The barren hill could only be interpreted as an utterly senseless location for any utility purporting to make liquid deep below the earth accessible to the public; unless, of course, it was selected by the Well-Diggers’ Guild after negotiating a contract wherein our imperial government promised to pay them by the distance dug downward, which seemed likely to be the case. While this very expensive hole did hold a little water at certain times of year, mainly when it rained directly into the well, few were willing to climb the shadeless hill to draw it.
Naturally I hadn’t dragged a corpse up a hill just to dredge water from a dry well in the darkest hour of the night—a time when my neck should have been enjoying its much-needed rest courtesy of a beautifully embroidered pillow I’d recently acquired and which I now took a moment to think of fondly. As I’d explained to my taciturn companion during our leisurely walk to the palace, the dryness and isolation of this particular well made it more useful for another purpose: namely, imprisoning and torturing recalcitrant slaves who are either too worthless to risk the repetitive stress injuries slavers sometimes suffer when administering heavy whippings with the appropriate zeal, or else too beautiful to blemish without reducing their value to an extent that conflicts with the sensible business management practices to which a genuine professional cleaves. In truth, I had never used it myself.
The current inhabitant of the well was a local girl whose family’s opinions on the nature of the afterlife and the appropriate rituals to ascend thereto had been of the sort that made their daughter, when they experienced a regrettable inability to meet their imperial tax obligations, subject to confiscatory enslavement.
Her story had circled the bazaar. She was exceptionally beautiful, despite lacking the refined erotic appeal of her imported counterparts, and immediately sold to a wealthy pasha. Angry with the pasha, or with the treatment of her family, or perhaps with the recurring unpleasantries of her feminine cycle, which often seem to be a source of misplaced anger, she refused his attentions with a verbal display that was highly unflattering to his self-esteem, and was even unmoved by his gentle and heartfelt beatings, so that her name quickly became a watchword for female intractability.
You are surely wondering: why would I think to conscript a local girl who, besides being stubborn enough to have herself thrown down a well simply to escape the privilege of intercourse with a pasha, possessed neither the appropriate shade of hair for the sultan’s taste, nor even the appropriate pallor of skin—being gifted with the golden tone that protects us from the cruel Oriental sun—and was, in short, inappropriate for the sultan’s harem in almost every respect? There, dear readers, lay my stroke of genius.
The pasha returned her unspoilt, and demanded and received the full refund that was within the rights guaranteed him as a consumer by the Imperial Slavers’ Association; and finding her value now much reduced, the jilted slaver who accepted this defective product return swore hither and yon, and also other places for good measure, that she would wither in the well until she underwent a change of heart, or else until her bones were bleached by the light that reached its bottom at most one hour a year, which would therefore take a very long time indeed.
More than twenty days had passed since she was imprisoned under the hill, and from this simple fact the quivering loops of flesh that made their spacious abode between my ears had come to a realization that was inaccessible to the common run of mortals, and which, following an elaborate but carefully controlled sequence of events, would enable the approximate fulfillment of my contractual obligations.
It was a foolproof plan, provided I executed it perfectly and nothing unexpected happened.
I dropped the body at the foot of the well and leaned over its lip, where pure darkness pooled thicker than the missing water.
“O odalisque,” I called down using the sweet tone I sometimes coo to sex-slaves-in-training when corporal punishment fails to elicit the usual obedience. “Is anyone down there? Would you like to open a present the friendly slaver brought for you?”
But this amicable overture elicited no response.
“Dearest odalisque, an aspiring evil vizier is here to rescue you from almost certain doom,” I cooed again, trying to imitate the dulcet tone of a singing nightingale; but my throat was dry and ill-suited to the task, and cracked into a strange quarter-tone yodel.
Had the slaver who brought her here given into unprofessional sentiments of mercy and cut short her punishment, setting a precedent that would have negative aftereffects on our entire business ecosystem, even to the point of discouraging entrepreneurial slaving startups from involuntarily importing foreign laborers to our storied city? (Not to mention the almost inexaggerably terrible consequences that follow thence: dates rotting in their orchards, beds unrumpled in their brothels, and worse disasters still that would hardly be comprehensible to anyone outside the Imperial Ministry of Commerce; for our farmers would understandably balk at hiring locust-like locals to harvest their fruit, and the madams at paying lazy natives for the prostitution services so necessary to maintain our public order. The entire sex work industry could go up in a cloud of hashish smoke!)
I aimed my lantern into the well, but the beam was weak, and the flame guttered when I tried to point it directly downward. Still, I thought I could make out something at the bottom.
There was no way for me to retreat now. I shuttered the lantern, hugged the corpse to my chest, and stepped cautiously into the bucket, resting my sack therein to leave my hands free behind the cadaver. Then, gripping the other end of the rope, I began to lower myself into the well.
I realized almost immediately—despite a wiry strength built mainly by the severe muscular effort needed to support my much-larger-than-average cranium during the routine execution of everyday tasks—that the total weight of two passengers, a bucket, and a couscous sack was far too heavy to bear comfortably. Indeed, pulling myself back up proved impossible; so I decided my wisest course was to ignore the strain and make a speedy descent that would, with luck, be finished before my arms were.
