Harun al-Rashid leaned back on the cushion and held the black pearl between the tips of his thumb and forefinger. He raised it up before his face and peered at it, rolling it slowly around. The light of the lanterns in the room glinted on its surface. He tried to look past their reflections into the interior of the pearl itself. It was a kind of nothing, an absence of light. He tried to imagine what sort of creature had spawned such a thing in its belly, deep down in the ocean where nothing could be seen and black was the same as white. He carefully placed the pearl in the open palm of his left hand. It sat there rebuking him: his own death warrant. To fulfil his promise he must die by his own hand – and Harun al-Rashid was a man of his word.
But there was no hurry. He looked up from the pearl to gaze into the face of the woman from whose hands he had drawn the lot, moments before. Seven white pearls, one black and the black one had fallen to him as somehow he knew it would. Her eyes gleamed in the half-light, startlingly blue. Her full lips curled gently in a half-smile. Tresses of long black hair escaped the cowl of her robe.
“You have accepted the challenge,” she said. “Kill Harun al-Rashid and you may have me.” She ran her hands lightly over her breasts, stomach and thighs. “This poor body will be yours to do with as you please.”
She did not recognise him, Harun realised or she could not have spoken so. He looked closely at her face. No, he was sure he had never seen her before. What wrong – or fancied wrong – had he done her that she wanted him killed?
The other seven men had gone, melted silently away into the night, leaving the two of them alone. Harun burned with curiosity. “What was his crime, this Harun al-Rashid?” he asked.
“It is of no consequence. You do not need to know. Suffice to say that he deserves to die a painful death.” The woman’s face flushed as she spoke, as if from some secret shame. “You knew the terms of the lottery. If you fail to kill him within twenty-four hours the other seven will take your life and draw lots again to see who will serve me and become my lover. Now go.”
“I will do your bidding,” said Harun. “But not before you tell me your name. I would know on whose behalf I am to be an executioner – for it seems that you are judge and jury in this matter.”
“You may call me Lula, the Pearl,” said the woman. She turned on her heel, the brocade on her robe glinting as its hem swished against the tiled floor, strode into the shadowed corner of the room and slipped through a hidden doorway out of sight.
Harun got to his feet, thrust the black pearl into a deep pocket in the folds of his tunic and looked around the room before leaving. The eight golden goblets of ruby wine, barely sipped, stood on the low table where they had been served. The silver tray of sweet pastries lay beside them, untouched. The walls were hung with silks and rich tapestries, fine rugs scattered on the mosaic-tiled floor. There seemed to be nothing that might offer a clue to Lula’s real identity. Harun al-Rashid, Caliph of Bagdad, wise ruler of his people, man of a thousand adventures, popped a pastry in his mouth, washed it down with a draught of wine from one of the goblets and laughed out loud. “Well,” he thought. “It seems that I am truly dead for if I fail to kill myself, these other men will do it for me.”
Then he left the house quietly, slipping through the night-scented garden, rich with the perfume of honeysuckle and jasmine, down to the river and back to the boat from which he had first glimpsed the beautiful young woman and the mysterious gathering of men.
“Take me back to the palace, Saleem,” he told the waiting oarsman. “I do not have much time to solve this little mystery. Twenty-four hours, in fact.”
Saleem dipped the oars into the cool, black water and pulled smoothly, the nondescript boat gliding quickly into the current, riding the glistening river downstream to the palace. Harun al-Rashid stepped onto the landing, unwound the burnoose that had disguised his face and strode into his throne room. Servants appeared as if from nowhere and lit the wicks of a hundred lanterns, turning the shadows into daylight as the Caliph yelled; “Vizier! Fetch the Vizier. There is work to do.” He clapped his hands twice. The sound echoed round the chamber like a cannonade. There was no doubting the earnestness of his will. Aziz, the Vizier, Harun’s aide-de-camp and most trusted counsellor appeared within minutes, rubbing the sleep from his eyes, half-dressed, belting his robe even as he hurried into the chamber. “My Lord, what is it? What service shall it be my pleasure to perform for your Highness?”
“Sit. Sit,” said Harun. “Can we please dispense with the formalities Aziz?”
“As my Lord requires. Whatever my Lord commands”
“Very well. What is it that you want? It is the middle of the night,” said Aziz, seating himself beside Harun and accepting a glass of mint tea proferred by a hovering attendant.
