Even before the page could properly announce him, Lord Fortescue came rushing in and grabbed Holmes by the shoulder. "A tragedy, Holmes!"
He was closely followed by the burly, flaxen-haired figure of Chief Inspector Gregson from Scotland Yard. The inspector looked just as bleak and grim as the Foreign Secretary.
"Who has found the body?" Holmes asked calmly.
"The Grand Vizier. But how do you know there is a body?" Lord Fortescue exclaimed.
"And whose body?" I blurted, even as a scary thought started to form.
My friend raised his brows. "The Sultan of course. As to why I surmised that he's dead, that's equally easy to explain. When the Foreign Secretary comes to me at this time and hour, it can only be in connection with the Suwati deal. His perturbation tells me that the deal fell through, either because the message was not delivered to the right place, or another power had beaten us to it, or the Sultan had been incapacitated. When he's then accompanied by an inspector of Scotland Yard, it becomes clear that it's not merely a political setback, but that a crime is suspected. The sense of doom in the words of Lord Fortescue indicates that the Sultan is not merely temporarily unavailable, and so we can exclude abduction or hospitalization, and come to the logical conclusion: …"
"Murder!" I exclaimed in horror.
"Well, suspicion of murder. What are the circumstances of his death, inspector?"
The policeman let out a small cough. "Most of my information comes from the courier dispatched by our government to deliver the solution to the Portage Convoy riddle to the Sultan. The Sultan, as we had surmised, was residing in the Palace of the Doges in Venice, where only members of the highest nobility can sojourn in perfect anonymity. We are naturally in contact with our Italian colleagues, but they are somewhat slow in releasing information on such a delicate matter.
"The courier had arrived in Venice by train at 10:30 in the morning, and had immediately boarded a vaporetto, crossing the length of the Grand Canal to St. Mark's square, from where it's only a few steps to the Palace. Due to the traffic it was past eleven before he arrived there. Upon entering the front doors he spotted the Grand Vizier, who he recognized from earlier such dispatches, rushing towards another exit at the opposite side of the hall. He called out his name and title, but the other man marched out without so much as looking back. As the courier soon discovered, these doors open out onto another canal, next to the Bridge of Sighs — but there was no trace of the Sultan's closest advisor among the multitude of gondolas and water cabs criss-crossing the canal."
"That makes him your primary suspect," I remarked.
"Yes and no," the inspector reproached. "You see, the Grand Vizier had entered the study room where the Sultan's body lay in the company of a servant, after both had heard a loud bounce as of a falling body. After inspecting the body, he instructed the servant to call his private doctor and the guards. When he came back with the doctor, the latter declared him dead after a short examination. The Grand Vizier instructed the servant then to call the police and the guards to let no one enter until the police had arrived. He then took a few papers from the desk and paced out, never to be seen again.
"When the courier arrived at the Sultan's quarters, the servant let him in, but he had to stay out of the study room. Through the half-open door he could see that the desk was littered with diagrams and order lists pertaining to the game of Diplomacy, of which, as you well know, the Sultan was a great fan. After hearing the story from the servant and sympathizing with the mourners, he asked the doctor what the cause of death was. But the doctor was reluctant to tell anyone but the police. To the servant he uttered the possibility that the Grand Vizier might have killed his superior and fled the scene. 'Impossible,' replied the man shocked. 'The Grand Vizier has always been extremely loyal to His Highness.'"
"Indeed," said Holmes, "the facts don't corroborate such a suspicion. If the Grand Vizier were the murderer, he would have left the Palace much earlier, taking the papers with him without anyone knowing. This death and his flight were clearly not premeditated."
"That's what the Force also reckons. Still, we have an international search warrant out for him. He will have to defend himself once we have him."
"There is however another theory about his death," said Lord Fortescue, lowering his voice to an ominous whisper. "The Port of Suwat is in an economic crisis due to the low prices for dates, its main export product. A lot of people are without a job and out on the street. Yet despite these troubles the Sultan hardly ever came out of his Palace to meet the people and solve their problems. He seemed to be preoccupied with Diplomacy, the boardgame, not with political brinksmanship.
"He seemed to be particularly obsessed about one riddle, which his detractors have derisively called 'The Last Theorem of Suwat'. It's another False Start problem on the standard board with standard rules. You may recall that the original solution had 15 dislodgements, but only a single retreat. If the number of retreats were unlimited, the Last Theorem goes, that number of dislodgements may be beaten. But no one to our knowledge has ever found a solution with a higher number. It appears the Sultan had given himself completely to prove this Theorem, to the detriment of his health and the health of his Nation. The cause of such obstinacy, it is said, was a cryptic invitation he had received several years ago to come to… London."
"Good Lord," I exclaimed. "Holmes, this cannot be anything else but the message you had wired after solving the first riddle."
With a solemn nod the Secretary continued. "The night before his death the lights in his study room had been lit the whole time. It appears the Sultan had been working frantically the whole night to find a solution to this singular problem. He was sweating heavily, for he called his servant several times to provide him with wet towels. He was under great emotional stress and had weakened himself to a point that may well have caused his death. Dr. Watson, you, as a medical man, should be able to make a diagnosis, no?"