There was no one on the hill to see me, but if there had been, they would have watched my cream-colored turban disappear below the lip like a full moon sinking below the horizon, and wondered if it would ever rise again.
The darkness of the well was total. I couldn’t discern the faintest sign of its walls, though I brushed them sometimes as I descended, for the rope swayed from side to side like a long and slow pendulum. A shrinking circle of stars was the only visible sign of my descent.
In that claustrophobic gloom, with a corpse pressed against my torso and an awful and probably unsustainable tension afflicting my musculature, even the brilliant flame of my sinister ambitions failed to protect me from a wave of unworthy despair. I lived my life on an endless treadmill, I ruminated, always taking care of someone else’s slaves, never free to enjoy my own—condemned to discipline them on an unceasing nine to five schedule, six days a week, instead of heeding the inconstant dictates of my personal whims like a man of wealth and taste. I needed a long vacation: one where I could casually study astrology and shop for fine antique painted pottery, free from interruption by the endless petty worries that plague the inventory management of a highly perishable product line.
But these sentiments disappeared abruptly when I sensed a change in the tension of the rope from which the bucket was suspended, accompanied by a suspicious but barely audible noise. Perhaps that was the reason I let it play out faster, causing the pulley to creak far overhead, and speeding my journey in a way that soon became alarming. Or perhaps my arms simply began to give out.
The descent seemed to go on and on, the rope burning my hands, until at last the bucket struck the ground. The corpse’s weight strained my shoulder when I landed, for having carried her across the city in the posture of an unconscious lover, my body had begun to operate under the misapprehension that she was alive, and instinctively bent to protect her as we rushed to the bottom, jolting my joints pointlessly and sending enough pain through my ankles that I nearly missed hearing what sounded exactly like an extremely tiny splash. It appeared the Well-Digger’s Guild had done their work to the letter of the contract after all: there was water at the bottom of this well—just not enough of it to draw up with a bucket.
I gathered my wits in the darkness (a time-consuming process when you have as many of them as I do), then felt my way through the sack; and after being bitten by the rat with a modest degree of force that my dear readers might interpret as affectionate but which, in the circumstances, seemed to be yet another injustice inflicted on an honest slaver, I found the lantern and striker.
The well’s ground floor was wider than I’d expected, and thin greenish slime covered some of the rocks. On another occasion I might have wondered how it was possible for a few minutes’ midday sunlight to support life here; but my attention naturally turned instead to the naked woman who was leaning against the side, regarding me with a displeased and quizzical expression.
“I seem to have woken you up,” I said. “I’m here to, ah . . .”
Expecting to find her unconscious or at least very ill from lack of water, I’d neglected to arrange my inimitably persuasive rhetoric at the tip of my tongue; her gaze would have discouraged a less ambitious slaver from attempting any persuasion whatsoever. “I heard news of a damsel in distress trapped at the bottom of a deep well, and came here to capt— came here to offer you . . . a rescue deal,” I said.
“A rescue deal?” she asked drily, and shifted her legs before continuing. “Hmm.” She studied my face; she seemed more confident than she had any right to be. “But, given the obviousness of my charms, how can you be certain no other slaver has visited this well to woo me with similarly promising words? Have you not noticed that I lounge here before you with well-moisturized skin, more alive and healthy than your venal and uncreative schemes could have predicted, and perhaps enjoying the respite from endless male attention that this forbidding location provides me?”
As it sometimes happens, a few stylishly dishonest words and a single facial expression was enough for me to conclude that I was communicating with a more perceptive intelligence than I commonly encounter when headhunting for human resources, and so I abandoned my usual tactic of speaking as if my listeners’ mental capacities combine the attention span of mosquitoes with the acuity of senile dromedaries, and instead talked to her as to a businessman who is able to follow my reasoning, but not necessarily able to avoid signing a contract that will be as unfavorable to his interests as it is favorable to my own.
“Not just any rescue deal, but one with by far the best terms of trade you’ll be offered inside this barren and unfrequented hill,” I said, gesturing up and around us, “requiring no usurious repayment plans nor excessive violence to your person, nor removal of essential, nor even non-essential, organs for resale to sorcerers or djinn; and indeed, I come bearing a complimentary gift as a token of my goodwill, which you may keep even if you opt to reject my special offer and remain at the bottom of this well until your untimely death from thirst, starvation, or despair, or any unpleasant combination of those three imminent threats to your existence.”
She uncrossed and recrossed her legs again. “And who are you now holding in your left arm? Did she strike a deal with you as well?” she asked in a tone that glazed a thin layer of lighthearted mockery over a wounded, biting sarcasm surely born from some past anguish. (Her attitude was at any rate unjustified by recent circumstances, as her life in the spurned pasha’s harem would have been far easier than my daily grind slaving away in the slaving industry.)
When I became aware I was still embracing my pleasantly uncomplaining passenger, I dropped her suddenly, causing a splash of water that echoed loudly in the stone-encircled space.
“Ah yes, well, not exactly; that is . . . . At any rate, she is quite dead, and no longer cause for feminine jealousy. I will explain her role in our arrangement later.”
Then I recovered myself and went on in better form.
