I slept fitfully that night, my thoughts returning over and over to the dead virgin sex slave, my heart wracked by regret and remorse. How could I have sent that girl to her doom without pre-arranging the retrieval of the priceless red wig I’d lent her, which was now tragically glued to a cadaver?
I should have anticipated an eventuality that was, in retrospect, entirely too likely, for slaves do tend to die in droves, and sometimes at odd or seemingly random moments. For instance, one of our Occidental males survived serfdom, capture by steppe raiders, and three tours of duty as a galley slave before he expired when my father fed him raw camel liver in a successful effort to determine whether the meat in question was safe bait for recreational fishing. An unenjoyable end for the slave, but his death was not in vain, for my father thenceforth pursued his favorite hobby with better bait, and a heart gladdened by the knowledge that his fishes’ digestion wouldn’t suffer from their final meal. I resolved to put my mistake with the bald brunette behind me and redouble the devious brilliance for which my power-hungry scheming would one day be infamous.
As soon as I reached the office the following morning I sent an invitation to the Chief Eunuch’s Secretary’s Assistant’s messenger, who had groveled before me in promisingly wormlike fashion just the previous day, and might do so again if I importuned him with a sufficient quantity of demeaning language.
Hours wore on without a word in response. No customers, except for a hunched man who straddled the inglorious boundary between middle and old age, and inquired at excessive length after a plump girl he couldn’t afford before departing with a pretense of dissatisfaction at the angle of her nose. So I stood by my office window waiting, watching stray dogs stroll past into the late afternoon and meditating idly on the most effective methods of strangling a subordinate—knowledge I thought would prove useful after I attained the high station to which fate called me. My thoughts then drifted to the famous poem about the dyer’s dog, one of the sultan’s earliest literary successes. To my mind it neglects to notice dogs’ most salient feature, namely their superiority over human slaves, who are not only less obedient and less grateful, but often less durable as well, as my remarks above will have already made plain.
When the messenger finally called that evening, long after the urgently requested time, the sneer he wore implied his previous exaggerated subservience was little more than a well-rehearsed act intended to minimize any inconvenience to his person which might result from habitual and egregious incompetence in carrying out the exceedingly undemanding work our imperial government assigned him.
Although I felt an intense impatience to retrieve my wig from the inanimate cranium that now gripped it by the long hairs, I began by guiding the bureaucrats’ messenger toward my objective with the kind of indirect politeness better suited to a more worthwhile individual. Amateurs in the field of coercion may find it enjoyable to batter or berate their fellow men, having so few opportunities to do either; but when one labors forty or more hours a week at the discipline and direction of slaves, it becomes a tedious chore to be avoided whenever possible.
In spite of generous efforts to seduce him into accepting a more elevated role as my small-minded but obedient lackey, my guest’s gleefully intransigent rudeness and rapid consumption of the expensive sugared dates I’d offered him by way of hospitality proved that untruthful words complimenting the thickness of his scarcely encumbered neck would never be sufficient to attain his support; nor were polite nods at his distinctive method of gargling date juices well-directed. Happily I’d prepared myself for his insolence, being aware that my reputation amongst the eunuchs and their subordinates had declined precipitously after the admittedly subpar performance of my odalisque encouraged them to fear a group beheading from which their own skulls would not be omitted.
“My friend,” I told him while he masticated a large date with a hint of theatricality that would have been offensive to any host who wasn’t such a brief moment away from reducing him to tears, “I’m sorry I’ve procrastinated so long in presenting you with bad news, but I wanted to be sure that you fully enjoyed your visit to my humble slaving office and filled your stomach with these delectable delights before I ran the risk of upsetting it with the pulse of fear and anxiety that will very soon course through your unimposing flesh. Still, it would be imprudent to delay any further.
“I’ve interceded with the eunuchs on your behalf, and asked them to conceal the true cause of the odalisque’s death for as long as possible; but should the Sultan’s Surgeon have an opportunity to examine her corpse, I’m afraid your case will be hopeless.”
His mouth, turned to the ceiling and opened to receive a date that was about to drop a full arm’s length from his sticky fingers, now closed and descended toward me to express a query that consisted only of mumbles and a vague upward intonation, but whose basic sense was nevertheless easily guessed. The date remained suspended over his turban like a dot over a stray letter of the alphabet.
