As a special treat for readers of the Alt Hist website we are making the whole of the first story of Alt Hist Issue 7 free online. So sit back and enjoy reading Jason Kahn’s “The Vivisectionist’s Daughter”. Free extracts from subsequent stories from Issue 7 will be published online over the coming weeks.
In “The Vivisectionist’s Daughter” by Jason Kahn the famous physician and anatomist Andreas Vesalius comes to Istanbul. The end of Vesalius’s life is shrouded in mystery. It is reported that he died in 1564 after being shipwrecked on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Jason Kahn gives us an alternative view of the last days of Vesalius through the eyes of Qadri, a construction worker in Istanbul who rescues Vesalius’s daughter from danger and from then on finds his fate being intertwined with Vesalius himself.
The Vivisectionist’s Daughter
by Jason Kahn
Qadri spent his short lunch break eating grape leaves as he sat in the shade of one of the many statues commemorating the Sultan. He stretched out his long, muscular frame, his back against the statue’s base as he watched the multitudes pass through Istanbul’s central bazaar. Qadri had spent all morning helping build a mosque designed by the architect Sinon. It was grueling work, hauling stone and mortar, but he was strong and it paid enough for Qadri to support himself, living on his own with no family.
He watched men of all sorts from places he would never see, some tall, some short. Some dark skinned like him, some pale, walking or riding or leading strange beasts, great and small. But one man caught his eye. Garbed head to toe in the robes of the desert tribes that roamed the plains away from the city, this one strode in a slightly different manner, hips swaying, arms held almost delicately. Then he realized—it was a woman.
A woman disguised as a man? Qadri shook his head. Allah alone could unravel the mysterious workings of the minds of women.
He was about to shrug it off as another of Istanbul’s strange sights, and he had witnessed many, when he noticed a figure stalking the disguised woman. Qadri corrected himself—three figures. He frowned, recognizing them as thieves who worked for Bekesh, the local crime lord. They strolled casually but in perfect synchrony, forming a triangle as they closed in on their prey. And she was completely unaware. They would be on her as soon as she crossed the bazaar and entered one of the shaded side streets.
Qadri did not know what spurred him to motion. Perhaps it was Allah’s teaching to protect the weak, or his curiosity regarding the woman seeking to hide her identity. Perhaps it was because of his hatred for Bekesh’s minions, always seeking to extort and steal from those who lived in near poverty such as himself. Whatever the case, Qadri found himself suddenly up and moving on a swift path to intercept the woman.
He shouldered his way through the milling throng, avoiding a rearing camel and a man with chickens squawking in their cages as they swung toward his head. Qadri felt the familiar oppressive heat on the back of his neck as he waded into the press, reaching the robed figure and falling in at her side.
He spoke loudly, as if meeting a friend. “Ho, Tarik, it is good to see you, cousin! Come, my sister will make us a meal that will put the Sultan’s table to shame!”
Qadri reached and grabbed for her. Beneath the robes, he felt a slender arm. The muscles stiffened and she was about to stop, but he muttered quietly, “Keep moving if you wish to avoid being accosted.”
He heard a soft intake of breath and before she could turn her head to look, Qadri muttered again, “There are three of them, thieves, and they will rob you and leave you for dead or worse if you do not follow my lead.”
Qadri could almost sense her swallowing in fear. Then a short nod of her head and a gesture for him to lead on.
He pulled her along, not so rapidly as to arouse suspicion. At the periphery of his vision, Qadri made note of the thieves, who were keeping their distance now that he had intervened. But their hesitation would not last long.
Qadri’s voice proclaimed loudly as he carried on a one-sided conversation with his “cousin”, all the while searching for the right opportunity. Just before they reached the other side of the bazaar, he saw it.
Four overburdened slaves carried a fat merchant on a palanquin to his right, while to his left a man pushed a cart with a cage full of tree monkeys, doubtless entertainment for some noble’s private zoo. Ahead of him several horses were being led, their eyes covered by blinders so they would not be spooked by the crowd pressing in on all sides.