“Though the formerly amiable feminine cadaver that accompanies me in this unsolicited rescue might seem to present my person in an unflattering light to your very beautiful but slightly unfriendly eyes, I give my assurance that no similar fate will befall you unless my sophisticated plans fail to eventuate in the expected manner, which, as you can infer from my self-evident cranial capacity, hardly ever happens; and even if you do expire in a roughly similar fashion I would be willing to certify in writing my advance promise to leave the majority of your body in its grave and occidented in the correct direction, with a personal guarantee that it will suffer no mutilation below your elegant and flamingo-like neck. Here, then, is the complimentary gift to which I earlier alluded,” I finished, and handed her the waterskin I’d brought to accompany this seductive speech, adding a small bow and manual flourish, as if she were a lady in the sultan’s court.
“I suppose there’s a reason you’re waiting to tell me what you expect in return?” she asked after taking a very long drink, her voice dripping the utmost skepticism and her eyes directed toward the faint pinhole of sky high overhead that was all we could see of the well’s faraway mouth. Logic dictated that hunger and solitary confinement had taken a heavy toll on her spirit, and she was only miming an air of relaxed indifference to improve her extraordinarily weak and in fact essentially non-existent bargaining position during our contract negotiations. Though futile when faced with an opponent of my experience and cunning, it was a devious effort for which I gave her considerable credit.
“Why, certainly,” I said. “I’m waiting because I expect no more than a very trivial reciprocation for my once-in-a-lifetime offer to prolong your life, so frivolous that I couldn’t in good conscience allow its verbal specification to distract you from your undiluted pleasure at meeting such a handsome and eloquent benefactor; indeed, a request scarcely worth reviewing before you sign this standard rescue contract.” I watched her begin another long drink and continued speaking as I reached into my robe pocket and drew forth the neatly rolled pages. “You need only promise to offer your young body to your new owner and serve his every whim till the end of your days, on penalty of very certain death, in which event you are required to bequeath me your hair and, should there be a necessity, the upper part of your skull to which it will be attached.”
She sputtered a mouthful of water far enough to reach the hem of my robe.
“But there’s no reason to look so worried; of course I am not referring to your current hair.”
Her attention now moved to the topmost folds of my turban, and rested there as she spoke. “The bizarrerie of your request leaves no doubt in everyone present that your offer is of a suspicious and presumably fraudulent nature,” she replied, “or else that the pasha to whom you intend to advertise my lusciously quivering and excessively prominent secondary sexual characteristics has fallen into the grip of a unique and unfamiliar perversion of which these acknowledged details are but the stem of the date.” She leaned back, speaking sweetly and with affected laziness. “But, considering the turn of your turban, which represents nothing so much as a shriveled and half-grown pineapple abandoned in a field as too stunted to be worthy of human consumption, I’m surprised you would think yourself capable of obfuscating your contract’s consequences for my future career; unless, of course, you assumed my cranial capacity would be less developed than my physical charms, in the manner of those Occidental virgins who wait on the beaches of their dour and unrefined nations, waving their pale arms toward the horizon in the hopes that your plundering pirates will offer them salvation from the much less exciting men to which their parents would condemn them.”
“Perhaps, perhaps,” I said, deciding to abandon flattery, as she had lived up to her reputation for eloquently insulting stubbornness. “But to prove your general thesis faulty, I can reveal that the most important of the various contractual sub-clauses I willfully concealed from you is in fact wildly beneficial to your person, and withheld only on account of my usual overwhelmingly considerate kindness, as I feared for the safety and stability of your volatile feminine skull-contents (which are heated and cooled in imperfectly predictable cycles by the blood circulating up from your loins) should such good news come to you so abruptly and after so many days at peace on a secluded holiday from masculine attention. This good news, moreover, distinguishes my offer from those of the other alleged slaver-suitors you cite, purportedly descended here to see a local girl who, in today’s competitive sex-work marketplace, stands out primarily for the wrong kind of oral skills.”
“And that good news is . . . ?” she asked.
“Why, I offer you a limited-time opportunity to enter the palace and join the inner harem of the sultan himself; an opportunity to bear him a love-child and live out the rest of your days in the unimaginable luxury every young woman who plies her charms to curry attentive praise believes she deserves.”
She maintained her affected lounging position, which was rather difficult considering she sat on a slimy subterranean rock; but despite the uncharitable character of her riposte, her eyes now twinkled with alertness. “Nonsensical word-spinning,” she said, “that might have awakened a fraction of my attention had your fabrication not been so completely lacking in imaginative flair, but which was instead considerably less interesting than the frail and whispering wind my other ear imagined hearing somewhere high above us. Our whole empire knows that since the death of the first sultana the sultan only lusts for foreign redheads; yet if, having so quickly fallen in love, you’ve decided to woo me with transparent lies, you would hardly be the first to choose such a thorny and ultimately fruitless path.”
“I assure you, my dear lady, that no romantic intentions dirty the purity of my generous offer, which stems from only financial and sexual motives that any aspiring odalisque would consider the hallmark of sincerity and honest dealing.
“The scheme whereby I shall help you ascend to the inner harem is devilishly clever indeed, though perhaps in the half-light of this glorified hole wherein you will continue to dwell if you do not approve the contract I am now holding in my finely-manicured hand, your powers of vision have been too feeble to observe the full circumference of my cranial sphere, which I have generously disguised under this very uncomfortable child-sized turban in order to avoid intimidating one of your undistinguished phrenology.
