In another day, Miriam Dowling would either be immortal or she would be dead.
The provisions had run out this morning. She'd already sent back her guides a week ago; their job was only to take her to the mountain pass described on the ancient map she'd bought. After a week of threading her way through icy ravines and down rocky defiles, in the freezing cold and thin air, that purchase seemed like a lifetime ago. It was already half a world away. She'd liquidated all her assets in New York, placed them into long-term trusts and complicated financial arrangements that would guarantee her a perpetual income whenever she wished to draw upon it. The business empire she had once made legendary was now broken up among other titans of industry. Miriam let them have it. She had discovered something far more precious the day she'd bought that map. Eternal life.
She would either find it today, or her body would never be found. Satellite pictures could only reveal so much through the dense, icy fogs that covered this part of the Himalayas. Enough to suggest the truth of the map's contents, but not enough to find a different route in. No, the long and winding path described on the map was the only way to go. It was as much a test as a journey, she suspected. Miriam was unafraid of tests by now.
The others who had seen the map thought it a fool's dream. Oh, they believed in the place, the physical location described as 'Xanadu'. But the idea? A city on a map with the legend, "Here can be found the secret of eternal youth"? They'd taken her money, analyzed the map, and called her mad. She didn't care. Life was too short to bother with bitterness. Or else, perhaps, it was too long.
She'd stopped being able to feel her feet two days ago. Miriam suspected that frostbite had set in, perhaps even gangrene. She hoped that Xanadu's secrets could cure it. Immortality minus a few toes was still immortality, of course, but she would prefer to be hale and healthy in her centuries of life.
Twilight neared, and Miriam's stomach growled. She ignored it, and kept pressing on. The last of the precious light was too important to waste on the weaknesses of the body. She hadn't become the most successful businesswoman in the history of the world by whimpering and crying when the going got tough, and she wouldn't survive this if she couldn't push aside her hunger and exhaustion and put one foot ahead of the other. She walked through the dim fog, taking careful note of rock formations and forks in the narrow, rocky pass. Only one path would lead to immortality. The rest would lead to death.
The sun had gone down now. Miriam walked in darkness, feeling her way through the fog. Now her life depended on luck as much as anything else; if she missed a turn in the darkness, if she stumbled down the wrong path, if she simply succumbed to panic and waited for daylight, she could be dead. But on the other hand, Xanadu awaited. Xanadu, which historians called the summer palace of Kublai Khan, but which secret sages claimed had been rebuilt by his descendants in a location lost to the history men know. Xanadu, the lost city, repository of the secrets of kings. Xanadu, home of eternal youth. She stumbled, fell, but got back to her feet and continued to walk on limbs that had been pushed far past their limits. Xanadu, she thought. Only Xanadu matters.
When she felt the warmth on her skin, she thought at first that she had gone mad, or that her body was finally shutting down from hypothermia. But no, as the fog thinned, she saw the lights of lanterns on poles. The path had turned from flinty rock to well-raked gravel, the descent had become more gradual, and the air...Miriam took a deep breath. The air felt invigorating, revitalizing. She felt fatigue leave her muscles, felt her limbs tingle once again with renewed warmth. Even her hunger felt lessened, as though she was actually eating and drinking the substance of the atmosphere. It was wonderful. A new spring in her step, she practically skipped down the path to the city below.
Two men stood outside the gates of the city, clad in simple white robes. Already, Miriam felt oppressively warm in her Artic survival gear. Each one held a staff, and as she approached, they stepped in front of the gate. "Who comes to Xanadu?" one said. The other was already turning to ring an ancient iron bell, three times.
"You--you speak English?" Miriam said. It was all she could think to say.
"We speak the Celestial Tongue," the guard said. "You speak it too, now. In Xanadu, all may be understood. Now, who are you and what do you seek?"
"My name is Miriam Dowling," she said, lowering her hood and removing her scarf to speak better, exposing platinum-blonde hair (streaked with gray) to the night air for the first time in weeks. "I seek eternal life."
The guard nodded. "Many seek eternal life. Many gain what they seek. You will be granted audience with Zhenjin Khan. Only he can grant you the immortality you seek."
A woman, wearing only the thinnest of silken robes, raced to the gate. She whispered something into the ear of the silent guard, and with a nod, he opened the gate.
