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As it was, where it was
Never judge a painting or a woman by candlelight
He sank slowly through the dark water, arms out, feet pointed: like a Christ, or a dervish, casting a benediction on the sea.
The stone at his feet hit the mud with a soft explosion, his knees buckled, and in a moment he was bowing gracefully with the tide. He had always been graceful; pliant, too, when fixing a price; a man who traded and left something in the deal for the other fellow.
Overhead, the killer turned his head from side to side, alert to the slightest motion in the darkness, feeling the rain on his face. He stood for a few minutes, waiting and watching, before he blinked, turned, and padded softly from the bridge, to be swallowed up by the night and the alleyways of the sleeping city.
The tide ebbed. The water sucked at the green weed that lined the walls, gurgled around old pilings, and slipped and receded from worn stone steps. It sank, nudging the trader closer to the sea on which, in her days of glory, the city had made her fortune. Beneath Byzantine domes, dilapidated palaces and tethered boats the corpse was hustled noiselessly towards the sea, arms still flung wide in a gesture of vacant welcome.
Yet some obstruction, a block of stone or loop of rotten rope, must have checked his passage for a time; for when dawn broke, and the tide slackened, the trader was still yards away from the deep waters of the Riva dei Schiavoni into which he would have otherwise sunk without further trace.
The sultan gave a high-pitched sneeze and patted his face with a silk handkerchief.
‘The Queen of England has one,’ he said petulantly.
Resid Pasha bowed his head. King William was dead, like Sultan Mahmut: now, he thought, England and the Ottoman Empire were being ruled by little girls.
‘As the sultan says, may his days be lengthened.’
‘The Hapsburgs have several galleries, I understand. In their dominions in Italy, whole palaces are stuffed with pictures.’ The sultan dabbed at his nose. ‘The Emperor of Austria knows what his grandfather’s grandfather was like by looking at his picture, Resid Pasha.’
The young pasha folded his slender hands. What the sultan said was true, but perfectly ridiculous: the Hapsburgs were notoriously ugly, notoriously alike. They married their close relations, and the chins got bigger every generation. Whereas an Ottoman prince had none but lovely and accomplished women to share his bed.
Resid Pasha tensed his shoulders. ‘The Austrian dogs always piss on the same spot,’ he said, with a jocular grunt. ‘Who would want to see that?’
Even as he spoke, he knew he had made a mistake. Sultan Mahmut would have grinned at the remark; but Mahmut was dead.
The sultan frowned. ‘We are not speaking of dogs now.’
‘You are right, my padishah.’ Resid Pasha hung his head.
‘I speak of the Conqueror,’ Abdulmecid said loftily. ‘Of the blood in these veins.’ He held out his wrists, and the young counsellor bowed, abashed.
‘If the picture exists, I wish for it,’ the sultan continued. ‘I want to see it. Do you desire, Rasid Pasha, that the likeness of the Conqueror should be exposed to the infidel gaze—or that an unbeliever should possess it?’
Resid Pasha sighed. ‘And yet, my sultan, we do not know where the painting might be. If, indeed, it exists at all.’
The young Padishah sneezed again. While he examined his handkerchief, the Pasha pressed on: ‘For more than three centuries, nobody ever saw or heard about this— picture. Today we have a rumor, nothing more. Let us be cautious, my padishah. What does it matter if we wait another month? Another year? Truth is like musk, whose grateful odour can never be concealed.’
The sultan nodded, but not in agreement. ‘There is a faster way,’ he said, in a voice treacled with mucus.
‘Send for Yashim.’
Close to the shoreline of the Golden Horn, on the Pera side, stood a fountain set up by an Ottoman princess as an act of generosity, on a spot where the boatmen used to linger and drop their fares. Hundreds of fountains existed in the streets and squares of Istanbul; but this one was particularly old and lovely, and Yashim had admired it many times as he passed. Sometimes, in hot weather, he would rinse his face in the trickle of clear water that splashed down onto the tiled basin.
It was those tiles which now stopped him on the street, where he stood unnoticed and aghast in the stream of traffic passing along the shore: muleteers with their trains, porters under enormous sacks, two fully-veiled women attended by a black eunuch, a bashi-bazouk on horseback, his sash stuffed with pistols and swords. Neither Yashim, nor the ruined fountain, attracted anyone’s attention: the crowd flowed round him, a man standing alone in a brown cloak, a white turban on his head, watching stricken as a trio of workmen in overalls and dirty turbans attacked the fountain with their hammers.