“The lifelike red wig I’ve prepared has been cleansed of all but a few skin patches from its former owners’ heads, and properly glued to a shaven pate such as the one you will soon agree to create, can convince any onlooker that you are nothing less than a true Occidental redhead. The recently breathing odalisque at our feet provides irrefutable proof of the efficacy of my methods.”
“Alas,” she said with exaggerated longing, “if only you had remained mute I could have imagined my visitor a man of average wisdom and perception, despite the laughable turn of your nose and the tendency of your eyes to move independently and in opposing directions, which would cause less charitable spirits to assume you quite insane. But your anti-tautological proposal neglects to consider that my beautifully moisturized skin, capable of arresting the attention of all healthy men and the jealousy of both their older and younger wives, is the shade of the desert sand at dawn,” she illustrated this by brushing the fingers of both hands up the side of her left thigh, whose skin was clearly illuminated by the lantern, “not the sickly pinkish ivory of an Occidental female—an unsavory color known to disturb the taste of even doggedly xenophilic deviants, and coveted solely by malnourished nocturnal djinn to whom the appropriate seasonal libations have not been made.”
“My dear aspiring odalisque, I’m afraid you are even further from the truth than you are from escaping this well without my aid. For did you not consider that an accomplished slaver such as myself would have ready access to a bevy of young local females, all of whom would sell their admittedly worthless souls for a chance to meet the sultan coiffed in the priceless wig I am now offering you for little more than a single signature on an irrevocable legally binding contract?
“True, your beauty may be renowned in your fortunately avoidable quarter of the city, or at least among the camel herders who pass through your street when returning home after overindulging at a nearby hookah bar; but to one who frequently engages in quality-control testing of the premium used goods that pass through my luxury sex-slave dealership, the seductive quivering of your bulbous lower limbs fails to register as a temptation, let alone a distraction from these earnest contract negotiations.
“No; the rationale that inspired me to select you for this limited-time special rescue offer could only have sprung from the peculiar genius which destines me for future evil vizierhood. I am here because of the well itself.” I paused before allowing her to bask in the revealed magnificence of my logic. “To complete and clarify my explanation for those whose shell-like skulls are limited to the pace and direction of poorly trained turtles, I am here because of the effect your long imprisonment in this lightless shaft has produced on your skin. While insufficient to create the blindingly fresh ivory of an Occidental redhead in situ Occidentalis, this unbroken darkness has nevertheless granted you the relative pallor seen in the kind of auburn-haired harlot who debases her inheritance streetwalking under our Oriental sun after being abandoned by the pirate lover with whom she fled to our light-drenched lands. Provided you never allow the aforementioned sun to touch your skin, and never remove the wig to which I’ve made reference, you will pass as a foreigner—even upon the sultan’s thorough, though probably drug-addled, inspection of your physical details.”
She was silent for a while, then spoke with an achingly sweet and almost childlike voice that made a striking contrast with her previous tone, and whose sincerity a lesser slaver would never have doubted. “That’s . . . a rather astonishing scheme indeed.” But she hesitated, her voice recovering its usual acerbic character. “And likely stolen from another individual of a much less foolish mien than the one which I now unwillingly regard. Nevertheless, you’ve neglected to provide a comforting explanation for the partly headless female corpse which you threw ominously at my feet, splashing my well-formed toes with a wholly avoidable layer of slime for which you have not yet begged forgiveness.”
“Nonsense, my dear aspiring odalisque; it is for her to beg forgiveness from both of us, since this is the second time she has inconveniently collapsed in my presence. I can inform you in all honesty that her sad passing is probably almost entirely unrelated to my schemes, to the wig, or to her fraudulent claim to be an Occidental redhead; for she expired quite suddenly of terminal late-onset seasickness, or some other similarly deadly but less easily identifiable disease, while dancing for the sultan in an unaccustomed passion that may have strained her lungs, but without, I will remark, actually being the cause of her breathless and widely viewed demise.”
“Your excuse,” she replied, “although not definitely false, can hardly be described as convincing. Do you deny that general insanity compels you to carry this corpse everywhere you go, as a kind of good luck charm—or have you some other even less sensible reason for bringing a disfigured cadaver when you call on an unusually attractive woman in the small hours of the night?” She seemed particularly pleased with herself after these words, which she imbued with a faintly flirtatious lilt.
I sighed theatrically. “Although I am not so patient with the almost clever rejoinders emitted by your overactive vocal cords as our dearly departed guest, insofar as you are less completely incapable of reasoned thought than the average individual I am forced to interact with in the bazaar, I shall provide you with an opportunity to explain why someone as clever as the slave trader now speaking might have packed a recently expired odalisque for this particular subterranean excursion.”
“It’s quite obvious that we’ll need to leave a replacement odalisque lest the maggoty-eared slaver who imprisoned me here visit to gloat over my torment. Yet despite his foul breath and deficient capacity for rendering verbal structures that exceed two syllables, he is not so obtuse that he will fail to notice the poor resemblance this former Occidental’s face bears to my own, especially as she is also, it seems, missing the topmost fraction of her head.”
