Despite our circuitous route home, which took us under bridges and through dark alleys, with repeated crossings of the street to ensure the shadows of buildings, trees, and statues almost continuously protected us from photodamage (the zigzags of this highly effective bespoke ambulatory technique caused ignorant passersby to gawk at what their compact crania could only characterize as an unusually foolish method of travel), I feared for my companion’s sensitive complexion, even now a shade darker than the genuine Occidental ivory our sultan preferred.
Upon arriving at the office more than an hour past dawn, I immediately bustled her into my darkest room: a locked closet that served as emergency storage, which I’d filled with sealed bags of dry couscous and the variety of correctional instruments required for the daily labors of a professional slaver, ensuring I’d still have on hand everything necessary to feed and discipline my slaves in the event of a famine or sandstorm.
She protested that her claustrophobia, never previously mentioned, had worsened since her recent confinement, so I left her with the door closed but not locked, lounging comfortably atop a pile of plump couscous sacks arranged on the floor, and instructed her to make no trouble until we had the opportunity to complete her disguise after a period of rest for which we both had indisputable need. Lastly I brought a large quantity of fruit, promising a proper meal as soon as I could arrange it. My dear readers might suppose these conveniences and kindnesses unnecessary, and moreover too apt to encourage the type of lassitude and disobedience that would eventually require harsh corrective punishment. True as a rule; but if I hoped to avoid a second disastrous delivery to the sultan, self-interest demanded I spare no expense in restoring her health and pacifying her liver with the greatest possible speed.
As few men prefer to ponder their odalisque options in the earliest hours of the morning, even the best managed market for luxury sex slaves doesn’t open at dawn. So I lay on the couch watching the newborn sunlight caress the curlicues painted on my fine pottery collection, and soon fell into a deep sleep, expecting to awaken when my assistant arrived to chain up our product display. With no prior instructions to the contrary he thought it best to leave me in peace, and only roused me after receiving a message from the palace.
I’d been restlessly dreaming that my very disappointing previous odalisque, having risen from the dead in a different and slightly less literal sense than I’d presided over just a few hours before, had clawed her way through the city, and was now standing outside my office window with vengeful intentions raging through what remained of her never particularly effective cranial fauna. Momentarily convinced the person shaking my shoulder was consumed by an unnatural appetite for human flesh, I snapped at him blindly. But unlike my obstinate new odalisque, he knew well enough to bear a few insults to his sentience with the good grace befitting his station.
I shook the clouds from my cranium and sat up on the couch to read. The envelope held a generic formal summons to court, including no further information than the date. It happened to be that very morning.
My expansive head was still wrapped in the dirty, cranium-constricting turban from the previous night, which had by now squeezed me into a lasting headache. I hurried to the back room and changed my clothes, glancing all the while at the storage closet and wondering if my latest acquisition was asleep. When I tapped on the door there was no response. With luck she’d still be dozing when I returned, and should at any rate have the good sense not make any mischief. Or so I thought: if I’d known her better at the time, dear reader, I would have expected anything but luck and sense!
I told my assistant to leave our current inventory on display and entertain customers as usual, but forbade him to haggle or accept a dinar less than list price for any of the girls until my return, for he lacked the knack for precise judgments about the value of sex slaves that I’d acquired from a childhood devoted to studiously ogling our family business’ ever-changing product line. Since I was unwilling to delay my departure long enough to fabricate a persuasive explanation for her presence, I avoided mentioning the cloistered new arrival, and departed without further ado.
I expected the worst. Though I still understood little of politics inside the palace, it was clear that my defective odalisque had opened the door to chaos, and much could go wrong. Perhaps one of the eunuchs had let slip the truth and I was being called in for prosecution; or perhaps they’d discovered the empty grave, and assuming an opposing faction had exhumed her corpse as material proof of our striptease coverup conspiracy, they’d decided to throw me under the caravan and deny their own involvement.
I presented myself at the front gate beneath the Peerless Portal, and after the gatekeeper reviewed my invitation, followed the guard he assigned to escort me to the Chamber of Petitions. We traversed a different section of the palace than I’d seen previously, its monumental style designed to overwhelm foreign dignitaries with size and silver instead of stimulating Orientals’ more demanding ocular organs with the intricate designs at which our craftsmen excel.
Inside the kiosk an audience was already underway, and the sultan, seated on the royal couch at the back of the large, vaulted room, was listening to a proposal concerning our Imperial Cavalry. Upon inquiring of a man at the back of the large standing crowd I learned that the speaker was a renowned camel consultant, brought here at great expense by the Pasha of Logistics and Transportation.
