From the author: How can a maiden be true if she is false? How can a curse be wicked if it is just?
He came, like the others, from the western desert. From her high tower window she watched him, a dark shape atop a dark steed, toiling across pale sands. The setting sun rode red and bloated above the mountains behind him; his shadow stretched out before him, pointing his way like a finger, pointing him towards his doom.
Fareel coughed wetly in the bed behind her. "He'll be here tonight then, Jemileh?"
"Tonight, perhaps tomorrow. I think he'll stop to rest. He looks tired."
"Of course he's tired, the foolish male, traveling in the heat of the day. A fool and his life are soon parted. It should be easy this time, Jemileh."
The rider made camp after the sun had set, the scarlet flower of his fire blossoming in the distance. The fire died, and still Jemileh watched, afraid of sleep and the dreams that it might bring, dreams of loneliness and death and the one who came before, the one she might have loved. When at last she slept, it was with her head resting against the sill.
The stone ones awakened her at dawn with their moaning and bellowing. The tower shook with the force of their noise.
It had been months since she had heard them, and then it had not been she, but Fareel who had gone to answer their summons. "What are you waiting for?" Fareel said, her voice cross and thick with sleep.
The faces of the stone ones frowned as the stranger passed among them, woman-faces beneath stone wings. Stone claws clicked and clattered against stone pedestals. Fanged stone mouths bayed and roared, their noise the belling of the death hounds at the ending of the world. The stranger had come prepared for the noise: the ears of his horse were covered with padding. His hands covered his own ears; his face was contorted in a grimace. Jemileh fled down the stairs.
The stone ones quieted as she stepped out among them. The rider's grimace relaxed. Amid the nest of black draperies, his face seemed young.
"What place is it you seek?" Jemileh asked.
"The Tower of the Moon," the stranger said. "Can it be that this is the place?"
"This is the Tower of the Moon," she said. "Be warned, stranger. There is danger here."
"I have been warned of guardians, devourers of men's bodies and stealers of souls. I have also been told that he of pure soul need not fear these monsters."
His face was soft with youth, his eyes large and melting brown. It hurt her to think that he must suffer at her hands. Purity of heart would not save him; it had not saved that other. "You speak of the one foretold," she said. "But his purity will outshine the purity of other men as the sun outshines the moon."
“Ah," said the stranger. "And how do you know I am not he?"
“The stone ones will welcome him, as they did not welcome you. Do you long for death, stranger? You will find it here."
"My lady," he said. "A life depends on me, and I cannot betray it."
He said nothing of her beauty, nor did he attempt to woo her. She dared to hope her beguilements would be without power over him. And yet, if he persisted in his quest?
"You will want food," she said. "And water. Follow me."
He rested in the garden, amid roses and jasmine. She watched him as he slept: the smooth planes of his young face, the long, ringed fingers of his hands, the narrow palms, blue tattooed. Once she had been as young as he, as foolish. Once she had tried to die for love.
The young man awakened. He smiled at her. "My lady," he said. "You are fair. If not for my quest, if not for the silver apples, I might hope to linger here."
"The silver apples," Jemileh said. "What do you know of them?"
"That the way to the garden where they grow is here, if this is indeed the Tower of the Moon. That the apples may cure any illness, may even confer unheard-of strength and beauty and length of days to he who eats of them."
"And you wish these apples for yourself?"
"I wish them for my brother," he said. "Without them, he will not see sixteen."
"There are no doctors who can cure him?"
"None, fairest lady. We have tried them all: the physicians, the touchers with hands, the petitioners with their prayers."
It would be an easy task to love him, if she did not think of what must happen at the end. Yet it was strange that his eyes did not gleam with the lust she knew so well, that his body did not shiver with it. Even the noble among men suffered at restraining themselves in the presence of a guardian.
She would do what she must.
She sat on the stone bench beside him. She smoothed the silk of her gown over the contours of her hips, of her legs. She touched the heaviness of her golden comb, let her fingers linger in the duskiness of her hair, releasing the sweetness of its perfume. She lowered her eyes. "Sir," she murmured. "You say you find me fair?"
She felt the closeness of him, the disturbance of the air caused by his breathing. She felt his lips come close, the tenderness of their touch upon hers, without urgency, without need. He drew away, as no man could, as no man had ever done before. He drew away and said: "As fair as the moon in her fullness, my lady. Fair enough to love."
Jemileh opened her eyes. "There is no love in what a man feels for the guardians," she said.
The young man took her hand, and led it toward his breast. He would show her the beating of his heart then. He would protest his undying adoration, his desperate fondness. What foolishness. He was noble, but a fool.
