/ Language: English / Genre:antique

The Journeyer

Gary Jennings

Legendary trader and explorer Marco Polo was nicknamed "Marco of the millions" because his Venetian countrymen took the grandiose stories of his travels to be exaggerated, if not outright lies. As he lay dying, his priest, family, and friends offered him a last chance to confess his mendacity, and Marco, it is said, replied, "I have not told the half of what I saw and did." Now Gary Jennings has imagined the half left unsaid as even more elaborate and adventurous than Polo's tall tales. From the palazzi and back streets of medieval Venice to the sumptuous court of Kublai Khan, Marco meets all manner of people, survives all manner of danger, and becomes an almost compulsive collector of customs, languages, and women. Review "He enlivens his picaresque story with wonderfully detailed descriptions of the landscape, climate, flora and fauna Polo encountered along the way. The real energy of Gary Jennings's narrative is devoted to those old standbys lust and bloodlust. His zeal for clinical description of sexual practices is matched only by his enthusiasm for the minutiae of Oriental torture. Pound for pound,The Journeyeris a classic."---Gene Lyons, *Newsweek "A novel of epic proportions."--Library Journal onThe Journeyer*

 

When Marco Polo lay on his deathbed,

his priest, his friends and relations

clustered around him to plead that he

at last renounce the countless lies he

had related as his true adventures, so his

soul would go cleansed to Heaven. The

old man raised up, roundly damned them

all and declared, “I have not told

the half of what I saw and did!”

ACCORDING TO

FRA JACOPO D’ACQUI,

MARCO POLO’S CONTEMPORARY

AND HIS FIRST BIOGRAPHER

Come hither, great princes! Come hither, emperors and kings, dukes and marquises, knights and burgesses! Come hither, you people of all degrees, who wish to see the many faces of mankind and to know the diversities of the whole world! Take up this book and read it, or have it read to you. For herein you will find all the greatest wonders and most marvelous curiosities … .

AH, LUIGI, LUIGI! In the worn and wrinkled fustian of those old pages I hear your very voice again.

It had been many years since I last looked into our book, but when your letter came I fetched it out once more. I can still smile at it and admire it simultaneously. The admiration is for its having made me famous, however little I may deserve that fame, and the smile is for its having made me notorious. Now you say that you wish to write another work, an epic poem this time, again incorporating the adventures of Marco Polo—if I will grant that liberty—but attributing them to an invented protagonist.

I cast back in my memory to our first meeting, in the cellars of that Genoa palazzo where we prisoners of war were lodged. I remember how diffidently you approached me, and with what reticence you spoke:

“Messer Marco, I am Luigi Rustichello, late of Pisa, and I have been a captive here since long before you arrived. I have listened to you telling that hilariously ribald story of the Hindu with his ahem caught in the holy rock hole. I have heard you tell it three times now. Once to your fellow prisoners, again to the warder, and yet again to the visiting almoner of the Brotherhood of Justice.”

I inquired, “Are you weary of hearing it, Messere?”

And you said, “Not at all, Messere, but you will soon be weary of the telling. Many more persons will want to hear that tale, and all the other tales you have told, and any others which perhaps you have not told yet. Before you tire of the telling, or of the stories themselves, why do you not simply tell to me all your recollections of your travels and adventures? Tell them only the once and let me set them down on paper. I am a writer of some facility and much experience. Your tales could make a considerable book, Messer Marco, and multitudes of people then can read it for themselves.”

And so I did, and so you did, and so the multitudes have done. Though many other journeyers before me had written of their travels, none of those works ever enjoyed the immediate and continuing popularity of our Description of the World. Perhaps, Luigi, it was because you chose to transcribe my words in French, the most widely known Western language. Or perhaps you made my stories better in the writing than I could do in the telling. At any rate, somewhat to my surprise, our book became much read and talked of and sought after. It was copied and recopied, and by now has been translated into every other language of Christendom, and of those versions, too, countless copies have been taken and circulated.

But none of them tells the singular story of the anguished Hindu and his rape of a rock.

When I sat in that clammy Genoa prison, recounting my reminiscences, and you sat putting them into proper words, we decided that they would be told in only the most proper words. You had your reputation to consider, and I had my family name. You were the Rustichello of Pisa, and I was a Polo of Venice. You were the romancier courtois, already known for your retellings of the classic tales of chivalry—of Tristan and Isolde, of Lancelot and Ginevra, of Amys and Amyllion. I was, as you described me in the book, representative of the “sajes et nobles citaiens de Venece.” So we agreed that our pages would contain only those of my adventures and observations which we could publish without a blush or a qualm, and which could be read without offending the Christian sensibilities even of maiden ladies or nuns.

Further, we determined to leave out of the book anything which might strain the credence of any stay-at-home reader. I recall that we even debated before we included my encounters with the stone that burns and the fabric that will not. Thus many of the most marvelous incidents of my travels were, so to speak, abandoned by the wayside of my wanderings. We left out the unbelievable and the bawdy and the scandalous. But now, you tell me, you want to mend those gaps—though still without hazarding my good name.

So your new protagonist will be called Monsieur Bauduin, not Messer Marco, and he will hail from Cherbourg, not Venice. But in all else he will be me. He will experience, enjoy, endure all that I did—and all that I left untold heretofore—if I will refresh your memory by telling those many stories to you again.

It is a great temptation, certainly. It would be like living those days anew—and those nights—and that is a thing I have long yearned to do. I always intended, you know, to journey again to the far eastward. But no, you could not have known. I have not spoken of that even in my family circle. It has been a dream I treasured too much to share … .

Yes, I meant to go again sometime. But when I was freed from Genoa and returned to Venice, the family business demanded my attention, and so I hesitated to depart. And then I met Donata, and she became my wife. So I hesitated again a while, and then there was a daughter. Naturally that gave me cause to hesitate, and there came a second daughter, and then there were three. So, for one reason and another, I kept on hesitating, and suddenly one day I was old.

Old! It is inconceivable! When I look into our book, Luigi, I see myself there a boy, and then a youth, and then in my manhood, and even at the book’s very end I am still a stalwart. But when I look into a glass, I see there an aged stranger, sapped and sagged and blemished and enfeebled by the corroding rusts of five and sixty years. I murmur, “That old man cannot go again a-journeying,” and then I realize: that old man is Marco Polo.

So your letter came to me at a vulnerable moment. And your suggestion that I contribute to a new book is an opportunity I will not let pass. If I cannot do again the things I once did, at the least I can remember them and take relish in them while I relate them, since I can now do that with the impunity of your Bauduin disguise. You may wonder at my so welcoming that disguise, as you may also have wondered at my remark that the earlier book earned me both undeserved renown and undeserved notoriety. I shall explain.

I never claimed to have been the first man to travel from the West into the far East, and you did not put any such boast into our book. Nevertheless, that seems to have been the impression produced upon most of its readers—or those readers living elsewhere than Venice, where no such illusion obtains. After all, my own Venetian father and uncle had gone to and returned from the East before they retraced their journey and that time took me with them. Also, in the East itself I met many other Westerners, of all nations from England to Hungary, who had arrived there before me, and some of whom stayed there longer than I did.

But long previous to them, many other Europeans had traversed the same Silk Road I trod. There was the Spanish rabbi Benjamin of Tudela, and the Franciscan friar Zuàne of Carpini, and the Flemish friar Guillaume of Rubrouck—and, like me, all those men published accounts of their travels. As far back as seven or eight hundred years ago, there were missionaries of the Nestorian Christian Church penetrating into Kithai, and there are many laboring there today. Even before Christian times, there must have been Western traders wandering to and from the East. It is known that the Pharaones of ancient Egypt wore the silk of the Orient, and silk is thrice mentioned in the Old Testament.

Numerous other things and the words describing them were, long before my time, made part of our Venetian language. Several of our city’s buildings are decorated, inside or out, with that sort of filigree fancywork we adopted from the Arabs and have long called arabesco. The murderous sassìn gets his name from the hashishiyin of Persia, men who kill at the instigation of a religious fervor induced by the drug hashish. The making of that cheap glazed fabric called indiana was learned in India, where that cloth is called chint, and where the inhabitants also inspired our Venetian expression “far l’Indiàn,” meaning to behave utterly stupidly.

No, I was not the first to go East or to return from there. Insofar as my fame rests on the misapprehension that I was, it is indeed unmerited. But my notoriety is even less deserved, for it depends on the widespread assumption of my dishonesty and untruthfulness. You and I, Luigi, put into our book only those observations and experiences we judged believable, but even so I am disbelieved. Here in Venice I am jeeringly called Marco Millions—an epithet implying not any wealth of ducats, but my supposed store of lies and exaggerations. That amuses me more than it annoys me, but my wife and daughters are exceedingly vexed at being known as the Dona and Damìne Milioni.

Hence my willingness to put on the mask of your fictional Bauduin as I commence to tell everything that has not until now been told. Let the world, if the world chooses, think it all a fiction. It is better to be disbelieved in such matters than to remain forever mute about them.

But first, Luigi:

From the sample of manuscript you sent with your letter, to show me how you propose to open Bauduin’s story, I gather that your command of French has considerably improved since you set down our Description of the World. I am emboldened to make another small comment on that earlier book. A reader of those pages might think that Marco Polo had been a man of sober age and judgment through all his traveling days—and that he had somehow done that traveling through the sky, so high aloft that he could see all at once the entire breadth of our earth, and point to one and then another land and say with certainty, “Herein this one differs from that.” True, I was forty when I came home from my journeying. I hope I came back a little more wise and discerning than when I went, for I was then only a wide-eyed adolescent—ignorant, inexperienced, foolish. Also, like any journeyer, I had to see all lands and the contents of them, not from the hindsight vantage of some twenty-five years later, but in the order in which I came upon them in my travels. It was kind and flattering of you, Luigi, to portray me in that earlier book as having been always a man all-seeing and all-knowing, but your new work might benefit if you made its narrator somewhat more true to life.

I would further suggest, Luigi, if you truly intend to cut your Monsieur Bauduin to the pattern of Marco Polo, that you commence his career by giving him a misspent youth of reckless abandon and misbehavior. That is one thing which I am here telling for the first time. I did not depart from Venice merely because I was eager for new horizons. I left Venice because I had to—or, at any rate, because Venice decreed that I had to.

Of course I cannot know, Luigi, how closely you wish to make your Bauduin’s history parallel my own. But you did say “tell all,” so I will begin even before the beginning.

FOR GLENDA

VENICE

1

ALTHOUGH the Polo family has been Venetian, and proud of it, for perhaps three hundred years now, it did not originate on this Italian peninsula, but on the other side of the Adriatic Sea. Yes, we were originally from Dalmatia, and the family name would then have been something like Pavlo. The first of my forebears to sail to Venice, and stay here, did so sometime after the year 1000. He and his descendants must have risen rather quickly to prominence in Venice, for already in the year 1094 a Domènico Polo was a member of the Grand Council of the Republic, and in the following century so was a Piero Polo.

The most remote ancestor of whom I have even a dim recollection was my grandfather Andrea. By his time, every man of our house of Polo was officially designated an Ene Aca (meaning N.H., which in Venice means Nobilis Homo or gentleman), and was addressed as Messere, and we had acquired the family arms: a field argent bearing three birds sable with beaks gules. This is actually a visual play on words, for that emblematic bird of ours is the bold and industrious jackdaw, which is called in the Venetian tongue the pola.

Nono Andrea had three sons: my uncle Marco, for whom I was named, my father Nicolò and my uncle Mafìo. What they did when they were boys I do not know, but when they grew up, the eldest son, Marco, became the Polo trading company’s agent in Constantinople in the Latin Empire, while his brothers remained in Venice to manage the company’s headquarters and keep up the family palazzo. Not until after Nono Andrea’s death did Nicolò and Mafìo scratch the itch to go traveling themselves, but when they did they went farther than any Polo before them had gone.

In the year 1259, when they sailed away from Venice, I was five years old. My father had told my mother that they intended to go only as far as Constantinople, to visit their long-absent elder brother. But, as that brother eventually reported to my mother, after they had stayed with him there for a time, they took a notion to go on eastward. She never heard another report of them, and, after a twelvemonth, she decided they must be dead. That was not just the vaporings of an abandoned and grieving woman; it was the most likely possible surmise. For it was in that year of 1259 that the barbarian Mongols, having conquered all the rest of the Eastern world, pushed their implacable advance to the very gates of Constantinople. While every other white man was fleeing or quailing before “the Golden Horde,” Mafìo and Nicolò Polo had gone marching foolhardily right into their front line—or, considering how the Mongols were then regarded, better say: into their slavering and champing jaws.

We had reason to regard the Mongols as monsters, did we not? The Mongols were something more and something less than human, were they not? More than human, in their fighting ability and physical endurance. Less than human, in their savagery and lust for blood. Even their everyday food was known to be reeking raw meat and the rancid milk of mares. And it was known that, when a Mongol army ran out of those rations, it would unhesitatingly cast lots to choose every tenth man of its ranks to be slaughtered for food for the others. It was known that every Mongol warrior wore leather armor only on his breast, not his back; so that, if he ever did feel cowardice, he could not turn and run from an opponent. It was known that the Mongols polished their leather armor with grease, and they procured that grease by boiling down their human victims. All those things were known in Venice, and were repeated and retold, in hushed voices of horror, and some of those things were even true.

I was just five years old when my father went away, but I could share the universal dread of those savages from the East, for I was already familiar with the spoken threat: “The Mongols will get you! The orda will get you!” I had heard that all through my childhood, and so had every other little boy whenever he required admonishment. “The orda will get you if you do not eat up all your supper. If you do not go straight to bed. If you do not cease your noise.” The orda was wielded by mothers and governesses, in those times, as they had earlier threatened their misbehaving children with “The orco will get you!”

The orco is the demon giant that mothers and nursemaids have forever kept on call, so it was no strain for them to substitute the word orda: the horde. And the Mongol horde was assuredly the more real and believable monster; the women invoking it did not have to feign the fright in their voices. The fact that they even knew that word is evidence that they had reason to fear the orda as much as any child did. For it was the Mongols’ own word, yurtu, originally meaning the great pavilioned tent of the chieftain of a Mongol encampment, and it was adopted, only slightly changed, into all the European languages, to mean what Europeans thought of when they thought of Mongols—a marching mob, a teeming mass, an irresistible swarm, a horde.

But I did not much longer hear that threat from my mother. As soon as she decided that my father was dead and gone, she commenced to languish and dwindle and weaken. When I was seven years old, she died. I have only one recollection of her, from a few months before that. The last time she ventured outside our Casa Polo, before she took to her bed and never got up again, was to accompany me on the day I was enrolled in school. Indeed, although that day was in another century, nearly sixty years ago, I recall it quite clearly.

At that time, our Ca’ Polo was a small palazzo in the city’s confino of San Felice. In the bright morning hour of mezza-terza, my mother and I came out the house door onto the cobbled street alongside the canal. Our old boatman, the black Nubian slave Michièl, was waiting with our batèlo moored to its striped pole, and the boat was freshly waxed for the occasion, gleaming in all its colors. My mother and I got into it and seated ourselves under the canopy. Also for the occasion, I was dressed in new and fine raiment: a tunic of brown Lucca silk, I remember, and hose soled with leather. So, as old Michièl rowed us down the narrow Rio San Felice, he kept exclaiming things like “Che zentilòmo!” and “Dassèno, xestu, Messer Marco?”—meaning “Quite the gentleman!” and “Truly, is that you, Master Marco?”—which unaccustomed admiration made me feel proud and uncomfortable. He did not desist until he turned the batèlo into the Grand Canal, where the heavy boat traffic required all his attention.

That day was one of Venice’s best sort of days. The sun was shining, but its light lay on the city in a manner more diffused than sharp-edged. There was no sea mist or land haze, for the sunlight was by no means diminished. Rather, the sun seemed to shine not in direct beams, but with a more subtle luminosity, the way candles glow when they are set in a many-crystaled chandelier. Anyone who knows Venice has known that light : as if pearls had been crushed and powdered—pearl-colored pearls and the pale pink ones and the pale blue—and that powder ground so fine that its particles hung in the air, not dimming the light but making it more lustrous yet soft at the same time. And the light came from other places than the sky alone. It was reflected from the canals’ dancing waters, so it put dapples and spangles and roundels of that pearl-powder light bouncing about on all the walls of old wood and brick and stone, and softened their rough textures as well. That day had a gentling bloom on it like the bloom on a peach.

Our boat slid under the Grand Canal’s one bridge, the Ponte Rialto —the old, low, pontoon bridge with the swing-away center section; it had not then been rebuilt as the arched drawbridge it is now. Then we passed the Erbarìa, the market where young men, after a night of wine, go strolling in the early morning to clear their heads with the fragrance of its flowers and herbs and fruits. Then we turned off the canal again into another narrow one. A little way up that, my mother and I debarked at the Campo San Todaro. Around that square are situated all the lower-grade schools of the city, and at that hour the open space seethed with boys of all ages, playing, running, chattering, wrestling, while they waited for the school day to begin.

My mother presented me to the school maistro, presenting him also with the documents pertaining to my birth and to my registry in the Libro d’Oro. (“The Golden Book” is the popular name for the Register of Protocol in which the Republic keeps the records of all its Ene Aca families. ) Fra Varisto, a very stout and forbidding man in voluminous robes, appeared less than impressed by the documents. He looked at them and snorted, “Brate!” which is a not very polite word meaning a Slav or Dalmatian. My mother countered with a ladylike sniff, and murmured, “Veneziàn nato e spuà.”

“Venetian spawned and born, perhaps,” rumbled the friar. “But Venetian bred, not yet. Not until he has endured proper schooling and the stiffening of school discipline.”

He took up a quill and rubbed the point of it on the shiny skin of his tonsure, I suppose to lubricate its nib, then dipped it in an inkwell and opened a tremendous book. “Date of Confirmation?” he inquired. “Of First Communion?”

My mother told him and added, with some hauteur, that I had not, like most children, been allowed to forget my Catechism as soon as I had been confirmed, but could still say it and the Creed and the Commandments on demand, as facilely as I could say the Our Father. The maistro grunted, but made no additional notation in his big book. My mother then went on to ask some questions of her own: about the school’s curriculum and its examinations and its rewards for achievement and its punishments for failure and …

All mothers take their sons to school for the first time with a considerable pride, I suppose, but also, I think, with an equal measure of wariness and even sadness, for they are relinquishing those sons to a mysterious realm they never can enter. Almost no female, unless she is destined for holy orders, ever gets the least bit of formal schooling. So her son, as soon as he learns just so much as to write his own name, has vaulted somewhere beyond her reach forever after.

Fra Varisto patiently told my mother that I would be taught the proper use of my own language and of Trade French as well, that I would be taught to read and to write and to figure in numbers, that I would learn at least the rudiments of Latin from the Timen of Donadello, and the rudiments of history and cosmography from Callisthenes’ Book of Alexander, and religion from Bible stories. But my mother persisted with so many other anxious questions that the friar finally said, in a voice mingling compassion and exasperation, “Dona e Madona, the boy is merely being enrolled in school. He is not taking the veil. We will immure him merely during the daylight hours. You will still have him the rest of the time.”

She had me for the rest of her life, but that was not long. So thereafter I heard the threat that “the Mongols will get you if” only from Fra Varisto at school, and at home from old Zulià. This was a woman who really was a Slav, born in some back corner of Bohemia, and clearly of peasant stock, for she always walked like a washerwoman waddling with a full wash bucket dangling from either hand. She had been my mother’s personal maid since before I was born. After my mother’s death, Zulià took her place as my nurse and monitor, and took the courtesy title of Aunt. In assuming the task of raising me up to be a decent and responsible young man, Zia Zulià did not exert much strictness—apart from frequently invoking the orda—nor did she, I must confess, have much success in her self-appointed task.

In part, this was because my namesake Uncle Marco had not come back to Venice after the disappearance of his two brothers. He had for too long made his home in Constantinople, and was comfortable there, although by this time the Latin Empire had succumbed to the Byzantine. Since my other uncle and my father had left the family business in the keeping of expert and trustworthy clerks, and the family palazzo in the keeping of similarly efficient domestics, Zio Marco left them so. Only the most weighty but least urgent matters were referred to him, by courier vessel, for his consideration and decision. Managed in that manner, both the Compagnia Polo and the Ca’ Polo went on functioning as well as ever.

The one Polo property that misfunctioned was myself. Being the last and sole male scion of the Polo line—the only one in Venice, anyway—I had to be tenderly preserved, and I knew it. Though I was not of an age to have any say in the management of either the business or the house (fortunately), neither was I answerable to any adult authority for my own actions. At home I demanded my own way, and I got it. Not Zia Zulià, nor the maggiordomo, old Attilio, nor any of the lesser servants dared to raise a hand against me, and seldom a voice. My Catechism I never again recited, and soon forgot all the responses. At school I began to shirk my lessons. When Fra Varisto despaired of wielding the Mongols and resorted to wielding a ferrule, I simply stayed away from school.

It is a small wonder that I got as much formal education as I did. But I remained in school long enough to learn to read and write and do arithmetic and speak the Trade French of commerce, mainly because I knew I should need those abilities when I grew old enough to take over the family business. And I learned what history of the world, and what description of it, is supplied by The Book of Alexander. I absorbed all of that, mainly because the great Alexander’s journeys of conquest had taken him eastward, and I could imagine my father and uncle having followed some of the same trails. But I saw little likelihood of my ever needing a knowledge of Latin, and it was when my school class had its collective nose forced into the boring rules and precepts of the Timen that I pointed my nose elsewhere.

Though my seniors loudly lamented and predicted dire ends for me, I really do not think that my willfulness signified that I was an evil child. My chief besetting sin was curiosity, but of course that is a sin by our Western standards. Tradition insists that we behave in conformity with our neighbors and peers. The Holy Church demands that we believe and have faith, that we stifle any questions or opinions derived from our own reasoning. The Venetian mercantile philosophy decrees that the only palpable truths are those numerated on the bottommost ledger line where debits and credits are balanced.

But something in my nature rebelled against the constraints accepted by all others of my age and class and situation. I wished to live a life beyond the rules and the ruled ledger lines and the lines written in the Missal. I was impatient and perhaps distrustful of received wisdom, those morsels of information and exhortation so neatly selected and prepared and served up like courses of a meal, for consumption and assimilation. I much preferred to make my own hunt for knowledge, even if I found it raw and unpalatable to chew and nauseating to swallow, as often I would do. My guardians and preceptors accused me of lazy avoidance of the hard work required to gain an education. They never realized that I had chosen to follow a far harder path, and would follow it—wherever it led—from that childhood time through all the years of my manhood.

On the days when I stayed away from the school and could not go home, I had to idle the days away somewhere, so sometimes I loitered about the establishment of the Compagnia Polo. It was situated then, as now, on the Riva Ca’ de Dio, the waterfront esplanade which looks directly out onto the lagoon. On the water side, that esplanade is fringed with wooden quays, between which are ships and boats moored stem to stern and side by side. There are vessels of small and medium size: the shallow-draft batèli and gòndole of private houses, the bragozi fishing boats, the floating saloons called burchielli. And there are the much grander seagoing galleys and galeazze of Venice, interspersed with English and Flemish cogs, Slavic trabacoli and Levantine caïques. Many of those ocean vessels are so large that their stems and bowsprits overhang the street, and cast a latticed shadow on its cobbles, almost all the way to the variegated building fronts that line the esplanade’s landward side. One of those buildings was (and still is) ours: a cavernous warehouse, with one little interior space of it partitioned off for a counting room.

I liked the warehouse. It was aromatic of all the smells of all the countries of the world, for it was heaped and piled with sacks and boxes and bales and barrels of all the world’s produce—everything from Barbary wax and English wool to Alexandria sugar and Marseilles sardines. The warehouse workers were heavily muscled men, hung about with hammers, fist-hooks, coils of rope and other implements. They were forever busy, one man perhaps wrapping in burlap a consignment of Cornish tinware, another hammering the lid on a barrel of Catalonia olive oil, yet another shouldering a crate of Valencia soap out to the docks, and every man seeming always to be shouting some command like “logo!” or “a corando!” at the others.

But I liked the counting room, too. In that cramped coop sat the director of all that business and busy-ness, the old clerk Isidoro Priuli. With no apparent exertion of muscle, no rushing about or bellowing, no tools but his abaco, his quill and his ledger books, Maistro Doro controlled that crossroads of all the world’s goods. With a little clicking of the abaco’s colored counters and a scribble of ink in a ledger column, he could send to Bruges an ànfora of Corsican red wine and to Corsica, in exchange, a skein of Flanders lace, and, as the two items passed each other in our warehouse, dip off a metadella measure of the wine and snip off a braccio length of the lace to pay the Polos’ profit on the transaction.

Because so many of the warehouse’s contents were flammable, Isidoro did not allow himself the aid of a lamp or even a single candle to light his working space. Instead, he had arranged on the wall above and behind his head a large concave mirror made of real glass, which scooped in what light it could from the day outside and directed it down onto his high table. Seated there at his books, Maistro Doro looked like a very small and shriveled saint with an oversized halo. I would stand peering over the edge of that table, marveling that just the twitch of the maistro’s fingers could exercise so much authority, and he would tell me things about the work in which he took such pride.

“It was the heathen Arabs, my boy, who gave the world these curlicue marks representing numbers, and this abaco for counting them with. But it was Venice that gave the world this system of keeping account—the books with facing pages for double entry. On the left, the debits. On the right, the credits.”

I pointed to an entry on the left: “to the account of Messer Domeneddio,” and asked, just for instance, who that Messere might be.

“Mefè!” the maistro exclaimed. “You do not recognize the name under which our Lord God does business?”

He flipped over the pages of that ledger to show me the flyleaf in the front, with its inked inscription: “In the name of God and of Profit.”

“We mere mortals can take care of our own goods when they are secure here in this warehouse,” he explained. “But when they go out in flimsy ships upon the hazardous seas, they are at the mercy of—who else but God? So we count Him a partner in our every enterprise. In our books He is allotted two full shares of every transaction at venture. And if that venture succeeds, if our cargo safely reaches its destination and pays us the expected profit, why then those two shares are entered to il conto di Messer Domeneddio, and at the end of each year, when our dividends are apportioned, they are paid to Him. Or rather, to His factor and agent, in the person of Mother Church. Every Christian merchant does the same.”

If all my days stolen from school had been passed in such improving conversations, no one could have complained. I probably would have had a better education than I could ever have got from Fra Varisto. But inevitably my loitering about the waterfront brought me into contact with persons less admirable than the clerk Isidoro.

I do not mean to say that the Riva is in any sense a low-class street. While it teems with workmen, seamen and fishermen at all hours of the day, there are just as many well-dressed merchants and brokers and other businessmen, often accompanied by their genteel wives. The Riva is also the promenade, even after dark on fine nights, of fashionable men and women come merely to stroll and enjoy the lagoon breeze. Nevertheless, among those people, day or night, there lurk the louts and cutpurses and prostitutes and other specimens of the rabble we call the popolàzo. There were, for example, the urchins I met one afternoon on that Riva dockside, when one of them introduced himself by throwing a fish at me.

2

IT was not a very large fish, and he was not a very large boy. He was of about my own size and age, and I was not hurt when the fish hit me between my shoulder blades. But it left a smelly slime on my Lucca silk tunic, which was clearly what the boy had intended, for he was clad in rags already redolent of fish. He danced about, gleefully pointing at me and singing a taunt:

Un ducato, un ducatòn!

Bùtelo … bùtelo … zo per el cavròn!

That is merely a fragment of a children’s chant, meant to be sung during a throwing game, but he had changed the last word of it into a word which, though I could not then have told you its meaning, I knew to be the worst insult one man can fling at another. I was not a man and neither was he, but my honor was obviously in dispute. I interrupted his dance of mockery by stepping up to him and striking him in the face with my fist. His nose gushed bright red blood.

In the next moment, I was flattened under the weight of four other rascals. My assailant had not been alone on that dockside, and he was not alone in resenting the fine clothes Zia Zulià made me don on school-days. For a while, our struggles made the dock planks rattle. Numerous of the passersby stopped to watch us, and some of the rougher sorts shouted things like “Gouge him!” and “Kick the beggar in his baggage!” I fought valiantly, but I could strike back at only one boy at a time, while they all five were pummeling me. Before long, I had the wind knocked out of me and my arms pinned down. I simply lay there being beaten and kneaded like pasta dough.

“Let him up!” said a voice from outside our entangled heap.

It was only a piping falsetto of a voice, but it was loud and commanding. The five boys stopped pounding on me, and one after another, although reluctantly, peeled off me. Even when I was unencumbered, I still had to lie there for a bit and get my breath back before I could stand.

The other boys were shuffling their bare feet and sullenly regarding the owner of the voice. I was surprised to see that they had obeyed a mere girl. She was as ragged and aromatic as they were, but smaller and younger than any of them. She wore the short, tight, tubelike dress worn by all Venetian girl children until about the age of twelve—or I should say she wore the remains of one. Hers was so tattered that she would have been quite indecently exposed, except that what showed of her body was the same dingy gray color as her frock. Perhaps she derived some authority from the fact that she, alone of the urchins, wore shoes—the cloglike wooden tofi of the poor.

The girl came close to me and maternally brushed at my clothes, which were now not very disparate from her own. She also informed me that she was the sister of the boy whose nose I had bloodied.

“Mama told Boldo never to fight,” she said, and added, “Papà told him always to fight his own fights without help.”

I said, panting, “I wish he had listened to one of them.”

“My sister is a liar! We do not have a mama or a papà!”

“Well, if we did, that is what they would tell you. Now pick up that fish, Boldo. It was hard enough to steal.” To me she said, “What is your name? He is Ubaldo Tagiabue and I am Doris.”

Tagiabue means “built like an ox,” and I had learned in school that Doris was the daughter of the pagan god Oceanus. This Doris was too pitifully skinny to merit the surname, and far too dirty to resemble any water goddess. But she stood staunch as the ox, imperious as the goddess, as we watched her brother obediently go to pick up the discarded fish. He could not exactly pick it up; it had several times been stepped on during the brawl; he had more or less to gather it up.

“You must have done something terrible,” Doris said to me, “to have made him throw our supper at you.”

“I did nothing at all,” I said truthfully. “Until I hit him. And that was because he called me a cavròn.”

She looked amused and asked, “Do you know what that means?”

“Yes, it means one must fight.”

She looked even more amused and said, “A cavròn is a man who lets his wife be used by other men.”

I wondered why, if that was all it meant, the word should be such a deadly insult. I knew of several men whose wives were washerwomen or seamstresses, and those women’s services were used by many other men, and that excited no public commotion or private vendèta. I made some remark to that effect, and Doris burst out laughing.

“Marcolfo!” she jeered at me. “It means the men put their candles into the woman’s scabbard and together they do the dance of San Vito!”

No doubt you can divine the street meaning of her words, so I will not tell you the bizarre picture they brought to my ignorant mind. But some respectably merchant-looking gentlemen were strolling nearby at that moment, and they recoiled from Doris, their various mustaches and beards bristling like quills, when they heard those obscenities shouted by so small a female child.

Bringing the mangled corpse of his fish cradled in his grimy hands, Ubaldo said to me, “Will you share our supper?” I did not, but in the course of that afternoon he and I forgot our quarrel and became friends.

He and I were perhaps eleven or twelve years old then, and Doris about two years younger, and during the next few years I spent most of my days with them and their somewhat fluid following of other dockside brats. I could easily have been consorting in those years with the well-fed and well-dressed, prim and priggish offspring of the lustrìsimi families, such as the Balbi and the Cornari—and Zia Zulià used every effort and persuasion to make me do so—but I preferred my vile and more vivacious friends. I admired their pungent language, and I adopted it. I admired their independence and their fichèvelo attitude to life, and I did my best to imitate it. As could be expected, since I did not slough off those attitudes when I went home or elsewhere, they did not make me any better beloved by the other people in my life.

During my infrequent attendances at school, I began calling Fra Varisto by a couple of nicknames I had learned from Boldo—“il bel de Roma” and “il Culiseo”—and soon had all the other schoolboys doing the same. The friar-maistro put up with that informality, even seemed flattered by it, until gradually it dawned on him that we were not likening him to the grand old Beauty of Rome, the Colosseum, but were making a play on the word culo, and in effect were calling him the “landmark of buttocks.” At home, I scandalized the servants almost daily. On one occasion, after I had done a thing reprehensible, I overheard a conversation between Zia Zulià and Maistro Attilio, the maggiordomo of the household.

“Crispo!” I heard the old man exclaim. That was his fastidious way of uttering a profanity without actually saying the words “per Cristo!” but he managed, anyway, to sound outraged and disgusted. “Do you know what the whelp has done now? He called the boatman a black turd of merda, and now poor Michièl is dissolving in tears. It is an unforgivable cruelty to speak so to a slave, and remind him that he is a slave.”

“But Attilio, what can I do?” whimpered Zulià. “I cannot beat the boy and risk injuring his precious self.”

The chief servant said sternly, “Better he be beaten young, and here in the privacy of his home, than that he grow up to earn a public scourging at the pillars.”

“If I could keep him always under my eye …” sniffled my nena. “But I cannot chase him throughout the city. And since he took to running with those popolàzo boat children …”

“He will be running with the bravi next,” growled Attilio, “if he lives long enough. I warn you, woman: you are letting that boy become a real bimbo viziato.”

A bimbo viziato is a child spoiled to rottenness, which is what I was, and I would have been delighted with a promotion from bimbo to bravo. In my childishness, I thought the bravi were what their name implies, but of course they are anything but brave.

The skulking bravi are the modern Vandals of Venice. They are young men, sometimes of good family, who have no morals and no useful employment, and no ability except low cunning and perhaps some swordsmanship, and no ambition except to earn an occasional ducat for committing a sneak murder. They are sometimes hired for that purpose by politicians seeking a short road to preferment, or merchants seeking to eliminate competition by the easiest means. But, ironically, the bravi are more often utilized by lovers—to dispose of an impediment to their love, like an inconvenient husband or a jealous wife. If, in daytime, you should see a young man swaggering about with the air of a cavaliere errante, he is either a bravo or wishes to be mistaken for one. But if you should meet a bravo by night, he will be masked and cloaked, and wearing modern chain mail under his cloak, and lurking furtively far from any lamplight, and when he stabs you with sword or stilèto, it will be in the back.

This is no digression from my history, for I did live to become a bravo. Of sorts.

However, I was speaking of the time when I was still a bimbo viziato, when Zia Zulià complained of my being so often in the company of those boat children. Of course, considering the foul mouth and abominable manners I acquired from them, she had good reason to disapprove. But only a Slav, not Venice-born, would have thought it unnatural that I should loiter about the docks. I was a Venetian, so the salt of the sea was in my blood, and it urged me seaward. I was a boy, so I did not resist the urge, and to consort with the boat children was as close as I could then get to the sea.

I have, since then, known many seaside cities, but I have known none that is so nearly a part of the sea as is this Venice. The sea is not just our means of livelihood—as it is also for Genoa and Constantinople and the Cherbourg of the fictional Bauduin—here it is indissoluble from our lives. It washes about the verge of every island and islet composing Venice, and through the city’s canals, and sometimes—when the wind and the tide come in from the same quarter—it laps at the very steps of the Basilica of San Marco, and a gondolier can row his boat among the portal arches of Samarco’s great piazza.

Only Venice, of all the world’s port cities, claims the sea for its bride, and annually affirms that espousal with priests and panoply. I watched the ceremony again just last Thursday. That was Ascension Day, and I was one of the honored guests aboard the gold-encrusted bark of our Doge Zuàne Soranzo. His splendid buzino d’oro, rowed by forty oarsmen, was but one of a great fleet of vessels, crowded with seamen and fishermen and priests and minstrels and lustrìsimi citizens, going in stately procession out upon the lagoon. At the Lido, the most seaward of our islands, Doge Soranzo made the ages-old proclamation, “Ti sposiamo, O mare nostro, in cigno di vero e perpetu o dominio,” and threw into the water a gold wedding ring, while the priests led our waterborne congregation in a prayer that the sea might, in the coming twelvemonth, prove as generous and submissive as a human bride. If the tradition is true—that the same ceremony has been performed on every Ascension Day since the year 1000—then there is a considerable fortune of more than three hundred gold rings lying on the sea bottom off the beaches of the Lido.

The sea does not merely surround and pervade Venice: it is within every Venetian; it salts the sweat of his laboring arms, and the weeping or laughing tears of his eyes, and even the speech of his tongue. Nowhere else in the world have I heard men meet and greet each other with the glad cry of “Che bon vento?” That phrase means “What good wind?” and to a Venetian it means “What good wind has wafted you across the sea to this happy destination of Venice?”

Ubaldo Tagiabue and his sister Doris and the other denizens of the docks had an even more terse greeting, but the salt was in that one, too. They said simply, “Sana capàna,” which is short for a salute “to the health of our company,” and assumes the understanding that what is meant is the company of boat people. When, after we had been acquainted for some time, they began to salute me with that phrase, I felt included, and proud to be so.

Those children lived, like a swarm of dock rats, in a rotting hulk of a tow barge mired in a mud flat off the side of the city that faces the Dead Lagoon and, beyond that, the little cemetery isle of San Michièl, or Isle of the Dead. They really spent only their sleeping hours inside that dark and clammy hull, for their waking hours had to be mainly devoted to scavenging bits of food and clothing. They lived almost entirely on fish because, when they could steal no other nutriment, they could always descend on the Fish Market at the close of each day, when, by Venetian law—to prevent any stale fish from ever being vended—the fishmongers have to scatter on the ground whatever stock is left unsold. There was always a crowd of poor people to scramble and fight for those leavings, which seldom consisted of anything tastier than molefish.

I did bring to my new friends what scraps I could save from the table at home, or pilfer from the kitchen. At least that put some vegetables in the children’s diet when I fetched something like kale ravioli or turnip jam, and some eggs and cheese when I brought them a maccherone, and even good meat when I could sneak a bit of mortadella or pork jelly. Once in a while I provided some viand they found most marvelous. I had always thought that, on Christmas Eve, Father Baba brought to all Venetian children the traditional torta di lasagna of the season. But when, one Christmas Day, I carried a portion of that confection to Ubaldo and Doris, their eyes widened in wonder, and they exclaimed with delight at every raisin and pine-nut and preserved onion and candied orange peel they found among the pasta.

I also brought what clothing I could—outgrown or worn-out garb of my own for the boys and, for the girls, articles that had belonged to my late mother. Not everything fit everybody, but they did not mind. Doris and the other three or four girls paraded about, most proudly, in shawls and gowns so much too big for them that they tripped on the dragging ends. I even brought along—for my own wear when I was with the boat children—various of my old tunics and hose so derelict that Zia Zulià had consigned them to the household bin of dust rags. I would remove whatever fine attire I had left my house in, and leave that wedged among the barge’s timbers, and dress in the rags and look just like another boat urchin, until it was time to change again and go home.

You might wonder why I did not give the children money instead of my meager gifts. But you must remember that I was as much of an orphan as any of them were, and under strict guardianship, and too young to make any dispensation from the Polo family coffers. Our household’s money was doled out by the company, meaning by the clerk Isidoro Priuli. Whenever Zulià or the maggiordomo or any other servant had to buy any sort of supplies or provender for the Ca’ Polo, he or she went to the markets accompanied by a page from the company. That page boy carried the purse and counted out the ducats or sequins or soldi as they were spent, and made a memorandum of every one. If there was anything I personally needed or wanted, and if I could put up a good argument, that thing would be bought for me. If I contracted a debt, it would be paid for me. But I never possessed, at any one time, more than a few copper bagatini of my own, for jingling money.

I did manage to improve the boat children’s existence at least to the extent of improving the scope of their thievery. They had always filched from the mongers and hucksters of their own squalid neighborhood; in other words, from petty merchants who were not much less poor than they were, and whose goods were hardly worth the stealing. I led the children to my own higher-class confino, where the wares displayed for sale were of better quality. And there we devised a better mode of theft than mere snatch-and-run.

The Mercerìa is the widest, straightest and longest street in Venice, meaning that it is practically the only street that can be called wide or straight or long. Open-fronted shops line both sides of it and, between them, long ranks of stalls and carts do an even brisker business, selling everything from mercery to hourglasses, and all kinds of groceries from staples to delicacies.

Suppose we saw, on a meat man’s cart, a tray of veal chops that made the children’s mouths water. A boy named Daniele was our swiftest runner. So he it was who elbowed his way to the cart, seized up a handful of the chops and ran, nearly knocking down a small girl who had blundered into his path. Daniele continued running, stupidly it seemed, along the broad, straight, open Mercerìa where he was visible and easily pursued. So the meat man’s assistant and a couple of outraged customers took out after him, shouting “alto!” and “salva!” and “al ladro!”

But the girl who had been shoved was our Doris, and Daniele had in that scuffling moment, unobserved, handed to her the stolen veal chops. Doris, still unnoticed in the commotion, quickly and safely disappeared down one of the narrow, twisty side alleys leading off the open area. Meanwhile, his flight being somewhat impeded by the crowds on the Mercerìa, Daniele was in peril of capture. His pursuers were closing in on him, and other passersby were clutching at him, and all were bellowing for a “sbiro!” The sbiri are Venice’s apelike policemen, and one of them, heeding the call, was angling through the crowd to intercept the thief. But I was nearby, as I always contrived to be on those occasions. Daniele stopped running and I started, which made me seem the quarry, and I ran deliberately right into the sbiro’s ape arms.

After being soundly buffeted about the ears, I was recognized, as I always was and expected to be. The sbiro and the angry citizens hauled me to my house not far from the Mercerìa. When the street door was hammered on, the unhappy maggiordomo Attilio opened it. He heard out the people’s babble of accusation and condemnation and then wearily put his thumbprint on a pagherò, which is a paper promising to pay, and thereby committed the Compagnia Polo to reimburse the meat man for his loss. The sbiro, after giving me a stern lecture and a vigorous shaking, let go of my collar, and he and the crowd departed.

Though I did not have to interpose myself every time the boat children stole something—more often it was deftly managed, with both the grabber and the receiver getting clean away—nevertheless I was dragged to the Ca’ Polo more times than I can remember. That did not much lessen Maistro Attilio’s opinion that Zia Zulià had raised the first black sheep in the Polo line.

It might be supposed that the boat children would have resented the participation of a “rich boy” in their pranks, and that they would have resented the “condescension” implicit in my gifts to them. Not so. The popolàzo may admire or envy or even revile the lustrìsimi, but they keep their active resentment and loathing for their fellow poor, who are, after all, their chief competitors in this world. It is not the rich who wrestle with the poor for the discarded molefish at the Fish Market. So when I came along, giving what I could and taking nothing, the boat people tolerated my presence rather better than if I had been another hungry beggar.

3

JUST to remind myself now and again that I was not of the popolàzo, I would drop in at the Compagnia Polo to luxuriate in its rich aromas and industrious activity and prosperous ambience. On one of those visits, I found on the clerk Isidoro’s table an object like a brick, but of a more glowing red color, and lighter in weight, and soft and vaguely moist to the touch, and I asked him what it was.

Again he exclaimed, “My faith!” and shook his gray head and said, “Do you not recognize the very foundation of your family’s fortune? It was built on those bricks of zafràn.”

“Oh,” I said, respectfully regarding the brick. “And what is zafràn?”

“Mefè! You have been eating it and smelling it and wearing it all your life! Zafràn is what gives that special flavor and yellow color to rice and polenta and pasta. What gives that unique yellow color to fabrics. What gives the women’s favorite scent to their salves and pomades. A mèdego uses it, too, in his medicines, but what it does there I do not know.”

“Oh,” I said again, my respect somewhat less for such an everyday article. “Is that all?”

“All!” he blurted. “Hear me, marcolfo.” That word is not an affectionate play on my name; it is addressed to any exceedingly stupid boy. “Zafràn has a history more ancient and more noble even than the history of Venice. Long before Venice existed, zafràn was used by the Greeks and Romans to perfume their baths. They scattered it on their floors to perfume whole rooms. When the Emperor Nero made his entry into Rome, the streets of the entire city were strewn with zafràn and made fragrant.”

“Well,” I said, “if it has always been so commonly available …”

“It may have been common then,” said Isidoro, “in the days when slaves were numerous and cost nothing. Zafràn is not common today. It is a scarce commodity, and therefore of much value. That one brick you see there is worth an ingot of gold of almost equal weight.”

“Is it indeed?” I said, perhaps sounding unconvinced. “But why?”

“Because that brick was made by the labor of many hands and immeasurable zonte of land and a countless multitude of flowers.”

“Flowers !”

Maistro Doro sighed and said patiently, “There is a purple flower called the crocus. When it blooms, it extends from that blossom three delicate stigmi of an orange-red color. Those stigmi are ever so carefully detached by human hands. When some millions of those dainty and almost impalpable stigmi are collected, they are either dried to make loose zafràn, what is called hay zafràn, or they are what is called ‘sweated’ and compressed together to make brick zafràn like this one. The arable land must be devoted to nothing but that crop, and the crocus blooms only once a year. That blooming season is brief, so many gatherers must work at the same time, and they must work diligently. I do not know how many zonte of land and how many hands are required to produce just one brick of zafràn in a year, but you will understand why it is of such extravagant value.”

I was by now convinced. “And where do we buy the zafràn?”

“We do not. We grow it.” He put on the table beside the brick another object; I would have said it was a bulb of ordinary garlic. “That is a culm of the crocus flower. The Compagnia Polo plants them and harvests from the blossoms.”

I was astonished. “Not in Venice, surely!”

“Of course not. On the teraferma of the mainland southwest of here. I told you it requires innumerable zonte of terrain.”

“I never knew,” I said.

He laughed. “Probably half the people of Venice do not even know that the milk and eggs of their daily meals are extracted from animals, and that those animals must have dry land to live on. We Venetians are inclined to pay little attention to anything but our lagoon and sea and ocean.”

“How long have we been doing this, Doro? Growing crocuses and zafràn?”

He shrugged. “How long have there been Polos in Venice? That was the genius of some one of your long-ago ancestors. After the time of the Romans, zafràn became too much of a luxury to cultivate. No one farmer could grow enough of it to make it worth his while. And even a landowner of great estates could not afford all the paid laborers that crop would require. So zafràn was pretty well forgotten. Until some early Polo remembered it, and also realized that modern Venice has almost as big a supply of slaves as Rome had. Of course, we now have to buy our slaves, not just capture them. But the gathering of crocus stigmi is not an arduous labor. It does not require strong and expensive male slaves. The puniest women and children can do it; weaklings and cripples can do it. So that was the cheap sort of slaves your ancestor bought; the sort the Compagnia Polo has been acquiring ever since. They are a motley sort, of all nations and colors—Moors, Lezghians, Circassians, Russniaks, Armeniyans—but their colors blend, so to speak, to make that red-gold zafràn.”

“The foundation of our fortune,” I repeated.

“It buys everything else we sell,” said Isidoro. “Oh, we sell the zafràn too, for a price, when the price is right—to be used as a foodstuff, a dye, a perfume, a medicament. But basically it is our company’s capital, with which we barter for all our other articles of merchandise. Everything from Ibiza’s salt to Còrdoba’s leather to Sardinia’s wheat. Just as the house of Spinola in Genoa has the monopoly of trading in raisins, our Venetian house of Polo has the zafràn.”

The only son of the Venetian house of Polo thanked the old clerk for that edifying lesson in high commerce and bold endeavor—and, as usual, sauntered off again to partake of the easy indolence of the boat children.

As I have said, those children tended to come and go; there was seldom the same lot living in the derelict barge from one week to the next. Like all the grown-up popolàzo, the children dreamed of somewhere finding a Land of Cockaigne, where they could shirk work in luxury instead of squalor. So they might hear of some place offering better prospects than the Venice waterfront, and they might stow away aboard an outbound vessel to get there. Some of them would come back after a while, either because they could not reach their destination or because they had and were disillusioned. Some never came back at all, because—we never knew—the vessel sank and they drowned, or because they were apprehended and thrown into an orphanage, or maybe because they did find “il paese di Cuccagna” and stayed there.

But Ubaldo and Doris Tagiabue were the constants, and it was from them that I got most of my education in the ways and the language of the lower classes. That education was not force-fed to me in the way Fra Varisto stuffed Latin conjugations into his schoolboys; rather, the brother and sister parceled it out to me in fragments, as I required it. Whenever Ubaldo would jeer at some backwardness or bewilderment of mine, I would realize that I lacked some bit of knowledge, and Doris would supply it.

One day, I remember, Ubaldo said he was going to the western side of the city, and going by way of the Dogs’ Ferry. I had never heard of that, so I went along, to see what strange kind of boat he meant. But we crossed the Grand Canal by the quite ordinary agency of the Rialto Bridge, and I must have looked either disappointed or mystified, for he scoffed at me, “You are as ignorant as a cornerstone!” and Doris explained:

“There is only one way to get from the eastern to the western side of the city, no? That is to cross the Grand Canal. Cats are allowed in boats, to catch the rats, but dogs are not. So the dogs can cross the canal only on the Ponte Rialto. So that is the Dogs’ Ferry, no xe vero?”

Some of their street jargon I could translate without assistance. They spoke of every priest and monk as le rigioso, which could mean “the stiff one,” but it did not take me long to realize that they were merely twisting the word religioso. When, in fine summer weather, they announced that they were moving from the barge hulk to La Locanda de la Stela, I knew that they were not going to reside in any Starlight Inn; they meant that they would be sleeping outdoors for a season. When they spoke of a female person as una largazza, they were playing on the proper term for a girl, la ragazza, but coarsely suggesting that she was ample, even cavernous, in her genital aperture. As a matter of fact, the greater part of the boat people’s language—and the greater part of their conversations, and their interests—dealt with such indelicate topics. I absorbed a lot of information, but it sometimes did more to confuse than to enlighten me.

Zia Zulià and Fra Varisto had taught me to refer to those parts between my legs—if I had to refer to them at all—as le vergogne, “the shames.” On the docks I heard many other terms. The word baggage for a man’s genital equipment was clear enough; and candelòto was an apt word for his erect organ, which is like a stout candle; and so was fava for the bulbous end of that organ, since it does somewhat resemble a broad bean; and so was capèla for the foreskin, which does enclose the fava like a little cloak or a little chapel. But it was a mystery to me why the word lumaghèta was sometimes spoken in reference to a woman’s parts. I understood that a woman had nothing but an opening down there, and the word lumaghèta can mean either a small snail or the tiny peg with which a minstrel tunes each string of his lute.

Ubaldo and Doris and I were playing on a dock one day when a greengrocer came pushing his cart along the esplanade, and the boat wives ambled over to paw through his produce. One of the women fondled a large yellowish cucumber, and grinned and said, “II mescolòto,” and all the women cackled lasciviously. “The stirrer”—I could make out the implications of that. But then two lissome young men came strolling along the esplanade, arm in arm, walking with a sort of springiness in their step, and one of the boat women growled, “Don Meta and Sior Mona.” Another woman glanced scornfully at the more delicate of the two young men and muttered, “That one wears a split seat in his hose.” I had no notion of what they were talking about, and Doris’s explanation did not tell me much:

“Those are the sorts of men who do with each other what a real man does only with a woman.”

Well, there was the main flaw in my comprehension: I had no very clear idea of what a man did with a woman.

Mind you, I was not entirely benighted in the matter of sex, any more than other upper-class Venetian children are—or, I daresay, upper-class children of any other European nationality. We may not consciously remember it, but we have all had an early introduction to sex, from our mothers or our nursemaids, or both.

It seems that mothers and nurses have known, from the beginning of time, that the best way to quiet a restless baby or put it easily to sleep is to do for it the act of manustupraziòn. I have watched many a mother do that to an infant boy whose bimbìn was so tiny that she could only just manipulate it with her finger and thumb. Yet the wee organ lifted and grew, though not in proportion as a man’s does, of course. As the woman stroked, the baby quivered, then smiled, then squirmed voluptuously. He did not ejaculate any spruzzo, but there was no doubt that he enjoyed a climax of release. Then his little bimbìn shrank again to its littlest, and he lay quiet and soon he slept.

Assuredly my own mother often did that for me, and I think it is good that mothers do so. That early manipulation, besides being an excellent pacifier of the infant, clearly stimulates development in that part of him. The mothers in the Eastern countries do not engage in that practice, and the omission is sadly evident when their babies grow up. I have seen many Eastern men undressed, and almost all had organs pitifully minute in comparison to mine.

Although our mothers and nursemaids gradually leave off doing that, when their children are about two years old—that is, at the age when they are weaned from the breast milk and introduced to wine—nevertheless, every child retains some dim recollection of it. Therefore a boy is not puzzled or frightened when he grows to adolescence and that organ seeks attention of its own accord. When a boy wakes in the night with it coming erect under his hand, he knows what it wants.

“A cold sponge bath,” Fra Varisto used to tell us boys at school. “That will quell the upstart, and avert the risk of its shaming you with the midnight stain.”

We listened respectfully, but on our way home we laughed at him. Perhaps friars and priests do endure involuntary and surprising spruzzi, and feel embarrassed or somehow guilty on that account. But no healthy boy of my acquaintance ever did. And none would choose a cold douche in place of the warm pleasure of doing for his candelòto what his mother had done for it when it was just a bimbìn. However, Ubaldo was contemptuous when he learned that those night games were the total extent of my sexual experience to date.

“What? You are still waging the war of the priests?” he jeered. “You have never had a girl?”

Once again uncomprehending, I inquired, “The war of the priests?”

“Five against one,” Doris said, without a blush. She added, “You must get yourself a smanza. A compliant girl friend.”

I thought about that and said, “I do not know any girls I could ask. Except you, and you are too young.”

She bridled and said angrily, “I may not have hair on my artichoke yet, but I am twelve, and that is of marrying age!”

“I do not wish to marry anybody,” I protested. “Only to—”

“Oh, no!” Ubaldo interrupted me. “My sister is a good girl.”

You might smile at the assertion that a girl who could talk as she did could be a “good” girl. But there you have evidence of one thing our upper and lower classes have in common: their reverent regard for a maiden’s virginity. To the lustrìsimi and the popolàzo alike, that counts for more than all other feminine qualities: beauty, charm, sweetness, demureness, whatever. Their women may be plain and malicious and ill-spoken and ungracious and slovenly, but they must retain unbroken that little tuck of maidenhead tissue. In that respect at least, the most primitive and barbarous savages of the East are superior to us: they value a female for attributes other than the bung in her hole.

To our upper classes, virginity is not so much a matter of virtue as of good business, and they regard a daughter with the same cool calculation as they would a slave girl in the market. A daughter or a slave, like a cask of wine, commands a better price if it is sealed and demonstrably untampered with. Thus they barter their daughters for commercial advantage or social enhancement. But the lower classes foolishly think that their betters have a high moral regard for virginity, and they try to imitate that. Also, they are more easily frightened by the thunders of the Church, and the Church demands the preservation of virginity as a sort of negative show of virtue, in the same way that good Christians show virtue by abstaining from meat during Lent.

But even in those days when I was still a boy, I found reason to wonder just how many girls, of any class, really were kept “good” by the prevailing social precepts and attitudes. From the time I was old enough to sprout the first fuzz of “hair on my artichoke,” I had to listen to lectures from Fra Varisto and Zia Zulià on the moral and physical dangers of consorting with bad girls. I listened with close attention to their descriptions of such vile creatures, and their warnings about them, and their inveighings against them. I wanted to make sure I would recognize any bad girl at first sight, because I hoped with all my heart that I would soon get to meet one. That seemed quite likely, because the main impression I got from those lectures was that the bad girls must considerably outnumber the good ones.

There is other evidence for that impression. Venice is not a very tidy city, because it does not have to be. All of its discards go straight into the canals. Street garbage, kitchen trash, the wastes from our chamber pots and licet closets, all gets dumped into the nearest canal and is soon flushed away. The tide comes in twice daily, and surges through every least waterway, roiling up whatever matter lies on the bottom or is crusted on the canal walls. Then the tide departs and takes all those substances with it, through the lagoon, out past the Lido and off to sea. That keeps the city clean and sweet-smelling, but it frequently afflicts fishermen with unwelcome catches. There is not one of them who has not many times found on his hook or in his net the glistening pale blue and purple cadaver of a newborn infant. Granted, Venice is one of the three most populous cities of Europe. Still, only half of its citizens are female, and of those perhaps only half are of childbearing age. So the fishermen’s annual catch of discarded infants would seem to indicate a scarcity of “good” Venetian girls.

“There is always Daniele’s sister Malgarita,” said Ubaldo. He was not enumerating good girls, but quite the contrary. He was counting those females of our acquaintance who might serve to wean me from the war of the priests to a more manly diversion. “She will do it with anybody who will give her a bagatìn.”

“Malgarita is a fat pig,” said Doris.

“She is a fat pig,” I concurred.

“Who are you to sneer at pigs?” said Ubaldo. “Pigs have a patron saint. San Tonio was very fond of pigs.”

“He would not have been fond of Malgarita,” Doris said firmly.

Ubaldo went on, “Also there is Daniele’s mother. She will do it and not even ask a bagatìn.”

Doris and I made noises of revulsion. Then she said, “There is someone down there waving at us.”

We three were idling the afternoon away on a rooftop. That is a favorite occupation of the lower classes. Because all the common houses of Venice are one story high, and all have flat roofs, their people like to stroll or loll upon them and enjoy the view. From that vantage, they can behold the streets and canals below, the lagoon and its ships beyond, and Venice’s more elegant buildings that stand above the mass: the domes and spires of churches, the bell towers, the carved facades of palazzi.

“He is waving at me,” I said. “That is our boatman, taking our batèlo home from somewhere. I might as well ride with him.”

There was no necessity for me to go home before the bells began ringing the nighttime coprifuoco, when all honest citizens who do not retire indoors are supposed to carry lanterns to show that they are abroad on honest errands. But, to be truthful, I was at that moment feeling a bit apprehensive that Ubaldo might insist on my immediately coupling with some boat woman or girl. I did not so much fear the adventure, even with a slattern like Daniele’s mother; I feared making a fool of myself, not knowing what to do with her.

From time to time, I tried to atone for my being so often rude to poor old Michièl, so that day I took the oars from him and myself rowed us homeward, while he took his ease under the boat canopy. We conversed as we went, and he told me that he was going to boil an onion when he got to the house.

“What?” I said, unsure I had heard him right.

The black slave explained that he suffered from the bane of boatmen. Because his profession required him to spend most of his time with his backside on a hard and damp boat thwart, he was often troubled by bleeding piles. Our family mèdego, he said, had prescribed a simple allevement for that malady. “You boil an onion until it is soft, and you wad it well up in there, and you wind a cloth around your loins to hold it there. Truly, it does help. If you ever have piles, Messer Marco, you try that.”

I said I would indeed, and forgot about it. I arrived home to be accosted by Zia Zulià.

“The good friar Varisto was here today, and he was so angry that his dear face was bright red, clear to his tonsure.”

I remarked that that was not unusual.

She said warningly, “A marcolfo with no schooling should speak with a smaller mouth. Fra Varisto said you have been shirking your classes again. For more than a week this time. And tomorrow your class must be heard in recitation, whatever that is, by the Censori de Scole, whoever they are. It is required that you participate. The friar told me—and I am telling you, young man—you will be in school tomorrow.”

I said a word that made her gasp, and stalked off to my room to sulk. I refused to come out even when called to supper. But by the time the coprifuoco was rung, my better instincts had begun to overcome my worse ones. I thought to myself: today when I behaved with kindness to old Michièl it gratified him; I ought to say a kindly word of apology to old Zulià.

(I realize that I have characterized as “old” almost all the people I knew in my youth. That is because they seemed so to my young eyes, though only a few of them really were. The company’s clerk Isidoro and the chief servant Attilio were perhaps as old as I am now. But the friar Varisto and the black slave Michièl were no more than middle-aged. Zulià of course seemed old because she was about the same age as my mother, and my mother was dead; but I suppose Zulià was a year or two younger than Michièl.)

That night, when I determined to make amends to her, I did not wait for Zia Zulià to do her customary before-bedtime rounds of the house. I went to her little room and rapped on the door and opened it without waiting for an avanti. I probably had always assumed that servants did nothing at night except sleep to restore their energies for service the next day. But what was happening in that room that night was not sleep. It was something appalling and ludicrous and astounding to me—and educational.

Immediately before me on the bed was a pair of immense buttocks bouncing up and down. They were distinctive buttocks, being as purple-black as aubergines, and even more distinctive because they had a strip of cloth binding a large, pale-yellow onion in the cleft between them. At my sudden entrance, there was a squawk of dismay and the buttocks bounded out of the candlelight into a darker corner of the room. This revealed on the bed a contrastingly fish-white body—the naked Zulià, sprawled supine and splayed wide open. Her eyes were shut, so she had not noticed my arrival.

At the buttocks’ abrupt withdrawal, she gave a wail of deprivation, but continued to move as if she were still being bounced upon. I had never seen my nena except in gowns of many layers and floor length, and of atrociously garish Slavic colors. And the woman’s broad Slavic face was so very plain that I had never even tried to imagine her similarly broad body as it might look undressed. But now I took avid notice of everything so wantonly displayed before me, and one detail was so eminently noticeable that I could not restrain a blurted comment:

“Zia Zulià,” I said wonderingly, “you have a bright red mole down there on your—”

Her meaty legs closed together with a slap, and her eyes flew open almost as audibly. She grabbed for the bed covers, but Michièl had taken those along in his leap, so she seized at the bed curtains. There was a moment of consternation and contortion, as she and the slave fumbled to swaddle themselves. Then there was a much longer moment of petrified embarrassment, during which I was stared at by four eyeballs almost as big and luminous as the onion had been. I congratulate myself that I was the first to regain composure. I smiled sweetly upon my nena and spoke, not the words of apology I had come to say, but the words of an arrant extortioner.

With smug assurance I said, “I will not go to school tomorrow, Zia Zulià,” and I backed out of the room and closed the door.

4

BECAUSE I knew what I would be doing the next day, I was too restless with anticipation to sleep very well. I was up and dressed before any of the servants awoke, and I broke my fast with a bun and a gulp of wine as I went through the kitchen on my way out into the pearly morning. I hurried along the empty alleys and over the many bridges to that northside mud flat where some of the barge children were just emerging from their quarters. Considering what I had come to ask, I probably should have sought out Daniele, but I went instead to Ubaldo and put my request to him.

“At this hour?” he said, mildly scandalized. “Malgarita is likely still asleep, the pig. But I will see.”

He ducked back inside the barge, and Doris, who had overheard us, said to me, “I do not think you ought to, Marco.”

I was accustomed to her always commenting on everything that everybody did or said, and I did not always appreciate it, but I asked, “Why ought I not?”

“I do not want you to.”

“That is no reason.”

“Malgarita is a fat pig.” I could not deny that, and I did not, so she added, “Even I am better looking than Malgarita.”

Impolitely I laughed, but I was polite enough not to say that there was small choice between a fat pig and a scrawny kitten.

Doris kicked moodily at the mud where she stood, and then said in a rush of words, “Malgarita will do it with you because she does not care what man or boy she does it with. But I would do it with you because I do care.”

I looked at her with amused surprise, and perhaps I also looked at her for the first time with appraisal. Her maidenly blush was perceptible even through the dirt on her face, and so was her earnestness, and so was a dim prefiguring of prettiness. At any rate, her undirtied eyes were of a nice blue, and seemed extraordinarily large, though that was probably because her face was somewhat pinched by lifelong hunger.

“You will be a comely woman someday, Doris,” I said, to make her feel better. “If you ever get washed—or at least scraped. And if you grow more of a figure than a broomstick. Malgarita already is grown as ample as her mother.”

Doris said acidly, “Actually she looks more like her father, since she also grew a mustache.”

A head with frowzy hair and gummy eyelids poked out through one of the splintery holes in the barge hull, and Malgarita called, “Well, come on then, before I put on my frock, so I do not have to take it off!”

I turned to go and Doris said, “Marco!” but when I turned back impatiently, she said, “No matter. Go and play the pig.”

I clambered inside the dark, dank hull and crept along its rotting plank decking until I came to the hold partition where Malgarita squatted on a pallet of reeds and rags. My groping hands encountered her before I saw her, and her bare body felt as sweaty and spongy as the barge’s timbers. She immediately said, “Not even a feel until I get my bagatìn.”

I gave her the copper, and she lay back on the pallet. I got over her, in the position in which I had seen Michièl. Then I flinched, as there came a loud wham! from the outside of the barge hull, but just beside my ear, and then a screech! The boat boys were playing one of their favorite games. One of them had caught a cat—and that is no easy feat, although Venice does teem with cats—and had tied it to the barge side, and the boys were taking turns running and butting it with their heads, competing to see who would first mash it to death.