“. . . greatly facilitate conquest in the northeast and even the Occident,” the consultant was saying. “Your dromedaries’ apparent inability to grow a second hump is the sad result of poor upbringing, indiscriminate punishment, and the uncharitable mental patterns of their low-socioeconomic-status trainers, among other more obscure but equally pervasive psychological causes whose connection to the problem may not seem entirely obvious to the untutored. If Your Highness will only hire me to design a modern, scientific training program, and give me free reign to sack anyone in the camel industry who fails to implement it to my ever more exacting standards, including but not limited to herders, riders, saddlemakers, stablemasters, importers, exporters, grain suppliers, veterinarians, accountants, and also equivalent employees in adjacent industries, I can promise your dromedaries will grow a second hump almost without exception, typically after no more than one thousand and one hours of practice, and that any failure in this endeavor can be squarely blamed on incomplete or insufficiently rigorous purges of the above positions, or else persistent skeptical beliefs directed at your livestock by evilly uneducated persons who could be sent on foot into the Great Desert without anyone being particularly bothered by their disappearance.
“The advantages of this proposed hump-induction training program are immense. Inimitable groundbreaking research has found an almost perfect correlation between cold tolerance and supra-spinal fat mass duality, establishing the fundamental role of humps in facilitating resistance to uncivilized climates. It follows that the lack of a second hump in dromedaries is the primary limitation on our cavalry whenever love of justice compels us to invade and pillage the Occident. Standardizing hump growth practice throughout the empire should be considered a pressing military necessity, equivalent in value to specifying the optimal curve of your infantry’s scimitars as a function of conic geometry.”
“Fascinating,” said the sultan. “But my illustrious forebears, peace be upon them, left elaborate records of their continually more perfect strategies for subverting and conquering the Occident, and I recall no mention of training our dromedaries to grow more humps, nor to endure the chill and wet weather that plagues those misbegotten territories, which would hardly be worth invading if they weren’t so conveniently adjacent to our own. How can it be that none of the previous camel trainers in our long and glorious history stumbled, even by accident, on the miraculous power of hump practice?”
“There is indeed a sinister reason for our dromedary trainers’ long ignorance,” replied the consultant. “Namely, the conniving machinations of the Bactrians: uncouth and lowborn individuals who control the two-humped camel industry, and live at the already-too-cold fringes of your almost endless empire. These Bactrian provincials maintain that their camels have superior native ability to withstand cold weather, and that elaborate training programs are of no use whatsoever. But in truth they are terrified by the threat of any camel competition that might break their monopoly. Their agents sabotage dromedary training programs, secretly amputate budding second humps, and even poison dromedaries who study cold tolerance with a deadly toxin whose physical effects are, in a conventional autopsy, indistinguishable from frostbite. Worst of all, they direct skeptical thoughts at the prospect of hump practice, and foment doubt among our dromedary trainers and riders. These saboteurs are more pervasive than you imagine: some may be among us even now. If you retain my services, I will chase the Bactrians’ minions from your stables and cities until the day every dromedary in your cavalry grows a second hump.”
“Do these miracles of well-directed practice perhaps open the possibility of three- and four-humped camels?” asked the sultan. “Sailors who have ranged far north in their search for redheads report a profound seasonal chill, strong enough to alter the consistency of the rain and the sea. Even the two-humped camels of which you speak might struggle in such places.”
“Yes, of course, Your Highness. I may not know the precise limits of our power to induce hump growth, but I am quite certain it lies in the same place for every camel and dromedary, established there by holy moral laws which few of your subjects would risk ostracism to deny.”
“If your research is as sound as you claim, surely it would be possible for you to demonstrate additional hump growth with a small sample of dromedaries before taking command of my empire’s entire dromedary training program,” said the sultan.
“Your Highness, that might be possible ‘in vitro,’ as it were. But the discouraging ambient atmosphere that would result from allowing the bulk of your dromedaries to languish with a single hump would surely cause the experimental group in the proposed study to feel spiritually threatened. Wounded by the disrespect in which their purportedly deficient breed is held, I fear they will be unable to make the slightest progress in the growth of additional humps: the study will inevitably generate a false negative. No, I’m afraid the only solution is to give me complete, empire-wide control over your training programs until the problem is solved, however many years, decades, or centuries that might take.”
“I am much impressed by your sciencey chatter,” said the sultan, although his mind seemed to have drifted to other matters. “I shall discuss your proposal with my pashas tomorrow.” He dismissed the consultant with an odd gesture that was halfway between a wave and a salute.
