As the sail ship swayed gently, Rafiq pondered the checkered game board before him, lines of action playing out in his mind. How had he gotten so outmaneuvered?
"We have arrived," said Noor, opposite Rafiq. His smile showed clean and white in the midday sun as he backed away from the table. For a young man, his face was lean and weathered-looking.
The ship glided away from the center of the Tigris river. Rafiq abandoned the game of shatranj and stood with Noor.
The bank on the far side was a small, continuous cliff. The near side was flatter, lush with reeds and farmland. A few wooden farmhouses dotted the shore, their thatched roofs pale in the sun. Further inland was a large estate house made of clay.
A boy was waving casually at the boat, standing on the pier near one of the farmhouses. His naked body still gleamed from the river where he had been swimming. Rafiq briefly turned back to the game. He was losing. His Shah, or king, was in peril and he had just a single Rukh, or chariot, left to aid him. Time to forget that and pay attention to where they were going.
And that boy was just about perfect...
Rafiq gave a sly smile to Noor who shook his head as if he could not believe how much Rafiq let his penis rule his life. Rafiq pretended not to care and watched the shore while his friend packed the game pieces away in a bag.
The boy was about eleven, with a focused demeanor that made him seem mature, though his face was most definitely that of a child. He had a wary innocence about him and his body had not yet taken its first steps towards the muscles of puberty. A swoosh of dark hair partly shadowed the boy's eyes, imparting a sense of mystery.
"Are all the boys in these parts as beautiful as him?" Rafiq asked.
"Oh, no," said Noor in mock seriousness. "The local boys are all horrid. I had to send for this one specially to entertain you. He's my nephew from Ar-Raqqah."
"Now I know that you lie."
"Because, there is no place in the world that does not produce beautiful boys."
"You have not yet traveled enough to make that assertion, young Rafiq."
The remark hurt. Rafiq was eighteen and Noor was only a year or two older than him. But Noor lived a life of travel while Rafiq was prisoner of his own family's insistence that he become involved in its daily tradehouse grinding, slaving to keep his father's fortune growing. What Rafiq wanted was to travel and see the world. This journey a few dozen miles north from Baghdad with his new friend Noor was a first step in his rebellion, his first journey that did not involve business. "I'm sorry, " said Noor, seeing the look on Rafiq's face. "I forget that you are not anchored to Baghdad by choice."
Noor's family kept a small estate here and he had invited Rafiq for a few days of relaxation. Rafiq forgot the dark thoughts about his future and got back into the spirit of their visit. He said, "You lie, Noor, but I suspect there is some truth in what you've told me. You always seek to strengthen the bricks of your falsehoods with a few straws of reality."
That was a bit of a daring insult, given the newness of their friendship, but Rafiq was confident that Noor would find it amusing.
"And what are the straws of reality that you perceive?" asked Noor.
"I think he really is your nephew. But you didn't have time to bring a boy all the way from ar-Raqqah for me. He was probably just sent here to work on the farm before you ever thought to invite me."
"Well if that's the case, he's neglecting his duties swimming at the height of the day. I'm going to need to have a word with the foreman."
"Oh, let the child be," said Rafiq. "He's an innocent. He should be allowed to play and-"
"As if any boy stays innocent after meeting you!"
"I merely educate. The choice to act is entirely theirs."
"Then you are out of luck," said Noor as the boat bumped against the pier. "Young Duha does not go with men. Many of the boys here make themselves available for sex, out of boredom, if nothing else. But Duha actively avoids it."
Rafiq watched the boy help the boatmen tie up, his slim hands working with deliberate care. Rafiq asked Noor, "Did he have a bad experience maybe? Sometimes that-"
"No," said Noor with finality. "He's never been touched. He just has no interest."
Rafiq watched the naked boy help unload the boat. He imagined the feel of the boy's bare skin under his fingers, the pressure of the supple flesh against him. It was practically a tragedy that no man would ever experience this boy...
"Come, Rafiq," said Noor, clearly amused at his frustration. "There's more to the pleasures of life than lovemaking and boys."
Theatrically, Rafiq said, "There is?"
"Oh, yes." They stepped off the boat. "It seems that I must be the one to educate you."
The first pleasure was food.
Noor had sent word of his arrival and the food was steaming hot and plentiful when they got to the estate house. They ate under an awning, watching the river flow by while they sat on low cushions. Roast lamb, flatbread, rice, pheasant and duck were the offerings and Rafiq soon forgot about his sexual urges.
Until Duha appeared at his side, offering wine from a goblet. The boy's hair was still damp, but his nakedness had been covered in a simple tan robe. This was Noor's little joke, tempting him with intoxicating, forbidden drink in the hands of an intoxicating, forbidden boy—Rafiq could tell from the man's suppressed smirk.
Keeping his voice even and polite, Rafiq accepted a cupful and thanked the boy then dismissed him. Soon Duha was back with dates, however. Then little candied flour balls. Then fresh fruit. Each time he leaned down next to Rafiq, the man caught a scent from the boy of light musk and river water that was most appealing.
He told Duha that he required nothing more, but that simply led the boy to take a kneeling position behind his shoulder, that delightful scent of his tickling at Rafiq's nose.
Rafiq looked over to where Noor was being helped by two servant girls. "You do me great honor, Noor."
"Oh? How so?"
"In any other household, your nephew would be seated at the table, eating with us men. But to have your own relative attend to my meal tells me you care deeply for my comfort." This was stating the obvious of course, but it also let Noor know that Rafiq appreciated his little prank.