It was not that Yashim lacked presence. His only lack was of something more definite; but he was used to passing unnoticed. It was as though his presence were a quality he could chose to display, or to conceal; a quality which certain people would be unaware of until they found themselves mesmerised by his grey eyes, his low, musical voice, or by the truths he spoke. Until then, though, he might be almost invisible.
The workmen did not look up as he approached; only when he spoke did one of them glance round, surprised.
‘It’s the bridge, efendi. Once this has gone, then the tree, there’ll be a way through here, see? Got to have a way through, efendi.’
Yashim’s heart sank. A bridge linking Pera to the main city of Istanbul had been talked about for years. Centuries, even: in the sultan’s archives in Topkapi Palace Yashim had once seen a sepia design for such a bridge, executed by an Italian engineer who wrote his letters back-to-front, as if they were written in a mirror. Now, it seemed, a bridge was about to be built: the new sultan’s gift to a grateful populace.
‘Can’t this fountain just be moved aside?’
The workman straightened his back and leaned on his sledgehammer. ‘What, this?’ He shrugged. ‘Too old. New one’d be better.’ His eyes slid along the shore. ‘Not but what it’s a shame about the tree.’
The tree was a colossus, and a welcome patch of shade and shelter on the Pera shore. It had stood for centuries: in days it would be gone.
Yashim winced as a sledgehammer cracked down hard into the basin of the fountain. A chunk of stone broke away, and Yashim put out a hand.
‘Please. A tile or two…’
He carried them away carefully, feeling the old mortar dry and brittle in his palm. The boatman who took him gliding across the Horn by caique spat on the water. ‘The bridge, it’ll kill us,’ he said, in Greek.
Yashim felt a shadow across the sun. He did not risk a reply.
Reaching home, he laid the tiles by the window and sat on the divan, contemplating the strong lines of the twining stems, the beautiful deep reds of the tulips, which had so often refreshed his eyes as the water of the fountain had refreshed his skin. Such flaming reds were unobtainable nowadays, he knew: centuries ago the potters of Iznik had fanned their talents to such heights that the river of knowledge had simply dried up. Blues there always were: lovely blues of Kayzeri and Iznik, but not the reds beloved of the heretics, who came from Iran and vanished in their turn.
Yashim remembered how he had loved such tiles, where they decorated the inner sanctum of the sultan’s palace at Topkapi, a place forbidden to all ordinary men. In the harem itself, home to the sultan and his family alone, many women had admired those tiles; and many sultans, too.
Yashim had seen them only because he was not an ordinary man.
Yashim was a eunuch.
He was still gazing at the tiles, remembering others like them in the cool corridors of the sultan’s harem, when a knock on the door announced the messenger.
Resid Pasha tapped his polished boot with a swizzle stick.
‘The Sultan Mahmud, may he rest in peace, was pleased to order the construction of the bridge,’ he said evenly. He pointed his stick at the divan. ‘The old city and Pera have been too much apart. That is also the view of the Padishah.’
‘Now Pera will come to Istanbul,’ Yashim said, ‘and we will know no peace.’
Resid pursed his lips. ‘Or perhaps the other way round, Yashim efendi.’
‘Yes, my pasha,’ Yashim said doubtfully. He took a seat, cross-legged, on the divan. ‘Perhaps.’
He tried to picture Pera subsiding into dignified silence, as the sober pashas and the minarets and the cypresses of old Istanbul spread their leisurely influence across the bridge, stilling the perpetual scrimmage of touts, tea-boys, porters, bankers, shopkeepers and sailors that milled through the Pera streets. Where would the cypresses find space to grow, between the Belgian hatters and the Greek peddlers, the steam-presses and the foreign crowds? Old Ottoman gentlemen brought their families to Pera now and then, and led them in stately astonishment through crowds of every nationality and none, staring into the big glass windows of the shops on the Grande Rue, before embarking again for home.
‘I understand that you know many languages,’ Yashim added pleasantly.
