The first thing we heard was a dying woman’s scream. To be greeted thus when approaching a medical practice is, in conventional circumstances, a very poor sign indeed. But her wail lifted my eunuch escort’s beardless mouth-corners, for it proved that she wasn’t—at least not quite yet—entirely too dead to answer his questions regarding the sudden surge of sickness in the seraglio.
The ebullient mood that possessed him when he crossed the threshold into the Examination and Autopsy Kiosk proved short-lived: the target of his investigative curiosity was in extremity, her animalistic cries still more compelling than those she’d so professionally simulated for the sultan while alive. Around the examination table milled a small crowd, and I saw little of the patient at first—just her very long and genuine red hair, which was unbound, and trailed in curls to the floor, wavering from the feverish motion of her head. Lit by the late afternoon sun that streamed through the kiosk’s open double doors, they resembled rippling flames, burning upside down.
By the standard of any medical facility not built for a sultan’s palace, the kiosk was far too elegant. It had a high, domed ceiling, and the walls were lined in white tiles, decorated with blue figurations reminiscent of tulips’ silhouettes. The day’s heat, still intense, poured over the huddle of sweating bodies and the fluid-slick patient herself, already oozing unknown poisons through her pores, and made of it a humid and stinking oven. When life reaches such an end even the endless refinements available to an illustrious monarch can’t conceal the base materiality of human groans, human scents, and human fluids—no different at heart from those attending the deaths of disposable single-use chattel, like the infirm galley slaves sold at a discount in the seedy underbelly of my otherwise admirable industry, who fail to see the last port of their maiden tour.
The Chief Eunuch’s Secretary had surveilled me throughout our journey across the palace grounds as if I’d flee at any moment, but now abandoned suspicion in his eagerness to press toward the table. I heard the doctor’s voice shouting from below—he was kneeling behind the huddle—“Back away, all of you! Back away for the sake of the patient!” When they were too slow to comply, he repeated, “I must initiate an emergency expedited bloodletting operation if there’s to be any chance of saving her life. Give. Us. Space!”
I wondered why there were so many people in the room: several eunuchs, guards, a military man, a few pashas I recognized from the Chamber of Petitions, and at the back veiled women as well; but they reluctantly heeded the doctor, and after their retreat I could see him bending over the whimpering redhead’s bare white arm, which hung limply off the table with a cloth loosely knotted above its elbow.
“Leeches, doctor,” cried his assistant in a trebly voice, rushing through the door with a pot clasped against his chest.
“There’s no time,” said the doctor, who was holding a scalpel, “no time. The imbalance in her humors is too great. Fetch me a basin. Quickly now!”
The basin was brought, and once it rested beneath that long, cream-colored arm, the doctor made his incision. A rivulet of deep crimson began to flow beside the brighter waterfall of hair. The girl whimpered weakly, her face turned away in refusal to watch what was happening to her once prized body.
“Hush, dear,” he said soothingly after he’d finished slicing her open. “You have the most renowned surgeon in the Orient; death from disease is the last thing you need fear.” His formal and traditional title was, in fact, “the Sultan’s Surgeon,” but he responded to “doctor” just as easily. A recognized authority on the science of healing, he was a little short of fifty, having supplemented his successful private practice with a stint as an emetics specialist at the Imperial Medical Madrassa before he came into the sultan’s service. At normal checkups he softened his curt erudition with an amiable though somewhat forced bedside manner, which today was threatened by a distinct undercurrent of strain.
It was hard to tell how much liquid was leaving her, but the bloodletting basin seemed to fill with remarkable rapidity. Above the line of crimson the sick odalisque’s skin, already pale, turned whiter and whiter, until it matched the ceramic tiles on the back wall as if they were all part of a single large panel.
Her cries gradually subsided to whimpers. The doctor drew a sample of blood from the basin into a small, rounded beaker, which he held up for inspection in the sunlight that flooded through the doors. It swirled at the bottom of the bulb like a melted ruby.
“The imbalance in her humors is too great,” he finally announced. “If the harem administrators had called me when the first symptoms appeared this morning—” he looked toward the cluster of eunuch onlookers accusingly— “we’d have hours to bleed her, and a cure would be nearly guaranteed; but at such an advanced stage of uncontrolled yellow bile upregulation, even the most skillfully administered emergency bloodletting is too little to save her.” A murmur expanded through the onlookers.
“However—” he raised his voice; everyone but the whimpering patient trailed into silence. “With my advanced medical expertise at her disposal, hope is not yet lost.” He put down the beaker, examined his patient’s feet one after the other while we looked on mutely, and then gave a small nod.
“Prepare for an urgent double podiatric cauterization operation!” he barked to his assistant, who scurried out of the kiosk. “The strongest men and eunuchs among you may approach the examination and autopsy table as volunteer restrainers.”
My physical strength isn’t limited to the thick musculature of my overburdened neck, so I stepped forward, hoping to overhear any last words the patient might utter. But the Chief Gardener, who’d preceded us into the kiosk, noticed and shook his head sternly. I thought it best to acquiesce and delay my approach until he was distracted by a particularly anguished outburst—surely not far off.
The doctor tightened the cloth around her arm until the flow of blood slowed to a few drops, which fell into the basin one by one, and fed a recurring pattern of concentric ripples that contrasted memorably with the vivid blue arabesques surrounding us. The odalisque, though still conscious, was drained of force, and stared up at the summit of the beautiful domed ceiling with unseeing eyes, her motionless, open lips emitting desultory moans.
He positioned one man or eunuch at each limb and a fifth at her shoulders, and explained that, although she might appear exhausted and less than a single dainty step from the grave, the healthful and enlivening powers of cauterization were known to awaken an unexpected show of force in even the weakest patients. Once he began the procedure, they should therefore be prepared to execute his restraining order with all their strength. They gave their assent, informed by his solemn manner that they were about to bear witness to a demanding test of medical skill.
As he was finishing these instructions, the doctor’s assistant returned with an unusual implement. He was trailed by two cariyes, each of whom held a lit brazier with padded gloves. Though I’d never seen one in use, I assumed the unfamiliar object was a double podiatric cauterization fork—a medical device reserved for the wealthiest clients. Its correct operation required specialized training only available to the first rank of doctors, without which it was reported to be no more healthful than accidentally burning oneself with two hot pokers at the same time—a variety of accident that rarely befalls even the clumsiest apprentice blacksmith.