“I’m certain you’ve been unable to forget your flagrant affront to this odalisque’s visual virginity, since she was the most beautiful creature you’ve had an illicit opportunity to observe,” I replied to his attempted question. “Sadly for you, she too was unable to forget the cruel and anti-purifying degradation of your gaze. Spiritually dirtied by the ambient lust of such an inferior person, her last hours were filled with torment and confused guilt. Your foul and yellowy eyes haunted her mind like a waking nightmare; and when she was left alone in the Chief Eunuch’s Secretary’s Assistant’s office, awaiting the scheduled start of her often-surpassed but never-equaled debut striptease, she drank a bottle of magic carpet cleaner from the respected official’s storage cabinet with such speedy despair that she neglected even to shake it as thoroughly as the indications in bold letters on the back of the bottle instructed, thereby poisoning herself in a particularly unpalatable way.
“The Chief Eunuch’s Secretary’s Assistant was wholly unaware of the profound feeling of revulsion that had coursed through her optically defiled body; for keeping your personal safety ever at the top of my mind, I scrupulously avoided the slightest reference to your causative offense in his presence. Thus he made no effort to hide that deadly shampoo from one whose ideations had been, for some hours, quite suicidal.
“It’s only a matter of time before the truth spreads, since the active ingredients, chosen to facilitate levitation, will soon set in her body and have their intended effect, whereupon the palace guard will uncover your involvement in her premature expiration and prosecute you to the limit of the law for conspiring to irritate our illustrious sultan, long may he reign, with a sabotaged striptease. In short order you shall be condemned to the horrifying fate that you inarguably deserve, but would spit in the face of cosmic justice to delay for even a single hour.
“Nevertheless—as a friend who has your interests at heart, I might be willing to relocate her corpse so the truth of your effectively murderous nature will never be known, and to ensure that she be buried at an obscure location and under heavy lead weights, so that no incriminating levitation above the earth can occur—thereby all but guaranteeing that you will continue your career draining money from our imperial government’s treasury without providing the services demanded by your job description to an acceptable degree of quality or efficiency, in your usual unworthy manner. To secure my aid you need only inform me of the body’s current location and a means to access it; and also reimburse me with fewer dinars than anyone else of my cranial capacity would charge to undertake such dangerous but, where your continued existence is concerned, quite necessary risks, of a type you would be far too cowardly to incur yourself. Plus expenses, of course.”
I had no pressing need to extort a sum of money as small as the one I then quoted him, but my fee for corpse-kidnapping added a necessary veneer of realism to the fear-inducing fabulations I’d just spun in his credulous mind, and distracted it from any doubt that the laboratory-tested pro-levitation factors advertised on bottles of magic carpet cleaner were really so effective as to induce a corpse that was by now both heavy and very stiff to rise even the smallest distance into the air.
He wasn’t long in agreeing, and neglected the plate of dates that still sat on the low table between us, which had been until quite recently more interesting to him than any of my attempts at conversation; but the rest of his response held little appeal for me. The redhead’s body, he said, was being kept cool in a deep dungeon whence there was no hope of removing her. The eunuchs had decided to bury her in secret at midnight tonight to avoid allowing our sultan the slightest inkling that her potentially traumatizing striptease was anything more than a bad dream.
“There is, in that case, not a moment to waste,” I told him, “for levitation could begin at any moment. You must return to the palace and discover which graveyard they intend to bury her in. As soon as you send word, and half of the payment we just discussed (not inclusive of expenses which will be broken out later on a form designed for that purpose), I shall take this potentially deadly problem off your hands. No, no—don’t think to pry into my methods; you are better to continue living quietly and in ignorance.”
After he departed my mind began to whir at a speed that caused my well-wrapped scalp to feel uncomfortably warm. What is buried, I thought, can be unburied; but to make the dead live again is beyond even my formidable powers. (For the moment: necromancy, they say, is not entirely outside the purview of a genuine evil vizier.) Even if I could successfully harvest the red wig from the deceased virgin’s grave, I still needed to find a fresh Occidental odalisque to wear it—and one who was, although perhaps not a genuine virgin, at least very experienced at simulating virginity. But where to find such a woman? Another substantial loan, and another retail slave purchase, would send rumors of my suspicious transactions all the way to the palace. Still, I could think of no alternative.
I was preparing to accept defeat and visit the moneylender for the second time in as many days when a brilliant idea invaded my brain with the same unanticipated strength our imperial navy demonstrates when invading a wealthy but ill-defended Occidental city-state. I began preparations immediately.
