Illustration: Hannah Kamugisha

BEDTIME BOOKCLUB

Tiger Palace

The Pool continues Short Story Week with Kirsty Logan's Tiger Palace

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By Kirsty Logan on

Tiger Palace

The Traveller

Once upon a time there was a beautiful but cruel empress who lived in a palace at the centre of an impenetrable forest. The palace was carved from ivory with a tall central turret – so tall that the sun heated its metal tip hot enough to scald skin. Each window was made of jewels so the light shone a different colour into every room. And that’s not even mentioning the empress, for she had skin that gleamed like polished wood and a mouth as wet and pink as the inside of a watermelon.

But the forest! We must not forget about the problem of the forest. Oh it was dark, and it was thick, and it was all set about with tigers. And not ordinary tigers, either: these ones had eyes that could see through the deepest gloom and claws that could scrape the marrow from your bones. Even if you got through the forest, the palace was surrounded by a wide moat full of alligators that trick you into thinking their lurking heads are stepping-stones. Stand on one, and – snap snap! – there will be nothing left of you.

At least, that’s the version you’ve probably heard. That’s what the traveller had heard too – but as she discovers as she begins her quest, the forest isn’t impenetrable, just awkward. The vegetation is dense and stinking, and the scenery boring enough to deter most. Although rain never makes it down past the leafy canopy, everything is constantly damp and feathered with mould. But the traveller has sturdy boots and a ten-inch machete, so she makes it through the forest within a month. It helps that she can scent water even inside the spines of plants, and has no qualms about eating every part of the birds she catches.

Finally she reaches the clearing. Her eyes are open wide in the expectation of tigers, but she sees none. Perhaps they are hiding, she thinks – but tigers, as a rule, do not need to hide. As the trees overhead thin and disappear, the sun burns into focus. Between her and the palace is the moat, all full of alligators. But the traveller’s skin is caked with sweat, and the shade of the palace looks as deep and cool as the bottom of the sea.

She pauses at the edge of the trees to sheathe her machete and suck water from her flask, which tastes stale. It might seem risky for the traveller to put away her machete, but there is a dagger in her ankle brace that she can whip out in under a second. She’ll scent a tiger’s fur or the sweat of an assassin long before then.

Now to face the moat. The traveller peers at the first stepping-stone for a long time, but she is sure that it really is a stone. She steps out, ready for snapping jaws.

Nothing.

She steps onto the next stone, and the next. She laughs aloud: not alligators after all, but stones to help her across. She traverses the moat in seconds, then kneels on the bank to splash water on her face, sucking the liquid where it soaks into her sleeves. Finally she stands to survey her prize. It seems so easily won, but now is not the time to worry about that.

The palace is wider than a hundred people could wrap their arms around, and it stretches so high that the tip of its turret is lost in a white-hot gleam. Each window shines a different colour, like a necklace of gems, and the traveller is sure – yes, there! – the empress is inside. She raises her fist and knocks at the open door.

***

The Empress

The empress’s feet slide soft across the broken tiles, her slippers kaleidoscoping in shards of colour from the smashed windows. Years ago she’d played games with the light, making patterns and sending messages, but she soon realised that no one would ever understand them. She knows that many adventurers make it into the forest – she understands the birds, and oh how they gossip! – but few make it to the palace. Occasionally, every decade or so, she’ll hear chirps about a pith helmet or the gleam of a machete, and she’ll stand in the entrance hall in a pose of elegance. But when adventurers emerge panting and smug into the clearing, they’re always a disappointment. So out steps the empress, and in rush the tigers, and then it is over. Until the next.

It has been so long since another living thing saw the empress’s face that she cannot be sure whether she still has a face at all. Perhaps she is made of ghosts and glass now, the same as the palace. She fears that if she falls, she will scatter into smoke.

She drags her hand along the dirty wall as she walks. She feels the pressure of the stones on her fingertips, so she must be solid. She feels the itch of heat in her lungs, so she must be breathing.

A sound snaps the empress from her reverie. She listens until the sound comes again, and again. Three knocks to herald her new visitor.

She hurries towards the entrance hall. By the time she gets there her breath is coming in gasps. The hall is big as a temple, its ceiling stretching up to dizziness. The floors are tiled grubby white like the rest of the palace, but the walls tell stories. Once the empress knew each one of those stories, but now they are just strangers doing strange things.

