Chapter XXII - Part-Time Evil Vizier
When I squeezed through the dressing-room full of half-dressed blonde sex slaves I was, dear readers, rather too distracted to focus on my usual work. For on the very same morning I’d scheduled the Grand Reopening Sale of my newly remodeled Luxury Odalisque Shoppe—whence the nervous warm-up gyrations of the remarkably attractive crop of imported Occidental virgins who now huddled around me like bunches of dates huddle around the firm yet flexible stem that suspends them above a bruising plunge into hot sand—I’d been summoned to make my first official appearance as a vizier at the sultan’s court; and amid so many demonstrative requests to assist with the choosing of brassieres and navel rings, accompanied by well-rehearsed jigglings and wigglings in a shifting palette of colors to which on any other day I’d pay the degree of professional attention they deserved, my overriding concern was to get a clear and unjostled view of my impressively large formal turban in one of the three vanity mirrors, that I might fix, to show the requisite respect to His Majesty and thereby maintain an uninterrupted connection between my cranium and shoulders, the slightest unevenness in its coil of premium fabrics. If the turban in question was rather too large for a mere Undervizier of Women’s Education and Interim Director of the Work-Study Program at the Imperial Madrassa, ignorance of the modest trappings appropriate to my temporary entry-level rank was not to blame. Rather than the ornamental stuffing lesser minds wear to affect greater insight than their forebears have bequeathed them, its striking girth derived entirely from the bulbous and well-stocked skull within.
This particular underviziership having been recently created for me at the behest of a patron whose motives could scarcely have been more ulterior, my understanding of its attendant responsibilities was still incomplete, and my initial assumption that the proposed novelty of “higher education for women” entailed a separate walled madrassa campus devoted to instruction in cosmetology, belly-dancing, finger-cymbal performance, and others of the quintessentially feminine arts in which I was accustomed to give girls instruction at the luxury sex-slave dealership I’d inherited from a long line of hard-working ancestors, peace be upon them, had not yet been proven so deeply false as I would deem it by the time the sun touched the tips of distant dunes and granted the men, slaves, camels, goats, sacred ibises, crocodiles, and women in the resplendent capital of our almost endless empire their nightly reprieve from heat. I therefore felt only a mild anxiety about the upcoming imperial audience while I tamed the offending fold, ordered pale pink pantaloons replaced with fuchsia, offered a transparent top to a modestly endowed odalisque (it's a well-established rule that lesser charms benefit from bolder presentation), and called my assistant to hail a quick camel; for though trained from childhood to be punctilious in the performance of all duties proper to a professional slaver, insofar as I was unaccustomed to juggling two careers at once I found myself running uncustomarily late.
Women's higher education was, naturally, to be managed under the aegis of the august though famously inefficient department of our government known as the Imperial Harem Administration, and I'd been informed by its eunuchs that mine was a part-time position which would infringe little on my diurnal labors, such that the token salary I'd be paid fortnightly, although not strictly speaking of a quantity to meet the cost of living in our capital on its own, ought to be considered supplementary to income from the private business I'd be permitted to retain. (The low wages for government workers in our empire had the unwritten intent of ensuring the beneficent corruption of our officials; for as the proverb inquires, “How could a vizier too dull to slyly extort bribes from merchants and publicans the law conveniently positions under his thumb be expected to assist the sultan in the righteous pillaging of Occidental lands which are much less conveniently located?”) The summons I'd received at dawn had revealed these ostensibly limited working hours to be inconveniently dispersed, with the unfortunate consequence that my fairly incapable assistant, whose services I retained solely to make a conspicuous display of charitable hiring standards for disabled veterans, would be the one to chain up our new product line and greet the first customers should my mid-morning meeting run long.
After correcting my charges' fashion errors I returned to the customer lounge with a few overeager odalisques in my wake, checked the straightness of the carpets and the arrangement of the antique-painted-pot collection behind the sandalwood counter, instructed two girls to polish the fine mauve slippers I was wearing in the manner that befitted their station—one to each and with the accompaniment of corporeal motions that were as attractive as they were superfluous—and while they obeyed and swayed with admirably erotic grace attesting to my pedagogical skill, I gave my assistant much simpler preparatory instructions intended to minimize the damage he could do to my revenues in the event of my absence at the noontime call for prayer that precedes our opening.
The camel driver waiting under my gold-lettered sign leered through the display windows so intently that he failed to remark my presence even after I mounted, and only the glimmering palmful of dirhams I thrust forward to sweeten my request for the fastest route to the palace tore his eyes from charms he would never possess and sent him sweating through the bazaar's bestial crowds, slipper to flank and toe to sandstone, betwixt turns and twists and up the coconut-laden road that led to the Peerless Portal.
A man unrelentingly driven by wicked ambition rarely experiences twinges of remorse, yet I did not pay the double fare to expedite my journey without unpleasant aftereffects on the shade of my bile. My recent return to financial stability had come at a cost my thought-worms were averse to contemplating, and rather than accept dependence on a generous credit line and spend dinars like sand, I doggedly strove to manage my affairs with the same middle-class prudence I'd exemplified before somewhat innocently falling into the moneylender's hand, which now controlled me—so he thought—like a marionette on strings of silver and gold, secured in place by compromising evidence written in my own. It was this very loss of independence that had placed my first foot on the magic ladder toward almost absolute power: an intolerable contradiction I'd vowed to correct as soon as I found the means to foil my master, but at present it was all I could do to avoid deepening my debt, and despite the salesman's easy smile that met the casual glance, each fresh expense was haunted by a grim recollection of unlucky circumstance.
This particular non-tax-deductible travel emolument proved well-judged, for the camel driver set my soles in the Peerless Portal's arching shadow just in time for them to reach the Imperial Council Kiosk before the palace gardeners closed its great ebony doors with a thump that echoed in my cranial dome, as it did in the wide and fantastically decorated dome overhead, to announce the official opening of my vizierly career.
That the council had been convoked on such short notice was not due to any imminent danger threatening the empire, but rather our sultan's particular habits: a propensity to pleasurable excess already marked in years past had redoubled after the distressingly inauspicious demise of his famous collection of redheads by fire, plague, and crocodile—causes deadly enough on their own, and altogether worse when they struck simultaneously in a set of three; and his moments of lucidity being now fewer and further between than was strictly desirable in a head of state, the Chief Eunuch thought it wise to “sow couscous before the silt dries,” as the saying says.
