6. The Artist
“Bring the Persian to me,” said Kalidasa, as soon as he had recovered his breath. The climb from the frescoes back to the Elephant Throne was not difficult, and it was perfectly safe now that the stairway down the sheer rock face had been enclosed with walls. But it was tiring; for how many more years, Kalidasa wondered, would he be able to make this journey unaided? Though slaves could carry him, that did not befit the dignity of a king. And it was intolerable that any eyes but his should look upon the hundred goddesses and their hundred equally beautiful attendants, who formed the retinue of his celestial court.
So from now on, night and day, there would always be a guard standing at the entrance to the stairs – the only way down from the Palace to the private heaven that Kalidasa had created. After ten years of toil, his dream was now complete. Whatever the jealous monks on their mountain-top might claim to the contrary, he was a god at last.
Despite his years in the Taprobanean sun, Firdaz was still as light-skinned as a Roman; today, as he bowed before the king, he looked even paler, and ill at ease. Kalidasa regarded him thoughtfully, then gave one of his rare smiles of approval.
“You have done well, Persian,” he said. “Is there any artist in the world who could do better?”
Pride obviously strove with caution before Firdaz gave his hesitant reply.
“None that I know, Majesty.”
“And have I paid you well?”
“I am quite satisfied.”
That reply, thought Kalidasa, was hardly accurate; there had been continuous pleas for more money, more assistants, expensive materials that could only be obtained from distant lands. But artists could not be expected to understand economics, or to know how the royal treasury had been drained by the awesome cost of the palace and its surroundings.
“And now that your work here is finished, what do you wish?”
“I would like your Majesty's permission to return to Ishfahan, so that I may see my own people once again.”
It was the answer that Kalidasa had expected, and he sincerely regretted the decision he must make. But there were too many other rulers on the long road to Persia, who would not let the master-artist of Yakkagala slip through their greedy fingers. And the painted goddesses of the western wall must remain forever unchallenged.
“There is a problem,” he said flatly – and Firdaz turned yet paler, his shoulders slumping at the words. A king did not have to explain anything, but this was one artist speaking to another. “You have helped me to become a god. That news has already reached many lands. If you leave my protection, there are others who will make similar requests of you.”
For a moment, the artist was silent; the only sound was the moaning of the wind, which seldom ceased to complain when it met this unexpected obstacle upon its journey. Then Firdaz said, so quietly that Kalidasa could hardly hear him: “Am I then forbidden to leave?”
“You may go, and with enough wealth for the rest of your life. But only on condition that you never work for any other prince.”
“I am willing to give that promise,” replied Firdaz with almost unseemly haste.
Sadly, Kalidasa shook his head. “I have learned not to trust the word of artists,” he said, “especially when they are no longer within my power. So I will have to enforce that promise.”
To Kalidasa's surprise, Firdaz no longer looked so uncertain; it was almost as if he had made some great decision, and was finally at ease.
“I understand,” he said, drawing himself up to his full height. Then deliberately he turned his back upon the king, as though his royal master no longer existed, and stared straight into the blazing sun.
The sun, Kalidasa knew, was the god of the Persians, and those words Firdaz was murmuring must be a prayer in his language. There were worse gods to worship, and the artist was staring into that blinding disc, as if he knew it was the last thing he would ever see…
“Hold him!” cried the king.
The guards rushed swiftly forward, but they were too late. Blind though he must now have been, Firdaz moved with precision. In three steps he had reached the parapet, and vaulted over it. He made no sound in his long arc down to the gardens he had planned for so many years, nor was there any echo when the architect of Yakkagala reached the foundations of his masterwork.
Kalidasa grieved for many days, but his grief turned to rage when the Persian's last letter to Ishfahan was intercepted. Someone had warned Firdaz that he would be blinded when his work was done; and that was a damnable falsehood. He never discovered the source of the rumour, though not a few men died slowly before they proved their innocence. It saddened him that the Persian had believed such a lie; surely he should have known that a fellow artist would never have robbed him of the gift of sight.
For Kalidasa was not a cruel man, nor an ungrateful one. He would have laden Firdaz with gold or at least silver – and sent him on his way with servants to take care of him for the remainder of his life. He would never have needed to use his hands again; and after a while he would not have missed them.