The sultan who spoke this morning was a different man from the one I’d met a few nights ago: lucid, attentive, and perceptive, he sat upright and forward on his couch, his complexion and gestures radiating good health. In those days his addictions were not yet so strong that they dominated every waking hour. But despite his sobriety, there was something odd about his credulous questions, which in most others would have implied a narcotic influence: they were born out of fascination with the ideas at hand, rather than any concern for their veracity. Though he was widely read, his exceptional intelligence had no grounding in practical know-how or experience: it veered in the changing wind not like a sail or even a flag, but like a kite. Nor did he exhibit any genuine interest in material reality. The attentive study of the camel consultant’s face in which he had just engaged was that of a portraitist, identifying and admiring the most original features—savoring them, instead of sifting the subtleties of his expression for signs of motivation and hints of honesty or dissimulation.
I describe the sultan with lingering affection and at a distance of many years, which clarified and simplified my picture of his character, perhaps at the expense of exactness; but the general bent of his mind was apparent to me even on that day, my first in the Chamber of Petitions. On one occasion during an important field report, to which he was listening with genuine attention, he heard the call of a bird through the kiosk’s open windows, whereupon he ceased paying the slightest attention to the bewildered speaker until its song ended. He seemed to instinctively treat his own reign as a magnificent spectacle in which his involvement and his decisions were of secondary importance, though he never affirmed such a position verbally, nor perhaps conceived it in those terms. If he were solely a poet this tendency to evaluate everything in terms of interest and beauty would have been excusable, or at least understandable; but in one entrusted with the absolute rule of a great empire it opened the door to disaster—which, given the species of men who make their way to the top of our imperial government, needed no further invitation.
The next appellant was announced as a representative of the Well-Diggers’ Guild. He walked to the royal couch and bowed deeply; the sultan bade him make his petition.
“Your Highness, after extensive and detailed study, the Well-Digger’s Guild has discovered that our local wells and waterholes are at grave risk of running dry.” He paused as a murmur of confusion swept the room, then continued. “While it’s true that they show virtually no perceptible signs of depletion at present, a sophisticated multi-parameter mathematical model we’ve designed in cooperation with the empire’s best diviners and astrologers (necessarily complex, but well within the reach of anyone of numerical aptitude who is willing to devote three years of study thereto) predicts imminent, pending, or at least eventual disaster. Our astrologers cannot specify the date with any precision, but for the sake of prudence, we believe the time to act is now.
“As soon as we discovered that overuse and a conjunction of retrograde planets might empty the public works on which we’ve lavished such loving care, the Well-Diggers’ Guild, ever working for the glory of your almost endless empire, hired a panel of renowned experts to devise a mitigation plan. Their proposal is twofold. First, to ration our water by charging a tax per withdrawal. It will initially be very small, to accustom citizens to the idea, and then increase until the use of water for frivolous tasks such as bathing and washing becomes cost-prohibitive. This policy is known as ‘Preemptive Drought,’ and will assuredly delay disaster by at least several days. Second, to dig a fresh series of wells in the unpromising and barren desert to the south. We recently proposed just such a project to Your Majesty’s government, but the Pasha of Public Works rejected it on account of the uncommon depth to which wells in that region must descend if they are to reach water, and the persistent shortage of inhabitants, which made (in his view) any such effort uneconomical.
“Perhaps your pasha’s judgment was correct under the normal circumstances that seemed to reign last year, before civilization was threatened by impending doom; but in light of the incomprehensibly foresightful wisdom of our new astrological models, normal circumstances are no longer a relevant brake on the public works budget allocation that previously limited our members’ income. Experts believe the digging should begin without delay and continue without pause, including double-overtime pay, quadruple holiday pay, hazard pay, subsidized investments in new excavation equipment capable of reaching these unprecedented depths, and an educational outreach program to vilify any possible criticism of our public-spirited and accidentally extremely profitable labors. Taxes gathered under the Preemptive Drought policy will help to defray some of these expenses.”
“Would it be possible to explain the calculations of these astrologers in any detail?” asked the sultan. “I am, you see, quite curious about the zodiac, and have long contemplated the possibility of establishing an astrological observatory for the sake of more useful predictive counsel than I can usually obtain from my possibly well-intentioned pashas.”
Despite my lively concern for the purity of our city’s water supply, without which the reduction to general wealth would indirectly but inevitably cause my own honorable business to suffer, my lasting anger at the Well-Diggers’ Guild prevented me from fully analyzing the obfuscatory calculations their representative then read aloud from a thick sheaf of papers. The vow of eternal vengeance I’d sworn after their shoddy bucket engineering had trapped me in a dry well funded by my own tax dinars bound me to oppose them whatever the quality of their argument, so it was a fortunate convenience that their new proposal seemed even more self-serving and criminally wasteful than anyone from the private sector could have imagined in advance. As interrupting their representative with suitably derisory interpolations mocking the cornucopia of parameters and arbitrarily approximated constants abused in his expert models would be an inexcusable breach of protocol, I held my tongue and considered other avenues for breaking the Guild that would be viable after I’d attained the evil vizierhood for which I was destined—such as diverting a river, altering rainfall patterns, or establishing a very long strip of oil-heated kettles and beakers on the waterfront to render our abundant ocean water potable.