"Zhenjin Khan graciously grants you the favor of his attentions, Miriam Dowling," the other guard said. "All praise the glory of the Eternal, the Never-Dying, the Great Zhenjin Khan!"
The two guards escorted her through the city. Miriam took note of the buildings; they were simple, constructed of wood rather than stone. She noticed a grove of trees in the distance, and nodded. Stone would erode over time, but in an eternal city, wood could be grown and buildings repaired as many times as their immortal inhabitants needed. "How many people live here?" she asked the guard.
"You will be the six-hundred-and-seventy-first to arrive," the guard responded. "The majestic wisdom of Zhenjin Khan has provided for many more than that in Xanadu."
"Oh, I don't plan to live here," she said. She suddenly worried. What if the immortality required you to stay here? These people might be used to living like peasants in some primitive city halfway up a mountain, but Miriam had plans for her extended youth and health. She wasn't sure if she could adjust to eternity up here.
"Many choose to leave Xanadu," the guard said, as they approached a larger building at the heart of the city. "Many more do not." He gestured. "Gaze upon the palace of the Eternal Emperor, the Undying Zhenjin Khan! In his presence, prostrate yourself in gratitude at being allowed to glimpse his eternal majesty!" They walked up the steps into the wide open throne room, made of wood like the other buildings but decorated with ancient sculptures of jade and coral. Miriam had become something of a student of Chinese culture and history during her years of determining the truth of the map, and she could see that these dated back over seven hundred years. They had been kept in excellent condition.
Ahead of her, a lithe, dark-haired man of Mongolian descent sat on a simple cushion. Two female servants attended at his side, and another one behind him rubbed his shoulders delicately. "Prostrate yourself," the guard shouted, falling to his own knees. "Prostrate yourself before the Immortal Zhenjin Khan!" He bowed low, letting his forehead gently tap against the wooden floor.
Miriam awkwardly began to copy the gesture, but Zhenjin Khan waved a hand dismissively. "You are not one of my subjects yet, girl," he said in a modest, amused tone. "There will be time enough to kowtow to me later on. I expect that you hope so, at least, yes?"
"Um...yes, Emperor, er..." Miriam had met heads of state before, but never under such circumstances. Her blue eyes locked onto his brown eyes as she steadied herself. "Emperor. I came here to seek the secret of eternal life. It is true?" Her voice betrayed her secret greed. "It is here, in Xanadu?"
"My father and I fell out in 1284 by your Western calendar," Zhenjin said. "He wished me to rule over China as his successor, while I wanted to explore the secret wisdom of the ancients. When I took fifty of his wisest sages and a hundred servants with me, he declared me dead and made my son his successor. But I have outlived my son, here in Xanadu, my son and my dynasty and yes, even my kingdom. China is a patchwork land ruled by warlords, but in Xanadu, I endure. Yes, eternal life is real. It is obtainable."
"Um..." Miriam felt nervous in a way she never had, not in any business deal. Nobody had ever intimidated her before, but the man before her held the upper hand in a way no negotiator ever had. Her brain simply froze under the pressure, while her mouth continued moving of its own volition as she said the first thing that came into her head. "China was united decades ago. Under the Communists."
Zhenjin smiled gleefully. "Fascinating!" he said. "Forgive me, the last visitor we had was in...1922, I believe she said it was. We hear so little of the outside world in Xanadu, that sometimes we forget that it moves and progresses. We look forward to hearing your tales of history, of the time that has passed since last outsiders came to Xanadu. You will have every opportunity to recount them to me."
Miriam's heart fell. "Then I would...I would have to stay in Xanadu forever?"
Zhenjin shook his head. "No, not forever. The magic of eternal youth will stay with you when you leave this land, so long as you have drunk deeply enough of the elixir of its airs." Miriam's heart leapt for joy. "A mere five hundred years is all it takes."
"Five hundred years?"
Zhenjin nodded. "You must endure five hundred years as my subject, here in Xanadu. Five hundred years of service to the Immortal Khanate. That is the price of immortality. Should you wish to pay five hundred years of time, an eternity is yours. Should you decline, at any point in your term of service, then we will happily escort you from paradise." He held up a smooth hand, unlined with age. "With supplies to see you back to the Outer Kingdoms, of course. We are not barbarians."
