Read The Sultan's Seal Online

Authors: Jenny White

Tags: #Fiction, #General

The Sultan's Seal

BOOK: The Sultan's Seal
Further Praise for
The Sultan’s Seal

“Ms. White’s prose glints like the shores of the Bosphorus she brings to life with breathtaking detail. Unfolding in an exotic world of djinns, tube flowers, and belladonna, two mysterious crimes collide in a startling resolution. An astonishing debut novel that is impossible to put down.”

—Dora Levy Mossanen, author of

“[White’s] evocative prose and plot twists pull the reader to a satisfying ending.”

—Blythe Copeland,
Boston Magazine

“CSI goes Ottoman Empire…. Court life and customs…are thrillingly captured here, with readers easily transported back to those days when mystery and intrigue lurked around every corner.”

, starred review

“It is an unputdownable read…. In her debut novel Jenny White has produced a multilayered story in a skillful blend of fiction and real history…. It is a book you just want to immerse yourself in.”

—Sally Roddom,
Murder and Mayhem

“A page-turning history lesson and relevant allegory of today’s East-West divide…. White is bold and imaginative, able to find an original thread in this enormous pastiche, in order to weave a delightful story.”

—Elmira Bayrasli,
Turkish Daily News

“White’s intelligent, sensuous writing marks a promising debut.”

Kirkus Reviews

“White has a thorough knowledge of the country and period she writes about, and depicts them with considerable skill. The novel should be a pleasure even for mystery readers who aren’t particularly fond of historic settings. For anyone who is, this is the best of its kind.”

—John A. Broussard,

“A terrific late nineteenth century police procedural that shines a deep light on Turkey at an interesting moment when the Ottoman Empire is starting to collapse…. Fans who enjoy a lot of history in their mystery will want to read Jenny White’s fine tale.”

—Harriet Klausner,
The Midwest Book Review

“White skillfully evokes the turbulent zeitgeist of 1880s Turkey, and the atmosphere that she conjures is perfect…. A lavish enjoyable read.”

—Bethany Skaggs,
The Historical Novels Review

“Excellent historical flavor and details permeate a fast-paced historical suspense novel.”


“White’s prose is full of silky, sometimes ominous lyricism.”

—Mopsy Strange Kennedy,
The Improper Bostonian

“All the mystery, fantasy, romance and allure of the Ottoman Empire await in this historical fiction about the murder of an English governess.”


“White’s prose is dramatic, a subtle mix of fiction and history.”


“An atmospheric experience…. She’s given herself a pretty high standard with which to keep up.”

The Bohemian Aesthetic

“Lyrical writing, bright characterizations, and a sympathetic evocation of an era packed with intrigue and conflict.”


“A wide range of characters peoples this well-told story that draws deeply on Turkish society for its atmospherics and manners.”

—Alan Caruba,

“This is, however, no ordinary crime novel…. White uses the story to paint a fascinating canvas…. Surely a recommended reading for lovers of both mystery and historical novels, it is a serious but fun page-turner.”

—Eric Barteldes,
Greenwich Village Gazette

“The author is a professor of anthropology, and her expertise is plainly evident in her writing skills…[many] interesting and mysterious characters, many secrets to uncover and a lot of very good reading to enjoy.”


“A passionate debut…the writing is lyrical and the characters enchanting.”

Publishers Weekly

The Sultan’s Seal
The Sultan’s Seal
Jenny White

W. W. Norton & Company


“You are My Lord” by Seyh Galib and “Nedim to His Heart” by Nedim, translated by Bernard Lewis, and “You Have Shot Me So Full of Arrows” by Fuzuli, translated by Walter G. Andrews. From
An Anthology of Turkish Literature,
edited by Kemal Silay. Bloomington: Indiana University Turkish Studies, 1996. Used by permission of Kemal Silay.

“The Purpose of the Wine” by Bâkî and “Men String Their Cords of Tears” by Hayalî, translated by John R. Walsh. From
The Penguin Book of Turkish Verse,
edited by Nermin Menemencioglu, in collaboration with Fahir Iz. New York: Penguin Books, 1978.

Every effort has been made to contact the copyright holders of these selections. Rights holders of selections not credited should contact W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 500 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10110 for a correction to be made in the next reprinting of our work.