Harun told Aziz everything that had happened that night then he pulled out the black pearl and showed it to him. “And the strangest thing is that I have no idea what wrong I am supposed to have done her, this so-called Lula. I don’t believe we have ever met before. Now that I have seen her I do desire to have her, though I have no intention of killing myself in order to do so!”
“Your Majesty can easily escape the terms of this lottery. If you want this woman why not have her seized and brought here? My agents can soon dispose of these seven would-be assassins. Your power is limitless, your people love you,” said the Vizier.
“Not all my people, it seems. One wants me dead and there are at least seven men willing to hazard their lives to bring my death about. No Aziz,” said Harun rubbing his face with his hands, “force is not the way. There is some secret here to be discovered. I must find the source of her deadly rage, find out what I am supposed to have done. There has to be someone close to this woman who knows her history, a relative perhaps, a friend, a servant. Send out your agents at first light to see what they can find out. Find the seven men also and have them watched. Bring me news at breakfast. I will sleep a while.”
The Caliph retired to his bed-chamber, dropping clothes behind him as he went, in the certain knowledge that they would be retrieved, washed, carefully folded and put away while he slept. He climbed between the damask sheets, put his head on the feather pillows and sank into the soft embrace of sleep. Soon, he began to dream.
Harun al-Rashid, wise-ruler, loved by all his people, roared with laughter. “The fools,” he sneered. “They deserve no better.” He pulled off his face and hung it on a hook above the bench where he kept his phials, his powders and his potions. He looked in the mirror at the tortoise-like mask, the unblinking eyes that held no expression, and the slit of a mouth that gaped open. “A small price to pay for immortality,” he mused. “Besides, beauty is such a cheap commodity: it can be bought and sold or taken at will.” His assistant, a female version of himself, brushed past him and bolted the door through which he had come, a hidden door leading to the Caliph’s bed-chamber. She turned her wrinkled visage towards him. “I have prepared her for you, as you asked,” she said, nodding to another door at the far end of the room.
“Good,” replied the grisly Harun al-Rashid. “I’m ready for a little amusement.” He was already aroused at the thought of the trembling, fearful woman that awaited him. A street urchin or a merchant’s daughter, it didn’t matter. How were they to know that it would end the same way however hard they tried, whatever they made themselves do to please him. And please him they did – for a little while. But with his petit mort, their short lives ended… and he could deliver death in a thousand and one ways, so practised had he become in the arts of torture.
He walked through into a room lit by lanterns and hung with silks and rich tapestries; fine rugs were scattered on the mosaic-tiled floor. A young woman was sitting on the divan hugging herself to stop shaking. Her startlingly blue eyes glistened with tears in the half-light; her full lips trembled on the verge of speech; tresses of long black hair shook around her naked shoulders. “This poor body is yours to do with as you please.” She spoke as if the words had been rehearsed.
“Yes I know that,” said the ancient one. “All in good time. First I want a story.”
“A story? What kind of story” said the young woman.
“It doesn’t matter. Any story. I’ve heard them all before.”
“Heard it. I told you, it doesn’t matter. I just want to hear you talk before I take you and you die.”
The young woman stammered out some words, clinging on to life; “Once there was a wise ruler, loved by all his people.
Harun al-Rashid’s wrinkled assistant stood in the corridor outside, listening intently, peering through a crack in the gnarled wooden door. There was no expression in her unblinking eyes; the slit of her mouth gaped open in her tortoise-like mask. Times without number she had stood in the same place while the stories were told, while the young women gave up their words and then their soft bodies and finally their lives to the will of the immortal necromancer. She always watched – he would know if she hadn’t – and there would be work to do later…
The Caliph suddenly sat bolt upright in his royal bed; sweat from the nightmare drenched his body making the sheets cling to him. He realised in that instant, that although the memory of it had never stayed with him when he woke up, he had had that same dream many times before. Indeed, as he reached back in his mind it seemed as though the dream had always been there. “Vizier!” he yelled. “Where is Aziz?”
Within minutes, the Vizier stood by his bedside. “I understand, Aziz. Or at least I think I do. I have done this woman – Lula or whatever her name really is – a grave wrong. But in my dreams, in my dreams! How can she know this? Perhaps she has the same dreams? Is that possible? Fetch her here, at once.”
“But Majesty, my agents are scouring the city right now for information about her and the seven men, the would-be assassins.”
