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‘Never,’ I said.

‘You are a better person, just as was my wife, than I could ever be,’ he said, and with another small sigh he continued.

‘No matter how inventive my hands, the arousal was incomplete. I relegated the lack of conclusion to my tortured feelings of loss for my wife. But in secret I recognised the deep shame that afflicted most men of age.

‘But instead of facing my nights in misery, I put the time to good use, in the nation’s service. I acquired a habit of sorts. After nightfall, I ventured incognito into the city to gauge the pulse of my subjects. Slipping into a tavern, one heard the unadulterated views of the people. Intoxicants fuelled much of the loud talk but by careful winnowing, one could separate the grains of truth from the chaffs of embellishments.

‘On one such roving night, in a spur of the moment, I stepped into a known harlot’s house. She was of swollen breasts and proud buttocks. Keeping the turban on and my face covered behind a wrap, I ordered the woman to dim the lights. The woman, experienced in entertaining strange demands, pinched out all the wicks except for one tiny light. I pulled up my clothes and, having understood my need, she knelt down and worked her luscious lips and tongue. As the deed progressed, and feeling humiliated, I gave silent thanks to the dark.

‘But for all her expert efforts, she could not arouse me. After her first attempts, she looked up. I was glad the dead lamps had plunged the room in deep grey. Brimming with caged irritation, she said I needed the help of a physician.

‘I knew then, I could not take a wife. I could not betray an innocent maiden’s hopes and force her to carry the burden of my secret. To my councillors’ consternation, I refused to remarry. And my undying love for my departed wife became a legend. A fidelity wrought by fate. Another fake accolade, just as fake as the legend you spun regarding the jasmine riding my chariot.

‘But always at the back of my mind, I knew my councillors meant well, they were looking after the kingdom. I too grappled in secret with the question of succession. And with every birthday celebration of my twin daughters, the day of reckoning loomed nearer.’

The people welcomed the poetry rendition held on his daughters’ fifth birthday and the event became an annual tradition. It gave Pari great pleasure to pay for the expenses and to share the joy of his children’s birth with the nation.

The Velirs referred to him as a great patron of the arts. Another undeserved accolade, he said, and one that struck him as rather amusing. For all he did was to celebrate his children’s birthday.

‘After the fifth year, I did not see you in court,’ said Pari.

‘I am a mendicant. The world is my home.’

‘I saw you next on my daughters’ tenth birthday. You had put on some bulk and your full beard and hair had streaked white. But you had that same fiery and defiant eyes as when I first saw you,’ said Pari.

‘Hopefully, I have mellowed.’

Having revealed his secret, he did not mention it again. Never. Instead, he continued his conversation in a casual tone.

Copyright @ Eric Alagan, 2019

Continued 27 September, 2019