As my eyes adapted to the darkness, I noted that Malgarita was indeed hairy. Her palely shining breasts seemed the only hairless part of her. In addition to the frowze on her head and the fuzz on her upper lip, she was shaggy of legs and arms, and a large plume of hair hung from either armpit. What with the darkness in the hold and the veritable bush on her artichoke, I could see considerably less of her female apparatus than I had seen of Zia Zulià’s. (I could smell it, however, Malgarita being no more given to bathing than were any of the boat people.) I knew that I was expected to insert myself somewhere down there, but …

Wham! from the hull, and a yowl from the cat, further confounding me. In some perplexity, I began to feel about Malgarita’s nether regions.

“Why are you playing with my pota?” she demanded, using the most vulgar word for that orifice.

I laughed, no doubt shakily, and said, “I am trying to find the—er—your lumaghèta.”

“Whatever for? That is of no use to you. Here is what you want.” She reached down one hand to spread herself and the other to guide me in. It was easily done, she was so well reamed.

Wham! Squawl!

“Clumsy, you jerked it out again!” she said peevishly, and did some brisk rearranging.

I lay there for a moment, trying to ignore her piggishness and her aroma and the dismal surroundings, trying to enjoy the unfamiliar, warm, moist cavity in which I was loosely clasped.

“Well, get on with it,” she whined. “I have not yet peed this morning.”

I commenced to bounce as I had seen Michièl do, but, before I could get fairly started, the barge hold seemed to darken still more before my eyes. Though I tried to restrain and savor it, my spruzzo gushed unbidden and without any sensation of pleasure whatever.

Wham! Yee-oww!

“Oh, che braga! What a lot of it!” Malgarita said disgustedly. “My legs will be sticking together all day. All right, get off, you fool, so I can jump!”

“What?” I said groggily.

She wriggled out from under me, stood up, and took a jump backward. She jumped forward, then backward again, and the whole barge rocked. “Make me laugh!” she commanded, between jumps.

“What?” I said.

“Tell me a funny story! There, that was seven jumps. I said make me laugh, marcolfo! Or would you rather make a baby?”

“What?”

“Oh, never mind. I will sneeze instead.” She grabbed a lock of her hair, stuck the frowzy ends of it up one of her nostrils, and sneezed explosively.

Wham! Rowr-rr-rrr … The cat’s complaint died off as, evidently, the cat died, too. I could hear the boys squabbling about what to do with the carcass. Ubaldo wanted to throw it in onto me and Malgarita, Daniele wanted to throw it in some Jew’s shop door.

“I hope I have jarred it all out,” said Malgarita, wiping at her thighs with one of her bed rags. She dropped the rag back on her pallet, moved to the opposite side of the hold, squatted down and began copiously to urinate. I waited, thinking that one of us ought to say something more. But finally I decided that her morning bladder was inexhaustible, and so crept out of the barge the way I had come in.

“Sana capàna!” shouted Ubaldo, as if I had just then joined the company. “How was it?”

I gave him the jaded smile of a man of the world. All the boys whooped and hooted good-naturedly, and Daniele called, “My sister is good, yes, but my mother is better!”

Doris was nowhere about, and I was glad I did not have to meet her eyes. I had made my first journey of discovery—a short foray toward manhood—but I was not disposed to preen myself on that accomplishment. I felt dirty and I was sure I smelled of Malgarita. I wished I had listened to Doris and not done it. If that was all there was to being a man, and doing it with a woman, well, I had done it. From now on, I was entitled to swagger as brashly as any of the other boys, and swagger I would. But I was privately determining, all over again, to be kind to Zia Zulià. I would not tease her about what I had found in her room, or despise her, or tell on her, or wrest concessions with the threat of telling. I was sorry for her. If I felt soiled and wretched after my experience with a mere boat girl, how much more miserable my nena must feel, having no one willing to do it with her but a contemptible black man.

However, I was to have no opportunity to demonstrate my noble-mindedness. I got home again to find all the other servants in a turmoil, because Zulià and Michièl had disappeared during the night.

The sbiri had already been called in by Maistro Attilio, and those police apes were making conjectures typical of them: that Michièl had forcibly abducted Zulià in his batèlo, or that the two of them had for some reason gone out in the boat in the night, overturned it, and drowned. So the sbiri were going to ask the fishermen on the seaward side of Venice to keep a close eye on their hooks and nets, and the peasants on the Vèneto mainland to keep a lookout for a black boatman conveying a captive white damsel. But then they thought to investigate the canal right outside the Ca’ Polo, and there lay the batèlo innocently moored to its post, so the sbiri scratched their heads for new theories. In any event, if they could have caught Michièl even without the woman, they would have had the pleasure of executing him. A runaway slave is ipso facto a thief, in that he steals his master’s property: his own living self.

I kept silent about what I knew. I was convinced that Michièl and Zulià, alarmed by my discovery of their sordid connection, had eloped together. Anyway, they were never apprehended and never heard from again. So they must have made their way to some back corner of the world, like his native Nubia or her native Bohemia, where they could live squalidly ever after.

5

I was feeling so guilty, for so many different reasons, that I did something unprecedented for me. Of my own accord, not impelled by any authority, I betook myself to church to make my confession. I did not go to our confino’s San Felice, for its old Pare Nunziata knew me as well as the local sbiri did, and I desired a more disinterested auditor. So I went all the way to the Basilica of San Marco. None of the priests there knew me, but the bones of my namesake saint lay there, and I hoped they would be sympathetic.

In that great vaulted nave, I felt like a bug, diminished by all the glowing gold and marble and the holy notables aloft and aloof in the ceiling mosaics. Everything in that most beautiful building is bigger than real life, including the sonorous music, which brays and bleats from a rigabèlo that seems too small to contain so much noise. San Marco’s is always thronged, so I had to stand in line before one of the confessionals. Finally, I got in and got launched on my purgation: “Father, I have too freely followed where my curiosity has led me, and it has led me astray from the paths of virtue … .” I went on in that vein for some time, until the priest impatiently requested that I not regale him with all the circumstances preliminary to my misdemeanors. So, albeit reluctantly, I fell back on formula—“have sinned in thought and word and deed”—and the pare decreed some number of Paternosters and Avemarìas, and I left the box to begin on them, and I got hit by lightning.

I mean that almost literally, so vivid was the shock I felt when I first laid eyes on the Dona Ilaria. I did not then know her name, of course; I knew only that I was looking at the most beautiful woman I had yet seen in my life, and that my heart was hers. She was just then coming out of a confessional herself, so her veil was up. I could not believe that a lady of such radiant loveliness could have had anything more than trivial to confess, but, before she lowered her veil, I saw a sparkle as of tears in her glorious eyes. I heard a creak as the priest shut the slide in the box she had just quitted, and he too came out. He said something to the other supplicants waiting in line there, and they all mumbled grouchily and dispersed to other lines. He joined the Dona Ilaria and both of them knelt in an empty pew.

In a sort of trance, I moved closer and slid into the pew across the aisle from them, and fixed my gaze sideways on them. Though they both kept their heads bent, I could see that the priest was a young man and handsome in an austere kind of way. You may not credit this, but I felt a twinge of jealousy that my lady—my lady—had not chosen a drier old stick to tell her troubles to. Both he and she, as I could tell even through her veil, were moving their lips prayerfully, but they were doing so alternately. I supposed he must be leading her in some litany. I might have been consumed with curiosity to know what she could have said in the confessional to require such intimate attention from her confessor, but I was too much occupied with devouring her beauty.

How do I describe her? When we view a monument or an edifice, any such work of art or architecture, we remark on this and that element of it. Either the combination of details makes it handsome, or some particular detail is so noteworthy as to redeem the whole from mediocrity. But the human face is never viewed as an accretion of details. It either strikes us immediately as beautiful in its entirety, or it does not. If we can say of a woman only that “she has nicely arched eyebrows,” then clearly we had to look hard to see that, and the rest of her features are little worth remarking.

I can say that Ilaria had a fine and fair complexion and hair of a glowing auburn color, but many other Venetian women do, too. I can say that she had eyes so alive that they seemed to be lighted from within instead of reflecting the light without. That she had a chin one would want to cup in the palm of a hand. That she had what I have always thought of as “the Verona nose,” because it is seen most often there—thin and pronounced, but shapely, like a sleek boat’s fine prow, with the eyes deepset on either side.

I could praise her mouth especially. It was exquisitely shaped and gave promise of being soft if ever other lips should press upon it. But more than that. When Ilaria and the priest rose together after their orisons and genuflected, she curtsied again to him and said some few words in a soft voice. I do not recall what they were, but let me suppose that they were these: “I will join you behind the chantry, Father, after the compline.” I do recall that she concluded by saying “Ciao,” because that is the languid Venetian way of saying schiavo, “your slave,” and I thought it an oddly familiar way of saying goodbye to a priest. But all that mattered then was the manner in which she spoke: “I will j-join you behind the ch-chantry, Father, after the compline. Ci-ciao.” Each time she pouted her lips to form the ch or j sound, she stammered ever so slightly and thus prolonged the pout. It made her lips look ready and waiting for a kiss. It was delicious.

I instantly forgot that I was supposed to be petitioning for absolution of other misdeeds, and tried to follow her when she left the church. She could not possibly have been aware of my existence, but she departed from San Marco’s in a way that almost seemed intended to discourage pursuit. Moving more swiftly and adroitly than I could have done even if chased by a sbiro, she flickered through the crowd in the atrium and vanished from my sight. Marveling, I went all the long way around the basilica’s outside, then up and down all the arcades surrounding the vast piazza. Mystified, I several times crisscrossed the piazza itself, through clouds of pigeons—then the smaller piazzetta, from the bell tower down to the two pillars at the waterfront. Despairing, I returned to the great church and looked in every last chapel and the sanctuary and the baptistery. Desolated, I even went up the stairs to the loggia where the golden horses stand. At last, heartbroken, I went home.

After a tormented night, I went again the next day to comb the church and its environs. I must have looked like a wandering soul seeking solace. And the woman might have been a wandering angel who had alighted only the once; she was not to be found. So I made my mournful way to the neighborhood of the boat people. The boys gave me a cheery salute, and Doris gave me a glance of disdain. When I responded with a forlorn sigh, Ubaldo was solicitous and asked what ailed me. I told him—I had lost my heart to a lady and then lost my lady—and all the children laughed, except Doris, who looked suddenly stricken.

“You have largazze on your mind these days,” Ubaldo said. “Do you intend to be the cock of every hen in the world?”

“This is a full-grown woman, not a girl,” I said. “And she is too sublime even to be thought of as …”

“As a pota!” several of the boys chorused.

“Anyway,” I said, in a bored drawl, “as regards the pota, all women are alike.” Man of the world, I had now seen a grand total of two females in the nude.

“I do not know about that,” one boy said ruminatively. “I once heard a much-traveled mariner tell how to recognize a woman of the most utterly desirable bedworthiness.”

“Tell us! Tell!” came the chorus.

“When she stands upright, with her legs pressed together, there should be a little, a tiny little triangle of daylight between her thighs and her artichoke.”

“Does your lady show daylight?” someone asked me.

“I have seen her the once, and that was in church! Do you suppose she was undressed in church?”

“Well, then, does Malgarita show daylight?”

I said, and so did several other boys, “I did not think to look.”

Malgarita giggled, and giggled again when her brother said, “You could not have seen, anyway. Her bottom hangs down too far behind, and her belly in front.”

“Let us look at Doris!” someone shouted. “Olà, Doris! Stand with your legs together and raise your skirt.”

“Ask a real woman!” Malgarita sneered. “That one would not know whether to lay eggs or give milk.”

Instead of lashing back with some retort, as I would have expected of her, Doris sobbed and ran away.

All the chaffering was amusing enough, and maybe even educational, but my concern was elsewhere. I said, “If I can find my lady again, and point her out to you fellows, perhaps you could manage to follow her better than I did, and tell me where she lives.”

“No, grazie!” Ubaldo said firmly. “To molest a highborn lady is to gamble between the pillars.”

Daniele snapped his fingers. “That reminds me. I heard that there is to be a frusta at the pillars this very afternoon. Some poor bastard who gambled and lost. Let us go and see it.”

And so we did. A frusta is a public scourging and the pillars are those two I have mentioned, near the waterfront in Samarco’s piazzetta. One of the columns is dedicated to my namesake saint and the other to Venice’s earlier patron saint Teodoro, called Todaro here. All public punishments and executions of malefactors are carried out there—“between Marco and Todaro,” as we say.

The centerpiece that day was a man we boys all knew, though we did not know his name. He was universally called only II Zudìo, which means either the Jew or the usurer, or more commonly both. He resided in the burghèto set aside for his race, but the narrow shop in which he changed money and lent money was on the Mercerìa, where we boys lately did most of our thieving, and we had often seen him huddled at his counting table. He had hair and beard like a sort of curly red fungus going gray; he wore on his long coat the round yellow patch proclaiming him a Jew and the red hat that proclaimed him a Western Jew.

There were numerous others of his race in the crowd that afternoon, most in red hats, but some in the yellow head-wrappings signifying their Levantine origin. They would probably not have come of their own will to see a fellow Jew whipped and humiliated, for which reason Venetian law makes it mandatory for all adult male Jews to attend on such occasions. Of course, the crowd consisted mostly of non-Jews, gathered just for the sport, and an unusually high proportion were female.

The zudìo had been convicted of a fairly common offense—the gouging of excessive interest on some loan—but gossip had him guilty of more spicy intrigues. There was a widespread rumor that he, unlike any sensible Christian pawnbroker who dealt only in jewels and plate and other valuables, would take in pawn and lend good money for letters of mere paper, though they had to be letters of an indiscreet or compromising nature. Since so many Venetian women employed scribes to write for them letters of just that nature, or to read to them the letters of that nature which they received, perhaps the women wanted to look at the zudìo and speculate on whether he held incriminating copies of their correspondence. Or maybe, as so many women so often do, they simply wished to see a man flogged.

The usurer was accompanied to the flogging post by several uniformed gastaldi guards and his assigned comforter, a member of the lay Brotherhood of Justice. The brother, to remain anonymous in that degrading capacity of comforter to a Jew, wore a full gown and a hood over his head with eyeholes cut in it. A preco of the Quarantia stood where I had stood on the day before—high above the crowd on San Marco’s loggia of the four horses—and read in a ringing voice:

“Inasmuch as the convict Mordecai Cartafilo has behaved very cruelly, against the peace of the State and the honor of the Republic and the virtue of its citizens … he is sentenced to endure thirteen vigorous strokes of the frusta, and thereafter to be confined in a pozzo of the Palace Prison while the Signori della Notte make inquiry of him into further particulars of his crimes … .”

The zudìo, when by custom he was asked if he had any complaint to make of the judgment, merely growled uncaringly, “Nè tibi nè catabi.” The wretch may have shrugged coolly enough before he felt the scourge, but he did other things during the next several minutes. First he grunted, then he cried out, and then he howled. I glanced around at the crowd—the Christians were all nodding approvingly and the Jews were trying to look elsewhere—and my glance stopped at a certain face, and locked there, and I began sidling through the pack of people to get nearer to my lost lady found.

There came a shriek from behind me, and Ubaldo’s voice calling, “Olà, Marco, you are not listening to the music of the sinagòga!”

But I did not turn around. I was taking no chance of letting the woman slip from my sight this time. She was again unveiled, the better to watch the frusta, and again I feasted my eyes on her beauty. As I got closer I saw that she stood next to a tall man who wore a cloak with a hood closely drawn about his face; he was nearly as anonymous as the Brother of Justice at the flogging post. And when I stood very close I heard that man murmur to my lady, “Then it was you who spoke to the snout.”

“The J-Jew deserved it,” she said, the delicious pout lingering briefly on her lips.

He murmured, “A chicken before a tribunal of foxes.”

She laughed lightly but without humor. “Would you have preferred that I let the ch-chicken go to the confessional, Father?”

I wondered if the lady was younger than she looked, that she addressed every man as father. But then I sneaked a look up into the man’s hood, I being shorter than he was, and saw that it was the San Marco priest of the day before. Wondering why he should be going about with his vestments hidden, I listened some more, but their disjointed conversation gave me no hint.

He said, still in a murmurous voice, “You fixed on the wrong victim. The one who might talk, not the someone who might listen.”

She laughed again and said archly, “You never speak the name of that someone.”

“Then you speak it,” he murmured. “To the snout. Give the foxes a goat instead of a chicken.”

She shook her head. “That someone—that old goat—has friends among the foxes. I require a means even more secret than the snout.”

He was silent for a time. Then he murmured, “Bravo.”

I assumed that he was murmurously applauding the performance of the frusta, which, after one last loud and piercing screech, was just then ending. The crowd began to mill about in preparation for dispersal.

My lady said, “Yes, I will inquire into that possibility. But now”—she touched his cloaked arm—“that someone approaches.”

He clasped the hood still closer about his face and moved off with the crowd, away from her. She was joined by another man, this one gray-haired, red-faced, dressed in clothes as fine as hers—perhaps her real father, I thought—who said, “Ah, there you are, Ilaria. How did we get separated?”

That was the first time I heard her name. She and the older man strolled off together, she chattering brightly about “how well the frusta was done, what a nice day for it,” and other such typically feminine remarks. I hung far enough behind them not to be noticeable, but I followed as if I were being tugged on a string. I feared that they would walk only as far as the waterfront and there step into the man’s batèlo or gòndola. In that case I should have had a hard time following them. Everyone in the crowd who did not have a private craft was competing for the boats for hire. But Ilaria and her companion turned the other way and walked up the piazzetta toward the main piazza, skirting the crowd by staying close to the wall of the Doge’s Palace.

Ilaria’s rich robe flicked the very muzzles of the lionlike marble masks which protrude from the palace wall at waist level. Those are what we Venetians call the musi da denonzie secrete, and there is one of them for each of several sorts of crime: smuggling, tax evasion, usury, conspiracy against the State, and so on. The snouts have slits for mouths and on the other side of them, inside the palace, the agents of the Quarantia squat like spiders waiting for a web to twitch. They do not have to wait long between alarms. Those marble slits have been worn ever wider and smoother over the years, by the countless hands slipping into them unsigned messages imputing crimes to enemies, creditors, lovers, neighbors, blood relations and even total strangers. Because the accusers remain unknown and can accuse without proof, and because the law makes little allowance for malice, slander, frustration and spite, it is the accused who must disprove the accusations. That is not easy, and it is seldom done.

The man and woman circled around two sides of the arcaded square, with me close enough behind to overhear their desultory talk. Then they entered one of the houses there on the piazza itself, and, from the demeanor of the servant who opened the door, it was evident that they lived there. Those houses of the innermost heart of the city are not elaborately decorated on the outside, and so are not called palazzi. They are known as the “mute houses” because their outward simplicity says nothing about the wealth of their occupants, who comprise the oldest and noblest families of Venice. So I will be likewise mute about which house I followed Ilaria to, and not risk casting shame on that family name.

I learned two other things during that brief surveillance. From the bits of conversation, it became apparent even to my besotted self that the gray-haired man was not Ilaria’s father but her husband. That caused me some hurt, but I salved it with the thought that a young woman with an old husband ought to be readily susceptible to the attentions of a younger man, like myself.

The other thing I overheard was their talk of the festa to be celebrated the next week, the Samarco dei Bòcoli. (I should have mentioned that the month was April, of which the twenty-fifth is the day of San Marco, and in Venice that day is always a feast of flowers and gaiety and masquerade dedicated to “San Marco of the Buds.” This city loves feste, and it welcomes that day because it comes around each year when there has been no festa since Carnevale, perhaps two months agone.)

The man and woman spoke of the costumes they were having made, and the several balls to which they had been invited, and I felt another heart pang because those festivities would be held behind doors closed to me. But then Ilaria declared that she was also going to mingle in the outdoor torchlight promenades of that night. Her husband made some remonstrance, grumbling about the crowds and the crush to be endured “among the common herd,” but Ilaria laughingly insisted, and my heart beat with hope and resolve again.

Directly they disappeared inside their casa muta, I ran to a shop I knew near the Rialto. Its front was hung with masks of cloth and wood and cartapesta, red and black and white and face-colored, in forms grotesque and comic and demonic and lifelike. I burst into the shop, shouting to the maskmaker, “Make me a mask for the Samarco festa! Make me a mask that will make me look handsome but old! Make me look more than twenty! But make me look well preserved and manly and gallant!”

6

SO it was that, on the morning of that late-April festa day, I dressed in my best without having to be bidden to do so by any of the servants. I put on a cerise velvet doublet and lavender silk hose and my seldom worn red Còrdoba shoes, and over all a heavy wool cloak intended to disguise the slenderness of my figure. I hid my mask beneath the cloak, and left the house, and went to try my masquerade on the boat children. As I approached their barge, I took out and put on the mask. It had eyebrows and a dashing mustache made of real hair, and its face was the craggy, sun-browned visage of a mariner who had sailed far seas.

“Olà, Marco,” said the boys. “Sana capàna.”

“You recognize me? I look like Marco?”

“Hm. Now that you mention it …,” said Daniele. “No, not much like the Marco we know. Who do you think he looks like, Boldo?”

Impatient, I said, “I do not look like a seafarer more than twenty years old?”

“Well …,” said Ubaldo. “Sort of a short seafarer …”

“Ship’s food is sometimes scanty,” Daniele said helpfully. “It could have stunted your growth.”

I was much annoyed. When Doris emerged from the barge and immediately said, “Olà, Marco,” I wheeled to snarl at her. But what I saw gave me pause.

She too appeared to be in masquerade in honor of the day. She had washed her formerly nondescript hair, revealing it to be of a nice straw-gold color. She had washed her face clean and powdered it attractively pale, as grown-up Venetian women do. She was also wearing womanly garb, a gown of brocade cut down and remade from one that had been my mother’s. Doris spun around to make the skirts whirl, and said shyly, “Am I not as fine and beautiful as your lustrìsima lady love, Marco?”

Ubaldo muttered something about “all these dwarf ladies and gentlemen,” but I only stared through the eyes of my mask.

Doris persisted, “Will you not walk out with me, Marco, on this day of festa? … What are you laughing at?”

“Your shoes.”

“What?” she whispered, and her face fell.

“I laugh because no lady ever wore those awful wooden tofi.”

She looked inexpressibly hurt, and retired again inside the barge. I loitered long enough for the boys to assure me—and make me half believe—that nobody would recognize me as a mere boy except those who already knew me to be a mere boy. Then I left them, and went to the piazza San Marco. It was far too early for any ordinary celebrants to be yet abroad, but the Dona Ilaria had not described her costume while I was eavesdropping. She might be as heavily disguised as I was, so to recognize her I had to be lurking outside her door when she departed for the first of her balls.

I might have attracted some unwelcome attention, idling about that one end of one arcade like a novice cutpurse of extreme stupidity, but fortunately I was not the only person in the piazza already strikingly attired. Under almost every arch, a costumed matacìn or a montimbanco was setting up his platform and, long before there was really enough of a crowd to play to, they were displaying their talents. I was glad, for they gave me something to look at besides the doorway of the casa muta.

The montimbanchi, swathed in robes like those of physicians or astrologers, but more extravagantly spangled with stars and moons and suns, did various conjuring tricks or cranked music from an ordegnogorgia to attract attention, and, when they had caught the eye of any passerby, began vociferously to hawk their simples—dried herbs and colored liquids and moon-milk mushrooms and the like. The matacìni, even more resplendent in gaudy face paint and costumes of checks and diamonds and patches, had nothing to peddle but their agility. So they bounded up and down on their platforms, and onto and off them, doing energetic acrobatics and sword dances, and they contorted themselves into fantastic convolutions, and they juggled balls and oranges and each other, and then, when they paused to take breath, they passed their hats around for coins.

As the day went on, more entertainers came and took up stands in the piazza, also the sellers of confèti and sweets and refreshing drinks, and more commonfolk strolled through, too, though not yet wearing their own festa finery. Those would congregate about a platform and watch the tricks of a montimbanco or listen to a castròn singing barcarole to lute accompaniment, and then, as soon as the artist began passing his hat or peddling his wares, would move on to another platform. Many of those people ambled from one performer to another until they came to where I lurked in my mask and cloak, and they would stand stolidly and ogle me and expect me to do something entertaining. It was slightly distressing, as I could do nothing but sweat at them—the spring day had become most unseasonably warm—and try to look as if I were a servant posted there, waiting patiently for my master.

The day wore on and on interminably, and I wished fervently that I had worn a lighter cloak, and I wished I could kill every one of the million nasty pigeons in the piazza, and I was grateful for every new diversion that came along. The first citizens arriving in anything but everyday raiment were the arti guilds wearing their ceremonial clothes. The arte of physicians, barber-surgeons and apothecaries wore high conical hats and billowing robes. The guild of painters and illuminators wore garments that may have been of mere canvas, but were most fancifully gold-leafed and colored over. The arte of tanners, curriers and leatherworkers wore hide aprons with decorative designs not painted or sewn but branded onto them … .

When all the many guilds were assembled in the piazza, there came from his palace the Doge Ranieri Zeno, and, though his public costume was familiar enough to me and everybody else, it was sufficiently lavish for any festive day. He had the white scufieta on his head and the ermine cape over his golden gown, the train of which was carried by three servants clad in the ducal livery. Behind them emerged the retinue of Council and Quarantia and other nobles and officials, all likewise richly attired. And behind them came a band of musicians, but they held their lutes and pipes and rebecs silent while they moved with measured pace down to the waterfront. The Doge’s forty-oared buzino d’oro was just gliding up against the mole, and the procession marched aboard. Not until the gleaming bark was well out upon the water did the musicians begin to play. They always wait like that, because they know how the music gains a special sweetness when it skips across the wavelets to us listeners on the land.

About the hour of compieta the twilight came down, and the lampaderi moved about the piazza, setting alight the torch baskets bracketed above the arches, and I was still hovering within sight of the Lady Ilaria’s door. I felt as if I had been there all my life, and I was getting faint with hunger—for I had not even gone as far from it as a fruit peddler’s stand—but I was prepared to wait all the rest of my life if that should be necessary. At least by that hour I was not so conspicuous, for the square was well populated, and almost all the promenaders were in some kind of costume.

Some of them danced to the distant music of the Doge’s band, some sang along with the warbling castròni, but most simply paraded about to show off their own regalia and admire that of others. The young people pelted each other with confèti, which are the little sprinkles of sweets and the eggshells filled with perfumed waters. The older girls carried oranges and waited to catch a glimpse of some favorite gallant at whom they could throw one. That custom is supposed to commemorate the wedding-gift orange of Jupiter and Juno, and a young man can boast himself an especially favored Jupiter if his Juno throws the orange hard enough to give him a black eye or knock out a tooth.

Then, as the twilight deepened, there came in from the sea the caligo, the briny mist that so often envelops Venice by night, and I began to be glad for my woolen cloak. In that fog, the hanging torches changed from iron baskets of curly flames into soft-edged globes of light magically suspended in space. The people in the piazza became merely darker and more coherent blobs of mist moving through the mist, except when they passed between me and one of the blurs of torchlight. Then they radiated extravagant spokes and wedges of shadow that flickered like black swordblades slashing at the gray fog. Only when some stroller passed quite near me did he or she briefly become solid, then in the next moment dissolve again. Like something out of a dream, an angel would take substance: a girl of tinsel and gauze and laughing eyes, and she would melt into something out of a nightmare: a Satan with varnished red face and horns.

Suddenly the door behind me opened and the gray fog was gashed by bright lamplight. I turned and saw two shadows against the dazzle, and they resolved themselves into my lady and her husband. Truly, if I had not been posted at the door, I could not have recognized either of them. He was totally transformed into one of the standard characters of masquerade, the comic physician, Dotòr Balanzòn. But Ilaria was so much changed that I could not immediately determine into what she was changed. A white and gold miter concealed her bronze hair, a brief dòmino mask hid her eyes, and layers of alb, chasuble, cope and stole made a dumpy dome shape of her fine figure. Then I realized that she was adorned as the long-ago female Pope Zuàna. Her costume must have cost a fortune, and I feared that it would cost her a heavy penance if any real cleric caught her dressed as that legendary lady Pope.

They crossed the square through the porridge of people, and themselves immediately entered into the festa spirit: she scattering confèti in the manner of a priest aspersing holy water, and he tossing them in the manner of a mèdego dispensing dosages. Their gòndola was waiting at the lagoon-side, and they stepped into it, and it pushed off toward the Grand Canal. After a moment’s thought, I did not bother to hail a boat in which to follow them. The caligo was by then so thick that all the vessels on the water were moving with extreme caution, close to the banks. It was easier for me to keep my quarry in sight, and to pursue it, by trotting along the canalside streets and occasionally waiting on a bridge to see which canal it would take when the waterways diverged. I did a good deal of trotting that night, as Ilaria and her consort went from one grand palazzo and casa muta to another. But I did a lot more of waiting outside those places, in the company of only prowling cats, while my lady enjoyed the feste within.

I lurked in the salt-smelling fog, which was now so heavy that it collected and dripped from eaves and arches and the end of my mask’s nose, and I listened to the muffled music from indoors and I imagined Ilaria dancing the furlàna. I leaned against slippery, streaming stone walls and I enviously eyed the windowpanes where the candlelight glowed through the murk. I sat on cold, wet bridge balustrades and heard my stomach growling and envisioned Ilaria daintily nibbling at scalete pastries and bignè buns. I stood and stamped my gradually numbing feet, and I again cursed my cloak as it weighed ever more heavy and dank and cold and dragged at my ankles. Notwithstanding my sodden misery, I perked up and tried to look like an innocent merry-maker whenever other masqueraders loomed out of the caligo and shouted tipsy greetings at me—a cackling bufòn, a swaggering corsàro, three boys capering in company as the three Ms: mèdego, musician and madman.

The city does not sound the coprifuoco on feste nights, but, when we had arrived at the third or fourth palazzo of that night and I was waiting soggily outside it, I heard all the church bells ringing the compline. As if that had been a signal, Ilaria slipped away from the ballroom and came outdoors and came straight to where I crouched in an alcove of the house wall, my hood and cloak clasped close about me. She was still in her papal vestments, but she had taken off the dòmino.

She said softly, “Caro là,” the greeting used only between lovers, and I was struck stiff as a statue. Her breath smelled sweetly of bevarìn hazelnut liqueur when she whispered to the folds of my hood, “The old goat is drunk at last, and will not be ch-chasing after—Dio me varda! Who are you?” And she shrank back from me.

“My name is Marco Polo,” I said. “I have been following—”

“I am discovered!” she cried, so shrilly that I feared a sbiro might hear. “You are his bravo!”

“No, no, my lady!” I stood up and threw back my hood. Since my seafarer mask had so affrighted her, I slipped that off, too. “I am nobody’s but yours only!”

She backed farther away, her eyes wide in disbelief. “You are a boy!”

I could not deny that, but I could qualify it. “Of a man’s experience,” I said quickly. “I have loved you and sought you since first I saw you.”

Her eyes narrowed to examine me more closely. “What are you doing here?”

“I was waiting,” I babbled, “to put my heart at your feet and my arm in your service and my destiny in your keeping.”

She looked nervously about her. “I have page boys enough. I do not wish to hire—”

“Not for hire!” I declared. “For love of my lady I shall serve her forever!”

I may have hoped for a look of melting surrender. The look she gave me conveyed more of exasperation. “But it is the hour of compline,” she said. “Where is—? I mean, have you seen no one else hereabout? Are you alone?”

“No, he is not,” said another voice, a very quiet one.

I turned about and realized that a sword’s point had been very near the back of my neck. It was just then withdrawing into the fog, and it glinted a gleam of cold, bedewed steel as it vanished beneath the cloak of its wielder. I had thought the voice was that of Ilaria’s priest acquaintance, but priests do not carry swords. Before I or she could speak, the hooded figure murmured again:

“I see by your raiment tonight, my lady, that you are a mocker. So be it. Now is the mocker mocked. This young intruder desires to be a lady’s bravo, and will serve for no hire but love. Let him, then, and let that be your penance for mockery.”

Ilaria gasped and started to say, “Are you suggesting—?”

“I am absolving. You are already forgiven whatever must be done. And when the greater obstacle has been removed, a smaller one will be more easily dismissed.”

With that, the shape in the fog moved farther back in the fog and blended into the fog and was gone. I had no idea what the stranger’s words had meant, but I did perceive that he had spoken in my behalf, and I was grateful. I turned again to Ilaria, who was regarding me with a sort of rueful appraisal. She put one slim hand inside her robe and brought out the dòmino and raised it before her eyes as if to mask something there.

“Your name is … Marco?” I bowed my head and mumbled that it was. “You said you followed me. You know my house?” I mumbled yes. “Come there tomorrow, Marco. To the servants’ door. At the hour of mezza-vespro. Do not fail me.”

7

I did not fail her, at least in the matter of promptness. The next afternoon, I presented myself as commanded, and the servants’ door was opened by an ancient hag. The hag’s little eyes were as mistrustful as if she knew every shameful thing about Venice, and she admitted me to the house as distastefully as if I had been one of the worst. She led me upstairs, along a hall, pointed a withered finger at a door, and left me. I knocked at the panel and the Dona Ilaria opened it. I stepped inside and she secured the latch behind me.

She bade me be seated, and then she walked up and down before my chair, regarding me speculatively. She wore a dress covered with gold-colored flakes that shimmered like a serpent’s scales. It was a close-fitting dress and her walk was sinuous. The lady would have looked rather reptilian and dangerous, except that she kept wringing her hands the while, and thus betrayed her own uncertainty at our being alone together.

“I have been thinking about you ever since last night,” she said. I started to echo that, wholeheartedly, but I could not make my voice work, and she went on. “You say you ch-choose to serve me, and there is indeed a service you could do. You say you would do it for love, and I confess that arouses my … my curiosity. But I think you are aware that I have a husband.”

I swallowed loudly and said yes, I was aware.

“He is much older than I, and he is embittered by age. He is j-jealous of my youth and envious of all things youthful. He also has a violent temper. Clearly I cannot enlist the service of a—of a young man—not to mention enjoy the love of one. You understand? I might wish to, even yearn to, but I cannot, being a married woman.”

I gave that some thought, then cleared my throat and said what seemed to me obvious, “An old husband will die and you will still be young.”

“You do understand!” She stopped wringing her hands and clapped them, applauding. “You are quick of intellect for such a—such a young man.” She cocked her head, the better to look admiringly at me. “So he must die. Yes?”

Dejectedly I stood up to go, supposing that we had agreed that any yearned-for connection between us must simply wait until her bad-natured old husband was dead. I was not happy at that postponement, but, as Ilaria said, we both were young. We could restrain ourselves for a while.

Before I could turn to the door, though, she came and stood very close to me. She pressed herself against me, in fact, and looked down into my eyes and very softly inquired, “How will you do it?”

I gulped and said hoarsely, “How will I do what, my lady?”

She laughed a conspiratorial laugh. “You are discreet besides! But I think I will have to know, because it will require some prior planning to ensure that I am not … . However, that can wait. For now, pretend that I asked how you will—love me.”

“With all my heart!” I said in a croak.

“Oh, with that, too, let us hope. But surely—do I shock you, Marco? —with some other part of you as well?” She laughed merrily at what must have been the expression on my face.

I made a strangled noise and coughed and said, “I have been taught by an experienced teacher. When you are free and we can make love, I will know how to do that. I assure you, my lady, I will not make a fool of myself.”

She lifted her eyebrows and said, “Well! I have been wooed with promises of many different delights, but never quite that one.” She studied me again, through eyelashes that were like talons reaching for my heart. “Show me, then, how you do not make a fool of yourself. I owe you at least an earnest payment for your service.”

Ilaria raised her hands to her shoulders and somehow unfastened the top of her gold-serpent gown. It slipped down to her waist, and she undid the bustenca underneath, and let that drop to the floor, and I was gazing upon her breasts of milk and roses. I think I must have tried simultaneously to grab for her and to peel off my own clothes, for she gave a small shriek.

“Who was it taught you, boy? A goat? Come to the bed.”

I tried to temper my boyish eagerness with manly decorum, but that was even more difficult when we were on the bed and both of us were totally unclad. Ilaria’s body was mine to savor in every inviting detail, and even a stronger man than myself might have wished to abandon all restraint. Tinted of milk and roses, fragrant of milk and roses, soft as milk and roses, her flesh was so beautifully different from the gross meat of Malgarita and Zulià that she might have been a woman of a new and superior race. It was all I could do to keep from nibbling her to see if she tasted as delectable as she looked and smelled and felt to the touch.

I told her that, and she smiled and stretched languorously and closed her eyes and suggested, “Nibble, then, but g-gently. Do to me all the interesting things you have learned.”

I ran one tremulous finger along the length of her—from the fringe of closed eyelashes down her shapely Verona nose, across the pouted lips, down her chin and her satin throat, over the mound of one firm breast and its pert nipple, down her smoothly rounded belly to the feathering of fine hair below—and she squirmed and mewed with pleasure. I remembered something that made me halt my tracing finger there. To demonstrate that I knew very well how to do things, I told her with suave assurance, “I will not play with your pota, in case you have to pee.”

Her whole body jerked and her eyes flew open and she exploded, “Amoredèi!” and she flailed angrily out from under my hand and well away from me.

She knelt at the far edge of the bed and stared as if I were something that had just emerged from a crack in the floor. After vibrating at me for a moment, she demanded, “Who was it taught you, asenazzo?”

I, the ass, mumbled, “A girl of the boat people.”

“Dio v’agiuta,” she sighed. “Better a goat.”

She lay down again, but on her side, with her head propped on a hand so she could go on staring at me. “Now I really am curious,” she said. “Since I do not have to—excuse myself—what do you do next?”

“Well,” I said, disconcerted. “I put my. You know, my candle. Into your uh. And move it. Back and forth. And, well, that is it.” A wondering and terrible silence ensued, until I said uncomfortably, “Is it not?”

“Do you truly believe that is all there is to it? A melody on one string?” She shook her head in slow marveling. I began miserably to collect myself. “No, do not go away. Do not move. Stay where you are and let me teach you properly. Now, to begin with …”

I was surprised, but pleasantly so, to learn that making love should be rather like making music, and that “to begin with,” both players should commence the playing so far away from their main instruments—instead, using lips and eyelashes and earlobes—and that the music could be so enjoyable even in its pianìsimo beginning. The music swelled to vivace when Ilaria introduced for instruments her full breasts and softly rigid nipples, and teased and coaxed me into using my tongue instead of fingers to pluck the notes from them. At that pizzicato, she literally gave voice and sang in accompaniment to the music.

In a brief interval between those choruses, she informed me, in a voice gone whispery, “You have now heard the hymn of the convent.”

I also learned that a woman really does possess such a thing as the lumaghèta of which I had heard, and that the word is correct in both its meanings. The lumaghèta is indeed a thing somewhat resembling a small snail, but in function it is more like the tuning key that a lutist employs. When Ilaria showed me, by doing it first herself, how to manipulate the lumaghèta delicately and adroitly, I could make her, like a veritable lute herself, hum and twang and ring delightfully. She taught me how to do other things, too, which she could not do to herself, and which would never have occurred to my imagination. So at one moment I would be twiddling with my fingers as on the frets of a viella, and the next I would be using my lips in the manner of playing a dulzaina, and the next I would be flutter-tonguing in the way a flutist blows his flute.

It was not until well along in that afternoon’s divertimento that Ilaria gave the cue for us to join our main instruments, and we played all’unisono, and the music rose in crescendo to an unbelievable climax of tuti fortìsimi. Then we kept on bringing it back up to that peak, again and again, during most of the rest of the afternoon. Then we played several codas, each a little more diminuendo, until we were both fairly drained of music. Then we lay quietly side by side, enjoying the waning tremolo after-echoes … dolce, dolce … dolce …

When some time had passed, I thought to make gallant inquiry: “Do you not want to jump around and sneeze?”

She gave a slight start, looked sideways at me, and muttered something I could not hear. Then she said, “No, grazie, I do not, Marco. I wish now to talk of my husband.”

“Why darken the day?” I objected. “Let us rest a little longer and then see if we cannot play another tune.”

“Oh, no! As long as I remain a married woman, I shall remain a ch-chaste one. We do not do this again until my husband is dead.”

I had acquiesced when she earlier set that condition. But now I had sampled the ecstasy that awaited, and the thought of waiting was insupportable. I said, “Even though he is old, that might take years.”

She gave me a look and said sharply, “Why should it? What means do you propose using?”

Bewildered, I said, “I?”

“Did you intend j-just to go on following him, as you did last night? Until perhaps you annoy him to death?”

The truth finally began to filter through my density. I said in awe, “Do you seriously mean he is to be killed?”

“I mean he is to be killed seriously,” she said, with flat sarcasm. “What did you think we have been talking about, asenazzo, when we talked of your doing me a service?”

“I thought you meant … this.” And I shyly touched her there.

“No more of that.” She wriggled a little away from me. “And by the way, if you must use vulgar language, try at least to call that my mona. It sounds a little less awful than that other word.”

“But am I never to touch your mona again?” I said wretchedly. “Not until I do that other service for you?”

“To the victor the spoils. I have enjoyed polishing your stilèto, Marco, but another bravo might offer me a sword.”

“A bravo,” I reflected. “Yes, such a deed would make me a real bravo, would it not?”

She said persuasively, “And I would much rather love a dashing bravo than a furtive despoiler of other men’s wives.”

“There is a sword in a closet at home,” I muttered to myself. “It must have belonged to my father or one of his brothers. It is old, but it is kept honed and bright.”

.“You will never be blamed or even suspected. My husband must have many enemies, for what important man has not? And they will be of his own age and standing. No one would think to suspect a mere—I mean a younger man who has no discernible motive for taking his life. You have only to accost him in the dark, when he is alone, and make sure of your strike so he does not linger long enough to give any description—”

“No,” I interrupted her. “Better if I could find him among a gathering of his peers, those who include his actual enemies. If in those circumstances I could do it unobserved … But no.” I suddenly realized that I was contemplating murder. I concluded lamely, “That would probably be impossible.”

“Not for a g-genuine bravo,” Ilaria said, in the voice of a dove. “Not for one who will be rewarded so bounteously.”

She moved against me again, and continued to move, tantalizing with the promise of that reward. This aroused in me several conflicting emotions, but my body recognized only one of them and raised a baton to play a fanfare of salute.

“No,” said Ilaria, fending me off and becoming very businesslike. “A music maistra may give the first lesson free, to indicate what can be learned. But if you wish further lessons in more advanced execution, you must earn them.”

She was clever, to send me away not completely satiated. As it was, I left the house—again by the servants’ door—throbbing almost painfully and lusting as if I had not been satisfied at all. I was being led and directed, so to speak, by that baton of mine, and its inclination was to lead me back to Ilaria’s bower, whatever that might require of me. Other events seemed also to be conspiring toward that end. When I came around from the back of the block of houses, I found the Samarco piazza full of people in a buzzing commotion, and a uniformed banditore was crying the news:

The Doge Ranieri Zeno had been stricken by a sudden seizure that afternoon in his palace chambers. The Doge was dead. The Council was being summoned to start voting for a successor to the ducal crown. The whole of Venice was bidden to observe a three-day period of mourning before the funeral of the Doge Zeno.

Well, I thought as I went on my way, if a great Doge can die, why cannot a lesser noble? And, it occurred to me, the funeral ceremonies would entail more than one assemblage of those lesser nobles all together. Among them would be my lady’s husband and undoubtedly, as she had suggested, some of his enviers and enemies.

8

FOR the next three days, the late Doge Zeno lay in state in his palace, being visited by respectful citizens during the days and being watched over by the professional vigil-keeper during the nights. I spent most of that time in my room, practicing with the old but still worthy sword until I became quite adept at slashing and stabbing phantom husbands. What I had the most trouble with was simply carrying the sword about, because it was nearly as long as my leg. I could not just slip it naked under my belt or else, when I walked, I might impale my own foot. To carry the thing anywhere, I should have to carry it in its scabbard, and that made it even more unwieldy. Also, for concealment of it, I should have to wear my all-enveloping long cloak, which would not permit any quick draw-and-lunge.

Meanwhile, I made cunning plans. On the second day of vigil, I wrote a note, most carefully drawing the characters in my schoolboy hand: “Will he be at both the Funeral and the Installation?” I regarded that critically, then underscored the he so that there should be no mistaking whom I meant. I painstakingly drew my name underneath, so that there should be no mistaking the note’s author. Then I did not entrust it to any servant, but carried it myself to the casa muta, and waited for another interminable time until I saw the he leave the house, dressed in dark mourning clothes. I went around to the back door, gave the note to the old hag doorkeeper, and told her I would wait for a reply.

After another while, she returned. She bore no reply but beckoned me with a gnarled finger. Again I followed her to Ilaria’s suite of rooms, and found my lady studying the paper. She looked flustered, somehow, and neglected to give me any fond greeting, saying only, “I can read, of course, but I cannot make out your wretched writing. Read this to me.”

I did, and she said yes, her husband, like every other member of the Venetian Grand Council, would be attending both the funeral rites for the late Doge and the installation ceremonies of the new one when he had been selected. “Why do you ask?”

“It gives me two opportunities,” I said. “I shall try to—accomplish my service—on the funeral day. If that proves impossible, I will at least have a better idea of how to go about it at the next gathering of nobles.”

She took the paper from me and looked at it. “I do not see my name on this.”

“Naturally not,” I said, the experienced conspirator. “I would not compromise a lustrìsima.”

“Is your name on it?”

“Yes.” I pointed with pride. “There. That is my name, my lady.”

“I have learned that it is not always wise to commit things to paper.” She folded and tucked the paper into her bodice. “I will keep this safe.” I started to tell her just to tear it up, but she went on, sounding peevish, “I hope you realize that you were very foolish to come here unbidden.”

“I waited to make certain he left.”

“But if someone else—if one of his relatives or friends was here? Listen to me now. You are never to come here again until I summon you.”

I smiled. “Until we are free of—”

“Until I summon you. Now go, and go quickly. I am expecting—I mean, he may come back any minute.”

So I went home and practiced some more. And the next day, when at sundown the pompe funebri began, I was among the spectators. Even the least commoner’s burial in Venice is always dignified by as much pageantry as his or her family can afford, so the Doge’s was splendid indeed. The dead man lay not in a coffin but on an open litter, dressed in his finest robes of state, his stiff hands clasping his mace of office, his face fixed by the pomp-masters in an expression of serene sanctimony. The widowed Dogaressa stayed always beside it, so draped in veils that only her white hand was visible where it rested on her late husband’s shoulder.

The litter was first laid on the roof of the Doge’s great buzino d’oro, at the prow of which the gold-and-scarlet ducal flag hung at half staff. The bark was rowed with solemn slowness—the forty oars seeming scarcely to move—up and down the main canals of the city. Behind it and around it were grouped black funeral gòndole and crape-hung batèli and burchielli, bearing the members of the Council and the Signoria and the Quarantia and the city’s chief priests and the confratèli of the arti guilds, the whole retinue alternately singing hymns and chanting prayers.

When the dead man had been sufficiently paraded on the waterways, his litter was lifted off the bark and onto the shoulders of eight of his nobles. Because the corteggio then had to wind up and down all the main streets of the central city, and because so many of the pallbearers were elderly, they changed places frequently with new men. And the litter was again followed by the Dogaressa and all the other court mourners, now on foot, and by bands of musicians playing doleful slow music, and contingents from the flagellant brotherhoods lethargically pretending to whip themselves, and finally by every other Venetian not too young or old or crippled to walk.

I could do nothing during the water-borne procession except watch it from the banks with the rest of the citizens. But by the time it came ashore, I decided that good fortune was attending my scheme. For there also came in from the water the twilight caligo again, and the obsequies became even more melancholy and mysterious, shrouded by fog, the music muffled and the chants lugubriously hollow.

Bracket torches were lighted along the route, and most of the marchers took out and lighted candles. For a while I walked among the common herd—or limped, rather, since the sword along my left leg forced me to swing it stimy—and gradually eased myself to the forefront of that throng. From there I could verify that almost every official mourner was cloaked and hooded, except the priests. So was I well covered, and in the thick mist I could be taken for one of the guilds’ artists or artisans. Even my size was not conspicuous; the procession included numerous veiled women no bigger than I was, and a few cowled dwarfs and hunchbacks smaller than I was. So I edged my way imperceptibly among the court mourners, and ever farther forward, being challenged by nobody at all, until I was separated from the litter and its pallbearers only by a rank of priests yammering their ritual pimpirimpàra and swinging censers to add smoke to the fog.

I was not the only inconspicuous marcher in the procession. What with everybody being so shrouded in cloth and in the almost equally woolly mist, I had a hard time picking out my quarry. But the street march was long enough that, by moving cautiously from side to side and peering sharply at the little of each man’s profile that protruded beyond his cowl, I at last was able to perceive which was Ilaria’s husband, and thereafter I kept my eye on him.

My chance came when the corteggio finally debouched from a narrow street onto the cobbled embankment of the city’s north shore—on the Dead Lagoon, not far from where the boat children’s barge lay, though that was invisible in the fog and the now near-dark. Alongside the embankment was the Doge’s bark, which had circled the city to get ahead of us, waiting to ferry him on his last voyage—to the Isle of the Dead, also invisible far offshore. There was a milling of the mourners, as all the men nearest the litter tried to help its bearers hoist it aboard the bark, and that gave me the opportunity to mingle in with them. I elbowed until I was right beside my quarry, and in all the shoving and bustling no one remarked the struggle I had to make to unsheathe my sword. Fortunately, Ilaria’s husband did not manage to get his shoulder under the litter—or the dispatching of him might have meant the Doge’s getting dropped into the Dead Lagoon.

What did get dropped was my heavy scabbard; somehow my fumbling had unhooked it from my tunic belt. It clattered heavily onto the cobblestones and kept on noisily proclaiming itself as the many shuffling feet kicked it about. My heart bounded into my throat and then almost popped out of my mouth as Ilaria’s husband bent down to pick up the scabbard. But he made no outcry; he handed it back to me with the kindly comment, “Here, young fellow, you dropped this.” I was still right next to the man, and both of us were still being buffeted by the movement of the crowd around us, and my sword was in my hand beneath my cloak, and that was the moment to strike, but how could I? He had saved me from immediate discovery; could I stab him in return for the favor?

But then another voice spoke, hissing beside my ear, “You stupid asenazzo!” and something else made a rasping noise, and something metallic glinted in the torchlight. It happened at the edge of my vision, so my impressions were fragmentary and confused. But it appeared to me that one of the priests who had been swinging a golden censer had abruptly swung something silvery instead. And then Ilaria’s husband leaned into my view, and opened his mouth and belched a substance that looked black in that light. I had done nothing to him, but something had happened to him. He tottered and jostled against the other men in the bunched group, and he and at least two others fell down. Then a heavy hand clutched at my shoulder, but I yanked away from it, and the recoil took me out of the center of the tumult. As I struggled through the outer fringe of people, and caromed off a couple of them, I again dropped my scabbard and then the sword as well, but I did not pause. I was in panic and I could think of nothing but to run fast and far. Behind me I heard exclamations of astonishment and outrage, but by then I was well away from the massed torch and candlelight and well away into the blessed darkness and fog.

I kept on running along the embankment until I saw two new figures taking form before me in the misty night. I might have shied away, but I saw they were children’s figures and, after a moment, they resolved themselves into Ubaldo and Doris Tagiabue. I was ever so relieved to see someone familiar—and small. I tried to put on a glad face and probably put on a ghastly one, but I hailed them jollily:

“Doris, you are still scrubbed and clean!”

“You are not,” she said, and pointed.

I looked down at myself. The front of my cloak was wet with more than a soaking of caligo. It was splotched and spattered with glistening red.

“And your face is as pale as a tombstone,” said Ubaldo. “What happened, Marco?”

“I was … I was almost a bravo,” I said, my voice gone suddenly unsteady. They stared at me, and I explained. It felt good to tell it to somebody unconcerned in the matter. “My lady sent me to slay a man. But I think he died before I could do it. Some other enemy must have intervened, or hired a bravo to do it.”

Ubaldo exclaimed, “You think he died?”

“Everything happened all at once. I had to flee. I suppose I will not know what really happened until the banditori of the night watch cry the news.”

“Where was this?”

“Back yonder, where the dead Doge is being put aboard his bark. Or maybe he is not yet. All is turmoil.”

“I could go and see. I can tell you sooner than a banditore.”

“Yes,” I said. “But be careful, Boldo. They will be suspecting every stranger.”

He ran off the way I had come, and Doris and I sat down on a waterside bollard. She regarded me gravely, and after a while said, “The man was the lady’s husband.” She did not frame it as a question, but I nodded numbly. “And you hope to take his place.”

“I already have,” I said, with as much of boastfulness as I could muster. Doris seemed to wince, so I added truthfully, “Once, anyway.”

That one afternoon now seemed long in the past, and at the moment I felt no arousal of the urge to repeat it. Curious, I thought to myself, how anxiety can so diminish a man’s ardor. Why, if I were in Ilaria’s room right now, and she was naked and smiling and beckoning, I could not …

“You may be in terrible trouble,” said Doris, as if to shrivel my ardor utterly.

“I think not,” I said, to convince myself rather than the girl. “I did nothing more criminal than to be where I did not belong. And I got away without being caught or recognized, so no one knows I did even that much. Except you, now.”

“And what happens next?”

“If the man is dead, my lady will soon summon me to her grateful embrace. I will go slightly shamefaced, for I had hoped to go to her as a gallant bravo, the slayer of her oppressor.” A thought came to me. “But now at least I can go to her with a clear conscience.” The thought brought a little cheer with it.

“And if he is not dead?”

The cheer evaporated. I had not yet considered that eventuality. I said nothing, and sat trying to think what I might do—or might have to do.

“Perhaps then,” Doris ventured in a very small voice, “you might take me instead of her for your smanza?”

I ground my teeth. “Why do you keep on making that ridiculous proposal? Especially now, when I have so many other problems to think about?”

“If you had accepted when I first offered, you would not now have so many problems.”

That was either female or juvenile illogic, and palpably absurd, but there was just enough truth in it to make me respond with cruelty, “The Dona Ilaria is beautiful; you are not. She is a woman; you are a child. She merits the Dona to her name, and I also am of the Ene Aca. I could never take for my lady anyone not nobly born and—”

“She has not behaved very nobly. Neither have you.”

But I careered on, “She is always clean and fragrant; you have only just discovered washing. She knows how to make love sublimely; you will never know more than the pig Malgarita—”

“If your lady knows how to fottere so well, then you must have learned, too, and you could teach me—”

“There you are! No lady would use a word like fottere! Ilaria calls it musicare.”

“Then teach me to talk like a lady. Teach me to musicare like a lady.”

“This is insupportable! With everything else on my mind, why am I sitting here arguing with an imbecile?” I stood up and said sternly, “Doris, you are supposed to be a good girl. Why do you keep offering not to be?”

“Because …” She bowed her head so that her fair hair fell like a casque around her face and hid her expression. “Because that is all I can offer.”

“Olà, Marco!” called Ubaldo, solidifying out of the fog and coming up to us, panting from his run.

“What did you find out?”

“Let me tell you one thing, zenso. Be glad you are not the bravo who did that.”

“Who did what, exactly?” I asked apprehensively.

“Killed the man. The man you spoke of. Yes, he is dead. They have the sword that did it.”

“They do not!” I protested. “The sword they have must be mine, and there is no blood on it.”

Ubaldo shrugged. “They found a weapon. They will assuredly find a sassìn. They will have to find somebody to blame, because of who it was he assassinated.”

“Only Ilaria’s husband—”

“The next Doge.”

“What?”

“The same man. But for this, the banditori would have been proclaiming him Doge of Venice tomorrow. Sacro! That is what I overheard, and I heard it several times repeated. The Council had elected him to succeed the Serenità Zeno, and were only waiting until after the pompe funebri to make the announcement.”

“Oh, Dio mio!” I would have said, but Doris said it for me.

“Now they must start the voting all over again. But not before they find the bravo who is guilty. This is not just another back-alley knifing. From the way they were talking, this is something that has never before occurred in the history of the Republic.”

“Dio mio,” Doris breathed again, then asked me, “What will you do now?”

After some thought, if my mind’s perturbation could be called thinking, I said, “Perhaps I ought not go to my house. Can I sleep in a corner of your barge?”

9

SO that is where I passed the night, on a pallet of smelly rags—but not in sleep; in staring, glaring wakefulness. When, at some small hour, Doris heard my restless tossing and came creeping to ask if I would like to be held and soothed, I simply snarled, and she crept away again. She and Ubaldo and all the other boat children were asleep when the dawn began to poke its fingers through the many cracks in the old barge hull, and I got up, leaving my blood-stained cloak, and slipped out into the morning.

The city was all fresh pink and amber in color, and every stone sparkled with dew left by the caligo. By contrast, I felt anything but sparkly, and an over-all drab brown in color, even to the inside of my mouth. I wandered aimlessly through the awakening streets, the turnings of my path determined by my veering away from every other person out walking that early. But gradually the streets began to fill with people, too many for me to avoid them all, and I heard the bells ringing the terza, the start of the working day. So I let myself drift lagoonward, to the Riva Ca’ de Dio and into the warehouse of the Compagnia Polo. I think I had some dim notion of asking the clerk Isidoro Priuli if he could quickly and quietly arrange for me the berth of cabin boy on some outbound vessel.

I trudged into his little counting room, so sunk in my morosity that it took me a moment to notice that the room was more than usually cramped and that Maistro Doro was saying to a crowd of visitors, “I can only tell you that he has not set foot in Venice in more than twenty years. I repeat, the Messer Marco Polo has long lived in Constantinople and still lives there. If you refuse to believe me, here is his nephew of the same name, who can vouch—”

I spun on my heel to go out again, having recognized the crowd in the room as no more than two, but extremely burly, uniformed gastaldi of the Quarantia. Before I could escape, one of them growled, “Same name, eh? And look at the guilty face on him!” and the other reached out to clamp a massive hand around my upper arm.

Well, I was marched away, while the clerk and the warehouse men goggled. We had no great distance to go, but it seemed the longest of all the journeys I have ever made. I struggled feebly in the iron grip of the gastaldi and, more like a bimbo than a bravo, pleaded tearfully to know of what I was accused, but the stolid bailiffs never replied. As we tramped along the Riva, through crowds of passersby also goggling, my mind was a tumult of questions: Was there a reward? Who turned me in? Did Doris or Ubaldo somehow send word? We crossed over the Bridge of the Straw, but did not continue as far as the piazzetta entrance to the Doge’s Palace. At the Gate of the Wheat, we turned in to the Torresella, which stands adjacent to the palace and is the last remainder of what was in ancient times a fortified castle. It is now officially the State Prison of Venice, but its inmates have another name for it. The prison is called by the name our ancestors called the fiery pit before Christianity taught them to call it Hell. The prison is called Vulcano.

From the bright pink and amber morning outside, I found myself suddenly thrust into an orbà, which might not sound like much unless you know that it means “blinded.” An orbà is a cell just big enough to contain one man. It is a stone box, totally unfurnished and absolutely without any opening for light or air. I stood in a darkness unrelieved, suffocatingly close, foul with stench. The floor was thick with some gluey mess that sucked at my feet when I moved them, so I did not even try to sit down, and the walls were spongy with some slime that seemed to crawl when I touched it, so I did not even lean; when I tired of standing, I squatted. And I shook with an ague as I slowly comprehended the full horror of where I was and what had become of me. I, Marco Polo, son of the Ene Aca house of Polo, bearer of a name inscribed in the Libro d’Oro—so recently a free man, a carefree youth, free to wander where I would in the whole wide world—I was in prison, disgraced, despised, shut up in a box that no rat would willingly inhabit. Oh, how I wept!

I do not know how long I stayed in that blind cell. It was at least the remainder of that day, and it may have been two or three days, for, although I tried hard to control my fright-churned bowels, I several times contributed to the mess on the floor. When finally a guard came to let me out, I assumed I had been freed as innocent, and I exulted. Even had I been guilty of killing the Doge-elect, I was sure I had suffered punishment enough for it, and had felt enough remorse and sworn enough repentance. But of course my exultation was dashed when the guard told me that I had endured only the first and probably least of my punishments—that the orbà is only the temporary cell where a prisoner is held until time for his preliminary examination.

So I was brought before the tribunal called the Gentlemen of the Night. In an upstairs room of the Vulcano, I was stood in front of a long table behind which sat eight grave and elderly men in black gowns. I was not positioned too close to their table, and the guard on either side of me did not stand too close to me, for I must have smelled as terrible as I felt. If I also looked as terrible, I must have appeared the very portrait of a low and brutish criminal.

The Signori della Notte began by taking turns at asking me some innocuous questions: my name, my age, my residence, particulars of my family history and the like. Then one of them, referring to a paper before him, told me, “Many other questions must be asked before we can determine on a bill of indictment. But that interrogation will be postponed until you have been assigned a Brother of Justice to act as your advocate, for you have been denounced as the perpetrator of a crime which is capitally punishable … .”

Denounced! I was so stunned that I missed most of the man’s subsequent words. The denouncer had to be either Doris or Ubaldo, for only they knew that I had even been near the murdered man. But how could either of them have done it so quickly? And who did they get to write for them the denunciation to be slid into one of the snouts?

The gentleman concluded his speech by asking, “Have you any comment to make on these most serious charges?”

I cleared my throat and said hesitantly, “Who—who denounced me, Messere?” It was an inane thing to ask, since I could not reasonably expect an answer, but it was the question uppermost in my mind. And much to my surprise, the examiner did answer:

“You denounced yourself, young Messere.” I must have blinked at him stupidly, for he added, “Did you not write this?” and read from a piece of paper: “Will he be at both the Funeral and the Installation?” I am sure I blinked at him stupidly, for he added, “It is signed Marco Polo.”

Walking like a sleepwalker, I was taken by my guards down the stairs again, and then down another flight of stairs into what they called the wells, the deepest part of the Vulcano. Even that, they told me, was not the real dungeon of the prison; I could look forward, when I had been properly convicted, to being shifted into the Dark Gardens reserved for the keeping of condemned men until their execution. Laughing coarsely, they opened a thick but only knee-high wooden door in the stone wall, pushed me down and shoved me through it, and gave the door a slam like the knell of Doomsday.

This cell was at least considerably larger than the orbà and had at least a hole in the low door. The hole was too small to permit me to shake a fist through it at the departing jailers, but it did admit a trace of air and enough light to keep the cell from being utterly dark. When my eyes had adjusted to the murk, I could see that the cell was furnished with a lidded pail for a pissòta and two bare plank shelves for beds. I could see nothing else except what looked like a tumbled heap of bedclothes in one corner. However, when I approached it, the heap heaved and stood up and was a man.

“Salamelèch,” he said hoarsely. The greeting sounded foreign. I squinted at him and recognized the red-gray, fungoid hair and beard. It was the zudìo whose public scourging I had witnessed on a day memorable for much else.

10

“MORDECAI,” he introduced himself. “Mordecai Cartafilo.” And he asked the question that all prisoners ask each other at first meeting: “What are you in for?”

“Murder,” I said with a sniffle. “And I think treason and lesa-maestà and a few other things.”

“Murder will suffice,” he said drily. “Not to worry, lad. They will overlook those trifling other items. You cannot be punished for them once you have been punished for murder. That would be what is called double jeopardy, and that is forbidden by the law of the land.”

I gave him a sour look. “You are jesting, old man.”

He shrugged. “One lightens the dark as best one can.”

We sat gloomy in the gloom for a while. Then I said, “You are in here for usury, are you not?”

“I am not. I am in here because a certain lady accused me of usury.”

“That is a coincidence. I am also in here—at least indirectly—because of a lady.”

“Well, I only said lady to indicate the gender. She is really”—he spat on the floor—“a shèquesa kàrove.”

“I do not understand your foreign words.”

“A gentile putana cagna,” he said, as if still spitting. “She begged a loan from me and pledged some love letters as security. When she could not pay, and I would not return the letters, she made sure I would not deliver them to anyone else.”

I shook my head sympathetically. “Yours is a sad case, but mine is more ironic. My lady begged a service from me and pledged herself as reward. The deed was done, but not by me. Nevertheless, here I am, rather differently rewarded, but my lady probably does not even know of it yet. Is that not ironic?”

“Hilarious.”

“Yes, Ilaria! Do you know the lady?”

“What?” He glared at me. “Your kàrove is named Ilaria, too?”

I glared at him. “How dare you call my lady a putana cagna?”

Then we ceased glaring at each other, and we sat down on the bed shelves and began comparing experiences, and alas, it became evident that we had both known the same Dona Ilaria. I told old Cartafilo my whole adventure, concluding:

“But you mentioned love letters. I never sent her any.”

He said, “I am sorry to be the one to tell you. They were not signed with your name.”

“Then she was in love with someone else all the time?”

“So it would seem.”

I muttered, “She seduced me only so I would play the bravo for her. I have been nothing but a dupe. I have been exceptionally stupid.”

“So it would seem.”

“And the one message that I did sign—the one the Signori now have—she must have slipped it into the snout. But why should she do that to me?”

“She has no further use for her bravo. Her husband is dead, her lover is available, you are but an encumbrance to be shed.”

“But I did not kill her husband!”