"Brain fever! It's a terrible affliction. But then this makes Holmes implicated in his death. Is that why you have brought an inspector from Scotland Yard with you? Are you going to arrest Sherlock Holmes for involuntarily causing the Sultan's death?"
I quickly stepped between my friend and the muscular policeman, ready to defend him with my life. But to my astonishment all three of them burst out in laughter.
"No, no, good doctor," said Lord Fortescue, wiping a tear away. "We will do nothing of the kind. If anything we should really give Sherlock a medal for his invaluable service to the Nation during all these years. The reason we came here is to inform him of this affair and to hear his opinion."
"A natural death is certainly within the realm of possibilities," said the great detective. "There were some indications that the Sultan was not his habitual self. I had already observed to Dr. Watson that his kind never travel in summer. Yet here he is, in the midst of Summer, in blistering Venice. The Portage Convoy riddle is obviously a side result from his researches. But he could have waited until after the season. Unless…
"During my years abroad I have made some contacts in Venice who may be able to shed some more light. I will wire them immediately. But, tell me, what will happen to the lease? And who will inherit the Sultanate? I believe he had a son?"
"Yes, and the young man, as is common for the wealthy classes in- and outside the Empire, is currently enrolled at a British university. Unfortunately he is said to have been terribly at odds with his father, who he calls a lunatic old man, besotted with a childish game. His disdain for the Game makes us fear that he will revoke the lease out of spite, and break the ties with Great Britain, as our country has benefited the most from it. But that's a political question. Leave that to the Foreign Office to deal with."
Inspector Gregson looked askance. "With all due respect, my Lord, but you seem to forget that the lease papers have not yet been located. It is highly probable that these are the papers that the Grand Vizier took with him."
"Quite so. Without the original documents there is a lengthy protocol to follow to declare them void and draw up new papers. This may not have come at a worse time. With the world in continuous turmoil, the allegiance of a strategic region such as the Port of Suwat is vital to our foreign policy."
"With the help of my Venetian irregulars… and of course the vigilantes of the international police force," nodding to the frowning inspector, "it won't be long before the location of the Grand Vizier is disclosed and the papers retrieved," said Holmes reassuringly.
"And to that end let us drink a cup of hot, reinvigorating English tea," he added, picking up the great can in the middle of the table. Immediately he put it down again, sighing abjectly. "Terribly sorry, gentlemen, but we'll have to wait until the kettle boils again."
Several days had passed and the news had gone from bad to worse. There was no report from Venice or Scotland Yard about the whereabouts of the Grand Vizier, or of the lease papers for that matter. The Foreign Office had tried to meet with the Prince of Suwat; but the stricken young man, in all his youthful exuberance, had refused any interview with the people he felt responsible for his father's death. He had written himself out of the University register, and was preparing to return to his country for the funeral and the crowning ceremony.
Sherlock Holmes was visibly irritated by the lack of fresh information. At long last he took out the Diplomacy board and put the pieces in their starting position.
"Are you going to prove the Last Theorem of Suwat?" I asked him.
"I wouldn't dream of it. My field of expertise is to solve problems that have actually occurred. Proving theorems is the domain of mathematicians and philosophers who have the time to struggle endlessly with a problem that might not even have a solution. A puzzle however has already been solved by its creator. There might be a mistake in his reasonings, but usually this transpires in the way the puzzle is constructed.
"What I need is data. You remember that the courier mentioned that the desk was littered with Diplomacy order sets. I have asked my boys in Venice to collect as much as they can and send it to me. From that we will be able to derive in which direction the Sultan's researches were leading. I expect the first load any minute now. That's the bell! Announcing the postman with my package. Or even better… On your feet, Watson, and strike a decent pose. It's not every day that one makes the acquaintance of a soon-to-be crowned head of state."
The young man that entered the room looked every bit the college lad that our universities are prone to produce. His athletic build, long limbs and straight back would make him a fine member of the rowing team. The front curl in his straight hair was as fashionable in Cambridge as it was in Oxford. His origins only betrayed themselves in the tan of his skin that our bleak English summers could not produce, and the coal black color of his eyes, that seemed to burn with a barely-controlled rage. His attire was simple, but stylish. He wore rings on both hands and a wrist watch, more commonly seen on a military man, on his right wrist.
"I see I don't need to introduce myself," said the young man in a cool manner.
"No indeed, Your Highness. Do excuse the humble state of my abode, so hardly fit for the Crown Prince of the Most Exalted Port of Suwat. Please take a seat," said Holmes, gesturing at the comfortable chair he almost exclusively reserved for himself, to contemplate on the queer cases that came to him, a pipe between his lips.
"I prefer to stand," the Prince replied. "You have noticed that I have come unaccompanied and unarmed…"
"Except for the guardsman in the coach outside," Holmes interrupted, glancing out of the window. "Even though he keeps himself out of view, I notice that the coach man remains staunchly on his box, without any signs of relaxing or attending to his horse. That can only mean that he has a passenger who is watching him and who he fears, either physically or because he's armed.