“The impenetrable logic of your astrologers,” said the sultan after a representative sample of the relevant formulae had been read aloud, “while perhaps making it impossible for myself or indeed any of my current pashas to understand precisely why we should hire the Well-Diggers’ Guild at double pay within the very near time frame for action that you’ve so persuasively indicated, nevertheless proves the magnitude of your experts’ expertise beyond any reasonable doubt, and I’m grateful the similarly doomy future they warned me of several years past—namely that our deserts would run out of sand if I allowed the establishment of a local glassmaking industry—was prevented from coming to pass by the conservation regulations they wisely recommended for that purpose; though the impact on our trade balance has admittedly been less fortuitous. Perhaps I should hire some of these men. Could they show a similar skill in the acquisition of virgin redheads, who have been in lamentably short supply since plagues began afflicting the Occident last year?”
“Your Highness, as our guild aimed to gather recommendations benefiting the long-term health of your empire, we made a point of hiring astrologers and diviners who specialize in precisely the kind of predictions which cannot be verified until after their pensioned retirement. Procuring odalisques on a more worldly schedule is a lesser problem for simpler minds, which you should perhaps assign to an uneducated trader whose financial success is dependent on the reliable fulfillment of promises, rather than savants who have tuned their minds to loftier concerns.”
I didn’t speak up against this goatmeat-fisted provocation. When I became an evil vizier my first act would be to assign the Well-Diggers’ Guild to dig their own graves, which they might well manage to a higher standard than the palace eunuchs had met the previous night.
“Yes, I see,” mused the sultan. “I have, it so happens, just such a man on my schedule today. That you concur with my own wisdom on this essential matter is yet another point in your favor; I shall speak to the Pasha of Public Works this very afternoon.” He dismissed the representative and turned to a guard who stood near his couch. “Call him forward.”
A sonorous bass voice caused my name to echo through the kiosk, over the decorative tiles, against the filigreed domes, past the pashas and the petitioning crowd, and out the turquoise windows into the palace courtyard, for the very first time. It was a sound I shall never forget, marking the informal commencement of my advisory role in our imperial government. I stepped forward with a gleam in my eye and a nervous tremble in my step, torn between trepidation at the prospect of an imminent beheading for my defective product and ambition to advertise the fruits of my overlarge cranium while the sultan was sufficiently lucid to recognize it.
“I’ve heard a great deal about you from my eunuchs,” said he.
For one who still hoped to live at least another threescore years (assuming the black arts of necromancy that traditionally served as a subject of casual study for evil viziers was unable to extend it any further) his phrase was unpalatably ambiguous. I gave the sultan a noncommittal but extremely polite response requesting the divinity to bless him and grant him long life, and other such phrases I’d heard used in his presence. Perhaps he was toying with me, but it was too late to flee.
I soon discovered my worries were unfounded: when the sultan spoke, his voice was animated only by a heartfelt enthusiasm for my trade. “I’ve been informed that your late father, peace be upon him, had the best reputation for quality imports among all the slavers in the bazaar, and that you yourself have already enslaved so many fine Occidental virgins that he smiles on you proudly from the heavenly gardens, despite the distracting number of erotic entertainments available in those high places.
“In these trying times, when my harem’s usual wholesale suppliers have fallen short (they tell me ‘plagues are running amok,’ or ‘advances in Occidental shipbuilding are hindering our pirates,’ or offer other excuses of even lesser value), my Chief Eunuch had the brilliant idea of engaging a retail slaver who might approach the challenge with more agility, lest I languish for an extended period without the nearby presence of appropriately enticing new sexual objects and instead fritter away my afternoons and evenings meddling with practical matters which, my advisors agree, are better left to subordinates. Your name came to the forefront of stiff competition—for these days it seems as if every young man in my empire wants to kidnap a few Occidental girls and start a sole proprietorship.”
When I heard the sultan speak thus and thus I penetrated his predicament immediately. Blinded by a sandstorm of pashas and eunuchs who were corrupt in the most insipid ways imaginable, he was in desperate need of a genuine evil vizier. Nor were my eminent qualifications for that role the sole reason I felt a thrill tingle up my spine: his invitation to speak before the entire imperial court was the kind of marketing opportunity every true slaver dreams of.