Noor smiled and played innocent. "I have no idea what you mean. The boy was sent here to work. So I put him to work."
After the meal, there was coffee and lounging and then a distant muezzin sounded the call for noon prayers.
"Is there a mosque?" Rafiq asked.
"Yes. But it is up the riverbank. We'll go there for evening prayers. We shall pray here for now."
Since they were the only three males at the residence just then, Rafiq stood next to Duha behind Noor as his host led the prayer, all of them facing across the river toward Mecca. It was difficult to concentrate, with the boy standing close to him as was the custom for prayer, their arms and hips brushing against each other as they performed the motions. Three times Rafiq lost his focus as he gave sidelong glances at young Duha's sincere face.
In the hot afternoon, Noor retired, telling Rafiq that he should do the same. Then he added salaciously, "I have instructed Duha to keep you entertained in your quarters. He is a novice, but I suspect he may yet teach you a thing or two."
Although Rafiq's room was on the ground floor, its perch on the hillside gave him a perfect view of the river. Another estate house sat on the opposite bank, beyond the low cliff, but the rest was farm and wilderness. Rafiq waited, unsure of what to do with Duha.
He wanted no part of sex with the boy if Duha was only doing it on Noor's instructions. Noor himself had said the boy did not wish for contact with any man. But the boy was a gift of his host. It would be hard to refuse him when Noor knew well of his proclivities.
'But if he knows I like boys,' Rafiq thought, 'then he also knows I like them enthusiastic. I don't fuck slaves.'
A small voice 'ahemmed' behind Rafiq. The boy stood there with the shatranj board and the bag of pieces. Rafiq smiled. Yet another joke from Noor: teasing Rafiq with the idea of sex with the boy only to provide him with an innocent game of kings and warriors.
Then again, nothing was ever completely innocent.
The boy spoke. "Master, I have been-"
"Don't call me master," Rafiq said wearily.
"But I can't-"
"I am instructing you to call me 'Rafiq' and nothing else, understood?"
A moment's hesitation while the boy weighed his instincts against his reasoning. "Yes."
Rafiq tilted Duha's head upward and asked, "Yes...?"
"So you know to play shatranj?"
"Yes, the master— My uncle has taught me."
Rafiq laid himself down on a rug, bracing his side against a thick cushion. "Show me what you know then."
The boy sat cross-legged and carefully set up the game on the floor between them, centering each piece in its square. Rafiq did not help. Instead he watched Duha, those mysterious, semi-hidden eyes focused on their job.
The boy turned out to know much once they began playing. They moved their pieces in silence, studying each others faces and posture. Rafiq lost the first game after a few early errors left him too far behind. He sat up for the next game, almost as focused as Duha while he fought a tight battle all the way to the end game, where the boy's inexperience showed and he blundered.
As Duha set up for a final game, Rafiq rose and stretched his arms. "Who lives across the river?" his asked, looking through the large window.
"A recluse. No one knows."
"Not really. I sometimes walk there when I go looking for birds. It's all very normal. The guards don't mind me." "'Looking for birds'?" said Rafiq. "Are you a trapper?"
The boy looked embarrassed. "No. I just like to watch them. I observe how they live. What they eat. How they treat each other."
Rafiq smiled. The mystery of Duha was coming unraveled. The boy played shatranj like it was a duty. He spoke to Rafiq like it was his job to please the man. But these birds...Rafiq could tell that Duha's passion was in that. The boy's face lost its studious look when he spoke of them, a sense of wonder apparent instead.
"You must show me your birds. When is the best time to go watch?" Rafiq actually cared little for the birds. He wanted to see more of that joy on Duha's face.
Duha dropped back into his dutiful servant posture. "Early in the mornings are best."
"Not too early, I hope?"
"Sunsets too are good times."
But that evening was for prayer. They began walking to the mosque down a narrow path while the sun was still up. The mosque itself was small with no minaret for the muezzin, just a raised platform. Duha stayed in the back with the other youngsters of the village while Rafiq and Noor were invited to stand at the front by their hosts. This time Rafiq was able to concentrate on his prayers.
Afterward, in the village, the boys seemed to take immediate notice of Rafiq. Many came up to him and started conversations.
Physically, Rafiq was aroused. In his head, he only cared about Duha, who walked at Rafiq's side with his usual calm, almost as if he didn't notice the boys angling for Rafiq's attention.
Back at the house that night, Duha was not present as Noor and Rafiq spoke and ate.
"Duha has other duties," Noor said. "But I shall send him to your quarters for the evening if you wish. You have plans for him?"
"Oh, yes, many plans. I wish to do many naughty things to him. On the shatranj board."
Noor laughed. "Did you enjoy the afternoon of games?"
"He turned out to be very good."
"He's not good. He just seems that way since you play poorly."
Rafiq rolled his eyes. "I suppose you are a grand master."
"I certainly think differently about the game than you do. You seem not to be aware of the poet, al-Katib's advice. 'The skilled player places his pieces in such a way as to discover consequences that the ignorant man never sees'. That implies flexibility. You are far too rigid."
Sarcastically, Rafiq grumbled, "I am rigid because you have placed a heavenly vision of boyhood before me for these games. I'm so rigid my robe is constantly tented."
Later that night, Duha came to help Rafiq prepare for bed. Rafiq was worried that the boy had been instructed by Noor to share his body with his guest, but the boy set himself a place near the door with a few cushions. The last thing Rafiq saw was the boy's face pressed close to the lamp, his dark eyes shining in the firelight just before he blew it out.
