The Venetian explorer Marco Polo didn’t write his Travels alone: in 1298, he found himself imprisoned with a romance writer, Rustichello da Pisa. Their conversations gave birth to one of the most celebrated travel books in history.
Dawn was projecting its square, orange reflection upon the damp prison wall then the two men met eyes. None of them had had any sleep.
Rustichello reached for the water bucket, rinsed his face, and knew he had to act fast for his cellmate to yield to his wishes.
– Can you tell me about the Grand Khan and his leopard again?
Marco Polo rolled his eyes and sighed. Sometimes this grown, bearded man really reminded him of the children that filled the streets of Samarkand.
– Alright, but only briefly. I’ve told you that one a million times and we need to move on to the story of the old man of the mountain! You’ve never imagined anything similar in your life, I’m sure, not even in your Arthurian legends.
He adjusted the lump of hay he used as a pillow — not that it made it any more comfortable — and started telling the same story he told every morning.
The Grand Khan Hunting in Cyandu
— In the city of Cyandu there is a palace surrounded by sixteen miles of land filled with fountains, rivers, and meadows. The lord brought in a multitude of wild animals to feed his two hundred gyrfalcons. Once a week, the Grand Khan goes to visit them on horseback, carrying a leopard on the rump. When a beast pleases him, he releases the leopard. Then he feeds the dead beast to his gyrfalcons and hawks.
— Why does he do it? — asked the writer.
— He does it just for fun, just because he can. Will you let me go on now? Come on, you’ll love this one, I’m sure.
The Old Man of the Mountain
— So, there’s an old man in Mulecte known as Aloadin, who owns a wonderful garden enclosed between two mountains, where rivers of wine, milk, and honey flow among singing damsels, the most beautiful ones you’ve ever seen.
— What does he do with all that milk and honey?
— He kills his enemies. — Marco Polo was losing his patience. But he had no other option; he was in prison, after all.
— By drowning them?
— No, let me continue! The old man gathers little boys who dream of becoming knights and tells them the story of Muhammad’s paradise, describing exactly what’s in his garden. Then he gives them a sleeping drink and drags them through the garden gates; when they wake up, they think they died and woke up in Muslim paradise.
— And how does he kill them?
— They are not the ones he kills. Listen. When he wants to murder someone, he goes to the garden, chooses one boy and gives him the sleeping potion, taking him back to his mansion. When the boy opens his eyes, the old man convinces him he’s the Prophet and that he’ll let him back into Paradise only if he kills someone on the Prophet’s behalf. Do you get it now?
Rustichello rubbed his eyes, leaning against the cold stone wall.
The Dog-Faced People of Angamanam
— Is all this real?
— Down to the smallest detail. I didn’t see everything myself, but I heard the stories from the people of Mulecte, where I lived for some time. They’re so kind, so educated, not like the ones who live on the island of Angamanam. Those idolaters don’t even have a king to govern them! Every man on this huge island has a dog’s head, teeth, and eyes. They grow a lot of spices and are very cruel, for they devour anyone who comes in their way. Their fruits are different from the ones we…
Marco Polo held his breath as Rustichello closed his eyes and curled up on the ice-cold floor. Before falling asleep, he muttered something that sounded like “Book of Wonders“.
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