“Your Highness shows me too much kindness, though naturally without in any respect exaggerating the well-deserved fame of the small family-owned luxury boutique bequeathed me by my father, peace be upon him, which has been enslaving beautiful Occidental virgins for over two hundred years, and will, I hope, continue to enslave them for at least two hundred more.” Purely for promotional purposes I then mentioned, three times but in a seemingly natural sequence, the name of my business and its location in the bazaar, speaking loudly enough that everyone in the kiosk could hear them. (I won’t bother including the address in these memoirs; the property has long since been sold to an antique lamp merchant.)
“My efforts to steal and corrupt the daughters of our enemies for the glory of your empire and the sexual delectation of our refined civilization’s richest members have been diligent and unceasing, and I’m pleased my customers have chosen to recognize the consistency and quality of my slaving by praising my name within the Peerless Portal itself,” I concluded.
“Ah yes,” said the sultan. “You fill me with hope; for so dire is the shortage of fresh redheads that I’ve been forced to use some of my odalisques two or even three times, and am at grave risk of recognizing their faces, which would be both inauspicious and potentially damaging to the regular flow of my masculine humors. I’ve also been reliably informed by my personal surgeon that a steady diet of virgins is an effective antidote to the less desirable side-effects of the various other substances responsibly enjoyed by forward-thinking adults. Given the slaving excellence you’ve just described in such enticing detail, I’m certain you can make a delivery to the royal harem tonight, so I need not continue to sap my strength with the faded females who currently clutter my Hall of Concubines like excessively mobile furniture.”
Forced to affirm or deny the rapidity of my shipping before an audience of our most prominent pashas, I had no choice but to agree to a same-day sex slave delivery to preserve my reputation for customer service—leaving me little time to finish coaching my new acquisition in the erotic simulation of Occidental guilt that was such an essential complement to her submission to the sultan. I hoped the whirlwind of new odalisque orders I expected to receive after this public display of slaving efficiency would justify the risk of boring His Highness with the platitude of an uninhibited lover.
“Divine,” said the sultan. “I am looking forward to the delivery. You may stay for the next scheduled audience, as I’m inclined to hear the professional opinion of a man who dedicates his life to improving the efficiency of human resource allocation in my almost endless empire.”
The unexpected offer brought me an important step closer to the office on which I’d set my unusually perceptive sights. Serving today as the sultan’s acting evil vizier was at least halfway to true evil vizierdom. Indeed, “evil” was not—at least under normal circumstances—an official part of the title, but rather an informal honor agreed by posterity and therefore equally valid for a de facto advisor, should his infamy resound loudly enough through the succeeding generations. As mine assuredly will, on account of both the magnitude of my deeds and the future classic autobiography that you are now, dear reader, so avidly absorbing. My understandable excitement, however, was undercut by a prescient worry about Mala. I’d trusted her intelligence, and even more her natural interest in spending the rest of her life as a pampered toy of the world’s wealthiest ruler. Surely she was too clever to make trouble if I returned later than expected?
The palace guard then announced a doctor of obstetrics from a nearby hospital, as well as a professor of helminthology from the capital’s most renowned madrassa. These men stepped forward and bowed, and after a word from the sultan, the former began to speak.
“Your Highness, I thank you for at last receiving a bearer of dire news. Season after season I’ve requested an audience, and while the doom whereof I must warn you is a slow and creeping one, the ministers who filter applications and appeals have erred in delaying this presentation of my research, which they once described to my face as ‘dangerously likely to upend our society’s hard-won prejudices but fortunately also very easily ignored.’
“I will come to the point quickly so as not to delay your return to the harem and waste your famously well spent time.
“Two years ago, dismayed at the growing incompetence and indiscipline among our youth, I decided to search our hospital records in case they might shed any light on the cause of this irksome imbecility. That year saw an unusually cool winter, and with cases of heat stroke and dehydration momentarily in abeyance I took advantage of the available leisure to tabulate thousands of diligently gathered measurements, which the midwives had thrown into a heap in a cellar, assuming their collection one of those onerous but pointless formalities habitually required of them by our bloated administrative staff.
“I should explain: in accordance with the ordinances of the Imperial Census inaugurated by your predecessor’s predecessor’s predecessor, the midwives in my hospital make a record of every birth, along with a few important details about the newborn, including the length of the three essential lines on his right palm, his reaction, or lack thereof, to surprising loud noises such as cymbals and hunting horns, the circumference of his cranial dome, and his parents’ decision to circumcise or not circumcise his ears and genitals. With much frantic clicking of my abacus, and after discarding many frankly implausible associations, such as that between circumcision and hearing loss (the obvious sensory benignity of circumcision having been previously confirmed by a postal survey of the surgeons who carry out these ceremonies), I at last made a disturbing discovery.
