A Life of Stories
She closed the book, placed it on the table, and, finally, prepared herself to walk through the door. She rose slowly from the divan and, as she moved across the small room that had been her sanctuary in the City of Peace for one thousand nights, she took one more moment for farewell. The sumptuous carpets, exquisite wall hangings, and heavy perfume here obliterated her memory of the spare rooms that long ago she had shared with her sister and their father, the king’s vizier.
When she reached the door, she looked back to the book one final time, though she knew all too well it had nothing more to offer. The gilt on its cover reflected the candlelight, winking as if to offer her encouragement. She breathed in slowly to settle her mind, then turned and began her journey down the shadowed hallway to the chambers of the King.
The book had provided her with one thousand stories, one thousand stays of execution, one thousand chances to see the dawn break. She had never discovered how the book had come to be hidden among the pillows, waiting for her to feel it, hard beneath her as she sobbed on the divan that first lonely day in the palace. The stories in that book had saved her life, and their characters had become her only friends.
She had spent the thousandth day combing through the book in case a story had escaped her notice, but the story of the night before had been the final one. Tonight, if there was to be a story that would extend her life for another day, it would have to come from within her.
On other nights, she had wished for the escort that had accompanied her in the early weeks of her imprisonment. But tonight she was thankful for the chance to be alone with her thoughts, tortured as they were. After the thousand wondrous tales in the book, what story could one with a life as inconsequential as hers possibly hope to tell?
Equidistant between her room and the King's chambers, the lone window in the hallway let in a beam of silver moonlight that made irrelevant the feeble golden candlelight from the wall sconces. For the first time in a thousand nights, she was not desperately repeating the book's story in her head as she moved toward her fate. With nothing memorized and everything to lose, she gazed up at the moon, and as she did so a story began to take shape. She dared to stand there for several moments, taking strength and, yes, affirmation from the moon as she felt, rather than thought out, the plot. For the first time, there was no need for hours of memorization; this story was seared onto her heart.
As she crossed the threshold of the king's chambers and bowed low before him, servants scurried to adjust candles and refresh food and drink. Like other nights, the two children she had borne the king were at his side, unaware that any night of storytelling might end with their father’s order for the execution of their mother. But she knew that this would not happen tonight. She stepped into the middle of the room, smiled at her king and their children and, finally, began to tell her final story.
"Once upon a time, in the City of Peace, a great king commanded his vizier to bring him a virgin each night until there was but one the land."