“Be ready,” he murmured, moving with her to the front of the palanquin. Qadri offered a silent prayer of forgiveness to Allah and delivered a sharp kick to the knee of the litter-bearer closest to him. With a cry of pain, the bearer went down, as did the merchant and the palanquin. Qadri jerked the robed woman out of the way as the whole contraption tipped and tumbled into the monkey cart. The wooden cage smashed open and out poured the monkeys, eager for escape. Cries and shouts went up as traffic stopped, the throng trapped in a human knot. Then a monkey landed on one of the horses.
The horse let out a whinny of terror and bucked, lashing out with its hooves, spooking the other horses, each of whom followed suit. Now the mass of people started to panic, trampling one another to get out of the way of the frenzied animals. Qadri smiled as he pulled the woman in his wake, noticing the thieves engulfed in the growing calamity as men and animals sought to escape the crush. He thought he heard one of them curse him as he dragged the woman out of the bazaar into a side alley.
He felt immediately soothed by the covering shade but he did not stop, leading her through several turns at breakneck speed until finally he found a simple, unmarked doorway hidden in shadow. Qadri propelled the woman through it, plunging them into darkness as they descended a steep stairway that twisted and turned, quickly becoming a maze of passages.
A few more turns and they entered what appeared a watery underworld. It was a torch-lit cavern, immense in size, within which resided a small dark lake, barely a ripple disturbing the placid surface. The walls were tiled with geometric patterns that ran all the way to the ceiling.
Qadri sat with the woman on a path that ran around the water. He spoke in a low voice, not wishing to disturb the hushed silence that reined in the chamber save for a distant drip, drip, drip. “We are safe here. We can wait until they tire of searching, and then you can return.”
She turned to Qadri and for the first time he saw her eyes, the only visible part of her. They were pale blue like a cloudless summer sky, framed by white skin and delicate eyebrows. She was a foreigner, but she spoke Turkish, albeit with a clipped accent. “What is this place?”
Qadri smiled, trying to put her at ease. “One of the great cisterns, I helped shore it up a few months ago. That’s how I know how to get down here. I am Qadri. What is your name, if I may ask?”
She dipped her head. “My name is Anne. I thank you for your kindness in aiding me.”
Qadri wished he knew of a polite way of asking her to remove the veils and wrappings covering her face so he could see her, but he did not. “Why are you traveling in such disguise?”
She looked at Qadri, perhaps deciding how much to say. “My father and I are but recently arrived in the city. He is a physician of some renown but we do not wish our presence known. I was returning home after making certain arrangements with agents of the Sultan’s household on my father’s behalf but it appears my identity has been discovered.”
Qadri shook his head. “No, they were common thieves who marked you as a target, seeing that you were a woman in man’s garb, as I did. They have no idea who you are.” He was still confused about something. “Why would a physician have a need for secrecy? What kind of doctor is he?”
Qadri detected a trace of sadness in her voice. “My father has powerful enemies. I am glad I was not recognized aside from my true sex, else it would have made things difficult. As it is, things will be difficult enough for my father. You see, his aid was requested in exchange for help with his studies. But if we are discovered, we will probably have to keep traveling.”
Qadri recalled a rumor from the market. “Is it because the Sultan is ill? Is your father come to help with that?”
By her quick intake of breath, Qadri knew he had it right, but he felt sorry for prying. “I apologize for my rudeness,” he said, dipping his head. “Please allow me to see you home safely, and I will trouble you no more.”
There was no hesitation this time. “I thank you, it is much appreciated.”
After waiting a few more minutes, they emerged via a different exit away from the central bazaar. The sun hung like a giant orange above the houses and stalls they passed. The buildings changed from mansions with hanging verandas to flimsier dwellings as the surroundings became seedier. They walked with no apparent urgency, Anne still clothed like a desert man. Qadri kept checking, but there was no pursuit in sight. At last her directions led them to a home at the edge of the Persian Quarter, not terribly far from Qadri’s own meager shack in the Poor Quarter.
