A dead man calls out from the bottom of a well, into which his battered body had been dumped. The souls of the dead can still interact with the living in the world of late sixteenth century Istanbul, the center of the Ottoman Empire.
A former miniaturist apprentice named Black returns to Istanbul after a twelve-year absence to visit his uncle Enishte Effendi, also his former teacher. Black learns that miniaturist Elegant Effendi has been missing and may have been harmed. He also learns that Enishte Effendi has been secretly commissioned by the sultan to illustrate a book in the European manner to extol the glories of the sultan and his reign. The plan is for this illustrated volume to be presented to Western diplomats to circulate through Europe as evidence of Sultan Murat III’s power, wealth, and intellect.
While Black and Enishte Effendi are discussing art in general as well as the sultan’s secret commission (an open secret at the sultan’s court), a messenger arrives with news that Elegant Effendi has in fact been murdered and that his corpse has been found at the bottom of a well. Murat is angry that one of his illustrators has been murdered. As a knowledgeable outsider, Black is charged with finding the murderer within three days, or he will suffer the consequences. Disturbing his mental equilibrium even further, Black catches a glimpse of Shekure, Enishte Effendi’s widowed daughter. Black has long been infatuated with Shekure and devises strategies to be alone with her so that he might declare his love, a passion about which Shekure is ambivalent.
Black interviews all the illustrators attached to the sultan’s court, men he had known as boys when they all apprenticed together. Black attempts to ascertain which camp each illustrator falls into—traditionalist or innovator. He needs to know the...
(The entire section is 754 words.)