“So who did? Probably the lover. Do you expect her to denounce him, when she can offer you up instead and thereby keep him safe?” I had no answer to that. After a moment he asked, “Did you ever hear of the lamia?”

“Lamia? It means a witch.”

“Not exactly. The lamia can take the form of a very young witch, and very beautiful. She does that to entice young men to fall in love with her. When she has snared one, she makes love to him so voluptuously and industriously that he gets quite exhausted. And when he is limp and helpless, she eats him alive. It is only a myth, of course, but a curiously pervasive and persistent myth. I have encountered it in every country I have visited around the Mediterranean Sea. And I have traveled much. It is strange, how so many different peoples believe in the bloodthirstiness of beauty.”

I considered that, and said, “She did smile while she watched you flogged, old man.”

“I am not surprised. She will probably reach the very height of venereal excitement when she watches you go to the Meatmaker.”

“To the what?”

“That is what we old prison veterans call the executioner—the Meatmaker.”

I cried, distraught, “But I cannot be executed! I am innocent! I am of the Ene Aca! I should not even be shut up with a Jew!”

“Oh, excuse me, your lordship. It is that the bad light in here has dimmed my eyesight. I took you for a common prisoner in the pozzi of the Vulcano.”

“I am not common!”

“Excuse me again,” he said, and reached a hand across the space between our bed shelves. He plucked something off my tunic and regarded it closely. “Only a flea. A common flea.” He popped it between his fingernails. “It appeared as common as my own.”

I grumbled, “There is nothing wrong with your eyesight.”

“If you really are a noble, young Marco, you must do what all the noble prisoners do. Agitate for a better cell, a private one, with a window over the street or the water. Then you can let down a string, and send messages, or haul up delicacies of food. That is not supposed to be allowed, but in the case of nobility the rules are winked at.”

“You make it sound as if I will be here a long time.”

“No.” He sighed. “Probably not long.”

The import of that remark made my hair prickle. “I keep telling you, old fool. I am innocent!”

And that made him reply, just as loudly and indignantly, “Why tell me, unhappy mamzar? Tell it to the Signori della Notte! I am innocent, too, but here I sit and here I will rot!”

“Wait! I have an idea,” I said. “We are both here because of the Lady Ilaria’s wiles and lies. If together we tell that to the Signori, they ought to wonder about her veracity.”

Mordecai shook his head doubtfully. “Whom would they believe? She is the widow of an almost Doge. You are an accused murderer and I am a convicted usurer.”

“You may be right,” I said, dispirited. “It is unfortunate that you are a Jew.”

He fixed me with a not at all dim eye and said, “People are forever telling me that. Why do you?”

“Oh … only that the testimony of a Jew is naturally suspect.”

“So I have frequently noticed. I wonder why.”

“Well … you did kill our Lord Jesus … .”

He snorted and said, “I, indeed!” As if disgusted with me, he turned his back and stretched out on his shelf and drew his voluminous robe about him. He muttered to the wall, “I only spoke to the man … only two words …” and then apparently went to sleep.

When a long and dismal time had passed, and the door hole had darkened, the door was noisily unlocked and two guards crawled in dragging a large vat. Old Cartafilo stopped snoring and sat up eagerly. The guards gave him and me each a wooden shingle, onto which they spooned from the vat a lukewarm, glutinous glob. Then they left for us a feeble lamp, a bowl of fish oil in which a scrap of rag burned with much smoke and little light, and they went away and slammed the door. I looked dubiously at the food.

“Polenta gruel,” Mordecai told me, avidly scooping his up with two fingers. “A holòsh, but you had better eat it. Only meal of the day. You will get nothing else.”

“I am not hungry,” I said. “You may have mine.”

He almost snatched it, and ate both portions with much lip smacking. When he had done, he sat and sucked his teeth as if unwilling to miss a particle, and peered at me from under his fungus eyebrows, and finally said:

“What would you ordinarily be eating for supper?”

“Oh … perhaps a platter of tagiadèle with persuto … and a zabagiòn to drink …”

“Bongusto,” he said sardonically. “I cannot pretend to tempt such a refined taste, but perhaps you would like some of these.” He rummaged inside his robe. “The tolerant Venetian laws allow me some religious observance, even in prison.” I could not see how that accounted for the square white crackers he brought out and handed to me. But I ate them gratefully, though they were almost tasteless, and I thanked him.

By the next day’s suppertime, I was hungry enough not to be fastidious. I would probably have eaten the prison gruel just because it meant a break in the monotony of doing nothing but sitting, and sleeping on the coverless hard bench, and walking the two or three steps the cell permitted, and occasionally making conversation with Cartafilo. But that is how the days went on, each of them marked off only by the lightening and darkening of the door hole, and the old zudìo’s praying three times a day, and the evening arrival of the horrid food.

Perhaps it was not such a dreadful experience for Mordecai, since, to the best of my knowledge, he had spent all of his prior days huddled in his cell-like money shop on the Mercerìa, and this could not be a much different confinement. But I had been free and untrammeled and convivial; being immured in the Vulcano was like being buried alive. I realized that I ought to be grateful for having some company in my untimely grave, even if it was only a Jew, and even if his conversation was not always buoyant. One day I mentioned to him that I had seen several sorts of punishment administered at the pillars of Marco and Todaro, but never an execution.

He said, “That is because most of them are done here inside the walls, so that not even the other prisoners are aware of them until they are over. The condemned man is put into one of the cells of the Giardini Foschi, so called, and those cells have barred windows. The Meatmaker waits outside the cell, and waits patiently, until the man inside, moving about, moves before that window and with his back to it. Then the Meatmaker whips a garrotta through the bars and around the man’s throat, so that either his neck snaps or he strangles to death. The Dark Gardens are on the canal side of this building, and there is a removable stone slab in the corridor there. In the night, the victim’s body is slid through that secret hole and into a waiting boat, and it is conveyed to the Sepoltùra Pùblica. Not until it is all finished is the execution announced. Far less fuss that way. Venice does not care to have it widely known that the old Roman lege de tagiòn is still so often exercised here. So the public executions are few. They are inflicted only on those convicted of really heinous crimes.”

“Crimes like what?” I asked.

“In my time, one man has died so for having raped a nun, and another for having told a foreigner some of the secrets of the Murano art of glassworking. I daresay the murder of a Doge-elect will rank with those, if that is what you are wondering.”

I swallowed. “What is—how is it done—in public?”

“The culprit kneels between the pillars and is beheaded by the Meatmaker. But before that, the Meatmaker has cut off whatever part of him was guilty of the crime. The nun raper, of course, had his gid amputated. The glassworker had his tongue cut out. And the condemned man marches to the pillars with the guilty piece of him suspended from a string around his neck. In your case, I suppose it will be only your hand.”

“And only my head,” I said thickly.

“Try not to laugh,” said Mordecai.

“Laugh?!” I cried in anguish—and then I did laugh, his Words were so preposterous. “You are jesting again, old man.”

He shrugged. “One does what one can.”

One day, the monotony of my confinement was interrupted. The door was unlocked to let a stranger come stooping in. He was a fairly young man who wore not a uniform but the gown of the Brotherhood of Justice, and he introduced himself to me as Fratello Ugo.

“Already,” he said briskly, “you owe a considerable casermagio of room and board in this State Prison. If you are poor, you are entitled to the assistance of the Brotherhood. It will pay your casermagio for as long as you are incarcerated. I am a licensed advocate, and I will represent you to the best of my ability. I will also carry messages to and from the outside, and procure some few small comforts—salt for your meals, oil for your lamp, things like that. I can also arrange for you”—he glanced over at old Cartafilo and sniffed slightly—“a private cell.”

I said, “I doubt that I would be any less unhappy elsewhere, Fra Ugo. I will stay in this one.”

“As you wish,” he said. “Now, I have been in communication with the house of Polo, of which it seems you are the titular head, albeit still a minor. If you prefer, you can well afford to pay the prison casermagio, and also to hire an advocate of your own choice. You have only to write out the necessary pagherì and authorize the company to pay them.”

I said uncertainly, “That would be a public humiliation to the company. And I do not know if I have any right to squander the company’s funds … .”

“On a lost cause,” he finished for me, nodding in agreement. “I quite understand.”

Alarmed, I started to remonstrate, “I did not mean—that is, I would hope … .”

“The alternative is to accept the help of the Brotherhood of Justice. For its reimbursement, the Brotherhood is then allowed to send upon the streets two beggars, asking alms of the citizens for pity of the wretched Marco P—”

“Amoredèi!” I exclaimed. “That would be infinitely more humiliating!”

“You do not have to decide your choice this instant. Let us discuss your case instead. How do you intend to plead?”

“Plead?” I said, indignant. “I shall not plead, I shall protest! I am innocent!”

Brother Ugo looked over at the Jew again, and distastefully, as if he suspected that I had already been receiving counsel. Mordecai only pulled a face of skeptical amusement.

I went on, “For my first witness I shall call the Dona Ilaria. When she is compelled to tell of our—”

“She will not be called,” the Brother interrupted. “The Signori della Notte would not allow it. That lady has been recently bereaved and is still prostrate with grief.”

I scoffed, “Are you trying to tell me that she grieves for her husband?”

“Well …,” he said, with deliberation. “If not that, you can be sure that she exhibits some extreme emotion because she is not now the Dogaressa of Venice.”

Old Cartafilo made a noise like a smothered snicker. Maybe I made a noise, too—of dismay—for that aspect of the situation had not before occurred to me. Ilaria must be seething with disappointment and frustration and anger. When she sought her husband’s removal, she had not dreamed of the honor he was about to be accorded, and she with him. So now she would be inclined to forget her own involvement; she would be consumed with a desire to exact revenge for her forfeited title. It would not matter on whom she vented her rage, and who was an easier target than myself?

“If you are innocent, young Messer Marco,” said Ugo, “who did murder the man?”

I said, “I think it was a priest.”

Brother Ugo gave me a long look, then rapped on the cell door for a guard to let him out. As the door creaked open at his knee level, he said to me, “I suggest that you do choose to hire some other advocate. If you intend to accuse a reverend father, and your prime witness is a woman bent on vendèta, you will need the best legal talent there is in the Republic. Ciao.”

When he had gone, I said to Mordecai, “Everyone takes it for granted that I am doomed, whether I am guilty or not. Surely there must be some law to safeguard the innocent against unjust conviction.”

“Oh, almost surely. But there is an old saying: the laws of Venice are supremely fair and they are sedulously obeyed … for a week. Do not let your hopes get too high.”

“I would have more hope if I had more help,” I said. “And you could help us both. Let the Brother Ugo have those letters you hold, and let him show them in evidence. They would at least cast a shadow of suspicion on the lady and her lover.”

He gazed at me with his blackberry eyes and scratched reflectively in his fungus beard, and said, “You think that would be the Christian thing to do?”

“Why … yes. To save my life, to set you free. I see nothing un-Christian about it.”

“Then I am sorry that I adhere to a different morality, for I cannot do it. I did not do that to save myself from the frusta, and I will not do it for both of us.”

I stared, unbelieving. “Why in the world not?”

“My trade is founded on trust. I am the only moneylender who takes such documents in pawn. I can do that only if I trust my clients to repay their loans and the accrued interest. The clients pledge such papers only because they can trust me to keep their contents inviolable. Do you think women would otherwise hand over love letters?”

“But I told you, old man, no human being trusts a Jew. Look how the Lady Ilaria repaid you with treachery. Is that not proof enough that she thought you untrustworthy?”

“It is proof of something, yes,” he said wryly. “But if even once I should fail my trust, even on the most dire provocation, I must abandon my chosen trade. Not because others would think me contemptible, but because I would.”

“What trade, you old fool? You may be in here the rest of your life! You said so yourself. You cannot conduct any—”

“I can conduct myself according to my conscience. It may be small comfort, but it is my only comfort. To sit here and scratch my flea and bedbug bites, and see my once prosperously fat flesh shrinking gaunt, and feel myself superior to the Christian morality that put me here.”

I snarled, “You could preen yourself just as well outside—”

“Zito! Enough! The instruction of fools is folly. We will not speak of it further. Look here on the floor, my boy, here are two large spiders. Let us race them against each other and wager incalculable fortunes on the outcome. You may choose which spider will be yours … .”

11

MORE time passed, in dismalness, and then Brother Ugo came again, stooping in through the low door. I waited glumly for him to say something as disheartening as he had the other time, but what he said was astounding:

“Your father and his brother have returned to Venice!”

“What?” I gasped, unable to comprehend. “You mean their bodies have been returned? For burial in their native land?”

“I mean they are here! Alive and well!”

“Alive? After almost ten years of silence?”

“Yes! All their acquaintances are as amazed as you are. The entire community of merchants is talking of nothing else. It is said that they bear an embassy from Far Tartary to the Pope at Rome. But by good fortune—your fortune, young Messer Marco—they came home to Venice before going to Rome.”

“Why my good fortune?” I said shakily.

“Could they have come at a more opportune time? They are even now petitioning the Quarantia for permission to visit you, which is not normally allowed to anyone but a prisoner’s advocate. It may just be that your father and uncle can influence some lenity in your case. If nothing else, their presence at your trial ought to give you some moral support. And some stiffness to your spine when you walk to the pillars.”

On that equivocal note, he departed again. Mordecai and I sat talking with animated speculation far into the night, even after the coprifuoco had rung and a guard growled through the door hole for us to extinguish the dim light of our rag lamp.

Another four or five days had to pass, fretful ones for me, but then the door creaked open and a man came in, a man so burly he had to struggle through it. Inside the cell he stood up, and he seemed to keep on standing up, so tall was he. I had no least recollection of being related to a man so immense. He was as hairy as he was big, with tousled black locks and a bristling blue-black beard. He looked down at me from his intimidating great height, and his voice was disdainful when he boomed loudly:

“Well! If this is not pure merda with a piecrust on it!”

I said meekly, “Benvegnùo, caro pare.”

“I am not your dear father, young toad! I am your uncle Mafìo.”

“Benvegnùo, caro zio. Is not my father coming?”

“No. We could get permission for only one visitor. And he should rightly be secluded in mourning for your mother.”

“Oh. Yes.”

“In truth, however, he is busy courting his next wife.”

That rocked me on my heels. “What? How could he do such a thing?”

“Who are you to sound disapproving, you disreputable scagaròn? The poor man comes back from abroad to find his wife long buried, her maid-servant disappeared, a valuable slave lost, his friend the Doge dead—and his son, the hope of the family, in prison charged with the foulest murder in Venetian history!” So loudly that everybody in the Vulcano must have heard, he bellowed, “Tell me the truth! Did you do the deed?”

“No, my lord uncle,” I said, quailing. “But what has all that to do with a new wife?”

My uncle said more quietly, with a snort of deprecation, “Your father is an uxorious man. For some reason, he likes being married.”

“He chose an odd way to demonstrate it to my mother,” I said. “Going away and staying as he did.”

“And he will be going away again,” said Uncle Mafìo. “That is why he must have someone with good sense to leave in charge of the family interests. He has not time to wait for another son. Another wife will have to do.”

“Why another anything?” I said hotly. “He has a son!”

My uncle did not reply to that with words. He merely looked me up and down, with scathing eyes, and then let his gaze roam around the constricted, dim, fetid cell.

Again abashed, I said, “I had hoped he could get me out of here.”

“No, you must get yourself out,” said my uncle, and my heart sank. But he continued to look about the room and said, as if thinking aloud, “Of all the kinds of disaster that can befall a city, Venice has always most feared the risk of a great fire. It would be especially fearsome if it threatened the Doge’s Palace and the civic treasures contained in it, or the Basilica of San Marco and its even more irreplaceable treasures. Since that palace is next door to this prison on one side, and that church adjoining on the other side, the guards here in the Vulcano used to take particular precautions—I imagine they do still—that any smallest lamp flame in these cells is carefully monitored.”

“Why, yes, they—”

“Shut up. They do that because if in the nighttime such a lamp were to set fire to, say, these wooden bed planks, there would be urgent outcry and much running about with pails of water. A prisoner would have to be let out of his burning cell so the fire could be extinguished. And then, if, in the smoke and turmoil, that prisoner could get as far as the corridor of the Giardini Foschi on the canal side of the prison, he might think to slide away the moveable stone panel in the wall there, which leads to the outside. And if he contrived to do that, say, tomorow night, he would probably find a batèlo idling about on the water immediately below.”

Mafìo finally brought his eyes around to me again. I was too busy contemplating the possibilities to say anything, but old Mordecai spoke up unbidden:

“That has been done before. And because of that, there is now a law that any prisoner attempting such an arson—no matter how trivial his original offense—will be himself condemned to burn. And from that sentence there is no appeal.”

Uncle Mafìo said sardonically, “Thank you, Matùsalem.” To me he said, “Well, you have just heard one more good reason to make not a try but a success of it.” He kicked at the door to summon the guard. “Until tomorrow night, nephew.”

I lay awake most of that night. It was not that the escape required much planning; I simply lay awake to enjoy the prospect of being free again. And old Cartafilo roused up suddenly out of an apparently sound sleep to say:

“I hope your family know what they are doing. Another law is that a prisoner’s closest relation is responsible for his behavior. A father for a son—khas vesholem—a husband for a female prisoner, a master for a slave. If a prisoner does escape by arson, that one responsible for him will be burned instead.”

“My uncle does not appear to be a man much concerned about laws,” I said, rather proudly, “or even much afraid of burning. But Mordecai, I cannot do it without your participation. We must make the break together. What say you?”

He was silent for a while, then he mumbled, “I daresay burning is preferable to a slow death from the pettechie, the prison disease. And I long ago outlived every last one of my relations.”

So the next night came, and when the coprifuoco tolled and the guards commanded us to put out our lamp, we only shaded its light with the pissòta pail. When the guards had gone on by, I spilled most of the fish oil from the lamp onto my bed planks. Mordecai contributed his outer robe—it was quite green with mold and mildew and would make the blaze smokier—and we bundled that under my bed and lighted it from the lamp’s rag wick. In just moments the cell was clouded black and the wood had begun to flicker with flames. Mordecai and I fanned our arms to help the smoke out through the door hole, and clamored loudly, “Fuoco! Al fuoco!” and heard running feet in the corridor.

Then, as my uncle had predicted, there was commotion and confusion, and Mordecai and I were ordered out of the cell so the men with water buckets could crawl in. Smoke billowed out with us, and the guards shoved us out of their way. There was quite a number of them in the passage, but they paid us little heed. So, aided by the concealing smoke and darkness, we sneaked farther down the corridor and around a bend in it. “Now this way!” said Mordecai, and he set off at a speed remarkable for a man of his age. He had been in the prison long enough to have learned its passages, and he led me this way and that, until we glimpsed light at the end of one long hall. He stopped there at a corner, peered around it and waved me on. We turned into a shorter corridor furnished with two or three wall lamps, but otherwise empty.

Mordecai knelt, motioned for me to help, and I saw that one large square stone in the bottom of the wall had iron grips bolted to it. Mordecai seized one, I the other, and we heaved and the stone came away, revealing itself to be shallower than the others around it. Wonderfully fresh air, damp and smelling of salt, swept in through the opening. I stood up straight to take a gratefully deep inhalation, and in the next instant I was knocked down. A guard had sprung from somewhere and was shouting for help.

There was a moment of even more confusion than before. The guard threw himself upon me and we thrashed about on the stone floor, while Mordecai crouched by the hole and regarded us with open mouth and wide eyes. I found myself briefly on top of the guard, and took advantage of it. I knelt so that he had my full weight on his chest and my knees pinned his arms to the floor. I clamped both hands over his loudly flapping mouth, turned to Mordecai and gasped, “I cannot hold—for long.”

“Here, lad,” he said. “Let me do that.”

“No. One can escape. You go.” I heard more running feet somewhere in the corridors. “Hurry!”

Mordecai stuck his feet out through the hole, then turned to ask, “Why me?”

Between grapplings and thrashings, I got out a few last words in spurts, “You gave—my choice—of spiders. Get out!”

Mordecai gave me a wondering look, and he said slowly, “The reward of a mitzva is another mitzva,” and he slid out through the opening and vanished. I heard a distant splash out there beyond the dark hole, and then I was overwhelmed.

I was roughly manhandled along the passages and literally thrown into a new cell. I mean another very ancient cell, of course, but a different one. It had only a bed shelf for furniture, and no door hole and not so much as a candle stub for light. I sat there in the darkness, my bruises aching, and reviewed my situation. In attempting the escape, I had forfeited all hope of ever proving my innocence of the earlier charge. In failing to escape, I had doomed myself to burn. I had just one reason to be thankful: I now had a private cell. I had no cellmate to watch me weep.

Since the guards, for a considerable while thereafter, spitefully refrained from feeding me even the awful prison gruel, and the darkness and monotony were unrelieved, I have no idea how long I was alone in the cell before a visitor was admitted. It was the Brother of Justice again.

I said, “I assume that my uncle’s permission to visit has been revoked.”

“I doubt that he would willingly come,” said Brother Ugo. “I understand he became quite irate and profane when he saw that the nephew he hauled from the water had turned into an elderly Jew.”

“And, since there is no further need for your advocacy,” I said resignedly, “I assume you have come only in the guise of prisoner’s comforter.”

“At any rate, I bring news you should find comforting. The Council this morning elected a new Doge.”

“Ah, yes. They were postponing the election until they had the sassìn of Doge Zeno. And they have me. Why should you think I find that comforting?”

“Perhaps you forget that your father and uncle are members of that Council. And since their miraculous return from their long absence, they are quite the most popular members of the community of merchants. Therefore, in the election, they could exert noticeable influence on the votes of all the merchant nobles. A man named Lorenzo Tiepolo was eager to become Doge, and in return for the merchants’ bloc of votes, he was prepared to make certain commitments to your father and uncle.”

“Such as what?” I asked, not daring to hope.

“It is traditional that a new Doge, on his accession, proclaims some amnesties. The Serenità Tiepolo is going to forgive your felonious commission of arson, which permitted the escape of one Mordecai Cartafilo from this prison.”

“So I do not burn as an arsonist,” I said. “I merely lose my hand and my head as a murderer.”

“No, you do not. You are right that the sassìn has been captured, but you are wrong about its being you. Another man has confessed to the sassinàda.”

Fortunately the cell was small or I should have fallen down. But I only reeled and slumped against the wall.

The Brother went on, at an infuriatingly slow pace. “I told you I brought news of comfort. You have more advocates than you know, and they have all been busy in your behalf. That zudìo you freed, he did not just keep on running, or take ship to some distant land. He did not even hide in the warrens of the Jews’ burghèto. Instead, he went to visit a priest—not a rabìno, a real Christian priest—one of the under-priests of the San Marco Basilica itself.”

I said, “I tried to tell you about that priest.”

“Well, it seems the priest had been the Lady Ilaria’s secret lover, but she turned bitter toward him when she so nearly became our Dogaressa and then did not. When she put away the priest from her affections, he became remorseful of having done such a vile deed as murder, and to no profitable end. Of course, he might still have kept silent, and kept the matter between himself and God. But then Mordecai Cartafilo called on him. It seems the Jew spoke of some papers he holds in pawn. He did not even show them, he had only to mention them, and that was enough to turn the priest’s secret remorse into open repentance. He went to his superiors and made full confession, waiving the privilege of the confessional. So he is now under house arrest in his canònica chambers. The Dona Ilaria is also confined to her house, as an accomplice in the crime.”

“What happens next?”

“All must await the new Doge’s taking office. Lorenzo Tiepolo will not wish the very start of his Dogato made notorious, for this case now involves rather more prominent persons than just a boy playing bravo. The lady widow of the murdered Doge-elect, a priest of San Marco … well, the Doge Tiepolo will do everything possible to minify the scandal. He will probably allow the priest to be tried in camera by an ecclesiastical court, instead of the Quarantia. My guess is that the priest will be exiled to some remote parish in the Vèneto mainland. And the Doge will probably command the Lady Ilaria to take the veil in some remote nunnery. There is precedent for such procedure. A hundred or so years ago, in France, there was a similar situation involving a priest and a lady.”

“And what happens to me?”

“As soon as the Doge dons the white scufieta, he proclaims his amnesties, and yours will be among them. You will be pardoned of the arson, and you have already been acquitted of the sassinàda. You will be released from prison.”

“Free!” I breathed.

“Well, perhaps a trifle more free than you might wish.”

“What?”

“I said the Doge will arrange that this whole sordid affair be soon forgotten. If he simply turned you loose in Venice, you would be an ever present reminder of it. Your amnesty is conditional upon your banishment. You are outcast. You are to leave Venice forever.”

During the subsequent days that I remained in the cell, I reflected on all that had come to pass. It was hurtful to think of leaving Venice, la serenìsima, la clarìsima. But that was better than dying in the piazzetta or staying in the Vulcano, which provided neither serenity nor brightness. I could even feel sorry for the priest who had struck the bravo’s blow in my stead. As a young curate in the Basilica, he had doubtless looked forward to high advancement in the Church, which he could never hope for in backwoods exile. And Ilaria would endure an even more pitiable exile, her beauty and talents to be forever useless to her now. But maybe not; she had managed to lavish them rather prodigally when she was a married woman; she might also manage to enjoy them as a bride of Christ. She would at least have ample opportunity to sing the hymn of the nuns, as she had called it. All in all, compared to our victim’s irrevocable fate, we three had got off lightly.

I was released from the prison even less ceremoniously than I had been bundled into it. The guards unlocked my cell door, led me along the corridors and down stairs and through other doors, unlócking the final one to let me out into the courtyard. There I had only to walk through the Gate of the Wheat onto the sunlit lagoonside Riva, and I was as free as the countless wheeling sea gulls. It was a good feeling, but I would have felt even better if I had been able to clean myself and don fresh raiment before emerging. I had been unwashed and clad in the same clothes all this time, and I stank of fish oil, smoke and pissòta effluvium. My garments were torn, from my struggle on the night of the aborted escape, and what was left of them was dirty and rumpled. Also, in those days I was just sprouting my first down of beard; it may not have been very visible, but it added to my feeling of scruffiness. I could have wished for better circumstances in which to meet my father for the first time in my memory. He and my uncle Mafìo were waiting on the Riva, both dressed in the elegant robes they had probably worn, as members of the Council, at the new Doge’s accession.

“Behold your son!” bellowed my uncle. “Your arcistupendonazzìsimo son! Behold the namesake of our brother and our patron saint! Is this not a wretched and puny meschìn, to have caused so much ado?”

“Father?” I said timorously to the other man.

“My boy?” he said, almost as hesitantly, but opening his arms.

I had expected someone even more overwhelming than my uncle, since my father was the elder of the two. But he was actually pale alongside his brother; not nearly so big and burly, and much softer of voice. Like my uncle, he wore a journeyer’s beard, but his was neatly trimmed. His beard and hair were not of a fearsome raven black, but a decorous mouse color, like my own hair.

“My son. My poor orphan boy,” said my father. He embraced me, but quickly put me away at arm’s length, and said worriedly, “Do you always smell like that?”

“No, Father. I have been locked up for—”

“You forget, Nico, that this is a bravo and a bonvivàn and a gambler between the pillars,” boomed my uncle. “A champion of ill-married matrons, a lurker in the night, a wielder of the sword, a liberator of Jews!”

“Ah, well,” said my father indulgently. “A chick must stretch his wings farther than the nest. Come, let us go home.”

12

THE house servants were all moving with more alacrity and more cheerful demeanor than they had shown since my mother died. They even seemed glad to see me home again. The maid hastened to heat water when I asked, and Maistro Attilio, at my polite request, lent me his razor. I bathed several times over, inexpertly scraped the fuzz off my face, dressed in clean tunic and hose, and joined my father and uncle in the main room, where the tile stove was.

“Now,” I said, “I want to hear about your travels. All about everywhere you have been.”

“Dear God, not again,” Uncle Mafìo groaned. “We have been let talk of nothing else.”

“Time enough for that later, Marco,” said my father. “All things in their time. Let us speak now of your own adventures.”

“They are over now,” I said hastily. “I would rather hear of new things.”

But they would not relent. So I told them, fully and frankly, everything that had happened since my first glimpse of Ilaria in San Marco’s—only omitting the amatory afternoon she and I had spent together. Thus I made it seem that mere mooncalf chivalry had impelled me to make my calamitous try at bravura.

When I was done, my father sighed. “Any woman could give pointers to the devil. Ah, well, you did what seemed best to you. And he who does all he can, does much. But the consequences have been tragic indeed. I had to agree to the Doge’s stipulation that you leave Venice, my son. He could, however, have been much harder on you.”

“I know,” I said contritely. “Where shall I go, Father? Should I go seeking a Land of Cockaigne?”

“Mafìo and I have business in Rome. You will go with us.”

“Do I spend the rest of my life in Rome, then? The sentence was banishment forever.”

My uncle said what old Mordecai had said, “The laws of Venice are obeyed … for a week. A Doge’s forever is a Doge’s lifetime. When Tiepolo dies, his successor will hardly prevent your returning. Still, that could be a good while from now.”

My father said, “Your uncle and I are bearing to Rome a letter from the Khakhan of Kithai—”

I had never heard either of those harsh-sounding words before, and I interrupted to say so.

“The Khan of All Khans of the Mongols,” my father explained. “You may have heard him titled the Great Khan of what is here miscalled Cathay.”

I stared at him. “You met the Mongols? And you survived?”

“Met and made friends among them. The most powerful friend possible—the Khan Kubilai, who rules the world’s widest empire. He asked us to carry a request to Pope Clement … .”

He went on explaining, but I was not hearing. I was still staring at him in awe and admiration, and thinking—this was my father, whom I had believed long dead, and this very ordinary-looking man claimed to be a confidant of barbarian Khans and holy Popes!

He concluded, “ … And then, if the Pope lends us the hundred priests requested by Kubilai, we will lead them east. We will go again to Kithai.”

“When do we depart for Rome?” I asked.

My father said bashfully, “Well …”

“After your father marries your new mother,” said my uncle. “And that must wait for the proclamation of the bandi.”

“Oh, I think not, Mafìo,” said my father. “Since Fiordelisa and I are hardly youngsters, both of us widowed, Pare Nunziata will probably dispense with all three cryings of the bandi.”

“Who is Fiordelisa?” I asked. “And is this not rather abrupt, Father?”

“You know her,” he said. “Fiordelisa Trevan, mistress of the house three doors down the canal.”

“Yes. She is a nice woman. She was Mother’s best friend among all our neighbors.”

“If you are implying what I think you are, Marco, I remind you that your mother is in her grave, where there is no jealousy or envy or recrimination.”

“Yes,” I said. And I added impertinently, “But you are not wearing the luto vedovile.”

“Your mother has been eight years in her grave. I should wear black now, and for another twelvemonth? I am not young enough to sequester myself in mourning for a year. Neither is the Dona Lisa any bambina.”

“Have you proposed to her yet, Father?”

“Yes, and she has accepted. We go tomorrow for our pastoral interview with Pare Nunziata.”

“Is she aware that you are going away immediately after you marry her?”

My uncle burst out, “What is this inquisition, you saputèlo?”

My father said patiently, “I am marrying her, Marco, because I am going away. Needs must when the devil drives. I came home expecting to find your mother still alive and still head of the house of Polo. She is not. And now—through your own fault—I cannot leave you entrusted with the business. Old Doro is a good man, and needs no one peering over his shoulder. Nevertheless, I prefer to have someone of the name of Polo standing as the figurehead of the company, if nothing more. Dona Fiordelisa will serve in that capacity, and willingly. Also, she has no children to compete for your inheritance, if that is what concerns you.”

“It does not,” I said. And again I spoke impertinently, “I am only concerned for the seeming disrespect to my own mother—and to the Dona Trevan as well—in your haste to marry solely for mercenary reasons. She must know that all Venice will be whispering and snickering.”

My father said mildly, but with finality, “I am a merchant and she is the widow of a merchant and Venice is a merchant city, where all know that there is no better reason for doing anything than a mercenary reason. To a Venetian, money is the second blood, and you are a Venetian. Now, I have heard your objections, Marco, and I have dismissed them. I wish to hear no more. Remember, a closed mouth says nothing wrong.”

So I kept my mouth closed and said nothing more on the subject, wrong or otherwise, and on the day my father married the Dona Lisa I stood in the confino church of San Felice with my uncle and all the free servants of both households and numerous neighbors and merchant nobles and their families, while the ancient Pare Nunziata tremblingly conducted the nuptial mass. But when the ceremony was over and the Pare pronounced them Messere e Madona and it was time for my father to lead his bride to her new dwelling, together with all the reception guests, I slipped away from the happy procession.

Although I was dressed in my best, I let my feet take me to the neighborhood of the boat people. I had only infrequently and briefly visited the children since my release from prison. Now that I was an ex-convict, the boys all seemed to regard me as a grown man, or maybe even a person of celebrity; anyway, there had come a sort of distance between us that had not existed before. However, on that day I found no one at the barge except Doris. She was kneeling on the planking inside its hull, wearing only a skimpy shift, and lifting wet wads of cloth from one pail to another.

“Boldo and the others begged a ride on a garbage scow going out to Torcello,” she told me. “They will be gone all day, so I am taking the opportunity to wash everything not being worn by somebody.”

“May I keep you company?” I asked. “And sleep here again in the barge tonight?”

“Your clothes will also need laundering, if you do,” she said, eyeing them critically.

“I have had worse accommodations,” I said. “And I own other clothes.”

“What are you running away from this time, Marco?”

“This is my father’s wedding day. He is bringing home a marègna for me, and I do not particularly want one. I have already had a real mother.”

“I must have had one, too, but I would not mind having a marègna.” She added, sighing like an exasperated grown woman, “Sometimes I feel I am one, to all this crowd of orphans.”

“This Dona Fiordelisa is a nice enough woman,” I said, sitting down with my back against the hull. “But I somehow do not wish to be under the same roof on my father’s wedding night.”

Doris looked at me with evident surmise, dropped what she was doing, and came to sit beside me.

“Very well,” she whispered into my ear. “Stay here. And pretend that it is your own wedding night.”

“Oh, Doris, are you starting that again?”

“I do not know why you should refuse. I am accustomed now to keeping myself clean, as you told me a lady ought to do. I keep myself clean all over. Look.”

Before I could protest, she stripped off her one garment in one lithe movement. She was certainly clean, even to being totally hairless of body. The Lady Ilaria had not been quite so smooth and glossy all over. Of course, Doris was also lacking in feminine curves and rotundities. Her breasts were only just beginning to be distinct from her chest, and their nipples were only a faintly darker pink than her skin, and her flanks and buttocks were but lightly padded with womanly flesh.

“You are still a zuzzurullona,” I said, trying to sound bored and uninterested. “You have a long way to go to become a woman.”

That was true, but her very youth and smallness and immaturity had their own sort of appeal. Though all boys are lecherous, they usually lust for real women. Any girl of their own age, they tend to regard as only another playmate, a tomboy among the boys, a zuzzurullona. However, I was somewhat more advanced in that respect than most boys; I had already had the experience of a real woman. It had given me a taste for musical duets—and I had for some time been without that music—and here was a pretty novice pleading to be introduced to it.

“It would be dishonorable of me,” I said, “even to pretend a wedding night.” I was arguing with myself more than with her. “I have told you that I am going far away to Rome in a few days.”

“So is your father. But it has not prevented his getting really married.”

“True, and we quarreled about that. I did not think it right. But his new wife seems perfectly content.”

“And so would I be. For now, let us pretend, Marco, and afterward I will wait, and you will come back. You said so—when there is another change of Doge.”

“You look ridiculous, little Doris. Sitting here naked and talking of Doges and such.” But she did not look ridiculous; she looked like one of the pert nymphs of old legend. I truly tried to argue. “Your brother always talks of what a good girl his sister—”

“Boldo will not be back until tonight, and he will know nothing of what happens between now and then.”

“He would be furious,” I went on, as if she had not interrupted. “We should have to fight again, the way we fought after he threw that fish so long ago.”

Doris pouted. “You do not appreciate my generosity. It is a pleasure I offer you at the cost of pain to myself.”

“Pain? How so?”

“The first time is always painful for a virgin. And unsatisfying. Every girl knows that. Every woman tells us so.”

I said reflectively, “I do not know why it should be painful. Not if it is done the way my—” I decided it would be maladroit of me to mention my Lady Ilaria at this moment. “I mean, the way I have learned to do it.”

“If that is true,” said Doris, “you could earn the adoration of many virgins in your lifetime. Do show me this way you have learned.”

“One begins by doing—certain preliminary things. Like this.” I touched one of her diminutive nipples.

“The zizza? That only tickles.”

“I believe the tickling changes to another sensation very soon.”

Very soon she said, “Yes. You are right.”

“The zizza likes it, too. See, it lifts to ask for more.”

“Yes. Yes, it does.” She slowly lay back, supine on the deck, and I followed her down.

I said, “A zizza likes even more to be kissed.”

“Yes.” Like a lazing cat, she stretched her whole little body, voluptuously.

“Then there is this,” I said.

“That tickles, too.”

“It also gets better than tickling.”

“Yes. Truly it does. I feel …”

“Not pained, surely.”

She shook her head, her eyes now closed.

“These things do not even require the presence of a man. It is called the hymn of the convent, because girls can do this for themselves.” I was being scrupulously fair, giving her the opportunity to send me away.

But she said only, and breathlessly, “I had no idea … I do not even know what I look like down there.”

“You could easily see your mona with a looking glass.”

She said faintly, “I do not know anyone who owns a looking glass.”

“Then look at—no, she is all hairy down there. Yours is still bare and visible and soft. And pretty. It looks like …” I reached for a poetic comparison. “You know that kind of pasta shaped like a folded little shell? The kind called ladylips?”

“You make it feel like lips being kissed,” she said, as if talking in her sleep. Her eyes were closed again and her small body was moving in a slow squirm.

“Kissed, yes,” I said.

From the slow squirm, her body seemed to clench briefly, then to relax, and she made a whimpering noise of delight. As I continued to play musically upon her, she made that slight convulsion again and again, each time lasting longer, as if she was learning through practice to prolong the enjoyment. Not ceasing my attentions to her, but using only my mouth, I had my hands free to strip off my own clothes. When I was naked against her, she appeared to enjoy her gentle spasms all the more, and her hands fluttered eagerly over my body. So I went on for quite a while, making the music of the convent, as Ilaria had taught me. When finally Doris was shiny with perspiration, I stopped and let her rest.

Her breathing slowed from its rapid pace, and she opened her eyes, looking dazed. Then she frowned, because she felt me hard against her, and she shamelessly moved a hand to take hold of me, and she said with surprise, “You did all that … or you made me do all that … and you never …”

“No, not yet.”

“I did not know.” She laughed in great good humor. “I could not have known. I was far away. In the clouds somewhere.” Still holding me in one hand, she felt herself with the other. “All that … and I am still a virgin. It is miraculous. Do you suppose, Marco, that is how Our Blessed Virgin Lady—?”

“We are already sinning, Doris,” I said quickly. “Let us not add blasphemy.”

“No. Let us sin some more.”

And we did, and I soon had Doris cooing and quivering again—in the clouds somewhere, as she had said—enjoying the hymn of the nuns. And finally I did what no nun can do, and that happened not roughly or forcibly, but easily and naturally. Doris, sleek with perspiration, moved without friction in my arms, and that part of her was even more moist. So she felt no violation, but only a more intense sensation among the many new ones she had been experiencing. She opened her eyes when that happened, and her eyes were brimming with pleasure, and the whimper she gave was merely in a different musical register from the previous ones.

It was a new sensation for me, too. Inside Doris, I was held as tightly as in a tender fist, far more tightly than I had been in either of the other two females with whom I had lain. Even in that moment of high excitement, I realized that I was disproving my onetime ignorant assertion that all women are alike in their private parts.

For the next while, both Doris and I made many different noises. And the final sound, when we stopped moving to rest, was her sigh of commingled wonder and satisfaction: “Oh, my!”

“I think it was not painful,” I said, and smiled at her.

She shook her head vehemently, and returned the smile. “I have dreamt of it many times. But I never dreamed it would be so … And I never heard any woman recall her first time as so … Thank you, Marco.”

“I thank you, Doris,” I said politely. “And now that you know how—”

“Hush. I do not wish to do anything like that with anyone but you.”

“I will soon be gone.”

“I know. But I know you will be back. And I will not do that again until you come back from Rome.”

However, I did not get to Rome. I have never been there yet. Doris and I went on disporting ourselves until nightfall, and we were dressed again and behaving most properly when Ubaldo and Daniele and Malgarita and the others returned from their day’s excursion. When we retired into the barge to sleep, I slept alone, on the same pallet of rags I had used once before. And we were all awakened in the morning by the bawling of a banditore, making unusually early rounds because he had unusual news to cry. Pope Clement IV had died in Viterbo. The Doge of Venice was proclaiming a period of mourning and of prayer for the Holy Father’s soul.

“Damnation!” bellowed my uncle, slapping the table and making the books on it jump. “Did we bring bad luck home with us, Nico?”

“First a Doge dies, and now the Pope,” my father said sadly. “Ah, well, all psalms end in glory.”

“And the word from Viterbo,” said the clerk Isidoro, in whose counting room we were gathered, “is that there may be a long deadlock in the Conclave. It seems there are many feet twitching with eagerness to step into the Fisherman’s shoes.”

“We cannot wait for the election, soon or late,” my uncle muttered, and he glowered at me. “We must get this galeotto out of Venice, or we may all go to prison.”

“We need not wait,” my father said, unperturbed. “Doro has most capably purchased and collected all the travel gear we will need. We only lack the hundred priests, and Kubilai will not care if they are not chosen by a Pope. Any high prelate can provide them.”

“To what prelate do we apply?” demanded Mafìo. “If we asked the Patriarch of Venice, he would tell us—and with reason—that to lend us one hundred priests would empty every church in the city.”

“And we would have to take them the extra distance,” my father mused. “Better we seek them closer to our destination.”

“Forgive my ignorance,” said my new marègna, Fiordelisa. “But why on earth are you recruiting priests—and so many priests—for a savage Mongol warlord? Surely he cannot be a Christian.”

My father said, “He is of no discernible religion, Lisa.”

“I would have thought not.”

“But he has that virtue peculiar to the ungodly: he is tolerant of what other people choose to believe. Indeed, he wishes his subjects to have an ample array of beliefs from which to choose. There are in his lands many preachers of many pagan religions, but of the Christian faith there are only the deluded and debased Nestorian priests. Kubilai desires that we provide adequate representation for the true Christian Church of Rome. Naturally, Mafìo and I are eager to comply—and not alone for the propagation of the Holy Faith. If we can accomplish this mission, we can ask the Khan’s permission to engage in missions more profitable.”

“Nico means to say,” my uncle said, “that we hope to arrange to trade between Venice and the Eastern lands—to start again the flow of commerce along the Silk Road.”

Lisa said wonderingly, “There is a road laid of silk?”

“Would that it were!” said my uncle, rolling his eyes. “It is more tortuous and terrible and punishing than any pathway to Heaven. Even to call it a road is an extravagance.”

Isidoro begged leave to explain to the lady: “The route from the Levantine shores across the interior of Asia has been called the Silk Road since ancient times, because the silk of Cathay was the most costly merchandise carried along it. In those days, silk was worth its weight in gold. And perhaps the road itself, being so precious, was better maintained and easier to travel. But in more recent times it fell into disuse—partly because the secret of silkmaking was stolen from Cathay, and today silk is cultivated even in Sicily. But also those Eastern lands became impossible to traverse, what with the depredations of Huns, Tartars, Mongols, marauding back and forth across Asia. So our Western traders abandoned the overland route in favor of the sea routes known to the Arab seafarers.”

“If you can get there by sea,” Lisa said to my father, “why suffer all the rigors and dangers of going by land?”

He said, “Those sea routes are forbidden to our ships. The once pacific Arabs, long content to live meekly in the peace of their Prophet, rose up to become the warrior Saracens, who now seek to impose that religion of Islam on the entire world. And they are as jealous of their sea lanes as they are of their current possession of the Holy Land.”

Mafìo said, “The Saracens are willing to trade with us Venetians, and with any other Christians from whom they can make a profit. But we would deprive them of that profit if we sent fleets of our own ships to trade in the East. So the Saracen corsairs are on constant patrol in the seas between, to make sure we do not.”

Lisa looked primly shocked, and said, “They are our enemies, but we trade with them?”

Isidoro shrugged. “Business is business.”

“Even the Popes,” said Uncle Mafìo, “have never been unwilling to deal with the heathen, when it has been profitable. And a Pope or any other pragmatist ought to be eager to institute trade with the even farther East. There are fortunes to be made. We know; we have seen the richness of those lands. Our former journey was mere exploration, but this time we will take along something to trade. The Silk Road is awful, but it is not impossible. We have now traversed those lands twice, going and coming. We can do it again.”

“Whoever is the new Pope,” said my father, “he should give his blessing to this venture. Rome was much affrighted when it looked as if the Mongols would overrun Europe. But the several Mongol Khans seem to have extended their Khanates as far westward as they intend to encroach. That means the Saracens are the chief threat to Christianity. So Rome ought to welcome this chance for an alliance with the Mongols against Islam. Our mission on behalf of the Khan of All Khans could be of supreme importance—to the aims of Mother Church as well as the prosperity of Venice.”

“And the house of Polo,” said Fiordelisa, who was now of our house.

“That above all,” said Mafìo. “So let us stop beating our beaks, Nico, and get on with it. Shall we go again by way of Constantinople and collect our priests there?”

My father thought it over and said, “No. The priests there are too comfortable—all gone soft as eunuchs. The gloved cat catches no mice. However, in the ranks of the Crusaders are many chaplain priests, and they will be hard men accustomed to hard living. Let us go to the Holy Land, to San Zuàne de Acre, where the Crusaders are presently encamped. Doro, is there a ship sailing eastward that can put us in Acre?”

The clerk turned to consult his registers, and I left the warehouse to go and tell Doris of my new destination and to say, to her and to Venice, goodbye.

It was to be a quarter of a century before I saw either of them again. Much would have changed and aged in that time, not least myself. But Venice would still be Venice, and—strangely—so would Doris somehow still be the Doris I had left. What she had said: that she would not love again until I came back-those words could have been a magic charm that preserved her unchanged by the years. For she would still, that long time later, be so young and so pretty and so vibrantly still Doris that I would recognize her on sight and fall instantly enamored of her. Or so it would seem to me.

But that story I will tell in its place.

THE LEVANT

1

AT the hour of vespro on a day of blue and gold, we departed from the basin of Malamoco on the Lido, the only paying passengers in a great freight galeazza, the Doge Anafesto. She was carrying arms and supplies to the Crusaders; after unloading those things and us in Acre, she would go on to Alexandria for a cargo of grain to bring back to Venice. When the ship was outside the basin, on the open Adriatic, the rowers shipped their oars while the seamen stepped the two masts and unfurled their graceful lateen sails. The spreads of canvas fluttered and snapped and then bellied full in the afternoon breeze, as white and billowy as the clouds above.

“A sublime day!” I exclaimed. “A superb ship!”

My father, never inclined to rhapsodize, replied with one of his ever ready adages: “Praise not the day until night has brought its close; praise not the inn until the next day’s awakening.”

But even on the next day, and on succeeding days, he could not deny that the ship was as decent in its accommodations as any inn on the land. In earlier years, a vessel that touched at the Holy Land would have been crowded with Christian pilgrims from every country of Europe, sleeping in rows and layers on the deck and in the hold, like sardines in a butt. However, by that time of which I am telling, the port of San Zuàne de Acre was the last and only spot in the Holy Land not yet overwhelmed by the Saracens, so all Christians except Crusaders were staying at home.

We three Polos had a cabin all to ourselves, right under the captain’s quarters in the sterncastle. The ship’s galley was provided with a livestock pen, so we and the seamen had meals of fresh meat and fowl, not salted. There was pasta of all varieties, and olive oil and onions, and good Corsican wine kept cool in the damp sand the ship carried for ballast at the bottom of the hold. All we missed was fresh-baked bread; in its place we were served hard agiàda biscuits, which cannot be bitten or chewed but have to be sucked, and that was the only fare of which we might have complained. There was a medegòto on board, to treat any ailments or injuries, and a chaplain, to hear confessions and hold masses. On the first Sunday, he preached on a text from Ecclesiasticus: “The wise man shall pass into strange countries, and good and evil shall he try in all things.”

“Tell me, please, about the strange countries yonder,” I said to my father after that mass, for he and I had really not had much time in Venice to talk just between ourselves. His reply told me more about him, however, than about any lands beyond the horizon.

“Ah, they brim with opportunities for an ambitious merchant!” he said exultantly, rubbing his hands. “Silks, jewels, spices—even the dullest tradesman dreams of those obvious things—but there are many more possibilities for a clever man. Yes, Marco. Even in coming with us only as far as the Levant, you can, if you keep your eyes open and your wits about you, perhaps begin the making of a fortune of your very own. Yes, indeed, all the lands yonder are lands of opportunity.”

“I look forward to them,” I said dutifully. “But I could learn of commerce without leaving Venice. I was thinking more of … well, adventure …”

“Adventure? Why, my boy, could there ever be any more satisfying adventure than the descrying of a commercial opportunity not yet glimpsed by others? And the seizing advantage of it? And the taking of a profit from it?”

“Of course, most satisfying, those things,” I said, not to dampen his ebullience. “But what of excitement? Exotic things seen and done? Surely in all your travels there have been many such.”

“Oh, yes. Exotic things.” He scratched meditatively in his beard. “Yes, on our way back to Venice, through Cappadocia, we came upon one instance. There grows in that land a poppy, very like our common red field poppy, but of a silvery-blue color, and from the milk of its pod can be decocted a soporific oil that is a most potent medicine. I knew it would be a useful addition to the simples employed by our Western physicians, and I foresaw a good profit to our Compagnia from that. I sought to collect some of the seeds of that poppy, intending to sow them among the crocuses in our Vèneto plantations. Now, that was an exotic thing, no xe vero? And a grand opportunity. Unfortunately, there was a war going on in Cappadocia at the time. The poppy fields were all devastated, and the populace in such disarray that I could find no one who could provide me with the seeds. Gramo de mi, an opportunity lost.”

I said, with some amazement, “You were in the middle of a war, and all that concerned you was poppy seeds?”

“Ah, war is a terrible thing. A disruption of commerce.”

“But, Father, you saw in it no opportunity for adventure?”

“You keep on about adventure,” he said tartly. “Adventure is no more than discomfort and annoyance recollected in the safety of reminiscence. Believe me, an experienced traveler makes plans and takes pains not to have such adventures. The most successful journey is a dull journey.”

“Oh,” I said. “I was rather looking forward to—well, hazards overcome … hidden things discovered … enemies bested … maidens rescued …”

“There speaks the bravo!” boomed Uncle Mafìo, joining us just then. “I hope you are disabusing him of such notions, Nico.”

“I am trying,” said my father. “Adventure, Marco, never put a bagatìn in anybody’s purse.”

“But is the purse the only thing a man is to fill?” I cried. “Should not he seek something else in life? What of his appetite for wonders and marvels?”

“No one ever found marvels by seeking them,” my uncle grunted. “They are like true love—or happiness—which, in fact, are marvels themselves. You cannot say: I will go out and have an adventure. The best you can do is put yourself in a place where it may occur.”

“Well, then,” I said. “We are bound for Acre, the city of the Crusaders, fabled for daring deeds and dark secrets and silken damsels and the life voluptuous. What better place?”

“The Crusaders!” snorted Uncle Mafìo. “Fables, indeed! The Crusaders who survived to come home had to pretend to themselves that their futile missions had been worthwhile. So they bragged of the wonders they had seen, the marvels of the far lands. About the only thing they brought back was a case of the scolamento so painful they could hardly sit a saddle.”

I said wistfully, “Acre is not a city of beauty and temptation and mystery and luxury and—?”

My father said, “Crusaders and Saracens have been fighting over San Zuàne de Acre for more than a century and a half. Imagine for yourself what it must be like. But, no, you need not. You will see it soon enough.”

So I left them, feeling rather dashed in my expectations, but not demolished. I was privately coming to the conclusion that my father had the soul of a line-ruled ledger, and my uncle was too blunt and gruff to contain any finer feelings. They would not recognize adventure if it was thrust upon them. But I would. I went and stood on the foredeck, not to miss seeing any mermaids or sea monsters that might swim by.

A sea voyage, after the first exhilarating day or so, becomes mere monotony—unless a storm enlivens it with terror, but the Mediterranean is stormy only in winter—so I occupied myself with learning all I could about the workings of a ship. In the absence of bad weather, the crew had nothing but routine work to do, so everyone from the captain to the cook willingly let me watch and ask questions and even occasionally lend a hand with the work. The men were of many different nationalities, but all spoke the Trade French—which they called Sabir—so we were able to converse.

“Do you know anything at all about sailing, boy?” one of the seamen asked me. “Do you know, for instance, which are the liveworks of a ship, and which are the deadworks?”

I thought about that, and looked up at the sails, spread out on either side of the ship like a living bird’s wings, and guessed that they must be the liveworks.

“Wrong,” said the mariner. “The liveworks are every part of a ship that is in the water. The deadworks are everything above water.”

I thought about that, and said, “But if the deadworks were to plunge under water, they could hardly then be called live. We should all be dead.”

The seaman said quickly, “Do not speak of such things!” and crossed himself.

Another said, “If you would be a seafarer, boy, you must learn the seventeen names of the seventeen winds that blow over the Mediterranean.” He began ticking them off on his fingers. “At this moment, we are sailing before the etesia, which blows from the northwest. In winter, the ostralada blows fiercely from the south, and makes storms. The gregalada is the wind that blows out of Greece, and makes the sea turbulent. From the west blows the maistràl. The levante blows out of the east, out of Armeniya—”

Another seaman interrupted, “When the levante blows, you can smell the Cyclopedes.”

“Islands?” I asked.

“No. Strange people who live in Armeniya. Each of them has only one arm and one leg. It takes two of those people to use a bow and arrow. Since they cannot walk, they hop on the one leg. But if they are in a hurry, they go spinning sideways, wheeling on that hand and foot. That is why they are called the Cyclopedes, the wheel-feet.”

Besides telling me of many other marvels, the seamen also taught me to play the guessing and gambling game called venturina, which was devised by mariners to while away long and boring voyages. They must endure many such voyages, for venturina is an exceedingly long and boring game, and no player can win or lose more than a few soldi in the course of it.

When I later asked my uncle if, in his travels, he had ever encountered curiosities like the wheel-feet Armeniyans, he laughed and sneered. “Bah! No seaman ever ventures farther into a foreign port than the nearest dockside wineshop or whorehouse. So when he is asked what sights he saw abroad, he must invent things. Only a marcolfo who would believe a woman would believe a seaman!”

So from then on I listened only tolerantly, with half an ear, when the mariners told of landward wonders, but I still gave full attention when they spoke of things to do with the sea and sailing. I learned their special names for common objects—the small sooty bird called in Venice a stormbird is at sea called petrelo, “little Pietro,” because, like the saint, it seems to walk on the water—and I learned the rhymes which seamen use when talking of the weather—

Sera rosa e bianco matino:

Alegro il pelegrino

—which is to say that a red sky in the evening or a white sky in the morning foretells good weather in the offing, hence the pilgrim is pleased. And I learned how to toss the scandàgio line, with its little ribbons of red and white at intervals along its length, to measure the depth of water under our keel. And I learned how to speak to other vessels we passed—which I was allowed to do two or three times, for there were many ships asea upon the Mediterranean—shouting in Sabir through the trumpet:

“A good voyage! What ship?”

And the reply would come hollowly back: “A good voyage! The Saint Sang, out of Bruges, homeward bound from Famagusta! And you, what ship are you?”

“The Anafesto, of Venice, outward bound for Acre and Alexandria! A good voyage!”

The ship’s steerer showed me how, through an ingenious arrangement of ropes, he single-handedly controlled both the immense steering oars, one raked down either side of the ship to the stern. “But in heavy weather,” he said, “a steerer is required on each, and they must be masters of dexterity, to swing the tillers separately and variously, but always in perfect concert, at the captain’s calls.”

The ship’s striker let me practice pounding his mallets when none of the rowers was at the oars. They seldom were. The etesia wind was so nearly constant that the oars were not often needed to help the ship make way, so the rowers had their only sustained work on that voyage in taking us out of the Malamoco basin and into the harbor of Acre. At those times they took their places—“in the mode called a zenzile,” the striker told me—three men to each of the twenty benches along each side of the vessel.

Each rower worked an oar that was separately pivoted to the ship’s outriggers, so that the shortest oars rowed inboard, the longest outboard and the medium-length oars between them. And the men did not sit, as oarsmen do, for example, in the Doge’s buzino d’oro. They stood, each with his left foot on the bench before him, while they swept the oars forward. Then they all fell back supine on the benches when they made their powerful strokes, propelling the ship in a sort of series of rushing leaps. This was done in time to the striker’s striking, a tempo that began slow, but got faster as the ship did, and the two mallets made different sounds so the rowers on one side would know when they had to pull harder than the others.

I was never let to row, for that is a job requiring such skill that apprentices are made to practice first in mock galleys set up on dry land. Because the word galeotto is so often used in Venice to mean a convict, I had always assumed that galleys and galeazze and galeotte were rowed by criminals caught and condemned to drudgery. But the striker pointed out that freight ships compete for trade on the basis of their speed and efficiency, for which they would hardly depend on reluctant forced labor. “So the merchant fleet hires only professional and experienced oarsmen,” he said. “And war ships are rowed by citizens who choose to do that service as their military obligation, instead of taking up the sword.”

The ship’s cook told me why he baked no bread. “I keep no flour in my galley,” he said. “Fine ground flour is impossible to preserve from contamination at sea. Either it breeds weevils or it gets wet. That is why the Romans first thought of making the pasta we enjoy today—because it is well-nigh imperishable. Indeed, it is said that a Roman ship’s cook invented that foodstuff, volente o nolente, when his stock of flour got soaked by an errant wave. He kneaded the mess into pasta to save it, and he rolled it thin and he cut it into strips so it would more quickly dry solid. From that beginning have come all the numerous sizes and shapes of vermicelli and maccheroni. They were a godsend to us mariner cooks, and to the landbound as well.”

The ship’s captain showed me how the needle of his bussola pointed always to the North Star, even when that star is invisible. The bussola, in those times, was just beginning to be regarded as a fixture almost as necessary for sea voyages as a ship’s San Cristoforo medal, but the instrument was yet a novelty to me. So was the periplus, which the captain also showed me, a sheaf of charts on which were drawn the curly coastlines of the whole Mediterranean, from the Levant to the Pillars of Hercules, and all its subsidiary seas: the Adriatic, the Aegean and so on. Along those inked coastlines, the captain—and other captains of his acquaintance—had marked the land features visible from the sea: lighthouses, headlands, standing rocks and other such objects which would help a mariner to determine where he was. On the water areas of the charts, the captain had scribbled notations of their various depths and currents and hidden reefs. He told me that he kept changing those notations according as he found, or heard from other captains, that those depths had changed through silting up, as often happens off Egypt, or through the activity of undersea volcanoes, as often happens around Greece.

When I told my father about the periplus, he smiled and said, “Almost is better than nothing. But we have something much better than a periplus.” He brought out from our cabin an even thicker sheaf of papers. “We have the Kitab.”

My uncle said proudly, “If the captain possessed the Kitab, and if his ship could sail overland, he could go clear across Asia, to the eastern Ocean of Kithai.”

“I had this made at great expense,” said my father, handing it to me. “It was copied for us from the original, which was done by the Arab mapmaker al-Idrisi for King Ruggiero of Sicily.”

Kitab, I later discovered, means in Arabic only “a book,” but then so does our word Bible. And al-Idrisi’s Kitab, like the Holy Bible, is much more than just a book. The first page was inscribed with its full title, which I could read, for it was rendered in French: The going out of a Curious Man to explore the Regions of the Globe, its Provinces, Islands, Cities and their Dimensions and Situation; for the Instruction and Assistance of him who desires to Traverse the Earth. But all the many other words on the pages were done in the execrable worm-writing of the infidel Arab countries. Only here and there had my father or uncle penned in a legible translation of this or that place-name. Turning the pages so I could read those words, I realized something and I laughed.

“Every chart is upside down. Look, he has the foot of the Italian peninsula kicking Sicily up toward Africa.”

“In the East, everything is upside down or backward or contrary,” said my uncle. “The Arab maps are all made with south at the top. The people of Kithai call the bussola the south-pointing needle. You will get accustomed to such customs.”

“Aside from that peculiarity,” said my father, “al-Idrisi has been amazingly accurate in representing the lands of the Levant, and beyond them as far as Middle Asia. Presumably he himself once traveled those regions.”

The Kitab comprised seventy-three separate pages which, laid side by side (and upside down), showed the entire extent of the world from west to east, and a goodly part of it north and south, the whole divided by curving parallels according to climatic zones. The salt sea waters were painted in blue with choppy white lines for the waves; inland lakes were green with white waves; rivers were squiggly green ribbons. The land areas were painted dun yellow, with dots of gold leaf applied to show cities and towns. Wherever the land rose in hills and mountains, those were represented by shapes rather like caterpillars, which were colored purple, pink, and orange.

I asked, “Are the highlands of the East really so vividly colored? Purple mountaintops and—?”

As if in reply, the lookout shouted down from his basket atop the ship’s taller mast, “Terra là! Terre là!”

“You can look and see for yourself, Marco,” said my father. “The shore is in sight. Behold the Holy Land.”

2

OF course, I eventually discovered that the coloring on al-Idrisi’s maps was to indicate the height of the land, with purple representing the highest mountains, pink those of moderate altitude, and orange the lowest, and yellow land of no particular elevation. But there was nothing in the vicinity of Acre to prove this discovery by, that part of the Holy Land being an almost colorless country of low sand dunes and even lower sand flats. What color there was to the land was a dirty gray-yellow, not even a vestige of green growing there, and the city was a dirty gray-brown.

The oarsmen swept the Anafesto around the base of a lighthouse and into the meager harbor. It was awash with every sort of garbage and offal, its waters slimy and greasy, stinking of fish, fish guts and decayed fish. Beyond the docks were buildings that appeared to be made of dried mud—they were all inns and hostels, the captain told us, there being nothing in Acre that could be termed a private residence—and above those low buildings, here and there, stood the taller stone edifices of churches, monasteries, a hospital and the city’s castle. Farther landward beyond that castle was a high stone wall, stretching in a semicircle from the harbor to the sea side of the city, with a dozen towers upjutting from it. To me it looked like a dead man’s jawbone sparsely studded with teeth. On the other side of that wall, said the captain, was the encampment of the Crusader knights, and beyond that yet another and even stouter wall, fencing Acre’s point of land off from the mainland where the Saracens held sway.

“This is the last Christian holding in the Holy Land,” the ship’s priest said sadly. “And it will fall, too, whenever the infidels choose to overrun it. This eighth Crusade has been so futile that the Christians of Europe have lost their fervor for crusading. The newly arriving knights are fewer and fewer. You notice that we brought none on this passage. So Acre’s force is too small to do anything but make occasional skirmishes outside the walls.”

“Humph,” said the captain. “The knights seldom even bother to do that any more. They are all of different orders—Templars and Hospitalers and whatnot—so they much prefer to fight among themselves … when they are not scandalously disporting themselves with the Carmelitas and Clarissas.”

The chaplain winced, for no reason I could see, and said petulantly, “Sir, have a regard for my cloth.”

The captain shrugged. “Deplore it if you will, Pare, but you cannot refute it.” He turned to speak to my father. “Not only the troops are in disarray. The civilian population, what there is of it, consists entirely of suppliers and servitors to the knights. Acre’s native Arabs are too venal to be inimical to us Christians, but they are forever at odds with Acre’s native Jews. The remainder of the population is a shifting motley of Pisans and Genoese and your fellow Venetians—all rivals and all quarrelsome. If you wish to conduct your business here in peace, I suggest that you go straight to the Venetian quarter when we debark, and take lodgings there, and try not to get involved in the local discords.”

So we three gathered our belongings from the cabin and prepared to debark. The quay was crowded with ragged and dirty men, pressing close around the ship’s gangplank and waving their arms and jostling each other, crying their services in Trade French and any number of other languages:

“Carry your bags, monsieur! Lord merchant! Messere! Mirza! Sheikh khaja! …”

“Lead you to the auberge! The inn! Locanda! Karwansarai! Khane! …”

“Provide for you horses! Asses! Camels! Porters! …”

“A guide! A guide speaking Sabir! A guide speaking Farsi! …”

“A woman! A beautiful fat woman! A nun! My sister! My little brother! …”

My uncle demanded only porters, and selected four or five of the least scabrous of the men. The rest drifted away, shaking their fists and shouting imprecations:

“May Allah look upon you sideways!”

“May you choke while eating pig meat!”

“ … Eating your lover’s zab!”

“ … Your mother’s nether parts!”

The seamen unloaded our portion of the ship’s cargo, and our new porters slung our bundles on their backs or shoulders or perched them atop their heads. Uncle Mafìo commanded them, first in French, then in Farsi, to take us to the part of the city reserved for Venetians, and to the best inn there, and we all moved off along the quay.

