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11. The Silent Princess

When his visitors had left, in a very thoughtful mood Rajasinghe depolarised the library windows and sat for a long time staring out at the trees around the villa, and the rock walls of Yakkagala looming beyond. He had not moved when, precisely on the stroke of four, the arrival of his afternoon tea jolted him out of his reverie.

Rani, he said, ask Dravindra to get out my heavy shoes, if he can find them. I'm going up the Rock.

Rani pretended to drop the tray in astonishment.

Ayo, Mahathaya! she keened in mock distress. You must be mad! Remember what Doctor McPherson told you -

That Scots quack always reads my cardiogram backwards. Anyway, my dear, what have I got to live for, when you and Dravindra leave me?

He spoke not entirely in jest, and was instantly ashamed of his self-pity. For Rani detected it, and the tears started in her eyes.

She turned away, so that he could not see her emotion, and said in English: I did offer to stay at least for Dravindra's first year

I know you did, and I wouldn't dream of it. Unless Berkeley's changed since I last saw it, he'll need you there. (Yet no more than I, though in different ways, he added silently to himself.) And whether you take your own degree or not, you can't start training too early to be a college president's wife.

Rani smiled. I'm not sure that's a fate I'd welcome, from some of the horrid examples I've seen. She switched back to Taprobani. You aren't really serious, are you?

Quite serious. Not to the top, of course only the frescoes. It's five years since I visited them. If I leave it much longer There was no need to complete the sentence.

Rani studied him in silence for a few moments, then decided that argument was futile.

I'll tell Dravindra, she said. And Jaya in case they have to carry you back.

Very well-though I'm sure Dravindra could manage that by himself.

Rani gave him a delighted smile, mingling pride and pleasure. This couple, he thought fondly, had been his luckiest draw in the state lottery, and he hoped that their two years of social service had been as enjoyable to them as it had been to him. In this age, personal servants were the rarest of luxuries, awarded only to men of outstanding merit, Rajasinghe knew of no other private citizen who had three.

To conserve his strength, he rode a sun-powered trike through the Pleasure Gardens; Dravindra and Jaya preferred to walk, claiming that it was quicker. (They were right; but they were able to take shortcuts.) He climbed very slowly, pausing several times for breath, until he had reached the long corridor of the Lower Gallery, where the Mirror Wall ran parallel to the face of the Rock.

Watched by the usual inquisitive tourists, a young archaeologist from one of the African countries was searching the wall for inscriptions, with the aid of a powerful oblique light. Rajasinghe felt like warning her that the chance of making a new discovery was virtually zero. Paul Sarath had spent twenty years going over every square millimetre of the surface, and the three-volume Takkagala Graffiti was a monumental work of scholarship which would never be superseded if only because no other man would ever again be so skilled at reading archaic Taprobani inscriptions. They had both been young men when Paul had begun his life's work. Rajasinghe could remember standing at this very spot while the then Deputy Assistant Epigrapher of the Department of Archaeology had traced out the almost indecipherable marks on the yellow plaster, and translated the poems addressed to the beauties on the rock above. After all these centuries, the lines could still strike echoes in the human heart:

I am Tissa, Captain of the Guard.

I came fifty leagues to see the doe-eyed ones,

but they would not speak to me.

Is this kind?

May you remain here for a thousand years, like the hare which the King of the Gods

painted on the Moon. I am the priest Mahinda

from the vihara of Tuparama.

That hope had been partly fulfilled, partly denied. The ladies of the rock had been standing here for twice the time that the cleric had imagined, and had survived into an age beyond his uttermost dreams. But how few of them were left! Some of the inscriptions referred to five hundred golden-skinned maidens; even allowing for considerable poetic licence, it was clear that not one-tenth of the original frescoes had escaped the ravages of time or the malevolence of man. But the twenty that remained were now safe forever, their beauty stored in countless films and tapes and crystals.

Certainly they had outlasted one proud scribe, who had thought it quite unnecessary to give his name:

I ordered the road to be cleared, so that

pilgrims could see the fair maidens standing

on the mountainside.

I am the King.

