"Sorry to trouble you, Boyo, but I wonder whether I could pick your brains on some heathen lore."
"A pleasure, " I replied, proffering the spoon that heals. Szczackowsky took a listless sip. After some pleasantries about the disposition of my mistletoe, he told me a tale the like of which I had long feared to hear.
"I gather the swart Mussulman does not bury his dead in a decent coffin, but rather winds him in the poor fellow's own headgear before consigning him to a shallow grave and having done with it," he began.
"Not entirely the case," I garbed my distaste in the mildest of rebukes. "The Mahommedan does not despoil our holy oak through entombment, it's true, but is most solicitous towards the memory of the departed, with commemorative feasts on the fortieth day of his kinsman's sojourn in Paradise and its anniversary. Alms and sweetbreads are offered to the indigent. Heathens perhaps, but certainly not barbarians."
My Polish colleague grunted, and cast a lashless eye at the sleet that slathered the windows of my set. "Always happy to acquaint you with the latest research," he muttered. "You remember my field trip to the archives of the Emir of Bokhara?"
I nodded. Szczackowsky's discipline was the heraldry of his itinerant homeland, with particular interest in the hitherto elusive enoblement of his ancestors. The few versts of palsied peasantry that bore the Szczackowsky name near Gszmak were too little and too far.
"Well, I tired of the musty indices and decided to take the air on the outskirts of that sand-girdled satrapy," he continued. "Soon I found myself on broken ground, alone but for some carrion birds. It must have been some forlorn battlefield, for I nearly tripped over a bald rock that, on closer inspection - well, a kick, I admit - turned out to be a skull."
"A human skull?" I mused.
"That of a local," he replied hastily. "It was round like a water-melon, as is common among the Sarts."
"Of whom there are few in Bokhara, a city of Tad-jeeks," I remarked. "But do go on."
"I mean it was not elongated to fit a honey-melon, the measure of the Turcoman." I swore his duelling scars grew fevered in the peat light.
"A welcome discovery for the historian of the lay of Tamburlaine's campaigns," I concluded. "I shall mention it to Deakin. Now, I must dress for Calennig, and I fear my garlands have swollen since last year -"
"Please hear me out, Vortigern, for pity's sake!" My guest all but grasped the lapels of my jerkin.
"Sit down, Wozzeck, and pray a little more candour this time." I loaded the hookah as he puffed impatiently on a biddi.
"Very well, it was no battleground, and I wasn't taking a break from my work. Far from it - this was to be the acme of my academic achievement. Tell me, have you heard of Idris Kadeer?"
I set the mushrooms down for a moment, and drew a manuscript from my Khwarazmian cabinet. "The Tareekh of Buyouk-Muinack," I gently brushed the dust from its grey leaves. They seemed to whisper as I traced a path to the seventh chapter, the one that treated of Kadeer the Mad, and of His Curse. I translated aloud from the Tchaghatai:
"...and he who had walked gladly without the Light of the Merciful, who had passed through dunes and vaulted cisterns in the company of serpents and djins, now he met justice at the hands of the Prince's guards. Before his head rolled in the pious dust before the Kalyan, Idris fixed both eyes upon the crowd. His lips did not move, but all heard his words -"
I replaced the fading folio, as Szczackowsky's head had slumped in his hands. "What did you do?" I asked quietly.
"I'd heard the story of the great Necromancer of Bokhara, and how possession of his remains could bring unimaginable wealth and power -"
"Yes, unimaginable, and only to the adept," I interrupted.
"I know now." His voice was barely audible above the twilight patter of ravens in the courtyard below. "A chest of piastres had bought me an audience with a blind Maulana at Lab-i-Khawz. Imagine my delight, my exhilaration at being told where to find the tomb of Idris and all it contained!
"I ventured out at midnight, bribing the guards at the Ark to let me pass, and soon struck the path to a ruined medrassa on the very edge of the desert. The key I'd bought so dear let me down steps to a vile vault almost submerged in a sulphurous brine. And there I found it.
"I shan't bother you with the details of my nightmare of horror - the sounds, the sluggish movement of half-shadows, the underwater whispers - or my deranged flight across broken walls and cracked tombs until I piled sobbing on my rude bed, the prize in my hands. Merely to think of it robs me of nights of sleep.
"All I had found in the tomb was a handful of dust and a skull."
"The skull of Idris Kadeer?"
"I had no doubt, and less now." Szczackowsky lit another spindly cheroot, unaware of its sibling that still smouldered between his blanched lips. "I was disappointed to find the remains already reduced to powder, but felt grateful that at least the skull was intact."
"How do you feel now. Powerful? Prosperous?"
"Don't mock me, man!" A sickle moon spun unwholesome skeins across his brow. "I brought it out of Russia on a packet from Odessa, packed in a samovar, then by wagon-lit from Constantinople. It's fair to say I've not really slept since. At first I put the dreams down to fatigue, the ague, whatever, but soon the incessant clanging of gongs, the choking cloying fumes, the screams that surged into one endless shriek, the throbbing, indescribable colours, they all began to take on a shape - oh God, if you can call that a shape!"
"You know the curse," I asked as he covered his face again. Meeting only silence, I took up the manuscript of the Tareekh once again.
"... Who owns my bones shall have dominion over those who scattered them to the corners of the world, and over all that passes between, but woe upon those who divide me! The Two-Horned One shall greet them at the gates of Jahann-Am, and endless will be the burning blizzard of their torment. And then they shall behold my face..."
"That wasn't the tomb of Idris was it?" sobbed Szczackowsky.
I shook my head. "It was the Maulana's own ruined academy, the one that the mob had destroyed when they learned of his ungodly pursuits, the one where he had put out his own eyes rather than see what had been promised to him."
"He had been tricked into taking possession of the skull and becoming - how did Kadeer put it?- "
"One of 'those who divide me' - literally." I replaced the manuscript. "Until he passed it on to you."
"What am I to do, Boyo? You're my last hope."
I pointed skywards with a faint smile. "We ought to consider 'benefit of clergy', don't you think? Look, I know an imam - a Moslem cleric - as learned and devout as any of those Low Churchmen at St David's. He'll give the skull a decent burial, something that's clearly never occured to anyone. I take it the, er, object is here in your set?"
"Yes," he gabbled, "It's in a cupboard under my washstand! Of course I'll make it presentable, and - "
"Here's what you'll do. The whole college will be attending Calennig in an hour. If you stay at home, burn a good fire in the hearth and leave your door ajar, I'll send my fellow up. No one will see you."
"I don't know how to thank you," wept my colleague.
"Just go, and stop worrying." I pressed his hands, and led him to the door.
A while after he'd gone I set aside my nargileh, tapped at the connecting door to the next set of rooms and eased it open. It was dark inside, but warm and still. My neighbour sat in a high-backed chair by the empty hearth. I took his hand in mine, and traced calligraphy on the parched palm.
Across the square. The Frank has it. You will feel the warmth of his fire on your breast, and hear his breath in your heart. His fear will hang heavy in your throat. And soon you will see again, and speak - Master.
Idris Kadeer rose, and I followed him to the stairs.