“‘Anthropogenic Cranial Shrinkage’ is the name I’ve given to the phenomenon I uncovered that day. In sum, my research reveals that the average size of your subjects’ crania is decreasing each year, and this even after controlling for the rising popularity of ear circumcision. Gradually enough to pass unnoticed by casual observation, yes; but as the proverb says, ‘The righteous man breathes carefully, for in time a small wind moves a great dune.’
“I fear, Your Highness, that even commonplace sayings such as this will be beyond the fading mental powers of future generations. Our best phrenosophers assure me the association between cranial volume and mental capacity is no mere folk wisdom, but well-established science supported by generations of phrenological experiments carried out on peahens and captured Occidental men too old to recruit as galley slaves.”
“Will this ‘cranial shrinkage’ run its course before or after the sun burns out?” the sultan asked after a pause during which his gaze drifted toward the kiosk’s large stained-glass windows. His expression was difficult to interpret, but perhaps he was only thinking idly of the pleasures that awaited him after the noontime recess.
“Definitely before, Your Highness, at least based on the most recent astrological prognostication of a ten thousand and one year solar lifespan; but that assumes we do nothing to arrest the process. The process of cranial shrinkage, that is; for I know little about restoring the sun’s limited supply of charcoal.”
“Ah. I take it, then, that you believe our decline to shrunken-skulled idiocy and the resulting collapse of our civilization is not a foreordained destiny?” asked the sultan.
“Certainly not, provided we take steps to address the root causes.”
“You may speak on.”
“Your Highness, even slaves subject to frequent concussions are aware that tall men breed tall boys, and strong oxen breed strong calves, like to like and blood to blood; and as it is with these parts of the body—with the skeleton, muscles, and even the liver that transmogrifies our emotions and squeezes them into our veins—so too is it with the resplendent, crowning bones balanced atop our spines: the voluminous cranial domes for which the Orient is so justly famous. Therefore the question we must ask is: why are our best endowed parents—those sporting the most gracefully arched occipital bones—producing so few offspring? For this ominous infecundity I’ve identified several causes.
“First, the recent taste many men have developed for small-skulled females, which drove the ear circumcision craze now popular among both sexes.
“Second, and worse still, the natural frustration and envy our cranially gifted young women feel at the popularity of their slow-witted sisters, which drives them to neglect the cultivation of their own beauty and charm, and instead indulge in various shrewish behaviors that would wreak havoc if, heaven forbid, they were ever allowed to participate in the public affairs of your almost endless empire. When this stubbornness compounds their other handicaps, they attract only the sniveling lower residue of eligible suitors, until pride motivates them to reject marriage altogether—often after engaging in short-sighted antics such as affairs with pirates, highwaymen, common murderers, and even musicians.”
“I’ve never been fully persuaded by the sexual taste for small skulls,” interrupted the sultan. “At root, it is assuredly only a preference for women whose feminine parts exceed the size of their crania, which can be met in a far more enlightened way.”
“Be that as it may,” said the doctor, “there is yet a third cause of shrinkage; namely, the compulsory enrollment of our most promising young men into the army and various official ranks subject to a long vow of poverty and chastity, which is often scheduled to end well after their glorious but still very unfortunate deaths in battle. I needn’t explain to a ruler of your intellect that a policy such as this one will win us an incomparable empire for a century, but only at the price of losing it for eternity. In the Occident they have a saying: ‘Throwing seed corn into a bonfire and dancing gleefully while it combusts with many little pops,’ which, while rhythmically barbaric and lacking the understated elegance of our own proverbs, is perhaps apropos.
“These, then, are the foremost causes of your subjects’ slowly shrinking cranial caverns, sire; but I am merely a doctor and master of midwives, and shall not presume to dictate how the sultan, in his wisdom, might correct them.”
As the doctor was finishing his speech a woman had entered the Chamber of Petitions through a small door in the back and made her way up to the sultan’s couch. Now she bent over it from behind and spoke quietly into his ear. This, I presumed, was the sultana; and though I knew little about court etiquette, I thought it rather unusual that she’d appear in a public kiosk. Her face gave away nothing but its beauty.
After the sad death of his first wife, the sultan had married only one woman instead of the traditional dozen or so—a diplomatic marriage, in fact. He preferred to dally with his vast stable of concubines, whose numbers were continually expanded to ensure he never learned their names. By consequence, all the duties that his predecessors had divided amongst several sultanas fell on the shoulders of this lone female, giving her unprecedented power in the harem—and perhaps, I speculated, in court as well.
As she departed I caught her looking toward me through the corner of her eye, though very surreptitiously and without directing her pupils other than forward. Such longing gazes from females are an inconvenient effect of my aristocratic appearance that I’ve long since learned to tolerate without complaint, though they can be distracting on occasion. It was the sultan’s voice that refocused my mind.
