A hundred years ago, the blind instrument-maker known as Alem Das, or Alem the Master, made a dulcimer whose sound was sweeter, more passionate, and more filled with longing than any instrument that had ever been made. It was carved entirely from the wood of an almond tree that had grown in the garden of Al Meseret, that palace with a thousand rooms where the Empress Nasren had chosen to spend her widowhood. The doors of the palace were shaped like moons, its windows like stars. It was a palace of night, and every night the Empress walked through its thousand rooms, wearing the veil she had worn for her wedding to the Great Khan. If the cooks, who sometimes saw her wandering through the kitchen, had not known who she was, they would have mistaken her for a ghost. The dulcimer was strung with the whiskers of the Cloud Dragon, who wreaths his body around the slopes of Mount Abora. He can always be found there in the early morning, and that is when Alem Das approached him, walking up the path on the arm of his niece Kamora.
“What do you want?” asked the dragon.
“Your whiskers, luminous one,” said Alem Das.
“My whiskers! You must be that instrument maker. I’ve heard of you. You’re the reason my cousin, the River Dragon, no longer has spines along his back, and why my other cousin, the Phoenix, no longer has tail-feathers. Why should I give you my whiskers?”
“Because when I have made my dulcimer, my niece Kamora will come and play for you, and sing to you the secrets of your soul,” said Alem Das.
“We dragons have no souls,” said the Cloud Dragon, wreathing himself around and around, like a cat.
“You dragons are souls,” said Alem Das, and he asked his niece to sing one of the songs that she sang at night, to sooth the Empress Nasren. Kamora sang, and the Cloud Dragon stopped wreathing himself around and around. Instead, he lay at her feet, which disappeared into mist. When she was done, he said, “All right, instrument maker. You may have my whiskers, but on one condition. First, your niece Kamora must marry me. And when you have made your dulcimer, she must sing to me every night the secrets of my soul.”
Kamora knew how the Cloud Dragon looked at night, when he took the form of a man, so she said, “I will marry you, if my Empress allows it.” And that is my first song.