He pressed her hand down against his breast, against what should have been flat and firm, muscle and bone. He pressed her hand down, and she felt softness. Softness and roundness, unresisting, the nipple larger than a man's, growing hard beneath her fingers.
"There is no love in what a man may feel," the stranger said.
The name of the stranger was Nedal. She said she had come from beyond the western mountains, from far Bayrak on the Lake of Harran, where the houses are built on pilings and the people fish for their dinners through holes in the floor. She had traveled for months, she said, a woman alone. She had escaped from slavers; she had lived on grubs and the flesh of the tutub lizard, which is fatal unless properly treated. All this she had done for love of her brother.
And the courage of Nedal, the purity of her purpose, were as a splinter in the heart of Jemileh. For only that rarest of presences at the Tower of the Moon, a mortal woman, may release a guardian from her bondage.
A mortal woman betrayed.
"Woman or man, I may not give you an apple," Jemileh said. "Linger if you will, but nothing will change that."
"Yet I must try," Nedal said. "And the trying is not unpleasant."
The stone ones howl when a stranger dies, or when he leaves. Days passed, and the stone ones remained silent.
"We can not have this stranger lurking about," Fareel said, from her high tower bed. "Make up your mind to kill her or use her. It's too late for me, but you can do it, Jemileh. Although I'll... miss you if you go."
But then Nedal came and nursed Fareel, and told her tales of faraway lands. Of islands of green, where blue-skinned savages ride horned fish across the waves. Of jeweled Carchemish, where the feet of the king must never touch the earth nor anything mundane, so that his very bed is made of diamond and his bed sheets of qatu tears. Of pirates and their plunder she told, and the rape of fair Hasappa, that city of gardens by the western sea. And when she spoke of the sacking of cities, her eyes brightened and her breathing quickened, which troubled Jemileh. But then she turned from these things, and spoke instead of love.
It seemed to Jemileh as she listened that Nedal's eyes lingered upon her then. It seemed to her that in Nedal's eyes was a tenderness, a promise of love that was more than desire.
"It's not right that a stranger should remain," Fareel said. "But sometimes, I must admit, she's more amusing than you are, Jemileh."
"She's not a stranger now," Jemileh said.
A night came when Nedal sat in the garden with Jemileh. "What is it like," Nedal asked, "to love a man and see him die?"
"I never love them," Jemileh said. "I know them for too short a time. They have my body, but never my love."
"And it gives you no pain?"
"It gives me pain. The one before you, I thought I might have loved. If I had been free."
There was a silence between them then. They listened to the wind, and the song of the nightingale in the palms. After a while, Nedal took her hand. She looked at Jemileh with dark, soft eyes that mirrored the moon, woman's eyes. The memory of kissing those full lips, soft lips, woman's lips, made Jemileh shiver.
“How do they die?" Nedal asked softly.
“It is loving me that kills them," Jemileh said. "No man may lie with a guardian and live."
Then Nedal said: "But perhaps a woman--"
"No," Jemileh said. "The risk is too great--"
And then Nedal's lips pressed against her own, warm lips, petal-soft, luscious as the fruit of the date palm, and the shudder that went through Jemileh then was a new thing.
"I love you as no man ever could," murmured Nedal. "It is your own sweet self that I love, no spell or enchantment."
And it was strange to Jemileh, the thought that a woman could love her in the way of a man. She and Fareel had never loved in such a fashion. And yet... and yet, had she not wondered about this very thing? Had she not dreamed about it?
In the corner of the garden, the yemah lilies grow like young trees, their flowers pale and upturned, the grass beneath them velvet-smooth. Nedal led her there, drew her down upon the grass. And the hands of Nedal were like two soft doves, fluttering and seeking, touching first here, where golden comb rode amidst dusky tresses, then there, at the shoulder fastenings, and at the girdle fastenings, so that at the last, Jemileh's gown lay cast off among the lily's roots.
Then it was Jemileh's turn to pull aside concealing garments, to reveal the startling purity of Nedal, the breasts like full moons that suddenly she blushed to show, so that they peeped like roe deer from behind her robes, the round hips, the slim thighs.
Beneath the yemah lilies they learned each other's secrets, beneath the lilies whose scent distilled is an intoxicant, both poisonous and sweet. And Jemileh remembered what it was to love.
In the morning, Nedal saddled her horse.
Jemileh watched her preparing to go, and the pain she felt was a solid thing, as solid as the tower's stones or the gold of her comb. She cared nothing now for the release Nedal might have brought her; it was Nedal herself she wanted, only Nedal. "You need not go yet," Jemileh said.
