|Lavina, Canto 12: The Courting of Lavina (Part 1 of 2)|
by Julian X  /  poetry  /  29 May 2008
Jafrezen spent many hours with Lavina
before leaving for the night. The other girls
spoke the same strange language as the rest,
and Lavina could not speak with them.
That night, King Naharim sent for her,
and enjoyed her without a word
while Lavina, disappointed at misreading his affections,
greeted his affections with new resignation.
Each night, the king summoned her,
night after night, and she said nothing.
She spent her days with Jafrezen,
telling him her story and talking
of foreign shores and former days,
learning their language and culture.
The other harem girls dismissed this new white one,
saying the king’s fancy for her would pass,
and looked forward to her breaking heart.
They would not practice their language with her,
and mocked her attempts to pronounce
when she made the overture to do so.
Days blended into weeks, and still King Naharim
spent his nights only with her. After sex,
he would caress her, but still neither spoke
until he asked, slowly, how the lessons progressed with Jafrezen.
Lavina paused and then, with awkward pronunciation, replied
that they were going well enough,
though the fact that she could say it said more.
Naharim asked if she was happy, then asked again, slower.
She told him no, that she was neither happy nor sad.
She wanted to say that she accepted her place,
that she’d been through worse and the harem was nice enough,
but lacked the vocabulary. They struggled like this,
from that night forward, talking of little things,
and her tongue improved but she remained resigned.
The resignment haunted him, and one night, he asked,
“Am I not the finest king in all the world?”
She told him he was a grand king, but sounded unmoved.
Though the city slept beyond the palace, he summoned
his assistants and bade them fetch him the royal map.
It filled the room, drawn on vellum,
full of color and decoration.
He dismissed the men and summoned her to regard it.
He pointed at Bahtud, the capital situated at the map’s center,
the palace rising from it, all out of proportion in the artist’s imagination,
and told her it was the greatest city in all the world.
He then traced with his outstretched finger
the contours of his realm, gilded in red.
She had to move sideways to accommodate him as he traced,
then follow him the other way, half the length of the map in full.
“All of this is mine,” he observed. “Does this not impress?”
She nodded, saying that it was impressive,
but he heard, with pain, something missing in her voice.
Frustrated, he summoned her over to the extreme left
and pointed to Triemte, a little dot, then traced
the petite realm in green around it, seemingly a little plot of land
extending just around the capital,
all dwarfed by centered, gilded red.
“If it pleased me, I could conquer it.
If I send the force of my army off tonight,
Borheya’s Realm would fall within a month
of travel, and some days of fighting.
Would that please you?” he asked.
She said nothing, her lack of care apparent,
and he sent her to be escorted home to the garden.
The next night, when he summoned her,
a marvelous spread of lush rugs and spices
filled one wall. He showed them to her forthwith,
but still she was unimpressed, and he only took her after,
in his frustration.
The following night, the room was filled with artwork,
tapestries and paintings culled from all the world,
statues of great size and weight and greater majesty.
Paintings of him, statues of him as kingly warrior,
stared back at her as she perused them.
Still, he saw they had not moved her heart
and this time sent her home without lovemaking.
The next evening, the room was filled with gilded wonders:
a device that poured water without a servant;
a statue that moved, raising its arms to greet the viewer;
all sorts of contraptions, timepieces, tricks of magic
and fire and entertainment. Seeing her still unmoved,
he brought her to a stand with a small golden bird
what suddenly whirred to life, flapping its wings,
moving its beak, and singing in chirps its song.
This, alone, dazzled Lavina for its realism, its life.
Seizing the moment, the king hastened to add
that he’d been told that birds of the same type
were sometimes fooled by its song and came to it,
so finely had its engineered tooled its sound.
But when he kissed her, she did not return the affection,
and, enraged, he pushed her to the bed
and took her violently, briefly, his rage burning out.
Dismissing her, he had her escorts carry the priceless bird
back to the harem and install it in her quarters.
Truly, the king wept anguished tears, once all her gone.
The next day, men arrived to summon Lavina,
breaking up her conversation with Jafrezen.
The sun had not yet begun to set,
and such early, unorthodox summons
worried all who saw it, Jafrezen included, save Lavina.