In the dark, Rafiq wondered at his predicament. He liked the boy. A lot. The boy was available to him. The boy was just ten feet away in the dark. But the boy did not go with men. He might as well be on the other side of the moon.
After morning prayers, Rafiq followed Duha into the land around Noor's home. Noor went back to sleep, muttering about the stupidity of chasing birds.
The mud was unavoidable as they trekked closer to the birds' feeding grounds, but Rafiq found that part fun, another aspect of the adventure. He listened as the boy named the bird with the tiger-headed appearance or the one with the white neck and black-topped head. Some ducks had teal heads. Another kind had white bellies. Another bird looked like a duck, but Duha sagely explained that it was not. "The beak is thin. Real ducks have flat beaks."
The names didn't stay in Rafiq's head, but the sense of discovery did.
"See those?" Duha said, pointing to some unremarkable brown birds scattered about a swampy pond.
"Watch this." He tossed a wet clod of dirt at the birds and they took to the air. Their wings flashed out huge and white. As the slanted sun rays hit them, the ordinary birds were suddenly bright spots of graceful, glowing light in the hazy sky of the morning.
"You can't see the white wings when they're standing," Duha explained, "and you can't see their brown bodies when they're flying."
Despite his mind's wonder at nature, Rafiq had not stopped thinking about his desire for Duha. He wondered what it would be like to kiss those full lips, to trace his finger along the boy's neck and the fine hairs that lined it, to kiss along the curve of his cheek.
And amid all his wonder, at the world and at the boy, Rafiq sensed that something had gone wrong. The boy was being a servant again, sharing his knowledge mechanically, like a bucket dragging up muddy water from a well on command instead of the bright spray of a bubbling spring that Rafiq had expected.
He had imposed too much, Rafiq realized. This world of birds and their secrets had belonged to Duha, a place where he could be a boy and not a servant or a nephew. Not have obligations. And Rafiq had obligated him to reveal it all.
There was a good chance Rafiq had ruined what was special about it by denying the boy the chance to feel as if he was in control of his private place.
"Duha," Rafiq said as they turned to go back.
He held the boy's hand in his and squeezed lightly. "Thank you very much for sharing this with me." Rafiq kept his words of gratitude simple, hoping that the boy saw sincerity in his directness.
"I...well...It was my honor," said Duha.
"No. In fact, the honor was mine."
They walked back in silence, their hands still clasped, sometimes with Rafiq leading and sometimes Duha.
For the rest of the day, Rafiq kept the company of Noor, learning the workings of the farm, the history of the settlement and anything else he could about this new place. Duha stayed a few paces behind them. Noor seemed to have a great sense of who had lived here and what struggles had taken place before. He especially knew the generals who had led different forces and what tactics they had favored.
Duha proved himself an authority on the way the people lived now, what they ate, how they labored and lived, what their mentality was.
That evening, they played shatranj in tandem, Duha and Rafiq taking turns to lose to Noor, who lectured them on their impatience and inability to seize opportunities.
Near midnight, Noor sent Duha away to prepare Rafiq's room for sleeping. He said to Rafiq, "I think that boy is an opportunity you refuse to seize. "
"But you said-"
"I said he has never gone with a man. I didn't said he never would."
"But he doesn't want to-"
"What do you know of what he wants?" Noor shook his head in mock frustration and left for bed, his two servant girls with him.
If Duha wanted Rafiq, Duha would indicate so. Rafiq was confident of that if nothing else. Boys had some instinct that allowed them to signal affection. And to invite affection in reply.
Again that night Duha prepared to sleep on the ground near the door. Just as the boy was about to blow out the lamp, Rafiq said, "Duha."
The boy paused, still holding his breath it seemed. His eyes sparkled in the lamp light.
What could Rafiq say? He certainly knew what he wanted to get Duha to say! But any encouragement would spoil the whole situation. Duha had to choose. Any other boy, Rafiq would have put 'the moves' on him: massages, tickles, hugs, suggestive fondles even. And often the boy would join in and things would go further.
But Duha was different. He was operating under a sense of duty for one thing, which might make it hard for him to refuse Rafiq even if he did not desire the man. And for another, if Duha was not inclined to sex with him, then Rafiq's prodding would only cause they boy discomfort.
"Make sure your bedding is comfortable," Rafiq ended up saying. "You snored like a bull last night and I don't want that keeping me up again."
At first the boy looked mortified. Then he realized it was a joke and he grinned. Even after he blew the lamp out, his smile stayed in Rafiq's memory like a sun.
After prayers the next morning, Duha prepared to take Rafiq bird watching again.
"Oh, you don't have to," said Rafiq. "I'm sure the birds won't be doing things much differently this morning."
"But I know where there's a nest. I can show you the young ones."
Whatever had caused Duha to hold back yesterday wasn't there any more. The boy seemed eager about sharing his private world now.
"Go," said Noor. "Allah knows what he finds so interesting in his damned birds, but better he get it out of his system with you than come back to bother me about it."
The other man's disdain for Duha's birds made Rafiq uncomfortable on the boy's behalf. "Let's go," he said to Duha. Then he looked Noor in the eyes. "I think the birds are fascinating. I'd love to see some of the young ones."
Noor turned away with annoyance, but there seemed to be a hint of smile underneath.
Duha led Rafiq to the riverbank. Not to the pier, but to a small inlet amid a scramble of tall bushes, in which lay a gufa. This was a circular boat with a flat bottom—essentially a giant basket, with its woven structure waterproofed by bitumen. It could probably hold a dozen people.