His scheduling today was timely indeed, for from my imperfect vantage between the Undervizier of Oasis Management and the visiting bey of a provincial city whose name now eludes me, the sultan's gait was steady and his expressive eyes clear as he entered the council chambers. He ascended to the imperial couch and gave a small wave; we straightened and reseated ourselves, whereupon the Chief Eunuch presented a brief preamble listing the issues at hand and then announced the opening speaker: a man who stood out from all others for the gap between his undistinguished cranial capacity and his instinct for power, which last I might have grudgingly admired were it not about to force me, and the entirety of our almost endless empire, toward a series of unenviable and potentially terminal challenges roughly equivalent to those a man experiences when sitting naked on a nest of ants and repeatedly striking them with a heavy hammer as they explore his body.
The camel consultant spoke thusly: “Your Highness, the Imperial Harem Administration has only begun to purge its ranks of Bactrian spies. Still, it would be a tragedy if we were to delay reforms until the end of a process that may continue indefinitely. Support for my innovative dromedary-training program grows stronger with every traitor ousted. The sooner we implement modern methods, the sooner we will end the Bactrian monopoly on two-humped camels forever.”
“Can you assure us,” asked the Pasha of Uniforms and Armaments, his voice exuding a gruff, martial vigor that derived rather from the idea of combat than any experience in it, “that the two-, three-, or four-humped camels produced by your proposed dromedary-training program will permit our camel corps to invade colder climes deficient in sand—such as those defended by infidels?”
“Absolutely. Because their second hump is the source of that superior cold tolerance so-called 'Bactrian' camels enjoy over the single-humped local dromedaries in our cavalry, a carefully guided program of deliberate hump-growth practice is the surest way to extend our military's range. Provided” —the camel consultant gave a special emphasis to this word— “the enemies of education are removed from any position in our imperial government where they might directly, indirectly, or subliminally do harm to our dromedaries' budding second humps. These are, in the first stages of development, exceedingly fragile, and scarcely distinguishable from the small cysts such beasts suffer from time to time when combed by ignorant owners in the wrong direction or with an insufficiently small gauge of brush.”
“Your expertise in the matter is obvious,” said the sultan. “Yet I have reservations about this program. The preliminary evidence seems to be lacking. And if new humps are as vulnerable as you say, it may take several years to see consistent results.”
Though decisions made therein touched the most distant dune of our almost endless empire, the Imperial Council Kiosk was of modest size and exceedingly simple layout, unfurnished apart from a long divan that ran against the walls facing the couch whence the sultan now spoke. Two of these were covered in tiles of exquisitely detailed design, echoed in silk weaving on the divan's cushions, and the third consisted of stained-glass windows that opened onto the palace gardens; above them an arabesqued dome ringed in golden filigrees tugged the eyes perpetually upward, so that whenever the minutiae of government began to bore him, which was often, his gaze would drift in a loop from the garden to the zenith and back. The sultan's weakness for idle pleasures was not solely to blame. Any connoisseur of interior decorating risked losing his less obedient thought-worms to the spectacle of complexity and simplicity in such striking combination, and at my first session in the kiosk only my unquenchable thirst for almost absolute power kept my attention on the Chief Treasurer when he addressed the council, for his face was framed by a half-closed window behind which swaying fronds of a young date palm animated the elaborate pattern of panes in a mind-boggling surfeit of detail.
“There is an additional problem, sire. Repairing the extensive damage to your harem caused by last year's tragic undead odalisque invasion has already used up the reserves in the Imperial Disaster Fund, for which less costly relief programs, such as unearthing villages buried by category-three sandstorms or delivering mass caravans of couscous to regions ravaged by plagues of locusts, had been envisaged. The exchequer will be depleted for some years to come, and in the meantime ambitious new projects with a delayed return are scarcely feasible.”
“Wisely spoken,” conceded the Pasha of Uniforms and Armaments, without thereby leading any of his colleagues to imagine him deterred. “But if cost and time are at issue, it seems to me a thorough preliminary study of second-hump-growth training would only increase both of these. Whereas by implementing the new program across our camel corps immediately, we can be ready to launch an unexpected surprise invasion of the coldest and most undesirable parts of the Occident in just three years, rather than a much less auspicious six.”
The Chief Treasurer, a punctilious and businesslike man with a degree of good sense quite out of place in the upper echelons of any large bureaucracy, was less troubled to adorn his reply with the trappings of polite consideration. “The risk of a loss is too great. And we should hardly expect a positive return on investment for the invasion of lands which are, if travelers' reports can be trusted, regularly covered in dead leaves to an extent that not only renders couscous cultivation impracticable, but even suffocates any dung beetles and scorpions who indulge your ambitions.” A few years earlier, when the imperial budget began to grow tighter than in generations past, the Chief Treasurer had been brought to the council from the linen-export industry rather than the rank and file of the Imperial Harem Administration according to the usual custom, and despite an upright disposition and a delivery that made it curiously impossible to tell when he was making a joke at an official's expense and when he was merely announcing a matter of fact, I took a liking to him as the only other businessman on a council whose members had devoted their lives to public service (or at least to the associated largesse). It was a pity what I'd have to do to him.
“The conquest of infidels is heartily recommended by scripture,” the Pasha of Uniforms and Armaments told the council while looking at the Chief Treasurer, his voice sharpening with what I took to be a longstanding grudge. “Is it to be subject to the same mercenary considerations as caravanserai maintenance, sandstone resurfacing, and well-digging, which already cut too frequently into the budget for military requisitions?”
The Recorder of Records then intervened in the mild, reasonable tone of one preparing to be respected for his ambivalence to alternatives under heated debate, though were the dromedaries discussed present in the kiosk they'd have displayed yet more of this virtue. “Your Majesty, perhaps we might consider a rapid and inexpensive means to test the transformative power of training before we take the risk of implementing a full-scale cavalry-wide double-hump induction program. If I may?” The sultan waved for the eunuch to continue.
“As we're all aware, a progressive degeneration is said to afflict the crania in your almost endless empire, the portraits of your miraculously endowed ancestors providing the firmest proof of decline. Experts are confident this 'anthropogenic cranial shrinkage' could be reversed by increasing attendance at our madrassas and lengthening the traditional course of study—changes which may appear challenging in themselves, but are, I'm told, easily achieved by lowering entrance standards and requiring yet more classes of no discernible practical value. If the fragility and slow growth of new humps lead us to expect long delays in a pilot study of dromedary training, a similar experiment on solider parts should give a clearer result in much less time, with other benefits besides. And what, Your Majesty, could be more solid than bone?”
“You are proposing, I take it, to measure the changes to cranial circumference induced by our madrassas, on the assumption that the same result will hold for the similar shapes produced by dromedary hump training,” summarized the Chief Kadi in the sonorous bass that endowed even his most erroneous judgments with the ring of truth. “Bone is known, however, to grow slowly in any ordinary circumstance.”
