We pick up where we left off last week: the porter is pleading for his life with poetry and the woman who brought him into this mess is laughing at how unconvincing it is. She’s angry about her rules being broken, but wants to hear the men’s stories before she has them killed. Only they’d better talk fast, because it’s almost morning.
“Damn you, Ja’far,” the caliph says, unreasonably. “Tell her about us or else we shall be killed by mistake, and speak softly to her before we become victims of misfortune.” “That is part of what you deserve,” Ja’far retorts, and I like him so much. The lady ignores them, going to the dervishes and enquiring whether they are brothers – though I don’t think losing an eye is a standard genetic trait. They are not related at all, as it happens. Instead they are all princes from different lands who lost their respective eyes in unrelated but apparently remarkable circumstances. The lady says that if each man tells his story, he may go free unharmed. Strange anecdotes are like currency in Sharazad’s world, which makes sense given her circumstances.
The first man to grab the offer of clemency is the porter, whose story is short and boring – he was hired to carry groceries and got in way over his head. The woman laughs again and tells him he may go, but he doesn’t want to leave until he’s heard the other stories. At this the first dervish steps forward to give his own tale.
He is the son of a king, who had a brother, who was another king over somewhere else, who also had a son, born on the same day as the dervish. Read that twice if you have to. Being in the habit of visiting his uncle quite often, the dervish knows his cousin well and they have always got along. When his cousin asks for help, the dervish agrees without question. That is a bad idea. The cousin brings a veiled woman into the room and wants her taken to a specific part of a specific cemetery, where they are to wait for him by the burial enclosure. He shows up with a bowl of water, a bag of plaster and an axe, then breaks open a tomb to reveal an iron cover. Underneath that is a hidden staircase.
He tells the woman, “Now you can do what you have chosen to do,” at which she descends the stairs. The cousin means to follow her. As a final part of this favour, he wants the dervish to plaster over the disturbed stones in the tomb so it looks undisturbed. Apparently he’s been working on this plan for a full year without explaining himself to a soul, and he doesn’t intend to start now. He disappears down the stairs. The dervish plasters the tomb and goes back to his uncle’s palace.
He wakes up the next day hoping it was all a dream, but his cousin has vamoosed and no one knows where he might be – including the dervish, who searches the cemetery repeatedly without finding the right burial enclosure again. After a frantic week in which he can hardly eat or sleep, he realises the matter is out of his hands and heads home. Where EVERYTHING IS WORSE. He’s seized at the city gates and tied up by his own father’s servants. At first they won’t even tell him why, but then the truth comes out – the army has rebelled, the vizier has murdered the king and the dervish is now public enemy no.1. It’s not just a political gesture, the vizier genuinely hates him. You see, the dervish once tried to shoot a bird with a pellet bow and accidentally took out the vizier’s eye instead. He has been waiting for some time to get his own back, and he’s finally in a position to order the dervish’s execution.
The dervish tries to protest it was an accident. “If you did it by accident,” the vizier snaps, “I am doing this deliberately.” He then sticks his finger in the dervish’s eye and pulls it right out of the socket. If that’s not revolting enough, he has the dervish dumped inside a box and taken outside the city by the executioner, to be killed and left for carrion. But the young man sobs so hard he sets the executioner crying too and the longstanding goodwill between the two men carries the day – the executioner lets him live, advising him not to try seeking vengeance.
Well, luckily for the dervish, he has a backup palace. Returning to his uncle’s city, he recounts recent events. The king is already traumatised by his son’s disappearance and is quite overcome at this latest blow. Seeing him so distressed, the dervish confesses his own part in whatever the hell actually happened and the king brightens up. They go together to the cemetery, this time managing to locate the right tomb. Climbing down the hidden stair, they walk blind through a haze of smoke until they come to a hall well packed with stored food. In the middle is a couch and upon it are both the king’s son and the woman he brought with him, frozen in each other’s arms – for somehow they have been transformed into charcoal. The dervish’s uncle is furious, spitting in his son’s face and essentially telling him he’s going to hell. Not that he can actually hear.
Sharazad breaks off at this cliffhanger – night twelve commences with the king taking off his shoe and whacking his charcoal son with it. His nephew is understandably shocked; his first reaction was grief, for his cousin and the unknown girl. She’s not unknown to the king, however. She is his daughter. The prince was obsessed with her; all the king’s attempts to keep them apart were to no use and eventually he threatened his son with death if he continued to pursue his sister. So the prince had the bunker built and provisioned, clearly intending to keep the affair secret. That did not work out so well. It would seem the heavenly punishment for incest is instant incineration.
The king starts crying and the dervish does too. He says the dervish will be his son now, but that only lasts until they reach the palace, because once there they come under attack from the ambitious vizier and the city quickly falls. The king is killed.
Grieving and terrified, the dervish fled the city, shaving his face as a disguise. He came to Baghdad hoping to find the caliph and appeal his case, but did not know where to go. Meeting two more dervishes of unnervingly similar appearance, they formed a trio and thus came upon the house together.
Tenses are awkward in these segues. I prefer to write as much of them as possible in present tense, for the sense of immediacy, but that makes coming out of the segue sound a bit strange. I shall have to consider this problem some more.
The lady of the house tells the dervish he may go. Like the porter before him, he refuses to leave until he’s heard the other guests’ stories. If you feel the same way, return next week, when the second dervish tells us all about his disastrous love life.