In the far southern kingdom of Vimanakumb, hidden in the meanders of the river Suchitramati, there stood a magical palace made of jade. So hidden was it from the outside world, that tales of this mysterious place were only told in whispers and drunken song.
The monk Vikradeep was one of the many who scoffed at such fairy tales. He met such rumours of magic and treasure with a stoic dismissal, until that misty summer evening. While crossing the ford of Hireti with his mule Sundar, as they did every evening heading back to the monastery, the pair lost their footing and were carried into the swell of the river. The current was rowdy and loud, and threw them this way and that over the smooth rocks of the river shallows. When the struggling beast and master finally found the relative safety of a reed-grown bank, they looked beyond the sharp leaves to see a shimmering green dome not far away. Dusk was upon them and so they went to seek shelter for the night.
A palace it certainly was, but not made of jade. Not all of it anyway. Most of the structure seemed to be carved from a very smooth sandstone, but the pillars and the dome over the central hall shimmered in a translucent green that could only have been hewn from the green gold.
Dripping puddles along the brick path surrounded by behunia trees, the monk and his animal dragged themselves, tired and curious towards the great wooden doors of the intricate building. When they walked up to it, Vikradeep noticed the finest sculpture of a stork he’d ever seen. It too was carved in shimmering green and lay at just the right height on the door of teak and babul bark. The monk lifted the figure of the stork off the wood along its delicate hinge and let it fall. The sound that resulted was less of a knock and more of a proclamation to whatever masters were in there to find them at their doorstep.
In a minute the wooden halves parted and a serving girl wrapped in translucent veils bowed to the monk.
“Good evening, Your Grace,” she sang in a peculiar dialect from the north. “Do you seek an audience with the mistress?”
“Dear lady, I was marooned on your banks and I fear I am well away from any town at this twilight hour. If I can but borrow a corner of your roof to rest for the night, and if my companion here can be fed in your stables, we would be ever grateful.”
The girl bowed, welcomed the monk in and pointed him down the length of the hall.
“You are welcome, the mistress will see you now. I will tend to your steed.”
With that she stepped out the door, smiling broadly at the mule and led him away.
The monk made a sign of thanks to the Gods and stepped towards the flickering light at the end of the hall.
In the chamber that followed, a fire was burning and on a grand chair at one end, reading a tome, sat one of the most beautiful women Vikradeep had ever laid eyes on. She seemed young, her body casually draped over the arms and back of the chair, cocooned in it, wearing a garment of light muslin with a jewelled chest-piece. She looked up at the sound of his footsteps.
“Ah sire! Welcome to my home. I hope the river hasn’t treated you too harshly.”
“Not at all, dear lady. I am ever grateful for your hospitality.”
“Nonsense!” she waved away his apology placing her book down and stepping up to meet him. “Oh you poor man, you must be chilled! Please, step into the antechamber there. You’ll find a change of dry clothes, something should fit, and I’ll ask my maid to bring you some dinner.
“Thank .. Thank you, you are most gracious. How shall I address my benefactor?” he bowed in thanks.
“I’m Suchitra,” she beamed. “You will have to excuse me, but it’s getting late and I have an early morning as usual. I will leave you to your dinner and we can speak in the morning.
She grinned and bowed, and with a swish of curtains between her grand chair and bookshelf, she was gone.
Vikradeep changed into some dry robes, was fed handsomely by the helper girl. His tired eyes closed as he lay in a small but luxurious bed in the antechamber and he was quickly lost to the world.
Light streaming through the yellow curtains at dawn roused him. He sat up in the strange room, slowly remembering how he got here. After meditating for a few minutes, he stepped out of the large glass windows on to a terrace. It was a beautiful day, with clouds rushing past in a cool breeze and the sounds of birds in the river nearby.
Some marble stairs carried him down towards a private bank of the river. There he said some prayers to the rising sun while he stood in the water and dripped water from his palms in ritual.
“Good morning, sire!”
His hosts voice startled him and he turned to see her seated on a stool between some trees on the bank. He joined her.
“I hope you slept well,” she said. “Sorry if I disturbed your ritual. I am doing one of my own and I’m always glad for new company.”
She sat holding brushes and paint on a palette. Before her was an intricate easel made of jade. On it sat a lightly polished metal plate, a canvas on which a face was beginning to form. Her distinct features that bore into the viewer with a frank and disarming lilt to their gaze. In the background, in hazy detail he saw trees and what looked like a sketch of himself.
“You are too kind to include me in your portrait, dear lady, he stammered.”
“I simply had to,” she said, turning to him with a knowing smile. “We each have our duties, Sir, and as the spirit of this river, it is mine to capture this prophetic portrait of my ever flowing face every morning. In the background I must include some records of the day to come. The most helpful tree on the banks. The best grasses the animals will feed from this day. And the most virile male that will step into my waters in these daylight hours.
Vikradeep made a holy sign and prostrated himself before the river nymph.
“You tease me, mighty one,” he mumbled into the ground.
“Nonsense, get up, get up! I’m happy to have such educated company. We should talk about the treatise of Eslan, I’m sure you’re familiar.”
She helped him rise and placing her hand at his elbow she led him towards an intricate green door at the foot of the palace between some ancient trees.
“But first, let me show you some of my paintings!” she said, opening the green doors with a loud thud.
His eyes adjusted to the gloom inside slowly, but even in the light of the doorway he could see paintings stacked and leaning against each other in every direction.
Everywhere, the luxuriant gaze of Suchitra seemed to stare back at him in lust. And behind her, in most of the portraits as far as the eye could see, the handsome figure of Sundar the mule stood in dashing smugness against the grass and trees.