“Perhaps so,” replied the eunuch. “But by abruptly educating a thin-skulled species little given to learning, though known to be tractable when plied with the correct balance of physical chastisement and hookah smoke, could one not induce a rapid and measurable cranial expansion?”
“My herders will resist any edict that requisitions their lambs,” declared the bemused bey beside me. A few of the overlapping murmurs that followed no doubt mocked his inexperience and provincial mind (not a regular member of the council, he'd been invited today to report on the troubles in his distant region), but the remainder were devoted to expressing astonished curiosity at the Recorder of Records' true proposal.
Although that proposal might have come as a surprise to the rest of the council, the moneylender had known the topic of the meeting in advance, if not the time, and had arranged a kind of pantomime. Some weeks ago, before the Great River had begun its yearly flood, he'd summoned me to congratulate me on my new position, as he put it; his real purpose being to demand of me certain statements favorable to his interests, which I was in no position to refuse him. He explained that one of the eunuchs would guide discussion toward the education of females (if the Recorder of Records had just spoken rather more constructively than was his usual wont, this was because another mind lay behind his mouth), and after several objections were heard I would refute them by promising even the most outrageous proposals were feasible at no present cost to the treasury, provided only that we expand the student-loan program already under consideration. Before the future fiscal consequences of imperial subsidies and guarantees could be fully plumbed, the most vocal critic of the proposal would reverse his position, creating for the sultan, who was likely preoccupied with the ongoing restoration of his harem, the illusion that my refutation had been compelling. This sort of scheme makes up the couscous and dates of an evil vizier's work, of course. Yet had I known, dear readers, that the impossible responsibilities it created were about to be shifted in my direction rather than onto the conveniently positioned shoulders of some suitable innocent, even blackmail would not have procured my participation.
“It is far more advisable to exercise patience and test hump training on a few dromedaries directly, for the arguments against educating women with such thoroughness as would be necessary to expand their crania are many and obvious,” the Vizier of Infidel Affairs was first to pronounce the most widely held reaction cogently. After a long and varied service abroad that had matched his beard to his cream-colored turban, he'd become fluent in more languages and customs than would survive if the Oriental foreign policy he was charged with executing achieved its ultimate aims. “This council has already agreed to greatly expand eligibility for belly-dancing lessons as a high-minded public service to the sultan's subjects, and even appointed a new undervizier to oversee the transition.” He was referring to me, but made no move to acknowledge my presence. “A full madrassa education, however, is intended to prepare young men to participate in public life, and therefore quite a different matter. Imagine the fate of our empire if females did the same! They'd return conquests to the conquered and beggar us feeding beggars, and should their newfound knowledge lay bare the ignorance of their husbands, even a compensatory surge in household beatings might not be enough to restore order. How, moreover, are they to people our empire if they spend their most fertile years calculating epicycles, mastering the rules and exceptions of ancient Aramaic grammar, and memorizing the helminthological effects of a thousand and one bile-coloration combinations? Within a few generations prolific heathen too backward to be so foolish would swarm across the Great Desert like flightless locusts lusting to put to better use women we'll lack the manpower to protect.”
“Doomsaying speculation dressed up as wisdom,” the Pasha of Uniforms and Armaments asserted dismissively, driven by enthusiasm for the prospect of cold-weather conquest more than any particular interest in the domestic effects of policies that would enable it. “The proposed study need enroll a few hundred women at most, and no one wearing an adult-size turban believes this is the kind of bad habit that would spread. As for births, in the very unlikely case they were to fall we could easily make up the difference by importing much younger slaves. The small size of infants ensures they can be conveniently stowed on our galleys in large quantities, perhaps” —he made an evocative grasping gesture whilst spreading and dangling his fingers below his hands— “with the same hanging nets used for the transport of coconuts. I shouldn't need to recall to this chamber that even today our best troops are made up of Occidentals confiscated from their parents as children.”
The vizier was unimpressed. “The rigors of Janissary training shape those troops into little more than intact eunuchs, prepared to risk death that our sultan might oppress their former families in whatever fashion he sees fit. An ingenious invention, yet not one that can be scaled to save your suggestion; and there are much simpler ways to pass the empire to Occidentals than to bequeath it to their children. We could, for instance, guide the Crusaders and their pregnant wives to our capital lest they stray en route and sack the wrong city again, as they too often do, and then simply surrender everything to them.”
The Chief Calligrapher spoke up before the Pasha of Uniforms and Armaments had time to comprehend this suggestion, which is not to imply any particular haste. “Pasha, we're in agreement that the elder vizier's criticisms are dubious—stirred up, no doubt, from overly masticated mental mulch by the unreasonable fear of progress common to those nearing higher gardens. Even so, I believe his liver is in the right place. The crania of young women have been presented as a cost-saving proxy for camel-hump experimentation; and in any other case there would certainly be good practical reasons to arrange a human trial before an animal one, camels being valuable and hard to come by. But the modest circumstances of professors are deceptive, and for causes that are difficult to discern, the cost of a complete madrassa education exceeds, in fact, the cost of a camel—even before tabulating the high price of books, which, if you'll recall the law recently passed by this council, must be hand-copied to protect the Orient from the dangers of movable type. It's quite implausible that a sufficient number of young females' fathers would be foolish enough to pay the tuition themselves. I'm afraid higher education is simply not an economical way to accelerate the perfection of advanced camel-training methods.”
The moneylender had selected the phrase “movable type” to signal my debut, and as if by coincidence the Chief Calligrapher allowed his eyes to fall upon my immaculately wound turban as he uttered it. I had, dear readers, been anticipating this moment all my life.
“As a mere undervizier I hesitate to part beard and moustache amongst such an illustrious assembly, sire,” began my first words to the council, though in fact no hesitation preceded them (it was self-evidently auspicious to inaugurate my career as an evil vizier with a lie, and to that end I'd carefully formulated this preamble far in advance), “yet in the mundane world outside the Peerless Portal I am renowned as a slaver, educator, and businessman no less expert in the financial exigencies of human resource management than in the refined perception of feminine beauty, and I flatter myself to hope the plush carpet of knowledge gleaned from my long experience would not go untrodden were you to grant me permission to unroll it, after many prostrations of obeisance, before your well-fitted slippers.”
