O n the 1002nd night, while packing her new, though unused, pyjamas, she was summoned once again by the King. He was alone. His attendants had the night off, the first in almost three years. No royal masseur, no boy to hold his chalice of spiced camel milk, no harlot who pinched his nose with perfumed fingers when he snored into a doze. For the first in a 1001 nights, they had a vacation. With pay.
She stood before the King whose eyes were darkly pouched and fatigued. "Why have you summoned me, my lord/" She asked with as much annoyance as protocol allowed, and kept her eyes on his slippered feet. "Was our agreement not binding? One thousand and one stories to buy my freedom?"
"My viziers have consulted the djinn," the King croaked groggily, "who knows much of the ways of contracts and agreements." He popped five green coffee beans in his mouth, though after almost three years their rejuvenative powers hardly worked. "There were nights, I did not pay attention."
"Why is this my concern?"
"Because whispers of the court filter down to the marketplace and who will follow a king who has not technically completed a bargain?"
"But why did you not pay attention?"
"Those were nights my nose pinching harlot was ill, or too great with child. And no one else had permission to rouse me from sleep."
"So how many more must I tell?"
"The viziers calculated twenty-six more."
And our bargain will be fulfilled?"
"And our bargain will be fulfilled."
She turned her eyes from the King's feet and sat upon her exasperated cushion. What stories were left? She could perhaps weave together bits of previous ones. Without the servants to hear, who would know the difference?
She turned to stare out the window as always, partly to avoid eye contact with the King, partly for inspiration from the stars in the thick black sky, that oppressive black that swallowed each of her tales as she told them, that kept her imprisoned, a black stone shackled to her leg like a slave . . . a black stone . . . there's a beginning.
"Once upon a time," She started, "for her thirteenth birthday, an Amir's daughter received a sacred black stone in a guilded box, though she did know from whom . . ." but with her voice raised in frustration of another month scrounging for tales, and her mind racing to sew the pieces together, she did not hear the King, unattended by his servants, begin to snore . . .