Using two long poles, Rafiq and Duha eased into the river.
"Duuuuhaaa!" cried out a voice from down the river bank. A man was running toward them. Duha only seemed to push the boat more strongly, his head down in a posture of deliberate deafness.
Rafiq said, "Stop pushing. He wants to talk to you."
Duha obeyed, but he said, "Leave him. He's going to slow us down and we need to cross quickly."
The boat drifted in the water about twenty feet from the shore. The runner turned out to be a man Rafiq's age with a odd mix of blankness and mania in his expression. And his face was that of an older Duha, though it was distorted by a constant open-mouthed slackness.
"Duha," the newcomer said in a childlike tone, "Are you visiting the babies? Are you? I want to come."
"No, Madj." Duha did not look up. "Go back to the house."
"You shouldn't lie. Mother said that Allah doesn't like liars. I know you're going to see the babies. You said you would take me yesterday and you didn't come. You have to take me today."
Rafiq said, "Let's just take him, Duha."
"You don't understand. He—"
But Rafiq was already pushing the boat back to shore with his pole. He helped Madj into the gufa and said, "I am Rafiq. Salaam."
"Salaam," said the newcomer, grinning. "I am Madjeed. Are you going to see the babies too?"
"I am. Has Duha taken you before?"
"Oh, yes. He takes me to see the birds all the time. I talk too loud sometimes and disturb them, but mostly I remember to be quiet. Birds like quiet."
Duha ignored their conversation, simply moving the boat with his pole while he stared at the other bank. Madj chattered the whole way, about birds, about the river, about the gufa. He was repetitive, seeming to forget things he had said just a minute before and the conversation looped about several times. He even asked Rafiq his name again. The broken conversation was annoying, but the enthusiasm of the man for their company and their voyage compensated for it.
They climbed a stairway cut into the cliff when they got to the shore, leaving the gufa tied to a mooring post.
"Be quiet," Duha said to his brother when they got to the top. He led them down a path that paralleled the river for a while, then broke into a slight gully inland. Occasionally, they slipped on the sloped mud. Madj especially did not cope well with the terrain, sometimes crashing sideways into the earth and giggling.
That earned him severe looks from Duha, who finally pulled him close and spoke angrily in low tones. Rafiq was able to pick up fragments of words: "embarrasing", "behave properly" and "go back."
"Madj," Rafiq interrrupted in a loud, over-enthusiastic voice, "do you know where the babies are?"
"Oh yes. I go visit them all the time. Sometimes I—"
"Good. Go ahead. Duha needs to talk to me here for a little while. Don't go too far in front though."
Madj looked at his younger brother, unsure. Duha nodded at him then looked at the ground. Madj smiled and left.
Duha took a few deep breaths, his head still down, while Rafiq waited. The boy had wet eyes when he finally gave Rafiq an angry look and said, "You shouldn't let him— He shouldn't be here."
"You bring him here all the time..."
"We're alone then. He gets into trouble around other people. They don't have the patience and they tell him things and then he— And I can't stop it and— He keeps letting it happen and he starts crying and gets sad and I have to— to—"
"I understand you're afraid for him, Duha, but I haven't said anything to him, have I? He's not crying."
"Well you only just met him. Lot's of people try to ignore him at first and then end up—"
"I'm not ignoring him either." Rafiq put a hand on Duha's shoulder and led him in the direction Madj was going. "This will all be fine. There's no reason to be afraid for him."
The tiny birds were magical. While the mother stood to the side squawking at them, Duha lifted the tiny babies out of the bushes and handed them to Rafiq and Madj, warning them not to hold them tight.
The warm, downy chirping creatures with their pink, wide-open mouths seemed so vibrant and alive to Rafiq that he was hypnotized. Duha had to take the bird in his palm back saying, "It's not good to get them too excited."
With a lighter heart, Rafiq walked with the two brothers back to the river. He held Duha's hand while the boy held his brother's. For a brief moment, Rafiq wondered if he shouldn't just stay here on the river with Duha and not bother with any traveling.
But then Madj spoke, his voice deeper than his brother's and it reminded Rafiq of the futility of loving boys. They never stayed boys. This was a hard struggle for Rafiq of late. At eighteen, he had been a boy himself for most of his sexual adventures and he was only now coming to grips with the idea that while his childish playmates had aged up along with him, his tastes had not shifted.
Duha looked up and smiled at him. He smiled back, but his brain pricked with the thought, 'Am I to be forever searching for that perfect boy only to have to search all over again?'
"Halt! Do not move!" His meditations were interrupted by three guards when they turned out of the gully. The men wore thin scimitars and daggers at their waists. Nearby, eight slaves bore a litter made of ornate wood and ivory, its chamber covered in colored fabric. The chief guard walked toward them, a spear in his hands. "You are trespassing here."
Duha said, "I'm no trespasser, Farouk. You know me."
"You and your idiot brother I know. This other one here with you, he looks like a man with low morals."
"Let the boys go then," said Rafiq. He pointed at the litter. "I will answer to your master's inquiries, but the boys are innocent in all this and thus—"
The curtains of the litter parted a few inches and a woman's voice spoke from the darkness within. "A noble bit of trickery. The boys are the ones who brought you here. They are most certainly not innocent in anything you have done."
"But I have done no harm," Rafiq said.
