Excerpted from The Janissary Tree by Jason Goodwin. Copyright © 2006 by Jason Goodwin. Published in May 2006 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.
Yashim flicked at a speck of dust on his cuff.
“One other thing, Marquise,” he murmured.
She gazed at him levelly.
The Marquise de Merteuil gave a little laugh.
“Flûte! Monsieur Yashim, depravity is not a word we recognize in the Académie.” Her fan played; from behind it she almost hissed, “It is a condition of mind.”
Yashim was already beginning to sense that this dream was falling apart.
The marquise had fished out a paper from her décolletage and was tapping it on the table like a little hammer. He took a closer look. It was a little hammer.
Tap tap tap.
He opened his eyes and stared around. The Château de Merteuil dissolved in the candlelight. Shadows leered from under the book-lined shelves, and from the corners of the room—a room and a half, you might say, where Yashim lived alone in a tenement in Istanbul. The leather-bound edition of Les Liaisons Dangereuses had slipped onto his lap.
Tap tap tap.
“Evet, evet,” he grumbled. “I’m coming.” He slipped a cloak around his shoulders and his feet into a pair of yellow slippers, and shuffled to the door. “Who is it?”
Hardly a boy, Yashim considered, as he let the spindly old man into the darkened room. The single candle guttered in the sudden draft. It threw their shadows around the walls, boxing with one another before the page’s shadow stabbed Yashim’s with a flickering dagger. Yashim took the paper scroll and glanced at the seal. Yellow wax.
He rubbed his finger and thumb across his eyes. Just hours ago he’d been scanning a dark horizon, peering through the drizzle for lights and the sight of land. The lurching candlelight took his mind back to another lamp that had swayed in a cabin far out at sea, riding the winter storms. The captain was a barrel-chested Greek with one white eye and the air of a pirate, and the Black Sea was treacherous at this time of year. But he’d been lucky to find a ship at all. Even at the worst moments of the voyage, when the wind screamed in the rigging, waves pounded on the foredeck, and Yashim tossed and vomited in his narrow bunk, he had told himself that anything was better than seeing out the winter in that shattered palace in the Crimea, surrounded by the ghosts of fearless riders, eaten away by the cold and the gloom. He had needed to come home.
With a flick of his thumb he broke the seal.
With the scent of the sea in his nostrils and the floor still moving beneath his feet, he tried to concentrate on the ornate script.
He sighed and laid the paper aside. There was a lamp screwed to the wall and he lit it with the candle. The blue flames trickled slowly round the charred cloth. Yashim replaced the glass and trimmed the wick until the fitful light turned yellow and firm. Gradually the lamplight filled the room.
He picked up the scroll the page had given him and smoothed it out.
Greetings, et cetera. At the bottom he read the signature of the seraskier, city commander of the New Guard, the imperial Ottoman army. Felicitations, et cetera. He scanned upward. From practice he could fillet a letter like this in seconds. There it was, wedged into the politesse: an immediate summons.
The old man stood to attention. “I have orders to return with you to barracks immediately.” He glanced uncertainly at Yashim’s cloak. Yashim smiled, picked up a length of cloth, and wound it around his head. “I’m dressed,” he said. “Let us go.”
Yashim knew that it hardly mattered what he wore. He was a tall, well-built man in his late thirties, with a thick mop of black curls, a few white hairs, no beard, but a curly black mustache. He had the high cheekbones of the Turks, and the slanting gray eyes of a people who had lived on the great Eurasian steppe for thousands of years. In European trousers, perhaps, he would be noticeable, but in a brown cloak—no. Nobody noticed him very much. That was his special talent, if it was a talent at all. More likely, as the marquise had been saying, it was a condition of mind. A condition of the body.
Yashim had many things—innate charm, a gift for languages, and the ability to open those gray eyes suddenly wide. Both men and women had found themselves strangely hypnotized by his voice, before they had even noticed who was speaking. But he lacked balls.
Not in the vulgar sense: Yashim was reasonably brave.
But he was that creature rare even in nineteenth-century Istanbul.
Yashim was a eunuch.