Over the years Rajasinghe himself the bearer of a royal name, and doubtless host to many regal genes had often thought of those words; they demonstrated so perfectly the ephemeral nature of power, and the futility of ambition. I am the King. Ah, but which King? The monarch who had stood on these granite flag-stones scarcely worn then, eighteen hundred years ago was probably an able and intelligent man; but he failed to conceive that the time could ever come when he would fade into an anonymity as deep as that of his humblest subjects.

The attribution was now lost beyond trace. At least a dozen kings might have inscribed those haughty lines; some had reigned for years, some only for weeks, and few indeed had died peacefully in their beds. No-one would ever know if the king who felt it needless to give his name was Mahatissa II, or Bhatikabhaya, or Vijayakumara III, or Gajabahukagamani, or Candamukhasiva, or Moggallana I, or Kittisena, or Sirisamghabodhi or some other monarch not even recorded in the long and tangled history of Taprobane.

The attendant operating the little elevator was astonished to see his distinguished visitor, and greeted Rajasinghe deferentially. As the cage slowly ascended the full fifteen metres, he remembered how he would once have spurned it for the spiral stairway, up which Dravindra and Jaya were bounding even now in the thoughtless exuberance of youth.

The elevator clicked to a halt, and he stepped on to the small steel platform built out from the face of the cliff. Below and behind were a hundred metres of empty space, but the strong wire mesh gave ample security; not even the most determined suicide could escape from the cage large enough to hold a dozen people clinging to the underside of the eternally breaking wave of stone.

Here in this accidental indentation, where the rock-face formed a shallow cave and so protected them from the elements, were the survivors of the king's heavenly court. Rajasinghe greeted them silently, then sank gratefully into the chair that was offered by the official guide.

I would like, he said quietly, to be left alone for ten minutes. Jaya Dravindra see if you can head off the tourists.

His companions looked at him doubtfully; so did the guide, who was supposed never to leave the frescoes unguarded. But, as usual, Ambassador Rajasinghe had his way, without even raising his voice.

Ayu bowan, he greeted the silent figures, when he was alone at last. I'm sorry to have neglected you for so long.

He waited politely for an answer, but they paid no more attention to him than to all their other admirers for the last twenty centuries. Rajasinghe was not discouraged; he was used to their indifference. Indeed, it added to their charm.

I have a problem, my dears, he continued. You have watched all the invaders of Taprobane come and go, since Kalidasa's time. You have seen the jungle flow like a tide around Yakkagala, and then retreat before the axe and the plough. But nothing has really changed in all those years. Nature has been kind to little Taprobane, and so has History; it has left her alone.

"Now the centuries of quiet may be drawing to a close. Our land may become the centre of the world of many worlds. The great mountain you have watched so long, there in the south, may be the key to the universe. If that is so, the Taprobane we knew and loved will cease to exist.

Perhaps there is not much that I can do but I have some power to help, or to hinder. I still have many friends; if I wish, I can delay this dream or nightmare at least beyond my lifetime. Should I do so? Or should I give aid to this man, whatever his real motives may be?

He turned to his favourite the only one who did not avert her eyes when he gazed upon her. All the other maidens stared into the distance, or examined the flowers in their hands; but the one he had loved since his youth seemed, from a certain angle, to catch his glance.

Ah, Karuna! It's not fair to ask you such questions. For what could you possibly know of the real worlds beyond the sky, or of men's need to reach them? Even though you were once a goddess, Kalidasa's Heaven was only an illusion. Well, whatever strange futures you may see, I shall not share them. We have known each other a long time by my standards, if not by yours. While I can, I shall watch you from the villa; but I do not think that we shall meet again. Farewell and thank you, beautiful ones, for all the pleasure you have brought me down the years. Give my greetings to those who come after me.

Yet as he descended the spiral stairs ignoring the elevator Rajasinghe did not feel at all in a valedictory mood. On the contrary, it seemed to him that he had shed quite a few of his years (and, after all, seventy-two was not really old). He could tell that Dravindra and Jaya had noticed the spring in his step, by the way their faces lit up.

Perhaps his retirement had been getting a little dull. Perhaps both he and Taprobane needed a breath of fresh air to blow away the cobwebs just as the monsoon brought renewed life after the months of torpid, heavy skies.

Whether Morgan succeeded or not, his was an enterprise to fire the imagination and stir the soul. Kalidasa would have envied and approved.

10. The Ultimate Bridge | The Fountains of Paradise | II THE TEMPLE