At some unseen signal, the litter bearers set their burden down and a sandaled foot stepped out. The sandal's diamonds sparkled in the sun. The woman wore a red skirt, embroidered in gold thread. Her blouse was plain and cut close to her body. On her wrists were heavy gold bangles and bracelets.
Her nose, mouth and jaw were hidden behind a thin blue veil, but it revealed enough to see that she was a mature woman. Despite the veil, she did not seem to be interested in modesty. Her dark hair was loose and open, hanging in curls to her waist, entwined with strings of pearls.
Her eyes shone bright, stony grey, but their hardness came from a deeper place than mere color, Rafiq felt. Somewhere underneath was a history of pain and an inclination to ruthlessness. She said, "You are the guest of Noor the wanderer across the river."
While the guards kept a hand on their sword hilts, she walked around him, like a butcher inspecting cattle at the market square. She said, "Usually, he favors the drunkards and poets. You don't seem the type."
Rafiq stayed quiet while the woman circled back to his front. He wondered how much his interrogator knew.
"What makes you interesting to him?" she asked, straightening a fold of his robe slightly, then looking at his face, expecting an answer.
The intensity and vitality in the woman was most appealing. Had Rafiq's soul been composed like most men to favor the opposite sex, his organ would be rock hard right now.
"I am just a man with an interest in travel."
"Ah, a softhead. No mind for politics. No mind for commerce. No mind for war." She glanced at Duha then back at Rafiq. "And your one obvious talent is useless in a city where boys serve men, instead of the other way around."
It was true. Rafiq did sometimes tire of the way so many of the Baghdad boys felt being with a man meant that all the duties lay with the boy. He decided the conversation was getting too personal and said, "Then your mystery is solved, noble Lady. I am just a simple-minded pleasure seeker, and thus a good fit as a companion for Noor."
"Yes, indeed. Let me not delay your return to him." The guards stepped back, clearing the way towards the boat.
Rafiq bowed at the waist to the woman and her hand on his shoulder stopped him rising. She said softly, "You may pretend to be an idle wastrel so that people won't make demands of you, Rafiq Al-Saif, but note well, Bagdhad needs servants and you will be called to serve in time. Do not let your own mind start believing in this image you present to others."
He rose and smiled. "I have heard that the wisest of men is the one who knows himself."
"That was from a Greek wasn't it?" said the woman. "Why am I not surprised you read the works of the only other race in the world as besotted with boys as you are?"
She smiled and walked away, leaving Rafiq with a disquieting feeling of having played a game of shatranj blind and not knowing whether he had won or lost.
Noor and Rafiq tried their hand at archery that morning and neither of them was any good. They retired for coffee before noon, served by the two girls of the house. They talked about city politics and religion and mostly about the places Noor had visited—Lebanon, Cairo, Ethiopia and others.
When he chanced by the targets later, Rafiq saw that someone had been striking the archery targets with almost flawless skill. And Duha's fingertips and thumbs were raw red when he served their meal.
Noor was gone that afternoon to visit a relative and left Rafiq in the care of Duha. "Teach me to shoot," Rafiq requested of the boy. "I want to be as good as you are."
Duha said, "Then you need to spend many hours learning."
"Alas, I have but one night left before I return to Baghdad. How good can I become before then?"
The boy's face darkened a bit, but then he returned the joke. "That depends entirely on how seriously you take it."
Under the joke, Rafiq sensed that the boy was telling the truth, so he took the training seriously. He asked questions when he needed help, let the boy put him in the right positions and most of all, he concentrated on his task. Yes, he still found the sight and scent of the boy stimulating, with his handsome face and fluid movements. But Duha's focused personality and his insistence on doing whatever job he was assigned, made Rafiq want to do better.
In spite of his efforts, however, Rafiq was not much better after their session.
"You need more practice," said Duha. "Your muscles just can't do a task without time to adjust."
From his window, later that afternoon, Rafiq watched Noor step off a balam, a slender river boat. His host had just returned from the house across the river. There could be no doubt now: Rafiq was playing blind shatranj.
But he said nothing to Noor, and the two young men simply enjoyed a final quiet evening in each other's company, telling stories and having gentle disagreements about poetry, commerce and religion and the many places they intersected.
Duha put out the light as before that night when Rafiq went to bed. But instead of bedding down on the floor, the boy came to Rafiq in the dark, sliding his body against the man. The scent of Duha's afternoon swim was still on him.
"Duha, you should't do this. I don't—"
"I want to."
"But your uncle said you've never done this before with anyone."
Rafiq felt his heart quicken.
Then Duha continued, "I never did before because I never met a man who seemed worth it."
Rafiq put his hand on the boy's soft shoulders and gently pushed him back. "If you're doing this as some reward because I've been nice to you, then that's the wrong reason."
"I'm no prostitute for kindness."
"That not what I mean. You have to do it because you feel—"
Duha shrugged his hands off. "I know why I should do it. Because I want to." Then he slid his fingers up through the hair on Rafiq's chest.
Rafiq held the back of Duha's hand, but did not push him away. Instead he pulled the boy's hand to himself. "So you're doing this because my handsome face and masculine body drive you insane with lust?"
"Your body's only average." Duha ran his other hand up Rafiq' shoulder. Then he smiled and added. "Your face a little less so. You're lucky that you have personality."
"Nonsense," said Rafiq. Then he kissed Duha's hand. "I am the most handsome man on this river."
"I've seen fish more handsome than you."
Rafiq let go the boy's hand in mock anger and looked away.
The boy stroked his jaw tenderly. "But you are the one I want. For myself. I'm not in your bed because I think you deserve a night with me. I'm here because I think I deserve a night with you."