Copyright © 2006 by Jenny White

Map design by Paul Guthrie

All rights reserved

For information about permission to reproduce selections from this book, write to Permissions, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 500 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10110

Production manager: Amanda Morrison

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

White, Jenny B. (Jenny Barbara), 1953–
The sultan’s seal / Jenny White.—1st ed.
p. cm.
ISBN: 978-0-393-07251-8
1. Governesses—Crimes against—Fiction. 2. Young women—Crimes against—
Fiction. 3. Police magistrates—Fiction. 4. British—Turkey—Fiction. 5. Istanbul
(Turkey)—Fiction. I. Title.
PS3623.H5763S85 2006


W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.
500 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10110

W. W. Norton & Company Ltd.
Castle House, 75/76 Wells Street, London W1T 3QT

“The purpose of the wine is that the cask be pure inside.”
Our men of learning cannot plumb the sense these words convey.


Men string their cords of tears to either end of postures bent with care;
From these they shoot the shafts of hope, unmindful of what made the bows.


The Sultan’s Seal

Dark Eyes

dozen lamps flicker across the water, moving up the strait in silence, the oarsmen invisible. A dry scuffling noise drifts from shore, the breeze too indolent to carry it very far. Wild dogs bark and crash through the bushes. There are snarls, a short yelp, then silence again.

As the boats cross the light of the full moon spilled across the Bosphorus, the fishermen take their places, actors on a luminous stage. In the stern of each boat a man rows, the other stands, holding a conical net attached to a pole. Attracted to the light of the oil lamps hanging from the bows, zargana fish crowd the surface. In a single motion the fishermen slip their nets through the black liquid, then raise them high above their heads. The sound of nets breaking the skin of water is so soft that it cannot be heard from shore.

There is a splash. The closest fisherman to land turns his head and listens, but hears nothing more. He casts his eye over the rocks and trees bleached by moonlight, what is beneath or behind them lost in shadow. He notices a circle of ripples moving outward from the shore and frowns, then points and mutters something to his brother, who is rowing. The other man shrugs and applies himself to the oars. It is so quiet that the fisherman imagines he can hear the scrabble of crabs across the stone point at nearby Albanian Village, where the current is so fierce that the crabs cannot proceed up the strait through the water. Centuries of crabs taking this shortcut have worn a path through the stone. Just an animal, he thinks, and tries to banish from his mind the stories he has heard about djinns and demons abroad in the night.


on the bedside table for a match to light the lamp. He is magistrate for Istanbul’s Beyoglu Lower Court that includes Pera, where the Europeans have their embassies and business houses, and Galata, the crowded Jewish quarter below Pera, a warren of narrow streets that wind and coil down the steep hill to the waters of the Bosphorus and its inlet, the Golden Horn. The pounding on his door has given way to loud voices in the entry hall. Just then, his manservant Yakup enters with a lit lamp in hand. Enormous shadows sail across the high ceiling.

“My apologies for waking you, bey. The headman of Middle Village says he has come on an urgent matter. He insists on speaking directly to you.”

Squinting against the light, Kamil pushes back the satin quilt and stands. His foot slides on the magazine that has slipped off his bed. Sleep finds Kamil only when he loses himself in reading, in this case in the
Gardener’s Chronicle and Agricultural Gazette,
several years out of date. It is now June in the Rumi year 1302, or 1886 by the Christian calendar. He had fallen asleep over the German botanist H. G. Reichenbach’s reclassification of
Acineta hrubyana,
a many-flowered orchid recently discovered in South America with stiff, unarticulated brown lips. Kamil has slept uneasily. In his dreams, an undertow of small, leather-skinned men, faceless, agile, pulled him down. Yakup, ever vigilant as are all residents of the wooden houses of Istanbul, must have come in and extinguished the oil lamp.

Kamil splashes water on his face from the basin on the marble washstand to dispel the numbing hollowness he always feels in those gray moments between waking and the first soothing intricacies of his daily routine—shaving, wrapping his fingers around the calm heat of a steaming glass of tea, turning the pages of the newspaper. The mirror shows a lean, tired face, thin lips pressed in a grim line beneath his mustache, eyes obscured by unruly black hair. A single bolt of gray arcs above his left brow. He quickly rubs pomade in his wet hands and slicks down his hair, which springs up again immediately. With an exasperated sigh, he turns to Yakup, who is holding out his trousers. Yakup is a thin, dour man in his thirties with high cheekbones and a long face. He waits with the preoccupied look of a lifelong servant no longer concerned with the formalities of rank, but simply intent on his task.

“I wonder what has happened,” Kamil mutters. Believing himself to be a man of even temperament, he is wary of the surfeit of emotion that would cause someone to pound on his door in the middle of the night.