Yashim did not know Resid well. The young vizier belonged to another generation at the palace school, the generation which studied French and engineering; his training had taken him beyond the boundaries of the empire. Resid’s mother was from the Crimea, an exile; his family was poor. He was in his mid-twenties, maybe, four or five years older than the sultan he served, but reputed to be a hard worker, pious without ostentation, quick-thinking, and very sure of himself: certainly he had advanced very rapidly under the eye of the old sultan, who insisted that he learn languages and had sent him on missions to Paris and Vienna, for Mahmut had lost confidence in the official dragomen, or interpreters, most of whom were local Greeks. No doubt he had considered him, too, a useful influence on his son.
The pasha shrugged. ‘Languages, of course. It saves time.’
Yashim lowered his eyes. He spoke eight languages perfectly, including Georgian, and loved three: Greek, Ottoman, and French.
‘The sultan has called for you, Yashim efendi. He is aware of the services you have rendered to his house. It was I who reminded him.’
Yashim inclined his head politely. There had been times when old Mahmud would roar for Yashim, and present him with some dilemma which suited Yashim’s peculiar talents. Many things in the harem, and beyond, had required his attention: not all of them mere peccadilloes. Theft, unexplained deaths, threats of mutiny or betrayal which struck at the very stability or survival of the oldest ruling house in Europe: Yashim’s job was to resolve the crisis. As unobtrusively as possible, of course. Yashim knew that the air of invisibility which surrounded him should also envelop the mysteries he was called upon to penetrate.
‘And I would remind you, Yashim efendi, that the sultan is very young.’
Yashim almost smiled. Resid Pasha’s only visible affectation was a small moustache which he waxed with care, but his chin was smooth and soft. He wore the stambouline, that hideous approximation of Western dress that the old sultan had officially prescribed for all his subjects, Greek, Turk, Armenian, or Jew, and which people were still learning to adopt. Yashim, long ago, had decided not to bother.
‘Sultan Mehmed was young centuries ago, Resid Pasha, when he took this city from the Greeks.’
‘But one would say that Mehmed had more experience.’
Is that what you have? Yashim wondered. At twenty five—experience?
‘Mehmed judged his interests very well,’ Resid continued. ‘He also overruled advice. But times have changed, I think.’
Yashim nodded. It was well put.
‘Each of us must strive to serve the sultan’s best interests in our own way, Yashim. There will be occasions, I am sure, when you will be able to serve him with your special talent for peering into men’s hearts and minds. Many others—it is natural, and no shame to them at all—serve him by their mere alacrity.’
His dark eyes searched out Yashim’s.
‘I understand,’ Yashim murmured.
The young vizier seemed unconvinced. ‘We Ottomans have many generations of understanding the ways of princes, Yashim. They give us—the sultan is pleased to give us his orders. And we say: the sultan has said this, or this. It shall be done. Among these orders, though, we have recognised a class of—what? Watery commands. Written on water, Yashim.’
Yashim did not stir a hair, but he thought: the boy is good. Better than his training, too.
What is written on the water cannot be read.
‘I believe the sultan will receive you this afternoon.’ Resid raised his hand in a vague gesture of dismissal. ‘You will have many opportunities to show—alacrity,’ he added. ‘I can see that it shall be so.’
Yashim stood and bowed, one hand to his chest.
The elevation of the new sultan, like the rising of a planet, was creating new alignments, shifts in the weight and composition of the cabals and cliques that had always flourished in the palace around the person of the all-powerful sultan. Resid had been singled out for advancement by Mahmut; now Abdulmecid had confirmed his father’s choice.
Was Resid’s friendship—his protection—an offer Yashim could afford to refuse?
Outside the vizier’s office, Yashim turned and walked a long way down a carpeted corridor, towards a pair of double doors flanked by motionless guards, and a row of pink-upholstered straight-backed chairs.
The guards did not blink. What did the sultan want, Yashim wondered, that Resid so palpably did not?
He took a chair and prepared to wait—but almost immediately the doors flew open and a white-gloved attendant ushered him into the presence.
Excerpted from Bellini Card. By Jason Goodwin.
Copyright © 2009 by Jason Goodwin.
Published in the United States by Farrar, Starus and Giroux in hardcover, and by Picador in trade paperback.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the publisher.