"What terrors await were I to find the apples," said Nedal, "I do not know. I must assume you would be harmed, as well as myself. Else you would surely have found me an apple, knowing my brother's plight."
"Yes," Jemileh said softly. "I would."
"Now that I love you, how can I continue to place you in danger? I will seek the apples as long as I remain here. I have sought them already. It is through no fault of my own that I have not found them."
"No," Jemileh said. "You cannot find them alone."
"My brother is dying, Jemileh. He may already be dead. It's time for me to go home."
Weeping, Jemileh watched her climb into the saddle, weeping watched her ride westward. The howling of the stone ones was the roar of the lightning, the shriek of the windstorm. Dust devils danced between the stone ones' feet.
And Jemileh ran amongst them.
Nedal rode slowly, often turning to look back. She saw Jemileh racing towards her, and pulled up her horse.
"Stay," Jemileh said. "Stay. I'll find a way to get you an apple."
"No," Nedal said. "For love of you."
"For love of me, stay," Jemileh said. "For love of your brother, let me give you an apple. For his sake."
Nedal was silent. At last she said: "For my brother's sake," and turned her horse back towards the tower.
"I thought she was leaving," Fareel said. "I was sorry to see her go. But I like it less that she came back. What are you up to, little sister?"
"She came back because she loves me. She couldn't bear to leave me."
"My sickness hasn't clouded my brain, little sister. I see the look on your face. Think, foolish one. When the rules are broken, we're the ones who pay. Do you want to end up like me, ugly and bedridden...or worse?"
But it seemed to Jemileh that her life had been a poor thing, before the coming of Nedal. The beating of her heart, the sighing of her breath, all were for Nedal now. The days of monotony, of watching, how could she have the courage to survive them, when Nedal had gone?
"Jemileh," Fareel said. "Remember what brought you here in the first place. Love is a good thing, but only if tempered by wisdom and moderation."
"I loved a man before," Jemileh said.
In the Tower of the Moon, the stairs that lead to the upper levels are well-worn by centuries of use, their stones symmetrically indented. There are other stairs in the Tower of the Moon. These stairs lead downward into the darkness beneath the earth, and they are not so well-trodden.
It was down these stairs that Jemileh led Nedal. Down these stairs, by candlelight, until the air grew cold and the walls dank and incandescent with fungi and glimmer worms.
At last the stairs ended. They stood in a pit, facing a blank wall. "I have searched here before," Nedal whispered, and the whisper echoed up the stairwell's dark chimney. "I found nothing."
Jemileh stretched out a hand. On the bare stone of the wall, she drew patterns with her fingers, patterns that incandesced, each part fading as she worked the next.
The patterns coalesced. A door appeared, in the center the image of a tree, with fruit of silver. "Touch the roots with the palm of your right hand," whispered Jemileh. "It is written that a guardian may hold the key, but only a mortal may turn it."
Together they went into the garden.
There are other doors to that garden, but they did not see them. For there is no end, no edge, but the one that is passed through. And there is no center, but only a heart.
They sensed no distance, no passage of time, yet at last they came to the garden's heart, and the Tree that grows there.
Around the center of the garden was a ring of fire, but Jemileh made several arcane passes with her hands, and the ring of fire disappeared. At the base of the tree was a fanged serpent; at Jemileh's touch it slithered away.
She took only one apple and made sure that Nedal took no other. For each apple taken, a guardian must pay.
They passed through the loveliness of that garden, and it seemed to them a dream. They stood before the door, and it seemed to Jemileh too much to bear that she must pass through it, when death waited for her beyond.
She placed the apple in Nedal's right hand. "Tell your brother about me," she said. "As you give him this."
They opened the door.
The tower shook as they started up the steps. The tower shook and the mortar crumbled. The earth shuddered with the moving of the stone ones, the dance of their welcome and their grief.
The heart of Jemileh still beat; her blood still flowed. Her body was still firm and young and healthy. Yet there was only one way that that could be. When the dance had ended, and the stairs were steady enough to climb, she ran to the high tower room and found it empty. Fareel was gone from the ebony bed. There was a new stone one in the avenue now.
Fareel had given her life for Jemileh's sake.
Again, she stood and watched, while Nedal prepared for a journey. "Stay but a little," she said. "A day. A night. No more."
"My brother is dying, Jemileh. An hour too late, a space of minutes, and my journey will have been in vain."
In vain? Jemileh thought. When we have known love?