Yakup helps him into a white shirt, stambouline frock coat, and yellow kid boots, intricately tooled. Made by a master bootmaker in Aleppo according to a method passed only from father to son, they are as soft as the skin at a woman’s wrist, but indestructible and impervious to both knife and water. Etched in the leather inside the shaft is a grid of tiny talismanic symbols that call on powers beyond those of the bootmaker to strengthen the wearer. Kamil is a tall man, slim and well muscled, but his slightly rounded shoulders and upward-tilting chin convey the impression that he is bending forward to inquire about something, a man lost in thought, bowed over old manuscripts. When he looks up, his moss green eyes contradict this otherworldliness with their force and clarity. He is a man who controls his environment by comprehending it. As a result, he is uninterested in things beyond his control and exasperated by that beyond his comprehension. Fate belongs in the first category. Family, friends, women inhabit the second. His hands are in constant motion, fingertips slipping over a short string of amber beads he keeps in his right-hand pocket. The amber feels warm, alive to his touch; he senses a pulse, his own, magnified. The fingers of his father and grandfather before him have worn tiny flat planes into the surface of the beads. When his fingers encounter these platforms, Kamil feels part of a mortal chain that settles him in his own time and place. It explains nothing, but it imparts a sense of peace.

He lives frugally, with a minimum of servants, in a small, ocher-colored wood-frame villa that he inherited from his mother. The house is set within a garden, shaded by old umbrella pines, cypress, and mulberry trees, on the Bosphorus shore above Beshiktash. The house had been part of his mother’s dowry. She spent her last years there with her two children, preferring the quiet waterfront community, where everyone knew her and had known her parents and grandparents, to the palatial mansion on a hill overlooking the Golden Horn from which his father, Alp Pasha, minister of gendarmes, had governed the province of Istanbul.

Kamil kept the boatman who for years had ferried his father on weekends to his wife’s villa. Every morning, Bedri the boatman’s knotted arms row Kamil down the strait to the Tophane quay, where a phaeton waits to carry him up the steep hill to the courthouse on the Grande Rue de Pera. On days when his docket is light, Kamil walks from the quay instead, delighted to be outdoors. After his mother died, Kamil had a small winter garden added to the back of the house. As magistrate, he has less time now for botanical expeditions that require weeks of travel, so he tends and studies the orchids he has gathered at his home from many corners of the empire.

Taking a deep breath, Kamil strides down the wide staircase to the entry hall. Waiting impatiently inside the circle of lamps held by Kamil’s servants is a short, red-faced man in traditional baggy trousers, his vest askew and one end of his cummerbund coming undone. His red felt cap is wound in a striped cloth. He shifts his weight restlessly from one sturdy leg to the other. Upon seeing Kamil, he bows deeply, touching the fingers of his right hand against his lips and then his forehead, in a sign of respect. Kamil wonders what has happened to agitate the headman to such an extent. A murder would have been brought to the attention of the district police first, not to the magistrate at his home in the middle of the night.

“Peace upon you. What brings you here at this early hour?”

“Upon you be peace, Pasha bey,” the headman stutters, his round face reddening further. “I am Ibrahim, headman of Middle Village. Please excuse my intrusion, but a matter has come up in my district that I think you must be told about.”

He pauses, his eyes darting into the shadows behind the lamps. Kamil signals to the servants to leave the lamps and withdraw.

“What is it?”

“Efendi, we found a body in the water by the Middle Village mosque.”

“Who found it?”

“The garbage scavengers.” These semiofficial collectors begin just before dawn to gather the refuse washed up overnight on the shores and streets of the city. After extracting useful items for themselves, they load the rest onto barges to be dumped into the Sea of Marmara, where the current disperses it.

Kamil turns his head toward the sitting room door and the window beyond. A thin wash of light silhouettes the trees in his garden. He sighs and turns back to the headman.

“Why not report this to the police chief of your district?”

Kamil shares jurisdiction with two other magistrates for the European side of the Bosphorus all the way from the grand mosques and covered markets in the south, where the strait loses itself in the Sea of Marmara, to the frieze of villages and stately summer villas extending along its wooded hills north to the Black Sea. Middle Village is little more than half an hour’s ride north of Kamil’s villa.

“Because it is a woman, bey,” the headman stutters.

“A woman?”

“A foreign woman, bey. We believe Frankish.”

A European woman. Kamil feels a chill of apprehension. “How do you know she is Frankish?”

“She has a gold cross on a chain around her neck.”

