Once upon a time, there was a country in the west. A powerful and terrible King ruled there, but he had no heir. He spent some years brooding. Then he journeyed to the peak of the tallest mountain in his realm. He called forth a maiden from the stones and slept with her. From the mountain he took his heir. He named her Parvati, and he raised her in his palace. For the twenty long years that followed, she did not speak.
“Let it be known,” said the King, “that he whom she speaks to first shall claim her hand; and her body; and be King-Consort of this realm when I am dead.”
They came from the four corners of the world and besieged her: the princes, the troubadours, the lovers, and the rogues. She found no peace. Whichsoever direction she did turn, another man presented himself, and with cunning and sweetness sought to startle a sound or phrase from her lips. This continued for two years. Then Mr. Schiff came, a scholar petitioning the King. He did not hunt her, nor praise her, nor so much as glance her way; but when she saw him, she pointed a long finger, and she said his name.
“Ah,” says the King.
Mr. Schiff looks up. “Milady,” he said, “we are not acquainted; but I would happily speak to you anon.”
“This is the Lady Parvati,” says the King.
“Ah,” says Mr. Schiff.
“Tell me,” says the King, “what manner of man are you?”
“I am a scholar,” Mr. Schiff says. “I study the stones, and seek from them an understanding of the history of our world.”
“Can stones tell such things?”
Mr. Schiff nods. “They are the ages of the world laid bare.”
The King tosses his crown down to the table, and gestures towards it. Mr. Schiff hesitantly approaches.
“The stone in the middle,” says the King. “It is as old as the land. Speak to me of this kingdom’s history.”
“Six thousand and seven years ago,” Mr. Schiff says, “your hand moved upon the world and split the sky from the stone. You saw this gem. You plucked it into the sky. You set it in your crown. It has spent the years since in your company.”
The King gives him a raven’s stare.
“It’s observable fact,” Mr. Schiff says. “Stones tell.”
The King leans back. “And have you been to other realms, Mr. Schiff?”
Mr. Schiff nods.
“And seen the stones there?”
The King says, “And did they tell you the same story?”
“They did not.”
“What story did they tell?”
Mr. Schiff says, “Your majesty, in every land, they spoke the story advocated by that realm’s King or Queen; save in three.”
“Adelais,” says Mr. Schiff. “In Adelais; in Auberi; in Samaria.”
“The stones spoke of a world more ancient than I can imagine. Their histories stretched for millions of years, scarred with the march of glaciers and the dances of the sea. They told me that the Kings and Queens of this world are young and lacking in majesty, interlopers in the history of stone.”
The King frowns slightly. He rubs his forehead where the crown has left its scar.
“And so you come to me,” he says, “with a request.”
“Yes,” Mr. Schiff agrees. “Stones speak of events, but not of motivations. They speak of land, and sea, and air, and fire. They do not speak of us. I wish to place in context the history of the stones; and so I come to you.”
“You would have me tell you what this stone does not?”
“That is my request, your majesty,” says Mr. Schiff.
“Mr. Schiff,” says the King, “I am afraid that I must imprison you; and that it is likely that, instead of giving you my daughter’s hand or answering your questions, I must cast you from the edge of the world to fall eternally in darkness.”
“I regret that,” says Mr. Schiff. “What of your proclamation?”
“My daughter has spoken your name,” says the King. “And in so doing, chosen her husband; but to whom did she speak it? A dozen princes attend upon my court, and more troubadours than I can count; the room bulges also with ministers, priests, and dandies. Did she speak to you? I cannot say. I have choices to think upon.”
The guards come and take Mr. Schiff to the oubliette, and cast him in. There he waits in darkness until he sees the flicker of a light.
“It is myself,” Parvati says, above.
The King’s daughter drops a lamp into his hands. Then she shimmies down and hangs for a moment from the lip of the oubliette. She falls, landing gently beside him.
“You have disturbed my father,” she says.
“I took liberties,” he admits.
“I will tell you the history of this place,” she says.
“I would prefer if you helped me from the oubliette.”
He hesitates. She looks at him quizzically.
“How did you plan to escape again?” he asks.
“The guards will come for you in a day or two,” she says. “Then you will say: ‘look! I have the Lady Parvati with me. You should take note, and avoid leaving her to rot in this oubliette.'”
“I wished to spend a day with you,” she says, “before you die.”
Mr. Schiff looks down. “Then by all means,” he says, “let us begin with history.”
“You are a scholar,” she says. “So you know how scholarship works.”
“Yes,” he says.
“For many years,” she says, “people did not. They believed in objective rules, and applied them in a rigorous fashion.”
Mr. Schiff nods. “I’ve seen the scars of this,” he says, “in Adelais; in Auberi; and in Samaria.”
“In a cold dark room they met,” she says, and continues:
In a cold dark room they met. Sixteen men and women who understood. One, who did not.
“I shall unmake you,” said the King to that one.
Then he conducted his tests. He weighed her. He measured her. He tested her density. He watched her with open and closed eyes. And every test showed that she was not real, for that was the outcome he had chosen; and when the last of her was gone, he spoke.
“As I have proven her the void, I shall prove myself a god; and a realm I shall form from the substance that she had.”
“It’s the way of things,” Parvati says. “The truth is defined by those who decide it most passionately in advance.”
“I know,” says Mr. Schiff.
“Why?” he asks.
“People abuse that. They choose truths advantageous to themselves.”
Mr. Schiff smiles at her. “I like to imagine,” he says, “that, given the utmost rein to decide our own truths, the nature of people would drive them towards a perfect world.”
Parvati frowns at him. “This does not seem in accord with the evidence,” she says.
“I know,” Mr. Schiff says. “That’s why I study Kings.”