I filled a nearly empty couscous sack with the various implements my remarkable plan required: a spade, a rope, an old pair of gloves, a waterskin, and a live rat. In truth, the rat was already in the sack, feeding on a few remnant grains of couscous; but I realized his usefulness just as I was about to dash his brains out with the spade, and vowed instead to be his ally for the evening. As I tied the sack around its protruding handle I told him to hush and stay still, for if he kept my company in silence for the next few hours, I would reward him with a delightfully unpredictable surprise.
Then I disguised myself by winding a thin old turban too tightly around my head, almost creating the illusion that the size of my skull was merely average—just as a well-endowed woman will sometimes wrap tight bandages around her chest to avoid attracting unwanted attention in the bazaar. My cretinous costume was uncomfortable and imperfectly effective, but it’s not always possible to conceal the hallmarks of greatness that surround an aspiring evil vizier: to complete the disguise one has to rely on the stupidity of the public. Fortunately, dear reader, this is the most reliable force underneath the sun.
Thus dressed, I was able to pass as a slave when I met the Chief Eunuch’s Secretary’s Assistant’s messenger’s messenger (the former had delegated the task to avoid suspicion) outside my office. I accepted the note and the small, cloth-wrapped bottle he proffered, then sent him away after promising to deliver it to my master.
I broke the seal by the light of a lantern. Inside were just three words:
“The blue mosque.”
I lit the page in the lantern’s flame and watched the word “blue” turn orange, then black, until the ashes blew away on the night breeze. After adding the bottle to my sack, I locked up my office.
With the lantern in one hand and the sack in the other, I set off down the dim lane that led out of the city, walking with an affected limp and crossing my eyes (a tiring position I could only maintain thanks to the elaborate ocular gymnastics I’d performed the previous day), thereby disguising myself as a deranged and useless person whom it would be pointless to rob. Later, considering that my pupils might be difficult for others to discern at such a late hour, I contorted my left eyebrow into a zigzag that would seem strikingly odd at even ten paces, holding the lantern near it for good measure.
Most travelers are too uncreative to protect themselves with such effective countermeasures, and frequently come to a bad end at the hands of highwaymen, whereas I merely run the risk of tripping on a stray rock obscured by my distorted perspective, which is rarely deadly. Just once on the long walk did I believe someone was following me. I leapt behind an empty barrel and peered out, almost snuffing my lamp in the process.
It was a dust devil, lit to a ghostly glow under the rising moon.
That same moon drew a silver curve on the dome of the blue mosque overlooking the cemetery at our city’s edge. Beyond its battered gate were a few scrubby trees and rows of gravestones, crooked and worn—so faded they resembled natural rock formations more than human monuments. In the daytime this old mosque always looked dilapidated, but under tonight’s unclouded crescent moon, its tiles seemed to reflect the light of another world.
The cemetery was empty: I’d arrived in advance of my quarry. I hid behind a family gravestone and watched the entrance. As soon as I’d stopped moving, the rat in my sack began to chitter. He was trying to chew his way out. I brained him affectionately with a chunk of broken rock; he’d have to be patient if he wanted his reward.
I passed an hour or two trying to decide whether my seat on the pebbly ground or my overwound turban was more uncomfortable, but before I could settle on an answer to this irritating question, I heard, at last, the rusted squeal of the cemetery gate.
I immediately poked my eyes above the gravestone. I calculated that the still fairly bulbous beige turban protruding from my skull should resemble an exceptionally large mushroom growing from the thin layer of lichen that coated its surface, and thus pass unperceived if I maintained an appropriately fungal degree of paralysis and an unchanging spatial relationship to the stone slab while I spectated on the impending burial.
No sooner had I assumed this essentially invisible posture than three wide men filed through the gate like fat zombie gardeners commencing their graveyard shift. The leading eunuch carried a shovel and a lantern, the two others holding between them a couscous sack, inside of which was an irregular and lumpy form that had to be either the lifeless body of a dead virgin, or else an entirely new and unlikely variety of couscous, one very difficult to cook and possibly unheard of for that reason. (Subsequent events proved the former of these suppositions to be more accurate.) All three moved awkwardly. They seemed to have borrowed work clothes from the palace grounds’ maintenance storage shed, but not in appropriate sizes.