In the months since I'd damaged my voice rescuing my faux-Occidental odalisque, lead actress, and beautiful assistant from a burning harem, it had fully recovered the mellifluous richness that could sell a female of twenty-four years for a price other slavers would have scarcely managed at sixteen, and the only permanent reminder of a variety of dangerous misadventure I'd firmly resolved to delegate to hired henchmen in the future was a ghostly hiss that lingered after sibilant syllables. The wide dome for which the Imperial Council Kiosk was known perfectly complemented my register and tone, so that swaddled in its reverberations, my speech took on the suave persuasiveness of a winding, appoggiatura-laden melody played on the lowest string of the kemenche. All of this must have had an effect on the delicate aesthetic sensibilities of our sultan: he regarded me very curiously and waved for me to continue. Several members of the council wore displeased expressions, but having no inkling of my devious scheme and expecting nothing worse than an upstart keen to give himself airs by verbally preening before his new peers, they merely waited with the inattention of anticipatory rejection.
“Your Highness, the idiom recently alluded to by the Vizier of Infidel Affairs, whereby 'a delayed Crusade may never arrive,' is not without application to the financial challenges that might arise were we to send a well-powered sample size of underprepared females to our madrassas without the means to pay their tuition. Last dry season the council heard arguments for a small student-loan program intended to assist promising but impecunious young men. While the opinion of the council was unfavorable, likely due to the excessive heat at that time of year rather than any flaw in the program itself, I've calculated that by vastly expanding these student loans and also extending eligibility to the weaker sex, we could easily fund the study the Recorder of Records described without any present impact on the exchequer whatsoever. Local lenders are willing, moreover, to offer an extended grace period enabling years of uninterrupted education, and even to waive any checks on creditworthiness or the market value of the various degrees sought, provided only that the imperial treasury guarantee their loans against defaults. Once they've been assaulted by the appropriate professional marketing, no fear of financial hardship will dissuade even the cleverest potential students till long after this 'study' study, as it were, has demonstrated the desired transformation, and our four-hump-trained camels are traipsing under those vast fields of trees said to cover the Occident like inelegant and excessively dense date plantations.”
“Are my uncircumcised ears,” the Agha of the Janissaries inquired incredulously, “right to hear the council's newest entrant, on his first occasion under the dome, encouraging a form of usury strictly forbidden by prophecy—and this to fund a ‘study’ study which already sets a very dangerous precedent? Indeed the saying says that one sin leads to another; yet to remove the lead and recommend two sins at once is another matter still. Your Highness, if the Grand Vizier were still with us, peace be upon him, every Abdul, Sadiq, and Mahmut led in from the bazaar wouldn't presume to sit on the divan's divans blithely prescribing the proscribed.”
I'd hoped to avoid giving offense so soon—the important distinction between sworn enemies and hapless victims being critical to a smooth rise to power—yet allowing such an attack to pass unanswered would have been a signal of weakness mortally dangerous to anyone engaged in Oriental politics, effectively ending my career as soon as it had begun. So I followed one of the traditional tactics for an evil vizier in open debate with a man of honest practical competence: after a subtle but unmistakable insult that would redden his bile and prevent his thought-worms from forming the tight-knit nest required for the digestion of unfamiliar information, I'd loose a confusing barrage of technical verbiage, portraying him as ignorant before anyone had time to realize he was correct. Incomprehension would augment his ire and thereby trap him in a recursive loop of cognitive quicksand until he was thoroughly befuddled and incapable of replying coherently—whereupon victory would be mine.
“Naturally, when we speak of an 'interest rate,'—and I would have prefaced myself thus had I recalled that certain respectable members of the council, or perhaps only one member, are, through no fault of their own, lamentably undereducated in matters of high finance, having spent their impressionable years learning instead to slap scimitars with each other in vain aspiration to the elegance of rutting oryx (a patriotic sacrifice for which none present could express more gratitude than I)—naturally, then, when we speak of an 'interest rate,' this is never more than a metaphorical convenience and shorthand, O Agha. In actual practice the so-called 'moneylender'—another metaphorical term—will purchase a small item from the prospective student, perhaps a ring or a bauble of some sort, and draw up a contract wherein that student will promise to repurchase said item on a specified date in the future for a higher price, to be paid in installments, which is precisely albeit entirely coincidentally equivalent to the price he would have paid had he agreed to an usurious loan at the metaphorical interest rate I previously mentioned (now nearing a historical low well under eighteen percent). Should the so-called borrower be too destitute to provide any form of collateral, the so-called moneylender will generously make to him a tax-deductible donation of some commodity—such as silver or lapis lazuli—provided the so-called borrower contractually agrees to resell this commodity to the so-called moneylender before it materially changes hands, to repurchase it from him at a specified date in the future for an amount greater than its market value by the metaphorical interest accrued in the interim, and then, again before the commodity materially changes hands, to re-donate it to the so-called moneylender (though having made no profit in this series of exchanges, the so-called borrower is normally not in a position to benefit from the tax deduction for which his re-donation would otherwise be eligible).
“I understand that all this must be difficult to follow for a man of your aerodynamic phrenology, but I assure you it is standard practice and in no way technically contrary to the divine law revealed in the most recent prophetic updates from the desert—as the Chief Kadi can confirm.” By directing the agha's attention toward one who would thus share the blame for an objectionable reality, I prevented him from responding explosively to an explanation any debt-free layman would assume to be mere obfuscatory fabrication.
“Although I would not describe it in quite these terms,” said the Chief Kadi after a reluctant pause, “the undervizier is correct that the practice is common and, for better or worse, not subject to prosecution under the current interpretation of the law.”
While the agha spluttered and blinked in the manner of one completely outmatched, the Chief Calligrapher stepped in to provide an illusion of opposition (I should inform my dear readers, insofar as I expect these memoirs to be read in a distant future where the organization and titles of our imperial government may have undergone various alterations, that his was a high-ranking bureaucratic position in no way restricted to calligraphy, as admirable as that art may be, just as the palace gardeners are in no way restricted to gardening). “The agha's critique may have come from a place of ignorance. But I believe I speak for the Chief Treasurer too when I worry that females educated at great cost in subjects of little practical use, having, moreover, themselves shown no aptitude for productive labor beyond the knitting of low-quality headscarves, are at high risk for defaults that will fall heavily on the treasury in some future year.”
When rehearsing my reply to the anticipated complaint I'd tried out various introductory epigrams before finally settling on one made reassuring by its familiarity: believing themselves on well-trodden sand, my less watchful listeners would thus scarcely sense the introduction of novelties that should have been disturbing to any sensible man. “'A stitch in time saves nine.’ So the proverb concerning avoidable passenger-magic-carpet crashes famously concludes; and having anticipated the risk the Chief Calligrapher cites, I've already made just such a life-saving stitch. The new work-study program I've designed for the Imperial Madrassa will allow student borrowers to make an early start on repayment by spending a few hours each week on small tasks, such as filing books, polishing and refilling lamps, and scrubbing the tiles and tadelakt, and thereby provide a modest but reassuring buffer against default.”