Rafiq laughed, his head rocking back on his pillow. "Oh, you are a charmer." He looked at the boy. In the dimness of the night, he could just about see the trust and hope in Duha's eyes.
With Rafiq on his back, Duha climbed almost onto the top of his body and leaned down for a kiss. His lips were moist, soft, and warm. They pressed against each other for a few seconds and parted.
"That was nice," Rafiq said, running his hands down the boy's smooth waist and naked hips.
"Thanks." Duha leaned down again.
"But you're not telling me the truth."
"You might think you deserve me, but why am I the only one you've reached for? Be honest."
Duha propped his head up in a hand, his elbow resting on Rafiq's chest, and took a breath. "When you found out about the birds, you didn't dismiss it. You took it seriously. You—"
"That's hardly a—"
"Listen to me." Duha put some weight on his elbow to emphasize his order. When Rafiq kept his mouth shut, Duha said, "Being a boy, you can never be sure if a man respects you as a person. And mostly you can be sure they don't. Even nice men, they still mostly think you're below them somehow." Duha brushed Rafiq's hair back from his forehead. "But you make me feel safe. You take me seriously."
Rafiq pulled Duha's head down to his chest and kissed the boy's soft hair. "But Duha, I'm leaving tomorrow. You say you trust me, but if we do this, It will be like I discarded you once I was done with you. I can't let you do it."
"You could always buy me from Uncle Noor and take me with you."
"No!" Rafiq swallowed in surprise at how forceful that had come out. "I...I don't buy people. It's not right."
Duha sighed. "He wouldn't sell anyway."
It was very odd for an uncle to have the right to sell a boy. More blind shatranj. Who was this boy to Noor?
Duha snuggled closer to Rafiq and said, "But I'm not in love with you, you know. I'm not expecting you to make me yours forever. I've always known that I wanted to be with a man and now I've met one I trust enough to let touch me." He kissed Rafiq right above each nipple, one after the other. "Whatever you do tonight, I won't feel used."
The hardness of Rafiq's cock must have taken his brain power away for he could see no reason to say no. He rolled over, pulling the boy with him so that he held the small body against the bed. Rafiq looked down at the boy's expectant eyes. Duha's neck was straining ever so slightly up.
Rafiq kissed him, pressing his lips hard against Duha's and sending his tongue forward, searching out the boy's own. A sensation of sweetness tingled on his tongue as they continued to kiss. Rafiq slid his hands up the side of the boy's neck and held him closer. Finally they parted for breath and the boy beamed at him.
"You like that?" Rafiq asked.
Duha simply reached for him again. Rafiq let himself be pulled back to those moist lips and kissed the boy all over again. They fell into a little game of Rafiq showing Duha some little movement of his tongue or lips and having Duha repeat to show what he had learned.
And then the boy started experimenting and setting the pace, even pushing Rafiq over onto his back so he could control how close they were. Rafiq let him take control. The man concentrated on stroking Duha's smooth sides and the gentle curve of his ass.
Duha dropped lower, licking at Rafiq's neck and chest. Then his nipples.
"You certainly seem to know what you're doing," Rafiq told him.
"I've been asking the village boys about what men like."
"Not all men like the same things."
"Don't you like this?" Duha looked up, worry in his eyes.
"Oh, I love it. Don't stop." Rafiq entwined his fingers in the boy's soft hair and gently pulled him back to work. Duha moved his kissing and licking lower, spending some time at Rafiq's navel, tickling it and sending waves of tingles radiating out into Rafiq's squirming abdomen.
The boy hesitated a bit at Rafiq's actual organ. Whether it was doubt or just taking in the new sight, Rafiq knew he had to let him be. He held his hands behind his own neck and waited.
Duha stroked along the side of the cock, making it tense and Rafiq took a deep breath. The boy slid his fingertip up the bottom, in the stream of liquid practically pouring out of Rafiq. Duha took the whole shaft in his palm and, with a few massaging motions, smeared the slick stuff all around the man's hardness. Then he started pumping it.
Usually Rafiq was not very verbal, but he let out a few loud sighs of pleasure to show the boy he had gotten it right. In the dim light, Duha smiled up at him and moved his hand quicker. Rafiq smiled back.
Mischief crossed the boy's face and he slid his other hand briefly down to cup Rafiq's balls and then slip a finger to the cleft of his ass, where he traced an inward spiral to the opening. Rafiq gasped, the loudness definitely not deliberate and he gripped the bedsheets tight.
While Rafiq was still adjusting to the boy's finger at his hole, Duha leaned down and licked along the underside of his cock. His hip bucked, wanting more. Duha licked harder and longer, holding him steady at the base. It was like the boy was amusing himself with a toy. Rafiq had started this encounter worried about making Rafiq feel used, and now he was actually starting to feel like the boy was using him.
Well, there were worse ways to get used.
Duha took the head of Rafiq's cock into his mouth and sucked it. He was fully into the act now, no more tentative touches. Duha took as much of the cock as he could a few times and then settled into a vigorous sucking of the flared head. He used his tongue to keep things interesting, licking as he sucked and getting Rafiq to rise into a cloud of pleasure.
He moaned, and stroked down the boy's slim neck, resting his hand there lightly, savoring the smooth skin as the boy rose and fell under his touch. Rafiq began to squirm and closed his eyes, giving in to the attentions of Duha's eager lips and tongue. He eased his hand up the boy's neckline to play with his hair. This moment was so perfect, the sense of closeness with a beautiful boy. Rafiq's hips twitched and his muscles tensed for climax.