“. . . having devoted your life since childhood to the sale of attractive foreign virgins, surely you can offer some ideas for improving the recognized value of our own bulbous-brained females?”
Such a question was precisely the opportunity I’d hoped for.
“Your Highness,” I said, “a lifetime of sales experience has taught me that it’s far easier to profit by catering to the crudest preexisting preferences of your clientele than by selling them quality and refinement—let alone a physical characteristic such as cranial capacity, widely considered less erotically charged than well-formed toes, appropriately placed moles, detached earlobes, or the ability to roll one’s tongue. Indeed, the most reliable results come from underestimating the sophistication of the public’s lusts, and then selling them something still cruder than this already lowered standard. Setting new trends against the tide of fashion and the fantasies of fools therefore falls both outside a slaver’s standard business model and beyond his professional expertise.
“However—that’s not to say an exceptionally voluminous turban such as my own does not contain beneath its ossified firmament an alternative and indeed far cleverer solution to the present problem.
“It’s entirely possible to offer cranially gifted but otherwise normal women the array of beauty aids typically reserved for odalisques: for instance, various poisonous but highly attractive facial paints (some of which cause dizziness and eventually insanity, though visible evidence of these effects can be mitigated with social tact and proper posture), open top blouses, or else enticing padding that can be covertly removed before the event, camel’s milk, whose consumption is held by some to benefit the feminine figure, gold-coin necklaces and broad pantaloons, very much in style today, rings and inset navel-gems, to enhance the erotic gyration of the belly with or without an accompanying dance . . . the list is quite long, Your Highness, but I’d be delighted to use my professional expertise in the service of the empire, and, if I were assured an adequate livelihood in the higher ranks of the imperial ministry, delighted too to disclose some of the proprietary seduction techniques I reserve for my luxury Occidental odalisques, which can hardly be discussed before a public audience, lest word of these salacious secrets reach my less original competitors. Of course, whether even the largest-skulled females would have the good sense to heed my wisdom without being properly enslaved first is another question entirely.”
“Our young men would certainly appreciate the innovations you describe,” replied the sultan, “but their stark opposition to respectable custom gives one pause. The rest of your proposal nevertheless bears consideration—provided the gravity of the threat is verified. Assuming, I mean, there is any substance to this so-called Anthropogenic Cranial Shrinkage. Let us revisit the matter at a later date; for the next speaker may render the point moot.”
Saying this, the sultan turned back to the doctor, who was still standing beside me.
“Doctor, I invited you here against the advice of my Pasha of Education, who insisted that you were nothing but a tactless busybody, wholly ignorant of the true reasons we possess such expansive and attractively ornamented crania, among which he listed the frequent playing of backgammon, youthful attendance at madrassas, and the various brow contortions our faces produce in repeated bouts of passion and righteous anger, which serve as a form of exercise entirely capable of inducing cranial expansion, much as hefting large sacks of couscous gradually increases the size of a laborer’s arms. Being a generous sultan and much given to curiosity, I decided to accept your appeal for an audience, but also granted the Pasha of Education’s request to invite a respected opponent to your unorthodox views—the professor of helminthology standing beside you, who has, during your speech, been performing the very brow exercise to which I’ve just referred.
“You may speak,” the sultan told the latter.
“Thank you sire. The doctor’s illiterate conclusions are wrongheaded in the extreme, and reveal the disturbing poverty of his possibly fraudulent educational attainments,” said the professor. “If he returned to my madrassa for the remedial learning he so desperately needs, I’d hardly expect him to pass the year in ancient Aramaic poetry that’s now required for even the most basic certification is obstetrics.
“Helminthologists have long known that the cranium itself is of secondary importance, a mere house in which reside the true source of perception and intellection: our thought-worms. An expansive cranium gives these mysterious creatures more room to comfortably squirm and worm, but that is the limit of its function, and extraordinary cranial proportions are consequently of little use.
“To address the doctor’s remaining point, it’s true that a few superficial factors, such as hair color and ear wax consistency, are passed down from father to son. But the large majority are subject to the influence of education, whose diligent pursuit causes a human cranium to expand as his thought-worms become more active, just as proper training permits a dromedary to grow a second hump—if you recall the motivational wisdom of the camel consultant who earlier addressed the Imperial Couch. Indeed, the point is already proven by the close analogy between the shape of a camel’s hump and the curve of our elegant outer head-parts, which make comparisons to other bones of more hereditary character offensive even to one of the generous openmindedness I exhibit by standing in the same room as the skull-measuring fraud who so recently inflicted his fabulations on this august assembly.