Through the wide entrance she sees a clear view of outside. She knows that the traveller sees china-blue sky and the burning eye of the sun, because once she saw that too. But that was long ago, before she lived in the palace.

She is not sure how the traveller will see her, but she knows that it won’t be as she is: torn robes, tired eyes, a face saddened by the years. She positions herself by the entrance, peering out into the dim clearing, the light pale and dim as if her eyes are made of pearls.

There, the traveller! He is tired but not staggering, triumphant but not proud. The empress prepares to call the tigers – but she stops. Something is different about this one. Something is wrong. As the traveller tugs down his dust-veil, the empress sees the difference. Not a he at all, but a she.

The empress feels joy leap up her throat. A man cannot take her place, but a woman . . . Perhaps this will be the empress’s last day in the palace.

***

The Traveller

The hall is a heaven of calm and cold after the choking heat of the forest. The floors are bright white, reflecting up onto walls that are a riot of colour and shape. The traveller blinks the dust from her eyes, and for a moment thinks that the beautiful woman before her is a mirage.

Madame, says the traveller with a bow, because it’s better to bow for a mirage than ignore an empress. She blinks again and sees that the empress has an odd expression on her face, as if she is unsure of what to do next. The traveller hopes that she has not transgressed the usual social niceties – her time in the forest may have loosened her manners. Just in case, she bows again, deeper and lower so that her forehead almost touches her knee. The scent from the empress’s throat is making her dizzy, so it helps to be closer to the ground. When she straightens, the empress has regained her coolly welcoming expression.

You may as well eat, says the empress.

This was something the traveller recognised. If you’ve heard the stories then this will all be familiar; if not, then let me elaborate. We have time while the traveller and the empress move towards the dining hall, for the palace is large.

The story goes that once the lucky and determined traveller makes it to the palace, a huge banquet is laid out. Each bite is the most wonderful thing anyone has ever tasted. The traveller feasts, the traveller sleeps. But the traveller must never, ever let go of his blade, as tigers enter the palace at the empress’s command. In the blackest part of night, when the sun is at its furthest-away point, the traveller must leap up and fight the tigers. The battle is long and bloody, but the traveller wins. (The traveller must win, you see, or the story is over.) The traveller takes the empress for his wife, winning ownership of the palace and control of the tigers. And everyone lives happily ever after.

Now, you and I both know that this is only a story, and in reality the empress always calls the tigers to feast on the hapless adventurer. But this visitor is not like the others, and so perhaps the story that only the empress knows will come true. If all goes to her plan, she will have her freedom.

Ah – the empress and the traveller have made it to the dining hall, and we must rejoin them. If you were walking these halls you may have found yourself marvelling at the arched ceilings, or the gilt along each window-ledge, or the wondrous icy sheen of the tiled floor. You may have even found yourself swooning at the rich scents of cardamom and coconut milk from the dining room – or was that from the empress’s perfumed throat?

But not the traveller. She is reminding herself about her blade, and how important it is to keep it close, and so she barely notices the glory of the palace or of her companion. She can scent her destiny on the air. Every step she has ever taken has led her here. To the palace. To the empress.

You may as well eat, says the empress, and then you may as well sleep.

For tomorrow, you see, she plans to walk out of the palace and leave the traveller in her place. But the traveller knows nothing of this. She lifts her golden spoon and prepares to feast.

***

Interim

The traveller keeps her hand on her dagger all night, but the tigers do not come. They do not come the following night, or the one after that.

Each night the traveller and the empress lay awake, fighting their own battles – one for a palace, the other for freedom – but each morning the dawn creeps in. They spend their days together, wandering the length of the entrance hall and discussing the meanings behind the stories painted on the walls. Every evening, after the sun slips into the forest, they surround themselves with flickering lamps and dip their hands into bowls of delicacies, their fingertips sugared and salted, their tongues numb with flavour. And then when they cannot speak for yawning they retire to their rooms, sure that tomorrow will be the day that it all ends.

And so the days became weeks, and the weeks became months – and still the tigers do not come, and still the empress does not leave. The empress and the traveller enjoy this life, and if they could choose they would wish it to continue. But they do not have that choice. Stories always have an ending.

***

The Empress

In the first few weeks of the traveller’s company, the empress tries to catch her reflection in the oil-pearled surface of her bathing water, terrified that her glamour is fading. But she can never see herself clearly. The only way she can know how she looks is to check the response on the traveller’s face – but the width of that smile never changes. So perhaps the empress has not changed either. If her false glamour is all anyone can see, who can say that is not her true face? The traveller is beautiful too, with her earth-brown eyes and muscles hard as cashew nuts. She will be a most comely phantom, the empress tells herself, and the tigers will be glad to have a new queen.