Duha pulled away and Rafiq groaned in frustration.
"You devil!" he laughed.
The boy looked shyly at him and said, "I wanted to do other things. Well, I want you to do them...you know, to me."
Rafiq opened his arms and smiled his approval. Duha smiled back and jumped onto him, where they kissed again, holding each other, hands sliding down bare backs.
Rafiq spun Duha under him, then moved his lips down the boy's soft neck and kissed his nipples, bringing a little gasp each time. He moved his attention down Duha's smooth belly and thighs, before circling back to the little jewels of his cock and balls. He licked under them, making Duha hiss and then Rafiq licked the sides of the stiff little shaft, twirling his tongue around it repeatedly. It was warm and pulsed with excitement as Duha gripped Rafiq's head in his excitement.
More time for sucking later. Rafiq licked lower and used a cushion to prop the boy's firm little buttocks in a higher spot. He spread the smooth butt cheeks apart and licked at the little hole just visible in the soft light.
Duha mmmhmmhed at his touch and Rafiq smiled, taking in the slightly salty taste of the boy with enthusiastic tonguing.
This would be the first time for Duha, so Rafiq needed to prepare him well. The tongue was joined by a gentle finger, circling slowly with insistent pressure. Bit by bit, Duha's entryway go looser and soon the finger was stroking the rim of the opening with ease as Rafiq continued to enjoy the taste and feel of the boy's insides.
When it was time for two fingers, Rafiq took the boydick back in his mouth and give it a good sound slurping. Duha's spine arched at the sudden sensation and Rafiq used that moment to get his two fingers all the way in. With all the spit, the boy's hole was quite slippery and he even seemed ready to climax as he panted.
Rafiq couldn't allow that.
Continuing to gently finger the boy, he lifted his lips away and scooted up to Duha's face, which looked overwhelmed by all the new sensations. He smiled and kissed the boy, who hugged him. A bit of experimental finger play showed that the boy was ready to take him, to recieve the gift he had chosen for himself.
Rafiq spread Duha's knees wide and settled his hips in place. As they continued to kiss, he got the head of his eager cock to the waiting pleasure spot. With care and his fingers assistance, he slipped the head in and Duha shivered and stiffened. He broke the kiss to let the boy take a few big breaths. Rafiq whispered in his ear, "I part of me is in you. A part of me will always be a part of you from now on."
Duha nodded his approval slowly and swallowed. Rafiq had been through similar moments with several boys and it was always a sacred experience, knowing that their union would be a lifelong memory, knowing that it would be something they could both smile about when remembering this night far from each other. With the journey back to Baghdad looming at dawn, this occasion was even more vivid.
"It feels good now," said Duha softly. "I like him in me. Like he belongs there. Give me the rest."
"Don't rush," said Rafiq, amused. He kissed the boy and curled his body, so that he could still get into the boy's special place despite their difference in height. The warmth and silky smoothness made Rafiq extra eager so it was good that this position kept him from being forceful. Instead, he was able to give Duha the calm, sliding invasion a beginner needed.
Duha sighed as the whole length of Rafiq's cock slipped into his passage and the man felt his balls rest on the boy's ass cheeks. They enjoyed the closeness for a few moments, the sense of being tied together, cock in ass and arms entwined while tongues played with each other.
After getting his elbows into a good position, Rafiq began making love to the beautiful boy under him. He lifted up to look into Duha's dark eyes, their mystery uncovered to show a gentle soul bravely offering himself into the hazardous world as a giver of pleasure.
Rafiq went slowly, giving each stroke just enough effort to overcome the resistance left in the boy's chute. He longed to ram himself in, but kept control, mindful of the need to be restrained as he looked into the wet eyes of Duha below him.
He leaned down to keep kissing the boy as they pressed their hips against each other, grinding slowly. Rafiq stroked up Duha's sides, armpits and shoulders, reinforcing in his mind that he was indeed sharing this moment with this wonderful boy.
And that realization, that he was miraculously sharing love with Duha despite resigning himself from the moment they met to the idea that he was out of reach, lifted Rafiq to the next level and he felt the climax boiling in his gut. He broke the kiss as he struggled to keep his pace steady. His motions stiffened.
Duha looked up with pleased eyes. "Are you going to peak now?"
"Yes," Rafiq said through gritted teeth. "Your lovely little behind is too sweet to keep going. Got to..."
He grunted a few times as the pleasure exploded out of him. Losing control, Rafiq grabbed Duha with his curling fingers and the boy cried out at the painful grip. In his haze, Rafiq kept going, finally shuddering his last few pulses of orgasm as he finished in Duha. He looked down at Duha's smile and smiled back. "You were wonderful," he said. "A perfect lover."
Pride filled the sparkling eyes below him and Rafiq stroked the boy's soft hair, propped on one elbow. He asked, "Did you get what you wanted?"
"Oh, yes. I felt so full and complete with you in there." A bit of cheekiness joined the pride in his eyes. "Plus, seeing how much you were enjoying it made me feel like I was...powerful."
"Don't get too smug," said Rafiq, "you still have your clean-up duty."
With a kiss on Duha's forehead, Rafiq eased himself back, getting his softening tool out of the boy's grasp. He stood on his knees and pulled the boy upright. Duha squealed as Rafiq flipped him upside down rolled onto his back so that Duha was now resting across the man's stomach, face-to-face with the cock that had just claimed his virginity.