"As for being unarmed yourself, I would feel safer if you would lay out the dagger in your left hand sleeve that is obliging you to keep your arm straight. The wrist watch on your right arm tells me that you are left-handed, the conclusion therefore is simple."
The Prince looked at Holmes in astonishment for a moment, but he mastered himself quickly and with a wry smile flicked his hand to reveal a long, pointy stiletto. Holding it by the blade he turned to the table, where the Diplomacy board occupied half the space.
"When one is in enemy country, one needs to take precautions," he said unapologetically. "These were the words from my father, when he was still a sane man, before this… game… removed him of all his senses!" With a sudden whirl he violently planted the dagger in the center of the board, affixing it to the table and upsetting all pieces on top.
With simulated ease Holmes pulled the dagger out and handed it to me. "One symbolic stab for revenge will suffice. You have not come to kill or threaten me, so pray tell the object of your visit."
The Prince studied Holmes' face for a while. "My father has often lauded your deductive faculties, Mr. Holmes. He was certain that only a great mind could solve his riddles. I see that he has not exaggerated."
"Your father knew that Sherlock was solving his riddles?" I asked incredulously. "I thought the Foreign Office would never reveal his identity as a matter of policy."
"So that they can take all the credit? True, but even our tiny country has its sources of information, and the Diplomacy game world is small enough for a talent like Mr. Holmes to remain unknown for long, even if he only ever visits one club. And then there were your articles for the Zine, Dr. Watson."
I was not sure if I needed to consider that a compliment, but the Prince was not waiting for a reply from me. He took out a letter from his pocket and handed it to Holmes. Holmes turned it around in his hands and sniffed at it, before saying: "Posted in Dover, but it has made a sea voyage. Written by an educated man. This letter format is not commonly found on the continent, however. Is it from Suwat?"
"It's from the Grand Vizier, the man you and the whole world are looking for," the Prince said to my great astonishment. "There can be no mistake. Even though he didn't use his own seal, to avoid detection, I would recognize the handwriting from the man who taught me to write out of a thousand. But pray read the letter."
The letter, as it turned out, could better be described as a poem, of a most peculiar kind. It had no greetings or dates, and ran like this:
"Quite remarkable," murmured Holmes. "Watson, what do you make of it?"
"It's a poem, but of poor quality. There's no consistency in the rhymes, no rhythmical continuity, and part of the word choice is bizarre. Take for example this 'to London from Warsaw' when 'from London to Warsaw' is more natural, flows better and conveys the same meaning."
"Well, you can't expect it to be Chaucer. It's written by a foreigner in what is for him a foreign language. And that's what strikes me as curious. If the Prince is really the intended recipient, then why not write it in his native language? And then… Prince, what interest do you have in locating this man, the closest friend of the father you detest? It does not seem that you care for the lease either; for as the new Sultan, you can easily draw up a new one and select a more amiable partner than the nation you resent."
The Prince cast his eyes down in embarrassment for a moment, but then, with renewed determination, looked Holmes straight in the eyes. "It is best if you know everything, Mr. Holmes, but I must ask you to not reveal what I will tell you now until the matter has been cleared up."
"You have my professional oath, and that goes for the doctor as well," Holmes said to assure him.
"The Grand Vizier took with him something far more precious than the lease papers or Diplomacy maps. He has the Keys to the Port of Suwat. Suwat is a small nation that has gained its independence from the Ottoman Empire as an economic experiment, because it was thought that as an independent country it would be able to lure more investors to the region. To remain independent however, the heir to the throne must be able to present the Keys to the Ottoman delegation at the crowning ceremony, to ensure the continuation of the hereditary line of the Sultans. Without the Keys the Ottomans will not hesitate to return Suwat to the status of a mere vassal."
"These are the keys referred to in the poem. And what exactly made you decide to take me into your confidence?"
"Because it mentions London, and there are few other people in London that my father carried in higher esteem than you. And furthermore the poem starts and ends with the words 'I don't know how to start', which I interpret as a problem of a False Start."
"Quite so," reveled the great detective. "This poem, or shall we say cryptogram, holds clues not just to any False Start problem, but to *the* False Start problem that has been referred to as 'The Last Theorem of Suwat'. Why does it read 'to London from Warsaw' instead of 'from London to Warsaw'?
"Because, Watson, remember that in the first problem, there was only a single retreat, towards Warsaw. But this was upset by my alternative solution that started with the retreat of a French fleet to London. In other words, if we discover and apply the other hints that are sprinkled in this text, I have no doubt that we shall be able to prove The Last Theorem and at the same time locate the whereabouts of the Grand Vizier, which can be no other than the city, or home center, that his army or fleet unit was barred from moving to."
Well, there you have it, the final challenge. With the aid of the hints in the poem and no restriction on the number of retreats, can you find a solution to the problem of the False Start that has more than 15 dislodgements, thereby proving the Last Theorem of Suwat? Recall that the problem of the False Start consists of returning the board to its starting position after just two game years using standard rules only, with no single unit in its original starting location, while at the same time maximizing the number of dislodgements.
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