"Stay with me a while," she said. "In the garden, in the kitchen, it doesn't matter. An hour. Half an hour. Talk to me about your brother. Help me to feel certain that what I have done is right. The apple you have taken cost Fareel her life."
Nedal hesitated. She looked at the avenue of the stone ones, at the marks their claws had made there. "Half an hour," she said. "No more."
"Do you not love me, Nedal?"
Nedal smiled sadly. "I love you, Jemileh. But how can I stay when my brother is dying?"
They sat together where once Nedal had slept, that first day, in the bower of roses and jasmine. Nedal's hand was stiff when Jemileh took it in hers; her lips were warm, but the flesh was resisting now, the sweetness all had fled. "I know your thoughts are with your brother," Jemileh said. "I ask but a little of them, for a little while."
Then Nedal kissed her more warmly, and did not resist the meeting of their tongues. Nor did she resist when Jemileh placed her hand upon her breast, but her hand was limp.
Jemileh drew back, only just a little, and saw upon Nedal's sweet features such a look that she thought she must be dreaming. It was as if Nedal were a wealthy man and Jemileh a beggar accosting her, reeking with the rot.
Then the look was gone and Nedal was herself again, and her eyes were filled with love and sorrow. Almost, Jemilah might have convinced herself that she had imagined that look. Almost.
For in that single moment her world had changed.
"There is one last thing that I would ask of you," she said. "Take my comb and comb my hair."
And Nedal did as she was asked, although her hands trembled and were ungentle.
Jemilah took the comb from her, and for the second time in all her memory, held it in her hands. How long had it been, how many years, since she had last seen its butterfly shape, its wings of gold, studded with rubies and pearls? "This comb," she said. "I would like you to take it. In remembrance of me."
Another look fled across Nedal's features then, a look of greed, gone as quickly as a scudding cloud. Yet Jemileh knew she had been right. Nedal's love had been a lie. Perhaps even the dying brother had been a lie.
"I shouldn't..." Nedal said, hesitating, but now Jemileh saw this for the dissembling it was.
"You must take it," Jemileh said. "If you love me."
"Then I will take it," Nedal said, stroking it with her fingers, as she had stroked it that first night of lovemaking. She kissed Jemileh, a brief kiss, then went to drop the comb into her pouch.
"No," Jemileh said. "Wear it in your hair."
Nedal placed the comb among her black tresses--and fell fainting amid the roses.
Jemileh felt a dizziness, an unsteadiness, a kind of lightness, as if a great weight had been lifted from her.
Then it was gone.
Jemileh sat astride Nedal's horse. She had added an extra dress, and an extra water-skin, no more. On her body she wore the robes she had taken from Nedal, the robes that would protect her from the desert sun. In a pouch at her waist the silver apple was heavy and smooth.
She was free, yet she was filled with sorrow.
She pulled up her horse outside the garden wall.
"Can you hear me, Nedal?" she cried.
A moan answered her.
"The comb you took from me," she said. "Was the comb of my bondage. I could not take it from myself. No man could take it from me. No guardian could take it. Only a mortal woman, free and unencumbered. But I would not have had you take it, Nedal, if you had been true with me. I would have worn my bondage forever, for love of you."
Now there was only silence. She brought her horse closer. "You have what you wanted, Nedal," she said. "Eternal youth. And you are irresistible to men now, much good may it do you. You will never know love. You will never travel more than three leagues from this place; the comb will not permit that. There will be another guardian to share your exile soon enough; one always comes. Until that time your teachers, your companions, will be the stone ones that line the avenue. From them you may learn all you need to know. Nedal, you are the guardian now."
She touched the reins, then hesitated. She could not leave, not yet. To leave without some word, some sign from Nedal, would be to suffer this sorrow she felt forever. "If you truly have a brother, Nedal, tell me where he is. I will bring him the apple and save his life."
From the garden came the voice of Nedal, filled with bitterness and rancor. And the bitterness was as a sweet balm to the raw pain inside Jemileh, and the rancor was as a key in a prison door, freeing her. "I have no brother," said the voice of Nedal. "My name is not Nedal. And since I'm the guardian now, I will loose the stone monsters on you and have them pound you into dust."
"They will not harm me." Jemileh turned the horse's head to the west, where the mountains hid the green forest she remembered, and the city of her birth. She would not linger there, in that city where time had claimed all that she loved. She would find a ship instead and sail across the sea, to the place where blue-skinned savages ride horned fish between islands of green, and jeweled Carchemish lies smiling beneath a southern sun.
This story originally appeared in Realms of Fantasy.