“Once again you underestimate my foresight. That is the precise reason why I’ve also brought” —I reached into my bag and thrust it forth by the scruff of the neck without looking down— “this large rat.”
And she shrieked.
“Now, now,” I said, “you are in no danger, for he does not, in normal circumstances, eat human brains; but I have retained a few grains of couscous, which I will press into the bloody and irregularly coiled flesh-loops of her exposed cranial contents, thus inspiring our lovable critter to claw and gnaw at them in order to obtain his familiar supper. After a few days he will develop a taste for flesh, and, descending from the brain-meat that is his introduction to cadaverous cuisine, will nibble, first gently but then with growing passion, at the various features of her formerly appealing face, making it all but impossible for anyone to identify her. The second-rate slaver who imprisoned you here will find him cheeping charmingly over his meal and ask no further questions. So you see, thanks to this animal assistant, your escape will pass entirely unknown to any but the two of us,” I finished as I waggled him gently, causing his hairless tail to swish back and forth.
“Well then,” she said after she had recovered herself, having turned half toward the wall so she could watch the rat out of the corner of her eye without viewing his cute beady eyes in excessive detail. “Did you bring a pen?”
After she signed the rescue contract I disposed the couscous grains in precisely the manner I’d described, then told her to wait at the bottom with the corpse and the rat while I winched myself to the surface. Once I’d reached the top, I would pull her up after me. But she objected to this proposal rather insistently, and I finally conceded that I would keep the rat with me, and only return him to the well when she’d safely followed me above.
I stood in the bucket and again rested the sack of tools on my feet, gently placing the rat on the top. He was quite docile; and perhaps his cute little cranium had been damaged by the abuse I inflicted earlier, for he laid on his back twitching minutely. My newly contracted odalisque had recovered her good cheer, or what passed for it, and everything seemed to be proceeding according to plan. I waved a short farewell and drew on the rope.
But what I heard as soon as I lifted off caused my heart to move rapidly in the opposite direction. It was a quiet noise, which would have been inaudible without the absolute silence that surrounded us, and resembled the hissing of sand when the desert wind brushes the top of a dune. My first inclination was to dismiss this fraying sound as an ill-considered joke played by my unscrupulous imagination at a particularly inopportune moment. I didn’t have time for a second inclination: the rope snapped.
It was, happily, a very short distance to the ground. I landed upright, and stood there in the bucket looking at my new odalisque dumbly while the long rope fluttered down over my turban and around my shoulders like a victory ribbon.
For a while I found myself bereft of speech. “It appears the stylish embonpoint of your predecessor, whom I foolishly overfed with fish the night before her infamous debut dance, strained the rope on my decent, leading to the unpredictable predicament that now afflicts us,” I said finally. “Perhaps the effeminate hammam-dwellers who praise petite and boyish figures were right all along.”
“Not likely,” she replied. “If only you’d fallen from a greater height, the orphaned pet rat you’ve trained to cerebral carnivory could have had his choice of meals, albeit small and parsimonious ones.” She then continued in a tone best described as profound sarcasm. “Considering the vaunted foresight to which you’ve drawn my unenthusiastic attention, I imagine you’ve planned an effective course of action in case a fall such as this one should end in your rather embarrassing survival,” she said in a voice that implied she imagined no such thing.
“I did, in fact, bring a second rope,” I said, bewildered that my brilliant scheme could be vulnerable to such an uninteresting mode of failure. “But not a means to tie it to the surface in the event of this extraordinary mechanical malfunction. That the only rope which serves this dry well has snapped under almost normal use as a dual-occupancy elevator is a double indictment of the corrupt Well-Diggers’ Guild, against which I hereby ask you to witness my vow of eternal and unending vengeance.”
“I bear witness to your vow, and to the limited weight above your shoulders at the time of your fall,” she said, “which explains both your survival and the close resemblance between your neck and the spring shoots of a papyrus plant. Perhaps you were expecting this second rope to levitate to the surface, as your heated and air-filled cranium would no doubt levitate if it were not tied to your torso by a series of invisible threads concealed under your beard and the slovenly, inelegant head-wrappings you’ve substituted for a turban.”
I was looking up toward the sky, too troubled to assemble the quality of retort these verbal antics merited, when one of her words stuck in my ear. So I stayed silent as she returned to her seat on a rock by the side of the well and very visibly engaged herself in studying the motions of slugs who lived in the moist cracks near the floor. (At first I wondered if these unappealing creatures had been her source of sustenance since imprisonment, but it occurred to me that her family could have easily lowered enough couscous for her survival by sneaking up to the unguarded well in dark hours such as these, provided they were able to tolerate her tongue, which seemed to me quite open to question.) The stray word nagged at me for a while as my mind wandered, then flared up and glowed in my brain like the tip of an incense stick, its smoke filling all of my voluminous cranium with the kind of highly unstable elation that actively employed evil viziers should never allow to influence their decisions regarding important affairs of state.
“It just so happens,” I said as she made a show of intently observing the slugs, who seemed to be engaged in a race, “that I have a second brilliant contingency plan, whose unsurpassed boldness will surely fly over the skull of those who aim their skeptical attention no higher than the disinterested study of invertebrates.” But she only continued to ignore me as I stepped out of the bucket and riffled through my sack.