Kamil snaps impatiently, “She could just as easily be one of our Christian subjects.”

The headman looks at the marble-tiled floor. “She has yellow hair. And a heavy gold bracelet. And something else….”

Kamil sighs. “Why do I have to drag everything out of you? Can’t you simply tell me everything you saw?”

The headman looks up helplessly. “A pendant, bey, that opens like a walnut.” He cups his hands together, then parts them. “Inside one shell is the tughra of the padishah, may Allah support and protect him.” He reaches one cupped hand forward, then the other. “Inside the other are odd characters. We thought it might be Frankish writing.”

Kamil frowns. He can’t think of any explanation for the sultan’s personal signature to be on a piece of jewelry around the neck of a woman outside the sultan’s household, much less one with European writing. It makes no sense. The tughra, the sultan’s seal, is affixed on special possessions of the imperial household and onto official documents by a special workshop on the palace grounds. The tughranüvis, royal scribes charged with creating the intricate and elegant calligraphic design of the royal name, and the royal engravers are never allowed to leave the palace for fear that they could be kidnapped and forced to affix the signature to counterfeit items. Since the empire is so large and such forgeries might go unnoticed, the only solution is to keep the sultan’s “hands” close by his sleeves. Kamil has heard that these scribes carry a fast-acting poison on their person as a further precaution. Only three people hold the royal seal used for documents: the sultan himself, the grand vizier, and the head of the harem household, a trusted old woman who grew up in the palace. Royal objects made of gold, silver, and other valuable materials are engraved with the tughra only on their orders.

The headman’s roughened fingers clasp and unclasp as he waits before Kamil, head bowed, eyes shifting anxiously across the marble floor. Noticing his increased agitation, Kamil realizes the headman thinks Kamil blames him for awakening him. He eases the frown from his face. Kamil remembers that even law-abiding citizens have reason to fear the power of the police and courts. The headman is also a craftsman responsible to his guild master for his behavior and afraid of bringing official wrath down on his fellows. He probably brought the matter to the magistrate’s attention instead of the Middle Village police because of the gold found on the body. The local police might have stripped the body of valuables as efficiently as the garbage scavengers and he might be held responsible. But the sultan’s seal and the fact that the woman might be European also indicated that the matter would fall under Kamil’s jurisdiction of Pera. While the sultan had given foreigners and non-Muslim minorities of Pera the right to administer their own district and to judge cases related to personal matters, like inheritance and divorce, the population still relied on the palace for protection and the state courts for justice in other matters.

“You did well bringing this to my attention immediately.”

The headman’s face relaxes and he bows low. “Long life to the padishah. May Allah protect him.”

Kamil signals to Yakup, standing just outside the hall door. “Ready a horse and send messengers to Michel Efendi and the police chief responsible for Middle Village district. Ask them to meet me at the mosque and to keep away idlers until I arrive, especially the garbage scavengers. They’ll pick her clean. I want to see that pendant. The police are to make sure nothing is disturbed.” He adds in a low voice so that the headman does not hear, “And the chief is to make sure the police disturb nothing.”

“I sent a messenger to the local police, bey, and told my two sons to stay with the body until I returned.”

This headman has healthy ears, Kamil notes.

“You are to be commended, Headman Ibrahim. I will make sure the proper officials are notified of your diligence and desire to please the state.” He will ask his assistant to send a commendation to the headman’s guild boss.

“I rode here on a neighbor’s horse, Pasha bey, so I can show you the way.”


pulled the body out of the water and onto the quay and covered it with a worn sheet. Kamil pulls back the cloth, looking at the face first, out of respect and a certain reluctance. In the year since he was appointed magistrate, most of his cases have involved theft or violence, few death. Her hair is short, an unusual style, pale and fine as undyed silk. Strands of it cradle her face. A cool breeze strokes his neck, but he can feel the heat crouching in the air. Already he is sweating. After a few moments, he pulls the sheet away slowly, exposing her naked skin to the sky and the burning eyes of the men around her. The sharp ammonia stench of human excrement from the rocks at the base of the quay makes him jerk his nose away and step sideways toward the corpse’s legs.

15.4Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

The Sicilian's Mistress by Lynne Graham
Awakened by a Demoness by Heaton, Felicity
Enemy at the Gates by William Craig
Incarnation by Cornwall, Emma
The Dragon Heir by Chima, Cinda Williams
Mrs. Everything by Jennifer Weiner
An Improper Holiday by K.A. Mitchell
Call Me Jane by Anthea Carson
The Things We Knew by Catherine West