"See the mess you made?" Rafiq asked. "You lick that up and I'll finish you off."
"Finish me of—?" Duha moaned as Rafiq put both hands on his firm, smooth buttocks and pulled the boy's hard little cock to his lips. Rafiq sucked energetically and the boy wriggled in enjoyment all across his torso.
"Don't forget your work," Rafiq said, taking a brief break from his sucking. The boy didn't respond, continuing to be lost in the sensations of a man's tongue and lips slurping and licking at his cock.
Rafiq smiled at himself, thinking, 'Now, who's powerful?'.
Within a few minutes the boy above him cried out in delight and shook as he reached the ultimate pleasure. The little cock in Rafiq's mouth pulsed in a boyish dry orgasm.
For a minute, Duha just lay there, then reached a hand to Rafiq's cock and began licking.
"Don't worry about that," said Rafiq, sitting up and tumbling Duha onto his back.
"But you said—"
"Not important." He leaned over the boy's small body and kissed him, arms encircling his waist and neck. They cuddled like that, noses and cheeks rubbing against each other until they fell asleep.
Rafiq awoke in an empty bed. The lamp was out, but light was coming in through the open window. Duha was sitting there, on the wide stone sill, listening to the last of the morning call to prayer. He had a sheet wrapped around his shoulders, but his feet were hanging naked.
When Rafiq sat up, the boy looked over, a resigned look on his face. "I thought I'd be braver," he said. "I didn't think I'd want you to stay so much."
Without speaking, Rafiq took a seat next to him and held him close. "It's not over yet."
"But it's time for—"
With a smile of mock menace, Rafiq said, "What you need, is a good fucking. I'm gonna leave your little ass so sore that you'll feel I'm still here with you."
Duha's face changed as he got into the mood of the mischief. "Good and hard? You sure you can deliver?"
Rafiq rose and yanked the sheet off the boy, leaving him naked. He grabbed him by the elbow and lifted him off the window, where he laid the sheet down before dropping the boy belly-first onto it. He spanked one exposed buttock and the boy yelped.
Rafiq watched the smooth skin of the boy's back stretch away to the slender neck and tousled dark hair. Outside the window, the land was silver blue under the moonlight, the river seemingly frozen in its placidity. The clouds in the pre-dawn sky were puffy and playful.
"I..." Rafiq stroked Duha's waist. "I think I was wrong."
Rafiq covered the boy's body with his and whispered, "If we only have a little while, I just want to hold you and be close."
Duha turned and kissed his lips softly. They looked at each other's eyes and Rafiq wondered what the world could be if he could keep this boy forever ageless.
But that wasn't the way of things, was it? No use wondering. Boys needed to grow up and men like Rafiq could only enjoy their glory for ephemeral moments like this.
Duha said, "You could still put it in me while you're holding me you know." The mischief was still there in his eyes.
"Certainly." Kissing his shoulder, Rafiq bent his knees and slid up the boy in a slow, easy climb. Duha put his head back, eyes closed and breathed out as he took the man's cock one last time. Bodies pressed tight, Rafiq made small grinding motions as they slowly made love in the last minutes of the night. Occasionally, they kissed. Other times they watched the land below, cheeks touching, breaths mingling.
As he felt his soul burst out in orgasm, Rafiq held the boy still and bit softly into his shoulder as he unloaded himself. They stayed together, Rafiq's hands never still as they tasted Duha's smooth body in silent caresses.
At evening the next day, Noor walked up from the river to the home of his mother, Khayzuran. Duha was two steps behind him. Rafiq had left that morning and the boy had been quiet all day.
Noor entered the main hall where he cracked his neck and shrugged his shoulders, as if to throw off his disguise. Now he was Harun al-Rashid prince of Baghdad.
"He is gone?" his mother asked, emerging from a doorway. She was dressed comfortably for the evening, but her ever-present pearls gave her a formal appearance.
"Yes. Are you sure that he is a good prospect for this—"
"I'm sure. Rafiq will be a useful servant for you."
"Mother," Harun said, accepting a cup of goat's milk from Duha, "I'm still not convinced of the necessity of these preparations. Hadi has not made—"
"Your brother is not loyal. I have seen the signs. And preparations are never wasted. Maybe it is another enemy that you will have to face."
Harun sat on a cushion, and rubbed his neck.
His mother said, "As for the boy..."
Duha looked up, eyes wary.
"Yes?" asked Harun.
"He is not suitable for this line of work. His heart is too soft. I had thought him impervious to the charms of men, but—"
"Give him some credit," said Harun. "Rafiq's particular charm is becoming legendary."
"Nevertheless," said Khayzuran, walking over to Duha, "It means that we cannot rely on him to be an infiltrator. The next time, it may be that we need Duha to help ruin a man instead of simply learning his mind, and if that man too is 'charming' then we will be undone."
Duha stood still, tears in his eyes. "I am loyal, mistress, and I wish only to do my duty."
"And you shall. Old general Tabari has no sons. He would be happy to take you on as his protege."
"The army?" asked Duha, looking up, in dismay.
"Don't be sad," said Khazuran, putting a hand on his shoulder. "If you were the kind of boy that was unable to feel love, you would be what we want in an assassin and spy, but it would also mean you were dead inside. Fortunately for you, your soul yet lives."
"Thank you, mistress," said Duha.
"You can thank Rafiq," said Harun, "though I suspect it will be many years before you get the chance."
Comments welcome. Even if you’re reading this in an archive years from now, I’d love to hear what you think.