“It follows, Your Highness, that any observed cranial shrinkage can only be the direct result of insufficient respect for education. If we made provisions for our citizens to devote to learning a greater fraction of the meagre threescore and ten years the divinity has allotted us, including the study of both our sacred texts and the recently developed field known as al-gebra, it would be a simple matter to halt and reverse any supposed cranial shrinkage.”
“A forcefully stated line of argument. But did our ancestors truly pass so many years in study?” asked the sultan. “The portrait of my illustrious great-great-grandfather, peace be upon him, that hangs in my library displays a truly astounding cranial capacity, of a kind rarely equaled by our best minds today. How, I wonder, did he find time to educate his cranium to such a size while conquering so many Occidental cities? More to the point, how are my citizens to afford these additional years enrolled in your madrassa, during which they will do little productive labor and spend most of their nights, if the rumors are true, sharing hookahs while playing strip backgammon by moonlight, to a very low strategic standard?”
The professor replied with the traditional confidence of one accustomed to authoritatively delivering his various opinions before an audience already mesmerized by his compendious knowledge of an entirely unrelated topic. “While no well-preserved record states in unequivocal terms that our renowned ancestors devoted their free hours to study, the laws governing cranial capacity and its development logically imply that they did indeed pursue such scholarship during the short bouts of peace between their righteous wars with the Occidentals, but wisely hid their learning in order to conceal these skull-expanding techniques from the enemy. Obviously the exceptional mental capacities they developed allowed them to perfect far too well the keeping of their secret, which thus passed from living memory.
“As for financing the continually lengthening education that will be necessary to grow your subjects’ crania, I’ve taken the liberty of speaking with a moneylender who is willing to pay tuition in advance, regardless of how many years it might take, how high my madrassa might raise its prices, and how much the administration might profit from the expected enrollment increases; provided only that the state agrees to guarantee his loans against defaulters. In other words, the empire need pay hardly anything, at least initially.
“What could go wrong, Your Highness? If we succeed, your subjects’ skulls will expand immeasurably; and in the unlikely case where cranial gains are less than hoped for, which could only result from excessive skepticism among retrograde factions of the faculty, they will have gained instead a priceless personal development opportunity at a comparably very modest tuition, borrowed at an interest rate that will hardly seem unusual to them before they’ve completed their lengthy course of study, and with the additional advantage of cost savings on turban fabric.”
“Are women to participate in this lengthy education you propose as a cure—which continues, if I understand correctly, into the years traditionally dominated by maternal duties?” inquired the sultan. “They do seem to figure prominently in the doctor’s shrinkage hypothesis.”
“Of course, Your Highness. The benefits of personal madrassa enrollment loans and the cost-invisibility cloak they cast over higher education should be extended to all of your subjects, regardless of gender, preexisting cranial capacity, or practical utility—let alone its effect on fertility. How else can we harvest the incredible benefits of skull growth?”
The doctor of obstetrics, who had been silently fuming while the long-winded professor advertised his education business with such practiced skill, could no longer help himself, and interjected, “A salted field yields no couscous.”
“Thank you, doctor,” said the sultan, “but your blurted citation in this inappropriate context casts a dubious light on your good sense, for the Bey of Agriculture already made his presentation earlier this morning.” The sultan stood and raised his voice. “I will complete my consideration of this issue on some future occasion, for another problem requiring my attention has just come to light; and at any rate this ‘Anthropogenic Cranial Shrinkage’ seems much less pressing than the need to dig an unspecified but probably very large number of deep wells in the Great Desert to avoid a shortage of water even greater than the one I may soon artificially enforce by law.”
The sultan departed through the same door the sultana had used, and, as I soon gathered, much earlier than was his custom; for a murmured hubbub ruffled through the crowd after the palace guards closed it behind him. Rumor claimed the sultan’s eldest daughter, the only child by his late and beloved first wife, had reached the beginnings of womanhood and begun to cause no end of trouble; though it’s possible the sultana’s whispered message had referred to some entirely different problem in the harem.
I filed out of the kiosk along with the rest, hoping my clever proposal had made a strong enough impression on the sultan to survive purging by the various mind-altering substances that would course through his cranium this evening. An everyday challenge for a vizier, I surmised.
When I arrived back at the office, my thoughts still consumed with the day’s events and the torrent of words that had coursed through the Chamber of Petitions, I found my assistant under the awning that faces the bazaar, speaking to a customer who was in the process of inspecting the sole of a high-end odalisque’s foot while she stood on her other leg in the manner of flamingoes, glaring at the sun. Assuring the customer I’d be out to talk to him myself as soon as I changed my turban, I stepped inside and went directly to the storage closet, intending to warn Mala that her delivery date had been moved up.
She was gone.