When it was over, Holden and I turned and strolled away, heading towards the palace, where we paced the walls, noting the four sentries at the main gate and the others positioned by arched side gates.
“What’s it like inside?” I asked.
“Two main wings: the haramlik and the salamlik. In the salamlik is where you got your halls, reception areas and entertainment courtyards, but the haramlik, that’s where we’ll find Miss Jenny.”
“If she’s in there.”
“Oh, she’s in there, sir.”
“As God is my witness.”
“Why was she moved from Topkapi Palace? Do you know?”
He looked at me and pulled an awkward face. “Well, her age, sir. She would have been highly prized at first, of course, when she was younger; it’s against Islamic law to imprison other Muslims, see, so the majority of the concubines are Christians—caught in the Balkans, most of them—and if Miss Jenny was as comely as you say, well, then I’m sure she’d have been quite a catch. Trouble is, it’s not like there’s a shortage of them, and Miss Kenway—well, she’s in her mid-forties, sir. Been a long time since she had concubine duties; she’s little more than a servant. I suppose you might say that she’s been demoted, sir.”
I thought about that, finding it difficult to believe that the Jenny I’d once known—beautiful, imperious Jenny—had such lowly standing. Somehow I’d imagined her perfectly preserved and cutting a commanding figure at the Ottoman court, perhaps having already risen to the position of Queen Mother. Instead, here she was in Damascus, at the home of an unpopular governor who was himself about to be deposed. What did they do to the servants and concubines of a deposed governor? I wondered. Possibly, they met the same fate as the poor soul we’d seen beheaded earlier.
“What about the guards inside?” I asked. “I didn’t think they allowed men in the harem.”
He shook his head. “All the guards in the harem are eunuchs. The operation to make them eunuchs—bloody hell, sir, you don’t want to know about it.”
“But you’re going to tell me anyway?”
“Well, yeah, don’t see why I should have to carry that burden all by myself. They hack the poor bleeder’s genitals off then bury the bloke in sand up to his neck for ten days. Only ten percent of the poor buggers even survive the process, and those guys are the toughest of the tough.”
“Right,” I said.
“One other thing: the haramlik, where the concubines live, the baths are in there.”
“The baths are in there?”
“And why are you telling me that?”
He stopped. He looked from left to right, squinting in the sun. Satisfied the coast was clear, he stooped, grasped an iron ring I hadn’t even seen, so well was it covered by the sand below our feet, and yanked it upwards, opening a trapdoor and revealing stone steps descending into the dark.
“Quick, sir”—he grinned—“before a sentry comes round.”
Once at the bottom of the steps, we took stock of our surroundings. It was dark, almost too dark to see, but from the left of us came the trickle of a stream, while ahead stretched what looked like a walkway used either for deliveries or maintenance of the running-water channels; probably a mixture of both.
We said nothing. Holden delved into a leather knapsack to extract a taper and a tinderbox. He lit the taper then placed it into his mouth and pulled a short torch from the knapsack, which he lit and held above his head, casting a soft orange glow all around us. Sure enough, to our left was an aqueduct, while the uneven path dissolved into blackness.
“It’ll take us right under the palace, and underneath the baths,” said Holden in a whisper. “If I’m right, we’ll come up into a room with a freshwater pool, right beneath the main baths.”
Impressed, I said, “You kept this quiet.”
“I like to have the odd trick up my sleeve, sir.” He beamed. “I’ll lead the way, shall I?”
And with that he moved off, lapsing into silence as we made our way along the pathway. When the torches had burned out, we dropped them and lit two new ones from the taper in Holden’s mouth then walked some more. At last the area ahead of us widened out into a shimmering chamber, where the first thing we saw was a pool, its walls lined with marble tiles, the water so clear that it seemed to glow in the meagre light offered by an open trapdoor at the top of some nearby steps.
The second thing we saw was a eunuch, who knelt with his back to us, filling an earthenware jug from the pool. He wore a tall white kalpak on his head, and flowing robes. Holden looked at me with his finger to his lips then began to creep forward, a dagger already in his fist, but I stopped him with a hand on his shoulder. We wanted the eunuch’s clothes, and that meant avoiding bloodstains. This was a man who served the concubines at an Ottoman palace, not a common redcoat in Boston, and I had the feeling that blood on his clothing wouldn’t be so easily explained away. So I inched past Holden on the walkway, unconsciously flexing my fingers and in my mind locating the carotid artery on the eunuch, coming closer as he finished filling the jug and straightened to leave.
But then my sandal scuffed the pathway. The noise was tiny but nevertheless sounded like a volcano erupting in the enclosed space, and the eunuch flinched.
I froze and inwardly cursed my sandals as his head tilted to look up to the trapdoor, trying to locate the source of the noise. When he saw nothing, he seemed to go very still, as though he’d realized that, if the sound hadn’t come from above, then it must have come from . . .
He span round.
There’d been something about his clothes, his bearing, the way he knelt to fill his jug: none of it had prepared me for the speed of his reaction. Nor the skill. For as he swivelled he crouched, and from the corner of my eye I saw the jug in his fist whip up towards me, so fast it would have knocked me down if I hadn’t shown a turn of equal speed and ducked.
I had evaded him, but only just. As I scuttled back to avoid another blow from the jug, his eyes flitted over my shoulder and saw Holden. Next, he turned to cast a quick look at the stone steps, his only exit. He was assessing his options: run or stand and fight. And he settled on stand and fight.
Which made him, just as Holden had said, one—very—tough eunuch.
He took a few steps back, reached beneath his robes and produced a sword, simultaneously punching the earthenware jug against the wall to give himself a second weapon. Then, sword in one hand, jagged jug in another, he advanced.