“Forget all that, it doesn’t matter. Just have her brought here, now”
The Vizier went personally to the woman’s house, with a detachment of guards. “Madam, get dressed quickly. The Caliph Harun al-Rashid (whom Allah preserve) requires you to come immediately to the palace. He will not take no for an answer.” The woman – Lula – put on her robe, climbed into the Vizier’s palanquin and rode beside him to the palace, the curious eyes of the early-morning traders, busy setting up their stalls for the day, upon them as they passed by. Upon arrival, the Vizier took her arm and walked her briskly into the throne room, where Harun sat waiting. She stepped forward until she stood level with the Caliph and looked him in the eye.
“Do you recognise me now?” he said.
“I knew you last night,” said the young woman.
“Then you know that I have done you no wrong in this lifetime, unless you hold me guilty for what I have dreamt.”
“I do, for I have the same dreams.” Her full lips pouted as she frowned. Her eyes pierced his, startlingly blue. Tresses of long black hair escaped the cowl of her robe. She seemed every bit as irresistible to the Caliph as when he had first seen her.
“Then I certainly owe you an apology, but hardly my life,” he said.
The young woman said nothing.
“Your name is not Lula is it? And who are those seven men? I think I have a right to know”
Still she was silent, her eyes downcast now. Contrite, perhaps?
“Well? Your Caliph is waiting.”
“I will tell you my name. I will tell you everything. But not in front of these others.” She waved her hand to indicate the servants, the Vizier and the guards. What I have to say is for your ears alone.”
Harun al-Rashid dismissed the bystanders.
“Do you not desire me?” said the young woman. “I know that you do. Last night you were willing to kill, even to die to have me. Let us go in to your bed chamber and speak there.”
Aroused at the thought of possessing in the flesh this woman of his dreams, Harun led the way. He sat on the bed and waited until she spoke.
The young woman undid the fastening of her cowled robe and let it slip to the floor. Underneath she wore a shift of fine silk gauze that clung to her. “Ah, this poor body that you would do with as you please,” she said, running her hands lightly over her breasts, stomach and thighs as she had done the night before. Then she paused and looked him in the eye; “But you did not kill yourself did you, as nightly you kill the women of your dreams?” Her voice was hard and cold now.
“I’m sorry,” said Harun. “Forgive me for ‘killing’ you in my dreams each night. Please know that standing here before me in the flesh I would not harm a single hair of your head. Indeed I wish only to please you. Tell me who you are. Let me guess, each night in my dream, a story. You are Shahrazad?”
“You understand nothing,” said the young woman. It is not me you kill each night but her. She is Shahrazad. They are all Shahrazad. Each one of them, street urchin or merchant’s daughter made up to look like her. I’m not Shahrazad, I’m Dinarzad, her sister. Those seven men are our brothers who risked their lives to bring about this moment.” Now she was weeping. “The stories aren’t enough for you are they? You kill them anyway.”
“I’m truly sorry. I will pray to Allah that I never have such dreams again.”
Dinarzad, reached behind a curtain in the corner of the bed-chamber to reveal a hidden door. “You fool. You still think that the life behind that door and not the life in here, is the dream,” she said, pulling off her face to reveal the wrinkled visage of the necromancer’s assistant. “Each day you force me to make them up to look like Sharhrazad; each night I must listen to their pathetic whimpering efforts to assuage you with a story and then watch as you slake your lust on their terrified bodies and torture them to death.”
The Caliph sat on the bed, almost catatonic with shock. He opened his mouth to speak but no words came. He felt a great pain in his chest and cutched his hands to his heart.
“It is true that I cannot stop you in that world but know this o wise ruler, loved by all his people, that each night, in the dreams of this world, you will take the black pearl, and each morning you will summon me to your palace and you will discover who you truly are and face the consequences of that knowledge. In this world it is you who will die 1001 deaths.”
The Caliph fell back on the bed gripped by a vice-like pain, gasping for breath. Dinarzad opened the secret door and flung her final words at him over her shoulder.
“This poor body, that you so desired, is mine to do with as I will. I choose now to go back to that other world to do what little I can for my sister, for all my sisters. I will see you in hell, Harun al-Rashid.”
The door clicked shut behind her as Harun al-Rashid (for the first of many times) took his last breath on earth. The black pearl that he had been holding in his hand, slipped from his dead fingers, bounced three times and rolled across the floor as if trying to follow Dinarzad across the threshold.
Copyright Geoff Mead 2011