I was not much impressed by Acre—or Akko, as its native inhabitants call it. The city was no cleaner than the harbor, being mostly of squalid buildings with the widest streets between them no wider than the narrowest alleys of Venice. In its most open areas, the city stank of old urine. Where walls closed it in, it smelled even worse, for the alleys were sinks of sewage and swill, in which gaunt dogs competed for the pickings with monster rats, abroad even in full daylight.

More overpowering than Acre’s stink was its noise. In every alley wide enough for a sitting rug to be spread, there were vendors, shoulder to shoulder, squatting behind little heaps of trashy merchandise—scarves and ribbons, shriveled oranges, overripe figs, pilgrims’ shells and palm leaves—every man of them bellowing to be heard above the others. Beggars, legless or blind or leprous, whined and sniveled and clawed at our sleeves as we passed. Asses, horses and mangy-furred camels—the first camels I had ever seen—shouldered us out of their way as they shuffled through the garbage of the narrow lanes. They all looked weary and miserable under their heavy loads, but they were driven by the drumming sticks and bawled curses of their herders. Groups of men of all nations stood about conversing at the top of their lungs. I suppose some of their talk dealt with mundane matters of trade, or the war, or maybe just the weather, but their conversations were so clamorous as to be indistinguishable from raging quarrels.

I said to my father, when we were in a street wide enough for us to walk abreast, “You said that you were bringing trade goods’ on this journey. I did not see any merchandise put aboard the Anafesto in Venice, and I do not see anything of that nature now. Is it still on the ship?”

He shook his head. “To have brought a pack train’s load of goods would have been to tempt the innumerable bandits and thieves between us and our destination.” He hefted the one small pack he was carrying at that moment, having refused to relinquish it to any of the porters. “Instead, we are carrying something light and inconspicuous, but of great trading value.”

“Zafràn!” I exclaimed.

“Just so. Some in pressed bricks, some in loose hay. And also a good number of the culms.”

I laughed. “Surely you will not stop to plant them, and wait a whole year for the harvest.”

“If circumstances require, yes. One must try to be prepared against all contingencies, my boy. Who has, God helps. And other journeyers have traveled on the three-bean march.”

“What?”

My uncle spoke. “The famed and feared Chinghiz Khan, grandfather of our Kubilai, conquered most of the world in exactly that slow-marching manner. His armies and all their families had to cross the entire vast extent of Asia, and they were far too numerous to have lived off the land, whether by pillaging or scavenging. No, they carried seeds for planting, and animals fit for breeding. Whenever they had marched to the limit of their rations, and beyond the reach of their supply trains, they simply stopped and settled. They planted their grains and beans, bred their horses and cattle, and waited for the harvest and the calving. Then, again well fed and well provisioned, they moved on toward the next objective.”

I said, “I heard that they ate every tenth man of their own men.”

“Nonsense!” said my uncle. “Would any commander decimate his fighting men? He might as sensibly command them to eat their swords and spears. And the weapons would be about equally edible. I doubt that even a Mongol has teeth capable of chewing another warrior Mongol. No, they stopped and planted and harvested, and moved again, and stopped again.”

My father said, “They called that the three-bean march. And it inspired one of their war cries. Whenever the Mongols fought their way into an enemy city, Chinghiz would shout, ‘The hay is cut! Give your horses fodder!’ And that was the signal for the horde to go wild, to plunder and rape and ravage and slaughter. Thus they laid waste Tashkent and Bukhara and Kiev and many another great city. It is said that when the Mongols took Herat, in India Aryana, they butchered every last one of its inhabitants, to the number of nearly two million. Ten times the population of Venice! Of course, of Indians such a diminution is hardly worth remark.”

“The three-bean march sounds efficient enough,” I conceded, “but intolerably slow.”

“He who endures, wins,” said my father. “That slow march took the Mongols all the way to the borders of Poland and Romania.”

“And all the way to here,” added my uncle. We were just then passing two swarthy men in clothing that appeared to be made of hides, much too heavy and hot for the climate. To them Uncle Mafìo said, “Sain bina.”

They both looked slightly startled, but one of them responded, “Mendu, sain bina!”

“What language was that?” I asked.

“Mongol,” said my uncle. “Those two are Mongols.”

I stared at him, then turned to stare at the men. They were also walking with their heads turned, looking wonderingly back at us. The streets of Acre teemed with so many people of exotic features and complexions and raiment that I could not yet distinguish one kind of foreigner from another. But those were Mongols? The orda, the orco, the bogle, the terror of my childhood? The bane of Christianity and menace to all Western civilization? Why, they might have been merchants of Venice, exchanging a “bon zorno” with us as we all promenaded on the Riva Ca’ de Dio. Of course, they did not look like merchants of Venice. Those two men had eyes like slits in faces like well-tanned leather … .

“Those are Mongols?” I said, thinking of the miles and the millions of corpses they must have tramped across to get to the Holy Land. “What are they doing here?”

“I have no idea,” said my father. “I daresay we will find out in good time.”

“Here in Acre,” said my uncle, “as in Constantinople, there seem to be at least a few persons of every nationality on earth. Yonder goes a black man, a Nubian or an Ethiope. And that woman there is certainly an Armeniyan: each of her breasts is exactly as large as her head. The man with her I would say is a Persian. Now, the Jews and Arabs I can never tell apart, except by their garb. That one yonder has on his head a white tulband, which Islam forbids to Jews and Christians, so he has to be a Muslim … .”

His speculations were interrupted because we were almost run down by a war horse ridden at an uncaring canter through the tangled streets. The eight-pointed cross on the rider’s surcoat identified him as a Knight of the Order of the Hospital of San Zuàne of Jerusalem. He went past with a noise of jingling chain mail and creaking leather, but with no apology for his rudeness and not even a nod to us brother Christians.

We came to the square of buildings set aside for Venetians, and the porters led us to one of the several inns there. Its landlord met us at the entrance, and he and my father exchanged some deep bows and flowery greetings. Though the landlord was an Arab, he spoke in Venetian: “Peace be upon you, my lords.”

My father said, “And on you, peace.”

“May Allah give you strength.”

“Strong have we become.”

“The day is blessed which brings you to my door, my lords. But Allah has led you to choose well. My khane has clean beds, and a hammam for your refreshment, and the best food in Akko. Even now, a lamb is being stuffed with pistachios for the evening meal. I have the honor to be your servant, and my miserable name is Ishaq, may you speak it with not too much contempt.”

We introduced ourselves, and each of us thereafter was addressed by the landlord and servants as Sheikh Folo, because the Arabs have no p in their own language, and find it difficult to make the sound when speaking any other. As we Folos were disposing our belongings about our room, I asked my father and uncle, “Why is a Saracen so hospitable to us, his enemies?”

My uncle said, “Not all Arabs are engaged in this jihad—which is their name for a holy war against Christianity. The ones here in Acre are profiting too much from it to take sides, even with their fellow Muslims.”

“There are good Arabs and there are bad,” said my father. “The ones now fighting to oust all Christians from the Holy Land—from the entire eastern Mediterranean—are actually the Mamluks of Egypt, and they are very bad Arabs indeed.”

When we had unpacked the things necessary for our stay in Acre, we went to the inn’s hammam. And the hammam, I think, must rank with those other great Arabian inventions: arithmetic and its numbers and the abaco for counting. Essentially a hammam is only a room full of steam, generated by throwing water on fire-hot stones. But after we had sat for a time on benches in that room, sweating copiously, half a dozen menservants came in and said, “Health and delight to you, lords, from this bath!” and directed us to lie prostrate on the benches. Then, two men to each of us, their four hands wearing gloves made of coarse hemp, they rubbed us all over, briskly and for a long time. As they rubbed, the accumulated salt and dirt of our voyage was scraped off our skin in long gray rolls. We might have deemed that sufficient for cleanliness, but they kept on rubbing, and more dirt came out of our pores, like thin gray worms.

When we were exuding no more grayness, and were steamed and rubbed to redness, the men offered to depilate us of our body hair. My father declined that treatment, and so did I. I had already that day shaved off what skimpy whiskers I had, and I wished to keep what other hair I possessed. Uncle Mafìo, after a moment’s consideration, told the servants to remove his artichoke escutcheon, but not to tamper with his beard or chest hair. So two of the men, the two youngest and most handsome, hastened to the task. They applied a dun-colored ointment to his crotch area, and the thick thatch of hair there began to disappear like smoke. Almost immediately, he was as bald in that place as was Doris Tagiabue.

“That salve is magical,” he said admiringly, looking down at himself.

“In truth it is, Sheikh Folo,” said one of the young men, smiling so that he leered. “The removal of the hair makes your zab more visible, as prominent and as pretty as a war lance. A veritable torch to guide your lover to you in the night. It is a pity that the Sheikh is not circumcised, so that his zab’s bright plum might be more readily observed and admired and—”

“Enough of that! Tell me, can this ointment be purchased?”

“Certainly. You have but to order me, Sheikh. and I will run to the apothecary for a fresh jar of the mumum. Or many jars.”

My father said, “You see it as a commodity, Mafìo? But there would be scant market for it in Venice. A Venetian treasures every least bloom on the peach.”

“But we are going eastward, Nico. Remember, many of those Eastern peoples regard body hair as a blemish on either sex. If this mumum is not too costly here, we could turn a considerable profit there.” He said to his rubber, “Please stop fondling me, boy, and get on with the bathing.”

So the men washed us all over, using a creamy sort of soap, and washed our hair and beards in fragrant rose water, and dried us with great fleecy, musk-scented towels. When we were dressed again, they gave us cool drinks of sweetened lemon-juice sharbat, to restore our internal moisture, which by then had been depleted by all the heat. I left the hammam feeling cleaner than I had ever felt before, and I was grateful for the Arabs’ invention of that facility. I made frequent use of that one, and others thereafter, and the only complaint I might ever have had was that so many of the Arab people themselves preferred filth and fetor to the cleanness available in the hammam.

The landlord Ishaq had spoken the truth about the khane’s food being good, though of course we were paying enough that he could profitably have fed us on ambrosia and nectar. That first night’s meal was the lamb stuffed with pistachios, also rice and a dish of cucumbers sliced and dripped with lemon juice, and afterwards a confection of sugared pomegranate pulp mixed with grated almonds and delicately perfumed. It was all delicious, but I was most taken by the accompanying beverage. Ishaq told me it is an infusion from ripe berries in hot water, and is called qahwah. That Arabic word means “wine,” which qahwah is not, for the Arabs’ religion forbids them wine. Only in color is the qahwah winelike, a deep garnet-brown, rather resembling a Barolo of the Piedmont, but it does not have Barolo’s strong flavor or its faint aftertaste of violets. Neither is it sweet or sour, like some other wines. Neither does it intoxicate like wine, or make the head to ache the next day. But it does gladden the heart and enliven the senses and—so said Ishaq—a few glasses of qahwah enable a traveler or a warrior to march or fight untiringly for hours on end.

The meal was served upon a cloth around which we sat on the floor, and it was served without any table implements. So we used our belt knives for cutting and slicing, as we would have employed table knives at home, and used the knife points to spear our bits of meat, in place of the little metal skewers we would have had at home. Lacking skewers or spoons, we ate the lamb’s stuffing and the rice and the sweet with our fingers.

“Only the thumb and first two fingers of the right hand,” my father cautioned me in a low voice. “The left hand’s fingers are considered by the Arabs nasty, for they are reserved to the wiping of one’s behind. Also, sit only upon your left haunch, take only small portions of the food with your fingers, chew well each mouthful, and look not at your fellow diners while they eat, lest you embarrass them and make them lose their appetite.”

There is much to be read in an Arab’s use of his hands, as I gradually learned. If, while he is speaking, he strokes his beard, his most precious possession, then he is swearing by his beard that his words are truthful. If he puts his index finger to his eye, it is his sign of assent to your words or consent to your command. If he puts his hand to his head, he is vowing that his head will answer for any disobedience. If, however, he makes any of those gestures with his left hand, he is merely mocking you, and if he touches you with that left hand, it is the direst insult.

3

SOME days later, when we had ascertained that the commander of the Crusaders was in the city’s castle, we went to pay our courtesy call upon him. The forecourt of the castle was full of knights of the various orders, some merely lounging about, others gambling with dice, others chatting or quarreling, still others quite visibly drunk for that early in the day. None seemed to be about to dash out and do battle with the Saracens, or eager to do so, or sorry that he was not doing so. When my father had explained our mission to the two drowsy-looking knights guarding the castle door, they said nothing, but only jerked their heads for us to enter. Inside, my father explained our business to one lackey and squire after another, in one hall after another, until we were ushered into a room hung with battle flags and told to wait. After a time, a lady entered. She was about thirty years of age, not pretty but gracious of demeanor, and wearing a gold coronet. She said, in Castilian-accented French, “I am Princess Eleanor.”

“Nicolò Polo,” said my father, bowing. “And my brother Mafìo and my son Marco.” And for the sixth or seventh time, he told why we were seeking audience.

The lady said, with admiration and a little apprehension, “Going all the way to Cathay? Dear me, I hope my husband will not volunteer to go with you. He does love to travel, and he does abhor this dismal Acre.” The room door opened again, admitting a man of about her age. “Here he is now. Prince Edward. My love, these are—”

“The Polo family,” he said brusquely, with an Anglo accent. “You came in on the supply ship.” He too wore a coronet, and a surcoat emblazoned with the cross of San Zorzi. “What can I do for you?” He stressed the last word as if we were only the latest in a long procession of appellants.

For the seventh or eighth time, my father explained, concluding, “We merely ask Your Royal Highness to introduce us to the chief prelate among your Crusader chaplains. We would ask him for the loan of some of his priests.”

“You may have all of them, as far as I am concerned. And all the Crusaders as well. Eleanor, my dear, would you ask the Archdeacon to join us?”

As the Princess left the room, my uncle said boldly, “Your Royal Highness appears less than pleased with this crusade.”

Edward grimaced. “It has been one disaster after another. Our latest best hope was the leadership of the pious French Louis, since he was so successful with the previous Crusade, but he sickened and died on his way here. His brother took his place, but Charles is only a politician, and spends all his time negotiating. For his own advantage, I might add. Every Christian monarch embroiled in this mess is seeking only to advance his own interests, not those of Christianity. Small wonder the knights are disillusioned and lackadaisical.”

My father remarked, “Those outside do not look particularly enterprising.”

“What few have not gone home in disgust, I can only seldom pry from their wenches’ beds, to make a sally among the foe. And even in the field, they prefer bed to battle. One night not long ago, they slept while a Saracen hashishi slipped through the pickets and into my tent, can you imagine that? And I do not wear a sword under my nightshirt. I had to snatch up a pricket candlestick and stab him with that.” The Prince sighed profoundly. “As the situation stands, I must resort to politicking myself. I am presently treating with an embassy of Mongols, hoping to enlist their alliance against our common enemy of Islam.”

“So that is it,” said my uncle. “We had marveled to see a couple of Mongols in the city.”

My father began hopefully, “Then our mission closely accords with the aims of Your Royal—”

The door opened again and the Princess Eleanor returned, bringing with her a tall and quite old man wearing a splendidly embroidered dalmatic. Prince Edward made the introductions:

“The Venerable Tebaldo Visconti, Archdeacon of Liege. This good man despaired of the impiety of his fellow churchmen in Flanders, and applied for a papal legacy to accompany me hither. Teo, these are some near countrymen of your own Piacenza. The Polos of Venice.”

“Yes, indeed, i Pantaleoni,” said the old man, calling us by the sneering nickname with which the citizens of rival cities refer to Venetians. “Are you here to further your vile republic’s trade with the enemy infidels?”

“Come now, Teo,” said the Prince, looking amused.

“Really, Teo,” said the Princess, looking embarrassed. “I told you: the gentlemen are not here to trade at all.”

“To do what wickedness, then?” said the Archdeacon. “I will believe anything but good of Venice. Liege was evil enough, but Venice is notorious as the Babylon of Europe. A city of avaricious men and salacious women.”

He seemed to be glaring straight at me, as if he knew of my recent adventures in that Babylon. I started to protest in my defense that I was not avaricious, but my father spoke first, and placatively :

“Perhaps our city is rightly so known, Your Reverence. Tuti semo fati de carne. But we are not traveling on behalf of Venice. We bear a request from the Khan of All Khans of the Mongols, and it can only redound to the good of all Europe and Mother Church.” He went on to explain why Kubilai had asked for missionary priests. Visconti heard him out, but then asked haughtily:

“Why do you apply to me, Polo? I am only in deacon’s orders, an appointed administrator, not even an ordained priest.”

He was not even polite, moreover, and I hoped my father would tell him so. But he said only, “You are the highest ranking Christian churchman in the Holy Land. The Pope’s legate.”

“There is no Pope,” Visconti retorted. “And until an apostolic authority is chosen, who am I to delegate a hundred priests to go into the far unknown, at the whim of a heathen barbarian?”

“Come now, Teo,” said the Prince again. “I think we have in our entourage more chaplains than we have fighting men. Surely we can spare some of them, for a good purpose.”

“If it is a good purpose, Your Grace,” said the Archdeacon, scowling. “Remember, these are Venetians proposing it. And this is not the first such proposal. Some twenty-five years ago, the Mongols made a similar overture, and directly to Rome. One of their Khans, one named Kuyuk, a cousin to this Kubilai, sent a letter to Pope Innocent asking—no, demanding—that His Holiness and all the monarchs of the West come to him, in a body, to render homage and submission. Naturally he was ignored. But that is the kind of invitation the Mongols proffer, and when it comes by the agency of a Venetian …”

“Despise our provenance, if you will,” said my father, still equably. “If there were no fault in the world, there could be no pardon. But please, Your Reverence, do not despise this opportunity. The Khakhan Kubilai asks nothing but that your priests come and preach their religion. I have here the missive written by the Khan’s scribe at the Khan’s dictation. Does Your Reverence read Farsi?”

“No,” said Visconti, adding a snort of exasperation. “It will require an interpreter.” He shrugged his narrow shoulders. “Very well. Let us retire to another room while it is read to me. No need to waste the time of Their Graces.”

So he and my father adjourned for their conference. Prince Edward and Princess Eleanor, as if to make up for the Archdeacon’s bad manners, stayed long enough to make some conversation with me and Uncle Mafìo. The Princess asked me :

“Do you read Farsi, young Marco?”

“No, my Lady—Your Royal Highness. That language is written in the Arabic alphabet, the fish-worm writing, and I cannot make sense of it.”

“Whether you read it or not,” said the Prince, “you had better learn to speak Farsi, if you are going eastward with your father. Farsi is the common trade tongue of all of Asia, just as French is in the Mediterranean lands.”

The Princess asked my uncle, “Where do you go from here, Monsieur Polo?”

“If we get the priests we want, Your Royal Highness, we will lead them to the court of the Khakhan Kubilai. Which means we must somehow make our way past the Saracens inland.”

“Oh, you should get the priests,” said Prince Edward. “You could probably have nuns, too, if you want them. Teo will be glad to rid himself of all of them, for they are the cause of his ill humor. You must not let his behavior dismay you. Teo is from Piacenza, so you can hardly be surprised by his attitude toward Venice. He is also a godly and pious old gentleman, staunch in his disapproval of sin. So, even in the best of humors, he is a trial to us mere mortals.”

I said impertinently, “I was hoping that my father would talk back to him, just as ill-humoredly.”

“Your father may be wiser than you are,” said Princess Eleanor. “The rumor is that Teobaldo may be the next Pope.”

“What?” I blurted, so surprised that I forgot to use her due address. “But he just said that he is not even a priest!”

“Also he is a very old man,” she said. “But that seems to be his chief qualification. The Conclave is at a standstill because, as usual, every faction has its own favorite candidate. The laity are growing clamorous; they demand a Pope. Visconti would be at least acceptable to them, and to the cardinals as well. So, if the Conclave remains much longer at impasse, it is expected to choose Teo because he is old. Thus there will be a Pope at Rome, but not for too long. Just long enough for the various factions to do their secret maneuvers and machinations and settle which favorite will don the beehive tiara when our Visconti dies under it.”

Prince Edward said mischievously, “Teo will die in a hurry, of an apoplexy, if he finds Rome to be anything like Liege or Acre—or Venice.”

My uncle said, smiling, “Babylonian, you mean?”

“Yes. That is why I think you will get the priests you want. Visconti may make a show of grumbling, but he will not grieve at seeing these Acre priests go far, far away from him. All the monastic orders are in residence here to serve the needs of the fighting men, of course, but they have taken a rather liberal view of that duty. In addition to their hospital ministrations and spiritual solacements, they are providing some services that would dismay the saintly founders of their orders. You can imagine which of the men’s needs the Carmelitas and Clarissas are taking care of, and most lucratively, too. Meanwhile, the monks and friars are getting rich by trading illicitly with the natives, even peddling the provisions and medical supplies donated to their monasteries by the good-hearted Christians back in Europe. Meanwhile, also, the priests are selling indulgences and trafficking in absurd superstitions. Have you seen one of these?”

He took out a slip of scarlet paper and handed it to Uncle Mafìo, who unfolded it and read aloud:

“‘Bless, O God, sanctify this paper that it may frustrate the work of the Devil. He who upon his person carries this paper writ with Holy Word shall be free from the visitation of Satan.’”

“There is a ready market for such daubs, among men going into battle,” the Prince said drily. “Men of both sides, since Satan is the adversary of Muslims as well as Christians. The priests will also, for a price—for an English groat or an Arabian dinar—treat a wound with holy water. Any man’s wound, and no matter if it is the gash of a sword or a sore of the venereal pox. The latter is the more frequent.”

“Be glad you will soon get out of Acre,” sighed the Princess. “Would that we could.”

Uncle Mafìo thanked them for our audience, and he and I took our leave. He told me he was going back to the khane, for he wished to learn more about the availability of the mumum ointment. I set out merely to wander about the city, in hope of hearing some Farsi words and memorizing them, as Prince Edward had recommended. As it happened, I learned some that the Prince might not have approved of.

I fell in with three native boys of about my own age, whose names were Ibrahim, Daud and Naser. They did not have much grasp of French, but we managed to communicate—boys always will—in this case with gestures and facial expressions. We roamed together through the streets, and I would point to this or that object and speak the name by which I knew it, in French or Venetian, and then ask, “Farsi?” and they would tell me its name in that language, sometimes having to consult among themselves as to what that name was. Thus I learned that a merchant or a trader or a vendor is called a khaja, and all young boys are ashbal or “lion cubs,” and all young girls are zaharat or “little flowers,” and a pistachio nut is a fistuk, and a camel is a shutur, and so on: Farsi words that would be useful anywhere in my Eastern journeying. It was later that I learned the others.

We passed a shop where an Arab khaja offered writing materials for sale, including fine parchments and even finer vellums, and also papers of various qualities, from the flimsy Indian rice-made to the Khorasan flax-made to the expensive Moorish kind called cloth parchment because it is so smooth and elegant. I chose what I could afford, a medium grade but sturdy, and had the khaja cut it into small pieces that I could easily carry or pack. I also bought some rubric chalks to write with when I had no time to prepare pen and ink. And I began then to set down my first lexicon of unfamiliar words. Later, I would begin to make note of the names of places I passed through and people I met, and then incidents which occurred, and in time my papers came to constitute a log of all my travels and adventures.

It was by then past midday, and I was bareheaded in the hot sun, and I began to perspire. The boys noticed and, giggling, suggested by gesture that I was warm because of my comical clothing. They seemed to find particularly funny the fact that my spindly legs were exposed to public view but tightly enclosed in my Venetian hose. So I indicated that I found equally risible their baggy and voluminous robes, and suggested that they must be more uncomfortably warm than I was. They argued back that theirs was the only practical dress for that climate. Finally, to test our arguments, we went into a secluded alley cul-de-sac and Daud and I exchanged clothes.

Naturally, when we stripped down to the skin, another disparity between Christian and Muslim became evident, and there was much mutual examination and many exclamations in our different languages. I had not known before exactly what mutilation was involved in circumcision, and they had never before seen a male over the age of thirteen with his fava still wearing its capèla. We all minutely scrutinized the difference between me and Daud—how his fava, because it was always exposed, was dry and shiny and almost scaly, and stuck with bits of lint and fluff; while mine, enclosable or exposable at my whim, was more pliant and velvety to the touch, even when, because of all the attention it was getting, my organ rose erect and firm.

The three Arab boys made excited remarks which seemed to mean “Let us try this new thing,” and that made no sense to me. So the naked Daud sought to demonstrate, reaching behind him to take my candelòto in his hand, then directing it toward his scrawny backside which, bending over, he wiggled at me, meanwhile saying in a seductive voice, “Kus! Baghlah! Kus!” Ibrahim and Naser laughed at that and made poking gestures with their middle fingers and shouted, “Ghunj! Ghunj!” I still comprehended nothing of the words or byplay, but I resented Daud’s taking liberties with my person. I loosed his hand and shoved it away, then hurried to cover myself by getting into the clothes he had doffed. The boys all shrugged good-naturedly at my Christian prudery, and Daud put on my clothes.

The nether garment of an Arab is, like the hose of a Venetian, a forked pair of leg-envelopers. They go from the waist, where they tie with a cord, down to the ankles, where they are snug, but in between they are vastly capacious instead of tight. The boys told me that the Farsi word for that garment is pai-jamah, but the best they could do by way of a French translation was troussés. The Arab upper garment is a long-sleeved shirt, not much different from ours except in its loose and blousy fit. And over that goes an aba, a sort of light surcoat with slits for the arms to go through, and the rest of it hanging loose around the body, almost to the ground. The Arab shoes are like ours, except that they are made to fit any foot, being of considerable length, the unoccupied portion of which curls up and backward over the foot. On the head goes a kaffiyah, a square of cloth large enough to hang well below the shoulders at the sides and back, and it is held on with a cord loosely bound around the head.

To my surprise, I did feel cooler in that ensemble. I wore it for some while before Daud and I exchanged again, and I continued to feel cooler than in my Venetian garb. The many layers of the clothing, instead of being stifling to the skin as I would have expected, seem somehow to entrap what cool air there is and to be a barrier against the sun’s warming it. The clothes, being loose, are quite comfortable and not constrictive.

Because those clothes are so loose, and so easily made looser yet, I could not understand why the Arab boys—and all Arab males of every age—urinate as they do. They squat when they make water, in the same way women do. And furthermore they do it just anywhere, as blandly regardless of the people passing as those passersby are of them. When I expressed curiosity and distaste, the boys wanted to know how a Christian makes water. I indicated that we do it standing up, and preferably invisible inside a licet closet. They made me understand that such a vertical position is called unclean by their holy book, the Quran—and further, that an Arab dislikes to go inside a privy, or mustarah, except when he has to do the more substantial evacuation of his bowels, because privies are dangerous places. On learning that, I expressed still more curiosity, so the boys explained. Muslims, like Christians, believe in devils and demons that emanate from the underworld—beings called jinn and afarit—and those beings can most easily climb up from the underworld by way of the pit dug under a mustarah. It sounded reasonable. For a long time afterward, I could not crouch comfortably over a licet hole for dread of feeling the clutch of talons from underneath.

The street clothes of an Arab man may be ugly to our eyes, but they are less so than the street clothes of an Arab woman. And hers are uglier because they are so unfemininely indistinguishable from his. She wears identically voluminous troussés and shirt and aba, but instead of a kaffiyah headcloth she wears a chador, or veil, which hangs from the crown of her head almost to her feet, before and behind and all around her. Some women wear a black chador thin enough so that they can see dimly through it without being seen themselves; others wear a heavier chador with a narrow slit opening in front of their eyes. Swathed in all those layers of clothes and veil, a woman’s form is only a sort of walking heap. Indeed, unless she is walking, a non-Arab can hardly tell which is her front and which her back.

With grimaces and gestures, I managed to convey a question to my companions. Suppose that, in the manner of Venetian young men, they should go strolling about the streets to ogle the beautiful young women —how would they know if a woman was beautiful?

They gave me to understand that the prime mark of beauty in a Muslim woman is not the comeliness of her face or her eyes or her figure in general. It is the massive amplitude of her hips and her behind. To the experienced eye, the boys assured me, those great quivery rotundities are discernible even in a woman’s street garb. But they warned me not to be misled by appearances; many women, they indicated, falsely padded out their haunches and buttocks to a counterfeit immensity.

I put another question. Suppose that, in the manner of Venetian young men, Ibrahim and Naser and Daud wished to strike up an acquaintance with a beautiful stranger—how would they go about it?

That inquiry seemed to puzzle them slightly. They asked me to elaborate. Did I mean a beautiful strange woman?

Yes. Certainly. What else should I mean?

Not, perchance, a beautiful strange man or boy?

I had earlier suspected, and now I was becoming sure, that I had fallen in with a troop of fledgling Don Metas and Sior Monas. I was not unduly surprised, for I knew that the site of the erstwhile city of Sodom was not far distant to the east of Acre.

The boys were again giggling at my Christian naivete. From their pantomime and their rudimentary French, I gathered that—in the view of Islam and its holy Quran—women had been created solely so that men could beget male children upon them. Except for the occasional wealthy ruling sheikh, who could afford to collect and keep a whole hive of certified virgins, to be used one time apiece and then discarded, few Muslim men utilized women for their sexual enjoyment. Why should they? There were so many men and boys to be had, more plump and beautiful than any woman. Other considerations aside, a male lover was preferable to a female simply because he was male.

There, for an example of the worth intrinsic in the male—they pointed out to me a walking heap of clothing that was a woman, carrying a baby in an extra looped swath of cloth—they could ascertain that the child was a boy baby, because its face was entirely obscured by a crawling swarm of flies. Did I not wonder, they inquired, why the mother did not shoo away the flies? I might have suggested “sheer sloth,” but the boys went on to explain. The mother liked having the flies cover the baby’s face because it was a male infant. Any malicious jinn or afarit hovering about would not easily see that the baby was a valuable male child, hence would be less likely to attack it with a disease or a curse or some other affliction. If the baby had been a girl child, the mother would uncaringly flick the flies away, and let the evil beings see it unobscured, because no demons would bother to molest a female, and the mother would not greatly care even if they did.

Well, fortunately being a male myself, I supposed I had to concur in the prevailing opinion that males were vastly superior to females, and infinitely more to be treasured. Nevertheless, I had had some small sexual experience, which had led me to conclude that a woman or girl was useful and desirable and functional in that respect. If she was or could be nothing else in the world, as a receptacle she was incomparable, even necessary, even indispensable.

Not a bit of it, the boys indicated, laughing yet again at my simple-mindedness. Even as a receptacle, any Muslim male was far more sexually responsive and delightful than any Muslim female, whose parts had been properly deadened by circumcision.

“Wait a moment,” I conveyed to the boys. “You mean the males’ circumcision somehow causes … ?”

No, no, no. They shook their heads firmly. They meant the circumcision of the females. I shook my own head. I could not imagine how such an operation could be performed on a creature that possesses no Christian candelòto or Muslim zab or even an infantile bimbìn. I was thoroughly mystified, and I told them so.

With an air of amused indulgence, they pointed out—pointing toward their own truncated organs—that the trimming of a boy’s foreskin was done merely to mark him as a Muslim. But, in every Muslim family of better than beggar or slave status, every female infant was subjected to an equivalent trimming in the cause of feminine decency. To illustrate: it was a terrible revilement to call another man the “son of an uncircumcised mother.” I was still mystified.

“Toutes les bonnes femmes—tabzir de leurs zambur,” they repeated over and over. They said that the tabzir, whatever that was, was done to divest a baby girl of her zambur, whatever that was, so that when she was grown to womanhood she would be devoid of unseemly yearnings, hence disinclined to adultery. She would be forever chaste and above suspicion, as every bonne femme of Islam should be: a passive pulp with no function but to dribble out as many male children as possible in her bleak lifetime. No doubt that was a commendable end result, but I still did not understand the boys’ attempted explication of the tabzir means that effected it.

So I changed the subject and put another question. Suppose that, in the manner of Venetian young men, Ibrahim or Daud or Naser did want a woman, not a man or boy—and a woman not condemned to numbness and torpor—how would they go about finding one?

Naser and Daud snickered contemptuously. Ibrahim raised his eyebrows in disdainful inquiry, and at the same time raised his middle finger and moved it up and down.

“Yes,” I said, nodding. “That sort of woman, if that is the only sort with any life left in her.”

Though limited in their means of communication, the boys made it all too plain that, to find such a shameful woman, I should have to seek among the Christian women resident in Acre. Not that I should have to seek very strenuously, for there were many of those sluts. I had only to go—they pointed—to that building directly across the market square we stood in at that moment.

I said angrily, “That is a convent! A house of Christian nuns!”

They shrugged and stroked imaginary beards, asserting that they had spoken truly. And just then the door of the convent opened and a man and a woman came out into the square. He was a Crusader knight, wearing the surcoat insigne of the Order of San Làzaro. She was unveiled, obviously not an Arab woman, and she wore the white mantle and brown habit of the Order of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. Both of them were flushed of face and reeling with wine.

Then, of course, but only then, did I recall having heard two previous mentions of the “scandalous” Carmelitas and Clarissas. I had ignorantly assumed that the references were to the names of particular women. But now it was clear that what had been meant were the Carmelite sisters and those other nuns, the Minoresses of the Order of San Francesco, affectionately nicknamed Clarissas.

Feeling as if I had been personally disgraced in the eyes of the three infidel boys, I abruptly said goodbye to them. At that, they clamored and gestured insistently for me to join them soon again, indicating that then they would show me something really marvelous. I gave them a noncommittal reply, and made my way through the streets and alleys back to the khane.

4

I arrived there at the same time my father was returning from his conference with the Archdeacon at the castle. As we aproached our chamber, a young man came out of it, the hammam rubber who had attended Uncle Mafìo on our first day at the khane. He gave us a radiant smile and said, “Salaam aleikum,” and my father properly responded, “Wa aleikum es-salaam.”

Uncle Mafìo was in the room, apparently just in the process of putting on fresh clothes for the evening meal. In his hearty way, he began talking as soon as we entered:

“I had the boy bring me a new jar of the depilatory mumum, for determination of its constituents. It consists only of orpiment and quicklime, pounded together in a little olive oil, with a touch of musk added to make its aroma more pleasant. We could easily compound it ourselves, but its price here is so cheap that that is hardly worth our while. I told the boy to fetch me four dozen of the little jars. What of our priests, Nico?”

My father sighed. “Visconti seems ready enough to delegate every priest in Acre to go away with us. But he feels that, in fairness, they themselves should have something to say about making such a long and arduous journey. So he will only exert himself to the extent of asking for volunteers. He will let us know how many or how few they will be.”

On one of the subsequent days, it happened that we were the only guests in residence at the khane, so my father genially asked the proprietor if he would do us the honor of joining us at our supper cloth.

“Your words are before my eyes, Sheikh Folo,” said Ishaq, arranging his vast troussés so he could fold his legs to sit.

“And perhaps the Sheikha, your good wife, would join us?” said my uncle. “That is your wife, is it not, in the kitchen?”

“She is indeed, Sheikh Folo. But she would not offend the decencies by presuming to eat in the company of men.”

“Of course,” said my uncle. “Forgive me. I was forgetting the decencies.”

“As the Prophet has said (may blessing and peace be upon him) : ‘I stood at the gate of Heaven and saw that most of its inhabitants were paupers. I stood at the gate of Hell and saw that most of its inhabitants were women.’”

“Um, yes. Well, perhaps your children might join us, then, as company for Marco here. If you have children.”

“Alas, I have none,” Ishaq said dolefully. “I have only three daughters. My wife is a baghlah, and barren. Gentlemen, will you permit me humbly to petition grace upon this supper?” We all bowed our heads, and he muttered, “Allah ekber rakmet,” adding in Venetian, “Allah is great, we thank Him.”

We began helping ourselves to the mutton slices cooked with tomatoes and pearl onions, and to the baked cucumbers stuffed with rice and nuts. As we did so, I said to the landlord, “Excuse me, Sheikh Ishaq. May I ask you a question?”

He nodded affably. “Pleasure me with some command, young Sheikh.”

“That word you used in speaking of your lady wife. Baghlah. I have heard it before. What does it mean?”

He looked a trifle discomfited. “A baghlah is a female mule. The word is also used to speak of a woman likewise infertile. Ah, I perceive that you think it a harsh word for me to use of my wife. And you are right. She is, after all, an excellent woman in other respects. You gentlemen may have noticed how magnificently moonlike is her behind. Wonderfully big and ponderously heavy. It forces her to sit down when she would stand up, and to sit up when she would lie down. Yes, an excellent woman. She also has beautiful hair, though you cannot have seen that. Longer and more luxuriant than my beard. No doubt you are aware that Allah appointed one of His angels to do nothing but stand by His throne and praise Him on that account. The angel has no other employment. He simply and constantly praises Allah for His having dispensed beards to men and long tresses to women.”

When he paused for a moment in his prattle, I said, “I have heard another word. Kus. What is that?”

The servant who was waiting upon us made a strangled noise and Ishaq looked even more discomfited. “That is a very low word for—this is hardly a topic fit for mealtime discussion. I will not repeat the word, but it is a low term for the even lower parts of a woman.”

“And ghunj?” I asked. “What is ghunj?”

The waiter gasped and hurriedly left the room, and Ishaq looked discomfited to the point of distress. “Where have you been spending your time, young Sheikh? That is also a low word. It means—it means the movement a woman makes. A woman or a—that is to say, the passive partner. The word refers to the movement made during—Allah forgive me—during the act of sexual congress.”

Uncle Mafìo snorted and said, “My saputèlo nephew is eager to acquire new words, that he may be more useful when he travels with us into far regions.”

Ishaq murmured, “As the Prophet has said (peace be upon him): ‘A companion is the best provision for the road.’”

“There are a couple of other words—” I began.

“And, as the saying goes on,” Ishaq growled, “‘Even bad company is better than none.’ But really, young Sheikh Folo, I must decline to translate any more of your acquisitions.”

My father spoke then, and changed the subject to something innocuous, and our meal progressed to the sweet, a conserve of crystallized apricots, dates and citron rind, perfumed with amber. So I did not find out the meaning of those mysterious words tabzir and zambur until a long time afterward. When the meal ended, with qahwah and sharbat to drink, Ishaq again said the grace—unlike us Christians, the infidels do that at the close of a meal as well as at the beginning—“Allah ekber rakmet” and, with an air of relief, left our company.

When, some days later, my father, my uncle and I went again to Acre castle at the summons of the Archdeacon, he met us in assemblage with the Prince and Princess, and also two men wearing the white habits and black mantles of the Order of Friars Preachers of San Domènico. When we had all exchanged greetings, the Archdeacon Visconti introduced the newcomers:

“Fra Nicolò of Vicenza and Fra Guglielmo of Tripoli. They have volunteered to accompany you, Messeri Polo.”

Whatever disappointment he may have felt, my father dissembled, saying only, “I am grateful to you, Brothers, and I welcome you to our party. But may I inquire why you have volunteered to join our mission?”

One of them said, in rather a petulant voice, “Because we are disgusted with the behavior of our Christian fellows here in Acre.”

The other said, in the same tone, “We look forward to the cleaner and purer air of Far Tartary.”

“Thank you, Brothers,” my father said, still politely. “Now, would you excuse our having a private word with His Reverence and Their Royal Highnesses?”

The two friars sniffed as if offended, but left the room. To the Archdeacon, my father then quoted the Bible, “The harvest indeed is great, but the laborers are few.”

Visconti countered with the quotation, “Where there are two or three gathered together in My name, there am I in the midst of them.”

“But, Your Reverence, I asked for priests.”

“And no priest volunteered. These two, however, are Preaching Friars. As such, they are empowered to undertake practically any ecclesiastical task—from founding a church to settling a matrimonial dispute. Their powers of consecration and absolution are somewhat limited, of course, and they cannot confer ordination, but you would have to take along a bishop for that. I am sorry for the fewness of the volunteers, but I cannot in conscience conscript or compel any others. Have you any further complaint?”

My father hesitated, but my uncle boldly spoke up, “Yes, Your Reverence. The friars admit they are not going for any positive purpose. They wish simply to get away from this dissolute city.”

“Just like Saint Paul,” the Archdeacon said drily. “I refer you to the Book of Acts of the Apostles. This city was in those times called Ptolemais, and Paul once set foot here, and evidently he could stand the place for only a single day.”

Princess Eleanor said fervently, “Amen!” and Prince Edward chuckled in sympathy.

“You have your choice,” Visconti said to us. “You can apply elsewhere, or you can await the election of a Pope and apply to him. Or you can accept the services of the two Dominican brothers. They declare that they will be ready and eager to leave on the morrow.”

“We accept them, of course, Your Reverence,” said my father. “And we thank you for your good offices.”

“Now,” said Prince Edward. “You must get beyond the Saracen lands in order to go eastward. There is one best route.”

“We would be gratified to know it,” said Uncle Mafìo. He had brought with him the Kitab of al-Idrisi, and he opened it to the pages showing Acre and its environs.

“A good map,” the Prince said approvingly. “Look you, then. To go east from here, you must first go north, to skirt around the Mamluks inland.” Like every other Christian, the Prince held the pages upside down to put north at the top. “But the major ports nearest to the northward: Beirut, Tripoli, Latakia …”—he tapped the gilded dots on the map which represented those seaports—“if they have not already fallen to the Saracens, they are heavily under siege. You must go—let me calculate: more than two hundred English miles—north along the coast. To this place in Lesser Armeniya.” He tapped a spot on the map which apparently did not merit a gilded dot. “There, where the Orontes River debouches into the sea, is the old port of Suvediye. It is inhabited by Christian Armeniyans and peaceable Avedi Arabs, and the Mamluks have not yet got near it.”

“That was once a major port of the Roman Empire, called Selucia,” said the Archdeacon. “It has since been called Ayas and Ajazzo and many other names. Of course, you will go to Suvediye by sea, not along the coast itself.”

“Yes,” said the Prince. “There is an English ship leaving here for Cyprus on tomorrow’s evening tide. I will instruct the captain to go by way of Suvediye, and to take you and your friars along. I will give you a letter to the Ostikan, the governor of Suvediye, bidding him see to your safe conduct.” He directed our attention again to the Kitab. “When you have procured pack animals in Suvediye, you will go inland through the river pass—here—then east to the Euphrates River. You should have an easy journey down the Euphrates valley to Baghdad. And from Baghdad, there are diverse routes to the farther eastward.”

My father and uncle stayed on at the castle while the Prince wrote the letter of safe conduct. But they let me make my farewells to His Reverence and Their Royal Highnesses, so that I might take my leave and spend that last day in Acre as I pleased. I did not see the Archdeacon or the Prince and Princess again, but I did hear news of them. My father, my uncle and I had not been long gone from the Levant when we got word that the Archdeacon Visconti had been elected Pope of the Church of Rome, and had taken the papal name of Gregory X. About the same time, Prince Edward gave up the Crusade as a lost cause, and sailed for home. He had got as far as Sicily when he too received some news: that his father had died and that he was King of England. So, all unknowing, I had been acquainted with two of the men of highest eminence in Europe. But I have never much preened in that brief acquaintance. After all, I was later to meet men in the East whose eminence made midgets of Popes and kings.

When I left the castle that day, it was at one of the five hours when Arabs pray to their god Allah, and the beadles whom they call muedhdhin were perched on every tower and high rooftop, loudly but monotonously intoning the chants that announce those hours. Everywhere—in shops and doorways and in the dusty street—men of the Islamic faith were unfolding tatty little rugs and kneeling on them. Turning their faces to the southeast, they pressed those faces to the ground between their hands, while they elevated their rear ends in the air. At those hours, any man you could look in the face instead of the rump had to be a Christian or a Jew.

As soon as everyone in Acre was vertical again, I spotted my three acquaintances of a week or so before. Ibrahim, Naser and Daud had seen me go into the castle and had waited near its entrance for me to emerge. They were all shiny-eyed with eagerness to show me the great marvel they had promised. First, they conveyed to me, I must eat something they had brought. Naser was carrying a little leather bag, which proved to contain a quantity of figs preserved in sesame oil. I liked figs well enough, but these were so oil-soaked that they were pulpy and slimy and disagreeable in the mouth. Nevertheless, the boys insisted that I must ingest them as preparation for the revelation to come, so I forced myself to swallow four or five of the dreadful things.

Then the boys led me on a roundabout way through the streets and alleys. It began to seem a very long way, and I began to feel very weary in my limbs and addled in my mind. I wondered if the hot sun was affecting my bare head or if the figs had been somehow tainted. My vision was disturbed; the people and buildings about me seemed to sway and distort themselves in odd ways. My ears sang as if I were beset by swarms of flies. My feet stumbled on every least irregularity in our path, and I pleaded with the boys to let me stop and rest for a bit. But they, still insistent and excited, took my arms and helped me plod along. I understood from them that my muzziness was indeed an effect of the specially pickled figs, and that it was necessary to what was to come next.

I found myself dragged to an open but very dark doorway, and I started obediently to enter. But the boys set up an angry uproar, and I interpreted it to mean something like “You stupid infidel, you must take off your shoes and enter barefooted”—from which I assumed the building must be one of the houses of worship the Muslims call a masjid. Since I was not wearing shoes, but soled hose, I had to strip myself naked from the waist down. I clutched my tunic and stretched it as far down over my exposed self as I could, meanwhile wondering woozily why it should be more acceptable to enter a masjid with one’s privates bare than with one’s feet shod. Anyway, the boys did not hesitate, but propelled me through the doorway and inside the place.

Never having been in a masjid, I did not know what to expect, but I was vaguely surprised to find it absolutely unlighted and empty of worshipers or anybody else. All I could see in the dim interior was a row of immense stoneware jars, nearly as tall as I was, standing against one wall. The boys led me to the jar at the end of the row and bade me get into it.

I had been slightly apprehensive—being outnumbered and half nude and not in full command of myself—that the juvenile Sodomites perhaps had designs upon my body, and I was prepared to fight. But what they proposed struck me as more hilarious than outrageous. When I asked for an explanation, they simply continued to motion at the massive jar, and I was too fuddled to balk. Instead, even while laughing at the preposterousness of what I was doing, I let the boys boost me up to a sitting position on the lip of the jar, and swung my feet over and let myself down into it.

Not until I was inside it did I perceive that the jar contained a fluid, because there was no splash or sudden feeling of coldness or wetness. But the jar was at least half filled with oil, so nearly at body warmth that I hardly felt it until my immersion raised its level to my throat. It really felt rather pleasant: emollient and enveloping and smooth and soothing, especially around my tired legs and my sensitively exposed private parts. That realization roused me a little. Was this a prelude peculiar to some strange and exotic sexual rite? Well, thus far at least, it felt good and I did not complain.

Only my head protruded from the collar of the jar, and my fingers still rested on its rim. The boys laughingly pushed my hands inside with me, and then produced something they must have found nearby: a large disk of wood with hinges, rather like a portable pillory. Before I could protest or dodge, they fitted the thing around my neck and closed it shut. It made a lid for the jar I stood in, and, though it was not uncomfortably constrictive around my neck, it somehow had clamped onto the jar so securely that I could not dislodge or lift it.

“What is this?” I demanded, as I sloshed my arms around inside the jar and vainly shoved upward against the wooden lid. I could slosh and shove only slowly, as sometimes one moves in a dream, because of the warm oil’s viscosity. My confused senses finally registered the sesame smell of that oil. Like the figs I had earlier been made to eat, I had apparently been put to steep in sesame oil. “What is this?” I shouted again.

“Va istadan! Attendez!” commanded the boys, making gestures for me to stand patient in my jar and wait.

“Wait?” I bellowed. “Wait for what?”

“Attendez le sorcier,” said Naser with a giggle. Then he and Daud ran out through the gray oblong that was the door to the outside.

“Wait for the wizard?” I repeated in mystification. “Wait for how long?”

Ibrahim lingered long enough to hold up some fingers for me to count. I peered through the gloom and saw that he had splayed the fingers of both hands.

“Ten?” I said. “Ten what?” He too edged backward toward the door, meanwhile closing his fingers and flicking them open again—four times. “Forty?” I said desperately. “Forty what? Quarante à propos de quoi?”

“Chihil ruz,” he said. “Quarante jours.” And he disappeared out the door.

“Wait for forty days?” I wailed, but got no answer.

All three boys were gone and, it seemed evident, not just to hide from me for a while. I was left alone in my pickling jar in the dark room, with the smell of the sesame oil in my nose, and the loathsome taste of figs and sesame in my mouth, and still a whirl of confusion in my mind. I tried hard to think what all this meant. Wait for the wizard? No doubt it was a boyish prank, something to do with Arab custom. The khane landlord Ishaq would probably explain it to me, with many a laugh at my gullibility. But what kind of prank could keep me immured for forty days? I would miss tomorrow’s ship and be marooned in Acre, and Ishaq would have ample time to explain Arab customs to me at leisure. Or would I have vanished in the clutches of the wizard? Did the infidel Muslim religion, unlike the rectitudinous Christian, allow wizards to practice their evil arts unmolested? I tried to imagine what a Muslim wizard would want with a bottled Christian. I hoped I would not find out. Would my father and uncle come looking for me before they sailed? Would they find me before the wizard did? Would anybody?

Just then somebody did. A shadowy shape, larger than any of the boys, loomed in the gray doorway. It paused there, as if waiting for its eyes to adjust to the darkness, and then moved slowly toward my jar. It was tall and bulky—and ominous. I felt as if I were contracting, or shriveling, inside the jar, and wished I could retract my head below the lid.

When the man got close enough, I saw that he wore clothes of the Arab style, except that he had no cords binding his headcloth. He had a curly red-gray beard like a sort of fungus, and he stared at me with bright blackberry eyes. When he spoke the traditional greeting of peace-be-with-you, I noticed even in my befuddlement that he pronounced it slightly differently from the Arab manner: “Shalom aleichem.”

“Are you the wizard?” I whispered, so frightened that I said it in Venetian. I cleared my throat and repeated it in French.

“Do I look like a wizard?” he demanded in a rasping voice.

“No,” I whispered, though I had no idea what a wizard ought to look like. I cleared my throat again and said, “You look more like someone I used to know.”

“And you,” he said scornfully, “seem to seek out smaller and ever smaller prison cells.”

“How did you know—?”

“I saw those three little mamzarim manhandle you in here. This place is well and infamously known.”

“I meant—”

“And I saw them leave again without you, just the three of them. You would not be the first fair-haired and blue-eyed lad to come in here and never come out again.”

“Surely there are not many hereabouts with eyes and hair not black.”

“Precisely. You are a rarity in these parts, and the oracle must speak through a rarity.”

I was already confused enough. I think I just blinked at him. He bent down out of my sight for a moment, and then reappeared, holding the leather bag that Naser must have dropped when he departed. The man reached into it and took out an oil-dripping fig. I nearly retched at sight of it.

“They find such a boy,” he said. “They bring him here and soak him in sesame oil, and they feed him only these oil-soaked figs. At the end of forty days and nights, he has become macerated as soft as a fig. So soft that his head can be easily lifted off his body.” He demonstrated, twisting the fig in his fingers so that, with a squishy noise just barely audible, it came in two.

“Whatever for?” I said breathlessly. I seemed to feel my body softening below the wooden lid, becoming waxy and malleable like the fig, already sagging, preparing to part from my neck stump with a squishy noise and sink slowly to rest on the bottom of the jar. “I mean, why kill a perfect stranger, and in such a way?”

“It does not kill him, so they say. It is an affair of black sorcery.” He dropped the bag and the pieces of fig and wiped his fingers on the hem of his gown. “At any rate, the head part of him goes on living.”

“What?”

“The wizard props the severed head in that niche in the wall yonder, on a comfortable bed of olivewood ashes. He burns incense before it, and chants magic words, and after a while the head speaks. On command, it will foretell famines or bounteous harvests, forthcoming wars or times of peace, all manner of useful prophecies like that.”

I began to laugh, at last realizing that he was merely joining in the prank that had been played on me, and prolonging it.

“Very well,” I said between laughs. “You have paralyzed me with terror, old cellmate. I am uncontrollably pissing and adulterating this fine oil. But now, enough. When I last saw you, Mordecai, I did not know you would flee this far from Venice. But you are here, and I am glad to see you, and you have had your joke. Now release me, and we will go and drink a qahwah together and talk of our adventures since last we met.” He did not move; he simply stood and looked sorrowfully at me. “Mordecai, enough!”

“My name is Levi,” he said. “Poor lad, you are already ensorceled to the point of derangement.”

“Mordecai, Levi, whoever you are!” I ranted, beginning to feel a touch of panic. “Lift this accursed lid and let me out!”

“I? I will not touch that terephah uncleanness,” he said, fastidiously taking a step backward. “I am not a filthy Arab. I am a Jew.”

My disquiet and anger and exasperation were beginning to clear my head, but they were not influencing me to be tactful. I said, “Did you come here, then, only to entertain me in my confinement? Are you going to leave me here for the idiot Arabs? Is a Jew as idiotically superstitious as they are?”

He grunted, “Al tidàg,” and left me. He trudged across the chamber and out through the gray doorway opening. I looked after him, appalled. Did al tidàg mean something like be-damned-to-you? He was probably my only hope of rescue, and I had insulted him.

But he came back almost immediately, and he was carrying a heavy bar of metal. “Al tidàg,” he said again, and then thought to translate: “Do not worry. I will get you out, as I am bidden, but I must do it without touching the uncleanness. Happily for you, I am a blacksmith, and my smithy is just across the way. This bar will do it. Stand firm, now, young Marco, so you do not fall when it breaks.”

He swung the bar and, at the moment it crashed against the jar, he leapt well to one side, so that his garments would not be defiled by the resultant cascade of oil. The jar shattered with a great noise, and I swayed unsteadily, as the pieces and all the oil fell away from me. The wooden lid suddenly weighed heavily on my neck. But, since I could now reach my hands to the upper surface of it, I quickly found and undid the catches that held it closed, and I dropped the wooden disk in the spreading pool of oil at my feet.

“Will you not get into trouble over this?” I asked, indicating the mess all about us. Very elaborately, Levi shrugged his shoulders, his hands and his fungoid eyebrows. I went on, “You called me by name, and you said something about having been bidden to rescue me from this danger.”

“Not from this danger specifically,” he said. “The word was merely to try to keep Marco Polo out of trouble. There were also some words of description—that you could easily be recognized by your proximity to the nearest available trouble.”

“That is interesting. The word from whom?”

“I have no idea. I gather that you once helped some Jew get out of a bad spot. And the proverb says that the reward of a mitzva is another mitzva.”

“Ah, as I suspected: old Mordecai Cartafilo.”

Levi said, almost peevishly, “That could be no Jew. Mordecai is a name from ancient Babylon. And Cartafilo is a gentile name.”

“He said he was a Jew, and so he seemed to be, and that was the name he used.”

“Next you will say that he wandered, as well.”

Puzzled, I said, “Well, he did tell me that he had traveled extensively.”

“Khakma,” he said, which rasping noise I took to be a word of derision. “That is a fable concocted by fabulists of the goyim. There is not one immortal wandering Jew. The Lamed-vav are mortal, but there are always thirty-six of them going secretly and helpfully about the world.”

I was disinclined to linger in that dark place while Levi argued about fables. I said, “You are a fine one to sneer at fabulists, after your ludicrous tale of wizards and talking heads.”

He gave me a long look, and scratched thoughtfully in his curly beard. “Ludicrous?” He held out to me his metal bar. “Here. I do not wish to put my feet in the oil. You break the next jar in the row.”

I hesitated for a moment. Even if this place was just an ordinary masjid house of worship, we had already considerably desecrated it. But then I thought: one jar, two jars, what matter? And I swung the bar as hard as I could, and the second jar broke with a brittle smash, and loosed its surge of sesame oil with a splash, and something else hit the ground with a thick, moist thud. I bent over to see it better, and then hastily recoiled, and said to Levi, “Come, let us go away.”

On the threshold I found my hose where I had discarded them, and I gratefully put them on again. I did not mind that they got instantly soaked with the oil clinging to me; the rest of my garb already was sopping and clammy. I thanked Levi for his having rescued me, and for his explication of Arabian sorcery. He bade me “lechàim and bon voyage,” and cautioned me not to depend on the relayed word of a nonexistent Jew to keep me forever out of every trouble. Then he went off to his forge and I hastened back toward the inn, looking repeatedly over my shoulder in case I should be seen and pursued by the three Arab boys or the wizard for whom they had captured me. I no longer believed the adventure to have been a prank, and I no longer contemned the sorcery as a fable.

When Levi watched me break that second jar, he did not ask me what it was I bent to peer at among its shards, and I did not try to tell him, and I cannot tell it clearly even yet. The place was very dark, as I have said. But the object that fell onto the ground with that sickening wet plop was a human body. What I saw and can tell about it is that the corpse was naked, and had been a male, not full grown to manhood. Also it lay oddly on the ground, like a sack made of skin, a sack that had been emptied of its contents. I mean it looked more than soft, it looked flaccid, as if somehow all its bones had been extracted, or dissolved. The only other thing I could see was that the body had no head. I have never since that time been able to eat figs or anything flavored with sesame.

5

THE next afternoon, my father paid our bill to landlord Ishaq, who accepted the money with the words, “May Allah smother you with gifts, Sheikh Folo, and repay every generous act of yours.” And my uncle distributed to the khane servants the gratuities of smaller money, which are in all the East called by the Farsi word bakhshish. He gave the largest amount to the hammam rubber who had introduced him to the mumum ointment, and that young man thanked him with the words, “May Allah conduct you through every hazard and keep you ever smiling.” And all the staff, Ishaq and the servants together, stood in the inn door to wave after us with many other cries:

“May Allah flatten the road before you!”

“May you travel as upon a silken carpet!” and the like.

So our expedition proceeded northward up the Levantine coast, and I congratulated myself on having got out of Acre intact, and I trusted that I had had my one and last encounter with sorcery.

That short sea voyage was unremarkable, as we stayed in sight of the shore the whole way, and that shore is everywhere much the same to look at: dun-colored dunes with dun-colored hills behind them, the occasional dun-colored mud hut or village of mud huts almost imperceptible against the landscape. The cities we sailed past were slightly more distinguishable, since each was marked by a Crusaders’ castle. The most noticeable from the sea was the city of Beirut, it being sizable and set upon an outjutting point of land, but I judged it to be inferior, as a city, even to Acre.

My father and uncle occupied themselves on shipboard with making lists of the equipment and supplies they should have to procure in Suvediye. I occupied myself mainly in chatting with the crew; although most of them were Englishmen, they of course spoke the Sabir of travelers and traders. The Brothers Guglielmo and Nicolò occupied themselves in talking to each other, and talking endlessly, about the iniquities of Acre and how thankful they were to God for His having let them decamp from there. Of all the complaints they might have aired in regard to Acre, they seemed most exercised about the unchaste and licentious behavior of the resident Clarissas and Carmelitas. But, from what I overheard of their lamentations, they sounded more like hurt husbands or rejected suitors of those nuns than like their brothers in Christ. Lest I sound disrespectful of a noble calling, I will say no more about my impressions of the two friars. For they deserted our expedition before we got any farther than Suvediye.

That city was a poor and small place. To judge from the ruins and remains of a much larger city standing around it, Suvediye had gradually been reduced from what grandeur it may have had in Roman times, or perhaps earlier, when Alexander had come its way. The reason for its diminishment was not far to seek. Our own ship, not a large one, had to anchor well out in the little bay, and we passengers had to be brought ashore in a skiff, because the harbor was so badly silted and shallowed by the outflow of the Orontes River there. I do not know if Suvediye still is a functioning seaport, but at that time it clearly did not have very many more years in which to be so.

For all the city’s puniness and poor prospects, Suvediye’s inhabitant Armeniyans seemed to regard it as the equal of a Venice or a Bruges. Though only one other ship was anchored there when ours arrived, the port officials behaved as if their harbor roads were thronged with vessels, and all requiring the most scrupulous attention. A fat and greasy Armeniyan inspector came bustling aboard, his arms laden with papers, while we five passengers were in the process of debarking. He insisted on counting us—five—and all our packs and bundles, and entered the numbers in a ledger. Then he let us go, and began to pester the English captain for the information with which to fill out innumerable other manifests of cargo, origin, destination and so forth.

There was no Crusaders’ castle in Suvediye, so we five—pushing our way through the city’s throngs of beggars—went directly to the palace of the Ostikan, or governor, to present our letters from Prince Edward. I charitably call the Ostikan’s residence a palace; it was in fact a rather shabby building, but it was respectable in extent and two stories in height. After numerous entry guards and reception clerks and under-officials had severally demonstrated their importance, each of them delaying us with an officious show of fuss, we were finally conducted into the palace throne room. I charitably call it a throne room, for the Ostikan sat on no imposing throne, but lolled on what is called a daiwan, which is only a heap of cushions. In spite of the day’s warmth, he repeatedly rubbed his hands over a brazier of coals before him. In a corner, a young man sat on the floor, using a large knife to cut his toenails. Those nails must have been exceedingly horny; each gave a loud thwack as it was cut off, and then went whiz and fell elsewhere in the room with an audible click.

The Ostikan’s name was Hampig Bagratunian, but his name was the only wonderful thing about him. He was small and wizened and, like all Armeniyans, he had no back to his head. It was flat there, as if his head had been designed to hang on a wall. He did not look at all like a governor of anything, and he was as clerkly as his clerks in tongue-clucking fussiness. Unlike an Arab or a Jew, who obey their religions’ injunctions to entertain strangers with a good grace, the Christian Armeniyan received us with unconcealed annoyance.

When he had read the letter, he said in Sabir, “Just because I am a fellow monarch”—casually inflating his rank to regality—“any other prince seems to think he can rid himself of a bother by shunting it on to me.”

We politely said nothing. A toenail went thwack, whiz, click.

Ostikan Hampig continued, “Here you arrive on the very eve of my son’s wedding”—he indicated the toenail cutter—“when I have countless other things to attend to, and guests coming from all over the Levant, trying not to get themselves slaughtered by the Mamluks on their way, and all the festivities to arrange, and …” He went on listing the botherations to which our arrival had added another.

His son carved off a final clamorous toenail, then looked up and said, “Wait, Father.”

The Ostikan, interrupted in his recital, said, “Yes, Kagig?”

Kagig got up from where he sat, but did not quite rise erect. Instead, he began to roam about the room, bent over, as if to give us a good view of the flat back of his head. He picked up something, and I realized that he was for some reason retrieving his pared bits of toenail. While he worked, he said over his shoulder to the Ostikan, “These strangers brought two churchmen with them.”

“Yes, so they did,” his father said impatiently. “What of it?”

One of the toenail crescents had landed near my own foot; I picked it up and gave it to Kagig. He nodded and, seeming satisfied that he had all the bits, he sat down beside his father on the daiwan, brushing the horny scraps from his hand into the brazier. “There,” he said. “No sorcerer will use those to conjure against me.” The toenails seemed still determined not to die quietly: they sizzled and popped among the coals.

“What about these churchmen, my boy?” Hampig inquired again, paternally stroking his son’s backless head.

“Well, we have old Dimirjian to conduct my nuptial mass,” Kagig said languidly. “But every common peasant has one priest to do the marrying of him. Suppose I had three …”

“Hm,” said his father, turning his eyes to the Brothers Nicolò and Guglielmo; they stared haughtily back at him. “Yes, that would add to the pomp of the occasion.” To my father and uncle he said, “You may not be unwelcome, after all. Are these clerics empowered to confer the sacrament of matrimony?”

“Yes, Your Excellency,” said my father. “These are Friars Preachers.”

“They could serve the mass as acolytes suffragan to the Metropolitan Dimirjian. And they should feel honored to participate. My son is marrying a pshi—a Princess—of the Adighei. What you call the Circassians.”

“A people famous for their beauty,” said Uncle Mafìo. “But … Christian?”

“My son’s betrothed has taken instruction from the Metropolitan Dimirjian himself, and Confirmation and First Communion. The Princess Seosseres is now a Christian.”

“And a beautiful Christian indeed,” said Kagig, smacking his liver-like lips. “People stop in their footsteps when they see her—even Muslims and other infidels—and bow their heads and thank the Creator for having created the Pshi Seosseres.”

“Well?” Hampig said to us. “The wedding is tomorrow.”

My father said, “I am sure the frati will be honored to participate. Your Excellency has only to bid me, and I will bid them serve.”

The two frati looked somewhat indignant at not having been personally consulted during the conversation, but they raised no objection.

“Good,” said the Ostikan. “We shall have three ecclesiastics at the nuptials, and two of them foreigners from afar. Yes, that will impress my guests and my subjects. On that condition, then, messieurs, you will—”

“We will remain here in Suvediye for the royal wedding,” said Uncle Mafìo, smoothly dropping in the adjective. “Of course, we will desire to continue our journey immediately afterward. And so, of course, Your Excellency will meantime have helped to expedite our procurement of mounts and supplies.”