"Five hundred years..."
"It passes quicker than you imagine, my dear."
Miriam thought back to the plans waiting for her, the finances placed in careful trust for her return. She thought of the future, of all the days that awaited her. Five hundred years. What was five hundred years when balanced against forever? She knelt down, and slowly leaned forward until her forehead touched the floor. "Then I am your subject, Immortal Khan," she said.
"Describe to me again this 'dot-com boom'." Zhenjin's voice was calm, measured, polite, and utterly bewildered. Miriam took another sip of her tea.
"Once the computers had learned to speak to each other, Eternal Emperor, men created businesses that existed in no building, but only on these computers. People would tell their computer to tell someone else's computer to buy an item for them--a book, or a statue, or whatever they wished--and it would be shipped to them, sent by an airplane from wherever the goods were located." A scribe sat between the two of them, taking down her every word, just as he had done every day since Miriam began her service. All Miriam had done so far, every single day since her arrival, had been to recount everything she could remember of events in the world over the past eighty-six years. Just explaining the existence of television had taken a month and a half, and Zhenjin had insisted that she recount the plots of as many stories as possible. She'd racked her brains every night to remember more details for his insatiable thirst for information. Hell, after three years away from the outside world, she wasn't even sure if she was remembering half of it right. A one-woman Wikipedia, that was her.
"And how did they pay? Did they perhaps send their money by an airplane?" Zhenjin laughed at his own jest.
"No, my lord," Miriam said, smiling politely. "The computers remembered who gave money and who took it away, and told the computers of the bankers. The owners of the companies grew mad with excitement at the thoughts of limitless profits, and men spent fortunes buying shares in their companies."
"Ah," Zhenjin said. "Like the South Sea bubble." He smiled at her agape expression of shock. "I may be ignorant of the present, Miriam, but you will find that I have studied the past a great deal."
Miriam found herself smiling in return at having underestimated Zhenjin. He was truly a fascinating man. Really, if this was the price of immortality, it wasn't so bad. She didn't mind spending a few centuries in his company.
Miriam woke up at dawn again to the shouts of the overseer. "Wake up, Jasmine, you unworthy dog!" she shouted, prodding Miriam's feet with the butt of her whip. "It is time to return to work!"
Miriam's eyes opened blearily. "Yes, Madame," she said thickly, sleep still fogging her mind. The words had become instinctive. She knew that more punishment awaited her if she failed to respond respectfully. She felt like she had gotten only an hour's sleep. Perhaps she had--once the sun had set, it was difficult to determine exactly how long she had worked.
The pleasant, peaceful times spent recounting history to Zhenjin Khan had long passed. He had given her a new name, 'Jasmine', and had sent her out to begin her 'greater service' to Xanadu. That was five years ago, and her 'greater service' had, so far, involved nothing more than moving heavy rocks.
It was the same today. As soon as she stumbled out into the early morning light, Miriam felt the overseer slap her lightly with the whip. The sting soon faded in the healing air, but Miriam knew she would get more if she failed to work. "Pick up that rock, Jasmine!" the overseer shouted, punctuating her command with another slap of the whip.
"Yes, Madame," Miriam said, and grabbed one rock from the ever-smaller pile and hefted it into her arms. When she had begun, the pile had been higher than her head and wider than a building; now, only a few dozen remained. Miriam could count them by heart now, remembered them better than anything from the outside world.
She staggered under the heavy weight, slowly walking across the courtyard to the vast pile of rocks she had spent five years building up. She placed it neatly atop the pile, knowing that another lash of the whip awaited should she let it slide off (or worse, topple the pile), and headed back towards the pile to be moved. The air of Xanadu helped to ward off fatigue, but even so, she never seemed to move fast enough for the overseer. The commands seemed to be constant, abusive, accompanied by pain and exhaustion. Miriam longed for an end to the labor, but forty-seven rocks remained.
As the hours whiled by and the sun rose high in the sky, forty-seven became forty, then thirty. By the time the sun hung low in the mountains to the west, the pile contained no more than fifteen rocks. The overseer lit the lanterns, and shouted, "Continue, Jasmine!"
