The Thief and the Hidden Citadel
by Ross Smeltzer
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
Al-Ukbari navigated the steps leading down from the stone landing. The descent seemed endless, and the bandit despaired that the stairs leading into the labyrinth were infinite, reproducing themselves with his every step.
Eventually, he arrived at the floor of the great chamber. He tried to discern its logic, counting its rooms and courts, and recording the ways they were joined to one another. He abandoned this project and let himself surrender to the endless wonder of the architecture around him. There was no governing rationality in the labyrinth.
Al-Ukbari passed from courtyards into rooms, from rooms into galleries, from galleries into yet more rooms, and thence into more courtyards. All were empty. He soon discovered that certain rooms within the labyrinth contained multiple stories, and that aimless staircases sometimes grew out of walls, giving one access to hidden chambers and corridors that could only be floating in the space above the labyrinth. Al-Ukbari reasoned that a multitude of lesser labyrinths orbited the central one. They were surely alike in their impenetrability.
The bandit tried to follow the orange flames of his companions, but they swiftly vanished from sight. He occasionally perceived feeble lights in nearby chambers or at the ends of distant corridors. His fellow thieves were like him, lost.
Once, he attempted to reach one of his companions, reasoning that it would be better to be lost in the labyrinth in the company of another. He saw a flickering light high above him, ascending a staircase. He reached the stair leading to this light, and began groping up it, his hot palms grasping the stones of an immense balustrade. He crept upwards, always watching the light. He climbed for what seemed like hours. His legs grew sore. As he neared the distant luminescence he felt the stair beneath him abruptly terminate. It permitted no step onwards, except into the depths below.
The light he had seen was gone. Either its owner had been unlucky enough to fall from the stair or the light had been some trick of his vision. Al-Ukbari reasoned that the labyrinth itself had created the light. The bandit had the distinct impression that the walls and stairs could conspire with one another to disorient the small beings that had recklessly chosen to explore them, manufacturing sights to distort and apparitions to confound.
For a time, he stood on the precipice, motionless. He was paralyzed less by fear and more by a growing appreciation for the futility of all movement. He eventually descended the stair, not knowing why he did so. Escape was a delusion.
Al-Ukbari walked endlessly. Lost in an ataxia of jumbled masonry, he hoped to blunder upon the entrance to the merchant’s tower. As this hope diminished, he developed a perverse admiration for the vast yet stifling spaces around him. He saw stairs and drawbridges go nowhere, penetrating black space pointlessly; and he saw arches piled atop one another, making dense thickets of stone.
Al-Ukbari grew increasingly certain that the labyrinth’s corridors led only to their own beginnings. Once, he climbed a tower, scaling countless steps, and arrived at a ceiling with a wooden door. Taking it, and forcing it open, he found himself at the base of the stairs from which he had just come.
The labyrinth was not the offspring of human ingenuity, he concluded; it was the design of a capricious Djinn. This supposition was confirmed when Al-Ukbari chanced to graze a wall in one of the labyrinth’s many identical chambers. His touch inspired the space to reconfigure itself.
The structure convulsed; its stone innards shifted, rotating, and collapsed into recesses that had not existed moments before. Where once all had been stone and mortar, now one could see all sorts of engines and machinery: wheels, cables, pulleys, levers, catapults, and other nameless constructs. These convulsions left the labyrinth no more comprehensible than it had been moments before.
Al-Ukbari eventually quit searching for an exit to the labyrinth. Though the merchant’s tower could be entered, it tolerated no escape. He sank down in the center of a room like all the other rooms. He listened to his muffled breathing, which seemed loud in the silence of the chamber. He reflected on the perfect pointlessness that reigned around him.
The genius of great artisans and the labors of numberless slaves had gone into the creation of a titanic structure without purpose. The stairs that soared without destination; the buttresses that supported only their own immensity; and the walls that enclosed infinite empty spaces — they all mocked reason.
He came to understand the purpose of the labyrinth. It was, in truth, an unequalled dungeon: a place where the silent stone was a tormentor. The bandit, who had seen many things in his travels, wept.
When his last tears had been expended, Al-Ukbari unbuckled his sheathed sword, allowing it to clatter noisily against the stone floor. The noise momentarily flouted the labyrinth’s dull tranquility. The weapon — useless in the labyrinth — gleamed under the blue light admitted by a window in the room’s opposite wall.
Al-Ukbari stood and approached the aperture, more from curiosity than from any thought of escape. Reaching it, he found he was once again able to survey the labyrinth from above. He had arrived at some aerie in the liminal space between the labyrinth and its distant ceiling.
Gazing into the abysses below him, Al-Ukbari was certain he perceived some radiance in the center of the labyrinth. A flickering gold shot through with glints of rainbow, it could only be the hidden hoard of the mad merchant Haj Hussain Amin al-Zarb. Al-Ukbari did not hasten towards it. Neither near nor far existed in the labyrinth; the colossal pointlessness of the structure went on indefinitely and was co-extensive with the universe. This he now knew, and it paralyzed him.
He retreated from the window.
* * *
Hussain Amin al-Zarb and his party reached the bone-colored fortress at the base of the Khazret Sultan. They came upon a threadbare encampment and a motley assortment of nags and camels. The merchant chuckled. His swollen belly and his many chins quaked in unison, provoked by his joviality. He dismounted from his camel and idly studied the flimsy lean-tos he and his party had discovered. He pushed several of them aside, testing their stability and finding it wanting. He spied an immense lizard nearby, loping through the dunes near the thieves’ tents. Such were the tools of the Emir’s fearsome agents.
The merchant’s laughter, which had abated for just a few moments, returned to him with renewed force.
Hussain Amin al-Zarb nibbled on a date, which had been brought to him by a Circassian nymph with shimmering yellow hair. He concluded that his fortress — the vault of his countless brilliants — was rather too accessible for his liking. The Emir, a feeble antagonist, could hardly threaten it, but he could make himself a persistent nuisance.
The merchant sighed loudly, making a theatrical display of his annoyance. He swallowed his date, spat its purplish pit into the sand, and uttered a few words of some tongue best forgotten. At his prompting, the white fortress wrenched itself from the earth, and drifted lazily into the sky, quickly exceeding the Hisor Mountains in enormity.
The merchant was amused by this grand spectacle but was unfinished with his spell work. He spoke a few more words, and walked into the vast shadow cast by the floating ziggurat. In an instant, the great edifice began to collapse into itself, as if it were being ingested by its own titanic bulk.
Towers and walls folded into each other, and battlements that could have defied besieging armies with blazing cannons disappeared in an instant. The once-great fortress plummeted earthward, shriveling with every second it descended through the morning air.
By the time the fortress reached Haj Hussain Amin al-Zarb’s outstretched palm, it was but a little larger than a chess piece: just a gleaming rook, polished and white as a leopard’s tooth. He smiled and resolved to keep it with him always, ensconced in the folds of his robe, its contents and captives forever past the reach of emirs and thieves and all other small men.
Copyright © 2014 by Ross Smeltzer