I found it easily enough. It was still sealed, and apparently never used—I wondered if the Chief Eunuch’s Secretary’s Assistant’s messenger had noticed when he filched it. I crouched and rolled the hairless corpse so she rested on her back, gripped her teeth, and pulled her jaw open. At this my reluctant co-conspirator abandoned her malacological pretenses and stared at me with an unabashed expression of disgusted curiosity, her lips already shaped to emit the cloying sarcasm of her habitual vocal timbre, though the rather redundant words it would clothe had not yet been selected.
I twisted the bottle open, and, pausing there with it suspended between thumb and forefinger, turned to her and winked. Then I pinched the cadaver’s nose and poured the contents down her throat till I had emptied every drop.
“What on earth are you doing?”
“Why, obviously nothing; unless you mean ‘under earth,’ my dear aspiring odalisque, in which case—did you want to be the one to drink twenty-three times the recommended application of . . .” I read from the label: “Concentrated Professional-Strength Magic Carpet Cleaner with Lab-Tested All-Natural Pro-Levitation Factors, Patent Pending?” I handed her the bottle.
“You can’t be serious,” she said while glaring at me, holding it limply in her left hand. “Did you run short of traditional ways to continue defiling this corpse, which you have sickened, dropped, partially beheaded, and now poisoned, more than half of these insults occurring after her soul’s departure from the material world?”
“And exhumed,” I said.
She paid this no mind, as she was now reading the fine print on the label. “It says ‘All-Natural’: how could it possibly work?”
“False advertising, I find, is occasionally to the consumer’s advantage. For instance, reg—”
I broke off abruptly. The corpse seemed to be stirring.
“Remarkable,” I almost said aloud. “It actually does work.”
I grabbed the bucket, which still held my belongings, and hurriedly seated myself on the animating corpse. “Here,” I handed her the lantern, “borrow this until I fix the rope and winch you up. Watch the end of your slug race; you’re unlikely to see another until the next time you’re imprisoned in a damp well, which, if you continue to yammer in the same fashion, may admittedly be soon.”
Slowly but surely the patent-pending pro-levitation factors were activating within the formerly human substrate, and by the time I finished the sentence my feet were no longer touching the muddy water. The body’s limp arms gradually began to spread as if floating in the ocean—an inauspicious position for one who had so recently died of seasickness.
“You see, my skeptical slave, a simple odalisque heist such as this one is perfectly under the control of my magnificently—,” I said with a glimmer of my usual justified confidence; but just then the rat, disoccidented by the gravity-defying motion below him, leapt out of the bucket toward the future redhead who was intently watching my miraculous ascent, landed in the mud, and scurried between her legs.
She screamed again, even more shrilly than before, grabbed hold of the levitating cadaver, then frantically pulled her legs off the ground and clung to it as to a log in a raging river, almost knocking me from my perch, her head against my chest and her toes dangling in the air. While I attempted to talk her down the juiced-up corpse continued to rise, and by the time I decided to push the excess passenger off forcibly, it was too late to do so without risking a break to one or more of her limbs that would set my hunt for odalisques back to an intolerable degree. Instead I reluctantly pulled her the rest of the way up. She was weaker and more fragile than her facade of confidence had suggested.
We sat side by side, our legs hanging in opposite directions to balance our weight, and her arms wrapped around my shoulders in a way that was reassuring for her, but potentially unhealthy for my person should her panicked flailing drag us both to our doom.
Laying her cheek against my turban, she craned upward. “The overdose of magic carpet cleaner you used to animate this corpse will last until we reach the top . . . correct?”
“I’m not entirely sure,” I said, struggling to keep my balance without the shallow, flat shape of a properly ironed magic carpet to support me. “I’ve never done it before, you see. But no one becomes an evil vizier without taking a few risks here and there.”
“A few risks?” she said. “I may have agreed to become a slave, again, but my—”
“If you read the fine print on your Voluntary Enslavement Agreement, you would know that you’ve sworn never to act, nor neglect to act, in any way that would inhibit my imminent ascendance to the office of evil vizier. Since I expect to attain that office rather quickly, I didn’t draw your particular attention to the clause, which will only be binding for a very short period of time.”
“I’ve agreed never to ‘neglect to act’ . . . what does that mean, precisely?”
“Why, by the simple logic of double negatives, it means you must always act in a way that speeds my promotion. And so, calculated risks such as hovering over a very deep well on a corpse of unspecified levitational capacity are fully within your slavery description. At any rate, you have only yourself to blame for interfering with my carefully improvised plans, which are now fraught with greater risks to your life than a niggardly owner such as myself would have willingly run. Look down: not only will your jailer notice the conspicuous absence of your person, and even the bleached bones he was gleefully anticipating, but you’ve left my lantern to provide him with indisputable evidence of your theft.” She held my shoulders more tightly and peered below, where the rat, now a just a small dot, was scurrying around in the lantern light.
“I think he’s eating my slugs.”
“There are plenty of slugs in the desert, as my father always said.”
“No there aren’t, and no he didn’t.”
“Very well, but I will soon offer you a much more appetizing meal.”
“I didn’t—never mind. Can’t you make this corpse go any faster?”