I’d administered corrective heat on several occasions, of course, chiefly at my father’s behest. Though useless for training odalisques, he thought it an important educational exercise for cultivating good general slavesmanship, as the laziness innate to apprentices in any art might otherwise incline me toward more easily executed punishments. He reserved hot pokers and the like for the rebellious male slaves who occasionally passed through our office, since after adolescence the quality of their skin had no effect on their value; but even in that use case I consider them too inefficient to recommend except as a last resort. Far better to push troublemakers to their limits through simple overwork, encouraged by judicious use of the lash, and thus squash two scorpions with one rock.
The braziers were placed on the floor. The doctor’s assistant knelt down and carefully positioned them so that each cradled one prong of the double cauterization fork in its little mound of burning coal. The operative ends of the “fork” were not sharp points, but iron lumps molded into the shape of rather cute little feet, which would have surely pleased the odalisque if they weren’t so soon to sear her own real ambulatory appendages.
We all watched the coals, waiting for the metal to match their hue. The doctor, meanwhile, was using a ruler to arrange his patient’s ankles in strict conformity with the fork’s unbending proportions. Her plump toes, unaffected by whatever disease was consuming her, squirmed attractively, like two rows of edible pearls.
Finally the prongs turned orange, and the doctor, donning a fresh pair of gloves marked with medical insignia, took up the handle. “Be still and silent,” he told us, “and above all do not inhibit my range of motion. An emergency double podiatric cauterization operation can save lives, but it’s unforgiving even for the most capable professionals.”
Everyone else crowded around the odalisque’s legs, and to see the procedure I was obliged to stand a few paces behind her head. My perspective foreshortened her breasts, belly, and thighs; beyond them the doctor stood between her spread feet, brandishing the hot irons. A voluminous mess of red hair obscured her features.
He again urged the volunteers to restrain her extremities with great and vigilant strength. Then, after taking a half step back, he crouched and brought the fork’s luminous tips to the level of her legs, closing his left eye to align them with precision. I imagined so much iron must be unwieldy, yet the Sultan’s Surgeon extended it with a steadiness honed by years of experience.
I watched as he pressed fork to feet, and wondered at his patient’s lack of reaction. But it was only a mirage caused by my poor viewing angle: he’d halted just short of the target. His brow an image of extreme concentration, he now pulled back by the width of a few fingers, and, an instant after he squinted and tightened his lips, thrust forward with firm accuracy.
Steam rose, and screams rose higher still—but the doctor unrelentingly pressed the iron to the flesh below her beautiful toes.
How long was it to last? I saw small, feminine muscles bulging as if they could end her pain, breasts distorted by the tension rippling through her torso, thighs quivering, or shivering, or both—so long, I felt, that the doctor must be overcooking her soles.
The smell of grilled meat began wafting pleasantly through the kiosk, and all were intent on the changing texture of her sizzling foot-pads, when suddenly her right arm flailed out, striking the portly Pasha of Uniforms and Armaments on the mouth and nose. Her jeweled rings scraped his nostrils, sending blood dripping into his beard.
Two eunuchs from the crowd leapt to his assistance: the arm flagellated them like an angry, blind albino python guarding a clutch of eggs. All three of them struggled to subdue it. Meanwhile, the doctor, fully aware of what was happening but relentless and unfaltering in his dedication to healing, continued to cauterize her with redoubled focus, the others struggling to hold her remaining limbs to the table.
At last, with a final sheet of steam rising between the doctor’s face and the odalisque’s feet, the operation was finished, and he stepped back, exhausted.
The Sultan’s Surgeon took a moment to recover himself before presenting an updated prognosis. “Despite the negligence of my volunteer restrainers—” he glanced sharply at the offending person without allowing him an opportunity to reply— “the operation was as successful as could be hoped, since the critical matter is the steadiness of the lower limbs. If the enlivening humors generated by cauterization are to pervade her body in the correct direction, which is clockwise, it’s necessary for precisely equal heat and pressure to reach both feet at once, so that the natural action of the liver isn’t driven into retrograde. Of course one doesn’t expect the lay public to understand such subtleties; but you may rest assured I’ve done my doctoral duties with due diligence.”
The portly Pasha of Uniforms and Armaments, a man I later came to know better than I wished to, and whose persistent advocacy for war with the Occident always struck me as remarkably independent of any particular circumstances that might be more or less propitious for aggression, had been waiting for a pause in the doctor’s case report, and now spoke up in defense of his poor grip strength.
“Nothing could’ve prepared me for the unnatural energy that possessed such a feminine arm. A lesser man, one who’d not maintained the strength of his youth so well as I have, would have been felled outright. The immense surge of vitality produced by this cauterization operation evidently overflowed her body’s capacity, necessitating, by some scientific law with which the doctor should be more familiar than I, an equally immense release of energy at the opposite extremity. He should have given every volunteer clear warning of the risks attending their assistance, and required us to sign a waiver after examining the terms in the presence of legal counsel.” He’d thus far been insisting to the assembled pashas, but now directed his offended sense of justice toward the culpable party. “Had the wounds to my nose been as severe as those I so nearly sustained in battle, you’d be exposed to a ruinous liability for medical malpractice—one that no kadi could dismiss even if your sole-singeing skill does succeed in saving the odalisque.”
“Be that as it may,” said the Chief Eunuch’s Secretary, sparing the accused from formulating a response, “for the time being we should allow the doctor to focus his mind on the well-being of the witness.” He bent his long form down toward the table.
“My dear, would you describe where you were, who you saw, and what you ate or drank in the hours before you began to notice you were dying?” he asked in an effeminate and clearly enunciated sing-song which, while not sufficient to awaken the girl, would have been well-suited for the training of a parrot. But she was shivering uncontrollably, and gave no sign the question had penetrated her perceptions.
The eunuch repeated himself, pronouncing the same words even more slowly. Though the odalisque’s shivering diminished, her awareness seemed to be ebbing as well; her eyelids dipped lower and lower. The extreme potency of the emergency double cauterization operation, which had initially inspired such a vigorous and healthful reaction, was already leaving her body.
“Will she recover, doctor?” asked the eunuch. “There must be some other way you can grant her a few more moments of consciousness.”
