"I want the worm known as the Shamir, so I may use it to cut the stones for my temple."
"Is that all?" asked Ashmodai. "There here it is!" he said, producing a small, leaden box. "Now, I demand you release me!"
"No," said Solomon. "Not yet. I shall keep you chained up here for the seven years it will take me to build the temple, to prevent you or any other demons from causing mischief. After it is done, I will ask you one question, and only when you answer it shall I set you free."
"A question for me from the wise King Solomon?" mocked Ashmodai. "And what might that question be?"
"I must think of it."
"Very well, then," answered Ashmodai. "I shall be here, waiting."
WITH ASHMODAI IN the palace, strange things began to happen. Solomon returned from supervising the building of the temple one day to find that all the pillars in the palace had turned to trees, their boughs filled with greenery and ripe, luscious fruit -- figs, oranges, and pomegranates. Another night he looked up to see gold coins falling like rain from the domed ceiling of the palace, only to disappear the instant they touched the ground. Sometimes Solomon would hear sweet strains of music, yet when he tried to listen, there was nothing. Ashmodai was a master of illusion, and these illusions Solomon found endlessly fascinating -- and infuriating, for they defied his understanding of the world. Each time he found himself fooled, Solomon felt as though his crown were missing a jewel. So, after seven years, when the temple was completed and perfect in every detail, Solomon spoke to Ashmodai.
"Now, as promised, I shall ask you a question, and only when you answer it shall you be free. For all these years, I have watched your illusions. As a great judge, I am often called upon to distinguish between reality and illusion. Now, all I ask is this: What can you teach me about illusion?"
With this, Ashmodai laughed such a wild, maniacal laugh that it echoed through all of Jerusalem. "Illusion!" he cackled. "The great, wise king, who has nothing better to do than torment demons, wishes to learn about illusion? Oh, no, your highness. That would be unthinkable, absurd, impossible -- " Suddenly Ashmodai stopped, a grin spreading across his lizard face. "Unless -- of course -- you would be willing to remove your ring?"
"My ring?" said Solomon. "Remove my ring?"
Solomon looked at the ring, remembering his father's words. "As long as you wear it," he had said, "You will be protected. If you remove it, even for an instant, there is no telling what will happen."
And now, here stood Ashmodai, taunting him. "Yes, Solomon. If you wish to learn what I know of illusion, you must remove your ring."
"That is out of the question!" said Solomon.
"Very well, then you shall not learn the secrets of illusion from me."
"Then I'll not set you free!"
"That's quite alright. Time means nothing to me -- unlike kings, demons live forever. I am content to wait." He slumped down in his chains and began humming to himself.
Desperately curious to hear what Ashmodai had to say, Solomon thought for a time, and finally consulted his advisers. All agreed that it was a bad idea to remove his ring. One even went so far as to say it would be unwise.
"Unwise!" shouted Solomon. "You dare to tell me what is wise? I am the great King Solomon, known throughout the world for my wisdom!"
"That's right, your highness," added Ashmodai. "Why should someone as wise as yourself listen to them?"
Solomon's advisers remained silent, as afraid of the king as they were of Ashmodai. Their comments would have been useless, for Solomon had made up his mind. "I shall remove my ring," he said, "just long enough to hear your answer."
Solomon had Ashmodai placed at one end of the palace, surrounded by twenty-four guards, while he himself stood in the opposite corner.
Excerpted from The Beggar King and The Secret of Happiness. Copyright © 2003 by Joel Ben Izzy. Reprinted with the permission of Workman Publishing Co., Inc. All Rights Reserved.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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