“Er … yes … of course,” said Hampig, looking fussed at having been given some conditions in return. He rang a bell by his hand, and one of the under-officials entered. “This is my palace steward, messieurs. Arpad, you will show these gentlemen to quarters here in the palace, then introduce the friars to the Metropolitan, then accompany the gentlemen to the market and render whatever assistance they may require.” He turned again to us. “Very well, then. I welcome you to Suvediye, messieurs, and I formally invite you to the royal wedding and all the attendant festivities.”

So Arpad led us to two chambers on the upper floor, one for us and one for the friars. As soon as we had unpacked enough of our belongings for a brief stay, we went downstairs again and handed the Brothers over to the Metropolitan Dimirjian. He was a large old man, the backlessness of whose head was less remarkable than what could be seen on the forward side of it: a massive nose, a weighty underslung jaw, overslung eyebrows and long fleshy ears. When he had taken the friars off to rehearse them in the morrow’s ritual, my father, my uncle and I went with Steward Arpad to the Suvediye marketplace.

“You might as well get used to calling it the bazàr,” he said helpfully. “That is the Farsi word used from here to the eastward. You are buying at a good time, for the wedding has attracted vendors from everywhere, hawking every conceivable thing, so you will have ample choice of goods. But I beg that you will let me assist you in the bargaining for your selections. Gods knows the Arab merchants are tricksters and swindlers, but the Armeniyans are so much shiftier that only a fellow Armeniyan dares deal with them. The Arabs would merely cheat you naked. The Armeniyans would flay you of your very skins.”

“The chief thing we need is riding animals,” said my uncle. “They can carry us and what goods we have, as well.”

“I suggest horses,” said Arpad. “You may wish to change them later for camels, when you have much desert to cross. But for now, since your next destination is Baghdad, no hard journey, horses will be more speedy, and much more easy to handle than camels. Mules would be even better, but I doubt that you wish to spend what they would cost.”

In much of the East, as in civilized Europe, the mule, because it is so gentle and amenable and intelligent, is the preferred mount of men and ladies of high degree—meaning the very rich—so a mule breeder unblushingly asks exorbitant prices for his animals. My father and uncle agreed that they did not care to pay such prices, that horses would have to do for us.

So we visited the several rope corrals set up around the outskirts of the bazàr, where could be bought all sorts of riding and pack animals: mules, asses, horses of every breed from the exquisite Arabian to the heftiest drafter, and also camels and their cousins, the sleek racing dromedaries. After examining many horses, my father and uncle and the steward settled on five—two geldings and three mares—of good appearance and conformation, not so heavy as the draft animals but nowhere near so elegant as the fine-boned Arabians.

Buying five horses meant five separate dickerings. So there in the Suvediye bazàr, for the first time, I witnessed a procedure that I was eventually to become weary of, for I had to endure it in every bazàr of the East. I mean the curious Eastern manner of transacting a purchase. Although the steward Arpad kindly did it for us that time, it was a prolonged and tedious affair.

Arpad and the horse trader each extended a hand to the other, letting their long sleeves drape over the meeting hands to make them invisible to anyone looking on—and in any bazàr there are always countless loiterers with nothing better to do than to watch other people’s business dealings. Then Arpad and the trader each wiggled and tapped his hidden fingers against the other’s hidden hand, the trader signaling the price he wanted, Arpad the price he would give. Although I learned the signals and remember them well, I will not set them out in all their intricacy. Suffice it to say that one man first taps to indicate either single digits or tens or hundreds, and thus, by subsequently tapping thrice, say, indicates either three or thirty or three hundred. And so on. The system allows the signaling even of fractions, and even of the different values when buyer and merchant must deal in different currencies, say dinars and ducats.

By exchanging the taps, the horse trader gradually reduced his demand, and the steward gradually increased his offer. In this way, they worked their way through all the reasonable prices and unreasonable extortions conceivable. In the East, the various sorts of prices even have names: the great price, the small price, the city price, the beautiful price, the fixed price, the good price—and an infinity of others. When they reached a mutually acceptable deal for the first horse, they had to repeat the process for each of the four others, and in each case the steward had to consult at intervals with us, not to exceed his authority or our purse.

Any of those sessions could easily have been conducted in spoken words, but that is never done, for the secrecy of the hand-and-sleeve method benefits both buyer and seller, since no one else ever knows the original asking price or the final price agreed on. Thus a buyer sometimes can drive a merchant down to a figure the merchant would be ashamed to speak aloud, but he may finally sell at that price, knowing that any next prospective buyer will not know of it and cannot take advantage of it. Or a buyer, so eager to acquire some item that he will not haggle much over the price, can pay it knowing that he will not be jeered by the bystanders for a spendthrift fool.

Our five transactions were not completed until the sun was almost down, leaving us not time enough that day even to buy saddles for the horses, not to mention the many other necessities on our lists. We had to return to the palace, to visit its hammam and get thoroughly clean before donning our best clothes for the evening meal. For it was to be a banquet, Arpad told us, the traditional all-male celebration on the eve of a wedding. While we were being rubbed and pummeled in the hammam, my father said anxiously to my uncle:

“Mafìo, we must present some sort of celebratory gift to the Ostikan or his son or his son’s bride, if not a gift to each of them. I cannot think what might be suitable. Worse, I cannot think what we might afford. Our budget was much depleted by the purchase of those mounts, and we have many other things yet to buy.”

“No fear. I had already given that some thought,” said my uncle, sounding confident as usual. “I looked into the kitchen where the banquet is being prepared. For color and condiment, the cooks are using what they told me was safflower. I tasted it and—can you imagine?—it is nothing but common càrtamo, bastard zafràn. They have none of the real thing. So we will give the Ostikan a brick of our good golden zafràn, and it should delight him more than the golden trinkets everyone else will be giving.”

For all its decrepitude, the palace had a commendably large dining hall, and that night it needed it, because just the males among the Ostikan’s guests made a tremendous crowd. They were mostly Armeniyans and Arabs—the former including the “royal” Bagratunian family and its relations, from close to remote; plus the palace and government officials; plus what I suppose passed for the nobility of Suvediye; plus legions of visitors from elsewhere in Lesser Armeniya and the rest of the Levant. The Arabs seemed all to be of the Avedi tribe, which must have been a huge tribe, for all the Arabs claimed to be sheikhs of high or lower degree. My father, my uncle, the two Dominicans and myself were not the only foreigners, for all of the bride’s Circassian family had come south from the Caucasus Mountains for the occasion. I might say that they were—as is reputed of all Circassians—a strikingly handsome people, and by far the best looking men in the company that night.

The banquet actually consisted of two separate meals, served simultaneously, each meal comprising numberless courses. Those courses served to us and the Armeniyan Christians were the most various, because they were not limited by any infidel superstitions. The courses set before the Muslim guests had to exclude the many foods their Quran forbids them to eat—pork, of course, and shellfish, and every meat from every sort of creature that lives in a hole, whether a hole in the ground, a hole in a tree or a hole in the underwater mud.

I paid no particular attention to what the Arab guests were given to eat, but I recall that our Christian main course was a young camel calf stuffed with a lamb which was stuffed with a goose which was stuffed with minced pork, pistachios, raisins, pine seeds and spices. There were also stuffed aubergines and stuffed marrows and stuffed vine leaves. For drink, there were sharbats made with still-frozen snow, brought from God knows where and by God knows what swift means and at God knows what cost. The sharbats were of different navors—lemon, rose, quince, peach—and all perfumed with nard and frankincense. For sweets, there were pastries rich with butter and honey and as crisp as honeycombs, and a paste called halwah, made of powdered almonds, and lime tarts, and little cakes unbelievably made of rose petals and orange blossoms, and a conserve of dates stuffed with almonds and cloves. There was also the uniquely wonderful qahwah. There were wines of many different colors, and other intoxicating liquors.

The Christians speedily got drunk on those drinks, and the Arabs and Circassians were not far behind them. It is well known that the Muslims’ Quran forbids them to drink wine, but it is not so well known that many Muslims observe that stricture precisely to the letter of the law. I will explain. Since wine must have been the only intoxicant in the world at the time the Prophet Muhammad wrote the Quran, it did not occur to him to proscribe every inebriating substance that might subsequently be discovered or invented. Thus many Muslims, even the most rigidly religious in other respects, feel at liberty—especially on festive occasions—to drink any intoxicant not, like wine, made from grapes, and also to chew the herb they variously call hashish, banj, bhang and ghanja, which is quite as potently deranging as any wine.

Since that night’s banquet was well provided with vivacious drinks never dreamed of by the Prophet—a sparkling urine-colored liquid called abijau, which is brewed from grain, and araq, which is wrung from dates, and something called medhu, which is an essence of honey, and also gummy wads of hashish for chewing—the Arabs and Circassians, except for a few elderly holy men among them, became just as addled and jolly and argumentative and lachrymose as did all the Christians. Well, not all the Christians; my uncle got notably bleary and inclined to sing, but my father and I and the friars abstained.

There was a band of musicians—or acrobats, it was hard to say which, for they did the most astonishing capers and tricks and contortions while they played. Their instruments were bagpipes and drums and long-necked lutes, and I would have called their music a dreadful caterwauling, except that I suppose it was admirable that they could play at all while they were doing somersaults and walking on their hands and bounding on and off each other’s shoulders.

The guests knelt or squatted or half-reclined on daiwan pillows around the dining cloths which covered every square inch of the floor, except in the narrow aisles where the servers and servants moved about in a sort of crouch. The guests got up, one or a group of them after another, to carry to the Ostikan and his son, who sat on a dais raised a little above the rest of the company, the gifts they had brought for the occasion. They knelt and bowed their heads and raised up in their hands ewers and platters and dishes of gold and silver, and jeweled brooches and tiaras and tulband medallions, and fabrics of silk threaded with gold, and many other fine things.

I discovered that night that, in the lands of the East, the recipient of a gift must give in return not just thanks but a gift at least as rich as that which he is given. I was to see that exchange take place often and often thereafter, and to see many a donor walk away with something incalculably more valuable than what he gave. But that night I was more amused than impressed by the practice. For the Ostikan Hampig, having the soul of a clerk, complied with the custom simply by giving to each new donor some object from the pile of valuables he had been given by earlier givers. It amounted to nothing more than a brisk shuffle of the gifts, so that, in effect, the guests would all go home with the same goods they had brought—only each would go home with someone else’s.

Hampig made only one departure from that routine, when it came our turn to get up and advance to the dais. As my uncle had predicted, the Ostikan was so overjoyed to receive our brick of zafràn that he bade his son Kagig get up and run to fetch something extraordinary to give in return. Kagig came back with three objects that looked—as a brick of zafràn does at first glance—rather commonplace. They appeared to be merely three small leather purses. But when Hampig handed them reverently to my father, we saw that they were the cods of musk deer, tightly packed with the precious grains of musk obtained from those deer. The three deer scrota were provided with long rawhide strings, for a reason which Hampig explained:

“If you know the value of these cods, messieurs, you will tie them behind your own testicles, and wear them there, hidden for safekeeping during your journey.”

My father gave sincere thanks for the gift, and my uncle made a drunkenly fulsome speech of gratitude that might have gone on endlessly, except that he got to coughing. I did not realize how really precious that gift was, and how untypical of the clerkly Hampig, until my father told me later that the value of the three cods full of musk was easily equal to what we had spent that day in the bazàr.

When we made our last bows to the Ostikan and left the dais, his son came lurching along, to join us at our cloth. It was of course quite far from the dais of honor, down among some barbarous-looking lesser guests, perhaps some poor country relations. Kagig, who was by then as drunk as anyone else in the hall, told us he wished to sit with us for a while, because his soon-to-be bride resembled us more than she did him or any of his people. Being a Circassian, Seosseres was fair of skin, he said, with chestnut hair and features of incomparable beauty. He went on at great length about her beauty: “More beautiful than the moon!” and her gentleness: “Gentler than the west wind!” and her sweetness: “Sweeter than the fragrance of the rose!” and her various other virtues:

“She is fourteen years of age, which may be somewhat overripe for marriage, but she is as virgin as any unpierced and unstrung pearl. She is educated and can talk well on a number of subjects about which I, even I, know nothing. Philosophy and logic, the canons of the great physician ibn Sina, the poems of Majnun and Laila, the mathematics called geometry and al-jebr …”

I think we listeners were rightly doubtful that the Pshi Seosseres could be so sublime. If so, why would she be willing to marry an uncouth Armeniyan with liver lips and no back to his head and a dedication to keeping his toenails safe from sorcerers? And I think our dubiety must have shown in our faces, and Kagig must have seen it, for he finally got up, staggered from the hall and clumped upstairs to fetch the Princess from her sequestered chamber. When he dragged her down, hauling on one of her wrists, she was trying maidenly to hold back, yet trying also not to put up an unwifely show of fight. He brought her into the hall and stood her in front of the company, and stripped off the chador that covered her face.

If all the guests had not been occupied with the viands before them, and most of them sodden with drink, probably someone would have prevented Kagig’s act of boorishness. The girl’s forced entry certainly caused a muttering in the hall, loudest and angriest among her male relations. Several Muslim holy men covered their faces, and several Christian elders averted theirs. But the rest of us, while we might deplore Kagig’s breach of good behavior, were able to be pleasured by the result of it. For the Pshi Seosseres was indeed an outstanding representative of her famously handsome people.

Her hair was long and wavy, her figure breathtakingly superb, her face so lovely that its light adornments of al-kohl around the eyes and red berry juice on the lips were quite unnecessary. The girl’s fair skin blushed pink in her embarrassment, and she only briefly let us see her qahwah-brown eyes before she lowered them and kept them lowered. Still we could gaze upon her unblemished brow and long lashes and perfect nose and winsome mouth and delicate chin. Kagig held her standing there for at least a full minute, while he made clownish bows and gestures of presentation. Then, as soon as he let go her wrist, she fled the hall and disappeared from our sight.

The Armeniyans, it is said, were once good men and valiant, and did dauntless deeds of arms. But in our time they are but poor simulacra of men, and good at nothing, unless it be drinking and bazàr-cheating. So I had heard, and so the Ostikan’s son demonstrated. I do not mean his exposure to the male banqueters of his bride-to-be; I mean what happened afterward.

When Seosseres had gone, Kagig flopped down again at our cloth, between me and my father, and looked around with a self-satisfied smirk, and asked of all within hearing, “What did you think of her, eh?” The girl’s male relations sitting nearby responded only with black looks; other men in our vicinity merely murmured respectful remarks of praise. Kagig preened as if they had been complimenting him, and proceeded to get even more drunk and even more vile. His continued eulogies on his Princess began to dwell less on the beauty of her face than on the attractiveness of some other parts of her, and his smirks became open leers, and his liver lips drooled. Before long, he was so besotted with wine and lust that he was muttering, “Why wait? Why should I wait for old Dimirjian to croak words over us? I am her husband in all but title. Tonight, tomorrow night, what difference … ?”

And suddenly he unfolded himself from the pillows and staggered again out of the hall and lumbered loudly up the stairs. As I have said, the palace was of no very sturdy construction. So anyone in the hall who bothered to direct an ear—as I did—could hear what happened next. However, none of the other guests, not even the Ostikan or the Circassians who might have been most interested, seemed to notice Kagig’s abrupt departure or the subsequent sounds. I did, and so did my still sober father and our two frati. Listening carefully, I heard distant thumps and little cries and indistinct commands and thin protests and then some more thumps that became a regular and insistent pulse of thumps. My father and the friars rose up from the cloth, and so did I, and we all helped Uncle Mafìo get up, and the five of us made our salutations to the host Hampig—who was drunk and quite uncaring if we left or stayed—and we departed to our own quarters.

We Polos spent the next morning in the bazàr again, and again accompanied by the steward Arpad. It was heroic of him to be still assisting us, for he clearly was suffering from the bibulous night before. But, headache notwithstanding, he performed capably as our hand-and-sleeve bargainer in another tedious series of interminable transactions. We bought saddles and saddle panniers and bridles and blankets, and had them and our horses delivered by bazàr boys to the palace stables, to be ready for our decamping. We bought leather water bags, and many sacks of dried fruits and raisins, and large goat cheeses sheathed against spoilage by heavy wax coatings. At Arpad’s suggestion, we bought a thing called a kamàl. It was only a palm-sized rectangle of wood strips, like a small and empty picture frame, with a long string depending from it.

“Any journeyer,” said Arpad, “can determine from the sun or the stars the directions of north, east, west and south. You are going eastward, and you will be able to judge each day’s progress eastward by your traveling pace. But it will sometimes be difficult to judge how far north or south of due east you have gone, and that is what the kamàl can tell you.”

My father and uncle made noises of surprise and interest. Arpad tenderly held his head in both hands, for it evidently hurt him when noises were made.

“The Arabs are infidels,” he said, “and unworthy of respect or admiration, but they did invent this useful device. Here, you will have the use of it, young Monsieur Marco, and I will show you how. Tonight, when the stars come out, you face north and hold the kamàl up at arm’s length. Move it back and forth from your face until the lower edge of the frame rests on the northern horizon and the North Star sits just on top of the frame. Then tie a knot in the string so that when you hold the knot in your teeth the string is at such a length that you always hold the rectangle out at that same distance from your eye.”

“Very well, Steward Arpad,” I said obediently. “Then what?”

“As you travel eastward from here, the land is almost all flat, so you will always have a more or less level horizon. Each night, hold the kamàl out to the length of the string’s knot and position the rectangle’s lower bar on the northern horizon. If the North Star is still on the upper bar, you are due east of Suvediye here. If the star is perceptibly above the wooden bar, you have veered to the north of east. If the star is below that bar, you have wandered to the south.”

“Cazza beta!” my uncle exclaimed in admiration.

“The kamàl can do even more,” said the steward. “Put a tag marked Suvediye on that first knot you make, young Marco. Then, when you reach Baghdad, do the same positioning of the rectangle away from or closer to your face, so that it just fits between the northern horizon and the North Star, and tie another knot in the string at that distance, and mark the knot Baghdad. If you continue to do that, making and marking a new horizon-knot for each destination as you reach it, you will always know—as you go on eastward—whether you are north or south of your last stopping place, or any of your previous stopping places.”

Deeming the kamàl a most useful addition to our equipment, we gladly paid for it—after Arpad and the merchant had done their long bargaining and set the price at a laughably few copper shahis. We went on to buy numerous other things we thought we would need on the road. And, thanks to the Ostikan’s musk-cod replenishment of our budget, we even bought a few extra comforts and small luxuries that we might otherwise have done without.

Not until that afternoon did we see again any of the other participants in the previous night’s banquet. That was when we all gathered in Suvediye’s Church of San Gregorio for the nuptial mass. To judge from the haggard faces in the congregation, and an occasional subdued groan, most of the men were, like Arpad, still feeling the effects of their indulgence at that banquet. The bridegroom-to-be looked worst of all. I might have expected him to look satisfied or smug or guilty, but he merely looked more lumpish than usual. The bride-to-be was so heavily veiled that I could not see her expression, but her handsome mother and the various other female relations all exhibited extremely angry eyes glaring through the slits of their chador veils.

The wedding went off without incident, and our two frati, almost unrecognizable in the garish vestments of the Armeniyan Church, ably supported the Metropolitan in his conduct of the service. Afterwards, the wedding party and the whole congregation trooped from the church to the palace again for another banquet. This time, of course, the female guests—all of them except the female Muslims—also were allowed to partake. Again there were entertainments: the tumblers with their music, and conjurers and singers and dancers. While the evening was yet young, the newly married couple—he looking pained and she looking more woebegone than even a bride of that lout should have looked—had their hands joined by the Metropolitan and, after he said an Armeniyan prayer over them, trudged away upstairs to their bridal chamber, trailed by some halfhearted rude jesting and cheering from the guests.

This time there was enough noise in the hall—the musicians and dancers making most of it—that not even my inquisitive ear could catch any sounds identifiable as denoting the consummation of the marriage. But after a while there came a number of heavy thuds and something suspiciously like a distant scream, audible even above the music. And suddenly, there came Kagig again, his clothes disheveled, as if they had been once doffed and then thrown on again just anyhow. He came stamping angrily down the stairs and into the hall. He strode straight to the nearest jar of wine and, disdaining a cup, drained it to the vertical.

I was not the only one who watched his entrance. But I think the other guests, astounded at seeing a husband deserting his bride on their wedding night, at first tried to pretend he was not there among them. However, he began loudly to curse and swear—or that is what the Armeniyan words sounded like to me—and none could ignore his presence. The Circassians again began to growl, and the Ostikan Hampig cried anxiously something like, “What on earth is wrong, Kagig?”

“Wrong!” the young man exclaimed—or so I was told later; he was too distraught to speak anything but Armeniyan. “My new wife is revealed to be a harlot, that is what is wrong!”

Several people ejaculated protests and refutations, and the Circassians exclaimed what was probably “Liar!” and “How dare you?”

“Do you think I could not tell?” Kagig raged, as I was later told. “She wept all during the ceremony, behind her veil, for she knew what I was soon to discover! She wept when we went together to our chamber, for the moment of revelation was at hand! She wept as she and I undressed, for she was at the brink of her perfidy’s disclosure! She wept even more loudly when I embraced her. And at the crucial moment, she did not give the cry that must be cried! So I investigated, and I could feel no maidenhead in her, and I saw no spot of blood upon the bed, and—”

One of Seosseres’ male relatives interrupted him, shouting, “Oh, mongrel dog of an Armeniyan, do you not remember?”

“I remember that I was promised a virgin! Not your shouting nor her weeping can change the fact that she had been had by some man before me!”

“You accursed defamer! You nothing!” shouted the Circassians, frothing from the lips. “Our sister Seosseres has never been near a man before!” They were all trying to get at Kagig, but other guests were holding them back.

“Then she has made love to a phallocrypt!” Kagig shouted wildly. “A tent peg or a cucumber or one of those haramlik carvings! But that is the only kind of thing that will ever love her again!”

“Oh, putridity! Oh, spew!” the Circassians bellowed, struggling against the holders-back. “Have you harmed our sister?”

“I should have!” he grumbled. “I should have cut out her duplicious tongue and thrust it up between her legs. I should have boiled oil and poured it into the defiled hole. I should have nailed her alive to the palace gate.”

At that, several of his own relatives seized him and shook him roughly, demanding, “Never mind that! What did you do?”

He fought loose of them, and petulantly shrugged his clothes back into an approximation of place. “I did only what a cuckolded husband is entitled to do, and I shall sue for annulment of this mock marriage!”

Not just the Circassians, but also the Arabs and Armeniyans shouted at him every kind of filthy name and revilement. There was so much commotion and tearing of hair and beards and rending of garments that it was several minutes before anyone could collect himself to speak coherently and tell the detestable husband what, in his drunkenness, he had done and then forgotten. It was his father, the Ostikan Hampig, who, weeping, told him :

“Oh, unfortunate Kagig, it was you who deflowered the maiden! Last night, on your wedding eve. You thought it would be clever and amusing to anticipate your husbandly rights. You went upstairs and forced her to bed, and you boasted of it afterward in this very room. It cost me dearly to persuade these her people not to slay you and anticipate her widowhood. The Princess is guiltless of any sin. It was you! You yourself!”

The cries in the hall redoubled:

“Pig!”

“Carrion!”

“Putrescence!”

And Kagig turned pale and his thick lips twitched, and for the first time in my knowledge of him he acted like a man. He showed genuine chagrin and he called for retribution as if he meant it, crying, “May the coals of Hell lie hot upon my head! I truly loved the beautiful Seosseres, and I have cut off her nose and her lips!”

6

MY father plucked at my sleeve, and he and I and my uncle slipped discreetly through the roiling crowd and out of the dining hall.

“This is not bread to my teeth,” said my father, frowning. “The Ostikan is in bad trouble, and any sovereign in trouble can make things trebly troublous for everyone around him.”

I said, “Surely he cannot blame us for anything.”

“When the head hurts, the whole body may suffer. I think it best that we get our horses loaded for a departure at first light. Let us go to our chamber and start packing.”

There we were joined by the two Dominicans, who spoke loudly of their nausea and disgust at what Kagig had done, as if only they of us all had sensibilities to be offended.

“Ho ho,” said Uncle Mafìo without humor. “These are fellow Christians. You have yet to meet some real barbarians.”

“That is what most disturbs us,” said Brother Guglielmo. “We understand that such horrendous cruelties are common practices in farther Tartary.”

My father remarked placidly that he had known of atrocities having been committed in the West, as well.

“Nevertheless,” said Brother Nicolò, “we fear that we could not competently minister to such monsters as you would have us go among. We wish to be excused from our preaching mission.”

“Would you now?” My uncle coughed and hawked and spat. “You wish to desert before we are even underway? Well, wish all you like. We have committed ourselves, and so have you.”

Brother Guglielmo said frostily, “Perhaps Fra Nico did not put it strongly enough. We are not asking your permission, Messeri, we are telling you our decision. The conversion of such raw savages would require more—more authority than we possess. And the Scriptures say: Turn away thy foot from evil. He that touches pitch shall be defiled with it. We decline to accompany you any farther.”

“You could not have supposed that this would be an easy or enjoyable mission,” said my father. “As the old saying has it, nobody goes to Heaven on a cushion.”

“A cushion? Fichèvelo!” boomed my uncle, thereby suggesting a unique use for a cushion. “We have paid good money to buy horses for these two manfroditi!”

“Calling us filthy names is not likely to persuade us,” said Brother Nicolò with hauteur. “In the manner of the Apostle Paolo, we do shun profane and vain babblings. The ship which brought us here is now preparing to sail on to Cyprus, and we will be aboard.”

My uncle would have blustered on, probably using still more words that sacerdoti seldom get to hear, but my father gestured him to silence, saying:

“We wanted emissaries of the Church to prove to Kubilai Khan the worth and superiority of Christianity over other religions. These sheep in priestly clothing would hardly be the best examples to show him. Go to your ship, Brothers, and God go with you.”

“And God and you go quickly!” snarled my uncle. When they had gathered up their belongings and left the chambers, he grumbled, “Those two merely seized upon our venture as an excuse to get away from the wicked women of Acre. Now they welcome this ugly incident here as an excuse to get away from us. We were bidden to bring a hundred priests, and we got two spineless old zitelle. Now we do not even have them.”

“Well, it is less hurtful losing the two than a hundred,” said my father. “The proverb says it is better to fall from a window than from the roof.”

“I can bear losing those two,” said Uncle Mafìo. “But now what? Do we go on? Without any clerics for the Khan?”

“We promised him we would return,” said my father. “And we have already been long away. If we do not go back, the Khan will lose faith in any Westerner’s word. He may bar the gates against all traveling merchants, including us, and we are merchants before anything else. We have no priests to take, but we do have enough capital—our zafràn and Hampig’s musk—that we can multiply it yonder into an estimable fortune. I say yes, let us go on. We shall simply tell Kubilai that our Church was in disarray during this papal interregnum. It is true enough.”

“I concur,” said Uncle Mafìo. “We go on. But what about this sprout?”

They both looked at me.

“He cannot return yet to Venice,” my father mused. “And the English ship is sailing on to England. But he could change at Cyprus to some vessel headed for Constantinople … .”

I said quickly, “I will not sail even to Cyprus with those two poltroon Dominicans. I might be tempted to do them some injury, and that would be a sacrilege, and that would imperil my hope of Heaven.”

Uncle Mafìo laughed and said, “But if we leave him here, and those Circassians start a blood feud with the Armeniyans, Marco may get to Heaven sooner than one might have hoped.”

My father sighed and said to me, “You will come with us as far as Baghdad. There we will seek out a merchant train headed westward by way of Constantinople. You will go to visit your Uncle Marco. You can either stay with him until we return or, if you hear that a new Doge has succeeded Tiepolo, you can take ship for Venice.”

I think only we, of all the people then inhabiting Hampig’s palace, even tried to sleep that night. And we slept but little, for the whole building kept shaking to the tread of heavy feet and the shouting of angry voices. The Circassian guests had all put on clothes of the sky-blue color they affect for mourning, but evidently they were unmournfully storming about the building, threatening to wreak some vengeance for the mutilation of their Seosseres, and the Armeniyans were as loudly trying to placate them, or at least shout them down. The turmoil was still undiminished when we rode out of the palace stable yard, eastward into the dawn. I do not know what finally became of the people we left behind there: whether the two craven friars got safely away to Cyprus, or whether the wretched Bagratunians ever did suffer any retaliation from the Princess’s people. I have never heard of any of them since that day. And on that day I truthfully was not worrying about them, but about staying in my saddle.

I had never in my life been transported by any conveyance other than water craft. So my father bridled and saddled my mare for me, and made me watch the procedure, telling me that I should have to do that job myself thereafter. Then he showed me how to mount, and the proper side of the animal from which to do it. I imitated his demonstration. I put my left foot into the stirrup, bounced briefly on my right foot, bounded high with enthusiasm, swung my right leg over, came down with a smack astride the hard seat, and gave a wild ululation of pain. Each of us was, as instructed by the Ostikan, wearing one of the leather cods of musk tied so that it hung under our crotch, and it was that that I thumped down on—and I thought for an agonized and writhing few minutes that it had cost me my own personal cod.

My father and uncle abruptly turned away, their shoulders shaking, to attend to their own mounts. I gradually recovered, and rearranged the musk pouch so it would not again endanger my vitals. Realizing that I was for the first time perched atop an animal, I rather wished that I had commenced with one not so tall, an ass perhaps, for I seemed to be teetering very high and insecurely far above the ground away down there. But I stayed in the saddle while my father and uncle also mounted, and each of them took the lead rope of one of the two extra horses, on which we had loaded all our packs and traveling gear. We rode out of the yard and toward the river, just as the day was breaking.

At the bank, we turned upriver toward the cleft in the hills where it came from inland. Very soon the troubled city of Suvediye was behind us, and then so were the ruins of earlier Suvediyes, and we were in the Orontes valley. It was a lovely warm morning, and the valley was lush with vegetation—green orchards of fruit trees separating extensive fields of spring-sown barley, now golden ripe for harvesting. Even that early in the day, the women workers were out and cutting the grain. We could see only a few of them, bent over their knives, but we knew that many were working there, from the multitudinous clicking noise. Because in Armeniya all the field hands are female, and because barley stalks are coarse and rough and injurious to their skin, the women wore wooden tubes on their fingers while they worked. In their numbers and their busyness, those fingers made a pervasive rattle that could have been mistaken for a fire crackling through the grain.

When we got beyond the cultivated lands, the valley was still verdant and colorful and full of life. There were the vast, spreading, dark-green plane trees, called hereabouts chinar trees, of welcome deep shade; and vividly green tiger-thistles; and the bountiful, silver-leaved, thorny trees called zizafun, from which a traveler can pluck the plumlike golden jujube fruit, good to eat whether fresh or dried. There were herds of goats munching the tiger-thistles; and on every goatherd’s’ mud hut there was the scraggly rooftop nest of a stork; and there were whole nations of pigeons, in every flock as many of them as in all of Venice; and there were the golden eagles, almost always on the wing, because they are so clumsy and vulnerable when they light, having to run and struggle and beat their pinions for a long way before they can get aloft again.

In the East, an overland journey is called by the Farsi word karwan. We were on one of the principal east—west karwan routes, so at easy intervals of about every sixth farsakh—which is to say about every fifteen miles—there stood one of the stopping places called a karwansarai. Although we rode leisurely, not pushing ourselves or our horses, we could always depend on finding, about sundown, one of those places on the Orontes riverside.

I do not remember the first of them very well, for that night I was mainly occupied with my own discomfort. During our first day on the trail we had not made our horses move faster than a walking gait, and I had thought I was enjoying a comfortable ride, and I several times dismounted and mounted again without noticing that the ride was affecting me in the least. However, at the karwansarai, when I finally got down from the saddle for the night, I found that I was sore and suffering. My backside hurt as if it had been thrashed, the inner sides of my legs were chafed and burning, the thews inside my thighs were so stretched and aching that I felt as if I would forever after walk bowlegged. But the discomfort gradually ebbed, and in a few days I could ride my horse at a walk and at intermittent canters and gallops—or even at the trot, which is the roughest gait—all the day long, if necessary, without feeling any ill effect. That was a pleasing development, except that, no longer being intent on my own misery, I could take more notice of the miseries of putting up each night at a karwansarai.

It is a sort of combination inn for traveling people and stable or corral for their animals, though the accommodations for men and animals are not, in their comfort and cleanliness, easily distinguishable. No doubt that is because each such establishment must be of a size and readiness to receive and provide for a hundred times more people and beasts than we comprised. On several nights, indeed, we shared a karwansarai with a veritable throng of merchants, Arabs or Persians, traveling in karwan with countless horses, mules, asses, camels and dromedaries, all heavy laden, hungry, thirsty and sleepy. Nevertheless, I would as soon eat the dry fodder stocked for the animals as the meals set before the humans, and rather sleep in the stable straw than on one of the webbed-rope affairs called a bed.

The first two or three such places we came to had signboards identifying each as a “Christian rest house.” They were run by Armeniyan monks, and were filthy and verminous and smelly, but the meals at least had the virtue of variety in their composition. Farther eastward, each karwansarai was run by Arabs and bore a signboard announcing, “Here, the true and pure religion.” Those establishments were a trifle cleaner and better kept, but the Muslim meals were monotonously unvarying—mutton, rice, a bread the exact size and shape and texture and taste of a wicker chair seat, and weak, warm, much-watered sharbats for drink.

Only a few days out of Suvediye, we came to the riverside town of Antakya. When one is making a journey across country, any community appearing on the horizon ahead is a welcome sight, and even a beautiful one from a distance. But that beauty lent by distance is all too often dispelled by closer approach. Antakya was, like every other town in those regions, ugly and dirty and dull and swarming with beggars. But it had the one distinction of having given its name to the surrounding land: Antioch, as it is called in the Bible. In other times, when the region was a part of Alexander’s empire, that land was called Syria. At the time of our passing through, it was an adjunct of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, or what still remained of that kingdom, which has since fallen entirely under the rule of the Mamluk Saracens. Anyway, I tried to look at Antakya and all of Antioch, or Syria, as Alexander might have regarded it, for I was mightily excited to be traveling one of the karwan trails that Alexander the Great once had trodden.

There at Antakya, the Orontes River bends due south. So we left it at that point and kept on bearing east, to another and much larger town, but also a dreary one—Haleb, called Aleppo by Westerners. We stayed the night in a karwansarai there and, because the landlord strongly advised that we would ride more comfortably if we changed our traveling costume, we bought from him Arab garments for each of us. When we left Aleppo, and for a long time afterward, we wore the full garb, from kaffiyah headcloth to the baggy leg coverings. That costume really is more comfortable for a man riding horseback than a tight Venetian tunic and hose. And from a distance at least, we looked like three of the nomad Arabs who call themselves the empty-landers, or bedawin.

Since most of the karwansarai keepers in those regions are Arabs, I of course learned many Arab words. But those landlords also spoke the universal trade language of Asia, which is Farsi, and we were getting nearer every day to the land of Persia, where Farsi is the native tongue. So, to help me more quickly pick up that language, my father and uncle did their best to converse always in what they knew of Farsi, instead of our own Venetian or the other jargon of Sabir French. And I did learn. In truth, I found Farsi considerably less difficult than some of the other tongues I had to contend with later on. Also, it must be supposed that young people acquire new languages more easily than do their elders, for it was not long before I was speaking Farsi far more fluently than either my father or my uncle did.

Somewhere east of Aleppo, we came to the next river, the Furat, which is better known as the Euphrates, named in the Book of Genesis as one of the four rivers of the Garden of Eden. I do not dispute the Bible, but I saw little that was gardenlike along the entire great length of the Furat. Where we joined it, to follow it downstream to the southeastward, that river does not, like the Orontes, flow through a pleasant valley; it merely wanders vagrantly through a flat country which is one immense pasture of grass for herds of goats and sheep. That is a useful enough function for a country, but it makes an extremely uninteresting terrain to travel across. One rejoices to see the occasional grove of olive trees or date palms, and one can see even a single isolated tree from a great distance before reaching it.

Over that level land a breeze blows almost constantly from the east, and, there being deserts far to the eastward, even that light breeze comes heavily freighted with a fine gray dust. Since only the far-apart trees and the infrequent travelers stick up above the low grass, it is on those things that the drifting dust collects. Our horses put their muzzles down and drooped their ears and closed their eyes and kept their direction by keeping the breeze on their left shoulders as they ambled along. We riders wrapped our abas tightly about our bodies and our kaffiyahs across our faces, and still we had dust making our eyelids gritty and our skins scratchy, clogging our nostrils and crunching between our teeth. I realized why my father and uncle and most other journeyers let their beards grow, for to shave each day in such conditions is a painful drudgery. But my own beard was yet too scanty to grow out handsomely. So I tried Uncle Mafìo’s depilatory mumum, and it worked well, and I continued to use the salve in preference to a razor.

But I think my most enduring recollection of that dust-laden Eden was the sight of a pigeon one day lighting in a tree there: when the bird touched the branch it puffed up a cloud of dust as if it had lighted in a flour barrel.

I will set down here two other things that came into my mind during that long ride down the River Furat:

One is that the world is large. That may seem no very original observation, but it had just then begun to dawn upon me with the awesomeness of revelation. I had heretofore lived in the constricted city of Venice, which in all of history has never sprawled beyond its seawalls and never can—so it gives us Venetians a sense of being enclosed in safety and snugness; in coziness, if you will. Although Venice fronts upon the Adriatic, the sea’s horizon seems not impossibly far away. Even aboard ship, I saw that horizon staying fixed on every side; there was no sense of progression toward it or away from it. But traveling overland is different. The contour of the horizon changes constantly, and one is always moving toward or away from some landmark. In just the early weeks of our riding, we approached and arrived at and traversed and left again several different towns or villages, several contrasting kinds of countryside, several separate rivers. And always we realized that there was more beyond: more countries, more cities, more rivers. The world’s land is visibly bigger than any empty ocean. It is vast and diverse, and always promising yet more vastness and diversity to come, and then producing them and promising more. The overland journeyer knows the same sensation that a man feels when he is stark naked—a fine sense of unfettered freedom, but also a sense of being vulnerable, unprotected and, compared to the world about him, very small.

The other thing I wish to say here is that maps lie. Even the best of maps, those in the Kitab of al-Idrisi, are liars, and they cannot help being liars. That is because everything shown on a map appears measurable by the same standards, and that is a delusion. For one instance, suppose your journey must take you over a mountain. The map can warn you of that mountain before you get to it, and even indicate more or less how high and wide and long it is, but the map cannot tell you what will be the conditions of terrain and weather when you get there, or what condition you will be in. A mountain that can be easily scaled on a good day in high summer by a young man in prime health may be a mountain considerably more forbidding in the cold and gales of winter, to a man enfeebled by age or illness and wearied by all the country he has already traversed. Because the limited representations of a map are thus deceptive, it may take a journeyer longer to travel the last little fingerbreadth of distance across a map than it took him to travel all the many hand-spans previous.

Of course, we had no such difficulties on that journey to Baghdad, since we had only to follow the River Furat downstream through the flat grassland. We did get out the Kitab at intervals, but just to see how its maps conformed to the actuality about us—and they did, with commendable accuracy—and sometimes my father or uncle would add markings to them to indicate useful landmarks which the maps omitted: bends of the river, islands in it, things like that. And every few nights, though it was not then needed, I would get out the kamàl we had bought. Extending it toward the North Star at the length of the knot I had tied in the string at Suvediye, and laying the lower bar of the wooden rectangle on the flat horizon, I saw each time that the star was farther down below the upper bar of the frame. It indicated what we knew: that we were moving south of east.

Everywhere in that country, we were continually crossing the invisible borders of one little nation after another, the nations being likewise invisible except in name. It is the same in all the Levant lands: the larger expanses are labeled on maps as Armeniya, Antioch, the Holy Land and so on, but within those areas the local folk recognize innumerable smaller expanses, and give them names and call them nations and dignify their paltry chieftains with resounding titles. In my childhood Bible classes, I had heard of such Levantine kingdoms as Samaria and Tyre and Israel, and I had envisioned them as mighty lands of awesome extent, and their kings Ahab and Hiram and Saul as monarchs over vast populations. And now I was learning, from the natives we met along our way, that I was traversing such self-proclaimed nations as Nabaj and Bishri and Khubbaz, ruled by various kings and sultans and atabegs and sheikhs.

But any of those nations could be crossed in a ride of a day or two, and they were drab and featureless and poor and full of beggars and otherwise scantily populated, and the one “king” we encountered there was merely the oldest goatherd in a bedawi tribe of goatherding Arabs. Not a single one of all those crammed-together fragment kingdoms and sheikhdoms in that part of the world is larger than the Republic of Venice. And Venice, though thriving and important, occupies but a handful of islands and a meager portion of the Adriatic coast. I gradually came to realize that all those biblical kings, too—even the great ones like Solomon and David—had ruled domains that in the Western world would be called only confini or counties or parishes. The great migrations recorded in the Bible must really have been negligible wanderings like those of the modern goatherding tribes I had seen. The great wars of which the Bible tells must really have been trifling skirmishes between puny armies to settle insignificant disputes between those petty kings. It made me wonder why the Lord God had bothered, in those olden times, to send fires and tempests and prophets and plagues to influence the destinies of such fence-corner nations.

7

ON two nights in that country, we deliberately skirted the nearest karwansarai and camped outdoors on our own. It was something we would later have to do, when we got into even less populous regions, so my father and uncle thought I should start having the experience in an easy terrain and clement weather. Also, all three of us were by then getting extremely tired of filth and mutton. So, on each of those nights, we made pallets of our blankets, with our saddles for pillows, and laid a fire for cooking, and turned our horses free to graze, hobbling their front legs together so they could not wander far.

I had already learned from my much-traveled father and uncle some of the tricks of traveling. For example, they had taught me always to carry my bedding in one saddle pannier and my clothing in another, and always to keep the two apart. Since a traveler has to use his own blankets at every karwansarai, they inevitably get full of fleas and lice and bedbugs. Those vermin are a torment even when one sleeps the usual deep sleep of exhaustion, but they would be intolerable when one is dressed and awake and about. So, getting naked out of bed each morning, I would pick myself clean of the accumulated bugs, and then, having carefully kept my clothing apart from the bedding, I could put on either used or clean garments without their having been contaminated. When we did not stay at a karwansarai, but made our own camp, I learned other things. I remember, the first night we camped, I started to tilt one of the water bags for a good long drink, but my father stopped me.

“Why?” I said. “We have one of the blessed rivers of Eden with which to refill it.”

“Better get used to thirst when it is not necessary,” he said, “for you will have to when it is. Just wait and I will show you something.”

He built a fire of branches hacked with his belt knife from a convenient zizafun tree, the thorny wood of which burns hot and quickly, and he let it burn until the wood was all charcoal but not yet ashes. Then he scraped most of the charcoal to one side, and laid new branches on what was left, to make up the fire again. He let the removed charcoal cool, then crushed it to powder and heaped that onto a cloth and put the cloth like a sieve over the mouth of one of the pottery bowls we had brought. He handed me another bowl and bade me go and fill it from the river.

“Taste that Eden water,” he said, when I fetched it.

I did and said. “Muddy. Some insects. But not bad water.”

“Watch. I will make it better.” He poured it slowly through the charcoal and cloth into the other bowl.

When it had finished its slow trickling, I tasted it again from that bowl. “Yes. Clear and good. It even tastes cooler.”

“Remember that trick,” he said. “Many times your only source of water will be putrid or vile with salts or even suspect of poison. That trick will render it potable at least, and harmless, if not delicious. However, in the deserts where the water is worst, there is usually no wood to burn. Therefore, try always to carry a supply of charcoal with you. It can be used over and over again before it gets saturated and ineffectual.”

The reason we made our outdoor camp only twice during the journey down the Furat was that, while my father could strain insects and impurities out of the water, he could not remove the birds from the air, and I have mentioned that that country abounds in golden eagles.

On that day of which I speak, my uncle had, by good luck, come upon a large hare in the grass, and it stood immobile and trembling in that moment of surprise, and he whipped out and threw his belt knife, and killed the creature. It was on that account—having our own provender for a non-mutton meal—that we decided to make the first camp. But when Uncle Mafìo skewered the skinned hare on a zizafun stick and hung it over the fire, and it began to sizzle and its aroma rose with the smoke into the air, we got as much of a surprise as the hare had got.

There came a loud, rustling, swooshing noise from out of the night sky above us. Before we could even look up, a blur of brown flashed in an arc down between us, through the firelight and upward into the darkness again. At the same instant, there was a sound like plop! and the fire flew all apart in a spray of sparks and ashes, and the hare was gone, complete with its stick, and we heard a triumphant barking yell, “Kya!”

“Malevolenza!” exclaimed my uncle, picking up a large feather from the remains of the fire. “A damned thieving eagle! Acrimonia!” And that night we had to make our meal on some hard salt pork from our packs.

The same thing, or very near it, happened the second time we stayed outdoors. That camping was occasioned by our having bought, from a passing family of bedawin Arabs, a haunch of fresh-killed camel calf. When we put that on the fire, and the eagles espied it, another of them came in a rush. The moment my uncle heard the first rustle of its pinions in the air, he made a dive to throw himself protectively over the cooking meat. That saved our meal for us, but nearly lost us Uncle Mafìo.

A golden eagle has wings that spread wider than a man’s outstretched arms, and it weighs about as much as a fair-sized dog, so when it comes plummeting down—when it stoops, as the hawkers say—it is a formidable projectile. That one hit the back of my uncle’s head, fortunately only with its wing and not with its talons, but that was a blow heavy enough to knock him sprawling across the fire. My father and I dragged him out, and beat the sparks out of his smoldering aba, and he had to shake his head for a time to get his senses back, and then he cursed magnificently, until he went into a fit of coughing. Meanwhile, I stood over the spitted meat, ostentatiously swinging a heavy branch, and the eagles stayed away, so we did manage to cook and eat the meal. But we decided that, as long as we were in eagle country, we would stifle our revulsions and spend each night in a karwansarai from then on.

“You are wise to do so,” said the next night’s landlord to us, as we ate yet another nasty meal of mutton and rice. We were the only guests that night, so he conversed while he swept the day’s collected dust out the door. His name was Hasan Badr-al-Din, which did not suit him at all, for it means Beauty of Faith’s Moon. He was wizened and gnarled, like an old olive tree. He had a face as leathery and wrinkled as a cobbler’s apron, and a wispy beard like a nimbus of wrinkles that could not find room on his face. He went on, “It is not good to be out of doors and unprotected at night in the lands of the Mulahidat, the Misguided Ones.”

“What are the Misguided Ones?” I asked, sipping a sharbat so bitter that it must have been made of green fruit.

Beauty of Faith’s Moon was now going about the room, sprinkling water to lay the remaining dust. “You perhaps have heard them called hashishiyin. The killers who kill for the Old Man of the Mountain.”

“What mountain?” growled my uncle. “This land is flatter than a halycon sea.”

“He has always been called that—the Sheikh ul-Jibal—though no one knows really where he lives. Whether his castle is really on a mountain or not.”

“He does not live,” said my father. “That old nuisance was slain by the Ilkhan Hulagu when the Mongols came this way fifteen years ago.”

“True,” said the aged Beauty. “Yet not true. That was the Old Man Rokn-ed-Din Kurshah. But there is always another Old Man, you know.”

“I did not know.”

“Oh, yes, indeed. And an Old Man still commands the Mulahidat, though some of the Misguided must be old men themselves by now. He hires them out to the faithful who have need of their services. I hear that the Mamluks of Egypt paid high to have a hashishi slay that English Prince who leads the Christian Crusaders.”

“Then they wasted their money,” said Uncle Mafìo. “The Englishman slew the sassìn.”

Beauty shrugged and said, “Another will try, and another, until it is done. The Old Man will command, and they will obey.”

“Why?” I asked, and swallowed a wad of rice that tasted of taint. “Why should any man risk his own life to kill at the behest of another man?”

“Ah. To understand that, young Sheikh, you must know something of the Holy Quran.” He came and sat down at our cloth, as if pleased to explain. “In that Book, the Prophet (blessing and peace be upon him) makes a promise to the men of the Faith. He promises to every man that, if he is unswervingly devout, then once in his life he will enjoy one miraculous night, the Night of the Possible, in which he will be granted his every desire.” The old man arranged his wrinkles in a smile, a smile that was half happy and half melancholy. “A night replete with ease and luxury, with marvelous food and drink and banj, with beautiful and compliant haura women and boys, with renewed youth and virility for the zina enjoyment of them. Thus, every man who believes will live his life in fierce devoutness, and hope for that Night of the Possible.”

He stopped, and seemed to lose himself in contemplation. After a moment, Uncle Mafìo said, “It is an appealing dream.”

Beauty said distantly, “Dreams are the painted pictures in the book of sleep.”

Again we waited, then I said, “But I do not see what that has to do with—”

“The Old Man of the Mountain,” he said, as if coming abruptly awake. “The Old Man gives that Night of the Possible. Then he holds out promise of still other such nights.”

My father, my uncle and I exchanged glances of amusement.

“Do not doubt it!” the landlord said testily. “The Old Man, or one of his Mulahidat recruiters, will find a qualified man—a strong and bold man—and will slip a potent bit of banj into his food or drink. When the man swoons to sleep, he is spirited away to the Castle ul-Jibal. He wakes to find himself in the most lovely garden imaginable, surrounded by comely lads and ladies. Those haura feed him rich viands and more of the hashish and even forbidden wines. They sing and dance enchantingly, and reveal their nippled breasts, their smooth bellies, their inviting bottoms. They seduce him to such raptures of lovemaking that at last he swoons again. And again he is spirited away—back to his former place and life, which is humdrum at best, and more probably dismal. Like the life of a karwansarai keeper.”

My father yawned and said, “I begin to comprehend. As the saying goes, he has been given cake and a kick.”

“Yes. He has now partaken of the Night of the Possible, and he yearns to do so again. He wishes and begs and prays for that, and the recruiters come and tantalize him until he promises to do anything. He is set a task—to slay some enemy of the Faith, to steal or rob for the enrichment of the Old Man’s coffers, to waylay infidels intruding on the lands of the Mulahidat. If he successfully performs that task, he is rewarded with another Night of the Possible. And after each subsequent deed of devotion, another night and another.”

“Each of which,” said my skeptical uncle, “is really nothing but a hashish dream. Misguided, indeed.”

“Oh, unbeliever!” Beauty chided him. “Tell me, by your beard, can you distinguish between the memory of a delightful dream and the memory of a delightful occurrence? Each exists only in your memory. Telling of them to another, how could you prove which happened when you were awake and which when you were asleep?”

Uncle Mafìo said affably, “I will let you know tomorrow, for I am sleepy now.” He stood up, with a massive stretch and a gaping yawn.

It was rather earlier in the night than we were accustomed to go to bed, but I and my father also were yawning, so we all followed Beauty of Faith’s Moon as he led us down a long hall and—because we were the only guests—allotted us each a separate room, and quite clean, with clean straw on the floor. “Rooms deliberately well apart from each other,” he said, “so that your snores will not disturb each other, and your dreams will not get intertangled.”

Nevertheless, my own dream was tangled enough. I slept and dreamed that I awoke from my sleep, to find myself, like a recruit of the Misguided Ones, in a dreamlike garden, for it was full of flowers I had never seen when awake. Among the sunlit flower beds danced dancers so dreamily beautiful that one could not say, or care, whether they were girls or boys. In a dreamy languor, I joined the dance and found, as often happens in dreams, that my every step and prance and movement was dreamily slow, as if the air were sesame oil.

That thought was so repugnant—even in my dream I remembered my experience with sesame oil—that the sunlit garden instantly became a bosky palace corridor, down which I was dancing in pursuit of a dancing girl whose face was the face of the Lady Ilaria. But when she pirouetted into a room and I followed through the only door and caught her there, her face got old and warty and sprouted a red-gray beard like a fungus. She said, “Salamelèch” in a man’s deep voice, and I was not in a palace chamber, or even a bedroom of a karwansarai, but in the dark, cramped cell of the Venice Vulcano. Old Mordecai Cartafilo said, “Misguided One, will you never learn the bloodthirstiness of beauty?” and gave me a square white cracker to eat.

Its dryness was choking and its taste was nauseous. I retched so convulsively that I woke myself up—really awoke this time, in the karwansarai room, to find that I was not dreaming the nausea. Evidently our meal’s mutton or something had been tainted, for I was about to be violently sick. I scrambled out of my blankets and ran naked and barefoot down the midnight hall to the little back room with the hole in the ground. I hung my head over it, too wretched to recoil from the stink or to fear that a demon jinni might reach up out of the depths and snatch at me. As quietly as I could, I vomited up a vile green mess and, after wiping the tears from my eyes and getting my breath back, I padded quietly toward my room again. The hall took me past the door of the chamber my uncle had been given, and I heard a muttering behind it.

Giddy anyway, I leaned against the wall there and gave ear to the noise. It was partly my uncle’s snoring and partly a sibilant low speaking of words. I wondered how he could snore and talk at the same time, so I listened more intently. The words were Farsi, so I could not make out all of them. But when the voice, sounding astonished, spoke louder, I clearly heard:

“Garlic? The infidels pretend to be merchants, but they carry only worthless garlic?”

I touched the door of the room, and it was unlatched. It swung easily and silently open. Inside, there was a small light moving, and when I peered I could see that it was a wick lamp in the hand of Beauty of Faith’s Moon, and he was bending over my uncle’s saddle panniers, piled in a corner of the room. The landlord was obviously seeking to steal from us, and he had opened the packs and found the precious culms of zafràn and had mistaken them for garlic.

I was more amused than angry, and I held my tongue, so as to see what he would do next. Still muttering, telling himself that the unbeliever probably had taken his purse and true valuables to bed with him, the old man sidled over beside the bed and, with his free hand, began cautiously groping about beneath Uncle Mafìo’s blankets. He encountered something, for he gave a start, and again spoke aloud in astonishment:

“By the ninety-nine attributes of Allah, but this infidel is hung like a horse!”

Sick though I still felt, I very nearly giggled at that, and my uncle smiled in his sleep as if he enjoyed the fondling.

“Not only an untrimmed long zab,” the thief continued to marvel, “but also—praise Allah in His munificence even to the unworthy—two sacks of balls!”

I might really have giggled then, but in the next moment the situation ceased to be amusing. I saw in the lamplight the glint of metal, as old Beauty drew a knife from his robes and lifted it. I did not know whether he intended to trim my uncle’s zab or to amputate his supernumerary scrotum or to cut his throat, and I did not wait to find out. I stepped forward and swung my fist and hit the thief hard in the back of his neck. I might have expected the blow to incapacitate such a fragile old specimen, but he was not so delicate as he looked. He fell sideways, but rolled like an acrobat and came up from the floor slashing the blade at me. It was more by happenstance than by deftness that I caught his wrist. I twisted it, and wrenched at his hand, and found the knife in my own hand, and used it. At that, he did fall down and stay down, groaning and burbling.

The scuffle had been brief, but not silent, yet my uncle had slept through it, and he still slept, still smiling in his sleep. Appalled by what I had just done, as well as by what had almost been done, I felt very alone in the room and badly needed a supporting ally. Though my hands were trembling, I shook Uncle Mafìo, and had to shake him violently to bring him to consciousness. I realized now that the more than ordinarily nasty evening meal had been heavily laced with banj. We would all three have been dead but for the dream that had wakened me to the danger and made me disgorge the drug.

My uncle finally, unwillingly, began to come awake, smiling and murmuring, “The flowers … the dancers … the fingers and lips playing on my flute …” Then he blinked and exclaimed, “Dio me varda! Marco, that was not you?”

“No, Zio Mafìo,” I said, in my agitation speaking Venetian. “You were in peril. We are still in peril. Please wake up!”

“Adrìo de vu!” he said crossly. “Why have you snatched me from that wondrous garden?”

“I believe it was the garden of the hashishiyin. And I have just stabbed a Misguided One.”

“Our host!” cried my uncle, sitting up and seeing the crumpled form on the floor. “Oh, scagaròn, what have you done? Are you playing bravo again?”

“No, Zio, look. That is his own knife sticking in him. He was about to kill you for your cod of musk.” As I related the circumstances, I began to weep.

Uncle Mafìo bent over the old man and examined him, growling, “Right in the belly. Not dead, but dying.” Then he turned to me and said kindly, “There, there, boy. Stop slobbering. Go and wake your father.”

Beauty of Faith’s Moon was nothing to weep over, alive or dead or dying. But he was the first man I ever slew with my own hand, and the killing of another human being is no trivial milestone in a man’s career. As I went to fetch my father out of the hashish garden, I was thinking how more than ever I was glad that, back in Venice, another hand had thrust the sword into my guiltless earlier prey. For I had just learned one thing about killing a man, or at least about killing him with a blade. It slides into the victim’s belly easily enough, almost eagerly, almost of its own accord. But there it is instantly seized by the violated muscles, held as tightly as another tool of mine had once been clasped in the virgin flesh of the girl Doris. I had pushed the knife into old Beauty with no effort whatever, but I could not withdraw it again when I had done so. And in that instant I had known a sickening realization: that a deed so ugly and so easily done cannot thereafter be undone. It made killing seem rather less gallant and dashing and bravìsimo than I had imagined it to be.

When I had, with difficulty, roused my father, I took him to the scene of the crime. Uncle Mafìo had laid the landlord on his own pallet of blankets, despite the flow of blood, and had composed Beauty’s limbs for death, and the two of them were conversing, it seemed companionably. The old man was the only one of us who had any clothes on. He looked up at me, his murderer, and he must have seen the traces of tears on my face, for he said:

“Do not feel bad, young infidel. You have slain the most Misguided One of all. I have done a terrible wrong. The Prophet (peace and blessing be upon him) enjoins us to treat a guest with the most reverent care and respect. Though he be the lowliest darwish, or even an unbeliever, and though there be only one crumb in the house, and though the host’s family and children go hungry, the guest must be given that crumb. Be he a sworn enemy, he must be accorded every hospitality and safeguard while he is under one’s roof. My disobedience to that holy law would have deprived me of my Night of the Possible, even did I live. In my avarice, I acted hastily, and I have sinned, and for that sin I beg forgiveness.”

I tried to say that I gave the forgiveness, but I choked on a sob, and in the next moment I was glad of that, for he continued:

“I could as easily have drugged your breakfast meal in the morning, and let you get some way upon the road before you fell. Then I could have robbed and murdered you under the open sky instead of under my roof, and it would have been a deed of virtue, and pleasing to Allah. But I did not. Though in all my lifetime before now I have lived devoutly in the Faith and have slain many other infidels to the greater glory of Islam, this one impiety will cost me my eternity in the Paradise of Djennet, with its haura beauties and perpetual happiness and unfettered indulgence. And for that loss, I grieve sincerely. I should have killed you in fitter fashion.”

Well, those words at any rate stopped my weeping. We all stared stonily at the landlord as again he went on :

“But you have yourselves a chance at virtue. When I am dead, do me the kindness of wrapping me in a winding sheet. Take me to the main room and lay me in the middle of it, in the prescribed position. Wind my tulband over my face, and place me so my feet are turned to the south, toward the Holy Kaaba in Mecca.”

My father and uncle looked at each other, and they shrugged, but we were all glad they made no promise, for the old fiend now spoke his last words:

“Having done that, vile dogs, you will die virtuous, when my brothers of the Mulahidat come and find me here dead with a knife wound in my gut, and they follow the tracks of your horses and hunt you down and do to you what I failed to do Salaam aleikum.”

His voice had not at all weakened, but, after perversely calling peace upon us, Beauty of Faith’s Moon closed his eyes and died. And, that being the first deathbed I had ever stood close to, I first learned then that most deaths are as ugly as most killings. For in dying, Beauty unbeautifully and copiously evacuated both his bladder and his bowels, befouling his garments and the blankets and filling the room with a ghastly stench.

A disgusting indignity is not what any person would wish to be last remembered for. But I have since attended many dyings and—except in the rare case when there has been opportunity of a purge aforetime—that is how all human beings make their farewell to life; even the strongest and bravest of men, the fairest and purest of women, whether they die a violent death or go serenely in their sleep.

We stepped outside the room to breathe clean air, and my father sighed. “Well. Now what?”

“First of all,” said my uncle, untying the thongs of his musk cod, “let us relieve ourselves of these uncomfortable danglers. It is clear that they will be as safe inside our packs—or no less safe—and anyway I would rather lose the musk than again imperil my own dear cod.”

My father muttered, “Worry about balls when we may be about to lose our heads?”

I said, “I am sorry, Father, Uncle. If we are to be hunted by the surviving Misguided Ones, then I did wrong to kill that one.”

“Nonsense,” said my father. “Had you not awakened and acted with celerity, we would not even have lived to be hunted.”

“It is true that you are impetuous, Marco,” said Uncle Mafìo. “But if a man stopped to consider all the consequences of his every action before he acted, he would be a very old man before he ever did any damned thing at all. Nico, I think that we might keep this fortunately impetuous young man as our companion. Let him not be tucked safe away in Constantinople or Venice, but let him come with us clear to Kithai. However, you are his father. It is for you to say.”

“I am inclined to concur, Mafìo,” said my father. And to me, “If you wish to come along, Marco …” I grinned broadly at him. “Then you come. You deserve to come. You did well this night.”

“Perhaps better than well,” said my uncle thoughtfully. “That bricòn vechio called himself the most Misguided One of all. Is it not possible he meant also the chief one of them all? The latest and reigning Sheikh ul-Jibal? An old man he certainly was.”

“The Old Man of the Mountain?” I exclaimed. “I slew him?”

“We cannot know,” said my father. “Not unless the other hashishiyin tell us when they catch up to us. I am not that eager to know.”

“They must not catch us,” said Uncle Mafìo. “We have already been remiss, coming this far into alien country with no weapons but our work knives.”

My father said, “They will not catch us if they have no reason to chase after us. We have only to remove the reason. Let the next comers find the karwansarai deserted. Let them presume that the landlord is afield on an errand—killing a sheep for the larder, perhaps. It could be days before those next guests come, and days more before they begin to wonder where the landlord is. By the time any of the Misguided Ones get involved in the search for him, and by the time they give up looking for him and start to suspect foul play, we shall be long gone and far away and beyond their tracing.”

“Take the old Beauty with us?” asked my uncle.

“And risk an embarrassing encounter before we have gone far at all?” My father shook his head. “Nor can we just drop him down the well here, or hide him or bury him. Any arriving guest will go first to the water. And any Arab has a nose like a staghound, to sniff out a hiding place or fresh-turned earth.”

“Not on land, not in water,” said my uncle. “There is only one alternative. I had better do it before I put any clothes on.”

“Yes,” said my father, and he turned to me. “Marco, go through this whole establishment and search out some blankets to replace those of your uncle. While you are at it, see if you can find any sort of weapons we can carry when we go.”

The command was obviously given just to get me out of the way while they did what they did next. And it took me quite a while to comply, for the karwansarai was old, and must have had a long succession of owners, each of whom had built and added on new portions. The main building was a warren of hallways and rooms and closets and nooks, and there were also stables and sheds and sheep pens and other outbuildings. But the old man, evidently having felt secure in his drugs and deceits, had not taken much trouble to hide his possessions. To judge from the armory of weapons and provisions, he had been, if not the veritable Old Man, at least a main supplier of the Mulahidat.

I first selected the best two woolen blankets from the considerable stock of traveling gear. Then I searched among the weapons and, though I could not find any straight swords of the type we Venetians were accustomed to, I picked out the shiniest and sharpest of the local sort. This was a broad and curved blade—more of a saber, since it was sharp only on the outcurved edge—called the shimshir, which means “silent lion.” I took three of them, one for each of us, and belts with loops from which to hang them. I could have further enriched our purses, for Beauty had secreted a small fortune in the form of bags of dried banj, bricks of compacted banj, and flagons of oil of banj. But I left all that where it was.

The dawn was breaking outdoors when I brought my acquisitions to the main room, where we had dined the night before. My father was preparing a breakfast meal at the brazier, and being most carefully selective of the ingredients. Just as I entered the room, I heard a series of noises from the yard outside: a long, rustling whistle, a loud klop! and a screeching yell of kya! Then my uncle came in from that yard, still naked, his skin spattered with blood spots, his beard smelling of smoke, and he saying with satisfaction:

“That was the last of the old devil, and it went as he wished. I have burned his garments and the blankets, and dispersed the ashes. We can depart as soon as we have dressed and eaten.”

I realized, of course, that Beauty of Faith’s Moon had been given no laying-out, but an extremely un-Muslim obsequy, and that made me curious as to what Uncle Mafìo meant by “went as he wished.” I asked him, and he chuckled and said:

“The last of him went flying southward. Toward Mecca.”