“Her condition may be too grave for even a double podiatric cauterization operation to pull her back from the brink. But the resources of medical science offer me one further therapy. By administering a weak and slow-acting poison, which purges unbalanced humors at the modest price of irreversible damage to her organs and tissues, I can extend her life by approximately ninety seconds. As it is with so many of the most effective medical procedures, if we’re to heal our patients we must first do a little harm. In such a desperate case it will be necessary to greatly increase the initial dose of the healing poison rather than administering it gradually over the course of three- or fourscore days according to the usual treatment plan.”
“Provided she’s fully conscious and able to respond to questions, ninety seconds would make all the difference for an investigation that’s vital to harem security,” said the Chief Eunuch’s Secretary. “Please, do your duty as a doctor, and poison this odalisque to life without delay.”
The Sultan’s Surgeon agreed. He instructed his assistant to observe closely, for the young man had never witnessed a compressed-dosage therapeutic poisoning—rarely performed, as the medicine itself, measured drop by drop, cost more than the lapis lazuli it resembled in color. He drew a little gold spoon from his bag of medicines, along with a small glass bottle; and filling the spoon with great care, measured four doses into the gap between the patient’s lips.
On the first dose she swayed her head and some of the liquid dribbled around her mouth; diluted by sweat, it drew a periwinkle line down the side of her chin. After that mishap the assistant held her jaw while the doctor poured in the remaining three.
Her eyes snapped open.
She seemed, for the first time, completely alert. The Chief Eunuch’s Secretary, who’d hardly budged from her side while she was being medicated, immediately pronounced his question a third time; the pashas and eunuchs held their breath.
She lifted her head, looked directly at him, and squeezed out her answer with the atonal rasp of a flamingo lost in a sandstorm. “I remember. I remember I saw . . .” her eyes widened with excitement, blue irises attesting to perfect lucidity. “I remember I saw . . . I saw . . . I . . . I—”
And then, with her eyes and mouth still open and the end of her sentence still rising up from the bottom of her throat, she was dead.
That the lavish effort just expended by the Sultan’s Surgeon could wring no more than a few extra words from a sickly sex slave before her predestined demise was a compelling validation for my longstanding policy of refusing doctors when illness struck my inventory. Slavers who patronize medical practitioners have higher expenses, but their rate of breakage is scarcely improved. Especially these days, when virgins teem across the Occidental shoreline like flocks of seagulls or mating crabs, it’s cheaper to enslave someone new than to repair an old or damaged odalisque.
Perhaps, I considered, Mala had been smarter than I’d known. After the signs of disease on her body became unmistakable, had she leapt into the river not in a fit of delirious insanity, as everyone supposed, but in a premeditated though probably still quite deadly gambit to evade expert medical treatment, believing the result would be little different and the scenery in her last moments far more enjoyable? Alas, it was a question that came too late to answer.
The dead redhead lay limp, all four limbs hanging from the examination and autopsy table—like a freshly removed banana peel turned inside out. The Chief Eunuch’s Secretary was inconsolable: she’d left him no clues to explain the chaos in the harem.
“You said I had ninety seconds!” he turned on the doctor in shrill rage.
“To impart medical advice in a fashion that doesn’t provoke despair, or even noncompliance,” the doctor replied evenly, “certain simplifications are preferred as a standard practice when communicating with patients and their families, or, as the case may be, their captors. Thus it was with your best interest in mind that I abbreviated the conclusions of a study on compressed-dosage therapeutic poisoning, n=7 (including a control group of four, who were informed they were receiving the cure but given non-therapeutic poisoning instead), which showed a median life extension of ninety-three seconds, with a margin of error ranging from negative sixty to one hundred and forty-five seconds. Fifteen or twenty seconds is a perfectly reasonable result, well within the second quintile of expected outcomes. If you struggle to follow such elementary applications of statistical reasoning, perhaps you’d best leave life and death decisions to trai—”
“You,” said the eunuch, “are now responsible for correcting this . . . this . . . travesty. It’s essential to harem security that we determine the cause of her death. The number of prominent pashas and eunuchs congregated here today should be proof enough that the sandstorm of suspicion blowing through the seraglio is a serious threat to the safety of our sultan’s entire almost endless empire!”
Having just presided over a far more demanding series of scream-inducing procedures, the doctor was unflustered by the Chief Eunuch’s Secretary’s admonishment. “But of course. That’s why we call this the Examination and Autopsy Kiosk: should a patient here for examination expire, as so frequently happens, I can make a seamless transition from the first task to the second. If only the morgue and the Maternity Kiosk were so merged, imagine the inconveniences I’d be spared after breech births of the sultan’s sons!”
It was difficult to imagine how the doctor could possibly conduct an accurate autopsy after healing the odalisque to death in three distinct ways, whose effects surely compounded and confused each other; but I supposed such treatments were common enough that they wouldn’t alter the usual accuracy of his conclusions.
He washed his hands, which had been covered by a layer of soot during the cauterization, in a basin provided by his assistant; the water was quickly stained black. Then he glanced over his former patient.
“I shall now begin my preliminary autopsy,” he announced. “The final conclusions will await a panel of tests on samples of yellow and black bile extracted from her gall bladder and appendix, as well as a simian survey.”
“And these will establish the cause?” asked one of the pashas.
“Almost assuredly,” said the doctor. “The fluid samples will be reviewed by our best alchemist, who will determine the exact balance of her humors at the time of death. We’ll also have parts of her liver fed to a pet monkey kept at the madrassa for the purpose. In cases where poison is involved, he will almost invariably refuse the nutriment. But such high standards of accuracy take time, and it may be twenty or thirty days before the results are complete.”
The doctor used a pair of surgical scissors to cut off her transparent fuchsia dress, which had bunched around her waist as she flailed and wailed. This done, he arranged her limbs spread-eagle, and began palpating her skin from the ankles upward, calling out observations for his assistant to record in a leather-bound notebook. On her thighs, and less prominently on her arms, he found spotty patches of reddish purple—as if someone had splattered blood against the inside of her skin. On her left index finger he reported the trace of a wound, though one that was too small for me to discern from my position behind her head. In a few places the tips of her fingers had turned black, and elsewhere the color of dark bruises. I wondered how far her resemblance to a banana peel might extend. Would the rest of her flesh soon begin turning black as well?
These preliminaries complete, the doctor recommended that anyone who was squeamish or prone to vomiting leave the room. The next stage of the autopsy was a visual organ rating, which would give a numerical rank to the state of the five most important organs: the liver, the gall bladder, the appendix, and both kidneys. By converting descriptive observations into mathematical terms using a predetermined rubric, the doctor explained, they became more trustworthy. Extending the specificity of the measurement past the decimal point augmented this advantage further still.
