The Thief and the Hidden Citadel
by Ross Smeltzer
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
It was no honor to be summoned to the palace of Jahangir Khan, the Emir of Bukhara. This, however, was the unfortunate circumstance in which the bandit Al-Ukbari found himself.
The Emir’s agents had found him hidden in the deepest part of the yellow desert. He had spent many months there, in the domain of the markhor goats. The Emir’s agents had circled his tent as he slept, and awakened him to demand he return to Bukhara, the nucleus of the Emir’s power. Al-Ukbari had complied; the long jezails of his abductors, inlaid with gold and human teeth, discouraged flight.
The famed bandit’s mettle had been tested in many escapades, and yet he felt fear as he traversed the desert in the company of the Emir’s black-clad agents. The Emir possessed a terrible reputation. Cultivated over many years, it was the envy of the feebler princes who surrounded him.
The Emir was reputed to be an intemperate and volatile man, quick to anger and difficult to appease. It was said he entertained dignitaries from Ghazni, Kabul, Peshawar, Sindh, Lahore and from grander kingdoms beyond, haranguing them from the topmost tier of a many-layered throne. From his perch, he gazed down upon his visitors and they, perplexed and dazzled by the opulence before them, could not meet his eyes.
The Emir had constructed his great throne the better to display the many gems, pearls, and treasures his small-minded precursors had squirreled away in unvisited corners of the Ark, the old fortress of the hero Siyavusha, which dominated all structures around it. Concealed, the Emir’s treasures had brought him little pleasure. Their display made the Emir shine with greater brilliance.
It was also said that there was a deep pit before the Emir’s great throne. In this pit dwelled a lion that had been fattened on the meat and bones of the Emir’s enemies. If one displeased the Emir, he was swiftly consigned to this pit.
These tales of wonder and terror were thought authentic in the bazaars of Bukhara and the campfires of Al-Ukbari’s fellow bandits. The bandit himself was uncertain of their veracity. His travels had widened his knowledge of the world and expanded his imagination. He now regarded the murmurs of toothless bazaar women as very suspect indeed. His broadened mind notwithstanding, he felt fear enter his bones as he approached Bukhara and the despot who was its master.
After days of travel, Al-Ukbari and his captors approached Bukhara’s copper walls. From a dusty hilltop near the city’s main gate, he gazed down upon its old warren-like streets and its many forgotten courts and squares. Tall minarets loomed over the city’s stout walls and crouching homes. Their onion-crowns looked like the sealed bulbs of enormous flowers. Some regarded Bukhara as an enchanted city. From afar it seemed as if it could be.
Al-Ukbari, who had long ago forsaken civilization’s scanty delights, felt suffocated by the city. To be in its proximity was to feel its mighty, throttling pull. Its enormity threatened to master him.
His captors, uninterested in the poetry of the scene before them, rode towards the city and beckoned him to follow. He did so. The men rode swiftly through the city’s zigzagging network of streets and alleys. They passed bazaars that smelled of ginger and cinnamon, and they saw much squalor and foulness. They eventually arrived at the looming clay-packed wall of the Ark.
Al-Ukbari’s captors dismounted and motioned he do the same. They bade him enter through the fortress’s ceremonial entrance, a narrow portal that had been sliced into the wall’s skin. It was framed by rickety barbicans. The mosaics that had once covered the whole of the gate had sloughed off or been torn apart by snaking vines, leaving only traces of their presence.
Al-Ukbari ascended a mud ramp and entered a covered corridor. He was not followed as he navigated the low-ceilinged tunnel; his footsteps alone resounded against the mud and stone that surrounded him. He struggled to breathe in the tunnel, and felt as if he were entering the gut of a great sleeping beast.
The tunnel terminated in an octagonal chamber, which seemed, at once, both titanic and small. The columns that stabbed from its floor like stalagmites left no space for a man to stand.
The bandit grasped one of his knives tightly and felt cold sweat collect in the runnels of his hand.
“Al-Ukbari, I presume,” a voice murmured weakly. The words crawled slowly from a throat choked with age and infection.
“Yes, it is I,” the bandit said with as much boldness as he could muster. His words came out louder than he expected, and they seemed to hang in the confined chamber, caught in the sticky air and echoing off the crumbling sandstone.
A figure coalesced in the dimness of one of the chamber’s far corners: a small man with a silver beard. He approached Al-Ukbari slowly, leaning on a bent cane. When he neared the bandit, he held out his hand, forcing the parched, shrunken appendage out from his baggy robes. Al-Ukbari did not think to kiss it.
