It is night twenty eight and the Jewish doctor is the latest of the king’s prisoners to bargain for his life with a story. The first two failed to impress anyone and if the king is not appeased fast he’ll execute the whole group of not-exactly-murderers on trial before him, so the pressure is on.
This segue takes us to Damascus, where the doctor was once a student. One day while he is at his lodgings, a mamluk (that is, a slave soldier) shows up demanding he come to the palace. No explanation is provided. When they arrive, the young doctor is shown into a grand hall, where a gorgeous young man lies in bed. The doctor sits beside him to pray for his recovery; the young man wakes up and asks for some hand-holding. These are the doctor’s actual ensuing thought processes: “By God, how remarkable. Here is a handsome young man, from a great house, but he lacks manners. This is strange.”
Despite the fact he’s not done studying and probably isn’t a properly qualified doctor yet, he takes the young man’s pulse, suggests a prescription and pays regular visits until his patient recovers. He then watches as the young man’s servants strip him for a bath. The moment is ruined a bit by the fact this handsome stranger is suffering from the same kind of mutilation that’s been plaguing his type of late – his right hand has been recently amputated and there are scars on his back implying a violent beating. The young man catches the doctor looking and later, over a quiet dinner, he shares the story behind his injuries.
This story begins with a little family history. The young man’s grandfather had ten sons but only one grandchild, which meant the young man grew up surrounded by affectionate uncles. They tell him outrageously poetical stories about Cairo that awake a passionate desire for travel; given how that went for the last protagonist to pay that city a visit, I’m getting a bad feeling about this already, but the young man throws a strategic sobbing fit and gets permission to accompany his uncles on a trade journey. It’s not much of a concession, honestly – he’s only allowed as far as Damascus. That’s exciting enough for him to be getting on with. It’s almost sweet how spoilt he is, his father provided his trade goods and his uncles sell them, giving him the profit like pocket money while they go on to Cairo. And, like any spoilt rich kid totally freed from restraint, he fritters that money away entirely.
Apparently the rent is paid by someone more responsible because he stays in his ridiculously fancy house and one day, while he’s sitting by the door, a beautifully dressed girl walks by. He literally winks at her. I can’t take him seriously. She does, though, swishing through the door and throwing off her cloak. They feast and get each other drunk and have sex. In the morning, he tries to pay her, because he’s terrible at everything. (Also: with WHAT? Narrative, you just told me he was broke!) She coolly flips the situation on its head. “Shame on you!” she admonishes. “Do you think that I want your money?” She then lays down fifteen dinars and tells him to get ready for another night of carousing.
After a couple more such visits, Mysterious Beauty suggest a threesome. I AM NOT MAKING THIS UP. What’s more, she wants to bring her friend along because she’s been depressed lately and some no strings attached sex will hopefully improve her mood. When this girl arrives, though, the narrative ruins my fun by making the first woman turn suddenly jealous. That doesn’t even make sense. The morning after, the young man wakes up covered in blood with the second girl lying beside him, her neck severed through. Panicked, he drags off his bloody clothes, then digs a pit in the middle of the house and buries the body there. The grave is covered over in marble. Washing off the blood, the young man leaves the house and flees to Cairo.
His uncles are happy to see him. Mostly because he lies through his teeth, concealing the affair and the murder. He also pretends to be penniless despite his rather profitable arrangement with the possible crazed killer, so his loving family give him all the money he wants. Once he’s set up financially, he hides in Cairo so that they are forced to travel back to Damascus without him. For three years he lives as a self-enforced fugitive. Eventually, though, he runs out of cash and instead of getting a job or something he goes back to Damascus. Back to Murder House. It seems untouched since that awful night and when he looks at the bed he finds a golden necklace lying there, covered in blood. He cleans it and cries over it, but his circumstances require pragmatism and he takes it to be auctioned. He’s unlucky enough to attract a dodgy auctioneer; the man prices it for a fortune then pretends it’s a worthless bauble. The young man agrees to a crazy low price, claiming he had the necklace made as a joke.
Night twenty nine opens with the auctioneer’s suspicions. Despite actively trying to cheat his customer, he apparently draws his moral line at selling stolen goods and the young man’s story is ringing warning bells. He takes the necklace to the market superintendent. The superintendent goes to the authorities, saying that the necklace was stolen from his own house. The young man is arrested and when he tries to stick to his story, he’s savagely beaten. His options are awful – confess to a robbery he did not commit or tell the very shady and unlikely story of how he really acquired the jewellery. He picks option A and his right hand is cut off then and there. What’s more, the story spreads and when he gets home the owner of his house tells him to find a new place pronto.
The young man has screwed up his life and knows it. Just when you think he’s hit rock bottom, though, it gets worse. He’s not even had time to move out before guards come knocking and drag him off. The story of the necklace has reached the governor of Damascus, who knows it to be untrue; the necklace vanished from his house three years ago, together with his daughter. So what the hell was the superintendent on about? Was that entrapment? The governor certainly thinks so. He orders the superintendent to pay compensation for the injury and asks the young man, quite kindly, for the true story.
Thoroughly tripped up by his own lies, the young man does exactly that.
The governor is devastated. For some time he simply grieves; then he explains what it all means. The first girl was his daughter, rebelling against her strict upbringing, while the second was her younger sister. They were very close at one time, but the elder girl returned home after that awful night sobbing her heart out and confessed to her parents that she had committed the murder. As far as I can tell, she’s been crying for the past three years. The governor is either very guilty about the young man’s involvement in this family tragedy or very desperate to marry off his youngest daughter before she can hook up with a stranger or die in horrible circumstances, because he offers her hand in marriage on the spot and doesn’t even ask for a dowry. The young man, who is broke and hurt after all, doesn’t hesitate in accepting. He takes a favoured place at court, enjoying a life of luxury.
“I was astonished at this story,” the doctor concludes. “I stayed with him for three days, after which he gave me a large sum of money. When I left him, I travelled to this city of yours, where I have enjoyed a good life, until I had this adventure with the hunchback.” By ‘adventure’, incidentally, he means ‘that time I found a corpse on my floor and tried to pin his death on someone else’. The king is utterly unmoved. His attention moves to the last member of the party and technically, the only one who bears responsibility for the death they are all on trial for: the tailor. If he can’t come up with a really stellar story, they are all going to die.
If by this point you’ve forgotten who everybody is, why they keep telling stories about mutilated strangers and what the king has to do with any of it, I suggest you head back to Week 15 (on the Fairy Tale Meta page) to refresh your memory, because next week we’re diving headfirst into another segue. We may never get out.