I heard them arguing as they passed through the gate, first over whether they should have hired a butcher to facilitate a more conveniently piecemeal transportation of their charge, and next over the best location for the intended grave. The leader was walking in my direction and gesticulating with the lamp. It threw shifting beams through the headstones; angular shadows veered over the ground below them. Suddenly—and perhaps irrationally—I feared my mushroom disguise would fail to fool even these small-skulled ex-men if they happened to examine it at close range and under appropriately bright illumination.
Though bearing the genial stamp of lengthy premeditation, my solutions to difficult problems are in truth often improvised on the spur of the moment; and indeed one day the historians who pore over these memoirs will recognize me as our empire’s first, and perhaps only, evil improvizier. So it was with my spontaneous mushroom camouflage that night. And yet, the tickling feathers of doubt encouraged me to wonder if the imperfect art of intellectual improvisation had, on this particular occasion, led me into error.
I needn’t have worried. Either because they drew up short and neglected to shine their lamp in my direction, or because my ache-inducing posture achieved its intended purpose, or simply because their powers of observation were hindered by the effeminate whining in which they now engaged themselves, the three eunuchs failed to notice me. The leader was proposing to hide the body in the back corner of the cemetery, which he indicated with the beam of his lamp, while the others insisted they had carried their burden too far already, and proposed instead to place the grave immediately beside the gate, and, in point of fact, directly under the convenient space that they presently inhabited; though they were willing, of course, to permit the first to shoulder the sack himself and transport it whithersoever he desired. After fumbling in vain for a sufficiently dismissive reply, he ceded the argument by setting shovel to earth. Or tried to: the downward jab sent a shiver up his arms without perceptibly moving the earth below the blade.
At this time of year the ground was as hard as rock, and the eunuchs struggled mightily to make the first dent in the soil. My adept eyes traced the arc of the moon while they took turns with their task: transient thoughts of an easy career in astrology crossed my cranium like a faintly-seen shooting star.
But luck was on my side. Discouraged by the difficulty of digging a grave in such dry ground, they stopped after removing a few handsbreadths of soil, and contented themselves with burying the body in a half-raised cairn, which would be distinctly out of place in the old graveyard as soon as day broke. Knowledge of their obvious error must have lurked somewhere behind their foreheads, but innate laziness dissuaded them from correcting it: after some discussion they agreed the new earthwork would blend in well enough, provided it was capped with a matching headstone.
As the moon reached its zenith, three fat men in small clothes were seen lugging the cracked upper half of a heavy slab from an old grave to a new one. They propped it crookedly behind the cairn, murmured affirmations amongst themselves, and then left, closing the gate behind them.
When I was sure they were gone I crept out from my hiding spot. Everything was silent: the mosque, the moon, and me.
I carried my sack of tools over to the amateurish new grave. The three eunuchs moonlighting as gravediggers had done their moonlit digging very poorly indeed, and one pass with my spade was enough to uncover a painted toenail near the makeshift headstone; for they had buried my erstwhile odalisque not only shallowly, but backwards.
Being forced to perform your debut striptease before the sultan and his entire harem without a single opportunity to properly rehearse since your abduction from a fishing village the previous month must be mortifying, I imagined, though I’d never personally suffered such an experience. In comparison, I doubted the dead slave’s ascending spirit would experience a noticeable degree of distress simply because her body happened to be occidented in the wrong direction.
I knelt at the opposite end, and after putting on a pair of gloves to prevent dirt from accumulating under my finely trimmed fingernails, gently scraped away the chunks of soil and dust around her nose. Soon the whites of her open eyes, tinged blue-black and speckled with bits of mud, stared up at me like a pair of boiled and shelled eggs that had begun to mold but were not sufficiently far gone to be left uneaten without a twinge of remorse. I unearthed the rest of her face, whose expression still echoed the rictus of pain that it must have shaped in her final moments, and felt a pang impinge on my stomach. I should have packed a snack, I thought; for grave robbery is more wearing work than I assumed, and inspires a powerful hunger.
When, in the course of my apprenticeship, standard methods of corporal punishment failed to tame new imports’ fruitless resistance to authority in a timely fashion, and thus fanned my frustrated interest in alternate careers, my father would tell me “The water’s always wetter in the next oasis,” and insist that the weaving of magic carpets, breeding of royal peacocks, and training of performing tortoises all entailed indignities which matched or exceeded those of slaving. It’s only after your father dies and you try your hand at grave robbery that you fully appreciate the penetrating insight of his advice to follow the family trade.