“Not only are these tasks, by and large, better suited to slaves imported from the wrong side of the Great Desert than to the middle-class females you propose to indebt,” said the Chief Treasurer, “but they provide a wage far too low to prevent a frightful compounding of interest during the period of study. I cannot allow the treasury to take on any liability for such a high-risk package of debts.”
“I concur,” said the Chief Calligrapher. “This work-study program will remove no more than a few grains from the crushing weight of a great dune. Unless someone present is aware of a more cost-effective proof for the power of education than experimental enhancement of young women's cranial growth, I'm afraid the cavalry camel-hump-training program, as well as any associated expeditions to uninhabitable reaches of the Occident, will have to be postponed till fatter years allow the imperial government to resume its time-honored tradition of frivolous expenditure.”
“Ah,” I cut in smoothly, “but I've only finished describing the work-study arrangements for male students. Female students are quite another matter.” Here lay the crux of the contract, so to speak; and I began my almost imperceptible transition from commonplace observations on which all present could comfortably agree to matters of detail that would be, to any honest counselor, rather alarming. Fortunately the latter were in short supply. “A young man is, of course, a fairly worthless creature, neither wealthy nor yet skilled enough to generate real wealth, and unless fortune should prematurely bestow upon him an unfortunate father's fortune, he is best employed as an expendable soldier 'to scuff Crusaders' over-bright shields / ere Janissaries bloody the fields,' as the nursery rhyme has it. A young female is another matter entirely. From the first resplendent flowering of womanhood till the day she exceeds the legal age, her price declines as steadily as a scarab rolls down a dune, and to this none can testify with more professional expertise than I. Yet as every man and eunuch under this dome has heard, the proposed study study will enroll girls in the very season they glow with the golden blush of ripe mangoes swaying on the bough—and would it not be a pity for them to waste this abundant season mastering the sexagesimal astrology of wandering stars instead of realizing their full value in a part-time after-class work-study program tailored to their particular merits?”
“Surely you are not proposing,” the Vizier of Infidel Affairs ended a long silence, “on the pretext of funding an education already harmful in itself, to turn our most promising middle-class girls into common harlots whilst at the same time enslaving them to enormous debts that can scarcely be paid in any other way?”
“My dear vizier,” I said reasonably. “I'm merely describing a simple sex-work-study program—one that will render an otherwise impossibly expensive educational experiment not only possible, but indeed very inexpensive as far as the imperial treasury is concerned, and thereby enable this council to approve our camel cavalry's hump-training program in a timely fashion and launch an ambitious and entirely unexpected invasion of the infidels' inhospitable northern reaches—” as I spoke thus I allowed my gaze to fall encouragingly on the Pasha of Uniforms and Armaments “—all while providing young women with morally valuable experience doing a hard night's work. Everybody wins.”
“Such deviousness,” persisted the Vizier of Infidel Affairs, “whether or not it might be justified in consideration of military ends rendered sacred by scripture, could find appropriate use only in the entrapment of Occidental females, who possess a combination of freedom and gullibility unparalleled in other lands, as my long experience among them confirms. Even the least attentive Oriental father would withdraw his daughter the day your intent became plain.”
“An issue easily resolved by a man of my particular expertise. We shall simply rely on the traditional method of describing the least pleasant obligations with the vaguest legally permissible terms in the fine calligraphy of an initialed addendum to an overlong loan contract that will also, three-fifths of the way through unbroken paragraphs of protectively dull verbiage burdened by a repellent excess of commas, reassign paternal rights to the government. A mere technicality, our loan officers will explain if pressed, but nevertheless obligatory to win approval for the guarantee against default our moneylenders require. Since the Imperial Harem Administration already has precedent to manage state ownership of women, the remaining details are easily arranged: once their daughters' names have been processed by the Office of the Recorder of Records, fathers will be powerless to withdraw them from even the most morally corruptive course of study. And considering the irresistible temptations the latter dangles before young minds, as I'm sure a vizier of your experience understands, no further persuasion will be necessary.”
My smooth response and reassuring smile did not mollify the Vizier of Infidel Affairs to any degree, but they did deliver a fatal blow to support for his obstructionary wisdom, for the Pasha of Uniforms and Armaments began enumerating the benefits of my plan enthusiastically, and the sultan, who had perhaps not been following the back-and-forth with particular attentiveness, interrupted the ensuing debate only to inquire whether it would be possible to grow any of the young females' other parts at the same time; so that to nullify the unrelenting opposition of the Chief Treasurer and the Agha of Janissaries all that remained was the prearranged and deliciously corrupt defection of their erstwhile ally.
“I had grave doubts,” intoned the Chief Calligrapher in an expressive show of reluctance, “grave doubts; and was indeed prepared to stand against enrolling women in our madrassas until the very end. But” —his voice rose on this word, after which he paused to breathe out through his nostrils before continuing, and then pronounced the next few with wide spaces between them as if considerate of their meaning— “I hear no irrefutable objection to the new undervizier's ingenious solution. Certainly the female pupils may be ruined beyond repair just as the elderly vizier claims, but we can all agree that's a small price to pay if it brings us a step closer to improving our camel cavalry's cold-weather tolerance without straining this year's restricted budget. Indeed, I’m told it's common practice to sacrifice the subjects of an animal study upon its conclusion; and how, then, could we trust a human study that proceeded otherwise?” This point being well-received, he pressed on, imitating the manner of one who gains conviction as he articulates thoughts which had hitherto been only half-formed. “Some members of our council worry public morals will be degraded more broadly. I believe we can expect the opposite effect. The Pasha of Wells and Irrigation has rightly pointed out that the tragic example of these student-debtors will be a warning to whoso would be warned. Encouraging misbehavior to the point of saliency should instill virtue in the remainder of our females by providing clear proof of ill-effects which are today merely suspected to follow from vice. One needn’t fear future generations would be so foolish as to imitate the strange melange of pride and profligacy sure to ensue from this experiment's peculiar conditions, which, we’ll all agree, could never arise naturally.”
The Calligrapher’s performance had the intended effect, and the council’s mood was leaning firmly toward approval when the Chief Gardener—a stiffly dedicated man who’d hitherto passed the meeting frowning in silence, and most deeply so whilst I was speaking (despite his failure to prove I'd any connection to the fiery destruction of the imperial harem, our previous encounters had instilled in him a similarly deep distrust of my person)—vocalized in the tone of one compelled to consume an unripe pomegranate, “Classes begin in a few weeks. It will take months to construct a new women’s madrassa. This . . . ‘study’’’—he lingered on the word with particular distaste—“will have to be postponed till the following year.”