Qadri looked at the three-story affair, cracked walls, boarded windows, sagging in a row of similar buildings.
He raised an eyebrow. “This is where you are staying?”
Anne bowed her head. “As I said, we do not wish to attract attention.” Then she grabbed Qadri’s hand, her smooth, cool skin sending a shock through him. “You have my thanks. You have done me and my father a great service today.” A whirl of robes and Anne was gone, disappearing inside the half-opened doorway.
So disconcerted was Qadri at a female touching him that he stood there rooted, unable to respond. Then he smiled and shook his head, happy to have done Allah’s will in helping someone in need. Qadri’s good mood lasted the rest of the day as he returned to the site where he worked, his pay docked for returning late from lunch. His mood lasted into the evening when he returned home to his hovel in the Poor Quarter, his dreams that night filled with sky-blue eyes that held the promise of heaven.
The next day Qadri grunted and sweated under the hot sun, toiling under the direction of the pitiless overseer as he helped place huge flagstones in the foundation of a temple he would never be allowed to enter. He let his muscles work as his thoughts wandered, still preoccupied with the mysterious foreigner with the alluring eyes. Perhaps it was this state of mind that led to Qadri’s inattention as he took his usual path during lunch toward the shade of his favorite statue. The path took him through a narrow alley hidden from view.
This was where he was stabbed. Unnoticed, the figure whispered in Qadri’s ear: “A warning to those who interfere with Bekesh.” Then searing pain in Qadri’s lower back, the warmth of his own blood as it flowed from the gash. Qadri fell to his knees, incapacitated as the world swam before his eyes.
The pain was excruciating as jagged barbs spread to his lower limbs. He clenched his jaw, gathered his will and rose, almost passing out from the fire that laced through his back. Qadri grabbed the wall to keep upright. He needed help, but had no money to pay for a proper doctor or even a less reputable one.
He pressed his hand against his lower back; it came away red and dripping. He ripped his shirt into strips, tying them around his waist hoping to staunch the wound. Qadri’s vision started to blur, but in his desperation, he realized there was one place he could go. He launched into motion, keeping to the shadows, pausing frequently to lean against the alley walls, panting and sweating until he felt strong enough to continue. If he allowed himself to sink to the ground, which seemed an ever sweeter proposition, he knew he would not rise again.
Qadri prayed to Allah for strength and gritted his teeth against the pain, at last reaching the edge of the Persian Quarter, his vision constricting to a long tunnel at the end of which was a rickety three-story dwelling. Icy numbness had spread down his legs, forcing him to stumble toward the entrance. It took a supreme effort to raise his arm and pound on the doors, and it seemed as if he watched from outside himself as he stood there swaying, waiting.
He did not remember sinking to his knees, but when the doors opened it was from that position that he looked up, able to focus only on eyes that were wide in shock and recognition. And of the purest blue. “Anne …” he gasped. Then everything faded.
For a long time Qadri felt nothing. Then once again there was pain in his lower back, receding eventually to a steady ache. It slowly dawned on him that any physical discomfort meant he was probably alive. Qadri opened his eyes, finding himself face down on a narrow table. In his field of view there were other tables on which lay bodies, barely covered, unmoving.
What is this place? Perhaps I am dead after all and Allah has consigned me to hell for my sins.
He tried to move, feeling a tugging pain in his back that was decidedly better than the fiery agony of before. Still, he let out a low moan. A shuffling sound followed and soon a face looked directly into Qadri’s. The man was middle-aged, pale skinned with a brown, bushy beard and eyes that burned with an intensity that bordered on madness. Or genius. Qadri could not say which.
The man’s voice was an urgent whisper. “Who sent you? Are you a follower of Galen?”
Then another figure came into view. Long, raven hair framed a heart shaped face with full lips and delicate features. And eyes of clear blue. “Father,” she said, scolding. “I have told you who he is. Do you think I would lie to you? Go and continue your studies.” She shooed the man away. He left, muttering darkly to himself while making vague gestures to no one.