The old man laughed; his was a rasping, corrupt, laugh. “I am Jahangir Khan, Al-Ukbari, and it is customary to kiss the ring of an Emir. Though you have been deprived of civility, I did not expect this custom to escape you.” He laughed some more, but his amusement was checked by a severe coughing fit. His turban, a tumor-like lump of gold thread, sat precariously on his shriveled head. It wobbled as he coughed.
Al-Ukbari apologized and helped the ailing Emir to stand. “I think I am less imposing than you anticipated,” the old man said after he recovered. “You are surely disappointed in me, the great autocrat of Bukhara. Most who encounter me are.
“The throne for which I am famed fell into disrepair long ago. My harem women, once envied in faraway Isfahan and Istanbul, are haggard and can no longer be prompted to dance. I do not begrudge them their laziness; they cannot stimulate my animalism, a quality long ago wrung out through overuse.
“My lion, once a terror to wrongdoers and adversaries alike, is little more than a semi-sentient ornament. Its teeth have long since rotted out. I display it to neither friends nor enemies. The former would regard it as contemptible; the latter as further proof of my frailty. Such are the trappings of the declining tyrant.” He laughed again, this time doing so in moderation.
Al-Ukbari was unprepared for the feebleness before him; he had expected a death preceded by many inventive torments.
The old man, staggering, turned away from the bandit. “I did not bring you here to kill you or to punish you, though you are a desecrator of caravansaries and a rogue,” he murmured. “I have a task for you; for there are worse things in the world than men like you. My sway goes unchallenged by thieves like you. You may bother those merchants whose wares pass through the deserts and mountain passes at the fringe of my domain, but you are no danger to me. If I were to eliminate you, as is my right and obligation, you would be replaced, perhaps by another of greater audacity and cunning.
“There are, however, men who do menace my position; they conceal their wealth from me and famish me of their lucre. My treasury, once glutted with gold, is much contracted; it requires sustenance, and I wish you to procure it for me.”
Emboldened by the infirmity of his host, Al-Ukbari, declared: “I can earn no sort of living through philosophy or poetry, but only through trickery. Mine is not an honorable profession, but I live by my boldness. This makes me a member of a noble and singular breed.”
“Indeed,” replied the Emir. The old man chuckled. “Walk with me, Al-Ukbari. I would speak with you more and tell you of my troubles.”
The two men, the proud bandit and the perishing despot, exited the octagonal chamber and entered a four-arched domed passage, which terminated in a vast courtyard. Night had come, but the moon shone brightly, revealing the immensity and decrepitude of the space. Rubbish and waste lay around the courtyard, and skinny cats slunk among the columns that enclosed it.
The Emir leaned against one of the many cannons stored in the courtyard. His blue chavan, decorated with white roses and lilacs, contrasted strikingly with the verdigris-rind of the decayed weapon.
“I formerly staged elephant fights in this courtyard, Al-Ukbari. The beasts, fetched from distant India at considerable expense, would be painted in dazzling colors, and fed on hashish from copper bowls. Enraged by their captivity and by the intoxicants coursing through their bulk, they would charge at one another, heedless of hurts and blood. These combats delighted me in my youth. I miss diversions of that sort.”
“The emptiness of my once-engorged purse prevents such amusements,” he added, wistfully.
The Emir turned towards Al-Ukbari and said decisively, “As your nominal sovereign, I order you to ransack the fortress of the merchant Haj Hussain Amin al-Zarb. Purloin his treasures and his accounts, ledgers, and maps. I must know the whereabouts of his caravans so that I may come upon them and ravish them, as is my right. This moneychanger, carpet trader, and dealer of opiates is flush with gold; his haughtiness has ballooned in correlation with his purse. I must humble him. He will not be greater than I.”
Al-Ukbari, who was a matchless burglar, turned to the Emir and, grinning, said, “If it pleases my sovereign to see the merchant’s stores ransacked and his stronghold defiled, who am I to contradict him?”
The Emir smiled weakly in return and said, “His fortress is rather more imposing than those you are accustomed to plundering. Newly constructed, it is a wonder. It is found the foothills of the Khazret Sultan, and can be identified by its walls, which shine like bleached bone when the sun is setting. I have seen it from afar. It is a fine structure, greater even than the Ark. It inspires fear in my soldiers, fear which no quantity of gold can temper.”
“I will do as you have instructed,” the bandit promised. He kissed the hand of the Emir. It felt like crinkled paper. He exited the withered potentate’s citadel and swiftly burrowed into Bukhara’s deep, forgotten recesses. He visited dens and alleys where men cured of scruples flocked and hatched conspiracies. Some of these would be realized, to the misfortune of the world beyond.
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Copyright © 2014 by Ross Smeltzer