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Jason Goodwin

An Evil eye

Life is a comedy for those who think,

and a tragedy for those who feel

— HORACE WALPOLE

Istanbul, 1836

The yali is made of wood silvered by the sun, dry as tinder.

As evening falls, the timbers begin to cool. Beams settle; boards contract. Cracks ease around the window frames, whose latticed glass flames orange with the setting sun.

The pasha’s two-oared caique skims like a cormorant up the Bosphorus toward it, away from Istanbul.

He leans into the cushions, his back to the setting sun, and lets his mind rove idly across the water, over the surface of his ambitions and his desires.

He checks himself. He is not a superstitious man, but praise and pride attract the evil eye; certain thoughts are better left unframed.

Almost guiltily, he turns his head. The yali stands so beautifully at the water’s edge, looking out across the Bosphorus to the hills of Asia beyond. The evening meal has been taken, and he imagines the murmur of voices as his household prepares for sleep. He can almost hear the yali settling, its old bones composing themselves for the night, wooden joints creaking and crackling in the dusk.

He turns his head-and puts out a hand, as if it were in his power to stop what is about to happen. As if he could fit the house in his own palm, and keep it safe.

Between his outstretched fingers, the yali is ablaze.

It burns so beautifully, as if a wild spirit were dashing through the rooms. A window explodes, and against the evening sky the sparks fly up like shooting stars. Galaxies twist from the staircase; suns blaze in every room.

The pasha screams. The rowers glance back. They miss a stroke.

Over the crash of falling timber and the snapping of the flames, the pasha hears screams from the harem apartments, upstairs.

When the caique touches the marble stairs, the pasha flings himself onto shore. His mouth is open, sweat rolling down his face.

He races from one end of the burning house to the other, moaning. He feels the heat on his face. He can no longer hear the screams.

But he hears, instead, someone call his name.

“Fevzi Pasha! Pasha!”

Two arms thrust a bundle from a window. The pasha reaches up.

The roof sags, dropping a sudden flurry of flaming shingles, which spin to the ground. The pasha leaps back. The figure at the window is gone. The window is gone.

The flames are driving a firestorm: the pasha feels the wind snatch at his cloak, drawing him back toward the yali.

He cradles the bundle to his chest and stumbles away.

The gate bursts open, and a crowd of men surges in with buckets, hooks, ladders. But it is far too late. As the men run by, the pasha hears timbers break and the sky is lit up.

He does not turn back.

Summer 1839

1

Cannon boomed across the Bosphorus. White smoke, the color of mourning, billowed low over the water.

Sultan Mahmut II was dead. He had come to the throne of Osman as the turbaned ruler of a medieval empire, and had died in a frock coat and a fez. In his long reign he had given the Ottoman Empire French saddles, a constitution of sorts, modern drill and percussion rifles. He had destroyed the ferocious Janissaries, as an obstacle to progress, and he had lost Greece to the Greeks and Crimea to the Russians and Egypt to an Albanian adventurer called Mehmet Ali Pasha. He had built himself a modern palace, at Besiktas, where he maintained a harem like sultans of old.

The harem was in pandemonium.

“You are the Kislar aga, Ibou. You must help them to leave,” Yashim said quietly. “The sultan’s harem is your domain. The sultan has died, and the women must move on.”

The Kislar aga, the master of the girls, shut his eyes and pressed his fingers against his smooth cheeks. “They-they do not want to go, Yashim.”

“Abdulmecid is sultan now. Any moment he may arrive here, at Besiktas, and he will bring his women.” Yashim gestured to the staircase.

The Kislar aga took a deep breath and started up the stairs. “You must come with me. We must get the women away.”

Yashim followed reluctantly as the Kislar aga bustled through the gallery, clapping his hands. “The carriages are come, ladies! To the carriages!”

Not one of the women paid him the slightest attention. They had spent years learning how to behave, how to speak, how to be beautiful, devoting their lives to the service of the sultan. Now the sultan was dead and carriages were to take them away.

They wanted to wail and scream, and to mourn.

To mourn the sultan, their youth, their hopes.

And grab what they could, while there was still time.

2

Above the gardens of the palace, in the smaller quarters reserved for the crown prince, Elif leaned at a window and watched the pigeons through the lattice. Each crump of the guns shook the heavy air and sent clouds of birds fluttering from the domes of Istanbul. From the leads of the Suleymaniye they rose high above the Golden Horn; clapping their wings from the low rotunda of Ayasofya, where the Horn bled into the waters of the Bosphorus; billowing from the domes of the Grand Bazaar, and from the single hemisphere of the Grand Mosque on Uskudar. Again and again the pigeons clattered into the sky, and then fell back.

“It will not be long, Elif.” Melda lay on the divan, twisting a lock of black hair between her hennaed fingers. “The aga will call for us very soon.”

Elif murmured a lazy assent. She had known that the old sultan had been about to die. Everyone knew. When he went, he went: a day and a night before they put him in the ground. You couldn’t wait longer; not in this heat. Dead, buried, and the cannons booming out to tell the world that Abdulmecid was sultan now.

High in the sky, something moved: the whirling speck caught Elif’s attention. She raised her chin a fraction.

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