Anne knelt, bringing her face inches from Qadri’s. She placed a cool hand on his forehead and Qadri quickly revised his opinion of where he had been sent in the afterlife.
“Your fever is down.” She looked at him, her smile hesitant before looking away. “My father saved your life, which is no more than he should have done after the kindness you showed me. But he is ever suspicious as you can see. I take it your wounds were on my account?”
From his position, Qadri shrugged and made to speak, but his voice was little more than a raw rasp.
“Oh,” Anne said. She held a cup of water to Qadri’s lips, tipping it gently as the cool liquid slaked his thirst. Then she helped him sit upright, her touch an experience Qadri treasured despite the pain in his back. After a moment, he realized he had no shirt on.
He looked down, his cheeks tinged red at his lack of decency in front of a woman. Anne smiled and gave him a loose vest to wear, which he quickly shrugged on.
“I assure you,” she said, amused, “I have seen the male form.”
Qadri’s face darkened, looking around him at the bodies. “What is this place?”
Her gesture encompassed the room. “My father’s workplace. He is Andreas Vesalius, a great physician. He fixed your wound.”
Qadri’s hand reached behind him to touch his back. The stab wound was covered by a square patch of cloth. The skin beneath it felt tender, but much improved from before.
“My father stitched it closed, including some of the arteries,” Anne continued. “You lost much blood, but you appear to be out of danger.”
Qadri bowed his head. “I thank you and your father. How long have I been asleep?”
She sat on the table beside him, thrilling Qadri with her nearness. Her skin smelled like rose petals and honey. “Over a day,” she said.
Qadri started. “Then I must go, or another will take my place building the new mosque. The overseer may have already replaced me, and I cannot afford to miss a day’s wages.” He made to rise but pain in his back and a wave of nausea crippled him.
Anne made tsk, tsk noises as she eased him back onto the table. “Come now, you have suffered a grievous injury on my behalf. You must stay until you are fully healed. We are in your debt and it is the least we can do. Hush,” her soft finger on Qadri’s lips stifled any further protest. “I will hear no more of it.”
Thinking Allah could have decreed a far worse fate for him, Qadri acquiesced. With her aid, he lowered himself from the table to a chair, exclaiming in surprise when he found it had wooden wheels on the bottom. Using the marvelous apparatus, Anne transported him to a room with a window that overlooked an inner courtyard. This room was much less grim than the one with the bodies, marked by simple furniture, a bed and thick, leather-bound books lying about.
She placed Qadri by the window, sitting across from him on a small stool while she fed him figs and cheese. Qadri was famished, finding the cheese like none he had ever tasted.
Her face grew sad. “It is from home, one of my few reminders. We are from Brussels.”
Qadri had heard of it, but only as one of the faraway lands from which the countless heathens came. He poured more water down his throat. “What does your father do in that room? It seems unholy.”
She raised an eyebrow and picked up one of the books. Qadri opened it, amazed at the gruesome pictures it contained. Elaborate detailings of the human form, intricately labeled body parts as if the skin had been stripped away, revealing layers of strange tissues and structures.
“It is like a book of ghouls,” he whispered.
Anne laughed, touching Qadri on the hand and leaving tingles where her skin brushed his. “These pictures are but the truth of the human body, down to our very bones and sinews. My father studies the dead to increase our knowledge of the living.”
Qadri thought about the bodies in the next room. “He … looks inside them?”
Anne nodded. “Yes, it is his life’s work. Cutting them open, studying them.” She saw the revulsion on Qadri’s face. “It is such work that enabled him to save your life.”
Qadri could not deny how he had benefited, hoping Allah would see it the same way. “Is this why you are in hiding?”
She frowned, nodding. “My father is a brilliant man, but he has enemies. There are many who do not approve of his studies. There are others who cling to the teachings of Galen, which my father has proven wrong. There was an accusation; a powerful family accused him of performing his studies on … of cutting open a living person.” She shuddered. “There are some physicians and religious officials who have seized on this, denouncing him. Such rumors have caused him, us, to be expelled from several courts. But there are still many who seek his aid. We were traveling when we were contacted by the Sultan’s household, and so we came here.”