Two of the eunuchs and all of the veiled ladies left before he could even find his scalpel; the pashas looked uncomfortable, but were unable to excuse themselves without sacrificing their dignity. What followed was a bloody affair whose details held little interest for me. I’ve always believed the fine skin of Occidental girls looks best in its most pristine state, as it suffers damage and decay far too easily; and all the more so once one begins to remove several of the organs located beneath it and in different parts of the body. I’ll only say the doctor was quite correct when he wiggled her recently extracted liver and reminded us that we lacked the medical mastery to distinguish one such from another, let alone to make a diagnosis, as he could, on the basis of the smoothness and sliminess of its surface when he tested it against his thumb; and perhaps also correct when he went on to claim that, if he sold it on the market as a meat of bovine provenance, many of us might mistakenly marinate the odalisque’s organ and consume it with particular relish, never bothering to quantify its consistency.
I stood well back throughout the messiest part of the autopsy, since if the odalisque was in any way contagious, contamination with her bile might bring personal risks for which the satisfaction of my curiosity regarding the trouble in the harem could hardly compensate. (I was, moreover, wearing one of my favorite robes.) The doctor’s comparative lack of concern suggested he’d already drawn the contrary conclusion and had no fear of infection; but I hesitated to trust the opinion of someone who’d bled, burned, and poisoned his patient, with all the best medical intentions, of course, but even so little to show for it.
Because there’s no way to verify what happens to my imports within the black ships that sail them between Occidental shores and our own, I’d learned to evaluate my pirate partners purely on the basis of the girls’ condition on arrival, which I required in every contract to be intact and unblemished if they were to be counted as live cargo. I could see no reason not to apply the same standard to doctors, whose cranial contents are more obscure than the darkest hold. The Sultan’s Surgeon’s obvious expertise, impressive though it might be to desperate relatives and spectators enamored of blood-sport, did not appear to produce a spoilage reduction that would survive the cost-benefit calculations of anyone who bought and sold human lives professionally.
Setting all such calculations aside, it was an impressively thorough autopsy: the doctor’s talents, I mused, were wasted on healing. When he was done, he washed his hands a second time—though he was by now so drenched in bodily fluids that this dirtied the water more than it cleaned his arms—and inquired whether any of us had witnessed her first symptoms, or could describe her personal habits.
“If you’ll cover the corpse,” said a eunuch, whose nauseated face and rushed words indicated a personal motivation for his proposal, “I can fetch her cariye from the harem.”
The Chief Gardener, who’d been standing near the doorway throughout, showing no evidence of interest in the autopsy, now spoke up. “I’ve already questioned her. It seems she met the harem’s new arrival last night. The sultan asked her to pin the girl’s hair in a style that suited his mood. Apparently she was to resemble ‘an Occidental schoolteacher.’ The servant doesn’t believe the two exchanged more than a few polite, or perhaps impolite, words, since the sultan was impatient to taste his new odalisque. After she returned to her chambers, she made no mention of anything out of the ordinary. She complained she’d pricked her finger on a hairpin, then went to bed early.”
“That’s all well and good,” said the doctor, “but what was she in the habit of eating? Did her consumption of hashish and opium meet the Recommended Daily Intake? Was she fond of Occidental cuisine?”
The Chief Gardener admitted he’d neglected to pursue such questions, which he’d not seen as pertinent to the investigation; his tone, even more gruff and clipped than usual, argued that he’d no reason to change his mind. Nevertheless, at the doctor’s express request, he agreed to summon the witness once more.
While we waited the doctor’s assistant drew a sheet over the eviscerated girl, then began to extract samples from a small, roughly spherical organ I didn’t recognize. By now afternoon had turned to early evening, and the light through the doors, though still colorful, had faded enough that the coming witness might confuse the large pool of blood around the examination and autopsy table with some other viscous liquid—the ruddy milk of some hellborn beast, or perhaps a honeyed pomegranate pudding.
The servant arrived in short order; the Chief Eunuch’s Secretary and the Chief Gardener, though clearly uncomfortable lending their interrogatory authority to another party, held themselves in check while the Sultan’s Surgeon led the questioning.
“Was your mistress accustomed to the frequent use of hashish, opium, or any of the other enlightening substances for which the Orient is renowned?” he asked.
“No, doctor. She used them far less than other Occidental girls. Only when she was with the sultan. He expected it.” The peculiar shape of her dark eyebrows suggested a foreign origin, but despite a quavering tone she spoke simply and without any trace of accent. As a rule, servants in the harem are enslaved in early youth; plainness during the first flower of womanhood prevents most of them from ascending to the rank of odalisque.
“And how often was that?”
“Oh, very seldom. She was one of his favorites. But he doesn’t like to sleep with more than three or four girls at a time, and rarely any of them twice.”
“Did she engage in . . . intimate contact with other women?” pried the doctor with professional delicacy.
“Well there aren’t enough men to go around in the harem; only one actually, so everyone knows—”
“This autopsy,” interrupted the Chief Eunuch’s Secretary, “does not excuse any questions that might violate the sacred privacy of the imperial harem. Move on to the next, please, doctor.”
“Very well. But I cannot—”
“Next question,” the Chief Eunuch’s Secretary repeated.
“Yes, yes,” he turned back to the girl. “Did your mistress have the habit of exercise? Did she, for instance, walk brisk circles around the harem complex every morning, repeatedly press herself above the ground with her arms or legs, or swim back and forth across the reflecting pool until she was exhausted?”
“Why, no, never. She was quite sane, doctor.”
“Hm. And what did her diet consist of?” the doctor asked intently, as if this was the question he’d been building up to all along.
“She liked fruit, but it often made her sick, so she avoided it. She preferred fresh camel milk, and enjoyed feeding her couscous to pigeons and doves. She— she always joked to me that they proved it was bird food, because they kept chirping and cooing for it.” At this memory, the servant, who’d been holding back tears the whole time, began to cry. A nearby eunuch petted her back soothingly, which, as it so often does, only turned her tears into sobs.
“It sounds as if she was ill-adapted to the Orient,” the doctor continued.
“Oh, but she’d hardly been here half a year, and she so doted on the sultan!” exclaimed the cariye. “She would have learned to love our habits in time.”