"Yes, Madame," Miriam said dully, lifting another rock into her hands. Exhaustion and boredom had turned the evening into a haze of motion and response, thought having long fled her body. She no longer cared about anything except the number of rocks left in the pile, about completing the task the overseer had set for her. She set the rock on the pile, hearing the overseer's command to return for another as if through a haze, responding without even thinking. "Yes, Madame," she said. She lifted another rock, carried it through the darkened courtyard. "Yes, Madame, she said, placing it on the pile. She had lost count of the times she had said the words, lost count of the times she had crossed the courtyard. She only watched, like an observer in her own body, as the pile shrank down from ten to five, five to three, three to two, and finally down to one. When she finally placed that last rock on the pile, she sagged to the ground in grateful exhaustion. Her eyes slipped closed.
The sting of the whip startled her back to wakefulness. "Jasmine, you lazy girl! Pick up the rock from the top of the pile!"
Miriam's heart sank, and for a moment, she wondered if even eternal life was worth this. But she responded, almost without thinking. "Yes, Madame," she said, picking up the rock and beginning to carry it back across the courtyard to its initial resting place.
"Pick up that rock, Jasmine, you useless slut!"
"Spread your legs, Jasmine." The tone of the harem mistress was softer, more of a caress than a slap, but Jasmine knew that it was no less a command.
"Yes, Madame," she said, allowing her legs to part. Two girls each took one in their hands, pulling them wider. It hurt, but Jasmine knew that the air of Xanadu would soothe the pain, and her limbs would become more flexible for the experience. Zhenjin Khan (she still refused to call him 'the Immortal, the Undying, the Eternal', et cetera et cetera, at least not in the privacy of her own mind) wished for his women to be limber, and although Jasmine had not seen him in forty years, and then only as a figure in the distance while she toiled in the courtyard, she knew that she could be called upon to pleasure him at any time. She knew she had to be ready for that moment.
Jasmine didn't know exactly when she had forgotten her name. She hadn't heard it in so long, not from anyone's lips but her own. For a few years, she had taken to chanting it every night, speaking the syllables over and over again until she fell asleep, but eventually the word had lost its meaning. It had just become a nonsense phrase, and finally, Jasmine had forgotten it herself. It had started with an 'M'...
The harem mistress inserted a dildo into Jasmine's pussy, and she practiced clenching her muscles around it. Someday, she knew, she would service Zhenjin Khan's immortal penis in the same fashion.
"Stand, Jasmine," the harem mistress said, as the girls released her legs.
"Yes, Madame," Jasmine said, rising to her feet. She held the dildo in place only through a supreme effort of will. Yesterday, she had let it slip from between her thighs, and they had used a willow reed on her nipples until she howled. Then they had whipped her for howling. She would do anything to avoid disobeying again.
"Good girl, Jasmine," the harem mistress said, caressing her cheek. Jasmine sighed softly at the rare praise. She wished she could earn that praise more often. It felt sometimes like she would do anything to please them instead of draw their ire. "Now, you will feel pain. This is not a punishment, Jasmine, but a test. Do you understand?"
"Yes, Mad...ame," Jasmine said, starting slightly as the willow reed slapped against her buttocks. The hesitation was barely perceptible, but Jasmine knew that the mistress had noticed. She resolved to do better.
"You are not being tested on your stoicism this time, Jasmine," the harem mistress said as the reed struck again and again. "That will come later, as your training progresses. For now, you are simply learning control. Do not let the toy slip out. Eventually, a time will come when you will welcome the reed as the caress of a lover, when you will beg for it on command. But for now, I am only concerned that you maintain your hold. Do you understand, Jasmine?"
The reed struck again. Jasmine knew she would need many hours in the healing air before the redness faded from her buttocks. "Y-yes, Madame," she gasped out, trying to stem the flow of tears.
She managed to hold the dildo in. She knew it would be easier if she wasn't so aroused.
YEAR ONE HUNDRED FIFTY-THREE:
Jasmine ran her fingers across Jade's nipples, seeing the other girl tremble. The Undying Emperor watched the two girls, his own member powerfully erect. Jasmine longed to take his cock into her unworthy cunt, but she had been instructed to 'duel' with Jade, and she knew nothing but obedience to his undying will.