BAGHDAD

1

WE kept on downstream along the Furat, still southeastward, now traversing a particularly unappealing stretch of country where the river had cut its channel through solid basalt rock—a land bleak and black and barren even of grass, pigeons and eagles—but we were not pursued by the Misguided Ones or anyone else. And gradually, as if in celebration of our deliverance from danger, the countryside became more pleasant and hospitable. The terrain began perceptibly to rise up on either side of the river, until it was flowing through a wide and verdant valley. There were orchards and forests, pastures and farms, flowers and fruits. But the orchards were as shaggy and untended as the native forests, the farms as overgrown and weedy as the fields of wild flowers. The land’s owners had all gone away, and the only people we met in that valley were nomad families of bedawin shepherds, the landless and rootless roamers, roaming in that valley as they roamed in the grasslands. There were nowhere any settled folk, nobody working to keep the once domesticated land from reverting to wilderness.

“It is the doing of the Mongols,” said my father. “When the Ilkhan Hulagu—that is to say, the Lesser Khan Hulagu, brother to our friend Kubilai—when he swept through this land and overthrew the Persian Empire, most of the Persians fled or fell before him, and the survivors have not yet returned to rework their lands. But the nomad Arabs and Kurdi are like the grass on which they live and in search of which they wander. The bedawin bend uncaringly before any wind that blows—whether it be a gentle breeze or the fierce simùm—but they rebound as does the grass. To the nomads it matters not who rules the land, and it never will matter to them until the end of time, as long as the land itself remains.”

I turned in my saddle, looking at the land all about us, the richest, most fertile, most promising land we had yet seen in our journey, and I asked, “Who does rule Persia now?”

“When Hulagu died, his son Abagha succeeded as Ilkhan, and he has established a new capital in the northern city of Maragheh instead of in Baghdad. Although the Persian Empire is now a part of the Mongol Khanate, it is still divided into Shahnates, as before, for convenience of administration. But each Shah is subordinate to the Ilkhan Abagha, just as Abagha is subordinate to the Khakhan Kubilai.”

I was impressed. I knew we were yet many months of hard travel distant from the court city of that Khakhan Kubilai. But already, here in the western reaches of Persia, already we were within the borders of the domain of that far distant Khan. In school, I had bent my most admiring and enthusiastic study on The Book of Alexander, so I knew that Persia was once a part of that conqueror’s empire, and his empire was so extensive as to earn him the sobriquet of “the Great.” But the lands won and held by that Macedonian comprised a mere fragment of the world, compared to the immensities conquered by Chinghiz Khan, and further enlarged by his conqueror sons, and still further enlarged by his conqueror grandsons, into the unimaginably immense Mongol Empire over which the grandson Kubilai now reigned as Khan of All Khans.

I believe that not the ancient Pharaones nor the ambitious Alexander nor the avaricious Caesars could have dreamed that so much world existed, so they could hardly have dreamed of acquiring it. As for all the later Western rulers, their ambitions and acquisitions have been even more paltry. Alongside the Mongol Empire, the entire continent called Europe seems merely a small and crowded peninsula, and all its nations, like those of the Levant, only so many peevishly self-important little provinces. From the eminence on which the Khakhan sits enthroned, my native Republic of Venice, proud of its glory and grandeur, must appear as trivial as the Suvediye cranny of the Ostikan Hampig. If the history keepers will continue to dignify Alexander as the Great, surely they ought to acknowledge Kubilai as the immeasurably Greater. That is not for me to say. But what I can say is that, on my entrance into Persia, I was thrilled to realize that I, mere Marco Polo, was setting foot in the most far-flung empire ever ruled by one man in all the years in which the world of men has existed.

“When we get to Baghdad,” my father went on, “we will show to the current Shah, whoever he may be, the letter we carry from Kubilai. And the Shah will have to make us welcome, as accredited ambassadors of his overlord.”

So we proceeded on down the Furat, watching the valley get ever more marked with the traces of civilization, for hereabouts it was crisscrossed by many irrigation canals branching off the river. However, the towering wooden wheels in the canals were not being turned by men or animals or any other agency; they stood still, the clay jugs around their rims not lifting and pouring any water. In the widest and most verdant part of that valley, the Furat makes its nearest approach to the other great south-running river of that country, the Dijlah, sometimes called Tigris, which is supposedly one of the other rivers of the Garden of Eden. If that is so, then the land between the two rivers would presumably be the site of that biblical garden. And if that is so, then the garden, when we saw it, was as empty of resident men and women as it was immediately after the expulsion of Adam and Eve.

In that vicinity, we turned our horses eastward from the Furat and rode the intervening ten farsakhs to the Dijlah, and crossed that river on the bridge there—made of empty boat hulls supporting a plank roadway —to Baghdad on the eastern bank.

The city’s population, like that of the surrounding countryside, had been grievously diminished during Hulagu’s siege and capture of it. But in the fifteen or so ensuing years, much of its populace had returned and repaired what damage it had suffered. City merchants, it seems, are more resilient than country farmers. Like the primitive bedawin, civilized tradesmen seem to recover quickly from the prostrations of disaster. In the case of Baghdad, that may have been because so many of its merchants were not passive and fatalistic Muslims, but irrepressibly energetic Jews and Christians—some of them having come originally from Venice and even more of them from Genoa.

Or perhaps Baghdad recovered because it is such a necessary city, at an important crossroads of trade. Besides being a western terminus of the Silk Road which comes overland, it is a northern terminus of the sea route from the Indies. The city is not itself on the seaside, of course, but its Dijlah River bears a heavy traffic of large river boats, sailing downstream with the current or being poled upriver against it, going to and coming from Basra in the south, on the Persian Gulf, where the seagoing Arab ships make landfall. Anyway, whatever the beneficent reason, Baghdad was, when we arrived there, what it had been before the Mongols came: a rich and vital and busy trading center.

It was as beautiful as it was busy. Of the Eastern cities I had seen so far, Baghdad was the most reminiscent of my native Venice. Its Dijlah waterfront was as thronged and tumultuous and littered and odorous as the Riva of Venice, though the vessels to be seen here—all of them built and manned by Arabs—were nowise comparable to ours. They were alarmingly shoddy craft to be entrusted to the water, built entirely without pegs or nails or iron fastenings of any fashion, their hull planking instead stitched together by ropes of some coarse fiber. Their seams and interstices were not plugged watertight with pitch, but with a sort of lard made from fish oil. Even the biggest of those boats had only a single steering oar, and it was not very manipulable since it was firmly hinged at mid-stern. Another deplorable thing about those Arab boats was the unfastidious way their cargoes were stored. After filling the hold with a load of, as it may be, all foodstuffs—dates and fruits and grains and such—the Arab boatmen might then crowd the deck above the hold with a herd of livestock. That frequently consisted of fine Arabian horses, and they are beauteous beasts, but they evacuate themselves as often and as hugely as any other horses, and their droppings would dribble and seep between the planks onto the cargo of edibles belowdecks.

Baghdad is not, like Venice, interlaced with canals, but its streets are constantly sprinkled with water to lay the dust, so they have a humid fragrance reminiscent to me of canals. And the city has a great many open squares equivalent to Venice’s piazze. Some are bazàr marketplaces, but most are public gardens, for the Persians are passionately fond of gardens. (I learned there that the Farsi word meaning garden, pairi-daeza, became our Bible’s word Paradise.) Those public gardens have benches for passersby to rest on, and streamlets running through, and many birds in residence, and trees and shrubs and perfumed plants and luminous Sowers—roses especially, for the Persians are passionately fond of roses. (They call any and every flower a gul, though that Farsi word means specifically a rose.) Likewise, the palaces of noble families and the larger houses of rich merchant families are built around private gardens as big as the public ones, and as full of roses and birds, and as nearly like earthly Paradises.

I suppose I had got it into my head that the words Muslim and Arab were interchangeable, and therefore that any Muslim community must be indistinguishable—in matters of filth and vermin and beggars and stench—from the Arab cities, towns and villages I had passed through. I was agreeably surprised to find that the Persians, although their religion is Islam, are more inclined to keep their buildings and streets and garments and persons clean. That, with the abundance of flowers everywhere, and a comparative fewness of beggars, made Baghdad a most pleasant and even nice-smelling city—except, of necessity, around the waterfront and the bazàr markets.

Although much of Baghdad’s architecture was of course peculiarly Eastern, even that was not entirely exotic to my Western eyes. I saw a great deal of that lacy filigree “arabesco” stonework which Venice has also adopted for some of its building fronts. Baghdad being still a Muslim city, even after its absorption into the Khanate—for the Mongols, unlike most conquerors, do not anywhere impose any change of religion —it was studded with those great Muslim masjid temples of worship. But their immense domes were not much different from the domes of San Marco and the other churches of Venice. Their slender manarat towers were not too dissimilar to the campanili of Venice, only being generally round instead of square in cross-section, and having little balconies at their tops, from which the muedhdhin beadles shouted at intervals to announce the hours of prayer.

Those muedhdhin in Baghdad, incidentally, were all blind men. I inquired whether that was a necessary qualification for the post, something demanded by Islam, and was told it was not. Blind men were engaged as the prayer-calling beadles for two pragmatic reasons. Being unfit for most other employments, they could not demand much pay for the work. And they could not take sinful advantage of their literally high position: they could not look down to ogle any decent woman who ascended to her rooftop to doff her veil—or more of her coverings—for a private sunbath.

In their interiors, the masjid temples differ notably from our Christian churches. In none of them, anywhere, is there ever to be found any statue or painting or other recognizable image. Though Islam recognizes, I think, as many angels and saints and prophets as Christianity does, it will allow no representation of them, or of any other creature alive or which ever has lived. Muslims believe that their Allah, like our Lord God, created all things living. But, unlike us Christians, they maintain that all creation, even in paint or wood or stone imitation of life, must be forever reserved to Allah. Their Quran warns them that on Judgment Day any maker of any such image will be commanded to bring that image to life; if the maker cannot do that, and of course he cannot, he will be damned to Hell for his presumption in having made it. Therefore, although a Muslim masjid—or palace or home—is always rich in decoration, those decorations are never pictures of anything; they consist only of patterns and colors and intricate arabeschi. Sometimes, though, the patterns are discernible as being woven of the Arabic fish-worm letters and spelling out some phrase or verse from the Quran.

(I learned these several uncommonly odd things about Islam—and I learned many other uncommonly odd things besides—because, during my stay in Baghdad, I acquired first one and then another uncommonly odd teacher, and I will tell of them in their turn.)

I was particularly taken with one form of decoration I saw in the interior rooms of every public and private building in Baghdad. I should say that I first saw it there, but afterward I saw it in other palaces, homes and temples throughout Persia and throughout much of the rest of the East. I should think it might be advantageously adopted by any people anywhere which loves a garden, and what people does not love a garden?

What it is, is a way to bring a garden indoors, though never having to tend or weed or water it. Called in Persia a qali, it is a sort of carpet or tapicierie made to lie on a floor or hang on a wall, but it is unlike any such work we know in the West. The qali is colored in all the colors of a bounteous garden, and its figures form the shapes of multitudes of flowers, vines, trellises, leaves—everything to be found in a garden—all disposed in pleasing designs and arrangements. (In keeping with the Quran’s ban on images, however, a Persian qali is made so that the flowers are not recognizable as any known existing flowers.) At first sight of a qali, I thought the garden must be painted or embroidered upon it. But, on examination, I found that all that intricacy was woven into it. I marveled that any tapicier could contrive such a fanciful thing with mere warp and weft of dyed yarns, and it was some while before I learned the marvelous manner in which it is done.

But I have already got ahead of my chronicle.

We three led our five horses across the wobbling and undulating boat bridge which spanned the Dijlah River. At the Baghdad waterfront, teeming with men of all complexions and costumes and languages, we accosted the first one we saw wearing Western clothes. He was a Genoan, but I should remark that, out East, all Westerners get along convivially enough—even Genoans and Venetians, albeit they are rivals in trade and even though their home republics may be embroiled in one of their frequent sea wars. The Genoan merchant amiably told us the name of the incumbent Shah—he gave it as “Shahinshah Zaman Mirza” —and directed us to the palace “in the Karkh quarter, which is the exclusively royal quarter of the city.”

We rode thither, and found the palace in a gated garden, and made ourselves known to the guards at the gate. Those guards wore helmets that seemed to be of solid gold—but could not have been, or their weight would have been intolerable—and, even if only of plated wood or leather, were objects of great value. They were also objects of interest, being fashioned to give their wearers a wealth of curly golden hair and side whiskers. One of the guards went inside the gate and through the garden to the palace. When he returned and beckoned to us, another guard took charge of our horses, and we entered.

We were led to a chamber richly hung and carpeted with brilliant qali, where the Shahinshah half-sat and half-reclined on a heap of daiwan cushions of equally vivid colors and fine fabrics. He himself was not gaudily garbed; from tulband to slippers, his dress was a uniform pale brown. That is the Persian color of mourning, and the Shah always wore pale brown now in mourning for his lost empire. We were somewhat surprised—this being a Muslim household—to see that a woman occupied another heap of pillows beside him, and there were also two other females in the room. We made the proper bows of salaam and, still bowed down, my father greeted the Shahinshah in the Farsi tongue, then raised up upon his two hands the letter of Kubilai Khan. The Shah took it and read aloud its salutation:

“‘Most Serene, most Puissant, most High, Noble, Illustrious, Honorable, Wise and Prudent Emperors, Ilkhani, Shahi, Kings, Lords, Princes, Dukes, Earls, Barons and Knights, as also Magistrates, Officers, Justicians and Regents of all good cities and places, whether ecclesiastic or secular, who shall see these patents or hear them read …’”

When he had perused the whole thing, the Shahinshah bade us welcome, addressing each of us as “Mirza Polo.” That was a little confusing, as I had understood Mirza to be one of his names. But I gradually gathered that he was using the word as a respectful honorific, as the Arabs use Sheikh. And eventually I realized that Mirza before a name means only what Messer does in Venice; when it is appended after the name, it signifies royalty. The Shah’s name was actually and simply Zaman, and his full title of Shahinshah meant Shah of All Shahs, and he introduced the lady beside him as his Royal First Wife, or Shahryar, by the name of Zahd.

That was very nearly all he got to say that day, because, once she was introduced into the conversation, the Shahryar Zahd proved to be effusively and endlessly talkative. First interrupting, then overriding her husband, she gave us her own welcome to Persia and to Baghdad and to the palace, and she sent our accompanying guard back to the gate, and she hammered a little gong at her side to summon a palace maggiordomo whom she told us was called a wazir, and she instructed the wazir to prepare quarters for us in the palace and assign palace servants to us, and she introduced us to the other two females in the room: one her mother, the other the eldest daughter of herself and the Shah Zaman, and she informed us that she herself, Zahd Mirza, was a direct descendant of the fabled Balkis, Queen of Sabaea—and, of course, so were her mother and daughter—and she reminded us that the famous encounter of Queen Balkis with the Padshah Solaiman was recorded in the annals of Islam as well as those of Judaism and Christianity (which remark enabled me to recognize the biblical Queen of Sheba and King Solomon), and she further informed us that the Sabaean Queen Balkis herself was a jinniyeh, descended from a demon named Eblis, who was chief jinni of all the demon jinn, and furthermore …

“Tell us, Mirza Polo,” the Shah said, almost desperately, to my father, “something of your journey thus far.”

My father obligingly began an account of our travels, but he had not even got us out of the Venice lagoon when the Shahryar Zahd pounced in with a lyrical description of some pieces of Murano glass she had recently bought from a Venetian merchant in downtown Baghdad, and that reminded her of an old but little-known Persian tale of a glassblower who, once upon a time, fashioned a horse of blown glass and persuaded a jinni to make some magic by which the horse was enabled to fly like a bird, and …

The tale was interesting enough, but unbelievable, so I let my attention wander to the other two females in the room. The women’s very presence in a meeting of men—not to mention the Shahryar’s unquenchable garrulity—was evidence that the Persians did not shield and sequester and stifle their womenfolk as most other Muslims do. Each woman’s eyes were visible above a mere half-veil of chador, which was diaphanous anyway and did not conceal her nose and mouth and chin. On their upper bodies they wore blouse and waistcoat, and on their lower limbs the voluminous pai-jamah. However, those garments were not thick and many-layered as on Arab women, but gossamer light and translucent, so the shapes of their bodies could be easily discerned and appreciated.

I gave only one look at the aged grandmother: wrinkled, bony, hunched, almost bald, toothlessly champing her granulated lips, her eyes red and gummy, her withered paps flapping against slatted ribs. One look at the crone was enough for me. But her daughter, the Shahryar Zahd Mirza, was an exceptionally handsome woman, anyway when she was not talking, and her daughter was a superbly beautiful and shapely girl about my own age. She was the Crown Princess or Shahzrad, and named Magas, which means Moth, and subtitled with the royal Mirza. I have neglected to say that the Persians are not, like Arabs, of dark and muddy complexion. Though they all have blue-black hair, and the men wear blue-black beards like Uncle Mafìo’s, their skin is as fair as any Venetian’s, and many have eyes of lighter color than brown. The Shahzrad Magas Mirza was at that moment taking my measure with eyes of emerald green.

“Speaking of horses,” said the Shah, seizing on the tail of the flying-horse tale, before his wife could be reminded of some other story. “You gentlemen should consider trading your horses for camels before you leave Baghdad. Eastward of here you must cross the Dasht-e-Kavir, a vast and terrible desert. Horses cannot endure the—”

“The Mongols’ horses did,” his wife sharply contradicted him. “A Mongol goes everywhere on a horse, and no Mongol would ever bestride a camel. I will tell you how they despise and mistreat camels. While they were besieging this city, the Mongols captured a herd of camels somewhere, and they loaded them with bales of dry grass, and set that hay afire, and stampeded the poor beasts into our streets. The camels, their own fur and humps of fat burning as well, ran mad in agony and could not be caught. So they careered up and down our streets, setting fire to much of Baghdad, before the flames ate into them and reached their vitals, and they collapsed and died.”

“Or,” said the Shah to us, when the Shahryar paused to take a breath, “your journey could be much shortened if you went part way by sea. You might wish to go southeast from here, to Basra—or even farther down the Gulf, to Hormuz—and take passage on some ship sailing to India.”

“In Hormuz,” said the Shahryar Zahd, “every man has only a thumb and the two outer fingers on his right hand. I will tell you why. That seaport city has for ages treasured its importance and its independence, so its every adult male citizen has always been trained as an archer to defend it. When the Mongols under the Ilkhan Hulagu laid seige to Hormuz, the Ilkhan made an offer to the city fathers. Hulagu said he would let Hormuz stand, and retain its independence, and keep its citizen archers, if only the city fathers would lend him those bowmen for long enough to help him conquer Baghdad. Then, he promised, he would let the men come home to Hormuz and be its staunch defense again. The city fathers agreed to that proposal, and all its men—however reluctantly—joined Hulagu in his siege of this city, and fought well for him, and eventually our beloved Baghdad fell.”

She and the Shah both sighed deeply.

“Well,” she went on, “Hulagu had been so impressed by the valor and prowess of the Hormuz men that he then sent them to bed with all the young Mongol women who always accompany the Mongol armies. Hulagu wished to add the potency of the Hormuz seed to the Mongol birthlines, you see. After a few nights of that enforced cohabitation, when Hulagu presumed his females had been sufficiently impregnated, he kept his promise and freed the archers to go home to Hormuz. But before he let them depart, he had every man’s two bowstring fingers amputated. In effect, Hulagu took the fruit from the trees and then felled the trees. Those mutilated men could make no defense of Hormuz at all, and of course that city soon became, like our dear defeated Baghdad, a possession of the Mongol Khanate.”

“My dear,” said the Shah, looking flustered. “These gentlemen are emissaries of that Khanate. The letter they showed me is a ferman from the Khakhan Kubilai himself. I very much doubt that they are amused to hear tales of the Mongols’—er—misbehavior.”

“Oh, you can freely say atrocities, Shah Zaman,” my uncle boomed heartily. “We are still Venetians, not adoptive Mongols nor apologists for them.”

“Then I should tell you,” said the Shahryar, again leaning eagerly forward, “the ghastly way Hulagu treated our Qalif al-Mustasim Billah, the holiest man of Islam.” The Shah breathed another sigh, and fixed his gaze on a remote corner of the room. “As perhaps you know, Mirza Polo, Baghdad was to Islam what Rome is to Christianity. And the Qalif of Baghdad was to Muslims what your Pope is to you Christians. So, when Hulagu laid siege here, it was to the Qalif Mustasim that he proposed surrender terms, not to the Shah Zaman.” She flicked a disparaging glance at her husband. “Hulagu offered to lift the siege if the Qalif acceded to certain demands, among them the handing over of much gold. The Qalif refused, saying, ‘Our gold sustains our Holy Islam.’ And the reigning Shah did not overrule that decision.”

“How could I?” that Shah said weakly, as if it was an argument much argued previously. “The spiritual leader outranks the temporal.”

His wife went implacably on. “Baghdad might have withstood the Mongols and their Hormuz allies, but it could not withstand the hunger imposed by a siege. Our people ate everything edible, even the city rats, but the people got weaker and weaker, and many died and the rest could fight no longer. When the city inevitably fell, Hulagu imprisoned the Qalif Mustasim in solitary confinement, and let him get even hungrier. At last the holy old man had to beg for food. Hulagu with his ówn hands gave him a plate full of gold coins, and the Qalif whimpered, ‘No man can eat gold.’ And Hulagu said, ‘You called it sustenance when I asked for it. Did it sustain your holy city? Pray, then, that it will sustain you.’ And he had the gold melted, and he poured that glowing-hot liquid metal down the old man’s throat, killing him horribly. Mustasim was the last of the Qalifate, which had endured for more than five hundred years, and Baghdad is no longer the capital either of Persia or of Islam.”

We dutifully shook our heads in commiseration, which encouraged the Shahryar to add:

“As an illustration of how low the Shahnate has been brought: this my husband, Shah Zaman, who was once Shahinshah of all the Empire of Persia, is now a pigeon keeper and cherry picker!”

“My dear … ,” said the Shah.

“It is true. One of the lesser Khans—somewhere to the eastward; we have never even met this Ilkhan—has a taste for ripe cherries. He is also a fancier of pigeons, and his pigeons are trained always to fly home to him from wherever they may be transported. So there are now some hundred of those feathered rats in a dovecote behind the palace stables, and for each there is a tiny silken bag. My Emperor husband has instructions. Next summer when our orchards ripen, we are to pick the cherries, put one or two of them into each of those little bags, fasten the bags to the legs of the pigeons and let the birds free. Like the rukh bird carrying off men and lions and princesses, the pigeons will carry our cherries to the waiting Ilkhan. If we do not pay that humiliating tribute, he will doubtless come rampaging from out of the east and lay our city waste again.”

“My dear, I am sure the gentlemen are now weary of—of traveling hither,” said the Shah, sounding weary himself. He struck the gong to summon the wazir once more, and said to us, “You will wish to rest and refresh yourselves. Then, if you will do me the honor, we will foregather again at the evening meal.”

The wazir, a middle-aged and melancholy man named Jamshid, showed us to our chambers, a suite of three rooms with doors between. They were well furnished, with many qali on the floors and walls, and windows of stone tracery inset with glass, and soft beds of quilts and pillows. Our packs had already been removed from our horses and brought there.

“And here is a manservant for each of you,” said the Wazir Jamshid, producing three lissome, beardless young men. “They are all expert in the Indian art of champna, which they will perform for you after you have been to the hammam.”

“Ah, yes,” said Uncle Mafìo, sounding pleased. “We have not enjoyed a shampoo, Nico, since we came through Tazhikistan.”

So again we had the thorough cleansing and refreshment of a hammam, an elegantly appointed one this time, in which our three young men served as our rubbers. And afterward we lay nude on our separate beds in our separate rooms for what was called the champna—or shampoo, as my uncle had pronounced it. I had no idea what to expect; it had sounded like a dance performance. But it proved to be a vigorous rubbing and pummeling and kneading of my entire body, more energetically done than the hammam rubbing, and with the intent not of extruding dirt from the skin, but of exercising every part in a manner to make one feel even healthier and more invigorated than a hammam bath can do.

My young servant, Karim, pounded and pinched and tweaked me, and at first it was painful. But after a while, my muscles and joints and sinews, stiffened by long riding, began to uncoil and unknot under that assault, and gradually I lay at ease and enjoyed it, and felt myself beginning to tingle with vitality. As a matter of fact, one impertinent part of me became obtrusively alive, and I was embarrassed. Then I was startled, for Karim with an evidently practiced hand started to exercise that also.

“I can do that for myself,” I snapped, “if I deem it necessary.”

He shrugged delicately and said, “As the Mirza commands. When the Mirza commands,” and concentrated on less intimate parts of me.

He finished the mauling at last, and I lay half wanting to doze, half wanting to leap up and do athletic feats, and he asked to be excused.

“To attend the Mirza your uncle,” he explained. “For such a massive man, it will require all three of us to give him an adequate champna.”

I graciously gave him leave, and abandoned myself to my drowsiness. I think my father also slept the afternoon away, but Uncle Mafìo must have had a most thorough working-over, for the three young men were just leaving his room when Jamshid came to see us dressed for the evening meal. He brought for us new and myrrh-scented clothing of the Persian style: the lightweight pai-jamah, and loose shirts with tight cuffs, and, to wear over the shirts, beautifully embroidered short waistcoats, and kamarbands to go tightly about our waists, and silk shoes with upturned, curly, pointed toes, and tulbands instead of hanging kaffiyah headcloths. My father and uncle each proficiently and neatly wound his tulband around his head, but young Karim had to instruct me in the winding and tucking of mine. When we were dressed, we all looked exceptionally handsome and nobly Mirza and genuinely Persian.

2

WAZIR Jamshid led us to a large but not overpowering dining hall, lighted with torches and ringed about with servants and attendants. They were all males, and only the Shah Zaman joined us at the sumptuously laid dining cloth. I was rather relieved to see that the palace household was not so unorthodox that females were allowed to violate Muslim custom and routinely sit down to eat with men. We and the Shah had a meal uninterrupted by the facundities of the Shahryar, and he only once referred to her:

“The First Wife, being of royal Sabaean blood, has never reconciled herself to the fact that this Shahnate was heretofore subordinate to the Qalif and now is subordinate to the Khanate. Like a fine-bred Arabian mare, the Shahryar Zahd bucks at being harnessed. But otherwise she is an excellent consort, and more tender than the tail of a fat-tailed sheep.”

His barnyard similes perhaps explained, but to my mind did not excuse, her seeming to be the cock of that yard, and he the much-pecked hen. Nevertheless, the Shah was a congenial fellow, and he drank with us like a Christian, and he was a knowledgeable conversationalist when he was unencumbered of his wife. At my remark that I was thrilled to be following the trails which Alexander the Great had trodden, the Shah said:

“Those trails of his ended not far from here, you know, after Alexander had returned from his conquest of India’s Kashmir and Sind and the Panjab. Only fourteen farsakhs south of here are the ruins of Babylon, where he died. Of a fever brought on, it is said, by his having drunk too much of our wine of Shiraz.”

I thanked the Shah for the information, but I privately wondered how anyone could drink a killing amount of that sticky liquid. Even in Venice I had heard travelers extol their remembrance of the wine of Shiraz, and it is much praised in song and fable, but we were drinking it at that very meal, and I thought it fell far short of its reputation. That wine is an unappetizing orange in color, and cloyingly sweet, and thick as treacle. A man would have to be determined on drunkenness, I decided, to drink very much of it.

The other elements of the meal, though, were unqualifiedly superb. There was chicken cooked in pomegranate juice, and lamb cubed and marinated and broiled in a manner called kabab, and a rose-flavored sharbat cold with snow, and a billowy, trembling confection like a fluffed-up nougat, made of fine white flour, cream, honey, daintily flavored with oil of pistachio, and called a balesh. After the meal, we lolled among our cushions and sipped an exquisite liqueur expressed from rose petals, while we watched two court wrestlers, naked and shiny and slippery with almond oil, try to bend each other double or break each other in half. Then, when they had escaped the performance unharmed, we listened to a court minstrel play on a stringed instrument called al-ud, very like a lute, while he recited Persian poems, of which I can recall only that their every line ended in a mouselike squeak or a mournful sob.

When that torment was concluded, I was given leave by the elder men to go and amuse myself, if I wished. I did so, leaving my father and uncle discussing with the Shah the various land and water routes they might take after Baghdad. I left the room and walked down a long corridor, where were many closed doors guarded by giant men holding spears or shimshir sabers. They all wore the sort of helmet I had seen at the palace gates, but some of the guards had faces of African black or Arab brown, ill according with the helmets’ gold-sculptured tresses.

At the end of the corridor was an unguarded archway giving onto the outdoor garden, and I went there. The smooth gravel pathways and lush flower beds were softly illuminated by a full moon that was like a great pearl displayed on the black velvet of the night. I wandered idly about, admiring the unfamiliar blooms made even more new to me by the pearl light shining on them. Then I came to something so novel as to be astonishing: a flower bed that was visibly and all on its own doing something. I stopped to watch and ponder what appeared to be an unvegetably deliberate behavior. The flower bed was a tremendous circular area, divided piewise into twelve slices, each segment planted densely with a different variety of flowers. All of them were at the blooming stage, but in ten of the slices the flowers had closed their blossoms, as many flowers do at night. However, in one segment, some pale pink flowers were just then folding their petals, and in the adjoining segment some large white flowers were at the same time just opening their blossoms and loosing on the night a heady perfume.

“It is the gulsa’at,” said a voice that might also have been perfumed. I turned to see the young and comely Shahzrad and, standing some way behind her, the aged grandmother. Princess Moth went on, “Gulsa’at means the flower dial. In your country, you have sand glasses and water glasses to tell the hours, do you not?”

“Yes, Shahzrad Magas Mirza,” I said, taking care to use her whole regalia of address.

“You may call me Moth,” she said, with a sweet smile visible through her sheer chador. She indicated the gulsa’at. “This flower dial also tells the hours, but it never has to be turned or refilled. Each kind of flower in that round bed naturally opens at a certain hour of the day or night, and closes at another. They are selected for their regularity of habit, and planted here in proper sequence and—lo! They silently announce each of the twelve hours we count from sunset to sunset.”

I said daringly, “It is a thing as beautiful as you are, Princess Moth.”

“My father the Shah takes a delight in measuring time,” she said. “Yonder is the palace masjid in which we worship, but it is also a calendar. In one wall it has openings so the sun in its rounds shines its light each dawn through one after another to tell the day and the month.”

Somewhat similarly, I was sidling around the girl, to put her between me and the moon, so its light shone through her filmy garments and outlined her delectable body. The old grandmother evidently perceived my intention, for she grinned her gums evilly at me.

“And yonder, beyond,” the Princess continued, “is the anderun where reside all my father’s other wives and concubines. He has more than three hundred, so he can have a different one almost every night of the year if he chooses. However, he prefers my mother, the First Wife, except that she talks all night. So he only takes one of the others to bed when he wishes to have a good night’s sleep.”

Looking at the Shahzrad’s moon-revealed body, I felt my own body again stirring as vivaciously as it had done during the champna. I was glad I was not wearing tight Venetian hose, or I would have bulged them most disgracefully. Dressed as I was in ample pai-jamah, I did not think my arousal could have been visible. But the Princess Moth must have sensed it anyway, for to my shocked amazement she said:

“You would like to take me to bed and make zina, would you not?”

I stammered and stuttered, and managed to say, “Surely you should not speak so, Princess, in the presence of your royal grandmother! I assume she is your”—I did not know the Farsi word, so I said it in French—“your chaperon?”

The Shahzrad made an airy gesture. “The old woman is as deaf as that gulsa’at. Be not concerned, but answer me. You would like to put your zab into my mihrab, no?”

I swallowed and gulped. “I could hardly be so presumptuous … I mean, a Royal Highness …”

She nodded and said briskly, “I believe we can arrange something of the sort. No, do not grab at me. The grandmother can see, if she cannot hear. We must be discreet. I will ask my father’s permission to be your guide while you are here, to show you the delights of Baghdad. I can be a very good guide to those delights. You will see.”

And with that, she drifted away down the moonlit garden, leaving me shaken and shaking. I might say vibrant. When I tottered to my room, Karim was waiting to help me doff the unfamiliar Persian clothes, and he laughed and made noises of admiration and said:

“Surely now the young Mirza will allow me to complete the relaxing champna!” and he poured almond oil into his hand, and he did so with expertness, and I fell languidly into sleep.

The next day I slept late, and so did my father and uncle, for their consultation with Shah Zaman had lasted well into the night. As we ate our breakfast meal, brought by the servants to our suite, they told me that they were contemplating the Shah’s suggestion that we go by sea as far as the Indies. But they would first have to find out if it was practicable. They would each go to one of the Gulf ports—my father to Hormuz, my uncle to Basra—and see if, as the Shah believed, an Arab trader-captain could be persuaded to allow passage to us rival Venetian traders.

“When we have investigated,” said my father, “we will regather here in Baghdad, because the Shah will be wanting us to carry many gifts from him to the Khakhan. So you, Marco, can come along with either one of us to the Gulf, or you can await our return here.”

Thinking of the Shahzrad Magas, but having the good sense not to mention her, I said I thought I would stay. I would take the opportunity to get better acquainted with Baghdad.

Uncle Mafìo snorted. “In the way that you got so well acquainted with Venice when we were last away? Truly, not so very many Venetians get to know the interior of the Vulcano.” To my father he said, “Is it prudent, Nico, to leave this malanòso alone in an alien city?”

“Alone?” I protested. “I have the servant Karim and”—I again refrained from mentioning the Princess Moth—“and the whole palace guard.”

“They are responsible to the Shah, not to you or us,” said my father. “If you should get into trouble again …”

I indignantly reminded him that my most recent trouble had involved my saving them from being slaughtered in their sleep, and they had praised me for it, and that was why I was still in their company, and—

My father sternly interrupted with a proverb, “One sees better backwards than forwards. We are not going to set a warden over you, my boy. But I think it would be a good idea to buy a slave to be your personal servant and see to your best interests. We will go to the bazàr.”

The melancholy Wazir Jamshid walked with us, to interpret for us if our command of Farsi should prove inadequate. Along the way he explained several curious things I was seeing for the first time. For example, in eyeing the other men on the streets, I observed that they did not allow their blue-black beards to go gray or white as they aged. Every elderly man I saw had a beard of a violent pink-orange color, like Shiraz wine. Jamshid told me that it was done with a dye made from the leaves of a shrub called hinna, and he said the hinna was also much used by women as a cosmetic and by carters to adorn their horses. I should mention that the horses used in Baghdad for carriage and cartage are not the fine Arabians used for riding. They are tiny little ponies, not much bigger than mastiff dogs, and they do look very pretty with their flowing manes and tails dyed that brilliant pink-orange color.

There were, on the Baghdad streets, men of many other nations than Persia. Some wore Western clothes and had faces, like ours, that would have been white had they not been sun-darkened. Some had black faces, some brown, some a sort of tan-yellow hue, and there were many whose faces were like weathered leather. Those were the Mongols of the occupying garrison, all dressed in armor of varnished hides or metal chain mail, and striding contemptuously through the street crowds, shoving aside anybody who stepped in their way. Also on the streets were many women, also of various complexions, the Persians only lightly veiled, and others not wearing chador at all, a strange thing to see in a Muslim city. But, even in liberal Baghdad, no woman walked alone; whatever her race or nationality, she was attended either by one or several other women or by a male attendant of considerable bulk and beardless face.

I was so bedazzled by the Baghdad bazàr that I could hardly believe the city had been conquered and plundered and held to tribute by the Mongols. It must have recovered commendably from its recent impoverishment, for it was the richest and most thriving center of commerce I had yet seen, far surpassing every marketplace of Venice in the variety and abundance and value of the goods for sale.

The cloth merchants stood proudly among bales and bolts of fabrics woven of silk and wool and Ankara-goat hair and cotton and linen and fine camel hair and sturdier camelot. There were more exotic Eastern fabrics like mussoline from Mosul and dungri from India and bokhram from Bukhara and demesq from Damascus. The book merchants displayed volumes of fine vellum and parchment and paper, gorgeously engrossed in many colors and gold leaf besides. Most of the books, being copies of the works of Persian authors like Sadi and Nimazi, and of course written in Farsi and rendered in the convulsed-worm Arabic lettering, were incomprehensible to me. But one of them, titled Iskandarnama, I could recognize from its illuminations as being a Persian version of my favorite reading, The Book of Alexander.

The bazàr’s apothecaries stocked jars and phials of cosmetics for men and women: black al-kohl and green malachite and brown summaq and red hinna and eye-brightening collyrium washes, and perfumes of nard and myrrh and frankincense and rose attar. There were tiny bags of an almost impalpably fine grit which Jamshid said was fern seed, to be employed by those who knew the proper accompaniment of magical incantations, to make their corporeal persons invisible. There was an oil called teryak, expressed from the petals and pods of poppy flowers, which Jamshid said physicians prescribed for the relief of cramps and other pains, but which any person depressed by age or misery could buy and drink as an easy way out of an unbearable life.

The bazàr was also shiny and glittering and coruscating with precious metals and gems and jewelry. But of all the treasures for sale there, I was most taken with a particular sort. There was a merchant who dealt exclusively in sets of a certain board game. In Venice it is unimaginatively called the Game of Squares, and it is played with cheap pieces carved of ordinary woods. In Persia that game is called the War of the Shahi, and the playing sets are works of art, priced beyond the reach of all but a real Shah or someone of equal wealth. A typical board offered for sale by that Baghdad merchant was of alternate ebony and ivory squares, expensive all by itself. The pieces on one side of it—the Shah and his General, the two elephants, the two horsemen, the two rukhi warriors and the eight peyadeh foot soldiers—were made of gem-encrusted gold, the sixteen facing pieces across the board being of gem-encrusted silver. The price asked for that set I cannot remember, but it was staggering. He had other Shahi sets variously fashioned of porcelain and jade and rare woods and pure crystal, and all of those pieces were sculptured as exquisitely as if they had been miniature statues of living monarchs and generals and their men at arms.

There were merchants of livestock—of horses and ponies and asses and camels, of course, but also of other beasts. Some of them I had known only by repute and never seen before that day, such as a big and shaggy bear, which I thought resembled my Uncle Mafìo; a delicate kind of deer called a qazèl, which people bought to grace their gardens; and a yellow wild dog called a shaqàl, which a hunter could tame and train to stop and kill a charging boar. (A Persian hunter will go alone and with only a knife to challenge a savage lion, but he is timid of meeting a wild pig. Since a Muslim recoils even from speaking of pig meat, he would deem it a death horrific beyond imagination if he should die at the tusks of a boar.) Also in the livestock market was the shuturmurq, which means “camel-bird,” and it certainly did look like a mongrel offspring of those two different creatures. The camel-bird has the body and feathers and beak of a giant goose, but its neck is unfeathered and long, like a camel’s, and its two legs are ungainly long, like a camel’s four, and its splayed feet are as big as a camel’s pads, and it can no more fly than a camel can. Jamshid said the shuturmurq was caught and kept for the one pretty thing it can supply: the billowy plumes it grows on its rump. There were also apes for sale, of the sort which uncouth seamen sometimes bring to Venice, where they are called simiazze: those apes as big and ugly as Ethiope children. Jamshid called that animal nedjis, which means “unspeakably unclean,” but he did not tell me why it was so named or why anyone, even a seaman, would buy such a thing.

In the bazàr were many fardarbab, or tomorrow-tellers. They were shriveled, orange-bearded old men who squatted behind trays of carefully smoothed sand. A client who paid a coin would shake the tray and the sand would ripple into patterns which the old man would read and interpret. There were also many of the darwish holy beggars, as ragged, scabby, filthy and evil-looking as those in any other Eastern city. Here in Baghdad they had an additional attribute: they danced and skipped and howled and whirled and convulsed as violently as any epilept in a seizure. It was, I suppose, at least some entertainment in return for the bakhshish they beseeched.

Before we could even inspect any of the bazàr’s wares, we had to be interviewed by a market official called the revenue-farmer, and satisfy him that we possessed both the means to buy and also the means to pay the jizya, which is a tax levied on non-Muslim sellers and buyers alike. Wazir Jamshid, although he was himself a court official, privately confided to us that all such petty officials and civil servants were despised by the people and were called batlanim, which means “the idle ones.” When my father produced for that idle one a cod of musk, surely wealth enough to pay for a Shahi set at least, the revenue-farmer grumbled suspiciously:

“Got it from an Armeniyan, you say? Then it probably contains not the deer’s musk, but his chopped liver. It must be tested.”

The idle one took out a needle and thread and a clove of garlic. He threaded the needle and ran it several times through and through the garlic, until the thread was reeking with the garlic odor. Then he took the musk cod and ran the needle and thread just once through it. He sniffed at the thread and looked surprised.

“The smell is all gone, totally absorbed. Verily, you have genuine musk. Where on this earth did you meet an honest Armeniyan?” And he gave us a ferman, a paper authorizing us to trade in the Baghdad bazàr.

Jamshid took us to the slave pen of a Persian dealer who he said was trustworthy, and we stood among the crowd of other prospective purchasers and mere lookers-on, while the dealer detailed the lineage, history, attributes and merits of each slave brought to the block by his burly assistants.

“Here is a standard eunuch,” he said, presenting an obese and shiny black man, who looked quite cheerful for a slave. “Guaranteed placid and amenable to orders and never known to steal more than the allowable. He would make an excellent servant. However, if you seek a veritable Keeper of the Keys, here is a perfect eunuch.” He presented a young white man, blond and muscular, who was quite handsome but who looked as melancholy as a slave might be expected to look. “You are invited to examine the merchandise.”

My uncle said to the wazir, “I know, of course, what a eunuch is. We have castròni in our own country, sweet-singing boys neutered so they will always sing sweetly. But how can a totally sexless creature be differentiated as standard and perfect? Is it because one is an Ethiope and the other a Russniak?”

“No, Mirza Polo,” said Jamshid, and he explained in French, so we would not be confounded by unfamiliar Farsi words. “The eunuque ordinaire is deprived of his testicles when he is yet a baby, to make him grow up docile and obedient and not contrary of nature. It is easily done. A thread is tied tightly around the roots of a boy infant’s scrotum, and in a matter of weeks that cod withers, turns black and drops off. That is quite enough to make him become a good servant of general utility.”

“What more could a master want?” said Uncle Mafìo, perhaps sincerely, perhaps sarcastically.

“Well, to be a Keeper of the Keys, the eunuque extraordinaire is preferred. For he must live in and watch over the anderun, the quarters in which reside his master’s wives and concubines. And those women, especially if they are not often favored in the matter of the master’s bed, can be most enterprising and inventive, even with inert male flesh. So that sort of slave must be shorn of all his equipment—the rod as well as the stones. And that removal is a serious operation, not so easily done. Look yonder and observe. The merchandise is being examined.”

We looked. The dealer had directed the two slaves to drop their pai-jamah, and they stood with their crotches exposed to the scrutiny of an elderly Persian Jew. The fat black man was hairless down there, and bagless, but he did have a member of respectable size, though of a repellent black and purple color. I supposed that a woman of the anderun, if she was so desperate for a man and so depraved as to want that thing inside her, might contrive some kind of splint to stiffen it. But the far more presentable young Russniak had not even a flaccid appendage. He showed only a growth of blond artichoke hair, and something like the tip of a small white stick grotesquely protruding from the hair, and otherwise his groin was as featureless as a woman’s.

“Bruto barabào!” grunted Uncle Mafìo. “How is it done, Jamshid?”

As expressionlessly as if he was reading from a medical text, the wazir said, “The slave is taken into a room dense with the smoke of smoldering banj leaves, and he is set in a hot bath and he is given teryak to sip, all that done to dull his sense of pain. The hakim doing the operation takes a long ribbon and winds it tightly about him, starting at the tip of the slave’s penis and wrapping inward to the roots, bundling in with it the cod of testicles, so that the organs make a single package. Then, using a keenly sharp blade, the hakim removes that whole beribboned package with a single slicing stroke. He immediately applies to the wound a styptic of powdered raisins, puffball fungus and alum. When the bleeding stops, he inserts a clean quill, which will stay there during the slave’s whole life. For the chief danger of the operation is that the urinary passage may close in the healing. If, by the third or fourth day afterward, the slave has not passed water through the quill, he is certain to die. And sad to say, that does occur in perhaps three out of five cases.”

“Capòn mal caponà!” exclaimed my father. “It sounds gruesome. You have actually witnessed such a procedure?”

“Yes,” said Jamshid. “I watched with some interest when it was done to me.”

I should have realized that that accounted for his always melancholy aspect, and I should have kept silent. Instead I blurted, “But you are not fat, Wazir, and you have a full beard!”

He did not rebuke my impertinence. He replied, “Those who endure castration in infancy never grow a beard, and their bodies grow corpulent and feminine of contour, often even growing heavy breasts. But when the operation is done after a slave’s passing puberty, he remains masculine, at least in outward appearance. I was a full-grown man, with a wife and son, when our farm was raided by Kurdi slave-takers. The Kurdi sought only robust worker slaves, so my wife and little boy were spared. They were merely raped several times apiece, and then slain.”

An appalled silence ensued and might have got uncomfortable, but Jamshid added, almost offhandedly, “Ah, well, can I complain? I might have been a mere millet farmer to this day. But having been relieved of a man’s natural desires—to sow and cultivate land and lineage—I was freed to cultivate my intellect instead. Now I have risen to become Wazir to the Shahinshah of Persia, and that is no small attainment.”

Having so graciously dismissed the subject, he summoned the slave dealer to come and give ear to our requirements. The dealer left his assistants to oversee the inspection of the two slaves already on display, and came smiling and rubbing his hands together.

I had half hoped that my father would buy for me a comely girl slave, who could be more than a servant, or at least a young man of my own age, who would be a congenial companion. But of course he told the dealer not what I might want, but what he wanted for me :

“An older man, well versed in travel, but still agile enough to travel farther yet. Wise in the ways of the East, so that he can both safeguard and instruct my son. And I think”—he flicked a sympathetic glance at the wazir—“not a eunuch. I had rather not help to perpetuate that practice.”

“I have the very man, messieurs,” said the dealer, speaking good French. “Mature but not old, wily but not willful, experienced but not inflexible to command. Now, where has he got to? He was here just moments ago … .”

We followed him about through his herd—or herds, I should say, for there were a considerable number of slaves in the pen, and also a number of the tiny hinna’ed Persian horses which drew his wagons from town to town. The pen was partly fenced and partly enclosed by those canvas-hooped wagons, in which he and his assistants and his merchandise traveled by day and slept by night.

“The ideal slave for you, messieurs, this man,” the dealer went on, as he kept looking around. “He has belonged to numerous masters, hence has traveled widely and knows many lands. He speaks several tongues, and has a vast repertoire of useful talents. But where is he?”

We continued circulating among the men and women slaves, who had lengths of light chain connecting their ankle rings, and among the midget horses, which were not fettered. The dealer began to look slightly embarrassed at having misplaced the very slave he was trying to peddle.

“I had loosed him from the skein,” he muttered, “and shackled him to one of my mares, which he was currying for me—”

He was interrupted by a loud, piercing, prolonged equine whinny. With a ripple of orange mane and tail, a little horse came flying out through the front flaps of one of the covered wagons. Literally, it was in flight for a moment, like the magic glass horse of which the Shahryar Zahd had told us, for it had to bound from the interior of the wagon bed and clear the driver’s bench and the dashboard to get to the ground below. As it made that high arcing bound, a chain attached to its rear leg came trailing in the same looping arc, and at the other end of the chain a man popped out legs-first through the canvas flaps, like a stopper yanked from a bottle. The man also flew over the front of the wagon and hit the ground in a thump of dust. Because the horse tried to flee farther yet, the man got dragged about and raised quite a cloud of dust before the slave dealer could catch the frightened animal’s bridle and bring that brief entertainment to a halt.

The little horse’s orange mane was silkily combed, but its orange tail was disheveled. So were the man’s nether regions, for his pai-jamah were down around his feet. He sat for a moment, too winded to do anything but make several faint exclamations in several languages. Then he hastily rearranged his garments, as the slave dealer came and stood over him and bellowed imprecations and kicked him until he got upright. The slave was about my father’s age, but his scruffy beard appeared to be only about two weeks’ growth and did not adequately conceal a receding chin. He had bright, shifty pig’s eyes and a large fleshy nose that drooped over fleshy lips. He was no taller than I, but much thicker, with a paunch that drooped as did his nose. All in all, he looked something like a camelbird.

“My newly acquired mare!” the dealer was raging, in Farsi, still kicking the slave. “You indescribable wretch!”

“The mischievous horse was wandering, master,” whined the wretch, his arms raised protectively around his head. “I had to follow—”

“The horse wandered up? And climbed into a wagon? You lie to me as readily as you lie with innocent animals! You execrable pervert!”

“But give me due credit, master,” whimpered the pervert. “Your mare could have gone farther, and been lost. Or I could have gone with her, and escaped.”

“Bismillah, I wish you had! You are an insult to the noble institution of slavery!”

“Then sell me, master,” sniveled the insult. “Foist me onto some unsuspecting purchaser and get me out of your sight.”

“Estag farullah!” the dealer prayed toward Heaven at the top of his voice. “Allah pardon me my sins, I thought I had done just that. These gentlemen might have bought you, abomination, but now they have seen you caught in the act of raping my best mare!”

“Oh, I dispute that accusation, master,” said the abomination, daring to speak with an air of righteous indignation. “I have known much better mares.”

Speechless of words, the dealer clenched his fists and teeth and roared, “Arrrgh!”

Jamshid interrupted this singular colloquy, saying sternly, “Mirza Dealer, I assured the messieurs that you were a trustworthy seller of dependable merchandise.”

“Before Allah, that I am, Wazir! I would not sell, I would not give them this walking pustule! I would not sell him to the harridan wife Awwa of the Devil Shaitan, I swear it, now that I know his true nature. I sincerely apologize to you, messieurs. And so will this creature apologize. You hear me? Apologize for that disgraceful exhibition. Abase yourself! Speak, Nostril!”

“Nostril?” we all exclaimed.

“It is my name, good masters,” said the slave, unapologetically. “I have other names, but I am most often called Nostril, and for a reason.”

He put a grimy finger to his blob of nose and pushed up the tip of it so we could see that instead of two nostrils he had only one large one. It would have been a sight repulsive enough, but was made more so by the profusion of snotty hair growing out of it.

“A minor punishment I once incurred for an even more minor misdemeanor. But be not prejudiced against me on that account, kind masters. As you can perceive, I am otherwise a distinguished figure of a man, and I have countless virtues besides. I was by profession a seaman, before I fell into slavery, and I have traveled everywhere, from my native Sind to the farthermost shores of—”

“Gèsu Marìa Isèpo,” said Uncle Mafìo, marveling. “The man’s tongue is as limber as his middle leg!”

We all stood fascinated and let Nostril babble on. “I would still be traveling, but for my misfortunate seizure by slavers. I was making love to a female shaqàl when the slave-raiders attacked, and you gentlemen doubtless know how a bitch’s mihrab enclasps the loving zab and holds it trapped. So I could not run very fast, with the shaqàl bitch dangling from my front and bouncing and squawling. So I was caught, and my sea career ended and my slave career began. But I say in all modesty that I quickly became a nonpareil slave. You will have remarked that I am now speaking in Sabir, your trade language of the West—and now hearken, auspicious masters, I am speaking in Farsi, the trade language of the East. I am also fluent in my native Sindi, in Pashtun, in Hindi and Panjabi. I speak also a passable Arabic, and can get along in several of the Turki dialects and—”

“Do you never shut up in any of them?” asked my father.

Nostril went on, unheeding. “And I have many more qualities and talents of which I have not begun yet to speak. I am good with horses, as you must have noticed. I grew up with horses and—”

“You just said you were a seaman,” my uncle pointed out.

“That was after I grew up, perspicacious master. I am also an expert with camels. I can cast and divine horoscopes in the Arab manner or the Persian or the Indian. I have refused offers from the most exclusive hammams to hire them my services as a rubber unsurpassed. I can dye gray beards with hinna, or remove wrinkles by applying quicksilver salve. With my single nostril I can play a flute more sweetly than any musician with his mouth. Also, employing that orifice in a certain other fashion—”

In unison, my father and uncle and the wazir severally exclaimed:

“Dio me varda!” and

“This man would disgust a maggot!” and

“Remove him, Mirza Dealer! He is a blot on Baghdad! Stake him out somewhere for the vultures!”

“I hear and obey, Wazir,” said the dealer. “After I have shown you some other wares, perhaps?”

“It is late,” said Jamshid, instead of what he might have said about the dealer and his wares. “We are expected back at the palace. Come, messieurs. There is always tomorrow.”

“And tomorrow will be a cleaner day,” said the dealer, glaring vengefully at the slave.

So we left the slave pen and the bazàr and wended our way through the streets and garden squares. We were nearly back at the palace before Uncle Mafìo thought to remark:

“You know? That despicable scoundrel Nostril never did apologize.”

3

AGAIN we had our servants dress us in our best new raiment, and again we joined the Shah Zaman for the evening meal, and again it was a delicious repast, again excepting the Shiraz wine. I remember that the concluding course was a confection of sheriye, which are a sort of pasta ribbons like our fetucine, these cooked in cream with almonds and pistachios and tiny slivers of gold and silver foil so very thin and dainty that they were to be eaten along with the rest of the sweet.

While we dined, the Shah told us that his Royal First Daughter, the Shahzrad Magas, had asked his permission, and he had given it, to act as my companion and guide, to show me the sights of the city and its environs—with of course the additional company of a lady chaperon—as long as I should be in Baghdad. My father gave me a sidelong glance, but thanked the Shah for his and the Princess’s kindness. My father further declared that, since I would obviously be in good hands, it would be unnecessary to buy a slave to look after me. So he would head southward the very next morning toward Hormuz, and Mafìo toward Basra.

I saw them off at dawn, each of them riding away in the company of a palace guard assigned by the Shah to be their servants and protectors on the journey. Then I went to the palace garden, where the Shahzrad Magas waited, again with her grandmother discreetly shadowing, to give me my first day of sightseeing under her tutelage. I made her a very formal greeting of salaam, and said nothing of what else she had hinted at giving me, and neither did she speak of it for a while.

“Dawn is a good time to see our palace masjid,” she said, and escorted me to that temple of worship, where she bade me admire the exterior of it, which was admirable indeed. The immense dome was covered with a mosaic of blue and silver tiles and topped with a golden knob, all shining in the sunrise. The manaret spire was like an elaborate giant candlestick, richly chased and engraved and inlaid with glowing gemstones.

At that moment I formed a private surmise, and I would speak of it here.

I already knew that Muslim men are bidden to keep their women sequestered and useless and mute and veiled from all eyes—in pardah, as the Persians call that lifelong suppression of their females. I knew that, by decree of the Prophet Muhammad and the Quran he wrote, a woman is merely one of a man’s chattels, like his sword or his goats or his wardrobe, and she differs only in being the one of his chattels with which he occasionally couples, and that with the sole purpose of siring children, and those valued only when they are male, like him. The majority of devout Muslims, men and women alike, must not speak of sexual relations between them, or even the relation of mutual companionship, though a man might be leeringly frank about his relations with other men.

But I decided, on that morning when I gazed at the palace masjid, that Islam’s strictures against the normal expression of normal sexuality has not been able to stifle all expression of it. Look at any masjid and you will see each dome copied from the female human breast, its aroused nipple erect to the sky, and in each manaret a representation of the male organ, likewise joyously erect. I might be mistaken in discerning those similarities, but I do not think so. The Quran has decreed inequality between men and women. It has made indecent and unmentionable the natural relation between them, and distorted it most shamefully. But Islam’s own temples bravely declare that the Prophet was wrong, and that Allah made man and woman to cleave to each other and to be of one flesh.

The Princess and I went inside the masjid’s wonderfully high and broad central chamber, and it was beautifully decorated, though of course entirely with patterns, not pictures or statues. The walls were covered with mosaic designs made of blue lapis lazura alternating with white marble, so the chamber was a soft and restful pale-blue place.

Just as there are no images in Muslim temples, there also are no altars, no priests, no musicians or choristers, no apparatus of the ceremonial, like censers and fonts and candelabra. There are no masses or communions or other such rites, and a Muslim congregation observes only one ritual rule: in praying, they all prostrate themselves in the direction of the holy city Mecca, birthplace of their Prophet Muhammad. Since Mecca lies southwest of Baghdad, that masjid’s farther wall was to the southwest, and in the center of it was a shallow niche, a little taller than a man, also tiled blue and white.

“That is the mihrab,” said Princess Moth. “Though Islam has no priests, we are sometimes addressed by a visiting wise man. Perhaps an imam, one whose deep study of the Quran has made him an authority on its spiritual tenets. Or a mufti, who is similarly an expert on the temporal laws laid down by the Prophet (peace and blessing be upon him). Or a hajji, one who has made the long hajj pilgrimage to Holy Mecca. And to lead our devotions, the wise man takes position yonder in the mihrab.”

I said, “I thought the word mihrab meant—” and then I stopped, and the Princess smiled naughtily at me.

I was about to say that I had thought the word mihrab meant a woman’s most private part, what a Venetian girl had once vulgarly called her pota, and a Venetian lady had more fastidiously called her mona. But then I took notice of the shape of that mihrab niche in the masjid wall. It was shaped exactly like a woman’s genital orifice, slightly oval in outline and narrowing at the top to close in a pointed arch. I have been inside many another masjid, and in every one that niche is so shaped. I believe it to be an additional corroboration of my theory that human sexuality has influenced Islamic architecture. Of course I do not know—and I doubt that any Muslim knows—which use of the word mihrab came first: the ecclesiastical or the bawdy.

“And there,” said Princess Moth, pointing upward, “are the windows which make the sun tell the passing days.”

Sure enough, there were openings carefully spaced about the upper periphery of the dome, and the new-risen sun was sending a beam across to the dome’s opposite inner side, where there were inset slabs with Arabic writings entwined in their mosaics. The Princess read aloud the words where the beam rested. According to that evidence, the present day was, in the Muslim reckoning, the third day of the month Jumada Second in the 670th year of Muhammad’s Hijra, or, in the Persian calendar, the 199th year of the Jalali Era. Then Princess Moth and I together, with much muttering and counting on our fingers, did the calculations necessary to convert the date to the Christian reckoning.

“Today is the twentieth of the month September!” I exclaimed. “It is my birthday!”

She congratulated me and said, “You Christians sometimes are given gifts on your birthdays, are you not, as we are?”

“Sometimes, yes.”

“Then I will give you a gift this very night, if you are brave enough to run some risk in receiving it. I will give you a night of zina.”

“What is zina?” I asked, though I suspected I knew.

“It is illicit intercourse between a man and a woman. It is haram, which means forbidden. If you are to receive the gift, I must sneak you into my chamber in the anderun of the palace women, which is also haram.”

“I will brave any risk!” I cried wholeheartedly. Then I thought of something. “But … excuse me for asking, Princess Moth. But I have been informed that Muslim women are somehow deprived of—of their enthusiasm for zina. I have been told that they are, well, somehow circumcised, though I cannot imagine how.”

“Oh, yes, tabzir,” she said casually. “That is done to the general run of women, yes, when they are infants. But not to any infants of royal blood, or any who could in future become the wives or concubines of a royal court. It was certainly not done to me.”

“I am happy for you,” I said, and meant it. “But what is done to those unfortunate females? What is tabzir?”

“Let me show you,” she said.

I was startled, expecting her to undress, right then and there, so I made a cautionary gesture at the lurking grandmother. But Moth only grinned at me and stepped to the preacher’s niche in the masjid wall, saying, “Are you much acquainted with the anatomy of a female person? Then you know that here”—she pointed at the top of the arch—“toward the front of her mihrab opening, a woman has a tender buttonlike protrusion. It is called the zambur.”

“Ah,” I said, enlightened at last. “In Venice it is called the lumaghèta.” I tried to sound as clinical as a physician, but I know I blushed as I spoke.

“The exact position of the zambur may vary slightly in different women,” Moth went on, herself unblushingly clinical. “And the size of it may vary considerably. My own zambur is commendably large, and in arousal it extends to the length of my little finger’s first joint.”

Just the thought of it made me arouse and extend. Since the grandmother was present, I was again grateful for my voluminous nether garments.

The Princess blithely continued, “So I am much in demand by the other women of the anderun, because my zambur can service them almost as well as a man’s zab. And women’s play is halal, which means allowable, not haram.”

And if my face had been pink before, it must have been maroon by now. But if Princess Moth noticed, it did not deter her.

“In every woman, that is her most sensitive place, the very nub of her sexual excitability. Without the arousal of her zambur, she is unresponsive in the sexual embrace. And lacking any enjoyment of that act, she does not yearn for it. That of course is the reason for the tabzir—the circumcision, as you called it. In a grown woman, until she is very much aroused, the zambur is modestly hidden between the closed lips of her mihrab. But in an infant female, that zambur protrudes beyond the little baby lips. An attending hakim can very easily snip it off with just a scissors.”

“Dear God!” I exclaimed, my own arousal going instantly limp from horror. “That is not circumcision. That is the making of a female eunuch!”

“Very like it,” she agreed, as if it were not horrible at all. “The child grows up to be a woman virtuously cold and devoid of sexual response, or even any desire for it. The perfect Muslim wife.”

“Perfect?! What husband would want such a wife?”

“A Muslim husband,” she said simply. “That wife will never commit adultery and make him a cuckold. She is incapable of contemplating an act of zina, or anything else haram. She will not even tease her husband to anger by flirting with another man. If she correctly keeps pardah, she will never even see another man—until she gives birth to a man-child. You understand, tabzir does not hamper her function of maternity. She can become a mother, and in that she is superior to a eunuch, who cannot become a father.”

“Even so, it is a ghastly fate for a woman.”

“It is the fate decreed by the Prophet (may blessing and peace be upon him). Nevertheless, I am thankful that we upper classes are exempted from many such inconveniences visited upon the common folk. Now, about your birthday gift, young Mirza Marco …”

“I wish it was already night,” I said, glancing up at the slow-creeping sunbeam. “This will be the longest birthday of my life, waiting for night and zina with you.”

“Oh, not with me!”

“What?”

She giggled. “Well, not exactly with me.”

Bewildered, I said again, “What?”

“You distracted me, Marco, asking about the tabzir, so I did not explain the gift I am giving you. Before I explain, you must bear in mind that I am a virgin.”

I started pettishly to say, “You have not been talking like—” but she laid a finger across my lips.

“True, I am not tabzir and I am not cold and perhaps you would call me not entirely virtuous, since I am inviting you to do something haram. It is true, too, that I have a most charming zambur, and I dearly love to exercise it, but only in ways halal which will not diminish my virginity. In addition to my zambur, you see, I have all my parts, including my sangar. That maiden membrane has not been breached, and never will be until I wed some royal Prince. It must not be breached, or no Prince would have me. I should be lucky if I were not beheaded for letting myself be despoiled. No, Marco, do not even dream of consummating the zina with me.”

“I am confused, Princess Moth. You distinctly said you would sneak me into your chamber … .”

“And so I shall. And I shall remain with you there to assist you in zina with my sister.”

“With your sister?!”

“Hush! The old grandmother is deaf, but sometimes she can read simple words from the lips. Now keep silent and listen. My father has many wives, so I have many sisters. One of them is amenable to zina. In fact, she can never get enough of it. And it is she who will be your birthday gift.”

“But if she is also a royal Princess, why is her virginity not equally—?”

“I said keep silent. Yes, she is as royal as I, but there is a reason why she does not treasure maidenhood as I do. You will know everything tonight. But until tonight I will say no more, and if you pester me with questions I will rescind the gift. Now, Marco, let us enjoy the day. Let me command a coachman to take us for a ride about the city.”

The coach, when it came for us, was really only a dainty cart on two high wheels, drawn by a single midget Persian horse. Its driver helped me hoist the infirm old grandmother up to sit beside him at the front, and the Princess and I sat on the inside seat. As the cart rolled down the garden drive and out through the palace gates into Baghdad, Moth remarked that she had not yet had anything of breakfast to eat, opened a cloth bag, took from it some greenish-yellow fruits, and bit into one and offered another to me.

“Banyan,” she called it. “A variety of fig.”

I winced at the word fig, and politely declined, not bothering to mention my Acre misadventure that had made figs repulsive to me. Moth looked sulky when I refused, and I asked her why.

“Do you know,” she said, leaning close and whispering so the coachman would not hear, “that this is the forbidden fruit with which Eve seduced Adam?”

I whispered back, “I prefer the seduction without the fruit. And speaking of which—”

“I told you not to speak of it. Not until tonight.”

Several other times during the morning’s ride, I tried to broach that subject, but every time she ignored me, speaking only to call my attention to this or that point of interest and to tell me informative things about it.

She said, “Here we are in the bazàr, which you have already visited, but perhaps you do not recognize it now, all empty and deserted and silent. That is because today is Jumè—Friday, as you call it—which Allah appointed to be the day of rest, and there is no doing of trade or business or labor.”

And she said, “That grassy parkland which you see yonder is a graveyard, which we call a City of the Silent.”