Qadri was about to ask something else, but she hushed him. “Come, you must rest. Lie down and sleep. When you awaken, I will check your dressing.”
In truth, he was extremely tired, but it was not the terrible near-death exhaustion of before. Anne helped him lay down—on his stomach so he would not disturb the dressing—and he was asleep before he felt her touch leave him.
It was the middle of the night when Qadri awoke, his stomach rumbling from hunger. He thanked Allah for the fruit left in a basket by his bed, remembering to include Anne in his expression of gratitude. Awake now, Qadri levered himself back into the moving chair and wheeled himself out of his room toward the light at the end of the hall, which ended at the chamber of the dead.
Qadri paused in the doorway, swallowing nervously as he watched Anne’s father bent over a body, his hands moving as if they had a life of their own. Light from lanterns along the wall flashed off the tiny blades that moved in slow, precise strokes, while Andreas’ eyes seemed to burn with a light of their own.
Andreas paused, his back to Qadri. “You may move closer to observe, if you wish.”
Qadri coughed. “That is not necessary.”
Andreas chuckled. “There is no need to be squeamish.” His hands continued their slow dance as he spoke. “No doubt this seems like some sort of blasphemy to you. Well, you are not alone. But I assure you, my work will change medicine for all time.”
Qadri found his voice. “How so?”
Andreas snorted. “Have you heard the common belief that women and men do not have the same number of ribs? It is a religious concept.” He said the word like a curse.
Qadri replied that he had not actually heard that.
Andreas shrugged. “It is something from the Bible. Regardless, my work has proved it completely false, like many of the teachings of that so-called master of physicians, Galen.” Qadri had never heard of Galen, but said nothing..
Andreas continued, his voice becoming more strident. “But do you know Galen’s greatest failing? He thought the soul was divided into three parts, the brain, heart and liver. What utter nonsense! That will be my ultimate contribution, my life’s work. I will discover the soul’s true nature and relationship with the human body. Then none will dare cast aspersions on my work, and I will be revered above the Greek charlatan. In fact, if what I suspect is true, the soul is in fact a much more metaphysical construct, tied to one’s very life force and consciousnesses opposed to being housed in a specific organ.”
Qadri knew from Allah’s teachings that the soul was connected to the body, but he had never heard it was connected to one’s life essence. Still, he was not about to gainsay the man who had saved his life.
Andreas paused again, turning his head. “You should be resting. My daughter would be displeased if you hindered your own recovery.”
Qadri bowed his head. “Yes, I will sir.”
Andreas nodded. “Good, perhaps fortune has brought you here for a reason. I will speak with my daughter about whether you can be of further help to me. Naturally, you will be well paid for your efforts. And I think my daughter would appreciate your company.”
Qadri stuttered his thanks, but Andreas waved him off and continued with his work, muttering about the soul and cursing Galen with every other breath.
Qadri returned to his room and laid down. His last thoughts before sleep were that he would be eternally grateful to spend more time in Anne’s presence despite his misgivings over her father’s morbid work.
The next morning and during the days that followed, Anne continued to nurse Qadri back to health. She talked to him about her and her father’s lives, their travels from Brussels to Italy and to the Court of Philip II, how she devoted herself to helping Andreas and his genius. Qadri told Anne about his own life, how his parents were killed in a pestilence when he was young, forcing him to fend for himself on the streets, how he had carved out a barely sustainable life as a laborer along with countless other poor menial workers in Istanbul. Whenever Anne mentioned her father’s work, he refrained from comment, not wishing to offend her. Frequently their hands touched, as if by chance, causing each to blush and look away. But that did not stop their hands from touching.
After several days, Qadri could walk normally, and Anne and her father sat him down and asked him if he would serve as Anne’s guide and protector as she went about the city serving as liaison between Andreas and the Sultan’s household. Qadri looked at Anne’s eyes brimming with hope and agreed without hesitation.