“There can be no question of constructing a new madrassa on such a schedule,” said the Chief Treasurer firmly. “The plastering alone would exceed our means, and high-priority repairs to the harem are presently placing a considerable strain on the city's supply of tradesmen.”
The Pasha of Fountain Maintenance, whose duties also comprised oversight of buildings such as madrassas, minarets, and mosques, quickly concurred: any new public works were out of the question until restoration of the imperial harem was complete, a project whose duration contractors had estimated at a full year, and which should therefore be expected to extend past three at a conservative minimum; he could not, moreover, immediately recall any building of appropriate size that was presently unoccupied. It was a difficulty the moneylender hadn't foreseen when he'd hatched our scheme, for the Chief Treasurer’s steadfast refusal to supplement the exchequer with even the most temporary loan meant public works offered the former no opportunity for profit, and must therefore have seemed unworthy of his attention. Fortunately, dear readers, improvization is the art for which evil viziers are named.
“Delaying harem repairs to construct a new madrassa would be a treasonously unthinkable insult to our sultan,” quoth I. “Patriotic respect for His Majesty's erotic satisfaction compels us to embrace the only viable alternative.”
“And that would be?” the Chief Calligrapher prompted before anyone could entertain the possibility of a third option.
“Why, a co-ed madrassa, of course.”
A cloud of murmurs rose up into the dome, yet I continued unhurried. “The Imperial Madrassa is already quite large, and by lodging the male students three or four to a room we can accommodate a few hundred females at no extra expense. Better still, by appending the same charges to their student loans without any discount to compensate for their newly cramped conditions, we may even turn a small profit, since fees which are to be paid in the future rarely elicit the appropriate scrutiny, and less still in the young. It will be simpler than stealing dates from a dervish, as the saying says.”
“And you, usurer, do run your business in such wise?” the Agha of the Janissaries asked rather aggressively, for he seemed to have taken a disliking to me, and the afore-cited saying was perhaps ill-chosen.
“Certainly not,” I responded immediately, disconcerted by the unanticipated accusation—for to have one's brand publicly impugned is no small thing to a man of my trade. “It's a business, not a government! My family is known for its long tradition of honest sex-slaving, and the Luxury Odalisque Shoppe expects all payment in advance, exceptions made”—very regrettable exceptions, I might have added—“only for orders from the Imperial Harem Administration itself. Our prices are quite reasonable considering our unsurpassed inventory quality, and so nearly within reach for a man of your means that unless soldiering, or some other manual labor of similar indistinction, were to deprive him of the refinement necessary to appreciate the uppermost peaks of feminine beauty, neither flood nor sandstorm could keep him from our couches.”
“Ho-ho,” said the Recorder of Records. “I’m sure the agha is only being playful. Let's recall that we are speaking under the dome”—he made a light gesture upwards—“and not falafel away our time on petty grudges. If circumstances compel us to corrupt the youth here and there, it's for the higher cause of balancing a particularly challenging imperial budget. Am I correct, Treasurer?”
But the treasurer had no opportunity to dissent, for the camel consultant cut in to turn the topic, granting the Recorder of Records’ unanswered last words the force of a rhetorical question tacitly confirmed by its addressee. “I wholeheartedly agree,” said he, “that the intriguing analogies between women and camels are worthy of further research. And while it would be preferable to examine the more valuable subject directly, this ‘co-ed madrassa’ is a sensible compromise under straitened financial circumstances. However, it's essential that all ambient sources of bias be carefully excluded, and that any sex-work-study program be designed to minimize infringement on the subjects' educational environment, without which they might generate a false negative that sets back the development of veterinary science by many years. Everyone who interacts with the pupils, including the researchers themselves, should be tracked with a broad series of quantitative and qualitative metrics that will allow us to determine the true cause should the change in cranial dimensions fail to align with the standard model of hump training.”
Although not himself in the moneylender's thrall, the camel consultant was obviously well disposed to our proposed study study on account of the marvelous opportunities it opened in the case of an unfavorable outcome, for plausible causes of educational failure were so numerous that a man of his talents could assign blame to virtually any quarter at will. Despite the giddy enthusiasm this prospect must have inspired he’d kept a cool cranium, taking advantage of the chance to preemptively fix in our minds this immense range of impending culprits whilst simultaneously ensuring the experiment would proceed in spite of them.
“Can you guarantee us circumstances favorable for study, Undervizier?” the Chief Calligrapher asked, reassuming his trust-inducing posture of skepticism.
“I’m very considerate of the need for a proper sex-work-life balance,” I told the council with an air of calm competence. “Young females are much more compliant when one allows them ample time to gather around a hookah and make merry, and the overwork injuries to which common harlots so often fall victim are unknown amongst my odalisques despite the markedly greater enthusiasm they inspire in their masters. Yet much depends on the professors and students, and as we say in the involuntary human resources industry, only a fool would make guarantees about the performance of men he doesn’t own.”
“We’re entering uncharted seas, certainly,” said the Vizier of Imports, Piracy, and Exports, “and as such, performance targets above the norm would be unreasonable. But I see no reason we shouldn’t expect to match the baseline indicated by the . . .” he looked at the camel consultant, “what did you call it, the ‘standard model?’”
“Exactly so. My data shows that with proper food, water, and training, a typical camel hump will grow by a factor of three within a year’s time. By measuring the total present volume of a large camel herd’s humps, one can therefore make very accurate predictions about its future volume.”
“Camel humps are indeed similar to the crania of young human females in several important respects,” the Pasha of Uniforms and Armaments temporized, no doubt fearing the failure of an overambitious pilot study would cancel his projected invasion of uninhabitably cold Occidental territories. “However, if we consider that bone is subject to certain flexibility limitations—in the army it’s understood that when one strikes the skull with a mace, or other blunt weapon, it will crack rather than bend—a more modest objective may be in order. Do our madrassas not have a system of examination already in place?”
“The Imperial Madrassa has very difficult final exams,” said the Chief Kadi, who then listed the topics with a compounding emphasis that made each seem more imposing than the last. “Not only in jurisprudence, but in astrology, theology, helminthology, phrenology, al-chemy, poetry, and the most useful dead languages as well. If high scores in all these subjects weren’t a requirement for graduation, the diploma would be meaningless in the real world.”
“Languages take many years to learn,” objected an official I couldn’t see—he sat down the divan from me, past the voluminous form of the Grand Admiral. “Several of the other subjects are unsuitable as well. Legal justice, for instance, contradicts the natural flow of feminine humors, which are inclined to compassion or viciousness and rarely pause betwixt the two; and the seemingly paradoxical complexities of scripture, puzzling to our wisest men, are surely beyond the grasp of even the best-educated females.”
