By Craig Marx
LONDON, JUNE 1887
His laugh was like that of a horse’s nay, stopping and starting and screeching from behind his clenched teeth. Peter Astrakhan had never particularly enjoyed his professional meetings with Lord Nigel Sansibury, for the lord’s seemingly perfect balance of urbane and crude, cunning and humility were overwhelming at times. For example, when referencing the mysterious death of an Oriental acquaintance, gloating laughter would not be the typical response expected of a reputable nobleman.
The equestrian laughter ceased and Lord Sansibury picked up a portion of chicken breast with his fork that barely fit on the utensil. As he devoured the gluttonous portion of poultry, a sliver of chicken skin hung from the right corner of his puffy, purple lips. He spoke merrily without notice.
“And the poor slob keeled over right there in the restaurant, you say?”
Peter bothered not to look at his host from across the dinner table, using his flatware to play with his coq au vin as he spoke coldly. “Yes, that ‘poor slob keeled over’ as you said, but not before divulging a few intricate details about the Pyramid.”
Nigel dropped his fork to the Meissen plate, the sliver of chicken falling from his greasy face to the equally shiny floor. “Yes, I know. I received your rather vague letter a fortnight later. And what exactly did Soo-Cheng say, Monsieur Astrakhan?”
Peter sat back in his chair, wiped the corners of his mouth though they needed it not nearly as so as others present at the table, and crossed his hands once he placed his napkin atop his nearly untouched entrée. He lit a cigarette from his case and finally looked Lord Sansibury in the eyes.
“Well, with the Hong Kong man’s story, compiled with a small and I stress very minute amount of available material on the matter, what I know is as follows:
“The Kingdom of Zan’ai existed about the same time as the dawn of the Christian Era in Rome, in what would be present day Turkestan. Only known Western documentation provided by a Greek cartographer named Doliphios, who visited the kingdom and met a sorcerer-ruler by the name of Sauntoki around the year 286 A. D. He told our Greek traveler of a magical and mysterious pyramid that had brought the Great Sauntoki and the centuries-past rulers of Zan’ai wisdom and enlightenment beyond parallel.
“Doliphios described the kingdom as the most opulent he had ever seen in all his travels about the Persian and Turkic lands. A great walled city that the past rulers had named Teke’strana was fortified by a golden parapet encrusted with the most radiant and ornate of jewels brought home from conquered lands. A moat of crystal-clear water, delivered to the city via aqueducts from the mountains near present day Ashgabat, ran the circumference of the parapet at a total distance of 152 plethron.
“What amazed the Greek cartographer most were the steeples that were erected about in the most disorganized of fashions outside the walls of Teke’strana. Appearing almost as extremely tall, free-standing minarets of the modern Muhammedan world, each one was at least a plethron in height and housed a cupola atop that was completely pyramidal. While each varied in its own luster and design, they all were enameled with riches far greater than the walls of Teke’strana itself. Sapphires bluer than the heavens, rubies redder than a Welshman’s cheeks. Doliphios noted how the spires’ looming, majestic shadows fell about the fertile land, and spent nearly two weeks amongst them, sketching as many of them as he could. The sketches have since disappeared. He counted 77 spires in all.
“When Doliphios asked the Great Sauntoki of their purpose, the ruler turned slightly weary, more apprehensive and somewhat more distant and afraid. He said each spire was known of as a nartoki’la, or temple of higher enlightenment. Each prior ruler would spend the majority of his life with the Pyramid in his own personal temple, exploring other planes and dimensions until it was finally time to divulge to the kingdom’s people the course they were to follow next. After years of “enlightenment,” the ruler would hand down the Pyramid to his first-born son and adjourn to his nartoki’la to die. Once the ruler entered for the final time, the temple would be sealed and the spire would act as a tomb, never to be opened again.
“Something was happening though, the Great Sauntoki told Doliphios. A darkness was sweeping over the plane of knowledge and the power of the Pyramid was driving the sorcerer-ruler mad. He could enter others’ minds and could read others’ thoughts, and was becoming aware of a grave danger lurking over the horizon. The Great Sauntoki fell ill, and asked the young Greek traveler to leave his kingdom immediately.
“Doliphios did as he was told, only to return with a much more well-funded expedition five years later. Except when he arrived there, the kingdom was not there. What had been majestic, 40-meter tall spires and golden, jewel-encrusted walled cities were now a new tide steppe of the Caspian. There was nothing to be said for Zan’ai except a desolate shore of occasionally moistened sand. After months of digging, nothing was found below the surface. It was as though Zan’ai had never existed at all.”
There was a long silence, yet it seemed necessary to let the Monsieur’s information process behind the eyes of both the storyteller and the recipient; however, then came the horse laughter.
More powerful and percussive then Peter Astrakhan had ever seen before in all his encounters with Nigel Sansibury, the laugh echoed throughout the nobleman’s relatively empty dining room. Nigel’s eyes were closed as tears streamed down his blushing cheeks in all directions, and the cacophony radiating from his now entirely-opened mouth was piercing and discomforting. Peter winced and put the cigarette out in an ashtray adjacent to his grey-blue Meissen plate.
He looked disgustingly from across the table. “What is so damn funny? A man is dead because of something associated with this Pyramid, a man you use to know.”
The laughter turned to minor stomach convulsions and then to hiccups. “That…ewp…was the best damn children’s fable I’ve ever heard, Peter. Ewp…the best goddamn one. Well done. Thank goodness me…ewp…I didn’t have a mouthful of supper at the time. I would have likely…ewp…ended up like Mr. Soo-Cheng!”
“I would have thought someone in your scholarly position would have at least been intrigued,” the Monsieur rebuked as Nigel hurriedly gulped down a glass of water.
“But you see I am, Peter! I am! I went to chronicle some of Doliphios’ work with my assistant once I received your letter from Hong Kong. I went to Istanbul a few weeks back and decided to cross-reference the old man’s fantastical story. Found the majority of the Greek’s work intact, yet never was there a mention of jeweled cities, Turkic aqueducts or spires bearing the threshold to the netherworld. Seems you’ve been taken in by these childish tales of whimsy and farce. That is not like you, Peter.”
Peter grinned and laughed a brief chuckle that was meant only for him. He pulled out his tobacco case from his left inner coat pocket and lit another cigarette, “The Cartographic Museum of Ancient Byzantium, Istanbul. Yes, I know. I was there myself a few weeks ago on the way back from the East. That’s where I borrowed these from,” he said, pulling a document-sized cloth pouch from a map case beneath his chair and sliding it across the table.
Lord Sansibury opened it and looked upon the frail, yellowed pieces of inked hide in the pouch. He smirked himself, not erupting into obnoxious excitement but grinning with acknowledging approval. He read aloud the Greek title on the top piece of the hide. “Doliphios the Elder. Early Persian Encounters.”
Nigel was now gleeful in the most mature of manners he knew. “Wow, look at that. Well done, old boy.”