Qadri performed his new duties with skill and aplomb. He led Anne through the cisterns and underground passages to meet officials at clandestine locations, watching as she handed them compounds and medicines made by her father in response to reports about the Sultan’s symptoms.
Qadri, though, was not always so comfortable with his new role. It was midnight when he and Anne stood in the flickering torchlight that marked the courtyard behind the city constable’s jail. The constable himself, a man of great girth with a scar across the bridge of his nose, presided as a cart was rolled out through the jail’s double gated entrance.
He looked at Qadri, his thick arms crossed over his belly. “I do not know what you want with these, but fortunately I am paid not to ask.” He beckoned for two of his guards and they pushed until the cart stopped next to them. Qadri saw a dirty arm poking out from under a burlap covering.
The constable noticed and stuck the limb back underneath. “Here you are, ten criminals, killed within the last day or two.”
Qadri frowned while Anne gave the constable a sack of coins and a note stamped with the seal of the Sultan’s royal household. The guards pushed the cart as Qadri led the way via back alleys and hidden corridors.
Anne paced beside him as Qadri constantly scanned for unfriendly eyes. His voice was a soft murmur against the velvet darkness. “Your father has told me of his quest.”
Anne nodded. “His search for the soul. He believes it will be his greatest legacy.”
Qadri hesitated. “Do you not find his studies …” He did not wish to cause any affront. “Somewhat ghoulish?”
She put her hand to her mouth, and Qadri was surprised to see she was suppressing laughter. “I am not some young, delicate thing. I have witnessed my father’s work all my life. I would venture I have seen more of the dead than the living.” She looked at Qadri, a sly smile on her full lips. “I assure you, you need not worry for my innocence.” She slipped her hand in his. “Or are you one of the religious types who deem such activities to be blasphemy?”
A part of him did, but he would never admit it and risk her taking away the glorious feel of her soft hand in his. Instead he changed the subject. “How is the Sultan?”
She gave his hand a squeeze. “From what my father says, his health is starting to improve.”
He paused. “And when he is fully recovered, what then?”
She gave a delicate shrug. “Why, I suppose we will continue our travels.” She gave him a sidelong glance, her eyes sparkling in the gloom. “Have you ever considered traveling? Seeing the world? I could speak with my father, I know he would appreciate your help.”
Qadri could barely get the words out. “And … you?”
She gave his hand an extra long squeeze. “Perhaps I find you useful, too.” They both blushed as they walked in silence, leading the cart of dead bodies through the darkness. For a moment, Qadri thought he felt eyes on them as they walked, but it was merely a few scuttling rats. Then they arrived at Vesalius’.
The guards waited while Andreas himself came down to inspect his wares. Anne made to take hold of one of the bodies, but Qadri stepped forward, refusing to let her handle them. She gave him an utterly endearing look and leaned into him. “My protector,” she murmured into his ear before disappearing into the house. The guards left, having been paid to accompany them and nothing more.
Together, Qadri and Andreas hoisted the dead criminals inside, carrying them up to his room of study and dissection. Qadri tried not to look at the bodies, preferring to focus on the gossamer thrill of Anne’s breath on his neck.
Qadri grunted and strained, surprised that the dead were so heavy. Finally he set the last one down, Vesalius laying thin blankets over the inert forms. Qadri wiped sweat off his brow, remarking to himself that it looked eerily like a room of silent sleepers tucked beneath their sheets. His eyes narrowed. Was that a wrist twitching? A cover trembling ever so slightly? Surely it was just a shadow from the torches.
Qadri was startled by Vesalius’ hand on his shoulder. “My thanks for your labors, my young friend. You may retire, my daughter will require your services in the morning, I am sure.”
Qadri nodded and took his leave, glad to lay down in his bed. That night he dreamed of faraway places, Anne at his side.
He thought his dream was reality, Anne’s soft hands against his chest, her voice calling his name.
His eyes snapped open. Anne was sitting beside him, her face pinched with worry, her voice urgent. By the blackness outside the window, only a few hours had passed.
