When they returned to the house with Kirsten in tow, Ali Pasha was not surprised to find Chief Examiner Ibin Mohamed Abbass, Lord of the Society of the Mahdi waiting for him. He could hardly have expected more if he had sent the man an engraved invitation. “Lord Abbass,” he said, and emphasized the latter half of the man’s name, which caused Kirsten to hide and swallow her laugh. “What brings you to my humble home?”
“I have been anxious over your disappearance.” The little man shared polite bows with the scholar. “I was curious that it happened at the same time your former guests disappeared. May I ask where you have been?”
Ali Pasha put on a sad face and invited the man inside. He instructed Manomar to take Kirsten to the women whom he said were in the next room. “And wait there.” Ali Pasha instructed, sternly. Manomar bowed in a way, which indicated he understood. He and Kirsten would be able to hear everything that was going on from the other room.
“My former guests!” Ali Pasha looked offended for a second. “How sweet they talked. How knowledgeable they seemed. I am embarrassed to say they fooled me completely. Even when your men came to collect them for the slave market, I thought it was a terrible mistake. I went to my neighbors and borrowed the money to buy them back, but then I heard that you took them to be examined, and I finally realized that I had been played for the fool.” Ali Pasha sat heavily in a chair and indicated that the Examiner should sit as well. It was a good performance, but the question was whether or not Lord Abbass bought it.
The little man sat slowly. “But this does not explain where you have been during these days.”
“The wilderness.” Ali Pasha said quickly and waved his hand at some distant, obscure places while he added just enough curiosity to his tone of voice to suggest that the answer should have been obvious. “When I realized the truth, I was truly embarrassed. I came and grabbed my trusty servant, Manomar, and we headed for the wilderness.” He waved his hand again. “You know, I am only truly happy when I am exploring new things. Thus is the life of an inquirist, I’m afraid.” He sighed heavily, having learned how from Omar the Idiot.
“Just the two of you?” Abbass was not convinced. “There were no others with you, not even guards for your protection?”
“Well, yes, just the two of us.” Ali Pasha paused as if considering his words. “I see now that just the two of us was rather foolish, but to be sure, I was so upset I could hardly think straight. Did you know there is a ridge some many miles inland, and from there we could see all the way to the River, and even see the smoke fires rising from New Ark?”
The Examiner did not answer right away. Instead, like a good lawyer, he rephrased his previous question in the hope of catching Ali Pasha in a lie. “So just you and your servant went off into the wild without any concern of wild animals, savages or anything.”
“Yes,” Ali Pasha said firmly. “It sounds a bit crazy now to think of it. I suppose I will have to give thanks for our safe return. Perhaps a donation to the Mosque would be in order.”
“And with no equipment, no tents or otherwise?”
“Manomar had his long knife, and we were able to make a shelter from the trees and branches, and we could hunt a little. I confess, I have lost weight, but my wives will certainly not object to that.” Ali Pasha stood and pretended to model for the Examiner, seeking affirmation with his eyes for his trimmer figure. The examiner nodded politely, though he would have no way of knowing if Ali Pasha lost weight or not.
“And we did run into a savage, to be honest,” Ali Pasha confirmed. “But I never considered that possibility until there he was, painted face and all. His name was Petar or Petras, I am not sure how you say it. You know how difficult communication between two languages can be, but I shared a simple string of beads I had around my neck and he shared a rabbit, and then he was gone, just like that.” Ali Pasha clapped his hands once, sharply.
“A remarkable encounter,” Abbass said as if this story was becoming more, not less difficult to believe.
Ali Pasha pretended sudden excitement at that point. “But now I cannot hold my tongue any longer,” he said as his whole attitude changed. He realized that he also had to change the subject. “Please, I must tell someone and it would be an honor to speak of this to you.” Abbass indicated that he was listening, and Ali Pasha began with a flourishing of his sleeves.
“On the fifth day, in the midst of my evening prayers, when the sun was at my back and I was facing the smoke in the East, a most remarkable thing happened. Praise Allah, but I was inspired as I have never been before, which tells me well that the Holy Prophet has not abandoned me for my foolishness with those wicked people. Come and see.” He stood and stepped over to a worktable in the corner where he began to open boxes containing stamps.
“Look, look,” he said. “When I was leaving my home in Andalucia, I had these stamps made to mark whatever specimens I might find and keep them together in an organized fashion. You see, I have a stamp for every letter and form in the Arabic tongue. Do you see how these make the word for fish?” He laid them on the table upside down. They formed a mirror image of the word, but it could be read.
“I see,” Abbass said, and he looked at Ali Pasha with new eyes of suspicion, which Ali Pasha ignored.
“It came to me in a flash that if I set these and others in a box where they would not move around, do you see, I could make a whole page of words at once. I think the paper would have to be flatly pressed against the inked stamps, but I could make many pages of the same information. Do you see what I am saying? And then if I could change the stamps around, I could make a second page and a third.”
“I see.” The Examiner stroked his beard though he did not sound impressed.
“You see, but you do not understand.” Ali Pasha turned and took the man by the arms. “I could print or press the Koran much faster and cleaner than all the scribes in Mecca. People could at last have the Holy Words to touch with their own hands and read with their own eyes. Don’t you understand what this means?”
“Yes.” The Examiner spoke without any heart in his words. “Moveable type,” he added in a language, which he always said was his native tongue, and claimed was an obscure North African dialect. In the past, Ali Pasha would not have given it another thought, but now he understood the words, exactly, even if he had to let on that he did not understand.
“And the girl you just purchased?” The Examiner asked.
“Ah!” Ali Pasha briefly widened his eyes and spoke as if this was all some great secret and he was letting a good friend in on the ground floor. “I have seen this one sorting fish by the sea and laying them out for sale in the market. She has a good eye. She knows a straight line, she already knows how to work a press to extract the fish oils, and she claims her mother taught her to read and write a most unusual thing in a slave. I will train her to run my press. Do you see? She will lay my letters in a straight line and press ink instead of oil, do you think?”
“Yes.” The Examiner was still not impressed. “But I think also I would like to know why the guards at the gate have no memory of you and your servant leaving town.”
“Auch.” Ali Pasha inadvertently used Lars’ word. “I have been in and out of the gate so many times since coming to this new world, I would guess they simply did not notice.”
“Ah, but now please. If you don’t mind I have much to do with my stamps. I appreciate your visit and your concern, but as you can see, I am not corrupted. I am still the same old inquirist. That is all a forgotten incident, and one to embarrass, so I hope it will stay forgotten. Now, if you will forgive me.”
“Very well.” The Lord of the Mahdi headed for the door. “But we will speak again.” Then he added a phrase in his supposedly obscure native tongue. “I know the Gaian do not stray very far from their dogs,” he said, but he smiled and bowed as if bidding good day, and he left.