None present could find fault with these lucid points, and after a brief pause whose few murmurs of assent were superfluous, the Vizier of Imports, Piracy, and Exports inquired, “Shall we all agree, then, that performance on tests of math and science—subjects in which females have heretofore shown little expertise—will suffice to tentatively confirm the standard model and allow us to begin stage-two trials in live camels?”
“Very good,” asserted the Chief Calligrapher with conclusive warmth. “Very good. I believe the eunuchs in the office of the Recorder of Records can take care of the remaining matters of detail, since we've more serious matters to attend to regarding the troubles in the provinces. It's best we hear the news brought by our visiting bey without further delay.”
Thus far, dear readers, everything had gone as well as I could have hoped, with my allies having positioned the council to approve vast new loans on the basis of vague promises to meet unstated performance targets of no particular utility at some unspecified future date, in the course of which an entire sub-ministry could be staffed by bureaucrats whose careers depended on justifying their work to higher-ups with no memory of its original purpose. It was a textbook achievement in the art of governance that filled me with pride—only partly tempered by my subaltern role, for the enthusiasm the newness of my vizierhood had awakened momentarily swept even the moneylender from my mind; and though familiar tales of great evil viziers past warn us that such premature rejoicing, especially accompanied by uncontrollable cackling, is the downfall of many an otherwise capable man, the delight I then felt was that of a thirsty antelope descending a bank to lap water from a river ridden with unseen crocodiles.
“Hold there,” cut in the Agha of the Janissaries, glaring at me rather than at the Calligrapher who was rushing debate to a close, though I’d not spoken for some time. “All this is too vague. If we're to approve the absurdity of a ‘co-ed madrassa,’ clearer measures of success or failure are in order, as I’m sure our expert can confirm. Just what expectations should we entertain,” he asked the camel consultant, “if this study study is competently arranged?”
“All things being equal, the null hypothesis, as we call it, is that female pupils will match the performance of the young men who traditionally attend our madrassas. However, those young men are known to consume a poor diet, rich in couscous but notably deficient in dates, are educated according to traditional methods rather than modern ones established on scientific principles, and are frequently seen whiling away their study hours in hookah bars little conducive to cogitation and indeed detrimental to powers of concentration. If we extrapolate the standard model of hump growth under such circumstances, it suggests we should expect one of our female subjects to place first in any examination not directly contraindicated by feminine nature.”
“I've always considered astrology, al-chemy, al-gebra, and the like repugnant to a truly vigorous masculine temperament,” observed the Pasha of Wells and Irrigation, winning a silent nod from the bey beside me.
“Any lesser performance,” continued the camel consultant, “I must reiterate, should be laid squarely at the slippers of educators and administrators. I've no doubt that Bactrian spies have already settled among them, and as one can never be too vigilant in that regard, regular background checks, foreground checks, and compliance reviews are absolutely necessary. Even mundane skeptics might sabotage our subjects at the instigation of hostile thought-worms buried deep in the unhealthily anaerobic depths of their mental mulch, yet no less influential for their obscurity.”
This was much to the agha’s liking, and as the camel consultant went on he indicated, with a smiling of the eyes and several motions of his turban, a firm assent that had little to do with the advisability of the experiment—to which he now raised no objections. “Many thanks, effendi,” he said when the camel consultant had finished, “your thorough explanation has brought me a great change of liver, and I can now lend the proposed study study my full support, so long as—and the other members of the council are surely happy to accede to this request—so long as the Undervizier of Women's Education and Training, to whom this project will naturally be entrusted along with the madrassa's sex-work-study program, is held fully responsible should he fail to achieve the minimum educational outcomes predicted by the standard model. Namely, that a female will reach the top of the class in al-gebra, al-chemy, and other subjects of that type. Since the Undervizier is the council's newest member and leading proponent of female education, he can hardly object to this stipulation—and without performance targets this project will just be another exercise in bureaucratic waste, wouldn't you agree, Treasurer?”
“Performance targets do nothing to resolve my concerns,” the Chief Treasurer maintained in his unwaveringly even tone, “as they provide no assurance that these high-performing females will ever repay their sizable madrassa loans.”
“A woman with a degree in al-gebra is like a caravan with a mainsail,” averred the Vizier of Tax Agriculture. “Any sensible female would confine herself to the inner courtyard of her husband's harem before she'd leave her children to pay off debts clicking abacuses in a couscous-counting office. And considering the detrimental effect her presence would have on the performance of more capable accountants, who would hire her unless compelled?”
Faced with the obvious impossibility of meeting the camel consultant's performance targets, a self-preservative instinct tempted me to turn turban and side with my opponents, preserving the unblemished continuity of my neck by rescinding my own proposal. And yet, as in the parable of the man who promised to teach his sultan's snake to play the finger-cymbals, I thought it better to make an impossible performance guarantee whose non-fulfillment would be punished several years hence than to position my head below an axe the moneylender's blackmail could set swinging in days. My thought-worms were thus vigorously squirming through the nether regions of my skull in search of justifications for policies that were manifestly inadvisable on several levels when the Grand Admiral unexpectedly applied a waxen seal to the divine contract preordaining my fate.
“Subjecting these girls to a complete course of study,” said he, “would be no less wasteful than circumnavigating the sea to buy local mangoes from the opposite side of the Great River. If we match freshmen against freshwomen, we might achieve a measurable result on a much shorter schedule.”
“Exactly my view,” declared the Pasha of Uniforms and Armaments, to whom the idea had not previously occurred. “The best way to minimize costs is to begin training our camel corps for the planned invasion from the earliest moment cranial growth can be verified.”
Throughout this exchange the Chief Eunuch had sat silently at the corner of the divan nearest the sultan, disinclined for inscrutable reasons to lend his authority to one side or the other; but now it was he who confirmed the compromise. “Will that be a satisfactory test?” Delivered in a child's voice whose impression on anyone unaccustomed to eunuchs would have been both bizarre and horrific, his threateningly languid tone indicated that the question, despite including all the grammatical signals associated with the interrogative, was to be interpreted as bearing the full force of a command. “An abbreviated experiment of a single season is more likely to gain the approval of this council.”
“One season,” replied the camel consultant hesitantly—for whatever dissatisfaction he might have felt he was aware he hadn't yet leverage to directly contradict the Chief Eunuch—“yes, I suppose that might be possible. But with so little time, confounds must be carefully controlled, and I cannot give the council assurance that the result will meet the p=0.3 threshold required for publication in respectable journals.”