“We are undone! Word has reached us that our enemies know we are here. We must flee immediately!”
Qadri clasped her hands in his, thinking they must have been seen the previous night. “Surely, no one would dare interfere with the physician entrusted with the Sultan’s health?”
Her mouth took a hard line. “It was the Sultan’s wife who sought our aid and her trusted staff who has helped us. Others in the court are not so sympathetic and would betray us to oppose her. It is ever such with politics in the courts of rulers.”
Qadri rubbed sleep from his eyes. “So now what?”
“We have an escape planned, a small boat that will take us to the mouth of the Bosporus, where a larger vessel awaits and will take us through the Marmora. Passage is already paid. My father is gathering his books and instruments at this moment. But royal guards are on the way to arrest him. Will you help us?”
Her voice shook with distress and all Qadri wanted to do was fold her in his arms. “Of course I will.”
A smile shined in her eyes for a moment, sending a flutter through his heart. Then she returned to the matter at hand. “Come, let us make haste.”
Qadri rose, throwing on a few items of clothing and hurrying after Anne, who led him into her father’s private room. Vesalius was a whirl of motion, grabbing books and instruments and shoving them into different satchels. They each grabbed as many bags as they could carry and hurried downstairs, Qadri leading the way through the darkened streets until they arrived at a small dock on a tributary leading to the Bosporus.
The first glimmerings of dawn painted the wooden planks pale grey as the three paused before a small, single-masted boat with a pair of oars. It could fit the three of them and no more.
That was when two figures materialized out of the gloom in front of them, long knives held out. Qadri’s eyes narrowed as he let his bags fall to the ground, recognizing them as some of the thieves who had tried to waylay Anne in the bazaar.
One of them, tall and lanky with a drooping moustache, spoke, his lips forming a wicked smile around broken teeth. “It seems Bekesh will pay a tidy sum to have a nice chat with you. Why don’t you come with us?”
Qadri fixed the thief and his shorter companion with a glowering look. “Out of our way. We have no time for scum such as you.”
The tall one laughed, his voice hooting across the dock. “Ho, listen to the motherless laborer.” Then his face grew serious. “You we do not need alive, so why don’t you scurry along before I stab you again?”
The two started advancing. Qadri instinctively moved Anne behind him with one arm as Vesalius, to Qadri’s surprise, remained at his right, a small, sharp blade in his hand.
The two came within arm’s reach when Vesalius’ hand became a blur, weaving a pattern of swift slashes. The short thief fell, blood spurting from an artery in his neck. Qadri was forced to react as the tall thief closed on him, thrusting with his blade. Qadri dodged, the knife catching and tangling in his shirt. It was a fortuitous occurrence, stalling the thief for a precious second as Qadri gripped his arm and slammed his fist into the other’s face with the strength he had gained from years of hefting stone and mortar.
The thief dropped next to his accomplice. The pre-dawn’s stillness was then broken by a gasp, and Qadri turned to see Anne shrinking away from the third thief who had snuck up behind them. Qadri pulled Anne away just in time to avoid the thief’s dagger, which continued on its path directly into Vesalius’ stomach. The physician bent over in surprised agony as Qadri recovered in time to grab the assailant by the hair, forcing his head down sharply as Qadri brought his knee up. There was a crack and the third thief dropped to the ground with the others.
Qadri turned to see Anne kneeling over her father, ripping open Vesalius’ shirt to inspect the wound. Her face was grim when she turned to Qadri. “Come, we must get my father into the boat. I will tend to him as you guide us to the Bosporus.”
Qadri took Vesalius’ arms and Anne his legs as they lowered him gently into the small vessel, and none too soon. The tramp of boots on cobbles reached their ears as Qadri cast off—soldiers sent to arrest them.
