlocked streets and marketplaces; godwits burst from trees. A troop of palace guards who had fought their way closer now beckoned him to follow them, share his tale and reunite with the Consort who was not yet apprised of his return.

The current court had never known Al-Kubai, but received him with unfaked adulation and respect, ushering the masked king down an aisle of low bows and kissed earth to the dais where the throne stood, filmed with sand. Seated, the king addressed the court on what concerned them most, he knew: the matter of the mask.

“Friends, it is not through cowardice I hide my face, nor disrespect for you or this high chamber. The truth is I was cursed, in the last year of our campaign, by a black-hearted mage who sought to steal my likeness. The Vizier Mureen (a brave fighter and loyal friend), threw off the curse at the cost of his own life, the thwarted mage having stolen only my face, but in its place remains a ghastly blight so displeasing the sanity of no man could withstand it. But I bear the wound proudly, as the safety of Olan was guaranteed by it.”

Then the Vizier recounted, more or less truthfully, the arc of the campaign, the brave stands and pivotal defeats he had witnessed first-hand in the Rejd. So extraordinary were these accounts that any doubt about the mask would need either to extend to the whole canon or be ignored completely. The joy of the occasion made the choice clear. The only pocket of doubt hid in Shina Al-Badr, the High Consort, waiting in the shadow by the throne. She listened for a cadence to recall her husband to her - but though the voice was familiar, she could not place it.

Court dispersed, the High Consort came forward. Her gaunt steady gaze was known throughout the palace, and despite the precarity of her position with the King abroad, she was allowed to pass unnoticed where she pleased, from the pump rooms to the turrets. Now she feared the stasis of her life was in danger.

The Vizier smiled through his mask and said sweetly, “There is no need for shyness, Lady Al-Badr. Almost thirty years have passed. You have a son with Duban the palace gardener, and you fear my jealousy. But you have my blessing.”

Shina bowed uneasily, remembering the proud and possessive youth who took her as his bride three decades ago. War changes men, she knew; rarely does it soften them. She thanked the King with careful formality and left.

    Duban the palace gardener lived in a world of clipped borders and careful grass work and had missed the bombast of the King’s return until Al-Badr came out into the West Park to tell him. Her suspicions spurred the gardener to action.

Despite his distance from courtly affairs, Duban was as proud of the Kingdom as he was of the gardens he tended, and the suggestion of deceit appalled him. Ignoring Al-Badr’s misgivings, he at one outlined a scheme.

The next day, Duban placed his tallest trellis beneath the window of the royal bedroom. It only remained for Shina to leave the King’s window open that night before excusing herself from his quarters, which she did with pounding heart but without detection.

As midnight swung over the sky, Duban scaled the trellis and levered the window ajar. He padded to the sleeping King, preparing to whip off the mask with a quick hand. But in his desperation to be careful, Duban tripped, and his flailing arm caught the frame of the tapestry that hung over the bed. The gold fixture dropped from the wall and its finial struck the King’s head with a hollow knock. A scream roused the guards outside, who bursting in beheld Duban poised over the King’s bed, his hand on the gold tapestry-rail.

Death met Duban swiftly, the jealous purpose of his break-in easy to surmise, and Shina’s mourning, and that of their son Dunyazad, was necessarily subdued. But the effect of the blow was irreversible.

Doctors were sent for, and on waking the King was discovered to have no memory at all; not even his name had survived. When he attempted to remove the mask, he was restrained. “We dare not let you, King of the Desert.” And so Mureen was informed of his condition, and his status and everything he had described the day before was told him anew.

Rapidly the doctors and advisors had secured the mask around the King’s neck with a bronze collar; but as for the address he was expected to give tomorrow, some more thinking was required. A Keeper of the Final Faith named YunanRassi agreed, after bashful restraint, to inhabit the black cloak and mask of the monarch. So adorned, he demanded a larger mirror for his chambers, in which he basked for several hours. Pious and unpolitical, no one doubted his intentions, and a speech was assembled at speed.

Meanwhile, the Vizier (though physically able) was carried to a bedroom in the highest turret of the palace, for which the sun reserved a particular hatred that made the interior swim. Meals were lifted and bedpans lowered by means of a pulley by the window; the only door was locked. Mureen - or King Al-Kubai, as he now knew himself - had enough wherewithal to resent his isolation. But doubting his independence he only slumped back in repose, his bronze collar biting his neck, and the sounds of life below him cruelly distant.

Three months passed in this condition: the Vizier Mureen languished; the false King YunanRassi made pronouncements decided by a secret cabal of advisors, bringing an era of renewed prosperity to Olan; and the Consort Al-Badr fought vainly to suppress the suspicion which had only grown stronger since the night of Duban’s death. Then came a knock on the Vizier’s cell door - the first since his incarceration.

A servant entered with a tray of medicines, which she discarded once the heavy door fell shut. In this guise Shina Al-Badr had finally gained entry to the room. Mureen sat up alarmed, but Shina soothed him. “Your Highness, I bring ointment for your face.” And she began softly tugging at the mask.