The men took her along a different path,
then brought her to a circular stone staircase
and prompted her to ascend. After some time,
the staircase narrowed, not much wider than a man,
and still they bid her ascend. After a thousand steps,
the staircase narrowed still further, so that
the escorts had to turn themselves slightly to continue,
tentatively, up the narrow little steps. Lavina
had to stop to rest a few times, and, truth be told,
the escorts minded this little, winded as they too were.
At last, they came to a door, through which
Lavina emerged, along a terrace along a high dome,
looking out over all of Bahtud, stretching out for miles,
adorned with rows of old city walls dating back
to various epochs, made in varied styles.
A grand river wound through the city, snaking back and forth
over enormous bridges, stuffed with shops and dwellings.
A million people danced their daily lives below,
struggling, hauling their wares by carts,
negotiating prices and marriages, traveling,
laboring beneath the disappearing light.
From above, the order of it all, so like an anthill
she recalled from her father’s farm in Halyptus,
when she as a girl had watched them one day,
so completely unaware they strived or she did too.
The king greeted her kindly, in all his finery,
then led her around the dome until they looked out,
through the domes popping up all around them,
at a massive plaza, whereupon a hundred thousand soldiers
stood mutely at attention. But this
fazed Lavina less than the teaming city beyond.
“What have I to do?” the lauded King Naharim began.
“All day long, men cower before me.
I have only to order it, and armies fall,
nations fall, the world moves. I’ve the most beautiful girls,
culled from all the world, and you, slavegirl,
harlot to all the world, are not moved.
I could order any man to kill himself,
to give me his wife or daughter,
and I would meet with no resistance.
I cannot even get good advice, so fearful are
even my friends, so couched must everything be
in praise and flattery of me
as king of kings, second only to god himself,
wise and full of wisdom and power and all the rest.
But you, I cannot have. I cannot move.
Some melancholy haunts you, alleviated only
by strange things, by that bird among so many wonders,
and you care not to flatter nor to criticize,
complying but feigning not your pleasure.
Tell me, then, Lavina. Tell me what touches you.”
Lavina turned away from the city to face him,
and saw him staring into the sun, his features
illuminated with compassion without pity.
She kissed him then, closing her eyes,
and he drew her close to him, there.
“Since you were first brought to me,”
he began to confess, but she stopped him,
saying “I know” in his language.
“What stopped you from it?” she asked,
feeling her way in the new tongue’s rhythm.
“I am a king. You were a slave, a gift,
nothing to all the world. It is not right
for a king such as me to love such as you,
at least in the eyes of my kingdom,
whom I embody and who wish to see their king
exalted in all the luxury the kingdom affords.
This is why I stopped my unreasoning heart,
told it to be quiet in words sterner than rebuking treason:
what I felt then, on that throne, made no sense.
It was merely misplaced lust, I told myself,
yet could not fuck it out of my system,
though God knows how well I tried.
I told myself it was unbecoming of a monarch,
that the kingdom could never accept my wedding a slave girl,
that a ruler such as I must not be made a slave
by love, but these were hollow words,
and did nothing to remedy my state, nor yours,
and I found, at length, that a king must accept
that which cannot be changed, nor flattered away.”
“My king,” Lavina began, “your love is enough.
“You have enough wives,” she told him,
“and I do not need to be another.”
“Still,” the king replied, “I would forsake them,
dismiss the harem if you wished it, free them all.
I’ve even dreamed, in my madness, of leaving
in the night with you, escaping in costume,
forsaking my kingdom and its people for your sake.”
“Speak no more of this madness,” Lavina advised.
“It is enough that you love me. I do not wish
the burdens of queenship. I am a harem girl,
and enjoy all the joys of your kindness
without the burdens of a crown and trappings.
Keep your wives, keep your other harem girls.
They may not accept me now, but hardly deserve
to be tossed upon the streets to hunger,
parentless, for that garden and its delights.
Besides, you have forsaken their pleasures
for the paradise of my thighs – though well I know,
though I hope your love persists, that this will not.
For your kingdom, do it not the disservice
of ridding it of such a compassionate king:
you’re a better king for considering its forsaking
and what that speaks about your duty to your people,
that you know such indulgences cannot go
with good governance, of kingdom or yourself.”
The king signaled for his army below to disperse,
then sat, talking haltingly, as they watched the sun
set slowly over the distant hills, the light cascading
down the valleys, revealing hedges, cottages, lives
in turn. In the soft light of the landscape
and the sounds of the quieting city giving way to night,
blending with the rushing wind amidst the steeples,
Lavina found her heart begin to love.
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