Qadri took to the oars, pulling with long, even strokes while Anne tended to her father, her hands moving with the same surety as Vesalius’. Qadri, though, was under no illusions. He had seen the wound and knew it was mortal. He also suspected they would not reach their supposed safe passage. Surely their enemies would anticipate such a plan. But Qadri could easily hide the boat in any number of inlets that were known to him, biding until they could make their escape. He hoped Allah would forgive him, but he found he did not care much if Vesalius lived or died. In truth, Anne was all he cared or thought about. He already saw their lives together, and the thought brought a joy to his heart that could light all the lamps in the Sultan’s palace.
His musings were interrupted as Anne came next to him. Her face was drawn, tears marring her perfect cheeks. Qadri reached out to wipe them, taking her for one glorious, comforting embrace in his arms.
She faced him. “He has asked to speak with you.”
Anne took the oars while Qadri went forward to sit beside Vesalius, who lay with death’s pallor over him, his skin ashen, crimson seeping from his stomach.
Vesalius placed his hand on Qadri’s arm, his touch cold as ice. “I do not fear death, young man. But my work, that is the important thing, that is what must continue.”
Qadri did not see how that would be possible, but he did not wish to contradict a dying man.
Vesalius’ voice was a rattling chuckle. “All this time I was determined to find the soul’s true nature. But only now, as I feel my own slipping away, do I truly comprehend … Before, I did not understand. But how could I? Galen would be amused, I suppose.”
He coughed, blood coming from his lips. His eyes lost focus for a moment before re-orienting on Qadri. “But now, as my last breath draws near, I understand its true nature, my young friend. And how I must make use of mine. ”
Qadri gasped as Vesalius’ grip became hard as iron and an excruciating burning sensation flowed from Vesalius’ hand up Qadri’s arm, filling his entire body. Qadri could not move, transfixed by Vesalius’ eyes, which burned like twin pits of fire. Darkness descended like night over Qadri’s mind, his last sensations the slow rock of the boat upon the water, and Anne’s distant voice, desperate. “Father, no! Please!” Then there was nothing.
Enzo owned one of the most prosperous inns in all of Padua, catering to the well to do of the city. As per his usual, he was enjoying a glass of wine during the slow period of late afternoon when the strange pair walked in, notable for their dissimilarities. The young man was tall and broad, dark skinned like an Easterner, while the young woman was fair and pale. He walked with a confident strut and his eyes flashed, while she stood at his side, eyes downcast, demure. He was dressed in the latest Italian fashion, while she was more simply clothed.
“Your finest room, my good man,” the young man said.
Ever curious, Enzo could not determine their relationship. Brother and sister? That seemed impossible given their coloration. A couple? Equally strange, but he supposed he had seen stranger.
Enzo rose, solicitous. “How long will you be staying?”
The young man smiled. “Indefinitely if your lodgings please me. I have just been appointed chair of surgery and anatomy at the university.”
Enzo’s eyes widened. “Indeed?” He snapped his fingers and his son, Paolo, appeared.
“Take our new guests to the room overlooking the avenue, and then see to their luggage,” Enzo said to his son.
Paolo led the two away, and as they passed, for a moment, the young lady’s eyes met Enzo’s. There was a sadness there that made the wine in Enzo’s mouth lose all flavor.
The two new lodgers followed Enzo’s son up the winding staircase and the proprietor heard the young man mutter something to his companion. Her response was in a low, soft voice, but Enzo could have sworn he heard her say, “Yes, father.”
But that made little sense. Surely, he had misheard.
About the Author
Jason Kahn lives in Brooklyn with his lovely wife amidst all of the other young families fleeing Manhattan for more space. His online series, The Dark InSpectre, is soon to be released by Pro Se Productions. His debut novel, Badge of Lies, was released in June, 2013 by the same publishing house. His most recent story, “Cold Comfort”, appears in the July issue of Abandoned Towers, while his story “The Killer Within” was recently released as an e-book by Damnation Books. Other stories of his have appeared in Baen’s Universe, The Best of Gryphonwood 2007, and Strange Stories of Sand and Sea (Fine Tooth Press, 2008). When not writing, Jason enjoys rooting for his University of Michigan Wolverines and chasing after two mischievous gnomes who claim to be his children.
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