“I’m afraid I can’t. As you saw, I used the entire bottle. You should take advantage of this time to practice Occidental mannerisms in case our late return to the city brings us into contact with inquisitive acquaintances on the way back to my office.”
We were now somewhere in the black midpoint of the well, and though it was difficult to gauge our speed, I suspected the overburdened levitation substrate was rising considerably slower than a typical flying rug. My companion’s increasing distance from the rat had calmed her, or at least turned her high-pitched, irrational fright into a wholly rational nervousness; and with her mouth close beside my turban, she inquired at a volume that was less threatening to the proper functioning of my ears, “Supposing I had never met an Occidental. How would you describe their mannerisms, exactly?”
“You’ve never met an Occidental?” Even I had been momentarily taken in by her air of sophistication. “They’re an odd and foolish people, whose dogged resistance to conquest and conversion is difficult to explain in light of the prankish absurdity of their beliefs and the feeble basis of their human loyalties. While their skulls are not notably small, cold and unfavorable geography has reportedly caused their cranial contents to be looped counterclockwise, leading to many bizarre ideas.
“They maintain, for instance, that the divinity sometimes inhabits small wafers of unleavened bread, that three is equal to one, and that children are born guilty, while wicked old men can be washed clean by a single timely act of repentance. Eschewing family and ancestors, they cling to vague ideas that float in the air like clouds, making their impressionable imaginations susceptible to endless confusion. They have no tribes, and keep records of their second and third cousins only for the purpose of avoiding intercourse with them. In fact, they are usually unable to recall distant kin by face or name; but if they could, they would hardly favor them over mountain goats or even the impressively large trees they are said to have worshiped in the past and perhaps will again one day in the future.”
“You are saying,” she inquired by way of clarification, “that they are idolators who prefer intercourse with sheep, goats, and perhaps other ruminants unknown in civilized lands, such as caribou and reindeer, over their own cousins? Do they, then, perform these acts while eating God-wafers under the aforementioned excessively large trees as a form of worship?”
“My dear, an untraveled girl such as yourself needn’t trouble herself to pretend familiarity with the exotic beasts of the Occident. No, no, they are not idolators; but their priests and rulers guide them with a potent melange of truths and lies—entirely hypocritical, but full of paradoxes that hypnotize their susceptible flock into inventing novel ways to resist our righteous and unceasing attempts at conquest. Even so, their rootless gullibility is such that if a clever enemy ever succeeded in infiltrating their priesthood, Occidentals would quickly imitate those cuddly but short-lived mammals who are said to fling themselves from cliffs in the lands to the far north.”
“All of this is difficult to believe,” she replied, “for if they were as foolhardy as you describe, we should have conquered them long ago. But regardless of whether your fantastical description is really true, or whether you merely inhaled an unhealthy quantity of magic carpet cleaner fumes during the off-label application that suspended us over this perilously deep shaft, your claims are but dull and irrelevant abstractions to a female whose sole duty is to titillate the sultan with coy words and a borrowed head of red hair. What are their mannerisms; how do they behave?”
“Oh, about like anyone else,” I said, “but with a very funny accent.”
“I suppose our positive influence dampens their insanity when they travel in our lands,” she said. “But their deranged and baseless opinions must become evident wherever they assemble in numbers.”
“Just so; though rumor has it that the sultan keeps a pet Occidental male in his palace—a former captain, captured en route by our pirates—who unceasingly asks leave to sail west into the great ocean, and won’t be dissuaded by odalisques, food, or even hashish. Why, no one can say; he claims an unquenchable thirst to see its other side. Hardly credible as a motivation, even by the low standards we apply to Occidentals!
“I should add that recently arrived girls are quite shy in the bedchamber, during belly dancing, stripteases, and the like; but that reticent phase is shorter than a cycle of the moon, after which the luxuries of their new accommodations take their toll, and they lose all interest in returning home. Thus if you feign the instinctive timidity of a giant-eared nocturnal desert rodent when the sultan first caresses you, only to swoon invitingly in his arms later that same night, you will be convincing enough.”
We were moving at the leisurely flying pace one might set for a casual weekend tour of nearby oases, but by now the night sky had expanded above us, and we would soon be compelled to execute the awkward and dangerous maneuver from which her lesson in Occidentalism had granted me a welcome distraction.
“Although I animated this levitating corpse with an overdose of magic carpet cleaner,” I explained, “I don’t happen to have on hand an equally powerful re-gravitation agent of the type our imperial government regulations specify for pre-disposal application to malfunctioning and decommissioned magic carpets, lest their stray threads later come to pollute the atmosphere in unanticipated ways which, in sufficient quantity and the fullness of time, could diminish the sunlight so necessary for the high yields of our renowned date plantations (though some claim this threat is exaggerated by the makers of the reagent); and consequently we will very soon be compelled to dismount while we are still in motion. Please do your best to exit this runaway cadaver with appropriate elegance, and recall that it behooves an odalisque to care for her body during the short time it retains any value, lest the world treat her as brutally as males of a similarly low station.”
“You can’t stop it?!”