“This is going nowhere,” interjected the Chief Gardener.
“To the contrary,” said the doctor. “It fills out the missing details of the autopsy very well, and confirms my initial intuitions beyond any reasonable doubt. The deceased Occidental odalisque behind me suffered a fatal infarction of the liver, brought on by the combined effects of indolence and a diet deficient in couscous and dates. My official diagnosis,” he told his assistant, “is CCCDS.”
“CCCDS?” asked the Pasha of Uniforms and Armaments.
“Chronic Couscous Deficiency Syndrome,” said the doctor.
“Shouldn’t that be CCDS, not CCCDS?” someone murmured; but his question overlapped with a louder one from a pasha I didn’t recognize, who inquired in an assertive but nasal tone, “Could you explain what that means in plain terms?”
“Of course. There are very good reasons we refer to our meals as ‘morning couscous,’ ‘afternoon couscous’ and ‘evening couscous,’” the doctor replied with a professorial cadence, at ease on familiar ground now that the most demanding part of his duties was over. “Medical professionals have recommended its consumption as healthful for generations, and indeed ever since the Couscous Traders’ Association began offering scholarships, grants, and speaking fees for our madrassas to address the topic in depth. But the central role couscous plays in a balanced diet should be apparent even without study.
“Nutrition is like a great pyramid of the kind our Oriental ancestors once built with such irreproachable grandiosity in their misguided efforts to reach the heavenly gardens on foot. Its sturdy foundations consist of a broad, thick layer of couscous and dates, without which the entire edifice would surely crumble into the sand; and above these come in cumin and limes and the like, with camel milk and goat meat forming only a deceptively prominent but still quite small capstone at the top. With this in mind you need only use common sense. Could it be a coincidence, eunuchs and gentlemen, that the only person in this room who refused to consume couscous is also the only person in this room who is no longer alive?”
Most of his audience seemed won over by this tautological-sounding argument, but neither the Chief Eunuch’s Secretary nor the Chief Gardener were fully satisfied.
“Are you suggesting,” said the latter, “that there is no connection between the death of the odalisque on your autopsy table and the death of the sultan’s newest odalisque this very morning?”
“That depends. Dietary fads that fly in the face of sound medical advice are a common danger to young women, and often afflict them in groups.”
The Chief Eunuch’s Secretary bent his fingers in my direction. “It so happens that the new dead redhead’s reseller—by which I mean, the reseller of the new redhead who died prior to the newly dead but somewhat older redhead presently lying on your examination and autopsy table—is with us in this very kiosk. I’m certain he can inform us about the dietary habits of his charge.”
Here was the moment I’d been waiting for. I moved toward the center of the room and pitched my voice to fill the kiosk, smoothing my thespian intonation with the velvety nonchalance of a sexually satisfied pasha relaxing in the shade of a mango tree on a hot afternoon.
“I am the sole proprietor of the Luxury Odalisque Shoppe, a renowned involuntary importer of Occidental virgins, contracted by our illustrious ruler to deliver a series of astonishingly beautiful redheaded sex slaves to the royal harem—although my fair prices are not beyond the reach of demanding pashas who refuse to settle for less than the best erotic entertainment,” I gave a little bow and extended an open and upturned hand, for in the presence of potential customers a merchant must never miss a marketing opportunity. “As for the new odalisque’s diet, I can’t speak to what she ate aboard my importer’s ship, and the captain is, all told, a rather rough character—an inevitable defect for anyone obliged to interact regularly with Occidental peasants, who are unable to read even the very well-translated tourism pamphlets we post in their towns to advertise the color and beauty of the Orient, and who therefore sometimes exhibit a bigoted and violent reluctance to board our raiding vessels that demands a response in kind. But while she was in my care, she was fed only the finest couscous and dates, as well as fresh pomegranates, a slavers’ secret for increasing the intensity of red hair which I share with you now only as a sign of intimate trust; and upon her entry to the harem last night her good health was sealed and certified in writing by the appropriate officials. No, I am afraid there is an altogether different explanation for her death. Although . . . I do hesitate to repeat unsubstantiated rumors in the presence of so many prominent pashas.”
“Speak on,” said the Chief Gardener. “We’ll hear any evidence with bearing on the case. We can decide later what to trust.”
“Very well,” I replied as if reluctant to continue, and inserted a further anticipatory pause to stir the curiosity of my audience.
“When I left my slaving office this morning and passed the bazaar on the way to an amicable chat with my dear friends in harem administration, it was abuzz with strange rumors, widely taken as fact, but whose provenance I cannot verify personally” —I neglected, of course, to mention I’d started some of these rumors myself— “alleging that one or even several ex-odalisques are rampaging about the city on a spree of vengeful violence. Their victims are other odalisques; their modes of attack uncertain, but agreed to include a deadly and potentially transmutative bite. Scores of sailors were present for an aerial disturbance near the city harbor. Since these creatures are said to be capable of levitation, it occurs to me that—if we momentarily assume bazaar gossip may on occasion have some vague and indirect relationship to the truth—they could have infiltrated the royal harem in the early hours of the morning today, and bitten, or at least vengefully nibbled, the especially jealousy-inducing new odalisque before departing unseen in the same manner they came.”
“Hardly credible. Why would they only bite your odalisque, and leave the others untouched?” asked the Chief Gardener.
“It’s obvious to anyone with a half-full cranium that the best merchandise—such as this humble slaver’s bespoke luxury imported Occidental odalisques even now available in my slaving office adjoining the bazaar” —I spoke in the direction of the pashas, citing the address in addition to several easily remembered nearby landmarks— “will always also be the first merchandise vandalized or stolen.”
“Which ‘ex-odalisques’ are you referring to, exactly?” asked the Chief Eunuch’s Secretary. “I was unaware a female could retire from that vocation, unless you mean those set aside due to the obvious moral concerns. However, overage odalisques are cloistered in their own wing of the palace so that none need watch them wither, whence they are, more to the point, forbidden to ever leave.”
“Why, I mean deceased odalisques risen from the grave to torment and terrorize their more comely competitors, of course; what else? At first I scoffed at the idea, for even a humble luxury slave trader is aware our sultan spares no expense to maintain positive relations with the djinn who reside in the wells and wadis around our cities, and unless they’ve indeed begun to aid his enemies, it’s difficult to imagine how this airborne supernatural contagion could have gotten off the ground, as it were; yet the eyewitness reports are too plentiful to dismiss out of hand.”