Mureen pushed her away. “Careful! Don’t you know what lies beneath?” But so strong were Al-Badr’s convictions she ignored him and tore the mask open with one tug. At once, she recognised Mureen; though his baffled features lacked the guile she remembered of them, and his hair had turned white.

“So,” she cried. “What has become of my husband the King?”

    But the Vizier did not know. He pleaded, “If I am not the King, I beg of you, tell me who you see.”

But Al-Badr had guile of her own; she sat meekly on the bed. “MadupAlgerra,” she answered. “Acrobat and wire-walker, that you should think yourself imprisoned! You, who have entertained the court a thousand times with feats of agility and impossible escapes! The great Algerra in full possession of his skills could leave this cell in a moment.”

Invention at short notice was her speciality, and as evening progressed Shina warmed to her theme, attributing myriad circus acts and feats of dexterity to the name MadupAlgerra, until the false King was induced to brave a free-handed descent from his window; but no dormant ability kicked in, the stones loosened in his grip, the ground swayed, his grasp weakened…

...and so ends the tale of the many-faced Vizier.

The body was found by a servant of YunanRassi’s, who was woken to attend to it. “Dispose of him,” the Keeper hissed, clutching his nightgown. “And say nothing. A suicidal King is best kept quiet, to maintain our stability. And be careful of the face; I see the mask is torn.”

Then, after checking the door to the high cell was still locked (Shina having slipped out), the Keeper retired to his room to fix his costume for the coming day.

 

Now we voyage east, to where the true King Al-Kubai, lamenting the loss of a trusted Vizier, has led the vestige of his army to the border of the Rejd, and from there along the forest boundary for many months with limited supplies to where the skyline rose familiar, and Al-Kubai saw they were within a day’s trek of the city of Balagh.

Though he mourned the loss, a little of Mureen’s cunning had rubbed off on Al-Kubai, and he ordered his men to take the clothing of any dead they passed and wear them as disguises, in case Mureen’s ambushers still hunted them. And so it was a horde of fifty Bedouins arrived at the East Gate of Balagh.

The city Watch gazed down stonily; the gate remained closed. The King drew back his kufeyah and cried: “It is I, King Al-Kubai of the Desert, Moon-Chosen and Defender of the Final Faith, returned at last in glory! I will not wait a minute longer to be home!”

Word passed up the chain of watchmen to the palace, where the masked King YunanRassi listened gravely, then ordered the throne room empty of all but his advisors. They shared his view: The imposter with the face of Al-Kubai was none other than the mage who had stolen the face of that wretch in the Storm turret, returning to enact a coup. He and his circle should be slain on sight.

But Shina, who had insinuated her way back into the room, spoke up: “Your grace, this mage may yet be able to restore Al-Kubai’s face to him, so that we may release the true King from his cell. I say capture the mage, and force him to return it.”

Without an audience, YunanRassi would have rejected the idea, but all ears were on him. “Of course,” he said, and dispatched the Watch to carry out the Consort’s words.

The East gate opened and the King was led into the city he called home, leaving his army outside. The streets were almost empty and those who saw the King assumed he was a mere bandit or criminal bound for the scaffold. A disapproving murmur followed the small procession; windows filled with eyes. As per tradition, a few rotten vegetables were launched at them.

Then, as they passed the Holy Fountain, a miracle occured: The spouts began to gush and form a crown of water that rose higher than the closest roofs. Whispers flared around them, so widely the very air seemed to hiss, and a mood of confused celebration took hold among the witnesses.

The procession that eventually reached the palace was as large as any in Balagh’s history, large enough to force the masked ruler out onto the royal balcony to see it. The battle-hardened Al-Kubai looked up and laughed. “Who is that imposter? Show me his face!”

And before an explanation could be given the quick-witted Dunyazad, son of Duban and Shina, whose presence on the royal balcony was not unusual, seized the mask by its tip and tore it off the ruler’s head. Such a deed would have earned a quick and grisly death at a less chaotic moment; but the store the citizens of Balagh set by magic, and the astonishing rebirth of the Holy Fountain, stilled even the guard’s hands and spears.

And so it was the face of YunanRassi was revealed to the crowd. Uproar met the sight, he was immediately taken and imprisoned in the Storm Turret before the vengeful throng could reach him, deserted by his own cabal, despised by his subjects, and the crimes of the late Vizier now his to bear.

Before the sun reached the pale dome of the palace the true King Al-Kubai was restored to his throne, wiser for his long absence, and the Kingdom continued to prosper under his fair reign. Without a son or daughter, he named Dunyazad his successor; and Shina Al-Badr was promoted from Consort to Vizier, with quarters and meals as luxurious as the King’s, and influence in all matters. Even so her own part in proceedings was kept secret; no one saw her emerge from the pump rooms under the palace, where the rusted valve of the Holy Fountain conduit was now loose.

Historians will note the thirty-year war was not the last, nor the bloodiest, military skirmish to sodden the Rejd; nor were Mureen and YunanRassi the last kings in history to earn the title through deceit. The past is a spiral, each circuit a distortion of the last, the same conflicts performed in different masks and fashions. All we can do is remember, record, and anoint each turn with the same hoary fallacy: Everyone lived happily ever after