And she said, “That large building is the House of Delusion, a charitable institution founded by my father the Shah. In it are confined and cared for all the persons who go insane, as many persons do in the hot summertime. They are regularly examined by a hakim, and if they ever regain their reason, they are set free again.”

In the outer skirts of the city, we crossed a bridge over a small stream, and I was struck by the color of that water, which was a most unusually deep blue for mere water. Then we crossed another stream, and it was a most unwaterly vivid green. But not until we had crossed yet another, and it was as red as blood, did I make any comment.

The Princess explained, “The waters of all the streams out here are colored by the dyes of the makers of qali. You have never seen a qali made? You must see.” And she gave directions to the coachman.

I would have expected to be taken back into Baghdad, and to some city workshop, but the cart went farther still into the countryside, and came to a stop beside a hill that had a low cave entrance halfway up it. Moth and I got down from the cart, climbed the hill and ducked our heads to go into the hole.

We had to go crouching through a short, dark tunnel, but then we came out inside the hill, and into a vastly wide and high rock cavern, full of people, its floor cluttered with work tables and benches and dye vats. The cavern was dark until my eyes got accustomed to its half-light, cast by innumerable candles and lamps and torches. The lamps were set on the various pieces of furniture, the torches were ensconced at intervals around the rock walls, some of the candles were stuck to the rocks by their own drip, and other candles were carried about in the hands of the multitude of workers.

I said to the Princess, “I thought this was a day of rest.”

“For Muslims,” she said. “These are all slaves, Christian Russniaks and Lezghians and such. They are allowed their due sabbath on Sundays.”

Only a few of the slaves were grown men and women, and they worked at various tasks, like the stirring of the dye vats, on the floor of the cavern. All the rest were children, and they worked while floating high in the air. That may sound like one of the Shahryar Zahd’s stories of magic, but it was a fact. From the high dome of the cavern hung a giant comb of strings, hundreds of strings, parallel and close together, a vertical web as high and as wide as the entire cavern’s height and width. It was obviously the weft for a qali which, when finished, would carpet some immense palace chamber or ballroom. High up against that wall of weft, hung in loops of rope that depended from somewhere even higher in the roof darkness, dangled a crowd of children.

The little boys and girls were all naked—because of the heat of the air up there, Princess Moth told me—and they were suspended across the width of the work, but at various levels, some higher and some lower. Up there, the qali was partially completed, from its hem at the top of the weft down to those levels where the children worked, and I could see that it was, even at that early stage of progress, a qali of a most intricate and varicolored flower-garden design. Each of the dangling children had a candle stuck on its head with the wax, and all were busily engaged, but at what I could not discern; they seemed to be plucking with their little fingers at the unfinished lower edge of the qali.

The Princess said, “They are weaving the warp threads through the weft. Each slave holds a shuttle and a hank of thread of a single color. He or she weaves it through and makes it tight, in the order required by the design.”

“How in the world,” I asked, “can one child know when and where to contribute his bit, among so many other slaves and threads, and in such a complex work?”

“The qali master sings to them,” she said. “Our arrival interrupted him. There, he begins again.”

It was a wonderful thing. The man called the qali master sat before a table on which was spread a tremendous sheet of paper. It was ruled in countless neat little squares, over which was superimposed a drawing of the qali’s entire intended design, with the innumerable different colors indicated. The qali master read aloud from that design, singing something on this order:

“One, red! … Thirteen, blue! … Forty-five, brown! …”

Except that what he chanted was far more complicated than that. It had to be audible away up there near the cavern roof, and it had to be unmistakably understood by each boy and girl it called upon, and it had to have a cadence that kept them all working in rhythm. While the words addressed one slave child after another, out of the great many of them, and told each one when to bring in his individual shuttle, the singing of the words either in a high tone or a low tone told that slave how far across the weft to warp his thread and when to knot it. In that marvelous manner of working, the slaves would bring the qali, thread by thread, line by line, all the way down to the cavern floor, and when it was finished it would be as perfect in execution as if it had been painted by a single artist.

“Just that one qali can eventually cost many slaves,” said the Princess, as we turned to leave the cavern. “The weavers must be as young as possible, so they are light of weight and have tiny, agile fingers. But it is not easy to teach such demanding work to such young boys and girls. Also, they frequently swoon from the heat up yonder, and fall and break and die. Or, if they live long enough, they are almost sure to go blind from the close work and poor light. And for every one lost, another slave child must be already trained and standing by.”

“I can understand,” I said, “why even the smallest qali is so valuable.”

“But just imagine what one would cost,” she said, as we emerged again into the sunlight, “if we had to employ real people.”

4

THE cart took us back to the city, and through it, and again into the palace gardens. Once or twice more I tried to pry from the Princess some hint of what would happen in the nighttime, but she remained adamant against my curiosity. Not until we got down from the cart, and she and her grandmother were leaving me to go to their anderun quarters, did she refer to our rendezvous.

“At moonrise,” she said. “By the gulsa’at again.”

I had a minor ordeal to go through before then. When I got to my room, the servant Karim informed me that I was to be accorded the honor of dining that evening with the Shah Zaman and his Shahryar Zahd. It was no doubt a signal kindness on their part, considering my youth and my insignificance in the absence of my ambassadorial father and uncle. But I confess that I did not much esteem the honor, and I sat wishing that the meal would hasten to its conclusion. For one reason, I felt slightly uncomfortable in the presence of the parents of the girl who had invited me to zina later that night. (Of the other girl, who would somehow share in the zina, I knew the Shah had to be the father, but I could not guess who might be her mother.) Also, I was literally salivating at the prospect of that which was to occur, even though I did not know exactly what was to occur. With my tongue glands thus uncontrollably gushing, I could hardly eat of the fine meal, let alone make sustained conversation. Fortunately, the Shahryar’s loquacity precluded my having to say more than an occasional “Yes, Your Majesty” and “Is that a fact?” and “Do tell.” For she did tell; nothing could have stopped her telling; but she told not many facts, I think.

“So,” she said, “today you visited the makers of qali.”

“Yes, Your Majesty.”

“You know, in olden times there were magic qali which were capable of carrying a man through the air.”

“Is that a fact?”

“Yes, a man could step onto a qali and command it to take him to some far, far distant part of the world. And off it would fly, over mountains and seas and deserts, whisking him there in the twinkling of an eyelid.”

“Do tell.”

“Yes. I will tell you the story of a Prince. His Princess lover was abducted by the giant rukh bird, and he was desolate. So he procured from a jinni one of the magic qali and …”

And finally the story was over, and finally so was the meal, and finally so was my impatient waiting, and, like the story Prince, I hurried to my Princess lover. She was at the flower dial, and for the first time she was unaccompanied by her crone chaperon. She took my hand and led me along the garden paths and around the palace to a wing of it I had not known existed. Its doors were guarded like all the other palace entrances, but Princess Moth and I merely had to wait in the concealment of a flowery shrub until both the guards turned their heads. They did so in unison, and almost as if they were doing it on command, and I wondered if Moth had bribed them. She and I flitted inside unseen, or at least unchallenged, and she led me along several corridors oddly empty of guards, and around corners, and finally through an unguarded door.

We were in her chambers, a place hung with many splendid qali and with filmy, transparent curtains and draperies in the many colors of sharbats, looped and swathed and swagged in a delicious confusion, but all carefully kept clear of the lamps burning among them. The room was carpeted almost from wall to wall with sharbat-colored cushions, so many that I could not tell which were daiwan and which composed the Princess’s bed.

“Welcome to my chambers, Mirza Marco,” she said. “And to this.”

And somehow she undid what must have been a single knot or clasp sustaining all her clothes, for they all dropped away from her at once. She stood before me in the warm lamplight, garbed only in her beauty and her provocative smile and her seeming surrender and one ornament, one only, a spray of three brilliant red cherries in the elaborately arranged black hair of her head.

Against the pale sharbat colors of the room, the Princess stood out vividly red and black and green and white: the cherries red upon her black tresses, her eyes green and their long lashes black and her lips red in her ivory face, her nipples red and her nether curls black against the ivory body. She smiled more broadly as she watched my gaze wander down her naked body and up again, to rest on the three living ornaments in her hair, and she murmured:

“As bright as rubies, are they not? But more precious than rubies, for the cherries will wither. Or will they instead”—she asked it seductively, running the red tip of her tongue across her red upper lip—“will they be eaten?” She laughed then.

I was panting as if I had run all the way across Baghdad to that enchanted chamber. Clumsily I moved toward her, and she let me approach to her arm’s length, for that was where her hand stopped me, reaching out to touch my foremost approaching part.

“Good,” she said, approving what she had touched. “Quite ready and eager for zina. Take off your clothes, Marco, while I attend to the lamps.”

I obediently disrobed, though keeping my fascinated eyes on her the while. She moved gracefully about the room, snuffing one wick after another. When for a moment Moth stood before one of the lamps, though she stood with her legs neatly together, I could see a tiny triangle of lamplight shine like a beckoning beacon between her upper thighs and her artichoke mount, and I remembered what a Venetian boy had said long ago: that such was the mark of “a woman of the most utterly desirable bedworthiness.” When all the lamps were extinguished, she came back through the darkness to me.

“I wish you had left the lamps alight,” I said. “You are beautiful, Moth, and I delight in looking at you.”

“Ah, but lamp flames are fatal to moths,” she said, and laughed. “There is enough moonlight coming through the window for you to see me, and see nothing else. Now—”

“Now!” I echoed in total and joyful accord, and I lunged, but she dodged adroitly.

“Wait, Marco! You forget, I am not your birthday gift.”

“Yes,” I mumbled. “I was forgetting. Your sister. I remember now. But why are you stripped naked, Moth, if it is she who—?”

“I said I would explain tonight. And I will, if you will restrain your groping. Hear me now. This sister of mine, being also a royal Princess, did not have to endure the mutilation of tabzir when she was a baby, because it was expected that she would someday marry royalty. Therefore, she is a complete female, unimpaired in her organs, with all of a female’s needs and desires and capabilities. Unfortunately, the dear girl grew up to be ugly. Dreadfully ugly. I cannot tell you how ugly.”

I said wonderingly, “I have seen no one like that about the palace.”

“Of course not. She would not wish to be seen. She is excruciatingly ugly, but tender of heart. So she keeps forever to her chambers here in the anderun, not to chance meeting even a child or a eunuch and frightening the wits out of such a one.”

“Mare mia,” I muttered. “Just how is she ugly, Moth? Only in the face? Or is she deformed? Hunchbacked? What?”

“Hush! She waits just outside the door, and she might hear.”

I lowered my voice. “What is this thing’s—what is this girl’s name?”

“The Princess Shams, and that is also a pity, for the word means Sunlight. However, let us not dwell on her devastating ugliness. Suffice it to say that this poor sister long ago gave up hope of making any sort of marriage, or even of attracting a transient lover. No man could look at her in the light, or feel her in the dark, and still keep his lance atilt for zina.”

“Che braga!” I muttered, feeling a frisson of chill. If Moth had not been still visible to me, only dimly but alluringly, my own lance might have drooped then.

“Nevertheless, I assure you that her feminine parts are quite normal. And they quite normally wish to be filled and fulfilled. That is why she and I contrived a plan. And, because I love my sister Shams, I conspire with her in that plan. Whenever she espies from her hiding place a man who wakens her yearning, I invite him here and—”

“You have done this before!” I bleated in dismay.

“Imbecile infidel, of course we have! Many and many a time. That is why I can promise you will enjoy it. Because so many other men have.”

“You said it was a birthday gift—”

“Do you disdain a gift because it comes from a generous giver of gifts? Be still and listen. What we do is this. You lie down, on your back. I lie across your waist, staying always in your view. While you and I fondle and frolic—and we will do everything but the ultimate thing—my sister creeps quietly in and contents herself with your lower half. You never see Shams or touch her, except with your zab, and it encounters nothing repugnant. Meanwhile, you see and feel only me. And you and I will excite each other to a delirium, so that when the zina is accomplished down there, you will never know it is not me you are having it with.”

“This is grotesque.”

“You may of course decline the gift,” she said coldly. But she moved close, so that her breast touched me, and it was anything but cold. “Or you can give me and yourself a delight, and at the same time do a good deed for a poor creature doomed always to darkness and nonentity. Well … do you decline it?” Her hand reached for the answer. “Ah, I thought you would not. I knew you for a kindly man. Very well, Marco, let us lie down.”

We did so. I lay on my back, as instructed, and Moth draped her upper body across my waist, so I could not see below it, and we commenced the preludes of music-making. She lightly stroked her fingertips over my face and through my hair and over my chest, and I did the same to her, and every time we touched, everywhere we touched, we felt the sort of tingling shock one can feel by briskly rubbing a cat’s fur the wrong way. But there was no wrong way she could have fondled me—or I her, as I discovered. Her nipples got perkily swollen under my touch, and even in the dim light I could see the dilation of her eyes, and I could taste that her lips were engorged with passion.

“Why do you call it music-making?” she softly asked at one point. “It is far nicer than music.”

“Well, yes,” I said, after thinking about it. “I had forgotten the kind of music you have here in Persia … .”

Now and then, she would extend a hand behind her, to stroke the part of me she was shielding from my sight, and each time that gave me a deliciously urgent start, and each time she withdrew her hand just in time, or I should have made spruzzo into the air. She let me reach a hand down to her own parts, only whispering in a quaver, “Careful with the fingers. Only the zambur. Not inside, remember.” And that fondling made her several times come to paroxysm.

And later she was straddling my chest, her body upright, her nether curls soft against my face, so that her mihrab was within reach of my tongue, and she whispered, “A tongue cannot break the sangar membrane. You may do with your tongue all you can do.” Though the Princess wore no perfume, that part of her was coolly fragrant, like fresh fern or lettuce. And she had not exaggerated in speaking of her zambur; it was like having the tip of another tongue meet mine there, and lick and flick and probe in response to mine. And that sent Moth into a constant paroxysm, only waxing and waning slightly in intensity, like the wordless singing she did in accompaniment.

Delirium, Moth had said, and delirium it became. I truly believed, when I made spruzzo the first time, that I was somehow doing it inside her mihrab, even though the mihrab was still close and warm and wet against my mouth. Not until my wits began to collect again did I realize that another female person had to be astride my lower body, and it had to be the seclusive sister Shams. I could not see her, and I did not try to or want to, but from her light weight upon me I could deduce that the other Princess must be small and fragile. I turned my mouth from Moth’s avidly thrusting mount to ask, “Is your sister much younger than you are?”

As if coming reluctantly back from far distances, she paused in her ecstasy just long enough to say, in a breathless small voice, “Not … very much …”

And then she dissolved into her distances again, and I resumed doing my best to send her ever farther and higher, and I repeatedly joined her in that soaring exultation, and I made my subsequent several spruzzi into the alien mihrab, not really caring whose it was, but retaining enough consciousness to hope vaguely that the younger and ugly Princess Sunlight was enjoying her employment of me as much as I was enjoying it.

The tripartite zina went on for a long time. After all, the Princess Moth and I were in the springtime of our youth, and we could keep on exciting each other to renewed flowerings, and the Princess Shams gleefully (I assumed) gathered in my every bouquet. But at last even the seemingly insatiable Moth seemed sated, and her tremors dwindled, and so did my zab finally dwindle and sink to weary rest. That member felt quite raw and chafed by then, and my tongue ached at its roots, and my whole body felt empty and expended. Moth and I lay still for a while of recuperation, she limp upon my chest, with her hair disposed across my face. The three ornamenting cherries had long before been shaken loose and lost. While we lay there, I was conscious of a smeary wet kiss being bestowed upon my belly skin, and then there was a brief rustling sound as Shams scuttled unseen out of the room.

I got up and dressed, and Princess Moth slipped into a scanty little tunic that did nothing really to cover her nakedness, and she led me again through the anderun corridors and out into the gardens. From a manaret somewhere, the day’s first muedhdhin was warbling the call to the hour-before-sunrise prayer. Still unchallenged by any guards, I found my own way through the gardens to the palace wing where my chamber was. The servant Karim was conscientiously waiting awake for me. He helped me undress for bed, and he made some awed exclamations when he saw my extremely spent condition.

“So the young Mirza’s lance found its target,” he said, but he did not ask any audacious questions. He only sniffled a bit, seeming aggrieved that I would not be having further need for his small ministrations, and he went to his own bed.

My father and uncle were absent from Baghdad for three weeks or more. During that time, I spent almost every day being escorted about and shown interesting things by the Shahzrad Magas, with her grandmother trailing, and almost every night I spent indulging in zina with both of the royal sisters, Moth and Sunlight.

In the daytime, the Princess and I did such things as going to the House of Delusion, that building which combined a hospital and a prison. We went there on a Friday, the day of rest when the place was much frequented by citizens at leisure, and also by foreign visitors from elsewhere, as one of the chief amusements of Baghdad. People came in families and in groups shepherded by guides, and at the door everyone was given by the doorkeeper a large smock to cover his clothes. Then all would stroll through the building, being lectured by the guides on the several kinds of madness exhibited by the men and women inmates, all of us laughing at their antics or commenting on them. Some of those antics were truly risible, and some were pitiable, and others were entertainingly lewd, but other doings were merely dirty. For example, a number of the deranged men and women appeared to resent us visitors, and pelted us with anything that came to their hand. Since all those inmates were sensibly kept naked and empty-handed, their only available missiles were their own body wastes. That was the reason for the doorman’s distribution of smocks, and we were glad to be wearing them.

Sometimes in the nights in the Princess’s chamber, I felt like some kind of inmate myself, subjected to supervision and exhortation. On perhaps the third or fourth of those occasions, early in the night’s proceedings, before the sister crept in, when Moth and I had just disrobed and were enjoying our preliminary play, she stopped her roving hands to hold my roving own, and said:

“My sister Shams would beg a favor of you, Marco.”

“I was afraid of this,” I said. “She wishes to dispense with you as intermediary, and take your place up front.”

“No, no. She would never. She and I are both happy with the arrangement as it is. Except for one small detail.”

I only grunted, being wary.

“I told you, Marco, that Sunlight has had zina often and often. So often and so vigorously that, well, the poor girl’s mihrab opening has been quite enlarged by that indulgence. To speak frankly, she is as open down there as a woman who has borne many children. Her pleasure in our zina would be much increased if your zab were in a sense enlarged by—”

“No!” I said firmly, and began to wriggle, trying to move crabwise out from under Moth. “I will not submit to any tampering—”

“Wait!” she protested. “Hold still. I suggest no such thing.”

“I do not know what you have in mind, or why,” I said, still wriggling. “I have seen the zab of numerous Eastern men, and my own is already superior. I refuse any—”

“I said be still! You have an admirable zab, Marco. It quite fills my hand. And I am sure that in length and girth it satisfies Shams. She suggests only a refinement of performance.”

Now that was vexatious. “No other woman ever complained of my performance!” I shouted. “If this one is as ugly as you say she is, I suggest that she is hardly in a position to be critical of whatever she can get!”

“Hark to who is being critical!” Moth mocked me. “Have you any notion how many men dream, and dream fruitlessly, of ever lying with a royal Princess? Ever even once seeing a Princess with her face unveiled? And here you have two of them lying with you absolutely naked and compliant each night! You would presume to deny one of them a small whim?”

“Well … ,” I said, chastened. “What is the whim?”

“There is a way to heighten the pleasure of a woman who has a large orifice. It enhances not the zab itself, but the—what do you call the blunt head of it?”

“In Venetian it is the fava, the broad bean. I think in Farsi that is the lubya.”

“Very well. Now, I noticed of course that you are uncircumcised, and that is good, for this refinement cannot be accomplished with a circumcised zab. All you do is this.” And she did it, tightening her hand around my zab and pulling the capèla skin back as far as it would go, and then a trifle farther. “See? It makes the broad bean bulge more grandly broad.”

“And it is uncomfortable, almost to hurting.”

“Only briefly, Marco, and bearably. Just do that as you first insert it. Shams says it gives to her mihrab lips that fine first feeling of being spread apart. Sort of a welcome violation, she says. Women enjoy that, I think, though of course I cannot know until I am married.”

“Dio me varda,” I muttered.

“And of course you do not have to do it, and risk touching Sunlight’s ugly body. She will do that little stretching and broadening for you, with her own hand. She merely wished your permission.”

“Would Shams wish anything further?” I asked acidly. “For a monster, she seems uncommonly finicking.”

“Hark at you!” Moth mocked me again. “Here you are, in company that any other man would envy you. Being taught by royalty a trick of sex that most men never learn. You will be grateful, Marco, someday when you desire to give pleasure to a woman of large or slack mihrab, you will be grateful that you learned how. And so will she be grateful. Now, before Sunlight arrives, make me grateful a time or two, in other ways … .”

5

ON some days, for entertainment and edification, Moth and I attended the sittings of the royal court of justice. It was called simply the Daiwan, from its profusion of daiwan pillows on which sat the Shah Zaman and the Wazir Jamshid and various elderly muftis of Muslim law, and sometimes some visiting Mongol emissaries of the Ilkhan Abagha. Before them were brought criminals to be tried, and citizens with complaints to be heard or boons to be asked, and the Shah and his wazir and the other officials would listen to the charges or pleas or supplications, and then would confer, and then would render their judgments or devisements or sentences.

I found the Daiwan instructive, as a mere onlooker. But had I been a criminal, I would have dreaded being hauled there. And had I been a citizen with a grievance, it would have had to be a towering grievance before I should have dared to take it to the Daiwan. For on the open terrace just outside that room stood a tremendous burning brazier, and on it was a giant cauldron of oil heated to bubbling, and beside it waited a number of robust palace guards and the Shah’s official executioner, ready to put it to use. Princess Moth confided to me that its use was sanctioned, not only for convicted evildoers, but also for those citizens who brought false charges or spiteful complaints or gave untruthful testimony. The vat guards looked fearsome enough, but the executioner was a figure calculated to inspire terror. He was hooded and masked and garbed all in a red as red as Hell fire.

I saw only one malefactor actually sentenced to the vat. I would have judged him less harshly, but then I am not a Muslim. He was a wealthy Persian merchant whose household anderun consisted of the allowable four wives and the usual numerous concubines besides. The offense with which he was charged was read aloud: “Khalwat.” That means only “compromising proximity,” but the details of the indictment were more enlightening. The merchant was accused of having made zina with two of his concubines at the same time, while his four wives and a third concubine were let to watch, and all together those circumstances were haram under Muslim law.

Listening to the charges, I felt distinctly sympathetic to the defendant, but distinctly uneasy in my own person, since I was almost every night making zina with two women not my wives. But I stole a look at my companion Princess Moth, and saw in her face neither guilt nor apprehension. I gradually learned from the proceedings that even the most vilely haram offense is not punishable by Muslim law unless at least four eyewitnesses testify to its having been committed. The merchant had willingly, or pridefully, or stupidly, let five women observe his prowess and later, out of pique or jealousy or some other feminine reason, they had brought the khalwat complaint against him. So the five women also got to observe his being taken, kicking and screaming, out to the terrace and pitched alive into the seething oil. I will not dwell on the subsequent few minutes.

Not all the punishments decreed by the Daiwan were so extraordinary. Some were nicely devised to fit the crimes involved. One day a baker was hauled before the court and convicted of having given his customers short weight of bread, and he was sentenced to be crammed into his own oven and baked to death. Another time, a man was brought in for the singular offense of having stepped on a scrap of paper as he walked along the street. His accuser was a boy who, walking behind the man, had picked up that paper and discovered that the name of Allah was among the words written on it. The defendant pleaded that he had only unwittingly committed that insult to almighty Allah, but other witnesses testified that he was an incorrigible blasphemer. They said he had often been seen to lay other books atop his copy of the Quran, and had sometimes even held the Holy Book below his waist level, and once had held it with his left hand. So he was sentenced to be trodden, like the piece of paper, by the executioner and the guards until he was dead.

But only during the Daiwan sittings was the Shah’s palace a place of pious dread. On more frequent religious occasions, the palace was the scene of galas and gaiety. The Persians recognize some seven thousand old-time prophets of Islam, and accord to every one of them a day of celebration. On the dates honoring the more major prophets, the Shah would give parties, usually inviting all the royalty and nobility of Baghdad, but sometimes throwing open the palace grounds to all comers.

Though I was not royal or noble, and not Muslim, I was a palace resident, and I attended several of those feste. I recall one night’s holiday celebration of some long-defunct prophet, which celebration was held outdoors in the palace gardens. Every guest was given not the usual pile of daiwan cushions to sit or recline upon, but an individual, high-heaped mound of fresh and fragrant rose petals. Every branch of every tree was outlined in candles affixed to the bark, and that candlelight shone through the leaves in every shade and hue of green. Every flower bed was full of candelabra, and their candles’ light shone through the multitudes of different blossoms in every shade and hue of every color. All those candles were sufficient to make the garden almost as bright and colorful as it was in daytime. But, in addition, the Shah’s servants had beforehand collected every little tortoise and turtle to be bought in the bazàr or caught by children in the countryside, and had affixed a candle to the carapace of each one, and had let all those thousands of creatures loose to crawl about the gardens as moving points of illumination.

As always, there was more and richer food and drink provided than I had ever seen laid out at any Western festa. Among the entertainments there were players of musical instruments, many of which I had never seen or heard before, and to their music dancers danced and singers sang. The male dancers re-created, with lances and sabers and much foot stamping, famous battles of famous Persian warriors of the past, like Rustam and Sohrab. The female dancers scarcely moved their feet at all, but convulsed their breasts and bellies in a manner to make a watcher’s eyeballs spin. The singers sang no songs of a religious nature—Islam frowns on that—but quite the other sort; I mean exceedingly bawdy songs. There were also bear trainers with agile and acrobatic bears, and snake charmers making the hooded snakes called najhaya to dance in their baskets, and fardarbab telling the tomorrows in their trays of sand, and shaukhran clowns comically garbed and capering and reciting or acting out lewd jests.

When I had got quite addled on the date liquor araq, I dismissed my Christian scruples against divination, and applied to one of the fardarbab, an old Arab or Jew with a funguslike beard, and asked what he could see in my future. But he must have recognized me for a good Christian unbeliever in his sorcerous art, for he only looked once into the shaken sand and growled, “Beware the bloodthirstiness of the beautiful,” which told me nothing of my future at all, though I recalled having heard something like that before, in the past. So I laughed jeeringly at the old fraud, and stood up and twirled and pirouetted away from him, and fell down, and Karim came and supported me to my bedchamber.

That was one of the nights on which the Princesses Moth and Sunlight and I did not convene. On another occasion, Moth told me to find something else to do with my next few nights, because she was enduring her moon curse.

“Moon curse?” I echoed.

She said impatiently, “The female bleeding.”

“And what is that?” I asked, truly never having heard of it before then.

Her green eyes gave me a sidelong look of amused exasperation, and she said fondly, “Fool. Like all young men, you perceive a beautiful woman as a pure and perfect thing—like the race of little winged beings called the peri. The delicate peri do not even eat, but live on the fragrance they inhale from flowers, and therefore they never have to urinate or defecate. Just so, you think a beautiful woman can have none of the imperfections or nastinesses common to the rest of humankind.”

I shrugged. “Is it bad to think that way?”

“Oh, I would not say that, for we beautiful women often take advantage of that masculine delusion. But a delusion it is, Marco, and I will now betray my sex and disabuse you of it. Hear me.”

She explained what happens to a girl child at about the age of ten, which turns her into a woman, and goes on happening to her thereafter, once in every moon of the year.

“Really?” I said. “I never knew. All women?”

“Yes, and they must bear that moon curse until they get old and dry up in every respect. The curse is also accompanied by cramps and backaches and ill temper. A woman is morose and hateful during that time, and a wise woman keeps herself away from other people, or drugged to stupefaction with teryak or banj, until the curse passes.”

“It sounds frightful.”

Moth laughed, but without humor. “Far more frightful for the woman if there comes a moon when she is not cursed. For that means she is pregnant. And of the damps and leaks and disgusts and embarrassments which then ensue, I will not even begin to speak. I am feeling morose and ill-tempered and hateful, and I will betake myself to seclusion. You go away, Marco, and make merry and enjoy your body’s freedom, like all damned disencumbered men, and leave me to my woman’s misery.”

Despite the Princess Moth’s depiction of the weaknesses of her sex, I could not then, or ever since then, think of a beautiful woman as being inherently flawed or faulty—or at least not until she proved herself to be so, as the Lady Ilaria once had done, and thereby had lost all my esteem. Out here in the East, I was still learning new ways to appreciate beautiful women, and still making new discoveries about them, and I was disinclined to disparage them.

To illustrate: when I was younger, I had believed that the physical beauty of a woman resided only in such easily observable features as her face and breasts and legs and buttocks, and in less easily observable ones like a pretty and inviting (and accessible) artichoke mound and medallion and mihrab. But by this time, I had had enough women to realize that there were more subtle points of physical beauty. To mention just one: I am particularly fond of the delicate sinews that extend from a woman’s groin along the inner sides of her thighs when she opens them apart. I also had come to realize that, even in the features common to all beautiful women, there are differences which are discernible, and exciting for being so. Every beautiful woman has beautiful breasts and nipples, but there are innumerable variations in size and shape and proportions and coloration, all beautiful. Every beautiful woman has a beautiful mihrab, but oh, how delectably different each is from another: in its placement forward or underneath, in its tint and downiness of the outer lips, in its purse-likeness and purse-tightness of closure, in its zambur’s position and size and erectability … .

Perhaps I make myself sound more lecherous than gallant. But I only wish to emphasize that I never could and never did and never will disprize the beautiful women of this world—not even then, in Baghdad, when the Princess Moth, although herself one of them, did her best to show me their worst. For instance, one day she arranged for me to sneak into the palace anderun, not for our nighttime frolic, but in the afternoon, because I had said to her:

“Moth, do you remember that merchant whom we saw executed for his haram method of making zina? Is that the sort of thing that usually goes on in an anderun?”

She gave me one of her green looks and said, “Come and see for yourself.”

On that occasion, indubitably, she had to have bribed the guards and eunuchs to look the other way, for she did not merely get me unseen into that wing of the palace, but also put me into a corridor wall’s closet which had two peepholes drilled to look into either of two large and voluptuously furnished chambers. I peeped through one hole and then the other; both rooms were empty at the moment.

Moth said, “Those are communal rooms, where the women can congregate when they weary of being alone in their separate quarters. And this closet is one of the many watch places throughout the anderun where a eunuch takes station at intervals. He watches for quarrels or fights among the women, or other sorts of misbehavior, and reports them to my mother, the Royal First Wife, who is responsible for order being kept. The eunuch will not be in here today, and I will now go and let the women know that. Then we shall watch together and see what advantage they may take of the warder’s absence.”

She went away and then returned, and we stood back to back in the close space, each with an eye to one of the holes. For a long time nothing happened. Then four women came into the room I was watching, and disposed themselves here and there on the daiwan cushions. They were all about the age of the Shahryar Zahd, and about equally as handsome. One woman was apparently a native Persian, for she had ivory skin and night-black hair, but eyes as blue as lapis lazura. Another I took to be an Armeniyan, for each of her breasts was exactly the size of her head. Another was a black woman, Ethiope or Nubian, and she of course had paddle feet and spindly calves and a behind like a balcony, but she was otherwise fairly comely: pretty face with not too-everted lips, shapely bosom and fine long hands. And the fourth woman was so dusky of skin and dark of eyes that she must have been an Arab.

But the women’s believing themselves to be not under scrutiny, and free to do what they liked, did not provoke any libertine throwing off of restraint or modesty. Except that none wore the chador, they were all fully clothed, and remained so, and they were not joined by any sneaked-in lovers. The black woman and the Arab had brought with them some kind of hand-held needlework, and occupied themselves with that lethargic pastime. The Persian sat with pots and brushes and little implements, and painstakingly manicured the finger and toe nails of the Armeniyan, and when that was done, both the women began coloring the palms of their hands and soles of their feet with hinna dye.

I was very soon bored to apathy, and so were the four women—I I could see them yawn and hear them belch and smell them breaking wind—and I wondered why I had entertained any spicy suspicions of Babylonian orgies in a house full of women, just because all the women belonged to one man. Clearly, when so many women had nothing to do but wait for a summons from their master, there literally was nothing else for them to do. They could only loll about, no more enterprising or vivacious than vegetables, until the infrequent calls for the exercise of their animal parts. I might as well have been watching a row of cabbages going to seed, and I turned in the closet to say something like that to the Princess.

But she was grinning lasciviously, and she put a cautionary finger to her lips, then pointed it at her peephole. I leaned over and looked through, and barely suppressed an exclamation of surprise. That room had two occupants, one of them female, a girl considerably younger than any of my room’s four—and also much prettier, perhaps because more of her was visible. She had taken off her pai-jamah and anything else she wore under that garment, and was bare from the waist down. She was another dusky-skinned Arab, but her pretty face was now pink with exertion. The male occupant of the room was one of those child-sized simiazze apes, so hairy all over that I would not have known it for a male, except that the girl was fervently working with one hand to encourage the animal’s maleness. She eventually accomplished that, but the ape only looked stupidly at the upright small evidence, and the girl had to work just as strenuously to show him what to do with it, and where. But eventually that too was accomplished, while Moth and I took turns observing through the peephole.

When the ridiculous performance was concluded, the Arab girl wiped herself with a cloth, and then wiped at some scratches her partner had inflicted on her. Then she pulled on her pai-jamah and led the ape shuffling and hopping out of the room. Moth and I struggled from our closet, which had got quite warm and humid, out into the corridor where we could talk unheard by the four women still in the other room.

I said, “No wonder the wazir told me that animal is called the unspeakably unclean.”

“Oh, Jamshid is just envious,” the Princess said lightly. “It can do what he cannot.”

“But not very well. Its zab was even smaller than an Arab’s. Anyway, I should think a decent woman would rather employ the finger of a eunuch than the zab of an ape.”

“Indeed, some do. And also you know now why my zambur is so much in demand. There are many women here who must wait a long and hungry time between summonses from the Shah. That is why the Prophet (peace and blessing be upon him) long ago instituted the tabzir. So that decent women should not be urged by their yearnings to unwifely resorts.”

“I think, if I were Shah, I should much prefer my women’s resorting to each other’s zambur than to a random zab. Why, suppose that Arab girl gets pregnant by that ape! What revolting kind of offspring would she have?” The awful thought brought an even more awful one to my mind. “Per Cristo, suppose your gruesome sister Shams gets pregnant by me! Would I have to marry her?”

“Be not alarmed, Marco. Every woman here, of whatever nation, has her own native specific against such an occurrence.”

I stared. “They know how to prevent conception?”

“With varying degrees of success, but all better than relying on chance. An Arab woman, for example, before making zina, pushes inside herself a plug of wool soaked in the juice of weeping willow. A Persian woman lines her inner self with the delicate white membrane from under the rind of a pomegranate.”

“How abominably sinful,” I said, as a Christian should. “Which works better?”

“Surely the Persian way is preferable, if only because it is more comfortable for both partners. Shams uses it, and I will wager that you never have felt it.”

“No.”

“But imagine ramming your tender lubya against that thick woolen plug inside an Arab woman. Anyway, I should distrust the efficacy of that method. What would an Arab woman know about preventing conception? Unless an Arab man wants to make a baby, he never does zina with his woman except through her rear entrance, as he is accustomed to using other men and boys, and they him.”

I was relieved to learn that the Princess Shams was not going to be fruitful and multiply her ugliness, thanks to her pomegranate preventive, though by rights I should have been disquieted, because I was thereby participating in one of the most abhorrent and mortal sins a Christian can commit. At some time in my travels, or when I returned home to Venice, I should again be in the vicinity of a Christian priest, and I should be obliged to make confession. Of course the priest would belabor me with penances for my having fornicated with two unmarried women at one time, but that was only a venial sin in comparison to the other. I could well foresee his horror when I confessed that, through the wicked arts of the East, I had been enabled to copulate for the sheer enjoyment of the act, with no Christian intention or expectation of progeny resulting from it.

Needless to say, I went on sinfully enjoying it. If there was any slight thing that hampered my total and complete enjoyment, it was not any nagging sense of guilt. It was my natural wish that each of my zina consummations could take place inside the Princess Moth to whom I was making love, and not in the unloved, unlovely Princess Shams. However, when Moth sternly repulsed my few tentative hints in that regard, I had the good sense to stop making them. I would not risk losing a happy situation out of greed for an unattainable happier one. What I did instead, I invented for myself a story, of a kind that might have been told by the story-telling Shahryar Zahd.

In my mind’s story, I made Sunlight not what she was, the ugliest female person in Persia, but the most gloriously beautiful. I made her so beautiful that Allah in His wisdom decreed: “It is unthinkable that the divine beauty and the blessed love of the Princess Shams should be limited to the enjoyment of any one man alone.” And that was why Shams was not married, and never would be. In obedience to almighty Allah, she was constrained to dispense her favors to all good and deserving suitors, and that was why I was currently the favored one. For a while, I utilized that story only when necessary. During most of each night’s zina, I had no need of anything more than the real loveliness and closeness of the Princess Moth to stir and sustain my ardor. But then, when our mutual play had made the delicious pressure mount inside me until it could no longer be contained, and I had to let it go, then I brought to mind my invented, alternate, imaginary, unreally sublime Princess Sunlight, and made her the receptacle of my surge and my love.

As I say, that sufficed me for a while. But after that while, I gradually fell prey to a sort of mild lunacy; I began to wonder if my story might not be something near the truth. Getting increasingly demented, I began to suspect a deep secret here, and to suspect that, by the workings of my subtle mind, I had been the first and only to uncover that secret. Eventually, I had got so deranged that I began making new hints to Moth : hinting that I really would like to see her unseeable sister. Moth looked worried and agitated when I did that, and even more so when I daringly began mentioning her sister’s name on occasions when we were in the presence of her parents and grandmother.

“I have had the honor of meeting most of your royal family, Your Majesty,” I would say to the Shah Zaman or the Shahryar Zahd, and then add in an offhand manner, “Except, I think, the estimable Princess Shams.”

“Shams?” he or she would say guardedly, and would look about in a shifty sort of way, and Moth would begin talking volubly to distract us all, while she rudely and almost literally elbowed me out of whatever room we were in.

God knows where that behavior might finally have got me—perhaps committed to the House of Delusion—but then my father and uncle returned to Baghdad, and it was time for me to say farewell to all three of my zina partners: to Moth and Shams and my story-made Shams.

6

MY father and uncle returned together, having met somewhere on the roads north from the Gulf. On first setting eyes on me, before we even exchanged a greeting, my uncle jovially roared out:

“Ecco Marco! For a wonder, still alive and still vertical and still at liberty! Are you not in any trouble then, scagaròn?”

I replied, “Not yet, I think,” and went to make sure I would not be. I sought out the Princess Moth and told her that our liaisons were at an end. “I can no longer stay out at night without causing suspicion.”

“It is too bad,” she pouted. “My sister has by no means tired of our zina.”

“Nor have I, Shahzrad Magas Mirza. But in truth I am much weakened by it. And now I must regain my strength for the rest of our journey.”

“Yes, you do look somewhat strained and haggard. Very well, I give you leave to desist. We will say our formal farewells before you depart.”

So my father and uncle and I sat down with the Shah, and they told him they had decided against taking the sea route to shorten our way eastward.

“We thank you sincerely, Shah Zaman, for having made the suggestion,” my father said. “But there is an old Venetian proverb. Loda el mar e tiente a la tera.”

“Which means—?” the Shah said affably.

“Laud the sea and attend to the land. In more general application it means: Praise the mighty and the dangerous, but cling to the small and secure. Now, Mafìo and I have done much sailing on mighty seas, but never aboard such ships as those of the Arab traders. No overland route could be less safe or more risky.”

“The Arabs,” said my uncle, “build their ocean-going ships in exactly the same slipshod way they build their ramshackle river boats, which Your Majesty sees here at Baghdad. All tied and fish-glued together, not a bit of metal in the construction. And deckloads of horses or goats dropping their merda into the passenger cabins below. Maybe an Arab is ignorant enough to venture to sea in such a squalid and rickety cockleshell, but we are not.”

“You are perhaps wise not to do so,” said the Shahryar Zahd, coming into the room at that moment, although we were a gathering of men. “I will tell you a tale … .”

She told several, and all of them concerned a certain Sindbad the Sailor, who had suffered a series of unlikely adventures—with a giant rukh bird, and with an Old Sheikh of the Sea, and with a fish as big as an island, and I do not remember what else. But the point of her recitation was that Sindbad’s every adventure had proceeded from his repeatedly taking passage on Arab ships, and each of those craft getting wrecked at sea, and his surviving to drift alone onto some uncharted shore.

“Thank you, my dear,” said the Shah, when she had concluded the sixth or seventh of the Sindbad tales. Before she might begin another, he said to my father and uncle, “Was your trip to the Gulf entirely unprofitable, then?”

“Oh, no,” said my father. “There was much of interest to see and to learn and to procure. For example, I bought this fine and keen new shimshir saber in Neyriz, and its artificer told me it was made of steel from Your Majesty’s iron mines nearby. His words bewildered me. I said to him, ‘Surely you mean steel mines.’ And he said, ‘No, we take the iron from the mines and put it into an ingenious sort of furnace, and the iron becomes steel.’ And I said, ‘What? You would have me believe that if I put an ass into a furnace it will come out a horse?’ And the artificer had to make much explanation to convince me. In solemn truth, Your Majesty, I and all of Europe have always believed that steel was a totally different and much superior metal to mere iron.”

“No,” said the Shah, smiling. “Steel is but iron much refined by a process which perhaps your Europe has not yet learned.”

“So I improved my education there in Neyriz,” said my father. “Also, my trip took me through Shiraz, of course, and its extensive vineyards, and I sampled all the famous wines in the very wineries where they are produced. I also sampled—” He paused, and glanced at the Shahryar Zahd. “Also, there are in Shiraz more comely women, and more of them, than in any city I have visited.”

“Yes,” said the lady. “I was born there myself. It is a proverb of Persia that if you seek a beautiful woman, look in Shiraz; if you seek a beautiful boy, look in Kashan. You will be passing through Kashan as you go on eastward.”

“Ah,” said Uncle Mafìo. “And for my part, I found a new thing in Basra. The oil called naft, which comes not from olives or nuts or fish or fat, but seeps from the very ground. It burns more brightly than other oils, and for a longer time, and with no suffocating odor. I filled several flasks with it, to light our journey’s nights, and perhaps also to astonish others like myself who never saw such a substance before.”

“Regarding your journey,” said the Shah. “Now that you have decided to continue overland, remember my warning of the Dasht-e-Kavir, the Great Salt Desert to the eastward. This late autumn season is the best time of year in which to cross it, but truthfully there is no good time. I have suggested camels for your karwan, and I suggest five of them. One for each of you and your personal panniers, one for your puller, one for the burden of your main packs. The wazir will go with you tomorrow to the bazàr and help you choose them, and he will pay for them, and I will accept your horses in exchange for that payment.”

“That is kind of Your Majesty,” said my father. “Just one thing—we have no camel-puller.”

“Unless you are well versed in the management of those beasts, you will need one. I probably can help you with that item, too. But first get the camels.”

So the next day, we three went again to the bazàr in company with Jamshid. The camel market was an extensive square area set off by itself, and it had a raised skirting of stone laid around it. The camels for sale were all arrayed standing with their forefeet on that shelf of stone, to make them seem to stand taller and prouder. That market was vastly more noisy than any other part of the bazàr, for to the customary shouting and quarreling of buyers and sellers were added the angry bellowing and mournful groans of the camels, as their muzzles were repeatedly seized and twisted to make them demonstrate their agility in kneeling and rising. Jamshid made that test and many others. He tweaked the camels’ humps and felt up and down their legs and peered into their nostrils. After examining almost every full-grown beast on sale that day, he had five of them led apart, a bull and four cows. To my father he said:

“See if you agree with my selection, Mirza Polo. You will note that all have much larger forefeet than rear feet, a sure sign of superior staying power. Also they are all clean of nose worms. Always keep a watch for that infestation, and if you ever see worms, dust the nostrils well with pepper.”

Since my father and uncle owned to no expertness in camel trading, they were pleased to concur in the wazir’s selections. The merchant sent an assistant to lead the camels, hitched together in single file, to the palace stables, and we followed at our leisure.

At the palace, the Shah Zaman and Shahryar Zahd were waiting for us, in a room well heaped with gifts they wished us to convey for them to the Khakhan Kubilai. There were tightly rolled qali of the highest quality, and caskets of jewels, and platters and ewers of exquisitely worked gold, and shimshirs of Neyriz steel in gem-encrusted scabbards, and for the Khakhan’s women polished looking glasses also of Neyriz steel, and cosmetics of al-kohl and hinna, and leather flasks of Shiraz wine, and tenderly wrapped cuttings of the palace garden’s most prized roses, and also cuttings of seedless banj plants and of the poppies from which teryak is made. The most striking of all the gifts was a board on which some court artist had painted the portrait of a man, a man grim and ascetic of mien, but blind, his eyeballs being all white. It was the only delineation of any animate being I had ever seen in a Muslim country.

The Shah said, “It is a likeness of the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessing be upon him). There are many Muslims in the Khakhan’s realms, and many have no idea what the Prophet (blessing and peace be his) looked like in life. You will take this to show them.”

“Excuse me,” said Uncle Mafìo, with uncharacteristic hesitancy. “I thought lifelike images were forbidden by Islam. And an image of the very Prophet himself … ?”

The Shahryar Zahd explained, “It does not live until the eyes are painted in. You will engage some artist to do that just before you present the picture to the Khan. It requires only two brown dots painted onto the eyeballs.”

The Shah added, “And the picture itself is painted in magic tinctures which in a few months will begin to fade, until the picture totally disappears. Thus it cannot become an image of worship, like those you Christians revere, which are forbidden because they are unnecessary to our more civilized religion.”

“The portrait,” said my father, “will be a gift unique among all the gifts the Khan is forever receiving. Your Majesties have been more than generous in your tribute.”

“I should have liked to send him also some virgin Shiraz girls and Kashan boys,” mused the Shah. “But I have tried to do that before, and somehow they never arrive at his court. Virgins must be difficult of transport.”

“I just hope we can transport all this,” said my uncle, gesturing.

“Oh, yes, with no trouble,” said the Wazir Jamshid. “Any one of your new camels will easily carry all that burden, and carry it at the pace of eight farsakhs in a day, and for three days between drinks of water, if that be necessary. Assuming, of course, that you have a competent camel-puller.”

“Which now you do have,” said the Shah. “Another gift of mine, and this one is for you, gentlemen.” He signaled to the guard at the door and the guard went out. “A slave which I myself only recently acquired, bought for me by one of my court eunuchs.”

My father murmured, “Your Majesty’s generosity continues to abound, and to astound.”

“Ah, well,” said the Shah modestly. “What is one slave between friends? Even a slave which cost me five hundred dinars?”

The guard returned with that slave, who immediately fell to the floor in salaam, and cried shrilly, “Allah be praised! We meet again, good masters!”

“Sia budelà!” exclaimed Uncle Mafìo. “That is the reptile we recoiled from buying!”

“The creature Nostril!” exclaimed the wazir. “Really, my Lord Shah, how did you come to acquire this excrescence?”

“I think the eunuch fell enamored of him,” the Shah said sourly. “But I have not. So he is yours, gentlemen.”

“Well … ,” said my father and uncle, uncomfortable and unwilling to give offense.

“I have never known a slave more rebellious and odious,” said the Shah, dropping any pretense of lauding his gift. “He curses and reviles me in half a dozen languages which I do not comprehend, except that the word pork occurs in all of them.”

“He has also been insolent to me,” said the Shahryar. “Fancy a slave criticizing the sweetness of his mistress’s voice.”

“The Prophet (on whom be all peace and blessing),” said the creature Nostril, as if ruminating aloud to himself. “The Prophet called that house accursed where a woman’s voice could be heard outside its doors.”

The Shahryar glared venomously at him, and the Shah said, “You hear? Well, the eunuch who bought him unbidden has been pulled asunder by four wild horses. The eunuch was expendable, having been born under this roof to one of my other slaves, and having cost nothing. But this son of a bitch shaqàl cost five hundred dinars, and should be more usefully disposed of. You gentlemen need a camel-puller, and he claims to be one.”

“Verily!” cried the son of a bitch shaqàl. “Good masters, I grew up with camels, and I love them like my sisters—”

“That,” said my uncle, “I believe.”

“Answer me this, slave!” Jamshid barked at him. “A camel kneels to be loaded. It groans and complains mightily at each new weight of the loading. How do you know when to load it no further?”

“That is easy, Wazir Mirza. When it ceases to grumble, you have laid upon it the last straw it will bear.”

Jamshid shrugged. “He knows camels.”

“Well … ,” mumbled my father and uncle.

The Shah said flatly, “You take him with you, gentlemen, or you stand by and watch while he goes to the vat.”

“The vat?” inquired my father, who knew not what that was.

“Let us take him, Father,” I said, speaking up for the first time. I did not say it with enthusiasm, but I could not have watched again an execution by boiling oil, even of this obnoxious vermin.

“Allah will reward you, young Master Mirza!” cried the vermin. “Oh, ornament upon perfection, you are as compassionate as the old-time darwish Bayazid, who while traveling found an ant caught in the lint of his navel, and went hundreds of farsakhs back to his starting place, to return that abducted ant to its home nest, and—”

“Be silent!” bellowed my uncle. “We will take you, for we would rid our friend the Shah Zaman of your reeking presence. But I warn you, putridity, you will enjoy precious little compassion!”

“I am content!” cried the putridity. “The words of vituperation and beatings bestowed by a sage are more to be valued than the flattery and flowers lavished by the ignorant. And furthermore—”

“Gèsu,” my uncle said wearily. “You will be beaten not on your buttocks but on your clattering tongue. Your Majesty, we will depart at dawn tomorrow, and take this stench speedily out of your vicinity.”

Early the next morning, Karim and our other two servants dressed us in good sturdy traveling garb in the Persian style, and helped us pack our personal belongings, and presented us with a large hamper of fine foods and wines and other delicacies, prepared by the palace cooks so that the viands would keep well and sustain us for a good part of our way. Then all three servants indulged in a performance of wild grief, as if we had been their lifelong beloved masters and were leaving them forever. They prostrated themselves in salaams and tore off their tulbands and beat their bare heads on the floor, and did not desist until my father distributed bakhshish among them, at which they saw us off with broad smiles and commendations to the protection of Allah.

At the palace stable, we found that Nostril had, without command or beating or supervision, got our riding camels saddled and the pack camel loaded. He had even carefully wrapped and arranged all the gifts being sent by the Shah, so they would not fall or jar against each other or be dirtied by the dust of the road, and, so far as we could determine, he had not stolen a single item from among them.

Instead of complimenting him, my uncle said sternly, “You scoundrel, you think to please us now and cozen us into leniency, so that we will be easygoing when you regress into your natural sloth. But I warn you, Nostril, we will expect this sort of efficiency, and—”

The slave interrupted, but obsequiously. “A good master makes a good servant, and gets from him service and obedience in direct proportion to the respect and trust accorded him.”

“From all report,” said my father, “you have not very well served your recent owners—the Shah, the slave dealer …”

“Ah, good Master Mirza Polo, I have been too long pent in cities and households, and my spirit gets crabbed by confinement. I was made by Allah to be a wanderer. Once I learned that you gentlemen are journeyers, I bent every effort to get myself expelled from this palace and attached to your karwan.”

“Hm,” said my father and uncle, skeptically.

“In so doing, I knew I risked an even more immediate release—like a dunking in the oil vat. But this young Mirza Marco saved me from that, and he will never regret it. To you elder masters, I will be the obedient servant, but to him I will be the devoted mentor. I will stand between him and harm, as he did for me, and I will sedulously instruct him in the wisdoms of the road.”

So here was the second of the uncommon teachers I acquired in Baghdad. I heartily wished that it could have been another as comely and companionable and desirable as the Princess Moth. I was not much pleased at the prospect of being the ward of this scruffy slave, and possibly having some of his nasty attributes rub off on me. But I was disinclined to wound him by saying those things aloud, and I responded merely by making a face of tolerant acceptance.

“Mind, I do not claim to be a good man,” said Nostril, as if he had overheard my thoughts. “I am a man of the world, and not all my tastes and habits are acceptable in polite society. Doubtless you will have frequent occasion to chide me or beat me. But a good traveler, that I am. And now that I shall be again upon the open road, you will appreciate my usefulness. You will see!”

So we three went to make our final and formal leavetakings of the Shah and the Shahryar and her old mother and the Shahzrad Magas. They had all risen early on purpose, and they said their farewells as feelingly as if we had been real guests instead of merely bearers of the Khakhan’s ferman who had to be accommodated.

“These are the papers of ownership of that slave,” said the Shah Zaman, giving them to my father. “You will cross many borders from here eastward, and the border guards may require to know the identities of all in your karwan. Now goodbye, good friends, and may you walk always in the shadow of Allah.”

Princess Moth said to us all, but with a special smile for me, “May you never meet an afriti or an evil jinni on the way, but only the sweet and perfect peri.”

The grandmother nodded a mute goodbye, but the Shahryar Zahd said a leavetaking almost as long as one of her stories, concluding fulsomely, “Your departure leaves all of us here bereft.”

At that, I made bold to say to her, “There is one here in the palace to whom I would like my personal regards conveyed.” I confess, I was still slightly bemazed by my own made-up story about the Princess Sunlight, and by my delusion that I had almost uncovered some long-kept secret regarding her. Anyway, whether or not she was as sublimely beautiful as I had made her in my mind, she had been my unflagging lover, and it was only politeness to make especial farewell to her. “Would you give her my fond goodbye, Your Lady Majesty? I do not think the Princess Shams is your own daughter, but—”

“Really,” said the Shahryar, with a giggle. “My daughter, indeed. You jest, young Mirza Marco, to leave us all laughing in good humor. I am sure you must be aware that the Shahrpiryar is the only Persian Princess named Shams.”

I said uncertainly, “I have never heard that title before.” I was puzzled, having noticed that the Princess Moth had retreated to a corner of the room and muffled her face in the qali draperies, only her green eyes visible and sparkling naughtily, as she tried to contain the laughter that was nearly doubling her over.

“The title Shahrpiryar,” said her mother, “means the Dowager Princess Shams, the Venerable Royal Matriarch.” She gestured. “My mother here.”

Speechless with astonishment and horror and revulsion, I stared at the Shahrpiryar Shams, the wrinkled, balding, mottled, shrunken, moldy, decrepit, unspeakably old grandmother. She responded to my eye-extruding stare with a lascivious and gloating smile that bared her withered gray gums. Then, as if to make sure I did not fail of realization, she slowly ran the tip of her mossy tongue across her granulated upper lip.

I think I may have reeled where I stood, but somehow I followed my father and uncle out of the room without falling unconscious or vomiting on the alabaster floor. I only vaguely heard the cheery, laughing, mocking goodbyes Moth called after me, for I was hearing inside my head other mocking noises—my own fatuous query, “Is your sister much younger than you are?” and my imagined Allah’s decree about “the divine beauty of the Princess Shams” and the fardarbab’s sand reading, “Beware the bloodthirstiness of the beautiful …”

Well, this latest encounter with beauty had cost me no blood, and I daresay no one ever died of disgust or humiliation. If anything, the experience served to keep my blood long astir and red and vigorous afterward, for my every recollection of those nights in the anderun of the palace of Baghdad made my blood suffuse me with a blazing red blush.

7

THE wazir, riding a horse, accompanied our little camel train for the isteqbal—the half a day’s journey—which the Persians traditionally perform as a courteous escort for departing guests. During that morning’s ride, Jamshid several times solicitously remarked on my mien of glazed eyes and slack jaw. My father and uncle and the slave Nostril also several times inquired if I was being made ill by the rolling gait of my camel. To each I made some evasive reply; I could not admit that I was simply stunned by the knowledge that for the past three weeks or so I had been blissfully coupling with a drooling hag some sixty years older than myself.

However, because I was young, I was resilient. After a while, I convinced myself that no real harm had been done—except perhaps to my self-esteem—and that neither of the Princesses was likely to gossip and make me a universal laughingstock. By the time Jamshid gave us his final “salaam aleikum” and turned his horse back for Baghdad, I was able again to look about me and see the country through which we were riding. We were then, and would be for some time, in a land of pleasantly green valleys winding among cool blue hills. That was good, for it enabled us to get used to our camels before we should reach the harder going in the desert.

I will mention that riding a camel is no more difficult than riding a horse, once one has acquired a head for the much higher altitude where one is perched. A camel walks with a mincing gait and wears a supercilious sneer, exactly like certain men of a certain sort. That gait is easy for even a new rider to adjust to, and the riding is easiest done with both legs on the same side, in the way a woman rides a horse sidesaddle, one’s forward leg crooked around the saddle bow. The camel is reined, not with a bridle, but with a line tied to a wooden peg permanently fixed in its snout. The camel’s sneer gives it a look of haughty intelligence, but that is entirely spurious. One must constantly be aware that a camel is among the most stupid of beasts. An intelligent horse may take a notion to play pranks, to vex or unseat its rider. A camel would never be capable of such an idea, but neither does it have a horse’s good sense to watch its way and sidestep avoidable hazards. A camel’s rider must stay alert and guide it even around obvious rocks and holes, lest it fall or snap a leg.

As we had been doing ever since Acre, we were still traveling through country that was as new to my father and uncle as it was to me, because they had earlier crossed Asia, both going eastward and returning home, by a much more northerly route. Therefore, with whatever misgivings, they left our direction to the slave Nostril, who claimed to have traversed this country many times in his life of wandering. And so he must have done, for he confidently led us along, and did not pause at the frequent branchings of the trail, but always seemed to know which fork to take. Precisely at that first day’s sundown, he brought us to a comfortably appointed karwansarai. By way of rewarding Nostril’s good conduct, we did not make him put up in the stable with the camels, but paid for him to eat and sleep in the main building of the establishment.

As we sat about the dining cloth that night, my father studied the papers the Shah had given us, and said:

“I remember your telling us, Nostril, that you have borne other names. It appears from these documents that you have served each of your previous masters under a different one. Sindbad. Ali Babar. Ali-ad-Din. They are all nicer sounding names than Nostril. By which would you prefer that we call you?”

“By none of them, if you please, Master Nicolò. They all belong to past and forgotten phases of my life. Sindbad, for example, refers only to the land of Sind where I was born. I long ago left that name behind.”

I said, “The Shahryan Zahd told us some stories about the adventures of another habitual journeyer who called himself Sindbad the Sailor. Could that possibly have been you?”

“Someone very like me, perhaps, for the man was clearly a liar.” He chuckled at his own self-deprecation. “You gentlemen are from the marine republic of Venice, so you must know that no seaman ever calls himself a sailor. Always seaman or mariner, sailor being a landsman’s ignorant word. If that Sindbad could not get his own by-name correct, then his stories must be suspect.”

My father persisted, “I must inscribe on this paper some name for you under our ownership … .”

“Put down Nostril, good master,” he said airily. “That has been my name ever since the contretemps which earned it for me. You gentlemen might not believe it, but I was a surpassingly handsome man before that mutilation of my nose ruined my looks.”

He went on at great length about how handsome he had been when he still had two nostrils, and how sought after by women enamored of his manly beauty. In his early days, as Sindbad, he said, he had so entranced a lovely girl that she had risked her life to save him from an island peopled by winged and wicked men. Later, as Ali Babar, he had been captured by a band of thieves and thrust into a jar of sesame oil, and would have had his talking head pulled off his softened neck but that another lovely girl, beguiled by his charm, had rescued him from the jar and the thieves. As Ali-ad-Din, he with his handsome looks had emboldened yet another comely girl to save him from the clutches of an afriti commanded by an evil sorcerer … .

Well, the tales were as implausible as any told by the Shahryar Zahd, but no more implausible than his assertion that he had once been a good-looking man. No one could have believed that. Had he had the normal two nostrils, or three, or none, it would not have improved his resemblance to a large-beaked, chinless, pot-bellied shuturmurq camelbird, made even more comical by a stubble of beard under its beak. He went on even more incredibly, embellishing his claim of physical appeal by claiming to have done exploits of bravery and ingenuity and fortitude. We listened politely, but we knew all his rodomontata to be—as my father said later—“All vine and no grapes.”

Some days afterward, when my uncle compared our eastward progress against the maps in the Kitab of al-Idrisi, he announced that we had arrived at a historic place. According to his calculations, we were somewhere very near the spot, recorded in The Book of Alexander, where, during the conqueror’s march across Persia, the Amazon Queen Thalestris had come with her host of warrior women to greet and pay homage to him. We could only take Uncle Mafìo’s word, for there was in that place no monument to commemorate the occasion.

In after years, I have often been asked whether I in my journeyings ever found the nation of Amazonia, or, as some call it, the Land of Femynye. Not there in Persia, I did not. Later, in the Mongol domains, I met many warrior women, but they were all subservient to their menfolk. I have also been often asked whether, out yonder in those far lands, I ever met the Prete Zuàne, called in other languages Presbyter Johannes and Prester John, that reverend and mighty man so shrouded in myth and fable and legend and enigma.

For more than a hundred years, the Western world has been hearing rumor and report of him: a direct descendant of the royal Magi who first worshiped the Christ child, hence himself royal and devoutly Christian, and furthermore wealthy and powerful and wise. As the Christian monarch of a reputedly immense Christian realm, he has been a figure to tantalize Western imagination. Given our fragmented West, of many and little nations, ruled by comparatively petty kings and dukes and such, forever warring against each other—and a Christianity continually sprouting new and schismatic and antagonistic sects—we needs must look with wistful admiration on a vast congeries of peoples all peaceably united under one ruler and one supreme pontiff, and both of those embodied in one majestic man.

Also, whenever our West has been beleaguered by heathen savages swarming out of the East—Huns, Tàtars, Mongols, the Muslim Saracens —we have fervently hoped and prayed that the Prete Zuàne would emerge from his still farther East and come up behind the invaders with his legions of Christian warriors, so that those heathens would be caught and crushed between his armies and ours. But the Prete Zuàne never has ventured out of his mysterious fastnesses, neither to help the Christian West in its recurrent times of need nor even to make demonstration of his existence in reality. Does he then exist, and if so, who is he? Does he really hold sway over a far-off Christian empire, and if so, where is it?

I have already speculated, in my earlier published chronicle of my travels, that the Prete Zuàne did exist, in a sense, and in that sense may still exist, but he is not and never was a Christian potentate.

Back when the Mongols were only separate and disorganized tribes, they called each tribal chief a Khan. When the many tribes united under the fearsome Chinghiz, he became the only Eastern monarch ruling over an empire resembling the one rumored to belong to the Prete Zuàne. Since the time of Chinghiz, that Mongol Khanate was ruled in part or in whole by various of his descendants, before his grandson Kubilai became Khakhan and enlarged it even further and consolidated it more firmly. All of those Mongol rulers down the years had different names, but all were titled Khan or Khakhan.

Now, I invite you to notice how easily the spoken or written word Khan or Khakhan could be misread or misheard as Zuàne or John or Johannes. Suppose a long-ago Christian traveler in the East misheard it so. He naturally would be reminded of the sainted Apostle of that name. It would be no small wonder if he thereafter believed he had heard mention of a priest or bishop named for the Apostle. He had only to mingle the misapprehension with the reality—the extent and power and wealth of the Mongol Khanate—and by the time he went home to the West he would have been eager to tell of an imaginary Prete Zuàne ruling an imaginary Christian empire.

Well, if I am right, the Khans probably did inspire the legend, through no doing of their own, but they are not Christians. And they never have owned any of the fabulous possessions ascribed to that Prete Zuàne—the enchanted mirror in which he spies on the distant doings of his enemies, the magic medicaments with which he can cure any mortal ill, his man-eating warriors who are invincible because they can subsist only on the enemies they vanquish—all those other fanciful marvels so reminiscent of the Shahryar Zahd’s stories.

This is not to say that there are no Christians in the East. There are, and many of them, individuals and groups and entire communities of Christians, to be found everywhere from the Mediterranean Levant to the farther shores of Kithai, and they are of all colors, from white to dun and brown and black. Unfortunately, they are all communicants of the Eastern Church, which is to say followers of the doctrines of the fifth-century schismatic Abbot Nestorius, which is to say heretics in the eyes of us Christians of the Roman Church. For the Nestorians deny the Virgin Mary the title of Mother of God, they do not allow a crucifix in their churches, and they revere the despised Nestorius as a saint. They practice many other heresies besides. Their priests are not celibate, many of them are married, and all are simoniacs, for they will not administer any of the sacraments except for a fee of money paid. The Nestorians’ only tie with us real Christians is that they worship the same Lord God, and recognize Christ as His Son.

That at least made them seem more kin to me and my father and uncle than did the far more numerous surrounding worshipers of Allah or Buddha or even more alien divinities. So we tried not to abhor the Nestorians too much—even while we disputed their doctrines—and they were usually hospitable and helpful to us.