“I can confirm his account,” spoke up a pasha with a large gray mustache and a weathered bass voice. “The Bey of Customs is currently undertaking an investigation into strange events around the harbor. Namely, reports of a crash landing corpse. Nevertheless, there is a more likely explanation for the deaths in the harem that entails no shifting of blame to necromancers or djinn, who haven’t made mischief within our city walls for generations. Smugglers, or disobedient citizens, or negligent officials, or more probably all of these acting independently, may have permitted plague to penetrate our quarantine. Its victims are often delirious, and bear strange marks—lumpy purplings and blackenings of the flesh I observed in person when I served as ambassador to the Occident many years ago, which start under the arms or between the legs, and then spread irregularly across the body. When plague infects freshly imported odalisques, whose unnatural pallor already suggests a necromantic or subterranean origin, these characteristic marks could easily contribute to the illusion that they are risen dead.”
“Alarmist claims of plague in the Orient have already been debunked many times,” the doctor informed us. “I’ve been working closely with the Ministry of Hospitality and Tourism to protect our empire from Occidental diseases. There’s nothing to fear. You should all feel free to patronize the same brothels, bazaars, and hookah bars you normally do, with no expectation of additional consequences for your health.
“Our superior climate and cleanliness protect us from diseases that run rampant in the Occident, where too few hammams and too much chill rain induce an unhealthy modulation of the watery humors. And we have a further protection from contagion. Our wise ancestors, peace be upon them, instituted a mask mandate applicable to all females, for their frequent bleeding and even more frequent unsealing of the lips render them highly susceptible to disease. Enforcement of this rule has become laxer than it ought to be, and the almost universal fashion for transparent blouses and matching veils has made the most effective masks less popular, but many Oriental women still conform to the custom. Naturally, even in a state of emergency I can’t recommend masks for men, since they only offer protection from plague at the unacceptably high cost of obscuring facial expressions, and are, moreover, in rather short supply, and therefore best reserved for doctors.
“And lastly, let me give you my assurance as a doctor that if plague were ever to penetrate our ports due to some extraordinary and unforeseeable ill fortune, our madrassas would find a cure before any real harm was done. As you’ve all observed this afternoon, cauterization is a highly effective treatment which inspires an instantaneous enlivening response in nearly every patient; curing a disease is simply a matter of discovering—through research carried out on lame, infirm, or otherwise useless slaves at a reputable medical madrassa—the precise degrees and locations on the body to heat; for each has a distinct effect on the circulation of humors.”
“Doctor,” said the voluminously mustachioed pasha, “I’ve personally observed the symptoms of plague in the Occident, and—”
“Yes, every amateur has his diagnosis. But there are many diseases that share the same symptoms, and only an expert can be trusted to distinguish them. All things considered, it is my professional and final opinion that CCCDS was the cause of this odalisque’s sudden death, not plague.”
“The Sultan’s Surgeon argues very persuasively,” said the Pasha of Uniforms and Armaments. “If we refused to trust the experts, where would we be? Every Abdul, Sadiq, and Mahmut in the street believes he knows better than I where and when we should or shouldn’t start a war, but we all recognize that chaos or even peace would ensue if they had a say in the matter. Besides, only the old and sickly die of plague; in which case I believe we should consider relaxing the quarantine and admitting the disease as a useful purgative for our empire. It's an unprecedented opportunity!”
As he went on, the mustachioed pasha’s frown gradually deepened, the middle of his bushy eyebrows pulling simultaneously downward until they drew a mirror image of his upper mouth-hairs. “Your colleagues are fully aware you’ve recurring daydreams of destruction our sultan hasn’t deigned to satisfy with any recent declarations of war,” he told the Pasha of Uniforms and Armaments. “But to those who’ve witnessed an outbreak firsthand, your proposal to invite plague to the Orient almost awakens nostalgia for the unmusical rhythms of your customary scimitar-rattling. In point of fact, your failure to restrain a single sickly girl’s wrist does not inspire confidence in the robustness of your own health should this plague proposal of yours survive the sultan’s scrutiny.”
“As I already explained, the girl’s strength was extraordinary and wholly unnatural. So much so that I am convinced the master slaver is quite correct to claim she was animated by supernatural forces. Doctor, is it not possible for one to suffer from CCCDS and necromantic reanimation at the same time?”
“Possible . . . yes, I suppose so. But I would have to refer her corpse to a thaumetologist, who will have difficulty conducting an accurate spiritual exegesis now that her liver has been removed. At this late stage, we may never arrive at a definitive answer to the question. Had someone informed me of potential necromantic influences before I completed the organ examination it would have been another matter.”
“Doctor . . . could you, perhaps, prescribe a preventative medicine, to improve the vitality of our odalisques and concubines, and forestall any further chaos in the harem?” asked a soft-spoken and halting eunuch I’d never met before, who presumably worked in the seraglio’s forbidden innards.
“Certainly. Apart from a healthful diet of couscous and dates, a daily dose of opium is the best means we have for preserving health,” the doctor replied. “A miraculous medicine, and so much so that after just a few doses, most are reluctant to give it up. For a short while after consuming it, patients report the total absence of any sensation of illness, and suffer only a few easily ignored side-effects, such as vomiting, constipation, and difficulty breathing. The sultan, you may be aware, is quite fond of the drug, and it’s endowed him with a remarkable vitality: though I’m always at his disposal, he never feels the need to request bleeding, cauterization, or emetics.”
“And why was this invaluable medicine not given to your most recent patient?” asked the Chief Eunuch’s Secretary suspiciously.
“The mysteries of medical science are many, and this case perfectly illustrates why it’s so necessary to consult a professional before making any self-medication decisions. Extensive testing has shown that opium is incompatible with double podiatric cauterization, and indeed with interventions entailing healthful burning quite generally, and must never, therefore, be administered in the hours prior to such occasionally life-saving operations. Instead of the usual enlivening response, opiated patients react feebly when heat is applied to their feet, and sometimes not at all. By consequence any modulations to humoral circulation are negligible—defeating the purpose of the operation.”
While the Sultan’s Surgeon was speaking I became aware of a new visitor. I hadn’t registered him when he’d passed through the doors, but as soon as it filled the well-decorated dome above us, I recalled his voice: I’d heard him presenting a proposal at the Chamber of Petitions the previous day.
