The Pearls of Ngaháksha

Simon Whitechapel

How long the corpulent black cannibal witch Ngaháksha had ruled Gvaôn none of its inhabitants knew, though the oldest amongst them could recall from childhood hearing the oldest then alive recall from childhood hearing the oldest then alive recall that she had been on the throne in their childhood; and it was plain that the span of her years bore witness to the depth of her nigromantic wisdom. Yet she had not always ruled Gvaôn, nor had folk of her black-skinned race always dwelt therein, as the ancient ruins scattered among its steaming marshes and swamps testified. Half-effaced or dismembered by indifferent time and scornful assault though they might be, the murals and statues thereof unmistakably delineated a narrow-nosed, thin-lipped, white-skinned race, the engineers of the dykes and canals whose neglect had partly submerged Gvaôn, and the distant progenitors of the miserable and dwindling krûmek, a white-skinned slave-folk who provided also the basis of dishes central to Gvaôn's cuisine.

Ngaháksha herself ate through a dozen such slaves per mensem, and employed the most beautiful maidens amongst them in a unique rôle: that of margaritifera, or pearl-bearer. Ngaháksha's collection of jewelry was vast and overpowering as her own person, but dearest to her heart of all were her gold-strung necklaces, bracelets, anklets and belts of black pearl. The pearls had been collected at incalculable expense in shipping and slave-divers from the deepest, chilliest and most storm-prone waters off Gvaôn's coast, yet all, once drawn from their briny matrix, were doomed to pale and crumble, unless they drew vampiric life from contact with living skin. Thus it was Ngaháksha stripped and draped beautiful young krûmek slaves in the pearls, consigning each slave in her inevitable turn to the pot as her youth and beauty were sucked dry and her yellowing, wrinkling skin no longer provided that niveous background against which the pearls' nigritude might be displayed to best advantage.

Of later years, however, the task of finding white-skinned female slaves of sufficient quality among the dwindling ranks of the krûmek had proven burthensome to her agents, whose success was not improved even by the public crucifixion of three of their number, to enliven their zeal; and Ngaháksha foresaw the day on which the white slave-folk were entirely gone from Gvaôn, having been eaten and whipped to final extinction. She might then resort to girls of her own race, but the prospect little pleased her, for the pearls would be hard to distinguish against a black skin and would lose, she had already proved by experiment, that extra luster they took from the silken contact of a white skin. She might interdict consumption of the krûmek among her kinfolk, of course, prolonging the race's life by decades or even centuries, but she misdoubted the sequelæ of the thwarted appetite and could not disguise from herself a pungent satisfaction at the thought of the krûmek 's future passing.

Degenerate as they were, they stood heir to a civilization of which her own race was wholly incapable, for among all else - the collapse of the irrigation network and flood defenses, the subsidence and toppling of towers and bridges in Gvaôn's cities - was it not true that she, the highest representative of her race, had after several centuries barely begun to tap the wisdom of three manuscripts in her magickal library, preserved from the wreck of ancient Gvaôn? Yet it was in one of the manuscripts that she found the solution to her dilemma, in the receipt for an ivory automaton that might wear her pearls when she wished them displayed before her as of old, while black-skinned girls preserved them at life's expense in intervals betwixt. The automaton proved just within her skill to construct, and she celebrated with a feast at which two of her remaining margaritiferæ were slaughtered and seethed with peppers and roots imported from her half-forgotten jungle homeland.

The girls' souls, as was habitual, lingered thinly in her white-built palace, with bat-shrillings of ineffectual threat audible to the witch's sorcerously sharpened ears, but Ngaháksha belched her contempt as she ordered their eaten bodies' former burthen of pearls strung upon the automaton, which stood greater than life-size on its dias of glyph-crawled bronze and could easily bear a double load. Aye, the black pearls looked very well against the ivory neck and waist, wrists, elbows, and ankles, gleaming in the flaring light of the tripods set around the dias; and Ngaháksha belched with further satisfaction, then clicked her banana-thick fingers, still spotted and slicked with the cannibalistic grease of her celebration. One of her thick-lipped, broad-nosed black famulæ, cicatriced from the menarchic rites of an inland tribe, scuttled from a shadowed wall to turn the silver key set at the base of the automaton's spine. The witch grunted and nodded, pleased again, for the mechanism responded with nary a grind or squeak, and the automaton began to bend and sway and twirl, setting the black pearls jangling and clashing with soft resonance upon its unmarked ivory skin.

Yet what was this? The automaton converted a spin into a stride, two strides, three and four, and had stepped from its dias and begun to advance across the floor towards its creatrix, in defiance of the settings she had made to its belly-held mechanical brain. Ngaháksha clicked her fingers again, and the famula scuttled from the shadows to turn the spine-key in reverse. Barely had she set finger to the key, however, than the automaton spun in its tracks and cracked her unconscious with an ivory hand, then spun back to continue its advance on Ngaháksha. A second, third, fourth and simultaneous fifth-and-sixth and seventh-eighth-and-ninth famulæ were dispatched in the same wise, rushing upon the automaton in response to Ngaháksha's increasingly frantic signals; and now a shudder of doubt shook the fatty bulk of the witch as the automaton advanced again from the unconscious steatopygi stretched behind it on the floor, like a white butterfly emerging from the shreds of a black cocoon.

With a grunt Ngaháksha tore open a pouch of ancient crocodile-skin hanging around her neck, to throw down before the advancing ivory feet the mixed teeth and dried blood of one of the most potent of her fetishes. But the automaton did not falter a fraction, sending the teeth skittering across the floor as it trod among them; and now it was close enough for Ngaháksha to see red werelights in its sapphire eyes. Wheezing an atropaic spell, the witch wobbled to her feet and stooped to lift and fling a heavy ebon footstool at the automaton's head. But it swayed aside with the silence whose uncanniness now struck Ngaháksha with increasing dread, and the footstool crashed to the floor behind it.

A moment later the thing had sprung, its ivory hands leaping to and sinking into the fuliginous wattles of the witch's throat. Thrown backwards disbelievingly against her own throne, she tore and struck at its smooth body, but her greasy fingers could find no purchase thereon but the momentary resistance of the pearls, whose golden strings snapped to release their load like heavy black hail upon the floor, clattering and rolling through the growing thunder of blood in the witch's dying ears.

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