Once upon a time, there lived a princess of a great empire. Her palace overlooked a golden gulf where dolphins played day and night, her rooms were painted in porphyry and their corners lined with gold; her gowns were made of silk and her jewelry weighed her proud beautiful head down. Her name was Zoya, and such was her fate that one day she fell mortally sick.
Her father, the most powerful man in the world, summoned his well-learned doctors and paid them fortunes to find the rarest herbs for their medicine. When these cures failed to help Zoya, the emperor had his priests, dressed in their richest gowns, chant day and night by her bed, burn incense and spray holy water over her chest, and put holy relics to her lips to kiss.
Days and days did the priests pray ceaselessly on their knees by her bed, but still she would not be cured. So the shamans of the East were called forth, and then also the alchemists, who drew countless chalk circles, and the magicians with their long white beards and lilac turbans. Yet nothing would help, and the princess grew worse by the day.
And at last her father himself left his crown aside and walked all the way to the ancient Oracle - for this was in the last dying days of her ancient might - and asked her what he was to do.
"There are a wild and free people outside of your borders," the Oracle said, "let the princess wander alone among them and taste their life, and she will be cured."
So it came about that princess Zoya, the bright and beautiful, left her high palace and her porphyry rooms, and traveled west on a road as ancient as the Oracle herself among those people who enjoyed horses and wine, and handled gold with ease. She kept walking until she reached a valley of warm water springs and lush forests, where a mountain loomed in the clear sky and the air smelled of life, and there she lay herself, convinced she would die.
Yet something happened, and Zoya never knew whether it was the water she drank, or the air she breathed, or the freedom she had known - or perhaps even the wreath of golden leaves her hosts in this land had given her, - but when she next woke, she knew she was cured.
She sent word to her father, but when he asked her to return, she refused; and in wonder and puzzlement the emperor went again to the Oracle to ask whether his daughter should stay in her valley.
"My lord," said the Oracle, "here is what I have seen: should she return in your palace, she will die; should she stay, she will die all the same in the end. Yet heed to her wish, for here is her future where her heart dwells:
"For ages and ages shall she stay there, wearing her golden crown, just as proud and beautiful, and she shall always grow but never age.
"And though she may yet see times of sickness and sadness, and change each time she does, her beauty will never wither, and beneath her face people shall always see the one she had before.
"She will know many lovers: Emperors will court her but a great Khan will have her at last; still many a strong man will fight for her after him, and even more shall die in her arms.
"Countless children will she bear, and be a good mother to them all. They will build churches in her name and pray for her there, and in return she will shelter them in her beautiful heart.
"Is that not a fate worthy of your daughter, my lord?"
The Emperor agreed and sent word to the princess that she may stay where she liked.
Yet when he went to visit Zoya later, he found there only her golden wreath and knew she was gone: her soul had been built in into the foundations of a city and would never be again. And the Emperor wept, for he knew now how her destiny would be fulfilled, but it still hurt him to have lost his only child.
In the city of Zoya, they say, to this very day dwells the soul of the princess.
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