If indeed the Prete Zuàne existed in actuality, not just in the Western imagination—and if, as rumored, he were a descendant of one of the Magi kings—then we ought to have found him during our traverse of Persia, for that is where the Magi lived, and it was from Persia that they followed the Nativity star to Bethlehem. However, that would have made the Prete Zuàne a Nestorian, since those are the only sorts of Christians existing in those parts. And in fact we did find among the Persians a Christian elder of that name, but he could hardly have been the Prete Zuàne of the legend.

His name was Vizan, which is the Persian rendition of the name rendered elsewhere Zuàne or Giovanni or Johannes or John. He had been born into the royalty of Persia—had indeed been born a Shahzadè, or Prince—but in his youth he had embraced the Eastern Church, which meant renouncing not only Islam, but also his title and heritage and wealth and privilege and right to succession in the Shahnate. All of that he had forsworn, to join a roving tribe of Nestorian bedawin. Now a very old man, he was that tribe’s elder and leader and acknowledged Presbyter. We found him to be a good man and a wise man, and altogether an admirable man. In those particulars he well fit the character of the fabled Prete Zuàne. But he reigned over no broad and rich and populous domain, only a ragtag tribe of some twenty impoverished and landless shepherd families.

We encountered that bunch of sheep herders on a night when there was no karwansarai nearby, and they invited us to share their camping ground in the middle of their herd, and so we spent that evening in the company of their Presbyter Vizan.

While he and we made our simple meal around a small fire, my father and uncle engaged him in a theological discussion, and they ably discredited and demolished many of the old bedawi’s most cherished heresies. But he seemed not in the least dismayed or ready to discard the shreds they left of his beliefs. Instead, he cheerfully turned the conversation to the Baghdad court we had recently inhabited, and asked after all there, who were of course his royal relatives. We told him that they were well and thriving and happy, although understandably chafing under the overlordship of the Khanate. Old Vizan seemed pleased with the news, though no whit nostalgic for that life of courtly ease he had long ago given up. Only when Uncle Mafìo chanced to mention the Shahrpiryar Shams—making me inwardly flinch—did the ancient shepherd-bishop heave a sigh that might have denoted regret.

“The Dowager Princess still lives, then?” he said. “Why, she would be nearly eighty years of age by now, as I am.” And I flinched again.

He was silent for a time, and he took a stick and stirred the fire, and stared thoughtfully into its heart, and then he said, “Doubtless the Shahrpiryar Shams no longer shows it—and you good brethren may not credit my telling of it—but that Princess Sunlight in her youth was the most beautiful woman in Persia, perhaps the most beautiful of all time.”

My father and uncle murmured noncommittally. I was still flinching at my all too vivid recollection of the wrecked and ravaged crone.

“Ah, when she and I and the world were young,” said old Vizan, dreamily. “I was then still Shahzadè of Tabriz and she was the Shahzrad, first daughter of the Shah of Kerman. The report of her loveliness brought me from Tabriz, and brought innumerable other princes from as far away as Sabaea and the Kashmir, and none was disappointed when he saw her.”

Under my breath, I made an impolite noise of scoffing incredulity, not loud enough for him to hear.

“I could tell you of that maiden’s radiant eyes and rose lips and willow grace, but that would not begin to picture her for you. Why, just to look at her could heat a man to fever and yet refresh him at the same time. She was like—like a field of clover that has been warmed in the sun and then washed by a gentle rain. Yes. That is the sweetest-scented thing God ever put on this earth, and always when I come upon that fragrance I remember the young and beautiful Princess Shams.”

Comparing a woman to clover: how like a rustic and unimaginative shepherd, I thought. Surely the old man’s wits had been dulled if not scrambled by his decades of association with nothing but greasy sheep and greasier Nestorians.

“There was not a man in all Persia who would not have risked a drubbing from the Kerman palace guards, just to sneak near and steal a glimpse of Princess Sunlight walking in her garden. To have seen her uncovered of her chador veil, a man would have given his very life. In the remote hope of a smile from her, why, a man would have relinquished his immortal soul. As for any further intimacy, that would have been an unthinkable thought, even for the multitude of princes already hopelessly in love with her.”

I sat staring at Vizan, amazed and unbelieving. The old hag I had spent so many nights naked with—a vision unattainable and inviolable? Impossible! Ludicrous!

“There were so many suitors, and all so anguished in their yearning, that the tender-hearted Shams could not or would not choose from among them, and thus blight the lives of all the rest. Neither could her father the Shah, for a long time, choose for her; he was so besieged by so many, each imploring more eloquently, each pressing upon him more precious gifts. That tumult of courtship went on literally for years. Any other maiden would have fretted at the passing of her springtime, and she not yet wed. But Shams only grew the more rose-beautiful and willow-graceful and clover-sweet as the time went on.”

I still sat and stared at him, but my skepticism was slowly giving way to wonder. My lover had been all that? So exquisitely desirable to this man and to other men in that long-gone time, so exquisitely memorable that she was not yet forgotten, by this one at least, even now at the approaching end of his life?

Uncle Mafìo went to speak, and got to coughing, but at last cleared his throat and asked, “What was the outcome of that crowded courtship?”

“Oh, it had to come to a conclusion at last. Her father the Shah—with her approval, I trust—finally chose for her the Shahzadè of Shiraz. He and Shams were wed, and the whole Persian Empire—all but the rejected suitors—celebrated with joyous holiday. However, for a long time the marriage had no issue. I strongly suspect that the bridegroom was so overwhelmed by his good fortune, and by the pure beauty of his bride, that it was a long time before he could perform the consummation. It was not until after his father died, and he had succeeded as Shah in Shiraz, and Shams was thirty or older, that she gave birth to their only child, and then only a daughter. She was also handsome, so I have heard, but nothing like her mother. That was Zahd, who is now Shahryar of Baghdad, and I think has a nearly grown daughter of her own.”

“Yes,” I said faintly.

Vizan went on, “Had it not been for those events I have recounted—had the Princess Shams chosen otherwise—I might still be …” He poked at the fire again, but it was now only embers fast fading. “Ah, well. I was inspired to go away into the wilderness, and to seek. And I sought, and I found the true religion, and these my wandering brethren, and with them a new life. I think I have lived it well, and have been a good Christian. I have some small hope of Heaven … and in Heaven, who knows … ?”

His voice seemed to fail him. He said no more, not even a good-night, and got up from among us and walked away—wafting his smell of sheep wool and sheep dip and sheep manure—and disappeared into his much-weathered, many-patched little tent. No, I never did take him to be the Prete Zuàne of the legends.

When my father and uncle had also gone to roll into their blankets, I sat on by the darkening embers of the fire, thinking, trying to reconcile in my mind the derelict old grandmother and she who was the Princess Sunlight, unsurpassable in beauty. I was confused. If Vizan saw her now, would he see the aged and ugly crone, or the glorious maiden she once had been? And I, should I keep on feeling disgust because, in her old age, hardly even recognizable as female, she still felt feminine hungers? Or should I pity her for the deceit she had to employ now to slake them, when once she could have had any prince for the beckoning?

To look at it another way, should I congratulate myself and delight in the knowledge that I had enjoyed the Princess Sunlight for whom a whole generation of men had yearned in vain? But, trying to think along that line, I found myself wrenching present time into past time, and past into present, and confronting even more insubstantial questions—I was led to wonder: does immortality reside in memory?—and with such deep metaphysic my mind was incapable of grappling.

My mind still is, as most minds are. But I know one thing now which I did not then. I know it from my own experience and knowledge of myself. A man stays always the same age, somewhere down inside himself. Only the outside of him grows older—his wrapping of body, and its integument, which is the whole world. Inwardly he attains to a certain age, and stays there throughout his whole remaining life. That perpetual inner age may vary, I suppose, with different individuals. But in general I suspect that it gets fixed at early maturity, when the mind has reached adult awareness and acuity, but has not yet been calloused by habit and disillusion; when the body is newly full-grown and feeling the fires of life, but not yet any of life’s ashes. The calendar and his glass and the solicitude of his juniors may tell a man that he is old, and he can see for himself that the world and all around him have aged, but secretly he knows that he is still a youth of eighteen or twenty.

And what I have said of a man, I have said because a man is what I am. It must be even more true of a woman, to whom youth and beauty and vitality are so much more to be treasured and conserved. I am sure there is not anywhere a woman of advanced age who has not inside her a maiden of tender years. I believe that the Princess Shams, even when I knew her, could see in her glass the radiant eyes and rose lips and willow grace that her suitor Vizan still could see, more than half a century after parting from her, and could smell the fragrance of clover after rain, the sweetest-scented thing God ever put on this earth.

THE GREAT SALT

1

KASHAN was the last city we came to in the habitable green part of Persia; eastward beyond it lay the empty wasteland called the Dasht-e-Kavir, or Great Salt Desert. On the day before we arrived in that city, the slave Nostril said:

“Observe, my masters, the pack camel has begun to limp. I believe he has suffered a stone bruise. Unless it is relieved, that could cause us bad trouble when we get into the desert.”

“You are the camel-puller,” said my uncle. “What is your professional advice?”

“The cure is simple enough, Master Mafio. A few days of rest for the animal. Three days should do it.”

“Very well,” said my father. “We will put up in Kashan, and we can make use of the delay. Replenish our traveling rations. Get our clothes cleaned, and so on.”

During the journey from Baghdad to this point, Nostril had behaved so efficiently and submissively that we had quite forgotten his penchant for devilry. But soon I, at least, had reason to suspect that the slave had deliberately inflicted the camel’s minor injury just to provide himself with a holiday.

Kashan’s foremost industry (and the source of the city’s name) has for centuries been the manufacture of kashi, or what we would call mosaic, those artfully glazed tiles which are used throughout Islam for the decoration of masjid temples, palaces and other fine buildings. The kashi manufacture is done inside enclosed workshops, but Kashan’s second most valuable article of commerce was more immediately visible to us as we rode into the city: its beautiful boys and young men.

While the girls and women to be seen on the streets—as well as could be seen through their chador veils—were of the usual mix, ranging from plain to pretty, with here and there one really worth noticing, all the young males were of strikingly handsome face and physique and bearing. I do not know why that should have been so. Kashan’s climate and foods and water did not differ from those we had encountered elsewhere in Persia, and I could see nothing extraordinary in those local folk who were of an age to be mothers and fathers. So I have no least idea why their male offspring should have been so superior to the boys and young men of other localities—but they undeniably were.

Of course, being a young male myself, I should have preferred to be riding into Kashan’s counterpart city, Shiraz, reportedly just as full of beautiful females. Nevertheless, even my uncaring eye had to admire what it saw in Kashan. The boys and youths were not dirty or pimply or spotty; they were immaculately clean, with glossy hair, brilliant eyes, clear and almost translucent complexions. They were not sullen of demeanor or slouching of posture; they stood straight and proud, and their gaze was forthright. They were not mumbly and slovenly of speech; they spoke articulately and intelligently. One and all, and of whatever class, they were as comely and attractive as girls—and girls of high birth, well cared for, well brought up and well mannered. The smaller boys were like the exquisite little Cupids drawn by Alexandrian artists. The larger lads were like the angels pictured in the panels of the San Marco Basilica. Though I was honestly impressed, and even a little envious of them, I made no vocal acknowledgment of that. After all, I flattered myself that I was no inferior specimen of my sex and age. But my three companions did exclaim.

“Non persiani, ma prezioni,” my uncle said admiringly.

“A precious sight, yes,” said my father.

“Veritable jewels,” said Nostril, casting a leer about.

“Are they all young eunuchs?” asked my uncle. “Or fated to be?”

“Oh, no, Master Mafo,” said Nostril. “They can give as good as they get, if you take my meaning. Far from being impaired in their virile parts, they are improved in their other nether region. Made more accessible and hospitable, if you take my meaning. Do you comprehend the words fa‘il and mafa’ul? Well, al-fa‘il means ‘the doer’ and al-mafa’ul means ‘the done-to.’ These Kashan boys are bred to be beautiful and trained to be obedient and they are physically, er, modified—so that they perform equally delightfully as fa‘il or mafa’ul.”

“You make them sound far less angelic than they look,” said my father, with distaste. “But the Shah Zaman said it was from Kashan that he procures virgin boys to distribute as gifts to other monarchs.”

“Ah, the virgins, now, they are something else. You will not see the virgin boys on the streets, Master Nicolò. They are kept confined in pardah as strict as that of virgin Princesses. For they are reserved to become the concubines of those Princes and other rich men who maintain not just one anderun but two: one of women and one of boys. Until the virgin lads are ripe for presentation, their parents keep them in perpetual indolence. The boys do nothing but loll about on daiwan cushions, while they are force-fed on boiled chestnuts.”

“Boiled chestnuts! Whatever for?”

“That diet makes their flesh get immensely plump and pale and so soft you can dent it with a fingertip. Boys of that maggot appearance are especially esteemed by the anderun procurers. There is no accounting for taste. I myself prefer a boy who is sinewy and sinuous and athletic in the act, not a sulky lump of suet that—”

“There is evidently lewdness enough here,” my father said. “Spare us yours.”

“As you command, master. I will only remark further that the virgin boys are vastly expensive to buy, and cannot be hired. On the other hand, observe! Even the street urchins here are beautiful. They can be cheaply bought for keeping, or even more cheaply hired for a quick—”

“I said be silent!” snapped my father. “Now, where shall we seek lodging?”

“Is there such a thing as a Jewish karwansarai?” said my uncle. “I should like to eat properly for a change.”

I must explain that remark. During the past weeks, we had found most of the wayside inns run by Muslims, of course, but several of them had been the property of Nestorian Christians. And the degenerate Eastern Church foolishly observes so many fast days and feast days that every day is one or the other. So in those places we were either piously starved or piously glutted. Also, we were now in the month the Persian Muslims call Ramazan. That word means “the hot month,” but, because the Islamic calendar follows the moon, its Hot Month occurs variously in each year, and can fall in August or January or any other time, and this year it came in late autumn. Whenever it comes, it is the month ordained for Muslims to fast. On each of the thirty days of Ramazan, from that morning hour when there is light enough to distinguish a white thread from a black one, a Muslim cannot partake of food or drink—or sex between man and woman—until the fall of night. Neither can he serve any comestible to his guests, whatever their religion. So in the daytimes we journeyers had not been able to beg even a dipper of well water from any Muslim establishment, while in every one of them, every day after sundown, we were absolutely gorged to stupefaction. For some time, then, we had all been suffering miseries of indigestion, and Uncle Mafo’s suggestion was no expression of idle whim.

I need hardly remark that Jews in the East seldom engage in such an occupation as renting bed and board to passing strangers—any more than they do in the West—no doubt because it is less profitable and more laborious than moneylending and other such forms of usury. However, our slave Nostril was a most resourceful person. After only a little inquiry of passersby, he learned of an elderly Jewish widow whose house adjoined a stable which she no longer used. Nostril led us there, and got himself admitted to audience with the widow, and proved himself to be also a most persuasive envoy. He came out of her house to report that she would let us house our camels in her stable and ourselves in the hayloft above it.

“Furthermore,” he said, as we towed the beasts in there and began to unload them, “since all the household servants are Kashan Persians and therefore bound by the strictures of Ramazan, the Almauna Esther has agreed to prepare and serve you gentlemen your meals with her own hands. So again you will be eating at your accustomed hours, and she assures me she is a good cook. The payment she asks for our stay is also most reasonable.”

My uncle frankly gaped at the slave, and said in awe, “You are a Muslim, the thing most despised by a Jew, and we are Christians, the next-most despised things. If that were not enough to make this Widow Esther spurn us from her door, you must be the most repulsive creature she has ever set eyes on. How in God’s name did you accomplish all this?”

“I am only a Sindi and a slave, master, but I am not ignorant or lacking in initiative. Also I can read and I can observe.”

“I congratulate you. But that does not answer my question or lessen your ugliness.”

Nostril scratched thoughtfully in his meager beard. “Master Mafio, in the holy books of your religion and of mine and of the Almauna Esther’s religion, you will find the word beauty often mentioned, but never the word ugliness, not in any of those scriptures. Perhaps our several gods are not offended by the physical ugliness of mere mortals, and perhaps the Almauna Esther is a godly woman. Anyway, before those holy books were written, we were of one religion—my ancestors, the almauna’s, perhaps yours as well—all were of the old Babylonian religion that is now abhorred as pagan and demonic.”

“Impertinent upstart! How dare you suggest such a thing?” my father demanded.

“The almauna’s name is Esther,” said Nostril, “and there are Christian ladies also of that name, and it derives from the demon goddess Ishtar. The almauna’s late husband, she tells me, was named Mordecai, which name comes from the demon god Marduk. But long before those gods existed in Babylon, there existed Noah and his son Shem, and the almauna and I are Shem’s descendants. Only the later difference of our religions divides us Semites, and that should not have been too severely divisive. Muslims and Jews, we both eschew certain foods, we both seal our sons in the Faith with circumcision, we both believe in heavenly angels and loathe the same adversary, whether he is called Satan or Shaitan. We both revere the holy city of Jerusalem. Perhaps you did not know that the Prophet (may peace and blessing be upon him) originally bade us Muslims bow to Jerusalem, not to Mecca, when we make our devotions. The language originally spoken by the Jews and that spoken by the Prophet (all blessing and peace be his) were not greatly dissimilar, and—”

“And Muslims and Jews alike,” my father said drily, “have tongues hinged in the middle, to wag at both ends. Come, Mafio, Marco. Let us go and pay our own respects to our hostess. Nostril, you finish unloading the animals and then procure feed for them.”

The Widow Esther was a white-haired and sweet-faced little woman, and she greeted us as graciously as if we had not been Christians. She insisted that we sit down and drink what she called her “restorative for travelers,” which turned out to be hot milk flavored with cardamom. The lady prepared it herself, since it was not yet sundown and none of her Muslim servants could do so much as heat the milk or pulverize the seeds.

It seemed that the Jew lady did have, as my father had supposed, a tongue hinged in the middle, for she kept us in conversation for some while. Rather, my father and uncle conversed with her; I looked about me. The house clearly had been a fine one, and richly appointed, but—after the death of its Master Mordecai, I guessed—had got somewhat dilapidated and its furnishings threadbare. There was still a full staff of servants, but I got the impression that they remained not for wages but out of loyalty to their Mistress Esther and, unbeknownst to her, took in washing at the back door, or through some such genteel subterfuge supported themselves and her as well.

Two or three of the servants were as old and unremarkable as the mistress, but three or four others were the supernally handsome Kashan boys and young men. And one servant, I was pleased to note, was a female as pretty as any of the males, a young woman with dark-red hair and a voluptuous body. To pass the time while the Widow Esther prattled on, I made the cascamorto at that maidservant, giving her languishing looks and suggestive winks. And she, when her mistress was not observing, smiled encouragingly back at me.

The next day, while the lame camel rested, and so did the other four, we travelers all went separately out into the city. My father went seeking a kashi workshop, expressing a wish to learn something about the manufacture of those tiles, for he deemed it a useful industry that he might introduce to the artisans of Kithai. Our camel-puller Nostril went out to buy some kind of salve for the camel’s bruised foot, and Uncle Mafio went to get a new supply of the mumum depilatory. As it turned out, none of them found what he sought, because no one in Kashan was working during Ramazan. Having no errands of my own, I simply strolled and observed.

As I was to see in every city from there eastward, the sky over Kashan was constantly awhirl with the big, dark, fork-tailed scavenger kites circling and swooping. As also in every city from there eastward, the other most prevalent bird seemed to spend all its time scavenging on the ground. That was the mynah, which strutted aggressively about with its lower beak puffed out like the pugnacious underjaw of a little man looking for a quarrel. And of course the next most visible denizens of Kashan were the pretty boys at play in the streets. They chanted their ball-bouncing songs and their hide-and-seek songs and their whirling-dance songs, just as Venetian children do, except that these songs were of the cat-screech variety. So was the music played by the street entertainers soliciting bakhshish. They seemed to own no instruments except the changal, which is nothing but a guimbarde or Jew’s harp, and the chimta, which is nothing but iron kitchen tongs, so their music was nothing but a horrid cacophony of twang and clatter. I think the passerby who tossed them a coin or two did so not out of thanks for the entertainment but to interrupt it, however briefly.

I did not wander far that morning, for my stroll brought me around through the streets in a circle, and I soon found myself again approaching the widow’s house. From a window the pretty maidservant beckoned, as if she had been waiting there just to see me pass. She let me into the house, into a room furnished with slightly shabby qali and daiwan pillows, and confided to me that her mistress was occupied elsewhere, and told me that her name was Sitare, which means Star.

We sat down together on a pile of pillows. Being no longer a callow and inexperienced stripling, I did not set upon her with clumsy juvenile avidity. I began with soft words and sweet compliments, and only gradually moved closer until my whispers tickled her dainty ear and made her wriggle and giggle, and only then raised her chador veil and moved my lips to hers and tenderly kissed her.

“That is nice, Mirza Marco,” she said. “But you need not waste time.”

“I count it no waste,” I said. “I enjoy the preliminaries as much as the fulfillment. We can take the whole day if—”

“I mean you need not do anything with me.”

“You are a considerate girl, Sitarè, and kind. But I must tell you that I am not a Muslim. I do not abstain during Ramazan.”

“Oh, your being an infidel does not matter.”

“I rejoice to hear it. Then let us proceed.”

“Very well. Loose your embrace of me and I will fetch him.”

“What?”

“I told you. There is no need to continue in pretense with me. He is already waiting to come in.”

“Who is waiting?”

“My brother Aziz.”

“Why the devil would we want your brother in here with us?”

“Not we. You. I will go away.”

I loosed my hold on her, and sat up and looked at her. “Excuse me, Sitarè,” I said warily, not knowing any better way to ask it than to ask it: “Are you perhaps, er, divanè?” Divanè means crazy.

She looked genuinely puzzled. “I assumed you took notice of our resemblance when you were here last evening. Aziz is the boy who looks like me, and has red hair like mine, but is much prettier. His name means Beloved. Surely that was why you winked and leered at me?”

Now I was the one puzzled. “Even if he were as pretty as a peri, why would I wink at you—except that you were the one I—?”

“I tell you no pretext is necessary. Aziz saw you also, and was also instantly enthralled, and he already is waiting and eager.”

“I do not care if Aziz is eternally adrift in Purgatory!” I cried in exasperation. “Let me put this as plainly as I know how. I am at this moment trying to seduce you into letting me have my way with you.”

“Me? You wish to make zina with me? Not with my brother Aziz?”

I briefly pounded my fists on an unoffending pillow, and then said, “Tell me something, Sitarè. Does every girl in all of Persia misspend her energies in acting as procurer for someone else?”

She thought about that. “All of Persia? I do not know. But here in Kashan, yes, that is often the case. It is the result of established custom. A man sees another man, or a boy, and is smitten with him. But he cannot pay court to him outright, for that is against the law laid down by the Prophet.”

“Peace and blessing be upon him,” I muttered.

“Yes. So the man pays court to the other man’s nearest woman relative. He will even marry her, if necessary. So that then he has excuse to be near his true heart’s desire—the woman’s brother perhaps, or maybe her son if she is a widow, or even her father—and has every opportunity to make zina with him. That way, you see, the proprieties are not openly flouted.”

“Gèsu.”

“That is why I supposed you were paying court to me. But of course, if you do not want my brother, you cannot have me.”

“Whyever not? You seemed pleased to learn that I wanted you and not him.”

“Yes, I am. Both surprised and pleased. That is an unusual preference; a Christian eccentricity, I daresay. But I am a virgin, and I must remain so, for my brother’s sake. You have by now crossed many Muslim lands; surely you have comprehended. That is why a family keeps its maiden daughters and sisters in strict pardah, and jealously guards their virtue. Only if a maiden remains intact or a widow chaste can she hope to make a good marriage. At least, so it is here in Kashan.”

“Well, it is the same where I come from … ,” I had to admit.

“Yes, I shall seek to make a good marriage to a good man who will be a good provider and a good lover to us both, for my brother Aziz is all the family I have.”

“Wait a moment,” I said, scandalized. “A Venetian female’s chastity is often an item of barter, yes, and often traded for a good marriage, yes. But only for the commercial or social advancement of her whole family. Do you mean the women here willingly endorse and connive in the lust of one man for another? You would deliberately become the wife of a man just so you could share him with your brother?”

“Oh, not just any man who comes along,” she said airily. “You should feel flattered that both Aziz and I found you to our liking.”

“Gèsu.”

“To couple with Aziz commits you to nothing, you see, since a male has no sangar membrane. But if you wish to be the breaker of mine, you must wed me and take us both.”

“Gèsu.” I got up from the daiwan.

“You are going? Then you do not want me? But what of Aziz? You will not have him even once?”

“I think not, thank you, Sitarè.” I slouched toward the door. “I simply was ignorant of local custom.”

“He will be desolated. Especially if I have to tell him it was me you desired.”

“Then do not,” I mumbled. “Just tell him I was ignorant of local custom.” And I went on out the door.

2

BETWEEN the house and the stable was a little garden plot planted with kitchen herbs, and the Widow Esther was out there. She was wearing only one slipper, her other foot was bare, and she had the removed slipper in her hand, beating with it at the ground. Curious, I approached her, and saw that she was pounding at a large black scorpion. When it was pulped, she moved on and turned over a rock; another scorpion sluggishly crawled into view and she squashed that one, too.

“Only way to get the nasty things,” she said to me. “They do their prowling at night, when they are impossible to see. You have to turn them up in daylight. This city is infested with them. I do not know why. My late dear husband Mordecai (alav ha-sholom) used to grumble that the Lord erred miserably in sending mere locusts upon Egypt, when He could have sent these venomous Kashan scorpions.”

“Your husband must have been a brave man, Mirza Esther, to criticize the Lord God Himself.”

She laughed. “Read your scriptures, young man. The Jews have been giving censure and advice to God ever since Abraham. You can read in the Book of Genesis how Abraham first argued with the Lord and then proceeded to haggle Him into a bargain. My Mordecai was no less hesitant to cavil at God’s doings.”

I said, “I once had a friend—a Jew named Mordecai.”

“A Jew was your friend?” She sounded skeptical, but I could not tell whether she doubted that a Christian would befriend a Jew, or a Jew a Christian.

“Well,” I said, “he was a Jew when I first met him, when he called himself Mordecai. But I seem to keep on meeting him under other names or in other guises. I even saw him once in one of my dreams.”

And I told her of those various encounters and manifestations, each of them evidently intended to impress upon me “the bloodthirstiness of beauty.” The widow stared at me as I talked, and her eyes widened, and when I was done she said:

“Bar mazel, and you a gentile! Whatever he is trying to tell you, I suggest that you take it to heart. Do you know who that is you keep meeting? That must be one of the Lamed-vav. The thirty-six.”

“The thirty-six what?”

“Tzaddikim. Let me see—saints, I suppose a Christian would call them. It is an old Jewish belief. That there are always in the world just thirty-six men of perfect righteousness. No one ever knows who they are, and they themselves do not realize they are tzaddikim—or else, you see, that self-consciousness would impair their perfection. But they go constantly about the world, doing good deeds, for no reward or recognition. Some say the tzaddikim never die. Others say that whenever one tzaddik dies, another good man is appointed by God to that office, without his knowing he has been so honored. Still others say that there is really only one tzaddik, who can be in thirty-six places simultaneously, if he chooses. But all who believe in the legend agree that God will end this world if ever the Lamed-vav should cease doing their good works. I must say, though, that I never heard of one of them extending his good offices to a gentile.”

I said, “The one I met in Baghdad may not even have been a Jew. He was a fardarbab tomorrow-teller. He could have been an Arab.”

She shrugged. “The Arabs have an identical legend. They call the righteous man an abdal. The true identity of each of them is known only to Allah, and it is only on their account that Allah lets the world go on existing. I do not know if the Arabs borrowed the legend of our Lamed-vav, or if it is a belief which they and we have shared ever since the long-ago time when we were mutually the children of Shem. But whichever yours is, young man—an abdal bestowing his favor on an infidel or a tzaddik on a gentile—you are highly favored and you should pay heed.”

I said, “They seem never to speak to me of anything but beauty and bloodthirstiness. I already seek the one and shun the other, insofar as I can. I hardly need further counsel in either of those respects.”

“Those sound to me like the two sides of a single coin,” said the widow, as she slapped with her slipper at another scorpion. “If there is danger in beauty, is there not also beauty in danger? Or why else does a man so gladly go a-journeying?”

“Me? Oh, I journey just out of curiosity, Mirza Esther.”

“Just curiosity! Listen to him! Young man, do not ever deprecate the passion called curiosity. Where would danger be without it, or beauty either?”

I failed to see much connection among the three things, and again began to wonder if I was talking to someone slightly divanè. I knew that old people could sometimes get wonderfully disjointed in their conversations, and so this one seemed when she said next:

“Shall I tell you the saddest words I ever heard?”

In the manner of all old people, she did not wait for me to say yes or no, but went right on:

“They were the last words spoken by my husband Mordecai (alav ha-sholom). It was when he lay dying. The darshan was in attendance, and other members of our little congregation, and of course I was there, weeping and trying to weep with quiet dignity. Mordecai had made all his farewells, and he had said the Shema Yisrael, and he was composed for death. His eyes were closed, his hands folded, and we all thought he was peacefully slipping away. But then, without opening his eyes or addressing anybody in particular, he spoke again, quite clearly and distinctly. And what he said was this …”

The widow pantomimed the deathbed occasion. She closed her eyes and crossed her hands on her bosom, one of them still holding her dirty slipper, and she leaned her head back a little, and she said in a sepulchral voice, “I always wanted to go there … and do that … but I never did.”

Then she stayed in that pose; evidently I was expected to say something. I repeated the dying man’s words, “I always wanted to go there … and do that …” and I asked, “What did he mean? Go where? Do what?”

The widow opened her eyes and shook her slipper at me. “That was what the darshan said, after we had waited for some moments to hear more. He leaned over the bed and said, ‘Go to what place, Mordecai? To do what thing?’ But Mordecai said no more. He was dead.”

I made the only comment I could think to make. “I am sorry, Mirza Esther.”

“So am I. But so was he. Here was a man in the very last flicker of his life, lamenting something that had once piqued his curiosity, but he had neglected to go and see it or do it or have it—and now he never could.”

“Was Mordecai a journeyer?”

“No. He was a cloth merchant, and a very successful one. He never traveled farther from here than to Baghdad and Basra. But who knows what he would have liked to be and do?”

“You think he died unhappy, then?”

“Unfulfilled, at least. I do not know what it was he spoke of, but oh! how I wish he had gone there while he was alive, wherever it was, and done whatever it was.”

I tried tactfully to suggest that it could not matter to him now.

She said firmly, “It mattered to him when it mattered most. When he knew the chance was gone forever.”

Hoping to make her feel better, I said, “But if he had seized the chance, you might be sorrier now. It may have been something—something less than approvable. I have noticed that sinful temptations abound in these lands. In all lands, I suppose. I myself once had to confess to a priest for having too freely followed where my curiosity led me, and—”

“Confess it, if you must, but do not ever abjure it or ignore it. That is what I am trying to tell you. If a man is to have a fault, it should be a passionate one, like insatiable curiosity. It would be a pity to be damned for something paltry.”

“I hope not to be damned, Mirza Esther,” I said piously, “as I trust the Mirza Mordecai was not. It may well have been out of virtue that he let that chance go by, whatever it was. Since you cannot know, you need not weep for—”

“I am not weeping. I did not broach the matter to sniffle over it.”

I wondered why, then, she had bothered to broach it. And, as if in reply to my silent question, she went on:

“I wanted you to know this. When you come at last to die, you may be devoid of all other urges and senses and faculties, but you will still possess your passion of curiosity. It is something that even cloth merchants have, perhaps even clerks and other such drudges. Certainly a journeyer has it. And in those last moments it will make you grieve—as Mordecai did—not for anything you have done in your lifetime, but for the things you never got to do.”

“Mirza Esther,” I protested. “A man cannot live always in dread of missing something. I fully expect never to be Pope, for instance, or Shah of Persia, but I hope that lack will not blight my life. Or my deathbed either.”

“I do not mean things unattainable. Mordecai died lamenting something that had been within his reach, within his capability, within his having, and he let it go by. Imagine yourself pining for the sights and delights and experiences you could have had, but missed—or even just one single small such experience—and pining too late, when it is forever unattainable.”

Obediently, I did try to imagine that. And young though I was, remote though I assumed that prospect to be, I felt a faint chill.

“Imagine going into death,” she went on implacably, “without having tasted everything in this world. The good, the bad, the indifferent even. And to know, at that final moment, that it was no one but you who deprived yourself, through your own careful caution or careless choice or failure to follow where your curiosity led. Tell me, young man, could there be any more hurtful pang on the other side of death? Even damnation itself?”

After the moment it took me to shake off the chill, I said, as cheerfully as I could, “Well, with the help of those thirty-six you spoke of, maybe I can avoid both deprivation in my lifetime and damnation after it.”

“Aleichem sholem,” she said. But, as she was swatting with her slipper at another scorpion at that moment, I was not sure if she was wishing peace to me or to it.

She moved on down the garden, turning over rocks, and I idly ambled into the stable to see if any of our party had returned from wandering about town. One of them had, but not alone, and the sight brought me up short, with a gasp.

Our slave Nostril was there, with a stranger, one of the gorgeous young Kashan men. Perhaps my conversation with the maidservant Sitarè had made me temporarily impervious to disgust, for I did not make violent outcry or retreat from the scene. I looked on as indifferently as did the camels, which only shuffled and mumbled and munched. Both of the men were naked, and the stranger was on his hands and knees in the straw, and our slave was hunched over his backside, bucking like a camel in rut. The lewdly coupling Sodomites turned their heads when I entered, but only grinned at me and kept on with their indecency.

The young man had a body that was as handsome to look upon as his face was. But Nostril, even when fully clothed, was of a repellent appearance, as I have already described. I can only say further that his paunchy torso and pimply buttocks and spindly limbs, when totally exposed, were a sight to make most onlookers retch up their most recent meal. I was amazed that such a revolting creature could have persuaded anyone the least bit less revolting to play al-mafa‘ul to his al-fa’il.

Nostril’s fa’il implement was invisible to me, being inserted where it was, but the young man’s organ was visible below his belly, and stiffened into its candelòto aspect. I thought that somewhat odd, since neither he nor Nostril was manipulating it in any way. And it seemed even more odd, when he and Nostril finally groaned and writhed together, to see his candelòto—still without benefit of touch or fondling—squirt spruzzo into the straw on the floor.

After they had briefly rested and panted, Nostril heaved his sweat-shiny bulk off the young man’s back. Without dipping a wash of water from the camel trough, without even wadding some straw to wipe his extremely wee little organ, he began putting his clothes back on, and humming a merry tune as he did so. The young stranger more indolently and slowly began to get dressed, as if he frankly enjoyed displaying his nude body even under such disgraceful circumstances.

Leaning against a stall partition, I said to our slave, as if we had all the while been chatting companionably, “You know something, Nostril? There are many rascals and scamps portrayed in song and story—characters like Encolpios and Renart the Fox. They live a gay vagabond life, and they live by their foxy wits, but somehow they are never guilty of crime or sin. They commit only pranks and jests. They steal from none but thieves, their amatory exploits are never sordid, they drink and carouse without ever getting drunk or foolish, their swordplay never causes more than a flesh wound. They have winning ways and twinkling eyes and a ready laugh, even on the scaffold, for they never hang. Whatever the adventure, those adventurous scoundrels are always charming and dashing, clever and amusing. Such stories make one want to meet such a brave, bold, lovable rascal.”

“And now you have,” said Nostril. He twinkled his piggy eyes and smiled to show his stubble teeth and struck a pose that he probably thought was dashing.

“Now I have,” I said. “And there is nothing lovable or admirable about you. If you are the typical rascal, then all the stories are lies, and a rascal is a swine. You are filthy of person and of habit, loathsome in appearance and character, cloacal in your proclivities. You are altogether deserving of that seething oil vat from which I too indulgently argued for your rescue.”

The handsome stranger laughed coarsely at that. Nostril sniffled and muttered, “Master Marco, as a devout Muslim I must object to being likened to a swine.”

“I hope you would also balk at coupling with a sow,” I said. “But I doubt it.”

“Please, young master. I am devoutly keeping Ramazan, which prohibits intercourse between Muslim men and women. I must also admit that, even in the permissible months, women are sometimes hard for me to come by, ever since my pretty face was disfigured by my nose’s misfortune.”

“Oh, do not exaggerate,” I said. “There is always somewhere a woman desperate enough for anything. In my lifetime, I have seen a Slavic woman couple with a black man and an Arab woman couple with an actual ape.”

Nostril said loftily, “I hope you do not suppose that I would condescend to a woman as ugly as I am. Ah, but Jafar here—Jafar is as comely as the comeliest woman.”

I growled, “Tell your comely wretch to hurry with his dressing and get out of here, or I will feed him to the camels.”

The comely wretch glared at me, then gave a melting look of entreaty to Nostril, who immediately insulted me with an impertinent question: “You would not like to try him yourself, Master Marco? The experience might broaden your mind.”

“I will broaden your one nose-hole!” I snarled, taking the dagger from my belt. “I will open it all the way around your ugly head! How dare you speak so to a master? What do you take me for?”

“For a young man with much yet to learn,” he said. “You are a journeyer now, Master Marco, and before you get home again you will have traveled much farther yet, and seen and experienced much more. When you do arrive home at last, you will be rightfully scornful of men there who call mountains high and swamps deep, without their ever having scaled a mountain or plumbed a swamp—men who have never ventured beyond their narrow streets and their commonplace routines and their cautious pastimes and their pinched little lives.”

“Perhaps so. But what has that to do with your galineta whore?”

“There are other journeys that can take a man beyond the ordinary, Master Marco, not in distance of travel but in breadth of understanding. Consider. You have reviled this young man as a whore, when he is only what he was bred and developed and trained and expected to be.”

“A Sodomite, then, if you prefer. To a Christian, that is a sinful thing to be—a sinner and a sin to be abhorred.”

“I ask you, Master Marco, to make only a short journey into the world of this young man.” Before I could object, he said, “Jafar, tell the foreigner of your upbringing.”

Still clutching his lower garment in his hand, and glancing uneasily at me, Jafar began. “Oh, young Mirza, reflection of the light of Allah—”

“Never mind that,” said Nostril. “Just tell of your body’s preparation for sexual commerce.”

“Oh, blessing of the world,” Jafar began again. “From the earliest years I can remember, always while I slept I wore inserted into my nether aperture a golulè, which is an implement made of kashi ceramic, a sort of small tapered cone. Every time my bedtime toilet was completed, the golulè was put into me, well greased with some drug to stimulate the development of my badàm. My mother or nurse would at intervals ease it farther inside me, and when I could accommodate it all, a larger golulè was substituted. Thus my opening gradually grew more ample, but without impairing the muscle of closure which surrounds it.”

“Thank you for the story,” I said to him, but coldly, and to Nostril I said, “Born so or made so, a Sodomite is still an abomination.”

“I think his story is not finished,” said Nostril. “Bear with the journey only a little farther.”

“When I was perhaps five or six years old,” Jafar went on, “I was relieved of having to wear the golulè, and instead my next older brother was encouraged to use me whenever he had an urge and an erected organ.”

“Adrìo de vu!” I gasped, compassion getting the better of my revulsion. “What a horrible childhood!”

“It could have been worse,” said Nostril. “When a bandit or slave-taker captures a boy, and that boy has not been thus carefully prepared, the captor brutally impales him there with a tent peg, to make the opening fit for subsequent use. But that tears the encircling muscle, and the boy can never thereafter contain himself, but excretes incontinently. Also, he cannot thereafter utilize that muscle to give pleasurable contractions during the act. Go on, Jafar.”

“When I had got accustomed to that brother’s usage, my next older and better-equipped brother helped my further development. And when my badàm was mature enough to let me begin to enjoy the act, then my father …”

“Adrìo de vu!” I exclaimed again. But now curiosity had got the better of both my revulsion and my compassion. “What do you mean about the badàm?” I could not comprehend that detail, for the word badàm means an almond.

“You did not know of it?” said Nostril with surprise. “Why, you have one yourself. Every male does. We call it the almond because of its shape and size, but physicians sometimes refer to it as the third testicle. It is situated behind the other two, not in the bag, but hidden up inside your groin. A finger or, ahem, any other object inserted far enough into your anus rubs against that almond and stimulates it to a pleasurable excitement.”

“Ah,” I said, enlightened. “So that is why, just now, Jafar made spruzzo seemingly without any caress or provocation.”

“We call that spurt the almond milk,” Nostril said primly. He added, “Some women of talent and experience know of that invisible male gland. In one way or another, they tickle it while they are coupling with a man, so that when he ejaculates the almond milk his enjoyment is blissfully heightened.”

I wagged my head wonderingly, and said, “You are right, Nostril. A man can learn new things from journeying.” I slid my dagger back into its sheath. “This time at least, I forgive the brash way you spoke to me.”

He replied smugly, “A good slave puts utility before humility. And now, Master Marco, perhaps you would like to slip your other weapon into another sheath? Observe Jafar’s splendid scabbard—”

“Scagaròn!” I snapped. “I may tolerate such customs of others while I am in these regions, but I will not partake of them. Even if Sodomy were not a vile sin, I should still prefer the love of women.”

“Love, master?” echoed Nostril, and Jafar laughed in his coarse way, and one of the camels belched. “No one spoke of love. The love between a man and a man is another thing entirely, and I believe that only we warmhearted warrior Muslims can know that most sublime of all emotions. I doubt that any cold-blooded and peace-preaching Christian could be capable of that love. No, master, I was suggesting merely a matter of convenient release and relief and satisfaction. For that, what difference what sex?”

I snorted like a supercilious camel. “Easy for you to say, slave, since to you it makes no difference what animal. As for me, I am happy to say that as long as there are women in the world I shall have no yearning for men to couple with. I am a man myself, and I am too familiar with my own body to have the least interest in that of any other male. But women—ah, women! They are so magnificently different from me, and each so exquisitely different from another—I can never value them enough!”

“Value them, master?” He sounded amused.

“Yes.” I paused, then said with due solemnity, “I once killed a man, Nostril, but I could never bring myself to kill a woman.”

“You are young yet.”

“Now, Jafar,” I said to the young man, “put on the rest of your clothes and go, before my father and uncle get back here.”

“I saw them arrive just now, Master Marco,” said Nostril. “They went with the Almauna Esther into her house.”

So I went over there, too, and was again waylaid by the maidservant Sitarè, as she let me in the door. I would have gone on by her unheeding, but she took me by the arm and whispered, “Do not speak loudly.”

I said, not whispering, “I have nothing to speak to you about.”

“Hush. The mistress is inside, and your father and uncle are with her. So do not let them hear, but answer me. My brother Aziz and I have discussed the matter of you and—”

“I am not a matter!” I said testily. “I do not much like my being discussed.”

“Oh, do please hush. Are you aware that the day after tomorrow is the Eid-al-Fitr?”

“No. I do not even know what that is.”

“Tomorrow at sundown Ramazan ends. At that moment begins the month of Shawal, and its first day is the Feast of Fast-Broken, when we Muslims are released from abstinence and restriction. Any time after sundown tomorrow, you and I can licitly make zina.”

“Except that you are a virgin,” I reminded her. “And must stay that way, for your brother’s sake.”

“That is what Aziz and I discussed. We have a small favor to ask of you, Mirza Marco. If you will consent to it, I will consent—and I have my brother’s consent—to make zina with you. Of course, you can have him too, if you like.”

I said suspiciously, “Your offer sounds like a considerable return for a small favor. And your beloved brother sounds brotherly indeed. I can hardly wait to meet this pimping and simpering lout.”

“You have met him. He is the kitchen scullion, with hair dark red like mine, and—”

“I do not remember.” But I could imagine him: the twin to Nostril’s stable mate Jafar, a muscular and handsome hulk of a man, with the orifice of a woman, the wits of a camel and the morals of a jack weasel.

“When I say a small favor,” Sitarè went on, “I mean a small one for me and Aziz. For yourself it will be a greater favor, since you will profit by it. Actually earn money from it.”

Here was a beautiful chestnut-haired maiden, offering me herself and her maidenhead and a monetary return as well—plus, if I wanted him, her reputedly even more beautiful brother into the bargain. Naturally this brought to my recollection the phrase I had several times heard, “the bloodthirstiness of beauty.” And naturally that made me cautious, but not so cautious that I would flatly refuse the offer without hearing more.

“Tell me more,” I said.

“Not now. Here comes your uncle. Hush.”

“Well, well!” boomed Uncle Mafìo, approaching us from the darker interior of the house. “Collecting fiame, are we?” And his black beard split in a bright white grin, as he shouldered past us and went out the door toward the stable.

The remark was a play on the word fiame, since in Venice “flames” can mean—in addition to fire—either red-headed persons or secret lovers. So I assumed that my uncle was jocosely twitting what he took to be a boy-and-girl flirtation.

As soon as he was out of hearing, Sitarè said to me, “Tomorrow. At the kitchen door, where I let you in before. At this same hour.” And then she too was gone, somewhere into the back parts of the house.

I strolled on along the front passage, into the room from which I heard the voices of my father and the Widow Esther. As I entered, he was saying, in a muted and serious tone, “I know it was your good heart that proposed it. I only wish you had asked me first, and me alone.”

“I never would have suspected,” she said, also in a hushed tone. “And if, as you say, he has nobly exerted himself to reform, I would not wish to be the provocation of a relapse.”

“No, no,” said my father. “No blame can be laid to you, even if the good deed should turn out ill. We will talk it over, and I will ask flatly whether this would be an irresistible temptation, and on that basis we will decide.”

Then they noticed my presence, and abruptly dropped whatever it was they were privily discussing, and my father said, “Yes, it was as well that we stopped these few days. There are several items we need which are unobtainable in the bazàr during this holy month. When the month ends tomorrow, they will be purchasable, and by then the lame camel will be healed, and we will aim at departure the day after. We cannot thank you enough for the hospitality you have shown us during our stay.”

“Which reminds me,” she said. “I have your evening meal almost done. I will bring it out to your quarters as soon as it is.”

My father and I went together to the hayloft, where we found Uncle Mafio perusing the pages of our Kitab. He looked up from it and said, “Our next destination, Mashhad, is no easy one to get to. Desert all the way, and the very widest extent of that desert. We will be dried and shriveled like a bacalà.” He broke off to scratch vigorously at the inside of his left elbow. “Some damned bug has bitten me, and I itch.”

I said, “The widow told me that this city is infested with scorpions.”

My uncle gave me a scornful look. “If you ever get stung by one, asenazzo, you will learn that scorpions do not bite. No, this was a tiny fly, perfectly triangular in shape. It was so tiny that I cannot believe this tormenting itch it left.”

The Widow Esther made several crossings of the yard, bringing out the dishes of our meal, and we three ate while bent together over the Kitab. Nostril ate apart, in the stable below, among the camels, but he ate almost as audibly as a camel eats. I tried to disregard his noises and concentrate on the maps.

“You are right, Mafio,” said my father. “The broadest part of the desert to cross. God send us good.”

“Still, an easy route to keep to. Mashhad is just a little north of east from here. At this season, we will only have to take aim at the sunrise each morning.”

“And I,” I put in, “will frequently verify our course with our kamàl.”

“I notice,” said my father, “that al-Idrisi shows not a single well or oasis or karwansarai in that desert.”

“But some such things must exist. It is a trade route, after all. Mashhad, like Baghdad, is a major stop on the Silk Road.”

“And as big a city as Kashan, the widow told me. Also, thank God, it is in the cool mountains.”

“But beyond it, we will come to genuinely cold ones. We shall probably have to lay up for the winter somewhere.”

“Well, we cannot expect to go through the world with the wind always astern.”

“And we will not be on territory familiar to you and me, Nico, until we get all the way to Kashgar, in Kithai itself.”

“Distant from the eye, Mafio, is distant from the heart. Sufficient the evils of the day, and all that. For the time being, let us not plan or worry beyond Mashhad.”

3

THE next day, the last day of Ramazan, we spent mostly in just lazing about the widow’s property. I think I have neglected to mention that, in Muslim countries, a day’s beginning is not counted from dawn, as one might expect, or from the midnight hour, as it is in civilized countries, but from the moment of the sun’s setting. Anyway, there was no point in our haunting the Kashan bazàr, as my father had remarked, until it should be again fully stocked with goods for purchase. We had no other tasks except to feed and water the camels and shovel their manure out of the stable. Of course, Nostril attended to that—and at the widow’s request he spread the manure on her herb garden. Now and again, I or my father or uncle would go out for a stroll in the streets. And so did Nostril, in the intervals between his chores, and in the process, I have no doubt, managed to consummate some more of his nasty liaisons.

When I went walking out into the city in the late afternoon, I found a crowd of people standing at a corner where two streets intersected. Most of them were young—good-looking males and nondescript females. I would have assumed that they were merely engaged in the favorite occupation of the East, which is standing and staring—or, in the case of Eastern men, standing and staring and scratching their crotches—except that I heard a droning voice proceeding from the center of the group. So I stopped and joined the audience, and gradually worked my way through them until I could see the object of their attention.

It was an old man seated cross-legged on the ground: a sha‘ir, or poet, and he was entertaining the people by telling a story. From time to time, evidently whenever he spoke an especially poetic and felicitous phrase, one of the bystanders would drop a coin into the begging bowl on the ground beside the old man. My grasp of Farsi was not good enough to enable me to appreciate anything of that sort, but it was good enough at least to follow the thread of the tale, and it was an interesting tale, so I stood and listened. The sha’ir was telling how dreams came to be.

In the Beginning, he said, among all the kinds of spirits which exist—the jinn and the afarit and the peri and so on—there was a spirit named Sleep. He had charge then, as he has now, of that dormant condition in all living creatures. Now, Sleep had a whole swarm of children, who were called Dreams, but in that far-off time neither Sleep nor his children had ever thought of the Dreams getting inside people’s heads. But one day, it being a nice day, and Sleep not having much to do during the daytime, that good spirit decided to take all his boys and girls for a holiday at the seashore. And there he let them get into a little boat they found, and fondly watched as they paddled out upon the water a short way.

Unfortunately, said the old poet, the spirit Sleep had earlier done something to offend the mighty spirit called Storm, and Storm had been waiting an opportunity for revenge. So when Sleep’s little Dreams ventured upon the sea, the malevolent Storm whipped the sea into a frothing fury, and blew a driving wind, and washed the frail boat far out into the ocean and wrecked it on the rocky reefs of a desert island called Boredom.

Ever since that time, said the sha‘ir, all the Dream boys and girls have been marooned on that bleak island. (And you know, he said, how restless children become when subjected to idleness in Boredom.) During the days, the poor Dreams must endure that monotonous exile from the living world. But every night—al-hamdo-lillah!—the spirit Storm must wane in power, because the kindlier spirit Moon has charge of the night. So that is when the Dream children can most easily escape for a while from their Boredom. And they do. That is when they leave the island and go about the world and occupy themselves by entering the heads of sleeping men and women. That is why, said the sha’ir, on any night, any sleeper may be entertained or instructed or warned or frightened by a Dream, depending on whether that particular Dream on that particular night is a beneficent little-girl Dream or a mischievous little-boy Dream, and depending on his or her mood that night.

The listeners all made gratified noises at the tale’s conclusion, and fairly showered coins into the old man’s bowl. I tossed in a copper shahi myself, having found the story amusing—and not incredible, like so many of the more foolish Eastern myths. I found quite logical the poet’s notion of innumerable Dream children of both sexes and mercurial temperaments and meddlesome ways. That notion could even suggest an acceptable explanation of certain phenomena frequently occurring in the West, and well attested but never before explicable. I mean the dreaded nighttime visitations of the ìncubo which seduces otherwise chaste women and the sùccubo which seduces otherwise chaste priests.

When sundown marked the close of Ramazan, I was at the back door of the Widow Esther’s house, and Sitarè let me into the kitchen. She and I were its only occupants, and she seemed in a state of barely suppressed excitement: her eyes sparkled and her hands fluttered. She was dressed in what must have been her very best garments, and she had put al-kohl around her eyelids and berry juice on her lips, but the pink flush on her cheeks had not come out of a cosmetic jar.

“You are attired for the feast day,” I said.

“Yes, but to please you, too. I will not dissemble, Mirza Marco. I said I was glad to be the object of your ardor, and I truly am. Look, I have spread a pallet for us yonder in the corner. And I have made sure that the mistress and the other servants are all occupied elsewhere, so we will not be interrupted. I am frankly eager for our—”

“Now wait,” I said, but feebly. “I have acceded to no bargain. You are a beauty to make a man’s mouth water, and mine does, but I must know first. What is this favor for which you wish to trade yourself?”

“Indulge me only for a moment, then I will tell you. I should like to set you a riddle beforehand.”

“Is this another local custom?”

“Just sit on this bench here. Keep your hands at your sides—hold onto the bench—so you are not tempted to touch me. Now close your eyes. Tight. And keep them closed until I tell you.”

I shrugged, and did as I was bidden, and heard her briefly moving about. Then she kissed me on my lips, in a shy and inexpert and maidenly way, but most deliciously, and for a long time. It so stimulated me that I was made quite dizzy. If I had not been holding onto the bench, I might actually have rocked from side to side. I waited for her to speak. Instead, she kissed me again, and as if practice was making her enjoy it more, and for even a longer time. There was another pause, and I waited for another kiss, but now she said, “Open your eyes.”

I did, and smiled at her. She was standing directly before me, and the flush of her cheeks had suffused her whole face, and her eyes were bright, and her rosebud lips were merry, and she asked, “Could you tell the kisses apart?”

“Apart? Why, no,” I said gallantly. I added, in what I imagined might be the style of a Persian poet, “How can a man say, of equally sweet perfumes or equally intoxicating flavors, that one is better than another? He simply wants more. And I do, I do!”

“And more you shall have. But of me? It was I who kissed you first. Or of Aziz, who kissed you next?”

At that, I did rock upon my bench. Then she reached a hand around behind her and drew him into my view, and I wobbled even more unsteadily.

“He is only a child!”

“He is my little brother Aziz.”

No wonder I had failed to notice him among the household servants. He could have been no older than eight or nine, and was small even for his age. But, once noticed, Aziz would have been hard to overlook again. Like all the local boy-children I had seen, he was an Alexandrian Cupid, but even more beautiful than the Kashan standard, just as his sister was superior to all the other Kashan girls I had seen. Ìncubo and sùccubo, I thought wildly.

I being still seated on the low bench, my eyes and his were at the same level. And his blue eyes were clear and solemn, seeming, in his small face, even bigger and more luminous than his sister’s. His mouth was a rosebud identical to hers. His body was perfectly formed, right down to his tapering tiny fingers. His hair was the same deep chestnut-red as his sister’s, and his skin the same ivory. The boy’s beauty was further adorned by an application of al-kohl around the eyelids and berry juice on his lips. I thought them unnecessary additions, but, before I could say so, Sitarè spoke.

“Whenever, in my hours off from attendance on the mistress, I am allowed to wear cosmetics”—she talked rapidly, as if to ward off my saying anything—“I like to do the same decoration of Aziz.” Again forestalling my comment, she said, “Here, let me show you something, Mirza Marco.” With hurried and fumbling fingers, she undid and took off the blouse her brother wore. “Being a boy, of course he has no breasts, but regard his delicately shaped and prominent nipples.” I stared at them, for they were tinted bright red with hinna. Sitarè said, “Are they not very similar to my own?” My eyes widened further, for she had whipped off her own upper garment, and was presenting her hinna-nippled bosom for my comparison. “See? His get aroused and erect, just like my own.”

Still she chattered on, though I was already incapable of interrupting. “Also, being a boy, Aziz of course has something I do not have.” She undid the string of his pai-jamah, and let the garment fall to the floor, and knelt beside him. “Is it not a perfect zab in miniature? And watch, when I stroke. Just like a little man’s. Now look at this.” She turned the boy around, and with her hands spread his dimpled pink buttocks apart. “Our mother always was punctilious about using the golulè, and after she died so was I, and you see the superb result.” In another quick movement, and without any maidenly coyness, she let drop her own pai-jamah. She turned and bent far over, so that I could observe the under part of her that was not veiled by dark-red fluff. “Mine is two or three fingers’ breadth farther forward, but could you truly distinguish between my mihrab and his—?”

“Stop this!” I managed at last to say. “You are trying to importune me into sin with this boy-child!”

She did not deny it, but the boy-child did. Aziz turned to face me again and spoke for the first time. His voice was the musical small voice of a songbird, but firm. “No, Mirza Marco. My sister does not importune, nor do I. Do you really think I would ever have to?”

Taken aback by the direct question, I had to say, “No.” But then I rallied my Christian principles and said accusingly, “Flaunting is as reprehensible as importuning. When I was your age, child, I barely knew the normal purposes that my parts were for. God forbid I should have exposed them so consciously and wickedly and—and vulnerably. Just standing there like that, you are a sin!”

Aziz looked as hurt as if I had slapped him, and knit his feathery brows in seeming perplexity. “I am still very young, Mirza Marco, and perhaps ignorant, for no one has yet taught me how to be a sin. Only how to be al-fa‘il or al-mafa’ul, as the occasion requires.”

I sighed, “Alas, I was again forgetting the local customs.” So I momentarily dismissed my principles in favor of honesty, and said, “As the doer or the done-to, you probably could make a man forget it is a sin. And if to you it is not, then I apologize for castigating you unjustly.”

He gave me such a radiant smile that his whole naked little body seemed to glow in the darkening room.

I added, “I apologize also for having thought other unjust things about you, Aziz, without knowing you. Beyond a doubt, you are the most bewitchingly beautiful child I have ever seen, of either sex, and more tantalizing than many grown women I have seen. You are like one of the Dream children of whom I have recently heard. You would be a temptation even to a Christian, in the absence of your sister here. Alongside her desirability, you understand, you must take only second place.”

“I understand,” the boy said, still smiling. “And I agree.”

Sitarè, also a figure of glowing alabaster in the twilight, regarded me with some amazement. She breathed almost unbelievingly, “You still want me?”

“Very much. So much, indeed, that I am now praying that the favor you desire is something within my power to grant.”

“Oh, it is.” She picked up her discarded clothes and held them bunched in front of her, that I should not be distracted by her nudity. “We ask only that you take Aziz along in your karwan, and only as far as Mashhad.”

I blinked. “Why?”

“You said yourself that you have never seen a more beautiful or more winning child. And Mashhad is a convergence of many trade routes, a place of many opportunities.”

“I myself do not much want to go,” said Aziz. His nudity was also a distraction, so I picked up his clothes and gave them to him to hold. “I do not wish to leave my sister, who is all the family I have. But she has convinced me that it is for the best.”

“Here in Kashan,” Sitarè went on, “Aziz is but one of countless pretty boys, all competing for the notice of any anderun purveyor who passes through. At best, Aziz can hope to be chosen by one of those, to become the concubine of some nobleman, who may turn out to be an evil and vicious person. But in Mashhad he could be presented to and appreciated by and acquired by some rich traveling merchant. He may start his life as that man’s concubine, but he will have the opportunity to travel, and in time he can hope to learn his master’s profession, and he can go on to make something much better of himself than a mere anderun plaything.”

Playing was much on my own mind at that moment. I would have been happy to conclude the talking and start doing other things. Nevertheless, I was also at that moment realizing a truth that I think not many journeyers ever do.

We who wander about the world, we pause briefly in this community or that, and to us each is but one flash of vague impression in a long series of such forgettable flashes. The people there are only dim figures looming momentarily out of the dust clouds of the trail. We travelers usually have a destination and a purpose in aiming for it, and every stop along the way is merely one more milestone in our progress. But in actuality the people living there had an existence before we came, and will have after we leave, and they have their own concerns—hopes and worries and ambitions and plans—which, being of great moment to them, might sometimes be worth remarking also by us passersby. We might learn something worth knowing, or enjoy a laugh of amusement, or garner a sweet memory worth treasuring, or sometimes even improve our own selves, by taking notice of such things. So I paid sympathetic attention to the wistful words and glowing faces of Sitarè and Aziz, as they spoke of their plans and their ambitions and their hopes. And ever since that time, in all my journeyings, I have tried always to see in its entirety every least place I have passed through, and to see its humblest inhabitants with an unhurried eye.

“So we ask only,” said the girl, “that you take Aziz with you to Mashhad, and that in Mashhad you seek out a karwan merchant of wealth and kindly nature and other good qualities … .”

“Someone like yourself, Mirza Marco,” suggested the boy.

“ … And sell Aziz to him.”

“Sell your brother?” I exclaimed.

“You cannot just take him there and abandon him, a little boy in a strange city. We would wish you to place him in the keeping of the best possible master. And, as I said, you will realize a profit on the transaction. For your trouble of transporting him, and your taking pains to find the right sort of buyer for him, you may keep the entire amount you get for him. It ought to be a handsome price for such a fine boy. Is that not fair enough?”

“More than fair,” I said. “It may sway my father and uncle, but I cannot promise. After all, I am just one of three in our party. I must put the proposition to them.”

“That should suffice,” said Sitarè. “Our mistress has already spoken to them. The Mirza Esther also wishes to see young Aziz set upon a better road in life. I understand that your father and uncle are considering the matter. So, if you are agreeable to taking Aziz, yours should be the persuading voice.”

I said truthfully, “The widow’s word probably carries more weight than mine does. That being so, Sitarè, why were you prepared to”—I gestured, indicating her state of undress—“to go to such lengths to cajole me?”

“Well … ,” she said, smiling. She moved aside the clothes she held to give me another unimpeded look at her body. “I hoped you would be very agreeable …”

Still being truthful, I said, “I would be, anyway. But there are some other aspects you ought to consider. For one thing, we must cross a perilous and uncomfortable desert. It is no fit place for any human being, not to mention a small boy. As is well known, the Devil Satan is most evident and most powerful in the desert wastes. It is into deserts that saintly Christians go, simply to test their strength of faith—and I mean the most sublimely devout Christians, like San Antonio. Unsaintly mortals go there only at great hazard.”

“Perhaps so, but they do go,” said young Aziz, sounding unperturbed by the prospect. “And since I am not a Christian, I may be in less danger. I may even be some protection for the rest of you.”

“We have another non-Christian in the party,” I said sourly. “And that is a thing I would have you also consider. Our camel-puller is a beast, who habitually consorts and couples with the vilest of other beasts. To tempt his bestial nature with a desirable and accessible little boy …”

“Ah,” said Sitarè. “That must be the objection your father raised. I knew the mistress was concerned about something. Then Aziz must promise to avoid the beast, and you must promise to watch over Aziz.”

“I will stay always by your side, Mirza Marco,” declared the boy. “By day and by night.”

“Aziz may not be chaste, by your standards,” his sister went on. “But neither is he promiscuous. As long as he is with you, he will be yours only, not lifting his zab or his buttocks or even his eyes to any other man.”

“I will be yours only, Mirza Marco,” he affirmed, with what might have been charming innocence, except that he held aside the garments in his hands, as Sitarè had done, to let me look my fill.

“No, no, no,” I said, in some agitation. “Aziz, you are to promise not to tempt any of us. Our slave is only a beast, but we other three are Christians! You are to be totally chaste, from here to Mashhad.”

“If that is what you wish,” he said, though he appeared crestfallen. “Then I swear it. On the beard of the Prophet (peace and blessing be upon him).”

Skeptical, I asked Sitarè, “Is that oath binding on a beardless child?”

“Indeed it is,” she said, regarding me askance. “Your dreary desert journey will not be at all enlivened. You Christians must take some morbid pleasure in the denial of pleasure. But so be it. Aziz, you may put on your clothes again.”

“You too, Sitarè,” I said, and if Aziz had looked crestfallen, she looked thunderstruck. “I assure you, dear girl, I say that unwillingly, but with the best of will.”

“I do not understand. When you take responsibility for my brother, my virginity is worth nothing toward his advancement. So I give it to you, and thankfully.”

“And with all thanks I decline it. For a reason I am sure you are aware of, Sitarè. Because, when your brother departs, what becomes of you?”

“What matter? I am only a female person.”

“In a person most beautifully female. Therefore, once Aziz is provided for, you can offer yourself for your own advancement. A good marriage, or concubinage, or whatever you can attain to. But I know that a woman cannot attain to much unless she is virginally intact. So I will leave you that way.”

She and Aziz both stared at me, and the boy murmured, “Verily, Christians are divanè.”

“Some, no doubt. Some try to behave as Christians should.”

Sitarè’s stare turned to a softer look, and she said in a soft voice, “Perhaps some few succeed.” But again, provocatively, she moved the screening clothes aside from her fair body. “You are sure you decline? You are steadfast in your kindly resolve?”

I laughed shakily. “Not at all steadfast. For that reason, let me go quickly from here. I will consult with my father and uncle about taking Aziz with us.”

The consultation did not take long, for they were in the stable talking it over at that very time.

“So there,” said Uncle Mafìo to my father. “Marco is also in favor of letting the boy come along. That makes two of us voting yes, against one vote wavering.”

My father frowned and tangled his fingers into his beard.