A traveller and a romance writer mull over the remarkable yet strange practices of distant kingdoms, write down their marvellous experiences.

A prison-cell in Genoa (present-day Italy), December 28, 1298 CE

“You must know that in all this Province of Maabar there is never a Tailor to cut a coat or stitch it, seeing that everybody goes naked! For decency only do they wear a scrap of cloth; and so ‘tis with men and women, with rich and poor, aye, with the King himself, except what I am going to mention.”

Rusticiano da Pisa stopped taking down notes, and levelled a frowning glance at his cell-mate. “Really? Not a single tailor, in a country that abounds with every kind of natural wealth and precious stones? Flourishing in trade and commerce?”

Even in the dark, damp and cramped cell, he could sense his new-found friend stiffen. “India the Greater is the best of the Indies, 60 miles west of the Island of Seilan,” he announced in a firm tone. “But you must know, amico mio, that customs and culture differ vastly from country to country — and one must not judge them simply based on the fact they do not wear coats.”

His air of gravity was dispelled, suddenly, by a grin that transformed his haggard looks into good-humour. “But then, neither did I, as long as I was there, and much did I benefit from it!”

“What?” Rusticiano dropped his quill in astonishment. “No coat? What about under-shirts and leggings?”

“Not even shoes,” answered his friend calmly. “Of course, in the palace of King Sonder Bandi Davar, the floors were smooth and clean, and the gardens were beautifully tended. Besides, even he wandered about barefoot, so it seemed the natural thing to do. A very hot country, you know and so they wear cotton, which is wonderfully refreshing during the summer months.”

Incredible stories

Rusticiano, a romance writer to whom foreign life seemed so fantastic as to be unbelievable, snorted. “What vagabonds! I wonder how you could bear to even be with them, let alone live among them.”

“The King did wear a necklace entirely of precious stones, you know — made of rubies, sapphires, emeralds and the like, insomuch that the collar is of great value.”

“And yet, he fought with his brothers for his land,” Rusticiano shook his head as he began to take notes again.

“As did many kings of our own, and earlier times,” declared his traveller-friend, stretching himself out on the cold floor. “Do not forget that I have been imprisoned because of conflicts between Venice and Genoa –”

I was captured during the Battle of Meloria,” interjected Rusticiano.

His friend inclined his head. “With all that, Sonder Bandi Davar was kind and courteous, well-read, and possessed a manner that welcomed foreigners with kindness.”

Rusticiano shrugged. “Your travels and experiences, my friend, are astonishing. One wonders if they are even true! About the great Kublai Khan of China, for instance,” he elaborated. “When they are published, I am quite sure many will plainly refuse to agree. For you must admit,” he began to laugh. “That some of them sound wild. Your story about the citizens of Maabar rubbing the floors of their homes with cow dung!” he wrinkled his nose. “What about your tale of fish-charmers who put magical spells on the fish during day, and release them at night?”

“Cow dung, my ignorant friend, is said to have medicinal properties which cleanse the home,” replied the traveller with dignity. “So far, I am in the right. As for the fish-charmers…” he held out his hands in an elaborate gesture. “What am I, but a traveller who gathers knowledge? Some things I see for myself; others I learn from the people I meet. I tell you what I see and hear.”

“But don’t you think your travelogues must be accurate in every way?”

“Perhaps there might be some errors,” the traveller conceded. “But in the end, Rusticiano, they are my travels — my adventures. The things I saw, heard and learned. They are my experiences; an account of the lands I went to. Hundreds of years after I am dead and gone, the world will read them, marvel and exclaim. They will be precious like the very gems and jewels I describe in my accounts. Which is why, I wish to title my work, Il Milione.”

“The Million,” murmured Rusticiano. “Fair words. And I, a romance writer imprisoned with you, am writing down your strange adventures. We shall co-author it. I shall find a publisher,” he said meditatively. “And doubtless, we will achieve instant popularity and eternal fame, and our names will be inscribed in history books.” He laughed. “I foresee that your works will be translated into all the world’s major languages. How will they be known, I wonder?”

“By many names and phrases,” the traveller shrugged gracefully. “But they will be known best,” he paused and smiled, “as The Travels of Marco Polo.”

Rusticiano shivered — as though he felt a premonition, an echo, across the centuries, of the truth of those words. “Go on. What next?”

“I must pass on to the other kingdoms of the same province,” continued Marco Polo. “For I have much to tell you of their peculiarities. Now, Messer St Thomas the Apostle…”