But years in the slaving industry had endowed me with a powerful work ethic that stood me well even in odd jobs. So I shrugged off hunger, boredom, and thoughts of a mid-life career change, and continued stealing the dead virgin ex-slave’s body from the quite poorly made grave in which she’d been laid to her much less than eternal rest. Flashes of ginger began to appear in the lantern light, and then the whole mane of red hair. It was almost too easy. If only there were a way to plant and harvest redhead sex slaves like edible tubers, I thought, our empire would be free to rape and pillage Occidental towns purely as a restful leisure activity, and not out of dire erotic necessity, which is said to increase the stress-generating humors of the liver in a fashion very unfavorable for health and longevity.
When I tried to remove the wig from the odalisque’s corpse I met a nasty surprise. Worried that the sultan would tear at her hair in the heat of passion, I’d selected a very strong glue, and now the red wig was stuck fast to the smooth-shaven skin encasing the girl’s modest cranium. I’d also neglected to bring a knife. So I tugged at it, first gently, and then with more force. It was no use: I succeeded only in tearing a valuable lock.
With all the indomitable determination proper to a relentlessly entrepreneurial small businessman, I refused to give in, and instead took up my spade—which, once scraped a few times against a headstone, became almost sharp enough to wedge between hair and skin. I stood over the grave, drew her hair back with my left hand, and used its pointed edge to alternately saw and pry at the area around her scalp. It was slow going at first, but then I put my foot to the spade as if I were digging and it simply peeled off, along with a large strip of skin, and flopped to the earth like a hairy upside-down manta ray with a red, gelatinous belly.
I shook off the dirt and held the wig close to my lantern. It seemed intact, though it was infested with some tiny, speck-like insects who flew in curlicues near the light, as if writing invisible calligraphy in our peerless Oriental script.
With the buried treasure thus unburied, I turned back to the grave. The next stage in my plan would require substantial physical exertion of a variety I scrupulously avoid in the regular course of my life. I dug out her arms, then gripped her hands in mine, and bracing my feet against the ground and straddling her head so that her empty eyes stared up toward the darkness inside my robe, yanked them vigorously away from the earth. She only budged minutely at first, but the third time I heaved with the full weight of my body, and her corpse leapt out in an expanding cloud of dust. I stumbled back into my lantern and fell to the ground beneath the dead weight of a girl who was once again, though now with a regrettable lack of actual hair, a redhead.
After resting in that prone position to contemplate the sidereal motion of the sky until all frustration had passed out of my slightly bruised skull, which was inadequately padded by the compression turban that made up the most important part of my disguise, I threw her off and scrambled to my feet. The cemetery was still empty, the lantern was still lit, and nothing had caught fire.
Except for a small mismeasurement, everything had gone according to plan. I discovered that the couscous I ordered for my slave market came in smaller quantities than the bulk couscous sent to the palace, whose human-sized sacks had served the eunuchs so well for the same clandestine purpose: when I stuffed the dead odalisque’s head into the bag I’d brought, no amount of twisting and squeezing would persuade her legs to fit in behind it. Unable to obtain a more suitable body bag on such short notice, I wrapped her arms around my neck as if she were an intoxicated lover I had to carry home, and swaddled the recently very attractive lower half of her body in the ill-chosen couscous sack. Her skull lolled comfortably over my shoulder just as if she were asleep, though somehow unable to close her dirt-blotched eyes. Then I pushed the severed wig back into place over the bloody scalp that had briefly made her a natural redhead. Natural, I reflected, is not always best.
Before I opened the gate I glanced at the grave once more. A mess, with dirt scattered everywhere and no visible shovel marks: it looked as if she’d burst out of the earth of her own accord.
The retired sex slave’s corpse was heavier than it appeared, and this time when I stumbled down the road with my eyes crossed and directed toward the heavens, and her head bobbing from one shoulder to another as I shifted my weight, my clumsiness wasn’t wholly feigned to project the illusion that we were a happy couple returning to our love nest to conclude a night we wouldn’t remember in the morning. I reminded myself that my next destination was nearby; and regardless, toting a freshly harvested corpse down a city road without anyone the wiser is far from the biggest challenge an aspiring evil vizier should expect to conquer in the course of his vertiginously ambitious ascent to the kiosks of power.
By the time my journey drew to a close my back ached terribly, and after assuring myself no one was watching, I resorted to dragging her along the ground for the final two hundred paces. The muted rasp of dead flesh rubbing dry pebbles snaked into the windless night.
Then the moon winked down at me, and, unlike the common run of men, I winked back. I had arrived.