The Agha of the Janissaries agreed to support this shortened timeline so long as those managing the study study, which is to say, me, were still held fully responsible in the case of a poor or inconclusive outcome. It was the Recorder of Records himself who set the last solder on my sarcophagus: insofar as I was the most junior member of the moneylender's faction, he didn't think twice, nor even once, about sacrificing me to ensure the law was passed. “A challenge indeed,” he said with his usual joviality, “but the undervizier here is young and full of energy. I will have this legislation written up immediately—if we're all in favor?”
By now it was too late for me to turn the tide. Only the Chief Treasurer still held out. Yet after the Calligrapher promised the council, on my behalf, as he put it, that the grace period for loan repayment would be eliminated to minimize the debt guaranteed by the imperial exchequer, the remaining pashas, viziers, and beys dismissed his concerns as excessive fiscal conservatism more appropriate to the private sector, and even the sultan, who had been gazing out the window at an especially well-shaped palm frond, seemed enthusiastic about the new project: his eldest daughter, he informed us, was very studious herself.
And so it happened that the imperial council of our almost endless empire resolved to admit females to the foremost scholarly institution in the Orient, and made me responsible, on the unstated though still tacitly assumed pain of beheading, for ensuring that new students who'd hitherto no educational attainment beyond the barest rudiments of reading and writing, and on rare occasion a few elementary principles of belly-dancing, outperformed their male counterparts in the maths and sciences within their first season whilst also participating in my sex-work-study program for early repayment of their student loans. It was, of course, the kind of task no good vizier could ever accomplish. Yet though my eyes began to oscillate slightly as I weighed the nearly insurmountable difficulties, it was a task, I tried to reassure myself, not strictly impossible for an evil vizier of both preternatural cunning and extensive prior experience in the sex-slave industry.
I understood little of the succeeding discussion, which revolved around scarcely believable reports of heretics in a remote province agitating, it was said by the visiting bey, for the collective ownership of women—a notion so firmly against common sense and so inimical to productive business that I paid it no mind at the time, and instead my thought-worms configured and reconfigured themselves in a frenzy of evil scheming inspired by the challenge ahead, which continued even after the council concluded. Thanks to the meditative effect of this intensive scheming I was able to dampen the googling that afflicts me in moments of tension, and the violently red bile my liver had produced when the Recorder of Records tossed me under the caravan to pass the moneylender's student-loan expansion plan faded to the paler shade of bricks worn by sun and sand, so that I could tip my turban toward him on the way out the gold-framed double doors, and even bear the agha's parting grin, with no marked shift in my hepatic palette. As first sessions under the dome go, mine had been an impressive, or at least unique showing, and it must have been clear to all present that a new force had entered the grand stage of imperial politics—albeit one whose head and body might soon leave that stage at slightly different times.
I decided a brief detour on the way back to my shoppe would settle my wits, so after a few more formulaic farewells, I left the Peerless Portal on foot for a quarter I'd rarely cause to visit.
Near the banks of the river north of the palace lay the old neighborhood of grandiose riads that had once housed our foremost pashas, viziers, and merchants, as well as visiting foreign dignitaries. Some years ago, well before I was born, an exceptionally heavy flood season had inundated its streets and sped the departure of its wealthiest residents for more modern homes on higher ground elsewhere in the city, and as such neither the land value nor the maintenance standards still lived up to the magnificence of the architecture. Today they were inhabited by creative artisans and demimondaines inclined toward luxuries beyond their means; and inside the plain exteriors so common in our capital they retained all the decadent beauty of an aging odalisque, whose thick kohl enhances undeniable charms without any longer concealing the fissures around her eyes.
My detour had not been chosen at random, but at the instigation of odd rumors that had filtered through the bazaar until, on a quiet afternoon when I stood outside supervising the installation of the Luxury Odalisque Shoppe's new marquee, the sash-seller had stopped by to share them with me. Word was that a wealthy harlot, or starlet, or an ifrita or djinn if the crowd was to be believed, had taken residence in the abandoned riad on Old Lapis Row (so the quarter was called, though it was not confined to a single road), and those who'd seen her enter and exit swore she wore a face as pale as the ghosts who'd long been known to live within, including strange violet undertones that confirmed her unnatural origin. It was a rumor to which all lent ear but few credence, for the witnessing homeowners from the neighborhood in question were known to be of a sort whose admittedly respectable incomes were ill matched to their respectability, and in many cases the product of self-marketing exaggerations considered excessive even by the lax standards current in the bazaar. Nevertheless, the peculiar details of this rumor had lodged in my skull and niggled me to investigate their veracity, as the resemblance to my vanished beautiful assistant, while by no means definitive and likely quite accidental, was not one I could readily shake off.
When I arrived at my destination I found it unlike the other riads in the quarter. Its plastered facade was cracking and crumbling back to brick, and its heavy door was not merely marked, like its neighbors, by an accumulation of scars marring its ornamental carvings, but had grayed and splintered for lack of oil. The sole street-level shutters were shut behind rusted bars whose upper screws were pulling loose from the masonry, and those ajar on the third floor might have been so from disuse as easily as use. It was, nevertheless, a building that seemed by light of day more dilapidated than haunted.
My firm set of knocks met with no answer save tight echoes from the masonry on the opposite side of the road. I sensed a fluctuation in the line of shadow between the building and my feet, yet a glance upward revealed no silhouette leaning over the parapet overhead, and I dismissed the source as a passing bird.
If my ex-beautiful-assistant had really taken up residence in the capital, I began to wonder, why had she never called to demand the place in the proposed (though not yet established) odalisque-protection program for escaped sex slaves I'd promised her? Even years after their sale my other girls were known to reminisce nostalgically about the happy period they'd spent in my shoppe; and although Mala had admittedly passed most of that time recovering from plague before suffering severe and permanently disfiguring burns while abetting my ill-fated infiltration of the imperial harem, I still found her reluctance to return difficult to explain. As I considered the matter more deeply my doubts about the rumor increased, I saw my credulousness as rather foolish and inexplicable, and concluded it more likely she'd been killed in flight, or worse still, taken captive by some unscrupulous character.
I'd just lifted my knuckles to strike again when the noon call to prayer split the air. Reasonable doubts aside, my curiosity was so well whetted that I struggled to pull myself away. Yet the profit imperative prohibited me from allowing a disabled war veteran selected for his particularly flagrant incompetence to manage the Luxury Odalisque Shoppe's Grand Re-Opening Sale in the manner matching his merits; and as the children's fable so dear to my father concerning the lion and the forbidden treasure-cavern concludes, “Curiosity mangled the myrrh-merchant.” Duly strengthened by these two cardinal sources of wisdom, I lowered my fist, straightened my unusually large turban, and stepped back into the street. I'd revisit the riad, I resolved, after a hard afternoon's work selling Occidental virgins to our lustful Oriental elite.