It is a story of times long gone by. It is the story from ancient Egypt – long before the time of the pharaohs. Those were the times when man still worshiped the old gods. The new God came long after. One could say that man was still exploring and conceiving the idea of God. It is the story of souls becoming creatures – either of the light or darkness.
It is a story of a princess and a jeweler who lived in a city besides the quietly flowing Nile. It was already an old city by the time the Princess was born. The city was magnificent and had already seen a thousand armies camp around its walls.
It had grand old libraries, filled with millions of old books of wisdom and prophecies; where one could see old scholars and philosophers, bent over the words of past.
It had miles long bazaars, lined with spice and gem shops; where one could find anything, from the silks of Damascus to the shrunken heads from the Amazon.
It had majestic temples of gold, adorned with kind and ferocious faces of the old gods; where one could see withered old priests singing hymns and swinging their pots of steaming incense.
And it had taverns and houses of ill repute, teeming with prostitutes and opium dealers; where one could sell both the soul and piety and where one could buy even oblivion and happiness.
The city hustled and bustled and grew old, burdened by the desires of its inhabitants. And the Nile flowed by, unconcerned and oblivious to the city’s charms and horrors.
The Princess lived in a palace of gold, guarded by grand towers and mighty slaves with bodies carved out of black mahogany. She was young, about twenty and some years and breathtakingly beautiful. She was tall and graceful and had the most wonderful eyes. In fact her eyes were the only features of her one could ever see. The rest was all covered under a long flowing robe of the finest of all silks. Only the mirror knew of her true physical beauty. It is possible of course that she was ugly. But as her physical beauty is not the subject of this story, we will safely assume that the Princess was beautiful.
As told by all those who had been lucky enough to meet the Princess, she had the most marvelous eyes. Her eyes shone with a hidden brilliance and high intellect. She had the power of curiosity and the determination and resolves to execute what she conceived. Like all other people of the city, she believed in one of the old gods and believed in the divinity of all Holy Scriptures. But the Princess’s beliefs did not prevent her from patronizing the sciences and the arts. She built new libraries and stocked them with volumes from all over the world. She established universities and academies and recruited teachers. She was admired and respected by all and awed and feared by a few. But overall, she was popular and ruled the city well.
The Jeweler on the other hand, was not so popular at all. In fact only a very few people knew of his existence. He had a small shop in one corner of the oldest bazaar. The shop not only had the finest of all jewels but was full of all sorts of curiosities. Anybody entering it could see an old man, sitting in a corner, smoking and reading a book. He was surrounded by books – old dusty volumes filled with ancient and exotic secrets; and also gadgets of brass and silver – gadgets too obscure to make any sense of. His clay pipe blew clouds of aromatic tobacco and golden tea boiled on a small stove. The fragrances of tea and tobacco made love in the air, while he read and kept on reading, occasionally looking up and smiling benignly at a wandering customer.
It is said that the greatest of all histories are written in the most ordinary of moments. The Princess and the Jeweler had never met each other, but one day their paths crossed. The Princess was looking for a rare ruby from the great mountains in the East. She called the captains of all the great caravans passing through the city. She met all the travelers and vagabonds. She even sent expeditions to the four corners of the world and announced rewards for anyone who could bring her the said ruby, but she still couldn’t find it.
‘Yes?’ The Princess, who stood in the balcony watching the city below, turned.
A young girl slave stood in front of the Princess, looking down at the marble tiles.
‘Your majesty! People say that there is a jeweler in the grand bazaar. He collects all sorts of curiosities.’
‘So?’ The Princess looked questioningly at her.
‘He might have what you desire. Or he might know from where it can be procured.’ The girl humbly suggested.
‘Go tell Akhmed to ready my ride. I will go visit the Jeweler myself.’ The Princess excitedly rubbed her delicate hands covered with velvet gloves.
‘Your majesty! He is just an ordinary jeweler.’ The girl looked bewildered. ‘I’ll go bring him to the palace.’
‘Just do as told.’ The Princess looked at her sternly.
Unbeknownst to the young slave, it was not the first time that the Princess had heard of the Jeweler. She already knew about the Jeweler, but in a different context. The Jeweler was a writer too and he once wrote a book on the life and times of an ordinary prostitute. The book had greatly fascinated the Princess. She always wanted to meet the writer but had forgotten all about him amidst her busy routine.
When the Princess’s procession entered the grand bazaar, it caused a commotion everywhere. She rarely visited the city but once she did, nothing could escape her eagle eyes. With their great scimitars balanced on the shoulders, two rows of black slaves followed her camel. Wherever she went, people bowed and scuttled to the sides. From behind her veil, the Princess looked amusingly at each face and every wall. Her smiling and proud eyes, beneath the sharp Samurai swords of darkly-lined eyebrows, examined everything in great detail.
‘It is my City and I am its only custodian.’ She thought silently.
The Jeweler sat quietly reading a book in his shop when his reverie was broken by cries.
‘Make way! Make way for the Princess!’
He looked out and saw the people hurrying in the bazaar. He smiled at the excitement of ordinary people and then opened the book again, having no time for princes and princesses. His realm was of imagination and he was its only king.
Suddenly the commotion outside fell silent and a fragrant shadow entered the Jeweler’s shop. He looked up at the vision lighting up the dark confines of his small shop. A woman stood, all clad in black silk – only her eyes were visible. The Jeweler peered into her eyes and for a brief moment lost himself. The eyes shone with the light of hard cold brilliance. They were two brown pools of crystal-clear amber, unfathomably deep. He stared into the depths of those eyes and was sure that anybody could sink in them – drowned without any hope of recovery.
‘Get up you fool! Can’t you see you are in the presence of the Princess?’ The towering slave from Habsha straightened his scimitar and growled deeply.
The old Jeweler smiled kindly at the slave and got up slowly.
‘Welcome your majesty!’ He respectfully bowed to the Princess.
‘Are you the Jeweler who wrote that book?’ She smiled and asked him.
‘I have the humble honor of writing many books. Which is the one being referred to, by your exalted highness?’ The Jeweler asked her politely.
‘The one about the prostitute who became the favorite of gods.’
‘All prostitutes are favorites of the gods.’ The Jeweler smiled a little. ‘But yes I am afraid, I wrote that book. Did it offend your majesty?’
‘No it didn’t. It rather pleased me.’
‘I am grateful for your pleasure.’ The Jeweler bowed again. ‘How may I be of any service to your majesty?’
‘I am looking for a rare ruby.’ The Princess rubbed her gloved hands in anticipation. ‘It is said that when a virgin is sacrificed to the gods by the tribes living in the great mountains of the East, her blood turns into rubies.’
‘Ah!’ The Jeweler grunted with pleasure and opened a small safe in the wall behind a painting. ‘I believe I have what you desire, though I fear it is just a gift of nature. No blood of the virgins was involved in its making.’
The Jeweler took out a small and weather-beaten leather purse from the safe and carefully opened it. Within the purse, on a bed of black velvet, lay a ruby. If people mistook it for the blood of virgins, they weren’t wrong. It was a thing of unparalleled beauty and of the purest red – each of its facets gleaming and pulsating, as if with a hidden desire. Against the black velvet, the ruby seemed to throb warmly, with a hidden life of its own.
‘Is this what your majesty was looking for?’ The Jeweler presented the ruby for the Princess’s scrutiny.
‘Yes!’ She whispered and her beautiful deep brown eyes glimmered with pleasure. ‘What do I owe you?’
‘If it pleases your majesty, I will accept your pleasure as the payment.’ The Jeweler was smiling at her.