One night, sitting cross-legged on cushions with the lamps painting the traveller’s skin in licks of honey, the empress hears a sound like a heavy curtain pulled back, and knows it is the sound of fate. She has been a beast for so long, and she is tired of trickery and glamour. She wants only this: to rest, to breathe, to live as if it were a choice. The traveller fills the silence.

The tigers, the traveller says. They have not come.

The empress puts down her cup and places her hand on the peak of the traveller’s knee.

No, the empress says.

If I cannot fight the tigers, then I cannot win. The story cannot end.

The empress sighs and gets to her feet, standing tall so that her face is in shadow. She feels a chill around her shoulders and arms, as if the lamplight is a circle of warmth and everything outside it is frozen.

And so I cannot lose? asks the empress.

You may be wondering why the traveller did not try to end the story. Why she did not call for the tigers herself, whip out her machete and paint the walls with blood. But I have not been entirely honest with you about the traveller’s reasons for her journey.

You see, the traveller knows the old story, the one she had seen in her picture books and heard at the fireside. She has been in love with the palace since she was a child, but now she loves the empress too. Most importantly of all, she knows that stories are what you make of them.

I know the story, the traveller says. You must trick me, because I am a woman like you, and that means I can be tricked. Then I take your place in the palace and you are free to leave.

The empress does not know what role the traveller is now playing, so she keeps quiet, her face in the shadows.

But what if I agree to stay? asks the traveller.

Then you would become –

A beast?

They both glance up in expectation of the tigers’ distant roar, but no sound comes. The tigers are not there. Perhaps they were never there.

I will stay, says the traveller, if you do.

Impossible! says the empress. Don’t you see? There can never be two beauties. There must always be a beast.

But the traveller’s mind is made up. She had decided before she even set foot in the forest that this would be her ending. She knows that there are more reasons to go than stars in the sky, and only one reason to stay – but the empress gleams so brightly, and who can see the stars when the sun is out?

She takes the empress’s hands in her own, leaning forward so that their mouths touch. They stay like that for a long time, until she has swallowed all of the empress’s objections, all her arguments and trickeries. There remains nothing but the closeness of strange and familiar skin. As dawn begins to slip its soft fingers through the windows, the traveller pulls away and takes the empress into her arms.

And so, she says, we will both be beasts.

***

The Companions

To the empress the night passed faster than a blink. Yet her muscles ache from being held so still and she can feel the gift of the traveller’s lips against her own. She wants this to be their story – the press of mouth on mouth, the touch of skin – but she has never heard of such a thing. A story does not exist if no one has ever told it. Stories have authority; they cannot just be created from nothing.

You still wish to stay? she asks.

The traveller nods.

Go outside and look again, continues the empress. Then tell me you would stay.

They link hands and walk the length of the palace. The traveller pauses in the great hall, savouring the last time she will see the beauty of the storytelling tiles or feel the coolness of the air.

I will look, she says. But I know that I will stay.

She steps outside, into the deep cool of the shadows, and looks back at the palace. It still stretches to the sky, up up up as far as she can see. The windows still gleam green-blue-pink-orange.

She steps back inside. The air feels fresh and smells of summer rain. The ceiling gleams sun-white and the storytelling tiles are as bright as ever. The only thing that has changed is the expression on the empress’s face.

She stands in the centre of the hall, gazing at the palace in wonder. She knows that she sees the palace as the traveller does, and that this is its true form. All around the entrance hall, each tile tells her a story of someone who had lived in the palace before. She sees each one clearly; each with its own beginning, middle, and end. They all left for the same reason that she wishes to stay.

I remember, she whispers.

Outside the palace, the forest sinks to the ground, smoothing out into soft emerald fields. The moat uncurls into a sparkling river, busy with fish. And there, ready to travel down the river to anywhere in the world, is a boat just big enough for two.

Once upon a time there was an empress, trapped as a ghost in the ruins of a jewelled palace, cursed to find another soul to take her place. At least, that’s what the empress heard. But, as it turned out, stories can have any ending you like.

Tiger Palace appears in The Rental Heart And Other Fairytales, published by Salt

@kirstylogan

Illustration: Hannah Kamugisha
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