Tomorrow my wife will be killed. I sit beside her in the prison cell, watching her thrash about in her nightmares; waiting. I gave her drugs so she could sleep, but now I wonder whether she would have been better off awake. I cannot bring myself to understand that after tomorrow I will never see her again.
Ours was a love match: she the only daughter of the Emperor, I the son and heir of his vassal king. I was not her equal, but no one was. When we were nineteen, we fell in love over the course of a summer, and every day since I have learnt to love her more.
I cannot give her peaceful sleep, and I cannot give her life. I am the Emperor now – I have the power to pardon all crimes save one, and that is hers. Even so, I would abdicate my throne and steal away with her like a thief if it meant we could be happy again. But there is nothing I can give her but her death, and this, a true account of her short life.
When I was a boy, the whole empire knew about Princess Birdsong and her Hall of Dolls. Thirty thousand of them and more: dolls of wax and porcelain, of silk and muslin, of leather and lambskin. Mechanical dolls, who moved, laughed and cried; magical dolls, some said, which spoke and danced and sang. The finest inventors and artisans in the land were employed to design and make them, and thirty little slave-girls were employed to play with them, since Birdsong herself didn’t have time for them all, and was afraid they would get lonely.
I asked about the Hall of Dolls when I came to live at the Palace during our courtship: were the rumours true? Was it still there?
“It is destroyed,” she said, “and forbidden within the walls of the palace to make the likeness of a human figure. I would be grateful if you did not speak of it again.”
We were married amidst great splendour. There was a procession of a thousand white horses, a thousand knights in armour, a thousand white-skinned slave-girls from the barbarous North. There was a feast where all the guests were Kings and Queens: Princes and Dukes vied for the honour of waiting at our tables, and we drank wine that cost a kingdom to buy. To be honest, we found it all a bit tedious, and the sweetest part was when we were finally alone together, and could enjoy what any beggar can enjoy.
My lovely Birdsong was everything you could want in a wife and Empress. At court she dazzled with her beauty and wit, judged wisely and acted with love and mercy. Alone, she delighted and fascinated me. I cannot imagine ever growing bored of her company.
And after six months she told me she was with child, and the whole Empire rejoiced. It was not an easy pregnancy. Birdsong was soon confined to her bed and in danger, the physicians said, and I found it hard to tear myself away from her side to attend to business at court. I enquired amongst the women and ladies of the Palace to seek out the best midwife in the empire, and the same name kept coming up. Shani, a dark-skinned slave from the Southlands who worked in the Palace laundry.
Shani was summoned, and in her presence Birdsong at once became more docile. Before long, my trust in her was such that I dismissed the other nurses and physicians because she said they interfered with her work.
Shani was tall, taller than any other woman I’ve seen and her skin was almost black. Despite her menial work as a washerwoman, she did not walk like a slave, but like an Empress herself. When she looked down at me, I had the urge to bend my knee. She made most people uneasy, but not me. I felt that if she could get Birdsong and our son safely through, I would gladly have made her Empress in our place.
Birdsong’s time came. I sent out messengers to proclaim that the whole of the empire should get on their knees and pray. I prepared myself for a long wait, but it was over very soon. I was summoned to Birdsong’s bedchamber with the news that she was delivered of a healthy baby boy.
Oh, he was so beautiful, our son. He had a little bit of black hair, and big brown eyes like his mother. He stared around in wonder, and laughed because it is such a lovely thing to be alive. He was her and he was me, and I have never loved anyone or anything so much.
Birdsong was drowsy, but sitting up in bed, so when I had held him for a bit, I placed him in her arms. She stared at him silent and motionless, as I thanked Shani effusively for all that she had done. A thought struck me as I stammered out my tearful gratitude, and I was speaking it before I knew what I was doing:
“And you shall name him, Shani. Yes. In thanks for all your help, you shall have the honour of naming your future Emperor.”
Shani smiled and looked more than ever like an Empress addressing her subjects. Her voice was different: louder, richer:
“His name is Sadiki,” she said, and I felt that nothing she said in that voice could not be true.
At once Birdsong screamed – her beautiful face ugly and contorted, and she kept on screaming. I was paralysed – I didn’t understand, I didn’t know what to do and I couldn't have done it even if I did. And then she stood up on the bed, her nightdress and legs still covered in blood, and threw our son head first onto the floor, smashing his perfect body to a vile mess.
Then I could move again, everything was strange, slow, unreal. I remember feeling my legs buckle under me and then I knew no more.
When I awoke… ah, I cannot tell you what horrors I went through. It was a week before I could accept the truth of what happened and begin to consider what had to happen next. Birdsong had been imprisoned on suspicion of murdering the heir to the Empire, a crime for which there can be no other punishment but a slow and painful death. Shani had been imprisoned on suspicion of witchcraft, but even under torture, she maintained that she would not confess to anyone but myself. So I had her brought to me, chained and guarded.
Her face was swollen and bruised, there were big ugly cuts all over her body, and both her hands were bandaged. I hated to look at her, but didn’t let myself look away.
“Well?” I said. “Is it true you are a witch?”
“I am a Queen,” she said. “And the things you call witchcraft are the right and heritage of my royal line. They are all the right and heritage I have left since your soldiers invaded my land, killed my husband and enslaved me and my women.”
“And that is why you turned my wife mad?”
“No. I hate you all and what you have done to me, but I could not justly take revenge for that alone, since I too was once a conqueror and had no mercy on the lands I enslaved.”
“I will tell you. When your wife was a little girl, she loved to play with dolls. She had a room of them, a long hallway lined with glass cabinets where they stared at you – thirty thousand little pairs of eyes looking coldly out. There were so many of them that she needed slaves to play with them for her: a few dozen little barbarian girls from the North. They were solemn and meticulous in their work, for work it was: to call it play would be absurd. From dawn ‘til dusk they acted out little scenes in the middle of the big, bare hall, sometimes together, usually alone, speaking to and for the little mannequins half under their breath. I hated that place. Right from the beginning I hated it.
Birdsong was obsessed the finding the perfect doll. The best inventors in the empire were employed to construct mechanisms to make it move and talk, the best artists and artisans were employed to design its outer appearance. They tried everything: from clockwork to magic; from porcelain to silk to leather from an unborn calf taken straight from its mother’s womb. Rumour had it that when one of the pale little slave girls died they skinned her and tried to make a doll out of that, but nothing would satisfy little Birdsong.
Eventually she hit upon her own solution. She asked her father to give her a real baby – nothing else would satisfy her. Any decent man would have said no. I had slaves in my palace, and I admit I did not always treat them well, but I always treated them as people, as valued workers, not as objects to be given away for children to play with.
You can guess the rest, I’m sure. Six of us were lined up with our newborn infants – three pale northern barbarians, and three black-skinned southerners, and she chose me. Or rather she chose my son and heir, Sadiki. At first I came with him as a wet-nurse, but she said I interfered, so I was sent to the laundry and another women came in my place. I do not know how he died, whether from violence or neglect, but I know when he died, for at that moment the fire in me, the will to live died too, and I vowed only to live long enough to take revenge.
When her son was born, she saw my son’s face and thought it was a spirit come back to haunt her. If you let her live, she will see it everywhere. She will go mad if she is not mad already. And when she dies my son and I will be waiting.”
All I felt was rage. I commanded the guards to return her to the prison and use all their worst tortures on her, to keep her alive for as long as possible. But she only laughed at me, and fell down dead right there.
The night has turned. Today my wife will be killed. She will wake up, and I hope that for a moment she will not remember where she is, that she will look into my eyes and know only that she loves and is loved. Of what will happen next I cannot think.