“Greeting, effendis. I’ve come at the behest of the sultan to examine the invalid odalisque.” He gave a small bow.
“You— Are you not . . . the camel trainer?” asked the Chief Gardener.
“In addition to my fame as the empire’s foremost camel consultant, I am also well-respected as a camel veterinarian, and fully licensed to treat every variety of chattel, from pet peacocks to sex slaves.” His turban was well-tied, his beard dark and clipped, and he did, judging from my own experience, speak too smoothly to be a genuine camel trainer.
“Is the sultan indeed awake already?” asked the Chief Eunuch’s Secretary. “It’s not quite sunset.”
“Yes, I suppose you could say that, though his eyes did appear to be closed. At any rate, the Chief Eunuch helped to interpret his words, which were mumbled and, to me at least, completely inaudible; but according to your superior, the sultan intended to say that his great trust in the doctor was nevertheless not the variety of fragile and ill-founded esteem that would compel him to look unkindly on a second and potentially conflicting opinion issued from an irreconcilably distant quarter.”
I later learned that the Chief Eunuch was in the habit of privately referring to the palace doctor as “our most capable assassin;” but His Highness, who prided himself on being a man of science, was far from subscribing to this view, and never took a smaller dose of medication than he was prescribed.
The Sultan’s Surgeon seemed little pleased by this intruder, and was about to object in a way that concealed his anger behind a thin veneer of professionalism when the veterinarian asserted, “May I?” and, without further ado, brushed past the doctor’s assistant and pulled back the sheet covering the dead, bled odalisque—at which her lady in waiting, who was still among us, loosed a splitting scream further amplified by the surrounding tiles. The Chief Gardener had a horror of such noises (a rare point of sympathy from my perspective), and brusquely signaled for her to be taken away.
“She appears to be . . .” began the camel consultant.
“Deceased, of CCCDS,” said the doctor superciliously.
Without looking back at the author of this diagnosis, the consultant gave an abbreviated shrug, as one of his animal patients might do when irritated by a fly, and pried open her jaw.
“The tongue,” he said, “is known in the veterinary profession as ‘the oracular organ,’ for none other—nay, not even the incredibly indicative teeth—reveals so many hidden truths about the nature of an illness.” And gripping said organ horizontally with his thumb and forefinger, he smoothly unrolled it from the cadaver’s mouth.
“Oh my, yes,” he said, “I’ve seen these discolorations before.” He was examining the underside of her tongue. “Has this odalisque, perhaps, been feeding on moldy hay, oats, or some similar vegetable matter? Have you perceived a greenish tinge to her spittle when it lands on clean, dry sand?”
“Certainly not,” said the eunuch from the inner harem. The Sultan’s Surgeon rolled his eyes and murmured something indiscernible.
“She was, then, recently imported to the Orient?”
“Somewhat recently, yes, that’s true, I suppose,” replied the eunuch.
“Ah, but that explains everything. Just as dromedaries may take years, with the very best training, to learn forth their second hump, virgins are not so readily transposed from one environment to another as sailors or soldiers. In difficult cases it’s necessary to treat them as powerless sex slaves for a considerable time before they leave the Occident, to prevent lifestyle changes upon their arrival in civilized lands from compounding the inherent difficulty of climactic adjustment. Gradual training, gradual but deliberate adaptation—these are the answer to most ailments; and errors are swiftly punished by nature in just the manner you’ve witnessed on this examination and autopsy table.”
“She’s been here since the last flood,” said the Chief Gardener, “and was in perfect health before today. It’s said she doted on the sultan.”
“Not only that; but the couscous-shaped spots of necrotic tissue near her extremities symbolize the true nature of her illness with unmistakable precision,” interjected the Sultan’s Surgeon insistently. “Of course, it would be unreasonable to criticize a dromedary doctor for failing to read the residues of nutritional deficiency in the proper context of human dietary requirements, which are quite different from those of animals. Camels, for instance, are not only able to forego water; they are even confirmed to maintain good health without a daily ration of dates.”
“Some stray facts may appear to contradict my diagnosis,” averred the camel consultant with unwavering confidence. “But if there’s one thing I’ve learned since I arrived here in the palace, it’s that Bactrian spies are relentless in their efforts to contradict the best laid science with misleading evidence. Make no mistake, they are the bane and despoiler not only of my dromedary-training programs, but of every forward-thinking theorist. The simulation of couscous-shaped lesions would be trivially easy for such skillful saboteurs, and indeed only the first grain of deception from the great sandstorm they hope to raise.”
“Are you suggesting that these . . . Bactrian spies might be behind the undead ex-odalisques now terrorizing the city?” asked the Pasha of Armaments and Uniforms.
“The enemies of progress will stop at nothing,” said the camel consultant. “With the right methods of guided practice, it will become possible to instruct young women in the growing of red hair. I wouldn’t be the least surprised if they were targeting the sultan’s Occidental odalisques to forestall any such reddening program, for if carried out it would vividly demonstrate the truth of my theories; and as soon as I’m given leave to train our dromedaries, the Bactrian monopoly on a second hump will be finished.”
“I don’t follow your logic,” began the soft-spoken eunuch. “If they—”
“Have you checked her neck for bites?” the Pasha of Armaments and Uniforms interrupted, his newfound enthusiasm for the undead driving him to impatience. “They are said to be the primary means of attack for these reanimated ex-odalisques.”
The dead redhead was turned over with the help of the doctor’s assistant, and the back of her neck thoroughly examined, but it was purplish and blotchy, the dimming light from the doorway compounded the difficulty of discerning any marks, and neither the Sultan’s Surgeon nor the camel consultant were willing to draw any definitive conclusions. All agreed it was better to stop here than to light the lamps and chandelier.
“As I must record the cause of death in the Royal Harem Record,” said one of the eunuchs, “I wonder if the effendis present would kindly conclude with a formal statement for posterity?”
The two medical men stepped aside to confer, and exchanged a series of angry murmurs whose burbling rose and fell like an overflowing scupper discharging accumulated muck. I was afraid their argument would continue into the night, but eventually—perhaps because they were aware we were watching and any intractable disagreement between esteemed experts might cast doubt on the reliable solidity of their professional knowledge—they struck a conciliatory tone, and the doctor came forward with the pronouncement announcement.