“An uninteresting summary of my words that leaves out many of the insightful details for which an inquisitive mind would signal warm appreciation; but not, all the same, completely inaccurate. And there’s an additional problem. You, my dear, aren’t wearing any clothes. In the present almost total darkness, alone with your friendly local slave dealer and rightful new owner (until your pending transfer to the sultan, of course), this state of undress is no more than a minor inconvenience, and perhaps even less than that; but after we return to the surface, your flouncing features are likely to inhibit our safe and anonymous progress through the streets of the city. Therefore—”
“I am to wear the stuffing with which you fill your remarkably lightweight turban?”
“Heavens no. I mean to say—in the first place—there is, of course, no such stuffing.” I responded awkwardly, hoping that if I allowed her to believe she had gotten the better of me on this occasion she might be less enraged by my next proposal. “But I did, with my inimitable though too frequently doubted foresight, see fit to bring an extra set of women’s clothes. No, no, put that down—they’re not in my sack. They’re—”
“Oh no. You can’t be serious. No, I—”
“You’ve already said that once this evening, my dear, and yet here we are. I’m afraid undersized crania often make it impossible to learn from experience, but deficient mental volume is scarcely a problem we can solve while levitating over a well shaft, now is it? You should instead thank our good fortune that your predecessor failed to complete her striptease before being incompetently buried by a trio of lazy eunuchs. So; after rolling up the hem, I shall straddle the thighs of this cadaver, and you will sit on my lap to pull her dress off over what remains of her head.”
“You can’t make—”
“Don’t worry, my dear,” I spoke over her more loudly, our two voices echoing back and forth against the concave walls in oddly intercrossing patterns, “there’s no need to dress yourself until we’ve left this well, which” —I looked up— “will be very soon indeed. Hurry, unless you intend to offer your body to the highwaymen who lurk on our route back to the bazaar and thereby void our contract in a manner that you will likely not live to regret.”
I had to use most of my weary arms’ remaining strength to keep my balance while the naked sex slave wiggled in my lap, working with considerable patience to strip the harem clothes from our substitute magic carpet without tearing the flimsy fabric. We had little time to celebrate our success after returning to our original seats. The moment was nigh.
“On my signal, we will both leap over the lip in opposite directions, so as to avoid a dangerous unbalancing of these already very thoroughly abused remains,” I said. The sky was growing closer and closer.
“And what is the signal, dare I ask?”
“Why, I shall blink my left, then my right eye three times in alternating succession. On the third blink, we shall depart in concert.”
“Is it truly impossible for you to consider a more conventional signal?”
But there was no time to dignify her request with a response I wouldn’t have given even in circumstances far more conducive to patience. Our heads emerged into a night whose horizons had begun to glow with the first gray of oncoming dawn. After the well’s constricting gloom, this luminous ring created an impression of incredible distance, dwarfing even the city that rolled out between our barren hilltop and the ocean to the north. I gave the signal, and we leapt.
Somehow the lip of the well reached up to interrupt my otherwise admirably coordinated motion, and after my acrobatics had concluded I found myself prone on the ground, where I lay watching as my first artificial redhead rose into the night, and, blown by the desert wind, drifted off in the direction of the city.
I recovered my feet to see the other passenger already standing. Whether she’d landed upright or not I couldn’t say, since her hand-me-down dress, all but transparent in normal circumstances, had been pre-distressed—caked with soil and stained with dried blood. Underground, by the warm glow of my lost lantern, she’d successfully simulated health; but here in the space between night and dawn, wearing that foul, necrotic shroud, she looked as pale and haggard as if she’d just climbed from the grave herself.
“So then,” I said; “everything has gone according to plan. We must return home with all speed, lest the sun destroy your disguise.”
“You really got me out of the well?” There was that girlish voice again. She looked down over the edge.
“Yes, my dear, and I’ll have breakfast made for you as soon as we arrive; you must be in full health for your introduction to the sultan.” I dusted off my robe. “What’s your name, again? Come away from there before you make an excessively rapid return to the bottom.”
“No, no—don’t tell me. You must henceforth forget it entirely; nor can you risk returning to your family. Furthermore, the source of your desirable complexion will have to remain our skin care secret forever, despite the nearly unimaginable wealth we could earn on a properly marketed lecture tour devoted to the concept, or selling deep-well cosmetic cleanse getaway vacations to aging first wives. If the sultan discovers our deceit, poet as he is, he will likely invent for us a fate not only worse than death, but also far more creative, though from a genre of artistry that we won’t appreciate in quite the same way as our execution’s spectators. Therefore, having already obediently forgotten your old name, as well as the faces of your parents and friends, I shall generously grant you a fresh one. In respectful consideration of your malacological pretensions, be they culinary or otherwise, you will henceforth be known as . . . Mala.”
I held out my arm. “Come here and lean on my shoulder, Mala; we shall pose as lovers until we leave this quarter, to ensure no one suspects I’ve freed you from slavery.”
“Freed me from slavery?” she asked. “I just signed a voluntary enslavement contract!” Though her cutting tone revived with even greater than normal intensity, I could tell she was too tired to devise the insulting reply for which she instinctively fumbled.
“Yes, well. Freed you to slavery, to be more precise,” I said. “After all, isn’t the opportunity to sell yourself into slavery the ultimate form of freedom?”
And so, as the upper tip of the sun met the horizon, we walked unsteadily down the hill, arm in arm.