The Polos were sitting in the bazaar listening to an ancient tale-teller repeat his lore.
He began, "Tis said-but Allah alone knows-that once long ago there was a Sultan who went on a great journey. But a camel became lame and he was forced to return"
"At least Sultans have the same difficulties we do", whispered Marco to his father.
The Tale-teller continued,"The Sultan returned and found his wife had betrayed him. In anger he slew her. And thereupon he went mad. He determined that from then on he would marry a maiden each day and slay her the following morning. Threescore and a half-score times he did this."
"Now hold it", said Marco. "I am no Sultan but I am a trader and I know something about the chances of life. The Sultan put himself in the most vulnerable place a man can be in seventy times, with someone who had nothing to lose? Could none of the maidens have brought a dagger with her?"
The tale-teller replied, "The Sultanís successor would have had to execute her to keep the law."
Polo replied, "It would have been a most satisfying way to go."
The tale-teller said, "The servants would have been afraid to help. And in her position it would have been difficult to hide a dagger."
"Wrong!", said Marco, "It would have been difficult for a Venetian maiden. I am told that all respectable Saracen maidens keep their faces covered until the very last moment. And all merchants know that there are ways to fold cloth to keep things inside from those who wish to search. It could have been prevented once but not seventy times."
The tale-teller said, "You are shrewd. But that is not how the tale was told me. What was told me was that the Vizierís daughter offered herself for the marriage. Now the Vizierís daughter was a wonder among maidens. Her beauty was as the flowers after a flood in the desert. Her voice was as the voice of birds. But what was most wonderful about her was the tales she knew. She knew tales from the ends of the earth. Tales of land and sea, of high men and lowly, and the fall of high men from their place and the raising up of the low."
Marco said, "I am not sure I would pick the last to entertain a mad sultan with..."
The tale-teller continued, "Every afternoon she told a tale. But she left it unfinished . So if the Sultan wished to hear her he had to spare her. She did this one thousand and one times. At the end of which the Sultan fell in love with her and ceased his madness."
Then the tale-teller said to Marco, "Have you any more clever questions?"
"Yes", said Marco, "Why is it that only Sultans get the most wondrous maidens to marry?"
The Tale-teller grinned, "Only Allah knows such things. But tale-tellers are sometimes lucky too..."
Marco replied, "What of young Venetian merchants?"
The Tale-teller said, "Only if they cease from asking annoying questions.
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I was re-reading a Gurps sourcebook for making Arabian Nights RPGs when this angle of the tale struck me. It would be an awfully good chance to assasinate the Mad Sultan in such circumstances. Ruining a fairy-tale with cyniscism is of course annoying. But it can be amuseing.
The phrase, "Allah alone knows" is an old literary gambit among Moslem storytellers. It's original purpose was as a legalism to deflate philosophical controversy over the distinction between fantasy and deceit. Probably few modern Moslem storytellers would remember it's orgins.