“There may be,” said he, “compounding causes; and if the primary cause of death is indeed dietary couscous deficiency, other factors, such as overhasty climatic adaptation to the Orient and the infectious bite of the undead, may also have made essential contributions to this female’s untimely doom. Despite certain reservations, we hereby pronounce the odalisque deceased, and agree that all these illnesses be recorded in the Harem Record.” The camel consultant nodded grudgingly.
After he finished eunuchs and pashas alike began to shuffle out of the room, as if some grand performance—a lion-tamer, a famous belly dancer, or a pair of snake charmers playing their flutes back to back whilst surrounded by a writhing mass of cobras—had just drawn to a close. The camel consultant having engaged the Chief Eunuch’s Secretary in a conversation that seemed to offer little pleasure to the latter, I thought it best to profit from the opportunity to escape before he recalled my presence and returned me to the dungeon.
I’d merged with the grandees and was nearly out the door when the Chief Gardener cut in and ushered me back with an unsmiling shake of his head. But this time he seemed satisfied I was innocent, or at least that I posed little risk of flight. Reciting what must have been standard verbiage in his field, he told me I was free to leave, but might be called in “for further questioning as more evidence emerges.”
I found my way back to the harem maintenance gate and began the now familiar trek home from the palace. A thin line of clouds on the horizon tinted the last evening light purple. The little shadows cast by pebbles in the road reminded me of the dead odalisque’s mottled skin, the smell of grilling meat from some nearby kitchen recalled her cooking feet, and the whole phantasmagoria of the odalisque autopsy seemed to linger in the dim outline of every indistinct object on my path. It wasn’t that I opposed evisceration in principle; but I’ve always detested product spoilage. Galley slaves die cleanly at sea; odalisques expire from various causes, sometimes in my importers’ holds (in which case my contract exempts me from any financial obligation), or shortly after arrival (less felicitous), or from a wasting disease that strikes them in the season of inundation, or from their new owners’ well-meaning but overenthusiastic reprimands, or in so many other ways; but today the Sultan’s Surgeon had put all such instances of fairly accidental breakage to shame.
Despite the doctor’s stern warnings about the dangers of couscous deficiency, I had little appetite, and didn’t stop for food. As soon as I arrived home I tossed my turban on the table and laid down on my couch without bothering to light a lamp. I’d recently bought a very fine new cushion cover. Though I couldn’t see it in the dark, the thought that its intricate patterns were somewhere beneath me, elegantly supporting my neck, immediately put me into a more restful mood.
Tomorrow I needed a vacation from my vacation: a simple, uneventful day at my slave market, selling the same sex slaves I always sold. And somehow, I needed to find a third redhead virgin before the sultan’s sobriety returned. I sighed deeply and closed my eyes—both now suffering muscle soreness induced by their reflexive acrobatics this afternoon. Would every step toward the evil vizierdom I craved be equally difficult?
Yet despite being kidnapped, unlawfully imprisoned, interrogated, and then subjected to a gruesome display of medical zeal, I had to consider the day a success: regular visits to the palace, whatever the pretext, were drawing me closer and closer to the kiosks of power. To encourage a good night’s sleep, I began a brief session of meditative scheming, imagining potential applications for various medical therapies that might become useful after I rose to prominence in the palace, especially if any of my worst political enemies should catch cold.
And then I heard the tapping.
I thought it was an animal at first. A street rat that had burrowed into my building, or a bird nesting in the eaves. Perhaps such creatures could sense the energy emanating from a rising power and were quite sensibly seeking to cuddle under the edges of my protective aegis. I rolled toward the opposite wall, absently thinking I’d have my assistant look into the matter tomorrow.
But it came again: a rapping at my windowpane. Were sound-damping windows truly still beyond the capabilities of advanced Oriental technology that already included women’s plague-masks, curative poisons, and double cauterization forks? For a man living at the heart of the greatest city in the world they would have been very useful indeed. I sat up and fumbled through the storage space inside my couch, where I kept a jeweled dagger that was part of my inheritance, curved in the shape of some mythical raptor’s talon. Once it was in my hand I crept up to the curtain-covered window.
The tapping was a scatter of thin, dry sounds. Twigs, or sticks, or claws. Standing beside the frame, I pinched the curtain enough to peer out with a single eye, but the back alley was too dark, and the window covered in a layer of dust.
It was likely no more than a blind insomniac sacred ibis hunting for rubbish, but one can never be too careful. With the swift, confident motion of a professional knife-thrower, I removed the ornamental dagger from its sheath. Or rather, I tried to remove the ornamental dagger from its sheath: no matter how hard I tugged, it wouldn’t come loose.
In truth, dear reader, I’d never yet used a weapon in combat, whether mock or genuine: I preferred to outsource any unavoidable violence to pirates. Apart from the acquisition process itself, human resource management is a very peaceful business, protected well by local law enforcement and rarely subject to theft, since the penalties for stealing slaves are nearly as harsh as those for stealing camels, donkeys, and mules. I kept this particular dagger on hand largely for aesthetic purposes: if my personal chambers, which contained little of value save the furniture and the carpets on the walls (my valuables being well hidden below the floor) ever suffered a break-in, I planned a symbolic show of resistance that would advertise my impeccable style to whatever thieves or policemen might later spread the fame of my slave dealership by word of mouth. Brandishing such a finely worked and wickedly curved dagger in a compelling pose whilst turning the blade at an angle that would cause the emeralds to gleam in the moonlight was sufficient to accomplish that objective very well, without the need for any potentially dangerous swinging or slicing motions.
Unfortunately I’d assumed that modeling a high quality item for an impatient and uncultured audience took little skill, so I’d neglected to practice the appropriate poses. As I struggled with the sticking scabbard I had the impression its hilt was growing warm where my palm pressed against the emeralds. Surprised by the heat, or perhaps afraid I was applying enough force to break off the jewels, my right hand loosened—and my left flung the dagger against the wall, scabbard and all. It struck plaster and clattered to the ground, the emeralds glowing a faint green. Outside, frantic clawing and scratching replaced the avian rapping.
In frustration I abandoned the dagger, grabbed the bronze lamp from a nearby table, tore the curtain aside, and threw the window open abruptly, expecting to drive off some rabid nocturnal creature with a few well-directed blows.
I recoiled in shock.
What I saw instead was the stuff of nightmares. Before me stood a naked, corpse-white figure: hairless, eyes wide, jaw gaping, the nails of both hands extended—her body covered in black, rotting lumps.
It was Mala.
Continued in Chapter IX — Alternative Medicine